Absence Makes The Garden Grow . . .

Fonder? I’m not sure. More untamed, full of weeds and needing maintenance? Definitely. August has been a month when I’ve abandoned my usual morning routine of walking through the garden to check in on things and, as weather, mood and conditions allow, tend to the summer’s landscape. This summer has been an unusual one and for personal reasons (including a tonsillectomy at the ripe old age of 58 – an excruciatingly painful surgery I encourage anyone over the age of 8 to avoid) I haven’t been able to visit my garden and appreciate it as much as in summers before.
It’s August – the Dog Days are definitely upon us, oppressive heat discourages me from doing much of anything and as I slowly recuperate from the surgery (popsicles are definitely not a fabulous source of energy and for now, ice cream seems to makes things worse), I am finding myself a little more curious (and guilty) about what’s going on in the garden. Was it just a month ago when things looked so lush and full of optimism? Perennials were plentiful, annuals still fresh and adding summer color, trees and shrubs were blooming, there was enough rain to make watering less of a chore and sitting on the patio in the evening was genuinely enjoyable.

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Just a month ago, the White Chiffon Rose of Sharon was loaded with blooms, the day lilies, sundrops, St. John’s Wort and other perennials filled every square inch of the bed, Green Bed’s layers of different green tones and textures were punctuated by “winecups” – full and flowing like never before and at every turn, there was something colorful, blooming and/or lush. At that time, I was fighting back chronic tonsil pain and figured it would eventually go away – just as it had done for the majority of my life. But I couldn’t ignore it any more and after more than six doses of antibiotics, I knew it was time to take more decisive action and seek a permanent solution to my nagging tonsillitis. What better time to schedule it than summer? Knowing it meant eating cold foods and living life at a slower pace, it seemed only fitting to have the surgery during August’s “Dog Days.” I looked at the status of my garden in late July, felt it was in pretty good shape and bid it a fond, but temporary, good-bye so I could focus on surgery and recuperation. I’d seen the glory of Spring, filled the glazed pots with summer’s annuals and knew that August was the month when gardening, like so many other things, might just have to take a back seat to other priorities.

After the first few horrible days were behind me, I could only glance out the two story window and take a mild, almost disconnected, interest in the Pollinator Parade happily taking place right in front of me. I didn’t even have to get out of bed to see the brilliant yellow and dark blue swallowtails bending the branches on the Butterfly Bush. In a brief, and I mean brief, burst of energy I snapped a couple of pictures from the kitchen window. It took a lot to get me moving and I’ll admit my interest wasn’t infectious or more than cursory.



Looking out the window into the backyard, I could also pretend to be interested in the Native Bed and again, with fleeting interest I snapped a few pictures of the Cardinal Lobelia, Mountain Mint, Rudbeckia, Helenium, Butterfly Weed & other “standbys.” It was nice to see the plants return, it makes for a lovely view and I’m glad the garden has good enough “bones” to move forward even when I’m standing still and almost deliberately ignoring the joy, and work, of gardening. When I saw branches in need of trimming, daisies in sore need of deadheading and weeds winning the continuous battle for precious real estate, I glared at the garden, decided I really wasn’t feeling well enough to be bothered, looked at the skies in hope of rain and returned to bed. It pains me to admit this but I almost became resentful towards the garden. How dare it need me? Wasn’t it supposed to cheer me up and be a source of inspiration and solace? I just felt annoyed and all I could see was work, areas that needed attention and really dry garden beds. Yes, even turning on the hose seemed like too much of an imposition.   181cbcc9-8d54-4296-9d10-dfde37d938a3





0efed347-bc7a-4994-a33a-b68723852c26My absence from the garden came at a time when summer’s relentless heat and sparse amounts of rains couldn’t have come at worse time (in terms of gardening as well as enjoying the summer and all related activities). Yes, a tonsillectomy – that “kid’s procedure” – stopped me in my tracks and kept me from engaging in much of anything, especially gardening. I let friends know I would be “out of commission for a few weeks” and read up on what my limitations would be: at least a week of intense pain, limitations on what I could eat, possible complications, intense fatigue and lethargy, difficulty sleeping, discomfort and did I mention horrific pain? Think “swallowing shards of glass for two weeks” and you’ll have an idea of what it is like to have a tonsillectomy. No, it’s not about milkshakes and delicious, creamy ice cream heaped in bowls during the sweltering heat. The cream made me choke and the area has been so swollen I’ve been lucky to get ice chips down there to prevent dehydration and taking any medication at all has taken heroic efforts. If it ravaged my body this much, imagine what it has done to my garden?

What has concerned me the most about this recent medical incident has been how it affects my mood. It kept me from my morning ritual of touring the garden, exploring the various beds, checking on the status of my favorites, excitedly looking for nests, anticipating blooms and taking pictures. Days have passed when I simply could not rouse myself out of bed, down the stairs and into the garden. It wasn’t just the physical activity, it was the initiative and interest – my garden didn’t beckon me and I scoffed at well meaning suggestions to “get some fresh air – it will make you feel better!” Pshaw. At 100 degrees outside and knowing my garden went largely untended (other than my kind husband doing some watering), I just couldn’t work up the interest or enthusiasm to see what was going on in the garden and even if I did, what would I do? Would I be frustrated by the amount of work to be done? Probably and there was nothing I could do about it because I’m still under restrictions for physical activity. In addition, although the garden has evolved over time and carefully planted to provide year round interest with an emphasis on low maintenance, there is no such thing as a “no maintenance” garden and even with “good bones,” my garden needs an assist throughout the year. Annuals are added in areas needing color, glazed colored pots need replenishing as the months go on and at the height of summer, it is especially nice to refresh the garden with some serious work, whether it’s additions, thinning things out (much as I love my Mountain Mint, it’s taking up a lot of real estate), adding some “instant pretty” with pre-planted, blooming pots scattered throughout the beds or planting a few plants that will come to bloom in the coming month.

Things started to change one morning, just a few days ago, when I was starting to feel a little better and decided to take a look out back in the Native Bed. Just by glancing out the windows I could see some color and knew, from previous summers, there would be some visual interest and a few new things had been added in Spring so perhaps there would be a few surprises. With a pretty lousy attitude and definite lack of enthusiasm, I dragged myself out to the garden. As I glanced around and saw the “regulars,” something grabbed my eye – it wasn’t a familiar flower, I know it wasn’t there last year and it was definitely an usual sight in the bed. It captured my attention enough to keep luring me into the garden for the next few days.  ed9b06f6-4321-459e-b745-b2d217753a47

Over the last few days, this lovely flower – a spectacular, tall dahlia with chocolate colored, unusual foliage – brought me back to the garden. Sure, I have dahlias elsewhere in the garden but this one? This is a beauty and it’s so unique, unexpected and incredibly interesting, it grabbed my curiosity, got the better of me and helped me return to the garden with love and interest. Watching this dahlia grow, and photographing it’s beautiful progression, has helped me return to my summer’s routine of touring the garden every morning. I know there are healing gardens and no, I’m not comparing my garden to those magnificent gardens. But in its own small way, this new addition to my landscape has been my healing garden and for that, I’m grateful because now, each morning, I can not wait to go check on the status of this beautiful dahlia.

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There’s more to this story and in some ways, it’s even more special than returning to my morning routine of wandering through the garden. For the last few summers I’ve tried to grow moon-vines because I’ve always been intrigued by flowers that bloom at night. In my dreams (pun intended), I have a “Night Garden” with interest, blooms, fragrance and a magical, almost mysterious feeling, enticing me outdoors in the evening. I view that garden as a bonus – I already have something to start each day, how nice it would be to have something luring me outdoors to wander through the garden each night (other than the watering chores). In years past, however, for many reasons I’ve not had much success with moon-vines. This year, I decided to plant a vine in the front of the house, climbing up the wall next to the garage. I put it there because it would be hard to ignore and if successful, it would great guests to the house if they visited in the evening (silly though it may seem, it appealed to me thinking about welcoming evening visitors with open blooms at the door’s entrance). Yesterday, as we pulled out of the driveway on our way to a doctor’s appointment, I noticed a peculiar growth on the moon-vine. Was it possible? Was it about to flower? You know the answer – yes. Last night I was treated to my first flower opening at night on the moon-vine.    img_2966

Although I still have a little ways to go in terms of recuperating from the tonsillectomy, I think I’m just about there in terms of re-uniting with the garden. I’m now much more interested in going out each morning to check on the garden and look at the dahlia’s progress. My bonus track? In the evening, I’m looking forward to going outside to see the beautiful blooms on my moonflower vine. Absence definitely made my garden grow (somewhat out of control) and it also made my heart grow fonder.


The discovery of an active nest is one of those unexpected treasures you can’t possibly script. As observant as one may be, or as familiar as you are with your yard, a nest may appear in the most unexpected places and/or return to some of the predictable locations in your garden. I can’t remember a summer within the past five or so years when I haven’t had at least one nest in the juniper tree and another nestled in the hollies. The nests are strategically located behind a thick tangle of prickly leaves, using a brick wall to provide added support on one side with strong branches from mature trees as the nest’s “cradle.” Every spring I watch the birds in my yard and inevitably, they lead me to where they are building a nest. Especially in the initial days of summer, nests are being discovered all the time (and many birds lay another clutch of eggs in the fall) and the Internet is flooded with magnificent discoveries. Nests can be discovered on the ground, in bird houses, within the cavity of a tree, constructed in almost any discarded object, in chimneys . . . you name it: become aware of the possibilities and soon you, too, will start looking for nests.

Early in the morning, sometimes before we “Spring Forward” and change our clocks in preparation for the summer’s months, I wake to the gentle cooing of the Mourning Doves. Before I begin the summer routine of touring the garden to check in on plants, see what’s growing (or not) and making a “to do” list for cleaning, planting and summer maintenance, I start looking for nests. This year started a little different initially – the first Mourning Dove of the season was spotted in the holly tree, previously the first ones were in the juniper tree and almost all were successful (we had one unfortunate outcome, courtesy of a tenacious predator). In the following months, continuing into “official summer” I continue to find nests. It’s a little unusual to find some nests as summer’s heat begins in earnest but for me, it’s not about the science of ornithology – it’s about the thrill of the Retweet. Finding nests, summer after summer, is a form of gardening for me. As much as I despise the juniper tree – it’s ungainly, prickly (and we all know I’ve got a “thing” about texture) and it’s starting to encroach on the sunny spots in the yard, making it difficult to figure out how to plant in my beloved Green Bed. But it’s a price I’m willing to pay because it has been home to so many nests. Importantly, it was home to the first nest which got me hooked on finding nests in the yard. As I walk past the scratchy, ungainly tree, I mutter to the tree “your only saving grace is being home to the plentiful, magical, amazing nests.” Grr.

And yet? Summer after summer, in 98% of the mourning dove nests built in the garden, I’ve been treated to the following (and I never tire of it – each nest is special, new and unique):

Mourning Dove Nest With Eggs

Mourning Dove Nest With Eggs

Doves Beginning to Hatch

Doves Beginning to Hatch



















Last summer’s nest in the climbing hydrangea full of sparrows, was an unexpected treat. I found it only because, while sitting in the kitchen, I noticed a lot of sparrows diving in and out of the climbing vines and after a few days, when the activity began to slow down, I casually walked by the climbing hydrangea and glanced into the tangle of leaves. Sure enough, there it was – a sparrow’s nest. Each egg was the size of a marble and I couldn’t imagine how they would hatch, hold the weight of an adult and the hatchlings:

Song Sparrow Nest

Song Sparrow Nest

With Cornell’s NestWatch program, I not only got information about the occupants (notice how one egg is different – a Cowbird dropped an egg in there and was lucky enough to have it nurtured by the sparrow) but I registered the nest so they could get information about bird populations they ordinarily wouldn’t have access to. If you are at all interested in learning more about birds or want to participate in any of their “Citizen Scientist” programs, I strongly encourage you to visit NestWatch.org to learn more about their wonderful programs to become familiar with their Code of Conduct Guide so you can responsibly observe nests. By following their Code of Conduct not only do you enjoy the beauty of nature, you do so responsibly and have the opportunity to be the “eyes and ears” for Cornell’s ornithologists as they keep track of increasing and declining bird populations. They also have incredible programs for educators and offer an array of outreach, educational and fun programs. Learning about how nests are built and why locations are desired for different species, understanding the adult’s behaviors (such as turning the eggs so they develop evenly), following expected incubation times and becoming familiar with what to expect makes the entire experience that much more meaningful.

As I sat in the kitchen with the morning’s coffee, camera nearby, this is what I had a front row seat to (notice the cowbird – it’s the one with the wide, flat beak). I thought it was a nest hog:










Four sparrows, one cowbird – all healthy, well fed and eventually, they fledged the nest. The nest is there but so far, although I’ve seen a lot of sparrow activity in the area, I haven’t seen another nest but I keep hoping. There’s nothing quite so wonderful as the surprise of a discovered nest – especially when it’s an active nest. That’s right, I’m waiting for a “Retweet.”

Just last week, as my early summer routine of touring the garden in the morning began, I was delighted to discover:

Robins Nest

Robins Nest



Sure, I’ve had plenty of robins nests previously and I know exactly what to expect. For now, I’m only checking, thanks to binoculars, on the nest from time to time to see if there’s a little more activity. A few summers ago, just as I was fortunate with the sparrow’s nest, I was able to watch robins hatch. I know it will go something like this:  IMG_0974












But when/if it happens in the coming days, it will be like “Groundhog’s Day” as if I’ve never seen anything so remarkable before in my life. It is new and exhilarating every single time. Each nest, every nestling is a precious gift. I’m just fine with “re-tweeting” and welcome the hatchlings arrival. It’s not too late in the season – next time you are taking a walk, visiting gardens and/or working in your yard, take the time to carefully look at unexpected places to see if there are nests. You would be surprised at their location(s). On the Internet I’ve seen nests built in mailboxes, discarded shoes in the yard, built on the ground, found in the cavity of a tree, nestled in an unused outdoor fireplace and typically, in the eaves on a house. When friends tag me on Facebook to show me their nest (in Cleveland, Debbie’s mourning dove nest was in a hanging basket of flowers she recently purchased at the nursery. So excited, she neglected the flowers to give the doves their space and although the flowers looked pretty spent, Debbie couldn’t have been more delighted to see the mother dove nestling her newborns. Another friend in Texas, Laura, found a nest filled with blue speckled eggs in a ficus tree she placed on her porch) I’m thrilled and share in their excitement.

It’s not just flowers that are blooming this summer – as your garden welcomes pollinators and appreciates their hard, important work, please keep an eye out for the treasure of finding a nest. You’ll be surprised by how attached you become to that precious cargo and how invested you become in the process. Please be a responsible nest watcher by following the guidelines so carefully explained on www.nestwatch.org and enjoy the show!

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A Dog’s Garden – Alice in Wonderland

On a hot summer day in 2006, my husband, children and I piled into the car to go “look at the dogs” at the shelter in Rockville. Many families raise children with dogs and/or their dogs precede a child but we are “late bloomers.” For reasons that now escape us, we thought it prudent to wait a while before taking on the responsibility of raising a dog AND twins. With years of sleep deprivation, milestones and more than a handful of emergency room visits, we just couldn’t imagine adding another member to our family – especially one with four paws. We were running on fumes and when/if we had a moment to ourselves, we ached for rest – if for nothing else, than to catch our breath. Caring for a dog, taking more walks, exploring another aisle in the grocery store and/or hightailing it to another doctor for a check up or emergency appointment seemed unimaginable. I admit it now, because hindsight really is 20/20, it was very unenlightened reasoning.

Yet, on that summer day it just felt like “taking a look at the dogs” would be OK. No harm in looking, right? The twins were learning to drive, babysitters were a thing of the past, independence was the focus of our family and we had settled into as much of a rhythm as any busy family possibly can. Going to “look at dogs” was a harmless afternoon’s event. But you know how that glance ended, how could it be otherwise?

Who were we fooling? Looking at dogs is the same thing as saying, “I’ll just have a bite” of a delicious dessert. Like Lays Potato Chips, there was no way we could stop at one bite. We returned to visit a certain dog at the shelter that captured our attention (and hearts) because she wasn’t a standout. She was not a beautiful lab, a yummy, small, fluffy dog with a sweet disposition nor was she a malleable puppy. The dog that we all – independently – fell in love with was a scrawny, white, quiet, skittish dog that looked more like a fox than a dog.

The sign on the cage said, “be careful of this dog. Skittish and afraid of people.” What were we thinking? How could we not think of her? After all, weren’t we there to find a dog in need? Malnourished and reluctant to be walked, we took a leash to lead her into the back and play. We filled out some forms, within days we had a home study and as they left, they said “you can come get your dog any time now.” So off we went to get Alice. Alice the malnourished, white, skittish, quiet dog in need of food, love, gentle understanding and acceptance.

Alice, it turns out, is a Jindo – an unusual breed in this part of the world. With a little research we found out the breed, known for their intense loyalty, bravery, intelligence and sweet personality were, in 1962, designated as the 53rd National Treasure in Korea.

In South Korea, the story of Baekgu, a Jindo, is so well known it has been the inspiration for movies, books and cartoons. In 1991, Baekgu was sold and taken almost 200 miles away from home but the dog was so determined to return to his original master, Baekgu traveled for seven months to reach home – appearing close to death but, finally, home to its devoted master.

Bringing Alice home and into our lives changed everything but at the same time, we were determined to continue with “life as usual.” We made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. We didn’t realize, at first, that she hated being in a closed room. There’s ample evidence of this in our house: chewed doorframes, deep claw marks in the walls and paint scraped off entranceways. Slowly, we began to learn her likes and dislikes and just like all other dog lovers, Alice became part of our every day activities. She joined me in the garden, we explored the neighborhood, loved taking her for walks along the canal and I often strolled through Locust Grove with her.  








In her first two weeks with us, Alice was quiet. She didn’t like the crate so we let her wander the house. After being so quiet for weeks, we weren’t sure she knew how to bark. One day, the letter carrier came to the house, opened our mailbox to deposit the mail and Alice let out a loud bark. We just happened to be there, heard her lively, healthy bark, looked at each other and said, “she’s a REAL dog!”

 When the twins emptied the house for college I had Alice and her presence to comfort me. She protected me, too. The breed’s loyalty and devotion to their “master” is evident with everyone in our family and in so many ways. Because I have orthopedic issues affecting my movements and gait, Alice observes my movement (and mood) and adapts accordingly. When I returned to the house after having spinal procedures, she sat at the top of the steps guarding me. On gloomy days, Alice would often curl up next to me or sit by my feet. She loves our family’s friends and with them, too, she will sit by their feet as if to keep them company and be part of the “action.” A recognizable face at the door was not a call for alarm – instead, Alice announces their arrival with a wag of her tail and an excited little jump at the window.


Alice would come outside with me into the garden. Yes, she barked like crazy when people came to work in the yard and yes, it was annoying. But in a dog’s world I guess she was, just like with the stairs, guarding us. She didn’t think other people belonged in my garden and let me know strangers were there. She tried to protect my garden from the rabbits chewing on the greenery and destroying treasured blooms. My twins will happily tell you about the time I was livid with Alice for chasing a rabbit through my gorgeous, lush, red monarda in pursuit of a rabbit. My monarda was trampled, the rabbit escaped but Alice got my wrath. I’m sorry about that, Alice – flowers return, dogs pass away.  






Today, Alice is sick and dying. We found out a few days ago she has an aggressive, untreatable cancer and we’ve brought her home to spend as much time with her as possible. We need to adjust to the news and surround her with love. This adjustment, unlike the one ten years ago, is excruciating. She’s not trembling like a puppy – she’s lethargic and despondent. We don’t know if we have days, weeks or months but we do know we will not let her suffer.

For me personally, this is a conflicting and unsettling month. It has been five years since my mother passed away in March and nature is pushing us forward to a new season, a change in our clocks and reminding us there’s life emerging from what looked like a bare landscape. It’s a time many people embrace and anticipate with relief. As a gardener, I do, too, but as a daughter and dog lover, I’m reminded of life’s cycles – including inevitable pain. 

Alice won’t see the return of my spring ephemerals this year but in the past, she expressed some curiosity. I can’t attribute appreciation to her because that’s a human trait and I’m not that presumptuous. I will say that much in nature made her sneeze and together, we enjoyed cherry blossom time but paid for it at the end of the day with lots and lots of sneezing and wheezing. 

When I started my morning ritual of exploring the garden in warmer weather months, I would leave the door open for Alice just in case she wanted to join me. Unlike many other dogs, she wasn’t into going into the yard in lieu of a walk. She wanted her walks – that’s not what the yard is for (thank you, Alice). Alice knows the neighborhood and has her preferred places and routes. With her, I began finding out about the neighbors’ gardens. Even in snow, Alice wanted/needed her walks and together, we explored. It took a little prodding as she has an aversion to water but there were more than a few memorable snowstorms with Alice – this year we had to shovel a path (and carry her a little) just to find an area where she could walk.  

Alice in Snowzilla

Alice in Snowzilla



Thanks to Alice I know where there are lovely bunches of snowdrops – we see them on different routes throughout the neighborhood and over the years, we’ve become so familiar with their location and when they’ll appear that I’ll take Alice out for a walk just to look for them. When it’s close to the time I know they’ll be in bloom (the ones in my yard aren’t always a good predictor), I’ll bring my camera with me and Alice waits impatiently for me to snap some shots. If/when it snows, I want a “Snowdrops in Snow” picture but typically, Alice isn’t terribly cooperative about that trek. After all, it’s wet, cold and requires her to stop yanking on the leash so I can try to focus.  

Neighborhood Snowdrops

Neighborhood Snowdrops




Alice and I know which homeowners have taken a lot of time and thought to plant vignettes in the small patch of land by the path to their front doors. I know who has which hellebores, where the first tulips will appear, what color clematis will climb around a neighbor’s wood gate and we watch people fill containers with annuals when the weather settles into summer. Had it not been for Alice, I would never have found a house behind our development on a dead-end street with a front yard full of fig trees.  

Neighborhood Growth

Neighborhood Growth


Neighborhood Growth

Neighborhood Growth







Neighborhood Growth

Neighborhood Growth










Alice loves to wander through the wooded area in our neighborhood that will soon be covered with daffodils. When we first moved in, there were a few daffodils scattered in the woods but over the years, as the daffodils spread, it has become a carpet of yellow and new varieties have been added.

Neighborhood Daffodils

Neighborhood Daffodils

With Alice, I watch the change of seasons and notice things I probably wouldn’t bother to investigate on my own. Walking a dog is more than a task, caretaking chore and exercise. It has opened my eyes to the eyes to the beauty I might otherwise walk right by and merely note rather than anticipate and deliberately seek. As Alice sniffs her way through the shrubs I check on the pretty camellias planted decades ago and now are hidden by taller trees. I’ve smelled glorious lilacs in someone’s backyard, not visible from the street but I now know they are there. They’re on one of Alice’s favorite routes – near a school where the children, outside during recess, run over to pet our gentle, soft, loving dog.











There are many beautiful quotes about dogs and for those who love dogs, they hold meaning. When people ask me why I named her Alice (and the name was my selection – not the twins), all I can think of is two associations: a favorite poem by A.A. Milne “Buckingham Palace” (says Alice) and the story “Through the Looking Glass.” Alice and I explored nature’s Wonderland.


This is not a unique story and I know there are millions of other dog lovers who have experienced loss . . . and joy. Maybe my twins will, eventually, have dogs in their own homes but it’s unlikely I will ever have the heart to have another dog. It never occurred to me that a dog would introduce me to gardening from a unique perspective but Alice has done exactly that and I hope to somehow honor her in the garden with a fitting planting. Something white, soft, strong and a little exotic. It will be our family’s treasure. For now, my newly acquired weeping pussy willow seems to fit the bill.  

Weeping Pussy Willow

Weeping Pussy Willow

 Sweet, sweet Alice, we will miss you. Thank you for loving us. We could never have loved a dog more than you.  

Alice - 3/4/16

Alice – 3/4/16

The Gift of Nature – An Annual Amaryllis Tradition


It has been over a year since my first post as a Guest Blogger for Behnkes: Grateful and honored for the opportunity to be an honorary member of the Behnkes writing family, I think it only appropriate to return to the same theme from my introductory post – family, traditions and nature.

Guest blogging for a family owned business rich with history is fortuitous because many of my posts reflect my personal history and traditions with nature. Last year I wrote about my family’s annual holiday tradition of sending an amaryllis bulb as a gift (“Sally’s Amaryllis”) . . . and it’s that time again.

In December, when a box arrives at my house marked “Caution. Live Plant Inside” I know it’s officially the holidays. The tradition started so long ago I honestly can not remember those initial years but it has continued – for which we are all grateful – and that bulb is eagerly anticipated.

Many (if not most) have personal and meaningful ways to mark milestones and celebrate holidays – for me, it’s reassuring to know the Annual Amaryllis Tradition continues no matter how geographically scattered we are or how much time passes. The amaryllis’s arrival officially begins our family’s holiday season – it’s not on any calendar, it arrives on the doorstep and continues in a sunny, warm window.

Amaryllis Bulb

Amaryllis Bulb

Amaryllis Beginning Growth

Amaryllis Beginning Growth






There have been too many amaryllis varieties to recall yet all have been unique and treasured. I know the annual selection process is one of careful review, weighing the pro’s and con’s of each variety, before making the final selection. Last year was Sao Paulo, before that it was Lemon Star and I can recall Apple Blossom, Matterhorn, Candy Stripe and Stargazer. But there have been more . . . and best of all? We look forward to continuing the tradition of an Annual Amaryllis far into the future.






IMG_4160  IMG_8873

In truth, it’s not really an amaryllis that makes this a meaningful tradition – it could be anything. But knowing how important it is to see something grow, to bring the beauty of nature indoors during cold weather months, that’s what this is about. My mother used to force paper whites – they sat in the window overlooking mounds of snow, sometimes framed by the icicle daggers forming on the gutters – because she needed the joy of seeing something thrive during the non traditional growing months and it is an easy, often dramatic, way to “garden” in winter.

I purchased paper whites bulbs and placed them in a terracotta bowl on a bed of pebbles (below) – they’ve grown beautifully and the fragrance reminds me of my mother, especially at this time of the year. In the past, I’ve also used bulb vases to bring a single bulb to flower (below on right):

Paper white bulbs

Paper white bulbs

Single Paperwhite Bulbs in Forcing Vases

Single Paperwhite Bulbs in Forcing Vases






Paper whites in Bloom

Paper whites in Bloom

Gardening doesn’t stop merely because we’re not tending to a garden outdoors during the cooler weather– it might be more challenging, but it doesn’t mean you can’t experience the joy, and reap the rewards, of growing things indoors. The options are limitless – a few herbs grown in a pot in a sunny kitchen window is the winter’s substitute for an herb garden and if you crave some of the delightful colors often found in annuals, just put some seeds in a container and watch them grow. One of my favorite annuals is the zinnia so I decided to put some seeds in a little burlap sack just to see if I could enjoy the beauty of zinnias in winter.

Zinnia Seeds in Burlap Sack

Zinnia Seeds in Burlap Sack



My mother, Sally, passed away in March 2011 and my father has carried on the tradition of sending the Annual Amaryllis to loved ones. Likely, he made the amaryllis selections every year with my mother but I have to believe it was my mother’s insistence for evidence of life – through nature’s growth – during dreary Cleveland winters that started the tradition. As my father enjoys continuing the process, we also know it brings up memories so it’s a nostalgic time, too. As the winter holidays approach and my family begins to celebrate Hanukah, we’re excited to see what my father’s selection is for this year’s Annual Amaryllis and will enjoy the process of seeing it grow – likely, a subsequent Guest Blog will have some pictures of this year’s lovely blooms.

Under my first Guest Blog, “Sally’s Amaryllis” was a comment from a reader named Lucy. After reading the blog and seeing the photographs chronicling the amaryllis’s growth, she said, “ Your efforts to plant Amaryllis and the way you care for the plant’s growth and maintenance is really appreciable. I am very lazy in growing flower bulbs or any other plant, but after reading your blog I am thinking to grow some beautiful bulbs of probably Amaryllis. I too want to experience the joy of seeing lovely plants grow. Will share my experience with you for sure.” Was another tradition established? We hope to hear from Lucy and perhaps she, too, has started a tradition. We hope we DO hear from readers about ways in which nature plays a role in your family’s traditions.

Thank you, Behnkes, for welcoming me into your family as a Guest Blogger and thank you to my parents for instilling the love of traditions and nature in our family.

My Parents

My Parents

Turning Over A New Leaf

Some people look at this time of the year as an ending and although it does mark summer’s conclusion, this is also a season of new beginnings. Autumn is a fresh start and I look forward to the changing landscape. Last week’s autumnal equinox was a sure sign that we’re entering a new time of the year and with that, it presents us all an opportunity to “Turn Over a New Leaf.”

Fall starts a new academic year and whether a student, parent and/or educator, who can’t relate to that mixture of emotions? The academic calendar presents a promise of new beginnings, exciting thoughts about different experiences and academic pursuits all laced with the anxiety about learning the ropes for an entire new year. It’s getting supplies, preparing a classroom, handing in the summer’s assignments, organizing binders, adjusting to a new schedule, meeting new people and reconnecting with some you might not have seen over summer.

This is the time of Friday Night Lights, Homecoming, fall athletics, bonfires, Back to School Night, Parents Weekend, new housing for college students and all the related activities that are brand new with the start of an academic year. Fall is full of orientations, continuing traditions and starting things anew. Some parents have gatherings to celebrate the beginning of the new academic year while others cling, with tears in their eyes, to their maturing offspring, reluctant to let go. I’ll admit to glancing backwards more than a few times when dropping our daughter off at college.  

Wittenberg University

Wittenberg University







Fall’s Jewish holidays – the Jewish New Year – began with Rosh Hashanah (literally translated as “Head of the Year”), continued through the Days of Awe and concluded with the shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur.  



The shofar, made from a ram’s horn, is one symbol (of many) reinforcing the important relationship between traditions and nature. The sound of a shofar’s blast at concluding services on Yom Kippur marks the conclusion of the High Holidays.

Soon, we will be observing Succouth. Interestingly, this year Succouth begins at sundown on September 27th – the first night of a Full Moon – the Harvest Moon, a Super Moon, made only more spectacular with a lunar eclipse. Succouth celebrates the harvest, expresses gratitude to those healthy enough to tend the fields and shows appreciation for the conditions allowing Israelites to harvest. In modern times, many Jewish homes build their own Sukkah (a “holiday hut”) with materials representing nature’s bounty and decorated with symbols of the harvest. The sukkah’s open roof allows meals to be eaten, for eight consecutive days, under an open sky, surrounded with symbols of the harvest. Like in so many religions and traditions, this, too, is a beautiful example of the significant and beautiful connection between nature and various observations. For me personally, it’s one of my favorite holidays.  



This is a time of reflection, deep meanings, atonement and thoughts about how to proceed with a fulfilling and promising New Year (the Jewish Year is 5776). I am proud to wear my “Torah Fund” pin to services (pictured below), in support of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism’s Torah Fund Campaign. What could possibly be more apt than the pin’s beautiful, botanical interpretation of a Proverb (Proverbs 37:1) expressing appreciation for the family-oriented, productive, hard-working, creative woman who “plants a vineyard by her own labors” with devotion to a hopeful future?  

Torah Fund Pin

Torah Fund Pin

The tradition of dipping an apple in honey and wishing everyone a “sweet New Year” is observed in many Jewish homes. Not surprisingly, a modern visual interpretation was all over social media this year (with an Apple device in a bowl of honey):  The weather is changing and soon, so, too, will the leaves. It’s starting to feel like autumn and although I love a summer of exciting, beautiful blooms, this is my favorite time of the year. Yes, it’s the end of summer but with that, I look forward to all the beginnings and opportunities of this season.

Fall is a time that allows us to “turn over a new leaf.”

This can be a sentimental time while remembering previous “fresh starts” and thinking about how “time flies.” Transitions and adapting to new routines, earlier sunsets, cooler weather’s activities and accompanying moods contribute to the atmosphere so specific to this time of year. Often, I feel nostalgic remembering the excitement of starting a new academic calendar as a student (promising myself this would be the year studying, good grades and fabulous projects) and the thrill, mixed with jitters, when I was a teacher early in my professional life.

It’s not hard to recall the years at Coventry Elementary School – it seemed so big and with that, the grandeur of an old, stately building made beginning those early grade school years even more anxiety producing. It was a time when we walked home for lunch and then returned for an afternoon of classes. “Box Lunch Day” was a highly anticipated special event when various grades stayed at school, were given lunch and we assembled in the auditorium to watch cartoons during the lunch hour.  

Coventry’s playground, divided into an “upper” and “lower” playground (I assume each section had age appropriate equipment but with dread, no matter what, we had to pass by the dreaded dodge-ball court), marked a student’s progression for “kindergarten babies” to upper grades, possibly 4 – 6th grade, because it meant we were finally allowed to enjoy recess on the “upper, grown up” playground level. All these memories, though decades too numerable to admit, are as vivid today as they were back then. Beginning a new grade was as thrilling and new as starting anything else for the first time.

Entering Middle School (Roxboro Middle School was grades 7, 8 and 9 “back in the day”) and this, too, was an opportunity to start something new, turning over a new leaf and working hard in these important grades to establish us as hard working, dedicated and involved students. Roxboro’s grand, brick exterior and front entrance flanked by seemingly endless columns felt very grown up. It was a time of changing classes for every subject, learning the location of our lockers (and figuring out how to remember the lock’s code for access) and most importantly, deciphering the unwritten code of social acceptance and involvement of educational and extracurricular activities. Making, not buying, covers for our textbooks and following a syllabus was an important, new beginning to the academic year.  

Roxboro Middle School

Roxboro Middle School


High School, the biggest transition of all, was more than a long day, athletics, an extensive curriculum and learning our way around a new building – Cleveland Heights High School was HUGE, in every interpretation. A grand, old, regal building (now under construction) with long standing traditions, Heights High personifies the meaning of reaching the last community based grade school in that area.

My parents met at Heights High School and it’s not uncommon for many generations to be among the Heights High community. It’s a school of many generations, reflects diverse demographics and within those walls, holds the broadest range of educational opportunities, athletics, social opportunities, traditions and novel initiatives. Entering Cleveland Heights High School was yet another opportunity to “turn over a new leaf” and establish myself as a good, hard working student and I took advantage of the numerous athletic opportunities, enjoyed most traditions and made friendships with wonderful people, many I still keep in contact with today, 40 years later.   

Cleveland Heights High

Cleveland Heights High



Personally, it’s also a time of meaning and celebrations as my siblings and I, and one of my nephews, all have birthdays in September. As we say Happy Birthday to each other and give wishes for many more to come, it is impossible to ignore the significance of acknowledging another year has passed and hoping the one ahead is filled with happiness, good health and meaning. And yes, sometimes the September birthday just makes me feel old.

This is the time when my morning garden- tour ritual not only starts later but it’s doesn’t take me as long. I’m thrilled to see what is blooming but it’s different. I don’t search through the garden looking for hints of the green emerging from the ground and guessing what will bloom but I am grateful and excited to see the blooms emerging, re-blooming and/or lasting until this time of the year. With the sun setting earlier each day, it also makes me long for a Night Garden. Maybe next year. Blooms that open at night and fill the air with intoxicating scents and other plantings reflecting the moon’s unique spotlight entice me. The shadows, “colors” and atmosphere are so unique to this time of year and it’s a good reminder that Fall is not just for watching leaves turn color (as beautiful and important as that is), it’s also a time to continue the garden’s unique aspects and plan for successive seasons.

Fall is full of beautiful, quiet moments in the garden and time to appreciate what is happening. I love the autumn crocuses, sedum, peacock orchids, toad lilies and perennials blooming during these cooler temperatures . . .

Peacock Orchid

Peacock Orchid


Autumn Crocus

Autumn Crocus








Yet as exciting as these blooms are, I’m also thrilled to see the seeds forming, soon to be dispersed, anticipating what magnificent things will emerge when the temperatures encourage them. The signs of dormancy beginning are all around but in no way does that mean it’s “the end” – many plantings are sleeping, restoring their energy for next spring’s excitement, not dead.  

Seed Pod

Seed Pod




Seed Pod

Seed Pod





As the sun sets earlier and the leaves begin to droop and fall off some trees, this is a special time of the year when we can walk to the end of our cul-de-sac and be treated, on many nights, to a spectacular sight that might have been hidden behind the thick foliage of summer.



It IS hard to say good-bye the summer’s warmth and lifestyle.

Cape Cod Sunset

Cape Cod Sunset

But it’s easy to welcome the start of something as beautiful and promising as a new season – particularly Fall.  


Autumn Gold

The quote “Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons” (Jim Bishop) resonates strongly with me and perhaps with you, too?  

A Whiter Shade Of Pale

I crave color. I’ll even admit to sometimes overlooking the characteristics of a plant and its appropriateness for my zone much less garden’s conditions, just to grab that color and add it to the garden. Color can make me an impulsive shopper at the nursery.

So . . . for someone obsessed with color, for a gardener who absolutely lusts over magnificent hues, what’s happening to me? Suddenly I’m enchanted with white. I can’t get enough white into my garden and I find myself marveling at the detail, delicacy and yes, vibrancy of those white blooms.

I know that technically, white’s not a color – it’s the absence of pigment. White is a color without color – achromatic. If color brought me to gardening and I delight in unique hues and combinations, what’s going on?

Yes, I loved The White Album, look forward to seeing a show on The Great White Way and white fireworks exploding in the sky are my favorite type (you know, the ones that look like a dandelion before you blow away the seeds and make a wish).  






I love the way small trees look when wound with bright, twinkling little white lights, whether decorating a sidewalk café in the summer or signaling the onset of winter’s holiday season. A Midwesterner at heart, I’ll even own up to enjoying the occasional snowstorm – especially when it looks like frosting on an early, colorful bloom.  





When Spring arrives, it’s the early white blooms that so many of us find especially refreshing and hopeful – all the more so when following a harsh winter. My garden’s first hellebores are white and often are accompanied by snowdrops, white crocuses (and purple), a mixture of daffodils (I have one huge clump of “ghost daffodils – the whitest I could find) and later, other Spring Whites appear. Is it the “whiteness” we find so refreshing? How could that be if we’re sick and tired of winter’s relatively bland landscape and/or done with snow? Maybe this is one of those gardening things to simply appreciate and revel in rather than trying to make sense of it.

As early spring bloomers emerge in earnest, it’s hard not to get excited about seeing the ground covered with blossoms instead of snow, ice and remnants of winter. Galanthus, Polygonatum, Lily of the valley, white crocuses, Hellebores, Sanguinaria, Snowdrop Anemones, “Minature Snowflake” or Mock Orange, and if you’re lucky, white lilacs (and more)– a beautiful, colorless yet colorful – transition from one season to the next.





As I look at the garden now, midsummer, I’m delighted to see vibrant colors in the perennial bed and the “Green Bed’s” refreshing shades of green with many textures, growth patterns following the dry stream bed is accentuated by the occasional color from Maltese Cross, blooming succulents, skullcap plant, salvia and more. White Shasta daisies border the Green Bed – proving more credence to the clean, crisp and refreshing combination of a white bloom against green foliage. Whether it’s the white scape of a hosta or the Viburnum’s lovely white flowers floating above the long branch of green foliage, it’s that fresh white and green combination that seems so appropriate no matter what the setting or season.



But it’s the area we’ve been working on for a few years now that has really captured my attention and is now nicknamed The White Wall. It bears NO resemblance to tires and it is fueling my newfound respect for white as an important, treasured “color” in the garden.

What began as a trio of trellises covered in three different varieties of clematis has slowly evolved into a beautiful White Wall. The first step was extending the flagstone into a vertical, low, upright “edge” to a) define the area and b) retain the soil and plants. Here’s the “before” and “after.”




The next step, figuring out what to plant in the narrow, specific area using the trellises and existing boxwoods, proved a lot more difficult than I initially thought – especially using the bland brick as a background (I have no choice in the matter). Coral tones and reds clashed with the sand colored background (sand is putting it nicely) and making it even more complicated is the location – directly across from the patio where we grill and spend a lot of time in the summer. It also happens to be a wall that’s visible from the dining room. It would be ideal to have a wall with year round interest but for now it’s a work in progress.

I’m absolutely delighted with the summer view – it’s my White Wall and it’s making me look at the entire garden with an eye towards opportunities to add more white here and there. The White Wall holds my respect for achromatic blooms.

After considerable thought, we decided to let the trellises stay where they were, moving the boxwoods in between them to provide a static, vertical structure “outlining” whatever we selected to place on the trellises.

By using a combination of white plants, accented very strategically with color, the area has come to life and is now a treasured area of the garden. The Mandevilla vines, cleome and a magnificent White Chiffon Rose of Sharon provide the majority of colorless-color and their unique textures, bloom times, complementary foliage and visual interest makes this White Wall a thing of beauty (in my opinion). The entire area feels crisp, new, interesting, textured and incredibly unique:





The White Wall has made me take a look around at the other beds and appreciate the summer’s beautiful white blooms. The daisies, phlox, liatris, hydrangea, penstemon, astilbe and delightful buds on my new Little Gem Magnolia are lovely in and of themselves, but they also help accentuate brilliant colors throughout the garden. It’s unlikely I’ll ever turn away from the razzle-dazzle of colorful summer blooms, but I do have an appreciation for achromatic plants, now.





White blooms make me pay attention to so much more about a plant than just the color of the flower – I look at the plant’s characteristics: the stem’s color, height and girth, the way a bud unfolds, the textures it reveals, the growth pattern and so much more. Without looking for intense color, I notice a petal’s shape more than I did when I overlooked a simple white bloom. I like the movement in each petal on the phlox and see a little color bleeding into each flower. Little Gem’s flower opens to expose a lovely patterned center and the lacey astilbe waves in the slightest breeze. Could I (or should I) have appreciated and noticed these lovely nuances before the White Wall? Of course. I’m simply grateful for this added layer of interest resulting from a simple task – planting a wall with a trio of trellises.

Forget what they say about not wearing white clothing before Memorial Day and putting them away after Labor Day – in my opinion, white in the garden is beautiful year round. It’s almost like a chameleon with its ability to fit in to whatever the weather, landscape or mood.

And if nothing else, how about using a lovely white vase to display the dazzling colors so plentiful during these magnificent summer blooming times?


The Mourning Doves have returned to my yard and I now know it is time to get in the swing of the warmer months. The Cherry Blossom Festival has come and gone, as have many early spring flowers (with more blooms, and chores, to come) but for me, it’s only when the Mourning Doves return that I know it’s time to adjust to the rhythm of life for summer to approach.

Outside the kitchen windows in the house we bought almost 30 years ago, I have lovely views of the front and back yard. Often, sitting at the table, I glance all around me and take in the view. Over one shoulder is the “Green Bed” with a dry stream bed running through the mixture of predominantly green plantings and over the other way, I see the perennial bed and a few older trees and shrubs inherited when we purchased the house.

Opposite the “Green Bed” is a Juniper tree as tall as the neighboring house it leans against and within the perennial bed are some hollies I’ve tried to shape, or hide, in an attempt to blend them with the overall feel of the garden(s). I’ll admit I haven’t been too successful when it comes to the aesthetics of these older, established plantings but over time, I’ve come to appreciate them for other reasons.  


The Juniper is top heavy and although I appreciate the screen of its evergreen bluish-green branches, it’s not a “people friendly” tree when it comes to texture. When my twins were young, the prickly branches got in the way of their backyard games, limbs broke during storms and required significant effort to prune and collect (inevitably requiring protective gear for the most simple clean up) and recently, in one of the heavy snows, the tree toppled off the wall.

Maybe it would have been easier simply to take advantage of this event and remove the tree – surely I could find a nice way to plant on that side of the path and complement the Green Bed. But I just couldn’t and I never will do anything but treasure the Juniper tree. I now love the tree – not for the aesthetics, but for its purpose. That Juniper has been home to innumerable Mourning Dove nests and in decades, only one nest has fallen prey to predators.  

Moreover, the kitchen table is in the addition we put on our kitchen and it allows me, pardon the pun, a “bird’s eye view” directly into the tree. When I see the Mourning Doves gathering nesting materials in their beaks and fluttering into the prickly branches, resting deep within the thick branches, I know it’s only a matter of time before I get out the binoculars, keep the camera close at hand and begin nest watching.

I’ve learned to keep my distance rather than spending time outside and glaring into the tree in hopes of spotting the nest and getting the Perfect Picture. Predators follow a human’s movements and inadvertently, we can clue them into the location of their meal(s). The pictures I’ve been able to take have been what I refer to a Dumb Luck Shots. For the most part, I’ve been able to get these pictures simply because we built an addition with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the garden and we didn’t remove the Juniper. I’ve watched the eggs hatch, one at a time, and have observed them mature into fledglings.   






Every single nest is built the same way and every nesting cycle is the same. And yet? They are all unique, beautiful, exciting and emotional. Adult Mourning Dove, male and female, look after the to the nest, taking turns caring for the hatchlings. Once the eggs have hatched and the adult leaves the nest in search of food, the other adult stands guard nearby to alert the other adult of danger. That “coo” is a screech, not the gentle cooing I hear at dawn and dusk.

The flimsy nests somehow withstand D.C.’s violent summer storms, the normal activity in trees (including squirrels running across branches), hatching eggs, their growth and the weight of an adult tending to those vulnerable newborns.

As time passes, the young doves stay close to the nest and gradually; the adults leave them to fend for themselves. Maybe they’re still unsure of their independence – I don’t know – but it’s somewhat reassuring to see them in the yard and watch them develop. Last summer, during one particularly wet week full of strong summer storms, I worried about those doves and thought they couldn’t possibly withstand the elements. But when I looked out the window, I saw a young dove in the dry stream bed calmly sitting on one of the boulders. It looked like a decoy.  



The next day, when the storms had stopped, the dove was quietly situated in a clay pot of herbs.

A few weeks ago I was having lunch with my friend Kelly and we noticed the Mourning Doves hopping around the yard gathering nesting materials. They were particularly enamored of the dried lavender stems and it was comical watching them tugging at the stems to get a long enough strand to weave into their nests. Now is a good time to watch the birds activities – as they gather nesting materials in their beaks you can follow them: they might as well have a neon sign on their back saying “NEST BEING BUILT THIS WAY” because by following their movements, they might lead you to a nest being built.

Surprisingly, we watched a nest being built in a new location – the holly bushes. As of right now, I have two active Mourning Dove nests (that I know of) –and both can be watched safely from a distance.  


As I was planting a few new additions to the bed below the hollies, I casually looked up and could easily see the nest had two eggs. That flimsy nest might withstand the elements, activity and some weight, but they do not hide the eggs. If you look straight up into the slapdash gathering of dried twigs and leaves you can easily see what’s happening in the nest.  


Now I know my days will begin with a quick check to see if the nests are still there and as I sit at the kitchen table, I’ll watch for signs of life in those trees. Soon I hope to hear the sweet, quieter and lovely gentle coos from the nestlings and hatchlings and eventually watch them test their wings.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to identify birds, and/or would like to participate in Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology’s Citizen Scientist program by becoming an official Nest Watcher, please go on their website – www.NestWatch.org. I promise you it doesn’t take much time (only a little data gathered via casual observations every few days, taking a minute or two to take notes) and you can be the eyes and ears for the scientists. Your input helps them keep track of the increasing and declining bird populations and you’ll be surprised by all you learn.  Meanwhile, you can find me at my kitchen table with binoculars and camera in hand, glancing to each tree in hopes of movement and growth.

Please take a moment to look around your yard and/or neighborhood and learn more about what’s happening. Seasons aren’t always about the weather or what’s growing in a garden – sometimes it’s about what is actually happening, often benefitting, from that garden’s growth.

To learn more about nest watching, go to www.NestWatch.org

Tell them a Mourning Dove sent you.

Making Sense of Winter

My grandfather was very well known (in our family) for his lack of the sense of smell. We didn’t give it a lot of thought and, embarrassingly, I don’t remember ever asking if it altered his sense of taste (perhaps he was being polite – my grandmother was not exactly known for her prowess in the kitchen). My grandfather’s lack of smell was an accepted Stashower Family Fact. It was accepted, not discussed, questioned, mourned, researched or viewed as anything more than an existing state of being. My grandfather had no sense of smell.

In fact, we thought of it as more than a novelty. His inability to smell was put to good use when it came to chopping onions and doing other chores those of us with sensitive noses rebuked. There was no crying over chopped onions and he was particularly popular during Passover when it came to grinding horseradish. No one was better suited for the job than my grandfather. We handed him a large horseradish root and within minutes, he grated and ground it for homemade, strong, sinus clearing (for the majority of us) horseradish.

Late in life, as my grandfather’s health declined and required increasingly strong steroids, miraculously his sense of smell returned (albeit temporarily). I don’t remember him being overjoyed or making a big deal about it. It was handled much in the same way as his lack of smell was – for a long time he couldn’t smell and then suddenly, he could. I assume my grandmother purchased the horseradish for Passover after that but I don’t know for sure.

This memory randomly came to mind the other day when we experienced the first snow of the season. The sight of the first snow, particularly if it is light, fluffy, fresh and doesn’t pose too many inconveniences, is (for me) beautiful. Snow makes the landscape look different and I begin to appreciate some plants I either don’t notice in other seasons or don’t appreciate.  




As I watched the snow slowly accumulate, I began to remember all of the storms I’ve experienced: Cleveland, Iowa and D.C. And with those storms come many diverse memories and feelings. Cleveland storms were constant and, over time, tedious. The slushy gray tire tracks and accumulations of dirty snow lining the wide streets made winter feel unending. But there was beauty, too. And not all of it was visual; driving through the parks in a snowstorm was quiet, mysterious and treacherous. Sledding on Cain Park’s Hill was a ritual as was (for those of us in generations past) ice-skating outside when they flooded Cumberland Pool’s parking lot. With each season comes a unique set of feelings and memories (as well as the opportunity to create new memories). To really enjoy the landscape around you, it’s important to be in touch with those unique sensory experiences associated with the time of the year.

The first snowdrop and other spring bulbs make me realize that winter’s coming to a close and with that, my garden will not only look different, it will also smell like each season and attract different visitors from nature.  











When I look at my solar lights, a few of which are sturdy enough to stay outside year round, I can see their reflection changing according to what Mother Nature has brought us. One of my favorite views is the pattern the solar votive makes on a layer of snow.





When winter ends and the sun sets a little later each day, I’m amazed by the difference in how our street is naturally lit. The color sets the mood and sunsets can be very dramatic. They “feel” different and help set the mood, or tone, of each season.









This might be a difficult time of the year to envision some of the sights, sounds and feelings associated with warmer weather but until we listen to the songbirds returning and see the first firefly and before we collect the beautiful flowers of summer. . .

 . . . isn’t it still beautiful to look at how winter affects the landscape?









Fellow Clevelanders, I’m sure it won’t be long until you hear the ice cream truck’s distinct bell and children are running out of the house yelling “Uncle Marty, Uncle Marty – Mom, can I have some money?”

Backwards Day

Remember Backwards Day at camp? Clothes were turned around, dessert served before the main meal and the flag was lowered in the morning, raised at the end of the day. I loved those special days and embraced the challenge of reversal.

I think my garden had Backwards Day this summer and it has carried over into my personal life as well. As a camper, this was an eagerly anticipated fun day, in the garden it’s a curious anomaly and in my personal life, it’s a significant milestone (and adjustment). A day, a season and a period of time in life, Backwards Day is all about perspective. Literally and metaphorically.

My twins, now finished (or close to finishing) college, left home in 2008 and I slowly adjusted to an empty nest and all it entails. I let my Costco membership lapse, the dishwasher was full by the end of the week rather than at days’ end, the never-ending homework was no longer on our kitchen table and my internal carpool clock didn’t dictate my schedule.

Now they have returned and it is Backwards Day in my house. No more empty nest – it’s stuffed to the gills with two young adults and their aging parents previously accustomed to being alone.

As my twins transition to independence and stay with us until they’re financially prepared, it feels, at times, like high school days all over again. The refrigerator has more food, dishes pile up in the sink and our dishwasher runs nightly. The grocery list is longer, furniture occupied and the front door opens and closes at odd hours.

It used to be easy to take out the trash – containers were rarely full or heavy. Now, taking out the over-flowing trash bins takes effort every week. The quiet years have been replaced with streaming movies, binge watching, noisy smart phones, and unpredictability. During grade school years our house was always filled with the twins friends and sleepovers were a constant. During college years we would only see their friends periodically and now, many have reappeared. Frequently.

I’m feeling uncertain and think they share that feeling but are reticent to articulate those thoughts. I might be the mom around here but I would like for them to tell me when dinner’s ready and fill their cars with staples from Costco. How about if they ask me if I have some laundry to complete a load? Slowly things will be “righted” and adjustments made but for now, everything is topsy-turvy and backwards.

Inside and out, it’s a different landscape.

The garden celebrated Backwards Day this summer. Early blooming, predictable plants arrived late or not at all. Late spring/early summer plants became mid to late summer blooms and although we had a few hot spells, it wasn’t a particularly oppressive summer. Labor Day Weekend, the unofficial end of summer, could be the hottest string of days so far and predictions for the first week of September includes temperatures well over 90 degrees. As children return to school after summer vacation, the dog days of summer have appeared.

By summer’s end, my garden usually loses its vibrancy. Summer’s diverse, strong colors disappear, the lush feeling is lost and plants are withered. Dogwood leaves are typically tipped with red, there’s a hint of autumn in the garden and commercial spaces have replaced summer annuals with mums. Not true so far: my garden is full of color and summer blooming plants are either still blooming or have buds close to opening. Not yet for those shopping malls and professional office buildings, either. Not yet – remember, it is Backwards Day?

The tulips, daffodils, camass, allium and woodland plantings (among others) were at least a full month “later” than in previous years and their memory is still fresh in my mind at a time when I’m usually scouring catalogues for bulbs to plant in fall and dreaming of changes to the landscape.  
















It startled me to see White Flower Farm previewing their amaryllis selection. As much as I look forward to coaxing bulbs during winter, I’m just not in that mindset yet.


Many of the reliable early summer blossoms didn’t appear until mid to late summer (if at all). True, we had an usually cold, snowy winter with occasional, brief warm spells but all the same, it feels like my garden shares my feeling that things are a little out of synch.  

















This summer I added a few things to the Green Bed:

Because it’s one of the only areas with strong, full sun, most of the selections are in the succulent category. In addition to the traditional:  












I wanted more color and textures:








Callirhoe involucrate (“Wine Cups”) was added for a strong color, working well against the varying shades of green. It met all the criteria: likes full sun, prefers dry soil, tolerates droughts, attracts butterflies and is a long blooming plant whose blooms look like a cup of wine. 

Wine Cups bloom in June and July. This week, I glanced into the Green Bed and was thrilled to see those lovely deep red cups appear. As anticipated, they disappeared mid July and I thought this is one plant that actually behaves as described. Until Backwards Day was announced – it’s blooming and loaded with buds for a fall treat of summer color. No complaints on this plant’s behavior.

Even the Oenothera (“Fireworks”) is embracing Backwards Day (again, no complaints – I’ll take colorful blossoms any time of the year from any plant). Many gardens are loaded with this ferocious spreading, brilliant yellow blossoming plant. In this area, they’re less dominant as summer comes to a close and I enjoyed seeing their cheerful blossoms in spring to early summer.  




Need I state the obvious? I looked out the window, thought the yellow blooms were the St. John’s Wort and wandered through the perennial bed. Although the St. John’s Wort had a particularly long and colorful blooming season, the yellow display I’m enjoying is courtesy of the Oenothera even though it’s late summer, early fall.

In my son’s vegetable garden, the tomatoes grew quickly and by late June, they starting turning red even though we weren’t expecting ripe tomatoes until much later in the summer.  




After the first few ripe, delicious red tomatoes the plants produced plenty of flowers and eventually, the tomatoes formed but none of them are ripe now, when red, garden fresh tomatoes are in every garden and available at all the roadside stands. The tomato plants look as we would expect in early summer: full of flowers and forming fruit.  




I’m used to a burned out garden in late August. I’m not accustomed to what I see this year . . . summer colors from summer blooming plants at the unofficial “end” of summer.  



















It was a good season for honeysuckle, day lilies, speedwell, pentas, liatris, Maltese cross and many others, some of which have been in the garden for a long time but never bloomed before. And it was a terrific season for the annuals used to fill in spaces here and there – especially the coleus.
















It was a fabulous year for Mourning Doves and visiting birds, but a lousy summer for butterflies. Rabbits, chipmunks and incredibly destructive squirrels definitely enjoyed the garden this summer – the sudden disappearance of new, tender plants was their calling card.






But it was not a good summer for the formerly predictable workhorses so plentiful I had bouquets to give away. What happened to my coreopsis, salvia, monarda, coneflowers, astilbe, lisianthus lavender and butterfly bush?  







Summer’s Backwards Day also meant more beautiful blooms indoors than I’m used to and occasionally, it was as colorful inside by a sunny window as it was outside in a flowerbed.  













The grocery store’s seasonal aisle may have school supplies and Halloween candy but in my garden, it is still Backwards Day with many summer blooms. This weekend I noticed the blooms are sharing space with some fall plants ready to take over. I’m not ready to think about ordering bulbs for the garden or looking through this year’s amaryllis selection – I’m still feeling topsy-turvy in my nest but I admire my garden’s ability to simply go with the flow.

For The Birds – Lessons Learned

Outside my kitchen window, in the large juniper tree we inherited when we moved into our home almost 27 years ago, I have watched numerous Mourning Doves nests. Flimsy and definitely not much to admire in their construction, I’ve always been stunned when that mish-mash of twigs, built without a distinctive or considered form, withstands the weight of nesting birds, protects the delicate eggs and, with luck, accommodates the growth cycle. 


The juniper has been home to countless nests – some successful and others, less so.  






It’s the beginning of July and already the juniper has housed two successful nests, the most recent of which has been especially delightful. Built high in the tree and hidden deep within a tangle of prickly, dense, drooping branches, watching the nest was a challenge but once I found a good vantage point from the kitchen windows, observing, and photographing, that nest became a natural part of my day.

Previous nests built low in the crook of the tree allowed me to casually glance into the nest while walking by but this premium view made nests especially vulnerable to predators. Each destroyed nest and/or evidence of missing eggs was heartbreaking. Yes, I know – Mourning Doves are not rare and they’re prolific breeders – but just as I don’t shun the most common blossom in the garden, I value each nest. I will be just as thrilled with the first hummingbird sighting, as I will be the next. And when the swallowtail parade begins later this month and my Buddleia is decorated with brilliant yellow and blue wings, I’ll franticly search for my camera in hopes of a “good” picture.

When the doves hatched sometime in late June I watched the adults fly to the nest to feed and protect their hatchlings. Only when I could see their furry little heads above the rim of the nest did I attempt a photo and clarity was difficult given the angle and very narrow window of opportunity (so to speak).  

When we experienced several strong storms, I thought about the nest. Would the juniper branch hold a flimsy, wet nest heavy with occupants? Was there an adult in the nest protecting the hatchlings? After the storms, when there was enough light, I would automatically go to the kitchen window to look for evidence of life and every day was surprised, and delighted, to see all was well.

Some mornings, just before sunrise when I was barely awake, my husband quietly got out of bed for an early work out and instead of mumbling “good morning” to him, I asked, “Are my birds ok?” Kind, supportive, interested or just resigned to my determination to find out about their well being, I don’t know but he was smart enough to know where and how to look for them and report back to me before leaving the house. Reassured, I usually fell back asleep.

Last week we had an exceptionally strong, summer D.C. thunderstorm. The torrential rain came down sideways and high winds caused us to lose power for close to 10 hours. It was hot, annoying, disruptive and destructive – and yet, when I looked out the kitchen window I saw the hatchling, now a fledgling, calmly sitting on a rock below the juniper tree by the dry stream bed. My son (using my daughter’s good camera instead of my point and shoot) went outside to take pictures of this goofy little bird perched on a rock, soaking wet and visible because there was so much lightning. When I posted some pictures of the bird on its rock, the comments were almost universal . . . “it looks like a decoy.”  

The next day, when I looked for it on the rock, I was and wasn’t surprised by its absence. After all, it was obviously strong and ready to begin its independence – I was disappointed and of course, a little worried something bad happened but all the same, that seemed like one tenacious little survivor. As I turned away from one kitchen window to look at the herb garden, I was absolutely delighted to see the dove in its new residence . . . It sat in those herbs for days and clearly was comfortable nestled into the oregano, chives and Thai basil. My family knew better than to make potentially funny threats about the dove’s future. They knew I would find it distasteful.

As it became clear the doves would soon leave the nest, I tried my luck at a few more pictures, hoping to capture in picture what connected me so strongly to this particular nest.

A bird just about to take flight is as ordinary a sight as it comes but for me, and maybe because it’s just outside my kitchen window, it was extraordinary.