…and Fertilizer for Free

Chipped up wood and leaves spread over a foundation of bark, roots and branches will rot into good compost over time.

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I spent far too many hours of my youth watching Mark Knopfler  and Gordon Sumner sing, “I want my money for nothing, and my chicks for free!”.  MTV was brand new in those days, and I was utterly fascinated by the up-close view of the artists performing and the dreamy vignettes hyper-produced to sell their tunes.

Fun fact:  Gordon Sumner, better known as Sting, co-wrote that tune with Knopfler.  A former teacher, Sumner’s music career was just taking off as I began my own classroom teaching years.  He inspired me….

These were the days when Ted Turner was still trying to prove his idea that the public would support 24/7 journalism as entertainment over at his new CNN cable channel, and I was still living in a tiny walk up city apartment with only a few potted plant to soothe my achy, throbbing thumbs.  The world was filled with delicious possibilities.

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Well Knopfler and Sumner have aged, while I have not.  They still perform and I happily preside over our little Forest Garden.  They may have become unimaginably wealthy, but I have learned how to get fertilizer and plants for free!

I’ve left my classrooms behind, but will happily teach you how to perform the alchemy of soil for yourself, if you care to know the secret.  The world remains filled with delicious possiblities!

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It is all in how you look at things.  You probably understand that simple, but profound statement from your own experiences.  What seems free from one point of view, becomes costly from another.  What at first appears costly, ends up providing many more side benefits than expected.

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Let’s take fertilizer as an example.  Yes, I admit to the bags of Plant Tone, Rose Tone, Holly Tone, Bio-Tone Plant Starter With Mycorrhizae and a precious little jug of Neptune’s Harvest wintering in our garage.  Then there is the jar of Ozmocote, and the secret stash of crystallized orchid food hidden under the kitchen sink; a snack for when I want to coax the cohort of potted plants in our living space to bloom.  No, none of those were free.  In fact, if you added up what I spent on  all of them combined, they would likely buy a nice new pair of work boots….

And that was not the only ‘cost’ involved in these plastic bags and bottles of plant nourishing products.  They all came from factories.  Many of the ingredients were mined out of the earth.

Although these are ‘organic’ formulations, huge amounts of energy were invested in harvesting their components, creating the fertilizer, packaging it and transporting it to our local shops.  After the product is used up, there is some contaminated plastic packaging that won’t decay and must be put somewhere.  Those are costs we don’t see, and ones rolled into the price we pay.

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Gravel and Plant Tone ready to be mixed into the bottom of the planting hole.

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Now, if I use too much or time my application incorrectly, a lot of that product will simply wash away from my garden and into the creek.  Fertilizing our waterways increases algae growth and upsets the chemistry of the natural waterways.  Run-off of fertilizers has a profoundly negative effect on our lakes, rivers, the Chesapeake Bay, and even the oceans.

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Phosphorous, the P on your fertilizer bag, has an especially damaging effect when released into the waterways.  It initially stimulates the growth of algae and other plant life, which eventually shades out plants living on the bottom.  As this overabundance of plant life dies and sinks to the bottom and decays, it ties up oxygen needed by animal life, and destroys their food supplies.

Which is ironic.  Phosphorous is essential to plant growth, remains a key component of all commercial fertilizers, and is in limited supply.  Experts predict that our known supply of rock phosphorous that can be mined for industrial use will run out before 2200.

Phosphorous was ‘discovered’ in modern times by German alchemist Hennig Brand, in the late seventeenth century, from his experiments with human urine.    He eventually produced a white substance which glowed in the dark and burned brilliantly.  He called it ‘phosphorous mirabilis’, which means ‘miraculous bearer of light.’

Phosphorous is present in living tissue, and so may be found in urine and bone.  You may have heard about the ancient gardeners using human urine to fertilize their gardens.  This practice is discouraged today, of course.  But recall that animal waste products remain an essential ingredient in agriculture around the world.  Many of the ‘organic’ fertilizers contain rock phosphate or bone meal as essential parts of their formula.

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College Creek

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Phosphate in the soil isn’t always readily available to plant roots.  It must go through further biochemistry to make it available, and this happens best in living soil filled with microorganisms.   It happens best when the soil’s pH remains between 6.5 and 7.

Potassium, the K on your fertilizer package, is formed in supernova explosions.  It is both a metal and a salt.  In its pure elemental form, it reacts violently with both water and oxygen.  It is an extremely common element on earth, is found in all living things, and is an essential part of the biochemistry of all life.  Potassium in fertilizers appear as potassium chlorides, sulphates or nitrates.

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How is the average gardener to know whether or not their soil’s pH will even allow the plants access to any available phosphorous, nitrogen or potassium, and whether any additional nutrients are  needed?  That is why a soil test can give us invaluable information about our soil, and how to make it better.  Any local Extension office will gladly help with kits, instructions, processing and interpreting your soil test, and all states offer this service at a modest cost.

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Knowing what nutrients your soil may lack, to grow specific types of plants, allows a gardener to add only what is truly needed.  We can stop over-fertilizing, or adding fertilizer that never becomes available to our plants because of the complex chemistry of our soil.

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Fresh compost piled on top of existing mulch allows me to plant in this area without digging into the clay. A light covering of wood chips from the forest floor mulches the planting and makes the new bed visually “disappear.”

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Most experienced gardeners will tell a newbie:  “Feed your soil, not your plants.”  At first, this makes no sense.  But as you begin to understand the complexity of the soil as a living organism, it makes perfect sense.  Good soil is alive!

It is alive with microscopic bacteria, fungi, and tiny invertebrate animals that continually recycle Earth’s elements and make them available to fuel new growth.  Although some part of the soil is made up of tiny grains of mineral like sand, or granite, or clay; a large part of good soil is composed of decaying organic matter.

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Soil is alive, and improves as you add organic matter each year.

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These may be decaying roots or leaves, dead ants, or compost you’ve made from kitchen scraps.  It may be animal manure or even animal remains.  It may be a cover crop turned into the soil, bark mulch, hay or grass clippings.  Anything that once lived may eventually feed the soil.

And because all of these things contain the elemental building blocks of life, as they decay, their chemical components are released for re-use.  In addition to the big three of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, plants need many other elements and trace minerals naturally found in good, active soil.

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Mayapples appeared through the leaf mulch

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We can re-charge our soil with the nutrients necessary for plant growth in several ways, without having to purchase plastic bags filled with commercial fertilizers.

1. Grow and compost plants with deep roots.  Certain plants grow especially deep roots, which means they can access and absorb minerals deep into the soil, far below the area we cultivate.  As they grow, these minerals are stored in their plant cells.  Harvesting and then composting these plants enriches our soil.

Consider growing plants such as alfalfa, comphrey, parsnips and other root vegetables, purple coneflowers, and dandelions.  Trees with deep taproots also absorb minerals, which are stored in their wood and leaves.

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Comphrey’s roots extend for several feet into the soil, mining minerals that are stored in leaves and stems.  Comphrey attracts pollinators, is a medicinal herb and a great addition to compost.  Also use it as mulch around plants that need a boost.

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2.  Encourage earthworms.  Earthworms eat and digest organic material, and their droppings enrich the soil.  This greatly speeds the decomposition process and makes nutrients available to plant roots much faster.

Worm casting also contain beneficial microbes that work with plants.  Worms also loosen the soil and aerate it as they move around.  Worms will come to the surface to eat, but will also tunnel to a significant depth as they go about their lives.

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Organic matter left on top of the soil attracts earthworms.  Worms will feed at the surface, so long as it is deeply shaded, but live below ground.

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3.  Sheet compost over areas you plan to cultivate.  Sheet composting simply means laying organic materials directly on the soil where you want them to decay.  This organic material attracts earthworms and other decomposers to live and eat in this area, enriching it.

All organic mulch, whether straw, grass clippings, chipped leaves, bark, seaweed, coffee grounds, tea leaves, kitchen scraps, egg shells, sticks and branches or alfalfa pellets may be considered components in sheet composting.  I like to lay brown paper or black and white newsprint over the area first, establish the borders, and then pile materials in a ‘sheet’ over an area I intend to use later for growing new plants.

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4.  Grow plants that fix nitrogen in the soil.  All plants breathe.  Plants inhale through tiny holes in their leaves and use elements in the air, such as carbon and nitrogen for their growth.  When they exhale, they release oxygen and water vapor back into the environment.

Once plants have inhaled carbon, it is fixed into the walls of each cell.  But some plants are able to store nitrogen on their roots.  All members of the pea or legume family, Fabaceae, fix nitrogen, the N on the fertilizer bag, on their roots.  This nitrogen enriches the soil, and often may be used by plants growing nearby.   Fungi living in the soil assist with the transfer of soil nutrients and water between plants.

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Native Wax Myrtle fixes nitrogen from the air on its roots, making the area around each shrub more fertile with each passing year. Plants growing nearby can use this nitrogen, thanks to fungi in the soil which help transfer nutrients and water between plants. Fallen leaves also further enrich the soil.

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Members of this family include crops such as peas and beans, peanuts and lentils.  But it also includes flowers like lupines, and several shrubs and trees like black locust, acacia and mimosa.  I recently learned that the wax myrtle also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil.

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Our native redbud, Cercis canadensis, also fixes nitrogen on its roots, enriching the soil for plants growing nearby.  It is a member of the Fabaceae family, and its seed pods may be eaten.   This seedling can eventually grow into a small tree.

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Planting, or allowing, plants to grow that ‘fix’ nitrogen in the soil enriches the soil with that most necessary element for good plant growth- Nitrogen (N)- for free!  Nitrogen, always present in the atmosphere, can be captured and packaged by plants in our garden, and kept at root level, available to all that need it and naturally enriching our garden’s soil.

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Clover growing in the lawn is also fertilizing it.  In addition to feeding pollinators and small mammals, clover fixes nitrogen along its roots.

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Here is a partial list of plants that perform this little miracle:  all clovers, sweet peas, vetch, bush clover, Wisteria, golden chain tree, Judas tree, honey locust tree, Kentucky coffee tree, alder, some roses and many members of the gourd family, such as squash and pumpkins.

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Native Wisteria frutescens growing at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden fixes nitrogen in the soil along all of its roots.

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If you can plant food or flower bearing plants, which also fix nitrogen to improve the soil, you have multiplied this natural wealth for your own use.

Nature’s gifts surround us.  The more we understand about the living ecosystem we inhabit, the more we can work cooperatively with our environment to cultivate and enrich the web of life.  The more we learn, the more we can disengage with costly commercial suppliers, and find ways to accomplish our goals in harmony with nature.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

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Reducing Damage From Moles and Voles

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Are moles or voles tunneling through your lawn?  Are your newly planted perennials disappearing into a vole tunnel?

We have been doing quite a bit of stomping on tunnels and filling of holes this spring.  In fact, a pesky little vole ate half the roots of a newly planted Columbine earlier this week, before I saw the damage and rescued it to a pot!  I planted a lovely Hellebore seedling in its place, only to find the opening of the tunnel widened the next morning, the rejected Hellebore lying beside it.

You know why the vole didn’t want the Hellebore, don’t you?  It is poisonous!  Planting poisonous bulbs and perennials seems to be our “go to strategy” in this wild garden, to foil the wildlife.  But there are a few other tricks that work as well.

Our spring time battle with the voles inspired me to update one of my first 2013 posts to Forest Garden, about our battles with the voles and moles we found here.  If you missed it then, let me invite you to take a dive into the Forest Garden archives and read it now.  You may find a useful idea that works for you, too.

When Your Garden Looks Like Swiss Cheese:  Living With Moles and Voles
Woodland Gnome 2018

Green Thumb Tip #15: Conquer the Weeds

Asclepias, milkweed,  July 2017

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What is a weed, anyway?

The gardener’s answer observes that any plant growing where you don’t want it to grow, is a weed.

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Dandelion, Taraxacum

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Some ‘weeds’ came to North America as invited guests, because they were beloved and useful to earlier immigrants.  Although many of us cringe at dandelions cropping up in our lawn or veggie plot; dandelions, Taraxacum species,  were originally planted in the veggie plot for their nutritious leaves, and have been used through much of human history as a medicinal herb.

Since most of us don’t use dandelions anymore, and they crop up where we least want to see them; we consider them a weed.

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Vinca minor, periwinkle, was brought to North America with European settlers.  It is now considered invasive, though many gardeners still buy and plant it.

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Other ‘weeds’ are actually native plants.  If you notice purple violets in your lawn, will you admire them or destroy them?  You can buy pricey violets, Viola odorata, from many native plant nurseries, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have them already popping up here and there on their own.  Other common native ‘weeds’ in our garden include pokeberry, Phytolacca americana; ground ivy, Glechoma hederacea; and wild strawberry, Fragaria virginiana.

Plants may be ‘wildflowers’ to some, ‘weeds’ to others.  Maybe it depends on whether they grow on a roadside, or in your own garden.  Native plant enthusiasts are sometimes accused of planting ‘weeds’ in their yard when they cultivate Asclepias or wild Ageratum.

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Aralia spinosa is a native tree with thorns on its trunk and branches. Because it spreads its seeds and sends up shoots from its roots, many consider it a weed to be eradicated from the garden.  Here it grows with native pokeweed.

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The same tufts of grass I’m digging out of my garden paths may be planted and coddled in my neighbor’s yard.  The seedling Rose of Sharon shrubs I’m digging out of my flowerbeds, may be valuable when transplanted into another spot in the garden.

Some ‘weeds’ now considered ‘invasive’ started out as desirable imported plants.  But, without the competition or predators that keep them in check in their native lands, they run amok here.  When birds carry their seeds around, or they propagate clonally; these once desirable plants colonize real estate and out-compete the natives.  This has happened with autumn olive shrubs, Elaeaganus umbellata; perennial Lantana, and  even the beautiful Bradford pear.

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Perennial Ageratum, Conoclinium coelestinum

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Periwinkle, or Vinca minor, came to the United States with European colonists in the Eighteenth Century.  An effective evergreen groundcover, it blooms in spring with beautiful lavender or white flowers.  But it spreads aggressively!  I often find myself yanking it out by the handful when it creeps into my borders.  Its roots form thick mats, and can choke out other perennials.

So what to do about weeds?

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Three natives growing together in our front garden: Rudbeckia hirta; mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, and Obedient plant, Physostegia virginiana.  Each of these can spread itself to become invasive, and may need to be ‘weeded’ out in early summer.

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‘Weeds gone wild’ can disrupt our garden plans.  They may shade out or choke out more desirable plants that we bought and planted.  They may compete for water and nutrients against our edible crops.  They might spread aggressively, colonizing large area with thick mats of roots and vegetation.

Well, before reaching for a handy toxic herbicide, take a moment to consider your adversary.  It helps to understand the plant you hope to annihilate!

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Morning Glory, or ‘bindweed’ sprouts each summer from seed, and grows through our bed of Lantana and roses.

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Is it a perennial?  Does it prefer sun or shade?  Does it root easily when chopped into pieces?  Does it have rhizomes or stolons?

Understanding its needs, and how it reproduces, helps you plan an attack.  Knowing how long it may live, and whether it will easily re-seed, tells you the scope of your problem.

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Self-seeding beauty berry crops up in our shrub borders, and out competes many other plants. It will grow several feet in a single season.

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Seeds may lie dormant for a long time before conditions are right for them to sprout.  Whenever you disturb the soil, you may be bringing long dormant seeds to the surface, giving them the conditions they need to grow.  That is why breaking ground to till or otherwise dig up new garden areas may bring ‘weed’ seeds to the surface.

Many weeds can be smothered, or prevented from germinating, or growing further, with mulch.

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While shredded bark mulch will suppress weeds, it may allow others to germinate as it decomposes.  The rogue Magnolia tree behind this bed is a volunteer, growing from the mulch.  Is there room for it to mature here, or must it be cut out?

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A relatively easy way to kill grass and weeds, without chemicals, when you want to start a new garden bed, is to simply cover them.   Use your choice of cardboard sheets, layers of newspaper (black and white only if you plan to grow food crops), paper grocery bags, burlap or landscape fabric.  Completely cover the area you plan to cultivate, and then layer compost, garden soil, shredded leaves, seaweed and even shredded bark mulch on top.  If you won’t be planting for several months,  add  ‘compostable’ materials like rinsed egg shells, fruit and vegetable peels, teabags and coffee grounds in your layers.  Some gardeners use straw as mulch, adding layers every year.  In my experience, there are always seeds which sprout, creating more weeds.

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Paper grocery bags covered with several inches of compost killed the grass and weeds under this new bed.  Pea gravel holds down the paper edges and serves as an initial border to the bed.  A loose layer of gravel on top serves as a light mulch to hold the compost in place as the plants take hold.

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If you are starting a new shrub border, you might add black plastic around the new shrubs, and cover this with mulch.  Black plastic may also be laid out over an area of grass and weeds you wish to kill, pegged down and left for several weeks.   The plants under the plastic are both smothered and cooked, leaving an area ready to cultivate when the plastic is removed.

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Colocasia ‘Pink China’ spread aggressively.  Now that they are established, I dig up plants each spring to share with friends to try to control how far they spread in the garden.

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Some weeds may be simply dug up.  If the weed is a desirable plant sprouted in the wrong place, you may dig it up and either transplant it or give it away.

Other weeds easily re-grow from any bit left behind.  Digging the plant today won’t destroy it; it will appear again in a few weeks.  In that case, cut the plant off at ground level and remove all of the stems.  This starves the plant.  You may need to cut it back several times before it gives up; but eventually, you will win.

Cutting weeds instead of pulling them up by their roots takes less of a gardener’s energy.  It also keeps the soil intact, giving no opportunity for new weed seeds to sprout.  You may cut weeds with a hoe at ground level, with a pair of scissors, or with secateurs.  It depends on the thickness of the stem you need to cut what tool you will choose.

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Plant densely, with many layers of plants, to suppress weeds.

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I like a Japanese Hori Hori digging tool for cutting weeds off at ground level, or for digging up plants to move.  It is a long, pointed blade with a serrated edge, which serves as both knife and narrow shovel.

Another approach is to simply mow an area several times during the summer to discourage perennial or woody weeds.  I often use a string trimmer a few times a year in our upper wooded garden, to cut back seedling trees and shrubs sprouting in an area where they can not grow.

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Plants just want to live and grow, like every other living thing.  And just because you begin a bed weed free doesn’t mean it will remain that way for long.  Seeds blow in on the wind and get deposited by birds.  Seed capsules explode and rhizomes creep.

As your organic mulch breaks down over time, it serves as a great medium for new seeds to germinate.  Any bare ground screams an invitation to colonize it with new plants.

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Evergreen ground cover, like perennial Hellebores, will shade out weeds so they can’t begin to grow.  However, Hellebores self-seed freely.  Large stands of Hellebores soon surround the original plants.

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Prevent new weeds by densely covering any planting area with desirable plants.  Cultivate the garden in layers, with plants of different heights, to make it nearly impossible for new weedy plants to get a start.  This would include some sort of perennial, maybe evergreen ground cover to protect your soil through winter.

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Rose of Sharon

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You might also consider using a gravel mulch.  Once a new bed is planted up, pile several inches of pea gravel over a layer of biodegradable material like paper or burlap, placed around the new plants.  The layer of paper or fabric stops perennial weeds from re-sprouting.  The gravel mulch doesn’t facilitate germination of seeds blown in to the bed.  You may need to employ some sort of border around the bed to hold the gravel in place, but this is a neat looking and effective approach.

Experiments with gravel mulch have demonstrated that shrubs and many perennials grow well through the gravel.  The soil remains cool and moist, and the pea gravel reflects sunshine back up onto the plant to reduce disease and increase photosynthesis.  This is an especially good way to conserve moisture in dry climates.

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Wild wood violets open in spring, carpeting parts of the garden in vivid color.  These perennial wildflowers may be considered weeds when they show up in a lawn.

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Some gardeners may still reach for an herbicide to zap the stray dandelion or wild onions in their lawn.  Few stop to realize the long term effects on their own health and well being, or on the ecosystem, from these toxic chemicals.  They penetrate into the ground and run off into creeks, ponds and rivers.   Many herbicides have proven links to debilitating and fatal diseases for anyone exposed to them.  Even if you wear gloves, you and those around you may still breathe in the fumes.  Is it worth the risk to your health, simply to kill a few weeds?

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With a bit of thought and a effort, weeds can be eliminated, and new ones prevented from growing, without doing any harm to yourself or to the environment.

After all, we are the gardeners.  Our goal remains to make the world a more beautiful and productive place.  We are happiest and most successful when we work with nature, and when we respect both ourselves, and the many life forms drawn to our gardens.

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Woodland Gnome 2018
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More information about health dangers of herbicides:

Weed Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells- Scientific American
The Dangers of Glysophate Herbicide- Mother Earth News
New Studies Reveal the Effects of Glysophate – Mercola.com
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Ground ivy Glechoma hederacea

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“Green Thumb” Tips: 
Many visitors to Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help grow the garden of their dreams.

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.

If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2:  Feed!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3 Deadhead!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe
‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead
Green Thumb Tip # 10 Understand the Rhythm
Green Thumb Tip # 11:  The Perennial Philosophy
Green Thumb Tip #12: Grow More of That! 
Green Thumb Tip # 13: Breaching Your Zone
Green Thumb Tip # 14: Right Place Right Plant
‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot-Bound Roots! from Peggy, of Oak Trees Studios

 

 

 

 

 

Weathered: A Forest Garden

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You may wonder why we leave this old, weathered, decaying stump as a centerpiece in our garden.

It was a living tree as recently as June 2013, when it was broken a dozen feet above the ground in a thunderstorm.   A double oak tree, growing nearby, was hit with a gust of wind and blew over completely, taking this tree and a companion dogwood tree with it on its way down.

What a mess it all made! 

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A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the creek, which felled three great oak trees from our forest.

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Many more trees and established shrubs were also broken and crushed by the sheer weight of the trees.  This was such a sudden blow to our woodland garden, that it took us a while to get over the shock of it all.

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As we cleaned up over the next week, we decided to keep a portion of the stump of this beloved old oak as a reminder of the tree.  We asked our tree guys to cut what was left of the tree several feet above the ground, leaving a taller than usual stump.

I covered the exposed cut in hypertufa and tried to transform it into a bit of folk art as well as a useful pedestal for potted plants.

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A forest garden must continually recycle itself.  The trees’ leaves and branches were mulched and left in place on the newly exposed forest floor.  The roots and trunk of the double oak were buried in place.  We kept as much of the trees as we reasonably could to nurture the garden.

We collected all of the odd bits of branch and bark left behind by our tree guys, and used them to build a Hugelkulture bed around this stump.  We called it ‘the stump garden’ and began all of our gardening efforts to re-plant this entire area from this one bed.

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That was nearly five years ago, now.  While our vision of this remaining stump might have been as a bit of garden art, the creatures here saw it differently.  It didn’t take long for the stump to become a wildlife condo.

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We’ve seen skinks skittering around beneath the remaining bark in summer’s heat.  Squirrels explore it, pushing back on the loose bark, and beetles and other insects find shelter here.  Birds visit this spot to search for insects, and there is cool shade for toads.

At first, most of the bark was left intact.  There was a scar on the side that I patched with hypertufa.  With each passing year the remaining bark pulls away a little more and falls to the bed below.  Virginia Creeper climbs the stump each summer, though I prune it back from the pot.

Finally, this autumn, I’ve planted our large blue pot atop the stump with a vigorous English ivy.  I’ll let it grow on and eventually re-clothe the stump.

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Yes, it is weathered now, and ragged.  You might glance askance and think to yourself, ‘What an eyesore…’ 

I”m sure you wouldn’t say such a thing, but you might wonder why we leave the stump in its disheveled state.

There is beauty of form, and their is beauty of function.  Sometimes, the two can be as one.  We see the stump as useful and as beneficial to the web of life in our forest garden.  It may not please the eye anymore, but it is still a thing of beauty.

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Woodland gardeners are wise to leave fallen trees and branches, fallen cones and pine tags, and all of the other accumulated detrius of a forest in place, as much as possible.  These by products of trees form an important component of woodland soil.

As they slowly decay, they feed billions of microorganisms which keep the soil fertile.  They shelter insects, which feed birds, which keep the woodland animated and fill it with song.  They prevent erosion, cool the roots of growing plants and balance the PH of the soil.

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An ancient mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, renews itself  in our garden.  I dump our chopped up leaves around these shrubs during spring clean up to feed the soil and keep their roots cool.

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Mosses and fungi grow on decaying wood.  Small animals find shelter around stumps and branches.

Now, we don’t leave every fallen branch where it lands.  We gather them and use them elsewhere on the property.  We didn’t leave the fallen oaks where they landed, either.  But we re-used what we could of their canopy, ground up and spread as thick mulch.

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We have been rewarded for this effort with a lush re-growth on the forest floor.  The raw wood chips created an environment where seeds for new trees could sprout.  We have at least 15 new native holly trees growing now that are more than a foot high, with many more seedlings coming along.

Can we let them all grow?  Maybe, maybe not.  We have to decide for each seedling, as these little hollies can eventually grow into prodigious, full sized trees.

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Native holly, dogwood, magnolia, cedar, buckeye and blueberry have sprung up from seeds lying dormant on the forest floor.

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We also have newly sprouted dogwoods to replace those lost, and some self-sown Magnolia seedlings coming along.  There is Eastern red cedar, and a huge crop of volunteer native blueberry shrubs that have grown in as a wildlife friendly ground cover.  I didn’t purchase or plant any of these.  There are always little oak seedlings coming along, and choices must be made whether to let them grow or to prune them out.

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Our land wants to be a forest.  When our trees fell, allowing the sunshine back in, it hastened new growth of seeds which may have lain dormant in the soil for many years.  Now, all of those little plants are racing with one another, and with those we’ve planted, to see who gets the sun.

We can prune and pull and plant and try to sort it all out somehow, but that is only a temporary aberration from the garden’s eventual course.

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We found many stumps, when we first came to the garden, from where a previous gardener cut some of the greatest trees.  He wanted light for his fruit trees, and safety for the house.  Some of those stumps are decaying now back into the earth, but a few re-sprouted with new limbs.

He is long gone, as one day we will be, too. Other gardeners will come here and will either disturb the land for their own schemes, or will let the forest continue to fill the garden.

A forest weathers over time, but that time is long; longer than the awareness of any one human.  And we are wise to find the beauty and the wisdom of its ways, and to work in harmony with the land.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“Sentinels of trees
breathe life into bodies of earthly flesh
As their mighty arms reach to the stars
we join in their quest for Helios’s mighty power
Like sentinels, we seek our place
in the forest of nature’s gentle breath”
.
Ramon Ravenswood

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For the Daily Post’s:

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Weathered

For more about allowing  forests to regenerate and managing a woodland garden, please read:

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #2: Feed!

June 17, 2016 Hibiscus 011

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Most plants grow larger and fuller, have better color, and produce more flowers when they are well fed.  Well-fed plants always reflect well on the gardener, because they look healthy and robust. 

Many sources of gardening advice admonish that one must ‘feed the soil, not the plant.’  And this is generally true for trees, shrubs, and perennials.  Anything planted directly into the ground performs better in fertile, well prepared soil.  Compost is the most important thing to dig into a bed or planting hole to enrich the soil.  Adding an organic mulch, which attracts earthworms, further enriches and improves the soil.  The more worms, the better the soil.  Additional fertilizer rarely is needed once one ‘gets the soil right.’  That said, heavy bloomers benefit from an annual application of an organic fertilizer such as Espoma’s Rose Tone.

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June 17, 2016 Hibiscus 018

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However, most potting soils are basically sterile mixes of coir or peat, perlite and/or vermiculite.  There isn’t enough nutrition to support healthy plant growth.  Some potting soils come fortified with worm castings or pelletized fertilizer and advertise that they will feed a plant for several months.  Some gardeners recommend mixing a little compost into the pot; but this is generally not enough to encourage lush growth.

To support vibrant growth coming from a relatively small pot, there needs to be a lot of minerals available for those crowded roots to absorb.  When preparing a pot for a fresh planting, I thoroughly mix some balanced organic fertilizer, like Espoma’s Plant Tone, into the potting soil before adding any plants.  This feeds the plants long-term, but is released very slowly.  It also includes helpful strains of microorganisms to help plants use the minerals.  After adding the plants, I sprinkle the smoothed soil with a timed-release pelletized fertilizer like Osmocote, which also includes important trace minerals.  Some soil mixes already have the Osmocote mixed in.  This is a timed release fertilizer which is activated whenever the pot is watered.

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June 12, 2016 pots 007

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Finally,  I’ll mix some very quick release Neptune’s Harvest in a watering can to water the plants into the soil.  This is a foliar feed, easily absorbed, and offers some protection while the plants establish.  It truly does ‘feed the soil,’ and improves soil texture and its ability to retain water.  It is also a good ‘pick me up’ if a plant ever starts to look a little dull.  Now, you might think that feeding a potted plant so much fertilizer might burn or kill it.  I’ve never had any problem, probably because these are organic products and have relatively low nitrogen.  The plants begin growing quickly, have good leaf color and produce sturdy new growth.

Why it works:  Although plants make their own ‘food/fuel’ from water, oxygen and sunlight, they need nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous for healthy growth.  Lacking any of these, the plant will be stunted and sickly.  In addition, plants also benefit from a variety of trace minerals like copper, iron, magnesium and zinc.  These can be absorbed from many garden soils, but are lacking in potting soil.  Access to these important minerals is essential to productive plant growth.  Think of a plant as a living chemistry lab.  Many elements are needed to keep the bio-chemistry of life fueled.

Woodland Gnome’s Caveat:  My guilty secret for abundant flowers, especially on indoor plants during winter, is water soluble Miracle Grow Orchid Food.  This is not an organic product, but a tiny bit mixed into the usual water, every month or so, produces fabulous results!  Our ‘Christmas’ Cactus, Schlumbergera, bloomed non-stop from November through May with monthly feeding.

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June 17, 2016 Hibiscus 007

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“Green Thumb” Tips:  Many of you who visit Forest Garden are amazing gardeners with years of experience to share.  Others are just getting started, and are looking for a few ‘tips and tricks’ to help you grow the garden of your dreams. 

I believe the only difference between a “Green Thumb” and a “Brown Thumb” is a little bit of know-how and a lot of passion for our plants.  If you feel inclined to share a little bit of what YOU KNOW from your years of gardening experience, please create a new post titled: “Green Thumb” Tip: (topic) and include a link back to this page.  I will update this page with a clear link back to your post in a listing by topic, so others can find your post, and will include the link in all future “Green Thumb” Tip posts.

Let’s work together to build an online resource of helpful tips for all of those who are passionate about plants, and who would like to learn more about how to grow them well.

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June 20, 2016 garden 019

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Woodland Gnome 2016

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‘Green Thumb’ Tip:  Release Those Pot Bound Roots!  by J. Peggy Taylor

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #1:  Pinch!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #3:  Deadhead!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #4 Get the Light Right!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #5: Keep Planting!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #6: Size Matters!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip # 7:  Experiment!

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #8  Observe

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #9 Plan Ahead

‘Green Thumb’ Tip #10: Understand the Rhythm

June 20, 2016 garden 022

 

 

Which Herb Is It?

May 10, 2014 first roses of summer 027

Do you know this herb?

I knew it only from books on herbs until I purchased a start and began growing it three years ago.

A lovely plant, it is drought tolerant, shrugs off the full summer sun, is never touched by deer, blooms with lovely purpley pink flowers, and is a powerful tool for healing.

May 10, 2014 first roses of summer 030

This herb is very useful in an organic garden.  Perennial, it develops extremely deep roots.  The roots “mine” the minerals of the soil well below the depth most roots will penetrate.  These minerals  are deposited in the leaves.  The leaves may be cut, on established plants, several times each season and used for healing or to improve the soil.

Left to steep in rainwater for a few weeks, the leaves  make a nutritious organic fertilizer tea.  Added to compost, they activate the microbial action and speed the “cooking” of the compost.  Used as mulch directly on the soil, they feed the plant they are mulching as they decompose.

May 5 2014 garden 044

Common names for this plant include “bone knit” and “bruise heal.”

The powerful healing compounds speed cell repair and healing when applied topically.  This herb is a frequent ingredient in herbal healing ointments, and may be simply wrapped around an injured area of the body to heal a cut, bruise,  burn, or other injury.

Although there are medicinal  uses which include ingesting parts of this plant, these are somewhat controversial and must be prepared by a qualified herbal healer.  As with many medicines, a little helps, a lot can do significant harm.  Please consult a good herbal medical practitioner or manual before using this herb medicinally.

Also, wear gloves when harvesting this herb as the hairs on leaves and stems can irritate the skin.

Plant in spring in a well prepared bed with moist soil.  Ammend the soil with plenty of nitrogen, including manure, to keep this herb happy.  Don’t harvest until the second year.

This plant spreads with underground rhizomes, and will take a large area of the garden when allowed.  I dug up many divisions this year to establish it in new ares.  It is a hardy herb, and needs little care after the first year.

Do you know this herb?

May 5 2014 garden 041

It is Comfrey, Symphytum officinale.  Please remember this is a medicinal herb, but is never intended to be eaten.  It can be poisonous if eaten in quantity.  Which is one reason I’m spreading it around the sunny areas of our garden.

This is another plant that deer, rabbits, voles, and other hungry creatures will not touch.

Bees love it, and it attracts butterflies and beautiful moths.  It is an entertaining plant to grow where you can watch the constant traffic to its flowers.

This is an herb generally only available from herbal nurseries.  It can be difficult to find a start to establish in your garden.  The more popular cultivars aren’t available as seed because they are hybrids, and may only be produced from divisions.

But it is an herb well worth growing for its beauty, hardiness, and its healing properties.  If you grow herbs, please get to know the beautiful Comfrey plant.

 

May 3 2014 afternoon garden 072

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

Where Have the Butterflies Gone?

sept. 25, 2013 lanai 003Where have the butterflies gone?  Just in the last few days I’ve noticed their absence.  On Friday I was watching one bigger than a goldfinch feeding on a Zinnia, and suddenly yesterday, I didn’t see any while working in the garden.

And this morning, I read Kim Smith’s beautiful piece on the declining Monarch population.

July 26 butterfly photos 012Our population of Swallowtails has been strong this season.  We’ve had their constant companionship for months.  We often stop to enjoy them as we’re walking past the windows, arriving home in the car, and working in the garden.  They have been a delight- and now are more than missed.

And now this morning, sipping coffee early this morning on the deck, I spy new caterpillars.sept. 25, 2013 lanai 005

What a joy to find them. They are still enjoying the Bronze Fennel I sought so early this spring, hoping for a huge, ferny display all summer.  Well, Andrew Patton ordered it for me when I inquired,  and soon I purchased beautiful healthy plants at Homestead Garden Center.  We planted it in  big pots, alongside Borage, with high hopes.  Somehow, I think that watching generation after generation of these beautiful caterpillars has been even more interesting than a huge Fennel plant might have been; disregarding the fact that they were never able to bloom.

So I’m happy that the Swallowtails found a sanctuary here in our little garden.  We have done our small part here to keep their population healthy and happily growing.

Tiger Swallowtails on Echinacea.

Tiger Swallowtails on Echinacea.

Sadly, the Monarchs are struggling.  The herbicides used by farmers raising GMO crops destroy the host plants Monarchs require to raise their young.  The Milkweed plants are disappearing from the countryside for many reasons- development, spread of the suburbs, and industrial farming.  Each of us can do our small part to assist the Monarchs, along with countless other small wild things, by providing safe habitat and the host plants they require to live.

The stores are full of brightly packaged chemicals to solve every gardening problem, from weeds to mosquitoes.  As more and more of us see past the promise of a quick fix, and understand the implications of using these dangerous chemicals, perhaps we can turn to other,  safer, ways to manage our land and grow our gardens.  The 1960’s promise of “Better Life Through Chemistry” was a hollow promise.  We have poisoned our water, poisoned our land, and now are poisoning ourselves.September 12 Parkway 032

sept. 25, 2013 lanai 002Please keep in mind that we are all interconnected.  All of us are parts of the web of life, sharing this beautiful home hurtling through space.  And we Homo sapiens sapiens, intended to be the wisest of creatures, are the ones who have killed the oceans, filled the aquifers with fracking fluids, cut the forests which purify our air, and are now in process of even destroying our store of seeds for the foods on which we depend through genetic modification to make them immune to herbicides.  As our farmers spray their fields with glyphosate, killing the host plants needed by birds and butterflies; so it also runs off into creeks and ponds, killing insect larvae, frogs, fish, and turtles.

We can not, by ourselves, change industrial farming practices or stop fracking for natural gas.

We can do our own small bit to keep our own garden as a sanctuary free of herbicides, and pesticides; to provide sources of clean water; and grow a few life-giving plants to sustain the creatures who find shelter with us.  As we do to the least among us…. we do to ourselves.

All Photos by Woodland Gnome 2013

For readers in the Williamsburg, Va area, Homestead Garden Center is committed to organic gardening practices.  All plants they raise in their own greenhouses have been raised with lots of TLC and only organic fertilizers.  If you have visited Homestead, then you know that only organic, environmentally safe fertilizers, fungicides, soil amendments, insect controls,  and other gardening aids are available in their shop for sale.  Everyone in the family is knowledgeable and can help guide you to excellent products to enhance your garden.  They have taught me a thing or three along the way, and I appreciate their expertise in organic gardening methods.  For friends not in Virginia, I hope you can find a garden shop with a staff so knowledgeable and caring.

Tiger Swallowtails on Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower

Tiger Swallowtails on Echinacea, or Purple Coneflower

Hungry Caterpillars; What’s For Lunch?

Bronze Fennel is a favorite of Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars I counted nine caterpillars on just one fennel plant this morning Hungry as the caterpillars might be, fennel grows quickly and will survive their munching.  This Osmanthus goshiki shrub doesn’t look like a good host plant, but is on the menu for this gigantic beast. … Continue reading

MBWA

Monarda and conefowers

Monarda and Purple Coneflowers are at their peak in late June. Butterfly bushes in the background have just begun to bloom.

Management by Walking Around is a way of life in many businesses and professions.  During all of those years teaching, I walked around and around my classroom many times each day, armed with a pen and notepad, listening, and observing my students.  I answered a question here, wrote a quick note for someone else, checked homework, and kept an eye on notebooks and computer screens.  Walking around allowed me to interact quietly and personally with each child, to offer quick praise as well as quick re-direction as problems arose.

The same approach keeps me in touch with my garden.  Things change so quickly, especially when it’s hot.  The garden is never the same one day to the next, and every perambulation brings surprises.  This week the Rose of Sharon shrubs began blooming for the summer.  Each day another bush or two burst into bloom with its special color and form of blossom.

Rose of Sharon feeding a bumble bee

Rose of Sharon feeding a bumble bee

I usually wore a jacket, when teaching, with ample pockets for pens, paperclips, hall passes, Jolly Ranchers, and a notepad.  Now I have a gardening vest, actually a Bean fishing vest, covered in pockets of all shapes and sizes.  I always carry clippers, and twist ties or twine.  My pockets also hold a handful of Moonflower seeds harvested in late winter, a few stones for pushing into vole holes, and of course my cell phone. I carry a long skinny trowel with a cutting edge which can accomplish a million small chores, from a quick transplant or division to filling in a hole.

Monarda and conefowers

Both red and purple Monarda grow happily together on a sunny bank.

Even a quick trip out to water a few pots shows me that more attention is needed here and there.  A heavy stem of coneflowers needs to be staked.  Roses need to be cut back where yesterday’s bloom has lost its petals.  A vole tunnel needs to be stomped down flat, and the hole filled with gravel.  Ten minutes quickly stretch into an hour or more, and time passes unheeded as I’m absorbed in the unfolding life around me.

I saw two golden and red skinks this late this afternoon as I watered the basil.  They expected me to keep going around the house, and I surprised them by turning around before they could skitter away.  How they have grown since they first appeared weeks ago.  They happily live close to the house where they can sun themselves and always find a drink of water. I mostly hear them running behind pots or under vines.  Today I was honored that they didn’t run from me.

Walking around, daily, shows me problems when they are small, and can be remedied with just a little effort.  I can cut back the spent blooms of annuals, pull a few blades of grass taking hold in a bed, tie up new growth on a Clematis vine, prune a lantana branch away from a rose, pinch back the growth of Chrysanthemums and Coleus to make them grow bushy.  My tour yesterday showed me that deer had hosted a party in my garden the night before and made a buffet from a hydrangea and even a Persian Shield, which I thought they were supposed to ignore.  Time to spray again with Plant Skydd, and move those pots to a safer location.

Persian Shield, the day before the deer munched it.

Persian Shield, the day before the deer munched it.

Miss a few days of the daily walk, and things can definitely get out of control.  A fast growing Zinnia can fall across a path and begin growing horizontally.  A new family of voles can move in and tunnel up a whole patch of ground where they think they can’t be seen.  A fungus can infest the leaves of a rose, and a pot left sitting in rain water can steam in the summer sun and cook the plant inside.  A garden needs to feel the gardener’s touch every day.

There is research I recently read which shows that plants actually respond to our attention.  They know when they are being admired, and react with fear (according to the scientist who hooked up sensors to a plant’s leaves to measure this) when they are about to be cut back.  Just like us, they enjoy attention and respond to admiration by growing faster and stronger.  A walk of appreciation, where you notice the blooms and new growth on the plants in your garden; where you see each plant as an individual and tend to its needs; makes a difference in their growth and health.

Coleus need regular pinching to remove their bloom stalks.  Once they bloom, leaf production suffers.

Coleus need regular pinching to remove their bloom stalks. Once they bloom, leaf production suffers.

So the need to water in the cool of the morning is usually enough to tear me away from my coffee and morning news programs to suit up and head out into the garden.  Once outside, watering leads to weeding. Flowers and vegetables are harvested while it’s cool. Supports are adjusted, flowers are sniffed, butterflies watched, photos snapped.  On very special days, our hummingbirds will fly over to play in the spray of my hose. One small chore leads to another, and in no time at all I realize the sun has gotten very hot, and it’s on towards noon.  Management by walking around brings me out each day to appreciate, assist, and learn something new about life in our forest garden.

Rose of Sharon

Why Do We Garden?

tree of life 3Why do we garden?

The simplest answer is we were created for it.  The first time we see a man and a woman in the old stories of humankind, we find them in a garden.  We find the first people recorded in the records of Sumeria, Akkadia, and Caanan in the Garden of Eden, given the responsibilities of gardening there by the Elohim, who created them.  The stories tell us that when they were turned out of the garden into the wide world they were still sent out to garden, raise crops, and shepherd flocks of animals.  Agriculture allowed the first cities to develop around the world, and allowed for the accumulation of wealth and for specialization as a few farmers fed many people doing other things- like writing.

Adam and EveThe Whole Earth is Our Garden

According to the indigenous people of the Earth, the first people weren’t turned out of the garden at all.  The whole Earth is our garden, and we are its stewards.  Their attitude towards the land is one of sacred cooperation and stewardship.  They still walk with their gods in harmony and participate in the natural cycles of our planet home.  They call the Earth “Mother”, and believe the soil is her body and the waterways her blood.  The wind is her breath, and her bounty is a gift to us, her children.

And so even today, fed as we are by big agro-business conglomerates, we still have the urge to cultivate the Earth and appreciate her beauty.  Whether tending a pot of basil and a few flowers on a small balcony, or digging up our suburban yard to plant roses and tomatoes, many of us have a deep need to garden.   Many of us want, and need, to “put our hands in the dirt” on a regular basis.  Being a part of the processes of nature brings a beautiful sense of wholeness and peace.

Survival Gardening

Our great grandparents and grandparents gardened to survive.  Many fed their families from “Victory Gardens” during the World Wars and economic depression.  Before then, families commonly raised their own meat and vegetables because there weren’t grocery stores to provide it across much of our country.

guirilla gardening

Guerrilla Gardening in Los Angeles allows residents to create gardens on abandoned and unused land.

“Guerilla Gardening”, beginning in LA, is spreading across many of our blighted cities to feed the hungry families living in “food deserts” where wholesome, fresh food in largely unavailable.  Volunteers cultivate abandoned and city owned land producing fresh fruits and vegetables for their communities.  Land once covered in trash and urban blight is made to bloom again.  What was ugly becomes beautiful and alive with bees, butterflies, birds, and gardeners.  The gardeners find nourishment for body, mind, and spirit.

Even roof gardens have been created in New York and other cities to raise crops of fresh vegetables and herbs in raised beds.  Some have their own bee hives both to pollinate the vegetables and produce fresh honey.  City dwellers buy subscriptions to support the costs, and in return receive deliveries of seasonal produce each week.  Some of these programs train urban youth to farm, work with troubled youth, and encourage their subscribers to volunteer at the roof top farm and build community.

Butterfly on Lantana

Butterfly on Lantana

Figure Out the Answer For Yourself

So, why do we garden?  This is a very personal question for each individual gardener to keep in mind.  The answer may change, subtly, season to season, and garden to garden.

While we may need to garden to provide food for ourselves and loved ones, many of us live near farmer’s markets and grocery stores, and have the ready cash to pay for the food we eat.  It may be far easier to buy our tomatoes than to raise them.  Yet we still want to garden.

The suburbs of America are filled with single family homes surrounded by lawns, foundation plantings, and a few scattered trees.  This has been the norm since the 40s and 50s, and is even enforced by covenants in some communities.  Throughout the summer months families pour chemicals onto the lawn to kill weeds and fertilize the grass, run sprinklers several times each week to keep the grass watered, and then run lawnmowers to keep the grass neatly cut.  Our waterways are polluted with chemical run off, and the air is polluted with noise and exhaust from the gasoline engines of mowers and trimmers.   This is gardening, and the green lawn and tidy bushes bring great satisfaction to many.

Beyond food, many of us crave beauty.  Some find satisfaction in the symmetrical beauty of a green lawn bordered with box or yew; others want a border of flowering shrubs, perennials, and herbs.  Others of us find beauty in the shady green or a forest, or an expanse of gravel, rock, and alpine wildflowers or succulents in a rock garden around our home.

BambooOur Own Place In the Sun(shine)

When beginning to work with the land around our home, we need to consider what we want in return for our investment of time, treasure, and attention.  Focusing on our own needs first helps us make good decisions about what to buy and how to proceed.

Perma-Culture  

This fig will live for many years, producing figs over a long season.

This fig will live for many years, producing figs over a long season.

If we want to produce some or all of our own food, we need open areas of full or partial sun.  There are a number of perma-culture crops which are planted once, and then harvested for decades to come.  These require a dedicated space, good soil preparation, and time.  Many won’t bear produce for several years after planting, but must be watered, weeded, and protected from wild life as they mature.  Many of these crops not only produce a crop, but are also beautiful “bones” in a landscape.  It is wise to plant these during the first year or two on a new property to allow them time to grow and fill in.  All require adequate space based on their mature height and spread.

Examples:  rhubarb, asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke, running onions, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, kiwi, fig, gooseberry, currant, apple, cherry, peach, plum, pomegranate, persimmon, pecan, walnut, hickory, hazel, orange, lemon.  Not an exhaustive list, this offers an overview of permanent landscaping plants which produce a crop.

A cutting garden of Basil thrives on the steps in full sun.

A cutting garden of Basil thrives on the steps in full sun.

An Every Changing Feast

To grow annual crops, we also need areas of full sun (usually 8+ hours a day).  Whether we build raised beds, grow in large pots, or till up a traditional garden, this space should be dedicated early on in garden planning.  What do we want to grow, and how much do we need?  Families who want to depend on their own organically grown produce year round will dedicate enough space to grow large quantities of food to can or freeze.  Others might only want to grow a few premium crops like fresh herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, and blueberries, or grow crops not easily found at the grocer, like Malabar spinach.

If we enjoy flowers indoors, we’ll grow a cutting garden of flowers and include shrubs for the green bones of our arrangements.  We might grow a raised bed of zinnias or tea roses for cutting, or grow flowers among our vegetables to attract pollinating insects.

Zinnias and Lantana feed hummingbirds and butterflies, but are ignored by the deer.

Zinnias and Lantana feed hummingbirds and butterflies, but are ignored by the deer.

The Beauty of It

Rose of Sharon flowers close each evening, and open fresh each morning.

Rose of Sharon flowers close each evening, and open fresh each morning.

If we are gardening to create a beautiful landscape, our choices will be different.  Maybe we don’t want to pick up an annual crop of pecans, or clean up fallen apples each fall.  The trees and shrubs we choose for the bones of our garden will be ornamentals.  We’ll fill our planting beds with collections of favorite plants like daylilies, iris, roses, Hosta, peonies, daffodils, and phlox.   We’ll include pathways to wander and comfortable chairs along the way to sit and contemplate the beauty of it all.

Our garden may become an outdoor room where we relax and entertain.  We choose tall evergreen shrubs to create a privacy screen; vines growing on a pergola for shade; flowers and herbs for their aroma; and beautiful pots and hanging baskets of flowers as living works of art.

Collectors among us will tailor our plantings to include many cultivars of a favorite genus of plants.  We want to grow lots of different types of hosta, or many different varieties of rose.  When this fits into our overall plan, like growing several different varieties of fig in our perma-culture garden, it makes sense and we enjoy it.  The plant kingdom is so large and varied that we can spend a lifetime collecting and still find new plants to catch our interest.

Figs

An early crop of figs ripens in late June. These figs remain green when ripe.

Finally, some of us garden to conserve the ecosystem.  We work within what nature has already provided to provide habitat for animals and a place of peace and beauty for ourselves.   From this perspective, we choose native plants over hybrids, leave as many trees and shrubs in place around our home as possible, reduce areas of lawn, and use non-invasive gardening techniques.

Instead of tilling the ground, we build raised beds for planting.  Rather than spraying chemical herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, we set up natural systems to control pests and use non-chemical ways to control weeds.  We choose plants which need minimal extra watering, and manage the run off from our home and yard in ways to reduce erosion and increase habitat.

turtle in june

A box turtle explores the back yard, scouting out a place to lay eggs.

Welcoming Wild ThingsToad

Birds, bats, frogs, lizards, turtles, and predatory insects are welcome because they all eat insects and so control insect populations on crops and around the garden.  Providing safe shelter and a source of water is often all that is needed to attract them.  Growing flowering herbs and flowers increases the variety of flying insects and birds that eat them.  Birds not only enjoy the feast of insects, but choose to live in yards where there are berry bearing shrubs and cover for them to nest.

Gardening with nature can reduce the time and treasure we invest in the garden, as we leave “wild” areas of our yard to the animals, and plant perennials, trees, and shrubs where others might have lawns.  We plant things which are beautiful in all seasons, or which return reliably year after year with minimal care.  We fertilize mainly with compost.  Grass, leaves, and kitchen waste are composted to feed the soil.  We buy less and enjoy more.

“All of the Above”

These purposes for gardening aren’t mutually exclusive.  As we begin again with each new garden, with each new season, we find a fresh balance.  Our gardens change and evolve as we do.  Having a clear idea of what we want from our garden informs the choices we make.  Trial and error teaches us how to improve.  Enjoying the fruits of our garden, whether edible or ornamental, keeps us coming back again and again.

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