Category Archives: The Gardens

Early Spring Gardening Delusions

Daffodils almost ready to bloom

Every spring I enter the delusional state in which I firmly believe that this year, for sure, I will be able to keep ahead of all the weeds and effectively deter every deer, groundhog, squirrel, rabbit, mole, and bird from eating my plants; and for once, I will have a picture-perfect garden with no bugs, no yellowed or splotched leaves, every plant spaced properly and in its prescribed bed, manicured walkways between the beds, a well-designed and restful place where I can retreat to a garden bench or arbor and read among the fragrant herbs and colorful flowers and delectable fruits and vegetables. But alas, as I survey the reality of my yard and compare it to the carefully managed gardens that fire my imagination, I realize that once again I failed to rake all the leaves before winter set in or deadhead the vigorous self-seeding asters and coneflowers and blackeyed Susans, or cut back the dried stalks of anything, and now the perennials are back in force, already pushing their way up out of the earth, crowding other plants, leaping boundaries, growing through cracks in the sidewalk, and I can tell that unless I can somehow hire a team of landscape artists and strong-backed gardeners, I am destined to end up once again with the same wild, exuberant, untamed, free-for-all that I call my garden.

But to keep up the fantasy for at least a little while, I have decided to inventory all the plants that are coming up in my front yard right now and make a list of tasks I need to take care of sooner rather than later–before the weeds take over and it gets too hot, before my enthusiasm flags. My dream is that someday I can learn everything there is to know about each plant I grow and that I can have something blooming at all times throughout the growing season. At the moment, the crocus have just burst onto the scene. They appeared miraculously this week after we were surprised by a snowstorm on Monday and then surprised again after the snow melted to find a dozen bright yellow and purple crocus peeking out of the grass and dead leaves.

Spring has sprung!

The daffodils won’t be far behind. There are about twenty clumps of naturalized daffodils spread across the yard—several up near the street in the space I like to think of as the herb garden, more clumps in what was originally intended to be a “butterfly garden,” several tucked under the climbing rose in the corner at the end of the porch, a few clumps under the old lilac bush we cut down last fall, some by the mailbox, and others just wherever. The long pointed leaves are from three to seven inches high, depending, I suppose, on the variety or the amount of sun they get or possibly how old they are. I’m not really sure, and I no longer remember what kinds I planted or when I planted them. The bulbs are swelling and turning a pale yellow-green. I swear if I sat outside and watched for a few hours, I could actually see the blooms unfold in the sun.

While the daffodils are blooming, the hyacinths will make their appearance, but I wish I had planted more purple than pink ones, because the purple looks better with the yellow daffodils. I originally chose pink because it was my grandmother’s favorite color, but I had no idea that the original five bulbs I planted would take off like they did.  I also noticed one small remaining clump of tulips, which I need to spray with some sort of repellant (garlic or pepper spray) before the deer eat them to the nub; while tramping through my garden, the deer will probably also take a bite out of several of the hyacinths before they remember they don’t particularly like those. The daffodils they leave alone.

Although I like the way the daffodils have naturalized, I’m not so crazy about the way the other plants have spread themselves across my yard, and each spring I think I should exert more control and actually attempt to design the beds rather than just let everything grow where it lies, but that is easier said than done. I suppose I’m what you might call a permissive gardener, thinking all plants have their merits, and I hate pulling out perfectly good, healthy ones. I tend to think, “Who am I to decide what grows and what dies?” (Does that make me a bleeding heart? I suppose. I don’t like squishing bugs, either.)  I also tend to plant things on top of each other, bulbs and perennials that will bloom at different times in the same space, and I forget what I planted where, so I hesitate to pull out unidentified plants, thinking they might actually be something worth having. Of course, by the time I realize, “Oh no! It’s a horrible weed!” it has completely gone to seed and has propagated itself all over the neighborhood. I really like the idea of “pocket gardens” and think that this year, instead of trying to redesign all the beds at once, I should focus on one small space at a time, no bigger than, say, four by six feet. My favorite spot in the whole garden (a small space where the sidewalks meet) was a complete accident. This particular pocket garden contains only three plants and takes up less than nine square feet, but it makes me smile every spring whenever the bright yellow alyssum, the purple geranium, and the deep red tulips all bloom at the same time.

Here are the other plants that are already sending up shoots in my garden in mid-Missouri and soon will take over the yard. If we started at the front door and looped left through the yard, this is roughly what you would see.

Near the front porch and along the sidewalk

  • About seven clumps of “surprise lilies” or “naked ladies” lined up in front of the evergreens by the porch, where the iris used to be, plus two small clumps out by the street not too far from the mailbox. They are about 6” tall and could almost be mistaken for daffodils at this time, except the leaves are somewhat thicker and more rounded on the ends. The pale pink lilies will not actually bloom until late summer, after the leaves have died back and the stalks emerge “naked” from the ground, surprising me every time. By then, the ones near the street will be completely hidden by the asters that will soon fill that space and grow taller than the lilies.
  • The iris appear to have “migrated” away from their original space in front of the evergreens and are now in a squarish patch closer to the sidewalk. The leaves are an inch tall at the moment. Another patch of iris is coming up under the old lilac bush (I don’t remember moving them). The new iris rhizomes that I bought at the farmers market and planted late last year near the street seem to be coming up as well. These are about 1/2” tall. I doubt they will bloom this year. I did write down which kinds I bought, but I didn’t pay attention to which rhizome I planted where. Maybe I can match them up later, after they bloom. Sure, why not?
  • The strawberry plants along the sidewalk are looking good, with dark green leaves about 1” in diameter, but some of the plants are being crowded out by the blackeyed Susans and asters. I need to start thinking now about how to keep the birds and squirrels out of the strawberries. I kind of wish I had gotten one of those tiered strawberry planters and set that in the middle of the garden, rather than plant the patch along one side of the sidewalk. It seems too asymmetrical, even for me , but I can’t plant strawberries on the other side of the sidewalk because I have been growing tomatoes over there, and those plants share diseases.
  • I can’t tell if the lavender survived the winter.

Along the rail fence

  • The dogwood tree that Jim rescued several years ago from the corner by the chimney, where it had grown from the seed of our neighbor’s tree, has fat round buds.
  • There are deer prints in the corner off the end of the porch beneath the climbing rose. The rose itself is sending up wild shoots over the fence toward the neighbor’s yard.
  • A small clump of daffodils is nearby.

In the “butterfly garden”

  • There are two clumps of poppies with leaves about 3” long coming up in the old “butterfly garden.” Seems like there should be more of these, but perhaps they are hidden under the leaves I need to rake.
  • Black-eyed Susans are greening up, the leaves low to the ground, but they need serious thinning.

Near the street by the mailbox (and elsewhere)

  • Shasta daisies are still low to the ground but starting to green up, with leaves about 1” long; like the daffodils, these have naturalized and can be found in all the garden spaces,  and I love the way they look on breezy sunny days in June (hundreds of cheery white petals with bright yellow centers, held up by delicate stems).
  • The geraniums are greening up; leaves about 1 1/2” long. These have been most satisfactory. They bloom for a long time and they spread in a sensible way. I might want to think about planting more of these when I plan my pocket gardens.
  • Poppy mallow has 1” leaves close to the ground.
  • The fleshy hyacinth buds are appearing all along the front edge of the garden.

In the “herb garden”

  • The verbena by the street and in the new iris bed is getting green; the leaves are about 3/4” long. I like these low-spreading, long-flowering vines almost as much as the geranium.
  • Lambs ear is everywhere. I love its gray fuzzy leaves and the odd little pink flowers that appear in late summer at the end of a long woolly stalk, but really, I have let it get out of hand. I am always surprised when people tell me they have had trouble growing it.
  • The two sage plants have gotten quite woody but arestill strong and shapely.
  • There are pale thin grass-like chives everywhere, in every garden and in the cracks between the sidewalks and stepping stones. Even though they look delicate, their roots are already tenacious and nearly impossible to pull out.
  • Asters, cone flowers are all gone to seed; dried leaves everywhere.

Along the driveway

  • The butterfly bush needs to be cut way back. Although it is an invasive species here, it does attract the butterflies, and I enjoy it. Still, its placement isn’t ideal because it shades the vegetables I try to grow nearby.
  • Chrysanthemums are barely visible beneath the dried leaves near the square-foot vegetable gardens; the leaves are about 1/2” long.
  • Two square-foot gardens stand ready for planting. I just need to add some compost first. I will probably also add some organic fertilizer. I already raked out most of the acorns and leaves that had fallen into the squares over the winter. The broccoli seed I started indoors is ready to go in the ground any time.

Near the house

  • The white rose bush needs pruning and protection from the deer.
  • A smaller lilac bush that we transplanted last year or the year before is looking good and will probably bloom this year.
  • A single hollyhock with big bold leaves about 4” high. I wonder if I could get hollyhocks to grow along the side of the house where the chimney is.
photo of crocus in bloom

Crocus provide an early source of nectar and pollen for the bees.

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Looking Forward to Spring

It’s been a week since the blizzard, when we received over eighteen inches of snow on top of snow we already had. Despite the piles of hardened grayish lumps of ice that now line all the streets in town, I have thoroughly enjoyed the snow this winter in all its variety–from the large flakes drifting slowly from the sky and then floating around on air currents to the tiny driving flakes that fell so fast it looked like dense fog through the windows.

It’s still cold and snow still covers the ground, but I miss the fresh-fallen snow, the way it smooths out rough edges and looks like thick creamy frosting. I miss the deep-down quiet when no cars are moving in the streets, and I miss the sparkle of light as birds fly down to the feeder, tossing snow off the deck. The first big snow  weighed down the branches of the cedar trees like a child’s drawing of winter. The last snow showed us the shape of the wind.

Coneflowers in the snow

Even with all this snow, some mornings as we are leaving for work, the birds are singing of spring, and I know it’s time for me to think about starting seeds.  Unfortunately, I never did clear out the garden last fall, and it has something of the look of an abandoned lot, with dead tomato vines leaning against their cages, a dried-up moonflower vine with dozens of prickly seed pods, and a single stalk of chard standing sentinel in the square-foot garden. Where the neighbor’s lawn is a smooth unbroken expanse of snow, my yard is lumpy with dried perennials sticking out here and there: blackeyed Susans, coneflowers, asters–all gone to seed. One day we woke to find deer and squirrel tracks all through the yard, the birdfeeder knocked to the ground, and sunflower seeds dumped in a heap beneath the shepherd’s crook.

Every year I tell myself I’m going to do better this time and keep up with the weeding and maintenance in the gardens, but then summer arrives and I get busy, or it’s too hot, or I just can’t bear to pull up the tender green shoots that might or might not be weeds, or I decide I really like the “natural” look and just let seeds grow where they land. Right now I am picturing a large clump of six-foot-tall sunflowers emerging from the middle of the yard where the bird feeder fell, their bright yellow faces turning to follow the sun as it moves across the yard each day.

Lemon Tree Very Pretty

At least, I think it is a lemon tree. I can tell by the shiny tear-shaped leaves that it is a citrus of some sort, but it could be a lime or a tangerine, rather than a lemon. The person who would know for sure is my former colleague and longtime friend, Frank Miranti, who died suddenly about this time last year. He is the rightful owner of this tree, which he very likely started from seed and cared for religiously through many seasons: watering daily, misting the leaves, fertilizing every sixty to ninety days, pruning in the spring after the fruit had dropped and the tree had been brought back outside, dosing with beneficial bacteria culture in the fall, checking carefully for signs of scale or mineral deficiency, treating any problems as soon as they appeared. The tree is nearly five feet tall and in a fourteen-inch pot; it was one of the smaller ones he owned.

I still can’t believe he is gone. I keep going over those first few days in my mind, when those who knew him were reeling from the initial shock, calling and emailing everyone we could think of who knew Frank or who might have information about what had happened, and discovering in the process previously unknown connections among his various circles of friends. I first learned something was wrong on a Monday when my ex-husband called me at the office and asked if I knew why there were police cars in front of Frank’s house. I immediately called the office where Frank worked at the time to see what I could find out; the woman who answered the phone was crying when she told me that he had died.

Over the next days and weeks, we tried to piece together what had happened between the time Frank left work on Friday and the time he failed to show up for work on Monday. According to coworkers, Frank seemed fine when he left work at the end of the week. From what we could gather, he had then taken his youngest sister grocery shopping; after that, he had gone to visit a friend in the hospital. That was the last anyone saw him. His sister thought she remembered him saying he might not be at the farmers market at 8:00 on Saturday, which was his usual time, because he had been out so late on Friday. His sisters from St. Louis wondered why he didn’t answer his phone. Later one of his neighbors noticed that Frank had not been in his garden all weekend. No one recalled him being sick or depressed, although several people commented that he had been working hard in recent weeks. By Monday, when he didn’t call in to the office, it was becoming apparent that something was wrong, and someone contacted the police, who found him dead in his bed of unknown causes. Weeks later, after completing the police investigation and running numerous forensic tests, they still had not identified a cause of death. He was forty-nine years old.

I had known Frank since graduate school, when he was writing heavily textured poems about his grandmother from Sicily and I was writing spare poems about my stillborn daughter. We both lived near Stephens College campus at the time, and he used to walk past my place on his way to and from the University every day. Even before we met, we couldn’t help but notice each other. He had long curly black hair and a full dark beard. I had hair down to my waist. I thought he looked like Jesus. He thought I was the perfect Earth mother. We first noticed each other the day my husband and I and our three-year-old son moved to town. Frank told me later that when he saw us unloading our small antique printing press from the moving truck, he knew he had to get to know “that hippie family.”

During that first fall, we saw each other occasionally at poetry readings or other campus events and spoke when we met on the street, but we did not really get to know each for a couple of years, when we found ourselves in the same graduate program. We took several poetry workshops together, taught parallel sections of freshman composition, co-edited the English department’s literary magazine, and served as poetry advisors for the Missouri Review. I was pregnant during the years we were in school, and Frank worried over me like a mother hen, fussing at me when I skipped lunch or drank too much coffee, offering me rides home when the weather was bad or he thought I looked tired, covering my classes for me when I lost another baby, bringing flowers to the hospital after my second son was born. After graduate school, Frank and I worked as editors at several different University offices off and on over the years—at an assessment center, at an early childhood center, and in distance education. He was a skilled editor, a conscientious worker, and a loyal friend.

We also shared an interest in gardening, and we often shared cuttings or seeds, but Frank had the most amazing Mediteranean-style garden you could ever hope to find in the Midwest. In addition to the citrus trees, he also grew pineapples and jasmine and figs and grapes in his lush garden space. Some of his plants, including one he called the Grand Duke, were descended from plants his grandmother brought over from Sicily.  Frank loved to share cuttings and fruits from his garden, as well as advice. He was a font of wisdom about organic gardening methods; those who stopped by his garden could expect to receive a personal tour, complete with samples of whatever was in season and answers to any questions one might ask. He also routinely brought the fruits of his garden to the office to share, including lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes, as well as more exotic offerings. One year he offered bundles of grape vines to anyone who wanted them, along with detailed instructions about how to care for them the first, second, and third year. Another time he brought in fresh figs for those who wanted a taste. He brought in small batches of his special fertilizer or mineral supplements or fungicides to share with other gardeners in the office.  Several times he brought me a single jasmine blossom in a small plastic vial; the sweet scent filled the entire office and lasted for days.

When his sister brought the small citrus tree to me, she also brought me a two-page single-spaced set of instructions that she had found while going through Frank’s papers. He had written them several years earlier when he decided to give away his prize lemon tree, after he began having back trouble and the tree had grown too large to carry up to his third-floor apartment every fall and back down to the garden every spring, even with assistance from the homeless men Frank occasionally hired to help out around the place.  That particular tree was well over eight feet tall by then, with full spreading branches. The tree had been in his family for years but had never bloomed until Frank took it over. In fact, the first year it began to fruit, Frank thought at first that the tree had developed gall, until he took a closer look and discovered that the hard green pea-shaped growths were in fact lemons. Under Frank’s care, the tree continued to bear fruit in a sunny window in his apartment, some years producing dozens of large lemons, which Frank would always share with friends and neighbors.

I have been doing my best to follow Frank’s instructions for caring for the tree his sister gave me,  although I did not have the exact brand of fertilizer and mineral supplement he called for, and I did not always apply the fertilizer ten days before the full moon, as he  recommended. I also did not prune the tree in the spring, as he would have done, because I wan’t sure whether it was too late by the time I received the tree and moved it outside. And I am sorry to say I did not water it every day or mist the leaves more often. Frank’s instructions warn that if the tree is underwatered, the topmost leaves will start to curl, which I did notice a time or two. Regardless, the tree survived its first two seasons with me in reasonably good shape. I am trusting that Frank knew what he was talking about when he said not to worry if the tree yellows up a bunch of leaves and drops them for about three weeks in October/November.  I have drenched the soil twice now with Knock Out Gnats, as instructed, and moved the tree inside for the winter, where I have placed it in my sunniest south-facing window. I hope I can keep it alive and maybe even coax it to bloom and bear fruit.

Late August in the Gardens

The garden is in shambles, bindweed choking

the asters and butterfly bush, coneflowers gone to seed

in narrow cracks in the driveway and along the steps

leading up to the house, poppy mallow vining its way

across the sidewalk, lacy skeletons of grape leaves

gasping on the iron trellises. Empty tomato cages half buried

beneath the mildewed lilac bush, unopened bags of mulch

she meant to spread between the plantings, before

it got too hot and the weeds took off, tools leaning

against the front of the house, the striped hose

like an overgrown garden snake

slithering through tall grass.

She takes a pair of rusted hedge clippers

and hacks away at the nameless evergreen

in front of the porch, originally planted for its abili

to grow in poor soil and construction-site rubble

rather than for any charm of its own,

now grown so high it has attracted the attention

of the neighborhood safety officer, who warned her

that covering the front windows like that

is an invitation to thieves, but failed to mention

the secluded back yard, the sliding patio door.

Not for the first time she wonders if perhaps

she is missing something. Could this

ordinary foundation planting, in the hands of

a topiary artist, become something spectacular,

a dinosaur standing guard beneath the front windows,

scaring off thieves and safety officers alike,

with its armored plates and spiky horns.

As it is, the bush mostly serves to hide

an embarrassing assortment of junk—empty flower

pots, half bags of potting soil, trowels and cultivators and

garden gloves, a rusted pail that holds the smoker

she and her husband use to calm the bees.

Earlier in the year the bush also hid

a cardinal’s nest with two naked hatchlings

she watched from inside the house as

the parents took turns flying in with bugs

to stuff down waiting throats, until one day

she noticed a deadly silence filled the porch,

the chicks no longer chirruping in their nest,

the nest empty, the parents gone.

May is the most exuberant month

This is the point in the gardening year where I begin to feel overwhelmed. Early in the spring, I think surely this year I will be able to keep up with things, but then we get a few weeks of dry weather and the soil gets hard to work, and the weeds get hard to pull without breaking and forming little bits of root that will sprout new (and, I suspect, hardier) weeds. I decide I’ll wait until we get a good rain before I plant the annuals. Then comes a deluge (five inches over a single weekend), and after that, the soil is too wet. And there goes my plan to work in the garden every day and pay attention to each plant that comes up so I can learn all there is to know about their habits.

In the meantime, the plants are coming alive, faster than I can respond, and  I am missing my friend and colleague Frank, a wonderful gardener who liked to share advice as well as plants. This is the first gardening season since he died suddenly last November, and there is a noticeable change in the garden talk around the office this spring without Frank. A few years back he gave me a bundle of grape vines that he had pruned from his well-established vine and told me how to take care of them: the first year I was just to plant the whole bundle and let them put down roots, the second year I was to transplant them to their permanent location and let them grow straight up, and the third year I was to do something important that I no longer remember. I sure wish Frank were around to ask again what kind of grape this is and what I need to do with the vines, which are heading up the trellis by the front walk. So far, all I have done is pull up the asters that threatened to suffocate them on one side.

May is the most exuberant month in my garden, regardless of whether I get out and work it or not. When I started planting perennial beds, my plan was to have something in bloom from March through November, but clearly May is the winner. The daffodils and lilacs and hyacinths of early spring are long gone and have by now been replaced with perky Shasta daisies, cheerful yellow coreopsis, lush pink and deep rose-colored peonies, towering purple dames rockets, frilly red poppies, dark purple and white iris, and a deep burgundy clematis growing over the mailbox and across the coreopsis, twining its tendrils around everything as it heads toward the grape arbor. In the corner by the fence, the climbing red rose is covered with blooms and thick with stickers.

The square-foot gardens by the driveway are doing reasonably well. So far we have had a small salad from the lettuce mix I planted, and the peas are just coming into bloom. The broccolli plants are looking healthy and only have a few ragged holes in their leaves from the cabbage worms. Try as I might, I very seldom can see the broccolli-colored worms until they have grown big enough to be truly destructive, but Jim picked off a couple last week. We have eaten exactly four strawberries so far but are still optimistic that we will have a decent bowl full before spring is out, despite something having eaten all the leaves off earlier in the month.

Something else nibbled the tips off the white rose bush in the middle of the yard, and I have been anxious about the small buds beginning to form, remembering all the times I went to bed thinking tomorrow the fragrant rose buds would finally open up. Then tomorrow, there would be deer tracks through the yard and no roses.

It must be Spring because the pests are back in force.

I always was a sucker for the cute little fawns and bunnies and squirrels and mice that scampered through my imagination, fed by books about Bambi and Peter Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin and Hunca Munca and those adorable little mice that made Cinderella’s ball gown while she was scrubbing the hearth. But I must admit these days I am beginning to sympathize more with Mr. MacGregor and Elmer Fudd than with Peter Rabbit and Bugs Bunny.

Something has eaten the leaves completely off half my strawberries and nibbled at the tender new leaves on the rose bush, despite my attempts to keep pests away with various types of natural sprays and pellets “guaranteed to work,” concoctions made from hot peppers, rotten eggs, blood, bone meal, garlic, and other putrid and off-putting smells. I also tried hanging bars of Irish Spring around the garden, which seemed to work for a while, but apparently, deer get used to certain repellants and can no longer be fooled.

I don’t remember anything ever eating my strawberry leaves before. I was prepared to spread netting over them before they ripened and the birds descended on them or the squirrels began taking bites out of the berries. So far, whatever is eating the roses has not yet touched the buds. (I must admit it seems strange to be spraying my sweet-smelling roses with this stuff.) I keep expecting the deer to discover the hostas and tomatoes soon; the lettuce and peas are safe under a cage in the square-foot garden near the driveway, although I worry that some clever critter will figure out a way to push the cage out of the way or burrow under it. I thought briefly of moving one of the cages to cover the strawberries but decided that was not a real solution. Removing the cages would be like opening a free all-you-can-eat buffet of tender salad greens.

Most of my garden consists of plants that are native to Missouri and not susceptible to disease. Since I have a wooded back lot that runs down to the Hinkson Creek where the deer run, I also try to select plants that deer don’t particularly like, but the past winter was so harsh, I think all the animals may be branching out this spring and sampling new delicacies.

I never count on growing enough vegetables to feed our small family, only enough to make me appreciate farmers. Thankfully, we have a wonderful farmers market in town, so if I do a bad job caring for my garden, I won’t starve as the early pioneers would have. I suppose if I were dependent on the food I could grow, I’d be more vigilant about ridding my yard of pests. As it is, I waiver between believing that every creature has a right to live “naturally” (whatever that means) without interference from me and believing that I should do whatever I can to protect my garden. As Michael Pollan points out in his wonderful book, Second Nature, there is nothing natural about gardening. Eventually, one has to take action.

In the past I have tended to skip over the sections on disease and pests in my garden books, but this year, I think I need to try to find out more about their ways and means. Having determined not to use chemicals that are harmful to the environment and preferring not to kill any living creature, even slugs and hornworms, my options for protecting my garden are somewhat limited. I have tended toward various kinds of deterrents, but that obviously has its limitations.

The year a groundhog burrowed under our front porch and cut all the brocolli down to the ground just as it was ready to harvest, we tried a live trap but only managed to catch the next-door neighbor’s cat (unharmed but traumatized) and a squirrel (which we have lately seen at the bird feeders out back, minus half his tail). Each evening Jim tries to move the birdfeeders from the deck to a hook under the eaves before the raccoon appears for his nightly feast.

I’ve considered netting and fencing and cages, but those sort of destroy the ornamental look I was going for and may violate some neighborhood code I am unaware of. I am somewhat encouraged, though, since my neighbor across the street has installed an electric fence around his six tomato plants and another neighbor has built cages out of chicken wire around her roses. I’ve never liked the idea of trapping or shooting pests or burning them out of their burrows, but I must say, the thought has lately crossed my mind. Of course, that is not allowed within the city limits, anyway, so for now, they are safe.

I realize I am inconsistent in my consideration of what constitutes a pest and who deserves to be in my house and garden. I also know that without constant vigilance, “nature” quickly takes over. The bird that nested in our dryer vent and the mice that tunneled through the bread we left on the counter and the ants that congregated around the honey pot are obviously pests. The birds that come to the feeders we put out are welcome to the expensive seed, but the squirrels and raccoons are not.

I also realize that my definition of what’s “natural” doesn’t take everything into account. I was thrilled when a cardinal built her nest in the bush right outside our front door and horrified weeks later when something (most likely a snake or the neighbor’s cat) snatched the baby birds out of the nest. I feel bad when Jim catches mice in traps or poisons ants, but last Sunday I secretly hoped the black snake we discovered near the empty bee boxes would find and eat the mice that had destroyed the comb.

Dandelions

Dent-de-lion or fairy clock, with its sharp jagged leaves and gossamer seedhead,  is almost universally despised by adults yet adored by children. What four-year-old has not cheerfully picked a fistfull of dandelions and presented it with pride to parents or grandparents, saying, “These are for you! I picked them myself!” What parent has not watched with some dismay as their young child delightedly puffed on the feathery seedheads, sending seeds drifting across the neighborhood.

And yet in earlier times the dandelion was happily grown in medicinal gardens. Its common names hint at its usefulness as a diuretic: pis en lit, piss a bed, pee in the bed. According to my herbal guides, all parts of the plant can be used safely. An infusion of the leaves and roots can help the liver, gallbladder, and kidneys function normally. To stimulate the appetite or improve the complexion, drink dandelion tea or eat fresh leaves regularly. To treat warts, dab on a little of the white juice that flows from the plant when cut  (you should not, however, be alarmed if the warts first turn black before disappearing, according to The Country Diary Herbal ). During World War II, when coffee was in short supply, many people  substituted  drinks made from the chopped and roasted roots of dandelion. The leaves are full of vitamins and minerals and can be eaten fresh in salads (though Joy of Cooking recommends that you cut the leaves early before the plants flower).

Many of my neighbors have recently begun their battle against dandelions, going around their yards with spray bottles, taking aim at the lion’s teeth. Not wanting to use chemicals on my yard but wanting to be neighborly, I try to dig  the dandelions out, trying to get the entire taproot using a pointed digger, preferably before the  seed heads form. Seldom can I get them all, of course, and within days new dandelions will have sprouted all over the yard. A couple years ago, I had let them go too far before attempting to dig them up, so I decided to make dandelion wine. The recipe calls for a quart or so of flower heads to make a gallon of wine, which didn’t seem like too much, but I didn’t notice until later that the recipe said not to leave any of the green parts in, just to use the yellow petals. Naturally, this ended up being a bigger project than I had thought, pulling all the tiny petals off the green caps until I had a quart of them. And that was only the beginning.

Making wine is not a hobby for the impatient. After I had filled a quart measure with yellow petals and mixed them with the rest of the ingredients (sugar, water, golden raisins, acid blend, Campden tablet, yeast energizer, tannin, yeast), it was time to begin the long period of waiting: waiting for fermentation to begin, then waiting for it to slow down, then straining, racking, re-racking until the wine was “clear and still” and finally ready to bottle. Then after bottling, more waiting until that unknown future date when it would actually be drinkable (at least six months, according to the recipe). Even at that, I probably should have let it ferment a bit longer before bottling, until the wine was completely clear. I picked the dandelions in April 2008 and bottled the wine almost a full year later, in March 2009. Five months after that, in August 2009, I tried the first bottle, optimistically humming to myself, “dandelion wine, feeling fine” and imagining a lazy afternoon by the creek, but I was seriously disappointed by the harsh and unfinished taste of the wine.

But this week, after digging up dandelions all one afternoon, I decided it was time to try the wine again. With some trepidation, I went down to the basement, where the three remaining bottles have been fermenting on their sides inside a dark box for over a year, and picked out a bottle. After I poured myself a drink, I held the glass up to the light and noticed with a smile its deep golden color (with only a hint of cloudiness). Perhaps this would be all right. Next I swirled the liquid in the glass and smelled the bouquet several times,  pleased with the bouquet of all those golden afternoons rolled into one. It was time to taste the wine.

Chives

I’ve had chives on the brain for the last couple of days. They help keep my mind off other things that I have no control over whatsoever, like how the local elections turned out or what’s going to happen after my son deploys to Afghanistan this summer or when the caldera we call Yellowstone Park might erupt again without warning.

The chives look so delicate this early in spring, with their slender hollow leaves, but just try to pull them out without breaking them off at the roots. Even with a dandelion digger, it’s hard to get the whole plant out. And they are coming up everywhere, including between the cracks of the sidewalk out near the street. Later this spring, they will form clumps that will grow to about eight inches tall and produce charming puffs of lavendar flowers. I know I won’t want to cut them back at that time, because the bees are fond of the flowers, and so it will begin again, with me next spring wondering why I didn’t trim them back before they went to seed.

Chives are part of the allium family, along with garlic, leek, and onions; they are native of Eurasia. They like full sun and well-drained soil, and (as I have discovered) are easy to grow from seed and will self-sow if the flowers are allowed to fade. I read once that they make good companions for roses, keeping away black spot and aphids, so I have a clump planted under the white bush rose. By chance, they are also reputed to chase off the carrot fly, and last year I also had a patch of carrots growing on the other side of the rose bush near. Unlike many herbs, chives have no medicinal value, but both the leaves and flowers are edible and give a light onion flavor to soft cheeses, butter, eggs, potatoes, and salads. If you want to have fresh chives all year, the clumps can be lifted in the fall and planted in pots inside.

Although I like the naturalized look of my gardens, some plants, such as the chives and wild marjoram and lemon balm, have made themselves too much at home and have spread out into neighboring areas, crowding out other plants. When the plants are still relatively small and the days still pleasant in early spring, I like to think that I can get some control over the runaway plants and impose something like a design. So I have been scanning the gardens these past few weeks, paying attention to which plants are thriving where, trying to decide which ones to let stay, which ones to transplant to a different location that will suit me better, which ones to pull out, knowing that whatever I might decide, nature will find its own way.

My garden books offer plenty of suggestions about designing gardens, along with helpful sketches and photographs of gardens at their prime, but all seem to assume that you are starting with a clean palette. Some suggest theme gardens, such as gardens dedicated to culinary herbs, medicinal herbs, or ornamental herbs. Some focus on elements of design, such as color of bloom or texture of leaves or height of the plants. Some focus on the growing conditions of the plot (amount of sun, composition of the soil, how much moisture). I am enough of a realist to know that I could never maintain one of the elaborate formal herb gardens so popular in Victorian England, much as I would enjoy having such a garden, with its intricate knots, paths, and fountains. But even the informal gardens exhibit a measure of control that I need to keep in mind.

Several of my books on herbs mention a checkerboard pattern, which seems to combine elements of the formal with the informal in a way that seems promising. The idea is to make a checkerboard of paving stones or bricks and then plant different herbs in each of the open spaces. The paving stones provide a place to put your feet while walking across the garden; the open spaces provide numerous tiny gardens that are easy to tend and can also keep invasive plants from spreading too wide. Like the edges of a piece of drawing paper or the form of a sonnet, the formal elements impose some restrictions within which one can happily create. Last year I rounded up all the stray bricks I could find about the place and laid them in a rough checkerboard pattern across the “herb garden” out near the street. But of course, once the plants got going, I allowed them to creep across the bricks and out of their boundaries in an untidy way.

Now that I have pulled out a great many of the single chive plants, I am focusing on the larger clumps and trying to decide how many to keep and where I’d like them to be. Perhaps I’ll see if any have already placed themselves anywhere within the checkerboard and dedicate those squares to chives. The rest I may move beneath the rose bush.

Strawberry Patch

Sometimes I like to think that weeds are just plants growing where I don’t want them to be, but other times I think there is something especially pernicious about weeds that makes them different from other plants. Today I am choosing to believe the former as I weed the strawberry patch, pulling out everything that is not strawberry, including numerous flowers that I happily allow to grow in other parts of my garden—Shasta daisies, lambs ear, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, asters, and columbine. But that creates a dilemma when I get to the edge of the strawberry patch. At what point do the  strawberries themselves become weeds as they send runners out into other parts of the garden and cross over into the sections claimed by columbine or iris?

I wish I had kept better records last year when I first planted the strawberries (by which I mean I wish I had kept any records at all). I can no longer remember how many or what kind I planted. As I was weeding the patch, I ran across a couple of plastic markers, which I hoped would clue me in, but one said “curly parsley” and the other said “lavender.” At the very least, it would be nice to know whether I planted June-bearing or everbearing plants.

My gardening encyclopedia tells me that strawberries are grown to some extent in every state in the Union but that different varieties are suited to different parts of the country. A guide published by University of Missouri extension says that “no fruit is more likely to provide home gardeners with success and satisfaction than strawberries” and lists ten popular varieties that are well adapted to our state. Of these I recognize the names Surecrop and Allstar, so perhaps I planted one of those varieties. The guide also lists several everbearing and day-neutral varieties commonly grown in Missouri; of these, the name Ozark Beauty sounds familiar, although the guide says it is not truly everbearing, as it will produce a crop in the spring and a small crop in the fall, with little or no crop in between. Maybe that’s what I planted.

If the berries are Surecrop, they will, according to the guide, be large, light-colored, and tart, and will ripen in early midseason; if Allstars, they will be large, glossy, orange-red, and firm, and will ripen in late midseason. Ozark Beauties will produce medium-sized, light-colored berries of average quality. Surecrop is described as one of the most “productive, vigorous and disease-resistant cultivars”; Allstar is supposedly “resistant to red stele and verticillium wilt and tolerant of leaf diseases.” Ozark Beauties are described as  “extremely variable in its performance in Missouri.”

The brochure then goes on to describe the problems facing strawberries, including various kinds of root rot, leaf spots, wilt, and mold; insects, including tarnished plant bugs, leafrollers, mites, weevils, slugs, and nematodes; as well as frost injury, nutrient deficiences, inadequate pollination, and abnormally high temperatures.  If the plants somehow manage to fruit despite all this, the birds may eat them all.  With so much going against them, I wonder how they can possibly provide “success and satisfaction” for the home gardener. I am glad I didn’t read about these problems last year, or I might not have planted strawberries at all.

Regardless of what variety I planted, I was apparently supposed to remove the blossoms the first year and train the runners, and I should have mulched the plants in late November or early December. As I recall, we allowed the berries to develop and happily ate a few on top of our ice cream, and we allowed the runners to take off in all directions away from the mother plants, absolutely untrained. We’ll see what happens this year.

Spring is Busting Out All Over

It started with a good-sized area near the street, where I dug up a sprawling juniper and a Mugho pine that had gotten out of hand, and I planted herbs in the poor soil, in full sun. I figured they would be hardy enough to handle the harsh conditions. Then I planted a narrow perennial bed along the driveway and put in a lilac bush between the front windows. I planted iris along the wood rail fence that runs between the neighbor’s yard and mine, to commemorate my daughter, who was stillborn during the month in which they bloom, and I planted a climbing red rose in the corner at the end of the porch to remind me of my grandaddy’s garden in Georgetown. After the large Bradford pear blew over in a storm, I put in a circular butterfly garden in the very center of the front yard. I planted strawberries along the front walk and daisies by the mailbox.

Each year I dug up more and more of my front yard and converted it to garden beds, so by now what little grass is left can be mowed with a weed eater, and there is usually something in bloom from March through November.  I am fortunate to live in a neighborhood where people don’t insist on having a continuous swath of well-managed turf, although I have heard from my sister-in-law that some people refer to my yard as “the” yard. (I’m not sure they mean this as a compliment.) It is the complete opposite of a secret garden, being right out in front for all to see, but in my mind, I picture it as an English country garden, behind a picket fence or a dense hedge.

Mostly the beds are filled with perennials and bulbs and self-seeding annuals, but I have also been known to plant tomatoes near the rose bush, green beans near the front porch, and lettuce along the sidewalk.  I now have a good-sized vegetable patch near the driveway and a grape arbor over the front walk. My grandfather used to stick plants in wherever he could find the space, even after he moved to an apartment at the retirement center; I remember him once announcing with a grin that he was “going out to the petunia patch to pick some tomatoes.” Like him, I am also fond of “volunteers” and tend to let interesting looking plants grow to see what they might turn into. The dogwood tree was a volunteer that we rescued from the corner near the chimney where it had seeded itself. This time of year, when the plants are just poking out of the soil, I always think I will actually design the spaces and pull out the plants that have taken over or move those that are growing in the wrong places. But already, the gardens are way ahead of me.

In full bloom right now in my garden are no fewer than six varieties of daffodils—some pale yellow with pale yellow ruffled cups, some brighter yellow with deep yellow fluted cups, some cream with deep-orange short cups. There are also numerous pink hyacinths and four purple ones. The daffodils are mostly in what I still call the “herb garden” (out near the street) and the “butterfly garden” (in the center of the yard), although the original plants are no longer there or have reseeded themselves in other places. The hyacinths are mostly in front of what I still call the “shade garden” (near the wood rail fence), although last year our neighbor cut back all the branches of his sycamore tree up to about twenty feet, so there may not be as much shade this year. The dogwood and the lilac are just coming into bloom.

Here is what’s just coming up the first week of April in my yard in mid-Missouri:

  • strawberries in a wide patch near one side of the sidewalk
  • surprise lilies in front of the evergreen bushes by the front porch
  • asters everywhere
  • chives all over the “herb garden”
  • a few tulips under the sage in the “herb garden” and among the daisies along the sidewalk across from the strawberries
  • poppies in the “butterfly garden”
  • peonies out near the street
  • daisies everywhere
  • iris in front of the porch and under the lilac bush
  • black-eyed Susans at the back of the “butterfly garden”
  • a few yarrow near the mailbox
  • poppy mallow near the mailbox and in the “herb garden”
  • hardy geraniums and golden alyssum near the rose bush
  • more hardy geraniums near the mail box
  • lambs ear everywhere
  • coreopsis near the mailbox and in the “herb garden”
  • marjoram all over the “herb garden”
  • verbena out near the street in the “herb garden”
  • sage near the driveway in the “herb garden”
  • cone flowers everywhere
  • one bright blue anemone near the trellis along the sidewalk on the edge of the “herb garden”
  • a white rose bush along the sidewalk that leads from the driveway to the house
  • a red climbing rose in the corner at the end of the porch
  • a couple dames rockets in the shade garden (and out into the grass)
  • a few day lilies in the “shade garden”
  • invasive bush honeysuckle in the “shade garden”
  • some sort of ground cover in the “shade garden”
  • columbine in the “butterfly garden” and “shade garden”
  • a small cedar tree near the mailbox
  • some kind of spreading succulent in the corner of the “herb garden” between the sidewalks
  • brocolli and lettuce in the “square-foot gardens”
  • clematis climbing over the mailbox
  • vinca, daffodils, and iris in the small back yard near the woods