Everyday Gardeners | Living the Country Life

Everyday Gardeners

A special feature blog brought to you by Editor James A. Baggett and Assistant Editor Risa Quade of Country Gardens magazine a Better Homes & Gardens Special Interest Publication.

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July 20, 2017

In Praise of Cordless Tools



If you haven’t tried a cordless garden tool, now is the time. Over the last few years, power tool companies—such as Ryobi, Black & Decker, Craftsman, and Husqvarna—have been coming out with their own cordless string trimmers, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and hedge trimmer among other tools. As they continue to work out the kinks in the technology, they’ve figured out how to get lithium-ion batteries to last longer and with more gusto. Cleaner, lighter, quieter, and more convenient, cordless tools are transforming yard maintenance.    


Full disclosure here: I am terrible at gas motors. I lack the knack to start a gas-powered lawn mower or pressure washer—the machines seem to sense my fear. For that reason, I have spent many years using manual hedge and grass trimmers. I even opted for a push reel lawn motor that did a terrible job cutting the grass in my bumpy back yard. And that is why I love using a whole range of cordless garden tools that start with only the click of a charged battery sliding into place and the flip of a button. Plus, the cordless tools are lighter when free of a gas tank and easier to maneuver when liberated from a power cord. They are generally quieter, too, which makes my neighbors happy I’m sure.

The only down side of using cordless tools is the need to charge the batteries after each use. If you miss this step, as I have learned, you'll find yourself very frustrated when you start trimming an overgrown lilac and the power fizzles out after the first few seconds. Luckily, most batteries charge back up within an hour. Another downside? Cordless tools are so quick and easy to use, that it’s hard to stop. I’ve over-trimmed shrubs simply because it felt like I was carving a butter sculpture. And I’ve wondered around the yard with the string trimmer pining for more rogue blades of grass to cut to size. Hardly frustrations at all.






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June 23, 2017

Using Mint to Get Kids Interested in Gardening



Kids respond really well to the familiar taste and fresh, perky scent of mint. Even my three picky eaters enjoy the herb and willingly harvest leaves for fruit salads, lemonade, and, most importantly, ice cream. Fortunately, mint is exceedingly easy to grow and spreads quickly to create an almost endless supply.


For years we’ve grown a staple crop of the chocolate mint variety in a raised planter by our front steps. It comes up thick and green every spring, despite winter freezes and the occasional blast of salt used to melt ice from the steps. This year, though, the kids and I decided to expand and try a smattering of other mint varieties. Mints now come in apple, pineapple, orange, spearmint, and one that smells exactly like a mojito. For a while, we had good results with Corsican mint, which is a low-growing creeping mint with tiny leaves that packs a strong mint scent. I thought it smelled exactly like crème de menthe. The kids thought it smelled like toothpaste. After sampling all the different types of mint, what do you suppose my kids liked best? Back to their original love: the chocolate mint.


Our Top 5 Ways to Use Fresh Mint:

Ice cream—simmer fresh leaves in cream before adding sugar and freezing

Sun tea—add a handful of fresh mint to the tea bags before setting the jar in the sun

Lemonade—add a handful of clean leaves to the pitcher

Fruit salads—finely-diced mint perks up mixed fruit salads

Grain salads—dice with other herbs and add to cooked grains such as quinoa or farro and mix with a vinaigrette 







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May 18, 2017

Tomato Cage Makeovers


The humble wire tomato cage has much more potential than simply bracing up a rambling tomato plant. It can have other special roles in the garden.

Not long ago, I passed a stack of tomato cages in a garden center. The stack, turned upside down, made a nice grid that gave me an ‘Ah-Ha!’ moment. Inspired, I took three cages home, inverted them, and trimmed the tapered end down so the wires would be flush. Then I filled the stacked cages with big rocks and topped my quick gabion with a paver stone. It made a tall plant stand that has stood solidly in my garden for more than a year and has garnered many compliments from neighbors and visitors. “Is that made out of tomato cages?” they’ll ask with a tinge of surprise. (For my step-by step instructions on making a gabion plant stand, look for Easy Garden Projects magazine.)

Yes, you can come up with fun uses for tomato cages, which are inexpensive and widely available in summer. For instance, you can transform tomato cages into elegant outdoor lighting for garden parties. For a hanging light, trim the legs from a tomato cage with wire cutters. Then wind the frame from top to bottom in wide organza ribbon. Add real or silk ivy to hide the wire grid and set the frame over a purchased hanging candleholder secured to a tree limb. Or, try arranging a string of battery-operated lights inside.

Make garden lighting one step easier. Plant your cage in the garden before the plants grow too tall. Suspend a solar-powered paper lantern from a wire attached across the top of the cage.

After the tomato plants have died back in fall, turn the cage into winter décor for your yard. Invert the cages, cinch the legs together with wire or zip ties, and wrap with strings of light.

If you have an extra tomato cage laying around, or find one so inexpensive you can’t pass it up, bring it home. Have fun and create something that will be the envy of your neighbors and have them asking, “Is that really a tomato cage?”


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March 23, 2017

A Mini Kitty Garden


We have two housecats—Big Fancy Head and Elk Woman (Yes, my kids named the cats.)—who periodically are guilty of tasting our houseplants. This winter, my son Liam and I decided to plant for our cats their own indoor garden, complete with a “pond” and a lush, green lawn.

On a mild afternoon, Liam and I went outside and filled a shallow planter bowl with potting soil. If you’ve ever gardened with children, then you’ll know why we did the dirty work outside. Liam added elements he thought the cats would enjoy, such as a miniature bench, tiny gardening tools, tiny vegetables, and a wee bicycle. A few pebbles and multicolor aquarium gravel topped it off. So it would hold water for the cats, we included a miniature resin pond but a shallow bowl would also work well.

Next, Liam sprinkled cat grass seed, which is actually an oat grass (Avena sativa) that I had found at a local garden center. We watered our garden and took it inside to sit in a sunny, west-facing window.

Within days the green grass tips had poked through the soil and the cats had found the pond and practically drained it. A week later, our mini indoor garden was verdant. All my kids like to see the cats bury their faces in the grass and munch away or drink from the “pond.”

 If you want to plant your own kitty garden, you’ll need only a few simple elements: a wide container, seed for sweet oats—which is usually marketed as “cat grass,” potting soil, and a dish for water. Fill your container up to an inch from the rim with soil, sprinkle the oat seed evenly over the surface, and cover the seed with a thin layer of soil. Place the kitty garden near a sunny window. It takes about a week for the grass to hit prime height for cats to munch on. We found that including a water dish, and refilling it daily, keeps our cats engaged. You could also add a small catnip plant for variety. When our cats can’t keep up with the quick growth, we trim the cat grass with scissors to keep it 3–4 inches tall. 

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March 15, 2017

The American Backyard after WWII


The Smithsonian Institution’s “Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard” exhibit is currently travelling across the nation. The exhibit, culled from the American Garden Archives of the Smithsonian, takes a look at how World War II changed American attitudes towards landscaping and moved outdoor living from the front yard to the back. While the exhibit has a clear emphasis on the mid-Century, “this is the story of what happened after WW II," said Horticulture Collections Manager Cynthia Brown. "It made such a big change in how landscaping functioned.” 

Images culled from the archives recall the pre-World War II days, when folks put their best efforts into the front yard and roomy front porches encouraged neighbors to stop and chat. 

Following the War, returning soldiers and repurposed wartime factories influenced new trends. Families left the front porch and crafted their backyards into secluded havens, with pools and patios and grilling areas. Former soldiers, who had been exposed to other cultures and ideas, desired exotic touches such as Tiki torches and Asian-influenced gardens. Meanwhile, war factories had to find new outlets for their materials, so they turned their aluminum into garden furniture and their plastics into lawn ornaments. Factories evolved to make chemicals for destroying insects as well as weeds. “We found, in our research, ads showing that using DDT was safe. There were even ads with toddlers holding spray guns and applying the chemicals,” said Brown.

Brown pointed out that back in the 1950s, gardeners would have been amazed at the current gardening trends towards edibles, native plants, and sustainable methods. The American approach to living outdoors has definitely changed, and this exhibit points out how interesting that change has been.

To learn more about the Patios, Pools & the Invention of the American Backyard travelling exhibit, which will be at the Cape Fear Museum in Wilmington, NC, this summer, go to the Smithsonian Institution's website.


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February 3, 2017

Botanical Art & Books


Our northern winter landscape has been pleading for greenery lately. My cue to stop staring out the window at my brown garden and settle in with a book that rekindles an interest in all things botanical. This hefty collection of books fits the bill, allowing readers to delve into the verdant world of botanical art, defined by aged prints and scientific examinations married to lovely and evocative artistic studies. These books require a quiet afternoon for careful contemplation free from the distraction of yardwork, and yet, they retain their appeal throughout the seasons.

Botanical Style: Inspirational decorating with nature, plants and florals
By Selina Lake
Published by Ryland Peters & Small, 2016

Why limit botanical artwork to a few pages in a book or a couple of framed prints on the wall when it can envelop your home and reflect your personal style? Whether vintage, Bohemian, tropical, or even industrial, botanical style introduces plants into your living spaces. Houseplants, prints, fabrics, color schemes, wallpapers, cut branches and flowers, linens, dishes—you name it—can all conspire to celebrate plant life in your home. Tucked with décor and crafting tips, this book will help you get the most impact from your green passion and grow the garden aesthetic throughout your home.

Botanical Art from the Golden Age of Scientific Discovery
By Anna Laurent
Published by The University of Chicago Press, 2016

Here lays a book that combines scientific rigor with artistic expression. Explore the interior world of amaryllis, cucumbers, pines, and a host of other vegetal, floral, and arboreal specimens in the studies by 19th- and 20th-century scientists. The colorful and precise paintings and sketches embody a collection of European and American botanical studies. Educational as well as lovely to ponder, this is a book that begs to be left open on the coffee table.

Illustrated by Katie Scott, Written by Kathy Willis
Published by The Templar Company, 2016

Delve into the magical world of botanical illustrations paired with fascinating overviews of the major plant genera. Learn something, while delighting in the colorful modern illustrations, about the history of plant life starting with algae and fungi and branching up through the current grains, flowers, succulents, and aquatic plants. Perfect for the budding horticultural enthusiast with discerning visual sensibilities, it would be very tempting to remove the pages of this oversized book and hang them on the wall. This lovely book will be available in March of 2017.

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January 11, 2017

The Cure for Nature Deficit Disorder


Too often we think of nature as something we have to seek out, a remote place far from the city limits. But nature is, in fact, much closer than we realize. Check out these recently published titles that encourage us to pause for a moment and recognize the natural world that is truly teeming all around us, even in our most urban spaces. And by doing so, perhaps we’ll all realize that ecology is not just the domain of scientists but something we can all practice and enjoy.

• Cratfing with Nature: Grow or Gather Your Own Supplies for Simple Handmade Crafts, Gifts & Recipes (Page Street Publishing, $21.99) by Amy Renea: This impressive compilation of DIY crafts, recipes, and gifts made with natural materials you can grow or gather yourself will take you on a journey to collect plants from the woods, the backyard, the garden, and even the pantry. Renea provides detailed tutorials and recipes for projects like making perfume, crafting wooden buttons, preparing natural dyes for easy paper flowers, canning your own fruit jam, handcrafting wreaths, using seedpods to make earrings, and even making your own coconut oil for lotions and hand scrubs.

• Hello Nature: Draw, Colour, Make and Grow (Laurence King Publishing, $17.95) by Nina Chakrabarti: Like her previous books, Hello Nature is a cleverly guided activity book that encourages users to observe the patterns and designs found in nature. Part scrapbook and part journal, the book invites readers to experience the seasons through art and on the page. Users are asked to color or finish off an illustration, or to design something entirely new. The book includes educational close-ups of the rings of a tree and the anatomy of a flower. Gratifying activities include making a daisy chain, an herbarium, twig sculptures, and growing sprout heads.

• The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling (Heyday Books, $35) written and illustrated by John Muir Laws: A potent combination of art, science, and boundless enthusiasm, this latest book from Laws (The Washington Post calls him “a modern Audubon”) is a how-to guide for becoming a better artist and a more attentive naturalist. While the books advice will improve the skills of already accomplished artists, the emphasis on seeing, learning, and feeling will make this book valuable to anyone interested in the natural world, no matter how rudimentary their artistic abilities.

• Cabinet of Curiosities: Collecting and Understanding the Wonders of the Natural World (Workman, $24.95) by Gordon Grice: This lavishly illustrated introduction to the natural history and the joys of being an amateur scientist and collector seems especially suited for educators as well as young people who need to unplug and get outside. It’s packed with fascinating facts and tips on identifying, finding, and preserving nature’s treasures, from flowers and butterflies to fossil fish and space rocks. More than that, it explains the workings of the natural world.

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December 16, 2016

My Holiday Cactus


My holiday cacti never bloom when I want them to. Mind you, I’ve tried to coordinate when I bring them indoors from their summer vacation on a ledge of my front porch, but I’m always a bit late and the cooler evening temperatures of late August and September—as well as the shortening days—trigger my holiday cacti into flower bud much earlier than I want them to. I usually have Christmas cactus in bloom in time for Halloween. That’s why I don’t call them Christmas cactus anymore: they bloom anytime between the holidays of Thanksgiving and Easter.

Despite its name, the Christmas cactus is not a desert plant. Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) and Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) are popular, fall- and winter-flowering houseplants native to the tropical rainforests of South America, and are available in a wide variety of colors including red, rose, purple, lavender, peach, orange, cream, and white. These Schlumbergera species grow as epiphytes among tree branches in shady rain forests. That’s part of my collection in the photo. Many of these were started from cuttings I took from Martha Stewart’s personal collection of tropical cacti in the greenhouse at her former home in Connecticut (I was working on one of her books and her former gardener, Andrew Beckman, gave me permission) more than 25 years ago. So you know these are long-lived plants.

So how do you ensure they bloom for Christmas? In fall, night temperatures around 50–55 degrees will trigger Christmas cactus to form flower buds, so get them in the house before then. Next, six to eight weeks before Christmas, place the plant in a dark space with a temperature around 60 degrees for 12 hours each day. Water only when the top inch or so of the soil is dry to the touch. You should get flowers right on time for the holiday. 

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November 16, 2016

Red is Just the Beginning


Crimson may say Christmas, but a coral or yellow—or even a green poinsettia—looks fresh all through New Year’s.

Poinsettias now come in colors ranging from creamy white to pink, yellow, orange, and—of course—the classic red. This is Euphorbia ‘Envy’ from our friends at Dümmen Orange, growers of more than 60 million poinsettias each year. ‘Envy’ is a truly unique poinsettia (after all, it’s the first chartreuse poinsettia on the market) with lime-green bracts that immediately caught my eye.

To keep them looking good, give poinsettias a sunny, south-facing windowsill or bright filtered light. Don't press them close to a cold windowpane because this can damage the leaves. Keep them at about 68 degrees F during the day, and cooler at night, to prolong your holiday display. Water regularly.

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October 21, 2016

Luther Burbank: Boy Wizard


Luther Burbank (1849-1926) was one of America's most famous and prolific horticulturists, developing some 800 new varieties of plants including the Shasta daisy and Burbank potato, a form of which, the Russet Burbank, is now the world's most widely grown potato,” writes my friend Scott Kunst in the recent edition of his online newsletter for Old House Gardens. “Burbank was also very interested in education, and I think any nature-lover will appreciate—and long for—the kind of education he describes here: ‘Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pinecones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets; and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.’”

Which got me thinking about a series of books I especially loved as a child called The Childhood of Famous Americans (The Bobbs-Merrill Company). I worked my way through all of the orange-covered editions in the children’s section of our Carnegie Library in Carmel, Indiana. Today I pick them up whenever I find them at yard sales and used bookstores and I’ve gathered a nice-sized collection, including Florence Nightingale, Kit Carson, Paul Revere, and, of course, Luther Burbank.

Here’s a snippet from Luther Burbank: Boy Wizard by Olive W. Burt (1948):
“It was a summer afternoon in the summer of 1856. The Burbank children and their friends were playing hide-and-seek around the old Burbank house. But Luther was playing another kind of hide-and-seek. His playmates were not boys and girls but honeybees! As he crouched in the deep clover of the meadow, hidden from the other children, he noticed something he never had before. A big fat honeybee came zooming over the wall, stopped on a blossom and pushed its hairy body deep into the cup of the flower. Luther watched it fly a little way to light on another clover blossom. The greedy bee flew right over the daisies and the beautiful red roses. Luther could not understand. At dinner that night his cousin Levi told him how bees pollenize just one kind of flower at a time. And Luther had his first experience with a mystery of nature. From that time on he was forever watching the flowers and soil and insects for other mysteries and getting new ideas for better plants and easier ways to make things grow.”

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