seasonal interest

Planting the Healing Garden: Plant Bulbs Now for Spring Joy

Siberian squill (Scilla siberica). Photo by Naomi Sachs

Siberian squill. Photo by Naomi Sachs

The growing season may be winding down, but the gardening season is still in full-swing (and I don’t just mean raking!). Fall is a great time for planting many shrubs, trees and perennials (it’s a good time to divide those perennials as well). It’s also the only time to plant most spring-blooming bulbs. After enduring a long winter with few signs of life in the garden, is there anything more exciting than seeing the first snowdrops appear? They are a sorely needed sign that spring – and more importantly, the end of winter – is imminent. Spring bulbs cheer up any landscape, and they give interest to a garden when most plants are either still dormant or just starting to leaf out.


Daffodils in April. Photo by Naomi Sach

Just like it’s hard to bring ourselves to buy a wool sweater in summer, even if it’s on sale, it’s a challenge to think about spring bulbs when summer is in her full glory. Which is fine, since that’s not the time to plant them anyway. If your garden is like mine, then its major bloom-time is now over, and you’re starting to see some holes, which is also what you’ll see in early spring. The perfect time to assess your garden and decide where to plant the earliest bloomers.

Some of my favorite bulbs are snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), crocuses, daffodils (Narcissus spp.), Siberian squill, and early iris (Iris reticulata), but there are many more. The Better Homes and Gardens website has a nice slideshow of early bloomers, and BBC Gardening Guides has a good primer on bulb basics. So go ahead, get some bulbs in the ground – you’ll be delighted in the spring!

Postscript: I got this wonderful comment from a member on the TLN’s Facebook page and would like to share it here, because I think she summed it up so perfectly: “I think bulbs are especially important in healing gardens because of their early awakening in the gray thaw of early spring; always the promise of renewed life!”

Planting the Healing Garden: The Quiet Joys of Early Spring

And now it is April. I was walking in a friend’s garden this afternoon and everywhere we turned, things were budding and leafing out. He kept saying “It’s all happening!” And it truly is. Actually, it has been for a little while now, but it a quiet sort of way.

I never used to like March. Growing up in northeastern Connecticut, March always felt much more like the last, grey, dreary, incredibly long month of winter rather than the first month of spring. When I lived in Berkeley during graduate school, March was lovely, of course. The incessant winter rains finally ceased, and the Ceanothus and rosemary bloomed, and the world felt right again. Then I moved to Santa Fe, NM, where March meant fierce winds that blew the ever-present dust into every nook and cranny of everything. And then I moved to the Hudson Valley. And after five years of thinking that I hated March (and very early April), I finally this year have come to realize that it’s actually one of my favorite times.

And here is why: March (or very early spring, really, which is March where I live) is about discovery. Before spring really takes off and everything bursts forth with verdant new growth and loud, colorful flowers like some tacky prom fashion show, we see spring’s emergence more slowly and subtly. Each new discovery is cause for celebration, a light at the end of winter’s tunnel. One day I see yellow on the fat Forsythia buds. The next day, they began to open, and I also notice the first new soft green growth of lady’s mantle pushing up through the soil amidst last fall’s leaves. The next day, I see the downy buds of the service berries, and every day they get bigger and bigger and soon they will open into delicate white flowers which will last only a week or two before the branches’ bright leaves begin to emerge.

To me, this time of year feels like falling in love. There is so much to discover, and it’s all wonderful. As in, I walk around filled with wonder and delight, like my “it’s all happening!” friend.

So if you can appreciate these small joys, before spring kicks into overdrive, please share them with others. Take a walk with your children and point out the little treasures that are emerging each day. Instill in them your love of nature so that they will become stewards for the next generation. Walk in the garden, or even just gaze out the window, with your mother or grandmother or the old man who lives next door and see what you both can see. Older eyes don’t always catch the small things, but they will appreciate the new life if it’s pointed out to them. I promise you, your world, and theirs, will feel all the richer and more meaningful for it. And that’s what a “healing garden” is all about.

Project Bud Burst – Be a Citizen Scientist!

Photo of flowering dogwood by Henry Domke

At this time of year, one sure-fire way to get yourself (and others) outside is to look for signs of spring. And like the Great Backyard Bird Count, Project BudBurst empowers us to become “citizen scientists,” observing the phenology, or recurring first phases, of plants.

For a good explanation of phenology, see Shawn Moriarty’s blog post, “How do you know it is spring?” A phenophase is the first phase of a plant’s cycle (first leaf, leaves unfolding, first flower, etc.).
By reporting when we see what, we contribute valuable environmental and climate change information. So go ahead, get out there, and get your kids and students and parents out there, too! It’s a great way to learn about the environment, connect to nature, and contribute to science, all at the same time.
Thanks to the Grass Stain Guru for her post about Project BudBurst; that’s how I found out about it, so thanks, Bethe!

Surviving the Winter by Connecting with Nature…from Indoors (Part V)

Sometimes it’s best to stay indoors…

I’ve managed to string this series of posts out long enough that it feels like spring is just around the corner…and perhaps for some of you in milder areas, it is. Here in Zone 5 New York, we still have a good few inches of snow on the ground, and the wind is making what is technically an above-freezing day feel like it’s well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. So, I’m enjoying writing this post from the comfort of my office, which overlooks part of the garden, including a witch hazel in full bloom. Seeing this harbinger of spring, with her strange beautiful blossoms, always lifts my spirits and gives me hope. For more on other early spring bloomers, take a look at this post.

witch hazel, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’

During this series on “surviving the winter by staying connected to nature,” I’ve mentioned those times when we just can’t get outside. Maybe the weather or the walking conditions are just too harsh or dangerous. Maybe our physical condition limits how much we can get out. Fortunately, there are still things that we can do, from the comfort of our homes, to keep us connected to nature until spring. That’s what this post is about: Connecting with nature, from indoors.

Watch the birds, and other wildlife, through your window
We covered birdwatching in a recent post (as well as other wildlife, if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where you can see it), and I hope that some of you were able to participate in this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count. You can participate all year long with Project Feeder Watch – click on the link to learn more.

Enjoy your indoor plants
Did you know that people who work in places with live indoor plants have significantly higher levels of job satisfaction than those with no plants? It’s true! See this blog post for more on that. Another recent study found that postoperative patients with flowering and foliage plants in their rooms fared better than those with no plants, including needing less pain medication and recovering faster. So there’s a real scientific reason for taking flowers to people in the hospital. This TLN Blog post lists that and several other similar research studies. If indoor plants are good in the workplace and at the hospital, you can bet that they’re good for us at home, too. Indoor plants are also excellent air purifiers. Here are some more resources:

1. Plants That Heal: Indoor Therapeutic Gardens – An article by Planterra about one of their indoor hospital gardens, with great information about how plants purify the air.

2.’s list of the Top 5 Plants for Improving Indoor Air Quality.

3. Living on Earth’s list of “Ten Eco-Friendly House Plants.”

4. A really heartwarming story (also from Living on Earth) about students at Stuyvesant High School (above), which is just blocks away from Ground Zero, who received indoor plants from nurseries after the attacks on September 11, 2001, as a way to purify the air.

Image from

Force bulbs and branches
When spring just won’t hurry up and get here fast enough, we can do something to hurry it along called “forcing,” with bulbs and flowering branches of shrubs and trees. Putting these plants in water in the warmth of our homes fools them into thinking that spring has arrived, and they go about sending up shoots and flowers. I do this every year with forsythia, and this year I think I’ll try it with serviceberry as well. Here’s a good article on forcing bulbs, and here’s a nice article from Fine Gardening about forcing branches, including a list of some good trees and shrubs to use. The blog Heirloom Gardener has some really beautiful images of forced branches, along with a good forcing calendar.

Plan for next year’s winter garden
Now is a great time of year to look out onto your (or your clients’) garden and see what’s missing in the winter-time. Are you hungry for more color? Perhaps you should plan for some more evergreens, or shrubs with brightly-colored branches (such as red-twig dogwood, coral maple, and several willow species) or berries for next year. Or perhaps your garden needs more structure – what we designers call “the bones” of the garden. Maybe an unexpected tree or shrub form would help to add interest and even levity to the garden: For example, the Dr. Suess-like branches of Henry Lauder’s walking stick or corkscrew willow.

Start seeds
There’s something so promising about seeing little seedlings of herbs and vegetables nosing their way through the soil and emerging into the light and warmth of our homes. Lots of good information on the web, but two of my favorite sources are One Green Generation and Fine Gardening’ 10 Seed-Starting Tips. You’ll find some informative videos on that page as well.

Look at garden books and catalogs
Here’s one comment that I received from an earlier post in this series:

When I lived in Michigan, I took up cross country skiing to make winter bearable. Still found the long winters with flat gray sky day after day tough – I always felt starved for color. Looking at art books and garden books helped.

Curling up with a good, juicy garden book, or a plant or seed catalog, can be just what the Winter Doldrums Doctor ordered. And now is the time to do it, which leads me to my last suggestion:

Enjoy the down time

In some ways, winter forces us to slow down and turn inward. This can actually be a good thing, allowing us to rest, recharge our batteries, and emerge in the spring like new buds from recently dormant branches , rejuvenated and ready for a productive and fruitful growing season. So go ahead, for the remainder of the winter, allow yourself to revel in its quiet coziness: Curl up by the fire with a cup of hot something and a good garden book and allow yourself to dream…spring will be here before you know it.

Watching the Birds – Connecting with Nature in Winter, Part III

Photo courtesy of Kelly Riccetti at Red and the Peanut

Continuing our series on “Surviving the Winter by Staying Connected to Nature,” today’s post is about enjoying nature from inside, and in particular, feeding and watching the birds.

It’s true that one of the keys to making it through the winter is getting outside (more on that in the next post). But let’s face it: Even if we do venture forth, we’re probably not going to be out very long. So what is a “healing garden” in winter? One that we can gaze upon and enjoy from indoors. And what better way to hold our attention than watching the birds? It’s certainly been keeping me going this winter. This is the first year that I’ve noticed white-breasted nuthatches flitting back and forth from the bird feeder to the white oak. And in addition to the usual sparrows, crows, dark-eyed juncos, starlings, and cardinals, we seem to have more chickadees and tufted titmice (titmouses?) this year as well. Such a delight!

I want to especially encourage nurses, administrators, volunteers and family members who care for seniors to do more to attract birds. Place bird feeders and baths (you can even buy heated ones) outside of private and community windows. Watching, identifying, and counting birds can bring a great deal of meaning (and social interaction) into people’s lives. Bird-watching is an excellent antidote to the common problems of boredom, loneliness, and isolation.

No matter what your age, here are some resources to get you started. There are two primary ways to attract birds to the garden. First, plant things that birds are attracted to for food and habitat. The following books and websites will help you choose what to plant and how to keep a garden that’s bird-friendly throughout the year:

Second to providing natural food and habitat in your garden, supplement with birdfeeders and bird baths. The National Bird-Feeding Society is a great place to start. Learn about bird feed and feeder preference; how to prevent disease at bird feeders; best backyard bird-feeding practices, and more. And many of the websites listed above also provide information about this aspect of backyard bird-care as well.

All of these resources, plus a few more, are on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s Sensory & Wildlife Plants page. Stop on by, and if you have other recommendations, let us know.

Photo by Henry Domke,

Photo courtesy of Henry Domke

Extending the Healing Garden’s Season: Fall Foliage

Fall foliage season has definitely wound down here in the Hudson Valley, but other parts of the country are still in full swing, so here’s a post about extending the healing garden’s season with fall foliage (and late-blooming flowers).

Autumn crocus at the High Line

Designing for fall color is an excellent way to keep people interested in the garden long after many of those summer blooms have faded. Of course, late-season bloomers like asters, mums, blanket flower, autumn crocus (pictured above), some kinds of roses, and anemones (to name a few) are great, and all the better for pairing with bright-colored foliage like the asters and serviceberries at the High Line (below). A great book for inspiration is Late Summer Flowers by Marina Christopher.

I also think there’s something poetic, inspiring, and strangely reassuring about something burning so bright just before going into dormancy.

Below are some of my favorites. All of these photos were taken by me (Naomi Sachs) in late October in Zone 5.

Serviceberry (also called Juneberry and shadbush)

Japanese maple

  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
  • Maples, especially Japanese, red, and sugar (Acer spp.) – not all maples put on a good show, so do your research before-hand
  • Black gum, or sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica) – brilliant red
  • Sassafrass – incredible range of reds, oranges, and yellows. Hard to transplant, but worth trying.
  • Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) – brilliant yellow. One of the things I miss most about living in Santa Fe, NM.
  • Gingko and honey locust are two more great trees for bright yellow splendor
  • Dogwood (Cornus florida and C. kousa, to name just two) – and those beautiful red berries that attract all kinds of birds; Cornus species is one of my favorites for multi-season interest (beautiful flowers in spring, nice foliage in summer, great fall color, red berries that attract wildlife, and a lovely form even without leaves).
  • Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) – deep red with long frothy white flowers for contrast.

Oakleaf hydrangea

Climbing hydrangea, happily co-existing with an oak, at Stonecrop Gardens

  • Sweetspire (Itea virginica, especially ‘Henry’s Garnet’); I have heard that they perform well even in part shade, which is great – many plants depend on full sun for a good show
  • Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) – yes, delicious berries AND red fall color, too.
  • Several (but not all) Hydrangea species, including oakleaf (Hydrangea quercifolia), climbing (H. anomala subspecies petiolaris). Many hydrangeas, such as oakleaf and Pee Gee, also sport blossoms that turn to soft roses and buffs in the fall, and they often stay on after the leaves have fallen.
  • Fothergilla – let’s just say “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat”
  • Most of the sumacs, including Rhus typhina – they also get nice fuzzy red seedheads that persist through the winter and attract birds.
  • Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.) – Some kinds, like ‘Arnold’s Promise’ and ‘Jelena’ vary from year to year. Last year, mine were bright reds and oranges, this year they were much more yellow. Go figure!

Geranium macrorrhizum

Perennials, grasses, ferns
  • Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) – low groundcover; leaves turn bright red
  • True geranium (esp. Geranium macrorrhizum and G. sanguinium)
  • Hosta (leaves turn a brilliant yellow, if only briefly before they look like they’ve melted into a strange puddle)
  • Several kinds of ferns, including Dryopteris erythrosa and Osmundia regalis
  • Bergenia – gorgeous bright red
  • Most ornamental grasses. Some personal favorites for brilliant autumn display are switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), big bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and some kinds of maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.). For more inspiration on ornamental grasses, see Planting the Healing Garden: Ornamental Grasses.
Some plants have tried-and-true stellar autumn color, while others vary depending on geographic location, the amount of sun they get, and even microclimate. To make sure something is going to be as bright as the books and websites say it is, I like to visit as many gardens, nurseries, and parks as I can in my area to see for myself. I did not list burning bush and barberry for two reasons: First, they are both overused in the landscape–those of is in the trade call them “gas station plants” because of their boring ubiquity; and second, they are both invasive in the northeast because they seed prolifically (birds carry the seeds everywhere and deer don’t eat them, so they are taking over our forests).

Resources: Though googling is always an option, some good books for reference and inspiration include: Fallscaping: Extending Your Garden Season Into Autumn; Autumn Gardens by Ethne Clarke; Gardening with Foliage Plants: Leaf, Bark, and Berry, also by Ethne Clarke; The Year in Trees: Superb Woody Plants for Four-Season Gardens; The Autumn Garden; and Fall Foliage: The Mystery, Science, and Folklore of Autumn Leaves by Charles W.G. Smith isn’t so much a planting guide but looks like a really fun read. Michael Dirr’s Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs is one book I use all the time because each plant gets several images, giving you a sense of what it looks like through the seasons.

Many thanks to @yardhalf ( for some great suggestions on twitter! Have other suggestions for fall color or resources? Leave a comment!

All images in this post are by Naomi Sachs.