Tag Archives: garden

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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Roses in January? Outside?

Roses in bloom in January? (taken 1/21/2010, Philadelphia)

Rose petals should not still be clinging to the plant now, should they? It’s January for goodness sake. There’s nothing out there that remotely resembles a flower, and yet, these rose petals hang on.  And it’s not just one either – it’s all the flowers on the whole darn plant.

And buds too!

I have to admit I was a bit surprised to find these in my neighbor’s yard. All my roses are dried up, thorny stick bushes. Without color. What did this fellow gardener do right (or wrong) when preparing this rose for the winter? Surely some trick exists to replicate these freeze dried roses in real life.

So I did a bit of cursory research on how to prepare roses for winter including a quick primer on deadheading. Turns out that everything I was ever taught about roses was wrong.

I grew up in the shade. My mom has no roses in her garden. I probably wouldn’t have listened to her advice if she did have roses (I’m kind of a pain that way). My first introduction to roses came when I got married. We were young and poor and homeless, and a lovely couple took us in as caretakers for their turn-of-the-century mansion in St. Louis. I do not exaggerate when I say mansion:

May I present the "John A. Holmes Mansion". Newlywed suite: 3rd floor.

12,000 square feet of house takes a long time to vacuum, I assure you. Part of our job was to help take care of the yard, which included a nice little rose garden. Mrs. G loved those roses and taught me everything she knew. Ever year since then, I’ve applied these lessons to the roses that have grown in my own garden around my exponentially smaller house.  Only water them in the morning. Take care not to wet the leaves. Water them every day. Deadhead them by pruning at an angle above the first healthy five-leaflet leaf. Prune the canes down to about a foot tall and mulch them for winter.

Okay, except it turns out you’re not supposed to cut them down for the winter.  And you’re not supposed to dead head them after September.  (And some say you should deadhead them right below the bloom, not at the five-leaflet leaf, but that really has nothing to do with this story. See Frances Ballentine’s intriguing article on this subject for more detail.)

According to the University of Illinois extension (seems like a reliable source, right?), the right thing to do is coax them into complete dormancy. This means no fertilizing after August 15. No deadheading after September – which should cause the rose to form hips. Then there’s a whole process of mounding and mulching and covering that seems like a lot of work to me. But they are very clear: “Pruning, however, at this point should be kept to a minimum. The majority of the pruning will be done in the spring to remove dead and diseased canes.”

So my neighbor did it right. He or she did not prune the canes prior to winter. But, I think my neighbor might also have done it wrong. Instead of letting the hips form, my guess is that this avid rosarian kept deadheading, so the plant kept producing more flowers. And in some twisted confluence of rose production and winter’s onset, the first hard freeze came when this rose was in full bloom. Hah! And the result was freeze dried roses for his garden all winter long.

Should we try to duplicate these very cool results despite the risky methods hypothesized above? I suppose only time will tell if this rose survived it’s beautiful winter.

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Contain your Cabbage, Make a Friend

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gardener in possession of a lovely plant will not be in want of a friend. (Forgive me, Jane Austen).

Courtney's Cabbage

Okay, here’s the story. I promised myself when I started this blog that I would never post an ugly picture. In my quest to find blooms around me even in January in Philadelphia, I knew I would want to address the ornamental cabbage. The problem lies in the fact that I, as rule, find ornamental cabbages quite unattractive.  To me, they look faded and dirty and wilted. Especially the white ones. I kept my eyes peeled for said cabbages, anyway, tending to find them only in roadside beds in front of WholeFoods, the high rise condos, the cabinet company, the reformed temple, the outdoor mall. No pretty pictures to be had here. Never mind the fact that I would have to risk life and limb to park, get out of the car, and take a picture on the major thoroughfares of the Delaware Valley. I guess these establishments contract with landscaping companies to rip out the faded vincas or impatiens at the end of the growing season and plant up row upon row of ornamental cabbage. Winter color, hey, I love it. But these guys are just ugly.

Or, so I thought until I took a nice, sunny walk around my neighborhood the other day. I had been searching for these cabbages (officially a kale species, fyi) in residential landscapes, but was coming up woefully short. They seemed resigned to their destiny as strip mall accessories. But there they were in front of a neighbor’s home, just two of them, thriving in pots perfectly sized and suited to their particular mounding growth habit. The containers lifted them off the ground and highlighted them as  specimens, rather than trying to make them work as mass plantings.  They flanked the front porch and actually looked pretty. Pretty enough to photograph, even.

Cabage contained.

The car was in the driveway and the front door was ajar, so I figured I’d knock and ask permission to take a picture. I didn’t want any startled homeowner calling the cops because of the strange woman trapsing about the yard. A cute toddler came to the door and tried valiantly to let me in. Soon came the mom, who very graciously agreed to my request and then said, “Hey! Don’t our kids go to the same preschool?” Indeed they do. We’d been at the same school for a few years, but in different classes, so our paths had never crossed directly. We needed a cabbage to bring us together! Now I have a pretty picture of a cabbage and a new friend. Gardens are so great.

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To do in September: Plant Snowdrops

The problem with the winter garden is that there is precious little you can do to improve it in the winter. Gardening in general takes forward thinking and faith.  The 2 foot sapling that you might trip over on the way out for a jog today will shade your home years from now. But spring, summer and fall give us wiggle room. If we forgot to plan for blooms or foliage in one corner of the garden, a quick trip to the garden center for a flat of annuals can fix us right up. We can even move containers of lush tropicals around to pretty up those problem spots.

Not so in winter. Any beauty that shows up in the winter gardens was arranged for months or years ago. Plant a flowering shrub that holds its dried flowers ‘till spring – you’ve got winter interest. Add a berry bearer – there’s your winter color. Bury early blooming bulbs – you’ve got flowers in January! Check out what’s BLOOMING in my garden:

Snowdrops (galanthus), 1-21-2010

Again, I have my neighbors to thank for planning ahead. (Remember, I’ve psychologically annexed all the yards within walking distance of my home as “my garden.”) I know you have to plant bulbs in the fall. I plant bulbs in the fall. Why oh why have I never thought to plant super early blooming bulbs in the fall? These beauties are snowdrops (galanthus). According to various internet sources, there are over 75 species of these little gems that originated in Europe and Asia minor. They are thought to have been introduced to England by the Romans in the 16th century, and I guess they made their way across the pond to Pennsylvania with some colonial gardeners who had that forward thinking down.  They bloom really early in the winter – in warmer zones they can bloom from fall all the way through. They don’t like warm winters, though. Ha – they’re one thing those southern California gardeners will have to envy in our gardens. They multiply well, especially if you help them along by dividing clumps after the flowers have faded but while the foliage still looks happy. And, did I mention, they bloom in January?!?!?!

So – another resolution. I will plant snowdrops in September. Apparently, the bulbs don’t store well, so they’re only on shelves for a short time. I will seek them out. I will plant them. I will have blooms in my garden (my real garden) next January!

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Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, January 15

I’m a week in to my little blogging project, and I just experienced my first wave of complete overwhelmedness (is that a word?).

Did you know there are THOUSANDS of garden blogs out there? They are gorgeous and the writers are real writers and the gardeners are real gardeners. There’s even a garden blog directory (and if there’s one there are probably a hundred). 997 garden blogs currently registered on just this one.

Did you know that there is a conference every year for garden bloggers? This year’s meeting in Buffalo will be the third annual. According to their website, “during the day, we’ll hit the highlights of Western New York’s most beautiful and interesting gardens (public and private); during the evening we’ll eat, talk and hang out.” Sign me up!

Did you know that today is Garden Bloggers Bloom Day? Who knew? Actually, every 15th of the month is Garden Bloggers Bloom Day  – bloggers from all over post descriptions and photos of what’s blooming in their gardens that day. It’s like a little botanical journey ‘round the world! And, let me tell you, it makes me feel a bit inferior. Lots of orchids out there, and, hey, its January so I do have one orchid bloom on my brand new purchase. But lots of real blooms – actual flowers that are growing and blooming OUTSIDE on the 15th of January. I really do need to move to California.

Did you know that I had to rip off another berry picture from a neighbor’s garden even to participate in Garden Bloggers Bloom Day? Nothing blooming at the old homestead this year. I think I’m going to have to appropriate the entire village of Penn Wynne, Pennsylvania as “my garden.” (The sign erected by the county on our main road actually reads “Village of Penn Wynne.” A village 15 minutes from downtown Philly. How great is that?) I think I’ll do that. My yard is miniscule as are those of my neighbors. We must stick together.

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3 remedies: Winterberry, Beautyberry, Wendell Berry

The quest: to find naturally occurring color outside in the middle of January.
The location: my little neighborhood near Philadelphia.
The result: berries!

Certainly, I enjoy paging through glossy gardening magazines to see lush fields of lavender that bloomed in France in some long-passed August.  Sure, I score a bit of a color fix with my annual attempt at orchids. (Here’s a quick rundown of my orchid calendar. Jan & Feb: enjoy delightful blooms. March thru May: try to remember to water. June thru August: remove leaves that died because I forgot to water. September thru November: remove more leaves that died because I over-watered. December: neglect completely, hide behind poinsettia. January: start again).

But magazines don’t quite do it, and my house plant casualty list keeps growing. This all begs the question: is anything alive out there? Anything at all? Given my new resolve not to be brought low by winter this year, I took the only logical first step. I went outside and started looking. I know in my head that life is teeming under the surface – tulip bulbs put down roots, lilacs gather their energy in tiny branch-tip buds, giant oaks rest before shooting out an army of leaves. In my heart, though, I’d rather have some immediate gratification, thank you very much. So I looked. I looked as I drove my kids to school. I looked as I walked to the library. I looked, and amazingly, I found!

Winterberry, a deciduous holly wins double points for being a native plant, as does beautyberry. Not only do they cheer up a dreary winter day, they were made to grow in this soil and to feed the birds and insects that just happen to live near by. Both drop their leaves in the fall to show off their lovely little berries, encouraging birds to eat and deposit their seed far and wide (and encouraging me with bright color in January!) And they’re both growing in right around the corner and they’re both gorgeous! I’ll add “plant winterberry and beautyberry shrubs” to the long list entitled, “Things I would do if I had a bigger yard.” Oh well – at least my neighbors have seen fit to help me out.

What to do, however, if your fellow gardeners don’t take care of you quite so well as mine do? Read a book by Wendell Berry. This man is an artist. His books define life out-of-doors. He loves the land. His characters are real and deep and humble and loving. He will make you want to move to a farm. I bet even January is warmer in Port William.

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Can roses cause the winter blues?

The offending specimen

It will be 35 degrees today. Balmy compared to the last two days – maybe we should break out the t-shirts and shorts. The sun is shining. At least we’ve got that going for us. Days are getting infinitesimally longer since the sun made its turn at the solstice and I no longer desire to sit by my fire and look at the Christmas tree and read tales of idyllic English villages covered in blankets of snow. I wish I were still content to do that; I would be much happier. I enjoyed December. I enjoyed the rest, the coziness, the dark evenings that forced us all inside to string popcorn and to watch Jimmy Stewart realize his worth. Now all of a sudden, I’m restless. I’m buying orchids. I’m kicking the snow off my garden to see if I could possibly dig. I’m visiting the local nursery just to stand in their greenhouse and pretend I’m actually warm.  I want spring. Maybe it is the turning of the sun that winds me up again. Slight changes in the amount of light received can cause poinsettias to turn red or Christmas cactuses to bloom; could those few extra minutes of daytime ignite my overwhelming, almost physical need to see things bloom?

Here’s the problem, though: Nothing blooms in January in southeastern Pennsylvania, and nothing will bloom for weeks and weeks and weeks. C’mon, Kelly, you say. Buy some tropical house plants, enjoy some central American flowers in a vase. Certainly those could help take the edge off? Somehow, they seem only to make things worse. I made the mistake of buying myself a few sprigs of salmon colored roses the other day. They’re lovely, no doubt about it. Sitting on my kitchen counter, all cheerful and flouncey, they do make me smile. That is until my gaze wanders to the view out my window. Gray trees growing next to stone houses sitting under a steely sky look even more gray compared to those little show-offs. Thus, the winter blues begin.

I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but I just might need some resolve in this case. So instead of moping around and feeling sorry for myself and counting down the days until the Philadelphia Flower Show opens (48), I resolve to be a bit more constructive about my self-diagnosed seasonal affective disorder. (My husband Eric will certainly cheer this news. By the end of February every year, he’s ready to cash in the 401K and seek out serious professional help for his sad, sad wife).  I will seek out a remedy. I will read great books about the earth blooming. I will try to appreciate one thing about creation every day – even if it is neither bloom nor bud. I will look for beauty and take pictures even if I have to trespass. I will write down my plans for the growing season instead of letting them fester in my depressed head. I will look for a job in a nursery. I will take a class on turning my tiny yard into a wildlife habitat. I will wear brighter colors.  I will ….well, we will see, won’t we?

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