That first sunny warm day in February seduces me into my garden to begin my spring gardening tasks before the last snowstorms of winter reappear for a brief visit. It is a happy day for me each year when I reach for my Felco’s, put on my gardening gloves, pick up my rake and head out to reunite with my garden.
I always start by trimming the hellebores since the longer I wait the more complicated the job becomes. Those stalwart evergreen leaves that have decorated my garden all winter are by this time raggy, spotted, and brownish. Hiding beneath them are the brand new buds of the Hellebore flowers just waiting to burst through heralding spring. I love uncovering their light-deprived lime green growth and freeing them to bask in the sunshine.
Cutting the old leaves at this very early stage makes it less likely that I’ll damage the new growth. The old stems are long and thick at this time and easy to differentiate between the short almost stemless new growth. On the years that for one reason or another, I wasn’t quick enough to do this early trimming, the job took twice as long as I had to carefully select between the old and new growth leaves. Not easy to do without accidentally cutting off a few buds. Full disclosure: When I do cut or damage a plant in my garden I reflexively find myself apologizing to it out loud…sigh…
Not to worry about uncovering the hellebores when inevitably another bout of winter arrives since these are very hardy plants in my zone 6 garden. When the weather turns cold again for the next few weeks of winter I enjoy watching spring emerge through the windows in my home. Those hellebores burst through with so much optimism.
My idea of the garden I wanted to create around my new home when I bought it in 1989, was a place to immerse myself, not a garden to be admired while sitting on the deck. I had no particular plan that I imagined. Instead, I let the woodland speak to me.
The area I was considering was unconstructed. An untouched mix of woodland weeds with prickles and thorns. Vines that entangled my ankles attempting to bring me to my knees. Invasives on the New York State list of plants to avoid was like a who’s who of what I had in my garden. What problems weren’t on the ground were overhead. Cracked & broken tree branches to duck under and avoid in the wind lest they clobber me on their hasty descent. Generally speaking a dense unloved mess.
But I persevered. I am not just a gardener but I am also an artist who sees things that others don’t. I was determined to rescue this plot of land. To provide it with dignity.
Over time and with changes of season I took to walking around and through the woods, enjoying the shade, and the various greens and textures that a woodland presents. The sights are more subtle in the woods. No sunshine that makes you squint to limit your vision. No brilliant expanses of color to draw your eye.
You notice instead the hint of a breeze dancing through the nodding leaves. A patch of mild transient sunshine peering through the dappled shade. I began to hear what the woods were saying to me. To feel what it was saying. I learned what to treasure, what was real and meant to be, and what didn’t belong.
A gardener, decades before me, carefully planted hemlocks surrounding the outer fringes of the property. These were now stately trees forty or so feet tall. These added an aged presence to the scene and provided a strong sense of enclosure.
In researching what was native to the area I found that the Mountain Laurels which grew throughout the garden were here before any of our houses appeared. I focused on preserving them. These native Kalmia latifolia were under stress due to the many years of drought they were experiencing. I was determined to honor them and work toward their preservation.
My strolls through these thickets helped me pinpoint the laurels and I began walking around them to see the best way to showcase them. I decided that they would be the center of individual beds and that I could connect various beds with paths and allow me to admire these architecturally diverse shrubs from all angles.
Growing in the woods surrounding and into the Laurels was a mix of ivy and poison ivy. These had to go. Over time I began to remove the ivy but most of the poison ivy removal I left to the pros. It was a few years before that initial episode was mostly behind me but to state a fact, it is due diligence that keeps these plants from overtaking the woods yet again.
As the paths began to appear I decided that the springy feel of the natural woodland ground brought a comforting physical experience right up through the soles of my shoes into my body. I was determined to use wood chips to maintain that back-to-nature harmonious and quiet experience. I continue this even now. About every 5 years the wood chips have converted to compost and are scooped into the garden beds. New wood chips are delivered in huge piles and the process begins again.
Delineating the paths I had a simple solution. With each shovel I put in the ground I removed yet another river rock. The street along one side of my garden is named Stony Hollow Road for a reason and to this day, over 30 years later, I am still removing rocks from their hiding places under the ground.
Another decision I made was to avoid dead ends. Life isn’t about dead ends, it is about transitions and journeys. Each path I created offers a choice of direction. I call it the road less traveled concept. This enabled me to have a different stroll each time I walked around the garden. New sights to see, new thoughts to contemplate, new experiences with each journey.
These woodland paths have gifted me with decades of intimate and satisfying connections with nature. The feel of the ground beneath my feet. The changing light of the day. The turning of the seasons. The gifts of growth and the sadness of loss as the garden goes through its life cycles. I too share these cycles. As do we all.
I garden all year round. Three-quarters of the year I garden outside but for a few months in the winter, from late fall to early spring, I garden indoors.
In what used to be my darkroom, I now have LED grow lights so I can overwinter my tropicals & grow cuttings from my summer garden. I use timers to turn the lights on and off to match the daylight hours outdoors since some plants are daylight and some are temperature driven.
It was an easy retooling of the darkroom since I already had a sink and water in the room with counter space and cabinets. The room isn’t heated so I believe it was originally a root cellar when the house was built in 1942. That it doesn’t freeze and stays cool allows for a reduction in disease & pests when the room is too warm. The year that I changed from fluorescent lighting to LED’s was transformational in that the room stayed cooler which reduced the incidence of scale, mites, aphids and fungus.
Beginning in March I pot up all my elephant ears to give them a head start for outdoor planting once the weather reaches 50 degrees. Slowly I bring some of the pots out of the plant room to help them adjust to natural lighting.
By April I have brought all my large containers out of the garage and refreshed the soil to make them ready for planting. In May, depending on the plant, I begin to fill the deck containers with the overwintered plants, grooming them where necessary. There is not much all-day direct sun in that area of the deck but as a precaution, I do not put the newly planted contributions into the sun immediately, instead, I gradually introduce them to the new lighting.
All my largest containers are on wheeled bases so I can easily redesign the display as the season progresses. The growth of the grouping is astonishing as the season progresses which I often don’t realize except when I review my garden photos looking for inspiration for my studio.
Sitting outside looking at this summer display while having my afternoon coffee break gives me time to think about how lucky I am to be in my garden all year round. Whether in the summer knee deep in flowers, in my winter plant room inhaling the smell of the soil and plantings, or in my studio painting the inspiration these flowers share with me.
My new iPhone 13 has a great feature for identifying plants. Just take a photo of the plant, hit all the right buttons and voila, it gives you the suggested name or names of the plant. It also gives a few links to try to further learn about and identify the plant as well as suggestions for other plants similar to it for further research.
June 6th is one of the many days I think of my Uncle Teddy, the man who introduced me to gardening at the tender age of 6. Because of him, I began my long journey into gardening. I’ve written about him in previous posts.
This year on June 6th, I opened my garden to benefit the Huntington Historical Society. It was so fitting that it fell on Uncle Teddy’s birthday since, in the garden, he and I are entwined together. For five hours straight I taught, explained, identified plants, offered historical references, shared my knowledge, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Between 200-250 people came to enjoy my creation.
I am a gardener. So in 1989 I bought the garden with the home I could afford in the zip code I sought to live in. It’s the first house as you enter my town but some have needled me and said it was the last. I know better.
That gray day in February, the realtor brought me to five different properties. It was the first day I was actually house hunting but when we pulled into this particular gravel driveway I knew I was home. The house didn’t really interest me all that much because I knew the garden had good bones. The giant oaks and the abundance of understory shrubs of mountain laurel spoke to me. I particularly envisioned how beautiful the spring would be when all those dogwoods came into bloom.
I was home and I knew it. So I made an offer below the asking price. As a single parent of two teenage sons, I reserved enough cash to modify the living space so they could have a room of their own. The offer was too quickly accepted which dismayed me since that meant I could have bid even lower. But, oh well, what’s done is done. I had the garden I dreamed of.
That winter I would walk in the garden pulling dead leaves from the shrubs, picking up twigs, learning, and looking. Eagerly I awaited the new growth of spring the flowering of the dogwoods. Fingers crossed there might also be some perennials bursting with color in the beds. Continue reading →
I had to take a break from the hours I had just spent weeding in the garden in the heat of the summer. I was bone-weary. Thirsty enough to pour a gallon of water down my throat. My back ached from all the hours of bending and lifting. I was dirty. Actually I was muddy with sweat.
I sat back, sinking into the cushioned deck chair in the shade, my fingers wrapped around a huge glass of iced coffee. As the dizziness started to subside, I looked down towards my feet stuck into filthy work boots and next to them I spotted a carpenter ant. Now, as you know, carpenter ants are the big ones. But size is relative. Compared to me it was really, really small. This tiny creature was carrying on its back what looked like a giant white breadcrumb that was twice the size of her own body.
This little ant had a destination in mind and was determined to get it there. Well, as I sipped my iced coffee and began to cool down I watched this creature travel across the deck, board by board. It managed to carry this load on its back over every crevasse and never drop it. Occasionally she met with another carpenter ant but after acknowledging each other they each went their own way. My ant never shared its load with others to make the job easier.
Every year I’m faced with decisions about where to spend my energy. Each year that decision shifts as my available time, available focus, and available interest fluctuates. Those issues don’t present themselves in linear time. There is no steady march towards some undetermined goal. No inevitable trudge towards downsizing.
Now I’m facing another decision point, one that I face each fall. I ask myself if it’s worth it to continue my seasonal shifts of bringing the garden indoors and outdoors again next spring. Do I let nature make the decision and just buy all new plants when the season begins again? And if I do decide to harvest, what will I bring in, where will I put it, is it worth the effort this particular plant will present me with, and what is the value of each choice given my limited space?
In my garden I have hundreds of shrubs and trees. I’ve designed woodland walks that encourage immersion in the garden as you journey along the different paths. Each time I walk the garden I meander a different trail to observe the small and big changes that occurred since my last visit. Sometimes it’s a new tiny shoot emerging from the soil just seeing daylight. Sometimes there is a plant weakening and a slipping into senescence. But each time the garden tells me its stories.
Twenty years ago when I was designing this garden I hired a company to help carve the terrain. Soil was to be dumped behind the row of trees along the edge of the property to make a berm, thus creating a buffer to the street and more privacy in the woods. The driver of the bobcat had the sensibility of a construction worker rather than a gardener. There was a carelessness to his treatment of the trees. He didn’t respect their majesty. At one point he drove his bobcat forcefully into the trunk of one of these, he didn’t blink, he didn’t stop, he just backed up and kept going, Concerned only with his job at hand.
I walked to the tree truck and gently covered the gouged bark with the palm of my hand. I spoke to it as I often do while amongst the plants. Over the roar of the machine, I softly apologized and told the tree I was so sorry. I felt its hurt personally. It felt natural to me to nurture that injury as I’d cared for the scrapes and cuts on the bodies of my young sons.
At the end of the darkness of winter, I start from infinitesimal seeds the hopes and dreams of a new season. Spring is about optimism, plans and possibilities for a future of glorious beauty meant to nourish our hearts and our bodies.
Dreaming of meals, the simmering soups bubbling on the stove, the roasts in the oven. I am transported by the seasonings growing in my herb garden, warmed by the sun. These meals will nourish those who gather together.
I grew up in Brooklyn in an area defined by the brick of the houses and the gray concrete of the ground. The concrete sidewalks had slightly different textures depending on the amount of pebbles that were in the mix. Some of the concrete blocks were broken. I avoided walking on those since kids in my class had told me that if you step on a crack you’d break your mother’s back. That thought scared me.
There were a lot of fences I could run my hand along each day as I walked the 5 blocks to elementary school. The fences were mostly made of metal. Some had diamond-shaped patterns with sharp twisted points all along the top. Others were evenly spaced black metal spikes that were like the ones I saw in the killing traps in the Tarzan movies.
My favorite summer vacation getaway was to stay with my Uncle Teddy who lived in the country. The 4-hour drive to Schenectady always filled me with happiness in anticipation of seeing him again. Seeing his smile. Getting his hugs That excitement almost made my miserable car sickness worth it.
I was delighted to open my local paper, The Observer, and right there on Page 3 upper right was a big and generous article about my Virtual Garden Tour Video. David Ambro the Publisher, outdid himself by putting into words the far-flung conversation we had of how people are coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. As an artist and a gardener, it was a natural for me to share my garden online since the many garden tours I’ve hosted over the years were not going to happen anytime soon. My garden provides the inspiration for my art but it also gives me emotional solace. This is what I love to share with my visitors.
I thank David so much for sharing my thoughts and my garden with a wider audience.
Now here’s the article David Ambro wrote.
My Art Starts in the Garden
I love to share my garden! This is a creation that I’ve been working on for over 30 years and what fun is it keeping it all to myself? That feels so selfish to me.
So the best thing I can do, since it’s hard for so many of you to travel here, is to take you on a garden tour around my 1/2 acre woodland walks in Northport NY. We’re Zone 7 here and this Garden Tour video is in the early spring on March 21, 2020 around 6pm in the evening.
I haven’t yet finished my fall cleanup at this point and of course, as gardeners well know, the garden is never perfect. At this time of year, in my neck of the woods, something new opens every single day. It’s a very exciting time for me each day as I walk around to see what’s new. Spring is about renewal. About optimism. About color. About surprises.
This is the first in a series of Garden Tour videos I’ll be doing so please remember to subscribe to my YouTube Channel to be alerted when I publish new videos.
My garden is the source material for almost all of my paintings. It is where I get my inspiration. It’s where I present yet another aspect of my creativity but this one is in 3D and seasonally adjusted over time and temperature.
When we need to “Water” ourselves we take a drink towards the top of our stem, our mouth.
This water, sooner or later is then is eliminated, as if by gravity below the point of entry.
Plants, on the other hand, take a drink at the very bottom of their structure, their roots, and then, defying gravity, eliminate the excess at the very top of their structure, their leaves.
How is this journey accomplished?
Pathway of Water Through a Plant
- Water enters the plant through the root hairs.
- It is then conducted upward in the stem via the xylem.
- Water exits the plant through the stomata located on the leaves.
Osmosis is the process used for the water to enter the root hairs.
Cohesion-tension theory is believed to be the method that water is conducted upward via the xylem. Think of adjacent drops of water, which when their exterior barriers are broken, move & merge into one larger drop.
Transpiration is the process of water evaporating from the leaf.