Friday, October 5, 2012

Last Roses of Summer?

Here at Hidden Hill, frost has nipped a few things, but roses soldier on, especially these David Austen Heritage Roses.  Soft color, super scent, healthy leaves--this is a rose I just never want to see go dormant.  The day however, is coming--gardening joys like these will end, except for pictures.  The Somerset (WI) Buds Garden Club has invited me to come and show them some of those pictures (and to talk about All the World in a Blade of Quack) on Monday, October 8, at 7 p.m.  You're invited, too.  For more details, leave a comment and I'll get back to you. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I used to wonder why there was so much crane garden art.  I always thought it was because cranes are tall and so a crane made of metal or resin or concrete would stand out among the flowers where something like, say, a diminutive sparrow wouldn't.  Of course, cranes are also beautiful--I mean, who wouldn't like to have such long, thin legs?--and people want to add beautiful things to their gardens, so voila, they buy cranes.

Seeing this sandhill grazing in a meadow near Herbster, Wisconsin, made me wish a crane would visit my garden.  I've had everything from hummingbirds to wild turkeys there, but so far never a crane.  What a delight it would be to see that lithe, elegant body slipping through the lilies.  Cranes are migrating now.  And I'm wishing I could see that particular piece of garden art waiting some morning when I go out to water. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Encore, Please

Summer slips away, unnoticed by morning glories who are busy lighting the way to October's bright blue weather.  It took them a while to come on stage this year, but they must have known that once all the other flowers had bloomed their last there would be a spotlight--or maybe it's a backlight--for them.  I have just one word:  Bravo!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What To Wear in the Garden

You might be surprised to learn that this is a picture of a hummingbird.  Yes, the hummer working my roses and cleomes this morning as I sat in the garden, writing in my journal, hovered so long in one place that I figured even I might be able to get his picture.  I ran to the house for my camera, waited for him to reappear and then started shooting away with my mighty Canon (not the boom-boom kind.) I now fully understand the difference between snapshots and photographs, as if I didn't already after having collaborated with wildlife photographer Jim Backus on four books.  If Jim had taken the photo, you would see a picture of a hummingbird with flowers in the background.  Maybe it's the gardener in me that brings out the flowers...  Anyway, I did manage to capture this digital image of the little wonder, though his/her iridescent body barely shows up against the background greenery.  Can I help it birds wear camo?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Focus

Every picture has a focal point (or should have--now some of mine don't, really, especially since I tend to be chronically out of focus even with an automatic camera, a feat to which only decades of caffeine can be attributed.)  In this photo, the focal point would seem to be the garden fairy, reading her book, but if you look behind her, you can change your focus to the craggy, creviced, leathery bark of the black cherry tree which is currently dropping small black fruits all over our lawn, much to the delight of birds and scurrying creatures.  The details of the trunk constantly change, never repeating as far as I can see.  If I could actually take credit for growing such a wonderful specimen, I would consider myself to have finally arrived as a gardener.  Alas, Mother Nature planted the tree and I have only to behold it.  To focus.  And to remember that sometimes it is quite beneficial to change my focal point. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Too Precious to Plant

If you've been reading All the World in a Blade of Quack, you may have read about my struggle to find the perfect place to plant one perfectly beautiful, hot pink hardy hibiscus.  When I brought it home from the greenhouse years ago, the petals lazed back like five Kleenexes wired together for a kindergarten craft project.  The stamen, though, was intricately detailed, cream-colored and lacy.  The stalk itself stood barely taller than the single bloom it bravely held intact.  Yes, the little hibiscus was way too precious to plant just anyplace.  It demanded, in its own delicate-but-in-your-face style, nothing less than center stage. Well, to read the whole tale, you'll have to check out Chapter 15, but suffice it to say that I finally found a place, and the hibiscus found that place to its liking.  Several years later, it is three feet tall, three feet wide, and still dazzling passersby.  When the rest of the garden is satisfied with just being green during the dog days of August, the hibiscus isn't satisfied with anything less than stardom.  It really ought to be in movies.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Cowboy in the Garden

Who is this unknown creature hulking over the Siberians? I'm not saying anything except to quote an old saying: The best light for plants is the gardener's shadow.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Oxalis Revisited

After weeks of drought when it was too dry to pull weeds in the garden, and a couple of days of rain after which it was too wet to pull weeds, I finally got deep into the garden yesterday. Wow. I never knew oxalis could could grow in such abundance. Well, maybe I had, yet I tended to leave it in place because a) it didn't really seem like a bad weed to me because it is kind of pretty, and b) during the dry weather I thought it might actually help shade the roots of other plants. Whether it did, or whether it actually sucked water away from them I cannot say, but whatever the case, all flowers and weeds seem to have come through the drought reasonably well. Nevertheless, yesterday was the day to rip out oxalis. I felt a little ungrateful. And now I am hoping that the drought does not return until all of the little oxalis plants I missed can grow big again.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Baby Hostas

This basket o' baby hostas was all decked out for my book launch. The first ten book buyers each got a tiny hosta to take home, a tiny hosta that self-seeded into my lawn just like the ones I tell about in All the World in a Blade of Quack: Reclaiming a Garden, Growing a Gardener. Here's part of the story:
"As I trim along the edge of the shade garden with our trusty Lawn Boy in late June, something catches my eye a couple of feet ahead of the mower. I manage to halt before I get to it and there, sure enough, growing in the grass, I see what looks like a tiny hosta. I hold back for a moment, afraid it might be a plantain, but finally I get down on hands and knees for a closer look and decide to take a chance."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hero of the Hail

Astilboides in bloom! (The other greenery with roundish leaf, significantly smaller, is a climbing hydrangea which is finally learning to climb.) I have been happily growing astilboides for its gigantic, round leaves. Imagine my surprise to find it would bloom, too. Reminiscent of cimicifuga or giant tiarella, the bloom (panicle) is a delicate bit of froth on top of mighty leaves. My mightiest leaf was ripped apart by hail back in May, and so is probably feeling a little embarrassed about being flashed around on the Internet. The cool part of its story, however, is that the big leaf sheltered the smaller leaves under it. They weren't damaged at all. Everybody, altogether now: "Awwwwww."

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Great Solomon's Seal

Jumping Jehosaphat! It's Great Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum)! Here is a woodland plant so uncommonly elegant you won't be able to believe it grows wild. If held straight up, it can measure over five feet tall. Because it prefers beauty to stature, however, it arches gracefully at about three and a half. Last year I tried moving one and found it to have a long rhizome similar to an iris. The plant arcs out over that, so the root acts as a fulcrum, keeping the whole thing from falling over. Great Solomon's Seals spread and can become kind of a nuisance, but they are beautiful--and if you have too many of them you can cut one near the ground and bring it in as a dramatic cut flower. (This requires a substantial container, something well weighted in the bottom.) Another plus: you can say "Great Solomon's Seal!" as an exclamation of joy. (Nobody really knows what "Jumping Jehosaphat!" means, anyway.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

An art gallery is the perfect place to talk about color, right? So at my book launch party at Crossings at Carngie last Sunday, I read a segment from All the World in a Blade of Quack: Reclaiming a Garden, Growing a Gardener that describes one of my many colorful experiences in learning to garden. The passage describes how, in my quest to get rid of quack, I try covering up an area of grass with clear plastic, which is supposed to kill the grass within two weeks. Needless to say, in my garden, success is elusive:
"After six days, the grass begins to yellow. Then the plastic comes loose in a few places and green springs up anew within hours. I batten down the proverbial hatches again and wait. Six days. Yellowing. Green. After two weeks, I have spots of brown and spots of yellow and spots of green. Well, a garden is for color, after all. Clearly (no pun intended) this plastic is not working quite as well as promised."

Of course, it wasn't all about reading and gardening at the party. It was about food and feasting, too. Lots of people liked the Roquefort Grapes. The recipe comes from Entertaining by Martha Stewart. I tried to find a link to the recipe on Martha's website, but couldn't, so here it is, with thanks to Martha Stewart for giving us a wonderful, easy recipe:

Roquefort Grapes
50 Hors D'Oeuvres
1 10-oz. package almonds, pecans or walnuts
1 8 Oz. package cream cheese
1/8 lb. Roquefort cheese
2 T. heavy cream
1 lb. seedless grapes, red or green, washed and dried

To toast nuts, preheat oven to 275 degrees. Spread nuts on baking sheet and bake until toasted. Almonds should be a light golden brown; pecans or walnuts should smell toasted but not burned. Chop toasted nuts rather coarsely in food processor or by hand. Spread on a platter.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the cream cheese, Roquefort, and cream
and beat until smooth. Drop clean, dry grapes into the cheese mixture and gently
stir by hand to coat them. Then roll the coated grapes in the toasted nuts and put
on a tray lined with waxed paper. Chill until ready to serve.

Serve piled on a plate garnished with a ring of lime slices and/or mint leaves.

Note from Coleen: I did almost three pounds of grapes with this amount of cheese.
For the recipe to be successful, grapes must be completely dry.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Everything's coming up roses! My new nature memoir, All the World in a Blade of Quack: Reclaiming a Garden, Growing a Gardener, is ready to launch and will soon be available at a bookstore near you. My roses are waiting to read about themselves, and they won't be disappointed. From learning their names to renaming the process called "deadheading," Quack talks garden in every chapter. This climber was not yet planted when I started writing the book, but it has taken a quack-like growth spurt this year and is finally reaching the top of the pergola. The six-year-old climbing hydrangeas on the other three corners have yet to perform such a feat, but they are climbing (finally.) Height isn't everything, either. Climbers are famous for their profusion of blooms, and this one is finally living up to its reputation. If you love roses, as I do, you can revel in them now. And if quack grass isn't exactly your cup of tea, you'll want to pick up a copy of the new book. You'll find lots to learn and lots to laugh about. I'm sure the roses will, too.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Announcing My New Book!

Yes, it's true! My new book, All the World in a Blade of Quack: Reclaiming a Garden, Growing a Gardener, will be coming out in June from North Star Press of St. Cloud. Here's an advance peek:
I had seen wild turkeys grazing in farm fields for years, but the up-close and personal look at the one who wanted to share my peonies told me the world wasn't something I could hold at arm's length--and neither could the turkey... Some people garden because they like to have fresh vegetables to eat. Some want organic. Some garden for the scents of lavender and rose, some want to add color to their lives. Some garden because they aren't able to play football or don't believe in gambling with cards. Some are scientists who like to experiment even though they never got beyond ninth grade biology. Some have gardening born into them. Some, like me, feel an obligation to restore what has been lost and recycle what is left--no matter what the cost.
All the World in a Blade of Quack: Reclaiming a Garden, Growing a Gardener, by Coleen L. Johnston (me!) will be available soon from North Star Press ( and, and at bookstores and garden centers. To see more, check out my new website: And please tell your gardening friends.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Appearances Sometimes Lie (Low)

Appearances Sometimes Lie
I bend low
in search of wild ginger flowers
among the leaves that did not rot away,
for winter was but a wisp of time,
no friend of elfin blooms so short in sway.
Yet there they are, I see them,
red, with horns like little devils.
In truth, they are the angels of shade,
the friend of those who know
that gardens grow on many levels.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Catalogs often refer to a pattern or print as "multi."   Multicolor? Multicultural? Multipurpose? Multitask? Multiflora?  Whatever.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Secret Birdbath

Some ideas work out better than others.  In an earlier attempt to control arbor vitae shrubs-that-had-become-trees in my garden two years ago, (see Cuttin' O' the Green, 3-15-12,) I sawed off one large specimen three feet above the ground, intending to finish the job at ground level.  The stumps, however, made a flat platform perfect for a birdbath.  I happened to have a birdbath lacking its pedestal.  Voila!  The proverbial marriage made in heaven. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cuttin' O' the Green

Not all cutbacks come from the government, or from a CEO whose job is on the line.  Some come in the garden.  Mine are just in time for St. Patrick's Day.  The arbor vitaes, which I planted in the garden because I didn't know where else to put them, have grown from ten inch seedlings to bushy, good-smelling trees that are too big to keep pruned into neat cones or trapezoids, and yet too nice to cut down entirely.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Big Nest in the Little Woods

Spring begins, usually, in just this sort of gray/black way, all branches and silhouettes, except that this year it isn't doing that at all.  This year it is all sun and tulips greening, so warm that yesterday I finished cleaning up the Hanson Hedge Roses I'd begun cutting back last fall.  I will probably sacrifice their lovely, single June blooms for my efforts, but they were beginning to take over my little vegetable plot and a considerable section of lawn--time for me to regain some control, or, at least, to try. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Inside In

The word "nest" is everywhere.  From Pottery Barn to Easter decor, nests are in.  Why "nest?"  Why now?  Because tough economic times make us turn inward?  We can't afford to travel, and so we stay at home in our nest?  We are poor because of unemployment and a shaky stock market, and so we try to "feather our nest?"  Maybe. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Thing We Have To Do

The quote I pulled up on my journal list today is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  He said, "It is not doing the thing we like to do, but liking the thing we have to do that makes life blessed."  If you are a gardener, in Minnesota or elsewhere in the land of snow and cold, you are probably wishing you could be outdoors, gardening--the thing you like to do.  Instead, it's time to do the thing we have to do:  get through a few more weeks of winter--and enjoy it! 

Yesterday, armed with printouts from the University of Minnesota horticulture site, we pruned our apple trees.  Pruning is one of those jobs that is actually kind of fun if you do it when needed.  There is a little surge of power that comes with every waterspout beheaded.  A feeling of satisfaction at a tree well shaped.  On the other hand, if you forgo pruning and the tree gets out of control, as our first State Fair apple has, you have a job on your hands.   The State Fair is now crowned with a lot of unsightly top growth from too large a cut-back two years ago.  The only good thing I can say about pruning it is that it causes one to look up, instead of down (at the snow beneath the boots.)  The rusty-brown leaves of the pin oak make a beautiful complement to the blue sky.  I feel blessed just knowing that I don't have to prune the top of this giant.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Front Yard Poultry

 Backyard poultry may be the new urban craze, but I'm taking it to the front yard.  That's right, late winter is a great time to show off hens and chicks.  So succulent you could make a potpie from them?  Well, maybe not quite.  Just now, when I'm getting itchy for something to start growing, these don't just hint at flowers to come--they are a bouquet today.  A bonus: This mass of once molten rock, which looks like a milky quartz crossed with Swiss cheese, makes the perfect pen for my poultry.  I'm not gathering any eggs, of course, but then, there are no cages to clean.  Highly recommended.