Above, a hedge of lavender next to my driveway popped into glorious fragrant bloom in June. I don’t know who was more excited – me or the bumble bees.
I can never bring myself to cut the flowers while they are in full bloom – the sun on the flowers is too glorious. But when they’ve passed their prime they still cut beautifully and are wonderfully fragrant.
When my son’s girlfriend saw my giant pile of cut lavender she immediately thought of lavender lemonade, and took a handful to make lavender syrup. It was delicious.
Easy to grow and easily available, lavender will grace your garden, attract pollinators, and is truly a sensory joy. Lavender is drought tolerant, does well in zones 6-10.
I don’t know anyone that likes weeding. It’s back-breaking, necessary work. Sure, there’s some satisfaction in a weed-free garden bed but it’s short-lived. The weeds are back almost immediately, it seems.
So today was weed the garden beds day. I didn’t get them all weeded – I only managed to weed two of them. It was overcast, which is good weeding weather, and it had to be done.
And it’s fine. Pulling weeds from around the lettuce and knowing I’d be eating it in a salad later created a sense of calm and purpose. I took a break around noon, cut enough lettuce to fill a big colander, pulled a couple of radish, and came in to enjoy a nourishing lunch. It’s the most basic luxury to have to pay attention to when it rains (or doesn’t) and to know that aside from the nutrients in the soil there’s just water and sunshine in your food. And no plastic waste.
Back to weeding… I always joke with my husband that grass only grows where I don’t want it to. It never seems happy to grow on the designated lawn area, it much prefers my garden and our driveway.
Other “weeds” – verbena, squash, and tomato that self seeded, were spared. It’s tough to pull plants I’ve actually bought/planted just because they are growing in an inopportune spot. I dug out some verbena and put them in a spot near the kitchen window where I can watch the monarch butterflies visit their vivid purple flowers this summer. And the squash and tomatoes… I have a suspicion the squash is actually pumpkins. Last year they took over the garden because I felt bad pulling them out. In the end they crowded out the butternut squash, which I won’t let happen twice.
And then there are the pretty weeds, like the wildflowers that grow in our fields. These pretty daisy-like flowers pictured above, buttercups, purple, red, and blue flowers… we mow around them.
I’ll leave you with a photo of our cat, who really enjoys watching all of the activity at the birdhouse you can see pictured. It is nestled in a giant beast of a climbing hydrangea that has taken over one wall of our garage and is adjacent to a raspberry patch that is trying to take over the west field. Smudge (the cat) may be aware that there is a nest with baby birds … and the constant coming and going is the parents feeding their little ones. Or maybe not.
Today we had some sun and warmth; May is variable in New England and this week was chilly, so it was nice to see the sun. I wandered out to the garden with a hand trowel and a few zucchini plants I bought at our friends’ farmstand up in Stowe, dug out some compost from the bottom of the pile to mix into the garden bed, and popped them in to the soil. Hallelujah.
There’s something really calming about gardening. If you let yourself just be present for it, it has a therapeutic affect. Since starting a new job last June I’ve been pretty fully immersed. I work long days– from home, luckily — and thoughts about work creep into the hours I’m not working. But when I’m in the garden the smell of the soil and fragrant flowers, the sound of the birds and the breeze in the leaves of trees, and the feeling of my hands in the dirt has a way of holding my full attention.
Today it was just me and my son Tristan at home. He has a summer class this evening (calculus, which, it turns out, is better to take when you don’t have other classes competing for your attention and energy) and when he spotted the radishes I brought in he selected the largest one and popped it into his mouth. When he was young I grew radishes on a tiny plot we had at an apartment we were renting– two squares of the garden in the backyard came with the Cambridge apartment. It had raised beds and walkways made of brick. Tristan would pull the radishes I grew out of the ground and eat them before I could wash them. It was pretty great.
So now, about 18 years later he’s still eating the radish I grow. There’s something very cool about that.
A couple of weeks ago the radish and lettuce looked like this …
With so little in the world to feel sure about, the idea that I can grow radishes year after year gives a certain comfort. I think it’s comforting to Tristan, too.
Tis the season for … seeds arriving! Little square packages full of potential.
I have friends who are embarking on new culinary herb gardens this year. New gardeners, new gardens. Woo!!!
If you are starting an herb garden, you may be planning to start your seeds outside and buy some plants — this is a tried and true method that works great. However, a couple of my friends have seeds and want to start them indoors. Our last frost date in Massachusetts is just too far away! So before I move onto a few tips for starting seedlings, one word about what herbs need: sunlight, well-drained soil and water. So if you are planning to put your green babies in the ground bear that in mind.
Onto seed starting: generally, you’ll want to start your seeds about 6-8 weeks before your last frost date. If you don’t know what that is, google “last frost date” and your zip code. With respect to gear, you can buy seed starting kits and there are mountains of types of pots and gadgets. What you need, at a minimum:
a south facing/sunny window,
pots/a tray of small pots
good potting soil or seed starting mixture. Note on this: seed starting mixture isn’t high on nutrients. This is fine for the first few weeks, but I recommend a more nutrient-rich potting soil or organic plant food for the plants once they get going.
Very helpful to have:
I have found a warming mat to be invaluable for seed germination; if your space is colder than 65 degrees F you’ll want one.
a grow lamp for long, grey days and even weeks in the spring,
a spray bottle is a great way to water–seedlings are delicate!
A seed starting kit with humidity dome to keep seeds moist.
General procedure for starting seeds (any kind):
Fill your pots/tray with seed starting mix or potting soil.
Lightly cover seeds
Lightly water. Misting seeds is a great way to moisten them without overwatering. Lightly watering is fine, too, though.
Cover the pots with a plastic dome or plastic wrap to keep them moist.
Store in a warm, sunny spot. Germination generally takes 2-4 weeks but can happen within 5 days, depending on which plant you are watching and waiting on.
Pause to enjoy the feeling you have when the little green heads of your seedlings emerge.
Once seedlings appear, remove the plastic cover and keep little plants in direct sunlight
You can transplant once they are 3-6 inches tall, in a sunny spot — they prefer 6-8 hours of sunlight!
Some other notes I’ve collected on a few herbs with particular tastes:
For oregano: no need to cover seeds with soil. Mist them and cover the container with plastic and place in a sunny window. They should germinate in a week or so. If you are using a seed starting kit with a humidity dome this should do the trick in place of plastic. Oregano is a nice companion plant for beans and broccoli, because it helps fend off pests that like those vegetables.
For basil: Basil doesn’t like the cold; when it is exposed to temps below 50 degrees F or is sprayed with cold water it can develop spots. So keep the water room temperature when watering basil!
Most seeds just needs some heat and moist soil to germinate; they don’t need the sun until they pop their little green heads up. But Thyme and lemon balm like light to germinate, so be sure to stick these in a window or under a grow lamp.
Dill, parsley, and cilantro don’t really like to be transplanted so if you can plant them where you plan to have them grow, that might be best.
We heard from the hospital this week that they are hoping to administer vaccinations for clinical care workers starting in mid-December. Huzzah. At 62 with heart disease Jon is a risk, and we worry all the time.
Still, the rest of us will wait and this winter will not be a festive one. Getting outside is always welcome, but there’s not much that’s green or blooming to see. The sun’s day is shorter and shorter … it’s definitely time to look for reasons to be cheerful, to find some surrogates for sun and company.
So, here’s one: little green babies. I love them.
In this case, jade babies. I bought a $3.00 tiny jade last year at Weston Nurseries. They had a table of tiny succulents that were no doubt intended for people wanting to create a little garden of succulents in a container. But this little plant caught my eye and I popped it into my cart. No other succulents, no container.
It became tall and leggy, gained no width, and was bending way over toward the window, top heavy and gimpy. So I snipped it, and snipped it again, nestling the cut stems into potting soil, and popped them into a window. I wasn’t sure what would happen but the plant definitely needed a haircut so why not give it a try? I watered them weekly (more or less) and this is the result.
Whenever I pass by them my eye catches the light, fresh new green of these little leaves, it’s a little having low maintenance kittens. So cute!
You can do this with leaves, too. If a jade sheds leaves you can lay them in the soil and water them. It takes a while but they root, and make sweet little plants.
They remind me that a little bit of care can go a long way, and a small thing can bring some happiness and pleasure. Even during the darkest days of a pandemic.
There’s something about the word houseplants that makes me think of macrame hangers from the 70s (now enjoying a return) and my mother’s gigantic spider plants hanging in the window. But really, they’re cool. Stick with me for a minute and I’ll tell you what I mean.
This Christmas Cactus was discovered lying on it’s side on the floor of a Walmart at Christmas time. One night after work I stopped on my way home from the office to shop for some ornaments. I wanted to decorate the first Christmas tree I would have living on my own after finishing college and moving into an apartment.
I had a big cart and was wheeling it around looking at boxes of glass ornaments, and strings of tinsel … there was Christmas music playing and I was feeling like I’d rather be in a cute little boutique shopping for ornaments than a grey, cavernous Walmart. But such was my budget.
Anyway, there it was on the ground in the middle of the aisle, potting soil spilling out of it’s broken pot: A little Christmas Cactus. I bent to pick it up and replace it on it’s shelf and noticed the potting soil was so dry it was like a weightless brick. I could hear it begging for rescue. Really, actually hear it. So, instead of putting it back on it’s shelf I put it in my cart and paid full price for it.
I know: bargain hunter, right?
Well, that plant has seen to it that I got a return on my investment. Every single year since then this cactus has bloomed for me no matter where I’ve left it in the house, or whether I’ve forgotten to water it. I’ve moved from place to place, leaving it here and there. Sometimes it isn’t happy with where I’ve place it, sometimes it is. But no matter it’s mood, that plant gives me flowers.
As you can see in the photo, it’s doing it again. I found a spot not far from a south window that it seems to like well enough. It’s faithful in its timing – it blooms every November and is done before Christmas.
I have a bunch of beloved house plants– they all have their own spirits and personalities. I’ll be writing about some of the plants I bring in to winter over in coming weeks. But this cactus is my favorite because of it’s loyalty and appreciation.
We should all have a friend like that, don’t you think? Mine happens to be a cactus.
Modern medicines have their deepest roots in ancient history. It’s said that an herbal compendium was created in the 28th century BC by the mythological chinese emperor Shennong (1). And interestingly, scholars say that intuition and trial and error led humans to believe that plants, animals, and minerals have medicinal properties. So humans have understood the value of connecting to and working with plants from our earliest days.
Food taken fresh from the garden has a quality of sweetness and plumpness that makes you feel good on its own — you can taste and smell the difference from food that’s been grown and shipped a long distance. But aside from the difference in freshness, the experience of seeing, smelling, and touching the plants that produce our food is nurturing and reassuring, as well.
Vines, plants, and trees all have their own energies and personalities, their own habits of growth and characteristics that, experienced alongside the fruits and vegetables themselves, allow one to connect much more fully and consciously with the food we eat. Also, getting to know what conditions they thrive in (and the ones they don’t thrive in) serves to deepen one’s sense of “knowing” the plants that provide us our food.
It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, though. This year I decided to try a new variety of tomato (yellow pear minis) that I’ve never grown before. With limited space in my garden, I planted leeks in the same bed, thinking I’d given both enough space. There were some plants that were crowded, though; the tomatoes grew tall and leggy and became a towering bed of beautiful smelling tomato plants, dripping with yellow fruit – and some of the leeks that sat in the shadow of my towering tomatoes didn’t get enough sun to grow big – they ended up being the size of scallions. 🙂
All the same, I started the year with not a shred of experience growing leeks and though I’ve bought many a leek in the grocery store I had no idea what I could expect the experience of growing them to be like (aside from my handy gardening book’s instructions). There’s no substitute for experience, as they say, and so I started with planting them, as instructed, in small seedling pots before the final frost and keeping them on a heated seedling mat with grow lamps/sunlight on them. New England springs can be pretty rainy so on gray days they were under the lamp. On sunny days they sat in a south window or on our patio.
They started out teeny tiny. Like little green hairs growing out of the potting soil. And they weren’t much bigger than that when I put them in the ground. I wasn’t sure they would survive, they seemed so small when I transplanted them that I worried they would wash away with a good rain. But they took off — and the ones that had enough sun grew into proper, good sized leeks. Now I understand why mounding dirt around their bases is important – you get much more useable white leek if you do that. So much for my adventure with leeks!
The experience of growing these little plants gave me a sense of connectedness and belonging that’s hard to describe and even harder to overstate. It was like making a new group of friends and now, when I think of vichyssoise (potato leek soup) I think of their tiny little seeds, and of the investment of time, love, and light required to grow them in the northeast. I think of how darling they are until they become towering allium – fresh, strong, and all grown up by the end of the growing season. In a word, I feel connected to them.
After harvesting the leeks I did precisely what I’d intended to do when I planted them: I cooked with them. Vichyssoise (recipe in The Joy of Cooking) and a beautiful braised chicken dish from GardenintheKitchen.com.
The leeks felt like a gift given graciously by the planet, and cleaning and slicing them for our dinners bestowed warmth and a sense of connection and familiarity that I relished–like the satisfaction and pleasure of having carnal knowledge of a love interest. Magical, indeed.