Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Strangely Warm November Ends Tonight

Hello again strangers! It's been more than two months (!) since I posted here. In fact, this whole summer and autumn I've been terrible, posting only a few times. I think it's because my gardens haven't looked very good for most of the summer, plus I've been trying to work seriously every day on a new writing project since July.

I'll probably take a little hiatus from blogging over the winter, although I might post a few shots of what's growing in my new sunroom from time to time. It's stuffed full of plants already, as you can see in the photo above, and I've only had the room since August (although I've been collecting houseplants and exotic patio plants for more than a year now.

Some big changes are planned for my gardens next spring, mostly downsizing some beds and eliminating others that are farther from my house or harder to take care of. I'll post about those changes when I start making them next spring.

But here are a few photos from the past few weeks in the better-looking areas of my gardens. We've been enjoying a strangely warm fall. We had a very light frost about a month ago which only killed our basil, and then didn't have another until last week. So we've had lovely flowers until mid-November, which is unusual for Iowa.

Here are a few shots from last week:

Roses 'Seminole Wind' and self-seeded snapdragons around our front gate.

Reblooming iris and cosmos in the Iris Bed. I'll never get used to seeing these bloom in autumn!

Morning Glories on the west side of our house.

'Golden Celebration' roses near our kitchen.
Annual salvias in the Front Border still going strong.

The Yellow Garden in sunlight. I'm planning to reduce the size of this area and make it nicer next year.

Oh, we've finally gotten some projects done around our house: we finally bit the bullet and had the house painted, so it looks a lot brighter now (as can be seen in the first photo). Also, we had our ancient cellar excavated and sealed because it was leaking. So now we have a big mound of exposed dirt behind our house waiting for grass seed in spring.

We also had our handyman fix our front steps, which were sagging and rotting underneath (like everything in an old house seems to do...).

Before: (Back in 2014) You can see how the front steps met in a point at the corner. They were sagging and rotten, and there weren't enough hand rails to make the steps safe.

Our handyman cut out the corner of the steps, shored up the remaining stairs with additional risers, and built two new hand rails, which we will paint in spring, after the treated wood has dried a bit. Both my husband's and my own elderly parents will doubtless be happy at the extra hand rails. There are some broken concrete slabs in the exposed area, but I plan to fill the area with a display of pots during the warmer months.

Since the frost cleared out some room, I've been cutting a few areas back and finally planting the bulbs I bought more than two months ago. Thursday I planted about 600 of the 800 bulbs that I purchased -- only 200 left! (I was pretty sore and tired afterwards, I must admit.)

The temperature is forecast to drop down to the low 20s tonight, so we may not have too many more flowers for the rest of winter. But it's time for the holidays and if all goes according to design, my new Winter Garden will allow me to have some green foliage and lovely flowers all winter indoors.

I hope you are still enjoying a few more blooms outdoors, and that you and your families enjoy a wonderful holiday season. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Back to the Garden

It's hard to see in this photo, but these zinnias are covered with butterflies flitting about in the sunshine. :-)

It's been ages since I posted anything about my gardens. I've been so preoccupied about my sunroom project (it can be seen behind the zinnias in the photo above), plus it's been so hot, the weeds had taken over, and several areas need major changes. For all those reasons, I haven't posted any garden photos since June....

But now that the weather has been cooling off a bit, I've been able to resume battling the weeds and tackling a few projects outside, as well as to enjoy being outside among the many pretty annual flowers that I have planted this year. This is truly the time for annuals to shine in the garden.

Here are a few photos from the past few weeks:

Our East Patio, with humongous coleus in front. I had no idea they got so big, as it's the first time I've ever planted these. They were such baby things in their six-packs in May, but now the bigger ones are crowding out the ones that didn't grow as quickly. I like the colors in this mix, and I think I''ll use these in other garden areas in the future (those limey-yellow ones would look great in my Yellow Garden...).

Another annual I had never planted before were these Star Gladiolus. I found the corms at
Lowe's this spring and I'll definitely be digging and saving these over winter. They have a lovely
scent and a delicate habit unlike the more common kind of gladiolus (which I also have
grown with success for magnificent cutting flowers this summer ).

Here's the cutting garden in mid-summer, with the bed I made for growing the normal sort of gladiolus for cutting. I wired a piece of hog panel to some stakes to keep them from flopping over like they did last year and it worked quite well. I think I'll plant even more of these next year, perhaps a whole other bed of them, as they were truly magnificent inside the house.

The Yellow Garden gets more gold as summer progresses. Earlier in the year the yellows tend to be a bit lighter in color. I think I'm going to make a few changes in this garden area next spring.

The North Border, with Zinnias, cosmos and phlox, plus some short dahlias
that I started from seed this spring (which I had never done before). 

Water lilies in the pond. They've bloomed quite a bit this summer.

It's been a good year for impatiens, unlike some years lately with the impatiens blight going around. These seem pretty happy in the window box on my garage.

Another annual that I tried for the first time this year were these Gomphrena, which I started from seed. I love their little ball-shaped heads. I think I'll use more of these next year. 

And one more new annual for me this year were these Balsam, which are related to impatiens, but much taller (you can't tell in this photo, but they are about three feet tall). Apparently these used to be very popular in Victorian times, but fell out of favor during the 20th century. I like them and will certainly save seeds to plant them again next year.

One resolution for this year was to try more annuals that I hadn't planted before, especially ones that are less common. I'm so glad that I did -- many of them have been wonderful flowers. Next year I think I'll try growing even more new annuals. I'm sure there are so many I'll never run out of new kinds to try!

Hope your own gardens are still flowering strongly as we go into autumn. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sunroom Final Progress Report: Plants and Furnishings

Hello! I've spent the past week doing the fun part of making my new sunroom: beginning to fill it with plants and furnishings.

As you may recall from my earlier posts, it's long been my dream to have a conservatory or sunroom, a sunny room filled with lush, green plants in which I can try to forget that it's winter here in Iowa. In June, after much planning, my builder began work enclosing the front porch of my 1924 four-square farmhouse. The project was done by the end of the first week in August, when I had finished painting the interior and the floor. Here are the earlier posts about the sunroom planning and construction, if you missed them:

Winter Sunroom Dreams (last November)
Sunroom Progress Report #1 (June 29)
Sunroom Progress Report (Construction Finished!) (my last post)

I've moved some initial furnishings and plants into the space, although there will be more of both as we get closer to our first frost. I had most of the plants, furniture and plant stands already, so I didn't have to get much more, with the exception of the wicker sofa.

A tour of the (somewhat) finished project, starting at the sliding glass door end of the room:

Looking in the other direction from the first photo. At forefront is circular plant staging steps, with a small breakfast/tea table behind, and a shady corner next to the sliding glass door at the end of the room.

A closeup of the shady corner. I moved the Smurf terrarium that I made last winter to this
corner, so that it won't overheat, although I think I might look for a taller side table to put it on.
I found the tiered plant stand for $5 at the local Master Garden plant sale in May, and it looks
spiffed up after three coats of white paint.

In the middle of the room, on the other side of the small breakfast/tea table, are four quarter-round plant steps that I found at Aldi (my Absolute Favorite Store!) this spring for about a quarter of the price they're sold for online. I had long lusted over the Victorian wrought-iron versions of these found in decrepit English conservatories, but this new version is just fine. Note the Pineapple Plant with a baby pineapple fruit on top -- I found it at Walmart (of all places!) last week and simply had to have it after reading last winter about how it was to grow pineapples and citrus that conservatories (and indoor stove heating) were developed, and how exorbitantly expensive it was to raise them in Victorian England. Yet Walmart can now sell them to the masses (including lucky me!). What an amazing age we live in.

My favorite area of our new room: the comfy new sofa surrounded by larger plants. I had most of the plants already, but found the oversize Cat Palm and huge Macho Fern ($4!) that are behind the sofa for half off at Lowe's last week. And one of the things I miss most during our months of brown and straw-colored winter is green grass, so I found some putting green, indoor/outdoor carpet that's like a thick felt. It's washable and very soft underfoot -- both our son and our cat fell asleep on it the first evening that I rolled it out. :-)

As the weather starts to cool off next month, I'll begin bringing in some more of the many tropical and temperate potted plants like jasmine, hibiscus, pelargoniums, etc. that are outside on our patio (minus insects, with luck). Some of them I'll store in the basement under florescent lights like I do each winter, but some might look nice in here.

Also, I'll bring in a couple of the wicker chairs and the green porcelain garden stool that are currently outdoors, so that we can use the chairs at the breakfast/tea table and/or in the seating area. Even though it's been pretty warm in the room during the past week or so, I can't tell you how lovely it is to sit or lie on the sofa in there, surrounded by green, growing plants -- my Winter Garden. We're thinking of putting our Christmas tree in here this year -- won't it look lovely from outside, lit up by strands of twinkling lights through the windows?

I hope the room will stay warm enough for plants during the frigid temperatures of January and February -- the baseboard heater manufacturer assured me that the three units should be more than enough, even with all the windows, and we did have closed-cell foam insulation blown in to seal and insulate the floor, ceiling and walls under the windows. I guess we'll just have to wait and see....

Anyway, hope you are enjoying your late summer gardens in your part of the world. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Sunroom Progress Report (Construction Finished!)

Aaggh! I can't believe I haven't posted since the end of June. Six weeks! It's back to school time already (we started our new homeschooling year this week). Where has the summer gone?

The big news is that my sunroom project is finished being constructed! The photo above shows the finished project.

If you read my first Sunroom Progress Report that I posted at the end of June, you might remember that my front porch was open, and that big changes had been made since the start of construction in mid-June. Here's a brief recap:

BEFORE: June 13th.

June 21st. Walls and ceiling framed

June 28th. This is what it looked like at the end of June, when I last posted. The ceiling and walls were insulated and sealed with spray foam, and the windows had been installed. The sliding glass door was put in a few days later.

In any construction project, as most of you undoubtedly know, the changes come quickly and are very exciting in the first few weeks of construction. Then the detail and finishing work has to be done, and it seems like the pace slows to almost a standstill (and sometimes does come to a standstill if any temporary issues come up). We were lucky that we didn't have any big issues, but a few minor ones occurred that took a bit of extra time to deal with.

But things did keep moving. here are a few highlights of the continuing progress since my last post:

By July 12, the ceiling had been covered with beadboard, the small areas of wall had been drywalled and the windows were being framed in. I asked my builder for extra-deep window sills that I could put plants on.
By July 27th, the interior was largely finished and the builder moved outside to finish the exterior.

While the builder was working outside, I painted the interior during the last week of July and the first week of August.

Finally, the electrician came back last Friday, August 5, to install the lights, fan, baseboard heaters and thermostat. I then painted a couple coats of light gray paint on the floor on this past weekend. Look at all that sunlight!
The finished exterior. We desperately need to have the rest of our house exterior painted, and I need to re-paint the front steps, but at least the new sunroom has good paint coverage.

We decided to leave the front steps and railings that now lead to nowhere because we thought it might look boring without them. I'm thinking I can put plants on them next spring and summer -- I've always wanted one of the fancy "auricula theatres" that are making a comeback in Britain, although it's too hot for primroses to grow very well here, so I think perhaps I might try a few pelargoniums (non-hardy geraniums) in pots arranged on those front steps. And perhaps I'll grow clematis on the rails, and maybe on the front porch columns too.

Now all that remains is furnishing my new sunroom -- the fun part! I've been waiting for the floor paint to thoroughly dry, but in the next few days I'll begin filling the room with my many plants that are stuffed throughout the house and outside, and perhaps I'll buy a few more -- I think I need a big palm tree....

As for furniture, I've ordered a wicker sofa that I need to pick up, and I can add a few wicker chairs that I already have, plus some colorful tropical cushions and a carpet of some sort. I'll also put a small table and chairs at the end near the sliding door, so we can have breakfast or tea in there on sunny days.

I have wanted a sunroom or conservatory for many years, and now I'm almost looking forward to this winter! :-)  Well, perhaps I won't dread the idea so much as usual. Seriously, it's been so hot here in Iowa this summer that we haven't turned off our air conditioner since mid-June. It's been so unpleasant outside that I've scarcely been able to keep the grass mowed, let alone keep my too many garden beds weeded. (I'm thinking I need to reduce the number of gardens areas that I maintain -- but that's the subject for another post). I certainly am looking forward to the weather cooling down as we get closer to September.

I guess that's why I haven't posted in so long, because not many of my garden areas have looked that great this summer -- but there were a few exceptions, and I'll post again in the next week or so with some updates on those.

And I look forward to catching up with your posts too. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sunroom Progress Report #1

Before: June 11, before any work was done to enclose our front porch.

These are exciting times around here, not just because it's summer and lots of flowers are blooming, but also largely because there has been rapid progress in enclosing my front porch into a sunroom where I can enjoy plants and flowers during our long, cold winters here in Iowa.

I have long desired a classic, glassed-in conservatory of the kind that are common in England, but the cost of constructing and then heating such a room is prohibitive here. Here in the US, with our extremes of heat and cold, a sunroom with a solid roof is much more practical.

We have a porch with a roof and floor already (it was enclosed with screens when we bought our house eight years ago, and we had those removed and ended up having to totally re-build the rotting columns and floor five years ago, so it's pretty solid). So I decided that the easiest and most affordable thing was to simply enclose our existing porch with walls and windows. (Here is my post last winter when I desperately longed for greenery amidst our snow-covered landscape, and considered the sunroom idea.)

I was somewhat concerned that I might ruin the look of our 1924 farmhouse (and I still remain concerned about that issue), but my winter desperation greatly outweighs those concerns. So after my very generous dad offered to help us with the cost, I called my builder this spring and we got started planning, and, finally, building!

The scene in the photo above was taken on June 11, a couple of days before construction began two and a half weeks ago. We invited some friends over and had a "porch farewell" party that evening, as that was the last time we would be able to enjoy our open porch (it was a bit sad thinking about it, but it was also about 95°F that day and almost every day since, which illustrates why we hardly ever actually sat on our porch: too hot, too cold, too windy, too snowy, too buggy, too humid, or simply too busy to sit outside at all).

Anyway, here is a progress report in photos, taken over the past two and a half weeks:

June 16: Little Kitty cutely reclining against the bottom sill. Top and bottom sills have been sealed against the existing porch with foam tape to keep out drafts, and insulation has been blown into the hollow porch columns through those holes that are visible in the columns.

June 21: The walls have been framed in to hold the windows (our builder used 2x6 construction to support the weight of the heavy double-window units. The ceiling has been framed down so that it can be insulated.

June 22: The next day, after the electricians have installed the rough electrical wiring. they'll come back to install the fixtures and baseboard heaters after the interior has been finished.

June 27: The spray foam insulation guys used tarps to enclose the porch and then spray 3-4" of closed cell spray foam in the ceiling, under the floor and in the wall space under the windows.

June 28: Yesterday, the biggest change of all: the windows were delivered and installed! Now the space feels like it's Inside, not Outside. The sliding glass door will be installed at the forefront of the photo after more of the interior finish work is done.

Still to be done:

  1. installing the dropped ceiling 
  2. finishing the interior with beadboard and wood trim (which I will then paint)
  3. installing the electrical fixtures: lights, fan, baseboard heaters, etc. 
  4. finishing the exterior with siding and exterior trim, which the builder will paint
  5. I will then paint the floor -- I'm thinking perhaps of a light gray and white stenciled design of some kind, but I'm open to suggestions....

The exterior.

As I mentioned, I'm still worried that I might be ruining the look of our old-fashioned farmhouse. Now that the windows are installed, they look absolutely huge to me, out of scale with the rest of our house. I had originally envisioned seven windows across the front (odd numbers being visually more pleasing), but my builder convinced me that three units of two windows mulled together would look less busy and give me more uninterrupted glass (which is good in a sunroom for functional reasons, obviously). And he is right that fewer windows are a simpler, more classic look, but I really am worried that the windows are just too large, especially because they are right out front and therefore look even bigger and more prominent.

Of course, there's nothing to do about it at this point, as $4,000 of special-order windows are already framed in and installed. I guess they do look like a similar size with our existing front door, which with its sidelight windows is even larger, and maybe after they are framed and sided in, they will look better.... Perhaps I'm simply suffering from a common case of "buyer's remorse" or second-guessing my own decisions.

And I really haven't permanently ruined our old house; no historic elements have been removed and if a future owner of our house doesn't like the sunroom, it can easily be entirely removed, leaving virtually no traces on the original design of the porch (which again, we already had restored to its original design five years ago even though it cost more to do it that way -- did I mention that the 90-year-old front header beam under the porch roof was sagging dangerously and we replaced it with an 28-foot-long, engineered-laminate support header beam, rather than change the original design of the porch by adding center supports?). I think we've been pretty sensitive to the historic elements of this house.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the fun parts of this project: choosing some comfy wicker furniture, accessorizing with colorful pillows and an outdoor rug, and of course, filling the new space with lush, green and flowering plants that make me feel like I'm on a tropical vacation every time I enter the room.

When winter comes from now on, instead of this...

I'll have something more like this! No, my ceilings won't be high enough for
giant palms, but I'll still be able to have some pretty large plants in my own
bright and cheerful sunroom. (Pinterest)

I'll post another update on my sunroom project as we make more progress. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, June 20, 2016

June Flowers

Delphiniums along my front garden fence. There are usually more of the pretty light blue ones, but Little Kitty took a nap among the foliage several weeks ago and smashed down the growing stems before I could stake them.... :-(  For such a cute little kitty, she sure can wreak things (she also killed a newly-planted magnolia tree last year by sharpening her claws on the trunk, and now I have to put chicken wire around all new trees). But these darker blue delphiniums weren't as comfortable to lie upon, I guess, so they look just fine.  :-)

We've had some hot days in the upper 90s this past week, so I've been limiting the amount of work I've been doing outside and working only in the mornings and evenings, sheltering in our air-conditioned house during the days. I've been doing a lot of watering too.

But the heat doesn't seem to have set back the flowers in any way. Here are a few highlights from around my gardens this past week:

The sweet peas and snapdragons on the east side of my house.
The sweet peas smell wonderful, although the heat is making them go to seed
more quickly than usual (I need to keep picking them and watering them.)

In the cutting garden, campanula (a biennial I planted last year), mixed bachelor buttons and larkspur beginning to bloom at the far end of  the bed.

Self-seeded blue bachelor buttons near the house.

Mixed Sweet Williams. I love all the different varieties, with their beautiful markings and patterns and colors -- they're every bit as interesting as primroses.

'Blueberry Hill' roses in front of the Tractor Shed.

'Bluebird' delphiniums, campanula, 'Johnson's Blue' geraniums and one single
allium caeruleum (I'm not sure what happened to the others I planted here...).

Red lilies, achillea and salvia in front of our addition. I wish I knew what kind of lilies these are, but I didn't record the cultivar when I planted them four or five years ago.

The Yellow Garden, filled with lilies, achillea and golden creeping Jenny.

The heat is continuing for the next ten days of the forecast, with nearly every day predicted to have temperatures in the 90s. I continue to hope for rain, as none of the storms that have dumped large amounts of rain on the Midwest seem to have included my gardens -- we are in a strange localized drought, having had barely an inch of rain for the past month. Apparently we are located in a "rain shadow" in which we can see rain in the distance that never seems to make it here. Here's hoping for a good soak before too much longer....

Happy Summer Solstice to everyone -- I hope you are not experiencing too much heat in your own gardens this month. Thanks for reading!  -Beth