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An End of the Gardening Season Thank You

Dear Gardens,
The forecast for Tuesday night says it’s going down in the 20’s, so for many of you this is our last night together. I know that it hasn’t been the easiest of seasons with the cold, wet June and less than adequate rain for the rest of the summer and fall. You tomatoes and eggplant did your best despite cool, August temperatures and the dry soil and our full freezer reflects your efforts. Every time we take the meals you’ve provided and thaw them out for dinner we’ll be thinking of you.

As usual we were not only impressed with your willingness to grow, but we’re also continually moved by your determination to go beyond mere survival to transcend into beauty and abundance. We humans can learn quite a bit from the plant world if we’d just pay attention.

As I walk through the garden today I was blown away by the colorful foliage and flowers you continue to produce. Know that I have treasured your gifts all summer, and will continue to count our collective blessings as we travel together though the dormant season.

See you in the spring,


The roses continue to put out flowers and today, November 11th, I'm especially grateful.

Random Smiles – You Can Grow That!

Your garden has the power to grow smiles. Whether you have a huge property or containers on the balcony, in all most seasons of the year you are cultivating the potential for surprising acts of cheer and kindness. We have the power to make someone’s day in the most positive way with give-away bouquets.

Imagine that you’re working at the reception desk in a doctor or dentist’s office and someone places an unexpected small bouquet of colorful, garden flowers on your desk. Or you’re working at the bank, grocery store, or motor vehicle department and a complete stranger walks up and hands you a ribbon tied nosegay. If you grow a range of flowers, foliage and herbs you can create such small surprises in a few minutes. Who knows what ripples of joy and consideration you might create.

Here’s all it takes:

Collect small bottles and cans – recycle pleasing salad dressing containers, colorful tins or other containers. Instead of automatically throwing such things in the recycle bin, evaluate them for possible give-away-bouquet containers and keep a stash handy in the closet.

Save small pieces of ribbon, raffia and twine. These are perfect for tying around an impromptu nosegay.

Clip whatever happens to be in bloom or looking seasonal in your garden. Don’t just think of flowers; herbs, dried grasses, colorful foliage and evergreen leaves make great bouquet ingredients too. Check out your shrubs and trees as well as containers and flowerbeds for bouquet materials.

Give them to men and women, old and young. Sprinkle them at random or choose someone who looks like they need a lift. Think of these as the Plant Something antidote to impatience and road rage. Think of all the cheer that you probably already have in your landscape, and how much fun you’ll have this winter planning for what else you can grow that will spread good will and happiness.

I picked the ingredients for this give-away bouquet today. The last of the roses, Verbena bonariensis, sage, bay and lavender foliage, all tied with a small bit of ribbon. It smells lovely and will dry well too.

Plant some spring-flowering tulips and daffodils now so you can use them in bouquets next spring. Plan to grow dahlias next summer for summer into fall bouquets. This small bouquet was made in an old salad dressing bottle and placed on a receptionist's table at a doctors office.

Drought Stress

As I walked The Dog in Osterville’s Armstrong-Kelley Park today I couldn’t help but notice how dry everything is. The paths were dusty under the pine needles and oak leaves. In fact, the oaks have shed their foliage much earlier than normal and they have been dropping leaves at the same time as the birch and maples. Drought stress is most noticeable on the Rhododendrons, however. Their leaves are curled and many show abnormal fall color…they are shedding foliage that they no longer have the root systems to support.

People don’t consider that dry soils cause a plant’s roots to dry up. When that plant no longer has the root system to support all the stems and foliage above it will begin to jettison what it no longer has the root system to maintain. Right now we’re seeing early foliage loss, but we’re also likely to discover more winter damage and even loss of growth or bloom next year.

Most spring and some summer flowering plants make their flower buds in the summer of the preceding year. So our Rhododendron, Lilacs, and Viburnums, for example, have already formed the germ of the blossoms for next season. If there’s a late-summer and fall dry spell as we’ve recently been in, those buds can shrivel. Attention Cape Cod: if your spring flowering plants don’t bloom as you are expecting in 2014, blame this year’s drought.

And let’s not even mention the big-leaf Hydrangeas. They have their buds formed now, and many have been in drought stress for at least three months. No hydrangea flowers? It’s a Cape Cod Nightmare!

Trees can sometimes demonstrate the effects of drought two or more years into the future. If a tree has been stressed by drought it’s more likely to succumb to other problems such as insects or disease attack. Often when we see a tree die it isn’t just one thing that’s killed it…it’s a combination of problems and drought is a prime contributor.

At this point in the fall, what can the homeowner do? If possible, delay the shut-down of irrigation systems and be sure to water shrubs and trees deeply once a week. Keep the water on for longer periods than normal; I can’t tell you the number of properties I’ve been on where the homeowner says, “Oh, these plants aren’t stressed…I have irrigation.” I ask these people for a trowel and demonstrate that four inches down their soil resembles moon dust. Most irrigation systems don’t water deeply enough, and in times of drought it’s difficult to keep areas saturated even when you run the sprinklers or soaker systems for longer periods of time.

To my mind, however, the most important thing that we gardeners can do is keep our eyes and minds open. When it comes to the natural world there are times when there is nothing we can do except bear witness. If we make note of this dry period we can at least know what might be causing problems that we see next spring and summer.

And we can pray for rain.

We usually don't see so much color on Rhododendron at this time of year. It's more common for our rhodys to lose winter damaged leaves in the spring, but all over the Cape I notice red and yellow leaves now. These plants are thirsty, thirsty, thirsty.

We also see Rhododendron leaves that are curled, similar to how they appear in very cold weather. These shrubs aren't chilly, however, they are dry.

How To Pitch Your Book or Product

Promoting your new book or product? Do you want your local media to talk about your event, business or cause? Here are 4 tips from a writer/radio host who gets pitched to all the time:

1.  Never send a press release as an attachment. These get dumped without even opening the email.

2. Take the time to personalize your pitch. In these days when email programs show the first couple of lines of your message, the ones that start with “Hi All!” or “Dear Friends” don’t get opened. If I opened every email that begins in a general way it would take me all day. Most of these generally addressed messages aren’t for books/products that are appropriate for my show/articles in the first place. Quickly demonstrate the ways that your book/product is right for their audience. Although it’s always best to send a personal pitch, your opening doesn’t have to include a name…even something like “Dear Gardening Show Host” would make my cut.

3. Keep it brief. The old show-business maxim applies: always leave them wanting more. Put the most important information up top. Next give three or four attention-grabbing pieces of information. Finally, supply links and contact information. Remember that media types are likely to receive over 100 emails a day, and they need some way of quickly filtering what comes in. Make it easy for them and they’ll be more likely to help you too.

4. Don’t overlook the visuals. Just because you’re pitching something to a radio host doesn’t mean that a powerful image won’t be effective. It’s a visual world, so including an appropriate image or two is another way to snag the recipient’s attention. Again, don’t send this as an attachment, and make sure it’s a picture that is appropriate to the audience you’re pitching to.

Final point especially for new authors and those who are self-publishing.  Never tell yourself “If they’re interested they’ll contact me.” Yes, if they stumble on your work you might get a call or email…but don’t assume that others are already aware of your book or product. Send out announcements and press releases. Offer review copies. If you don’t build it, they won’t come.

You wouldn't believe the number of press releases I get about duck hunting products. Someone, somewhere, decided that since I host GardenLine on WXTK I must be interested in every outdoor activity there is. As I see these emails come in I wonder how they could see "GardenLine" and think "DuckLine." Quack!

Writers, television and radio people know their audiences. Show them that you also know what their listeners/readers are interested in.


A Trough Garden Tale

Last winter I decided that my back deck needed some trough gardens. Normally when gardeners think about troughs it’s the stone variety like those described books such as Creating and Planting Garden Troughs. I wasn’t craving stone or hypertufa, however…I was thinking livestock. Specifically, a metal Behlen tub that is commonly used to feed and water cattle.

These troughs were very successful, as the photos below demonstrate. The plants that I chose for the summer plantings were largely picked for two reasons: I wanted some plants that attracted hummingbirds and some that look good when backlit by the late-afternoon sun. Many evenings in the summer my husband and I sit on this deck during cocktail hour, so beautiful lighting and bird action were important.

A few weeks ago I took cuttings from those annuals that I save from year to year. That done, I pulled out the summer plants, refreshed the soil in the Smart Pots that were used to line the troughs, and planted them up for the winter. While I was at it I put in some tulip and daffodil bulbs for spring color.

The only thing missing is some more height – those King Tut Papyrus were stunning and I miss them. So soon I’ll be adding some curly willow to the center of these troughs. These planters will be appreciated from the kitchen and living room windows all winter and spring. Maybe the tall twigs will even become perches as birds head to our heated birdbath, so we’ll still get some bird action even though the hummingbirds have gone south.

There is an upside down plastic crate in the bottom and the Smart Pots rest on top of that.

When you put plants into place at the beginning of the summer it's hard to imagine the explosion of growth that's about to happen...

but explode they did! This photo shows how these plants caught the light of the setting sun. The Agastache and the Black and Blue Salvia kept the hummingbird action going until they migrated south.

I love the evergreens and know that they'll look fantastic when dusted with snow. I'm just missing the golden curly willow...but that will be added soon.

Sharing the Wealth
Tips for Metal Troughs

  • Don’t forget to take out the drainage plug at the bottom of the trough. This is how the excess water will run out. I also put some Mosquito Dunks underneath the plastic crates before the Smart Pots were filled. They are made of a type of Bt that kills mosquito larvae, so if some water remains on the bottom of the troughs I won’t be breeding mosquitos.
  • Don’t put rocks at the bottom of your smart pots or troughs. These planters are already plenty heavy, and rocks will just add to the weight. Smart Pots drain well and should be completely filled with soil.
  • I mixed an organic fertilizer in the soil before planting in the spring and I added more before putting the evergreens in this fall.
  • Don’t forget to water your containers if the soil isn’t frozen in the fall and winter! Sometimes we forget that evergreens in containers will need watering if it doesn’t rain at least once a week.


Bringing Plants Indoors

Over the past week I’ve brought a few plants in every day. I have an assortment of tropicals, succulents, and houseplants that go out for summer camp every year and come back indoors once temperatures begin to fall. Usually my goal is to get them inside when the night temperatures routinely begin falling to 50 °F and below. This year I’m a tad late.

People frequently ask me what I do to avoid bringing insects indoors along with the plants, and I honestly answer “Nothing much.” The worst insect that sometimes shows up when I move plants indoors are the fungus gnats. If those pesky fruit flies appear I put out some yellow sticky cards (aka whitefly traps) and pour spinosad (aka Captain Jack’s) concentrate in the watering can for a month or so…this takes care of the problem. Once there were some ants that had nested in a pot and I had to take that plant back outside, knock the dirt and ants out, and re-pot it. But that was years ago and it hasn’t happened since.

The biggest problem is rounding up all the saucers or other dishes to put underneath these pots so that the plants don’t piddle on the floors. No matter that I save them from year to year…every fall it’s a scramble that involves rummaging in the garage and at least one trip into the garden center. Once things are in place, however, I love having the plants back. Passing by my front room, where most of the succulents and other sun-lovers are stationed, the fresh array of plants catches my eyes and heart.

All of the plants look pretty darn fantastic after having been Fresh Air Kids for six months. They’ve had regular water, fertilizer, and the real deal when it comes to sunlight. The plants come indoors at their peak of health, and remain that way for at least three months. Toward the end of January they start to look a bit discouraged, but then who doesn’t?

Bringing the plants inside allows me to see the interior of my house anew; I can enter each room and be surprised. Of course the same thing happens every spring when I put the plants outdoors again. In the fall I’m delighted by the sudden abundance of indoor greenery and in the spring I’m pleased to have the uncluttered, open space back once more. I love being in a place where the seasons change, inside and out.

The front room faces south, so this is where most of the cacti, agave, and other succulents go, along with a begonia or two...

A Celebration of the Season

An iPhone camera celebration of fall.

I took The Dog on a walk down Stowe Road this afternoon and was delighted by all that a beautiful October day brings.

I know that grape vines can overwhelm and even kill trees, but at this time of year as they yellow I have to love them. Nature's jewelry, stylishly draped and mingling with the red Virginia creeper.

A wild cherry was spectacular with colored leaves and black stems against an amazingly blue sky.

The white pines were dropping their older needles all along the road. Those still on the trees glowed in the sunshine, contrasting with the lovely fine texture of the green needles. At this time of year this plant is all about moisture conservation in the winter to come; it drops the old needles so that there are fewer to maintain (and lose moisture) in the cold season to come.

The winterberry holly is almost invisible all summer, quietly growing on the side of the road and blending in with all the other shrubs and trees. At this time of year it breaks out of the crowd: ta da! Red berries.

Back from the walk and the appreciation of the wild, roadside plants, I also treasure my domesticated landscape. Dendranthema 'Cambodian Queen' is in full flower in front of the still spectacular Cityline Rio Hydrangea. Yum.

Flopping Montauk Daisies

I title this post intentionally because one of the most common questions I hear is about this fall-flowering perennial. “How do I keep my Montauk daisies from falling over?” or “When do I cut my Montauk daisies back so that they don’t fall over?”

Montauk daisies, aka Nippon daisies or Nipponanthemum nipponicum, are a favorite in my area because they are one of the last perennials to flower. If you live in zones 5 to 9 and have a sunny spot, you need this plant in your garden. Just know that this perennial needs to be treated like a shrub.

The leaves on Montauk daisies are heavy. As the stems lengthen, the numerous, heavy leaves cause the stalks to bend down. At the same time the natural way this plant grows is to let the lower leaves shrivel and brown while keeping the outer foliage green. So those who grow this plant see withering inner leaves and bare lower stems.

If the plant is generally upright and full, those inside stalks and withered foliage aren’t very visible. But if the plant is leaning over, the gardener focuses on that less-than-attractive inner plant.

Here are some tips for growing upright, full looking Montauk daisies:

  1. Grow these plants in at least 6 hours of dead-on sun. The more shade these plants are raised in, the more likely they are to fall over.
  2. Keep them on a lean diet. Fertilizer helps plants grow bigger and faster but it does not make stems stronger. The richer the soil, the more likely Nippon daisies are to flop. Similarly, don’t water these perennials frequently. A deep soaking every 7 to 10 days is perfect.
  3. The older the stems are the stronger they get. Don’t cut any upright stalks down. Prune off any stems that are horizontal, or parallel to the ground, but leave those that are more upright in place.
  4. Think of this plant as a small shrub, not a perennial. In other words, never cut it down to the ground. Leave it alone all fall and winter. In the spring cut off any dead wood or dieback, but leave any stalks that are alive and well in place. The older these stems get, the stronger they become.
  5. If you want you can shear these plants back by 3 to 6 inches in May or early June. This is most effective if your plants are already upright and strong…so focus first on tips 1 through 4 before thinking about pinching these perennials back in early summer.

    Some flopping and spawling is expected with this wonderful perennial. Yes, the inner stems will be bare and the leaves inside will be shriveled. But this is easily ignored when you have daisies in late-September and October! This photo was taken in mid-October on Cape Cod. We'll have this cheerful plant in bloom into late October.

Every Foodie Needs a Vegetable Garden

Yup. If you’re a foodie, whenever possible you must grow your own. I understand that those in cities usually need to be content with farmer’s markets and CSA’s, but if you have a sunny porch, deck, or yard, start planning next year’s vegetable garden now. Why? There are four reasons that food lovers should grow their own and the first three are taste, taste, and taste. There is no comparison in flavor between a fruit or vegetable freshly harvested and one that’s spent a day or more out of the garden. A broccoli floret that’s been snapped off of the plant a half hour before dinner is entirely different in flavor than the head of broccoli you buy in the store.

We’re still harvesting Zephyr and Costata Romanesco summer squash despite the fact that both plants have had powdery mildew for over two months. They just keep producing new, clean foliage and I’m able to harvest new squash every other day. These are both so flavorful when freshly picked that just a quick sauté in some olive oil and finishing with freshly ground pepper is all they need.

Freshly harvested eggplant is also amazing. Normally you think of eggplant as taking on the flavor of whatever sauce is used, but an eggplant that is picked right before roasting has an actual taste all its own. I put mine in a 375 degree oven on parchment paper – no oil – and roast it until the edges start to turn brown. Delicious.

Fall is the perfect time to harvest Tuscan kale, Pak Choi, and Chard. These will all go through light frosts and can be used in any style of cooking. I’ve added Pak Choi leaves to basil when making pesto, used the kale in salads and all types of soup, and substituted chard for spinach in many dishes. If you’re harvesting these veggies shortly before cooking they don’t need as much seasoning or complicated recipes…simply cooked their flavor takes center stage.

One of the most life-affirming things we can do is to plant a vegetable garden. There is nothing so satisfying than being able to walk into your own yard and ask, ‘What’s for dinner?’ And whether the garden answers “Squash!” or “Chard,” you’re in for the most tasty food you can cook.

Last night's harvest included summer squash, kale and chard. The garlic was harvested in July and the winter squash in September.

I sliced the kale and chard into ribbons and sautéed it with a clove of minced garlic. Just before serving I added a tablespoon of Mad Dog Original Barbeque sauce on a whim. It made a good combination with the roast chicken, and contrasted with the mild, nutty flavor of the squash.

The squash was simply cooked in a small amount of olive oil just before dinner. Now THIS is what "fast food" should be.

The tastiest food on earth? You can grow that! Oh…the fourth reason every foodie needs a vegetable garden? Health. Freshly picked vegetables are better for you, and since the flavor is so good you’ll eat more of the foods that are healthy.

Why I Love Killing Plants and You Should Too

For those concrete thinkers among you I must declare up front: I’m not just talking about plants and gardening here. In every place that I mention something horticultural you could substitute something else that you’ve killed and get the message. Think about that job you didn’t get or were fired from. Consider the business you started that quickly folded, the idea you had that never flourished, or the art or craft project that flopped. You get the idea, right? We’re talking failure here, in or out of the garden.

This is on my mind because I heard a horticultural marketing specialist state that one reason people don’t buy plants is because they’re worried about killing them.

What? Since when does any part of life come with guarantees? And is it really in your best interest to have everything you do succeed?

Here’s why you should welcome the opportunity to kill plants: If everything that you place in the ground thrived and did well, you’d never have an opportunity to try something new. Often our best openings come about because something has failed and we’re forced to look elsewhere.

Human beings don’t really like change. We often put up with less than satisfactory circumstances because we’re used to the status quo and alterations take effort. We get so comfortable in our ruts that it’s difficult to see that we’re actually in the pits. When something doesn’t succeed we are compelled to climb out of those depths that we’ve been lulled into thinking are really OK.

Plant death is an opportunity to grow something new.

Sometimes we can figure out why a plant has died, but in other instances we never know. Ask around, do some research, but by all means KEEP PLANTING.