September 21, 2012

The Return of the Blues

The blues are back in our garden. 

The outer sidewalk bed on
September 21.  Double-click
on any image for a full-
screen view.
During the heat of July and August, perennials with yellow and white flowers dominate our garden.  Except for some heavily watered and regularly fertilized annuals in containers, blue is almost absent from the color spectrum.  Now, with cooler weather, the blues are back.

The convention wisdom says that September gardens in New England are ready to be cut to the ground; the season is effectively over.  As the attached photos attest, that’s not the case.  Late September brings out a different side of our garden.  The most noticeable change is that blue flowers are out in abundance for the first time since mid-Spring.  For another, plants are allowed to play out their natural tendencies, sometimes with stunning results.

These three containers have merged
into one glorious mass of color
and texture
Yes, the first frost will put an end to the annuals.  The coleus that is growing with abandon right now – there are more than a dozen varieties in containers right now - will be the first to go: even a night with temperatures in the mid-30s will cause them to wilt.  But for the present, they are taking over the containers that were once dominated by plants that succumbed to the relentless heat of July and August.

Blue asters running amok.  They've
been hiding in plain sight all summer
The asters have been biding their time, effectively hiding in plain sight.  Now, they are in full bloom, creating carpets of blue and white all over the garden.  Hydrangea are heavy with blooms that are getting preposterously large; their branches drag the ground.  We have three caryopteris at the front of the property.  Each is blooming with delicate blue flowers.  In the rock gardens behind out home, a large patch of plumbago displays a carpet of mid-blue blooms.

The hydrangea are heavy with
preposterously large flower heads
Foliage plants are also in their glory.  We have three varieties of persicaria: Painters Palette, Lance Corporal and Red Dragon.  These are garden thugs that require constant attention to not take over the beds in which they are located.  Now, as their season ends, they are throwing up airy stalks containing red seed pods.  Our goal is to enjoy the foliage as long as possible, then cut the plant back to the ground before its seeds mature.  It’s a delicate balancing act.

In the Manhattan bed, an ipomea
(sweep potato) vine has been allowed
to dominate its container for the
final weeks of its season
Betty is also allowing her containers to ‘naturalize’ for this, their final month.  Throughout the spring and summer, she has carefully trimmed back individual plants in mixed containers to maintain a desired shape or color balance.  Now, the ipomea are trailing six-foot-long chartreuse vines.  Three containers have grown into a single, glorious quilt of color and texture.  Off in a corner of the property, a ‘Big Red Judy’ coleus has ballooned to a height of four feet and a girth of equal size.

This caryopteris is one of three on the
property, each with blue flowers
for September
From mid-September on, New England gardens live on borrowed time.  Each evening weather report brings reports of possible frost or freezes a little closer.  For the present, it is the Worcester Hills – some 40 miles distant – that are the target of nighttime temperatures in the mid-30s.  One unexpected drop in the jet stream could bring that weather to our front doorstep.

And so we are relishing the return of the blues.

September 4, 2012

The Zen of Edging

There are those who knit and those who paint.  When it comes time to put the world on hold and find an inner peace, you’ll find me edging.

Edging is an art.  There is a line or a contour either to be created or to be held.  On one side of the line is grass, on the other side may be soil or mulch or anything else that is not grass.  My goal is to establish and maintain the boundary between the grass and what lies beyond it.

For me, going out and
edging provides a Zen
experience - an hour
passes, 50 feet of border
is done, and I have
no idea where the
time went.
Our garden is a sinuous sweep of shrub and perennial beds that swirl and curve across the property.  Grass is simply what separates the various beds.  We have less than half the grass on our property than we did a decade ago and, each year, the grass shrinks further as the borders grow.

My tools are as old as the Stone Age and no more modern than the first decades of the last century.  I use a sturdy, flat shovel for most work.  I decide where the border should be and the shovel, pushed four inches into the earth, defines the boundary.  On my hands and knees I pull out the unwanted grass and separate it from the soil.  The grass (and weeds) go into a basket.  What is left behind is a cliff of grass-topped soil beyond which no stolon can push.  At the bottom of the cliff begins a rise that may be soil or may be mulch and, soon thereafter, the green of an annual, perennial, shrub or tree.
My driveway edging tool.  I first saw
this in use at Hidcote Manor. 
Queen Victoria likely approved.

I also edge our long driveway and, for this, I have a remarkable tool that I first saw in use at Hidcote Manor.  It is something of which Queen Victoria would have known and approved: a muscle-powered, six-inch-wide toothed wheel that, properly used, creates a perfect, inch-wide ravine between pavement and grass.  It is to the gas-powered string trimmer what a Vermeer is to painting by numbers.

The joy of edging is in the execution.  I will go out to edge, start at a point that needs obvious attention, and begin working.  An hour later, fifty feet of border will be completed and perfect yet, to me, no time will have passed.  I don’t listen to music or to baseball while I edge, I just think and concentrate on the task at hand.  When I am done, I can look back and see exactly what I have accomplished.  Seldom is life so completely satisfying.

There are few straight
borders, but only a few...
It is hardly a decision-free process.  To the contrary, borders continually change.  Pinus strobus ‘Hillside Creeper’, true to its name, demands a few extra inches of former lawn every time I edge the bed in which it resides.  Two viburnum have nearly doubled in size in the past two years and their berries feed the birds in winter.  The grass will give way to their growth and the only question is whether there will be a double curve in the grass or a single one.

There is an adage in the gardening world that goes something like this:  if company is coming in six months, replant.  If company is coming in six days, mulch.  If company is coming in six hours, edge.

There’s no company expected today, but nevertheless I will go out and edge.  In a world where happiness is achieved by meditation or drugs, buying or consuming, I find satisfaction in creating a clean line manages to complement nature.

September 2, 2012

Writing - and Speaking - About Gardening

This blog entry is going to be a bit different from my usual menu of gardening observations.  It’s going to be about, well, me.

September 2012 is turning out to be something of a watershed month for me.  First, I’m celebrating the publication of my fifth mystery.  Murder for a Worthy Cause is my second entry in the evolving story of Detective John Flynn, Garden Club President Liz Phillips, and the town of Hardington, Massachusetts.

Most people think they’ve got a book in them.  As it turns out, I apparently have lots of them.  I’m able to draw ideas from things I’ve observed over my lifetime, and to weave those ideas into a coherent, enjoyable story line. 

Three of those mysteries have horticultural themes.  No, it isn’t that someone gets strangled with a dahlia; rather, it is that plants figure into the story (and sometimes into its solution).  In The Garden Club Gang, four ‘women of a certain age’ decide to do something very un-ladylike: they steal the gate from a large New England fair.  Being astute horticulturalists, they devise a very clever way of incapacitating guards.  And, being garden club members, they use their position as docents at the fair’s flower show as both their observation post and staging area for the crime. 

In A Murder in the Garden Club, one of the two protagonists is a garden club president whose close friend and fellow club member is found dead.  The dead woman managed a wayside garden program for the club and took care of one of its most prominent sites.  Her death may well be linked to that program.

Murder for a Worthy Cause opens with Liz Phillips, the garden club president, in a rage because a Texas-based home center is sending a California-based TV production company a tractor-trailer load of plants that are doomed to die in a New England climate where they’re to be installed at the new home of a family in need.  Other horticultural subplots populate the book.

I’m currently working on A Murder at the Flower Show, in which horticulture comes front and center in the plot.  To solve a murder, the detectives investigating the case will have to learn a great deal about plants.

I do more than just write horticultural mysteries.  I also talk about them.  Book clubs read my titles and I’m pleased to be a guest at their meetings.  This month for the first time, a garden club will be reading The Garden Club Gang as its change-of-pace event, and I’ll speak at their monthly meeting. 

On September 18, I’ll speak at the Pembroke (MA) Public Library.  I’ve spoken at lots of libraries but, this time, I’ll be there as the guest of a garden club and, rather than talking about my books, I’ll give a talk drawn from my Principal Undergardener essays.  I’ll discuss The Rule of Three, The Cascade Effect, the internet’s fascination with dumb horticultural ideas, and my war with squirrels over a composter, among other topics.  It’s all woven together into an illustrated fun, half-hour narrative.  "Gardening Is Murder" has also been a hit in Topsfield and is booked in Uxbridge, Peabody and Marblehead.

I tell you all this because, well, I hope to do more of it.  Are you a member of a book club?  A garden club?  Please invite me to speak to your group.  My books make terrific discussion topics.  Do you need a horticultural speaker who isn’t going to show an endless succession of pictures of moss?  I can be your guy.  Because book clubs buy my books, I appear without charge.  For other groups, my fee is exceptionally modest: my goal is to get people to buy and read my books, not become wealthy through speaking fees.

To reach me, you can comment to this blog or email me at n_h_sanders (at)

2013 update:  I seem to have struck a respondent chord.  If you're a book club, library or garden club; please give me a call at 508-359-9453 and I'll mail or email you a brochure.  Needless to say, it is still a ton of fun giving these talks!