Creating harmony, simplicity and peace in the landscape......

"Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help.

Gardening is an instrument of grace. " - May Sarton

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Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Garden Lady chats about Heaven is a Garden

C.L.Fornari photo of flower ice cubes in a serene garden in Cape Cod

C.L. Fornari, aka The Garden Lady, has a wonderful garden radio show that airs every Saturday on the Cape Cod station WRKO from 12-2 p.m. You can hear it as a podcast online.

Her show covers many gardening and landscaping topics and she discusses her favorite plants and answers listeners' gardening questions.

 C.L. is also the author of the inspiring book, The Cocktail Hour Garden: Creating Evening Landscapes for Relaxation and Entertaining
The Cocktail Hour Garden shows how to enjoy that special evening hour in the garden

I was especially thrilled a week ago to be interviewed by C.L. about my book, Heaven is a Garden.  She asked some great questions about what is music for the eye in a garden and how to make your garden in tune with the four directions. C.L. is an insightful interviewer and I wanted to  share our short and fun chat with you!

Click below to hear our conversation or even read the transcript:

The Garden Lady radio chat with Jan Johnsen about Heaven is a Garden, 2016 









Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hip Hip Hooray for Rose Hips

rose hips photo by Jan Johnsen

 Allow your roses to form hips. Did you know that, like many plants that produce fruit, the formation of rose hips is a signal to the rose to go dormant for the season?

from Monrovia - Japanese rose 


Rose hips provide wonderful color in the garden and are a good source of vitamin C for birds in the fall and winter. 
They are one of the highest plant sources of Vitamin C. 'Cherry Pie' Rose makes great rose hips:

Oso Easy Cherry Pie Rose -from May Dreams Garden Blog 


You can eat them too. Rose hips are used for jam, jelly, syrup, soup, beverages, pies, bread, and wine. They can also be eaten raw if care is used to avoid the hairs inside the fruit.  The redder they are, the softer and sweeter.  

source: live by the sun blog 









Friday, November 18, 2016

Speaking with Earth Spirits



Amsonia foliage sparkles in fall

Speaking with Earth Spirits 

Deep down, in the warmth of the fecund earth,
the spirits sing songs of life.
Hoping we hear, they inhale and exhale along with the seasons.

Beautyberry in November

Now, in the cool days of November,
they sing to us of rest and replenishment 
and ask us to be calm.


Molinia stands tall in late fall

The time has come to listen
and of course, to rake the leaves...the leaves...

- Jan Johnsen

the deep reds of November









Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Renew Your Garden Tools!

Caked on dirt on these shovels....

 Winter is the time to get your garden tools in shape... hand tools such as shovels, picks, trowels, loppers, etc. should be cleaned, sharpened and well oiled.

Steel wool can clean off any rust or caked-on dirt.

And pure white vinegar works to remove rust too: pour into a bucket or small plastic tub. Submerse rusty pruning shears in the solution and soak overnight, or roughly 24 hours. The acid of the vinegar eats away at most of the surface rust.  Wash off the next day...for more on this go to the Backyard Boss article on cleaning pruning shears. 


This photo is from a great article about renewing your tools. Click here


But the most important thing I have found is to make sure to oil the tools. It is a rust preventative and a wood saver. 

Moss in the City

A while back, in our shop (I own a landscape design/build firm and we have trucks, crews and lots of tools) we would have a large container filled with sand and motor oil and put our tools in it. 

...the sand acts an abrasive to remove dirt and the oil prevents rust. But this is not so smart.

Why? Because the petroleum oil goes from the tool into the soil! 

Today's Homeowner 

Blake Schreck of the Garden Tool Company knows a thing or two about garden tools.  And his timely advice is to use boiled linseed oil.

Linseed oil is derived from the dried seeds of the flax plant and is a great alternative to any petroleum based product. 

The Garden Tool Co. oils every tool that does not have a finish on it already before it ships.
Blake notes: "A cautionary note: The boiled linseed oil that is available today has a small amount of solvent added to it to keep it from hardening in the can, so after you apply it to your metal and wood, let it dry completely before using your tool, (about 24 hours) that way the solvent will have evaporated."


Garden Tool Company - Border-Spade-with-T-Handle-by-Sneeboer

Remember to use BOILED linseed oil which dries quickly. 

Actual linseed oil can take ages to dry!  

Just dip a rag (cotton wool or a cloth) in the boiled oil and coat a thin layer of oil on the metallic parts. Make sure to cover evenly and do not be tempted to add multiple coats or a thick layer of oil.  Let it sit for about 15 minutes and then wipe off excess. 





Its a good idea to oil the wood handles as well to prevent cracking. 
Thicker layers take longer to dry and often do not dry to form a hard surface and multiple layers of thin coats are also not a good idea, because they become prone to being removed when scratched.
I have also heard about Ballistol. lt is 85% mineral oil and maintains, protects, preserves metal and unpainted wooden surfaces. 

Ballistol is biodegradable, and neither its use nor its disposal will pollute air or water. It comes in an aerosol and pourable version. It has a sweet and mildly pungent smell similar to black licorice

Want to learn more about garden tool maintenance? Please see Blake Schreck's "Garden Tool Care and Maintenance" article by Blake Schreck.














Monday, October 10, 2016

Garden Design Magazine's New Gorgeous Videos!


This is a great magazine.

Have you noticed that I love the new Garden Design Magazine?

At every talk I give, I gush about it.  It is a gorgeous magazine devoted to garden design and plants. Every article is fascinating. It comes every few months.

Dwarf NY Asters featured in the Fall issue of Garden Design magazine


Now they have upped their game even more and have developed some fabulous videos that share with you a little of what is in their issue....

Jim Peterson, the publisher and driving force behind the magazine, plans to make three kinds of videos. The first supports stories in the magazine. The second is about garden features that are popular and on the fabulous Garden Design website  and the third will be about garden design and will be made in collaboration with designer,  Richard Hartlage.

Here is an interview with the editor of Garden Design magazine, Thad Orr, talking about the magazine and what is covered. It is a gem of a magazine and I urge you to subscribe to it!




Here is Thad Orr talking about the article about Desert Native Plants - wow!





Get your first issue free when you subscribe, use www.gardendesign.com/jan







Wednesday, October 5, 2016

October Glory in the Garden

October Skies Aster- Jan Johnsen 


 In my part of the world - New York State - October is when Mother Nature shines.  The days are shorter, the sun is low in the sky, but the weather stays warm enough for the flowering plants to hang on.

 I design and install gardens with October in mind because it is now when people have time to appreciate their grounds - it is too cold for the beach and graduations and summer parties are a memory. This is when people can stop and savor a garden. 

The design of Fall gardens is something I urge my students to master because these gardens prolong our enjoyment of Nature's gracious gifts.  

And, more importantly, they quietly trumpet the siren call of the garden muse who is about to take her leave...but not just yet.....she sticks around to give it one last show....


So in that vein, I am describing a little of what goes into making a autumn flower border... I know most readers simply enjoy the photos but maybe a few are interested in the 'gory details'. 

the holly backdrop here hides a deer fence

The flower border shown above is at the bottom of a long, gradual hill - thus, water collected here in great pools after a rain. It was wet and soggy a good deal of the time. Many plants would not have lived in this wetness so I had large amounts of soil brought in to create a high mounded bed to lift them above the damp conditions. 

Additionally, we had a 'field' of subsurface pipes (set in gravel) installed in front of the border to catch and carry away the runoff. We then graded and laid sod to create a lawn atop the pipes.

Please know it is always about the grading and the drainage..the plants come later....

Farther uphill I planted shrub roses - 'Sunny' Knock Out Roses and beyond is another flower border featuring Nepeta, Japanese wind anemones, garden phlox, goldenrod..


'Sunny' Knock Out Roses are three shades of light yellow / white...luscious.


One of my 'fave rave' perennial flowers for October (in my part of the world) is Japanese Wind Anemone...gently waving in the cool breeze. Its dainty flowers are the jewels of the flower world.




And of course some flowers of summer persist into fall and are actually more glorious now than ever...Lantana is a strong October performer.

White Lantana in October next to Blue Spruce globosum

also don't forget the berries! Winterberry likes it moist.. feeds the birds and is a native.


Love that winterberry...



and now that October is coming to a close...on to November!

Steinhardt garden bridge in NY in October -   photo by Jan Johnsen

I am speaking with Kerry Ann Mendez and Karen Bussolini at the Fall Garden Symposium in Stockbridge, Mass on Oct 20, 2016..
Go here for more info.














Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Beyond Prison : Insight Garden Program



Otisville Correctional Facility - where I taught but it was not this nice looking back then

In the 1970s, I was a part of a team that taught a one year intensive certificate program on Landscape Development and Maintenance at a community college near New Paltz, NY.

I was a young instructor but was very earnest and devoted to teaching. Then one day the president of the college called me in and told me that I, alone, would be teaching all my courses at a men's correctional facility 44 miles away. 


What??!! all my classes? away from the campus? in a prison?


After much protesting, I was sent 'away' to teach the entire program at a men's prison. Well, as often happens, it was one of the best experiences in my life. I taught full time there for 2 years and still cherish the memories.



Otisville Correctional Facility classroom  - but not my specific class

I have a lot of fun stories. We installed walks, plant beds and even a solar greenhouse (it was donated by a friend who had it on his property)  where we grew organic salad greens. I was not backed by any grants or organizations - I just forged ahead.

I taught college level classes on plant identification and usage, horticultural techniques 1 and 2, soil science, landscape design, greenhouse management tree and shrub pruning, small engine repair and turfgrass management. 


The best thing was to hear from my students later (mostly black and Latino from NYC) who got out and got jobs based on their hort. training and their knowledge of landscape plants. One student got a high position with the Parks department, he wrote such a wonderful letter thanking me.


I left after 2 years and I never found out what happened to our solar greenhouse. Today I hear that similar programs are happening around the country and it makes me so glad.  


As a kid from the city, I know exactly how life-changing developing a connection with the natural world can be: I remember being 20 years old when I realized that sunflower seeds came from a real sunflower and not a box. An epiphany.




Today, Kallopeia Foundation is supporting transformative prison programming (see their multi-media website here: www.beyondprison.us) including a project called the Insight Garden Program



Here, inmates at San Quentin prison in Northern California are offered vocational training in horticulture and are also introduced to holistic practices like mindfulness meditation. I love this approach because it enhances a connection to nature. Click here: http://insightgardenprogram.org/

from the Insight program
Please check out their article called Beyond Prison - Breaking New Ground (click on this) from the website. They are doing a great job!

We need to offer more opportunities for all city kids to touch the earth and work with it - not just in prison. Landscape development careers offer the grounding we all need in this screen-dominated age. 



they have a video too - go to their site








Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Rolling Crabapples - smile

Rock Art by Thomas D Kent, Jr
This is funny. 

 Glenn Eichler wrote an open letter to the New York Botanical Garden in 2014 in the New Yorker regarding his love of their rock garden. He felt it deserved more attention: 

"...rocks—dragged by glaciers, striped and striated by, I guess, also glaciers—deserve better. 

Not sexy? Compared to what, the Donald J. Bruckmann Crabapple Collection? 

No disrespect to Mr. Bruckmann, but Mick Jagger and Keith Richards haven’t spent fifty years playing to sold-out crowds as the Rolling Crabapples, the world’s greatest crabapple-and-roll band."

Glenn has a point, don't you think?

Mick Jagger in garden






Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Glorious Sunflower - The Fourth Sister


 I have written about the Native Americans' Three Sisters Garden (corn, beans and squash ) but I neglected to tell you of the Fourth Sister...

a very important member of this family!

This is from Hubpages

"Fourth Sister, didn't look anything like her other sisters, although she was as tall and as slender as First Sister (corn) . That seemed fair to all, because Third Sister and Second Sister shared similar but different features. They could climb and run, while their other two sisters were forced to stand tall and proud."

Mother Sun explained that each sister had her job and each had to benefit from and protect one another.  But Fourth Sister's job was most important of all -- for she was the guardian of the North, planted firmly, to protect others from the robbers who soon would come.



The fourth sister was the elegant sunflower.


The Sisters are known to the Native Americans as the “mothers of life”  but they all need each other to survive. 
  • Corn uses the nitrogen supplied by the nitrogen fixing roots of the beans and provides a place for the beans to climb.
  • The squash suppresses weeds and keeps the soil shaded and moist.
  • The prickly leaves of the squash provide a deterrent from four legged raiders of corn.



So what does the Sunflower do?


The sunflowers keep the birds from devouring the corn.

How? Well, true sunflowers exhibit the heliotropic habit of following the sun through the day but when they are full of sunflower seeds they stay facing the east.

Thus when sunflowers are planted to the north of the garden patch, the birds see the sunflowers first thing in the morning sun and dine on the sunflower seeds rather than the corn kernels....


The FOUR SISTERS celebrate the harmony of nature and bring abundance to farmers and happiness to the well fed home.

By the way, the true giant sunflower is used as an emblem of the philosophy of Spiritualism.

They see the sunflower as forever looking to the light and applaud its unique arithmetic: supposedly each sunflower has

  • 12 sets of leaves ( months in a year) , 
  • 52 yellow petals (52 weeks in a year)  
  • 365 seeds (365 days in a year).


I cannot verify this but that is the story..... I hope it is true.







Sunday, September 4, 2016

Verbena Bonariensis - Verbena on a Stick


Verbena Bonariensis is tall and airy and one of my fave flowers.

  It blooms like crazy all summer into fall. I plant it next to walls and fences for a stunning effect. Here I mixed it with white cosmos -   purple and white is such a great garden combination. 

The lavender clusters are held high on wiry stems that wave in the breeze from mid summer to frost. 

Called "verbena on a stick", it is a hummingbird magnet and is an easy flower to grow. 

It prefers full sun in well-drained soil. Remove top 1/4 of plant periodically to force new buds.   








Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Sky and Earth - a Union We Overlook at Our Peril

Farm in Upstate NY - photo Jan Johnsen

I often write about creating beautiful outdoor environments to lift our spirits and enhance our wellbeing but we cannot be comfortable if the health of our planet is deteriorating.

We talk about restoring balance to the earth. This starts with the soil. Once the soil is revitalized the atmosphere and weather will correct itself.  

Here is why: the sky and earth interact.

In other words, droughts come from poor soils, pollution and other inharmonious activities on the ground. Fix the soil and the droughts and storms will subside. 



So start with fertilizing the soil - this does not mean applying more soluble nitrogen fertilizers loaded with anhydrous ammonia or nitrates. Doing this to plants is like feeding them amphetamines. Reliance on poisons to grow our food is one of our major problems right now. 

Changing this practice will help our atmosphere greatly. But it is not a quick process so we better start now.


At this point you may be skeptical but think of it this way- ammonium and urea-based fertilizers that we use to grow our food crops are susceptible to loss as ammonia (NH3 ) gas, especially when left on the soil surface. Ammonia gas from fertilizer has a negative effect on air quality and human health. Where are many of our crops grown? In the San Joaquin valley of California.  Here is a photo of atmospheric NH3 over the San Joaquin Valley in 2008 (measured by the IASI satellite). It shows the most concentrated area of NH3 in the air in red.  That was many years ago...guess what happened to California since then?
San Joaquin Valley, California - Harmful Gas emissions from Nitrogen fertilizers

 If you want to know more about this - click here. 

Healthy soil is a teeming world that contains a symbiosis of fungi, minerals, organisms and more. Root structures interact with these ingredients to elevate levels of certain nutrients. It is an interacting and amazing network.

For example, legumes such as beans, alfalfa and peas bring oxygen to the root tips and release oxalic acid. They affect lime levels, nitrogen and more in the soil (cation exchange, etc. its complicated). Legume's beneficial activity is augmented in the presence of certain crop roots that exude carbohydrates, like corn or sugar cane. 


You can see this in full force in the Four sisters method of crop planting used by the Native Americans:  corn, beans, squash and sunflower. 

  • The corn is deep rooted, mining the soil for minerals and exuding carbs to the soil, 
  • Beans 'fix' nitrogen and  elevate the lime 
  • Squash covers the soil to prevent weeds, 
  • The sunflower's stems, leaves and pollen contain phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium. They can be composted in the soil to help keep it nourished.  
Buy from Renees Garden 

Add to this, composts, compost tea, rock dusts or pulverized quartz and seaweed or kelp and the soil will start to sing. 

This is vastly different from using soluble fertilizer that releases harmful gas to the sky - 

we should be building a matrix in the soil that is alive and healthy.

So Governor Brown,  please address the state of agriculture in California asap 

and the skies will rain upon the earth once again.









Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Garden Photo of the Day - Late Summer Foliage Tapestry

Garden photo of the Day by Jan Johnsen
This is a foliage tapestry to plant in a pot or in a bed or around rocks...Sedum Lidakaense ( purple), Sedum Angelina (yellow) and Cerastium or Snow in Summer (silvery-white).

Easy to grow, loves the sun and heat, and needs little root room. Voila!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Great True story about Organic Soil

Tony Avent runs the wonderful Plant Delights Nursery - offering a diverse collection of plants and the catalog is a collectors' item

On April 29, 2010 Anne Raver of the New York Times asked:  "How does Tony Avent, the horticultural mythbuster, grow so many plants successfully in his garden?

Rule No. 1: he uses the same mix of 40 percent native soil, dug on his own land, and 60 percent compost for every plant.

''The soil for every plant we have is prepared exactly the same, whether it's a pitcher plant or an agave,'' ....

After he switched to organics, he said, ''it took about a year before everything started jumping. Our insect problems disappeared. It was just amazing.'' ...."


This observation took me back to 1972 when I was a landscape architecture student at the University of Hawaii and minoring in tropical agriculture

The university farm was in Pearl City ( next to Pearl Harbor) and it was divided into one large section devoted to standard agriculture (agribusiness majors)  plots and a very small section reluctantly relegated to organic gardens (run by us 'hippie haoles' who were studying tropical agriculture)...


I had come to Hawaii via Kenya and was very interested in saving the world through tropical organic gardening.
This is me in Pearl City, Hawaii tending to my vegetable garden years ago - note the Kenyan Kikoy I was wearing..the latest in fashionable gardening clothes.. .:-)

The agriculture students got stipends for their seeds, fertilizer and pesticides...

the organic students got nothing....and you know what happened?

                                                                                                                                  

Well,  every semester the organic plots got better and better because the soil was being improved consistently with fish emulsion and compost ( a local health services organization was training mentally disabled students on how to make compost on premises)

while every semester the big fertilized plots run by the aggies got worse and worse...this was back when 'organic' was some weird, unrealistic approach to agriculture....and no professor back then would acknowledge what was pretty evident to the eyes.  The crops treated with herbicides and chemical fertilizers were poor and weak....


Of course, it didn't help when the campus newspaper did a cover story on our 'new organic plots' at Pearl City..and they interviewed me.

I talked about how our crops were flourishing and about a new (ha!) organic pest control called BT -bacillus thuringensis. After that interview,  I presented a report to a Hawaii legislature committee on why Oahu should use their sewage sludge in a soil fertilizer similar to Milwaukee's Milorganite ....

they didn't go for it but look at what is out there today:


Now, almost 40 years later, I marvel at how long it took society to understand what we - the hippies - knew:  Organic is the only way...it is Nature's Way.

And look at what they offer at Pearl City today:

Organic Gardening!

Live demonstrations by UH Master Gardeners including Organic Gardening 101, Building Healthy Soil, and Composting! First demonstration begins 9AM -10AM, next session 10:30AM -11:30AM. 

Composting Worms for Hawaii  
Small-Scale Vermicomposting 
Backyard Composting Recycling a Natural Product 
Building Healthy Garden Soil
Organic Gardening Resources


We have come a long way....

The truth is that true tranquility lies in compost and happy earthworms....

And if you live in Connecticut you should know about these people too:


And you should know:

Authentic Haven Products - Compost tea