August 30, 2010

From the Back of Beyond

I am used to looking at my gardens from the front.  I enjoy sitting on my patio and deck looking out at the trees and borders, and I like having my coffee while wandering around the yard, which always means a line of sight or a walk from the house to the front of each garden area.

A few days ago I turned around, and looked back at the house from the far side beyond the garden.   Here is what the deer see as they stand in the meadow, checking out the menu items on offer:

And here is the back alley between the compost pile (out of sight to the left) and the backside of the berm where we planted spruce trees and birches to hide us from a busy road:

I am accustomed to seeing the dry creek bed as a connector going left to right from the garden to the berm, tying garden elements together.  But this shot is lengthwise, viewing its short meander downslope as if I'm about to set off on its twisting path to the ocean of weeds at its mouth:

Another view from the meadow, looking back into the yard as the sun went down behind our neighbor's house:

Standing in my neighbor's yard, looking back at my house:

Every once in a while go out back and look at everything from a different perspective, from beyond your usual way of seeing things.  Such lessons we can learn from that simple reversal!

Everything does look a little different from the back of beyond.

August 27, 2010

I garden, he mows

Men and women do not create better or worse gardens, but I think they use different parts of the unconscious brain when they garden. It's all triggered by exposure to the primordial elements of soil, earth, rain and dust.  Well.  All I mean to explore today is how one man and one woman sharing half an acre garden differently.

The somewhat flip analysis is: "I garden, he mows".  I put in densely packed shrubbery and trees and fill the gaps with perennials.  He mows wider and wider swaths around them until I have jungles floating in grassy plains.  But it's not that simple.

He isn't the stereotypical lawnmower junkie of the suburbs, obsessively pursuing the biggest green carpet in the neighborhood.

Jim gardens.  He is knowledgeable about flowers and herbs, likes to compose and tend beds of all kinds of plants, and did so at our other house.  But in our new home I do all the planning, planting and tending because I now have a healthier sciatic nerve than he does.  With enough Tylenol, he can mow, and so he does that.

But his garden vision is always one of openness, view, clearing, and safety.  Shrubs can't be up against the house, they cause problems.  The encroaching weedy  meadow has to be kept at bay, cleared further and further to keep varmints at a distance.  Shade can't overhang the house too closely.  It's as if the primitive hunter part of his brain is telling him in his garden he must be on lookout for all dangers crossing our savanna.  Prospect.  View.  See what's coming before it gets you and eats you.

I garden to enclose spaces, give us privacy in our yard, and make me feel sheltered.  I like lots of tightly packed greenery, with curved paths and views to destinations (a garden shed at the convergence of the birch trees and pines is my latest plan).

I garden to create a nest.  Refuge.  Enclosure.  Keep the dangers of the savanna from eating us by hiding in the trees.

Humans need elements of both prospect and refuge to be in a comfortable place.  What we need is a way to see the wide view, but from a sheltering enclosure. Getting the balance right is the problem.


And so I wind up with the lonely tree pictured above.  It's a young katsura tree, originally planted at the very edge of the meadow, to tie our cultivated  plot to the unplanted, overly sunny, wild weeds beyond.  I intended an edge definer, part of a vignette of house + tree + field.  Jim then mowed 5 or 6 mower widths behind it, so now the katsura tree is standing in a puddle, stranded by itself in the open lawn.

Sigh.  It will grow, it will get very large in fact, and it will fill the lawn space.  It will be lovely.

August 25, 2010

August 22, 2010

Heirloom Seeds

With some fanfare and publicity, it was announced last June that a treasured Connecticut landmark would reopen: Comstock Ferre Seed Company in Wethersfield had a new buyer, ready to restore and reopen the vacant store location.

Joene did a great post on it, and the Hartford newspaper did a write up.  It's open now, so I took an August afternoon last week to go visit.

Here are my impressions:

It's not a single storefront, but a complex of buildings built in the 1820s: barns, a brick house, a glass greenhouse, sheds, and wooden warehouses, all faithfully old, realistically antique, and, after 200 years, original.  A great historical destination, much more than just a store.

What hit me when we entered was not the look of the old buildings, but the smell.  Not musty, although it's old.  Not moldy.  Just ..... rich.  It smelled faintly of leather and smoke and animals and wet wood.  We live today in an antiseptic world of stainless steel, plastic, aluminum and ceramic, where nothing smells.  Our great grandparents still lived in a world where every breath held a heavy mix of the musky aromas of daily life.  Perhaps it was not pleasant --- smoke, manure, wet dirt, rotting wood, things curing, things decaying, stuff cooking.  But amazingly, my very first whiff inside this building evoked some ancient part of my ancestry, and it smelled very, very familiar.
All the seed trays and wooden racks, the floors, the bins, the beams are original
There's a mini library of organic gardening books and resources
Old labels, faded and torn, still mark some of the seed drawers
I am puzzled about how the new owners, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, will make a go of this place, selling $2.50 seed packets, but they've done it before in their home location in Missouri and in a site they've opened in California.  There's a room to the side that has museum artifacts from the 1800s, mainly old tools and farming mechanicals.  There's a room upstairs where antiques will be sold.  Just a few there now, but more will be brought in on consignment.

Lantern reproductions for sale are in keeping with the time period
And they plan to add consignment jewelry, crafts, and gifts, but they have to be the kind of things that would have been sold in the 19th century.  There's a small room with folding chairs for garden club meetings, and a big hall in one of the warehouses that can hold 200 people, after all the debris last touched by Amish workmen gets cleaned up.

They will offer some plant starts grown from their own seeds, but no other nursery plants.  This is not a garden center.  Its intent is to be a living history site that focuses on heirloom gardening.  And sells seeds.

Baker Creek apparently has had success in other locations making their seed stores a family destination, and eventually Comstock Ferre will be just that, with festivals, garden shows, and employees dressed in period costumes.

But for now it's all just big buildings, empty except for racks and racks of heirloom seeds, and two nice ladies holding down the fort until the costumed characters arrive.  I bought two seed packets to plant next spring, and one of the ladies said apologetically: "There's no tax on vegetable seeds, but I have to charge you state sales tax on flowers".

I laughed. "Even if I plan to eat these nasturtiums?  Even if these sweet peas produce peas?"  "Oh, well then" she said. "No tax if you eat your flowers".  And she didn't charge me tax.

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is committed to keeping the 19th century vibe at Comstock Ferre, but they aggressively use 21st century technology to create a market for yesterday's product.  They keep a blog, which is worth reading here, complete with forums on gardening, gene altered food, and nature politics.  They produce a magazine called Heirloom Gardening. They have an active facebook page here and it's full of news.  There is an online catalog of course.

All of it is good, right in a gardenblogger's zone.  But tell me, when you visit, if it isn't the smell of the place that hooks you on their product.  That deep, old, evocative aroma of a time when the seeds in the bins and drawers represented the height of agricultural technology and not rescued heirlooms of the past.

August 21, 2010

It's My Birthday Today

There are 174 people on facebook who spell their names Laurrie, with two Rs. 
174!  I spent my life correcting people who insisted on spelling my name with one R, and I had a boss who wrote responses to my memos by jotting "Lori", right next to the typed header that said "Laurrie".  Not once, by mistake, but every single time he returned a memo to me.  I worked for him for two years.  His name was Chip. There were so many possibilities for retribution.

174 registered on facebook?  So it's not unique.  I still have to go through life with two Rs, correcting forms and sign ins.

When I remarried in 1999 I applied for a Social Security card in my new married last name.  After 50 years with two Rs, my application prompted the Social Security administration to change my first name to Laurie.  I now have to submit an original birth certificate with my given first name, and a maiden name I last had in 1971 to get it corrected. But that's no guarantee they won't alter my middle name.  Which would be a good thing, come to think of it.  Who even likes their middle name?  But still.

For years I blamed my parents for the troubles with my name.

Now I blame the government.

August 18, 2010

What happened to picnic tables?

I grew up in a suburban housing development in the 1950s and I live in a new version of the suburban development now.

Housing styles have changed ... for one thing houses now are bigger, ceilings are much taller, and floorplans are open, with the living areas all blended together.

And one thing I have noticed: every house today has a wooden deck or stone patio off the back.  Some are elaborate and huge, others less so, but it appears universal that every house must have a constructed outdoor entertaining / lounging area.

But growing up, that was not how backyards looked.  We entertained, we lounged, we dined, we enjoyed our mothers' gardens, but it was universal that every suburban house had a tiny cement back stoop, and a big wooden picnic table in the back yard, sitting out in the lawn.

No patio of pavers or brick, no bluestone walkway and seating area.  No pressure treated deck or garden rooms with firepits. No umbrellas even. Just a cement stoop to sit on while you spat watermelon seeds into the lawn, and a picnic table.

What has happened to the backyard picnic table?  I have not seen one in ages, only the industrial ones bolted to cement slabs at the state parks.

Backyard picnic tables were multipurpose.  They were potting benches, work surfaces for projects too messy to do indoors, pumpkin carving stations in the fall, and of course we had our summer lunches and dinners out there.  You straddled the bench to shuck corn before bringing the cleaned ears into the kitchen. It was where you had your birthday party if you had an August birthdate.

The big awkward table was always in the middle of the grass and had to be moved in order to mow.  It was never set on a stone base or any kind of decking.  It just sat out there in the yard and was perfectly functional. It was always in a state of perpetual deterioration, and it wobbled.

Now everybody has some kind of professionally built entertaining area.  The house I grew up in even has a patio now (it's amazing what you can see on 3 D Bing maps)  Of course there is no picnic table out in the yard any more (I'm pretty sure the swing in the apple tree is gone too).

When I grew up and bought my first house, we had steps at the back door that led directly to the lawn.  We put a picnic table in the yard, a high end one made of redwood, since although we were young, we were pretty aspirational.  We never thought to build any kind of structure off the back of the house.

35 years later my current house has not only a wooden deck, but a patio with walls, stone walkways, a market umbrella, outdoor furniture, and gardens all around.  It's nice, but ......

.... I kind of miss the simplicity of the lichen covered old table in the back yard.

August 16, 2010

Why wasn't this plant in my garden?

Anemone vitifolia (also tomentosa) robustissima.  Grape-leaved anemone.

Not mine.
Why not?  It should be.  It so should be.  Update: now it is.

I have long wanted this plant after seeing it at our local park and after admiring its easy elegance in my neighbor's garden (actually, I want all her plants.  I have serious envy problems when I go over there.)

Then, in mid August I found a very large, healthy looking, beautiful $10 container of Anemone tomentosa robustissima at Home Depot, while on an errand to buy light bulbs.  I know, I know; my husband also questions how I wound up in the garden center while getting 60 watt energy savers.  But my readers know how that happens.

That container was quickly snapped up and this lovely anemone is now at the edge of my patio wall.

I have been surprised this year with the quality and selection of plants at the Connecticut Home Depot stores.  There was a time when all they had were sad pots of mis-tended annuals, the usual Bradford Pear saplings in rootbound containers, and drying, dying arborvitae.

This year I found itea, interesting kinds of buddleia, varied heuchera choices, great clematis and lots of other shrubs and perennials that only someone with some gardening experience would recognize and appreciate.  All in very good condition.

A real surprise, since, like most gardeners, I have long dismissed the box stores for any kind of plant expertise.  This year Home Depot has impressed me, not just once but every time I have gone in there, and not just at one location, but at the couple of stores I visited.

So I did not hesitate to grab the anemone I had long wanted and thought I could only get through mail order!  And two sturdy dahlias that dazzled me as well.

Here's the new anemone, bravely entertaining the bees on a muggy August day, still in a little bit of transplant shock:

It will get about 4 feet tall, and it takes more sun than other anemones.  The shell pink flowers are pretty, but it's the pearly tight silver buds that are so sweet, which are more visible in the photo at the top of this post.

It blooms now, in late summer through fall.  But it's attractive even while waiting for the flowers; the grape leaf shaped leaves are bold and interesting, and the general form is a nice full mound.

The fact that I ran across it, unexpectedly, and on sale, and in such good shape, just delights me.  Has your Home Depot surprised you?

August 14, 2010

Kent Beauty

It's a pretty thing, Kent Beauty.  It's an origanum, a hybrid cross between two oreganos: rotundifolium and scabrum.  It has a faint, spicy scent when you brush the foliage, but it's not a cooking herb.  This is an ornamental oregano.

The hop-like blushing pink bracts around the flowers are kind of frilly looking, and in a breeze the whole plant shakes and shivers rather than bobbing about.


The leaves are tiny and sliver veined.  The flower bracts are dusty pink, facing downward in an overlapping hooded fashion, too shy and demure to look you straight in the face.


I have two Kent Beauty plants in two separate pots, one in a big concrete bowl with a pungent rosemary, and one by itself where it is filling out and spilling daintily over the edges.

They may not be reliably winter hardy here (this is my first year growing them), so I'll bring the pots into the unheated garage over winter.  I'll cut some of the bracts for dried flowers, keep the pots pretty dry until spring --- it's another plant that wants very very good drainage --- and with luck I'll get to enjoy these delicate, ruffly, soft looking oreganos next year.  I don't want to be without their gentle company on my deck.

August 12, 2010

Dominion of Minions

I spent a delightful 90 minutes out of the heat recently, in an air conditioned movie theater watching the animated film Despicable Me.  I fell in love with the goofy, goggled, giggling Minions who serve their evil villain.  They're shaped like twinkies, just as soft and yellow. Who doesn't crack up at their high pitched babble and antics?  Just watch them!

They reminded me of something I couldn't put my finger on right away.   And then I came across these pictures I took last winter.
Why would anyone do this?  These aren't little foundation shrubs, shaped into gumdrops.  This is a planting of healthy Pinus strobus, white pines, huge native trees that can only be described as noble, with haunting, open habits in maturity.  It's an installation of dozens and dozens of 20 foot high rotund columns.  I drive by them every day and have even watched the landscapers at work on tall ladders with extension pruners keeping these things sheared and twinkie shaped.

Do they remind you of a group of those giggling tubby shaped minions?  Do they?

The Renegade Gardener spews better than anyone about landscaping nightmares (check out his tab on "Don't DO that").  And Plant Amnesty, whose mission is to end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs, has a gallery of bad pruning you can check out.

Here is my own plea.  Don't Do This.  Stop the mutilation:

And don't plant two side by side and shear them into stocky little minions to guard an entrance.  All these two need are goggles and overalls:

Here's a grouping of white pines left unsheared.  So much better, don't you think?: