Mysteries of March

As much as I love my summer ritual of walking around the garden to see what’s growing, I also relish early spring’s routine; hunting for signs of life. Just as I’m thrilled when blossoms burst open, I love spring’s purple carpet of crocuses covering the backyard and finding tender foliage tips strong enough to break through the hardened ground after a cold, icy and snowy winter.






No matter the season, or plant’s growth stage, the ritual’s motivation is simple and consistent; nature is engrossing. The fleeting, fresh exuberance of spring flowers sets the stage for summer’s color parade, fragrances, continuous change and in some gardens, harvests. And just when summer’s glory (and work) begins to fade, in walks fall with its own color palette and signs of change.

I don’t think I could live somewhere without distinct seasons, though I’m told that even in areas where the temperature is relatively consistent year round, there are subtle differences between seasons.  I just have a hard time imagining spring without associating it with the excitement of finding fresh buds on trees and/or discovering the treasures planted in late fall. Crocuses, daffodils, tulips, wisteria and alliums announce that it’s only a matter of weeks before it’s safe to put out pansies, geraniums, impatiens, primrose and annuals.  








Springing forward signals it’s time to anticipate the Cherry Blossom Festival. The trees look dormant to my uneducated eye but the experts say blooms are only weeks away with the peak occurring somewhere around the second week of April.  With Cherry Blossom time comes brilliant quince bushes, Scotch Broom, clematis climbing over everything from mailboxes to trellises, dramatic saucer magnolias, redbuds (I can’t wait to see my new weeping redbud), the delicious smell of lilacs, ants doing their duty on peony buds and azaleas . . . to name a few. Azalea festival dates will soon be advertised – an annual event I rarely miss.  




The sounds of early spring are as unique and special to this time as changes in the landscape. Without as many leaves to hide behind, brilliant red cardinals are easy to spot and their coloring is a beautiful contrast to whatever snow remains. I’m not facile with birdcalls but I think I hear songbirds and the Mourning Doves distinct lament. My garden ritual includes listening for new sounds and quietly watching for nesting behavior.

Late spring is a perfect time to find nests as birds carry nesting materials in their beaks; they unwittingly lead you to their nest(s). Just be sure to watch from afar and take note of their behavior rather than inspecting, up close, the nest’s progress.  If possible, walk quickly past the nest to catch a glimpse or else you might give a potential predator all the details they need.   




Last November, nothing would do but to refresh the spring garden by planting new varieties of bulbs for color, height and a dash of drama. As much as I would like to do the planting myself, my spine has other ideas and I need help with many gardening tasks. With my gardener (Serena) we laid out a general plan for the new bulbs knowing that it’s especially important for me to be able to see growth from the tall kitchen windows — the truth is, when I’m having a bad “pain day” it’s really difficult for me to get shoes on my feet much less traipse through the soggy, sometimes slippery, garden path. Serena said she knew exactly what she wanted to plant along the meandering banks of the dry stream bed – something tall, colorful and new to my garden. She didn’t reveal more and I didn’t want to know. I wanted, and want, to watch the mystery unfold. I’m pretty sure I know what she planted but the foliage is new to my garden and I’m excited to see what emerges.

Growing plants can be a great surprise and I enjoy watching the story unfold.  Many of the new bulbs are a mystery and although some foliage provides a reliable clue, it doesn’t mean the mystery’s solved in its entirety – sure, I know what a daffodil looks like when it’s only an inch out of the ground but I don’t know what kind of daffodil it is.  And I can wait – that’s part of the fun.  





So far, March is coming in like a lamb (not a lion) and signs of garden growth surround me.  The beautiful green foliage dotting the landscape is a yard littered with mysteries. Much of what grows in March is a mystery to me. What is it about the appearance of those green tips that gets this gardener’s heart racing? Is it the appreciation for another season’s encore performance? The anticipation of what will emerge in the coming weeks? The delight in finding life?  Or is it all of the above?

This morning I solved a few more mysteries; snowdrops, hellebores and a few grape hyacinths opened in today’s sunny, moderate temperatures. I noticed more bulbs beginning to shoot up leaves – one is in the area where I planted the coveted trillium last year. Could it be? Am I going to be that lucky? Why is there no sign of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit or is it too early?  What are these other lovely green clues?  













No, don’t tell me the answer. I’d rather read the story cover to cover and hope for a terrific revelation that, I hope, will repeat next spring.  






A Winter of Discontent

This winter I have a case of the dreaded “winter blues.” I’m pretty sure the unrelenting pain in my spine has a lot to do with it but then again, it probably is more complicated than that. I feel at odds about so many things, like I have one foot in the waters of being an active parent with my time structured by an academic calendar and events and another foot cautiously entering the waters of the life of an empty nester (so why do I bother with looking at the cancellations due to bad weather? Not like I’m driving carpool).

I don’t have a solution for handling this Winter of Discontent. All I’ve figured out, so far, is that it’s probably transient and typical of many others in my demographic.  With that, I hope to keep moving forward, trying new things and discarding things weighing me down. I’ve been thinking a lot about where I would like to be in a few years and what makes me happy just as much as I’ve mulled over what makes me feel so out of sorts right now.

The constant in my life is finding solace in nature. It’s not just taking a walk in a garden, although that is definitely a way to lift spirits, it’s bringing nature close to awaken the senses dulled in winter months.  






I keep a candle near my bed; Nest’s “Narcissus” – a smell that, for me, is reminiscent of winter holidays with family. My mother always had lovely paper whites blooming in shallow, pebble filled dishes set on the coffee table in the living room over the winter months. In Cleveland, any aroma of the earth, other than snow, was refreshing and welcomed (though my own family doesn’t like the smell). The candle is poured into a beautiful porcelain container etched with narcissus and is as lovely lit as it is unlit.

In addition to the candle, I like coaxing narcissus bulbs but this year I tried doing them individually in hourglass shaped glass containers tied with a gold wire-edged ribbon. They looked festive, I enjoyed watching the roots grow and they quickly popped open to expose the fragrant flower.  




But I also had to get a few bunches of paper whites for a vase – for me, they fit with the season, I love their smell and I feel nostalgic for their flower during the winter holidays.  I needed more than just a few sparse blooms.  



Tulips, my favorite flower, are usually easy to find in any store this time of year and I’ve been fortunate, and grateful, to receive on two occasions beautiful bunches of vibrant, long lasting tulips. They brought color to my room after recuperating from some spinal procedures and definitely brightened my mood. Nature’s beauty, and the generosity and thought of my husband and a close friend, lifted my mood considerably.  








Just when I think this area’s gardens are dull, I’m reminded by Elizabeth Lawrence’s “Through the Garden Gate” (edited by Bill Neal) that gardens are always alive and, if you are willing to be a student, full of lessons. The book, a recent gift from my very close, insightful and fellow gardening friend serves as a good reminder and is the perfect addition to my bedside library. The bedside library is simply a stack of books I like to – or need to – grab when I’m in dire need of awakening the senses that are obvious in warm months and more hidden in these cold, winter months.

As is the Stashower Custom, we receive amaryllis bulbs for a holiday gift. The tradition began long ago and like clockwork, a bulb from White Flower Farm arrives in December and for several months, we enjoy watching them grow from bulb to blossom.


Past blogs have talked about the importance of this gift and how grateful I am that my father continues the tradition though it has been a few years since my mother passed away.  Her aesthetics, joy in selecting the bulbs and delight in keeping track of their progress is as clear today as it was decades ago when she first started sending the bulbs.  












There have been years of spectacular blooms and this year’s choice, Amaryllis Matterhorn, continues the streak. The bulb has two stalks; one has already blossomed and is past its prime, the second stalk is about to bloom.













It’s mid February and I’ve received several notices marking the anniversary of my mother’s passing is only a few weeks away. I know that contributes to the Winter of my Discontent. I miss my mother just as I miss the years when our family gathered in Cleveland.  Maybe when I feel like I’m floundering and unsure about things, I should look to the constants in life and hold them close to my heart.

I miss you, mom. 

Just a Juniper?

Last month’s ice storm glazed the garden with a shiny layer of ice.  For the most part, it was beautiful (easy for me to say, I was warm and comfortable inside the house) – the curly willow’s limbs were encased in ice formed ringlets on each branch, the Edgeworthia’s dangling seed pods glistened and the weeping redbud’s limbs looked graceful wrapped in ice. After a quick inspection to make sure nothing had been damaged, I was able to look around the yard and admire the new Ice Garden.





As I was about to breath a sigh of relief, I noticed that the huge juniper, home to many mourning doves and other nests, broke away from the bolts holding it upright against the brick wall and was laying prostrate across the Green Bed in the backyard. I’ve never been a huge fan of this evergreen and it wouldn’t be there had I not inherited it when I moved into this house but removing it wasn’t a priority (fixing things like the ever leaking flat roof took precedence). Over time, I didn’t grow to love the juniper but I accepted it.  The juniper gained favor when I discovered it was a nest magnet. Year after year, reliably I have at least three successful cycles of mourning dove nests. Their nests are flimsy and unsophisticated but the juniper is a wonderful deterrent to predators. The doves nestle deep within the branches and are barely visible – I can’t tell you the number of times I walked by the juniper oblivious to a nest with eggs or fledglings. The few times I was able to watch and document a nest probably represents only a fraction of the number of successful nests hidden in the limbs.  

I was unreasonably upset when I saw the fallen juniper. I wasn’t worried about the garden under the weight of the juniper because almost everything is dormant – it just looked so wrong. How could something that had been so sturdy and dependable for decades fall under the weight of a little ice? We’ve had plenty of huge snowstorms and ice in previous winters. But this was not about rational explanations like worn out bolts, rusted wire or a top-heavy tree.  Unreasonably and irrationally, I just kept thinking, “this shouldn’t have happened. This is wrong!”

In one of my really irrational moments, I related to the tree on a personal level (it should not be said that I’m a completely rational gardener at all times). Until recently I, like the juniper, was reliable and upright. But, after years of surgery and complications, my spine has become less reliable and I am no longer steady. I have difficulty maintaining my balance and need more assistance doing ordinary tasks. On a really bad day of pain, I’ll say to my husband “it just feels like my spine can no longer hold me up – it’s like I need supports to get, and stay, upright”. I guess the juniper felt that way when weighed down by ice.

I looked at the prostrate evergreen and thought through the options; trim some of the weight off and hope it would right itself, cut it down completely or call someone to make a new, strong support. I may not love the tree, but I know how much I, and the doves, would miss it.

The juniper, thanks to new supports, is now upright. Me? Not so much. It’s unlikely such a simple solution can be replicated for a human spine. Until then, I’ll enjoy the evergreen and look forward to the doves returning to their home.  

Sunrise on Squam

I woke up at 6:45 AM and almost went back to bed. I was enjoying a Columbus Day Weekend spent in my grandparents’ house on the shore of Squam Lake, and I wanted nothing more than to sleep in, to do what I had been aching to do ever since the hectic schedule of my senior year of high school had started up at the beginning of the fall. But I dragged myself out of my warm bed, threw on every layer I could find, grabbed my new camera, and shuffled outside to meet my parents and sister, who were awake for the same reason I was. I hoped this would be worth it.  

We slipped into life jackets, dusted off our paddles, and slid our kayaks into the water. A summer spent paddling down white rivers had made me forget the sensation of cutting through placid, glassy, early morning water. I circled through a small inlet like a knife through butter. But after snapping some awesome shots of my family through the golden fog, my teenage impatience began to resurface. I considered pointing my bow back at the tiny dock at the edge of the inlet.




Then came that classic, cliché moment, where something seen out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I had spotted a loon – special, but not too exciting. Despite much worry about their declining numbers, loons were not an uncommon sight on Squam. Yet then there were two, then, three, and by the time I had paddled closer, seven had surfaced. I kept moving towards them, inch by inch, trying my best to quiet the rustle of water that came with each delicate stroke. My paddle’s movements took on a quality of careful precision as I abandoned my typical intent for greater power. I had never been so close to a single loon, let alone to such a remarkable group.  






I followed them around from cove to cove with my camera constantly clicking. Long after the rest of my family had turned in, I was still amazed that these birds trusted me enough to not instantly run away. Bit by bit, though, it came to feel like a prolonged chase. I wanted to keep my distance, but if I got too close to one, it would tuck its head into the water below, and with a flick of its upturned feet, its whole body would quickly disappear, leaving only rings of rippling sliver on the surface. Then another would follow, and within seconds I would be forced to hold still, waiting for all seven missing figures to finally poke through the top of the lake somewhere a little ways away. My camera could no longer capture the same close-up shots as before with the birds keeping farther and farther away, and I didn’t want to play the role of a potential predator in their minds.











I turned in and made my way back toward the dock, reverting back once again to a standard, confident stroke. My mind, though, was giddy, humming with excitement over the snapshots of those surreal moments. And my once-weary body and once-groggy eyes were now more than thankful to have been along for the ride.

Roots in Reality is proud to introduce Guest Blogger, Jesse Metzger, a high school senior from Newton, Massachusetts.  His blog and photographs clearly voice his respect and appreciation for nature.  When not being nudged by his cousin for a guest blog, Jesse is hard at work applying to colleges and pursuing his many talents and interests.

Definitely Not Dormant (Yet)

Although I was lax about posting in November, it’s not a sign of dormancy – I leave that for the plantings in the garden. I doubt it’s anything more nefarious than plain old laziness but I have to admit, without the excitement of daily gardening outside and the discovery of change, it has been more challenging to work up the enthusiasm for posts.  Although I’ve been negligent about writing, I haven’t been completely negligent about gardening.

Last month I finally bit the bullet and met with a gardener to work through a few options for the entrance to the yard. It’s a tricky area – narrow, shaded and difficult to plant around the roots of a large tree in some prime real estate. For me, it’s an important area as it welcomes people into the yard and if well planned and planted, it could set the tone for the garden.  But after several attempts, nothing has really come together and it’s come down to survival of the fittest. I like the dry stream “pond” feature and the ajuga has begun to weave in and out of the rocks, making it more natural and interesting, but the rest of the plants; boxwood, nandinas, ajuga, astilbe, ferns, hellebores and a few hostas don’t relate to each other and I would be hard pressed to say it looks cohesive, lush, interesting, colorful and/or inviting.

After considerable debate, we decided to add three plantings with definite, interesting shapes and moved some existing plants to other areas of the garden. In the spring, color will be added with a few perennials and I hope the Jack in the Pulpit and Trilliums return and begin to spread. That will definitely make for a warmer entry to the yard.  After a long day of planting, a Weeping Redbud (“Ruby Falls”) is nestled in a corner, by the entrance to the yard.   





The shape is new to my garden and that surprises me – it is a shape I love for many reasons; when the twins were young, my son referred to weeping trees (when the branches were not covered in leaves) as “fireworks trees.” To his young eye and imagination, the tree must have looked like the way fireworks look right after they’ve exploded and the colors trail down towards the ground.

The tree is an emotional addition because D.C.’s weeping cherries and redbuds were among my mother’s favorites. So, what better addition to my garden than a weeping redbud? I know my mother would approve and what daughter doesn’t seek her mother’s approval? My mother passed away a few years ago but her aesthetics and preferences are well represented in my garden.

The other two additions to the garden’s entrance include an Edgeworthia chrysantha (“Winter Gold”) and a Corylus avellana (“Real Majestic”). The Edgeworthia has seedpods dangling from its limbs now and will add a new shape and colors when blooming next spring.   


















The Corylus avellana’s branches will, in the winter, form catkins on the curly branches, making it look like some one put ornaments on the tree.  The foliage will be deep, reddish-purple and with the other additions, the entrance to the garden definitely looks more inviting.  






I hope these additions add interest to the garden year round – their shapes are stunning with or without foliage and I think they greet visitors to the garden in an interesting, warm and welcoming way. Equally important is their placement near a large window in the living room– nature makes the best window treatments. In the spring, as the perennials emerge and I add a few more plants to blend the entrance to the rest of the yard, I hope the landscape is less disjointed than before.

While out in the garden I was excited to see the some hellebores forming buds – this variety (“Green Victory”) is the earliest to bloom and the longest lasting. Like I said, my blog might have seemed dormant for a few weeks but there are a lot of things growing on.  




Time to Fall Back

The end of October and things are changing rapidly.  Time flies by, doesn’t it?

This is the time of year when many gardens start fading in earnest and it’s difficult to eek out much color or delight in the transformation. Sure, there’s foliage and change but let’s be honest, it’s not the same as spring.

Springing Forward seems like growth, anticipation, discovery and embracing the challenge of new plantings.  Falling Back feels like regression.  But it shouldn’t. Maybe Falling Back should be viewed as one of those trust exercises when someone willing hands over control and falls blindly into the cradle of supporting arms to break one’s fall.

A garden falls back and it’s beneficial.  Plants need to go dormant, the ground benefits from the time to “regroup” and restore its energy for another season of growth and gardeners enjoy a slower pace.  Falling back for my garden, and for me, is a time to rein things in a little more.  I definitely miss the morning routine when I walk around the garden to explore what’s new and cut flowers to bring into the house but I also look forward to the first snow, coaxing bulbs indoors and winter’s holidays.  I like a fire in the fireplace and for now, I’m OK with sweater-weather.  But just for now because I know it’s only a matter of time before I start looking for the first spring bulbs and look longingly at my sandals.  I’m nothing if not inconsistent.

This weekend we change our clocks and, for one day only, benefit from another hour in the day. One day only – hear that weather forecasters? I’m so tired of hearing them say “the days are getting shorter” because you know what? They are not getting shorter (or at least not measurably for the average person) – last time (sorry) I checked, ALL days are still 24 hours.  There may be fewer hours of sunlight as the sun sets a little earlier each day but no, the days are not really getting shorter.  




For anyone Falling Back this weekend, try to think of it as a beautiful time, not a loss. It’s when our plants go to sleep, curl up under the ground’s surface, replenish their strength and get ready to delight us when we Spring Forward.  Sleeping Beauty, perhaps? There’s always life in the garden, even when the signs are subtle.  Just coax those bulbs indoors and watch the roots take hold if you need a reminder.

Nature Sleuths – “There’s An App For That . . .”

In many ways, identifying things found in nature is like being able to solve a mystery.  And I, for one, would like to be Nancy Drew – Nature Detective.

I admire those who easily toss off the name of a flower (more impressive using the common and scientific name – show offs!), know an animal by its track, see a leaf and identify the tree or hear a bird’s song and know the species. That’s not me.  I’m the one constantly fumbling through my field guide(s) and/or muttering something about the curses of a Senior Moment.  The truth is, I have a hard time reliably naming many, if not most, of the things in nature I enjoy so much. It’s embarrassing.

I could really use a Cheat Sheet or Cliff Notes for Nature.  It’s the same feeling as hearing a familiar tune on the radio but not being able to identify the song. There’s an app for that; “Shazam.”  Hold your smartphone up to the radio playing a song you can’t identify and Shazam! The song’s title and artist is identified and displayed on your phone.

That’s it. I need Shazam for Nature.

I want to walk through gardens, take a picture with my iTouch and within minutes, get information about the plant I’m unable to identify. Why stop there? How about identifying birds by a descriptor or tree by its bark, leaves or location.  Butterflies are particularly uncooperative – they move too fast so how am I supposed to take a picture much less observe and obtain a reliable description?  




Fellow Nancy Drew, Hardy Boy, Kojak, Quincy, Dupin, Bobbsey Twin, Cam Jansen, Scarpetta, Maxwell Smart, Jessica Fletcher, Marple, and Columbos of the nature world unite – you are in luck. Technology is now on our side and some of nature’s mysteries can be solved. Even in nature, “There’s An App For That.”

Not only are there apps and on line resources for identification and information but there are many important “citizen scientist” programs going one-step further to bridge the gap between an amateur’s observations and scientific, professional research.

Nature sleuths become “citizen scientists” by taking part in any one of the numerous programs offered through various organizations. The collaboration between citizens interested in nature and professional researchers makes sense. Citizens can contribute data scientists might not otherwise have access to nor would they be familiar with all locations. It is highly unlikely scientists would have the time to collect data, by staying in one location, over the course of several days or weeks. When programs use data collected by citizens in residential locations, researchers are given a unique perspective and their programs’ boundaries are expanded. We can help by being the eyes and ears of nature’s activities in disparate locations. Research teams comprised of amateurs and professionals represent diverse demographics and develop a deep, diverse, rich database.

By simply participating in YardMap (information below) that uses Google Maps, scientists analyze a large database and study climate change, urbanization, pollution and land use. By participating in these programs, nature sleuths are given the rare opportunity to see their own information on maps in conjunction with thousands of other participants under the direction of professional scientists.

Below are just a few of the programs, apps and Internet resources that can help ease those Senior Moments and help us engage in nature . . .      

PLANT AND LANDSCAPE PROGRAMS: is a free, interactive mapping project where citizen scientists locate their yards or parks on a Google map and participate in a network investigating the impacts of bird-friendly and carbon neutral practices in backyards, community gardens and parks.  Approximately 200,000 people participate annually, resulting in 5,491 maps drawn and counted. The snapshot from this effort revealed that:

  • 75% of threatened and endangered species are on private land.
  • 1.2 million acres of non-native lawns cover the U.S.
  • 21 million acres are lost every 10 years to residential landscape.

YardMap helps you learn how to build a bird habitat in your yard to encourage new species into your yard – you’ll enjoy the beauty, and sound, of bringing songbirds so close to home.

A free, on line gardening site, Garden-Share is a simple, fun and informative way to share your garden and take virtual tours of someone else’s backyard. Users can develop a personal page using photographs and narrative, join groups with similar interests (Backyard Retreats, Perennial Gardens, Container Gardens, Wildflowers) and submit question to amateur and Master gardeners. Garden-Share not only allows users to create their own page but it’s an easy site to navigate through photos, videos, blogs and events.

A series of impressive electronic field guides developed by Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution. Free mobile apps with visual recognition software allow users to identify the tree species based on photographs of the leaves. It is a free (IOS) guide to plants in North America. Not only are there several identification programs on Leaf Snap but there’s a really great feature allowing the user to snap a picture of a leaf (against a white background), upload it to the site and in return, Leaf Snap provides you with the best match – allowing you to identify the tree within minutes and on site. Shazam!

For somewhere around $5 (depending on which app), Audubon Trees works as a virtual field guide without needing to carry around an actual guide or leafing through (sorry) pages for information.  Although Audubon Trees does not have the automatic identification program found in many other Internet guides, it does have an amazing database making identification fairly easy. There is also something called Nature Share (similar to Garden Share described above) – an on line program allowing users to upload pictures and look at others.


A joint project between The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon and a Canadian partner, Bird Studies Canada, the GBBC is a 4 day annual event for beginner to advanced bird watchers all over the world providing scientists with a real-time snapshot of where the birds are – a picture no single scientist, or team of scientists, could possibly document without enlisting the observations (using check lists) from citizen scientists in such diverse and disparate locations.  This information gives researchers more information about what is happening to bird populations and identify increasing and decreasing species.

The 2014 GBBC will take place Friday, February 14, through Monday, February 17. Checklists can be accepted from anywhere in the world.

Educators please take note there are special resources for kids who may want to become involved.

By finding and monitoring bird nests, NestWatch participants help scientists track the breeding success of birds across North America. Scientists use these data to track the reproductive success of North American breeding birds across the continent. Launched in 2007, NestWatch has collected more than 100,000 nesting records. This information will help scientists address how birds are affected by large-scale changes such as global climate change, urbanization, and land use.

iBird Plus is a bird spotting application ($15) allowing birders access to a database of over 1,000 species. It was the first birding app featured in the Apple TV ad “we have an app for that.” There’s a search function to provide users with a list of birds that match characteristics the user enters (descriptions of size, shape, location, etc.) and Bird Plus has an audio application to identify birdcalls. Bird Plus includes a wealth of information and users can upload pictures to share on the social network. The program includes identification, behavior, habitat and ecology information with illustrations, photographs, maps and playable birdcalls

This digital field guide ($15) uses animal tracks for identification of anything that doesn’t fly. The database has over 60 mammal species and is filled with hundreds of track drawings and descriptions. It’s simple enough for beginners (entering basic characteristics of a track) and experts, too. This guide provides information about measuring animal tracks and includes considerable information about track anatomy.  Like many, if not most, other programs mentioned, they can also be followed on Facebook.  


Got footprints? Be a gumshoe and ID the animal based on the tracks.

There are more programs than I’ve listed here – just spend a little time on line and soon you’ll discover how easy it is to access information.  Loving nature and learning more about what you observe is not only a high tech activity – don’t forget to ask questions, go to the parks around where you live and participate in their programs.  There’s no “right” or “better” time to take a garden tour – every season is beautiful and each has its own unique characteristics and window into nature’s life cycles. Don’t just go to the nursery because you want to plant something – browse through the nursery, ask questions, become familiar with plants in every stage of growth and learn about planting times, soil amendment, mulching and tools. In fact, some of the best, most informative times to visit a nursery are when it’s not brimming with weekend gardeners with carts full of Instant Pretty – annuals and plans in bloom, ready for an immediate garden transformation.

By coaxing bulbs inside during the cooler months you have a front row seat to the delight of seeing a plant emerge from a bulb. Bring that excitement, beauty and aroma into the house and look at the gardening catalogues even when it’s not time to plant. The best gardens can be planned during the time when you’re not in a rush to work the beds.

The next time you see a beautiful bird, smell a lovely flower, walk through a park, admire the wildflower patches along a highway, watch a television special about an animal species, or think about how to engage in nature, please consider these programs, resources and apps.

Love nature? You’re a natural detective.

Fall Into Gardening

It has taken me a long time to come around to thinking about fall gardening as more than a list of chores; replacing the summer gardening tools, containers and supplies with winter’s implements, planting a few bulbs for next spring and pruning whatever’s appropriate for care in the fall.  But that’s just a list of jobs, it’s not gardening and there’s a big difference.

Fall gardening can be just as creative, exciting, laborious and productive as any other season – it’s just different. Some of the fall work is – there’s no other way of putting it – just work; putting away things that might not make it through the cold weather, turning off spigots, storing the hose, putting away the sprinkler and watering cans and locating a snow shovel . . . you get the idea.

But some of the work done during cool months is fall gardening and not only can many things be planted and enjoyed in the fall, much of the effort lays a foundation for the next blooming season and the pay off can be great.  It’s not as exciting as putting a plant in the ground, watering it and watching it bloom but if the gardening process continues; planting, mulching and attending to the soil, you are gardening and it will pay off in spades (sorry for the pun) when warm weather returns.

I’ve never been fond of planting mums or decorative kale in the fall but I’m starting to come around to planting pansies to bring more color into the garden.  They won’t last much past the first real frost but who knows when that might be? Fall crocuses planted now will bloom in a few weeks – better yet, they’ll bloom every fall. The turtleheads are beautiful pops of color and the sedum (stonecrop) is a nice contrast against the dry stream bed. The helenium and heliopsis faded earlier this year but at least they bloomed well into the first weeks of September.  








Looking around the yard, I can see areas in sore need of late blooming plants – either things faded earlier this year or I’ve ignored the beds dominated by mid summer blooms. Fall gardening this year might mean adding Joe Pye Weed and maybe a caryopteris. I like the sedum and succulents, many are changing color now, and I might be persuaded to add more decorative grasses but I need to think about that for a while.



Summer gardening is all about instant gratification; pots filled with all kinds of beautiful, colorful, interesting annuals can be scattered around the patio and in the garden beds, making an immediate impact.  Those pots can hide flaws and divert attention away from problem areas. I know one gardener who uses large terra cotta pots to hold up a decaying fence. The fence isn’t fixed but it’s masked by beautifully planted container gardens.

Only recently have I become enthusiastic about fall gardening’s combination of instant and delayed gratification. The first step was to change my mindset.  There’s no way of getting around that list of chores but if you include other jobs, such as dividing plants, pruning, transplanting and planting, working in the garden is less about cleaning up from summer and preparing for winter and more about enjoying fall’s beauty and planning for spring. This fall, I’m going to divide some of the larger hostas and plant them in an area I noticed wasn’t getting as much sun as in previous summers.  They’re still green so I’ll enjoy the plant for a few more weeks and see the fruits of my labor. And when the circles of green leaves begin to emerge next spring, I’ll be ahead of the game and the shady area will have some color. Very gratifying.

Over the summer, I noticed many of the plants in the perennial bed straining to get more sun – as a result, several plants had only a few blossoms and a shorter than usual blooming period. Instead of waiting until spring to work the bed, I can do some transplanting now – while I can see the plants and things are fresh in my memory (not all plants can be transplanted in the fall so do some research to guide your fall gardening). Many of the plants were put into the ground when that area was full sun. Over time, it has become a partial shade bed and in the coming weeks, I’ll move the Japanese Anemone, geum, sundrops and Mexican primrose in the sunny area and transplant some shade loving plants into the bed’s shady corner.  








As temperatures become consistently cooler and the leaves need collecting, I’ll begin planting more bulbs (& trying to find the tulips so they can be replanted instead of sinking too low in the ground), amend the soil and begin leaf mulching. There are a few areas where I’d like to move around some existing bushes and add a few new shrubs (if I can find good sales).

Fall is a great time to plant many shrubs, bushes and trees – most of which will be on sale at the local nursery. Don’t base your decision on what it looks like right now because it won’t be in its prime – with a little research, it will be easy to envision it in your garden and make an informed selection. The other reason I think this is a good time to make decisions about potential larger plantings is because now is when the “bones” or structure of a garden can be easily viewed.  Now, I can see a few neglected areas but in the summer, when blossoms mask flaws and I’m preoccupied with what’s growing, I probably don’t pay as much attention to the overall framework of the landscape – but I should.

With all of that being said, maybe this has been my way of justifying some purchases. For a while I’ve wanted to add, among a few other things, some varieties of cornus to the yard and have my eye on Cornus sericea Arctic Fire. I love the way the foliage and branches turn a rich, deep red in the fall, it’s strikingly beautiful – all the more so against a bed of snow.  





Fall gardening is a little like being a Monday morning quarterback (that phrase must have been pre Monday night football) – by reviewing summer’s growth with an assessment of the current garden’s status, planting seasons continue and build upon the previous months. Things don’t stop just because it’s cold outside.  Fall gardening augments what’s already there, builds upon successes and/or correct problems. While taking care of the inevitable gardening chores, lay the groundwork for seasons to come and appreciate the seasonal changes.

I love to imagine what’s happening underneath the ground’s surface as plants enter this stage in their life cycle. There’s something I find delightful in imagining my beloved poppies while dormant.  




Do they curl up against something soft and comfortable, doze and wait for the warm sun to urge them upwards? It comforts me to know that as “dead” as my perennial garden looks, the truth is – nothing could be further from the truth. I’ll miss seeing these beautiful blooms but I know they’re there – waiting until next summer to strut their stuff.

Greene Thumb

Thank you to everyone who participated in’s You-Pick-The-Plant Contest celebrating the blog’s first year anniversary. Traditionally, a first anniversary’s symbol is a gift made of paper but that doesn’t exactly fit with this blog’s theme, does it?

To recap . . . the gardening dilemma centers on a trio of trellises:

 Back in the glory days, the trellises were covered in a trio of clematis vines:






This year, blooms were sparse  and only the deep purple produced a few blooms. This is a photo of the trellises at the height of their glory and as you can see, it’s not exactly lush and what little bloomed was short-lived:  





Readers were given a few parameters for entries (exposure, height, zone) and after careful review, we selected the entry we felt would due justice to the trellises and their location.

Suggestions included Hardy Passionflower, Akebia, Bougainvillea, Clematis Armandii, Pyracantha, False Climbing Hydrangea, Cardinal Flower Vine and Knockouts.  All are good choices and, not surprisingly, each has pro’s and con’s.  After weighing all factors, we’re thrilled to announce the winner:

First prizeCathy Greene’s suggestion of Cardinal Flower Vine (Ipomea x multifida) seems like a wonderful addition to the trellises and as she described, they would cover the trio with “an airy cloud of lacy green foliage and tiny, star-shaped red flowers.  It’s an exceptionally easy annual to plant in spring, is fast growing, blooms profusely . . . and provide near year-round interest because of the tiny, barrel-shaped seed heads that persist in winter.  The deal clincher is that Cardinal Flower Vine is a hummingbird magnet!”

We will plant the vine in the spring and believe they’ll co-exist beautifully with whatever clematis decides to make a come back next spring. It’s a beautiful solution and we’re all for any plantings encouraging hummingbirds.

Congratulations to Cathy Greene and thank you to everyone who participated.  We’ll do it again next year in celebration of the second anniversary and probably will never run out of gardening dilemmas.  It’s so much more fun to watch the garden evolve with your participation.

Cathy has selected her solar light and it is being sent to her this week. We encourage all readers to submit suggestions, contribute guest blogs and please know we are always looking for new ideas (including other contests).

Here’s to Cathy and her Greene thumb!


This year, Sentimental September, my moodiest month, is punctuated and influenced by, among other things, the Jewish calendar. We are in the Days of Awe; the 10-days beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur.  Often this introspective and spiritual time is also referred to as the Time of Repentance. Most Jews use this time to think about the previous year’s sins and, before Yom Kippur, repent.

When I was young, I felt particularly anxious during The Days of Awe and stayed awake at night wondering what I had done wrong, how I would make things right and above all, would G-d hear and believe me? Would my name be inscribed in the Book of Life? As it was explained to me, the High Holidays were when G-ds book was opened and in it, names written. G’d used the time to write the names of the people who will live as well as those who will die. I distinctly remember thinking this was a whole lot harder than writing Santa a letter saying I had been a good girl and promising exemplary behavior in the year ahead.

Whether it is Sentimental September, The Days of Awe, New Year’s Eve, a life cycle event or an undistinguished, average day, there are always opportunities to reflect, reconcile with anyone who may have been wronged over the year, atone for sins against G-d (atoning for sins against another person starts with reconciliation with the individual and righting any wrongs) and think about how to lead a meaningful life.

For the scholars who might be reading this blog – either look away now or pursue this post, knowing my intent is not to offend (I know this is a gross over simplification).  However, a few things recently happened in my personal life that punctuate themes of the High Holidays and I would like to try and weave those experiences together because I feel like on whatever level they are viewed, they are connected.

During services, when the ark is opened to reveal the Torah scrolls, the congregation rises as an act of respect, sanctity and reverence. I always find it moving. All the more so during the High Holidays when the scrolls are specially dressed in white coverings. It doesn’t take a formal religious education to feel emotional when the Torah is revealed and the prayers chanted – the Days of Awe bring a shiver to the most jaded.

The first time I stood before a Torah scroll is etched in my memory and heart. I felt small, though I was an adult in my 40’s, and couldn’t help but think about the history the scroll represented. My hands shook as the Torah was unrolled and I began to chant my assigned reading. Those beautiful scrolls contain the words, stories and lessons of the Jewish people and for me, someone who learned and really understood their significance relatively late in life, those scrolls seemed untouchable (the truth is they really ARE untouchable by human hands.  Torah readers use a Yad – a pointer – to follow the letters). I felt a huge responsibility to do justice to the words, my Torah portion’s meaning, and to those who created the actual scroll.

The Torah’s parchment, sheets from a kosher animal, is soaked in limewater to extract hairs and other unwanted fibers and then stretched over a frame to dry. The scribe uses a moose feather and special ink for the intricate lettering.  After the Torah is complete, sinews are used to sew the sheets together, forming one long scroll. When the scroll is sewn together, it is attached to wooden rollers.

During these Days of Awe, I experienced the emotions of seeing another scroll that resonated strongly with me and it was not in another synagogue. Only days after attending Rosh Hashanah services, I was fortunate enough to view an art exhibit, “Nature Extracted” at Marymount University’s Barry Gallery. The exhibit, curated by Trudi Van Dyke, shows the work of Patterson Clark and Pam Rogers. As a long time reader of Patterson Clark’s column, Urban Jungle, in the Washington Post’s Health and Science section (Tuesdays), I was eager to view his work in a gallery setting. It was when I saw Patterson’s piece, “Scroll of Labor,” that I was filled with awe.

 Scroll of Labor

Weed-soot ink on paper from Morus alba. Supports made from PhyBostachys

Patterson’s journey probably began long before he starting clearing up parkland behind his home but for purposes of this blog, and explaining the artwork in “Nature Extracted,” suffice it to say things built up steam when he got a permit from the National Park Service to clear a park of invasive weeds and vines, many of which were making it impossible for indigenous species to grow.

Patterson’s respect for invasive weeds is evident – he talks about them reverence. My tone, when it comes to weeds, is less than reverent. The artist and botanist in Patterson experiments with the properties in invasive plants and weeds such as Ivy, Garlic Mustard, Mulberry, Mahonia, Rose of Sharon, Wineberry, Japanese Honeysuckle, Norway Maple and others to discover their potential use(s) in his art; some leaves, if not composted, can be used for inks or to make paper. Pigments are not only extracted from flowers, seeds, roots and stems but he also uses a process to use the soot as pigment.  Some wood is used for printing while other might be incorporated into the artwork’s frame.  




By understanding the unique properties extracted from the weeds, the plants’ materials create art. It’s just as much about process as it is product. Every piece displayed represented the process and many incorporated information about the weed itself, such as the number of species portrayed in the work:

They are beautiful works of art, enhanced when the intricate, laborious process is respected and understood. Hence, “Nature Extracted.” I wandered through the exhibit and suddenly, felt like one very uninformed, limited gardener.

The invasive bamboo many of us work hard to contain in our yards can be problematic for most gardeners and I must be honest, the thought of repurposing them, or thinking of them as anything remotely useful usually doesn’t cross my mind. As can be seen on, Patterson uses bamboo culms for drawing pens:

Patterson strips, cleans and cooks Multiflora Rose’s tender spring bark and extracts the thin and thick fibers to make paintbrushes.  The fibers are grouped and glued to the end of a bamboo culm make the brush.

Fibers are also used to make paper; young ones produce soft pinkish hues and coarse, dark ones produce deeper tones. When the Multiflora Rose’s roots are cooked (in an alkali), Patterson extracts a rust colored ink.  Alternatively, if he boils the roots in water, a different color is produced.


Invasive plant pigments on Acer platanus wood


Pigments from Mahonia bealei and Rubus phoenicolasius on Ailanthus altissima wood

Whether getting ink from ivy, identifying edible elements from what he collects or painstakingly processing paper, Patterson views these invasive weeds – yes, those weeds most of us groan and swear at – as honored, respected partners.  I admire that attitude but must be honest – it’s highly unlikely I will ever love mahonia or take the time to cut into the stalk and examine the colors much less use the plant for art or anything remotely beautiful. Patterson’s understanding and respect for these invasive weeds is stunning and admirable.

Below is a picture of one of Patterson’s pieces that, for me, exemplifies the aesthetics, labor, joy and partnership in his work with nature.  “Intersection” tells a story:






Invasive plant inks and papers


I admit to feeling pangs of guilt as I learned more from Patterson because only hours earlier, I went the easy route when my son needed art supplies. I didn’t collect weeds or think of another source other than heading off to the art store. There before us were tantalizing rows of pigments in every conceivable form and hue. I could buy them. I didn’t think about their source.  My son needed a sketchpad and it was easy for us to select a few different colors and weights of paper.  We’ll just have to see if anything needs a frame.

Scrolls are literally and visually, the balance and harmony of old and new.  With that in mind, this coming Friday night as I, with the other past Presidents of our synagogue, ascend the bimah and hold the Torah scrolls during the chanting of the Kol Nidre declaration, I think I will be able to close my eyes, just for a minute, and visualize the new scroll I saw just a week earlier.

May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

For more information about Patterson Clark’s work, check out the links below: