Tweezers, Toothpicks and Tiny Flowers

I had not heard of “petite flower design” until I attended a garden club talk on miniature flower arrangements. It’s an official category at Federated Garden Club competitions. Although I never plan to compete at flower arranging, I do enjoy learning to make better bouquets for myself and for friends.

We were told bring tweezers and toothpicks, little containers and flowers. Flowers in January? I brought nothing. But others did. I had decided to just watch and was amazed at the imagination in the room. The tweezers deftly held the little flowers and toothpicks inserted first made a ready hole for the slender breakable stems. As far as keeping the plants in place, floral oasis worked well in wide containers as did floral frogs or wire. Containers with narrow necks needed nothing but water. Turns out I wish I had put more thought into the day; wish I had taken pictures of the garden ladies tiny arrangements.

But better late than never! When I got home I started looking around the garden and found more than I expected. Periwinkle was blooming its namesake blue, the mosses were brilliant green, rosemary had miniature white flowers and delicate gray-green branches. Chartreuse sedum was thriving in the cold as was variegated boxwood and deep green juniper tips. Why did I think there was nothing of value in a January garden? I forgot to look.


Just a Little Something! Petite Flower Design is a good place to look for guidelines on this smallest of flower design.

When the weather warms the choices will quadruple. The little rosy blooms of Chinese fringe flower shrub and yellow spring barberry bush flowers are just two examples of what will pop out if you’re on the lookout. Harry Lauder’s walking stick will provide small twisted limbs. Minor bulbs like grape hyacinth, tete a tete daffodils, snowdrops and crocus are a good fit. Their tininess made me not think of cutting them before. But what a delightful greeting they would make on a bedside table, a powder room vanity or as dining table favors.

Containers? I was surprised at what was sitting around the house. Even more possibilities are sitting in thrift shops for the price of a dollar or fifty cents. Consider mini liquor bottles, perfume bottles, toothpick holders, small ashtrays and baskets. Whatever looks good, looks better with flowers.

A Grayish Green Thought


I’m holding on to my front door holiday décor even though Christmas is long gone. The dark still creeps over the land in late afternoon and fog blankets us many mornings. This makes me feel the need for a welcome that only light can give. When someone comes to my door or when I come home I want the welcome of light.


How lucky we now have lights that don’t put out heat, don’t need to be plugged in and best of all have memories to turn themselves on and off. So I’ve kept the dwarf Alberta spruce in its red pot and little lights at the side of the front door. I’ve also kept the red basket filled with pine cones, greens and one of those candles with a brain. The wreaths can stay too until warm weather calls for springtime décor. A great discovery is that in cold and humidity greens last much longer than inside the house – Valentine’s Day at least.

The growers help perk up January with primroses at the garden centers. The homegrown hellebores are beginning to bloom and pulmonaria is putting out its spotted leaves.

Technology makes the gardener’s life exciting all year long. However, reading directions on each new product is essential, at least for the older brain. I bought an instant read meat thermometer from OXO. One problem – it kept recording 145 degrees whether I turned it on or off. I took out the battery and put it back in. I checked the packaging for a clue. I considered throwing it out. I turned to Google for one last attempt to solve the problem. At a question and answer forum someone said. “Well, you have to pull off the protective plastic film.” Oh my god, why didn’t I figure that out or why didn’t OXO print “peel me off” instead of 145.

winter9So there you have it. Technology is a help and  a headache. The instant read thermometer is great now that I’ve overcome the protective coating puzzle, but planting primroses on a balmy January day brings more joy.

Garden Resolutions 2020

front gardenTaking stock. That’s what this day is for.  In the garden that is. 2019 was a “getting to know a new garden” year. It was for removing plants hiding under other plants. Last April I found an azalea stuck behind a giant laurel and an out of control juniper. I dug it out and even reaped an extra plant from a branch that had put down roots and sent up a baby. This April we’ll see if they bloom where they can be seen under a pretty stand of pine.

daylilyLast summer Stella d’Oro daylilies popped up under the same overgrown laurel and juniper. They were moved into sunny spots along the driveway. Those daylilies I know will thrive in 2020.

This fall we dug out four knockout roses that, although they bloom lavishly, didn’t justify their place in the front garden. I admit to not loving them so much since they are everywhere in our community and as hybrids are not good pollinators. They were replaced by evergreen cherry laurel, variegated boxwood, dwarf elegans spruce and a spreading juniper in a lovely shade of blue.

Digging out the overgrown junipers, euonymus, and laurel will be one dirty job in 2020 but will make room for a new patio and deck. Researching a suitable design is the plan for the next cold months.

A pleasurable task I’m looking forward to is establishing rock gardens among the piles of rocks on each side of the driveway. The spot gets relentless summer sun so it seems perfect for stonecrop, sedum and Mediterranean herbs. Last summer I tucked lavender, sage, thyme, lemon coral sedum mexicanum, hens and chickens and Irish moss in spaces between the rocks. Hopefully some will gain a foothold and overtake the weeds that are so comfortable among stones.  I remember the perky portulaca in my grandmother’s rock garden and will sprinkle some seeds among the rocks in her memory. That’s the thing about gardens. Life in the Garden bookPenelope Lively in her book, Life in the Garden, says:

“To garden is to elide past, present, and future; it is a defiance of time.”

I confess I had to look up ‘elide’. It means to merge. What a nice idea for the first day of 2020. I was taken back to my grandmother’s 1950’s kitchen where something tantalizing was always on the stove and the screen door leading to the rock garden was close by. And the path through it led to the grape arbor and the chicken house beyond.

First, Get Chicken Wire

Kitty's Flower Shop

Ocean Pines Shop

Robin Gravenor, owner of Kitty’s Flowers,  spoke to our garden club this month. The talk was billed as flower arranging for the holidays. I considered not going. Well, thank God that thought was banished. Because Robin taught us the practical nuts and bolts of the task at hand: putting together a winter arrangement. Those same nuts and bolts apply to arranging all through the year.

First, get chicken wire. Robin came prepared. She had chicken wire by the foot. Who wants to buy a bale of chicken wire that would forever gather dust in the garage.  Not me. In fact I wish I had bought more pieces from her.

A little background on Kitty’s Flowers. This is a family business of three generations. They’ve been providing flowers to the Delaware/Maryland Eastern Shore for seventy years.  With a main shop in Salisbury, Maryland they have three satellite shops in Laurel, Delaware; Millsboro, Delaware and Ocean Pines, Maryland. From Robin on down they are friendly, gracious and ready to help with whatever you need.  Of course they make arrangements for every flower-necessary occasion, but they also sell flowers, berries and branches by the stem. They are generous. When I order three of an item I often get more.

I bought these stems for my Thanksgiving arrangement:

Arrangement 2


Winterberry: This is a deciduous holly native to North America. It’s considered a bog plant (perfect for my poor drainage) and is berry-heavy in winter.  I’ll look for a male and female plant next spring.




 Bittersweet: This is a fall beauty with yellow skins that pop open to reveal brilliant orange seeds. Beware. It’s an invasive Asian plant that can actually strangle large trees if given a chance. Use in arrangements but do not plant. There’s a native American called false bittersweet that’s not invasive with berries only on stem tips.

Arrangement 6a







Hypericum : This beautiful berry is commonly known as St. John Wart. It’s native to the Mediterranean and produces berries in pinks and reds and burgundies. So romantic, it’s popular for winter wedding bouquets.



Sorghum: This is a cereal grain (also called broomcorn) related to corn that has many uses: livestock food, ethanol, sweetener. I like the natural color but floral designers often spray it to compliment arrangements.  It’s perfect for fall as is shown in a blog entry in Dirt Simple: observations of a landscape designer.

Beautyberry: This grows in my garden and I’m thrilled to be able to make use of the deep amethyst gems native to the Eastern U.S. Last January I received ten plants that looked like nothing more than skinny whips. But they thrived and grew into pretty shrubs laden with purple berries.

Back to chicken wire. Robin believes it’s better than Florist Oasis at holding woody stems in place. Just form a piece of wire into a sphere large enough to fit in the opening of your container. The bonus is that, unlike Oasis, it stays clean and fresh for use over and over.


Arrangement 6

Finished Thanksgiving Arrangement

I can’t claim to knock it out of the park in flower arranging, but what a pleasure to hear from a pro and to benefit from the years of experience of a dedicated local businesswoman. Robin gave us many tips on flower arranging. Ever heard of “negative space?” That’s important in the final product.

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.