Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Garden of Miniatures

Gardens of different types seem to be multiplying around here. There’s a veggie garden, a flower garden. a salad garden, a tea garden, a herb garden, a small orchard and numerous perennial gardens. How to keep track of them all?!
A cypress and stonecrop sedum.
When the house was built fourteen years ago, rocks unearthed as the basement was dug were lined up to form a stone wall. A bulldozer was used for this project. I never liked the bulldozed wall. A respectable-looking stone wall is not made by a bulldozer, it didn’t look natural, nor did it seem like it belonged here. So, finally, I collapsed it, prying boulders loose with a pry bar, and letting them tumble down the hillside. Smaller, movable stones were rolled over to a boundary line where I’ve started to build a dry-laid, hand-stacked stone wall.
The new rock garden- the torso is the upright stone.
What now remains of the bulldozed wall is a natural looking grouping of a few rocks nestled into the ground at varying heights. One of the rocks was entirely different from the others. It is a "ringing" rock (click here to find ringing rocks in Wikipedia). This type of rock is common here, amongst many other types. I first noticed the ringing effect while tossing rocks into piles for stone wall building. They land with a distinct ringing sound, unlike others that hit the pile with a dull thud. The Wikipedia article suggests tapping the handle of a ceramic coffee cup to hear a similar sound. Other characteristics are that they seem heavier, or denser than most other rocks, and they are a dark grey color that becomes black when the stone is wet.

The ringing rock is a long, oblong-like shape. I wanted to set it upright, partly burying it to keep it in place. This project took a week of daily shifting the rock a few inches at a time with a pry bar, being that it was way too heavy to move all at once. One final determined pry made it stand upright in the hole I’d dug. The shape of this rock seems to resemble an ancient carved stone torso that has lost its head and arms over the years. In the rain it turns black, standing out dramatically from its surroundings.

With the rocks in their new places, my next thought was to find plants to grow between them and around the "torso", but I didn’t want the plants to obscure the stones. After all of my hard work, I felt the rocks should be dominant objects in the garden. This led me to think of miniature plants. I’d never grown miniature plants. It took a little research to find what I needed. A helpful resource was a listing of plants (with photos) found here.
Mini Hostas from NH Hosta.
The miniatures garden, so far, is a small collection of plants. They are all experimental since it usually takes some time to find what grows well in a new area. Among other types, my research to find small plants brought up a variety of mini hostas. I love hostas. They are perfect for this partly shaded area, and the mini ones have a charm that I cannot resist. Today I received an order of mini’s from NH Hostas, a nursery that offers a fabulous variety of this plant. They are sweet! -jmm

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Tea Garden

What a pleasure it is, all through the growing season, to go outdoors and gather a leaf of this and a flower of that to brew into a steaming cup of herbal tea. Through winter, it’s nice to have a stash of the same herbs dried and ready to steep.

Because I had been gathering tea parts from multiple places, eventually I thought to move the herbs all into one place. After preparing a new area with dirt and compost, and lining the edges with rocks, I gathered the plants and tucked them in.
Too early to be flowering, this rose has blue-green leaves.
Already at the back of the tea garden was an Alba Alba, an antique rose that in flower is wonderfully aromatic. It’s long arching canes bow gracefully over the tea plants. It’s not out of place since its petals and hips often end up in cups of tea.

It has occurred to me that the tea garden follows some of the concepts of permaculture. One of them is that it is not monocultural. Plants that are suitable for tea may include a wide variety of types. Another idea is that of incorporating plants of varying heights, all the way from ground hugging mint to a nearby tall maple tree. And finally, the plants are types that, in flower, attract bees and other beneficial insects. Every yard needs a tea garden!

Here are some of the plants in the tea garden.

Peppermint, Mentha x piperita. Central to the garden, mint has a place in every cup of tea. It is allowed to spread through and around the other plants. A sprawling plant, its stems grow roots where they touch dirt.

German chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla. Has feathery leaves. Use the button-like flowers, which have a subtle apple-like scent, for tea.

Catnip, Nepeta cataria. Easy to grow and its bushy habit, that becomes more sprawling than bushy after the neighborhood cat finds it, results in a plentiful supply of leaves.

Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis. A lemony scented leafy plant that grows like a bushy shrub about two feet tall. Looks similar to catnip, but has slightly shiny leaves.

Bee Balm, Monarda didyma. Use both the leaves and the flowers for tea. 

Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. Looks similar to both catnip and lemon balm, but grows taller than either. You can tell the difference by its spinier leaves. Wear gloves when picking it.

Anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum. Has a flavor similar to licorice or anise. Grows about three feet tall, like a leafy shrub.

Red clover, trifolium pratense. Use the blossoms.

Wild strawberry, Fragaria vesca. Use the leaves.

Catnip, lemon balm, stinging nettle, bee balm and anise hyssop are of the mint family, characterized by square stems, leaves growing on opposite sides of the stems, and flower heads consisting of multitudes of tiny flowers. All of these have similar leaves and growth habits. Volatile oils in their leaves and stems are the source of their aromas and flavors.

Some of these plants have medicinal uses, and you should do a little research to find out what they are. Be careful to NOT use just any plant for tea. Pennyroyal, for instance, is a herb with a strong mint-like scent but comes with warnings of severe health problems, and even death if ingested, and the oil of this plant can be deadly even if used externally. If in doubt about a plant, google it!

To brew a cup of tea pour boiling hot water over the picked leaves or flowers. You can crumple them first to help release the oils if you like. Experiment with mixtures of plant types and with quantities. Allow to steep for about five minutes, then remove the herbs and enjoy your tea. -jmm

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Pruning the Hemlock

The Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), is a tree that can grow as tall as a hundred feet, but some of them seem to prefer shorter heights of about thirty or forty feet. They’re great shade trees, with thick evergreen foliage on long, horizontal limbs. This makes them ideal for windbreaks, or for privacy from the neighbors. Allow lots of space if you plan on planting one.
Before pruning the Hemlock looks a bit raggedy.
I’ve seen this tree offered as a hedge plant in gardening catalogs. Descriptions say they take well to pruning and that they can be kept at the size of a shrub. There are plenty of hemlocks here, and, conveniently, one had gotten started at the edge of the woods. So I thought it'd be fun to give this a try.

I took a loppers and trimmed the top off, then shaped it evenly all the way to the ground. I stood back to have a look. The poor thing looked awfully skimpy. Branches were nearly bare, and the trunk was glaringly obvious.

But the shrub soon filled in. Branches thickened up with many little twigs holding dense foliage. It was looking very different from the day it got a haircut. The little tree had come to look just like a pruned shrub, quite a metamorphosis.
The hemlock looks shapelier now.
That was some years ago. I’ve been pruning it every year since. With each shearing the hemlock responds with vigorous growth, quickly becoming thick and lush.

In case you might be thinking of using a hemlock tree as a shrub, keep in mind that without an annual haircut it could soon grow tall and become the tree that it really is. As a pruned shrub, it can’t be beat. Inspired, I went through the woods with the loppers and started shaping a few more young hemlocks. Yard art for the woods...? -jmm

Monday, May 5, 2014

Planting the Keyhole Salad Garden

Several years ago we arranged dirt into a “U” shaped formation called a keyhole. See the post here. This garden has functioned beautifully in that the ingredients for a salad can all be picked from one area. Before the keyhole it took a lot of walking to gather everything. Now we can pick along one side of the pathway, turn at the end, and then pick along the other side.

Almost as soon as the snow melted this spring, we’ve been using perennial onions, chives, sorrel, upland cress, lovage and garlic chives. These are perennials that appear every year. This year some mache showed up. It was not planted, but somehow seeds must have drifted over from a nearby cold frame.
The keyhole garden has perennial onions, lovage, many clumps of chives, other perennials, and now rows of seeds.
Even with all of the perennials, there is still plenty of room for some annuals. This past weekend I seeded rows of greens. Two of the rows will have red and green varieties of butterhead, romaine and leaf lettuces. Another row will consist of three types of arugula. The Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog is offering wasabi arugula which we considered a must-try for something new this year. Can’t wait to taste it. A row of mixed greens will include mizuna, escarole, minutina and tatsoi.

I added some cilantro and radish seeds between the chives, and seeded more garlic chives at the end of the row. Nasturtium seeds will be stuck in along the edges when the weather gets a bit warmer.

We are looking forward to many eclectic salads! -G.H.