Tag Archives: Gardening in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia

“I love spring anywhere, but if I could choose I would always greet it in a garden.” ~Ruth Stout


“It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” ~Charles Dickens

By early March, my spirit yearns for warmth, color, the earth reborn…A flush of green tinges the meadow, a hopeful sign. I’ve started seeds in the greenhouse and, to my delight, most are coming up. Baby violas are potted in readiness, with the promise of more diminutive pansies to follow. Flats of sweet alyssum will go out among the earliest flowers to perfume the air and attract pollinators. Spinach and cabbage seedlings await transplanting. Parsley is showing its face. I’ll seed more herbs and vegetables soon, like heirloom lettuce, basil, sweet peppers, and tomatoes. And flowers–always. I may even start peas indoors this year because our soil is so wet they may rot otherwise.

We’ve had a drenched winter after last year’s drought, and the weather shows no indication of letting up. No one wants a drought again, just ‘normal’ weather. Daughter Elise and I are sorting through seed packets from last year and carefully ordering more. The greenhouse will soon burst with new life.

“Every spring is the only spring — a perpetual astonishment.” ~Ellis Peters

In the garden, I greet tiny pendulous snowdrops, an old friend. These delicate bulbs are tough as nails. The spreading mounds began from a handful of bulbs daughter Alison planted as a small child. Our much-loved pussywillow was son Cory’s choice as a wee lad. Fuzzy catkins line its branches like the tiny kittens the pussywillow is named for. Daffodils, tulips, and the green points of crocus leaves are emerging. I plant more bulbs each fall. Discovering them is like an Easter egg hunt. The faithful snow crocus made its appearance yesterday. ‘Tis my dream to have masses of crocus everywhere, filling the yard. How splendid that would be. A great trumpet of spring.

“No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” ~Proverb

Herbal Lore~Sage


I love herbal lore, growing herbs, and reading old herbals.  You noted a lot of ‘herbs’ in that sentence.  After experiencing one of our all time worst winters on record in the Shenandoah Valley, followed by the hottest, driest summer ever, many of my plants bit the dust, however sage hung on in several places (as did a number of herbs).  Needless to say I shall be replanting a lot of herbs and perennials this next spring and praying for a kinder, gentler season. That’s the good thing about gardening, next year we have a fresh chance, next year will be better,  and I actually believe that every single year.  The eternal optimist.

Now, more on sage:

(Old English) Sawge~Its name from the Latin salvus, means safe or healthy. “Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?”13th century quote~and another famous saying, “He that would live for aye, must eat sage in May.”

From A Modern Herbal by Maud Grieve:

An old tradition recommends that Rue shall be planted among the Sage, so as to keep away noxious toads from the valued and cherished plants. It was held that this plant would thrive or wither, just as the owner’s business prospered or failed, and in Bucks, another tradition maintained that the wife rules when Sage grows vigorously in the garden.”

The following is a translation of an old French saying: ‘Sage helps the nerves and by its powerful might Palsy is cured and fever put to flight.’

Gerard says: ‘Sage is singularly good for the head and brain, it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsy, and taketh away shakey trembling of the members.’

Among many uses of the herb, Culpepper says that it is: ‘Good for diseases of the liver and to make blood. A decoction of the leaves and branches of Sage made and drunk, saith Dioscorides, provokes urine and causeth the hair to become black. It stayeth the bleeding of wounds and cleaneth ulcers and sores. Three spoonsful of the juice of Sage taken fasting with a little honey arrests spitting or vomiting of blood in consumption. It is profitable for all pains in the head coming of cold rheumatic humours, as also for all pains in the joints, whether inwardly or outwardly.

The juice of Sage in warm water cureth hoarseness and cough. Pliny saith it cureth stinging and biting serpents. Sage is of excellent use to help the memory, warming and quickening the senses. The juice of Sage drunk with vinegar hath been of use in the time of the plague at all times. Gargles are made with Sage, Rosemary, Honeysuckles and Plantains, boiled in wine or water with some honey or alum put thereto, to wash sore mouths and throats, as need requireth. It is very good for stitch or pains in the sides coming of wind, if the place be fomented warm with the decoction in wine and the herb also, after boiling, be laid warm thereto.’~

*You can well see why this herb is essential to your health.  So grow sage in your garden and live forever.

Rural Life and Recipe for Apricot Fruit Spread


A soft summer night is descending  over the ridges and settling into the Shenandoah Valley after much needed rain today.  The garden greened up immediately and seemed quite invigorated this evening.  The prize pumpkin vine that daughter Elise and I have labored over appeared to have doubled in size since yesterday.  The fresh scent of tasseling corn, sweet marjoram, and spicy basil wafted about us while we weeded the now easy to pull offenders.  Cicadas drone in the mild darkness, lightning bugs flicker, and all is well…at least for now.

Our surprisingly long lived apricot tree is absolutely loaded with fruit this year.  It should have been thinned and wasn’t, so most are too tiny for more than a mouthful or two but tasty and they smell delightful.  The need to find something simple but appealing to do with this bounty has been a challenge.  Once they’re peeled and pitted there’s really nothing left.  So we decided just to rinse and cut them in half, take out the pits, but not peel them.  The fruit is untainted as we never spray the tree.  After filling a large bowl with dozens of these little orange halves, we ran them through the food processor (or blender) skins and all.  The end result is a pureed sauce that we mixed with lemon juice to preserve and prevent browning, sweetened with sugar, and cooked over the stove using cornstarch as a thickening agent while stirring constantly.

The first batch turned out well and was consumed, so we are onto batches two and three.  This has made barely a dent in the fruit still covering our tree, but we’re willing to share with family and friends.  Meanwhile we’re hoping these batches will freeze in containers and keep for the winter.  If anyone has suggestions, feel free to make them.

Our recipe which we assume could be used for most any fruit is:

15 ounces of fresh pureed fruit

1/2–1 cup sugar (depending on how tart your mix is)

4 Tablespoons of lemon juice

5 Tablespoons of cornstarch

Mix the fruit with the sugar and lemon juice, whisk in the cornstarch and cook on the stove in a large sauce pot over a medium high burner until bubbly, then cook another minute at a low boil, all while continually stirring.  Then set the mixture aside and refrigerate after its cooled.  It will further thicken.  We used it on fresh homemade bread as a jam, but it would also work on pancakes or waffles, maybe used in a fruit cobbler…I mixed some with my plain yogurt…could add it to a smoothie…

Springtime and Cows


The following is taken from my non-fiction collection about rural life in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  Though written years ago, much of this account is still suited to life on our farm today.  This is for those of you who love or think you would love living in the country.  And even for those of you who don’t.

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Spring can be very wintry here with snow lying on the ground sometimes until Easter and a brisk wind blowing from the North.  But the sun shines brighter, when it shines, and the geese begin to fuss, a sure harbinger of spring.  Squawky geese are always the first sign, even before the pussy willow blooms, or whatever it is that pussy willows do.  This annual sign of spring makes me think of other spring observances.

March is usually the first month when gardeners can really get their hands into the earth and plant something, like those first rows of peas, often put in with cold fingers right before a rain.  The rains are so close that there may only be a day or two when the soil is workable before it’s too wet again.  Veteran gardeners watch the sky and feel the earth, wrinkled pea seed in readiness; when it’s all systems go, there’s a mad scramble for the garden as the gray clouds roll in.

A bit of lettuce, spinach and radish seeds are scattered in short rows, then back to the house for a hot cup of tea and the toasting of numbed extremities by the wood stove, the contentment of a spring rite observed.  There’s something of a one-upmanship among country folk about who gets their peas in the earliest.  “Got your peas in yet?” is apt to be a seemingly casual conversation opener, but only for the one who has, of course.

Spring is also the time of year when I regard the cows with a deep wariness.  Inevitably, the cows will get out.  I never know exactly when they’ll time their visit, but their attraction for newly planted gardens and flower beds is their annual spring rite.

Around here, in the spring, (at least to me) cows are the enemy.  They particularly like a newly planted garden just after a spring shower when they can really sink their hooves in and churn up the earth.  A freshly re-seeded lawn will do in a pinch, even shrubbery if all else fails.  We have a side of the house called ‘Cow corner’ where the bushes appear to have been pruned by a mad gardener.

I once threw myself in front of a stampeding heifer as she made her way for my very newly planted raspberries.  I was in the midst of planting them when she and several others escaped from the calf pen my husband Dennis was cleaning.  He’d left the gate unbolted for a second––that second cows live for.

Yelling “No!” I hurled myself in her path.  He came running just in time to see me prepared to be martyred for my cause.

The heifer, a coward at heart, veered at the last moment and leapt off the small wall at one end of the garden.  I heard some discussion later about the monetary value of the raspberries compared to the cow had she broken her leg.  I’m relieved to add that she didn’t and there was some concern for my safety had I disappeared under her charge.

I’ve watched in horror as bovines of all ages have frisked their way through tender young snapdragons, newly emerging peas and dozens of other cherished plantings.  Later in the season when the weeds get thick and the weather grows hot and dry, I begin to lose my earlier enthusiasm for my garden and so do the cows.  They prefer to make their pilgrimages while the earth is fresh and new and the plants are carefully chosen and special.

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Since this was written, we’ve managed to get a fence up around the vegetable garden but the rest of the yard and flower beds are still vulnerable.   Oh, the stories I could tell about cows.   And for those of you who worry lest they suffer, I assure you that they are well treated and live a relative life of luxury, even have their own water beds.  Which is more than can be said for me.  They amble about in a grassy meadow, when there is grass, and the airy barn is more comfortable in summer than our house.  There’s even some debate over which music they prefer listening to.  I should think country.

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*Pics of the valley and our farm by my mom, daughter Elise and the one of puppy Grady and the cow is by my son in law.

“In the Garden, My Soul Is Sunshine”



The sun seeps through the early morning fog to melt away the whiteness to reveal a dewy green world washed clean by last night’s rain. Glowing sunflowers stand tall again and the flattened corn has picked itself back up. The rejuvenating powers of the earth are amazing. Maybe it’s that plants naturally reach toward the sun just as our spirits seek the light, unless we are turned to the power of the dark side, like in Star Wars.

A girl in the eighth grade girl’s Sunday school class I teach, my daughter Elise’s class, told me that she gets Star Wars and the Bible mixed up. Likely she thinks it’s somewhere in the Old Testament. This makes me wonder if I am doing my job, but parallels can be drawn. The force in Star Wars is described as being all around us, in every living thing, a good power like pure light that enables us to fully live and develop strength far beyond anything we ever thought possible. Sounds rather like the Holy Spirit to me.

When the children were much younger and the boys and girls were still together in class, I had one boy who refused to draw anything except fighter planes from Star Wars and another boy who would only draw fish. It made no difference what the lesson was. So I posted their art work in the classroom along with the other children’s, but I’m sure folks in the church who happened by wondered what in the world Tie fighters and bass had to do with anything.

*This is an excerpt from my non-fiction collection entitled Shenandoah Watercolors.
For more on my novels, please visit: http://www.bethtrissel.com/

A Lovely June Day in the Shenandoah Valley


“There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

This is one of those sweet June mornings when the world seems fresh and new, too soft for words, but I’ll try. I’m looking out the two windows in my bedroom as I write into the most beautiful gold light, the sort of light photographers love. Roses glow like jewels, their red, yellow, pink blossoms heavy with rain from the night. White daises sparkle, lacy pinks, red clover, lavender candy tuft, angel wing poppies, nodding columbine bells, spires of blue salvia, crimson lupines…and all the plants with a rich promise of more to come.

Hues of green spread through my yard and garden, out over the meadow, and up into the hills beyond the fields. The sky is washed in pale blue at the edges, deeper blue as it arches upward. And the air is alive with birdsong. Cows impatiently bawl for more hay, greedily snatching at the bales tossed down to them from the mow. Plump gray and white barnyard geese fuss, as is their way––I never quite catch the argument––while the goslings make this funny whistling sound.

“Waddle-butts,” I call the infants, “busy little waddle-butts,” plopping down to rest when they tire and then darting off again to catch up with the group.
If a gosling falls too far behind, its shrill peeping can be heard over hill and vale, by all, including the baddies out there that eat silly babies. Given the absentmindedness of mama and papa geese and auntie and uncles, it’s amazing that as many goslings survive as they do. Somehow, they manage, usually.

Wood duck mamas loudly cry ‘whoo-eek’ from the pond to round up the ducklings darting over its calm surface like little bumble bees. Mallard babies quietly follow their mothers in a dutiful row or all huddled together. Not so the wood ducklings. They are far more independent. But fast. Bad old snapping turtles are hard pressed to catch them. Snappers are the pond’s version of sharks, but I shouldn’t end on that visual image.

Way up beyond the hills and the distant fields I see the Allegheny Mountains rising above all. Why weren’t they called the Blue Ridge? They are equally blue, and can be every bit as hazy as the Smokies. What’s in a name? Much? Little? Some are steeped in meaning, others not. I don’t even know what Allegheny means, only that the mountains are glorious. They seem to roll on and on forever like the swells of a sea. I tell my daughter, Elise, that as long as the mountains stand and there are green meadows, we are well.

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This piece is an excerpt from my non-fiction collection entitled Shenandoah Watercolors that my mom and I are combining with her lovely pics. This photograph of larkspur and the rose was taken last week by my daughter Elise. Mom and I are thinking of self-publishing Shenandoah Watercolors digitally so as to include all of her pics. We doubt any traditional publisher would allow them all.

For more on my novels, please visit:
http://www.bethtrissel.com/
The beauty of the valley and surrounding mountains are my inspiration.

Tend the Earth


Green-gold light slants into the walled garden in the back of the house, my secret place. Time stops here as I kneel beside the heady mix of herbs…silvery sage, lavender-flowered nepeta, and minty bergamot. The red blossoms that will follow are irresistible to hummers. Pungent Russian sage awaits the blue flowers that envelope it later this summer.

Unaware of my silent presence, a rust-capped sparrow rustles beneath the wild privet, planted by his kind, and the bittersweet vine…its white flowers lemony sweet when they appear later in spring. He darts past the peach tree in the center of this verdant space to scavenge sunflower seeds from under the feeder that hangs in the sour cherry tree. A towering crabapple that my great Uncle Houston warned me would get far too large has fulfilled his prediction and presses against the back of the house. But its shady branches filter the hot western sun from the kitchen and are glorious beyond words when dripping with a wealth of crimson blossoms. A profusion of flowers, more than is sane or possible, crowd along the garden wall, fill the island around and under the peach, and creep or swarm their way into the rock-strewn path.

Soft light touches glistening white iris, spires of lavender dame’s rocket and regal lupines. Nodding columbines meld together like kindred spirits in shades of pink, rose and yellow. Dainty sprays of pink coral bells float above a cloud of blue forget-me-nots and filmy love-in-a-mist. Bright yellow globe amaranth flowers intersperse almost everything, all rioting together in happy abandon.

More herbs mingle with the flowers in every bed I touch and the vegetable garden: thyme, sweet marjoram, lavender, dill, basil, parsley, and with them their rich link to the past. Ancient Romans, Greeks, and my ancestors from the British Isles knew many of these same plants as they are today and cherished their varied uses. When I see, touch, smell, or taste herbs of antiquity, I am experiencing what countless generations have before me.

My job? To tend this bit of earth, but mostly to savor and learn.