Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Garden Under Cover (and Under Water)

We've had a very strange winter here. I had plans for the pond pier during the normally dry winter months. The pond had receded enough for me to add more support posts and both widen and extend the platform. A few days before Christmas, though, the rains came. They came so heavily one night that everyone--to include houseguests--was awakened in the midst of a deep winter's sleep. We were able to see off the guests with no trouble, but on Christmas Eve, after three days of heavy rain, we endured another deluge. When the rains let up a little, out we trudged in our Wellies to survey the damage.

View of the pond from the house

The pond was nearly out of its banks on the long driveway side, and we could see that it had flooded the entire canal system (in place for pond overflows) beyond the bridge. But we weren't prepared for what we found once we got to the bridge.

Once a tiny drainage ditch, now a raging river

Once a driveway, now another raging river
and a lake beyond

We were able to leave the property for Christmas Eve services, but only after I decided that no one would mind if I showed up to church in my garden Wellies. We planned to have the driveway rebuilt a couple days after Christmas, but the never-ending rain delayed the project until after the New Year, which made for a long stretch of very bumpy rides.

The vegetable garden fared rather well in the midst of all of this, likely because it is perched on a hill. The raised beds drained pretty well, and I could still harvest lettuce, kale, radishes, and sugar snaps. For the first time ever, I was also prepared for cold weather, having made poly tunnels for the especially cold nights. 

Season extenders groaning under the weight of rain

The poly tunnels kept us in good veg until the middle of this month when a heavy rain late one night flattened the plastic. Then frigid temperatures moved in quickly and froze all of the rain trapped in the beds. We had ice dams in the garden. The kale, radishes, and cabbages survived, but everything else was lost. I still think the poly tunnels are fantastic, but they need a few adjustments. Since the experiment so well this year, I'm confident that they'll give us great harvests next winter when we no longer have to deal with El NiƱo

But I really can't wait for the warmer weather. These fingers are itching to get dirty again.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Payoff for Effort

What I am pointing out is that unless you are at home
in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical
education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.
--Robert Frost, "Education by Poetry"      

I often refer to Robert Frost's comments on metaphor at the beginning of each semester. I feel it only fair to warn my students that I regularly speak in metaphors. I use them to help me convey significant, sometimes difficult ideas. But really, my motivation in deploying them is rather more selfish. I simply like playing with metaphors and seeing how far they will take me. They almost always break down, just as Frost said they would, but the ride is always fun for as long as it lasts.

As I crouched in the garden with my camera today, photographing the first blooms of the Japanese anemones, I felt a metaphor asserting itself in my mind. It is one that I will have to sit with for a while in order to fully understand its import.

I have wanted Japanese anemones from the moment I first saw a white variety growing in the garden of the Historic Kenmore Plantation in Fredericksburg, Virginia a few years ago. Their seemingly fragile flowering heads, held aloft by  arching stems, swayed on the September breeze. I was hooked. When I found anemones for sale at Mill Pond Gardens this summer, it only seemed appropriate that they should come home with me. They were not in flower, but with a name like 'Lucky Charm,' their color was insignificant. Standing in front of a table full of them, I looked up their general growing requirements. When I saw that they performed best in shade, their future was confirmed. They were destined for the garden I've named for my beloved Wolfie.

As is my habit, I gently placed them in the holes I had dug when I arrived home, enveloped them in lovely cow manure, and gave them a good drink. The plan was to keep them well-watered for the first two weeks and then let them get on with their new lives. After that initial period, however, they showed persistent signs of stress, a condition that only seemed to be alleviated by frequent watering, sometimes as much as two times a day. 

After a month of coping with their demands, I became a little ambivalent about these plants that I had dreamed of incorporating into my garden. They were fussy. They required too much work. I was, as Alan Titchmarsh would say, "running around like a scalded cat" to keep them happy. The emotions associated with this period ran the gamut. First there was concern, then worry, then frustration, the beginning of righteous indignation, and ultimately resignation. But I continued watering them. The question nagging at me for those few months was "Are they really worth all of this effort?"

Then the first bud appeared last week, and suddenly, despair gave way to hope.  

The first, slightly damaged, 'Lucky Charm' flower

One little flower changed everything. To the right of it was another flower-in-waiting. 

The plants still require a lot more attention than I am usually willing to give, so we are at a significant moment in their story here. Their form is the most magnificent I've ever seen in a flower. I can't explain why. But there they are, those perfect flowers, the result of incredible dedication on my part. Only two flowers have appeared on one plant, though I've planted three. Their production is incredibly insignificant, it would seem, but I still marvel at them and find myself confounded by that overwhelming question: What value is there in giving so much input for such a minimal (though breathtakingly beautiful) output?

And that is where I leave the question to you, dear readers. Take the metaphor as you wish.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


The world is too much with us: late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
                                               --William Wordsworth

I did something today that I haven't done in far too long. I took a moment for myself.

During the walk with the dogs this morning, I tried something new, an experiment that most people would find a little strange. I closed my eyes. I let the dogs lead me. They proved themselves completely worthy of my trust. Their skills were confirmed when they started pulling me in a diagonal line, guiding me across the road just as I have done for them on countless walks and just at the same point (okay, I peeked to be sure). Leaving the leadership to them afforded me a different perspective. I listened to the frogs and the crickets sing in the still morning, felt the soft, cool breeze. I noted the complete lack of traffic noise. I heard the cadence of my shoes hitting the pavement, the syncopation of the girls' tags jingling softly as they pranced. It was an amazing experience that I wanted to last as long as possible. Of course, I appropriately opened my eyes as soon as we reached the main road again. They may know where they're headed, but they're dogs, after all. I couldn't trust that Tippy would look both ways, and Zoey is distracted by pretty much everything and could drag me to my death.

As our walk neared its conclusion and we reached the head of the driveway, making the turn toward the side steps of the house, I noticed how the morning light made my Artemisia glow. I'm quite awestruck by them. They started life inside the house this spring as seeds in a little planting module, and now they tower over me. One (when not toppling over, as seen in the photo) is over 6 feet tall. They are beautiful in full daylight, but there's something about the low light of dawn or dusk that makes the white panicles shine. All I could think about was getting into the house and grabbing my camera. For once in a great while, I had no thoughts of getting to work on time or the myriad issues that would vie for my attention once I got there. I thought only of the light, the flowers, and my camera.

The world looks different through the camera lens. It forces me to stop and absorb every element of the scene in front of me. I've spent too much time away from the garden, from my writing, from my camera, and ultimately from myself. But today, in the quietness of morning, my garden restored me, plainly and simply, just as it has so many times before, and I don't intend to allow distractions to take that peace away from me again.

Do something that is solely for yourself. Seriously, the world can wait for you.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Accounting for My Time

I've been away for a while. I reassured myself that no one would really miss my dispatches from the garden, and so I stopped sending them for a while. If you have missed them, please do let me know.

In all honesty, I've simply been wallowing in summer. Mornings are spent walking the dogs, meditating, doing yoga, and tending to the veg patch. That last bit often determines what will happen for the rest of each morning, but in the last month it mostly has demanded that I spend time in the kitchen preserving the harvests. My skin should be magnificent by now after all of the inadvertent facials I've received from the hot water bath canner. I worried a few times that I may end up pickled myself. It's been an amazing time of poring over home preservation cookbooks and mixing up all sorts of aromatic elixirs to pour over the fruits of my labor. I think I have quite a lot to show for it.

So without further delay, let me attempt to account for my time away. Hopefully you can forgive me when you've seen what I have been doing.

A nicely mixed harvest

My first successfully grown watermelon (this is Sugar Baby)

Tomato chutney and Honeyed Bread & Butter
cucumber pickles

One of many treats now in the pantry

Tomato sauce to see us through winter

How's that for a panorama?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flower Arrangement Challenge, June

This one is pretty special, thanks to a combination of Rudbeckia, Echinacea, and for those saavy gardeners or foodies out there, yes, the greenery is parsley. I had to get creative.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Maintaining Balance in the Garden

Whenever someone hears for the first time that I'm a gardener, I almost invariably get asked, "Do you grow vegetables or flowers?" My answer is "yes." Why must it be an either/or proposition? Sometimes, though, the demands of one type of gardening begin to push the other type to the margins.

Nearly everything is putting on dramatic growth in the vegetable garden, which feels a bit like a child demanding attention. "Look at me!" it shouts. The beans are racing over the arches I built for them. The corn is now over my head. When something isn't growing like one of Jack's magical beans, then it's signaling me to lift it. I harvested 64 heads of garlic the other day. I've been communing with vegetables quite a lot lately.

The first substantial harvest

Even though the veg patch is being so rowdy and making me feel like it's patting me on the back a bit, much work still needs to be done in the ornamental areas. They are putting on a little show of their own, but it's a more subdued show, so sometimes they don't get as much attention. Someday I hope that "exuberant" will be an appropriate means of describing my flower beds, but right now, I do love the relative peace they represent. 

'Becky' has arrived!

The much-anticipated first blooms from the Leucanthemum superbum 'Becky' (yep, a daisy with my name) have finally arrived, and now I'm greedy for more. I hope they spread like weeds all over the large border. The Crocosmia 'Lucifer' bulbs that I lifted and brought with me from Orlando are multiplying and filling another bed with their scintillating blooms.

Fiery Crocosmia 'Lucifer'

In the front borders another Orlando transplant, the Canna, is stretching out and getting comfortable in a mix of Rudbeckia and Echinacea. When I compare my borders with photos of my favorite English garden (Great Dixter), I feel mine are so sparse. I think the word they would use is "mingy." I'm tempted to run out and buy a whole bunch of plants to fill in all the gaps, but I must stay my hand (and my wallet) and remind myself that things will look a lot different in a few years. It just requires a little patience and maybe a little balance.

The front beds are slowly filling in

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Building a Garden Fence, Part III - The Big Reveal

When I worked for a large restaurant corporation, one of my colleagues had said that he really wanted to grow vegetables at home, but his wife rejected the idea because she believed vegetable gardens were ugly. I was a little shocked, even a bit wounded by such a remark. I tried to assure him that they could be beautiful spaces and even emailed him photos of my Orlando garden to illustrate the point. His wife was unmoved. That has been in my mind ever since, and it has informed the way I think about vegetable gardens.

This garden has long been a dream of mine. I have imagined it for years. I've sketched out plans for it in my graph paper notebook. When we moved to this house, I saw that the garden could become a reality. There have been many preparations made for this space, lots of measuring, plan revising, plowing, building, and so on. Now that it is basically finished, I must admit that I have shed quite a few tears lately. It is one thing to dream about something. It is quite another to actually see it take physical shape. After working on the center fountain and surrounding plantings one morning, I walked into the house with tears in my eyes. My stepson noticed and asked what was wrong. "Oh, nothing," I replied. "It's just so beautiful up there, and I sometimes I can't believe it's actually looking better than I had imagined." I suspect he just added that to the file of "Weird Things Becky Says." Strange or not, as each element has come to completion, I have found myself weeping happily.

And so, what follows is a series of photos that will hopefully capture the joy that we have built here.

After seeing a blue door in a garden featured in Gardens Illustrated, I've always wanted one for my own garden, so that's what I painted all three doors after I built them.

The front door welcomes guests

We have done all the labor ourselves. We set the posts, built all of the sections between the posts, and stretched and attached the chicken wire to the lower portions. Our fingers are sore.

The view from the orchard

The back center does have a glaring gap in the fence. That's where my eventual greenhouse will go.

The view from above

View from the barn side

My mom insisted that I should have a place to sit down in the garden, which gave us another good reason to visit the antique shops. We found this chair in the perfect color of blue.

A place to rest for a moment

The hoops are made from bending electrical conduit. I've stretched bird netting over them and attached the netting with zip ties. The beans love scrambling over them. 

Beans climbing up their arches

The welcome sign on the front door and this beautiful green man were made by MyGardenGoddess and can be found on Etsy. They really are perfect and quite detailed.

Our watchman

It's hard to remember now what the space looked like before, so here's a little reminder.


And a very satisfying after

When night falls, we can see the lights up in the garden casting a soft glow. They are made from Ball jars with dismantled solar lights placed in the mouths. They're attached to the posts with plumbing straps, and they give the garden a nice finish.