Archive for June, 2011

Through some quirk of fate (or maybe karma) a glacier scraped half of eastern Canada down to bedrock, chewed it all up, and dumped it here. Fifteen thousand or so years later I came along and bought a piece of the great dumping ground of glacial-fluvial sediments, so I have gravel; tons of it.

It wasn’t a week after I bought the place that I discovered the front lawn was growing on a skim coat of loam over gravel. (I’ve seen thicker skim coats on wallboard.) The back yard wasn’t pretending to be anything but a gravel lot with a few struggling weeds, but I knew that before I bought it. Gardeners are often willing participants in such folly.

There was only one thing to do; bring in loam, and lots of it. The first ten yards was used to skim coat the gravel back yard and quickly grow something resembling grass that the kids could wiggle their toes in. The second ten yards was used for front perennial beds, a hosta bed, raised beds in the back yard, and shrubs. I also needed manure, so that meant more trucks. At one point there were so many trucks coming and going that one might have thought I had opened a greasy spoon.

Over the years more and more has been planted, and if you didn’t look too closely at the back “lawn,” you would never know that virtually everything here is growing over and is surrounded by gravel. To pull this off I have to dig out a wheelbarrow full of the stony stuff for every six inch pot I plant, and then replace it with a mix of compost, loam, peat moss and manure.  When I plant a tree or shrub, I’m looking at removing several wheelbarrow loads of gravel. (What I do with all this gravel is another story.)

One day, the last trucks will come with the last few loads of loam so I can install a real lawn in the back yard, but for now they just keep rolling over the weeds. The reason I’m writing this is to let novice gardeners know that with time, patience, and at times Herculean effort, even a gravel lot can become a garden. If you have poor soil don’t despair-just order some loam and start digging.

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Imagine a box with a lid that opens so you can put things in it. Now imagine this box made of wire mesh. It is a see through box that won’t hold water. Like this:


Now imagine this wire mesh box filled with stones. What you are seeing in your mind might look something like this:

Now imagine these wire mesh boxes filled with stone stacked on top of each other, or put together side by side. Maybe something like this:


Now, if you let your imagination really run wild, you might imagine something like this:


These wire cages filled with stones are called “gabions.” (from Italian gabbione meaning “big cage”; from Italian gabbia and Latin cavea meaning “cage”) Gabions have been used in the construction industry for centuries. In fact, Leonardo DaVinci designed a type of wicker gabion called a Corbeille Leonard (“Leonard[o] basket”) for the foundations of the San Marco Castle in Milan.

Until relatively recently, gabion use was limited to the military or to large scale civil engineering projects like slope stabilization, fish barriers, dams, floodwalls and retaining walls. However, gardeners saw their potential and now they are used in gardens world wide for everything from benches to water features. In California there is a winery built of gabions dubbed “the stealth winery” by locals because of the way it seems to disappear into the landscape.

In the construction industry gabions are typically filled with soil or stone, but gardeners began thinking inside the box and have filled them with pebbles, broken concrete, blocks of colored glass, and even wine bottles. Their usage and the materials used to fill them are limited only by what gardeners can imagine. As someone who has built miles of stone walls stone by stone, I couldn’t be happier to find that they are now available to gardeners.

Garden gabion cages are rapidly gaining in popularity, so more retailers are carrying them all the time.  They can also be easily found online.

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One of the best ways to find inspiration for your own garden is to see what other folks have done in theirs.  This year the perfect way to do so is by joining the Cheshire Housing Trust on their annual garden tour. Funds raised by the garden tour help Cheshire Housing Trust provide affordable housing to low and middle income families in the region.

This year the tour is this Saturday, June 25, and begins at 10:00 am. The Hampshire House on 86 Winter Street in Keene, on the corner of Winter and School Streets, will be the site of a plant sale, bake sale, and a garden market featuring perennials and crafts. The market opens at 9:00 am, and tickets can be purchased there on the day of the tour.

If you would like to save on tickets, they can be found at Agway in Keene, Peterborough and Walpole; the Cheshire Housing Trust Office; Horse and Buggy Feeds; In the Company of Flowers; Earth Treasures; the UNH Cooperative Extension Service; Maple Hill Nursery in Swanzey; People’s United Bank in Keene and Chesterfield; and the Toadstool Bookshop in Keene. Tickets are $12.00 in advance or $15.00 the day of the tour.  A tour map is included with the tickets, and participants drive to each location in their own vehicle. The tour is very informal, and there is no tour leader.

Those attending the tour should pay close attention not only to plants, but pathways, fencing, paved areas, arbors, water features, stonework, decking, patios, statuary, lawn edging, and other hardscape items in the gardens. You may see these materials and other items used in ways that you’ve never thought of, so a camera and / or notebook will come in handy. There will be a housing trust greeter at each location and the home owners will be available to answer questions, so don’t be afraid to ask.

The Cheshire Housing Trust depends on this tour to raise much needed funds, so please consider attending. The tour happens rain or shine, so keep an eye the weather forecast. For more information, call 603-357-7603. To see photos of last year’s tour, click here.

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If the dad in your life is a gardener, one of the best gardening tools I know of to give him for father’s day is a mattock. This tool has a (usually) forged steel head and a wooden or polymer handle. It is similar to the pickaxe with one side of the head a wide flat blade used for weeding, removing turf, chopping roots, digging, and prying. Where the sharp pick would be on a pickaxe, instead the mattock has a three tine cultivator. I have two; one with a 12 inch long handle I use for weeding and cultivating, and another with a 24 inch long handle for tough jobs like grubbing out roots and stones. Mattocks are relatively inexpensive; a good long handled one might cost $30.00 at most. This is the most useful hand gardening tool I own and I wouldn’t be without it.

If the little ones want to spend their own money on dad, a five gallon pail is a perfect gift. These cost under $5.00 and are extremely useful in the garden. I have 2 of them and use them constantly for tossing weeds in, carrying small tools, carrying water and small amounts of soil or compost, and a hundred other uses. You can even turn it upside down and use it as a seat when pulling weeds. If it’s a white one, the children can personalize it by decorating it with colored markers.

Another tool that I’m never without is the hand pruner. I carry one in my back pocket so it is always at hand when I need to nip off dead flowers or prune roses, shrubs, or small trees. Hand pruners come in two types; the anvil type, where a sharpened blade meets a flat surface called an anvil, and the bypass type, where the two blades have a scissor action. I prefer the bypass pruner, because when the anvil type dulls it can crush, rather than cut. I’ve seen hand pruners for sale from $12.00 to over a hundred, but good ones can be found for under $50.00.

As a gardening dad myself, I can say that I’d be very happy to receive any one of these tools as a father’s day gift if I didn’t already own them.

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When we view a garden we naturally concentrate on what we see and pay close attention to detail. In a large garden this can often lead to a kind of sensory overload, when we have seen so many differences in form, texture, size and color that we simply can’t take anymore in. Add a few different fragrances to the mix and before long the busyness of it all overwhelms our senses. Once we have reached this point we may continue to look, but will no longer really see.

I grow large beds and borders of hosta and the many variations in size, color, leaf form, and variegation can be a bit overwhelming at times, even to me. To ease the tension caused by such variety I use groupings of two or three blue-gray plants, spaced every few feet. This neutral color gives the mind and eyes a place to rest and relax for a moment before moving on. White flowered plants also have the same effect in a perennial garden that contains several different colors.

Silver, gray and white are useful as transitions between conflicting colors and for breaking up monotonous seas of green or other single color schemes. They help “cool off” a bed or border of hot colors such as orange, scarlet, and yellow, and will compliment cooler colors like blue and pink. They can also become interesting and dramatic focal points; a white rose among the expected reds, yellows and pinks will draw our attention, as will a Colorado blue spruce in an otherwise green tree canopy.

If your garden leaves you a bit color anxious and overly excited, try using soft and neutral silver, gray and white as islands of calm.

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When I was a young boy one of the early spring chores given to me by my grandmother was collecting dandelion leaves. She would hand me a shopping bag and send me to her back yard, telling me to pick from the plants with no flowers. After I picked them she washed them in cold water several times and then boiled them like spinach. She would serve them as a side vegetable, just like spinach, beet or chard greens, and they were delicious. Many people sauté them in bacon drippings with onion or garlic, which also sounds delicious.

Though dandelion greens can be bitter, young dandelion leaves are less so and are good raw in salads. They taste like chicory, endive, or escarole; just slightly bitter enough to taste. Early spring and after the first frost are times when they are the least bitter naturally, and boiling them at other times of year will reduce bitterness. Dandelion roots have culinary uses as well; when roasted and ground they make a good coffee substitute and when boiled and stir-fried they are an excellent cooked vegetable.

Dandelion greens are a good source of Folic acid, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper, Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Calcium, Iron, Potassium and Manganese. The leaves are higher in beta-carotene than carrots and contain more iron and calcium than spinach. According to the USDA Bulletin “Composition of Foods,” dandelions rank in the top 4 green vegetables in overall nutritional value.

You can buy dandelion greens, but instead of fretting over those dandelions in your lawn why not dig the roots and plant a row or two in the garden? Once the roots have grown leaves and the plants have become well established, cover them with straw or evergreen boughs about two weeks before you’d like to harvest them. Doing so blanches the leaves and reduces the bitterness. Dandelions grow best in full sun and moist soil.

Note: Dandelions should never be harvested from areas where herbicides and pesticides have been used.

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For over a week I’ve had an infected cyst under my right arm, and since I’m right handed this is inconvenient as well as painful. I can ease the pain somewhat by holding my arm out away from my body and putting my hand on my hip for support, but this means that I am virtually one handed. Still, I had gardening to do over the weekend and was determined to do it. 

My neighbors probably thought I was impersonating Joan Crawford as they watched me sashay through the yard with one hand on my hip and the other fluttering feebly at my side. I wonder if they also caught my previous act; once I had a huge pimple that forced me to do a chafed, John Wayne style walk. Come to think of it, John Wayne walked around with his hand on his hip all the time, so maybe they thought I was impersonating him.   

Anyhow, I have a shrub border that I’ve been expanding off and on for years and I decided that I would finally finish it this summer. My first goal was getting a Black Lace Elderberry planted, but as I stomped my foot down on my long handled spade to drive it into the soil the handle flew out of my hand and whacked me in the face. I saw stars, but I also forgot about the pain under my arm for awhile.

It was obvious that I couldn’t dig right footed and left handed so I grabbed my mattock to grub out some hemlock roots instead. My left arm isn’t as strong as my right, so I knelt down to shorten my swing. I swung the mattock up over my head and brought it down, but instead of hearing the satisfying THOCK of steel on roots I heard (and felt) a dull thud; the mattock had skipped across the roots like a smooth stone on water and hit me square on the knee cap. I danced a little jig and swore a few oaths before deciding that I would probably end up in an emergency room if I did any more gardening that day.

As I lurched toward the house all hunched over, with my left hand clutching my knee and my right still planted firmly on my hip, I must have looked more like Marty Feldman as Igor in Young Frankenstein than Joan Crawford or John Wayne. The neighbors are probably betting that my next impersonation will be Curly from the Three Stooges, so maybe next time I can get myself all tangled up in 50 feet of garden hose and make that dream a reality.

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Homeowners should know what direction their home faces before planting anything. My house faces almost directly south, so if I stand in the street looking at it I’m looking north and south is behind me. West is to the left and east to the right. My lot is bordered by forest on the north, east, and west sides, so some part of it is always in shade. Knowing these things allows me to place any plant accurately according to its light requirements.

The sun sets in the west, which means the eastern side of my yard gets hot afternoon sun. Since the sun rises in the east, the western side of my yard gets the cool morning sun.  If I were laying out a vegetable garden I’d lay it out so the plant rows went east to west. Doing so would mean the plants would get morning, mid day, and afternoon sunlight and would be growing in full sun.

Because of the blocking action of the trees, in my yard the sun shines brightest directly opposite of where it rises or sets. 

Plants that need partial sun usually do well when shaded in the morning but need hot afternoon sun, so I’d plant them on the eastern, afternoon sun side of my yard. If the plant was a delphinium, iris, daylily, sedum, or any other sun lover, this would be the best place for it.

For plants that need partial shade, it’s the reverse. These like cool morning sun and may shrivel in the extreme afternoon heat, so I’d plant them on the western, morning sun side of my yard. Hosta, columbine, creeping phlox, ferns, impatiens, and any other plant that dislikes hot afternoon sun would do well.

When a plant is said to “prefer shade,” this really means that it dislikes hot sun but would happily take 8 hours of cooler morning sun if it were possible. It is more accurate to say that these plants actually tolerate shade but still need some morning sun, or at least bright light. 

In my experience there are very few plants that actually need “full sun.” Even those that supposedly do will often do well in partial shade provided they get some afternoon sun. I once grew tomatoes for people in a garden that received only 2 hours of direct sunlight each afternoon. They weren’t going to the farmers market each Saturday with tomatoes to sell, but they had a fairly good harvest.

When it comes to sun exposure the important things to remember are:

Full sun means 6-8 hours of direct sun per day.

Partial sun means 3-6 hours of afternoon sun per day.

Partial shade means 3-6 hours of morning sun per day.

Shade means filtered light or dappled sunlight under trees or taller bushes. The light in such areas is cool and quite bright, though little or no sunshine ever reaches the ground. The soil also stays quite cool and is usually under a mulch of leaves. This is where plants like lady’s slipper, trillium, sweet woodruff, mountain laurel, shad bush, hawthorn, flowering raspberry, and many other understory plants grow naturally.

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Curly WurlyI like plants that are unusual and not often seen, and one of the best places I know of to find them is at Fairview Gardens in Northfield, Massachusetts. Over the holiday weekend I took a trip down there and sure enough, before I was halfway up the driveway there was a plant I hadn’t seen. Steve, the owner, told me it was meadow rue (Thalictrum aquilegifolium) and, though I had heard and read of it for years I realized I had never met one in person.  It’s a tall plant (4 ft) with pleasant flowers that have no petals but have fluffy stamens that form a rose purple ball of fluff. The species name aquilegifolium means “leaves like an Aquilegia or columbine,” and that’s what they remind me of. I was disappointed to find that, though Steve had 2 or 3 plants growing, he had none for sale. That was no problem though; he divided one of his, potted up the division and gave it to me. That’s why I love going to small out of the way nurseries; the people are as unusually nice as the plants.

I also bought another strange plant called “Curly Wurly” ( Juncus effuses)   which, as the picture shows, has contorted, spiraling leaves. This is in the rush family and is called Corkscrew Rush. It grows naturally in boggy places, so it needs plenty of water and likes full sun.  It’s hardy to zone 5 and might make it through the winter here with protection, but since it only grows to a foot high I’m growing it in a pot on my front stairs. I expect to hear an occasional “what on earth is that?” It’s such an odd plant that another customer at the checkout counter with me thought it was plastic!

If you’d like to meet Steve and his unusual plants, just head south out of Northfield and keep your eyes to the right. Fairview Gardens is on the right about a mile to a mile and a half past the IGA supermarket. They also have a good selection of not so unusual plants, and vegetable gardeners will appreciate their single pots of vegetable plants. Why buy six zucchini plants if you only need one?

Of course, I couldn’t visit Northfield without stopping at Five Acre Farm, which has what is probably the largest selection of plants in the area. I wasn’t planning on buying anything but as luck would have it they were having a sale on perennials. I ended up with a delphinium, false indigo, salvia, and campanula for just $20.00. Since I just dug a new perennial bed in the back yard, they will be just what it needs.

Many people don’t go to Massachusetts to buy plants or much of anything else because of the sales tax but I’m scratching my head, wondering where I could have gotten all the plants I came home with for under $25.00 if I had shopped in Keene.

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