May Garden…

Come what MAY and now,
MAY DAY…shed your sweater, embrace the gentle breezes of May in the garden!

…Ah, springtime, a burst of Joie de Vivre as we throw open the doors and windows…the scent of new foliage, early blooms and warming moist earth drifts into the house. It stirs a basic instinct buried somewhere deep and reminds even ‘big city’ dwellers that their ancestors were once rural folks. Of all the senses, smell is the most closely tied to the part of the brain where our memories are stored.
I remember finding May Baskets filled with dreamy blooms on the porch, and dancing around the May Pole wearing fragrant flower garlands…and picking baskets full of enticing lilac blooms to scent the whole house.

This morning is cloudy with a lingering chill from the rain shower last night…but my garden is a fragrant spring bouquet of luscious peony buds waiting to burst, blue phlox, iris, Spanish lavender, old roses, lilac blooms, garden sage, alyssum and so much more. It is glorious! I do not want to work; I want to sit in the yard, smell the fragrance and enjoy it all as a few bashful rays of the sun reach out from between the clouds…

But first, I need to do a quick garden check-up…
Aphids are common garden pests that gather on the young tips of a wide range of plants. They come in a variety of colors such as green, brown, black, red or yellow…right now you might even see tiny white aphids on daylilies.
Encourage natural predators to control aphids. The ladybug is one of the best known predators of aphids, as are lacewings. You can attract these good bugs into your garden in early spring by growing nectar producing plants throughout the winter and early spring such as alyssum, pansies, violas, snapdragons, dianthus and stock. OR, the beneficial insects can be purchased and released. Then, all the bad bugs will be simply good bug food!
Remember to regularly inspect young shoots, new growth and buds of plants and crush any aphids you find between your finger and thumb…or simply knock them off with a blast of water from the garden hose. The bad bugs will die once blasted with water!

INSECT ID…Many people bring me bugs in a jar and want to know the name of the bug…Charlie or Marie or whatever they want to call it really doesn’t matter.
A note on identifying insects: the name of the bug is not always important, but identifying whether or not it is damaging plants IS important. If you find damage and see an insect on a plant…put both the insect and an undamaged piece of the plant in a jar. Cover the jar with cheesecloth or poke holes in the lid cover, add a little moisture to the plant leaf, and then wait a few hours so the insect can settle in and get down to business.
After a while, check for damage…if there is none you’ve probably caught a beneficial insect in the wrong place at the wrong time! Leave the jar overnight and check again to be sure. If the plant is still not showing damage, release the insect and don’t worry about his/her name.
However, if there is obvious damage to the plant leaves and you feel you have the guilty culprit, re-check the plant you found the insect on for signs of a natural predator or beneficial. You could already have a control and not know it! So don’t be a quick-draw with the poison spray gun, see if natural controls or a blast of water will work first.
Having a good information resource for insect identification as part of your library will make gardening easier. The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect & Disease Control by Rodale Press is one of the best books on the bookstore shelves…check it out now!

PAUSE FOR THOUGHT… A frenzy of gardening activity…as I go over notes made from the previous season of successes and ideas to try out…I find several I’m eager to get on with: white dill, pink cosmos and colorful zinnias, a great success last season, was a beautiful combination of blooms. I started them again from seed next to the garden shed a few weeks ago. I’m trying out an old heirloom variety of ‘Moon & Stars’ watermelon, some of the seeds have sprouted and it should be great fun for my grandchildren to pick the ripe juicy melons later this summer.

Thinking about watermelon takes me back to a time when I would run out to the field at grandmother’s, thump each melon until one sounded just right and then lug it back to the wash house where I plopped it into a washtub filled with ice chunks.
I can still remember the smell when it split open and I buried my face in the sweet pink center. But the final delight…seeing how far I could spit the seeds in a contest with my cousins!

Going, Going…GONE!
After a rainfall or watering is the best time to pull out any weed seedlings or spring grasses that may have found their way into flowerbeds…of course, if there is a nice thick layer of shredded hardwood mulch you probably won’t have any weeds…smart gardener!
I  also want to go ahead and transplant or divide any summer blooming perennials that need attention… And give those Mediterranean type herbs such as rosemary, lavender, thyme and santolina their annual trim. Save the trimmings for burning in the chimenea. The fragrance is sublime and will chase away ‘pesky biters.’

POTTED PLEASURES…fragrant flowers, lush foliage and vintage finds. Celebrate the arrival of the new season. Capture the color and energy that is gathering force all around by potting up favorite plants into containers. There’s so much to choose from but as always I’m drawn to sweet-smelling spring plants in soft to vibrant colors including honey sweet alyssum, spicy dianthus, ruffly petunias, subtle heliotrope, lush stock, enticing pink jasmine and jewel- box geraniums. I choose containers to suit the color and strength of the plants, creating as much variety as possible. The jewel-bright shades of geraniums, heliotrope and alyssum will stand out well against the gray of an old galvanized bucket and fragrant white stock with chervil in a graniteware chamber pot. Or, I sometimes create a mini garden by planting an old peach basket with clove fresh dianthus and a few fresh herbs such as thyme and rosemary.  Also, old wine boxes make versatile containers for herbs and greens and edible flowers can put down roots in an old stockpot. But whatever color or style of container, make sure it has adequate drainage.
Bring a smile to a friends face by giving them a fragrant spring container garden… surprise and delight with an unexpected present…their own portable patch of inspiring spring color and fragrance!

April brought with it some rain, the promise of warmer weather, May flowers…and the thought that summer is on the way.
Spring always brings dramatic change, a few weeks ago there were only a few leaves on the trees and now suddenly their limbs are swathed in green…I walk through the front garden and catch waves of fragrance, more rose buds and peonies seem to have opened overnight…

INSPIRATION…fabulous foliage…I fell in love with flowers first, many years ago, and only later came to appreciate the role of foliage in a perennial shade garden.
A few weeks after 9/11 I flew out to visit my friend Beverly in Portland, Oregon. There I found a tapestry of leaves weaving a gorgeous pattern on the woodland floor of her garden near the guest house nestled in the trees. It was early fall and very few plants were still blooming…yet, it was a lovely picture. The hellebores and heart-shaped leaves of Bishop’s hat contrasted with corrugated hosta foliage… lacy maidenhair ferns spread their wings over a carpet of moss…silvered lungworts and iridescent Japanese painted ferns shimmered in shady corners under burgundy leaves of Oriental maples. The shapes, textures, and colors of artfully arranged leaves were very pleasing and harmonious.
Flowers come and go, but foliage remains in place for months and some of it in our area is evergreen. I often suggest to clients with shady areas that a change in attitude is needed…rely on that marvelous green tapestry for the main menu and let colorful blooms be the icing on the cake!

LILAC LOVER…Capture the freshness of spring with the heavenly hues of lilacs.
In late spring, to me there is no more evocative sight or scent than a lilac in bloom. When the small buds burst into flower scenting the air with a heavenly powerful fragrance and coloring the garden with luscious hues of lavender…one senses that summer lies just around the corner…nostalgia on a stick. While staying in a wonderful old stone house in the hills of Provence, I remember waking one May morning with the scent of lilacs drifting through the open window next to the bed…so Jeanine and I spent the next few hours cutting branches of blooms to fill vases throughout the house.

Lilacs, one of the most strongly perfumed flowers in the garden…and such easy plants to grow…all they need is a sunny spot and reasonably good soil. Scent your home with an armful of fragrant blooms symbolizing love and innocence. Lilacs are quite glamorous when long branches are cut and placed in an elegant yet simple crystal vase.
Lilac bushes are deciduous and extremely hardy, though sometimes a late frost can damage buds. I give my lilacs a top dressing of compost each spring and fall, and maintain a thick layer of mulch around the base. To keep lilacs in shape and encourage maximum blossom, snip off faded flowers as soon as possible so that they don’t set seed. Take care as you deadhead or trim—next year’s flowers grow on this season’s wood, so wait until two shoots form below the old flower and don’t cut these off or you’ll miss a delicious display the next year! Lilacs have a habit of suckering so remove these branches from the base. Thin any crossed branches and cut back by about a 1/3 after flowering…or just leave them alone and like all old-fashioned garden plants, they will be just fine…maybe not perfect, but who cares…

“gone to pot”
This phrase is said to refer to the last, unappetizing remnants of once-delicious cuts of meat that had gone past their prime and were fit only for chopping up and throwing into the stewing pot…it soon became a metaphor for anything that had deteriorated beyond the point of saving.

KNOW IT, GROW IT...Bold and beautiful, with its showy long-lasting flowers, Hydrangea paniculata or Oakleaf Hydrangea is one of my favorite large
shrubs. It is much more rugged than the mophead variety. I usually grow this vigorous shrub in a spot with morning sun and some afternoon shade or dappled light all day. It does prefer a well-drained soil rich with organic material that will hold sufficient moisture in the summer heat.

Left to its own devices, oakleaf hydrangea grows into a sprawling shrub about 10 feet high and almost as wide. There is nothing wrong with that especially if you have a big natural garden where space is unlimited…it can be left alone. Otherwise, get out the pruners early each spring and show it who is BOSS! The flower panicles open cream and fade to white tinged with pink and have a lusciously sweet scent…one bloom can fill a room with fragrance. A must have…if you have the space.

GLORIOUS GLADIOLI…get to know gladioli and enjoy beautiful and vibrant spires of color throughout the summer months. Spring is the usual time to plant gladioli corms…I plant every two weeks in spring to create a succession of flowers. They do best when planted in well-drained fertile soil in full sun. Plant in groups of 7-15 corms…groups of single varieties have the greatest impact. Water regularly and feed with liquid fish and seaweed every three weeks while blooming.
One of the first of the year to flower is gladiolus byzantinus which has striking magenta blooms with a white flash on the lower petals, carried on stiff stems. Its corms are hardy and can be left in the ground where they quickly build up into large clumps. Plant behind or among something that will grow up to hide the foliage after blooming ends…for this I like to use shasta daisies.
My favorite is gladiolus callianthus a late summer flowering coupled with an almost overpowering scent when blooming in a group…another must for the cutting garden.

Growing Blueberries…they flourish in acid soil, in fact, they love the same growing conditions of their close relatives… rhododendrons and azaleas so therefore we have great crops in the Tidewater area.
Blueberries respond happily to being planted in free-draining sandy soil and need very little fertilizer other than some good compost once a season. To keep blueberry plants cropping well and in top condition…prune out old wood that has already fruited, along with any scraggly branches…blueberries fruit on two-year old growth.
I think new bushes are best planted in the fall and obviously pollination is better with two or more varieties grown together.

Use rain water as much as possible to water when needed…most city water has lime, which blueberries hate]

Blueberries have fine roots near the soil surface so I make sure to water deeply and add a nice thick layer of mulch to protect roots and conserve moisture.

DON’T BLAME THEM…called pillbugs, sowbugs, and rolypolies, these relatives of the crab and shrimp families are often blamed for plant damage caused by other pests…such as slugs…although they primarily eat decaying organic matter. If pillbug populations are huge, they will resort to eating plants, but then it is usually limited to lower leaves lying on a damp surface. Try some hot red pepper, it sometimes does the trick!

NATURE DIARY… From beast to beauty…Dragonflies.
Spring is the best time of the year to watch brightly colored dragonflies and damselflies darting and hovering in so many different locations, but mostly near still or slightly moving water, such as a water feature or pond with waterfall. These insects live for several years, most of which is spent underwater as larvae.
Once the larvae hatches, the flying adults live for only a few weeks. During that time they go through the ritual of courting and mating…flying at top speeds of up to 30mph, often in tandem with females.
Smaller ones have four wings of equal size that lie flat when resting…these are damselflies. Dragonflies are larger and keep their wings spread out when resting. As well as being fun to watch…these fascinating, elegant insects are very beneficial predators in the garden eating both midges, mosquitoes, and other tiny flying insects.

Along with tomatoes in the garden, I always use basil, oregano, peppers and marigolds as companions. To meet their nutrient needs I mulch them well with compost and liquid feed them once a month with fish and seaweed. Because I have such loamy soil the nutrients leach out quickly…and even more so with consistent and heavy rainfall… it’s good to alternate the liquid feed with a good layer of compost. You do not need to do more! Too much high nitrogen and you’ll end up with lots of lovely foliage and no fruit.

During very dry weather, watering tomatoes EVENLY is the key to their good health…uneven, inconsistent watering such as letting them get too dry or keeping them too wet will cause many problems. I always water early in the day…of course, I really can’t do much about the rain…
Caution: If you smoke, wash your hands well before touching tomato plants!

By now you should see lots of ladybug and lacewing activity in the garden. If not, oh my, by all means release them into your garden ASAP. Buy ladybugs as adults and keep the cool or refrigerated until ready to release at night. Lacewings should be purchased in the larvae form…order from an insectary. I always order insects only when someone will be able to be home to receive them…they won’t survive an afternoon in a hot mailbox.
INSECTARY…try Arbico or Gardens Alive for beneficial insects.

Release ladybugs in the evening, just after sundown. After a rainfall is especially good or you can spray the base of plants with some water and then release the ladybugs at the bottom of plants, shrubs and trees…they will climb upward, eating bad bugs all the way…and leaving some eggs at some point, too…they do get around!

NOW BE PATIENT…you may see that some of the ladybugs will have flown off the next morning…this is normal. But, they have left lots of eggs that will turn into larvae in 3-5 days. These ‘gator babies’ don’t look anything like their mamas. Ladybug larvae look like little black alligators with an orange-red spot on their back.
They live to eat and will do nothing but feed for 2-3 weeks or until the food source is gone, and then they will pupate. This looks like a dried ladybug stuck to a surface or leaf or stem. In
7-10 days an adult ladybug will emerge…who by the way was born in your yard…and will be happy to stay as long as you aren’t spraying with poisons.

Lacewing in larvae form may be released anytime, they can’t fly. They look like tan gator babies and want moisture and food immediately so they will start working on any infestation right away.

Ladybugs and lacewings are a good bug investment for the garden. They will eat any insect form small enough to get in their mouth and the larvae forms are good at wiggling into small spaces to hunt. Mealy bugs, aphids, thrip, and white fly make a yummy L & L lunch!
For larger bug pests such as grasshoppers, stinkbugs, leafhoppers or squash bugs I count on the birds I invite into my garden. So get started with some feeders to bring birds into the garden…and plant some sunflowers!

Oh, by the way… SUNFLOWERS got their name because the blossoms actually follow the sun’s course across the sky. Chemicals in the phototropic plant’s flowers are attracted to the rays of the sun.

Zipping through the backyard is a hummingbird, such a magnificent creature…dipping into blossom after blossom and then suddenly hovering protectively over the sugar water feeder. Oh, the butterflies are also in completion for nectar, but they can land on flat blossoms to feed before laying eggs on the parsley or rue…

Our cardinals have produced another nest of fledglings tucked into a hanging basket of sambac jasmine…I guess they enjoy the heavenly fragrance as much as I do for they were calm and barely made a peep. I take great pleasure in observing the parents’ feeding ritual…the dull brown female flies her mission with all the skill and determination of a fighter pilot. I watched the bright red male swooping about the yard, with a worm in his beak, for at least five minutes or more before finally zooming to the nest…nervous, skittish, or is he instinctively performing as a decoy distracting predators from his family.
Later that afternoon I noticed a great deal of frantic chirping and flying back and forth about the garden by both parents…I soon realized it was time for first flight. The first two fledglings took off and flew like winners at TOP GUN…the other made an indignant flop into the pond. Terrified it might drown; I jumped into the water and scooped up the little one with gloved hands. Its downy feathers were plastered against a tiny shivering body, and its black eyes were regarding me fearlessly as I placed the trembling bundle into a basket of pine straw. A little bit later, dry and composure regained, it successfully flew from its refuge and into the trees with its parents.
As I observe these little scenarios played out in my backyard each day, I am reminded of the endless cycle of life…raising our young, teaching them to fly, watching them grow…encouraging them as they leave the nest…

ABUNDANT ROSES…make such great scents…my Blush Noisette, Felicia, Cornelia, Graham Thomas, Marie Pavie and Zephirine Drouhin, oh, there is little to equal the treasure of these blooms as their fragrance hangs in the air…waiting to be caught.

Growing Tips…always try to use natural materials for staking or supporting perennials in the garden…they look nice, are eco-friendly and tend to disappear in the landscape…I often use small tree limbs and branches I have trimmed.

Old Garden Wisdom…


Everything is ready for the ladies…wine, popcorn and chocolate, the basic food groups, but first…a special spring treat; something I enjoyed while staying at an old farmhouse in Provence. The goats were in the barn attached to the kitchen side of the house…whew!


Mix a sprinkle of thyme, some walnuts and a goodly dollop of honey into a log of soft goat cheese…add a dash of liqueur

Spoon some of this mixture at the end of a slice of prosciutto and roll up like a log…arrange them all in a baking dish, cover and chill.

Drizzle some more honey over the rolls and a bit of olive oil…bake at 350 for 7-10 minutes.

Serve as a finger food or on top of salad greens…

  MAY everything you touch…flourish!


Compost is the ultimate soil food or nutrient so it follows that a compost pile is something every organic gardener needs. Composting is simple…unless you make it more complicated than it needs to be…AND, a very rewarding way to recycle garden and kitchen waste.
Some folks have raised composting to somewhat of an art form but there really is no great mystery associated with the process. Basic composting requires little physical effort and even less thought. After all, composting has been going on long before the first humans decided what to do with all the grass and leaves and manure and food waste. Think about the forest floor…
Yard debris and kitchen waste make up roughly 20% of landfill refuse. Virtually all of this organic waste could and should be transformed into compost.
So, what is compost? The material [humus-rich] that you get as the result of the decomposition or break-down of organic material such as leaves, grass clippings, garden trimmings, animal manure from herbivores, vegetable and fruit peelings & other food scraps, tea leaves and coffee grounds and so forth. And, if it’s all together in a big pile with lots of microbial activity and earthworms, it breaks down to form rich crumbly humus material…simple!

SOUNDS MESSY, HOW DO I DO IT? At the heart of the composting process is the COMPOST PILE. All you need to get started is a minimum space of 3x3x3 to get the right mass of critical material.

BIN THERE…compost piles can be attractive structures incorporated into the garden or as utilitarian as a wire cage /bin…or simply, a pile surrounded on three sides by hay bales. I prefer a three-part wire bin, home-made, with one section for making compost, one section for dry materials, and the third section to start a new pile while the first pile continues to break down. Composting should take place in the open, on the ground…in the sun or shade and on a well-drained site! Lots of microbes and earthworms in the soil will work to break down the material. There is absolutely no need for big cans or tumblers up on stilts…unless you make that choice. Then you will need to make sure there are plenty of stimulating materials to help breakdown the mass…earthworms can’t crawl up the legs to get into a big can on stilts!

DUNG THAT…Care and feeding of the compost pile…organic matter consists of carbon and nitrogen in varying proportions. All compost “formulas” rely on the same essential ingredients…nitrogen, carbon, water and air. Much like what people need:

Dry, brown material, such as dead leaves, pine needles, straw/hay or sawdust is high in carbon. In order for the carbon or brown materials to break down you need…green material…that organic material listed previously.
Manure and fresh green materials are high in nitrogen. Brown and green materials should be combined to create a carbon-to-nitrogen mix at a ratio of 4-1…sort of, and that’s as scientific as I can be! I don’t get stressed out about proper proportions! A good balance can be made by using four parts leaves to one part kitchen scraps or fresh grass clippings. NOTE: Kitchen materials break down faster if chopped or put in a blender first. Past-date juices, coffee grounds, peelings, egg shells…nectar for the worm gods. I keep an old blender in the garden shed for this task. Not absolutely necessary, just a choice!
Start with a layer of dry or brown materials, good manure and some leaves and/or alfalfa hay. You can add earthworms…order from garden center or on-line during the right time of year…or just wait for them to show up. Remember to water in moderate amounts. The mixture should be moist but not soggy. Turn or fluff the pile every so often or once a week OR whenever you can, just to add air to the pile! The more air you add by turning and lifting, the faster the break down process. Bury any wet kitchen scraps in the center of the pile OR cover with dry materials. This will avoid attracting flies…which lead to rather unpleasant creepy crawlies…This has happened to me and I usually just throw dried molasses, blood meal or a bag of sugar on top of the crawlies, turn the pile and let Nature happen!

NOW, your compost pile becomes a feeding station for microorganisms, protozoa, bacteria, pill bugs, earthworms, slugs, snails and MANY OTHERS. As they all feed, they break down organic matter into carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium…roughly! This process heats up the pile to about 140 F to 160 F, which will usually kill any weed seeds and disease organisms. On a cold winter day you can actually see the “steam” rise from the pile when you turn it…if you’re working it properly.
Why does it steam? You have a large community of microscopic critters happily feeding and breaking down material to create compost! It’s like the air coming from YOU when it’s cold and you see your breath!

SO, supply your tiny workers with the right food, warm temperatures, moisture and oxygen and in exchange you’ll get nutrient-rich humus or COMPOST!
Food waste MUST BE decomposed by the micro flora before an earthworm can consume the waste. An earthworm does not have teeth, therefore, it can only ingest waste material as it decomposes. Earthworms receive most of their nutrition from the micro flora. WOW, can I be more boring!
AND, it is so simple to do…once I have a good mix of green and brown materials started in a pile I usually add some good “near-to-finished” compost filled with plenty of earthworms and castings to get the pile going. It is important to keep the pile slightly moist…not wet or soupy…moist enough for a handful to hold together somewhat.


*pile doesn’t heat up…add more nitrogen; if dry, add water and try turning the pile…dry molasses, blood meal, manure or even a simple 5lb. bag of sugar will heat the pile
*pile smells bad…add more carbon or brown/dry material; pile may be too wet so turn it to add air; GOOD COMPOST has an earthy aroma.
*material doesn’t break down…shred or chop material to make smaller pieces before adding to pile; add more green material; aerobic and anaerobic bacteria will begin the process.

I plant a lot of comfrey around my garden which is an ideal companion plant, a choke crop can be used as an activator for the compost pile helping it speed up the process in much the same way as manure.

How do I know when it is ready? You’ll have a pile of rich brownish-black, sweet but earthy smelling material full of earthworms…now, top dress before mulching planted areas, layer it on your garden or work it carefully into planting beds.

What other things can I add to the compost pile? Well, there’s so much…shredded newspaper, dryer lint, natural fibers fabric scraps, fireplace wood ashes, tea leaves and bags, paper egg cartons, leftover veggies, cooked pasta, sawdust, cardboard, corncobs, seaweed, crab shells…I was once told by a longtime organic farmer in Texas…”You can compost anything that has lived and died!” Eeueueeue-w-w-w-w!

Do I still need fertilizer with compost? Working compost into the soil in the fall will allow it to slowly decompose and provide a good mix of nutrients for plants by the following spring…Plants and soil will begin to benefit from a balanced fertilizer in the spring as they begin to grow.
Compost does contain all the primary nutrients, trace minerals and beneficial organisms that plants need to grow and thrive. These nutrients release slowly into the soil, encouraging plants to develop strong healthy root systems. It will also fight disease in the soil and put your soil back into balance. Compost will improve the texture and moisture-holding capacity of soil. It will loosen clay soil and bulk up sandy soil.
But, it does continue to break down and eventually become nutritionally unbalanced… which is why I usually throw out some good organic fertilizer or composted manure after a few months.

Making compost is a good way to recycle garden debris…I do not add sticks, twigs, pinecones, evergreens or any other thick woody stems to the pile…takes too long. I chop them, clip them, shred them, or whatever, and compost the material in a separate area. This provides some cover for beneficials and small critters while it breaks down. The smaller the particles, the faster they compost.
IF, you have too many leaves for the compost pile…make leaf mould, A WONDERFUL SOIL AMENDMENT OR MATERIAL TO USE AS MULCH. You can make it the same way Mother Nature creates the forest floor. Just pile up leaves in an area that can be left undisturbed…wet them down and let them decompose. To speed up the process, shred the leaves or run them over with a mulching lawn mower FIRST.

MATERIALS THAT SHOULD NOT BE ADDED TO THE COMPOST PILE …coal and charcoal ashes, meat and most dairy wastes, pet litter, plants treated with synthetic chemical pesticides or herbicides or diseased garden plants.
Can I compost during the winter? Of course, the process will slow down some in colder temperatures but microorganisms in compost will continue to eat…just a little slower on really cold days.

Okay, WHY did I do this and now what do I do with all this great organic material? Thrifty gardeners know…
Composting is a very efficient way to recycle household, yard and garden “wastes” and turn them into a perfect soil amendment or fertilizer for your garden and lawn.
Compost does protect plants and soil from disease and insect problems
Compost improves the soil structure and ability to hold moisture.
Use compost to top dress lawns and garden beds…fertilizer!
Use compost to provide nutrient for new garden beds!
Use compost as mulch!
Use well-aged compost as potting soil.

True compost is “alive” and is the best way to inoculate the soil with micro flora, nourish plants, and is the best route to provide healthy disease-free soil and plants…on an ORGANIC program!

APRIL in my garden…

APRIL 1st…old farmer’s saying…’if you hear thunder on the first day of this month, the corn and hay crops will be plentiful…’

Spring is traditionally a time of new beginnings and fresh ideas, the perfect opportunity to get my garden growin’…

SPRING INTO ACTION…April brings with it the promise of warmer weather, those ‘May flowers’, and the thought that spring is well on the way. My gardens are full of unstoppable vigor…now in their fifth year the roses should soon be putting on quite a show…even though a few slept-in this spring.

And elsewhere, there are beautiful stands of creamy yellow, lavender, deep purple, and pale pink iris in bud…deliciously fragrant chocolate vine winds up the porch rail, larkspur sprouts hither and yon, wanton drifts of love-in-a-mist budding profusely and tips of elephant garlic peeking through the mulch…gardening, that creative journey in which I never have to worry about being there on time or at all!


April 7th…sights to stir the soul. Driving to Williamsburg along the Colonial Parkway…a cold rainy day, the white blooms of dogwoods brighten the woods…redbuds contrast and excite…maypops like hundreds of tiny toad umbrellas…

Spring forth…

In December of ’04, when we moved back to Virginia from Texas, there was not a single flower or shrub on the entire property. Since moving in I have planted many perennials, vines, heirloom plants, old roses, a few unusual shrubs and lots of herbs around the house. Now, in just a short time, there is always a lovely fragrance to enjoy, rose blooms to cut and the beginnings of a terrific herb garden.  Amidst the frenzy of spring and the growing ‘to do’ list, it is a very busy time in the garden when the days are not long enough, nor my back strong enough to cope with the pressing tasks of feeding the soil around existing plants, trimming, planting, potting up, let alone the routine maintenance. I always enjoy my time in the garden; it is relaxing, yet tiring, soothing and very comforting. Ok, so some of it is just doing work for love!!


 What Makes My Garden Feel Special…great blooms of color, fragrance, sound and a relaxed atmosphere. From the first moment, wandering along the gently curving stone path lined with thyme, rosemary and lavender, you feel my warm embrace…then you are drawn into the backyard where a rustic cedar arbor covered in climbing roses and evergreen clematis, offers a shady spot to rest, relax and enjoy the views, fragrance and sounds of the garden. Surrounded by woods, the area attracts a good variety of birds, wild turkeys, deer, and other wildlife…all contributing to a feeling of tranquility.

Food bar for Butterflies…In a few more weeks the buddleia or butterfly bush will begin to bud. This large shrub/plant is so named because butterflies cannot resist its fragrant blooms that form long, pointed clusters at the tips of arching branches. Buddleia, in shades of white, pink, purple, lavender and yellow is quite similar to a lilac bush and is just as easy to grow…but continues to bloom all season. Use it as a full shrub or trim it as a small scale tree form from early on…consistent trimming of old blooms will keep the bush going into fall. Actually, mine is really leafing out since I cut it back several weeks ago…it’s the focal point in a small butterfly garden close to the woods.

AND, don’t forget…

HUM-M-M-M…I’ve put out my hummingbird feeders, they are on their way! Fill with natural sugar water at 4-1, no red coloring needed, no honey, and change the mixture every few days. Long before honeybees were brought to North America as pollinators, the busy hummingbirds were already on the job. In order to survive, these tiny birds need to consume more than half their body weight in food every day.

From sun up to sundown, they visit hundreds of flowers feasting on nectar and insects. So…not only are they efficient pollinators but they are pest predators. Hummingbirds are attracted to flower colors and shapes…usually BRIGHT colors like red, yellow, orange and purple.

I love finding beautiful new feeders to hang about the garden, also found several that actually hang on the window glass and am able to enjoy watching them feed from the kitchen table…up close!


APRIL SHOWERS bring those May flowers…well usually, but last year it was May before there was much spring rain. So, this is my strategy for saving water in the garden and keeping plants happy:

*keep beds mulched to prevent moisture from evaporating… and  mulch only after a good rainfall or heavy watering

*add soaker hoses under the mulch in areas that are very sandy and on a slope…this will make them easier and more efficient to water

*add more water barrels to collect rainwater at downspouts

*use watering cans instead of spraying with a hose…I can actually get water to the root system better this way; keep cans filled and station them around the garden ready for use    while weeding or wandering

*don’t water unnecessarily; frequent light watering encourages surface roots that are more prone to drying out

*in dry weather, water containers and new young plants in the evening so they can absorb the moisture overnight

MID APRIL…sprigs and petals appear…and I can almost hear the garden growing as ripples of fresh green leaves giggling in the breeze fill the trees and gardens…transforming itself almost overnight from a tangle of twiggy brown stems to a vertical tapestry of swirling foliage and blooms.


Jottings…I had so many ideas that I jotted down in my journal during the winter…so, reading today…planning to do

  1. Delicious scent by the front door…Daphne, of course, along with my Osmanthus
  2. Do I need more bulbs…always, some can be divided soon; I will keep the blooms deadheaded before any seedpods form
  3. Where can I plant a viburnum…one with the fragrant white blooms…at the edge of the woods where it can grow up however it chooses
  4. Need another big rosemary for the front herb bed
  5. Look for comfrey plants to edge the blueberry garden

SPRING is most enchanting… the days are getting longer and slightly warmer…and fragrant blooms open daily.  To celebrate, I’m planting one of my favorite old garden roses that a friend in Texas sent me from the Antique Rose Emporium…

Blush Noisette is a glorious old-fashioned climber that rates as one of the greatest performers of all time. The flowers open from lovely shaped buds, the petals are a gentle pink that pales as the blooms mature and the spicy perfume is best on a warm, sunny afternoon. The flowers, formed in loose sprays all the way up the canes, are produced consistently from late spring going on through November or later.  This is a vigorous grower and can be treated as a large shrub…but, I think Blush Noisette is happiest as a climber reaching 10 feet or more in 3-5 years. Its scale makes it especially good for arches or rose arbors. Mine will be growing on a sunny arbor where it can show off its blooms all day…all the while enticing me towards the backyard with her fragrance.


 Spring has sprung…it’s full speed ahead in the vegetable garden or potager with direct seed sowing and potted starts. As I plant and sow seeds, I chart my garden so I can rotate crops next year. Also, I firmly believe in the ancient concept of companion planting…growing herbs, edible flowers and vegetables together to produce happier, healthier plants and provide better insect control than a monoculture. For example, basil and garlic planted with tomatoes or even roses will produce more flavorful and colorful fruit and blooms.

 But much more about companion on another post.

Provence lavender outlines one quadrant of the potager, chives and thyme another with rosemary as an enclosing hedge. English peas are blooming and have climbed halfway up their trellis…some vines are already full of tiny pods…umm, they taste so sweet raw. Sprouts of potatoes in their baskets have appeared and will be blooming soon, the garlic and onions look great.  Alpine strawberry plants are full of tiny white blooms, and those tasty terrific little yellow pear and grape tomato plants can now go in along with basil, parsley and marigolds.

ACTUALLY, I prefer the French way of growing my little tomatoes. I get many more blooms and thus fruit and they are so much easier to care for than the larger bush varieties.  Tomatoes fall into two classes: determinates, which are bush types that grow to a certain size and then stop; and indeterminates which are vining types that continue to grow until killed by a frost.    


  1. Be patient, wait till soil and weather is warm enough to plant
  2. Select a variety of tomatoes…I prefer mostly heirloom types
  3. When buying starts from a garden center, DO NOT PUT ROOT-BOUND PLANTS IN PEAT POTS IN THE GROUND. Remove the pots!
  4. Tomatoes appreciate LIGHT feedings throughout the growing season; either top dress with compost or foliar spray with fish and seaweed…do not overfeed or you will have lots of foliage and no blooms/fruiting
  5. Water EVENLY, DEEPLY, CONSISTENTLY…1-1½ inches of water a week depending on soil; do not let them dry out! This is key to avoiding blossom end rot
  6. Stake, cage or trellis tomato plants…they will be twice as productive and ripen faster
  7. Mulch soil around plants to retain moisture and suppress weeds
  8. If you find tomato hornworms…pick them off and feed to the birds
  9. Use basil and marigolds for companion plants
  10. Pinch out growing tips, side shoots and remove yellowing, old lower leaves; keep airflow good by cutting out thick foliage

I use this French-pruning technique to grow sweet 100’s, cherry or yellow pear tomatoes…

1.Plant seedling at base of stake and mound soil up to the middle of the stem, pinch out suckers

2.As the plant grows,  keep pinching out lateral buds and tie stem to stake encouraging a leafy  top to form

3.When the plant reaches full height, pinch out the main shoot to encourage more fruiting.

 Wish I could put the drawing on here!!


Build a grow ring…a terrific way to grow tomatoes in a limited space while conserving water. Simply clear a 7’ circle and then build a hogwire ring about 5’ in diameter by 4’-5’ high in the center of the cleared area. Add some wire screening inside the cylinder up to 18” high and secure the ring to the ground with stakes or pins made from coat hangers. Fill the cylinder to about 12” high with organic compost and then put in 3-5 tomato plants spaced evenly around the ring. As the plants grow, trim and train two main stems and attach them to the wire ring with strips of cloth or twine. After 2-3 weeks, add another 6”-12” of soil and compost mix along with a little rock phosphate. Always water in the center of the cylinder and as the plants grow their roots will seek out the nutrient rich area inside the grow ring.

A side benefit: To protect from cold…it’s easy in late fall with approaching frost to cover the whole structure with a flannel blanket or row cover.

NOTE: this type of growing system can also be used for peas, small pumpkins, cucumbers and other vining vegetables/fruits.

CREATE YOUR OWN HANGING GARDENS…you can plant tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, bush beans and even compact melons in hanging baskets…BIG hanging baskets. Inexpensive wire baskets will work for a season but I prefer the heavy black coated metal baskets from England that will last for many years. Use 14 inch baskets for most vegetables, 16 inch or larger for zucchini and melon.  First, I line the baskets with chicken wire and then use sheet or sphagnum moss on top. Fill with quality soil, no peat!

In my baskets I have planted heirloom grape tomato, spicy globe basil, and marigolds. Another is filled with yellow pear tomato, lemon basil, onion chives and sweet red pepper.

I hang them where they will get at least 5-6 hours of morning sun and then are shaded somewhat for the late afternoon. WATER consistently and feed with liquid fish and seaweed once a week…WHILE WATERING DAILY. Sounds like work, but this is an easy way to grow food crops in small spaces…your own fabulous hanging gardens…

Heritage Seeds and Plants… Over a hundred years ago, every country garden sprouted a variety of fruits and vegetables. Most gardeners grew what we are NOW calling HEIRLOOM varieties. At that time, most families lived their whole lives where they were born…all the while planting, growing and collecting seeds from their gardens.

Sown from a collection of seeds both inherited and from mail order, these vegetables and fruits adapted to local conditions and their seeds became part of the family’s most precious possessions…allowing them to plant and then exchange seeds with neighbors. Instead of buying seeds of hybrid vegetables and fruits EVERY YEAR…please consider buying and growing as many wonderful HEIRLOOM varieties as possible….they taste better!

Just don’t forget to collect seeds at the end of every season…and store in paper bags or glass jars.

Okay, so what’s the big difference?

*Open-pollinated…flowers, vegetables and fruits that will come true from seeds

*Hybrid…plants from 2 different families are crossed to make a flower or vegetable with a particular habit or color, seeds will not come true…you must buy new seeds every year.


OH, OH…just noticed, I need to get some pine straw to put around my Alpine strawberries, it’s good mulch and will keep berries from getting buried in the dirt by any heavy rain storms. These wonderful plants also make a lovely, ruffly edge for my flower beds by the front porch…I just pluck a berry every time I pass by.


Gerberas in Pots…this lovely daisy will flower pretty much all season if I treat it well. In colors of coral, butter, lavender, orange, red and so on…I like to put 5-6 plants together in a large pot or wooden tub…sometimes with Autumn ferns. I give them good soil and drainage and continue to feed with my liquid fish and compost…I am also careful to put stones around the crown of the plants to keep them warm, happy and free from rot. They really look nice marching in pots up the steps to the porch.


                                                           Old-Fashioned Garden Wisdom…”some people can grow things and some peoples can’t”


 FRAGRANT FAVORITES CREATE A PERFUMED PARADISE…a scented romantic retreat, a place to relax from the hurly-burly of the world. With a few subtle changes to plants and accessories you can have a fresh ‘look’ for every season on a patio or deck.

1st of the season series:

For the SPRING patio, create a corner or backdrop of greenery with climbing vines or shrubs or a mini forest of potted trees. Try a fig or bay standard or a Japanese maple for color, a wax myrtle or Savannah holly, or sweet olive as evergreens. Find a stylish or funky table with matched or odd chairs. An old bench or metal table can be used to display small pots of bulbs, objects and blooms.  Group arrangements of leafy plants together at ground level to enjoy their fresh foliage and fragrant blooms…THINK about sambac jasmine, gardenia, roses, honeysuckle, Meyer lemon tree, sweet peas, sweet flag, elderberry and a hydrangea for a shady afternoon spot.

Use plant stands, simple metal or wood tables and whimsical pieces to bring special plants closer to eye level. By early summer there will be plenty of fragrant perennials, herbs and annuals to choose from for potting up…group herb pots of rosemary, thyme, lavender, patchouli, lemon verbena and lemon grass for added fragrance and insect control.

Plant hanging baskets with colorful and fragrant blooms… I’ve just finished several English iron baskets that are filled with trailing vines of tropical pink jasmine.  Wall mounted hayracks are great for trailing ivy, geraniums, alyssum and mint where the spot might get only dappled light.

Also, I use some gorgeous Italian rolled rim pots for planting mini perennial gardens as well as a few filled with all one plant…sunny rudbeckias, agapanthus, stunning verbena bonariensis, Shasta daisies and ‘Blue Princess’ verbena.  Fragrance is intensified by developing this type of enclosure…it ensures that the scents are collected into a sensuous melting pot and not blown away on the wind. A sunny enclosure also brings out the best aromas, especially of herbs such as lavender and thyme.

While many fragrant plants , such as honeysuckle and lilies, are powerful enough to waft their tempting scents freely around the garden or patio…others need to be positioned near a path, patio or on the edge of a flowerbed to ensure that their delicate fragrance can be easily enjoyed.




PLAN AHEAD…now is the time to think about MAY DAY. Carry on the tradition of May baskets or little flower bouquets from the garden…leave one on the front door as a special spring gift for a friend on MAY 1st. This charming custom began in Europe many years ago and is a major part of MAY DAY celebrations in France where tiny bouquets of lily of the valley are sold on every street corner. I still have mine from May 1, 1999…purchased on a street corner in Monaco.


 END OF THE MONTH    Garden Check-Up…

Time to feed camellias and azaleas that have already bloomed; composted rabbit manure is the best food for them or a specially mixed food for acid loving shrubs from ESPOMA.     [depends on soil]

Bulb reminder: all bulb foliage should be left alone, uncut, until it yellows. This gives nutrient to the underground bulbs. I cut only after 85-90% of the foliage has died back. If you didn’t have many blooms this season, it’s probably time to lift, divide and replant your bulbs. A 50/50 mixture of worm castings or good compost, and soft rock phosphate should be used when replanting…a small handful at the bottom of each hole, mixed into the soil. I also add a sweetgum ball to deter marauding voles. 

Not so fast…while I’m out doing the specialty feeding, I also check the evergreens and other ‘leafing out’ shrubs to see if they are getting a well-balanced nutrition from the soil. Sometimes in early spring while plants are growing rather quickly…especially after several weeks of good rain…foliage MIGHT be a paler shade of green than normal. This is a good time to top dress with compost to balance out the soil…

Divide, Conquer and Rule…After several years of growing and blooming, some perennials and herbs will quit producing or get leggy or too crowded or there is a dramatic reduction of bloom. This usually means it’s time to divide the plants…now is the season for dividing fall bloomers. Simply dig up the plant with plenty of root system and using a sharp knife, digging fork or spade…divide the root system. Amend soil in the new planting area with worm castings or compost and rock phosphate. Soak the roots and any foliage in seaweed water for a bit and then replant in holes larger than the root system. Keep well watered with seaweed for 2-3 weeks or until you see new growth. Sometimes it is necessary to cut back foliage when you divide. For spring bloomers…wait until just after they finish any blooming and before it gets too hot and then divide and replant.

*Some easy to divide perennials and herbs that form mats, patches or clumps:

daisies   dianthus   asters        yarrow   phlox  ferns   iris        chives   daylilies   tansy        creeping phlox      beebalm

society garlic   scabiosa   comfrey   lemon grass       spiderwort       rudbeckia

‘Layering’ is an easy way to propagate woody perennials, herbs, or shrubs. Just find some healthy branches or stems at the bottom of a plant and pin down the woody part so that it touches the soil…or you could place a rock or brick on the branch to hold it down for rooting. It doesn’t take long so check your work after a few weeks. When the branches have rooted well you can cut the newly rooted section from the mother plant and pot up or replant in the garden.

*Some perennials and herbs that are easily propagated by layering:

rosemary   thyme   sage   rose   salvia   spirea   savory   lavender   summer phlox   catmint   lemon verbena

Russian sage   germander    santolina   wallflower


CUTTING ADVICENOW is the time to cut back sweet autumn clematis, if you have not already…cut back to one-third the size of the overall plant and redirect new growth where you want it to go. Plus, by controlling growth, you’ll get lots more blooms!


GARDEN KNOW-HOW…To prune or not to prune…that IS the question. For any gardener it is essential to grasp certain facts about why we have to prune at all. I much prefer to let nature take her course, but most people want plants in a garden to ‘perform’, to flower regularly with good healthy foliage and look orderly or graceful when not in flower.

Many shrubs have such beautiful natural shapes that pruning could and should be kept to a minimum. NEVER, EVER cut abelia, forsythia, lilac Chinese fringe, or elaeagnus into boxes or balls! Just pick prune to control growth and leave them to a natural shape.


When you prune or trim, you stimulate growth at the point where the cut is made…this is extremely important as you can ruin the natural shape of many shrubs by trying to force them to grow where they shouldn’t or cut them into balls or boxes or other contrived shapes. AND then you have hedges and topiaries, but that’s another whole story…

 WHEN to prune is as important as why. If you prune to improve flowering, find out whether the plant flowers on ‘old’ or ‘new’ wood. Old wood is the growth made the previous season; new wood is the growth from the current season.

NOTE: most spring-flowering shrubs flower on wood or branches made in the previous year, so they should usually be pruned directly after flowering. Shrubs that flower later in the season can be trimmed as needed during the late winter or early spring.


Always top dress with compost, mulch and water well after any heavy pruning.

Speaking of Topiaries…use them to create whimsical effects from garden grandeur to horticultural humor. A rosemary standard looks like a fat lollipop, makes a great focal point in an herb garden or creates a bit of order in a cottage garden. Cones, balls and pyramids of rosemary, germander or boxwood can anchor the corners of a potager, guard the entry to a path and create a reassuring sense of permanence in the garden…if you feel inclined to snip and control, that is!


ASPARAGUS…the aristocrat of vegetables…what can beat the sweetness of freshly picked, homegrown asparagus…

To enjoy its true flavor, cook it properly…a light, quick simmering in a flat sauté pan is best…it should still be crunchy, not limp and mushy.

Then lightly butter and squeeze a bit of lemon on the spears.

If you have to buy it at the local produce market….look for tightly closed buds at the top of the spears and stalks which should break with a snap.

Superb addition to a spring risotto…


  WHAT’S IN A PHRASE?          “make a beeline”     Old country lore has it that bees are so efficient and dedicated to their work that after busily gathering their pollen from flower to flower they always fly in a straight line back to their hive…eager to deliver their nectar.


KNOW IT, GROW IT,  Comforting comfrey…The vigorous comfrey plant, with its large fuzzy leaves and drooping pink flowers, has been considered primarily as a great miracle healing plant since the Middle Ages. In fact, bruised fresh leaves can be used as a poultice for cuts, rashes, bites and resultant swelling as well as ankle sprains or strains.

CAUTION: Check for allergic reaction before using on skin. Comfrey is rich in potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous making it an excellent plant healer and fertilizer as well. Just soak comfrey leaves in water till they rot, strain the mixture and use to foliar spray or root water plants. I’ve also used the aforementioned strained mess or chopped leaves as a mulch around my tomato plants. AND, it acts as a compost activator. Adding this ‘plant healer’ will help other plants in the garden!

Great Germander…a nice moderate size, mostly evergreen shrub that mixes well into the flower border is upright germander. ‘Tutti-Frutti’ has silvery gray, small leaf foliage and lavender blue blooms in summer. This great looking shrub will stand up to heat and drought once established. It prefers well-drained soil and a slight trim on occasion to keep it tidy. I plant it with purple sage, silver thyme, white coneflowers, verbena bonariensis, and butterfly bush.


          GRASSROOTS…a fresh outlook for cleaning the kitchen sink drain: pour a small handful of baking soda down the drain followed by a cup of white vinegar, a natural    antibacterial, follow with 30 seconds of warm water to flush

Some everyday items that get the cleaning job done: baking soda, distilled white vinegar, lemons, all purpose liquid detergent…an earth-friendly version…see many more HOUSEKEEPING tips in back of book section.


SAFE COLORING FOR EASTER EGGS…make your own egg dye the natural way using common foods and flowers…and don’t forget, the longer you soak eggs in homemade liquid, the deeper the color tone.

For PINK: cranberry juice    For LAVENDER: grape juice   For YELLOW: turmeric or saffron, dash of vinegar in boiled water…or calendula petals  For GREEN: boiled comfrey leaves or parsley   For BROWN: very strong brewed coffee  For BLUE: blueberry juice, of course…Experiment with different edible blooms to find new colors.


Experience is a funny thing. If you make a botch of something, you learn from your mistake, and if you do something that works you know from that experience you have acquired a skill. Well, that’s the theory anyway…so the more experience you have, the more you realize that gardening is not an exact science. The best way to do something is the way that works for you!

Go out NOW and experience the wonder and glory of springtime!