Who’s a Master Gardener?

A class was advertised in the community newspaper that my husband just happened to read in December. He thought I should sign up. The last time he thought I should sign up for something I spent a year jumping off the top of telephone poles, climbing the Alpine Tower, hiking through the mountains, and paddling the cold whitewaters of the Nantahala Gorge. I no longer take these “you should…” suggestions lightly.

I sent off my request to join the class nonetheless, and was immediately met with a questionnaire: “What are your top three areas of gardening interest? (anything I can get to grow?), Other Horticultural Training you’ve received? (None) Gardening groups in which you are currently active? Gardening magazines you currently receive?” (None, and none) I must have managed a suitable answer to every question after all, and the next email announced, “Welcome to the Extension Master Gardener Program!” There were 20 future EMG volunteers enrolled. The first day of class was last Tuesday.

Everyone was invited to stand up and introduce themselves when class began. One man had been gardening for more than 30 years. A lady discovered dahlias last year, grew them in her garden, and won three first-place prizes at the County Fair! Everyone spoke of the challenges of gardening in the mucky clay that dominates our area versus the sandy or loamy soils of their previous gardens in other parts of the country. I finally volunteered to speak, and all I could think to say in the presence of these experienced gardeners is that I just really enjoy playing in the dirt. I could have mentioned that my husband and I had planted over 300 plants and 40 trees this past summer (we planted one more tree a couple of weeks ago), or that I live next door to one of the most special native gardens in the city. But my mind went blank, and no one seemed to mind anyway.

Most of our first class was spent discussing the bigger part of the EMG volunteer’s commitment, which is surprisingly not the 50 some odd hours of training we’ll complete between now and April, but the 40 hours of volunteer service we’re obliged to perform before the end of December. There’s community gardens to help out with and a booth to man at the County Fair, newsletters to write, questions to answer from the general public, wreath making workshops at Christmas, garden tours, and a plant sale. There’s even an opportunity to participate in a workday at the Corneille Bryan Native Garden next door to my house. It will hardly feel like work. But first, we’ll learn everything there is to know about gardening.

The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook is 728 pages covering twenty-one different topics from soil and composting to propagation, diagnostics and wildlife. When the instructor introduced our first topic he emphasized that “Dirt is what you bring inside on the bottom of your shoes. Soil is what’s in the garden.” And away we go.

Our first homework assignment involved selecting two sections of our own gardens to submit to soil sampling. We would dig seven or eight holes from each site, take a sampling of soil from each hole, mix it all together in a plastic container, and transfer the combined soil to a small box that would be shipped off to Raleigh for analysis. The most challenging part of the exercise, our instructor warned, was to give each section of your garden a name you could remember. My husband came up with the idea of right field, left field, center field and home plate, and so I collected samples from right field and home plate. Apparently, we’ll be reviewing the soil content of our gardens on a Tuesday at some point in the future.

Botany is the subject of next week’s class, and I have made some fascinating discoveries in my assigned reading. For example, some flowers have landing platforms that match the body parts of the animals that perform the pollination, the bitterness in cucumbers and lettuce is caused by high temperatures, and it’s actually the stems on the dark side of a plant that elongate making it appear the plant is growing toward the light.

Plants are amazing, and I’ll be learning just how amazing every Tuesday now through April. Maybe they won’t mind if I go back to playing in the dirt when class ends.

The Garden Review 2019

Some of my favorite sights of the year.

The first sign of spring arrives early (in February) at a house by the lake. (All pictures are my own except where noted.)

The Corneille Bryan Native Garden next door to our cottage has some of the most unusual native plants. This photo is of the Yellow Sessile Trillium in full bloom this April.

In 2018, a pair of bald eagles built a nest in our neighborhood and took up residence. This year they had babies. It’s not unusual to see the eagles all around the lake, but it took a powerful long-distance lens to capture video of the babies. (Photo and video by local photographer/videographer Joseph Thomas of Carolina Photo Art)

April 10: the dogwood by the lake is spectacular.

A view from the Blue Ridge Parkway (April).

The first cygnets of the year were born in May.

The Lake Junaluska landscaping department won a third-place finish in the national 2019 Pamela Crawford Side Planting Photo Contest. The Pamela Crawford planter has holes throughout the liner to allow for unusual and innovative designs. Nineteen of these planters were used in the landscaping design for the first time this year. (Photo: Melissa Tinsley-Lake Junaluska, NC)

More babies. . .

The native garden is dense with flowers in July.

We added more than 300 plants and a garden shed to our own newly excavated garden space behind the house; including 25 trees, dozens of shrubs, ornamental grasses, perennial flowers, succulents and ground cover. The windmill was added in August to commemorate our 20th wedding anniversary.

Our wildflower experiment was generally successful. They grew over 6 feet tall, gave us oodles of cut flowers, and bloomed well into October. However, they literally took over the back corner of the garden, and were so thick they obstructed our view of the other plants. It took me all day to cut back the dead stems, and four trips – holding all the dead stems I could possibly muster – to haul them to the street. We’re re-thinking our strategy for next year.

Lavender would rather die than be transplanted, but the one I moved to the front of the house last year has defied all odds.

This one scraggly lavender plant produced more lavender than I could have imagined. Scary as it now sounds, there’s 26 new lavender plants behind the house that could be ready to harvest next summer.

Butterflies frequented the planters on the front porch all summer.

An unusual flower blooms by the Memorial Chapel.

The cygnets at one or two months old.

Four more cygnets were born in July. This photo was taken by Jim Pearson, the cygnet caretaker.

The statue in the foreground was erected years ago in memory of the first swan of our neighborhood, Malcolm.

An eagle attempts to prey on small water fowl, but they cluster together and flap their wings to scare him off. After four or five tries, the eagle finally gives up. There’s something to be said about the little guys’ strategy.

There were stunning vistas from late September through November as fall showed its best colors.

September 29:

October 2nd:

October 25:

October 31st:

November 2nd:

By December 11th, we had our second light snow of the season.

Five days before Christmas we found three Japanese Cedar trees significantly discounted at our local garden shop. We had to move six other plants to position them where we needed them most, but I’m beginning to believe there’s never too much evergreen.

I made a small donation to the Arbor Foundation this summer, and they sent 10 flowering trees as a thank you gift. This brings the total number of trees we’ve planted this year to 38 – even though 10 of them could take the rest of our life to look like trees. After this last day of planting, on the eve of winter solstice, my gardening year is a wrap.

From my garden to yours, Merry Christmas! And the very best New Year!

Main Street, Waynesville N.C.; A Luke Sutton Photo

My Garden Propagation Project

There’s lots of ways to gather plants for a landscaping project, and I’ve been willing to try any and all methods to fill the barren land behind my house. In fact, there’s been little time this summer for anything except gathering plants.

The excavation part of our construction project from earlier this year left us with a set of stone steps, and mounds of red clay covered in mulch. I’m familiar with inheriting a fully landscaped yard – even if I might spend the next few years tweaking, moving and fine-tuning what was already there. Reversing the total eradication of all plant life is a horse of a different color altogether.

My goal has been to cover as much ground as possible, literally and figuratively speaking. My ultimate garden would be one that requires very little mulching, no cutting grass or weed-whacking, and includes spots of shade all around. By mid-summer I had finally thought to start a Pinterest board with the names of every plant we’ve added to our garden to help me keep track of things. I’ve registered 116 different species so far, although we’ve rarely added just one plant of any variety.

My favorite method of propagation starts with a visit to the discounted rack of plants at the nearby garden center. There’s something uniquely rewarding about reviving a distressed plant that’s been left to your mercy – not to mention it’s also easier on the wallet. And you never know what variety of plant you might find on the discount rack.

Our savings have become fairly substantial in the process of discount-rack shopping. One day we had finished shopping when the nice lady at the register advised us of an additional 50% off all discount-rack plants. We went shopping again and made off with a total $362 savings.

We’ve accumulated plants by transplanting from near and far as well. When our friend Irene divided the Iris in her garden earlier this spring, my husband brought a bucket full home in his little convertible. It was quite the sight.

Last year a neighbor opened his garden to anyone that was willing to divide and dig day lilies. Next year these same day lilies will be ready to divide and transplant again into the vast unknown of our back yard – where I’ll be quite happy for them to multiply till their heart’s content.

A photo of the front taken on September 9, 2018 after planting the day lilies from our neighbor’s garden.

This photo was taken June 16, 2019 when the lilies were in full bloom.

The next two photos were taken earlier today. Some of the day lilies are still blooming, but the Montauk Daisy steals the show. Last year I cut a stem from the more mature daisy on the right and started a new plant on the left. If anything more than a leaf falls off a plant anywhere, I’ll toss it in water and see if it roots. Some experiments are more successful than others.

My husband found several platters of sedum on the discount rack one day, and we planted them everywhere.

It was a fluke decision to put one of the platters into the St. Francis statue’s arms in the shady side garden, and now there’s sedum starters that have taken hold all around just underneath. In some cases, propagation could take the rest of my life. It’s still fun.

Each time I’ve added a new plant to my Pinterest board, I’ve researched its particulars. It’s been fascinating, and sometimes stunning.

I fell in love with the Evening Primrose and their delicate early-morning blooms, but there was an urgent warning regarding how invasive this plant can become if left to propagate at will. And I didn’t think much about burying the leftover Creeping Jenny from a summer arrangement last year to see what would happen. It’s the best ground cover ever, although we could possibly drown in a sea of Jenny by this time next year.

There’s been a few stomach turning lessons along the way as well, such as the day I discovered ‘dog vomit fungus’ and the ‘stink horn’ mushroom. Both thrive in mulch, both are simply horrible, and you can’t possibly make this stuff up. But there’s also been great pleasure in finding the perfect spot for a tree I’ve never heard of before, or finding plants that would survive where an underground spring keeps the ground surprisingly wet. Pictures do not do our hard work justice, but some day this cottage garden will be the garden of our dreams.

I found Mr. Boggs sitting at the top of the hill in the back garden and snapped his picture – it looks like he’s wearing the Canna Lily in the background as a hat. My experimental wildflower garden is just beyond the Canna Lily and an even more experimental rain garden is just below the ridge. Bentley is at the far right sitting in front of a small white azalea that has just decided to bloom. This is home. And this is where I’ve happily spent most of my summer days.

My Garden Shed

All the shed’s parts and pieces shipped from Canada and arrived several days later on two pallets. The manufacturer’s step-by-step Assembly Manual claimed assembly would take “two to three days to complete with a helper.” Their equation did not figure on me being the helper and surely they didn’t count on the job-site being fourteen steps up.

We had inquired all around town to hire two men for two days. They’d feign interest, after which my husband would send them a video detailing the process, and we’d never hear from them again. Eventually he convinced me we could do this by ourselves, and I believed him. We worked nine days in a row.

Day One

He prepared the foundation on the first day. The floor frame was set onto four 4×6 pressure treated lumber beams, and the plywood floor set atop all of this. It took some time to ensure the whole thing was square and level so I did gardening work that day.

Day Two, Three & Four

By Thursday afternoon we had set the studs and secured all the wall panels, installed the windows, and attached the front and rear gables.

Days Five, Six & Seven

We assembled the two roof rafters down below and carried them up one full piece at a time. Each side slid into place and locked into a groove. We just stood there for a minute marveling how easily they had locked in place. This accomplishment seemed to bolster our confidence regarding the roof – the heaviest of all the pieces. When my muscles still wouldn’t rise to the task, my husband lifted the roof panels onto his back and walked them right up the steps.

The six roof panels with cedar shingles already attached, a rafter support beam, gussets, and 6 Polygal panels on the greenhouse side were attached and secured by Saturday afternoon.

All that was left was to install the door and attach the trim pieces. Never underestimate the details.

Days Eight & Nine

On Day Eight, we hammered a million-gazillion trim pieces into their rightful places. Mysteriously, we had a few pieces left over.

The last day we put together flower boxes assembly-line style and we were done!

The instructions suggested painting the plywood floor, so we checked the ‘oops’ paint options on our next trip to Lowe’s. Sure enough we found a can of high gloss white interior/exterior paint there the next day. I have wondered about the outcome had there been a can of green or blue instead. The white was perfect.

There’s still work to be done on the Kung Fu wooden dummy, the plumber will connect the water and hopefully install a sink, the electrician will wire in an outlet or two, and there’s the delightful chore of filling the flower boxes. Moving in is always a process.

It seemed likely we might die pushing the roof panels in place, I smashed my finger once with the hammer, and he fell off the ladder when it slipped down the hill. Every project has its moments, but hey! We built a shed!

A Garden is Born

The excavation phase of our project is finally over leaving us with a blank slate in terms of gardening, and I have never been more intimidated. One of the songs in my running library is Emmit Fenn’s, “Lost in Space.” It’s the perfect description of my garden.

The area under siege is behind the fence in the photo below. As lovely as it may have appeared, this land gradually climbs to a road up above where most of the trees were dead or dying – in other words, a major threat to the roof of our house. Our plan was to create enough level ground to accommodate a one-room addition to our house while also cleaning things up a bit.

 

We cleared the trees out last December, although the excavator didn’t pull the stumps out until the first day of April. Then they spent the next two weeks moving dirt. Everyone that stopped by to examine our progress remarked on how wonderful the dirt was. Unfortunately, it was that perfect top soil that got hauled away day after day. Underneath was icky, ugly, rock-filled red clay.

Eventually we were left with mulch-covered 2:1 graded slopes from the upper road that also incorporates a swale for drainage, four boulders, and fourteen stone steps that reach a level area at the top where the greenhouse will be positioned. I didn’t completely grasp the significance of landscaping a 2:1 slope until the project was complete. Now I can tell you that gardening on a 2:1 slope is not for the weak spirited.

Water and electricity have been pulled to the upper level for the greenhouse, and all that’s needed are a few good men to help us lug the greenhouse pieces to the top and assemble. It’s easier said than done actually. We’re also thinking of adding a shower up there – it’s really pretty shocking how dirty a person can become while working in all this mulch.

While most informed landscapers will plot and plan their garden design, my husband and I have employed our usual strategy: we stop by the local garden center’s discount rack almost daily to see what we can find. I call it the ‘E.R. Cart’ because every plant is distressed to one degree or another, but if it’s a perennial we bring it home. The hole in this strategy is that you can’t exactly plan your design.

So far we’ve planted two fig trees, three ‘red hot’ crape myrtles, a cypress, blue spruce, raspberry and rose bush. Six different types of ornamental grasses are planted along the swale while the rest of the slopes are filled with tulips, daffodils, white and pink azaleas, early sunrise coreopsis, two hydrangea, four lemon sunset evening primrose, lilies, iris, red thyme, bellflower, twelve lavender bushes, two bags of wild flower seeds, and several plants that I can’t remember their names.

We found evergreen bushes for $10, big liriope was divided and transplanted from the side yard, and I salvaged a trillium and two additional flowering bushes from the swale minutes before the excavator destroyed them.

Several summer phlox seeds must have drifted over from the native garden next door last year and had sprung up in the front this spring. I’ve transplanted them to the slope by the greenhouse along with a half dozen other plant varieties I bought on Saturday at the native garden’s annual plant sale. I’ve been waiting on the day my husband exclaims there’s no more room for plants! But that’s rarely true in my world.

I wish I had taken a picture before the foundation was poured, but it’s good to see the landscape taking shape – if only in my own eyes.

Some day these distressed and doomed plants will blossom and reach their full potential, and my garden will no longer be lost in space.

The Secret Garden Cottage – Part II

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It’s been almost a year since we began renovations on this little cottage. After it spent several decades in a 1970’s decor, it has been fairly receptive to our suggestions both inside and out. Two new porches and a metal roof were added earlier this year, but it was this summer that the side yard got a total make-over, including a koi pond, stone steps, a raised flower bed, and lots of plants.

September 25, 2017: the side yard day one.

May 1, 2018

We covered a hundred years of roots (and ivy) with mulch instead of grass. I have never planted so many plants straight up in mulch rather than dirt.

July 20, 2018

There was an awkward slope up from the front of the house, and I thought it would be helpful to have a couple of steps.

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September 10, 2018

A koi pond fit perfectly in the corner, and we added five goldfish that I’ve worried over every day.

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We visited the discount rack at the Lowe’s garden center after lunch most days. If there was a perennial there, we brought it home – most of them just $1 each.

691766A7-9997-428D-AEF5-47ED892ED70FAnd I convinced my husband to rip off the lower boards of the front porch so we could crawl underneath and dig out the ferns that had been trapped there since the remodel began. Anything for a fern.

72CD9215-909A-401E-AF10-0DED18F14B4DThe flower bed was my idea for covering a set of concrete steps from a kitchen door that was closed off during the renovations. It was either build over them or take them out, and none of us seemed to want to take on that chore. Lewis did most of the carpentry work during the renovation and all of the stone work. He filled the flower bed with mulch, and I filled it with herbs.

7A8811B6-D22D-4641-939D-A53AB83B2B0CAfter a year of debating whether to paint the living room paneling, we compromised and painted one wall. Then I played musical chairs with several rooms of drapes back at home so I could move a brighter pair to the cottage, which complements a new rug. The result is a significantly brighter living room.

January 2018

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September 10, 2018

89530604-BADE-437B-9E23-C60B9897998CWe’ve also swapped out the too-small-queen-size-bed for a beautiful king bed, there’s a new fig tree – barely visible to the far right of the picture below, and plans are in the works for the next phase of construction. . . which will entirely change this little cottage yet again.

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This Cottage Garden

The beauty of a cottage garden is its artful irregularity. There’s nothing pretentious or disciplined in these small plots of land, but they are ingenuously designed nonetheless. I can picture a gardener throwing seedlings wildly from the threshold of her humble cottage where these self-sowing wonders create a magical kaleidoscope of perennial beauty. At least this is the vision for creating my own cottage garden.

The ’secret’ garden next door to our cottage attracts hordes of visitors as it turns out. Botanists, biologists, and students of all ages spend lazy afternoons studying the vast collection of plants. A photographer arrived every morning last week at precisely the same hour to capture the slow motion arrival of one particular flower. Bird watchers linger indefinitely, and folks from all around town make regular visits to watch the season unfold.

Virginia bluebells, yellow wood poppy, white dwarf crested iris, flame azalea, yellow lady’s slipper and several varieties of trillium bloom in spring, but there’s more than 500 different plant varieties that make an appearance throughout the year. There’s also a mixture of mature oak, black walnut, locust trees, an umbrella magnolia, and a rare bigleaf magnolia.

The Corneille Bryan Native Garden (I took the pictures this week with my iPhone):

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Plants that have been precariously positioned at the edge of extinction have been brought to this low-lying ravine next door. Half of the world’s known shortia, a threatened herbaceous perennial, went underwater when the nearby Jocassee Reservoir was filled during the early 1970s. A species of grass of Parnassus, a flowering perennial, disappeared from Waynesville after a road-widening and repaving effort. A society of naturalists gave the garden 10 endangered conifers of the Torreya taxifolia species. All of these species now live in the garden.

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There are also two rock-encased springs that were once used to keep food cool in the heat of summer. This one is at the base of the stream just before it reaches the lake.

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Volunteers have identified every plant in the garden. The trillium, poppies, woodland phlox, and ferns are some of my favorites.

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The garden had extended onto our property over the years, but the volunteers re-worked things a bit to give us enough room to add a driveway. This photo was taken from our front porch.

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Natural Haven: Inside the spiritual retreat of Lake Junaluska, Appalachia’s most threatened plant species find a place of refuge.