May 25, 2015


White giant calla lilies bloom in a large tub on the gravel walk leading to the greenhouse.

Fragrant white Chinese wisteria tumbles over small shrubs along the long walk. In so many ways, spring in our garden is spectacular - like a Disney movie with smell-a-vision.

In the far back of the property, understory tree and shrubs such as this Sinocalycanthus 'Raulston Wine' bloom profusely as baby chicks and duckling peep and quack over the growls of our neighbors weed wackers - what? Wait a minute.....
Get ready to see what most of my garden really looks like - but be prepared, since closeups and detail shots and those carefully edited hide much of what really goes on around here. I may have been protecting myself as much as your eyes in carefully cropping out the random dog toy or dead spot, but in an effort to be more transparent, I am letting it all show for once.

Many of you have written me telling me to relax a little about the messiness of the garden here, so I am trying to listen to you. And you know what? It's not easy, but the more I visit the other gardens of friends who have full time jobs, I start to get it. While the more I visit garden blogs I get pissed off ( really? So perfect?) Now I think I am starting to see what you are talking about. A gardeners garden is often like an artists house. Messy, imperfect, but perfectly interesting. This garden is a wreck - as you will see, but while some may see only imperfection, others may see curious plants and an interesting life. Take your pick.

Why do we keep buying plants? Maybe it's because we know that in a few weeks, all the good plants - the interesting ones at least, will be gone from the garden centers. There is only a little window of opportunity to grab the choicest plants before they are gone for the summer. Keeping them watered in their small pots is one challenge, but new tubs need to be bought as well as soil and compost sifted before we can pot them - maybe next weekend?

In an effort to help me overcome my obsessive habits such as bitching about having no time ( I mean really, who really does have free time today?), I am going to pull the curtain back a bit, and show you some of the back stage scenes around here. I would imagine that many of you are experiencing the same bits of anxiety and pressures around the volume of tasks that seem to build up over these first few weeks of nice weather - new plants arriving in the mail, and from what seems to be an endless parade of plants from plant sales, nurseries and garden centers. Those seedlings that you started ( really? 65 Zinnias? 35 Dahlias? 128 tomatoes?), plus the pile of mulch that just doesn't seem to be reducing in size, trimming of hedges, containers that need to be planted before all of the good plants are gone from the garden center - it all can seem overwhelming.

Tomatoes and African Foxgloves waiting for me to find room in the garden - today is overcast, and a Monday holiday, so it may be the perfect time to transplant - but I haven't written a post in a week, so blame the blog!

Breath. Relax. Breath, exhale. Oh Elsa, you perhaps had it right - "let it go".  Most of us garden only on the weekends - perhaps an hour after work, but that usually means simply watering the pots and containers. I think I am starting to understand that most garden bloggers try to focus on design - an ideology of perfection, but really, it this 'interior design' approach really what gardening is about? I admit to you all that I get caught up in the image and perception part of the gardening equation as much as those on Design Sponge or Apartment Therapy do. Hey, perfection is nice - we all need inspiration, but sometimes a little dose of reality helps too.


Yet the more I struggle with lack of time and the realities of gardening,  I realize most people struggle with the same issues. Much of what we do simply is not pretty or perfect.  Sometimes our meals look like fast food. Sometimes our fashion looks like, well, we picked it off of the floor. More often than not, much of what we experience day to day is something else other than perfection. I still beleive that a gardening blog should have more inspiration than reality in it, since who would really want to read, let's say a cooking blog where all they make is fast food - yet who doesn't want to see what Julia Child's kitchen really looked like on the days when they were not shooting in there?

The truth is - gardening is not all white hydrangea hedges and clipped parterres of boxwood. It's not always tidy topiary trees, airplants and mossy letters on brick walls spelling out 'peace'. It's usually more dirty - kind of what a house it really like inside, when company isn't coming.

Dogs can bring both joy and heartbreak to a garden - We love our dogs, but they are ruining most of the garden. I am trying to find a balance between the two hobbies, and it can be difficult when one partner wants dogs, and the other wants Hellebores. This problem area, which used to be my ephemeral garden is struggling under the fierce paws of 6 terriers give or take a few.

 I acknowledge that the designer inside of me really can't help it most of the time- he wants to make it all perfect. I mean, it's just a little tip of the camera, a different angle, crop out that doggie squeaky toy, try not to get that tilted fence post in the shot of the greenhouse which for some reason (laziness) will never transform into a fence. And if that three panel picket fence will never transform into a fence in one years time, how will those 14 panels of lattice leaning on the old fence transform into a fence?

I might bet that some of you still have a mulch pile waiting to be moved to parts of your garden? Please tell me that you still do? I need to get out there today and work on this for a bit, since we are getting a few tons of stone delivered tomorrow.  What was I thinking?

Then, there is the mulch pile - 12 loads a day, and it doesn't seem to get any smaller, still, I have to remind myself that 6 tons of pea stone arrives tomorrow as well, and that is no lighter! Chicks are in the studio under lights, almost ready to move outdoors but the fence needs to be completes in the coops as well - oh, and Joe ordered ducklings that arrive this week as well. Not to mention 7 flats of tomatoes, and far too many annuals that need to find a home in the garden somewhere - what was I thinking?

I am notorious for starting jobs and never finishing them. I actually took some pride in winding up these extension cords so that they could be brought into the cellar. The lawn, a little ( a lot) messy due to a fertilizing error - we never buy lawn fertilizer or even have owned a spreader - but this year, I decided to try one - just because our lawn was looking a little drab and weak. Joe had never used one before, so we ended up with lots of over fertilized spots (I probably would have done the same thing).

Yet why is it that when I visit other plant people's gardens, they are rarely in any better shape than mine is? OK, sure, there are plenty that are far more perfect - such as those that I visited in Michigan two weeks ago on the NARGS tours - but I have to believe that not all gardens are such perfect places. Even ours  sometimes looks nice, such as when we have a garden tour scheduled, but it takes planning and lots of hard work - hired help even, just to get it looking halfway decent. Most of the time, a random visit here will shock one if one expects perfection. Sure, I can choose the best camera angles, but believe me, there are only a few tricks one can do before things start to repeat themselves ( how many times do you really want to see the front of the greenhouse and that martin house?).

The long walk is looking pretty ratty right now. I am considering removing the hornbeam hedge on the left, as it shades much of the path, and it is too tall - not properly pleached (woven), it is trimmed with hedge sheers twice a year, but last year with the death of my father and a summer that seemed to escape me, I missed a years worth of trimming. Now, as I trimmed it on this 3 day weekend, it looks rather weak.

Long rock paths such as ours need frequent weeding ( by hand, on rubber mats so ones knees don't get damaged). Then they will need a refresh of pea stone, not a job for the weak and spindly of us. We try not to use leaf blowers, weed killer or weed wackers around here - so in many ways, we garden as they once did back in the olden days. Not very practical at all, but at least it's a work out, right? It just takes longer, and becomes more of a chore over time. We do this, while our neighbors grind away at their perfect green velvet lawn every Friday with every known electric and gas powered took known to the big box store. No wonder they have time for jet ski's, motor cycles, a pool and parties.

I need to decide if I want to cut out these hornbeams, or if I should just top them off at 8 feet again. Right now, they are too tall to trim without a ladder. Behind them, another fence awaits installation - a project for another weekend ( or summer?). I've tried to plan out every weekend between now and August, and I really can't imagine when we will get this done!
 Yikes! That is one tall hedge of hornbeam! Hard decisions need to be made here, remove it or cut it back? Or, perhaps do nothing for an entire year once again? Which is a reality given the long list of projects that need to be done. Today ( once I get my butt away from this computer) I might continue to wash the windows on the porch - do two more sets, and then try to get some laundry in, then go water the greenhouse and the tomato flats on the deck, try to prepare some beds to get at least a dozen tomatoes in before the end of the day. I might even plant some dahlias which are ready to go in, but which will need extra protection from the dogs. If I do this, I will need to commit to hauling mulch over from two acres away, plus lay down landscape fabric since I will not have the time to week this part of the garden - but the container plants should really be planted as well - as they could die before next weekend. And so it goes, the constant re-prioritization.

And people wonder why we never go to the movies?

Looking forward, I am trying to think about how I could take care of this property as I age. In ten years I will be 65, and if I don't move, I need an easier garden to maintain, as I can barely take care of it now. These birch seedlings are being nurtured to take over the garden. If I could convert much of the garden to native species such as birch, mountain laurel (Kalmia) and other natives, perhaps I can make it more like a woodland.
 I also have to face the realities of aging. I'm not there yet, but I'm pretty certain that many of you alternate those 'outdoor work days' with hot tubs, bath salts and anything to ease those sore muscles. Gardening is hard work. One plan I have is to allow a large part of our property to go natural - but that is a task which is far more difficult than one would imagine, as just ignoring a garden will only allow for weed trees such as Alianthus and other weeds to take over - especially in a city, and where the land has been cultivated for over 100 years. The idea of 'going native' or 'natural' is rather impossible at this point, but I can guide some plants to grow, mimicking our native woodlands, and hopefully, getting to a place where the leaves and annual cycles of leave and needle drop through the seasons, will steer the land back to something that looks more natural.

Trying to find a balance between woodland, native plantings and a garden that looks as if it was always there. Near our front entrance, this fake river bed with native ferns, wild blueberries and wildflowers mixes with hybrid rhododendrons, low growing birch varieties and dwarf evergreens. Still low maintenance, it looks far better than the lawn which once stood here (see the road in the upper far right?).

Thus I am allowing self seeded white river birch to grow and mature, as well as some white pines - all interplanted with either native kalmia (Mountain Laurel) and some similar (yet imported- genus such as hybrid rhododendrons and magnolias as an understory. Layering like this already has worked in part of our garden, and now I am trying to introduce it to other parts of the property, but the results are more challenging - especially the intermediate period when it just looks like weeds and weed trees are growing.

Garden debris from a harsh winter waits to be dumped in the woods, onto an every growing compost pile which for us, means just a big 'ol pile of branches and leaves in the woods. It provides us with an obscene amount of compost, which to be honest, never seemed special to us as kids, but today, makes for some secret wealth which we rarely complain about.

It seems that on every porch and shady spot there are flats of plants waiting to be planted. Waiting, waiting, waiting. It's a bit like an emergency room - with such little time, and an abundance of patients? Prioritization is necessary. First the bareroot fruit trees, then the most expensive  shrubs, then ladyslippers, everything else comes later. In the gardening world, the class system rules. Lowly calibrachoa and basil get pushed to the end of the line.

Baptisia looks fine in the front, natural garden.

Here is an example of a good crop. This portion of our garden is what I typically would show on this blog. A nice wedding cake dogwood, a flood of Petasites japonicus var. giganteus, beehives and archways....

....but really, it looks like this. Complete with dead spots in the lawn, un-pruned Asian pears, and a lovely stack of lawn furniture arranged in a fire pit.

As I said, it's all in the angles. And in the plants.

So --  if I am going to try and not get too upset over being behind in my chores - the mulching - the planting, then you perhaps can take a breather too.  Enjoy this spring. I mean - who cares if the puppies and the dogs have torn up the entire garden, leaving what amounts to a dust bowl effect just one week  before a garden tour? I'm trying not to care as much. Really. 


  1. Ooh! Your solanum has orange spikes! Mine has giant purple thorns (S. purpureum). What species is the orange one you've got there?

    All the photos for my articles have to be close ups- no matter which direction you look in our yard there's a pile of scrap metal, an old truck, the rusty shop building, the ladder by the window because we still haven't finished fixing the screen, the empty spots where plantss died this winter, the messy firewood....

    But really, there is no need to burn the lawn chairs!

  2. Thanks. That solanum is Solanum pyracanthum, a real beauty once summer takes over and it can take off in the heat. The golden spikes are very attractive.

  3. I'm so happy to have discovered your blog. I think my timing was perfect…I was delighted to see a such a beautiful garden but also a real garden with its bare spots and all.

  4. It looks great and NORMAL. Anyone whose garden is perfect this time of year has way more time or way more HELP than most of us.

    That feeling of being overwhelmed this time of year is so familiar to me, but I force myself to remember to enjoy the work (it's why we do it don't we?) rather than focus in the never ending list and more importantly to stop and enjoy what is good.

    I too thought it was a great idea to grow 150 plants from seed this year (extra to the masses that I buy in spring and summer) because when I started, there were gaps in the borders - not so much now. What am I going to do with them? "There's always room for a plant" I tell myself.


  5. Such a funny post Matt, thanks for making me smile. Your calla lilies are beautiful though, I love calla lilies, and your greenhouse is a dream. You see imperfection, I see endless possibilities.
    But really 65 zinnia's? What were you thinking!

    1. Ha! Seriously though, I do these crazy things that add pressure to my life - such as ordering every zinnia variety that I could find, to sow a trial of zinnias - I have not even planted them yet, but I will plant some in early June as I prefer to sow zinnia's outdoors - but where will I raise them? I think I imagined that my garden, or growing spaces where much larger during the long winter. That said, it's probably a good thing that I don't have the resources and money that Martha Stewart had, or I would be a Hell of a boss! I'd be like " do this", "Now do that!" "I want that 2 acre peony garden weeded and NO MULCH all ready for the big garden party on Saturday"!. Good thing. Just consider yourself fortunate that I will never win the lottery!

  6. Gardens are destinations, gardening is journey! How wonderful to have so much space to garden.And you have so many beautiful plants!

  7. Good gravy I needed this post right now. We recently moved so I'm starting the garden all over from scratch. That, and the work being done on the house, makes the yard look like a disaster. Yup, I still have yards and yards of compost to distribute, seedlings to set out, paths to edge, beds to create. It goes on and on. You're not alone! We love it all anyways, though, don't we? ;)

  8. Anonymous1:56 AM

    thanks for the "behind the curtain" peek! but alas, i still think your garden is special. lovely!

  9. Anonymous6:21 AM

    dear matt
    you write such good columns!
    you dealt head-on with the problem of being garden guru who is human! thank you.
    i work to a fair standard in other peoples' gardens. I come home and cut corners after work and on weekends in my own. i find myself in triage mode from one end of the gardening season to the other-- triage, triage, triage! there is so little time to do things really correctly and well.
    before it can be laid what starts as a heap of mulch ends as a wide plateau, after hens start scratching. two JR terriers seldom kill chipmunks, voles, rats, but crash through garden beds stalking bumblebees.
    my clients say "your garden must be so beautiful--when can i come visit?" words i do not want to hear.
    still, considering the alternatives, having too much to do that one loves, instead of too little or nothing--how lucky can a person be?
    my two cents: take the hornbeams down--to a height where at eye level they are thick enough to be effective. these are trees; eventually the tops will be up in the air creating shade and screening nothing.
    all best,
    ~ 02568

  10. john in cranston8:20 AM

    Well... I don't have that mulch pile anymore.: I was there since last May, but I had to move it when I order 6 yds of compost. Necessity is the mother of... motivation?
    My issue here are that how do I start a new project when all I have time for is the maintenance of the old ones? I too have yet to start the basil, zinnia, dahlias and else (it's okay, too dry anyway), never mind weed where they are to be sown.

    Hey, I never new you you had a fountain!?!
    any way, still looks terrific.

  11. Hah, well you made me feel better! I just had a baby in September and my husband was bearing the garden load for many months. Now I'm back in the saddle but a wet spring really created prolific weeds. Between work, a baby, other life stuff, the garden is definitely one that sometimes takes a back seat.

    Oh well...

    PS: I'm always oogling your garden photos! I think this is my first comment here, but I love reading.


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