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Monday, December 26, 2011

Gardening for Winter Interest

Gardening can be a four-season activity. We all know about the new colors and verdant growth of spring, the abundance of life in summer, and the waning harvests of fall, but winter is often disregarded as an important gardening season. I love my winter landscape and the season provides wonderful opportunities for unique garden appreciation. It begins by choosing to garden for winter interest.

Coneflowers lose little appeal in winter

You garden for winter interest expecting and looking forward to the days of cold. It's not much different than planning your plantings to enjoy the color and texture and size of varied plants during their prime growing time. By gardening for winter interest you imagine how the same plants will look when covered with frost or ice or snow. You anticipate how they will appear when dead or dormant.

On cloudy, gloomy days the brown and plain foliage of dead flowers, grasses, and shrubs can be quite dreary. I'll grant you that. The same can be said of new, plain growth during dark, rainy days in spring. But just as the returning sun creates a vibrant display of color and excitement when it glistens on the dew and raindrops nestling on the young plants, the remnants of a winter storm can transform the garden into a brilliant, magical wonderland.

Sun-loving Heliopsis covered in crystals

When the wonderful combination of frigid temperatures and moist air combine appropriately, a cold night meets a sunny morning with ice crystals covering the landscape. The dreary brown plants are transformed into shimmering, diamond encrusted works of natural art. This is when the garden offers beauty that competes dramatically with the highlights of summer.

Gardening for winter interest has a few basic steps. First is the selection of appropriate plants.  Some plants that provide a strong presence in a spring or summer garden, like Hostas, Lilies, and Irises, have their flowers and leaves wither away with the cold temperatures of fall; there is little left of them in winter. Selecting plants whose physical structure can stand up to strong winds, freezing weather, and heavy snow allows the winter garden to exist. At this point I'm not talking about plants that can survive and live in the cold, but about plants with sturdy stalks, and flowers, and branches after the green life has faded. Plants that offer height above the blanket of snow and ice are better than low plantings that will be covered and unappreciated.

Sunflowers bloom with icy flowers

In my garden, sunflowers, coneflowers, Yarrow, Heliopsis, and Kniphofia offer great scaffolds for the natural ice and snow sculptures of winter. Ornamental grasses and shrubs and bushes anchor the garden when snow falls.

Some plants like Red Twig Dogwood and Burning Bush are at their best in winter as they display dynamic reds against the white snow. Plants with yellow, red, and purple branches are readily available to add a rainbow of color that is often missing in a typical gardener's winter yard once green leaves have disappeared.


Of course plant selection for winter interest does include life; you can think beyond the death of plants and how they look in that state. Ornamental Kale can survive harsh conditions in many regions and displays beautiful greens and purples and reds even when covered in ice. Witch Hazel is a large shrub that flowers in winter. Holly with its evergreen leaves and berries welcomes Christmas with green and red. The parasitic evergreen plant Mistletoe achieved its mythical powers because of its colorful winter state. Mountain Laurels and Yews are evergreens many gardeners overlook in their landscape. There are many colorful winter plants available for your garden.

The second in gardening for winter interest is to leave your plants in place through the cold months. Many gardeners are anxious to clean up their beds as soon as the first freeze fades the foliage. They hack at and pull up the dead, dying, and dormant plants and cart them away. They rake fallen leaves into bags and leave the garden barren, ready for spring planting.  There is nothing wrong with gardening this way, but when old man winter arrives with his brush and palette there is no canvas to receive the artwork.

Ornamental grass shimmering in the winter sun

Besides giving birds and wildlife food and cover in winter, leaving your plants in place will add visual variety to your landscape. The textures and shapes of bare plants after their leaves are gone can only be appreciated during the shortest days of the year. There will be time to clean up the garden in spring when the winter appeal wanes.

Delaying pruning is easy to do. Leave excess branches on trees in early winter. Don't cut the stalks of perennial flowers. The erratic and ungainly growth of flower and shrubs pose nicely in frigid weather.

Simply selecting plants based on how they will look in winter and then leaving them to compose their own beauty is all that is needed to create a garden with winter interest.

To begin next year's winter garden look at your landscape and those of your friends and neighbors. Do you have a spot that is glaringly bare and lifeless in winter? Do you see something that stands out as brilliant in another's landscape? Tour a local botanical garden for ideas. Take the time to observe plants in winter. Think beyond the color and life of summer.

Even my garden art glistens after a frost

During the dark days of winter cold, gardeners often fail to see their garden's beauty, focused on how it will look when the flowers return. While I fall into this pattern too, it only takes an ice storm or cold morning fog to awaken a sense of wonderment. Traipsing through the snow, hearing the sharp crunch of ice, I peer into the world of Jack Frost. It's amazing how a garden can feel so alive when so little is actually growing. It's all about the icy visuals and sustaining your garden for winter interest.
Gardening can be a four-season activity. We all know about the new colors and verdant growth of spring, the abundance of life in summer, and the waning harvests of fall, but winter is often disregarded as an important gardening season. I love my winter landscape and the season provides wonderful opportunities for unique garden appreciation. It begins by choosing to garden for winter interest.

Coneflowers lose little appeal in winter

You garden for winter interest expecting and looking forward to the days of cold. It's not much different than planning your plantings to enjoy the color and texture and size of varied plants during their prime growing time. By gardening for winter interest you imagine how the same plants will look when covered with frost or ice or snow. You anticipate how they will appear when dead or dormant.

On cloudy, gloomy days the brown and plain foliage of dead flowers, grasses, and shrubs can be quite dreary. I'll grant you that. The same can be said of new, plain growth during dark, rainy days in spring. But just as the returning sun creates a vibrant display of color and excitement when it glistens on the dew and raindrops nestling on the young plants, the remnants of a winter storm can transform the garden into a brilliant, magical wonderland.

Sun-loving Heliopsis covered in crystals

When the wonderful combination of frigid temperatures and moist air combine appropriately, a cold night meets a sunny morning with ice crystals covering the landscape. The dreary brown plants are transformed into shimmering, diamond encrusted works of natural art. This is when the garden offers beauty that competes dramatically with the highlights of summer.

Gardening for winter interest has a few basic steps. First is the selection of appropriate plants.  Some plants that provide a strong presence in a spring or summer garden, like Hostas, Lilies, and Irises, have their flowers and leaves wither away with the cold temperatures of fall; there is little left of them in winter. Selecting plants whose physical structure can stand up to strong winds, freezing weather, and heavy snow allows the winter garden to exist. At this point I'm not talking about plants that can survive and live in the cold, but about plants with sturdy stalks, and flowers, and branches after the green life has faded. Plants that offer height above the blanket of snow and ice are better than low plantings that will be covered and unappreciated.

Sunflowers bloom with icy flowers

In my garden, sunflowers, coneflowers, Yarrow, Heliopsis, and Kniphofia offer great scaffolds for the natural ice and snow sculptures of winter. Ornamental grasses and shrubs and bushes anchor the garden when snow falls.

Some plants like Red Twig Dogwood and Burning Bush are at their best in winter as they display dynamic reds against the white snow. Plants with yellow, red, and purple branches are readily available to add a rainbow of color that is often missing in a typical gardener's winter yard once green leaves have disappeared.


Of course plant selection for winter interest does include life; you can think beyond the death of plants and how they look in that state. Ornamental Kale can survive harsh conditions in many regions and displays beautiful greens and purples and reds even when covered in ice. Witch Hazel is a large shrub that flowers in winter. Holly with its evergreen leaves and berries welcomes Christmas with green and red. The parasitic evergreen plant Mistletoe achieved its mythical powers because of its colorful winter state. Mountain Laurels and Yews are evergreens many gardeners overlook in their landscape. There are many colorful winter plants available for your garden.

The second in gardening for winter interest is to leave your plants in place through the cold months. Many gardeners are anxious to clean up their beds as soon as the first freeze fades the foliage. They hack at and pull up the dead, dying, and dormant plants and cart them away. They rake fallen leaves into bags and leave the garden barren, ready for spring planting.  There is nothing wrong with gardening this way, but when old man winter arrives with his brush and palette there is no canvas to receive the artwork.

Ornamental grass shimmering in the winter sun

Besides giving birds and wildlife food and cover in winter, leaving your plants in place will add visual variety to your landscape. The textures and shapes of bare plants after their leaves are gone can only be appreciated during the shortest days of the year. There will be time to clean up the garden in spring when the winter appeal wanes.

Delaying pruning is easy to do. Leave excess branches on trees in early winter. Don't cut the stalks of perennial flowers. The erratic and ungainly growth of flower and shrubs pose nicely in frigid weather.

Simply selecting plants based on how they will look in winter and then leaving them to compose their own beauty is all that is needed to create a garden with winter interest.

To begin next year's winter garden look at your landscape and those of your friends and neighbors. Do you have a spot that is glaringly bare and lifeless in winter? Do you see something that stands out as brilliant in another's landscape? Tour a local botanical garden for ideas. Take the time to observe plants in winter. Think beyond the color and life of summer.

Even my garden art glistens after a frost

During the dark days of winter cold, gardeners often fail to see their garden's beauty, focused on how it will look when the flowers return. While I fall into this pattern too, it only takes an ice storm or cold morning fog to awaken a sense of wonderment. Traipsing through the snow, hearing the sharp crunch of ice, I peer into the world of Jack Frost. It's amazing how a garden can feel so alive when so little is actually growing. It's all about the icy visuals and sustaining your garden for winter interest.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter is Fading

December 22nd is one of my favorite gardening days. Sure it's the first full day of winter, but that means that spring is next on the calendar. From today onward every day gets a little more sun until we peak in summer. We're halfway through the long tunnel and I can see light ahead.

My vegetable garden this week

There's just over a week left until the "Brrrr" months are over. With a shiver, my wife refers to this time of year as the "Brrrr" months: "Octobrrrr", "Novembrrrr", "Decembrrrr". The cold days and colder nights get old very quickly.

I know that January temperatures are actually colder, but January brings a new year, it's not a "Brrrr" month, and the increasing daylight becomes noticeable. February is a short month that comes and goes quickly, and then it's suddenly March with warming days and melting snow.

It all begins on December 22nd.

For many gardeners the presents under the Christmas tree hold tools, and books, and gardening supplies to be used in next year's garden. Just a few days away from tearing apart the wrapping paper, visions of Japanese plums dance in our heads. Whether we are giving or receiving garden gifts, these days of Christmas present bring thoughts of gardening future.

Winter is here, officially. As I write, large white flakes are falling outside. The pines are flocked with snow. Drifts are nearly two feet deep in places. There is no sign of life beneath the blanket of white. But I know it's there.

The Crocus and Tulip bulbs are still packed with energy, waiting to burst forth their brilliant blooms in a few months. Many seeds are soaking up the cold temperatures, a necessary step in their germination, and each time the snow melts it reveals Daisy leaves that are still viable. The excitement of the holidays has a green tinge.

I have no doubt the excitement of winter's first day will fade in the dark, cold days straight ahead, but brief introspection will reveal new examples of gardening hope. Soon a glance at the clock will elicit, it was dark at this time just last week and the sun is still out. Before long a Robin red breast will be hopping across greening grass looking for a meal. A day of sun and warm will suddenly appear like a beacon amid the cold and dark, and many more beacons will follow.

I'm a gardener and gardeners can always fill their heads with thoughts of green and color and growth and life. Having a blank, white canvas on my landscape helps make it easy for me to draw and paint the mental images of gardens to come.

Two days ago it was fall and winter still stood in the way of spring. Now that impediment is gone. Winter is here and spring is next. A few days can make a big difference psychologically. It's December 22nd and I'm looking forward to the gardening days ahead.
December 22nd is one of my favorite gardening days. Sure it's the first full day of winter, but that means that spring is next on the calendar. From today onward every day gets a little more sun until we peak in summer. We're halfway through the long tunnel and I can see light ahead.

My vegetable garden this week

There's just over a week left until the "Brrrr" months are over. With a shiver, my wife refers to this time of year as the "Brrrr" months: "Octobrrrr", "Novembrrrr", "Decembrrrr". The cold days and colder nights get old very quickly.

I know that January temperatures are actually colder, but January brings a new year, it's not a "Brrrr" month, and the increasing daylight becomes noticeable. February is a short month that comes and goes quickly, and then it's suddenly March with warming days and melting snow.

It all begins on December 22nd.

For many gardeners the presents under the Christmas tree hold tools, and books, and gardening supplies to be used in next year's garden. Just a few days away from tearing apart the wrapping paper, visions of Japanese plums dance in our heads. Whether we are giving or receiving garden gifts, these days of Christmas present bring thoughts of gardening future.

Winter is here, officially. As I write, large white flakes are falling outside. The pines are flocked with snow. Drifts are nearly two feet deep in places. There is no sign of life beneath the blanket of white. But I know it's there.

The Crocus and Tulip bulbs are still packed with energy, waiting to burst forth their brilliant blooms in a few months. Many seeds are soaking up the cold temperatures, a necessary step in their germination, and each time the snow melts it reveals Daisy leaves that are still viable. The excitement of the holidays has a green tinge.

I have no doubt the excitement of winter's first day will fade in the dark, cold days straight ahead, but brief introspection will reveal new examples of gardening hope. Soon a glance at the clock will elicit, it was dark at this time just last week and the sun is still out. Before long a Robin red breast will be hopping across greening grass looking for a meal. A day of sun and warm will suddenly appear like a beacon amid the cold and dark, and many more beacons will follow.

I'm a gardener and gardeners can always fill their heads with thoughts of green and color and growth and life. Having a blank, white canvas on my landscape helps make it easy for me to draw and paint the mental images of gardens to come.

Two days ago it was fall and winter still stood in the way of spring. Now that impediment is gone. Winter is here and spring is next. A few days can make a big difference psychologically. It's December 22nd and I'm looking forward to the gardening days ahead.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Using Garden Art

There are many ways to classify gardeners and here are two more: those who like to use garden art and those who don't. By "garden art" I mean the addition of man-made objects to a garden with the intent to improve aesthetic and emotional appeal. "Intent" is an important concept that I'll discuss later. Fundamentally the question comes down to whether a garden should remain natural with only plants or whether foreign objects can be incorporated.

I fall into the category of gardeners who like to use garden art. My good gardener friend Della doesn't. Many of my gardener friends fall into one camp or the other. Some like appropriate garden art but don't have many pieces in their gardens. Others avoid it in their gardens while gushing about the beautiful art pieces in civic and professional gardens and botanical displays.

A piece of my garden art

For some gardeners "garden art" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. They feel that adding a crass plastic, steel, or stone figure diminishes the natural beauty of a landscape.

For other gardeners, like me, garden art can enhance the emotion that a garden evokes. Whether it's beauty, whimsy, introspection, or any specific theme, a garden reflects a gardener's design and the desire to induce a response by the viewer. Some garden art can amplify the reaction intended by the gardener. Admittedly, some garden art can degrade visual appreciation.

A simple piece of garden art

I think gardening is fun and I like to share that. Garden art is a way to express to others how I feel about a particular bed. For areas with broad appeal I often elicit a smile with the ceramic turtle, hippo, or frogs that peek out from the foliage. The alligator swimming in the soil beneath a pine tree seldom goes unnoticed and becomes a comment inducer.

Frogs under a Potentilla

In another garden section a bobbing, metal peacock draws the focus and comments. That is followed by an appreciation of the Daylilies, Roses, and Irises nearby. For gardeners and non-gardeners alike, I like to think my garden art draws their initial attention and becomes a segue to the plants I'm showcasing.

I love my peacock

Not all of my garden art has such a specific purpose. I have birds and butterflies atop metal rods randomly placed in my landscape; I just like the way they look. I have a small, metal moose resting in my vegetable garden as a personal memory of my time spent in Maine. The gnomes that inhabit different beds add a little fantasy and I enjoy imagining the fantastical thought that they come to life at night and protect my gardens.

One of my favorite gnomes

The intent of garden art is important. Each gardener who uses garden art does so with intent, personal or public. While some of my pieces, as I've discussed, are designed to appeal to others, most are designed to appeal to me personally. I spend more time in my gardens than anyone else so it's only natural that I should design them to appeal to me.

The reason I think so many gardeners have issues with garden art is because of the perceived abuses and excesses. Many of us have walked past a garden that is overrun with gnomes or flamingos or ceramic bunnies. In some gardens the garden art vastly outnumbers the actual plants. I can understand why a serious and dedicated gardener would have a personal problem with such landscapes; they think a garden's focus should be on plants.

But I think that each garden exists for that garden's gardener. With the exception, minimally, of big city botanical gardens created to be enjoyed by the masses, most gardens are designed, built, and maintained by gardeners for their own enjoyment and satisfaction. Sure, we love to share the beauty, but ultimately we garden for ourselves.

That means we use or don't use garden art because of our personal preferences. I have vague memories of being very young and encountering small sculptures in my grandmother's garden. Maybe that's why one reason why I like to use garden art. I've also seen many gardens with man-made additions that drew an emotion and made me smile and I want to recreate that. I like the little hidden figures that can be discovered among my plants.

Who wouldn't enjoy discovering this?

Conversely I've seen many beautiful, emotion-inducing gardens with nary a piece of art to be found. The structure of the plants doesn't need a metal or concrete sculpture for enhancement. The colors and textures of nature don't require an arbitrary painted ceramic piece. In such gardens garden art would diminish the overall appeal. Della's landscape is breathtaking without any garden art.

I do have beds attempting to recreate such gardens on a small scale. The plants are selected and positioned for their structure, texture, and color. The simple beauty of the plants and flowers is enough.

My basic gardening style is one of balance. I grow flowers and vegetables. I grow in pots and raised beds and open plots. I have indoor plants and outdoor plants. I have flowering plants and non-flowering plants side by side. And I have garden art in some areas and not in others.

That's how I garden. I'm always open to suggestions and new ideas, but I garden for me and my enjoyment. I garden to induce a response from the viewer and most of the time the viewer is me. And I like garden art.

 
There are many ways to classify gardeners and here are two more: those who like to use garden art and those who don't. By "garden art" I mean the addition of man-made objects to a garden with the intent to improve aesthetic and emotional appeal. "Intent" is an important concept that I'll discuss later. Fundamentally the question comes down to whether a garden should remain natural with only plants or whether foreign objects can be incorporated.

I fall into the category of gardeners who like to use garden art. My good gardener friend Della doesn't. Many of my gardener friends fall into one camp or the other. Some like appropriate garden art but don't have many pieces in their gardens. Others avoid it in their gardens while gushing about the beautiful art pieces in civic and professional gardens and botanical displays.

A piece of my garden art

For some gardeners "garden art" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. They feel that adding a crass plastic, steel, or stone figure diminishes the natural beauty of a landscape.

For other gardeners, like me, garden art can enhance the emotion that a garden evokes. Whether it's beauty, whimsy, introspection, or any specific theme, a garden reflects a gardener's design and the desire to induce a response by the viewer. Some garden art can amplify the reaction intended by the gardener. Admittedly, some garden art can degrade visual appreciation.

A simple piece of garden art

I think gardening is fun and I like to share that. Garden art is a way to express to others how I feel about a particular bed. For areas with broad appeal I often elicit a smile with the ceramic turtle, hippo, or frogs that peek out from the foliage. The alligator swimming in the soil beneath a pine tree seldom goes unnoticed and becomes a comment inducer.

Frogs under a Potentilla

In another garden section a bobbing, metal peacock draws the focus and comments. That is followed by an appreciation of the Daylilies, Roses, and Irises nearby. For gardeners and non-gardeners alike, I like to think my garden art draws their initial attention and becomes a segue to the plants I'm showcasing.

I love my peacock

Not all of my garden art has such a specific purpose. I have birds and butterflies atop metal rods randomly placed in my landscape; I just like the way they look. I have a small, metal moose resting in my vegetable garden as a personal memory of my time spent in Maine. The gnomes that inhabit different beds add a little fantasy and I enjoy imagining the fantastical thought that they come to life at night and protect my gardens.

One of my favorite gnomes

The intent of garden art is important. Each gardener who uses garden art does so with intent, personal or public. While some of my pieces, as I've discussed, are designed to appeal to others, most are designed to appeal to me personally. I spend more time in my gardens than anyone else so it's only natural that I should design them to appeal to me.

The reason I think so many gardeners have issues with garden art is because of the perceived abuses and excesses. Many of us have walked past a garden that is overrun with gnomes or flamingos or ceramic bunnies. In some gardens the garden art vastly outnumbers the actual plants. I can understand why a serious and dedicated gardener would have a personal problem with such landscapes; they think a garden's focus should be on plants.

But I think that each garden exists for that garden's gardener. With the exception, minimally, of big city botanical gardens created to be enjoyed by the masses, most gardens are designed, built, and maintained by gardeners for their own enjoyment and satisfaction. Sure, we love to share the beauty, but ultimately we garden for ourselves.

That means we use or don't use garden art because of our personal preferences. I have vague memories of being very young and encountering small sculptures in my grandmother's garden. Maybe that's why one reason why I like to use garden art. I've also seen many gardens with man-made additions that drew an emotion and made me smile and I want to recreate that. I like the little hidden figures that can be discovered among my plants.

Who wouldn't enjoy discovering this?

Conversely I've seen many beautiful, emotion-inducing gardens with nary a piece of art to be found. The structure of the plants doesn't need a metal or concrete sculpture for enhancement. The colors and textures of nature don't require an arbitrary painted ceramic piece. In such gardens garden art would diminish the overall appeal. Della's landscape is breathtaking without any garden art.

I do have beds attempting to recreate such gardens on a small scale. The plants are selected and positioned for their structure, texture, and color. The simple beauty of the plants and flowers is enough.

My basic gardening style is one of balance. I grow flowers and vegetables. I grow in pots and raised beds and open plots. I have indoor plants and outdoor plants. I have flowering plants and non-flowering plants side by side. And I have garden art in some areas and not in others.

That's how I garden. I'm always open to suggestions and new ideas, but I garden for me and my enjoyment. I garden to induce a response from the viewer and most of the time the viewer is me. And I like garden art.

 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Uses for Pine Needles

Many, many people want to know what to do with pine needles. Since I first wrote about using pine needles in the garden a year ago, ("What to Do With Pine Needles", December 15, 2010), that article has been read by hundreds of people looking for help with the common problem of too many needles in autumn. This year I expand on the topic by offering more uses for pine needles, some that I do and others that I found through research.

A yearly chore

First, using pine needles as a mulch is the best way to use large quantities of the pesky things. I have about a dozen large Ponderosa Pine trees around the house and can use all of the needles as a weed-reducing covering on my garden paths. I dump the pine needles by the wheelbarrow load between my raised beds. It helps that I have a large garden and plenty of paths that need weed suppression. With normal gardening activities the pine needles are compressed and broken down by mid summer and I usually desire more. If you have more needles than garden paths, consider saving them in bags for additional summer mulch applications.

My strawberries are mulched exclusively with pine needles. They're the best mulch I've found for plants like strawberries that are perennial and benefit when their fruit rests above the soil. The stiff pine needles allow plenty of air and water to reach the soil and don't compact when left undisturbed. The strawberry runners are able to dive beneath the needles and root, creating new sister plants. Many other garden plants can benefit from pine needles or a combination mulch along with straw.

Strawberries and pine needles

Another use for pine needles offers an indirect benefit for gardens. Beekeepers use smoke to control their bees as they inspect and manage their hives. Pine needles are virtually perfect as the fuel in metal smokers. Many beekeepers budget the cost of fuel, often burlap or cotton, into their beekeeping and would welcome the opportunity for free fuel. Contact your local beekeepers association or beekeepers you may know and offer them a bag of pine needles as smoker fuel.

Along the same lines, pine needles are great fire starters. For our outdoor fire pit it's easy to grab a few handfuls of pine needles from the nearest tree when I'm layering the kindling and wood; there's no need for newspaper. For indoor fireplaces, pine needles can play the same role. To avoid the mess of loose pine needles all over the hearth, using thread I bundle the needles into little wands to supplement kindling wood. For a rustic decoration the wands can be stacked along with cut wood near the fireplace. Pine needles will burn quickly so they're best when partnered with other basic fire starting components.

Easy pine needle fire starters

If you plan to go to the trouble of tying pine needles into bundles, consider using them as sachets. Fresh pine needles have more pine fragrance but can be mixed with dried needles to make a decorative, fragrant, long-lasting home accessory. Hung in a closet, they'll quickly make it smell like a forest. Wrapped in a sachet bag, they can add fragrance to drawers, closets, and even automobiles; why buy a paper, fake tree to hang from your rear view mirror when you can have the real thing.

Expanding on the needles-in-a-bag concept, create outdoor pillows and mattresses. Using sturdy, weather-resistant fabric, sew large bags and stuff them with pine needles. Similar to straw mattresses commonly used for hundreds of years, these equivalents can work well on a patio or outdoor deck area. They will be slow to break down and should hold their shape and cushion for a long time. If the fabric material is plastic, thick, or used with an internal barrier, the pointy tips shouldn't protrude.

You can also make tea with pine needles, primarily fresh ones. I stumbled across this use on the internet but haven't tried it. Some holistic medicine practitioners say pine needles offer health benefits and are high in Vitamin C. Before you try it I'd recommend conducting your own research to confirm it's what you want. There are many sites out there with more information about pine needle tea.

Start a pine needle compost pile. Last year I raked many piles of needles and used most of them, but one pile remained in an out-of-the-way corner of my yard. I raked in fall and in early summer I finally got around to using the pile, to replenish the mulch on my garden paths. Imagine my surprise when I began lifting the pile into my wheelbarrow and discovered that the inside and base of the pile was fully decomposed into nice, black compost. The snow, rain, and mass of the pile had effectively composted it. If you have more needles than you can use, put them in an area that will receive plenty of moisture and let them decompose.

For the truly crafty people, make a pine needle doll. Raffia and straw are often used in bundles that are bent and wrapped to create the doll's head. Long pine needles that aren't too dry can be used the same way. Once the head is formed a simple cloth dress completes the doll.

While many people with pine needles would prefer they just disappear, with a little effort and ingenuity you can wile away a winter's day by using pine needles creatively. If you have another use for pine needles let me know. I'm looking forward to what next year's pine needle article can offer.

Go to "What to Do With Pine Needles."



Many, many people want to know what to do with pine needles. Since I first wrote about using pine needles in the garden a year ago, ("What to Do With Pine Needles", December 15, 2010), that article has been read by hundreds of people looking for help with the common problem of too many needles in autumn. This year I expand on the topic by offering more uses for pine needles, some that I do and others that I found through research.

A yearly chore

First, using pine needles as a mulch is the best way to use large quantities of the pesky things. I have about a dozen large Ponderosa Pine trees around the house and can use all of the needles as a weed-reducing covering on my garden paths. I dump the pine needles by the wheelbarrow load between my raised beds. It helps that I have a large garden and plenty of paths that need weed suppression. With normal gardening activities the pine needles are compressed and broken down by mid summer and I usually desire more. If you have more needles than garden paths, consider saving them in bags for additional summer mulch applications.

My strawberries are mulched exclusively with pine needles. They're the best mulch I've found for plants like strawberries that are perennial and benefit when their fruit rests above the soil. The stiff pine needles allow plenty of air and water to reach the soil and don't compact when left undisturbed. The strawberry runners are able to dive beneath the needles and root, creating new sister plants. Many other garden plants can benefit from pine needles or a combination mulch along with straw.

Strawberries and pine needles

Another use for pine needles offers an indirect benefit for gardens. Beekeepers use smoke to control their bees as they inspect and manage their hives. Pine needles are virtually perfect as the fuel in metal smokers. Many beekeepers budget the cost of fuel, often burlap or cotton, into their beekeeping and would welcome the opportunity for free fuel. Contact your local beekeepers association or beekeepers you may know and offer them a bag of pine needles as smoker fuel.

Along the same lines, pine needles are great fire starters. For our outdoor fire pit it's easy to grab a few handfuls of pine needles from the nearest tree when I'm layering the kindling and wood; there's no need for newspaper. For indoor fireplaces, pine needles can play the same role. To avoid the mess of loose pine needles all over the hearth, using thread I bundle the needles into little wands to supplement kindling wood. For a rustic decoration the wands can be stacked along with cut wood near the fireplace. Pine needles will burn quickly so they're best when partnered with other basic fire starting components.

Easy pine needle fire starters

If you plan to go to the trouble of tying pine needles into bundles, consider using them as sachets. Fresh pine needles have more pine fragrance but can be mixed with dried needles to make a decorative, fragrant, long-lasting home accessory. Hung in a closet, they'll quickly make it smell like a forest. Wrapped in a sachet bag, they can add fragrance to drawers, closets, and even automobiles; why buy a paper, fake tree to hang from your rear view mirror when you can have the real thing.

Expanding on the needles-in-a-bag concept, create outdoor pillows and mattresses. Using sturdy, weather-resistant fabric, sew large bags and stuff them with pine needles. Similar to straw mattresses commonly used for hundreds of years, these equivalents can work well on a patio or outdoor deck area. They will be slow to break down and should hold their shape and cushion for a long time. If the fabric material is plastic, thick, or used with an internal barrier, the pointy tips shouldn't protrude.

You can also make tea with pine needles, primarily fresh ones. I stumbled across this use on the internet but haven't tried it. Some holistic medicine practitioners say pine needles offer health benefits and are high in Vitamin C. Before you try it I'd recommend conducting your own research to confirm it's what you want. There are many sites out there with more information about pine needle tea.

Start a pine needle compost pile. Last year I raked many piles of needles and used most of them, but one pile remained in an out-of-the-way corner of my yard. I raked in fall and in early summer I finally got around to using the pile, to replenish the mulch on my garden paths. Imagine my surprise when I began lifting the pile into my wheelbarrow and discovered that the inside and base of the pile was fully decomposed into nice, black compost. The snow, rain, and mass of the pile had effectively composted it. If you have more needles than you can use, put them in an area that will receive plenty of moisture and let them decompose.

For the truly crafty people, make a pine needle doll. Raffia and straw are often used in bundles that are bent and wrapped to create the doll's head. Long pine needles that aren't too dry can be used the same way. Once the head is formed a simple cloth dress completes the doll.

While many people with pine needles would prefer they just disappear, with a little effort and ingenuity you can wile away a winter's day by using pine needles creatively. If you have another use for pine needles let me know. I'm looking forward to what next year's pine needle article can offer.

Go to "
What to Do With Pine Needles."



Saturday, November 26, 2011

Seed Catalog Troubles

While children trumpet the news of retail store Christmas displays in October, people of a certain age cringe at the unabashed consumerism and may resent the obvious effort to expand the holiday buying season into the Halloween time frame. I'm beginning to feel the same way about seed catalogs.

Last year I shared my thoughts about the excitement of receiving the first seed catalog of the season. That was in December. Along with the holiday gift circulars and catalogs arriving in the mail and newspaper, I've always felt a little giddy as I intersperse dreaming of new seeds along with the surprises to come under the Christmas tree.

After the excitement of the holidays, many gardeners begin planning the next season's gardens, choosing seeds, and preparing for growing plants inside just after the new year begins. Though winter is just beginning to deepen, spring will soon be a reality. Perusing the seed catalogs of December is timely.

Imagine my consternation when the seed catalogs began arriving in October, along with the Christmas displays creeping into the toy and candy aisles of local stores. At first it was just a curiosity because one of the first catalogs was from a company I hadn't done business with before. Then like feral cats at the back door of a generous old woman, another catalog appeared. And another.

The second week of November four different seed catalogs were delivered in the mail on four different days. Granted, I buy a lot of seeds and am probably perceived as a good customer. But my knowledge of marketing tells me that my good name was sold to new merchants who are now trying to beat their competition to the cash register by inundating me with new, glossy pages filled with enticing gardening pictures.

That troubles me. First, they're too early. I'm still cleaning up beds and putting away tools and lamenting the fading green of the last stalwart plants. It's not time to think about what seeds I'll be planting six months from now. Second, I like to think of myself as a loyal customer to quality companies and the obvious ploy to steal my loyalty by these new pretenders is an affront to my character. Then again, it had to be at least one of those quality companies that sold my name in the first place.

Most troubling is that some of the catalogs are appealing. There are interesting, new opportunities. The catalog from "Totally Tomatoes" is filled with a few hundred choices of, you guessed it, tomatoes. "Pinetree Garden Seeds" has 130 pages of everything imaginable that is garden related including soap making supplies, an arena in which my wife is actively participating.

Intertwined with the excitement of considering the possibility of trying a new hybrid tomato is the annoyance that I'm thinking about it in early November, a full five months before I can even begin to sow seeds indoors, and at least seven months before warm season plants stand a chance of surviving in my garden outside.

I'm a creature of habit and there are things that I prefer to do at certain times. The gardening calendar year has been pretty consistent for me over the years and it seems to be working fine. I'm always willing to try new things and strive for experimental gardening opportunities each growing season, but I have little control over the weather and climate. Asking me to purchase seeds before Thanksgiving, before the twenty-first of December, doesn't work for me.

There are other gardeners with a different gardening calendar than mine. Many regions warm earlier and plant sooner. November and December seed buying may make sense for them, but it doesn't for me.

I like to think that a seed company with my best interest in mind, with the truly personal service that so many of them espouse, would know that my Colorado address cannot support tomato considerations six or seven months early. Gladly, I haven't received seed catalogs from the companies that I was so pleased with last year.

I ordered most of my seeds online last year from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company and Territorial Seed Company.  While some of the plants didn't perform as well as hoped, I was very pleased with the quality of their seeds. Neither has sent a catalog yet and I appreciate that. They may not be the culprits who sold my name to another company. I also ordered seeds from Gurney's, and Gurney's has already sent me two catalogs, one the same week as the other new ones. That is suspicious activity.

As I usually do, I'll begin looking at seed catalogs a few weeks before Christmas and start developing my garden plans in January. The new seed catalogs will be in a pile waiting along with all others that arrive in my mailbox between now and then. I'll try not to feel too much animosity toward the seed companies that tried to get me to act impulsively too soon. I recognize that they're trying to make a buck in a tough business.

A point to all of this is that a gardener shouldn't feel pressure to disregard proven gardening timelines, especially by unknown companies that suddenly pop into the mail delivery. Glossy catalogs and fancy claims are designed to get us to act impulsively. While they may have quality products, aggressive tactics should be seen for what they are. Buy from proven providers, online and local. Recognize when a source understands about you and your specific gardening needs.

I look forward to seed catalogs each year just as I look forward to the Christmas season. It sure would be nice if both didn't begin in October.
While children trumpet the news of retail store Christmas displays in October, people of a certain age cringe at the unabashed consumerism and may resent the obvious effort to expand the holiday buying season into the Halloween time frame. I'm beginning to feel the same way about seed catalogs.

Last year I shared my thoughts about the excitement of receiving the first seed catalog of the season. That was in December. Along with the holiday gift circulars and catalogs arriving in the mail and newspaper, I've always felt a little giddy as I intersperse dreaming of new seeds along with the surprises to come under the Christmas tree.

After the excitement of the holidays, many gardeners begin planning the next season's gardens, choosing seeds, and preparing for growing plants inside just after the new year begins. Though winter is just beginning to deepen, spring will soon be a reality. Perusing the seed catalogs of December is timely.

Imagine my consternation when the seed catalogs began arriving in October, along with the Christmas displays creeping into the toy and candy aisles of local stores. At first it was just a curiosity because one of the first catalogs was from a company I hadn't done business with before. Then like feral cats at the back door of a generous old woman, another catalog appeared. And another.

The second week of November four different seed catalogs were delivered in the mail on four different days. Granted, I buy a lot of seeds and am probably perceived as a good customer. But my knowledge of marketing tells me that my good name was sold to new merchants who are now trying to beat their competition to the cash register by inundating me with new, glossy pages filled with enticing gardening pictures.

That troubles me. First, they're too early. I'm still cleaning up beds and putting away tools and lamenting the fading green of the last stalwart plants. It's not time to think about what seeds I'll be planting six months from now. Second, I like to think of myself as a loyal customer to quality companies and the obvious ploy to steal my loyalty by these new pretenders is an affront to my character. Then again, it had to be at least one of those quality companies that sold my name in the first place.

Most troubling is that some of the catalogs are appealing. There are interesting, new opportunities. The catalog from "Totally Tomatoes" is filled with a few hundred choices of, you guessed it, tomatoes. "Pinetree Garden Seeds" has 130 pages of everything imaginable that is garden related including soap making supplies, an arena in which my wife is actively participating.

Intertwined with the excitement of considering the possibility of trying a new hybrid tomato is the annoyance that I'm thinking about it in early November, a full five months before I can even begin to sow seeds indoors, and at least seven months before warm season plants stand a chance of surviving in my garden outside.

I'm a creature of habit and there are things that I prefer to do at certain times. The gardening calendar year has been pretty consistent for me over the years and it seems to be working fine. I'm always willing to try new things and strive for experimental gardening opportunities each growing season, but I have little control over the weather and climate. Asking me to purchase seeds before Thanksgiving, before the twenty-first of December, doesn't work for me.

There are other gardeners with a different gardening calendar than mine. Many regions warm earlier and plant sooner. November and December seed buying may make sense for them, but it doesn't for me.

I like to think that a seed company with my best interest in mind, with the truly personal service that so many of them espouse, would know that my Colorado address cannot support tomato considerations six or seven months early. Gladly, I haven't received seed catalogs from the companies that I was so pleased with last year.

I ordered most of my seeds online last year from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company and Territorial Seed Company.  While some of the plants didn't perform as well as hoped, I was very pleased with the quality of their seeds. Neither has sent a catalog yet and I appreciate that. They may not be the culprits who sold my name to another company. I also ordered seeds from Gurney's, and Gurney's has already sent me two catalogs, one the same week as the other new ones. That is suspicious activity.

As I usually do, I'll begin looking at seed catalogs a few weeks before Christmas and start developing my garden plans in January. The new seed catalogs will be in a pile waiting along with all others that arrive in my mailbox between now and then. I'll try not to feel too much animosity toward the seed companies that tried to get me to act impulsively too soon. I recognize that they're trying to make a buck in a tough business.

A point to all of this is that a gardener shouldn't feel pressure to disregard proven gardening timelines, especially by unknown companies that suddenly pop into the mail delivery. Glossy catalogs and fancy claims are designed to get us to act impulsively. While they may have quality products, aggressive tactics should be seen for what they are. Buy from proven providers, online and local. Recognize when a source understands about you and your specific gardening needs.

I look forward to seed catalogs each year just as I look forward to the Christmas season. It sure would be nice if both didn't begin in October.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Gardener's Thanksgiving

Today is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. Traditionally it's a day for sharing time with friends and family, eating too much delicious food, watching hours of football on television, and being thankful for the things in life that too often we overlook every other day of the year. 

I'll join the millions of Americans who pause to give thanks on this day. I have much to be thankful for and expect to share some of those thoughts with the friends we're dining with today. My list includes good health, a lovely and loving wife, beautiful and intelligent children, a wonderful energetic grandson, and another grandchild on the way. These, or similar sentiments, are the typical thankful subjects heard around the Thanksgiving table.

The friends we're joining for our Thanksgiving celebration happen to be fellow master gardeners. While much of our conversation this afternoon will center around gardening, I doubt that any of us will single out gardening as one of the things we are thankful for. We probably won't offer thanks for being a gardener.

Gardening is a central component in our daily lives and I suspect that occasionally we lose sight of that importance. We take gardening for granted and on a day like today giving thanks for being a gardener may seem similar to giving thanks for our brown hour or blue eyes. It's part of who we are.

Gardening is not always perceived as an external subject or object to identify for gratitude, particularly on a day devoted to giving thanks for things we usually fail to verbalize. The connection with nature, the planting and growing, the color and beauty, are all part of a gardener's daily encounters and each of us gives internal thanks every time we pause to watch a hummingbird flitting, pluck a fragrant, blooming rose, or taste a warm, sweet tomato in summer while surrounded by our maturing plants. Most of us share those experiences in conversation with fellow gardeners. We give thanks often.

Choosing to offer verbal gratitude on just one day a year does little to celebrate the importance that gardening plays in a gardener's life. Being a gardener is a mental state and a way of living. Few others choose to experience what we do and that realization helps make our activities more special.

We understand the special feeling of seeing garlic sprouts poke through the snow in fall and of spotting the first crocus poke through the snow in spring. We feel joy when the dry, bare roots of asparagus planted when the weather is still cool suddenly stand erect as little green spears just at the point we begin to question their survival a few months later. When the speechless beauty of lilies explode in color, just standing and soaking in the experience seems the natural and obvious thing to do.

Gardeners have much to be thankful for on this day and every day. We experience life. We give life and enjoy life. The positive aspects of gardening extend to every part of our personalities.

While our spouses and uninitiated acquaintances may wonder how we can talk for hours about soil and insects and new cultivars and helpful books and other gardeners, they can't fail to notice that we're conversing with exceptional interest, and motivation, and passion. The patterns of today's conversations will probably follow past trends: Cathie and Diane will gush over new offerings in catalogs and at nearby nurseries; Diane and I will lay out how we'll modify our plots this year; Cathie and I will share our respective gardening failures interspersed with successes; we'll all marvel at Barb's landscape while she reacts humbly.

That is one more thing gardeners have to be thankful for. We are a community, a fraternity, a fellowship of like-minded souls. Though we may not know the names of the flowers another gardener is talking about, we understand the importance of beauty in each of our lives. Gardening provides us the opportunity to create, share, and enjoy beauty.

In the great scheme of things, today isn't much different than any other day, but vocalizing gratitude to others helps identify to them the importance of each thing we highlight. Health, family, and friends are parts of my life that I am very grateful for. By comparison, the role of gardening may be deemed less important by others, but to me they're all valuable.

Today I give thanks that I'm a gardener.
Today is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. Traditionally it's a day for sharing time with friends and family, eating too much delicious food, watching hours of football on television, and being thankful for the things in life that too often we overlook every other day of the year. 

I'll join the millions of Americans who pause to give thanks on this day. I have much to be thankful for and expect to share some of those thoughts with the friends we're dining with today. My list includes good health, a lovely and loving wife, beautiful and intelligent children, a wonderful energetic grandson, and another grandchild on the way. These, or similar sentiments, are the typical thankful subjects heard around the Thanksgiving table.

The friends we're joining for our Thanksgiving celebration happen to be fellow master gardeners. While much of our conversation this afternoon will center around gardening, I doubt that any of us will single out gardening as one of the things we are thankful for. We probably won't offer thanks for being a gardener.

Gardening is a central component in our daily lives and I suspect that occasionally we lose sight of that importance. We take gardening for granted and on a day like today giving thanks for being a gardener may seem similar to giving thanks for our brown hour or blue eyes. It's part of who we are.

Gardening is not always perceived as an external subject or object to identify for gratitude, particularly on a day devoted to giving thanks for things we usually fail to verbalize. The connection with nature, the planting and growing, the color and beauty, are all part of a gardener's daily encounters and each of us gives internal thanks every time we pause to watch a hummingbird flitting, pluck a fragrant, blooming rose, or taste a warm, sweet tomato in summer while surrounded by our maturing plants. Most of us share those experiences in conversation with fellow gardeners. We give thanks often.

Choosing to offer verbal gratitude on just one day a year does little to celebrate the importance that gardening plays in a gardener's life. Being a gardener is a mental state and a way of living. Few others choose to experience what we do and that realization helps make our activities more special.

We understand the special feeling of seeing garlic sprouts poke through the snow in fall and of spotting the first crocus poke through the snow in spring. We feel joy when the dry, bare roots of asparagus planted when the weather is still cool suddenly stand erect as little green spears just at the point we begin to question their survival a few months later. When the speechless beauty of lilies explode in color, just standing and soaking in the experience seems the natural and obvious thing to do.

Gardeners have much to be thankful for on this day and every day. We experience life. We give life and enjoy life. The positive aspects of gardening extend to every part of our personalities.

While our spouses and uninitiated acquaintances may wonder how we can talk for hours about soil and insects and new cultivars and helpful books and other gardeners, they can't fail to notice that we're conversing with exceptional interest, and motivation, and passion. The patterns of today's conversations will probably follow past trends: Cathie and Diane will gush over new offerings in catalogs and at nearby nurseries; Diane and I will lay out how we'll modify our plots this year; Cathie and I will share our respective gardening failures interspersed with successes; we'll all marvel at Barb's landscape while she reacts humbly.

That is one more thing gardeners have to be thankful for. We are a community, a fraternity, a fellowship of like-minded souls. Though we may not know the names of the flowers another gardener is talking about, we understand the importance of beauty in each of our lives. Gardening provides us the opportunity to create, share, and enjoy beauty.

In the great scheme of things, today isn't much different than any other day, but vocalizing gratitude to others helps identify to them the importance of each thing we highlight. Health, family, and friends are parts of my life that I am very grateful for. By comparison, the role of gardening may be deemed less important by others, but to me they're all valuable.

Today I give thanks that I'm a gardener.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Winter Watering

As fall turns to winter, many gardeners enter hibernation mode. The garden colors have faded, annuals have died, and perennials are muted in dormancy. With gardens quiet and at rest, it's easy for a gardener to enter the same pattern. This relaxation and lack of action can have a devastating effect on plants.

Many tree, grass, shrub, and perennial roots remain viable during cold weather. That means they still need water. In many regions snow fall and occasional rain are enough to provide adequate moisture but during and after prolonged bouts of dry weather or drought it's possible and likely that soil can dry out and the roots will be damaged. Any plant with a shallow root system is at threat and supplemental watering becomes a requirement if you want your plants to survive winter.

Lawns can be particularly susceptible to winter kill, the damage or death of plants in winter. Most cool season grasses can handle cold temperatures and snow cover, but when they encounter desiccating winds and sustained warm winter temperatures, dormant or semi-dormant turf grass can be injured and killed.

Light snow may not be enough for lawns

Newly-planted trees and shrubs are also susceptible to injury in the same weather conditions. They typically require more water than established plants until their root systems become strong enough to sustain them, a period that takes one to two years, and dry winter conditions can be deadly.

Perennials, particularly new transplants, that are exposed to winds and full sun can quickly dry out. Potted perennials are especially at risk.

Daisies can remain alive and green throughout winter

Watering in late fall, winter, and early spring should be a regular part of your gardening activities. Heavy snowfall mitigates the need, but watering may still be necessary. Snow in cold weather actually holds less moisture than commonly believed. Ten inches of snow at the peak of winter only holds about one inch of water. If your storms drop an inch or two of snow, there is hardly any moisture present and when brief snows are followed by long periods with no snow plants are effectively exposed to desert conditions.

Not every day is a good watering day, even if plants need it. You should only water when the outside air temperature is above 40F degrees (4C). The soil should not be frozen or covered with snow.

Also, try to water around noon. The air is above freezing and that will allow the water time to soak into the soil and avoid the possibility of freezing into an ice layer at night. Compacted soil, typical in many lawns, may need a second watering to ensure water soaks into the soil without running off.

Watering slowly by hand is usually the best method to help ensure the water soaks in. Soaker hoses and drip systems may be good during the warm season but in winter any residual water can freeze quickly, thaw slowly, and render them ineffective. A sprinkler on a hose works well for lawns, but be sure that the hose is completely drained after use or you'll encounter the same problem when you reach for it again.

Look closely at your landscape to identify areas that need supplemental winter water. Areas with south-facing walls can dry out quickly due to reflective heat. Snow can remain under the shade of a tree, but the roots can extend well beyond that into dry zones. High spots can receive more sun and wind and be the first to dry. Note where the snow melts first and that will probably be the same spot that needs extra water first. Mulched plants usually need less water but when the soil is dry beneath the mulch watering is needed.

Generally, trees need about ten gallons (38 liters) for each inch (2.5 cm) diameter of the trunk. That means a four-inch thick (10 cm) tree requires forty gallons (150 liters) of water. Thankfully that amount only needs to be supplied once a month in winter; young trees may need two waterings. This ensures the water soaks in to the depth that the roots are growing in an area encompassing the drip zone and beyond. This is a total amount of water and can be reduced by the level of snow or rain.

Small, established shrubs (less than three feet or one meter high) require about five gallons (19 liters) of water per month. The amount increases to about 18 gallons (68 liters) to shrubs taller than six feet or two meters. Newly-planted shrubs need twice that amount.

Many established perennials can handle dry conditions for prolonged cold periods but when sustained warm winter days combine with dry weather, watering is advised. Potted plants will dry out faster and should be the first to receive supplemental water. The amount of water varies with the size of the plant so provide a good soaking once or twice a month. Plants that you put in the ground in fall will probably need at least twice that much.

Some herbs can stay green in winter after others are dead

You don't have to water in winter. Many plants have naturally adapted to varying winter conditions. But your garden plants may not be native to your region and probably don't have those natural adaptations. If you choose to avoid winter watering you're also choosing to place those plants under stress that can cause damage and death.

I've talked with many people who find large patches of turf dead in the spring. Others wonder why so many of their flowers or shrubs don't survive the winter. All around town I see trees where only half is alive and growing. This can all be attributed to winter kill. Sure, I live in a region with harsh, dry winters, but the solution for me and so many others is supplemental watering.

It takes extra effort to pull the hose out on a cool day, spend the time to water each plant, thoroughly drain the hose afterward, and put it all away, but for the two or three times it may be necessary over the course of winter it can save countless hours later. Pruning unnecessarily dead and damaged branches, replacing flowers and sod, and removing dried-out bushes is work that few gardeners look forward to doing. A simple application of water when plants need it most, in winter, can be a life saver, literally.
As fall turns to winter, many gardeners enter hibernation mode. The garden colors have faded, annuals have died, and perennials are muted in dormancy. With gardens quiet and at rest, it's easy for a gardener to enter the same pattern. This relaxation and lack of action can have a devastating effect on plants.

Many tree, grass, shrub, and perennial roots remain viable during cold weather. That means they still need water. In many regions snow fall and occasional rain are enough to provide adequate moisture but during and after prolonged bouts of dry weather or drought it's possible and likely that soil can dry out and the roots will be damaged. Any plant with a shallow root system is at threat and supplemental watering becomes a requirement if you want your plants to survive winter.

Lawns can be particularly susceptible to winter kill, the damage or death of plants in winter. Most cool season grasses can handle cold temperatures and snow cover, but when they encounter desiccating winds and sustained warm winter temperatures, dormant or semi-dormant turf grass can be injured and killed.

Light snow may not be enough for lawns

Newly-planted trees and shrubs are also susceptible to injury in the same weather conditions. They typically require more water than established plants until their root systems become strong enough to sustain them, a period that takes one to two years, and dry winter conditions can be deadly.

Perennials, particularly new transplants, that are exposed to winds and full sun can quickly dry out. Potted perennials are especially at risk.

Daisies can remain alive and green throughout winter

Watering in late fall, winter, and early spring should be a regular part of your gardening activities. Heavy snowfall mitigates the need, but watering may still be necessary. Snow in cold weather actually holds less moisture than commonly believed. Ten inches of snow at the peak of winter only holds about one inch of water. If your storms drop an inch or two of snow, there is hardly any moisture present and when brief snows are followed by long periods with no snow plants are effectively exposed to desert conditions.

Not every day is a good watering day, even if plants need it. You should only water when the outside air temperature is above 40F degrees (4C). The soil should not be frozen or covered with snow.

Also, try to water around noon. The air is above freezing and that will allow the water time to soak into the soil and avoid the possibility of freezing into an ice layer at night. Compacted soil, typical in many lawns, may need a second watering to ensure water soaks into the soil without running off.

Watering slowly by hand is usually the best method to help ensure the water soaks in. Soaker hoses and drip systems may be good during the warm season but in winter any residual water can freeze quickly, thaw slowly, and render them ineffective. A sprinkler on a hose works well for lawns, but be sure that the hose is completely drained after use or you'll encounter the same problem when you reach for it again.

Look closely at your landscape to identify areas that need supplemental winter water. Areas with south-facing walls can dry out quickly due to reflective heat. Snow can remain under the shade of a tree, but the roots can extend well beyond that into dry zones. High spots can receive more sun and wind and be the first to dry. Note where the snow melts first and that will probably be the same spot that needs extra water first. Mulched plants usually need less water but when the soil is dry beneath the mulch watering is needed.

Generally, trees need about ten gallons (38 liters) for each inch (2.5 cm) diameter of the trunk. That means a four-inch thick (10 cm) tree requires forty gallons (150 liters) of water. Thankfully that amount only needs to be supplied once a month in winter; young trees may need two waterings. This ensures the water soaks in to the depth that the roots are growing in an area encompassing the drip zone and beyond. This is a total amount of water and can be reduced by the level of snow or rain.

Small, established shrubs (less than three feet or one meter high) require about five gallons (19 liters) of water per month. The amount increases to about 18 gallons (68 liters) to shrubs taller than six feet or two meters. Newly-planted shrubs need twice that amount.

Many established perennials can handle dry conditions for prolonged cold periods but when sustained warm winter days combine with dry weather, watering is advised. Potted plants will dry out faster and should be the first to receive supplemental water. The amount of water varies with the size of the plant so provide a good soaking once or twice a month. Plants that you put in the ground in fall will probably need at least twice that much.

Some herbs can stay green in winter after others are dead

You don't have to water in winter. Many plants have naturally adapted to varying winter conditions. But your garden plants may not be native to your region and probably don't have those natural adaptations. If you choose to avoid winter watering you're also choosing to place those plants under stress that can cause damage and death.

I've talked with many people who find large patches of turf dead in the spring. Others wonder why so many of their flowers or shrubs don't survive the winter. All around town I see trees where only half is alive and growing. This can all be attributed to winter kill. Sure, I live in a region with harsh, dry winters, but the solution for me and so many others is supplemental watering.

It takes extra effort to pull the hose out on a cool day, spend the time to water each plant, thoroughly drain the hose afterward, and put it all away, but for the two or three times it may be necessary over the course of winter it can save countless hours later. Pruning unnecessarily dead and damaged branches, replacing flowers and sod, and removing dried-out bushes is work that few gardeners look forward to doing. A simple application of water when plants need it most, in winter, can be a life saver, literally.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Beginning Bird Watching

It's not often that home gardeners can compare themselves to Steve Martin, Jack Black, or Owen Wilson. The three actors recently starred as obsessive and competitive bird watchers in the film, "The Big Year", based on the book by Mark Obmascik. My wife and I enjoyed the movie recently and as we walked out of the theater I thought, I can do that. Not the actor part, but the bird part. They portray individuals who are fanatical about bird watching, and the concept of becoming a person who not only enjoys watching birds but seeks out new ones and keeps track of the experience is oddly appealing to me.

I've written about birds in the garden and some of the ways you can attract them and support their habitats. In my opinion, a garden isn't complete without the frenzied activities of birds, insects, and other wildlife. To date my bird knowledge is quite basic with a focus on the Robins, Doves, Jays, and Magpies that are easy to identify. Often a new bird makes a stopover in my garden and often I wonder what it is.

A Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

When I wrote about birds eating seeds in my garden last winter, it took over an hour for me to find an online source that was able to identify some of them as Common Grackles, a bird with which I was totally unfamiliar. Now I'm afraid that they may have been European Starlings.

That's because I'm the proud owner of "National Geographic Field Guide to Birds," the Colorado edition. My friend Deb suggested this book and it's a great addition to my gardening library. It is filled with beautiful photos of birds that inhabit my region and includes wonderful information about their behavior, habitats, and local sites. Did you know that the Common Raven is the largest perching bird in North America and is monogamous for life? I think that's interesting.

Gardeners have an inherent interest in nature or they wouldn't venture outside to practice their hobby or passion. Bird watching can make gardening more enjoyable. The National Geographic book points out, "Looking for and identifying birds will sharpen and heighten your perceptions... and you'll find that you notice everything else more acutely -- the terrain, the season, the weather, the plant life, other animal life."

Gardeners can miss the forest for the trees. We can become so focused on individual plants that we lose sight of the greater picture and how a our plants fit into nature as a whole. Taking a step back to look at and identify birds can help us identify our role, and our garden's role, on nature's stage.

I don't know how many of the 183 birds listed in the book visit my gardens on a regular basis. The field guide can fit in my pocket and includes a small box to check off birds as I see them so I can keep track. I'll never come close to observing the 745 birds recorded by the "winner" of the bird watching challenge in "The Big Year", but I've set a personal goal of 50 by the end of next year.

The National Geographic book's assessment of heightened perception through bird watching is accurate. To see a bird you have to watch the territory that it frequents. That means looking at trees, and bushes, and flowers, and grass. I do that as a gardener already, but now it is with more focus. When I see a rustle in a tree I wonder if it's a bird or a leaf. If it's a bird I watch it's activity, but if it's a leaf I find that I'm looking closer to identify it's shape and color and health.

There's no requirement for gardeners to know more about birds than the fundamental role they play in pollination, insect control, and seed propagation. Bird watching as a specified goal is a level or two above basic gardening activity. Learning the Linnaean taxonomy of plants is a similar goal. Adding a challenge to gardening can make it more interesting, even exciting.

Winter is a good time to kindle new interests in gardening. Physical activities are lessened which makes the season ideal for an increase in mental and intellectual activities. Educating myself about birds in my garden will help increase my awareness of the habitat and landscape of my gardens and a knowledgeable gardener is a better gardener.

A White-Crowned Sparrow in winter

National Geographic has a number of field guides for bird watching in many regions of North America. They also have a book for "Complete Birds of the World." I purchased a few other bird watching guides and I'll share my experiences as I determine which ones work best for me. My efforts won't be as a competitive bird watcher but as a gardener who is interested in birds.

Of course I'll take photos when I can. Birds are fascinating to observe and as seen in these bird guides they're usually quite photogenic. This should be a fun activity to occupy my time in winter and through the next year. How about you? What will you do to keep your gardening mind active?
It's not often that home gardeners can compare themselves to Steve Martin, Jack Black, or Owen Wilson. The three actors recently starred as obsessive and competitive bird watchers in the film, "The Big Year", based on the book by Mark Obmascik. My wife and I enjoyed the movie recently and as we walked out of the theater I thought, I can do that. Not the actor part, but the bird part. They portray individuals who are fanatical about bird watching, and the concept of becoming a person who not only enjoys watching birds but seeks out new ones and keeps track of the experience is oddly appealing to me.

I've written about birds in the garden and some of the ways you can attract them and support their habitats. In my opinion, a garden isn't complete without the frenzied activities of birds, insects, and other wildlife. To date my bird knowledge is quite basic with a focus on the Robins, Doves, Jays, and Magpies that are easy to identify. Often a new bird makes a stopover in my garden and often I wonder what it is.

A Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

When I wrote about birds eating seeds in my garden last winter, it took over an hour for me to find an online source that was able to identify some of them as Common Grackles, a bird with which I was totally unfamiliar. Now I'm afraid that they may have been European Starlings.

That's because I'm the proud owner of "National Geographic Field Guide to Birds," the Colorado edition. My friend Deb suggested this book and it's a great addition to my gardening library. It is filled with beautiful photos of birds that inhabit my region and includes wonderful information about their behavior, habitats, and local sites. Did you know that the Common Raven is the largest perching bird in North America and is monogamous for life? I think that's interesting.

Gardeners have an inherent interest in nature or they wouldn't venture outside to practice their hobby or passion. Bird watching can make gardening more enjoyable. The National Geographic book points out, "Looking for and identifying birds will sharpen and heighten your perceptions... and you'll find that you notice everything else more acutely -- the terrain, the season, the weather, the plant life, other animal life."

Gardeners can miss the forest for the trees. We can become so focused on individual plants that we lose sight of the greater picture and how a our plants fit into nature as a whole. Taking a step back to look at and identify birds can help us identify our role, and our garden's role, on nature's stage.

I don't know how many of the 183 birds listed in the book visit my gardens on a regular basis. The field guide can fit in my pocket and includes a small box to check off birds as I see them so I can keep track. I'll never come close to observing the 745 birds recorded by the "winner" of the bird watching challenge in "The Big Year", but I've set a personal goal of 50 by the end of next year.

The National Geographic book's assessment of heightened perception through bird watching is accurate. To see a bird you have to watch the territory that it frequents. That means looking at trees, and bushes, and flowers, and grass. I do that as a gardener already, but now it is with more focus. When I see a rustle in a tree I wonder if it's a bird or a leaf. If it's a bird I watch it's activity, but if it's a leaf I find that I'm looking closer to identify it's shape and color and health.

There's no requirement for gardeners to know more about birds than the fundamental role they play in pollination, insect control, and seed propagation. Bird watching as a specified goal is a level or two above basic gardening activity. Learning the Linnaean taxonomy of plants is a similar goal. Adding a challenge to gardening can make it more interesting, even exciting.

Winter is a good time to kindle new interests in gardening. Physical activities are lessened which makes the season ideal for an increase in mental and intellectual activities. Educating myself about birds in my garden will help increase my awareness of the habitat and landscape of my gardens and a knowledgeable gardener is a better gardener.

A White-Crowned Sparrow in winter

National Geographic has a number of field guides for bird watching in many regions of North America. They also have a book for "Complete Birds of the World." I purchased a few other bird watching guides and I'll share my experiences as I determine which ones work best for me. My efforts won't be as a competitive bird watcher but as a gardener who is interested in birds.

Of course I'll take photos when I can. Birds are fascinating to observe and as seen in these bird guides they're usually quite photogenic. This should be a fun activity to occupy my time in winter and through the next year. How about you? What will you do to keep your gardening mind active?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Gardening Lessons Learned

The end of the growing season is a good time to look back and reflect upon gardening lessons learned throughout the year. Albert Einstein is credited with this definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." While some people think we gardeners are insane to do what we do, there is little reason to prove them accurate by repeating actions in our gardens that we know will produce poor results.

Making a list of gardening successes, failures, and neutral actions helps identify the activities that may lead to insanity. By noting what hasn't worked, you can avoid pointless repetition and the rubber room. By noting what works and replicating it, you'll be perceived as another Einstein.

Starting tomatoes indoors was a great success

I recommend taking pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard and listing everything you noticed about your gardening that could prove useful for your next growing season. Ideally, you're keeping track of lessons learned throughout the season in a gardening journal. Try to be as specific and thorough as you can so the proper memory synapses fire when you read your list again in the future.

Dividing my daisies worked well

Here's a condensed version of my list:

- Buying seeds from heirloom seed companies online is cheaper than the little packets at box stores and provides many more choices.
- A meat thermometer works well as a soil temperature probe.
- Wall-o-water (and similar season extending products) really does work and gave a four-week head start on growing tomatoes.
- Starting seeds under a grow light isn't as hard as I thought it would be.
- Properly hardening off seedlings reduced my transplant loss rate to zero.
- Kale really grows well in my garden.
- An overhead sprinkler on a timer helped keep soil moist for seed germination.
- "Sweet 100" did better than any other tomatoes I planted.
- Of the many heirloom tomato varieties I tried, "Grace Lahman" did worst and "Caspian Pink" did best, but none of them produced much fruit before the first frost.
- Leeks do very well in my garden.
- Swiss chard does very well in my garden and doesn't taste bad at all.
- The germination of corn, squash, and green beans took almost four weeks.
- Butternut squash grew very well in my garden but needed a few more weeks to ripen when the frost hit.
- Deer found my garden and returned more than I expected.
- Even short-season melons didn't grow well in my garden.
- Every asparagus crown I planted grew; doing it right made a difference.
- Beets, carrots, and parsnips grow very well in my garden.
- Rabbit manure and used bedding take a long time to decompose.
- The wind was strong enough to rip the plastic on my mini-greenhouse hoops.
- Straw is an excellent mulch but drops seeds that require weeding of new straw plants.
- Hairy Vetch grows well as a green manure.

There are many more things I discovered this year. Some were confirmations of things I suspected, some were surprising results of experiments, some were serendipitous findings. I tried to make note of what I tried and what worked and what didn't. Most of it is documented for future articles.

Netting around a new plum tree kept the deer out

After you complete your list you can spent the off-season evaluating it. Decide if you want to repeat a planting that worked well. Decide if you want to try something again that didn't work, but with different preparation. Begin planning for new gardening efforts.

My list of gardening lessons learned will influence my gardening next year and every other. I've tried to grow melons in the past and never had any success; it's time to abandon that crop. "Sweet 100" is a tomato to grow more. I'll spend time next year starting seeds indoors and will use more wall-o-water-like plastic coverings to plant early. I think I can have success with corn, beans, and, squash if I cover the soil with plastic to heat it up days before I sow the seeds (this is where the signs of insanity begin to enter the picture).

There are some big garden projects ahead if I want to take them on. A deer-proof fence is needed if I want to avoid the damage they inflicted this year. My mini-greenhouse design is ideal for most areas but it doesn't stand up well to the 50, 60, and 70 mile-per-hour winds we get in late spring; a better plastic retention system is needed. Gophers broached my vegetable garden borders so I need to bury a barrier to keep them out.

Deer tracked right through the garden

By making a list and analyzing it, you can make your gardens better. I like to try new things and a list of gardening lessons learned helps me identify success and failure. There's nothing wrong with growing the same plants in the same plot year after year and by paying attention and noting your actions, even repetitive plantings can be improved upon.

If you're at the end of your season and the weather is getting colder, spend some time on a cold day to create your lessons learned list. If you're at the beginning of your season as the days grow warmer, keep track of things you try and what you learn along the way. Repeating this activity year after year is a nice way to avoid gardening insanity.

 
The end of the growing season is a good time to look back and reflect upon gardening lessons learned throughout the year. Albert Einstein is credited with this definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." While some people think we gardeners are insane to do what we do, there is little reason to prove them accurate by repeating actions in our gardens that we know will produce poor results.

Making a list of gardening successes, failures, and neutral actions helps identify the activities that may lead to insanity. By noting what hasn't worked, you can avoid pointless repetition and the rubber room. By noting what works and replicating it, you'll be perceived as another Einstein.

Starting tomatoes indoors was a great success

I recommend taking pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard and listing everything you noticed about your gardening that could prove useful for your next growing season. Ideally, you're keeping track of lessons learned throughout the season in a gardening journal. Try to be as specific and thorough as you can so the proper memory synapses fire when you read your list again in the future.

Dividing my daisies worked well

Here's a condensed version of my list:

- Buying seeds from heirloom seed companies online is cheaper than the little packets at box stores and provides many more choices.
- A meat thermometer works well as a soil temperature probe.
- Wall-o-water (and similar season extending products) really does work and gave a four-week head start on growing tomatoes.
- Starting seeds under a grow light isn't as hard as I thought it would be.
- Properly hardening off seedlings reduced my transplant loss rate to zero.
- Kale really grows well in my garden.
- An overhead sprinkler on a timer helped keep soil moist for seed germination.
- "Sweet 100" did better than any other tomatoes I planted.
- Of the many heirloom tomato varieties I tried, "Grace Lahman" did worst and "Caspian Pink" did best, but none of them produced much fruit before the first frost.
- Leeks do very well in my garden.
- Swiss chard does very well in my garden and doesn't taste bad at all.
- The germination of corn, squash, and green beans took almost four weeks.
- Butternut squash grew very well in my garden but needed a few more weeks to ripen when the frost hit.
- Deer found my garden and returned more than I expected.
- Even short-season melons didn't grow well in my garden.
- Every asparagus crown I planted grew; doing it right made a difference.
- Beets, carrots, and parsnips grow very well in my garden.
- Rabbit manure and used bedding take a long time to decompose.
- The wind was strong enough to rip the plastic on my mini-greenhouse hoops.
- Straw is an excellent mulch but drops seeds that require weeding of new straw plants.
- Hairy Vetch grows well as a green manure.

There are many more things I discovered this year. Some were confirmations of things I suspected, some were surprising results of experiments, some were serendipitous findings. I tried to make note of what I tried and what worked and what didn't. Most of it is documented for future articles.

Netting around a new plum tree kept the deer out

After you complete your list you can spent the off-season evaluating it. Decide if you want to repeat a planting that worked well. Decide if you want to try something again that didn't work, but with different preparation. Begin planning for new gardening efforts.

My list of gardening lessons learned will influence my gardening next year and every other. I've tried to grow melons in the past and never had any success; it's time to abandon that crop. "Sweet 100" is a tomato to grow more. I'll spend time next year starting seeds indoors and will use more wall-o-water-like plastic coverings to plant early. I think I can have success with corn, beans, and, squash if I cover the soil with plastic to heat it up days before I sow the seeds (this is where the signs of insanity begin to enter the picture).

There are some big garden projects ahead if I want to take them on. A deer-proof fence is needed if I want to avoid the damage they inflicted this year. My mini-greenhouse design is ideal for most areas but it doesn't stand up well to the 50, 60, and 70 mile-per-hour winds we get in late spring; a better plastic retention system is needed. Gophers broached my vegetable garden borders so I need to bury a barrier to keep them out.

Deer tracked right through the garden

By making a list and analyzing it, you can make your gardens better. I like to try new things and a list of gardening lessons learned helps me identify success and failure. There's nothing wrong with growing the same plants in the same plot year after year and by paying attention and noting your actions, even repetitive plantings can be improved upon.

If you're at the end of your season and the weather is getting colder, spend some time on a cold day to create your lessons learned list. If you're at the beginning of your season as the days grow warmer, keep track of things you try and what you learn along the way. Repeating this activity year after year is a nice way to avoid gardening insanity.

 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Gardening for Kids

Gardeners garden for many reasons. Exercise and mental challenges motivate some gardeners, cut flowers and edible harvests drive others. I garden for these reasons and many more. One of my primary motivations is gardening for children.

Gardening for children encompasses a wide array of activities. One approach brings kids into the gardening process. Kids help prepare the garden beds, sow seeds, assist with transplants, weed, water, and harvest. All ages can play a role in the garden, with specific tasks modified in an age-appropriate way. My four-year-old grandson is glad to help me water the garden in summer though I have to help direct the hose. He is eager to pick tomatoes and dig up carrots once I point out which ones to harvest. His father planted a garden this year and enjoyed his help too.

A carrot harvest

During our extended vacation last month I hired our neighbor children to tend to the garden. The pre-teen girls watered, covered the plants when cold weather threatened, and, of course, harvested what they could. The youngest enthusiastically pulled carrots and beets from the ground to enjoy at home. Their mother helped guide them, but they did most of the chores themselves.

Just as adult gardeners reap satisfaction from gardening, children can feel the same sense of accomplishment and success. They can begin to realize a bond with nature. When exposed to gardening, children may start down the path toward a lifetime of gardening joy. The youngest neighbor girl has already decided to participate in 4-H gardening activities next year.

Another approach to gardening for children is for adults to grow plants for the benefit of children. I've done this for years. I've written before about growing green beans for the sole purpose of pickling them for my daughter. This year, as in years past, I grew pumpkins for our neighbors and my grandson. Sure, I can use the orange flesh in pies and breads, but the pumpkins were intended to be the victims of Halloween carving.

I get great satisfaction out of sharing my harvest with kids. The smile on a child's face when he or she picks out their personal pumpkin is priceless. The smile on my face when they try to pick up one that is heavier than they can manage stays with me for a long time.

My grandson's pumpkin

Gardening for kids is a gardening activity that I recommend. I know gardeners with cordoned-off beds that no one but they are allowed to approach. Some use fences to keep animals, and children, out. We gardeners can have great pride in our successes and can be selfish and fearful also. I understand that, but with a little guidance and direction children really don't pose much threat.

My children and my grandson have picked tomatoes before they were ripe. They have stepped on plants that were in their path. They have dug up young transplants. They have splashed water on me with errant watering. But all of their transgressions are less than the damage I've done in my own gardens. The number of plants that I damaged or killed over the years far exceeds their few accidents.

The benefits of allowing children into your gardening world can be huge for the children and for you. Sharing my passion for gardening with youth helps me navigate along my gardening journey and may even establish a beneficial legacy. My grandson is old enough now that next year he'll have his own bed to plant among mine. He'll be able to learn gardening and maybe create some lifelong memories. I still remember eating a warm, ripe tomato while standing in the garden with my aunt and grandmother when I wasn't much taller than the tomato vine.

Many of us garden because we were exposed to it by a friend or family member long ago. Pleasant memories are the foundation. All of us have the opportunity to create and share gardening memories with children. As you look to your next growing season think about how a child would view your garden. And then find a child to view it.
Gardeners garden for many reasons. Exercise and mental challenges motivate some gardeners, cut flowers and edible harvests drive others. I garden for these reasons and many more. One of my primary motivations is gardening for children.

Gardening for children encompasses a wide array of activities. One approach brings kids into the gardening process. Kids help prepare the garden beds, sow seeds, assist with transplants, weed, water, and harvest. All ages can play a role in the garden, with specific tasks modified in an age-appropriate way. My four-year-old grandson is glad to help me water the garden in summer though I have to help direct the hose. He is eager to pick tomatoes and dig up carrots once I point out which ones to harvest. His father planted a garden this year and enjoyed his help too.

A carrot harvest

During our extended vacation last month I hired our neighbor children to tend to the garden. The pre-teen girls watered, covered the plants when cold weather threatened, and, of course, harvested what they could. The youngest enthusiastically pulled carrots and beets from the ground to enjoy at home. Their mother helped guide them, but they did most of the chores themselves.

Just as adult gardeners reap satisfaction from gardening, children can feel the same sense of accomplishment and success. They can begin to realize a bond with nature. When exposed to gardening, children may start down the path toward a lifetime of gardening joy. The youngest neighbor girl has already decided to participate in 4-H gardening activities next year.

Another approach to gardening for children is for adults to grow plants for the benefit of children. I've done this for years. I've written before about growing green beans for the sole purpose of pickling them for my daughter. This year, as in years past, I grew pumpkins for our neighbors and my grandson. Sure, I can use the orange flesh in pies and breads, but the pumpkins were intended to be the victims of Halloween carving.

I get great satisfaction out of sharing my harvest with kids. The smile on a child's face when he or she picks out their personal pumpkin is priceless. The smile on my face when they try to pick up one that is heavier than they can manage stays with me for a long time.

My grandson's pumpkin

Gardening for kids is a gardening activity that I recommend. I know gardeners with cordoned-off beds that no one but they are allowed to approach. Some use fences to keep animals, and children, out. We gardeners can have great pride in our successes and can be selfish and fearful also. I understand that, but with a little guidance and direction children really don't pose much threat.

My children and my grandson have picked tomatoes before they were ripe. They have stepped on plants that were in their path. They have dug up young transplants. They have splashed water on me with errant watering. But all of their transgressions are less than the damage I've done in my own gardens. The number of plants that I damaged or killed over the years far exceeds their few accidents.

The benefits of allowing children into your gardening world can be huge for the children and for you. Sharing my passion for gardening with youth helps me navigate along my gardening journey and may even establish a beneficial legacy. My grandson is old enough now that next year he'll have his own bed to plant among mine. He'll be able to learn gardening and maybe create some lifelong memories. I still remember eating a warm, ripe tomato while standing in the garden with my aunt and grandmother when I wasn't much taller than the tomato vine.

Many of us garden because we were exposed to it by a friend or family member long ago. Pleasant memories are the foundation. All of us have the opportunity to create and share gardening memories with children. As you look to your next growing season think about how a child would view your garden. And then find a child to view it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gardening is Powerful

Gardening is an important part of me. A few days ago in anticipation of the first big snow of the season, I finished cleaning up many of my garden beds, harvested a few of my root crops, and prepared some of my plants for the impending cold weather. As I worked in the bare vegetable garden, with the dry, towering, sunflower stalks watching, I was happy. It wasn't a giddy, snickering kind of joy, but rather a peaceful calm that made time stand still.

I realized, as I stood on the straw mulch and hairy vetch that was blanketed by expansive butternut squash vines just a few weeks before, that enjoying the crisp air on a sunny autumn day was nirvana. The tomato plants are gone, the strawberries and raspberries won't offer any more fruit, and the few remaining green beans are wrinkled, dried pods, but the garden is still full with life and, blissfully, so am I.

The chores of maintaining an active, growing garden have morphed into a more somber undertaking. I experienced and enjoyed the new birth of colors, smells, and sounds as the gardens awoke in spring. The adolescence of the vines and stalks climbing to meet the warming sun heartened me with satisfaction and pride. All components of my gardens became dedicated and productive members in our botanical community, displaying their successes to the local insects and birds and animals and me. And now that retirement and cessation slow and halt the observable signs of their verdant existence, my role is to help lay beds to rest for the long, cold slumber ahead. Nature is entering the twilight of the year.

Many aspects of the garden slow in fall. The planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting have passed. The tools that were kept ready at arm's length are stored away. It may seem to be a place easily abandoned, ignored, and forgotten, but I find comfort in the garden at all times and all seasons.

While the landscape can appear brown and still, I see color and activity. Slender green garlic shoots peek through the straw. White strawberry blossoms shout against dark green leaves refusing to surrender to the changing weather. Miniature violet-blue flowers peer from the protective shoulders of the Veronica growth. Juvenile crookneck squash lie solitary and abandoned amid gleaned garden rows, slowly decaying, but shining in golden splendor through the ordeal. Errant bees and flies continue their explorations and epic flights. Magpies, woodpeckers, jays, and sparrows jump on the beds plucking seeds and unlucky bugs from the cooling soil.

I stand in the garden and feel surrounded by life. Some actual and some invented. I study a corner and don't see bare soil and dead peppers but rather a vision of the garden in full bloom. My imagination envisions the lush plants of next year and each year beyond that. I reshape the furrows and soil mounds in my mind. I sow adventurous seeds and transplant innovative seedlings. The vibrant hues, avian melodies, and complex fragrances of the garden are as real to me today as they were last month or will be next summer.

Gardening is a state of mind. In every task in every season, gardening connects nature and the world with an individual and his psyche. Breathing air shared by plants, touching soil teeming with life, listening to the languages of insects and birds, gazing at minuscule communities through the eye of a deity. Gardeners are able to experience all of creation at a different pace, in a different manner, than the unlucky majority focused on their daily existence.

Gardening is an important part of me. It soothes and invigorates my soul. It calms and enlivens my being. In absence I see abundance. In abundance I find joy.

How, where, and why I garden is a personal experience; no one else gardens as I do. Yet every gardener is connected by similar emotions, desires, and visions. Some have more passion, some have less, but we all expose ourselves to nature, ready to absorb its bountiful forces.

If you're a gardener, revel in your gardening. If you're not a gardener, become one. Enjoy the opportunity it offers, to stand still in emptiness while surrounded by action and abundance. See more of nature, gaze upon what it can be. Be happy.

 
Gardening is an important part of me. A few days ago in anticipation of the first big snow of the season, I finished cleaning up many of my garden beds, harvested a few of my root crops, and prepared some of my plants for the impending cold weather. As I worked in the bare vegetable garden, with the dry, towering, sunflower stalks watching, I was happy. It wasn't a giddy, snickering kind of joy, but rather a peaceful calm that made time stand still.

I realized, as I stood on the straw mulch and hairy vetch that was blanketed by expansive butternut squash vines just a few weeks before, that enjoying the crisp air on a sunny autumn day was nirvana. The tomato plants are gone, the strawberries and raspberries won't offer any more fruit, and the few remaining green beans are wrinkled, dried pods, but the garden is still full with life and, blissfully, so am I.

The chores of maintaining an active, growing garden have morphed into a more somber undertaking. I experienced and enjoyed the new birth of colors, smells, and sounds as the gardens awoke in spring. The adolescence of the vines and stalks climbing to meet the warming sun heartened me with satisfaction and pride. All components of my gardens became dedicated and productive members in our botanical community, displaying their successes to the local insects and birds and animals and me. And now that retirement and cessation slow and halt the observable signs of their verdant existence, my role is to help lay beds to rest for the long, cold slumber ahead. Nature is entering the twilight of the year.

Many aspects of the garden slow in fall. The planting, watering, weeding, and harvesting have passed. The tools that were kept ready at arm's length are stored away. It may seem to be a place easily abandoned, ignored, and forgotten, but I find comfort in the garden at all times and all seasons.

While the landscape can appear brown and still, I see color and activity. Slender green garlic shoots peek through the straw. White strawberry blossoms shout against dark green leaves refusing to surrender to the changing weather. Miniature violet-blue flowers peer from the protective shoulders of the Veronica growth. Juvenile crookneck squash lie solitary and abandoned amid gleaned garden rows, slowly decaying, but shining in golden splendor through the ordeal. Errant bees and flies continue their explorations and epic flights. Magpies, woodpeckers, jays, and sparrows jump on the beds plucking seeds and unlucky bugs from the cooling soil.

I stand in the garden and feel surrounded by life. Some actual and some invented. I study a corner and don't see bare soil and dead peppers but rather a vision of the garden in full bloom. My imagination envisions the lush plants of next year and each year beyond that. I reshape the furrows and soil mounds in my mind. I sow adventurous seeds and transplant innovative seedlings. The vibrant hues, avian melodies, and complex fragrances of the garden are as real to me today as they were last month or will be next summer.

Gardening is a state of mind. In every task in every season, gardening connects nature and the world with an individual and his psyche. Breathing air shared by plants, touching soil teeming with life, listening to the languages of insects and birds, gazing at minuscule communities through the eye of a deity. Gardeners are able to experience all of creation at a different pace, in a different manner, than the unlucky majority focused on their daily existence.

Gardening is an important part of me. It soothes and invigorates my soul. It calms and enlivens my being. In absence I see abundance. In abundance I find joy.

How, where, and why I garden is a personal experience; no one else gardens as I do. Yet every gardener is connected by similar emotions, desires, and visions. Some have more passion, some have less, but we all expose ourselves to nature, ready to absorb its bountiful forces.

If you're a gardener, revel in your gardening. If you're not a gardener, become one. Enjoy the opportunity it offers, to stand still in emptiness while surrounded by action and abundance. See more of nature, gaze upon what it can be. Be happy.

 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Houseboat Gardens of Paris

Gardeners garden. Green thumb or black, rich soil or poor, large plot or small, gardeners aren't hindered by a garden's limitations. Gardeners take life's lemons and make lemon trees.

I'm always looking for good gardening examples. When stumbling upon a garden in a surprising spot, I stop, smile, and soak in the energy that the gardener is sharing. While walking through Paris, universally recognized as a beautiful city, I discovered fascinating emerald energy dotting the houseboats on the Seine.

The boats of Paris

Moored along the banks of Paris' famous river are about 100 boats. Former barges that plied the waterway for years, they were rescued from scrapyards and converted into floating houses permanently tied to the quai. Some are available as vacation rentals while others represent the permanent address of their occupant.

For the residents, the floating home is no different than any small abode in the city or country. It has all of the trappings of a modern apartment. For typical apartment gardeners, a balcony or deck offers the chance to grow a few plants in pots. For the houseboat gardeners, growing plants on the deck takes on a new meaning.

Some people, those who haven't discovered gardening, would never think of a boat as a garden plot; it doesn't meet the traditional definition of a house and yard. For a gardener, it isn't a question of whether there will be a garden, but rather one of how big.

Potted plants atop a boat

I think a boat would be a great space for gardening. On a big river like the Seine, there are few obstacles to prevent the sun from shining through. All of the plots will be raised beds or pots so the soil can be customized, avoiding many of the soil-borne problems that many of us encounter. In the middle of the city, devoid of large agricultural areas, the insect and pest problems would surely be reduced. The humid environment would help keep the soil from drying out quickly, a common problem when growing plants in pots. The natural barriers of the water eliminate animal pests; no gophers, deer, or rabbits there.

Most of the boats have a few plants in the windows and topside, but a few are lush with greenery. Those gems aren't boats with plants, but are gardens that happened to have a boat beneath them. Flowers, shrubs, and trees cover the decks. That's where gardeners live and they're proud to show it.

A gardener's boat

We all have issues with our gardens. I live in a semi-arid, high-altitude region that limits what I can grow. The soil is poor and the weather is extreme. But I have space and time and knowledge to overcome the obstacles. Above all I have the desire to garden.

Many people would like to grow plants but feel the obstacles are too numerous to overcome so they don't begin. I've talked with many such people about their doubts and I always suggest they start small, with just a pot or two. From there they can expand as they learn more and become comfortable with gardening. It can take years to achieve gardening success in a challenging area. I know. I've spent years making mistakes, trying new things, and discovering what works.

I think of the houseboat gardeners of Paris following that pattern. Starting with a pot or two, making mistakes, trying new ideas, and succeeding with a beautiful garden, on a boat, in the middle of the most famous city in the world. Their desire to garden under the scrutiny of every passerby is inspirational.

Creative gardening

Gardens can be grown everywhere. With desire and dedication gardeners can overcome whatever stands in their way. When it seems hard, keep persevering. If a gardener can enjoy a garden on a boat think about what you can accomplish on dry land.
Gardeners garden. Green thumb or black, rich soil or poor, large plot or small, gardeners aren't hindered by a garden's limitations. Gardeners take life's lemons and make lemon trees.

I'm always looking for good gardening examples. When stumbling upon a garden in a surprising spot, I stop, smile, and soak in the energy that the gardener is sharing. While walking through Paris, universally recognized as a beautiful city, I discovered fascinating emerald energy dotting the houseboats on the Seine.

The boats of Paris

Moored along the banks of Paris' famous river are about 100 boats. Former barges that plied the waterway for years, they were rescued from scrapyards and converted into floating houses permanently tied to the quai. Some are available as vacation rentals while others represent the permanent address of their occupant.

For the residents, the floating home is no different than any small abode in the city or country. It has all of the trappings of a modern apartment. For typical apartment gardeners, a balcony or deck offers the chance to grow a few plants in pots. For the houseboat gardeners, growing plants on the deck takes on a new meaning.

Some people, those who haven't discovered gardening, would never think of a boat as a garden plot; it doesn't meet the traditional definition of a house and yard. For a gardener, it isn't a question of whether there will be a garden, but rather one of how big.

Potted plants atop a boat

I think a boat would be a great space for gardening. On a big river like the Seine, there are few obstacles to prevent the sun from shining through. All of the plots will be raised beds or pots so the soil can be customized, avoiding many of the soil-borne problems that many of us encounter. In the middle of the city, devoid of large agricultural areas, the insect and pest problems would surely be reduced. The humid environment would help keep the soil from drying out quickly, a common problem when growing plants in pots. The natural barriers of the water eliminate animal pests; no gophers, deer, or rabbits there.

Most of the boats have a few plants in the windows and topside, but a few are lush with greenery. Those gems aren't boats with plants, but are gardens that happened to have a boat beneath them. Flowers, shrubs, and trees cover the decks. That's where gardeners live and they're proud to show it.

A gardener's boat

We all have issues with our gardens. I live in a semi-arid, high-altitude region that limits what I can grow. The soil is poor and the weather is extreme. But I have space and time and knowledge to overcome the obstacles. Above all I have the desire to garden.

Many people would like to grow plants but feel the obstacles are too numerous to overcome so they don't begin. I've talked with many such people about their doubts and I always suggest they start small, with just a pot or two. From there they can expand as they learn more and become comfortable with gardening. It can take years to achieve gardening success in a challenging area. I know. I've spent years making mistakes, trying new things, and discovering what works.

I think of the houseboat gardeners of Paris following that pattern. Starting with a pot or two, making mistakes, trying new ideas, and succeeding with a beautiful garden, on a boat, in the middle of the most famous city in the world. Their desire to garden under the scrutiny of every passerby is inspirational.

Creative gardening

Gardens can be grown everywhere. With desire and dedication gardeners can overcome whatever stands in their way. When it seems hard, keep persevering. If a gardener can enjoy a garden on a boat think about what you can accomplish on dry land.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Fall Clean Up for the Vegetable Garden

Much of my garden is looking pretty ragged and it's time to deal with it. While I advocate leaving flowers and decorative grasses in place through the winter as food and protection for birds and for their interesting wintry appearance, vegetable beds are often best when cleaned up before the ground freezes. Fall clean up is an important chore in most gardens.

An unsightly garden

There are many reasons to clean up the vegetable garden in the fall: most of the chores associated with growing and harvesting are complete but the days are still warm enough to work outside; dead and dying vegetable plants rarely have the same positive visual appeal of flowers and grasses; vegetable plant material left in the garden to overwinter can often harbor harmful insects; weeds can be pulled before they spread in spring; organic material added to the soil can decompose through the winter and early spring; the garden beds will be ready for spring planting with minimal preparation.

Fall is a great time to work in the garden. Daytime temperatures can be warm enough to work comfortably without the heat stress of summer and the soil is warm enough to handle digging and amending. You've had the entire growing season to identify things you want to do and change in your garden and those thoughts are still fresh in your mind while all of your tools and supplies are still in place. Take advantage of that and get outside before the cold of winter keeps you cooped up in the house.

After the first frost kills your warm season plants and subsequent freezes finish off the others, the withered vegetation can become a blight in your landscape. Gone are the vibrant colors and verdant backgrounds. Solely from an aesthetic perspective, removing the plant carcasses makes an immediate positive impact.

Most of the dead plants should find their way to your compost pile; chopping or cutting them into smaller pieces will hasten decomposition. Tomatoes and potatoes are best carted off in the trash, especially if you had any problem with fungal or bacterial infections. If you compost tomato plants with a disease you will introduce that same problem to future plantings when you spread the compost.

Bags of tomato plants

Dead plants left in place through the winter provide a haven for many insects, most of them harmful. They burrow into the plants, or just under the soil, and continue their life cycle that results in many more insects emerging in spring. Cleaning up your beds breaks the cycle and reduces your insect pest problems the next year.

Cool season plants will continue to grow in cold weather and don't need to be removed right away. Leaving brassica plants like cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and radishes is a natural way to kill some insect pests. The vegetation attracts some harmful insects. After harsh winter temperatures finally kill them and the plants begin to decompose in early spring, they'll actually release cyanide compounds that will kill those pests. You can pull them up and add them to the compost pile in spring.

If you don't have a compost pile, the debris of fall creates a great start. Stack the dead plants in your designated area and you now have a compost pile. Add the leaves that are piling up on your lawn and kitchen scraps you used to throw away. You probably won't have the perfect blend of material to allow decomposition during the cold temperatures of winter, but you'll have a mass that will begin to turn into compost with the warmth and rain of spring.


With your beds cleaned up, it's easy to see the perennial weeds that have been lurking under cover. Left unchecked those weeds will grow, set seed, and multiply before you return for spring planting. The soil is still workable so deal with those invaders now. Dig them up and throw them on your compost pile. The green of the weeds is a nice balance to the brown of the dead plants.

I add to my compost pile throughout the year and at the end of the growing season I usually have a batch of compost ready to use. With the beds cleaned up I add a layer of that compost to the surface. Along with the straw and grass I used as mulch, it is a great organic amendment to the soil. Aged manure works well too. This year I also added the bedding and droppings from my neighbor's rabbits that have been aging in a pile all summer. Store-bought compost and soil amendments are a good alternative.

Compost on top of straw

With all of those organics in place I simply turn them into the soil with a spade. Through earthworm and microorganism activity the material will break down and decompose. The freeze-thaw cycle of winter will help incorporate it in the soil. It will be about six months until I plant again and in that time the soil will be improved greatly.

In a few hours my vegetable garden is ready for spring planting. Sure the task is completed months ahead of time, but when the air and soil temperatures are finally warm enough in early spring I want to get to planting. Cleaning up the withered plants in spring is an unnecessary delay.

Raised beds ready for spring planting

My vegetable garden is just about on autopilot right now. The garlic is planted and beginning to sprout under the straw mulch; it will be fine through the winter (see my blog, "How to Plant Garlic"). The beds I cleaned up have the organic material incorporated in the soil and are ready to support new growth next season. My green manure, the cover crops (see my blog "Try Green Manure"), are growing well and will be turned in to the soil in spring. I'm leaving the sunflowers in place to feed the birds.

There are many activities to keep me busy now and in the months ahead, but an entire garden, the vegetable garden, is put to bed for winter. It required effort, though it wasn't hard. In a small way I can relax a little as I focus on other things. And it's a nice feeling to look back on the season from first seed to last plant on the compost pile and think about all the enjoyment it provided.

 
Much of my garden is looking pretty ragged and it's time to deal with it. While I advocate leaving flowers and decorative grasses in place through the winter as food and protection for birds and for their interesting wintry appearance, vegetable beds are often best when cleaned up before the ground freezes. Fall clean up is an important chore in most gardens.

An unsightly garden

There are many reasons to clean up the vegetable garden in the fall: most of the chores associated with growing and harvesting are complete but the days are still warm enough to work outside; dead and dying vegetable plants rarely have the same positive visual appeal of flowers and grasses; vegetable plant material left in the garden to overwinter can often harbor harmful insects; weeds can be pulled before they spread in spring; organic material added to the soil can decompose through the winter and early spring; the garden beds will be ready for spring planting with minimal preparation.

Fall is a great time to work in the garden. Daytime temperatures can be warm enough to work comfortably without the heat stress of summer and the soil is warm enough to handle digging and amending. You've had the entire growing season to identify things you want to do and change in your garden and those thoughts are still fresh in your mind while all of your tools and supplies are still in place. Take advantage of that and get outside before the cold of winter keeps you cooped up in the house.

After the first frost kills your warm season plants and subsequent freezes finish off the others, the withered vegetation can become a blight in your landscape. Gone are the vibrant colors and verdant backgrounds. Solely from an aesthetic perspective, removing the plant carcasses makes an immediate positive impact.

Most of the dead plants should find their way to your compost pile; chopping or cutting them into smaller pieces will hasten decomposition. Tomatoes and potatoes are best carted off in the trash, especially if you had any problem with fungal or bacterial infections. If you compost tomato plants with a disease you will introduce that same problem to future plantings when you spread the compost.

Bags of tomato plants

Dead plants left in place through the winter provide a haven for many insects, most of them harmful. They burrow into the plants, or just under the soil, and continue their life cycle that results in many more insects emerging in spring. Cleaning up your beds breaks the cycle and reduces your insect pest problems the next year.

Cool season plants will continue to grow in cold weather and don't need to be removed right away. Leaving brassica plants like cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and radishes is a natural way to kill some insect pests. The vegetation attracts some harmful insects. After harsh winter temperatures finally kill them and the plants begin to decompose in early spring, they'll actually release cyanide compounds that will kill those pests. You can pull them up and add them to the compost pile in spring.

If you don't have a compost pile, the debris of fall creates a great start. Stack the dead plants in your designated area and you now have a compost pile. Add the leaves that are piling up on your lawn and kitchen scraps you used to throw away. You probably won't have the perfect blend of material to allow decomposition during the cold temperatures of winter, but you'll have a mass that will begin to turn into compost with the warmth and rain of spring.


With your beds cleaned up, it's easy to see the perennial weeds that have been lurking under cover. Left unchecked those weeds will grow, set seed, and multiply before you return for spring planting. The soil is still workable so deal with those invaders now. Dig them up and throw them on your compost pile. The green of the weeds is a nice balance to the brown of the dead plants.

I add to my compost pile throughout the year and at the end of the growing season I usually have a batch of compost ready to use. With the beds cleaned up I add a layer of that compost to the surface. Along with the straw and grass I used as mulch, it is a great organic amendment to the soil. Aged manure works well too. This year I also added the bedding and droppings from my neighbor's rabbits that have been aging in a pile all summer. Store-bought compost and soil amendments are a good alternative.

Compost on top of straw

With all of those organics in place I simply turn them into the soil with a spade. Through earthworm and microorganism activity the material will break down and decompose. The freeze-thaw cycle of winter will help incorporate it in the soil. It will be about six months until I plant again and in that time the soil will be improved greatly.

In a few hours my vegetable garden is ready for spring planting. Sure the task is completed months ahead of time, but when the air and soil temperatures are finally warm enough in early spring I want to get to planting. Cleaning up the withered plants in spring is an unnecessary delay.

Raised beds ready for spring planting

My vegetable garden is just about on autopilot right now. The garlic is planted and beginning to sprout under the straw mulch; it will be fine through the winter (see my blog, "How to Plant Garlic"). The beds I cleaned up have the organic material incorporated in the soil and are ready to support new growth next season. My green manure, the cover crops (see my blog "Try Green Manure"), are growing well and will be turned in to the soil in spring. I'm leaving the sunflowers in place to feed the birds.

There are many activities to keep me busy now and in the months ahead, but an entire garden, the vegetable garden, is put to bed for winter. It required effort, though it wasn't hard. In a small way I can relax a little as I focus on other things. And it's a nice feeling to look back on the season from first seed to last plant on the compost pile and think about all the enjoyment it provided.

 

Monday, October 17, 2011

How to Extend Your Growing Season in the Fall

Freezing temperatures are coming, if they haven't hit you already. While my high-altitude garden had its first frost about two weeks ago, the vast region that surrounds me is expecting the first fall temperatures below freezing tonight. The first frost of fall can spell doom to many of the warm season plants in the garden, but for gardeners who want to extend the growing season a few weeks it's relatively easy to buy more time.

The basic concept behind growing season extension is to cover plants. You want to put a blanket on your plants to keep them warm. It sounds simple and easy and it is.


An old blanket over a tomato cage

After months of hot spring and summer days, the soil is warm and still capable of supporting most plant root, leaf, and fruit growth. When air temperatures begin to drop in fall many soils are still able to retain the heat that has accumulated deep in the earth until long after the first frost. The key to extending the growing season is to harness that soil warmth. A blanket on the plants does that.

At night in our cozy beds a blanket keeps us warm. Wool, cotton, or polyester, the blanket doesn't actually create higher temperatures. The blanket traps our body heat and radiates it back to our chilled skin. Our own body is what keeps us warm when we cover it with a blanket. In the garden a blanket keeps the plants warm in the same manner by trapping and returning the heat of the soil.

Plants aren't picky about the blanket material. It can be plastic, canvas, wood, or cloth. Of primary importance is that you cover plants before the temperatures approach or drop below freezing.

When you suspect or expect cold temperatures overnight, apply the blanket while the outside air temperature is still above freezing. This usually means during the day when the sun is shining. The waning daytime heat will couple with the radiating soil heat and create a warm air pocket that protects the plant during the cold temperatures.

Like a blanket on our own beds, the garden blanket should fully cover the garden bed that you want to keep warm. It should be large enough to ensure no leaves or plant parts are sticking out from the edges. Any part of the plant that is exposed to freezing temperatures may experience freeze damage. Your foot gets cold when you dangle it outside the covers; the same happens with dangling stems and leaves.

This tarp isn't covering the entire plant
The blanket doesn't need to physically touch the plant and in many cases it should be supported above it. It all depends on the blanket material. I've thrown old wool blankets directly on top of squash plants to protect them from cold. I've leaned a plywood sheet on a fence to cover plants with a lean-to. I've draped both canvas and poly tarps over bushes. But when I use plastic sheeting I use wooden stakes and metal or plastic tubing to support it above the plant; the plastic is thin and any leaves that touch the plastic can experience frost damage as though they were unprotected.

Covering a tomato plant with plastic
In this respect, think of the plastic blanket as an umbrella that envelops the garden bed. We're trying to trap the soil warmth and it's that heat that keeps the plant warm not the actual blanket. Cloth and wood blankets can touch the plant with little damage but plastic isn't thick enough or dense enough to prevent it. I use a lot of plastic to protect my plants and my system is essentially a series of plastic umbrellas or tunnels. The same plastic hoops that allow me to begin planting in early spring are reused to extend the growing season in fall.

Protecting pumpkin plants

Also important in covering the plants is to ensure all edges of the blanket or umbrella are flush with the soil. It's difficult to keep your bedroom warm if you leave the window open. It's equally difficult to maintain a pocket of warmth around your plant if you have one side of the blanket open to the cold air. Use bricks or rocks to weigh the edges down. Bury edges in soil. Clamp or staple plastic to the support system. Drape plastic over the edges of a tarp or a plywood board. You may need to use multiple pieces of material to achieve a complete blanketing.

The last critical component of plant protection is to remove the blanket when temperatures warm up again. Once the sun comes up and temperatures rise above freezing, take the cover off. If you leave the blanket on, you run the risk of potential plant damage through excessive heating. You also want to give the soil more opportunity to warm up again.

You can continue the cycle of covering plants at night and removing the cover during the day for weeks. Until daytime temperatures drop to a point where the soil no longer absorbs heat, you can continue gardening.

Colorado State University conducted studies for extending the growing season in the spring, but the same systems can be used in the fall. They found that a simple cloth covering (a row cover) provided 2F to 4F degrees (1-2C) of protection. That means that the outside air temperature can fall to about 28F degrees (-2C) while the air around the plants stays above freezing. Plastic supported by a metal mesh frame provided 3-6F degrees (3C) of protection. It's important to note that the plastic completely covered the frame, allowing no exchange of air. This is enough protection to keep your plants alive for the first frost of the season and for a few weeks after.

For even more protection, a space blanket, or thermal blanket, is highly effective. The light-weight, metallic blankets reflect up to 99 percent of heat. Adding a space blanket on top of a plastic cover adds protection when the night temperatures drop below the 28F degree (-2C) threshold. In CSU trials, a space blanket added to a plastic-covered frame kept plants from freezing when the night temperature dropped to 0F degrees (-18C), following a sunny, spring day. It is critical to remove it during the day because you've also created an oven that can bake plants in the sun.

If you are really serious about extending the growing season you can take extra efforts to continue gardening when temperatures drop below the point where daytime temperatures can sustain this cycle. You can add a heat source to the plastic umbrella over your plants. Christmas tree lights are one solution, but they need to be the old-style lights, the big ones that heat your fingers when you touch them; new LED lights won't have the same result. The CSU trial showed that a string of C-9 lights draped from the metal frame, under the plastic sheet, added up to 18F degrees (10C) of frost protection. With a space blanket on top, that protection extended up to 30F degrees (16C). That means the outside temperatures can be bone-chilling cold and the plants are still enjoying temperatures above freezing.

Here are a few more thoughts about covering your plants to extend the growing season. Cloth covers work well, but will lose much of their heat retention ability when they get wet; avoid a cloth blanket or sheet if you expect rain or snow.  Heavy tarps or wood sheets retain heat well but can crush plants underneath. Moist soil will retain more heat than dry; plants also prefer moist soil over dry so there's no reason to withhold normal water. Plastic covers can stay in place if you open the edges to avoid over-heating during the day; set up a plastic or wooden frame, drape plastic over it, and just open and close an end during the day-night cycle.

Letting air in during the day
Also, the season-extending technique of covering plants works best with plants that grow close to the ground and for warm season crops. It's not worth the effort and expense to try and blanket a fruit tree. Covering cool season plants like kale, chard, and spinach isn't necessary; they'll keep producing even after there's snow on the ground.

Cover your plants to get past the first frost in fall. Often you only need a few extra days to harvest the crop being threatened by cold. Keep it as simple as you need. One year I didn't see the frost forecast until the nightly news. I ran out as the sun was setting, threw a large tarp over the pumpkin plants, weighed down the edges with rocks, and went back in the house. That was the only crop that needed a little more time to grow. The next morning I pulled off the tarp to see the plant was alive and happy; a few of the leaves that stuck out from the edges were damaged by frost, but I gained enough time for the pumpkins to turn orange in the next week.

At some point in cold-winter regions, the growing season has to end. When you've picked the last zucchini or tomato, there's no reason to protect the plant any longer. Pull off the blankets and plastic and store them away until you need to repeat this process in spring with young plants. By blanketing your plants you can gain time and extend your growing season on both ends.
Freezing temperatures are coming, if they haven't hit you already. While my high-altitude garden had its first frost about two weeks ago, the vast region that surrounds me is expecting the first fall temperatures below freezing tonight. The first frost of fall can spell doom to many of the warm season plants in the garden, but for gardeners who want to extend the growing season a few weeks it's relatively easy to buy more time.

The basic concept behind growing season extension is to cover plants. You want to put a blanket on your plants to keep them warm. It sounds simple and easy and it is.


An old blanket over a tomato cage

After months of hot spring and summer days, the soil is warm and still capable of supporting most plant root, leaf, and fruit growth. When air temperatures begin to drop in fall many soils are still able to retain the heat that has accumulated deep in the earth until long after the first frost. The key to extending the growing season is to harness that soil warmth. A blanket on the plants does that.

At night in our cozy beds a blanket keeps us warm. Wool, cotton, or polyester, the blanket doesn't actually create higher temperatures. The blanket traps our body heat and radiates it back to our chilled skin. Our own body is what keeps us warm when we cover it with a blanket. In the garden a blanket keeps the plants warm in the same manner by trapping and returning the heat of the soil.

Plants aren't picky about the blanket material. It can be plastic, canvas, wood, or cloth. Of primary importance is that you cover plants before the temperatures approach or drop below freezing.

When you suspect or expect cold temperatures overnight, apply the blanket while the outside air temperature is still above freezing. This usually means during the day when the sun is shining. The waning daytime heat will couple with the radiating soil heat and create a warm air pocket that protects the plant during the cold temperatures.

Like a blanket on our own beds, the garden blanket should fully cover the garden bed that you want to keep warm. It should be large enough to ensure no leaves or plant parts are sticking out from the edges. Any part of the plant that is exposed to freezing temperatures may experience freeze damage. Your foot gets cold when you dangle it outside the covers; the same happens with dangling stems and leaves.

This tarp isn't covering the entire plant
The blanket doesn't need to physically touch the plant and in many cases it should be supported above it. It all depends on the blanket material. I've thrown old wool blankets directly on top of squash plants to protect them from cold. I've leaned a plywood sheet on a fence to cover plants with a lean-to. I've draped both canvas and poly tarps over bushes. But when I use plastic sheeting I use wooden stakes and metal or plastic tubing to support it above the plant; the plastic is thin and any leaves that touch the plastic can experience frost damage as though they were unprotected.

Covering a tomato plant with plastic
In this respect, think of the plastic blanket as an umbrella that envelops the garden bed. We're trying to trap the soil warmth and it's that heat that keeps the plant warm not the actual blanket. Cloth and wood blankets can touch the plant with little damage but plastic isn't thick enough or dense enough to prevent it. I use a lot of plastic to protect my plants and my system is essentially a series of plastic umbrellas or tunnels. The same plastic hoops that allow me to begin planting in early spring are reused to extend the growing season in fall.

Protecting pumpkin plants

Also important in covering the plants is to ensure all edges of the blanket or umbrella are flush with the soil. It's difficult to keep your bedroom warm if you leave the window open. It's equally difficult to maintain a pocket of warmth around your plant if you have one side of the blanket open to the cold air. Use bricks or rocks to weigh the edges down. Bury edges in soil. Clamp or staple plastic to the support system. Drape plastic over the edges of a tarp or a plywood board. You may need to use multiple pieces of material to achieve a complete blanketing.

The last critical component of plant protection is to remove the blanket when temperatures warm up again. Once the sun comes up and temperatures rise above freezing, take the cover off. If you leave the blanket on, you run the risk of potential plant damage through excessive heating. You also want to give the soil more opportunity to warm up again.

You can continue the cycle of covering plants at night and removing the cover during the day for weeks. Until daytime temperatures drop to a point where the soil no longer absorbs heat, you can continue gardening.

Colorado State University conducted studies for extending the growing season in the spring, but the same systems can be used in the fall. They found that a simple cloth covering (a row cover) provided 2F to 4F degrees (1-2C) of protection. That means that the outside air temperature can fall to about 28F degrees (-2C) while the air around the plants stays above freezing. Plastic supported by a metal mesh frame provided 3-6F degrees (3C) of protection. It's important to note that the plastic completely covered the frame, allowing no exchange of air. This is enough protection to keep your plants alive for the first frost of the season and for a few weeks after.

For even more protection, a space blanket, or thermal blanket, is highly effective. The light-weight, metallic blankets reflect up to 99 percent of heat. Adding a space blanket on top of a plastic cover adds protection when the night temperatures drop below the 28F degree (-2C) threshold. In CSU trials, a space blanket added to a plastic-covered frame kept plants from freezing when the night temperature dropped to 0F degrees (-18C), following a sunny, spring day. It is critical to remove it during the day because you've also created an oven that can bake plants in the sun.

If you are really serious about extending the growing season you can take extra efforts to continue gardening when temperatures drop below the point where daytime temperatures can sustain this cycle. You can add a heat source to the plastic umbrella over your plants. Christmas tree lights are one solution, but they need to be the old-style lights, the big ones that heat your fingers when you touch them; new LED lights won't have the same result. The CSU trial showed that a string of C-9 lights draped from the metal frame, under the plastic sheet, added up to 18F degrees (10C) of frost protection. With a space blanket on top, that protection extended up to 30F degrees (16C). That means the outside temperatures can be bone-chilling cold and the plants are still enjoying temperatures above freezing.

Here are a few more thoughts about covering your plants to extend the growing season. Cloth covers work well, but will lose much of their heat retention ability when they get wet; avoid a cloth blanket or sheet if you expect rain or snow.  Heavy tarps or wood sheets retain heat well but can crush plants underneath. Moist soil will retain more heat than dry; plants also prefer moist soil over dry so there's no reason to withhold normal water. Plastic covers can stay in place if you open the edges to avoid over-heating during the day; set up a plastic or wooden frame, drape plastic over it, and just open and close an end during the day-night cycle.

Letting air in during the day
Also, the season-extending technique of covering plants works best with plants that grow close to the ground and for warm season crops. It's not worth the effort and expense to try and blanket a fruit tree. Covering cool season plants like kale, chard, and spinach isn't necessary; they'll keep producing even after there's snow on the ground.

Cover your plants to get past the first frost in fall. Often you only need a few extra days to harvest the crop being threatened by cold. Keep it as simple as you need. One year I didn't see the frost forecast until the nightly news. I ran out as the sun was setting, threw a large tarp over the pumpkin plants, weighed down the edges with rocks, and went back in the house. That was the only crop that needed a little more time to grow. The next morning I pulled off the tarp to see the plant was alive and happy; a few of the leaves that stuck out from the edges were damaged by frost, but I gained enough time for the pumpkins to turn orange in the next week.

At some point in cold-winter regions, the growing season has to end. When you've picked the last zucchini or tomato, there's no reason to protect the plant any longer. Pull off the blankets and plastic and store them away until you need to repeat this process in spring with young plants. By blanketing your plants you can gain time and extend your growing season on both ends.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Harvesting Pumpkins

Few garden crops represent the joys and colors of autumn more than pumpkins. Their color is synonymous with the season's holidays, changing leaves, and spiced desserts. Easy to grow in most gardens, they're easy to harvest too.

Close to harvest time

I had my first frost this morning and the pumpkins were the first in my vegetable garden to show damage. While my 7,500' garden gets cold temperatures earlier than most, fall's unpredictable weather portends the end for all warm season crops like pumpkins. Whether for nutmeg-spiced pies or sneering Jack-O-Lanterns, pumpkins should be harvested before freezing weather settles in.

You should leave pumpkins on the vine as long as you can. They'll only ripen and change color while still growing. Unlike tomatoes and bananas, pumpkins won't improve after picking.

There are a few ways to determine that pumpkins are ready to harvest. First is the color. If you're growing pumpkins for autumn decorations or Halloween carving, color is probably an important factor. Once the pumpkin on the vine reaches an appropriate color, it can be harvested. The color may deepen if left on the vine, but if you're happy with the hue go ahead and pick it.

The skin of the pumpkin hardens as it matures. Stick your thumbnail into the outer skin of a pumpkin. If the skin is hard and your thumbnail doesn't easily penetrate it, it's ready to cut free. If it feels soft and you leave a deep incision, leave it on the vine a little longer.

The thumbnail test

The stem that attaches a pumpkin to the plant should normally be green and sturdy. As the fruit reaches its natural maturity, the stem will begin to crack. That's a good time to harvest too. The vine will begin to shrivel and the pumpkin may separate itself at this point saving you some effort.

Thumping a finger against a ripe pumpkin should produce a hollow sound. It's hard to describe what a hollow sound is to someone who hasn't heard it. Kind of like a drum but not as loud or vibrant. To me this is the hardest way to determine harvest time.

If a heavy frost or freeze hits, the leaves will be killed, the plant can no longer support the pumpkins, and the vine dies back. Some gardeners wait until this point to harvest. I've discovered small fruit that I didn't know I had after a freeze clears away the big leaves. The pumpkins can handle light frost temperatures but they should be harvested and protected before a hard freeze. Freezing temperatures can damage the flesh.

When harvesting, wear gloves. The vines and stems are prickly. When you've decided that's it time, use shears or a knife to cut through the stem. Particularly for Jack-O-Lanterns leave enough stem to act as a handle for the lid. Three or four inches is enough. If the vine has died back the pumpkin should be easy to separate from it manually, but I usually cut it to leave a clean stem.

Cutting the stem

Don't carry the pumpkin by the stem; use two hands. If you carry a heavy pumpkin by the stem it could separate, breaking the pumpkin when it impacts the ground or at the very least removing the handle of the lid and affecting its aesthetic appeal. Also a lost stem can expose the pumpkin to early rot.

The vines, dead or alive, are ready for the compost pile. They can add a lot of green component while still fresh and are a good balance to dried leaves that usually appear about the same time as harvest.

After cutting the pumpkin from the vine, it should cure for at least 10 days if you plan to store it. Curing further hardens the skin and keeps in moisture so the flesh stays fresh for long periods. If you don't plan to store it, you don't need to go through the curing process and it can be used right away. Properly cured pumpkins can be stored at 50F degrees (10C) for two or three months and even as long as six months in a dark, well-ventilated room.

Curing pumpkins

Expose the pumpkins to the sun to cure. Ideally, high temperatures and high humidity are needed for the best curing (at least 80F degrees and 80% humidity), but the reality is that few gardeners have those conditions at harvest time. I don't even have those conditions during the prime growing season. Place the pumpkins in a sunny, dry area so they won't rot from wet ground contact. As long as the days are sunny and warm the pumpkins will cure. If more than a light frost threatens, cover them at night with straw, plastic or a tarp, or bring them inside.

After curing, or to help facilitate curing, bring the pumpkins indoors. This should definitely be done before freezing temperatures damage them. Don't stack the pumpkins or allow them to touch each other; this can cause soft spots and potential rot. Avoid placing them near apples and other ripe fruit. The ethylene gas they emit can shorten the pumpkin storage  life.

That's all there is to selecting pumpkins for harvest and curing. Collecting the seeds for eating or future planting is always a good idea too. If you have pumpkins in your garden and you haven't harvested, take a close look at them because it may be time.
Few garden crops represent the joys and colors of autumn more than pumpkins. Their color is synonymous with the season's holidays, changing leaves, and spiced desserts. Easy to grow in most gardens, they're easy to harvest too.

Close to harvest time

I had my first frost this morning and the pumpkins were the first in my vegetable garden to show damage. While my 7,500' garden gets cold temperatures earlier than most, fall's unpredictable weather portends the end for all warm season crops like pumpkins. Whether for nutmeg-spiced pies or sneering Jack-O-Lanterns, pumpkins should be harvested before freezing weather settles in.

You should leave pumpkins on the vine as long as you can. They'll only ripen and change color while still growing. Unlike tomatoes and bananas, pumpkins won't improve after picking.

There are a few ways to determine that pumpkins are ready to harvest. First is the color. If you're growing pumpkins for autumn decorations or Halloween carving, color is probably an important factor. Once the pumpkin on the vine reaches an appropriate color, it can be harvested. The color may deepen if left on the vine, but if you're happy with the hue go ahead and pick it.

The skin of the pumpkin hardens as it matures. Stick your thumbnail into the outer skin of a pumpkin. If the skin is hard and your thumbnail doesn't easily penetrate it, it's ready to cut free. If it feels soft and you leave a deep incision, leave it on the vine a little longer.

The thumbnail test

The stem that attaches a pumpkin to the plant should normally be green and sturdy. As the fruit reaches its natural maturity, the stem will begin to crack. That's a good time to harvest too. The vine will begin to shrivel and the pumpkin may separate itself at this point saving you some effort.

Thumping a finger against a ripe pumpkin should produce a hollow sound. It's hard to describe what a hollow sound is to someone who hasn't heard it. Kind of like a drum but not as loud or vibrant. To me this is the hardest way to determine harvest time.

If a heavy frost or freeze hits, the leaves will be killed, the plant can no longer support the pumpkins, and the vine dies back. Some gardeners wait until this point to harvest. I've discovered small fruit that I didn't know I had after a freeze clears away the big leaves. The pumpkins can handle light frost temperatures but they should be harvested and protected before a hard freeze. Freezing temperatures can damage the flesh.

When harvesting, wear gloves. The vines and stems are prickly. When you've decided that's it time, use shears or a knife to cut through the stem. Particularly for Jack-O-Lanterns leave enough stem to act as a handle for the lid. Three or four inches is enough. If the vine has died back the pumpkin should be easy to separate from it manually, but I usually cut it to leave a clean stem.

Cutting the stem

Don't carry the pumpkin by the stem; use two hands. If you carry a heavy pumpkin by the stem it could separate, breaking the pumpkin when it impacts the ground or at the very least removing the handle of the lid and affecting its aesthetic appeal. Also a lost stem can expose the pumpkin to early rot.

The vines, dead or alive, are ready for the compost pile. They can add a lot of green component while still fresh and are a good balance to dried leaves that usually appear about the same time as harvest.

After cutting the pumpkin from the vine, it should cure for at least 10 days if you plan to store it. Curing further hardens the skin and keeps in moisture so the flesh stays fresh for long periods. If you don't plan to store it, you don't need to go through the curing process and it can be used right away. Properly cured pumpkins can be stored at 50F degrees (10C) for two or three months and even as long as six months in a dark, well-ventilated room.

Curing pumpkins

Expose the pumpkins to the sun to cure. Ideally, high temperatures and high humidity are needed for the best curing (at least 80F degrees and 80% humidity), but the reality is that few gardeners have those conditions at harvest time. I don't even have those conditions during the prime growing season. Place the pumpkins in a sunny, dry area so they won't rot from wet ground contact. As long as the days are sunny and warm the pumpkins will cure. If more than a light frost threatens, cover them at night with straw, plastic or a tarp, or bring them inside.

After curing, or to help facilitate curing, bring the pumpkins indoors. This should definitely be done before freezing temperatures damage them. Don't stack the pumpkins or allow them to touch each other; this can cause soft spots and potential rot. Avoid placing them near apples and other ripe fruit. The ethylene gas they emit can shorten the pumpkin storage  life.

That's all there is to selecting pumpkins for harvest and curing. Collecting the seeds for eating or future planting is always a good idea too. If you have pumpkins in your garden and you haven't harvested, take a close look at them because it may be time.