visiting the gardens of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate

IMG_6206Mount Vernon is about 140 miles from our home in Williamsburg and that may seem like a bit of a drive to walk through a bunch of gardens, but to two gardeners, this was the perfect way to spend a beautiful sunny day.  If you plan on taking the trip, do yourself a favor and purchase your tickets online at least 3-4 days in advance.  Not only will you save $3 per adult, you will have the option of choosing a time for your visit to the mansion and if you are willing to spend a little extra, you can also purchase tickets for the special tours.  We booked our entry tickets online and purchased tickets for the Gardens and Groves tour and started our visit with a guided tour of the upper and lower gardens.

The sun was pretty harsh and it made taking photos tricky but I managed to get a few!  The photo above is of the lower garden.  George Washington was very meticulous in many aspects of his life but unfortunately, he did not keep good records of his garden and for the people in charge of keeping them, they have had to do a lot of digging for clues and a lot of guessing based on what was available at that time.

IMG_6207In the lower garden, most of the beds included fruit trees grown in the espalier style.  Some were trained to grow up against walls and others, like these apples, were grown as a living fence for the garden.

IMG_6214There were so many apple trees-I was truly jealous!

IMG_6208This trellis looks a little intimidating but it is easier to construct than you might think.  There weren’t any plants growing near it so I wonder what it will be supporting.

IMG_6209The high walls surrounding the garden created a micro climate that helped keep the temperatures up to give the plants an early start in spring.

IMG_6215Have you ever heard of cabbage envy?  No?  Well, you have now.  Down by the river, there is another small garden area near the 16 sided barn.  We literally stood there and stared at the cabbages.  Someday, when I grow up, I’m gonna grow cabbages like these…

IMG_6216And not a cabbage worm in sight.  Then we stood there and wondered what chemicals they were using on them to keep the caterpillars at bay…

IMG_6221These onions were at in bloom and they must have been near 5 feet tall and as big as a softball.  Again, some day…

IMG_6223As we ponder the possibilities of fencing for our own garden, I admired this one because of its simple construction.  Then I remembered that I do not live in a forest and my husband is not a lumberjack; this might not be our solution.

The 16 sided barn sits on a small slope and was interesting to see.  On weekends, they must have livestock here, but not on our trip.

IMG_6218Really loving the fencing

IMG_6224This house is a recreation of a cabin that belonged to one of the more prominent slaves and his family.

IMG_6228Just out of view from the mansion is a row of buildings.  Many had a specific purpose; salt house, smokehouse and so on.  This was the knitter/weaver house and as a knitter, I had to stop in and take a few photos.  George Washington led a very ordered life.  His primary goal was to be as self-sufficient as possible and while he had the advantage of wealth, the slaves working on his estate were able to produce most of what they needed.  The things produced here would most likely have been used on the property.

IMG_6230The wool would have come from livestock on the estate and it would have been processed by slaves who would have also used it for weaving and knitting.

IMG_6234Along side the weaving house was a small plot that was called the botanical garden.  In this small space, Mr. Washington would experiment with new varieties of seeds and plants.  If they were successful, they would have been added to one of the gardens or groves to produce food.

IMG_6235There is a recreated blacksmith shop along the path as well.  In this shop, tools are produced using the same methods that were employed over 200 years ago.  Most of the tools they make now get used around the estate.

IMG_6236As we looked on, this gentleman was working on a project.  They may have a lot of stuff in there for visual impact but this really is a working blacksmith shop and he went back and forth between the table/anvil and the fire as he worked on the piece in his hand.

IMG_6237There were horses present back then but there wasn’t a farrier to produce shoes for them.  Because Mr. Washington was not one to spend money unnecessarily, he made sure that a few of the blacksmiths were properly trained to produce shoes and tend to a horse’s feet.

IMG_6242One of the most interesting parts of our Gardens and Groves tour was the greenhouse.  While we were not permitted inside, it was interesting to know that back then, they would grow citrus trees and other tropical plants in the greenhouse during winter and move them outside in summer.  There was a room in the back of the building where a fire was tended around the clock to keep it warm for the plants.  The men in charge of keeping the fire lit would sleep in that room .

IMG_6244The larkspur is one plant that they know was growing on the property when Mr. Washington lived there.  They actually sell packages of seeds and when my mother in law visited here last year, she brought me one.  So far, I haven’t had any luck getting them to germinate but I will try again this fall.

IMG_6250After seeing these poppies, I have a new admiration for them!  Beautiful when in bloom and then come the seed pods, which I think are just as pretty as the flowers.

IMG_6251In the upper garden, flowers are everywhere but if you look closely, there is a vegetable garden hidden in there too!

IMG_6260We toured the mansion (a quickly guided walk through with little time to stop and truly take it all in-and no photos allowed), walked the grounds, saw the tomb and trees that George Washington himself planted (two tulip poplars and a hemlock-absolutely huge) and then wandered through the museum.  The museum is a trip in itself, honestly.  There are several videos to watch and plenty of historical displays with lots of text to read.  He was such a fascinating man and it was a bit overwhelming after all the walking in full sun for two hours on the grounds.  Then we arrived at the end of the tour and the final display; his teeth.

Mr. Washington did not wear wooden teeth.  He also did not neglect his teeth, actually, he did what he could to save them and actually visited the dentist!  Back then, when teeth would fall out, they would use wire to hold in replacements.  When he was inaugurated for  his second term, he only had one single tooth left and made the decision to have it pulled and just use dentures.  Those dentures now rest in a glass case for all the world to see.  They consist of a mixture of human and cow teeth and they are set into hinged, metal plates and they look unbelievably uncomfortable-it is no wonder he was not smiling in his portrait!

Bottom line, go if you can!  Buy your tickets in advance and go in the middle of the week before school lets out for the year to avoid the crowds.  And one other suggestion, if you want to see all three floors of the mansion, visit in January or February.  The number of visitors is so small then that they open the third floor up to the public; currently, the crowds are too large and the structure is not stable enough to withstand the traffic.

my mother’s garden

IMG_5924Just as there are many types of plants, there are many types of gardens.  Some gardeners work with shade, some with flowers or succulents and others with just vegetables.  Potagers, cottage gardens, rain gardens and so on.  Personally, I have an herb garden, a shade garden and a sunny area planted with perennial flowers in addition to the very large potager style vegetable garden that takes up much of our front yard.

Then there is my mother’s garden which is nestled on top of a mountain in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania in a forest like setting; the rocky soil is deeply shaded, heavily wooded and full of wildlife.  Planting a garden in her yard is challenging because of the large rocks in the soil, the lack of sunlight and the fact that the deer eat everything, including the things they shouldn’t.  Despite all of these things, my mother’s garden is inviting, full of surprises and a wonderful place to visit and sit a spell…

IMG_5927Gardening with deer is a challenge.  Especially when the community you live in is surrounded by state owned forest land.  At times, there can be a dozen or more deer grazing around the yard.  The landscape provides areas for them to sleep and rest and even when you think the small herd may have left the yard, it is entirely possible that some are still there but out of view.  As if the deer weren’t enough, black bears also live in the area and have come through yard and more than one raccoon has raised a litter of kits in a tree near the shed.  If you think deer can do damage, mischievous raccoons and squirrels can also cause problems.

IMG_5931As a result, my mother is a gardener of things.  All around the yard, you will find statues and knick-knacks, baskets of silk flowers and plants, gazing balls.   She finds things in stores and yard sales and has them all over the yard.  Bird houses hang from low branches all over the yard.  Every where you look, little pops of color are present and it truly makes for a restful place to spend the afternoon outdoors.

IMG_5934The deer really do eat just about everything and it was surprising that these little bluets were present since they are usually eaten to the ground.

 

IMG_5940A constant theme in the garden is a smiling sunface.  Actually, sun and moon faces are all over.  That may be partly my fault since I often send them to her!

IMG_5945In a small hillside drainage pond, frogs rule.  They are loud and you can hear them all over the yard.  On this afternoon, I saw four of them in the water and on the rocks around it.

IMG_5947This is one of the few parts of the yard that actually has plants.  The previous owners of the yard placed fencing around plants and shrubs to protect them from the deer.  It was an unattractive sight and my mother has removed most of it.  Although that meant the plants within met a nibbled to the ground death, it greatly improved the appearance of the yard.  One place she left the fencing was around the pond and in this small area, she has a few hostas, several sedums and lily of the valley along with statues and knick-knacks.

IMG_5952Lichens and moss cover all of the rocks in the yard.

IMG_5953The pond is truly the focal point in this part of the yard.  The Autumn Joy sedum has filled in the crevices above and moss and ferns are filling the areas near the water.

IMG_5954Gazing balls are one of her favorite ways to add color to the yard.  She will tell you that they must be colored and not silvered.  Twice, my mother has placed silvered gazing balls in the yard and twice, a woodpecker tried to kill his reflection.  Both of those gazing balls were shattered.

IMG_5957You must walk around the yard to see it all because it is everywhere.

IMG_5959Along the back of the house, she has a simple row of silk plants with pottery and glass accents.

IMG_5960 (1)In that row, tucked in a corner, is what remains of a deer skull.  It seems that this buck died on the property and after the vultures cleaned it, my mother placed the skull in her garden along the back of the house.  Squirrels continually gnaw on the bones to keep their teeth in shape and have chewed up quite a bit of the skull and antlers.

IMG_5962Have you ever heard the phrase referring to “bones knitting,” especially if you have broken a bone?  It is easy to see why they say that when you look at the fuse line going up the skull.  This was one of the most fascinating things to look at in the garden!

IMG_5965You really must look carefully or you might miss something.

IMG_5967And look everywhere, despite being colorblind, my mother has a talent for choosing colors so that they either blend in seemlessly or jump out.

IMG_5968She also has a talent for finding unusual pieces like this pottery base to a planter.

IMG_5928This old bench is so worn out that she has added a board to hold the objects on it.  That gnome looks familiar-he lived in our house in Nashville for years and when we moved, I sent him to live with my mother.  One of the girls, I think Alix, painted the tile and yes, the plants are silk.  At least the deer won’t eat them!  But beware, the raccoons love to move things and you never know what they will do.

a seasonal salad from the garden

IMG_5852It’s salad season in my garden.  Well, specifically, it is lettuce season.  Living in the south means that lettuce is a cool weather crop while all the other parts of a salad, like tomatoes or cucumbers, are warm weather crops.  Luckily, it is always fresh egg season in the chicken coop!

IMG_5848There are a dozen different salad greens in the garden right now.  In the salad above are Bloomsdale spinach, baby beet greens, parsley, salad bowl leaf lettuce, buttercrunch, forellenschluss and arugula.

IMG_5840Simply dressed with vinaigrette, garnished with cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and some kalamata olives and served with the paper; my idea of lunch.

IMG_5841IMG_5844IMG_5845IMG_5849IMG_5851Of course, adding a hard boiled egg from one of our golden laced wyandotte hens and a slice of bread makes it a light, refreshing meal perfect for any season.

chaos

Chaos noun, behavior so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions, also known as the effects of spring weather on the garden.

The weather this spring has been hard to predict.  Cool at night to highs of 90+ during the day, multiple days reaching 80+ and then in the blink of an eye, drops to the 40’s at night and days that barely cross 50.  Up and down and up and down…stretches of a week or more with no rain for a somewhat dry April, to rain nearly every day for the first full week of May.   Seedlings that emerged and then dampened off or the seeds just rotted altogether.  Plants that did grow at all for weeks and instead, bolted.  Then, suddenly, rain and more rain.  The garden was transformed nearly over night and I am now enjoying fresh picked produce by the basket!

 

IMG_5793This part of the garden does not get much direct sunlight and once the crape myrtle, which is not in the photo, leafs out completely, it gets little filtered light as well.  Last spring I spent a week amending the soil and adding shade tolerant perennials to the bed.  This year, nearly all of them came back except for a bleeding heart plant and they have truly filled the space.IMG_5795The iris actually gets enough light because it blooms before the crape myrtle creates shade.  Also in bloom are azaleas, dianthus and phlox.

IMG_5800Remind me to tell you the story of the gnome sometime… He is watching over the sunny part of the garden.IMG_5806Love the little blossoms on the strawberry begonia.

IMG_5817While I have put a lot of work into the perennial beds near the front door of the house, none of that compares to the amount of work the vegetable garden has taken.  We began in late fall of 2014 by composting the leaves that fell from our trees with grass clippings from the lawn and bags of coffee grounds from Starbucks.  In spring of 2015, I topped each of the beds with that compost and placed 45 bales of straw on the beds in the garden.  Throughout the year, I attempted to grow vegetables in the bales with out a ton of success. In early winter, when the bales began to tip like drunkards, I broke them down and scattered the straw on top of the compost along with more coffee, ground egg shells, compost (that includes litter from our hens) and a topping of purchased garden soil.

In February, we hooped two beds and I seeded them with cold hardy greens and lettuces.  Some seeds germinated nicely, others not at all.  We filled a third bed with purchased starts for cold weather veggies.  Things moved very slowly.  The beds were a little hot for the plants and I was beginning to get discouraged.  Finally, in April we began to see growth and were able to begin picking greens for cooking and salads as well as radishes and turnips.  My collection of lettuces are doing very well and I am picking them regularly.

IMG_5818Peas were slow to get going but have finally come on board.  Gotta love the tendrils and the way they tie themselves into knots.

IMG_5819Everybody loves surprise potatoes!  Must have missed one when I harvested them last fall.  not sure what it is but I am thinking it is most likely a yukon gold but the alternative is red norland; either way works for me!

IMG_5820A lot of firsts this year.  Ailsa Craig onions along with some radishes from an 8 year old package of seeds I found lurking in the box!  We have lots of mushrooms coming up in the beds.  Did you know that is a good thing?  There is a relationship between plants and mushrooms and when some combinations are grown together, you can actually improve your yields-this pairing was random and not of my doing but my fingers are crossed that it helps.  Want to know more about it, pick up a copy of Mycelium Running and read about it!

IMG_5822Chinese cabbage is doing so well-and I grew this from seeds!

IMG_5823The way chard glows when backlit never gets old.

IMG_5828These rutabegas are taking off in the garden.  If you grow them, be sure to eat the greens too!  Cook them as you would collards and the plant will be doing double duty.

IMG_5829Another of the firsts in our garden, salsify.  Have no idea if we will enjoy it but I saw some plants in Colonial Williamsburg in the garden the the local master gardeners maintain and decided it was pretty and it needed to live in my garden too!

IMG_5831Speaking of pretty, these radicchio starts have been stealing the show for a while now.  We pull a few leaves off from the bottom and are letting the heads fill out.

IMG_5832More starts, celery is taking its time.

Welcome to my garden, my little slice of earth.  Feel free to wander through and admire the plants, dinner will be ready just as soon as I wash the lettuce.

lawn likker; it’s a southern thing

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a sample of the flowers from our yard with the common purple violet on the bottom right 

Spring rituals vary from region to region but throughout the south, gathering violets and turning them into jam and liqueur is a popular activity.  Pay enough attention to it and you will also hear stories of red bud blossoms being gathered for jam making as well.  Personally, I love the look of a lawn full of violets and I am tempted to pull out the weeds and just let the violets fill the space but my husband has other ideas.

Most violets found in lawns are viola sororia and are an herbaceous perennial plant that can quickly become a weed due to the fact that they spread through rhizomes as well as seeds.  In my yard, they are allowed to fill spaces that we do not use for gardening, generally the lawn areas, and my husband mows them over along with all of the other weeds that make up the green sections of our yard.  The only exception to this is the two weeks in spring that these lovely little flowers are in bloom; he does not mow until I pick as many as I can!

All my life, I have always thought that violets were always purple.  White violets were not as common but I can recall seeing them on rare occasions and assumed they were a mutation.   It is also worth noting that on even fewer occasions, I encountered yellow violets.  However in our yard, here in Virginia, the vast majority of the violets are white with purple veins, lavender or a lighter shade of purple.  These are a variety commonly referred to as Confederate Violets and regardless of the color, all violets have edible flowers.  IMG_5541Making liqueur is a bit tedious because you must pick large quantities of the blossoms.  For the batch I made this year, I must have picked about 3 pints.  For a single pint of liquer, I placed 2 cups of blossoms into a pint sized jar and added 2 cups of potato vodka and allowed the flowers to steep for a couple days, shaking it once a day.  After it had sat and the flowers faded and grew limp, I strained them out and filled the jar with another 2 cups of blossoms.  To this, I poured the previously infused vodka over the blossoms and allowed it to steep, shaking it daily for a couple of days and then I repeated the process a third time.  My goal was to get a nice dark liqueur and a strong floral flavor.

IMG_5543Having allowed the last batch of flowers time to infuse the batch, I strained them out and this was the result.  If you look at the top of the liquid, you can see that it is a deep violet color, almost grey.  Despite everything, it still had a strong alcohol taste but the aroma was all flowers-and honestly, I am not much of a vodka drinker so it was hard to not taste the vodka in the background but there was definitely a floral flavor there as well.  And now that it has aged for a couple weeks, it has mellowed a bit.

This was an experiment for me, whether or not I try it again is hard to say.  While crawling around the yard picking cup after cup of blossoms, I managed to get a tick bite and that and my nearly broke back may have me think twice.  Although, I would like to try making some jam…violet jam, redbud jam, maybe even some redbud likker…

 

When we were living in Nashville and working with the Master Gardeners, an extension agent once described the weeds found in a winter/spring lawn as the native winter wildflowers.  He went on to describe how these plants were the only nectar and pollen sources for pollinating insects during the season.  It was those words that convinced us to leave them in the lawn where our bees might benefit from them.  As a result, we often leave the lawn a little longer and shaggy in comparison to our neighbors.

IMG_3396This beauty is henbit and is commonly found in lawns.  It is also edible and last year, I made a batch of wildflower liqueur with violets and other wildflowers growing in our lawn and dubbed it lawn likker.  If you think violets are tiny, henbit is even smaller!

IMG_3401A close up shot of the flower; look at the hairs on the back of the bloom and the tiny little stamens!IMG_3408Dead Nettle is a close cousin of Henbit, both are in the mint family, but if you look closely, you will see that these leaves are heart shaped and gradient in color from the top of the plant to the base while Henbit has round leaves with teeth.  Another thing, Dead Nettle flowers make the blossoms from Henbit look huge!IMG_3410Dead Nettle flower on the top, Henbit flower on the bottom.

IMG_3416A third player in this game, Ground Ivy, also called Creeping Charlie because it trails like a vine and can quickly cover an area.  These blooms are the largest of the three.  While some publications will tell you that it is best to make teas rather than eat the leaves, I don’t think there is any real danger in adding a handful of blooms to a batch of likker-although, your back may cry foul!

IMG_3427My first batch of lawn likker from last year, it has since changed color and is now a bright golden yellow and looks more like a bottle of urine than likker but trust me, the flavor is still floral and so is the aroma!

Want to give it a try?  Here are a few links I am bookmarking for future attempts.

Kell Belle Studio

Life in Mud Spattered Boots

A Gardeners Table

gratitude and tomatillo jam

Every year at Thanksgiving, as we gathered around the table-our family and my cousin’s family together, we would ask each other to share what we were grateful for that year.  Kids being kids meant that some of the answers were comical, but in the end, we were grateful for each other and the time together.  This year, Darry and I found ourselves on our own, one of the downfalls of relocating.  We didn’t let that stop us from having a lovely dinner and yes, it included the traditional trashcan turkey.  We also had the pleasure of cooking some vegetables that we grew ourselves.

The weather was unseasonably warm this year and we spent much of the day working in the garden.  We pulled out the frost damaged plants, mulched leaves with the lawn mower and layered the beds with straw, coffee grinds, compost and the leaves we had gathered.  When we sat down to dinner, we were grateful to have sweet potatoes and greens from our garden on the table.  It was also pleasing to know that cabbage, cauliflower, kale and broccoli as well as brussel sprouts and collards are growing in the beds and will be on our dinner table soon as well.

One of the plants we pulled out of the bales and cut up for composting was a cluster of tomatillos; one purple and two yellow.  Tomatillos are one of those things that you either love or wonder why anyone would want the stupid things.  They are sticky when you peel the husks off and unless you are making salsa or green sauce, they aren’t very appealing.  Even so, each year as I plant my garden, I almost always sow a few tomatillo seeds.

A member of the nightshade family, tomatillos are related to tomatoes but at the same time, they are so different that you will wonder if they really are relatives.  While tomatoes do not need a companion plant to pollinate them, tomatillos do so if you plant them in your garden, be sure to plant more than one.  Tomatillo vines will sprawl so be sure to give them a sturdy structure to lean on.  They will also produce over a long season and right up to the first heavy frost which means you can have them throughout the summer and into early fall.

As we gathered all of the fruits, we realized we had enough to make a batch of something and I chose turn them into a sweet jam rather than the typical salsa.  My triple batch of jam cooked up quickly and is now sealed in jars ready to be shared with friends and family, a token of our gratitude.

 

Tomatillo Jam

Makes 1 pint and the recipe can easily be doubled or tripled

1 pound tomatillos, washed with the husks removed

1/4 teaspoon chili flakes or 1 small fresh chili, finely diced

juice and zest of one lemon

1 1/4 cup sugar

Cut the tomatillos into quarters and place them in a heavy bottomed sauce pot with the remaining ingredients.  Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to prevent sticking.  Allow the jam to simmer until the tomatillos soften.  Using a hand held masher, press the tomatillos to break them up.  Continue to cook until the mixture reaches 210 degrees.  Pour the jam into sterilized jars and seal in a water bath or place it into a storage container and keep in the refrigerator.

 

This post is one of a series that Melissa of Corbin in the Dell and I are publishing simultaneously.  To read her post, visit her blog.

 

 

 

a visit to Well Sweep Herb Farm, another one crossed off the bucket list

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When I began gardening seriously, I found myself focusing on herbs.  Medicinal herbs, culinary herbs, ornamental herbs; it didn’t matter, I had dreams of using as many as possible to fill the beds at the Demonstration Garden.  In my search for plant sources, I came across the Well Sweep Herb Farm in Mount Bethel, New Jersey.  When the catalog would arrive in my mailbox, I would study it, make lists, and dream of the garden that would be some day.  Along with that dream was the idea that one day, when I was in the area, I would get to visit the farm and that day came recently when I discovered that it was less than an hours drive from my mother’s home.  We set off on a cool, fall morning and followed many winding, hilly country roads while enjoying the foliage display of the season and thanks to some very clearly marked roads and good directions, we arrived at the farm.

The owners of the farm live in a house at the front of the property and at first glance, you might think it is a bed and breakfast or an inn.  The farm is open to the public year round so if you decide to visit, I suggest going back in a different season, the grounds are beautiful and there is plenty to see.
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The formal herb garden is full of plants of all kinds and even though most plants are done for the year, there was still many that were putting on a display.


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The foliage in the hills is spectacular this year and it made for a beautiful background at the farm.


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There are fruit trees all over the farm and this one is amazing; look at that hole in the trunk.  How it has survived and still seems to flourish.


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All over the property you will find beds and focal points that mix a wide variety of plants.


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Red Barns, split rail fences and bird houses dot the landscape.


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There is more to see besides herbs on this farm and we walked past a few sheep grazing in this small pasture.


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When you arrive at the farm, you are immediately aware of the presence of chickens because the roosters crow continually.  We were intrigued by the long tail feathers and asked about them.  Apparently, they raise Onagadori, Japanese long tail chickens.
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The green and blue feathers and a tail that can be over 20 feet long make these birds very unusual in comparison to domestic chickens.


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As we walked the grounds, we stopped to admire the blooms of this plant and found this sleeping bee.


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Orange calendula in bloom near the greenhouse


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No idea what this plant is, but the cottony fluff that is actually the seed was intriguing.


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Annual Clary Sage putting on a show.  The pink tops were eye-catching and this plant has earned a spot on my garden wish list.


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Seed pods from Clematis vines, they look like pinwheels.  An important part of landscaping is planning your plants so that there is visual interest for all the seasons and plants with interesting seed pods is a great way to accomplish that.  The flowers may be gone but the seed pods provide interest and if left in place, they can lead to more plants, a win-win in my book!

After walking the grounds, taking photos, picking two plants (elderberry and a bearfoot hellebore), a pair of herb books and some garlic bulbs, we headed back towards home.  For me, it was a chance to visit a garden I had seen in photos, crossing off one on the bucket list and then putting it back on the list; I hope to come back in another season-there are spring and summer to consider…
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preparing the garden for fall

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This summer has flown by so fast my head is spinning!  Melissa from Corbin in the Dell and I are both posting about Fall Gardens today so be sure to follow the link to see her garden.  While the garden has been productive this summer, it is still late in terms of harvesting produce.  We are just now seeing the tomatoes ripen and squashes are slowly beginning to form on the vines.  Even the peppers and eggplants are just now beginning to ripen while the few stalks of corn that survived are nearly ready to pick.  Frost is still two months away and if we are lucky, we will see a real bounty during the month of October but overall, the whole straw bale gardening has been less successful than I had hoped.

One other factor we did not expect in our garden this year was deer.  When we moved in, neighbors told us that deer would be visiting the garden but we never saw them.  For months, nothing, not a nibble and then, they began visiting and of course, eating.  Fencing in the garden has always been part of the plan, I have always wanted a true cottage style garden out front complete with a fence, gates and an arbor but it just isn’t in the budget this year-at least not one that is professionally installed.  While I plan for something permanent, I had to take action in the short term to prevent more damage and I settled on a method I saw on an organic farm in Nashville several years ago.

Deer have poor depth perception, at least that is what I was told by the man who managed the farm and he said when you present them with obstacles, if they cannot judge the distances between them, they are not likely to move through them or jump over them.  My solution is a series of boundaries made with twine and wooden stakes and so far, it is working.


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These stakes are 60″ tall, the two layers of twine are approximately 4.5′ and 2′ off the ground and they completely surround the garden.  We will be adding another layer behind this one with 8′ stakes and twine at the 7′ and 3.5′ levels, if all goes well, these layers of twine will cause enough confusion that the deer will stay out completely.  Stay tuned for future posts with more on the fencing as well as the bales.


IMG_4362The deer came into the garden to feed but oddly enough, they only ate leaves off of plants-not a single fruit!  The damage to the sweet potatoes was pretty extensive but the vines are recovering.  While the sweet potatoes were obviously the favorite choice, squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra and beans also saw damage but oddly enough, the corn was avoided altogether.

IMG_4130Fall gardening means removing plants that are spent and replacing them with new starts.  The potatoes vines were drying up and many had withered away so i broke down the bales and harvested the potatoes.  What a disappointment!  We had these plants in bales for a full 6 months and this was the size of the potatoes.  We may just keep them for seed potatoes and try planting them in the beds again-they aren’t worth the trouble of cooking.

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We planted Yukon golds and Red Norland potatoes into 5 bales.  Most of them rotted and never produced a thing but the few that did, mostly looked like that.


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The entire harvest of oddly shaped and really small potatoes.

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When you plant a garden to produce your own food, you quickly learn that in order to grow a large variety of vegetables and fruits, you must plant crops in every season if possible.  Here in Virginia, we have a long growing season and I am planning to take advantage of the somewhat mild winters. My seeds are germinating quickly and should be in the beds soon and if all goes well, we should be picking greens in a month.

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Because we will not see frost until the second week of November, I have started another crop of beans.  These are some Asian long beans and I hope these do better than all of the other beans I tried to grow this summer because I did not get anything from those plants!


IMG_4371By planting heirloom varieties, you can let some go to seed and have seeds for next year.  This lettuce plant is flowering and I will collect the seeds when they are mature.

IMG_4364Not only is it important to keep the garden clean and free of debris that bad bugs can hide in, it is best to attract beneficial insects to help keep the bad ones in check.  This preying mantis has been living in our cucumber vines and she has been snacking on stink bugs.  She recently mated, and yes he was her dinner that night and soon, we hope to find an egg case in the garden.  If we do, we will keep it in a bee cage in the garden over the winter so that we can have them in the garden next year.

IMG_4399Our hens have reached the 20 week mark and should be laying soon.  To keep them healthy, they need to forage and get some exercise and Darry built them a series of tunnels.  It was simple to do and it is not a permanent structure so we can rearrange them as needed.

To build them, he cut 6′ lengths of livestock fencing and formed hoops.  He lined the hoops up and ziptied them together then used landscape pins to hold them in place.

IMG_4382A close up shot of the tunnels.  The chickens really do forage a lot in the tunnels.  They have also dug up an area for dust baths.

IMG_4376We only let them out during the day and they will spend the majority of the time out there looking for bugs and eating grass.

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Three of the hens at work.


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Because the fencing has large openings, they will stick their heads out to reach for grass and insects near the tunnels.


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And as it seems to be a tradition, it looks like the best tomatoes of the season will be picked in the compost pile.  This happens every year because the compost is not getting hot enough to kill the seeds from the tomatoes we toss in there.


IMG_4409These look like jelly bean cherries and most likely are sweet.  Trader Joe’s sells packages of mixed heirloom tomatoes and small sweet cherries and when we are not picking our own, I buy those.  Until they ripen, I will not know for sure but it really does not matter; ripe tomatoes picked from the vine are always better than anything from the store!

Keep gardening friends and don’t forget to visit the Corbin in the Dell blog to see what Melissa is up to!

garden snapshots; life with chickens, bees and butterflies

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You’ve heard the saying, life gives you lemons-make lemonade, or something like that.  So we purchased six pullets, and when one turns out to be a rooster, you look for ways to make that lemonade thing work.  And if you have looked closely at the photo above, you wonder just what I am talking about because that is obviously a photo of five hens and you are correct.  Number 6, the rooster, is not in that photo, he is in the one below and a quick glance makes it pretty obvious.


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No question which one he is.  The hatchery guarantees an 85% accuracy rate on sexing them as they hatch.  One in six, about 85% accurate.  He had to go, especially since he had learned to crow.  Last time we saw him, he was tucked under the arm of a nice older gentleman who had a large farm and a collection of roosters like ours that needed a new home because city folk cannot have roosters.  He is surely enjoying the farm and his ability to free range the cotton fields.


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It took us several tries and a few near misses to lure him into the cage for the long ride.  He almost seemed to know that the jig was up.


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For a 14 week old bird, he was pretty and I am a little disappointed that I will not see him with all of his adult feathers.


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The garden in mid summer is teeming with surprises.  Finding these little guys on my dill plant was exciting because we were hoping for some caterpillars.  Although, they did eat most of the leaves and my dreams of homemade salad dressing were shelved until the next time I have a plant with leaves.


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Society garlic is an ornamental plant and if it has flowers like this, it is welcome in my herb garden.


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We have a lot of cucumber vines, not so many cukes but plenty of vines and on a stroll past one morning, I noticed a bumble bee tangled in the vines.  Except that it wasn’t tangled in a vine, he was caught in the arms of a praying mantis and apparently, his breakfast.  Such is the life in a garden and for all of you who did not know, a praying mantis will eat bugs of all kinds, good or bad which means that sometimes, the good bugs get eaten.


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He did not seem to enjoy the photo shoot so I moved on…


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Summer is salad season and in my garden, I have few greens to pick.  From the top left, going clockwise; leaf lettuce, nasturtium leaf, lemon balm, parsley, beet greens, mallow-chima(an asian green) and colorful swiss chard.


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Remember those caterpillars?  They get big quickly…


IMG_4061And finally, cucumber vines do crazy things-love the spiral that the tendril formed.  Until next time, garden on friends…

keeping up with the joneses; maintaining the garden in summer

It’s summer, finally.  The spring that wouldn’t come has finally gone and we are now enduring 100 degree days.  For the gardener, summer weather presents many challenges.  Whether it is the high heat and humidity, long, dry spells or of the many insects and blights of all kinds, there is always something that needs doing.  This week, Melissa of Corbin in the Dell and I are exploring the many needs of a garden in summer.

Each winter, as seed catalogs arrive, I patiently await the warmer weather to plant my vegetables.  When the dreary weather passes, garden centers begin selling starter plants and gardeners snatch them up quickly, myself included.  The funny thing is that not all of these plants are best suited for spring weather here in the south but it never stops me from trying and this year was no exception.  Brassicas, commonly referred to as cole crops, which include broccoli, brussels sprouts,  cauliflower, cabbage and the like do not do well in warm weather.  By the time the garden centers set them out in March and April, it is almost too late to grow them here and honestly, they are better suited to the fall season.   While listening to a Q & A with organic farmer Jeff Poppen, he declared to all that brassicas need to come out of the ground by May or they will attract all sorts of undesirable insects to the garden and he is right-some day I need to listen to this advice!  Our spring weather was a few weeks behind and I just pulled out the last of our broccoli and kohlrabi.

Remember, gardening is a continuous cycle and the seasons flow somewhat seamlessly.  As temperatures creep up then down, plants thrive, mature and ultimately begin the process of dying.  For many vegetables, succession planting will keep you harvesting produce for longer periods and I try to use that method in my garden.  Thankfully, Virginia has a long growing season and since our first frost date isn’t until November, I am still starting seeds and planting summer crops and dreaming of fresh picked corn and tomatoes.

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Pulling out last seasons plants to make way for the next wave is just one task on the gardening “to do” list.  Keeping the bad bugs at bay will also keep you busy.  Even if you just garden with flowers, there will be battles with bugs!  In my new shade beds, I discovered some wooly aphids in one of my hanging planters.  The fluffy white stuff on the stem in the photo above is actually a few wooly aphids.  As you walk through your garden looking for signs of pests, be sure to lift the leaves and look carefully at the whole plant including the undersides of the leaves.


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One of the worst offenders in a summer vegetable garden is a flea beetle.  They can quickly devour leaves and the damage can kill a plant.


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This is a leaf on one of my eggplants that flea beetles damaged.  The damage reduces the plant’s ability to produce chlorophyl and it can die as a result.  While I do practice organic gardening, I will occasionally use pesticides but only those considered acceptable for organic gardening.  To combat these horrible creatures, I sprayed the plants with pyrethrin and the plant is now recovering from the damage.


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And just as insects can damage a plant, so can sunshine; this celery plant shows signs of sun scald on the leaves.  Over the winter, I grew a celery plant from the bottom part that was cut off the bunch.  By slicing off a thin piece of the root end and placing it in a dish of water, and in time, some roots appeared.  Eventually, I planted it in a pot of soil and then put it out in the garden still in the pot.  As it grew and grew, I decided to take it out of the pot and plant it in one of the bales.  Unfortunately, I put it in a bale that gets a little too much sun and I will most likely move it to a bale that offers more shade.  

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Basil is one of my favorite plants in summer for so many reasons.  It tastes good, smells wonderful and is actually a pretty plant but if you let the flowers grow, it will stop producing leaves so be sure to snip them off as they appear.  Since I am also a beekeeper, I tend to let a few of the flowers remain on the plants because honeybees love basil too and they will visit the blooms to gather nectar.

IMG_3859 While I have not seen honeybees visit a dill plant, I have seen many caterpillars on them.  But just like basil, if you leave the flowers in place, the plant will switch over to reproduction mode and it will concentrate on producing seeds so be sure to snip these off too!  Then be sure to harvest the leaves and mix up a batch of homemade buttermilk ranch dressing!

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Potatoes are such an easy vegetable to grow and if you plan your beds, you can grow a companion plant above the soil while the potatoes grow below, a great way to maximize limited space.  In late spring, flowers will appear and soon after, the vines will begin to die.  Once the vines die, it is time to harvest the potatoes.  Our Yukon gold potatoes are coming along nicely and as these vines die off, I will pull apart the bales to find them.

As the season progresses, a gardener must pay close attention to details.  Weeds can be a problem at any time so it is important that you remove them quickly.  To keep the soil from drying out, use mulch in the beds.  Another plus to using mulch is that it can also help keep the weeds at bay.  Applying fertilizers or compost tea as well as treating for pests is an ongoing process so be sure to use these products properly for the best results.  Some pests are best treated by hand picking.  When asparagus beetles, harlequin bug and stink bugs descend on my garden, I fill a 1-2 gallon bucket with water and mix in a few tablespoons of dish soap.  After stirring it to mix, I simply drop the offending critters in and watch them drown.  This works for caterpillars too so if you see one munching on plants, give it the same watery grave.


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Not all insects in the garden are a problem.  Dragonflies feed on mosquitoes and judging by the number of them flying around here, I must have a lot of mosquitoes in the garden!  At any given time, half a dozen or more dragonflies are hunting in my garden and when they are as colorful as this one, it is hard not to take a minute or two to chase after one with a camera…


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This one is not as colorful but it sat still and watched me as I took several photos.

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This planter box was the first one I added to the front of the house and the plants here are much more established than the others.  As a matter of fact, I have had to trim some of the plants just to keep them in check.  Recently, my mother noticed a house wren going in and out of the planter.  He would return each time with grass or small twigs, and yes, he not she because male wrens are the nest builders.  The whole wren courtship ritual is interesting to watch.  The males build a nest or two and then sing out in the hope of attracting a female.  Whether or not our little guy was successful remains to be seen, in the mean time, we have a spare nest available if anybody needs one…


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At first glance, the nest is not noticeable and that is good for the wrens but in truth, it makes watering the box a little bit of a challenge.


IMG_3876Look at the work that went into this little nest.  Strand by strand, that lady wren is one lucky bird!  And much to our surprise, she said yes!  We discovered that the little lady wren laid some eggs in the nest when I approached the planter to water it and she flew out.  A quick peek inside revealed two speckled eggs!

When we moved into our home last fall, we knew that a garden would be part of our new yard.  Slowly, we sculpted the beds and layered them with the falling leaves, coffee grinds and compost which will be turned into the soil with hopes of lightning the dense, compacted clay.  While we waited patiently for spring to arrive, we added 45 straw bales to the beds and now that summer is here, the first of the bales are beginning to collapse.  A few are leaning like drunkards, threatening to spill over and dump out the plants in them and I couldn’t be happier!  Having followed the instructions found all over the interwebs for straw bale gardening, I suddenly have a large supply of compost to turn into the soil.  But, do not call this method a success, yet.  And if truth be told, I wouldn’t follow those directions again because the extreme amount of fertilizer called for has the ability to cause just as many problems as the instructions claim they solve.  Look for more on this method later in the year, I will keep updating and I plan on a complete review in the fall.

Be sure to visit Melissa’s blog to see how she takes care of her mid-season garden.