Echinacea and summer grasses

Locally, as in many parts of the United States, we have been experiencing very dry weather. I have been gardening for 18 years and my experience has been that this happens nearly every year. In the days before many of my gardens had irrigation systems, there was very little gardening that could be done in August.

Here at MacKenzie-Childs we are very fortunate to have an extensive system that, when all is working well, keeps the lawns and gardens well supplied with water. We have a pond that serves as the reservoir for water we draw up from the lake. From the pond, a system of pipes and sprinklers distribute the water to most areas around the estate.

A Storm is Coming

From my perspective, it seems like these sprinklers were mainly designed to ensure the grass stayed green, not to water the gardens completely. In the summer, an important part of our workload is to water the spots that were inadequately watered by the irrigation system. This means hauling hoses, setting cell phone timers to move systems, and trying to avoid watering the visitors. The rest on our time is spent removing the weeds that grew so well because they got watered. However, all of the hoses and irrigation systems in the world cannot replicate a good soaking rain.

Rain across the lake

It is always a relief when September comes in with the promise of shorter, cooler, and wetter days. Last weekend was our first taste of the lovely, soul renewing autumn days to come. Ellie, one of my garden helpers and photographer extraordinaire, shot some pictures of the rain as it approached.

Rain, almost here

Libby got dressed up MacKenzie-Childs fashion, Annick could not be bothered

Last fall, I made the decision to shoot for a later lambing season than we had in 2011. Additionally, I felt since our lamb opperation is more about cuteness than production, I really only wanted to have Libby and Annick have lambs this year. Our 2011 lamb ewes, technically, could have had lambs but I thought it wise to give them another year’s growth before motherhood. Small ewes are more likely to have problems at lambing. With that in mind and only one space housing all my sheep, I send Libby and Annick off to the farm we bought them from for a “date”. 

My calculations gave me May 9th for earliest likely lambing date. May 11th Annick gave birth to two ram lambs.

Annick and the boys, Cedric and Cè

Libby, remember, the Drama Queen, made sure she got her share of attention by having her ram and ewe lamb on Mother’s Day. So BAM! we got it over with. Now we just get to enjoy the lamb races.




Corinne (someone campaigned heavily to have a lamb named after her...) doesn't she look kind of like a Honey Badger?


Corinne and Cosmos share a sibling moment The essential "scale photo"


We knew Corinne would be the athletic one

 Simon seems to feel like day old bread (it is all in her very little brain)



And Lucky is intrigued






We had some lovely rain last week; it gave us some time to get out there and take pictures before all the bulbs were finished blooming. Enjoy the slideshow by clicking on the image to move through the pictures. Check back later this week for lambing news and pictures!

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Spring always comes early in the greenhouse. Here a selection of our perennial plants await transplanting into larger pots before getting planted in the gardens.

Such strange weather we have had this year. I kept waiting and waiting for winter; it never really came. Last week we had  70° and even 80° (!) days, in March, when the ground is normally still frozen. Corinne, Ellie, and I are working in flower beds, pulling weeds and flufing compost, in March. Doug has been busy raking up winter debris, worrying about grass seed, and, this week, mowed the lawn, in March. We have to choose between planting up perennials and vegetative annuals and working outside, in March. We sheared the sheep last Monday and I was relieved they would have their heavy fleeces off before it got too hot later in the week; they were panting Sunday, panting, in March. This never happens.

The sheep look like they are HUGE. We were calling them hooved dustmops.

 Here is another picture of the sheep before shearing.

Really, they look like people in those big puffy coats. Warm, yes, but they do nothing for your figure...

This is a post shearing shot…

Post shearing the girls are positively svelte, if only I could shed my winter pounds with a hair cut!


Okay, my rant is over. On the blog this year, I plan to offer a listing of what is in bloom and what plants might be of particular interest each week. I had not thought to start that feature so soon, or at least, not thought my list would be so extensive this early. There are a few plants that are doing their usual thing, at their usual time, but I am seeing many blooms and buds a month to 6 weeks earlier than normal. By the end of last week I had at least half a dozen of the variety specific clumps of Narcissi blooming and many more of the unknown, to me at least, varieties blooming in the White Garden, where I used a mix. Early tulips have even begun to bloom.

One of my honey bees hones in on the pollen and nectar from a blue squill

So, of course, the Galanthus nivalis (Snow Drops) bloomed on time and first. Over the past week the Scilla siberica (Blue Sqill) has hurried up to be the next to bloom after the snowdrops. Instead of blooming in April and being welcomed by all as the first bright blooms after snowdrops, they have had to compete against narcissi and cherry blooms.

Hellaborus 'Ivory Prince' is one of my favorites. We normally would see them blooming this early, but not so many flowers out at once.

The wonderful Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’ (Lenten Rose) has really come out this past week. In a normal year, I would expect a few blooms this early but it is in full swing. Through working with the plant for 4 years now I have come up with reliable cultivation practices that have resulted in strong stands of these lovely plants. Helleborus is one of the few plants I do not cut back in the fall. I have found that they survive the winter much better if their foliage is left in tact. Technically, helleborus is considered an evergreen plant but I have found that here in zone 5- 6, evergreen perennials usually look pretty ratty by the time even December is through. When the hellebores start to bloom in March and April, last season’s leaves are very tattered and brown. I trim them off and they are soon replaced by new, glossy leaves. Both the blooms and leaves are great additions to arrangements and effective in the garden for many months.

Helleborus 'Cherry Blossom' another lovely hellebore, not as vigorous as 'Ivory Prince'.

In years past the earliest narcissi blooms occurred in early April, my earliest being the 12th. This year I have great swaths of February Gold blooming in the entry groves and the earliest yellows are open in the White Border, Long Border, and Shop Entry Gardens. One of the most surprising blooms is that of the Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnallis ‘ (Autumn blooming Cherry). The cherries came fully into bloom by the end of last week. They are still beautiful this week; unlike the lovely Magnolia trees that went from glorious blooms to sad brown trees in the span of 12 hours when the weather changed from 60° to 20° this past Monday. Cherries are used to a bit of cold weather.

This is a shot of the Narcissi 'February Gold' we planted by the front entry Fall 2010

 The White Garden looks as full of blooms as it usually is in late April.

This is an image that we normally see a month later than now. Thousands of bulbs begin blooming in the White Border.

The Cherry Blossums are welcome food for our bees. 

All of the cherries, including our Prunus subhirtella 'Autumnallis' are in bloom in our area

So, we are very busy doing all the work of April AND March. As I work in the gardens, it is very tempting to start bringing plants out of the greenhouse and just planting them straight into the ground, skipping the whole process of potting them up into gallon pots. I have some lovely violas and pansies that would perform just wonderfully if I knew the days would be above 45° and the nights no colder than 30°. But it is March; I am telling myself we have two full months before our last frost free date and at least 4 weeks before the cold hardy plants are usually safe to set out. We usually still get 20° nights into April. Farmers and Gardeners, they can never be happy with today- they always fret about tomorrow.

A very sweet viola called 'Etain'

This week’s plants of note: Narcissi cyclemineus ‘February Gold’, N.  cyclemineus ‘Itzim’, N. cyclemineus ‘Tracy’ ,N. ‘Pink Charm’, N ‘Professor Einstein’, Tulipa humilis violacea, Helleborus ‘Ivory Prince’, Scilla siberica, and Prunus subhirtella ‘Auntumnallis’.


Stop the presses- Simon has laid an egg. Faithful blog readers will remember that we discovered with 99% surety that Simon was a girl. Now we have proof positive. This morning Corinne and I discovered Simon’s lovely first egg in the nest box we had constructed for her pen.



While I do not expect that Corinne will start calling her Simone or Simonetta, maybe now she will start calling Simon she.


Simon has a nice pool in the greenhouse


It’s Valentine’s Day; it seemed entirely appropriate to reveal to the world that Simon has a boyfriend. 

On nicer days Simon accompanies us when we visit the sheep. She hangs out on the sheep side of the fence while we scratch Aiden and all his girlfriends in the places they like to be scratched. Simon generally ignores the noisy geese on the other side of the fence and they tend to ignore her.

Simon with Randall in the background

The last week we have noticed that one of the geese hangs out separate from the rest of the flock when Simon is in with the sheep. We have named him Randall. Randall and Simon have been conducting a coy courtship through the fence under the watchful eyes of her chaperones.

Since today was Valentine’s Day- Ellie let Simon spend a little time on the same side of the fence with Randall. Simon and Randall conversed until Corinne swooped in like an over zealous middle school hall monitor. Everyone was placed on the right side of the fence and Corinne’s world was back in order.


Simon now checks her look before she goes out

Lovely Honey from our hives as we bottled it this past fall

The unnaturally warm weather earlier this week gave Kirk and me a chance to check our hives. So far the news is pretty good. We lost one hive but the other was roiling with activity. I am thinking of it as “we are batting 500” which is really, really good (yes, I had to look it up- I am a gardener, not a sports person).

I was not surprised that the West hive failed; I do not think it was the result of Colony Collapse Disorder but rather new beekeeper disorder. I am in the process of researching what may have gone wrong only in so much that I want to rule out mysterious factors beyond our control. We had done a lot of semi-advanced things in the hive that died- at least advanced from a first year beekeeper standpoint- and I suspect that our timing and execution may have been off. My belief is that our actions lead to the demise of our West hive, not extraordinary events.

So, this makes me sad because I lost Sofia, my beloved Italian Queen. But heading into the beginning of the beekeeping season with one year and the exciting things we did under our belts, makes me very excited for the coming season.

Sofia is the bee with the white dot. RIP

Firstly, I am going to order two nucs or packaged bees right away. We have the hive equipment for complete hives so I will have space should the remaining hive live through to spring. Oh, and don’t think that I am kidding myself in thinking the  East hive will make it. Anything could happen between now and May; for now they are eating the pollen/sugar patties I am feeding them and their numbers are significant enough to make a bit of noise on a warm winter day. Because there is still a lot of winter left, I am ordering two lots of bees to ensure I have enough; the suppliers do tend to sell out early.

Holding a frame of bees. This picture was taken in May-

I find myself shifting my plant choices to favor bee friendly plants. I am selecting some plants to fill gap times when the bees may experience a pollen/nectar dearth. I have targeted a field adjacent to the bee hives as a native wildflower area. There has long been the desire to create a wildflower field here at MacKenzie-Childs. Gardeners before me have given it a shot. One of the problems in setting out to make a flowering meadow is that the plants are essentially weeds; albeit desirable weeds (which flies in the face of my Plant Sc. 350 Professor’s definition of a weed). To get the right weed established, you need to kill off the other weeds. The best practices to doing thus create a bit of an eyesore for a season and no one has had the courage to take on that particular task in the front of our property. We do, however, have a 1/5 to ¼ acre area in the greenhouse field that we keep mowed with the lawn mower. I will be frost seeding this plot with butterfly and bee friendly natives this late winter.

Chrysanthemum 'Samba' doesn't start blooming until mid October

I think the wildflower meadow will be the final piece necessary to round out our offering to the bees. We have a good selection of flowering trees, I have thousands of spring bulbs, the bees have herbs and lavender less than 100 feet away, many of the flowers I feature in our gardens are great bee food, and I have huge numbers of late blooming chrysanthemums. The only hole I felt I had was late August, when the asters and goldenrod are primary pollen/nectar sources. This wildflower yard will bridge that gap.

So I am off to order my bees, scatter my seeds, and read more about beekeeping!

This picture of Lantana bandana pink was taken by one of our visitors. This annual will be included in the white form this year.

In 2012 I will continue to refine my designs in some of the larger gardens at MacKenzie-Childs. A gardener will tell you that a plan is never finished; a living garden continues to grow and evolve as the gardener becomes enchanted with new plants, falls out of love with other plants, finds that a plant she chose is not as well suited as she thought, or that the growth habit is just different than she thought it would be. I feel pity for the gardener who labors in a prescribed design and who does not have the freedom to change things up. I am most fortunate that I can make changes and experiment; every moment I am in the garden I am assessing the design and working through what changes I might like to make next season.

My work schedule is almost perfectly attuned to the calendar year. Everything quiets down dramatically after the first of the year giving me time to research, write, and plan. I have been reading production garden books by Elliot Coleman, a four season garden pioneer in Maine, and books by Cabot, Griswold, Thompson, Eck and Winterrowd, all regarding landscaping from an estate approach rather than garden by garden. For a historic and American bit of inspiration I am enjoying Andrea Wulf’s “Founding Gardeners”; this book has me coveting and dreaming of a garden that will feature native plants and trees.

The Production Garden reminds me most of gardens at My Vernon and Monticello

For the plans I have for this year, I look at each garden individually and as it relates to the whole property. I am, for the most part, pleased with the Long Border. I feel the tall grasses, phlox, monarda, and delphiniums that provide the foundation,compliment the tall lilies beautifully. I was very pleased with the geraniums and nepeta filling out the front. I have a few holes that will give me space for dahlias, echinacea , and digitalis. I need to replant alcea as I have edited out too many seedlings. Additionally, when I first planted hollyhocks my supplier only offered singles in black; since then breeders have developed the single flowers I prefer in more colors.

Monarda 'Raspberry Wine' is a big part of our summer display in the Long Border

The Grass Border should be fairly carefree in this, its second, year. I will add more sedum since the bareroot I planted last year did not get pampered enough to make it want to live. We planted it late and neglected it in favor of greater emergencies so I cannot blame it. Likely I and the bees were the only ones who really missed it.

The graceful cascade of Pennisetum 'Karley Rose' is a perfect foil for Salvia 'Black and Blue' with a haze of Perovskia in the background

I am pleased that we continue to fill the holes in the White Garden. This garden along the streambed is so immense that I have to fill it in bit by bit. We simply run out of growing space in our greenhouse and cold frames. Even if I could grow everything, I do not have enough help to get it planted all at once so the White Garden gets expanded and filled in each year. Our plans this year include acanthus, more daisies, and more white lilies.

Chrysanthemums and Miscanthus in the White Garden

The Bog Garden was successful beyond my hopes. By filtering the water entering the pond through the bog, we were able to keep the pond much freer of algae blooms. I will continue to expand the iris planted along the edge and hope for better water lily performance. The bog will be replanted with colocasia; I love their huge, tropical leaves.

Planting Water lilies

My next post will concentrate on the changes I plan to bring to the Farmhouse Garden, some exciting possibilities we are exploring for the Courtly Check Courtyard, and the wildflower meadow I am planning for my bees!


Looking into the archway, a picture taken by Fred Bertram

Plans or resolutions, I have great intentions for 2012. Last year went by at such a breakneck pace; it felt like we were at a dead run much of the time. In 2011 we tried out so many new things that it seamed like we were constantly climbing the learning curve. I am really looking forward to refining and expanding what we started last year.

Simon as a gosling

Simon as a gosling

Our most noted and, dare I say, famous change was the adoption of Simon. I gave very little thought to the long term ramifications of scooping Simon out of the garden (she was on the wrong side of the fence) and taking her into my office saying, “It can just live with us in the Estate Barn”. She has gone on to become the Estate mascot. The darling of staff and visitors, she follows the crew everywhere, has her own pool, is a must see for all dignitaries, and had so many pictures taken of her that we gave her a facebook page. She now has more friends than I do! I have heard rumors of an ornament in the plans.

Simon got a pool and friends for Christmas

In addition to Simon, we had several additions to the farm animal menagerie. Two of our cows, Molly (her daughter MacKenzie was in the Matthew VanFleet book, Moo, along with our rooster, Davide) and Nuala, had calves this spring. Our challenge this year will be befriending Caolinn and Robert the Bruce. They have been leading the wild life protected by their mothers, happy as part of the fold; our task this winter will be to halter train them and make them public friendly. We had our first lambing; novel for me since, as a girl who grew up around cows, I got to “assist” in my first lambing. We will not have more calves this year but  look forward to lambs from Libby and Annick. We are using a different ram this year so I am excited about having lambs in different colors.

Libby is wearing the bow- a plethora of browns

The production gardens will get a fence and three Flower Basket Garden Gates as I try my hand at espalier. I have long admired the cordoned and espaliered fruit trees at Mount Vernon; the stylized designs of our Espalier Collection, especially the Fireplace Screen, have me itching to expand my skills.

We will utilize the sweeps and herb squares to grow more flowers for cutting. In our continuing plan to feature fresh flowers in the shop and farmhouse, we are expanding to Fresh on Fridays. This will be an opportunity for visitors to pick up gorgeous bunches of flowers from our gardens for them to arrange at home.  I have begun perusing the plant catalogs for cutting flowers and plants not already in our gardens. High on my list are sunflowers and dahlias.

I will be planting more dahlias like this Nuit d'Ete for the cutting garden

I have plans to improve frequency and utility of the blog. This winter I will be creating a “What is Blooming Now” section of the blog that will highlight the primary blooms and features in the gardens each week. I will be able to expand on each plant, giving its garden location, cultivar name, and other horticultural details along with a picture of the plant in our gardens. This will be a long term, ongoing addition to the blog that will focus more on each plant. I am resolved to post more often; I know I enjoy blogs that update frequently.

Well, I had intended this post to be a summary and comprehensive plan for the coming year but I got carried away and have only scratched the surface. So, more to come…

And another shot of Simon, standing on the frozen pond


Libby shows off her winter coat and her Holiday bling

We have been using every day-lit, non rainy moment in the last six weeks to cut down gardens, plant bulbs, and most importantly, decorate for the winter holidays. As I mentioned previously, Corinne and Ellie worked four weeks putting lights in the deciduous trees in the Courtly Check Courtyard and in two trees in front of the archway. We also decorated a big evergreen tree in the entry circle. We have used LED lights in all the trees; the lower energy requirements of the LED strings allow us to connect many strings together without blowing fuses. Corinne and Ellie did a superb job- Ellie even came back after dark to take pictures.

Locust Trees in the Courtly Check Courtyard

The archway flanked by a Coffee Tree and Locust treeGarland wrapped lamp postsThe Farmhouse Porch

In addition to the LED lights on the trees we put incandescent lights in various locations throughout the Estate. This year we put fairy lights on the Concolor Fir trees by the front entrance, on the Frasier Fir trees beside the doors, under the archway, and outlining several structures on the grounds.

The Gazebo

The other important element in our holiday decorations is the use of evergreen wreath, garlands, medallions, and boughs. I purchase our wreaths from a nearby Amish woman. She and her family do a lovely job creating a multitude of mixed-green wreaths and hundreds of feet of garland.

The wreaths vary from 10 inches up to huge 48 inch wreaths that we hang on our barn doors. The wreaths and garlands are comprised of Douglas Fir, Frasier Fir, and white pine. As a special touch Ada adds multiflora rose hips; we decorate the wreaths with pine cones and bows.

The garlands are used to wrap the lamp posts, porch posts and around doorways. We intertwine fairy lights through the garlands.

Simon poses on the Farmhouse porch

We use about 200 pounds of evergreen boughs to fill in window boxes, around the fountain, and make arrangements for either side of the doors going into the shop and the farmhouse. I use a base of Douglas Fir, Frasier Fir, White Pine, and boxwood; to these greens I add Oregon Cedar, Salal, and seeded Eucalyptus.  I like to use crab apples and Mountain Ash berries from our property as accents in the arrangements.

I love the different textures each green brings to the evergreen arrangements


The Fountain in the Courtly Check Courtyard


Mountain Ash Berries

 The medallions we hang on the farmhouse, shop, tour center, and employee entrance doors are special decorations we created after visiting Cooperstown, NY and being inspired by the decorations supplied by the Clarke Foundation. Our special project manager created a frame which holds a Courtly Check tile and our signature thistle surrounded by boxwood. I pick gilded leaves, pomegranates, acorns, lady apples, and cones to adorn the greens. I especially enjoy creating the medallions; I like their unique beauty.

Medallions on the shop doors



The Farmhouse medallions use smaller tiles so we have left off the thistle

We hope your holiday preparations are as joyful as ours. I love this time of year with its cheery lights and fresh smells. Enjoy the pictures of our latest efforts.