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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Garden Math

I was always more comfortable in art class than math class.

How about you?

For better or worse, we need both subjects in the garden. We need the color wheel and sometimes we need a calculator.

Here are some of the numbers I calculate most often:

 

 

  • Average first and last frost dates. Whether you are starting your own seeds or wondering if it’s too early in spring to prune your boxwood or too late in fall to prune a rose, it’s helpful to consult the average first and last dates for freezing temperatures in your area. The internet or a local university or agricultural institution can help you out here. Even better, if you keep a garden journal, you’ll be able to estimate your own average more precisely.

 

  • Date to maturity. This information is usually offered on the back of a seed packet or on a plant label. This is important information if you are growing plants to harvest. For instance, if a fall vegetable needs 90 days to grow from germination to harvest, I do not want those 90 days to extend past the date of my first average freeze. That means there’s a good chance my vegetable plant will be killed by winter weather before I can harvest it. Yes, this math problem requires us to count backwards!

 

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Here are some sample math problems for the garden that are particularly relevant as winter turns to spring and as summer turns to fall:

 

  • When should I start the seeds for my fall garden of cool weather crops like kale or lettuce?

First, check the “days to maturity” information on the seed package.

Then, count backwards that number of days from your average first frost date.

Then add 3 or 4 weeks more to give your seeds time to germinate and grow to a size suitable for transplanting. You’ll have more flexibility with those crops that can tolerate a light freeze (like kale), or if you are covering your plants with fleece or other protective covering.

 

  • When should I start the seeds for my spring and summer garden?

First, consult the average date of last frost for your area or decide when you feel comfortable planting them outdoors (for instance, some plants can tolerate light frost and may be planted out earlier, some, like tomatoes, need to be planted out only after the soil has warmed).

Then, consult the seed packet for information about how many weeks the seeds should be sown before their planting date. The best advice I can give (which I have consistently learned the hard way) is not to start your seeds too early. Strong, healthy seedlings can catch up, but there is little hope for a seedling that has grown leggy while you wait for warmer weather or a seedling that is planted out too soon and killed by a late freeze.

 

  • When should I start the seeds for hardy annuals like snapdragon?

Not all annuals must be completely protected from winter weather. Cool season hardy annuals like snapdragons and sweet peas can be planted in the fall and very early spring. These plants love to get established during cool weather.

In many regions, these flowers can be planted in the fall to winter-over and bloom in spring. Even in colder regions, these flowers should be planted in the earlier spring days, long before the last frost date has arrived.

Consult the growing zone information for the hardy annual you want to grow. For instance, some snapdragons are winter hardy to US zone 4, which means most of us should be planting these cut-flower beauties in fall, not spring.

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Here is a handy online calculator for seed starting dates.

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Top Five Garden Tasks for Fall

Fall is a busy season in the garden.

In many places, this time of year is defined by cooler temperatures and increased rainfall which makes it an ideal time to garden.

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Here are five jobs I prioritize each autumn:

  • Plant bulbs

 

  • Plant trees and shrubs

 

  • Prepare new planting areas and/or add mulch (chopped leaves are perfect!) to existing beds

 

  • Sow seed for cool-weather plants like sweet peas, snapdragons, poppies, swiss chard, etc. (more about this to come for our Library!).

 

  • Divide and propagate: I like to do this in very early fall so new divisions have a chance to settle in and grow roots before winter dormancy.

 

One traditional autumn task I DO NOT prioritize is cleanup.

Instead of cutting back the dead or dying herbaceous layer in my garden (from perennials like nepeta or ornamental grasses), I leave the material to insulate the soil, provide shelter and food for wildlife, and for visual interest (frosted seedheads can be beautiful).

I DO cut back and clean out the dying foliage of my peonies as they can harbor disease, and I cut back or tie in long canes of roses that might be whipped around in winter winds.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Plant Names: From Confusion to Clarity

 

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” – Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Whether or not we would love roses quite so much if they were called dock or dandelion, the truth is that gardeners need to know the names of plants, and they need names they can rely on.

Our common plant names are often sweet and familiar, reminiscent of childhood memories, poetry, and myth. They have a music the proper, scientific names often lack.

Yet, common names are slippery.

One community’s tulip tree is another’s saucer magnolia. Only the name magnolia soulangeana guarantees we are talking about the same beautiful, spring-flowering, deciduous tree.

If we only know a common name like “Burning Bush” or “Snowball Bush,” there really is no telling what we’ll be given if we ask for that at a nursery.

The flower I grew up calling Bachelor’s Buttons is properly called globe amaranth and even more properly identified as Gomphrena globosa. The flowers most people call Bachelor’s Buttons are cornflowers with the scientific name Centaurea cyanus.

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Are you overwhelmed yet?

For years, I felt overwhelmed even by the thought of trying to learn scientific plant names. I resisted learning them and my eyes would simply skim over those names on a plant label or in a book.

These names sounded difficult and unfamiliar, and I assumed I would never be able to remember them.

But as I began to learn more about different varieties of plants I realized that only by paying careful attention to the scientific name would I be able to guarantee that I was bringing home the right plant.

If I wanted a tall, airy purple verbena I had better find verbena bonariensis. No other purple verbena would do.

If I wanted a native and non-invasive honeysuckle, I had better look for Lonicera sempervirens and avoid Lonicera maackii at all costs.

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Don’t be afraid!

There is no need to learn every scientific name in the book.

Begin small.

Take baby steps.

Soon, Latin names will be rolling off your tongue.

Just as I recommended getting to know twenty plants really well, I suggest beginning by learning the true names for the plants you already grow and love.

Before you know it:

  • your garden thoughts will have a new specificity and precision
  • you will be better equipped to tell a native from an invasive and a species from a hybrid
  • you will understand plant families and will go looking for more things to grow from within a plant family that seems to like your conditions.

Language, it turns out, can open a whole new world for gardeners.

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Here are some resources to help you get started:

A helpful podcast episode and blog post from Joe Gardener.

A pronunciation guide from Fine Gardening magazine.

WHY we use Latin plant names

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

How to Grow Whimsy and Wonder: A Topiary Guide

 

For the past few days, my youngest child has been repeatedly asking me the same question:

Mom, when can we plant our topiary garden?

I can’t quite remember how the idea originated. Was it because her older brother discovered a love for trimming boxwood, and I set him loose with my best pair of hedge clippers? Was the idea planted in her through repeated visits to the old topiary garden at Longwood? Or maybe it was a book we read?

Wherever the idea came from, I am now–apparently–committed. I can tell by the rising pitch of her voice each time she asks this question that I cannot turn this ship around. We will be cultivating a topiary garden. My only question now is whether tall green creatures will soon be seen all over our yard, or can I get away with one small boxwood ball in a pot?

Time will tell. Meanwhile, I am grateful for these inspiring sources:

Potted herb topiaries are surprisingly easy to make. Here’s a video tutorial. Here’s a written tutorial. Geraniums (properly called pelargoniums) and herbs like lavender and rosemary are good candidates for a topiary standard.

And here’s another general tutorial for making your own topiary.

The Night Gardener by brothers Terry and Eric Fan is a beautiful, whimsical picture book. All of my kids appreciate this one. It might even convince you that topiary can change the world.

I loved British gardening television show Great British Garden Revival. Episode 2 of Season 2 featured topiary and includes an inspiring tutorial.

My favorite high quality tree seller, Bower&Branch, also sells topiary.

Some of the topiary in The Topiary Garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania were planted in 1936. This special garden is well worth a visit. My own kids love to play hide and seek here.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

 

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