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A Sacred Trio – The Oak, Ash and Thorn

Oak trees

Oak trees at Greenfield Community College

Trees have been growing on our planet for about 390 years, in what is called the Middle-Late Devonian period. Those trees did not look much like the trees in our woods today, but they did meet a definition that paleontologists use describing a tree as a plant with a single stem that can attain larger heights because they have specialized cells. Trees were small back then.

Nowadays we know how big the family of trees has become, and how big the trees have become. As recently as 2006 a coast redwood, Sequoia sempervierens, was discovered growing in Redwood National Park in California by two naturalists, Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor. That newly discovered tree was measured at 379.7 feet. It was forest ecologist Steve Sillett who climbed to the top of the tree and dropped a tape to the ground. A very long tape measure. To prove it we can all go to the National Geographic website or You Tube and search for Steve Sillett Redwoods and see the film.

In ancient times, when people depended on agriculture and the forests for sustenance and shelter, they knew the names of the different trees. They created relationships between trees. The Celts considered that the oak, ash and thorn made up a sacred trio with powers to heal.

The oak is a magnificent large tree that the ancients held in high regard.  Myths consider the oak as the most worthy tree. They associated the oak with the most powerful sacred gods like Zeus and Jupiter. Thor, a Norse god, was related to lightning storms, strength and the oak. Thor even gave our modern world the name of a weekday – Thursday.

People in those days believed in the oak’s magic powers which could bring them good luck, financial success and fertility. They certainly appreciated the practical ways that the oak could be used, for construction, and firewood. The acorns could be used to feed pigs. Different groups used oak bark medicinally to treat colds, coughs, fever, arthritis and for improving digestion. They also used oak to make compresses or add oak bark to water to soothe pain. Today there are 58 species of oaks native to North America.

The ash tree is the second in the sacred trio. In Norse mythology the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, which held the nine elements of the cosmos, is referred to as an ash. This tree supports all creatures and represents the cycle of birth, growth, death and rebirth, the forces that make up life’s journey.

The ancients used ash leaves to make a tea as a diuretic and as a laxative, as well as infusions to treat gout, jaundice and other ailments.

I also read that unicorns were fond of ash trees. I found instructions on how to catch sight of a unicorn. Just carrying ash wood or leaves might do the trick, or you might lie in a bed of ash leaves and cover yourself and wait for the unicorn. It’s clear to me that these instructions would require great patience.

Massachusetts has its share of ash trees. We had a row of ash trees on the road to our house in Heath. We saw lightning scars on their bark, proving their power to attract lightning. As a practical note, both ash and thorn, make good, hot, burning firewood.

Hawthorn tree

Hawthorn at Energy Park in Greenfield

Finally, the third of the sacred circle, the thorn. We use the full name, hawthorn. This tree, Crategeus, is known for its large sharp thorns. However, C. viridis, Green Hawthorn, has few thorns. You can see these thornless trees locally at the Energy Park. The Greeks and Romans associated the hawthorn with weddings and babies. Brides and their attendants carried hawthorn blossoms.  These trees were often planted by holy and healing wells in England. Homeopaths consider the hawthorn a powerful medicine and use it for heart tonics.

There are many ancient stories about the trees that are familiar to us, like the oak, ash and thorn. However, when we talk about trees today, we talk about their beauty and value to the environment. Trees breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. In forests tree roots help rains seep into the ground where they are taken up into the tree and then release that filtered water as vapor and oxygen. Trees also cool our neighborhoods and cities because of the shade they throw and because their transpiration of water also cools the air. We can treasure parks with large trees and leafy canopies that shade us and cool us during the summer.

We can also plan our gardens so that trees will throw their cooling shade on the house, necessitating less air conditioning.

During our first winter in Heath the heavy snows blew and fell on our road, sometimes making it impassible, even for the town plows. During our first spring we began to plant our windbreak. We planted several varieties of conifers in three staggered rows alongside the road to catch the snow. This kept our road from being a giant snowbank. The town crew appreciated it.

Now we are in town and have borrowed shade from the majestic oak, maple and sycamore that grow on our neighbors’ property. We even benefit from the fallen autumn leaves. Mulch! Compost! Trees give us many benefits.

Between the Rows   January 12, 2019

How to Create Winter Interest in the Garden

Red winterberries

Red native winterberries, Ilex verticillata, are the colorful stars in my winter garden

If we do not think winter gardens are very interesting, we need to change our view. We can choose trees and shrubs that will create winter interest. We can add color and texture and create an engaging view from our window.

When we planned our new Greenfield garden, I was thinking about low maintenance, plants for pollinators, and tolerance for spring floods. It was by pure luck that I now see some of those plants double their appeal by providing winter interest through color and texture. To begin, I have three dogwood shrub cultivars. These shrubs are very tolerant of the cold and of periods of flooding. They are sometimes suggested for rain gardens.

I think my osier dogwood may be Cornus sanguinea ‘Winter Flame’ because it matches a catalog description. It is quite tall, about 8 feet, with twigs in surprising shades of orange, yellow and red. I also have the more familiar red twig dogwood. a deep wine red, but I have lost the name of this particular cultivar. Other cultivars like Arctic Fire and Siberica are brighter, clearer reds. I do know that my yellow twig dogwood is named Flaviramea and sings out its bright color in the winter sun.

Flaviramea has particularly pleased me, sited as it is in the middle of the garden where I can see it from my kitchen windows. The golden green glow in the sun is cheering. I do have to prune it to keep low branches from rooting in the soil and sending out new plants. In my wet garden this is a vigorous and happy plant. All the dogwoods have small flowers in the spring and white berries in late summer.

Equally happy in my wet garden are the winterberries. The winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is a native holly. I have two red winterberry shrubs, and one with golden berries. These are not only bright and pretty, birds like the berries. It is important to remember that winterberries are dioecious. This means the male and female flowers are on separate plants. To get berries I need to have female and male plants. The male plant is virile, pollinating up to ten nearby female plants, but it is smaller and less showy.

English holly

A female English holly, Ilex aquifolium, thrives in front of our house

I also have two healthy English hollies, Ilex aquifolium, in front of the house, a male and a larger female loaded with berries. They came with the house so I don’t know their cultivar names, but some of these English holly hybrids come with names like Blue Princess and Blue Prince. I enjoy pruning the berry laden branches for Christmas decorations in the house.

Hawthorn Berries

“Berry” loaded hawthorn brance on one of the six hawthorns in the Energy Park

If I had room I would love to have a hawthorn tree, Crateagus, which will grow to about 25 to 35 feet with an equal spread.  Crateagus viridis is a native hawthorn with showy white flowers in the spring and red fruits called pomes in the fall and winter. Unlike many other hawthorns, C. viridis Winter King does not have large sharp spines, making them easier to prune and care for. This tree will attract butterflies in the spring and summer, and birds in the fall and winter. I think birds are an important element of winter interest. You can see six berried hawthorns at the Energy Park.

Flowering crabapples are a delightful sight in the spring and there are dozens of cultivars. Sugar Tyme is a good size for a small garden, reaching a height of about 18 feet with a 15 foot spread. It is highly disease resistant and has pale pink buds that open to white flowers. Its benefit to the winter garden is that it holds its little red crabapples well through the winter. Other small crabapples include Donald Wyman and Callaway which both have white spring blossoms. Adams has double pink blossoms. All have been praised for their hardiness and disease resistance, by horticulturists like Michael Dirr. They  are decorative, and provide food for wintering birds. I must point out that crabapples are not as amenable to flooding as the winterberries and river birches.

Tree bark, as well as berries can provide winter interest. We have planted two clumps of river birch, Betula nigra, which will grow to about 40 feet tall. They are known to thrive in wet, heavy clay soils, and don’t mind flooding which makes them perfect rain garden plants. There are flowers and catkins in the spring, but we planted them because of their beautiful exfoliating bark.  It is the texture and pale color of the bark that appeals to me.

Another tree noted for its exfoliating bark is the paperbark maple, Acer griseum. The foliage gives good red fall color in the northeast but it is the color and shagginess of its reddish-brown exfoliating bark that is stunning in the snowy landscape. The bark ranges in color from a rich coppery shade to darker cinnamon that peels away in large curls that remain on the tree. I saw a number of these trees planted in the beautiful Monk’s Garden at the Isabella Stewart Museum in Boston. They are small upright trees that will reach a height of 20 to 30 feet.

The sun is shining today, and the air is mild but snow will come and I will find loveliness in my garden.

Between the Rows  January 5, 2019

New Year’s Celebrations Around the World

Half moon

Phases of the moon marked the beginning of the New Year in ancient times in different parts of the world

New Year’s celebrations have been with us for a very long time. The ancients have been paying attention to the movement of the sun, moon and stars for at least four thousand years. They were aware of the equinoxes when the length of day and night were equal. The Babylonians celebrated the beginning of the year with a great religious festival in late March, on the day of the vernal equinox. Not all countries or regions of the world marked the beginning of the year at the same time. Egyptians celebrated when Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, became visible. This was also the time for the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to flood and begin the agricultural year.

When the sun got out of sync with the calendar Julius Caesar, ruler of the great Roman Empire, added 90 days to the calendar in 46 B.C., and called it the Julian calendar. It was used throughout the Empire. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII made a slight correction which gives us leap year, and it is the calendar that is used by most of the world. He also established January 1 as the beginning of the year. Christians had already decreed that December 25 was the birthday of Christ.

Nowadays,  we can watch New Year’s celebrations around the world. Through the magic of TV we can watch many New Year’s celebrations as our world spins and travels through the sky. Fireworks in Australia! Silence and sleepy, icy in Iceland. Both caught on TV.

We are all familiar with some of the elements of modern New Year’s celebrations. There are parties, and drinking champagne or other libations, dancing, and singing Auld Lang Syne. Again, through the magic of TV many of us Americans can watch the brilliant Times Square ball fall 141 feet. The thousands who fill Times Square will count down those last seconds that will leave us in a brand new year full of expected and unexpected events.

New Year’s Resolutions and Ecclesiastes

Many of us enter the new year with a list of resolutions. I don’t make resolutions any more, but it recently came to me that a wise place to turn for good advice in the garden would be Ecclesiastes. Some say this book of the Bible was written by King Solomon in his old age, but others name a Teacher as the author, one who never names himself,

Chapter three begins. “To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” It does not take us gardeners too many years to learn that there is a time to plant and the time will come when it is time to harvest. There is no point to rushing out on the first glorious day that makes us think spring has finally arrived. If we want a good harvest, we must be aware of the season. We must be patient and we must attend to the needs of the plants until they are ready for the moment of ripeness.

“A time to be born, and a time to die.” It is the plants I am talking about here. Seeds and seedlings planted at the proper time will send out baby shoots full of promise. That promise fulfilled, they will die, but they will leave seeds, or more roots and tubers. A new generation of plants will rise.

“A time to plant and a time to pluck up that which has been planted.” Here the Teacher reminds us again, that we need to get busy at the proper moment in the spring, and that we had better be ready at harvest time, or it will all have been for naught.

“A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.” This year I have wept over the floods in my garden, but there came so many floods that I could only laugh at the relentless rains. When faced with storm after storm I began to turn the flood into a humorous story. ‘Did I tell you about the year I grew toads?’ I did mourn the plants that drowned, but acknowledged that there was time to dance over to the garden shop and try again.

Stones were gathered in this Seattle garden

Stones were gathered in this Seattle garden

“A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” When we are digging and preparing the soil for planting here in New England, we will have stones to cast away from the planting beds. But we can later gather those stones to make a path, or a dry stream, or a sculpture. I don’t know how those stacked stone structures survive, but obviously some people do. I think New Englanders often find creative ways of using castoffs of one kind or another.

“A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.” It is not hard to joyfully embrace sunlight, flowering plants all abuzz with pollinators, delicious vegetables, and the colorful blue jays, cardinals and goldfinches flitting through the trees and shrubs. Neither is it hard to sit in silence and feel the peace of the garden.

The final verse of Chapter 3 begins “Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works.” I wish all men and women seasons of rejoicing in your garden this year.

Between the Rows   December 29, 2018

Review of 2018 – Here and There

Golden winterberries

Golden winterberries in January of 2018

Today, January 1, 2019 is mild and cloudy, but our year of 2018 began with a snowstorm. Fortunately I  have winter interest in the garden with my winterberries and beautiful exfoliating bark on the river  birches.

George Washington Carver

February was a month for reading and learning. George Washington Carver helped farmers turn to peanuts, and the world benefits today with Plumpy’nut.

It was also a month of learning about trees, caterpillars and butterflies and their importance to our environment.

It has always struck me that February  is a great month for reading. I wrote about Houseplants.

Stonehurst, Waltham, MA

The Greenfield Garden Club planned a great trip  to the Lyman Plant House and Stonehurst is snowy, icy mid-March. Spring is in our minds.




In April spring is making herself known. Primroses, crocuses and my favorite epimediums.


Garden Blogger Fling-ers cooling off in Austin


In May the Garden Bloggers went on their Annual Fling, this year in Austin. We saw lots of gardens and at Tanglewild we got to rest in the shade and cool our feet.

In June we visited the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, and then it was on to the Olbrich Botanical Garden in Madison, Wisconsin where Beth Stetenfeld and I caught our breath.

Olbrich Botanical Garden

Pat and Beth in the Olbrich Botanical Garden



In July I spent a lot of time in floriferous local gardens.  I bought more daylilies from the Stone Meadow Gardens in Ashfield. You can never have too many daylilies.

Thyme at Pickety Place

Thyme at Pickety Place

July – Time to get together with a family expedition to Pickity Place in New Hampshire. Not that far away.

Ankle deep in rainwater

August started off the rainy season. The backyard flooded many times. By the time  the waters had receded there was another rainstorm and more flooding. The weeping cherry died, and so did the pagoda dogwood.  These rains persisted for the rest of the year.

Tulip tree newly planted and mulched at the Energy Park

In September, Nancy Hazard, passionate about the importance of trees, planted three trees including this tulip trees at the Energy Park. I do my part by tending a small garden at the East entrance to the Energy Park.

Entry to newly designed back garden in Amherst

In October I was invited by Steve Schreiber, Jane Thurber and Mike Davidsohn of Umass  to learn about landscape design that was beautiful for  the owners and beneficial to the environment.

Clarkdale apples for eating, pies AND Cider

November is for Cider Days! A weekend of delicious apples and education.

Our Christmas tree

December is for the anniversary of  this blog on The Feast of St. Nicholas in 2008, and the joyous season of Christmas with family and friends.

I wish you all a Happy New Year in your gardens and everywhere.


December Holiday Celebrations – Lights, Feasts and Memory


Poinsettias named for Joel Robert Poinsett, botanist and ambassador to Mexico

Our December holiday celebrations originated far away from North America. The days grow shorter, the nights  are long and dark. Understandably the great religions celebrate with lights.


Two of these holiday celebrations are days-long commemorations of ancient events. The Jews celebrate Hanukkah for eight days. The Talmud tells the story of Judah Maccabee and other Jews who took part in the rededication of the Second Temple witnessed a miracle. Even though there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the menorah’s candles burning for a single day, the flames continued flickering for eight nights, leaving them time to find a consecrated supply. This wondrous event inspired an annual eight-day festival.

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is a movable celebration, depending on the lunar cycle, so sometimes it falls early in December, and sometimes it coincides with Christmas.


Christians of every sect and flavor celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. For four Sundays before December 25 the Advent candles are lit. Advent is a time of waiting that is marked by the lighting of four candles, symbols of faith, hope, joy and peace. With the birth of the Christ Child on December 25, the twelve days of Christmas begin, and end on January 6, the feast of Epiphany, when tradition says the three wise men arrived to honor the Baby.


Much more recently there is Kwanzaa, a celebration of seven principles that was created 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, professor and chairman of Black Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Kwanzaa, a celebration of family, community and culture, begins on December 26 and ends on January 1. This African American and Pan African celebration includes the lighting of seven candles marking each of the seven principles beginning with Unity, Self Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith. Each principle had its own candle lit in a given order.

All of these celebrations have lights to brighten the growing December dark, but they also celebrate with wonderful meals. The Jews have latkes and the Kwanzaa celebration includes foods from Africa but also foods from the south such as yams, squash and corn. I don’t know that Christmas has any special foods, although I’m sure each family has its own feasting traditions.


My grandparents were Swedish and Italian. I can tell you there were lots of sweets from each side of the family that included chocolate, almonds, apples, and pomegranates. My Italian father loved telling stories of the Greek gods and goddesses. He told how Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of grain and fertility of the earth, was abducted by Hades and taken to the Underworld. She refused to eat while in that dark place. Demeter searched for her child and was struck with a powerful grief that caused all plants to begin to die. Zeus finally sent word to Hades that he had to send Persephone home, and he acquiesced, if she had eaten nothing. However Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds, which meant she would have to return to Hades for a time every year. That is how we got winter my father said. A sad story, but the reason we add the jewel-like pomegranate seeds to our family Christmas feast.

As I was thinking of the many vegetables that would be served at a Christmas dinner I thought of some of those Kwanzaan items like sweet potatoes, regular potatoes and squash that show up on my table, but I might add guacamole made with avocados and tomatoes. Apple pie is always a staple.

We are so fortunate to have so many wonderful vegetables and fruits in our supermarkets in these modern days, but the Pilgrims had a much more modest feast at the first Thanksgiving. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, squash, apples, pears, oranges, almonds, ginger and many others were not native to Europe or to New England. Of course this is only a small list of foods that were not native to our country. Many originated in South America and even the apple originated in Central Asia.

At this time of the year you can also find colorful poinsettias in many shades almost every time you go into the supermarket. They make great festive gifts. Poinsettias originated in Mexico and were given the name poinsettia in honor of Joel Robert Poinsett who the 1800s was a botanist and the first ambassador to Mexico. Of course, these brilliant plants are substantial shrubs in Mexico.

English holly

English holly in full winter berries

Even the holly wreaths and swags are made of English holly, beautiful with its red berries.

I am amazed when I think of the fruits, vegetables and flowers from every corner of the globe to feed us every day – and on our great December celebrations. I think of the candle lights that bring us hope in the dark days of winter. I think of the stories that accompany the religious traditions that have arrived in our country. None of these things were here before 1492. But over the centuries amazing gifts of faith, of abundance, and beauty have immigrated to our country. Immigrants from around the world continue to arrive in the U.S. and we should treasure and celebrate each one for the hope, passion, skills and energy they bring to our county.

Between the Rows   December 22, 2018

More Christmas Books for the Gardener

Ground Rules by Kate Frey

Ground Rules by Kate Frey photo courtesy of Timber Press

More Christmas books. There is no end of books to delight and inform the gardener. Kate Frey’s new book, Ground Rules: 100 Easy Lessons for Growing a More Glorious Garden (Timber Press $19.95) has a sweet cover with painted flowers and birds. It would be easy to dismiss this book as something only of interest for the new gardener. However, it does not take a long browse through each bright page to realize that there is always something to learn – or to remember.

Frey is a consultant, educator designer, and freelance writer specializing in sustainable gardens and small farms that encourage biodiversity. She is a gardener whose experience has taught her how to break down all the aspects of gardening from thinking and planning through to your own Garden of Earthly Delights.

The first necessity is thinking about what you need in a garden and dreaming about what you love and would like to create. There are many questions to ask yourself. If you want vegetables where will you place it? What do you want to see out your window? I can tell you that when we moved to a small house in town we had to renovate the kitchen. A result of that new and much more efficient kitchen is a double window looking out into the garden. That view is the best view of the garden and I get to enjoy it every time I make toast, toss a salad, cut out cookies, or plate up our dinner. It gives me more pleasure every day observing the daily and seasonal changes. Thinking about what you will see from your window is an important aspect of planning your garden.

Each page with its informative text and bright photos is a delight. Frey takes us through the many aspects of creating a garden. The second chapter is about the Joy of Plants which provides great information about choosing the right plants and the right space that will pleasure in every season, including annuals, perennials, vines and bulbs. The Real Dirt is full of information about creating healthy soil. I think we are all more aware of how important the quality of our soil is to the success of our plantings, but are not sure of how to improve and maintain good soil. Especially if we are determined to cut down on, or eliminate herbicides and pesticides.

Frey’s chapters move on  through Be Wise With Water, How to Be a Good Garden Parent about the care of plants, Birds, Bees and Butterflies and their importance, and finally the Garden of Earthly Delights. Frey gives us an abundance of knowledge and pleasure in this little book.

The Less is More Garden: Big Ideas for Your Small Garden

The less is more garden

The Less is More Garden by Susan Morrison
cover image courtesy of Timber Press

The Less is More Garden: Big Ideas for Designing Your Small Yard (Timber Press $29.95) understandably hits on many of the same issues as Common Rules. The difference is that Susan Morrison provides many examples of ways to organize a small garden for your individual preferences and needs. Morrison is not only a landscape designer, she is an authority on small-space garden design. She is a good teacher and has shared her strategies on the PBS series Growing a Greener World and in publications such as Fine Gardening.

More and more of us are living in more urban areas, or who in our later years, need and want smaller gardens. Morrison reminds us right at the start that a small space can result in less effort, less maintenance and therefore more enjoyment, beauty and relaxation. She begins by stating that designing a new garden demands a consideration of how and when you will use that space. Do you grill and have frequent meals outside? Do you sit in the garden in the middle of the day, or in the cooler hours? Will your pets enjoy the garden?

I found The Less is More Garden to be wonderfully inspiring. She provides design templates to give the novice someplace to start and provides information about plants for different situations. She knows how to create illusions of space, and the value of focal points. She stresses the importance of water in the garden even if it is only a bird bath. As a person who is timid about choosing colors, I appreciated the different ways she suggested for thinking about color.

What makes a house a home? It takes more than four walls and a roof. It takes time living in the house, making it comfortable for everyone in the family and creating memories. It takes time to make a garden. Over time the garden can take form based on the pleasures everyone finds in the garden, and building memories of a place that is loved.

The many excellent photographs and Morrison’s lists of particular kinds of plants make this book useful and practical as well as inspirational.

Good books, informational and beautiful, make great gifts, but there is another way of giving information and beauty. You could give the gift of membership in the American Horticultural Society. Membership includes a subscription to the American Gardener with six issues of information each year with great photos. Log onto to learn about the benefits of a $35 membership which includes special admission privileges and discounts at 320 public gardens throughout the U.S., an invitation to participate in our seed program, and access to members only online gardening resources, and you enjoy knowing you are supporting the AHS and gardening is the USA.

Between the Rows  December 15, 2018

Christmas Gifts for the Gardener

Christmas cyclamen at Greenfield Farmers Coop

Christmas gifts for  the gardener range over such a large world of possibilities. Even though we’ve shopped at Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, we may not have finished our holiday shopping. Fortunately there are many places where we can buy everything a gardener, novice or expert, might need in our own neighborhood.

Infiniflo hose and versatile sprinkler

Infiniflo hose and versatile sprinkler

I began shopping at the Greenfield Farmers Cooperative on High Street. I didn’t even have to go inside to see wonderful greenery waiting to be hung on welcoming doors. Swags and wreaths made of a variety of greens with berries and ribbons range in price from $7 on up. Inside the building are tools, gloves, boots and fertilizers. I looked at hoses and saw there seems to be revolutionary new hose designs. The soaker hoses are made of sturdier materials than the ones I used years ago, hoses that deteriorated in a year or two. A couple of years ago I saw that Dramm made sprinklers that could be set up to cover a half circle, or a long rectangle or about any other configuration your garden might need. Now other companies like Infiniflo are also making these versatile hose/sprinklers. Costs range from about $20 to $60.

The Coop is a veritable emporium of everything a gardener might need from brightly colored little ceramic vases on a single base that allows for an impromptu bouquet, elegant white pots for houseplants, or, if you wish, brilliantly colored pots in shades of orange, green, and blue. Pots range in price from $7 to $20. And of course, there is a full range of houseplants that make wonderful holiday gifts as well as amaryllis sets for $10. And there is more to see.

The Outlet on Chapman Street for Garden Togs

I made a stop at The Outlet, a men’s shop on Chapman Street. Skip White welcomed me but reminded me it wasn’t gardening season. Even so, he showed me pale beige Carhart pants that some gardeners, as well as others, have been buying because it is easier to find ticks on the pale fabric. He also showed me classic blue chambray shirts, to save you from sunburn when you are in the garden all day as well as Dri-release T-shirts that provide the wicking that many of us welcome. White even showed me a few hats he brought up from the basement ranging from a big classic straw hat, to a hat with a flap to protect necks from sunburn, and a light weight floppy hat that would be comfortable and protective.  All these items range in price from $20-$40. And there is more to see.

Hilltown Growers Supply – Hydroponics and more

Dutch Bucket System - Hydroponic

Dutch Bucket System – Hydroponic

Then I started up Route 2 and stopped at the Hilltown Growers Supply at the top of Greenfield Mountain. In the spring I met Wilder Sparks when I bought a new plant light set up so I could start lots of zinnias. Wilder has equipment and supplies including fertilizers that go well beyond the necessaries for growing cannabis. On this trip I was amazed by the Dutch Bucket System he had set up. This is a hydroponic system that Wilder is experimenting with and his chosen crop is peppers. And there is more to see.

The Shelburne Farm and Garden Shop

The Shelburne Farm and Garden shop also has lots of wreaths and swags, plain and fancy with different greens and berries. They also had practical plant stands of different heights including a stand with arms for four small plants. Prices range from $25-$60. Most of the lightweight garden gloves were put away but the pale MUD suede gauntlets ($29) would be a wonderful gift for the gardener who has prickery plants like roses! The Shelburne Farm and Garden is famous for its love of birds, and its supply of bird seed, and some unusual bird feeders. Nicole Crossman showed me some plexiglass bird feeders with suction cups that allow you to attach the feeder to your window so that you can get a close-up view of the birds, making it very easy to identify them. And there is more to see.

Christmas wreath at Shelburne Farm and Garden

OESCO for Garden Tools, and Books

Then I was off to OESCO in Conway. They have just about every garden tool you will ever have to use. I’ve always found it difficult to buy garden tools as a gift for a friend because I never know for sure what they already own. I was talking to Jemma Vanderheld and asked if there was there was any tool that people had to replace often.  She thought long and hard. She said “A lot of people have to replace their pruners because they lose them.” That statement hit home and I have a pruner with ragged grips after it spent the winter in the grass and then got chopped by the lawn mower in the spring.

Tool Sharpeners at OESCO

Tool sharpeners at OESCO

Then I asked if there was any tool that people tended not to buy even though it was useful. She didn’t hesitate this time. “Sharpeners.  People bring their tools for sharpening to us because they think they are not capable of sharpening. But all our sharpeners list a website where you can get a sharpening lesson. And they can watch it as many times as they want.” The sharpeners with different sizes and grits range in price from $8 to $50.

Vanderheld also mentioned that gardeners can have the springs and ‘bumpers’ on pruners replaced.

OESCO now carries a large range of garden books, for children and on special topics like vineyards, mushrooms, hops – and cookbooks.

Surely you don’t believe I came home empty handed from my explorations. I bought a beautiful cast iron apple corer/peeler. I am happy.

Between the Rows December 8,


Classic Garden Books for Delight and Gifts

Kapek felt the human body was not built efficiently enough to suit the gardener. "Those who have had no experience cannot imagine how one's legs are in the way when there is nothing to stand on; how stupidly long they are if one has to fold them underneath to poke with the finger in the ground; how impossibly short they are if one has to reach the other side of the bed without treading on a clump of pyrethrum or roots of columbine."

Kapek felt the human body was not built efficiently enough to suit the gardener. “Those who have had no experience cannot imagine how one’s legs are in the way when there is nothing to stand on; how stupidly long they are if one has to fold them underneath to poke with the finger in the ground; how impossibly short they are if one has to reach the other side of the bed without treading on a clump of pyrethrum or roots of columbine.”

There are always wonderful new garden books with fabulous photographs, and written by skilled gardeners. However, I cannot help reminding people of some wonderful classic books about gardening. The two books I recommend today are not how-to books. The authors I have chosen were not ‘garden writers” who devoted their talents to writing about how to garden. They were writers who gardened and saw the humor, wonder and amusement to be found in the garden.

Karel Capek and his brother Josef Capek found frustration and humor in the garden

First there is The Gardener’s Year by Karel Capek, born in 1890. He wrote with his brother Josef Capek who provided the humorous line drawings that add a delicious reality to Karel’s garden adventures. Karel Capek was born in what is now the Czech Republic and was known as a playwright, essayist, publisher, literary reviewer and art critic. He was best knows for his science fiction including the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) and gave Josef the credit for coining the word robot.  Capek was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature seven times, but alas, he never won.

Karel complains about weather predictions and accuses the paper of ‘lies and bluff” and curses that ‘complaints, swearing, snuffling, saying brrrrr and other incantations have no influence on the weather.” In the spring he struggles to find a place in the flower bed where the campanulas have run loose, then the monk’s hood and tradescantias before he finds a spot for his tender seedling. ‘I will make your bed. So, there you are, and now grow in peace.’ But two days later realizes he had planted it on top of the evening primrose.

'Look'' said the proud owner to his guest. 'Isn't it a queer campanula? . . . I am really anxious to see what the flower will be like.'

‘Look” said the proud owner to his guest. ‘Isn’t it a queer campanula? . . . I am really anxious to see what the flower will be like.’

All through the gardener’s year there are challenges, arguing over the proper names of the flowers in the garden and insisting that a Latin name raises the plant to a state of dignity. There are prayers for rain, or for sun, or just on certain plants, that there will be dew, no little wind, no snails and that once a week liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven. Like all really good gardeners Karel talks frequently about the soil, leaf mold, humus, and all the kinds of soil, ‘light as feathers, blond or black  . . . and other diverse and noble kinds of beauty.’

Karel suffered from spinal disease most of his life, and died at the age of 48. It is not hard to think of him musing about his eventual death. ‘A rose in flower is, so to speak, only for dilettanti; the gardener’s pleasure is deeper rooted, right in the womb of the soil. After his death the gardener does not become a butterfly, intoxicated by the perfumes of flowers, but a garden worm tasting all the dark nitrogenous and spicy delights of the soil.’

Beverley Nichols and his garden paths

The witty Beverley Nichols, born in England in 1898, spent his life writing plays, novels, non-fiction, columns for the newspaper and books for children. His prolific writings included the books about his gardens that I have always loved. Down the Garden Path, his first book about life in his first garden was published in 1932. His Forward explains that he ‘believes in doing things ‘too soon’ as did Columbus and Beethoven and Shelley who all created “new born beauty, all flights of the spirit’ that had never existed before. In his book he wants to capture the ecstasy of being in the garden and the humorous memories of all the follies of his beginning.

Like Karel Capek, Nichols felt the pleasure and power of ‘digging one’s own spade into one’s own earth! Has life anything better to offer than this?’ One of his great projects was making a rock garden ‘without any plan, without even an adequate preparation of the soil….When you are making a rock garden. . .  you must be bloody, bold and resolute,’ he writes.

There are unexpected rewards and joys. ’It was not til I experimented with seeds plucked straight from a growing plant that I had my first success – the first thrill of creation – the first taste of blood. This surely must be akin to the pride of paternity.’

One never gardens alone. There are always neighbors and friends who want to tour and weigh in. There is the Professor who thinks beauty makes him sad – and a savage. Mrs. M. has only a tiny garden but it ‘bustles with flowers.’ She also has a greenhouse and tries to explain all his mistakes when Nichols puts up his little greenhouse. The Princess also has many opinions about his gardens but he concedes, ‘ . . .one forgives, because she commits her crimes with such charm and élan. Other women cannot be let off so lightly.’

Nichols first book was followed by A Thatched Roof, A Village in a Valley and How Does Your Garden Grow? A garden must always be shared, and Nichols books always include his life among his neighbors.

I confess to being an anglophile. I read British mysteries, British novels of the 19th century and I began learning about gardening from British garden books, which of course, were not very helpful for a New England garden. Still, I am delighted by the ‘very long and elaborate explanations of very minor events’ that Nichols sets before me.

The gardener in Spring

In these books I see my own garden’s new born beauties and my own failures and follies. And laughter.

Between the Rows   December 1, 2018

Commonweeder – Eleventh Blogaversary – Hooray!

Roses at the End of the Road

Roses at the End of the Road by Pat Leuchtman, Illustrations by Henry Leuchtman

The Commonweeder blog debuted On December 6, 2007, on the Feast of Saint Nicholas. I barely knew what a blog was at the time, but after after 27 years of writing my weekly garden column, Between the Rows, in the Greenfield Recorder, I decided to write a book. My friend B.J., an expert on all things literary, said I needed to have a blog. Thus was The Commonweeder launched.

The book came first, of course. Many of the chapters were revised columns written over the years. The chapters are varied from Bonnie Kate’s Wedding on our lawn, Lightning Strikes when midnight lightning hit our barn and set the house to smoking, and Saint Fiacre Stayed here. My co-workers at Greenfield Community College often sighed and asked if the tale I was telling was ‘another Heath story.’  Surely they would fascinate a larger audience. My husband helped with the book by providing wonderful illustrations, and my skilled son did all the set up for the printer.

Selling a book was actually harder than writing the book, but they continue to sell. To celebrate the eleventh year of the Commonweeder blog I would like to send everyone who leaves a comment and an email address a copy of The Roses at the End of the Road, postage paid! Please do leave a comment.

My husband set up the blog, and has reset it up over the years. It is  wonderful to live in a house that comes equipped with tech support. His supports have made writing the blog a joy, and writing the blog has brought me many new friends  in the garden blog world who I have been blessed to meet at the Garden Bloggers Fling which was  founded at the same time as my blog. I got to meet the great gardeners and bloggers like Carol Michel of the famous May Dreams Gardens, Mary Shier who taught me the trick of using the NYTimes to get eyeballs, Elizabeth Licata who organized my first Fling in Buffalo (FABULOUS!), Kylee Baumle who is now a great Monarch expert, Dee Nash who has inspired me, Layanee Merchant who honored my garden with a visit, Gail Eichelburger who taught me about the importance of native plants, Cindy Tournier who is practically a neighbor of my Texas daughter, Beth Stetenfeld who gave us a tour of the  Olbrich Botanical Garden when we were in Wisconsin,, Pam Penick, who was one of the 2018 Fling in Austin, Texas and many others who have become inspiring friends.

The view of the landscape in Heath May 2015, just before we bought our new house.

The Commonweeder Blog has also given me a great record, including photos, of the weather, of the changes in my garden, of a move to a new garden. When we moved to Greenfield my garden looked like this. Just bare space.

A bare beginning May 2015

This past summer, after three years of planting water loving shrubs and native plant, building a little stone wall for the Hugel and trying many experiments, our garden looks like this.

August 2017 – I realize I have no good photos of the growth of plants because the garden was flooded a good part of 2018 – but doing pretty well.

Early November flood. Most of the summer and fall there would be flooding, it would dry up, and then it would flood again. LOTS of rain.

In  the summer, anyway. These are the views from my upstairs window.

I plan to keep the blog going. It is always an incentive to learn more, to share more and to have pleasure. I hope you will celebrate with me and leave a comment with your email so I can send you a copy of the Roses at the End of the Road.

December 6, 2018


The Insect Apocalypse Is Here


Echinacea, cone flower, and butterfly

The New York Times Magazine (12-2-2018) article The Insect Apocalypse is Here by Brooke Jarvis reveals to people like me, who rarely pay attention to most insects, that the population of bugs in the world is declining. Some of  us can remember years when driving through the summer nights required hours of cleaning the car windows, removing all the dead bugs. No more. We suddenly realize that particular chore has not been necessary for years. Why not?

Some answers come easily. Farmers and gardeners use pesticides which kills many insects. But other causes include habitat loss, the killing of native weeds, single-crop agriculture, invasive species, light pollution, highway traffic, and climate change is possibly the newest threat.

As a long time gardener I have been aware of the declining number of Monarch butterflies and bees. Many years ago, when we lived on 30 acres of fields in Heath, we enjoyed the Monarch migration in late summer when there were flocks of Monarchs fueling up on the mint that was running rampant in a field. Then there were years when we did not see these clouds of butterflies. Now I get all excited in my small urban garden to see five Monarchs on my coneflowers, bee balm, asters  and asclepias (milkweeds).

Aesclepias tuberosa

Aesclepias tuberosa for the honey bees. The is where they drink and lay their eggs.

As a former beekeeper aware of threats to bees I also plant cardinal flowers, obedient plant, buttonbush, culver’s root, and turtlehead and welcome every kind of bee that visits. I am doing what I can to support these ‘bugs’ but it will take more.

Doug Tallamy, who teaches entomology at the University of Delaware, and author of Bringing Nature Home, said “You have total ecosystem collapse if you lose your insects. How much worse can it get than that?”

When Tallamy spoke at our local Spring Garden Symposium a couple of years ago he noted two threats, “Humans’ war on weeds and vast farmland planted with the same few crops.   Weeds and native plants are what bugs eat and where they live. Milkweeds, crucial to the beautiful monarch butterfly, are dwindling fast. Manicured lawns in the United States are so prevalent that, added together, they are as big as New England. Those landscapes are essentially dead zones.”

Tallamy has taken his own action. He now lives in a rural area between Philadelphia and Baltimore. He planted his ten acre patch with native plants, that will sustain many bugs. Now he has 861 species of moths and 54 species of breeding birds that feed on insects. Unlike my friends who are birders, I did not know that almost all birds need insects to feed their fledglings. Insects are high in protein and vital.

 Before there was Tallamy, there  was E.O. Wilson, who has spent much of his life studying ants. He warned: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

The German Krefeld Entomological Society, a group of mostly amateur naturalists, have been keeping records of insects for over a hundred years. With an article by Sally McGrane in  the NYTImes in 2017 they  sounded the alarm. Others were beginning to notice the lack of bugs, but no one else had a record of what was. I think we will all get more serious about what the risks are.

When I looked to see if anyone had noticed there was an Insect Apocalypse on its way, I found several articles. The NYTimes wrote about the Silence of Bugs earlier this year. Last year Science Magazine asked Where Have All the Insects Gone

The Insect Apocalypse is Here is a fascinating article and I am still taking it all in.

Bee balm and bees

Bee Balm (Monarda) and bees