My Sister’s New Garden

My sister’s new garden is nestled within hilly SW Portland. It is compact and lush.  I didn’t realize you could harbor such variety and fullness in a small space. Chalk it up to my sister’s sense of order and tidiness.

Meandering nasturtiums splay over the edge of the patio. They thrive on the concrete’s radiant heat.

A curvy flagstone path wends into the back corner, as if there were more to see just around the bend. Crocosmia has nearly finished blushing scarlet; a few sunflowers reach skyward (why aren’t the centers going black, she wants to know).

In their midst stand gayfeather (liatris spicata) and a staked tomato!

The piece de resistance anchors the back wall – two significant clumps of bamboo confined to an elegant wood planter she purchased up the coast. It is both an appreciation of things past and a recognition of bamboo’s beauty constrained by reality: you don’t want these aggressive grasses overrunning your main garden.

My sister tends her new garden with care and delight. Whimsey and prudence. Premeditation and pluck.

The first thing she installed was the incandescent string of lights vining the translucent, shed-like roof over the sitting area, which is the perfect place for enjoying the flora while reading, writing, sipping – or, finding a brother savoring Sauvie Island Blueberries with Barbados Cream. Heaven.


May Tidings

photo of rain gague in my garden

My new rain gauge near the clematis

How Dry I Am

Kate and Ryan gave me a rain gauge for my birthday. How neat. I like that it measures my rain in my yard – no more looking up our regional rainfall in the Boston Globe. I’m empowered!

Our friends, Grace and Jerry, went a step further and installed a sophisticated electronic weather monitoring system. It required them to scale heights to attach an anemometer onto their roof. I’m not there yet.

We have a winner

Our aging white flowering dogwood

Aging yet graceful white flowering dogwood (cornus florida)

Also for my birthday I was gifted with a lottery ticket. It delivered me $100! I purchased with the proceeds a new white flowering dogwood (cornus florida) and heaved it into the earth close by our cherished, but aging, same variety dogwood that so beautifully graces the yard in April and May. Mild winters provide a bountiful spring bloom and there is nothing more special than that tree in our garden. Hence, adding a new generation before the old one passes.

Tick Smarts

image showing tick removal with pointy tweezers

Remove ticks with pointed tweezers close to the skin

I recently joined the Arnold Arboretum and attended a lecture there on Thursday, May 17 called “More Ticks in More Places” presented by Dr. Thomas Mather from the University of Rhode Island  Tick Encounter Resource Center ( Smart guy. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the epicenter for deer tick-borne Lyme disease. It’s worth looking at his excellent website for all tick-related concerns.

Also, there’s a new tick approaching from our south called Lone Star tick – Long Island and New Jersey are already infested; it carries Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Fun.

As a result, I’m in the market for permethrin treated clothing and we just renewed Daphne’s “Evolution” treatment. He covered so much – dispelling myths, top ten things everyone should know, personal protection measures, safe removal, etc. Tip: after you come in from outdoor activity, throw clothes in the dryer first, then the wash. Ticks die in dry heat, but may survive washing.

A Man’s Home Is His Castle

Prepping for our golden years, we’ve begun a comprehensive house renewal program. New shingled roof, replaced worn and weathered trim boards/sills, created a portico (!) over the front door, four new windows, and new stoop and replaced cedar shingles on the back of the house. Son-in-law Ryan Flynn (yes, that Ryan Flynn) designed and crafted the portico. We’re delighted! We believe the painters will start next week. Maisy appraised our new white cedar shingles yesterday and declared: “Nice and clean!”

Midday Saturday on a beautiful May weekend. Chores. This evening we attend a performance by Coro Allegro of Rachmaninoff’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at the Church of the Covenant in Back Bay.

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.


Just add water

I’ve often toyed with the idea of a water feature in my garden. Done right, it adds a sense of essential life — a focus on origins, mystery and beauty. Harry Poulter, my colleague in another realm, features water in his garden design and shares his insights in the following article.

Knowing of my interest in water gardening, Michael asked me to contribute something on building a water feature and water gardening in general. – Harry Poulter, Buckingham, VA

It’s mid-March in Virginia and my ponds are just waking up.  I love the look and sound of water in the garden, and I love to be able to extend my gardening palette by adding aquatic and semi-aquatic plants.

A few of my pond pals (koi) to the right.  I got them very young – FedEx overnight – from a Florida fish farm about 3 years ago. There have already been several generations of babies.

Water, water everywhere

Over the years, I have water gardened in:

  • half whisky barrels with liners,
  • non-draining planters,
  • livestock watering troughs from the Tractor Supply Store (makes a great deck or patio pond),
  • preformed liners sunk into the garden bed, and
  • a fully excavated koi pond with a custom flexible liner (pictured above).

I’ve grown aquatic and bog and wetland plants, as well as koi and other pond fishes, and hosted local frogs and newts. I’ll cover water gardening options, and show how I created an overflowing pot garden fountain.

Floral Variety

There is a huge array of plants available to the water gardener, and you can add unusual interest to a perennial bed by sinking a water planter in it or adjacent to it.

Popular hardy aquatic plants include water lilies and lotus, pickerel rush and various iris species, including native yellow and blue flags, and some cultivated varieties such as Japanese Ensata. There are tropicals like dwarf papyrus, water hyacinth and water lettuce that can be grown as annuals.

Many plants which do fine on dry land do even better with their feet in water, such as cardinal flower, canna, and some hibiscus. A visit to a garden center which specializes in aquatic plants can be a real eye-opener.

Starting Simply – barrel liner fits the bill

The simplest water gardening can be done in a waterproof planter on the ground. You can grow a single lotus or a stand of Flags in a large pot.

Like all containerized plants, they will be more winter-hardy if the container is sunk into the ground. If you are going to bury a container, a good choice is the standard “barrel liner” available at many home centers.

Sized to fit in a standard half whiskey barrel, they hold about 20 gallons. In a whiskey barrel, they make an attractive deck pond, large enough for a couple of small plants and even a fish or two (depending on your raccoon situation). Or, excavate a hole in the ground, line it with some sand and sink the liner to use as a pre-formed minipond. Leave it as-is for an aquatic planter.

If you want to create a mini-bog garden, drill drain holes a couple of inches from the top, and fill with saturated peat and sand. You can also buy larger, irregularly shaped pre-formed liners to sink in the garden as I did here – this one is about 55 gallons:

Mini-pond in late spring with yellow flags and Ensata iris. Later, pickerel rush and a small water lily will take over. Wild phlox creeps over the edge.

In retrospect, I would not use one of these large pre-formed liners again. Digging is hard enough – trying to fit your dug hole to a pre-formed shape while leaving enough room for a sand liner and not leaving any air voids to weaken the structure is too difficult. Use a flexible liner instead (Pond Making Resources, below).

Another good choice for a deck pond or other preformed water planter use is a livestock watering trough from a farm supply store. These are indestructible, a nice depth, acceptable looking, and reasonably priced, if you can find them. I live in farm country, so these are everywhere.

Pond Making Resources

Flexible liners, cut to shape, are the ultimate in-ground solution. If you decide to go that route, do your homework and buy a good liner, along with a protective underlayment. is an excellent resource for pond liners and general pond supplies.

For any in-ground feature, be sure it is as level as you can get it. It seems obvious but it is easy to misjudge. Don’t rely on your eyes – use a level. You can’t fool water.

For plants and fish, find your local pond supply or pond garden center. There is no substitute for seeing the plants and picking your own. My own favorite is an hour’s drive from me in very rural Virginia:

For equipment – shop around. Garden centers tend to have a high markup on durable goods, and you will pay a lot more for standard plumbing fixtures, for instance, than you could get elsewhere. Also, you may find that the same item marketed as a “pond” pump will have a higher price than when it is sold as an “aquarium” pump.

In addition to Best Nest, above, I shop at and as well as my local Lowe’s.

Making a fountain

You have probably seen the “overflowing pot” type fountain, and you can buy an entire kit ready-made. They are usually filled with pebbles around the base of the pot, and have no open water except in the pot. I preferred to have open water at the base, to be able to add some small plants – and have actually picked up some resident frogs. Here’s how I made my own.

What you need:

  • a decorative pot
  • a basin larger around than the pot, with a sump,
  • a pump and some plumbing

You need power for the pump, and like all outside power, it needs to be from a GFCI-protected outlet.

For a basin, I buried a 20 gallon barrel liner and surrounded it with concrete pavers. We bought a 4-foot tall pot at our favorite rural pond center and had them drill it and add the bulkhead fittings and internal standpipe.

You may be lucky enough to find a pot with a usable bottom hole, or be able to drill it yourself, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to drill a hole in a $300 ceramic pot without cracking it.

The picture shows the sunken barrel liner and broken cinder block used to make a sump under the pot. It is important to get this firmly placed and as level as possible before proceeding.

I added my own pump (an aquarium pump with a small sponge filter) and made a sump by placing the pot on a half cinder block with a side partially knocked out to allow the hose to pass through.

Ready for assembly: There is a threaded bulkhead fitting on the bottom of the pot, and a nylon barbed hose fitting (partly obscured by the hose on the pump) screws into that. You can secure the hoses with screw-down hose clamps – use stainless steel clamps (no rust) from a boating supply store.

Once assembled, follow these remaining steps to fill, level, and enjoy your fountain!

I like the bell-type fountain fitting on the top of the standpipe, but there is a disadvantage – the wind will blow some of your water away, and you will have to refill more often. The alternative is to omit the fountain fitting, and just let it overflow. Then, you won’t even need a standpipe on the inside.

Water gardening provides yet another way to synchronize your soul with natural and constructed beauty. Thanks, Harry, for nurturing our garden ideas! – Michael Waddell, Rake & Palette

Herbs – the spice of life

When late afternoon arrives in our patch of yard, we turn on the reading lights. That’s because we live in dappled shade and shadows from our forested northeastern exposure. 1/2 block away it’s full sun, while we’re calling it a day.

One outcome of our scant daylight is we don’t grow food, or anything else that requires full sun. Which is OK by me because my short stint as a food grower was neither a personal or agricultural success.

Consumers are people, too

I support the concept of growing your own nutrition, but I do not support the worry: fungus, beetles, blight, cut worms, watering, fertilizing, weeding, thinning, fencing and harvesting gallons of one thing (I hope you like squash, dear). And then, it starts again next year. From scratch.

Do I lack intestinal fortitude? No, I just can’t tolerate the suspense of bringing in a crop. I gladly shop for local produce. Just leave me to my perennials.

Best of both worlds

I designed my garden for other senses – mind, eye, nose

– outdoor spaces, fragrant offerings, inspiring creations, intriguing curves, mini-vistas and low maintenance. OK, I pamper the roses a bit. Everything else weathers; a planting survives and thrives or … succumbs. Perennial pragmatism.

My one exception: herbs and annuals in pots.  I hate buying fresh mint at the supermarket. Ditto parsley, sage rosemary and thyme, invariably expensive or trucked from Mexico. In pots, these herbs unfailingly just grow, and without fuss — my kind of crop! They satisfy my gardening principles while providing a culinary and aesthetic je ne sais quoi.

Besides the flavor-your-food value of herbs, groupings of pots in different shapes and sizes partition and highlight an area, add graceful greenery / vivid accents, and blend practical herbs with vibrant annuals (my fave – nasturtium with lobelia). Pots of varying sizes, habitats and materials punctuate my external rooms.

I have a few herbal and non-herbal relics that winter over — bits of this and that: liatris spicata, lamium “White Nancy”, dicentra, ferns. Even my potted oregano returns each year and mint, running freely in the perennial beds, is rampant. While they do not survive Zone 6A winter, I’ve harvested parsley in late December and rosemary in January. First frost does in the basil – it’s known as a tender perennial.

Terracotta and Not

I use both clay pots and plastic pots. Classic terracotta (literally baked earth, unglazed clay) is porous, warm and weathered. Saucers under the clay pots extend the watering effect. Plastic scores lower for aesthetics but meets the low maintenance requirement because it conserves moisture much better than terracotta. That means less stress on the plants and less work for me.

I’ve taken to the heavily glazed, gigantic earthenware pots from Vietnam. They conserve water, do not crack like terracotta and make a bold statement that anchors a grouping of smaller pots. Filled with soil, they stay put!

Global watering

For pots that need chronic watering, I discovered a remedy that works pretty well — the glass watering globes that you fill with water and stick into the potted soil.

In the past I had tried mixing in the gelatinous granules (polymers) that soak up water and then release it to the plants. It’s a clever idea that doesn’t work well. Mostly the granules expand beyond reason, force the soil out of the pot, and don’t deliver much water to the roots of your potted plants. My experience is supported by research.

Food for Thought

While my aesthetic vision continues to conjure up garden designs, I find joy in snipping fresh rosemary, basil, and perennial mint into my cuisine, or pinching a spicy nasturtium flower to decorate dinner. It’s another way I delight my soul.

How do you make food or fantasy in your garden?
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