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.

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.

My Garden Path

This summer’s project can be summed up in one word: landscaping. I was determined to reveal my progress last week until I saw the pictures. Another week of work, I thought, and it will be ready for prime time. It’s been another week and then some. . . let’s just agree to view my efforts through the lens of potential.

Ivy has been the predominant landscaping material house after house – not by choice. I have seriously wondered if there is some life lesson I should be learning that only ivy can teach. It eludes me still.

Ivy was everywhere.

Eradication consumes the larger part of year one. Mine is not a sophisticated approach. Grab it by the roots and pull. One pull always leads to another, and another – and you never know where it will take you. Roots become entangled – a pull here is thwarted by a root crossing over, which can change the direction of your effort 180 degrees, and send you on a wild chase under the fence, across the yard, or straight up the mountain.

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Mounds of ‘pulled’ ivy, and Mr. Boggs

A garden from long ago taught me there is only so much wilderness you can expect to tame, and I’ve attempted to be more realistic in my approach. The best results seem to come about naturally, as if this little spot of ground or that shady area in the corner is ready to become something different.

The dogs always play a role in my landscaping plan as well, and it has served me well to wait a bit and let them chart the path.

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The dogs created a path through the garden before I started pulling the ivy.

This was the year my husband also got involved. His first order of business was to organize a thorough clean-up.

Ardy and his crew spent three days taking out dead foliage, pruning overgrown limbs, and clearing the fallen trees. They sorted out the hardwoods for firewood, and burned the rest in four self-made fire pits around the house. The fires burned for two days after they left.

After suffering through a constant string of poison ivy outbreaks, we realized Bentley must be bringing it back down the mountain and transferring it directly to me. Abel stopped by and weed whacked the whole mountainside, and I’ve been free of a new outbreak of poison for over two weeks.

Dudley, Mr. Boggs and Bentley (right to left)

A Garden of Potential

With a clean slate (or, at least almost clean) we visited the Lowe’s Garden Center discount cart weekly (or more) and it was shocking what could be found there – $5 hydrangea, $2 canna lilies, $1 coral bells.

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The ferns are placed in such an even line around the rock that I wonder if this was a flower bed long ago – before the ivy took over. 
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There were day lilies underneath mounds of ivy on the other side of the path.

The $2 lilies found a home in one of the fire pits on the far side of the front yard. Fifty years of dead trees were removed from behind the house and now we can see all the way through the forest.

The patio being cleaned last August before we moved in, and at its most barren state this February.

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By May, the ferns have taken over with just one lone day lily peeking through.

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The sun hits this side of the house late in the day, and it seems to shine a light on a path that leads through the garden and up the mountain. . . some day.

The excess spring rain has nearly destroyed the potted plants, Dudley chased a critter underground and tore up the herb garden, and Mr. Boggs plows right through the ferns smooshing them flat to the ground.

As with life, each season brings new challenges, unexpected catastrophes. . . and sheer delight. There’s lots of work to be done before this project looks like my inspiration photo at the top of the post, and I wonder what sweet journeys lie ahead on our humble garden path.

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How the Garden Grows: Eradication

 

 

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June 2015: our lovely, old home. . . and the ivy.

imageIt may be three years before it takes hold, but then it will grow to 50 feet or longer, in the shade or direct sun, up vertical surfaces – rocky, smooth, or otherwise, and it is nearly impossible to kill due to its waxy complexion and a phenomenal resistance to toxins.

Should you somehow manage to force it to an untimely death, chances are it will come back to life with renewed vigor on perfectly dead foliage – daring you to even think of attempting to kill it ever again.

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May 2015: the back fence area.

 

The U.K. has dealt with this beast longer than anyone on the planet, and I have spent hours seeking the advice of their best assassins:

Chop the roots down as far as you can with pruning knives, axes, pruning-saws, or whatever you have handy, and then try to pull up or dig up as much of the root system as you can. If you do this thoroughly enough then you may kill the ivy plant completely. . . GOOD LUCK!

http://www.whatprice.co.uk

 

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March 2016: the back fence area ‘in-progress’ – a rock wall and dozens of tiny trees were discovered under the ivy. Mounds of ivy debris wait to be bundled and hauled to the curb.

 

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December 2015: three matching flower beds, a drain, and garden planter are discovered underneath the ivy.
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March 21, 2016
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March 22, 2016: new gardenias in the flower beds; Dudley listens for the neighbor’s dog.
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Tulips were blooming in the first flower bed, except that’s Mr. Boggs’ favorite “bed” and he smooshed them all. . .
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Mr. Boggs

Eradication efforts are greatly improved in winter when the ivy is dormant – not it’s most attractive side, although losing its thick, summer foliage also forces it to give up hidden treasures, including dozens of bricks, toys, a spoon, plate, pot, hammer, rake, a hand spade, full-size ladder, a little Coca-Cola bottle, garden planter, a fair amount of trash, and two wrought iron wall planters. . .  so far.

 

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March 2016: beautiful wrought iron wall planters were discovered in ‘dormant’ ivy under this tree. That’s Dakota in the background.

May 2015 and October 2015: in-progress

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October 31, 2015: before the ivy went dormant.
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Dylan
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June 2015: the front yard ‘before’
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It took a full day of this week to clear the ivy from the bottom of the azaleas on the right. The rock-lined foot path was discovered under the ivy last fall.
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A pretty, single azalea is brimming with white buds, but still smothered in ivy. A project for tomorrow. . .

 

How the Garden Grows

A garden that has survived nearly a century will understandably contain a little of this, and a little of that courtesy of each of its resident gardeners. Some things will flourish and multiply while others tucker out and hang on for dear life. The garden attached to our lovely, old home seems to mass produce holly, liriope, and ivy – but mostly ivy.

My husband held no fear of the old house which sits in this garden, but every time he looked outside the window he moaned and warned me that it was the yard that was the money pit.

A chain link fence created a dog run in this yard's previous life.
A chain link fence created a dog run in this yard’s previous life. The branches of the Magnolia rested on the ground.

Our little spot of earth came fully equipped with a wooden fence – on two and one half sides, a small playground, a chain link fence within the fence, storage shed, broken concrete bird baths and tables, a brick patio and pathways. . . with not one level brick amongst them all. Abundant plant life was also evident – we just couldn’t see it for the ivy.

Whales fished out of the ivy.
Whales fished out of the ivy.

Every spare moment of the past 3 months were spent discovering my new garden, and each trip into the jungle brought new finds from deep within the underbelly of ivy: toys, tomato cages, bricks, a cake plate, rake, hand spade, and a ladder. I have also discovered rock walls, long lost flower beds, and under what we thought were stumps covered in ivy there were little trees.

My Aunt tells me Grandmother always had a ‘plan’ for her garden, and this sounds like a smart approach. So I go out and walk around the yard with the intention of developing a plan, but then I’m curious what’s under this clump of ivy, or I become obsessed with the ivy smothering this poor little bush, or climbing up that tree. Before I know it I have spent hours pulling ivy.

While battling overgrown urban ivy is identical to battling the overgrown mountain ivy of our previous home, there are distinctive differences in the cleanup.

At the end of a long and productive day of pulling ivy in the mountains, I would load up the scraps and throw them over the side of the mountain, and just that easy they were gone.

At the end of a long and productive day of pulling ivy in the city, we must bag the remnants, or tie them in a bundle, and place them by the curb.

Bags are to be clear and bundles tied with string. It was when I ran out of string this week that I realized ivy can, in fact, be good for something.

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Turns out ordinary garden ivy makes a hard-working string for tying bundles of yard debris.

This garden is far from “reveal ready.” It may even be fair to call all of these pictures the ‘before,’ but the hot, mosquito-ridden days of summer have turned into brisk, leaf-laden days of autumn, and my gardening adventures are numbered.

Maybe during the cold, snowy days of winter I’ll develop that ‘plan.’

The space behind the house 'before'
The space behind the house ‘before’
The same space 'after'
Underneath the clumps of ivy were little trees.
'Before'
‘Before’ a window well to the basement was an eye-sore and ivy had covered the side of the garage.
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The area behind the house now In-Progress.
A rock wall was completely covered by the ivy.
Rock walls were completely covered by the ivy. Hercules has been part of the family for years, but the little frog came with the house. . . and the ivy.
The dog run 'after'
The dog run and Magnolia ‘after.’
A flower bed waits to be unencumbered from the ivy.
A flower bed waits to be unencumbered from the ivy.
'Before:' a well-worn path leads from the front of the house to the back.
‘Before’ a well-worn path led from the front of the house to the back.
A new brick path leads to the front yard.
‘After’ a new brick path leads from the front to the back, and a new fence to separate the two.

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