Recently I published a blog post about bees, wasps and hornets. To add interest to the story, I created a graphic featuring 4 common species and asked my readers to identify them. One reader labeled three of them correctly and labeled the fourth one ‘jerk.’ (Actually he used more colorful language, but this is a family blog). That ‘jerk’ was the yellow jacket. Continue reading →
In late August, it’s sometimes hard not to look at your garden and throw in the towel. By that, I mean take out the pruners and cut down all the moldy, dried out stems or turn a blind eye to the whole debacle. But that would be a shame with so many late-summer flowers now coming into their own. It just takes a little advance planning and some careful pruning and you can have a garden that keeps going all the way until fall. Continue reading →
Last time I was in Berlin, the city was still stained dark gray by the soot of post-WWII deterioration. But this week I returned to find the metropolis almost unrecognizable. Everywhere there are signs of improvements, scaffolding and construction. There is one place, however, that remains unchanged; that is, Potsdam’s stunning Sanssouci Palace and gardens. I made a return visit yesterday. Continue reading →
Dad was always up early when I was a child. On weekdays he went to the office, but on weekends the real work began. These were the days that dad devoted to yard work. My sister and I were a fundamental part of his crew.
Dad ran a tight ship and an orderly landscape was testament to our mighty team effort. As garden ‘personnel’, my sister and I raked, clipped, pulled weeds and hauled yard waste on a seasonal basis. We weren’t fans of the work, but we were big fans of dad’s, and the shared chores were a good way to spend outdoor time together.
It wasn’t until much later in life that we realized something more than gardening had been going on in the yard. While my sister and I toiled in the dirt, dad had been teaching us some valuable life lessons. Here are five things I learned from my dad in the garden that continue to infuse my life with purpose and meaning today.
Until the work was done, there would be no rides to the pool, quick trips to Dunkin’ Donuts or play dates with friends. This was a hard lesson to learn since by Saturday morning most of our buddies were already hard at play. My sister and I gradually discovered, though, that delaying our playtime actually increased our enjoyment of it later. In finishing our yard chores first, we developed patience and strengthened our willpower. Over time, we grew to relish the psychic benefits of putting off fun until our tasks were accomplished.
Do quality work
One of my jobs was to crawl around the periphery of the house with garden shears to trim the stray grass left behind by the mower. About halfway around the exterior, I usually got tired and started cutting corners. My dad always noticed those areas where I had slacked off and though he never yelled, he seemed so disappointed. Many times I tearfully returned to the job. During the process, though, I gradually learned to do quality work and discovered that practicing quality was fulfilling and that it mattered to me.
If you told dad you were going to do something, you did it. He expected no less. No excuses, prevarication or blaming poor work on your sister were valid substitutes for your word. Honesty was the rule and dad led by example, setting high standards in the yard. Dad taught us how to be respectful of each other and listened patiently to our endless strategies for reducing our workload. He also showed us that the key to good work was to finish the jobs that we started.
Dad had a riding lawn mower, but insisted on walking behind it to cut our 3-acre field. On the hottest of days, my mother would watch him incredulously from the kitchen window. My dad pushed himself to burn calories and probably to spend more time outdoors. Whatever the reason, his work ethic made it hard to refuse when he asked us to bag all the clippings.
Of course dad could have bagged the grass as he mowed, but that would have meant we missed out on the exercise. One year, as incentive, dad offered to pay us if we got all the clippings into 10 bags. We worked like demons all afternoon, devising efficient strategies for raking and fitting the most clippings in each black plastic sack. My sister was stamping on the tenth when it burst at the seams, but dad paid us anyway. We returned sweaty and tired to the house, and though dad disputes this version of the story, it’s still one of my favorite yard memories today.
Try not to complain
Dad showed us through example that even if the job got hard, or the weather uncomfortable, we should strive not to complain. Not only was it annoying, it made yard work unpleasant for everyone. He taught that seeing things in a more positive light was much better for all of us and improved our relationships.
Being young girls, my sister and I struggled the most with this concept. We tried hard to stop airing our yard work grievances, with incremental improvement over time as we aged. But, I’ll admit that it wasn’t until later on in life that I finally learned the true value of this lesson.
Thank you, dad, for all the lessons you taught us. Happy Father’s Day. You are the best dad, ever.
Floral stamp from the USPS Pollinator stamp series
You may think that gardens and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have little in common, but The National Postal Museum, located in Washington, DC, is currently challenging that point of view. It recently opened an exhibition featuring the botanical art behind 50 years worth of floral stamps. And it’s delivered the goods just in time for the spring season. Continue reading →
Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the winter-blooming camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful plants wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular multi-layered blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading →
Every year, I make a list of things I want to achieve or change in my garden. But the year passes, I get busy planning my clients’ landscapes and before I know it, it’s mid summer. That is not an ideal time to start something new in the garden.
I’ve promised myself that this year, however, will be different. All those ideas I’ve jotted down in my garden notebook? I plan to convert at least some of them into reality. And January is the perfect time to sit down and create a plan for just how all of it will happen. Continue reading →
One of the perks of being a master gardener is all the great lectures you get to attend. Today’s talk following the board meeting was no exception. It happened to coincide with the very moment I was asking myself “What’s going on with my lavender?” Here was professional grower Sophia Watkins, ready to answer all my questions.
A FAMILY-RUN LAVENDER FARM CALLED SOLEADO
Watkins runs a family-owned, sustainable lavender farm located at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland. It is the largest lavender farm in the state. She grew up on the 286-acre farm, 26 acres of which are now dedicated solely to the cultivation of lavender.
Soleado Lavender Farm
The family prides itself on its long history of organic farming, a practice Watkins’ father adopted back in the 1960s. At that time, the farm grew a mix of soybeans and grains. For a child, it was a great way to grow up. So when Watkins and her fiancé took over the farm, they knew they wanted to continue that tradition.
“Our goal was about preservation even more than about gardening,” she said. “We wanted to protect these special parts of Maryland and keep them alive for not only our own child but for everybody else’s children as well.”
Why choose lavender? The couple was looking to grow a sustainable perennial that deer wouldn’t eat as well as one from which they could make products for sale. They decided on lavender not only for its drought-tolerance, but also for its many decorative and culinary uses. Later, they added bees for pollination. And today, the farm boasts nine hives with over 40,000 bees in each, all producing lavender honey.
In a nod to Watkins’ fiancé’s Latin American roots, they named their farm Soleado, meaning sunny or ‘baking in the sun.’ As it so happens, in their first year of operation, Watkins says they found themselves ‘dying in the heat’ as they got things established. As a result, Soleado took on a new shade of meaning.
TIPS FOR HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY PROPAGATE LAVENDER
At Soleado, all of the lavender is grown from cuttings, a practice most nurseries have moved to given the lower germination rate of seeds. Watkins harvests soft and hardwood cuttings from established plants that average around 5 inches, then strips off the leaves and dips them in a root hormone. Not surprisingly, her top choice for an organic one is honey.
In order to provide maximum space for the roots to extend, Watkins plants her seedlings in a ‘bulky’ growing medium that she mixes herself from Leafgro and perlite. Then she plants the cuttings in 2” plastic pots.
Once potted, the cuttings spend up to 8 weeks in partial shade or in the greenhouse (under shade cloths) until substantial roots begin to develop. Afterward, they’re transplanted to the field. Watkins noted that if the seedlings are planted outside first, the process usually goes faster.
THREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER
According to Watkins, three is the magic number of years for a good-sized plant to develop. After that, it may continue to grow for another four. What happens around year seven I asked? If taken care of properly, lavender can live a good deal longer, with 10 to 20 years not being unheard of. Indeed, some historical properties have plants that are as much as 80 years old.
A great combo, hydrangea and lavender
Once established, lavender is a sun-loving plant. Therefore, no variety can tolerate shade and still produce flowers. Once the flowers are harvested, Watkins sprays the plants’ roots with fish emulsion for fertilizer. “We need to fortify them after they’ve put all that energy into blooming, “ she said.
CUT, CUT AND THEN CUT AGAIN
There is so much conflicting information about when and how to cut back lavender. Watkins freely admits that her method might not suit everyone. But at the farm, 2 to 4 times a year is the rule. Soleado sheers their lavender like sheep, cutting back all new growth each time the plants flower. The pruning begins almost as soon as the seedlings are transplanted.
Cutting back encourages new growth
Most of us are familiar with lavender’s tendency to open up in the middle. Cutting back helps to encourage new, dense growth while mitigating this problem. Not only does it improve the overall looks of the plant, but it also enables it to survive the winter. Additionally, it sends more energy into developing strong roots, which according to Watkins, results in a thicker, healthier plant.
At Soleado, they never prune anything thicker than a pencil. They avoid old wood. Watkins does NOT recommend cutting back old woody stems. If you absolutely must, she said to trim them back just to where the first bunch of leaves start on the bush.
They stop all cutting by the end of October.
AVOID SHREDDED MULCH
Along with lots of sun, lavender prefers to stay dry. Ironically, once of the main threats to its survival comes in the form of mulch. According to Watkins, shredded mulch is the biggest offender. Often harboring mold spores, this kind of material can spell death for lavender.
“What seems to really kill them is the mold spores that come in on shredded mulch,” said Watkins. “Given the amount of humidity we have (in Maryland), it’s really important to stick with a dry medium.”
If you’re using shredded mulch in the rest of your garden, Watkins advises keeping it at least 1 – 2 feet away from your lavender. At Soleado, they use crushed bluestone for mulch that they harvest from their driveway. Other great options include white gravel and seashells, both of which have the added benefit of reflecting light back onto the plant.
White gravel mulch
Many of us have lost lavender plants over the winter. However, Watkins said, “Getting your plants through the winter does not have to do with size or age, even little seedlings can make it through the winter. A temperature of anything above 0 degrees Fahrenheit is OK.”
So what can we do to prepare for the colder months? The most important thing, according to Watkins, is to keep plants trimmed and thick. The thickness (or thatchiness) is what keeps the snow and ice out of the plants. (Although snow doesn’t seem to be as bad for lavender as ice.)
In short, it’s a matter of creating a plants that have a good smooth cut on them so they become their own insulation.
NO SIGNIFICANT PESTS OR DISEASES
Not only are its water needs low, but lavender also is resistant to most pests and diseases. Watkins says occasionally she’ll observe spittlebugs on her plants, but that’s about all. The main concern is lavender’s super susceptibility to mold spores (mentioned above.) The best thing you can do for mold is to practice prevention.
Another great plus to growing lavender is that deer hate it, although Watkins observed that “Sometimes they’ll pull the seedlings out of the ground, ‘Just because.”’
Soleado Farms grows a mix of English, French and Spanish varieties of lavender. They’re always experimenting with new strains and have found that within each variety each year there are clear standouts. These days, Watkins is loving the “rabbit ear petals” on the flower tops of Spanish lavender.
“Ferns are the embodiment of green thoughts in a green shade and if a leafy shadow could take root, moss would surely be the result” –Hugh Johnson ‘Principles of Gardening’
I was always drawn to shady nooks as a child. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into adulthood where my earliest memories now inspire many of my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a shade garden. Continue reading →