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Rubber-Neckin’ to Come

June 13, 2011

You know what rubber-neckers are, don’t you? Streeeeeetching their necks to see all that can be seen as they drive by an interesting sight. They are typically referred to as the cause of slowing traffic as it passes by a wreck. Twist that connotation around a bit, please, and think of rubber necking at a garden as you drive by. Yes, you have! I know you’ve rubber-necked at a garden. (Maybe it was a wreck of a garden!) That’s what I’m aiming for in my new yard at the former Madison County Jail in Winterset. Unfortunately, I’m still mostly aiming. (In case you’re not familiar with our move, you can see more about our 1903 county jail in Winterset, Iowa, at

Surrounded by gravel, baked by the sun, and less than a foot of top soil over gravel.

Slowly. Much too slowly. Starting a new garden from scratch is taking much longer than I would like, but I keep reminding myself of the lessons of patience that I have already learned. I’ve heard it said–and I do believe it’s true–that you should live with a new home landscape for a year before digging in.  We moved here in November, and the growing season has barely begun. I have already ‘dug in’ a bit, but I am thinking hard about what I’d like my new gardens and yard to look like.

The shady side with a little morning sun. Nice!

So, here’s the situation: I have two extremes of garden siting and conditions. One side of the ‘house’ is where the exercise yard of the jail was situated. There is little open garden space, and what is there has only a few inches of soil over several feet of pea gravel. The other side of the house has a traditional lawn under shady trees and deep, loamy soil. Sounds like the best of all possible options, but having many options seems to make it harder for me to decide what to plant with my limited time and dollars.

The gravelly soil will become my new herb garden, which works out well because I sell herb plants at Applehurst, and this will help people see what their little 4″ pots grow up to be. As for the lawn side of the house, I’ll be able to have the shade garden that I’ve always wanted. As for the shade area, there are so many possibilities! Goat’s beard (Aruncus), Astilbe – the tall ones, such as ‘Bressingham Beauty’, Heuchera– also the tall ones, such as H. americana ‘Dale’s Strain’, Ligularia, and snow-on-the-mountain (Aegopodium). Ferns of many kinds, hostas, even a mossy garden will work here. Yummy!

You should head to yoga class now to prepare. Don’t want you to miss a thing as you drive by next summer!

Favorite Container Combo

September 30, 2010

In summers past, while I worked full-time as a garden editor, I woke to watering chores every morning. As many as 40 containers required my attention, in the hopes that each one of them would be photographed for the pages of Better Homes and Gardens, or one of the other magazines I worked on at the Meredith Corporation. This year I had only five containers. That’s ‘5’ without another digit in front of it, nor following. Only five, as in the number of fingers I have on only one hand. (Relative) freedom! Yea!

But that doesn’t mean that I find container gardening a particularly boring or exhausting. It’s fun to create eye-catching pretties in the garden. Here’s one of my favorites of this season, and a pairing I’ll put together again: ‘Breathless Blush’ Euphorbia and ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’ Ipomoea.

Did you pot up an especially rewarding pairing? Share it!

Make This Stuff and Stuff Yourself: Good Grape’s Post

September 9, 2010

I don’t read many blogs, but there are a few on my GoogleReader that I am nearly always glad to catch up on. One of my favorites is

Visit Good Grape for the most recent post, Nine Things Every Wine Lover Must Know How To Make. I have made several of the special treats on his list, and now I think  I’ll make a list of my own in a future post. (However, I’m not sure my homemade kimchi goes with wine.)

Mmmm. Stomach growling . . .

Post-Tour Turf Repair

June 21, 2010

Yes, it seems a little tedious but I just aim for a meditative rhythm and I'm done in no time. Now I get why chain gangs sing.

Post-Tour Turf Repair. Bet you can’t say that three times real fast. But fast is what I’m going for today. We’ve had over 10 inches of rain just since the first of June, so the grassy paths in my yard were already a little ‘flat’ before 700 pairs of feet strolled through on the garden tour last Saturday. Much more rain is forecast for the coming week–every day, in fact. So this morning I got out my trusty core-aerator and went to work to beat the next thunderstorm that’s on its way. I can rent a power aerator for the larger areas of  my yard, and in the past have shared the rental with a neighbor. But the narrower spaces between garden fences, under arbors, checkered by stepping stones, or those near irrigation heads are the ones that are  most trampled right now, and the manual version of core aeration will work just fine. I also like that I can whip it out on a whim and not worry about scheduling a rental. The tool I have is a Fiskars aerator, and I love that the handle is long enough for me (I’m 5’8″) and the step is broad so it doesn’t hurt my foot.

My Fiskars aerator was a free sample, but Yard Butler and Hound Dog make similar tools. When I first saw one of these, I didn’t think I would actually use it much, but for a small yard with narrow spaces, it is a much better option than trying to wrestle a power aerator under an arbor. As compacted as my clay soil is, the cores and holes will improve the health of my lawn better than just poking a bunch of skinny little spikes in the ground. Core aeration is one of the best things you can do to create a healthy lawn, and it is not the same thing as spike aeration (which some researchers think is actually detrimental to turf health in clay soil.)

There are a few places I will scratch in a little grass seed, and since we are expected to have moist conditions for most of the next two weeks, it will probably germinate. Between the gradual degradation of the cores on the turf, the aeration of the soil, and the extra seed, I think we’ll be back to normal pretty quickly.

The cores will degrade over a couple of weeks as it continues to rain, and I continue to mow. Just like the dog poop they resemble.

Whew! My yard is getting healthier by the minute. That was fast.

Put A Hold On My Lavender

June 17, 2010

English lavender line the steps to my front door.

Nearly every year, the lavender in my front yard (yes, you can grow lavender in Iowa!) blooms just after Father’s Day. Although it’s about ten days ahead of schedule this year, it absolutely rocks! Hope it holds out for the Polk County Master Gardener Tour on Saturday–some cooler, dryer weather would help with that. I hope it doesn’t burn itself out due to hot, humid weather. Just hold on a little longer, Fellas. Gals. Whatever.

My lavender has been very happy in this bed over the last eight years, and has produced many seedlings. When I was on the Gardening Today show on WHO radio last Sunday, Eileen and Mohamad encouraged me to talk about growing lavender. It seems they get a lot of calls about that on the show, because so many gardeners are disappointed in how it performs for them. So here are my tips for growing lavender in the Midwest.

Variety English lavender–not French or Spanish–is the plant you should shop for. L. angustifolia ‘Munstead’ or ‘Hidcote’ seem to be the most reliably hardy and tolerant of humidity. There are a very few others that will perform well, such as the pink variety ‘Jean Davis’, but these two are the best choices to start, I think.

Soil My soil is a little heavy, however it has a fairly high pH–usually around 7.1 to 7.4. The lavender is planted next to limestone, which probably also influences the pH upward. Good drainage is very important; mine is planted on a slope.

Site Full sun. There is no other option.

Care I do not fertilize every year, but I do top-dress with compost every other year or so. As with most perennials, lavender should not be cut back after frost. I save the clean-up for spring, waiting until there is about two inches of new growth, then cut back all of the previous year’s growth.

Can you recommend any other lavender cultivars for the Midwest? I have tried a few others, but they have not been long-lived. However, if you like lavender, that’s no reason not to plant them!

Insider’s Scoop on Garden Tour

June 11, 2010

Inside looking out--the view from my kitchen sink.

After putting our house on the market a few months ago, I really didn’t expect we’d still be here. So when the tour committee for the Polk County Master Gardeners asked me to be on this years’ “Extraordinary Gardens by Ordinary People” garden tour on June 19, I told them that I wouldn’t be able to commit, but would join the tour as a ‘bonus garden’ if we still lived in this house. And here we are.

For tickets and more information, check out the Facebook page for PCMG Garden Tour

I’ll also be joining Michelle Walke, who is blogging about this years tour, on Gardening Today, Sunday from 10-noon on WHO radio 1040.

This is the tenth year of the tour, but the last time I participated was in 2004. And this will be the last time that this garden will be on the tour, because we are still expecting that our house will sell! In fact, our realtor is holding an open house the next day. Perhaps all the lavender blooming in the front yard will charm someone into buying–I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

Move Over, Euell Gibbons

June 7, 2010

Actually, if you know anything about Euell Gibbons, the title of this post might seem a bit uppity. Anyone my age probably remembers him from his appearances on the Grape Nuts commercials of the 1970’s. Gibbons actually was a respected and knowledgeable outdoorsman and teacher of wild-food foraging, who authored Stalking the Wild Asparagus. But, since I foraged a fruit that I’ll bet few of you have eaten, I’m feeling a little extra proud of my crunchygranolalike skills today.

You might call them serviceberries, or saskatoons, or juneberries, but their botanical name is Amelanchier.

Well, perhaps picking fruit off trees in your backyard might not actually qualify as foraging, but when it is something that few people eat, it feels that way.  I usually lose the berries to the birds and squirrels, but I am home during the day now, and the tree actually seems to be rewarding me for that–it’s an especially heavy crop this year.

Whatever you want to call them–I choose ‘serviceberries’–they are far from the tart, chewy berries that you might expect to find on a native tree. I have a single-stem specimen of what is usually a multi-trunked small tree or large shrub. I can not tell you what cultivar of Amelanchier arborea I have; it was a bargain tree I bought from one of the local government sponsored tree planting programs. The berries are like a small blueberry in both texture and sweetness.

I haven’t decided what to do with my serviceberries yet. It’s always fun to serve things like this to friends who have never tasted them before. Maybe I’ll surprise someone with a serviceberry dessert. Mr. Gibbons might suggest I serve them with wild hickory nuts. Grape Nuts would be less work, I think.


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