The Smell of Dirt in February

The Connecticut Flower Show is worth attending just for the smell of plants, mulch and soil.   As luck would have it, one of warmest days we have had in months – it broke all of 50 degrees – was the day I was scheduled to be at the show (inside).  For the past few years I have helped out at the CIPWG (CT Invasive Plant Working Group) booth helping educate – and commiserate with – folks trying to deal with invasive species.    The solutions are rarely easy: chop and pull – and don’t give up first – and as a last resort, the use of herbicides.   This is the one case in which the risks might be worth it for long term benefits.

On a more upbeat note –  the landscape displays and flowers are the anodyne for a snowy, bitter winter.   This whimsical sylvan living room was just charming.  It is hard to resist the urge to step right in and sit down.

Here is one I DSC06294want to add to my gardens – Fothergilla ‘Mount Airy’ .  This native deciduous shrub is a cross between F. gardenii and F. major.   At 4′- 5’, it is taller than the former but shorter than the latter. This picture shows the  spring (April – May) flower spike which is fragrant – and good for the pollinators.  It also has handsome dark green foliage and excellent fall color. What’s not to like?  Yep, maybe this year.



By Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.

Old Gardener, New Tricks

I have found that a ‘gardener does not know what a gardener does not grow.’

My father, being from Wisconsin farm country, used to quote a German proverb that  ‘A farmer does not eat what he does not know.’   Similarly I have found that a ‘gardener does not know what a gardener does not grow.’   When friends and family ask questions about plants I have not grown myself, I may know the “book learning” on it, but find only a  “personal relationship” leads to true understanding and appreciation.   Given this my vow has been to broaden my horizons but being of a lazy nature at times, I am usually only pushed along when a friend hands me a packet of seeds or some seedlings and I feel obligated to plant them.

And so, this season I have a few new plant experiences.   The first is (and doDSC05910_edited-1n’t laugh) withcosmos – an old fashioned cottage annual to be sure.  My sister gave me a little baggie of seeds from her plants.  They sat on my potting bench for a while but this spring, feeling guilty and not wanting to throw them out, I sprinkled them in a shallow tray and set them outside.   The little seedling grew gallantly and then feeling even more guilt (jeez),  I broke up the tray into little chunks and stuck them where ever there was a patch of ground (tough love thing).

Oh, how they have wormed their way into my heart.  Through serendipity one group ended up at the foot of dark purple Buddleia davidii and next to another new garden new comer, Mirabilis jalapa (four o’clock flower).

Mirabilis is another old-fashioned plaDSC05971nt and earns it’s name from its fragrant flowers that open in late afternoon and close the next morning.  A gardener friend gave me the seedlings and I stuck them into the same empty spot next to the cosmos.


Now both of these new additions tends to reseed prolifically so I expect they will be a part of the repertoire for years to come.  Both come in a range of colors and next year I plan to experiment some more.

The Joy of Herbs

The first garden I planted when we bought our home in White Hills was an herb gardHerb Gardenen.   It sits on the rocky ground in front of our three-seat outhouse facing due south, as close to the kitchen door as I could make it.    To me there is great joy in continuing a tradition where herbs were a valued part of a woman’s garden – cherished for their flavor, smell and beauty and many other qualities.

Since ancient times, people have used herbs to enhance the flavor of food.   The leaves, flowers, seeds and roots can be used to season meats, vegetables, salads, and soups; to flavor vinegars and butters; and to make teas and drinks.  I use herbs every day because my homegrown herbs are handy (just steps away), more flavorful than those found in the grocery store, and much less expensive.  And besides their wonderful taste, herbs provide beneficial nutrients and vitamins.

In addition to using the herbs fresh, I dry the leaves and seeds for use in the winter.  Luckily I have hot, dry barns, but any well ventilated location out of direct sun will do.  Once they are dry, I store the herbs in a sealed container in a dry, dark place to preserve the taste and smell.  Many herbs freeze well, especially basil (Ocimum basilicum) and mint (Mentha sp.) which lose much of their flavor when dried.  You can also preserve herbs like tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) in vinegar.  Recipes and techniques abound in books (check out the library) and on the internet.

Beyond their culinary use, herbs have always been valued for their fragrance.  Just brushing the plants in my garden releases such wonderful scents.  Best known of the aromatic herbs is lavender (Lavandula sp.); but some lesser-known herbs of merit are anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) with its licorice scent,  southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum) and wormwood (Artemtsia absinthium) with their very distinctive sharp, spicy odors and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) with its sweet lemon smell.  Many of these aromatic herbs have the added benefit of repelling insects like ants, moths and mosquitoes as well as rodents.

Another traditional use of herbs was in the treatment of common illnesses and conditions.  Many of these past medicinal uses are not recommended today as some herbs have been found to be toxic or poisonous.  Exercise caution with herbs – know what you are using.   In this article I include the scientific or “Latin” name of plants because common names can often refer to totally different plants and that can mean trouble.  French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), preferred in cooking, is not the same as Russian tarragon (Artemisia dracunculoides).  Lemon balm can refer to Melissa officinalis or Monarda citriodora – two totally different herbs.  When you buy herbs, always check the scientific name.

Continue reading “The Joy of Herbs”

The $190 Tomato

Admittedly, I have never been what I would call a dedicated vegetable gardener.  Oh, I would throw in a few tomato plants and a zucchini and call it a season.  At our old house in NY there was never sufficient sun and more than sufficient ground hogs (who knew ground hogs could climb a fence??).  I gave up.   But my concerns about the quality (pesticide load, GMO)  of what we eat is increasing so I decided to dedicate myself to food production.

There are challenges in Connecticut.  The soil is rocky to be sure and though I haven’t seen a groundhog (yet), the deer are voracious.  I decided to grow in a small space of fenced-in raised beds.   Luckily, I have a man who is quite handy and after much teeth gnashing, I decided on a modification of the Sunset plan to fit behind the wood shop.  Basically the required materials were:

  • Wood (Douglas Fir) which I opted not to stain out of concern for chemicals –   $48
  • Galvanized screws – $9
  • Quarter-inch-mesh hardware cloth  (for the moles &  VOLES) – $30
  • PVC pipes for hoop with galvanized tube straps  –  $13
  • 1 cubic yard of 50% soil, 50% compost –  $30
  • Metal fencing – $58!!

The bottom line (in North East dollars) was about $190 and that included doing some scavenging in the barns for wood and fence posts.  The fencing was the biggest surprise – yowzah! The $190 tomato?   Getting close…

Don’t they just look like Conestoga wagons heading over the prairie?   The hoops will support both plastic and row cover.   I look forward to using them for IPM (integrated pest management) by covering crops when they are most in danger.

Vegetable Beds
Vegetable Beds

Here is a close up of the bed.   I am using the square-foot gardening technique.   The concept is to divide the space into sections and plant vegetables,  companion flowers and herbs in one foot spaces.   The advantages are reputed to be reduced workload, less watering, easy weeding … we’ll see.  More to come on this...

Raised Bed
Raised Bed

Also, in conjunction with row cover and plastic,  I hope to extend the growing season with a cold frame (handily built by William using an old window).  Ah, the best laid plans of mice and gardeners…

Cold Frame
Cold Frame


Snow is a Four Letter Word

And so for that matter is cold and wind

Spring has been a long time coming this year.   I can generally tolerate the winter months and even the snow falls but this year has been a challenge.  The unremitting winds just intensified the cold.   It is April and it is dipping into the 20’s at night and the snow still lingers on the north sides of the buildings.

Even the late winter / early spring garden shows and symposiums brought little joy.   Though I must say that this is my first year attending the  Connecticut Master Gardener Association symposium and it was exceptionally well organized with excellent speakers.   But alas, when listening to the likes of Andrew Bunting, the Curator of the Scott Arboretum (Swarthmore) on how he created his home garden (read absolute paradise ) and Dan Benarcik of  Chanticleer on using foliage  for pattern and texture … I feel humbled.    My digging efforts (if they “garden” , I dig) are not in the same universe.    Andrew was on his third iteration of the garden in fifteen years.   Then again, he admittedly has spent more on his than he paid for his house – but oh, what heaven.  What I did take away, in addition to a huge sense of inadequacy, was the need to take risks and not over think it all.

Now if I could only dig…  please thaw…

Small State, Great Resources

I had puttered in a small suburban garden for 20 years but when we purchased this old property, the challenges were a bit more daunting.  The previous owners were not of a gardening nature to begin with and then ill health led to years of neglect.   Parts of the property were impassable – choked with wild rose, Japanese barberry, brambles and bittersweet.   In hopes of restoring this patch of paradise I went in search of knowledgeable people and fellow gardeners with whom to compare notes (and commiserate).  I was pleasantly surprised to find that Connecticut has a treasure trove of gardening resources (links are on my links list).

Let’s start with UConn’s Home and Garden Education Center.  The Center provides incredibly useful information on gardening and managing your property “from soil tests to tree tops.”  I have shelves of gardening books and magazines but what sets this resource apart is that it is geared to our local environmental conditions and challenges (deer, voles, acidic soil, wacky weather swings, drought, blight, you name it… and just in the last year).  And UConn just added a Sustainable Living website

To deal with my non-native invasive plants, I tapped into another UConn resource, the Connecticut Invasive Plants Working Group.  The group provides fact sheets on how to identify and manage invasive species as well as recommendations on native alternatives.

Another stellar organization is the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. The Station does scientific research and public outreach in agriculture and related fields.  Their programs and services include soil testing, helping with plant and insect problems, and tick testing.   In addition to the information and fact sheets on their website, the Station holds a Plant Science Day every spring and for environmental gardening geeks like me, is a must (and free).

Last but not least there is CT NOFA which is the Connecticut Chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association which is focused on strengthening the practices of ecologically sound farming and gardening and the development of local sustainable agriculture.

Incredible resources and Connecticut being such a small state, the conferences and classes are reachable in under two hours.   Again, check out the websites and happy gardening!