Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rethinking the Front Yard

It is raining and stormy again today and will be until Thursday or Friday. To help keep myself entertained, I was looking through the BiMart coupon book. Six pack annual flowers are on sale. That got me thinking.

Instead of buying annual flowers, why not buy some vegetables to take their place? Yup, grow your veggies in among your flower garden. Not a far-fetched idea.

Think of lettuces growing as a front of the border plant. I love the Territorial Seed Gourmet Lettuce Blend of five different leaf lettuces. Instead of picking the entire plant, my dad always had us pick just the outside leaves leaving the core leaves to continue to grow.

How about putting your asparagus and rhubarb together in a corner bed? Harvest them in the spring and then have the show of the huge rhubarb leaves with the feathery asparagus tops waving high above them.

I have sown my carrots among my winter squash plants. The feathery tops of carrot in contrast with the yellow blooms and green leaves snaking through the bed look so tropical. Add the maturing fruits and you have a colorful bed for the summer into fall.

My neighbor always puts up a bamboo pole wigwam with scarlet runner beans every summer. The grandkids play in it by the hour. He says it’s the only reason anyone uses his front garden.

Growing up, people in our neighborhood planted fruit and nut trees for shade. I remember Lois and Joe putting in a flowering cherry. The entire neighborhood was abuzz with the reasoning why, these two extra frugal, people put in an ornamental tree and not a food tree. It was a sign that the Great Depression mentality was on the wane.

I remember several neighbors, with shady backyards, putting their vegetables in the front yard flower beds. Tomatoes by the front porch, corn planted as a hedge down the property line, sweet peppers and marigold lining the front walk, potatoes in their own little fluffy bit of a bed, giant cabbages squashing down the weeds, and all inter-planted with vibrant flowers to bring in the bees.

If doing a full-scale vegetable garden in the front yard is too much, just take a few baby steps towards your own sustainable garden habit.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What's Blooming This Week

I dashed outside inbetween rainshowers to get the following pictures of what's blooming this week.

A seedling Cherry in the neighbor's yard, overhanging our yard.
It probably was planted by a bird from our old, Prunus avium, 'Royal Anne'

Candytuft (and candy wrapper)
Iberis sempervirens

Red Flowering Current
Ribes sanguineum

There were also two blossoms on the wild strawberries, but I couldn't get a decent picture.  Maybe next week they will be more showy.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Grow Green with Ecolawns

If you believe the television commercials, then you need to add synthetic fertilizer to your lawn to make it lush and dark green. Adding a broadleaf herbicide to that fertilizer will allow you to have a pure turfgrass lawn, just like the local golf course. Having the greenest lawn on the block should be your life’s goal.

Balderdash! First, having a lawn is a choice. I did away with my front lawn years ago. It is a shallow yard, so I decided to spray it out with glyphosate (I used herbicide since our lawn was creeping bent grass and that is notoriously hard to kill) and be done with mowing and watering. I now have a simple, mostly native plants with reseeding annuals, and low water requirement garden. I haven’t regretted it for a minute since.

When I remodeled my backyard, 17 years ago, I reduced the turf to 20’x 30’. It’s just the right size for games and easy care.

Turfgrass needs one pound of nitrogen every month during the growing season. You can cut that amount by one third just by using a mulching mower. You can also cut down to fertilizing in March, June, and October, if you aren’t crazy about mowing constantly. I covered how I fertilize my lawn (once a year) in another post here. DO NOT OVER FERTILIZE! The excess fertilizer is carried by runoff into our streams and lakes; killing off aquatic life.

Lawns need one inch of water per week. That’s easy to do. Just choose one day a week and water your lawn until you have filled a tuna or cat food can full of water. In very hot weather you might want to add an extra half-inch of water. It is considered best to water early in the morning to reduce evaporation and the chance of disease. Don’t overwater; you are wasting your time and money!

Check with your local Cooperative Extension for the type of turfgrass that works best in your area. I was one of the first people in my circle to try out ‘ecolawns.’ These turfgrass/flower blends are a way to enjoy a lawn filled with the herbal look of old English estate gardens. The lawns at Queen Elizabeth’s garden parties are known for the chamomile mixed into the turf. It is that fragrance everyone identifies with meeting the Queen at the party.

I used ‘Fleur de Lawn’ a mix of dwarf PR8820 Dwarf Perennial Ryegrass, Lolium perenne, O’Connor’s Strawberry Clover, Trifolium fragiferum, Sweet Alyssum, Lobularia maritimaand, Dwarf Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, Wild English Daisy, Bellis perennis, and Baby Blue Eyes, Nemophila menziesi. It is a mix I would recommend, although any mix with Yarrow needs to be watched, as it travels into flower beds.
English Daisies in 'Fleur de Lawn' Hobbs & Hopkins Ltd.

The bag recommends seeding at 1lb per 1000 sq ft. Double that, Ryegrass is a clumping grass and needs to be seeded thicker to make a full stand.

The Sweet Alyssum and Baby Blue Eyes bloom the first year while the lawn is establishing itself. The Strawberry Clover, Dwarf Yarrow, and English Daisies continue on for years. I think the Daisies died out about eight years ago. There isn’t much Strawberry Clover left, but the Ryegrass and Yarrow are chugging along!

The best part of the lawn is that being a dwarf ryegrass, only six to eight inches high, you really don’t need to mow! Really, it is a nice sort of shaggy lawn that can also be kept mowed and looks very neat.

Nichol’s Garden Nursery in Albany, OR has an assortment of ecolawn blends that Rosemary Nichols and Tom Cook, a retired professor at Oregon State University, have perfected over the years. I found other ecolawn mixes at Hobbs & Hopkins, Ltd. Just type ‘ecolawn’ in your search engine to find alternatives to traditional turfgrass lawns.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

No Grand Garden, Just Pots

The decision has been made. We will not be putting in a garden this year. Instead I will be doing a lot of container gardening.

I have some larger pots for a few tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. As I come up with the plantings, I will share them with you. I found my old hanging planters behind the shop. I’ll fill those with shade lovers for the front porch, along with the giant pot Debbie bought me for Christmas several years ago.

One year I grew a salsa garden in a strawberry jug. Tomatoes grew out of the top – choose a determinate variety like Oregon Spring. In the side pockets I planted a tomatillo, garlic, green onions, and cilantro. Another year I just planted an herb garden in the jug. The parsley was left to go to seed. I still find volunteer parsley next to the shop, an ongoing gift!

The strawberry jug now holds my sedums and sempervirens. It’s great, I don’t have to remember to water it and when I do, I just soak the whole thing in a 13 quart bowl. That’s the pet’s outdoor water bowl as well.

As I have been taking care of outdoor chores, I noticed two shrubs that have not fared well. Uncle Henry is a Japanese Aucuba, Aucuba japonica Variegata, the Gold Dust Plant.

Our other plant is a Japanese Pieris, Pieris japonica Variegata.

This is damage from weather. Last summer was hot and we didn’t remember to water either plant regularly. This winter included an Arctic Blast that again dried out the leaves even worse.

Moral of this story: Keep tender shrubs well watered in the summer and don’t plant them on the western side of the house. During icy weather, cover the plants with an extra blanket or cotton painter’s drape.

I will be pruning them to remove the dead leaves and stems in the next couple of days.

Finally, the last three violets from the flower beds. In just the few minutes they have been inside, the entire room is filled with their fragrance.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Starting Seeds and Repotting Plants

Now is the time to start seed for summer flowers and crops. Thousands of garden writers out there, each with their way to start seeds. So, here’s my two cents worth:

Use a quality potting mix. Using garden soil bring in fungus and insects you don’t want or need. Also, garden soil is dynamic and needs to be in the garden. Removing garden soil from its natural environment, is the same as cutting off your hand.  No longer attached to your body, it will die.
Potting mix is sterilized and formulated for container use. It does not pack, have fungus, or disease.
I have known people to use a special, seed starting mix in conjunction with special seed starting flats. I use regular potting mix in old six packs gathered from friends and family.

 Rules for using old containers:
  1. Rinse the container to remove old potting mix and spider eggs.
  2. Submerge the containers in 1 part chlorine bleach to 9 parts cool water for 30 minutes.
  3. Rinse the containers well with cool water.
  4. Now, you may use them.
While I was starting some basil, I thought I would pot up my window garden as well.  I have been growing rosemary, thyme, a Christmas cactus, and a Snake plant on the windowsill all winter.  It was time to move them from water to potting mix.

My plants before potting.  The sage died before I could pot it.

1 sheet of TP in the bottom of a pot.

 The old saw was to put an inch of gravel, broken pottery, or other such in the bottom of the pot for drainage.  That has been disproven.  It has been found that gravity works!    Instead, just put a piece of 1 ply TP in the bottom of the pot to contain the potting mix until the roots form a ball.  TP will rot quickly and still allow for drainage.  Otherwise the rocks take up space that the roots need.
Soaking a clay pot before planting.
Clay pots need to be soaked in water before you plant in them.  The reason:  Clay pots are dry (duh) and will syphon off the water from your potting mix.  By soaking them for 30 minutes prior to planting, the plant gets to use the water and there is less transplant shock.
Also, when watering plants in clay pots, it is best to soak the plant and pot for at least 30 - 60 minutes.  This ensures the potting mix will take up as much water as possilble.  Soaking a plant in water, for short periods, will not damage it.  Trust me!
The gorgeous Olde Worlde Pote has no drainage hole.  I am using the clay pot as a liner.
Soaking freshly potted plants.
After potting plants, it is a good idea to give them a long drink.  I just allow capillary action to fill the pot with water.  I then drain them on the edge of the sink, before putting them in the window.
Here are my plants, ready for home decor or the kitchen window.
The herbs are in the kitchy sleeves.  I found them at the Dollar Tree and couldn't resist!  They look just joyful in my turquoise kitchen (adding Hunter Green to Pale Spring Leaf Green does not equal a darker Spring Leaf Green.  I forgot Hunter Green is really bluey.)
The Christmas cactus has a home in the living room, next to the 10 ft long picture window!
Soaking the basil seed.

 I planted 18 basil plants.  I will start them on the air conditioner shelf, outside the bedroom window.  That way, if cold nights are forecast, I can cover them to shield them from the cold.  I planted another pot for the windowsill in the kitchen.  Since that one will be warmer, I should have basil available in about six weeks.
I will buy my other starts are the Farmers Coop.  Just not enough room.  And, the dogs are sure to knock over any starts while they play.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Soils and Plant Nutrition

Plant Nutrition goes hand in hand with Soils. After all, with the exception of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon, all the other plant nutrients come from the soil.

Plant nutrients are classified by how much a plant needs to grow. The macro-nutrients, needed in large amounts, are carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, and silicon. Micro-nutrients, needed in very small amounts, are: iron, molybdenum (molly be damned, if you are a James Garner fan), boron, copper, chlorine, nickel, zinc, sodium and manganese.

In areas where the plants are undisturbed, like a forest or prairie, the nutrients cycle from the dead plant materials left to decompose on the soil. The nutrients are then taken up by the growing plants; dead plant material falls to the soil to decompose, etc.

In our gardens, we remove the dead plant material because it is unsightly (in our eyes) and it can lead to fungal diseases and insect infestations in our growing plants. Because we remove the dead plant material we need to add fertilizer to ‘feed’ our plants.

Plants are not able to discriminate synthetically produced nutrients from organically produced nutrients. Nitrogen is nitrogen to a plant. It is the soil that is damaged from the use of synthetic or even condensed organic fertilizers because there is nothing for the biota to feed on. We need the animals, whether large or microscopic, to burrow through the soil making pores for air and water and roots.

Like I said in Part 1, soil is a dynamic system, ever changing.

About 20 years ago, an older gentleman of my acquaintance, had an infestation of European Crane Fly, Tipula paludosa, larvae. The local farmers coop recommended a synthetic insecticide. The gentleman was so concerned about the patches of bare lawn, he doubled the dose.

The next morning he was astonished to see the lawn covered by dead worms and insects. Oh wow, what had he done?

I suggested he get a load of compost and spread it over the entire lawn, raking it down to the soil. Then, buy a couple of pounds of worms and scatter them about. Water about one inch a week and let nature take its course. I also advocated the use of coffee grounds sprinkled about for worm feed. He ignored me, choosing instead to over fertilize and over water. I got to see first-hand what dead soil looked like, it wasn’t pretty!

It took years for the soil to rebound. It compacted due to no animals living in it. The gentleman tilled and replanted the lawn at least twice in five years. The grass did not grow well at all, even with over fertilizing with synthetic fertilizers. Thanks, in part, to the gentleman learning about composting and his applications of compost to the flower beds running around and through his acre of landscape.

The moral of the story, soil needs the biota (living and dead plants and animals) to support its health. And to that end, I suggest using compost to feed your soils.

I covered how to make compost before. You can also buy compost from nurseries, farmers coops, or businesses that specifically deal in soil amendments.

Spreading three to four inches and tilling it into your veg garden every year, will feed your soil and your plants. I add compost to my landscape beds about every three years. I use hemlock bark to ‘finish’ my beds and it will last about three years before I need to add more. I spread the compost, dig it and the remaining bark into the soil, and finish with the hemlock (a dark brown color and it doesn’t have the splinters doug fir has.)

I use a slow release fertilizer every spring. Yes it is synthetic. I don’t apologize for that. The plants need a little extra nitrogen because of the hemlock using nitrogen to break down

Adding compost to the lawn is so simple. Just toss it about with a shovel, best not done on a windy day. You are only going to put down about an inch or less. Rake the compost into the grass and water one inch per week for the growing season. I do this every year along with using a mulch mower. I have one of the greenest lawns on the block.

I also spread one pound of Epsom salts per 1000 sq ft, over my entire property. The Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate. Plants use magnesium the same way we use iron. Iron is the center of our red blood cells. Magnesium is the center of the chlorophyll cell.

We have slugs. Everywhere. When we bought this house, the slugs were so large they looked like dog poop! And they climbed the trees! I have tried wood ash in small amounts, copper strips, and deadly poisons to no avail. Upon reading about iron phosphate, I stocked up and use it. It’s safe for kids and pets, kills the slugs, and fertilizes the plants.

The past ten years I have been dusting the entire property with lime, calcium carbonate. I put down less than ¼ inch to help raise the pH of the soil. I don’t test the soil; I do know from my studies that using nitrogen fertilizer increases the pH of the soil. By adding either lime or dolomite (calcium, carbonate, magnesium) you will raise the pH. If you want to use dolomite, I strongly urge that you do not use Epsom salts as the dolomite already has magnesium.

Feeding the soil feeds you plants by feeding the living critters that live in it. Compost helps to loosen clay and to increase water retention in sand.

Just a reminder, over fertilizing leads to run-off into our lakes and streams. That run-off causes algae blooms which lower the oxygen levels in the water. Lower oxygen levels kill off the fish and other aquatic animals. Please be a concerned gardener and remember, ‘Moderation in all things.’

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Today I would like to talk to you about soil. Not dirt, soil. Dirt is what we track into the house from the garden. Soil is a dynamic system containing solids (minerals and biota) and pores (filled with gases and liquids) on which we build and in which we grow.

In my graduate class, Applications of Soil Science, our professor asked us to define ‘soil.’ That’s pretty much what I wrote above. A soils graduate student sitting in front of me wrote for 10 minutes (I read a book) and was peeved when the professor called ‘time.’ When the professor gave his definition it was slightly longer than mine and nowhere as long as the grad-student’s.

The professor wanted to make a point. To the general public the definition of soil is simple. And that was what the class was about; using our knowledge of soil science to work with the public regarding soil management.

Alright. Soil is a dynamic system; it is always changing. Containing solids: minerals; sand, silt, and clay; and biota; living and decomposing organic material (plants and animals.) Pores: open spaces between the solids filled with fluids like water; and gases like air, methane, etc. On which we build housing, roadways, etc. In which we grow plants (and we also build in the soil; tunnels, basements, etc.)

What most of us gardeners are concerned about our soil is the amount of sand, silt, and clay; and the pH, potassium, and phosphorus levels. I will discount the nitrogen levels since those are ever-changing as nitrogen in the soil moves from ammonium (NH4+) to nitrates (NO3-) back to ammonium back to nitrates etc. etc. etc. quickly and constantly.

The amount of sand, silt, and clay determines how easily our soil can be worked, how water retentive it is, and what we can grow. Sand is easily recognized by its’ visible size. Everybody knows sand. Silt is recognizable by wetting the soil and rubbing it between your fingers. If you can feel the particles then it is silt. Clay (not the pottery mineral) is slippery when wet.

An aside about clay. Our soil is clay. When it is dry it is as hard as a rock; great cracks form when it is not irrigated during the summer. When it is wet, it is like trying to walk on a slip ‘n slide. The day I ruptured my Achilles tendon; I tripped over the hose with my right foot, slipped in the clay mud with my left foot, falling face first in a mud puddle, and feeling the'window blind roll up’ in my left calf. It was the third time I had to wear a cast in August. Good times.

There are also mixtures of sand, silt, and clay based on the percentages of each found. For the most part, home gardeners just need to know their soil type so they can adjust their growing methods to the soil. Adding two to three inches of compost to your garden every year helps to ameliorate your soil and make growing conditions just right for your plants. If you have more questions about your soil check with your Cooperative Extension Office or the U.S. Geographical Survey web site.

To check for pH, just get a simple pH kit like Luster Leaf 1612 Rapitest pH Soil Tester. Most fruit and vegetable garden plants want to be in the neutral to slightly acid range. Adding compost and nitrogen fertilizer to any soil will reduce the soil’s pH and make it more acid. Just dust on lime (like the dusting of sugar on a sugar cookie) every year if your soil is too acidic. Raising a soil’s pH is a long term project. If you try to move too fast you may very well ruin your soil.

A friend of mine used to dump her wood stove ash on her garden area. After several years, she began to notice the garden was just not producing as well and her plants looked sickly. When the County Extension agent was over to check on their mint fields, she mentioned her garden. The agent was only too happy to look and see what the problem was.
One look and the agent told her the soil was too alkaline. Which was really odd since their farm was on some of the most clay soil around. Clays tend to be acidic. It took her several years of adding sulfur, nitrogen in the form of blood meal and bone meal, and mint compost to get her garden back to a closer to neutral reading. She had to make an ‘ash dump’ on her land. It is just a pit where she dumps her wood stove ash. It is away from her well and where it will not affect their mint crop.

Moral of the story: Moderation in all soil amendments!

To be continued……………..

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What's Blooming This Week?

This week’s bloomers include a couple of ‘weeds.’ Definition: a weed is a plant, not intentionally seeded, growing out of place, that has an economic cost ie the need for herbicides or the labor to remove them.

Some weeds are our own garden plants that have escaped into the wild, see my post Invasive, Noxious, Uninvited. In the garden we tend to think of aggressive, self-sowing plants that crowd out our desired plantings as weeds. Many weeds are just the local native plants enjoying our superior soil and water.

Cheerfully yellow booms
Taraxacum officinale

Henbit - member of the mint family
Lamium amplexicaule

So fragrant, we need a bouquet for the house!
Narcissus sp.

I can't remember the name of this lavender star-shaped flowering bulb
It is just so clever and has multiplied slowly.

Who can't resist grape hyacinth's purply blue?
Muscari sp.

This is the violet a friend gave me.  I have purples and mixed, too.
Viola sp.

I do apologize for not posting this past week.  I have been under the weather.  Here's hoping for blue skies ahead!