the little garden that could

Back in February, my parents said they’d let me turn a patch of earth at their house into a garden of my own(ish).  Turns out they weren’t kidding after all, and made good on the promise.  At the end of February, I did some soil excavation to test the tilth and drainage of the area.

holding the ball of soil, then seeing how easily it breaks apart - it stayed in the ball so it's pretty much clay (feb 21st)

i dug a foot-deep hole and poured water in twice to see how it would drain - good news, it drained right away both times! (feb 21st)

Satisfied enough to try this garden experiment, I roped off two 4′ x 13′ beds in a mostly full sun spot by the garage with all the best intentions.

Larry the dog sniffs out the projected garden site (feb 26th)

My dad and I started the sod removal/soil amendment at the end of February, deciding just to see what the work was like between the two of us for one bed.  One bed at a time.  I have a bad back, and he’s 72.  (That’s never stopped us from doing stupid things, though.)

My dad, the ex-Marine, is going along with this folly and helping me remove sod (feb 27th)

a nice crisp edge is how we like it (feb 27th)

dad the incredible hulk does the bulk of the work, we have to remove quite a bit of crap soil to make way for the good stuff (feb 27th)

While I’m not looking, Dad (and Larry) double-dig much of the bed, despite my wishes to wait to do that until we had the soil amendment materials. There is no stopping him!  He is a machine!  We get into a heated discussion that’s not really about the garden at all, but more about my current life situation (I call it a ‘pickle’) and the fact that I can’t do this all myself because of my back.  He lets me yell at him for a while until I realize I am not treating my only laborer with the kindness he deserves.  Many apologies and a few tears later…we both agree that gardening brings out the best in me!

double digging and lots of sniffing (feb 27th)

Ok, now we got the goods: Bumper Crop, the new and improved organic soil builder we purchased from Mostardi’s Nursery.  It contains Sphagnum Peat Moss, Peat Humus, Worm Castings, Kelp Meal, Dolomitic Lime, Composted cow manure, Lobster and Crab Shells (wait, I’m getting hungry) Aged Bark, dehydrated Poultry manure, and both endo and ectomycorrhizae.  This soil needs all the help it can get!

subarus rock for garden jobs! (feb 28th)

i can't thrash like i used to. adding bumper crop soil amendment (feb 28th)

Capt Mac works in the luscious good stuff with the garden weasel and later i help a little with a pitchfork (feb 28th)

We let the bed sit, and carefully watch as rains come, sun shines, and bunnies hop.  All looks good.   I go back to Boston to see my husband.  I come back. Then the temps warm up. I decide that in my current situation (living a few different places) it might be best not to have two garden beds to maintain, so it will be one for now.  I also decide to get the ball rolling and add some more of the black stuff since we aren’t using it for the other bed.  And do some fine raking to break up some remaining clumps.  There is a voice in my head saying, “Be careful Ann, this is one of the ways you threw your back out once.”  Again, it doesn’t stop me (but now I do my back stretches almost every day to counter the gardening etc.)

raking out clumps, added another bumper crop bag (mar 19th)

i read in my Flower Farmer book it's good to soak sweet peas for 24 hours before planting. they got all swelled up and look ready to burst here. (mar 20th)

And then it’s TIME TO SOW!  Here’s everything I planted today…Sweet Peas (Grandiflora mixture,) Hungarian Blue Poppy (Papaver somniferum,) Blue Boy Bachelor’s Button (Centaurea cyanus), White Lace Bishop’s Flower (Ammi majus) and Grandma Einck’s Dill.

first round of sowing (mar 20th)

Julie and I also bought some more stuff at Mostardi’s – I found some Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ which I really dig for the foliage, although it is blooming now.  It will get 2-3′ tall and spread a bit.

Euphorbia x martinii 'Ascot Rainbow' (mar 20th)

garden diagram gone haywire, at least i can read it (mar 20th)

after first round of sowing/planting (mar 20th)

The red-stemmed dogwood will hopefully support the sweet peas, and also looks neat while there’s nothing happening.  Heck, maybe it will actually root! (Doubtful.) The plan is to see what germinates and perhaps add a few other things like sunflowers, zinnias or stuff I see in nurseries I like.  (Not doing the cukes this year because I think my huzz and I should do that project together.)  All watered and ready to grow…so think good thoughts for the little garden that could.  And happy first day of Spring!

a garden of my own(-ish)

Okay, I’ve done a lot of digging in the dirt, at other people’s houses. For money. I’ve taken classes in ornamental horticulture, worked at NYBG, and been a TV garden editor for Martha Stewart. But I’ve never envisioned my own garden and created one. What would it look like?

Photograph: © Country Life Picture Library, from Gertrude Jekyll and the Country House Garden by Judith B. Tankard, Rizzoli New York, 2011

No, not like that.

I guess I tell myself that my excuse for never making a garden of my own is that I got caught up in television production, a career that has served me well over the years but also required an unhealthy amount of ignoring my own life. But if I’m being totally honest (and I think I should because this is my blog,) gardening and I parted ways after a traumatic event that occurred at Martha’s house in Maine. Yes, I’m going to blame it all on Martha.

garden mothra: i drew this mustache on using GIMP

We had Dan Hinkley as a guest, you know the fantastic plantsman of Heronswood fame, and I was the producer and garden prep person for a segment we were to do on shade treasures. Since Dan travels the world collecting rare specimens and cultivating them for trade, you can imagine the amazing plants he had brought for the Skylands property! (And he’s also the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet.) This would be a chance to educate folks on some of the possibilities for shady areas, so we had a good variety of stuff out there. As I’m prepping Martha for the segment, she looks at all the “shade treasures” and says, “what’s all this? I can’t plant all this here! I only want one kind of plant here, Solomon’s seal.” I tried to argue with her (bad idea) about the fact that we had already discussed every inch of the material and she had already agreed to all of the plants going into the ground, but she was steadfast. It was her garden, of course, so we turned it into a Plant of the Week segment on the very beautiful Solomon’s seal that Dan had brought. Yes, we flew him across the country to talk about ONE PLANT. I think I was more upset about that than anything else.

Polygonatum odoratum

But…in this process of arguing with her, and trying to convince her that the plant variety was important for education, she hooked onto the idea that I was more of a television producer than a gardener. She looked at me with those see-everything brown eyes and said, “You’re not a real gardener.” This was pretty much the only time Martha ever made me cry in the entire decade I worked for her. I almost quit right there. And I think I really took that statement to heart, and followed the TV production path instead of the gardening one. It was quite stupid of me, to listen to someone who has minions that make her gardens. And stupid of me to let this one sentence sink into my bones. It doesn’t mean I can’t grow a few fucking flowers. (Addendum: please don’t get the wrong idea about Martha. I have so many good things to say about her, and her beautiful gardens, and all the opportunities she gave me, and the Emmys we won, and everything I learned…but I just had to tell that one little Fleur de Mal.)

ANYWAY…now that I’m ‘in-between’ TV gigs, or maybe done with TV altogether, this gardening/floristry/plant path is once again beckoning to me. I’ve begun dreaming about my garden…made possible by my amazing parents, who said they’d let me have a little patch of earth on their property to play with. Oh golly! Really? I hope they’re serious! Because I already ordered some seeds from Seedsavers Exchange! That’s the first place I thought of, because they offer heirloom varieties of seeds that gardeners from around the world save and swap each year.

cosmos

I’m thinking cutting garden with some herbs and veggies thrown in. In other words, it will be totally utilitarian with a bunch of stuff I love. Keep it simple, try to be successful at something small. Neat and organized. I haven’t measured or really taken this to the next level by cordoning off an area yet, because I don’t want to scare my parents off of the idea. I must admit I went a little crazy on the Seedsavers site today, and I know I will have to scale back (bearing in mind I also want to order plants too.) I need to do this in the proper order, starting with doing a LOT of research and reading about what plants perform well in zone 7a (yes, that’s right, we are 7a now with the new USDA plant hardiness map!) and are also deer resistant. I hope to create a spreadsheet with all the salient facts to help keep me organized. Last night, I fell asleep with a cut flower book in my lap and tonight I plan on doing the same. This is my Seedsavers order:

The cukes are for my husband, who has been talking about pickling for the last 1700 years. This is the year to do that, too, I hope. Enjoy the new moon energy!

some little spring things

how about this hellebore?

Tra la la, skipping through Swarthmore with my doggie…well, not exactly skipping, more like being pulled by my doggie through Swarthmore…we come across all sorts of botanical treasures. It is usually Larry who finds them first, his nose sending him on a zig zag mission that wraps me up in his leash. Here! They! Are!

Winter Aconite on Elm Ave near Swarthmore Ave

I don’t remember these little yellow guys, and suddenly they’re everywhere I look. They look buttercup-y to me. Online searching sends me right to the Scott Arboretum’s blog, where Eranthis hyemalis, or Winter Aconite, is well described: “The sunny persona of Eranthis hyemalis can’t help but make one believe that spring is just around the corner. The tuberous ephemeral is a member of the buttercup family and is best planted in mass and left undisturbed. Over time plants will seed to create even bolder, brighter displays.”

pleasing but poisonous

A little deeper digging reveals that these late winter/early spring-blooming beauties have a dark side. Turns out Larry was smelling Cerberus’ spit – which you can imagine is quite toxic – when he discovered the deceptively dainty yellow blooms on Elm Ave. According to Greek legend, when Hercules dragged Cerberus (you know the three-headed canine who guards the gates to the Underworld) to the Upper World, his reaction to the sunny side of things was to froth madly at the mouth. And wherever this crazy beast’s saliva touched the earth, up sprouted winter aconite. Thanks, Cerberus, it’s a nice touch. Winter aconite is in fact poisonous – all parts especially the tuber. So, you might not want to plant this if you’ve got dogs (Larry did NOT ingest any of this) or kids who dig in the garden.

Onward, ho, my brindled hound

What else have you found for me today? Okay we’ve been looking at snowdrops, or Galanthus nivalis, for almost a month now. But some fact-finding revealed a great story (or at least I think it’s great) about this early spring bulb. There’s a sort of snowdrop-mania going on in the UK and last year one bulb of the ‘Green Tear’ cultivar fetched £365, making it the world’s most expensive snowdrop (and perhaps bulb?) Well, yesterday, this record was shattered, when Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ was auctioned on Ebay for £725, purchased by the seed company Thompson and Morgan, who say in their press release that “the stunning snowdrop Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ was named after the owner of the garden where it first appeared as a seedling in Scotland a few years ago and it has not been identified growing anywhere else.” It is really striking, with a golden yellow ovary and yellow petal markings. I wonder how long it will take them to produce more, and how much longer it will take to be discovered growing in Swarthmore!

Galanthus woronowii

oriental paper bush – aka the shrub to attract fairies in winter

Image

Like I said, I’m totally spoiled living essentially on the grounds of Scott Arboretum.  Every corner you turn, there’s a plant you know nothing about (true for me, anyway) but thank heavens, they’re labeled. Today I was literally blown away by this shrub that looked as if it were hung with silvery-sage ornaments in the shape of flowery bells.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I can’t even describe how deliciously the slightly metallic flower buds seemed to glow from within. Oh and they’ve got a downy fuzz on them as well.  I looked around expecting to see fairies doing a little dance with their rabbit friends.  Seriously.  Then I came home and did some research, and guess what, it’s a member of the Daphne family so when it blooms expect there to be a heavenly scent!  I will check back on this plant to document the buds unfurling and ensuing foliage. Apparently they’ve finally officially named it ‘Snow Cream,’ according to Tony Avent at Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC where they have sold it “without a cultivar name for the last decade.” Aw, I kind of liked it being called ‘Tony’s Clone.’  Did some further reading at Kew and found that the common name, Paper Bush, refers to the fact that its’ bark is used for making paper, including ornamental Japanese wallpaper, calligraphy paper, and at one time, Japanese bank notes of the highest quality.  Neat.

life lessons

Taking a walk today at the Scott Arboretum, I was counting myself extremely lucky to be at such close distance to these grounds.  I’ve taken many (dog) walks here, and there’s always something to see whatever the season.  It’s especially exciting to watch the landscape return to life after the dormancy of winter, and noticing the little signs that spring will come (eventually) fills one with a sort of buoyancy.  The tinge of pink of this Higan Cherry tree starting to bud caught my eye.

Prunus subhirtella, Higan Cherry

Over the next hill, a flowery fragrance wafts towards me on the foggy misty air.  What could it be? It’s so promising, and clean.  Ahh…it’s Witch Hazel! I filled my nose with it’s bright scent while marveling at the strappy little punk rock petals, bursting lemon yellow from their red bud shells like party favors.

Chinese Witch Hazel, Hamamelis Mollis 'Early Bright'

It’s formal name is Hamamelis mollis ‘Early Bright,’ a cultivar of Chinese witch hazel which was actually introduced by the Scott Arboretum in 1988. They noticed one particular plant which consistently bloomed about two weeks earlier than it’s neighbors, and over several years selected, named, and released this winter beauty.  Here it is blooming in late January but it’s been known to bloom during the first few weeks of January.

Chinese Witch Hazel, Hamamelis Mollis 'Early Bright'

Among those responsible for this fine introduction is Andrew Bunting, now Scott Arb’s Curator and owner of Fine Garden Creations, a company I worked for in 1996/1997. I consider Andrew and his team responsible for getting me started on my journey into the world of horticulture, a world I’ve been sadly distanced from in my profession as TV producer.

Rose Hips in Rose Garden

But witnessing the bravado of buds and fruits in the winter landscape, my spirits are lifted.  There is rebirth, change, growth all around us.   I can grow and change too, and I am, and I will.  I spent a moment really examining these plants, and took in their scents and colors, and when I walked away I think maybe I learned some kind of lesson, that the cycles which govern every living thing also govern me; and that when I feel connected to Nature, I am more alive and more myself.