Author: Katherine Laughlin

Agave Americana


November is a notoriously finicky month in my region; a mild autumn day can become a freezing night with little warning. If I’m not on my toes, this can be fatal for tender houseplants and tropicals left out in the garden. In the past, a day’s warning was sufficient for gathering all the plants to stow away in my garage or lathe house for winter. But my hectic travel schedule has forced me to become better prepared. I’m not always home when Old Man Winter strikes.

If I had to describe my usual level of preparedness, I’m more like Aesop’s live-for-today grasshopper rather than the plan-for-tomorrow ant. But I’ve learned incorporating a little vigilance into my lifestyle is better than to coming home to a frostbitten garden.

My greatest anxiety always centers on my Agave americana ‘Marginata’, or century plant. Purchased at an end-of-the-season sale, this plant has grown into an important focal point in my garden. The form and color are so interesting, that your eye is immediately drawn to it. The spiky, succulent blades can reach lengths of over 6 feet and often curl gracefully making the plant look somewhat like the head of Medusa.

Agave americana can take a certain amount of cold (41 degrees F), but the combination of sudden and extreme drops in temperatures and high rainfall is too much for it.

When I bought my agave it fit in a 1-gallon container and I simply kept it on the kitchen table during winter. Since then it has grown into a 4-foot tall behemoth with a cluster of babies gathered around the base. And while the blades are beautiful from a distance, they have sharp spines and tips. The thought of moving it produces a high level of procrastination that is only surpassed by my fear of losing it to cold weather.

So with the help of a close friend and thick gloves, I should have my agave tucked away in the garage by the end of the week, well before the first hard freeze. With this task out of the way, I can relax, enjoy the final days of autumn, and be the grasshopper that I truly am.



When guests stroll through my garden during the height of summer it is highly unlikely that they notice the many evergreens planted among the more showy flowers and foliage, but as the leaves begin to fall in autumn, these workhorses emerge from behind the scenes to reveal the real secret of my garden’s design.

There is a lot more to an evergreen than just year-round foliage. These plants can serve as garden walls, privacy screens, focal points, and points of punctuation. It could be said that evergreen plants are some of the most important in your garden because they possess both form and function.

As we transition from autumn to winter, the structure of your garden becomes more apparent, which makes it a good time to evaluate where you could use a few evergreens to bolster the framework. The first thing to consider is what type of structural element is lacking. Do you need a point of interest in an area of your garden? How about a hedge to create privacy or to screen out an unpleasant view? Maybe you could use a low border of green to frame a bed of flowers? The type of structural element you need will be a guide to the size and form of the evergreen plants to consider.

Next, decide what type of evergreen will best suit the conditions where the plants will grow.  What are the extremes of temperatures (heat and cold) in your area? Will the plants be in full sun, shade, or a little of both? Would you say the area is moist or dry?

Another consideration is the form of the plant you want (weeping, conical, spreading, etc.), and the plant’s growth rate (slow or fast). It is also a good idea to know the size the plant will reach at maturity.

Below I’ve created a chart to help you get started in your search for the perfect evergreen for your garden.   This is only a partial list. There is a whole world of evergreens to be explored. I suggest you visit your local garden center to see what they have that may be unique to your area.


PlantCultural NotesFormFunctionAttributes
Italian Cyrpess

(Cupressus sempervirens)

Zones 8 – 10; any well-dreained soil in full sun; shelter from cold, dry windColumnar, from 3 – 20 ‘ wide x 20 – 70’ tall depending on variety, good for formal gardensprivacy walls, focal points, punctuationsOne of the best evergreens for creating an illusion of enclosure without creating a solid wall.
Camellia sasanquaZones 7 –8; moist but well-drained, humus rich, acidic soil; partial shade; established plants will tolerate full sun, shelter from cold, dry wind.Upright, full, 10’ wide x 20’ tall, good for both formal and informal gardensprivacy walls, screens, focal pointsAutumn blooms are a bonus to this shrubs glossy, deep green foliage. For greater cold tolerance try one of the Ackerman hybrids. Excellent as a solid hedge to create privacy. Also works well as a focal point.
Hick’s Yew

(Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’)

Zones 4 – 7; plant in full to partial shade, well-drained soil. Will not tolerate wet feet.Upright, columnar, 3 – 4’ wide x 10 – 12’ tall, good for both formal and informal gardens, slow growingscreens, low borders


An excellent shrub for creating the walls of your garden rooms. Yews are a favorite in English gardens. All parts of the plant are poisonous. Narrow, needle like foliage is a nice, glossy dark green.
Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’Zones 7 – 9; grow in moist but well drained, moderately fertile, humus rich soil in full sun to partial shade.Upright, columnar, 10’ wide x 10 – 20’ tallprivacy walls, screens, focal points, punctuationsI use this shrub as an evergreen wall around my fountain garden. Fast growing with dense dark green foliage, it has proved to be an excellent hedge plant.   Will produce orange-red berries if a male Chinese holly is planted nearby for pollination.
Canadian Hemlock

(Tsuga Canadensis)

Zones 4 – 8; plant in moist but well drained, humus rich acidic to slightly alkaline soil; full sun to partial shade.Conical, loose, 25’ wide x 40’ tall, good for informal gardensprivacy walls, screens, focal pointsThe loose airy nature of this plant creates a nice relaxed hedge that allows air to circulate through the garden.
Common Boxwood

(Buxus sempervirens)

Zones 6 –8; plant in fertile, well drained soil; prefers partial shade but will tolerate full sun.Round, dense, 15’ wide x 15’ tall, good for formal gardenslow borders, punctuations, containersThis is a great evergreen to use for punctuation at entries or to add structure to perennial borders. Can be clipped into a nice hedges or topiary forms.
Indian Hawthorne

(Rhaphiolepis indica)

Zones 8 – 10; plant in well drained, moderately fertile, moist soils; full sun.Mounding, spreading, 8’ wide x 6’ tall, good for informal gardenslow borders, punctuations, containersDepending on the variety, this plant produces white or pink flowers followed by attractive berries.
Dwarf Alberta Spruce

(Picea glauca ‘Albertiana Conica’)

Zones 2 –7; plant in moist, well draine, neutral to acidic soil; full sun.Conical, 4 – 5’ wide x 6 – 8’ tall, best for formal gardenspunctuations, containersAn excellent conical punctuation. For the best results plant several to create a rhythm or use as an accent in a geometric design
Inkberry ‘Compacta’

(Ilex glabra)

Zones 5 – 9; grow in moist, well drained, humus-rich soil; full sun to partial shade.Round, 4 – 6 wide and tall, good for both formal and informal gardenslow borders, punctuationsDeep green foliage and black berries make this an exceptional backdrop for flowers and colorful foliage.

Protecting Roses in Winter

This is the first year I have grown roses and they have done very well. Remembering how cold it got last year, I was wondering how to best protect my rose bushes throughout the cold winter months. Can you help me?

I have had several questions coming in from various places around the country asking about winter rose care. Most roses can withstand a quick cold snap of temperatures down to 10 degrees F, but it is best to protect them if you expect an extended period of time when temperatures dip under 20 degrees F. The amount of protection your roses need depends on the climate in which you live.

 In the northern areas of the country in Zone 4, which includes states such as South Dakota, northern Maine, Vermont, Northern Iowa, and Minnesota, winter rose care begins after the first hard frost, usually around mid-October and if possible, before the first snowfall.

 The first step in protecting bush-type roses, such as hybrid teas, floribundas, and grandifloras is to loosely tie the canes together to keep them from whipping around in the wind. Then cover the base of the plant with 12 inches of soil. Straw or leaves can be placed over the soil mound for additional insulation.

 If you prefer to use styrofoam rose cones, prune the bushes back so the cone will fit over the plant. Before you cover the bush, mound several inches of soil around the base of the canes then place the cone over the rose. To keep the cone in place, mound soil around the outer base.

 To protect climbing roses, remove the canes from their support, and carefully bend them to the ground. Hold the canes in place with pegs or stakes and cover with several inches of soil. This should be done after the roses go dormant and have been exposed to two or three hard freezes.

 Depending on spring weather conditions, remove protective materials before the buds break open, normally in late March to mid-April.

 In states such as Ohio, Indiana, New York, Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, designated Zone 5 or 6, since the winters are not as severe, you can protect your roses as mentioned above or simply pile protective material around the base of the plants. Another option is to create a chicken wire cage filled with leaves around the base. Your main concern is protecting your roses from extended periods of weather below 20 degrees, winter winds, and fluctuating temperatures.

 For states in Zone 7 and 8 such as Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, the biggest danger to roses is when temperatures rise and fall causing the ground to freeze and thaw. This often results in frost heaving of the roots from the ground. To prevent that from happening, mound at least 2 to 3 inches of mulch around the base of the rose. To avoid attracting rodents and insects, keep the mulch away from the trunk of the plant.




Sowing a Wildflower Meadow Garden

There are an astonishing number of wildflower species that grow across this country. Every region seems to have a favorite, like the bluebonnets of Texas or California poppies.



Many wildflowers are at their showiest in the spring and summer, visible along roadsides and meadows. But now, during the late summer and early fall, is the best time to sow the seeds. The key to success is to make sure that your plants have enough time to germinate and establish themselves before the first hard frost. That’s usually about 8 weeks. And if you don’t have rain, it’s critical you keep the soil consistently moist. If you run out of time to plant seeds this fall, you can plant them in the very early spring as well.


When sowing wildflower seeds the first thing you want to do is prepare the bed by clearing it of weeds and grass. The quickest way to do this is with a broad-spectrum herbicide, but if you prefer to use an earth-friendly method you can cover the area with a plastic (clear or black will do) for an entire growing season.

Once the existing vegetation is dead the rake away the debris and any remaining foliage. Next lightly till the soil to a depth of about 3 inches. This will ensure good seed to soil contact without bringing up weed seeds that may be lurking deeper underground. If you have especially rocky soil you may want to mix in some compost, but wildflowers aren’t too particular about soil quality. In fact, it’s best to avoid fertilizer because it will just encourage weeds.

The quantity of seeds you’ll need depends on your climate and how much area you want to cover. Wildflowers suffer less from weed competition and excessive moisture in cooler regions so in those areas you get more bang for your buck; one pound of seeds will cover about 3,000 to 4,000 square feet. In warm Southern states, 1 pound usually covers about 2,000 square feet.

Many wildflower seeds are very tiny so to get even distribution when sowing, it’s a good idea to mix the seeds with an inert material like sand. In a bucket combine, 5 parts moistened sand to 1 part seeds. You can hand distribute the seed and sand mixture or use a spreader.

After the seeds are evenly spread over the area you need to press them into the soil. You can do this by simply walking over the ground or use a lawn roller.

Spread a thin layer of wheat straw over the area to protect the seeds from washing away in a hard rain. I like wheat straw because it does not have seeds. Don’t be too heavy-handed in the amount you apply so that light can get to the seeds.

Be prepared to water the area on a regular basis to get the seeds started. If you are lucky you’ll get some of those nice, slow fall rains to help you with this part of the process.

When it comes to choosing varieties you are better off buying specific types of seeds that you know will do well in your region rather than buying a mix. Most wildflowers require full sun, but you can also find varieties that will grow in partial to fully shaded areas.

However, if you do use a wildflower mix, you’ll find that they contain both annuals and perennials. The annuals will bloom the following spring, but many of the perennials will take 2 years to flower, so you have to be patient.


Earlene’s Strawberry Pie

(Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2016)


My Colorado friend, Ginger, with Ginger and Baker, shares one of her mom’s famous recipes – Earlene’s Strawberry Pie – featuring fresh strawberries and loads of whipped cream… or cool whip if you prefer!


  • 4 1/2 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 (3 oz) box strawberry Jell-O (don’t use sugar free)
  • 1 1/2 quarts strawberries
  • 1 (8 to 9-inch) baked pie crust
  • whipped cream, for serving

Click here for Directions.

50 Reasons To Build Walkable Communities

“Each of us has a responsibility to be better stewards of the planet. Today, we must not only conserve what we have but reverse the damage done to the environment. Good design is part of the solution.” — P. Allen Smith



I am proud to be involved with conservation developments around the country that respect the earth, improve our health, and are beautiful to live, work, and thrive within.  These communities are for all age groups, economic levels, and backgrounds.  I was cheered to come upon a recent article that highlights one aspect of my design values that I incorporate into each of these projects.  The article nicely articulates why our communities should be walkable rather than car-focused.  It’s a no brainer on many levels, but worth discussion, and I wanted to share this with you. 

Montava 50 Reasons To Build Walkable Communities reviews several of the top benefits of well-designed, walkable communities.  And while my communities include additional features that more closely link our homes and families to the earth, walkability within our communities is very important to me and one of my primary goals at the beginning of my design process.

Here is one such example that sadly many of us–including myself–can identify.  It involves commuting.  It has been found that if one shifts from a long commute to a walk, one’s happiness increases as much as if falling in love.  Wow!  Further “the benefits of walkability are all interconnected,” according to James Francisco, who is quoted in the article.  He elaborates, “maybe you want your local business to be enhanced by more foot traffic…[n]ot only do you get the economic vitality, but you get the social benefits–so people are out and having conversations and connecting–and then you get the health benefits.” 



The number one reason for building walkable communities is reason enough for us to focus on this component in our community designs:  

It helps people live longer.

The article presents compelling statistics to support this claim.  Consider: inactivity is the fourth leading cause of mortality around the world; physical activity dropped 32% in the last four decades in the U.S., and 45% in less than two decades in China. For people over 60, walking just 15 minutes a day can reduce the risk of dying by 22%.

The report sifted through dozens of studies to quantify 50 benefits of walkability in cities.  To read more and learn about the 49 other benefits see: Build Walkable Communities.

Homemade Cleaning Solutions

Green cleaning or eco-cleaning has become a big business as homeowners gravitate toward more planet-friendly lifestyles. Eco-cleaning companies are popping up everywhere and there are a plethora of low impact cleaning products available to purchase. While there are a few commercial products that are staples in my pantry, many of my cleaning solutions are ones that I make at home. Much like the home remedies I use in the garden, these formulas are inexpensive and simple to prepare. If I don’t have the ingredients already, I can find everything I need at my neighborhood grocery store.

Stock Your Pantry

  • Borax – Great for disinfecting and deodorizing and as a mild abrasive. Borax is a safe alternative but IS toxic. So be careful where you store it.
  • Vinegar – A natural acidic for removing grime and soap scum. Because of vinegar’s acidic quality, don’t use it full strength on tile grout and it’s not recommended for marble or unprotected vinyl flooring.
  • Baking soda – There are too many virtues of baking soda to list here, but mainly it is a great deodorizer, mild abrasive, and general gunk remover.
  • Lemons – The juice is a natural disinfectant and deodorizer. Dried lemon peel can be used as a moth repellant.
  • Essential oils – These oils are great to add a little fragrance to homemade cleaners. I like to use lemon, grapefruit, or lavender. Check your local health food store for essential oils.
  • Liquid soap
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Whole cloves
  • Muslin
  • Old t-shirts, diapers or other soft cloth
  • Plastic spray bottles
  • Small bucket

Cleaning Solutions
Here is a list of homemade cleaning solutions that I use in my home. When trying new products in your home use the same precautions as you would in the garden. Test in a small area before using it throughout your house. Also, remember to store cleaning products away from children and pets.

All-Purpose Cleaner
Mix 1/4 cup baking soda and 1/2 gallon water in a cleaning bucket. Then add 1/2 cup vinegar. Use immediately.

Furniture Polish
Mix 1 cup olive oil with 1/2 cup of lemon juice. Apply to wood furniture with a soft, clean cloth. Allow to dry and buff with another soft, clean cloth.

Combine 2 teaspoons borax, 4 tablespoons vinegar and 3 cups hot water. Remember that borax is not non-toxic, so keep this solution away from the little ones.

Drain Deodorizer
My plumber told me that one of the best ways to prevent build up in pipes is with boiling water. About once a week I pour a kettle of boiling water down the sink.

To keep the kitchen sink fresh and deodorize the disposal pour 1/2 cup of baking soda and 1/2 cup of vinegar down the drain. Let stand for a few minutes and then flush with boiling water. The vinegar and baking soda will foam so be prepared for that. Also, don’t try this if you’ve recently used a commercial drain opener and are uncertain if any is still present.

Glass Cleaner
Mix 2 tablespoons of vinegar with 1 quart of water. Store in a spray bottle. When cleaning windows using old newspaper really does make a difference.

Bathtub and Sink Cleaner
Mix 1 2/3 cup of baking soda, 1/2 cup of liquid soap, and 1/2 of cup water in a cleaning bucket. Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar.

Air Fresheners
My favorite way to bring fragrance into the home during the fall and winter is with a simmer pot. Fill a muslin bag with cinnamon sticks, orange peel, and whole cloves. Simmer the bag in a pot of boiling water. Just be sure you don’t leave the pot unattended.

A few drops of essential oil in a small dish of baking soda freshens the air.

Place a dish of vinegar by the stove when cooking fish or onions to eliminate odors.

Stuck on Grease
Baked on food can be loosened with baking soda. Sprinkle the dish liberally with baking soda and set aside for 5 – 10 minutes. Wash pan as usual.

Sprinkle half a lemon with salt and use it to scrub dishes.

Fabric Softener
Use vinegar as a natural fabric softener. Add 1/2 cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle.



Thanks To Global Lockdown, Our Earth Is Healing


7 ways the planet is healing, thanks to global lockdown

From air pollution levels plummeting to the canals in Venice clearing up

How the Coronavirus Is (and Is Not) Affecting the Environment

March 5th, 2020 by Kasha Patel | Earth Observatory

The coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic is first and foremost an issue of human health and safety. But as people have changed their everyday behaviors and patterns to contain or avoid the virus, there have been some subtle effects on the environment. There also has been misinformation. Below are four ways the virus is—and is not—affecting the environment in China.

1. Satellites found decreases in one air pollutant, but that doesn’t mean the air is free of all pollution.

2. During the quarantine, roads and transportation hubs are emptier.

3. Coal and oil industrial activities have dropped, so carbon dioxide emissions have also decreased.

4. There is no evidence that cremation ashes are increasing the levels of sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere.

Read the full article here.

DIY Cloth Face Mask & How to Clean It

CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

CDC also advises the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.  Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.

Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators.  Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

Should cloth face coverings be washed or otherwise cleaned regularly? How regularly?

Yes. They should be routinely washed depending on the frequency of use.

How does one safely sterilize/clean a cloth face covering?

A washing machine should suffice in properly washing a face covering.

How does one safely remove a used cloth face covering?

Individuals should be careful not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth when removing their face covering and wash hands immediately after removing.

Making your own mask can be super easy! The CDC has provided three simple ways to make your own mask. I made a mask from a soft T-Shirt I had lying around the house.

Click here for Sew and No Sew Instructions



Content source: National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD)Division of Viral Diseases

DIY All-Natural Hand Sanitizer

This recipe is a natural solution for everyday use but at this time we suggest everyone follow the CDC guidelines for sanitation and the proper disinfectants identified for combating Covid-19.



  • 2/3 cup witch hazel
  • 1 cup Aloe vera (more if desired)
  • 18 drops essential oils
  • 1 tsp fractionated coconut oil (optional)
  • Empty gel container 
  1. Add all the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Stir together until everything is well combined.
  2. Using a funnel, transfer the mixture into an empty container.