A Fresh Start

GardenOn.SempervivumurnIt turns out moving cross country with a young family and starting a new job didn’t leave me with much of anything to give to a new blog project, and so 2016 saw very little growth here at Garden On! LOTS of garden exploring and learning, just no writing. This past January I resigned from my dreamy job with the Garden Conservancy Open Days program to focus on our little darlings (Sprout 1 and Sprout 2), and almost immediately felt a small spark of possibility …like maybe a reboot of Garden On could/should happen?

Then I spent three months thinking about this first post back. (Kiss of death for doing anything new.) So without further ado, this post marks a fresh start for Garden On! It already feels good to be back.

A quick note about the photo above. Last season this adorable urn planted with sempervivum (hens and chicks) lived as the centerpiece on our patio dining table all year long. It was sweet and small and stayed mostly out of the way. Then, last week I picked it up and set it on a table nearby without really giving it much thought (it was one of those pot moving days…) and POW! It was exactly what that spot needed. Suddenly the urn, the pot behind it, the table – the whole vignette came to life. I didn’t mean to do it.

I love these garden moments; both the thrill of making them by accident, and also the delight of finding a perfectly fitting composition of any kind (pots, rocks, plants, etc) when exploring a garden. So now I’m on a mission to pay attention to small, thoughtful details this season. Who knows if the magic can happen again – on purpose this time.

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Phyllis, the Amaryllis


Every new start has to begin somewhere, I just never thought mine would be in the Trash Room.

The first member of my new West Coast starting-from-scratch plant collection was a cast-off holiday plant someone was throwing out when we were in corporate housing. At first, I left it alone. I wanted my first plant acquisition to be special! But after a few trips to get rid of the gift wrapping refuse, I just couldn’t leave her there any longer. (Kind of like puppy eyes at the pound, I guess). And I’m pretty sure I’ll always remember this amaryllis from our first Christmas in California.

I couldn’t resist naming her, of course. Meet Phyllis.
(The tag claims she’s typical red, but I would swear her spent blooms – still attached when thrown away – look pink. Nice!)

Goodbye, Garden


I enthusiastically embrace this opportunity I’ve been given to learn about hundreds of new plants and the growing season and the amazing gardens and nurseries here in the Bay Area. I’ve even already managed to start up a minimal container garden on the patio while in temporary housing. But before I start talking about that, I figured I should introduce – and say a final farewell to – my former garden in Wallkill, NY.


I do actually shed a tear when I think of my old garden, which I’m pretty sure is serving as an emotional catchall for everything I’m sad to have left behind with our move across the country. Our home and garden were very much a work in progress that was nowhere near done. We lived and grew there for nine years, during which time our two sons were born.

For nine years I looked at and thought about my garden every day; my design dreams were big, the task lists long, and the creative satisfaction complete. Looking back through the couple of thousand (!) photographs I’ve taken was fun. I laughed out loud to see just how many plants I killed. And I was happy to find that so many of the photos made me recall a moment from our lives, or a lesson learned, or how a certain plant came to be mine – where it came from and who I was with …. So I’ve decided to first share photos that spoke to me while reviewing, or have a story to tell, rather than give a tour. I’ll save the prettiest shots for a second post.

GardenOn.Bruyns.DaffWe bought our house in October of 2006, and the following spring brought a few pleasant surprises. The first was the many clumps of daffodils in the meadow at the far end of the lawn. The family that owned the house for decades before us were greenhouse growers, and I imagined they took the unsold easter pots and threw them into the field to sink or swim. I transplanted all the clumps of white into the garden over the years, never bothered to look into what variety it was. But there was an outstanding, yellow and green-streaked double that I regret not digging and stashing at a friend’s before we left. I’m pretty sure it’s ‘Van Sion’. These meadow daffs served as my spring cutting garden.

GardenOn.Bruyns.DaffsPerhaps those surprise daffodils helped shape me into such an enthusiastic bulb lover? Pictured above are some of the dozen varieties of narcissus that I added to the garden, along with a few thousand other bulbs, over the years.

The other surprise was found under the lawn that went right up to the patio door. (The walk-out basement with door to the garden was one of my favorite parts of the house from the first time I saw it.) My dad died unexpectedly earlier that spring, and I spent every day off from work gardening – and crying. One of my first garden projects was trying to clear a bed along the old front steps and foundation when thunk! – I hit something. There was an old paver patio under all that grass, and I was able to work out a lot of anguish excavating that Hidden Patio. I referred to this part of the garden as such from that point on.

GardenOn.Bruyns.PatioThe Hidden Patio garden. A few years later, I decided gravel would be better for this area and we reused the pavers as edging.


This photo made me flash back
to how hard Todd worked
scraping, sanding, priming and painting the entire house. I was working weekends then at the
garden center, and he did it himself with some help from his mom.
A large elephant ear container
sits atop the old well amongst the mess.


Daylily “Sir Modred” was irresistible for it’s almost-black color and Arthurian name. One of many, many plants that I acquired at the nursery where I was working. An examination of our finances back then may have revealed I was working to support my new, completely out of control in the best of ways gardening habit. Lots of half-dead plants destined for the compost heap found happy homes in our garden as well.


The Holding Area. Wow, I’m really putting all of my ugly on display up front, eh? Every garden needs a work area. Mine also served as potting station, with potting bench built by Todd (I’ll have to share that design someday…), compost pile to the right, and plant limbo where all the many pots of plants that I divided, swapped for, rescued, bought for no reason, or couldn’t resist at auction came to wait their turn.


The Road Border. My first experiment with a large-scale mixed planting bed. This border was always getting tweaked, both by my own hand and nature’s choice a la self-sowers and die off. Each new season brought a new show. Privacy was achieved quickly by a few Miscanthus ‘Silberfeder’ and ‘Variegatus’ as well as Viburnum plicatum “Summer Snowflake.” The blue spruce was a live Christmas tree rescued from work, and a reference to the tree that grew in my front yard as a kid on Long Island.

GardenOn.Bruyns.RoadBedThis planting area was completed in stages because, as you can see, I needed to make really big beds. Not such a feat when you hire a landscape crew with machines and lots of muscle, but I was one gal with a wheelbarrow and hand tools and I wanted lots of big gardens fast. I learned quickly how fantastic the smothering method works, and you can read Margaret Roach’s explanation of this technique here. Garden smarter, not harder! Above you can see a big push to link two existing beds, wrapping around the large ash tree and creating a continuous garden space between our property and the road.


The Road Border in early spring looking back towards the house.


IMG_1577My former garden was a total Hellebore farm. Early on I ordered one three-pack of Helleborus x hybridus from Bluestone Perennials (50% off!) and every year there were tons of babies. My hellebore crop was so plentiful that I was never tempted by any of the fancier names varieties. They thrived under many of the shade trees, in front of the deck, next to the driveway…there were days I wondered “Is it too much Hellebore?”

HA! We all know there’s no such thing.


Another important thing I learned with this garden is that hardscape must come first and don’t skimp, skip or be lazy about this part – the backbone of every good garden. Often the most successful projects or improvements made in our garden had nothing to do with planting. Above is a sliver of space that existed between a concrete driveway and a low rock wall. When I finally got around to digging it out, leveling it, and filling it with leftover driveway gravel (Hey hon, remember that time I ordered twice as many tons of gravel than we needed?) it became a stage for some of my potted plant collection and one of my favorite garden spaces. This is the kind of small moments I love most in a garden.


The Well Garden was another of my favorites areas. Nestled in a corner outside both a kitchen and living room window was an old well cap. Already covered with moss and lichen, it begged to become something more, and planning a new container planting each year was something I looked forward to.


This Lycoris photo always makes me laugh. When I started blogging about my garden, I was shocked to see how many hits a post about this plant received. And then I realized folks finding their way to my site were probably disappointed to see the “Naked Ladies” I was speaking of. I was on the local garden tour once and I dug up Lycoris bulbs to share, happy to pass along this plant that I’d inherited with the property.


Change is one of the most powerful, but not most often talked about, elements of a garden – and it’s part of what I love the most. In this photo it’s not the plants or the garden that are on the cusp of transformation; me, weeding on my hands and knees an hour before heading to the hospital to have our first son, Henry.


Photographing the garden was an important tool for so many reasons. I have gone back and looked at these images countless times through the years for reference and planning; there is absolutely no way I could remember a fraction of the “data” captured by the camera each season.You see things you might not notice otherwise and having a camera in your hands means you’re not weeding, watering or pinching – providing time spent in the garden slowly observing and appreciating.

And because I took all those photographs, I can visit my former garden any time I like.

GardenOn.Bruyns.ToDrivewayI can feel my tired back and legs working to make it up this hill to go inside at the end of a marathon work session in the garden – there were so many! I don’t recall ever being relieved or happy I was done for the day, I’d have stayed (out there) forever if I could have.


Care to see a little bit more? Photo favorites from this garden in my next post – coming soon!



Performance Anxiety?


Bring your kids plant shopping – it’s just as much fun for them as any other outdoor environment.

I don’t know what my problem is, but so far (Days living on West Coast: 5) I have been unable to make a plant purchase. And not for lack of opportunity. I met a cool succulent seller, Cody from Kaprielian Growers, at the Mountain View farmers market last Sunday who had a fun selection and great prices. Then, today, the kids and I went to check out SummerWinds Nursery, also in Mountain View, and left with an empty trunk.

GardenOn.PlanerideWhat the heck!?! Goodness knows I’ve racked up enough plant-buying points supervising and surviving a cross-country move with an infant, toddler, cat and husband. I also gave away my entire potted plant collection. And left my garden behind, not to mention friends and family. There are definitely many new garden buys to be had in the near future, but for some reason I just can’t get this party started. Please stay tuned, the curse is sure to lift any day now…

Have a local nursery or grower to recommend – please share in the comments below!


Adios, overwintering!

I was looking through past garden photos of my own garden – getting ready to share a nostalgic look back, and sort of giving them one last goodbye peek before we move in ONE WEEK – and came across this gem.


Guess I wont have to deal with this anymore, eh?

For the plant-crazy folk who garden in colder climates – like the Hudson Valley’s zone 5 – keeping tender plants alive from year to year is part challenge, part hoarder and all garden nerd. It connects us. It excites us. It impresses us! “Ooooh, your garage is heated?” “My, what a large and healthy brugmansia you have!”

Which plants come in when, what goes into the basement vs the garage vs the unheated shed – it’s all part of the advanced gardening game that allows us to maintain a diverse collection of larger and more varied specimens that no one could afford to replace every year.

And now I won’t have to worry about that. Ok! I guess. I can’t wait to see what seasoned gardeners dish about in our new, much warmer, home.

(Note the trowel frozen in ice inside the garden trug)