Weed Barrels

A weed barrell in my shade garden, hiding under the bridlewreath

This isn’t a sexy subject, but it’s a very practical one: weed barrels. Yesterday it was 103º in my garden, and for me at least, that doesn’t inspire much desire for working outdoors. But even on the very hottest, or wettest, or coldest days, you generally have some cause for crossing parts of your garden, even if only to get to the garage. And who amongst us can brag that on these daily criss-crossings a weed is never, ever spotted? The problem is not so much stopping to pull the intruder as it is what to do with the offender afterwards. Divert all that way to the compost pile in this heat? Hardly. Attempt a hardy fling into the shrubs? Possibly, but inevitably the bloody thing winds up dangling from the branches, mocking you. So instead, I’ve strategically placed weed barrels – essentially 36″ pots left over from purchased shrubs – in every one of my gardens, tucked here and there in the greenery. That way, when I see a weed, I just pull it out and pop it in the barrel. Every couple of weeks, when it’s cool and I have time, I make a round with the my cart and collect the contents for the compost. I can’t tell you how much this has increased my tendency to stop for a few minutes as I pass, pulling this, pruning that. It makes the whole process of maintenance, dare I say it: so much less weedious.

Gravel Walks & Drives

Perhaps it was all that public television I watched as a child – the endless parade of British murder mysteries and historical dramas that somehow always managed to feature a large country house and garden, with what to me at least, growing up in this American land of concrete, was an intriguing novelty: an expansive gravel drive. Broad and flat, it swept majestically towards the house, heading not to some dinky garage, but rather to a grand, welcoming front entrance. The carriage (or Rolls, or Bentley) approached, the characters alighted, and suddenly amidst cries of “Cherrio old thing” and “Delighted, old chap” you heard that marvelously distinctive “crunch, crunch, crunch” of gravel underfoot, so different from the mundane thud produced by the modern hard paving I was accustomed to.  To this day, I adore that sound, and find it one the most soothing on earth – a calming note which suggests that you’ve left behind, at least briefly, the tarmac-filled modern age and have entered slower-paced, more elegant world. From these rather round-about observations, you’ve probably already surmised that I’m a big fan of using gravel in the landscape, and fortunately I am not alone. Gravel, which provides a pleasant, natural surface so unlike the artificial harshness of asphalt and concrete, is once again returning to a prominent place in the American garden.

Here in my garden, one of the very first projects I did upon moving to my 1852 farmhouse 17 years ago was to rip out the buckling asphalt driveway and replace it with a gravel one. During this process, which lasted several days, more than a few of my new neighbors came up to me, and although they all very much admired the look, to a man they expressed concerns about the amount of maintenance involved with the new drive.  Of course, this is the great bugaboo of gravel, and the principle reason why it fell from favor in the first place. Weeding and snow removal on gravel drives have somehow been mythologized into titanic chores. That simply isn’t true.  While gravel does require extra maintenance (see below) this work is more than offset by both by its good looks, and even more importantly, by its lower installation cost: the average gravel drive is generally a third as expensive as hard paving. Given savings like these, the small amount of annual maintenance required is well worth the effort.

As for plowing, what most people fail to realize is that 9 times out of 10 when it snows, the ground, and gravel, are already frozen. This rock-hard mass can be plowed or shoveled just like hard paving. Occasionally however, we do get an early snow before the ground is cold, and then you simply have to remember to tell your plower or snowblower (or yourself) to raise their blade slightly off the surface, which is generally a good rule on gravel drives in any case. While slight amounts of gravel do shift around during plowing, this is easily addressed in the spring with a rake; in my almost two decades years experience with my own gravel drive, and in doing dozens of other drives for my clients, we have never really had much of a problem with snow removal.

There are however some issues about gravel you should understand before you consider it for your property. First of all, gravel lends a very country air to the landscape. It’s a loose informal surface, very much evocative of rural lanes and simpler times, and is not the best look for a dressy urban environment. (Ladies take note: gravel is murder on high heels for any distance more than a few feet!) It is also problematic on slopes with more than 20 degrees inclination, as gravity and traffic will rapidly carry the gravel down the hill. In such situations, hard paving is really the only option.

The north gate pathway in my own garden, just re-graveled this morning. Notice has the tan color has a distinctly different feel from the gray gravel shown above.

Secondly, gravel requires some type of edging to look well and avoid maintenance difficulties. Installing edging is really the secret to easy-care gravel walks and drives, and shouldn’t be considered optional, for without edging gravel will splay into adjoining areas. With edging in place however, this is not an issue. Personally I am a big fan of using large cobbles, (also sometimes called Belgian blocks) to contain the aggregate. The blend of stone with stone is extremely pleasing and works well in almost any setting. Steel edging is another option, as are tiles, bricks or river stones, or almost anything that will form a border to keep the gravel in its intended place. In terms of upkeep, gravel is fairly undemanding: and occasional raking to tidy the stones; occasional weeding in low traffic areas (Round-up works well for those so inclined.); plus the addition of new pea stone once every 4-5 years to refresh the surface. (That happens to be my assignment over this holiday weekend, and also what motivated this column: top-dressing the drive and paths new gravel, an exercise I find both strangely invigorating and soothing at the same time.)

It’s also important to remember that gravel comes in a very wide range of colors: your choice will have a dramatic effect on the final look of your landscape. Before you make any decisions, take a trip to your local stone yard and see what options are available in your area. Given its extreme weight, gravel is generally sourced locally, and the color palette available to you will depend on where you live. My personal favorite happens to be the tan and earth-hued gravels that are pretty widely obtainable; their warm tones seem to me to be the most sympathetic with the wide range of colors found in the garden. Grays, reds, browns and blacks are also possibilities; white is another option, though one I feel best avoided: white stone lends an extremely severe air to the landscape. Pay attention as well to the type of stone being offered: while crushed stone binds well and is required for the under layers, the rough jagged edges are visually hard on the eyes and even harder on the feet. Look for something called 3/8 inch river washed pea stone – the kind that has been tumbled naturally in river beds. It makes a smooth and pleasing upper surface.

Finally, make sure your walks and drives are well constructed: on more than one occasion I have seen so-called professional landscapers simply dig an excavation, pour six inches of gravel into the hole, and consider the walkway finished. This is no way to construct gravel walks and drives: as such they will be poorly drained, never firm up properly for heavy traffic, and be a nightmare to maintain. To build a proper gravel walk or drive, first the base should be excavated to the depth of 8 inches and then compacted; then the excavation is filled in succession with rough debris on the bottom to the depth of two or three inches, then with one-inch crushed stone to within an inch or two of the top of the edging, and thoroughly compacted again. Finally, an inch of river washed gravel is placed on the uppermost surface, compacted and raked level. (Any more than one or two inches of the pea stone will result is a mushy surface.) Built this way, your walk or drive will give decades of happy service, not to mention providing you with that merry little crunch, crunch, crunch, – congratulating you with every step on a great new addition to your garden.

Perfect for Shade – Hosta ‘Praying Hands’

Hosta 'Praying Hands'

There was a lot of interest in my last column about shade gardening, which reminded me: a couple of months back, the good folks from Scotts were looking for a gardening project to support in Boston, and I recommended the Southwest Corridor Park Conservancy, which supports a 50 acre parkway that winds from Boston’s Back Bay all the way to Jamaica Plain. As part of this effort, I agreed to spend the morning weeding and working, and while working amongst the shrubberies, I encountered the most intriguing plant: Hosta ‘Praying Hands’, which I think is one of the more spectacular hosta to come along in a long time. (Others think so too, I gather: it was just voted 2011 Hosta of the Year.) With foliage that reminds me of green calla lilies, this striking plant grow to just 15″ tall and 30″ wide, making quite a dramatic statement in the garden. You see, good deeds do get rewarded, for now my morning spent with the Conservancy has provided a real charmer in my garden for years to come.

Shade Gardening 101

My own shade garden, seen above, was entirely accidental; a decade ago a house sitter decided "to sculpt" the blue spruce (scalp would have been a better term) removing all the lower branches. What seemed a disaster at the time has turned into opportunity, forcing me to plant the area beneath the branches. Now, the show starts in January with hellebores, through spring bulbs, late bulbs, then hosta, and ends in December, with the hellebores.

Mention the world shade, and average gardener’s brow will start to furrow, already calculating ways to escape the dark menace. That’s really a shame, for while gardening in the shade often presents a number of challenges – poor soil, competition from tree roots, and a much muted color palette – shade gardening possesses its own very distinct charms. Plants with extraordinary patterns & foliage; exquisitely subtle flowers; and fascinatingly delicate form all inhabit the shade garden.

The fact of the matter is though, if you’re a successful gardener, you’ll eventually have to embrace shade whether you like it or not. Call it the not-so-subtle by-product of horticultural victory. Think about it. Things grow – and expand, and shade. (My, that tree got big fast! You get the picture.) Once you’ve “arrived” at this level of success, your continuing progress will be determined to a great extent by how well you understand the various distinct natures of shade.

For not all shade is created equal, and more than in other type of gardening, successful shade gardening requires excellent powers of observation to discern your exact growing conditions. Your very first consideration when laying out a shade garden should be to decide how much, or how little direct sunlight reaches your garden area.  For some reason, many gardeners find this rather straightforward task extremely difficult, and are tempted to want “to cheat up” the amount of light that is truly available to their garden, as if somehow the lack of sun reflects badly on them. If asked, these gardeners will typically reply that such and such area receives “a half-day’s light,” when in reality only one or two hours of feeble gloom ever reach the spot. This kind of fudging will only lead to failure, as plants are far more precise than their tenders about much light they require. If your garden receives no direct sunlight (like that cast on the north side of a tall building) or only one or two hours a day of direct sunlight at the beginning or end of the day, this is considered “deep shade.” Only plants that truly like full shade will tolerate these conditions (those marked with the fully darkened sun symbol on the label.) Despite the siren call of other, more light loving varieties, you must limit your nursery selections accordingly.

Another view, looking through the orchard to the long border. The boxwoods mark one of two pathes through the garden, now almost hidden under the luxuriant foliage.

Three to four hours of direct sunlight, or dappled light throughout the day (such as the conditions found under at large tree) are considered partial shade. This situation is ideal allowing for a much wider range of plant material. Remember that while full shade lovers will often tolerate the brighter conditions of partial shade, the reverse is rarely true: partial shade lovers will generally sulk and slowly deteriorate in full shade, so unless you plan to continually replant your garden, along with a budget to match, being honest about your light conditions is a must. (As an important aside to this discussion, remember that light conditions often change over the course of a year. In early spring for instance, before the trees leaf out, an area that is in deep shade later in the summer is often in partial to full sun early in the season. Light-loving plants that complete their full life cycle during this brief sunny period, such as many of the early spring bulbs, can be safely planted here, to be followed by other more shade loving plants later in the season.)

Another extremely important consideration when planning a shade garden is how much water the area in question receives. Many gardeners somehow presume that because an area is shady, it is also moist, which can be a fatal mistake. In fact, most shady areas – especially those under trees – are quite dry, due to two factors. First of all, the canopy of a tree acts like a giant umbrella, diverting water from falling on the ground underneath. Secondly, what little water that does manage to fall through the leaves is immediately sucked up by greedy masses of tree roots. While there are plants that will thrive in either dry or wet shade, its critical to ascertain which you have, and choose plant material accordingly. Fortunately for dry shade areas, additional irrigation, either in the form of a permanent watering system, or a willing gardener with a strong back to lug hoses, will often be enough to mitigate the situation, provided that you ignore a generally accepted maxim about watering: dry shade areas often require watering even when the rest of the garden has received an adequate amount of natural rainfall, once again due to the umbrella effect. One to two inches of water a week are required for most gardens. Stationing a watering gauge in your dry shade areas will obviate any doubt about when to water.

The final, and perhaps most important element of success in any shade garden is the condition of your soil. As in any other gardening endeavor, improving the soil is key to making plants thrive, but in shade gardening, good soil is especially critical. Given the low light conditions of shade gardens, and the shade plants’ reduced ability to generate energy from sunlight, a healthy soil full of nutrients and organic matter is a must. This is often particularly difficult to achieve when gardening under trees, where large insidious roots thread through the ground soaking up every possible nutrient.  These same roots also render normal soil preparation, especially with any kind of mechanical device, nearly impossible. While an occasional root may be snipped to create a deep planting pocket without doing much harm to the tree, root pruning on any kind of a larger scale will prove extremely deleterious, both to you, in terms of your back, and to the tree, in terms of future growth.  In the case of extremely rooty soil, it’s best to build upwards: as long as you begin a few feet away from the tree trunk, you can safely add three to six inches of compost or leaf mould, and plant in that instead. Over time, the tree roots will eventually discover this earthen feast above them, and begin to spread through it. By then, however, your shade garden will be successfully established and you, and your plants, won’t mind sharing the bounty of your labors.

From the Kitchen Garden: More on Endive

Oh little leaves, come to me, come to me....

I was out in the rain-soaked garden this morning peering about, and noticed that finally, finally the chicory has sprouted. It took quite along time – and several week of consistent moisture – but the little plantlets are finally on their way. In early October I will dig up the roots, being careful to leave dirt attached, and store them in the coldest part of the basement, in perforated plastic bags. Then, beginning in December, I will select several roots, which I will place upright in a large clay pot and cover 3/4 with soilless mix. Kept well watered, and totally in the dark, the chicons should appear on the roots in 25-30 days, ready for the table.

The what, you ask? Chicons?

Yep: chicons, the technical name for the sprouts of the chicory. You know them as Belgian endive.

Ah…. now this starts to make some sense, right?

Or does it?  All this work, planting, digging, replanting, for a harvest that won’t arrive until 2012?!

Well, it makes sense to me: I adore Belgian endive. It’s just one of those flavors that can’t be replicated. And obviously, many others agree, as the commercial propagation of Belgian endive takes place almost exactly as related above, by hand,  though on a larger scale. Thus, the price at the market. (The name, by the way, derives from the most popular center of production, the Belgian fields of Flanders.)

Interestingly, Belgian endive is one of two survivors of a whole class of blanched vegetables that were incredibly popular during the Victorian era. (By blanched, I mean “forced in darkness” as opposed to the culinary term “blanching,” which conversely means preserving vibrant color by quick immersion in boiling water.) Celery, for instance, which was a popular Victorian starter dish, was always served in its white blanched version – green celery was considered too bitter, and indeed, the blanching process produces a distinctly mellow flavor. Rhubarb, too, was another popular forcing vegetable, along with that still perennial  favorite, white asparagus.

So, back to the chicory: what to do with the endive once you have it? Well, one of the simplest uses is as a brazed vegetable, a perfect side for chicken or beef. (You may also want to look at my earlier recipe for Endive Tart,  HERE.)

Recipe: Braised Endive

Take 1/2 cup of water, a bit of lemon juice, a dash of sugar, 8-10 trimmed endive shoots, and place in a heavy saute pan. Bring to a boil, and simmer for 25 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. Perfection!

Here’s perhaps my favorite endive dish of all: just perfect for a cool evening by the fire.This is a modified version of a recipe I first received in the 80s from two of my favorite kitchen gurus, Craig Clairborne and Pierre Franey. It’s every bit as good today.

Recipe: Endive and Chicken Au Gratin

10 firm endives about 1.5 lbs.
2.5 cups fresh chicken broth
juice of 1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup flour
1 cup heavy cream
3 cups diced cooked chicken (This is about 2 full boneless breasts. Braise for 2 minutes each side, then, poach in a skillet with leftover white wine for about 20 minutes, adding with a dash of salt and pepper. Allow to cool, then dice. Save any leftover liquid and add to stock above, adjusting total.)
1 egg yolk
freshly grated Parmesan cheese to taste
bread crumbs to taste

Remove any darkened ends of the endive; cut in half and then section into 1-inch pieces. There should be about 8 cups. (Judging these quantities is hard, but more is better than less.)

Place endive in a heavy skillet and add 1/2 cup of the broth, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and bring to a boil for about 15 minutes. Most of the liquid should have evaporated. If liquid remains, uncover and evaporate, being careful NOT to burn the endive. As the endive melts, it will add liquid to the mix. The end result should be moist, but not runny.

Meanwhile: melt the butter in a saucepan and add the flour, stirring with a wire whisk, to make a roux. When blended, add the remaining chicken broth, stirring rapidly with the whisk. Remove 1/4 cup of the hot liquid, add the egg yolk, mix and return to the roux. Again, be careful not to scorch the liquid. Continue cooking for about 10 minutes, stirring as needed to prevent burning. Finally add the cream, salt and pepper, and continue cooking for 5 minutes, still stirring, until well thickened. The final result should be rich and creamy, akin to yogurt.

Add the chicken to the endive and mix in the sauce.

Preheat oven to 375º.

Spoon the mixture into a baking dish, sprinkle with cheese and crumbs to taste. Bake for 30 minutes or until bubbling and tops browns.

Serve with freshly baked French bread or sticky rice and your choice of vegetable. A favorite: roasted beets with ginger.

BTW: You might be tempted to shortcut the roux (and calories) by adding some sort of canned cream soup instead, and cutting back on the stock; I tried that once, and it was disastrous; the canned flavors simply overwhelmed the endive with a chemically taste. Yuck. Stick with this classic recipe, and prepare this dish when you have the time to monitor the process closely, and some calories to spare. The recipe is not at all difficult; the only danger is scorching the mix. If you do, toss it out and start again; it can’t be salvaged.

Supposedly this serves 4-6. However, 3 avid eaters have proved sufficient in the past…

Finally, for endive growing tips: an easy to follow, step-by-step illustrated guide can be found here: Kitchen Gardeners.org

What A Difference A Few Months Make!

Now, if you had asked me for most of the spring what the fate of this ‘Scintillation’ would be, I would never in my wildest dreams have predicted this. The foliage looked as if it had been dipped in boiling water till almost May, then a slow, steady recovery. All I can say is, thank you Mother Nature!

Dahlias

Hurrah! ….it is a frost! The dahlias are all dead!

Surtees, Handley Cross 1843

Alas the poor dahlia has been something of a garden misfit since it first departed the New World for the Old. Beloved by the Aztecs as a medicinal plant, the dahlia left its native Mexico for the Royal Gardens at Madrid in 1789, imported not for its flowers – which in the original species were a rather mundane yellow – but because it was thought its fleshy tuber might make a new and useful vegetable. Judged “edible, but not agreeable”, the tubers never made it to the table. But the “brilliant, barbaric flowers” of dahlia pinnata did manage to attract the attention of various European hybridizers, who thought the six-foot high plant might hold some promise as an exotic annual. Crosses were made in France and Spain, and Empress Josephine planted some of the first new cultivars in her gardens at Malmaison.  Several of these varieties were imported to England after the Napoleonic Wars, where by 1830, they had become all the rage. D. pinnata was rapidly transformed through cross-breeding from a fairly simple, large, flowering plant into an almost unimaginable number of different varieties in all sizes, shapes and colors.

The dahlia’s popularity did not come without controversy however. Considered by many to be garish, as early as 1823 English nurseryman Thomas Hogg considered them “too large for the small flower-garden” and “best adapted to fill up the vacancies in the ornamental shrubberies.” Some people felt even that usage too much, and dahlias, whose big, loud flowers are always hard to ignore, were one of the first casualties when garden fashion changed at the turn of the century away from brilliantly colored exotics to a more subdued, perennial palette. Dahlias have always had their ardent admirers though, and hundreds of new introductions continued to be made over the years. Today, dahlias have regained much of their popularity: Thousands of varieties exist, divided into 18 classifications according to flower type, ranging from human sized plants with 8 inch peony like flowers, to small single varieties only six inches high. These days, there really is a dahlia for almost every garden style and setting.

I’ve always enjoyed dahlias in my garden, in moderation, and try to include some in the borders each year. Their culture is really quite simple. Purchase tubers (or young plants) now at the nursery, and plant in rich soil. (Tubers may be started early indoors, planted in pots about 6″ deep.)  Do pay attention to individual growth requirements however: dahlias very wildly in habit, and you need to make sure that you choose a variety which will be the right height for your site. After planting, mulch, keep well watered, fertilized,  and you’ll soon see them take off – dahlias grow quickly and aren’t especially troubled by pests. Occasionally diseases such as mosaic virus can be an issue. Quick removal of infected plants can generally keep the problem from spreading.

Although many people treat their dahlias as annuals, they are actually tender perennials, hardy to zone 10, and particularly nice specimens are often worth saving. There are many different ways to over-winter dahlias, and I have read some complicated methods offered by dahlia aficionados.  I’ve had good luck with the following: Simply cut the plant back to one foot above the ground just prior to hard frost, and carefully raise the tubers. Carefully remove any attached dirt, (you may need to wash them with a hose) as well as any rotted or injured parts of the tuber. Let dry for a few hours. Prune the stems back to the tubers, label, and place in loose plastic bags, with a few holes punched in for air circulation. Store the tubers just like you would potatoes: in a cool, dry place at 35-40 degrees. (The veggie drawer in the refrigerator is ideal, which is why in my house, between the dahlias, seed potatoes and other bulbs, rarely sees a an edible.) Replant in the garden when all danger of frost is past.

Lawns 101

Oh, the first blush of grass in the spring. How I’ve longed for it! As I sit this evening, looking over the lawn beneath the pale pink apple blossoms in the orchard, everything is verdant green at last, fresh and inviting. It’s like.. well for lack of a better description… it’s like your first kiss. Tantalizing, tempting, teasing and ever so satisfying.

But I know, that like young love, my annual spring infatuation will inevitably temper, as inevitably as the turning of the seasons. Somewhere around mid-August, in 95º heat, pushing the electric mower through tough, dried, unforgiving grass, sweating buckets, and cringing at the at the water bill, I’ll be thinking to myself: time for Astroturf!  Well, not really; but close. As a landscape designer, I can assure you that there is nothing more attractive in the garden than a well-tended, well-proportioned lawn. No other feature of the landscape is as effective at linking together disparate elements of the yard than a flourishing piece of greensward. The problem lies in the “well-tended” and “well-proportioned” part. In terms of maintenance, despite the fact that we Americans spend billions of hours and dollars each year on lawn care, much of our effort is wasted.  Many, and in some areas, most of the lawns you see are brown, patchy, bumpy stretches of weeds, especially after the searing heat and extended drought of the last few years. As for proportion and scale, it’s a common sight all over America to see the lawn dominating the landscape, instead of complementing it. A landscape that is all grass (especially bad grass), and very little else, is not really landscape at all, merely bad lawn. How did we get into this fix, anyway?

The history of the American lawn’s rise to preeminence in our landscapes is a fascinating one, especially considering the fact that two hundred years ago, there were almost no lawns in American gardens. While our forbearers did enjoy extremely ornate and elaborate landscapes, they were almost entirely without what we would nowadays call a lawn. Why? Because mown grass was expensive and difficult to maintain. To get the flat, green look we so prize today, two centuries ago you either needed a small flock of sheep and someone to tend them (and to their compost contributions to the lawn surface) or a full time gardener with a scythe. Closely scything a lawn, I can assure you from personal experience (having foolishly attempted it once, almost cutting off my leg in the process) is an extremely difficult and time-consuming affair. Thus, only the richest of the rich had lawns, and then, only tiny areas of close-cropped grass suitable for outdoor games like boules (a form of bowling) which were then all the rage.

This grass-less landscape changed forever in 1830, when two enterprising (or fiendish, depending on your opinion of mowing grass) British gentlemen by the names of Edwin Budding and James Ferrabee came into the picture. Having seen the large-bladed machines used in mills to remove excess nap from woolen cloth, they decided that the same process could be adapted for cutting grass. Their invention instantly removed the main impediment to having a lawn – the lack of an easy, cost-efficient means of mowing it.  Suddenly, everyone from maid to minister could have their own perfect, green carpet with minimal labor, and lawns sprang up everywhere as the ultimate status symbol in the Victorian garden. Strangely enough, this sine qua non has remained the case every since, despite the fact any status associated with having a large lawn has long since disappeared. For better or for worse, the modern lawn has become an intractable part of the American landscape, and I doubt that anything short of a second American revolution would remove “a good lawn” from the wish list of most gardeners.

Since lawns do indeed seem have become a permanent feature in our gardens, at least we should do what we can to enhance them, especially when there are a number of ways we can make a considerable improvements to our grass, without making a commensurate dent to our pocket books.

1)   Assess the Amount of Lawn You Now Have, vs. How Much You REALLY Need. Take a look around your property. Unless you are hosting team soccer games or otherwise need extremely large play areas, if any one section of your yard (such as front, back or side) consists of 60% or more grass, consider re-landscaping to convert the lawn areas to other types of plantings. Let’s face it. Lawns, especially good lawns, require a lot of work, and today’s busy gardener needs to make every moment count. Huge expanses of grass are not only dull, but also time-consuming to maintain, and in many hot, dry areas of the country where water is an issue, environmentally unsound. Why not convert some of these areas to alternative groundcovers, shelter plantings or ornamental landscaping? In very large yards (of several acres or more) letting the grass revert to natural or woodland areas may be the way to go. Here in my garden over the last few years we have eliminated almost 2 acres of lawn along the property borders, allowing meadow to grow up in its place, which only has to be mown once a year. Not only are these naturalized areas far less work to maintain, but the return of many native species of birds, animals and butterflies has been a tremendous side-benefit. Plus, not having to tend these marginal sections has allowed me to concentrate my time and resources on the remaining lawn, with the result that I now have far better grass in the areas where it counts most.

2)   Sharpen Your Mower Blades. Sounds simple enough, but when was the last time you actually sharpened those blades? A survey by the International Turf Producers Foundation shows that only 38% of gardeners do so. Dull blades not only consume much more energy than sharp to cut the same grass, but the dullness also causes ragged cuts and gashes to the grass stems, which can lead to disease and stress. Turf professionals recommend sharpening the blades several times during the season. Simply take the mower to your local dealer or repair shop. (If you are mechanically handy, and know what you are doing, you can also sharpen them yourself.) The process takes minutes and costs only a few dollars, and will lead to a far healthier, better-looking lawn.

3)  Raise the Cutting Height of Your Mower as Summer Heat Increases. As the summer heat wears on, move up the cutting height on your lawn mower by several notches. By increasing the height, you increase the length of the grass blades. The more blade surface the grass has, the better it can produce its own energy from the sun, with the need for augmented alimentation.

4)  Don’t Fertilize or Use Pesticides During a Drought. Again, according to the International Turf Producers Foundation, many people try to fertilize their way out of brown summer lawns. During a drought, your grass is not growing vigorously, and will not absorb fertilizers. Pesticides can actually place stress on already weakened grass. Wait until normal rainfall and cooler weather returns to make any lawn treatments truly effective, both in terms of cost and benefit. And need I add: Follow the directions on the package? The folks that make the products do know best. If they say setting “6” on the spreader, they mean it.

5)  Finally, Check Your Lawn for Thatch. Thatch is a deposit of dead grass that over time can accumulate on lawns. Not only is it unsightly, but a layer of thatch more than 1/2 thick effectively acts as a barrier to the soil, preventing the absorption of much-needed nutrients and water. Contrary to popular belief, excessive thatch is not caused by leaving normal amount of clippings on lawns from mulching mowers and the like. Instead, thatch is primarily composed of the tougher parts of the grass, stems, stolons and roots that have failed to decompose properly. Excessive thatch is a sign that something is wrong with your lawn care: excessive chemical treatments, cutting the grass too short, or over-watering are all potential causes. Remove excess thatch with a rake or a de-thatching tool, and amend your lawn care practices to prevent its return.

So now, in May: do yourself a favor. Take a picture, label it: “This is why we fight,” and stick it in your August calendar. The struggle for a decent lawn won’t have always been easy, but if you’ll have kept your aspirations sensible, you’ll look back with fond memories – and even fonder expectations for cooler, and greener, days to come.

Birth Notice

Kri-key! I just got out of the egg an hour ago. Can't you guys wait for me?

Born, to Mrs. Harrington Magpie (Maggie, to her friends) Duck, of Southborough, Massachusetts, this Easter morn, 2011, the following 19 (update: now 20,as of Easter eve) offspring:

Michael Duane Duck

Laurie Jeanne Duck

Cynthia Louise Duck

Richard Duane Duck

Caroline (Just call me ‘Carol’) Duck

Eugene Gregory Duck

Rose Duck

Lilian Duck

Nathanial James Duck

Timothy Allen Duck

Christian Zachary Duck

William Harold Duck

Annabelle Patrice Duck

Henry Thomas Duck

George Mason Duck

Henrietta Charlotte Duck

Samuel Christopher Duck

Maxwell Graham Duck

Nigel Patrick Duck

and (Easter eve update) just born, the last egg, Cara Suzanne Duck

Daffodils

“Daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares,
and takeThe winds of March with beauty.”

— William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale

Right now as you read this, the first daffodils are pushing up through the still half-frozen soil in my garden. While they are not the earliest bulbs to appear – the miniature crocus, snowdrops, and tiny iris reticulata generally beat the daffodils by several weeks – for me, it’s the daffodils that are the true harbingers of spring. For although the smaller bulbs may be the first to bloom, they often do so while there is still snow on the ground, which always seems to me a slightly cruel jest: it’s bad enough to have to endure further extended cycles of slush, snow and freezing rain, without having these little jokers teasing you with hints of spring’s still distant beauty. In contrast, when the daffodils arrive, you can be certain that spring truly is just around the corner, and that all the verdant pleasures of the new gardening year are will soon be at hand.

Interestingly for such a cheerful blossom, the daffodil’s first association with man was far more lugubrious: the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean considered the flowers sacred to the gods of the underworld. They were used by the Egyptians, for instance, in funeral wreathes, examples of which been found perfectly preserved in tombs after 3000 years. This association with mortality perhaps also explains the flower’s botanical name, Narcissus, which according to the Roman encyclopediast Pliny does not derive, as is commonly still thought, from the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful boy who fell in love with his reflection, but rather from the Greek, narke, or “narcotic,” reflecting the belief that the flower’s strong fragrance caused death-like numbness and slumber. In fact, Roman myth relates that it was while picking daffodils that Persephone was overcome by the fragrance and fell asleep, thus allowing Pluto to carry her off to the Underworld to be his bride. The derivation of the plants English name,  “daffodil,” is even murkier, befitting a flower of such dark associations. “Affodyl,” is supposedly a corruption of the name of an entirely different species, the white “asphodel,” (strangely enough another flower the Greeks associated with death) which by the early 1500’s had became linked with the white varieties of the narcissus family. The yellow varieties were later incorporated as well under this moniker (including the utterly charming variation “Daffadowndyllyes”) though for another century, purists insisted on calling the yellow types Pseudo, or False Narcissus.

Unfortunately for the beginning gardener, things haven’t gotten any less complicated in the daffodil nomenclature department. The family is divided into no less than 13 divisions according to flower type, mostly having to do with the size of the central cup, number of petals, or number of flowers on each stem. Needless to say, this all makes choosing narcissus varieties for your garden more complicated than it really needs to be. For my purposes, I like to ignore the botanical divisions, and divide the family into three simple groups: early, middle and late bloomers, which is really the most important characteristic for anyone trying to sequence the longest possible floral display. Indeed, if you plan correctly, you can extend the daffodil’s blooming season to well over a month. Within each of these categories, of course, there are subdivisions: flowers of various colors, sizes, and scent. Which you choose is entirely up to you, your taste, and how you plan to use your bulbs. I, for instance, happen to prefer the white or mostly white varieties over the total yellows in the border, because I think they blend best with other perennials, especially when under-planted with other small bulbs like blue Muscari; while the yellows are my favorite when set off in large naturalized clumps on the edge of field or woodland. I also like to use the smaller, scented varieties in places where I am sure to pass nearby: their delicate blossoms and incredible fragrance are best when appreciated close at hand. These considerations are of course entirely subjective; the important point is to start making big use of this wonderful bulb in your landscape if you haven’t already.

The good news is that all daffodils, regardless of type, can be treated pretty much the same way in the garden. Daffodils benefit from a fairly rich, well-drained soil, and prefer full sun. (A few hours of dappled shade is OK, as are places that are in full sun early in the season, but become partially shaded as the tree canopy fills in) Bulbs are purchased and planted in the fall for spring bloom. One caveat when buying: Make sure you purchase top grade bulbs. Daffodils and many other bulbs are graded according to size and quality. Bigger, firmer bulbs mean better flowers; smallish, soft-ish bulbs may fail entirely, so avoid any of dubious quality, even if less expensive. Planting depth and spacing will vary according to the specific variety, but in general, all daffodils appreciate a handful of super-phosphate and a bit of 10-10-10 at the time of planting.

Buy as many bulbs as you can afford, both in terms of money and space; it’s amazing how fast a few hundred bulbs can disappear into a large landscape with a hardly a notice. And don’t succumb to the common temptation of ignoring the spacing directions when you plant, clumping as many bulbs as you can fit into a single hole. Although your first year planting will be full, successive years will see a diminution in both flower quality and size. Daffodils multiply by division, producing small side bulblets each year that will rapidly overcrowd an improperly spaced planting. Also make sure, under no circumstances, to remove the foliage after flowering until it has completely browned and died back. Premature removal of the leaves will deny the bulb the energy it needs to form a flower bud for next season. If the rather ratty nature of the foliage begins to annoy you, simply tie the leaves up into a less conspicuous knot, and remove when brown. Or better yet, do what I do: plant your daffodils underneath large perennials like hosta that emerge after the daffodils bloom. The hosta, with their large umbrella-like leaves, hide the decaying foliage in a perfectly sequenced horticultural ballet, saving you all the effort of removing those daffodil remains yourself.

So this year, plan ahead: now as each new daffodil begins to sway to the joyous beat of spring, grab your pad and pencil, and start noting down varieties and planting combinations that please you. Because sooner than you think it will be fall, and time to plant these wonderful harbingers of the new season in your garden.