The Fall Garden

FullSizeRenderWe have had wonderful weather this summer. The upper Midwest (zone 4b) received ample, well-spaced rains, with no extended heat waves. And these Cimicifuga blooms are just one of the delightful results.

Ample water is clearly a factor in the number of healthy blooms these plants produce. In the past, I considered them a failure because despite hand watering during dry spells, they bloomed sparsely, had crispy brown edges, and were generally a mess by mid-August.FullSizeRenderNot this year.  Cimicifuga blooms are so pretty, with deep plum colored capsules that split to reveal feathery white blooms. These blooms perfumed the entire back garden with a fruity scent over the past few weeks, and I’ve really enjoyed these plants this year.

FullSizeRenderAsters are another fall bloomer that are doing really well this year. This is Alma Potts, ( I think that’s the right cultivar name.) and it’s glorious.

IMG_5749 Kirengeshoma palmata is another water-sensitive plant that has done really well for me this year. Sometimes referred to as yellow wax bells, this plant has big, maple leaf shaped leaves and thick, waxy yellow blooms. FullSizeRender

Here’s a close up of their unusually shaped flowers.

Next, the Hairy Toad Lily.  Such a nondescriptive name for an intricate and lovely shade plant for the late fall garden!FullSizeRender

Toad Lilies bloom along the spine of the plant, sometimes the fronds curve over toward the ground and sometimes they’re upright. Always, though, this plant is beautiful. . .FullSizeRender

Although I see nothing “hairy” about it.

Further random beauty in the fall garden is supplied by the Japanese Anemones that like to self-seed thither and yon—often in the cracks of the sidewalk or otherwise inhospitable places.FullSizeRenderIt always surprises me how tough such a delicate looking plant can be.  Just goes to show that you can’t judge a plant by its appearance. I think that’s one of the reasons gardening is so much fun: your “green preconceptions” are constantly being challenged!

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What’s Blooming

FullSizeRenderMartagon lilies are a wonderful addition to any dappled shade garden. The bulbs are expensive, but when they are well-sited, martagons naturalize slowly but well. This is the Martagon ‘Claude Shride’  viewed up close in a shaft of sunlight at our local arboretum. These are really elegant lilies whose reflexive petals make them seem like they’re flying. Here’s a shot of how they looked in the bed.FullSizeRenderAs you can see, they lean for the sun, so plant them judiciously, or plan to stake them!

In the sunnier parts of my the garden, asiatic lilies are a great low maintenance choice.  I have several varieties in bloom right now.FullSizeRenderThese are Lipstick lilies, and the clumps have increased nicely over the years. Beneath them and still in tight bud, is the Shasta daisy ‘Becky’. The daisies provide a nice color echo for the lilies but bloom times overlap for only a short time. That’s my only complaint with Lipstick lilies. Individual blooms simply aren’t long lasting and the faded bloom don’t look good. My solution is just to deadhead every few days and that keeps this section of the garden looking fresh. FullSizeRender As a companion for a dappled willow (the speckled white leaves in the photo) in this same bed, I have another larger, solid-colored pink lily. These blooms last longer but their name is lost to me.  I’ve had them at least ten years and they’re reliable performers with zero disease problems.

FullSizeRenderI have these lovely streaky, melon-colored asiatic lilies sited near Little Blue Stem grasses in a sunny center bed. These were billed as ‘Electric Orange’ lilies, but appear far more pastel than electric to me.  They’re still pretty and look great with blue or purple flowers, though, so I leave them.IMG_5634 In this same bed are some vibrant yellow tickseeds that moved themselves around until they were happy. Tickseeds can be a touch over enthusiastic for some gardeners, but I love their frilled edges and the way they’ve colonized the center of this bed.FullSizeRenderThe lilies that were here before them are happily accepted into the group, as you can see.

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Princess Irene Returns

IMG_5493In Fall 2013, I planted a large section of Princess Irene tulips in the bed in front of our living room windows. I don’t think Princess Irene are known for their ability to return year over year.  So I was pleasantly surprised to see these nice sized blooms this spring. The purple Miss Saigon hyacinth have also returned well, if not quite as full as the first spring.

Deer, normally tulip decimators in my area, have left this bed alone. Why?  It’s enough to drive you crazy trying to figure out why. I put no deer repellent on this bed, mostly because I didn’t have high expectations of the tulips returning this well.  And I know deer aren’t afraid to walk right up to your house and feed while staring you in the face. So maybe the lesson is just to enjoy your good luck while it lasts!

Oh, and to put Princess Irene on your list, if you like gorgeous tangerine tulips that naturalize well.

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Spring Unfurls

FullSizeRenderIt’s easy to dismiss the quiet wonder of spring, the shy unrolling of a fern frond or a thickly bunched rose leaf bursting from a hard brown stem.FullSizeRender

Hidden among the dead brown of winter’s remains, the jeweled chalice of a Lady’s Mantle leaf cradles a drop of water and reflects the sky for anyone who cares to bend down and look closely.                                                                            FullSizeRenderUnfurling is a fierce yet subtle process. Shoots pierce tough stems and hard ground, insisting without words that life will go on . . .FullSizeRender. . . And then shouting that belief in glorious, riotous displays that can’t be denied.FullSizeRenderBright blue Scilla unfurl against a mighty oak tree, confident the tree’s powerful solidity only enhances their own frailty and draws the eye down to their swaying beauty.

FullSizeRenderSpring is unfurling here in zone 4b.  And I wanted you to see it.

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Lifestyle Choices: Multiple Choice Test, Challenge Or SafetyWhat would you be willing to commit to for a full year?

I read an article this week in our local paper about a guy who challenged himself to take a photo of a bird each day for a full year. His real interest is photography but, although newly retired, he said “I have found that increasing the difficulty in life is a good thing to do because the end result is really beneficial.” So he chose to commit to finding a different bird to photograph each day— even though it would have been far easier to commit to just taking one picture per day. And yet when he strove to meet this challenge to himself, the results were remarkable.

I found myself stuck on that one sentence, though. Somehow his rather ponderous wording caught me where simply saying “I’ve found you have to challenge yourself in order to improve” would have made little impression. After all, it’s just common sense right? No pain, no gain. Practice makes perfect, etc…

Yet there is a subtle difference.

“Increasing the difficulty in life” goes beyond just doing something over and over. It would have been fairly easy to find something to take a picture of each day. So he challenged himself to do more, even if it was a little uncomfortable. This is the essence of deliberate practice, which is far more demanding than mere repetition of an activity.

How many of us make things challenging for ourselves in any area? Don’t we more often look for ways to make life easier on ourselves instead? We strive to park closer to the store, we stick to the exercise routine we’ve done forever, and foods we’re familiar with. We avoid risk, challenge—anything with a whiff of potential failure attached to it.

Too many of us, myself included, approach most of life like this:

Little Boy On The Roap Course Sky TrailWe avoid most challenges like the plague and then way overdo the safety gear and escape clauses when we do approach something new or challenging.

Yes, there is a biological basis for this.  And yes, genuine thrill seekers (Steve Irwin, I’m thinking of you, dear.) often don’t have long lives.

But what about balance? Isn’t there a happy medium between dulling safety and utter recklessness?

Cute Three Colored Kitten Gnawing On Tree BranchThis kitten has found it. Certainly the branch in front of her holds a degree of challenge and even danger, but she trusts in her claws and sense of balance to protect her. Note that expression of determination and concentration. This is living fully in the moment. She’s instinctively increasing “the level of difficulty” in her life. Even though the limb ahead looks kinda scary, she’s still going for it.

That’s how I want to be too.

How about you?

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The Trouble With Costco . . .

I only wanted three limes.  But I was shopping at Costco. FullSizeRenderThey had bags of thirty juicy limes. Citrus fruit keeps well, of course, but past experience has shown me that doesn’t mean indefinitely.

I was therefore forced to innovate.FullSizeRenderAnd since it was far too early in the day for margaritas, I made pie.  I called it Key Lime Pie but it’s really just Lime Pie.  And it’s so easy and good that I thought I’d share.

Crust: You’ll need a 9 inch prepared graham cracker crust, or you can easily make one yourself. (I made my own because I like to use butter and I like the crust thicker than commercial varieties.)


16 full size graham crackers, crushed,

1/2 stick of melted butter

2 Tbls of white sugar

a dash of salt.

Press crumbled mixture into a pie plate. Bake at 350 degrees for about ten minutes.  Cool before adding filling.


This is actually a 9.5-inch pie plate, which complicated following all the 9-inch pie recipes I saw floating around the internet.  I could have just followed a 9-inch pie recipe, but I like full, upstanding pies, so that didn’t appeal to me.

My solution was to increase the volume by approximately a third.  It worked because this is a forgiving recipe. Perhaps that’s one reason I love pies: you don’t have to weigh and measure everything so carefully to get a delicious result.

Filling: The basic ratio is 1/2 cup fresh lime juice to 1 14 oz can of sweetened condensed milk.  More lime juice makes it tarter, but I wouldn’t recommend less.  It’s all about the lime flavor, after all!

For a 9.5 inch pie filling,  you’ll need:

1 cup of  fresh lime juice,(about 18-20 small limes)

2 14 oz cans of sweetened, condensed milk,

4 egg yolks,

1 T. of lime zest, or to taste.

One of the internet tips I used was to beat the egg yolks for about five minutes until they paled and grew ribbon-like, then I added the milk and lime juice. It made the final product really smooth and light.

Bake the filling for 12 minutes at 350 degrees, or until nearly set.  Don’t brown it. Cool on counter and chill thoroughly before adding topping.

Toppings.  I saw several recipes that recommended sour cream as a topping.  Too heavy and the sour competes poorly with the tart lime flavor, in my opinion. This is a rich pie, but paradoxically, I think whipped cream lightens it up. You could leave it plain, but I went with a crown of whipped cream, sprinkled with a few bits of left over lime zest, and that was very well received at Casa Renfield.

And again, I spent way more time looking at options than it took to make the final pie.  FullSizeRenderSo try this if you have a massive pile of Costco limes . . . or even if you don’t. Lime pie is guaranteed to banish the winter doldrums at your house!

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Is It Worth It?

I rarely over-winter plants.

I truly admire the frugal gardeners who store pots and pots of annuals under lights in their garages or basements, but all it took was one big infestation of insects crawling out of the pots and all over my basement floor for me to abandon this particular frugality.

I made an exception this year for a tropical plant called a stromanthe ‘triostar,’ though. The pot was high off the ground all season, and this plant’s light requirements are low, so I thought it would survive inside and not have many bugs. The biggest drawback was size.  I could barely heft this thing onto a plant stand! The stromanthe was already this big when I bought it, so it wasn’t cheap, either. All in all, it seemed worth a shot.

Instead of putting it under a light in the basement and forgetting all about it, I chose to site it in my office where it’s been surprisingly happy and I’ve remembered to water it because I’m looking at it every day.

NO bugs ever flew out of its waxy leaves or crawled out of the soil. In fact, this plant barely blinked when it was moved from outdoors to in, a move that most plants find highly traumatic. I think the north-facing window is a bit cool for this tropical, but I like the fact it hasn’t dropped leaves constantly.  A low maintenance affair, really.

Over-wintering has proven worthwhile this time. I’ll move the stromanthe back out to the side yard in late May, where it can once more brighten a dim corner. And I’ll have saved a few dollars to spend on other plants. A win!


I also has some really nice silver tuberous begonias in a planter on the fence, but alas, I left it too late to repot them and the frost did them in. Next year I’ll try saving begonias, too.

I think light requirement is the key for me. Half the reason bugs can take hold on a plant is because that plant is stressed by lack of light. So if I choose only shade plants to overwinter, that should reduce stress. (I’ve also heard you can wash the leaves with a mild soap solution before bringing them indoors to reduce insects, but that isn’t foolproof and doesn’t work well with hairy-leafed plants like these begonias.)

So the answer to whether overwintering is worth it or not depends on what you choose to keep.  Looks like shade plants are it for this zone 4b gardener.

How’s your winter been treating you?

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Holiday Wreath

This year I really mixed it up.  Normally I like a naturalistic wreath for the fireplace, like the one I created last year.  Very pretty and soothing, but this year I wanted something different. I guess you’d say the wreath below is fanciful rather than natural. (The glitter and peacocks tends to give that away!)FullSizeRender

Last year’s wreath was about saving money. This year it’s all about color and sizzle.  We’re having a long stretch of dreary, foggy weather that’s unusually warm and drab for zone 4b in December.  We needed zing. And now we have it.IMG_4021

The picks with the glittery balls on the end were on sale and I used the remaining turquoise ribbon for the Christmas tree.  So I was reasonably economical, if not exactly as frugal as last year when I foraged in my own garden for decorations.  But the picks are all reusable, so if we have another dreary December next year, I’ll have that going for me!

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Say What?






It’s less than four weeks until 2015!

Do you know where your year has gone? Because I sure don’t know what’s happened to mine.

So I’ve decided to do a rerun on summer 2014 .  .  .  starting with the July garden and repeated whenever I feel the need through this hectic time of year.

As I  flipped through photos of the front garden, I was surprised to see how good it actually looked this year. Usually, it’s the opposite, and I suspect most gardeners feel the same way. We look at photos and only see the weeds, blank spots, or underperforming plants. The glass is frequently half-empty for gardeners, despite our innate optimism that next year will always be better than this one.

Sometimes, though, I think distance lends clarity. Take my front border, for example.FullSizeRenderThis is the front border in July. It faces south and slopes away on the west end—a fact I’ve attempted to disguise with the cedar fence and tall junipers on the lower end. (You can just make out the curving chartreuse bench on the western edge.)

What I like here is the rhythm created by the repetition of form and color.  Many Happy Returns daylily clumps repeat the yellow theme along the bed. Pink astilbes are repeated in the pink blooms of the ornamental grass, which is fronted by darker pink asiatic lilies.  The deep rosy-pink of the Smoke Bush in the background hold things together and the dark red of the Monarda adds punch.  All of these, with the exception of the ornamental grass, are long-blooming, lasting three weeks at least and are very low maintenance.FullSizeRenderThis is the bed that runs roughly parallel with the front border and also along the sidewalk. What I liked here was the deep blue of the Little Bluestem grass against the Chuckles(Ridiculous name for such a pretty rose, but no one asked me.) rose and the way the May Night Salvia, although bloomed out, still provides structure and contrast with the flowing stems of the grass.FullSizeRenderHere’s a closer view of the Helianthus and the Chuckles roses. This has a sort of lush but carefree air that I like.  Again, both these perennials are long-blooming, a trait I look for more and more as I gain experience as a gardener.  Brief beauty is all well and good, but long-lived blooms are always a plus.

So what’s on your plate for the last weeks of 2014? If it all seems like too much, take a minute to soothe your soul by revisiting the lush green of summer with me.

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FullSizeRenderI’m off to shop, bake and prepare for tomorrow. Despite my determination to keep the meal small and simple this year, I’ve managed to commit to making three desserts.     Mmm . . .  I guess that does reveal something about my family’s priorities.

But before I go, I wanted to wish all of you who celebrate Thanksgiving a day that unfolds as beautifully as this flower.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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