Reining in the Tumbling Floral Chaos: Mid-Summer Garden Maintenance …

July 29th, 2011 § 6

Summer’s Wild, Tumbling Jumble (Juniperus squamata ‘Holger’, Hydrangea quercifolia, Amsonia hubrichtii, Adenophora confusa, Rudbeckia hirta, Sedum, Hosta and Adiantum pedatum)

While out enjoying a morning stroll around the garden, taking in a blissfully cool and misty start to my day, a few flower stalks and juniper branches caught my attention by snapping at my ankles and tickling my knees. Ah, the tumbling jumble of summertime garden chaos! I do love a lush and laid-back garden, but every year at about this time, I embark upon a bit of disciplinary activity in my flower beds and shrub borders. After all, there’s a fine line between beauty and beast in the garden!

I begin my annual, mid-season grooming by pulling out a pair of hand-shears and bypass pruners —giving them a quick once-over with a whetstone and oiled rag— and heading out to the garden with my mobile beauty-salon (a basket filled with rags, oil, rubbing alcohol, natural twine and a few bamboo stakes). Like many seasoned hairstylists, after years of experience, most of the tasks I perform are so instinctive to me, that I fall into a state of gardening-zen while giving late July haircuts. But now that I’m doing more teaching and garden coaching, I’ve started to actually think more about the how and why of this horticultural beauty routine, in order to communicate the process to others…

Agastache, a bird, bee and butterfly favorite, always benefits from a mid-summer haircut. Shearing the spent flower heads from this plant now encourages a second wave of bloom later in the summer. Because this is an aromatic plant, it’s quite a pleasant job. But try to do this very early in the day, in order to avoid disrupting foraging bees.

Rudbeckia hirta ‘Becky Mixed’ is still in full bloom on the Wildflower Walk. As the flowers fade, I will leave most of the seed heads standing for finches and other small birds, as well to enhance the winter-garden. But if flower stalks fall into the path, tripping or whacking passers by, I will cut them for vases to keep the walkway clear.

The ever-narrowing Secret Garden stairs! Time for some haircuts! Heuchera and Adenophora self sow, and cutting them back early will prevent their spread. Spent blossoms spilling into the stairs are snipped off at the base. However, I happen to like the excess, so I allow those flower heads to the sides of the steps to multiply as nature intended. Prickly new juniper growth is cut all the way back to the main branch. Remember to clean pruners with rubbing alcohol between specimens

If you are relatively new to gardening, probably the most important thing to remember is that getting to know the plants you care for —their identities, growth habits and blooming routines— is key to making them look their best in your garden. Think like Edward Scissorhands for a moment and imagine vegetative growth as hair. Ironing curly hair straight may be fun once in awhile, but when it comes to day to day style, the best looks work with nature. What’s true for people is also true for plants. If you need help identifying the plants in your care, a good encyclopedia —like this one from the American Horticultural Society— is a great garden-library investment.

Once you are familiar with your plants, it’s much easier to decide how and when to spruce them up. Some plants need very little tending. In fact, many perennials are best left to do their own thing until they finish blooming, or until they are cut back to the ground in early spring. For example, after Hosta finish blooming, I remove the spent flower stalks to keep the plants looking tidy. However, I leave the seed heads of most Echinacea and Rudbeckia standing, in order to provide food for birds. Actaea simplex is left to do her own thing in the garden, while Asters are Chrysanthemums are pinched back until mid-July in order to encourage fuller, more floriferous plants (but never later, in order to avoid nip by early autumn frost). Nepeta, Veronica, Agastache and Geranium are sheared back after blooming to encourage a second wave of blossoms, while Aruncus dioicus and Valerian are cut back simply to make the plants look tidier. Many annual flowers, particularly those in window boxes and hanging baskets, also look best when given a mid-season haircut (and remember to keep fertilizing weekly for best bloom). Miss any opportunities this season? Remember to make a note of it in your garden journal for next year…

Veronica spicata –a pollinator favorite– is a long-blooming perennial. Because of its front-and-center location in this border (backing up Rudbeckia hirta and dancing with the slender blades of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’) this plant is a very good candidate for mid-season maintenance. Shearing the top blooms off this cultivar, V. spicata ‘Sunny Border Blue’, will help keep the plant tidy, and encourage another full wave of bloom in a couple of weeks.

I try to leave flower heads standing as long as possible in the garden, even if they seem a bit faded. Flower nectar and pollen still provides sustenance to garden guests —like this bumble bee— even though blooms may be past their prime. Later, seeds of this Echinacea, and many other flowers, provide late season food for finches and other small birds.

When cut back after flowering, Geranium ‘Brookside’ will look tidier and often produce a second, if slightly less lush, wave of bloom in autumn.

Learning to work with plants and maintain an attractive garden is a life-long process for all gardeners. Most experienced green thumbs are happy to share their knowledge, and many local garden clubs, botanical gardens, greenhouses and nurseries offer free or low-cost workshops and seminars on garden maintenance. When working with perennial gardeners at all experience levels, I often recommend two excellent books for further study and reference. First, The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust (pictured and linked below) is a classic how-to and when-to manual for every gardener’s bookshelf. And last year, while reviewing gardening titles for Barnes & Noble, I discovered Nancy Ondra’s The Perennial Care Manual (also pictured and linked below) which I now consider the definitive plant-by-plant guide (includes an encyclopedia with many of the more popular perennials) to perennial maintenance. The macro-photos in this book include pruning details, pest ID shots and clear pictorial guides to division, propagation and more. This book would make a great gift for new gardeners, mid-level perennial enthusiasts and experienced horticulturalists alike!

Garden looking a bit loose, shabby, blowzy? Pull out the shears and pruners, a tarp or wheelbarrow and channel your inner Edward Scissorhands! Have a quick question? Feel free to drop me a line in comments and I’ll pass along what I’ve learned. Have fun out there…

My top recommended how-to with great pictures: Nancy Ondra’s The Perennial Care Manual

A classic for every gardener’s bookshelf: Tracy DiSabato-Aust The Well-Tended Perennial Garden

Photographs and Text ⓒ Michaela Medina/The Gardener’s Eden. All photographs, articles and content on this site, (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Thank you!

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Spring Clean-Up, Part One: Pruning Winter-Damaged Branches Continues With a Tutorial on Cutting to Alternate & Opposite Buds…

April 7th, 2011 Comments Off

Spring Clean Up Begins in My Garden with the Removal of Winter-Damaged Branches and Limbs on Woody Plants

I’ve been tending other people’s gardens for more than a decade, and although I am officially eliminating maintenance from my professional services this year —making more time for design work, teaching and writing— that doesn’t mean I won’t be doing physical work in gardens. Quite the contrary. I love gardening, particularly garden maintenance. The physical part of gardening is exactly what attracted me to horticulture in the first place. Gardening —digging, planting, raking, weeding, pruning, etc— is great fun for me! But as with most things, people tend to enjoy tasks that they are good at doing. So, my new goal is to help other gardeners gain more confidence, and have more fun with maintenance, by sharing some of what I’ve learned in my years of experience as a professional gardener.

Pruning is one of those tasks that tends to intimidate both new and experienced gardeners, and even some seasoned pros. With all of the dos and don’t associated with pruning, it’s easy for me to understand why gardeners avoid this chore. Knowing when and how to prune the trees and shrubs in your garden can be confusing. So, I’m going to start this spring’s tutorial sessions with the absolute basics. In my previous post, I mentioned the importance of using clean, sharp tools when pruning. This point can not be over-stated, so if you haven’t read the first post, stop here and go back to review pruning tools and how to care for them.

For our first lesson, lets start with the most important pruning a gardener can do: cutting to clean up damaged and diseased wood. This type of pruning can and should take place whenever you notice it. However, at this time of year —late winter and early spring— damage tends to be most evident. Removing damaged wood trumps concerns about when a shrub or tree flowers (we will get to the issue of old and new wood, and timing cuts for flowers and fruit a bit later in this series). When cleaning up broken branches, the key is to make your cut with very sharp pruners, just above a healthy strong bud, or set of buds, aiming in the direction that you want to train the new growth. There are two main types of buds on branches: opposite and alternate. Opposite buds are, exactly as the word sounds, opposite from one another on the branch or stem (see photo below). When you need to cut branches with opposite buds, make your cut as close as possible to a healthy set of buds —without bumping or grazing the tender nibs— cleanly cutting straight across the healthy wood. Never leave a long stub, as this wood will die-back; decaying, rotting and inviting disease. If you cut clean and close to a new set of buds, they will quickly develop strong, healthy new shoots in both directions. If you only want growth in an outward-facing direction —to open up a shrub for example— then gently rub off the inward-facing bud with your finger. Here’s how a simple cut is made on opposite-facing buds…

Cutting to a pair of opposite buds on Hydrangea paniculata. The cut is made as close as possible —leading with the sharpest part of your blade closest to the bud— without touching and damaging the buds themselves. I like to use the line on the thick blade (backside of the pruners) as a spacing guide when making this kind of cut.

After the cut, only a small amount of wood remains above the two untouched buds. The two buds will develop into healthy shoots.

Alternate buds look like rungs on a pole ladder. They alternate from side to side, instead of opposite one another (see photo below). If the branch of a shrub or tree with an alternate bud pattern has been damaged, it should be cut back to an outward-facing bud on solid, healthy wood. With alternate buds, it’s also important to make the cut as close to —but not touching— the bud itself. With this type of growth pattern, gently slope the cut away from the bud, so that water will drain away from the developing shoot (aim for a 20-25° angle).

Alternate buds on Buddleja alternifolia argentea (Fountain Butterfly Bush). Unlike B. davidii, which flowers on new wood, B. alternifolia blossoms on old wood. In spring, I remove damaged wood only, carefully cutting to a healthy bud. After flowering, I will prune this shrub for shape (it can be trained to a standard, or allowed to follow its natural ‘fountain’ form).

Position the sharp part of the blade near the bud —but not touching— and make the cut, sloping gently away from the bud. This will help water shed away from the new shoot, preventing rot. Never leave a stub longer than 1/4″, as it will die back, and invite disease. Again, with this type of cut, I use the line on the thick part of the blade as my guide. By holding the pruners with the thin blade nearest the bud, I can watch the distance and avoid cutting too close.

The way this branch is cut will direct growth outward, away from the shrub. The gentle slope —starting just above the top of the bud— allows for water to shed away from the new shoot, preventing rot. Again, never allow a long stub to remain above the bud, but take care not to injure the delicate new growth when you make your cut. With practice, this will become easier.

When I teach pruning, I always encourage gardeners to build confidence by practicing cuts on undesirable scrub, broken branches or discarded limbs on a brush pile. This way, if your cuts are less-than-acceptable, you can keep cutting until you get it right, without worrying about mutilating your precious garden plants! Look for alternate and opposite bud patterns to practice your cutting skills. Once you feel confident in your ability to make steady cuts, begin working on the broken branches of ornamental shrubs in your garden. Roses and hydrangea are frequently damaged and suffer die-back in winter. Learning these basic cuts will help you to maintain attractive and healthy woody plants.

Stay tuned for more pruning tutorials. Next, we will tackle small tree limbs with a Grecian (folding) saw, and learn about the join between tree trunks, branch-collars and tree limbs! And if you happen to be gardening in New England, and would like to attend my April 16th pruning seminar —a free event sponsored by Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont— please visit Walker Farm’s website for details, and reserve your seat now… Space is limited!

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Article and photographs are copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden, all rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used, reproduced or reposted elsewhere without written consent. Do you enjoy The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through affiliate links here. A small percentage of each sale will be paid to this site, helping to cover web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you so much for your support!

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The Early Bird Catches the Arugula… And the Chard, Spinach & Lettuce too!

February 19th, 2011 § 10

Arugula in the Hoophouse, January

Let’s start out with a bit of honesty, shall we? The four season harvest isn’t for wimps. Winter gardening  —growing plants in temperatures below freezing to sub-zero, beneath plastic sheeting— isn’t a natural act. And although I enjoy a good game of woman vs. wild, sometimes winter gets to be a bit much around here. Shoveling decks, terraces, walkways and woodpiles is a lot of work. And now that I’ve added potager path-clearing and hoophouse roof-raking to the list, I’ve created quite a snow-removal burden. So why do it? Because the taste of fresh arugula and the smell of damp earth on a cold February day is —as the people at Mastercard say— priceless. And I think a jump-start to the short, northern growing season is worth a little extra work (OK, so it’s a lot of extra work).

Look at that delicious earth! Would you believe this photo was taken just yesterday…

Inside this unheated hoophouse the smell of sweet, springtime soil fills the moist air!

Raking out hoophouse soil to prepare for late winter crop sowing

Over the past three years —cooking more at home and experimenting in my kitchen— I’ve become more and more interested in four-season vegetable gardening. And although I haven’t made the leap to a heated greenhouse yet, I’ve found that with proper timing, I can keep some crops going in my hoophouses year round. Greens sown in late fall will germinate and then continue to grow (albeit much more slowly) throughout the short, cold days of winter. Tender crops are out of the question of course, but tasty root vegetables sown in early autumn can be harvested from cold houses straight into the new year. Seedlings require light to grow —10-12 hours of daylight is a good rule of thumb— so the sowing of seed is suspended during the weeks leading up to —and about a month and a half after– the winter solstice. But come late January, February and March —when the days are getting longer, and sunlight is getting stronger — I can begin sowing cold-hardy, late winter crops in my unheated hoophouses, for early spring harvest. Yesterday I planted a variety of greens in house #3 (arugula, chard, spinach, lettuce and mesclun mix), and I pulled spent crops and turned soil in house #1 to prepare for more planting (carrots, radishes and other crops) on my next free afternoon. If you are interested in learning more about the four-season harvest and winter vegetable gardening, I highly recommend Eliot Coleman’s books. And if you’d like to build a hoophouse of your own this spring (I now have four, with three currently in use) click here for basic plans. I’m hoping to upgrade to a larger, walk-in cold house this year.

Hoophouses protecting early fall-sown crops in late December, just before the snow (automatic back vents help moderate temperatures)

Sowing crops in hoophouse #3: Mid-February

Gardening in winter is all about science, but it sure feels like magic when you can reach your hand into sweet, sun-warmed earth on a cold and windy day. And it’s even more spectacular when you’re enjoying your own salad greens and root vegetables —harvested from an icy, snow-covered garden— at dinner in January and February. Winter pasta with fresh arugula, root-cellared onions and olive-oil preserved, sun-dried tomatoes —all from the garden— now that is priceless…

Arugula harvested from the hoophouse

Pasta with freshly harvested arugula — plus caramelized onions, braided & stored in the root cellar and sun-dried tomatoes, preserved in olive oil— all from the garden…

Here’s the potager, with house #1 and #2 buried by nearly 3′ of snow and ice. I still can’t believe they didn’t collapse. And yes, I shoveled them out all by myself. Sadly, Alfred hasn’t left Batman for me yet. I can’t figure out why…

Mountains of shoveling…

Followed by more shoveling…

And bringing in wood…

But who wouldn’t appreciate the beauty that makes it all worthwhile…

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Article and photos ⓒ Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

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Here Comes the Sun, Doo’n Doo Doo: Gettin’ Started with Seed Starting…

February 10th, 2011 § 3

On your mark, get set…

Twenty degrees fahrenheit. Ow… That’s nippy! Yes, the outside temperature still says ‘winter’ loud-and-clear, but the good new is that the days are getting longer, and the sunlight is getting stronger. That means it’s just about time to get a jump on the growing season by starting seed indoors. At this time of year in Vermont, I’m already sowing chives, onions and hardy herbs indoors. Cold crops like lettuce, spinach and arugula are now growing within the spring-like climate created by the hoop houses in my vegetable garden (click here for more information on how to build your own). I’m looking forward to an even more productive potager this year, with more home-grown gourmet vegetables started from seed.

Why start seed indoors when you can just pick up vegetable six-packs in early spring at the garden center? Well, first of all, it needn’t be either/or. Even though I still buy organically-grown vegetable starts from Walker Farm (by the dozen), I have plenty of reasons to start some seed here at home. Starting seed indoors gives me a jump on the growing season; allowing me to plant certain crops outdoors, and harvest before the local garden centers even open. When I start my own seed, I also have the option of experimenting with unusual, gourmet vegetable crops. Seed catalogs (and Seed Saving exchanges) offer far more variety than any local greenhouse can possibly supply (see sidebar and links below for some sources). And if you don’t have an organic grower nearby, starting your own plants from seed insures that your produce will be raised to your own high standards: you control the quality right from the start. Although there is an initial investment in grow lights and other gardening supplies, starting your own seed indoors can save quite a bit of money over the long haul. But the best part? I get to see the entire, magnificent process of life right from the beginning. If you have children, this is a great opportunity for teaching, and a wonderful experience to share.

A fine-textured medium (growing mix) is essential for seed starting. Regular potting soil is too heavy, and won’t drain efficiently. Buy or make your own seed starting mix for best results.

Seed Starting Basics

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Start your new plants the right way: Purchase fresh seed from a reliable, organic source, near your region. Seed collected close to your own geographic area tends to perform best. Farmers in my area (New England), almost always buy their seed from New England sources. And although I do buy seed from elsewhere (some from as far away as California) I purchase the bulk of my vegetable seed packets from suppliers in nearby Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. And when choosing germinating mix, remember to always use an organic seed-starter with very fine, loose particles. Never use regular potting soil to germinate seeds. Why? It’s much heavier and it won’t drain well. Seedlings need moist, but not water-logged soil.

Select your containers and trays: Many garden centers and online suppliers have plastic or peat cell-packs available for purchase. These packs are handy, because they usually come with plastic tops to keep the starter mix moist while seeds germinate. But, you can always use plastic wrap for ths purpose if you make/recycle containers. Some of my gardening friends like to make their own biodegradable starter pots from newspaper. You can also recycle old plastic six-packs or other containers, but you must sterilize those reused pots properly with warm, soapy water and a bit of disinfectant (bleach) to prevent the spread of disease. You will also need leak-proof trays to place beneath the seeds, in order to water them from the bottom (prevents washing the tiny seeds to the side of the pots and/or disturbing delicate roots). Whatever you choose to use, get everything ready —in one place— before you start.

Set up grow lights: While it’s true that you can start seed in a brightly lit window (I do this with some windowsill herbs) you will get much better results (stronger root systems, stems and overall growth) if you use grow-lights positioned close to the seed trays. You can use regular florescent shop-lights, or you can purchase grow-lights (available at many garden centers and online suppliers). If you are serious about starting seed indoors (or growing tropical houseplants) grow lights are a great investment. If you already own grow-lights, clean them and check bulbs and timers before you start your seed. Most vegetable seeds do not require heat-pads for germination. But it’s always a good idea to check the back of seed packets before you start, to be clear on requirements. Grow lights work best when they are raised up as the seedlings develop, keeping them close to (but not touching) the leaves. Crafty gardeners can try to construct their own systems, but grow-light systems —either floor or table mounted— can be purchased at all price points. Aim for durable, quality construction – with stands built to last.

Quality grow lights (like the one above, from Gardener’s Supply Company) are a great investment if you are serious about getting a jump-start on the growing season.

Time your starts: Check the back of your seed packets for the number of days to germination, and the start date. Usually the packet will list the start date by referencing the number of weeks prior to the last frost date. Do you know your last frost date? Check with your local USDA cooperative extension service (click here for interactive map) or, the awesome, easy-to-use table for common vegetable start dates on The Farmer’s Almanac website (Just enter your city and state in the pace provided – love the Farmer’s Almanac)! If you live in zone 4 or 5, February is a good time to start onions, leeks, chives, celery and hardy herbs. Later this month (or early March) you can begin cool-season crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and brussels sprouts. Unless you are located in zone 7 or warmer, wait to start warm-season crops (like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant) until mid to late March, or even early April.

Moisten the starter mix and fill containers: One the best ways to insure that your seedlings have plenty of moisture is to soak your germinating mix overnight prior to planting. I like to wet the mix in a big tub the night before planting; adding enough warm water to make it damp, but not soupy. I know the starter medium is ready to use when all of the water is absorbed and the mixture is moist like a fresh cupcake, but not wet and gloppy like mashed potatoes. If you try to form a ball it should crumble apart, but still feel moist to the touch (just like natural garden soil at planting time, remember how great that smells?)

Hello baby!

Plant your seeds in the containers: Plant two to three seeds per cell (you will thin the plants later) Not sure of how deep to plant? The back of the seed packet should list planting depth. But if it doesn’t, aim to plant the seed three times as deep as it is large (measuring by diameter).

Cover the seeds and wait for germination: Once all the seeds are planted and set in their trays, cover them with the plastic tops, or loosely with plastic wrap (to contain moisture and raise humidity) and place them in a 60-75 degree (fahrenheit) room. Be sure that the catch trays are filled with water, and check the seed starts daily to insure that the soil remains moist. A plastic spray-misting bottle can be useful in the early stages of seed starting to insure that the surface of soil remains moist. Seed trays can be placed beneath grow lights, but you won’t need to turn them on until the seeds pop out of the soil. Again, unless the seed requires warmer germination temperatures (or if you are starting plants in a cool/dark spot like a cellar) you won’t need heating pads for the trays.

Sunflowers are an exciting and easy crop for youngsters to grow in recycled milk cartons. But wait a bit longer on this crop. February is too soon to start sunflowers in New England…

Light up their life: As soon as the seeds germinate, they’ll need at least 12 hours of light per day (and for many vegetables 14-18 hours is even better) In these northern parts, this is where grow-lights come in. Remembering to turn lights on-and-off can be tricky at first, and an inexpensive timer can really be your best work-buddy!

Feed me Seymour!: Once the seedlings have a set of “true” leaves (as opposed to the tiny seed leaves, which emerge first), give them their first meal: a bit of dilute, organic fertilizer (I use a very weak fish emulsion solution, diluted in water).

Biodegradable pots allow room for root development, and can be popped right into the soil (no struggling to remove tiny plants without damage!)

Transition time: Once spring closes in, seedlings will begin to really take off. As certain young plants grow, they will need thinning and perhaps later, transplanting to larger pots before being “hardened off” (process of bringing seed outdoors for short periods of time to adjust to outside temperatures and light). We’ll talk more about this process later. In meantime, If you are starting many seeds, it’s also wise to invest in a fan for air circulation. Check with some of the seed supply sources linked here for more information, or visit your local garden center. It’s also helpful to have some larger sized pots and regular potting soil on hand for later. Peat pots (or other biodegradable containers) are particularly good for the purpose of transplanting, because they can be placed directly into the soil. This reduces root-disturbance and makes for a swifter, stress-free transition into garden soil.

And although we are all anxious to get back out in the sweet earth, resist the urge to rush tender plants into a cold garden. Unless you have hoop houses, row covers, cloches or other protection for your crops, it’s too risky to push them out before the recommended date (again refer to the links at the top of this post). I’ll be writing more about the process of seed starting over the coming weeks and months.

For more information and seed sources, please visit previous posts, linked here!

Here comes the sun! It may still be a little early for most vegetable starts, but growing windowsill herbs (like chives and cilantro) is fun and easy anytime…

Special thanks to Tim Geiss for his fantastic seed starting photos. Visit Tim’s site here.

Product images are the property of linked online retailers.

Article and noted photo ⓒ Michaela at TGE

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Dangerous Beauty: Poisonous Plant Information for Homes with Small Children & Pets…

November 30th, 2010 § 2

Outside, Looking In: Dreamy —But Poisonous— Kalanchoe mangini Sits High Up in a Bedroom Window

Like many cold-climate gardeners, now that the growing year has ended —and my outdoor garden pursuits are limited to vegetables in raised beds beneath hoop-houses— I find myself catering to a large Indoor Eden of overwintering plants. Throughout the cold months, I keep a wide a wide variety of common and exotic plants in my home. Some of my tender plants —including culinary herbs and other edibles— are located on my kitchen countertop and in stands on or near the floor. Other plants —such as a giant ficus, sago palm, ferns, various succulents, cactus, a cherished collection of orchids and rare exotics— populate my studio workspace, bedroom, bathroom and an indoor, Secret Garden Room.

Kalanchoe mangini – Beautiful, But Toxic to Pets

Poisonous Plants —Like This Sago Palm and Succulent Container— Are Kept Behind Closed-Doors in my Painting Studio

Kalanchoe pumila: Another Pretty, but Poisonous, Plant

Plants are a big part of my life, but animals are part of my family  —I have both a dog and a cat— and yes, they have been known to “sample” the greenery. Although most plants are harmless when consumed, some can make the taste-tester quite sick -and eating certain species can even be fatal. Many common holiday-gift plants —such as amaryllis, poinsettia, mistletoe, Christmas rose, Easter lily, iris, narcissus and hyacinth— as well as common houseplants —like English ivy, elephant’s ear, philodendron and caladium, to name but a few— are toxic to pets. Even tiny bits of leaves, roots or blossoms from certain plants may cause vomiting or diarrhea in both humans and animals. And, when eaten in quantity or over a prolonged period of time, some plants may even be fatal.

Plants are Safely Off-Limits in My Secret Garden Room (Sorry, No Pets Allowed)

If you share your home with small children and pets, it’s critical that you know which plants are potential threats to their safety, and how to handle the danger. Because I garden professionally, it’s my responsibility to know which plants are toxic —both to humans and their animal companions— in order to avoid accidental poisoning and disaster. For human poison-concerns,  The National Capital Poison Center (Affiliated with GWU Medical Center) maintains a website and common poison lists (again, this list is for humans) —including toxic plants by common and latin name— which I have found useful (click here and bookmark). And for quick pet reference, I often check with The United States Humane Society online -their website includes a fairly comprehensive poisonous plant list, (click here for more information). The ASPCA also maintains a regularly updated listing of plants toxic to dogs and cats here on their site (search by common or latin name). In addition, I highly recommend keeping a copy of the Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants (pictured at bottom of this post) in an easy-to-locate spot for quick reference.

This Semi-Enclosed Terrarium Would Be a Great Way to Showcase a Less-Safe Plant on a High Shelf

Of course, the safest decision is to completely eliminate all toxic plants from your home. But for many of us, that isn’t really the most desirable —nor is it the only— option. Plants grown behind glass —especially within completely enclosed terrariums, like the one pictured below— are much less likely to be eaten by children or pets. Plants kept in high, out-of-reach, places —bookshelves and dressers come to mind— also tend to be safe from curious fingers, noses and mouths. Keeping toxic plants in a separate room, behind closed doors, is another way to avoid trouble. I do keep some toxic plants in my home. However, I take special care to make sure my pets are never exposed to the more poisonous species. Even the most mildly toxic specimens in my house are kept safely out of reach; grown within terrariums, upon high shelves or behind closed doors in my studio or Secret Garden Room.

One Safe Option for Toxic Plants, and a Lovely Holiday Gift for a Gardener: A Beautiful, Fully-Enclosed Terrarium

If a child or pet accidentally ingests a potentially poisonous plant, you should immediately call for help. Try to remain calm –remember that more often than not, small quantities of toxic plants are not fatal. However, the side-effects of poisonous plant ingestion can be quite serious. So, don’t take a chance -always seek the help of a doctor or veterinarian if you suspect your child or pet has eaten something unsafe.

Dr. Goof in the Garden

A Thoughtful Holiday Gift for A Gardener with Children and/or Pets: Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants

Article and Photographs ⓒ Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

The following online shops sell beautiful terrariums and kits…

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“He Who Walks Behind the Rows”… Lost in a Labyrinth of Stalks & Tassels: Exploring the Art of the Corn Maze

October 23rd, 2010 § 2

“He Who Walks Behind the Rows”…

Clouds gather, dark and low on the horizon. The daylight is fading. You’ve been driving through miles of cornfields and back country roads. Suddenly, something  —a child?— darts across the cracked pavement and into the corn rows. Immediately, you pull over and step from the warmth of your car. A rush of cold air scrapes across your face; the rustle of cornstalks rising and dragging behind you in the wind.

Tentatively you call out, but there’s no answer. Were your eyes playing tricks on you after hours of travel? Why hadn’t you stopped for a break? Wait… What is that sound? You step from the grassy roadway margin, into the long, shadowy corn rows. There —there it is again— off in the distance. Is it a cry, or is it laughter? The voice of a child or an animal’s wail? Once more it rises from the stalks —pitching higher now— calling up from beyond the swaying tassels. And then… Silence. Your hair rises at the back of your neck. You pause, and —in a moment of instinct— rush breathlessly down the narrow pathway —heart pounding into your throat— racing against the twilight…

A quarter mile in, you hear a crack and you call out into the empty field – but there’s no answer. Turning toward the sound, you dash through the stalks to the left, then to the right. Racing down a wider path —breathless— you suddenly stop; eyes stinging from the rising dust. This must be a main corridor, but there’s no end in sight. There, blowing across the ground on the pathway ahead, you spot a piece of paper. As you unfold it —examining the wobbly dotted line— you wonder: is this a child’s drawing, an attempt at simplistic map? You clutch the torn paper —palms clammy-cold— and press forward. The map seems accurate, but then, there’s no indication of what lies ahead: a divide in the road…

One side seems smoother and a bit wider. Slowing down, you begin to stop and start; futile attempts to get your bearings. The sky is growing darker, and the path narrows again. All around you —above and to the sides, before you and behind— there is nothing but hollow stalks of corn. Then, straight ahead: an improbable staircase. Quickly, you scramble to the top…

As you near the highest point of the platform, your heart sinks. Taking in the monochromatic vista, you suddenly realize that your car, the road and the surrounding landscape have completely vanished. As far as the eye can see, there is nothing but an endless expanse of bleached stalks —knocking  to and fro — rattling like bones in the wind. Is there no way out? Will you ever be found? Wait. There it is again. A low and plaintive cry. Something is moving out there. Something is calling for you. Is it… Malachai ?

Inspiration: The 1984 film, Children of the Corn, based on Stephen King’s short story by the same name

All photographs in this story were shot especially for The Gardener’s Eden by Tim Geiss at Poltergeiss.com. Images were made on location at Sauchuk Farm Maze in Plympton, Massachusetts. For maze and farm hours and directions, visit the farm website by clicking here.

The  Story  Behind  The  Story:  Those  Amazing  Corn  Mazes  &  The  Farms  They  Help  Support

Gaines Farm, Haunted Corn Maze in Guilford, Vermont (Aerial Photography ⓒ Michaela at TGE)

Mazes (sometimes called corn maizes or, historically, labyrinths) are believed to have originated in Europe, where they have been a popular form of amusement for centuries. Although mazes and labyrinths may be constructed using various materials —from grass and clipped hedges to earth and stone— most modern mazes are created with corn. In mid to late May, corn —usually special varieties selected for stalk strength and height— is planted in rows and later (usually in June) cut or tilled into patterns; creating elaborate designs and pathways in fields. Many years ago, patterns for labyrinths were drawn out on paper and cut by hand with sythes. Today, most mazes are cut with tillers or other machinery when the corn is knee-high (some farms use herbicides). Some modern maze designers use computer graphs and GPS coordinates to create elaborate grid patterns. However, many mazes, such as the walking puzzles pictured here —created by the MAiZE company based in Utah— continue to be designed and cut by hand.

It all begins with corn kernels in May…

My closest maze is located at the Gaines Farm —the bicentennial dairy farm pictured in the aerial photograph above— in nearby Guilford, Vermont. The Gaines Farm corn maze combines a MAiZE Co. designed labyrinth with haunted hayrides and other Halloween attractions every fall. Corn mazes are fun for kids and families of all ages, and visiting one is a great way to help support your local farm. Autumn corn mazes have become an important and growing source of revenue for small farms and agricultural communities throughout the United States and Canada. Maize labyrinths also continue to be popular in Europe —particularly England— and are a growing trend in other parts of the world as well. To find and experience a corn maze near you, try searching the MAiZE Co. database online, or this puzzle listing on About.com. If your local maze is not listed on the About.com site, be sure to submit it so that others may enjoy the experience!

John Deere Tractor at Sauchuk Farm

Sauchuk Farm’s “Walk Around the World” Corn Maze in Plympton, Massachusetts Photo: Sauchuk Farm Website

Please help support your local farming community by attending harvest-season events!

***

Photography in this story (exceptions as noted) ⓒ Tim Geiss at Poltergeiss.com

Article and other photographs (as noted) ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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Shelter Me: Keeping the Kitchen Garden Warm and Productive as Temps Drop…

October 11th, 2010 § 3

Basil and Calendula cozy up beneath a misty dome in my garden…

The first frost of autumn sparkled on my lawn when I awoke Saturday morning. And although it wasn’t a true ‘killing-frost’ —the morning glories slipped right through Jack’s chilly hands— a few things were nipped here and there in my potager. Most of my tender crops are now covered with hoop-house cold-frames —mainly tomatoes, peppers, basil and other herbs— and later, the cool-season crops like spinach and lettuce will be covered as well…

Tomatoes, ripening inside the hoop-house cold-frame in October, are safe from Old Jack Frost

Beneath greenhouse-grade plastic, purple and green basil, tomatoes and other herbs are protected from chilly nights, and given a ripening-boost during the day

I will be enjoying these ‘Lemon Boy’ tomatoes soon —not fried and not green (though that IS an excellent way to use them up!)

Last year I posted a tutorial on building hoop-house style cold frames, and if you have a free afternoon and some basic carpentry tools, I encourage you to give them a try (click to here to see tutorial post). I now have four hoop-houses in use, and although these miniature-greenhouses are unheated, they actually get quite toasty inside during the day, and the temperatures stay well-above freezing overnight. To keep things from getting too hot, the temperature inside each of my hoop-houses is moderated with a easy-to-install, automatic back-vent. Of course later in the autumn, unless I provide supplemental heat, these tomatoes will eventually succumb to overnight cold. But other crops —including lettuce, spinach, arugula, kale, chard and broccoli— can make it straight through the Winter Solstice in an unheated hoop-house (and even beyond in some years)!

There are many other ways to extend the vegetable growing season in cold climates, and I will continue posting ideas on how to stretch that post-frost ‘Indian Summer’ for as long as possible. Also, keep in mind that even if you don’t fancy the idea of a building project yourself, you can easily purchase cold frames, kits and other garden shelters from companies like Gardener’s Supply Company online.

Have you had a killin’ frost in your area? Do you try to keep things going past the freeze?

Sungold and bright red cherry tomatoes will continue to ripen beneath the plastic, well past the hard-frost

A hoop-house protects tender vegetables in my fall vegetable garden, while cold-weather crops remain uncovered.

Still Glorious – ‘Heavenly Blue’ Morning Glories in the Potager, October 11th

***

Article and photographs ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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I Know They Are In There Somewhere! Companion Planting in the Vegetable Garden: Guest Post by John Miller of The Old School House Plantery…

June 2nd, 2010 § 2

Radishes and Carrots Together Again at the Market, (photo © Michaela TGE)

“They”, in this instance, being carrots and parsnips. In my previous post I mentioned how farmers use plug sown onion transplants to overcome the problems associated with the slow germination time of onions. Onions are not the only vegetables that exhibit long germination times, raw (naked or unpelleted) parsnips and carrots can also take six weeks to germinate. Unfortunately neither of these crops readily lend themselves to transplanting as the desired part, the root, can be easily damaged and result in misshapen or stunted growth. Transplanting can be done on a small scale but requires care and attention to precise handling to avoid damaging the root (in spring it also requires even more space in one’s probably already strained propagating area!).

Italian heirloom radish ‘Candela di Fuoco’ and Rainbow Mix carrot seedlings, (photo © John Miller)

Hoed row, (photo © John Miller)

Unless you have a sterile seedbed (a technique requiring foresight and a flame gun, clear plastic and sunshine or a herbicide) then your direct sown carrots or parsnips will be competing against weeds in your garden while they are germinating and emerging. However these same weeds are not concerned with your desire for that sweet first home grown carrot of the season or that wonderful roast parsnip with your Thanksgiving dinner- they want the space and the nutrients! In six weeks weeds can romp away in the race to germinate and establish themselves and leave you, the custodian of the crop, the time consuming task, usually on hands and knees, of delicately moving rampant weed foliage, probably covering the entire bed, trying to spot the still minute seedlings of that hoped for crop.

There they are! Parsnip and radish seedlings (photo © John Miller)

But wait! There is hope. No, it won’t stop the weeds germinating but it could make spotting the row a lot easier. It involves sowing either carrots or parsnips with a faster growing crop, such as radish, together in the same row. Radish are one of the faster growing crops, maturing in as little as 35 days, and will keep pace with even the most vigourous weeds, in my case Fat Hen and Galinsoga (I often hear that mis-pronounced as Gallant Soldier). The radishes are sown relatively thinly. I aim for one every foot, as you may pull the main crop by accident if the density is too great. The radish makes spotting the row quite easy, and I can quickly hoe in between the rows before the weeds get too big and require hand pulling. Hoeing all but a narrow row then makes hand weeding the crop itself a quick -dare I say it- almost enjoyable, task. Then I will reward myself with a freshly pulled radish, or two! Any fast growing crop that you prefer, arugula or Broccoli raab for instance, could be used instead of radish.

Radish and Carrot Bunches at Market (photo © Michaela TGE)

Article and photographs as noted in this post, © 2009/2010 John Miller

John Miller and his wife Diane Miller own and operate The Old School House Plantery in Brattleboro Vermont

Visit the Miller’s Etsy shop, Eclecticasia, for a selection of rare and beautiful plants.

***

Market photos as noted are copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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***

Waking Up the Garden in Spring …. Free Seminar at Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont – Tomorrow…

April 16th, 2010 Comments Off

Early risers: Glory of the snow blooming this month in my garden…

Will you be in the Southern Vermont area this weekend? If so, please join me this Saturday morning at 9:30 for the first in a series of free gardening seminars at Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. “Waking Up the Garden in Spring” covers the perennial garden maintenance chores that should be on your early season checklist. Don’t let the raindrops stop you! Come on by beautiful Walker Farm and enjoy an hour of fun in their lovely ‘Grand Central’ greenhouse. Seating is limited, so please call ahead, (802-254-2051) to reserve a spot: click here for more details on upcoming spring seminars.

Narcissus Rip van Winkle blooming in my Vermont garden this week…

***

Photographs copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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Is It Time Yet? Getting a Jump-Start on the Vegetable Growing Season………. {Plus a Special Anniversary Give-Away}

April 7th, 2010 § 18

Herbs and vegetables acclimating to conditions in the great outdoors before planting. A process known as “hardening off”…

Well here we are in early April, and it’s finally almost-but not-quite-growing-season. What, you say, is she talking about? Why, haven’t you heard of almost-but-not-quite-growing-season? You see, this is the time of year when people start to go a little crazy in cold climate gardens. They load up the back of the car with six packs of warm-weather plants from the local greenhouse, and when they bring them home, sometimes they take unnecessary risks. If frost isn’t an issue in your area, then you have little to worry about. However in the Northern regions of the country, new gardeners can be easily seduced by a week of warm weather in early April; tempted to plant out their tender crops too soon. Just the other day, while talking with my friend Daisy at Walker Farm, I mentioned that I’d overheard some folks planning to till their soil and plant the vegetable garden. Daisy, who is an amazing horticulturalist specializing in greenhouse growing and plant propagation, noted the same thing: it seems that the unseasonably warm weather in New England is tempting some gardeners to plant out the sunflowers. Whoa there partner! Check on your last frost-date before turning those little seedlings out into the cold world! Over the years, I have learned to bite my tongue when it comes to handing out unsolicited advice to strangers. But there are no strangers here! And I must be direct with new gardeners, coming to The Gardener’s Eden for a bit of advice. Perhaps you live in a warmer climate, south of zone 7, and if so, you can probably afford ignore my worry-warting, (somewhat anyway). But if not, given the gardening frenzy developing out there, I feel I should issue a warning: please be patient and don’t plant warm weather crops too soon!

Getting a jump-start on the growing season is smart gardening practice in cold climates. However, it’s important to be prepared and protect both your plants and your soil. If you have mulched your vegetable beds, and/or covered them with black plastic, your soil will likely be warm and dry by now and you may begin adding compost and other amendments, and perhaps planting cool-weather crops like spinach. But first, scoop up a handful of soil and check on its moisture content. When you squeeze it, does it form a wet, mushy ball? If so, wait until the dirt just holds its shape when pressed, but then breaks apart into a texture resembling crumbly chocolate cake when you let go. If you till and turn your garden while the earth is still wet and mushy, you will risk compacting your soil. It’s best to wait till things dry out a bit more. Covering your soil with IRT, (infra-red transmitting), plastic will help warm and dry your soil and keep down weeds – so if you are impatient, this is a product worth investing in for quicker results. It’s also important for the soil to warm up enough for seed to germinate. For cool crops, like peas, spinach and radishes, this date is quite early, (as soon as soil is workable), but for other crops, such as cucumbers and squash, it’s important to wait until the last frost date. A soil thermometer is an inexpensive tool, and a worthwhile addition to your garden tote. Use it to match soil temps to the guidelines on the back of seed packets, or charts available online, (see below for more)…

Turning green sand, leaves and compost into recently uncovered raised beds. To the right, wire mesh for snow peas is embedded into the mounded soil…

It’s always important to test your soil’s pH and nutrient levels in spring, and again in fall. If you need some information about testing your soil, click back here to my post on the subject from last year. The best time to amend garden soil is in the fall, but if you need to adjust your pH, get on that right away, as it takes awhile for the soil’s natural chemistry to adjust! Adding compost, and perhaps green sand, (a natural soil conditioner), is the first thing you will want to do when your soil is friable. Deep, loose soil is key to growing good produce – particularly root crops. Using a garden fork, work compost into the top layer of soil, loosening the layers with a rocking motion as you go. When your soil is thoroughly dry, turn it again  - ideally with both a shovel and a fork-  removing any rocks and/or weeds. When you have prepared the soil to your satisfaction, rake it over smoothly and let it rest and warm….

Turning in compost and edging the raised mounds…

If your have been gardening for awhile, you likely have some activity going on in the garden already. In my own garden, some perennial herbs, garlic greens and cold-crop seeds are already emerging. After pulling back mulch this weekend, I was pleased to see that the sorrel, (Rumex acetosa) , is looking -and tasting- fine! New green growth is showing on the chives, mesclun greens are popping up everywhere I look, and the ‘Spanish Roja’, ‘Music’, ‘German Red’ and ‘Continental’ garlic -planted last fall- are all off to a good start. Crops in the hoop-houses are about to be re-sown, and I am just now planting my spring snow peas, (hoop-houses and row-covers are two excellent choices for protecting early season crops). Some gardeners start peas very early, but I have discovered that seed started in early April catches up very quickly with peas started in March, with no delay in harvest. Earlier sowing wasn’t possible this year due to the wet weather, but peas are a fast-growing and reliable crop to plant throughout spring. I like to sow a few rows in succession, insuring a steady supply of peas throughout the spring and early summer.

I will be writing much more about vegetable gardening as the growing season progresses. But for now, my best advice is to start slowly. Test and amend your soil as soon as it is friable. Check your seed packets for optimum soil temperature, and sow when the soil consistently reaches this level. Be sure to harden off seedlings, (in a protected outdoor place during the daytime), of all kinds before transplanting. Need help with last frost dates? Seed Planting Dates? Check with the Old Farmer’s Almanac online. The Almanac is a great resource for all growing region…

Uncovering sorrel, protected by leaf mulch, in the herb garden

Emerging Mesclun Mix…

Spanish Roja Garlic emerging in the raised beds, with a new layer of compost added…

Beautiful emerging mesclun mix on a rainy day…

Presenting The Gardener’s Eden Anniversary Give-Away # 1

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible (10th Anniversary Edition)

I’m a professional gardener, so I need to have an extensive library of horticultural titles on hand, from the simple to the complex. And, as the result of my workshops and coaching work, I recommend many books to gardeners throughout the year. But there is one vegetable gardening book I recommend above all others: Edward C. Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible is simply written, scientifically sound, and beautifully organized. This is the perfect book for vegetable gardeners of all levels. If you don’t own one, I suggest you flip through a copy at your local bookstore – it’s a gem. And at the end of this month, one lucky reader will receive a complimentary copy of the new, 10th Anniversary edition of this vegetable gardening classic from The Gardener’s Eden! Today and every Wednesday though out the month of April, in honor of our first anniversary, The Gardener’s Eden will be giving away a special gift to one reader. In order to enter, correctly answer the question below in the comment section of this article. Be sure to post your answer prior to the 12:00 pm Eastern Time cut-off. Only one entry per reader, per give-away please. The winner will be chosen at random from all of the correct entries received, and will be notified by email. Gift recipients will also be announced both here on the blog and on our Facebook Page. So now…

The first question is, (this is an easy one): What is the name of Michaela’s garden? In order to enter the contest, please post your answer in comments here on the blog, (not on the Facebook page). All email addresses will remain unpublished and kept in complete confidence. Your email will only be used to notify you if you have won. Good Luck!

* In order to provide each reader with an equal chance to win, your comment/ entry will not appear until 4/8*

Entry Deadline is Midnight, Eastern Time, 4/7/10

***

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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***

A Rhapsody in Blue: Selecting and Planting Vaccinium corymbosum, (Highbush Blueberry), Plus a Favorite Recipe for Blueberry-Lemon Bread…

March 31st, 2010 § 11

A Rhapsody in Blue 

What would you say if I told you that I know of an amazing cold-hardy shrub, with creamy, bell-like spring flowers, glossy green leaves, brilliant fall foliage, colorful winter stems and an attractive, well-rounded form? Interested yet? It may come as a surprise that the shrub I am describing is none other than the common highbush blueberry, (Vaccinium corymbosum). Of course, the highbush blueberry is widely cultivated for its delicious fruit, but it’s often overlooked as a useful addition to ornamental gardens. Native to eastern North America, this gorgeous shrub can be found growing wild in acidic soil from central Canada all the way down to Florida, with a western range from Minnesota, south to Louisiana. Typically reaching a mature size of 8-12 feet high and wide, highbush blueberries are most commonly found in USDA zones 3-7. Although lowbush blueberries,(Vaccinium angustifolium), are also a fine and quite hardy shrub -famously grown for fruit in the state of Maine- they too are are rarely grown in ornamental gardens. This is a shame, as lowbush blueberries make a fine ground cover, producing pollinator-friendly blossoms and very sweet fruit. They also display beautiful autumn color.

If you live in a climate with lengthy cool seasons, highbush blueberries are easy to cultivate either in the vegetable garden, berry patch or mixed border. This is a relatively long-lived shrub, with few pests and diseases. When provided with the proper conditions, blueberry bushes make fantastic garden plants. Although Vaccinium corymbosum are generally trouble-free, a few growing tips will help increase berry yield and plant health…

Vaccinium corymbosum autumn color

In life, I often find that a group of diverse, mixed company creates great culture. With blueberry varieties this is especially true. When buying plants, keep in mind that for best pollination and fruit set, you should choose two different varieties of blueberry bushes that bloom at the same time. If you would like fruit throughout the season, try growing several different varieties in the same patch. When choosing plants, ask a local grower which varieties grow and produce best in your area. Some excellent early to midseason varieties include ‘Blueray’,’Duke’ and ‘Berkeley’. For later fruit try ‘Jersey Blue’ and ‘Elliot’ varieties. Again, ask your local grower for some recommendations. Remember that every variety will have a slightly different flavor.

When growing blueberries, one of the most important aspects of cultivation to consider is soil acidity. All blueberry bushes prefer a pH below 5, with an ideal range between 4.5 and 4.8. Be sure to test your soil pH with a kit. If your soil is more alkaline (even neutral is too alkaline for blueberries) you may lower the pH by adding sulfur, pine needles and/or other naturally acidic materials both to the soil and as a regular top-dressing in mulch. Blueberries are shallow-rooted plants and they require moist, but well-drained soil. Unless your garden receives at least an inch or two of rain per week, you will want to water your shrubs. The best way to keep soil moist and plants weed-free is to apply a wood chip/pine needle mulch. When planting new blueberry bushes, be sure not to plant too deeply. Keep the top of the pot level even with your existing soil, and add 1/3 peat moss to the planting mix when you backfill the dirt. Be sure to saturate the soil and peat, as well as the planting hole, with water. Do not fertilize your blueberry bushes for 2-3 months after planting. Once the plants are established, use an organic fertilizer in spring at bloom time, and again 3 weeks later while fruit is setting. Plants should not be fertilized later than this, and never in summer  or fall as the shrubs may suffer winter damage on soft wood ….

Fresh washed blueberries from the garden

In general, when grown for fruit, highbush blueberries should have 5-10′ of spacing, (depending upon variety). But if you are planting in rows, space plants 4-5′ apart in rows with 8-10′ separation. Some growers recommend removal of flowers in the first season for a better crop the second year. This is optional. No pruning is needed in the first three years, but in the fourth season, thinning may begin during dormancy, (late winter/very early spring). Remove weak branches, and any branches restricting sunlight and airflow at the center of the shrub. If fruit is your primary goal, aim for 12 healthy, strong canes per plant. The younger wood will produce the best fruit, so choose a good mix of branches, removing older sections each year.

By following these simple tips, delicious and health fruit will soon be on the way! But beware: birds love to eat blueberries too. If you grow Vaccinium corymbosum solely for ornamental value, then maybe you will leave the fruit on these shrubs for our birds to enjoy. However, if you are growing blueberries as a crop -perhaps as a hedging plant in your potager- you must cover the shrubs from the time of fruit set ’til the point of harvest. My father always used tobacco netting on his highbush blueberries, and I tend to recommend it or the modern-day equivalent, Remay. Plastic netting is hazardous to birds and other creatures, and I find Remay or tobacco netting work as well, or better.

And now, what do you say? Shall we use up some of those plump and delicious blue fruits? Oh, of course! Why not? A couple of weeks back, I featured a favorite recipe for Blueberry Hill Hotcakes and Syrup. They are scrumptious. Over the weekend, I was feeling the blues again, (maybe it was all the rain?). So I took to the kitchen. But this time around, I whipped up my favorite blueberry-lemon bread. This versatile recipe can also be used as a muffin mix, if you’re in the mood for a tasty-treat to-go. The lemony-sugar-syrup is optional, but I find it provides an extra bit of moisture and an added kiss of sweetness – plus I love the shimmery-effect on top. And although frozen blueberries work well here… there’s nothing quite like the fresh berries we will be enjoying later in the year. On a quiet weekend morning, I’m always in the mood for a rhapsody in blue…

Blueberry-Lemon-Bread-Muffins-thegardenersedenBlueberry Lemon Bread / Muffins, photo © 2010 Michaela at TGE

Blueberry-Lemon Bread with Lemon Syrup (or muffins)


Ingredients for one loaf of bread or one dozen average sized muffins:

2          cups all-purpose flour

1          teaspoon baking powder

1          teaspoon baking soda

1/4       teaspoon salt

1/4       cup sugar

2          eggs

1 1/4   cup sour cream

1/4      cup melted butter

1          tablespoon fresh lemon zest

2          cups of fresh or frozen blueberries

Lemon Syrup:

1/2      cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

1/2      cup of sugar

4          tablespoons water

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375°. Butter one 9″ x 5″ x 3″ bread pan or two muffin tins.

To make batter: Toss flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, combine eggs, sugar, sour cream, melted butter and lemon zest and beat until well mixed. Add dry ingredients to wet and mix until just blended. Add blueberries and stir lightly to combine.

Pour the batter into the bread pan or muffin tins, (each muffin tin should be filled to 2/3 full). Bake bread for 50 minutes to 1 hour or until top is golden brown and a wooden stick comes out clean after inserted at center. If baking muffins, 15-20 minutes in the hot oven should do the trick.

To make the optional lemon syrup: combine the ingredients in a small saucepan and boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat and set aside.

After removing bread or muffins from the oven, prick the top with wooden stick, (all over for bread, or in 3 or 4 places per muffin). Drizzle the lemon-syrup slowly over the surface. Allow the lemon-bread or muffins to cool for 10 or 15 minutes before slicing or removing from the tins.

Serve warm with Earl Grey tea and fresh blueberries if they are in season. If you skip the syrup, the muffins also taste great with a bit of butter and honey.

Mixy, mixy…

 For further inspiration, there’s always…

Gershwin: Rhapsody In Blue/An American In Paris

Photography & Text ⓒ Michaela Medina Harlow/The Gardener’s Eden. All images, articles and content on this site (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Please do not take my photographs without asking first. Thank you! 

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Welcome, Soft Harbinger of Spring: Oh Come to Me, My Sweet Willow…

March 19th, 2010 § 4

Salix discolor: North American native pussy willow © 2010 Michaela at TGE

Salix discolor, North American native pussy willow – Pitcher by Aletha Soulé. Photo © Michaela TGE

Welcome! Oh welcome sweet, silver-tipped harbinger of springtime. Is there anything that makes a heart race faster than the sight of the first pussy willow catkins in March? I should probably install a blinking sign on the back of my vehicle; “Warning: I break for pussy willow”. Yes, it’s true. I am quite the springtime roadside hazard. Fortunately, the mud-slicked trails I travel in search of Salix discolor, (as our North American native pussywillow is formally called), are usually avoided by traffic at this time of year. Yesterday afternoon, after a bit of swampy adventure, I returned home with a flush in my cheeks and armfuls of downy-budded branches. I love the beautiful, soft texture and the sculptural quality of pussy willow arrangements.

Salix discolor is a North American native shrub or small, understory tree, (5-15′ tall and perhaps 8′ wide). Often found beside brooks and forest streams, or in low-lying thickets and swamps from Canada to Georgia, the pussy willow is hardy to USDA zones 4-7. Stands of Salix discolor form important wetland habitat for nesting birds and other creatures. Mindful of this, I have been carefully harvesting where shrubs are plentiful, and making clean cuts with my Felco pruners.

Pussy willow are easy to propagate from springtime cuttings, (this is a good project to try with kids!). Simply harvest pliant, year-old branches, (approximately 18-24″ long), and keep stems in a vase of water in a sunny spot. Plant whips outside when roots have formed, right after the last frost date in your area. This year I harvested some branches to use in everlasting arrangements, and some to propagate for my garden. Pussy willow make wonderful, textural-interst shrubs for wetland transition areas in the naturalized landscape. I hope to propagate enough for future cutting as well as for enjoying in the permanent landscape. Remember, these native shrubs are fantastic cover for small birds in the garden too. If you harvest pussy willow for arrangements, and would like the catkins to remain in their silvery, bud-like state, place them in a vase without water to halt development. The preserved twigs and branches can be used in wreaths or other decorations, and will remain beautiful throughout the year. If placed in water, the catkins will slowly develop a greenish cast or “bloom” and eventually, alternate, oval-shaped leaves will spout along the branches. Plant Salix discolor in a garden low spot, where it will catch spring run-off and moisture throughout the seasons…

Salix discolor, North American native pussy willow © Michaela at TGE

Salix discolor – vase by Aletha Soulé. Photo © Michaela at TGE

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Article and photographs copyright 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden. All rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Think Spring: It’s Time to Start Sowing Early Kitchen Garden Seeds …

February 5th, 2010 § 1

The kitchen garden at Ferncliff, late May 2009 …

It’s always exciting when the first boxes of vegetable, herb and flower seed begin to arrive in the mail. I know, I know. I am a bit like a little kid – but I have to check the mail every day to see if there is something waiting for me in that big metal box at the foot of the hill. The Johnny’s package from Maine always arrives first, then Botanical Interests from Colorado, and then Renee’s Garden Seeds way out in California, (hello California, I miss you!).  The first thing I do is open the box and just pour over all the pretty envelopes. I have to get that part out of my system. Then I begin grouping the seeds in order of sowing. Since I will start the onions, leeks and herbs in a week or so, those will be bundled together in the front. The cabbage, broccoli and other cold-hardy crops will be started in waves. Some will go into the hoop houses and some will be started indoors this year beneath grow lights. Oh, so much potential. I can’t wait.

First seed packets arriving …

There will be much to do and talk about in the coming weeks. For now, I just want to go over some very basic information for new gardeners, especially for those starting their own seeds for the first time. Many seed companies also have tutorials on their sites, and I recommend you visit those pages as well. The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Ed Smith is an excellent resource for new gardeners, and a good reference book for more experienced green-thumbs…

Photo © Tim Geiss

1. Sort through your seeds: Check the back of the packets for planting information. Some seeds are best started indoors, (such as onions, leeks, tomatoes, peppers, etc), especially in cold climates, and some seeds are best direct-sown, (such as peas, beets, carrots, radish, etc). If you have left over seed from last fall, you can use those seed this spring. I have left over spinach and broccoli raab to use before I open the new packs later this year. Check expiration dates. You can and should try older seeds if you have them, but be aware that if your seeds haven’t been stored properly, (cool, dry, dark location), you may not have as much success with germination.

2. Gather free-draining containers and trays: You can buy starter cells, peat-pots or plastic cells online or at your local garden center if you like, but this isn’t absolutely necessary. Seeds can be started in empty milk and egg cartons, sliced up paper towel and toilet paper rolls, homemade newspaper pots, (more on this later), and recycled, (sterilized), six packs from garden centers. Starting seed need not be expensive or difficult. The most important thing is good drainage, so be sure to poke holes in whatever ‘pots’ you create from recycled materials. I absolutely encourage you to experiment with containers! I like to set my free draining pots in plastic or metal trays to catch water and provide moisture.

3. Purchase good quality, organic seed starting mix: It’s possible to make your own mix, of course, but if you are just starting out, I am going to suggest that you buy a good quality, well-drained  seed starting medium from a local garden center. This isn’t expensive, and starter soil is very important. Do not use regular potting soil, as it is too heavy, (doesn’t drain well), and will reduce your germination and success rate.

4. Time your starting: Look at the last frost date for your area and count the weeks back. If you live in New England, you will be starting things like onions, leeks and cabbage this month. If you live in a slightly warmer climate, you may be starting tomatoes and peppers this month. I like to use the Farmer’s Almanac online as a resource for last-frost date.

5. Get started with planting:  Begin by filling your cells with moist starter mix. I like to moisten the mix first and then put it into the starter pots. This way, I won’t be washing the delicate seeds out when I add water. Read the seed packet to get the proper planting depth, especially if this is your first time starting seeds. I like to plant 2-3 seeds per cell, filling all the cells in my flats, and then I cover them, (but don’t smother, loosely cover above the soil), with clear plastic. You needn’t purchase special covers to do this, but it can be helpful. In cold, drafty homes a heating pad is very helpful to maintain the 70 degree temperature recommended for most seed germination.  Some seeds will germinate in a matter of days, and some will take weeks, (again, check the back of your packets). Be sure to keep those cells moist, but not soggy.

6. Provide light: Once you see seeds germinating, you want to immediately place the trays beneath fluorescent/full-spectrum light bulbs. The light will need to be within a couple of inches of the seedlings, or the seedlings will grow long and spindly as they reach for the light. The grow-lights should be raised as the plants grow, keeping the light source very close. Many gardeners purchase special grow lights, but once again, this isn’t necessary. I know very successful home gardeners using shop lights or other home-built contraptions, but please be safe. Lights can be left on 24 hours, and because many fires start electrically, I encourage you to use caution.

7. Water: Again, keep the seedlings moist, but not soggy. By placing your seed containers in trays, as I mentioned above, you can water from the bottom by adding water to the tray, reducing the risk of water-logging and wash-outs as the seedlings grow.

8. Fertilize: When seedlings develop their first real leaves, as opposed to the little, itty bitty leaves you see when the plants emerge from the soil, you can begin giving the seedlings an organic starter fertilizer or weak fish-emulsion mix. Look for either of these products in a local garden center.

9. Provide air circulation: Two things will be necessary as plants grow. First, thin your seedlings. Look for the strongest seedling in each cell and then with clean, sharp scissors, cut off the one or two other seedlings right down to the soil line. Be careful, but be ruthless! This thinning will reduce competition and improve air-flow. And speaking of airflow, it may help to have a small fan nearby and run this for at least a few hours every day. Air circulation is very important for reducing the spread of fungus.

Whew. Well, that ought to get you started! I will continue with tips for transplanting and hardening off in another week or so. But for now… enjoy looking over and reading those beautiful packets and all the promise they hold. Get familiar with your seeds – it will make you a better gardener !

Some of my favorites from last fall: Renee’s Garden Seeds – Long Standing Spinach and Broccoli Raab…

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All content in this article, (with noted exceptions), is © 2010 The Gardener’s Eden, all rights reserved.

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A New Year’s Resolution for Gardeners: Making Informed Choices About Gardening Practices and Products to Support a Healthy, Natural Environment…

January 5th, 2010 § 3

We  ♥ Mother Earth

The new year often brings about a desire for change and personal reckoning. We make promises, resolutions and plans to better ourselves and the world around us. Over the past couple of years, many people have committed to building environmentally conscious, self-sufficient lives. As a result, gardening, particularly vegetable gardening, has re-emerged as a popular interest and hobby.

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This return to the earth is a good thing. But it is important to remember that even in our backyard vegetable plots and tiny rooftop potagers, the way we garden, and the products and practices we choose for our gardens, all have lasting consequences for our environment. Every action we take in the natural world must be considered carefully. Words like “organic”, “green”. “sustainable” and “eco” are being tossed about freely these days. Buzz words can sometimes be confusing and misleading.

Perhaps the single most important thing we can do as gardeners is to educate ourselves. There are many websites, magazines and books written to help inform gardeners about environmentally sound horticultural practices. If you are new to gardening, or even if you have been tending a plot for decades, publications such as Organic Gardening Magazine, and books, particularly Linda Chalker-Scott’s The Informed Gardener, and Jeff Gillman’s The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line, are essential for up-to-date, accurate scientific information. I will be writing much more about this topic come springtime, but winter is also a great time of year to read and research these important topics, before you begin planting your garden.

If I can send one message out to new gardeners it is this: just because a product or practice is organic, it doesn’t mean that it should be applied or adopted indiscriminately. Take organic pesticides for example. Even OMRI, (Organic Materials Review Institute), approved substances such pyrethrin, rotenone and neem, can be harmful or deadly to beneficial insects, including honeybees and ladybugs. All pesticides, even organic products, should be used sparingly, and only as a last resort in gardens. The best way to avoid diseases and harmful insect infestations is to provide garden plants with the growing conditions they require, and to avoid mono-culture, (growing large numbers of only a few kinds of plants), and environmental stress.

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For new gardeners, I highly recommend learning the basics of vegetable gardening from respected teachers and authors. Edward C. Smith’s The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible (10th Anniversary Edition), is an excellent place to start. In addition, Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver, by author Fern Marshall Bradley, can serve as helpful reference to all gardeners. Also remember to take advantage of free, reliable online resources, such as beneficial insect identification sites. Three great online pages: The easy and fun Insectidentification.org, the comprehensive Texas A&M University Vegetable IPM site, and of course Cornell University’s Vegetable MD Online all offer excellent photographs and descriptions to help gardeners recognize natural allies and pick up on small problems before they become large and unmanageable.

I am not a big New Year’s resolutions kind of gal, but January is a good time to turn a new leaf, (even if the trees are still naked). So if you are planning your first vegetable garden this spring, or even if you have been growing your own food for many years, I hope the first leaf you turn this year dangles from the tree of knowledge. Education is a life-long process. With the help of solid, scientific information, we can work with nature to cultivate a safer, healthier garden environment for all…

The Nasturtium Seat in the Potager at Ferncliff

Early Greens in the Potager at Ferncliff


The Informed Gardener by horticulturalist, Linda Chalker-Scott

Rodale’s Magazine, Organic Gardening (2-year)

Jeff Gillaman’s The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line

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Article and photographs are copyright 2010, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

This article originally appeared as a guest post at The Honeybee Conservancy Blog, please pay this important non-profit cause a visit !

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express written consent. Please do not use article excerpts or photographs featured here without contacting me first. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Thank you !

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In a Golden Orchard, Dreaming …

November 13th, 2009 § 2

Stowe Mt. Orchard November, closer shotA 100-hundred-year-old orchard in Vermont, with restoration pruning

Stowe Mt. Orchard Lower PocketThe un-restored lower section of the same orchard …

Lovely place for an afternoon stroll, isn’t it? Yesterday I found myself with an extra hour of time around sunset, and I decided to go for a walk in this old apple grove surrounded by golden fields near my home. The light was low and hazy, and the red and yellow apples shone brightly against the grey bark of the trees. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be involved in the restoration of this beautiful orchard, and the project re-ignited apple growing dreams of my own…

The orchard pictured above is not a working fruit farm, it is simply part of a lovely old farmhouse estate in southern Vermont. Although the original owners certainly grew, and perhaps sold fruit or cider at one time, the orchard never operated as a serious commercial enterprise. Planted professionally more than one hundred years ago, these trees were always part of a private grove. Many years ago, small orchards like this one were commonplace, and most old farmsteads in New England still have a few craggy fruit trees scattered about. The trees on this property do bear some apples, (mostly enjoyed by local deer), however, the goal of the current owners has always been to preserve the history and beauty of this place, not to grow fruit…

Stowe Mountain Orchard Lost Forest FruitStowe Mountain Orchard: Lost Forest Fruit

I am just beginning the practical planning stages involved in realizing my orchard dream. In the northern parts of the United States and Canada, (USDA zone 8 and colder), the best time to plant fruit trees is in the spring. With this in mind, it makes sense to plot and prepare a planting site in fall. Whether you are toying with the idea of a couple of apple trees, or considering a larger home orchard filled with peaches, plums and pears, now is a good time to think about the best location for those trees and to test and amend the soil for spring planting.

A well-planned orchard can produce fruit for at least one hundred years. With this in mind, selecting a permanent site for fruit trees is very important. The first steps in planning a home orchard are to research what kinds of fruit trees do well in your area, and to decide what varieties you would like to grow. This will help you to determine how much space you need to allow for your trees and for the service areas in your planting plan. The distance between individual trees is dependent upon the cultivars grown. Many dwarf fruit trees are available to home gardeners, and they are a good choice if you have a small yard. Of course it goes without saying that fruit trees must be planted in full sun. Trees planted too closely will shade one another, reducing crop yield on the lower branches. Some other key factors amongst the many to be considered include air drainage on the property, cross pollination and coordinated bloom time, and all-important soil chemistry and structure. Honey bee hives may play a role in my future orchard, so I will be researching this topic as well.

In the early stages of preparing for my home orchard, as much of the work will be done beside the fire as will be accomplished with a tractor. At this stage, a significant amount of research and study is involved. In addition to consulting with local experts, I will be reviewing a few favorite titles in my horticultural library. If you, or someone you know is interested in growing fruit, the books below offer excellent information and guidance. I love the idea of an ornamental grove  on my property that also produces delicious food for my table. So I will be cozying up with some books beside the fire over the coming weeks while I continue to dream of a golden orchard all my own…

If you are considering growing apple or other fruit trees, it’s a good idea to educate yourself. The following books are all available, (click title for link to Amazon.com), in paperback. All of these titles are under $30, and three are under $20…

The Best Apples to Buy And Grow (BBG)

The Best Apples to Buy and Grow (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide)
Beth Hanson

Growing Fruit RHS Harry Baker

Growing Fruit (RHS Encyclopedia of Practical Gardening)
Harry Baker

the Backyard Orchardist stella otto

The Backyard Orchardist: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruit Trees in the Home Garden
Stella Otto

The Apple Grower, Michael Phillips

The Apple Grower: Guide for the Organic Orchardist
Michael Phillips

Article and photographs copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’ Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express consent. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams …

Rich, Beautiful, Dreamy Dirt…

November 6th, 2009 § 7

A nice delicious bowl of…. dirt?

Has someone been making mud-pies? Sometimes I think I got into gardening because I never grew up. Yes, I know, that is a silly photo. But I couldn’t help myself. All the cooking blogs and magazines showcase gorgeous, slightly-off center bowls filled with the most mouthwatering food. So I got to thinking – what about the plants? They need to eat too! If plants could read cooking blogs, this photo would really pull them into the recipe – rich, beautiful, dreamy DIRT !

There is nothing more exciting to me than playing in a big, sun-warmed pile of dirt. I just love it. And of all the gardens I work in, it’s the vegetable plots I get really excited about - think of all those mounds and mounds of dirt! So, right now I am having a ball, because fall is when I usually plan and prep new vegetable plots. This is the best time of year to test and supplement garden soil, because it takes awhile for organic materials to decompose and for pH to change, (more on that in just a bit…). If I make adjustments now, the soil chemistry will have plenty of time to correct before next year’s planting season rolls around. So I have been playing with dirt a lot lately. Glee !

Great vegetable gardens always begin with beautiful, fertile earth. And every kitchen gardener wants a productive potager filled with healthy plants and colorful, plump, delicious vegetables. The good news is that building productive soil isn’t magic – it’s simple science. But in order to give plants what they need, a gardener needs to observe soil structure and learn a bit about chemistry…

compost, marigold, spinach

I am going to keep this as simple as possible, because most of us aren’t aiming to turn our backyards into farm-schools – we just want our little plots to produce good food! It really only takes a half an hour, a few supplies, and a little effort to get the basic answers you need about your soil’s fertility and, if need be, how to correct it.

Plants require Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus, (P) and Potassium, (K) in order to steadily grow a strong framework and create vigorous, richly colored leaves. Plants with insufficient nitrogen often look yellowish and unhealthy, and if a garden is low in phosphorus, plants will be stunted and produce poorly, (a purplish cast on tomatoes is a common sign of phosphorus deficiency). Potassium deficiency is harder to detect, but equally problematic. Plants suffering from potassium deficiency are internally weak; unable to control moisture and distribute nutrients, among other things. And perhaps most important of all, in order for a plant to absorb N, P and K, the soil needs to have the correct pH level. Nutrients will not dissolve in water that is too acid or too alkaline, and unless nutrients dissolve in water, plants can not absorb them through their roots. No one wants to starve their garden! How can a garden feed us, unless we feed it ?

A simple and fun way to find out about your garden’s soil chemistry is to buy a home soil-testing kit. This is a great project to do with kids. Basic soil chemistry kits are inexpensive, (almost always under ten dollars for a basic kit, and under 20 for more extensive testing), and can be purchased in most garden centers and mail-order supply stores online. The kit I use most frequently requires a one to five ratio of dirt to water for testing nutrients. So I begin by scooping up a cup of soil from the garden, or if I am working in a large garden and want to do various tests, I will take a cup from several different areas, (marking the sample with a location note)…

Soil Sample for TestingSoil sample scooped from the vegetable garden. Take your sample 4-5 inches below the surface for best results…

I usually test soil pH first, since I only need a small amount of dry soil, (see photo below). This particular soil-testing kit requires that I add soil to the first line of the test-tube. I then add pH reactive powder, (it’s non-toxic and safe for kids to handle), from the color-coded kit, add water to the top line, replace the cap and shake the vial, (ideally distilled water, which you can get in most supermarkets, should be used for all of these tests). This test-tube is set aside while I continue with the rest of my experiments…

Dirt in a vile for pH testing...The first test is for pH…

Next, I take my cup of garden soil and place it in a glass, ceramic or plastic bowl. To the dirt, I add five cups of water and stir thoroughly. This muddy mixture needs to settle for at least ten minutes. So, while I am waiting, I investigate the results of my pH testing…

Dirt in a Bowl plus WaterNext, five cups of water are added to one cup of soil, stirred and left to settle 10 minutes or so…

Below you will see pH test-results from two different vegetable gardens. The color of the water will range from dark green to bright orange, with green indicating alkalinity and orange, acidity. It sometimes helps to put a piece of white paper in back of the tube when comparing the color-results with the pH chart. The first test, (A: directly below), indicates that the pH is just slightly more acidic than neutral. Most plants prefer a pH in this range – but it is always a good idea to know the exact preference of your crops. Soil testing kits usually come with a small pamphlet about this, but if not you can look this information up in a good gardening book, (see recommended book linked below). The third photo, (B), indicates alkaline soil. The soil in this garden will need to be amended in order for plants to properly absorb nutrients…

pH test in progressTest A: Slightly acidic soil

soil testing kit color barTesting chart

Ph test alkalineTest B: Here is an alkaline soil sample, (it actually looked darker greener than it appears in this photo). This soil will need to be amended with organic matter and/or agricultural sulfur this fall in order to bring it closer to the acid-neutral range.

Soil that is too acidic for vegetable gardening can be corrected, (or ‘sweetened’ as farmers sometimes say), with lime. Limestone and wood ash both raise pH. Organic lime can be purchased at most garden/home centers. Be sure to follow instructions and wear a mask when spreading lime on soil. Wood ash is an old-fashioned remedy for poor soil, and it is useful because ash also adds magnesium and potassium. If nutrient testing reveals low potassium, then wood ash is a good, economical supplement for an acidic vegetable garden. However, if the garden soil is alkaline, (as in test B), wood ash should not be added.

If test results reveal alkaline soil, (as in vial B, above), there are two ways to lower the pH. The best long-term solution for improving alkaline soil is to add organic matter. Composted oak leaves, pine needles, peat moss or untreated sawdust are all good supplements. However, it takes time for these additives to work. So, if you are looking for faster results, or your soil is very alkaline, (like test B, above), then adding agricultural grade sulfur makes sense. This supplement can be purchased at garden centers and it is applied in the same manner as lime. Always work additives into the soil with a garden fork after they have been applied, and then cover the bed with a good, thick layer of compost.

For the next three tests, (N,P,K), samples are drawn from the bowl containing the soil-water mix. Take care not to disturb the settled soil when obtaining the samples. There is a bit of organic matter floating in the tubes shown below. A small amount is OK, (it can be tricky to get a clean catch in super organic soil, especially for little hands), but try to keep as much as possible out. Your results won’t be skewed from a bit of floating debris, so no worries if some gets in the tube. Next add the reactive powder to each vial, replacing the color-coded cap to match the test. Be sure your caps are on tight! Then, shake the tubes and wait another 5 to 10 minutes for color-results…

soil test with some depletionsHere are some test results for K, N and P  - The Potash, (orange) content is good. Nitrogen, (purple) is very low, and the Phosphorus is depleted, in fact it’s just about non-existent !

When the color in the tubes has developed, match your results with the chart provided in the testing kit. Low and depleted levels of nutrients can be corrected with organic supplements. Low nitrogen? Good compost will raise the nitrogen in garden soil and fish emulsion or blood meal will also correct low nitrogen. During the growing season, cover crops like alfalfa can also be turned into the soil to raise nitrogen levels. How you improve soil fertility depends upon when you are correcting the situation and how depleted the soil is. In cold climates, adding a rich layer of compost to the soil in fall will often do the trick for correcting fertility in the long term. But if levels are particularly depleted, additional supplements may be needed. The phosphorus test above indicates complete depletion. To improve this situation, rock phosphate is recommended. Like the other supplements mentioned, this can be purchased at any garden center. Always follow instructions on the bag. The orange-capped test above indicates ample potassium. If potassium is low however, it can be improved by adding granite-dust, greensand or wood ashes. But remember, wood ashes will raise pH. Only add wood ashes if your pH test indicates acidic soil. And remember, you can add supplements like greensand and rock phosphate to your compost as well – they are all natural…

compost:hands

In addition to checking soil chemistry, it is important to have a look at soil structure. If a garden has particularly sandy soil, or clay soil with poor drainage, now is a good time to add organic matter to the garden. Compost, leaf-mold, clean straw and other organic matter can be worked in and raked over the garden in the autumn. This healthy mix of ingredients will continue to decompose over the winter months, building a healthy, hearty stew for next year’s plants.

Building a vegetable garden, testing and building soil can be fun and rewarding for kids. This soil testing process is a great way to teach young gardeners about practical science. For less than $20, a real-life skill can be acquired while having a great time. For more information about creating great vegetable gardens, I highly recommend Edward C. Smith’s book, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible , linked below. This book is easy to read and follow, and it makes a great gift for beginning vegetable gardeners, (and even the more experienced, for reference!)…

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Article and photographs copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express written permission. Inspired by something you see here? It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Gardening Beyond the Harvest Moon: Extending the Growing Season with Hoop-House Cold Frames…

September 8th, 2009 § 25

September’s Harvest Moon

It may seem a little premature to be writing about cold frames and frost on a beautiful late summer day, (sunny with daytime temps in the 70′s here in Vermont). But the gorgeous Harvest Moon this past weekend served as a reminder that we are nearing the end of the growing season in the northeast. Nights are getting cooler now, warning us that fall is coming and frost will soon be on the way. Although I am excited about the coming autumn, I am definitely not ready to give up my homegrown produce. So I won’t – at least not until December. I don’t have a greenhouse yet, but there are plenty of late-season, cool-weather crops to plant now and enjoy later. In order to extend my growing season last year, I began using hoop-house style cold frames in my kitchen garden to protect a few beds from frost. Unheated cold frames can save many vegetables from killing frosts, including tender herbs such as basil and rosemary, and mature warm-weather crops such as cherry tomatoes and peppers. Later, my spinach, chard, and broccoli will be protected inside the hoop-houses from harder freezes in late November and early December. By using hoop-houses to protect my crops, I was able to extend my growing season by more than two months last year.

Constructing a basic cold frame is a great two-person weekend project for early September. Cold frames are nothing more than unheated miniature greenhouses, and they are useful at both ends of the growing season. By protecting crops from frost with hoop-houses, cold-climate gardeners can still enjoy some vegetables into early December or longer. I now keep four hoop-houses installed in my potager throughout the winter. Although I am not able to make use of the garden in January and February, come spring the soil in these 4′ x 8′ beds will be warm and ready for planting weeks before the rest of the garden is clear of snow. Baby salad greens, spinach, broccoli and other cool-season crops can get a protected jump-start beneath the warm plastic of the mini-greenhouses. Hoop-houses are also a great way to protect and warm plants requiring extra heat, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant in the early part of the growing season.

Hoop house with baby greens and chardBasic hoop-house cold frame protecting baby greens and chard

For someone with a few basic carpentry skills, a hoop-house is a simple project. If you can operate a skill saw and a screw gun, the assembly will be relatively easy. If not, maybe you can offer to share some produce with a handy friend or neighbor in exchange for a bit of help. Although the tasks involved in building a cold frame aren’t complex, this is definitely a two-person job. The simple design of the frame takes advantage of standard sized lumber, (8′ length), and only one cut is necessary to create the base. The ends of the wood are butted and screwed together with coated deck screws. Plastic tubing is cut to length with a hack saw and attached to the inside of the frame with pipe clamps. Then, ( to build an open-ended house), plastic is stretched over the tubes, folded beneath the rectangle frame and stapled to the inside edge of the wood. I keep the plastic ends on my un-sided hoop-houses folded closed with metal clamps. A plywood back and vent can be added on one side of the hoop-house for greater function and durability. I use both styles. Cold frames are inexpensive to build, and when cared for properly, they can be used for years. With longevity in mind, it makes sense to seal the wood parts with oil to protect them from moisture. Maintenance is simple; occasionally, if you use your hoop-house throughout the winter in a snowy climate, the plastic may tear and need to be replaced. The cost of materials to create two simple cold frames in 2008 was about $74.50, (adding plywood and a vent to the back added an additional $25 per unit for a total of $62.25 each). Your costs may be higher or lower, depending upon where you live, where you shop, and what kind of bargain-hunter you are.

If you have some experience building things, and would like to make  a cold frame of your own, review the materials list below and read the instructions carefully before you get started. The series of photos here were taken at various points during the construction of two hoop-house sets; one set was made with a vented ply-wood end, and one set was constructed without. I would recommend starting with the basic hoop house first. If you feel comfortable with the building process you can always add a plywood back later. The photos below can be enlarged by clicking for a closer view of the frame. Keep in mind that these structures are very simply designed. They are only intended to protect your crops from frost and they do not need to be perfect. Go slow and, as they say, measure twice and cut once.

hoop house frame constructionBasic hoop-house cold frame

hoop house stage 1Simple hoop-house cold frame ready for plastic

hoop house plywood with vent, before installationOptional plywood back with vent for greater protection and temperature control

hoop house frame with vent installedVented plywood back installed on basic frame

Hoop house stage 2Covering ventless hoop-house with plastic; pulled and stapled to one end of the wood frame

hoop house with vent:plastic installedVented hoop-house with plastic, ready to set in the garden

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Materials List for ONE  4′ x 8′ size hoop-house cold-frame

Tools:

skill saw

hack saw

jig saw (for vent-back model)

screw gun

hardware staple gun

tape measure

Materials from lumber dept.

3  2”x4”x8′  spruce or pine boards

1  full size sheet 1/2″ plywood (for vented-back model)

2  1”x3″strapping (optional, prolongs life of plastic by protecting the stapled inside edge)

Materials from hardware dept.

4 PVC pipe, 1/2″ cut to 6′ lengths, (or slightly larger for a bigger cold frame design)

pipe clamps 1/2″ (can be found in electrical dept)

1/2″ screws for clamps

3″ coated screws for all-weather use, (one small box), for the frame

2″ coated screws (optional for installing vented plywood-back model and for optional strapping at base)

hardware staples

heavy weight 06 mil plastic (we purchased ours online from a greenhouse company)

1 foundation vent, ( optional : for vented back hoop-house, *automatic opening is best)

thermometer (optional, for monitoring temps inside hoop houses)

Instructions:

To construct one cold frame you will need three  2” x 4” x 8′ spruce or pine boards. Cut one board in half to create two 4′ length pieces. Set the short boards inside the two long boards to form a box, as shown in the photos above. Screw the pieces together well, using at least two, (3″ coated), screws at each join. This rectangle forms the base of your hoop house. Sealing the wood base with linseed, (or other), sealer is a good idea to preserve the wood. If you do this, you will need to wait about 24 hours dry-time before continuing with the next steps of the project. If you are planning on adding a vented plywood back, this would also be a good time to seal the plywood with oil or stain.

Next, measure and cut your PVC tubing with a hack saw, to approximately 6′ length pieces. Space the tubes evenly on the inside of the frame and affix to the frame with pipe clamps screwed, (1/2″ screws), into the wood. I prefer to measure and mark before attaching for even spacing, setting all the clamps in place first with one screw on each side. When assembling the hoops, it is easiest to affix all pipes to one side of the frame first and then affix the opposite side.

* Note: If you are adding a plywood-vent end, draw a semi-circle outline on your plywood slightly larger than the shape of the hoops, (you can measure out the 4′ bottom edge end and then use one of the cut hoops as an outline for your circle). Cut the plywood semi-circle with a jig saw. Trace the interior shape of your vent in the upper middle of the plywood, and cut with a jig-saw. You may want to err on the tight side and test your vent fit in the opening. You can always make additional cuts with your jig-saw to fit the vent as you go. Finally, install your vent according to manufacturer instructions. Once set, slip the plywood wall inside one end of the hoop house frame, and then screw the plywood in place to the base,(using 2″ coated screws), as shown in the photo above. Clamp the plywood to the end hoops, (at least three points), and screw in place with 1/2″ screws. You are ready for the next steps below.

Once the hoops are evenly in place, lay out the plastic. Do a dry-run and stretch the plastic over the hoop house, checking to be sure that your length of plastic will fit evenly around the hoops with a few inches remaining to fold under the frame and staple. You also want to be sure the plastic is long enough on the open-ends to fold shut on both sides, (and to staple/fold and close the ends of a vented-style house). Be sure to allow some slack to spare before cutting. Once you have completed the dry run, lay out and cut the plastic and set the edge of one long-side, (8′ side), of the hoop house toward the end of the plastic with the remainder of the plastic trailing away from the structure. Be sure to leave a few inches to fold up under the wood frame. It is easier if one person holds the plastic in place while the other staples. Once the first side is secure, pull the plastic up and over the hoop house from the outside, and bring it around, lifting the other edge and setting down, once again with a few inches to spare for folding. This time you will be working from inside the enclosed hoop-house, so it may be helpful for the second person to hold up the finished end slightly for ease of stapling the other side. (Optional: For extra durability, it is useful to add strapping to cover the stapled plastic edge. To do this, cut a 3 1/2′ piece of strapping and lay it over the stapled plastic edge, and screw it in place with 2″ coated screws. This will help protect the plastic edge from tearing at the staple points).

If you have installed a plywood back with vent, at this point you will need to tightly fold or roll the extra plastic at the end and staple it to the plywood exterior. You can protect the edges with strapping, (wood, or recycled plastic as shown in the photos above).

The hoop house cold frame is ready to install!

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oli with bug sprayThough Oli is invariably involved in these projects, he can not be counted as a helper.

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Article and photos copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without express written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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The Zen of Weeding…

August 24th, 2009 § 6

I often recycle my old wicker laundry baskets for weeding chores. Not only are they inexpensive, lightweight and easy to move in and out of tight spots, but once they begin to fall apart, I can just break them up and add them to the compost pile!

As I sat down to write this article, I got a bit worried. It occurred to me that some inaccurate conclusions might be drawn from the working title. You might even think I am some kind of Martha (And we all know that I love Martha Stewart, but I’m no where near as tidy and organized –especially in the garden!). So before I get rambling, I want to make a few things clear. I do not regularly meditate, nor do I practice Zen. And I must confess that my garden is most definitely not an organized, tidy, weed-free zone. In fact it’s far from that ideal. You will probably find a bit of  crab grass in the walk, some jewelweed in my shade garden, and you will definitely spot plantain in my lawn. And right about now, the weeds in my perennial borders rival the flowers (OK, so I exaggerate, but you get the picture). So in case you were worried that I might start judging you, smugly preaching across the electro-static divide with my Cape Cod weeder held high… Well forget about it! I garden for a living, and this means I spend a great deal of time weeding my clients’ yards. So when I get home on a hot summer afternoon, I am no slave to my own. Of course this doesn’t mean that I allow my gardens to go wild. No, I would never let the scale tip too far in that direction. And no, this doesn’t mean I dislike weeding. But it does mean that I understand the average gardener very well. I’m one of you. We get busy. Things slide.

jewel weed Spotted orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) in the Secret Garden. This is a hummingbird favorite. But I prefer it in the woods, not in my flower garden.

Weeding is a chore to most people. My design clients are always telling me that they haven’t the time for weeding, and I am constantly asked to create “no maintenance gardens” (if anyone has seen one, please let me know). And to tell the truth, I used to hate weeding. Really, I did. I found it boring, hot and tedious. But that was before I learned to time my weeding correctly and to truly give myself to the task. Now, once I start, I actually love the process of cleaning up my garden. Somewhere along the line, I suppose it dawned on me that gardening is weeding. Eventually, if you like to garden, you figure this out. And once you do, you “give” yourself to the process and let go of the product. The result of this surrender is usually a better maintained garden and a happier gardener. There is a Zen to weeding. In fact there is a Zen to all non-intellectual tasks, or ‘busy-work’ as some call it. Many people have a favorite ‘mindless’ task. Some of my friends love to do dishes by hand; calmed the circular motion of the sponge against the plate and the warm, soapy water. Others enjoy the drone of the vacuum cleaner and the back and forth motion on the floor. Repetition. There is freedom for the mind in physical repetition.

These days, I get some of my best ideas while weeding. As my mind slowly clears of day to day thoughts, things pop-up from my proverbial “back-burner”. I might remember my friend’s birthday, and think of a clever gift. Ideas for difficult design projects will suddenly spring to mind. With my front burners turned off, away from mental distractions, the back burner cooks. And then, slowly, something even more amazing happens. On my best days, my mind quiets to a whisper, and then becomes silent. Thoughts disappear and I simply become my hand, pulling weeds from the soil. If you have ever experienced this kind of “working meditation”, you know exactly what I mean, and how liberating it feels. Some people call this “the zone”. It happens when I am running. It happens when I am cleaning. And it happens when I am weeding. When I find myself in this magical state, I finish my garden chores in the most relaxed mood you can imagine. It’s great therapy, and I get a tidy garden as a bonus. Nothing clears my mind and relaxes my mood quite like the repetitive motion involved in pulling weeds.

claw and cape-cod weederMy weapons of choice: good gloves and quality tools. Here a Cape Cod weeder and Claw

If you are new to gardening, you may not be familiar with “weeding bliss”, in fact right about now you may be thinking, ‘this woman has really slipped off the raft’. I can understand that. I used to feel the same way about weeding. And lest you start to think of me as some kind of monk, I want to be honest; there are days when the bugs and the heat are so distracting that I become far more irritated than illuminated. But nothing is perfect. And weeding is a practice. It’s something you can get good at and learn to like over time.

Arming yourself with some basic tools will help make weeding physically easier, and staying on top of the weeds will keep the task manageable. Every gardener ought to own a Cape Cod weeder, 3 tine cultivator, and a dandelion tool for hand weeding. A good hoe is necessary for the vegetable garden, and a standing cultivator (or claw), is great for large borders with deep-rooted perennials and shallow weeds. Make time to really learn how to use your tools. If you have never been taught how to properly hoe, ask a more experienced gardener to give you a lesson. Everyone starts somewhere, after all. And remember to take care of your body. Protecting your hands from thorns, stinging nettles and rough plants also makes a lot of sense. If you are uncomfortable, you will likely give up quickly. I try to apply moisturizer to my hands before I start working, and I wear durable, water-proof gloves. I like Womanswork brand gloves for everyday weeding chores, leather gloves for bramble-infested gardens, and Cool Mud for the really wet places. I always keep an extra set in my tote in case my gloves are soaked through or tear. And I protect my body with long sleeved shirts and pants as well. Bugs are always a problem here, and if you would like a few tips on dealing with them, check out my June post, ‘ Hey, BUG OFF! ‘. Remember to wear sunscreen anytime you are outdoors, and try a light-weight, wide brimmed hat to shade your head.

stinging nettlesStinging nettle (Urtica dioica) is best handled with gloves. Once exposed to heat, it’s actually a fine, gourmet edible!

poison ivyThis is poison ivy, and you really want to avoid it altogether !

Of course, in order to start weeding, you have to know the difference between a weed and a desirable garden plant. So if you are just starting out, or returning to gardening, you may ask, ‘what exactly is a weed and how do I tell the difference’? Well, if you want to get technical about it, a weed is just a plant, (any plant), growing where it is unwelcome. Some North American gardeners loathe goldenrod (Solidago), and others welcome it as a native plant. To me, Queen Anne’s Lace is a beautiful flower in my meadow garden, and yet it crowds out vegetable seedlings in the potager, so there I consider it a weed. White clover makes a fantastic ground cover and lawn-substitute (and is a favorite food source of the honey bee), but when I see it popping up in my ornamental ground-cover and perennial borders, it gets a quick heave-ho. Likewise, I try to allow stands of jewelweed, in the wild parts of my property. Some more conventional gardeners may gasp in horror, but jewelweed is a delight to hummingbirds and honey bees, and an important food source. Keep in mind that many native plants (aka ‘weeds’), are part of our natural ecosystem. Removing weeds from your vegetable plot and perennial borders makes sense, of course. But keeping some natural areas is important to birds, butterflies and bees, if you can find the space.

queen annes laceQueen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) is a biennial and spreads by seed. It’s great for attracting beneficial insects around the edges of a garden, or in a meadow.

If you want to get really good at weed identification, keeping a reference book handy while you are working will really help. Try tossing one in your garden tote with a few tools. For the Northeast, I like the paperback, Weeds of the Northeast, by Uva, Neal and DiTomaso from Cornell University Press. The book covers North American regions including southern Canada, and points from Wisconsin eastward and Virginia northward. In fact, many of the weed identification charts would be helpful beyond these geographical parameters. For the west, Weeds of the West comes highly recommended and for the Great Plains states, Weeds of the Great Plains is available from the Nebraska Dept. of Agriculture. I picked up Weeds of the Northeast last year in response to an increased number of questions from my garden clients. Although I can identify most weeds, I do get stumped now and again, and I often have trouble remembering all of  the common and latin names (I have more than enough desirable plants in my gray-matter database to worry about). When I remember to put in in my pack, this reference book makes a great educational tool. In addition to identification, this book will help you learn the difference between annual and perennial weeds. If you catch annual weeds before they set seed, you will save yourself some work down the line. And as far as perennial weeds are concerned, you will need to take extra care in removing all of the roots, as well as any seeds. So, it’s good to know the difference.

white clover invading ajugaWhite clover (Trifolium repens), a perennial, here invading ground-cover ajuga. Clover is an important food source for bees. It makes a fine ground cover in relaxed areas, however you have to keep it in check or it will invadeyour beds & borders.

crab grassLarge crabgrass (Digitaria sanguinalis), is a summer annual, it spreads by seed. This weed is common in lawns. I allow it to grow at the edges of my garden, because I enjoy seeing wild turkey, and they come to my meadow for the seed.

plantainBroadleaf plantain (Plantago major), shown in my walkway, is also a common, perennial turf weed. This is handy to have around in the event of a bee sting. Just chew the leaves into a pulp and apply it directly to the sting. You should feel some relief in a few minutes.

vetchVetch (Vicia cracca), is a perennial and spreads aggressively via rhizomes. This one is tough to fight, and not something you want in a perennial border. However, bees and butterflies love the flowers. Plant this on a slope and it will attract beneficials and prevent erosion.

Some tricks to weeding are learned from experience. If you weed your garden thoroughly in spring, mulch with weed-free compost, and continue to pull weeds once a week through early summer, your garden should remain relatively manageable. When I go out weeding, I like to choose a spot and just start. I don’t focus on how much I need to do, or pause to figure out what is left to do, or how much has been done. I just stay right where I am and focus on the ground in front of me. This helps me to stay in the moment and to do a good job. I just grab the right tool and dig in. In my experience, removing most annual and tap-root weeds is easier either during or after a good rain. Conversely, I find that most running-root grasses are actually easier to remove when the weather is dry. A three pronged claw is great for teasing out the roots of running weeds like white clover, but a fork is the tool you want for tap-roots like dandelions. And remember that all garden chores are easier to do when the temperatures are cool and the sun is low. Try getting up a bit earlier and to start at first light, or make your weeding a sunset chore.  The mid-day heat isn’t good for you, and it contributes to fatigue. Light weeding baskets (I recycle old wicker laundry baskets), wheelbarrows and garden carts are really helpful with many garden tasks, including weeding. Be sure your handles are sturdy and keep tires firm with air.

rabbit foot cloverRabbitfoot clover (Trifolium arvense), is an annual spread by seed. I love seeing this plant in drifts along the roadside. It’s so pretty. But again, it doesn’t belong in my perennial garden.

Over time, I have learned to really enjoy the intimate garden experience that is weeding. Getting right smack in the middle of things brings me closer to the subtle smells, sights and sounds of the garden. I love working beside the bees, and getting buzzed by a curious hummingbird. The smell of wet earth, fragrant foliage and flowers is incredibly relaxing to me. And as an artist, I find that the shapes and textures of many ‘weeds’ are actually quite inspirational to my work. Sometimes, instead of tossing the contents of a basket straight into the compost heap, I find myself picking out bits of rabbitfoot clover, burs or thistle. I bring these garden remnants inside to enjoy close-up in a bud vase. Hey, beauty is where you find it. To me, gardening is about my relationship with nature, and I find mother nature endlessly fascinating. And so I have come to see that gardening is weeding. And weeding, at least for me, is pretty close to Zen.

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Article and photographs ©  Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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