Archive for June 28, 2011

Revisiting Your Old Home

My family home as it was in the past.

I’m originally from the west coast, but my family moved to the Washington, D.C. suburbs in 1969. Since then I have lived in 8 homes in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s true, I always heard you should never go back to see your old house, yet I am drawn to my childhood home every once in while.

I just went by the house my family first moved to in Alexandria. My parents lived there for 25 years, before retiring from the area. It was always tended with the utmost care when my family lived there, and the yard was filled with special plants and trees commemorating certain events. There were two apple trees we planted when our great aunts visited from California, my mother’s favorite little peach tree in the front side garden, a pretty row of ilex and azalea bushes grew in front of the front porch, a weeping cherry tree we planted to mark our family pet cemetery area. It was kind of a living tribute to our family’s history.

It’s now been 17 years since they moved, and the yard is an overgrown jumble of vines, weeds and untrimmed bushes. I guess I’ll never learn not to go back, but when I do next time, maybe I will put a picture in their mailbox of what the house used to look like all those years ago. Who knows, maybe they will take heart and bring it back to its once beautiful appearance. At least that’s what I’ll hope, and in my mind’s eye it will always look like it did back then.

Adding Color to Your Garden

With so many choices and styles out there it is hard to know where to begin. I would suggest considering the following things to help with your choice. The color of your house and trim, style of architecture, your favorite colors, whether you want annuals, perennials, or flowering shrubs, and the longevity of your various choices.

If you have a colonial style house you can go with a more formal and symmetrical choice; Arts and Crafts Style a more cottagey, random mix would complement; Contemporary would be blocks of color, simple in design; Tudor style a more full blown English garden, etc. Using clues from your style of architecture will greatly enhance your home’s curb appeal.

A contrasting garden with yellow and purple accents.

As far as color is concerned, aside from the obvious choice of choosing a color that is nice with your exterior field and trim house colors, make sure to pick colors that you love, after all it will welcome you home each time you return. It’s amazing¬† how¬† different your house can look with monochromatic, complementary or contrasting color schemes. I like to play with my color schemes, and alternate these from year to year for a change.

This year in my front garden I have a monochromatic scheme with all pink annuals. I like to use annuals in front so that I can easily change schemes from season to season. You can provide accents by using several types of flowers in the same color, also providing texture as well, or varying shades of the same color which can provide depth. In my back garden it is all about contrasting colors — yellows, purples, oranges come and go with perennials blooming throughout the spring, summer and fall.

A mix of foliage creates a backdrop with texture.

I like to treat the greenery with the same approach, and layer in various shades of green, textures, variegated leaves, heights, etc. It helps to show off the beauty of each when you highlight the differences between them and, it creates a lot of interest to the background.

My last tip for today is to add a little bit of yellow to every garden. Yellow makes every color look brighter. Even if it is just the yellow eye of a daisy, just a touch is all it takes. I learned that tip long ago from a fellow shopper at a garden center, and consider it one of the best tips ever; it makes a huge difference.

Bringing the outdoors in – Fresh and Dried Arrangements

Using a single type of flower in mass makes a timeless arrangement

As some of you may know, I was the sole proprietor of a floral crafts business. It was during the heyday of English & French Country design, and everything revolved around bountiful floral creations. Although today the trend is more towards the tropical end of the spectrum, my heart still lies with the roses, boxwood, and other botanicals which I am so fond of working with. As the summer moves forward, many flowers in the garden are getting to the perfect stage to be dried, and I would like to share a few insider tips.

Here are some ways to dry flowers without having them end up looking dried. Many think it’s difficult to achieve, but it’s actually quite easy. One of the best ways is simply to lay them flat on an old screen in a single layer. Another way is to hang them in a small bundle. Both ways should be in a room with good air circulation (sometimes using an oscillating fan helps), and keeping them out of direct sun.

Small bundles of roses hang to dry in my workshop.

Most require only a couple of weeks to fully dry. Some of my favorites for drying are roses, hydrangea, amaranths, safflower, larkspur, yarrow, cockscomb, and liatris. There are many that dry exceptionally well and retain their colors for a long time. Botanicals that dry well include boxwood, lamb’s ears, artemesia, lemon leaves, branches like curly willow, eucalyptus and of course moss of all kinds.

Another method of preserving is with glycerine. This requires submersing the botanical in a tub of glycerine and water, and can be a bit messy, but the end result is a very pliable stem. This can also leave a shiny layer on the foliage, so it’s best used on branches, like eucalyptus or boxwood, not flowers.

A current, and highly popular style of arranging is using a single type of fresh or dried flower in large masses, it really plays up the beauty of the specific type of flower used, giving it importance.

Gerbera Daisy stems are supported by Apples in this arrangement.

It is a style of arrangement anyone from beginner to expert florist can create and be proud of, and is the most requested design of florists nationally these days. Also a popular trend is filling the vase with fruit or nuts, or wrapping the stems with a large leaf. This can also serve to hold the stems of the flowers or branches in place.

I hope I have given a second chance to some beautiful flowers by way of drying and enjoying them inside in the months ahead. In my house I love having reminders of how my garden bloomed, and just bringing the outdoors in to enjoy again and again.

My Favorite Tools

I must admit, I love gadgets, but my favorite tools are all simple. They don’t require plugging in, or filling with gas. They are all hand tools.

Favorite hand tools - round shovel, spading fork, long shovel, scalloped edger, steel rake, pick.

I love my shark shovel, round-nosed and sharp; it will cut through the soil easily. My scalloped edger, also great, makes a perfect trench around the garden, not too deep, and with a perfect edge. Of course, the pick and spading fork for starting a garden. A long nosed shovel for transplanting, and a steel rake for scratching up the mulch. At the end of the day, I just hose them clean and let them dry in the sun. They will last a long time. None of mine were expensive, and all are more than a decade old (some three decades), but they are the workhorses in my garden.

I am not too fond of electric hedge trimmers, and I’m always sad when I see a mangled bush or hedge after it has been torn up by one. They rip the leaves in half, leaving a browned mess of a plant behind. I prefer to clip with bypass pruners. They leave a clean cut and can actually improve the health of a plant, instead of leaving it prone to disease, like a hedge trimmer or anvil-style shear can do. I am also not a big fan of blowers. It is like putting your yard through a hurricane. They are fine for walkways, but please don’t use them around garden edges or in the garden beds around bushes, where they can cause more harm than good.

I wouldn’t last too long without work gloves, or a foam kneeling pad. The gloves can save you from lots of blisters and pain, not to mention close brushes with poison ivy, and the kneeling pad from lots of joint pain, and even muddy clothes.

So there you have it – my favorite tools. Which are your favorites?

Friends in the Garden – Past and Present

For me gardening is a time to connect with nature, not just the plants I tend, but spending time with family and my furry and winged friends, both past and present.

This year we have 12 nests (that I know of), in the trees, vines and bushes in the yard. We have already had more than one round of hatchlings in several of them. Whenever we sit on our deck we can hear the baby birds squawking for more worms. I try to keep the bird baths full of fresh water, especially in the heat that we have had. Robins, finches and doves mostly, and they seem to come back to the same spots year after year.


I also have a feral cat “Stomper”, who took up residence in the yard a couple of years ago. I share my potting bench with him, it doubles as his house, and he has a heated bed in there in the winter. When I am gardening, he is usually sitting just a few feet away watching. He is quite shy, and still won’t let me pet him, but will come close to kiss my hand occasionally. I hope that I will eventually earn his trust, after all, I do grow some pretty awesome catnip!


But, the ones I miss most in the garden are my wonderful collie, Buddy, whose birthday falls this week, and who loved nothing more than sitting under the trees keeping a watchful eye on his family.

Also, my beautiful kitties, Mischief and Stinky, who loved to birdwatch from the roof of the garden shed my father built for me. There are so many memories to reflect on when out in the garden, another reason I treasure my time there.

Mischief (on top) and Stinky

Soon the butterflies will take over in the side garden looking for nectar in the buddleia bushes, and at night the first fireflies have already appeared, both of which remind me of my grandfather. Who is in your garden?

When Spring becomes Summer

Here in the Northern Virginia area we moved from Spring into Summer with a vengeance this year. It went from wet and mild, to dry and hot! More than 100 degrees today, and last week as well.

That means it is time to clean up the remains of Spring — deadheading iris, azaleas, rhododendron, clearing out old bulb foliage which is now brown, and I like to clean up the lilly foliage as well before it starts to bloom.

When the temperature goes back down a little, I will also start some pruning. The boxwoods have growing quite huge this year. Each spring I prune about 1/4 of the branches out. This keeps a beautiful shape, and encourages lots of growth throughout the plant. The same with the azaleas and the hollies. The rhododendrons are a little different. I break off the flower when it’s done, and trim back the new growth as needed. They shed their inner leaves, as well as the euonymus and pyracantha, so now that that has happened, it is best to remove all the fallen debris.

Shell mulch discourages squirrels from digging in pots.

I also like to scratch up the mulch a bit so that it does not become too hard. This helps water to percolate through, as well as help to hold it in. I also follow that up with another application of weed preventer (every 3 months). While I’m on the mulch subject I want to share a tip: If you have trouble with squirrels digging in your pots, like I do, fill them in with shells. I have been doing this for years. They are too heavy for the squirrels to scratch out, so they leave them alone. It also looks beautiful and is a great mulch!

Another tip I have on days like this one is to use a market umbrella in a sturdy stand that you can move around to wherever you are working. I’ve even been known to set up the sprinkler to keep cool while weeding, and of course, don’t forget the lemonade!

Despite our best efforts…

Sometimes things beyond our control can mess up even the best made plans. I have had a string of “disasters” myself.

Tornado damage- tree torn in half.

Over the last few years my yard has been attacked by a small tornado, several rounds of utility digs (one in which they dug 13 grave-sized pits), a cherry tree being killed by the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine, and most recently, my once beautiful purple-leaf maple succumbing to a three-foot gash on the trunk.

The maple tree in better days.

When the cherry tree died, I sent a branch to our local Horticulture Extension Service and the lab technician said something to me that is very worthy of sharing. She said, “Try not to think of the tree dying as a failure, but rather as an opportunity to try something new.” So when I look out at my yard today and see the corkscrew willow that replaced the cherry, I think how right she was. It is so tall and beautiful now, and so I will tell myself that, as the maple tree comes down, there will be a beautiful group of crepe myrtle trees to hold its place.

The Purple Maple today.

I guess after so many years of nurturing the trees along, they really do become my garden friends, or so I think of them that way. So, I leave you with the thought of trying something new, where you might never have thought you would, if circumstances had not changed. Sometimes a fresh change can give you a whole new perspective.

Stay tuned….

Herb Gardens

A couple of decades ago I was so inspired while looking at a cookbook that I set out to create my own herb garden. I lived in a tiny 200 year old house where space was at a premium. It didn’t hold me back, though. I started my herb garden in pots on a baker’s rack, next to my kitchen door. I tried many new herbs in different ways. I was hooked! Herbs quickly became my favorite thing to grow.

Whenever possible, use brick for paths. They radiate heat back into the planting areas.

Through the years, at each new house, I have always planted an herb garden. Here in the Northern Virginia area we are known to have awful soil and intensely hot summers, usually accompanied by a drought. Herbs love this, so many are very well-suited to our region.


Of all my gardens – ever – without a doubt my favorite was my herb garden at my last house. I was lucky to have extra bricks left over from when the house was built, and a sloping, west-facing area, not very suitable to growing much of anything but herbs. Laying out the design, I made sure to leave plenty of walk paths, so that each section could be accessed easily. The overall size was about 25′ x 20′, and it had 8 planting beds. After preparing all the soil, I planted at least 20 varieties of herbs and kept two beds for starting perennials and vegetables.

Although many of the veggies were eaten by wildlife, they usually left the herbs alone. It was a fantastic place to be. The scent of the herbs on a hot afternoon after a rain was intoxicating. It was also one of the most beautiful areas in the entire yard. Always one that drew notice, as well as being totally practical!

My Williamsburg Style Herb Garden

There are many perennial herbs that provide the basis for my garden – oregano, chives, sage, rosemary, lemon balm, and mint are a few, and I always plant basil, cilantro and catnip each year. Which herbs will you have in your garden?


A Welcoming Entrance – Indoors and Out

A gracious welcome to your house and garden is always appreciated. It sets the mood for all who enter. I like to think of my front entrance plants and flowers like “house jewelry”. It’s important to me to mark the seasons with fresh plantings of flowers and greenery — not just at Christmas and summer, but year round. Even though it’s sometimes hard to part with a flower or a pumpkin that is still O.K., I like to give each season its due with a clean slate. It creates a focal point to the front yard, and the front entrance area is most worthy of your care and attention as far as curb appeal is concerned.

Seasonal color is always welcoming

The front entrance isn’t the only place in the yard worthy of this treatment. Look at other views from windows and doors to see what you would like to highlight.

I like to frame a view of my hammock in the backyard by looking through a wisteria-draped arbor. It gives me peace every time I look out, even if I don’t have time to go out and enjoy at that time. A sort of momentary vacation.

Framing a view

Framing a view is a great way of giving greater importance to an object of art, or other feature you would like to be noticed. Another way is by funneling your attention between two taller plants or trees. Even narrowing a pathway, then widening it again, can visually create a new entrance. There are many ways to draw your eyes into a destination. Using graduating color is another way to discretely frame an object. The eye is always drawn to the boldest color first.

With so many beautiful “jewels” out there I hope you find just the right ones to make your entrance sparkle!

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