Merry Hall: A Book Review

Some books make us better gardeners by giving us knowledge.

Some books make us better gardeners by showing us love.

Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols is a favorite of mine for the latter reason.


What in the world do I mean by “showing us love”?

What I mean is this: gardening is an act of love. It is love–love for flowers, for fresh food, for the look of a path or the feel of dirt under our nails–that pushes us out the door.

But in the hurry and press of life, it can be easy to forget our own loves. It can be easy–especially when the weather is awful or the pests are merciless–to ask ourselves why do I bother?

Those are the days when we need writers like Nichols. Those are the days we need to step into some other gardener’s shoes and be reminded that, yes, we may be crazy to work as hard as we do, but it’s a good kind of crazy because it comes from love.


Merry Hall is a farcical, funny, exaggerated romp of a memoir from 1951.

In it, Nichols describes the restoration of an English Georgian house and garden. This is a book with a wicked sense of humor and a golden heart.

I read it regularly.

Merry Hall is the first in a trilogy. The recent hardcover editions by Timber Press of Nichols’ vintage books are worth seeking out. I have found all of mine at second-hand shops.


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Grow Your Own Figs

Are you a fig lover?

I find that figs are a Hot or Cold food. Those who love them really love them, and I am definitely a lover of figs.

I learned to love figs as a child growing up in Texas. My father grew them, and anything we could eat out of our own backyard was exciting, no matter how strange or unusual.

I might never have tried growing figs here in Pennsylvania (zone 6), but my father plants a tree nearly every time he visits one of his children. On his second visit to Maplehurst, he planted a fig known as ‘Chicago Hardy.’

That’s a good name for a fig if you garden in a place with cold winters.


Here is what I’ve learned about growing figs from my ‘Chicago Hardy’ tree:

  • Mild winters give two crops: If your fig tree doesn’t die all the way back over winter, you can expect an early crop and a late one, too


  • Mulch might make a difference (or not): Several years I have tried covering my fig in a heavy blanket of chopped leaves. One year, I wrapped it in burlap. Both years, it still died back. Now I let nature takes its course.


  • Pull off those baby fruit as winter nears: Because my fig usually dies all the way back over the winter, I don’t see fruit ripen until very late in summer. If too many baby figs are left before I’ve had a harvest, I start pulling off the smallest fruits to give the rest a chance to ripen before the first freeze.


  • Eat them, quickly, sun-warmed and fresh: That’s the best, though I also love slicing them into salads or on homemade pizza with a little goat cheese.


Here are a few more tips if you’d like to grow your own figs:

Did you know you can grow figs in containers?

So many beautiful varieties.

27 fig recipes from one of my favorite food websites.

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A Different Kind of Bulb

Tulips are beautiful.

Daffodils are beautiful and resistant to pests.

But there’s another bulb I love to plant in fall and harvest in spring, and this one is delicious:

It’s garlic!


I am always more motivated to grow flowers over food, but year after year I make an exception for garlic.

It’s just so easy. And while the grocery store offers regular garlic and (maybe) organic garlic, the seed catalogs offer so many different varieties. Reading these mouth-watering descriptions will give you a whole new appreciation for this flavorful food.

And few things are more satisfying than having your own inexpensive, organic garlic supply.


Here are my best tips for growing and harvesting this delicious pantry staple:


  • For the freshest bulbs, order online. I love the varieties offered by Seed Savers (‘Elephant’ garlic is my favorite, but I try to order in spring or early summer as it sells out fast).



  • Garlic comes in hard-neck and soft-neck varieties. I prefer hard-neck because these types grow flowers called “scapes.” When the scapes grow tall in late spring, they can be cut and gathered and made into a delicious garlic scape pesto. Here’s a detailed article describing the differences between the two types. Here’s a recipe for garlic scape pesto (scapes can also usually be found for a brief time at farmer’s markets).


  • Harvest in summer when the foliage begins to yellow and die back. It’s best to use a garlic fork to pry the bulbs out, or else you risk cutting them with your spade.


  • Garlic needs to be dried before cutting off (or braiding) the stems and putting in storage. I dry mine on a wire or wooden rack on my covered porch. To dry, your garlic will need air circulation, shade, and protection from rain.


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Safer Gardening (Tools and Tips)


Gardening safety.

It may not seem like a fun topic, but it can involve cute boots. Wink, wink.

I had a terrifying encounter with bumblebees in my own garden recently. Bumblebees are normally quite docile, but that changes when you crash into their nest while wearing shorts and flip flop sandals. Oh my.

The whole experience reminded me just how important the right gear and clothing can be.

Here are my favorite tools for a safer gardening experience:

  • Good boots

My search for good gardening footwear has been a long one!

I began gardening at Maplehurst with a pair of tall Hunter rain boots I’d brought with me from our Florida lives. They protected my feet, and they looked cute, but they were HEAVY. I have nearly 5 acres here, and those boots did not make it easy to walk long distances with a wheelbarrow.

When the rain boots finally cracked, I discovered a lightweight pair of rain boots originally designed for Japanese fishermen. I chose them because I was traveling to Alaska and needed boots I could fold into a suitcase. I love those lightweight boots. They never dragged me down, but they also didn’t give a lot of protection.

When those boots finally cracked as well, I went searching for clogs. Tall boots aren’t easy to put on, and I thought slip-ons would be just the thing. I’ve worn a few different brands of gardening clogs, and liked these Sloggers most of all, but I honestly haven’t loved them. If they fit well enough to not fall off then they usually can’t be easily slipped on. I still had to take a seat before my feet could be properly wedged in. And the shoes themselves weren’t always comfortable. Perhaps I simply needed to choose a different size, but those experiences led me to a new choice:

Slip on boots!

The “Sauvie Slip On Boots” from  Bogs have become my holy grail of gardening shoes. Easier to slip on than tall boots, they are super comfortable and very protective. They aren’t as heavy and hot as winter boots would be, and they feel so good on my feet, I actually look forward to wearing them.

Well worth the higher price.

  • Gloves

I have a love/hate relationship with gardening gloves.

While I don’t like dirt under my nails and scratches on my hands, I also find it much harder to pull weeds and tie up twine while wearing gloves. The solution for me has been finding gloves that fit like a second skin. I buy nitrile gloves like these in packs of four or five. I love that I can throw them in the washing machine.

Pruning thorny roses is almost impossible without good protection. I keep these gloves in my garden shed for just this task. The long gauntlet sleeves mean I can really get in there and prune roses that would otherwise tear me to pieces, while the soft, leather fingers allow me to tie my rose canes up with twine.

  • Cotton button-down shirts

Protecting my skin from the sun is an on-going battle. I have sensitive skin that really doesn’t like sunscreen, but I also garden through hot and sticky summers where extra clothing is unwelcome.

My solution has been to steal my husband’s old cotton button-down shirts. They are breathable and lightweight, but they cover my chest and arms well. I don’t even care if they’re stained or the elbows are torn.

  • Tecnu skin cleanser

This is my secret weapon.

I put off buying it for too long because of the high price, but now I won’t begin a gardening season without a huge bottle of it in the house. I actually keep this in my shower at all times and this right by my kitchen sink. When you need it, you need it, and you won’t want to go looking for it.

For North American gardeners, especially here on the east coast, poison ivy is a menace. Because birds drop the seeds, it can pop up anywhere. Even right in the middle of a well-weeded flower bed.

These products are the only thing that works in my experience, especially if you are extra-allergic as I am. The two products are slightly different, and it’s important to read the instructions on the label. That large bottle might feel like overkill, but if you stumble into a patch of poison ivy or poison oak you will need to use a lot of product. I have found that Tecnu prevents rashes if used immediately, but I have also found that it clears up a rash that is starting to appear.

Miracle product, I tell you.

  • A wide sunhat

I have sunhats in canvas and straw. My favorites are made of straw as that seems to be the most breathable on a hot day.

  • Foam cushioned kneeler

I avoided buying one of these for far too long assuming they were for elderly gardening ladies only.

I could not have been more wrong. I used to weed in the most awkward positions, but with a cushioned kneeler, I can protect my knees and weed in a way that doesn’t throw out my back. Win, win!

You can also purchase cushioned knee pads. I have yet to try that, but I might pick up a pair of those next summer.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

T.S. Eliot in the Garden

In late summer, my flower garden becomes a tangle, and I remember these words from a favorite poet:

In my end is my beginning. – Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot

I have nearly reached the end I have been aiming at since I ordered seeds last winter.

And in this tangle are seeds I can gather, setting in motion the garden’s next beginning.


Every garden in every place revolves on a circle of the seasons.

Even in a tropical garden, where the weather seems much the same month after month, plants have their times for blossom and fruit.

We are nearing the equinox (fall in the northern hemisphere and spring in the southern). It is a tipping point, and that is a significant moment in the garden.

It is a moment when we work and plan for NOW and for LATER.


Here are the tasks I prioritize at the tipping point of the year:


  • Bulbs: Enjoy them, plant them. Remember that narcissus are deer and pest resistant and do well planted anywhere, even out in the lawn! I prefer to plant tulips in containers or in beds near the house where deer are less likely to roam.


  • Plan: Think ahead. Right now, I’m enjoying the flowering ornamental grasses so much that I’m making notes about which grasses I want to plant more of next spring (because in my zone 6 climate, grasses are more likely to survive the winter if they have spread their roots all summer long). I will definitely be adding more Prairie Dropseed grass. And, I will make planting Purple Fountain grass in containers a priority next spring because right now I wish I had big pots of them!


  • Plant: Spring and Fall are the best times of year to plant. Some think shrubs and trees do even better when fall-planted because there is usually enough rain and the soil is already warm.


Because the garden moves through a circle of seasons, our own thinking, planning, dreaming, and working must follow that same circle.

In the garden, we are always looking back and looking ahead even as our feet are firmly planted in the present.


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