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Dig in to the fall planting season

By Suzanne Thompson

Publication: The Day

Published September 06. 2013 4:00AM   Updated September 06. 2013 9:08AM

It's one of those chicken and egg questions: are gardeners naturally optimistic, or do positive people tend to have a green thumb? Karen Kalal Patrick, also known as the Garden Keeper, has got to be one of the most upbeat gardeners I've met in southeastern Connecticut.

"When you love what you do, it's very easy to be happy," says Patrick, who once worked at Salem Country Gardens and for a few years leased Jordan Brook Nursery. Along the way, she realized working outside with plants and tending to their needs suits her best.

"I tried working indoors when I was much younger, and I just wasn't as happy," she says. "I'm grateful that I get to work outside and do what I love to do."

This is a year of milestones for Patrick, who is celebrating 10 years of her company, which is based in East Lyme. She started out as a one-woman operation with little more than a bucket and a hand tool and has grown the business into a full gardening and landscaping service.

The Garden Keeper territory has expanded, stretching from Madison, Old Saybrook and Essex in Middlesex County through New London County, Stonington and up to Marlborough.

Patrick also is a breast cancer survivor; she was diagnosed and completed treatment last year.

"I decided my doctor must not be a gardener because he told me the two things I could not do were to get out in the sun or get into the dirt," she says. That's when Rick, her husband, who came from the indoor world of finance, turned into an outdoor gardener. He focuses on the lawn care and hardscaping installation while she gravitates to the plants.

Fall is as much for planting as it is for fall clean-ups, and Patrick is at no loss for recommendations of favorite varieties of some native plants. She also likes to point out fall bloomers.

"The dragon aster is a beautifully fragrant fall flower," she says of the traditional New England fall flowering perennial with its purple blooms. "It's just pretty."

For contrast, and deer resistance, she likes the dark purple leafed varieties of black snake root, a native North American plant also called black cohosh or bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa), which are getting ready to put out plumes, or racemes, of white or pastel flowers.

"It almost looks like an astilbe," she says. There's also fall-blooming clematis, a prolific small-flowered bloomer that has a light, pleasant fragrance, and Marmalade rudbeckia, or black-eyed Susans, which bloom summer into fall. Joe Pye Weed is another good fall flowering native plant; there are both pinkish-purple and white flowering varieties.

Patrick sources her plants from Connecticut growers, including Judges Farm in Old Lyme, Prides Corner Farms in Lebanon and Plant Lot Farms in Oakdale, which has been open about four years.

Between the deer, rocks and busy fall schedules, New England gardeners don't plant as many tulips as they used to, Patrick says, although she did plant 500 bulbs for one customer last fall. Daffodils and alliums, a member of the onion family, are good alternatives that deer don't devour. People tend to forget that spring blooming bulbs can go in the ground as long as it's not frozen, she says.

For more information, see www.gardenkeeperct.com or call (860) 444-0422.

Looking to commune with more gardeners? Check out the 3rd annual Fall Garden Day with UConn Master Gardeners this Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the New London County Extension Center at 562 New London Turnpike, next to Three Rivers Community College, in Norwich. The day includes short walks and talks about rain gardens, living fences and pollination gardens, exhibits of beekeeping, butterflies and composting. Bring a soil sample for free pH testing. The event is free, but organizers plan to offer perennial plants, fall vegetables and weeds for winter soil cover crops for very reasonable prices.

Listen to Karen and Rick Patrick on Suzanne's "CT Outdoors" radio show on Saturday, Sept. 7, from 1 to 1:30 p.m., or Sunday, Sept. 8, from 7 to 7:30 a.m. on WLIS 1420 AM or WMRD 1150 or streaming online at www.wliswmrd.net, or listen anytime from the On Demand archives on the website.

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