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The Garden Plot: A Vermont Couple's Remarkable Garden

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Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Garden Editor
Thursday, August 20, 2009; 12:00 PM

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, authors of "Our Life in Gardens," have spent 32 years turning a 23-acre woodland at the base of the Green Mountains in Vermont into an exuberant, yet contemplative garden.

Washington Post gardening editor Adrian Higgins will be online Thursday, August 20 at Noon ET with the authors to discuss their book and their remarkable garden.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the live discussion.

Higgins is the author of two books, "The Secret Gardens of Georgetown: Behind the Walls of Washington's Most Historic Neighborhood" and "The Washington Post Garden Book: The Ultimate Guide to Gardening in Greater Washington and the Mid-Atlantic Region."


Olney, Md.: Posting early, Professor. And welcome back. Really enjoy and appreciate these chats.

100,000 daffodils. WOW. Did both of you plant them or did you guys get some help? I have planted over 1000 daffodils, so I better get going.

I really am amazed how beautiful your gardens are, Joe and Wayne.

I also admire you guys, working as a team in your labor of love. My partner, who is not a gardener, paid me a great compliment, yesterday about our sunny front yard flower bed. How can I engage him more in the joys of gardening without sounding pushy?

I have a shade garden in the backyard as well, and I have planted a lot over the past ten years, but as I look forward to retirement in the next 5 years, I want to plant more shade-tolerant flowering plants, something unusual. Any suggestions? Of course, there are the usual suspects, deer that play havoc on my selections.

Wishing both of you success on your new book.

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd: Thank you for your kind words, and good luck with your shade garden. As we have gotten older (one does!) we have found shade gardening increasingly more satisfying. Fewer weeds! But also, it is a very rich world, full of discoveries to make, of wonderful shapes and textures, but also of flowers.

Ellen Hornig, at Seneca Hills Rare Plants Nursery, has a wonderful selection of shade-loving plants. She now only publishes her catalog on line, but she is kind about answering questions. She is the new Heronswood. You should look at her catalog and order from her.

Adrian Higgins: And the beauty of daffodils is that they increase year to year and the deer avoid them.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Adrian - great to have you back!

I have a mophead hydrangea that we need to move to a larger space. When/how is the best time/way to do that? Also, the new spot stays a little more damp than its current location - how much moisture can they tolerate?

Thanks much!

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd:
Adrian, I am weighing in here though I know the question was for you. If by"mop-head" hydrangea is meant the old florist kind, macrophilla - sometimes called "hortensia hydrangeas" then they move well in the autumn or very early spring, and can even be divided like any border perennial. They require well-drained, very fertile soil, but it must be constantly moist. The name "hydrangea" should be a clue, as in hydro and hydrant and hydrate. But they do not like standing water at their feet.

Prune hard when you move your plant, and do not expect flowers the first year, as they bloom on old wood. But the next year you will have plenty of flower.

Adrian Higgins: I would move it in early October, taking care to preserve as much of the roots as possible. Hydrangeas like it moist, but not constantly wet, so you may want to raise it up a bit and give a nice mulch of compost.


Clarksburg, Md.: This is not a gardening question but... when I came home yesterday I had opened the garage door and got out of the car and went to see the big pots that I have almost near the right door of the garage and did not pay attention to the opened door. As I turned around to go in I noticed a black thing - a black snake - quite big - more than a yard long and bigger than a thumb and index finger circle. At first I did not realize it was a snake but when I saw it tongue then I did and got so very scared. The garage has lots of junk and I was concerned that it would get in there. So I went to the garage and closed the door. As the door came down the snake was put where it was and the door almost came on it and the rubber portion even touched it. I was still afraid it would come inside or its head would be crushed but it slowly escaped to outside. I came around from the front door to see it. All of sudden it had come close the the front of the house along the wall on the mulch. Then it turned around swiggling its tongue and went into the mulch very close to the wall stone. The basement area underneath that area is not finished and I am wondering if it got into the basement or what. Could not sleep all night long, had put some barrier against the basement door so it would not sneak in to upstairs. What do I do?? I think the snake has been around in my yard. Because when I went to use the hose over the weekend I saw some thing has been on the mulch just some marks. I am scared.

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd: Alas, we are not authorities on garden snakes, since the only ones we have in Vermont are benign, and in fact are good friends to the garden, helping with the mice, mole and vole problem. But we suspect your snake is also a friendly one - if you can think of it that way. (There is a beautiful poem of Emily Dickinson's called "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass." Read that; it may help.

Otherwise, get a manual on snakes in your area, and determine what your critter is and how best to deal with it. I suspect it is more afraid of you than you are of it.

Adrian Higgins: If it's black it's not venomous. It's probably after mice. It is far more afraid of you than the other way around.


Alexandria, Va.: What a beautiful garden! I have a self-interested question: How do you keep it watered while you are away? Do you have any tricks for those of us with container gardens that will wither without water for two weeks?

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd: We live in the foothills of the Green Mountains (called that for a reason!) and so watering is really not a problem for us, except for pots and for our 30 year old pet bonsai maple, which is a little like the family cat. It requires daily attention. For those, we have help.

But if I were a weekend gardener, I would specialize in water plants, plants that could be grown in large pots topped up with water so they would not dry out. You buy very large clay pots, stop up the hole with a votive candle softened in the sun, add some mud at the bottom, plant your water lily, and top it up slowly with water to the rim. You can add water-soluble fertilizer directly to the water to encourage growth and flower, and you can even add a gold fish for mosquito control.

However, border plants are another issue. When we design gardens in dry situations, we insist on an irrigation system. They do not solve all problems, but they are a huge help in dry gardens where the owners must be absent for periods of time. Failing that, we would apply as thick a coat of mulch as we could without damaging the sensitive crowns of perennials, and water thoroughly the night before we had to leave.

Adrian Higgins: It might help, too, if you can move the containers into a shady spot before you leave, and then give them a good soaking. You might also trim back your annuals so that their water needs are reduced.


Dunn Loring, Va.: If I see slugs in my garden, is there any reason not to kill them? Do they provide any benefit?

Adrian Higgins: The only use is to provide food for hens and ducks. Perhaps Joe and Wayne can talk about their poultry and the pros and cons of hens versus the other birds.


Falls Church, Va.: Any advise for dealing with voles? Do you know if the electronic deterrents work? What about repellents such as the castor oil-based ones, or the ones that contain a mixture of dried blood and garlic?

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd: We know only one way to deal with voles and other under-ground varmints, and that is sturdy cats. We have four Maine Coons, and they fairly well take care of the problem. Also, because they grow up in my bedroom with two singing canaries who are my writing companions, they quickly learn not to kill birds.

If you don't like cats, or cannot keep them for some reason, then we would suggest one of the battery-powered sonic devices that apparently drive voles crazy. I think one of those has worked here, though the cats have not chosen to tell us for sure.

One other suggestion: If you are planting small bulbs susceptible to rodent damage, such as crocus or species tulips, you should try burying black plastic nursery pots in the ground, he rims two inches below soil level, filling them with ordinary earth, planting your bulbs well beneath soil surface, covering the pot with rat wire (hardware cloth) and then backfilling with earth. Crocus planted that way will thrive for ten or fifteen years, without rodent damage. Alas, however, it does not work for lilies, the stems of which are too thick.

Adrian Higgins: I know hosta fanciers who have to grow their plants in buried cages. Another option, especially for spring bulbs, would be to surround the bulb in grit. But I agree with Joe and Wayne that the best remedy is to get a mouser or two.


Alexandria, Va.: I'd like to grow some Zone 10 melons next summer. Can I do it?

Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd: No reason in the world why not, because melons and cantaloups will adore your hot humid summers. We would strongly recommend Seeds of Italy for really choice varieties, though you could also try other excellent sources, like Select Seeds.

Melons require a really rich soil, so go heavy on the compost and the decomposed cow manure. Also, they benefit from heat at the roots, so raised beds seem to work really well. Be sure they never dry out, for then the young fruit will abort. Allow lots of room, for they do spread.

And I hope you have no racoons in your neighborhood, for they tend to toss the immature fruits about like baseballs. They are the teen-agers of the animal world.

Adrian Higgins: And make sure you don't spray pesticides when the bees are on the wing, you'll need them to pollinate the vine.



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