Early Spring Dance

New England, March 2012: So odd to have late June’s cameo appearance.

image of withered echinacea and wood bridge

Last year's echinacea

We pensively enjoyed the abundant warmth and sunshine, while summer’s annoyances buzzed and swarmed around us, eventually driving us inside from the patio.

So many things sprang to life this week – the helleboros from Grace & Jerry, which must be thinned and would probably work better at the foot of the stone wall; our accidental hyacinth — a reliable, discarded gift from a beau to one of our teenage daughters, who are both in their 30’s now; streets bursting with magnolias already past their peak on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston; and, allergies galore.

I began clearing last year’s garden refuse and I re-installed the garden foot bridge on reset brick footings that lower the leading edge of the bridge so it’s neatly flush with the adjoining patio. This fundamental satisfaction I will enjoy forever. On walks at Humarock Beach I’m harvesting tumbled, black stones to supplement my medium hard-scape around the bridge; I will place the rounded rocks such that they become a Zen garden-like flow.

photo of purple and white crocus

Crocus cast in myrtle

It’s too early to put out my little water feature because here in New England, in March or April, a sudden freeze can descend at any time. One doesn’t put out one’s tomatoes before Mother’s Day. My wish is for a brief cold snap to kill off the flying insects that hatched prematurely, then, a long, drawn out spring with just the right amount of rain. We can have the most spectacular Mays and Junes.

Spring is planning and planting and visioning and acting. Who knows how this season will progress? Is the sudden warmth a friendly lark or a portent of grave weather to come? Neither, both.


Daylilies For Sale

Marshfield is at its best in the summer. The Farmers Market runs every Friday (2-6pm). The beaches beckon. We dine al fresco. My garden flourishes and the yard becomes a leisurely extension of daily living. Other local resources make summer special, too. I recently discovered a new (to me) nearby marvel — Dick & Carolyn Houseman’s Daylilies For Sale on Union Street, Marshfield.

I know the Housemans from our bookclub. When Dick speaks, we listen. I had heard about their daylily event and Carolyn invited me to visit this year at the peak of their season. Post heat-of-the-day last Saturday, I dropped by and beheld the lilies of their fields. Wow.

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Carolyn gave me the overview: They started about 9 years ago on a partial whim, heading toward retirement.

Now both are retired and working tirelessly full time to tend the field that they started small and have grown to include over 250 daylily cultivars.

Names like:  Chicago Ruby, Cisty, Kindly Light, Maurice Rivero, Kwanso, Web of Intrigue, Siloam Red Ruby, Chicago Sun, Lemon Dazzler, Cedar, Monrovia Gem, Chicago (it goes on…). What’s with the preponderance of lilies named “Chicago?”

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They also have grown their mailing list to over 150 devoted followers. Loyal customers even bring plants to them – sometimes for identification, sometimes for donation. It suits them just fine and Carolyn marvels at friendly gardeners who stop by to exchange daylily tales. Gardeners are the nicest people, she says.

July is winding down. According to their schedule next weekend is the 2011 finale, until next year. Give ’em a shout, drop by, get on their mailing list (abijahfarm  @ Tell them a nice person sent you.

Marcia Greenhouse Lady

I’ve tried all sorts of early planting tricks – sprouting seeds under my own grow lamp, shopping on-line, buying big box store seedlings and local nursery sprouts. Gardeners like me eventually realize that getting the darn things germinated and ready for planting is an art and a science in and of itself. My focus, as readers should know by now, is enjoying the garden and minimizing the hassle. (Some day, in my retirement, I will putter around aimlessly, joyfully, deliberately poking and prodding seeds and seedlings into their full stature — until then, I’m stuck with a work schedule that robs me of daylight.)

So, who you gonna call when you need healthy, happy, locavore plants that will thrive (guaranteed!) in your garden: Marcia – the Greenhouse Lady who runs “A Family Affair” nursery in Hanson, MA.

Marcia Baker started her greenhouse and nursery business with her father, a retired carpenter, in 1983, under the name “Greenhouse Club.”  Marcia says

I sought people who would pay a small fee to help me in the greenhouse in exchange for plants at a wholesale price.  Then, some of the girls wanted to start their own seeds and thus started the table rental program.

And thus was born her off-season business – winter greenhouse table rentals for gardening enthusiasts who haven’t the space or the infrastructure to support their habit.

She knew nothing about running a business  except that her retired father needed to be kept busy. In the early days, it truly was a family affair. They sold all sorts of stuff: mums, pumpkins, squash, consignment goods, wreaths, and Christmas trees. There were ups and downs. Eventually, Marcia shooed dad out of the way and focused on floral and vegetable items. Weddings, wisteria, galas, geraniums, ageratum to zucchini.

My brother, Chris, and his wife, Heidi, live across the street. Chris has succored his seedlings under Marcia’s roof for a while (10 years?). It sounded like a good way to chase off winter’s blues. I signed up. I failed to show up. The 40 minute trek after dark via back roads didn’t work for me. So, I switched horses in mid-stream and instead of growing my own, consigned my list of annual favorites to Marcia. Come spring, Marcia selects the adolescent plants, gives me a pickup date, and I show up, ready to transport them into my garden. She even helps you load up!

It’s the best of all worlds because I get hand-tended, hearty plants nurtured in my planting zone, tended by a caring person (ix-nay on ig-bay ox-bay ores-stay) and an email when they’re ready. This year I forgot and ordered some online plants (sweet potato vine) as well as ordering them through Marcia. Folks, the jury returned its verdict: the mail order batch is guilty of failure to thrive. Marcia’s stock? Full and bushy and beginning to trail (sorry I didn’t order more from her).

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In case you’re planning your plantings for next year with Marcia in mind, this may be her last season. After decades in the biz, she longs for her summers back to cruise and chill with recently retired hubby. Understandable but sad. Another local institution will fade when “A Family Affair” shutters its year ’round retail business. Marcia says she will always be available for special events. Floral arrangements and weddings are a specialty of hers.

But with heating oil at $600/month and table rentals pulling only $90 she knows her loyal, longstanding customers cannot absorb her higher costs. And then, there’s always the travel and family affairs she’s missed around Easter, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day in order to support her business.

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It has been both a job and a passion for Marcia Baker. A Family Affair may be winding down (VISIT WHILE YOU CAN!) but it’s unlikely to fade away entirely. We are sorry to lose her, happy for her future endeavors.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

(inspired by the best spring day of 2011; with apologies to Andy Williams’ version)

It's the most wonderful time of the year!
The buds are all popping
There's nothing that's stopping, 
It's finally here!!!
It's the most wonderful time of the year!

It's the hap - happiest time of them all!
With the soil full of soiling
And ants gladly toiling 
On peonies tall!
It's the hap- happiest time of them all!

   Greening shrubs that need pruning,
   The warblers returning, 
   And breezes no longer so cold.
   Humming birds begin tuning
   And daphne's scent looming
   Like gardens awakening of old

It's the most wonderful time of the year!
When the bleeding heart's bleeding
And dandelion weeding
Brings backaches severe!
It's the most wonderful time of the year!

   I've got shrubs that need pruning,
   The warblers returning, 
   And breezes no longer so cold.
   Humming birds' perfect tuning
   And blossoms ballooning
   Like gardens awakening of old

It's the most wonderful time of the year!
It's the most wonderful time of the year!


Dirt – A Love Story

It’s everywhere! We scrub it off our hands, our shoes, our personae.  We think: clean = good, dirt = bad. Even gardeners succumb to dirt-riddance — we clean our gardens in the spring! But I’m telling you — dirt is your friend, not your enemy. 

Here’s why.

Get Smart – Eat Dirt!

Dirt harbors essential micro-organisms (like bacteria and fungi). “Yikes!“, you shriek, “That’s a good thing?“.  Not just good, essential.

Soil scientists say each gram of soil (less than a teaspoonful) contains over 1,000,000,000 microbes (1 billion!), hosting over 10,000 different species. Here’s what some of these buggers do:

  • grow our crops,
  • convert wastes into compost,
  • deliver vitamins to plants (in the “rhizosphere“),
  • kill insects,
  • consume toxic waste (like oil spills), and
  • create soil in the first place

When soil is first made, for example after a volcano, some nutrients are missing, including nitrogen and carbon. Therefore, the first organisms to colonize the soil are generally nitrogen fixers and photosynthesizers that fix carbon. [DLC-ME]

Soil bacteria researchers, Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks, posing with dirt martinis

Soil bacteria researchers, Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks, with dirt martinis

Furthermore, a study conducted by researchers Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks at The Sage Colleges (Troy, NY) suggests that soil-borne germs play a role in reducing anxiety and enhancing learning. The study attracted lots of coverage, like “Can Bacteria Make You Smarter?” (Science Daily) and on Radio Netherlands “The Dirt Show“. Here the two researchers pose with dirt martinis (yuk!).

Anyway, get smart — eat dirt!

Dirt – Accidentally in Love

I began my wholesome relationship with dirt by accident, often the case with true love. I had planned a border along the front driveway and set to work removing a strip of sod about 2 feet wide and 80 feet long. I had loam delivered to create the bed where the sod once was. For expediency, I dumped the torn up sod in a low spot in the backyard; it formed a chunky mound on which I later dumped fall leaves and some additional loam on top to hold it all in place.

I finished the driveway border project, planting daylilies, astilbe and daffodils topped with a layer of bark mulch.  Over the next couple of years I expanded the experimental mound in the backyard, adding a curved path with pea stone gravel, throwing in Bleeding Hearts, Oriental lilies, astilbe, a leftover Alberta Spruce, a red twig dogwood, Japanese dwarf spirea, ferns (etc.). What I found was — it didn’t matter what I planted there. Everything flourished. I had accidentally created a rich, organic home for my woodland plants! Dirt won me over and I’m accidentally in love!

I’ve since enlarged the accidental garden with yard clippings, chopped oak leaves, more loam, and barn “soil” from a nearby stable. In the expanded section, I added shrub roses, Columbine, an ornamental Japanese maple, American ginger, epimedium, sweet pepperbush (Clethra) and a stone wall. We’re happy together.

The Joy of Dirt

Back to the driveway border. It perennially struggles — its loamy bed dries out in summer because it doesn’t have enough organic material to store water for long. The day lilies come up OK, but they haven’t prospered; ditto the daffodils. Some day, I will re-visit this project and give it the tender lovin’ dirt it needs.

I’ve started another mound in the front yard: lawn clippings, chopped leaves, compost from the Marshfield transfer station (aka, the dump), and a decorative covering of bark mulch. It’s January and the mound is  slumbering beneath a foot of snow, while microorganisms and worms are busily feeding and creating new dirt. Oh, joy!
Now it’s your turn — Share the dirt!

4 Hints for Getting Started in the Garden

Guest blog: Christopher Waddell (Hanson, MA). Chris has been growing his own fruits and vegetables organically for more than two decades.

Chris Waddell in his garden

Chris Waddell in his garden

His suggestions for your success follow. He begins…

The best way to learn how to garden is to read all you can and then go out and kill every plant at least once.  Try any/everything and learn from mistakes.  Any hints I share were earned that way.  Here are some for early in the season…

  1. Not yet!!!

    Seeds started now languish from low sun on windowsills and in the sky.  If they do take, they’ll grow long, skinny and weak way too soon to be put out. 
    Exception:  geranium seeds.  They’re slow. You’ll interplant them with veggies to ward off and kill beetles.

  2. Read catalogs

    They glow and motivate and work to get you daydreaming and planting.  Paper catalogs are more chock-full of info, like planting zones, pollination, ad infinitum, than the online ones.  Go online to order a copy. There are many; some with too much hype, others limited in scope or just middle retailers.

    Authentic seed growers include Park Seed Co. (my favorite), Burpee, Miller, Jung, R. H. ShumwayEnjoy; then believe about half the outlandish claims.  Read for what they fail to mention.

  3. Avoid heirloom varieties

    Those are types of yore with little resistance to plant diseases and pests that have evolved over the past few decades by destroying crops. To keep these plants healthy requires tons of spraying.

    Hybrids were developed to build in natural resistance to plant stressors like fungus, rust, aridity, insects.  Go a season or two with your hybrids. Then try some of the old varieties.

  4. Go outside

    Throw all the organic matter you can on your soil, like leaves, grass, seaweed, manure (any), kitchen waste.  Snow is an excellent slow-release fertilizer.  Then go in, get warm, browse the catalogs and dream of a sun higher in the sky.

Thanks, Chris! I mentioned gardeners’ traits in my Seeds are in post (imagination, faith, patience, diligence, hope…). Chris embodies all these and then some.

What makes your garden grow? Share some of your hints!