Winter Garden Thoughts
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A Perfect Day

Recently, I headed in to Boston to put one of our roof gardens to bed for the winter. I had not seen my client in a few months and she greeted me at the door. She was very enthusiastic in her praise of the garden. Recently recovered from hip surgery, she remarked that the garden had been integral to her healing. She could not take the pain medications prescribed for her so the garden became her respite. We did not know when we installed it on a 95 degree day that it would become her exercise room. At that point we were looking for beauty, relaxation and a few edibles for cooking. Since her surgery it had also become a gym. Since the garden encompasses two decks she made a loop from one to the other and that became part of her recovery routine. 

She was lavish with her praise and told me about all the wildlife she and her husband had enjoyed watching. Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and birds had made regular stops in her garden, which she also said helped her recovery. My client then proceeded to give me the most beautiful hand thrown mug with bees embossed on it saying she had thought of me as soon as she had seen it. 

She knows I am a beekeeper which also explained the card she chose.

Effusive in her praise, my client was convinced that the garden had helped her heal. She told me I “had created something that was so filled with love it was amazing.”

At that point I was reminded why I do what I do. 

It’s not to become rich. It’s not to become famous. It’s not to become a leader in my industry. I do what I do to touch peoples’ lives. Sure many of the projects are just projects. But every so often there is a client, like this one, who really appreciates what I am trying to do and sees my ulterior motive. Not just to create beauty but to create connection. To make lives better through interactions with the beauty of nature. And whether that is a few container gardens on a deck or a completely new landscape the goal is the same.

It was a very good day.

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What a Tool

As a garden designer I love plants. That’s a given. But not too far behind my love of plants is a love of tools. Especially those that make my life easier.  When I first started in this business over 15 years ago I did most everything the hard way. I slept well, due to exhaustion, but my back hurt, my knees ached, and my fingers tingled. As I have gotten older, and wiser, I have realized that tools can be a really good friend.

Take, for instance, one of my favorites: the battery-operated leaf blower.

Now before you shudder in horror let me assure you that this is not like the obnoxious backpack blowers that wake you up at 7AM on a Saturday morning. This is a more refined character. I especially like it because it makes cleanups a breeze. Whereas before the crew had to sweep and sweep and sweep a quick shot with the leaf blower leaves everything spotless. My battery-operated leaf blower is a Ryobi, but not part of the 18V interchangeable system. The fact that it is battery-operated means it is lightweight and relatively quiet.  Very easy to use. Not unlike the chainsaw I got at the same time. While it is not meant for lumberjacks it can make quick work of a tree on a roof garden.

Another recent acquisition is the work light from Ryobi that IS part of the 18V system. These days when I am often working after 4PM it is dark and this light makes things so much easier to see.  And I look much better without the miner’s light on!

How about my cobra-head weeder?  Another great tool. According to their website “Its blade is a steel fingernail® that becomes an extension of your hand. It weeds, cultivates, scalps, edges, digs, furrows, plants, transplants, de-thatches, and harvests with ease.” All I can say is this tool is FANTASTIC. I think about the only thing it cannot do is make my coffee in the morning.

Equally awesome is the spear-head spade.

Thanks to my friend Mary for introducing me to this beauty. The design of this spade makes dividing iris or hosta a piece of cake. The sharp head and equally sharp edges slice through the toughest roots. I also find it works great in rocky soils.

We have been planting bulbs over the last month and I don’t know how I ever did it without a bulb auger before. A bulb auger attaches to a drill – the heavy duty kind with a powerful battery will work best. I was able to plant allium, which need to go at least 8” down, in a matter of seconds. Position the auger where you want the bulb, pull the drill trigger and voila. It seems like it is even better than digging the traditional hole since there is less soil disturbance. It’s definitely a back saver and can even be used to turn compost or mix fertilizer. It can tend to kick back a little in rocky soils so make sure to wear eye protection.

My final pick for a great tool is not something you find at a garden center but rather a kitchen store. I love my serrated bread knife. I use it for removing plants from containers and cutting back grasses. I started using it by accident because my trowel was not sharp enough and would not work. Eventually my kids stopped asking where the bread knife was; it had taken up residence in my tool kit. Thankfully for Christmas my friend Jeanne got me a new one so now we can slice the English muffins!

This holiday season why not skip the perfume and pajamas and give your favorite gardener something that helps him/her in the garden?  And if you see Santa please tell him I have been VERY good this year and would love another pair of Felco pruners.

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Whenever I am speaking at Flower Shows or Garden Clubs I always stress the importance of doing business with a good local nursery. The big box stores are fine for rakes, leaf bags and the occasional potting soil but when it comes to plant material you cannot beat a local nursery. Many of the staff are devoted plant people, “geeks” if you will. Many have worked and studied hard to achieve accreditations from industry groups like the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association (shout out to my fellow MCHs and MCLPs).  Many are Master Gardeners. In other words, these are typically people who know plants. You want to get to know them. Get on their good side. Bring them brownies. Or beer. They have access to the plant material and they need to know your name. Once they realize that you are a true plant lover they might let you know when the delivery of that really cool plant is arriving. They may even put one aside for you. 

I could not be successful in my business without the support of great local nurseries.

One of my favorites is A. Thomas and Sons in Milton, MA.

These guys are awesome and if you live in the area you owe it to yourself to check them out. Maybe Amanda can help you with a bow for a wreath, Heather can create a beautiful winter container, Kevin can hook you up with a great tree, Frank can point you in the direction of just the right shrub, and Steve can make that last minute delivery happen. And Jim well, let’s just say that if you are having a bad day, Jim can be counted on to say something that will make you smile. Maybe that’s a survival skill he has learned after many years as a Scout leader! 

Over the years, the people at A. Thomas have become friends and I am so grateful for each one. I think of Joe who delivered planters to a roof garden job and then helped me get them up to the 4th floor – all on a 95 degree day!

So thank you to all my friends at A. Thomas. Have a very Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and a restful winter. You’ve earned it!

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to make brownies.

A Winter Garden

The first snowfall of the season has reminded me again of the importance of planning for a winter garden. Here in New England the winters can seem well…long. Often we are looking at nothing but white and brown from November until late March.  Lack of planning for a winter garden means the garden that wowed you in June will leave you wanting in January.

Evergreens are certainly one way to add color to a stark winter garden but I am also a huge fan of deciduous trees and shrubs that have a structural beauty. Even without leaves these plants can be breathtaking due to exfoliating bark, colorful stems or berries. Birches, Japanese maples, dogwood shrubs, winterberry hollies – these are all-stars in a winter landscape and when I am designing gardens I try to incorporate them whenever possible.

But even if you only garden in containers, consider winter.

A new client tasked us with creating a beautiful collection of containers to decorate his deck. He wanted it to be beautiful year round since his family looked out on it from several rooms. Of course we used evergreens, but we also featured a beautiful deciduous tree commonly known as Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.

Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’)

This is a beautiful tree year-round but especially in the winter months when its twisted branches are dusted with snow.

I was grateful that when the first snow came all my clients had been decorated for the winter and would have something beautiful to look at until the temperatures warm.

There was only one house that I had not gotten to and it was my own. I had put something simple in the front urns and despite my plans for a more elaborate design they may stay that way.

I kind of like the simplicity.

Winter is a quiet time for us gardeners. It’s a season for dreaming. My hope is that all yours come true.

See you in the garden,


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