The Grateful Garden


Thanksgiving carvingsThe growing season is slowing down, although not coming to an end. There is always something going on in the garden; for the earth is always busy. This is the invisible season when the grateful garden gives forth a bounty of orange and green and other deep, lusty colors.


Garden Mums and Sage

It’s when pilgrim stories are told in varying renditions. We now know that Thanksgiving Day was much more than a happy celebration. It was the beginning of great upheaval of 10,000 years of Native American life and the beginning of massive European migration, an unstoppable clash of cultures that altered the world. That’s our heritage.

I bring out my brother’s Thanksgiving carvings, a noble Indian brave and a man and woman pilgrim. I put the woman in the center because she holds a platter of corn, the garden harvest so essential to European survival.  They were literal babes in the woods.  Everything had to be grown and harvested or captured in the wild. The faces of all three are traced with apprehension and guarded speculation. No smiling selfies here. Too much was unknown.

What we know now is each culture brought ideas and each learned from the other, particularly things of the natural world. Corn was the grain that carried them through the early winters. This was way before our Fourth of July tender sweet corn. It was multicolored kernels that were pounded into meal meant to last through the long cold months.


Native Beautyberry

Corn was part of the “three sisters” vegetables; corn, beans and squash. The Old Farmer’s Almanac includes an article on How to Plant a Three Sister’s Garden.

Indian legend casts corn as the older sister, its tall stalk there to support the other two. The bean plant is the giving sister, pulling nitrogen from the air into the soil for all plants to share and crawling up the corn to hold all together. The third sister, squash, shades and protects the plants with large leaves against weeds and pesky intruders. We carry on the “three sisters” tradition: we make cornbread and bean casseroles and pumpkin pie. We decorate with the ever increasing varieties of pumpkins and squashes the growers produce.


Thanksgiving gives us pause to enjoy the sanctuary and solitude of the quiet garden at the end of the growing season and think of what we appreciate: the work of Master Gardeners, the sharing of our gardener colleagues, the mistakes we have hopefully learned from and, most of all, the bounty of the earth.


A friend recently gave me a gardening book – Old-Time Gardening Wisdom by Jerry Baker.  I remember Baker from public television years ago. His folksy advice drew a big following. He had tons of homemade concoctions that could work wonders in your garden.


Baker’s fall garden tonic is 1 bottle of beer, 1 bottle of soda pop, and 1 cup of ammonia per 20 gallons of water. Apply until the ground is saturated.

I have no idea what beer, soda pop and ammonia exactly do but Baker swore by his Grandma’s garden wisdom and her endless recipes for the good health of the garden. He wrote over seventy garden books and was known as America’s master gardener. His books are great to dip into for a little garden wisdom before falling asleep.

Baker’s book reminds me of the other garden writers who sit next to my bed – these many bits and pieces of garden lore have entertained me many evenings before slumber. Katherine S. White is one of those writers. In her book, Onward and Upward in the Garden, a collection of fourteen New Yorker essays that appeared in the magazine over twelve years are collected with an introduction by her husband, E. B. White. She puts out little gems like the word nasturtium means “nose twister” in Latin. Most of the book is dedicated to the writing in plantsman’s catalogues. It’s hard to believe that’s possible. In thinking about what we mean by nature she uses the words of Sir Kenneth Clark.

“We are surrounded with things which we have not made and which have a life and structure different from our own: trees, flowers, grasses, rivers, hills, clouds. For centuries they have inspired us with curiosity and awe. They have been objects of delight. We have recreated them in our imaginations to reflect our moods. And we have come to think of them as contributing to an idea which we have called nature.”

Another great garden read is Richardson Wright’s The Gardener’s Bed-Book, first published in 1929 and introduced again in 2003 as part of The Modern Library Gardening Series and edited by Michael Pollan. Wright is very witty but so is Pollan as you can see in his introduction.

“It took a woodchuck and a book to make me understand what’s really at stake in the garden. I’d come to gardening in the naive belief it offered a fairly benign way to kill an afternoon, a refuge from the wider world, but even before the end of my first season I’d been forcibly relieved of my innocence. First came the rodent. A series of increasingly desperate measures to run a hungry woodchuck out of my vegetable patch escalated into a personal Vietnam (with me in the role of General Westmoreland, fully prepared to destroy the garden in order to save it), which promptly exploded the whole “garden as refuge” concept. The spectacle of my own rodenticidal rage suggested that more was involved in gardening than tending a few tomatoes and prettifying my yard. It put one into a relationship with nature that was anything but innocent.”

Such good writing and such a compelling subject. I agree with Pollan, I read to garden and I garden to read.

The Color of Flowers

nasturtiums “The flower is the poetry of reproduction. It is an example of the eternal seductiveness of life.” Jean Giraudoux

I came upon an all-encompassing book on the whys and wherefores of plant color – Nature’s Palette; The Science of Plant Color written by David Lee, a botanist at Florida International University. I was curious about how flowers get their color. Lee probably shared a little more than I wanted to know, but still he thoroughly and scientifically explained the mystery of color and even admitted that some of it cannot yet be explained.  For instance, green color normally comes from chlorophyll, but not always. The jade vine from New Guinea has a bright blue-green corolla that is from some other mysterious combination of pigments. Most flowers of course are not green simply because the purpose of petals is to attract pollinators with contrasting color that stands out against green leaves.

So the colorful petals often serve as landing pads for birds, bees, butterflies and even bats and carrion loving flies. The center sex organs, the male stamen and the female pistil, are usually contrasting in color. Might as well advertise.

Butterflies like bright flowers in the yellow to purple range. They don’t need to be fragrant but must be open during the day. Bats, in contrast, prefer pale flowers that are musty smelling and open in the evening. Moths pollinate sweet-smelling flowers like tuberose, jasmine and gardenia. Birds, not having a well-developed sense of smell, don’t look for fragrance but search out bright red tubular flowers with lots of nectar. For every flower there seems to be a favorite suitor.

20190911_182930Lee uses orchids to explain flower color, but I’m interested in the flower color in my garden. A favorite bedding annual I grow is lantana, a member of the verbena family. They’re so dependably perky, blooming all summer and into frost. The fact that they change color through the season is not because they’re contrary. Unpollinated flowers start out yellow to attract their favorite pollinator – the thrip. Thrips like yellow. After pollination the flowers darken to orange and red, which the thrip doesn’t favor. They’re done with him, so they close up shop to thrips. How practical. All this is explained online at Gardening Know How.

In the last paragraph of his book, Lee makes a heartfelt case for caring about the natural world.

“Unscientifically, the strongest reasons for preserving green landscapes, whether as wilderness, a patch of wildflowers by a road, or small garden in a housing development, are really emotional… Perhaps the best that I can do as a scientist is to reveal this beauty to those unaware, or in ways not yet appreciated, to increase knowledge, appreciation, and – ultimately – a feeling for plants. Despite the political and environmental problems we face, we still live in an awesomely complex and beautiful world, mirrored by the colors with which plants illuminate our lives.”

How Bees See


Bees can’t see red. They don’t have that color receptor.  Human color receptors are based on red, blue and green. Bee’s receptors are based differently – on ultraviolet light. That is blue and green. So, red flowers appear black to bees. How interesting to learn about the eyes of bees, especially since I’ve been told my other flying favorite, the hummingbird, favors red flowers.

I’ve always loved blue flowers.  I didn’t know the bees did too. A dive into Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping explains all about how bees see. Petals are a different color than leaves for the purpose of attracting pollinators and, surprise to me, many patterns in nature are invisible to us. Even though many gardeners love blue flowers, the truth is blue recedes in our vision. Yellows and reds pop out to us.

To help our most important pollinators it’s worth incorporating blues from spring to fall. Again an article in Bee Culture leads us through the season with appropriate blues.

In spring plant Siberian squill, Pulmonaria, Grape hyacinth and Forget-me-not.

In summer make sure you have hydrangea, cornflower, bachelor button, meadow sage, cat mint, Russian sage, veronica and speedwell.




Of course there are many more bee-friendly flowers to consider. Blues delight our eyes and feed the bees. In turn the bees make it possible for us to eat almonds, apples, blueberries, cherries, avocados, cucumbers, onions, grapefruit, oranges and pumpkins just to name a few. We get the best of that trade off.

The Lower Shore Land Trust


Our speaker at our July garden club meeting was Kate Paton, Executive Director of the Lower Shore Land Trust.

The mission of the trust is to preserve rural lands, promote vibrant towns and build a healthier, more connected Eastern Shore. Kate spoke on the environmental benefits of pollinator gardens.   To those ends the trust wants gardeners to work towards a healthy environment for the pollinators in our midst.

They sponsor a Pollinator Certification Program. The criteria for certification are four fold. You must have food sources. That could be native plants, host plants, fruit trees, a feeder and diversity of scent, color and size. Water sources must be present. That could include a pond, river or stream, a birdbath, a hanging drip bottle or a butterfly puddle area. The pollinators also need cover. It may be natural shelter or a constructed shelter, canopy layers and nesting or basking sites. Lastly, certification requires conservation practices – composting, a rain garden , xeriscape, native plants and a reduced lawn area and no fertilizer use. All of these criteria are familiar to gardeners and good suggestions for good stewardship of the land.

beeKate enumerated some reasons why we must take seriously the impact our practices have on the land. Hedgerows are no longer common dividers of our farm fields. The pollinators have a need for that diversity in the landscape. As gardeners, we can help make up for the loss. The Trust has a demonstration garden at their headquarters in Snow Hill. It’s worth a visit.

Since I’ve added native plants to my yard, I’ve seen many more bees, butterflies and birds. By signing up for a pollinator friendly garden, your yard will post a sign that may encourage your neighbors to join in the mission to promote the natural heritage of the Lower Shore.

My Mutant Spruce

dwarf spruce1


The lovely dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) in my front yard is about 15 years old. It’s neatly shaped with delicate, slow-growing branches. It’s less than five feet tall – just about the size that fits my front yard. It seemed happy growing in its plodding way.

That is until today. Today is when I noticed the strong arm of a large white spruce reaching out from inside the tree.  A giant spruce arm was hiding there. It looked as though it was trying to climb out of its dwarf jailor.

I quickly went to the Internet. “What’s this,” I queried.

Quite common was the answer. The dwarf Alberta spruce is itself a mutation of the white spruce (P. glauca) which has a mature height of 60 feet.  The dwarf mutation was first sighted in Alberta, Canada in 1904 by two botanists waiting for a train at the railway station.  Many foundation plantings later a bud on my tree has reverted back to the original spruce. It’s called a genetic reversion. Expert advice is “nip it in the bud.” Is that where that phrase came from?

Shades of Charles Darwin. What happened to my spruce started me thinking about the capabilities hidden inside all living things – a window on natural selection. I’ll never know if it was stress that made that prickly arm reach out, nor how the phragmites manage to colonize empty spots around my house, nor why the gazania feels the need to fold up its petals at nightfall. It’s mind boggling to think of the wonders in our world.

The Vinegar Hit Man

Every year the shore birds do me a favor. They drop poison ivy seeds everywhere in my garden. I’m allergic and I know each time I make contact I’m in for ten days of itching. Just two weeks ago I put on disposable gloves and long sleeves and ripped out a bunch of it. I thought I had taken enough precautions. I use Tecnu  and it’s good at removing the oil. Unfortunately, you have to know where that oil landed. I think it spritzes through the air. I didn’t realize it hit my face. A day later I was swollen and itchy and looking like I’d lost a battle to a vicious foe. I vowed to keep clear of the stuff forevermore. The trouble was, I still needed to get rid of the vile ivy. I thought I’d try a concoction I’d been reading about on the Internet. Here’s the recipe:

1 Gallon white vinegar

2 cups Epsom Salt

¼ cup Dawn liquid detergent

poison ivy 2poison ivy 1

10 AM and 3 PM

Here’s what happened. On this sunny morning the triple-leaved culprit looked lushly green. I doused it with the special mixture. Five hours later the lushness was gone, replaced by dried, crinkled leaves. Now, I didn’t know what was going on under the dirt, but I hoped the roots suffered the same fate as the leaves. Time will tell.

Of course, this mixture must be used with caution.  Any plant you happen to spill it on will sport crispy leaves. So it’s not a solution if the ivy is entwined among the lavender or threading through the daylilies.

The local extension agent suggested I get 20% vinegar. My gallon from the grocery store was only 5%. Just another thing I didn’t know – there is cleaning strength vinegar. If 5% crisped up those leaves in five hours, 20% would surely whack them. Take note – 20% will blister skin and do worse to eyes.

Further research turns up quite a bit of controversy. Some say the vinegar only gets the leaves. Sounds like repeat applications are necessary. The good thing is the vinegar quickly breaks down in the soil, so no problem with planting at the site a week later. And Epsom salts are made of Sulphur and magnesium. Both good for the soil.

In theory gardening conjures visions of relaxation amidst the beauty of nature. Not so for us on the ground. There is battle to be waged with formidable foes – the weeds, the poison ivy, the deer. We must be ever vigilant or that vision will not be our reality.

Happy Father’s Day



Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  Wish you could see my garden where a number of your pieces reside. I have a stool you made from a big, fat tree stump.  You fitted it with three legs and varnished it up good.  It’s a slice from a swamp maple that once grew on a Mississippi River bank. When its leafy days were over you thought that wood’s too pretty to throw in the fire pit. You didn’t trim the skirt of bark. Maybe you thought the dignity of the woodland resided in that rough protective coating. Maybe you thought it just looked better that way.

You took the trouble to drive it across the country to my house and now it sits on our front porch next to a Majesty Palm (Ravenea rivularis). The stool came out of the Mississippi bottomlands and the Palm is native to Madagascar. Two plants from opposite sides of the world sit comfortably together. Nearby the Atlantic tides cycle through the day.

You recycled before we had recycling bins. There is something spiritual about making a new use out of something that is about to be discarded. Its life isn’t quite over. You put on your practical thinking cap and gave it a second chance.  From many examples, you gave your children the seeds to look at the true value of things, take no things for granted and chose re-making as part of living a satisfying life. I know,” live within your means” was a favorite mantra out of your mouth and into our ears.

These words reside in the realm of cyberspace. A place we never knew existed when you were here. Maybe in that unseen orbit you’ll run into them. It would make me happy to think that could happen.


Little Charmer Cosmos

cosmos7 - CopyThe Spanish priests named this little Mexican charmer cosmos, indicating it is a balanced universe on its own and therefore a thing of beauty. I grew Sensation mix (Cosmos bipinnatus) from seed indoors in early spring. Definitely a plant for dummies – they sprout quickly, transplant with ease and love lousy soil and dry conditions in bright sun. They flower until frost with some deadheading and reseed the next year – fingers crossed.

They are shallow rooted so do well among lilies. They are a perfect cottage garden and cutting garden choice. cosmos11 - CopyA brown bottle on our coffee table will hold three or four blooms every day until frost. The colors range from downy bright white to almost chocolate velvet.

It’s best not to give cosmos a lot of fertilizer or rich soil. That signals them to put out a mass of foliage and not much in the way of blooms. I did transplant some to an area covered with Leafgro and they have yet to flower.  Note to self: read up and heed the experts.

Cosmos, also called Mexican Aster, is part of the Asteraceae family so is a close cousin to sunflowers, daisies and asters. cosmos6 - CopyThe foliage is fernlike, giving the plant a delicate look and a beautiful contrast to the stout, sturdy leaves of lilies. Mixing Cosmos among the strap-like leaves of Stella de Oro daylilies would also be a pleasant combination.

Cosmos comes in handy as an introduction to flowers for young gardeners. Quick sprouting and easy blooms reaps generous rewards and will surely charm budding horticulturalists as they did the Spanish priests so long ago.

Bird Lessons from the Soulful Gardener

birds flowers1

Did you know that domestic cats kill more birds than insecticides? That’s the story from the American Bird Conservancy.

It’s news to me. I thought letting the cat out was a rather harmless activity. I found out the Bird Conservancy has a “Cat Indoor Campaign” in which owners sign on to keep the cat indoors. Of course it’s only half the problem because there are many unowned cats roaming the countryside and feral cat communities that contribute to the slaughter of about 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States alone.

I was lucky to be a guest at the May meeting of the Master Gardeners of the Eastern Shore. The speaker was Heather Zindash, a Certified Professional Horticulturalist. She spoke to us about the need to keep the birds in mind when planning a garden. Her website, The Soulful Gardener is a “gardening and therapy-through-horticulture stopping place to help connect people with gardening and nature.”


Heather was a font of bird and garden information. I’d never heard of “nature deficit disorder.” Now I know there’s a name to the epidemic of time spent staring at a screen be it cell phone, tablet, computer or television. Connecting our children to the outdoors sounds like a preeminent goal for parents.

She talked about birds being “biological indicators”. Remember the proverbial canary in the coal mine.  Birds need much more oxygen than humans because of all the flying they do.  Therefore they are bioindicators, detecting toxic gases before we do. The state of their health is a good forewarning of environmental decline because they carry measurable toxins in their feathers.

birds flowers3

As gardeners we should consider the three elements needed to attract birds to our gardens: food, water and shelter. All we need to think about are berries, nuts, seeds and nectar for our feathered friends and water in the form of bird baths, ponds, creek or rain gardens. Adequate shelter would be our shrubs, evergreens and thickets. Pay attention to these three elements and the birds will reward you as a natural insecticide. The circle of life will be complete.

Heather talked about the Christmas Bird Count, the longest running citizen science project, sponsored by the National Audubon Society. It’s been going on for over a century.  Every year the count runs from December 14 through January 5. To participate check the Audubon page for a circle of counters near you. This is not a count that you do on your own, you must officially join a circle.

Possibly many of the master gardeners already have much of this bird information in their heads, but Heather loaded me up with new knowledge of the importance of birds in our gardens.