I didn’t stretch to capture this photo; the robin’s nest is at shoulder level where two paths converge in my yard.
A robin has nested in the spruce tree that stands just four feet from my compost heap. The spruce tree is quite large; the nest could be thirty or more feet above the ground—and it could be deep in the branches. But no!
The robin chose stress. It built at shoulder level on a branch you almost have to brush as you walk between the compost heap and the house—or as you step off the front porch taking the shortest path from the kitchen to the compost heap. To live as I’m accustomed, I pass within 18 inches of that nest several times a day—on some days I’m there ten or twenty times!
I’m expecting 30 raspberry plants to arrive by mail some time this week. Since I didn’t start last fall when I should have, I cut in a planting bed. There’s already a raspberry plant in place—and a grape vine. This photo shows the line I stretched to guide my shovel as I removed sod.
Cutting in a new Planting Bed
I’m cutting in a new planting bed. I vowed never to do this: if I’m putting a bed in an existing lawn, I want to start four months ahead, lay down a weed barrier (cardboard or newspapers), and cover that over with compost, manure, or mulch. The approach turns the lawn into decent soil structure and nutrition while minimizing digging.
Here’s the challenge: you can’t just plan to start new beds this way, you actually have to create them four months before you plant in them. I didn’t. But I ordered raspberry plants anyway.
The plants will arrive this week. The bed (or beds) must be ready. I’ve only myself to blame: I’m cutting sod.
But this post isn’t about cutting sod and making a raspberry bed. It’s about grubs and birds.
Nearly every patch of sod I removed to make a planting bed for my raspberries exposed several grubs. This handful went onto a piece of cardboard along with others that I eventually offered in friendship to a robin.
Grubs in the Sod
I don’t take care of my lawn. My family mows the grass to keep it under the maximum length allowed by law. That is all.
My lawn is free-range. If it wants to fight off turf diseases, or root-damaging nematodes or insects, or burrowing animals, it is free to do so. If it’s thirsty during drought it is welcome to drive roots deep or to drink out of the dog’s dish. Heck, if it wants to fly south for the winter, it can go! I won’t even ask it to write.
Apparently, the lawn lacks motivation. When I started cutting my sod, I discovered it hosts a whole bunch of grubs! Supposedly, these grubs can damage a lawn. Far more importantly (to me): the adults the grubs will become may eat leaves of my food plants.
The robin fled when I laid out grubs for her, but when she returned she paused on the garden fence to examine my friendship offering.
Making Friends with a Robin
If it hasn’t made sense so far, this post is about to come together (it still may not make sense). It dawned on me the annoying, shoulder-level robin might help dispose of grubs I unearthed while cutting sod.
So, as I worked, I collected grubs on a piece of cardboard. Then, when I wanted a break, I flipped a large planter upside down next to the compost heap and dumped the grubs onto it. The robin didn’t hang around to watch, but once I backed away, she returned and immediately spotted the bounty.
She was gorged by the time she returned to her nest, and I had a few photos… but I don’t think we truly bonded. Maybe it’s hard to build a relationship over grubs, or maybe I need to be more persistent. Whatever the case, the robin and I will be rubbing shoulders for many more weeks.
The robin clearly enjoyed the grubs, but she gave no sign of appreciation. I don’t think we’re friends, but I’ll keep trying to win her over—or at least I’ll scare her out of her nest several times a day.
Perhaps as hardy as the other crocuses in my yard, this one sneaked under my fig tree lean-to and managed to get a head start on spring.
This is an awkward “first crocus of spring” post. The photo dates back to March 9, but the crocus plant it shows cheated.
In late fall of 2014, I had two young fig trees I’d bought at the end of a garden center’s retail season. These had been in containers on my screened porch and I wanted them in the ground before temperatures plummeted… but I didn’t want them to freeze back to the soil if we had another polar vortex like the one in winter 2013-2014.
So, I built a lean-to. I leaned a “trellis” against the wall and draped very heavy plastic over it. Bricks hold everything in place. This lean-to would keep the wind off the fig trees and most likely keep the temperature around the trees at or just below freezing on the coldest winter days.
It’s not pretty, but it’s practical: There’s a section of wooden fence under that plastic. I leaned the fence against the wall, draped it with plastic, and held the plastic down with bricks. Though I live in USDA hardiness zone 6b/7a, I expect the two young fig trees inside my lean-to had a zone 9 kind of winter.
On March 9, I peeled back the plastic so the trees wouldn’t overheat on sunny days. The first crocus blossom of the year in my yard was growing strong inside the tent—it had benefited from the shelter while the other crocus plants shivered under snow.
Crocuses have arrived
For days I wrung my hands: Should I reward the cheater? How could I feature such a softie as the FIRST when so many others had faced the elements and were only days behind?
The other crocuses are now in bloom, and the first crocus blossom has faded away… except for in the photo on this page. Sure, it had life easy this past winter, but it gave me a chuckle when I found it blooming away alongside its sleeping fig tree sheltermates. So, there it is; it’s spring!
It’s still cold enough in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for ice to form on the water in my “rain garden.” I use quotes because I dug a hole several years ago and it has been wet only in spring thaws and heavy storms—it’s dry most of the year. Haven’t yet decided what to plant in it.
Being a garden writer has changed me. Before I posted my first blog entry, I’d plant almost exclusively things intended for my stomach. I’d joke (and I still joke) that if the plant doesn’t come with a recipe, I won’t waste energy growing it.
There were exceptions. For example, I came across zinnia seeds that were supposed to be special and I planted some. They weren’t special. I also planted poppies year after year until finally two plants survived to adulthood. They met their demise under the lawn mower when my wife sent my oldest child with it into an unkempt flower bed.
How Garden Writing Changed Me
Through blogging I got to know other garden writers and a group of them in New England organized an outing to a public garden in very eastern New York… I have friends in that area I’d actually already met in person, so I used the outing as an excuse to visit.
A cluster of leaf buds sits on the soil line between stems that supported last year’s blossoms. I bought closeouts at the end of the season in 2014 and “healed them in” in my vegetable garden. I’ll transplant these into the rock garden I expect to create in April.
It was a most terrific day. I toured a gorgeous garden with people I had known only as avatars and Twitter names. As those people became “real,” my change began.
My friends all were giddy about the garden and it was easy to understand why: Textures and colors intertwined in displays I’d never have conceived. Gorgeous arrangements of rocks, wood, water, and living plants drew us from one themed area to another. The weather was perfect. The light was perfect. The people were perfect.
Ideas accumulated in my mind. Ornamental gardens around homes in central Pennsylvania are, for the most part “shrub-and-mulch” monstrosities (set shrubs and young trees throughout a planting bed and spread mulch). I don’t recall seeing mulch in the public garden (it was probably there, but I simply didn’t notice it); each themed area combined hardscaping and a variety of plants to interest a visitor looking up, forward, or down. Plants provided the ground cover that mulch provides in central Pennsylvania!
Hens and Chicks were on sale at a yard sale late in 2014. I bought two for a dollar apiece and heeled them in in the vegetable bed next to the sedum. They’ll also move to a new rock garden in April.
I’ve resisted the change, but each subsequent visit to a show garden has provided more inspiration; more examples of ornamental garden design done well. And there’s another factor:
Whenever I attend a GWA event or a horticulture industry conference, it seems I bring home seeds and plants to try in my garden. When those aren’t edibles, I imagine my yard some day rivaling the many show gardens I’ve visited.
Am I close? Do I know what plants will look good together when they grow up? Do I have any ability to design an attractive ornamental garden? Does this paragraph contain enough questions? (No. No. Maybe. Do you think it contains enough questions?)
What’s in my Kitchen Garden Now
Last autumn, I grabbed a whole bunch of hardy succulents at a garden center—marked down to a fifth or less of their “in-season” prices—Tall-standing and ground-hugging sedums, and Hens and Chicks. I had also picked up some sedum roots at Cultivate ’14 and had nursed most of them into seedlings.
I fell in love with hellebores when I first saw their fleshy white flowers poking out of a snow bank. Prices for these plants always seemed high until I found a friend selling native plants at a local garden show last spring. I bought one from her and she generously gave me another. They went in the garden in early summer and spent a lackluster season there. Despite drawing full shade until late afternoon, one hellebore was already putting up flower stalks by the time the snow melted off of it as spring approached.
As gardening season ’14 ended, I simply ran out of time to install the planting bed I want for these succulents. To increase their chances of surviving winter, I “heeled them in” in my vegetable bed. They’ve been covered with snow for months, but it melted off while I was away last week. They look spectacular! Photos complete the story.
Given that the ground is still firm with surface frost and frozen through in some places, it’s astonishing to find so many plants looking alive and ready for spring. I’m ready to go; I wish the climate felt the same.
Horehound doesn’t belong on this list. I added it two seasons ago, technically not as an ornamental element—it’s an herb. I included the photo because the plant is remarkable. Last season, the horehound emerged from winter dried up and burnt; all growth in 2014 came from the roots. This winter brought at least one month-long stretch where the temperature never rose out of the teens; it seemed colder overall than the previous winter. Still, snow melted away to reveal healthy, beautiful leaves on the horehound plant… it’s so true that snow insulates plants from winter cold.
The coldest days of winter and a typical central Pennsylvania snow reaffirm the area’s USDA hardiness zone rating. Freesias would not survive this winter outdoors.
Freesias! I took a flier last spring and bought a package of freesia bulbs on closeout. I’ve never grown freesias. I couldn’t have identified them had someone led me to a freesia patch to harvest a few for a bouquet.
Knowing so little about them, I planted twelve freesia bulbs according to instructions on the package: buried many inches deep in a 12-inch container. In a few weeks, exactly two plants emerged. Eventually they blossomed and I fell in love with their fragrance; freesias smell like flowers, but not like any I’d sniffed previously.
By summer’s end, the two freesia plants were done. The temperature dropped, a few weeds sprouted in the freesia planter, and one day three new freesia sprouts appeared. This was an aha moment! Freesias, apparently, draw motivation to sprout from a mild cold spell. The package had identified freesias as annuals in my hardiness zone, so I suspect a freeze would have killed the bulbs. But they were far from dead; there had been no freeze.
Still knowing little about freesias (you’d think I could read something), I guessed that sprouting in autumn and then being put into cold storage would overtax the bulbs. Now that they’d sprouted, I figured they’d need to mature and recharge themselves to make it through a dormant period.
Being uncommitted to ornamental plants, the most I was willing to offer was a place on the sill of a south-facing window. The freesias have persevered! Seven bulbs sprouted and have grown gangly leaves that hardly hold themselves upright.
I’ve watered occasionally and broken off a dandelion whose tap root has a death grip in the soil. Other than that, I paid no mind.
Until last week.
It’s so dark in the basement where my freesia pot sits on a windowsill that there’s barely enough light to take photographs. Still, the plants are abloom and the basement room is redolent of spring.
Freesias in Winter
Two weeks ago I brought an assortment of plants back from MANTS, a horticulture industry trade show in Baltimore. I set the plants on our ping-pong table which catches some light from the south-facing window where the freesias sit. As I was setting up electric lights for those plants about five days ago, I noticed the scent of spring! Sure enough, there was a blossom on one of the freesia plants.
My freesia planter sports two sun-starved flower stalks laden with buds. Five days after the first bud opened, a second is about to burst. It seems likely the blooms will continue until it’s safe to move the planter outside.
The lifecycles of my freesia plants, I’m sure, are severely screwed up, but that will remain their problem. I’ll move the planter outside in spring and back in autumn. If the plants eventually synch with the seasons, I’ll give them a cool, dark corner to winter over next year. Otherwise, I suppose they’re doomed each year to grow gangly and watch from my south-facing window while the snows fall.
Cabbages provide some drama at the Lewisburg Community Garden. If this is on a private allotment, some Lewisburg family is going to be sick of cabbage-based side dishes.
I stopped in recently at Lewisburg’s community garden and saw some impressive sights. Most impressive of all: tomato plants that had late blight lesions over a month ago had somehow survived, put out new growth, and produced even more tomatoes! I guess cool days and an amazing lack of humidity made the blight fungus uncomfortable and kept it from reproducing.
The community garden seems in peak season. It’s producing beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, cabbage, raspberries, and even salad greens. There are gorgeous displays of flowers scattered throughout, there’s a large expanse of sweet potato vines promising a healthy harvest of tubers, and there’s very little evidence any plants are in late season decline. Photos provide some sense of what’s up at the community garden.
Lettuce shouldn’t look like this in Lewisburg in early autumn. To be so mature, these plants would have to have sprouted and grown during the hottest part of the year; that’s when lettuce is supposed to bolt and produce flowering stalks. Significantly below normal cool could have gladdened any lettuce farmer in central PA.
Chard is a gorgeous food plant that could easily have a place in ornamental beds. There’s plenty of healthy chard in Lewisburg’s community garden.
About half of the tillable land in the Lewisburg Community Garden grows food for a local food bank. There is a spectacular stand of raspberry brambles that is loaded with ripe berries. I hope to learn what variety these are so I can include them in my own bramble patch.
The renter of a particular allotment in Lewisburg’s community garden clearly prefers flowers over food. The space resembles a cutting garden with a huge variety of plants just showing off. A morning glory on the fence has the most deliciously blue blossoms. For all the show gardens and garden shows, this is one of the most beautiful garden elements I’ve seen all year.
After careful research, I’m somewhat confident this photograph is of an European Garden Spider… though in Europe they probably call it a “Garden Spider.” I was very pleased this morning to see it had captured a brown marmorated stink bug. I hope it catches many more before cold weather chases all the bugs into hiding.
For two days I admired a symmetrical web and the large spider tending it prominently near the top of my climbing bean trellis. Today, my admiration grew: that spider was wrapping a stink bug in silk! I’m confident the spider’s victim was a brown marmorated stink bug because those are the only stink bugs I notice bumbling around my garden, yard, and living room.
After a short photo session, I was out and about in downtown Lewisburg. I walked past people loading things into a car and heard one of them exclaim, “I hate spiders.” I hoped she was using verbal shorthand to mean, “I hate how spiders look” or “I hate getting into spider webs” or “I hate being in states where there are venomous spiders.” That all makes some sense to me.
Unfortunately, I hear so many people flat out declare that when they see a spider, they kill it; I guess they actually hate spiders for spiders’ sakes. That’s a shame.
I don’t want to get into spider webs, and I’m uncomfortable having spiders walking on me or hanging in my face. I most definitely prefer living in a state where venomous spiders have never been found in the wild. Still, I manage to appreciate the work spiders do: helping to keep the overall insect population under control.
And when a spider takes down a brown marmorated stink bug? Doesn’t make me want to kiss it… or even pat it on the head. But that spider is my hero.