A Garden of our Own

After many years, I finally have a garden of my own, in my own backyard. Here in South Philly, we are Zone 7b. Our little ReNewbold community has about 10 shared garden plots, but because there was no one living next door to us at the time the beds were planted, we volunteered to take the whole thing, which simplifies design. This photo was taken right after the first planting last year:

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Brian adding wire for the vines to climb on after initial planting, April 2017. The roof drains into the white barrels, and we can water the garden through it. The vines will cover the white.

I share this lovely plot of earth with my spouse, who has helped select plants and tended to it with my hovering direction. This is a life long dream come true, as it took a such a long time to come back to gardening after being traumatized by working for Martha Stewart – where there was only one right way to do everything. Here, I get to make potentially stupid decisions just to see what happens and enjoy every moment.

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Mid season 2017

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POW! Plant explosion near end of 2017 season

It was so exciting to have spring FINALLY get here this year, and the miracle of perennials coming back to life was especially savored. We are lucky to have a roof deck, and can look down and see the garden from above. This is right after we added a fresh layer of compost from Bennett Compost. Tim is delightful to work with.

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Viewed from roof – April 2018 – everything is coming back! Fresh layer of Bennett compost.

We also got lucky because some other neighbors were not interested in gardening their plot, so I’m gardening theirs too. Mwa haha…

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What I planted in the neighbors plot, spring 2017

The garden has come back strong this year, and without the hyacinth bean vine of last year, the honeysuckle is boss. The wisteria that we planted last year is starting to bloom. IMG_5253.JPG

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It’s always a learning process with plants. What worked somewhere else may not be happy here, or vice versa. One part of the process I’m really enjoying is interacting with neighbors to see what they’ve planted, and together, witnessing the miracle of plants growing. Some are ornamental, some are useful herbs or food, but always there is the absolute joy and satisfaction at having provided a suitable environment for a plant to thrive, and perhaps attract bees, butterflies, birds and insects too.  Oh and a few kitties.IMG_5258.JPG

I’m excited about the seeds I sowed this year (from Seedsavers of course!) Hungarian blue poppies, nasturtium, sweet peas, cosmos, and sunflowers. I’ve been observing the seedlings’ progress every morning with my coffee, and will report more when there is more to report! Until then, happy gardening.

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What I feel like after a day of gardening!

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Ladies Hat Day at the Devon Horse Show

Ladies Hat Day competitors and winners with Carson Kressley (judge) photo by Brenda Carpenter

Ladies Hat Day winners with Carson Kressley (judge) photo by Brenda Carpenter

Heard of the Devon Horse Show? If you’re from the Philadelphia area, you have!  It’s been around since 1896, when it began as a way for the newly migrated wealthy business men of the Main Line to discuss the need of better horses for their vehicles.  In 1919, it was decided a Country Fair should be held in conjunction with the horse show, and that the event should benefit Bryn Mawr Hospital.  Women were gaining their rights all over the country and with the Country Fair, they proved their strength and organizational skills with a successful fundraiser that to date has raised almost 14 million dollars!

Ms. Betty Moran at Information booth, one of the many volunteers

Ms. Betty Moran at Information booth, one of the many volunteers, photo by Devon Horse Show on Facebook

To this day, the Devon Horse show still raises money for Bryn Mawr Hospital, and one of the Country Fair Special Events that contributes to that donation is the Ladies Day event, where elegant ladies don their best hats to compete for Best of Devon, Most Fascinating, Best Hat to Toe, and Best in Show.  This year’s theme was “Ribbons and Pearls,” and was held on May 28th.

But wait, where's the lady?

But wait, where’s the lady?

In addition to all the voluminous chapeaus, the Ladies Day event features floral centerpieces donated by area floral designers such as VF Flowers, Beautiful Blooms, Robertsons, Cottage Flowers, Fleur, and…Roots to Blooms! (That’s me.)  Our centerpieces would be displayed in the preferred seating tent with a luncheon included, and then moved to the blue room where the box holders have dinner.

Preferred seating and Luncheon area displaying floral centerpieces in hat boxes

Preferred seating and Luncheon area displaying floral centerpieces in hat boxes

I was contacted by the lovely and energetic Karen Meehan to be a part of this event, and was thrilled to participate in the hat box challenge.  Here were a few of the other hat box designs:

Robertson's design

Robertson’s design

Heather, from Cottage Gardens

Heather, from Cottage Flowers in Malvern, chose delphiniums, clematis, and peonies; and mossed the hat box herself.  This was my favorite design as I love the more ‘gardeny’ feel.

Juliet roses in this peachy display

‘Juliet’ garden roses in this peachy display!

I chose to visit my local Peony grower, Eleanor Tickner, for the bulk of my floral material, as it is peak peony season and not only was this a cost effective choice, but an eco-friendly one as well.  You just show up with a bucket and get your stems ($1.50/stem and up.) Everything is in full swing right now at A Peony Garden in Glen Mills, and with the help of Eleanor’s daughter Butch, I was able to cut many varieties including Red Charm, Raspberry Charm, Battle Flag, Coral Charm, Do Tell, and Festiva Maxima, to name a few. The peonies are well grown, well loved, and enchanting to say the least!

Me with my peony design (thanks Heather!)

Me with my peony design (thanks for snapping this, Heather!)

My design using peonies with a little hat netting

Mine got to sit at the judges’ table!

First, I lined the hat box (bought from Amazon) with plastic, added a thicker plastic liner, and yes, I had to use floral foam for this.  There was no way around it.  After doweling together my foam, which rose three to four inches higher than the lip of the box, I added the base foliage of dusty miller and variegated pittosporum… and then I just kept adding peonies.  It was a delicious experience to work with so many peonies (the white peony edged with pinky/red ‘Festiva Maxima’ has the most wonderful fragrance!) I added filler such as nigella, blue cornflower, Queen Anne’s lace, some spray rose and a few fronds of maidenhair fern.  I tucked a few black feathers in for accent, as well as some lacey hat netting and some black bows and a few pearl thingamabobs.

25 peonies all in one hat box, with pittosporum, nigella, cornflower, waxflower, dusty miller and queen anne's lace

My design used twenty five peonies all in one hat box

All in all, I was pleased with the result and think I will definitely do more hat box designing in the future!  I couldn’t have done it without my trusty assistant Julie, and wouldn’t have been included if it hadn’t been for Karen.  Thanks, you guys! I hope to participate next year.  It was so much fun, and all for a good cause!  Three cheers for Ladies Hat Day.

Karen, Devon volunteer extraordinaire, and my trusty drop-off assistant Julie

Karen, Devon volunteer extraordinaire, and my trusty drop-off assistant Julie

The Devon Horse Show and Country fair will continue throughout the rest of the weekend and there are lots of cool exhibitions and vendors to check out.

It’s Almost Peony Time!

Wondering if the peonies are blooming at A Peony Garden yet?  Almost.  “I give it until next Thursday,” says garden maven and peony expert, Eleanor Tickner.  (That’s May 29th, and I’m counting the days.)  We met Eleanor two seasons ago while on the hunt for peonies as cut flowers, and succumbed to peony mania in the process.  Read the BLOG POST describing all the details.  Right now, there are many buds and a few blooms over at the garden in Glen Mills, and we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse!

Meet 'Sunny Boy,' a peony within a peony.

Meet ‘Sunny Boy,’ a peony within a peony and quite a rare find.

'Laning Peach'

This peony’s a peach!

'Raspberry Charm' is so bright I have to wear shades.

‘Raspberry Charm’ is so bright I have to wear shades.

And of course, no visit would be complete without a greeting from our old pal, Riddler, who is still going strong.  But don’t worry, his humans are very responsible with dog-shy visitors.

Enter as strangers, leave as friends.  Like the sign says.

“Enter as strangers, leave as friends.” Like the sign says.

See you in a little over a week, Eleanor! Thanks for creating a little slice of heaven on earth for us to visit.

A Peony Garden address: 1739 Middletown Rd. Glen Mills, PA 19342 – about 20 miles SW of Philadelphia.  4.6 miles NW of route 1 on 352.  tel 610.358.1321 call ahead for large orders.  Cut flowers offered as well as peonies in containers.  A must visit for any peony lover!

 

Awakening

When spring finally comes, especially after a long winter, I think to myself how very brave it is for plants to send out buds and leaves and flowers again.  They have the courage to reach for the light and keep growing, despite the fact that they’ll inevitably die.

Magnolia

Magnolia

Especially courageous are spring ephemerals like Mertensia virginica, or Virginia bluebells; for these beauties are but fleeting bursts of color in the spring landscape, typically above ground for only a few short months before folding back into dormancy again.

Virginia Bluebells, or Mertensia virginica

Virginia Bluebells, or Mertensia virginica

And what about the sheer doggedness of our native dogwood tree, whose bracts unfurl in April to reveal the true inner blooms, tiny and button-like?

Dogwood

Many of our spring flowering trees send out blooms even before leaves emerge.  That’s like getting up in the morning and walking outside naked, in my opinion!

Yellow Magnolia

Yellow Magnolia

If only I could take a lesson from spring’s treasures, and learn to get back up with grace when life knocks me down, knowing that it’s all just part of the cycle of life.

back to the garden

Remember the patch of earth my Pops and I dug back in February?

Pops and Larry dig out garden on 2/27/12

Well, I planted some euphorbia, and then sowed seeds, which sprouted up in no time. Sweet peas, dill, bachelor’s buttons, poppy, Ammi majus…

Then I added some plants from Mostardi’s:  foxglove, armeria, thyme, lavender, fennel, rosemary, delphinium, Russian sage, nepeta, lamb’s ear, eryngium…

Garden on 5/4/12

Red stemmed dogwood ‘fencing’

5/5/12 – Fertilized with Dr. Earth’s organic stuff

Since then, I’ve been watching my garden closely, watching things grow.  Thinning, weeding, a little watering if needed.  Then I went away for less than a week during a heat spell, and when I came back the garden seemed to be overflowing with plants!

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Foxglove after a rain – 5/22/12

Bees love it

First Sweet Pea Blossom – 72 days after sowing seed (5/31/12)

the Overseer of Sweet Peas, placed by Pops

Delphinium 5/31

I did some editing today, and as if it’s not crammed full enough, I also sowed a few sunflower and Bells of Ireland seeds!  I can’t wait to see the poppies, bachelor’s buttons, and Ammi majus bloom – soon, I think.  I can’t believe how good it makes me feel to tend a few plants in a 4′ x 13′ bed.  Now, where to put that clematis vine…

a peony garden

I was never very good at keeping secrets.  So, for those of you that wanted A Peony Garden, in Glen Mills, PA to remain a secret, I’m terribly sorry.  This place is just too amazing not to share with everyone!

A Peony Garden is four acres of heaven on earth during the month of May, planted with 250 different cultivars of tree, garden, and intersectional peonies of all colors shapes and sizes.  Peony fans can buy peony plants, but the bulk of the business done here is cut flowers, and that’s what I’m interested in.  Prices vary throughout the season between $1 and $1.50 per stem, which in the floral world is absolutely unbeatable. And you can feel good about buying from a local grower – you’re not flying peonies from halfway around the world, there’s no excessive packaging – just bring your own bucket!  How sustainable is that!

Picking peonies with Valerie, Jane and volunteer Sandy Papa

Freelance floral designer Valerie McLaughlin stops to smell the peonies

But beware that you don’t succumb to peony mania, like we did.  There’s just something about all those fragrant blooms, and their silken petals worn like party dresses, that makes you simply swoon.  You will want more, more, more!!

Eleanor Tickner, head gardener

The woman behind it all, Eleanor Tickner, has her own secrets to growing peonies, which she downplays.  “Sunshine, of course.  And you go out and talk to them, you pray over them.”  Eleanor and her husband Bill have been growing peonies here for around 15 years.   It’s a family affair – her two daughters sometimes help out, and the Great Danes are not guard dogs but more like the official greeters of the place.

Riddler greets my Dad

Eleanor with head of the PR department, Great Dane Riddler

Eleanor began growing as a way to keep busy after retirement, because as she says, “you don’t stop working and all of a sudden eat bon bons and chase dust bunnies.” Accustomed to working hard and seeing results, Eleanor wanted to do something exciting with the four acres of sunny land, which she says is “just enough to get me in trouble.”   She chose to plant peonies, because they don’t need a lot of water (they only have well water on their property,) and because they’re “satisfying to the soul.”  Peonies reminded Eleanor of her adopted grandmother from next door, who grew a row of peonies she believed kept the evil spirits away.   After spending an hour at A Peony Garden, I begin to think that myth is true, because I just feel so darned good.

Eleanor swears that growing peonies is just a hobby, but from the glint in her eye, and the fact that she’s out in her garden until dusk every day, I believe she’s passed into the realm of obsession.  While she has no horticulture degree, she’s the President and co-founder of the Mid Atlantic Peony Society, and serves on the Board of Directors at The American Peony Society. She’s also written articles on peonies – for Philly News, and for The Hardy Plant Society, to name a few.  She’s referred to as a “promoter” of peonies, by Don Hollingsworth, of Hollingsworth Nursery in Missouri, one of the top growers of peonies in the country.  Holllingsworth, along with Adelman Peony Gardens in Oregon, and Hidden Springs Flower Farm in Minnesota, are the main sources for her plants.

It’s clear that Eleanor has more than just a love for peonies; she’s adopted a scientific approach to growing them, evaluating cultivars for reliability, consistent bloom, and the ability to grow without staking.  She is always willing to share her knowledge with others, and her humility is unparalleled.  “As far as I’m concerned, every person is replaceable on this earth.  But my job needs to be done, so that’s what I’m doing out here – educating.”

Eleanor gives a tour to the Scattered Seeds Garden Club

Through the American Peony Society, she judges plants worthy of the APS Award of Landscape Merit, and grows a few of these recipients on her property, such as ‘Do Tell,’ a pink anemone form peony, and one of my favorites of the day.

‘Do Tell’ peony – I mean, amazing, right??

If you’re a peony lover looking to grow some reliable favorites for cutting, Eleanor recommends varieties like ‘Festiva Maxima,’ a huge fragrant double variety whose frilly white petals are edged with red flares.

‘Festiva Maxima’ has been around for 150 years

If you like big pink peonies, try growing ‘President Taft’ or ‘Walter Faxon;’ but for a glorious red peony Eleanor suggests ‘The Mackinac Grand’ (pronounced mackin-AW,) whose brilliant fiery red hues could literally stop traffic.

‘The Mackinac Grand’ – also an APS Award of Landscape Merit winner

There are many unnamed varieties here too, gotten ‘over the garden gate’ or at an end of season sale. “It’s a gardener’s dream, to have this much land available to play in – and that’s what I do – play,” says Eleanor.  If you go for cut flowers, bring a bucket and expect to spend some time combing the gardens for your favorites.  Either Eleanor or her volunteer, Sandy, will walk you through the fields and cut the blooms you desire.  She doesn’t let the public cut her peonies, spritzing alcohol on the pruners between each plant to stop any diseases from spreading.

Sandy Papa, volunteer, cuts ‘The Mackinac Grand’ for me to bring home

Jane Godshalk hides behind a peony bloom

Jane counting peonies.

For floral fanatics, Eleanor shares her special recipe for prolonging a peony’s vase life:  1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar (to fight bacterial growth) and 1 tablespoon sugar (food for bloom) to one quart of water.  It really works!  The blooms at A Peony Garden should last through Memorial Day Weekend, so hurry to get a glimpse of these old fashioned beauties, and be sure to take some home with you.  Thanks to my Dad and stepmom Julie for sharing their secret peony source with me!

A Peony Garden address: 1739 Middletown Rd. Glen Mills, PA 19342 – about 20 miles SW of Philadelphia.  4.6 miles NW of route 1 on 352.  tel 610.358.1321 call ahead for large orders

spring design using a kenzan

My goal:  to create a spring design in rectangular container without using floral foam; because I’m trying to practice earth-friendly floral design.  You get pretty hooked on using floral foam, because there simply is nothing else like it out there – when you put the stems in, they stay put.  But sometimes that creates an unnatural look, and the stuff itself sure is unnatural (and not biodegradable, and not good for you, etc.)  Hence my experiment with using a kenzan, or frog, for a more complicated arrangement using spring shrubs and bulbs.

I used only one kenzan, because that’s all I own at the moment.  My supply of all things floral is growing…but this is one area in which I’m sadly lacking.  They do come in many sizes, and are popular in Ikebana.

start with branches – point of emergence is centered and radiating outward

I think the fact that I only had one kenzan actually forced me to remember my lessons in point of emergence.  If you have no point of emergence – the place where all your stems seem to come from – then your design will look chaotic and just not good (unless you’re doing a parallel design – for every rule there is an exception. By the way, this is the same container I have used before for parallel designs.)  The point of emergence for this design should be somewhat centered and mid way down into the container, fanning out from there. I started by placing all my woody material in, which additionally I had sliced vertically for better water absorption.  This included snowball viburnum, and two kinds of azalea (one fuschia, one yellow deciduous.)  I had some lilac but it was too toasted.

making a mess is so much fun!

my cake spinny thing makes arranging so much easier!

Then I added the big stemmed items (hyacinth,) the tulips and a few greens; and of course water at the very end.  It was harder to work with the kenzan in this arrangement than floral foam would have been, but I think the result is a more natural look, don’t you?  Maybe more wild and messy than I would have liked, but I guess sometimes you just can’t be in control of everything.

Now will someone please invent an eco-friendly floral foam? It shouldn’t be that hard!

spring arrangement with shrubs

I clipped a few things from my parent’s yard and took them up to Boston with me for the week as a reminder of the lushness of spring in Pennsylvania. This is what I ended up doing with them, keeping clusters of azalea, lilac, and snowball viburnum grouped together.   These pics were taken before I got my new camera, unfortunately.  More delicious plant and flower photos to come as the week progresses.

I’m pretty sure the viburnum in question is Viburnum opulus Roseum, also called European Snowball Viburnum or European cranberry bush, which flowers in spring and early summer, starting out chartreuse and turning white.  All of these shrubs have been here for many decades, and I’m glad I’m finally able to appreciate them (when I was 17 I don’t think I really noticed…silly girl.)

I didn’t do anything fancy with the stems (like pound them or slit them vertically,) I just cut them with sharp pruners on a slant – and because there was a lot of woody material, they stayed in place pretty well.

These didn’t last as long as I would have hoped – only 4 days or so.  The lilacs crisped up first.  I should have let them condition in a cool dark place with hot water for an hour, then added cool water and let them sit for 4-5 hours (like my teacher Jane taught us during Day 3 of Basic Floral Design!)  Instead, I cut them, put them right in a bucket of cold water, and drove 5+ hours with them, letting the lilac scent permeate my brain deliciously.   Upon returning to Swarthmore, where these shrubs live, I see I will be given another chance to work with these dazzling spring blooms – but I’ve missed out on the chartreuse phase of the Viburnum – it’s already turned white!