Greenpoint: Sisters connected through our flowers

Cut flowers from the writer's gardens.

Cut flowers from the writer's gardens.

I went south last week to spend a day with my sisters. As usual, the visits included a fair amount of garden exploration and garden talk.

These sisters live about a hundred miles south of me – one climate zone away. They can grow flowers and flowering bushes that won’t make it at my house, which is both too far north and too high in elevation.

“Look at my poppies!” my eldest sister said, showing off a clump of about 25 bright orange beauties, nearly three feet high. “Oh, oh, look at this one,” my auxiliary sister said, pulling out her phone to show us closeups of her pink poppies.

I have zone envy. I’ve never been able to get poppies to establish at my house, and butterfly bushes are iffy – they’ll come back for one or two years, then die off in a hard winter. Forget rose of Sharon, and even the forsythia I transplanted from my sisters’ yards won’t bloom up here. I need a hardier variety.

Beyond the harsher winter, I have goats to contend with, and goats delight in breaking into my flower gardens and grazing on everything. This year I have a new fence around my main flower bed, which I hope will thoroughly thwart them. But the garden is in a rebuilding mode. I’m replanting some of my favorites that I dug up and moved to the vegetable garden last year for safety. And I filled in the blank spaces with annuals so I’ll have enough flowers this year to make me happy.

I started my sister day at my older sister’s house, touring the flower beds all around her house. Her peonies and climbing roses were blooming, the yarrow and Russian sage are just starting.

She showed me the new shade garden she planted around a tree with a few new plants she bought and some more transplanted from the other sisters’ gardens – pulmonaria, coral bells, some spreading ground covers.

This year she started a cutting garden so she can have flowers in the yard and in the house all summer long. It’s in a raised bed, a corrugated metal oval about 9 feet long and two feet wide, next to her vegetable beds.

My sister’s only been growing vegetables for a few years, and it’s been a learning process for her – how many plants actually fit in two raised beds, which plants will overwhelm you with bounty, and the hardest lesson of all: You have to thin out seedlings.

The first year she grew way more cucumbers than she could eat, pickle and give away, and learned that one plant was plenty. And that zucchini took up too much space and that she definitely needed at least half a bed of chard. And that she’s too tenderhearted to thin carrots enough to get any of any size.

One year I had to dig up her clump of tiny beet plants, spread them out and send some of the excess to the compost. This year I had to perform a little tough love on the new cutting garden, seriously overplanted.

She had put in a couple of spreading perennials that we decided would have to move to permanent beds before they took over the cutting garden. And I made her thin her sunflowers. Maybe you can fit four in here, I told her, but not 24. She dug up a few of the seedlings and put them in a pot for me to take home to my garden, inside the goat-proof fence. She has more seeds coming up and she’ll have to thin them herself if she wants strong plants and lots of flowers.

Then we headed out to take a long walk on a former estate by the Hudson River, through woods and a meadow full of wildflowers, before going out to dinner with our eldest sister and auxiliary sister.

Over the years we’ve all traded plants as we’ve thinned perennials, and we compared the status of our shared plants. My zone envy returned. I’m happy that I can get my bleeding heart to make it through winter; my auxiliary sister joked about how she gave a piece of hers to her next-door neighbor and it has since taken over the entire front lawn, with its hanging heart-shaped flowers.

When I got back home, I moved my bleeding heart from its vegetable garden safe house back into the fortified flower garden. The irises that my auxiliary sister had shared with me were already recovering from being chomped by goats – the flowers will be a lot shorter this year but they will bloom. The yellow heliopsis I transplanted years ago from Father Pratt’s garden looked vibrant and two clumps of coneflowers I got from one of the sisters are back too.

I love the flowers. But I also love the way each plant connects us.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on June 28. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are not necessarily those of the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life and Arts

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