Saturday, December 24, 2016

Wishing You a Merry Christmas!

It's been a busy and taxing last couple of months, and I am so very thankful for a week of relaxing and spending time with family and loved ones.  I hope the same for you all this holiday season!

I wish you all blessed and peaceful holidays, safe travels, and a happy New Year!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Look Back at October

The month of carnival of all the year,
When Nature lets the wild earth go its way
And spend whole seasons on a single day.

~Helen Fiske Hunt Jackson, "October"

October is an unexpected and unpredictable month to me.  The cold, frosty nights are expected -  though not necessarily the good several degrees below freezing that the temperatures always seem to dip.  Like usual, we play the October Games, where we try to see if we can get through the month without turning on the heaters.  (We finally lost when outside temps hit 26°F/-3°C.)  And, like usual, we know that first frost is coming but are still somehow always startled when it does happen.

However it is not the cold snaps but the pleasantly warm days in between that really throws me off.  After such low temperatures, I never expect to be able to work out in the garden in shorts and short sleeves or to see the bumblebees out and foraging just shortly thereafter.  But those unexpected warm spells are appreciated.

bee on 'Miss Molly' Butterfly bush
In October, the veggie garden winds down.  With the bad drought we've had, it's been an underwhelming season.  I harvest the last of the green beans and pick the baby turnips, and the greenhouse gives me the ending tomatoes and (finally ripe!) spicy hot peppers.  The veggie garden beds are prepared for next spring, and garlic is planted - hopefully to do better this next year.  But the main event that I look forward to every October happens right outside the veggie garden: the blooming of my Willowleaf Sunflower.

I was rather worried that, like many other plants this year, it wouldn't do as well due to the drought.  However, this is one tough prairie plant, and this year it was bigger and better than ever.   No other plant in my garden gives quite this riotous level of October blooms.

In the flower beds, the striking Beautyberry also makes its presence known as other plants fade.  It's hard to not love a shrub with such an unusual color of berries!

I normally also look forward to the blooming of the Montauk daisies, but this year my plants were nibbled down to nubs by either the deer, Peter Cottontail, or naughty Norman the groundhog.   Thankfully they left the Asters and the lovely 'Sheffield' Mums.

'Sheffield' Mums
Many of the annuals and other flowers start dying off in October, so I always appreciate the few that soldier on through the cold.

'The Fairy' Rose
I can hardly believe it is already November.  It's time to put the garden to bed and time to get all those bulbs that carry the promise of spring into the ground.

frosted Sedum blooms

Winter is coming...

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Azure Blue Sage

Alongside my driveway is my 'blue and gold' garden, which is one of my favorite flower color combinations.  While there is a plethora of different types of yellow flowers, blue flowers are more rare, especially in perennial plants, and can be a little hard to find sometimes.  A couple of years ago I saw a plant at a nursery that had flowers the prettiest shade of blue I'd ever seen, and it just had to go home with me for my blue and gold garden.

Azure Blue Sage
Salvia azurea, known as Azure Blue Sage or Prairie Sage, is a perennial native to central and southeastern United States.  It flowers over quite a long period, blooming for me from the end of August through the beginning of October.  In warmer climates it can start blooming in June or July.  It is one of the taller sages, growing 2 to 5 feet or taller, and making a clump about 2 to 3 feet wide.  It has a very airy and delicate appearance, with the spikes of clear blue flowers hovering above other plants.

Azure Blue Sage mingling with my other plants on the right
Even the leaves are fairly delicate and thin.  This is one plant that is pretty easy to squeeze into the garden among other plants.  Indeed Azure Blue Sage is actually better with neighboring plants to support it, as it tends to flop unless it is pinched back in late spring or early summer (which of course I never get to.)

leaves of Azure Blue Sage
Azure Blue Sage is a true prairie plant; it likes full sun and is extremely hardy and drought tolerant.  Its branching roots can reach eight feet deep during times of drought in search of water.   It is hardy in zones 5 to 9 and is tolerant of heat and humidity.  It does like well-draining soil, however, or else the roots can be subject to root rot.  Like other sages, Azure Blue Sage is deer and bunny resistant.  Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees love it, however, and my plants are usually buzzing with bumblebees.

There are some slightly different varieties of Azure Blue Sage.  Salvia azurea var. azurea grows mainly in the southeast, while the better-known Salvia azurea var. grandiflora has a larger native range, also growing in central US.  They look very similar, but grandiflora has larger flowers and is usually the one grown in the home garden (and the one I probably have).  Var. grandiflora is often also called Pitcher Sage in honor of Dr. Zina Pitcher, a 19th century army field surgeon and amateur botanist.  (This plant used to be known as Salvia pitcheri and is sometimes still sold as such or as Salvia azurea ssp. pitcheri, just to make things more confusing.)  There are also a couple of named strains of Azure Blue Sage: 'Nekan' is a seed strain of grandiflora found in Nebraska that is supposed to be more upright and robust with even larger flowers, and 'September Snow' is a rare white flowering form.

Though in the mint family, Azure Blue Sage is not very aggressive, though it will politely reseed itself somewhat in the garden.  The new plants bloom the first year, so it can even be grown as an annual in places where it is not hardy.   Other than its flopping habit, it's been a great plant for me.   I never take care of it, but it slowly spreads, the critters don't bother it, pollinators love it, and every fall I am treated to those amazing blue flowers.

What more could you ask for?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

In the Cottage Gardening State of Mind

Cottage gardening is an attitude, not a location.

When I read that sentiment about cottage gardening, I immediately identified with it.  As a busy mom, I tend to just plant the things I love and enjoy and then let the garden do its own thing.

Some describe a cottage garden as artful chaos, another sentiment I like. Chaos I have definitely nailed. Artful?  Well, as they say, art is in the eye of the beholder.  I try to at least keep colors somewhat harmonious.  (Matching colors is an art thing, right?)

'Spanish Eyes' Black-eyed Susan Vine growing on veggie garden fence
For some reason, when I call what I do 'cottage gardening', I feel a little less guilty about my lack of weeding this hot and droughty summer.  Weeds or no weeds, the bees and butterflies still come, which makes me happy.

Monarch butterfly on 'Miss Molly' butterfly bush
My goal is to have all of the garden plants fill in so fully that there isn't any room for the weeds to grow, another inclination right in line with the philosophy of cottage gardening.  (Though I have to admit that in certain areas the dense planting is going a little too well, and I have to keep pruning the cosmos so that visitors can reach the front door.  Cottage gardening bonus: I don't get any door-to-door salesmen!)

the plant gauntlet
There is definitely more weeding and pruning and editing to be done in the garden, which I am starting to do now that the weather has turned cooler.  But more than anything, I'm just enjoying the garden...

...which I think is definitely in line with the cottage gardening state of mind.

bumblebee on native Azure Blue Sage
Happy gardening!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Quest for the Best Tasting Tomato

"You have to grow Black Krims," a relative advised me.  "They are the best tasting tomatoes by far!"  Others disagreed, claiming that the award-winning Brandywines deserved the honor of top tomato.

Black Krim heirloom tomatoes
Both Black Krim and the Brandywines (of which there are several strains) are notable heirloom tomatoes, and both have won many accolades, but which was the best?  This summer I was on a quest to grow these tomatoes that I had heard so much about - and determine once and for all which was truly the top tasting tomato.

So which one won?

Which tomato was the best tasting, 
the cream of the crop, 
the king of the garden, 
all that and a bag of chips?

I don't know.

The *$&^! chipmunks ate every single one of the Brandywines.

Yes, you.
I managed to save some Black Krims and other types of tomatoes that I had in the greenhouse by putting up a screen door to keep the chipmunks out, but every. single. tomato that grew outside in the vegetable garden was a goner, which included every Brandywine I had.

half-eaten tomato
Likely thanks to the drought, the chipmunks went wild in the garden this year, even gobbling up all of my kids' favorite ground cherries while they were still green. (Aren't ground cherries supposed to be somewhat toxic until totally ripe?)  I tried putting pepper spray on the tomatoes and ground cherries, but either I couldn't keep up or my chipmunks have developed a liking for spicy food.

a chipmunk in what he thinks is his own personal ground cherry patch
I did eat some of the treasured Black Krims, and yes, they were amazingly delicious.  But can I say they are the absolute best tomato of all?

It looks like I will be on the quest yet again next summer to determine the answer to that question.

And here I thought squirrels were the worst.

Anyone else have a favorite type of tomato?
And maybe a really great recipe for chipmunk repellant?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Straggling in to the End of Summer

Here in Massachusetts we've been having a drought, so we were all so thankful to finally get some rain yesterday.

Hibiscus 'Cranberry Crush'
It's been so hot this summer that I've had trouble going out to the garden to weed.  (How did I use to garden down south in North Carolina?)  My garden is looking rather neglected.

Every summer I wonder why it is that the weeds thrive on heat and drought, while the plants we want throw up their hands and cry uncle.  Thankfully many of my plants are pretty drought tolerant - or at least the ones that aren't drought tolerant have died already so I don't notice them anymore.  (Sometimes it pays to have a short memory.)

Thank goodness for Purple Coneflowers and Cosmos!
The veggie garden has been a struggle this year.  The plants are doing fine, but I am not reaping the fruits of my labors.

half-eaten green tomato
The chipmunks, on the other hand, obviously feel like they are at an all-you-can-eat garden buffet.  They've eaten almost every tomato and ground cherry the garden has produced.

I no longer think chipmunks are cute.

At least the chipmunks don't like onions!
The snakes that used to live out behind our neighbor's house must have moved away as we've seen so many critters move in this summer in addition to the normal band of roving deer.  One rascally groundhog, a small horde of chipmunks, and two bunnies have settled in this year.  (I'm expecting around 100 little bunnies next year.)

But I've spotted a few beauties around the garden, too.

Clearwing Moth and Lantana
I always welcome the pollinators to the garden.

bee on Liatris
It is interesting how different years see rises in different populations of butterflies.  While I haven't seen a lot of butterflies in general this year, there have been a number of Swallowtail butterflies, especially Spicebush Swallowtails, which I am delighted by.

In other news, this past weekend marked five years since I started the Red House Garden blog.  I can't believe it's been five years already.

Happy gardening, everyone!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Naughty Norman

This is Norman, our local groundhog.

Norman and I have an agreement.
If he stays out of of the garden, he gets to enjoy an unlimited buffet of clover and other weeds. 

 And boy do I have clover and weeds aplenty for the discerning groundhog appetite!

Good Norman!

Uh, Norman, what are you doing?

Warning, warning! You are in a restricted zone!

Step away from the flower!

Yes, that flower.

Yes, I know it smells delicious.
But so does clover, right?

Uh, what are you doing? Resist the temptation!

Noooo!!  Bad Norman!

Yes, you!  I saw you!
You still have something hanging out of your mouth, for crying out loud.

I still know what you did.

Okay, our agreement now is officially off!

You are a very, very naughty groundhog!

Anyone else get the feeling that my groundhog is developing a little bit of an attitude problem?

He must be taking lessons from the squirrels.
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