Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ordering Seeds!

It’s bitter cold and windy. My arugula finally gave up, and Wegman’s tomatoes are starting to look attractive (but not enough so to actually buy). It must be time to order seeds!
If you know my garden then you know how particular I have to be. I have no space for roaming squashes or rows of bush beans, so I make a list and prune it twice. The problem is, I can’t get away with ordering from just one catalog. Or even two. My list of favorites just won't mesh with the offerings of my favorite suppliers, High Mowing Seeds and Territorial. And a couple of “must haves” are not in either catalog! Sorry Jodi and Josh. So much for brand loyalty …

For example:
‘Beedy’s Camden Kale’ is the tastiest tenderest kale that I’ve tried. There may be a better one out there, but I’m not a gambler when it comes to kale. Only Fedco carries it. Fortunately, Fedco has other merits: free shipping for orders over $30, lots of heirloom flower seeds, and good prices. I'll get my order to $30 ... somehow.

Verde da Taglio green chard, from Seeds from Italy, is in my opinion the only chard worth eating. The reds and yellows look great in the garden, no doubt about it, but for taste ... I say go for the green. This is the only thing in this catalog I'm driven to order (although they do have a kale they claim is the tastiest ... tempting, but no) so I'll probably gamble on another highly-rated chard from another seed seller. If anyone reading this orders green chard from Seeds from Italy, I'll trade you some Beedys ...

'Loma' lettuce from Territorial, a Batavia, has been an absolute favorite for several years. It's crisp, long lasting, and a good seed producer. In fact I don't even need to buy seed because I always let a plant or two go to seed every year. But I do plan on trying a new lettuce, 'Two Star', also in Territorial's catalog. They have a chard, 'Perpetual', that looks promising, and I will certainly order my preferred Genovese-type basil, 'Aroma 1', which doesn't flower as readily as others, and 'Fortex' pole bean, really tender and a champion producer. Also, crimson clover, my favorite little nitrogen-fixer, and 'Mr. Majestic' marigold. So Territorial comes through!

Burpee is by far the most expensive seed catalog, but unfortunately it's the only one to offer 'Fireworks' gomphrena, which I must have. And as long as I'm ordering from Burpee, the Pot Luck dahlias are tempting. They also have 'Northern Lights' pentas, which I highly recommend, but only if you have access to a greenhouse.

I will not order tomato seeds, as I only have space for about three plants. I plan to buy starts from Eagle Point or Meadow View farm, because I know they raise them from seed. Last summer a southern mega-producer managed to inoculate the entire northeast with Late Blight by shipping infected seedlings to big-box stores. So live and learn, and buy your seedlings only from a trusted source!
As for tomato varieties, my sources tell me that 'Plum Regal' and 'Mountain Magic' are extremely blight resistant. Unfortunately I don't see them on the market. I will try to find 'Husky Cherry', the best container tomato I know, and 'Ramapo', a productive and very tasty mid-sized tomato.

It can make sense for gardeners to order seeds cooperatively, in larger quantities, and share.
So, what are you ordering?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Vintage Garden Tools

I have a thing for old tools.
Tin secateurs, curved sickles, and bent-wire cultivators are among my favorite finds. My very first acquisition was a pair of elegant secateurs, which I discovered in an antique store in Milford, New Jersey. The owner obviously did not appreciate their magnificence … “You can have it for a buck,” he said, somewhat dismissively. I paid quickly before he could notice the obvious beauty of the sleek lines, and the ingenious curved tin spring that held the blades open. At home, I scrubbed the handles with steel wool, oiled and sharpened the blades, and then found a spot on my kitchen wall.

And so I was hooked. I began checking local antique shops, looking for dusty bins and boxes in back rooms that held unappreciated treasures: spades with carved wood handles, two-handed scythes, dandelion pullers with bent shafts. In Ely, England I found a graceful swan-necked hand hoe of fearsome heft and useful length and snuggled it inside sweaters in my suitcase, hoping that it did not arouse Custom officers’ suspicions. A curved sickle was my next find. I’ve never actually used a sickle, though it was the one tool the Communist party chose to represent agriculture and linked with the hammer, icon of industry, on a field of blood to create the Soviet flag. This makes me think that I should sharpen it, and discover its usefulness.
Someday I will have enough worthy tool treasures (to be worthy they must be graceful in design and efficient in use) to create a wall of garden tools, all shined up and sharpened. They remind me of human ingenuity, of the importance of craft, of the traditions of farming … at least that’s how I justify my old-tool mania.
The simple truth is, I just like to look at them.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lawn People by Paul Robbins: a book review

Ah, summer … the smell of newly mown grass, the gas-powered hmmmm.
Did you know that, like the cycles of women who live together, neighbors’ mowing cycles actually become synchronized over time? Regular visits from TruGreen are also inescapable components of the suburban summer routine, as the little warning signs that pop up all over town four or five times a summer attest. But even as your neighbors invest time and money into eliminating clover, dandelions, and evil grubs, they may just be a little worried about what those chemicals could be doing to their pets, their children, and your water. Still they schedule the local lawn tech guy; they obsess over edges; they fertilize. Robbins digs into the psychology behind the puzzling phenomenon and shares facts like:
If your neighbors use chemicals on their lawns you are more likely to do the same.
People who are more educated are more likely to involve themselves in risky lawn behavior.
People who take pride in their lawns are more apt to know their neighbors’ names.

Allowing a (gasp!) dandelion to bloom on your lawn is not just lax, it’s downright irritating to your fellow citizens. At least that’s what your neighbors are thinking, according to Robbins. He offers a few suggestions for reform-minded addicts. For one, your lawn does not have to be the boss of you. Realize that there’s a whole industry out there with a vested interest in making you think your turf has problems, making you feel like you’re a bad citizen if you let a little clover grow—which by the way was a desired part of all lawn mixes before 2,4-D came along. Then it all of a sudden became a nuisance, a most convenient development because 2,4-D does not discriminate between good and bad but kills all non-grass plants. Encourage diversity, says Robbins, and especially clover. It fixes nitrogen, so you won’t need to fertilize as much, or at all. And tolerate dynamism. Now who doesn’t love dynamism? Beware of “organic” (quotes are Robbins') alternatives; they may make you feel better but too much organic fertilizer is no better than too much chemical fertilizer.
Following the herd may be the path of least resistance, but think of it this way: not counterproductively killing plants like clover, not fertilizing, not collecting your clippings, not edging may be the easiest path to individuality you’ve got. You'll sleep better, and you'll have more time to plant gardens in your newly dynamic yard.
If you want to know more real facts about the lawn industry, the American lawn obsession, and the lawn ecology, read Lawn People.

Ok, now I’m going to go find out my neighbors’ names.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Miscanthus in Bondage

I have to say that I have outgrown my love affair with the lovely Miss Canthus Sinensis.

She (we’ll just call her Maidenhair) is beautiful in youth, but, to be perfectly blunt, does not age well. You may think me shallow, but I have moved on to trimmer, more genteel subjects—Cally Magrostis, for example, and Pani Cum. For one thing, Maidenhair doubles in breadth each year. Just take a moment to absorb the implications of this. Those who have naively invited her into their lives have several options, none of which is appealing. Murder is one. Corseting (demonstrated above) is another. As you can see this just makes her look cheap.

Some who are desperate to rein in her rowdy nature resort to fencing her in, and then trimming the wildness away thus depriving her of both freedom and personality. I hate this. Dividing and conquering is nearly impossible. She has very deep roots and will stand her ground until you either admit defeat, or decide that maybe offspring are not in your best interest anyway.

But, observe the consequences when she is left to her own behavior. Not a pretty sight.

If you are wondering if I have the answer I will keep you waiting no longer. It is imperfect, but will allow the gentle in spirit to permit Maidenhair to keep her dignity. You can think of it as a grapefruit diet for grasses, but truth be told it is more like amputation. If your Maiden has become heartless (never a good thing, but better than a similar condition: rotten at the core) in her mature years, you can offer her a heart transplant. This is a lengthy operation, and requires persistence and diligence, though not much skill. The emptiness where once you placed an innocent little grass plant will become one edge of your revitalized Maiden. Decide which edge, grab a satisfying handful of grass, and bind it. Then cut away everything else. Be absolutely merciless, leaving but a stubble. Chop the disembodied parts into pieces to use as mulch, covering the stubble as deeply as possible to deprive it of sunlight. You will need to repeat this about three times during the season, and probably at least once the following year. But your mission, to make Maidenhair young once more, will have been accomplished. I warn you though, she will grow fat and old again.

It’s what she does.

This sidewalk will soon become a walk-beside.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Three Plants I Can't Live! Without, Part 3

I am a fool for sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis). Here it is next to native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) all shiny and perky. It looks good from spring through spring, spreads at a moderate pace, grows in dry shade ... what more can you ask of a plant? Bloom is fragrant, they say. I have put my nose in the early spring flowers and smelled a light scent. Maybe it's a variable trait. With or without fragrance it's a winner.

The viridiflora tulip is in a class by itself. What distinguishes it is  the green streaking that accentuates the pink petals. The color changes as the flowers mature, and the blooms last and last in the garden unlike other tulips. They have persisted in my garden for three years now, also unlike most tulips.

New this year, Lobularia 'Snow Princess' is an annual worth looking for. This photo was taken in November! What's different about this cultivar of sweet alyssum is that it is sterile, so puts all of its energy into producing blooms all summer long and into the fall. Okay, so it won't self-sow into the cracks of your walk like the standard sweet alyssum. There's no rule that you can't get some of each. Just don't put them side-by-side. 'Snow Princess' will put the the standard variety to shame.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

First Hard Frost of the Season

I was going to write about the garlic I planted this week. But I woke up to a frosty world and couldn’t resist stepping outside in my nightclothes and garden clogs (fortunately my neighbors are not early risers) and recording the event. November 7th is a little late for the first hard frost of the season in Emmaus. I expect I will have a week, maybe two, or arugula left. I will so miss my arugula.

A fallen leaf is icily glued to silver sage.

I think I will try letting this parsley self-sow next year. I'll report back.

Soon I will pile a layer of straw on my spinach seedlings. It is so worth the time it takes to plant spinach in September. The best spring spinach comes from a September planting! Do you see the rose thorns? They kept my neighbor's cat (whom I consider an ally--she's an excellent mouser) from digging up my seeds.

Cilantro, so tender and full of grace. She leans into the dance.

Just look at the little icy rods. Isn't water beautiful?
Garlic is in the ground; spinach has firmly rooted. My 30-year old grapefruit seedling that has never flowered is indoors. Beauty and Hope, the gardener's driving forces, are alive in all seasons.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fall is not my favorite season

The mold spores make me sneeze.

Stuff dies.

My fun is almost over.

The days are annoyingly short.

But ...

Doesn't it just take your breath away?

Friday, October 23, 2009

5 Minute Garden Quiz answers

No one at the Eagle Point Farm Market aced this quiz. Did you??

a)  when it’s sick
b)   when you plant it
c)    never

c) never (fertilizing will not bring a tree back to life! Generally speaking, you should fertilize a tree only if the soil is lacking necessary nutrients. You can find this out with a soil test)

a)    prune the branches back
b)   leave the burlap on
c)    plant at the same depth as the top of the root ball
d)   stake it

None of these (research has shown that practices common in the past are unnecessary or even, in some cases, harmful. Pruning branches back does not benefit the tree; burlap often does not decompose, and the string tying it to the trunk can girdle the tree; experts now advise planting with the root ball slightly above grade; deciduous trees that are able to bend with the wind are stronger in the long run)

a)    run over them with your mower, leaving the chopped-up leaves on the lawn
b)   blow them out to the curb to be picked up
c)    place them on your perennials to protect them from frost heaving

c) place them on your perennials (this is an invitation to moles and voles to eat your plants’ roots!)

a)    spring
b)   fall
c)    summer

Never! (Burning bush is invading natural forests. The birds eat and spread its seeds) … sorry trick question

a)    fall
b)   very early spring
c)    after it blooms

b) very early spring (a general rule: if a plant blooms on new wood, prune in early spring; on old wood, prune after it blooms)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

5-Minute Gardening Quiz

'Beedy's Camden' kale -- so tasty!

Now that it's fall the time is right to "EAT MORE KALE." And if you've never liked kale, grow 'Beedy's Camden' next year. It will change your mind.

The Open Gate Farm day at Eagle Point Farm Market was lots of fun. I roped quite a few people (gardeners and non-) into taking this 5-minute gardening quiz. I'll post the answers on Friday!

a) when it's sick
b) when you plant it
c) never

a) prune the branches back
b) leave the burlap on
c) plant at the same depth as the top of the root ball
d) stake it

a)    run over them with your mower, leaving the chopped-up leaves on the lawn
b)   blow them out to the curb to be picked up
c)    place them on your perennials to protect them from frost heaving

a)    spring
b)   fall
c)    summer

a)    fall
b)   very early spring
c)    after it blooms

Monday, October 12, 2009

Growing Potatoes in a Pot

I don’t have a lot of space in my garden, and I especially don't have space for plants that don’t show well. The tops of potatoes have to die in order for French fries to be born, I know that … but I just don’t want to have to watch. So this summer I got a humongous “smart pot,” which was actually designed for tree growers, filled it about a third with a soil/compost mix, and stuck it a hidden (but sunny) corner of my patio. My friends at Wood Prairie Farm recommended ‘Elba’ seed potatoes for a good yield. I placed about 8 on top of the soil, added more compost and a layer of straw and waited. They were healthy right from the start. Every couple of weeks I added more compost and straw until the pot was filled to the top. If it hadn’t rained non-stop all summer long I would have had to water. I’m not complaining. Really. So the vines got long and stringy and every time I checked they were still green. Last week they were still alive, though not a pretty sight, and I decided I had waited long enough for them to die. So I nudged them along to their destiny, otherwise known as my kitchen, by delicately eliminating the alive parts. I hope someone will do something similar for me if I hang on too long after I lose my functionality.

And just look! What a smart pot. 

Monday, October 5, 2009

Three Plants I Can't Live! Without, Part 2

Rose ‘Little Mischief’

This brilliantly colored rose has become my favorite garden rose. It’s in Bailey’s Easy Elegance series. Why do I like it better than you know who? For one thing it blooms and blooms without a mid-summer siesta.  For another, it stays nicely compact, under 3 feet. My son Dan planted ‘Little Mischief’ at the Glasbern Inn about three years ago, where it dances with Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ all summer long. Every time I walk past it stops me in my tracks.

Nicotiana sylvestris

Tall, stately, attention-demanding, and night fragrant are four attributes that come to mind. Woodland tobacco also self-sows, just enough, not too much. This is the time of year I take seedheads from the 5-ft tall plants and toss them around the garden in spots where I envision it growing next year.

Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’

I’ve always liked the idea of gomphrena—bouncy little flower balls rising up through beds of zinnias or dahlias. The reality just never quite came through. Until now. ‘Fireworks’ is a new variety, offered by Burpee, and it does deliver! Tall, about 3 1/2 ft, but not floppy. Colorful but not garish. It's already on my seed list for next year.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Change is in the Air

I know they’re plotting. Plotting and scheming about how they’ll get the upper hand. I could just hear them in the garden today.
“Oh Persicaria,” asks Wood sorrel, “do you think I have time to set another round of seed?”
“Go for it!” replies Persicaria. “The Homo scapians aren’t watching now that it’s October.”
“That’s Hom escapians, I think,” Wood sorrel corrects.
“I’ve been sneaking seedheads in everywhere I can find an opening,” volunteers Foxtail. “All summer she’s been yanking out my babies and tossing ‘em in that big pile over there, but lately I’ve been getting a free pass! Oh, and it’s Home-too-lateagins, least that’s what I’m hearin.”
“You all are such losers,” pipes up Grandpa Ott. “She’s been after me like white on rice for months. Just three weeks ago she was in here searching out every last little seedling. Soon as she turns her back I say ‘Hit it guys!’ Look at us rippin—we’re up on top of the forsythia and reachin for the roof. No way she’s gonna git us off the branches before we finish makin seed. We’re wrapped around those branches so tight she’s bound to miss at least a thousand seeds! And isn’t it Oh-no-its-fateagains?”
Suddenly there’s a thump.
“Whazzat?” Foxtail, who was hit right in the seed head with a big black walnut, yells.
Everyone looks up. The oak and the walnut trees whisper calmly, so quietly no one can hear. No need for them to get excited. For the past 50 years they’ve been feeling the change in the air. Their plan is set. You can hear it in the breeze. “Shady days, shady days, shady days.” When the Too-little-too-late-agains have done and said all that they can say or do, nuts will sprout; trees will grow wherever their roots can find a spot of soil. Forests will happen and every critter and bug that climbs around in them and eats their leaves will prosper. Weedy little plants will weaken and disappear.
And no one will be there to care.

note: This is what happens when a gardener reads too much environmental literature.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shy Violets? Not So Much!

The other violet flower

Last year, at Morven Museum, we had an infestation of one of the worst historic-garden pests I know: archeologists! I do realize that it's extremely important to make absolutely certain there's no crockery in a spot that will, ultimately, be built upon, and therefore it's necessary to dig holes of grave-like proportions. But in the process of determining that there were in fact no buried treasures, living plants were murdered and soil was up-ended. That is, what had been down was turned up and what was up is now down. Curiously this caused an explosion of violets in spring. The long-buried caches of seeds (I'm guessing) were brought to the surface and reveled so in their first exposure to sunlight after decades of darkness that they all germinated. I can understand this reaction. From past experience with violets I know what this means. Either I learn to love my new woodland groundcover--and I do love the delicate nodding flowers--or I harden my heart and dig them out, roots and all. Halfway measures will not work. And I'll tell you why.
There are violets you see, and violets you don't see. Where stem meets soil, the unseen flowers lurk. Dig a violet up and you'll find what looks like a bud, but is actually a flower, a cleistogamous flower, the kind that produces viable seed without ever opening and with no help from pollinators. And, as if that's not enough of a procreative advantage, violet seeds have a sugar-rich appendage called an elaiosome that is so appetizing to ants that they drag the seeds home to the safety of their nests, eat the good part, and leave the rest to germinate in a medium made rich from their waste. Meanwhile, above ground, the violet flowers we know and love form seed pods that burst when ripe, catapulting the seeds in all directions.
Triple advantage: Violets.
Triple nuisance: Gardeners.
We may as well just learn to get along with these ubiquitous volunteers. Pulling them out always sets off a bout of guilt anyway ...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Three Plants I Can't Live! Without

You may think that the title of this post is an exaggerated statement. I considered that. Of course if these three plants vanished from the world I may still be alive (unless the same catastrophe claimed me too, a distinct possibility). But being alive isn’t the same as living! (with the exclamation point). There is one point I'm not being exactly truthful about—there are more than 3. Maybe 30 … or 300. I will name 3 at a time, taking a very undisciplined approach and not favoring any particular type of plant—I’ll do it on Mondays, just in case anyone’s interested—until I run out of inspiration. Or die. Please feel free to offer suggestions ... or link me up to your own post!
Dragon Wings Begonia
My relationship with red has not been an easy one. But we’ve reconciled our incompatibilities. I use red in brief brilliant shots to fire up the garden scene. Dragon Wings is shiny, flashy, tough-as-nails, and always makes a healthy splash. I must have this red. I’m now working on improving my relations with pink.
'Robert Poore' Phlox paniculata
If you’ve fallen for the fairytale about David being the only mildew-resistant summer phlox, you really need to meet Robert. Tall, handsome, clean … and he’s more colorful than David. Trust me, he’ll keep you interested.
mid-height Zinnia hybrids
Currently in my favor is sweet yellow ‘Highlight’ hybrid. Here it is in late August after a summer of constant rain not splaying or showing even a hint of powdery mildew! But ‘Profusion Orange’, ‘Zahara Scarlet’, and ‘Zahara Rose’ are about on a par. They all contain some Zinnia angustifolia (a fine small garden plant in its own right) parentage and they’re all just so nice in mixed company.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hottest Pepper in the World

In my backyard in Emmaus grows a plant bearing about four dozen Bhut Jalokias. A combined 50 million Scoville units of heat are trapped in this little crop of peppers, which are the hottest in the world! I’d call that a lifetime supply of HOT. Clearly there are those who attach great value to homegrown fire—I infer this from the popularity of the Youtube videos that feature to all appearances sane young men (nearly always men) who boldly pop a pepper whole into their mouths, munch, and swallow. A strange sort of suspense ensues, where the viewer watches in anticipation of a horrific outcome—will he fall thrashing on the ground, or, worse, vomit? I have not done an exhaustive survey of this video genre but did watch as one (apparently) civilized young man with a clipped accent took off his glasses. Later in the 10-minute video, he put them back on. This was the height of the action. Oh there were beads of sweat, and his speech was halted at times but he remained amazingly calm under fire. I ascribe the viewers’ high regard for these videos to admiration for those who can withstand extreme self-torture and still keep their cool. And I admit, I was bizarrely enthralled by the man’s composure.
Personally, I have no use for the issue of this plant, planted purely out of curiosity, and I feel a little bad about that. There’s a serious amount of capsaicin in the 50 or so fruits on my potted plant that could be put to use to kill prostate cancer cells, relieve pain, stop evildoers in their tracks, or (and this is my favorite) repel elephants! But it just doesn't work for my purposes—a mere whisper of Bhut would overwhelm a huge bowl of gazpacho. So I walk right by the potent peppers, harvest my tender lettuces and tomatoes, and then compile that sweetest of treats, a BLT (with pesto) picked, sliced, and eaten all within a quarter hour. Capsaicin releases endorphins, I know. But I prefer stumbling onto bliss as basil, tomato, and bacon juices mingle and drip, and I sop up the red-green dribbles on my plate with the toasted corners of the layered feast.
I suppose I could make a pretty Bhut ristra, hang it in my kitchen, and watch it slowly shrivel. I wonder if the fabled Bhut euphoria would permeate the air.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ants at War

This summer, more than usual, my sidewalk has been blackened by big masses of ants. When it happened again this evening I looked the phenomenon up. I learned from this fascinating article that the little black ants that often make their way into our kitchens are called, aptly, sidewalk ants … and when they pile up on the sidewalk they are at war! Knowing this piece of information, I got out my magnifier and looked closer. Sure enough, there were mandibles thrashing and little ant bodies locked in layers of combat, often two or three against one. They fight over food, or territory, the ant article continued. Familiar story?
Oblivious to my peeping, they battled in a big squirming mass for the next twenty minutes. Then something happened. The center of the melee thinned, forces were quickly withdrawn, and within a minute or two the whole horde had dispersed. Just like that the battle was over.
The mystery of why they blacken the pavement is solved, but another inscrutable question remains unanswered. Who won??

Monday, August 31, 2009

I Love You Grandpa Ott … But We’re Through!

I just can’t keep up with you anymore. You were climbing Baptist John Ott’s hedges when I was just learning to crawl and you haven’t slowed down, not one little bit. You’re outrunning me, Grandpa. You’ve impudently out-muscled Heavenly Blue, your elder by 50 years, crawled all over William Forsyth’s namesake (a dangerous move … if his boss King George II was still alive he would banish you as he did his very own son!), and now, Grandpa, you have the audacity to clamber onto sweet Carmelita.
It is not without sadness that I rip every one of your 10,000 hearts from my garden. There was a time when we were friends, no, more than friends. I loved waking up to your lively purple presence, and watching you slowly fold your red-violet streaks out of view each evening. I loved it when you dominated my brick wall, and leaned happily on my weathered wood fence. But I must be frank, Grandpa. You’re just too much! From now on I’d appreciate it you would just sow your progeny on my neighbor’s side of the fence. She still finds your looks appealing, your vigor exciting. She doesn’t know you like I do.
I mean it Grandpa! I don’t even want to see the whites of your eyes peering through the slats!  

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Small Pond = Big Rewards

I’ve never been involved in the building of a home. I’m told the process is arduous, but the results make it all so worthwhile. So it is with this little pond I made this summer in Bob’s backyard.

Here’s how it went:

February: I proposed a magazine story about a container pond, with fish and plants.

March: I ordered and received a clear, heavy-duty, plastic bag liner for a half-barrel.

April: I bought a half-barrel from Home Depot.

June 1: I inserted the liner in the barrel, trimmed it to size, bought plants, and put it all together. I admired the creation.

June 4: Bob bought three goldfish.

June 6: The liner leaked, a little.

June 7: The liner leaked, a lot.

June 8: The magazine story was cancelled.

June 11: The fish died. The half-barrel needed to be refilled twice a week.

June 12: I was tempted to throw in the towel.

June 13: I ordered a hard plastic half-barrel liner (about $20) from Dries Do-It Center.

June 19: The hard plastic liner arrived.

June 20: The hard plastic liner was made for a genuine half-barrel, rather than the cheap garden version. It didn’t fit.

June 20: The barrel now needed daily refilling. It was making a muddy mess of the patio.

June 20: I was tempted to throw in the towel. Seriously tempted.

June 21: I dismantled the plastic-bag-lined barrel and put the plants in a leak-free bucket.

July 26: I dug a hole in the ground for the hard plastic liner, inserted it, leveled (very important step) and filled it, and added plants. I stood back and admired the creation.

July 29: Bob bought three more goldfish.

August 8: A visiting frog arrived!!

How sweet is success! The goldfish are subsisting on algae, floating water lettuce roots (maybe), and mosquito larvae (hopefully). The frog is not eating the fish. Plants are thriving. Butterflies are happy. Life is good.

And all it took was two hours of digging!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dwarf Evergreens--for Now and Forever

I have a thing for dwarf evergreens.

Spruce at the Glasbern Inn, about 20 years old

This was not always the case. In my reckless youth I loved bad boys—fire-engine red monarda that will paint an entire field in three years, and archangel lamium, the devil dressed in yellow. I planted galloping grasses, furry masses of snow-in-summer (Cerastium) and expanding borders of flash-in-the-pan forsythia. Lysimachias and gooseneck loosestrifes, hederas and houttuynias, I loved them all. But over time, as my hot desire for sparkle and speed subsided, I erased them, one by one, from my little black book. I still appreciate a glossy calendar photo that shows their best assets under a summer sunset, but I don’t need to possess them in my beds.

Dwarf Hemlock, age 5

Slowly, my roving eye turned to something that could sustain me for the long haul. I began to appreciate the sweet rounded shape of a ‘Mops’ mugo pine, and the alluring new needles of a hemlock that can be coated with oil (for woolly adelgid—the insect version of snow-in-summer) with ease.

'Goshiki' Osmanthus, age 5

I place them in the garden, these little cuties, and fill in the gaps with the latest new zinnia or gomphrena or argyranthemum. Every spring I savor the wee bits of fresh new growth, and dream ahead to a time when they’ll have put on a couple of new feet of gorgeous girth.

Falsecypress at the Glasbern, age 20

A few decades hence I will hobble out to the garden on my new-fangled knees and pet my soft beauties, which will have grown together amiably, neighbors stroking each other’s needle-y boughs. The openings between will have slimmed to nothing, leaving no more room for flashy flowers that bloom and die. But that’s okay. In our older years we will have transcended that sort of thing, my ‘Mops’ and I, and left the wildness of youth behind in photos, and in the memories of friends and lovers. Sweet serenity will be ours.

This is my 'Mops' Mugo Pine, and he's with LaRita (Argyranthemum)

Well, except for the occasional visits from uninvited guests, Neodiprion sertifer and Chionaspis pinifolia.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Success! Tomatoes in Containers!

Husky Cherry, the winner!

We all have our personal challenges. On my list are calmly navigating the NY subway system, remembering names of people (plants I have no problem with), and growing tasty tomatoes in containers. What’s the big deal, subway savvy gardeners may wonder. But I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that gardeners who only have a rooftop to grow on just might forget how a real tomato tastes. My halfhearted attempts have gone like this: plants thrive until mid-August; a daily watering gets skipped; the lanky plants wilt; tomatoes end up tasting like February. This year, I resolved, I’ll get serious! I searched the catalogues for petite toms: Florida Basket, Smarty, Vilma, Maskotka, Gold Nugget, Heartland, Polbig, Husky Cherry. I scanned gardening experts’ websites for growing tips. Big containers, plentiful fertilizer, and lots and lots of water, they counsel (duh). I purchased container mixes and concocted my own—compost and peat moss with kelp meal and worm castings, and in some cases soil.

The results:

1. Organic Mechanics peat free potting mix plus kelp meal was a clear winner through early August. Plants thrived and produced, outgrowing the competition by several inches. But wait … by the third week in August, the Smarty plant in my own mix (½ pro-mix [peat, vermiculite, perlite], ¼ compost, ¼ soil, 4C worm castings, plus kelp meal) was just as tall and greener, supporting my hunch that tomatoes like the real stuff. Both mixes produced BTSB (better than store bought) cherry tomatoes.
2. The sturdiest and best-looking varieties were Husky Cherry and Heartland. Heartland tomatoes are big enough to slice, but growing them in grow bags like I did is probably not the best plan. Drying out caused some blossom end rot.

Maskotka was an impressive producer for a foot-high plant, but weak-looking.

If I were to recommend just one container tomato, Husky Cherry would be it.

So there you have it. Now I can go back to moving my tomatoes around the yard and skirting them with flowers. But if I ever do find myself without a plot to plant in, I will fill the bottom half of the container with my plus-soil mix to sustain the adults, the top half with Organic Mechanics to give my puppies a fast start. I also relearned a design lesson, first learned with impatiens and trumpet vine, that I have no excuse for forgetting.

Red-orange (Husky cherry tomatoes) and magenta (mini-petunias) do not make a pleasing pair.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Favorite Container

This is my favorite container of the year.

I popped these leftovers from the annual plant sale at Morven into a big pot in May, expecting big bold Dragon Wings begonia to engulf little India Frills coleus and overpower Purple Heart (Setcreasea). But instead they mingled in a model of harmonious cooperation. Frills found the gaps and filled them with touchable texture. Heart wiggled its way to the sun to prove that the shine of flash only brightens when juxtaposed with the seriousness of strength. 

I admire the gracious way the different interests coexist in this pot of limited resources. Such a contrast to our warring world, where attempts to share and compromise are met with shrieking mobs of protesters who shout out and shut down the cooperative spirit, causing tender frills to vanish in the shadows and purple hearts to fight for their life source. I will picture this sweet triumvirate as a model for living. 

Until it dies.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Making Room for Lettuce

I murdered a cotoneaster today. It wasn’t an evil cotoneaster, it just didn’t contribute enough to my garden. It functioned beautifully for the hawthorn lace bugs that called it home, and I feel awful about giving them the heave-ho …well, not awful, but slightly empathetic. Ok, I don’t feel bad in the least … after all I provided them with food and shelter for ten long years, it’s time they learned to live without my largesse. It’s tough out there for us all!

But I digress (cleansing breath) … in place of the lace bug hotel I planted this bed of greens for the late summer and fall. From left to right I sowed my saved 'Loma' seeds, a blend of red lettuces from Territorial, 'Bergam's Green' , and another red lettuce (get it? green, red, green, red). I expect, with the soil as warm as it is, that germination will be spotty, so I’ll probably have to fill in some gaps. The perfect soil temperature for germinating lettuce is between 60 and 75 degrees. You can germinate the seed indoors where it’s cooler if (unlike me) you condition your summer air.

My plan is allow my pretty lettuces to grace my garden until the first frost, and then cover the bed with a modular cold frame, which is still in my head. If I’m lucky, and persuasive, I will get the help of one of my able sons to build it, or maybe even the help of one of my able sons’ able friends. Then I will have fresh salad greens for the first part of winter too!

Meanwhile, in the back 40 (feet) I am producing a bumper crop of lettuce seeds for next year. 

One of the very hardest things for a gardener to do is to allow a plant (and all you need is one or two) to go to seed. Now I’m not saying there’s not beauty in the sight of a lettuce plant in flower … but it ‘s not the harmonious kind of garden beauty. It’s more the sort a geologist might see in a roadcut, or a furniture crafter in an old burly tree. Here in PA my lettuce is at its full 5-ft height now; if you live in Texas or Missouri, the timing will likely be different.  In three or four weeks the seeds will be dry and I will cut down some stalks and put them in paper bags on my porch. (One thing I will not do is set the bag on the ground and allow thieving ants to chew little holes in the bottom and run off with my future salads). Some of the seedheads I’ll just leave on the stalk to break and scatter in fall. I’ve found that I get the very earliest spring lettuce from fall-scattered seed.

Did I mention that the evil cotoneaster also sheltered the pesky Indian mock strawberry weed that skulks around my hosta? I have no guilt. None at all.

Really I don’t.  

Friday, July 31, 2009

Why is that tree blue?

There was an odd phone message on my answering machine from the innkeeper at the Glasbern Inn where I take care of the gardens, the other day. “What do I tell the guests when they come to breakfast tomorrow morning and ask why the tree outside is blue? When I asked the boss,” the innkeeper continued, “he just sort of smiled and said ‘It’s Pam’s thing’.”

I was there in a flash to check it out, and yes, the tree was a beautiful soft cerulean with a hint of violet. I was elated. Not only did the owner take my wild proposal seriously but he actually went to the paint store with a chicory flower so he could get exactly the right shade of blue.

And It Looked Beautiful! 

It was the color of the sky on a perfect day. It complemented the green of the grape vines, and the deep red of the ‘Forest Pansy’ leaves it rubbed up against. It emphasized the elegance of the recently demised redbud’s structure. It was startling and mystical.

Tell them “Blue represents expansiveness. Imagine blue light waves being absorbed by the gas molecules in the air and radiated in all directions.” Or say “The blue brings out the grace of the tree’s form … when was the last time you really looked at a tree?” Tell them “We are honoring that tree for its 20 years of service, removing carbon dioxide from the air.” Or, explain that it’s an extremely rare Arboreum ceruleum. Do this with a very serious expression.

It was my suggestion to paint the tree chicory blue. But, I confess, the idea was borrowed from the gardeners at the Swarthmore College campus, who may have borrowed it from some other garden. No matter, inspiration should be spread around. The Swarthmore tree lasted a couple of years before it faded and was chopped down. For two years it compelled people to stop and look and wonder. Some actually asked what sort of tree it was, that had bark of blue and no leaves. At least that’s what one of the gardeners told me. A witness to the tree painting at the Glasbern earnestly wondered if the dead tree was being treated with a coating that would bring it magically back to life. But no, the magic is not in the paint, nor is it in the tree. It comes from within the observer. It is in the enchanted forest that the elegant blue frame brings to life in the mind’s eye. 

Tell them “Life is short. Color is fun.” Or tell them “I’ll have it taken care of forthwith*.” Or just say “Really? … you see a blue tree out there?”

I hope there will be at least some people who won’t have to ask.

*note: this is your chance to use a very serviceable word that most of us have only seen in print!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Sea holly (Eryngium planum ‘Blaukappe’) is a gardener’s plant. It flops, it prickles, it attracts swarms of wasps of all species and sizes, which buzz about its steel blue spikes in obvious (to me, anyway) glee. This is a good thing, as the wasps hang around the garden and parasitize pesky caterpillars. I’m a long-time fan of umbels, especially the architectural angelicas and dills, but ‘Blaukappe’ sea holly is the most fascinating of the clan.

Now it’s not the easiest perennial to place in the garden. But fortunately, once you get a ‘Blaukappe’ blooming, it’s a simple matter to audition it in different spots. Cut the spiny sprigs after the blue fades to gray and toss them around. Late in the season I like to play the role of the flower fairy, plucking dried flower heads of various self-sowers—larkspur, sunflowers, woodland tobacco, bells of Ireland. As I envision drifts of purple, shots of yellow, or masses of bristly blue rising up in the spare spots of the garden and rescuing it from blahness, I fling seeds here and there. ‘Blaukappe’ doesn’t bloom the first year, so you have ample time to change your mind about where it should or shouldn’t go. Like a teenage boy (before noon) it likes to relax against or on top of any convenient surface—your patio, your concrete rabbit, your favorite geranium. So you have a couple of choices: you can compel it to stand up straight with sticks and string, or you can embrace its sea-holliness by being understanding about its lax habits, and provide it with something—a rock, a wall, a funky chair painted blue that you don’t mind sacrificing to the cause—for it to lounge on. I prefer option two. Years of trying to make plants, and teenage boys, abide by rules that go contrary to their natures have taught me when the payoff is worth it. And when it just isn’t. 

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Permit me to vent, just once, then I’ll get to the inspiration business. 

A new client’s garden needed weeding today. I do that, among other services, which do not include shaving shrubs with power instruments, or scraping the ground clean of messy leaves and twigs and then laying down uniform chips of recycled industrial wood. Dismal expanses of this product, available at garden centers everywhere dyed brown (to simulate dirt), black (to simulate wet dirt), and red (to simulate a carpet in a brothel), are a common sight. And no wonder, the stuff can be laid down with big blowers since it has very little moisture, conveniently saving the landscaper from hiring an extra employee or two. As I jimmied out nutsedge and thistle from the vast zones of fungus-free mulch, I didn’t see a single worm or larva. But (says the manufacturer) the non-fading color gives the landscape “eye-catching curb appeal.” So. Where do we even start to teach homeowners that decorator colors applied four inches thick do not a beautiful garden make? And that it matters.

It matters that it will take years for earthworms to digest dried, chipped pallets.

It matters that threads of mycelia have important functions in the food and decay chains.

It matters that when pine needles fall under pine trees, there are good reasons to leave them there.

It matters that we respect polycultures of all kinds, that we embrace fading as a sign of maturity, and that we value the beauty of a complex, well-functioning, vital system over the temporary satisfaction of tidiness.

It matters that cicada killers have a place to call home (ok, truce).

If you’re already addicted to the brown, black, or red stuff I can help. Just for one year, mulch with straw. Only straw. It will fade to a lovely umber, feed your worms, and (if you look really close) make the world a beautiful place.  Plus, it will save your back.

The photo is of my (mostly) straw-mulched garden.