Savoring the Sunshine

In these days of unease, a bit of sunshine makes an enormous difference. Just being able to wander about outdoors feels like a special privilege, especially as the spring flowers emerge. After listening to the gloomy farming weather forecast (a repeat of last year’s challenging colder and wetter than normal May that delayed plantings) each day of sunshine seems a special treasure that we should appreciate this April.

We had a heavy frost again last night, so I’m indoors until it warms up a bit. It was the same the past couple of days, but I’ve been able to enjoy outdoor work beginning mid-morning until evening. First on the agenda Saturday was planting the shallots. You may recall that because of last year’s terribly wet weather, many of my shallots rotted well before being ready to harvest, so the crop was small. I’ve been stingy with my use of them all winter, hoping to have enough to plant this spring. Not all of the ones I stored remained solid, but there were enough to plant 9 six-foot rows, about half what I normally grow. Single bulbs are the preferred, best yielding ones but in this case I planted anything that wasn’t showing any softness. A few double or triples were divided just to finish up the final row. I’m not sure that will work. Fingers crossed. Everything that can be planted this early is now in the ground, all the weeds have been removed, soil leveled, perennial crops fed and some tidying done, so now all that remains in the potager is tending the greenhouse seedlings, hardening them off on days when it’s advisable and watching things grow.


“Cassata” is the first of the new daffodils planted last fall. I think it is my new favorite, at least for this week! However, I find that daffodils are like my children, there is really no favorite. Every one is so terribly special and fascinating! The daffodils are coming on fast and furious now and I do need to mark some clumps that need dividing when they are done blooming. I always think I will do it in autumn, but somehow it never gets done. As I see my humble plantings of spring bulbs this year, I can’t’ help but think of all the farmers and growers who may be put out of business in the Netherlands because the Keukenhoff is closed. Such a fabulous, beautiful event and no one gets to see it in person. And all the local businesses that count on those few weeks of tourism to carry them through the rest of the year, all the flower bulb companies who’ve spent hundred of euros and hours of labor, all the small family-run flower farms who count on the bundles of cut tulip, plant and bulb sales from the road-side stands have NO customers. I just can’t fathom the loss. And then multiply that by thousands of other things. No charity garden open days. No visitors at National Trust Gardens, no million-dollar checks to children’s hospitals from weekly PGA tour events. The list is endless. I could get extremely depressed…but thankfully there are flowers here to view.

These little (about 5″ tall) white scilla are doing a good job of spreading. I doubt I’ll even think that there are too many as they do marvelously as edge of the gardens brighteners in the Front Island. A few have appeared in the Front Garden as well, probably replanted by the squirrels who move the crocus as well.

These dainty puschkinia, or striped squill are also welcome to spread, if they will. I think I need some on the Fairy Slope but these are in the potager’s exterior border. Speaking of the potager’s exterior border, I’ve been carefully spraying the tulips on the north end (closest to the woods and therefore usually the first eaten) with Plantskydd deer repellent. Their buds were fully loaded and nearly ready to open when this happened!

Don’t blame the deer! Blame the dear!

The non-gardener decided it was time to mow the lawn. Bless him! He’s the social one of the family and this isolation is much harder for him than for me (the hermit.) It’s been a challenge to keep him home and safe, so I felt letting him spend some time outdoors on the lawn mower was much better than having him off property. I guess a clump of tulips is a small price to pay…maybe….

Not where they were planted, but I think I’ll keep them!

Remember weeks ago when I sprinkled “Black Seeded Simpson” lettuce seeds on the last (well, we certainly hope it was the last, but this is Indiana!) snow? They were sprinkled in the potager’s interior borders, as always to hide the tulip foliage as it turns ugly. Our 4″ deluge last week apparently did more than sweep away swaths of mulch in the paths, because these lettuce seedlings are now near the bottom edge of the potager’s EXTERIOR border! I’ve decided to let some of them stay, but I’ll carefully lift and thin so they aren’t crowded, and move the extras back into the interior border later this afternoon, ahead of this evening’s rain.

Well, it’s now warmed up to 48 degrees F. The sun is shining and I think the Deck Garden may be dry enough to finally get a good cleaning. I’m hoping to discover that some of the mums planted last autumn are returning for an encore. When that is done, if the muscles aren’t complaining too badly the Fairy Slope is next on the list. These are the days when I wish I were young and pliant again!

Be safe everyone. Stay home, and cherish each day and one another.

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These double white hellebores are unexpected seedlings!

AND, finally there are hellebores!  I assume these “Lenten Roses” knew when Lent occurs this year, and behaved accordingly.  Many gardeners near me have had hellebores blooming for weeks, and as soon as I see their lovely posts the inspection of my plants begins.  I’m certainly not an expert on hellebores, but I’ve grown them for about 25 years now, and know that I love them not only for their gorgeous, long-lasting and colorful blooms, but also for their tidy, dark-green, leathery, long-lasting foliage.

There are differing types of hellebores.  Some called “Christmas Rose” (H. niger) bloom much earlier.  Each year I vow to get some, but so far I haven’t.  There are also more uncommon types.  I’ve seen H. foetidus and H. corsicus in European gardens, but they aren’t as appealing to me because they only flower on second year stalks and then die back. Mine are all the “Lenten” (H. orientalis) types, and all but one grow on the Fairy Slope. They are lovely, but I wish I’d planted them in a more accessible location where one could get close enough to lift their heads to admire their blooms better.  Attempting to trudge up the slope in muddy spring weather is more than I want to tackle.  However, I’m sure the fairies are enjoying them fully.  I planted them there, thinking that hellebores required shade.  And then I visited a lovely private garden that had an entire hill devoted to hellebores, out in wide-open full sun!  That was an eye-opening moment for me.  It’s a good thing that they can tolerate sunshine (although not in blasting, desert-like heat) because after I “lost” a tree on the Fairy Slope (lost meaning that the non-gardener in the family cut it down after being told “if I want it cut down, I’ll do it!”…guess I should have been more explicit!) most of my hellebores were no longer shaded!

Hellebores also make good potted plants.  I hadn’t realized that until visiting my daughter who lives in Germany years ago during the pre-Christmas season.  Every grocery had dozens of pots of beautiful hellebores on display, and her local garden center had entire benches ready for customers.  Apparently hellebores are considered a welcomed hostess gift, much like we use poinsettias over the holidays.  Savvy folks put them in a cool spot overnight so they last much longer than if in a constantly heated area.  I think since I have several now, I’ll pot some up this fall and force them for the holidays.

Another reason to love hellebores is that they are basically care-free.  The only thing I do is cut off the old-browned leaves in mid-February so that when the buds and flowers begin to appear they can be viewed easily.  Otherwise, they are on their own.

If you aren’t yet convinced, I also love hellebores because they self-seed generously, and they cross-pollinate easily so that wonderful surprises like the double white blooms shown at the top magically appear.  When I sold the herb farm, I dug a few seedlings from the Fairy Garden to move to the new Fairy Slope at my home.  Now I have several  self-seeded plants, and am encouraging more.

Although many hellebores come in shades of burgundy, nearly black, green, or pink breeders have been working diligently to make a broader rainbow of colors.  There are now flowers with broad bands of contrasting color along the petal edges or flowers with contrasting center “eyes.”  There are singles and doubles, and spotted petals now in yellows and peach tones.  THOSE are the ones I need!  I had looked forward to visiting garden centers here in central Indiana to find some cultivars in those colors, but now that is impossible.  So I’ve ordered “Sandy Shores” (a 3″ single peach) and “First Dance” (a 2 1/2″ double yellow with a very narrow maroon picotee edging) that should bring more variety to my seedlings.  It will certainly be fun to see what surprises are in store in coming years!

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March: Monthly Review

A typical March day this year…dreary, lots of standing water.

I think everyone is relieved to have March end. It has been a stressful month for the entire world. We pray that we won’t look back after April and think that maybe March wasn’t so bad after all! There hasn’t been much work in the potager, only one full day plus a couple of quick stints between rains. Thankfully, the plants are totally unaware of the trauma above ground, and merrily push upward with a cheerful display of blooms.

The dainty mini narcissi “Tete a Tete” on the Fairy Slope are only 6″ tall, but the fairies love them, and so do I!

March was basically another cloudy, dreary, overly stormy and windy month that marks one-fourth of 2020 gone. Right now, I’m feeling like that is a good thing. Despite many blogs encouraging me to “learn a new skill,” “organize one’s household,” “do the annual spring cleaning,” “begin an on-line course,” “learn a language,” and dozens of other activities to promote a positive attitude I find that I am doing very little! Are you having a similar lethargy, or are you being highly productive and efficient during this suspension of normal?

Oh, I’ve made lists…lots of them, on my ever-present clipboard, but the only one with checked-off items pertain to gardening. The indoor chores are well in hand, with 95 varieties seeded. The most recent were “Copper Wing” and “Creamsicle” nasturtiums. The seeds were soaked in water overnight, and then put into individual pots (two seeds per pot.) Transplanting is caught up again, after enough plants were moved into the greenhouse to create space. There have now been 1672 seedlings pricked out and moved into pots or packs, about normal. Potting soil may soon become an issue. I read with interest that garden centers in Britain have now been closed, because so many (seniors especially) were using it as a wandering around place, just touching and feeling, but purchasing little and therefore putting workers and themselves at risk. Hundreds of thousands of plants will be “binned,” which is very sad because demand for veg, herb and flower plants will probably be in higher demand than normal, once this is all over and especially as the weather improves. Those of us who have started our seeds at home early are going to be especially grateful that we did, especially as seed sources are beginning to feel the crunch, and more and more stores close.

Weather has delayed most of the outdoor work, as it did last year. I’m hoping that this is not another “new normal.” Composted cow manure has been put on several beds, and will be finished as soon as a warmer, rain-free day arrives, although those bright yellow bags do add a cheerful touch of color. Right now, lots of fields are flooded and the rivers are over-flowing, and even some gardens with raised beds are too wet to work. If you look closely at the right side of the photo, you’ll see that the 4″ rain we got the other night washed lots of mulch from the paths, out under the front gate and down the slope. The main center path from the front gate to the back is nearly bare.

Radishes are emerging, but looking a little yellow from all the rain.

Despite that, in the potager the radishes have emerged and the peas are beginning to push through. A day or two of sunshine will make a huge difference.

The shallots will be planted this week, hopefully tomorrow since sunshine is predicted and I am determined even if I must wear my winter coat to do it. I noticed the spearmint that grew in the big pot by the Lady Cottage door apparently rooted through the drainage holes, and are now merrily running through the mulched path with lovely green, fragrant leaves emerging here and there. That’s a good thing, because it appears the mint in the pot did not survive, so there will be plenty of replacements.

The hyssop is greening nicely, which is terrific. It’s one of my favorite tea plants, and apparently very beneficial in these times.

The rhubarb has doubled in size, and two more clumps have appeared in the past few days. Notice that I still have not removed those chamomile volunteers. Now that all the plant sales have been cancelled, I suppose they will all go into the compost bins rather than into pots.

Despite the weather, the chives have reached 5″ in height.

All the roses that I planted last spring (well, actually my visiting daughter planted them because my back was “out” at the time) are greening up as well. I’m so pleased that I placed another impulsive order recently with High Country Roses, and now must find places where they will be planted.

The harvest was tiny, only 1/2 lb. of spinach, but I realized in looking back that I forgot to enter the 2 lbs. of carrots found when I cleaned the beds back in February. So the 2020 total to date is now is 4.25 lbs. compared to 1.5 in 2019. The plan is to do better with storage carrots, onions, and leeks this year at the end of the season so we won’t run out as we did this year. The last leeks were just used this week, and there’s enough carrots to get us through this week, and that will be it for them. We ran out of onions before year’s end, but my mother gave me some of hers. Yes, I still need to learn from my mother!

So that’s the monthly review of March. The forecast is for two days of sunshine before another 4 days of rain, so I intend to make the most of them. The 1200+ plants in the greenhouse will certainly appreciate some sunshine, too. They are the smallest for end of March that I’ve had since I retired, but hopefully they will soon grow quickly.

May you all stay well, and happy in your gardens, wherever you may be. Thank goodness we have this virtual community, since we can no longer participate in our real ones. Blessings to each of you.

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National Spinach Day…and I almost missed it!

“Baker” spinach growing in the shade of climbing peas.

Lost in the grocery search of yesterday, was the fact that it was National Spinach Day! How could I fail to celebrate the one crop that has produced week after week over the entire, gloomy winter. This vitamin and iron-packed green (and green is entirely apt for this dark-leaved vegetable) survived both in the poly-tunnel and totally without protection in the potager. It’s now rapidly growing new leaves, despite fluctuating temperatures and deluges of rain (with 2″ more inches in our forecast for this weekend!)

Spinach is one of the easiest crops to grow, and will provide nutritious food quickly. Thinnings only 1″ tall can be sprinkled over salads or omelets or added to soups. Plant it now, in early spring. I’ve often just sprinkled seeds in a row across a raised bed even when it is too wet to properly work, and then covered the seeds with a layer of potting soil. Before you know it, you’ll have spinach to harvest! It is a heavy feeder, so a side dressing of compost or a drink of manure tea is always appreciated if you want big, luscious leaves. Harvest the larger outer leaves continuously for the most yields.

“Gangbuster” spinach is my favorite for over-wintering.

Succession crops can be seeded here in north central Indiana (Zone 5) through the end of May. I’ve found that later ( late April and May as opposed to March) plantings of spinach appreciate a little shade, so they go on the east side or north side of taller crops. After that, it’s better to wait until the heat of summer has passed, and resume seeding in late August. This year, I’m trying “Summer Perfection,” a variety (also from Renee’s Garden Seeds) that is supposed to stand up to heat a bit better without bolting as my last May planting.

I plant my last crop around the 20th of September for over-wintering. The variety I like best for over-wintering is “Gangbusters” from Renee’s. However, since spinach seed has extremely low storage-ability, ANY spinach seed that I have left come September is put into the ground, and usually most do surprisingly well. If you’ve had issues with low success with spinach in the past, old seed (be sure spinach seed comes from a reliable source, not seed that has sat in the hardware store for a couple of years!) is likely the problem.

Supposedly the smooth-leaved varieties are good for early crops, while the savoy-leaved (wrinkled) ones winter over best so they are used for fall plantings. There are many varieties of both types of spinach available on the market, as well as new varieties developed just for “baby” spinach, where the entire crop is sliced off early in its growth, rather than an outer leaf harvest. All types are good candidates for container growing.

Spinach frittata for our National Spinach Day dinner!

As a kid, we only had canned spinach as part of our school lunches. For some reason, neither my grandmother or mother grew it, so I didn’t find out what a delight it was raw, or just lightly sauteed until I went to college! Since then, I’ve collected lots of recipes that include spinach, especially various salads. It plays well with berries of all kinds, citrus, Asian ingredients, and well as roasted squash and grilled asparagus. Do plant some spinach! In these troubled times it will produce a quick crop that will provide lots of nutrition in a small space. Soon you will be as strong as Popeye (do today’s kids even know who Popeye is?) and a strong body is better able to fight off germs.

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Ventured Out…

So today I ventured out to gather groceries for my 94-yr. old mother, who still lives alone on the farm where I grew up. She no longer drives due to macular degeneration, but she reads as much as her eyes allow, keeps an absolutely weedless garden, grows nearly all her own food and preserves it all. She loves sports, so is finding the lack of basketball, baseball and other sports very sad. She has a lengthy prayer list and is known far and wide as a “prayer warrior.” She still hand writes a letter to me and mails it every Monday, a tradition begun when I left for college. She writes regularly to her three remaining high school classmates, all her grandchildren, and sends birthday, anniversary, sympathy, and get well cards without fail. She keeps up on the local and national news much better than I. Her memory is terrific; she keeps all her books without a calculator.

It took stops at three groceries to get the supplies on her list. There was nothing exotic, just the basics. I really lucked out at one store, as a worker was just unwrapping a pallet of toilet paper, and that was on Mom’s list. She was careful to instruct me to just get what she needs of any item. She is not a hoarder. Having lived through the scarcities of WWII, she has a good idea of what she will need to get by. She’s always been frugal, and now she’s making cut-backs, so that “families with less will find what they need.” I couldn’t find the brand of toothpaste she uses, but she was perfectly satisfied with a substitute, and the same for margarine, bread, and fish oil capsules. “In times like these, we can’t be particular,” she says.

I was surprised at how well the stores were stocked and the variety they offered. The entire deli counters were sold out at one, no flour, toilet paper, wipes, or paper towels at two, no stick margarine at any, no potatoes at one, and lots of frozen and canned goods were missing at all three, but there was a little chicken, ground beef and plenty of pork. Indiana is big pork raising country, so that was no surprise. I also found tissues, which I hadn’t found at the first 2 stores, bacon, and eggs.

I took 10 bags of composted manure and put them on her raised beds. Her eyes lit up when I pulled out onion sets (that took two additional stops to find), pea seeds, lima bean seeds, and carrot seeds. She has everything else she’ll need to grow a bountiful vegetable garden. All of her flower gardens around the house are perennials, but she does grow a long row of zinnias along the vegetable garden to attract butterflies and other pollinators. She had spent yesterday picking up sticks in her lawn, and as soon as I left, she was going to remove the few weeds that have sprouted in her raised beds before the rain comes.

We spent a lot of time over lunch talking about the differences between times in WWII and now. Having lived all her life in rural locations, and being somewhat of a tom-boy who loved the outdoors much more than the indoors, her view is that this confinement must be harder for most Americans than life was back then. “Of course, we were SO worried about our boys in the war, but our life at home wasn’t that different. We worked hard, had our families to support us emotionally, and all our community worked together for the war effort. So we didn’t have leather, butter, sugar and a few other things that were rationed, we had enough. We still went to church, the children went to school, the farmers planted their crops and harvested, with everyone helping where needed. Cities weren’t so big, families weren’t so far apart.”

She spent the next half hour ensuring that I understood what she wants for her funeral (a small, family only service in the mausoleum, a dark gray metal casket and dressed in her gray suit with the butterfly pin) and as I left remarked, “You know, I probably won’t use all those pea seeds this year, so there should be enough for me to plant next year!”

And that, my gentle readers, is the positive attitude of a true gardener.

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Today was Moving Day!

Finally, the forecast was good (above freezing for the next 10 days, mostly cloudy and lots of rainy days) and the ground is solid enough to allow me to move flats from the basement to the greenhouse! It’s a brief window of opportunity before more rain arrives, so I made the most of it. It began as a foggy day, because warm air is flowing over the cold ground but that’s fine. In fact, allowed the plants to adjust a bit to new surroundings. So pansies, violas, onions, cipollini, cabbages, lettuce, snapdragons, blue salvia, broccoli, cauliflower, and perennials were all transferred, making room so more peppers, tomatoes, coleus and marigolds can be transplanted into individual pots and the next round of seeding can take place. 1268 plants are now in the greenhouse! They are smaller than usual, since I delayed seeding due to traveling in January and February, but they will catch up quickly now that they are out of the basement.

After lunch, with plenty of time and some stamina left, twelve bags of composted cow manure (purchased before the shut-down) was moved from the back of the truck to the potager. Beds of growing garlic got a side dressing of lime and a layer of the composted manure.

Overwintered spinach.

Next the existing rows of spinach got a side dressing. After months of growing they needed a feeding so that hopefully they’ll produce lots more nice green leaves before bolting.

Strawberry bed 2e

Only one of the five strawberry beds got a top dressing of compost. It was 4 o’clock, and I was out of steam, so I put the tools away and called it a day.

In the basement, the light stand was refilled and the main bench is now totally empty, which will allow the next round of seeding (tomorrow as it rains!) This round of seeding will consist of early veggies sown into 4-packs to be planted into the potager: lettuces, spinach, beets, chard and a few perennial flower seeds that just arrived.

One last job: the earliest pansies are now in the big container by the front door, ready to greet visitors, although with the shut-down there won’t be any! I’ll enjoy them, as well as the hundreds of crocus and dwarf iris in the Front Garden. There were all kinds of bees busily working in the crocus blooms. Nearby there are several daffodils ready to open, and over 60 winter aconite blooms, but so far I haven’t seen any bees on those. Spring is definitely here. There were lots of birds singing, and as evening approached the spring peepers along the creek were singing.

It was just so great to be out in the sunshine, working in the soil. There’s lots more to do. The leaves need to come out of the Deck Garden, the Addition Garden has not had a spring cleaning, and more beds in the potager need compost. But there’s no rush. I intend to savor every moment.

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Just a bit of sunshine…

We are SO close to having daffodils!

A welcome change this for this morning’s walkabout…no rain! Instead we have a beautiful, although crispy 30 degree F, sunny morning. Determined to make the most of it, I took my daily walk to look for changes in the garden and just to get some fresh air. The Front Garden is filled with dwarf iris of the prettiest blue, and the daffodils are just breaking bud. Lots of perennials have pushed through the mulch now, and I even spotted a bit of new growth on one of last year’s fall-planted mums. That’s rare, and now that I’ve seen one, I’ll be watching the others for signs of life. (Yes, I’m greedy when it comes to plants!)

More in the Front Garden.

Happily, the golden heucheras and gold-foliaged shrubs planted last fall have also returned. As mentioned in prior posts, there is to be a gradual switch to more perennials and shrubs, so fewer annuals are required each year as I age. Some of the daffodil clumps are overly thick and will need to be divided. If it weren’t so muddy I’d do it now, since cloudy days and more rain is in our forecast, but it’s just too muddy. Instead, I’ll stick a bamboo skewer in the center of those clumps that need digging and later on when the foliage has died down, I’ll dig and divide and replant. Right now is a great time to study the spring garden, and determine where more of those divided daffodils can go, so I’m taking photos and sketching maps to make that job easier.

New winter aconites.

Last winter, I was envious of other gardeners’ early, early posts (like February in Indianapolis!) of winter aconite blooms. Such a cheerful yellow! Needless to say, I needed some, so last fall 25 were planted under my beloved elder, right by the driveway so I’d see them early on. These finally began blooming on March 8, but today they look even better, despite being pounded by rain, and there are 49 flowers from the 25 bulbs planted. I wonder if they will bloom earlier in their second year? Regardless, I’m happy with them and hope they fill in the entire area.

“Cream Beauty” crocus have taken a beating.

Poor, poor crocus! They have been so brave, and very durable considering the pounding they’ve taken from rain, sleet, and wind. They began blooming March 3, but have spent most of their days closed tightly to protect their stamen and pollen. So far there’s only been 4 days with sunshine, but only two of those were above 50 degrees, enabling the bees to be out working. Today, they are beginning to look a bit bedraggled, but I love the fact that they are so early, and can be seen clearly against the dark mulch. Even from the living room, I can easily see them beside the potager’s gate.

White lilac buds!

I always find it interesting that the white lilac on the north side of the Lady Cottage (in the North Island) is the first to show swelling buds. It’s sister in the South Island is not even showing an interest in activity! Perhaps the north one gets a little protection from the cold winds, and the fact that there is so little sunshine on a daily basis at this point makes little difference in a more shaded location. Nearby, at the base of the Cottage the primulas are greening up.

Look closely and spot the tiny buds in the center!

I love, love, love primulas, and am determined to find more spots for them and to increase the types in my gardens. Like all of you, I’m hoping this “staycation” ends soon so there can be some serious plant shopping. Yes, one can do it “on-line” but it’s just not the same experience, is it?

No changes in the potager since yesterday’s post, except the top layer of soil in the beds is frozen, as is the water in the birdbath. Since we have a 90% chance of snow this afternoon (Oh, joy!) that’s probably a good thing. I think this afternoon will be a good time to re-string the wind chimes, which have fallen apart and have been laying in the basement since fall clean-up. I’d hoped to begin moving plants to the greenhouse, but between the mud and the forecast there’s reason for delay. However, I think I will go out and harvest some of those daffodils that are nearly open. Better to have them indoors to enjoy in the coming days than buried in snow!

Hope you are finding signs of life in your gardens, and well as a bit of serenity. Please stay safe and healthy. I value each one of you!

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