After a cloudy morning when the wind blew straight out of the north, the afternoon had turned sunny and pleasant. Though I had already taken my 40-minute walk, the lovely sunshine drew me outside again. Camera in hand, I tromped around the snowy yard looking for (mostly imagined) signs of spring. What I found was winter. Not surprising for early February in Vermont.
The ice storm of a couple of weeks ago still has its frosty grip on the trees and shrubs. Hard globs of frozen snow remain caught in their ones and twos on the upper branches.
Hard, translucent, glistening ice encases the west side of the forsythia.
And the rhododendron ‘Laurie’ crouches under its protective “house,” waiting to be liberated when the snow finally goes.
I ponder the gardening tools and equipment in the open end of the potting shed that also wait to become of use once again.
A pot of frozen Japanese forest grass crouches next to the doorway, sleeping through the warm afternoon.
The shed’s window boxes sit empty in the afternoon sun. Come June they will be planted with the ivy geraniums whose seeds I planted yesterday.
I find flower buds – the fuzzy star magnolia buds and the delicate clumps of andromeda. I am reassured that spring will be beautiful when these plump buds open.
But for now, the colors are muted. I’ll leave the Christmas wreath on the front door for a while longer – in the cold the evergreens do fine, and the red bow is a welcome spot of color.
The cardinals at the feeder, too, offer a bit of startling red when the sun hits them. And in the snow that came the next day (top of post), seeing those red birds made me happy.
Book Note: Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world by author, Jo Busha. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Book lovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.
I’m sure that people who live in places that are warm year-round assume that gardening in cold climates is limited to a few summer months. I may have thought that myself at one time. But there are many winter activities that can fill a gardener’s time – even beyond the houseplants that many of us nurture just to have some greenery when the outdoors is covered in white.
Some of this amounts to armchair gardening: researching plants to add to the garden next season, finding and ordering seeds, and reading garden books for inspiration and pleasure. But we are not limited to these indoor activities. As long as the ground hasn’t frozen, the dedicated gardener can always weed. And pruning is a fine job, I have found, on a warm February day while the shrubs are still dormant, and the pre-spring sunshine calls me to come out to the garden.
A recent storm that brought us heavy, wet snow provided another garden job – though not one I enjoy much. Freeing branches bowed by, and even pinned under the snow and ice is tiring, and sometimes disheartening. Most shrubs will recover, but a brittle branch that has split or broken is probably lost for good.
So it was that the morning after the big storm (we had lost power for a couple of hours – that is a sort of measure of the seriousness of a storm since run-of-the-mill snowstorms don’t knock out power here. I was out in the garden liberating sand cherries, and some boxwoods, a small deutzia, and a shrubby St. John’s wort. I removed enough icy clumps from the dwarf spruces to assure they would be OK. Tramping through a good foot of snow, I considered getting out the snowshoes but decided they would make it too hard to get close to the base of the shrubs.
After an hour I was wet, chilled, and satisfied I had done what I could for my overburdened shrubs, and I retreated to the warmth indoors to leave more winter gardening to another day.
Book Note: Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Book-lovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.
Here in New England we are well into early winter by mid-November and this year we have already had many killing frosts and several light snow falls (though all has melted so far). On a mild day I ventured out into the garden to see if I might find some spots of color to cheer me up.
As I expected, I found some violas still in bloom. One reason I love the little flowers is their iron-hardiness. I have found them in bloom half-buried after a December snowstorm, as well as peeking out of dead leaves on a warm day in February.
But as I walked around the main flower garden, I realized that there was plenty of interesting plant material from which I could make a dried flower arrangement. I love to bring flowers into the house, but I don’t often think about it once frost has hit the garden.
I started with a tan-to-black theme for the background. The dry seed heads of Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ made a good place to start.
I cut some Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola,’ to make a fluffy counterpoint to the round hydrangea heads.
Spots of brighter color were provided by Rosa blanda’s red hips,
Witch Hazel’s thready little flowers (now fading),
and the golden berries of Winterberry, Ilex verticillata ‘Goldfinch.’
Some curly blades of Deschampsia cespitosa, ‘Northern Lights,’ added a bit of whimsy.
Sprigs of sage and silver mound artemisia provided a dash of silver, and a small green and gold spray of Chamaecyparis was a fresh finishing touch.
It is easy to glance past the problems developing in the garden when flowersare blooming at the height of summer. Swathes of daylilies and mounds of lady’s mantle, spires of spike speedwell and clumps of spiderwort assure the tired gardener that the bursts of color mean that all is well. As summer progresses, and plants mature, the excitement of the spring planting season wanes a bit. Hot and humid weather makes being out in the sun less pleasurable and the gardener can rightfully judge that a rest from horticulture is warranted.
Then, on a leisurely stroll along the garden’s path, in the cool of the evening, a certain disquiet develops. The gardener notices that the beds no longer look crisp, that some plants have been obscured by inconsiderate neighbors. Oh, yes, the gardener remembers now. It is mid-summer—time to edit the garden beds. Like editing a document, garden editing involves removing the excessive, the repetitive, the overblown, and the ‘purple prose.’ Tweaking is in order: a little weeding, some judicious pruning, a spate of deadheading and even cutting down whole plants that have – in that English term I love – “gone over.”
When I was a new gardener I believed that during each bout of gardening I should pick a bed and completely clean it up: weed out every square inch, eliminate every self-sown plant that had wandered in, remove every brown leaf, trim every clump of expanding perennials. It was exhausting and took so long I often couldn’t complete the bed in one session. But I have become less obsessive about being in control of every garden bed. I tolerate more of the self-sown interlopers, though they cannot be guaranteed a welcome. I can overlook some weeds, especially small varieties that don’t shout, “I am a weed!” I can let some deadheads stand if the seed heads are attractive when dry. Oriental Poppies, Astilbe, Sedum Autumn Joy are some that get left, at least for a while.
I recently found myself editing two beds in one afternoon. The larger of the two is a bed I call the Victorian Bed. (Think jewel tones, Persian carpets, red flocked wallpaper.) It was clearly overgrown and less attractive than it might be. Hellebore bracts that still looked good a month after the flowers were gone had now turned brown and flopped onto nearby plants. The dianthus needed shearing to remove the browned flowers. Daylilies begged to be deadheaded. Spent forget-me-nots I had missed on my last clean-up through this bed, were overdue for their trip to the compost pile. Flopping white Lychnis had to go, as well.
Since the paths in my garden are grass, the edges tend to get overgrown. I trimmed the grass edges with shears. It does not give that crisp, sharp edge that gardeners love, but is a quick substitute to identify the divide between bed and path. I will come back and cut the edges properly another day. Were there still weeds left when I finished? Oh, yes. And many other flaws, as well. But the bed looked less neglected, more intentional. With the edge better defined, I was confident that the mower (my husband) would be able to avoid chopping plants that had been disguised in the general overgrowth.
By then the afternoon had grown hot. I moved my editing project to the shade of the Jungle Bed. In this little bed, I use mostly hardy perennials to create a lush, jungle-like atmosphere. Potted plants and houseplants that summer outside are also included.
Not only was it lush, it was a bit of a mush. The little Laughing Buddha statue (a souvenir of a visit with my sister in Florida) was lost under an overhanging Ligularia “Othello.” Ostrich ferns were obscuring the shredded umbrella plant (Syneilesis aconitifolia.) Stems of Tabularis astilboides had flopped and now leaned heavily on a small potted peace lily and a Christmas fern. I liberated Buddha and opened up space around the shredded umbrella (and discovered it had sent up several new shoots this year.) The peace lily got the attention she deserved – especially this summer, a little more space for her and some gardening-peace so welcome for me!
Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world by author. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Booklovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.
You might expect that the author of a book of gardening essays (Time and the Garden) is an avid gardener. You’d be right! This post is about my annual journey with my annuals.
I have a collection of planted containers around the perimeter of my deck. They act as a visible barrier, needed because we removed the railing when we realized (the first winter of its life) that shoveling snow off the deck is nearly impossible with a railing in the way. Over the years, I have tried out many kinds of plantings.
My husband objected when plants got so tall that they obscured the view. And I eliminated plants that might look nice for a while but tend not to last through the whole summer. Among that group are China asters and painted tongue, both colorful flowers I really liked but the spent plants had to be dug out of the containers and replaced by about mid-July.
For some years now, the conventional wisdom concerning the best way to plant a container for maximum impact is the “thriller, filler, spiller” triad. The thriller, a tall plant with a dramatic shape, the filler being just as the name implies a plant – or sometimes two or three – with a bushy or bulky shape, and the spiller, a trailing plant or vine to spill over the edge of the container and is supposed to “soften the edges” of the container. This formula is often described as “well-rounded” and “professional” and even “foolproof.”
Eventually I grew tired of this formula. Containers planted this way began to seem overdone, even obese. I started to shift the containers to a more lighthearted presentation. Generally, this means smaller containers, often planted with just one or two kinds of plants.
These can be grouped in different configurations to show each pot to its best advantage through the summer season. I have tried several color combinations but generally have settled on hot colors for their cheerfulness and ease of growing: geraniums, marigolds, coleus, and nasturtiums.
One year I tried out a black and white theme. It seemed rather contrived, so I haven’t repeated it.
Some of this year’s pots have turned the tables, providing me surprises. I suppose it was the re-cycled potting soil that produced the large cucurbit. It must be the offspring of a hybrid squash, producing a plant and some fruit not quite like either of its parents. It provides a lush container planting that I would not have thought of myself.
This year I am experimenting with a whole bed of annuals at the south-facing end of the potting shed. For many years this spot served as the home of the truckload of pine mulch I invested in each spring. I knew that the pretty potting shed deserved a more attractive surround, but just couldn’t make up my mind about what sort of planting I wanted in this prime location. And it was handy having the mulch there.
This winter I came up with the scheme of making a fully packed bed of colorful annuals. Maybe that would help settle the question. I ordered seeds and started them in the cellar under gro-lights. As spring approached, I filled two cold frames with masses of seedlings.
I dug up the area, mixing the remaining, years-old, nearly-composted mulch with the rich black soil below. Finally, it was warm enough to plant them out in the prepared bed.
To my chagrin the masses of seedlings did not actually fill the bed as I had imagined.
A few days after the plants were settled in their new home a mama woodchuck found them and decided that the viscaria was a banquet just for her. I put up a temporary fence.
Eventually mama and her babies apparently moved on (we hadn’t seen her in a week) and I took down the fence.
Of course, that was a mistake – the slowly recovering viscaria were re-discovered and devoured, leaving a large bare spot in the center of the bed. The marigolds and calendula, the poppies and nicotiana have done well and are blooming. The zinnias have suffered badly from Japanese beetles and are way behind.
I think the only thing this experiment has proved is that a bed of annuals probably isn’t the solution to my design dilemma for the end of the potting shed. Next year, the mulch may be back.
NOTE: Jo Busha is the author of Time and the Garden, a collection of essays written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and observations of the natural world. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. It will appeal to gardeners, readers seeking a strong sense of place, and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. While not a how-to book, gardeners may find the essays instructive. Booklovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.
Though this year Spring is not a joyful season, I would like to share something of my annual journey as a spring seed-planter, hoping that stories of the joy of gardening are healing for all of us. Be safe and well out there.
I like to think that the first day of spring is actually the day I plant the first seeds in flats in the cellar – usually in the first week of March. That brings spring a lot closer than waiting for astronomical Spring. And much, much closer than the spring day when I can finally go outside and work in my Vermont garden. In warm areas, seeds might be planted in the ground about now. In snow country, seeds are planted indoors to be protected and nurtured.
Every year I am amazed again at the wondrous thing a seed is. Kept in the right dry and cold conditions, they can survive hundreds of years. There are reports of ancient seeds that have germinated once given the necessary conditions, including 10,000-year-old wildflower seeds found in Siberia and a 2,000-year-old date palm seed in Israel.
For a seed to germinate, water must penetrate the seed coat. As the seed absorbs water, it softens and swells, eventually causing the seed coat to burst. Germination begins when the root grows out through the opening. As the root grows, branching through the soil, the stem develops and pushes its way toward the light. At the soil surface, the hooked stem pulls the cotyledons(embryonic leaves that – like the yolk of an egg – provide the new plant with nourishment) out of the soil along with the stem tip, though in some plants, the cotyledons remain under the soil.
Once real leaves develop, allowing the plant to make its own food through photosynthesis, the cotyledons wither away. There are time-lapse videos showing a seed putting out a root and stem over the period of a week or so. It is awe-inspiring to watch the small, inert-appearing seed produce a seedling plant. The exact mechanism the seed uses to accomplish this growth is not entirely understood, even by scientists who study plants. So spring, for me, is a season of joyful mystery.
Seeds come in many sizes and configurations, from dust-like petunias to large avocado pits. Marigold seeds look like little brushes and calendula seeds are c-shaped and rough. Some need help to get water to penetrate the coat. Nature accomplishes this in various ways but that usually takes time. Gardeners have learned techniques to speed up the conditions for germination (a process called stratification). There are, for example, seeds that need a period of cold. I have a small tray of harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) in my refrigerator right now which will be pulled out in a couple of weeks, and then set on a heating pad to promote germination.
Other kinds of seeds have coats so hard gardeners are advised to crack the seed. Often the recommended technique is to use a nail clipper. I have never been able to make this work – either I clip my own finger, or the seed shoots out when pinched and disappears in the debris on the cellar floor. A couple of years ago I started seeds of three kinds of lupine for a new flower bed. Daunted by all that cracking, I finally decided to lightly crush the seeds with a wooden mortar and pestle. Worked great! I think they all germinated and the following year I had a large display of red, yellow, and white lupines.
Do you have a seed-adventure story? I hope you will share it with me in a comment below.
It was 64° according to the thermometer on the front porch, but the flower beds were still under several inches of icy snow. I was antsy: It was too nice to stay indoors, and I had already taken an hour-long walk on the muddy road, up into the partially bared woodland trail.
Fortunately, I have an outdoor activity area for just such a situation.
There is a pile of rocks next to our garage. The bottom-most boulders are probably the remains from digging out the cellar when the house was built in 1860. A middle layer of oblong, 6-inch thick slabs were deposited when we had to re-do the sills and field stone cellar walls. On top of that are slabs of cement that had been the garage floor before we moved the garage from one side of the house to the other.
The rock pile has become home to a variety of wild plants whose roots snake through the gaps in the rocks and delve deep into the soil below. A good-sized red maple tree grew up through the pile for many years, but eventually succumbed to harsh conditions. Around it grew ostrich fern and greater celandine, burdock and sow thistle, buttercup and raspberries and through it all, twine Virginia creeper and wild clematis. The snow melts early on this spot, which has a much nicer southern exposure than most of the flower beds. Seems a waste, but that is the lie of the land.
So, on that warm day I knew just what to do to scratch my gardening itch. I collected cutting, raking and digging tools and headed for the rock pile. The dead maple was cut down a few years ago, and I have been puttering away at the rest of the vegetation for a couple of years. Every early spring there are days just like this – too nice to stay indoors, too early to work in the garden. I hope eventually I can tame this wild spot sufficiently to make it an attractive natural area instead of an eyesore.
Jo Busha is the author of a book of essays called Time and the Garden, which reflect on one woman’s experience and evolution as a gardener and devotee of rural, small town life. Like during the “back to the land” movement of the 1970s, we are in a period of renewed interest in gardening and agrarian lifestyles. This book will appeal to gardeners, readers looking for a strong sense of place, and those who dream of such a life even if they aren’t able to live it. It is not a how-to book, but gardeners may find the essays instructive. It is, perhaps, a cozy book, a good read on a snowy day.
There is a rose bush in my garden that has provided me
with many pleasures over the past ten years. I found it one fall afternoon growing
in our woods, bushwhacking off the usual trail. The red hips caught my eye. I
pushed through some tangled grape vines and young beeches to identify the spots
of red. When I saw that it was a rose bush, I looked around for signs of an old
cellar hole or other indications that someone had planted the rose in this
unlikely spot. When no reason for its presence could be found, I had to
conclude it had been sewn by a bird who had found a shrub somewhere, snacked on
the enticing fruits and deposited the undigested seeds right there. I made note
of its location so I could come back in the spring and transplant it to my
Indeed, I found it the following spring and was able
to dig up a section of suckering stems, leaving the main part of the bush to
continue to feed whatever creatures might have come to rely on it. It has
flourished, every year blossoming for a few weeks in high summer, sporting round
orangey-red hips in the fall, and sending out suckering stems of its own. I
think it might be a dog rose, Rosa canina, because the single flowers of
a soft rose-pink and the hooked thorns match the descriptions I’ve read, and
most pictures of the hips look like my rose. (Some pictures make them look long
and narrow, not round.)
This past fall I decided to take advantage of those
abundant hips and try my hand at making rosehip syrup. The word “hip” for the
fruit of a rose derives, by the way, from an Old English word for seed: hepe. Rosehip
syrup is well-known in England and recipes abound. It is thought to have
medicinal properties and is said that the British government encouraged the
making and use of rosehip syrup to provide children with a dose of
immunity-boosting Vitamin C when citrus fruits were scarce during World War II.
In fact, the recipes I found for making the syrup are nearly identical, and
apparently all come from the recipe promoted by the British government. The
main difference is that some use brown sugar rather than white. Though rosehips
now have been found to contain several health-promoting phytochemicals, rosehip
syrup is mostly appreciated for its unique, floral, citrusy flavor.
Rosa canina is a European import that has
naturalized in North America. It is often recommended for making syrup because
the hips tend to be relatively large. Hips aren’t good to eat raw as fruit,
because of small hairs inside that can be very irritating. The recipe I used
made 12 ½ pints of syrup, which will last me a long time! We have had it on ice
cream, yogurt, and on strawberry shortcake. It makes a nice Christmas present.
Note: This recipe calls for the use of a jelly bag. If you aren’t familiar with the jelly bag, it might be a good idea to look up information about making and using one. The Ball Blue Book is one resource.
2 pounds rose hips (some sources say to wait until after a frost to
3 quarts of water
2 cups of sugar for each pint of juice
Chop rosehips in food processor or by hand until mashed up.
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil and add the chopped rosehips.
Bring water back to the boil, then remove from heat and allow to steep for 20 minutes.
Pour the rosehips and liquid into a damp jelly bag and allow the juice to drip through. Gently squeeze the jelly bag to extract as much liquid as possible. Be careful not to rip the bag. Pour the juice into a clean pan
Add rosehip pulp back to the first saucepan, add 1 quart of water and bring back to the boil. Then remove from heat and allow the contents to steep, again for 20 minutes, before straining through the jelly bag as in Step 4. Add the juice to the first batch of juice in the clean pan. Measure the amount of juice.
Stir 2 cups of sugar for each pint of juice into the strained rosehip juice and dissolve over medium heat, allow to simmer for five minutes, then pour into hot, pint jars. Process jars for 10 minutes in a hot water bath canner.
Jo Busha, author of Time and the Garden: A Book of Essays, starting gardening in 1975, when she met and married her husband and they moved to the Randolph, Vermont, the property where they still live. She was born in Brattleboro, Vermont, and grew up in Indiana. After earning a BA in International Affairs from George Washington University, she returned to Vermont to teach high school social studies. After their twin sons were born, she went back to school to get her MS in Human Nutrition and Foods from the University of Vermont. Busha worked for the Child Nutrition Programs at the Vermont Department of Education for 23 years. Since retiring, she spends most of her time working in her garden or planning her next steps in the garden, and writing about gardening and country living in Vermont.
Lyric Power Publishing, LLC is proud to announce the publication of a new book, a collection of essays by author Jo Busha, on life, gardening and the natural world, called Time and the Garden. Jo’s collection of essays (written over a ten-year period about gardening, life in Vermont, and her observations of the natural world) is not a how-to book, but gardeners may find the essays instructive. It is arranged by season, but not all the essays have a specific seasonal connection. In addition to gardeners, Time and the Garden will appeal to readers seeking a strong sense of place and people interested in rural living, even if they aren’t able to live it. This place, where Busha has lived for 45 years, has played a huge role in her life. Book lovers are likely to feel this a cozy read, warmth for a snowy day.
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