Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Compost Tea Brewer

The other question I get asked a lot is this: "How do you like that compost tea brewer?"

Well, first of all, let me say that it was free, and I like free stuff quite a bit. The folks at Soil Soup gave it to me in hopes that I would talk it up, and indeed I have. It's easy to use, it's a cool little bit of gear, and it's gone down in price--last time I checked, a small version like this one was over $300, but now it's down to $99. A much more reasonable price for a motorized bubbler, a bag of castings, a bottle of liquid nutrients, a mesh bag, and a plastic bucket.

The idea with compost tea is that if you take rich worm castings, which are full of beneficial microbes, and brew it in water, the microbial population will explode. You can then spray it directly on the leaves of plants, where all those good critters will do battle with the bad critters (I'm sorry this is all so technical, but bear with me), and the leaves will absorb nutrients, and your garden will be much stronger and healthier. Most compost tea involves some kind of nutrient solution that might include organic ingredients like liquid kelp, fish emulsion, and so forth, as well as molasses because the extra sugar gives the bacteria something to munch on.

So do you need to spend $99 on a brewer to make compost tea? Not necessarily, although it's a fun thing to have around and if you think you'll use it regularly, it might be worth the expense. I typically brew tea overnight, so a typical gardening routine might be to start a batch on Saturday morning and douse the garden on Sunday afternoon.

However, the low-budget way to approach this would be to take a scoop of worm castings or compost, mix it vigorously with water, and splash it around the garden. The key is to make sure it doesn't sit around, un-aerated, and get anaerobic.

If you're looking for some kind of middle ground, Gardens Alive has an interesting option--sort of a low-tech, no-electricity brewer that you shake and aerate with what looks like some kind of manual pump. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but it's only thirty bucks, and if you use this link and spend $40, you'll get $20 off.

If you've got a big garden, you might consider a backpack sprayer to make this job easier, but for me, it's kind of pleasant to walk around and bestow my compost upon my plants with a watering can. And do water the stuff down--you're not likely to burn plants, but it doesn't need to be applied full strength.

People also wonder whether the liquid that drains out of their worm bin is compost tea; the short answer is no. The liquid that drains out of your bin is a mixture of condensation from damp air or rain, the liquid component to the lettuce and whatever else you feed the worms, and--well--worm pee. It collects in the bottom of the bin and gets anaerobic. It might not be horrible for your plants, but it's not the liquid gold you might think it is.

For more, check out the great information on Elaine Ingham's SoilFoodWeb site.

Monday, January 30, 2006

The McCulloch Electric Chipper/Shredder.

I get a lot of questions about two toys I own: The McCulloch electric chipper-shredder, and the Soil Soup compost tea brewer. They're high-priced toys, so that's why people tend to do a lot of research before buying one. I'll post some links, some information, and answer some questions about both. First, the chipper. Before we go any further, here's a quick little plug for anyone considering buying one: follow this link to Gardener's Supply Company, and you'll be able to pick one up for 15% off: Gardener's Supply Company - 15% off orders of $25 or more! Send me a note if you have any problems getting the discount with that link. Now, on to my reviews, impresssions, answers to questions, etc:

I bought this contraption from McCulloch Motors, makers of a variety of noisy and intimidating power tools for the home and garden. I never thought I’d want to own any kind of gardening power tool: I am frightened of electric hedge trimmers, believing that they will somehow get away from me and wreak havoc in the flower bed. I firmly believe that if I had a lawn, I’d mow it with a good old-fashioned push mower.

But the fact is, my compost habit has gotten out of control. Once I built the flower beds and the berry patch, I realized that I had other garden plans lurking in the back of my mind. It was time to turn one of the utilitarian vegetable gardens into something more ornamental. The perennial border in the front yard was in desperate need of mulch for winter. I had two choices: order up another truckload of compost, or start making my own.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always had a compost pile in the backyard, but I’m a lazy composter. I don’t cut vines and branches into small, easily compostable segments. I don’t turn the pile, ever, not once. I rarely remember to water it in the summer. And I don’t add compost accelerator. (If you’re not seriously into in compost already, you might not even be aware that you can buy a product that will speed up the process by pumping the right kinds of bacteria into your pile of dried leaves and grass clippings. Products like this have a way of turning backyard composting into an Olympic sport. Trust me, you don’t need it. Forget I even mentioned it.)

As a result of my lazy composting practices, I get about three cubic feet of compost every year, just enough to tease the flower beds with a light sprinkling of the stuff. That truckload of compost I purchased put my own efforts to shame. It was time to kick things up a notch. That’s where the electric chipper/shredder came in.

I’d read a review of this product in a gardening magazine. The 14-amp Shredder 1400 was promised to be lightweight, relatively quiet, and not nearly as noxious as its gas-powered counterparts. The manufacturer had given a great deal of thought to safety, quelling any Fargo-inspired phobias I might have had about such a machine. It could handle branches up to an inch and a half thick. It could shred blackberry vines, sunflower stalks, trimmings from shrubs, and all the rest of the brittle, unwieldy fall yard waste that takes forever to break down in a regular compost pile. I’d have all the mulch I wanted, throughout the seasons, all for the price of an occasional blade sharpening.

The Shredder 1400 arrived while I was on vacation. As soon as I got home, I opened the box and started assembling it. The product review I’d read had warned me that the instructions were unintelligible. In fact, the instructions were worse than unintelligible, they were all but missing. Step One explained how to attach the wheels to the axel, Step Two explained how to put the safety cover over the chute, but I would have liked a little information in between about how to attach the wheels to the base and assemble the actual machine. Eventually, I figured it out, and the next day I stood proudly on my back porch, feeding dried leaves and dead limbs into the chute. Out came beautiful, glorious, finely shredded mulch. It was like printing money. I never felt so good.

Pretty soon I learned that there was another benefit to owning a hefty power tool like the Shredder 1400. Several of the men in my neighborhood suddenly took an interest in my garden. I had only been chipping and shredding for about ten minutes before my next door neighbor appeared at the fence, expressing admiration for my shiny new machine.

“Got yourself a chipper,” he said approvingly.

“Yep,” I said.

It was a good moment. I was one of the boys.

A few days later, when a repairman came to do some work near the back door, I apologized that the chipper/shredder was in the way. “I just bought this,” I said. “I haven’t found a place for it yet. Let me move it for you.”

“That’s a nice machine,” he said. “Is it electric? What size limbs can you cut?” I have been inducted, it seems, into a kind of power tool fraternity. Pretty soon, I’ll be swapping hedge trimmers and bright orange extension cords with the guys on my block. Until then, I’ve got an enormous pile of yard waste to shred, and a new bed of roses and sweet peas that could use the mulch.

I've owned this gadget for a couple years now, and in that time I've gotten a surprising number of calls and e-mails from people all over the country who are considering buying one but have questions. Here, then, are answers to the most frequently-asked questions I get:

Q: Is it so noisy that the neighbors will complain?

A: It's certainly no louder than a lawn mower, and I imagine it's quieter than the gas-powered chippers.

Q: Does it do what the manufacturer says?

A: It's easy to use, as long as you don't feed anything into it that is too wet or too big. It's really best for a regular-sized garden with the normal kinds of smallish garden trimmings. If you've got acres of trees or brush to clear, this isn't for you. Basically you make a pile of stuff and stand there, breaking or cutting it into pieces just a foot or two long, and feeding that in.

It's also very safe--there is (probably) no way you could stick your hand far enough down the chute to cut yourself--and the fact that it's electric means no gasoline to deal with.

And having the chipped stuff is FABULOUS. You can use it immediately as a mulch or pile it into the compost pile and watch it turn to black gold. I mix mine with dried leaves & grass trimmings and bedding/manure from the chicken coop, and you would not believe how great that stuff is. Absolutely full of worms, which means I must be doing something right!

Q: How long have you been using it, and what problems have you encountered?

A: Things do get clogged around the blades, or a piece of string might get wrapped around them, which makes it shut off, then you have to stop, take the top off, clear the blades, and start up again. (Hint: The purpose of the red button is to let you test to make sure the motor will re-start before you screw the chute back on.) Over time you learn just the right rate of feed, the right size of trimmings, etc to avoid this. Also, I prefer to just leave it running if I have to step away for a moment. That avoids the possibility that it will think it's clogged and not start again. Also, sometimes the stuff leaving the chipper gets stuck in the "exit chute"--I keep a stick around and poke that up there to break it loose. This is fairly easy to do while leaving the motor running, because the stick doesn't get anywhere near the blades.

Because of our wet weather, I can only use it in the summer when my piles of stuff are dry enough. In fact, I really only use it maybe 3-5 times per year. If I had it permanently set up in a garage or shed, I might use it more often, but I don't have that kind of space. So for me, it might have made more sense to just rent a chipper once a year (although I don't have a truck to haul it in) or actually go in with some neighbors, split the cost of the McCullough, and share it.

It is a real bear to put together. There are basically no instructions. Have as many photos of the thing handy as you can find on the Internet, and if you know someone who is very good with mechanical things, bribe them with pizza, beer, cookies, whatever and get some help. In fact, if you get stuck, send me an e-mail--I have talked many people through it. I will try to post more photos and installation instructions later, so check back.

Q: Were you able to buy it locally, or did you order it from somewhere?

A: Nope, you gotta order it, and it ain't cheap, but as I said earlier, you can follow this link to Gardener's Supply Company, and you'll be able to pick one up for 15% off, which may take the sting out.

Gardener's Supply Company - 15% off orders of $25 or more!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Going Native and Speaking Up

Takoma Gardener is on a tear! Go, girlfriend!

About garden bloggers needing to a forum to speak to the nursery industry--I wholeheartedly agree, but I'd say that we are speaking. It's not hard to find us. Go read some blogs, people! Hello, it's called an RSS feed! Our postings can appear, as if by magic, on your desktop. You don't even have to come to us--we'll come to you. Your customers are speaking--are you listening?

I get a couple of magazines in the mail that are aimed at the nursery industry. It's like listening in on a conversation I'm not supposed to hear. There's a great deal of hand-wringing over how to satisfy the customer--particularly the woman customer--and more particularly, Gen X customers. (Oh, that tricky iPod generation! The latchkey generation! The instant gratification, latte generation! Oh, puh-leeeze.)

They have a hard time getting beyond platitudes about customer service, but when they do, it mostly takes a wrong turn into easy plants for beginning gardeners, pre-planned gardens, pre-filled containers, the basic no-care, do-nothing, non-garden for non-gardeners. So like a certain political party who shall remain nameless, they ignore their base and instead chase after undecided voters --uh, I mean, novice gardeners--and get horribly off message and generally don't have a clue. I mean, do these people even garden at home?

And about the native plant stuff. Yeah, I agree that there's not much point telling gardeners that they should only plant a narrow range of natives in their garden. It is an artificial environment, period. Look on the bright side: what else do most people do that allows them to get outdoors and participate in any kind of natural science? A garden is a work of art, it's a science experiment, it's a habitat, it's a hobby, it's a form of exercise, it's a community connnection...need I say more?

Look, I'm more than willing--in fact, I'm eager--to boycott the real evildoers. The weeds of mass destruction. You won't catch me planting pampas grass or French or Scotch broom in my garden. Give me an invasives list of some manageable size (or, even better, talk the nurseries into not carrying the plants or labeling them or putting up a poster or warning peole at the checkout counter or something), and I'm there. But beyond that--honestly. Most of our food crops are non-native. Where does it end?

And about earthworms. I'm glad people are talking about the fact that soil is a living, breathing ecosystem full of critters that are themselves native or non-native. This is not just about earthworms; it's also about nematodes, spiders, ants, mites, fungi, all kinds of visible and microscopic creatures. And in some northern hardwood forests that did not have a native earthworm population because the last Ice Age wiped them out, European worms have moved in, thanks to human activity, and munched the sweetly rotting forest floor and, in changing the soil, changed what kinds of plants can grow there.

Even the forestry experts I interviewed for The Earth Moved specifically asked me not to use the word "destroy." They're changing the plant community. They're bringing about a shift in what plants will grow there. It doesn't mean that all earthworms are bad in all ecosystems; it just means that some species, in some areas, can change the soil and that changes the plant communities. It's a good lesson for anyone trying to preserve or restore a habitat: all dirt is not created equal. Think carefully about where you're getting your potting soil, fill dirt, etc. (It's also worth pointing out that the worms were not alone--what plants did survive were mowed down by deer. In fact, excluding the deer in experimental areas helped quite a bit, making it a markedly less dramatic story.)

But this has basically no relevance for your basic city or suburban gardener, where European earthworms probably already populate your soil and have for some time. They're basically good in almost all situations. You couldn't keep them out anyway; they're probably hitching a ride home from the nursery with you anyway. (for more, you can either read the book or the blog; it's all in there somewhere.)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Naturemill

Has anyone seen one of these? It's an electric composter. You just plug it in, drop your kitchen scraps in, and it churns and mixes and digests until--poof!--a little light comes on and your compost is ready.

No more worms. No more bugs. No mixing and turning and waiting and hoping. No mess. Just nice, clean, not-very-smelly compost.

Huh. I didn't know compost was hard. Or messy. And I thought the worms were...uh...kind of a good thing. I do like the photo of the sparkly kitchen on the home page--it seems like the sort of kitchen where you'd need a composter like this. No worm bins for this lady.

Actually, that raises a good point. What if this thing were under the sink where a garbage disposal would normally go? Now, that's actually a good idea. Take the stuff that goes down the sink and make compost out of that. Although I suppose you'd need a way to drain off the water....

Thanks to Back to the Garden for this one.

Naturemill: Compost made easy!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Chrysanthemum Flowers and Other Mysteries of Pest Control

There is a group of pesticides that are often described as “derived from chrysanthemum flowers” cause confusion among organic and non-organic gardeners. These pesticides, called pyrethrins, may be the most-discussed, and least understood, of the home and garden chemicals in use today. I’ll try to sort it out for you here. This stuff gets a little technical, but bear with me. Your best weapon against pests and diseases in your garden is, after all, your own knowledge.

Pyrethrins are coming into wider use as some organophosphates like chlorpyrifos and diazinon, which were used to control roaches, ants, fleas, and other common pests, are being phased out due to health concerns. Recently, a synthetic version called pyrethroid (more about the synthetic and non-synthetic versions in a minute) has been used around California to control mosquitoes in an effort to eradicate West Nile Virus. The aerial spraying of pyrethroids in the Sacramento area last August drew protests from people who wondered, as a Sacramento Bee article put it, “If this stuff kills mosquitoes so well…what the heck is it doing to humans?”

Public officials were quick to point out that the droplets were designed to kill mosquitoes in the air but dissipate before, or shortly after, they hit the ground. A UC Davis researcher also said that exposure from aerial spraying would be significantly less than what a person would receive from a single application of delousing shampoo. Still, the EPA’s own data on pyrethroids show that, at high doses, they can affect the nervous system and are toxic to fish and bees.

In October, a study funded by the California State Water Resources Control Board showed that pyrethroids were accumulating in urban streams around Roseville in levels high enough to be toxic to organisms living in the sediment. The researchers speculated that the pesticides reached the streams through home pest control treatments and fertilizer/pesticide (“weed and feed”) combinations applied to suburban lawns.

Donald Weston, adjunct professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley, was quoted in a UC Berkeley press release about the study as saying, “Our work should be of broad public interest, because the source of the toxicity we are finding in the creeks is just residential pesticide use in a typical suburban community. When people apply pesticides to their yards, or hire exterminators to do it, they just assume the pesticides will stay there. I think our work will increase awareness of the possible environmental dangers of pesticide overuse and maybe help people think twice before using pesticides ‘just to be safe’ when they do not have a clear pest problem.”

Even gardeners who want to reduce or eliminate their use of toxic pesticides can be confused by the various forms of pyrethrins available. Saying that they are “derived from chrysanthemums” makes them all sound sweet and old-fashioned, but it’s a little misleading. In fact, dried chrysanthemum flowers produce an oleoresin (that’s the kind of sticky mixture of oil and resin similar to what you might get from a pine tree, for example) called pyrethrum. The active insecticidal compounds within pyrethrum are generally referred to as pyrethrins, but that term is also loosely used to describe this general class of pesticides. So the term “pyrethrins” is applied to both natural pyrethrum-based products and pyrethroids, the synthetic version, which is engineered to last longer than the natural version.

To add to the confusion, pyrethrins are often mixed with a synergist called piperonyl butoxide that helps prevent insects from breaking down the pesticide before it kills them. The goal is to reduce the amount of pesticide that’s needed to do the job, but piperonyl butoxide by itself is considered by the Pesticide Action Network to be moderately toxic. The group classifies it as a possible carcinogen and a potential groundwater contaminant.

So are all pyrethrins bad? Not necessarily. Some organic gardeners will use a natural pyrethrum-based spray that doesn’t contain piperonyl butoxide to fight a major infestation of aphids, thrips, whitefly, caterpillars, beetles, and a broad range of other pests. Because it’s such a broad-spectrum pesticide, it’s tempting to use it everywhere, all the time, but that’s exactly how it should not be used. After all, even the natural version can be a skin irritant and can be toxic to pets and fish if it isn’t used and stored properly. Besides, insect populations can become resistant to the pesticide.

Instead, try all the other organic methods at your disposal first. Put up with a little damage—a few aphids here and there will attract predators. Cut off infested branches, or pull out infested plants, and throw them away. Use a blast of water from the hose, or a mixture of dish soap and water, to kill soft-bodied insects. And if you do need to use a heavy-hitter like a pyrethrum-based spray, start with a limited, careful spray and make sure you target pests you can actually see. And don’t worry if a few bugs come crawling back. After all, a garden is a living thing—bugs, weeds, and all.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Ugly Truth, Part Two

Here's another unattractive bit of garden--the alley behind the house. You're looking at the back wall of the chicken coop and a little stretch of fence. It's usually overrun with blackberry brambles, and it's on the north side of the fence, so sun's a problem, but I figured I might as well try to make use of it. There are all kinds of large shrubs I'd love to have in my garden for one reason or another, but I don't have the space for them and/or they're not interesting enough all year to earn their keep.

Mostly I'm talking about shrubs that produce berries or interesting branches in winter or flowers in early spring--witch hazel, forsythia, red and yellow-twig dogwood, etc. There's very little going on in the garden this time of year (as yesterday's post proved), and it would be nice to at least have an interesting twig to bring indoors and put in a vase.

So in that spirit, I hired some guys to clear out the brush, then I lined it with cardboard and newspaper to hold the weeds down, used cinderblocks as a sort of visual barrier to keep cars from backing right over the young plants, and now there are some young shrubs--just bare sticks, really--getting their start. I'm not sure how things will fare back there, especially in summer, when I'll have to drag the hose out to water, but who knows--maybe this time next year, I'll have something to show for it. Posted by Picasa

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Garden, Unclothed

Sure, it's easy to post a picture of the garden in June, when everything's looking glorious. But what about January?

Yesterday I gave the front garden its annual haircut, shearing almost everything down to the ground. It's nothing but a bedraggled mess in this state. I like toleave last year's growth on for as long as possible, figuring that even dry brown stalks can look interesting. But sooner or later, it all has to go so the new growth can push its way through.

Here, then, is my garden in its "She calls herself a gardener?" state. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Perils of Tulip Planting

Yesterday there was a break in the rain, so I dashed outside to plant some tulips that had been taking up space in the fridge since before Christmas. (Ah, the joys of living in a place where you wear a coat and drink hot chocolate while watching the July 4th fireworks, but still have to chill tulips before planting...)

And while I planted, the chickens stood around me in a semi-circle, watching with great interest, making that throaty little brrrrrrrr sound that either means "I love you unconditionally" or "Can I eat that?"

I finished with the tulips and walked around, doing a little pruning and general tidying up. By the time I finished, the girls had dug up my tulips and were searching for worms. They have a few things to learn about tending a garden. Ah well, they eat snails and nibble on weeds, which is more than the cats do... Posted by Picasa

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Author photos

I'm going to post a bunch of photos here so my editor can look at them and figure out which one she wants to use on the dustjacket of the next book. (more about that later, but as you can probably guess, it's about flowers.)

Anyway, feel free to cast your vote...or just bear with me for a couple days...

New York Flower District

 Posted by Picasa

Looking up with roses

 Posted by Picasa

Big Yellow Taxi

Some of these might not work on the dustjacket, but they're cool photos...

With roses in alley

with bag of flowers

With roses

Don't worry too much about colors or resolution-these are all low-res versions for the web.

head shot

from across the street, flower district

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Still More Catalogs

Moving right along...

Select Seeds offers yummy photographs of yummy flowers, and I love them for that. This is good bathtub reading, girls. I'm not a geranium fan, but I've got to have 'Appleblossom Rosebud.' Nasturtiums are weeds in my garden, but I'll take 'Carribean Cocktail.' (no fair evoking memories of warm nights and rum punch at a time like this) Here is gas plant, which I am told can be ignited on a warm evening, and five varieties of heliotrope, including a white one for that moonlight garden I keep meaning to plant. Schizopetalon 'Milky Way' has tiny little flowers that look like paper cutouts of snowflakes, and they only grow to a foot tall, but they smell like sweet almond. Yes, yes!

And here are pages and pages of flowering vines, more sweet peas than I can count, an indecent number of poppies, and--at last--my mignonette. "Grow with violas!" the cataog says, with no explanation as to why. OK, I'll try it.

Also, a big airy flowery tobacco 'Mutabilis.' Has anyone tried it? Grows to six feet and self sows. That's all I need to know.

Finally--and this is important--get yourselves some 'Black Beauty' lilies. These were hybridized by Leslie Woodriff, father of 'Star Gazer.' They were not available in any quantity until recently. If you can grow lilies, you won't believe these. They can reach five feet tall and produce an astonishing number of flowers. Seriously, you won't believe it. You'll be hearing more from me about this lily later in the year when my next book comes out...

OK, that's it. One catalog and I'm exhausted. There's a dozen more here that I havent' touched.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Catalogs Received, Impressions Made

Smith & Hawken: This is the sort of garden gear you almost hate to get dirty. Still, photo of patio furniture on San Francisco balcony (looking deceptively warm for so late in the evening, and also deceptively like Manhattan) filled me with lust for an urban, rooftop lifestyle.

Big copper spheres would be nice to place around the garden; somehow seem like they would make me look like I know what I'm doing. Carved wooden geese, ducks, etc. are cool, but I haven't become the sort of person who keeps carved wooden figurines around the house, have I?

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange: Peppers, tomatoes, beans, melons. It's never warm enough to grow that stuff here. Cabbage? Just can't get excited enough about cabbage to order any particular variety from a catalog--a six-pack from the nursery will do just fine.

Nichols Garden Nursery: Ooooh, yes, a cheesemaking kit. We're very interested in that. Does anyone make cheese? What about this fodder crop called 'Tyfon Holland Greens'? It's a mixture of stubble turnips (I don't know what those are) and Chinese cabbage. Wonder if I could plant this for the chickens. Sounds like something they'd like.

Gardens Alive: There's my $25 coupon, thankyouverymuch. I'll be ordering more Fruit Trees Alive for the apple trees & berry vines, and some Seranade.

Cooks Garden: How I love this little catalog. Amazing the difference a little artwork makes. I'm tempted by the microgreens, as well as the 'Perpetual Spinach' chard and all the kale. They used to offer mingonette, which I was very eager to try. It's an old-fashioned fragrant flower that was one popular as a cut flower. Has anyone grown it? Also called Reseda. Must keep looking. Someone will have it.

The mail just arrived with yet more catalogs. I may never get through these. To be continued...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


I got into blueberries in a big way last weekend. One or two shrubs hardly seemed worth the trouble, so I came home with six plants and a commitment to buy more if I could find room for them. I’ve been trying to fill one long border with culinary plants—herbs, fruit, artichokes, kale, anything edible—so blueberries fit with the theme and they were the right height for an empty spot I couldn’t figure out what to do with. Also, blueberries can tolerate a little shade, and the place I’d chosen for them gets morning shade most of the year.

This is a good time to plant blueberries, and they’re available right now at all the nurseries around here. The shrubs look good all year long, and in the fall, many varieties produce gorgeous red foliage. Just remember to pay attention to their special needs, such as:

Acid soil. Blueberries thrive in soil with a pH around 4.5. Acid soils are common in Humboldt anyway; if azaleas and rhododendrons do well in your garden, blueberries probably will, too. To ensure their success, mix half native soil and half wet peat moss when you plant. (Get the peat moss wet before you add it to the soil, otherwise you might create unexpected dry pockets around the roots.) Dig a hole that is twice as wide as it is deep; the plant’s roots will spread out near the soil surface.

If you have a pH meter and you’re sure that this peat moss/native soil mixture isn’t providing the acid soil blueberries need, consider adding aged sawdust or, as a last result, lime sulfur. Sulfur must be added to soil gradually at the rate of about 1 pound per 100 square feet. Add just a little each year, testing the soil in between, to avoid harming plants or soil organisms.

Organic matter. Because blueberries produce shallow roots, it’s very important to add plenty of organic matter, like aged compost, to the soil when you plant and to mulch heavily to protect those roots. This is a great use for fallen autumn leaves, and some leaves, such as pine needles or oak leaves, will help lower soil pH gently. Keep about six inches of mulch around your blueberries all year.

Fertilizer. Use a dry organic fertilizer that is formulated for acid-loving plants like rhododendrons. Give them one feeding when buds first begin to open in spring, and a second dose a month later. That’s all the food they will need all year. Pull mulch away from roots, scratch the fertilizer into the soil, water well, and cover with mulch again.

Magnesium. Blueberries are prone to magnesium deficiency. Early signs include bright red edges around older leaves, contrasted against a strong green color in the center rib of the leaf. To address magnesium deficiencies, try a weak foliar spray of Epsom salts and water.

Irrigation. The shrubs need good drainage and they require about an inch of water a week in summer. A soaker hose is the ideal solution for watering a patch of blueberries; the hose can be concealed under mulch and it will deliver show, steady moisture to roots near the surface. Be sure to water all sides of the plant—if you neglect to water one side of the plant, the harvest will suffer on that side.

Pruning. You won’t need to prune your bush for the first five years or so, but eventually it will require an annual pruning to let light into the plant. When the time comes, in early spring before new growth has appeared, remove old, less productive branches and thin out weak, twiggy growth. The most productive branches will be sturdy, four to six year-old canes just over an inch in diameter, so favor those and remove the rest. A mature plant might have a dozen healthy canes that will produce abundant fruit each year.

Harvest. Fully ripe blueberries are completely blue, with no pink blush, and almost fall from the plant when you tug on them. Expect to get less than a pound of fruit per plant at the beginning (you can see why I planted six), but over the years, with the right care, you may get as much as ten to twenty pounds of fruit from a single plant.

Blueberries are a long-term project; I don’t expect great rewards at first. But this time of year, I’m just grateful for the opportunity to get outside and put anything in the soil, even a collection of twigs and red leaves that hold only a distant promise of fruit.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Chard and kale in the frost

fortunately, a little frost only improves it. Posted by Picasa

Incredibly Cool Stuff

Thanks to Heavy Petal for turning me on to Inhabitat, who showcases the work of Living Glass. These people are making exactly the kind of cool stuff I would be making if I was smarter, more creative, and had the vaguest notion how to go about it. It's mostly architectural glass embedded with some kind of living or organic thing. I love this floor of pebbles. (I'm trying to imagine the kind of house I would need to live up to this floor, not to mention the question of who would keep it clean, but no matter.)

Also check out Farm 21, who puts interesting organic stuff (including lavender--oh, lord) into cubes, coffee tables, lamps and screens, and more.

Can we put worms in a coffee table? Living worms, of course. In Seattle I saw a beehive display at a museum--the beehive was encased all in glass, but the bees entered and exited the building through a tube so that they could bring pollen in and out. Can I have a beehive coffee table with a tube leading to my garden?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Gardening? But my show's on!

Anne Raver chronicles the decline of gardening among Baby Boomers (and the failure of us Gen Xers to take up the shovel) in the NYT.

"Gary and Charlene Singley have surrounded a pool not with grass and perennials but with tiles and brick, pots of geraniums and ivy, and speakers that carry music or the blow-by-blow plays of a game. Low-maintenance plants like Spanish lavender, olive trees and Italian cypress offer greenery without stress.

"I deadhead roses occasionally," Mrs. Singley, 57, said.

But it's the $3,000 42-inch plasma television over the fireplace on the loggia that has lately captured Mr. Singley's heart. "Gary wanted it big enough so that he could see the game while he was barbecuing at the other end of the loggia," Mrs. Singley said." (Yep, this is a photo of an actual outdoor TV--so waterproof you can turn the hose on it. Only three grand, folks. Imagine, watching HGTV from the comfort of your very own G.)

And that's not all: one nonplussed former gardener complains that she prefers video games: " "The results are so much quicker, with a beginning, middle and conclusion in 30 minutes," she said. "With gardening, you plant a bulb and it blooms in three months."

Oh, that poor dear. Imagine not being able to finish something in thirty minutes. How did that Sistine Chapel ever get painted?

The owner of White Flower Farm, Eliot Wadsworth, laments this change, noting that "They order later. They haven't read our catalog. They allocate a single weekend in spring to do all the garden work."

Oh, gardening. It's so tiring. It's too hard. It's boring. It takes too long. I don't have time in my busy life. Honey, where's the remote?

White Flower Farm has responded by offering pre-planned gardens you just stick in the ground and water. I say forget it, Eliot. If they don't want to get their hands in the dirt, screw 'em. Let them watch TV.

Baby Boomers, Digging Ben-Gay - New York Times

Sunday, January 01, 2006

What I Long For

The seed catalogs are here. It's as if somebody hit a switch that turned the flood of Christmas gift catalogs into a flood of seed catalogs. How do they do that?

First up in my list of longed-for plants: Persicaria, a pretty moundy foamy plant with long, skinny red flowers. Natural and beautiful. A favorite of Dutch gardener Piet Oudolf, whose books are well worth drooling over.

Bluestone Perennials, Inc -- PERSICARIA FIRETAIL