Excerpt for The Weekly Gardener - Volume 11 - 2017 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


January 2nd - Again, January...

Garden Journaling

I sat out in the garden yesterday, steeling precious moments between rain falls, a rare treat at this time of year. I’m so relieved that I got the extra week at the beginning of December, which allowed me to finish up the yard cleaning. It would be really depressing to watch the habitual pile of slimy, rotting debris that I can’t touch for another three months.

As it is right now, the garden isn’t in disarray, it’s just sleeping. The veggie patch is clean, the planters are clean, the trellises are clean, the flower beds are…well, not so much, but that is a concern for spring.

It is important to watch the garden during the dormant season to make a clear assessment of how much room is still available for planting. For instance, even now, when the perennials are dormant and many of them have died down to the ground, if I throw a needle in the sunny border it will not reach the ground. I’m guessing that means I’ve reached full capacity.

Of course the wilderness tries to take over it every year, and I can tell you from previous experience, the wilderness is relentless and rapacious. It’s an endless struggle.

I guess after so many years and so many tries I’ll have to admit that hybrid roses don’t much appreciate my garden. The once blooming shrubs are thriving, but all the noble roses are dead. I could blame the weather, the soil, or the hand of destiny, but the end result is that I’m slowly growing my stock of Dr. Huey.

Maybe if weather gives us a break, the French lilacs and the Great Southern magnolia will bloom this year, it’s been a while.

Planning for Spring

Usually by this time I’m already overtaken by cabin fever and dreaming of beautiful summer days, but this year, with the exception of a few days of brutal cold at the beginning of the month, it seems weather forgot winter exists.

I hesitate to mention this because I don’t want to jinx it; for sure the second I write the words another freeze from a place that will remain unmentioned is going to be upon us, but so far the temperatures have been in the fifties and sixties, mostly accompanied by rain.

I am a bit weather confused right now, because I don’t know if I’m waiting for spring or still ending fall, but no matter.

Some of the spring planning took place a few months ago: the bulbs are planted and I propagated some of the existing perennials.

What really needs work this spring is an area in full shade where the roots of a mature tree make lawn survival impossible. I’ve been planning to replace that hopeless patch of patchy grass with a shade garden for a while now, but I never got to planting it, and in the meantime a good portion of that area got taken over by wild shrubs and weedy volunteers.

I can already picture the lush leaves of hostas and hellebores, mixed with many other, hopefully less common shade perennials, like Solomon’s Seal, tricyrtis, bergenia and monkshood. Of course, cleaning the area takes precedence, I need to dig out clumps that have grown so big they are peeking out through the branches of the crab apple tree.

Another shade garden. I’m going to become an expert in shade soon.

Little Stars

Through interesting circumstances, now I have something that approximates full sun exposure in a small portion of the back yard. Lavish sunshine always conjures the image of that dreamy rose, you know the ones I’m talking about, the ones you only see in gardening books. Hundreds of petals, fragrance, perpetual bloom, the works.

Now, I know better, because I managed to kill eight or nine of them by planting them in this spot. They were fragrant, too. Besides, if I add one more plant to that flower bed it’s going to burst.


If you are planting for fragrance, don’t forget the annuals: stock, nicotiana, petunias, and sweet peas. I neglected planting annuals in the last few years, for two reasons. The weather was uncooperative and the flower beds are jam packed with well established perennials.

I’ll try to find some room for them this year, even if I have to plant them in pots. The purple petunias I had on the balcony last year scented the whole back yard for months. But so did the garden phlox. But so did the petunias. I’ll add some annuals, I’ll find room somehow.


January 9th - Warm, Warmer, Warmest


It’s rainy and warm, a lot more like March than January. I worry a little bit that the bulbs are going to emerge ahead of their time, I can already see leaves and I’m pretty sure winter is coming back. In fact, the end of the month already promises to bring back lower temperatures, although still above average.

I could fall back on the regular gardening activities for January, if you can call them that, but the catalogs haven’t started arriving in the mail yet, so I have to make do with potted plants on the window sill.

There is also a fragrant hyacinth on the table right in front of me. Every year I get one and after it finishes blooming, I plant it in the garden. I noticed they tend to fare better than the fall bulbs, in part because the squirrels have more difficulty digging them up.

I visited the plant nursery, with the excuse of looking for African violets, and, as expected, it is way too early for garden related purchases: no plants or seeds yet, just dormant shrubs and trees. I did find the violets, of course.

I guess I’ll have to wait patiently for the Amaryllis and the paperwhites to bloom in a week or two, maybe.

Winter is such a bore! What is the point of a season during which you can’t spend time outside? I bought my favorite gardening book again, one which I had and lost, I can’t remember when. I guess I’ll brush up on the theory for now.

Medicinal Herbs

The first time I saw an herb garden in a public park I asked myself what was the point of it? The fact that it occupied a small nook in the middle of the rose garden, at a time when all the roses were in bloom, didn’t help its cause very much. I know better now.

Of course, I selected the herbs for my own garden according to their flowering habits, unfair as it may seem; nobody grows herbs for their blooming prowess.

The one good thing about herbs is that they pretty much take care of themselves. They weather drought, heat, freezes, they’re the ultimate “set it and forget it plant”.

They enjoy clay soils, dry, hot weather and plenty of air movement, if you want to pamper them, but they’ll grow anywhere, as long as they have sunshine. The Mediterranean darlings, like French lavender and rosemary, will not survive harsh winters outdoors, but most perennial herbs won’t be affected even by subzero temperatures.

They tend to grow enthusiastically once established, and they need to be hard pruned on a regular basis to keep their foliage healthy and flavorful.

Be mindful of the spacing requirements, herbs grow up to five time their original size and they will end up smothering each other. They need good air movement, otherwise they develop black spot and powdery mildew, especially during long stretches of rainy weather.

When you harvest herbs, always pick the fresh, young top growth. Don’t feel tempted to pick the broader leaves at the base, the plant uses them as energy storage and their flavor is not that great anyway. By picking the top growth you encourage the plant to leaf out more, instead of growing leggy.

I don’t know if herbs protect their turf (some plants release natural herbicides into the soil to eliminate the competition), but I noticed that the herb patch stays relatively weed free.

As far as flowers are concerned, they bloomed more than their counterparts in the flower border last year. Keep in mind that some herbs bloom, ripen and die, so if you want to keep calendula and basil alive until the end of fall, don’t let their flowers go to seed. Even herbs that don’t die down after blooming, like lovage and dill, will put all their energy into their offspring instead of the foliage.

For Sun

For years I’ve been trying to find a balance in the perennial flower bed that would provide continuous bloom through all the warm season, and it’s not an easy thing to do. The bulk of bloom happens mid-spring, early summer, and then I’m left with sedums for two whole months.

Daisies belong to this problem. It’s not that I don’t love them, which I do, it’s just that their bloom is often overshadowed by roses, lilies, and every tall annual with large flowers, like zinnias, for instance, and they fade just when their bloom is needed most, in August.

And Shade

I’m sorry I misjudged hostas. Speaking of the late summer slump, they’re always there to save the day; their bloom is sometimes just adequate, it is often enthusiastic, but they never disappoint.

One thing about hostas, they are shade plants, and their foliage absolutely needs it, the sun can scorch them to nothingness on hot summer days, but if they never see the sun at all, they will not bloom, I learned that the hard way. If you are looking for interesting foliage for a spot in deep shade, by all means give them a try, but for flowers they’ll need part sun or light dappled shade.


January 16th - Evergreens

Purple Sage

Please admire the mighty sage, which took over the herb garden during the summer, before I trim its expansionist habits. It bore clusters of lavender blue flowers last year, so pretty to behold that I ignored good gardening practices and didn’t prune it, and now I’m looking at the consequences. The marjoram didn’t last a month, and I really, really wanted to have it in the garden, so lady sage will be encouraged to behave itself this spring, so that it maintains an appropriate size, stops crowding the thyme and does not sprawl all over the lawn.

Sage is easily propagated by wood cuttings, so I’ve heard, but I never actually tried this method myself. I did try starting it from seed, and can attest to the fact that it isn’t an easy plant to propagate this way. This method does work, however, if you’ve got your heart set on using it. As a matter of fact, I think we might be looking at the seed started plant, but I can’t be sure.

It really likes clay, as you can tell, and I was surprised to learn that it too is evergreen, although during really frigid winters it will die down to the ground completely.

There are two basic types of herbs, and they like different growing conditions, so don’t mix them up in the border: the sun lovers - rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme, oregano, which thrive in dry soils and full sun, and the moisture lovers - mint, lemon balm, chives, parsley, dill, and basil, which need to be watered regularly and protected from excessive heat in order to be happy.

There is also a third category, which likes full sun, but needs to keep its roots cool and moist; lovage, marjoram and lemon verbena belong to this category. These herbs tend to take their time to adapt to a place, and will grow very large if they like their conditions, but that doesn’t happen very often.

Winter Lavender

I know what you are thinking, lavender in winter, right? We didn’t actually have winter yet, so that probably explains it.

I tried lavender for many years before this one finally took. I’m not sure what happened this time, maybe it is its location on a sunny slope, or the fact that it is somewhat sheltered, or the fact that the local climate is slowly warming up and shifting closer to its comfort range.

Last year I got my first harvest of lavender buds, of which I’m very proud, and the plant continued to bloom sporadically throughout the summer.

Although the lavender buds are the choice crop, the foliage is fragrant too, and will do fine in potpourris and herb sachets.

If you want beautiful flowers that attract bees to your garden, try Spanish, or butterfly lavender. It has a little clump of petals at the end of the inflorescence, which makes it look like a butterfly just landed on it. Spanish lavender likes hot and humid summers and will not survive winter outdoors north of zone nine. It is not the first choice for cooking and medicinal uses, that honor belongs to the French lavender, which, in turn, will not survive climates colder than zone seven.

English lavender is the choice for those who live in areas with cold winters, up to zone five. It is winter hardy, fragrant, flowers abundantly and will grace your garden for many years.


I forgot to mention, although I noticed it in years past. The money plant is an evergreen. It keeps its broad leaves even during the coldest of winters, peculiar for a biennial plant, although it makes sense, if you think about it, if it needs to build up its strength to bear flowers and seed pods the following year.

These plants sprout out of thin air, I swear. I have no idea where this one came from, there weren’t any in the back yard last year. It white flower clusters have a delicate fragrance, something between stock and sweet peas.

Right on Time

I was starting to wonder what happened to the hellebores. Their blooming time is late January, and they hardly push past the end of the month, barring extreme weather. During mild winters they bloom even earlier.

I thought they missed the start this year, but no, here they are, hiding under dead foliage. I have pictures of these plants from previous years, in bloom under a full snow cover. Just keep this detail in mind when you see them still in bloom come June.


January 23rd - Memories of Summer

Green Flowers

Have you ever had this sinking feeling, when you want to try a plant you’ve never grown before, and you look at the beautiful photos on the seed packet, that there is absolutely no way this botanical wonder will ever grow in your garden?

I’m not one to dismiss instinct, it is usually based on a lot of fast logical reasoning and processing of already stored information that goes on in the back of your brain while you’re minding your daily routine, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t this time, because they did sprout, and root, and grow big and strong.

I found out after the fact that Bells of Ireland are among the plants that need to be planted directly outdoors, information which would have served me well last year, before I started them in pods.

The thing about starting perennials from seed is that it doesn't matter how many of them you get to germinate, it only matters whether you manage to keep any of them at all. The germination rate of perennial plants is significantly lower than that of annuals, and their seedlings start out weak and fragile and grow very slowly, and you shouldn't place the same expectations on them as you do on tomatoes or marigolds. I had years when not even one little seedling emerged from a full packet of seeds, and yet I tried them again the following spring. In other years, a full tray of seedlings withered to nothing in the weeks that followed, for no reason I could fathom. Usually they give up the ghost once outside, because they can't adjust to being exposed to the weather. Success is sometimes circumstance, sometimes luck, it really doesn't make a lot of difference; if only one out of an entire packet of seeds makes it, you will have that plant in your garden, one you would have had a hard time to find fully grown. I have been fortunate to get quite a few less common perennials, like Canterbury bells, Maltese cross, fringed bleeding hearts, giant delphiniums, and now bells of Ireland.

The only things Irish about these beauties are their color and their name, they are in fact natives of Turkey.

I learned that the plants develop a long tap root, the main reason why they don’t tolerate transplanting, and my reason to hope that their eerie green blossoms will return to the garden even stronger this year. They are supposed to bring good luck.

Summer Landscape

This is why I am so looking forward to next summer! I guess there’s the answer for why there is no more space left for planting in the full sun flower bed and why I should leave it alone.

I’m still peeved about the roses, which should be in there somewhere, buried three levels deep under this vegetal exuberance, but if I really want to try any of them at all, I will have to expand the flower bed, to give them room to breathe, they really hate being crowded.

It is the shade garden that really needs attention this year, anyway. Unusual circumstances brought to it the gift of poison ivy a couple of years ago, which I managed to eliminate before it got a chance to make itself at home, but now I’m reluctant to sink my hands into the clumps of weeds and pull them, like I used to do, because I don’t know what lurks underneath. I guess ignorance really is bliss, because I had no clue what was lurking underneath before, and didn’t care, but I digress.

This brings up the gardening activity of the week: consulting plant catalogs to figure out what shade loving plants to choose. Most shade plants like at least a small amount of sunshine, even if dappled through tree canopies. There are very few true full shade plants that will bloom, and that’s what I need to find.

For instance, hostas won’t do for a north side foundation planting. Not even as foliage plants. They diminished so dramatically and in such a short period of time that I barely got to move them before they died off.

It is time to finally try spiderwort and ligularia, which beckon from the shade section of the plant nursery every time I pass them by, and maybe bergenia. Maybe I’ll give aconite another try too, and definitely plant some wind anemones, in the brighter spots.


If you use plants for beauty products or home health remedies, there are a few things to keep in mind. The green pharmacy is still a pharmacy, even if the methods of extraction are crude and ballpark, by chemistry standards, and it needs to follow the same rules: impeccable hygiene standards, careful dosage and meticulous labeling.

Also don’t forget there is an expiration date on your home made health and beauty potions, which don’t have preservatives to keep them from spoiling, so check them regularly and dispose of all whose look or smell is off.

And Aromatics

Like most perennials, herbs take a few years to mature before they are ready for harvest. I haven’t picked any flowers off the Saint John’s Wort yet, maybe this summer. The lavender is just starting to produce large enough quantities and the yarrows are, frankly, to beautiful to touch.

The mint, which experienced a few years of unchallenged domination in the shade, suddenly died off, and its replacement really doesn’t appreciate full sun exposure. A plant that really wants to be moved in the shade and leave precious sunny real estate available for planting. A win-win situation if I’ve ever seen one.


January 30th - Sort of Gardening

February Matters

February is not the loveliest of months, but it has one redeeming quality: it’s seed starting time. Depending on your hardiness zone, February brings the seed starting trays, which I will dig out of the garden shed early this year, because I promised myself to give the perennials a couple of extra weeks indoors.

Starting plants indoors presents a few challenges, which is why timing is essential to the success of this endeavor, albeit for the basics, like tomatoes and marigolds, it really doesn’t make much of an impact, since they will pick up and grow fast immediately after being planted outdoors.

Anything beyond that will benefit from selecting the best planting time: too much time indoors and the roots get stunted, the plants start getting weak and leggy and prone to every plant pest and disease known to science. I have often wondered how can a plant get aphids or mildew indoors, from a sterile planting medium that is completely isolated from potential sources of infection, but this is the state of fact, so I’ll take it at face value.

If they spend too little time indoors, they simply die as soon as they are moved outside.

There is a precise equilibrium point where the plants should be ready to be planted; keeping them inside past that point will make them waste energy trying to adjust to conditions that don’t favor them, instead of using it to develop and get well established.

Unfortunately, acting at precisely that time is not exclusively in the gardener’s control. We all watched leggy plants creep out of their case and sprawl around the room, while we waited for the unexpected May freeze to go away, or mourned the precious sprouts that got wiped into oblivion by one more cold night than they were able to tolerate. Given that the sprawling plants, however stunted and chlorotic, have much better chances of survival, I usually err on the side of caution and keep them inside.

The perennials don’t even feature into this equation, because they take so long to germinate, and even longer to develop to the point where they can be safely planted outside, so I’m guessing planting time is right about now.

Groundhog Day

As expected, February brought back the dreary weather, because it’s winter, and it’s supposed to be unpleasant. You would be surprised how precisely tuned the plants’ biological clocks are to the larger harmonies of nature.

You walk outside in seventy degrees weather, in the middle of January, and wonder how come there aren’t buds on the trees, or plants shooting out of the ground. I wish I knew what triggered the plants to start their growing cycle, but they always seem to know exactly when it is safe for them to come out, and are so seldom.wrong that you’re better off guessing the weather patterns according to their growth than the other way around.

For instance, the hellebores are late this year. They have started to bud out, but they are at least a couple of weeks behind, which tells me that we are going to have more cold weather coming, and it will stretch out for a bit. Hey, it’s almost Groundhog Day, anyway, so I’ll make my prediction. What’s Phil got that I don’t? I cast a shadow.

There are no daffodils or hyacinths in sight either, and the spring bulbs tend to leaf out really early when they sense spring is close.

That being said, the weather has been unseasonably warm and humid so far, which makes the fact that the plants are biding their time even more peculiar.

Winter Garden

I took a short garden tour and re-buried all the hyacinth and lily bulbs that the squirrels had dug up. I can only hope that the rest of them are still in the ground, for the most part. There is nothing to see yet, as expected at this time of year, even if the weather has been mild.

The plants are still dormant but, weather permitting, I’ll start the spring cleaning early this year. This will give me the opportunity to assess how the perennials are doing, figure out which of them need moving or dividing and pull the weeds before the spring growth spurt.

Scented Shade

I tried bugbane three times in three different locations, and it died out on me every single time, to my distress. I’m keeping my fingers crossed to see if the last one reemerges this spring, the one I planted it in dappled shade.

I really like bugbane, especially after I saw its blooms, which smell like vanilla and grape soda. The mature plant is a prize for any garden, with its striking dark foliage and its large fragrant flowers that grow really tall in the shade and peak right at the beginning of fall, when the other plants tend to slow down. Maybe third time’s a charm.


February 6th - February

Fickle Weather

February weather is so predictable. The second you get comfortable with the balmy temperatures, a winter storm is sure to come. And come it did, with lots of snow and thunder, strange as that is.

Back indoors, I’m doing what I do every winter, wait for it to be over. It’s sunny, it’s snowing, it’s sunny again, all within five minutes. Just trying to keep track of it makes me tired.

I don’t want to jinx it, like I did last year, and the year before that, but the Southern magnolia came through the cold season like a champion, without any frost damage, at least so far, so maybe it will bloom this year, I haven’t seen it in bloom in a long time.

Every now and then the cloud cover breaks and a little patch of blue sky shows through. Filled with hope, I checked out the forecast for the rest of the month and it predicted as dreary a weather as it is to be expected for this time of year. It is, after all, February. It’s supposed to be cold.

The plant catalogs have started pouring in the mail, all beautiful and in vibrant color. Just a few more weeks, just a few more weeks!

Perennial Challenge

Growing a perennial garden places one in the weird circumstance of having to work around the clock without actually planting anything. In a perennial garden, everything revolves around maintenance.

Here are a few challenges.

The perennial flower bed can’t be tilled, because most of its residents do not like their roots disturbed, so the soil tends to get very hard, and the water runs off it, instead of going to the roots. The hard soil creates favorable conditions for perennial weeds, whose roots also benefit from not being disturbed. A good layering of mulch helps with both of these problems to some degree.

Perennials bloom in flushes, there are very few of them that produce flowers through the entire growing season, and all those spent blooms need to be pruned and dead headed regularly, to keep the garden healthy and pretty. Also, some perennials die down to the ground after bloom, leaving large bare spots in the flower bed that can’t be planted over.

A perennial flower bed will never look neat and tidy, like annual plantings do. Perennials weave and mingle, shift, topple over, and develop beyond their charted growth range. This is part of their charm and should not be perceived as a defect, but don’t expect them to behave.

Perennial plants settle all their territorial claims among themselves, the gardener’s efforts to help them along are usually fruitless. The wise person lets them duke it out until they find a stable configuration, and then works with, and not against it.

Most plants like to bloom in April, May and June. Come July the garden starts to pace itself and by the end of August you are left with hostas and stonecrops, together with a lot of tired, not very attractive foliage.

That said, how wonderful is it to look out into the dormant garden in the middle of winter and know that everything is already there, right under the surface, ready to come out as soon as the weather turns, with vigor and abundance.

Fall Color

Here it is, the goldenrod. The first comment about this lovely fall bloomer is that it is not for the flower garden, it is for the wild open meadow. It will become invasive, due to its aggressive root system that spreads and takes over the underground before you can see anything grow. It is relentless and will choke all the other plants around it in the process.

Every year I barely refrain myself from pulling every one of its rapacious shoots the second it emerges, but then I remember this image and reconsider. That’s all the fall color, right there. I reached a compromise, where I pull it from the front of the border and keep it contained in the background, much as I’m able. Once the flowers fade, it basically turns into ragweed, a plant it is often mistaken for. Proceed at your own risk.

Woodland Favorites

If you are blessed with woodland humus, which is not likely to occur naturally in the average suburban setting, your shade garden will be filled with color and fragrance way before the leaves grow back on the trees. The spring bulbs are kind of a given, but here is a list of less common flowers that are guaranteed to delight: hepatica, arums, Jack in the Pulpit, trillium, Solomon’s Seal, bluebells, fringed bleeding heart, buttercups, and wild violets.

I’m hoping Jack in the Pulpit turns female this year (the plant choses its gender according to the growing conditions for the year). I would love to see the fruit, whose configuration is believed to predict the quantity distribution for the most common fall crops.


February 13th - Sweet Valentine

About that Time when I Found a Tree

So, I took a stroll through the garden, encouraged by the unusually warm weather and happy to be able to prune the rose bushes early and finally move that peony buried underneath them, when I found a tree. Happy Valentine’s Day to me!

I don’t believe the previous sentence managed to convey my stupor and embarrassment, as I am staring at it in disbelief. I found a tree! In my own garden. How off one’s game does one have to be to have a real, full grown tree sneak up on them!

Not that I don’t appreciate it, mind you, how do you not appreciate the gift of a tree, it’s just that I know every square inch of my little patch of heaven, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out how this happened.

I don’t know what tree it is, and I hesitate to make assumptions at this point, given that I missed it in my daily gardening routine until it reached a 3” caliper. If that doesn’t phase you, it means it’s about nine feet tall. If I had to guess, it’s probably another elm, which didn’t seem to have any problem growing big and mighty from underneath the thicket of wild honeysuckle that got the better of me in the last few years; at least I have this pathetic excuse for why I never noticed it.

A whole tree. My garden is really spoiling me at this point. I usually get perennials that multiply, and volunteers grown from seeds carried by the wind, I even got a zone eight evergreen vine growing with a vengeance, but I must confess I never expected a tree.

I believe thank you is in order.

If it is another elm, it will have to settle its territory with the surrounding vegetation later on, given that its older family member is very large, with a trunk that one person can’t wrap their arms around and towering over the house at a respectable fifty feet, but that’s tomorrow’s problem.

Before Planting

Speaking of gardening, it looks like I can get an early start on spring cleaning, at least. The bulbs and buds are still stubbornly holding on to their dormant status, but the first flowers of spring, the cheerful buttercups, are already in bloom.

It is very warm outside, with temperatures in the sixties and seventies at times, and as much as I hate winter, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable about that. I guess this area is officially a zone six now.

The garden is as messy as it gets at this time of year, but I’m looking forward to scraping off all the plant debris to find out what’s underneath. I finally moved the Pink Sorbet peony, if what I did can be called ‘moving’. It came out in many pieces which are now gracing several areas of the garden. Between the brutal transplantation job and the fact that I disturbed it in spring, which is the worst possible time, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it makes it. At least it’s in full sun now, and if nothing bothers it going further, it will have better growing conditions.

Other than that, my precious is buried under a pile of dead leaves and sticks, taking its sweet time to come back to life.

I can’t wait to clear up the area around the crab apple tree for my new shade garden. That flower bed is a going to be a dream in blush pink and bright blue come spring.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty is dormant now. Keeping it on the window sill indoors altered its natural cycles. It blooms at random times, during summer too, so I’m guessing it decided to take a break for now, and leave the flower production to the Christmas cactus, which is also out of sync.

The spring planting takes precedence now, and all the tiny seeds are planted in their starting trays, waiting for nature to take its course. Nothing to see yet. I’m watching them like a hawk and counting the days.

Color for the End of Summer

For the seventh time in a row I started lupines, mostly because they make me feel better about my horticultural knowledge. Their palmate leaves can’t be mistaken for anything else, and I get to go through the garden and say “and this is a lupine” instead of “aagh…”, but they only made it to bloom once, and I believe those were full grown plants that I’m talking about.

I’ll keep at it however, you know how perseverance is the mother of success. I hope I won’t have to pull an Edison on this one, ‘cause ninety nine years is a long time.


February 20th - Signs of Life

Aspirational February

A few days of mild weather provided the perfect opportunity for a little garden sprucing. After I pulled countless wild honeysuckle clumps from the northern flower beds, all the while counting my blessings for the rain which softened the dirt and made this endeavor possible, I couldn’t help but notice that the garden beds look a lot tidier than I thought they would. Much of the mess was the wild brush, apparently, the border plants are relatively well-behaved.

Spring cleaning is nowhere near complete, but a fresh stretch of cold weather hit pause on my gardening enthusiasm and banished me indoors. Now I’m sitting here, looking out the window with growing impatience, and waiting to go back to my beloved and finish the task as soon as the chill subsides.

The perennials started coming out, just in time for the new freeze. The wild roses are leafing out, and the new shade garden under the crab apple tree is cleaned up and ready for planting. Its dwellers won’t arrive for another month, which allows me the time to actually plan a layout to which I haven’t given much thought.

The new shade perennials are mostly woodland natives I’ve never grown before. It would be nice to see flowers in that area, besides the blue eyed Marys that yield a good flush of color in May.

Meanwhile I’m feeding my yearning for all things green and flowery with these potted plants I keep grabbing at the grocery store on my way to the cash register. They are all yellow. Maybe it’s a sign.


Most years, the buttercups are the first spring bulbs to bloom, and this one was no exception. It’s hard to tell what’s underneath the thick layer of dead plant mater which accumulates over the winter. Plants are jolted into rapid growth as soon as they are relieved of the blanket of debris, but with the arctic blast coming back they could use some cold weather protection for now, so I’ll wait.

I’m curious what’s underneath, as I am every spring. I can make up a few hyacinths, the occasional daffodil and of course, the ever increasing clumps of day lilies.

The little plants in the starting trays are very slow to start this year, I’m trying to figure out why. Even the tomatoes took their sweet time to germinate and did so only in part, which is a first. I got many lupines, at least for now.

By the way weather is behaving, I have time. I’d love to be wrong, for once, and miss starting the vegetable garden early, but I know it’s not going to happen. We’ll have our April fool’s late freeze, it’s the law of the land.

Well, at least we’re getting closer to the official start of spring, if only on the calendar. It’s very nice outside, if you look out the window. Thirty degrees and sunny, with white puffy clouds and blue skies.

Like Winter Didn't Even Happen

I might have jinxed this one. Between the time I wrote the title of this article and now, we’ve been blessed with the threat of a new winter storm, said to bring temperatures down into the teens again. I vigorously protest!

I’ve so had it with winter, can’t we just, for once, not have it show up again and again until the middle of April? Of course the sage won’t care either way, because it can survive in the tundra if it has to, but still.

Bashful Blooms

The spring flowers have started to come out, reluctantly. Crocuses are not my pride and joy, usually. I plant a good number of them every year, but whether they get eaten over the winter or they don’t like the growing conditions, their rarefied blooms barely show up, and always in yellow.

I don’t know if the purple ones have tastier bulbs, but I’ve never seen one, in so many years. At least this yellow one decided to represent.


February 28th - What to Do with Roses

Health and Beauty

There is no better flower for mature and thinning skin than the rose. It restores the complexion to its elastic, youthful glow, and it does so in the most gentle way. Its active compounds lock moisture in while they nourish, tighten, and restore the skin, especially if it has started showing signs of age or sun damage. The contribution of the rose to beauty regimens, however, goes far beyond its physical properties. Roses speak to the heart, soothe the mind, and lift the spirit, almost like magic, and when the spirit feels younger, the body follows suit.

You don’t have to devise elaborate beauty treatments to take advantage of its therapeutic qualities, the rose is sophisticated enough in itself. Even the simplest things will be pampering and effective: rose water used as toner, to refine the pores and calm the skin, a few drops of rose otto blended in jojoba oil to cleanse and moisturize your complexion at the end of the day, a handful of dried rose petals ground into a find dust to add to a clay mask or to a fragrant bath salt, a rose infusion to use for a quick steam facial, even something as simple as adding rose petals to your bath.

In fact, the less you do with the rose, the more powerful its impact. Its classic scent blends well with almost any fragrance, a feature which makes it a must have for perfumery, but keep its essence unaltered. Use it alone, whether it be in a toner, a lotion, a bath oil or a cream, to better appreciate its exquisite fragrance and its health enhancing properties.

Ruby Sweets

Where I grew up, roses belonged in the pantry. Between the rose preserves, the rose syrups, and the rose water in pastry dough, the aristocratic flowers doubled up as bona fide cooking ingredients.

What do roses taste like? They are a bit of an acquired taste. Rose preserves are extremely fragrant, they make you feel almost like you are eating perfume, and their principal ingredient, the delicate petals, vigorously scrubbed with sugar and lemon until their velvety surfaces become thin and translucent like rice paper, screech between your teeth refusing to be chewed. Their consistence reminds me of cellophane.

The confection is very concentrated, you can’t eat more than one delightful teaspoon at a time, and it feels almost sinful to taste the ruby colored spoonful of fragrant petals, which seem reserved for beings above the human condition.

The finished preserves, jams and jellies become cooking ingredients in and of themselves, and end up rolled inside crepes and pastries, tinting fine custards and filling beignets.

If you want to try your hand at making rose petal preserves, keep in mind that the rose variety is very important. Only the most fragrant damasks are fitting for this purpose, Kazanlik and Rose de Rescht are traditionally used. I have seen white preserve roses, but I’ve never seen the preserves themselves. The old fashioned confections are almost always a deep ruby, the trademark color of this delightful treat. Rubbing the petals with lemon juice helps maintain the color intensity.

I’m sitting here, sipping a delightful cup of rose petal tea, and it tastes very much like the rose preserves I remember from my childhood. I wonder why I never thought of trying it before.

Pamper Your Spirits

Strangely enough, the saying ‘stop and smell the roses’ is based on actual fact: the rose scent does provide actual stress relief. If the aromatherapy alone doesn’t work, kick it up a notch and brew yourself a nice cup of rose petal tea. It eases tension and anxiety and promotes restful sleep, but be careful not to overindulge, roses are astringent, in fact their effects on your stomach are similar to those of mint tea.

Natural First Aid

It appears that chamomile and lavender are not the only go to plants for minor cuts and scrapes. Roses make a decent first aid for cuts and scrapes, due to their astringent and anti inflammatory properties. Their essence is cooling and they are very effective in soothing the pain, swelling and redness from minor burns, scrapes and insect bites. In general, rose extract calms irritated skin.


March 6th - Sprouts

A Pot of Mixed Basil

I always have a few pots of herbs on the balcony, which get to bask in the sunshine all summer long. Contrary to my expectations, herbs are not the kind of care free plants that will forgive you if you forget to water them, not even the drought friendly rosemary.

They may require a little more work, but I like having them there, lost among the pots of petunias and moss roses. On a whim, I decided to start the basil indoors this year, something I usually don’t bother to do for herbs, and it returned the favor by germinating very quickly and immediately engaging in a growth spurt. By the time I move this pot outside, it may be fully grown.

Since the purple basil is more attractive and the green one is more flavorful, the pot features a blend of both varieties.

Basil is a sensitive herb: it likes sunshine but wilts quickly if it doesn’t get plenty of water. Some treat it as holy, old wives’ tales say that it drives men to madness, or that it is the plant of the basilisk and it has the ability to protect people from venomous bites. Some legends even say that it can guide the dead safely into the afterlife.

At the very least, it is said to bring happiness and prosperity into the household. I will let you in on a little secret: all herbs do. Just plant as many of them as you can and enjoy them all summer long in delicious healthy dishes, they’re well worth your trouble.

Starting the Vegetable Garden

Here’s to this year’s crop! I decided to try Independence Day tomatoes, and learned that it has a much lower germination rate than other varieties. Let’s hope they make up for it with taste.

The seedlings look sturdy and enthusiastic, and have grown large enough that I don’t have to worry about them anymore.

I haven’t fully planned this summer’s vegetable garden yet, but it will be pretty much the same as it is every year: tomatoes, peppers, sweet and hot, eggplants, squashes, beans, and cucumbers, together with an assortment of kitchen herbs.

The veggie patch is still buried under last year’s growth, an unfortunate setback due to the weather. As I said, March is a fickle and deceitful month, you can’t trust it enough to clean up, not to mention plant!

It is so cold that I haven’t dared go outside for an entire week, but I know that some of the plants that decided to brave the world early are not faring very well right now. They’ll recover, I hope.

Fifteen degrees, even negative temperatures, if you add the wind chill. Not all one is hoping for in spring, I must say.

The little crabapple tree had already started opening its leaf buds, just in time for the freeze. This too shall pass; in the meantime I get to enjoy the little make shift hothouse in my living room.


It is true that I cheat a little bit, the wildlife in the back yard had been fed a steady diet of calorie rich foods during the last couple of weeks. It’s not by design, I just don’t seem to get baked goods right lately. The squirrels are not choosy, given that however bad my cooking, it’s still better than tree bark.

This little cardinal found the stash of crackers, checked it out to make sure it was on the level, and then called his wife to dine and grab some provisions for later. I know what you’re thinking, I’ve got way too much time on my hands.

No Hurry

The seedlings are a little slow to start, but under the circumstances, I don’t see that as a problem. The thing is, no matter what the thermometer says, I know won’t get to plant them in the garden before April 20th, I’m not making that mistake again, so we’ve got time.

Another month indoors will give the perennial flowers more time to germinate and grow large enough to make it in the garden. I already have a few lupines, delphiniums, and, keeping my fingers crossed, one formosa lily. It seems it blooms the first year, I can hardly wait.


March 13th - Happy Saint Patrick's Day!

All Things Lucky and Green

It seems fitting, on this of all days, to make a list of plants that bring luck, you know, just in case. Let’s start with the classics: lavender and roses. No garden should be without them - lavender for luck, roses for love.

Honesty and sage attract prosperity to the household. It is said that if sage grows well in your garden, you’ll never lack for anything. Honesty specifically pertains to the increase of money, because of its round seed pods that look like coins.

Lucky bamboo brings happiness, prosperity and long life. Ivy growing on a house will protect the inhabitants from curses and evil spirits.

Basil is a potent love charm, used frequently for this purpose by those so inclined. It also keeps fights and gossip at bay and ensures happiness and harmony in the household. Basil is an auspicious plant in general, it promotes good health and long life and keeps travelers safe on their journeys.

Since it’s Saint Patrick’s Day we have to mention the four leaf clover, the universal symbol of good luck.

If none of these good luck plants is heavy duty enough for your needs, here’s the showpiece: white swallow-wort. Old wives’ tales have it that if you manage to get a piece of it built into the skin of your palms, you will be able to open any lock, you won’t be harmed by anything made of metal, you will get the ability to find treasure and you will understand and speak the language of animals. Don’t go out chasing for it, it never grows in the same place for more then one year, after which it moves, skipping three rivers at a time, and you only have a chance to find it in the same place again every nine years. Still, useful.

The Gardening Year

I was browsing through past years’ gardening articles and I got overtaken by this feeling of certainty and permanence. It is extraordinary how consistent nature’s cycles are, almost down to day for the first bloom, the last frost, the unavoidable late freeze. Keeping a gardening journal makes this pattern obvious and somewhat discomforting, this truth that all things green abide by a gigantic cosmic timepiece of uncanny precision.

I suppose after almost twenty years of gardening I should be embarrassed to rediscover the elementary fact every experienced farmer takes for granted, but then the wonderment, the expectation, the joy of beholding the first shivering daffodil would be gone.

The garden only experiences one year, but it does so for decades, sometimes centuries. It gets established but it never gets old, it doesn’t carry its hurts and misfortunes from one year to the next: come winter the cycle is complete and the following spring brings with it another chance to start fresh, unencumbered by the past.

I guess I could, by now, anticipate that in about a month all the perennials will be fully grown and the flower beds will be covered in violets. I could guarantee that the beginning of June will see the first tomato, or that mid-May the roses will be flush with bloom. I could anticipate the veil of Heavenly Blue morning glories that always heralds the beginning of September, but just because I expect all of these things to happen, that doesn’t mean I don’t rejoice in them just the same.

When I was much younger I wrote that the secret of eternity is repetition and congruence. I had no earthly idea what I was talking about at the time, which is proof that even a stopped clock is going to be right twice a day.

Every Single Year!

It wouldn’t be March if we didn’t have balmy temperatures followed by a hard frost and snow. This year was no exception, although this time the spring freeze spared the magnolia, which gets to keep its leaves for once.

I don’t know how my southern magnolia managed to thrive in this much colder climate, obviously the landscaper who planted it forty odd years ago knew what she was doing. Maybe it’s a micro-climate, with just the right amount of sunshine, frost and wind protection. It is strong and healthy, and looking resplendent right now, even though the last few winters haven’t been kind.

Still Cold

It was very cold again, one last scream of winter, or so I hope. I think we can safely count on the April Fool’s freeze, which never fails to oblige, but by now winter has no power anymore.

That doesn’t mean last week didn’t feel unpleasantly February-like, goodness knows nobody ever missed sleet! We were supposed to get a full blown blizzard, however, and it didn’t happen; I’m almost guilted into thinking the freezing rain was a favor. Begone!


March 20th - Vernal Equinox

It's Officially Spring

This year welcomed the equinox with a chill more suitable for winter, followed suddenly by balmy breezes and temperatures in the seventies. I give up. The garden seems to be indifferent to the whims of the weather, and it follows its own rules, whatever they are.

The cherry trees are in bloom, in lovely shades of pink and purple, and the spring bulbs finally decided to come out of the ground: it’s officially spring. I guess next week I’ll have no excuse to postpone the spring cleaning, and I’m kind of eager to see what’s underneath; every year I get a few wonderful surprises as a reward for my efforts.

The weather is forecast to stay warm for the whole week, a wonderful respite from the endless freeze, but it will rain a lot, it seems, so maybe I do get my excuse after all.

I’m so over the dreary and the cold and the sleet and the muck, and even though I realize this is one of those March head fakes, and we still have a month to go until the whole mess is behind us, I can’t help my excitement for spring.

Speaking of patterns, every year, about a week after the equinox, summer visits. It doesn’t stay, mind you, but it always visits for about a few days. I thought this year, since spring arrived wrapped in arctic air, might be an exception, but no, the balmy temperatures were right on schedule, like they always are.

In my early gardening years this would be the time when I rushed eagerly to the nursery to pick lovely specimens and plant them in my garden, only to do it all again a month later after the first batch succumbed to the inevitable April frosts.

This is how gardeners learn patience.

The First Daffodil

It was so cold when I took this picture I felt sorry for the daffodil, poor thing who dared the freezing temperatures to be the only flower in the garden that didn’t belong to the hellebore family.

My daffodils are usually a week or two behind, because many of them are planted in part shade, but what a treat when they finally bloom.

Every year I plant more, one can never have too many daffodils, and even now I have a few bulbs in a pot that need to find a home in the garden.

Despite totally inept ministering, the pink peony I moved and divided earlier this spring seems no worse for the wear, and its early shoots brighten a few sunny spots in the back yard that are very happy to have it. I don’t know if they will be strong enough to bloom this year, but I’ll be happy if they acclimate to their new locations at least.

After the freeze subsided, more daffodils followed the valiant pioneer, I even saw a few hyacinths.

Meanwhile the little vegetable seedlings are growing big and strong indoors, undaunted by the diminished light that accompanied the cold streak.

I miss my garden so much during winter.

Glacially Bright

I walked out the back door, encouraged by the glorious sunshine, and ran back in despair to grab a coat. It is freezing! Unfortunately the rugosas had already started to leaf out, and all their new growth succumbed to the frigid temperatures.

They are very resilient plants, so I don’t doubt they’ll pick up again as soon as the weather cooperates, but I worry that the freeze might have damaged their flower buds.

Too Cold for Anything Else

I wanted to take pictures of spring flowers, but all I found was hellebores. I don’t consider hellebores spring flowers, given that they bloom at the end of January, so that gives me an idea about how cold the garden thinks it is right now.

Sure some of the spring bulbs have sprouted and the recently moved peonies hurried up to push through new growth, but when the chill came they stopped dead in their tracks and are now waiting out the cold. Everything but the hellebores.


March 27th - The Pretty Flowers of Spring

How to Care for Hyacinths

The thing about hyacinths is that they don’t need special care, they need the conditions they have become accustomed to: a climate with cold winters, full sun exposure and a good soil that gets neither boggy, nor dry.

Usually the gardener picks up a bag of hyacinths in October, digs a hole four inches deep, throws in a good handful of bone meal, places the bulbs in groups of five or six and covers them up. That should do it under normal circumstances, no extra activities required, except for regular watering if fall gets exceedingly dry. Bulbs don’t tolerate drought, and by the time September rolls around gardeners often forget they are still in the ground and need water.

Can you plant hyacinths in spring? I always do, because I buy them in pots sometime in February, when their beautiful fragrant flowers help chase away the winter blues. When they finish blooming, I just move them out to the garden. The cheerful specimen in the picture is an example of how well spring planted bulbs can fare.

Don’t assume that because they are woodland plants they must be shade tolerant, they bloom before there are any leaves on the trees, when they benefit from full sun exposure, which is what they like. If you plant them in the shade they will slowly diminish to nothing, but first they won’t bloom.

This is probably why people believe hyacinths consume themselves in flower production and need to be replaced every two or three years. Not so. This hyacinth grew to about three times its original size and blooms more abundantly with each passing year. Just plant them in full sun and give them food and water, just like you would any other full sun perennial, and they will thrive.

Very Early Violets

The blooming violets are such a wonderful surprise, especially after last week’s arctic blast. They are very resilient plants, violets, a feature that delights at the beginning of spring and exasperates in the middle of summer, when they greedily take over the flower beds. They have a lot of competition this year from the much larger plants I added last fall, but they still should have plenty of space to shine, since they fill every nook and crevice when left to their own devices. To this end, they started early.

March continues its seesaw temperature pattern and the summer like conditions reverted to more seasonally appropriate weather, which means rainy and cold. Here comes April’s Fool.

The spring flowers have started coming out, the clematis and the roses are sprouting leaves, the trees are in bloom, what a delightful sight! One more month, one more month…

The new perennials are on their way from the nursery, more woodland natives for the shade, most of which I’ve never grown before. I feel bad that the flower beds are still covered in debris, I guess I know what is on the gardening schedule next week, unless, of course, it gets cold again.

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