Monthly Archives: May 2012

Muddlin’ in the Garden

I was on the lawnmower the other day when genius  struck.

It’s not an unusual occurrence. Riding my beloved John Deere in long circles for the hour it takes to mow either front or back is for me a time to let my  mind roam. Every time I mow I feel I notice something new – a dogwood branch or raspberry vine hanging over the fence, the forsythia I forgot I planted by the shed suddenly stretching tall, a nest perched at the edge of a tree. Then in noticing, I start to daydream and, next thing you know, I’m amped to write ten more blogs of ideas that I have to start implementing!

It’s taken three years to establish itself, but this rhododendron (and the gem rhodos on either side) has finally admitted to loving its full-shade hideaway.

At any rate, the other day as I was cutting the corners around the porch’s flowerbeds, a thought popped into my head. It’s the side of the porch that gets very little light of any kind. This year the rhododendron that I planted there bloomed for the first time in three years, and the lavender I planted two years ago has taken off. The latest addition is a regular spearmint that I planted after it served its time as a wedding centerpiece. That mint is loving life and taking over. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly exciting in terms of aesthetics.

So I’m riding on the mower and I start thinking to myself, “Anybody can grow an herb garden. What I need is a mojito garden.” Then, because I was hot and a little punchy, I started giggling to myself as I pictured the sign: “Made for Muddling.” (If you’re not a mojito drinker, it’s a rum-based drink where you “muddle” mint leaves in the glass to release their flavor.)

And now I find that I’m thoroughly excited about this ugly little plot.

These mints are just begging to be muddled.

This garden is a challenge I hadn’t had the energy to take on yet because I knew the key to this area would be, rather than evicting the ugly tenants, finding a way to make them more visually interesting. I’m not normally a “country chic” type of person, but the way this little garden is hidden, I think a few spunky cute signs might do the trick. I’ve been doing some online reading to find out what Dremel accessory might be most helpful in making my “muddling” sign, with the goal of adding new types of mints (the one with the tag in the front is an orange mint) and creating stakes with their names painted on. Since obviously this is a plant that likes to travel, I’m also looking for creative ways to contain new additions, such as the chocolate mint on the other side of the garden that now I’m eager to transplant. I think I may have hit on something.

I gave new life to this old stump by letting it serve as a planter in my garden.

The other day the pup and I were out walking in the woods when I found the stump pictured above. It reminded me of a piece of driftwood, but with a rich green moss growing at one end. I picked it up, brushed it off, and settled it into my garden behind this lavender. Next, I added a bit of dirt to the already bowl-shaped roots and sunk a few strands of spearmint into my new “planter.” I love my stump, but it’s lonely. Right now I’m on the lookout for a few round, somewhat-hollow additions to serve as planters – and sign holders – for the many exotic mints available out there.

I’ve got a busy week ahead, but I’m setting this as my goal for the next week. In the meantime, I would love to hear your suggestions for fun mint-themed signs, tips for making those signs, and your favorite types of mints – or mojitos!

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Yesterday I went on a wonderful walking tour of the “oldest suburb” of Fredericksburg, Va. The Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, along with Hallowed Ground Tours, hosts tours every Saturday of the historic downtown area, and then on a monthly basis hosts a tour of one of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The FAMCC newsletter described yesterday’s tour: “Established as Fredericksburg’s ‘First Suburb’ in the 1760s by Roger Dixon, Lower Caroline Street residences and homes are some of the City’s oldest and most historic.  Closely connected with the riverfront activities one block away, the neighborhood has stories of merchants, future presidents, and abolition. From its 18th-century founding, to a community of Patriots, to its growth as one of Fredericksburg’s most prosperous and elegant neighborhoods, this tour will explore the history and architecture of one of America’s classic streetscapes.”

It was a fascinating tour, and our guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the area. I had no idea I regularly walked my dog past a house where James Monroe once lived, and I’d never stopped to study the architectural details of the house that bears its date of construction – 1764 – proudly painted near its roof line. As our guide shared stories of residents of yore, I could almost picture the windows opening to another time.

But what does this have to do with gardening? Well, although I am an avid history buff, I must admit that I was in part motivated to participate in the tour because of my desire to stare unabashedly at some of the most beautiful gardens in town. These are houses that have been here several hundred years and, although the landscaping has obviously changed over decades, these residents have had some time to get it right.

And boy did my visit pay off (although I regret to say I didn’t take a single photo – you’ll have to plan your own visit!). Hydrangeas were in full bloom and lilies were finally opening. Everything was on perfect display, set to inspire passersby into a swoon from sweet scents (although any “swooning” would more likely have been because summer officially started yesterday with a thermometer-shattering fury). My husband, as usual, was drawn to gardens hidden behind stone walls, with lush hydrangeas bordering crushed shell paths; the sight of a stone wall alone is enough to remind him of happy childhood visits to the small seaside town in France where his grandparents lived.

For my part, I began to realize I was most frequently drawn to one style in particular, a style I’ve decided to call “ordered chaos.” The perfectly trimmed horseshoe-shaped hedges were too fussy, the wild roses climbing where they would a bit too messy. Time and again I returned to the yards that featured neat circles of monkey (or mondo) grass surrounding wildly explosive lilies and astilbe. The most successful (in my opinion) orderly gardens were also most interesting because the potential for monotony was always broken up by one unique detail – an unusual rose, a small gurgling fountain, a pretty stone.

It was rather surprising to learn after all this time that, while I don’t mind getting messy, I like my resulting gardens neat. I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been more of a “this spot looks good, let’s shove this one here and then find another hole for the next plant” kind of gardener. Now that I’m starting to plan more long-term projects, in a house I plan to live in for more than another year or two, I’m more interested in creating borders that will stand through the winter months, and coloring within those lines.

The perfect case in point would be a relatively new bed in the front of the house. First, a look at the house when we first moved in:

It’s okay. Nothing too exciting, but at least there’s something going on out front. I yanked out those azaleas almost right away and moved them to another part of the yard. Nothing against azaleas, I was just looking for something a little darker in color to complement the holly, and with a more regular shape.

This picture taken this morning shows a little bit of where I’m going. Not quite there yet, but I’ve got nandinas adding some height at regular intervals, inkberry hollies that some day will grow into a regular round shape, sad little golden barberries that (if they make it through the summer; they’re a new addition) will pick up the golden colors in the new nandina leaves and add some visual interest, and my beloved candytufts filling up the bottom with their cheery white blooms and rich texture. It’s getting there.

On the other side of the front step is take one at a new addition, and it’s this I’m aiming to rein in:

I love this little plot. It makes me grin every time I walk up to my front door because of all the color. But it is a mess. It’s changed direction three times, and painfully shows it. I’ve managed to hide most of the disaster under a crush of petunias and million bells, but I know come fall I’ll be stuck with a lopsided array of too-tall roses (how can I prune something that won’t stop blooming?!) and a single oddly pruned shrub.

This daylily greets me every morning with a smile.

I have ideas. And after this weekend’s tour, I know that I’m on the right track. A neat ring of dwarf boxwoods bordered by roses, holding in the spray of petunia and purple-blooming lemon balm. Ordered chaos. That grass dipping into the bed is an eyesore; I’m looking at border ideas that will add definition and improve edging. That non-blooming lily is going to move to a side bed where she’ll be much happier…although I think that bloomer by the front post is going to stay. It’s just too much of a pleasure to have a lily sitting by the newel post waiting to shake my hand when I come out in the morning. One surprising detail, I learned, can make a bed.

I recall my high school English teacher telling our class, in the context of teaching Shakespeare, that good writers borrow while the great writers steal. The only thing more exciting than stealing ideas from some truly great gardens is borrowing some plants from them. In this case, my mom might as well leave a shovel next to her half-hidden dwarf boxwoods as I’m just about ready to give them center stage.

Stay tuned for an update  in the near future on this bed. And in the meantime, take a walk through your neighborhood and see how your neighbors are making creative use of the same soil and shade that you have in your yard.

Nature’s Pond Vac

I made an amazing discovery this week and am so excited to share it with other water gardeners who may be reading. But first, a little background…

Small koi are more fun. These frisky fish are a trip to watch as they swim laps around and into one another.

On an unusually warm day in late March, Chris told me we needed a pond vac. He regularly maintains our pond with a mix of organic products designed to remove algae and sludge, while keeping our five koi happy and safe. Still, between the koi and the uncooperative wind that keeps blowing leaves and debris into the pond, there’s been an increasingly thicker film of sediment covering the colorful rocks at the bottom of the pond. In March, there was also a layer of leaves; the net we purchased to protect the pond from leaves all autumn long came in just a few inches too short, just short enough it seemed to make a mess of things. Although our skimmer works hard, there’s little it can to do bring this debris to the surface for filtering.

Determined to repair the damage fall had done (despite the fact that the water had barely had time to warm), Chris donned his bathing trunks, took a deep breath, and climbed into the pond to remove the deepest leaves. Upon getting out, teeth chattering and lips turning blue, he turned to me and said, “We need a pond vac.”

This bog-loving grass has come into bloom.

Fast forward two months later, as the pond began truly waking up. The koi have become frisky, knocking one another out of the way to reach the last stick of food floating on the surface while I laugh. The pond plants are doing better than ever – a corkscrew grass set on one of the pond shelves and the tall, straight grass we burrowed into a watery crevice between two boulders both have tufts of light blooms on the ends of their stalks. The water lily has begun to turn green, although its leaves are still quite small. Yesterday I noticed as the fish bobbed around its leaves that a thicker stalk is sending up a bud (this morning it’s the beautiful bloom pictured at the top). The fiber-optic grass that died nearly a week after I planted it on the waterfall has been reborn, this time inside the waterfall, where the water catches on the playful “beads” (seedheads, in fact) at the tips of its blades. One among the five stonecrop we planted last summer has returned as well, and is expanding to a second rock. And then there are the frogs.

The fish and plants are both growing to fill up the pond.

I mentioned the tadpoles in my last post, but even then I didn’t know how much I’d come to appreciate these tiny critters. I was having coffee out by the pond one morning earlier this week when Chris came home, and I invited him over to watch the fish with me. I was admiring their swirling colors as they did laps around their home. “Did you put in the ‘algae fix?'” Chris asked curiously, dropping to his knees for a closer look at the pond.

“No,” I replied, puzzled. Finally I looked past the fish and saw what he had noticed right away.

“They’ve cleaned the whole pond,” Chris said in awe.

Those pesky little tadpoles had eaten virtually all of the sludge at the bottom of the pond. How could I have missed it? The red rocks were crisp again, except for the wiggle of tiny tails, and the blue-gray of the river rock glowed through the water.

These wriggling bottom-feeders are keeping busy keeping this pond clean!

Yes, there are still hundreds of tadpoles swimming in the pond. And at some point here in the near future we’ll have the show of watching those tails turn into legs. We’ll worry then about the hundreds of frogs that we’ll have on hand, but after this discovery I’m ready to trust that our pond is prepared to take care of itself!

It’s A Wild Life

I’m not supposed to feed the deer.

I know that. I know that deer are the pests that have earned a note on most plants’ sales tags (this species is deer-resistant, they proclaim) and that the last thing any gardener in their right mind wants to do is encourage visits from these four-legged garbage disposals.

But …

You looking at me? Who could deny this ragged guy a meal? Aside from anyone with a love of azaleas, that is …

I nearly lost a photinia and two golden euonymus over the winter to these white-tailed natives. Overnight, the three shrubs were eaten to the stem and I had four long months to think about my poor plant selection. I had stuck these shrubs in my current gardening no-man’s-land, the far back corner of the yard, to eventually frame the arbor (more on that later, I hope) and provide the first bright splash of color when the rest of the yard is hibernating. The loss was a sharp reminder to pay attention to those plant tags and stick to “pointy leaves,” as my mom recently reminded me; tall grasses and leaves that taper to one or more sharp points provide far less of a temptation as a snack bar in the dead of winter.

While those leafless sticks were a good reminder of what deer can do, all it took come spring was one flash of a white tail and the sight of those gorgeous, long, hooved legs to have me on the verge of planting a salt lick next to my azaleas. I mean, they were here first after all. Who am I to begrudge a doe a meal?

I can nearly feel the murderous murmuring of plant-lovers everywhere at the thought that I might be luring these pests into suburbia. I’m not quite that foolish. I know deer cause major havoc in neighborhoods such as mine, not just to plants but to drivers as well.  All I’m admitting is that I can live with a little heavy pruning when it means a chance to spy on the quiet grace of these animals at their breakfast.

I may not be ready to wage war on the deer, but the groundhog was another matter. You may recall I originally thought a groundhog was creating the massive hole in the middle of my yard. Turns out, this critter much prefers a roof over his head;  well, a floor, actually. “Otis,” as I jokingly call him (having stubbornly refused eviction for years, Otis seems a part of the family now) has renewed his tenancy under my shed for yet another year.

The sneaky groundhog lifts his head, sensing he is being watched … but then grows quickly bored and returns to lunch.

I’ve only ever seen the one groundhog, and only on pleasantly sunny afternoons when he plods out to the center of the lawn to snack on the tallest grass. The first time I spotted him was seconds after my pup caught him in her sights – and very nearly after in her jaws. Akira was more akita in spirit than in size and strength at that point in time, and luckily listened when I called her off the cornered rodent, poised to fight. Since then Akira has developed a daily obsession with watching the groundhog’s front door and sniffs every entrance and exit from the creature’s underground home before contenting herself that the yard is safe and she is free to play.

The akita hasn’t posed a groundhog deterrent; neither did traps baited with all manner of goodies. But since Otis keeps his burrowing beneath the shed, and the floor is still in one piece, well, I’m chalking that visitor up as entertainment and exercise for the pup, and calling it a day.

“Yes, do please neglect to mow your lawn for two weeks – more clover for me!”

The garden has been graced by visits from all manner of creatures over the past three years: rabbits living under the front fir, mother turtles nesting beneath the inkberry hollies, the occasional fox, birds of all feathers and – shudder! – a variety of harmless snakes. But there’s  one other pest that we’re learning to live with: frogs.

It’s a side effect of the pond, of course. This is the second spring where one day the koi suddenly had new neighbors. I’ll walk to the pond’s edge with a bag of koi food and, plop, into the pond the frog dives. It was cute, at first. Until I learned we had at least two frogs…

Pet frog, anyone?

It was a lot more fun watching the eggs develop into tadpoles, and tadpoles into tiny frogs … once we realized maybe three or four of the final frogs would find a lasting place in the pond.

Strawberry Shortcake

I was all set to make dog biscuits this morning when suddenly my baking agenda changed. After a weekend away and several days of glorious rain (thank you free sprinkler system in the sky!) , I finally remembered to go pick the latest batch of strawberries. When I brought my pail inside, I actually pulled out the food scale – 8 oz of strawberries seems like plenty of motivation to start baking the shortcakes to go with my ripe fruit!

Fresh off the vine, these strawberries are begging to be enjoyed with a splash of whipped cream.

When I moved here three years ago, I transplanted two strawberry plants from a falling apart plastic window box to the new flower bed around the deck. There wasn’t much else there at the time so when the strawberries began throwing out their amber stems like a rappel line taking them further and higher into uncharted territory, I didn’t really mind.

Frequent May rains have led to an explosion of growth in these strawberry plants.

It drives my orderly husband crazy that the strawberries have since found shelter around the base of nearly every plant sharing that bed. He doesn’t want the fruit fraternizing with the irises or sneaking below the mulch to suddenly arrive in the gravel-covered space beneath the deck.

My two most invasive beauties, the irises and strawberries, compete for total yard domination.

I’m of the opinion that I like my weeds to work for me. If the strawberries want to take over the whole yard, I’m ready to park my mower and wait for them to bloom – although I think I’d rip every strawberry up by the roots if it meant more room for a blueberry bush infestation.

These berries have another month of tempting harvesters before they ripen into their deep blue.

The Epitome of Backyard Entertaining

I think for most people the backyard is a place to enjoy the company of friends, and there are so many fantastic ways to entertain outside, from cookouts to lawn games to sitting around the fire pit and so on. I’m a big fan of outdoor parties, but last May, a year ago from today, in fact, I took it to the next level with my backyard wedding.

We had the arbor and the pond, plenty of chairs, and room for a tent. What more do you need for a backyard wedding?

My fiancé and I had decided to reinvest in our home, rather than a reception site, which led to our decision to hold our wedding and reception at home. On top of that, we wanted the pleasure of looking out on our yard and bringing quickly to mind the beauty of that day.

Wedding parking initially posed a concern before we talked with our neighbors, and invited close friends and family to park on the front lawn.

Once decided, we had a host of challenges to overcome. I talked a bit earlier about some of the landscaping hurdles we faced in preparing the site for the fairy tale magic that is supposed to be the ideal of one’s wedding day. However, there were countless other considerations regarding the party itself. For example, I delayed planting a vegetable garden by a year so that we would have plenty of level, open ground for a large tent.

I carried the garden theme to the food; the cake, courtesy of Cakes By Z, was designed as three baskets filled with flower petals.

In addition, research recommended one bathroom per 30 guests, at least. We capped our guest list at just over 100, and I was biting my nails up until the day of wondering if we should have rented a portable toilet (and where the heck would I have put it?). Then parking; we decided to encourage family and the wedding party to park in the front yard, freeing up the cul-de-sac and street for guests who might not be staying until all hours of the night. Our neighbors were incredibly understanding in allowing for the extra traffic, although I still regret not dropping off cookies to all of the neighbors as a thank you for their consideration – of all the balls to drop I suppose that’s not the worst, but still. There were a number of smaller issues that cropped up as well. Things like sound checks; we performed a check for our musician and the reception sound system, but didn’t realize that over the frog chirping and wind, guests in the back row of seats wouldn’t hear all of the ceremony.

The biggest issue, however, for an outside wedding will always come down to one thing: the weather. I chose a day in May thinking it would be warm enough for sundresses but too cool for mosquitoes to be out in force. Then I spent months waiting for the 2011 Farmer’s Almanac to tell me what I needed to know. And it didn’t. I believe the entry read something like “front may be moving East.” It epitomized vague and left me oscillating between what’s-the-worst-that-can-happen cool and utter panic.

In the end, it rained on my wedding day. And you know what? That was one of my favorite parts.

The tents we accumulated wound up protecting guests and food from heat, rather than rain.

Inspired by an image on TheKnot.com, I hung glass globes filled with daisy blooms from trees around the property, adding to the floral theme.

It was an incredible week leading up to the event. Our family and friends came out in force to help us scrub the house, tie fabulous bows around the covered chairs, stuff miniature filo cups with chicken salad and place daisy blooms in globes hanging dreamlike from the trees. When the white tent arrived, I began to have that fairy tale feeling. And when, the day before, it seemed certain that rain would come, we bought two 10×10-foot blue tents and created a tunnel from the sun porch out to the white tent, then bought matching floral umbrellas for the bridesmaids and black umbrellas for the groomsmen, just in case. What’s a little last minute rearranging?

While I may have finally shrugged off the pre-wedding stress in preparation to enjoy, Chris’ jitters arrived a little late. I still giggle recalling my angry bridesmaid storming upstairs to tell me, while I sipped champagne and peeked out my bedroom window at arriving wedding guests, that she’d just dragged Chris off of his knees in the flower bed where he was spreading last minute mulch over the sound system wires. We were so worried about everything looking perfect, that it was a relief later to see it through our guests’ eyes. All that we needed to make it perfect was our friends.

The rain held off through the ceremony, which we bravely held under the beautiful arbor my dad built, right beside the pond, rather than beneath the tent. Several guests would later swear that the sun peeked out for just a moment over our heads as Chris and I exchanged our vows.

The arbor my dad built proved the perfect setting for saying our vows, and has added charm, shade and beautiful memories to my garden ever since.

The rain held off during photos, even as our amazing photographer assured us that the cloudy sky provided the best lighting (you can read Jen’s so-sweet recap of our wedding here). It held off as I got to finally eat the cookies my friends, family and I had been baking for months in preparation for the event, and then the sun peeked out a bit further as Chris and I shared our first dance on the dance floor he built himself (later to be reborn as the world’s most gorgeous foldable picnic tables).

Is there anything more magical than dancing under the stars? Only making that your first dance as husband and wife.

The rain didn’t begin to come down in soft drizzles until about 6 o’clock, just as some of the older couples and acquaintances were beginning to say their good-byes. One of the most beautiful things about a backyard wedding is that there’s no set time when you have to leave. So what did our more tenacious guests do? Why, they picked up that handmade dance floor and carried it beneath the tent! A couple of pizzas, a costume change and a few playlists later, and we found ourselves dancing, singing and having fun with our friends all night long.

When a little thunderstorm finally threatened to end the wedding festivities, the party moved itself beneath the big tent to continue a little longer.

Looking back, I would have done it the same all over again. Sometimes I think we might. After all, only this year did the roses reach the lushness that I wanted for the wedding, and we’ve been looking for an excuse to put in a patio by the pond and I feel that would make an excellent dance floor. Not to mention there are so many more wonderful memories added to the list when I walk out my back deck and say good morning to my little world. While Chris and I  might be renewing our vows every day (happy anniversary, my darling!), there’s nothing quite like an excuse to have a garden party!

Every available surface was filled with flowers, sharing their sweet scent and leaving smiles.

Just a note: I’d like to thank J. Pool Photography for the photographs used in this post.

Thanks Mom

I wanted to take a second on Mother’s Day to thank my mom for nurturing my love of gardening.

Last weekend I went to visit my mom for her birthday. As a gift, my sister, brother and I spent some time helping in her garden. I pruned the tops of azaleas taller than I and helped to widen the winding paths carved through these blooming shrubs. Next I followed my mom about and, when she pointed, I brought out the shovel and dug up the offending oak tree or Russian olive or prickered vine and tossed it in a pile for clean-up (usually after waving it around and cheering, a warning to other oak trees considering taking root in my mother’s garden that had Mom rolling her eyes and grinning). As the sun grew hotter overhead, we sat in the shade and I helped plant daisies around one of dozens of birdbaths waiting to serve the feathered community that flocks to this oasis.

As we walked through the garden and weeded, we of course talked, alternately planning the future course of the garden or our own futures. Much as pulling that first weed causes one’s fingers to meander, there’s hardly anything more relaxing than wandering along a garden path and letting your thoughts follow what they will.

A path is a wonderful addition to any garden. Not only does it help “grow” the sense of size, but it adds a bit of mystery as to what may lay along the corner.

Last weekend, our thoughts often turned to my grandmother, who recently passed away, but who we agreed was cheering us on as I tugged up offending weeds. My mom grew up in the house where she now lives again, and she notes that if a tree falls here or a plant dies there, well, it’s all changed so much over the years that it’s clear in another year or ten it will be a totally different garden than the one we surveyed that day. It’s a good reminder: change is constant in gardening and in life. Both require frequent maintenance, solid looks to ensure you’re on the right path. For me, it is a necessary reminder. I grow nostalgic wandering through the garden where I spent so many summers of my childhood playing, and it’s hard sometimes to accept the drastic changes. And in my own garden I feel sometimes so bent on matching the land to the image in my head of what it should be, that I need I that reminder that the garden follows it’s own path and sometimes I need to step back and accept what it wants rather than what I think is best.

Obviously gardening is a part of my mom’s legacy to me, as it was from her mom to her, and my great-grandmother’s legacy to my grandmother. A garden seems a wonderful thing to leave behind. And my, how the roots have spread. Last summer I planted spider lilies my aunt gave me from my great-grandmother’s garden. The healthiest azaleas in my yard are the ones I dug up from my mother’s house, and she still keeps pushing more nandinas and Indian hawthorns my way. I love watching the progress of these plants, thinking how these stalks grew under my mother’s or grandmother’s care. And now it’s my turn to care for these plants, to ensure my garden has a shady place to sit and a meandering path for the tiny feet of future wandering gardeners.

I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

Gardens change constantly, bringing fresh challenges and new perspectives that keep their tenders forever young.