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”

October’s Maples

The maples (genus Acer) are in full glory this year and the sugar maple (A. saccharum) the queen of all.   Emblematic of Connecticut, the sugar maples are in decline in many areas.  Sugar maples are well suited for our Connecticut weather as the branches rarely break in wind or ice load.  They also draw water from lower soil layers and bring it into the upper, drier soil layers which benefits other understory plants.  Sugar maples are do not tolerate pollution, heat, and salt well nor does it do well in a restricted root zone.  For these reasons they are often very stressed in urban and even suburban situations.

Unfortunately that has led to the planting of many invasive species of maples including Norway (A. platanoides), amur (A. ginnala) and sycamore (A. pseudoplatanus) maples.  Amus and sycamore maples are banned.   Norway maples are considered invasive but not yet banned in Connecticut.  Unfortunately I have three very old (probably close to 100 years) and very large Norway maples.   Nothing – but nothing – will grow underneath them.  I would  be quite happy having them converted to firewood but the cost would be prohibitive.  Their small offspring has not been so lucky and I am continually chopping and pulling up seedlings.

Back to happier topics, our native red maples (A. rubrum) are brilliant this year as well.   Red maples are often called swamp maples and are more tolerant of adverse conditions – like wet soils – than the sugar maple.  However they are more susceptible to snow damage and we lost a limb off of this one in last fall’s October snowfall.