peony3Things have been rough at work lately.  Test scores have plummetted, students are troubled, many teachers are talking mutiny or early retirement.  Morale is generally in the toilet.

On the drive home from work, I find that stopping for a large chocolate chip cookie and a Frappuchino from Starbucks is often just the pick-me-up I need to transition from work to home, where I will be greeted by a gregarious old yellow lab and a still-very-wiggly seven-year-old boy, both of whom will be requesting play and attention.  (The martini, slippers, and newspaper are nowhere in sight!)

Anyway, lately I have been indulging in another covert little ritual before I enter the house, which helps my cares float away almost as well as a cookie or a martini. 

Only this ritual isn’t fattening!

See what I do is, I pull into the driveway and get out of the car kind of quietly.  I don’t slam the car door too hard because if I announce my presence, dog and boy will likely come bounding out of the house to greet me, which is totally sweet and everything, but this particular little ritual requires solitude and quiet.  So here it is:

I grab my purse and keys, but instead of going in the house right away I tiptoe into the side yard where I have planted a little cloister of scented plants — peonies, roses, some scented geraniums.  Bordered on one side by a tall hedge of evergreens and on the other by our house, this little area is completely private — no neighbors or pedestrians can peer in.  And in the afternoon it is drenched in golden sunshine, so fragrances are at their peak. 

All it takes is a minute or two meandering down the walkway, bending down to smell the ‘Festiva Maxima’ peonies, drinking in the warm perfumy smell, to begin loosening that hard little knot of stress that I often bring home with me. I move on to the ‘Therese Bugnet’ rose, lighter, sweeter, and fruitier than the peony.  This particular specimen is kind of gangly, and the blooms themselves are nothing to write home about aesthetically, but the aroma has earned this rose a place in my garden. 

If I’ve had a really bad day I will also crouch down and breathe in the amazing spicy fragrance of Geranium ‘Biokovo’.  If an especially strong hit is needed I brush the leaves with my hand a little.  From a distance this geranium appears to  just sit there at the base of some shrubs, minding its own business, but it offers an incredible treat for the nose if you bother move in a bit closer.

Yup, a few moments alone in the sunshine sniffing flowers and I’m ready to face whatever awaits me indoors: dirty dishes, cluttered tabletops, games of Candyland, bring it on!

The older I get, the more I appreciate how things smell.  I know that sounds a little weird, but it’s true. 

My mother, age 78, no longer has a sense of smell.  Several years ago, she was out taking a walk and fell, hitting her head on the sidewalk.  The blow left her with a long scar over her eye and apparently scrambled some olfactory nerves.  She cannot smell the food she cooks for Sunday dinners, she cannot smell her favorite Bath and Bodyworks lotion, and she cannot smell flowers.  (On the positive side, she also cannot smell skunks, dog-doo, or burnt popcorn, so it’s not all bad.)

If you had to lose one of your senses, I suppose your sense of smell would be the least devastating, but still, it’s a loss.  And now that I have become a gardener, I think that missing out on fragrance would be a serious loss indeed.

This past weekend I visited a local farmers’ market with my husband and son.  The vendors set up their stalls in the large parking lot of a train station, so it’s not exactly the most bucolic setting.  But as we drove into the lot in my husband’s Mustang (top down) we were greeted by the most divine fragrance!  It just came pouring over us.  The source?  Mounds of honeysuckle at the edge of the woods that bordered the concrete lot.  The stuff was just smothering the poor trees, and I know it’s mega invasive, but Lord did it ever bring some joy to that sad old parking lot on a June morning.  Drinking it in, I remembered the vine that grew on our chain-link fence growing up.  I remember plucking the flowers, pulling the stamens out, sucking the nectar off the petals.  Is this a universal childhood memory?  Long live honeysuckle.

Another time that I was pleasantly assaulted by fragrance was on a long road trip to Canada a few years ago.  There were five of us crammed in the car for the eleven hour drive to Niagara Falls — including two teenagers and a cranky toddler.  The mood had been soured early by a speeding ticket I’d received on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (that whole highway is a trap!) and so tensions were high when we stopped somewhere in New York to switch drivers.  We’d pulled over onto a small gravel shoulder at an exit, and when I got out of the car I was bowled over by it.  Sweet heaven! Utter deliciousness in the air!  I looked up.  Towering over us was an expansive grove of black locust trees, the creamy blossoms exploding with scent.  What I remember thinking: I want to stay here.  I don’t want to get back in the car.

The longer I garden, the more I appreciate and plant for fragrance — even if, as with peonies and roses, it is short-lived.  Interesting smells –whether they are soothing, provocative, romantic, whatever — add that layer which elevates a garden from a mere place to an experience. 

Planning a garden to please the nose is harder than planning a garden to please eye.  Year-round color? No problem!  Year round fragrance?  Much harder.  Right now I have a big gap between my Sarcococca and my Fothergilla, and November-January is basically a dead zone smell-wise. 

Besides the ones I’ve mentioned, my smelly plant list includes: lavender, sweetbay magnolia, kolkwitzia, lindera (when you crush the leaves they smell like Pine Sol), Pink Dawn Viburnum, and various herbs and annuals in the summer.  I would love to hear any recommendations you all have for fragrant plants to assist me in the expansion of my aromatic paradise.

Capability Gray

I may not be installing giant lakes, building fake temples, or displacing villages full of peasants, but I have been improvin’ my landscape lately, indeed I have.

First, an update on the play structure thingee I started building in February.  To refresh your memory, here is what it looked like several weeks ago:


And here it is today.  Ta-da!


The bottom deck is 6×6, and the top deck is 6×7.5 — cantilivered out, to provide a little more room upstairs.  The ladder and railing turned out a little…well, crooked, but thanks to encouragement from my fellow blogger and garden philosopher Calvin Caley, I have learned to embrace the imperfections in my handy work and simply call it wabi-sabi rather than stress about it.  Calvin shared with me his outlook on outdoor building: “after all, you’re not building a grand piano.”  Thank you, Calvin.

I still want to paint it or stain it (you can see where I tested a color), and maybe add some fun little touches like a pulley or something.  So far Charlie’s favorite thing to do is go up onto the second level (the Ledo deck) and fling his shoes off of it.

Next, I painted the little portion of fence and the gate leading to my backyard.  Here is before:


and now:


Not bad.  The metal sun and moon I attached to the gate was a purchase from a vendor at this year’s Philly Flower show.  It was created from an old oil drum by Haitian craftsmen with a hammer and nail. Pretty cool!

I want to paint some words on my gate, too, around the sun.  I think I want to name my garden…something French.  At first I was worried that would be too pretentious, especially since I don’t know a word of French and have never been to France.  

But then I remembered, this is my garden, I can do what I want!  Hurrah!

Third, I built this little trellis in a part of the yard where my annoying neighbor has a clear view of us.  He stands on his porch and often calls over with some unwelcome question or comment, so I figure if I can get a vine to completely cover this, it will reduce our neighbor’s comments by up to 80%.  (Seriously, I’m not being an ass here, he is genuinely irritating and weirdly intrusive.)


I made it completely out of stuff I found in my shed (I’m so sustainable!) except for the paint.  I’m proud of my bold color choice, but I have to say that the metal fencing between the posts is not too attractive, is it?  I am hoping an aggressive clematis will cover it up in one or two seasons, otherwise I will have to think of something else.

Last, I have a new retaining wall!  Early readers of my blog may remember the post where I dreamed of a stone retaining wall to replace the rotting timbers that are there currently.  Well, finally Mary collected enough pennies to make it happen.  So no, this was not a DIY project…

My old, terrible wall:


And the new!


This wall is cinderblock, with stone facing.  I also looked into brick and those decorative concrete blocks by Techobloc and Belgard, but the wall I wound up with cost less than half of the estimates I got for using those materials.  Anyway, I am pleased with the color of the stone they used, because the rusty color matches the natural stones I find in my yard.  I wish a nice thick capstone had been in my budget, but c’est la vie.  (Oh look, I do know French!) 

And while I love my new wall, I am very demoralized when I look at how decimated the little garden behind it was left.  Where there were once cushions of Carex pensylvanica there is now packed red clay and gravel. 

I guess a Landscape Improver’s work is never done.

Garden Designers’ Roundtable: Memory and Plants

I’ll I’ll be honest.  I had a hard time figuring out how to approach this topic.  As I have mentioned before, I am New Dirt and not Old Dirt, meaning I do not come from a long line of gardeners, but rather picked up this obsession at age 36 with no influence from parents or grandparents.  Like Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, my conversion to a life of gardening was sudden and complete.  (Whether or not Constantine was pruning Euonymus at the time of his revelation, as I was, is not clear.)

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The Election 2012 Garden Mash Up

Finally, the candidates discuss the real issues.   And just in time for election day, too!

(Oh, I guess I should mention the candidates’ actual words are in white and my very slight modifications are in yellow.)

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Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Garden Travel/Best Gardens

This month’s theme at Garden Designers’ Round Table is Garden Travel/Best Gardens.   Below are links to all the Garden Bloggers who are participating this month, including Special Guest Blogger Fern Richardson, author of Small Space Container Gardens

So put that report aside (or whatever boring thing you’re doing at work) and take some time to cruise around and enjoy a virtual garden tour.  You know you want to!

Huntington Gardens - San Marino, California   (Fern Richardson – Life on the Balcony)

Ruth Bancroft Garden - Walnut Creek, California  (Susan Morrison – Blue Planet Garden Blog)

Garden Visits and Lessons  (Susan Cohan – Miss Rumphius’ Rules

Open Days/Hollister House - Connecticut  (Scott Hockunson – Blue Heron Landscapes)

Private Garden by Zaterre Landscape Architecture - Northern California  (Rebecca Sweet – Gossip in the Garden)

Private Garden - Clifton, UK   (The Hegarty-Webber Partnership)

Tour of Private Gardens – Phoenix, AZ   (David Cristiani – The Desert Edge)

Flora Grubb Nursery - San Francisco, CA  (Gen Schmidt – North Coast Gardening)

Next month’s theme will be “Our Home Gardens” and I’m proud to say that yours truly will be joining the Roundtable Team!

What Can Gardeners Learn from Grizzly Man?

“Human place in nature”  is a topic I’m semi-obsessed with right now, and though it seems sorta esoteric, I think the issue has huge implications for gardeners and designers.

Here’s what got me all stirred up this time.

I just finished showing the 2005 film Grizzly Man to my English classes as part of a unit on documentary film.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s the story of the life and death of Timothy Treadwell, a self-proclaimed “kind warrior” who lived with the Grizzly bears in Katmai, Alaska for 13 summers in order to study and protect them.

Grizzly Man Theatrical Release Poster

Although Treadwell had a genuine love for animals and appeared to have better relationships with the bears than with other humans, he was actually killed and eaten by a Grizzly in October 2003.

Treadwell’s violent and somewhat ironic death is part of what makes the film fascinating, as is the question of whether he was a courageous hero or a lunatic narcissist.  But as I was watching the film with my classes this week, I was more intrigued by something else. 

The director of the film, Werner Herzog, clearly felt that Treadwell was — if not a lunatic — at least a misguided idealist. Though he might have had some sympathy for Treadwell, Herzog did not share the “kind warrior’s” warm fuzzy feelings about the natural world.  In his narration of the film, Herzog makes some bone-chilling statements about nature — statements that are in direct opposition to Timothy Treadwell’s romantic view of wilderness.  After a segment of the film in which a male grizzly kills a cub, Herzog reflects:

“I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

When Treadwell looked into the eyes of a Grizzly, he saw a kindred spirit, a friend, a brother.  Herzog saw no such thing, just “the overwhelming indifference of nature.”

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Sunday Rube Goldberg Awesomeness

Poetry Wednesday: Kindness to Snails

While flipping through one of my favorite poetry collections — Good Poems, compiled by Garrison Keillor — I came across this lovely, sentimental little poem called “To a Five-Year-Old.”  If you are a parent, or an aunt or uncle, or a teacher, or if you have a mother, you’ll love it. And I couldn’t resist adding a picture of my own son, who happens to be five, and who I pray grows up with kindness.

To a Five Year Old

by Fleur Adcock

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.

 I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.


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