Benefits Reaped

This is the garden in February. While it is under ice and snow right now, we had a healthy enough harvest last year that it is still gifting us.

Winter garden. Click here for what the spring and summer gardens look like. Note to self: I have yet to capture fall.

We’ve been eating peaches all winter — frozen and canned — as well as frozen rhubarb, rosehips for tea, all the berries, tomatoes. Lined up on shelves in the basement are the remaining canned goods — relishes, chows, salsas, and jams. We’ve still got plenty of garlic and next year’s is planted and waiting. Like the rest of us, I suppose. Waiting for spring. February can be hard.

But I still get surprised. This morning I found a bag of haskaps in the freezer from our June 2020 harvest. I thought they had long been devoured. To be eating berries in the middle of February packed with vitamin C and memories of warmer times … this is why I garden. And this is why I’m excited now to be going through seeds from a new to me local seed company by the name of Incredible Seed. If we put in the work, the benefits reaped are long term and ongoing. Soon this winter white will be green and filled with life.

We’re Not Done Yet

It is the end of October 2020. I’m acting out of habit, as though everything is as it has always been. I’m putting the garden to bed for the winter, getting ready to plant the garlic. I’ve made a number of trips to the beach to collect seaweed for mulching the fruit trees and berry bushes. I’ve picked up a couple of bales of straw for the raised veggie beds.

Dwarf Cherry tree recently mulched with rockweed.

But as I turn my attention to those beds and get ready to dig in some compost before adding the straw, I realize that the garden’s not actually ready to go to bed. It’s too warm. There are new lettuce plants springing up here and there — not under cover, that would not be unusual, but out in the open. Red lettuce as well as green. Lots of new arugula too.

One of the lettuce plants starting anew.

There is autumn in the garden for sure. The stunning colours and falling leaves are just two of the indicators that at least some of the plants are moving on to the next stage.

But those others re-seeding themselves, encouraged by the warmth and the sun, acting like it’s spring — they’re not ready to stop yet, they’re not ready to say it’s over.

Blessed Be

The garden reminds me to see what’s in front of me and to be thankful. Last night I was feeling depressed about the state of the world and couldn’t bring myself to even think about cooking dinner. Instead I poured some cereal in a bowl and threw some fruit on top. But before I could add the yogourt, I stopped, spoon in air, looked into the bowl, and realized that every fruit — peach, kiwi, blueberries, raspberries — were from the garden. I’d grown them. Working with nature, I grow our food and now it’s harvest time. Whether we eat the food fresh, turn it into jam or fruit bars or salsa, we have transformed our urban yard into a food haven. Blessed be. For real.

A Tornado is not the Only Wind

In May I posted a picture of what I called the bones of the garden. The picture below is from about mid-July. The garden is obviously filling in as the plants grow and now (mid-August) it’s changed even more, some areas seemingly wildly out of control and some resting easy between harvest and the next planting. It is always changing though the change is never the full story.

Mid-July garden.

It’s been an extremely dry summer and often, when I come out in the morning, the first thing I do is check to see if it’s rained in the night. And usually the answer is a big fat no. Sigh. But then I notice the collard greens, leaves reaching upward, cupping water in their curled middle leaves. And I see it is not only the greens … there is a glint of wetness everywhere.

Or maybe I’m thinking what a still day it is when I notice a kale leaf moving ever so slightly and then other plants also make themselves known. Because I don’t feel it or see it or hear it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. A tornado is not the only wind.

We can learn so much from our gardens, from nature, if we only pay attention. A garden will teach you that not only CAN two different species live side by side but that they thrive. They do better. They help each other by having different needs. I never had any success with carrots until I started planting them among the cucumbers. And the beans don’t mind if parsnips move in next to them.

Planting more parsnips where the snap peas once were.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to keep trying new things. This has been especially true in the socially isolating pandemic we find ourselves in. It seems more important than ever to keep ourselves engaged, with our communities but also with ourSELVES. So yeah, never ending rhubarb? No problem. How about a rhubarb martini? Or those raspberries that keep on giving year after year? For the first time we made raspberry sorbet along with the raspberry jam. Lots of it.

Rhubarb martinis and raspberry sorbet are great treats for our increasingly hot summers.

I try to grow something new each year too. So this season I grew a new-to-me summer squash, patty pan squash. I don’t know how I’ve missed out on it all these years but I love how it looks AND it tastes great too. I’ve had dill seeds for a few years now and finally decided to throw them in after one of the lettuce beds was done. I thought it quite likely that they might not even be viable after all this time sitting on my desk but there they are coming up and looking lovely.

Patty pan squash (l) and dill seedlings sprouting behind the zinnias.

But the best part of gardening is sitting quietly and noticing things. This morning, for example, I noticed that the hummingbirds, my favourite aerial acrobats who come every year for the bee balm and only the bee balm, were flitting in and out of the trellised pole beans. I moved in for a closer look and they were drinking the nectar of the bean flowers, swinging for a minute on the uppermost vine, then diving down to the bee balm. And then back again. For all I know, they do this every year and I’ve just never seen it before.

I go back to my coffee feeling somehow a little more peaceful, nurtured, fed … both literally and figuratively … and more ready to face what the day brings.

I discovered this morning that hummingbirds drink the nectar from the flowers of the pole beans.

 

Gardening in a Pandemic

This is my back yard garden, or what I like to call my little urban farm, after a mild winter and a l-o-n-g, not quite sprung spring. New paths have been laid down, compost has been worked into all the beds, and we grieving humans wait for warmer weather.

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Bones of the garden

If you look closely, you can see the perennial foods have started their journeys above ground — rhubarb, walking onions, spinach, sylvetta, sea kale, chives, strawberries. The garlic I planted in the fall is up too. All the berry bushes are in bud or, as in the case of the haskaps, already flowering and swarming with bees. I’ve started some seedlings inside, the ones that need a longer growing season — tomatoes, melons, cucumbers — and in a week or two I’ll start direct sowing seeds more tolerant of the cold.

It is always the case that gardening is my sanity. Gardening in the midst of a pandemic takes it to another level. It gives me some balance and perspective when I might otherwise be spinning out of control wondering if I actually have the disease. Yes, OK, I sometimes worry about things over which I have no control. But gardening also keeps me from spinning out about things that overwhelm me but might in fact be solvable if I can just take a breath. Like when I KNOW we can do better as a society. How do we solve THAT problem? The pandemic has given us a huge opportunity … to slow down, to really see each other and care enough to do things differently on the other side. Gardening helps me think through problems by showing me a path. It is the only place where I feel quiet in my whole being, where I observe nature with a complete reverence and often don’t realize until later how it’s shown me a new way to think about something that’s been bothering me. But back to the physical act itself …

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Bamboo mulch

The photo above is a picture of the Japanese Maple at the entrance to our back yard. I’ve just given it some delicious compost and a new layer of mulch which is from the bamboo bush on the other side of the yard. This is a first — I am starting to generate my own mulch from biomass in the garden. It’s been a slow process but it’s exciting. And if this pandemic lockdown ever lifts, I’ll see if the tool library has a wood chipper I can borrow to make even more mulch from my stack of old stems and twigs and branches (oh my) stacked up in the back of the yard.

How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost, or to pin the clean
sheets on the line
with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin!

                  The Clothes Pin by Jane Kenyon

Plant Lessons

The big lesson so far this season has been to think ahead when planning the annual beds and match the trellis to the plant. So in the first group of pictures, it all looks kind of sweet and under control. The beans and peas have been staked and the carrots have lots of room to spread out in the rest of the bed. (click the pics for larger images; mouse over for caption.)

Then in this group of pictures, you see what happened later: a garden gone wild.

But they’re producing and that’s what counts. Earlier harvest of fruit (haskap), veggies (garlic), and herbs (oregano) below.

And where the garlic was will be new lettuce and other various greens.

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Lettuce starts about to be planted in the already harvested garlic bed.

Meanwhile, around the front of the house, the daylilies have a thing or two to tell us.

The thing I love about daylilies is they always look like they’re shouting.

Sometimes with joy, sometimes good morning, sometimes HEY, I’M HERE!

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Daylilies and hostas. Everyone plays nice together.

Peaches Don’t Lie

Denial is a powerful thing. Today is June 22nd and I refuse to turn on the heat because I should not have to turn on the heat on June 22nd. I should be begging for mercy from the heat and humidity gods. Instead I dress in layers: sweatshirt, wool sweater, heavy socks, a toque for god’s sake. But I do NOT turn on the heat. It is summer.

It is somewhat warmer outside so, despite being sick, I go out to the garden. When I return, my partner asks me what I’ve been doing and I tell her I’ve been weeding and thinking. I tell her I’ve been thinking about survival of the fittest and how sad that really is because who and what is fittest seems to change from day to day. Or maybe that’s actually good because whoever is down one day might be up the next? These are the places my brain goes.

I was weeding and thinking about a film I just watched about walruses. Used to resting on the arctic ice after feasting, they now have to swim hundreds of miles looking for a place to hang out because their beloved ice has melted. When they finally meet land, they climb up the highest cliff and are so exhausted many fall back down to their death. Hundreds of them lie dead or dying on the rocks at any given time.

Here on the Atlantic coast where I’ve been living for the past seven years, young people I know in their 20s and 30s have decided they will not have children because of climate change. I ask and am told that yes, they would have liked to have children but feel they cannot, in good conscience, bring children into a world that is burning up, into a world where the youth will have to struggle in ways that we in North America cannot even imagine.

And yet still, they have not given up. They fight every day to make a difference, to get the rest of us to pay attention. So when I am in the garden, I have hope too. Especially in the spring. I see the pollinators that overwinter here in the north struggle to survive. And while some of them don’t, many more do.

It’s been a tough spring and a lot of pollinators are still hiding out in the mulch. Luckily, there’s a lot of food for them.

I started ground cherries indoors this year where they grew beautifully. When the time came to transplant them, I think the wet windy weather caught them off guard. I thought they were done for as they shed one leaf after the other. But I put them in the ground anyway and most of them have rallied. Most of them look like maybe, just maybe, they’ll make it.

First day out for the ground cherries when they were still at their healthiest.

And then there’s the peach tree. For 5 years now, I’ve watched a pit thrown on the compost pile root into a seedling and finally into a tree that is at least a few feet taller than me and produces the most delicious fruit I think I’ve ever had.

Whatever goes on in the world at large, nature goes on. We humans tend to forget we are part of that cycle. We’ve lost some of our grace but I’ll continue to hold onto hope.

And look at that … the sun just came out and it looks like summer again.

The Big Picture

It’s been almost a year since I wrote anything here and in those last musings I promised I would write next about how permaculture gardening makes for less work overall.

Springtime planting takes a lot of intense work and certainly 6 raised beds, which is what I have now for annual veggies, is a lot less work than the 12 I used to have. You can get a refresher on where the redesign all began at this ch-ch-ch-changes post.  But the two photos below are a quick look at the design in the off-season before all the growth hides the lines. Everything except for the 6 raised beds up front is perennial. Click on the pictures for a larger image.

Not being in as much of a frenzy about planting annuals leaves more time for cleanup after the kind of heavy duty winter of ice/rain freeze/thaw craziness we had this past winter. But even taking that into account, the rewards of the permaculture part of the plot outweigh the work of the annuals.

When it was still too cold to even start sowing warm weather plants inside (tomatoes, tomatillos, and ground cherries this year), we were eating Sea Kale, Sylvetta, and Good King Henry Spinach from the garden. The young fresh leaves on all 3 of these plants are to die for. No less spectacular in their own special ways were the Egyptian Walking Onions and the doing-its-own-thing, ever ubiquitous rhubarb. I’ve already made rhubarb peach jam (peaches frozen from last year’s harvest), rhubarb crisp (well, of course), and multiple iterations of stewed rhubarb. I let one of the plants go to seed just to bear witness to the flower which I’d never seen before. At least not in our rhubarb patch.

Sea Kale

Spring is also the time to take a step back and look at the big picture. What are the plants telling me? Any fruit trees/bushes with weakened, damaged, or broken branches that need to be pruned? Anything obviously unhappy where it’s living that would benefit from a geographical? And which plants need some organic plant food? (answer: all of them)

For every success story, there is also a challenge. Peach leaf curl comes to mind. Leaf curl, though not necessarily fatal, looks really horrid and can, in fact, impact peach production. It often happens when the spring weather is wet, cold, and windy which ours certainly was. The kiwi had a bad case of powdery mildew for the same reason.

Just as the kiwi is now happy and in full bloom, I’m hoping the peach tree will also recover. I’ve had to deal with it one other time and after picking off every effected leaf, had a hugely productive harvest. I’ve done the same thing this year so I’m hoping we get the same result!

 

Hot and Humid

I’m not crazy about the humidity that’s knocked us off our feet but the garden seems to be thriving in it. This year’s harvest is the biggest I’ve had so far. The freezer is full of fruits and veggies, I’ve canned pickles, relish, and jam and the garden is still out there producing.

One of the things I’ve really loved this year is that not only are we filling our pantry (so to speak) with fresh fruits and vegetables to enjoy well into the winter, but we’ve given lots and lots of food away.

Especially peaches. And here’s what I learned about this magnificent fruit … you have to thin them early in the season like you would carrots or beets or anything else. Our tree was so overloaded with fruit I had to pick the fruit to save the tree. But the other thing I learned? Peaches ripen after they’ve been picked.

Peach Tree

Peach tree started from a pit 5 years ago.

I’ve also had this crazy little love affair with the way peas, beans, and cucumbers send their tendrils out to wrap themselves around whatever is nearby, thereby helping them climb rather than crawl. When I have more time I’m going to write a whole essay about that. And the peach tree. Click the pics for a better view.

Of course there’s been the usual shenanigans with bees and flowers.

Next post I’ll talk more about the food and how last year’s redesign to include more perennial foods made for an easier season work wise.

Our Arctic June

So I know I’ve only lived here a few years but everyone says this has been the weirdest, coldest June they’ve EVER seen. Given the warmth at the end of May leading up to it — we’d had a week of lovely warm spring weather hovering from mid to high 20s — I got crazy and planted my tomatoes and squash and excitedly went off to Montréal for a week. I’d only been there 2 days when I heard Nova Scotia, including Halifax, got hit with a surprise freak frost that killed all our tomatoes and most of the cucumbers that had just started to push up from the soil.

But what can you do? I’ve now replanted tomatoes and cucumbers and thrown in some collard greens and zucchini to boot. And even more exciting … I found some sea kale to add to my perennial beds! To read about this amazing plant, click on the plant name. I’ve also added 2 dwarf cherry trees from the ‘Romance series’ out of the University of Saskatchewan: ‘Juliet’ and ‘Valentine’. Click here for information about them.

Mouse over pictures below for caption; click for larger photo.

Despite the arctic June, flowers are budding, insects are pollinating, and we’ve been harvesting lots of delicious greens: lettuce, a few different types of mustard, kale, arugula (my fave). And alerted to the ripeness of certain berries by the noisy, thieving starlings, we’ve been eating lots of haskaps, always the first berries in the spring.

And our side garden, that little strip between our house and our neighbours’ driveway, that I pay hardly any attention to since installing it, seems oblivious to the weather and is looking gorgeous! This used to be nothing but lawn and most plants were gifts from gardening friends and strangers alike. So despite the wind and the cold and this crazy June, I am nothing but blessed. I am now hoping for a beautiful hot summer (well maybe not TOO hot). Mouse over pictures below for caption; click for larger photo.

Annuals & Perennials: working together

Today would have been my mom’s birthday so it seemed like a good time to plant some veggies in her honour. Not that she was the gardener in our family, that was my dad’s specialty, but she could always find a way to feed us with whatever he grew. My cousins, to this day, talk about how my mom taught them to eat cucumbers instead of bananas in their peanut butter sandwiches. So what could be more appropriate than planting cucumbers on her birthday?

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I’m trying a new thing this year in my attempt to keep out unwanted creatures. In the bed above, there are 2 hills at each end into which I sowed probably 10 cucumber seeds each. The rest of the bed contains 4 rows of yellow wax beans. The straw is good on the beans until they start showing themselves and that usually discourages any cavorting but I wanted the cuke hills uncovered. I have no idea why. Just seemed right. So the prayer flags keep the birds off and the stakes surrounding keep the cats out. Or that’s the idea at least. As an aside, I don’t think I’ll ever have to buy stakes again as I have so many of all sizes from the stems of the tall flowers/grasses I can use for biomass…echinacea, sunflowers, filipendula, miscanthus, and so on and on. It’s exciting to see all aspects of the garden come to fruition.

And speaking of fruition…

This is the first year I’ve grown saskatoon berries and those bushes are now in bloom. Ahead of them were the haskaps giving the newly awakening bees something to live for. The currants and blueberries have just begun to show buds and even the kiwi are coming alive.

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One of two Saskatoon Berry bushes in bloom. That’s mugwort in the lower right corner and strawberries upper right. The strawberries actually surround the berry bush.

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One of two Black Currant bushes with 3 Good King Henry spinach plants to the right. These are all part of the perennial beds so, believe it or not, that spinach survives the winter, popping up early with the first greens of the season. Bit of Lemon Balm showing on the left.

It’s still early here for the annual plants and even for the perennials to be showing any kind of good growth…that’s why there’s still so much straw mulch down. Some of that will come up as the plants take over. In other words, better pics next time! But I can’t resist a few more…

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Hazel nut tree. This was basically a stick when we put it in the ground last fall and I had no idea it had such beautiful leaves.

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Hazel nut tree. A different variety and not as pretty as the one with red leaves but I’m hoping it will make up for that with plenty of nuts! Walking Onions (perennial) in the upper left corner.

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Peas starting their race to the top. Yes I know, the trellis not pretty.

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About 2 week old onions (annuals). The flags are to protect the carrot seeds planted between the rows of onions from the birds. Supposedly.

ch-ch-ch-changes

So I had a garden this year, just like every other year, but I haven’t written about it or posted many (any?) pictures because, well… every other year. For a couple of seasons now I’ve been thinking about taking the garden to the next step, I just never knew exactly how to start. This year after talking to Jenn at Halifax Earth, I knew what that next step was.

I want to start following permaculture principles as I think about how I move forward with our back yard garden. So that means more perennial food crops that are low maintenance because the plants are taking care of each other. Basically it means an edible landscape for both the humans who live here and the visiting birds, butterflies, and other pollinators. And it means giving back to the soil in a natural, sustainable, organic manner.

Since I already have beds installed, I decided to change them to a horizontal position and move them to the front of the yard, making the annual veggies more accessible to the house. That would leave the back for the new perennial foods. But first I had to get rid of the grass. So with a little bit of lasagne gardening and horse manure from the local stables…voila!

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Here we see the beds still travel the length of the property though I’ve started pulling the old beds apart. And other than the beds that have not been harvested yet (I think this was in September), the back has been mulched with horse manure and the middle path is on its way.

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The beginning of the new beds. I treated myself to raised beds from Free Spirit Farm who make gorgeous sustainably grown and harvested wood products. And the beds couldn’t be more simple to put together.

Meanwhile, these 2 really great guys were framing up a new house next door. I’d never heard construction guys singing and laughing and having so much fun building a house. So we asked them if they would build us a shed when they were done. They checked out the space and now, yep, we have a shed. Ask and you shall receive.

Then Jenn came over and started in like a mad woman digging and designing as she went…she is fast and strong and really knows her stuff. I was just trying to keep up planting and transplanting behind her. It’s impossible to show the bigger design right now because there are no brightly coloured plants filling in the edges (most are losing their leaves and going dormant) and I don’t have a drone camera but I’ll try again in the spring. So far we’ve planted Saskatoon berries, air potatoes, perennial spinach, Hazel (yes, we’ll have nuts in our back yard!), walking onions, strawberries and so much more to come. Mouse over for captions or click for larger pics.

Meanwhile, we had a pretty good harvest this year including at least 50 peaches from our pit-from-the-compost peach tree and a bunch of sunflowers that we shared with the birds.

The birds are so used to me now that they chow down even if I’m standing right next to them.

So have a great winter! Share with your neighbours. See you in the spring.

Spring 2017: freaking cold

So winter wasn’t too bad this year and, while I know I’ve said we somehow seem to skip spring and go straight to summer here in Halifax, this year I do believe we have spring! I don’t know how to explain it really, maybe I’m just getting used to it. That said, it’s below normal cold. But hey, the garden grows!

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Peas coming up under protection of prayer flags (they keep the birds out).

Beets under the Wire

Beets, slowly but surely, pushing through. Chicken wire keeps the cats out.

Lettuce Seedlings

Lettuce. Chicken wire will stay on until the plants are big enough to take up their space.

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Garlic, planted last fall, off to a good start.

Meanwhile, pain in the ass that it is because they take over the house, tender veggies have been started indoors. I should be able to plant them out in a couple of weeks. Click the pics for captions.

Other than the veggies, I’ve been keeping busy with post-winter cleanup and welcoming the perennials…

So snow shovels are away for another year and gardening tools have been resurrected. Now I’m going to go plant the onions.

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Winter’s over, spring has sprung…the gardener and her extraordinary assistant.

When We Need it Most

Last week a copy of the Whole Seed Catalog arrived in the mail for me. The Whole Seed Catalog is a catalog unlike any other. It is nearly 400 pages of stunning photographs of plants along with guides to growing and harvesting said plants. It includes stories of farmers and seed warriors around the globe. It’s filled with how-to’s on gardening. And of course it has that little white form that allows you to pick and choose and order seeds for yourself.

As if all of that isn’t enough, the whole idea of this catalog holds special resonance for me personally because I was one of a team of people who worked on a project digitizing the real Whole Earth Catalog in the late 1980s. Don’t remember the Whole Earth Catalog? Too young to have even heard of it? Google it. I am feeling transported.

And who amongst us could not use some transporting right about now. I mean every winter, gardeners look forward to thumbing through seed catalogues as we anxiously await spring’s warming soil. But this winter many of our heads are spinning and splitting from the racist, xenophobic, misogynistic coup that is taking place in the united states right now. Our hearts are breaking from the attack on Muslims in Québec City, the ranting of alt-right leaders in Europe. Sometimes you need a flower to soothe your battered soul and when all you have is this…

… it feels wondrous to flip through something like the Whole Seed Catalog. Though don’t get me wrong. I spent close to 20 minutes in below zero weather wandering through my garden of winter detritus. It is still a heart warming event to bear witness to Mother Nature and her always continuing cycles of life and death. There is always something new to see and learn and there is always beauty.

So as we do what we can to bring justice and love into our worlds, let’s also bring refuge. Let’s not forget that Mother Nature is a never-ending sanctuary of life lessons and serenity. Take it wherever you can find it. And pass it on to someone who could use a little peace and love.

Flowers

This is a new daylily, the ‘Niki Jabbour’, named after local gardener, Niki Jabbour. It was grown by Harbour Breezes in Jeddore, Nova Scotia. Shown here are 8 different blooms from 8 different days from July 28-August 12. There appears to still be 2-3 buds to go.

Then there’s the ubiquitous Echinacea purpurea, also known as Purple Coneflower. The bees go crazy for these, sometimes just sleeping in them (or so it seems to me). Butterflies and hummingbirds also love them and they’re a good herb for humans as well.

And speaking of hummingbirds, their favourite actually seems to be the scarlet Bee Balm. At this point, they’re nearly finished but both the bees and the hummers are still visiting.

A bit of a wilder view below… that tall white flower in the back (L) is Yucca and the tall pink flower in the back (R) is filipendula. Monarda, aka bee balm, and some kind of daisy in front.

I’m all about the food growing but what I love about the flowers is not only their beauty but the fact that they’re food for the pollinators. Whatever feeds the pollinators ultimately feeds us.

Top left to right: Iris, ‘Oscar Peterson’ Rose, pink tubular flower (?), a bee hugs a bean, lupins, dahlia, hops.