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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Friends Are Flowers

"Friends are the flowers in the garden of life." That unattributed sentiment is framed and adorns a prime wall location in my cousin Jamie's house. Amid antique photos of bearded ancestors and Christmas decorations small and large, that friendly saying speaks volumes about Jamie and life.

I had the pleasure of sharing Christmas with Jamie and my cousin John, her husband. It's been a number of years since I last visited their historic home in Sonora, California, but it was as though we last said goodbye only a few weeks ago. John and I spent many memorable summers together as we learned to be young men together. I was the best man at their wedding nearly 30 years ago. Since then, and before, they have both sown many seeds of friendship and caring.

Gardening offers many parables and metaphors that help guide us through life. I enjoy growing my fruits and vegetables, but like many gardeners it is the flowers bursting into color that awakens the most vibrant emotions inside me. As with the flowers, when a new or old friend enters my day emotions spring to life. Friends are a necessary and important part of our lives. Jamie's simple metaphor accurately ties together two important aspects of my life.

John and Jamie are home gardeners and have their little plot atop a small, steep hill that overlooks their house. John told me of the great success he had this year with the addition of a new organic soil amendment. Like me they enjoy toiling in the soil and waiting patiently for the results of their labors. Their climate, soil, and plant choices are different than mine, but we all receive pleasure and satisfaction from gardening.

In life we toil and wait patiently for our rewards. We grow. How we choose to treat one another determines our path and that of those around us. When we add nutrients like sincerity, love, and caring to our relationships, we benefit from bigger and more beautiful results. We sow the seeds of friendship and enjoy the flowers that spring forth.

Jamie's wall art touched me, particularly at a time like Christmas. I'm thankful for the friends and family that grow in my garden of life. They add the color that makes it so memorable and satisfying. Like the rest of my gardening adventures, I still have many more plots to plant, many more flowers to grow. I'm looking forward to it.

Grow your garden. Sow your seeds. Enjoy your flowers. Have a good life.
"Friends are the flowers in the garden of life." That unattributed sentiment is framed and adorns a prime wall location in my cousin Jamie's house. Amid antique photos of bearded ancestors and Christmas decorations small and large, that friendly saying speaks volumes about Jamie and life.

I had the pleasure of sharing Christmas with Jamie and my cousin John, her husband. It's been a number of years since I last visited their historic home in Sonora, California, but it was as though we last said goodbye only a few weeks ago. John and I spent many memorable summers together as we learned to be young men together. I was the best man at their wedding nearly 30 years ago. Since then, and before, they have both sown many seeds of friendship and caring.

Gardening offers many parables and metaphors that help guide us through life. I enjoy growing my fruits and vegetables, but like many gardeners it is the flowers bursting into color that awakens the most vibrant emotions inside me. As with the flowers, when a new or old friend enters my day emotions spring to life. Friends are a necessary and important part of our lives. Jamie's simple metaphor accurately ties together two important aspects of my life.

John and Jamie are home gardeners and have their little plot atop a small, steep hill that overlooks their house. John told me of the great success he had this year with the addition of a new organic soil amendment. Like me they enjoy toiling in the soil and waiting patiently for the results of their labors. Their climate, soil, and plant choices are different than mine, but we all receive pleasure and satisfaction from gardening.

In life we toil and wait patiently for our rewards. We grow. How we choose to treat one another determines our path and that of those around us. When we add nutrients like sincerity, love, and caring to our relationships, we benefit from bigger and more beautiful results. We sow the seeds of friendship and enjoy the flowers that spring forth.

Jamie's wall art touched me, particularly at a time like Christmas. I'm thankful for the friends and family that grow in my garden of life. They add the color that makes it so memorable and satisfying. Like the rest of my gardening adventures, I still have many more plots to plant, many more flowers to grow. I'm looking forward to it.

Grow your garden. Sow your seeds. Enjoy your flowers. Have a good life.

Monday, December 20, 2010

How To Tell If You Have a Pine, Spruce, or Fir Tree

At this time of year many families are buying or chopping down trees to celebrate Christmas. They know what they like, be it a towering bastion of the forest or a Charlie Brown rescue tree. Like many of the conifers we have in our landscape, people often refer to any tree with needles instead of leaves as a "pine tree". In actuality, many, if not most, of the trees we purchase at Christmas are fir trees.

The National Christmas Tree Association (www.christmastree.org) reports that the number one most popular tree grown and sold in the U.S. is a Fraser Fir. My good friends Della and Roger have a beautiful Fraser Fir decorated in white and silver. The number two tree is a Douglas Fir, the number three tree is a Balsam Fir, and the number four tree is the Colorado Blue Spruce. The first pine tree, a Scotch Pine comes in at number five. Our family favorite, the Noble Fir, just missed the top ten.

Our little Noble Fir Christmas tree
Many of us select Christmas trees and landscape trees because we like how they look, not because we like their name. In the process we tend to generalize. I know many people who walk through a forested area or even their own yards and refer to the "pine trees", even when they are clearly (to me) a different type of tree. With a few helpful tips, it's fairly easy to tell them apart.

Much of this information comes from a tree identification class and guide developed by Linda Smith of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension in El Paso County, Colorado. It was produced for Master Gardeners and isn't readily available to the public, but I'll share some highlights with you now.

Generally speaking, a conifer is a plant with needled foliage that remains on the plant throughout the year -- an "evergreen". If a plant doesn't have flat leaves, its probably a conifer. The needles are the most obvious and easiest way to quickly identify the type of conifer. With training, practice, and a good identification key you'll be able to tell the difference between a Douglas Fir and a White Fir, but my intent is to teach you basics for general recognition.

There are basically three types of conifers based on their foliage or needles. The first type is plants that have individual needles growing on stems; Spruce and Fir trees fall into this category. The second group is plants where the needles grow in bundles; pine trees follow this pattern. The third is plants with overlapping scale-like foliage; Junipers and Arborvitae are in this type.

Spruce and Fir trees look very similar, but with close-up inspection are easy to tell apart. Both have single needles growing from all around a stem, but roll a needle between your fingers and you'll see that Spruce trees have square-shaped needles while Fir trees have flat needles. If you grab a branch, Spruce needles are sharp and Fir needles are blunt, or "friendly" to hold. Take an individual needle and bend it; Spruce needles are stiff and may break while Fir needles are flexible. The needles on a Spruce grow in a spiral around the stem, but Firs tend to grow with all needles pointing up at the sky.

Use this memory aid to identify a Spruce or Fir:

Spruce tree needles are Square, Sharp, Stiff, and grow in a Spiral.
Fir tree needles are Flat, Friendly, Flexible, and grow "fir" the sky.

Pine trees have a completely different needle structure. Pine needles are slender and typically longer than a Spruce or Fir. Most importantly, pine needles grow in bundles of two to five needles connected by a papery sheath at the base. This sheath connects to the stem on a branch and when pulled from the tree remains intact with all of the bundled needles staying together. When the needles in a sheath are compressed together, they form a circular column. Remember that Pines have "plural" needles.

Our old Ponderosa Pine tree in our front drive

Juniper and Arborvitae look very similar. If the tree has overlapping scale-like foliage with horizontal and vertical foliage sprays, it is a Juniper. If the scale-like foliage grows in vertical and flattened spays, it is an Arborvitae. Junipers tend to have prickly needles while Arborvitae have rounded tips. Juniper does well in many growing conditions and will tolerate dry locations very well; Arborvitae will not tolerate dry, windy conditions. Juniper grows upright like a single-trunk tree or as a spreading shrub; Arborvitae grows tall in a teardrop-shaped, dense form, usually with multiple trunks. The cones of both trees look like berries; Juniper have three to six scales that are fused together in a round ball while Arborvitae have thicker scales that tend to peel back into pointed tips.

That's it. With the basic information above you should be able to give yourself the confidence to correctly identify an evergreen tree. There are a few other conifers like Yew and Larch, but they aren't very common and you should know right off that they aren't pine trees.

With more practice and experience you can identify specific tree types. Pinon Pine, Mugo Pine, and Lodgepole Pine trees all have two needles in a bundle. Pinon Pine needles are medium green, have white stripes along the needle and are 1/2" to 1-3/4" long; Mugo Pine needles are dark green, 1" to 3" long and slightly curved; Lodgepole Pine needles are yellowish-green, 1" to 3" long and sharp and stiff with a slight twist.

Ponderosa Pine grows in bundles of three needles that are 4" to 7" long, sometimes longer. Both Bristlecone and Limber Pine trees have bundles of five needles, but the Bristlecone needles are shorter and clearly identified by the little white spots that cover them. Colorado Spruce needles are 3/4" to 1-1/4" long while Engelmann Spruce needles are only 1/4" to 1/2" long.

The first step in making an easy tree identification is to find out what kind of conifers grow in your area. Ask your local Extension office, nurseries, or tree growers for a listing of local trees. I live in an area forested by Ponderosa Pines. With my eyes closed I can identify trees in our neighborhood as Ponderosa because that's about all that we have so I've started growing Colorado Blue Spruce to break up the monotony. If you know that White Firs don't naturally grow in your area, you aren't likely to confuse them with Douglas Firs.

If you want to go beyond the basic identification I've described, get a tree identification book or online guide. Just like the different needles, conifers have differing cones (only Pine trees have Pine cones). They have different growth patterns and different environmental requirements. By knowing what to look for, you can correctly identify unknown varieties. Next time you walk through a forest, stop and feel the needles. You'll amaze yourself at how easy it is.
At this time of year many families are buying or chopping down trees to celebrate Christmas. They know what they like, be it a towering bastion of the forest or a Charlie Brown rescue tree. Like many of the conifers we have in our landscape, people often refer to any tree with needles instead of leaves as a "pine tree". In actuality, many, if not most, of the trees we purchase at Christmas are fir trees.

The National Christmas Tree Association (www.christmastree.org) reports that the number one most popular tree grown and sold in the U.S. is a Fraser Fir. My good friends Della and Roger have a beautiful Fraser Fir decorated in white and silver. The number two tree is a Douglas Fir, the number three tree is a Balsam Fir, and the number four tree is the Colorado Blue Spruce. The first pine tree, a Scotch Pine comes in at number five. Our family favorite, the Noble Fir, just missed the top ten.

Our little Noble Fir Christmas tree
Many of us select Christmas trees and landscape trees because we like how they look, not because we like their name. In the process we tend to generalize. I know many people who walk through a forested area or even their own yards and refer to the "pine trees", even when they are clearly (to me) a different type of tree. With a few helpful tips, it's fairly easy to tell them apart.

Much of this information comes from a tree identification class and guide developed by Linda Smith of the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension in El Paso County, Colorado. It was produced for Master Gardeners and isn't readily available to the public, but I'll share some highlights with you now.

Generally speaking, a conifer is a plant with needled foliage that remains on the plant throughout the year -- an "evergreen". If a plant doesn't have flat leaves, its probably a conifer. The needles are the most obvious and easiest way to quickly identify the type of conifer. With training, practice, and a good identification key you'll be able to tell the difference between a Douglas Fir and a White Fir, but my intent is to teach you basics for general recognition.

There are basically three types of conifers based on their foliage or needles. The first type is plants that have individual needles growing on stems; Spruce and Fir trees fall into this category. The second group is plants where the needles grow in bundles; pine trees follow this pattern. The third is plants with overlapping scale-like foliage; Junipers and Arborvitae are in this type.

Spruce and Fir trees look very similar, but with close-up inspection are easy to tell apart. Both have single needles growing from all around a stem, but roll a needle between your fingers and you'll see that Spruce trees have square-shaped needles while Fir trees have flat needles. If you grab a branch, Spruce needles are sharp and Fir needles are blunt, or "friendly" to hold. Take an individual needle and bend it; Spruce needles are stiff and may break while Fir needles are flexible. The needles on a Spruce grow in a spiral around the stem, but Firs tend to grow with all needles pointing up at the sky.

Use this memory aid to identify a Spruce or Fir:

Spruce tree needles are Square, Sharp, Stiff, and grow in a Spiral.
Fir tree needles are Flat, Friendly, Flexible, and grow "fir" the sky.

Pine trees have a completely different needle structure. Pine needles are slender and typically longer than a Spruce or Fir. Most importantly, pine needles grow in bundles of two to five needles connected by a papery sheath at the base. This sheath connects to the stem on a branch and when pulled from the tree remains intact with all of the bundled needles staying together. When the needles in a sheath are compressed together, they form a circular column. Remember that Pines have "plural" needles.

Our old Ponderosa Pine tree in our front drive

Juniper and Arborvitae look very similar. If the tree has overlapping scale-like foliage with horizontal and vertical foliage sprays, it is a Juniper. If the scale-like foliage grows in vertical and flattened spays, it is an Arborvitae. Junipers tend to have prickly needles while Arborvitae have rounded tips. Juniper does well in many growing conditions and will tolerate dry locations very well; Arborvitae will not tolerate dry, windy conditions. Juniper grows upright like a single-trunk tree or as a spreading shrub; Arborvitae grows tall in a teardrop-shaped, dense form, usually with multiple trunks. The cones of both trees look like berries; Juniper have three to six scales that are fused together in a round ball while Arborvitae have thicker scales that tend to peel back into pointed tips.

That's it. With the basic information above you should be able to give yourself the confidence to correctly identify an evergreen tree. There are a few other conifers like Yew and Larch, but they aren't very common and you should know right off that they aren't pine trees.

With more practice and experience you can identify specific tree types. Pinon Pine, Mugo Pine, and Lodgepole Pine trees all have two needles in a bundle. Pinon Pine needles are medium green, have white stripes along the needle and are 1/2" to 1-3/4" long; Mugo Pine needles are dark green, 1" to 3" long and slightly curved; Lodgepole Pine needles are yellowish-green, 1" to 3" long and sharp and stiff with a slight twist.

Ponderosa Pine grows in bundles of three needles that are 4" to 7" long, sometimes longer. Both Bristlecone and Limber Pine trees have bundles of five needles, but the Bristlecone needles are shorter and clearly identified by the little white spots that cover them. Colorado Spruce needles are 3/4" to 1-1/4" long while Engelmann Spruce needles are only 1/4" to 1/2" long.

The first step in making an easy tree identification is to find out what kind of conifers grow in your area. Ask your local Extension office, nurseries, or tree growers for a listing of local trees. I live in an area forested by Ponderosa Pines. With my eyes closed I can identify trees in our neighborhood as Ponderosa because that's about all that we have so I've started growing Colorado Blue Spruce to break up the monotony. If you know that White Firs don't naturally grow in your area, you aren't likely to confuse them with Douglas Firs.

If you want to go beyond the basic identification I've described, get a tree identification book or online guide. Just like the different needles, conifers have differing cones (only Pine trees have Pine cones). They have different growth patterns and different environmental requirements. By knowing what to look for, you can correctly identify unknown varieties. Next time you walk through a forest, stop and feel the needles. You'll amaze yourself at how easy it is.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What To Do With Pine Needles

Pine needles are a scourge to many gardeners. While leaves that have fallen from trees can be easily raked up, blown away, or crushed underfoot, pine needles lie in ever-growing mats on the ground and are more difficult to remove. If left in place they choke the life from grass or flowers planted beneath a tree. Leaves can be composted easily while needles seem to take forever to break down. For many gardeners pine needles have a place in the forest, but not in the garden.

I look forward to my annual resupply of pine needles. I think they have a definite place in the garden and offer a great example of how to recycle nature's bounty. My Ponderosa pines play an important role in my landscape.

Newly-raked needles

Pine needles, for my purposes here, are the brown, dried needles that have fallen from pine trees. You may also have heard them referred to as pine straw. Just as deciduous trees drop there leaves in the fall, pines drop a portion of their needles from the innermost sections of branches. Spruce and fir trees will also drop needles, but they tend to be much shorter in length and don't pose nearly as many problems as the longer pine needles. My Ponderosa pine needles are 6-7 inches long.

One of the first negative issues with pine needles is that they're notoriously difficult to remove from your lawn. When you try to rake them, their slender profile causes many of them to slide through the rake's tines and remain where they were. If you try to pick them up barehanded, their sharp points prick your skin. They cling to grass and plants and won't blow away even in the strongest winds.

If left in place, they form a thick barrier that keeps sun, water, and air from reaching plants underneath. That's why you see so many bare areas beneath pine trees. Though needles are slightly acidic, they really don't change the pH of the soil. The reason you have difficulty growing under a big pine is that the tree shades the ground and reduces the amount of moisture that reaches the soil. Add a layer of needles and plants will struggle to survive.

Another negative factor is that they take a long time to decompose. You can add them to your compost pile, but after everything else has broken down and turned into lovely, black compost, the needles will still remain intact. Burning them is rarely an option for many people, so you're left with piles of needles that take up space.

I see all three of these negative aspects as advantages for using pine needles in the garden. Think about areas of your garden where you want a mulch that stays in place and won't blow away. An area where you want to choke out the plants that may grow there. An area that's big and needs to be filled with something that will last a long time.

The path between my raised beds
The first place I use pine needles is on the pathways between my vegetable garden beds. After raking up needles, and raking again and again in the same spot to get as many as possible, I place them in thick layers on my garden paths. Rain, snow, my wheelbarrow, and multiple trips through the garden will compress them into a dense mat that keeps weeds in check. Any weeds that do manage to grow are quickly spotted against the brown background and easily pulled out. Before they're compacted, while still fresh, needles can be slippery when wet so be cautious.

I think they're a near-perfect mulch for my strawberries. They stay in place and keep the fruit dry and off the ground. In sections I use pine needles, my strawberries have fewer fungus and mold problems. I also have fewer issues with slugs; I suspect the sharp tips and rough edges help keep them at bay. When using pine needles as a mulch in the garden it helps to have irrigation in place first. If they're not compacted, the needles will allow water to seep to the ground and the plants, but a soaker hose or drip system in place under the needles works best.

They're also a great mulch for many other areas. Use them alone or with bark as mulch under fruit trees. They don't interfere with perennial plant growth and add a nice color contrast to leafy plants like hostas. The needles don't attract termites and can be used as a mulch in beds directly next to a house.

Individually, I use them as temporary seed markers. In the spring as I plant rows of seeds, I'll use a pine needle bundle to mark where I've already planted. They're already shaped like a stake and are easy to push in the soil. As the new plants grow a few needles don't hinder their progress and will become additional mulch.

Helping with erosion
They're a cheap and easy way to control erosion in problem areas. I've had sloping sections in my garden where the soil always flowed away in heavy rains. A heavy addition of needles helps keep it all in place. They work their way into the soil when it's wet and create a natural wall that inhibits erosion.

They can also be used, like straw, as a protective blanket during cold months. Cover tender plants or bulbs with a pile of pine needles and you've added a nice insulating barrier to the cold.

Of course there are many other uses. They're easy fire starters for an outdoor fire pit. Birds will pick through your beds for needles to use in nests. They can cushion clay pots from the hard ground. You can even weave baskets with them.

So look upon your needles as a blessing, not a curse. Sure it takes more effort to collect every last one of them, but they really do benefit to the garden. I saved one of the best advantages for last: if you or a friend has a pine tree, they're free. You won't need to spend hard-earned money on store-bought mulch for areas where pine needles will work. How great is that?

(Want more ideas for using pine needles? Check out my update article, "Uses for Pine Needles" on November 30, 2011)



Pine needles are a scourge to many gardeners. While leaves that have fallen from trees can be easily raked up, blown away, or crushed underfoot, pine needles lie in ever-growing mats on the ground and are more difficult to remove. If left in place they choke the life from grass or flowers planted beneath a tree. Leaves can be composted easily while needles seem to take forever to break down. For many gardeners pine needles have a place in the forest, but not in the garden.

I look forward to my annual resupply of pine needles. I think they have a definite place in the garden and offer a great example of how to recycle nature's bounty. My Ponderosa pines play an important role in my landscape.

Newly-raked needles

Pine needles, for my purposes here, are the brown, dried needles that have fallen from pine trees. You may also have heard them referred to as pine straw. Just as deciduous trees drop there leaves in the fall, pines drop a portion of their needles from the innermost sections of branches. Spruce and fir trees will also drop needles, but they tend to be much shorter in length and don't pose nearly as many problems as the longer pine needles. My Ponderosa pine needles are 6-7 inches long.

One of the first negative issues with pine needles is that they're notoriously difficult to remove from your lawn. When you try to rake them, their slender profile causes many of them to slide through the rake's tines and remain where they were. If you try to pick them up barehanded, their sharp points prick your skin. They cling to grass and plants and won't blow away even in the strongest winds.

If left in place, they form a thick barrier that keeps sun, water, and air from reaching plants underneath. That's why you see so many bare areas beneath pine trees. Though needles are slightly acidic, they really don't change the pH of the soil. The reason you have difficulty growing under a big pine is that the tree shades the ground and reduces the amount of moisture that reaches the soil. Add a layer of needles and plants will struggle to survive.

Another negative factor is that they take a long time to decompose. You can add them to your compost pile, but after everything else has broken down and turned into lovely, black compost, the needles will still remain intact. Burning them is rarely an option for many people, so you're left with piles of needles that take up space.

I see all three of these negative aspects as advantages for using pine needles in the garden. Think about areas of your garden where you want a mulch that stays in place and won't blow away. An area where you want to choke out the plants that may grow there. An area that's big and needs to be filled with something that will last a long time.

The path between my raised beds
The first place I use pine needles is on the pathways between my vegetable garden beds. After raking up needles, and raking again and again in the same spot to get as many as possible, I place them in thick layers on my garden paths. Rain, snow, my wheelbarrow, and multiple trips through the garden will compress them into a dense mat that keeps weeds in check. Any weeds that do manage to grow are quickly spotted against the brown background and easily pulled out. Before they're compacted, while still fresh, needles can be slippery when wet so be cautious.

I think they're a near-perfect mulch for my strawberries. They stay in place and keep the fruit dry and off the ground. In sections I use pine needles, my strawberries have fewer fungus and mold problems. I also have fewer issues with slugs; I suspect the sharp tips and rough edges help keep them at bay. When using pine needles as a mulch in the garden it helps to have irrigation in place first. If they're not compacted, the needles will allow water to seep to the ground and the plants, but a soaker hose or drip system in place under the needles works best.

They're also a great mulch for many other areas. Use them alone or with bark as mulch under fruit trees. They don't interfere with perennial plant growth and add a nice color contrast to leafy plants like hostas. The needles don't attract termites and can be used as a mulch in beds directly next to a house.

Individually, I use them as temporary seed markers. In the spring as I plant rows of seeds, I'll use a pine needle bundle to mark where I've already planted. They're already shaped like a stake and are easy to push in the soil. As the new plants grow a few needles don't hinder their progress and will become additional mulch.

Helping with erosion
They're a cheap and easy way to control erosion in problem areas. I've had sloping sections in my garden where the soil always flowed away in heavy rains. A heavy addition of needles helps keep it all in place. They work their way into the soil when it's wet and create a natural wall that inhibits erosion.

They can also be used, like straw, as a protective blanket during cold months. Cover tender plants or bulbs with a pile of pine needles and you've added a nice insulating barrier to the cold.

Of course there are many other uses. They're easy fire starters for an outdoor fire pit. Birds will pick through your beds for needles to use in nests. They can cushion clay pots from the hard ground. You can even weave baskets with them.

So look upon your needles as a blessing, not a curse. Sure it takes more effort to collect every last one of them, but they really do benefit to the garden. I saved one of the best advantages for last: if you or a friend has a pine tree, they're free. You won't need to spend hard-earned money on store-bought mulch for areas where pine needles will work. How great is that?

(Want more ideas for using pine needles? Check out my update article, "
Uses for Pine Needles" on November 30, 2011)



Saturday, December 11, 2010

All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Trees

The weather this year is markedly different than last year's. On this date in 2009 we had over a foot of snow on the ground. High temperatures were chillingly low. Snow came and stayed as the thermometer barely wavered above freezing for weeks at a time. This year we're setting records for high temperatures; much of December has been 15 to 20 degrees above normal. Last week we set a new record for the latest day for the first measurable snow. Our precipitation level for the season is 12 inches below normal.

Meteorologists explain the different weather patterns as either La Nina or El Nino. The surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean varies from year to year and affects how weather forms and impacts the Western Hemisphere. During an El Nino winter, our area of the country tends to be colder, with more snowfall; much of the northern United States is drier and warmer. During La Nina, we are warmer and drier while the North is colder and wetter. That's the pattern we're in now. While we're balmy and dry, my stepmother in Washington state is worried about shoveling snow from her driveway, again.

This becomes an issue for gardeners because the wide variation in weather affects us and our plants. El Nino patterns tend to prevail for years at a time and those are the patterns to which we grow accustomed. La Nina happens less often and tends to catch us by surprise.

For areas of the country, like ours, where snowfall is a normal part of winter, we know that the snow adds moisture to the soil and also acts like a protective blanket for many plants that can be damaged by extreme cold. Winter is a time to plan the next year's garden, look through plant catalogs, feed the birds, and let nature take care of itself outside.

When that process is interrupted, our plants can suffer. Even in the coldest months our landscape still requires moisture. With no snow, the soil can dry out, roots will die, and normally hardy plants won't recover from cold temperatures. Warmer temperatures may encourage more freeze-thaw cycles in the soil that can push plants out of the ground. Lower humidity and cold winds desiccate trees and buds.

Though your garden hoses are probably wound up and stored away, it's time to think about watering your garden. You need to add the moisture to the soil that snow normally would. Winter watering for lawns is particularly important. Without it, you'll be rewarded in the spring by big sections of dead, brown grass.

I planted two dwarf Alberta Spruce trees in front of my house months ago. I kept the soil watered to help them gain a footing and then stopped the regular watering as freezing weather arrived. Frozen soil and normal snow would protect them through the winter. That hasn't happened. The soil is relatively warm and dry. It's up to me to help them through the winter by periodic watering. Without my efforts, I can't be assured that they'll survive.

Perennial plants, bushes, and trees don't need a lot of water in cold weather. They're mostly dormant so they're not using the moisture for nutrition and growth. But normal plant processes require water. Think about the Christmas tree you cut down or bought to place in your living room. In the warm, dry environment inside your house, you need to add water to the tree stand almost every day. Even after it's cut, a tree still draws water from its base out to its needles. Without water the tree dries out. That is exactly what is happening to the live trees in your yard if you don't keep the soil watered when there is no snow.

So think about watering your garden. It is best to water when the ground isn't frozen; adding water to frozen ground won't do much good as you just add a layer of ice. Water when the weather warms up, preferably above 40 degrees F, not on a day when the temperature is below freezing. Look at forecasts for a period of days when the temperatures will all be warm. Water at mid-day so the water has a chance to soak into the ground before freezing night temperatures.

Look for areas in your garden that may need watering more often. Plants next to walls, fences, or your house may be warmer because of reflective heating. Those plants will dry out sooner and require more water. Plants in windy, unprotected areas will have similar needs. Newer plants will need more watering than established plants. Late-season transplants will also need more water. If you haven't mulched around the same plants, do so soon. That will help moderate soil moisture levels and temperatures.

You may only need to water one or two times a month for prolonged periods without snow. Check your soil to see if it's frozen or dry. Stick your finger in it. One thorough, soaking watering my be good for weeks. If snow does come you still may need to add water. Light snow doesn't contain much moisture and you can be fooled into thinking it was enough for your plants. After a few days check the soil again.

If you've ever wondered why you lost plants after a dry winter, it may be because they needed water and didn't get it. Look at your garden now. Has it been awhile since a snow? Since you watered? Now that you know, you can be the difference between a robust garden in the spring and one that needs replacement plants after winter die-off.
The weather this year is markedly different than last year's. On this date in 2009 we had over a foot of snow on the ground. High temperatures were chillingly low. Snow came and stayed as the thermometer barely wavered above freezing for weeks at a time. This year we're setting records for high temperatures; much of December has been 15 to 20 degrees above normal. Last week we set a new record for the latest day for the first measurable snow. Our precipitation level for the season is 12 inches below normal.

Meteorologists explain the different weather patterns as either La Nina or El Nino. The surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean varies from year to year and affects how weather forms and impacts the Western Hemisphere. During an El Nino winter, our area of the country tends to be colder, with more snowfall; much of the northern United States is drier and warmer. During La Nina, we are warmer and drier while the North is colder and wetter. That's the pattern we're in now. While we're balmy and dry, my stepmother in Washington state is worried about shoveling snow from her driveway, again.

This becomes an issue for gardeners because the wide variation in weather affects us and our plants. El Nino patterns tend to prevail for years at a time and those are the patterns to which we grow accustomed. La Nina happens less often and tends to catch us by surprise.

For areas of the country, like ours, where snowfall is a normal part of winter, we know that the snow adds moisture to the soil and also acts like a protective blanket for many plants that can be damaged by extreme cold. Winter is a time to plan the next year's garden, look through plant catalogs, feed the birds, and let nature take care of itself outside.

When that process is interrupted, our plants can suffer. Even in the coldest months our landscape still requires moisture. With no snow, the soil can dry out, roots will die, and normally hardy plants won't recover from cold temperatures. Warmer temperatures may encourage more freeze-thaw cycles in the soil that can push plants out of the ground. Lower humidity and cold winds desiccate trees and buds.

Though your garden hoses are probably wound up and stored away, it's time to think about watering your garden. You need to add the moisture to the soil that snow normally would. Winter watering for lawns is particularly important. Without it, you'll be rewarded in the spring by big sections of dead, brown grass.

I planted two dwarf Alberta Spruce trees in front of my house months ago. I kept the soil watered to help them gain a footing and then stopped the regular watering as freezing weather arrived. Frozen soil and normal snow would protect them through the winter. That hasn't happened. The soil is relatively warm and dry. It's up to me to help them through the winter by periodic watering. Without my efforts, I can't be assured that they'll survive.

Perennial plants, bushes, and trees don't need a lot of water in cold weather. They're mostly dormant so they're not using the moisture for nutrition and growth. But normal plant processes require water. Think about the Christmas tree you cut down or bought to place in your living room. In the warm, dry environment inside your house, you need to add water to the tree stand almost every day. Even after it's cut, a tree still draws water from its base out to its needles. Without water the tree dries out. That is exactly what is happening to the live trees in your yard if you don't keep the soil watered when there is no snow.

So think about watering your garden. It is best to water when the ground isn't frozen; adding water to frozen ground won't do much good as you just add a layer of ice. Water when the weather warms up, preferably above 40 degrees F, not on a day when the temperature is below freezing. Look at forecasts for a period of days when the temperatures will all be warm. Water at mid-day so the water has a chance to soak into the ground before freezing night temperatures.

Look for areas in your garden that may need watering more often. Plants next to walls, fences, or your house may be warmer because of reflective heating. Those plants will dry out sooner and require more water. Plants in windy, unprotected areas will have similar needs. Newer plants will need more watering than established plants. Late-season transplants will also need more water. If you haven't mulched around the same plants, do so soon. That will help moderate soil moisture levels and temperatures.

You may only need to water one or two times a month for prolonged periods without snow. Check your soil to see if it's frozen or dry. Stick your finger in it. One thorough, soaking watering my be good for weeks. If snow does come you still may need to add water. Light snow doesn't contain much moisture and you can be fooled into thinking it was enough for your plants. After a few days check the soil again.

If you've ever wondered why you lost plants after a dry winter, it may be because they needed water and didn't get it. Look at your garden now. Has it been awhile since a snow? Since you watered? Now that you know, you can be the difference between a robust garden in the spring and one that needs replacement plants after winter die-off.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Understanding USDA Plant Hardiness Zones

I'm a Zone 4, what are you? Wait a minute, that's what I prefer to be called, officially I'm a Zone 5. Actually, I tend more toward Zone 5A, though occasionally I could be mistaken for Zone 3. Confused yet?

Many of our gardening decisions involve knowing the "zone" of our gardens. The USDA has divided North America into plant hardiness zones based on average annual minimum temperatures. The United States, Canada, and Mexico, are divided into 11 zones with each zone number representing a range of 10 degrees F. The averages were determined by recording the lowest temperatures between 1974 and 1986 (1971-1984 in Mexico).  This map below from the National Arboretum shows the color-coded zones.



Hypertext version of USDA Hardiness Zone Map


Zones 2 through 10 are further subdivided into light and dark variations of the same color, representing five-degree spans within the 10-degree zone. The lighter color is the colder half and the darker color is the warmer half. For example, Zone 5 represents average minimum temperatures of -10F to -20F. Zone 5A is -15F to -20F; 5B is -10F to -15F.

Plants are identified and labeled by zone to help match them to appropriate landscapes. The concept is to help identify the probable hardiness and survivability of plants based on temperature and geography. If horticulturists know that a plant will not survive below a certain temperature, it's beneficial for gardeners to avoid planting it if they know they live in an area where temperatures regularly drop below that threshold. It's a great guideline for you to use, but it's not foolproof.

Zone 5 runs through the middle of the United States. It includes my area of Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and over to Pennsylvania. To the west, the Rocky Mountains interrupt the horizontal pattern, but Zone 5 drops into New Mexico and Arizona before swinging back up into Utah, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. And that's why there's a deficiency in the system.

North America is not the same from one coast to the other. The Eastern United States with relatively flat topography and stable weather patterns differs greatly from the Mountain Southwest and Pacific Coast. You might be surprised to know that Portland, Oregon, Tucson, Arizona, and Shreveport, Louisiana, are all in USDA Zone 8A. Few gardeners would argue that you can grow the same garden in those three areas.

You can find out what zone you fall into at a number of online sites. You can go to the National Arboretum site and look where your city falls on the map. The National Gardening Association offers a zone finder by entering your zip code. The Arbor Day Foundation offers a similar site too.

The USDA Hardiness Zone Map only takes into account the average minimum temperatures of an area. It doesn't look at average high temperatures, average elevation, average rainfall, average days of sun, or any of the other factors critical to gardening success. It's up to you to recognize these differences when selecting plants for your garden.

Also be aware of variations within zones. The color scheme was painted with a fairly broad brush. My Colorado Springs city garden fell squarely within Zone 5B, meaning the average minimum low temperature falls between -10F and -15F. A few years ago I recorded an overnight low of -35F. I lost a number of perennial plants that winter. My new garden northeast of town still falls within Zone 5B, but now I live 1,000 feet higher at 7,500 feet elevation. Local gardeners know that it is more difficult to garden in my new area than in my last. I'm well aware of that too.

If you live on the edge of a zone or at a higher elevation like mine, it's best to default to a colder zone when selecting plants. That's why I prefer to focus on Zone 4 when I can. That takes me and my plants down to an average low of -30F, providing a survival buffer when the temperature occasionally drops to unusual extremes.

Remember that the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones should be used as a guideline in selecting perennial plants, shrubs, and trees. If a plant label lists something like "Zone 4-9", it means the plant is suitable for and should survive in any of those zones. Below the minimum zone and it may not survive the winter, above the zone and it may need colder winter weather to grow and propagate properly (cold stratification; a term I've discussed before). You still need to determine if you have the appropriate soil, sun, and water requirements for the plants.

Understanding what the zones are and how they affect you is an important step in successful gardening. You can always choose plants that don't match your zone as long as you know they may not live past one season. Many of the annuals we plant are perennials when planted in a higher zone. You can also modify your landscape and create microclimates to simulate different zones. I'll talk about that in future blogs.

Being aware of what your zone is officially and what it is actually can make the difference in plant survival. If you don't already know, start tracking the minimum temperatures in your garden to find your own average. That way you avoid the broad brush stroke and garden with more precision.
I'm a Zone 4, what are you? Wait a minute, that's what I prefer to be called, officially I'm a Zone 5. Actually, I tend more toward Zone 5A, though occasionally I could be mistaken for Zone 3. Confused yet?

Many of our gardening decisions involve knowing the "zone" of our gardens. The USDA has divided North America into
plant hardiness zones based on average annual minimum temperatures. The United States, Canada, and Mexico, are divided into 11 zones with each zone number representing a range of 10 degrees F. The averages were determined by recording the lowest temperatures between 1974 and 1986 (1971-1984 in Mexico).  This map below from the National Arboretum shows the color-coded zones.



Hypertext version of USDA Hardiness Zone Map


Zones 2 through 10 are further subdivided into light and dark variations of the same color, representing five-degree spans within the 10-degree zone. The lighter color is the colder half and the darker color is the warmer half. For example, Zone 5 represents average minimum temperatures of -10F to -20F. Zone 5A is -15F to -20F; 5B is -10F to -15F.

Plants are identified and labeled by zone to help match them to appropriate landscapes. The concept is to help identify the probable hardiness and survivability of plants based on temperature and geography. If horticulturists know that a plant will not survive below a certain temperature, it's beneficial for gardeners to avoid planting it if they know they live in an area where temperatures regularly drop below that threshold. It's a great guideline for you to use, but it's not foolproof.

Zone 5 runs through the middle of the United States. It includes my area of Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and over to Pennsylvania. To the west, the Rocky Mountains interrupt the horizontal pattern, but Zone 5 drops into New Mexico and Arizona before swinging back up into Utah, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. And that's why there's a deficiency in the system.

North America is not the same from one coast to the other. The Eastern United States with relatively flat topography and stable weather patterns differs greatly from the Mountain Southwest and Pacific Coast. You might be surprised to know that Portland, Oregon, Tucson, Arizona, and Shreveport, Louisiana, are all in USDA Zone 8A. Few gardeners would argue that you can grow the same garden in those three areas.

You can find out what zone you fall into at a number of online sites. You can go to the National Arboretum site and look where your city falls on the map. The National Gardening Association offers a zone finder by entering your zip code. The Arbor Day Foundation offers a similar site too.

The USDA Hardiness Zone Map only takes into account the average minimum temperatures of an area. It doesn't look at average high temperatures, average elevation, average rainfall, average days of sun, or any of the other factors critical to gardening success. It's up to you to recognize these differences when selecting plants for your garden.

Also be aware of variations within zones. The color scheme was painted with a fairly broad brush. My Colorado Springs city garden fell squarely within Zone 5B, meaning the average minimum low temperature falls between -10F and -15F. A few years ago I recorded an overnight low of -35F. I lost a number of perennial plants that winter. My new garden northeast of town still falls within Zone 5B, but now I live 1,000 feet higher at 7,500 feet elevation. Local gardeners know that it is more difficult to garden in my new area than in my last. I'm well aware of that too.

If you live on the edge of a zone or at a higher elevation like mine, it's best to default to a colder zone when selecting plants. That's why I prefer to focus on Zone 4 when I can. That takes me and my plants down to an average low of -30F, providing a survival buffer when the temperature occasionally drops to unusual extremes.

Remember that the USDA Plant Hardiness Zones should be used as a guideline in selecting perennial plants, shrubs, and trees. If a plant label lists something like "Zone 4-9", it means the plant is suitable for and should survive in any of those zones. Below the minimum zone and it may not survive the winter, above the zone and it may need colder winter weather to grow and propagate properly (cold stratification; a term I've discussed before). You still need to determine if you have the appropriate soil, sun, and water requirements for the plants.

Understanding what the zones are and how they affect you is an important step in successful gardening. You can always choose plants that don't match your zone as long as you know they may not live past one season. Many of the annuals we plant are perennials when planted in a higher zone. You can also modify your landscape and create microclimates to simulate different zones. I'll talk about that in future blogs.

Being aware of what your zone is officially and what it is actually can make the difference in plant survival. If you don't already know, start tracking the minimum temperatures in your garden to find your own average. That way you avoid the broad brush stroke and garden with more precision.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The New Catalog Is Here! The New Catalog Is Here!

Spring is just around the corner. A couple days ago I received the first gardening catalog of the new year, and it isn't even the new year yet. They seem to arrive earlier and earlier every year, a little like Christmas items being sold in stores before Halloween. I was mildly surprised to see it in the stack of mail.

It is from one of my favorite nurseries, High Country Gardens. I've had the pleasure of visiting their store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and have ordered plants from their catalog for years. Their shipping methods are among the best in the industry and I'm always satisfied with their plants. Unlike many online nurseries, they allow you to select the shipping date of your plants to match your plans and the planting zone of your gardens.

Many nurseries assume they know what's best for you. Last year I ordered hundreds of dollars of bulbs from K. Van Bourgondien & Sons, a company that specializes in bulbs of many types. Their website says: "...we will ship at the proper planting time." Though my zip code rests in USDA Zone 5, my gardens are more appropriately Zone 4. The bulbs were in fair condition, but arrived more than a month before the frozen soil could even be worked.  Our spring warming was slow in coming and it was almost two months before the new beds were ready. I tried to store them in as stable an area as possible, my garage, but some dried out, some rotted, some sprouted before planting, and some failed to grow after planting. Their definition of "proper planting time" didn't match mine.

Be careful when ordering from a company that assumes what is proper for you. Every garden is different and your experience is most important in determining when the proper time is. There are many gardeners with gardens in an average zone and letting others decide planting times may not be catastrophic, but if you grow in unique areas and micro-climates within your garden you should be the one deciding what is best.

Also, in an effort to entice your purchase, nurseries and plant distributors pull out all of the stops to hook you. High Country Gardens is offering free shipping on orders of $100 or more; that's a savings of about 25%. The catch is that it's only good through January 2, 2011. I called them to confirm that you can still choose your delivery date, but the order needs to be placed very soon. Last year K. Van Bourgondien offered similar savings for orders before mid February. Some of us are already thinking about new plants for next year, but having to make a decision by early January may be too early for many of us.

Some times a good deal makes us act a little too hasty. As they intended, I'm ready to order right away to save some money. It's difficult to interrupt the euphoria of a new gardening catalog by putting the brakes on and deciding to wait, but that is often best.

I'm always encouraging gardeners to plan ahead and think about future plantings. Gardening catalogs are a great tool for getting new ideas and developing new plans. But it can be like shopping in a specialty chocolate shop -- everything looks good and it seems like a good idea to buy one of everything. Resist that impulse.

More catalogs will arrive soon. Lay back in your chair or curl up on the sofa as the temperature drops outside and look through them. Compare prices. Jot down the names of new plants that sound intriguing. Research water, sun, and fertilizer needs of new plants. Draw out your garden on a piece of paper and determine where new plants will go. Only when you have a good idea of what you really need and when you really need them should you place an order.

By taking your time and thinking about your gardening goals you can save money by not making impulse purchases of plants you really don't need. By checking out the shipping policies of a nursery you can save time, money, and dissatisfaction by not receiving plants too early. By knowing the best garden location for a plant, you can improve its likelihood of success.

Make your plant buying decisions educated ones. Will I order plants before January 2nd for delivery in May? Maybe. I know that I have a space specifically laid out for Penstemon and Agastache, plants that High Country Gardens specialize in, but I still have more research to do to select the best plants. If I can do that in time to benefit from promotional savings I'll take advantage of it. If not, I'll wait. There will always be more catalogs with more bargains.
Spring is just around the corner. A couple days ago I received the first gardening catalog of the new year, and it isn't even the new year yet. They seem to arrive earlier and earlier every year, a little like Christmas items being sold in stores before Halloween. I was mildly surprised to see it in the stack of mail.

It is from one of my favorite nurseries,
High Country Gardens. I've had the pleasure of visiting their store in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and have ordered plants from their catalog for years. Their shipping methods are among the best in the industry and I'm always satisfied with their plants. Unlike many online nurseries, they allow you to select the shipping date of your plants to match your plans and the planting zone of your gardens.

Many nurseries assume they know what's best for you. Last year I ordered hundreds of dollars of bulbs from K. Van Bourgondien & Sons, a company that specializes in bulbs of many types. Their website says: "...we will ship at the proper planting time." Though my zip code rests in USDA Zone 5, my gardens are more appropriately Zone 4. The bulbs were in fair condition, but arrived more than a month before the frozen soil could even be worked.  Our spring warming was slow in coming and it was almost two months before the new beds were ready. I tried to store them in as stable an area as possible, my garage, but some dried out, some rotted, some sprouted before planting, and some failed to grow after planting. Their definition of "proper planting time" didn't match mine.

Be careful when ordering from a company that assumes what is proper for you. Every garden is different and your experience is most important in determining when the proper time is. There are many gardeners with gardens in an average zone and letting others decide planting times may not be catastrophic, but if you grow in unique areas and micro-climates within your garden you should be the one deciding what is best.

Also, in an effort to entice your purchase, nurseries and plant distributors pull out all of the stops to hook you. High Country Gardens is offering free shipping on orders of $100 or more; that's a savings of about 25%. The catch is that it's only good through January 2, 2011. I called them to confirm that you can still choose your delivery date, but the order needs to be placed very soon. Last year K. Van Bourgondien offered similar savings for orders before mid February. Some of us are already thinking about new plants for next year, but having to make a decision by early January may be too early for many of us.

Some times a good deal makes us act a little too hasty. As they intended, I'm ready to order right away to save some money. It's difficult to interrupt the euphoria of a new gardening catalog by putting the brakes on and deciding to wait, but that is often best.

I'm always encouraging gardeners to plan ahead and think about future plantings. Gardening catalogs are a great tool for getting new ideas and developing new plans. But it can be like shopping in a specialty chocolate shop -- everything looks good and it seems like a good idea to buy one of everything. Resist that impulse.

More catalogs will arrive soon. Lay back in your chair or curl up on the sofa as the temperature drops outside and look through them. Compare prices. Jot down the names of new plants that sound intriguing. Research water, sun, and fertilizer needs of new plants. Draw out your garden on a piece of paper and determine where new plants will go. Only when you have a good idea of what you really need and when you really need them should you place an order.

By taking your time and thinking about your gardening goals you can save money by not making impulse purchases of plants you really don't need. By checking out the shipping policies of a nursery you can save time, money, and dissatisfaction by not receiving plants too early. By knowing the best garden location for a plant, you can improve its likelihood of success.

Make your plant buying decisions educated ones. Will I order plants before January 2nd for delivery in May? Maybe. I know that I have a space specifically laid out for Penstemon and Agastache, plants that High Country Gardens specialize in, but I still have more research to do to select the best plants. If I can do that in time to benefit from promotional savings I'll take advantage of it. If not, I'll wait. There will always be more catalogs with more bargains.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sow Seeds In Winter

Yes, you can sow seeds in the winter. You've put your gardening tools away, cleaned up your beds, and started thinking about spring planting. You're waiting to see what gifts you receive for the holidays before you get serious about planning new projects. We're still a few weeks away from receiving new seed and plant catalogs and you were going to wait for those before getting serious about gardening again. But there are still activities you can do outside and preparing new plants is a quick and easy one.

For a little background, think about what's happening in nature right now. Cold weather has set in and killed plants or caused them to go dormant. Flowers dried up leaving behind seeds or pods. As winter progresses, wind and snow bruise and batter the plants and the seeds fall to the ground. The seeds rest lightly on the soil, fill nooks and crannies, and mix with dried leaves in every corner of your yard. Winter snow and early spring rain force the seeds into the ground, fill the crevices with new organic material, and mat down the leaves into a thin layer of organics. As the weather warms in a few months, the seeds will germinate and begin to send small roots into the ground as the new plants spring to life.

You can intervene and modify nature's actions for your own benefit. Instead of anticipating or relying upon a haphazard process of self-sowing, you determine where the new plants will sprout.

Late fall or winter sowing by you works best with plants that reproduce naturally. It also works best with fall bloomers that just recently set seed. Think about perennials like aster, foxgloves, hollyhock, echinacea, lupine, or phlox, and annuals like cosmos, bachelor buttons, delphinium, gaillardia, marigold, poppies, sunflowers, or lupine. There are many more examples, of course.

Most of these plants require cold stratification of their seeds. Many seeds, particularly perennials, require a period of cold and moisture before they can germinate; cold stratification is this period of cold and moist conditions. You may have read or heard about simulating this process by putting seeds in wet paper towels, sand, or peat moss and keeping them in your refrigerator for a few months before you plant in spring. I suggest the best conditions for continual success in your garden is to actually use the weather conditions in your garden.

Begin by collecting your seeds. Snip your hollyhock pods into a paper bag, pluck your marigold flowers and place them on a newspaper, scrape sunflower seeds into a clean jar. Separate the dried petals, pod skins and other debris from the seeds. If you're ready to sow you can take the seeds right back outside; if not, place them in an envelope, bag, or jar until you are.

Preparation of the soil and garden bed isn't as much work as typical spring planting. It's as simple as broadcasting the seeds by hand on top of the soil in the area you want your new plants to grow. You will need to clear out excessive mulch, piles of leaves, and large plant debris from the planting space, but once the seeds are on top of the soil nature will take care of the rest. This is about as natural and organic as you can get when determining where plants grow in your garden.

You are at the mercy of other natural forces however. Birds may still swoop in to feed on the seeds. Mice may too. Too wet a spot and they may rot. Not enough moisture and they may blow away. For these reasons and others you'll want to sow many more seeds than you want; you can always thin out the plants if too many sprout. Sowing in a sheltered area may help reduce loss through birds and wind.

For more control, you can follow these same procedures and sow in pots placed outside. Put the pots in an area where they'll receive snowfall and sun. In pots, it's okay to sprinkle a very light layer of sand or potting soil over the seeds just to keep them in place, but avoid covering them like spring-planted seeds. This also allows you do modify the watering profile to help ensure the seeds don't dry out at the critical germination point in spring.

For special fun, especially with children, wait until you have a heavy snow in the heart of winter and throw the dark seeds in patterns on top of the snow. When the plants have rooted and are growing strong in spring you can remember the day you planted them.

Winter sowing is easy, fun and allows you to maintain a presence in your garden at the time of year you need a gardening boost the most. Though the science of cold stratification and germination are the basis of success, there is an art to how you pick the seeds, the area, and the specific broadcast method. If you haven't tried it before, think about it as something new to experiment with. And let me know how it goes.
Yes, you can sow seeds in the winter. You've put your gardening tools away, cleaned up your beds, and started thinking about spring planting. You're waiting to see what gifts you receive for the holidays before you get serious about planning new projects. We're still a few weeks away from receiving new seed and plant catalogs and you were going to wait for those before getting serious about gardening again. But there are still activities you can do outside and preparing new plants is a quick and easy one.

For a little background, think about what's happening in nature right now. Cold weather has set in and killed plants or caused them to go dormant. Flowers dried up leaving behind seeds or pods. As winter progresses, wind and snow bruise and batter the plants and the seeds fall to the ground. The seeds rest lightly on the soil, fill nooks and crannies, and mix with dried leaves in every corner of your yard. Winter snow and early spring rain force the seeds into the ground, fill the crevices with new organic material, and mat down the leaves into a thin layer of organics. As the weather warms in a few months, the seeds will germinate and begin to send small roots into the ground as the new plants spring to life.

You can intervene and modify nature's actions for your own benefit. Instead of anticipating or relying upon a haphazard process of self-sowing, you determine where the new plants will sprout.

Late fall or winter sowing by you works best with plants that reproduce naturally. It also works best with fall bloomers that just recently set seed. Think about perennials like aster, foxgloves, hollyhock, echinacea, lupine, or phlox, and annuals like cosmos, bachelor buttons, delphinium, gaillardia, marigold, poppies, sunflowers, or lupine. There are many more examples, of course.

Most of these plants require cold stratification of their seeds. Many seeds, particularly perennials, require a period of cold and moisture before they can germinate; cold stratification is this period of cold and moist conditions. You may have read or heard about simulating this process by putting seeds in wet paper towels, sand, or peat moss and keeping them in your refrigerator for a few months before you plant in spring. I suggest the best conditions for continual success in your garden is to actually use the weather conditions in your garden.

Begin by collecting your seeds. Snip your hollyhock pods into a paper bag, pluck your marigold flowers and place them on a newspaper, scrape sunflower seeds into a clean jar. Separate the dried petals, pod skins and other debris from the seeds. If you're ready to sow you can take the seeds right back outside; if not, place them in an envelope, bag, or jar until you are.

Preparation of the soil and garden bed isn't as much work as typical spring planting. It's as simple as broadcasting the seeds by hand on top of the soil in the area you want your new plants to grow. You will need to clear out excessive mulch, piles of leaves, and large plant debris from the planting space, but once the seeds are on top of the soil nature will take care of the rest. This is about as natural and organic as you can get when determining where plants grow in your garden.

You are at the mercy of other natural forces however. Birds may still swoop in to feed on the seeds. Mice may too. Too wet a spot and they may rot. Not enough moisture and they may blow away. For these reasons and others you'll want to sow many more seeds than you want; you can always thin out the plants if too many sprout. Sowing in a sheltered area may help reduce loss through birds and wind.

For more control, you can follow these same procedures and sow in pots placed outside. Put the pots in an area where they'll receive snowfall and sun. In pots, it's okay to sprinkle a very light layer of sand or potting soil over the seeds just to keep them in place, but avoid covering them like spring-planted seeds. This also allows you do modify the watering profile to help ensure the seeds don't dry out at the critical germination point in spring.

For special fun, especially with children, wait until you have a heavy snow in the heart of winter and throw the dark seeds in patterns on top of the snow. When the plants have rooted and are growing strong in spring you can remember the day you planted them.

Winter sowing is easy, fun and allows you to maintain a presence in your garden at the time of year you need a gardening boost the most. Though the science of cold stratification and germination are the basis of success, there is an art to how you pick the seeds, the area, and the specific broadcast method. If you haven't tried it before, think about it as something new to experiment with. And let me know how it goes.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

In Memory of My Dearest Friend

I lost my best friend and gardening companion on Thanksgiving. She worked side by side with me over eight years as I created my many gardens, worked on continuous projects, and lived life one happy day after another. No aspect of my life was left untouched by her unwavering love and devotion.


Shaca Latte

Shaca Latte arrived as a small ball of brown hair and swollen eyes, an unexpected gift from my wife. I didn’t think I was ready for a new puppy after losing my very special and adored friend, Stranger, to cancer. But on that first day Shaca walked happily with me in the backyard tripping over the tall grass blades. She stole my heart and never left my side. Until this week.
We all hope for friends and love and having someone who thinks we’re the most important person in the world. I’m one of the lucky ones to have found that. Shaca was bound to me and I to her by an understanding that we wanted each other, loved each other, and needed each other. She redefined the definition of loyalty and friendship for me.
Our mornings always started the same way. At around 4 a.m. she would leap onto the bed with stealth and finesse. For those many years she never woke me. Hours later I’d find her curled at my feet. It was only on a few occasions when I happened to be awake at that early hour that I was enthralled by how she managed to jump with a grace that allowed her to land in a space that my legs didn’t occupy. She would calmly lie down and rest her head on my feet, gently so as not to wake me.
She would stay on the bed and watch as I tended to dressing and preparing for the day. She could tell by which pair of pants I put on what the day’s activities would be. With one leg into my work jeans, her tail would start beating against the mattress with vigor. As soon as I headed toward the bedroom door she would jump down and then walk closely at my side down the hallway with an energy I could never summon in the morning. 

On the bed, waiting

She waited as patiently as she could as I prepared my cup of tea and started the water boiling. Her tail would start up again when I slipped on my shoes. She’d trip over herself  making her way to the front door. She knew to sit and wait for my command, but there was always anticipation on her part. I’d open the door, pause to make sure the coast was clear with no unsuspecting squirrels hanging around, then give her the hand signal that she was allowed to go. She would bound through the door, sailing through the air as she leapt over the steps. I would slowly walk to the edge of the driveway to pick up the newspaper providing her ample time to sniff the area and update herself on all the olfactory activities from the night before. I’d head back to the house and she would follow. We did this every morning for eight years, until yesterday. That was one of the most difficult mornings of my life when I had to do it alone.
In my chair
A chocolate lab, she loved the outdoors and water and being with me. She would lie patiently as I read the paper, most often lying in my lap as I sat in my recliner. She never seemed to grasp that she was a 70-pound dog and not the 10-pound puppy who first curled into my lap. I didn’t mind. It made her happy to curl into an amazingly small ball between my legs. It made me happy too.

The mornings would continue as I headed into the home office to check email, work, and maybe blog and she would squeeze under the desk to curl up on my feet. After a short time, though never soon enough for her, I would put on my work boots, and a jacket if there was a chill, and we would head out to begin our day outside. This was where she was happiest. 
She’d help me water the garden, taking the time to lap up water as it streamed from the hose. She’d patrol the area around the plants, always sniffing the ground. If I continued to water, she continued to sneak drinks from the hose. On hot days she’d run through the water like a kid, soaking herself. She would merrily shake the water free from her coat and do it again.

Shaca watching over the garden
On days that I’d grab a shovel she’d bound happily by my side. After I’d turn over a section of ground she’d waste no time lying on top of the loose soil. Never more than a few feet from where I worked, she would move with me as I dug further, picking a new spot on new soil near my boots. On special days I’d let her dig along with me. I might have to caution her to slow down because in her enthusiasm she’d lose sight of the gardening goal, but I usually just let her dig. She never wantonly dug up our plants; on just a couple occasions, she disturbed a few lavender plants as she eagerly hunted a gopher that had tunneled beneath them. She always had respect for our garden.
Running back to me
We’d walk around the property on clear days and in snow. She knew the area was hers to protect and enjoy. She would bound ahead, always with endless energy and enthusiasm, and return to my side for reassurance before bounding away again. When I’d stop she would stop. When I paused to inspect the trees or grass or sky, she would pause and observe the same location.
She had a weakness for squirrels. I don’t think she hated them, but rather wanted them to know they had no place in her yard. When one was spotted she would jump continuously into the tree until the squirrel would leave. She could jump. High. Taking a running start and using the trunk as a ramp, she would soar to unbelievable heights. I don’t remember her ever catching a squirrel by herself though on at least one occasion the squirrel she scared from a tree was snatched by one of our other dogs; I rescued it soon after. Once she spied a squirrel nothing else could distract her from her task.

Jumping for squirrels
She wasn’t afraid of machinery or power tools. Whether I was cutting lumber with a spiral saw or trimming trees with a chainsaw, she would lie watching me, waiting for the next part of the activity. When I’d mow the lawn she would find a nice location to observe my labor, always as close as she could. That simple chore would cause her to change spots a dozen times as she moved to be closer and be a more integral part of my effort.
When I’d unload soil or rock or mulch from the truck, she’d supervise my work. She never failed to be covered by the same dust as me. I have no doubt she would have shared my shovel if she could.
At the end of the afternoon, after we were both worn out, we’d walk slowly back to the house. She rarely ran to the house with the same energy with which she left it. Being outside with me was where she wanted to be. I tried to find as many excuses as I could to enable that.
Evenings were a calmer period. She would patiently and quietly beg with her beautiful brown eyes during dinner; she knew she always got scraps, but waited beside me with anticipation for the delicious bits. I taught her to catch the morsels and she was a marvel to behold as she snagged the airborne treats with speed and agility, but always with grace.
We’d watch TV or read a book or magazine, again with her curled into my lap. If she overheated she would roll over my feet and melt onto the floor with a clunk. Before long she’d be in my lap again. 
When it was time for bed we’d head back down the hall. For an unknown reason she was afraid of the area just outside the bedroom door and would pause anxiously before making a dash into the room. It was the same at both houses we’ve lived in. When I walked with her it helped relieve the anxiety and she’d settle in on her pad at the side of the bed. A few hours later she’d be at my feet on top and we’d start our day again.
Shaca had an endearing love for everyone around me. She accepted my new wife with utmost devotion and affection. On the days I was in town or away on a trip, she would curl at my wife’s feet under her desk. She would anxiously await my return. She would accompany my wife through the house and in whatever tasks they shared, but as soon as I reappeared everyone else disappeared. She would be glued at my side as she waited for the next activity we could share. Always at my side.
She’s gone now and there’s a hole in my heart. An unexpected and serious medical issue made her departure happen too fast. We had a scare a year ago when a thyroid tumor threatened our partnership. But we overcame that dilemma and she sailed past the vet’s prognosis like she sailed over the steps in the morning.
It will be difficult to continue gardening without her. I will, but it will be hard. I see her in everything I see in the yard and gardens. That’s why I can continue because I know part of her is in the soil and plants and trees. Wherever she is she’ll be able to lie down and watch me. That’s what she liked to do so much. I don’t want to take that away from her, especially now.
My life is better because of her time in it. She taught me to be a better person. She taught me to enjoy my garden and the outdoors in a way I never had before. She made every day special because to her every day with me was special. We shared life.
I miss her. I always will. We still have other dogs and will have more in the future. But there is only one Shaca Latte. The experience of deep and total love, from her to me and me to her, can never be forgotten.
Thank you, Shaca. May you chase squirrels forever as you protect your garden and watch over me.

Shaca Latte, 2002-2010
Rest in Peace

I lost my best friend and gardening companion on Thanksgiving. She worked side by side with me over eight years as I created my many gardens, worked on continuous projects, and lived life one happy day after another. No aspect of my life was left untouched by her unwavering love and devotion.


Shaca Latte

Shaca Latte arrived as a small ball of brown hair and swollen eyes, an unexpected gift from my wife. I didn’t think I was ready for a new puppy after losing my very special and adored friend, Stranger, to cancer. But on that first day Shaca walked happily with me in the backyard tripping over the tall grass blades. She stole my heart and never left my side. Until this week.
We all hope for friends and love and having someone who thinks we’re the most important person in the world. I’m one of the lucky ones to have found that. Shaca was bound to me and I to her by an understanding that we wanted each other, loved each other, and needed each other. She redefined the definition of loyalty and friendship for me.
Our mornings always started the same way. At around 4 a.m. she would leap onto the bed with stealth and finesse. For those many years she never woke me. Hours later I’d find her curled at my feet. It was only on a few occasions when I happened to be awake at that early hour that I was enthralled by how she managed to jump with a grace that allowed her to land in a space that my legs didn’t occupy. She would calmly lie down and rest her head on my feet, gently so as not to wake me.
She would stay on the bed and watch as I tended to dressing and preparing for the day. She could tell by which pair of pants I put on what the day’s activities would be. With one leg into my work jeans, her tail would start beating against the mattress with vigor. As soon as I headed toward the bedroom door she would jump down and then walk closely at my side down the hallway with an energy I could never summon in the morning. 

On the bed, waiting

She waited as patiently as she could as I prepared my cup of tea and started the water boiling. Her tail would start up again when I slipped on my shoes. She’d trip over herself  making her way to the front door. She knew to sit and wait for my command, but there was always anticipation on her part. I’d open the door, pause to make sure the coast was clear with no unsuspecting squirrels hanging around, then give her the hand signal that she was allowed to go. She would bound through the door, sailing through the air as she leapt over the steps. I would slowly walk to the edge of the driveway to pick up the newspaper providing her ample time to sniff the area and update herself on all the olfactory activities from the night before. I’d head back to the house and she would follow. We did this every morning for eight years, until yesterday. That was one of the most difficult mornings of my life when I had to do it alone.
In my chair
A chocolate lab, she loved the outdoors and water and being with me. She would lie patiently as I read the paper, most often lying in my lap as I sat in my recliner. She never seemed to grasp that she was a 70-pound dog and not the 10-pound puppy who first curled into my lap. I didn’t mind. It made her happy to curl into an amazingly small ball between my legs. It made me happy too.

The mornings would continue as I headed into the home office to check email, work, and maybe blog and she would squeeze under the desk to curl up on my feet. After a short time, though never soon enough for her, I would put on my work boots, and a jacket if there was a chill, and we would head out to begin our day outside. This was where she was happiest. 
She’d help me water the garden, taking the time to lap up water as it streamed from the hose. She’d patrol the area around the plants, always sniffing the ground. If I continued to water, she continued to sneak drinks from the hose. On hot days she’d run through the water like a kid, soaking herself. She would merrily shake the water free from her coat and do it again.

Shaca watching over the garden
On days that I’d grab a shovel she’d bound happily by my side. After I’d turn over a section of ground she’d waste no time lying on top of the loose soil. Never more than a few feet from where I worked, she would move with me as I dug further, picking a new spot on new soil near my boots. On special days I’d let her dig along with me. I might have to caution her to slow down because in her enthusiasm she’d lose sight of the gardening goal, but I usually just let her dig. She never wantonly dug up our plants; on just a couple occasions, she disturbed a few lavender plants as she eagerly hunted a gopher that had tunneled beneath them. She always had respect for our garden.
Running back to me
We’d walk around the property on clear days and in snow. She knew the area was hers to protect and enjoy. She would bound ahead, always with endless energy and enthusiasm, and return to my side for reassurance before bounding away again. When I’d stop she would stop. When I paused to inspect the trees or grass or sky, she would pause and observe the same location.
She had a weakness for squirrels. I don’t think she hated them, but rather wanted them to know they had no place in her yard. When one was spotted she would jump continuously into the tree until the squirrel would leave. She could jump. High. Taking a running start and using the trunk as a ramp, she would soar to unbelievable heights. I don’t remember her ever catching a squirrel by herself though on at least one occasion the squirrel she scared from a tree was snatched by one of our other dogs; I rescued it soon after. Once she spied a squirrel nothing else could distract her from her task.

Jumping for squirrels
She wasn’t afraid of machinery or power tools. Whether I was cutting lumber with a spiral saw or trimming trees with a chainsaw, she would lie watching me, waiting for the next part of the activity. When I’d mow the lawn she would find a nice location to observe my labor, always as close as she could. That simple chore would cause her to change spots a dozen times as she moved to be closer and be a more integral part of my effort.
When I’d unload soil or rock or mulch from the truck, she’d supervise my work. She never failed to be covered by the same dust as me. I have no doubt she would have shared my shovel if she could.
At the end of the afternoon, after we were both worn out, we’d walk slowly back to the house. She rarely ran to the house with the same energy with which she left it. Being outside with me was where she wanted to be. I tried to find as many excuses as I could to enable that.
Evenings were a calmer period. She would patiently and quietly beg with her beautiful brown eyes during dinner; she knew she always got scraps, but waited beside me with anticipation for the delicious bits. I taught her to catch the morsels and she was a marvel to behold as she snagged the airborne treats with speed and agility, but always with grace.
We’d watch TV or read a book or magazine, again with her curled into my lap. If she overheated she would roll over my feet and melt onto the floor with a clunk. Before long she’d be in my lap again. 
When it was time for bed we’d head back down the hall. For an unknown reason she was afraid of the area just outside the bedroom door and would pause anxiously before making a dash into the room. It was the same at both houses we’ve lived in. When I walked with her it helped relieve the anxiety and she’d settle in on her pad at the side of the bed. A few hours later she’d be at my feet on top and we’d start our day again.
Shaca had an endearing love for everyone around me. She accepted my new wife with utmost devotion and affection. On the days I was in town or away on a trip, she would curl at my wife’s feet under her desk. She would anxiously await my return. She would accompany my wife through the house and in whatever tasks they shared, but as soon as I reappeared everyone else disappeared. She would be glued at my side as she waited for the next activity we could share. Always at my side.
She’s gone now and there’s a hole in my heart. An unexpected and serious medical issue made her departure happen too fast. We had a scare a year ago when a thyroid tumor threatened our partnership. But we overcame that dilemma and she sailed past the vet’s prognosis like she sailed over the steps in the morning.
It will be difficult to continue gardening without her. I will, but it will be hard. I see her in everything I see in the yard and gardens. That’s why I can continue because I know part of her is in the soil and plants and trees. Wherever she is she’ll be able to lie down and watch me. That’s what she liked to do so much. I don’t want to take that away from her, especially now.
My life is better because of her time in it. She taught me to be a better person. She taught me to enjoy my garden and the outdoors in a way I never had before. She made every day special because to her every day with me was special. We shared life.
I miss her. I always will. We still have other dogs and will have more in the future. But there is only one Shaca Latte. The experience of deep and total love, from her to me and me to her, can never be forgotten.
Thank you, Shaca. May you chase squirrels forever as you protect your garden and watch over me.

Shaca Latte, 2002-2010
Rest in Peace

Monday, November 22, 2010

Birds of a Feather Hungrily Flock Together

Birds and gardening go together like rednecks and NASCAR (no disrespect intended). The activity of one brings out thousands of the other. To me that's a good thing. I'm a great lover of wildlife as part of the landscape and do what I can to encourage it, especially birds. Recently my gardens were designated a "Certified Wildlife Habitat" by the National Wildlife Federation. Now, even more than before, I make a point to recognize what is happening in my yard as it pertains to wildlife.


Imagine my surprise and delight when on a chilly weekend morning I observed dozens of birds grazing through my garden simultaneously. I recognized four of the types right away. The dark-headed Steller's Jays were swooping into the crowd and out again before they picked momentary fights with each other. The Black-billed Magpies fed on the fringes and would glide majestically from one border to the other over the heads of the lesser birds. A solitary Northern Flicker woodpecker was poking his long beak into the soil as though it was the side of a tall pine. A pair of Mourning Doves bobbed in the grass walking side by side.

Initially I wasn't able to identify the birds that populated the majority of the flock. After an online search it appears that they were European Starlings. They waddled in a large group combing through the grass and twigs seeking out seeds. Their chunky bodies and short tails looked out of place among the more graceful blue and gray birds.

All of these birds and many others have fed on my seeds, berries, and insects before, but this was the first time I noticed so many different types feeding at the same time in the same place. They focused their attention beneath the forest of dried sunflowers, but spread out over the entire space of my vegetable garden. Apparently there are still many seeds sprinkled on the ground and they fed at the smorgasbord with no regard to the color of their neighbor. That by itself is a wonderful moral of the story.

My attention, however, was on the fact that at the end of November my garden is still providing sustenance for wildlife. I haven't hacked away any of my seed-bearing flowers or weeds. Some of the withered vegetables are still lying in the raised beds or on the paths between. There's little doubt that recent warm weather has allowed insects to remain active on the soil surface. All of this gives ample culinary opportunities to varieties of birds.

I found it intriguing that none of this great flock was feeding from the hanging feeder or bowl of seed resting scant feet away. On that morning they preferred to search at ground level. Maybe the insects were active, maybe the older seeds tasted better, maybe they needed the exercise. Whatever the reason, it was a marvelous sight.

That's what gardening and having habitats for wildlife is all about -- marveling at what you've created. All of those birds had other places they could have fed, but they chose my garden on that morning both individually and as a group. It was a place they felt was abundant and safe. I was enthralled by the experience so much that I didn't think to photograph it. I'll try to rectify that in the future.

What have you created for your birds? Gardens can be designed to attract specific species, like hummingbirds. They can also be designed to attract a myriad of species, as mine do. As you think about spring plantings and garden design for next year, I encourage you think about the birds. Add a flower or shrub or grass that will benefit an avian friend. It's easy to do and when you see the results you'll have those moments of wonder. It's another way to add variety and multi-season enjoyment to your garden.
Birds and gardening go together like rednecks and NASCAR (no disrespect intended). The activity of one brings out thousands of the other. To me that's a good thing. I'm a great lover of wildlife as part of the landscape and do what I can to encourage it, especially birds. Recently my gardens were designated a "Certified Wildlife Habitat" by the National Wildlife Federation. Now, even more than before, I make a point to recognize what is happening in my yard as it pertains to wildlife.


Imagine my surprise and delight when on a chilly weekend morning I observed dozens of birds grazing through my garden simultaneously. I recognized four of the types right away. The dark-headed Steller's Jays were swooping into the crowd and out again before they picked momentary fights with each other. The Black-billed Magpies fed on the fringes and would glide majestically from one border to the other over the heads of the lesser birds. A solitary Northern Flicker woodpecker was poking his long beak into the soil as though it was the side of a tall pine. A pair of Mourning Doves bobbed in the grass walking side by side.

Initially I wasn't able to identify the birds that populated the majority of the flock. After an online search it appears that they were European Starlings. They waddled in a large group combing through the grass and twigs seeking out seeds. Their chunky bodies and short tails looked out of place among the more graceful blue and gray birds.

All of these birds and many others have fed on my seeds, berries, and insects before, but this was the first time I noticed so many different types feeding at the same time in the same place. They focused their attention beneath the forest of dried sunflowers, but spread out over the entire space of my vegetable garden. Apparently there are still many seeds sprinkled on the ground and they fed at the smorgasbord with no regard to the color of their neighbor. That by itself is a wonderful moral of the story.

My attention, however, was on the fact that at the end of November my garden is still providing sustenance for wildlife. I haven't hacked away any of my seed-bearing flowers or weeds. Some of the withered vegetables are still lying in the raised beds or on the paths between. There's little doubt that recent warm weather has allowed insects to remain active on the soil surface. All of this gives ample culinary opportunities to varieties of birds.

I found it intriguing that none of this great flock was feeding from the hanging feeder or bowl of seed resting scant feet away. On that morning they preferred to search at ground level. Maybe the insects were active, maybe the older seeds tasted better, maybe they needed the exercise. Whatever the reason, it was a marvelous sight.

That's what gardening and having habitats for wildlife is all about -- marveling at what you've created. All of those birds had other places they could have fed, but they chose my garden on that morning both individually and as a group. It was a place they felt was abundant and safe. I was enthralled by the experience so much that I didn't think to photograph it. I'll try to rectify that in the future.

What have you created for your birds? Gardens can be designed to attract specific species, like hummingbirds. They can also be designed to attract a myriad of species, as mine do. As you think about spring plantings and garden design for next year, I encourage you think about the birds. Add a flower or shrub or grass that will benefit an avian friend. It's easy to do and when you see the results you'll have those moments of wonder. It's another way to add variety and multi-season enjoyment to your garden.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Recycling As Art in Your Garden

My taste in garden art and structure can be eclectic. It's difficult for me to toss something in the trash when, with just a smidgen of imagination, it can be turned into art in the landscape; or at least what I may think of as art. Some gardeners put no sculptures or artsy objects in their gardens while others have a land awash in garden gnomes. I fall somewhere in between.

Always a frugal gardener, I prefer to recycle common household items rather than spend a small fortune on something from a garden center or store.

One of my favorite garden additions was the framework of a metal bunk bed I rescued at a garage sale. I buried the pieces in the ground and used them as trellises for peas, beans, and squash. The structures added variety and interest in the vegetable garden, in addition to doing a great job supporting the plants. For years I've been on the hunt for an old wooden ladder to put in the middle of my squash. I'm intrigued by the image of vines crawling up the rungs dropping the ripening squash between the outstretched legs.

This year I salvaged a glass light cover from a trash pile in the garage. The cover is no longer needed because the bulbs it protected were replaced by a ceiling fan with its own light. Rather than toss a beautiful object, I waited for the right opportunity. When I decided to begin a rock garden, the glass cover became a centerpiece. Turned upside down and filled with soil, it is a perfect resting place for a variety of sedum that will grow, fill it, and spill out onto the stones. It sparkles in the sun, adds character to a small garden section, and will become a conversation piece -- everything one would want in a piece of garden art.


Almost anything can be recycled for garden use. An old pair of my boots lies in the bed of hostas by the front door. They're filled with soil and over the years I've planted annuals in them. They stand as a reminder to me of years past and literally are a part of my life, in the garden. It adds character, my character, to my garden. Of the many items I've recycled, those boots have received the most comments and they have all been positive.

An old red wheelbarrow holds my cactus garden. It was the first wheelbarrow I bought many years ago and eventually wore out. Rather than banish the old workhorse to the dump, I gave it new life as a home for cacti. Those plants are unique in my garden and their "pot" is also unique. With a few holes drilled in the bottom and a specific blend of sand and rocks, it models the natural environment of the plants I chose for it. It too is a recycled object that brings a smile or smirk to the face of those who view it.

I saved an old green toilet bowl from a bathroom remodel a few years ago. I envisioned it resting alone in a corner of my perennial bed covered with ivy. To me the idea of a toilet giving life to plants was humorous and philosophically symbolic. My wife didn't agree and threatened bodily harm if she had to look at an old toilet in the backyard. Regretfully I honored her request and got rid of it, but it's still an idea I find promising.

I'm not advocating creating a junkpile and growing plants in it. Some things look trashy whether they are surrounded by green or not, but a little creativity can be fun for the gardener and the admirers. I have no current plans for new additions, but I always have my eye open for an opportunity. You never know when you'll stumble upon an item looking for a new home in your garden. I know that there's an abandoned ladder with my name on it in some garage somewhere and it wants to support my squash. How great is that?

 
My taste in garden art and structure can be eclectic. It's difficult for me to toss something in the trash when, with just a smidgen of imagination, it can be turned into art in the landscape; or at least what I may think of as art. Some gardeners put no sculptures or artsy objects in their gardens while others have a land awash in garden gnomes. I fall somewhere in between.

Always a frugal gardener, I prefer to recycle common household items rather than spend a small fortune on something from a garden center or store.

One of my favorite garden additions was the framework of a metal bunk bed I rescued at a garage sale. I buried the pieces in the ground and used them as trellises for peas, beans, and squash. The structures added variety and interest in the vegetable garden, in addition to doing a great job supporting the plants. For years I've been on the hunt for an old wooden ladder to put in the middle of my squash. I'm intrigued by the image of vines crawling up the rungs dropping the ripening squash between the outstretched legs.

This year I salvaged a glass light cover from a trash pile in the garage. The cover is no longer needed because the bulbs it protected were replaced by a ceiling fan with its own light. Rather than toss a beautiful object, I waited for the right opportunity. When I decided to begin a rock garden, the glass cover became a centerpiece. Turned upside down and filled with soil, it is a perfect resting place for a variety of sedum that will grow, fill it, and spill out onto the stones. It sparkles in the sun, adds character to a small garden section, and will become a conversation piece -- everything one would want in a piece of garden art.


Almost anything can be recycled for garden use. An old pair of my boots lies in the bed of hostas by the front door. They're filled with soil and over the years I've planted annuals in them. They stand as a reminder to me of years past and literally are a part of my life, in the garden. It adds character, my character, to my garden. Of the many items I've recycled, those boots have received the most comments and they have all been positive.

An old red wheelbarrow holds my cactus garden. It was the first wheelbarrow I bought many years ago and eventually wore out. Rather than banish the old workhorse to the dump, I gave it new life as a home for cacti. Those plants are unique in my garden and their "pot" is also unique. With a few holes drilled in the bottom and a specific blend of sand and rocks, it models the natural environment of the plants I chose for it. It too is a recycled object that brings a smile or smirk to the face of those who view it.

I saved an old green toilet bowl from a bathroom remodel a few years ago. I envisioned it resting alone in a corner of my perennial bed covered with ivy. To me the idea of a toilet giving life to plants was humorous and philosophically symbolic. My wife didn't agree and threatened bodily harm if she had to look at an old toilet in the backyard. Regretfully I honored her request and got rid of it, but it's still an idea I find promising.

I'm not advocating creating a junkpile and growing plants in it. Some things look trashy whether they are surrounded by green or not, but a little creativity can be fun for the gardener and the admirers. I have no current plans for new additions, but I always have my eye open for an opportunity. You never know when you'll stumble upon an item looking for a new home in your garden. I know that there's an abandoned ladder with my name on it in some garage somewhere and it wants to support my squash. How great is that?

 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fishing for Coffee

Compost is one of my favorite things about gardening. As an amendment, it works wonders as it improves soil and benefits plants. As a mulch, it benefits soil, plants, and insects. As a free factory sitting in a corner of your yard, it processes and recycles yard and kitchen waste, reducing the amount of trash you send to an already overcrowded landfill.

Almost anything organic can be composted. That's why I have a plastic bucket sitting on my kitchen counter to capture orange rinds, banana peels, egg shells, wilted lettuce, and all the other typical household refuse from breakfasts and dinners. When the bucket is full we dump it on the compost pile. As you might guess, it fills faster in the summer when we eat more fresh produce from the garden, grocery store, or farmers market, but that isn't the limit.

Composting can take place throughout the year. Though temperatures below 40 degrees will put the microorganisms responsible for decomposing to sleep, you can still put your organic collection on your pile. Mixed with leaves and other garden material from fall cleanup it's ready for the micro critters to eat when spring temperatures warm them up. With lots of work and attention you can keep your compost pile warm enough to maintain decomposition throughout the winter, but most of us don't want to take that effort when it's cold outside.

I try to keep the composting spirit alive through the cold months by maintaining the habit of putting scraps in the bucket and traipsing through the snow to dump it on the pile when it's full. During the colder months it may take two or three days to fill our bucket; we just don't eat as many fresh vegetables. I do know that it will contain some items that we use regularly: cucumber skins, lettuce heels, coffee grounds, my tea, banana peels.

Imagine my chagrin when I began to notice that the bucket was remaining nearly empty for days. Upon investigating I noticed an obvious absence of the morning coffee filter and grounds. It didn't take long to find the misplaced organics as I fished through the trash can beneath the sink. Oh, the horror of it.

The crime

It's true that composting and gardening are more important to me than to other members of my household. I know they humor me when I spend as much time as I do in the gardens. I do what I can to educate them about simple gardening activities, particularly composting. And I assume they understand it and have a similar sense of environmental awareness. But you know what happens when you "assume" that others will act a certain way.

Are coffee grounds in the trash truely a crime? Of course not. But imagine if all the coffee filters and grounds in your city, or state, or country were placed in a compost pile. Millions of pounds of coffee could become millions of pounds of compost. Starbucks gives their used grounds away for free because they know gardeners everywhere can benefit from them.

Now think about all of the banana peels and orange rinds and vegetable leftovers that get dumped in trashcans beneath kitchen sinks. Multiply the amount of organic material you dump by the millions of households that do the same and we're talking about a serious issue. San Francisco has a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance that is trying to reach zero waste by the year 2020. That's an amazing goal by a major U.S. city.

For now you can play a small yet important role in protecting our environment by composting waste that would otherwise find it's way into landfills or waterways. Be aware of materials that can be recycled naturally. Throw a bucket of kitchen scraps on a compost pile. And above all, don't discard those coffee grounds.
Compost is one of my favorite things about gardening. As an amendment, it works wonders as it improves soil and benefits plants. As a mulch, it benefits soil, plants, and insects. As a free factory sitting in a corner of your yard, it processes and recycles yard and kitchen waste, reducing the amount of trash you send to an already overcrowded landfill.

Almost anything organic can be composted. That's why I have a plastic bucket sitting on my kitchen counter to capture orange rinds, banana peels, egg shells, wilted lettuce, and all the other typical household refuse from breakfasts and dinners. When the bucket is full we dump it on the compost pile. As you might guess, it fills faster in the summer when we eat more fresh produce from the garden, grocery store, or farmers market, but that isn't the limit.

Composting can take place throughout the year. Though temperatures below 40 degrees will put the microorganisms responsible for decomposing to sleep, you can still put your organic collection on your pile. Mixed with leaves and other garden material from fall cleanup it's ready for the micro critters to eat when spring temperatures warm them up. With lots of work and attention you can keep your compost pile warm enough to maintain decomposition throughout the winter, but most of us don't want to take that effort when it's cold outside.

I try to keep the composting spirit alive through the cold months by maintaining the habit of putting scraps in the bucket and traipsing through the snow to dump it on the pile when it's full. During the colder months it may take two or three days to fill our bucket; we just don't eat as many fresh vegetables. I do know that it will contain some items that we use regularly: cucumber skins, lettuce heels, coffee grounds, my tea, banana peels.

Imagine my chagrin when I began to notice that the bucket was remaining nearly empty for days. Upon investigating I noticed an obvious absence of the morning coffee filter and grounds. It didn't take long to find the misplaced organics as I fished through the trash can beneath the sink. Oh, the horror of it.

The crime

It's true that composting and gardening are more important to me than to other members of my household. I know they humor me when I spend as much time as I do in the gardens. I do what I can to educate them about simple gardening activities, particularly composting. And I assume they understand it and have a similar sense of environmental awareness. But you know what happens when you "assume" that others will act a certain way.

Are coffee grounds in the trash truely a crime? Of course not. But imagine if all the coffee filters and grounds in your city, or state, or country were placed in a compost pile. Millions of pounds of coffee could become millions of pounds of compost.
Starbucks gives their used grounds away for free because they know gardeners everywhere can benefit from them.

Now think about all of the banana peels and orange rinds and vegetable leftovers that get dumped in trashcans beneath kitchen sinks. Multiply the amount of organic material you dump by the millions of households that do the same and we're talking about a serious issue. San Francisco has a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance that is trying to reach zero waste by the year 2020. That's an amazing goal by a major U.S. city.

For now you can play a small yet important role in protecting our environment by composting waste that would otherwise find it's way into landfills or waterways. Be aware of materials that can be recycled naturally. Throw a bucket of kitchen scraps on a compost pile. And above all, don't discard those coffee grounds.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

War of the Worlds in Your Garden

It amazes me how simple sights can trigger emotion and enhance the imagination. The garden abounds with images for the mind, especially after a season change. Today my wife commented how she loves the way the sunflowers look now. As I've blogged before, the sunflowers are her special place in the garden. The exploding golden colors, the gigantic faces turning toward the sun, the forest of shade from elephantine stalks.  Even as the moribund petals slowly faded, she focused her attention and pleasure on that section of the garden.

Today the color is gone. The seeds have been neatly cleaned by the birds. The fanning leaves are shriveled and torn. All that remains are darkened heads resting atop slender and sturdy towers. In the cold of morning with a glazing of frost, they obviously invoke a singular beauty for her. It's a unique garden presence that can't be duplicated during the fertility of summer.


Today the sunflowers make me think of the Martian invaders from the classic 1953 film, "The War of the Worlds". As Gene Barry hides in the basement, the metallic probe snakes through the darkness; he beheads it with an axe. The probes that sprout from the invading spacecraft shoot death rays and remind me of the vigilant sunflowers in my garden. It's an image that makes me smile.

Like my wife, I enjoy looking at the sunflowers, but, more importantly, I relish the entire garden during fall and winter. I think it's advantageous to plant with four seasons in mind. Flowers in full bloom attain the beauty many gardeners seek, but you can enjoy many other aspects of beauty as the year progresses. Miniature icicles sparkling in the winter sun as they drip from dried coneflowers are a wonder to behold. Delicate ice crystals that blanket apricot blossoms after a freezing fog in early spring are photograph-worthy even as they destroy the crop.


During fall, blowing leaves change the landscape as they catch on withering flowers, and bushes, and decorative grass. As the snow billows in, it rests upon the same leaves and plants as it sculpts the gardens into an ethereal museum of artistic wonder.

I'm all for cleaning up your garden and having it ready for spring planting, but delaying the clean up can add so much. There isn't much you can say about barren soil lying flat beneath the frost and snow. But the dead plants you were so quick to remove could have created a framework for the same frost and snow. The result may have been something to remember and treasure.

My sunflowers will remain on guard through the new year. Only after they've given us every conceivable viewpoint of weather and season will I remove them and plant a new crop. The same can be said for most of my plants. A garden doesn't need to be filled with color to be beautiful.
It amazes me how simple sights can trigger emotion and enhance the imagination. The garden abounds with images for the mind, especially after a season change. Today my wife commented how she loves the way the sunflowers look now. As I've blogged before, the sunflowers are her special place in the garden. The exploding golden colors, the gigantic faces turning toward the sun, the forest of shade from elephantine stalks.  Even as the moribund petals slowly faded, she focused her attention and pleasure on that section of the garden.

Today the color is gone. The seeds have been neatly cleaned by the birds. The fanning leaves are shriveled and torn. All that remains are darkened heads resting atop slender and sturdy towers. In the cold of morning with a glazing of frost, they obviously invoke a singular beauty for her. It's a unique garden presence that can't be duplicated during the fertility of summer.


Today the sunflowers make me think of the Martian invaders from the classic 1953 film, "The War of the Worlds". As Gene Barry hides in the basement, the metallic probe snakes through the darkness; he beheads it with an axe. The probes that sprout from the invading spacecraft shoot death rays and remind me of the vigilant sunflowers in my garden. It's an image that makes me smile.

Like my wife, I enjoy looking at the sunflowers, but, more importantly, I relish the entire garden during fall and winter. I think it's advantageous to plant with four seasons in mind. Flowers in full bloom attain the beauty many gardeners seek, but you can enjoy many other aspects of beauty as the year progresses. Miniature icicles sparkling in the winter sun as they drip from dried coneflowers are a wonder to behold. Delicate ice crystals that blanket apricot blossoms after a freezing fog in early spring are photograph-worthy even as they destroy the crop.


During fall, blowing leaves change the landscape as they catch on withering flowers, and bushes, and decorative grass. As the snow billows in, it rests upon the same leaves and plants as it sculpts the gardens into an ethereal museum of artistic wonder.

I'm all for cleaning up your garden and having it ready for spring planting, but delaying the clean up can add so much. There isn't much you can say about barren soil lying flat beneath the frost and snow. But the dead plants you were so quick to remove could have created a framework for the same frost and snow. The result may have been something to remember and treasure.

My sunflowers will remain on guard through the new year. Only after they've given us every conceivable viewpoint of weather and season will I remove them and plant a new crop. The same can be said for most of my plants. A garden doesn't need to be filled with color to be beautiful.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What Season Is It?

Without looking at the calendar, imagine how difficult it would be for someone waking up from a coma to determine the month. We, and many parts of the country, have experienced unusually warm temperatures during October and November. Locally, many long-standing records fell. Also imagine how difficult it is for a plant to determine the month.

Trees and perennials have genetic coding to process their response to the seasons. It gets cold and days get shorter, must be time to drop leaves and go dormant. It warms up and is sunny, must be time to sprout spring growth. Plants don't have calendars; they react to the changing climate.

In the last two weeks we went from summer to winter. Though it is November, we were seeing 80 degree days. Then we rocketed through fall. Two days ago it was 70 degrees for a high temperature. Yesterday was 60, today will be 45, and tomorrow has a forecast high of 30 degrees. Thirty degrees as a high temperature! That's a change of 40 degrees within a three-day period. Throw in some snow and it's a drastic change for us and for plants.

Put yourself in the shoes of your plants, or rather, the roots. Colder temperatures and shorter days caused leaves to change color and growth to slow. Then a long period of warm weather interrupted the normal dormancy cycle. Some plants got confused. Della has a peony that began to show bud growth. My hardier herbs began growing new shoots. The sudden freezing temperatures and normal late-fall weather will wreak havoc on some of these plants.

Weather patterns that are atypical will often cause mass death. Plants that would normally be prepared for winter are still unprepared and will be caught by surprise with rapid changes. They may not die immediately, but after an unexpected (for them) winter, buds and tip growth may be compromised next spring. I lost a cherry tree to similar conditions a few years ago. The buds were fooled in the fall and froze in the winter; in the spring there was not enough leaf growth to sustain the tree and it died in the heat of summer.

Lucky for your plants, you can read a calendar and watch for weather forecasts. Look for unexpected bud or leaf growth. If you've had unusually warm weather in the fall and suddenly cold is coming, protect susceptible plants until they can make the transition. This may mean covering them with straw or a blanket. Do what you can to minimize extreme changes in temperature. After a few days of continual cold, the plants should get a clue and finish their winterizing process.

Even if a plant has lost its leaves the soil has remained warm and root growth has continued. When the soil freezes too quickly the new roots can be killed. If you still have bare soil, apply mulch. A thick layer of bark, leaves, straw, or rock will moderate the changing soil temperature and give the roots a little more time to acclimate.

Every year there are plants that don't make it through the winter. Gardeners often accept it as a normal expectation. If you go from shirtsleeves to a jacket overnight, it's a sudden change. By recognizing how the weather affects your plants, you may be able to save some that otherwise would have been lost.
Without looking at the calendar, imagine how difficult it would be for someone waking up from a coma to determine the month. We, and many parts of the country, have experienced unusually warm temperatures during October and November. Locally, many long-standing records fell. Also imagine how difficult it is for a plant to determine the month.

Trees and perennials have genetic coding to process their response to the seasons. It gets cold and days get shorter, must be time to drop leaves and go dormant. It warms up and is sunny, must be time to sprout spring growth. Plants don't have calendars; they react to the changing climate.

In the last two weeks we went from summer to winter. Though it is November, we were seeing 80 degree days. Then we rocketed through fall. Two days ago it was 70 degrees for a high temperature. Yesterday was 60, today will be 45, and tomorrow has a forecast high of 30 degrees. Thirty degrees as a high temperature! That's a change of 40 degrees within a three-day period. Throw in some snow and it's a drastic change for us and for plants.

Put yourself in the shoes of your plants, or rather, the roots. Colder temperatures and shorter days caused leaves to change color and growth to slow. Then a long period of warm weather interrupted the normal dormancy cycle. Some plants got confused. Della has a peony that began to show bud growth. My hardier herbs began growing new shoots. The sudden freezing temperatures and normal late-fall weather will wreak havoc on some of these plants.

Weather patterns that are atypical will often cause mass death. Plants that would normally be prepared for winter are still unprepared and will be caught by surprise with rapid changes. They may not die immediately, but after an unexpected (for them) winter, buds and tip growth may be compromised next spring. I lost a cherry tree to similar conditions a few years ago. The buds were fooled in the fall and froze in the winter; in the spring there was not enough leaf growth to sustain the tree and it died in the heat of summer.

Lucky for your plants, you can read a calendar and watch for weather forecasts. Look for unexpected bud or leaf growth. If you've had unusually warm weather in the fall and suddenly cold is coming, protect susceptible plants until they can make the transition. This may mean covering them with straw or a blanket. Do what you can to minimize extreme changes in temperature. After a few days of continual cold, the plants should get a clue and finish their winterizing process.

Even if a plant has lost its leaves the soil has remained warm and root growth has continued. When the soil freezes too quickly the new roots can be killed. If you still have bare soil, apply mulch. A thick layer of bark, leaves, straw, or rock will moderate the changing soil temperature and give the roots a little more time to acclimate.

Every year there are plants that don't make it through the winter. Gardeners often accept it as a normal expectation. If you go from shirtsleeves to a jacket overnight, it's a sudden change. By recognizing how the weather affects your plants, you may be able to save some that otherwise would have been lost.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Rock On

Mulch is a necessary part of almost every garden. Its benefits will improve the soil and your plants. Mulch helps moderate soil temperatures, making it cooler in summer and warmer in winter. It helps reduce loss of soil moisture through evaporation. It helps reduce soil erosion of wind and water. It reduces and minimizes soil compaction, one of the most common garden problems. It reduces the quantity of weeds and makes weeding easier. It can add to the aesthetic qualities in a garden.

I finished applying mulch to my new lavender garden. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region and grows naturally in sunny, dry, rocky areas. Many people grow lavender and you may notice it planted as a border plant in beds where shredded bark is a common mulch used. The plants like a warm well-drained soil and detest damp soil and wet roots; more than cold weather, it is wet soil that kills most lavender. I'm worried that bark mulch might keep my soil too wet, so to help with drainage and to help keep the soil warm, I chose gravel mulch for my plants.

Basically, mulch is anything you apply to the soil surface to protect or improve it. Look around you and you'll see how nature does it:  pine needles mat beneath forest trees; leaves blow and gather around bushes and grasses; dead vegetation crumples into a decaying mass in perennial beds. You can also see how you and your neighbors do it:  bark chunks around trees; shredded rubber in playgrounds; crushed rock next to driveways.

There are two types of mulch, organic and inorganic. Organic is any natural material that was once growing and will eventually decompose. Bark, straw, leaves, grass, newspaper, and pine needles all are organic. Inorganic mulch is a man-made material or a mineral that won't decompose. Plastic, rubber, landscape fabric, and rock are inorganic.

Select the proper mulch for your garden and you will see the beneficial impact on plants. Select the wrong one and plants can suffer, along with you as you correct the problems.

My zone 5 garden is at an extreme for the plants. Our dry summers aren't a problem, but the winters are. Rock retains heat better than wood and during our cold and sunny winter the rock will help keep the soil a little warmer than another type of mulch. It will also radiate some of the heat to the plants, reducing the impact of severely cold nights. As the soil routinely freezes and thaws, the mulch will help moderate the swings in soil temperature.

I don't often recommend rock mulch because it's a fairly permanent addition. Other mulches can easily be raked away to plant new flowers, or grasses, or shrubs. Rock has no place in a vegetable garden that will be replanted every year. But for a perennial bed with plants that aren't going to be moved, rock mulch may be a good match, especially when the plant will benefit from it. Many plants native to arid regions can benefit from gravel on the soil. Agastache is a wonderful desert plant for butterflies and should be mulched exclusively with rock.

Visual attractiveness is another reason to choose rock. My lavender plants surround a flagstone patio I built for my daughter's wedding. The red rock gravel matches the flagstones and makes for an attractive border to the patio at the same time it works to benefit the plants. The sage green of the plants and vibrant purple of the flowers will blend well with the faded red of the patio and mulch.

Usually the best time to mulch is right after planting. Applying mulch to new plantings can give benefits right from the beginning, but you should delay it in the spring until the soil has begun to dry out. For plantings later in the season, you can wait until a frost to apply mulch. The freeze-thaw cycle in autumn can cause soil heaving and may thrust young plants out of the ground. The mulch will minimize that cycle's effects.

Unless you're planning to sterilize an area, stay away from plastic. It is common to see plastic beneath rock mulch. Plants in the area will be tortured because both water and oxygen will have a hard time making it to the roots. When you use rock mulch around plants, eliminate the plastic.

My lavender plants are very young and are facing a hard winter. I've done what I could to make that transition easier. We won't know until spring how successful it was, but I'm confident I chose the best solution.
Mulch is a necessary part of almost every garden. Its benefits will improve the soil and your plants. Mulch helps moderate soil temperatures, making it cooler in summer and warmer in winter. It helps reduce loss of soil moisture through evaporation. It helps reduce soil erosion of wind and water. It reduces and minimizes soil compaction, one of the most common garden problems. It reduces the quantity of weeds and makes weeding easier. It can add to the aesthetic qualities in a garden.

I finished applying mulch to my new lavender garden. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean region and grows naturally in sunny, dry, rocky areas. Many people grow lavender and you may notice it planted as a border plant in beds where shredded bark is a common mulch used. The plants like a warm well-drained soil and detest damp soil and wet roots; more than cold weather, it is wet soil that kills most lavender. I'm worried that bark mulch might keep my soil too wet, so to help with drainage and to help keep the soil warm, I chose gravel mulch for my plants.

Basically, mulch is anything you apply to the soil surface to protect or improve it. Look around you and you'll see how nature does it:  pine needles mat beneath forest trees; leaves blow and gather around bushes and grasses; dead vegetation crumples into a decaying mass in perennial beds. You can also see how you and your neighbors do it:  bark chunks around trees; shredded rubber in playgrounds; crushed rock next to driveways.

There are two types of mulch, organic and inorganic. Organic is any natural material that was once growing and will eventually decompose. Bark, straw, leaves, grass, newspaper, and pine needles all are organic. Inorganic mulch is a man-made material or a mineral that won't decompose. Plastic, rubber, landscape fabric, and rock are inorganic.

Select the proper mulch for your garden and you will see the beneficial impact on plants. Select the wrong one and plants can suffer, along with you as you correct the problems.

My zone 5 garden is at an extreme for the plants. Our dry summers aren't a problem, but the winters are. Rock retains heat better than wood and during our cold and sunny winter the rock will help keep the soil a little warmer than another type of mulch. It will also radiate some of the heat to the plants, reducing the impact of severely cold nights. As the soil routinely freezes and thaws, the mulch will help moderate the swings in soil temperature.

I don't often recommend rock mulch because it's a fairly permanent addition. Other mulches can easily be raked away to plant new flowers, or grasses, or shrubs. Rock has no place in a vegetable garden that will be replanted every year. But for a perennial bed with plants that aren't going to be moved, rock mulch may be a good match, especially when the plant will benefit from it. Many plants native to arid regions can benefit from gravel on the soil. Agastache is a wonderful desert plant for butterflies and should be mulched exclusively with rock.

Visual attractiveness is another reason to choose rock. My lavender plants surround a flagstone patio I built for my daughter's wedding. The red rock gravel matches the flagstones and makes for an attractive border to the patio at the same time it works to benefit the plants. The sage green of the plants and vibrant purple of the flowers will blend well with the faded red of the patio and mulch.

Usually the best time to mulch is right after planting. Applying mulch to new plantings can give benefits right from the beginning, but you should delay it in the spring until the soil has begun to dry out. For plantings later in the season, you can wait until a frost to apply mulch. The freeze-thaw cycle in autumn can cause soil heaving and may thrust young plants out of the ground. The mulch will minimize that cycle's effects.

Unless you're planning to sterilize an area, stay away from plastic. It is common to see plastic beneath rock mulch. Plants in the area will be tortured because both water and oxygen will have a hard time making it to the roots. When you use rock mulch around plants, eliminate the plastic.

My lavender plants are very young and are facing a hard winter. I've done what I could to make that transition easier. We won't know until spring how successful it was, but I'm confident I chose the best solution.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Not Sheep, Sherlock

There's a great new show this season as part of "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS. Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective, "Sherlock" places Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in present-day London. Even in modern times, the eccentric Sherlock can deduce multitudes of information from the smallest clues. It appears miraculous, but is a skill most people can learn. Gardeners regularly rely on deductive reasoning as part of normal activities.

Today I was forced to play the detective in my own backyard. Last week I noticed the tips of the raspberry canes were gone. Not shriveled from the cold weather, but sheared off. My first inclination was to think that birds were the culprits, pecking off the few berries that were forming. I wasn't planning to harvest the cold-damaged fruit, so wasn't very concerned by it. It was more of an anomoly that left me scratching my head.

A few days ago I noticed that the buds on the branch tips of the new cherry tree had been eaten off. Again, I briefly suspected birds, but also wondered if squirrels might be the pests. They'll eat tree buds for food, though that typically happens in winter. My biggest concern was for the tree. I have four-foot tall wire cages around them to keep the dogs and grandchildren away, but with the tree tips gone, future vertical growth will be hampered. The apple tree I planted this year showed similar damage too.

Yesterday I noticed a large section of bark was removed from an aspen tree within spitting distance of the fruit trees. The torn bark was a few feet off the ground and my first reaction was that a porcupine had moved through the area. I've seen porcupine damage before and from the window it showed the same traits. It isn't out of the question because one of our dogs was quilled in our back yard a number of years back.

Today I decided to take a closer look and try to deduce what happened. Students of deductive reasoning know that the simplest answer is usually the correct answer. My initial observations showed birds, squirrels, and a porcupine as the vandals. Upon further thought, it seems odd that three different species would suddenly attack my plants within the same period of days.

I originally discounted deer because we've never had a deer problem. They're in the area and we've seen them just down the road, but there has been no sign that they discovered the gardens. Flowers have always brightened the borders and the few remaining blooms are still evident; none are missing. Besides, our four dogs do a great job patrolling the property and keeping intruders away. Assuming a deer would brave the dogs, my thought is that the first food it would go for would be easy flowers.

Close examination of the injured aspen shows sections of bark ripped loose. The bark is torn with ragged edges. That's an important clue. Some animals chew bark and some animals rip bark. Beavers, squirrels, and porcupines are chewers, deer and bears are rippers. When bears rip off bark they usually leave claw marks; no claw marks evident on the aspen though there were some gouges. Deer will debark a tree to eat or from rubbing antlers in fall, leaving gouges from the antler tips.

Suddenly the clues are pointing strongly at a deer presence. Raspberry and tree tips are eaten and bark is torn or worn off. But what about the dogs and my presence in the gardens? Shouldn't deer still be scared away?

Enter the power of deduction and the "ah ha" moment. The weather has changed dramatically in recent weeks. Though the days are unseasonably warm, the nights are still cold. During the warm months we leave the dog door open and our four furry friends have free roam in and out during the days and nights. When the sun goes down on a frigid night, I close the dog door to keep warmth in. For the past few weeks, the dogs have been on a schedule of going out late in the evening and not going out again until morning. That's plenty of time for a marauding deer to do some damage.

With colder weather, food is becoming scarcer. Foraging deer look for tender food like young fruit trees. With few threats and ample opportunity, the smorgasbord in my back yard was waiting for a diner.

Like many problems in life, this is one I hoped would never happen to me. Many, if not most, of my gardener friends have a deer problem. It was a bit naive to think I could escape it. So now I have to think about deer deterrents and deer proofing and deer-resistant plants. Honestly, though I resisted it it's been in the back of my mind; when I planted a dozen lavender plants earlier this year I was pleased to see that they are deer resistant.

Not much will change in the near term. The deer are free to feed on the property through the winter. I'll try to protect the fruit trees from further damage and we have enough aspens that it's okay if we lose a few. Starting nest year I attack my gardening from a new angle. It will be done with deer in mind. I'll let you know how it transpires.
There's a great new show this season as part of "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS. Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective, "Sherlock" places Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson in present-day London. Even in modern times, the eccentric Sherlock can deduce multitudes of information from the smallest clues. It appears miraculous, but is a skill most people can learn. Gardeners regularly rely on deductive reasoning as part of normal activities.

Today I was forced to play the detective in my own backyard. Last week I noticed the tips of the raspberry canes were gone. Not shriveled from the cold weather, but sheared off. My first inclination was to think that birds were the culprits, pecking off the few berries that were forming. I wasn't planning to harvest the cold-damaged fruit, so wasn't very concerned by it. It was more of an anomoly that left me scratching my head.

A few days ago I noticed that the buds on the branch tips of the new cherry tree had been eaten off. Again, I briefly suspected birds, but also wondered if squirrels might be the pests. They'll eat tree buds for food, though that typically happens in winter. My biggest concern was for the tree. I have four-foot tall wire cages around them to keep the dogs and grandchildren away, but with the tree tips gone, future vertical growth will be hampered. The apple tree I planted this year showed similar damage too.

Yesterday I noticed a large section of bark was removed from an aspen tree within spitting distance of the fruit trees. The torn bark was a few feet off the ground and my first reaction was that a porcupine had moved through the area. I've seen porcupine damage before and from the window it showed the same traits. It isn't out of the question because one of our dogs was quilled in our back yard a number of years back.

Today I decided to take a closer look and try to deduce what happened. Students of deductive reasoning know that the simplest answer is usually the correct answer. My initial observations showed birds, squirrels, and a porcupine as the vandals. Upon further thought, it seems odd that three different species would suddenly attack my plants within the same period of days.

I originally discounted deer because we've never had a deer problem. They're in the area and we've seen them just down the road, but there has been no sign that they discovered the gardens. Flowers have always brightened the borders and the few remaining blooms are still evident; none are missing. Besides, our four dogs do a great job patrolling the property and keeping intruders away. Assuming a deer would brave the dogs, my thought is that the first food it would go for would be easy flowers.

Close examination of the injured aspen shows sections of bark ripped loose. The bark is torn with ragged edges. That's an important clue. Some animals chew bark and some animals rip bark. Beavers, squirrels, and porcupines are chewers, deer and bears are rippers. When bears rip off bark they usually leave claw marks; no claw marks evident on the aspen though there were some gouges. Deer will debark a tree to eat or from rubbing antlers in fall, leaving gouges from the antler tips.

Suddenly the clues are pointing strongly at a deer presence. Raspberry and tree tips are eaten and bark is torn or worn off. But what about the dogs and my presence in the gardens? Shouldn't deer still be scared away?

Enter the power of deduction and the "ah ha" moment. The weather has changed dramatically in recent weeks. Though the days are unseasonably warm, the nights are still cold. During the warm months we leave the dog door open and our four furry friends have free roam in and out during the days and nights. When the sun goes down on a frigid night, I close the dog door to keep warmth in. For the past few weeks, the dogs have been on a schedule of going out late in the evening and not going out again until morning. That's plenty of time for a marauding deer to do some damage.

With colder weather, food is becoming scarcer. Foraging deer look for tender food like young fruit trees. With few threats and ample opportunity, the smorgasbord in my back yard was waiting for a diner.

Like many problems in life, this is one I hoped would never happen to me. Many, if not most, of my gardener friends have a deer problem. It was a bit naive to think I could escape it. So now I have to think about deer deterrents and deer proofing and deer-resistant plants. Honestly, though I resisted it it's been in the back of my mind; when I planted a dozen lavender plants earlier this year I was pleased to see that they are deer resistant.

Not much will change in the near term. The deer are free to feed on the property through the winter. I'll try to protect the fruit trees from further damage and we have enough aspens that it's okay if we lose a few. Starting nest year I attack my gardening from a new angle. It will be done with deer in mind. I'll let you know how it transpires.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sunflowers Are For the Birds


The brilliant golden petals are faded, shriveled, or gone. The regal stalks and elephantine leaves are drooping and shredded. Where once stood a proud forest of sunflowers now stands rows of stark skeletons strained against the chilling winds. These tall flowers are a great symbol of summer color when in bloom and an equally appropriate symbol of floral decline when fall arrives.

Sunflowers in decline

The tomato and pepper plants are already pulled up and resting in the compost pile. Potatoes and onions are harvested and the beds are bare. It would be an easy task to remove the sunflowers stalks, amend the soil, and level the ground in preparation for spring planting. As simple as that is, it would lead to unnecessary waste.

Sunflowers are an ideal food source for birds through the decline of the season. Migratory birds feed on insects and seeds during the summer and head south before the weather turns severe, but a number of birds don't migrate and need energy to survive the winter. You've seen them on cold days, perched on power lines or a high branch. They're usually dark colored; shadows sitting against the gray sky. These are the birds that will benefit from the sunflowers you leave standing.

Sunflower seeds, particularly the black oil sunflower seed, are a prevalent component of many commercial seed mixes. They supply nutrition and energy to many different birds. Some commercial mixes may grind or break the seeds to allow access to smaller birds that wouldn't normally be able to break open the shell. Placing seeds in a feeder or dish is a great way to supplement your local bird population when the insects are gone and flowers are in short supply.

Leaving free-standing sunflower plants in your garden will do this naturally. Medium-size birds will land on big heads and pluck out some seeds. I saw a small flock of red-winged blackbirds attack my sunflowers a week ago. They are not precise feeders; as they peck and pull, a multitude of seeds will fall to the ground. Larger birds that are too big to perch on a precarious flower can forage the fallen seeds. Our blue jays and magpies are often seen at the base of the stalks. The big birds will crack the seeds and pieces of the kernel will fall out. Small birds will later feed on these bits. Chickadees will gather, pecking, in the shade of the dead plants.

With a large crop of sunflowers, this pattern will continue for months. At intervals, birds will arrive, feed, and fly away. The sunflower patch is nature's equivalent of a food court in the mall. If you plant a variety of sunflowers you'll see a variety of birds. Smaller flowers will be visited by smaller birds, but the feeding process will be the same.

By winter's end, most or all of the seeds will be gone. There will still be time to prepare the site for the next season's plantings. Don't be surprised if some of the discarded seeds sprout in the spring. It's possible for these annual flowers to become established year after year by the natural sowing by the birds. If you don't have sunflowers and the idea is intriguing, pick a location that can become their permanent home. If you have sunflowers and haven't cut them down, leave them be and let the birds feed. You'll be making a small contribution toward establishing a natural habitat.

The brilliant golden petals are faded, shriveled, or gone. The regal stalks and elephantine leaves are drooping and shredded. Where once stood a proud forest of sunflowers now stands rows of stark skeletons strained against the chilling winds. These tall flowers are a great symbol of summer color when in bloom and an equally appropriate symbol of floral decline when fall arrives.

Sunflowers in decline

The tomato and pepper plants are already pulled up and resting in the compost pile. Potatoes and onions are harvested and the beds are bare. It would be an easy task to remove the sunflowers stalks, amend the soil, and level the ground in preparation for spring planting. As simple as that is, it would lead to unnecessary waste.

Sunflowers are an ideal food source for birds through the decline of the season. Migratory birds feed on insects and seeds during the summer and head south before the weather turns severe, but a number of birds don't migrate and need energy to survive the winter. You've seen them on cold days, perched on power lines or a high branch. They're usually dark colored; shadows sitting against the gray sky. These are the birds that will benefit from the sunflowers you leave standing.

Sunflower seeds, particularly the black oil sunflower seed, are a prevalent component of many commercial seed mixes. They supply nutrition and energy to many different birds. Some commercial mixes may grind or break the seeds to allow access to smaller birds that wouldn't normally be able to break open the shell. Placing seeds in a feeder or dish is a great way to supplement your local bird population when the insects are gone and flowers are in short supply.

Leaving free-standing sunflower plants in your garden will do this naturally. Medium-size birds will land on big heads and pluck out some seeds. I saw a small flock of red-winged blackbirds attack my sunflowers a week ago. They are not precise feeders; as they peck and pull, a multitude of seeds will fall to the ground. Larger birds that are too big to perch on a precarious flower can forage the fallen seeds. Our blue jays and magpies are often seen at the base of the stalks. The big birds will crack the seeds and pieces of the kernel will fall out. Small birds will later feed on these bits. Chickadees will gather, pecking, in the shade of the dead plants.

With a large crop of sunflowers, this pattern will continue for months. At intervals, birds will arrive, feed, and fly away. The sunflower patch is nature's equivalent of a food court in the mall. If you plant a variety of sunflowers you'll see a variety of birds. Smaller flowers will be visited by smaller birds, but the feeding process will be the same.

By winter's end, most or all of the seeds will be gone. There will still be time to prepare the site for the next season's plantings. Don't be surprised if some of the discarded seeds sprout in the spring. It's possible for these annual flowers to become established year after year by the natural sowing by the birds. If you don't have sunflowers and the idea is intriguing, pick a location that can become their permanent home. If you have sunflowers and haven't cut them down, leave them be and let the birds feed. You'll be making a small contribution toward establishing a natural habitat.