Wednesday, May 20, 2015

To Plant a Garden is to Believe in Tomorrow

I read this sweet little inspiration phrase in a gardening book, and my first reaction was “yet so many garden with total disregard for tomorrow”  For example, people who plant in the ground before the last frost date or buy over-grown root-bound potted plants and hanging baskets they will never water. 

I guess I am the tomorrow kind of gardener.  I am always the one buying the short, stocky plants that haven’t bloomed yet.  When I see a particularly nice combination potted up, I march right past those and head out to buy the individual components to plant up myself.  That way I get younger and healthier plants that are not already root bound and hard to maintain.

A basket full of Calibrocha may look beautiful today, but buying the individual plants
and planting fewer per pot will make them easier to maintain.  These baskets usually burn out
for me within 6 weeks while my own plantings peak a little later.

Today I passed up the rack of hopelessly wind burned pepper plants and went through the show room with it’s tempting selection of a little of this and a little of that and back to greenhouse # 8 (out of 21 in the large glamorous garden center with the concrete walkways and shopping carts) and found the protected and fresh stock of pepper plants, pulling flats out so I could step back to the wall with the shortest, deepest green and most enticing plants.

Newly germinated seeds shelter in the warmth of the cold frame
along with annuals fresh out of the commercial greenhouse.

Gardening is about patience.  Sometimes you get instant gratification by going out and buying a beautiful selection of plants or shrubs and transforming a dull or unkempt portion of your garden into a virtual Eden.  But usually gardening is a long process.  In the last post I wondered how many greenhouses I would manage to visit this year.  So far six at least once, and I am on the third round for several suppliers.  I have also visited two Big Box garden departments for various supplies, and have two more greenhouses on my wish list mainly for tourism purposes. 

A trunk full of Geraniums will take over
an hour to transplant properly

Why so many trips?  Because it won’t all fit in my car all at once.  And if it did, the sheer enormity of the task would be overwhelming.  I walk into a well stocked greenhouse and I am immediately overwhelmed and underwhelmed at once.  There are so many beautiful choices, but the I can’t always find the exact variety or color I have in mind.  If I did manage to find everything I wanted all at once, I would not have room to stage everything and keep it protected until it is safe to plant and I certainly wouldn't have the energy to plant it all at once.  This must be done in stages. 

On one side the hoop house with a frost cover shelters tender seedlings
from direct sun and wind.  On the other side, sturdier, hardened off
plants await transplanting after threat of frost.

Last Friday I planted 16 gallon size perennials in the new rock arrangements between the trees.  This is in an area that was previously lawn and requires digging through sod and amending the soil.  Rain storms were rolling through and I had to do it in stages.  Plant six plants, get rained out, pack up, flee to the house, check the laundry, check the weather radar, start all over again.  Then on Sunday I planted a whole flat of marigolds.  With list in hand I made my rounds depositing the planned number of packs in each area, then I went back through with a trowel digging them in.  Saturday I filled large pots and added soil to the stationary planters, shoveling compost and wrestling with heavy pots.  Today I was back to the nurseries for another car full of plants.

Half of a rainy day's work

Another reason to do this gradually is that greenhouses stage their plants in cycles.  They can’t do it all at once either.  First come the perennials and hardier plants, then the bedding plants and vegetables, and finally the hanging baskets and combination pots for the finishing touches and color refreshers.  I have hanging baskets on my list and I know the best place to get what I want, but they are still in their beginning stages and not yet beautiful and tempting.

The bad news is that half of our clump Birch tree died.
The good news is the smooth red bark of the branches make
an attractive support for the pot of 3 foot high Sweet Peas.

Back at home I have a large population of plants to harden off and coddle and protect until after threat of frost and high winds.  The most finicky live in the cold frame and must be moved in and out and placed in sheltered spots until they become hardened to the sun and the winds.  There are adolescent plants who have graduated to the garden paths and which can be covered with my miniature hoop house if frost threatens.  Then there are plants ready to go in the ground, staged beside their intended beds, waiting for a free moment between weeding and watering and mulching and carrying to get settled into their permanent homes.  Today’s work was to pot up some decorative pots of Portulaca and Nasturtium.  I still have 15 (a trunk full of) Geraniums to fetch, carry home, and plant.  But there’s always tomorrow.

The garden peas are doing well, and the oldest planting of leaf
lettuce is supplying us with salad greens.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

And All of a Sudden It's May

And it feels like June.  But that's OK by me.   This is the fun part of the year.  You can sleep with the window open, falling asleep to the sounds of tree frogs and awakening to the singing of birds.  There is a lot to do but we're still not over the rapture of being outside in the sunshine at any temperature above 10*F.  And it's Spring Cleaning time.

I was thinking the other day that the only thing I do anymore is clean.  Clean the house, wash the car, do the dishes, wash the laundry, bathe the horse, clean the saddle, scrub some boots, sweep the steps, shampoo the cat (yes, she needed it), paint the benches, shower, wash the dishes (again)... you get the idea.  This weekend we washed the front porch which involves taking all the rockers out in the sun, hosing the road dirt off the walls and floor, and washing the furniture before putting it all back again.  Now I can invite guests to come sit out there without worrying that they might ruin their clothes.  I even washed our mailbox.  It was so icky with road dirt,  Whenever I put a pretty pink enveloped greeting card in there I'd cringe.  But I felt like an obsessive compulsive nut standing out there by the side of the road with a pail of hot soapy water and a brush.

It is also Spring Landscape Blitzkreig time when we go through about 20 cubic yards (no joke) of mulch and cut over 800 feet of edging (I measured on the GIS site). It used to be 650 feet, but to streamline the mowing pattern, Tim turned five 60 inch circles around the Linden trees (80 feet of edge) into one long six foot wide swath (216 feet of edge).  Now he can zip down the line at 15 mph instead of turning precise circles.

My husband's idea of the perfect pin-up girl
Above is what I think must be my husband's ideal Pin-up girl.  It isn't her svelte figure or her lovely brunette it's that edging shovel.  Hey even I wouldn't mind if she wanted to stop by and help with the edging.  My fetching smile disappears sometime around day three (800 stomps of the 7 inch spade).   Tim is always saying to me "If you have a boyfriend, now would be a good time to fess up.  I have a lot of work to do this weekend, and it sure would help if he'd stop by and give me a hand."

The Linden trees Before and After

Besides Spring Cleaning and Landscape Blitzkreig things are ticking along in the garden like clockwork.  The peas are up, the strawberries are replanted, the lettuce is ready for transplanting and the tomatoes, peppers and eggplant seedlings have moved out to the cold frame under a layer of shade cloth.  My father even announced that he was going to go ahead and plant tomatoes well aware that he might have to cover them more than once.  Or 20 times! 

And that long swath of mulch between the Lindens has been arranged with clusters of boulders from the farm.  I plan on planting grass-like perennials around them to add interest.  Mostly day lillies and Siberian irises and strong smelling herbs and other things the deer don't bother (much).  I've been wandering the nurseries and greenhouses with a note pad writing down varieties and prices and sizes.  I feel like a secret shopper or price spy.  But the growers know me by sight and they're used to my wandering around for hours reading tags and poking at plants and leaving with nothing but a flat of marigolds and a bag of blood meal.  I always come armed with a box and garden clogs and I remind myself of my mother's favorite greenhouse patron who used to show up wearing rubber dish gloves.  May is when I indulge in my own version of Agri-Tourism.  Let's see how many greenhouses I can get to this year!

This is the porch last May 24, so no, our flowers are not this nice yet!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

April Happenings: Spring is Here

We've made a start on the edging and mulching

The lettuce has just poked through and it is hard to believe
that these teeny tiny leaves will amount to anything
The Daffodils are just beginning

The peas came up on Thursday, Day 14 and
I planted the second planting on Friday evening

Tomatoes are seeded, peppers are just making a sho
 and the egg plants are looking luscious

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme

After such a long cold winter it is so nice to finally have our outdoor life start up again.  Even if it is work.  I spent yesterday filling pots, counting pots, ordering more pots and running out of potting soil.  Today, after run to the store for more soil, and a trip to the farm for some composted horse manure, I began seeding lettuce in the cold frame. Tim commented as we left Home Depot with out respective items, that I am always buying stuff to grow things: soil, seeds, soil ammendments, and Tim is always buying something to kill things: weed killer, traps, poison....  I also cleaned a perennial bed, and rearranged my herb garden.

In a corner along the walkway from the garden shed to the vegetable garden, I have a grouping of large rocks which shelter my "perennial" herb garden.  The rocks hold heat as long as they can and shelter the herbs from the winter weather.  There are many herbs that grow back well from established roots and seed and may be considered perennial in your climate zone.  Most of those are invasive herbs like mints, Oregano and Lemon Balm, all of which I keep along the back side of a perennial bed, under the tree line where the tree roots starve them of moisture and the limbs limit their sunlight.  They still manage to survive tho not get out of hand too badly.  They sure do ramble.

Spearmint can often be found wild along stream beds

In the rock cluster along my vegetable garden walk way I keep my Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.  I know that list sounds unimaginative and that there are a lot of other herbs to be had in a garden, but these are some of the old stand-bys.  We’ve all heard the Simon and Garfunkel song Scarborough Fair, and Carly Simon also recorded a nice version of it a couple of years ago.  Have you ever wondered what it meant?  

Sunshine Fair II by Marty Leone pictures exactly the kind of country fair I imagine when I hear the song Scarborough Fair

Scarborough Fair is a traditional ballad that originated in England and parts of it trace back to as far as 1690.  The song relates the tale of a young man who instructs the listener to tell his former love to perform for him a series of impossible tasks, such as making him a shirt without a seam and then washing it in a dry well, adding that if she completes these tasks he will take her back.   The herbs in the song symbolize virtues the singer wishes his true love and himself to have, in order to make it possible for her to come back again. 

  • Parsley was said to take away the bitterness of heavy vegetables, and medieval doctors took this in a spiritual sense as well.  We all know Love cannot thrive with bitterness.
  • Sage has been known to symbolize strength for thousands of years
  • Rosemary represents faithfulness, love and remembrance.  The herb also stands for sensibility and prudence. Rosemary is associated with feminine love, because it’s very strong and tough, although it grows slowly
  • Thyme symbolizes courage. At the time this song was written, knights used to wear images of thyme in their shields when they went to combat, which their ladies embroidered in them
Although these herbs may seem commonplace in a garden, there are many unique varieties.  I love variegated leaves and I was able to find several variegated varieties to plant last year. I have green and white Sage whose new leaves are a deep pink or purple, yellow and green Sage, and variegated Thyme

The minuscule leaves of Variegated Thyme are my favorite

Purple or Tri-Color Sage

Variegated Sage
I don't devote much time to herbs, and honestly I do not use them in cooking as much as I should, but in April when you are starved for something green and alive, a collection of bedraggled herbs are a virtual Miracle.  I had made notes last fall as to what I wanted to change about this little grouping, and this was the perfect time to do it when the plants are still dormant and just beginning to awaken.

The Herb Garden Today
 I moved the large Purple Sage which I had transplanted last summer from some large pots that had overwintered to the center, and rescued the small green and yellow Sage from the center and moved it to the edge putting an ample amount of compost beneath it.  The taller parsley, which I hadn't expected to survive at all was moved to the back between a pair of day lillies.

The Parsley not only survived the deer trimming it off, but the coldest February
on record with many nights below -20*F

After our busy day of hauling and shoveling and scooping, we sat in our chaise lounge chairs and watched the birds. Two years ago I put up a blue bird box.  Last year the house wrens got to it first.  I don't begrudge the house wrens their home, but they are such shy little birds that they are merely an idea of a bird on the edge of your peripheral vision and never seen.  Today, Tim said, that obviously the blue birds had gotten the utilities turned on and they were in and out inspecting the place and making plans for the future,  This is the beginning.  From now until Mid-Summer it's all uphill from here.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Spring Cleaning

With the weather warming up and the sun shining it is time to air out the house, chase the dust bunnies out of forgotten corners and give everything the once over.  Historically, back in the days when house were heated by wood or coal stoves, there would be quite a layer of coal dust and soot over everything.  House wives would wash down their walls, take the rugs out the beat and use a lot of elbow grease.  When wall paper became more common place, spring cleaning got a little more complicated.  You couldn't necessarily attack your walls with hot soapy water.  The paper would come right off.  So a substance was needed that you could spread on your wallpaper and then safely peel off taking the dirt with it.  After coal stoves went by the wayside, the manufacturers of wallpaper cleaners were in a bind.  Kutol had a bit of a brainstorm, added a little color and sold it as a toy.  And Play-Doh was born.

I've been giving the house a little more attention lately, and the sunny afternoons allow me to see the dirt in the corners a little better, but I'm glad I don't have to spread Play-Doh all over my walls.  I mention a couple of post ago that I have all the equipment to do laundry the old fashioned way - by hand.  I have copper boilers, wash tubs, wash boards, wringers, rug beater, hand plungers to agitate the wash, wooden tongs to pick the whites out of the boiling water, pulleys to run my clothes line across the alley, and line spreaders to keep my lines from tangling together.  I even have line winders, an old line prop to raise the line up and keep the sheets off the lawn and a host of clothes pins.

About a week ago my mother emailed me and said "Mickey left something here for you."  Mickey is the gal who has a nice little greenhouse where she starts her own plants for growing saleable produce and sells the extras.  She always has something unique and more than once she has saved me with some fun tomato variety when mine failed.  For instance the year my Absinthe plants failed to germinate but Mickey had some

 Mickey also like old stuff.  Last spring she mentioned that she had a box of clothes pins I might like.  And that was what she left at Mom's house (along with a loaf of home made bread for Mom).  So now I have a nice original box of clothes pins for my laundry collection,  Thanks Mickey!

And on a gardening note the sun finally came out enough for my Crocuses to open up :)

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Clean Slate ~ Good Friday

It is actually a pretty nice day out, despite the fact that it looks dreary.  For one, it isn't snowing.  It's 60 degrees and the sun peaks out now and then.  The sowing instructions for Garden Peas are: plant in early spring as soon as soil can be worked.  Well, people without raised beds are out of luck.  There is no way anyone will be getting out there with a tiller this early.  But the raised beds are ready to go and the first peas and carrots are in.  I will plant another batch in two weeks.

Different climates have different markers for when to plant peas.  In some areas of the country (and sometimes here if you're lucky) the date is St. Patrick's Day.  Here it is usually Good Friday.  Some people are skeptical about that since Good Friday can vary so much from mid-March to late April.  But it is always the first Friday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.  And many farmers and gardeners plant and breed livestock by the moon cycles.  So, weather permitting, I always plant my first peas by Good Friday.  Another good marker is waiting until the forsythia bloom.  But my peas are always sprouted by the time the forsythia even start to bud.

My favorite pea varieties are Wando and Maestro.  Wando, however, is a very tall pea topping out over 6 feet high,  My pea fence is less than 4 feet high, and that poses a problem because when the vines outgrow the fence, the wind blows them over at a right angle.  This makes it nearly impossible to pick the second shorter row because the neighboring vines are laying on top of the pickable peas.  So I purchased the Extra Tall Pea Fence from and I think it will be tall enough to support the taller varieties.  This year I finally got the bright idea that instead of planting one bed with a row of shorter Maestro next to a taller Wando and then at a later date, planting a second bed just like it, I should plant a row of Wando in one bed, and the Maestro in the other and then two weeks later, plant a second row of Wando next to the Wando... duh right?  It's the simple things that escape me.


Last fall I planted a lot of daffodils, woods hyacinths and crocuses to brighten my garden and I am anxiously awaiting them.  The older established bulbs have been ready to bloom for two weeks and today they are finally brave enough to open just a wee bit.

After planting the peas I went around with a bucket and began picking up all the old leaves and dead foliage that collected under the snow after we gave up leaf blowing last fall.  Most of them are oak leaves, and most of them collect in the corners, but after the corners were cleaned up I started on the walks just to get everything looking ship shape.  Until I came across a leaf that was surprisingly heavy and squishy.

Closer inspection revealed that it was not a faded leaf at all but a very grumpy brown frog.

Besides peas and crocuses and leaves, my eggplants are up about an inch and doing well and I am on my way down to plant three different varieties of bell peppers along side of them.  I am anxiously awaiting the delivery of my strawberry plants and the sprouting of asparagus.

Let Spring Begin!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Waiting Game and Quirky Mass Marketing

As I wait the allotted 10-14 days for the most adventurous of my eggplant seeds to sprout, I reflect on the fact that gardening is often an exercise in watering dirt.  Each day I go to my flat of dirt filled pots, inspect them carefully, and add water.  Tim asks if everything is alright with my plants?  What plants?  Everything is just fine with my dirt...  In the larger scheme of things, gardening is a lot more about dirt than it is about plants.  And dirt is a lot more about compost...

The pride of any successful garden is a good compost pile

The one thing that always consoles me when I have a gardening failure is that if I am not growing food, then at least I am growing future compost.

Our green waste is composted in a large black drain pipe prior to being integrated into the larger pile.

 Another thing that consoles me as a horse owner... if I am not riding, at least I'm maintaining a source of horse manure.  A well tended manure pile is an excellent source of mass quantities of compost.  No matter what farm animal it comes from, chicken, goat, horse, or cow, and no matter what sort of bedding is mixed in, the important part is that the farmer turns and tends the manure pile.  This breaks everything down evenly so that when it is ready to be loaded up for the garden, it is barely distinguishable from potting soil.

One aspect of gardening that Tim is always involved in is the fetching of compost.  We load it into a tarped trailer, haul it home and shovel it into a pile where we continue to turn and "fluff" it into "black gold".  This is the time when it is necessary to have some large equipment both at the loading end and the unloading end.

Once I get it home, I deal with it in smaller quantities, sifting the larger uncomposted parts out and adding them back into the pile.  If you truly think that you have nothing left to do in the garden on any given day, go out and get some well sifted compost to side dress your plants.

There are few things prettier than a bed of healthy plants wearing a fresh layer of compost.

But even being a no nonsense dirt farmer who buys her beans in bulk and takes great pride in her very large manure pile, I am always intrigued by the 21st Century mass marketing which makes gardening look so easy and colorful.  The goal of a good marketing plan is not merely to sell to a large portion of the existing market, you must also sucker in new buyers who have never gardened before.

Click here for the YouTube demonstration of Gro-ables Gardening.
This is like Lunchables or Pudding Snack Packs for gardening.  Who needs tractors or trowels?  Or cow poop? Just buy a kit at the store, stick it in your cart, and cart it home to your patio.

It almost appears as if no hard work or dirt are involved!

Everything comes with a bar code and instructions!
I have to admit it's a clever idea and rather appealing.  And actually, that might not be a bad way to start a single zucchini plant which will take over the garden and produce dozens of pounds of food.  But at the same time, that is the long way to go about planting a row of beans or peas.  Can you even imagine?

In another two weeks it will be Good Friday and I will be chomping at the bit to get my garden peas in the ground.  With any luck the snow will have melted by then.