Monthly Archives: February 2010

Winter Light

My front garden is still buried in at least 18″ of snow. And that’s the yard. I won’t even try to describe the 4 foot mountains (plural)  by the sidewalk and driveway where we shoveled loads of it. Those I shall have until May, I’m sure.

crepe myrtle showing off at sunset

I went to take some pictures this afternoon to show some before and after shots. Before = spring,  when my garden was lush and green and my shrubs & perennials sported hundreds of blooms. After = now, when my shrubs and perennials look like avalanche victims who desperately and futilely stick one arm out of the snow in the hopes that someone, anyone, will notice and come to their rescue.  Too depressing. Plus, the sun wasn’t shining in my front garden, which makes everything look gray. And depressing.

coast luecothoe: "Where are my 4 brothers? Wait, where is the rest of ME?"

azalea screaming "save me!"

goldflame spirea says "mercy!"

My back garden, on the other hand, faces southwest and was filled with the most lovely late afternoon light. I grabbed these shots during the last moments before I lost the rays for the day – and decided that all was not lost.  True, we’ve had many feet of snow on the ground for two full weeks (unusual in Philadelphia). Also true that there is absolutely no street parking in the entire Delaware Valley. If someone has made the time and effort to dig out their car and clear their space, you can be darn sure that they’ve filled said spot with outdoor furniture of some kind. “Mine!” those aluminum lawn chairs scream. “Don’t you dare park here!”

Last year's garden phlox

virginia sweetspire

A third truth, though. We’ve had the most beautiful blue skies almost every day since the second big dump a week and a half ago. The snow is on the ground, but the sun is in the sky. And when snow is on the ground, the sun is brighter, the sky is bluer, the shadows are sharper.

swamp milkweed

So I guess I’ll turn a blind eye for the time being to the casualties that certainly lie beneath. I could rework my budget for the spring to include replacements for a bunch of azaleas and leucothoe and boxwoods which didn’t survive the sheer weight of the snow. But who wants to do that? I’ve got a few more weeks of ignorance before these 40 degree days melt enough snow for me to take inventory. I’ll keep hoping that they all made it through (couldn’t possibly be true) and that I can spend my budget on all the fun new things I’ve been wanting to add to my garden all winter (helebores, clematis, witch hazel). I’ll turn a blind eye and enjoy the show the light provides on a daily basis.

I take a risk in saying the following, as I know that quoting John Denver may cause you to label me forever as a complete cheeseball. But here goes: Sunshine almost always makes me smile.

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Smell This!

Put your nose deep into a bloom and inhale. You must admit that there is something essentially satisfying in that. Now put your nose deep into a bloom from a moment in your past. What memory comes rushing back?

Researchers think smell triggers specific memories because, when we come in contact with a certain scent, our brains recall the first time we encountered it. The smelling part of our brain also happens to live right next door to the remembering part of our brain. (Clearly, I majored in Literature, not in Biology). According to science editor Sarah Dowdey, “our olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the ‘emotional brain.’”

Whatever the anatomical reason, I took a walk down memory lane on Sunday when I visited the amazing conservatory at Longwood Gardens.  The first thing I noticed when I climbed the stairs to enter this enormous greenhouse was the smell. It smelled like flowers and dirt and grass and water. It smelled, in other words, like spring. I think that part of what I’m missing during this season of snow covered gardens is the SMELL of things that grow.

As I strolled, I found myself turning my head, sticking my nose up into the air like a dog on the hunt, sniffing my way to lovely and familiar smells. The first was sweet alyssum, the diminutive white ground cover that’s a dead ringer for honey. I’ve planted it in my garden every year since I first encountered it at my sister-in-law’s house. I walked out her back door and was overwhelmed by the delicate honey smell. I started sniffing, and my nose led me down to my feet. I was standing on the source! She had planted the alyssum in between the stepping stones that lead to her garden. Every time someone tread on them, the smell shot on up. Brilliant. And beautiful.

Stargazer lilies took me immediately back to my wedding 17 years ago. My bridesmaids held them during the ceremony, and if you’ve ever been remotely near a stargazer, you know they are pungent. These always turn my head, er, I mean my nose, whenever I pass them by. I can’t remember which of my dear friends were at my wedding, but boy do I know what it smelled like.

The hybrid tea = Nana’s dining room table. My grandmother’s gardening tendencies ran towards a sweeping, weed-free lawn and foundation boxwoods, but boy could that woman grow roses. Her landscaper took care of everything else, but he never touched the rose garden. Legend has it that she braved the back yard once a week with her rose spray and fertilizer, immediately before her weekly trip to the beauty parlor. I guess if you’re only going to “do” your hair once a week, it’s best to tend to your chemical work just before hand. Whatever her methods, she always adorned her table with freshly cut roses. I smell a hybrid tea rose and I am at that dining room table, looking at Uncle Ben’s portrait, laughing with my cousins, and answering PawPaw’s questions about where I want my gravy. (On the turkey? On the biscuit? On the side?)

I wonder which of the flowers I grow in my garden will, in twenty years, make my children flash back to a particular moment. Moonflowers? Hyacinths? Lavender? Maybe it will be another garden smell that triggers the memory: mulch, freshly cut grass, a pile of dried leaves.  Whatever it is, I hope the memory is of a happy time, and not of a crazed, dirt encrusted mother screaming, “Leave me alone! I’m gardening!”

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Bloom Day Blues at Longwood Gardens

Longwood Hybrid Cineraria (Pericallis x hybrida)

“There is no such thing as a blue flower.” That’s what my mom said as we were discussing my nosegay for the Town & Country cotillion Holly Ball when I was in sixth grade. (Remember nosegays? The little hand-held bouquets with the plastic handles?)   That’s what I remember anyway.  Although now that I think about it, I remember having this conversation while she weeded the garden. Could she possibly have been weeding in December, the traditional time for Holly Balls? Whether or not memory is a reliable witness is a conversation for another day. Let’s just agree for the sake of argument that she said it. I certainly believed her. She could make anything grow and my 12-year-old mind hadn’t registered the possibility that parents could be wrong.

Canterbury Bells (campanula medium)

To this day I’m amazed and overjoyed when I find blue flowers. I paid a visit to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania today in the hopes that their conservatory might lift my spirits. (Still multiple feet of snow on the ground here with more forecast for tonight. Bleh. Check out my posts 48″ of Snow and The Thrill of Victory for pretty snow pics and a more embracing attitude).  I went ostensibly to enjoy the “orchid extravaganza,” but it was the blue flowers that caught my attention. Not only is there such thing as a blue flower, there are loads of them.  I suppose you might argue that some of these lean a bit towards purple, but all in the family, right? Some of the colors were so vibrant that a fellow observer, upon seeing the hydrangea pictured below,  recalled the old  science-fair trick with carnations: “Do you think they used food coloring?”

Hydrangea macrophylla "Mathilda Gutges"

I checked. These were no cuttings that had sucked up blue colored water. They were the real deal.

I liked the spiky crown on this ground-ivy sage:

salvia glechomifolia

and don’t you just love the yellow tips on this ceanothus? Like tiny little rings, or maybe handbags. (Work with me, I’m thinking accessories here):

ceanothus "Ray Hartman"

My mom should certainly have known about these grape hyacinths. They are exactly the same color as her eyes which are very decidedly blue.  (Any wonder my dad fell for her?):

So, that’s what’s blooming today in my garden, hmm, I mean at Longwood’s garden. Hey, at least they’re blooming somewhere nearby in the midst of a very white winter!

Visit May Dreams Garden to see what’s blooming in gardens around the world.

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The Thrill of Victory; The Agony of Defeat

Snowpacolypse. Snowmageddon. Snownormous. snOMG. Whatever you call it, we got it. But as a result, yesterday morning I slept till 8:00. Just in that I would have cause to celebrate the day. But it got better. This is what greeted me when I looked out my window:

With no school to attend, no lunches to make, no windshield to scrape, I took a long walk in the fresh snow. Neighbors filled the streets and sidewalks with their shovels. Everyone said hi, which I must say is pretty unusual in these parts. Trees glistened in the early morning (well, early for me anyway) sun.

I got home, made myself some breakfast, sat with my coffee and finished my book. This day was getting better and better. Finally, I dragged myself off my coffee-sipping, book- reading rump and headed back out to dig us out. Although hard work, even this task proved joyful. My neighbor on the right had shoveled his sidewalk three feet past our property line –a kind and selfless gesture. My neighbor on the left was shoveling at the same time and we had a nice talk. (Free of our collective 6 kids, who were all happily watching tv inside, we actually achieved conversation). Harvey, our 5 foot snowman, smiled down on the whole affair:

I hummed and smiled as I jumped in the shower and changed my clothes. And I said to myself, what a wonderful world.

Then I got out of the shower. My four year old was screaming and crying in the dining room. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He responded despairingly and with many tears, “Those guys wrecked our snowman.” The enterprising young men with snow shovels I had lauded in my last post had just decapitated Harvey!

After long conversations with the 4 & 5 year olds in the house about forgiveness and grace, we hoofed it over to the park for a little sledding. Turns out our local evergreens did not fare so well under the wet, heavy snow. Suddenly, the mysterious, loud cracking sounds we heard the day before made more sense.

To top my day off, I was betrayed by the sledding run that had delighted my family and me the previous day. Down goes one kid, down goes another, down goes a third. All sail straight ahead, missing by yards the ominous metal pole that holds up the baseball backstop. I help my 4 year old into the sled. (Remember, this is the one who witnessed the snowman beheading.) He sleds down, straight as an arrow. Suddenly, a rogue snowball jumps into his path causing him to careen directly into, you guessed it, the ominous metal pole. A nasty bloody nose and a trip to the e.r. later, we determine that he is just fine, but boy does the kid look like a prize fighter.

Here’s the thing. Life has tastes of paradise, but we are clearly not there yet. We jump for joy when our perennials emerge from what seems like death, but we curse the weeds that do the same thing. We marvel at the beauty of a rose, but what gardener does not bear the scars of a thorn or two? The snow that created such a wonderland in our neighborhood is, honestly, kind of a pain. People are sometimes  mean; trees fall; kids crash. We make our gardens. We toil and tend. We delight in the bounty of the harvest. But I must admit, despite my optimism (my husband would call it my “polly-anna tendencies,”) my garden is no Eden.

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48″ of snow? Why to love it.

Pink Dogwood

I have two choices today as I watch inches 28 through 48 fall outside my window here in Philadelphia.  I could whine and complain and lament the fact that I’m stuck inside with my four kids out of school.  I could wish I were digging in my garden.  I could wish tulips were blooming. I could wish my toes were warm.

But instead, I will choose to love the snow. Here are my reasons.

My 4 year old arctic explorer

#1 If it were 32 degrees and sunny on this February day, no one would be outside. But, on this 32 degree snowy day, I see neighbors talking and laughing as they shovel and shovel and shovel. I see children playing, sledding, building forts. I see enterprising young men walking the streets with their snow shovels, looking to make some extra money. Even though the snow approaches waist high – my children happily don their gear and head out to look for adventure.

#2 Snow shows off my garden’s architecture. Snow paints the trees, tops the dried flower heads, perches atop bird feeders and fence posts. I knew there was a reason I didn’t trim back those coneflowers in the fall.

Goldflame Spirea


Pink Coneflowers

#3 After the snow stops, the sun will come out. They sky will turn blue. The icicles will shimmer.  Then the real show begins. (I took these photos between the storm on Saturday and the one today, on my lovely hike in knee-high snow).

See what all you deep south, west coast and desert gardeners are missing? I know your sun is shinning and your tropicals are blooming. But eat your heart out: we’ve got snow.

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Garden Arbor or Flat Screen TV?

The garden in my head

When my family and I moved into our home 3 ½ years ago, I ponied up the cash to hire a landscape designer to draw up a master plan for my garden. (After coming up with the money for a down payment and taxes, $350 felt like pennies).  I knew I would be ripping out most of what was already here – overgrown yews, a poison-ivy-riddled hedge, a horrible barberry with 1 inch thorns that made my kids cry – but I needed help figuring out what to plant in their stead. My designer came up with a wonderful plan to create an idyllic cottage garden with two patios, loads of perennials, a clematis covered arbor, flowering shrubs and trees, a custom trellis for climbing roses, a pond with a waterfall – the works.

I’ve chipped away at it bit by bit over the years. I’ve focused on plants mostly, but some hardscape made the cut – one of the two patios, a fence to keep children from falling off the 7 foot drop to my neighbor’s back yard. As I gear up for this gardening season, though, I really really want the arbor. There are so many items on the list of pros: frame the entrance to the patio and back yard garden, create a focal point that would lead your eye and feet to said patio and garden, give me something to look at from my kitchen window. How great would that arbor look right now covered in the 2 feet of snow that just fell here in Philadelphia?

I have a reputation for being a bit frugal. I suppose some would even say cheap. (Okay, most of my friends would definitely say cheap). I am having a real problem spending many hundreds of dollars on a substantial arbor. So many hundreds of dollars in fact, that the arbor has moved onto “the capital expenditure list.” Once it makes this list, the garden arbor has to be THE ONE thing that I want to spend my money on. I can’t slip the arbor into the grocery budget like I can the occasional shrub or flat of annuals. Along with the arbor, this list currently includes a new bathroom (too expensive), a finished basement (way too expensive) and a flat screen t.v. (just about the same price as a garden arbor). The flat screen t.v. would transform my living room into a sleek, modern, well-designed dream of a living room. We’re not even talking about a big one – just a modest 37 incher. I would love a flat screen t.v.

It would be nice!

But a garden arbor – I would really love a garden arbor. Imagine: Clematis. Climbing roses. Coral Honeysuckle.

I have a picture in my head that would translate so very nicely to my garden.  It would be great if I were the kind of person to say, “Neither garden arbor nor flat screen t.v. – I’m saving for that basement!” But how do you deny immediate gratification, especially when there is the promise of flowers involved?

I understand that I am facing a dilemma regarding which luxury item to purchase. I don’t NEED either one.  This whole conversation about whether to buy one or the other indicates that I will be able to feed my family and pay the heating bill without those hundreds of extra dollars. I am cognizant of and extremely thankful for that fact.

Given that, however, let’s be honest. There is nothing good on t.v.

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Goldfinch, Goldfinch On My Window

My lunchtime visitor

The houses in my neighborhood are made of stone. Extravagant, you might think, until you put a spade into the ground and you wrestle out 3 Pennsylvania field stones – every time. Build with the materials on hand, right? There are benefits to having a stone house. My windowsills are a foot deep, which makes for lovely decorating space when I manage to clear them of all the kids’ school papers and library books. My house holds its temperature like a champ – when the nights are still cool in spring and early summer, the house stays 10 degrees cooler than the weather outside. My walls would withstand any huffing and puffing the big bad wolf could throw at it.

One problem though. The houses in my neighborhood are all grayish brown. And we’re close together, so my windows frame up the drab, grayish brown stone walls of the houses next door. In the hope of luring some kind color into view, I placed a finch feeder just outside my dining room window. I fielded all kinds of grief from the husband last weekend while I was scrubbing out the old bird food at the kitchen sink. Something about disgusting mess and disease. I don’t know exactly. I wasn’t listening too closely. But today my scrubbing paid off. The first goldfinch of the season. Except he wasn’t gold. He exemplified the Cornell Lab of Ornothology’s description of a winter goldfinch: “Winter birds are drab, unstreaked brown, with blackish wings and two pale wingbars.”

Why should I be excited about a drab, unstreaked brown bird? Certainly I’ve got an abundance of that color everywhere I look. I’m excited because I know what’s about to happen.  Goldfinches molt twice a year. In late summer, they shed their gold to blend in with our current landscape (did I mention it’s kind of gray around here?). In late winter, that drab unstreaked brown makes way for the most brilliant yellow – its like they turn into flitting, bouncing, tweeting little daffodils. He was brown today, but every day, there will be a little more yellow. Here’s what we have to look forward to in just a few weeks:

Looks what's coming! From

So I’m excited about my new lunch companion. He’ll  eat his seeds, I’ll eat whatever was leftover from last night’s dinner. He’ll turn yellow, I’ll turn less moody. Hallelujah, spring is coming.

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