Monday, January 31, 2011

The Herb Garden.... The Basics

Planting an herb garden is immensely satisfying for besides providing visual beauty as the plants flower, they will provide seasoning for culinary delights, flowers for relaxing baths, and often offer medicinal properties as well. Either used while fresh, or dried for future use, herbs are among the most ancient plants to be utilized by mankind. And the satisfaction of planting and growing your own knows no bounds.

Mint has traveled everywhere~ interloped to fraternize with the Oregano... and the Larkspur was not invited~

The Mint family encompasses an enormous selection and a summer glass of iced tea is naked without a sprig. Spearmint, chocolate mint, peppermint and many other varieties are traditional garden constants. All are fond of warm climates, and may be found in most parts of the world. Most of the mints with the exception of ‘Apple Mint’ tend to travel along the edge of the bed so plan on their wayward wandering when planting them. Containment can become a taxing full time job unless they are allowed to roam. Apple Mint stays where she is planted and will remain lovely and carefree for years.

Apple Mint Below~

Lemon Balm is both an ancient herb and a favorite of bees. It was used among bee keepers in Greece where it was rubbed on hives to keep the bees from swarming by calming them. Taken as a tea, it has been touted to ensure longevity, ease fear, and cure headaches or fatigue. Very easy to grow, it is a native of southern Europe and North Africa, where it has been cultivated for over 2000 years. Today it enjoys continued popularity and brushing by it on an evening stroll through the garden brings a sensory delight.

Perhaps add the beautiful perennial Garden Sage for it has long been a staple in southern culinary. No turkey is complete unless stuffed with sage dressing and sage picked from your garden has a taste more flavorful than any which may be found in processed products. Following blooming slightly prune then allow the plant to recover before cutting stalks to dry. Wait to cut until the morning dew has dried and hang the stems in a dark closet until they have thoroughly dried. A garage or out building is the best place to dry so the leaves are not subject to accidental air conditioning. Once the leaves are crisp, strip them from the branch and seal in an air tight plastic bag.

Love my Sage~

Lavender is not to be forgotten, especially since this Mediterranean native adores our western Oklahoma climate. Dry, sunny, even rocky gardens appeal to this perennial favorite making it easy to grow here. It has been continually cultivated for over 2,500 years and its ability to dispel odor made it useful in Egyptian mummification. In Greece and Rome it was used to scent baths and ease fatigue and by Medieval times it was used as a deodorant and a way to ward off Black Death. Legend has Cleopatra using lavender’s sensual properties to seduce Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, which no doubt accounts for its time-tested popularity... which continues today.

Add Some Chives too~
Chives are not only beautiful, but provide sweet early snippets to add to salads, baked potatoes, and anything else that needs a zing!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Monet's Garden... and Adapting to Change

February is a time for planning what to do in the garden and often visiting famous gardens of the past provides inspiration. Viewing a book on Claude Monet, the French painter and father of the Impressionistic Painting Movement will provide inspiration for he was a gardener extraordinaire. His paintings of flowers and water lilies are legend and his own gardens were inspiration for them.

In 1883 he moved with his family to Giverney France where he rented an acreage complete with a ramshackle home and out buildings in various stages of neglect and decay. He enlisted the enthusiastic energy of his eight children and the family worked tirelessly for years to create an oasis of beauty. Over time various gardens were enclosed to have a certain view and therefore many gardens contain ‘flower arrangements’ throughout. Often captured in his paintings, his 'arrangements' became immensely popular. As his wealth increased, he purchased the land and adjacent acreages and the gardens continued to evolve.

Eventually the children grew and lost interest in the projects so an undaunted Monet simply hired seven gardeners to help him. His fantastic gardens contain a central walk (allee) with rose covered hoops. There is one section with seven two-tiered pergolas containing roses with Clematis hanging above, draping like lace curtains. A meandering pebble path overflows with nasturtiums which were an 'accidental mistake' Monet loved and repeated each year. Both rare and common species of flowers dance in magical tandem throughout the gardens. In his later years, he used much of his money to purchase rare and expensive species of plants and became ardently interested in botany.

His final project was a water garden complete with a traditional Japanese bridge and although he never traveled to Japan, woodcuts inspired him and the bridge is of his own design. The covered bridge absolutely drips with white and mauve wisteria providing a stunning seasonal effect. Monet endlessly painted his gardens, capturing light and motion, the flowering and falling of petals, the ripple of water… from every angle, through every season. His overwhelming passion for gardening, for art, for living has made his home a French national treasure with over a million visitors a year. (Second only to Versailles).

There is a virtual treasure trove of information about his gardens available both online and in libraries. Why not research the genius of Monet to stave off the house-bound boredom which is bound to emerge in February? Without doubt, even Monet was pleased February is a short month!

Our (Former) North Garden:
View from N. to S.~ preparing to plant the garden below~ Pictured from S. to N.

*I can relate to the enthusiasm of his eight children. Our own eight adored projects and our acreage continually evolved with their interests. The north field which was once a massive vegetable garden became a horseback riding ring, a go-cart track, a baseball diamond, and finally a golf course! However, as Monet discovered, children do grow into adulthood and leave home. Since hiring a staff of seven was impossible, Michael and I realized replanting two acres to gardens was too much for us alone... thus the downsizing article. Adaptation is the secret and the garden will evolve... bringing new joy in unexpected ways. Smaller ways~

Horseback riding was a passion for years!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow, Snow and More Snow... A Benefit for the Garden

Japanese gardeners refer to the snow formation above as sekka... snow blossoms. I had never seen them before our snowfall last winter... they are lovely.

Gardeners have long cherished snow as it forms a natural insulation for premature thawing. Since moisture in the soil expands as it turns to ice, a premature thaw followed by a freeze can cause the bed to heave disturbing the roots of small plants nestled there. It has been scientifically proven that a small layer of light fluffy snow can insulate the flower bed completely allowing for a tolerable temperature beneath it. Amazingly, a bone chilling temperature of minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit and a nine inch layer of snow can ensure the soil at the surface remains a relatively cozy 28 degrees. Snow also provides protection from drying winter winds and allows the bacteria in the soil to continue the work of decomposing organic matter leftover in the garden.

An odd benefit of pollution is the fact that snowflakes collect the airborne particles of automobile exhaust and add it to their composition as they fall. Most exhaust is composed of nitrates, which are the principal component of well balanced fertilizers. Today’s snow may be a noxious cocktail of chemicals that make for poor tasting ice cream, but its benefit to the garden is boundless.

The Japanese, famous for their dedication to gardening, have long revered snow and consider it integral to their garden displays. They have garden tours during the snow and even use yukimi (snow viewing lanterns) strategically placed about the garden for maximum effect. Snowflakes collected on tree branches are called sekka (snow blossoms). Trees are carefully pruned and supported with stakes to allow the canopy to collect the snow without collapsing.

In spite of the obvious inconvenience, our friends to the east may remind themselves that snow provides a multitude of benefits for the garden. It also gives stunning visual continuity and provides an unsurpassed aesthetic beauty during boring winter months... Snow is indeed a miraculous feat of nature.

Monday, January 24, 2011

January Thoughts

Force some Redbud!

There are telltale and unmistakable signs that January is upon us for the garden appears to have collapsed upon itself, imploded if you will. Every bit of last year’s efforts left behind, either on purpose or by mistake, seems but a flattened pile of mish, begging to be hauled to the compost bin or the canyon. Walking the beds, scouting for the promise of spring, only a few daring green bulb-tips have appeared to push their way above the frozen soil. Such fortitude is admirable, but hardly fool hardy for they know the secret… the emerging green contains the equivalent of antifreeze. They are unafraid and determined to arrive at the garden party first!

Everyone who gardens considers weather watching a hobby and this year is an anomaly as one of the strongest La Nina events since record-keeping began is taking place in the Pacific Ocean. La Nina's global influence is the cause of heavy rains in Brazil where conditions are disastrous with flooding reaching apocalyptic proportions. Mudslides are common in former forests which have been clear cut for urban expansion and more than 500 people have died in flooding last week alone, making it their worst natural disaster in decades. Poor Australia has suffered with a terrible drought for years and the old adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ applies to the entire Continent. Described by the Prime Minister as ‘epic’, the continued flooding will have an impact upon major cities for decades. China is having a disastrous drought which is threatening their wheat crop and our own North East is being pounded by dipping temperature and heavy snow. Here we are experiencing a drought with barely any precipitation in months. An elderly Oklahoma farmer once mused, “With what is spent on science, why don’t we have a year round temperature of seventy two degrees and half inch of rain every week?” Unfortunately weather is not the domain of science so we must resolve to carefully pray for rain… but not too much.

Since we are so dry, it is important to water on days which reach above freezing. Even dormant plants need a drink, for although they are resting above ground their roots are still busy below. The addition of mulch is helpful since the ground has finally frozen for will keep it from thawing on mild days. Mulch is not to keep plants warm, but rather to keep them cold and inhibit any premature action from a thaw which may be followed by more freezes. When watering remember to turn it off at night… it is rather embarrassing but on more than one occasion, we have forgotten and awoke to a shocking ice palace!


To remind yourself that spring is coming, cut a few branches of flowering shrubs to force inside. Choose branches from any of the fruit trees and ornamentals such as Redbud, Flowering Quince, Forsythia, Spirea, and Viburnum are also favorites. Cut carefully so as not to disfigure the shape of the tree. Bring the branches inside, cut a three inch slit upwards at the base to allow the branch to ‘drink’ and place them in warm water for several hours to break dormancy. Recut an inch from the end, place them in fresh water in a cool room, and wait. It may take from two to four weeks for them to bloom, but watching and waiting is part of the joy of forcing… and the room will be filled with the scent of spring!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Horticultural Knives... for Your Valentine!

The next holiday for gift giving is Valentine's Day and the ideal gift for the gardener you love might well be an often overlooked time-saving device... the gardening knife. Available in many styles for many differing chores, the merit of a fine gardening knife is immeasurable. As we all know, the most important thing for success in the garden are tools of the trade and yet many gardeners use tired, rusty, and antiquated tools which make the job much more difficult.

Yes, there is such a thing as a gardener’s knife and it is a luxurious necessity. The many styles and chores for which they were designed make it possible to give this marvelous gift on every occasion until the gardener has an entire collection of them. There are knives for grafting and pruning, cutting and trimming, and the horticultural knife by Tina may be even be purchased for lefties.

The blade is of utmost importance and variations in design represent the practical and accumulated experience of hundreds of generations who have gone before us. The ancient Romans had a pruning knife, falculae arboraire, which was remarkably similar to grape pruning knives of the early 1930’s. The use of the same design for 2,000 years is surely not an accident making it a well tested product. Obviously the type of work it is to perform is also taken into account but the important thing to remember is the necessity of the single blade. Swiss Army knives, with their many blades and promises of versatility, are not ideal in the garden. The single blade has strength unto itself and will out perform any multi bladed knife tenfold. The more blades on a knife, the weaker it becomes.

The next factor is a blade which sharpens easily, stays sharp, and keeps a keen cut through many uses. No matter how attractive the knife, it is only as good as the hardness of the steel from which it was made. Carbon steel, while strong and used for hundreds of years, will rust if not oiled and put away after use. Prior to the 1950’s, and the process of ‘chill-quenching’, the tempering of stainless steel was hit or miss making it impractical for gardening use. It has been perfected and now has an edge comparable to carbon steel and is virtually rust-proof.

It is important when considering the purchase of a gardening knife that one ignores any product originating in China. As any one who has purchased a hammer from China knows, the steel is not correctly hardened and it will not stand the test of time. One of the premier manufacturers of gardening knives is a German company, Tina, who maintains the tradition of knife making and still uses the carbon steel and completes the process by placing the blade firmly in a walnut stock.

If a Tina is too expensive, there is a lovely Florist’s knife from the American company Schrade, and although the company went out of business just shy of their 100th anniversary, one may still find their knives through the Internet. A wonderful Budding and Grafting knife is made by Victorinox, a Swiss company and would be greatly appreciated by any gardener.

Short of giving a ton of exquisitely composted cattle manure, a versatile knife would be the next-best gift for the gardener you love.

A Victorinox may be ordered at

Monday, January 17, 2011

Fiddle and Faddle... my silly Parakeets

Fiddle and Faddle

I recall the very first time I discovered caged birds. I was about six and shopping at a five and ten when a cage of young Parakeets caught my eye. I was totally fascinated by the utter joy and excitement of the twenty or so adorable little birds. Then I noticed the price... they were only $3! I almost had enough and excitedly asked Mother if I could borrow a dollar. When I answered her query ‘what for’, she responded as though I was asking for a pony (which I also wanted). No...

By the time I was twelve I owned one and he lived in my room. He was my companion and friend and continued living with Mother and daddy when I left for college. As an adult, I have always had a parakeet in the house and find their noises very comforting; I miss them when they are not part of my ’background’. My oldest friend had passed away a year before and the silence in my home had become deafening when suddenly, by happen chance, I came upon Fiddle and Faddle.

It was early June and Elizabeth, Michael, and I were spending a Saturday morning looking for a treasure at garage sales. We stopped in front of a large two story home and began shopping the contents of tables lined on the lawn. The family were Latino so of course Lize was eagerly checking out the clothes and shoes... Latin ladies have a fabulous sense of fashion which is as festive as their music! (No ‘church lady’ clothes at that sale!) There was a small sound system on the expansive porch playing vibrant tejano music and in the background the joyful sounds of the forty or so Parakeets hanging from various cages on the porch!

Oh my...I was in heaven; I immediately wanted one... or two. Some cages had nest boxes, some very young babies with their mothers, while some held youngsters ready for homes. I picked one with a very distinctive blue band above is beak and another with a pale lavender one above hers… I bought a pair. The lady put them in a pet box and I rushed home to drag out my old cage and deposited my new friends on my porch.

Silence. The babies were totally disinterested in my world... they acted depressed. After several weeks I decided they were in culture shock so I took my radio to the porch and found a radio station playing Banda and cranked up the volume. It was as though Fiddle (he) and Faddle (she) woke from a long slumber. They began dancing then talking, first to each other, then to me! Since my birds are from two cultures they are truly bi-lingual, with Fiddle speaking both Spanish and English! They expanded their musical taste to hip-hop, ‘rock, and even Vivaldi on occasion! I’m so proud of them!

They are nine years old now and several years ago decided they are quite fond of each other. Every morning after the night-cover is removed, they make love... to our utter delight because it is so unusual. Their cage is next to the television so we side wise watch in awe as we have morning coffee and catch the news. Fiddle sidles up to her and 'talks' in a low series of tweets, kissing her beak and neck. Some days Faddle is very enthusiastic, others I fear she has a headache because she will bonk him hard on the head muttering ’No means NO’! On good days however she answers with a series of low tweets meaning 'Alright, let's'.

Afterwards she fluffs and he shudders and then they kiss and murmur sweet nothings for an hour or so before getting to the daily business of living. I love my slightly raunchy, silly, old Parakeets!

Gardeners Will Garden...

The urge to dig in the soil and plant a seed is as old as civilized mankind for the thrill of watching a seedling emerge and reach fruition is unsurpassed. Every nation has appropriated sites for carefully tended public grounds, and their continued popularity is a testament to our love affair with gardens. According to space and circumstance gardens may be found on grand estates, in tiny cottage plots, or even in cheerful window boxes spilling with blooms. Each provide a living testament to our desire to nurture and surround ourselves with natural beauty.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon built by King Nebuchadnezzar II around 600 BC were considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World… quite an honor for a garden! Many royal gardens in Europe have been cherished for generations and Prince Charles of Britain has restored many while pressing a national gardening agenda. Our own Thomas Jefferson was more pleased with his gardening innovations at Monticello than all of his diplomatic successes and even his Presidency. He avidly collected seeds, cuttings, and plants from his travels, bringing them home and carefully documenting their progress and success or failure. We have him to thank for introducing many of the species we now consider standard.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the cramped and simple gardens belonging to poor laborers and factory workers in Europe were the birthplace of florist’s flowers as we now know them. A lovely example is the magnificent Carnation, once a quarter sized Dianthus, who grew to the proportions we now recognize as standard. Petals were doubled and redoubled as enthusiastic breeders toiled in their tiny spaces after working long hours at grueling jobs. Their joy is apparent in the creations they have bequeathed us and we are grateful for their efforts.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1990 and former Communist countries were opened to the West for the first time in decades. The horticultural community was stunned at the advanced plant breeding that had occurred in impossible and suppressed conditions behind the Iron Curtain. With no laboratories, no conservatories, and little money, gardeners had persevered in their efforts to advance and improve many species and were honored by a grateful horticultural community.

Much of the hybridization we enjoy today occurred in the back yard Victory Gardens of WWII. At President Roosevelt’s request, everyone in the nation was asked to plant a garden to allow our surplus food to be sent to overseas to our troops. This program was enthusiastically adopted and petunias and marigolds were replaced by vegetables in an astonishing national effort. Most of the fresh produce consumed by the nation was grown in small garden plots and the success of this program remains unsurpassed today.

The realization that gardeners will garden regardless of hardship or circumstance is comforting. We are called to the soil for there is perpetual harmony in gardening and it knows no boundaries.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Blue Wood Louse and Morphing Bagworms

Infected wood louse

I have always depended upon observation to alert me to changes in the garden. Over the course of years it becomes apparent that some changes are subtle, while others are seasonal and appear quite suddenly. Thus it was with the blue wood louse and the morphing bagworms.

The Wood Louse (Armadillidium)
Children have always been fascinated by the wood louse (roly-poly) and observing and collecting them is a timeworn garden hobby. They have battleship gray segmented ’armor’ with multiple sets of transparent legs and boast the interesting habit of endlessly rolling into a tight marble-like ball. However they are not at all passive for they dine on wood in any hidden and damp spot in the garden, eventually causing massive destruction.

Last summer I observed a portion of them were a lovely sapphire blue. At first I thought perhaps it was the blue/green pellets in miracle grow they had eaten, however research indicates they are infected with a fatal Iridovirus named for the Greek goddess of the Rainbow, Isis. In March of 1954 Mr. Claude Rivers discovered crane fly larvae glowing with patches of blue and is credited with discovery of the phenomenon. Apparently Mr. Rivers was unacquainted with the work of Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1862) who had noted it in his poem entitled The Blue Wood-Louse…
‘Bite, frost, bite!
You roll up away from the light
The blue wood-louse, and the plump dormouse,
And the bees are still'd, and the flies are kill'd,
And you bite far into the heart of the house,
But not into mine.’

The Bag Worm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis)
Now that the trees are leafless, it is apparent the extent of last summer’s bagworm infestation for they appear in extraordinary numbers hanging on bare branches. First observed last July, the bag worms reached epic proportions and for the first time they attacked the Elms… as though the poor Elm’s don’t already have problems enough with various diseases. In recent years bag worms were seen predominately on the Bald Cypress and Evergreens, but not in enough numbers to actually kill the tree. However last summer many Cedars as well as the Elms were stripped of all life-sustaining foliage and died in the summer’s heat.

Lengthy scientific explanations aside, the bagworm is a particularly nasty pest for it kills its host by sucking the life out of it as foliage is consumed by these camouflaged eating machines. Bagworms begin to build their signature case shortly after hatching and their only purpose is to grow within the case, pupate, mate, then reproduce in the thousands before dying.

In winter many cases seem empty, however in some Mother has laid eggs and the young are growing within the bag. As recommended last July hand-picking is best and cutting the bag in half with scissors is immensely satisfying. Perhaps continuing the summer’s challenge could stave off winter boredom a bit… fatally wounding baby bagworms seems a fine hobby indeed!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Herbs for Tea

This year consider the legendary uses of herbs and perhaps select a few to include in the scope of your garden. Selection should include herbs for making tea. Tea is second only to water as the most consumed beverage in the world. Herbal teas made from dried fruit, flowers or herbs that have been collected from the garden are lighter and more flavorful than traditional tea.

Legend says the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling drinking water one day in 2737 B.C. when some leaves from a tea plant fell into the water. The emperor drank the mixture and declared it gave one "vigor of body, contentment of mind, and determination of purpose." In 400 B.C. the Greeks included herbal teas in their regime of wellness. By 50 B.C. the Romans were collecting and cultivating herbs and by 200 A.D., Galen wrote the first classification system that paired common illnesses with their herbal remedy. By 800 Monks had taken over the care of the sick and had herbal gardens at most monasteries. By 1500 herbalists were promoted and supported by Henry VII and the Parliament as apothecaries (drug stores of the time) were accused of giving substandard care. Charles Wesley gave his endorsement in 1700 when he advocated sensible eating, good hygiene and herbal treatments for healthy living.

In 1800 pharmaceuticals become popular and herbal treatments were designated for the poor. However as the side effects of drugs began to be documented, herbal remedies came into favor again. The National Association of Medical Herbalists was formed, and later renamed the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH.) By 1900 and the first World War, lack of availability of drugs increased the use of herbal medicines again. After the war pharmaceutical production increased and penicillin was discovered. Herbal practitioners had their rights to dispense their medications taken away and then reinstated. The British Herbal Medicine Association was founded and produced the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. People began to express the concern over the large number of side effects and environmental impact of the drugs of the 1950s so herbs once again gained importance. Herbs are an outdoor pharmacy provided to us by the Almighty. Simple to grow and easy to make, an herbal tea from the garden is a natural health drink.

Spearmint (shown above) would be a lovely addition to the herb bed. Used in ancient Rome, the ensuing drink made from dried leaves was said the ‘stir up the mind’. Since it is caffeine-free, an afternoon cup could be savored as valuable ‘pick me up’ that has no side effects.

Chamomile is another lovely plant. Originally from the Nile region of Egypt, it was believed to cure almost any ailment. It has remained a favorite as its true properties relieve anxiety and promote calm. It was the tea Mrs. Rabbit made for Peter as she gently tucked him into bed following his harrowing escape from Mr. McGreggor. In these stressful times a sweetly scented evening cup would be a wonderful way to end the day. The list of herbs and their medicinal qualities is endless… and as close as your garden.

Credit: Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter

Weather Prediction and Mr. Squirrel

Weather Prediction and Mr. Squirrel

Every now and then, something totally unexpected occurs in the garden. Last summer, following a rather fierce thunderstorm accompanied by high winds, a substantial branch of the Mulberry broke, yet not completely. It remained halfway attached, stubbornly resisting all efforts to remove it, eventually becoming a rather irritating eye sore. It lost leaves and became brittle yet still remained loath to all efforts to tug it down. Someone had borrowed our ladder and our chainsaw, and most certainly we were not foolish enough to imagine climbing the tree, handsaw in hand. So there it remained, hanging lifeless adjacent to the bird feeder.

With attention diverted from the sleeping garden, the bird feeder has now become center stage. And so, as with so many serendipitous accidents, the branch has become the accidental welcome mat to the feeder. All the birds have found the branch a delightful perch, landing and then leaping in winged flurry to the dinner table. Over the weekend, Mr. Squirrel discovered it too. From safety of the Mulberry he first tested the branch and then, with tail-twitching caution, he slowly made his way to the feeder. By afternoon his confidence abounded and he could scurry back and forth with ease, happily sharing while enjoying the company of Goldfinches and Cardinals. So it must be noted that often what appears to disrupt tidy order, over time may afford a delightful new course in the garden. And so it is with our branch.

For winter reading, The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a source of much useful information for the gardener. (Computer savvy gardeners may view it at The Almanac has been an annual publication since 1792, and for the month of January the Farmer’s Calendar discusses forecasting the weather. Now days we tend to watch or listen to weather predictions made by professionals who rely on the latest technology. In days past, people would have simply looked outside the back door, made a few observations, and noticed the ‘signs’ which indicate change and predict weather patterns. The blizzard which hit the east coast with such velocity was easily predictable if one had noticed the ring of haze circling the Moon the evening before; it was so unusual that we noted it as we looked at the sky. The directions of the wind and cloud patterns all indicated last weeks temperature plunge before the ‘artic blast’ actually arrived. It would be an interesting winter project for both children and adults to learn the folklore surrounding weather patterns and then make a game of prediction without technology. And according to the 2011 Almanac, we are advised to hang onto our hats for the next few months, for it is expected to be quite a ride!

*Remember: We are in a drought, so plan to give the garden a drink whenever we have a day which promises to remain above freezing. Even dormant trees and plants need moisture in winter to produce in the spring.