Monday, July 31, 2006

Jupiter's Beard

Mother Nature is sorely testing our limits. Day after day, temperatures rise to the triple digits. Like a furnace blast, hot winds batter my poor garden. Geraniums hang their heads. Columbines are screaming for mercy. Tiny Lobelia has run out of steam.

For a few weeks, each summer, this place feels like Hell's Kitchen. But, that's when bright red, and rosy pink, Jupiter's Beard* steals the show. Clusters of feisty flowers wave their pretty heads back and forth, in defiance of scorching temperatures and strong winds.

You can avoid a lot of heartache if you know what grows. I'm no expert, but I've learned a trick or two. Jupiter's Beard (or Valerian) is the loveliest, most adaptable, perennial I've ever met. It's a mystery to me why so few people have it in their gardens.

But then... the whole plant is a mystery. Most folks latch onto the title 'Valerian' and confuse it with the medicinal herb, claiming it cures afflictions, from depression to delusions. In truth, the only way this plant 'cures' depression is when you soak in its breathtaking show.

During the dog days of summer, we need plants that don't slouch. Place Jupiter's Beard in with these other heat-loving perennials: Yellow/Coreopsis, Purple/Salvia, Blue/Cat Mint. They'll stand up to anything Mother Nature dishes out.

* Valerianaceae Centranthus ruber (Jupiter's Beard or Valerian) USDA zone 5 - 8, is an easy grower by seed. As is Coreopsis, Salvia and Cat Mint. Buy quality seeds or seedlings from Backyard Gardener and other online shops.

Garden Giants

There's an old saying that tall fences make great neighbors but city codes have a height restriction of 6 feet when it comes to thwarting prying eyes.

Feeling the need for a little privacy? Try planting this old-fashioned favorite, Hollyhocks.* An easy re-seeder, they come back year after year, with riotous colors on sturdy stalks, towering 8-10 feet.

Placed in the back of your garden, or along property line fences, astonishing blooms of ruffly, double flowers create a privacy screen on a grand scale.

Heirloom varieties can easily reach 15-18 feet, a flowering forest for kids with over-active imaginations.

And, they do it all on their own, without coddling from you or extra help in the form of soil amendments, compost and fertilizer. In fact, my hollies don't even require regular watering.

Hollyhocks are big, bold bloomers, loaded with personality. In the midst of the hot summer, gigantic towers of flowers create a colorful, living fence.

Choose a spot in your yard that you tend to ignore, and plant a dramatic, luscious mix of fuschia, purple, yellow and black. A bright cluster of tall Hollyhocks lends a comfortable, cottage-garden feel to the landscape.

*Alcea rosea (Hollyhocks) USDA Zones 4-10, are available as perennials, biennials and easily reseeding annuals. Available in a variety of stunning, summer colors from Greystone Gardens and other cottage garden nurseries.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A Country Garden

Ah, the simple life.

Seven years ago, my friend, Haze, relocated to a town of 72 people, on the South Dakota prairie. I was quite certain she’d lost her marbles. Now I look at her with envy, while silently tallying up all the things I have that she doesn’t. Like an enormous mortgage, car payments, credit card debt and all that accompanies a run of the mill, middle class lifestyle.

Her belief in the simple life is embodied in the landscape that surrounds her home. Casper, the cat, lords over her petunias. Pretty little zinnias speckle her secret garden. Sturdy honeysuckles, laden with yellow berries, create the perfect nesting spot for native birds.

Hazel’s is a quiet, peaceful place, filled with all the things you’d expect in a country garden.

There’s the lilacs, older than we are. Luscious tomatoes, quietly ripening on the vines. Sunflowers standing tall. And, my old-time favorites, hollyhocks and tiger lilies.

As evening falls, we enjoy a cool breeze in her shade garden. Hazel knows every person in her little town. It’s a place where the neighbors call hello as they stroll by and the kids come over to pet your cat.

When we were in college, Hazel used to say, "I'm going home where the buffalo roam and that ain't no exaggeration."

And, she did. While the rest of us keep searching, she's found her place in this tiny, little town - living a simple, quiet, life - in touch with the Earth and all the good things it has to offer.

*Start your own country garden with the hard-to-find species, and organic seeds, available from Seeds of Change.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Gracie the Shutterbug

Here’s to the parents who encourage their kids to shoot for the moon.

Today’s photos are compliments of 5-year-old Gracie, from Edina, Minnesota.

This little shutterbug captured a swallowtail butterfly enjoying the sweet nectar of Purple Coneflowers* in her Mom’s garden.

Getting a butterfly to sit still is no easy task. Hats off to Gracie! And, Mom, Jane, who is teaching her daughters to capture butterflies on film, rather than catching them, and sticking them in a jar. Watching them fly free is a much nicer way to appreciate their beauty!

Nectar-rich blossoms, like the Purple Coneflower, will attract butterflies to your garden. Though chances are, this big swallowtail was born nearby. The best butterfly gardens offer plants that meet a butterfly's needs through all 4 life stages (egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and adult.) Figure out what type of butterflies frequent your area and then plant a little section of the yard to meet their needs. It's a great project to do with your kids!

Mother Swallowtails are particularly fond of parsley, carrots, and parsnips. If she spots these in your vegetable garden, you'll make a new friend, fast. She'll lay her eggs in the leaves so baby caterpillars are well-fed, once they enter the world. (Before you fuss about leaves being nibbled, think about what a great meal you're providing. Butterflies can't hurt our vegetable gardens, but we can hurt butterflies with one senseless application of pesticides.)

* Purple Coneflowers are available from Wild Flower Farms. Visit the Butterfly Site for tips and tricks on how to make your backyard a flutter of activity.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Chokecherry Jam

Yesterday was my Mother’s birthday, though she didn’t know it and I think maybe I was the only one who remembered and thought about it all day long.

We used the day to move her to the last bed she will likely ever sleep in. I say we, though, in truth, I had very little to do with it. The nurses speak to her as if she were a child. I liken it to the way I reassure my cat, Buddy, when we visit the dreaded vet. I keep repeating it’s okay, which makes him behave. Though he doesn’t believe it, and neither does she.

And, so… while this is for the best, it leaves daughters, like me, feeling helpless and hopeless, realizing far too late that I should have talked to her, when I could, about the little things.

Like her recipe for chokecherry jam.

My Mother created the ‘girl getaway,’ long before that was fashionable. She’d pack me in the car and drive north to her sister, Ollie’s farm. Windows down, hair blowing in the breeze, Mom would talk loudly over the noise, reminiscing about that farm, where she grew up. About her horse, Old Slim Jim, who was neither old, nor slim – or, for that matter, a boy. He served as reliable transportation when she was too young to drive.

Once at the farm, we’d head straight to the fields and spend the day picking chokecherries. Mom had more sisters than you could ever imagine and 5 or 6 of them would show up for this summer ritual.

We’d pick buckets and buckets of sour, little berries. Have a picnic in the shade where I got to eavesdrop on their chatter… about life and love, husbands and homes.

Back at our house, we’d turn those tart berries into small jars of sweet jam. Some entered in the state fair competition. Most given away to familiar faces who dropped by to say hello.

One by one, her sisters are dying, now. And, so is she. And, those days won’t ever come again. Because Mothers in my generation rarely get the opportunity to expose their little girls to such things.

She could have grown chokecherries on her own land and made this easy. She could have left me behind at the sitter. But, this wasn’t about the berries, or the jam. I think maybe it was those days that molded me into a kind and quiet person. One who appreciates simple things. And, the camaraderie of women, and men, for the rich experiences they both have to offer.

Say a prayer for my Mother, today. Perhaps, in her fitful dreams, she will hear it.

Friday, July 14, 2006

What's For Dinner?

My property is larger than average, so there is a lot going on. But, rest assured, whether you're living in a condo or a big country spread, you're being watched.

I figured this out, just last summer, when I dabbled in bird feeders. They ran out of food quite often, because I wasn't all that interested. But, every time I filled them up, I had a flock of new friends.

And, it's the same thing with water. We're suffering through a heat wave, right now. This afternoon, I was dousing my perennials when I noticed a Mama Robin and younger one watching me closely. The second I walked away from the sprinkler, they landed in the garden. Water brings earthworms to the surface, so I'm helping them out.

The thing is... they grow dependent upon you. And, it's astonishing how quickly they 'know' when feeders have been refilled and the bird baths have fresh water. If you don't have a bird bath; buy one.* They look nice in any yard and when the temperatures climb to 100, they bring great joy to your fine, feathered friends.

* Designer bird baths and feeders are all the rage, but the birds don't care. Set up a feeding and watering station for less than $30 bucks with a visit to Home Depot.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Clematis Flowering Vines

Meet the the queen of the flowering vines. Her royal highness can reach 20 feet with clusters of gorgeous flowers, draping from long stems.

Clematis* is a graceful bloomer that gets better with age. A mature plant can show off 100 or more flowers in the midst of summer. Let Clematis twine around the railings of your deck for a soft, free-flowing feel.

I often plant Clematis seedlings at the base of my scrawny, young trees. Since they do well in partial shade, and live for 20+ years, they're the perfect flowering partner. Woody vines slowly weave their way up through the branches, adding bright, contrasting color to green foliage.

And, in spite of everything you've heard, they are really quite easy to grow. Just pick the perfect spot and let them do their thing. Hardy Clematis, in full bloom, will take your breath away!

* Clematis (KLEM-a-tis) is a member of the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family. Clematis climbing vines are available in every color of the rainbow. The one featured here is called 'Etoile Violette,' hardy to USDA zone 4. Will bloom from July - August, with proper watering. Available at the Clematis Nursery and other climbing vine specialty online stores.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Snappy little Snapdragons* have burst into bloom! If you wonder why I'm surprised by that, it's because I've discovered a perennial snapdragon.

Previously sold as one-season annuals, these perky plants have been known to grab the lion's share of my budget ever since I learned how to till a garden.

In the 60's, breeding projects improved their performance. My Mom planted them all over the yard. Much to her dismay, as kids, we just loved opening the 'jaws' of these flowers and watching them snap back shut.

The Latin name for Snapdragon is Antirrhinum majus. "Anti" in Greek means "like," and "rhinos" means "snout." Snapdragons are 18-inch spikes of flowers, covered with buds which open from bottom to top. Vibrant, multi-colored flowers keep on coming, July through September.

New perennial snaps are great fun because they're a one-time investment that nicely completes a cottage garden patterned after my Mom's.

Combine these perennials with multi-colored annual snaps for a jaw-dropping show.

* Antirrhinum (Summer Carnival) and Antirrhinum (Debutante,) USDA zones 5-10, are available from White Flower Farms.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Crape Myrtles

I was humbled by a week-long visit to the Gulf Coast area of Mississippi - where we helped build 3 houses to relocate Katrina survivors.

I could get back on my proverbial soap box, or choose to show you all sorts of photos that would break your heart. But, we've seen enough of that.

Let's celebrate the progress, instead.

Katrina's winds missed the Merrehope, and many other historic structures.

The people of Meridian have donated land to help Habit for Humanity build more houses on a faster timetable, helping New Orleans families get back on their feet.

People and plants alike are picking up the pieces, moving forward with their lives.

Crape Myrtles* proudly bloom in front of houses still waiting for new roofs. Bright, crinkly-edged petals draw your eye from the destruction, providing a tiny bit of reassurance that some things are slowly, but surely, returning to normal.

* There are over 40 varieties of Lagerstroemia Crape Myrtle that range from small bush to mid-size trees. Some can survive zone 5 winters (so, I'll be giving this a try!) Buy this beauty from Crape Myrtle Farms and other flowering shrub specialists.