Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Garden, Part Two

The chickens are also making inroads into the side garden (and here's Bess in the path). I had intended for this to be an all-culinary garden, with artichokes, sage, apples, rosemary, edible flowers, other herbs, but inevitably, that definition got stretched, first to include other salvias that are related to culinary sage but not necessarily something you'd use to flavor your stuffing, and then to include anything that I felt like planting.

The best news about this garden is that the chickens have practically eliminated the snail population. Clematis, dahlias, and lilies have all sprung from the ground this spring after years of getting mowed down by snails. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chicken-friendly plants

Here's the back yard looking yummy, as it does this time of year. This is the north side of the house, which means that even though it's an open, unshaded space, the house tends to cast a long shadow most of the year. The back, around the chicken coop, is really the only place that gets full sun all day.

I'm moving plants around a lot to accommodate the chickens these days. I want low-growing plants so that I can look out the back window and see the chickens and the coop. There's no point growing food because the chickens would just eat it. So flowers it is, and creeping, crawling flowers work best because they're not bothered by the girls' scratching and digging. Hardy geraniums are doing well, as are yarrow and lady's mantle. Rose campion, calendula, cerinthe, borage, and love-in-a-mist are prolific self-sowers, so at least some of their seeds survive the scratching and pecking.

What else? A few low-growing salvia, some centranthus, maybe a few heurchera. Half is perpetually in damp shade (near the house), and half in full sun and whatever water I think to give it, which may not be much. It's kind of a jumble, but the chickens and I like it. Posted by Picasa

Cybergardening in the Sacramento Bee

Thanks to the Sacramento Bee for this story on the digital gardening world. I'd like to second their nomination of Annie's Annuals as the best nursery website--it's useful as a reference source and as a place to find plants.

News - Dan Vierria: Online gardening is almost as good as the real thing -

Friday, May 26, 2006

Thanks for all your good garden blogging advice

I updated the post (below), put a link on the sidebar, and I think it's done. Feel free to keep commenting, however.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Don't Get Dirt in the Keyboard, and Other Blogging Tips for Gardeners

What is a blog?
A blog (short for "weblog") is a website that follows a very specific diary format, with the most recent post on top and everything else below it in chronological order. You don't need any special skills to make or post to a blog--it's as easy as writing an e-mail. People tend to blog on specific subjects, like politics or cooking or gardening, but some people just use a blog to keep an online diary of their everyday life.

How do I find gardening blogs?
Check out the list of links to gardening blogs on the right to get started. Most bloggers link to other blogs, so the easiest way to discover garden blogs is to read a few and follow the links. Garden Voices provides a good round-up of garden blogs, and you can find another great list here. You can also go to Technorati or Blogger Search to search for blogs that interest you.

Once you find garden blogs you like, you can subscribe to their syndication feeds and have them automatically downloaded to a reader, which may be easier than going from blog to blog every day. Here is some basic information on site feeds and readers to get you started.

Why keep a gardening blog?
Some people create a gardening blog as a way to keep track of what's going on in their garden. You can post photographs and plant lists, record your triumphs and failures, and look back over time to see what worked and what didn't.

Some people want to share their gardens with a few friends and family members (posting pictures online is a good alternative to e-mailing them out to everyone), or maybe even connect with other gardeners around the world.

Some people are looking for a way to reach a larger audience with their garden writing or photography. I probably fall into this group. I'm a garden writer, and my blog is an extension of the magazine and newspaper writing I do, and the books I write.

What makes a garden blog successful?
That depends on your definition of success. If you're just looking for a place to keep track of what's going on in your garden, all you have to do is post notes and pictures and you've succeeded! If you're trying to attract a readership, here are some ideas (and please check out the comments to this post for even more ideas):
  • Read other people's blogs and post comments. Blogging is an interactive sport.
  • Respond to what other people are writing about on their blogs (or in the news) by writing a post about it on your blog. Be sure to include a link to the blog or website that started it all. Blogging is also very democratic and generous; give credit to your sources!
  • Post as often as possible. The more you post, the more people will read your blog.
  • Keep your posts short. Break your prose up into short paragraphs.
  • Include lots of pictures--the best garden blogs are full of eye candy! And be sure to include the names of the plants whenever you can.
  • Tell us about your projects. Show us how you built your raised beds. Let us see how your tomato crop is coming along. Post a picture of the bug that's eating your echium and let us see if we can identify it. Show us what your garden looks like, month in and month out, even when the weather's awful and the flower beds look like crap. We've had enough of perfect magazine gardens--let's see some real gardens!
  • Include links. Make a blogroll of your fellow garden bloggers, link to your favorite seed catalogs, and point your readers to other interested resources on the web.
  • Even if you do figure out how to make your blog play music, please resist the urge. Most bloggers I've talked to hate going to a blog and having music blare out at them.
  • Loosen up! Blogging is, by nature, lively and opinionated. Informal. Off-the-cuff. Uncensored. Nobody wants to read a list of tips on how to prune roses. That information is available everywhere. Tell us something we don't already know! Don't get freaked out if someone disagrees with what you write--it's all in good fun. By all means, have a sense of humor!

How do I get started?

First, choose a blogging platform or service. I've had experience with Blogger, RadioUserLand, WordPress, MovableType, and TypePad. There are pros and cons to each, but here's my advice:

If you want a blog that's free and very easy to use, go with Blogger. It's owned by Google and those people know how to make user-friendly software. They also have great customer service--when I send off a question, I get a real answer, written by a real person, within 24 hours. You'll have a blog up and running in about five minutes, I swear. Many of the people who posted comments also liked WordPress, which is also free. I think it's a little complex for first-time users who don't want to learn any HTML or fancy tricks, but hey, why not try both?

A couple Blogger tips: First, as you're getting registered for the first time, don't spend a lot of time choosing a template. For some reason, there are many more template choices available once you're already up and running. So just pick any template to get started, then change it by clicking on the Template tab once you're set up. Also, take advantage of Google's other great blog tools that will make Blogger even easier to use, such as their Picasa photo software, their Blog This button on the Google Toolbar, and their tool for subscribing to other blogs, Google Reader. You don't have to have ads on your blog, but if you want to try to make a few bucks, Blogger includes a way to put Adsense ads on your site.

Downsides to Blogger: No way to categorize your posts by subject and have a list of those subjects in the sidebar. No easy way to build a list of links (sometimes called a Blogroll). Then again, what do you want for free? Try Blogrolling for your blogroll, and be sure to check out their BlogRollIt button for your toolbar. You'll need a little help with editing HTML to add something like Blogrolling to your blog, but it's pretty basic stuff.

If you want a blog with more flexibility, more tools, and more power, and you don't mind spending $5 per month, go with Typepad. It's still very easy to use, and you don't need to know any HTML, but you'll get categories, blogroll/lists, and other whiz-bang features that Blogger doesn't offer. They make it easy to set up your own domain name, and if you do want to tinker with the HTML a bit, just upgrade to the Pro version at $15/mo.

Once you're set up, trick out your browser toolbar with some of the buttons I mentioned above to make blogging quick and easy. Writing a blog post should not be a chore; it should be as quick and simple as writing an e-mail.

Try not to get dirt in the keyboard, and enjoy your cyber-botanic experience!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Earth Plugs

So my mom gave me these sweet little Fiestaware-colored flower pots. Nice, huh? But what to do with them? They're almost too nice to go outside, and I don't really have any little houseplants I could put in them. What a dilemma!

Then I was at the nursery and I saw these Earth Plugs from Down to Earth. (Dude, if you have not been to their nursery in Eugene, you have totally got to go. Just trust me on this one.)

The idea with the Earth Plugs is that they are made of spongy composted tree bark and impregnated with beneficial microbes, so that you can just stick a cutting (or seed) in the little pre-cut hole and water. And they come in a nice ziploc bag, so if you don't need all 25 at once, you can save the rest for later.

So I thought--well, this is perfect! I've been wanting to take cuttings of some of my favorite salvias, but if I just have them sitting in pots outdoors, I'll forget to water them and they'll die. But if I were to cram, say, four of these plugs into each of my cute little pots, I could set them on my desk in front of a south-facing window, water them daily, obsess over them hourly, and maybe actually have some successful cuttings for once.

Brilliant! Thanks, Mom!

and for those of you keeping score, the salvia are: the fabulous hot pink/ magenta buchananii, the outrageous fuzzy red confertiflora, the 'Limelight' mexicana, and an officinalis--the regular culinary sage--with some kind of magical properties. This thing is easily four feet wide, blooms its ass off all summer, and just never wears out. I've never seen anything like it. I've bought more in the past, hoping to reproduce the look elsewhere in my garden, but no dice. It's just this one plant. So I'm making more.

You can get most of those salvias at Digging Dog, by the way. Go shopping! It's spring! Posted by Picasa

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Sweet William, sweet Eleanor

That's my hen Eleanor in the foreground, and the sweet William I planted last year in the background. Now, I know that this stuff is a biannual, but the plants I bought last year were so big that I thought surely they were in their second year and would bloom soon. That's reasonable, isn't it?

No, apparently not. I suspect that no matter how big or how mature a sweet William is when you buy it, it will not bloom until you have stood by, tapping your foot, looking at your watch, for a full year. Posted by Picasa

Friday, May 19, 2006

Why blog?

A good discussion going on here and here about why people keep gardening blogs. It all got started when Gardening While Intoxicated (and by the way--love her, love her blog, love the whole intoxicated gardening concept) said that she finds that GardenWeb's reblog, Garden Voices, "contains a confusing and daunting amount of material, so I'm glad so many are able to sift through it. It’s mainly a lot of people showing off their gardens."

So the question is--what is a garden blog all about? Most people who have responded to these posts agree that what started out as a place to record the happenings in their garden evolved to something more--a bit of a showcase, a way to get to know other gardeners, a way to mouth off.

And the fact is that we gardeners do have quite a bit to say. Michael Pollan wrote this week on his NYT blog (I won't even bother going to get the link because you have to be a subscriber to read it, but if you're in TimesSelect you'll find it) that food writers aren't taken seriously. Well, he had a bit more to say about it than that, but you get the idea. If you write about food, he suggested, you're Not a Real Journalist.

To which I reply: HA! Are you kidding me? When Pollan moved from garden to food writing, he took a MAJOR step up the journalistic food chain. Look at any major newspaper in the US, and you'll see a big fat food section, a big fat travel section, and, in the case of the San Francisco Chronicle, a truly fine and fascinating WINE section once a week! These people are having fun, they're turning up interesting stories, they're spouting off opinions, they're getting outraged letters from readers, and they're doing serious journalism!

But where are the garden writers? We're in a little corner of what used to be called the women's section of the paper. Now it's the Home or Lifestyle section. Yep, that's us, right next to the advice columns and the little stories about how a scented candle can light up any room.

Sheesh. Get on a plane or put a bite of food in your mouth, and that's news. But go outside and put your hands in the dirt? Fluff.

Dude, Where's My Lawn?

People, I said to rip our YOUR lawn, not your neighbor's lawn! Isn't anyone paying attention? > News > State -- Thief steal Adelanto homeowner's front yard:

"Witnesses told the homeowner they saw the thief taking the sod, plants and irrigation system to a residence on Tara Lane"

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Certified Flowers

Great posts in the comments section in response to my Times piece on socially and envirnmentally responsible flowers. I've heard from a few people in the industry who want me to remember that there are many farms doing the right thing, and many certification programs besides VeriFlora.

You'll see when my book comes out that I did write about farms that were doing a great job and certified by many international organizations. Many countries have their own eco-label program for flowers, and there are farms in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere that are certified through more than one of these programs.

However, from a US consumer's standpoint, it's not very helpful to know about, for instance, the FLP program, which certifies flowers sold in Germany. We can't ask for flowers with the FLP label here. There might be flowers sold in the US that were grown on an FLP-certified farm, but a consumer has no way of knowing that when he or she is buying flowers.

VeriFlora is attempting to actually label flowers sold in the US, regardless of where they were grown, so that consumers can make a choice about "eco-friendly" flowers. The next step is for consumers to actually ask for and buy those flowers. That's what I'm hoping to encourage.

I hope that, in the long run, all of these certification programs can come together and agree on one standard. It would be much easier for consumers if there was just one standard that worked worldwide, instead of this hodgepodge of different standards that farms must try to meet for different markets.

I think that many of us want to do the right thing. We want to buy dolphin-safe tuna and fair trade coffee. Just make it easy for us, and we'll do it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Satellite Dishes as Garden Art

American in Bloom is an organization dedicated to gardening up the American landscape; they hold contests and give awards to cities that have done the best job. One of their judges, Evelyn Alemanni, wrote in their newsletter about the innovative use of satellite dishes in the garden. They work as fountains, planters, and surprisingly elegant gazebo roofs. Beats the hell out of using them to watch TV, eh? Posted by Picasa

Monday, May 15, 2006

Even Crack Addicts Have Mothers, and Other Hazards of Urban Gardening

According to this Washington Post report, the plant thieves are out in droves on Mother's Day, looking for that perfect potted azalea for Mom. Urban gardeners are warned to wait until after Mother's Day to festoon their porches with hanging plants, and to consider something thorny, like a rose.

Or how about a plant stake with a sign that reads, "Didn't your mother teach you not to steal?"

Last-Minute Gifts -- at a Steal

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Today's New York Times

Check out my op-ed piece in today's New York Times. You'll be hearing more from me in the months to come about my new book, Flower Confidential, but this will give you a preview.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The garden industry blogs!

Greenhouse Grower magazine is now hosting several blogs about the horticulture industry. Right on, y'all! Welcome to the blogosphere! I'm thrilled to hear growers talking. Your customers are talking too--are you listening?

Now, a few quick blog tips:

1. Allow comments. Come on, let's chat! It's sort of a basic blog concept that people will read your posts and comment on them. Well, that's OK--I'll just comment here.

2. Use hyperlinks to link to the websites you talk about, rather than spelling out the address on screen. See that little button with a picture of the world and a chain link? That's so you can insert a hyperlink. Linking to other sites and blogs is also a really great part of blogging. Just a tip.

3. Site feeds, blogroll...oh, never mind. This is really a great start.

What you guys are doing right is that you are TALKING about your business in a really interesting and uncensored way! Now, that's what blogs are all about, baby! From the Greenhouse Grower blog on the annual Pack Trials, (that's where they see all the new plants of the season) we learn about:

Gardening for Dummies at Wal-Mart.

That's right. You can get your very own Dummy plants at America's favorite big box retailer.

There is so much wrong with this, starting with the notion that anybody would get excited about gardening by buying a plant designed for Dummies, but will I let this news discourage me? Will I sit in the corner and rock back and forth all day? No. I'll read bravely on. First we learn that:

"This Wal-Mart is just six months old, has a supermarket and a place for family haircuts, along with McDonald’s. But the difference is you can now order your burgers in the checkout line at Wal-Mart and walk over and pick them up."

Oh, that dark little quiet corner is looking so attractive right now, but no, I must keep going. We learn that " I was disappointed to see the products displayed like the rest of plants in the store...Marigolds were in the plastic terracotta colored ones and impatiens were in the gray ones for shade. The garden center was tidy and well-maintained...Product was fresh. But I still feel Wal-Mart missed an opportunity to really differentiate with this exclusive program."

Well, I don't think Wal-Mart's missing much. Y'all keep selling dummy plants and Big Macs, and I'll go crawl under my desk.

And this about a new electric blue viola: "I will confess that when I saw ‘Blueberry Thrill,’ I screamed like a groupie because I was so taken by surprise. Kind of silly, but this is how female consumers react to cool plants. "

Yeah, those silly female customers! You're all silly girls! Try to contain yourselves, will you?

And a big HIGH FIVE to Laurie Scullin's Rants & Raves. Hey, anybody who wants to rant and rave about the horticulture industry is all right by me. Scullin weighs in on the debate over whether the industry is growing or shrinking (see, we talk about whether gardening is on the decline as an activity, and the industry talks about whether it's shrinking as a business) and he points out that most data comes from surveys, which could have all kinds of flaws, but draws this conclusion:

"All this makes my head hurt - and while I remain skeptical that it's as gloomy as some pundits suggest - we are all faced with a market at least in flux - and at worst shrinking a bunch. SO - I think the answer to this ponder is:

1) Look again at your product offering - do you have products and services that fit for today - not 1980’s - but 2006.

2) CAN you turn a shifting population into cash? - What product/service do you have for aging boomers? How about the growing Hispanic market with their different color pallet and holidays? What about the Gen X and Y kids and their different lifestyle needs?

3) Are we selling plants or decorator products (running debate with many) - and if we are selling decorator products are we staying up on those trends? "

Ah, those Latinos and their pallets. That's OK--the spell-checker can't do everything.

Anyway, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE that growers and industry insiders are talking about this stuff online! And Laurie, if you want the opinion of this Gen-Xer--pleeeeze don't sell me a Decorator Product, and don't come near me with that Gardening for Dummies shit.

Sell me a plant, that fascinating, gorgeous, ever-changing, mysterious object of lust. Sell me dozens of them. I can't resist them. I'm ready to buy--what have you got for sale?

Gardening as a National Pasttime: The Kids Are All Right

What does this Oriental poppy have to do with this week's debate over the life and death of gardening as our nation's favorite hobby?

Nothing. But it's pretty, and it's blooming in my garden right now.

Great comments from everybody on this issue. Two things worth discussing in more detail:

1. Do we need to undertake some kind of national campaign to get kids more interested in gardening? (This is where we haul out all the standard advice about planting a little garden in the schoolyard and making it part of their life science lessons, and also about planting radish seeds because at least they'll sprout quickly and keep the children interested, and don't forget about the trellis covered in bean vines that the little darlings can hide inside.)

To all that, I say: No. Forget it. Who cares? If a kid wants to play in the garden or plant a flower or dig a hole, she will. Gardening is, as many people pointed out in the comments, a sport for the settled and the patient. You need a little land of your own, and you also need to be able to think more than five minutes into the future. I didn't have either of those things until I was about 25. Some people don't get there until they're 35. So what?

2. If fewer people are gardening, is their housing situation to blame? The thinking goes that these non-gardeners either don't have a place with a yard, or if they do, it has been planted with that abomination known as a contractor's garden. Pile on the fill dirt, toss some Osmocote in a hole, plant a spindly little flowering cherry tree in the ground, stake it to within an inch of its life, and lay some sod around it. Then the homeowners association comes along and regulates it. Want to condemn some pansies to death by planting them in the terrible soil around that sapling? Not if it doesn't match the neighborhood color scheme, buddy.

I agree that brand new, plastic, planned communities with gardens planted by contractors and homeowners associations to regulate your every dig are horrible. I wish I could just say, "Well, a real gardener wouldn't live in one of those places. He would simply find someplace else to live, someplace more conducive to gardening." But we all know how impossible that can be, especially with the price of housing in hot markets like California.

So what do I think should be done? Well, nothing. I don't think that gardening is on the decline, and I'm not sure that fixing the problem would be top on my list of national priorities anyway. I would, however, like to propose a Horticultural Freedom Act that would prohibit any restrictions on what people can grow in their own gardens. Homeowners associations, go back to fighting over where people can park their cars or when they can fly a flag in front of their house. Leave us gardeners alone. Harumph. Posted by Picasa

Monday, May 08, 2006

More about the decline of gardening

Oh, for crying out loud. Rocky Mountain News is on about it too. This story is also filled with vague, unsubstantiated claims.

It begins, believe it or not, with this earth-shattering observation: "Once upon a time, people worked in their gardens and yards..." and continues, "Unfortunately, the act of garden piddling is losing ground, so to speak, to our busier lifestyles..." without citing so much as a survey of a handful of first-name-only sources as proof. ("Jane, an accountant, said...")

The story goes on to claim that, "Current trends indicate" that we don't have time to garden anymore, and that "Specifically, careers, children, the Internet and a new generation spending less time outdoors than ever before are cited as the main reasons. "

Cited by whom? We'll never know. Because nothing to do with gardening is ever considered real news, it appears that no real editor took a look at this story before it ran. If they had, surely they would have required--what? Data? Sources? A point?

The story moves breathlessly onto a discussion of the "trends" brought about by this unheralded demographic shift. In just a few short paragraphs, the author manages to drag out every tired garden cliche I'd like to never hear about again, including:

Puchased gardens
Hired labor (this is often called 'do-it-for-me' as opposed to 'do-it-yourself')
Outdoor rooms, including kitchens, fire pits, seating areas and water features
Instant gratification
Goof-proof plants
High impact
Low maintenance
Interesting foliage, flowers and color

and ends with this stunner: "All said, the drive for more bulletproof plants with a specific purpose benefits all of us, no matter what type of gardener. "

OK! Let me make sure I've got this.

1. People aren't gardening anymore

2. The result has been an alarming increase in the employment of professional gardeners, the purchase of "outdoor room"furniture and equipment, and a whole host of new plants bred to meet the demands of the market.

Yep, folks, it sounds like we've got a crisis on our hands.

Rocky Mountain News: Home & garden

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Reports of Gardening's Death Greatly Exaggerated

Nothing irritates me more than these stories about how gardening as a leisure activity is on its way out. In this week's San Francisco Chronicle, John Hershey writes:

"Are you aware of the impending demographic crisis facing our country? ...In a recent poll, the number of Americans who list gardening as one of their favorite leisure activities plunged from 15 percent in 1995 to 6 percent. "

This leads to all sorts of hand-wringing over the cause of this terrible decline and what on earth we might do about it. Hershey's not the only one talking about this; the gardening industry overall is quite worked up about it, with frequent articles in trade magazines agonizing over the problem. (Meanwhile, the American Nursery and Landscape Association reports on USDA statistics that show that sales of plants have grown steadily over the last two decades and are increasing by $500 million per year.)

But first, let's look at the poll numbers. Although Hershey does not cite the poll, I assume he is talking about the Harris Poll, which surveys Americans about their leisure activities once a year or so. The most recent data available comes from 2004, and it does point out that only 6% of Americans rank gardening as one of their top two or three pasttimes. But this is not a frightening plunge from 15% ten years ago, as Hershey reports. In fact, in 1995 only 9% of Americans ranked gardening in their top two or three activities, and then that number rose to 15% in 1999 before beginning to drop.

Hershey suggests several reasons for this decline, and a careful look at the numbers disproves all of them.

1. "People have less free time." Nope. According to the poll, Americans worked 51 hours a week in 1996, and 50 hours a week now.

2. "Fresh vegetables are now widely available in supermarkets." Huh? So in 1999, when 15% of Americans chose gardening as one of their favorite activities, they did so because they couldn't get fresh vegetables at the supermarket? Ah yes, the poor dirt farmers of 1999, having to grub for cabbages and carrots in their backyards.

3. And here he warms up to his real point: "The aging of the gardening population. As inconceivable as it sounds, it is possible some young people may actually think gardening is not cool." Again--the gardening population aged so much in five years that they are dropping like flies and no one is replacing them? Really? Let's remember that the oldest Baby Boomers are just turning 60 this year. I don't know about y'all, but my over-sixty mom is doing more gardening than I am right now. If anything, I'd expect to see an increase in gardening as Baby Boomers slip the bonds of their cubicles.

So what really explains the decrease in the percentage of Americans who list gardening as one of their favorite activites? (and remember, this does not mean that there is less gardening going on. It just means that, when asked, and without being provided a stock list of answers to choose from, only six percent thought to mention gardening.)

Well, there are three activities on the list that have jumped several percentage points since the poll began in 1995. Reading is up 7 percentage points. Spending time with family and kids is up 8 percentge points. And computer activities are up 5 points.

More to the point, however, is the fact that many activities are less popular than gardening, including:



Cooking--2% (Eating out also scores 2%)


But somehow, you don't see the travel, golf, cooking, or pet industries wringing their hands over the paltry two or four percent of Americans who would choose these activities over all others. In fact, I see vibrant, exciting, well-written and enthusiastically read sections in every major American newspaper devoted to travel and cooking. Marley & Me, a book about a man and his dog, remains, inexplicably, at the top of bestseller lists nationwide, and don't get me started on the number of magazines devoted to dogs (there are at least two devoted just to Manhattan dogs) and the number of elegant little pet stores and doggy bakeries springing up around the country.

As for golf? Well, those people seem to be doing just fine.

(Oh, and sex didn't even make the list, but the pornography industry seems to be getting by somehow. Perhaps those numbers are included in the "spending time with family" or "computer activities" categories. Drinking also didn't make the list, although I'd take a dry martini over "TV Watching" any day. In spite of the apparent lack of interest in drinking as a leisure activity, bars all over the country are not, in fact, dropping like flies.)

I didn't even get around to my main gripe about this story, which is the silly notion that "we" (whoever "we" are) need to Take Action to Get Our Youth Intersted in Gardening. More on that tomorrow.

Meanwhile, what are your two or three favorite leisure activies? Mine, in no particular order:

Gardening (which includes spending time with chickens)
Too close to call: Sex; drinking very cold cocktails with interesting people in dimly-lit bars; spending time in bookstores; art (viewing, buying, making); being very angry at the Bush administration; and the requisite books and films, of course.

Word to the young: Gardening is wicked enjoyable and way cool / Root cause of pastime's decline? Kids are just not interested

Friday, May 05, 2006

Cheering on a Kindred Spirit

Uncle Tom's vegetable garden takes over the front yard! Go, go! Once, in Santa Cruz, I decided to stop worrying about all the tourists (those dreadful garden pests) picking flowers from my narrow strip of a front garden and to indulge them instead.

The garden sat up about five feet from the sidewalk, hemmed in by a concrete retaining wall, so the flowers were at eye level to people on the sidewalk and quite tempting. So I planted Sungold cherry tomatoes and let them cascade down the wall. They loved the heat, and the tourists were welcome to the fruit. It worked--they seemed to leave everything else alone.

I think there's something glorious about planting fruit and vegetables in the front yard for the world to see. Let the neighbors nibble a bit--if you re-imagine the front yard as a place to share the bounty that is otherwise confined to the back, it becomes a much more generous, convivial space.

Uncle Tom's Garden

More Truth in Gardening

I love all these photos from Casa Decrepit, a blog about a Bay Area house renovation, showing the garden in all its glory with little labels pointing to what is there and what may someday be there.

Casa Decrepit: The Garden: An Overview and Notes

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Susan Harris Totally Rocks

You know her as Takoma Gardener. Now, if you're in the DC area, you can hire her as a garden consultant and coach. I understand about the need for a service like this: as the garden columnist for the local paper in my small town, I often get calls from people who would like me to come over to their garden and offer advice. They don't want me to do the work for them (well, maybe they do, but who can afford it?), and they don't want to hire a landscape architect who will draw up extensive plans--they just want some pointers and a nudge in the right direction. Well, that's precisely what happened to Susan, and it turned into a business. She's opinionated, experienced, and oh-so-stylish. Check it out here:

The Gardening Coach

American Green: The Quest for the Perfect Lawn

Readers of this blog know that I’ve never been a fan of lawns, those expanses of green, fertilizer-and-herbicide-hungry plants mowed down to within and inch or two of their lives. It’s a monoculture, and a boring one at that. If you’re going to cover the earth in front of your home with just one plant, choose something interesting. Something that blooms or produces food. Perhaps native plants, which would surely be the most American lawn of all. Anything but one dull little blade of grass after another.

Ted Steinberg offers plenty of reasons to give up on lawns in his new book American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, but unfortunately he’s short on alternatives. Steinberg, a 2006 Zucker Fellow in environmental studies at Yale and the author of two other books and numerous essays, takes on the lawn industry, the influence of golf greens on the suburban landscape, and much more. He’s an admitted lawn-lover himself, but he’s also ambivalent about his little patch of green.

Golf courses, he argues, created an expectation of a perfect, soft carpet of grass that no homeowner can reasonably maintain. Championship courses are mowed as short as an eighth of an inch, leading one sports announcer to proclaim that “they don’t mow them, they bikini wax them.” Mowing low creates a shallow, vulnerable root system and an unnatural demand for water, fertilizer, and pesticide. Steinberg quotes a biologist with New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation who said, “If you scraped a golf green and tested it, you’d have to cart it away to a hazardous waste facility.”

Homeowners tend to overfeed and overmedicate their lawns. Americans spray 90 million pounds of pesticides on their little piece of paradise every year, and the runoff of chemical lawn fertilizers into lakes, streams, and groundwater has become a serious problem in many communities. Steinberg spells it all out, but he doesn’t offer many alternatives.

“Nor is organic lawn care by itself the answer,” he writes, with no real explanation as to why that might be. He suggests that runoff of phosphorus into streams would happen regardless of the type of fertilizer used, which ignores the fact that organic fertilizers contain much lower concentrations of those nutrients. In fact, an organic lawn, maintained by setting the mower blade higher, leaving the grass clippings to decompose, raking in a thin layer of high-quality compost twice a year, and fertilizing with an organic lawn blend two to four times a year, would create a much safer lawn for the environment and for the people and pets who use it.

He’s not much happier with a native plant lawn, either. He says that it would take several years for “a meadow filled with native plants” to fill out enough to prevent runoff and absorb nutrients. (This in spite of the fact that native plants, properly selected, should require little or no extra water, fertilizer or pesticides because they are adapted to survive in their climate.) He also suggests that a native lawn would look too weedy in a suburban neighborhood and that many cities have lawn ordinances that would prevent a homeowner from planting a more natural landscape.

I can only assume that Steinberg is not a gardener. He seems to think that the only two possibilities for a front yard are a perfect, green, all-American lawn, or a weedy-looking meadow of native wildflowers. Now, it is true that a meadow, in the proper sense of the word, is more difficult to maintain than many people think, and that it does go through natural cycles of dormancy that might not please the neighbors. But has Steinberg never heard of a garden? It’s sort of a hobby among a few people in this country, in which people select plants—native or otherwise—that are pleasing to them and arrange them attractively in the landscape. What’s wrong with filling the front yard with perennials? Shrubs? Groundcovers? Ornamental grasses?

He does have fun with the lawn care industry, which proudly touts the environmental benefits of a lawn by pointing out that a 2500 square-foot lawn will produce enough oxygen for a family of four. It’s a silly assertion and Steinberg is right to call them on it.

First of all, it assumes that the lawn operates under ideal conditions year-round, that the oxygen is not needed to support the other life (bugs, microbes, and so forth) that live in and around the lawn, that no oxygen is consumed maintaining the lawn, and that the family of four is quite sedentary.

He also points out that if producing oxygen is the goal (and there does not appear to be a shortage of oxygen), large trees and shrubs would certainly do a better job, but he makes it sound as if this is a silly, impractical notion.

Ah well, you and I know better.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Something else American garden magazines lack...

Hunky British gardeners! Where's the sizzle in garden magazines, anyway? Gardening is such a deliciously dirty and sweaty activity anyway, so come on--let's see some muscles and some curves! Show us your freckles! Peel me a grape! Between the overripe berries, the outdoor showers, the droning of the bees, the wisteria-covered arbor at sunset--are we really going to pretend that gardening is not an inherently lascivious activity?

Actually, in that spirit, I'm going to share a poem I wrote many years ago when I was quite a bit more focused on poetry than I am now:

Embarrassment of Riches

Harvesting asparagus: no job for a man.
You blush at the engorged purple heads that push
through the mulch and grow to a respected ten inches.
I take the shears and slice off twelve for the steamer.

The fastest growing vegetable, asparagus
so common that we eat it as a midnight snack.
“We’re out of recipes,” you laugh, eyes wide
at the latest crop, running out in your bare feet

to pick a lemon for the sauce. “Enough
with the vegetables,” the neighbors groan
endless sacks of ripe tomatoes at their doors,
driving with the windows up for fear someone will

force a zucchini in. Another shipment of seeds.
You and I plant frantic rows, circles, clumps.
There are twenty five flowering vines in the catalog
and we have to choose, fighting tendrils in our sleep

The things you find in your own backyard.
It’s a miracle we met at all, wrapped as we were
in a tangle of peas, blinded by an early show
of fire red sunflowers, six feet tall by March. Posted by Picasa

Monday, May 01, 2006

Why British Garden Magazines Are So Vastly Superior to Our Own

At first, I didn't think the answer would be so simple. I thought I'd page through a few UK garden magazines and be left with a vague sense that their photographs were better, plants more unusual, writing more clever, and that they were just--well, hipper and smarter than us in the way that all things European tend to be. But in fact, when I picked up the May issue of the BBC Gardens Illustrated (not necessarily even the best UK garden magazine if you ask the locals, just the one I happened to be able to find at my bookstore), the answer was immediately obvious:

British garden magazines focus on people. American garden magazines focus on plants.

There you have it. Editors, I provide you this information free of charge. I can die happily now, having uttered one useful piece of information during my short and frantic time on this green planet.

Let's run through the contents of this month's issue, and you'll see what I mean:
  • A column by the late Christopher Lloyd--why don't America's great garden writers have steady gigs writing for American garden magazines? Pay their rent! Come on!
  • An announcement for a Gardens Illustrated "conversation" with the great designer Beth Chatto, quoted here as saying, "Plants are like people, you can't force them into a job." Really? Plants and people have something to do with each other? Are you sure?
  • Designer Dan Pearson on a plant I've never heard of, Paris polyphylla, in which he warns that it is late to emerge and "will often give you a worrying fortnight when the worst is, without fail, imagined."
  • Profiles of various people you might meet at the Chelsea Flower Show, including Cleve West, who is tired of the "garden room" trend. "I want to feel like I'm in a garden, not an extension of the house," he says. Cleve, you're one of us.
  • PLACES! As in, places created by people! Inhabited by people! This includes Marion Knight, owner of Goose Cottage, who is "refreshingly casual about plant names" (note to self: make future post about the many plants in my garden whose names I don't know) and a story about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory author Roald Dahl's garden, in which we learn that Dahl "would leave piles of prunings about the place" and competed with a local farmer to see who could grow the largest onions, except that Dahl cheated by buying seedings rather than starting from seed.
  • A story about a Begian nursery called Silene, which seems to be the Annie's Annuals of Europe
  • An interview with one of my favorite plant designers, Piet Oudolf, who dares to say, "I'm not a colour gardener. Colour can look after itself." IT CAN? and: "A plant is only worth growing if it looks good when it's dead." Yes, let's have a look at its corpse! I challenge American garden magazines to show us the dark side!
  • One serious plant profile, this one an 8 page spread on lilacs, in which the author, a plant collector for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, tells you more than you might ever want to know and then apologizes, writing, "I have named but a few species...[he named about half of all known species, plus cultivars] and I feel that I have cheated you of so many..."
  • And while there is much more I could cover in this oversized 124-page volume with surprisingly few ads, I end with the back page essay by novelist Frank Ronan (you mean someone other than a Garden Writer has something to say about gardens? Really?) about tulip blight. (he's probably talking about botrytis, for those of you taking notes) The virus was introduced to his garden when he--can you believe it--sent out invitations to a May party in November in the form of tulip bulbs (with different varieties timed to coincide with blooming times in different parts of the country), and the guests were instructed to bring their tulip, in bloom, to the party. Fabulous, and OMG, I am so stealing that idea as soon as I (a) make some friends and (b) get my house clean enough to invite them over--but anyway, the point is that the virus hitched a ride. Frank leaves us with this wild paragraph that would be entirely unprintable in an American garden magazine due to its vulgarity, erudition, and passion--and I, too, leave you with:

"The virus is a sneaky bitch, letting the whole plant rise and bud and fill you with expectation before sucking the life out of it. By the time this magazine is published I'll either be swaying giddily over T. 'Generaal de Wet' or retrieving his remains for immolation. Even if the early tulips come clean there will be tension still, because there is no certainty of being all-clear until the last parrot has uncurled its teeth. You wouldn't put up with it for anything but love."

The Last of the Manhattan Gardens

This sweet little garden in Manhattan's Lower East Side seemed to require a lot of signs--although the most popular garden sign in New York, one that I saw placed above tiny, two-foot long strips of tulips or pansies that barely qualify as a garden, usually involved a warning about dogs. The most straightforward was, "Your Dog's Urine Stinks."

Reminds me of something my dad did once: he was outside watering the garden and a woman walked by with her dog. The dog stopped to pee on the violas he had planted along the sidewalk. The woman looked totally unconcerned, as if anyone would treasure her furry companion's contributions to the landscape.

Dad said, "Hey, we were going to eat those flowers!" Posted by Picasa

Posted by Picasa