A Gardening Year

The adventures and misadventures of an heirloom gardener

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Thoughts on the End of November

I like to brag that here in New Jersey I have flowers blooming until Thanksgiving. This year, thanks to the unusually warm weather, I found a dandelion gaily blooming in the lawn on the last day of November. Did I mention that it was 63F (17C) today?

And I took a drive past the house at the end of my street to get a closer look at the squirrels' nests in their tree. Yes, it does indeed have three nests.

But the biggest news today was that half a dozen seed catalogs landed in my mailbox. This is way too early for me. Catalogs used to start arriving around New Years. I was able to put them aside until after the holidays and then spend the long winter months planning and ordering. Then they started arriving in the middle of December. Now it is the end of November. The temptation is too great for me to be able to put them aside until January. I have to look! Of course, once I look, I am hooked and the holidays take a backseat to ordering seeds and planning my gardens. Now after the holidays, there will be nothing to keep my busy inside while it is too cold to work outside.

Monday, November 28, 2005


What happened to winter? Every day it seems to get warmer. The temps have been over 60F (16C) since yesterday and predicted to stay there through Wednesday. I took advantage of this warm spell to get the last bulbs planted. The Orange/Yellow garden now has Leopard lilies, Orange Glory Flowers (to attract butterflies), Iris bucharica (a species iris from Afghanistan), Butter & Sugar Siberian iris, Golden Fragrance muscari (yellow grape hyacinths!) and a Prince of Orange poppy.

I still have unused leaves so I'm reduced to raking and bagging. The irony is that I only have one medium-sized tree in my yard. The leaves from my neighbor's trees (see pictures in my previous post) all fall/blow into my yard. The first fall I lived in this house, I took 18 bags of leaves to the recycling center before my tree dropped its leaves! Since then I've stopped counting. Some years, I don't even bother raking. I've discovered that if I just leave them, they eventually blow away before the snow falls in January.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Malthusian Squirrels

After a brief cold spell, we are back to our normal warm Thanksgiving weekend weather. Everyone was out today putting up their Christmas decorations and raking the last of the leaves. I was mowing mine. I put the bag on my mulching mower and empty the shredded grass and leaves on my gardens as mulch/compost. It beats raking and bagging. I covered all of the beds except the Orange/Yellow garden which I haven't planted yet. The warm weather is supposed to extend through Tuesday. I hope to finish planting tomorrow.

In the meantime, I can indulge in my favorite fall pastime: squirrel nest spotting. Last year, I was concerned because there seemed to be fewer nests than prior years. This year there seem to be more. Everywhere I looked, there were nests in the trees.

There were nests in trees that had never before had nests.

Even more amazing, is the tree in my neighbor's yard with two nests in it. I've never seen that before.

Down the street is a tree that appears to have three nests:

So this year, I am worried about too many squirrels. I wonder if I contributed to this sudden population increase? I have been throwing birdseed under one of my feeders for the groundfeeding birds knowing full well that the squirrels are also dining on them. When I was at the pet store last week buying cat food, I saw a special on birdseed and as long as I was buying food for wild creatures, I picked up a bag of food for the squirrels also. I didn't put any out right away. The following morning, my cat was very attentive at a window and when I looked out, I saw a poor, thin, scraggly squirrel on my back porch. He was holding a paw up to his chest. I thought it was injured until he put it down and tucked the other paw to his chest. Then I realized he must be cold. He looked like he wasn't getting enough to eat so I ran outside in the cold dressed only in my pj's and slippers and put out food for him. Yes, I am nuts.

And a little miffed. Since then, I've noticed that the squirrels aren't eating the corn in the food I put out. They are supposed to like corn. The pet store even sells "corn on the cob" specifically for squirrels. Have I spoiled my neighborhood squirrels so much that they are now picky eaters?

Friday, November 25, 2005

A Snowy Thanksgiving

I awoke to snow on Thanksgiving morning. It was just a dusting which melted as soon as the sun came out. There were brief snow squalls all afternoon but nothing stuck. The temperature plummeted all day. Today was so cold that the high for the day was lower than the normal low. Could this be the harbinger of the bad winter that the professional forecasters and the oak tree have been predicting?

It was so cold that no one was putting up holiday decorations. Normally, the weather is much warmer at Thanksgiving and my neighbors are busy erecting elaborate displays. After the holidays, the January weather is too cold to be outside taking down lights and figurines on the roof, eaves and lawn. Every year it's the same thing. Some people take them down during the January thaw but most wait until the temperatures warm up in March. In the meantime, most of them still turn on their lights every night. My neighborhood is festive all winter.

When I took my nightly walk tonight, there was nary a light or Santa to be seen anywhere.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Still planting bulbs

I took advantage of the warm weather to get more bulbs in the ground. The Green garden is completed: green tulips, green daffodils and double snowdrops. I realized that I could add white crocuses and white grape hyacinths. Next year, next year. I planted Actaea daffodils at the base of the butterfly bush to replace the tulips that the rabbit ate this spring. The "bonus" Thalia daffodils went in front of the Alpine strawberries. There is a large space in front of it now that I have widened that border. The Icestick tulips went into the Purple garden. Also in the Purple garden I planted a purple poppy amongst the Anise Hyssop, the idea being that when the poppy dies back after blooming, the Anise Hyssop will fill in. The Batik iris (purple version of the infamous Baboon's Bottom iris) was tucked in between the Anise Hyssop and the common Sage. The Baboon's Bottom iris is in what will be my new Cottage Garden along with the Iris dardanus, an heirloom iris. Last but not least, in the Wildflower garden, I planted Golden Bells daffodils and English bluebells. Both are supposed to naturalize. I tried for a "natural" look and tossed the bulbs into the bed, planting them wherever they fell.

I had to be careful planting the bulbs because the wild columbine is still settling in after I transplanted it to spread it out last month. And one lupine is still blooming!

Also looking extremely well are the hellebores. I complained so bitterly about them last spring when they didn't do well and now they are doing great. I planted more a few weeks ago and they are also doing well, creating what I'm hoping will be an attractive ground cover in front of the birdbath.

The birdbath is full of leaves instead of water. I want it to dry out before the deep freeze settles in so that the bowl doesn't crack. Unfortunately for my many feathered friends, I am not mechanically inclined enought to install a heater and keep it full of water all winter. It would involve running an extention cord the length of my backyard. Even if I figured out how to do that safely, I have no outdoor outlets.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Fall Foliage Stroll cont'd

We had our first hard frost this morning. The giant cosmos finally succumbed. I'm so glad I have pictures of them. I don't think I will ever see their like again.

After my leisurely stroll through Helyar Forest on Tuesday, I decided to take advantage of the lovely weather and visit some of my favorite places at Rutgers Gardens. The colors were breathtaking all over the gardens.

There are several buildings in the gardens. One of my favorites is called The Log Cabin. It was built in 1935 as a WPA project. It is, indeed, a log structure with a marvelous stone fireplace. It is located next to a small lake which is posted so I have never done more than peer longingly through the trees.

I have since been told that the property is posted because of a drowning many years ago and that no one would mind if I hopped the fence just to take pictures. Which, of course, I will next time I am on a photo expedition in the gardens.

I just love the little entranceway from the parking lot to the Log Cabin:

And nearby is a bit of garden whimsey. Two branches that are now art.

The Display Gardens, plots of annual flowers planted according to an annual theme by volunteers, have been cleaned up for the year.

Despite the lack of flowers, there was no lack of color. Every where I looked, trees and bushes were putting a dazzling show.

Yes, that's my shadow. It's difficult to photograph subjects when the sun is low in the sky. Having finished my stroll through my favorite haunts, I once more ventured into unknown territory. On my way in, I had noticed a pond which sits below the entrance road. The fall colors made it stand out.

Across the road from the pond is the Bamboo Forest, another place I had never visited. It was planted in the 1950's as a winter shelter for honeybee colonies. The bees left, but the bamboo has remained. I didn't take any pictures because it is very dark in the forest. It's also cool in the summer. Paths are cut through it each year. Following one of them, I ran into the stream that feeds the pond.
I love the sound of water as it ripples over rocks.

This bridge was built as an Eagle Scout project. Six months after it was completed, a hurricane blew down a tree and destroyed the bridge. The bridge was so well constructed, the wood didn't break. It bent.

I had wanted to cross the stream to photograph some things on the other side, but I was afraid to cross the bridge. I shouldn't have been afraid. It is still safe to walk on.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Herbs with a Purple Passion

Just as my own gardens are being prepared for winter and planning is beginning for next year, the gardens at the Earth Center at Davidson Mill Pond Park maintained by the Middlesex County Master Gardeners are being cleaned up for winter and plans are being started for next year's gardens. The first project is the herb garden.

The herb garden is really unique. It consists of 13 raised beds in a circular pattern:

The rectangular beds are actually round, like segments of a circle. "O" stands for outer and "M" stands for middle. "C", of course, is center. The beds are on different levels. The outer ones are one tier high, the middle ones two tiers and the center bed is three tiers of stones.

Each bed is planted and maintained by a team of two to three gardeners. Since our class is very small, only ten students, yielding a maximum of five teams, the other beds will be offered to interested master Gardeners. Each team chooses a theme. The themes for 2006 are:

Herbs with a Purple Passion
Clip Joint---Herbs to Clip, Nip & Tuck
Sage advice
Basil, Basil and More Basil
Potpourri - Theme: Summer's Memory
A Monastic Apothecary---The Monks' Medicine Chest
By the Light of the Silvery Moon
The Ancient Language of Herbs & Flowers
Harry Potter's Macical Potions
Herbs From Jamaica, Man
For a Stomachace, These Herbs You Take
Herbs to Thai For
Witch's Brew

We were given the month of November to choose our teams and themes. Apparently there have been disputes in the past over themes. We are a very agreeable class. It only took us one week to choose our themes. There were no disputes. I am partnering with the woman who sits next to me in class. She chose "Herbs with a Purple Passion" for our theme. She even showed up to class today with an armload of books on herbs and a list of plants. I just laughed and added sage to her list. I perused her books for more ideas. My own purple garden has very few herbs in it: sage, anise hyssop, catnip and lamb's ears. In one book I found something called Black Peppermint which has purple stems and leaves. We added that to the list also.

Also this week, the instructor had a map of which theme would go in each bed. Unbeknownst to us, we had chosen the theme that will be in the center and largest bed. We measured it after class. It is 8' (2.4 m) in diameter. We already know that we want Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate in the center of the bed. We are allowed a little leeway with our themes. For variety, my partner suggested we use some herbs that are not purple, but are "passionate" in name or use. Hence the Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate. She also suggested gem marigolds since people get passionate about gems. I think I will suggest Envy zinnias.

We will be starting the seeds in a greenhouse as part of our training. I had a chance to see the area we will be using when I toured the Cook College greenhouses on Wednesday. We will also be starting seeds for the vegetable garden, I assume at the same time. I'm looking forward to planning and planting the veggie garden also. I have never had much luck growing herbs or veggies so I know that I will be learning a lot.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Playing in the greenhouse

I worked in a greenhouse today for the first time. I have visited greenhouses, both at nurseries and at botanical gardens, but I have never had a "behind the scenes" look at what actually goes on in them. The Director of the Volunteer Program at Rutgers Gardens gave me a tour of the greenhouse complex at Cook College first. I got a chance to see the poinsettia trials, more orchids than I knew existed and other tropical plants. I got to peek into the greenhouse where the Gardens are overwintering their plants and then I was whisked off to the greenhouse where they are propogating plants both for sale to raise money and for use in the Gardens.

My job today was to continue the current project of transplanting hundreds of coleus cuttings from their original cellpacks to 4" (10 cm) pots. I had no idea it was such tedious and time consuming work. Moisten the soilless potting medium, fill the pots (8 to a tray), insert a single plant in each pot, make a label for each variety, repeat over and over again. I managed to do over 100 plants before my back was just too tired and sore from leaning over the potting bench. I have a much better appreciation for the amount of work that goes into all those plants for sale at nurseries as well as why they are so expensive.

One unexpected thing was the feline supervision. The greenhouses at Cook College are "owned" by a lovely tortoiseshell cat who goes by the name of Beatrice, Bea for short. Ms. Beatrice made it her job to keep an eye on me while I worked. She "tested" out the bench, "checked" the potting mixture and then ensured that the empty trays were stacked correctly. All of this entailed a lot of purring and tail flicking. It must be exhausting work because she took several long naps. She was curled up on top of the stack of empty trays with a paw over her face when I left. On my way out, I checked with the (human) lady who runs the greenhouses to find out if I could bring treats for Beatrice next time I come to the greenhouses. I can and I will.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Helyar Forest

I went to Rutgers Gardens today hoping to get some foliage pictures. I visited a part of the gardens I had never been in, Helyar Forest.

According to the brochure, "These woods contain sections of old growth and succession forest and remain a unique and valuable ecological resource. Oak, hickory and beech are prevalent." I thought this would be an excellent place for foliage viewing.

It's been too many years since I've taken a walk in the woods in the fall. I had forgotten the soft whisper of the leaves and that special fragrance of autumn. As lovely as the fall colors were, I found myself most attracted to the trees themselves. Now that the foliage has thinned out, you can see their special shapes. I wondered how they got that way.

A natural archway over the path that was formed when a tree toppled.

Spiralling ever upwards.

Trees hug trees too!
This one made me feel so sad. It wasn't until I downloaded it to my computer that I realized it was because it reminded me of the "Pieta".

Other things caught my eye and my camera as I strolled along.

I saw this collection of stones. There was no indication how they got there or why they were there.

There were ferns enjoying the unusually mild weather.

I think natural clearings are very mysterious. You are walking along and all of a sudden, everything opens up. I always wonder, why is nothing growing there? With no trees there, there should at least be underbrush. The forest has a secret life all its own.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

I loved this grove of trees. I'm sure they were labelled but somehow I felt that if I knew what they were it would rob them of their magic.

I didn't have a tour map to guide me along the trail. It wouldn't have been much help. As you can see from the pictures, everything was covered with leaves. The "trail" was virtually invisible. I lost it several times but I was never worried about getting lost. This serene untamed wilderness is located just off of Rte 1.

Yes, that Route 1. The one that runs up the East Coast from Florida to Maine.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Is it November?

I have to keep looking at the calendar to remind myself what date it is. The weather is no indication. It has been 70F (21C) for days now. My crazy cosmos is still growing and now it's blooming:

There were tornadoes in Indiana yesterday. Completely out of season. I think that same weather system blew through here last night. The wind howled and the thunder and lightening was tremendous. One particular thunderclap seemed to go on forever, shaking the house for several minutes. Thank goodness neither the cat nor I am afraid of thunderstorms.

I had hoped to get out and get some foliage pictures this week while I am off from work but I fear that the wind has blown down most of the leaves. Maybe I'll finally get those bulbs in the ground instead!