Sunday, April 30, 2006

Gardening in the Big Apple

I'll say this about the island of Manhattan: all that concrete and steel makes you appreciate the smallest attempts at horticulture--whether it's a flowering plant in an urn on a stoop...

or the tulips in front of the New York Public Library...

or a pair of young trees in bloom. I've always believed that living in a tiny studio in Manhattan would be tolerable because the entire city is your kitchen, your dining room, and your living room. Why bother with art on the walls when you can go to the MOMA? And why cook when there are a hundred fantastic restaurants within a 10-minute walk?

By the same token, the entire city would have to serve as your garden--from Central Park to the flower stall on the corner. If I could just figure out where to keep a few chickens, I think I could be a gardener in Manhattan. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, April 29, 2006

I Know Why the Caged Rose Sings

More from my ongoing quest to figure out how people garden in Manhattan: a rose in a cage on the lower East side. I suppose that if the plant survives to adulthood, the cage will come off, and it will have only its thorns with which to defend itself.

And in response to a comment about where people go in Manhattan to buy dirt--they go here! A little shop around 8th Avenue and 60th sells bags of potting soil that you could put in a cart and haul home. I did find a true nursery in the East Village as well, but didn't get a picture of it. It was in a small building like this one that happened to have a parking lot next door--a rare sight in New York--and in the parking lot they had stacked bags of soil, rakes, shovels, containers, boards, etc. It can be done! Posted by Picasa

Friday, April 28, 2006

Too Much Pollen? Blame the Males

Yesterday on All Things Considered, Robert Siegel interviewed author Tom Ogren about his book Allergy-Free Gardening and about the recent proliferation of male trees in the American landscape, which has caused a tremendous increase in seasonal allergies. I confess that I didn't place much stock in the notion of planting an allergy-free garden until I experienced a debilitating pollen allergy in Minnesota once. Visit his website for more information, and listen to the interview here:

NPR : Too Much Pollen? Blame the Males

Terra Nova perennials

There's a great article in USA Today (did I just say that?) about Dan Heims of the wholesale Terra Nova Nurseries. He's the guy who's responsible for all the amazing heurcheras that have come on the market lately. Check this out:

"The bumper sticker over Heims' desk says it all: "So many species, so little time."

Every spring, Heims sends 18 of his newest prospects to garden writers, asking them to try them out and give him feedback.

"And, boy, do they," he says. "They say things like 'This was a D-O-G. Why did you send us this?' Or 'This is the coolest plant ever. We love it, love it, love it.' And, yes, they'll say it three times.""

Outspoken garden writers! That's what we like! - Meet a perennial winner

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Horticulture and the City

And now, Manhattan. I'm so fascinated with all the ways people find to garden in this city, and I couldn't stop taking pictures of courtyards, windowboxes, potted plants, rooftop gardens--anything and everything that people do to experience a little nature in Metropolis.

Here, the entrance to the Orchid Show at Rockefeller Center. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Plant Orphans

For a while now I've been meaning to write something about plant orphans, those lost and abandoned plants that all gardeners take in and nurture back to health. It seemed like a good counterpoint to the flower theft stories (and more here) from earlier in the year.

But ironically, my own plant orphan story is inextricably tied to the flower theft issue. Last year, as I was walking home from lunch, I found a brilliant blue lobelia in the gutter a couple blocks from my house. It wasn’t in a pot, but the roots were wrapped around the soil in precisely the shape of an ordinary clay pot. I looked around and couldn’t see any garden nearby where this plant might belong. It seemed to have been abandoned. It was a rainy day; if I left it where it was, it would wash into the gutter. I picked it up and brought it home, and it’s blooming on my porch right now.

A few months later, the same thing happened. I found a pink and white fleabane in almost the same spot, its roots curved around the soil in the shape of a shallow, round planter. I’d been meaning to plant some fleabane between my lavender plants, so I brought it home and planted it.

Not long after, my neighbor called me over. “Forget flower theft!” she said. “What about flower pot theft?” Turns out she’d had several expensive stone urns stolen from her front porch. “They don’t even want the plants,” she said. “Look. They dumped the flowers and all the dirt out right here in my lawn and just took off with the pot.”

Sure enough, there were a bunch of pansies face-down in her yard. Their roots held the precise shape of the stolen pot. Suddenly I knew where my plant orphans had come from. They were stolen goods—or innocent bystanders to another, perhaps worse, crime.

But most of the plant orphan stories I’ve received from readers did not have such a sinister side to them. Connie Miller wrote to tell me that she gives away orphans, putting her unwanted plants up for adoption at the end of her driveway, where they usually find a new home within an hour. (She gave me her address, but I am not going to share it with you. You’ll have to find your own orphanages.)

I also heard from Jerry Davis, who has collected an astonishing array of orphans, including ornamental yucca and agave from his father’s house, and an Italian Stone Pine that the postal union gave him when his father died. He’s got chasteberry and monkey grass from the zoo where he used to work, and an unknown species of salvia that his father brought him from “somewhere in California.”

Tracy and Janet Sclar of Amity Heritage Roses in Hydesville contacted me to tell me about an orphaned rose that they have propagated and listed in their catalog. Here are the details: “Pure Mystery” (unknown) Hybrid Tea. Our name says it all. When we moved and were inundated with pots of plants either being given away, given to us, or bound for the moving truck, this was one of the 150 roses that got unpacked at our new home. We’ve checked with all the friends/helpers whom it could have come from, but no one claims it. It has fascinating coloration of grey and salmon in the pink blend flowers. There seems to be a hint of myrrh fragrance. 4 x 2 ft.” If you’d like to find out more about that rose or any of the others that Tracy and Janet grow, check them out on the web.

Several people wrote to tell me that they swap plants back and forth between their friends and family. One friend told me the story of a philodendron that has passed from friend to friend and been propagated several times along the way. Another woman told me that she gives plants to her daughter with the expectation that she will show some sign of the family green thumb; when the plants wilt and die, she takes them home, nurses them back to health, and returns them to her, full of hope. She writes, “Sometimes friends move away and give me plants to care for as they always will return at a later date to retrieve them. Most often they do not. I can no longer tell the difference between those and the ones I bought. It’s funny how adoptions lose their meaning over the course of a lifetime and become an integral part of the family, as if they belonged there all along.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Friday, April 21, 2006

How Do You Compost?

I’ve always been something of a compost bin addict. In my life I’ve had five bins, (not counting open compost piles) and there are a few more models I’d still like to try. The satisfaction that comes from turning over a pile of dead leaves and moldy fruit and discovering dark, damp, worm-infested muck underneath—well, if I have to explain it to you, you probably wouldn’t understand anyway.

When I talk to people about their compost piles (it’s a topic that comes up more often than you might think) I’m always surprised at the widely different approaches that gardeners use to get the same result. Composting is an inexact science, and what works for one gardener may not work for another. Also, I’ve learned that the state of a person’s compost pile can be a fairly reliable predictor of their personality. Some people love to turn a compost pile every day and check its vital signs (temperature, moisture content, pH), while others would rather pile everything in a messy heap in the corner and turn it over once a year to pull out whatever compost has accumulated at the base of the pile.

Fortunately, there’s a compost bin—and method—to match every temperament. For instance:

The Martha Stewart Method: The primary goal of this method is to make it clear to your neighbors that you are a far superior gardener than they could ever hope to be. To do this correctly, you’ll need plenty of space—it is assumed that you live on a large estate with some sort of service area in the back that can accommodate an enormous compost pile—and perfect yard waste. By “perfect,” I mean that you should always have about three parts carbon—dried leaves, hay, shredded newspaper—to one part nitrogen—grass clippings, manure, kitchen waste. Everything should be cut into small, tidy pieces, watered, and turned regularly. (Depending on the size of the pile, turning it may require some farm equipment. You do have a John Deere, don’t you?)

If it’s managed properly, your pile will soon begin to give off steam from the heat that is generated as your perfect yard waste decomposes. The goal is to create enough steam to make one of your neighbors call the fire department. This actually happened to Martha, and she was able to spend a very satisfactory afternoon out in the driveway explaining her compost system to her neighbors and the firefighters. Naturally, she took an opportunity to brag about it in the next issue of her magazine. While you can get excellent compost from this method, the bragging rights are what it’s really all about.

The Amy Stewart Method: Feed it all to the worms. It’s all about the worms. Keep some worms outside the back door for your kitchen scraps, and make sure your compost pile has plenty of worms wriggling around at the bottom of it. Keep the worms happy, and you can’t go wrong.

The Lasagna Method: A book called Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza popularized this method, but it’s actually been around for quite a while. Some people call it “sheet composting,” but basically it’s a lazy person’s way to expand the garden without digging. The idea is that in the fall, you pick a spot where you’d like to build a new garden bed for spring. Chop down the weeds, lay down a thick, damp layer of newspaper or cardboard to smother any remaining weeds and grass, and start adding layers of whatever you’d put in a compost pile—grass clippings, dried leaves, manure, etc. You can make this pile over a foot tall—even two to three feet tall—because it will decompose and shrink within a few weeks. Top it with finished compost or a bagged soil amendment, and wait. By spring, the grass clippings and dried leaves will have composted, and you can plant right into the bed.

The Gearhead Method: This method involves using the maximum amount of gear in the creation of your compost. Start out with a chipper/shredder and chop everything into bits. Then load it into a compost tumbler, a metal drum that you turn daily to get finished compost in just a few weeks. Add some compost accelerator, check the temperature with a soil thermometer daily, and use your pH meter to monitor the acidity. When it’s all done, use a screen to sift out the larger chunks and sprinkle the remaining product around your garden like fairy dust. Total up-front cost for the Gearhead Method: around $500.

So tell me--how do you do it? How do you wish you did it, if only you had the right toys/space/strategy?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Snip It!

The most dangerous moments in my garden come, not surprisingly, when I have a pair of pruning shears in my hand. What is surprising is the sheer stupidity of my attempts at self-inflicted injury: I grab a bunch of dead stalks with one hand, reach in to cut them down with the other, and somehow manage to nearly slice off one of the fingers on the hand that’s holding the plant. I usually attack a plant with some vigor, so it’s a wonder I’ve never succeeded in severing half an index finger. Fortunately, my pruning shears are usually pretty dull and rusty and they don’t pose much of a threat to anyone, including the shrubs I’m working on. These close calls did get me in the habit of wearing tough gloves in the garden—not to protect myself against thorns, but against my own tools.

Not long ago I discovered a nifty new gadget that might just save my digits and make smaller pruning jobs go much quicker. A blade and tool company called Techni Edge manufactures Snip-It, a gardening scissor that slides onto the thumb and forefinger. All it takes is a cutting motion, castanet-style, to slice leaves, stems, and thin branches.

What makes this little toy so injury-proof is the two-handed technique. You buy a pair of them—they’re only four bucks apiece—and strap one onto each hand, then go after your perennials with double the fervor. With so many fingers occupied, it’s far less likely that any of them will get in the way of the blade.

I spent the morning outside, whacking away at salvia, gaura, veronica, and all the other neglected perennials in my garden that were desperately in need of a haircut. The trick is to grab just one or two stalks at a time; anything more than that will jam up the works. I found that Snip-Its were able to handle anything up to about the diameter of a pencil. It makes fast work of deadheading and light pruning, but shearing back low-growing perennials like geranium and catmint was not worth the trouble: the plants were so dense and damp that Snip-It’s small blade was not as effective as a pair of pruning shears would be.

You may want a third pair for the kitchen as well, because you can use them to keep cut flowers fresh—just pull the stems out of the water every couple of days, snip off an inch, change the water, and put them back. Using knives and kitchen scissors can pinch off the stem before making a cut, which prevents the flower from taking up water the way it should. You’ll also find that Snip-Its are useful for snipping away at kitchen herbs and houseplants.

Perhaps the reason that I like this gadget so much is that it appeals to the cheapskate in me. I can’t stand to spend money on pots or statuary or tools when I could have spent the money on plants. So a four-dollar tool that actually works is a delight. I can let it rust and fall apart and it’s no big deal to pick up another one next time I’m at the nursery. But the way things are going, they’ll probably last forever: I’m so enamored of them that I wash them off after every use, pat them dry, and even use a silver martini pick to dig out any bark or leaves that might have gotten stuck in the groove the blade fits into. The pruning shears, meanwhile, get dumped into a bucket of tools, where they will sit, covered in mud and rusting, until I come up with another job the Snip-It can’t handle.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

What's Bugging You?

Pete Haggard didn’t take a vacation for ten years. Why? There was no one to watch the bugs.

Haggard, a Humboldt County, CA agricultural inspector, began photographing and cataloging northern California insects over a decade ago. The result is a new book from Timber Press, Insects of the Pacific Northwest, which he co-authored with his wife Judy, a wildlife biologist. Often, the only way to get the pictures he wanted was to raise them himself.

“For about ten years,” he said, “I’d go out on Saturday mornings and take pictures of the insects I found. But it’s hard to find them in their immature stages, so I’d look for the host plants and gather eggs, then bring them back and raise them in the house in five-gallon buckets.”

Maintaining an insect nursery is a complicated endeavor. “It’s not like a dog or a cat,” he said. “You can’t leave a hundred different insects with somebody and go away. They’re like babies; they have to be cleaned every day, they need fresh foliage, and you have to check them twice a day to see if they’ve hatched.” Moths and butterflies in particular are tricky; if they emerge, they need to be released or they will beat themselves against the glass. “You can’t get a good picture after even a day or two,” Pete said, “because they start losing scales that quickly.”

In fact, to make sure his little darlings stuck around long enough to pose for a picture, Pete would often put them in the fridge to cool them down and slow their metabolism. That way, when they got outside, they’d sit still for the camera. He was quick to assure me that this wasn’t a cruel practice. “Cold isn’t the same for insects as it is for humans,” he said. “It just slows down their metabolism. It isn’t necessarily torture.” (I asked Pete and Judy if they had a special fridge for the bugs, but no, they go in the regular fridge along with the milk and the vegetables. Larvae in film canisters would sometimes spend months in the crisper enjoying an artificial winter.)

All that hard work and lost refrigerator space paid off, and the result is a comprehensive and user-friendly guide to the most common insects in northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. You’ll see a wide variety of beetles, flies, ants, bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, and some non-insects like spiders and snails.

The Haggards, who tend a one-acre garden of native plants and fruit trees in Fieldbrook, decided early on that the book should include information about the host plants that provide food and shelter to insect eggs and larvae. “People want to attract butterflies,” said Judy, “so they plant butterfly bush. You will get the adults, who like the nectar, but if you want to attract a suite of insects to your garden so they’ll really make it their home, you need the host plants where they can lay eggs.” The lovely garden tiger moth, for instance, feeds on plantain, lupine, and dandelion, three plants gardeners might not otherwise consider cultivating, and the gorgeous yellow western tiger swallowtail needs willow, poplar, sycamore, and alder to start a family.

The book makes fascinating reading for gardeners as well as hikers and wildlife enthusiasts. For instance, one common species of snail, the robust lancetooth snail, actually preys on other snails and should be considered a friend to gardeners. (I’d like to issue a formal apology to the four thousand or so robust lancetooth snails I have probably flung into traffic over the last several years. Why didn’t you say something?)

Another interesting insect gardeners should look out for is the glowworm beetle, which may be visible on damp nights thanks to its luminescent segments. The presence of these glowworms is a sign of a healthy, diverse insect population; Pete brags that his garden is teeming with them. The Tiemann’s glowworm seems to embody the notion that love conquers all; although the male is a small, skinny black beetle 14 mm in length and the female is large, segmented worm-like creature 65 mm in length, they still seem to—well, make it work. If you see them in your garden, cheer them on.

There’s drama as well as romance in this book. Another glowworm, the western banded glowworm, consumes millipedes by injecting them with a chemical that liquefies the millipede’s flesh, then eats the contents, one segment at a time, leaving a neat pile of disconnected rings at the end of the meal.

The Haggards hope that people who read their book will appreciate the enormous diversity in their local insect population. “People tell me they saw a show on the Discovery Channel about beetles of the Sahara or something like that,” Pete said, “and sometimes I think we know more about tropical insects than the ones here at home. We may not have butterflies the size of pigeons, but if you look through the book, there’s a lot of color and a lot of beauty.”

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Clematis and Wisteria

I can't get so much as a poppy to bloom in the chilly, wet weather we've had in the Pacific Northwest lately, but just a few miles up the road, a friend's clematis and wisteria are blooming their heads off. Is it possible that she just went out and bought these sturdy, woody vines last week and had them installed just in time for Easter?

No, I didn't think so... Posted by Picasa

Sex in (and after) the Garden

In her New York Times piece, Joyce Wadler tells the tale of author William Alexander's attempt at pollinating his apple tree. She writes:

"After learning that apple trees would not bear fruit unless cross-pollinated with trees of another variety, he harvested blossoms from trees near his office, mashed the blossoms and spread the pollen on the tree. That evening, he writes, he made ardent love to his wife."

Alexander blogs about his new book, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, on his website. He writes:

"So my wife was quite startled to see her sex life (along with her name and age) discussed in the Home and Garden section of Thursday's New York Times. ... The day only got worse for my internist wife when a call slipped past her receptionist: "Congratulations, doctor! You're famous!" said the caller, who turned out to be salesman trying to peddle a framed copy of the article. ...Anyway, I soothed my wounded ego by telling my wife to get used to seeing her sex life in print: My next book is titled "The Hundred Dollar—" ah, never mind. I'm in enough trouble as it is. I'm going to go hide out in the potato patch till this blows over... "

Hey, it sells books!

The $64 Tomato

Monday, April 17, 2006

More Pretty Pictures, Still Not My Garden

A gate to nowhere. The first time I walked through it, this garden's owner said, "Be sure and close the gate so the donkeys don't get out" (she actually does have two fabulous little donkeys) and I fell for it.

I have gates to somewhere that don't look nearly as good as this gate to nowhere! Apparently there are plans for a fence, someday... Posted by Picasa

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Still Not My Garden

How yummy is this? You need a big space for a big statue, and this one totally works. Posted by Picasa

Not My Garden

You won't see any great examples of garden design in my own garden. It's small and overcrowded and tended by a reckless, careless gardener who operates entirely on impulse.

However, I do know people who design beautiful gardens for themselves. I spent the day taking photographs of one such garden during an annual Easter party. It's an enormous piece of property--I actually don't know where it begins and ends--that faces a lake and is fringed with redwood forest. Not a bad setup.

As you can imagine, a garden like this is all about the views. It's about focal points. I'll post pictures of some of my favorite views over the next few days.

We'll start with the patio. I can never bring myself to spend money on fancy glazed pots, but what a difference they make, especially this time of year when not much is blooming. Posted by Picasa

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Garden, Looking Pretty

OK, enough ugly garden pictures. Here's the eye candy, or at least this is as much eye candy as I could muster. Artemesia, Spanish bluebells (which grow like weeds around here--I did not plant them), and hens.

Next, phlomis (aka Jerusalem sage) with the yellow flowers, centranthrus (Jupiter's beard) with the pink flowers, and orange-flowered calendula. And artichoke to the right. When this area fills out in summer, it's one of my favorite parts of the garden--nice variation in height and color, something always in bloom, and too densely-planted for a weed to so much as clear its throat.

And finally--lilac, bluebells, daffodils on my desk. Can you smell it? The fragrance filled my attic for a week.
 Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

My Garden: The Ugly Truth

Sacramento Gardening took this idea of photographing the real garden, the way it really looks, even if the off-season, even with weeds, and ran with it. She actually went out and voluntarily photographed the ugliest parts of her garden.

OK, I'm up for it. Ugly Spot #1: between the chicken coop and the back gate. Gate just has chipped bark (and right now, a pile of sticks too fat to go through the electric chipper/shredder), and the coop is, well, the coop, and between those two things are weeds and some perennial Maximillian sunflowers that die back to the ground in winter. What to do? I'm thinking of hanging my upside-down tomatoes here this year since it's a south-facing fence that escapes the shadow of the house.

Next up--a no-man's land between the berries and the butterfly bush. It's cute when there are chickens scratching around, but otherwise it's weedy and useless. I guess the best idea would be to just extend the berries all the way over--they want to go there anyway. It's a little shady down by the ground, sunnier higher up, so the berries would do OK.

And last but not least--the trash cans! Of course! I refuse to build a cute little house for the trash cans, or even one of those "easy weekend project" trellises covered in vines. It's trash. We all have it. I don't care who knows it. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Garden Center Blog

Check out the golden gecko blog--the blog of a garden center owner in Garden Valley, CA. I found him when he posted a comment about organic fertilizers on Sacramento Gardening--he said, in part: "“Authentic” companies are authentic for the very reason they are not found in chain stores. Just like Mc Donald’s or any other fast food place, you pay for convenience by accepting a product that is not as good as that special restaurant you have to make reservations for. Authentic means thinking ahead and not becoming desperate. Organic gardening is very forgivable if you don’t over do things. "

Yeah! Let's hear more from independent nursery owners! Any others out there blogging? I'm going on a search. A few more:

GreenScapes Gardens--here's a little gem: "We are in the business to sell plants but plants only grow and prosper when they are given the proper incentives to grow........GOOD SOIL."

the diary of a garden center employee--no posts lately (it looks like she got a job at Lowe's) but what's there is good reading. I love this: "Marin-cess: That is what we call those girls who come into the nursery with the huge, sparkly diamond rings on the fingers. They drive fancy cars and have uncontrolled kids. Usually we see them when they come to see Mark regarding their landscape design project. I see them also when I go to their house to prune the plants they now own but will obviously not be tending."

...and here's Campbell's Garden Center... this about a trade show: " I try not to jump into things too quickly. It's better for me to wait and see if the product really performs the way they claim - or not. There have been many products through the years that have made wonderful claims about what the plant was supposed to do. Most of it is "hype"."

And by the way, Sacramento Gardening has raised (or lowered) the bar by posting pictures of the WORST spots in her garden. You show me yours, I'll show you mine. I'm headed outside with the camera now!

Hot or Not?

Takoma Gardener has a great round-up of gardening trends. Hot: Dwarf evergreens and colored foliage. Not: shade trees and ornamental grasses.

Now, I get it about gardening trends--sort of. If someone asks me what an unfamiliar flower is, I can say, "Oh, that's cerinthe, it's sort of a trendy little annual right now." In other words, gardeners in the know have gone a little crazy over it and everybody's planting it.

On the other hand, what's a gardener to do with the annual hot-or-not list? Reminds me of those irritating stories in fashion magazines about hairstyles. Don't tell me long hair is in this year if you told me short hair was in last year. What am I supposed to do--grow it out just in time for you to tell me that short hair is back?

So for instane, ornamental grasses are on the "not" list. Well, dang, I just got my ornamental grass thing going. I actually want them to live. For a while. In the ground. What am I supposed to do with an out-of-fashion flower--donate it to charity?

Takoma Gardener: What's Hot, What's Not

Monday, April 10, 2006

Couldn't we all, really?

"Those paperwhites and other daffodils sure could use a drink -- a little whiskey, vodka gin or tequila could keep them from falling over. "

Gin has the opposite effect on me, but OK, I'm listening. A study at Cornell showed that sharing happy hour with the houseplants would stunt their growth. In the case of paperwhites, that means that they'll bloom on short, stocky stems instead of falling over.

What I really love about the story is this little tidbit: "Last year, Miller received a call from The New York Times about a reader who had written to the garden editor claiming that gin had prevented some paperwhite narcissi from growing too tall and floppy and asked if it was because of some "essential oil" in the gin. "

Of course! Some New Yorker just decided to, oh, I don't know--empty her Martini pitcher into the flower pot. Why not? It's the holidays, and Manhattan gets so festive that time of year. Drink up, girls!

The researchers, spoilsports that they are, used ethanol in their plant studies. Come on, the rest of us live in the real world. Would my tulips prefer a Cosmo or a dry Martini? You don't expect me to waste perfectly good booze figuring this out myself, do you?

Tipsy flowers don't tip over

Thanks to Mirabilis for digging this one up.

What a load of horseshit!

ElizabethGardens is working on a complete overhaul of a 1/3 acre lot, starting with bringing in a glorious load of manure and compost to improve the soil. So one question is, how much to buy? There's a great shortcut to converting square feet into inches of mulch. Just multiply the square footage of your garden by the inches of coverage you want, and divide by 324. That'll tell you how many cubic yards you need.

Let's say this 1/3 acre lot--14,370 square feet--actually has 10,000 square feet of garden space. The rest, let's say, is taken up with house, outbuildings, driveway, patio, sidewalks, paths, etc.

So maybe you want 6 inches of mulch in the garden. 10,000 square feet x 6 = 60,000. Divide by 324, and you get 185 cubic yards. That's quite a load of manure!

(Here, by the way, are links to many great agricultural-related calculators. You can also easily calculate the amount of mulch, stone, etc. you'll need for a garden project here.)

Now the question is: what do to with all this mulch? Just lay it down on top of what's there (weeds, grass, whatever), or till it in, or use some kind of weed barrier?

There's no easy answer. Plastic weed barriers aren't great for the soil ecology, weeds will spring up anyway, and eventually you'll have exposed plastic somewhere. If you just smother weeds with mulch, they'll probably find their way to the surface eventually, although new weeds will creep in thanks to wind, bird droppings, etc. anyway. Finally, the mulch you bring in could contain weed seeds, too. (the only way to know for sure is to take a sample, water it, and wait.) Tilling can disrupt a healthy soil community and drive away earthworm populations.

What would I do, given the glorious possibility of a blank slate and a load of mulch? Prioritize. Choose a manageable-sized area and just focus on that in the first year. Maybe you're eager to get a vegetable garden in before summer; maybe you'd like to get the front yard done before the neighbors circulate a petition. Do that this year, and just keep the rest mowed or seed in a cover crop like vetch, fava, rye or clover that will improve the soil and choke back weeds while it waits its turn. (Check with your nursery for the best cover crop for your climate, and discuss with them whether you should let the crop go to seed or whack it back when it starts to bloom. It's not a big deal, for instance, if fava goes to seed, but some rye cover crops could be with you forever if you let them bloom.)

Then, with this smaller, manageable area, don't bother tilling. Just pile the stuff on top. For a weed barrier consider thick, overlapping layers of wet cardboard and newspaper, which will gradually turn into worm food. (use anything but glossy magazine inserts or coated color cardboard.)

For raised beds, if you're on a budget, consider straw bales. (I'm not sure what the situation is nationwide, but rice straw is weed-free and widely available in California.) I got this idea from Seattle Tilth--the idea is to just set a straw bale, still wrapped in its string, on the ground (or perhaps bury it slightly to get it to the height you want), hollow out the center, fill it with good potting soil and compost, and plant right into it. (You can use the straw you hollowed out of the bale as mulch in your paths, or compost it.)

For easy watering, thread drip irrigation lines through the bales, and water the entire bed, bales included, with weak compost tea from time to time to encourage healthy roots. At the end of the season, throw the whole thing in the compost pile or just spread it around on the ground, pile more compost on top, and let that be next year's garden. (Mind you, I have yet to try straw bale gardening myself, although I'm dying to. Has anyone else tried it?)

Last suggestion: Whatever you're going to plant, crowd plants together. Plant 3 or 5 or 7 of the same plant in a smaller area than the directions on the plant tag recommend. You'll crowd out weeds and get a better-looking garden faster. Then, next year, when you start on another section, you can pull out a few plants that are starting to get overcrowded and move them to your new beds.

What fun! I wish I had another blank slate. That vacant lot across the street sure is looking good...

elizabethgardens: What to do...what to do...

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Miracle-Gro's Organic Choice

Thanks to Sacramento Gardening for pointing out that Scotts now makes a line of Miracle-Gro organic products. Now, you might think that I'd jump on my high horse and rail against the corporate organic model, in which a smattering of organic products are wrapped around a giant, environmentally-unfriendly behemouth in the name of making a few extra bucks off do-gooder consumers.

Or you might think I'd complain, as many have, that when large corporations finally jump on the organic bandwagon, they drive small, dedicated producers (or farms, or cooperatives, or shops) out of business, even though those were the very people who created this market in the first place. Not to mention the fact that the "corporate organic" version of the product might satisfy only some minimal standards, might use cheap ingredients from dubious sources, or otherwise deliver an inferior product that causes customers new to organics to be disappointed and go back to the blue stuff.

But no. Believe it or not, I'm not going to take that stand. Getting what we ask for is not an occasion for complaints. It's a cause for celebration. Garden chemicals are a disaster for the environment and the people applying them. Americans spray90 million pounds of pesticides on their lawns and gardens every year, and fertilizer runoff is a serious problem for streams, lakes, and groundwater. It's astonishing to me that professional landscapers and contractors need training and a license to apply some of the same chemicals that any idiot (like me) could walk into a nursery and purchase for themselves, and use in whatever way they see fit with little understanding of the consequences.

So to Scotts I say: Yes! Organic products are a HUGE step forward, and now they'll be in major mainstream retailers, including all the big box stores, around the country where customers can make a choice. Great!

There is an interesting little footnote to this story, however. Scotts recently bought the Rod McLellan company, which owns Supersoil, Black Magic, and Whitney Farms. There was some speculation in the industry that Scotts intended all along to shut these companies down and replace their products with a Miracle-Gro brand. While Whitney Farms organic fertilizers are still available in stores, I wonder if this is in fact the next step. Whitney has always been sold in independent nurseries, where Scotts products are not always welcome with open arms. If Whitney goes, will independent nurseries stock Miracle-Gro's organic line, or will they turn to other companies like Dr. Earth or Fox Farm to fill the gap?

Stay tuned, folks. As for me? I'm glad Scotts is rolling out better, safer products, but I'll continue to support the little guys.

Miracle-Gro: Organic Choice Products

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Spring Garden Tour

I'd promised to post the same picture of the garden each month, whether it looked good or not. For April I decided to conduct a full tour of the garden. So in the spirit of showing more real gardens, even when they look like crap...

The front's coming along. Cerinthe is blooming. Rose campion about to start blooming. After that will be daisies, scabiosa, penstemon, coreopsis, and some salvia. But for now, I'm just glad everything's green and alive!

Now, inside the front gate, here's the side of the house--callas to the left, columbine to the right. Big angel's trumpet in the distance--it barely survives the winter each year but usually blooms in August. On the right, you can't see an ancient fuchsia and rhododendron that where here when I bought the house. Each year, I threaten them with execution if they don't perform, and so far they've managed to rally just before I come at them with the pruning shears.

Turn around and walk through the back gate--here's an aerial view from my attic. This has become the chicken yard. Berries on the left and right, coop in the back, and the middle is planted with low-growing, blooming plants that can handle chicken traffic--geranium, lady's mantle, catmint, yarrow, etc. Chipped wood paths. The chickens have managed to expand the width of all the paths by scattering the wood chips, so I'm working this spring on dividing the plants that are already there and planting them into the paths to combat the chicken activity.

Other side of the house--lots of culinary plants. Apple trees, artichokes, rosemary and other perennial herbs, as well as lots of salvia, some roses, butterfly bush, etc. This side really gets going in mid-summer and blooms through fall. The chickens have started working their way over here too--not sure yet what the impact of that will be.

And still, somehow, there are more blank spaces to fill! So I'm off to the nursery. I've got some prettier, more close-up and better composed pictures I'll post later--but once in a while, as Takoma Gardener says, you just want to see what the damn garden looks like. Posted by Picasa

Friday, April 07, 2006

Dreaming of Summer

I found this going through last year's pictures. I look like a stooped-over old person here, but that's only because I'm bending down to talk to the chickens. But doesn't the garden look lovely? Just a few more months...

UPDATE: Oh, yeah, that's a good idea--say something about the plants! Icelandic poppies in front (and I pinched back the young buds so they didn't bloom until they were big & bushy--I was holding them back in hopes of using them in some arrangements at a wedding, but in the end I didn't have enough to make it worthwhile)

and behind that, some burgundy bachelor buttons, then against the chicken coop are some very sweet pink and yellow hollyhocks that just come back year after year...and in the upper left corner is this fabulous butterfly bush from White Flower Farm. I tell you, I haven't ordered many plants from them, but the ones I have ordered have just bloomed their heads off. Those folks are doing something right.

More garden photos coming tomorrow...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Plants We Love: Geum

(Red geum pictured here with lilac centranthus, aka Jupiter's Beard.)

I’m always surprised at what flowers won’t grow in my garden. I have a great deal of trouble getting annual sunflowers to stick around, for instance. Either the snails mow them down or they just don’t get quite enough heat and sunlight to push them along. I say this with full knowledge that a neighbor just two blocks away has gorgeous sunflowers all summer. Maybe she has better soil, better protection from the wind, or better luck. I can’t explain it.

Any number of easy-to-grow plants fall into this category, and sometimes the list changes from year to year. Last year I couldn’t get cosmos to take off. I’ve had trouble with poppies. I’m embarrassed to tell you how much I’ve spent on bareroot clematis, only to have them wither away to nothing and disappear.

These mysterious failures have taught me one valuable lesson: when you find something that works, stick with it. Plant lots of it. Turn it into your signature look. I’ve done this with maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximilianii), for instance. It’s a perennial cousin to the annual sunflower and it grows like a weed once established, blooming reliably every fall with bright yellow flowers that are smaller than most sunflowers but just as cheerful.

This year, I’ve decided to promote geum to more of a starring role. It’s proven itself to be loyal, hardworking, and reliable, so much so that I’ve been snapping it up every time I see it at the nursery and planting one in any empty space I have available. I didn’t love it at first, but once I realized that it was prepared to stand by me no matter what, I started to see the possibilities.

Geum is a perennial with low-growing foliage, which means that it will stay well-hidden when it’s not in bloom. It tolerates a little shade, but it likes the sun. It blooms in yellow, orange (including a tangerine/salmon orange) and red, so you can work it into almost any color scheme. The flowers, which are only a little under two inches across, rise on slender one to two foot stems and generally take the shape of a camellia or a wild rose in full bloom. There are single and double forms—the doubles tend to be more rose-like.

Most of the geums you’ll see in the nurseries around town are G. chiloense, a species native to Chile, but there are also varieties that come from Asia, Europe, and there’s even a species called prairie smoke (named for its feathery seed pods) that is native to the Midwest.

The flowers are a bit too small to make much of a statement massed together. This is an informal flower that works best when it’s just stuck in among something else. Because the stems are so slender, the flowers always look like they’re bobbing and swaying. Geum is never going to stand up straight or march in a line, but it will weave in among whatever’s planted next to it and fill in little gaps in the border. I planted a couple underneath a blue salvia last summer and the brilliant orange-red flowers popped up among the stiff blue spires of salvia and looked spectacular. The yellow ‘Lady Stratheden’ works well among a bunch of Shasta daisies, and the tangerine version pairs with creamy yellow roses and just about any pastel color.

They make good cut flowers, and whether you want them in a vase or not, you should keep cutting them anyway to get more blooms into the fall. The foliage can get a little scraggly and has a tendency to form a mound, but I just rake the dead stuff out and divide them in the fall when they get too bulky.

I see geum in nurseries around town throughout the year, but they’re not the sort of flower to burst into bloom and look gorgeous in the pot, so they tend to get overlooked. Keep an eye out for them in affordable six-packs and four-inch pots—even smaller, younger plants will probably bloom the first year, so there’s not much point in spending extra money for the one-gallon size. Besides, once you have them, you’ll be able to divide them and move them around every fall.

And unlike certain other plants I could mention, they will never, ever let you down. Posted by Picasa

Garden Blogs go Mainstream

Durn, we've been found out!

Thanks to Sign of the Shovel for unearthing this one. - Take time to blog the roses - Apr 6, 2006

Welcome, Yahoo users!

If you've come here from your customized Yahoo home page, welcome! For those of you who haven't yet learned the joys of a customized home page, to go Yahoo and click on "My Yahoo," or go to Google and click on "Personalized Home" in the upper right corner. From there you can choose all kinds of customized features, from local weather, to news sources, to your favorite blogger.

Then come back here to add Dirt to your customized Yahoo or Google home page. Just scroll down on this page and you'll see the buttons in the sidebar on the right. Click the button and you're done.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled garden...

Great Moments in Plant Photography

This just makes me happy.

Flowering Plant Families, UH Botany

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

And we're off!

Sign of the Shovel took the time to drive around New Jersey and photograph the most offensive, banal, and generally irritating gardens she could find. Yes! Somebody's got to stop these people!

Michele, please don't be swayed by suburban California gardens. If I see one more rockrose and agapanthus garden planted by a contractor, I'm going to run screaming for Mexico. Yes, there are some pretty plants, but there's also acres and acres of plastic-covered, bark-mulched, dull-shrubberied subdivisions. Why? Why?

She ends with gratitude for the garden she has, and I second that. Could you imagine living in a place (and there are bazillions of them in California) where your homeowners association would not ALLOW you to rip out the dreck the contractor planted and grow what you love?

Or even if you don't have an association and its by-laws there to dictate what you do with the overpriced postage stamp that is California real estate, imagine being contrained by your own worries about what the neighbors might think. What an awful way to garden--what an awful way to live! There's not a damn thing I can't bring home and stick smack dab in the front of my house. Now, if it's cool enough and not rooted firmly in the ground, somebody might walk off with it, but that's just another form of enthusiasm, right?

Sign of the Shovel: A Few Random Complaints, Plus A Giddy Hymn Of Praise

What's the Big Deal with Miracle-Gro?

Sarah asked this question in the comments, and it's a good one. For me, a magazine published by a big company like Scotts is a little suspect. I mean, we're not talking about a group of passionated and dedicated gardeners who got together to share their love of horticulture with the world. I'd be equally nonplussed if, say, Home Depot decided to publish a garden magazine. It's just an advertisement delivery vehicle. (I know, the same is true of most magazines, but you get my drift.)

But what about the blue stuff itself? Well, as an entirely organic gardener, I don't use synthetic fertlizers like Miracle Gro or Osmocote. These chemical fertilizers are by-products of the petroleum industry, they're salt-based, and they're almost always overkill. Runoff of fertilizer chemicals in to streams and water supplies is a serious problem. You're also more likely to burn plants by using too much synthetic fertilizer, and you can even hurt the soil: there's nothing like high-nitrogen chemical lawn fertilizer to damage your earthworm population.

On the other hand, organic fertilizers like fish emulsion, bone meal, kelp meal, etc. are food for beneficial organisms that live in the soil and help feed plant roots. Worm castings, manure, and compost are full of beneficial microbes, as are many organic fertilizers that have species of good bacteria and fungi added. So when you add these organic products to the soil, you're not just feeding your plant, you're feeding the soil your plant lives in.

Organic fertilizers may work more slowly, but think of them as a complete meal. Synthetic fertlizers are a pill, and since they only contain a few major nutrients, it's not even like feeding your garden a multivitamin--it's more like feeding it vitamin C, D, and E and figuring that's enough.

So--no thanks, Scotts. No thanks, Miracle-Gro. If I need an arsenal of chemicals to keep my garden growing, I'll pass on the whole thing and read a good book instead.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Miracle-Gro Magazine

This just in: Miracle Gro is going to give you gardening advice.

I've never been so frightened.

Monday, April 03, 2006

No Dirt, No Weeds, No Mess

And best of all, no green thumb needed!

Folks, this is the year of the high-tech garden gadget. For just $149, you can grow herbs right in your kitchen using this self-contained little grow system. It's got a built-in light, "bio domes" that come pre-planted with the seeds of your choice, an aeroponic optimizing chamber (that's NASA-tested technology, people) where roots grow in nothing but air, water, and fertilizer, and best of all, a computer control panel that puts a Master Gardener right in your kitchen. (Could she make some dinner while she's in there?)

Plants grow five times faster than dirt, and the light raises automatically as the plant grows. There's a freaky little video demonstrating the concept here.

The unscripted, unpaid customer testimonials are my favorite, especially the ones where they call it "the unit," as in, "I just love the idea of having fresh herbs in the kitchen. That's why I was interested in getting the unit."

And consider this important benefit: "I really love the idea that I can grow a garden with very little effort, and also that it is small. It wasn’t overwhelming. That was the main thing," and "I used to envision having a small kitchen garden, but how do you do it? You have to have a lot of dirt and water it all the time. "

That's right, folks. A pot of dirt with a basil plant in it, sitting in a window sill--how do you do it? And if you do, well, we all know how overwhelming it's bound to get. Out of control, really. But now there's a handy gadget to take care of that for you.

What will they think of next? Machines that wash our clothes and sweep our floors? It's insanity!

Home Of The AeroGarden From AeroGrow International ::: 1-800-GROW NOW

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Married in the House, Single in the Garden

Sign of the Shovel has sparked a discussion of the relative merits of gardening with a spouse vs. gardening alone. She wonders briefly if she should have married a man like Eliot Coleman: "Eliot, are you the man I should have married? Someone who'd actually work the soil with me? Side by side, shovel to shovel? Think of the gardens I could make with a man like you! Alas, I suppose I knew what I was doing when I favored sex and conversation over any interest in gardening all those years ago."

Not me, girlfriend. I like to garden ALONE. I do not have the least bit of interest in sharing the garden with my beloved husband. I don't want to compromise, I don't want to share, I don't want to work together or cooperate. I want to do MY THING. Fortunately, that's just fine with him. He gets to make a request now and then (an apple tree, some raspberries), but that's as far as it goes.

Here's the problem with couples who garden together. You've all seen this, I'm sure: a couple strolling through the nursery on a Saturday morning, hand in hand. They look happy, relaxed. The week is behind them, and they can look forward to a peaceful weekend together. They have decided to spend their Saturday working in the garden.

Just then, one of them stops to sniff a climbing jasmine. (For the sake of gender neutrality, let's call her--or him--Kelly). With a dreamy expression, Kelly chooses the tallest, most fragrant vine and places it in the red wagon they've been towing behind them. The other (we'll call him--or her--Alex) looks puzzled. "Honey, where are we going to put that?"

The spell is broken, but Kelly tries to be patient. "Well, I thought maybe by the fence."

"The one at the back? Where the red thing is?"

"No, the other one, next to where the datura died last year."

"What's a datura?"

Kelly sighs, that long, exasperated sigh that Alex knows all too well. "Never mind. This wasn't a good idea. Let's just go." Kelly drops the handle of the red wagon and begins to walk to the car.

Alex follows, confused and forlorn. "Honey, wait. I just don't know what the plan is. I'm not in on the program."

Kelly stops, and looks up at the sky for a moment as if counting to ten. "There IS no plan, Alex. Why does there always have to be a plan with you? I just want to wander around and...oh, never mind."

And with that, Kelly and Alex head to the car. Their big gardening weekend? Over.

I observe these interactions every weekend as I wander through the nursery, blissfully alone. No, I have not forsaken love in the name of gardening solitude. It just so happens that my beloved had the wisdom to recognize, years ago, that our garden wasn't big enough for the both of us. I need a place where I can be alone, a place where I can do as I please. And so, as a gardener, I am single and I love it.

On my solitary wanderings through the nursery, I can linger over the creeping thyme as long as I want. I can stumble across a pair of scabiosa on the sale table and decide, on the spot and without consulting anyone, to plant a butterfly garden. On the way to the cash register, I might see a blood-red penstemon and change my mind, deciding that what I really need is a hummingbird garden. I can spend the rest of the afternoon putting away my butterfly plants and looking for hummingbird plants. No one starts to get bored and restless. No one begs to go home.

It is the gardening equivalent of eating crackers in bed. Ah, the pleasures of the single life.

Not everyone gardens alone, however. Some of us choose to garden with our mate. And so, unencumbered by any personal expertise or professional advice, I present the first-ever Gardening Quiz for Couples. Take this test with your sweetheart--if you dare.

1. At the nursery, you find your better half in the pest control section, eyeing the box of gopher poison with the little pictures of furry brown animals doubled over in pain. You:

a. Scream, "What kind of monster ARE you?" and run crying to the car
b. Sniff haughtily and say, "I hope for your sake that the rumors of a gopher coup are completely untrue. Revenge, as they say, will be sweet."
c. Suggest that, since your sweetie got to choose which parking space to park in, perhaps YOU should get to choose the method of gopher control.

2. After the third or fourth hour at the nursery, your loved one suggests that perhaps it's time to make some purchases and go home. You:

a. Roll your eyes and say, "Oh, GREAT. We just got here, and already you want to leave. Every time we do something that I want to do, you start complaining that you're bored!"
b. Send your beloved off in search of a double peach datura, ensuring at least another hour of solitude.
c. Answer cheerfully, "Great! Let's go home and tackle those weeds!"

3. You come home one day to find that your significant other has mowed your newly planted Wildflower Meadow down to a clean-shaven, 1-inch lawn. You:

a. Jump up and down in the rose garden shouting, "Let's cut THESE down too! Or-wait, those FRUIT TREES are looking a bit gangly! Where's the chainsaw? Let's make ALL our plants one inch high!"
b. Stick a tag on the lawn mower at your next garage sale, and when your better half isn't looking, sell it for the price of a pound of Spring Meadow Wildflower Seed.
c. Look out at the “lawn” and say brightly, “Ah, I see you noticed the problem with the Wildflower Meadow too. Not enough bachelor buttons, and too many poppies. Looks like you’ve got it all ready to replant.”

Scoring: Give yourself one point for every "a", 2 points for every "b", and 3 points for every "c" that you selected.

If your score totaled 3-4: Gardening may not be the best hobby for you and your loved one to share. Try looking for another activity you can do together, like fencing or kickboxing.

If your score totaled 5-7: There may be room for compromise in your gardening relationship. Remember that Laverne & Shirley episode where they got in a big fight and split their entire apartment down the middle with masking tape? Get out in the garden and give it a try.

If your score totaled 8-9: Congratulations! You have gained the upper hand in the gardening relationship. You and your beloved can enjoy many happy hours together in the garden and feel safe in the knowledge that, as long as you continue to hold your rightful place as Queen of the Garden, no one gets hurt.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Rose Apples

At the risk of spoiling the fun...damn, I wish I could come up with an April Fool's entry like this one. Brilliant!

Reading Dirt: A New Twist on Edible Landscaping -- With a Little Help From Science