Parting Shots of Summer

Summer wanes.

The light changes.

The TV is tuned to golf and college football (We are . . . !)

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I list vintage woolies on Etsy.

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And my thoughts turn to making chocolates.

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The garden keeps on giving.

The birds hum and the dragons fly.

Colors deepen and gleam.

IMG_3899Autumn is on its way . . .

Goodnight, Sweet Geraniums . . .

IMG_3447I did one of my least favorite preparing-the-garden-for-winter chores this week. I cut back my geraniums and put them in the dark for the next 6 months.

The whole process of putting gardens to bed in the fall makes me sad. All those beautiful annuals, which gave so much all summer, go to the compost pile. The perennials, some still doing their best to produce flowers, get cut way back.

I’m not going to tell you how I talk to the plants as I cut them back and consign them to compost. It’s a little embarrassing. But it does make me feel better, to reassure them that they were wonderful.

The geraniums, for me, are the most difficult. They still look so completely fabulous, in the traditional red and this crazy-pretty salmon color.

IMG_1025The only thing that makes me feel better is that, with a little luck, some of these plants will survive the winter and be back, better than ever, next summer.

Most people who really garden know that geraniums can be over-wintered. When we lived in a house with a proper basement, I could count on the geraniums every year. I would just cut them back, including getting all the blooms off, and put them in the basement. It was cool in the basement, but not cold, and they got a little light, but not much. I could throw water on them if I thought they were excessively dry but, mostly, I just said “Hi” when I went down to do laundry. When spring started to come around, I’d start watering and give them more light, and all would be groovy.

But now I live in a house with only a completely lightless crawlspace beneath. It stays pretty warm, it stays pretty damp-ish, and it’s 100% pitch black. We don’t really go down there at all, all winter. I sure wouldn’t want to spend 6 hours down there, let alone 6 months!

When we first moved here and I realized I had no place to properly over-winter the geraniums, I decided I’d just stick them in the crawlspace and see what happened. I figured they would die but they were going to die anyway, if I left them outside. I was sad, of course, especially about the salmon ones because I’d had them for a few years at that point; we were old friends.

When the plants came out of the crawlspace that first May, it was a kind of horrifying sight. They were alive but looked undead, kind of the albino-vampire-zombie version of geraniums.

IMG_2871 IMG_2866The stems were completely white and spindly, very leggy, like they were desperately trying to find some light, any light. I couldn’t imagine these pale pretenders ever looking alive again.

But we’d come this far together so I cut off the dead stuff and the really spindly stuff, I watered them and I put them in a warm, sunny spot.

And, slowly, the most amazing thing happened. The stalks became hot pink and little green leaves sprouted.

IMG_3005Then, they became gorgeous again.

IMG_3446I guess it’s not really all that amazing. We probably all have a story about nature bouncing back against all odds. But these geraniums, and their will to flourish, sort of symbolize what spring is all about to me.

So, in the fall, as I put the geraniums into their lightless prison, I think about spring. And I think about my own winter, hunkered down in my warm, cozy house, with the geraniums sleeping beneath me. I think about how we’ll all keep a low profile for the winter and reappear come spring, very pale, craving the sun, but ready to thrive!

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The Garden Diva (But Worth the Trouble)

IMG_3181One of the things we added to our garden this summer was a rose tree or rose standard. Our big box hardware store puts plants on deep, deep discount when their prime moment has passed and my husband couldn’t resist this tree for $5.99.

If I had read about the care and feeding of rose standards before he bought it, I probably would’ve said, “Don’t bother.” As I’ve told you before, I like a hardy, tenacious flower that thrives where it’s planted, with not too much input from me.

The rose standards are not hardy or tenacious and they need a lot of attention from humans–they are such divas! They’re actually created by humans and grown by grafting a hybrid rose to the top of a long rose cane, and that means they can be top heavy. Without real care in pruning, the cane will snap from the weight at the top. So they need to be supported with a stake, kept out of strong winds, and monitored for the cane bowing.

IMG_1751And, as if that weren’t all enough to worry about, they need special care in the winter. We will need to create a tall cylinder of chicken wire to go around the cane and then fill the cylinder with mulch, to protect the cane from freezing. We’ll try this but I don’t know if the poor thing will make it . . .

But in spite of all this, I have come to love the plant! It has given so much in the few months we’ve had it. It has gotten beautiful new foliage and produced dozens of the most gorgeous yellow roses, and they even smell fabulous! To top it off, it’s still blooming, better than ever, in October.

I do hope it makes it through the winter—I’ll keep you posted. If you’ve ever had a rose standard and have advice, please pass it along!

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As a postscript, I just finished dipping these coffee caramels and think they’re too pretty not to share!

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A Paean to Black-Eyed Susans

blackeyed susans-1Do you love black-eyed Susans? Or do you think they’re so common as to be basically weeds? My attitude has changed dramatically in the past few years; I used to think they were okay, but a bit of a nuisance. Now I see that they meet my basic specs for a great flower AND they have deep symbolic meaning for me!

We live in far upstate New York, closer to Montreal, Quebec, than any sizable American city. Summer here is pretty short so we may appreciate our gardens more than people who live in more temperate climates. Spring is downright exciting, when we can catch the first glimpses of growth!

We need flowers that are hardy and put on a show for the time we can enjoy them. And, as descendants of frugal New Englanders and French Canadians, we like perennials because they come back and we don’t have to buy new ones every year! And, if they spread and give us more flowers for free, even better!

I’ve written elsewhere about the historic flooding of Lake Champlain that occurred in spring of 2011. We had owned our house on the lake for a few years and had been working to fix up the house and gardens. We had all kinds of pretty things—lots of hydrangeas, mature lilacs, coneflowers, coral bells, foxgloves, and more.

Spring arrived. All the plants looked great. Then the water rose. Not a flash flood, like could happen on a river, but an inexorable, slow increase and a much slower return to normal.

Our lawn and gardens were underwater, not just soggy but under inches of water, for 6 weeks. And, as you can imagine, almost everything died. The lilacs bloomed above the water for one last time, and died. The climbing hydrangea, which had finally started to take off, died.

Everything died. EXCEPT three kinds of plants. Day lilies, hostas, and black-eyed Susans. Three plants that I had never given much thought or appreciation to before but that have, since that flooding, achieved a special place in our landscaping.

All three of these kinds of plants are easy to love but the black-eyed Susans make me the happiest. They spread like crazy so we dig up big spadefuls and plunk them down anywhere we want more color. They bloom for a long time, in late summer, when so many other flowers are looking tired and faded. They are so relentlessly cheerful that it’s hard to not to smile when they smile at you.

Two spadefuls, newly plunked.

Two spadefuls, newly plunked.

And they made it through the flood and flourished. And so did we. After a lot of hard work, our home looks better than it ever did.  I used the word “paean” in the title quite intentionally. I don’t know that I’ve ever used that word in a sentence before but, meaning a “song of praise or triumph,” it seems most appropriate here.

I praise the humble black-eyed Susan because it triumphed. It was resilient and patient and came back strong and cheerful. Who could ask for better attributes in a flower?

Or a person.

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Dirty Hands at Home: Gardening and Hops

hops vine-4“Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow,
All it takes is a rake and a hoe,
And a piece of fertile ground . . . ”

I was singing this song by Dave Mallett long before I ever tried to grow a garden myself. I came to gardening kind of late—on the farm where I grew up, there were growing things everywhere but I didn’t take part in the intentional growing of flowers until I was in my 30s, probably. But Mallett is right—gardening is pretty straightforward, and so satisfying.

Gardening has become a big part of my “hands at home” approach to life. Maybe nothing connects us to the place where our homes sit as much as getting outside and adorning the spot with plants that reflect our tastes and, in a way, tell our tales.

I’m sure I’ll write more abut gardening but today I want to feature a plant I only learned about last year. It’s at its best right now and deserves the limelight!

The plant in the photos is ornamental hops. Yes, hops. The stuff of which beer is made! We planted it last year, one little dinky plant at each end of this cedar fence. Over the winter it died back to the ground and I thought maybe it wouldn’t come back—the winters are rough in upstate New York!

But come back it did, with vigor and determination. The photos show growth from this spring to early August. In the spring, I wear it was growing a foot a day!

hops vine-1I’ve helped it along by tying it, with green ribbon, to the fence. It doesn’t attach itself like a climbing hydrangea does although it will curl around small objects (like the necks of nearby flowers!), so it would probably climb by itself on a trellis.

Just in the past couple of weeks, the hops have appeared on the vine; they’re those little fluffy-looking pods, shaped like pinecones. I’ve been fascinated with them and have dozens of photos!

hops vine-2As pretty as they are and in spite of the “ornamental” in the name, these hops cones can be harvested and made into beer, although I’m sure there are other cultivars of the plant that you’d grow if beer making were your primary goal.

No beer making for me—I don’t want to put all those established beer makers out of business, so I’ll keep buying theirs! But, if you’re looking for an easy-care plant for a large space, one that makes a major statement and provides visual interest from early spring through fall, you must consider ornamental hops!

So, come on now, everyone, join in for one last chorus:

“Inch by inch, row by row,
Someone bless these seeds I sow,
Someone warm them from below,
Till the rain comes tumblin’ down.”

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