Hey, BUG OFF !

June 30th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink


While I genuinely believe that every living thing on earth has it’s purpose —I am a nature lover, after all— there are times when some residents of my garden do try my patience. For one thing —particularly in a rainy year— there are the mosquitoes. It’s bad enough that these whiney bugs buzz my ears and suck my blood, leaving itchy welts all over my skin. But it is also important to keep in mind that mosquitoes carry disease. And beyond the omnipresent mosquitoes, there are the countless other small vampires lurking in the moist, shady corners of gardens and in the tall, camouflaging grass of meadows; gnats, horseflies, deerflies, and those disease-carrying ticks. Bug off, I say ! I am not a mobile lunch wagon! When insects are out in full-force, they can ruin an otherwise pleasant outdoor experience. So what to do? Well, we all know that unless you step into Dracula’s castle well prepared, you will probably be bitten. But how, you may wonder, do you effectively defend against insects without poisoning yourself in the process? Fear not warm blooded friends, you needn’t bathe in deet. There are workable solutions to the bug problem, and many are both organic and effective.


When the weather is warm and muggy, after a period of rain, I almost never work in the garden without netted clothing. Sometimes just a head-net will do, but on the worst days, I pull out the full body-armor. My Bug Baffler jacket has a zip hoodie, long arms, and an elasticized band at the bottom. No, it isn’t much of a fashion statement. But who cares?  I wear it in my garden, not to the Oscars. It works. The little blood-suckers may bounce around and whine a bit outside my net, but they can not get in. And although your skin is completely covered, the netting allows air -flow, so you will not overheat inside. The BugBaffler works in cool weather too. I layer it over warm sleeved shirts and light sweatshirt jackets. But, in all honesty, it can become a little stiff with more layers. Certainly this model isn’t the perfect solution for very early spring and fall.

the-original-bug-shirtThe Original Bugshirt

Then, some time ago, my friend Mel introduced me to another jacket designed to foil insects. It is called The Original Bugshirt. This machine washable jacket has a cotton body, net arms, and a zip-open net-hood. In late April, I tend to wear it over a light sweatshirt, or beneath a barn-jacket. It is less stiff than the other design. By June, on cool over-cast days, I can wear it with a t-shirt or tank top. My hands are always protected against insects by garden gloves, and my ankles by light-weight socks. I rarely wear shorts when I garden (poison ivy, brambles, etc) but if you do, both companies make leg protection as well. I think these products are great, and I use one or the other throughout the season, as weather dictates. Oh, and in case you are wondering, these companies have not paid me to mention their products and I do not do paid reviews (promise !).

natrapelNatrapel Plus Bug Repellent Spray

Effective as my bug-net jackets are, I know that there are times when you can not dress like a walking screen-house. Sometimes it’s just too hot, and sometimes you want to hang-out in just a tank top and shorts. Then what ? For most of us, toxic chemicals are no longer an option, even when sprayed on outer clothing. The poisonous substances used in standard bug spray inevitably end up in the environment; polluting air, water and soil. I don’t put anything toxic on my skin, and after trying many safer products, I have found a few things I can recommend. There is a natural bug-repellent I use called Natrapel Plus. It contains citronella oil and wintergreen oil, among other non-toxic ingredients, and it works quite well. The company recommends you reapply every 4 hours or so, and I think that is about right. Although the spray is safe for children and adults, and can be used directly on skin, it is still important to apply it with caution and to keep the stuff out of your eyes. Natrapel comes in an environmentally- friendlier can, meaning it acts like an aerosol, but it doesn’t contain chemical propellent. I find Natrapel to be effective, and the smell, while certainly not like fresh cut flowers, is tolerable. Repel is also effective in moderately buggy conditions I have often read that because our body chemistries vary, the type of repellent that works for you may not necessarily work as well for your friend. So, you may have to experiment a little to find an organic mixture that gives you results. In my experience, bug repellents are no where near as effective as netted clothing, so I always protect myself with ‘screen-wear’ when the bugs get really serious.

Of course, some people choose the do-it yourself route and make their own bug-repellent. I have tried a few home-brews and I find they can help deter insects, though I haven’t tested them in seriously buggy conditions. My friend Laurie likes to make up her own anti-bug-rub from herbs and oil. Her home recipe is made with a base of almond oil or jojoba oil. To this she adds liberal amounts of essential oils including; lavender, peppermint, lemon grass and thyme. I have used some of her oil when out kayaking with success. Home-made bug repellent, of course has the added benefit of a truly pleasant smell.

As demand for non-toxic, environmentally friendly bug-repellent products grows, I am sure more brands will arrive in the marketplace for us to try out.  If you use something that you think is particularly effective against bugs, but naturally safe and sound, please pass along the brand-name or recipe in the comments here, (beware spammers, you will be swatted like flies). Those little garden-vampires shouldn’t be allowed to take a bite out of our gardening fun (yes,  know that’s a groaner —sorry— I couldn’t help myself).


Mosquito photo, © US CDC files

Article and photographs © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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The Old School House Plantery …… Vermont Growers with an Internet Following for Rare Garden, Greenhouse and House Plants…

June 26th, 2009 § Comments Off on The Old School House Plantery …… Vermont Growers with an Internet Following for Rare Garden, Greenhouse and House Plants… § permalink

Aisles of unusual and rare plants at the Old School House Plantery, Brattleboro, Vermont.

Impatiens zombensis (click to enlarge photo)

During the recent, prolonged rainy period in Vermont, John and Diane Miller of The Old Schoolhouse Plantery in West Brattleboro, kindly invited me over to have a look inside their greenhouse. I pass by the Millers nearly everyday on my way to and from other gardens, and I must admit that I have been observing them with great curiosity ever since I noticed the excellent pruning of their apple trees last year. As readers of this blog may have noticed, I do have a slight obsession with artful pruning. Eventually, I got around to stopping in to meet the Millers, and once invited inside their greenhouse I was even more delighted. Although the square footage of their space is modest, the building is absolutely overflowing with gorgeous, rare plants. Tropicals, tender perennials, flowering annuals, houseplants, ferns, succulents; the list of what John and Diane have managed to propagate in this deceptively simple jewel-box goes on and on.

Originally from Great Britain, both John and Diane are passionate, educated gardeners with a contagious enthusiasm for the rare plants they grow. Diane has a doctorate in herbal medicine, and John holds a college degree in horticulture from the UK. The Millers operate the Old Schoolhouse Plantery as a retail business from their home in Vermont, and although locals have discovered the horticultural treasures at this little greenhouse, most of John and Diane’s serious plant collectors have found them online. It seems that once a rare plant enthusiast is seduced by the beautiful and elusive blue  Impatiens namchabarwensis, or bewitched by the tiny bright pink flowers and toothy leaf margins of Impatiens zombensis, there can be no substitute. Unfortunately, mail-order sources for unusual plants such as these are hard to come by. The true collector of rare plants has taken to the internet, Googling and Ebaying their way to the hard-to-find horticultural prizes. Many customers of this cottage-business have found John and Diane by typing the latin names of rare specimen plants into search engines. They then follow links to Ebay or Etsy and purchase their treasures from the Old Schoolhouse Plantery through online-shops. In addition to her propagation skills, Diane is also a skilled artisan, and she sells her hand-crafted goods as well as rare plants on an Etsy shop called Eclecticasia.

Although this introductory post is brief, I will be back with more coverage of the fascinating work going on at The Old Schoolhouse Plantery soon.  Fuchsias, Begonias, Impatiens and other exotic beauties are just the beginning of what you will see here.  John has generously offered to share the process of creating a fuchsia standard, (pictured at bottom), and I am keen to learn more about Diane’s handcrafted flower pots.

Many thanks to the Millers for their time and generosity. If you find yourself wandering through southern Vermont on a road-trip, do check out their little treasure-chest of a greenhouse at 350 Hinesburg Road in Brattleboro, Vermont. The Old Schoolhouse Plantery will be unveiling a new website soon, but until then, their plants can be viewed and purchased online at the  Etsy link above.

impatiens-namchabarwensisImpatiens namchabarwensis , (rare blue diamond impatiens)

fuchsia-standard1/2 standard Fuchsia, ‘Mrs. Lovell Swisher’

Article and photos: copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardner’s Eden

Finding Inspiration in Public Gardens … The Bridge of Flowers, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts…

June 25th, 2009 § 2 comments § permalink


Above, The Bridge of Flowers viewed from the bank of the Deerfield River.  Below, a gravel path leads through The Bridge of Flowers in June…


Visiting public gardens has become something of a luxury for me over the past few years. I am a professional gardener and designer, and the busiest season in my line of work tends to be in the spring and early summer. Like most gardeners, any spare hours I have at this time of year tend to be spent in my own backyard. Sometime over the course of this past winter, as I was pouring over gardening books and magazines, I realized how much I miss visiting public gardens. How did I forget what a pleasure it is to take in a garden for which I am not responsible?  This year, I resolved that visits to both public and private gardens would become part of my weekly schedule. By stepping away from my own garden, and the gardens under my care, I am able to return to the places I create with fresh eyes. Whether you are just starting your first garden, or editing one you have tended for years, visiting other gardens is a great way to stir up your creativity and continue your horticultural education.

My first garden visit this spring was to  The Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. This one-of-a-kind design was conceived by Antoinette and Walter Burnham in 1929 when they envisioned a public garden crossing an abandoned, 400-foot trolley bridge built in 1908. The Shelburne Falls Woman’s Club took on the bridge of flowers project, and remains the steward of this beautiful garden to this day.  The Bridge of Flowers spans the Deerfield river and connects the towns of Buckland and Shelburne. Over 500 different varieties of annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines and trees are included in this unusual and beloved public landmark.



This was not my first visit to this special place. I have been enjoying The Bridge of Flowers on and off since I was a little girl, and I have watched as both this garden and the village of Shelburne Falls have evolved over time. Through the years the garden has grown more beautiful and sophisticated, and yet it has never lost its calm, relaxing simplicity. The Bridge of Flowers is home to some spectacular plants; including trees, shrubs and vines. Among the stand-out woody specimens on the bridge is a cascading hemlock (tsuga canadensis, pendula), (spectacular when viewed from the Buckland side riverbank), a lovely Japanese snowbell, (styrax japonica), a pair of gnarly-trunked wisteria floribunda, a very fragrant butterfly bush, (buddleia alternifolia), an enviable climbing hydrangea,(hydrangea petiolaris), and a number of glorious rambling and climbing roses ranging in hue from red to purest white.



The mixed borders on either side of the walkway crossing The Bridge of Flowers are in continual bloom from early spring through fall. The gardens are beautifully designed and meticulously tended by a professional head gardener, assistant gardeners and volunteers. Modern additions, such as ornamental grass and exotic Asian introductions are creatively combined with old-time cottage garden favorites and ecologically minded native-plants. Shrub roses are interspersed throughout the design, adding a bit of  classic beauty and fragrance to the early summer display. On my recent visit, the beautiful David Austin rose, ‘Ambridge’, was all aglow in a luminous peachy-wash of color; it’s alluring, near-intoxicating fragrance filling the damp air and leading me down the path.



The color harmonies and textural combinations seem particularly beautiful this year on the bridge. I admire the creativity of these gardeners, working with a limited budget raised by donations and gifts. They have created such simple, dynamic vignettes; playing with focal points of saturated color and repeating the rhythm with subtle echos running through neighboring selections. Stunning, yet un-forced combinations abound along the walkway. Golden hued petals of baptisia playing off yellow edged ornamental grass, and deep rose-traced peonies enhanced by a blooming backdrop of spirea ‘Anthony Waterer’, are some examples of their thoughtful garden design.



As my stroll though the garden concluded on the Shelburne side of the bridge, I was pleased to discover the development of the shade garden. A wide variety of plants now thrive in the dappled light at this tree lined end of walkway. Gorgeous perennials, including many with dramatic foliage color and varied texture, create a quiet conclusion to the garden along the water’s edge. Delicate ferns, bold hosta, feathery goat’s beard, (aruncus), and shimmering, smooth leaved ginger, (asarum), are among the inspired plantings.



The Bridge of Flowers is wonderful inspiration for gardeners of all ages. According to the website, the bridge receives over 20,000 visitors each year from all over the world. This beautiful garden will always have a special place in my heart, and clearly I am not alone in my infatuation. Although the garden is at it’s peak now, it is worth keeping in mind that come autumn, the vibrant fall foliage reflected in this river setting is truly spectacular. The village of Shelburne Falls has much to offer visitors, including natural sites, such as the glacial potholes, artisan shops and galleries, (from glass blowing and pottery to candle making), fine restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops and more. A visit to The Bridge of Flowers and the village of Shelburne Falls is a great day trip from Boston, MA, Keene NH, or Hartford, CT.  What a great place to start my summer garden tours this year!  A great, big thank you goes out  to the gardeners at the bridge and to all of the kind donors and visitors supporting The Bridge of Flowers with generous financial contributions.

For further information about The Bridge of Flowers, please visit the website HERE, and for infomation about other attractions in the village of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, visit their website HERE.


View up the river…


View down the path on the bridge…


A last look at the beautiful bridge of flowers setting…


Know of a special garden you would like to see featured on The Gardener’s Eden?

Please email your suggestion to michaela @ the gardeners eden dot com


Article and photos copyright 2009 Michaela H.


Help, my garden has been slimed ! Organic methods for controlling slugs and snails…

June 22nd, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink


S L U G S  !

If you live in New England like I do, you are more than ready for a dose of sunshine ! The east coast has been having a long stretch of rainy weather this month, creating many wet-weather challenges for vegetable and flower gardeners. One of the most destructive groups of garden pests, slugs and snails, thrive in warm, wet conditions. Slugs over-winter in the garden, and when the ground thaws, they slowly emerge to begin a new life cycle. Slow moving in cool weather, slugs and snails are rarely a problem during early spring in cold climates. But come June, when the temperatures rise and when moisture and leafy greens are abundant, slugs can become devastating. Slugs and snails are usually dormant during hot, dry spells and during the daytime. On warm, humid nights and during rainy periods, these garden pests slither from their cool hiding places beneath the cover of mulch, stones, logs and other spots and begin feeding on our produce and flowers. In a single stretch of rainy nights, slugs can chew holes through row upon row of lettuce, consume entire morning glory vines, ruin a backyard crop of strawberries, and devour beds of vegetable and flower seedlings.  The tell tale signs of slug damage; shiny trails, the slippery remains of seedlings, and slimy foliage with irregular holes, will be visible the morning after a feeding frenzy.  Sometimes, when the weather is particularly rainy, slugs can even be spotted feeding in the daytime.

In order to control slugs once they have invaded, a gardener needs to act quickly and remain vigilant. Recognizing minor slug damage, (photos one and two), and responding immediately will save a garden from major destruction and crop loss, (photo three).


Minor slug damage on a leaf of spinach.


Slug damage on a head of lettuce.


Severe slug damage on broccoli.

The most labor-intensive method of slug control is handpicking at night. When done consistently, this is very, very effective. Sometime after nine p.m., grab a flashlight and a pail of soapy water, (wear rubber gloves if you are bothered by slime), and head out into your garden. Starting at ground level, check plants, turning leaves to inspect the undersides as you go. Look through mulch and around the base of plants, and check your compost area and weed baskets too. Collect all the slugs you find and drop them in your pail of soapy water to drown overnight. In the morning, you can dispose of the dead slugs by digging a hole, dumping them and covering them with soil or compost.  You can also try luring slugs into false-shelters, such as scrap wood propped up by pebbles. Leave these traps out overnight and check them in the morning when slugs will retreat from the sunlight beneath shelters. When checking for slugs during the daytime, look beneath logs, rocks and stones, and in beds of ground-cover such as vinca and ivy.

If slugs are becoming a severe problem in your garden, try pulling mulch back away from plants, and look for slugs and eggs during the daytime. Leave mulch turned over to expose slugs and eggs to sunlight and predators like beetles, frogs, snakes and birds. Be sure to keep your garden tidy. Remove all pulled weeds, garden debris and thinned seedlings to the compost pile. Regularly empty all weeding baskets and be on the look-out for any potential slug-havens, such as the bottoms of flower pots and garden furniture.

Sometimes barriers can be effective in dealing with slugs. Many gardeners find that rough-surfaces are unappealing to snails and slugs, and laying a stretch of pine needles, coffee grounds, crushed shells, sawdust and/or wood shavings around planting beds can be enough to deter them. If you try this, be sure to replace the barrier frequently. Other barrier methods include organic, oily soap products and even copper strips. When the slimy surfaced slugs encounter strips of copper, they are hit with an electric current. This shock isn’t strong enough to kill them, but it has been shown to work as a deterrent. If you garden with raised beds, adding a strip of copper flashing along the top of the wood can be a very effective method for controlling slugs.

Many organic gardeners trap slugs in beer cups as a method of slug control, or as part of an overall plan of attack on these pests. Slugs are attracted to beer or sugar/yeast solutions in water.  If plastic cups are set into multiple 4-5″ holes dug in the soil around the edge of the garden and filled with an inch or so of beer or yeast solution, slugs will slither in to investigate, consume the liquid, and drown.  In order for this method to work, a gardener will have to take a disciplined approach and have a strong stomach. It is important to dump the cups of dead slugs into a hole in the morning, and bury them with soil. Replace the fluid nightly and repeat during wet-weather spells. Beer traps will be needed throughout the garden for this method to be successful.

Organic slug-bait is also available if you choose to use it. Many organic slug controls contain mined iron phosphate in wheat gluten bait. Iron phosphate is organically acceptable, and this kind of bait is non-toxic to pets and people. Be sure to check labels in order to be certain that any slug bait you use is approved for use by certified organic growers. And always wear gloves when distributing bait with iron phosphate, as it can irritate your eyes. Organic bait does NOT contain metaldehyde, as this substance IS toxic to people and pets.  Chelating agents are sometimes used in slug baits. Be aware that these ingredients are not approved for certified organic growers.

If your garden is prone to slug infestations year after year, it may be time to consider removing all old mulch straw and replacing it with a fresh, dry load next season. Perhaps adding pea stone or gravel paths and raised beds is something to consider if your garden area tends to be very wet. In cold climates, one generation of slugs per year can be controlled by combining all organic methods mentioned here in the early-middle part of the garden season. In warmer areas, slug-patrol will be necessary year round, and creating a drier garden climate is critical in order to protect your crops. Some slug damage is usually inevitable in an organic vegetable garden, the key is to stay on top of a small slug population in order to avoid large-scale losses of young plants and produce.

With all the wet weather in the New England forecast this week, I will be stocking up on flashlight batteries, dish detergent and cheap beer for my slimy garden “guests”.  Cheers !


Article Copyright 2009 Michaela H.


Pruning Lilacs: Now is the Time, and Here are the Keys to Keep This Old-Time Favorite Looking It’s Best…

June 18th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

syringa-vulgaris-mme-lemoine-double-whiteSyringa vulgaris, “Mme. Lemoine”, double, white

Of the many questions I am asked by gardeners during consultations, seminars and social gatherings, the most frequently posed is: “When should I prune my lilac?”, often quickly followed by, “How do I prune my lilac?”. These are both very good questions because the well-timed, correct pruning of this beloved shrub will result in neater shaped lilacs and more blooms in the coming year.

To begin, the basic principles of pruning should be observed.  I recommend starting with my earlier post, Pruning Trees and Shrubs in the Garden for Beginners. When pruning any plant, a gardener should take care to time the pruning correctly, and to step back and observe the overall shape and condition of the specimen before cutting. The correct time to prune lilacs is right now, in mid to late June  just after the flowers have faded, but before new woody growth begins. Why? Prune your lilac any later than the Fourth of July, and you will risk cutting away next year’s blossoms. Next spring, your lilacs will flower from the blossoms set on this year ‘s growth, (the green new wood). So it is important to finish up this year’s lilac pruning right away.

There are two types of lilac pruning I will cover here.  The first is simple annual pruning for young lilacs and regularly maintained mature specimens already in good shape. The second type of pruning I am frequently asked about, and will review, is renovation pruning. This second type of pruning is more labor-intensive, and is best spread-out over three seasons for the safety of the shrub.

To keep a young, or properly maintained older lilac looking great, and to direct energy toward new growth, (and next year’s bloom), it is best to remove spent flower heads soon after they have faded, (see photo one).  To prevent tearing, remove the old blossoms with sharp, clean bypass pruners. Make your cut straight-across, and very close to the opposite branches below the browning stem, (see photo two).

lilac-pruning-two1Photo one: pruning out faded lilac blossoms.

lilac-pruning-one1Photo two: correct pruning technique for removing spent lilac blossoms

Next, if the shrub is more than a few years old and beginning to look over-crowed at the base, cut some of the old stems out. Make these cuts as close to the ground as possible, and at a slight angle to shed water. Cut out any young, new stems that rub or cross, and/or cause congestion at the base. Retain the strongest stems and remove the spindly, diseased and weak, as they will detract from the attractive structure and shape of the lilac.

If the lilac has produced some extra tall stems, spiking up and distorting the shape of the shrub, shorten these stems down to the strongest branch. After each cut, stand back and observe your progress. If the lilac is a specimen shrub in a perennial garden, try to aim for a neat, natural vase shape, (slightly narrower at the base and spilling out toward the top).  Properly pruned, the base of a lilac can be an attractive, verdant background for perennials in a mixed-border. If the lilac is part of a loose hedge, more growth toward the base of the plant may be desirable for privacy.  In all circumstances, it is very important to remember the natural shape of lilacs. Never prune with shears, or attempt to force lilacs into boxy shapes.  Square pruning is best left to boxwood, privet, yew and other formal hedge-shrubs.

Renovating a very large, older lilac is a more labor intensive task, and it should be addressed in stages. Often, the new owner of an old, neglected farm will also inherit an overgrown lilac hiding the house! Whether an old lilac is part of a larger hedge or one wildly-suckered specimen, the renovation process should be spread out over three years, with no more than a third of the lilac removed each year. The goal is always to bring the shrub back into context with the garden and house, and to bring the blossoms closer to nose-level.

The first year, have a good look at the hedge or specimen. Look for stems and branches jutting out away from the main core of the plant or hedge. Cut wayward, leaning stems to the ground and shorten branches aiming horizontally or drooping out from the shrub. These stems and branches are usually quite thick, and will require use of a grecian saw or bow saw. In some cases, an arborist’s chain saw may be required, and a gardener may need some assistance. Next look the tallest stems and branches within the shrub. Over the next three years, the overall framework of the shrub can be reduced by cutting branches back by a third and removing about a third of the older stems right to the ground. This task will likely involve ladders, and for safety it should always be considered a two person job. Once a third of the old wood has been removed, remove a third of the new stems, (shoots at the base), as well. Select strong young stems to form the new framework of the shrub, and remove any spindly, weak stems and all of those crossing, rubbing or very close together.

If pruning is accomplished before July 4th, and held to the 1/3 rule, the lilac should bloom normally or better the following year. Each June, continue to prune the lilac in this manner until the framework is back in context with the home or the desired hedge-shape. Once the desired shape has been achieved, the lilac should be lightly pruned in June, just after blooming, as outlined under annual maintenance pruning above.

For further information on the pruning of lilacs and all woody trees and shrubs, I highly recommend Lee Reich’s The Pruning Book, from Taunton Press.  All of Reich’s books on pruning are easy to read, with many photographs and drawings to help you learn to cut with confidence.


Article and photographs © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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June Flowering Shrub Spotlight : Our Native Mountain Laurel, Kalmia Latifolia

June 15th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia, ‘Pink Charm’) in a naturalistic planting between boulders…

One of the great native shrubs of North America, mountain laurel, (Kalmia latifolia), is also a beautiful and versatile garden plant.  With nearly 100 cultivars ranging in size from the diminutive, (12″ high plants suitable for small spaces and rock gardens), to the imposing, (a grand beauty at the North Carolina Arboretum is reputed to stand 25 feet high), mountain laurels are useful in garden designs of any scale. Kalmia latifolia is a member of the heath family, and much like it’s cousins, rhododendron, azalea, and pieris, it prefers slightly acidic, sharply drained, hummus-rich soil.  Mountain laurel exist naturally in both woodland settings and exposed rock ledges. The evergreen foliage of mountain laurel tends to be more durable in cold climates than many other members of the heath family. Most Kalmia cultivars are hardy in zones 4-8. The beautiful buds and flowers of mountain laurel, ranging in color and pattern from white to nearly red, reach their peak in June.

Kalmia latifolia ‘Pink Charm’ – Beautiful Geometric Blossoms

Kalmia latifolia ‘Pink Charm’ with companion plantings in ledge

North American native mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, flowering in June

Mountain laurel can be a useful addition to gardens of virtually any style, including rock gardens, Japanese zen and formal designs. However to my eye, laurel is particularly suited to naturalistic-style gardens in both urban and rural settings. Because laurels are native to North America, they tend to blend and blur the boundaries between man-made and natural environments in this part of the world. Kalmia latifolia is very useful in transitioning from a more formal garden to a woodland setting, (naturally occurring or designed and planted by human hands). When regularly pruned, 6-12′ stands of laurel lend sinewy line and structure to garden designs, and form elegant screens, loose hedges and quiet backdrops for outdoor rooms. In a city garden, a mountain laurel can be a cool,calming, evergreen reminder of the quiet forest; beautiful and soothing in combination with ferns, woodland flowers and moss. In a more rural setting, Kalmia latifolia links a garden to woodland surrounds, balancing more exotic plantings and keeping a design in context with the naturally occurring plants of North America.

One of the few reliably hardy, broad-leaf evergreens, Kalmia has much to offer in terms of variety. Beyond the lustrous green foliage and the curvaceous wood, mountain laurel cultivars possess some of the most fascinating blooms in all of nature.  The geometric shapes of the flowers, in both bud and blossom, make mountain laurel a real stand-out in gardens. Names like “Kaleidoscope”, “Carousel”, “Pinwheel” and “Galaxy”, (all cultivars bred and introduced by the great horticulturalist Richard Jaynes), hint at the diverse flower patterns and colors developed by the creative breeders of this beautiful shrub.

Kalmia latifolia on a dark winter day

Mountain laurels are quite striking when planted in combination with rocks, boulders, ledges and other natural and man-made stone features. When combining Kalmia latifolia with other plants, I like to take cues from nature, mixing this native plant with conifers such Tsuga, (hemlock), and deciduous shrubs providing contrasting autumn color, such as Clethera alnifolia, (sweet pepperbush), Hamamelis, (witch hazel), and Fothergilla, (witch alder). Perennials of all kinds work with laurel in partly sunny locations, and I am particularly fond of late blooming combinations, such as asters and lilies. In dappled shade, forest ledge natives, including Polystichum acrostichoides, (Christmas fern), Polygonatum, (Solomon’s seal), Hexastylis and Asarum canadense, (wild-gingers), all make good ground-level companions for Kalmia latifolia.

I continue to be surprised by how underutilized this native shrub remains in North American gardens.  For form, foliage and colorful bloom, the genus Kalmia is a handsome and versatile design selection for many garden settings and styles.


Kalmia latifolia, ‘Pink Charm’, in a rock garden setting at Ferncliff


For further information about Kalmia latifolia, see Kalmia: Mountain Laurel and Related Species by Richard A. Jaynes


Article and Photographs copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden


All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Composting Basics, for Beginners…

June 10th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

Compost Love

Learning to make your own compost is one of the most economical and effective ways to build fertile, organic garden soil. Fortunately, it is also one of the simplest garden skills to learn. Plants grown in compost-supplemented soil tend to be stronger, healthier and more disease resistant. Organic garden compost adds valuable nutrients to soil, enhancing vegetable and fruit quality and yield at harvest time. Compost is created naturally on earth throughout the seasons, with dead matter piling and decaying, building rich soil to support new life. As gardeners, when we make compost we imitate nature by rapidly creating layers of rotting material in a small space. Turning piles of composted plant material speeds up the natural process of decomposition by heating up and aerating dry, green and brown layers of organic waste from our kitchens, gardens and fields.

Getting a compost pile started can be quite easy.  As your interest in gardening grows, more permanent or attractive bins and tools may become desirable. However, composting is a very easy garden skill to learn, and it need not be expensive, time consuming or difficult.  The first step is to create a contained area for your pile.

Building a simple compost bin does not require any carpentry skills. The most basic bin is made of 4 straw bale walls stacked up four feet high. Another very easy, no-nonsense design requires 15 feet of wire or snow fencing and a pair of wood or metal stakes.  If you are using wire or snow fencing, form a cylindrical shape and set the bin in an area of loosened soil. Drive two stakes or saplings at least one foot into the ground, on the inside of the bin, at opposite midway points.  Three or four stakes evenly divided are even better for stability. Attach the bin to the stakes with wire or twine, and you are ready to start !

Once you have your bin set up, add a few inches of clean straw to the bottom. Next add water to the straw slowly with a watering can to make it damp, (but not soggy). Top this first layer with a 2-6 inch layer of loose “green” material. Green material consists of fresh organic cast-offs, such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps, thinned seedlings, or spent vegetable plants. Adding pulled annual weeds to a compost bin is also acceptable (it is wise to keep perennial weed roots out of your bin, and diseased materials should always be burned or otherwise disposed). On top of this “green” layer, add a half inch or so of garden soil or well rotted manure (never dog or cat manure).  You can also add some mature compost from a friend’s compost pile as a starter. Keep building your pile in these layers over a series of weeks. Each layer of compost should contain the described balance of dry materials, green materials and the brown layer of soil/manure/compost. Keep dry materials on hand in a shed or covered bin, and try to maintain steady layering. Some compost ingredients, such as grass clippings, tend to mat up.  Add these materials in moderation unless you have enough loose matter, (such as vines or pulled plant stalks), to balance the mix.  It is also helpful to ‘scatter’ the material into the compost bin, as opposed to dumping kitchen scraps into a solid pile on the heap.

As your pile grows, you can add shredded fall leaves and newspapers, chopped ornamental grass and other fibrous materials to the dry layer of your pile. The green layer should contain grass clippings and kitchen scraps (vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, egg shells, etc.) as mentioned, but you can also items like deadheaded flowers and other easily rotted plant material from around the yard. Once you have created a batch of your own compost, a 1/2″ sprinkling can go in as the final layer. I also like to add green sand to my compost.  Green sand can be found at most farmer’s supply stores.  This is an organic supplement from ancient ocean floors, and it adds valuable potassium to the garden.

A compost pile needs to reach about 3′ high (be patient, as it will settle) in order to generate internal heat. Once your pile reaches this height, you can cover it with a blue or black tarp to help retain heat and keep out excess water during rainy periods. Many gardeners have two or more piles going at once, however this isn’t necessary unless you have a larger garden with a great need for compost. Once your pile is 3′ high, turn the compost with a garden fork — really mix it well to fluff and aerate the pile. You can also add some water if the mix seems dry, and then cover it again.  Keep turning your pile every few days –or at least once a week– until your compost appears dark and crumbly like good garden soil. Once the compost reaches this point, you are ready to pull up your bin, move it and start another pile. The old pile is ready to spread as mulch or add to supplement soil.

Home made compost is one of the best fertilizers you can add to your vegetable garden. A dressing of compost around the base of plants preserves moisture, and keeps soil temperatures consistent. A layer of compost at 1-2″ thick is about right for most northern gardeners during the growing season. If your soil needs building, or your climate is warmer, add a thicker layer of compost – perhaps 3″ or so. Some gardeners find they have a hard time generating enough compost for their gardens. Usually they lack green material, specifically kitchen scraps, for their piles. If this sounds like a potential problem for you, ask some friends or neighbors to keep a bin of vegetable peels for you, or offer to collect their unwanted lawn clippings. Your request for help with this organic project will most likely be welcomed as a way to dispose of unwanted materials. You can always return the kindness with a basket of fresh produce from your garden.
Top photo: Applying a compost mulch to romaine lettuce and Swiss chard.
Lower photos: Spinach and marigold growing with a compost mulch
and red chard looking vibrant and delicious in dark, compost enriched soil.


Article and photographs © 2010 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!


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Shop at SpringHillNursery.com to save $25 on a $50 order!

Plow & Hearth


Sculpture and Artful Objects in the Garden…

June 6th, 2009 § Comments Off on Sculpture and Artful Objects in the Garden… § permalink


Every now and again, I encounter a place in a garden where something seems to be missing. Usually, the space is calling for artful punctuation. I have discovered that sometimes the design element  I am looking for in a garden isn’t a plant at all. On occasion the smooth terra cotta surface of an urn, or the roughness of a grey tufa pot, will provide just the right contrast in texture or hue to bring out the subtle beauty of a leaf or a flower. Juxtaposing objects against plant life can bring out the character in both.  The beautiful vessel above is from A Candle in the Night.


While a space filled with collectibles has never been attractive to my eye, I do like to see things other than plants in a garden. Sometimes an empty chair or a tilted vessel can give a garden a poetic presence; hinting at rest, mystery, calm, magic, history, and many other things. Adding a mossy urn or a water bowl can create a calming mood in a garden room. I also like to use objects as focal points in corner niches, or at stopping places on a path or walkway.  Some garden objects can be simple, such as a bowl filled with smooth stone set in contrast to the spiky texture of a conifer. Other times the contrasting orange-tinted color of a rusting metal bench or basket might catch my eye as a way to bring out the saphire blue of a flower, such as salvia, in a nearby pot.




With larger objects, such as a commissioned stone sculpture, an entire landscape might be designed around the strength of a single feature. As a focal point or destination in an expansive lawn, or as a dramatic centerpiece in a minimalist garden filled with verdant ground cover, a piece of sculpture can provide essential depth and interest to a quiet design. Below, set in a simple lawn at forest edge, a fire sculpture created by artist Dan Snow becomes a gathering place during evening parties. While not everyone is lucky enough to have sculptor create a piece of artwork for their garden, the spacial concept is simple enough to borrow.  A thoughtful arrangement of stone or steel, or even an arched skeleton of saplings can bring a strong sculptural element to a garden.  For further inspiration, look to books on Japanese Zen gardening and large scale sculpture, and to the land art projects of three dimensional artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Robert Smithson, Donald Judd, and Dale Chihuly


And then, sometimes an object suitable for a landscape will appear before a space is available. When in possession of such an interesting or unusual object, it is often wise to hold onto it and wait until the ideal position presents itself. A few years ago, a friend gave me a piece of statuary – a cast guardian angel. I struggled with what to do with this thoughtful gift, since my garden is not the sort of place you might find such a large, classical object. The angel seemed sadly out of place, no matter where she sat. For several years, she waited in the cellar for her new home. Late one afternoon, while on on a walk, it occurred to me that the angel simply needed a bigger room… something like a cathedral. She now makes her home on the edge of my forest path, where she is quite striking and unexpected. With the trees arching 30 to 40 feet above her, the melancholy angel no longer looks awkward or out of place. My hauntingly beautiful forest guardian seems right at home amongst the native ferns and foliage.


I will be featuring more sculpture and artful objects on The Gardener’s Eden over the coming months. In meantime, give a second look to those chipped or rusty, cast-offs in the garage and cellar. Perhaps there is a garden-worthy object hiding amongst the cobwebs in an old barn or shed.  The garden can be a good place to recycle many things when you think creatively. A piece of found-art or sculpture can be a fantastic springboard for a new garden design, or a way to breathe new life into an old space. When designing a garden, stretch your imagination beyond plant life…  and watch your ideas grow.


Do you know of some great garden objects, sculptors or artists you would like to see featured on The Gardener’s Eden ?  If so, please email your thoughts to:

michaela at  the gardeners eden dot com

Article and Photographs copyright 2009 Michaela at TGE

Companion Planting in the Organic Vegetable Garden

June 2nd, 2009 § 13 comments § permalink

chives-thyme-rosemary-savoryChives and thyme in the potager

Companion planting is a very old-world, organic gardening method. Unfortunately, much companion planting knowledge has fallen out of use and favor in modern times due to a focus on efficiency. Of course on large farms efficiency is very important, but in a home garden I prefer to concentrate as much on process as I do on product. Instead of rotor-tilled planting strips, I have raised beds of mounded earth in my potager. My vegetable garden is organized in wide planting groups, not narrow rows. This sort of arrangement is not practical for commercial growers, but in a back yard vegetable garden, it works beautifully. From a design stand-point, I like this method of vegetable gardening because it maximizes my space, and allows me to create whimsical-looking arrangements of flowering and fruiting plants. There are also more practical and scientific benefits to this shared-space arrangement as well. Mixed-vegetable beds with herbs and flowers create many opportunities for synergistic relationships between plants. Utilizing natural plant relationships is one of the oldest organic gardening methods for vegetable growing success.

marigold-close-upCalendula, (marigold)

Herbs and flowers make attractive companions to vegetables, and many decorative potager plants lure beneficial insects. Blooming, fragrant herbs and flowers appeal to insects such as bees, green lacewings, hover flies, and lady bugs, among other helpful creatures. Yarrow is a pretty garden flower, and morning glory vines look beautiful growing up a garden fence. More importantly, and worth noting: these plants attract lady bugs and other insect-carnivores. Wild flowers, such as golden rod, are often mown down or uprooted by gardeners as ‘weeds’, but these flowers attract parasitic wasps, assasin bugs and lady bugs as well. Keeping native wild flowers around is a good idea for the organic gardener, as these plants are natural magnets for beneficial insects. Many insect-helpers eat pollen, and they are attracted to blooming plants during their adult stages. Later their off-spring, in the larval stage, will devour aphids, thrips, white flies, mealybugs, and many more pests. For useful information on how to identify friend from foe, visit sites in the entomology -links section to the right of this post on the blog-roll.

Attractive potager plants make the vegetable garden a beautiful and pleasant place to work and many are flavorful additions to recipes. However not all living things enjoy the presence of pungent herbs and flowers. These plants can also serve to repel insects and to mask the odors of more attractive plants, confusing or distracting pests. Onions, chives and garlic tend to deter aphids, ants and flea beetles. Rosemary may be flavorful to humans, but it is an unattractive, powerful scent to carrot flies and cabbage moths. Calendula, (marigold), is a traditional French potager plant used ward-off aphids, white flies and potato beetles. French marigold is also a deterent to nematodes and tomato hornworm. Basil and borage are also unappealing to tomato hornworm, and basil in particular makes a great edging plant for tomatoes. Surrounding tomatoes with basil may fool insect pests by masking the attractive odor of the tomatoes. Sage deters carrot fly and it also is unappealing to cabbage moth, as is thyme, hyssop and artemesia.

Companion planting also utilizes the harmonious and beneficial relationships between the plants themselves. Some crops, when grown near one another, may grow and yield better, and also protect one another from insect pests. Native Americans developed companion planting schemes based on such experiences; growing pole beans with corn for support, and surrounding corn with squash to deter raccoons, (apparently they dislike climbing over the leafy plants). Clearly it is important to plant taller or larger-growing crops, (like corn, pole beans and pumpkins for example), in beds where they can spread out and up without blocking sun, or smothering smaller crops near-by.

Most gardeners love to grow tomatoes. Herbs like parsley, basil, mint and chives are all good companions for tomatoes.  Flowers, such as nasturtium, marigold, and bee-balm also make good neighbors for tomatoes of all kinds. Lettuce grows well at the foot of tomato plants, and cucumbers, celery and chili peppers are happy near-by, (with proper spacing of course). Keep in mind that tomatoes, eggplant, bell pepper and potatoes should not be grown directly next to one another, as they all attract Colorado potato beetle. When planting these plants, mix them up with other plant groups, like herbs and lettuce. Another planting combination to avoid is tomatoes and corn, as they both attract a pest known by two names: corn ear worm/tomato fruit worm. Try planting tomatoes and corn at opposite corners of the garden to deter these pests.

Pole beans are also popular potager plants, and in general they will do best planted away from members of the cabbage family, (broccoli, cauliflower, cress, kale, mizuna, arugula, radish, turnip, brussel sprouts). However most bush-beans are not so picky. All beans do well mingled with rosemary and celery, but should not be next-door-neighbors with fennel, basil and onion.

Cucumbers, another back-yard favorite, are a rewarding, fast-producing crop. They grow well near bush beans, eggplant, cabbages, peas, tomatoes lettuce and all herbs except sage.  It is wise to avoid planting cucumbers near potatoes, and also provide separation between this plant and squash, pumpkin and melon, as they are all host to the stem and fruit boring pickle worm.

Summer squash and zucchini are also popular garden crops, and they make great companions for onions, radishes, and corn and celery.  But as mentioned above, this plant is best grown away from cucumber and potatoes, to deter pests.

Head lettuce grows well beside most vegetable plants, and it does particularly well in mid-summer near taller plants, as they give the lettuce a bit of shade. Pole beans or peas provide an excellent opportunity to test this synergistic relationship. Because lettuce is a fast growing crop, benefitting from cool conditions, it can be sown at the feet of many vegetables through out the growing season.

These planting suggestions are best viewed as guides, not hard and fast rules. There are many, many more plant relationships to explore.  Research companion planting online, and in some of the books mentioned on this site in the ‘Bookstore / Library’ (page left), under the ‘vegetable garden’,(last section). Try keeping a journal of your garden to note your experiences with companion planting, and to help you plan your garden next year. Remember that synergistic plant relationships can help reduce the need for insecticidal soaps and other pesticides. Above all, keep in mind that vegetable gardening is good for you in many ways. Experimenting with the beauty and benefits of herbs and flowers can only help you to enjoy companion planting as part of your overall garden experience.

flower-baskets-in-potagerNewly planted flower baskets in this year’s potager will attract beneficial insects

herbs-in-the-gardenThyme, rosemary, savory and chives at the vegetable garden entry

Article copyright 2009 Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. All rights reserved.


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