The Beekeeper’s Garden

shirley poppiesIt seems a bit presumptuous, to be writing about gardens for honey bees, as I am no authority. However, we do keep bees here at Stonewell Farm, and aim to keep them as healthy and well provided for as we can. Our gardens were well in the making long before we began keeping bees.  For the sheer pleasure of having an abundance of blooms and color, we planted annual cutting gardens with cosmos, larkspur, china asters, sunflowers, zinnias, gladiolii, dahlias. In February’s dead of winter, I scattered millions of charcoal colored  poppy seeds upon the blank,white canvas of snow, as if making a sketch for a richly colored painting that would materialize four or five months later; for our pleasure and stimulation, not the bees.

Beehive

But now we’re gardening for the bees as well. Gone are the Plume Poppies (macleaya cordata), pretty, in fact striking, but also poisonous to honeybees. We’ve learned that the Agastache, which is invasive here, and which we’ve been trying to weed out, provides a great source of nectar and pollen for honeybees, and so we’ve adopted a cautious tolerance of it; leaving some for the bees, in gardens which are not so particularly “curated” (which just so happens to be in the environs of the hives), and tearing it out where it will create aesthetic and horticultural conflicts with us. We have never been ‘lawn’ people.  We do have large, expansive stretches of “grass”, which means a green groundcover, but anyone can see that it’s mostly weeds cut short. Since there’s an abundance of dandelions and clover, both of which provide significant sustenance to honey bees, we’ve adopted an attentively diplomatic laissez-faire policy of allowing these plants to flower….attempting to mow when we think we’ve struck a balance, or compromise, between satisfying the bees and our neighbors. That means mowing before the plants set seed, and keeping the blades at the highest setting, to allow for the emergence of more blooms.

It just so happens that the plants we love are also plants that the bees love, and so now, the wheels begin turning for future garden plans and where we’ll put all these bee-friendly plants. Here’s a short list of plants that honeybees love, for those who would like to contribute to their welfare.

  • Agastache
  • Cosmos
  • Mint
  • Poppies (papaver orientale, papaver rhoeas, escholzia. papaver nudicaule)
  • Nepeta
  • China Asters
  • Clover
  • Dandelions

 

Designing the Herb Garden

herb garden

A lush herb garden to spark your culinary endeavors.

There are herb gardens and there are ‘Herb Gardens’. Some, a humble little patch of ground in the corner of the garden to save us a gas-guzzling trip to the market, others, elegantly designed and laid out in beds with boxwood or germander hedges, that bear the formality of an 18th century ‘Physic’ garden. Our own gardens fall somewhere within the broad spectrum of the two. We’re not ‘foodies’, by any stretch, and so our herb garden is basically utilitarian, rather than than ‘au courant’. And, because we till our kitchen garden every year, we’ve found it to be more practical to grow perennnial herbs in a dedicated garden that won’t be disturbed. In our herb garden, we grow perennial herbs; sage, thyme, parsley, rosemary. tarragon, sorrel, winter savory, chervil, mint, horseradish (horseradish is invasive so we grow it in a large pot that we’ve sunk into the ground, as we do with mint), oregano, marjoram, chives, ..and, well, that’s about it, except for rhubarb, which is technically not an herb, but due to its perennial nature, we’ve located it in the herb garden, along with climbing roses and a perennial sweet pea, the last two to embellish the fence. We consider arugula to be a salad green and so that is grown in the Kitchen Garden, as are most of the annual herbs, including dill, fennel, cilantro. basil (3 kinds; Genovese, Lime, and Thai), and parsley. Bay is grown in a pot so it can be overwintered in the greenhouse, along with the rosemary, although, occasionally, we take cuttings of the rosemary and set the young plants directly in the ground. The one perennial herb missing from our garden which really ought to be considered indispensable is lovage; a tall, very hardy plant that combines the taste and texture of celery and parsley. Magnificent.

Things to keep in mind when designing an herb garden:

  • Grow what you’ll actually use. I still have no idea how to use Winter Savory, but it’s there in the garden and, well, why? Hopefully, we’ll have some expert chefs over some evening and they will wax ecstatic over it and tell us how to use it.
  • Research the plants and allow enough space for them. Sage can get very large, as can oregano. Thyme will also take up some real estate, if you allow it to.
  • Mint and horseradish are invasive plants. Confine them by planting them in very large pots, sunk into the ground so the rim of the pot is level with the soil. Mulching over this edge will disguise it.  We use 5 gallon pots that we recycle from trees or shrubs that we buy (yes, we’re landscapers so we have a steady supply of these from projects we’ve installed, but if you don’t have one, ask a nursery if you can purchase one from them. They’ll probably give you a couple for next to nothing).
  • Sorrel is a very special plant with which the French make an excellent soup. Alas, I seldom use it, but when I do, it’s specifically for a sauce to serve over poached fish. The large leaves melt under heat, and when sauteed with cream, and perhaps a shallot, the resulting sauce is superb. Sorrel is tangy, sourish, fresh like a lemon. Very nice to have in the herb garden, even though it bolts almost immediately. A savvy cook would plan a Spring dinner party and serve asparagus and poached salmon with a sorrel sauce.
  • Basil. We grow a row or two of it in the kitchen garden, practically a hedge of it, 20 feet long. Come July, we harvest pounds of it, hurl it into the Cuisinart along with garlic, good olive oil, toasted walnuts (Pine nuts have become far too expensive and the walnuts impart an even richer flavor), sea salt and Parmesan cheese (chef’s say not to add the cheese if you’re planning on freezing your pesto, but we’ve noticed no difference), and then we vacuum pack it into tubes, freeze it, and it refreshes us with it’s rich summer flavor all winter long into spring.  If it’s too overpowering, as it is for some, ourselves included, blend it with heavy cream or greek yoghurt, in a saucepan, if you’re using it as a pasta sauce. Straight-up, it’s great on cheese sandwiches, or mixed into an omelette.

Designing the Cutting Garden

annual flowers for bouquets

Classic ‘Cutting Garden’ flowers

Much of our gardening business work is designing residential ‘cottage’ style gardens. When we meet with new clients, we ask them to complete a four page questionairre, which provides detailed questions about their color preferences, allergies, lifestyle, as well as some multiple choice questions about their “dream garden”. One of these questions asks if the client would like a ‘Cutting Garden’ and this bears a footnote explaining what a ‘Cutting Garden’ is. ” A cutting garden is a garden area, arranged much like a vegetable garden, but the crop is flowers, with the purpose of providing material for floral arrangements. These are usually planted in rows to facilitate hoeing and weeding, as well as to accommodate effective staking configurations.”

Eight out ten times, the client writes YES, however, after all these years, we have only installed one cutting garden for a client. I suppose that when folks figure out that a cutting garden is somewhat labor intensive, not quite as labor intensive as a vegetable garden, but close enough, it discourages would be floral arrangers, from having one. It’s a shame, really, because, where a kitchen garden feeds the body, a cutting garden feeds the soul.

Why a separate ‘Cutting Garden’, people ask. Why not just tiptoe into your cottage garden or perennial border with a pair of secateurs and harvest some flowers for the house? Well, yes, many people do this, and if you have a very large garden it is an option, however, you’ll deprive the ‘borders’ of some of their floral beauty, and, anyway, many of the lovely bouquets you see at Farmer’s Markets, and particularly those that be associate with ‘Summer’ are composed of classic cutting garden plants, which are annuals; Larkspur, Cosmos, Dahlias, Zinnias, China Asters, Statice, Sunflowers, Bells of Ireland, and these need to be planted every year, which would mean leaving plenty of blank spaces in your perennial borders for the planting of annuals. Furthermore, that means leaving ‘open-ground’, that is, ground that is not mulched (the seeds won’t emerge from mulch) and this introduces some very nit-picky weeding. No. In my mind, it’s more efficient to have a dedicated cutting garden, and it’s easily done

Designing a Cutting Garden requires no greater skills or horticultural knowledge than common sense and a ‘back of the seed packet’ familiarity with the plants one wants to grow. Here at Stonewell Farm, we plan the cutting garden with rows that are running on a North-South axis. This way, the rows will all receive as much East-West sunlight as possible. This can get a little tricky if you’re growing very tall sunflowers, for instance, in which case, its best to plant them in a quadrant of their own so that they won’t cast too much shade on their neighbors. That said, we try to keep plants of similar heights in rows close together.

Classic Cutting Garden Plants:

richly colored dahlias

With blooms in nearly unlimited shapes, sizes, and colors, dahlias are the essence of a late summer bouquet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

glorious gladiolas

Gladiolas are ‘hip’ again, . There’s nothing dowdy or grim about these tall beauties, that shine in an arrangement.

 

colorful china asters

Few flowers are as cheerful and exuberant in an arrangement as China Asters in summer.

colorful larkspur

The annual Larkspur, Consolida ambigua, is so fresh, elegant and poetic, that it’s worth the extra effort to get these seeds into the ground early, when the soil is about 55 degrees F.

 

What makes you glad to be alive? Zinnias.  All the colors of the rainbow, (except blue) and with the so-called 'cactus-flowered' types as well, nothing could be simpler to grow than these horticultural twins of Prozac!

What makes you glad to be alive? Zinnias. All the colors of the rainbow, (except blue) and with the so-called ‘cactus-flowered’ types as well, nothing could be simpler to grow than these horticultural twins of Prozac!

 

 

sunflowers

Jam a few sunflowers into a cheap vase and it looks like a million bucks! Here, the goldfinches get to them before we do, but then, what’s the downside? Goldfinches and sunflowers is a win-win, here at Stonewell Farm.

 

It’s Spring: Garden Work ‘To-Do”

Finally spring has sprung and there’s a lot of work to do in the gardens. Firstly, elimination of leaves and detritus; cutting back stalks that were not done in the fall, and then, the largest job, diving perennials that need dividing. Siberian Irises is first on the list, and this a job requiring immense physical strength. If your siberian irises have developed an empty ring in the center of the cluster then they’re shouting out for division. Divide as you would a pie, in sections. This is such hard work that after you’ve completed the operation, you will, in fact deserve to eat pie, and drink wine, and have some Ibuprofin to recover from it all. (By the way, this goes for Bearded Irises, as well, although they’re not nearly  as difficult to deal with as the Siberian Irises, and, ideally, these ought to be divided in August.

Lily Beetles: Ugh!

These are those glossy, bright red beetles that are set upon destroying your Asiatic lilies (and many other lilies, save Daylilies). We handpick them and crush them, but, they’re nasty little creatures, and unless you have two hours in your day to screen for these little monsters, do yourselves a favor and get Neem Oil concentrate (it MUST be fresh….Neem Oil degrades rapidly when exposed to heat) and spray your Asiatic Lilies.

 

More about Spring gardening chores tomorrrow…..

Apron Protoytpes

utility apron

Prototype for a hard- wearing, quarter-length, utility apron.

Not a good photo, but, in the meantime, here’s the first prototype of the Utility Apron. Great for gardeners, market vendors, crafters, cooks, putterers of all stripes. Plenty of pockets to hold cell phones, cash, sunglasses, plant labels, writing implements, tools of all kinds, ….it’s like a handbag/tote that you wear! Crafted from 100% cotton fabric made in the USA. Durable, hard-wearing, handmade with attention to detail.

Coming soon at Stonewell Cottage

What just happened? Good call, Andrew!

Still jittery from what just happened and experiencing ambivalence with a capital A. Warning to readers:(especially PETA empathizers and Buddhists) in the telling, there’s bloodshed involved so click away from this site if you feel your karma will be compromised.( I’m feeling that mine might have been.)

An hour or so ago, I was at the ironing board, pressing a new apron prototype, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dark profile of an animal heading towards the back of the house. I rushed into the bedroom where Andrew was reading and shouted “Andrew. Animal, fisher or raccoon, heading around the back”. He bounded out of bed and hovered by the window and said “I see it. It’s heading down towards the pond”. Well, it seemed like that was the end of that. No further conversation. We each resumed our activities. Ten or fifteen minutes later, Andrew dashed through the room, heading for the back door, and grabbing for a flashlight while he struggles with his boots, he says “I heard something, something in the back”. I immediately don my boots and head out through the front door, thinking that whatever he heard will be spooked by his presence and come back around the front, to be spooked by me. He’s heading towards the chicken coop. I make a cursory surveillance, and, finding nothing, head towards the chicken coop to join Andrew. There we are, with a flashlight. Andrew articulates his hunch: “I heard something coming from the chicken coop..I heard the chickens”. There we are, at the door to the chicken coop. I say “I’m going in”. He says ” No, we need a brighter torch.” (He’s English). Me: “Goddamn it. F__K the torch. I’ll use the light in the henhouse”! We open the door to the henhouse and scan the place with the feeble flashlight. Nothing seems amiss until eagle-eyed Andrew notices something.  Andrew: ” What’s that? I see fur…there, up there, above the doorway”. Me: “What????? Show me”. (he shows me) I freak out. Me: “I’m going in”, as I grab a four foot long wooden spike.  Andrew: “No. Don’t be an ass….we need a better torch”. Me: “F__K that, I’m going in”. I do and behold what is clearly a raccoon, that has chewed its way in through the hardware cloth and is now comfortably ensconced on a 2″ x 4″ between a pair of studs, enjoying the warmth, looking adorable, and just biding its time for the right moment to kill chickens, ducks and turkeys. I jab at it with the long, sturdy, 2″ x 2″ spike. It shrieks and grabs hold of the weapon that I’m attacking it with. I’m shocked by its strength. I’m pumped up on adrenaline and thinking that I can dislodge it from its newly found comfort zone and send it on its way. Not a chance. Not gonna happen. This creature is fierce. Shockingly fierce. Andrew has, almost without my noticing, gone off and returned with a blazingly bright light. He takes over and thrusts a wooden spike into its throat. The creature  screams and screams but doesn’t give up the fight. This is awful. I’m shaking and nearly in tears but the adreneline seems to keep me in the moment.  Andrew is a powerful ,man…5’11”,190 lbs, and incredibly strong and fit. He himself is shocked by the power of this predatory creature. He says “Get the gun”. Me: “Okay, where is it?”….I’m running towards the house, I hear him directing me. His voice becomes fainter and fainter, I just need to get the gun…..I’m overwhelmed. I find the gun, handle it with care and fear, as I run and pass it to Andrew. After some struggle, with the raccoon, seemingly, knowingly, pushing its powerful arms against the barrel of the gun, Andrew fires and kills it.We’re splattered with blood.

We shove it out the door of the chicken coop. The chickens and ducks and turkeys have gone mad during this episode and, once the evil deed is done, they seem to settle back onto their perches.

Andrew goes back to his reading. I serve myself a glass of wine and post this incident. Confused, sad….in some ways. Glad and satisfied, in other ways. Our flock is intact and safe.

The Ultimate-ish Gardening Apron; Free Giveaway!

Producing a useful gardening apron is high on my list of things to do. I want to expand my apron offerings on Stonewell Cottage, to include the Ultimate Garden Apron. Many years back I had someone make a few artist/ craft aprons for me that were patterned on a sort of short, waitress style design. They were cute. When I moved to the country and actually tried using them for gardening, I discovered that they simply don’t function well. For the past couple of days I’ve googled gardening aprons and have found quite a variety, but surprisingly few will actually do the job they need to do. They look great on the real-life models who are standing erect and in a garden environment, tools nicely featured in generous pockets, and the more stylish ones are downright adorable and chic, not dissimilar to the ones I created years ago, but they just won’t do the job that I want my garden apron to do.

Here are my thoughts, based on real-life gardening work, and the criteria I will apply to designing the perfect gardening apron.

  • Firstly, the apron must have a slit through the front. Of course you want plenty of pockets for tools, seeds, etc..and these must be included, however, they will be positively useless if you cannot access those pockets in a crouched position. Its akin to keeping your tools in your front pockets…you simple can’t get to them, or worse, they’re jabbing you in the solar-plexis.
  • The apron needs to be more like a toolbelt, but not exactly. I have something like that and it presents problems for me. This takes me to the part that I think might be a hard sell because it seems so weird. I garden in a close fitting long-sleeved T shirt and sturdy jeans (baggy clothes catch on things, like rose thorns). In the classic crouched weeding or planting position, the T shirt rides up and the pants down, exposing a crescent of my lower back that gets sunburned. My garden apron idea is to have the apron tied on in the opposite way that it would normally be worn. In other words, a back panel would cover the lower back, preventing sunburn, the tie would be in the front, in my case, enfolded in belly fat, and the utility pockets would hang accessibly from the sides of ones outer hips, where they can be readily accessed.
  • The majority of people are right handed and so the narrow pocket for a writing implement might be on the right, but a similar pocket could be on the left, for lefties, or equally serviceable for plant markers. The heavier hand tools; the trowels and cultivators, would best be located as close to the vertical hipline as possible, so they work in harmony with gravity and our most durable and padded anatomical parts. (Sorry supermodels…talk to me about doing a padded couture version just for you!).

So I want your input and experience….pros, cons, all of it. There could be a bibbed version of the Ultimate Garden Apron. I suppose a bibbed version would provide additional storage for small items, but I think the pockets on the bib would have to be placed somewhere mid-chest and they would have to hang freely for easy accessibility, which means they can’t be very deep, otherwise they would block your field of vision. (Sometimes bibs can ride up and choke you a bit).

Oh, I forgot to mention…..my ultimate gardening apron must be durable and good-looking. I’m planning my apron around 100% cotton ticking fabrics, made in the USA.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a contest / giveaway. Totally subjective (but nepotism and familiarity free).  You MUST comment. Include details regarding what you want a Garden Apron to do for you. Based upon the seriousness and depth of you comments, I will select a winner, and he or she will receive one of my Ultimate Gardening Aprons within a months time.

Deadline for Comments is: April 1, 2014!!! I look forward to hearing from you!

Seeds, Glorious Seeds!

Today, our order of seeds from Fedco arrived. A box load of optimism, an engine for self-reliance and sustainability, and the hope and prayer that we will, yet again, have the health and strength and spirit to do right by these tiny capsules of life, flavor, nutrition, beauty and artistry. This year I’ve ordered 38 packets of vegetable seeds and 30 packets of flower seeds. On the order sheet, which the ‘packer’, who is also a co-owner, (as Fedco is a cooperatively owned entity) checks off and signs, there was this handwritten note: ” Just saw your address and it made me smile! I am from Chester, CT! (the next town over from us). I’ve lived in Maine now since 1984. I hope your gardens do well! :). It was signed and she provided her maiden name as well as the name she now uses. So sweet.

Nothing could sum up the reason that I buy from this company better than that. Such a lovely, kind and thoughtful touch.

It’s still a bit too early to start propagating seeds in the unheated greenhouse, with the wildly fluctuating daytime/nighttime temperatures, but we’ve started the onions and leeks, and they’re going great guns in the Oak Room, thriving, along with the 46 baby chicks with whom they share the space. I will get around to taking photos; eventually. In the meanwhile, with so much more to do before Spring arrives, I direct my attention to my Stonewell Cottage business, garden design projects for clients, and the renovation of our own gardens in preparation for a major fundraising event that we’ll be hosting in June.

Happy garden planning to you!

Flower Seeds: Self-Sowers

images of perennial border with annual poppies

Annual poppies enhance the cottage garden effect in a sunny perennial border,

Today I received a bulk order of my favorite flower seeds; all 72,300 of them. These are considered self-sowers. While these are mostly annuals, biennials or short-lived perennials, once these plants become established in the garden, they will continue to cast their seeds about, ensuring that they reappear each year, albeit in unpredictable places. These include Shirley poppies, foxgloves, Sweet William, Bachelor Buttons, Cosmos sulpherus, Nigella damascena and Columbines.

The annual poppies, of which there are many varieties including papaver rhoeas, papaver nudicaule, escholzia (the yellow, orange and cream colored California poppies), along with Bachelor’s Buttons, Nigella damascena, (aka Love-in-a-Mist) and Sweet Williams (Dianthus barbatus) enjoy full sun. But one must be able to tolerate the somewhat scruffy look of the spent flower stalks in the garden as the plants need to produce seedpods, mature and then cast their seeds in order for them to multiply.

image of foxgloves behind perennials

Foxgloves provide a nice transition between a perennial border and a woodland.

The foxgloves and columbines thrive in a bit of shade, making them perfect candidates for creating a naturalistic transition between a sunny perennial border and the edge of a woodland, which is how we use them. Here, they’re shown with salvia, nepeta, agastache and a few self-sown Shirley poppies.

As we gear up for Spring, you might want to consider ordering some of these seeds,  to cast about the gardens and create a relaxed, cottage-garden/wildflower look. They’re usually inexpensive; geez, for $3.95 I got 44,000 seeds. If only 1% decide to germinate I will still enjoy a few colorful blooms that offer the promise of future generations. Go for it!

Garden Rooms

A serious gardener may find it preposterous that I have the nerve to write about garden rooms. This will be especially galling and irksome to any British garden afficionado, who probably knows more about garden rooms by the age of 5, than I can hope to aspire to by the age of 70.  However, this cold, frozen, weekend afternoon, while indulging in the time-sucking, digital opiate, commonly known as Pinterest, I found myself drawn to outdoor dining images, and decided to create a Pinterest board, cleverly titled, Outdoor Dining. http://www.pinterest.com/stonewellarts/outdoor-dining/

(I mentioned opiate, right)?  There I was, pinning away, niggledy-piggeldy, blissfully enjoying every wasted,  second, minute (dare I admit, HOUR?) of my life, until nature called me back to the house to briefly enjoy the comforts of the room with the ceramic furniture. When I came back to the ‘studio’, which is,  really, these days, a euphemism for my ‘woman cave’ (that’s right SISTERS!) I reviewed the Pinboard I’d created and noticed an aesthetic and practical thread  that I think warrants some comment.

Here is my opinion. Outdoor dining areas are most successful when they fulfill two criteria. (No, wait, 3).

1. They create a sense of enclosure and protection, as any indoor room would, within the context of a garden.

2. They provide a vista, or, more modestly, a garden view.

3. They inhabit level ground.  Practically speaking, the dining/entertaining area must support a table, chairs, a side table for serving, several wine buckets, and provide a sense of stability and enough roominess for a guest or host  to rise, pace, (possibly stagger) and recite Garcia Lorca or T.S. Eliot or Pablo Neruda.

Other things do come into consideration. If the poets bore you, then there ought to be fragrant plants and luminous set-pieces to distract you (or engage you) from the activities/conversation at hand, as well as areas for seating. If the Federal Budget Deficit is weighing in too heavily on the conversation, and our conflicted, dysfunctional Congress is driving you to consider ‘asking your doctor’ about a prescription for ‘Lunesta’,  then there ought to be some gorgeous,sweetly fragrant, night blooming Nicotiana to provide a bit of respite for you and other guests, especially those on unemployment.

We’re in the process of re-thinking our Kitchen Garden., in fact, all of our gardens, with an eye towards how they can best suit our aesthetic and practical objectives. I encourage all of you to  view your gardens  and garden rooms, as an extention of your home and consider how they will best suit you.