I'm drawn to plants with a purpose. I like to grow things that have some sort of uniqueness to them: a great story, an unusual feature, a creative use. So, heirloom vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs make up the bulk of my cottage style garden. I also have a vegetable plot, berry patches, fruit trees, and herb and cutting flower beds. In maintaining all this, I strive to be as organic as possible by using techniques like companion planting, rotating my crops, and composting kitchen scraps and yard clippings. All this comes together to create a cleaner environment for my family, my livestock, and my gardens.
Sunflowers are a must in my summer garden. This spring I planted the seeds around the inside of my garden fence, and they sprouted up in no time. The first and fastest grower was the Mammoth Sunflower, which grew to a whopping ten feet tall! The bloom itself was a good 15 inches from petal to petal. It was so heavy that even the 6" inch diameter stalk it grew on couldn't quite support it, so it just hung it's head and slowly went to seed. But that was fine with me because the seeds are really what I'm after. Sure, I love a beautiful 15" bloom as much as anybody, but the seeds are such a tasty and nutritious treat for my chickens that I don't mind it when the flower fades. I watch for this to happen, then I cut the sunflower head off and let it dry in the greenhouse for a few days. Once I'm convinced that all the moisture has evaporated out of the seeds, I rake them into a mason jar and store them in the cabinet. There they sit until in winter is in full swing, the snow is flying, and the garden is frozen solid. That's when I reach in the cabinet, grab a jar of seeds, and head out to the coop. I think the flock can smell them coming, because they're always gathered at the door, quivering with anticipation as they watch me approach. I usually just end up emptying out the jar right there at the door because they won't even let me through to the feeder! They squawk and scratch like crazy, furiously pecking at the seeds. If you'd like to see a happy chicken, just come over next time I do this. They are thrilled, to put it simply, and so am I--everybody needs a little winter pick-me-up!
The Great Tomato Race
It's finally tomato season on the homestead. Yes, I know we've been eating cherry tomatoes for weeks now, but I don't think the season truly starts until I've picked the first big ripe heirloom tomato. The old-timers around here used to race each other to see who could get the first ripe tomato, and if you got one before July 4th, well it was a big deal. I don't have many old-timers to race with anymore, but I do have my own kind of race going on in the garden. Every spring I plant several old-fashioned tomato varieties, and I fertilize and mulch them well. Then I sit back and wait to see which plant gives me the first ripe fruit. I missed the July 4th deadline by about a week, but I finally got my answer today. Drum roll please......and the winner of my Great Tomato Race is.......Chocolate Stripes! That's right, this year's competition was won by a rookie! Chocolate Stripes is a newcomer to my garden, and even though its heirloom lineage is debatable, I'm still impressed. How can you not be when you see these glistening globes ripening on the vine? These fruits weigh up to a pound each and their glowing reddish-brown skin is simply covered in olive-green stripes that continue deep into the flesh. They are rumored to be incredibly sweet and tangy, and perfect in a salad or sandwich. They are so striking, though, that I think I'm just going to admire them for a while. I'll have to get back to you on how they taste!
My Peony Patch
I have many clusters of peonies spread throughout my gardens, and they've all had a different journey in getting there. Some come from my mothers garden, some from my grandmother's yard, and a few were growing randomly around the old homestead. Once I even bought some on clearance at a home improvement store! I love any color of peony I can get my hands on, although most are some variation of pink. I work them in wherever there's a sunny spot. This pink peony patch is the largest, and it is actually planted by my trashcan! I did it on purpose just to balance out the unsightliness and occasional unpleasant odors of the area. It's also the first part of my garden that becomes visible as you round the slight curve in our one-lane road and begin the approach to the house. It's a beautiful sight in the spring, and certainly draws the attention away from the trashcan and nearby water hydrant. I've designed the area so it will be a succession of bloom throughout the growing season. First, the forsythias burst forth with bright yellow blooms, next comes the rush of multicolored iris blossoms, and then the peonies begin their fragrant pink explosions. This is soon followed by the mesmerizing display put on by two deep pink knockout rose bushes, which continue their riot of color until frost. Dancing around the feet of all these plants is a cluster of lambs ear, whose silvery green foliage anchor the display from early spring until late fall. All this chaos is supported by a trio of spreading junipers whose evergreen needles provide a backdrop for 3/4 of the year and then take center stage in the winter months. Each plant has it's season of glory, some lasting only a week and some lasting months. It all comes together to create a nice harmony of texture and color, and a nice first impression of my home and gardens--especially when peonies bloom and instantly become a magnet for attention. The only thing not welcome there are the weeds!
Old-fashioned perennials are a staple in my flower gardens. I especially love this purple iris plant that I got from who knows where...I wish I kept better track of these things. I don't know the name of this beauty, but I will tell you that it is the first iris to bloom on my property, and I think it's the prettiest. It grows alongside my chicken coop that sits just outside my back door, and it's the first thing I notice when I step out every morning to check on the chickens. When it's in bloom it stops me in my tracks, and when it's not, it still makes me smile. Iris', like most old-fashioned perennials, only bloom once a year. This might turn some people away from them in favor of the season-long blooms of annuals, but not me. I like the iris mostly for it's foliage and shape. The spiky sword-like leaves and the clump-like growing habits provide my gardens with just the right amount of excitement and fun. And then in May they look like the photo above. Who wouldn't like a plant that does that?! And they are so fragrant when they bloom...I can't pass one by without bending down for a quick inhale. It wakes me up almost as good as my morning cup of coffee. I said almost...
The Vegetable Garden
The restored vegetable garden in early Summer.
This is my vegetable patch. It's a 20'x30' area just outside my back door, between the house and the greenhouse. There are three rows of planting beds measuring 4'x8' each, with mulched paths in between. It's surrounded by a 2' tall wire fence. I believe this was the original vegetable garden for the homestead, but when we moved in, it had been used by the previous owners as a dump. I wanted to bring it back to it's original purpose. So, I started by clearing a small area and then making my compost pile there. I rototilled the pile the following spring and then planted the plot. I repeated the technique each year, and slowly expanded the garden to the original size. Soil tests have turned out great, and the yields have improved each season. With that task accomplished, it's now time to fancy it up. Stay tuned, It's going to be great!
The Entry Garden
I love to make an entrance. Let me rephrase--I love to make an entrance look good. When we moved into our house, there were a few random sprigs of periwinkle trying to survive between the pavement and the sidewalk, and on either side of the walk there was a lava-rock border running the length of it. It reminded me of an airstrip, without the runway lights. It certainly needed some help, and I had an idea--I would plant an entry garden. I love the laid-back style of cottage gardens, so I started randomly planting all my old-fashioned favorites: roses, peonies, lavender, tulips...all the tried and true varieties known to be well adapted to my mid-western climate. To my delight, they settled in and grew abundantly--without much help from me. The entry garden has filled in so well that it requires no weeding, and I don't do much fertilizing or watering either. What little food the soil gets in the spring comes from the plant's own leaves that fell and decomposed over the winter. The periwinkle has thrived in these new conditions and now acts as a living mulch. It helps smother weeds, cool the soil, and retain rainwater. The garden is almost it's own little ecosystem, and all I do is try not to interfere. It has become the entry garden I knew it could be, and now when I walk down my sidewalk, I can stop and smell the roses. And the peonies, and the lavender, and the tulips...
Zinnias and Marigolds
Zinnias overtake the asparagus patch next to the greenhouse and cold-frames.
I don't think a yard is complete without a few flowers. I tend to go overboard, especially with Zinnias and Marigolds. These are my go-to annuals every year because they are so colorful, prolific, inexpensive, and easy to grow. I sow thousands of these seeds every spring, everywhere I can find space. And I make a point to sow plenty near my vegetable patch, because they're great at attracting pollinating insects. Zinnias and Marigolds will bloom all season long, and actually thrive when flowers are clipped. That means I get to cut beautiful bouquets of fresh flowers for inside my house, and it only makes the plants produce more blooms. I think these flowers look especially stunning in autumn, too. A big cluster of French Marigolds provides almost the same visual effect as a traditional fall Mum does, so I forgo buying the mums and let my marigolds bloom happily until frost. It saves me money, and they look great framed with a hay bale and a warty heirloom squash! After the first hard freeze, I gather all the seed heads and lay them out in the greenhouse to dry through the winter. When planting season hits, I scratch up any bare spot I find and scatter these seeds over it. I stomp them in and within a few days, the seedlings are sprouting up everywhere! It's the circle of life--a flower lover's life, anyway.