Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why I Do This

Why do I do this?  It takes a lot of time to take and post pictures and update blogs and websites.   Gardeners are in general a different breed of people and enjoy sharing.   Sure, it would be nice to have recognition and make money, but I do not distract with watermarks and paid ad options or limit with copyrights.  Why?  For one, gardening sites that do are a turn off to me, especially ones that start off free, rely on user input, then start charging a subscription fee.   Besides, if someone wants to steal my work, they are going to regardless.  A bigger reason?  You do not have to look far or pay a fee to find negativity and ugliness in one form or another that depresses, angers or encourages disrespect.  I want to make a difference.

Look at a picture of a beautiful flower or garden and feel the happiness come over you.  Walk through an overflowing garden and feel the tranquility it brings. Smell a rose and become intoxicated by its fragrance.  Bite into a garden fresh piece of produce and feel the delight of the flavor.  Dig your hands into beautiful soil and feel the connection with Earth and All That Is.  Watch a seed sprout and you have witnessed a miracle.  The garden is a wondrous place and I want to help bring its joys to the world by inspiring and educating.

"I've waited in the sun and listened to every one of the questions that you posed
and I have found the answers in the petals of a rose."
(from "Show Me The Way," sung by Liam Clancy)

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Cottage Garden = Functional Gardening

As the new year begins, gardening catalogs are sent out to inspire and take advantage of gardeners' dreams of the perfect garden.  Now is a good time to consider stretching your gardening boundaries.

I have always been drawn to the cottage garden.  Informal, inviting, lush, bountiful, overflowing, beautiful ... functional.  Functional?  Yes!  And as I plan next year's garden, that is becoming more important to me.  I have a small yard.  Too small.  I want more roses.  I want more vegetables.  Why should I have to choose one over the other?  Why can they not live together in peace and harmony?  It is not as though the gardening police are going to come arrest me if I decide to allow Tam Jalapeno  Pepper to live next to Graham Thomas Rose.

That is what a cottage garden is all about!  Though in recent years cottage gardens have become something more akin to organized chaos, they were originally making the most of limited space. Peasants only had a small amount of land, so in the space of their vegetable and herb gardens, they would grow ornamentals that had been passed along or propagated from the gardens of their masters.

What do you have when you plant herbs next to ornamentals next to vegetables?  Companion planting!  The biodiversity repels pests and attracts beneficial insects.  It keeps fungus and disease from jumping from plant to plant.  It aids organic gardening.  It creates interest.

For now I will keep my designated vegetable gardens for larger growing vegetables, but so those plants have more room, there is no reason to not tuck plants such as herbs, peppers, eggplants and okra (a relative of Hollyhocks and Rose of Sharon) in amongst the flowers.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What I Have Been Blessed To Do

I am not a religious person, but very spiritual, and I have been blessed in many ways.  I have grown a lot in the last ten years.  I will not say I was led by God because that insinuates that I am special in a way that other people are not, that I received help while others still struggle.  I will say that I reached such a low point in my life that I questioned everything and listened to hear the soft voice that is patiently waiting in all of our hearts to lead us to where we are meant to be.

I left a bad marriage, began volunteering at a botanical garden where my skills were recognized and I was offered a job, I was referred to help others in their gardens and I eventually found love. Taking care of my Mom and Grandma eventually became a bigger job and I quit the botanical garden.  Almost a year ago to the day, taking care of Grandma became a 24/7 job.

In the last year or so I began questioning where I should be in terms of gardening.  Did I still want to work in others' gardens or devote all of my time to Jim and our garden?  Our time together on Earth is limited and we enjoy each other's company so well that it is lonely being apart even for a few hours.  Then came the gardening season of 2013 that I could not leave Grandma's side; I devoted myself to her completely at the expense of myself.  From time to time some of the ladies I work for would contact me, not so much to see how things were, but to see if I was available yet. At least that is how it felt from my perspective. Not my friends, just seeing if Grandma was dead yet because they needed my help.  I could almost hear the disappointment in one lady's voice. On May 31st Grandma passed.  I did a few little jobs, but after the five months of abuse I put my body through, I needed to take care of myself emotionally and physically.  Still feeling sorry for myself, I decided I was going to quit the gardening work.

I have read in a number of places that whenever you are recovering from something, building your body back up, you should expect to spend about twice the amount of time you spent abusing it. Five very long months of no more than three hours of sleep at a time, jumping up and running on an adrenaline rush all through the night, eating fast food or whatever other garbage I could grab in a hurry to keep myself going, and of course, the emotional turmoil of losing a loved one.  Six months later, halfway through my estimated recovery period, brought the Holidays and a mixture of emotions that were hard to deal with.  I was so far off track.

I do not turn the television on a lot and I am not an Oprah fan, but last week Mom found something called Super Soul Sunday.  I listened as I worked around the house and was occasionally drawn in by something a guest said.  One guest, Rob Bell, did more than draw me in, he inspired me.  He spoke of finding your true calling and of a man, a house cleaner, who felt he was privileged to be allowed into peoples' homes to bring them cleanliness and organization.  A bell (no pun intended) went off and that different perspective played in my head as I anticipated the 2014 gardening season.  How could I have forgotten that lesson?  I planned on tuning into the next Super Soul Sunday in hopes of more inspiration, and I was not let down.  There were several good interviews, but Marianne Williamson was just what I needed.  She said so many noteworthy things, but the reminder I really needed was that the more we give, the more we receive.  It is in serving others that miracles occur in our own lives.

I am an introvert.  I am more than content with my close little network of loved ones.  From my perspective, if people expected more of me socially, I would feel burdened.  I was feeling sorry for myself and looking at the whole situation from a negative standpoint rather than the positive.  I have a gift.  I know plants, not just academically, but have the ability to make them thrive and love doing it.  I have worked hard and earned an excellent reputation.  I am honored that there are people who entrust me to work in their gardens.  To them it is a sacred spot that they spent many years, maybe even a lifetime, building and growing. There are few people they would allow to step foot in their gardens, yet they are eager, even impatient to pay me work with their most valued plants.  I enter 2014 feeling inspired to do what I have been blessed to do.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Great Point Experiment

I love garden experiments; when successful, they are amongst the most rewarding endeavors.  I have never bought Poinsettias ... too seasonal, too much work, not long enough lasting.  I had always tried to keep them going without success.  For several years I had one small, struggling stick of a Point that I had saved from the botanical garden I worked at.  Last year Jim bought one for the holidays that still looked fairly decent come spring.  I decided then to give them one last shot, something different than I had ever done.  Normally I would have repotted and fertilized them with minimal results.  This time I put them straight in the ground in an area they would have a decent chance in.  If they were still struggling as the weather cooled, into the compost they would go.  Though hopeful, I was nowhere near expectant of the results.

I cut them back hard before planting them in the ground and did nothing more.  By September when I potted them up, what had not been much more than a couple of twigs were the lushest two-feet-tall Points I had ever seen.  As the weather cooled, they went into the garage, the door being opened and shut morning and night for light.  Before the first freeze, they came in and were put into an unused room.  To make shuffling around easier and to protect the floor, they were put onto a wheeled platform.  To begin with we put them in a closet at night, but then I questioned the need for absolute darkness, especially when they did not always have a lot of light during the day.  On sunny days when we could have the front door (southern exposure) open, they were wheeled into the living room.  Special attention had to be paid to watering.  They needed a lot and do not want to dry out, but they cannot be kept soggy either.  Some of the inner leaves shed, but not enough to effect their beauty.

Another great idea is to cut the Point back to one stem and grow it into a tree.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why Say NO! To GMO?

I used to buy bags of various animal feed as a special winter treat for my pet rabbits instead of buying little bags of fancy rabbit food.  I would supplement fifty pound bags of rabbit feed with oats, wheat, corn, sunflower seeds or some other bird seed.  Several years ago I bought a fifty pound bag of corn (horse feed) at the farm supply store, but the rabbits would not eat it.  Different rabbits have different taste preferences, so I did not think much of it.  I quit giving it to them, but kept the bag in the garage.

That winter we had a massive mouse infestation in the garage.  I smelled it, it was horrible.  I thought a cat had gotten into the garage and marked its territory because if there were mice, they would have been in the corn.  Come spring I discovered mice, so bad that as I threw things off the shelves or into the trash, they scattered.  Still the corn was untouched.  No droppings.  No partially eaten kernels.  No holes chewed in the bag.  Not a single sign of mice.  Odd, but I did not think much about it and in the garage it stayed.

Eventually we decided it was time for the corn to go.  It got dumped behind the garage for chipmunks and squirrels to carry away, and there it stayed.  Not only did they not eat it, it did not sprout!  After a few weeks it was scooped up and thrown away.

What was wrong with the corn?  I eventually found the answer.  GMO (genetically modified organism).  To prevent seed saving and create dependence upon the seed company, some seed will not sprout (the patent is strictly enforced on any that does).  It is not seed, it is not feed.  It is foreign to our bodies.  Animals will not eat it unless they have no other choice.  In GMO studies, animals develop tumors, become infertile and suffer other disturbing results.  Why do Monsanto and other companies fight GMO labeling?  Because given the choice, educated people would not eat it either.  It is not about saving the consumer money, it is about their profit.  How much is too much to pay for the food we eat?  I say our health.  Many countries have banned GMOs.  The U.S. grows non-GMO food for export.  Why do we as American consumers not have the same right?

Herbicide resistant plants are cross pollinating with others, polluting other crops and creating super weeds.  Insect resistant plants are killing beneficial insects including bees and creating super insects.  What is it doing to the environment?  What is it doing to us?  I have only touched the tip of the iceberg to whet your appetite for knowledge.  If you are not familiar with GMO or GE (genetic engineering), now is the time to educate yourself.

A clip from Doctored explaining the difference between GMO farming and produce grown in beautiful, organic soil (specifically starts at 2:08).

Monday, November 4, 2013

Winter Seed Starting

An article I wrote for the winter edition of the newsletter printed by the botanical garden I worked at.

“Is it spring yet?”  That is a question you may hear me ask anywhere from Christmas onward, much like an anxious child on a long trip.  I have heard that a true gardener enjoys all seasons, and indeed I do, but there is something special about the rebirth that occurs during spring.  Winter erases the previous year’s mistakes, and the bounty of garden catalogs inspires dreams of new plants as far as the eye can see … or at least to the edge of my property.

Even though it will be awhile yet before I can get out and plant in the garden, there is still a plenty of prep work that can be done now.  For instance, ordering seeds and plants.  It is not easy narrowing an order down to a size somewhat smaller than the catalog it is made from.

Seriously, for those who like a great deal and larger selection, seeds are the way to go, and it is a good time to get started.  There are a lot of inexpensive germination mats and grow lights that help to get a jump start on the season and satisfy the need to “play in the dirt.”

This is also an excellent time to start seeds that need stratification.  “Strat-i-fi-what?” you ask. Simply put, some seeds need to experience winter before they will germinate.  This is why many people consider themselves a failure when it comes to starting seeds.  For some seeds, the pre-chilling can be as simple as throwing the pack of seeds in the freezer for a few weeks.  Some people use zipper bags with some sort of moistened growing medium to put the seeds in before placing them in the refrigerator.  I am not sure Grandma would eat from our fridge if she found something containing “dirt” in it.

What works best for me is to let nature do the work.  I put potting soil (either high quality or a germinating mix) into a pot, moisten it well, sprinkle the seeds on top, cover the pot with a sandwich bag to protect the seeds and hold in moisture, and sit the pots outside in a somewhat sheltered area.  For me, under the eaves on the south side of my house is perfect.  Unless I know the seeds require covering with soil (larger seeds or ones that require darkness), I generally do not, as some seeds require light to germinate. Though I try to get the seeds out by mid-January, it can still be successfully done as long as there are at least a few weeks of cold weather left.  I have used this method for the past couple of years, and have had very good germination rates with it. When the temperature is right, the pots burst with seedlings.

How do you know if the seeds you have need stratification? It may be on the seed package, but often times it is not. My rule of thumb is, if it is a perennial hardy in my area, I give it the cold treatment. This technique will not work for most vegetables, annuals or perennials not hardy in your area.  I seldom plant the entire package of seeds at once so as not to have an overabundance of seedlings to thin out. This also provides backup in case of a crop failure.

So the next time you are at the store or are browsing a garden catalog, allow yourself to be enticed by a package of seeds that may have intimidated you in the past. You can be successful if you work with nature.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why Organic Garden?

It is very easy for gardeners to not see their gardens as they truly are.  Some tend to see them as they imagine them to be, not looking beyond the limits of their own yard to see the vastness of the gardening world or the effect they have on it.  Others, like myself, tend to be full of next years. The garden is an ongoing process, maybe something did not turn out as planned, is in the process of filling in, or there is another plan waiting to commence.  I look in my garden and have to make a special effort to see what did well rather than what needs doing.  Working in others' gardens helps to keep things in perspective, but this year that has been limited.  The first half was spent caring for my dying Grandma, the second half mostly spent recovering.  Lots of heat, no rain, some things thrived, others not so much, lots of planning of what to do better and dreaming of next year. I knew the garden overall looked decent, but there was so much that did not meet my expectations, and like a pimple on your face, you assume that is all everyone else sees, too.

A glimpse of my garden in early October.
Then I went on one of the first jobs in months and perspective was regained. Despite the hard year and many things already being finished and cut back for the year, my garden is shifting into a fall display.  The garden I worked in, though well established, was shutting down for the season. Many of the plants we had in common were either finished blooming or were nowhere near as lush in her garden.  I came home, and seeing my garden in a different light, was amazed.  Why the difference?  She watered more than I did, fertilized and sprayed for insects and fungus and I did not.  What did I do that she did not?  Instead of focusing mainly on plant care, I also focus on soil care and organic gardening.  Healthy soil equals healthy plants.  Chemicals do not.  I have written on this before, but it is so important that I am going to do so again because I cannot stress it enough.

Think of it this way ... If you feed your kids a diet of candy bars and potato chips, they are going to get big, maybe even look healthy for awhile.  However, they will not be getting the nutrients they need to remain healthy and their bodies will struggle.  Eventually they will get sick with something that their body cannot handle and be given an antibiotic.  The antibiotic kills most of the bad bacteria, but the good bacteria are sacrificed as well and the system is thrown out of balance, creating the perfect environment for a fungal infection and health is still not obtained.  A healthy diet provides the nutrition needed for a strong immune system whereas overuse of antibiotics and antifungals lead to superbugs that everyone has to deal with.

The same is true in the garden.  Plants fed a diet of chemical fertilizers do not get the nutrients they need to be healthy, only to grow big fast.  New growth is attractive to insects who move in to feast and infect the plant with disease.  Fungal spores are introduced by various means.  Roots struggle to grow in compacted soil, using up more of the plant's energy reserve. The plant struggles and sprays are used, killing beneficial insects, further throwing off Nature's balance and creating superbugs that effect everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear.  There has to be a better way.  Forests, jungles and grassy plains have remained for thousands of years without, or until man's involvement.

Back to the soil.  Beautiful, nutrient laden, soil.  Full of organic matter, maybe even a nice, sandy loam. It does not happen by accident and it must be maintained as organic matter breaks down, but when it is present, plants thrive.  Roots easily grow deep in the loose, moisture retentive soil, taking in the micronutrients needed for health and saving energy for fighting pathogens.  Less water is needed.  Weeds that compete with the plants are easily pulled.  Bugs will come, both good and bad, but the plants will be strong enough to hold their own until the good overpower the bad.  Fungus may appear, but a healthy plant can usually handle it.  Planting a wide variety of plants attracts different beneficial insects and prevents bad bugs, fungus and diseases from easily jumping from plant to susceptible plant.  Balance is maintained.  Of course, some plants have been highly hybridized into something that Nature never intended, something that would never survive in Nature, and no matter what the care, are so finicky they will struggle.  One must then make the decision to risk the balance of the entire garden for the one plant, or replace the plant for the good of the garden ... and Nature.

Also see Wait! Don't Grab That Spray!