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In the Gardens Blog

Getting Excited About the Little Things

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

The snow had not even completely melted outside my front door a few weeks back when a hellebore defiantly thrust up first one flower, then two. Now, there are several hellebores blooming prolifically. Next to one of those plants, a clutch of tiny tete-a-tete daffodils preen in the afternoon light.

Welcome to early spring in New England, when we get excited about the little things.

Ours is a feast and famine region. From the end of October until the day that first hellebore emerged, there were no flowers to look at outside my window. The world was largely brown: a brown lawn, brown oak leaves and brown tree trunks. Pretty in its own way? Not really. Especially when you see this unchanging landscape day after day.

Two months from now, there will be so much color that even the most jaded among us will be overwhelmed. From late spring through the changing of the leaves is our time to feast on the palette given us by Mother Nature.

Manhattan's SunriseNow – the beginning of April – is when we see the first hints of what is to come. There is a bed at the front of my property. It’s called ‘Manhattan’ because its shape is somewhat reminiscent of that island. Driving by, there’s little to attract the eye but, on foot, the site is abuzz with activity. Hundreds of crocus have bloomed purple and the short perennial blue grasses and yellow-striped yuccas have un-flattened themselves and now look more dignified. This bed will be royal purple with hyacinths in a few weeks and, already, the dark green leaves of those perennials are showing their spikes. One the western edge of Manhattan, alliums have sent up shoots to capture sunlight. To the rear of the bed, daffodils are in bloom and, in front of them, the early daylily greens have appeared from nowhere, a pale green fuzz that grows an inch a day.
All this from one bed.

Tete-a-tete's and hellebores
In another bed, the lime-green emergent flower stalks of three alien-appearing petasites (bog rhubarb) have appeared, seemingly overnight. In a month, their shiny, yellow-spotted leaves will share this space with an entire rogue’s gallery of damp-ground-loving plants. For now, these six-in-high sentinels are all that mark the site.

These are the signs that winter is in full retreat. I’ve been around here long enough to know that we don’t get through April unscathed; that sometime between now and when the lilacs bloom, there will likely be at one more snowfall. But I’m taking great pleasure in these small harbingers of more colorful days ahead.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through Amazon.com.


The Wisteria that Was

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

I am continually accused by my wife of being too sentimental about plants. I can’t see throwing away a perfectly good clump of Hemerocallis just because it is being displaced by something more eye-catching. As a result, our ‘nursery bed’ overflows with azalea that became scraggly from too little sun, perennials that became overly aggressive and other, ragtag cultivars that outgrew their homes or failed to thrive where originally planted.

My wife has no such tolerance. “Compost it,” is her succinct, all-purpose advice for what to do with too much of anything.

And so we have tug-of-wars over plants. I’m forever pleading for another season for a given forlorn plant to finally establish itself, or to at least find another, more suitable location. Betty turns a gimlet eye to my softheartedness.

Which is why, when I came back from running an errand the other day, I found a stump where the wisteria used to be.

Wisteria is, of course, a vine. But with proper nurturing and staking it can be turned into a tree, or at least a tree-shaped vine. We planted the wisteria circa 2003 and, for six years, it stood in a grassy area.
Well, most of the time it ‘stood’.

The Wisteria in its prime... and in bloom
The Wisteria in its prime... and in bloom

In two memorable, back-to-back storms a few years back, the wisteria was blown over. We staked it after the first storm, a summer nor’easter. Two weeks later, a drenching monsoon from the southwest flattened it yet again in the opposite direction.

Thereafter, the wisteria acquired an unflattering crutch in the form of a six-foot-high green metal stake.

Whether a function of that storm or some other malady, the wisteria failed to bloom the following spring. It put out dozens of ten-foot-long tendrils and a profusion of leaves, but nothing pretty to look at. Ditto the next year. I was, however, always of the opinion that all it needed was some tender loving care.

Last summer, the 150 square-foot section of lawn in which the wisteria stood was converted into a shrub bed. An andromeda, grown too large for its site as a foundation planting, was moved in. An area nursery had a terrific sale on miniature kalmia (mountain laurel). Two low-growing ilex rescued years earlier from the town library where they had been salted to near extinction by overly-diligent town employees found a permanent home. Some nifty hostas from multiple sources rounded out the new bed.

Betty began eyeing the non-producing wisteria, noting that it ‘didn’t fit’ and that its ‘scale was wrong’. I began my defense of the imperiled vine. “Give it another year.”

The discussion was made moot by a pruning saw.

We dug out the stump and, in its place, a third ilex, the most damaged of the three rescued shrubs but now fully healed, went into its spot.

Betty is, of course, correct. The wisteria was a failed experiment which ought to have ended years earlier. It was only my whining that kept it in place. Now, the vine and its stump lie alongside an amalanchier (shadbush) that never successfully transplanted, awaiting a dump run.

The great plantsman Allan Armitage says, “If you’re not killing plants, you’re not gardening.” Maybe there ought to be a corollary axiom: if you leave a plant in place just because it’s there, you’re also not gardening.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through Amazon.com.


Well Contained Enthusiasm

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

I was at the Chelsea Flower Show a few years ago, standing in a queue for drinks. Directly in front of me in line were two gentlemen, both silver-haired and attired in gray, chalk-stripe suits that spoke of both good tailoring and good breeding. They said little during those few minutes I was behind them, but one sentence continues to ring in my ears with a clarity undiminished by time.

“Penelope,” one of the men said to the other, and then paused for just a moment before continuing, “has a £100 a week perennial habit.”

He said this with neither anger nor regret in his voice. It was a statement of fact; tinged with opinion only in his use of the word, ‘habit’ in describing Penelope’s voracious gardening budget. I swiftly did some currency conversion in my head: at the then-current exchange rate, Penelope was buying up $182 a week worth of salvia, astilbe and hosta.

When I returned and handed Betty her drink, I related what I had just heard and I said, “Don’t ever again fret over what you spend on gardening. You will always be a rank amateur.”

We had a pounding rain here overnight and one of my jobs this morning was to empty saucers from the various containers around the property. Saucers with water in them mean containers can become waterlogged, which leads to root rot.

Somewhere along the way, I began counting the containers surrounding our home. I found 52 and am not certain I got them all.

Now, one or two are just for show – unplanted behemoths that are in perennial beds strictly as focal points. Some others are long-term homes to plants that we overwinter, such as a beautiful burgundy loropetalum or the stone planter given by Betty’s garden club that is home to a fern that returns majestically every May.

Container gardenThe core group of containers – medium and large terra cotta, glazed ceramic or high-quality foam ones – numbers about 35. Betty has been diligently planting them for the past month, filling them with an amazing array of mostly annuals but also including perennials, tropicals and a few shrubs; none of them common.

Those containers are scattered around the property, bringing color to otherwise bare areas of asphalt, concrete or rock. Some are awaiting permanent assignment, such as a large, colorfully planted pot that will sit atop a clutch of prominently visible daffodil greens once those greens have started to yellow later this month.

Container gardenThere are multiple containers along the sidewalk that will fill voids in the perennial beds as June bloomers pass. There are six containers on our deck, turning an otherwise drab structure into a colorful annex of the garden below it. Two matching metal urns are overflowing with color on either side of the front door. Large containers bring drama to the spaces between garage doors and still others fill an awkward, dark corner.

Does this count as a ‘container habit?’

Hardly. And, were it so, then I would be the principal enabler. Betty takes me plant shopping at her peril. I’m the one saying, “Don’t you want another of those?” And, at container sales, I’m the one piling the cart to overflowing, with Betty ordering me to put them back.

Container gardenIt isn’t even a container obsession. Rather, it’s an appreciation for what can be wrought by mixing plants of differing heights, bloom size and color into a small space, and then massing the resulting containers into a pleasing arrangement. It’s art using a different palette and medium.

So, to the gentleman at the Chelsea Flower Show, I say, “Hooray for Penelope.” I hope that she, too, is still creating art of a different kind somewhere in the U.K.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through Amazon.com.


The Bane of the Garden

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

Toxicodendron radicans is an attractive native vine, an important food for birds, and it displays great fall color. Were it not for its oily resin (called urushiol), it would be an ornament in any garden. I am referring, of course, to poison ivy, the most common cause of rashes in America. A month ago, I made the mistake – and I did this willingly – of wading into a large patch of it.

And it was just a week ago today that I finally was able to put out of my mind the thought of self-amputation of my left leg at the knee. For the three weeks before that, I was, to put it delicately, in agony.

Poison ivy is, of course, to be avoided. It’s a simple rule, really: stay away from poison ivy and you will never look like a bug-eyed idiot at a party, resisting the urge to scratch your arms or legs into temporary submission. I leapt into that poison ivy because my wife asked me to clean out some that was encroaching onto some prized plants. After patently ignoring her request for several weeks, I spontaneously did it one hot afternoon. Maybe it was the heat.

If you are heading out to do battle with a major infestation, dress for battle. A long-sleeved shirt, long pants tucked into socks, a hat and gloves. I did not follow this advice. Instead, I wore shorts, shoes, and a tee shirt, with plastic bags wrapped around my hands. In hindsight, I was foolhardy. At the time, I was avoiding being ‘too warm’.

Poison Ivy exampleTools for removing poison ivy include shovels, trowels, hoes, clippers and heavy duty plastic bags. Of this arsenal, I remembered only the plastic trash bags. Experts say that as you remove poison ivy, place it immediately in the bags. Even dead, you can be exposed to the oily resin that causes the rash. Cutting off a vine headed up a tree is only the first step, next you need to remove it from the tree so the dead leaves do not become a future source of contamination. This does not go in the composter. It goes straight to the trash. And never burn poison ivy—if inhaled, the fumes can cause a serious respiratory reaction. I did, at least, bag the stuff and took it straight to the dump.

You can also use an herbicide such as Roundup. We have a bottle of concentrate in our garage. Why didn’t I use it? Stupidity. If you’re not keen to spray herbicides, you can use an old paint brush to simply paint the poison ivy leaves with the Roundup. I have lots of old paint brushes. The thought never crossed my mind.

Poison Ivy exampleWhen you finished pulling out poison ivy, immediately remove the clothes you’ve been wearing and place them in a washer. You should clean yourself thoroughly, washing any exposed areas with cool water and dish or laundry detergent (better than hand soap at removing oil and washing it away). The faster you wash off any contamination, the less likely you are to suffer the rash.

I swear on a stack of seed catalogs that I did every one of those things. Three days later, I saw the first signs of a rash. A day later, the rash ran in multiple bands the length of my leg.

Over-the-counter cortisone and antihistamines are recommended for mild cases of poison ivy. Severe cases may merit a trip to the doctor. I discovered that calamine lotion now goes by the name of ‘anti-itch lotion’ and is no longer pink It works, up to a point. The Wall Street Journal, which fortunately dispenses far better financial information than it does medical advice, suggests that buttermilk and soaking in a bathtub with a dozen teabags can help. I elected not to try either home remedy.

Finally don’t forget to clean the tools you used. Wash them with a household cleaner designed to remove oil so you don’t pick it up the next time you head out to garden. Having not bothered to use tools, I didn’t need this particular piece of advice, but I washed them thoroughly anyway.

You can never be too careful with poison ivy.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through Amazon.com.


Wretched Excess

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

My wife and I have a 20-foot-by-65-foot vegetable garden where we grow corn, okra, lettuce, chard, dill, carrots, summer squash, winter squash, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, basil, leeks, beets…. and green beans.

I have no argument with the first 15 items on the list. There is nothing so flavorful as sweet corn eaten minutes after it was picked or a salad topped with tomatoes still warm from the vine. These are the reasons we garden. Even when there is excess (think zucchini), there are friends with whom to share the bounty or, if your friends begin avoiding you because they know you come bearing suitcases full of the stuff, you can foist the surplus on people who unsuspectingly leave their car windows rolled down in parking lots. We have disposed of zucchini in exactly that fashion on more than one occasion.

But zucchini is a vegetable that must be eaten fresh. No one would ever think of canning or freezing summer squash because they’d find nothing but mush when they sampled it in January. Not so green beans. Green beans have pretty much the same taste and texture whether they’re eaten fresh or frozen.

For reasons I cannot fathom, this year my wife planted two ‘wide rows’ and one ‘standard’ row of green beans, with the idea that we’d freeze what we didn’t immediately eat. She apparently used varieties with names like ‘Maxi-Yield’ and ‘Garden-Glut’ because we began getting green beans at the beginning of July and are now picking – and I promise I am not making this up –five pounds or more of beans from of the garden every day.

The first week was wonderful. The yield was maybe 20 or 30 long, luscious beans a day, perhaps ten minutes worth of picking in the cool late afternoon. Once home, we pinched off the ends, threw them in a dish, steamed them for three minutes and we had fresh, delicious green beans; high in vitamins and good for us to boot.

Then the yield bounced up to about 60 green beans a day. Fifteen minutes of picking and ten minutes of snipping ends. OK, we cooked half and froze half (two minutes in boiling water, then rinse under cold water to stop the cooking, arrange the beans on a tray, stick them in the freezer overnight, then bag them and return them to the freezer until needed). I could cope with that.

But then both double rows went into full production. Suddenly, we were spending more than half an hour spent stooped over picking under a blazing sun with suffocating humidity, pinching ends for another 45 minutes, and then lining up green beans on trays for half an hour. First, it was one double-decked tray of beans to blanch and freeze and then two double-decked trays. One night this week we processed two double trays and still had green beans left over. Did I mention we are running out of space in our freezer?

Dealing with the excess has required ingenuity. Our town’s food cupboard had only one distribution in July, which didn’t make a dent in the surplus. Thankfully, there’s another this week. At last week’s Wednesday Evening at Elm Bank lecture, we offered green beans as kind of party favors to thank people for coming. This morning, a friend brought us two baskets of blackberries. She left groaning under the unexpected weight of more than five pounds of green beans. Fortunately, she’s a Vegan. Unfortunately, her children are at camp.

The last row of green beans, a standard-width one, was planted late, intended for September production. For the past week I have been guiding runners from the winter squash toward the young plants. With luck, by the time the green bean plants should be flowering, they’ll instead be engulfed by squash leaves. They will not be missed.

There is joy in seeing plants first emerging from the ground in May and early June. Alas, the mind does not contemplate the work that will be involved when, as in the ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’, the green beans keep maturing by the hundreds every day, demanding to be picked. The great gardening guru Roger Swain calls one of the joys of summer the ‘wretched excess’ from the garden. This July and August, being a grower of green beans makes it easy to understand the ‘wretched’ part of that statement.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through Amazon.com.


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