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!
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…
WHAT’S IN A PHRASE?
“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.
IN THE KITCHEN GARDEN…
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…
NEVER LAY TOOLS ACROSS EACH OTHER ON THE GROUND, OR..BAD LUCK COULD CROSS YOUR PATH.
BOOK CLUB NIGHT…
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!
GRILLED GOAT CHEESE & PROSCIUTTO ROLLS
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!