Sunday, April 5, 2020

April Sunshine

Look at that golden foliage gleaming in the sunshine!

Greetings! Finally... some wonderfully warm, sunny days to enjoy outside. :-) It makes everything seem happier. I've been able to do a few things outside during the past week, and some days I've just been able to sit outside in the sunshine and soak it in. In these days of stressful news and economic shutdown, this makes everything seem... much better.

I realize that while sunshine makes people feel good, it results in photographs that aren't so good -- but that's what we have, so I apologize if the pictures in this post are a bit glare-y.

First, a few things I've gotten done:

BEFORE: My Rainbow Border a month ago still needed to be cut back and raked out.

AFTER: Cut back and raked out (with the massive amount of brush hauled off by wheelbarrow by my teenage son, who's really becoming useful around here...), the border is ready to soak up the sunshine. I still need to dig out some winter weeds, but clearing out the brush will hasten the emerging perennials, now that we've had some sunny days to warm the soil.

BEFORE: My East Patio garden area a month ago

AFTER: The same area after I dug out and moved several shrubs. A mock orange, a reblooming lilac (next to the two back posts in the previous photo) and a peony were no longer blooming much because the new pergola blocks too much of the sun for them. I have plans to make a tropical garden around this area, with tropical annuals and potted houseplants that I'll put here in May, so I needed to make room for the new plants. The shrubs have been moved to sunnier areas, where they'll be happier.

Greenhouse Woes:

And I have some sadly disappointing news: I finally decided that the greenhouse I got several years ago was just too utterly useless to go on as the eyesore it was. I had such high hopes for it when I ordered it and put it together back in 2017:

Here it was in all its hope-filled glory back in summer 2017.
I was so looking forward to using it the next spring.

Here it was only two months later, after a few windy days, with nearly every polycarbon panel blown out. The whole blasted thing probably would have blown away if I hadn't gotten our handyman to make a sturdy wooden base attached to our garage. And that wasn't even an unusually windy day. This happened repeatedly. I got seriously tired of looking for panels in the fields around our house. Grrr.
In the intervening two years, I tried everything to keep the panels in: extra clips (utterly useless); running packing tape around all sides; wrapping the whole thing in clear plastic and taping it in multiple places; riveting wood strips to the metal frame supports to physically hold the panels in place (which did work to some extent). But the panels themselves turned yellow in our intense sunshine, particularly on the ceiling, the sunniest exposure, and some of them broke in pieces last year. 

My husband and son finally undertook the sad work of putting it out of our misery.



I guess I didn't actually need a greenhouse, like most American gardeners don't need them -- they're quite rare here, even among serious gardeners. I was swayed into thinking I needed one by the British gardening culture, which makes extensive use of them to start seeds and grow things like tomatoes, which which England doesn't have enough sun and heat to grow outside.

But our climate makes them both utterly impractical (way too cold to heat in winter, way too hot to use in summer), and largely unnecessary (we can grow tomatoes outside here). As far as seed starting, a light fixture inside an already-heated house is far more practical and much cheaper too.

This florescent light fixture (on a timer) and heat mat in my sunroom work so much better to start seeds!

I suppose if I had masses of obscure seeds to start every year, I would need more than this, but many of the annuals I plant each year are those I just buy as starts at local greenhouses, which do a much better job of growing them on than I'd be able to. For unusual plants, I can start those myself here.

But it's still a disappointment that my greenhouse effort was such a dismal failure. Sigh....

But on a happier note, here's a few pictures of bulbs blooming in sunshine:

It sure is good to see these little guys about this time!

These hyacinths smell so good with the sunshine warming them, perfuming the whole area.
These white hyacinths in my Paradise Garden gleamed almost intolerably brightly in the sun, and were covered by bees.
These squill are always such a welcome sight.
This pussy willow (Salix) next to our LP tank is absolutely covered with bees in the sunshine -- it sounded like the inside of a hive when I walked past it this afternoon. Busy, busy....

Anyway, I hope you have been able to enjoy some sunny days in your own gardens this spring. It's more important than ever that we're able to get outside and enjoy our gardens in these stay-at-home times. I realize that I'm very lucky to be able to live out in the country amid such beautiful scenes -- and no problem social distancing here!

Hope you and your families are well, and that everything is soon back to normal, in whatever way we each need "normal" to be. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Late March hopes

A tiny crocus bloomed last week, open when the sun was shining -- which sadly hasn't happened again since then.

Greetings from the land of cloudy, cold days! After a few warm, sunny days earlier this month, the weather has been rainy, cold and/or windy (usually all three) nearly every day -- and the forecast for the next eight days looks no better. Worse still, it just now started snowing and we're predicted to get an inch and a half. :-(

A cold, overcast spring would get me down in any year, but in this month of social distancing, life would seem so much more cheery if it were sunny. Even if the temperature were unusually cold, some sunny days would make even just reading in my sunroom seem like a tropical vacation. But we gardeners know better than anyone that we don't get to choose our weather -- especially in springtime.

But we did have several sunny days earlier this month, and I was able to make the most of them: I have managed to get out a few times to start cutting back and raking out my garden beds. And I did even manage to get one small project done (see photos below). But because I am an avowed fair-weather gardener, all progress has since come to a halt and shows no promise of resuming any time soon. Maybe next weekend will be nicer....

A Project Completed:

The good news is that I did manage to get one small project done: fixing the edge of a border against my house. We built a library addition onto our house in 2011, and I made a border against the south wall of the addition. It's a great place for spring bulbs, south-facing with good drainage, so bulbs bloom earlier there than in many other parts of my gardens:

Here's a picture of the Addition Front Border a few years ago in April: the bulbs made a pretty good show there.

But the edging bricks that I laid back in 2012 had begun to sink down in one area to the left of the window, so grass was able to grow over the lowered bricks into the bed. For the past several years, I've had to dig out a lot of grass from this border every spring when I rake out the bed, and by autumn it's always grown back again. I finally decided to raise the level of the bricks.

Here's a photo of the area showing the extent to which the bricks had sunken down.
Grass invading! (And beautiful spring color.)

Last week, I decided to raise the edging bricks, but after I started to dig them out, I thought it might be even better to install a metal edging strip inside the brick edging as well, to more effectively keep the grass out. So I drove to our local improvement store and bought ten 8-foot steel edging strips, unloaded them at home, and installed everything.

This looks much better, and I hope it will keep the grass out. 

I installed the metal edging all the way along the edge of the lawn, against the bottom of the fence (inside of which is my Paradise Garden), and along the outside of the bricks outlining the end of my delphinium bed, which is part of my front border, shown at right. My delphinium bed was taken over by runner grass several years ago, so this will be a good improvement, I hope. 

I'll need to replace some of the soil that I repeatedly dug out from the Addition Front Border when I was removing the grass -- the soil level is now lower than it ought to be. But I'll be able to plant some more bulbs this fall, as well as other plants. Many of the old plants and bulbs were casualties of my war on grass over the past few years. With any luck, this area will now be easier to maintain and look better too.

It's good to get at least one project done before the rush of spring planting and other projects that always takes place in April.

I hope you have managed to spend some time outside in your own gardens, enjoying warm sunny days during this stressful time of self-isolating -- and, of course, that you and your families remain healthy. Best Regards, and thanks for reading! -Beth


Saturday, March 7, 2020

March is here!

Winter aconites (Eranthus hyemalis) are blooming -- the first flowers of the year!

Greetings! It's now finally March, which marks the beginning of meteorological spring (as opposed to astronomical spring, which begins March 21st or so -- it's on March 20th this year). But any sort of spring sounds good enough for Midwesterners after another winter.

Although I really can't complain -- this past winter has been pretty mild, as far as Iowa winters go.

We got two snows in October, which was unusually early and made me worry about the severity of the winter ahead. But the temperatures have not been nearly as cold as they often are: we got down to -7°F or so several times, but not much colder than that. (Compared to last year's particularly cold low of -27°F, this year has seemed like a balmy walk on a Florida beach!)

But now we're into March, which really does feel better -- especially since the snow is gone. Last weekend we enjoyed temps in the 50s and even up to around 60°F, and it was lovely to be able to walk around our garden areas again and look at things after the winter (and see all the work that should be done this month).

Here's a few shots of things in the first week of March:

We've been able to sit on the bench at right in the Paradise Garden already 2-3 times this winter on sunny warmer days, which has been very enjoyable. A few things need to be cut back and raked out before bulbs come up. And the paving stones at far left have settled down, so that soil from the bed next to the house keeps washing out over them when it rains. We'll need to re-lay that row of them so they're higher and slope away from the house, so that doesn't happen any more. But it won't be long until bulbs start coming up and it's time to plant a few cool-season annuals like pansies and snapdragons in this garden!

I never got around to pulling out all the dead annuals around our patio last fall, so that's pretty high on my list of things to do when we get a nice day. I also need to paint the posts of this new pergola we made two summers ago (they're treated lumber, so they needed to age a bit before painting them -- but they were damp during most of last year, which was exceptionally rainy, so I haven't gotten around to doing it yet). But I have plans for this area:

Another view of the same patio area. I'm planning to make a tropical garden around this area this year. I'll move the large mock orange shrub by the back left post (it no longer blooms, now that the pergola is shading it), as well as the reblooming lilac next to the back right post, and few other things too. Then I'll plant fast-growing tropical annuals as well as houseplants out for the summer around this area. It's hard to imagine a tropical garden here right now at the end of winter, but it will be fun to see how it works out by July and August, when we're experiencing tropical temperatures.

This is the sort of look that I'm aiming for around my patio:
foliage in shady areas, plus a few flowers in the sunnier areas.

Back to reality. My largest border (the border formerly known as the Rainbow Border, which I might just as well keep calling by that name) obviously needs to be cut back and raked out after winter. I've been working to improve the planting in this border for the past several years, and I'll continue to improve it this year.
The Rainbow Border looked better last year than it had before. Little by little....

I haven't posted since early November, but I've kept myself very busy over the winter finishing up my book, Iowa Gardens of the Past: Lost & Historic Gardens of Iowa, 1850-1980 ( and Facebook), which I hope to publish in early May. I can't be definite about the date, because I had it printed in China, and while it's done and has left the factory, the coronavirus has caused a snafu in the transpacific shipping schedules, and I have no idea if the 1,000 copies I ordered are on a ship yet or if they're still sitting in a container on the docks. Nothing to be done about it: Force Majeure and all that. They'll arrive when they arrive (before May, I hope...). And when they do arrive, I'll be pretty busy promoting and selling them for at least a couple of months.

On that note, if anyone is interested in receiving a free review copy, I'd love to send you one if you'll write a couple sentences about it on Just drop me a note in the comments.

But I'm also planning to make time to do a few small projects and improvements in my gardens this year too. I've never opened my garden to the public before, and I'm thinking that I might try to do so next year (not this year). I'll try to get things in order this year, and then spruce things up with new paint, etc. next spring. Because I live in a rural area about 15 minutes from town, I'll try to find 2-3 other gardens in my part of the county to open on the same day, and make it an "Open Gardens" event to draw more visitors from town.

I'll need to do an assessment of the areas in my gardens and make a few improvements, and then I'll feel good about opening it to the public for the first time. I know that gardeners open their gardens all the time (and in fact I encourage gardeners in town to share their gardens for our local Open Gardens Weekend, of which I'm the chair, so I have no excuse not to do this myself), but I'm still a bit nerve-racked when thinking about opening my own gardens. I guess I need to live a bit more dangerously....

Anyway, I hope that spring is arriving pleasantly for you in your own gardens, and that many warm, sunny days are just around the corner for you. Thanks for reading! -Beth

These daffodils are up and they show that things are starting.