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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Finished Gardens and other mythical places

Winter interest in a garden not yet finished.
A finished garden is a mythical place which does not exist.

If you find such a garden, I guarantee you that there is no gardener there tending it. So therefore, is it really a garden?  (Oh, these long winter nights do force us to contemplate deep matters!)

Gardeners don't want finished gardens, anyway. We want gardens that need some gardening done in them.  We think it is normal to fall in love with a new plant and then re-do an entire section of a garden so that our new plant-love has a place to grow.

And if by chance it appears that a garden is about to be "finished"... well that's not going to really happen in any gardener's lifetime.  But imagine, anyway, that it appears that a garden is about to be finished.  We can't let that happen  We won't let that happen! Instead, we follow the advice of Harry Roberts who wrote in 1901, "Make, or remake, one border every year.  You will thus always have sufficient surprise to afford spice or seasoning to the "settled" part of your garden."

There it is! Permission, almost a command, to re-do a garden border every year. As if we needed permission or orders to re-do a garden border. For we know it is true -- A garden will never be finished as long as there is a gardener there to tend it. 

And we know it is equally true -- A finished garden is a mythical place, one that no gardener really wants to find.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Mignonette, picture from Select Seeds
"Soon the rumor of its fragrance carried it across the Channel to London where it was so much used in window boxes that a writer of the time said, "We have frequently found the perfume of of Mignonette so powerful in some of the better streets that we have considered it sufficient to protect the inhabitants from those effluvia which bring disorders with them in the air."  ~ The Fragrant Path: A Book About Sweet Scented Flowers and Leaves by Louise Beebe Wilder (New York:  The Macmillan Company, 1932)

I've spent an evening, more or less, exploring the world of Mignonette, Reseda odorata.  

The end of the story is that I ordered seeds for Mignonette, and a few other scented flowers, from Select Seeds. I decided to set aside one of the planting beds in the Vegetable Garden Cathedral for a cutting garden which will include several annuals known for their fragrance, including Mignonette.

As best I can tell, Mignonette will be a weedy, not overly attractive flower, growing to about 18 inches, but it will be sweetly scented, almost like raspberries.

I checked my copy of The Annuals of Flowerland by Alice T. A. Quackenbush (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927) to see what Quackenbush wrote about this particular annual flower.

She noted that Mignonette "likes rich soil and does not take kindly to transplanting". She also recommended not dis-budding it to increase the size of the bloom and suggested the variety 'Machet' for "all-around excellence, and you cannot go wrong".

I took as a sign that I should buy the seeds when I found that Select Seeds has the variety 'Machet'.  Hopefully, eight or so weeks after direct sowing it in the spring, Mignonette will bloom in my garden and I can smell it for myself. I can also use it to protect myself from effluvia, which fortunately for me isn't as prevalent around my garden as it apparently was around the streets of London at the turn of the 20th century.

When I finally smell the blooms, I'll also think of good deeds and the story of how this flower got its name, Mignonette.  To quote Quackenbush...

"The Mignonette is associated with the story of a mortal maid. This young girl was not beautiful; quite the contrary, and spent most of her time in tears over the lamentable fact.  One day she was visited by a fairy, disguised as an old woman, who offered her the gift of beauty if she would promise to obey her orders for one year.   No lifting of the face, no cosmetics, were suggested by this wise old beauty specialist; merely to do a good deed each day and never look in a mirror.  When the fairy vanished, as a reminder to the maiden of her promise she left a plant in a vase.  The flower of this plant was inconspicuous, but as fragrant as a good deed, and when the maiden saw it she cried, "You little darling (Mignonette)!"  Lest any one doubt the efficacy of this cure for ugliness, the story ends by telling how when the year was out the good fairy returned and held a mirror before the face which had formerly been unlovely-- and lo, the expression of discontent had completely disappeared and a gentle sweetness, like that of the Mignonette, had taken its place."

Please note that the fairy disguised as an old woman in the story of Mignonette is no relation that I know of to the old woman at the door who sometimes visits me in my garden.  Though I think my old woman would  approve of doing good deeds each day, and of growing an unattractive flower for its fragrance.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Compost-Heap by Ruth Pitter - A poem

Miss Twigg: The Compost-Heap
I am surrounded by stacks of old gardening books trying to figure out which of hundreds of tidbits and treasures from these old books to include in a one hour presentation I'm putting together.

The question I am pondering is whose pithy little quote about composting to include, as shouldn't every presentation about gardening mention the benefits of composting?

Should I pull some tidbit from Pay Dirt: Farming and Gardening with Composts by J. I. Rodale (1945)?  Or perhaps I should provide more practical advice by Ida D. Bennett from her book, The Flower Garden (1910).

Or maybe I will share the treasure of poetry about compost, written by Ruth Pitter and published in her book of poems, The Rude Potato (London: The Crosset Press, 1941).

I'm not much of a poetry reader but when there is a poem about compost, I will make an exception. 

The Compost-Heap
Ruth Pitter (1897 - 1992)

Miss Twigg is out to win the war
   By all the means she may;
She rakes the parish, near and far,
   For all that can decay;
With a thankful smack on the juicy stack
   She adds to it each day.

Her finer feelings she will sink
    In maiden sacrifice;
She does not blench, she does not blink,
    But patriotric tries
Bravely to think the compost stink
    Is really rather nice.

With all the clippings of the grass,
    And leaves from every tree,
She swells the richly-festering mass
    Almost in revelry,
And  adds a spot of you-know-what
    And a little oh-dear-me.

She finds the oddest things to add,
    (Especially at night),
A cabbage that is really bad
    Is glorious in her sight,
An ancient boot, a mouldy fruit
    Is just exactly right.

And with the heap her passion grows,
    And every sense invades;
She goes to pluck each fullblown rose
    Almost before it fades;
When her own stuff is not enough
    She makes nocturnal raids.

But at her big tom-cat's demise
    She felt her bosom racked:
His germs, his nitrogen, his grease
    Were what her treasure lacked,
But a friend's peace after decease
    She felt should be intact.

But still she could not bear the waste;
    So in a dress-box fair
The remnant of her pet she placed,
    And then interred him there,
Satisfied then his nitrogen
    A good result would bear.

Her heap is now memorial
    To Tibby and her love;
A wreath adorns each several wall,
    A big one lies above;
In the rich bed above his bed
    Is stuck a plaster dove.

Ah friends who plough and friends who dig
    Tough clay or blowing sand,
Don't laugh at good old Ethel Twigg,
    But give a helping hand;
I wish that all could feel the call
    To help neglected land!

Following this poem in her book, Pitter made note that "While admiring Miss Twigg's practical enthusiasm, we feel bound to point out that her management of her compost-heap could be improved".

With the deepest respect and greatest admiration for my English teachers, I humbly offer the following discussion questions to help all of us make sense of this poem:

1) How could Miss Twigg's composting be improved (i.e. what would you suggest she do to keep it from smelling)?

2) What items did Miss Twigg add to her compost that she perhaps should not have? (Hint, her deceased cat and boots would be a good start of a list of what not to compost.)

3) What do you think "oh-dear-me" and "you-know-what" might have been?


4) What does this poem teach us about over zealous activities in composting?

I'm not sure I'll use this poem in my presentation, but I'll commit to memory the last stanza because I do believe that everyone should have a compost pile somewhere in their garden:

Ah friends who plough and friends who dig
    Tough clay or blowing sand,
Don't laugh at good old Ethel Twigg,
    But give a helping hand;
I wish that all could feel the call
    To help neglected land!

Thank you to Ruth Pitter for memorializing composting through poetry.  I think I'll now refer to my compost piles as "Ethel Twigg's Delight".

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wildflowers Every Child Should Know

Lucky Alice!  Once upon a time, her Aunt Sally gave her a copy of Wild Flowers Every Child Should Know by Frederic William Stack (Doubleday, Page & Company, May 1909)

I know not one thing about Stack, or Alice, or Aunt Sally or Frederic Earle Rockfellow Stack, to whom the book is dedicated:

"To you, my boy whose interest in wild flowers promoted the purpose of this volume and whose delightful companionship made the work a pleasure, to you "sunny Jim" this book is most affectionately dedicated."

This book is one of my latest acquisitions, purchased at the prompting of Mary Ann from Gardens of the Wild, Wild West.  She didn't have to do much prompting, trust me.

It is an interesting book with a beautiful cover.

There is one color picture opposite the title page, showing three children picking "daisies pied".

The title page gives a bit of a clue about Stack.

He was formerly field collector or the Museums of Scientific Section of Vassar Brothers Institute, and of Natural History at Vassar College.

The flowers are arranged by colors in the book.  I went right to the index and looked up violets, as sort of a litmus test to find out what the book is all about.
I found 15 entries in the index for violets and turned to page 337 and read this:

"Violets are probably the best and most popularly known of all the wild flowers. The Latin name Viola, is derived from the classic Greek, Ion.  Jupiter, we are told, fell in love with Io, the daughter of the river god, Inachus, and in order to conceal her from the jealously of Juno, his wife, Jupiter changed Io into a heifer, and then created the fragrant Violet that she might feed upon the delicate petals during her transformation."

And then Stack notes, "Be this as it may, Jupiter must have considered the creation of the Violet with exceeding affection for Io, since his irony is revealed later in the lines of Shakespeare, who regarded the Violet "sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes."

Whoa. Jupiter turned his girlfriend into a cow so his wife wouldn't be jealous, then gave his girlfriend, now a cow, violets that he made for her to eat?  And then Shakespeare makes a jab about it.  Should children know this?  Isn't there a better story we can tell the children about the lovely violets?

I myself will never look at violets again without thinking about a young cow and a jealous wife.  I'm guessing the same will be true for those who just read this post.

Yes, this is my contribution for Wildflower Wednesday sponsored by Gail at Clay and Limestone.  I'm sorry to bring the cows into it, but that's what Stack wrote, and 104 years later, that's what I read.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Old Gardening Books

There was a terrible accident involving a bookcase made out of reclaimed wood, with four shelves, three that were movable, and doors inset with seeded glass to give it an old look.

A week or so ago, I cleared the spot where the delivery persons would carefully place this bookcase in the dining room. They arrived on time, came in to make sure their path was clear and then went back to the truck to get the bookcase.

As I stood at the open door waiting for the delivery persons to gently lower the bookcase from the delivery truck and bring it into the house, I heard a crash followed by the tinkling of broken glass.

"That cannot be good", I said to myself.

I went out to the truck to find the two delivery persons standing next to the bookcase, the one made out of reclaimed wood, with four shelves, three that were movable, and doors inset with seeded glass to give it an old look. Only now it no long had glass in the door and three of the four legs looked as though a beaver had decided to snack on them.

"Ma'am, you may not want to be around when I call my supervisor... blah blah blah.  We'll get you another one."

No, I explained, you probably won't be getting me another one as this was the last one, a closeout.  They put it back on the truck, repeated their apologies and pulled away. Sure enough, the salesperson from the furniture store called a few days ago with the bad news.  They cannot get another one, nor can she find a bookcase like it. 

And so my quest for a bookcase continues.  At least for now I have all my old gardening books lined up and stacked up in one location, except for a dozen or so that are here and there around the house.

I am going through several of them as I put the final touches on a presentation that I'm calling "Timeless Tips and Treasures for Today's Gardens".

If I named the presentation the way they named old gardening books back in the day, I would actually call it "Timeless Tips and Treasures for Today's Gardens from the 19th and 20th Centuries Including Wisdom, Lore, and Ageless Advice for Every Gardener". Actually, I will probably call it that, anyway.

I have an abundance of material to choose from and debated about how best to winnow it down to 45 minutes or so of useful information.  For this go around, I think I'll stick with a half dozen writers - Lawrence, Bennett, Quackenbush, Bailey, Ellacombe, and Westcott.  


I have several books on just violets, violas, and pansies, some of my favorite flowers.
But not everyone loves these flowers enough to listen to 45 minutes of material about them.  Perhaps someday I can present on "All I learned from gardening I learned from violets". 

Or I could go back only fifty years or so to the 1960's.
But I'm not particularly excited about calling a book "old" if it was published in my lifetime.

I could just focus on "The Garden Library" from the early 1900's
I think I have this entire set, thanks to a reader who sent me the list of all the volumes included. Click, click, click, I bought all of them in December.  Ida Dandridge Bennett wrote two of the volumes for this set, which is how I ended up finding out about it.

I'll be presenting this particular topic, "Timeless Tips and Treasures for Today's Gardens from the 19th and 20th Centuries Including Wisdom, Lore, and Ageless Advice for Every Gardener" three times in the next few months, and then adapting the material for another program in June.

While I'm busy finalizing this presentation, looking for a bookcase, and ordering seeds, I may need a couple of garden fairies to post on my blog so it doesn't get stale.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of garden fairies and book fairies here, especially when I open up all these old gardening books.

"Mind the book fairies when you open up old gardening books."

Friday, January 18, 2013

What? Who?

It occurred to me that from time to time new readers and returning readers might stop by and wonder about various personas and organizations that I have written about here at May Dreams Gardens.

To help them and me, I've posted several pages to attempt to explain things around here, to the extent I can do so.  The newest page, Societies and Clubs, was added last night.

I myself use these pages on occasion to help me remember because I'll admit that it can get a bit confusing when Lois Hortlane shows up to get the big story while Miss Jane Hortaway yells "Chief" and tries to keep her from getting an interview before Gloriosa Vanderhort has styled me and my attorneys, F. Lee Hortley and Fairy Hortson,  have arrived to keep me from saying something that ought not to be said and put in print.

Anyway, if you ever wonder who or what, the answer might be on the pages, linked to on the upper right.

Personally I think the most useful of the pages is the Gardening Secrets but I have noticed a lot of people just stop by to gawk at my hoe collection.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2013

Earliest crocus bloom ever in my garden
Welcome to Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day for January 2013.

Here in my USDA Hardiness Zone 6a garden in central Indiana, we had a brief warm up a few days ago and I saw four blooms in my garden that I've never seen in mid-January.

Since then, the temperatures have turned more seasonal, colder, and those blooms are still there but are surely shivering, tricked into blooming so early.

First up is a crocus.  Though I have over a thousand crocuses planted between my front and back gardens, mostly in the back, I only found one crocus in bloom. Whew, I do not want the crocuses to bloom early this year. I want them to peak on March 31st, Easter Sunday.

After I admired the crocus, I found a snowdrop, Galanthus sp.
Snowdrops are supposed to bloom early, so this did not grab my attention quite like the crocus, but it is welcome, none the less, in a month that often finds my garden snow covered and me huddled inside seeing what indoor blooms I have.

This year, I shamefully ignored the Kalanchoe and Crown of Thorns blooming in the sunroom while I admired a common weed blooming in the lawn.
It's amazing to me that this dandelion is blooming where a week ago the ground was still snow covered. And the grass is pretty green, too.

Finally, up by the south side of the house, with the radiant heat of the brick provides warmth during cold nights, the little violas keep on blooming.
We are a long way from the end of winter and the beginning of spring, but for a brief few days this past weekend, my garden acted as though spring is going to be next week.  That is hardly the case with temperatures predicted to be wintry for weeks to come.

Thank you to everyone who joins in for bloom day, especially in the winter when blooms can be scarce. If you have been posting for bloom day since the beginning in February 2007, you now have six complete years of history about the blooms in your garden.  It's interesting to look back and see how different, yet similar the garden is from year to year. My January bloom day posts from 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and now 2013 each tell their own story, some with snow, some without snow, but always with something in bloom, mostly inside, but occasionally like this year, outside.  

What's blooming in your gardening on this wintry January day?

Whatever your circumstances and however your garden looks during these January days, I hope you’ll join us for Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day this month.

All are welcome!

It's easy to participate. Just post on your blog about what is blooming in your garden on the 15th of the month and then leave a link in the ‘Mr. Linky’ widget below, plus a comment to give us a hint as to what we might find in your garden in January.

“We can have flowers nearly every month of the year.” – Elizabeth Lawrence

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Baked in or bolted on?

Snowdrop, Galanthus sp.
Is gardening baked in or bolted on to your life?

When gardening is baked in, your thoughts turn to gardening when you are not in the garden.  You might be shopping for furniture, watching a basketball game, or reading Harry Potter books and still find yourself thinking about plants, flowers, dirt, compost and all other things gardening.

When gardening is baked in, gardening is part of the core of who you are.  You don't have to stop and think about gardening because you never really stop thinking about gardening

When gardening is bolted on, you aren't likely to think about gardening while watching movies like The Polar Express, polishing silverware or thinking about back to school.  You think about gardening when you feel it is time to garden in the spring or when you pass through the seasonal section of the big box store and see that they've started stocking it with gardening items.

When gardening is bolted on, gardening is something you do when it is time to do so. You may have to stop something else to think about gardening and let it back into your life each spring.

Is gardening baked in or bolted on to your life?   There are excellent gardeners in both categories, so there is no wrong answer here.   Just leave a comment "baked in" or "bolted on" to let me know.

(Ummmm... I think gardening is baked into my life.)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Garden fairies are appalled

Garden fairies here.

We are garden fairies and we are appalled.

We cannot believe that there have been no new posts on this blog since Sunday.  Honestly, we garden fairies watched and waited and nothing happened, so here we are, once again, doing the heavy lifting to show that there is someone who cares about what gets posted here.

We garden fairies are also appalled about how Carol started a story in a post called All Aboard and never finished it, leaving readers wondering what happened to Violet Greenpea Maydreams.  Well, we know what happened to her but we are not of a mind to tell readers. We think Carol should be doing that.

We are also appalled at all those people, personas, characters, whatever and whoever they are, who are listed on the Who's Who page of this blog.  Some, in fact most of them, could do more around here to pull their weight like we garden fairies do. We have never worked so hard in all our lives.

But we are garden fairies, we will not complain and go on and on like some we know would and no we are not going to name names like Hortense Hoelove.  No, that is most assuredly, absolutely, unequivocally not our style.  We are more of the "live and let live", "garden and let garden" type. We'll just mind our business and steal your garden gloves or move your tulips when you aren't looking.

We have wondered where Carol has been and what she has been doing that is so gosh darn diddley-do important that she can't write a simple post on this blog.  To figure it out, we've been spying on her, but not in any evil, intrusive way, more in a curious "what is she up to" kind of way and you will never believe it.  Oh, where to begin?

Well, we will begin again another day. Right now it is late and we are garden fairies.  Time to party on.

Submitted by
Violet Sweetpea Maydreams, chief scribe for the garden fairies at May Dreams Gardens, who is obviously okay after disappearing from the train, but it is still a good story to hear about what happened to her and how she was rescued.

P.S. No, those tulips are not blooming now.  It's just nice to have some pretty pictures on a blog post. We are garden fairies. 

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Underneath all that snow

Underneath all that snow, there lies a garden. 

I call it Plopper's Field because I just plop plants here and there in it, wherever there seems to be a bit of open dirt.  I do try to remember not to put tall plants in front of short plants, and mind where there might be some bulbs planted.

All in all, it turns out fairly nice, if I do say so myself.

In early spring, its a pleasant sort of green.

Later on in late May, there is more in bloom.

In September, it still has some good moments.

Even in a year like last year when we had a terrible drought.

Underneath all that snow, there lies a garden, and I can't wait to see it again.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Garden it forward

Snow on a viburnum
Gardeners, please raise your right hand and repeat after me,

"This year I promise, as a gardener, to garden it forward."

Thank you.

How do you garden it forward, now that you've promised to do that?

Here are five ways:

Pass along extra plants, seeds, and produce to those who can use them.

Encourage anyone who shows even a slight interest in gardening to give it a try.

Answer questions about gardening and plants as though it is the first time you've ever heard those questions.

Show others how to garden, even if their garden is a paper cup filled with potting soil.

Be happy in your own garden, no matter what.

There are many other ways to garden it forward. Go forth and do it, and report back on how it is going.

Garden it forward.

(I did, by the way, fall into a bit of a rabbit hole while searching for "garden it foward" on the Internet. I discovered that a somewhat forgotten southern writer, Lily Hardy Hammond is credited with first writing the phrase "pay it forward". She wrote about it in a book she wrote in 1916 - In the Garden of Delights, which really isn't about gardening but is more of a memoir. She wrote in that book, on page 209, "You don't pay love back, you pay it forward."

Love, gardening, it's all the same, right? Well, not really, but the point is, you don't pay another gardener back for helping you learn to garden. You must garden it forward by helping someone else become a gardener, too.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A freshly plowed field for the new year

As Hortocrates once said, "A new year is like a freshly plowed field. Plant it thoughtfully."


Yes Dr. Hortfreud?

"Who is Hortocrates"?

Well, Dr. Hortfreud, Hortocrates is a famous garden philosopher.  I am surprised you haven't heard of her, considering how learned you are. By the way, her name rhymes with Socrates - Hort-a-cra-tease

"I think you made her up, Carol."

I made you up, Dr. Hortfreud.

"Profound, Carol, profound.  Please continue."

I am looking forward to this new year.  I've reached an age where I am not going to wait around when I decide to do something.  And, I have some means to do whatever it is that strikes my fancy.  I am ready for the the year and whatever it brings.

I do think a new year is like a freshly plowed field. Plant it thoughtfully.

Happy New Year to everyone, from all of us at May Dreams Gardens.