I Get My Kicks Finding Bricks

crabapple-2 Apple BlossomsI needed bricks for the Marian rose garden, and for a bird bath feature. I didn’t need a skid and to buy them each, new, well that seemed a bit expensive and silly. What with all the buildings being torn down in town I thought I could find some used, but no such luck there either. A friend’s sister owns a brick business, but she too wanted a buck-a-brick, or there about.

After nearly a month I gave up the hunt, decided instead to buy a couple bags of cement and, having colorant and steppingstone kits in the basement, would make my own. The bricks wouldn’t look as rustic and artsy, though the cost would be pennies a piece. The project would take until mid-summer to complete. I had hoped to finish the Marian garden by Mother’s Day.

Mornings are reserved for scripture, the Divine Office, and intercessory prayers and rosary. I’d finished my two cups of coffee with Christ and as I blew out the candle, looked to the Divine Mercy image and half-heartedly asked “Can you send me some bricks please? They’re for your mom.”

And I heard (well not physically heard, but you know…knew) the words, “Go dig.”

“What? Dig what? Where?” I waited. No response….

I made my breakfast and headed to the back porch. It was mid morning and the birds were singing a congregational worship in the old apple tree. A lot of birds. Twenty some years ago, when I first moved into this house, I removed a stationary glider from under its limbs because of them.

While eating breakfast I looked to the back of the yard. The two-tier wall of bricks behind the shed supported the Annabel hydrangeas. I thought of pulling down one tier for the new garden, and knew that that really wasn’t an option.

I took my dishes to the kitchen. From behind the door picked up the shed key and headed outside to do a bit more work in the future garden. Putting the gloves, basket, and spade into the wagon I planned to plant a rose bush or two.

“Go dig.”

There, again those words. I answered back, “I AM going to dig!”

I took a deep breath and stared at the stand of fiddle head ferns breaking ground under the apple tree. The birds were still boisterously rejoicing in the morning light.

Seriously…buried just below the surface, this is what I found:

bricks 1

Bricks 2








The soil was soft from the rains and the ferns had grown under and between the bricks so they were easily plucked like potatoes. I haven’t counted yet but I think there will be enough.


(Apple blossom image by pippalou, morguefile.com. All other images by Margaret Rose Realy, OBL. OSB. All rights reserved.)


Mother of Roses

Image by vdaiga, morguefile.com.

Image by vdaiga, morguefile.com.

I’ve never been much for growing roses. My gardens had always been more cottage style with plants growing close together in a riot of color, texture, and form. Roses simply didn’t work in my design. Besides, there were all those thorns to contend with, and I hate getting pricked in the garden (you may have read about that annoyance in Cultivating God’s Garden through Lent).

It’s no secret that with an arthritic spine my gardening days had come to an end. I retired from coordinating the St. Francis Retreat Center Garden Society after ten-plus years working the grounds. Over the past two summers my gardens of twenty-five years were dug out by friends. Those days of kneeling on soil were over—or so I thought.

You, readers of my new book, A Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac, want pictures of my gardens. Reasonable it would seem; a garden writer with pretty gardens. Even the publisher asked.

With a yard now mostly lawn, a small shade garden in the north-west corner, and the tiniest of vegetable patches, I figured to meet your requests I would need to learn how to garden with limited abilities. I’m not going all horticultural therapy here; I’ll leave that to the professionals. I’ll be writing on and off about the techniques learned (and learning) on keeping gardening tasks simple.

My first endeavor will be a Marian rose garden that incorporates the representative colors of each mystery of the rosary. This will be a full installation, from sod to trellis and mulch, shared each step of the way. So we begin again…

Roses need lots of air movement, food, sunlight, and water. Tea roses can be tough to grow in northern climates—I’m in mid-Michigan—unless they’re Week’s Roses. These cultivars are designed to take the cold. Having worked as a grower, they were my and the customers’ favorites.

In a Marian garden themed on the rosary there are four traditional colors (newer interpretations are in the book). They are Joyful Mysteries: white, Sorrowful Mysteries: red, Glorious Mysteries: yellow and Luminous Mysteries: purple.

Yep, that's Gary Beck!

Yep, that’s Gary Beck!

Usually I recommend establishing your garden space first and then purchasing plants. Because the roses I want are specific, its spring, and Mother’s Day is just around the corner I’ll purchase them while the selection is still good. A favorite greenhouse, Beck’s Flowers in Jackson, MI (I worked there for several years) carries the brand I want.

When selecting a rose bush look for multiple sturdy stems branching from the graft, shiny leaves—depending on cultivars they can be bright green to red new growth, and of course free of disease and pests.Rose Graft

The roses I chose, besides being hardy and fragrant, were to have some symbolism with their name. The ones selected were:

White: Full Sail, hybrid tea. Mother Mary is also called The Star of the Sea, Stella Maris, and guides seafaring people—and aren’t we all—to Jesus. The Church is the ship of Christianity, from Latin, navis, and the central gathering place in a church is called the nave.

Red: Lasting Love, hybrid tea. Yeah, well this seems fairly obvious.

Yellow: Gold Medal, grandiflora. The Ark of the Covenant was pure gold, and holy. Mary was the Ark of the New Covenant, and she too was pure and holy. And then there are the Bible verses about running the race and earning the prize, so double win here!

Purple: Intrigue, floribunda. The luminous mysteries arouse our interest in the enlightening events of the Jesus’ life.

The spacing for roses depends on the type: tea, grandiflora, floribunda, shrub, miniature, groundcover or climbers. With the selections I’ve made, each bush will need a five foot span. With four rose bushes being planted, that’s a sizeable bed!

With the potted roses lined on the north side of the fence, to prevent scorching their tender greenhouse-grown leaves until hardened off, I mark off the area for Mother Mary’s new garden. Standing on the drive looking at the size of the space needed I am overwhelmed. Part of me does not want to reawaken what was loved and laid to rest—a life of working among gardens. I doubt my ability, stamina, and strength. I want to take the roses back.

I look to the small statue of Mother Mary at the back of the yard, and whisper “Hail Mary” and know she is near—she always is when we call. I tell her my heart’s still in it, though my spine is not. While waiting for peace to return, I realized that that was exactly what I needed to do—wait.

The first lesson in gardening with limitations: allow time between tasks. There is only so much energy and strength for many of us with physical or mental limitations. So, with the roses bought and hose laid out to mark the bed, I leave the backyard and head inside for tea and prayer.

St. Benedict writes in the Rule that always we begin again. And so I will, tomorrow.

The next post, preparing to dig! I must be out of my mind…

rose hose

Do I Dare Speak of Fall Mums in Spring? Practical Gardening

Shutterstock mums resizedWriting about hardy mums in the spring may seem like an oxymoron. Let me explain.

For years I’d listened to homeowners say what bad luck they had growing perennial chrysanthemums. They’d plant the big showy mums every fall and rarely found that they survived the winter and grew the following year. Tired of failing, they’d stopped planting them or only bought a couple of plants to toss into containers for fall interest.

The issue of not being hardy has to do with timing and the roots.

When you buy a fully developed mum in the fall, it has grown in its pot in a greenhouse for most of the summer. When removing the plant from the pot you can see the massive tangles of roots that developed. Attempting to tease them apart before planting, in this case, does little to establish the plant. Your big cushion mum takes up water to make it through the fall but lacks the time necessary to set new roots deep enough to survive our Zone 5 winters. The chances of these mums returning the following spring is less than 30%.

Yes, I know some of you have had luck over-wintering these potted mums; you are the 30%. The other 70% of us are left with a stalk attached to a nicely compacted and thoroughly dead root mass.

The point here is when to plant mums. The hardy mums you see sold in the spring are the same cultivars you will buy, fully grown in the autumn. They are the plugs used to pot-up for the big containers of cushion mums in September.

Hardy mum cultivars for Zone 5 are root pernicious through our winters, unlike florist mums that are a perennial only in the southern regions of the country.

To grow hardy mums that return every year, pick an appropriate well-drained and sunny site and plant them now. Many hardy cultivars are available at local greenhouses, and a few mass merchandisers may carry them as well. By planting hardy mums in May the root system will have sufficient time to become established before winter.

Just before you plant your mum, remove the top one-third of the central stem and pinch-off tips to remove all buds and flowers. Mums are terminal bloomers, which mean they bloom on the tips of new growth. By pinching the tips the plant sends out side branches, leading to more tips for flowers in the autumn.

A rule of thumb for when to pinch back established mums is based on our holidays: pinch them back by half on Memorial Day, and again on the 4th of July. After the second pinching let the mums develop their buds.

Bud development is based on photoperiodism, meaning the length of the period of light and night. Mums growing in the garden flower as the days become shorter. This is why we see them in late summer and autumn.

As the years go by and your mums return each spring and spread, remember to keep them pinched back. With larger masses of mums I often use hand held hedge clippers to quickly cut them in half.

By following these simple rules in spring, you’ll have a beautiful colorful display of cushion mums as summer comes to a close.

And so now I think I’ve redeemed myself from having spoken of autumn when spring has only begun.

For more by Margaret, visit catholicmom.com.

(Image by kiya-nochka, shutterstock.com.)

Eat Your Yard! Practical Gardening and Edible Landscape Solutions

shutterstock_214081222 chive flowersFresh produce from the garden is one of the simplest delights of summer. What’s not to like about plucking off and biting into a tomato, cucumber, or sugar snap peas still warm from the sun.

Many of us do not have a yard large enough for a vegetable patch or time to volunteer at a community garden, but we still want home grown foods — and maybe more than enough to share. There is a solution to growing your own veggies in a way that works with your small yard and requires only a little additional time from a busy schedule — edible landscaping.

This concept has been around for decades and is a common gardening practice in Europe where personal yard space is very limited. Here is how you can do the same thing in a manner sensitive to the landscape you already have. Substitute vegetable plants for annual flowers.

Let’s start with some basic rules:

  • Using any products for pest and disease control must be compatible with food consumption, with organic methods being preferred.
  • Locate vegetable plants so that pets cannot taint or damage them.
  • Do not plant edibles near treated lumber such as decks or retaining walls. Leaching of preservative chemicals from the lumber contaminates food.
  • Locate plants where they will receive good air movement and at least six hours of direct sunlight on their leaves.

Tomatoes are the number one home grown vegetable. Use disease resistant varieties rather than heirlooms in a mixed bed. Sweet 100’s are indeterminate (bearing fruit all season) and are excellent for trailing. Varieties bearing smaller fruit of 10 oz. or less, that are determinate (producing all at once) can be added singly throughout the landscape and usually do not need additional support. To prevent having a big empty spot in your landscape, avoid planting tomatoes in groups; they die out in late summer when blights are prominent.

A sturdy trellis that grew annual flowering vines can be used for growing edibles. Cucumbers can grow on a trellis, or allowed to cascade over a wall. Green beans that vine can also be grown on a vertical support. With green beans, plant them in succession, reseeding every two weeks, to enjoy them throughout the summer.

For dramatic leaves grow Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’, beets, rhubarb, summer squashes, or cardoon. Lettuces and kale are also good for adding texture to the landscape. Flowering kale is pretty  but not very tasty — really, its just ornamental. Choose instead Winterbor or Redbor kale, Russian varieties such as blue-curled Vates, or heirloom Italian variety Lacinato. I personally love the flavor and diversity of eggplant in recipes. It is also very handsome in the landscape when planted with smaller textured flowers or herbs.

Herbs are wonderful for adding interest. Herbs do best in a hotter location with well drained soil, and require very little fertilization. Dill with its long stalks of delicate narrow leaves attracts pollinators when in flower. Big leaf basil is a favorite of many gardeners, so plant several of them to have enough for pesto or just a few for seasoning or adding to soups. I love cilantro but it dies out quickly so I usually replant seeds every other week. My favorite herb in the edible landscape is parsley because of its lovely curly leaves and mounded form, and because I eat a lot of tabouli! Don’t forget the chives but be sure to remove spent flowers before they go to seed.

If you do not have a yard, growing vegetables in larger containers works well. Don’t limit yourself to plopping one tomato plant in the center. Add herbs around the edges, or grow uprights in the middle and Sweet 100 tomatoes cascading over the side. An excellent book The Bountiful Container offers a lot of really good information on this type of gardening.

With a little planning and a minimal amount of additional time, your landscape can become a source for fresh healthy and possibly organic food.

(Image “Chives and Dew” by  Jitka Volfova, shutterstock .com)


Jump Start Your Garden by Direct Seeding, Practical Gardening

shutterstock_138850070 Planting SeedsMost of us want our gardens to come back to life as soon as the snow is melted. Once the soil is thawed, you may be tempted to buy plants and get them in the ground, but resist the urge. For those of us in USDA Zone 5, we can still anticipate a hard frost, or freeze, until mid-May.

Another option to consider for your garden is direct seeding cold-hardy vegetables, herbs, annuals, and perennials. Many of these plants will do much better when the air and soil temperatures are cooler. And the costs of seeds are a lot less than flats of plants if you are on a tight budget.

Make sure your garden is not too wet to be worked. If you pick up a clump of soil and squeeze it and find it remains in a tight ball, or water drips out, it is too wet to be worked, so wait awhile. The soil is best worked when the clump of soil falls slightly apart after it is squeezed. Working a garden that is too wet will compact the soil and damage roots of existing plants.

As you prepare to plant, work in compost or peat moss. Lightly fertilize the soil where you plan to grow annuals and vegetables.

Direct seeding is easy. My technique is to scratch up a patch of soil to the depth as indicated on the seed packet, and sprinkle the seeds over top. I then take a handful of the soil and sprinkle this over the seeds and water lightly. To water lightly, use a misting head or fine sprinkler on the end of your hose. A spray bottle works well for small areas. I have found that a watering can with a sprinkling head often pours too harshly and the soil washes off, exposing the seeds.

If you want to plant in rows, make a shallow straight trench to the depth indicated on the seed packet—pile the soil to one side of the trench. Space the seeds as directed, and then push the piled soil over the seeds. Again, water lightly.

For seeds planted less than an inch deep, do not pat down the soil, as some gardeners do, I prefer to let the water settle the soil against the seeds instead.

Vegetables to plant by mid-April would include potatoes, onions, and garlic. You can now seed peas, plants in the cabbage family, Swiss chard, spinach, carrots, lettuce and arugula, radishes, beets, turnips and rutabaga.

It is also the time to direct seed perennial herbs such as chives, oregano, and sage.

Though still too early to plant for Zone 5, come May you can direct seed annual herbs parsley and dill. The annuals that can be direct seeded are snap dragons, petunias, calendula (some consider this an herb), stock, sunflowers and alyssum.

When it comes to perennial seeds, there are a lot to choose from. Some of the easiest to direct seed are blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, forget-me-nots (careful, these can become weedy), lupine, columbine, tickseed, coneflowers, and candytuft.

If you are someone who uses weed-inhibiting chemicals, such as Preen, remember that this product prevents any seed from taking root—including those you want to grow. Be sure to wait until after your seedlings have become well-rooted and sturdy-stemmed to spread the weed inhibitor.

It won’t be long until you see the seedlings pushing through the soil to become part of the joy you find in the garden.

(Image: Gardening – Pea Seeds by Space Monkey Pics, at shutterstock.com.)