Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Monday, July 30, 2012

At Last, Pine Straw's on My Ground

Just when I'd given up hope, one of my favorite garden materials showed up in Connecticut. I'd used pine straw, aka pine needles, for many years. In Georgia. There and elsewhere in the South, most garden centers, including Home Depot, sold bales of the coarse needles, which fall from the iconic Southern pines, including slash and loblolly.

(Here, I take a moment to appreciate the non-gardening – the lyrical and linguistic – contributions of these trees. When Ray Charles sings of "moonlight through the pines" in Georgia on My Mind, these are the trees he's talking about. When somebody refers to somebody who's had way too much to drink and says he's "higher than a Georgia pine," these are the trees he's talking about.)

So, here I am, back in 2002; I've left Georgia and my ready supply of pine straw and come here to Conneciticut. But, for a decade, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't find this supreme material. That is, I couldn't find any close enough to drive to. And, I wouldn't pay high shipping costs.

I even telephoned Home Depot headquarters in Atlanta and was told none of its  stores this far north carried the product, so I wound up using white pine needles mooched from friends with big trees. Those needles are soft and lacy and look good on the ground, but they decay faster than the tough ones from Dixie. I kept looking.

Then, when I least expected it, this summer I saw a stack of bales on the porch of the local purveyor of hardware, farm goods and building supplies – Shagbark is its name. Lest other gardeners discover this pine mine, I bought a quick 10 bales and immediately began spreading them around, three to four inches deep.

What better place to start than the strawberry patch, now berryless.
Straw adds texture to area near front door.
I've always loved the crunch and forest look of piney paths.

Pine needles not only look good (to me), but they keep weeds down, blocking light. The needles also preserve moisture in the soil and acidify it as they break down. And, pine straw does not wash away as easily as wood chips and mulch. That's hugely important in these times of gully-washing rains, following long periods of drought.

You're right if you think I missed this stuff. I like it. I love it. I want some more of it. Gotta restock soon; I'm down to just three bales. Stashed in the garage/supply department/potting shed.

Not enough. I have more spaces to cover, more paths to line. And, any month now I'll be needing to mulch a few plants that aren't from around here and are gamely pushing climate-zone limits but need some mighty fine protection. Down-home style.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

A Little Weeder Digs Up Life Lessons

Our grandson Henri of Atlanta spent three weeks in New England, the last week with Lyn and me here in Country Connecticut. Like most 7-year-olds, he logs heavy hours watching TV, computers and assorted other screens.

He also weeds.

In fact, this summer he asked for and received his own personal trowel, making good use of it during his stay that ended today. He certainly was the most enthusiastic weeder in this house, proudly displaying weed prey.

In addition to helping and motivating this ol' gardener, Henri, radiant with eagerness and accomplishment, also demonstrated the power of gardening. I've always believed a child who is encouraged to garden learns lessons about life, including nurturing, growth, work, love, joy – and yes, sometimes heartbreak.

That child also gets the experience of seeing nature close-up, gaining some understanding of how people and plants, animals and insects interact and depend on one another. Learning too that food does not grow in supermarkets.

Any young one who gardens is not likely to be one who goes through the world dead-eyed, slack-jawed, disconnected from others, growing up to hit people over the head and take their money.

There may be some who do, but I'm betting my last trowel that Henri Germaine won't be one of them.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dog Days Make Weeding Iffy

These are times that take the pep out of my gardening step. No matter how zippy I am in spring and early summer, by late-July and August, I go into slow-motion. Too darn hot. Too darn tired.

That's how a beautiful little plant morphed into a weed and got a foothold, threatening to cover part of my garden. I first saw it a few months ago, in a bare spot that had begun attracting sedum volunteers. Back then, a mass of the little plant appealed mightily, resembling puffs of lacy moss. Even now, it looks harmless from the porch; it's in the center background, beyond the sedum:

As time went by, closer inspection showed that this fine-textured beauty was too good to be true. No plant with this many seeds can be trusted to stay put.

Sure enough, the grass had become a weed, moving all over one side of the garden, popping up in the sedum patch, in paths, next to several trees – and unforgivably, in the middle of some Japanese blood grass.

From a short distance away, the blood grass looks normal. You'd never know there's a battle going on just out of sight.

The battle is between the bad grass and the blood grass yes, but also between the vigor of the grass cum weed and the anti-weed determination of this ol' gardener. Not much of a battle, really. As the heat and humidity continue, I tell myself, let the little puffy plant be.

Remove the weed label, declare it ornamental. Let it join the sedum, the blood grass, the ajuga in the area, becoming another groundcover. Then, in the cool climate of next winter-spring, revisit the matter; either let it grow or try to stop it early.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gardening Glass Half Full

Many of my gardening buds and I, suffering heat, drought, disappointment, disbelief, incredulity, have enrolled in the School of Silver Linings; our gardens may be down, but not every plant is out. The glass is half full.

So, as a survival tactic, we brave the hellish conditions daily, watering and trying to make sure the plants are . . . uh, uh, uh, stayin' alive.

Too, we get out there to reassure ourselves that amid the worst weather conditions, there is something to shout about, something to salve our dragging spirits and soothe our gardening souls.

Here's some of what I've seen recently during my slogs around the garden:

This powder-puff mimosa bloom evokes the tropics – fitting considering the weather lately. The sweet-smelling flowers remind me of drinks with umbrellas, and as a bonus, the leaves are light-sensitive, closing in the dark.

Below, one of two mimosas I planted as mere sticks, has grown mightily in my field but will never challenge the mighty oak in the background.

Doublefile viburnum is the shrub that just keeps on giving. After its spectacular show of blooms, it produces berries that look good enough to eat. In fact, birds do eat them.

Sometimes, going wild is the right thing to do. For sheer abandon, nothing rivals the unplanned combination of morning glory twining under, through and over the stately rose. It tolerates the rambunctious vine, which re-seeds.

Abelia, below, is surrounded by boxwoods, but its fragrance wafts all over the front garden. The arching branches never fail to make me stop and sniff.

Nearby, a triumph: Oleander, not hardy here,  went to the basement in a pot last winter. I planted it this past spring, and this week it flowered, its faintly-sweet blooms recalling the elegant decay of Savannah summers.

Golden raintree (Koelreuteria paniculata) usually looks like this image from a couple of years ago at this time of year. Showy fruit follows the flowers.

But this is a hard year. So far, one lonely bloom has shown up.

But that's all right. That one bloom is the perfect metaphor for the kind of summer we're having. The garden may not offer as much richness as it would in "normal" times, but, as gardeners always do, I appreciate what I got and look forward to more in the future.

Monday, July 16, 2012

This One's for the Birds

I decided long ago we needed a view from the kitchen sink window, so I planted a pocket garden and added a bird bath. For years, this was the scene:

As you can see, Cat Bette loves patrolling (she calls it guarding) the area. She has a history, which I outlined in this post from last year. She's looking for birds, though she swears she just wants to play with them.

Whatever.  I found feathers on the ground. I saw a drop in the number of birds coming to this watering hole, even as the temperatures soared. With the evidence in, I made a change. Now, the pocket garden looks like this:

It's a fortress, built with plants and watering cans that I enlisted from spots all around the garden. This construction is a metaphor for my love-hate relationship with Bette. Her verve contributes to her talent as a garden cat, but her inability to get along with birds (an unreasonable expectation, I know) puts her on my super-bad list.

Predictably, Bette is peeved. She no longer hides in her staging area, off-camera to the right – a fern-covered spot from which she would, with tiger speed and fluidity, attack, slap, hold and kill helpless birds.

Her path now blocked, she slouches around the fortress, grumbling and glowering at me, imploring. She is the great communicator.

She can beg all she wants to; the fortress stands. While it began as a practical way of thwarting the little killer, it immediately appealed as an interesting design. Another good piece of serendipity. Too, the bird viewing has become more interesting, as the birds land on the added plants and architecture, exploring, frolicking, splashing, and looking quite homey.

To be sure, the birds are back.

I'm seriously gratified that they've returned, but knowing how determined (read that irritatingly stubborn) Cat Bette can be, I say this to the birds: Watch your back.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mullein: Medicine for the Heat

News item, July 9, 2012: America's 48 contiguous states broke the record for the hottest first six months in a calendar year. Also, the last 12 months broke an all-time record for warmth. These records date back to 1895.

This report from the National Climatic Data Center does not shock many gardeners, I'm sure; it simply makes official what feels and looks like the worst of weather times. Never have I heard so many talk about how heat and drought have driven their gardens and their spirits to the ground.

Here in Connecticut, we're better off than much of the nation, but bad enough to make me more aware than ever about the benefits of xeriscaping, the landscaping method that conserves water through drought-tolerant plants, mulch, irrigation.

I've always gardened with the intention of creating spaces that save water – partly because I dislike toting buckets and wrestling water hoses. I grow no lawn, and I stop watering shrubs and trees as soon as they're established. In areas that used to be grass, I've planted mosses and sedums.

Even so, heat and drought take a toll these days, forcing me to spend an amazing amount of time, labor and psychic energy watering container plants alone, often doing two-a-days just to keep them alive. I've unpotted a number of plants, put them in the ground and seriously considered unpotting all the rest, leaving only bonsai in containers.

Moreover, even established plants have their limits. With dew and infrequent showers the only moisture they're getting these days, trees and shrubs are on the edge of suffering.

All this has has made me greatly appreciate my close-up view of one plant and how well nature works to xeriscape with it: mullein.

Lyn, with 4 1/2-foot high cairn lantern and mullein, 7 feet tall and growing.

This variety, called great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) always has appealed to me. It's tough, it's tall, ornamental, medicinal. And, it wants no water, no food, nothing but space to grow, sometimes reaching 8 feet.

It's visual appeal is striking, with its towering structure and fuzzy gray-green leaves, its yellow flowers growing out of a long spike.

Nevertheless, it seems generally unappreciated as a garden plant and volunteers mostly in fields and roadsides, thriving in poor soil. Which helps explain why it took up in and around the untended fringes of my acre of gardens. I celebrated its arrival a year or two ago. I love it and leave it alone.

Mullein and I go way back to my childhood when my Alabama grandmother used it to make a tea to cure respiratory illnesses. Dipped in oil and lit, the long stalk made a fine torch.

Years ago, I spent some time with a North Carolina folk medicine expert, Thomas Broken Bear Squier, who was taught by his grandfather, a Cherokee root doctor. Broken Bear, who wrote a guide to myriad medicinal herb uses, said he'd used mullein flowers mixed with olive oil to make "a highly effective earache medicine."

The uses I've heard through the years are many, including bandaging wounds – and the paradox of smoking mullein leaves to treat sore throats and asthma because mullein is said to relax the bronchial tubes, thus allowing normal breathing to return.

Mullein leaves, just waiting to get harvested.
I don't know whether many people still use mullein for much. But, given the lore and tradition that so many once swore by,  I sometimes feel my few plants grow underused. To be sure, their large, happy presence, resembling giant lamb's ear plants, adds much to my landscape, without wasting resources.

But, that's not enough; the next time there's a sore throat in the house, I know how I'm going to treat it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Everybody, Let's Get Stoned

Lately, I've been sprinkling stone dust around many of my plants, in containers and in the ground. This material, stone that is decomposed or crushed into fine particles and used as a base for pavers, also is considered a natural fertilizer, replenishing soil with minerals that have been depleted. Granite is the kind I use, applying it as a top-dressing.

The gardening world has long been abuzz with stories of extraordinary success with food and flowers grown with stone dust. I'd never tried it, but this year plants from aster to maple to zinnia got stoned. What could it hurt?

Maybe it's mineral power that accounts for the surprising survival of a little cypress that I placed on top of a stone picked out of my herd of rocks scattered, stacked and laid around the garden. After planting the cypress on the flat surface of the stone, I piled smaller stones on the rootball to keep it stable.

When I planted the little shrub, I believed it just might survive for a season. To my amazement, it's alive and well 10 years later, surviving at least as well as regular container plants.

I chose the rock for its shape; it reminded me a little bench. Which is the role I originally intended for it. Until I planted the cypress "temporarily" just for fun. Here's a section of the 9" x 18" bench, with some supporting stones removed.

For the most part, I treat this planting as bonsai, watering it regularly and occasionally feeding it time-release fertilizer.

Buoyed by the surprising success of this stone planting, I figured I couldn't go wrong planting another cypress, in an official stone pot.

And, yes, I sprinkled some stone dust around both of them. What can it hurt.