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Walter Cudnohufsky – Cultivating the Designer’s Mind

Cultivating the Designer's Mind

Walter Cudnohufsky’s book Cultivating the Designer’s Mind

Walter Cudnohufsky says “Design is Optimism Personified.” I saw Cudnohufsky’s design and optimism myself, one day about 11 years ago.

“Keep talking. Keep talking,” Cudnohufsky said as my Heath neighbors, Lynn Perry and Rol Hesselbart, brought out all their concerns about the landscape surrounding their new garage. I was invited to watch Cudnohufsky at work. It was a lively consultation and I was amazed at how patiently he listened, how carefully he observed the area.

Lynn visited me last week with all her notes of that afternoon, and the sketch Cudnohufsky created during the two hour consultation. “It made me so happy going through all those notes.” Lynn said. “That was a wonderful afternoon with Walt. And we did everything he suggested. There was nothing authoritative about him. And nothing was wasted that afternoon. He gave us what we needed and was gone,” she said.

Walter Cudnohufsky

Walter Cudnohufsky

I have seen Cudnohufsky at work since then, and become aware of what a good and encouraging teacher he is. Everyone who goes to him for a landscape design will get a lesson.

He has been teaching for over 40 years. During the first 20 years he founded the Conway School of Landscape Design in his renovated Ashfield barn. Fifteen students attended that first 10 month intensive program of learning and doing. Since he retired (mostly) from the Conway School he has continued his landscape practice. He is now sharing his expertise and teaching with a larger world.

Cultivating the Designer’s Mind: Principles and Process for Coherent Landscape Design, written by Cudnohufsky, with Molly Babize is a book that sets out to explain what design is. It also defines the many benefits of good design. Mollie Babize joined his practice about 35 years ago, and besides being a workmate and friend for all these years, she was at his side at the writing table. She was “striving to get my thoughts and make them coherent”. Cudnohufsky said.

The 313 page book is organized in ten chapters beginning with What is Design? One chapter talks about Understanding the Designer’s Role which is what Walt did when consulting with Lynn and Rol. He was listening and asking questions. He made a graphic rendering and continued talking and exploring more. This is an excellent chapter because it is not only for designers. It also provides information for the client about what to expect, what to think about, and what kinds of information the designer needs to make a good design.”

Cudnohufsky said that when he began more than 40 years ago he felt “a sustained and growing frustration with the general quality of design decisions. This was leading all too often towards fashion and decorating for dollars, rather than the higher order tasks of landscape design, first serving multiple environmental as well as human needs and desires, . . . as well as being aesthetically appealing. Good money is too often being spent unwisely when the same investment in landscape could often serve better ends.

“I have proven over decades that with a little elbow grease and focus, design is fun. A proportionally better designed result is possible. It is all within reach. I place a capital D on design because it is more than trivial.”

The book also includes case studies. One detailed case study illustrates how to build a basic map of a property, how to identify the views of adjoining properties, what plants are in good health, what are the impacts of trees on their surroundings and more. What are first impressions of the property? Cudnohufsky explains, “First begin with existing assets. Then look for constraints. Consider the topography, slopes and flatland.” There are sketches and drawings to show the various aspects of wind, light and shade, notes about electric lines and other important elements that are in place. Learning to see all this is as important for the client – or a house buyer who will come to see the need for a Design.

This book is intended for designers, young and experienced, as well as home owners. Understanding more about the needs of a site, as well as what they want from a sight will help them become better clients or self-designers. It is also hoped to be useful to the sister professionals in architecture, engineering, urban design, and planning.

I felt some of the exercises Cudnohufsky asked of his clients were useful to me as I work on creating my new urban garden. “I’m aware – I imagine.” In my garden I am aware of the movement of the sun – I imagine making a place that will provide shade for social space. There is also “I wish.” I wish I had more shelter in the garden. I wish there wasn’t so much water. Those wishes certainly tell me what I should be thinking about.

Cudnohufsky doesn’t seem capable of not designing and teaching. He said, “Beauty is not a luxury. It is a central human need and right – beauty leads predictably to reverie and sustaining human experience.” His book provides many lessons for all of us as we tend our domestic landscapes.

Between the Rows   March 23, 2019

New Ways to Make Compost and Vermicompost – Book Reviews

Composting for a new Generation

Composting for a New Generation by Michelle Balz

The first time I learned about compost piles was when a homesteading friend gave me a subscription to Rodale’s Organic Farming and Gardening magazine while we were still living in New York City. We had a tiny backyard in Manhattan, but we never did very much with it because of our fear of heavy metals in the soil. Adverse health effects caused by heavy metals are a real threat if you grow edibles.

We moved to Heath 37 years ago. On our 60 acres we had more than enough room and material to become serious composters. Composting For a New Generation: Latest Techniques for the Bin and Beyond by Michelle Balz (Cool Springs Press $22.99) gives a refresher course in the basic science of composting. Balz reviews then reviews old techniques and brings us fascinating new techniques.

This comprehensive new book tempts you with the benefits of composting from improving your soil, saving money on fertilizers, benefitting the environment and maybe even making you a happier person. Did you know that Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil and compost piles acts as a natural antidepressant? These bacteria enter your body through your breathing and through your skin.

Balz has a degree in Environmental Studies and worked as a “solid waste (garbage) professional before devoting herself to all manner of composting which she explains in her book. If you raise chickens, brew beer, make coffee, have a clothes dryer or trees you have extra riches for your compost pile. Who knew spent grain left from beer brewing, or coffee grounds really got the action going in a compost pile?

You can make compost just by layering brown matter like leaves, straw, shredded paper and sawdust with a lesser amount of vegetable scraps, chicken manure, and things like plant trimmings in a casual pile. However, for making larger amounts of compost more easily, Balz gives clear instructions for building wooden compost bins, wire leaf bins, a compost tumbler and other items. I was really taken with the simple aerator which would help break down raw materials more quickly. Air is vital to good compost making.

Balz also suggests some unusual ways to compost. She gives directions for making bokashi, a pickling process, as well as compost tea, vermicomposting which is composting indoors with worms, and trench composting. I was fascinated with her explanation of an African Keyhole Garden which puts a compost pile in the center of a raised bed. Rains will wash the nutrients from the decomposing compost pile throughout the garden.

Balz also describes hugelkultur, a permaculture technique, which is about composting wood. We have our own hugelkultur project at the back of our garden, and I have written about that before.

Worms Eat My Garbage

Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Applehof and Joanne Olszweski

Balz focuses on some new ways of making compost, but this is the 35th anniversary of the classic book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof and Joanne Olszewski. The subtitle is How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System and that system is alive and well at the Four Corners School where several classrooms have simple worm bins filled with damp newspaper and worms that are making good compost. In the spring the children will be planting seeds in potting soil amended with that vermicompost.

Think of all the questions children, or any of us might have about worms. Do they have a mouth, or teeth to eat all that lettuce? Do they have eyes? Do they have brains? All will be revealed in Worms Eat My Garbage.

Along the way the children, and other new vermicomposters, will learn all about worm anatomy, worm mating, cocoons, and baby worms.

Vermicompost is a term that encompasses not only the worm castings (worm manure) but also the rotting bedding and bits of kitchen scraps left as the worms munched their way through the day. The various steps in the making of vermicompost and the harvesting process are explained fully, along with estimations of the time it will take from set up to harvest.

The children use a simple small plastic bin in their classroom, but there are a variety of commercial bins that come in various sizes, accommodating different amounts of bedding and food scraps as well as different numbers of worms. I have known people to keep their worm bins in the kitchen or nearby, and many keep larger worm bins in the basement.

Vermicompost is powerful stuff, but each harvest will give you a limited amount so it is best to use it carefully. It is very useful when planting seeds or transplanting your spring starts. Prepare your little row and sprinkle the length of the row with the vermicompost, or put a small handful in each hole for transplants.

If you are a gardener who likes to create soil blocks for seed starting vermicomost is an ideal additive to the potting soil. Plant your seed in the vermicompost enriched seed block and when the seedling is of sufficient size put the whole block into its planting hole in the garden. It will already have gotten off to a good start.

Fully finished compost and vermicompost can also be used for top dressing in houseplants.  Choose your technique and begin!

Between the Rows   March 3, 2018

New Books on Wellness, in the Garden and Kitchen

The Wellness Garden

The Wellness Garden by Shawna Coronado

December is a season for new Books, great for gift giving. Shawna Coronado has shared her gardening expertise in many ways on TV, on lecture tours and in her books like Grow a Garden Wall: Create Vertical Gardens with a Purpose, but in her new book The Wellness Garden she shares her own history with painful osteoarthritis and how she learned to change her lifestyle for better health.

The Wellness Garden: Grow, Eat and Walk Your Way to Better Health includes information about foods you can grow in your garden that will affect the way your body functions. There are lists of foods that most commonly cause allergies including milk, eggs, wheat and shellfish, as well as information about anti-inflammatory foods and low glycemic foods.

There are three main sections beginning with Growing the Wellness Diet and Lifestyle. Here are ideas about organic gardening, using techniques like raised beds to accommodate back problems, and choosing crops for their special nutritional values.  Then it is on to incorporating exercise in the garden. Strolling and walking through other gardens, through the woods, or simply around your own neighborhoods on a regular basis are beneficial. It is also important to take advantage of ergonomic tools to make your chores easier. You might need to find ways to sit or bend that are right for you. I know this from my own experience. I find it less stressful to do a lot of my own gardening on my knees. This means my body is bent in a kind of backward Z shape and for me this puts very little strain on my back. We all have to try out options to find what is best for us individually.

The sections called Therapeutic Gardening and Therapeutic Garden Designs sounded a little cold and corrective to me. In fact these therapies are really about reminding us of the healing benefits of fresh air and sun, and being mindful, noticing and welcoming the atmosphere around us – in nature and, I think, in the people around us. As for garden design there are environmental tips and suggestions of how to achieve your own goals, prioritizing the activities and elements that are important to you.

I was happy that a chapter had been given over to the fragrance garden, because of my own love of fragrant roses. Out in the open air I love the strong scents of lavender, peonies, lilies and lilacs, but we will all have our favorites.

We do not have to give up gardening as we age or develop physical problems but we might need to make changes. Heeding the advice and experience of people like Shawna Coronado is helpful.

The Herbalist's Garden

The Herbalist’s Kitchen by Brittany Wood Nickerson

Coronado talks about especially healthful foods to grow in our gardens and Brittany Wood Nickerson gives us the information and recipes to make delicious and healthful meals. Recipes from The Herbalist’s Kitchen: Delicious, Nourishing Food for Lifelong Health and Well-Being is a wonderful cookbook and more.

While herbs cannot cure us the way an anti-biotic pill can Nickerson says herbs “almost always help you better heal yourself.” She notes that “a spoonful of sage honey boosts the immune system . . . hot peppermint tea encourages the body to sweat and helps break a fever. . .  a dollop of herb pesto alongside a heavy meal, and you can help the body digest fats and ease indigestion.”

While herbs used as seasoning will have some medicinal effect, a ‘medicinal dose” will be needed to specifically act on your system. This comes with the warning that if you are using substantial amounts of an herb you need to know how it will interact with any medications you might be taking.

One section of the book lists a dozen common herbs from basil to thyme with the particular ways they can heal. Then comes a section on the various ways that healing herbs can be used in tea, tinctures, vinegars, butters, infused oils, infused honey, pestos, salts and herbal syrups.

Then come the recipes with listed health benefits. I thought this cookbook might have recipes that were too odd or daunting, but au contraire. I found poached peaches with tarragon, braised chicken  with shallots and figs, garlic stuffed roast pork, spanakopita with fresh herbs and wild greens, hazelnut cornmeal cake with rosemary honey and Nickerson’s take on an Argentinean condiment chimichurri. Hers was made with red grapes, dill and oregano and it looks fabulous.

Not everyone will love every recipe or technique. There are recipes with lavender and roses. I really cannot tolerate these strong fragrances in my food. Nickerson reminds us from time to time that we must listen to our own bodies, paying attention to the way our digestive and other body systems react to certain foods.

There are recipes for every season, with the reminder that the health effects of sharing our meals with others is also beneficial. I know that having meals with my husband is more pleasant than eating alone, and cooking and eating with the greater family or friends is a real joy.

December is a month of celebrations, of meals and social activities. It is also a month of gift giving and both The Wellness Garden and The Herbalist’s Kitchen make great gifts going into the new year when many of us may be thinking of the ways we can feel and be healthier.

PS – I made the braised chicken with shallots and figs and it was wonderful!

Between the Rows   December 16, 2017

Then and Now – I Celebrate My 10th Blogaversary

Feast of St. Nicholas snow in Heath many years ago

Today I celebrate another blogaversary. Ten years ago I inaugurated my commonweeder blog. As a reader and a gardener I enjoyed the little play on words as the commonWEEDER and opposed to Virginia Woolf’s CommonREADER books of essays. I had the most basic of ideas about what a blog was, but a good friend who knows more about such things said  I needed a blog. I acknowledged in my first post that I did not know what was to come. I did intend the blog as an invitation to join me in my garden, and other gardens that I visited.

Certainly December does not seem like the most auspicious time of year to start a garden blog, but I always say (when I have forgotten a birthday or anniversary) that I am not a slave to the calendar – in any sense.

And so I began, with the brief post below.  Already it suggests that there will be talk about books as well as about gardens.

Am I too old to Blog? We’ll find out, but in any event I thought that the Feast of Saint Nicholas would be the perfect day to inaugurate my blog. There isn’t anything going on in the garden outside so when the temperature is only 7 degrees above 0, as it was this morning, my only gardening desire is in books. I just picked up my old copy of Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden by Eleanor Perenyi. I’ve seen mention of this wonderful book which wanders through her garden and the gardens of history and literature from A to Z in several blogs lately and was reminded of its delights.

The J listing was James vs Benson, and if Eleanor Perenyi is new to younger gardeners it is even more likely that they are unfamiliar with E.F. Benson and his books about Lucia and Mapp, and his humorous description of British country life in the 1920s through the eyes of two outrageous ladies. Lucia and Mapp are another whole story (5 volumes actually) and I wouldn’t mention them here except that Perenyi has found descriptions of the same garden by Henry James and E.F. Benson. Both men lived in the same house, Benson after James, had the same outdoor space and very different views. Gardening is all about indulging our different views, but Benson got so much more pleasure out of his.

In fact I enjoyed Eleanor Perenyi’s book so much that I engaged in my own A to Z projects, most recently in April of 2016 when A began with Achillea and ended with Z is for Zinnia.

As I celebrate this 10th Blogaversary we live in Greenfield, but instead of green fields surrounding the house we have a small urban garden devoted to water loving shrubs and many pollinator plants. There is no snow today!

The view from my so-called office on December 5, 2017

There are changes in the weather since 2007, changes in the gardens, and a change in me. I’m a GREAT-grandmother now.  There have been many things to celebrate and I look  forward to many years of new celebrations.

Secret Gardeners, Naturalists, and Wild Seeds

The Secret Gardeners

The Secret Gardeners by Victoria Summerley

The Secret Gardeners – Britain’s Creatives Reveal Their Private Sanctuaries by Victoria Summerley with photographs by Hugo Rittson Thomas (Francis Lincoln $45) is a glamorous armchair tour of beautiful gardens created such creative people as Sir Richard Branson, Julian Fellowes, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Rupert Everett, Sting and 20 other familiar and not so familiar British stars.

Most of us don’t think we are engaged in garden design when we go out to plant a perennial bed or plant a tree. We might be thinking of a garden we have admired, or of a green memory or a dreamed of desire that we want to bring to life. But all of that is what goes into a garden design. That is equally true for the gardeners in this remarkable book. Author Victoria Summerly explains, ‘All artists, whether they are writers, musicians, actors, painters or sculptors, use their experience of life as raw material for their work. The owners in this book have applied the same process to their gardens.”

            Since many of this books gardeners are performers of one kind of or another it is no surprise that in addition to lush flower beds, vine covered stone walls, streams and rills there will be some major projects and unusual accents. When Sir Richard Branson bought his property in Oxfordshire the first thing he did was to dig out a lake, complete with islands to welcome and support waterfowl.

Ozzy Osbourne’s garden includes an iconic red telephone booth and the model of a cow looking down on a great flower bed. I was particularly fascinated by Sting’s garden with a pollarded Lime Walk which is sculptural in winter and cooling in summer, as well as a grassy labyrinth. And of course Sting’s wife, Trudie, has a wonderful rose garden.            The Secret Gardeners is a book for dreaming, but we gardeners might easily find some element that would translate beautifully in our own garden, perhaps with a little scaling down.

The Naturalist's Notebook

The Naturalist’s Notebook by Wheelwright and Heinrich

The Naturalist’s Notebook for Tracking Changes in the Natural World Around You by Nathaniel T. Wheelwight and Bernd Heinrich (Storey Publishing $19.95) is a book with a very different goal – teaching us how to observe the natural world around us including its finest details, and keep a record of our observations in the Five Year Journal pages.

By nature I am not a detail person – at the same time I want to be attentive to the beauties and fluctuations of the natural world around me. As a gardener I do pay attention to the larger changes in my garden and I keep minimal weather records in a notebook along with names of plants planted – and sometimes I list when they die out. But I want to see more and I want to know more. I have launched myself into this book and the instructions it provides.

After introductory notes the first chapter is Being Attentive and then we embark into directions and suggestions about how to be observant and the tools we might need from quick drying pants, a magnifying glass, a camera, an insect net, and other small items like a pH meter and thermometer that will help measure the physical characteristics of ponds and streams. Wheelwright and Heinrich have given us practical instructions about outfitting ourselves as they teach us what to look for and the questions to ask ourselves as we make our observations.

We live where it is easy, even in the town of Greenfield to go on a nature walk and look at the identifying form of a tree from its canopy to the tiny details of its leaf buds. Reading this book reminded me of the square-foot field trip, a science exercise we teachers-to-be at Umass practiced, which made us aware of how much there was to see and learn in any square foot of lawn or wilderness.

Half of the Naturalist’s Notebook is given over to the 5 year Calendar-Journal. It is organized a week at a time over five years so that you can compare changes in weather and sightings of plants or wildlife at a glance. Wheelwright and Heinrich even give suggestions about writing with abbreviations and symbols. They also suggest that you might want to keep a larger journal with not only information about what is happening around you, but what you are thinking and feeling as you make your observations. This beautiful book is a Notebook, and a journal will allow for fuller descriptions, but it is a wonderful beginning.

Planting the Wild Garden

Planting the Wild Garden by Kathryn O. Galbraith

If you have a budding young naturalist in your family I can recommend Kathryn  Galbraith’s book, Planting the Wild Garden with illustrations by Wendy Anderson Halperin (Peachtree $15.95) This beautiful book has won literary prizes and prizes for science and nature writing.

Many of us start our children’s gardening with a few seeds in a tiny part of our own gardens. However, many of the flowers and plants around us are planted by Mother Nature with help from the wind and rain, and animals who carry the seeds in their fur, or in their droppings. When I read this story to local first graders, they always giggle at the thought of seeds travelling in animal poop.

Books are high on my gift giving list. I know the gardeners on my list welcome a new instructive and entertaining book as much as I do.  Happy shopping.

Between the Rows  November 25, 2017


The Root of Laughter in the Garden

Anne Cleveland illustration

Anne Cleveland illustration in Weeds Are More Fun by Priscilla Hovey Wright

Laughing in the garden doesn’t always come easy. But what can you do after gnashing your teeth over the squash borers, weeping over the discovery of leaf miners in the beet bed, growling at the Japanese beetles in  the roses, or pulling up garlic mustard for the umpteenth time?  I imagine the gods laughing at me. But those who are wise will laugh and stiffen our backs for the next onslaught. I thought of this when my friend Karen brought me Weeds are More Fun by Priscilla Hovey Wright and published in 1941.

Wright has imagined every disaster from weeds, rashes, the Women’s Garden Club and proper garden attire, and of course, pests. Attacked as my squash were by borers, I was in complete sympathy with Wright who suggests filling a sprayer with “whatever there is in the house . . . leftover chicken broth, hair tonic bought in a rash moment, or bath salts received at Christmas. The bugs accustomed to the usual line of sprays and more or less immunized to them are totally unprepared . . . They either die of shock immediately or depart for the neighbor’s gardens as soon as possible.”

I may spend ample time gnashing teeth, etcetera, but laughter comes soon enough. Among the books on my shelves about organic control of pests, how to create shade gardens, or wildflower gardens or fruit gardens I have a number of books that take a lighter view of garden trials.

Charles Dudley Warner (1829-1900) born in Plainfield, and resident of Charlemont during his childhood years wrote My Summer in a Garden in 1870 while he was working for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut. His was a vegetable garden and his were the eternal problems, weeds that cover the garden when you go away for a week, the incessant battle against “pussley,” or finding his mess of peas decimated by the birds. “The dear little birds, who are so fond of strawberries, had eaten the peas.. . . I made a rapid estimate of the cost of seed, the price of labor, the value of the bushes, the anxiety of weeks of watchfulness. I looked about me at the face of Nature. The wind blew from the south . . . a thrush sang so deceitfully. All nature seemed fair, but who was to give me back my peas?”

He was never at a loss for the appropriate word. “What a man needs in gardening is a cast iron back – with a hinge in it.” Or “Lettuce is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp so sparkling you barely notice the bitter in it.” Or “No man but feels more of a man if he have a bit of ground to call his own. However small it is on the surface, it is four thousand miles deep, and that is a very handsome property.”

Illustration by Josep Capek

Illustration by Josef Capek

You would not think that the Czech brothers, Karel and Josef Capek, who wrote together and who invented the word “robot” for a science fiction novel would also be avid gardeners. Karel did most of the writing and Josef who was an artist provided the cartoons for The Gardener’s Year printed in 1931.  The brothers take us through the year to describe how a man becomes a gardener, his lust for compost, and the agonies of searching for the first bulbs of spring. As Warner complains about his aches so do the Capeks. However, they allow “But there is one moment when the gardener rises and straightens him up to his full height and administers the sacrament of water to his little garden. Then he stands straight and almost noble, directing the jet of water . . . So, and now it is enough the gardener whispers happily; he does not mean by ‘it’ the little cherry tree covered with buds, . . . he is thinking of the brown soil.”

Beverley Nichols in England was caring for his first garden at about that same time as the Capeks. Down the Garden Path was published in 1932. Nichols was a prolific author, writing novels, plays, children’s books and non-fiction, but Down the Garden Path and its sequels were among his best sellers.

It was a time when Nichols felt that “everything was cracking up” and he wanted a place to hide. He set out to buy a piece of property and plant a woodland where he could do just that, but of course, he did not know how to plant a woodland. He took himself to a nearby nursery and met Mr. Honey who spoke exclusively in Latin.

“The first thing I said to him . . . was I like that big bush with red berries over there.”

‘Crataegus pyracantha credulata yunnanensis’ crooned Mr. Honey.

I took a deep breath and was about to reply when Mr. Honey waved his arm to the right and murmured: ‘Ribes sanguineum splendens.’

This I felt was enchanting. One had a sense of being a young disciple walking by the side of his master.”

Nichols could barely speak. The only Latin that came to his mind was “Et tu, Brute” which he knew was not appropriate, but so began the planting of his wood.

I always say there are many paths in the garden leading us to history, myth, science – and I think – laughter.

Between the Rows   September 2, 2017

Spirit of Stone by Jan Johnsen

The Spirit of Stone by Jan Johnsen

The Spirit of Stone by Jan Johnsen

Stone came into my garden last year. And I have to say it lifted my spirits considerably. There is nothing like a stone wall that you didn’t have to build yourself.

In her new book The Spirit of Stone (St. Lynn’s Press $21.95)Jan Johnsen shows us the many ways that many types of stone can be used in the garden, from practical porous driveway paving to rustic or elegant stone walls, walkway paving, dry gardens, as sculpture and much more. The subtitle is 101 Practical & Creative Stonescaping Ideas for Your Garden, and she delivers a full measure.

Johnsen’s aesthetic early experiences with stone began during her college years in Kyoto, Japan. She became aware of the significance the Japanese placed on stone in the garden. Later, she studied landscape architecture in Hawaii where she saw stone being made as fiery lava from volcanoes cooled.

She had personal experience with stone when she became a rock climber in New York State. She also spent time living near Barre, Vermont, where there are famous granite quarries. Over the years she has use rough fieldstones, flat stones, smooth river stones and large sculptural stones, all bringing a beauty and stability to the gardens she designs. She has clearly taken her experiences with varied types of stone and turned them into ideas for utilitarian, decorative and accent elements in the garden with instructions for making dry stream beds, stone steps, walkways and rock gardens.

Dry Stream Bed

Dry Stream Bed with various sized stone

Most of us probably don’t think about all the types of stone that can be used in the garden or the various forms it comes in from gravels to large flat stones for patios, but the beautiful illustrations in Johnsen’s book show a full range of stones and their uses.

One of the concerns even non-gardeners have had recently is the implications of recent droughts. This has brought about acceptance of the idea that it is very important to create pervious surfaces on our grounds, and to avoid using impervious paving when possible. I know in Cambridge, where my son lives, there are city regulations about how much of a property can be covered with paving.

Johnsen describes a new system for porous gravel driveways that I saw on display at a conference in Boston last fall. There are now polypropylene grids with small cells that can be attached to each other to create the size needed. These grids are then topped with gravel. The advantage over using gravel alone is that it is easier for people with strollers, bicycles or wheelchairs. It also “prevents weed growth and provides structural support without sacrificing drainage.”

Silent Spring at Bridge of Flowers

Silent Spring at Bridge of Flowers, stone fountain, bench and paving, designed by Paul Forth and John Sendelbach

Some stone may have purely decorative characteristics created by the pressure of ancient glaciers, or the large odd looking ‘scholar stones’ that are so essential to Chinese gardens.

During our years in Beijing I came to a great appreciation for stone in the garden in ways that had never occurred to me before. In The Spirit of Stone Jan Johnsen may open up new worlds for you.

Johnsen has taught at ColumbiaUniversity and currently is an instructor at the New YorkBotanical Garden. She is the author of Heaven is a Garden and renowned for her landscape design. She has a blog titled Serenity in the Garden.

Stone Steps at Vera's Garden

Stone steps at Vera’s Garden in Minneapolis


Icy snow is still deep on the ground but spring is in the air. Next Saturday, March 4, the Spring Flower Show opens at Talcott Greenhouse at Mt.HolyokeCollege. This year’s theme is Spring Pools and I have been told that the approach is much more naturalistic than in the past. Visitors will walk into a woodland tableau with a pool surrounded by those early spring flowers.  Hours are 10 am to 4 pm every day from March 4 to Sunday, March 29.

SmithCollege will also open its Spring Bulb Show at Lyman Conservatory on March 4 and will be open from 10 am to 4 pm until Sunday March 29. Fields of Flowers is the theme, inspired by the work by the Irish artist Mima Nixon who travelled to the Netherlands to paint the flowers in 1909. The bulbs in the show are from the very fields that she painted 100 years ago. Suggested donation is $5.

Finally, I want to remind area school teachers that there is still a week before the Greenfield Garden Club School Grant deadline. In the past grants have been given to classes or school for tools, raised bed materials, and many kinds of projects like pollinator gardens that will help children understand scientific processes and feel a kinship with the natural world. Full information about the grants is on the Greenfield Garden Club website ###

Between the Rows  February 25, 2017 

Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills

Late Bloomer by Jan Bills

Late Bloomer by Jan Coppola Bills

Several years ago a friend asked me to give her advice about her garden which she said was out of control and too much work. When I visited I could see an immediate problem; her paths were too narrow. Wider paths would make it possible to walk through the garden side by side with a friend, and even provide better working space when it was time to weed or divide the collection of lovely perennials that comprised her garden.

She could see the wisdom in my suggestion; however when I asked if she had considered shrubs, she threw up her hands in horror and cried, “I’m too young for shrubs!”

Shrubs have been my response to the desire for a low maintenance garden, one that would be different from my gardens in Heath, but would still give me beauty and pleasure.

When Jan Coppola Bills sat down to write her book Late Bloomer: How to Garden with Comfort, Ease and Simplicity in the Second Half of Life (St. Lynn’s Press $18.95) she knew there were more and more gardeners who were in my position – loving gardening but without quite the stamina they had.

Happily for me and other readers of this book with its useful and beautiful illustrations Bills has more that one answer to creating a low maintenance garden.

Late Bloomer is divided into short illustrated chapters that begin with Simplicity and Sustainability and goes on to Garden Styling. Orderly Chaos, and Veggies, Fruit and Herbs and more. All the information and suggestions are useful to gardeners at any stage of their gardening career, but particularly valuable when a gardener sees the need to reduce the heavy labor required in their garden.

Bills has a chapter devoted to different ways to handle weeds. She includes a section on what I call lasagna gardening which calls for lots of cardboard. One version of this begins with digging up the sod, flipping the  sods, grass to grass, then laying on the cardboard and topping it with soil for planting and mulch. She also lays lots of cardboard right on the lawn where a new bed is needed and then covers the cardboard with a few inches of mulch. Then she says wait! Wait for the cardboard to decompose for a few months before you begin planting.

South Border lasagna bed June 2015

South Border lasagna bed June 2015

When we moved to Greenfield and discovered how heavy and wet our clay soil was I could not wait. I needed to plant right away. I began my own version of cardboard gardening. I worked in one section of a proposed bed at a time. I collected all the cardboard I could (thank you, Manny’s) and ordered yards and yards of compost and mulch from Martin’s Compost Farm. First we skinned off as much grass as possible with a weed wacker and watered that section. I then planted the shrubs I had bought, hydrangeas, lilacs, roses and viburnams. I dug big planting holes, and used a good measure of compost when planting. I gave all the newly planted shrubs a good watering and then laid out one or two layers of cardboard around the shrubs, filling that section of the bed. The cardboard also got a good watering before it was covered with several inches of soil and mulch and which were watered again.

I feel all that watering is essential because it helps the decomposition process get started, as well as providing moisture for the newly planted shrubs. Once the beds were created I planted perennials and groundcovers between the shrubs in the soil and mulch.

South border lasagna bed June 2016

South Border lasagna bed June 2016 – new shrubs thriving

Those first plantings were put in in June 2015 and I am happy to say that the shrubs and perennials have done splendidly even though we did have such a dry summer and fall. I give a large measure of credit to the rich compost-soil mixture and compost- mulch mixture I got from Martin’s Farm.

With all her advice, Bills does not forget the issues that are important to all gardeners, the desire to support our pollinators and butterflies who have been threatened by the use of many insecticides and herbicides and the benefits of using of using native plants in the garden. Native plants, trees, shrubs and flowers, provide the specific food that pollinators need to survive and propagate.

As we have created our new Greenfield garden we had two main goals, to choose plants that were tolerant of wet soil (right plant in the right spot) and that were native cultivars supporting some of the 300 plus species of native bees, butterflies and many other pollinators. One of the useful lists Bills provides is a list of plants that will support pollinators one way or another. Dill does not provide nectar or pollen for butterflies, but it does supply food for the swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. Once I realized the importance of supporting all stages of the butterflies I was happy to plant extra dill and parsley to share.

Bills’ final encouraging words are to resist the desire for perfection.  “I believe when you take unrealistic expectations out of gardening, new possibilities emerge.”

At my house my husband and I are apt to finish the project of the day with a sigh and the statement that what we have accomplished is “perfect enough.” We often remind each other that the weavers of beautiful Persian rugs always put a deliberate error in the design. According to Islam only Allah can make something perfect, and to make something perfect is an offense to Allah.

There is not much chance my garden will be perfect, but I will care for it, love it, and share it. That’s enough perfection for me.

Between the  Rows   November 26, 2016

Water-Saving Gardens by Pam Penick

Pam Penick

Pam Penick

Pam Penick, who grew up in the southeastern part of our country, wasn’t expecting the very dry garden she would get when she and her husband moved to Austin, Texas. The years she has spent learning how to have a beautiful dry garden have resulted in a desire to share all she has learned.

The Water-Saving Garden: How to Grow a Gorgeous Garden with a Lot Less Water (Ten Speed Press $19.99) begins by showing us some beautiful low-water gardens, in case we thought it was really impossible, and then teaches us the many ways to accomplish that kind of garden.

She urges us to make our gardens water savers, not water guzzlers. That means learning about the various ways that we can keep water from the heavens on our property and preventing it from draining away into the streets and sewers. In our own area we are familiar with the benefits of rain barrels, and even rain cisterns that can hold 500 gallons or more. Rain gardens are less familiar here but there is enormous benefit to keeping rainwater from the roof or parking lots on site instead of sending that dirty water into drains that may end up in streams and rivers.

Berming, microbasins and swales are other techniques that can be used, as well as creating permeable paths and patios by using unmortared stone pavers, gravel or mulch.

Penick gives full directions for these techniques and then launches into water-saving design elements like eliminating lawn. Penick is not a purist, she sees the beauty and appeal of lawn, but suggests that it need not be the main element of our property. Choosing lawn grasses that are more drought tolerant is another way to handle the desire for a lawn.

After planning comes the actual planting. Penick discusses drought resistant plants, and native plants that thrive in your climate and soil. There is so much to consider when planning any garden and Penick’s view is certainly comprehensive.

I was particularly charmed by the chapters on creating the illusion of water. There are photos of grasses that ripple in the wind, wavy clipped hedges, weeping trees, a meandering ‘stream’ made of a single type of groundcover or flower, dry steam beds or even a reflecting pond made by a mirror.

The Water-Saving Garden by Pam Penick

The Water-Saving Garden by Pam Penick     Photo courtesy of Ten Speed Press

Penick concludes with 101 plants for water-saving gardens. Here in Massachusetts we don’t have Austin’s blistering climate, at least not most of the time, but this year our gardens have suffered for lack of rain. The whole region has been declared a drought region. Indeed, the whole country is experiencing more drought and we all need to think about water conservation. If we are going to cut down on supplemental watering we need to think about drought tolerant plants, unless we have a special fund to cover our increased water bills. Many of the drought tolerant plants on Penick’s list are very happy in our part of the world.

Penick is a garden designer, an award winning blogger and the author of Lawn Gone! which I have written about in the past. She has also written for Garden Design, Organic Life and Wildflower. She is a conversational and graceful writer who will delight as well as educate and inspire.

Mystery Solved

Last week in my column on weeds I included a photo of a mystery plant. Before I even woke on Saturday I received an email from Liz Pichette who said it was an aster, Symphyotrichum cordifolium, or heartleaf aster. I was glad she agreed with my waffly thought that it was an aster, but after checking my plant again, I did not see any heart shaped leaves.

However, Liz quickly sent another email saying she thought the tall plant by my porch that I described, but did not provide a photo, was wild lettuce.  Had I ever heard of wild lettuce? No. She gave the name Lactuca biennis, which I then checked on the Minnesota Wildflowers website and it matched perfectly, down to the very very fine hairs on the stem.

Lactuca biennis identified

Lactuca biennis identified

Shirley Pelletier also sent me an email and said the aster looked like the “common wild aster” to her – and I agreed with my weed book which listed the white heath aster as very common. It also said that the branching flower panicles could account for half the height of the plant. I ran out to look again at my plant, and sure enough, the branching portion of the plant is half the height. This business of identifying a plant means very careful observations of all the parts of the plant, and it helps if you have the vocabulary to match up what you observe with the written scientific descriptions in a guide book.

Thank you Liz and Shirley for being so helpful. I resolve to be more observant.###
Between the Rows   August 20, 2016

 Lilian Jackman is the owner of Wilder Hill Gardens in Conway and I have written about her wonderful gardens in the past. On Sunday, September 4  she is inviting everyone to her garden and the dedication of her two stone stupas which are Buddhist sacred sculptures. There will be activities for all, including the children, Tibetan dancing, and food. Come between 3 and 5 PM and join the celebration. There is no cost, but donations are welcome.

All the Presidents’ Gardens

All the President's Gardens by Marta McDowell

All the President’s Gardens by Marta McDowell

I just finished reading All The Presidents’Gardens which gave me a whole new perspective on Fourth of July celebrations. Our views of our presidents sometimes take the form of some character defining story, like young George Washington and his cherry tree, or singular achievement like Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase or Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.  In All The President’s Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses – How the White House Grounds Have Grown With America Marta McDowell gives us an engaging history of changes in our nation through the history of the White House Gardens.

It all begins, of course, with George Washington who never planted a garden for the White House because it did not exist when he took office. However, it was President Washington who signed an agreement, after contentious discussions, brokered by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that named a ten acre site on the Potomac as the new capital city. Washington also appointed the architect Pierre L’Enfant to design the new city, and he himself chose the site for the White House on a rise with expansive views. Unhappily, Washington died before the White House was built or gardens planted.

Washington and Jefferson had their country estates and a passion for plants. John Adams was a farmer and he was the first to occupy an unfinished White House, and that was near the end of his term of office. He was defeated in a bitter race by Jefferson who spent most of his two terms concentrating on new buildings for the capital, and larger landscapes than those surrounding the still unfinished White House.

When James Madison took office the White House grounds were described as muddy, “disgusting scenes.” Madison began planting and the oldest plant list for the executive mansion is dated March 31, 1809. Flowering shrubs and trees, pines, hollies, lilacs and roses were ordered and planted along with a substantial list of vegetables for the president’s table. Some of those vegetables might have been bought from the Shakers (United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming) who were making a good business of raising seed and marketing it in seed packets, a technique they invented. Things were beginning to shape up when the British burned the president’s house and destroyed the gardens in 1814.

John Quincy Adams found his single term as president so trying that he turned to the gardens for respite. He worked with John Ousley, the new head gardener, and found a place where he could please himself, not the demands of the political world.

Marta McDowell

Marta McDowell

McDowell gives full credit to the head gardeners with a special section titled First Gardeners from Thomas Magraw who served under James Madison, and John Ousley who served from 1825-1852. John Watt served under Lincoln and it was he who fudged his books to help Mrs. Lincoln who always spent way beyond her allowed dress budget. Henry Pfister was another head gardener who worked for a quarter century, caring for the great greenhouses that provided flowers for White House arrangements, for Grover Cleveland’s wedding to Frances Folsom, and provided a beautiful welcoming space for Ida McKinley who suffered from epilepsy.

So many stories. Teddy Roosevelt brought his rambunctious family and their pets including Peter Rabbit who earned a state funeral in the garden.

It was Helen Taft who supported the plantings of Japanese cherry trees along the tidal basin – a project that took time and great cooperation with Japan to bring the project to fruition.

President Wilson had sheep on the White House Lawn when there was a shortage of men to mow

President Wilson had sheep on the White House Lawn when there was a shortage of men to mow p photo courtesy of Library of Congress

The White House gardens did their bit during the World Wars. Gardener William Reeves was gardener-shepherd to Wilson’s flock of sheep on the White House Lawns. A victory garden took the place of sections of lawn during WWII.

Harry Truman watched while rolls and rolls of sod were laid out around a cherry tree in full bloom that was planted in preparation for the arrival of the Queen of the Netherlands. Eisenhower put in a putting green and arranged to have helicopters land on the South Lawn.

Many of us may have our own memories of The Rose Garden being installed by President Kennedy in 1962, or President Carter bringing trees from his Georgia farm. Michelle Obama put her stamp on the garden in 2009 by making a food garden that includes varieties from Jefferson’s garden at Monticello. This garden was intended as a demonstration garden that would help teach children about healthy eating. School children came to work in the garden to gain an understanding of the food they ate. Bees were added to the garden as well as a pollinator bed. All of it makes a great teaching garden.

In addition to the excellent section on First Gardeners, McDowell gives us an extensive list of plants grown in the gardens.

My own mantra about gardens (and life) is that Everything Changes. This engaging book gives us the history behind the changes in the White House gardens, and perhaps makes us wonder what changes will come in the future.

In this year with its own extraordinary presidential campaign, I want to stress that All The President’s Gardens is not about politics but a history of garden styles, trends, and needs of the White House, reflecting the styles and tenor of the times told in a charming conversational way.

At one time there were great greenhouse for food and  cut flower production, as well as a beautiful space to visit.  Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

At one time there were great greenhouse for food and cut flower production, as well as a beautiful space to visit.  1889 Photo courtesy of Library of Congress

Between the Rows  July  2, 2016