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Dear Friend and Gardener

Bugs and Butterflies in My Garden

Coneflower

Coneflower with bee

“Chances are, you have never thought of your garden — indeed, of all of the space on your property — as a wildlife preserve that represents the last chance we have for sustaining plants and animals that were once common throughout the U.S.” Douglas Tallamy.

Most of us welcome birds and butterflies to our gardens, but don’t spend much time thinking about bugs, except for pesky mosquitoes and Japanese beetles. Yet, even bugs, and there are hundreds of species of bug in our local landscape, are essential to our local ecosystem.

When we lived on 60 acres in Heath I didn’t worry about having a healthy ecosystem. After all, we had those 60 acres that included wild fields and woodlands to feed the birds and butterflies. My intent in any planting was just to bring some of the best pollinator plants close to the house so that I could enjoy watching pollinators at work.

Our move to Greenfield meant we had an opportunity to create our own wildlife preserve on our small lot. We also had to consider how to handle a large wet area. I was thrilled with the idea of making a garden that would welcome and support the butterflies and bees – and the bugs. My husband was happy that this kind of garden eliminated most of the lawn.

The new lot was mostly grass, but this was not fine turf and I was happy to see the lawn was filled with clover and violets which provide lots of early pollen for bees. It was a happy day for me when I realized what some consider lawn weeds are really important nectar plants.

Some of the pollinator plants that I brought with me from Heath include: spring blooming foam flower and irises; summer blooming coneflower, Russian sage, bee balm and yarrow; and fall blooming asters.

Yarrow and coneflowers make my hellstrip a pollinators diner.

Yarrow and coneflowers make my hellstrip a pollinators diner.

Then I turned once again to my favorite expert on sustaining wildlife, Douglas Tallamy, Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He is the author of the brilliant and inspiring book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. He also has a website, www.bringingnaturehome.net with lots of information and lists of plants that will help you bring nature to your home garden.

Everyone loves butterflies, but I never thought of them as pollinators. They are not like honeybees who have the equipment to pack pollen into ‘baskets’ on their knees, but even with their smooth and spindly butterfly legs they do pollinate plants. Butterflies will welcome nectar plants but they really count on host plants, those plants where they can lay their eggs, confident that the hatching caterpillars will be able to eat that plant.

Host plants for butterfly caterpillars can be quite specific. We all know that monarch butterfly caterpillars need milkweed. Other plants for other butterflies include spice bush or Lindera benzoin, clover, snapdragons, sunflowers, sweet fennel, parsley, dill, carrots, as well as sycamore, river birch, chokecherry, oak, poplar, locust and willow trees. Of course, there are many other host plants for the many species of butterfly.

In our new garden we planted river birch, chokecherry and spicebush as butterfly host plants. We also planted orange milkweed, Asclepius tuberosa, a smaller showier milkweed than the kind found in the wild. Since host plants are so specific for butterflies there is no way I can support many species, but I am doing what I can.

We are not purists, but we have concentrated on using native plants. Native plants and native bugs evolved at the same time over centuries. Native bugs know exactly the kind of greenery they need to thrive. And the native plants know they can spare some foliage to support the bugs without harming themselves. I do not get upset when I find insect damage on my viburnams. I know they can spare a few leaves.

That does not mean I don’t go around with my soapy water to collect and drown the Japanese beetles that are starting to appear. Japanese beetles are non-native bugs, but they seem to enjoy roses and raspberries and my yellow twig dogwood.  Nature is not neat.

Strictly speaking, spiders are not bugs. But they eat bugs. I may not be very aware of their presence because many spiders are tiny, but big or small, all spiders are welcome in my garden.

We have planted the eye catching native buttonbush with its bottlebrush-type flowers, and summersweet, Clethra alnifolia, with its fragrant white panicles of  summer bloom. Both welcome bees and butterflies to sip their nectar, and neither minds wet sites. With those large shrubs I achieve two goals.

We have planted other excellent perennial pollinator plants that like or tolerate wet sites. Sanguisorba canadensis, American burnet, has tall 4-5 foot flowering spikes of flowers beginning in midsummer, as does culver’s root or Veronicastrum virginicum. Possibly more common is Joe Pye Weed, with its pink-ish flower heads.

We have not completed our planting plan, but are well on our way to supporting butterflies, bees and other bugs. We are well on our way to creating a garden that is lovely and a joy. We are also learning many lessons along the way, another joy.

Between the Rows   July 18, 2016

Here’s What Permaculture Looks Like

Bioshelter

Nancee Bershof’s Bioshelter in the center of her permaculture garden

Bill Mollison, considered the Father of Permaculture, said it is “. . . the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

Nancee Bershof became interested in permaculture after her husband’s death, and her departure from medicine. She was looking for new interests and permaculture fascinated her. She took a course that led her down a new road, supplying food, and non-material needs like community and friendship.

Nancy Bershof

Nancee Bershof

She moved to a new house and property eight years ago, setting about creating a permaculture landscape. Using  Mollison’s description she has created gardens that do provide food, energy, shelter and some non-tangible benefits as well. Of course, starting any new garden does not happen in one year

The house sits fairly close to the road, so most of the acre of her property lies in back of the house where Bershof began my tour by showing me around the personal ornamental garden with its shady covered deck, and a sunny patio ringed by more shade. This garden had changed radically two days earlier when a large limb of an old and very tall willow came down during the night. While Bershof told me that she planned to leave this arching limb as a work of art, it was clear that it changed the garden. Where there had been shade there was now bright sun.

We then walked through the gate into what was a very different sunny garden that gave me my first real understanding of that a permaculture garden looks like. Bershof said  that she did not create this alone. Dave Jacke, author of EdibleForestGardens, created a site plan. “That plan got me started, but not everything happened as planned.” That sounded right to me. I have never known a plan that was carried out in every detail.

She also said “Esthetics are important to me. What looks good, feels good. I wanted it to be lovely.”

The view from the gate was not that of manicured borders, but it was lovely. There was a multiplicity of garden beds, but also a greenhouse in the center of the space. Bershof began by walking me through the gardens, but made me wait for a tour of the Bioshelter.

An important element of permaculture is the planting of perennial crops. It is easy to name off raspberries, blueberries, peaches and other fruit bearing shrubs and trees, as well as many herbs that we grow in our gardens. It is not so easy to come up with perennial vegetables. And yet they exist.

Perennial sea kale

Perennial sea kale

Bershof pointed out the sea kale, perennial arugula, skirrit, ground spinach and Turkish rocket. We nibbled as we went along and there was nothing weird tasting that would deter most people from eating them.

Tom Sullivan whose business is Pollinators Welcome helped Bershof lay out quadrants of pollinator beds that would attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. These beds teach two lessons. Pollinator beds need to have masses of any particular pollinator plant to make them easier for pollinators to find, and they need different varieties of plants to provide food all season long. Many of these plants, like bee balm, are also native to our area.

Companion planting of asparagus, basil and tomatoes

Companion planting of asparagus, basil and tomatoes

We walked past a perennial asparagus bed that was interplanted with annual tomatoes and basil. Bershof explained that this was a good companion planting, much like the Three Sisters garden she grows composed of corn, beans and squash. Unfortunately, she was battling the moles who were eating her corn roots, killing them and leaving the bean vines no way of climbing.

From this garden I could see a large planting of Jerusalem artichokes, and fruit trees including peaches, persimmons and paw paws. We were also at the chicken yard where eight hens are currently penned although they are free range when garden crops are not at risk.

The chicken house is a part of the Bioshelter, which is much more than a greenhouse. Keith Salzburg of Regenerative Design designed the building which includes the large greenhouse. Right now raised beds hold cucumbers and a tall fig tree. Covered bins dug into the ground contain worm farms that handle kitchen scraps. There are also the beginnings of a hydroponic project.

The long interior wall of the greenhouse is lined with black barrels filled with water that heats up when the sun is shining and then moderates temperatures when outside temperatures fall.

The other side of that wall is the tool shed where many well kept tools are hung. The third and final section of the bioshelter is the hen house.

There is separate space for feed. The rest of the space has egg boxes, a ramp to the outdoors and an automatic chicken door that opens at 6 am and closes at 9 pm after the chickens have tucked themselves in for the night. Bershof was especially pleased with this particular labor saver.

The bioshelter is a part of Bershof’s goal to use less water, less energy and have a smaller carbon footprint.

As we concluded my tour Bershof showed me what she calls the community garden, where friends have their own plots. “Right from the start, one of my goals was to share this site. I didn’t want to garden alone, but to have space where we could work together.” I think that counts as the important non-material need for sharing and friendship.

Between the Rows    July 11, 2016

Tovah Martin and Terrariums

Tovah Martin

Tovah Martin photo by Kindra Clineff

Tovah Martin, gardener and author, has devoted a good part of her life to houseplants. Most of us have a limited view of what houseplants we might put on our windowsills, but when she found herself working at the wonderful Logee’s Greenhouse in Connecticut she fell in love with the hundreds of houseplant varieties put into her care.

Over the years Martin has written books like Well-Clad Windowsills: Houseplants for Four Exposures, The Unexpected Houseplant: 220 Extraordinary Choices for Every Spot in Your Home; The Indestructible Houseplant: 200 Beautiful Plants That Everyone Can Grow; and The New Terrarium: Creating Beautiful Displays for Plants and Nature. Her knowledge about the needs and benefits of various houseplants, as well as their beauty, sometimes sculptural and sometimes romantic, is encyclopedic, and her prose is a delight touched with humor.

As a part of the 25th Anniversary celebration of the Greenfield Garden Club, the Club is bringing the notable and charming Tovah Martin to Greenfield on Sunday afternoon, June 5 to give a lecture on terrariums, followed by a book signing, and then a terrarium making workshop. This event will be held at the gracious Brandt House on Highland Avenue.

Martin looks at terrariums as a practical way to have a whimsical or calming snippet of nature at hand, no matter what kind of houseplant space you might have. When I spoke to Martin I asked when she became an expert on terrariums. “I’ve made terrariums my whole adult life. Actually even before that. And now I give workshops for every age group from Brownie troops to senior citizens,” she said.

Terrariums are always a popular type of garden from the charming berry bowls filled with a bit of American teaberry with its shiny petite foliage and red berries, to fish tanks turned into a woodland scene. “Terrariums are the smallest landscape you’ll ever have to design,” Martin said. Participants in her workshop should bring their own container but other terrarium materials will be provided. “Almost any glass can be used for a terrarium,” she said. She added that she has a pretty good eye and is frugal so she is a regular at Goodwill stores. No glass container is too humble, large wide mouth mason jars work just as well.

The New Terrarium by Tovah Martin

The New Terrarium by Tovah Martin

“Everyone should have nature by their side and terrariums make it easier. Terrariums are self watering, they almost grow on auto-pilot. Terrarium plants get the humidity they need, especially in the winter when our houses are so dry from the heating systems,” she said.

In her workshop she will demonstrate, and guide participants in the making of a terrarium that includes soil and plants, using surprising tools and giving useful tips. She will cover the basics of construction, and care from every angle including watering and light sources. Terrariums should not be placed in the sun, which is one reason they are such a good solution for the house that does not have much in the way of sunny windows, or possibly an office with limited light.

Beyond the closed terrarium that I am familiar with Martin points out that a terrarium is also an ideal environment for handling cuttings and making new plants, or for starting seeds. She said not all terrariums need to be closed and that even an open terrarium environment can help conserve moisture and will keep a plant happy with less work.

Extra pleasures on June 5: Michael Nix will be providing music, Kestrel of Northampton will be selling terrarium plants and supplies, and the World Eye will be selling books. Tickets are available at World Eye Books or can be ordered by calling Jean Wall at 773-9069. The cost of the lecture is $25 and $50 for the lecture and the workshop. Garden Club members get a discount of $20 and $40. For more information log on to the Greenfield Garden Club’s website http://www.thegreenfieldgardenclub.org/special-events.html

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It is Plant Sale Season. Today the Bridge of Flowers is having their annual plant sale that will include shrubs, annuals and perennials; many are divisions of plants on the Bridge. There will be a great variety from asters to peonies to violets. Master Gardeners will be on hand to do soil testing. The sale will be held on the TrinityChurch’s Baptist Lot on Main Street in ShelburneFalls from 9 am to noon, rain or shine. All profits benefit the Bridge.

Next Saturday, May 21 is the Garden Club of Amherst’s plant sale under the tent on the Common next to the Farmer’s Market from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm. Profits benefit conservation efforts and a scholarship fund.

On Saturday, May 28 The Greenfield Garden Club will hold its annual Extravagaza on the lawn of St James Episcopal Church on Federal Street from 9 am to 2 pm. In addition to plants donated by club members there will be a tag/book sale, a bake sale and face painting for the kids. Rain or shine. Profits benefit the grant program for area schools.

Between the Rows   May 14, 2016

 

Bridge of Flowers – a Public Garden, a Public Joy

Bridge of Flowers, Shelburne Falls, Mass.

Bridge of Flowers, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts

May 6th was American Public Gardens Day, but the American Public Gardens Association (AGPA) says official festivities continue right through Mother’s Day. The Bridge of Flowers, possibly our most notable local public garden, will not have any special festivities, but the community enjoys the festive and floriferous atmosphere every day from April 1 to October 30.

The APGA defines a public garden as one “that maintains collections of plants for the purposes of public education and enjoyment, in addition to research, conservation, and higher learning. It must be open to the public and the garden’s resources and accommodations must be made to all visitors.” This basic definition provides a physical description but does not begin to describe what the Bridge of Flowersmeans to our community.

The Bridge of Flowers has a long history beginning in 1929 when the trolley service between Colrain and ShelburneFalls was discontinued. It was the proliferation of that new locomotion, cars and trucks, that caused the demise of the trolley. If the bridge’s important function of moving freight, mail and residents from town to town was its only function, it might have remained the weedy eyesore it quickly became, or even been torn down. However, the bridge also carried a vital water main from Shelburne to Buckland. The bridge could not be demolished.

It was Antoinette Burnham who mused that a bridge that could grow all those weeds could also grow flowers. With the help of her husband who typed up a letter to the Greenfield Recorder, community support soon began to build.

Crocosmia on the Bridge of Flowers

Crocosmia, phlox and daylilies

The Shelburne Falls Fire District bought the bridge for $1,250; they are the owners of the bridge structure to this day. In the spring of 1929 eighty loads of loam were brought to the bridge along with several loads of fertilizer. I suspect the fertilizer was manure from local farmers, but that is my own thought. All this work was done by volunteers while the Shelburne Falls Women’s Club and others in the community raised $1000. I also suspect that the first plantings included divisions of perennials from local gardens and perhaps a few packets of seed.

Ever since its creation as The Bridge of Flowers the Shelburne Falls Women’s Club (now the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club) has assumed responsibility for the care and management of the Bridge. The Bridge of Flowers committee is a subcommittee of the Women’s Club, reporting to it and receiving support from the Club.

The look of the plantings on the Bridge has changed over time. We gardeners know that the very nature of a garden is change. Over the years women like Gertrude Newell, Trudy Finck, Carolyn Wheeler and Carole Markle took over the direction of the garden, and different ideas about style have taken their turn. For the past 20 years Carole Delorenzo, with her great horticultural knowledge, has been Head Gardener. What never changed was the pleasure local residents enjoyed as they used the Bridge of Flowers, the prettiest way to get from one town to the other, as they went about their rounds.

The nation’s economy also changed over those decades. Our area which is an agricultural area, gained a reputation as a tourist area. The commonwealth now has a Department of Travel and Tourism which promotes the beauties, arts, excitements and adventures available throughout the state. The Bridge of Flowers figures in their promotions, as it does in the promotions of the Mohawk Trail Association.

The result is that over 36,000 visitors sign the Bridge of Flowers guest book every year. Of course, some of these people live locally, but there are visits from all over the US, and 90 foreign countries ranging from England to Japan and China.

When Antoinette Burnham first thought that a weedy bridge could become a community asset I doubt that she imagined anything more than a spot of beauty that would give pleasure. And yet, the Bridge has become an economic benefit to the town by attracting tourists who will stop for a meal, or an ice cream cone, or beautiful items from our galleries.

Columbines for the Plant Sale

Columbines for the Plant Sale

The Bridge of Flowers committee is grateful for the way that town businesses have appreciated the Bridge and what it means by becoming Friends of the Bridge. Until 2008 the Committee depended on funds from the donation boxes, but that was beginning to be insufficient. It was out of the need for more financial help that the Friends of the Bridge was created. The generous response from a wide community has increased every year. It is gratifying to know how the Bridge is loved and appreciated.

The last few years have seen beautiful additions to the Bridge, from the sign-in kiosks, the Silent Spring fountain, and the River Bench created by Bob Compton, Paul Forth and John Sendelbach along with the generosity of W.R. Hillman & Sons and Goshen Stone. This year the Garden House was completed. The design was donated by architect Kim Erslev and the finishing touch was the donation of a stained glass window designed by Nancy Katz and created by her husband Mark Liebowitz.

Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale

In readiness for the Bridge of Flowers Plant Sale

Next Saturday, May 14, the Bridge of Flowers committee will hold their annual plant sale which supports the Bridge, and makes it possible to share some of the Bridge’s plants, and plants from local gardens, with area gardeners. The Plant Sale is held on the Trinity Church’s Baptist Lot on Main Street in Shelburne Falls rain or shine. In addition to perennials there will be annuals, refreshments, vendors, and Master Gardeners who will do soil tests. Gardeners can come early and scope out the plants, but no touching until the bell rings at 9 am. Sale ends at noon.

Between the Rows   May 7, 2016

Children, Seeds and New Worlds Opening

 

Seeing Seeds by Llewellyn and Chace

Seeing Seeds by LLewellyn and Chace

It has been my privilege and joy to spend a few Thursday afternoons with Kate Bailey’s first grade at Four CornersSchool reading about, and learning about seeds. They were already quite learned. They not only knew that apples held a star in their centers, that fruit pits were seeds; they also knew that strawberry seeds were on the outside of the fruit, not inside. They are all so eager to share information about their own gardens and their favorite plants. They have a lot of favorite plants!

One afternoon I brought the squash seeds from my dinner the night before. Everyone got two or three seeds and Ms. Bailey lept up to get out the microscopes and magnifying glasses. It was just about the same moment that the children at one table and I cried out, “The seed has a shell, and the real seed is inside!”  I had nothing on those kids with their quick minds and clever fingers.

When we looked closely, very closely, at the true seed we could actually see the tiny shoot and the beginnings of a root in the seed. Ms. Bailey was even able to hook up a microscope to a projector to show the enlarged image on the white board so the whole class could look with wonder and excitement at the very beginnings of this plant’s life. Hooray for a school that brings this technology to the classroom!

I also brought Seeing Seeds: A Journey into the World of Seedheads, Pods, and Fruit written by Teri Dunn Chace with extraordinary macro photography by Robert Llewellyn. This beautiful book with its clear descriptions of seed science, and its brilliant photographs was not intended for first graders, but it is ideal for parent and child to peruse together.

In class we had discussed the different ways that seeds spread. The children knew about planting seeds from a packet but they also knew that dandelion seeds moved on the wind, and that some seeds were moved in the gut of animals who ate the plant. A few giggles there.  Seeing Seeds gave them a chance to see very close up the mechanisms that some seeds make use of, as well as the whole variety of seed cases, pods, husks and shells.

With the excitement over our own “experiment”, opening the seed case to see what we could see, the book took a back seat that afternoon. Even so, in quieter moments Seeing Seeds is the kind of book that can educate our eyes (adult and child) and help us to see details of the different types and forms of seeds. This book opens our eyes to the beauty and extravagance of Mother Nature who has found so many ways to help plants reproduce and proliferate.

Seeing Seeds (Timber Press $29.95) is one coffee table book that would get a lot of use because it is so beautiful and the text is clear, colorful and informative. It is not only the variety of mechanisms that a seed might use, but the reasons for those mechanisms that I found so fascinating. Chace writes about the way seeds, fruits, pods and nuts are  enhanced with structures such as hairs, hooks, tufts, feathers, spikes, spines, etc., all  meant to help the seeds. A spiky ball will protect them from being eaten by predators, and a layer of insulation stabilizes internal temperature and physically protects them. These are things we adults might never consider, but the protections would certainly be understood by children when they are pointed out. This is a book for the whole family.

Gardening on a Shoestring by Alex Mitchell

Gardening on a Shoestring by Alex Mitchell

Of course, having discussed seeds at some length, children will want to plant seeds. Indeed, the adults in the family may also be more than ready to prepare a garden and watch the magic of seeds and growth with their children. Gardening on A Shoestring: 100 Fun Upcycled Garden Projects by Alex Mitchell (Cool Springs Press$19.99) provides plenty of basic gardening advice about planning and planting a garden with the promised 100 inexpensive projects which include using tin cans, polystyrene and plastic throwaways for plant containers to making liquid fertilizers with plants, and setting up a worm farm to make rich compost.

I was particularly taken by the worm farm directions. When we made our worm farm a number of years ago, the small plastic bins that I could find were all clear, translucent. However worms don’t like the sunlight so I bought a very large plastic bin because it was the only opaque bin I could find. Mitchell suggests lining a clear plastic bin with cardboard. Why didn’t I think of that? I am on my way to having a new and smaller worm farm.

Children might be very interested in making a worm farm, but there are other projects suitable for the young set. Instead of buying plastic seedling trays you can make seedling pots out of newspaper, or toilet paper or paper towel rolls. This is a quick and useful project.

Mitchell also gives clear directions, aided by photographs, for multiplying the number of plants you already have by taking root cuttings, and layering. There is more to propagating plants than seeds.

Whether you are an adult or a child, you will find any number of inspiring projects that will feed the longing we all have to be creative, to have fun, to learn and to laugh and say – “Look what I made!”

Between the Rows   April 30, 2016

After Pollinators and Wildflowers Comes a Cocktail Hour

Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes

Pollinator Friendly Gardening by Rhonda Fleming Hayes

It doesn’t seem so very long ago that no one gave a thought to pollinators. People were afraid of bees and stings, but they never thought about the hundreds of bee species that kept vegetable and fruit farms producing. Perhaps that was because so much of our food came from far off places like California where we were never aware of what farms, farmers and crops needed.

Nowadays, with people we are more sensible of the benefits of local farms and local food. We realize that at least 30% of the world’s food crops need to be pollinated. Happily there are many more bees and insects that do this important job than we ever imagined. Unhappily human civilization continues to encroach on the habitat that pollinators need. Developments of all sorts, housing, business and even agriculture are taking land that was wild, land that provided the plants and living spaces that bees and other pollinators need to thrive.

Pollinator Friendly Gardening: Gardening for Bees, Butterflies and other Pollinators by Rhonda Fleming Hayes (Voyageur Press $21.99) notes that our awareness of the needs of pollinators has been raised. Hayes has set about showing us how we homeowners can take responsibility for improving pollinator habitat right in our own backyards.

Hayes interviews pollinator experts to talk about the value of native plants versus ‘nativars,’ native plants that have been hybridized; the problems created by GMOs; the need for shelter for pollinators; and the necessity of many other beneficial insects.

She provides plant lists to help us include useful plants for pollinators, plants that bloom throughout the season providing nectar, and food for caterpillars. Once I realized how important dill and parsley were to the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, I never again bemoaned loosing my crop to those caterpillars.

Pollinator Friendly Gardening includes occasional Fun Facts, as well. Did you know that the bees in White House kitchen garden produce enough honey to give as gifts at state dinners and to visiting diplomats? That a single little mason bee does as much pollinating as 100 honeybees? That milkweed seed capsules were collected during WWII so that the fluffy seed material could be used to fill servicemen’s lifejackets?

Hayes, a Master Gardener, has gardened, photographed, and written in various locations and in Minneapolis for the last few years.

Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman

Wildflowers of New England by Ted Elliman

Ted Elliman and the New England Wild Flower Society have put together a comprehensive new wildflower guide that has images and information of over 1000 native plants. This book not only has beautiful and helpful images, the introductory section is a veritable course in botany that will help you to identify the plants you find on your nature walks. Since 90% of the wild plants around the world need pollination I can’t help thinking how wildflowers would suffer without pollinators.

Wildflowers of New England (Timber Press $27.95) is very easy to use because it provides a clear road to identitification. You begin with color, but within the color sections plants are organized by petal design and number. For example red Kalmia angustifolia with 5 radial petals is listed after dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) which has 4 radial petals.

With this guide I have hopes of finally differentiating between 11 varieties of aster from 4 different genus: Doellingeria; Oligoneurn; and Symphyotrichum. Of course, the fleabanes (Erigeron) are similar (to my uneducated eye) but I think I stand a fighting chance of knowing one from the other because of the clear photographs and text.

Wildflowers of New England is a substantial little book, in many ways, but the heavy, shiny cover, complete with ruler marking, is tough enough to take on hikes for frequent, on- site referrals.

After all the joyous work of studying pollinators and wildflowers, you might be ready for The Cocktail Hour Garden: Creating Evening Landscapes for Relaxation and Entertaining by C.L. Fornari (St. Lynn’s Press $19.95) who lives out on Cape Cod.

The Cocktail Hour Garden by C. L. Fornari

The Cocktail Hour Garden by C. L. Fornari

Fornari suggests we consider our domestic landscape as a party venue, beginning with a quiet cup of coffee in the morning and all kinds of family celebrations that might take place in the garden, to a companionable cocktail hour with a spouse or friends in the evening.

What plants should be included in this garden? Some plants can provide tactile experiences like the soft blades of Mexican feather grass or velvety silver lamb’s ears. Fragrance on the evening air can be supplied by perennials honeysuckle, lavender, oriental lilies. Don’t forget fragrant annuals like Virginia stocks or nicotiana.

Fornari also makes suggestions about lighting, water in many forms, and sound in the garden that can be enjoyed by the gardener, but she also writes about keeping butterflies and birds happy too.

Since this is a cocktail hour garden she is talking about, she also includes cocktail recipes, including non-alcoholic drinks, and the herbs and  flowers that can dress up and spike those drinks. Her tone is conversational, a charming invitation to join her for a cocktail and conversation at the end of the day.

Between the Rows   April 9, 2016

 

 

How to Start Seeds Indoors

Seed starting supplies

Seed starting supplies

It is easy and fun to start seeds indoors. Seeds are just magical – tiny bits of stuff that can turn into a delicious fruit or vegetable or gorgeous flower with only the help of a little soil, sun and rain. That magic is available to us all. All of us can plant seeds, and wave our magic wands to keep ourselves busy while we watch the magic show produced by Mother Earth, Father Sun and Sister Rain.

The first thing we need to know is the likely date of the last frost. We used to think this date was Memorial Day, but weather is unpredictable. These days we might calculate an earlier date.

I plant most of my seeds directly in the garden. Some vegetables are very hardy and can be planted in April. Lettuce is a cool weather crop that can be planted as soon as soil can be worked. Lettuce loves temperatures of about 60 degrees.

One of the most dependable ways to determine when you can plant outdoors is to test the temperature of the soil, not only the temperature of the air. If soil temperature is 45 degrees lettuces will germinate and grow. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog lists the most optimum soil temperatures for the different crops. A soil thermometer costs approximately $13.

However, many gardeners like to start seeds indoors. This doesn’t require much work or equipment. Starting your own herbs, tomatoes and peppers, or cosmos and zinnias can give you a headstart on the season, lots of plants, and some fun. Seeds can usually be started indoors between four to six weeks before you expect to plant them outdoors. By mid-May you can plant nearly everything outdoors, especially if you use row covers for the most tender.

To begin you need containers for sterile soilless seed starting mix. This can be the plastic foam containers that various food products come in if they will hold a couple of inches of seed starting mix. They would need to have drainage holes put in the bottom. You can also make pots out of recycled newspapers.  I do not recommend egg cartons or egg shells because as cute as they might be, they do not hold enough soil to stay moist very long. Seeds need constant moisture to germinate.

For a small investment you can buy a plastic tray and plastic cell flats or peat pots. This arrangement will allow you to water your seeds from below which is the easiest and best way.

If you buy and use small peat pots keep them in a tray and make sure you use enough water to soak the peat pots otherwise the pot itself will wick water away from the seed. Seedlings started in peat pots will not need transplanting. The whole pot just gets put in the ground – after you have removed all the extra seedlings, leaving only one.

You can mix your own seed starting mix. You’ll need one third, sphagnum peat moss, one third finished compost, and one third vermiculite. A light mix makes it easier for seeds to grow. Do not use garden soil.

Dampen your planting mix. I use large cell flats so that I do not have to transplant seedlings twice. I fill each cell with damp mix, put two or three seeds in each cell and cover lightly with more mix. I keep my flats in a tray and put water in the tray every day which will be absorbed by osmosis into the cells. You want the soil mix to be consistently damp, not waterlogged or you may get damping off fungus which will kill your seedlings.

You can also buy a clear plastic cover for your tray. This will make a little greenhouse, slow down evaporation and warm the planting mix. When the seeds begin to germinate prop the cover up slightly so there is some air circulation. Once the seedling is fully germinated remove the cover.

Different seeds have different germination schedules. Seed packets usually tell you how long you’ll have to wait to see the emergence of a tiny shoot. Nowadays, you can buy electric heated seed starting mats, which will help germination, but these are not vital. If you do use a heat mat, the flats should be removed from the mat once the seedling has germinated.

Seedlings in front of a Heath window

Seedlings in front of a Heath window

Seedlings also need light. You can put your flats in front of a sunny window. Once the seeds have germinated you will need to keep turning the flats because the seedlings will always be leaning toward the sun.

You can also use grow lights. I use both methods because the little grow light I inherited will only accommodate a few flats.

Your carefully tended seedlings can grow happily in this nursery for four to six weeks, depending on the crop. When there is no danger of frost prepare them for planting.

You can’t take your seedlings directly out of the house and plant them outside. They need to be hardened off. Spring breezes and direct sun are too much for the tender seedlings to tolerate. Every day, for a week or two, bring them outdoors in a protected spot for a while, increasing the time a little more each day.

If you want to transplant your hardened off seedlings into the soil as soon as possible, you can use row covers set over wire hoops. These permeable lightweight covers capture warmth and protect plants from wind and light frost. They will also protect plants from some pests.

Spring weather is exciting. Gardeners need to temper their excitement. Our weather is so unpredictable these days that it is hard to think of a schedule for seed starting and transplanting. The gardener needs to consider the needs of the particular plant and his particular site and climate.

Happy planting.

Between the Rows   March 19, 2016

 

 

 

Groundcovers for a Lawn-less Garden.

Barren strawberry

Waldstenia, barren strawberry

One of the goals we had for our new Greenfield garden was to make it  lawnless. We certainly did not want a wild lawless garden, but we did not want large areas of grass that would need mowing. To prove his devotion to this goal my husband bought an inexpensive power lawn mower and said that it would probably last two years. He was giving me two years to design and plant a garden that would not include lawn that needed mowing.

In Heath I made small efforts to use ground covers. After I realized that the common thyme in my herb garden, and at the edge of the piazza was seeding itself in our field, I began dividing the exuberantly growing thyme and replacing a patch of grass with a shovelful of a thyme division. It took very little effort, and a generous post-planting watering to make sure the thyme roots were making good contact with the soil.

Elegant English gardens often feature a section of thyme garden, allowing it to bloom before mowing it down and waiting for another bloom time. Thyme does fine in ordinary soil and doesn’t mind being walked on. Thyme lawns work equally well in New England. We did mow the Heath lawns, but the thyme sections got fewer mowings so we felt we were taking a step in the right direction.

I did remove the turf of two lawn sections planting Waldsteinia fragarioides or barren strawberry in one area, and tiarella or foam flower in another. Both are hardy, native to the United States, bloom in April into May, and  tolerate sun or partial shade. I never needed to water these plants.

Barren strawberry with its frilly scalloped leaves bears sunny golden spring flowers on stems no more that eight inches tall in the spring. A single plant will soon cover a two foot square area, more quickly if the soil is good. It spreads by runner.

Tiarella, foam flower

Tiarella, foam flower

Foamflower  can tolerate partial to full shade. The creeping heart- shaped leaves cover the ground and the stems can reach up to 12 inches and are covered with airy, one might say foamy, white flowers in May.

Epimedium rubra

Epimedium rubra

It is sometimes difficult to find plants that will thrive in dry shade. I was not very confident when I planted my first Epimedium rubra with delicate pink flowers because I thought it was very tender. But it proved happy in Heath, and spread into such a good clump that I was able to give divisions to friends. I later planted Epimedium x versicolor ‘Suphureum’ which had spurred yellow blossoms held above the foliage and was an equally strong grower. These delicate looking plants are actually hardy, the dainty flowers borne on wiry stems are often called fairy hats.

The Epimedium world was a lot larger than I imagined and there is an excellent epimedium nursery in Templeton, Massachusetts which offers scores of epimedium cultivars. You can view the online catalog at www.epimediums.com which also gives the only dates when you can actually visit in May and see the plants in bloom.

Epimedium sulphureum

Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum’

I have never grown wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, but I have seen it growing in the shady woods. It prefers acid, moist but well drained soil. This plant is no more than six inches tall, with shiny dark green leaves and red berries. When you crush the leaves you will get the sweet wintergreen fragrance.

It is possible that many of us know partridgeberry, Mitchella repens, from its appearance in Berry Bowls during the Christmas season. This is a real creeper, only one or two inches tall with tiny leaves, white flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall and winter.

Barren strawberry, foam flower, epimediums, wintergreen and partridgeberry are all good choices for a shady woodland garden which is one way I am hoping to have a lawnless garden.

Pachysandra is a common groundcover beloved because it attractive with glossy toothed foliage, as well as hardy and dependable, happily growing and spreading under trees. However, the pachysandra that is available at most nurseries is Pachysandra terminalis which has been known to be invasive. The alternative is Pachysandra procumbens, otherwise known as Allegheny spurge. This pachysandra does not have the glossy leaves, but it does have more distinctive flowers in the spring, fragrant bottlebrush spikes rising a few inches above the foliage.

So far, I have only mentioned low growing groundcovers that will grow in the shade. However, shrubs can also be an answer. I have a friend who has planted a tapestry of creeping junipers. Many junipers grow rapidly, covering a six foot square area in a year or two. My friend’s junipers were planted to cover the space she wanted in two years, but she said they are amenable to pruning and easy to keep under control. Junipers prefer full sun and a well draining soil. They do not like to be wet.

Low growing junipers do not limit themselves to a dull green. Juniperus horizontalis Wiltonii, has a blue-green tone and creeps along, only eight inches high. Golden Carpet is even more mat-like at for inches high, with charteuse-gold foliage.

Groundcovers are only one way to have a lawn-less garden. I’ll explore other methods in future.

Between the Rows   February 20, 2016

Plentiful Primroses

 

Primroses

Primroses from Fosters

Earlier this week I entered Foster’s Market and the first thing I saw was a bank of primroses. I could not have been happier. Many years ago I bought a pot of Foster’s primroses and after the blossoms had gone by I saved the plant until spring tip toed in. I planted it at the edge of a wooded spot in our Heath backyard. I didn’t do much in the way of preparation, just digging with a trowel and adding a couple of handfuls of compost. The primroses did increase with no help from me and were still blooming last spring. Those pale primroses were not my last. I bought more primroses at Fosters, adding richer and more brilliant red, and purple varieties.

Of course, having seen the new array I had to buy four pots (two pots for $7) in shades of primrose cream, yellow and gold. They made a lovely centerpiece on the dining table for a luncheon with friends. There are over 500 species of primula, but I believe the species on my table is P. vulgaris, sometimes called the English primrose. They will also go into the garden when the time comes.

Another primrose for the wild garden is P. veris. The flowers are very similar to the English primrose but they form pendulous clusters on slightly taller stems, up to 10 or 12 inches. This is the primrose that is referred to as cowslips in Shakespeare’s plays like The Tempest. Ariel sings his  song, “Where the bee sucks, there suck I. In a cowslip’s bell I lie.”

Over the years I have admired other primroses. I visited a friend one wet spring and she showed me the pale pink Japanese primroses growing in a shallow stream. Most P. japonica primroses bloom in shades of pink and white. These are a candelabra type with tiers of blossoms held high on a stem that can be two feet tall. They obviously like water and reseed freely making a lovely wild planting in the shade. This seems like a perfect plant for my very wet Greenfield garden.

While the P. japonica have a candelabra form, there are other types in this large candelabra family. P. bulleyana is tall with apricot/orange blooms bringing color later in the season. It also likes the wet and will naturalize quickly. P. beesiana is another candelabra variety, about two feet tall, with pinky/purple blossoms blooming from spring into summer. These primroses, like most that have enough of a stem, are good cutting flowers for bouquets.

Primula tommasinii You and Me Blue is a very unusual primrose that has a double blossom, but it does not have double the number of petals, it has a second blossom growing up from the first blossom on an 8 to 12 inch stem. It is called a hose-in-hose flower named after a type of hose that men wore in the 1500s. Blue is an unusual color in primroses, so this is a fascinating flower on at least two levels.

Many primulas are hardy to zone 5 and are not difficult to grow given rich soil, moisture and some shade. But there are other varieties that have very different requirements.

The auriculas are a group of primroses that are ideal for a partly shady spot with neutral or slightly alkaline soil. They are alpine plants and do well in a rock garden that can be top dressed with fine gravel. Auriculas have a more dramatic form comprised of richly colored petals surrounding a white or pale center. Most also have a pale coating that is called ‘farina’ and is considered desirable, especially if you are entering your auricula in a flower show. Unlike the candelabra primroses they do not come true from seed, nor do they reseed themselves as freely.

Primroses

Primroses in the garden

I never attempted to divide my primroses, leaving them to their own devices, and gave them no attention after planting. They did increase in size, but not to the extent that is possible.

Dividing primroses can be done after blooming after deadheading, or in the early fall. A clump can be dug up and the corms can be seen and pulled apart gently. The new planting spot should be enriched with rotted manure or good compost. Then the leaves can be cut back to three inches, as well as the roots. Cutting back in this way will encourage the division to make new strong roots without needing to feed lush foliage. They can be fertilized again after replanting with non-nitrogen fertilizers. We want to concentrate on building new roots, not new foliage.

Aside from Foster’s Market which sells primroses for a brief period I don’t know where you can buy plants locally. Portland Nursery and Garden Center in Portland, Washington sells a selection of primula varieties (www.portlandnursery.com, and I did find Primula tomasinii You and Me Blue at Bluestone Perennials (www.bluestoneperennials.com) among their selection of single and frilly double primulas.

I don’t often see primroses in gardens so I am especially looking forward to having my own bank of P. japonica, luxuriating in my wet garden. Even though I am now living in town I am trying to create a woodland garden, a garden unlike my sunny hill garden. This woodland garden will be a response to my very different site, to my desire for more native plants that will support birds and pollinators, and (I hope) it will be less labor intensive.

Primroses

Primroses

Between the Rows  January 23, 2016

Everything Changes – in the garden and everywhere

Planting in a Post Wild World

Planting in a Post-Wild World

Everything changes. Change on all fronts is inescapable, unstoppable and inevitable. No one knows this more than a gardener who watches her garden change over the years.

In 2016 I will be gardening in a new garden, a smaller garden, a garden that will not require as much maintenance as the Heath garden. It is also a garden with very different features. The soil is heavy clay. The soil is very wet and drains slowly.  There is a lot of shade.

With the help of noted landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy’s Home Outside Palette app my husband and I began to layout and plant garden beds, concentrating on water loving, or water tolerant native shrubs.  My desire was to have a kind of woodland garden instead of perennial beds .

Over the years I have become more and more interested in native plants, and more and more aware of their value in maintaining the health of our ecosystems. Certain books have led me along this path including Bringing Nature Home by entomologist Douglas Tallamy. Tallamy also collaborated with Rick Darke on The Living Landscape: Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden. Darke is a landscape lecturer and photographer who proves that a biodiverse garden can be beautiful.

Most recently Timber Press sent me a copy of Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West.

One of their goals is to help gardeners create beautiful gardens that more closely replicate the ways plants grow in the wild even in urban and suburban situations.  “The good news is that it is entirely possible to design plantings that look and function more like they do in the wild: more robust, more diverse, and more visually harmonious with less maintenance. The solution lies in understanding plantings as communities of compatible species that cover the ground in interlocking layers.”

While Rainer and West value native species, they call their philosophy “a middle way” in which layered plantings mean more room for compatible non-natives (never invasives) and a greater diversity of beneficial plants. They want to focus on naturally occurring plant communities which means paying less attention to purely native plantings and concentrating on performance and adaptability. Their idea is to make our relationship to nature a collaborative one.

I should mention here that the book is lavishly illustrated with beautiful photographs that give an explicit view of what they are talking about. Photographs show the differences in landscapes from the humble hellstrip along a sidewalk to flowery meadows, droughty hillsides and woodlands.

Rainer and West lay out five basic principles. The first is to concentrate on related populations, not isolated indivduals. This means not planting the Echinacea next to the sedum next to the hellebore. It means letting plants self-seed and intermingle, as they do in nature. My own Heath lawn, or flowery mead as I called it, is a case in point.

Principle two: Stress can be an asset. This is often how we get to naturally occurring plant communities.

Principle three: Cover the ground densely by vertically layering plants. This is a reminder that bare soil does not exist in nature and we can find plants to fill every niche of space and soil type and let nature do some of that filling in.

Principle four: Make it attractive and legible. This principle will calm those who wonder if all Rainer and West desire is messy, weedy woodland. They are realists they say, and “designed plant communities can be patterned and stylized in a way that makes them understandable, ordered and attractive. They need not replicate nature in order to capture its spirit.”  They suggest ‘frames’ which can be pathways or other hardscape elements like fences or walls.

Principle five: Management, not maintenance. Gardeners know you cannot plant a garden and then sit back and admire it indefinitely. But with good management you can eliminate many chores, weeding, watering, spraying, etc. This is possibly my favorite principle.

The penultimate chapter gives specific instruction on planting and maintaining a plant community.

Planting in a Post-Wild World is a dense, but readable book. Not all the ideas are brand new but they are presented in new ways, broadening their applicability, and showing how we can adapt them to our own situation. Rainer and West believe the time is right for a horticultural renaissance where plantings will be ecologically diverse, functional and sound, but will also be beautiful, understandable and appealing to the gardener and her friends.

I made a start on a new and different garden this past summer, but there is a lot of work to do in 2016 to make it functional in the ways I first imagined, and in new ways as well. I am now dreaming of a hugelkulture project. Stay tuned. I am also thinking of how I can expand on the plans I made for covering the ground in my new, and soon to be enlarged beds. I think I can be bolder about letting plants intermingle. I want to work towards the plateau of management.

How will you and your garden change in 2016?

Between the Rows  January 2, 2016