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Dear Friend and Gardener

Cutting Back and Glorious Shade

Cutting Back

Cutting Back by

Cutting Back, and Glorious Shade are two new books that held a particular appeal to me. For me Japanese gardens and shade gardens share an atmosphere of serenity and calm. There is no rushing, no ecstatic clamor at the brilliance of blossoms; there is a quiet peacefulness when you are strolling through a wild woodland garden or an artful Japanese garden. Both types of garden use design to emulate the beauty of nature in different ways.

In Cutting Back: My apprenticeship in the gardens of Kyoto by Leslie Buck (Timber Press $24.95) Buck gives us a memoir of the six months she spent in Japan working six days a week in every weather with expert gardeners.

Once we are in our mid-30s, most of us cannot imagine turning back to the beginning by presenting ourselves as a novice welcoming criticism and instruction. And yet, this is what Buck did. As a garden designer in the San FranciscoBay area she loved Japanese gardens and worked in them, but wanted to learn from the masters in Japan. She left her work and friends and without arranging a job in Japan she left California. She was amazingly fortunate because she did land a job with an elite Japanese landscaping company.

When you go to a foreign country to take a job the experience is as much about adjusting to a different culture as it is to learning or refining skills. As a woman Buck was an unlikely member of an all male crew, taking her place in the lowest rank. She is the first woman to train in Japan with this company. The Japanese aesthetic is to create a landscape that looks completely natural, but this requires gardeners with an artistic eye, fine pruning skills and patience to attend to every detail of a garden down to cleaning pebble paths. Buck, with her minimal fluency in Japanese, found all this challenging, exhausting and sometimes disheartening, but she was also inspired by the gardeners in her crew and appreciative of their teachings.

Cutting Back describes the work and skills of a Japanese crew, but it is not a how-to book in any sense except possibly the joy ultimately found when you cast aside your fears and move on to fulfill a dream.

Leslie Buck had a dream, but she already had an aesthetic education. She has a degree from the University of California, Berkeley and attended the Bordeaux School of Fine Arts in France. She has taken to heart the Japanese worker’s creed that to become a master you must continually practice and you must teach. She has worked, taught and volunteered in hundreds of private landscapes and many public gardens including the PortlandJapaneseGarden and the gardens at TassajaraZenCenter.

Glorious Shade: Dazzling Plants, Design Ideas and Proven Techniques for Your Shade Garden by Jenny Rose Carey (Timber Press $24.95) will give you new ways to look at shade in your garden. I certainly have moved from thinking of shade as some static thing that has only a single quality to appreciating the many facets and changeability of shade.

Glorious Shade by Carey

Glorious Shade by Jenny Rose Carey

Glorious Shade begins with chapters on the Shades of Shade and Gardener’s Calendar, reminding us that shade is not static but varying over the seasons, even over the course of a day, and that green foliage is not a single shade either. The book is heavily illustrated with beautiful and instructional photographs.

The third chapter Down and Dirty focuses on the intertwined, underground world of soil and roots, a world that is getting more and more attention. Nowadays we are fortunate to be learning more  about soil and roots, and worlds of life that we never knew about before. We all become better gardeners when we pay attention to the most basic part of our gardens – the soil.

Planting for Success gives us those techniques and schedules for maintaining a garden over time.

Designing in the Shadows gives us many bright ideas for gardening in the shade with ideas on how the many types of shade can be used to create the areas of calm and peace that I welcome.

The next 150 pages begin with information about layering the garden, trees, shrubs, perennials, and then provides one of the best plant lists I have ever seen. From trees and shrubs: Aesculus parviflora (buckeye) and Aesculus pavia to Viburnam tinus; vines from Aristolochia marophylla (Dutchman’s pipe) to Passiflora caerulea; ferns from Adiantum, (maidenhair fern) to Polystichum setiferum; and Perennials from Aconitum carmichaelii to Viola labradorica, our common American violet. There is also a short list for tropicals and annuals.

These lists are comprehensive including information about the different cultivars of a single species, including growing zone, depth of shade, need for water, and height and spread of plant. There is also more specific information about each species or cultivar than is usually given in more general plant lists. This gives the gardener a fuller understanding of a plant’s requirements.

Carey is the director of the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University which includes shade gardens as does her own Northview garden shown in her blog.. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, NPR, the Pennsylvania Gardener and other publications.

Between the Rows  May 20, 2017

Exotic or Immigrant – Flowers from Afar

NOT an Ollalie daylily

NOT an Ollalie daylily – a flower from afar

I do promote the beauty and benefits that native flowers bring to our garden, but they would be less beautiful if they did not include the  flowers from afar that have come to be called ‘exotics.’ The Bridge of Flowers is one place you can see natives and exotics blooming harmoniously.

Dayliles first bloomed in Asia where they were used medicinally. Four hundred years ago they arrived in Europe and hybridizing began – and continues today. We are all familiar with the roadside daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, and many hybrids resemble them except that the range of color has exploded. Daylilies have also been hybridized to change petal shape and arrangement in ways that make the flower much more complicated.

I have a number of daylilies in my garden, but the first one I bought over 30 years ago came from Olallie Daylily Farm in South Newfane, Vermont. I had heard that the Farm had wonderful daylilies, but it was really hard to persuade the owner to actually sell them.

Christopher Darrow was the new young farmer, caring for, and presumably selling, daylilies that his grandfather, Dr. George Darrow, had hybrized in his retirement from the USDA. Christopher showed me around and when I finally decided on a daylily to buy he shook his head, “No, I can’t let you have that one.”

He repeated his sad no twice more until I finally said, “OK, what can I buy?” His choice and my purchase was a lovely yellow daylily – name lost, alas, except for the prefix Olallie. Since then I have added any number of daylilies to my garden.

Olallie Daylily Farm has grown and now sells over 2,500 daylily cultivars including those that Christopher himself has hybridized like the citrine hybrids that are six feet tall or more. If you visit the farm to choose your own from the field, you might also want to pick-your-own-blueberries before you leave. Grandfather George also kicked off the pick-your-own movement and has the Darrow blueberry to prove it.

Brunnera, a woodland plant, originated in Europe and Asia, but it is a current favorite in American gardens. In 2012 Brunnera “Jack Frost” was named the Perennial Plant of the year. It grows to about 12 inches tall with a spread of about two feet. It is the lacy white pattern on the green foliage resembling frost that inspired the name. Brunnera is sturdy and hardy, happy in the shade garden where its handsome foliage attracts attention. In the spring it blooms with clusters of small blue flowers that are reminiscent of forget-me-nots.

Hostas are another shade loving plant that can be used as a featured plant or as a ground cover. It originated in Asia and can be traced back 800 years, but it was not until  the early 19th century that it came to Europe and attracted attention Nowadays it is hard to find any shade garden that does not include a hosta or two – unless the gardener has given up because the deer love it so much.

There are now hundreds of hosta species and thousands of cultivars. A browse through any hosta catalog will show hostas in a range of color from a brilliant yellow green to a blue green and in sizes from plants with large leaves and a spread of over 36 inches to tiny miniature hostas like Mouse Ears. I became aware of the great world of hostas when I visited Mike Shadrack’s gardens in Buffalo.

Miniature hosta

Miniature hosta collection

Hosta hybridizers always seem to be finding new looks for these plants.  Wiggles and Squiggles is a new cultivar this year with long slim foliage with wavy edges in a bright shade of yellow green. It is only about eight inches tall with 18 inch scapes and purple flowers, but will make a clump that is two feet wide.

Those hosta lovers who have trouble with the depredations of deer might find an answer in a collection of the miniatures. Some have foliage as small as three inches. Like their larger relatives they come in bright yellow green shades like Limey Lisa to the blue-gray Judy Blue Eyes with lavender flowers.

Needless to say the rose is one of my favorite immigrants. Roses originated in China over 5000 years ago. When we lived in Beijing I didn’t understand the translation “monthly rose.” It was not until later that I learned a better translation would be everblooming rose. Indeed it is the everblooming gene in this Chinese rose that has enabled a world of everblooming roses to be hybridized.

Ghislaine de Feligonde rose

Ghislaine de Feligonde, David Austin hybrid

My new garden does not have room for dozens of roses but I have discovered Knock Out roses and Kordes hybrids that will bloom over a long season and will be disease resistant. The Bridge of Flowers has many roses that bloom from June into the fall. People ask me to choose the best season of bloom, but it is impossible to name. It depends on your favorites flowers.

A visit to the Bridge of Flowers inspires many people, suggesting flowers they  would like to add to their own gardens. It is even possible to buy plants that bloom on the Bridge. Once again the Annual Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale will be held on Saturday, May 13 from 9 a.m. to noon across from the Shelburne-BucklandCommunity Center on Main Street in ShelburneFalls. Plants come from the Bridge, and from local gardeners, with annuals from LaSalles in Whately. Rain or shine and come early.

Between the Rows   May 13, 2017

Tomorrow, May 20 native and exotic plants will be on sale at the Annual Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale in Shelburne Falls. Plants come from the Bridge, from area gardens and from local nurseries. The sale opens at 9 am and concludes at noon. Don’t be late.


Garden Blogger’s Bloom Day, May 15, 2017

Wood poppy

Wood poppy

This is my first Bloom Day post in quite a while. Here in my corner of western Massachusetts we are having quite a wet spring. Yesterday over 2 inches of rain fell, causing about the worst flooding in the backyard that we have had  so far. Even so, blooms are surviving.  The wood poppy is growing on our hugel so it is not flooded but has plenty of water to drink.

Barren strawberry

Barren strawberry or waldensteinia

There is quite a  golden look to the garden right now. Barren strawberry is a great ground cover and is making a great border at the edge of the hugel’s stone wall.

Trollius laxa

Trollius laxa

Trollius laxa is a paler gold. I am wondering if I planted Trollius europeanus which is a taller, more golden globeflower. I used to have it in my old garden.


Doronicum or leopard’s bane

This is the single survivor of a little patch I planted last spring.  More gold.

golden alexanders

Golden alexandaers

Golden alexanders even have gold in their name. I planted two clumps last year and they are spreading nicely on the bank of  the hugel.



I am not sure which geum this is, but it bloomed all summer last year and well into the fall. What a plant!

Geum trifolium

Geum trifolium

Geum trifolium is also called Prairie Smoke. The little blossoms will soon be surrounded by delicate haze of smoke – somewhat like the cotina smokebush but on a more delicate and linear scale. Photos will follow in season.

Fringed bleeding hearts

Fringed bleeding hearts also called Dutchman’s Breeches

These were left by the previous owners of our house, but after cleaning out the bed they have thrived. I  found a small clump of white fringed bleeding hearts which I think came in on the root of a purchased dappled willow.



Columbine is beginning to bloom.


Tiarella or foam flower

The tiarella is enjoying a long slow season of bloom this cool wet spring.

black chokeberry

Aronia, black chokeberry

This aronia, black chokeberry, is coming along very slowly, but I wanted to include it because I am trying  to keep track of bloom times.

Japanese primrose

Japanese primrose

Bloom is just starting, but there is a good spread of  these beautiful flowers in  the wettest part of the garden. They were planted last year – gifts from friends – and are thriving. Thank heaven for friends with different plants in their garden.

little irises - nameless

little irises – nameless

These nameless little irises are doing fine, even in all the wet. You can see the flood just behind the irises and I can tell you that I sink into the lawn when I come near. Because our garden is so wet I have a number of clumps of Siberian and Japanese irises.

Spring flood tide

Spring flood tide

When you look at the photo of the little irises you can see water behind them, but this is a view of the major part of the garden. Our garden is very wet  for a variety of reasons. Yards on either side of ours are paved and at a slightly higher level which means some water drains into our garden. Our soil is heavy clay and drains very slowly. The garden beds are all slightly raised to provide better  soil as well as a lift from standing water. There is also an underground stream that flows the length of our street. The water can take several days to infiltrate. You can see why I have included so many water loving/tolerant plants.

Thank you Carol over at May Dreams Gardens for giving us Garden Bloggers Bloom Day and the ability to see what is blooming all over our great land.

Mysteries of May in the Garden

With the turning of the calendar page I am out in the garden investigating the mysteries of May. Young shoots are everywhere. Surely they have names. I stand looking at the swath of a bright green, crispy ribbed ground cover that has taken its assignment to cover the ground very seriously. I have no idea what it is called. I vaguely remember looking at it last fall as I removed autumn leaves and wondered if some of the these still green leaves were weeds. It was possibly a weed, but also possible that it was a really good groundcover.

Mystery groundcover, now producing tiny blue flowers

Mystery groundcover, now producing tiny blue flowers

You may wonder why I don’t have a plant list, writing about every new plant I buy. Well, I do. Sort of. I routinely start these lists and sometimes I try to back them up by sticking receipts for the new plants in an envelope. I even have labeled photos of many of my plants on my commonweeder.com blog which is sometimes helpful. Just today I was strolling through my blog posts looking for an image of the ground cover photo mentioned above. I didn’t find the groundcover’s name but I did find the name of another clump of green that I couldn’t identify. I was happy to solve that mystery and add the name tricyrtis or toad lily plants with all their purple polka dots on my incomplete list.


Tricyrtis or toad lily blooms in the fall. This photo was taken October 18 last year.

Tricyrtis is identifiable instantly – when it is in bloom. When it is just a clump of nice looking leaves it could be almost anything. And that is one of the problems. Many of us buy potted perennials at a nursery when the plants are more advanced than they will be the following May. We often don’t know what the first shoots of a flower look like.

I try to keep plant lists, but they inevitability remain incomplete however. I look through my lists and can find no likely name for the groundcover, and no name for three large patches of a low growing dark green sedum tinged with deep red along the tiny leaf edges. I think sedums are in a class of their own. Surely many people forget the names of their low-growing sedums. In fact, I think I bought that sedum several years ago at the Bridge of Flowers plant sale. Usually sedums at that sale are merely labeled Sedum with no further name.

Geum triflorum

Mystery plant now identified as Prairie Smoke – Geum triflorum

I wander through the garden and there is a plant I moved from the South Border to the Birch Bed. It is doing beautifully and has a couple of 8 inch flower stalks with small pink buds rising from the center of lush gray-green ferny leaves. I kept the label tucked into the soil next to the plant last year because I kept forgetting its name, but it must have gotten lost in the move last fall. Maybe I’ll see another plant just like it when I visit nurseries this spring. I might get an ID that way.

Two tiny clumps of green are planted next to the viburnam in  thewinterberry bed. One still has its general saxifrage label, but the other small plant is only marked with a metal stake. I seem to remember that when I planted it late last summer it was so small that I feared I would think it a weed in the spring and rip it out. The metal stake was protection and a reminder. But the reminder only went so far.

Across from those two bits of green was a good sized clump of a low green plant with scalloped leaves and very small bright flowers on dancing stems. I love the orange flowers with their nearly gold centers, and I was delighted with last year’s very long season of bloom, but no name clutters my memory.

Yesterday I bought a pot of Lobelia cardinalis which will send up a spike of bright red flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. I already had a L. cardinalis plant but I couldn’t remember where I moved it. Fortunately, I could compare and match the foliage. Thus I located the old lobelia and now I have a little clump of this striking plant. It is supposed to self seed if it is in a congenial climate and site. I have hopes.

There are many such May mysteries in my garden, but I can surprise myself by remembering, too. There was a single clump of foliage at the end of my herb bed where I had planted a few odds and ends from last year’s Bridge of Flowers plant sale. I cleaned out the annuals in the fall, but apparently left this plant to bloom again. And it did bloom. It looks like a yellow daisy. I looked at its sudden bloom and said to myself, doronicum! And then I asked myself where that certainty came from? Not trusting myself, I looked up doronicum and found a picture of a yellow daisy just like mine. The name given was Leopard’s bane and Doronicum. Sometimes remembering the name of a plant is the May mystery.

Doronicum or Leopard's band

Doronicum or Leopard’s bane

I  wonder how many May mysteries are in other gardens. I’d be interested to know if this is a problem for anyone else. You can send your comments to me at commonweeder@gmail.com.

Between the Rows  May 6, 2017

I identified Prairie Smoke when I was browsing through a new book Gardens of the High Line with hundreds of beautiful photographs by Rick Darke – and there was a photo of my plant with its name. Hooray. It is an interesting plant that will develop its ‘smoke’ in June. Photos will follow.

Shades of Green

Greenery on the Bridge of Flowers

Shades of Green on the Bridge of Flowers

Every garden, vegetable or ornamental, includes many shades of green, and yet so much of our attention is on color. We look for blooming trees and shrubs, we consider how to combine colors in the flower garden and we even welcome unusual colors in the vegetable garden – rainbow chard, purple carrots, nearly black cherry tomatoes. And yet green is the overarching color in our gardens and requires consideration in its own right.

Having said I will focus on low growing plants with green foliage today, it must be said that many of the plants I mention will also have flowers. However, flowers often appear for just a short period of the season.

In early spring the first plants to make themselves known are ground covers like lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis, and foam flower, Tiarella cordifolia. Lady’s mantle is famous for the way it collects drops of rain water on its gray-green scalloped leaves. It is the fine hairs on the foliage that account for the velvety soft color, and the plants ability to turn drops of rain or dew into a jeweled adornment. It produces airy chartreuse blossoms on fine stems in late May or early June. It is a foot or so tall and each plant will spread to about two and a half feet. It is happy in sun or dappled shade especially if the soil is moist.

Tiarella cordifolia

Tiarella cordifolia

Tiarella cordifolia is a clumping plant just under a foot tall. It will send out runners and spreads beautifully. Its bright green leaves are also scalloped, but smaller than those of lady’s mantle. It blooms in May, sending up airy racemes of pink or white flowers that will rise a foot or more above the foliage. The blooms can be snipped off when they begin to die to keep the plant neat. Tiarella thrives in part or full shade and prefers moist soil.



Wild gingers also make excellent ground covers. There is Asarum canadensis which is a native ginger. The stemless dull green kidney shaped foliage will not grow more than a foot tall. It does produce a small brownish blossom but it is not notable or very noticeable. I have Asarum europaneum, which is not native, but whose leaves are shiny and leathery. It stays at a height of six inches and spreads slowly. Both asarums will grow in shade or part shade and prefer moist or even wet sites.

While I have been concentrating on plants that welcome moist locations I also have a spot for epimediums, sometimes called bishop’s hat, which thrives in dry shade. Garden Visions nursery in Templeton offers an amazing array of these sturdy little plants with airy blossoms that appear in the spring. I have E. rubrum with a reddish border on the green foliage and delicate pink flowers, as well as E. sulphureum which has yellow flowers. The heart shaped green leaves are handsome into the fall.

I do not grow hostas. In Heath hostas were a losing battle with the deer, but the truth is I do not like the blossoms and that kept hostas out of my garden. I know, I know. I could just cut off the blossom, stalks, and now that I am in town, maybe I will. The truth is there is a world of color, size and texture in the hosta world.

A few years ago I was on a garden tour in Buffalo and environs. We made a stop at renowned hosta expert Michael Shadrack’s fabulous garden with its enormous collection of hostas and daylilies. Hostas are not groundcovers, but they do cover a lot of ground at the edges of mixed beds or as an important statement of their own.

Hostas come in a full range of green from deep dark green, bright green, golden green, blue green, and many patterns of variegation. They also come in a full range of sizes. As I was going through my Shadrack Pocket Guide to Hostas I came upon a single large Liberty hosta which can grow to 40 inches wide with leaves “dark blue-green turning green, widely margined with golden yellow turning ivory-cream toward the mid-rib.”

Shadrack was very fond of miniature hostas, and I could join him in that affection. There are many tiny hostas like the six inch Mouse Ears with its blue-green round-ish foliage and Tears of Joy which is only four inches tall and with grassier brighter foliage.

Hakone grass

Hakone grass

Hakone grass, Hakonechola macra, is a bright green ornamental grass from Japan that has become more and more popular. This graceful grass grows to a foot tall or more and several varieties give a choice of shades of green and gold that will turn shades of pink or golden orange in the fall.

I have a bit of “Aureola” in my garden with slim variegated leaves in bright green striped with gold. “Naomi” is creamy gold and green in the summer but in the fall it turns a rich shade of purple-red. “Nicholas” is solid green in summer but cool autumn temperatures turn it stunning shades of red, orange and gold.

The term green foliage does not tell you very much, but shades of green with a variety of textures can make a brilliant arrangement in your garden I find the mostly green array of plants at the Shelburne entrance of the Bridge of Flowers perfectly beautiful. I always stop to admire the serene arrangements before I go on to the amazing color and form on the Bridge itself. Serenity is as important to me in my garden as is joyous color. I have room for every mood.###

Between the Rows   April 29, 2-17


May – A Golden Month

Wood poppy

Wood poppy

It’s May and the flowers that bloom in the spring are beginning to show themselves. Lots of gold in May, not counting the dandelions.

barren strawberry

Waldsteinia or barren strawberry

The barren strawberry plants on The Hugel are thriving and blooming. They are not really strawberry plants at all. It’s just that Waldsteinia have strawberry-like foliage and flowers.

Trollius laxa

Trollius laxa

Trollius laxa is a more lackadaisical form of Trollius europaeus, which is taller and even more golden. It is also called globeflower which is more prominent in the T. europaeus plant.



The sun  has shone on  these golden beauties but we have been very grateful for t he 1-1/2 inch of rain this week.

Herb Garden for Savor and Beauty

Herb seedlings

Herb seedlings are available everywhere – Rosemary, parsley and basil

Why have an herb garden? Simon and Garfunkel sang about parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, increasing their fame, but this 17th century song just begins to touch on the herbs that can easily be grown by gardeners. Herb gardens are ideal for a novice gardener to tackle and a rich resource for the cook.

To begin all you need is a sunny space with ordinarily fertile soil. You can plant herbs in your vegetable garden or you can make a very pretty herb garden devoted to culinary, or ornamental herbs. My own small herb garden is located along the house foundation and right outside the kitchen door.

Parsley is treated as an annual herb, although it is actually a biennial. With a little luck it will come back its second spring, but will rapidly go to seed which is why most of us plant fresh seed, or buy new seedlings every year. Most people will recognize the two types of parsley, the flat leaved variety which has the best flavor for cooking, and the curly leaved type. I have grown parsley from seed indoors, but it is very slow to germinate. In some areas of England it is said that parsley must visit the devil seven times before it will germinate.

Parsley has been used in the past for many medicinal reasons but today only its power as a diuretic, and its nutritional value that is acknowledged. So remember that all the parsley you use in cooking is adding vitamins as well as flavor and a pretty garnish to your dishes. Parsley makes a pretty edging for an herb garden, or any garden.



Sage, a perennial herb, was considered a general heal-all while preserving the memory and lifting depression Today it mostly used in the kitchen to flavor recipes including eggs, chicken, lamb, polenta and in stuffings with onions and apples.

Sage is a foot tall perennial that can be grown outside in our area, although over time the stems will become woody and you might want to replace it with a new plant. The texture of the foliage is velvety. The common Salvia officinalis is tender gray-green but there are also purple and golden salvias. It is an essential plant in the herb garden, but it is also a good addition to the ornamental garden.

Rosemary is tender in our region. In the past I have dug up my rosemary and potted it for a winter inside the house. I kept it in a cool room and kept it watered. It came through the winters but was always happy to be back outdoors once spring was fully in charge.

Sometimes I put my rosemary plant right in the ground for the summer, but I often have it grow in a beautiful pot which gives it more presence in the garden.

There are many varieties of thyme. I have only grown the common Thymus vulgaris. This is a low growing and wonderfully spready herb. Here in my new garden I have it growing in front of a low stone wall to make a thyme path and consider it a cousin to the English thyme lawn. In fact, in Heath where our lawn had very dry spots I planted thinnings from the thyme near the house. Those thinnings took root and spread. I did not have whole thyme lawn but it was an important element in the lawn which included dandelions, violets, clover, hawkweeds and other nameless flowering weeds creating what I called my flowery mead.

A busy friend of mine placed a sun dial in her lawn and then surrounded it with varieties of thyme. I don’t know what varieties she had but I have seen gardens with Mother of Thyme which is only three inches tall, silvery wooly thyme only one inch tall, and Elfin thyme which will rarely reach one inch, making a very flat mat. My friend just wanted to be able to say that she had all the time in the world.

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are essential herbs in my kitchen, but they are not alone.

Dill and chives didn’t get songs, but they are also essential. I would grow dill even if I never used it in my cooking because I love the fragrance. It always reminds me of my childhood on the shores of Lake Champlain where my grandmother occasionally held a shrimp fest – all the shrimp (cooked with dill) that the extended family could eat. Dill is also a great pollinator plant.



Dill is an annual, but it can hardly help seeding itself.

Chives are a perennial and the clump will get bigger every year. It is one of the earliest plants to come up in my garden. I can start harvesting the grassy, oniony foliage in early April. Late in the spring it will blossom and those blossoms are a pretty addition to a salad.

Ever since pesto became a staple in our kitchens, basil, an annual, has become a necessity. There is the big leafed Genovese basil I began with, but now there is any number of basils including Thai basil, lemon, cinnamon, Greek dwarf, dark purple opal, and Holy basil. They are delicious in a variety of ways in the kitchen and their different forms make them striking in the garden.

Whether you are a serious cook or not, herbs are a hardy and lovely addition to any garden. Most garden centers sell seedlings and you can set up an herb garden very quickly.

Between the Rows   April 22, 2017

Right Plant for the Right Space

Cimicifuga on the Bridge of Flowers

Cimicifuga on the sunny Bridge of Flowers

If you are sated with garden catalogs that came in January, but still haven’t made all your 2017 choices and plans, you are probably ready to hit garden centers and nurseries. There you will face ranks of captivating and irresistible shrubs and perennials. No matter how alluring the plants it will be worthwhile to read the labels, and think about your garden spaces before you buy.

I have had gardeners tell me about their failures and disappointments, asking  why?  Sometimes it is because they did not take into account the basic needs of the plant, for sun or shade, for dry or damp sites. And I do say sometimes this is the answer, but I also say there are many mysteries in the garden with no answers or explanations to be found. Cimicifuga or bugbane, a shade loving plant blooms happily in full sun on the Bridge of Flowers. How can  that happen? I don’t know.

Still, it is best to begin with knowledge of the plant’s needs. As we have planned and planted our Greenfield garden I’ve taken into consideration the attributes of the different sections. Our house faces east and the small plot of lawn and the tree strip get sun in the morning. However there is a large sycamore tree at the southern end of the tree strip which means that the shade shifts and changes over the course of the morning, and the afternoon.

The tree strip gets morning sun. We removed most of the grass and planted perennials to provide bloom all season long. We chose really tough plants that would do all right in less than ideal conditions, support pollinators, and not require much labor for me. The soil there is dry, and we have improved it with compost.

Bee Balm  Monarda

Bee Balm

The hellstrip/tree strip plant list includes daylilies, bee balm, yarrow, Sheffield daisies and astilbe. My neighbor has promised me some rudbeckia, black eyed susans.

The small lawn in front of the house is being planted with low growing conifers, as well as a small rhododendron, a deutzia which will have small white flowers and a heuchera which will also provide some bloom among the conifers. All are supposed to tolerate some shade which they will get.

Beauty of Moscow lilac

Beauty of Moscow lila

The South Border is the first bed we planted with shrubs as well as perennials. The requirement for full  sun translates as six hours or more of sun. There are many sun loving shrubs and perennials. This bed is also the driest in our garden. We planted three paniculata hydrangeas, Limelight, Firelight and Angels Blush. They share the bed with two lilacs, Beauty of Moscow which I think is one of the most beautiful white lilacs, and the deep purple Yankee Doodle, Korean Spice viburnam for its fragrance, and the first of two highbush cranberries which are also viburnams. Some of these can attain a height of 10 feet at maturity and we have given them plenty of room to grow.

At least we think we have. Calculating how much room any plant will need as it grows is about the most difficult task when planning to provide for a plant’s requirements.

As the South Border heads west it becomes damper, and finally wet. Swamp pinks were in place when we bought the house, and we added Lindera benzoin to attract the swallowtail butterfly, and a red twig dogwood for its tolerance to dampness and its brilliant red branches.  We also planted four blueberry bushes. They do not appear to be thriving. I think the soil is too wet and they will have to be moved.

Since one of the reasons we left Heath is because the garden was too big and demanded too much work, one of the guiding principles of the Greenfield garden is that it must be less labor intensive. It is a lot of work right now as we layout and plant a blank canvas, but our strategy for cutting back on routine tasks is to plant shrubs. Since the back yard is so wet seasonally and after rains we began with shrubs that like sun and tolerate the wet. The list includes yellow twig dogwood which is just as brilliant as the red twig when the sun in shining on it, clethra or sweet pepperbush, buttonbush, winterberries, elderberries, and fothergilla.

We have also planted trees. We are confident about the water tolerance of the river birches, a dappled willow, and we have planted a weeping cherry and a pagoda dogwood in the closest we come to occasional damp. However, we have taken a gamble by planting two arborvitae in a seasonally wet spot. We wanted the arborvitae to block a view. So far, so good. I guess gardeners are among the world’s most eager gamblers.

Japanese primroses

Japanese primroses love wet spots

Our layered garden will soon be less demanding. We have planted many perennial groundcovers like lady’s mantle and foam flower, and various sedums. Many perennials are very comfortable with wet spots: Siberian and Japanese irises, primroses, daylilies, mountain mint, culver’s root, Joe Pye weed, obedient plant, sanguisorba Canadensis, ferns, and cardinal plants.

Mine is a new garden; I still have bare ground while I wait for the shrubs to mature and the perennials to increase. I have been filling in with annuals like cosmos and zinnias that require little more than sun and mostly dry soil. Maybe I’ll try filling bare spots this year with summer squash, bush beans or pretty lettuces. Vegetables are beautiful (and delicious) annuals too. ###

Between the Rows   April 15, 2017

Earth Day – Support Your Pollinators


Honeybee – just one of the many pollinators

It is April 22 – Earth Day – and I am celebrating by writing about honeybees and pollinator plants that will help all pollinators.

How do honey bees pollinate plants? I knew bees had hairy little baskets on their knees that collected pollen while they were wandering around the stamens and anthers of a blossom. When Dan Conlon, beekeeper and president of the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association, spoke at a recent Greenfield Community College Senior Symposium, he showed an enlarged photo of a bee that was covered with pollen. Not only were her pollen baskets full, her skin and the tiny fuzzy feathers around her head and body were covered with grains of pollen. Conlon said it was an electrical charge that attracted the pollen to the bee’s body. When the bee flew to another plant it brushed against another set of anthers, exchanging the pollen, thus pollinating the plant. The pollen baskets are emptied at the hive and stored for food for all the bees.

Electrical charges! Pollination wasn’t just about a little pollen falling out of the pollen baskets.

Rudbeckia "Goldsturm"

Rudbeckia “Goldsturm”

I also learned that honeybees are not native to North America. They were brought from Europe with the Puritans. Governor John Winthrop brought honeybees, and apple trees with him when he and his family sailed to what became Massachusetts in 1630. By 1650 maple syrup and honey were the main sources of sweetening.

Nowadays commercial beekeepers move thousands of hives around the country to pollinate vegetable and fruit crops. Conlon himself used to put several hives on a wagon and move them around the cucumber fields when the pickle factory was in operation. He explained that a poorly pollinated cucumber would be misshapen and not suitable as a pickle.

Honeybees and the 300 other bee species, are essential to our food supply. On Earth Day we can recognize the benefits of native bees, wasps, butterflies and many other small creatures that do their bit to pollinate.

Don Conlon gave us lots of wonderful information and then got down to the problems faced by the bees. He said that one of the biggest challenges for honeybees is the loss of habit. He told us about an urban/suburban community that decided to support pollinators. They were told that a 10 x 10 foot raised bed filled with pollinator plants would attract many pollinators. The idea was so appealing that many people planted pollinator beds. The result was acres of pollinator plants – and many pollinators.

Echinacea and Bee

Echinacea and bee

It is easy to find lists of plants that will provide nectar and pollen over a long season. You may already have bee plants in your garden. Some of my favorite bee perennials include: wild columbine, foam flower, butterfly weed, asters, turtlehead, Joe Pye weed, lupines, coneflower, liatris, bee balm, and black eyed Susans. Annuals that attract bees are zinnias, African (Tagetes) marigolds, cosmos, and sweet alyssum. Your herb garden with chives, rosemary, borage, thyme, and dill will attract bees.

Many people have room for a pollinator plant bed in their garden, but when I spoke to Susannah Lerman,  on the University of Massachusetts faculty, she said you didn’t even need a flower bed to attract and sustain pollinators. She said you do it by doing nothing.

Lerman has been doing research on improving wildlife habitat in urban locations. A recent experiment was located in the Springfield area devastated by a tornado a few years ago. The landscape was wiped clean. She worked with 17 yards with lawns. Her project hired people to mow those lawns for the homeowners. Some lawns were mowed regularly once a week, others were mowed every two weeks, and the final lawns were mowed every three weeks.

Without planting anything new the lawns filled with blooming pollinator plants, dandelions, clover, violets, creeping Charlie, dwarf cinquefoil, speedwell, yellow hawkweed, yellow wood sorrel, annual fleabane, purple smartweed and more. Lerman identified 64 plant species spontaneously growing in those 17 yards. None of those yards used herbicides which is an important aspect of the experiment.

Lerman’s group also identified 111 bee species visiting those lawns. She now knows there are 300 or so native bees in Massachusetts.

Dandelions and  violets

Dandelions and violets

When looking at mowing results Lerman said that a week between mowings appeared to be unnecessary. Those householders did not think it was necessary. The lawns mowed every two weeks had noticeable flowering ‘weeds’ but everyone agreed they looked perfectly respectable. The lawns mowed every three weeks looked a little messy and one could imagine neighbors frowning. “Mowing every two weeks was the sweet spot,” Lerman said. “Mowing every two weeks gave plants time to flower, and to keep neighbors happy.”

The Xerces Society and the Pollinator Partnership are two places where you can find good lists of pollinator plants.

She added that another way of keeping neighbors happy is by creating a ‘cues to care’ sign. I have seen such signs myself. The Xerces Society sells an explanatory Pollinator Garden sign for $25. But you can always make your own sign. People are apt to be more tolerant if they know that your lawn is blooming intentionally, not neglected and full of weeds.

To find out more about bees and plants mark your calendar for the Langstroth Bee Festival on Saturday, June 3, at the Second Congregational Church on Bank Row.  This year, in honor of the church’s anniversary, special celebratory events are scheduled for the Bee Festival. Kim Flottam, editor in chief of Bee Culture Magazine and author of several books on beekeeping, will be the main speaker. There will be special activities for children. Former Governor Deval Patrick, who is a beekeeper,  will also be awarding beautiful plaques created by potter Molly Cantor to several notable pollinator gardens in FranklinCounty.

Bewtween the Rows   April 1, 2017

Fresh Garden Vegetables at Home

Fresh from the Garden

Fresh from the Garden


Is there anything better than garden fresh vegetables? How can you beat a sun warmed tomato eaten out of hand? What about exactly the kind of lettuce you like best, ready when you are, for a luscious salad? Why can’t foliage from beets, carrots, or parsley be used as an ornamental edging before it makes it into the kitchen?

I left a regular small vegetable garden in Heath, but my first garden work in Greenfield was on ornamental gardens. I immediately needed to change the expanses of lawn into something more interesting. And so began the South and North Borders, and three amoeba-like lawn beds. The Hugel at the back of our lot was not far behind.

But something was missing. Vegetables. I am a cook as well as a gardener and while I have never really had any interest in trying to grow, harvest and preserve everything, I love being able to go into the garden and harvest tomatoes, lettuce, sugar snap peas, broccoli, and more. How was I going to get vegetables into my garden which was so definitely arranged as an ornamental garden?

A quick survey of the garden reminded me that there are still planting spaces. First of all, the Lawn Beds, intended for trees, shrubs and perennials, most of them native varieties, still have a fair amount of bare ground because it will take a while for those plants to mature and cover that ground themselves. Vegetables are annuals and they could take over that space, at least for a year or two.

I even have a relatively large space that has perplexed us. What can we do with a spring flooded area in front of the stone wall? We will be raising the level of that space, as we have with the Lawn Beds, and this year we will use that space as a vegetable garden. I just want to come up with an interesting layout to make it an integral part of our ornamental garden, and not like a complete afterthought. When the harvest is completed this year we can assess the garden and our own reactions.

Edible Front Yard

Edible Front Yard by Ivette Soler

The idea of trying to incorporate more vegetables into the garden has been fed by my return to Ivette Soler’s book The Edible Front Yard: the Mow-Less, Grow-More Plan for a Beautiful, Bountiful Garden. Soler lives in California so I’ll forgive her for including bay trees, artichokes and guava, in the section of cultivation information. I’ll concentrate on her design advice. She says edible gardens can use the same techniques garden designers use to make “fancy gardens” look great. She talks about structure, form, repetition, texture and color

I don’t often think of structure and texture when I think of the vegetable garden but given this push the little gray cells are beginning to light up. I turned to Fresh from the Garden: An Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries and Herbs in Cold Climates by John Whitman. He says I can grow cardoons, known for their sculptural leaves, not unlike those of the artichoke which he also says I can grow. Given the push I remember that cardoons were fairly common on the menu when we lived in Beijing for a year. Beijing is nothing like California where Soler grows her artichokes and cardoons so I am ready to give them a try. The spiky leaves of these plants are full of structure.

Whitman not only opens his book with 120 pages of extensive and excellent advice about The Basics of Gardening from choosing a planting site, planting with seeds, transplanting, and routine care from watering to fertilizing, mulching, pruning and more, he goes on to solving problems, harvesting and culinary uses, and finishing up with tools and materials. The 375 pages of Part Two give information about 150 vegetables, herbs and berries (1700 varieties) in their particulars.

Whitman’s photographs are beautiful and the book is a veritable encyclopedia. The publisher is the University of Minnesota Press knows about cold weather. I can highly recommend it for all its instruction, and because carrying it around the house and taking it on and off the shelf  has improved my muscle tone.

As for texture Soler reminds us that tomatoes are silken and smooth, sage is velvety and carrots are lacy. It’s all about looking at the vegetable palette through a different lens.

Color. Red chard with purple sage? Add some nasturtiums?  What pleasing or striking color combinations can I come up with?

With all this advice, I still have limited space. How will I choose what to grow? Obviously I will plant my favorites like cherry tomatoes which come in different colors. I must have leafy and crispy lettuces, crunchy radishes, beets for greens and roots, Harukei turnips, sugar snap peas and green beans.

I have already planted an herb bed next to the house with oregano, thyme, sage, chives and garlic chives, but will plant basils, parsley, borage, dill and cilantro. I will never have a garden without dill.

When I asked a friend how to choose what to plant she said plant those things that are expensive to buy – like shallots. Good advice.

It won’t be long before I can follow all John Whitman’s advice in preparing the garden site. Piles of compost and soil are waiting to create a new Lawn Vegetable Bed. I can almost taste the first radishes of spring.

Between the Rows  April 8, 2017

I will be giving an illustrated talk on The Sustainable Garden on Sunday, May 23 at 1 pm  at the Franklin County Fairgrounds during the Eco-Living program. This is a two day event with lots of informative and fascinating talks. Hope to see you there.