Favorite Perennials

A well-tended perennial garden has a beauty all its own, and thejoy of it is amplified in that it keeps coming back, and keeps coming back, and keeps coming back! Perennials tend to get ignored in the springtime fury of planting, since most people fall for the immediate gratification of copiously-blooming annuals displayed at the greenhouse. Perennials tend to bloom later and don’t get the showcasing that annuals do….Not until the middle or end of the summer when the annuals have all had their hayday and perennials are still shining or just starting to!

The ease and flexibility of planting annuals in a container is pretty appealing to a lot of folks, especially if they don’t already have a garden bed ready for plants but, if at all possible, perennials are the way to go and, tended well, will come back for years to come. It is really amazing to me that sometimes all that is left of a homestead from the late 1800s or early 1900s is a hedge of roses or a few lilac shrubs, still blooming joyfully 100 years later. In fact, the lilacs Brad and I have outside our house are transplants of some lilacs blooming about a mile and a half away on top of a hill. The lilacs and some irises are all that remain of someone’s life on that little piece of hill country.

I was able to get my perennials in the ground early this summer, shortly after Brad and I got married, and planted a few from seed later in the summer, but fall is actually a great time to plant perennials. So I thought I’d share a little bouquet of my favorites.

Catmint. Not to be confused with catnip, which is a completely different plant, this perennial is one of my favorites in the garden. It is hardy, basically grows without any effort, and is a wonderful filler! Unlike some perennials which bloom and then are done, catmint seems never to stop. It can also be sheared in the middle of the summer after its first bloom if it is starting to look scraggly, and will grow back fuller for a second round of blooming. I bought a few catmints in tiny 2 inch pots back in June and these plants are now generous 18 inch bushes. They tend to get wider than they do tall, so they kind of work just about anywhere in the garden, and as I said above they make a great filler. Absolutely beautiful. A bonus is that the pollinators love these flowers. Another bonus is that, due to their fragrance, deer generally don’t mess with them. (Deer proof plants are a myth. They don’t exist. But there is such a thing as generally deer resistant, and plants with a pungeant aroma are generally less likely to be munched on by deer.)

Salvia. This is another one I just love. The typical shade is kind of a violet blue, but lately growers have developed some really wonderful shades of pink. In general, I’m not a pink person at all, but some of the salvias are just delicious rich berry colors. This plant does best with regular deadheading. Each blossom spike can be snipped back when spent, down to the first pair of new leaves, and this will encourage reblooming. This is another drought-resistant and deer-resistant plant, but is less forgiving than catmint. Salvia doesn’t get hugely tall, so it works well somewhat offset from the edge of the garden, but not too far back.

Yarrow. This is an easily-recognizable flower, if you pay any attention to native wildflowers, and the domestic varities have been bred for some gorgeous colors. Wild yarrow is white with occasional pink, but I was excited to plant one variety that blooms red and fades to yellow, and another variety of more subtle shades of pink and white. This is yet another drought-resistant and hardy perennial, and it blooms forever in the later summer! It has some height to it, so it makes a great middle of the garden flower.

As much as I love the change of seasons, I’m bracing a little bit for that first killing frost we have, since I’m enjoying my garden so much this summer! But it will be just delightful to see how everything comes back in the spring. Gardening is possibly the epitome of hope and optimism!

However Small the Harvest

This hasn’t been an overwhelmingly productive summer, as far as the garden is concerned. Anyone who has gardened for any length of time knows that some years are wonderfully over abundant and other years are woefully under abundant. This has been somewhere in the middle of the two, on the lower end of the productivity spectrum.

The grasshoppers alone have been a menace and wiped out a whole garden I planted in squash, pumpkins, and tomatoes. My efforts in grasshopper management were fruitless there, as those vicious insects chewed through at times three layers of netting at once to get at the seedlings practically as soon as they emerged from the soil. Several attempts at replanting and pest eradication finally resulted in me throwing in the proverbial towel. Sometimes you just have to recognize a loss.

Add to that the excessive heat and the desperate drought and it just hasn’t been a great year for a great garden. And yet there have been some victories and the satisfaction of sitting down to a 100% homegrown meal, eating beef from our ranch and produce from the garden.

I took a loss on the one garden but doubled down on the other. My other garden, planted in and around two large stock tanks close to the house, has produced a wide variety of vegetables, though it had its share of grasshopper damage (they wiped out my green beans and jalapeños, and have intermittently wreaked havoc on various greens and herbs and my zucchini), but it was decently well established by the time the grasshoppers got too bad. I turned the chickens loose in it a couple of times, which definitely helped, although those silly birds are pretty indelicate and enjoy dirt bathing in very inconvenient locations. In spite of everything, that garden has been rewarding!

Last week, I harvested all the onions, replanting their area in carrots and turnips, and cut most of the rest of the rhubarb, putting up enough for a few pies for this fall. My Swiss chard has produced abundantly all summer and we enjoyed a supper of southern style greens last week. We have enjoyed fresh cucumber salads with the occasional tomato (that is another story for another time…) and plenty of dill and arugula, and the beets are finally getting big enough to harvest. I was a little behind the eight ball on getting those in, so the heat probably stunted their growth. Basil and mint were abundant and dehydrated nicely, and I have dill hanging in the yard shed for the seeds.

I have learned that Hubbard squash is delicious harvested young, and cooks up even more deliciously than zucchini. Which is a good thing, considering that my zucchini this year was a bust! The Hubbards are gaining a lot of size and the pumpkins are starting to pick up a tint of orange. It makes me excited for the fall! The sweet corn is tasseled and silked, so hopefully we’ll enjoy some of that in the next month as well.

In spite of the lack of abundance (enough for meals but not enough to put up), it really has been a productive year. I learned that wild predators are the best control for grasshoppers, and have found that hanging a few bird feeders and having water available around the garden are hugely beneficial. I see a noticeable uptick in grasshoppers when I get complacent and let the bird feed run out! I have also gained some knowledge on what grows best here, and what I can grow a lot of in a relatively small amount of space, and those mental notes will turn into a formal garden plan for next year.

So you learn what you can and enjoy the harvest, however small!

DIY Paper Pots for Seed Starting

There is snow falling outside again – wonderful!! – but inside I’ve got a brooder of little chicks and packets of seeds and dozens of sprouted herbs and veggies and perennials, all an optimistic acknowledgement that springtime is indeed here!

If you’re a gardener, you’ve probably browsed seed catalogs and displays at feed stores, stocked up on seeds, planned your garden, and probably even eagerly started seeds indoors a few weeks too early. Oh, well, there are worse things. Gardening is a wonderfully thrifty sort of pursuit, but some of those seed starting supplies can add up pretty quickly. Newspaper pots are a quick and free alternative to peat pots for seed starting, and here are a few tips for making sure they turn out well and hold up!

These sturdy, biodegradable little pots are formed from strips of newspaper, each approximately 1/3 of a newspaper cut lengthwise (fold the paper in thirds lengthwise and cut along those folds) and are rolled around a cylindrical item, such as a spice container or a pop can, depending on how big you want your paper pots. I played around with a couple of different sizes for these pots, what I liked the best was a pop can (well, V8 to be precise, since I don’t drink pop) for size.

Starting at one end of your newspaper strip, roll it around the can, not too tight, so you can then slide it off one end of the can until about 2 or 3 inches are left on the can. The part still on the can will be the sides of the pot, and the rest will form the bottom, by folding it over the bottom of the can. Play around with a folding method until you find one that works for you, but smaller, overlapping folds work better than bigger folds. I find it works best to start right over the end left from rolling the pot, to capture that edge and better hold the pot together, and as I get closer to the end, I tuck the new folds underneath the already folded part. Take some time to get your folding method down, since solid folding equals a solid paper pot. That’s also why I find a pop can works best. A spice jar works okay, but with a pop can, the rim and the indent in the bottom of the can allow you to get a really good series of folds in the paper, making a solid base for the paper pot. Once everything is folded and tucked in, gently slide the pot off the can and it is ready to be used!

These little pots are quick to make and can be a fun time filler. Obviously, once you’ve planted in them and watered them, they do get soggy, so handle them gingerly if you have to move the pots, but when you’re ready to plant your seedlings out in your garden, just plant the whole thing and the paper will disintegrate on its own! I’m growing my starts in disposable baking sheets with plastic covers, which provide a great humid environment until the seeds have sprouted, and then when they are well enough established the cover comes off. So far, I’ve had about a 100% germination rate with what I’ve planted.

Springtime is a wonderful reminder of God’s provision, His sovereignty, and His Creation design in which mankind was created to partner with God in the care and keeping of His earth. It is God who brings or withholds the weather we need, and it is He who ultimately provides, and because of His orderly Creation, in which like produces like, and kind multiplies according to kind, I can plant seeds and grow an expected harvest. Pursuits such as planting and growing and animal husbandry allow us to participate in this world as stewards, as God designed us to be, faithfully using our means and abilities to nurture and foster growth and life in this world, to care for God’s creatures, and to provide for ourselves and our families. So enjoy these springtime pursuits, friends, and thank God for His care and provision!

The Last of Winter, the First of Spring

According to the calendar, spring has arrived, but in western South Dakota, we know better than to put too much store in that! For us, winter lingers sometimes into June, but we’ve begun to taste the springtime and I’m itching for those warmer temperatures, those springtime tasks, mud instead of ice, warm dirt, growing things, and baby animals!

Our relatively mild winter was punctuated with days and weeks of unseasonable warmth, and then punctuated again with unseasonable, bitter cold. And, as always, it starts to feel like it has always been winter, sometime around the middle of February. Those little tastes of springtime that tantalize and taunt us every year, tease us with the warmth that is so close, so close. And we are so ready for springtime, and we’re praying for rain, or a good spring snowstorm to bring some much-needed moisture to the parched landscape.

Of all the seasonal changes, perhaps the most bewildering and wonderful is the change from winter to spring, from the time of slumber and death to a time of waking and birth, from a time of fading to a time of renewal, from surviving to thriving, a time of preparation and planning to a time of action and initiation.

Everything that is easy to accomplish in warm weather is a challenge in the winter, especially when the temperatures plummet and snow and ice freeze us in. A five-minute outdoor task takes fifteen minutes to prepare for inside, and twenty minutes to warm back up after coming inside again. A snowstorm wreaks havoc on travel when you live 30 miles outside of town, or your driveway is a mile long. The ground is frozen solid, everything seems poised to break, the cold creeps into the house until the best way to get some heat going is by turning on the oven and opening the door. An unfortunate calf born in the middle of a frigid cold snap is a struggle to keep alive.

And through the sleepiness and struggle of winter, we dream of spring. We dream of spring, and begin preparing. Gardens are planned, seeds are ordered, harvests are imagined, and a million other projects start forming in the mind, ready to send into action when the cold snap breaks, or when the snow is gone, or when the ground melts. Ranchers watch their cows get heavier and heavier, and pray for a good calving season.

And then at last, spring arrives. We see it on the calendar, and we see a 10 days at time of forecasts for temperatures in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. We see the first shoots of green grass. We feel the first raindrops. We feel the first truly warm breezes and smell the earth warming up. Rock-hard, icy ground turns into a mud slick, and how wonderful the mud smells! The multiple layers of jackets and sweaters diminish to the ease of a shirt and light jacket, stocking caps are replaced with ball caps, and I always cherish the first day I can wear a tank top and sandals!

The garden beds begin to soften under their preparatory layer of plastic. The first load of laundry is hung on the clothesline outside. The first meadowlarks appear. Seeds are started. Those calves that were unlucky enough to be born into the cold snap are now a month old, frisky, and thriving.

What a transformation!

In the winter, we are forced to slow down. It is a sabbath of seasons, in a sense. We are forced to slow down from the seemingly self-sufficient business of the rest of the year and only do those things that are necessary, limited by the cold, the frozen ground, the shorter days. It is an exercise in trusting God for the day-to-day necessities in the day-to-day struggles. And then in the springtime, God turns that trust into joyful action.

Happy springtime, friends! And pray for rain!

Summer Firstfruits

After several years of being sabotaged by the weather, it is so much fun to finally be getting some beautiful fruit from our gardening efforts! Sure, we’ve gotten vegetables from previous gardens, and some of it has been nice, but it really is just plain hard to garden in the Hills without either a greenhouse or a hail structure. Or, as this summer is showing, containers on our deck. There is something absolutely peaceful and restorative about pruning our tomato plants, or pruning and dead-heading my flowers, and the whole process of cultivating and caring for plants is immensely satisfying and energizing.
IMG_0316IMG_0313IMG_0308And nothing beats a sandwich with thick slices of freshly-picked, sun-warmed tomato…

Dirt and Daydreams

As I walked down from Grandma’s house this evening, back to the cabin my sister and I share, and I caught a glimpse of the laundry hanging on the line and our ever-expanding container garden on our porch, with the evening sun streaming gold across the green of everything, it all seemed so perfect. My castle, I thought. One of the joys of living in a small house in the country is that the outdoors becomes an extension of everything that happens inside. It is almost as if the front door didn’t exist. This summer has been a delightful time spent largely outdoors, getting dirt under my fingernails, callouses on my hands, getting sunburned, sweaty, and stronger.

I love getting to the end of each day and actually being tired, and waking in the morning with muscles sore from the day before. I even love ruefully slathering aloe on sunburned shoulders because I forgot sunscreen while mowing the lawn. I love the sweat trickling down my back and down my face, and the dried mud on my pants. I love the nuisance of driving our laundry up to Grandma’s since we are without a washer or dryer, and the peacefulness of hanging the clean, wet laundry on our clothes line and watching it flutter in the breeze. I love our pots of tomatoes lined up neatly on our porch, and the overflowing planters and hanging baskets filled with a cacophony of color, flowers flashing and sparkling in the sun like gemstones. I love looking down at dirt- and sweat-streaked arms and filthy hands after planting flowers or starting seeds, and I love the quiet task of watering everything. I love the summer sights around our house – the wildflowers, Trixie lounging on top of her dog house, the cats frisking in the yard. I love morning or evening walks or runs.  I love the tasks that keep me outside, those things that blur the line between indoors and out. IMG_7947eIMG_7486IMG_7953eIMG_7941eIMG_7926eIMG_7919eIMG_7908eIMG_7814eGod has sure blessed me in ways I didn’t even know I wanted…with a country life full of color, dirt, and sweet daydreams.