Oh, how time flies. We are a little over two weeks into fall, but temperatures have been positively balmy and are above normal. The garden is still going strong; chrysanthemums, asters and anemones are all in full bloom while annual plants have not given up the ghost yet either.
This gardening year has been one of sustenance; coping with grief and taking strength from nature. It has mostly been two seasons of puttering and a bit of upkeep as most of the gardens are in place.
In early September we had a week of cooler weather, my cue to start my new garden. I ordered eight cubic yards of triple shredded mulch, got my cardboard out and covered every blade of grass from sidewalk out front to existing bed with she shed. The Spouse moved wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of mulch until most of the mulch was gone. This new garden was going to be a naturalistic garden in the style of Piet Oudolf, a Dutch garden designer, who designed -among others- the High Line in New York City and the Lurie Garden in Chicago. Piet uses many multiples of a few different plants for the matrix (the functional layer), adds in a few primary plants for structural focal points and then adds in his “scatter plants” to be repeated throughout the garden. Bulbs can be added for spring interest. For my garden I got 50 Camassia bulbs, which bloom in blue in early spring and can handle heavy clay soil as well as excess moisture.
Hidden in my side yard were six clumps of ornamental grass, Millium effusum 'Aureum' or Bowles’ Golden Grass, which I had grown from seed a few years ago. I also had three small clumps of Pennisetum ‘Hameln’. I dug both grasses up, divided each plant in four and repotted each part. I gave them tender loving care for several weeks before I started laying them out in the new garden. As the Pennisetum grows shorter than the Golden Grass, it is planted around the edges, while the Golden Grass is used throughout. These two grasses will become the matrix or functional layer of the garden. One of my three Vitex shrubs from the front bed was dug up, losing quite a few large roots in the process. I pruned the Vitex in the shape of a multi-trunked small tree, and it will function as the focal point in the garden. Then there are yellow, red, and orange Echinacea (cone flowers) scattered throughout as well as white and pink Veronicastrum virginicum or Culver’s Root. While my matrix is still a little bare, Bowles’ Golden Grass will grow into a substantial clump by next year and with a bit of reseeding this matrix will fill in fast.
With this new garden going out to the sidewalk the front yard is now home to four different, but similar gardens. Next to the driveway going up to the house is the yellow garden, made to honor my mom who loved EVERYTHING yellow. Yellow daylilies line the driveway, Nasella Tenuissima or Mexican feather grass provides texture and movement while yellow blooming Kniphofia (or red-hot poker – except here YELLOW hot poker) gives a counterpoint. In between these plants I scattered Melampodium (aka butter daisy) for a constant yellow bloom till the first frost. The second bed next to the sidewalk out front is in honor of The Spouse’s heritage. This bed is blue and yellow to honor the national colors of his Ukrainian roots. Vitex, Veronica, Russian Sage, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and the annual Ageratum bloom in shades of blue. Melampodium and three (still small) Chamaecyparis pisifera filifera aurea nana or Gold Thread cypress represent the yellow in this bed. The third bed borders the porch and represents my favorite color, orange. Again, I used Veronica, Ageratum and one Vitex, as well as Mexican feather grasses to link this bed to the others and used orange blooming Kniphofia, Portulaca and Celosia. The fourth and new bed connects to the garden in front of the she shed and included yellow blooming Forsythia, daylilies as well as Heuchera ‘Caramel.’ Now I punched up those colors with red, yellow, and orange cone flowers, blue for the Vitex and Camassia bulbs, as well as a bit of white and pink from the Culver’s root. This garden is dedicated to my sister, Truus, who liked flowers in every hue. It was a labor of love, which, surprisingly and thankfully, took away the sharpest edges of my loss. It also gives me something to look forward to in spring next year.
With two thirds of summer behind us, it’s time to take stock. We had plenty of hot days, but it rained regularly, more than in most summers. Now, in late August, a tropical storm moved up the coast and with it lots of rain. Suddenly my garden is drenched, and everything stands a little taller and greener.
The only plants which have shown signs of stress this summer where the hydrangeas, but no wonder, this is one plant which will hang its head before everything else. I have tucked them away in shady spots, their preferred location. They are also in sunnier locations or spots which will be shady in another year or two when trees have grown enough to provide cover. Most plants were bought at the $3 sales rack at Lowes, and some came from supermarkets. It has taken them a few years to bulk up enough to start flowering in earnest this year. One came as a cutting from my old garden. This cutting was an afterthought; just about when we were ready to move, I thought it would be nice to have this plant in my new garden. It sat in a pot for a year; then I kept it in a slightly bigger pot for another year as I would have lost it in the garden; it was so small. Finally in year three I planted it in the rain garden, under the Chionanthus virginicus, or American fringe tree. Now, in year five it bloomed, and I am looking forward to many more years of amazing flowers.
My carnivorous pitcher plants are doing well. I have a variety of them growing on the side of the pond in a fairly shallow area. Before I added moss among the plants, the frogs used it as their spawning area and dislodged plants on a regular basis. Now, I have a green mossy “lawn” connecting the plants and the frogs have moved to another area of the pond for their amorous activities. Other pitcher plants are grown in containers; one in an oversized deep plate. The containers are brought in before the first frost and I keep the plants in the basement. I keep them watered with pond water and each spring they go outside again. Browned and dried up pitchers are cut down at the base and soon you have a new flush of growth and flowers to boot. Insects beware!
There is always some time in August when I start to look forward to cooler weather and the prospect of wearing socks and shoes again. I am not ready to say goodbye to warm weather (even with muggy days) but I am chomping at the bit of making a new garden and for that I need cooler weather. The side garden outside of the fence will go out all the way to the sidewalk and the lawn will get a little smaller (again). I have dug up plants which had outgrown their original spots and others which needed dividing. I bought some and ordered a few more plants online which should arrive mid-September, just in time for planting. One Vitex shrubby tree will be dug up from the front bed and it will become the center point of this new garden. Planned out on paper all I must do is wait a few more weeks to get this project off the ground. Cooler weather, mulching, digging holes, planting, and getting dirty – now there’s a great way to welcome fall!
My sister had a few hobbies; lace making was one of them, but the other one was miniatures. One year she made an old-fashioned Dutch kitchen in a one room box, and I liked it so much I wanted to do something similar.
During one of our vacations in Holland, we went to a trade show where vendors sold just about anything in miniature, and I loaded up on miniature garden related items. I also purchased a kit to make a one room store, which ended up becoming a flower store. It took me a while to put it all together, but eventually I had my store. The floor was black and white (paper) tiles, I painted it inside and out and glued little cabinets to the walls to display vases filled with flowers. I even found a black board and in my smallest handwriting wrote out prices of the various items. Then, one year, my sister sent me a tiny little snail in the mail. No bigger than 1/8 of an inch, with a shell, it was a perfect replica of the garden snails found in Dutch gardens. I wondered what to do with it; it was so small it was easily overlooked. Ultimately, I glued it to the top of the door frame of my little flower shop, where it sat for many years. Then we moved.
Arriving in our new home it was time to unpack box, after box, after box. Within the week we were done, and it was then I discovered during the move and unpacking, the little snail had come undone and it was gone. I looked around in the hope to find it, but without any luck; it was definitely gone. Over the years I moved the box to different rooms, a spare bedroom, the basement, my plant room in the basement and eventually this spring to my she-shed.
During one of the last conversations I had with my sister I happened to mention the snail, how it was lost and how much it annoyed me that I had lost it. We both agreed that something that small could easily get lost during a move and we left it at that.
Last week we purchased two glass cabinets at Ikea to put in my she-shed to replace the old wooden ones I had. We put them together (which took for-EVER!) so I could display horticultural-themed items (vases, plates, cups) given to me or purchased because they were so pretty. The flower shop was put on a low table where it could easily be viewed. Two days ago, sitting and reading in the she-shed I looked to the box and saw something small on its floor. I thought it was a piece of dried flower fallen from one of the arrangements on the wall, but no, it was the snail. Almost exactly five years after disappearing, it was back!
What were the chances this tiny little snail came undone during the move and fell through the opened door? Or that it fell into a corner or under the little table and NEVER showed on the floor any time it was moved to a new location? Less than four weeks after my sister’s death it is back; my little snail from heaven.
(And yes, I re-glued it to the door frame, with extra strong glue.)
In April my garden came back to life; in May, even with little rain, I watched how plants filled in bare spots. Being in the garden was a solace, a temporary escape from what was happening overseas. My sister, who was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer March of 2020, did chemo, had surgery, and was pronounced free of cancer in October 2020, relapsed and was given only a few more months to live. The first call after the final diagnosis was heartbreaking; we cried, but we also managed to laugh. Looking on the bright side, my sister said she was lucky to have gotten this far. Most people with a stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis do not make it past 90 days and here she was 12 months later.
My sister, born four years (and three weeks) ahead of me, was my only sibling. This past year, as we see-sawed between hope and despair, I frequently dove into photo albums reliving our past. We emailed, called, and each week I would send her a card. Because of Covid, international travel was difficult and with Truus’ immune systems suppressed by chemo, she could not have any visitors. The Netherlands required 10 days quarantine of any traveler from the US, so even when the end came closer, we were still unable to go. On May 14th she passed away and, as a sign of these (horrid) times, we attended the funeral online a week later.
Of all the pictures taken over 60+ years, it is probably one of the first pictures of the two of us, if not the very first picture, that I come back to time and time again. It perfectly pictures the relationship I had with my sister, safely in her arms. My sister always looked out for me. When we were growing up, we each had our chores; my sister did the grocery shopping, I mopped the floors of the kitchen and bathrooms. Later we got to do grocery shopping together. When we went to the newly opened supermarket in our town and I could not find something on our list, I would look for substitutes, rather than ask someone. You see, back in those days, I was rather shy (I know, that is hard to believe, but true). Sis would come to the rescue, ask around for the required item on our list and back home we would go with everything our mother wanted us to get.
When my sister moved out of our home and moved in with our grandmother to help take care of her, I would come over for sleepovers. Later, with grandma gone, Truus invited me over for dinner and taught me to make kidney bean soup, or bruine bonen soep, a Dutch staple. It was so good; we ate bowl after bowl until we literally could not move anymore. To this day, it is one of my favorite foods.
Once I left for America, our relationship changed, although letters flew across the ocean back and forth. When my marriage disintegrated, I was lucky to go home for a month (good employer!) and once more not only my mom, but also my sister mothered me, something I needed at the time. Years after that, when I remarried, she welcomed my new husband into the family and treated him as the brother we never had. As first our father passed away and years later our mother, again, our relationship changed. Now we only had each other and while we did not see each other as often as when our parents were still alive, we re-forged the bond we had in childhood.
Our last visit to the Netherlands was in 2019, to celebrate Truus and Willem-Kees’ 40th wedding anniversary, together with their daughter Karin, and as many family, mostly cousins and their spouses as could be corralled that day. We had a wonderful day and never could have imagined it would be last time we would be together. A week later, when we got ready to fly back home, I gave my sister a big hug with the promise to see her again the following year in the fall. But Covid and cancer intervened, and it was not to be.
When my dad unexpectedly passed away in 1995, I took it hard. A friend gave me a book about handling grief and the stages of mourning. One part of that book stuck with me forever. It talked about grief being like a suitcase we carry with us wherever we go. Day in day out, we carry our grief with us. Then one day, we get up and without thinking go on with our day. We put our suitcase of grief down and forgot to pick it up again. We do not forget the person but think back with fondness and not just tears.
Dear sister, it will be quite a while before I can put down this suitcase full of grief, but I have many wonderful memories that will sustain me in all the years to come. You were loved and you will be missed.
What a difference a month makes! Although it has not been very warm, or wet, the temperatures inched up and my plants noticed the difference. One day my magnolia opened its buds just a little and I rejoiced; expecting at least a week of glorious blooms. I was going to invite my friend to come over, just to see the spectacle, which is fleeting at best. The 98 blooms from last year would easily be surpassed as my – still young – tree was filled with buds. So, the buds cracked open on a nice sunny day and then DISASTER struck! The following morning, I noticed frost on the grass, but I still did not expect the worst. Only hours later when I made my way to the back garden, did I notice that each slightly opened bud was absolutely blasted by the frost and the buds had already turned brown. A handful of buds had not opened, and I hoped for at least a few blooms. Then we got another freeze warning and this time I was prepared – or so I thought. I took paper sandwich bags and put them – gingerly – over each opening bud and secured it with pieces of twine. The next day was windy and I left the bags on but removed all five of them the next morning. Did it work? Not really. Some opening flowers looked the worse for wear, but two buds are opening now into perfect flowers. After hoping for a tree festooned with yellow blooms, I must contend myself with two measly flowers. Since (most) gardeners are optimist – myself included - I will just hope for better next year. Oh, and I plan to keep a closer watch on opening buds on the magnolia and the weather forecast. I do have a frost blanket that might come in handy just in case temperatures dip when my magnolia wants to bloom.
Evaluating some parts of the garden, I move some plants around. The backside of the pond is home to three Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’ and below their branches both Hellebores and Pulmonaria (Lungwort) have settled in. This spring I moved a handful of Hellebores from the back of the waterfall to this section. The Pulmonaria is busy reseeding itself in nooks and crannies around these plants and within a year or two at most I should have a spring spectacular rivaling displays at public gardens.
Meanwhile, wildlife around the pond has resurfaced. A variety of frogs and toads are claiming homes around the pond or in the garden while a big frog has reclaimed the exit of the pipe running from the downpipe to the side of the garden as its home. One rainy night it traveled through the garden, falling into the window well, where it patiently waited to be rescued. Rather than hopping around frantically in the window well trying to escape that scary human being who promised freedom, it quietly tucked its head between its front legs and allowed itself to be lifted out. Kind of, if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. I transported it back outside and put it on the edge of the pond. It sat there for a minute or so, before jumping back in the pond and safety. Whew, saved again.
Last night we finally had some rain. Only 0.4 inches, but every little bit helps. This week the temperatures will soar into the 70s and maybe even low 80s, so my hydrated garden will push out greenery and flowers in record time. We also managed to spread 6 cubic yard of triple shredded hardwood mulch in three days and now I can wait and see what will bloom next. Will it be the bell like flowers of the Halesia Carolina (Carolina silver bell) or the fragrant lace like flowers from the Chionanthus Virginicus (American fringe tree). Whatever the case, it will be glorious, and that is only for starters!