Place and Vernacular in the Garden

Trees & shrubs from a local strip mall

Place and “vernacular” in the garden are touchy subjects. I’m probably the last person in the world to talk about rules or norms respecting this because I’m sure I violate this sort of thing all the time. However, if we don’t think about having a sense of “local” place in the garden, all of our gardens will begin to look the same and pretty soon gardens from Maine to South Carolina and Northern California to Texas, North Dakota Georgia and everywhere in between will begin to resemble each other, plant wise and garden ornament wise. For example, where was the above photo taken? Any ideas? I thought not. It could be anywhere with the possible exception of Florida or Hawaii.

Strip mall shrubs

What am I talking about? Well, it’s been happening for years. People move from one place to another and quite naturally want to grow their favorite plants in their new location. The unfortunate thing is that a good portion of “their favorite plants” include lawn. This is how Phoenix and the California desert became so water thirsty and Arizona can now no longer be recommended for allergy sufferers–the allergy sufferers who moved there planted the plants they loved from back home and now there is no respite.

But aside from that, think about air travel for a moment. I’ve always found it amazing to get in a plane, go up and come down and when I get out, in the airport and to a certain extent even outside the airport, depending on where I’ve traveled, the stores are exactly the same as where I’ve come from. Nothing is new anymore. It’s all the same chains. There’s no escaping the same coffee houses, sandwich shops, burger places–you get the idea. Occasionally you’ll see something local, if you’re lucky. But if you go back to the same place year after year, you’ll probably find the local place is gone in a few years, sadly.


Do we want our gardens to come to that?  Do we all want to be growing the same lawns, trees, trendy shrubs, hydrangeas and roses? As it is, you can’t pass a strip mall without seeing Knockout roses, at least where I come from. Sure they’re great, but goodness! And it’s the same for the same daylilies, a limited number of grasses, and perish the thought, those Bradford/Callery pear trees! No imagination whatsoever! And look at these daylilies. They’ve seen better days, that’s for sure!

This is a strip mall in West Hartford. It’s been a bit notorious this week because a dead body was found there. It may have been the body of a man that was missing from his job at the mall across the street and it may have been there for as many as 2 1/2 weeks before it was found. Very sad!

But the go back to the plantings, they’re used because, with the exception of the trees, they work. But nothing is native to our region, nothing is “special” and nothing shows any imagination.

And don’t even get me started on ornaments in the garden!

Wordless Wednesday–Time to Slow Down and Watch the Butterflies


Despite my pesticide free garden, there have been decidedly fewer butterflies in my garden this year. I’m not sure if it’s because all of my neighbors use chemicals or if it’s because it’s been a cool summer.


I did manage to catch this swallowtail nectaring on my lantana, however.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I need to slowdown and watch for the butterflies more!

It’s Late August. Is Anyone Happy With The Garden?

I was reading a post the other day from Erin, who blogs at The Impatient Gardener, and she was remarking that when she takes a tour of someone else’s garden she always learns something that she can put into practice in her own garden. Great advice and a really upbeat way to look at the world!

Being born a Capricorn, however, (the “downer of the Zodiac”, as I like to refer to it), or perhaps it’s just my perfectionist streak, whenever I tour another garden, I just look around wistfully and sigh and make mental notes of all the additional shortcomings in my own garden. It doesn’t matter how many folks have paraded through my own yard and swooned–I still only see the flaws. For me the grass is always greener somewhere else, and the flowers are always lovelier somewhere else.  Maybe that’s why I still garden–I’m still trying to get it right.

It isn’t helping, of course, that I am working on a huge article (actually a normal sized article) but I’m looking through tons of the latest garden books to try to decide which ones I think ought to go into my “Top Ten Garden Books of 2015” article. Talk about perfection! No one ever takes pictures of “icky” gardens unless it’s a “before and after” sort of thing.

Or perhaps it’s a book about some sort of “quirkiness” like garden gnomes or something like that. Bottle trees are in vogue right now–love them or hate them they are almost de riguer in the garden even in places where they have never had a history like here in the Northeast. But that doesn’t matter. They’re “in” in the garden so let’s do a bottle tree. But that’s a post for a different day–a sense of place in the garden or else gardens will all wind up looking like strip malls or shopping centers!

“Weathering In” Your Compost

On Monday I talked a little bit about just spading compost around the garden in the fall and letting “weather” do the rest for you. This is actually part of a sustainable practice of gardening called “no-till” gardening. I’ve practiced it for years for many reasons but it’s really a shock when I talk about it to most gardeners, even seasoned gardeners. So I like to bring it up now and again, even if I talk about it in different ways.

By the way, Lee Reich has a whole book on the subject called No Till Gardening if you’re interested.

The more we learn about soil, the more we realize it is best to disturb it as little as possible. Of course, as gardeners, we need to disturb it to plant things. But we don’t need to needlessly or mindlessly disturb it. Soil is literally alive and it’s working for us. The more we disturb it, the more we disrupt the good stuff!

It of course helps that I have heavy wet clay and I know better than to touch it any more than I have to. If I “overwork” my soil, it becomes even nastier than it is (hard though that is to believe!) If I work in it when it’s too wet, I risk doing damage to the soil tilth (although lately, that’s not too much of an issue). You get the idea.

Something that may really get your attention though: even routine disturbance of the soil brings dormant weed seeds to the surface. And who needs more weeds?! I don’t know about you, but it’s a losing battle for me in the garden already. I surely don’t need to make it worse by tilling extra weed seeds up!

So what do I do? Again, as I am constantly “ranting” about on my mulch rants, I don’t drop 6 inches of compost all over the place. That would be counter-productive. A nice inch or two is all you need.  It’s not mulch so it doesn’t have to be spread out evenly and nicely but be sure to get it sort of out of the lumpy blobs and into a quasi-even layer.  Then go in the house and forget about it.

Next spring the garden will be ready for planting and the nutrients will be ready for your plants. And you’ll have one less chore to do. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

Wordless Wednesday

hydrangea flowers

Those long-time readers have seen me write about breeders working on new varieties all the time. Here’ the perfect example right in my own yard and I literally stumbled over it while I was taking the dog in from our walk one morning last week.

I have the typical old-fashioned late-blooming hydrangea paniculata grandiflora–the “peegee” hydrangeas, as they are known for short.  Mine is just coming into bloom now, although some in my neighborhood that get more sun than mine do have been in bloom for a little longer.

I adore these and planned my wedding around their creamy white blooms. They fade to a gentle rose color and dry beautifully.

This is a much newer variety from Proven Winners called Bobo. Unlike the old-fashioned variety, which can literally grown into a small tree if not whacked back with a heavy hand, Bobo stays a mannerly 3-4′. But look at the size of the flower head on this small shrub! It’s twice the size of the older variety!

Bobo is the flower on the right in the above photo. My old-fashioned PeeGee flower is on the left, for comparison sake.

That’s what I mean when I say the breeders are “doing” work. They are making compact shrubs for modern gardens that still pack a lot of bloom into every plant. How great is that?!

Drought or Deluge, The Remedy is the Same

Spanish lavendar

What are you looking at? It’s my most badly stressed container plant, a Spanish lavender. I’m not in really bad shape this summer, luckily.

But a tweet from @Proven_Winners awhile back about how much of the country was experiencing flooding rains (not a problem I’m having) and if the gardens were getting washed out, it was time to fertilize made me think that container plants in summer could be having the same issues.

Even plants in drought stricken parts of the country that are able to receive supplemental irrigation (if any are at this point–clearly I’m not describing California anymore!) might be suffering from nutrient deficiencies.

So what do you do and how do you fix it?

Well, for gardens in the ground, it’s clear that this is going to continue to be an ongoing problem. Regions will continue to see wildly fluctuating amounts of moisture and it will not only be difficult to plan for that but it may also be difficult to water in times of drought.

In times of “deluge,” or too wet spring and summer, it can be difficult to prevent nutrients from leeching from the soil.

Even during dry times, like our past two summers here, our rains, when they have come, have caused mulch to run off in rivers, pooling unattractively on hard surfaces, or worse yet washing into storm drains and into our waterways. (But you know my anti-mulch bias).

So how to cope? Other than some mechanical edging to attempt to contain that mulch (which, depending on the rain, might or might not work anyway) here are a couple of practical suggestions.

Install drip irrigation. I discussed this in a post about a year ago (April of 2014 to be exact). I can only endorse this, however, if you install moisture sensors. My state currently doesn’t mandate that. I know more pro-active states do.

If that sounds like too much work, you can incorporated compost into your beds.   I also talked a fair bit about this last spring.  Or better yet, wait until fall and just spade some compost around the gardens and hope you have some “weather” over the winter.  Where I live, there’s always “weather” to work the compost into the ground (but I have to be careful to compost after the Spoiler comes by with his Giant Leaf Vac or all my compost will be blown to the curb with the leaves!)

And while we do preserve many, many of our leaves for compost, we could not possibly use them all, sadly–hence the giant leaf vac. It’s the one un-ecological thing we do–at least in the garden.



A Great Tool For Weeding and More

Grandpa's Weeder

This tool recently made the Monrovia newsletter for a great tool for weeding. As you can tell by the slightly rusty hinge on ours and the weathered handle, we were ahead on the curve–we’re into our second or third year of use already. It’s the Spoiler’s favorite tool for weeding because he doesn’t have to bend over to weed!

As organic gardeners, of course we weed out dandelions and other larger weeds by hand. That can get pretty arduous, particularly in drought (or weedy) years. This tool helps a lot. Here’s how you use it.

positioning the weeder

Obviously the two prongs go down on either side of the offending weed. Right now the Spoiler is working on plantain.

grabbing the weed

To remove the weed in the prongs, you rock the tool back on that flat bar and it just levers right up out of the ground, roots and all! Obviously my camera focused on the lovely weeds still remaining in our lawn and not the one in the grip of the tool but it’s easy to see the weed and roots held there.

But that’s not all this tool is good for! I’m not sure anyone else has my unique situation but lots of folks have self-sown plants–I know we all do. And they’re a blessing.


Ignore the weeds–I have lovely little grottos of ferns self-sown all over my property. When they self sow into the beds, I let them be to colonize. When they self-sow out here, in sort of a “no gardener’s” land between my perennial bed and some pines, I sort of leave them be until I or someone else needs them. I have dug lots of these to give to neighbors and friends, and I’ll periodically transplant them into my own beds and borders to fill gaps. But I’m not going to do it in a year when we’re having so little rain, of course! Nature is taking care of these better than I can.

transplanted fern

But in case you were wondering–Grampa’s Weeder does a lovely job of lifting these as well. I put this one into a container with some little hosta seedlings, also transplanted from the lawn, that I’m growing on for shady spots in the garden–and for transplanting when the rains come back!