2020 is, thankfully, coming to an end. COVID-19, shut-downs, masks, political divisions, what a year it has been. No sooner had The Spouse completed six weeks of radiation treatment and we were ready to “get back to normal” or the whole world shut down due to COVID-19. A week later my sister in the Netherlands got devastating news when she was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer and suddenly the world truly looked bleak.
Because of the virus there were travel restrictions and even if we were able to travel, my sister was under strict quarantine and couldn’t see anyone. She went to the hospital every other week for chemotherapy and was confined to home the rest of the time. My niece and her boyfriend did the grocery shopping for my sister and husband. Months passed by and the response to chemotherapy was encouraging. The tumor shrunk; subsequent MRIs showed the cancer retreating. While 90% of patients with a Stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis don’t make it past the first six months, my sister was doing well. Early fall she had major surgery to remove the tumor and a few weeks later, when all the tests came back negative, she got the all clear. A miracle when the world seemed so dark. Sometime next year, as we slowly, hopefully, return to some sense of normalcy, we can travel to Holland again and I get to give my sister a long hug, something I didn’t think I would be able to do ever again earlier this year.
On the cusp of the New Year I walked around my garden. Looking closely, yes, I can see some promise of spring. But what really made my day was the sight of the first primrose flower, hiding under a bit of leaf. Each winter I look for primroses in the grocery stores. Their brightly colored flowers gladden our hearts and tell us if only we wait a little longer, spring flowers will be greeting us outdoors again. Each spring I put these small plants outdoors and last spring was the first year in my garden these plants really took off. None of them disappeared on me; no, they flourished and grew. Even now, in late December, I can see bright green plants dotted around. And there it was, a bright blue flower with a yellow center. A promise of more and better to come in the New Year. I can use some of that! I think we all can.
Ignoring the outside world, I walk my garden as we have the most beautiful weather this late in the season. Blue sunny skies and temperatures in the low seventies entice everyone to go outside as lawns continue to grow and need mowing.
There are still plenty of plants pushing out a few odd flowers here and there, but two continue to bloom to their heart’s content. Both are plants I had in my old New Jersey garden, and both eventually got the heave-ho. Don’t ask me why I dug them up and threw them out or gave them away. I have no clue. Both have been in my garden now for two years and while they performed well the first year, they did even better this year despite the lack of rain and hot weather.
The hardy geraniums, aka cranesbill, are charming sprawlers, weaving their way through neighbors without overwhelming them. The two varieties I have are ‘Rozanne’ and ‘Rozanne and Friends’ and they both have violet blue flowers. During dry spells they wilted and dried up, but after a little bit of rain I would cut them back hard and they would start growing and pumping out flowers again. This past summer I probably cut them back 4 times and after each rainstorm they took off again. Now, during the first week of November they are still blooming. Then, when the temperatures finally nosedive, the plant will go dormant, waiting for warming spring days to do the growing and blooming bit all over again.
The second plant I am utterly captivated by is Veronica, also known as Speedwell. I have Veronica Spicata, including a variety called 'Moody Blues’ as well as ‘Sunny Border Blue’. Both start blooming in early summer and they just keep going and going and going. They attract so many insects that you can hear the humming from feet away on warm sunny days. Once the first round of blooming is done, I cut them back and they promptly pump out another, equally impressive, round of flowers. In September I moved a number of 'Sunny Border Blue' from the side garden where the She-shed will be put, to the new front bed. I cut all of them back hard before replanting and hoped for a few more flowers. However, thanks to significant rain fall and nice sunny days they are now in full bloom again, despite a few cold nights which killed off most annuals. Oh, and if you garden in deer-country, Veronica is also deer resistant.
There probably won’t be many more days to sit in the garden this time of year and to soak up sunshine. I treasure the quiet (once mowing is done everywhere) and read a book. Then the sun starts to set, and it gets chilly. Time to head indoors with the very last roses; Pilgrim (yellow) and Vavoom! (bright orange). Treasures from the garden, to be enjoyed indoors. They will be the last ones for a long while.
Oh rats; how time flies. It’s almost the end of October and the gardening season pretty much has come to an end. I clean up some annuals and throw them on the compost heap. I deadhead the roses, knowing full well the few buds left on the shrubs probably won’t open and there are no more blooms in the near future. I treasure the roses on my Queen Elizabeth still blooming but I can’t bring myself to cut them off and bring them in.
Leaves are turning red, yellow, crimson or just plain falling off. Since we still haven’t had the first hard frost, some annuals are still going strong. I treasure them, knowing they have previous little time left before they turn to mush. I keep an eye out for weeds; it always pays to stay on top of weeds. Weeds creeping through the sedum meadow get dug out and are discarded. After a day of much needed rain the weeds easily pop out of the ground, making the gardener’s job so much easier.
The temperature of the water in the pond has dropped to the mid-sixties; still warm enough for the fish to feed. Once it drops to the mid-fifties, the fish will stop swimming around so much. Not long thereafter they will stop feeding altogether, start hiding in the bottom of the pond and prepare for a long winter’s snooze. The pond service came this week and winterized the pond; equipment has been shut down except for one pump which will provide oxygen in two places all winter long. Once temperatures drop enough for the pond to freeze over, this pump will agitate the water enough to create two holes in the ice, allowing fish (and hibernating frogs) to breathe and stay alive. If you have a pond with fish, never, ever let the pond surface freeze over solid, or you will lose your fish (unfortunately that has happened to me once!). Now when I go outside, I am no longer greeted by the sound of falling water over rocks. It takes some getting used to and when everything gets turned back on in late March or early April, I am always happy to hear the rush of water again.
The dahlias, planted in late spring, grew over the summer and while they didn’t flower much because of a lack of moisture (they liked the heat), they made up for it when we finally got rain. I used six-foot rebar as stakes for two plants, thinking it would be more than enough. Ha! With two feet of rebar in the ground and four foot above, my dahlias grew, and then grew some more until they were way above my head. I think next year I will invest in eight, if not, ten-foot rebar. But oh, what a sight to see when they are blooming their hearts out! Now I will have to wait till the first hard frost, which kills the top growth. Then it is time to cut down the stalks, carefully dig out the roots (technically called tubers), brush off excess soil and let them sit upside down for a few days before storing them in a cardboard or plastic container in a cool place. Last year I stored my tubers in slightly damp shredded paper in a plastic container with the lid not quite covering the entire container. Every month I would check it. If it was dry and the tubers felt a bit shriveled, I would mist the tubers. If they were ok, I left them alone until the next check a month later. Fast forward six plus months, mid to late May, and it is time to plant them out in the garden again for another floriferous show. Meanwhile, however, we peruse magazines, read about other gardens, and wait for the days we can see the first spring flowers. It’s going to be a long wait!
Summer is officially behind us and what a hot and dry one it was! It rained to the North and to the South of us, to the East and to the West, but we got precious little rain. Nevertheless, my garden persevered with a little help from me and now autumn colors are starting to reveal themselves. The Dogwood has the first bright red leaves while newly planted Maples in the development are also turning red. The first round of hostas have called it a day, but there are many different types of hostas still going strong, at least until the first hard frost.
The Spouse had been pointing out to me for years that my well-designed back yard lacked room for a she-shed, something I desired ever since I saw the first one at a garden show. Two years ago, when I took a chunk of front/side lawn and turned it into a garden bed, I didn’t realize I also had room for that shed. The penny finally dropped this August and after some measuring of the site, a look at custom sheds from a local builder, approval from both the HOA Board and the Township, I now have the perfect site for my she-shed. Right outside of the back-yard fence, on the left-hand side of the house, is a nice level spot where my 8’ deep and 12’ wide shed will go. With windows on three sides, a dormer with 6 windows and a single door with 9 glass inserts, I should have plenty of light, but just in case, I added the electrical package. It will sit on a crushed stone bed which will be installed within a few weeks.
Now it was time to move plants to make room for the she-shed! But there was “a problem”. I had no room for those dug up plants in the back or other side yard; what is a gardener to do? Well, it didn’t take me too long to come up with a solution. The builder-installed bed in front of the porch was a skimpy 3’ wide, while the opposite bed next to the front door was a generous 9’ deep. I decided to kick out the bed in front of the porch and made it 9’ deep. I incorporated the newly planted Dogwood (part of the landscaping done by the builder last fall) and this bed curves outward to the (large) side bed. Separating this bed from the side bed was a 4’ wide strip of grass as a path from front to back yard. After looking at it for a day, I eliminated this grassy strip as well. Now I have a new garden connecting side and front beds.
Eliminating the grass is easy: cover it up with cardboard or builders’ paper. On top we put 5 to 6 inches of beautifully triple shredded root mulch. I dug holes down to the cardboard or paper, cut out holes, filled it with topsoil and started planting. As the grass underneath dies and decomposes, it will only add more soil to the bed, while the mulch will also decompose into soil.
I bought three new shrubs to help anchor the new porch bed: two Double Play Candy Corn Spirea and one Blue Diddley Vitex. The Spirea has yellow leaves with red and orange accents while this Vitex is the smaller cousin of other Vitex already on the property. I dug up a number of my home grown Stipa Tenuissima or Mexican Feathergrass, divided and planted them. I added Veronica, which blooms for months on end with beautiful blue flowers. At the edge of the bed I planted 100 Muscari bulbs or grape hyacinths varying in color from white, light blue to dark blue. Finally, I dug up and divided red hot pokers, although in my case, the “red hot” is actually bright orange. Come spring and through summer, early fall, this new bed will be a vision of yellow, bright orange and blue and should help revive flagging spirits after those winter months!
Summer is speeding by and with August in the rearview mirror we’re getting some relief from the heat and finally some rain. Despite the serious lack of rain during late spring and through most of summer my garden has soldiered on. I made good use of the rain barrels and each time when I got close to the bottom of the barrels, we got more rain and it all filled up again.
The butterfly garden, which is now in it’s fourth year, doesn’t need much help from me. Despite the seriously compacted heavy clay soil, most plants continue to do well. Unfortunately, the buds on my lilac dried up in early May when it was hot, dry and windy, but there is always next year to look forward to.
The last three years I lined the walkway through this garden with annuals. The first year it was yellow snapdragons; year two melampodium (a small yellow daisy-like flower), year three bright red celosia. In year two, after setting out the melampodium, snapdragons sprouted here and there. Mostly yellow, but a few red ones popped up and I let these volunteer seedlings intermingle among the other plants. Last year, again, various snapdragons reappeared and with it a new crop of melampodium. This spring, when it finally got warm, not only did volunteer snapdragons and melampodium pop up again; they were joined by bright red celosia. The combination of various yellows with bright reds enticed bees, flies, beetles and butterflies and it didn’t cost me a penny. This will probably continue for years to come and other than digging up the occasional plant which has reseeded itself in the middle of my paths and moving it over to the beds, I whole heartedly approve of the way nature is taking care of the garden.
While I allow for generous reseeding in this garden, I stay on top of weeding. After all, this garden is a front garden and I want to show that you can have a fully planted garden that looks great instead of a lawn. Similarly, the hell strip in front of the butterfly garden, (that piece of land between street and sidewalk) is planted with a variety of annuals and perennials, rather than with grass. Because there is no mulch in this hell strip garden, most weeds crop up here and I spent more time weeding this small strip than anywhere else in the gardens. Weeding after a good downpour allows me to pop up weeds root and all and eliminate them, hopefully forever. It’s a monthly chore, but a necessary one and it allows everything else growing there its moment to shine and that makes the work worthwhile!