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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.

G is for Groundcover – Gill-over-the-ground



G is for Groundcover like ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) otherwise known as gill-over-the-ground, seen here creeping from my lawn into the new Lawn Beds.

There is a lot of cross-over, if not confusion, about what is a wildflower, weed, or ‘real plant.’  A friend was trying to figure out how to rid of the gill-over-the-ground that had suffocated the strawberries growing under her grapevines. We discussed carboard and solarizing, but another friend asked why she didn’t just leave the gill-over-the-ground. It was a  wildflower with pretty blue flowers, made a nice ground covering mat and kept out other ‘weeds.’  Sounded like a good idea. That is what she is doing. Maybe I will too.

When this ground ivy, gill-over-the ground isn’t keeping out weeds it can be used as a spring tonic, an appetite stimulant and has other more serious medicinal uses.

I might let my own gill-over-the-ground have its way more often, but others feel very differently

I am participating in the A to Z Challenge. One week down – a post every day.

First Dandelion – First Signs of Spring


First dandelion of 2015

The first dandelion seems  early this year, an indication that spring has arrived almost all in an instant after our very long and very frigid winter. The grass is suddenly green and the green veil across the trees at the edges of our field is becoming more opaque. The lilac leaf buds seem to double in size every day. Violets are blooming in the hots spots along the house foundation, too thick with weeds to make a good photo.

Van Sion Daffodils

Van Sion daffodils

Van Sion is an old variety of daffodil, multi-multipetaled and very early. It has been blooming for over a week, while the other daffs are just beginning to bloom.



When we moved to the end of the road in 1979 this forsythia never bloomed. Just as a bud or two began to open there would be a hard freeze that would blast all the buds. Forsythia is very hardy so the shrubs themselves were not really damaged, but never any bloom. Last year we were shocked by the brightness of the forsythia hedge for the first time.  This year is another year of bloom, just beginning. The cold lingered and lingered, but was not freezing and so now that we are having instant spring the bloom is beginning. How appropriate that so many spring bloomers, dandelion, daffodil and forsythia shine with a reflection of the warming spring sun.

For more (almost) Wordlessness this Wednesday, click here.

Bountiful Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

Bouquet of Roadside Weeds

A bouquet of roadside weeds. My roadside. Quite lovely, don’t you think. Two kinds of aster, blackeyed susans, lots of goldenrod, tansy and a bit of a cheat – red highbush cranberry (Viburnam) berries and some rugosa rose hips. Mother Nature must love us a lot to give us these beauties in such abundance.

Weeds in My Garden


nettles and jewelweed

Nettles and Jewelweed

Weeds. The weeds are thriving in my garden. In the middle of August when we are getting ready for the Heath Fair there is no longer even a pretense that I am keeping up with the weeds. This week I am resolved to begin a major weeding.

One friend I met at the Fair said she had given up weeding for the season and would worry about it next spring. I understand the feeling, but there is a benefit to weeding in late summer and fall. As I walk around the garden I can see the weeds setting seed. If I can pull those weeds now before the seeds disperse I can reduce the number of  weeds sprouting in the spring.

I made a little catalog of the weeds in my garden this fall. To begin with, in the corner of the Potager, behind my two compost piles are giant nettles and jewelweed. These are two of the most easily identified weeds. People learn to identify stinging nettles pretty quick, after only one or two run-ins.

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) spread by rhizomes and by seeds. A double threat invasive weed. It is growing beyond its typical 6 foot height by the compost piles because nettles need good soil. Fortunately, they also make good compost fodder. They are rich in iron, calcium, magnesium and nitrogen. Cut up the tall stalk and put them in your compost pile. Or you can make a fertilizer tea by chopping up the stalk and putting them in a pail, weighting them down and filling the pail with water. Put them aside for two or three weeks then use dilutions of this tea as fertilizer in the garden.

You can also make a tea for yourself from a couple of nettle leaves. Don’t let it steep too long or it will be bitter. I haven’t ever eaten nettles, but they are edible and can be used much as spinach is. I’m saving that experiment for another day.



Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), which is often found growing near nettles, is recognizable because of its spotted golden orange flowers and the milky juice from its tender stems. Jewelweed got its common name from the way that water beads up on its leaves, not because the flowers look so jewel-like (to me) in the sun. It thrives in sun or shade, and spreads by seed. Some people grow it on purpose! It is very pretty.

Butterflies and hummingbirds are attracted to jewelweed. Children, parents and hikers like jewelweed because the juicy sap relieves the itch of nettles, insect bites and poison ivy. Native Americans had all kinds of medicinal uses for jewelweed.

Jewelweed is easy to pull up, and it can go onto the compost pile, although it will not add quite the nutritious wallop as nettles.

Milkweed has been getting lots of attention recently because it is an important food source for Monarch butterfly caterpillars. The Monarch population has been under siege for a number of years because of the loss of its tropical habitats. We used to have great clouds of Monarchs visit the end of the road where we had large stands of mint in the field. Mint is a nectar source for the butterflies. When hoping to attract butterflies we have to remember that we need to provide foliage for caterpillar food and nectar plants for the butterflies themselves.

I did see some butterflies on the milkweed blossoms this year, but only a lone Monarch or two anywhere in the garden or field.

I sacrificed my sugar snap pea bed to milkweed this year. We do not have a lot of milkweed in our fields so I thought I would let these milkweeds grow and then I would take the ripe seed pods out of the garden and release the seed in the fields. Next year I want to eat sugar snaps.

The pale green milkweed seed pods are fat and pretty, as is the silky floss that carries the seeds on the wind. That floss has been used to stuff pillows and mattresses. When we lived in New York City I did some research on herbs at the big New York Library on Fifth Avenue. It was there I found a book that said during World War II there was a shortage of material to stuff life jackets for sailors. The government turned to people in the country to collect milkweed floss as a substitute. It seems that milkweed floss is six times as buoyant as cork!



Hairy galinsoga is another rapacious weed in my garden. This is an annual weed that spreads by seed, and can actually seed several generations in one growing season. My excellent book, Weeds of the Northeast by Richard Uva, Joseph Neal and Joseph DiTomaso, says “it is one of the most difficult to control weeds of vegetable crops. . . . usually found on fertile soils.”  Well, I’m glad it’s presence in my garden indicates that I have fertile soil, but I have it growing in the vegetable garden, and most especially in the herb and flower beds.  Galinsoga is erect with branching stems, ovate, toothed leaves and tiny five rayed petals around a yellow disk. A single plant “can produce up to 7500 seeds.”

Galinsoga is listed on the online Invasive Plant Atlas so I throw the galinsoga into the compost pile and so far I haven’t found anyone with anything good to say about this weed.

I have lots of other weeds in my garden, lady’s bedstraw, pigweed, burdock, wild mustard, and more, but I prefer not to think of them today.


My column in The Recorder last week got many responses, from people who couldn’t believe I let my nettles get so out of control (they have since been pulled out) and others who just wanted to commiserate and talk about their own weeds. I also got a warning Saturday morning from my good neighbor Rol Hesselbart, known locally as the Garlic King. He said no one should ever put galinsoga on their compost pile. Galinsoga seeds are so vital that they will not be killed by the composting process because most compost does not get hot enough. Then wherever you use the compost it will carry all those still vital galinsoga seeds. I have taken his advice to heart, because he knows his weeds as well as he knows his garlic. I now have a Weed Pile near the Burn Pile. We must all pay attention. Do you think he is angling for the title of Weed King?

Between the Rows   August 23, 2014

Touring Colleges with Rory

Rory in the rain at UMass Lowell

Rory in the rain at UMass Lowell

High schools are off this week so we had the chance to go touring colleges with grandson Rory. It was pouring all during the UMass-Lowell campus tour, but we were undaunted, and got to see the O’Leary Library, the bookstore, a dining hall, a classroom and lots of students very busily going about their business. We were also fortunate enough to speak to one of the faculty members who gave us lots of  good advice.

While we were in Lowell we stopped at Middlesex Community College and picked up various printed materials, but they weren’t giving tours this week.

Rory and The Major at UMass Amherst

Rory and The Major at UMass Amherst

Sometimes we go touring colleges for sentimental reasons. We stopped on the UMass Amherst campus where Henry and I got our degrees. They don’t have the programs Rory is most interested in, but we got to visit  with friends who are on staff and get all the local news. The campus has changed a lot – new buildings! – since we were students – even though we were rather elderly students. Comparatively speaking.

Dandelions at UMass

Dandelions at UMass

For me, I was glad to see that dandelions are blooming in the UMass Amherst valley. No dandelions in Heath yet.

Pink hyacinths on Bridge of Flowers

Pink hyacinths on Bridge of Flowers

And even happier to see that the hyacinths are beginning to bloom on the Bridge of Flowers. Just because we were touring colleges doesn’t mean we couldn’t look at flowers. It was breezy, but spring was in the air.

Seeds and Seed Cases on Wordless Wednesday


Seeds and seed cases make something new to see in the garden. Coriander is the little round seeds left on the cilantro plants. That means cilantro/coriander is both an herb and a spice.

Cotoneaster berries

Cotoneaster (Co-tone – e – aster) berries are brighter than coriander.

Rose Hips

These rose hips are not the kind for rose hip jelly.

Columbine seed case

The tiny black seeds inside the petit columbine seed case will scatter themselves. More plants in the spring.


Milkweed seeds – three stages

This milkweed stem shows the seed pods three stages – closed, open with the seeds still tightly packed, and finally with with the seeds preparing to sail on their fluffy tails. In my efforts to welcome back monarch butterflies. I rarely weed out milkweed any more.

For more Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.

Impatiens, Jewelweed, Touch-Me-Not and What I Have Learned


Jewelweed is one of the plants I named as a child. I was fascinated by how easy it was to rip out, although it never grew anywhere that required weeding. Nowadays, I do have places that require I pull it out, but I am happy to find it growing along my roadside. I learned that the juice of its succulent stems can relieve skin irritation from bug bites, nettle stings, and even poison ivy if it is rubbed on right after finding out those pretty leaves you’ve been in are poison ivy. I’ve even heard that some people cook up a batch of jewelweed salve by heating up some stems in oil.

Jewelweed closeup.

I did not know, until very recently, that Jewelweed is also known as touch-me-not.   Nor did I know that it was a member of the impatiens family, properly Impatiens biflora, which includes over 850 other species growing in temperate and tropical climes. All I knew about impatiens is that a hybrid impatiens is a useful and lovely addition to the  shade garden, blooming all summer long, and that is a very different plant. I have also learned that jewelweed is a good pollinator plant.  The red dots on the blossom attract pollinators like moths, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Wild impatiens

When I visited Marie Stella recently, I stopped to admire little clumps of  this pretty 2-3 foot tall flower. Marie said it was a wild impatiens and seeded itself here and there. She immediately ripped up (very easy) a few stems which I planted in the Shed Bed – only because I had a newly weeded spot there. The stems took  and I am looking forward to a nice clump in the spring. I am also hoping someone can give me a better identification than ‘wild impatiens.’

Wildflower or Weed – An Roadside Bouquet

Japanese knotweed

Definitely a weed! And invasive.

Japanese knotweed closeup

But very pretty.

Jewelweed closeup

Joe Pye Weed

Definitely a wildflower, in spite of the name.

White aster

I think it is a white aster. My ID skills are nil.


Purple aster

I think.

For more Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.


Goldenrod or Ragweed?

Goldenrod field

In August goldenrod fills the fields surrounding our house. It is more than time to get the fields mowed, but for the moment I am enjoying the sunniness of the various types of goldenrod. Therefore, I was taken aback by someone who told me I did not  have fields of goldenrod, but with a glare, told me I had fields of ragweed.

Rough stemmed goldenrod

I am more than willing to doubt myself, so I did not protest. However, it seemed unlikely. How could Heath be filled with fields of ragweed and not have a good portion of the populace spending two or three months in misery?  In fact it only took a quick look through my old copy of Peterson’s Guide to Wildflowers to determine that whatever I have it is not ragweed.  Common ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, has bisected artemesia-like foliage which is nothing like the foliage on the goldenrods in my field. Rough stemmed goldenrod, Solidago rugosa, is the most common goldenrod in the field. It has hairy stems and toothed, feather-veined foliage.

Sweet goldenrod

At first I thought this was sweet goldenrod, but now I don’t think so. It doesn’t have the anise-like odor of the crushed leaves of Solidago odora. Perhaps it is the slender fragrant goldenrod, with only one nerve (parallel vein) on each narrow, grassy leaf. No fragrance I can detect however.

There are 20 varieties of goldenrod in the guidebook. I give up trying to ID mine, but I am happy to know I can enjoy them all, guilt free.