Staying Strong And Healthy Despite Gardening


Stretching Reduces Kvetching

yogafrogThis amazing weather magnetically attracts us into the garden. It’s truly impossible to resist the lure of a soft, warm, sunny day when soil is begging to be planted. My new garden is indeed irresistible and thus I am now hobbling around groaning. Silly me. I know better than to jump from weekly gardening to full on daily sessions without doing a little prep.

Sadly, part of my brain thinks I’m still 40, or even 50, when I could be outside all day and feel pleasantly tired after 8 or 10 hours of garden grunt work. During my recent garden renovation, the father of my usual gardening guy did just that. He and a cousin put in a full day building the berm, then cheerfully offered to move half a dozen enormous Fatsia japonicas that had been too close to the house for over 30 years. Less than an hour later, the 10-foot-tall shrubs were pruned and transplanted to the back of the new berm and their original home site was raked smooth. Yikes!

Let’s Be Real

After some thought, I realized that this skillful guy might not be 50 years old yet, or maybe just. So, at his age, I was also still going strong. However, that was then. Now, I am just going grey, and it’s really not the same. This was painfully brought to my attention this week, when I put in a brisk morning gardening at the Waypoint, a wonderful public park-ette near the ferry dock. Now two years old, this welcoming gateway to the island features a bean-shaped bed of about 5,000 square feet and an L-shaped one of about 10,000 square feet. This one, which we call the Wild Garden, backs into a steep ravine populated with deer, raccoons, opossums and lots of birds.

Between them, the beds now hold in the neighborhood of 6,000 plants, many of them natives. Once a month (third Friday mornings, in case you’re around), a handful of stalwart volunteers spend a few hours tidying up, transplanting and reorganizing as the beds fill in and we see what works and what’s not. This spring, we started a massive mulching effort using arborist’s chips (whole tree, not just bark) to keep weeds down. It’s working well, but there are always things to reorganize in a young garden.

Uh Oh

As I hopped over the low stone walls in a carefree manner, I noticed that I wasn’t getting the bounce I’m used to. One leg seemed to be dragging a bit, but I didn’t pay any attention (of course). By the time we were packing it in, I thought my back was tweaked a bit and did some hip rolls in the parking lot. This little exercise might be the gardener’s best friend; you do a pelvic tilt and make small (barely noticeable) hip circles, first in one direction, then the other. This is not a hula hoop action, just a controlled little release that frees up the lower back (usually).

By the time I got home I could hardly walk, so I did some floor mat yoga stretches for the back, which helped. Best for a lower back tweak is a gentle hip roll that places both knees to one side while the back and shoulders stay flat. You hold that until your body relaxes (say a minute or two), then slowly switch sides. I also did some hamstring releases, lying flat with bent knees and feet flat on the mat, then lifting one leg to the sky, foot flat and straight up, supporting the lifted thigh with your hands. Again, hold for 1 minute or so, then switch sides.


So far so good, right? Next morning, I felt fine, so… Do you think I stretched a bit to warm up? Why no! I jumped right in and planted all morning. That afternoon, the burn was so acute I could hardly walk, sit or stand. I felt too sore to stretch (silly again) and spent a miserable night, able to sort-of sleep only in child’s pose (not actually all that comfy, truthfully). The next day, I could again hardly find a comfortable position and I am embarrassed to admit how long it took me to admit that I needed some help.

A kind friend who is a massage therapist suggested that ice would help, and so it did (and does today, too). An old (ha!) friend reminded me that I have had sciatica before. (Oh yeah.) Another pal asked me if I was still doing yoga stretches regularly. (No.) So. Here’s the end of this shaggy dog tale: Please let me save you some impressive discomfort! Stretch. Stretch. Stretch. Hips, hams, hands, neck and shoulders, all joints. Before, during, and after gardening.

Note To Self

Will I remember to take better care of myself? Given the recent track record, that seems doubtful. However, I am taking advantage of my increasing dependency on reminder notes and writing “stretch” in my daily calendar, not just for the next week or two but at the beginning of each week all year long. All. Year. Long.

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Capturing The Freshest Flavors Of Spring

Speedy, Simple Recipes For Light, Refreshing Meals

As days lengthen and soil warms up, it’s hard to stay indoors. My new garden is so enticing that I find myself slipping out to plant “just a few” perennials or grasses or ground-covers. Time slips away and suddenly I’m dirty and wet and tired and hungry. That can be a problem, since it’s easy to snarf the wrong stuff, an issue best handled by not having the wrong stuff around (!). Happily, spring is the perfect time for quick and simple meals that smell and taste delicious without frills or fuss.

Of course, this approach only works when the ingredients are practically perfect. Fresh, local and organically grown produce needs very little help, I find, and simplicity suits it well. If you find forgotten veg in the fridge that is no longer pristine but still ok, try roasting it (400 degrees F for 20 minutes usually does it) with a little avocado oil. This silky, mild oil doesn’t burn despite high temps and doesn’t have a distinctive flavor of its own, so the vegetable essence sings out. Add a little sea salt or a splash of coconut aminos and the result is pleasing indeed.

Roasted Asparagus With Cherry Tomatoes

I love the way plump little cherry bombs burst in your mouth when roasted, and the treatment brings out the best in asparagus as well. I know, not exactly seasonal, but so irresistible!

1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1 pound asparagus spears, stem ends snapped
1 cup whole organic cherry tomatoes
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons soft goat cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Pour oil into a rimmed baking sheet, add asparagus spears and cherry tomatoes and rub lightly to coat. Sprinkle with salt and roast at 400 F until barely tender (5-6 minutes). Serve hot, sprinkled with goat cheese. Serves 2-4.

Crunchy Asparagus With Garlic & Almonds

With crusty olive bread and some sharp cheese, this crunchy, garlicky dish makes a light meal for two or a savory side for four.

1 pound asparagus spears, stem ends snapped
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 tablespoons slivered almonds

Steam asparagus over boiling water for 3 minutes, remove from steamer and plunge into cold water for 3 minutes, then drain and set aside. In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil, garlic, salt, paprika and almonds over medium high heat and cook, stirring, until gently golden (2-3 minutes). Add asparagus, roll to coat and serve, topped with pan sauce, garlic and nuts. Serves 2-4.

Raw Asparagus Salad With Fresh Pea Tendrils

A lunch or brunch favorite at my house, this bright, fresh salad disappears at light speed. Delicately flavored mushrooms would be lost in this dish, but ordinary ones become velvety and richly flavorful.

1 pound asparagus spears, stem ends snapped
1 cup thinly sliced crimini or button mushrooms
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1/2 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup fresh pea vine tendrils

Slice asparagus thinly on the diagonal and gently toss with mushrooms, oil, 1/4 teaspoon lemon rind and 2 teaspoons of lemon juice, then season to taste with salt and remaining lemon juice. Let stand 20-30 minutes (or up to an hour), toss with pea vine tendrils and serve. Serves 2-4.

Asparagus With Capers & Hazelnuts

1 pound asparagus spears, stem ends snapped
1 tablespoon avocado or olive oil
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons drained capers
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon hot smoked paprika
1/4 cup coarsely chopped, roasted hazelnuts

Steam asparagus over boiling water for 3 minutes, remove from steamer and gently toss with oil, vinegar, capers, salt and paprika. Serve warm, topped with hazelnuts. Serves 2-4.

Spring Bliss!

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Plants Deer Don’t Love, Though I Do

Deer Proofing The Garden (Or Not)

It always surprises me to hear people complain about the stress of living through renovations of either home or garden. I just love the entire process, and though the inevitable interruptions and delays can indeed be annoying, the juiciness of bringing something fresh and new into being outweighs any annoyance. My garden making has continued with the usual fits and starts, and last week, we built a handsome berm that now embraces the center of my circular driveway. We studded the berm with large mossy rocks re-purposed from where they had been awkwardly plunked into the wrong places, then covered it with topsoil and stockpiled compost.

Today, I placed the major plants and my skillful and patient crew wrestled them into the ground. We divided grasses and many large clumps of perennials, and split up a bunch of privet honeysuckle (Lonicera pileata) I’d been growing on for just such an occasion. This tough if unprepossessing shrub has some terrific strengths; it’s glossy, tidy looking, and drought resistant, spreads into dense thickets, and insects and pests ignore it. That includes deer, and by using it to edge the new berm, I’m hoping to keep deer out of the new plantings.

Deer Resistant, Never Deer Proof

We have a resident herd of deer that happily nosh on new growth ivy next door, so I’ve had to be very thoughtful about what I plant. So far, they have shown no interest at all in lilacs, so I tucked in a compact Miss Kim (6 x 8 feet) and a cutleaf form (Syringa x persica Laciniata) that makes a shrubby mound some 6-8 feet high and wide over time. That will make up for the rather sorry old lilac I had to remove when tree rats made it their jumping off place.

Barberries are also generally ignored by deer, and I love both their fragrant flowers and the plump little edible berries that follow. I especially appreciate evergreen barberries, which combine thorny stems and prickly leaves, making them daunting plants for all sorts of pests. Most evergreen barberries have rich green foliage and showy flowers in bright yellow, orange or red, followed by edible berries. William Penn (4 x 6 feet) has leathery olive green foliage that takes on bronze winter tints, with sweet scented yellow flowers in spring. Darwin barberry ranges from 4-10 feet in height and width, and can take a surprising amount of shade in stride. The dusky foliage sets off clusters of light orange blossoms and bright blue berries in high summer.

Deciduous Beauties Too

I’m also using deciduous barberries for their astonishing spring flowers and foliage. I’m a sucker for dazzlers such as Orange Rocket, Crimson Ruby, and Daybreak, as well as Golden Nugget and Sunjoy Golden Pillar, which makes a wavering fan of sunshine yellow in spring. It’s all too true that the thorny stems are unattractive in winter, but no worse than rose bushes, after all, and much tougher.

I don’t use a lot of pink, but I have always wanted to grow Magnolia  x Galaxy and now I am. This shapely small tree reaches 18-20 feet in time, with a spread of 10-12 feet, so it’s placed where it can mature comfortably and be enjoyed from my living room. I surrounded it with clusters of Royal Burgundy (3 x 3 feet) and Crimson Ruby (2 x 3 feet) barberries to continue the deer-repelling plantings, also adding lots of deer non-favorite Leucothoe fontanesiana Scarletta (2 x 3 feet), a compact and colorful form with glossy green foliage tinted red in winter and dangling spikes of white bell flowers in spring.

A Heavenly New Huckleberry

The Northwest is rich in evergreen huckleberries, and I fell for a new compact form of Vaccinium ovatum Scarlet Ovation (3 x 3 feet), which boasts bright, copper red new growth. Its fine textured foliage makes a pleasing contrast with a glamorous false spirea, Sorbaria sorbifolia Sem (4 x 6-8 feet), which has much-dissected golden-green leaves tinged with rose and rust and plumes of white blossoms in June. It’s a spreader, which is just fine in this situation, and it’s easy to chop off the new shoots if they get out of bounds.

True spireas also come into play, since they are healthy, drought tolerant deciduous shrubs which deer usually leave untouched. I’m using compact S. thunbergiii Ogon (3 x 4 feet) to bring cheerful splashes of color to the spring garden, when clusters of white flowers bloom amid lemon yellow foliage. The leaf color deepens through summer and blazes orange in autumn. Old gold and mahogany Goldflame (4 x 4 feet), with raspberry blossoms, also boasts magnificent fall color and I rarely plant a garden without it.

Hopeful But Probably Wrongly

Having wreathed the border in all these deer resistant plants, I of course could not resist planting other things I love, knowing all too well that deer do too. Hoping to defeat them by sheer numbers (really, really silly idea), I put in lots of compact Nandinas, from my favorite Gulf Stream (3 x 4 feet) to an improved version called Obsession (2 x 3 feet) with ruddier new growth.

If that wasn’t dumb enough, I added native Nootka roses and some Rosa glauca, in hopes that it will fill in the gaps of a ruffled, plumy blue-grey chamaecyparis that lost a few lower limbs in a winter storm a while back. The roses have been sitting around in pots for several years, so I am hoping that the deer will continue to overlook them. If not, oh well. Time to try something else…

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A Glorious Garden Renovation

Dreaming Into New Possibilities

I’m in the throes of a major garden renovation and feeling like the luckiest woman on the planet. It seems like all my friends are feverishly emptying their closets, but I did that a few years ago and they’re still pretty not bad. My kitchen drawers and cabinets are tidy and organized too, and I’m working on the pantry. The garage is three-quarter empty, almost ready for a remodel. With so much done, I feel utterly justified in ignoring the basement and digging in outside instead.

This house is built on a hillside, so you walk in and find yourself 20 feet off the ground. The only flat place to garden is within the circular driveway, which just doesn’t feel like a place to be. However, thanks to the tree rats that want to live in the attic, we’ve been taking out damaged and failing trees as well as everything that touches the house. The result is so open, light and airy that it allowed me to rethink the lie of the land. That slightly sloping circle is pretty big, some 60 feet long and about 40 feet wide. Once the overgrown Norway maple and the dying antacid-pink cherry were removed, I could see beyond what was to what could be.

The Green Bowl

Rather than surround a house with trees and shrubs, I’ve always preferred to create a green bowl effect by planting woodies well away, leaving open space for human-scale gardens that embrace without smothering. The same pattern holds true for making ‘secret gardens’ tucked within a greater landscape, so the driveway was handing me a terrific opportunity. Soon, a running berm will wrap around the circle (oval, really), with a curving entrance so there’s no direct view into the center. The handsome Japanese maple now outgrowing its position by the front entry will eventually be the main focal point, but it leafed out so early this year that we missed the transplanting window.  That’s ok, we can work on the back half of the new garden now and finish off the front half this fall.

The outer edge will be bermed and planted with small trees and good-sized shrubs, and the berm will slop gently down to the inner edge where I’ll cluster smaller shrubs, bulbs, grasses and perennials. Back in the day, many of us were so excited to get our hands on new-to-us perennials that we cheerfully paid amazing sums for what are now considered mediocre plants. Indeed, I recall being able to swap a 4-inch pot of Crocosmia Lucifer or Euphorbia Chameleon for the rarest treasures on the American market. Now the one is ubiquitous and the other regarded as unreliable and weedy.

Perennials That Earn Their Keep

Gardeners who get fed up with high maintenance, prima donna perennials often find that shrubs make better backbones for beds and borders. I’ve long been a proponent of mixed borders, which feature artful combinations of all sorts of plant, from trees to groundcovers. Shrubs can be both beautiful and useful, supplying architectural strength as well as colorful, shapely foliage, even if flowers are minor or missing.

The good news is that, these days, many perennials can make the same claims. The 80s saw a boom in perennial improvement, through breeding, selection and discovery of well-behaved new species. The best of the bunch are not just beautiful, but also deer, drought, and disease resistant, don’t need staking and can thrive for years without division.

Dream Book Still A Good Guide

To my mind, there is still no better guide for would-be perennial gardeners than Dream Plants For The Natural Garden by Henk Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf. Published by Timber Press back in 2000, this illustrated handbook lists only perennials that reward minimal care with prolonged seasons of good looks. Among other things, these two Dutch masters ranked for a plant’s ability to grow well in dreadful soil, to thrive in shade and drought, and to remain attractive well into winter.

Between them, they’ve grown pretty much all there is to grow, and evaluated plants ruthlessly for many years. The book isn’t perfect (they take slugs and bugs into consideration, but don’t discuss deer and other plant-eating wildlife) but it’s extremely useful. Still widely available in paperback, this once-pioneering work is a terrific guide for anyone wanting to add some perennial icing to a shrub-based garden. Gardeners battling poor soil, lousy drainage, heavy shade or blazing sun will all find inspiration for gussying up a boring bed or border.

Almost Perfect Perennials

As I’ve been flipping through the pages, looking for problem-free plants for my new but deer infested garden, I’m making careful notes. Acanthus or bear’s breeches come in several forms, but I’ll stick with the Dutchmen’s favorite, A. hungaricus. A heavy bloomer, this deer proof (so far, anyway) 4-footer produces statuesque spikes of white and purple flowers despite heavy shade. I’m planting native Amsonia tabernaemontana as much for the golden fall color of its slim, grassy leaves as for the masses of starry blue blossoms in summer.

Anemones are among my favorite flowers, so I’m using spring windflower, A. blanda, as well as 4-foot tall, white flowered A. tomentosa. Goatsbeard, Aruncus doicus, is a strapping native that makes a bushy mound 5 feet high, with handsomely divided leaves and great creamy plumes of blossoms. I love astrantias for their intricate, starry flowers and their habit of luxuriant self sowing, which means I can get bags of them from friend’s gardens.


That’s just strolling through the As, and there’s an alphabet more awaiting! We haven’t touched on Epimediums, those peerless groundcover perennials, Euphorbias, another favorite family (E. palustris and polychroma), or hellebores in the very sturdiest forms (H. argutifolius)… Actually, I’ve been potting up dozens of strapping seedlings of my H. orientalis, which I will always grow despite the black spot issues. I’ve found that as long as I am scrupulous about removing the old leaves the minute they head earthward, my plants remain clean and healthy, and I am envisioning sweeps of soft purple, rose and cream hellebores under my newly repositioned Japanese maple next winter. What a wonderful dream!

Posted in Easy Care Perennials, Garden Prep, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged | 3 Comments