Sunday, December 29, 2013

Nancy's Garden: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Part Two

2013 was a very productive year in my edible garden. I managed to plant a reasonably good succession of vegetables from spring until fall. I had a few favorites, a few failures, and many happy successes. The last weekend of the year is a great time to review the good, the bad, and the delicious... 
My number one success story is my new peach tree bed. In the fall of 2012 I decided to give my husband a peach tree for his birthday. He LOVES peaches. I spent many weekends digging out gooseneck loosestrife and sifting the soil to prepare it. I planted the tree and surrounded it with divisions of culinary chives plants, 5 'Top Hat' dwarf blueberries, and 5 assorted high bush blueberries. This bed is right next to my back garage, my garden shed of sorts, where I often sit to rest and survey my kingdom. The peach tree got lots of tender loving care, not to mention Organic Plant Magic, worm castings tea, and water. Well! We watched those peaches develop and ripen and when they were ready, they were the juiciest, most delicious fruit we have ever tasted. 
My next success story was growing greens. I guess I have never really appreciated greens as much as I have this year. I had lettuce constantly, including in the summer when I planted varieties that could take the heat. I grew frisee endive, escarole, chicory, and spinach. I seeded them in early and again in late July. My fall crops of greens were unbelievable. Salads became a regular part of our diet.

2013 was the year I finally understood how to grow brocolli raab, one of my husband's favorite vegetables. I guess I was always expecting it to look like the bunches we bought in the store. Instead, I realized that I just had to keep picking those little flower heads every day, along with the young leaves, and they would keep forming for weeks and weeks. We ate so much of this healthy green vegetable that we couldn't believe it. I planted my first crop in April, with the moon phase. I planted my second crop in July, again in synch with the moon. I will not be without this plant in my garden again. 

'Summer Perfection' spinach produced all during the hot weather and into the fall

I also had great success with a fall crop of bok choy and learned all kinds of interesting ways to make my own stir fries with fresh ginger root and other veggies. I intend to plant this again in 2014. It is really quite easy.

My biggest failure was that I neglected to THIN my fall crops of carrots and beets. They came up so profusely and then I got really busy. By the time I got back to them, they were all entangled and thinning was close to impossible. I will NOT do that again. I am going to try all kinds of ways of sowing these seeds so they are not so close together. I have heard that mixing them with sand helps. I have seen people make their own seed tapes. I could create a little template by drilling tiny holes in an old yardstick. Whatever... I love these root crops too much to waste them. 

I grew the best crop of kale ever, but found out that, although I love to cook with kale, my husband didn't enjoy it at all. Naturally, my spring crop continued to produce great guns until late in the fall. I found myself bringing a lot of it into work to give away. I will probably still plant it next year, but a lot less. 
My biggest frustration was my cucumbers. I actually created a brand new raised bed for them by my driveway because I had been plagued by disease and cucumber beetles in my main garden. At first they were very happy. By late summer, they started suffering from watersoaked spots on the leaves and the production diminished. This is one crop I need to really study. There is nothing like a cucumber tomato salad in the summer time. 
Erich Bender, the veggie master at Natureworks, gave me a seedling of 'Cocozelle' squash early in the spring. That turned out to be the most productive summer squash plant I have ever grown. The vine survived surgery to remove squash vine borers and continued to produce delicious squashes right up until hard frost. That is a variety I will grow from now on. Thank you Erich!

The one thing I did differently in 2013 that really paid off is that I paid a lot more attention to watering my edible plants. We had a few long stretches of very dry weather, especially in the fall. I monitored the amount of moisture in the soil closely under the straw mulch. I do not have an irrigation system. My method was to use a series of buckets and watering cans. Each time I deep soaked my plants I treated them to either Organic Plant Magic or worm casting tea that I constantly brewed from tea bags in a large bucket. I would see the difference immediately.

All in all, I was quite pleased with my food production in 2013. I miss my garden already and have already eaten all of the potatoes I had stored. There are a few bags of peppers and green beans in the freezer, plenty of garlic still to enjoy, and a few bags of frozen plum tomatoes to make into sauce over the winter. Good thing that I can work on my seed orders now. It keeps my dreaming about all the food I will be growing in 2014. 

What were your successes and challenges in YOUR edible garden?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Nancy's Garden: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Part One

As we approach the winter solstice and the new year, it is a good time to gather our thoughts and take stock of the gardening year that has just past and start to think about the growing season ahead.

I have spent the last month cleaning up my gardens, planting the last of bulbs, and trying to get my tools in order. Taking advantage of every sunny day, I found myself in deep reverie about my successes and failures of 2013. As I cut plants down, I realized I had some serious new favorites all of the sudden. I also spent quite a bit of time lamenting some things I did wrong and vowing to improve in 2014. Plus, I have already compiled a list of "must have" new plants. I will share my thoughts with you in a series of blog posts. Perhaps my musings will encourage you to also put your thoughts down in words. It is a fitting exercise for this time of year.
Let's start with a couple of my new favorite plants. Topping the list is 'Top Hat' blueberry. I have to say, I planted six of these little beauties last fall, mainly as a border around my new peach tree bed. Growing only two feet tall and wide, I was stunned by the amount of super sweet fruit that kept on producing long after my other high bush blueberries were finished. Plus, this plant is cute as a button in every season, even now when covered with snow. This will become a mainstay in my edible landscaping designs.

The plant that impressed me the most with it's long bloom season was our native Sanguisorba canadensis. The white bottle brush flowers started in early September and continued until the first week in November, providing a never ending source of nectar for bees and other pollinators. I just couldn't stop photographing these unusual flower spikes. Last fall I moved it from a border near a stand of trees to an open spot in deeply dug, enriched clay soil. Well! That made all the difference in the world.

Think about it. What plants really made an impression on you this year? Sometimes it's not the flashy, sexy hybrids that make my list. In this case, it's a couple of hardworking natives.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Connecticut Gardener Visits Nantucket

I just returned from a weekend on Nantucket island. My husband and I attended  the wedding of my godson. It was what they call a "destination wedding". People came from everywhere to share in this happy occasion. We arrived Friday afternoon.

I have never been to Nantucket before although I have been hearing about how quaint it is for years. The minute we stepped off of the high speed ferry, I was enchanted. It is a garden-lover's paradise. I could imagine what it looked like in the summer when everything was in peak bloom. I have never seen so many hydrangeas in my life! Every house, every business, every public space had hydrangeas. The flowers of the mop head hydrangeas were past, but they were plentiful and it didn't take much imagination to picture how beautiful it looked a few months ago. There were fall blooming Hydrangea paniculata varieties everywhere as well. Welcome to the Hydrangea capital of New England! The cobblestone streets, the clipped hedges, the climbing roses and vines, the cute little courtyards- sigh....

But what really got me was the windowboxes. Every single store and just about every house had lush, imaginative container plantings. As my husband and I took our first stroll around downtown, I could see that he didn't have the patience to stop with me as I took pictures. I made a plan.
I loved the maidenhair fern in this lush, shady windowbox

Saturday was a free day as the wedding wasn't until 5:30 p.m. I left my husband in the room reading and relaxing and went out for a walk with my camera. The sky was overcast, perfect for taking pictures.
One plant I noticed everywhere was the grass Stipa tenuissima, Mexican Feather Grass. This is a plant I don't use much in my designs as it is only hardy to Zone 7. Now I want to try it in my container plantings. It was so soft, I had to pet it. I also saw it in many gardens. Above it was used in a traditional design with geraniums and variegated English ivy. Below it was combined with dwarf evergreens and Algerian ivy, a much more contemporary look. I saw both styles everywhere I went.

Many of the windowboxes looked as if they had just been freshly re-planted for the fall tourist season. Others were so abundant I could tell they had been growing for months. I was very impressed with the design talents of the Nantucket gardeners.
One thing I noticed were the dog bowls filled with water outside of every shop. Nantucket is a dog lover's paradise. They are a integral to the local color as the flowers.

I purposely strayed off the main shopping streets and wove my way through side streets and nearby neighborhoods. I peered in through gates to the most charming little gardens. Clipped, carefully pruned and tended shrubs formed the bones of these landscapes. Besides the ever-present hydrangeas, there were roses (mostly pink, narry a 'Knockout' in sight). The seed pods of sweet autumn clematis smothered buildings and roofs.
Lichen hung in great clusters from the trees, similar to the way Spanish moss drapes from trees down South. I saw Vitexes with big, thick trunks, bigger than I ever imagined they could get in the North. Boxwoods were everywhere, in every shape and size as were other formal shrubs such as Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil'.
The little spot above was a combination of tender perennial Eugenia triple-ball topiaries, evergreen Liriope, yellow sweet potato vine, and Bacopa. The fence enclosure was also common. Door yard gardens held in by picket or iron fences were in the smallest of front yards.
The containers that were used were varied, but invariably high end. I saw quite a lot of faux boise concrete, from planters to benches, chairs, and tables.
Of course, aged cedar to match the signature cedar shakes on all of the houses was very common.
The modern look was also easy to spot. Black fiberglass containers or metal pots filled with succulents, black mondo grass, Phormium, and other foliage accents drew me like a magnet.

The yellow plant in the middle of this pot is Euphorbia 'Sticks on Fire', a really striking form of pencil cactus. The flowers were coming from an Aloe tucked in amongst the Sedums.

I recognized almost all of the plants I saw, but I was inspired to use them in many new ways. I wish I had a few more days to wander on a bicycle and really take in all the beauty Nantucket has to offer. I was dying to ride out to the large cranberry bog which I knew would be ablaze in red fall color. I wanted to see some of the more naturalistic, wilder places on this pretty island.

I loved this windowbox and didn't recognize the grass-like plant below the fuchsia with the spiky golden yellow flowers. I need to look this up and learn how to use it in some containers next year. What fun!
When we finally arrived at the wedding venue on Saturday evening, even the front of THAT establishment was decked out in proper style. Champagne bottles bedecked with beads graced the windowboxes and the cherub was wearing a pink chiffon skirt.
Sunday morning we went out for our last long ramble through the cobblestone streets. My husband rolled his eyes every time I dug out my camera to take pictures of more horticultural goodness but I just couldn't help myself.

Herbs were growing in wine boxes near the dock
My favorite peppermint scented geraniums were combined with pink roses and zinnias outside of a shop

These wooden trellises were stuffed with soil and moss and planted from top to bottom. Notice the dog bowl in the background, of course!

Delicate, lacy scented geraniums had a spicy smell.
This was the outdoor sales area and courtyard of a gemstone jewelry store
The windowboxes were filled with giant, lush ferns. I saw ferns of all types used everywhere.
Ruby red chard added an edible element to this street side combination.The cobblestones were actually round rocks, very hard to walk on but oh so charming.

As we were waiting for the ferry to go home, I spotted a fairy garden installation outside a tourist shop on the dock. A young man and his mom were admiring it and we chatted about fairy garden building for a while. The shop owner encourage him to participate and he ran off to the water's edge to collect some shells to add to what I realized was an ever-changing fairy landscape.

I want to go back to Nantucket some day and spend a few days in the summertime traveling around and seeing the gardens in all of their glory. I had better start saving my pennies now. It is a lovely, but very expensive place to visit. I am so lucky to have had the chance to discover and explore this beautiful island.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Squash Surgery

August 20, 2013

I ventured into my garden Sunday morning and noticed that my zucchini squash plant was looking a bit wilted. Having already lost one plant in this bed to squash vine borer, I dropped to my knees and examined the stem. Horrors! Just as I suspected, the vine had an orange frass coming from it and there was a hole in the vine. I pulled out my trusty pruning sheers and carefully made a linear slice where I saw the frass. Aha! I immediately found the culprit, the destructive squash vine borer.

I then mixed up soil and water and Organic Plant Magic in a bucket and slathered the resulting mud on the vine.
Then I turned on the hose and set the spray nozzle on sprinkle and watered the leaves of the plant for about 10 minutes. This was to help the leaves recover from the shock of cutting open the stem that supported them.

The next morning I was happy to see that not only was the plant happy, the three little zucchinis that had been forming had doubled in size.

The squash vine borer comes from a moth that lays it's eggs on squash plants. The eggs become the borers and as they tunnel up the stems they kill the plants. At the garden center on Saturday this was a constant topic of conversation, also at the farmer's market on Friday. One way to help prevent this damage is to spray the vines with a strong garlic spray to repel the moths. Another is to cover the plants with floating row covers as they are growing and removing it after they flower. Unfortunately, this moth cycles through a few generations in Connecticut so you are not safe once you take the cover off. A third approach is to use beneficial nematodes in late spring to kill the squash vine borer larvae in the soil before they hatch.

I have operated on my squash plants before with great success. The surest way to keep your plants healthy is to scout every day and look for that orange frass on the vines. Although the plants naturally wilt a bit in the hot late day sun, if you see them wilting even a little in the morning or on a cool cloudy day, scout some more and pull out your scalpel. It is not hard to do and totally worth it for the delicious harvest you will gain for your efforts.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


 This week I am greedily inhaling the intoxicating scent of the last of my trumpet and oriental lily flowers. Every time I walk outside I bury my nose deep in a blossom and then I shake my head in awe. There is no perfume like it.

I work really hard to have these lilies because of the red lily leaf beetle. I start scouting and squishing in the spring and keep at it until mid-July when they finally bloom. It is totally worth it. I have four stands of lilies and they all soar nearly 6 feet tall without staking. Their stems are strong and sturdy.

One stand of lilies is intertwined with a fragrant tree, Clethra barbinervis, which blooms at the same time. Talk about pure joy! Not only does this combination smell heavenly, it also looks amazing right next to my deck. The bees and wasps and other interesting pollinators love this tree.

As I enjoy these lilies for one last week, I can't help but feel sad that it will be another full year before I smell that incredible fragrance again. I remember feeling the same way about the last of my 'Nancy Nora' peonies and the Viburnum carcephalum. I adore fragrant flowers. Of course, they are so fleeting, gracing my garden for two, maybe three weeks, and then they are gone. It is a lesson it truly living for every moment. I am trying to enjoy every fragrant flower to the utmost every day I am on this earth. I keeps me tuned in to the cycles of life and makes me realize just how precious these gifts truly are.

As the lilies fade, the Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet) is opening. In the next few weeks I will be stopping by that plant every day and smelling a completely different sweet perfume. Life is good in the garden.