A Gardening Year

The adventures and misadventures of an heirloom gardener

Sunday, January 30, 2005


Last year I decided to combine my two hobbies, gardening and cooking, and start an herb garden. It was less than a resounding success. The spot I chose, ground that had been uncovered during a sidewalk renovation, gets sun all afternoon but is sloped and suffers erosion when it rains which it did frequently last year. In other words, most of the seeds I planted washed away. Some basil, however, did manage to take root and grow into healthy plants. I discovered this in the course of weeding the plot with the intention of transplanting some asters there to help hold the soil. The most wonderful aroma started wafting up as I pulled up the weeds. A quick check of my "planting diagram" and a Google image search indicated the plants emitting the wonderful smell were sweet basil. I had to research it because I had never grown basil before. I also have to admit, I have never used fresh basil, only the dried stuff in plastic jars from the grocery store so I had never actually seen basil. Boy, am I embarrassed.

I did some research on drying herbs. The crawl space of my house would be the ideal spot. Dark, dry, warm, no drafts. Just one problem. I was afraid if I put the basil up there, I would forget about it. You know, out of sight, out of mind. That happened when I was saving seed from scarlet runner beans. I put them on paper plates on top of the refrigerator to finish drying and promptly forgot about them. Every time I cleaned the top of my refrigerator (which I have to admit is not often) I would "discover" beans drying there. I had visions of carefully hanging basil from the beams in my crawl space in August and then not seeing it again until I took out the Christmas decorations. I had to find another place.

I love old houses. I love reconstructions of old houses. How many times have we all seen dried herbs hanging from the rafters of the kitchens of old houses that we have toured? I figured, why not? If it was good enough for our ancestors, it's good enough for me. There are unused hooks for curtain rods on one of the windows in my kitchen. I very carefully tied two bunches of basil with rubber bands as suggested by my research so that they would contract as the plants dried and hung one on each hook. My kitchen smelled wonderful. Looked funny, but smelled wonderful. When the plants had dried sufficiently, I took them down and placed them in a container. Just one problem. They no longer smelled as wonderful. What happened? Where did the lovely fragrance go? I thought drying was supposed to concentrate the oils. Oh well, into the seed drawer in the refrigerator they went. And stayed there, forgotten, until the seeds I had ordered for this year's gardens started arriving in the mail. I opened the drawer in the fridge and saw the forgotten basil. Out of sigh, out of mind, remember?

All the cold weather we have been experiencing has been a wonderful inducement to cook up a storm. If I made lasagna, I could use some of my very own basil! When I opened the container, it smelled great. I was thrilled. I crumbled up enough leaves to equal the measurements in the recipe and started simmering the sauce. The basil smelled great dry but the minute it was rehydrated in the sauce, it assumed a whole new character. I can only describe the smell and the taste as stewed grass clippings. I don't know what our ancestors were eating, but there is a definite reason why herbs should be dried in a place that is dark, dry, warm and has no drafts and not in the kitchen. This year I'm using the crawl space even if it means that my Christmas decorations will smell of herbs.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Christmas Cactus Update

I almost forgot about the Christmas cactus. It is normally hidden behind a curtain. Here it is in all its blooming glory.

Monday, January 24, 2005


We had our first large storm of the year Saturday night. A blizzard, not a Nor'Easter. The predictions had originally been for up to 2 feet of snow. My best guess is that we got around a foot. I was out all night shoveling it. It was pretty moderate until about 5 AM when the wind really began to howl and the snow to come down heavily. I love storms. I love the sound of the wind, the rain, the snow. Any chance for Mother Nature to show off. My last house had a wrap-around porch and I would sit out there and watch thunderstorms in the summer.

When I went out at 7 AM for a final time before going to sleep, I was surprised to find a flock of birds at the birdfeeder. I would have thought they would be sheltering somewhere out of the wind and snow. As I watched and listened, I realized I hadn't seen these birds before. They were gray with white undersides and had the prettiest song. It was difficult to tell their size since they had their feathers fluffed out for warmth. They looked like feather balls with beaks, wings and tails. When I finished shoveling and went inside, I got out my chart of Common Feeder Birds of the Northeast and identified them as slate-colored juncos. Then I got to wondering why I hadn't seen them during the summer. I did a little research tonight and discovered that juncos breed in Canada and winter in the US. They are nicknamed "snowbirds" because they only appear here in the winter. They nest on or near the ground and supposedly feed on the ground. They weren't feeding on the ground in my backyard. They were up on the feeder probably because all the seed I had thrown on the ground was covered with snow. I'm glad I filled the feeder before the storm. I will be sure to throw some more seed under it when I get home in the morning.

Slate-Colored Junco

Thursday, January 20, 2005

How many do I need?

I owe an apology to all the heirloom tomato growers that I have laughed at for years. The ones who swear that THIS year they are going to limit themselves to only 6 or 8 varieties of tomatoes. Come on, does anyone honestly NEED that many different kinds of tomatoes? Then I took a close look at my seed orders for this year, added them to what I am already growing and was appalled. 4 kinds of cosmos, 4 kinds of marigolds, 4 kinds of zinnias, 5 kinds of columbines and 6, count them, 6 kinds of morning glories.

I can explain the morning glories. It all started years ago in an attempt to beautify the ugly chainlink fence that encloses my backyard. I started growing morning glories on it not realizing that they are basically weeds. I started out with a collection of antique varieties. They were lovely but the next year I fell in love with Fuji morning glories in a catalog and planted those. Lo and behold, morning glories from the previous year had reseeded themselves. Crimson Rambler. What a pleasant surprise. Year after year, both types came back. At one point, they were so rampant, they covered sunflowers I had planted along the section of fence where they grew. The original plan was for the morning glories to ramble on the fence, but they also rambled on the sunflowers. It was quite a sight. Then I just had to try Flying Saucers. I had given up on the sunflowers at that point and just let the morning glories take over the fence. Meanwhile, my daughter had started and then abandoned a garden. In it, she had been growing Milky Way on a small trellis. That gave me an idea. Wouldn't the dark purple Grandpa Ott look great growing on trellises on either side of the door to my large, white shed? Last year I tried Heavenly Blue on the section of fence at the end of my driveway. They were wonderful to come home to each morning. Huge, bright blue flowers so intense they didn't even look real. I'm not sure that they reseeded since the seeds I saw didn't look ripe on the vines before they were killed by the frost. Just in case, I am ordering them again this year.

I have no excuses for the columbines. That is just plain greed. I first grew columbines at my last house. Songbird hybrids, I believe. They reseeded freely but being hybrids, reverted back to all yellow. I tried establishing them here but they didn't do well in the hot, dry conditions. I finally managed to get one growing happily, a lovely lavender. A darker purple with white William Guinness had been planted in the abandoned garden. Then I discovered heirloom columbines. After many tries, I have a small colony of Grandmother's Garden columbine established. This year I am adding Green Apple columbine to the Green Garden and Ruby Port columbine to grow around the base of the trellises at the front of the shed. I also wanted either Nora Barlow or Tower columbines but couldn't decide which nor where to put them. And there is a lovely yellow variety, probably a hybrid, that would be perfect for the Orange/Yellow Garden. I realized I was getting out of control and skipped that one also.

I'm not laughing any more. One does need that many different kinds of tomatoes.

Morning glories rambling on the sunflowers instead of the fence.

Fuji morning glory. Aren't they great?

Grandpa Ott morning glories growing on a trellis. There are two trellises, one on either side of the door to my shed. Posted by Hello

Heavenly Blue morning glories. This is what greets me every morning after a long night at work.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Squirrel Research

I did do some research on squirrels and they turned out to be quite fascinating.  All of that chasing I saw was apparently part of their mating behavior.  The males chase after the females in groups but only the largest and oldest male squirrel gets to mate with her.  There are two mating seasons, January-February and July-August resulting in two litters per year of 3 to 5 young each.  It's amazing we are not knee-deep in squirrels!  The winter litter leaves the nest in the spring but the fall litter stays with the mother through the winter.  Male squirrels and young females without litters den together for warmth.  I always thought they were solitary and wondered how they kept warm in those nests way up in the branches exposed to the weather.  They don't use those nests during the winter.  Instead, they use their preferred nests in tree hollows which are warmer and not exposed to the elements.  Their nests are much sturdier than they look.  They are a framework of sticks with leaves and vines woven on them.


Squirrels' teeth grow continuously forcing them to gnaw continuously.  I can attest to that!  My shed which is made of wood has many holes gnawed into it.  I have a real problem with squirrels getting into the birdseed in the shed.  I bought a 20 lb bag that was on special at the grocery store in the fall.  I don't get a lot of birds at the feeder during the winter so I thought it would last me almost until spring.  A squirrel got into it in the shed and spilled it all over the floor in an effort to get at the sunflower seeds.  I hate to waste what has been spilled, so every few days I shovel some of it up and dump it under the feeder for the ground feeding birds.  And squirrels too, I discovered in my research.  If they can't get at the feeder, they dine on whatever falls out.  I have a "squirrel proof" feeder.  It is metal so they can't gnaw it to pieces like they did to my wooden ones.  The perch on it is spring-loaded so anything heavier than a bird closes the feeder.  It has worked well for years.


Now that I know so much more about squirrel behavior, I will be watching them more closely.  I am most interested in seeing young squirrels.  According to what I read, they also chase each other around.  I don't recall ever seeing small squirrels so I am wondering if they are like pigeons and the young attain adult size before leaving the nest.  I didn't find any information on the size of squirrels when they leave the nest, only their age, 10 weeks. 

Monday, January 17, 2005

First Snow

We had our first snow of the year last night. It was just a dusting. Not enough to insulate the gardens from the accompanying arctic front. The outdoor temperature has dropped to the teens and 20's with subzero windchills. New Jersey doesn't normally get a lot of snow so I use leaves to insulate my gardens. Getting them there is easy. In the fall, I only rake the lawn leaving the leaves that have fallen or blown into the gardens. Getting them out of the gardens is much more laborious. Especially since I usually wait until April to begin raking them out and by then a lot of bulbs and perennials are growing. This year, I think I will be brave and start uncovering the gardens in March. Not only will it be easier to rake out the leaves, but it will also leave me time in April to enlarge the flower beds and ready them for planting in May. I am steadily digging up my lawn.

I always worry about the rosebushes and hydrangeas when it gets cold like this. Last year when we had a colder than normal winter, the hydrangeas didn't bloom until very late in the summer. I thought they weren't going to bloom at all. Then they bloomed late and sparsely. So far, the rosebushes have just shrugged off the cold each winter. I grew sage for the first time last year. It appears to be a perennial that doesn't die back in the fall. The tiny plants are poking up above the protective layer of leaves and looking very unhappy in the cold. I will be very interested to see if they survive the winter. Also new for me are hellebores. I splurged and bought plants last fall. They are supposed to be among the earliest bloomers in the spring. They are peeking out of the leaves but don't look nearly as unhappy as the sage. I am more hopeful about their survival and looking forward to seeing when they will bloom. Everything else is safely snuggled under the leaves waiting, like I am, for spring when the gardens will come alive again.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Seed Exchange

We are back to January weather. A crisp, cold morning spent shivering in the unheated lobby of my local post office waiting for it to open. Whoever heard of a post office that doesn't open until 9 AM? I belong to an online heirloom gardening list that sponsors an annual seed exchange. The seeds are light, but the padded envelope is bulky so I can't just slap a stamp on it and dump it in the nearest mailbox. The seed exchange works like this: everyone sends seeds they have saved from their gardens to the list owner. She, in turn, emails a list of the seeds to each person in the order in which she received their seeds and they can choose an equivalent number of varieties from the list. The idea being that you can try out different plants for only the cost of postage.

I don't know why I still participate in this list. The other members grow veggies. I grow flowers. And they are "scientific" gardeners. They do stuff like start seeds in soilless growing medium, then transplant each seedling into progressively larger pots as they grow. Then, when the seedlings are the right size and the weather is right and the soil temperature is right and the moon is aligned with Mars and, well you get the idea, they actually plant them in their gardens. And don't get me started on compost. These people worry about every single thing they put into their composters and in what proportions and what actually constitutes "brown" matter and how often it should be turned and the correct temperature inside the composters. Come on, folks. It's rotting garbage, not nuclear physics. They take a hobby that should be fun and rewarding and turn it into unbearable drudgery. I belong to the "Plant it, water it and hope for the best" school of gardening.

Last year was the first year for the seed exchange. Initially, I wasn't going to participate, but the list owner (who is a very nice lady) nagged me into it. Since I was new to seed saving, I very carefully chose seeds from plants that had been reseeding themselves in my gardens for years so I knew they would germinate. When my turn came to choose from the list, I picked out some herbs intending to start an herb garden. Good thing I also bought herb seeds because not a single seed from the exchange germinated. I was shocked. These people save seeds like they do everything else. By the numbers. Hand pollinate each flower, gather seeds at the correct time of day, using the correct tool, dry in the correct humidity and darkness and no breeze on special screens, store in darkness at the correct temperature in the correct containers, etc etc.

Here's how I save seeds. Every morning when I get home from work and every evening when I get up, I go around the yard and pick off the dead flowers that are setting seeds, carefully placing them into whatever container I happen to be carrying such as a used envelope, a teacup, a small bowl or the palm of my hand if I forget to bring something. All seeds are dried in my climate-controlled kitchen, the climate being controlled by Mother Nature (I don't have air conditioning), in specialized drying containers such as teacups and paper plates. When they look "done", I place each type of seed in its own tiny (labeled) Gladware container and then put it in the veggie drawer in my fridge that I have given over to seeds.

The germination rate using my method? 90% to 100%

Friday, January 14, 2005

Weird Timing

This certainly seems to be the year for plants blooming at weird times. The snowdrops are still going strong out by the birdbath. Then this afternoon, I noticed that my Christmas cactus is budded. I've heard of Christmas cactus' (cacti?) and Thanksgiving cactus', but I have never heard of New Years cactus'. Christmas cactus' are photosensitive, i.e. they need a certain number of hours of darkness for a certain number of days to bloom. This plant is getting neither. Nor has it bloomed since I bought it in bloom years ago.

I originally placed it in the large window in my living room which gets lots of sun all afternoon. My thought was that plants often do not get enough light indoors. I also pull the shades each evening when the sun goes down. By keeping it behind the shades, I thought I could give it the hours of darkness it would need in the winter to bloom. But the poor thing languished for years, neither blooming nor growing.

Last year, I decided to move it into the kitchen which gets early morning sun only. It perked right up. Its leaves were a healthier green color. I didn't expect it to bloom because now it was exposed to light almost constantly. On my nights off, I keep a light on in the kitchen all night. It should not be about to bloom.

Many years ago, I tried to get a poinsettia, another photosensitive plant to bloom. I had managed to keep it alive after Christmas. I researched the exact number of hours of darkness and the exact number of days needed to get it to bloom the second year. I was living in a tiny apartment at the time, but had a small storage closet that was perfect for the experiment. Every evening I faithfully placed the poinsettia into the dark closet. And every morning . . . I forgot to take it out again. After a week or so, I realized the poor plant was spending more time in the closet than out of it. I decided to stop torturing the poor thing and end the experiment.

Thursday, January 13, 2005


I've noticed that I begin each post with a brief weather report. As a gardener, weather is very important to me. Too much rain, too little rain, too hot, too cold, a late spring, an early frost, high winds, hail. All of these have a significant impact on my gardens so I tend to view weather differently from most people.

When I started gardening at this house, the Northeast was going through a period of drought. I don't water heavily. I can't afford it. The best I could do was go around the yard with a hose. The lack of rain meant that my seed germination rate was poor. The few seedlings that emerged were then stressed (and many subsequently died) from the hot dry weather. The resulting plants were stunted. Many didn't bloom.

My gardens didn't really come into their own until August when the annuals which love hot dry weather bloomed. I fell in love with cosmos. The airy, ferny foliage. The big daisy-like blossoms in red, pink and white. Some of the plants grew to be over six feet tall. I rediscovered zinnias and marigolds. Who knew there were so many kinds of heirloom zinnias? I had to try them all.

The drought seems to be over. The past few years have been cool and rainy. The perennials have finally started to fill in. I've had spectacular hollyhocks and gorgeous iris. The black-eyed susans have practically taken over one bed. The late spring air is filled with the scent of pinks and sweet william. And my beloved heirloom roses, the "OldRoses", make my backyard into a magical retreat each spring. The downside is that the annuals are now struggling through cool Augusts. The cosmos doesn't grow as big and the zinnias and marigolds have fewer blooms.

Since I didn't begin with my usual weather report, I'll end with one. 60's expected today. Not what the weather forecasters were predicting for this winter. They were expecting a colder than usual rather than a warmer than usual winter. I could have told them it was going to be mild. The oak tree knew.

Some people rely on the Farmer's Almanac, others rely on wooly caterpillars. I rely on my neighbor's oak tree which shades my driveway. Oak trees drop more acorns in the fall when the winter is going to be colder than normal and fewer when it is going to be mild. I moved into this house in August of 1995. It rained acorns all fall. It actually became dangerous to walk in my driveway. It was like walking on marbles. The blizzard of '96 dumped 26" of snow the following January. It wasn't that bad again until last year when we had a colder than normal winter.

This fall, as the forecasters were making dire predictions about an even colder winter, I was puzzled. Then amazed. Something happened I had never seen in the ten years I have lived here.

I didn't see a single acorn.

2003 was a good year for my hollyhocks Posted by Hello

The black-eyed susans are taking over! Posted by Hello

Sunday, January 09, 2005


Another gray, rainy day. I'm so glad it is rain and not snow. Rain does not have to be shovelled. It is also good for my compost. I am a lazy composter. I just throw stuff in and let nature take its course. I don't turn it. I don't add particular ingredients in a particular order. I don't even obssess about the ingredients. No meats, no bones, no fats. Everything else gets thrown in the top and wonderful soil comes out the bottom. It seems to work best on a three year cycle. Stuff gets thrown in the top the first year. It cooks in the middle the second year. I take it out from the bottom and use it the third year. Like I said, I am a lazy composter.

Not entirely lazy. I've discovered it "cooks" better if it is wet. We had many years of drought here in New Jersey so I had to water the composter along with the gardens. I felt kind of silly standing over it with a hose. I've also learned the hard way not to throw weeds that have gone to seed into it. I bag those now and take them to the town's recycling center. I also bag most of my leaves. My composter is small and can't hold all of them. One habit I got into that didn't get done this year was to put the bag on my mulching mower a few times in the fall and throw the resulting grass clippings and shredded leaves into the composter. I also throw some onto a few flower beds. Kind of composting "in situ". It's needed in the bed where I grow sunflowers and pumpkins. They are heavy feeders. Compost is the only fertilizer I use. It's free and organic.

The reason I didn't do the grass clippings and shredded leaves this year is that I am having a problem mowing my lawn since I started working nights. Working nights is not a problem for the rest of my gardening activities. On my nights off, I spend a few hours in the yard when the sun comes up. Then a quick shower and off to dreamland until evening. But I don't think my neighbors would appreciate it if I revved up the mower at dawn. During the summer, it was not a problem because I still had a few hours of sunlight in the evenings and could mow then. I lost that late sunlight in the fall and had to stop mowing. So my grass got long and the leaves stayed on the lawn until December when I had a few vacation days and took advantage of the mild weather to rake up them up.

Saturday, January 08, 2005


And the ice storm turned into a cold, misty rain storm. It didn't deter any of the wildlife. The squirrels were out in force. There were probably half a dozen of them in the backyard and one lone one in the front yard. Lots of birds too. I saw the cardinals. I haven't seen them for a long time. Since I've been working nights, I don't get out much during the day. Mrs. Cardinal was perched on the back fence and Mr. Cardinal was on the fence across the neighboring yard.

There was a pair of cardinals at my first house also. I rarely saw one without the other and even learned to identify their distinctive chirp. It's one of the very few birdcalls that I know. There was also a woodpecker living in one of the many trees in the backyard. I heard him tapping, but never actually saw him. I was thrilled when I moved into this house to discover a pair of cardinals in the neighborhood. No woodpeckers, but there are a lot of mourning doves. I know their call also. And the "squeak" of their feathers when they take flight.

Then there are the little brown birds. Tons of them. I have absolutely no clue what they are. Wrens? Sparrows? I have tried to identify them. Really, I have. I have looked in books, magazines, posters, the internet. Each one carefully points out all the differences among the various kinds of little brown birds complete with illustrations. But the little brown birds in my backyard look nothing like the pictures. They are just little brown birds. I may not know what they are but I do enjoy them.

I had one visit from what I later discovered was an evening grosbeak. It was an incredibly bright yellow bird. I was really surprised because I usually associate vivid colors with tropical birds. Alas, I have never seen it again.

And then there was the day I pulled into the driveway and sitting on the fence at the end of it was a hawk. He was magnificent. Of course, I have no idea what kind of hawk he was. I have heard that red-tailed hawks are common in this part of New Jersey but I have also been told by people who claim to know about these things that it was probably a sharp shin hawk. I didn't want to get out of the car and scare him away. It was the closest I had ever been to one. I had only seen hawks in flight prior to that memorable day. He must have been just passing through. I have never seen him/her again. The cardinals, mourning doves and little brown birds took no chances. There was not a single bird at my feeder for the rest of that fall and winter. I was worried that the hawk had permanently scared them all away. Not to worry. Everyone was back the following spring.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


What a difference a few days make. We've gone from balmy springlike weather to an ice storm. Storms always make me wonder how the squirrels stay warm and dry all winter.

One of my favorite things about fall is when all the leaves have fallen and I can see the squirrels' nests in the trees. They build them in the most amazing places, way up near the tops of the trees and usually out near the ends of the limbs. The nests appear to be just piles of leaves. I wonder what holds them together. This fall, I made a point of searching the oak tree next to my driveway for a nest. There were many territorial disputes over this tree all summer so I knew there had to be a nest in it. At first, I didn't see one. Then I looked lower and there it was, in what was to my mind at least, a more logical place. Lower down and more securely placed in a crook in the trunk where it splits into large limbs. Now I am wondering why this squirrel placed his/her nest so differently from the rest of the neighborhood squirrels.

I'm quite concerned about the squirrels this year. Not just because of the weather. There was a dead squirrel in my neighbor's backyard in the last week of December and then the very next day, another dead one in my backyard. They can't be starving because the weather has been so mild they should have been able to find enough food. I don't think it is the neighborhood cats hunting them. Cats always bring their successful kills home to show off to their owners. I know this because our first cat was a mighty hunter and brought home many "trophies". Is someone poisoning the squirrels? I can understand why. They are an enormous nuisance, eating plants in the gardens and raiding the birdfeeders.

I also noticed that there seem to be far fewer nests this year than in previous years. I didn't notice that there were fewer squirrels this summer. Is it because they are territorial and the squirrels who "own" my yard are alive and well but there is a decline in the population of other yards? After I have placed my seed orders and planned my gardens, perhaps I will do a bit of research into squirrel behavior and get some answers to my questions.

Building a nest here makes much more sense to me than way out on the end of a limb. If you look closely to the left of the nest, the resident squirrel is waiting for me to go back into the house so he can get back to trying to raid the birdfeeder.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Springtime in January

Hopefully this is the beginning of my gardening journal. My arthritic hands prevent me from keeping a handwritten one so this will have to do. If I can actually keep it up, it will be fun to be able to look back, year by year. I've been gardening at this house for almost 10 years. It's time!

Usually on New Years Day, it is freezing cold. I am taking down the Christmas tree, putting away the decorations and drooling over seed catalogs. Not this year. Today it was in the 60's. I was outside in just a sweater looking for things to do in the yard. It felt just like spring. I was itching to be working in the gardens. But it is much too early so I settled for some clean-up that didn't get done in the fall. I trimmed away the dried flowers on the hydrangeas, something I usually do in the spring, and cut away most of the vines growing on the back fence. I have no idea if it is "my" fence or my neighbor's fence. I haven't quite figured out this whole fence ownership issue. The fence was here when I moved in. It is an ugly chainlink fence. If I could afford it, I would replace it. Or do away with it entirely. I'm not a big fan of fences.

Last year (2004) set a new record for flower longevity. Usually, I have flowers from the end of February (snowdrops)to Thanksgiving (whatever is growing next to the composter). Last year, I had Johnny Jump-ups and Calendulas flowering into December. December 11, to be exact. I left the next day for a business trip to Canada and the flowers had succumbed by the time I returned four days later.

This year, 2005, is already setting records. I have a snowdrop blooming by the birdbath. This is a record for two reasons. The date and the location. The birdbath is in the shadiest corner of the yard. Any snow (of which we haven't had any accumulation so far this winter) melts last there so the plants in that corner of the yard are usually weeks behind their peers instead of weeks ahead of them.