It’s looking just the way I thought it would.

Jeeps broke his back building the wall, I broke my back removing the sod.  We used all the rocks out of the old wall, and then scavenged the yard for every single rock we could find.  We even considered the many crumbling stone walls in the acres of woods around our house that used to be farmland.  We lacked a mule to haul them.  We toiled on, stacked and dug, dug and stacked.

Jeeps stacked in unseasonable heat.  I dug in the rain.  He lost the nail on his pinky because a dropped a rock on it.  I swear did something bad to my right tricep.  We couldn’t move by 6PM every night; the kids ate cold cereal or pizza while we fell into bed like death, primed with 50 Advil each.


One thing about our marriage:  when we have a shared vision of something, we make it happen.



We wanted an arbor for the gap in the wall.  Jeeps is very particular about keeping hardscape in line with the mission/prairie style of our house.  Translation:  no white, frou-frou pickets or curved arches.  I stepped back and let him find something, I’m usually fine with whatever he picks out anyway.  And he found this sort of Japanese-style one:

I love it and I can totally picture a Sweet Autumn clematis clambering over it.  Then we looked high and low for a bench that would go with the plan as well.  We fell in love with this one, it’s gorgeous but way too expensive:

This one is smaller but more reasonably-priced and we dig the rising sun motif on the back:

So the idea is to walk in through the arbor, then there will be that circular, gravel path with the bench at the top, in the corner of the triangle.  Apart from a few standing perennials that survived the construction, I get to build the beds up from scratch.

I’m starting with the circle bed in the center.   I have about a $230 budget which is comprised of birthday money from my mother-in-law (she always gives a check for your age plus $100), and whatever cash I squirrel away or find in the laundry.  And where else do you go to squander the stash but to Claire’s Garden Center?

(Cue Hallelujia chorus)

I love this place.  This place is the bomb.  I could spend $1,000 here in half an hour.  Easily.  But I only had $230 and after nights in bed with my garden books, pencil and paper, and the Claire’s catalog, I had a very definite plan and did not deviate.  When I was tempted by other plants, I took pictures, took note of the price, and sternly told myself, “Another time.  I said, ANOTHER TIME!  PUT THAT DOWN!”

So here’s my vision for the circle:

It all started with the iris and the geum, because I discovered, sort of by accident, that they look really cool growing together.  It’s not that their flowers look good together, in fact they bloom at different times; rather it’s the tall, spiky leaves of the iris and how the stems of the geum sort of disappear, leaving the bright red pom-poms floating in and around the spikes.  I love how it looks and wanted to duplicate it in the new circle bed, but since it was the iris foliage I was interested in, I decided to get this really cool variegated kind.  The red flowers against that green and yellow are going to be awesome.

I picked the rest of the plants to get a good stretch of flowers from spring to fall.  The Brazilian buttonflowers will be the last to bloom; I actually started them from seed and technically they are annuals, but supposedly they self-sow really easily.  If they don’t come back next year I can fill the space with asters or mums.

So that’s the vision.  Here’s what I came home from Claire’s with:

And here’s where it all will go:

(Sigh)….Yeah, I know, the iris is tiny right now and I have to transplant the susans and echinacea from my other beds, and the buttons are still in the nursery pots.  Besides some yarrow ‘Coronation Gold’, these are all the plants I’m buying.  Maybe.  [Editor’s note – PUT THAT DOWN!!]  I’m going to establish the circle bed, divide or move some other existing perennials, and fill in the gaps with a lot of zinnias and sunflowers.  I think I’ll put some supplemental squash plants down here too.  Herbs, too.  But it’s not going to look complete this year, I accept that.  Eye on the vision, people, eye on the vision.  To garden, you have to have vision and patience.

(And by the way, I fucking hate patience).

The Gardening Pre-Show: Sketches and Excelsperations

It snowed today, but I’m all right with it.  As far as winters go, this one has been a piece of cake, I can live with winter being like this.   Right up until today we’ve had a spell of unusually moderate weather:  mid 40s to 50s.  I spent all of last weekend outside and it was so wonderful.  The cheapest form of therapy there is.  My iPhone tucked in my pocket with a playlist on shuffle, I went around from bed to bed, doing a bunch of cleanup that I usually can’t get to until the end of March.  Hellebores were putting out blooms.  Iris was sending up new pointy shoots.  Clearing away debris, pruning back, poking in the dirt, saying hello to old friends, I went into a zone of perfect happiness.

As I worked in the veggie garden, which is right next to the road, cars slowed down and most people waved to me.  One woman stopped and rolled down her window.  “Are your tulips out yet, they can’t be!” she cried.

“They’re coming up,” I called back.  “Couple more months, you’ll see them.”

“I always see them from the road, I love driving past your house,” she said, and with another wave she was off.

Exchanges like these make me think twice about our plans to put a fence at the edge of our property where it borders the road.  I grow my gardens for me, yes, but over the years I have gotten such response from people walking and driving by.  If the flowers are the high point of someone’s commute to work, if they move a stranger to roll down the window and say so…how can you cut that kind of thing off?  I hope Jeeps and I can reach a compromise in a fence that marks the property without blocking the view.

Anyway, it’s that time of year…

Yes indeed, that is my vegetable garden depicted in an Excel spreadsheet.  That, my friends, is the Plan.

I love the Plan.  I make Plans every year – don’t you see the tab with “Garden 2011”?  I had a file with all the garden plans going back to 2005 but that got lost in the great coffee spillage debacle.  Bummer.  But before you think I am completely insane at worst, or a total control-freak at best, let’s get a couple things straight:

The primary reason I plan out the garden like this is crop rotation.  Any farmer on any scale will tell you this is common sense practice – it’s good for the soil and it deters pests from infesting in one place.  So the spreadsheet makes it very easy to see, year over year, what got planted where and how I’m going to rotate the crops.  Fair enough, right?  Right.

The second reason is because it’s something fun to do when I’m out of my mind with winter boredom.  There’s a stack of seed and flower catalogs by my bed and more arriving in the mail every day, and I’m just itching to start.  I can’t get outside and actually START start, so what’s the next best thing?  Virtual garden.  Pretend.  Believe me, come actually spring time, do I go and follow this plan down to the square inch?  Hell, no.  Other than the basics of “carrots go here this year, zucchini over there,” a lot of the plan gets forgotten.  Or turns out to be impractical or outright impossible, what was I thinking?

Yet filled with optimism at the start of the growing season, I do try to set some goals for projects and technique, just to keep from biting off more than I can chew, and, face it, to try and get the most out of that lovely little garden of mine, and to try to keep it as organic as possible.  Goals I’ve jotted down thus far:

*Jeeps and I want to take the area under the living room windows and turn it from grass to garden.  He hates cutting that awkward piece of turf and it always ends up being baked by the end of June anyway.  I am supremely psyched for this idea but it involves removing all that turf, and then taking apart the stacked stone wall that currently edges part of the garden border.  The wall has to be rebuilt at the edge of the walkway but when done, I will have a little enclosed herb and cutting garden.  I can’t wait!!  But this is a big project, therefore I tell myself to keep the focus here.  Other little plans and dreams for the yard can wait.

*Case in point:  the new walkway from the front door.  Big vision.  It’s gonna be awesome.  But I have to hold off until the new space is done.  [Editor’s note:  or hire it out, (cough cough)]

*I will not grow pole beans this year.  I have not been having good luck with them lately so I’m taking a break.  It’s not them, it’s me.  Actually it’s them.

*Crops I’m trying for the first time:  fava beans, lima beans, bok choy and swiss chard.

*Way, WAY too many cucumbers last year!  Let’s exercise some control this time.

*I will not grow peas this year.  I give them my heart and soul and yet I always end up with like two measly cups as the entire crop.  It’s totally discouraging and a waste of my time and space.  No peas this year.

*(Chin wobbling)…but I love peas.  Yes.  I will give them another chance.

*No I won’t…

*…Yes I will.

*I will devote more time to soil improvement.  The plan is two-fold:  maintaining the compost heaps, and working the resulting organic material into the soil.  I have a dream that someday Jeeps will build me a multi-bin compost system like this:

Isn’t that awesome?!  But I can survive without it.

*I’m going to try to sow a cover crop of crimson clover in all the raised beds this fall, and till it under next spring.

*I will companion plant.

Companion planting is something I’ve gotten really into the past couple years.  For the uninitiated, companion planting is the practice of planting different crops together on the theory that they aid each other in pollination, pest control, and nutrient up-take.  You scratch my back, I scratch yours.

For example, Sweet Alyssum, planted as a ground cover underneath broccoli and other brassica crops, attract parasitic wasps that prey on cabbage lopers, those disgusting worms that can chew leaves to lace.   It’s also common practice to plant basil and marigolds by your tomatoes, but the theory is that the strong-smelling basil can deter certain tomato-preying pests, while marigolds also deter nemotodes in the soil.  Nasturtiums grown near squash can lure caterpillars that normally prey on the squash into preying on the nasturtium blossoms instead.  This is called “trap cropping”.   The best success I’ve ever had with trap cropping is when I grew Miribilis (common name “Four O’Clocks”) by my roses.  Supposedly their flowers lure Japanese Beetles.   Supposedly?  More like, um, YEAH!  To the point of Four O’Clock plants dripping beetles that you then dunk off into a pail of soapy water.  Done, done and dead.

Carrots love tomatoes.  Dill loves carrots.  Borage loves everything.  And so on and so forth, all with the added perk that flowers attract pollinators like bees and butterflies, and vegetables and flowers just look pretty grown side-by-side.  Sometimes it seems they just beg to be put together.  Look at this eggplant and this coleus, are they made for each other or what:

Make no mistake, there is a ton of information out there about companion planting, and often someone will dismiss what another person swears by.  I like to stick to one or two sources that have studies to back them up.  This year I found a book Great Garden Companions which seems to be the very thing for me – already it’s dog-eared and filled with penciled underlinings and notes.  I love the author’s simple approach to building garden “neighborhoods” of related crops and their herb/flower best friends.  The Plan uses a ton of her ideas.

It all looks good on paper.  How it turns out in execution, we shall see.

No peas.

…Yes, peas.

Even MORE Plants That Look Good Together and Bloom at the Same Time!

After the whites, pinks and pastel purples of spring, the gardens are now hot with summer color, leading to bouquets such as this:

I’ve had a long love affair with Echinacea, and my new flower crush is definitely Hot Papaya, a double coneflower in the most unbelievably vibrant orange you’ve ever seen, these pictures don’t do them a lick of justice.  And the flowers last a long time: these have been in the garden 2 weeks with the same blooms that came home from the nursery, Rudolph Gardens, at the crazy price of $6.25 each.  I bought ten.  I couldn’t help it.

I have a stand of them right outside my dining room windows, next to a clump of not-yet-bloomed Black-Eyed Susans, and a mess of Drumstick alliums.  Drumsticks as you can see bloom much later in the season, in a very nice red-purple color.  At the base of the Echinacea is some Mirabilis, or Four O’Clocks (so called because the flowers don’t open until mid-afternoon).  This kind is called “Limelight” – it has chartreuse leaves and bright magenta flowers.  I grew them from seed two years ago and they have just re-populated themselves like crazy.  Every year seedlings show up and I just move them wherever I want that hit of lime-green foliage.

There are another 2 planted in the stone wall just below the dining room windows, with some Veronica, and I love the purple spears coming up next to the orange pom-poms.

Then over here in the garden bed I call Bramasole (meaning “to yearn for the sun,” because all the plants grow tilted over to one side as they reach for the sun’s rays that aren’t quite so strong on this side of the house), I have 5 more Papayas growing with a big clump of yellow Coreopsis which is stunning.  The silvery, prickly things right behind are Eryngium Giganticum, or Sea Holly, “Miss Wilmott’s Ghost,” which looks superb next to the orange.  It’s a great filler flower but I don’t use it in bouquets much because it’s hard to handle.

Here’s some regular pink Echinacea with another big clump of Drumstick Allium coming up behind.

And this clump of coneflowers grows with Monarda “Raspberry Wine”.  Right up above it is one plant of Echinacea “Mango Meadowbrite” next to one that’s in the “Big Sky” series but I forget if it’s “Twilight” or “Sundown.”  There’s all clumps of Nepeta (catmint) at the base of them but it’s been sheared down recently.  It’s resting.

Hmmm…Now that I’m looking at these pictures it’s occurring to me that Redman may have left some smudgy fingerprints on my camera lens.  Do you see that?  Oh well…it’s still hot.

Simultaneous Garden Lovin’…

For a while it was all purple and white, now the pinks are making their stand in the garden.  Here are some more combinations of plants that look good together and bloom at the same time:

Siberian Iris, Baptisia and Peonies

“Bowl of Beauty” peony with purple Siberian iris is a combo I came up with a couple years ago but I had such young peony plants that it’s taken until this spring to see if it would work.  The plants are still young – only two blooms each this year, but I love these three together, especially how the sword-like leaves of the iris cut through the peony leaves.  These baptisia plants are four years old and have become some of my favorites.  They take a while to establish and don’t like to be moved once they are settled.  They don’t rebloom but the foliage stays nice for a long time.

"Bowl of Beauty" with Siberian iris, south side of house

"Bowl of Beauty" with Siberian iris, stone wall

Stand of Baptisia, Siberian Iris and "Bowl of Beauty"

Red Poppy and Baptisia

Baptisia and Poppies

Another pairing I came up with because I love purple and red together.  Depending on temperatures and weather conditions, the bloom time of these two is approximate but this year it was spot-on together.

Poppies are my signature flower (my dad calls me “Poppy”).  Besides the red ones here, I have pink ones in the lower garden, and white ones that I transplanted last year, now growing next to some purple sage.  Poppies don’t like to be transplanted.  You can divide them easily enough in spring or fall, but you forfeit a bloom season because they sulk through the next year.  Only one clump of white ones put up buds this year, and then just two bud.  They’re very sensitive.

I put in twelve (12!!) new pink ones along my vegetable garden bed, can’t wait to seem them next year.

Poppy "Princess Victoria Louise"

"Victoria Louise" peeking through Lychnis (rose campion)

Poppy "Prince of Orange" with purple salvia

Lady’s Mantle and Everything

Did I mention lady’s mantle is the greatest filler flower in the world?  And that it and geraniums make an especially awesome p–…all right, just making sure.

Last "Batik" iris in a cloud of lady's mantle

Geranium and lady's mantle in vase

Plants That Look Good Together and Bloom at the Same Time

Is that too wordy a title?  It gets to the point and it’s the question I, as a gardener, get most from people who want to garden.  And after ten years of active gardening, seven of them on our current property, I finally feel like I know what the hell I’m doing and like I can actually answer that question intelligently.

So here are some of my favorite combos of plants, planted for both the reasons noted above:  they look good together, and they bloom at (approximately) the same time.

Iris, Nepeta and Alliums

These three are made for each other.  I have Allium “Globemaster” (which you can find at any garden center, or google to find online for fall planting) paired up with Iris “Immortality” (also easily found).  I like “Immortality” because they are very fragrant but also because they are a reblooming variety, so you get the bonus of another flush of flowers in the fall.  Nepeta, or catmint, is a terrific investment, poor man’s lavender.  It’s el cheapo, grows beautifully at the base of iris or practically any other tall flower, and its purple blooms last a long time.  When the blooms are spent and the plant is getting “leggy”, gather it all up in one hand and shear it off with the other.  I mean shear it.  Hard.  Hurt it.  It loves it.  And it will then regroup and bloom again for you, then you shear it again, and repeat all through the season.  Plus it will drop seedlings that you can transplant elsewhere so you really get a lot of bang for your buck.

Together in spring they look terrific:

Globemaster Allium and Iris "Immortality"

Globemaster Allium and Iris "Immortality"

Iris with Nepeta at base (recently sheared)

I also have a gorgeous blue iris called “Batik” which I don’t see much in catalogues anymore but you can google around and find it, I found it for sale online here.  I don’t yet have alliums growing near them but I had the idea that since I have colored alliums near white iris, I should plant white alliums near my colored iris.  These “Mount Everest” ones here will look amazing next to Batik next year, can’t wait.

German Iris "Batik"

Lady’s Mantle and Geranium

I have Lady’s Mantle everywhere, it is my favorite “filler” flower in the world.  The little yellow-chartreuse blooms look good next to anything both in the border and in the vase.  But I especially like clumps of them planted with any kind of perennial geranium.  You really get a great show of color and foliage.

Geranium (left) and Lady's Mantle

Clumps of geranium and Lady's Mantle next to Iris "Batik". There's also a clump of nepeta but it's sheared down, so not visible.

Foliage and Shade Plants Combos

I love this shady section of my lower stone wall.  There’s not much flower action going on, other than a couple of rogue, purple columbines.  Everything else is foliage plants – ferns, hosta, lady’s mantle, bronze fennel and hellebores.  It’s a study in brown and green…but I love how it looks with all the different leaf shapes and textures.  The hellebore, center bottom of the picture, is not a true Lenten Rose, but what’s called a “Stinking Hellebore”.  It’s a less expensive variety with bunches of chartreuse, cup-shaped flowers.  I’ve really grown to love them, especially since they are amazing re-seeders so from a few plants I’ve been able to have them everywhere in my gardens, plus share them with friends.

Shade garden. Stinking Hellebore center bottom. Diagonally right of that, the fuzzy plant is bronze fennel.

Speaking of columbines…talk about bang for your buck.  These are prolific little suckers and if you just let them alone after they flower, they will drop seedlings anywhere and everywhere.  And then you just let them grow there, or scoop them up and plant them somewhere else.  I love huge drifts of them like this:

Columbines with bleeding heart

My liberal bleeding hearts are out of control.  I grow the old-fashioned kind and the newer “golden heart” breed with the chartreuse leaves.  They just grow to gigantic sizes and try to drown out everything else.

Old-fashioned and "Golden" bleeding heart

Bleeding heart and hosta. Lower left is a clump of harkone grass and forget-me-not.

Next installment of PTLGTBST will feature Siberian Iris, Poppies, Baptisia and Peonies.  They’re next in line to bloom…

Garden Tour 2007

This is one of my favorite sections of the stone wall border.  The purple and blue flowers are cornflowers and I’ve been growing them from seed for two years now.  They grow next to Calendula ‘Radio’ and Flanders Poppy and I love the combination of colors. The wispy foliage at the right of the picture, also with blue blooms, is Nigella or ‘Love-in-a-Mist’.  After blooming they make these really interesting, striped seed pods which you can sort of see at the foreground.

The tall pink flowers in the rear are Asclepias ‘Cinderella’ or butterfly weed and you can see I caught a little white one taking off.  I haven’t seen many monarchs this year, and only one swallowtail.  And no hummingbirds yet!  Bummer!