Killer Compost

bewareComposters Beware !

I thought I knew composting pretty well, see my post ‘Here’s the Dirt on Composting’ at But I just read a post by Joe Lamp’l, who is the host and Executive Producer of the award-winning PBS television series Growing A Greener World, of about the dangers of using manures or hay from chemically sprayed fields. Who knew?!! But every gardener who grows edibles should be aware of this important wrinkle. It makes total sense, but it just goes to show you that we are poisoning ourselves slowly but surely. Go to Joe’s blog to read the results of doing all the right things – composting manures, amending the soil, mulching, etc., and see what happened to Joe’s vegetables when unknowingly he used tainted compost.  This is scary, as I live surrounded by farm fields and I know that the local farmers all use these herbicides.

Spray Residues

Used container of herbicide in farmer field ca...
Used container of herbicide in farmer field causes harzard (Photo credit: IITA Image Library)

Amazingly, spray residues from broad-leaved weeds can persist for a long time, from a couple of months, to longer than 3 years! The pathway goes like this; absorption of the herbicide  by the roots, the fodder or hay is fed to the animals, then is excreted as manure full of herbicide traces that is resistant to biological degradation when added to the compost pile.  The “cooking” of the manure in the decomposition process does not break the herbicides down, persisting into the compost that is carefully added as a soil amendment to nourish the soil. According to the US Composting Council, the molecular bonds joining these herbicide compounds can be resistant to the normal decomposition methods in composting.

Effects on Plants

Herbicide damage in wheat
Herbicide damage in wheat (Photo credit: CIMMYT)

Joe’s tomatoes were visibly affected with twisted and distorted leaves. Other effects – reduced fruit set, cupping of the leaves, and generally diseased looking plants.

Diseased tomato plant
Diseased tomato plant

The herbicide container should note in the directions that manures and fodder should not be used for composting, but who reads all the directions?? And does the farmer pass that information on to the hay buyer, or consumer?

What Can You Do?

So, how can you as a homeowner and compost maker and user, avoid these residues?

The traces can be present in hay, manures, leaf, and lawn debris. If an herbicide was used on your lawn to kill broad leaved weeds, then I would not be using any of the lawn clippings in my compost. In the future, I will be asking questions of the farmer that I buy my straw from, and will be checking out any leaf or manures that I put in my compost. A test to see if the herbicide residue is still present is very expensive to do, over $300 a sample, and the debris is not homogenous, so it is hard to test.

Composting Council

Weeds sprayed by a herbicide. Taken in Victori...
Weeds sprayed by a herbicide. Taken in Victoria, Australia in March 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wondered if these findings were new and again the composting council could answer my questions.

This is not new, scientists have been aware of this for a long time, and it is just percolating throughout the gardening world. Go to for a fascinating read on this topic. Multiple composting facilities have been affected and even had to close down because of tainted compost. A class action suit was filed against Dow, one of the big producers of these herbicides.

Well built composting unit
Well built composting unit

Chemicals are Everywhere

Nothing is simple anymore, even compost which I thought was pretty straight forward. We need to be more aware of the chemicals that are used around us, asking more questions, and contacting our local politicians about our concerns. Being a beekeeper has really brought this home to me with the increasing use of Neonicotinoids and the link to Colony Collapse Disorder. See my post on Colony Collapse Disorder

Swarm of bees in my apple tree
Swarm of bees in my apple tree

Filoli Knot Gardens

Filoli miniature knot garden
The larger knot gardens at Filoli, You can see the beautiful Copper Beech hedge in the distance
The larger knot gardens at Filoli, You can see the beautiful Copper Beech hedge in the distance; the mini knot gardens are set to the side of the larger ones

On my recent trip to California with the Garden Blogger’s Fling, we visited Filoli, an estate garden that wowed us with all of its formal gardens and big expanses. Composed of 16 acres of formal gardens in a 654 acre estate, Filoli is a California State Historic Landmark Site.

Scenes from the gardens and house at Filoli
Scenes from the gardens and house at Filoli

I loved wandering the gardens that hot, hot day(over 100!) and looked for every bit of shade that I could find.  But when I saw this miniature knot garden standing next to the larger knot gardens, it stopped me in my tracks and I took my time to look at it and marvel. I have always loved the precision and beauty, and the geometry of knot gardens. And I love miniatures, so this little garden was a combination of my passions!

The miniature knot garden at Filoli
The miniature knot garden at Filoli

Designing Knots

I have designed a  total of one knot garden in my landscape design career and would love to do another. The primary hurdle to knot gardens is the high degree of maintenance, which entails constant shaping and trimming, and that doesn’t fit into modern lifestyles anymore. All that clipping, fussing, and weeding is not most people’s idea of fun. But a miniature one; Much more doable! I was instantly smitten and ready to try one at home for myself.

Installing a knot garden for a client
Installing a knot garden for a client

Plants for Knots 

So, what plants did they use at Filoli for the minis?:  Myrtus communis ssp tarentina ‘Compacta’ or Dwarf Myrtle,  Teucrium chamadrys or Germander, Leptospermum scoparium , and Buxus microphylla var. japonica or Morris Midget Boxwood.

The gift shop sold small plants of three of these varieties if you wanted to start your own little knot garden.

Sign in the gift shop at Filoli
Sign in the gift shop at Filoli

For the larger knots, the plants used were Lavender, Wooly Horehound, Germander, Crimson Pygmy Barberry, Tuscan Blue Rosemary, Grey Santolina, and Dwarf Myrtle.

Large knot gardens at Filoli
Large knot gardens at Filoli


Knot Gardens were thought to originate from ancient Arabian gardens, but are more commonly associated with European gardens of the Middle Ages and Elizabethan England, where the nobility enjoyed the colors and patterns from their castle windows.

English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bri...
English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bristol. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main purpose was to display royal coats of arms. Also popular were designs of plants or animals, or stitches of embroidery. An open knot, like at Filoli, would be filled with colored gravel and soil, and a closed knot, would be filled with flowers.

One garden that I worked on similar to a knot that we filled with Dragon Wing Begonias
One garden that I worked on similar to an open knot, that I filled with Dragon Wing Begonias
I saw this magnificent knot garden at Nemours, a Dupont estate in Delaware
I saw this magnificent knot garden at Nemours, a Dupont estate in Delaware

Filoli Knot Gardens are Unique

What makes Filoli’s knots unusual is the three-dimensional look of over and under-lapping strands that are shaped very carefully to give an intricate and wave-like appearance. Filoli’s large knot gardens were designed and donated by the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club in 1976. Each knot is 36 feet square, and plants were placed on one-foot centers using string lines to get everything precisely square. The knot gardens are located in the panel gardens, and are bordered to the north and south by hedges of Hibiscus syriacus and Copper Beech, Fagus sylvatica. The plant material in the knot garden was chosen for attributes of contrasting colors, fineness of the foliage, and their similar rates of growth.

The miniatures were the idea of Mrs Duncan Low, also a member of the garden club, in 1991. Workers made two 36″ square boxes of wood that were engraved on the sides with brick lines to resemble the brick walls of the garden. The tiny plants were planted one inch on center and are weekly pruned with bonsai sheers.

Care of the Knots at Filoli

The larger knots are renovated every five years, with the lavender and santolina being totally replaced as these plants don’t perform well under intense pruning and sheering. They are watered by irrigation once a week in the warmer months and fertilized annually in late fall because of the extreme root competition. The knots are also hedged hard in late summer after blooming, and an application of redwood sawdust is applied annually.

Creating a miniature knot garden is maybe a future winter project for me. I have located a source of plants, and I just need to create that wooden box!

I visited this knot garden at the Garden Museum in London; I love the variegated holly topiary in the center
I visited this knot garden at the Garden Museum in London; I love the variegated holly topiary in the center

Labyrinth Plantings

Peaceful vantage point
Peaceful vantage point

Last year, I posted about installing a stone labyrinth for a client.  We started in the fall, worked through the winter, and just finished up the spring plantings. Go to Healing Labyrinth-Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, to see how I created and implemented the design and installation.

The theme for the plantings was pollinator friendly shrubs and perennials to surround and embrace the labyrinth to soften the harshness of stone and to bring nature in. When it came time to plant, I had to consider that the site is shady to part sun, with some parts in full sun, so I had to use an entire spectrum of plants that would attract pollinators.

Hillside above labyrinth planted with many native plants

Where the wall surrounds the labyrinth pathway, I left a small space of 6″ to plant something simple but beautiful to soften the stone edge in the shade.  Hakenochloa ‘All Gold’ was chosen for its bright color in the shade and its graceful form. It has no attribute as a pollinator friendly plant, but was perfect for the spot. A slow grower that stays under 12″ high, the grass will not outgrow its space and is very low maintenance.

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Hakenochloa All Gold
Hakenochloa All Gold

The only plantings that were original were extremely fragrant pink climbing roses on the fence. I kept them as a backdrop for the new plantings.

Clethra ‘Ruby Spice’

The garden surrounding the labyrinth is in partial to full sun and I went wild with the pollinator friendly plants.  The main shrub that I used was Clethra ‘Ruby Spice’ –  seven of them spotted around the space. Clethra is a highly fragrant deciduous shrub that blooms in July and August in shade and partial shade and is frequently visited by an array of pollinators.  The racemes of dark pink flowers last for weeks and the foliage turns a bright yellow in the fall.

Butterfly bushes were also used to give late summer color as well as perennials such as stachys hummelo, salvias, sedum, vernonia, hibiscus, coral bells, and nepeta. A few annuals were selected for color and pollinator appeal –  petunias and pentas.

Just planted bed with stepping stones planted with grass seed
Just planted bed with stepping stones planted with grass seed
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Planted area 6 weeks later

The upper slope over-looking the labyrinth was in full shade and was planted with colorful foliage plants-coral bells, hostas, carex, toad lily, Lenten Rose, tiarella, brunnera, lamium, heucherellas, and woodland phlox to give texture and brighten the shady area.

Toad Lily- bees love this in the fall
Toad Lily- bees love this in the fall
Hillside of foliage plants for shade
Hillside of foliage plants for shade

Under the teak bench, I planted Mazus, a steppable creeping plant with tiny purple flowers.

Mazus is a purple flowered creeper


In and among the rocks of the water feature, I planted several Deutzias for spring bloom, and variegated Iris, sedums, annuals, coral bells, and balloon flower. The water feature looked very stark without any plantings, so I was careful to plant things next to and within the rocks surrounding it so that plants would cascade over it.

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Water feature 3 years later in the spring

To frame the picture, and provide some privacy, a screen of Skip Cherry Laurels was planted behind the fence to anchor the new space. These will eventually grow up to over 8 feet and knit together for a nice hedge.

Planting the Cherry Laurels for a screen
Planting the Cherry Laurels for a screen
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Downward view of labyrinth with Helleborus in the foreground
A Helleborus or Lenten Rose opening up in the winter
Clethras turn a wonderful yellow color in the fall

Container Lust

This one has that fun whirligig orange coleus, a streptocarpus (purple), tuberous Begonia, New Guinea Impatien, and Asparagus Fern
This one has that fun whirligig orange coleus, a streptocarpus (purple), tuberous Begonia, New Guinea Impatien, and Asparagus Fern

I love putting containers together and saw some especially beautiful ones this spring that stopped me in my tracks. I did not create them, but I wished I had! I took pictures and thought maybe one day I would duplicate them. I am constantly amazed at what others put together so creatively.

Like a canvas waiting for paint, containers are seasonal so you can experiment and go wild with your colors and combos and try something else next year.

The one above would be for shade.  Who says a shade container has to be uninteresting and not colorful like sun ones? I would rather create a shade or partial shade container than a full sun one.

All foliage container by Leigh Barnes
All foliage container by Leigh Barnes

This container which is a quiet study of leaf shapes and textures, has Hakonechloa ‘All Gold’, Helleborus, Ferns, Creeping Variegated Fig, and a gold Coleus. For shade only, this container will winter over minus the Coleus and the Fig, giving you the opportunity to add something else for next season.


This window box is showcasing some beautiful forms and colors of succulents.  You hardly have to water it and it can take full baking sun.  I found this at Ladew gardens.

Found at a local nursery by my friend Millie-The orange and reds pick up the container colors
Found at a local nursery designed by my friend Millie-The orange and reds pick up the container colors

The above ‘carnival of oranges’ container has Orange Wave Petunia, Coleus, Lantana, Tuberous Begonia, Croton, Ferns, and Shrimp Plant. I wasn’t sure how this would perform in the long haul, as the Lantana, Shrimp Plant, and the Petunia like full sun, and the others like partial shade or shade. But it is a stunner.

Another container designed by my friend Millie in cranberry shades
Another container designed by my friend Mille in cranberry shades

This container is playing off the reds and burgundies with a touch of white and yellow. Calibrachia, Vinca, Dahlia, Hibiscus, Cordyline, and Angelonia are included to make this a full sun containers.  The designer chose a plant with visual punch, which is the beautiful pink-edged Cordyline, and built the plants around it, echoing those colors. A splash of white adds contrast.

Another Leigh Barnes creation in a beautiful purple pot
Another Leigh Barnes creation in a beautiful purple pot

Purple  is an uncommon color for a container and this pot was amped up a notch with orange flowers.  Gerber Daisy, Agastache, Peach Verbena, Sweet Potato Vine, and I think the small pink flower is Mexican Heather or Lobelia, were combined to make a statement. Full sun is required, and the Gerber Daisy does require cleaning of the old blooms to continue it’s show. This combo has structure, texture, and movement. Beautiful!

The secret to combining the right plants in a container, is to use good color contrast, by picking up the leaf, stem, flower, or container color. Another important element is to vary the form of the plants.  Always  start with something bold and architectural, like a cordyline, croton, canna, or papyrus, and combine with finer textured plants. Three to five plants is usually enough variety or the container can get too busy. Avoid a rainbow of colors for the same reason.  The container which I did below has a rainbow of colors, so I broke the rules on that! But seriously, there are guidelines, but in the end, experiment and make your own statement with what you select.

Strong textural cannas give this container visual impact
Strong textural cannas give this container visual impact

Try to select plants that will survive the environmental stressors of wind, pounding rain, and extreme heat.

My advice to get these beautiful results is go to a nursery and pick a strong, structural plant that you love, and try different plants next to it at the nursery. Keep in mind the light requirements when gathering your finds, and it is like picking flowers for a beautiful bouquet.

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Plants at Your Fingertips!

Planted table ready to go
Planted table ready to go

Planted Furniture for the Patio

I went to a cocktail party at a plant lovers house, saw his planted table and was enthralled! I was sure that I could create one just as good, if not better.

I looked around for a table that I could buy and convert to a planted table, but it just wasn’t practical.

As I create drawings and plans of gardens for a living, I drew what I wanted to scale and took the drawing to a carpenter friend and explained what I was going to do. He made a beautiful table out of treated wood for me with very sturdy legs to carry the weight of soil and plants.  I told him that I needed at least 3 inches of soil in the top for root growth and he created the perfect table.  I stained it and made sure there were plenty of drainage holes in the bottom and set to work.

Drainage holes were drilled into the bottom
Drainage holes were drilled into the bottom

I lined the whole thing with landscape cloth and filled it with soil.

Lined with landscape cloth
Lined with landscape cloth

After adding a good quality potting soil with plenty of vermiculite to lighten the load, I added fertilizer and leveled the mixture into the table top about an inch and a half below the top of the sides.

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I let the soil settle over the course of a week and then started the fun part of planting.

Since the table was to be placed on a patio in partial shade, I selected shade plants with beautiful foliage and some seasonal pansies for lots of color.  The pansies can be rotated out later in the spring when the weather warms up.

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Ferns, pansies, lamium, polka dot plants, mazus, and forget me nots were all planted

I placed flat stones to set drinks on and then covered all the soil with moss mounds from a local florist.

Moss adds the finishing touch
Moss and a glass ball adds the finishing touch

I have had it for 6 weeks now, and the plants are growing and filling in.  I keep it misted with water about every 3 to 4 days and the moss is holding up fine.

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All grown in 6 weeks later
All grown in 6 weeks later

Outdoor Fairy Garden- Go Wild!

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Fairy Garden-A stream running through it

At a recent Decorator Show House, I had the task of designing a space in a courtyard area that was a perfect location for a fairy garden. Fairy or miniature gardens have become an immensely popular gardening trend and I thought this would really draw attention to my area.

The centerpiece was going to be my fairy house that I made on an earlier post out of bark, branches, and antlers. Go to to see how to make this. But first, I had to prepare the site for the house by creating a small contained garden in the landscape with fencing, hills, plants, and moss.

A fairy house under construction
A fairy house under construction

Construction Schedule

  • Site

    I found the perfect spot under a large Chamaecyparis tree that had no lower limbs. The upper limbs would hang over and shelter the area and create a ‘ceiling’.  There was a straggly yew that had to go.  It was chain sawed down and the leaves cleaned up. The drain pipe was relocated and the wheel stayed as a great visual element.

    Selected site with a scraggly yew off to the right and backed by a great iron wheel
    Selected site with a scraggly yew off to the right and backed by a great iron wheel
  • Fence

    A fence had to be added to delineate the space.  My curly pussy willow was looking good so I cut a bunch and wired it together. I kept it in a round tote for a week to keep that nice rounded shape.

Wiring curly pussy willow together to make a fence
Wiring curly pussy willow together to make a fence
Keep the fence in a round tote for a week to keep the rounded shape
Keep the fence in a round tote for a week to keep the rounded shape

To keep the fence firmly in place, I took short pieces of wire stakes and drove them into the ground at the perimeter of the fence and inserted the bundled pussy willow onto it. This will keep the fence from moving when I fill the interior space with plants and moss. I made an arbor out of the same material and placed that at the entrance, inserting the ends into the soil.

Little stake holding the fence in place
Little stake holding the fence in place
Pussy willow fence in place
Pussy willow fence in place

I experimented with different positionings of the pathway and house and once satisfied, I remove everything to start placing the accessories. Once I knew where the pathway would go, everything else fell into place.

Getting the layout right
Getting the layout right

Mounding up soil and pressing it firmly in place to mimic hills and valleys made the space more interesting.

Then, I placed the largest items, like the houses – the bark and a gourd house, and the bridge. Once situated, I started with the plants. I chose plants that were colorful enough to contrast with the moss covering that was planned to top everything off. I planted my plants both inside the fence and outside. I used a couple a miniature conifers, violas, polka dot plants, ivy, ferns,  armeria, and saxifrages.

  • Stream

    To construct the stream, I first placed a strip of landscape cloth on the ground as the base for the stream bed. This prevents the gravel and stones from washing into the underlying soil and keeping it clean.

Laying a strip of landscape cloth, a base of clean gravel on top
Laying a strip of landscape cloth, a base of clean gravel on top
  • Mood Moss

I added my pathway and topped everything off with a layer of mood moss.  Mood moss is a moundy, springy moss, much nicer than regular sheet moss. It gave dimension to the whole garden. Moss also gives the garden a finished look and a good backdrop for all the accessories and plants. I bought a case of this from a local wholesale florist.

  • Final Touches

To the stream, I added colored gravel and small boulders. Colorful glass balls were pressed into the moss to add color. Wheelbarrows, chairs, and various other fairy accessories were added on top of the moss.

Outdoor fairy garden
Outdoor fairy garden
  • Upkeep

To keep this garden going, I will spray it with a fine mist attachment of the hose to keep it moist, once every couple of days depending on rainfall. The garden is in the shade so it will not dry out quickly.  It is important to keep the moss moist but not drenched. The plants need to be pruned and groomed every few weeks to keep them small.  The garden should last the entire season and will need renovation next spring.

Setting up the arbor at the entrance
Setting up the arbor at the entrance

Heirloom Tomatoes

A sinkful of Roma tomatoes
A sinkful of Roma tomatoes (good for sauce)

Picking those juicy tomatoes is just around the corner, and if you are thinking about growing them from seed, you better get planting!

Everybody has heard of heirloom veggies and there are entire seed companies that dedicate their offerings to continuing the thousands of varieties that the mainstream companies don’t offer any more. You are missing out, if all you plant are ‘Better Boytomatoes because there are tomatoes for eating, slicing, canning, juicing, making paste or sauce, or just to pop in your mouth for that fresh tomato flavor burst. Here is a guest post from John Fendley of Sustainable Seed Company:

Heirloom Tomatoes – Varieties for Every Palate, but Where Do You Start?

By John Fendley of Sustainable Seed Company


There are hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes as deliciously unique in their flavors as the people who saved them over the years.  Varieties range from black tomatoes with a sweet and smoky flavor and cherry tomatoes with a tart tang to giant beefsteak tomatoes that drip with juice as you bite into a summer BLT.

Beautiful Heirloom Tomatoes
Beautiful Heirloom Tomatoes

Hungry for summer yet?  I know I am, and it is compounded by looking online at all the heirloom tomato seeds!  Each seed carries the promise of a flavor explosion in my mouth as I stroll through the garden, with the thought of tasting all those summer time tomato treats.

But where do you start?  Since these are edibles, flavor seems like a good place to start.

But you should also consider space requirements.  How much room do you have?  Will you want to plant determinate (short non-sprawling) varieties because you only have patio space for pots?  Or do you have lots of room to plant giant beefsteak tomatoes that sprawl for miles?

Next, consider how you plan to use and enjoy your tomatoes?  Will you can them?  If so you want can varieties that have dry flesh making it easier to cook them down like Chico III.  Chico is prolific, producing tons of fruit all at the same time.  It makes a great all-around sauce, but if you are looking for a little more flavor from a canner, try black plum.  It makes a sweet and smoky sauce that is sure to have your dinner guests raving!

Maybe, you are not a canner and want to eat your heirloom tomatoes fresh.  Try cherry tomatoes varieties for salads.  Perfect for those of us that don’t like cutting things up, just pop them right in the salads.  Coyote is perfect for this and you will love the flavor.  That is if you even have any left from the trip back to the kitchen.  Yes, they are that good!

What about the beefsteaks we talked about?  These are big, fat tomatoes, so good that the juice literally drips down your face when you take a bite out of them.  Everyone loves them, but they need lots of space to grow and plenty of staking, which prevents their heavy, fruit-laden vines from falling over.

Then there are colors!  Heirloom tomatoes literally come in every color of the rainbow, and this is the reason great chefs around the world love them so.   It is like painting with a palette of rainbow colors.  There are reds of course, but also purples, yellows, oranges, blacks, green, red / yellow striped and even white tomatoes.

Start growing your own delicious rainbow of heirloom tomatoes today from Sustainable Seed Co.  We have 300 varieties of delectable heirloom tomatoes sure to fit everyone’s palate.

The beautiful array of colors of heirlooms
The beautiful array of colors of heirlooms

Enter our Pin-it to Win-it Contest where 10 lucky gardeners will receive $50 gift certificates to create their own organic seed garden. Check out Sustainable Seed on Pinterest for a chance to win your Dream Garden.

The Realm of Fairy- Creating Fairy Gardens

Demonstrating at the Philadelphia Flower Show with my loyal helper, Gretchen
Demonstrating at the Philadelphia Flower Show with my loyal helper, Gretchen

The Philadelphia Flower Show Gardener’s Studio

I am going to present at the Philadelphia Flower Show Gardener’s Studio on March 4th and am very excited about the topic.  Since the theme for the flower show is Brilliant!, which is celebrating Great Britain, I thought that designing fairy gardens would fit right in, kind of like gardening with”A Mid-Summer’s Night Dream” in mind.

I am frantically creating, and designing miniature gardens, houses, and fairies so that I am well supplied with examples to display. I sold most of the ones that I made in the spring, so am starting from square one in getting ready.

But if you can’t make it to the Flower Show, here are my guidelines and helpful hints about creating a masterpiece yourself.

Miniature Plants Suitable for Fairy Gardens:

There are tons more that are available, but I find these work well for me.

Acorus, Sweet Flag                                        

Ajuga ‘Chocolate Chip’

Ajuga 'Chocolate Chip'
Ajuga ‘Chocolate Chip’ (Photo credit: The Greenery Nursery)

Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’

Ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow’

Alchemilla erythropoda, Dwarf Lady’s Mantle

Armeria – Thrift

Campanula ‘Blue Waterfall’

Dianthus ‘Tiny Rubies’

Dwarf Boxwoods

Armeria maritima
Armeria maritima (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dwarf Conifers

Dwarf Ivies

Hypericum ‘Brigadoon’, St Johns Wort

Lamium ‘White Nancy’

Lamium ‘Purple Dragon’

Leptinella ‘Platt’s Black’

Lysimachia ‘Minutissima’, Creeping Jenny

Raoulia australis and Leptinella squalida 'Pla...
Raoulia australis and Leptinella squalida ‘Platt’s Black’ (Photo credit: brewbooks)

Mazus reptans

Ophiopogon ‘Nana’, dwarf Mondo grass

Sagina, Irish Moss


Sedum ‘Blue Spruce’

Sedums (Photo credit: Eric Hunt.)

Sedum ‘Blue Carpet’

Sedum ‘Lemon Gem’

Sedum ‘Ogon’

Sedum ‘Angelina’

Sempervivum, Hens and Chicks



English: Cultivated violas at the show.
English: Cultivated violas at the show. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sources for Accessories and Materials:

The woods and fields around your house!

Michael’s Craft Stores (one of my favorite sites for generally everything crafty!)

Model train and dollhouse stores are great also

Materials for Making Fairy Houses Outside

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Slab of bark



Pine Cones

Magnolia leaves

Mullein Leaves (soft and fuzzy – makes good blankets)

Lambs Ears Leaves (soft and fuzzy)

Deer Antlers

Pebbles (Photo credit: andrew dowsett)

Moss, Sheet, Bun, and Reindeer

Smooth Pebbles (get these in the floral dept at Michaels)

Beach Glass and Pebbles (Michaels)

Seeds and Pods

Milk Weed Pods

English: wave polished glass fragments from Gu...
English: wave polished glass fragments from Guantanamo’s Glass Beach. Original caption: :Glass Beach at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay is known for the colorful pieces of glass that wash up on its shore. – JTF Guantanamo photo by Harriot Johnston (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Twisted branches


Shells, starfish

Sheep’s fleece

Potting Mix – Use a good quality soilless mix

Taking Care of Your Garden, both inside and outside

  • Do not let moss dry out in the summer, spritz with a mister
  • For portable containers, set them outside in high shade for the summer if the plants are tender bring them in for the winter and keep it on the dry side – the moss will go dormant
  • Fertilize sparingly – you want the plants to grow slowly!
  • Trim and prune regularly to keep plants in bounds
  • Every few months, tune up the garden by replacing plants that die or grow too large

Creating an Outdoor Fairy House

When spring comes, I like to make a fairy house to set into the garden. Each year it is different. Here is one that I made this year.

Fairy House for the outdoors
Fairy House for the outdoors

To put this together, I gathered some large pieces of bark. I got mine from a tree cutter.  The bark was about 1 1/2 inches thick and curved so I cut pieces and glued them together to form a house about 15 inches tall and 12 inches around. Then I cut a hole through the bark for the door.  I traced and cut a circle out of wonderflex which is a composite material used for theater costumes, for the roof. It is very strong and water proof. I twisted the wonderflex into a cone shape and hot glued it together. This formed the basis for my roof.

Wonderflex which is available on line

I then took a very large Sugar Pine cone that I picked up at Lake Tahoe years ago. It was about 1 foot tall! I took apart the scales which are nice and large to cover the roof.

Sugar Pine Cone which I tore apart
Sugar Pine Cone which I tore apart
Hot gluing the scales to the roof
Hot gluing the scales to the roof

I hot glued the roof to the base and added some more natural things to make the house more interesting – antler pieces, and twisted branches. Allium seed heads are great additions.

Adding more natural things to the house
Adding more natural things to the house

You can set this as the centerpiece of your outdoor fairy garden, and put fencing, paths, and landscape around it with moss and plants. The house should last several seasons if you take it in for the winter. I hope to see you in Philadelphia!

Tiny miniature garden with a trellis and grapevine
Tiny miniature garden with a trellis and grapevine
I used an old stump to make this fairy house
I used an old stump to make this fairy house
A hanging globe planted with tiny plants
A hanging globe planted with tiny plants

Fabulous Fall Performers- The Best of the Best

Who would have thought that Cotoneaster has such pretty berries in October? These are in Blockley, Cotswolds in October.

Color in the Fall

Giverny in September
Fall color at Hidcote in October

Golden Rod

A succession of color and flowers is easy to produce in the spring and early summer, but once September hits, the show of blooms peeters out and it gets harder and harder for the garden to be colorful. That is why I am sure to plant some stellar standouts, that tend to sit around all summer long which you forget about, and then all the sudden, they burst on the scene with a bang! The most important trait of being a savvy gardener is planting something that looks very uninspiring in the spring and patiently waiting for it to show its full potential. Golden Rod does it in spades.

Golden rod attracts Monarchs and other butterflies

Take for example, the aptly named ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod, which when I looked at it last week was not doing anything much.  But one week later, it transforms into a graceful exploding golden display.

‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod
Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’
Wool dyed with golden rod

American gardeners usually disdain this wonderful native, but English gardeners know and love using this in their borders. Fireworks gets around 4 feet high and is easy to grow in full sun.  There are many other varieties, from the diminutive ‘Little Lemon’ at 12 inches high, to the taller 4 to 5 foot species rigida, that you normally see on roadsides. I am often surprised that more people don’t plant Golden Rod, especially with the huge emphasis on planting natives. There is a mistaken belief that it causes hay fever symptoms but that honor goes to ragweed, Ambrosia sp., a totally different plant.  Golden Rod is a great butterfly attractor and food source for wildlife, is easy to grow, and dries very nicely for flower arranging. So plan on planting this next spring for fall color.

Felted wool at a farmers market – I would love to do a garden with these colors!


Dahlias at Giverny in September

Dahlias are another flower that come into their own in September. When I visited Monet’s fantastic garden in Giverny, France, a few years ago, the gardens were ablaze with blooms, mainly Dahlias and Sunflowers, and annuals such as Nasturtium. If you keep the plants dead headed, Dahlias will constantly produce more and more until frost gets them.

Pink dahlias are my favorite

Dahlias are tubers that are planted in the early spring in pots inside to get a head start, and then brought out and planted into the garden when all danger of frost is over.

I like to place a tomato cage over the plant when you plant it out so that the heavy growing plant has something to support it.  If you don’t do that early, then you are dealing with a floppy sprawling plant later that doesn’t show as nice. Dahlias are heavy feeders of both fertilizer and water.  They do not like to dry out, so keep them watered in July and August when things can get hot and dry. They make excellent long-lasting cut flowers and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and colors.

dahlia tuber

I used to dig up the tubers and wash them and store them in my basement to replant the following spring, but I got lazy and only bothered to dig up some really beautiful and special ones. But in the last couple of years, I noticed that a lot of Dahlias come up in the spring on their own without me doing anything. Maybe this happened because of the mild winters, but I am not going to dig them up any more. It is easier to just try new ones every year as the tubers aren’t that expensive. Call me a lazy gardener!

Teddy Bear Sunflowers at Giverny
Having fun with Love Lies Bleeding at Giverny


Mums flowers
Mums flowers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course Chrysanthemums must be considered when you discuss fall color. I do love the weirdly beautiful football mums and the spider varieties that the Japanese grow in different formations.

Carefully trained Chrysanthemums, called Kiku, at The NY Botanical gardens

The art of Kiku, the closely guarded tradition of carefully training large Chrysanthemums, on a single stem up to 6 foot high, is on view at the NY Botanical gardens every fall. I went a few years ago and was in awe of this art.  Only the Japanese would have the patience to grow a plant that requires hours of tending every day. They fertilize, groom, stake and tie up these monsters to make fantastical shapes.

Beautiful football mum at NY Botanical Gardens

A zen like mosaic of chrysanthemums at the NY Botanical Gardens

I admire this art of flower manipulation for show but for growing, I love the garden Chrysanthemums, like ‘Sheffield Pink’. The botanists call this genus Leucanthemum, not Chrysanthemum, but most people just call them mums.   I love the Sheffield Pink one as it has a soft pinky peach flower that changes color as it ages, and it starts to bloom in late October into November.  Nothing much is blooming then so it is a welcome sight.

Sheffield Pink Mum lining a driveway in November

When I went to the NY Botanical Gardens they had a similar Chrysanthemum that resembled the Sheffield Pink, but it was bright orangey red with a yellow center and I loved it. Unfortunately, I searched for it in the trade and could not find it.  I am still looking as I love orange flowers.

Love this garden Chrysanthemum! At the NY Botanical Gardens wih Cuphea


I was growing Agastaches, or Anise Hyssops, 3o years ago before they became fashionable.  Their trademark is a wonderful licorice scented foliage and plumes of long-lasting flowers in a range of colors. Long blooming and tough, if you have full sun you should try a few of the varieties. Hybridizers have been working on developing new colors and I love them all.  My favorite is the old stand-by ‘Blue Fortune’.

This ‘Blue Fortune’ Agastache has been blooming for 2 months and still looks good

Purple Haze, Tutti Fruitti, Tango, Black Adder, Bolero, Firebird, Golden Jubilee – the list goes on and on. Drought tolerant, easy to grow in full sun, attracting tons of butterflies and bees, it is a great unsung hero of plants.  Add a few of these to your sunny garden for hordes of pollinators to discover. Again, it is not much to look at in the spring when you are shopping for plants. But, seek this one out and you will be rewarded with a great performer.

Purple Haze Agastache
Purple Haze Agastache at the nursery
Agastache Bolero and Tango


If you think that I am forgetting Asters, I’m not.  I don’t like them much and I have grown a few. There is a quite nice ground cover one called Aster ericoides which blooms with tiny white flowers for about 6 weeks and is only 3 inches high! It forms woody branches that cover the ground closely so it is great to use on slopes. The other Asters tend to get quite large and floppy and have small flowers with a lot of tall foliage.  I am pulling ‘October Skies’ out this fall after it blooms because it has taken over my garden and has greatly exceeded its promised 18 inches in height. Anything that needs staking and engulfs its neighbors, I cannot tolerate.

Aster ericoides ground cover

So, after trying my share of different asters, they are off my list for good. Asters are preferred by deer and rabbits and are usually eaten to the ground in the spring, so I lose a lot of them that way.

Ok, this one is quite pretty, but I am ripping it out anyway!

Gallery of Other Fall Flowers that Everyone Should Grow

Cimicifuga ‘Brunette’
Fall hillside garden that I designed with Hostas, Autumn Bride Heuchera, Tricyrtus
Tricyrtus or Toad Lily
Artwork of Toad lily by Laura Jones
Chelone ‘Hot Lips’ or Turtle Head
Swallowtail butterfly on tithonia, a mexican sunflower annual
Henry Eilers Rudbeckia, a nice change from the omnipresent Black eyed Susan
An old standy-by, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, still is a beautiful choice for a fall bloomer
Angels Trumpets planted on the streets of Germany blooming in September
‘Michael Dodge’ Viburnum has colorful yellow berries
Tender Salvias wait until September to spike out into incredible colors
Shrub Crepe Myrtles edged with Rozanne Geranium
Verbena bonariensis with Monarch


Suburban Homesteading – Raising and Preserving Sustainable Food

Putting up tomatoes

Sustainable is the new catch word for gardening. I hear it everywhere and I think it is overused without anyone really understanding exactly what it means.  By definition it means –  Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. And by working gardens, keeping chickens for meat and eggs, preserving food, adding solar panels, etc., we are all sustainable consumers in some fashion. Not fully sustainable by any stretch of the imagination but plugging away at bits and pieces of sustainability.

Portable chicken coop on wheels that my neighbor moves around on her front lawn

Most of us are still on “the grid”. I have read the magazine Mother Earth News for years and I am always surprised at the number of people who are off the grid and flourishing. I am not ambitious and energetic enough to be off “the grid”, but I would love to reduce my dependence on it and have chipped away at it.

I saw this wind power system that you can put up at your home to generate power at the Mother Earth fair

Now that it is fashionable and smart to try to live sustainably, I have observed many of my neighbors have added homesteading in some way, shape, and form to their lifestyle. Even with a full-time job and lots of family responsibilities, many have added gardens, preserving food, and are raising chickens for healthier eating.

Repurposing old drainpipes to grow veggies

When we get together as a neighborhood, we often talk about how sustainable our neighborhood is, and how we would work together and pull on each other strengths if there were a natural disaster. Some people are good at raising and putting up food, while others are trained as nurses or can hunt and fish. Everyone has their own unique talents to add to the mix. We even have pumps that could pump water from streams and mechanics that could make them work.

Suburban chicken coop at Mother Earth fair

According to the blog Eat Drink Better – Sustainable Food for a Healthy Lifestyle, the author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies, Owen Dell, says that “there is only a three-day supply of food in any given city: what happens on the fourth day when there is a natural disaster or some kind of disruption that stops the food supply chain? Most of us don’t realize how dependent we are on the unseen “food system”  for our daily meals. He says that cities are like a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, aka, a feed lot) for human beings: we are separated, dependent, and caged.”

A neighbor took an old wooden shed and created a chicken habitat with minimal cost

The author, among other useful suggestions to grow food sustainably, also suggests having neighborhood food swaps every so often to trade what you have lots of, for things that you aren’t growing. I have a gardening neighbor who planted zucchini plants at the edge of her lawn and puts out a sign for anyone to pick them when ripe. When I had bumper crops of  cucumbers and had preserved all I wanted as pickles, I took the excess cucumbers around to my neighbors and gave them out. Small things, but these all add up, plus it brings the neighborhood together instead of everyone keeping to themself.

Slicing cucumbers for pickles

With natural disasters and severe weather becoming the new normal, we really need to think about a self-sustaining lifestyle, and start getting serious about reducing our dependence on food that is trucked in from thousands of miles away. So, I have highlighted some areas in this post where my friends and neighbors are making a difference with suburban homesteading.

Beekeeping Makes a Difference

Setting up beehives in my back yard

I love beekeeping but it isn’t for everyone.  Managing bees is not easy, can be rewarding at times but also very frustrating when things go wrong, and they can go wrong quickly! I call beekeeping my expensive hobby as you can sink a lot of money into equipment, sugar for feeding, and supplies.  But the payback can be spectacular when you see all that honey flowing out of the extractor. I don’t want to discourage anyone from setting up bees because it is extremely interesting and has given me lots to talk about over the years, but it is a committment of time and energy.

Doing things right and getting lots of honey!

Bartering Food

Adorable goat face

Honey is also a commodity that others love to barter for.  I have a friend who raises 28 goats for cheese making.  She has several varieties including LaManch’s, Alpines, and Nigerian Dwarfs, and milks them everyday which is a huge committment. She produces chevre, goat cheese cheesecakes, crotin – a 14 day aged soft goat cheese, cajeta – a goat milk caramel sauce, and goat milk ricotta. We have traded in the past –  honey for cheese, and the cheese is delicious!  When I extract my honey, I will be calling her to trade again. There is nothing like freshly made goat cheese!

I have made mozzarella cheese myself but it was a lot of work and you need a lot of unprocessed milk to make it worthwhile.  I really didn’t enjoy it and it made my kitchen a mess. So I would much prefer to barter than make cheese.

English: Goat's milk cheese
English: Goat’s milk cheese (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Goats having fun in a feeding trough

Growing Food

Having a vegetable garden in a container or in the ground is simply the easiest way to reduce your dependence on the food supply chain and one of my neighbors has gone about it in a big way. In her front yard, she has created an intensively planted vegetable garden, using raised beds, square foot gardening, and lots of vertical structures to make the best use of space.

Looking into the garden
Making use of black plastic
Synthetic bag garden

Because deer can be a problem, she has fenced things in which also creates space to grow vines up using the fence for support.  Grass was left in the pathways so that you don’t walk on the soil and compact it. There are several types of raised beds used, to pack as much stuff into limited space –  traditional wooden, woven willow, and a synthetic material that looks like heavy black plastic.

Natural willow raised bed with broccoli
Raised bed with beans

A lot of vegetables are very handsome and look good in containers or incorporated into a home landscape.  I had a good friend who had this container built below out of redwood, and it has casters so that you can roll it around where you want it to go. The bottom is hardware cloth (very strong wire fencing) so that it drains properly.  You could roll this around to catch the most sun. A large container planted with herbs, cucumbers, beans, and lettuceGrowing in containers isn’t going to set the world on fire with lots of produce but with intensive and successive planting, it is very worthwhile.

Even if you don’t want the trouble of maintaining a large tilled vegetable garden, you can do like one of my neighbors does – just gardens in tilled rows – I call it trench gardening. I like this method because your pathways don’t have to be mulched as your turf acts as a natural mulch. Again, having these permanent pathways means that you won’t compact your soil.

Gardening in the trenches

Cooking Food

I have always been intrigued with cooking outdoors.  I did it on campfires when I went camping and still grill on charcoal frequently.  But I would love a wood fired oven for baking pizzas and breads. When I went to the Mother Earth News fair, they had a brick oven that you could make for your back yard on display.  I would  love to have that when my power goes out, which it does pretty frequently. Even with power, I would love to make wood fired pizzas. This is definitely on my list to make in the future.

Brick oven at Mother Earth News fair

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

 One of my favorite books is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, and details how her family for one year, bought food raised in their own neighborhood, grew it themselves, or learned to live without it. You are what you eat!

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