Monday, April 30, 2012

Water Garden Visitors: The Mallards are Back

Katie (L) and Toughie (R) monitoring the ducks.
Earlier this month I awoke to raucous barking.  Steve had gotten up earlier than me and let the dogs out and now they were clearly unhappy.  I did a double take when I saw the reason why:  a male and female mallard were swimming in the water garden!

Last spring, they swam in our swimming pool, which kept the dogs running laps around it as they followed them from one end to the other.  The swimming pool is still covered, however, so they chose the next best thing.

Katie and Toughie watched the ducks intently, barking when they swam too close to the fish.  They did not understand that the ducks pose no threat to the fish.
Welcome back, ducks!  But I hope they don't spend a lot of time on our property.  Unfortunately, ducks defecating in the water have been known to be a source of high concentrations of e.coli that has shut down swimming areas in local ponds.  We don't want any bacterial issues in our pond or pool.

The ducks swim contentedly, ignoring the dogs.
I got too close with the camera and they took off.... 
... gracefully flying away.

We don't know for certain that these are the same ducks that visited last year but they are not at all shy around the dogs, barking or not.  They've been back twice to briefly swim laps in the pond.  Mostly we see them flying over the meadow and we can hear them honking.  We think they built their nest and reared their brood in the meadow last year, and suspect they are doing the same this spring as well.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Extreme Weather: Neither Rain nor Hail....

December, 2011
Spring arrived early after a mild winter and while I don't want to appear ungrateful for this marvelously mild and pleasant weather, the impact of this climatological aberrance is not insignificant.

We picked fresh herbs all winter - unheard of in New England, where our herbs (even perennials like mint) are usually dormant and buried under snow from November through February and often well into March and beyond.

In December, the lavender was still green and roses still had buds. This same week the previous year, we had a three day snowstorm that dumped over two feet of new snow on already over-sized snowbanks.

Ordinarily, March brings snow melt that nurtures the spring gardens and fills the ponds, rivers and streams.  But minimal snow and a cumulative rainfall that is a full 8 inches shy of the average amount we would ordinarily have received since January 1 is definitely a cause for concern. For the first time in recent memory, we had public advisories for an elevated fire risk of brush fires in March!

February 4, 2011
The average annual snowfall in our area is about 3.5 feet.

Last year we were snowed in under a total of nearly 9 feet while this year our total accumulation was a fraction of that at under a foot.

It's hard to believe that a year ago, we were digging out from mountains of snow that were higher than our car. 

This year, during that same week in February, the Peggy Martin rose was sprouting leaves and sending forth fresh green shoots and Sweet Autumn clematis wound its way among her canes.

We were harvesting fresh herbs, and rock cress was spreading along the fence near the woodland garden.

When does that happen in Massachusetts in February?

The lack of snow melt and precipitation has been of particular concern.  For weeks there have been warnings of an increased risk of brush fires.  We've watched the water levels of local rivers and creeks drop to unusually low levels.

But in a world where you need to be careful what you wish for, we were stunned when a prediction of rain showers turned into a major hail storm!  Barely an hour after the lettuce, pansies, and ranunculus were firmly tucked into the raised beds on the deck, the heavens opened up and hail pelted down.  The icy covering melted the same day, small comfort to the lettuce that curled up under the barrage.  This hail storm happened on April 12, 2012.

April 12, 2012:  The sky was overcast and showers were predicted.  Suddenly, hail was pelting the driveway, pavement, and flower beds.
We had just finished cleaning out the raised beds on the deck and setting in the ranunculus, pansies, and lettuce.
Before the hailstorm subsided, we had a half inch to an inch of ice covering everything.  Fortunately, it melted within a few hours. But most of the lettuce was a total loss and we had to purchase fresh flats and replant.
The camera captured the force of the ice pellets as they bounced on the deck.
As we are known to say in New England, "If you don't like the weather, wait ten minutes."   Finally, after a wait of nearly two months, our most substantial precipitation yet this winter - just over 4.5 inches of rain - fell over the course of the last two days.  

Two days of rain raised the level of the pond considerably.
The rain was most welcome, but I would have preferred to have had it spread out over a week or two. That much rain all at once brings its own set of concerns.   Torrential rains raised the water level in the koi pond to a problematic high... problematic because it opened up the possibility that our koi could actually jump out of the pond, something that happened once before on the heels of torrential rains.
But with the water over the lowest edging rocks, the koi were able to swim up onto the rocks on the south side of the pond especially, and I was very concerned they would either land on the patio if they jumped, or injure themselves on the rough surface of stones.

Katie (L) and Emily (R) watch the koi.
I need not have worried.  Two of our erstwhile Cavalier King Charles Spaniels appointed themselves Guardians of the Fish and stood watch along the edge of the pond, barking when the koi seemed too close to the edge or jumped up and broke the surface of the water as they explored the new landscape.

Watching them over the course of an hour as I set up the sump to drain away a couple of inches and lower the water to a safer level for the koi, I couldn't help but chuckle at Emily, our 8 year old ruby Cavalier.  She would bravely walk to the edge and lean over to bark at the fish as they swam around.

When one of the koi got too close, Em jumped away and yelped.
But if one swam too close to her rock or - heaven forbid -  jumped up and out of the water in front of her, she'd jump back in fright!

Eventually, Katie, our 2 year old Blenheim, came to her assistance and both dogs spent over two hours patrolling the pond.

Emily is usually able to run around the pond, chasing after the koi as they swim back and forth.  But with the water over the top of some of the rocks, she almost ended up going in for a swim herself.
The koi seemed intrigued by their ability to get within a hair's breadth of the dogs.
Katie, at her sentry post.
Can you see them?  They're right there?
Where are  you....
There you are!
Pearly (L) and Streak (R) were jumping up and flopping back into the water and swimming as close to the rocks in front of the dogs as possible.
One of the butterfly koi, Sherbert, teasing the dogs....
Comet and Goldie, hovering in front of them.... ignoring the barking.  Goldie managed to escape the pond last summer after a similar downpour dramatically raised the water level, scaring Katie half to death.   In fact, it was Katie's barking and howling that alerted me to the situation and I was able to get Goldie safely back in the pond without injury.
The way the fish seemed to congregate and show off in front of the dogs, it almost seemed as if they were deliberately teasing them.  Are koi that intelligent, I wonder?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Comprehensive (and Natural) Approach to Controlling Ticks

"Toughie" loves to romp in the woodland garden, a perfect haven for ticks.
It's that time again. Grass is growing, the sun is glowing, gentle breezes are blowing, and in the gardens, we are hoeing and sowing.  Then you feel something ticklish on your neck and .... brush off a tick.

Controlling ticks is a top priority for us in the early spring.  Whether you're talking about the tiny black deer ticks, Ixodes scapularis, or the larger brown wood or dog ticks, Dermacentor variabilis, ticks are more than just a gardening nuisance.  They are carriers of tick born illnesses such as Lyme Disease, several relapsing fevers, ehrlichiosis, and tularemia to name but a few and they are a significant health hazard to both people and pets.

Where we live in coastal Massachusetts, ticks are a particularly serious problem and that raises many concerns for us.  Even though the diseases caused by ticks can be severe and debilitating, toxic effects associated with tick repellants are equally problematic, never mind the fact that they aren't completely effective.

Emily Rose was successfully treated for Lyme Disease as a puppy.
Since one of our dogs has already required treatment for Lyme and the Lyme vaccines are likewise not 100% effective in any event, we are very aggressive in our efforts to control our dogs' and our own exposure to ticks.

Our "Tick Protocol" is an integrated approach that combines actions we can take to make our yard less hospitable to ticks along with topical applications and holistic preventives for the dogs.

We take a two-pronged approach with our yard.  First, we try to keep the areas that would be attractive to ticks to a minimum - not an easy task since we abut a meadow that is a formidable tick and mosquito breeding area.   For us that means keeping the grass near the fence trimmed and treated, keeping our small area of lawn mowed, and staying ahead of leaf litter in the flower beds and tree grove.

Toughie keeps a sharp eye out for small animals sneaking into the garden.
The dogs often haunt the fence line, watching for wild animals on the other side of the fence who want to burrow their way into our garden.

Toughie is especially diligent about patrolling for woodchucks and rabbits, but ticks from the tall grass on the other side of the fence often jump onto his head and ears.

Katie's favorite pastime:  rolling around in the grass.
Katie, on the other hand, loves to roll around in the grass, an open invitation to ticks to hop on to her thick, silky fur.  Even though the small amount of actual "lawn" we have is minimal - most of our yard has been converted to garden beds - there is just enough grass for the dogs to play and nap in the sun, and plenty for her to roll in.

Treating the yard to repel and kill ticks has been very effective in dramatically reducing the number of ticks we find on the dogs. In that regard, both oil of rose geranium and diatomaceous earth have found valued places in our protocol.

When the temperature spiked in early March, we immediately began finding large numbers of ticks on each of our four dogs. It was not uncommon to remove as many as 4-6 ticks from each dog daily, and we were finding them on the furniture and walking around on the floor as well, likely brought in by the dogs where they subsequently fell off and went in search of another warm-blooded host.

Oil of Rose Geranium

Because of our concern for our koi as well as for the environment, we use no toxic chemicals in controlling any insect pests in our gardens, ticks included.  An effective yet entirely safe tick repellant is the essential oil of rose geranium which we spray throughout our entire yard and include in a topical spray for the dogs. 

Within days of spraying the yard with a solution of oil of rose geranium, and likewise spraying the dogs with an all-natural home-made tick repellant (instructions for both are included below), the number of ticks we found in daily "tick checks" dropped to less than 1-2 weekly among all of the dogs.

I try to spray the yard for ticks at least monthly from April through September.  Whereas the winter was so mild and spring came so early, a bumper crop of ticks has plagued this area. I sprayed for the first time in mid-March and I've increased the frequency to every 2-3 weeks at least until we get them under control.  As for the dogs, we try to spray them every couple of days with my homemade topical along with applications of a "spot on" product.

Diatomaceous Earth

Another inexpensive, easy, effective, and environmentally friendly approach is to dust the tall grass and underbrush - areas where ticks breed and thrive - with diatomaceous earth.  It's important to use the agricultural or food grade preparations, not the preparations for swimming pool filters, which contain toxic chemical additives.

Toughie often nibbles on lavender.
The fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae, DE is a fine powder with microscopically sharp edges that works in two different ways to control garden pests.  DE absorbs lipids from the waxy exoskeletons of insects and in so doing, it helps to desiccate them.  Used properly, it can help to significantly reduce the population of adult ticks and fleas as well.  A side benefit is that the sharp edged abrasive action of it will slice the underbellies of slugs and snails leading to their eventual demise as well.

However, if your dog likes to nibble on grass or lavender as ours do, the DE will not harm them and in fact, might even help. Food grade DE has been used for over a century as a de-wormer for people, dogs, and livestock.

DE is particularly useful after a period of damp whether, which is a prime breeding time for ticks. DE loses its effectiveness in damp conditions and needs to be applied after the ground has dried out and reapplied after each rain.  With all of the rain we're having this week, I'll wait until we are going to have 24 - 48 hours of warm dry weather and then dust the grass along the fence and the underbrush throughout our little wood grove, and spread it liberally under the wild ginger and other low growing plants that the slugs seem to favor.

Because extended contact with DE can be very drying to the hands, I avoid spreading it with my bare hands and wear gardening gloves when I handle it.  I have eyeglasses, but for those who don't have prescription eye protection like I do, goggles are a good idea.  DE is a fine abrasive powder and you don't want it to blow into your eyes.  Wearing a workshop mask or a simple bandana tied over your mouth and nose will also help keep you from breathing it in. Of course, avoid spreading it on a breezy day.

As far as the mechanics of spreading it, either shaking it from a wire mesh kitchen strainer or a flour sifter are two easy methods that utilize recycled, outdated kitchen gadgets (that should not find their way back into the kitchen after you've used them in the garden).

Repellants and "Spot On" Treatments

Toughie patiently waits for Katie to return his ball.
Most chemical tick control agents (such as Bio-spot and Frontline, both of which we've used in the past), do little or nothing to actually repel a tick from climbing onto your dog in the first place.

They are designed primarily to kill ticks that climb onto your dog and remain there, especially if they latch onto them to feed, but that can take up to 48 hours.  And there seems to be some evidence that ticks may be developing a tolerance to some of the popular tick repellants, reducing their overall effectiveness.

Taking all of this into consideration, our vet, Dr. Regina Downey, DVM, of Exeter, NH, has recommended that we switch to Vectra 3D this year.  There are two preparations available, one that targets just ticks, and one that targets ticks, fleas, and mites.  Since fleas are never a problem for us, we chose the least chemically complex preparation to use for our dogs.

Because every situation and every dog is different, it's important to have a dialog with your vet about the risks and benefits to using topical "spot on" type treatments for tick control that can have serious side effects for many dogs.   The prevalence of ticks varies greatly in different parts of the country as well as between country and city environments, and teacup and miniature breeds are far more prone to significant toxic effects from these kinds of applications than much larger dogs.

While "spot on" treatments are not without their potential for side effects, Lyme Disease can be just as debilitating and deadly, especially if it is not diagnosed early in the course of the illness.  Your vet can help you weigh the relative pros and cons between the possible side effects from preventives and the risk of acquiring Lyme Disease in your area.

Homeopathic Veterinary Approaches

Dr. Downey also has some homeopathic tools to add to the tick-fighting arsenal.   One product she offers is her specially prepared Bicom solution that is added to our dogs' water bowls with every water change.  BICOM (short for BIological COMputer) utilizes bio-resonance vibration therapy as a method of modulating electromagnetic vibrations or frequency patterns that impair health.  In more advanced applications, it can be used to counteract negative influences on the body and the immune system.

I wonder if there is a Bicom application for dogs and furniture!
While this is a very simplistic explanation of a complex process that incorporates quantum physics and quantum biology, in a practical application for tick control, Dr. Downy utilizes native tick species from the general area to establish a standardized electromagnetic wave pattern and then uses the BICOM process to create a solution with the opposite or negative wave pattern, essentially creating a negative energy that theoretically will repel ticks.

The negative wave pattern is imprinted into a solution of water that can be administered in the dogs' drinking water or your morning orange juice and bedtime tea.  (Yes, people can use it too.  It is, after all, basically water that has been programmed to vibrate to a modified electromagnetic frequency.)

While it can be hard to know which methods are effective and to what degree, my personal experience with Dr. Downey's BICOM tick drops has been overwhelmingly positive.  While my husband is the first to point out that an "n of 1 is meaningless", being the "n" involved gives me a unique perspective.  I added BICOM drops to my liquid intake twice daily last year and despite extensive time spent gardening and playing in the yard with the dogs, not a single tick climbed on my clothing, into my hair, or onto my skin while I was outdoors.  In fact, the only ticks that I had personal contact with found me in my bed, where they tumbled off either one of the dogs or crawled off Steve's gardening clothing, which he often laid on the bed when he came in from working in the yard.

I am adding BICOM drops to my diet this spring and summer as well.  Recently a friend helped me to reinforce part of our fence with chicken wire before we sprayed for the first time this season.  She later related to me that she found multiple ticks in her hair while I had not a single tick find it's way onto me or my clothing.  Since I don't routinely spray myself nor do I use any kind of "spot on" preparations personally, I have no competing therapies to confuse the issue. BICOM drops have earned a permanent place in our repertoire.

Oil of Rose Geranium:  A Safe but Effective Topical Repellant

Elizabeth Rebecca and Mister Toughie (Spencer)
Unlike "spot on" chemical treatments that are applied monthly to kill ticks and in some cases, fleas and other parasites as well, topical repellant applications are applied to the dog's coat in order to discourage a tick from climbing onto your dog in the first place.

If used regularly, this can significantly reduce the number of ticks that will eventually attach to your pet even in the face of a "spot on" product, as well as minimize the number of ticks that will hitchhike into your home in your pet's fur.

Most "natural" repellants that are commercially available consist of a blend of essential oils in an oily or watery base that must be reapplied every few days.  They are effective repellants but usually pricy, considering how often you need to apply them and how much you need to use with each application.

A homemade version is easy to mix and just as effective at a fraction of the cost. My recipe is simple to make and just as effective as a comparable product that is available at our local natural pet supply shop, yet costs me about one-sixth the price of the commercially produced product if I make it myself.

In a clean spray bottle (you can buy spritzer or spray bottles at the "dollar store" and most general merchandise stores), combine one bottle (16 ounces) of witch hazel and a tablespoon (15 ml) of each of the following essential oils: oil of eucalyptus, oil of lemon grass, and oil of rose geranium. The oils will float on top of the witch hazel so you need to shake the bottle gently to mix before and during spraying.

I find that witch hazel makes a very nice base for these kinds of mixtures; there is no oil to stain clothing or furniture after the dog races off from a spray session and it dries nicely on the dogs as well as on us. This mixture is safe (non-toxic) for use on dogs and keeps indefinitely.

Our dogs are low to the ground with long, thick feathers and slippers on their lower legs and feet.  I spray the dogs with special attention to their legs, tails, bellies, chest, and under their chin at least every 2-3 days. You don't need to saturate the fur, but spray it liberally and rub their fur to spread it through to the under-layers. Reapply every two-three days (when the fragrance begins to fade) and after a bath.

The late Mister Dudley, with Spencer (AKA Toughie) and Emily Rose.
While our big old German Shepherd always stood at attention to be sprayed, three of four of our little Cavaliers hide when they see me approach them with the spritz bottle in hand.  The spray does have an herbal aroma to it, one that our dogs aren't necessarily fond of, but it goes a long way toward preventing ticks from climbing on them in the first place.

A simple way to treat a small dog is to hold her on a towel in your lap in typical "belly rub" fashion.  Rub her belly and help rub the spray into the fur at the same time. With the dog lying in your lap on her back, cuddled in a towel, two people can treat her thoroughly in less than three minutes.

We still check our dogs carefully for ticks at least daily, but the number of ticks we find even just crawling in their feathers, slippers, and tail has been reduced by as much as 90% in the very early spring when this topical spray is the only method of control we might be using. 

I have seen it suggested that applying oil of rose geranium to the dog's collar is an effective tick repellant.  I have not tried this method but in my experience, the blend of oils that I use in the repellant spray is much more effective than any single oil used alone.  Also, it is very important not to apply essential oils directly to the dog's skin undiluted.  Essential oils are very concentrated and undiluted, can be very irritating to human and canine skin alike.  If you decide to try applying the oils to the dog's collar, remove the collar to apply the oil and be sure that it is completely dry before putting it back around your dog's neck.

Rose Geranium Oil Spray for Tick Control in the Yard

For ongoing tick control, we add oil of rose geranium to our general garden spray at least once a month. That, along with home made garlic oil, effectively controls the number of ticks and fleas in the environment. I mix essential oil of rose geranium in water or natural garden spray concentrate to spray in the yard at a rate of one ounce (30 ml) of essential oil per gallon of solution.  You can find our entire protocol here.  A revised and updated recipe will be posted on this blog shortly as well, so be sure to sign up to receive new posts.

A dog tick in its adhesive prison.
Despite our best efforts, the occasional tick still manages  to find its way into the house.  We check the dogs daily (often twice daily) for stowaways and we check ourselves when we come in from gardening.   Wearing light colored clothing makes this task easier, but more often than not I am more apt to find ticks on my husband's gardening clothes than I am on the dogs.

For ticks that stow away in the long fur of our dogs' tails, legs and bellies or on Steve's gardening togs and then drop onto floors or furnishings, adhesive tape makes a quick and easy method of catching and disposing of the offending and unwelcome gatecrashers.  Simply place a piece of transparent tape over the tick and then fold the tape back over on itself, forming a permanent prison. Dispose of it in the trash.

In my experience, effective control of ticks requires a comprehensive, multifaceted, integrated approach. Each method we use adds a layer of protection that is cumulative and helps us to dramatically reduce the risk of a tick borne illness for ourselves and our dogs.


For more information about tick borne illnesses and tick control, visit the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Tick-borne Diseases page. 

Dr. Regina Downey, DVM, owns the  Holistic Animal Healing Clinic in Exeter, NH.
Visit her at

Note:  Not all treatments that are safe and effective for dogs are equally safe for cats and other small mammals.  Always review the use of any products with your vet for safety around all of your family's fur-members.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Colorful, Early Spring - Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, April, 2012

Spring arrived more than a month ago and with it came 80 degree days, prompting the magnolias and spring bulbs to respond with blossoms as much as six weeks earlier than usual.

While I don't deny that we have enjoyed the beauty of the blooms, it hasn't been without its pitfalls as well, particularly with the magnolias.

Usually, the star magnolia blooms first among our flowering trees but this year, the saucer magnolia was covered in plump mauve buds a full week ahead of the star.

During the last week of March, just as the saucer blossoms were starting to open, a couple of seasonably cold nights turned the pearlescent blooms to a gloomy brown.

Within a week, it was clear that the saucer bloom was a near total loss.   An occasional bud has opened since, but almost all have shown signs of cold injury.   Today, a single bud shows some of the glory we missed earlier in the season.

In the meantime, the star magnolia has regaled us with three weeks of glorious blossoms and just as the blooms are beginning to fade, the yellow magnolias, "Elizabeth" has erupted with a gorgeous display of crisp yellow blossoms.
The saucer magnolia would have been magnificent if had only bloomed a week later, after the last frost.
The star magnolia has been the star of the woodland grove for three weeks.

The star magnolia in full bloom.
The yellow magnolia, "Elizabeth", is covered with butter yellow blooms, almost a full month ahead of last year.

The yellow blossoms cover each branch like translucent origami birds. "Elizabeth" is a pale buttery color, while "Yellow Bird" is a much darker, brighter yellow.

We've enjoyed the smiling faces of the pansies and daffodils for several weeks. While the pansies will continue to bloom through the early summer, the daffodils are already beginning to fade.

This year, with temperatures soaring past the 80 degree F mark in early March, we planted the pansies in pots in case a surprise snow storm were to head our way.   Spring snows are not uncommon, and pots are easily brought into the garage.  However, the weather has continued to be mild and the pansies are thriving.
Our latest decorative addition, this princely frog added another rose to our collection
When we originally planted the daffodils in the fall of 2006, we planted them, along with tulips, in clumps of 25-50 to achieve maximum impact from massed blooms.   The first spring, the effect was stunning.  We had early, middle and late spring blooming varieties in large clumps of every shade of pink, magenta, white, purple, and rose (tulips) and daffodils with single and double trumpets and petals and trumpets in white, yellow, orange, apricot, and pink.

Since then, few clumps remain as the voles have gradually decimated them over the course of several winters.  We will replant this fall, but I fear that this is going to have to be a regular part of our fall garden maintenance in order to be able to enjoy the spring beauty of these gorgeous blooms.

All of the large clumps of daffodils and tulips in the perennial beds have been reduced to a handful of blooms each.  In the front, we still have a few clumps such as these, but even these are markedly reduced in size compared to previous years. We will replant, but controlling the vole population is a top priority for us this gardening season.
Although the daffodils come in a wide range of colors now thanks to hybridization, my favorites have always been the pure white ones. 
On the bottom left is one of our few remaining miniature daffodils.  Five years ago, we had several hundred that bloomed with miniature iris.  This year, the miniature iris bloomed more than a month early, upsetting the carefully planned palette we had laid out for spring color.
The fruit trees are all in bloom and we are continuing to observe some strange happenings in the old apple tree in front.  This tree was already fully grown, mature, and neglected when Steve purchased the house in 2001.  We aren't sure exactly when it was planted, but the house is over 30 years old. It got its first serious pruning in 2002 and since then, we have carefully clipped away suckers.

We never noticed anything unusual until two years ago when we had a profound drought.  At that time, we noticed a significant size difference in the fruit; the apples on the left side of the tree were smaller than usual, but still at least 2.5 inches in diameter while the apples on the right side of the tree were the size of large cherries. Last summer, a similar drought that lasted through late July and much of August produced the same result.

This spring, we were surprised when blossoms on the right side of the tree appeared not only weeks earlier than usual, but much earlier than any blooms on the left.

We've looked at the tree carefully and unlike a tree demonstrating a similar finding in our back garden, we can not find an obvious graft site, but clearly,  we have a tree that bears two distinct kinds of apples.

Apple blossoms on the right side of our full sized apple tree in the front yard.
The cherry tree, a vision in white.
Cherry blossoms and new leaves cover all of the branches and twigs.
The sand cherry that we thought might not survive last year has responded well to our hard pruning and splinting of it's shattered trunk.  The yard is perfumed by the gorgeous blooms which cover every branch.
The sand cherry blossoms are a visual and olfactory delight.
Our three weeping cherries each have slightly different blossoms.  One has pink buds but white blossoms, and of the two with pink blossoms, one has deeply ruffled, very heavily triple-petaled blooms, while the other has a double row of slightly deeper pink petals with the center of the blossom clearly visible.

Interestingly, although they bloom profusely, none of the three weeping cherries produce any fruit.  However, since we planted them, the taller, mature cherry (white blooms), which previously bloomed but produced no fruit at all, has produced large amounts of fruit for the past three years. The squirrels and birds eat the fruit in the fall even though it never completely ripens, likely due to a growing season that isn't quite long enough for this unknown variety.


Our earliest blooming azalea, this unidentified variety, has blooms with both single and double ruffled petals and prominent stamen and anthers.  I am surprised that the honey bees which have been visiting the other spring blossoms have not been visiting this particular shrub.

Below, photos of two of our three Cleveland pears.  All three of the trees are beginning to fill out and are covered with delicate white blossoms.


Two other very early bloomers this year are (left) one of our Canadian hybrids and (right) the common lilacs.  Usually, we don't see lilac blooms until Mother's Day, but this year, unless one of our later blooming varieties blooms according to it's own time frame, my guess is that most of our shrubs will have completed their bloom cycle by early May.

The flowering quince is another shrub that bloomed more than a month early and like the magnolia, suffered the effects of cold weather in its blossoms.  The shrub has attracted many bees but I was hard pressed to find many blossoms that didn't have tell-tale browned edges that  are the result of a couple of very cold nights at the end of March. It will be interesting to see in the fall if the crop of fruit is affected. 

The Santa Rosa Plum has also thrived over the past year and the tree has increased in height by more than a foot and has also filled out at least twice it's width over this time last spring.  Each branch and twig is covered with blooms but this is another tree that the bees have not seemed to favor, both last year and this one as well.  Last year we had a very scarce crop of plums;  I wondered then if that was due to immaturity or a lack of pollination. We'll see what this summer brings.

Other spring-blooming bulbs include our hyacinths and grape hyacinths, all of which are blooming equally early.  The color display has been magnificent this year;  this seems to be one bulb that the voles avoid, and definitely one we want to plant more of.

A magenta striped hyacinth and a wild hyacinth add pops of color in the perennial beds.
We have numerous blue, purple and white hyacinths, Hyacinthus orientalis, which seem to have survived and thrived despite the voles, which have decimated our daffodils and tulips.
Grape Hyacinths, Muscari racemosum. Ours are all the common variety, shades of deep blue and purple.

Last year our previously gorgeous display of creeping phlox was nearly destroyed by a careless plow driver who skimmed the top of the cottage bed and cleaved our sand cherry tree in half.

We planted some pots of phlox in an attempt to repair the damage, but probably due, in part, to a very dry summer, and as well in part to competition from wood violets, they did not thrive the way I had hoped.

These are three of the original plants that we were able to salvage and nurse back to health, and which are blooming robustly this spring.  Most of the plants we added last spring are struggling and have a rare blossom if they are blooming at all. 

We replanted again, early this spring, and while the blooms are once again lovely, we can only hope that these plants will fare better than their predecessors.
The newer plants are in brighter colors than we previously had growing along the edge of the bed.
Blue is a prominent color in the our spring gardens. Everywhere you look, bright white, soft yellow, and brilliant pink blossoms burst against a sea of blue.

A pleasant surprise was this lovely blue primrose which is blooming near the front stairs. It was labeled as an annual but I've had them overwinter before and was delighted to find this one blooming this week.
Primula vulgaris
 The violets are another very early bloomer and among my favorite wildflowers  Wood violets have gotten a bit too dense in some of our cottage beds and we are moving many clumps of them to the dry river bank that borders our tree grove.  A single white violet lined with blue found its way into the herb bed and I'm hoping it will self sow and spread in that area. And the Labrador violets are popping up everywhere, another group that we are relocating to the wood grove and dry river bed.

  Viola labradorica

Clustered under the shrubs in the fairy garden, in another month they will form a dense carpet that will bloom all summer.
A single white violet is a pleasant surprise this spring.  It appeared in the herb garden, probably after seeds blew in from the neighboring meadow.
I adore wood violets, so much so that the clumps that are threatening to overtake the cottage garden are being moved into other areas where they can spread at will.

Veronica (Speedwell) makes an excellent ground cover in cottage beds.  We've found that it thrives in both sun and shade and it blends well with other ground covers such as violets and forget me nots.

  Veronica "Georgia Blue"
Veronica "Georgia Blue" with blue and white forget-me-nots (Myosotis sp.)

Other early bloomers in the cottage garden are the hellebores, bleeding hearts, candytuft, and columbine.

Hellebores in multiple shades of white, lime green, rose and burgundy have been blooming for over a month.
Both the large red and white Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra) are in bloom now.
Showy mounds of Iberis semperivens, candytuft, are also growing along the borders of the cottage gardens where they contrast beautifully with the creeping phlox and columbine.
Low growing varieties of columbine are in full bloom while the taller varieties are fully budded, more than a month ahead of last spring.  The columbine has proven itself a hardy, colorful, and ever changing addition to the cottage gardens.  Cross pollination has led to a new and sometimes surprising color  each spring.
We opened the water garden nearly a  month earlier than usual this year.  Ordinarily, we restart the waterfall and black light (which provides ozone to disinfect the water) in early May when the temperature in the water is about 50 degrees.  The warmer than usual spring temperatures raised the temperature of the water in the pond and the koi had been actively schooling.  With the bog plants also showing exuberant spring growth, it was time to clean the pond and prune and feed the bog plants as well.
Top Left:  The Koi have been schooling and swimming briskly.  Top Right:  Marsh Marigolds (Caltha palustris) have been blooming for two weeks.  Bottom: Siberian Iris (Iris sibirica) and water mint (Mentha aquatica) show early, prolific growth.         
Throughout the woodland garden and our many shade and sunny cottage beds, we are seeing early blooms and accelerated growth of plants we don't ordinarily enjoy until mid to late May.

Rock Cress, Arabis caucasica

Brunnera macrophylla, "Jack Frost"
Armeria maritima, thrift, or sea pinks
Another early surprise in the woodland garden are the trillium which appeared to sprout and blossom almost over night.
As I've prepared this post, the lilacs have erupted in full bloom and the mid spring tulips have also blossomed.  Every day there is a colorful new surprise. Each month, you can enjoy blooms from gardens all over the world who participate in the monthly Garden Bloggers; Bloom Day.  Hosted by fellow Blotanist Carol of Indiana, you can find links to visit all of the gardens that participate in this monthly bloomfest on her blog at May Dreams Gardens.