Circles of Life

Our yard is full of circles: circular garden beds, free-standing gravel circles with our big blue planters from Dean's. A circle beneath the Japanese maple in the front lawn, and another circle, more of an oval, in the lower yard underneath two giant elm trees.

This oval was on my List this year. Jeeps ringed the trees with stones and filled in with mulch about ten years ago. I ambitiously put in about a thousand Siberian squill bulbs, which did beautifully and probably would have continued to do beautifully had we given the slightest damn about the area.  

We didn't. Total blow-off to the point where it became a dumping ground for sticks, dead soil from flower pots, decapitated Barbie dolls, a dozen Littlest Pet Shop figures, and a few magic markers. Bittersweet, the crack dealer of the garden world, knew a good neighborhood when it saw one, and moved in, followed shortly by its two favorite whores, Virginia Creeper and Lamium.  

"I gotta do something about that bed," I'd think every year, and then just turn to something else.  So here it is in all its weedy glory:

Can't quite get the effect?  Move in closer:

Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. And dig the wagon wheel. Utah or bust.


So I moved in on it with the sole intent of cleaning it up. Yank out the bittersweet, the creeper and the clumps of grass. The lamium could stay as far as I was concerned because it does have pretty purple flowers and is a dependable ground cover for this kind of area. My mom had always talked about her friend Gail's under-tree garden which boasted a dozen varieties of hosta plants and was the most gorgeous thing. I have no doubt it is the most gorgeous thing, I also have no doubt it would be an open buffet for the deer. No hostas. At most I would move over whatever hellebore seedlings I could find. Maybe. I wasn't getting emotionally invested in this project. It wasn't even a project, for crying out loud, it was just cleaning up.


Prudently I divided the oblong bed into sections so I could pace myself. Do this much today, do this much tomorrow. Surprisingly, the weeding out took less time than I expected and over the course of a couple lunch hours raking, and a few evenings after work pulling by hand, it was mostly clear.

As I stepped back and looked at the clean space, the big roots of the elms started to define pathways and places. The elm closest to the house was clearly asking for someone to sit under it. How about a stump seat? I'm always incorporating stumps into my beds and borders, and thanks to Hurricane Sandy, there's no shortage of them in the woods and along the roads that border my property.  And the really lovely thing about them is that they roll.  

I walked up the road a ways, found a good one, and rolled it on down. Once situated in a flat space between two large roots, I took a seat with my back up against the trunk.  

This is great! Was there room for another seat? I looked on the other side of the tree. Of course there was! Another large stump got rolled down, and then a smaller one, making three seats in all under the tree.

Another curious-looking, half-rotted stump wouldn't make a good seat, but it was so cool-looking, like a little woodland creature's house. I put it down at the front edge by the stone ring just to hold onto it, maybe I'd use it in another bed.

I figured that was it, my work here was done.  I gathered up the shovels and rakes and loppers. The broken-down wagon wheel I had propped up against the second tree to get it out of the way. Half the spokes were rotted away completely, but the other half plus the hub of the wheel looked intact, and sort of evoked a rising sun. Maybe I could weatherproof it and do something with it.

Wrestling to move this half-wheel to a safer place, the rusted iron hoop fell down on the ground, right by two of the stump seats. I looked at it. Wait a minute. That's interesting. A circle inside the circle. It kind of looks like a...a...pool, or something. A pool. Yes. What if I filled it with stones? White marble stones? Would that look weird or would it be cool?

You can see where this is going. Yes I did fill the hoop with stones and sea glass, and since I was making a focal point, I might as well bring over a few hostas, and since I'm bringing hostas, well, there may as well be painted ferns, too. Next thing you know I'm mugging every other shade garden bed, stealing shamelessly: lily-of-the-valley, hellebore seedlings, forget-me-nots, ferns, sweet woodruff. One trip to a garden center and I came back with variegated Solomon's Seal and a hosta with bright chartreuse leaves. Another trip to another garden center and I found white bleeding hearts and white foxgloves. In the course of five days, it went from cleanup to a project, and went from being the yard's eyesore to one of my favorite places.

Small, Snobby Miracles...

It's that time of year when small miracles come out of the garden. It's that time of year when I'm a total snob in the grocery store, self-righteously pushing my cart past the greens, carrots and peas because (sniff) I have my own thank you very much.

I gave peas a chance and as usual I'm glad I did. There's nothing like them. True, it's a lot of work for a small yield, but shelling peas is almost as satisfying as eating them. As for eating, I've been observing and I noticed that as a side dish, you really don't consume more than a serving spoon of peas at a dinner sitting. A little is enough. And when you picked them twenty minutes ago, blanched them for 30 seconds and served them with a pat of butter and a little salt and pepper, it's plenty.

Now you know what else is awesome? Swiss chard. I've never grown it before and frankly, where the hell have I been? I picked yellow and pink because hey, if vegetables come in yellow and pink, you should grow them. And it is a snap. Sow. Grow. Pick. Wash. Chop or don't chop. Saute in a bunch of garlic cloves, olive oil, butter, salt and pepper until wilted. Add a little chicken broth, cover and braise. Flush proudly when your husband drinks the pot liquor and demands, "Grow more."

Oh, by the way, these turkey-veggie meatballs are a knock-off the famous Martha Stewart meat loaf recipe. It's a great way to get rid of any leftover steamed broccoli or cauliflower, or both.  Carrots, celery, onion, garlic—just throw it all in there.

It's the most wonderful time of the year.


It's looking just the way I thought it would.

One thing about our marriage: when we have a shared vision of something, we make it happen.

Jeeps broke his back building the wall, I broke my back removing the sod. We used all the rocks out of the old wall, and then scavenged the yard for every single rock we could find. We even considered the many crumbling stone walls in the acres of woods around our house that used to be farmland. We lacked a mule to haul them. We toiled on, stacked and dug, dug and stacked.

Jeeps stacked in unseasonable heat. I dug in the rain. He lost the nail on his pinky because a dropped a rock on it. I swear did something bad to my right tricep. We couldn't move by 6PM every night. The kids ate cold cereal or pizza while we fell into bed like death, primed with 50 Advil each.

But we did it.

We wanted an arbor for the gap in the wall. Jeeps is very particular about keeping hardscape in line with the mission/prairie style of our house. Translation: no white, frou-frou pickets or curved arches. I stepped back and let him find something, I'm usually fine with whatever he picks out anyway. And he found this sort of Japanese-style one. I love it and I can totally picture a Sweet Autumn clematis clambering over it.

Then we looked high and low for a bench that would go with the plan as well. We fell in love with this one, with the rising sun motif.

The idea is to walk in through the arbor, then there will be that circular, gravel path with the bench at the top. Apart from a few standing perennials that survived the construction, I get to build the beds up from scratch. 

I'm starting with the circle bed in the center. I have about a $230 budget which is comprised of birthday money from my mother-in-law, plus whatever cash I squirrel away or find in the laundry. And where else do you go to squander the stash but to Claire's Garden Center?

(Cue Hallelujah chorus)

I love this place. This place is the bomb. I could spend $1,000 here in half an hour. Easily. But I only had $230 and after nights in bed with my garden books, pencil and paper, and the Claire's catalog, I had a plan sketched out. When I was tempted by other plants, I took pictures, took note of the price, and sternly told myself, "Another time. I said, ANOTHER TIME!"

So here's my vision for the circle:

Here's what I came home from Claire's with:

And here's where it all will go:

(Sigh).... It's not going to look complete this year, I accept that. Eye on the vision, people, eye on the vision. To garden, you have to have vision and patience.

(By the way, I fucking hate patience).

Spring Flings

A great weekend of friends, family, fun, gardening and candy. Daffodils and muscari are thriving. The tulips are starting to bloom. Bleeding hearts are bleeding their little hearts out. The crows are molting.

The seedlings are doing well. All the tomatoes have been moved into 4" pots and I set out the broccoli this afternoon. To help keep the cutworms away, I read about this trick of cutting paper towel rolls into rings and putting them around the seedlings.

Behind the veggie garden was always this eyesore of weeds, rocks, burning bush seedlings and whatever cuttings and crap I would lob over the fence. I got sick of looking at it so last weekend I thought up, cut in, planted, mulched, and now it's one of my favorite places. It's also the home of Redman's little pine tree. His teacher owns a Christmas tree farm and she gave each kid in the class one to take home and plant. And name, if they so wished. Redman named his Gasol. As in Pau Gasol.

Over on the other side of the yard, Jeeps has started to move the stone wall to create the new triangle bed under the living room windows. I don't know what happened but my weeping cherry tree standard totally croaked over the winter, such a bummer (for me, that is; Jeeps always hated that thing). But the Andromeda looks terrific. I love Andromeda...when I was little I called it a "popcorn bush" and would strip off all the little white blossoms into a bowl to serve my stuffed animals.

Saturday was our annual Egg Hunt. Last year it poured rain but this year it was picture-perfect gorgeous. Jeeps broke out the bunny suit and cavorted with our neighbor Elizabeth, who not only owns a chicken suit, but dons it and crosses the road. I always wanted the kids to wear hats or butterfly wings, and I always put it on the invite, but it never happened. However, my friend Brandy stepped up and brought the baby in his bear suit, to which she stapled some long ears and added a pom-pom tail. Too bad he can't eat chocolate yet, I would've totally given him a Cadbury egg.

And then it was Easter Sunday. We got up and had candy for breakfast. I worked outside, the boys watched the Knick game. Panda was...somewhere, I don't know where she was but she came back for dinner which was roasted turkey breast with potatoes, carrots, red onions, brussels sprouts, and green beans. Followed by more candy.

Happy Easter and Passover to all.

Even MORE Plants That Look Good Together and Bloom at the Same Time!

After the whites, pinks and pastel purples of spring, the gardens are now hot with summer color, leading to bouquets such as this:

I've had a long love affair with Echinacea, and my new flower crush is definitely Hot Papaya, a double coneflower in the most unbelievably vibrant orange you've ever seen. These pictures don't do them a lick of justice. The flowers last a long time: these have been in the garden 2 weeks with the same blooms that came home from nursery. They are a fantastic player.

I have a stand of them right outside my dining room windows, next to a clump of not-yet-bloomed Black-Eyed Susans, and a mess of Drumstick alliums.  These alliums bloom much later in the season than their spring counterparts, in a vivid red-purple. 

At the base of the Echinacea is some Mirabilis, or Four O'Clocks (so called because the flowers don't open until mid-afternoon). This kind is called "Limelight"—it has chartreuse leaves and bright magenta flowers. I grew them from seed two years ago and they have re-populated themselves like crazy. Every year seedlings show up and I just move them wherever I want that hit of lime-green foliage.

Hot Papaya is dynamite with any purple spiky flower, like salvia or, pictured here, Veronica.

The orange pompoms are also fantastic with any silver-foliage plant. I'm a big fan of eryngium, or sea holly. I grow Eryngium Giganticum, "Miss Wilmott's Ghost," which is a true silver that looks superb next to any orange or yellow flower. It's a little hard to obtain and establish, but once you have it going, it will reseed every year.

This clump of coneflowers grows with Monarda "Raspberry Wine".

Below is Echinacea "Mango Meadowbrite" at the foreground, and "Big Sky Sundown" at the rear Clumps of Nepeta (catmint) grow at the base of them, but it's been sheared down recently. It's resting.

Vegetable Garden, my Vegetable Garden

I'm in love with this picture. It just evokes everything that I wanted my vegetable garden to be.  

Back in 2004, the March garden issue of Martha Stewart had this amazing article called "Vegetables, Beautiful Vegetables," and it featured the gardens of Nancy Heckler, who lives in western Washington.  

At the time, we were living in this house just 4 months. When we moved here, there wasn't a flower to be found on the property, let alone a space for a vegetable garden. But I tore out the article and saved it, for now I had a vision. Heckler's garden combined vegetables and flowers in ways I never thought possible.  

The article, unfortunately, isn't archived anywhere online so I just have to describe the raised beds filled with stunning combinations: a line of yellow swiss chard backed by clumps of orange and red dahlias. A cedar arbor in the center of the garden covered with scarlet runner beans. Purple kale growing around bright green romanesco cauliflower. Marigolds clumped at the base of tomato plants.  

Some flower-vegetable combinations had function as well as form:  Heckler grows lupines among her broccoli, because broccoli is a heavy eater and depletes the soil of nitrogen, but lupines are of the legume family and their roots actually set nitrogen into the ground. Talk about a match made in heaven.

It became my dream to have a vegetable garden that was beautiful to look at and full of whimsical touches. Like any garden, it will always be a work in progress, but I am closer to where I want to be, and I walk through here every day, four or five times a day, and it always brings me joy.  

Come take a walk with me.  I love how you can actually walk through this garden, in one gate and out the other. I found the dragonfly at at Homegoods. There were two in the wall art section and I brought one to the register. As the cashier was ringing me up, I thought aloud, "Maybe I should get the other." The cashier didn't miss a beat, winked at me and said, "Get the other." So I did and that's why there's one on each gate.

This climbing rose "Zepherine Drouhin" is coming into bloom, and a bright pink clematis grows around it (soybeans are growing in the bed, another nitrogen-fixer). I used to have this gorgeous purple clematis at one of the garden gates but when we re-did the fence this year, I had to move it. And it died. I wasn't expecting this pink one to bloom this year, but maybe it felt bad for me.

A lot of my roses live inside the vegetable garden otherwise they get mauled by deer, rabbit, woodchucks, and lord knows what else. The Zepherine climbs up this copper structure that Jeeps built when we had the intent of growing our tomatoes upside-down. We snubbed the "Topsy-Turvy" planters hawked on TV and made our own out of gallon-containers of Poland Spring water and some ingenuity. Two seasons I attempted to grow cherry tomatoes this way, with thoroughly mediocre results. Last year I just grew flowers in them and found it to be too high-maintenance with the extra watering needed. So to hell with that, I put a board across the middle poles and turned it into a potting bench. It also makes a shady area underneath to grow lettuce and shelter young seedlings.

So the pathways between the beds are finally mulched, courtesy of the swamp maple we had cut down and chipped up couple months ago—there's a 50-Advil weekend.  The garden beds all get a shot from the compost pile, and then I mulch the plants with dead leaves. We have woods on 3 sides of the property so there's never any shortage of those. When Jeeps starts bagging the clippings when he mows the lawn, I add those to the beds, too.


This bed has my heirloom tomato plants at the back, basil and parsley, then a row of fennel and a row of arugula.  The standing container has cherry tomatoes (which I really need to cage), and other herbs in pots...

This is my broccoli bed.  Remember it had radishes outlining the plants? Well we ate those, thank you for your kind service. So now the broccoli is mulched with leaves and has another row of fennel fronting it, just WAITING for slaw!!! 

And of course, my birdhouses. When we were re-doing the fence posts, I first thought some kind of decorative filial on the top of each one would look cool. Then in a flash of insight, I thought about birdhouses. Three weekends of painting and three cans of acrylic spray later, I have one on nearly every post. I just love them so much.

They were meant to be purely decorative. The garden is right off the driveway and turnaround, and of course I'm traipsing in and out of there a dozen times a day. I figured they were way too close to human traffic to be inhabited. But what a surprise this weekend to see increased bird activity around the houses, and I can confirm this orange one is definitely occupied:

So other than the flowers, some herbs and some salad greens, the only other crop approaching harvest are the peas. "Crop" is an extremely generous term. I had three beds full of them, growing along with my tulips, but when the Vole Family invaded, they not only ate all the tulip bulbs, but their burrowing destroyed most of the peas, too. Really discouraging. I'm down to one decently-filled pea bed, and then two pathetic crops on either side.  Peas rarely make it from garden to table around here. The kids usually snack right off the vine. That's fine with me but just once I'd like to pick enough peas to be able to sit on my front porch and shell them, and then steam them lightly and serve with butter, salt and pepper. Someday...