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Winter Escape

Snow drifts are blocking the back door. The front steps are too slippery to navigate and the driveway is an ice covered rink. Escape is not possible until the thaw comes. Books are my respite, especially books that bring in the sunshine and warmth of places like the Greek islands.

 Gerald Durrell spent five childhood years on the Greek island of Corfu and wrote about it in My Family and Other Animals. Reading his memoir on a cold winter day is the perfect escape to warmth and beauty and exotic scenery. He was quite right when he said, “Living in Corfu was rather like living in one of the more flamboyant and slapstick comic operas.” His five year experience helped him to become a world renowned naturalist, animal collector, and conservationist. He was entranced by the fauna of the island but the flora did not escape his notice. He is a beautiful writer, every bit as good as his novelist brother, Lawrence.

“With March came the spring, and the island was flower-filled, scented and aflutter with new leaves. The cypress trees that had tossed and hissed during the winds of winter now stood straight and sleek against the sky, covered with a misty coat of greenish-white cones. Waxy yellow crocuses appeared in great clusters, bubbling out among the tree roots and tumbling down the banks. Under the myrtles, the grape-hyacinths lifted buds like magenta sugar-drops, and the gloom of the oak thickets was filled with the dim smoke of a thousand blue day-irises. Anemones, delicate and easily wind-bruised, lifted ivory flowers the petals of which seemed to have been dipped in wine. Vetch, marigold, asphodel, and a hundred others flooded the fields and woods. Even the ancient olives, bent and hollowed by a thousand springs, decked themselves in clusters of minute creamy flowers, modest and yet decorative, as became their great age. It was no half-hearted spring, this: the whole island vibrated with it as though a great, ringing chord had been struck.”

Masterpiece Theatre made a series from Durrell’s memoirs. It’s called The Durrells. The eccentric family is wildly entertaining even though the writers add a lot of romance which never appears in the written version. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/shows/the-durrells-in-corfu/#

Gerald was allergic to formal education which led to his mother frantically searching for the right tutor to give him some smattering of learning. The thing is he gave himself a splendid education in the subjects that interested him. He did have some help from tutors who discovered ways of including animals in history and math and literature lessons.

Before Gerald, ancient Greek author, Homer, extolled the singular virtues of Corfu.

“Here great trees cool-shaded grow, pear, pomegranate, rich apple, honey-sweet fig and blossoming olive, forever bearing fruit, winter and summer never stripped, but everblowing the western wind brings fruit to birth and ripens others. Pear follows pear, apple after apple grows, fig after fig, and grape yields grape again.”

It seems that forever people have known the lush beauty of this island The only thing better than reading Gerald Durrell’s memoir or watching the Masterpiece series, is booking a trip.

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. https://www.davidaustinroses.com/  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, https://www.kitchengardenseeds.com/, 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

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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.