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Starting from Scratch

This is the first time I’ve started a garden with a blank slate. We had a back yard of grass with a postage size concrete patio. We only stepped outside to cut the grass. It seemed as though we were letting a good place go unused especially since it had a very nice view. Being near water is being hyper-watched by county officials. There are many things they don’t let you do. Decks have to stay within very restricted perimeters. We needed a deck to transition to the yard but were only allowed a 10 by 12 footprint. Permits, surveyors, county inspections were necessary. We complied and got a nice little place to sit and watch the boat traffic.

That was step number one. The real transformation would be the installation of a patio, but how big and what shape. I looked for help where I usually do, in books. Susan Morrison’s the less is more garden was helpful. When working with one of her clients she said:

 “Designing the patio with a gracefully curving shape helps de-emphasize the boxy feeling of this long and narrow backyard. Not only does this soften hard edges, but the double curve subtly distinguishes one side from the other, further interrupting the impression of one long continuous space.”

Her words spoke to me. A curved patio it would be. Our sloping yard required a short wall to hold it in place and keep it level. To me that was a bonus. I could plant on the upper level within the wall and below it for a two tiered effect.

 The hardscaping decided, I still had major decisions – what to plant. It was back to the books. Fine Gardening, a respected gardening journal came to the rescue. Their collection of articles, Beds & Borders; Design Ideas for Gardens Large and Small gave me plenty to think about.

Observe before you design and embrace what is good about your site the first article said. I already knew the view was important and had to admit that the site was wet at times. So I needed to shy away from anything tall enough to obstruct the view and had to choose plants that could tolerate sogginess.

Another article said to create unity in the garden. I am among the plant lovers who return from every nursery visit with a new plant I can’t live without. Such habits can produce a garden that gets quickly out of control and unsettling to view. The author had a three part solution. Establish a backbone plant, integrate and repeat color, create flow with water.

I wanted winter interest, so evergreens would be my backbone. I chose boxwood (Boxus) and false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus) for the upper curves of the patio because the soil there was not soggy. Inkberry (Ilex glabra) would surround the lower perimeter because this native can withstand more water. Making sure to plant at least three of each plant I chose water-loving Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and Winterberry (Ilex verticillata). I’m hoping Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) can take some sun while lining the gravel path. It mimics flowing water so beautifully. As far as a color palate, I will repeat the blues, yellows and whites of the front yard.  I have already planted three David Austin Litchfield Angel shrub roses. Their pale blushing cream will work with any color. My son-in-law kindly constructed a curved cedar arbor to compliment the curves of the patio. Next summer another creamy rose, a David Austin climber, Claire Austin, will grace it.

There is so much more garden design to digest. But isn’t that the pleasure of gardening. There is never an end to learning. A garden can always change and get better and so can a gardener.

Summer Love

Many plants performed well this summer. The African lily (Agapanthus) with its strappy bright leaves sported spikey blue flowers. Wintering it in the garage was just the ticket.

 The combination of blue salvia, Bandana Lemon Zest Lantana and Diamond Frost Euphorbia thrived in pots in part shade/afternoon sun.

On a very dry, sunny slope Helen von Stein lambs ears did well alongside Denim ‘n Lace Russian Sage. Coral bells in the same location unfortunately fried to a crisp. I should have known better.

But two plants stole my fancy. One was a David Austin shrub rose, Litchfield Angel , named after a limestone sculpture from the 8th century discovered in Litchfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, UK.  They arrived bare root at the end of May and quickly put out an abundance of leaves and bloomed in the softest blushing cream. I will never get tired of looking at them in the garden or in a vase. The David Austin Handbook of Roses is available for free every spring. It’s a little book full of beautiful photos of roses and heartfelt descriptions of everything to do with roses. In the 2021 edition David Austin describes the company philosophy:

“This past year has been unlike any other, presenting challenges for us all, customers and businesses alike. However, if nothing else, it has served as a welcome reminder of the importance of our gardens and outdoor spaces. It is in these peaceful enclaves that we nurture, nourish and enjoy the fruits of our labors. It is here that we find reassurance in the reliability of nature to bloom once again and create beauty and fragrance around us.”

Whether you buy roses or not this treasure of a handbook is worth reading. I do not wish for a bigger garden because what I have is all I can care for, but I do wish for more roses.

The other plant that caught my heart this summer was Eskimo African Marigold. At only a foot tall its orange and gold faces are so bright and engaging. The seeds came from John Scheepers,, a very reliable old firm in Connecticut.  I must get more for next year and place them where they will nod at me every day.

Litchfield Angel shrub rose and Eskimo African marigold are my two summer loves this year. Next summer I will still be fond of them but will surely find other plants to take my breath away.

Pandemic Blues

All socializing is off the table. What to do. I can go outside by myself and kneel in the springtime sun. It’s the perfect time for weeding. The winter weeds are small, the soil is moist; the roots yield easily to my tugs.

Time to get personal with mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium fontanum). What an adorable name for this garden scourge. It’s trying mightily with its hairy, green mouse ears to strangle the emerging lilies and iris and allium. Given my forced isolation from garden center shopping, I’m on it. Bags of mouse-ears are ready for pick up by the yard waste collectors.

Cool weather and a shovel. It’s time to dig out the compost and spread it around. Exhaustion.

Sit on the garden bench and admire what’s blooming. Chinese Fringe Flower (Loropetalum chinense) is  flouncing graceful sprays of brilliant scarlet  fringe. When I first saw the rather drab burgundy branches I thought I’m gonna cut that bush down. Thankfully I never found the time. The delicate fringe brightens up the early spring garden before other shrubs have even popped out their green.

Down on ground level the crocus have come and gone and the tete a tete mini daffodils are having a private conversation with the grape hyacinths.

I’m listening.

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.