Fred and Ethel, our resident mallards, flew in Sunday (3/29) afternoon at about 2:45 p.m. They've been coming every spring for seventeen years. Or maybe it's their kids or grandkids who are now stopping by. Without having banded our original pair, there's no way to be sure. I just know we start watching for them as soon as the ice begins to melt on the pond. The ducks are also my primary phenology sign as I've noted the date of their arrival every year since 1998. The earliest they ever showed up was 3/06 (in 2000 and 2004) and 4/04 was the latest (2013).
Last Friday (3/27) was the first day the pond was completely ice free during the day. We think the pond froze solid this winter because we kept having a sheet of ice no matter how much melted. You could see it rising like a big irregular ice cube as the days went by. But open water and ducks means that Spring has officially arrived at our house.
The annual Spring Flower Show at Olbrich Botanical Gardens is nicely themed towards families with young children. But there is an abundance of inspiration for home gardeners as well. The following are some of the ideas that caught my eye.
An arbor that's not made of flowering vines but a pair of some variety of Chamaecyparis obtusa held in place by stems of dogwood.
This gate (above and below) could easily be made by a handy homeowner. It could also be put in position just like this, without being part of a larger fence.
My garden has been overrun by Peter Rabbit and his siblings. They don't seem to pay attention to signs. But I would love to try a fence like this looping circle composed of dogwood twigs held together with a few upright stems.
One of my favorite displays was this overturned stump that sheltered tiny storybook characters. But I could also picture it as pure garden sculpture or as the base for a Clematis.
One of the things that can be frustrating about flower shows like this one is that many of the plants aren't hardy here and must be grown in a greenhouse. But these exotic-looking checkered lilies (Fritillaria meleagris) are hardy and easily grown here.
This grouping of pink and white Hyacinth bulbs and pale blue Muscari along with a silvery Heuchera is a subtly beautiful combination. Most of my Heucheras look good almost immediately in early spring but I never thought to pair them with bulbs.
Soft pussy willow catkins against the sky reminded me that I should find room for another willow in the garden.
The Spring exhibit included a little garden shed tucked into a corner, something that almost every gardener dreams about. At the very least, I always have some terra cotta garden pots on hand. Some old, some unusual, always useful. Plus they remind me of the long history of gardening that I am part of.
Even one rain barrel with an adjacent watering can comes in handy. I am a sucker for an old container like this rather than a new plastic one — even black plastic!
I'm not a fan of PJM rhododendrons but I love old tin pails and watering cans. And nothing's nicer in a vegetable garden than terra cotta rhubarb forcers.
This is the garden season where we are making lists of everything we have to do as soon as we can work outside. Be sure to schedule some time to sit back and enjoy your garden, perhaps with a carrot and the daily paper.
And remember that there's no better place for thinking about the garden, designing it or making garden notes than right out in the midst of it!
Our burst of warm sunny weather has brought the snowdrops peeking through the surface in my garden and it feels like Spring. But it will be a long time before my garden looks like the bright and beautiful Spring fantasy that is currently on display at Madison's Olbrich Botanical Gardens through March 22.
The theme of this year's Spring Flower Show is "Beatrix Potter's 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit'." It's a treat for families with young children. There is also lots to engage grown-up gardeners as well. Information on days, hours and price can be found here.
A number of the characters from Potter's many books have been rendered as three-dimensional creatures made of chicken wire (above and below).
Jemima Puddle-Duck is my favorite among all the animals depicted in wire. She's immediately recognizable.
Some animals are hidden in plain sight, including Peter Rabbit himself.
Many of the most familiar characters from Potter's books appear in tiny tableaux interspersed throughout the springtime flower displays.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of any Spring flower show — and certainly of this one — are the combinations of flowers, herbs and veggies that can't really happen in nature because the plants bloom in different seasons and different climates. But for this one moment, they are all gloriously flowering together in breathtaking displays.
What could be more satisfying than the fragrance of rosemary or jasmine in March?
Or the sight of Beatrix Potter's desk adrift in a sea of flowers?
Every year we put a pair of Boxwoods in pots on our deck. In the early years, I used our shredded leaf mulch to top off the pots — which the squirrels loved. A few years ago I got the idea to "mulch" the pots with our collection of stones that we've gathered on vacation and various hikes. Using them in that fashion made it seem less crazy that we owned boxes of rocks!
This year I decided to try mulching the pots with pine cones, an idea I admit I saw on Pinterest. I put down a layer of leaf mulch and then topped it off with pine cones I'd picked up all over the garden during spring clean-up. They are mainly from Austrian and white pines. The first day the squirrels tossed a number of the cones about. Then they displaced one cone per pot for a couple of days and now they seem to have lost interest. And using a different "mulch" has piqued my interest, since it gives our traditional deck pots a new look at no expense.
When I began my garden, I dreamed of all the things it would have: paths and perennials, wildflowers, water, fences, gates, a shed and somewhere to sit. What I never gave a moment's thought to were all the things that turn a garden into a living landscape: the bugs, bees, birds, butterflies and critters whose comings and goings I now watch with as much enthusiasm as I regard any of my plants. From Kingfisher to Cooper's hawk and turkey to fox, the garden has hosted an amazing parade of creatures in the years since we started planting.
But the real stars of our garden are Fred and Ethel, a pair of mallard ducks. They flew in mid-morning on April 3 this year. I look forward to seeing them even more than the first snowdrop or robin. They are in their second decade of making our garden a sort of pied-a-terre from March to the Fourth of July. They are the true harbingers of spring in the garden.
If they are the harbingers of Spring, the notes I've been keeping since their initial arrival tell a story about when Spring itself has been making its appearance over the years. How they even discovered our pond or what their arrival date (4/01/1998) meant that first year is an open question.
But sixteen years of tracking our ducks does seem to suggest something, though I am not quite sure what. According to my records an initial arrival date in April has happened only four times in those 16 years. One, as I mentioned, was the first time they ever came to the garden.
The other April arrival dates occurred in three of the last four years: April 2 in 2011, the 6th in 2013 and April 3rd this year. This data would seem to suggest Spring is coming later and yet, climate experts say it's coming earlier. I'll keep recording Fred and Ethel's data and eventually an answer will no doubt be clear.
In the meantime, this story in Tuesday's New York Times takes a look at what signs of Spring scientists are seeing — and when they occur — in various parts of the U.S.
My older and newer Hepaticas are opening all around the garden. In recent years I've bought a few unusual varities from both Plant Delights Nursery and Hillside Nursery. I'll share photos when they make an appearance — and when I figure out which is which!
Since we had a mini heatwave this week I took advantage of the chance to wander in the garden before the big temperature drop-off began again. Everything looked good except for the plants that I meant to cut back and clear out and never got to. I mainly wanted to be sure that the cages I put around a number of plants were all in place and securely fastened to the ground with no openings a tiny critter could crawl through.
Though I keep seeing beautiful cages on-line, like the ones directly above and below, mine are nothing more than chicken wire bent over on itself to make a cylinder and held in place in the ground with sod staples. On my garden tour I counted 28 cages of different sizes. I made a few cages the same height as the plants they're protecting but most are the full height of the wire.
That's because I now know animals will just meander on top of the snow and eat whatever they can reach. Depending on snow depth that means you can lose everything sticking above the wire cage. Yes, I learned that one the hard way. The same way I learned that a rabbit chewing a new shrub to the ground the first year or two after it's planted is often the death knell for that plant.
So now I cage newly planted things that can easily be disloged like bare root Japanese peonies that went in this fall. All the new trees and shrubs that I bought last spring at Klehm's Song Sparrow Nursery were also caged. And any dwarf shrubs that I don't want to take chances with like my mini Ginkgos or Acer palmatum 'Mikawa Yatsubusa'.
Some of the first cages I made used this stiff wire with small openings. I discovered it was harder to manipulate than chicken wire and it is more visible in the landscape. Caging plants is my least favorite garden chore but it's fun compared to discovering a favorite shrub or tree decimated and dead from hungry animals during the winter.
Do you cage any of your plants and have you got a better or easier method to suggest?
Yesterday afternoon about 3:30 p.m. I glanced out the living room window and was taken aback to see our resident ducks — Fred and Ethel — had arrived. As you can see in these photos, there is so little open water in our pond that I had no expectations of seeing them for another few days — if at all. They've been coming each spring as soon as the snow melts off the pond, typically arriving in mid-March. This is the latest date that they've landed since they started coming in 1998.
The life expectancy of Mallard ducks is 20 years so they must definitely getting up there in years, given we've been seeing them each spring for 16 years. And we have no idea of their age when we first saw them. They always look the same; Mark and I are the ones who are visibily aging.
But it is a joy to see them as we've come to count on their annual visit. They animate the garden in a way that few other creatures do. Seeing them is the surest sign that Spring is really here despite the snow that's still on the ground.
The mere name of this new little shopping emporium (see above and below) makes me start humming that song from The Music Man: "Pick-a-little, Talk-a-little, cheep, cheep, cheep." Somehow I never pictured myself falling in love with a business that caters to chickens and their fanciers, and yet there I was: out in Paoli admiring chicken coops.
And though Cluck caters to chickens, they're only one part of the vision of owner Susan Troller. I am admitting right here that I am a friend of Troller's as well as her former editor, and I know from personal experience that whatever she turns her hand to, it will be well worth my attention. Cluck is no exception.
Cluck is the latest tenant in a hundred-year-old building that has housed everything from a blacksmith to a gas station. The original curved ceiling trusses still bear the painted warning "no credit." You can tell from this view of the shop's interior that Cluck is about more than chickens. While Troller is a lover of many kinds of animals and a "chicken wrangler" with a laying flock of six on her family's farm in New Glarus, Cluck is a much needed new home for all of us would-be domestic divas. Pull up a chair, sit down and peruse Troller's nicely "curated" displays, as the shelter mags like to say.
The front half of the store is a gallery-cum-gift shop with chicken and country-themed art, old and new. Merchandise ranges from witty tea towels, stuffed pillows, mugs and sets of dessert plates, to vintage ice cream molds and a gorgeous cabbage-shaped soup tureen.
There are books for kids, practical tomes for those who want to raise chickens (or bees!) and a tantalizing array of titles for the rest of us. I snapped up one on natural home decor and also a delcious cookbook of fall and winter dishes. Both titles are from a UK publisher and a nice change from what I find at B&N these days.
"Cluck," Troller's own book published by Wisconsin's Itchy Cat Press, is also for sale as is the new 2013 Wisconsin Local Foods Journal/Calendar.
And for those of us who still can't figure out why chickens are the fastest growing hobby in America, Troller has some adorable peeps in the shop. While they are not for sale, she'll help anyone who's serious abut chickens get started with advice, information, chicken feed and more. Live chickens are one of the few things Troller doesn't stock!
The chickens above are known as Lavender Orpingtons, and while they are beautiful, I fell for this rubber chicken coin purse. There are also full-size versions which are equally tempting. The big ones would also work to carry knitting or whatever project you might be schlepping around.
Cluck's decor includes this feed sack from Troller's grandfather, Irvin Johnson.
There are chicken coops for sale that are as pretty as they are well made. Cluck will be hosting a meet the coop builders event on Sat. Sept. 29th.
Among the assorted artworks were a series of nicely-framed black and white illustrated covers from a British poultry publication called "The Feathered World." They'd be perfect for adding a spot of color to a kitchen or a touch of history to a library or den.
And perhaps my favorite find at Cluck, this pile of fluff from the British toy company, Jellycat. A young friend of Troller's recommended "Matilda Hen," with the pronouncement that "children love this toy." Matilda and her friends will charm more than children.
Cluck is open every day but Monday. For times, events and blog posts visit Cluck's website.