- Green Blog
In this day and age of sustainability I am embarrassed to admit I could do more. It isn’t like we don’t make the attempt to be more mindful of our use and actions on our little blue planet. But full disclosure: we could do better.
I don’t want to beat myself up too badly. We do compost… albeit we pay to use our city’s composting program. And while this might seem like a check in the environmentally correct box, in reality it involves big trucks using large amounts of fuel going to distances farther than my back yard. That’s not really sustainable.Sustainable Gardening Practices
Do we save water? Well, we don’t collect rainwater, which really would have been a great idea this past spring with all the torrential downpours followed by triple digit temps. We do, however, use drip irrigation for our plants and veggie gardens, water before the birds are up, and tip the scales in the direction of more native vs. non-native as well as drought tolerant plants.
We do indeed plant a vegetable garden which is better than driving to the store to get produce but only when you actually plant it. This year I balked at the veggie garden, preferring instead to plant flowers.
I know. I slid backwards on my sustainability there. But in my defense, my husband thinks vegetable is a four letter word and there is no physical way I can eat or preserve all the produce we… well… produce, so I cut way back. I did plant a few things like tomatoes and basil, but I didn’t sow nearly what I usually do.Gardening Sustainably
We never use chemical pesticides, herbicides, or the like. I actually enjoy weeding (I’ve got a screw loose, I know) and as to the rest, we keep our plants healthy by incorporating plenty of organic matter at planting, space our plants, select disease resistant varieties when available, and mulch to retain moisture and keep roots cool.
We also almost exclusively, with the exception of vegetables, plant perennials. For one thing they are more economical than annuals and continue to thrive year after year. Our choices reflect our interest in using native plants, often drought tolerant ones while incorporating plants that encourage pollinators. Plus we harvest seeds from many of them or divide them to give to family and friends.
We also use an electric mower which, while it is less than sustainable, is better than using gas. The tire around my middle says I should be using an old push mower but let’s face it, I’m lazy.
Are we getting closer to a sustainable garden? The definition of sustainable is “avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.” I’m gonna say, no.
A little bit of accountability goes a long way ,even when you have a long way to go. But as the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” so too shall we continue to strive towards a more sustainable landscape.
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Even though a mostly green garden evokes a calm, serene feeling, I like to have some color contrast in the garden. When planting a new garden bed, I think about how the foliage colors will look and whether I need to add some contrast.Balancing Green with Seasonal Color
In a front yard foundation planting, I have an Emerald Spreader Japanese yew, plus the evergreen perennials hellebore and autumn fern, which all have green foliage. When I purchased a dwarf Japanese maple to include, I chose one with year-round burgundy foliage. A row of Bobo hydrangeas have green foliage with white flowers that fade to pink. In front of them, I have three bronze-and-pink-colored coral bells, Heuchera villosa “Carnival Watermelon.”
I plant tulips in that bed each fall and I always pick pinkish or red to blend with the pink and burgundy in the foundation bed. The autumn fern Brilliance looks amazing when it sends up new growth in spring that is a gold/bronze color.
In a bed in the backyard, I added the evergreen, yellow-leaved Sunshine ligustrum to an otherwise green bed, however, the seasonal flowers provide contrasting colors when they are in bloom. The yellow-and-red coreopsis right next to it blooms all summer as does the “Blue Fortune” agastache on the other side of the bed. Mums, lilies, irises, and roses fill the inside of the bed.
In another backyard bed, I have several daylilies, which have green foliage, but the daylilies are all different colors – rose, deep purple, pink, salmon, and cranberry. Two dwarf hydrangeas bloom white and fade to pink. They correspond with a pink garden phlox and a magenta butterfly bush. The Autumn Joy sedum blooms pink and fades to a darker pink, so it blends well with all the green foliage and shades of pink in the bed.
Even though I have a lot of green foliage – I didn’t even mention the iris bed – I don’t think it is too much green. Green in a garden is like a neutral color that serves as a cohesive background, holding it all together.
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We all know that healthy soil equals healthy plants. To that end it often takes a little bit of work on the gardener’s part to ensure that the soil is properly amended prior to planting.
Some people have to do quite a bit to their soil to make it a suitable plant home, while others have beautiful, lush soil full of organic matter and beneficial microorganisms.
I seem to fall into the latter category whether by luck or the design of the previous property owners. That doesn’t mean I don’t do anything to my soil, however.Nutrients in the Soil
As plants grow each season they use up the existing soil nutrients and organic matter. The microorganisms and beneficial insects are left hungry, as is the plant. To that end most people use a supplemental fertilizer of some sort.
I cannot be relied on to fertilize my plants on a regular basis. Translation: I’m lazy and forgetful. This means that I tend to “juice” up my soil at the end of the growing season, so it’s all ready for spring growth and planting.Juicing Up the Soil
There are numerous ways to invigorate soil such as planting cover crops, adding aged animal manure, mulching at the soil’s surface, adding compost, and rotating crops.
With the exception of planting cover crops, I use all of the above methods to improve my soil.
At the end of the growing season when the plants are starting to die back in the fall, I topdress the soil in my raised beds with aged manure. This is by far the cheapest organic fertilizer you can buy and I tend to buy it either on sale or the broken bags at the big box nurseries at a discount. Why? Because as I mentioned before on multiple occasions, I’m cheap. Anyway that’s it until next spring. In the spring, I turn the soil in the amended raised beds.
Other areas of my yard either get a similar treatment or, as in the perennial garden, I just dump fallen leaf mulch and grass clippings around the plants. This serves to protect them from winter’s icy breath and then does double duty as an amendment when I dig it in around the plants in the spring.
I also usually amend areas of the garden with compost but because I don’t have a compost pile – I’d have to sacrifice plants due to a tiny yard — I would have to purchase it and compost is like gold, so I usually go the cheap route of manure.
I’ve also been known to trench compost, which is something I learned from my grandparents who did it way before composting became trendy. It simply means digging a trench and dumping food scraps in the bottom, covering with compostable garden materials and then again with soil. The entirety will break down and enrich the soil with little work from you.Budget Friendly Soil Amendment
My goal, besides growing healthy crops and plants, is to keep my soil rich and well-draining without breaking the bank. If using manure, I implore you to get aged manure if you reside in a city like I do. While fresh manure is dandy, it contains lots of harmful pathogens as well as undigested weed seeds, plus it stinks. The dogs will love it but not your neighbors.
If you have some property and plan to let the manure do its work over time, then by all means use fresh but give it a season before planting. Otherwise, if you like your neighbors, take my advice, use aged manure.
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Gardening is often touted as a good hobby for staying physically active. It burns calories and builds strength and flexibility as you lift, carry, squat, and, of course, pull persistent weed after weed. This is all true, but for me, the primary benefit of gardening is what it does for my mental health.Gardening Gets Me Outside
Research has proven what many people and cultures have long known: Being outside, being in nature and around green, growing things is good for mental health. I don’t have to garden to go outside, but when chores are waiting to be done daily, it forces me to get out there.
Being outdoors provides a big boost to mental health. It’s not necessary to get deep into the wilderness. Simply being where plants grow and wild animals live is enough to improve mood, lower depression, reduce stress and anxiety, and increase relaxation and resilience during difficult times.
In an increasingly technological world, this is more important than ever. I love the outdoors, but even for me, it’s easy to get lost in streaming movies and TV shows, scrolling through social media, and basically staying indoors, glued to a screen. Gardening is a reminder that I need to be outside, daily.Gardening is Lifelong Learning
All hobbies are beneficial, but what I like so much about gardening is that it’s an ongoing learning experience. Good mental health relies on being satisfied and fulfilled in your life. For me, a big part of that is learning.
Gardening is the perfect hobby for anyone who loves to learn. Even if I become a master gardener, there is always still more to know. I learn through experience, from reading, and through occasional courses offered through my county extension office. To keep on learning is incredibly satisfying and leaves me feeling accomplished and fulfilled.Gardening is Mindfulness
I discovered the joys of meditation only recently. After deciding to try a daily meditation course, I realized that gardening had been providing me with a type of mindfulness meditation for years. I just never realized it.
When working in the garden, I am in the moment. My mind focuses on the task at hand while my senses take in the feel of the dirt, the wind, and the sun. I hear birds and insects and see and smell all the plants around me. This is the essence of mindfulness, which is simply being aware of the present moment.
It turns out that all these years of gardening have been a beneficial mindfulness practice. According to research, mindfulness is good for mental health because it distracts the mind from troubling thoughts. While lost in a gardening task, instead of dwelling on past worries or future anxieties, my mind is focused on the moment. This is probably an important reason why I feel more relaxed and calm after spending time working in the garden.Gardening is Acceptance
A big block to better mental health for me, and for many I’m sure, is acceptance. In order to be truly happy, it’s important to accept things you cannot change or control, to accept that things can’t always be perfect.
Gardening is a good hobby for anyone hobbled by perfectionism. Nature has a mind of its own. No matter how hard you work to get a garden to look a certain way, you cannot control every aspect of the outcome. Things will always go wrong. A plant that should have been perfect in one bed fails to thrive. Pests return despite your best efforts.
My garden has forced me to accept that I have to adapt my plans and sometimes cope with things the way they are. This doesn’t mean giving up or not working toward goals, but there are limits to what anyone can accomplish or control. Working in a garden has been a perfect lesson in acceptance, which ultimately leads to more happiness.
Gardening for health is a great goal. For anyone new to the hobby, just dive in and try it. You don’t have to do it well at first, and you likely won’t. Enjoy the process, embrace the outdoors, and accept your limitations.
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We all know the benefits of being outdoors. Fresh air, exercise and sunshine all combine to enhance our wellness. Some folks like to take a run, others hike, and still others just read a book outside on a nice day. Gardening is like any other outdoor activity. It has the ability to add to our physical health, but also to boost our mood. Our beautiful world has much to offer our senses. Enjoying what Mother Nature has to offer is one of the many ways we can take care of ourselves and live a better life.Gardening for Mental Health
A few years back I wrote an article: How Dirt Makes You Happy. It was about the science behind the concept. Apparently there are some microbes in soil that boost our serotonin levels. This is the mental equivalent of giving your brain some vitamins and increases the feeling of happiness. It’s basically a natural antidepressant which comes from the soil. One of the things I loved about the science is that it confirmed what I already knew. Gardening is my happy place. Our days are filled with the stresses of being a grown up. Digging in the dirt takes us back to our childhood and the simple acts required give the mind time to rest and refresh.
Another benefit of gardening is our sun exposure. I know, I know. We must be careful not to overindulge because of the risk of skin cancer. But with the proper SPF, we can block the harmful rays and still get a good boost of Vitamin D. Vitamin D lowers blood pressure, can prevent some cancers, protects against arthritis, and boosts the mood. So by digging in the soil and enjoying the sunshine, there is a one-two punch of goodness for our mental health.
We are a vision-oriented species. Directing our gaze to the beauties of the landscape and nature is pleasing. Just as we enjoy art of various kinds, Mother Nature’s paintbrush is busy in the garden. The wildlife, flora, and other aspects of our garden enrich our minds and stimulate the senses. Our sense of accomplishment is uplifted by a day enjoying the vista we have created.Gardening for Physical Health
Now that we have our brains in good shape, the other great thing about gardening is its gentle exercise. You don’t have to run a marathon to keep in shape. The acts of stretching, lifting, bending, and other actions taken when gardening are sure to build muscles and flexibility. Even people with disabilities can benefit from the simple tasks done in the garden. There are few more wholesome and gentle actions than those taken when gardening.
If you are a vegetable gardener, there are further benefits. The food we produce ends up on our table. That means we can control its exposure to pesticides and herbicides. Reducing exposure to such toxins is better for the body. The fresh picked fruits and veggies taste better than days-old produce. The nutrient levels may be higher than mass produced foods. And the joy of growing one’s own food is immeasurable. Who can’t wait for that first red, ripe tomato, or the blush of a freshly picked peach?
Gardening and health simply go hand in hand. This productive activity is far more entertaining than staring at the TV or playing a video game. Gardening for health can be as purposeful an activity as doing a yoga session or lifting weights. And best of all, you don’t have to go to a gym, saving time and money which is good for our health too.
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I love seeing any kind of pollinator in my garden. All are welcome, but none are as showy or as exciting to spot as butterflies. My favorite, which I used to see in great numbers as a kid, is the monarch. Unfortunately, this gorgeous insect is in decline all over, including in my region and state. Planting native species is one of the easiest things we as gardeners can do to support these and other pollinators.Monarchs in My Garden
As far back as I can remember in my life, it has always been a treat to see a monarch, even when they were more common. Maybe it’s the striking, black and orange, tiger-like coloring. Many butterflies fold up their wings and hide the vibrant colors, showing the dull brown-gray of their undersides, but monarchs are bright and colorful from any angle.
Another reason I love these insects, and why so many people do, is the spectacular journey they make. Monarchs migrate more than 1,000 miles (1,609 km.) between Mexico and the rest of North America. From Michigan, they fly 2,500 miles (4,023 km.) to Mexico.
Of course, there is the fact that, like many others, monarch butterflies are important pollinators. This is a reason to love them even if they didn’t have everything else going for them.
As monarch populations have dropped and become a less common sight, spotting one is more exciting than ever. I sometimes see one in my garden, but more often I find them in nearby parks. One local park is large and has a lot of natural areas with native plants. This is where I see the most butterflies of all types and the majority of monarchs.Monarchs in Michigan
Monarch populations have dropped all over their native range, and Michigan, where I live, is no exception. In some places, monarch numbers are down a troubling 80%. A recent study from Michigan State University collected information for several years and found the primary cause for this drop: climate change.
There have been many contributing factors. The biggest decline in the population actually came in the late 1990s and early 2000s when herbicides with glyphosate were used heavily on farms. Genetically engineered crops that could resist glyphosate allowed farmers to spray the herbicide liberally over their fields with detrimental effects on milkweed plants.
Milkweed might be a weed on a farm, but for a monarch it is essential. This is the only plant that monarch butterflies use as food and hosts for their caterpillars.
While the glyphosate boom was a major contributor, researchers now say that climate change is having a bigger impact on monarch populations in Michigan. Changes in the climate in the butterflies’ northern spring and summer breeding areas have caused numbers to drop more than any other factor.Supporting Monarchs and Other Pollinators
Monarchs will always be my favorite butterfly and I will continue to enjoy seeing them. I hope that it becomes less rare in the future. Stopping or reversing climate change might be a Herculean or impossible task right now, but individual, local choices can support monarch butterflies and other pollinators.
One of the most important things any gardener can do is plant native species. For monarchs, it is especially important to plant milkweed or at least allow it to grow naturally. Unfortunately, my garden isn’t the right setting for milkweed, but I do plant other native species that support other butterflies: black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, and coreopsis to name a few.
The best way to plant flowers for butterflies is in groups. If they are too scattered throughout a garden, it’s more difficult for pollinators to find them. I have one large bed that is made up solely of native flowers attractive to pollinators.
Another thing I do to support monarchs and other butterflies is refrain from using herbicides and pesticides. I pull weeds by hand and welcome insects as long as they aren’t causing too much trouble.
I hope that one day my garden and others in the area will become thriving native plant destinations for all kinds of pollinators. Then, I might begin to see my favorite butterfly more often.
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Birds are one of the great joys of a gardener, and the wild variations in size, color and comportment of different species attest to the endless creativity of nature. While I enjoy the small, city birds that visit my garden in San Francisco, my true delight comes from birdwatching in France.Getting to Know the Birds in France
One of the first things I built when we moved to a small stone house in the Pyrenees in French Basque Country was a bird feeding station. I stacked up several large wooden spools – used for electric wire – and grounded them with a stake through the central holes into the ground below.
This proved an endless source of joy and entertainment, particularly in the springtime. Parent birds would park their young on the various levels of the feeding station and fly off to find worms or get water. Although at first we recognized only the robins, in time we came to know and love many other species. Here are a few of my personal favorites.European Robin
It was easy enough to recognize a French robin, even though it looks very different from its American counterpart. French robins are called “rouge gorges”, meaning red throats. And they, like American robins, have that giveaway red breast. But otherwise, robins in France are small and delicate, perhaps half the size of American robins. They stayed all year long, making them familiar members of our little community.
My favorite robin story involved a dramatic rescue: saving two baby birds from a snake. My young daughter came running into the house in tears one afternoon telling me that a snake was about to eat two baby robins.
I rushed outside to see the robin’s nest, halfway up the rocky rise beside the house. Two fuzzy birds peeked out fearfully. The nest was inaccessible to a crawling snake, but a couleuvre snake had spotted them, climbed into a tree, and was beginning a descent to the nest on a drooping branch. Both parent birds were circling the branch, trying to dissuade the snake by chirping and fluttering bravely, without success.
I was afraid of snakes, and this one was several feet long. But I knew I had to do something. I got a large bucket with a lid and positioned it on the ground beneath the snake’s branch, then cut off the branch, sending it and the snake into the bucket. This sounds a lot smoother an operation than it was, but, pumped full of adrenaline, I managed to clap the lid on the bucket. We carried the bucket up the mountain and released it far away.French Merle
The blackbird in France is of the species Turdus merula. It is called the merle and it may be my favorite garden visitor. When I wake up in the morning in spring, summer and fall, my “alarm” is the song of the merles from the trees around the house.
These birds are either glossy black or dull black. Adult males have shiny black feathers with a bright yellow bill and eyering. The females and young birds are a duller, dark brown. They visit the property to feed on the holly berries and their beautiful song is a true delight to hear. While they don’t usually accept the sunflower seeds or suet from my feeder, they do drink from the water dish when they think I am not watching.
I love the merles for their song, their fierce independence, and the flash of glossy black as they fly by. We are neighbors on the mountain but not friends, although sometimes baby merles are left on the bird feeding station, large, fuzzy and hungry, as the parents go off to find food..
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As a bird lover, it’s impossible to pick just one favorite species that visits my backyard. I can probably select a few, though, if pressed. From raptors to little songbirds to the rarer species, the truth is that I love them all. Creating a space that feeds and shelters birds is the perfect way to ensure they keep coming back.White-Breasted Nuthatch
This funny little bird is unique for the way it moves up and down tree trunks looking for insects to eat. I work at a desk by a window and outside is a medium-sized walnut. Most months of the year I see nuthatches on the trunk. They move up and down in circles and upside down, sticking their bills into the bark crevices to fund food.
Rarer in my area is the red-breasted nuthatch. I have seen a few over the years. Both species are small with white, gray, and black coloring and a pointy, sharp bill. The red-breasted variety has reddish coloring on its chest. Attracting these birds requires no effort from me. They come for the trees, which are plentiful in my yard.Cooper’s Hawk
Much grander in size and more dramatic are the hawks that grace my garden. As a bird lover, they leave me conflicted. The species I see most often is the Cooper’s hawk, a smaller hawk that eats songbirds. When they’re hanging around, I don’t get other birds at my feeder. Nonetheless, they are fun to see. One year, I had at least six juveniles nesting somewhere nearby and screeching through my garden all day long.
Red-tailed hawks are also regulars in my area, but they don’t visit the garden very often. They tend to soar high in the sky, swooping down in more open areas to grab prey. Cooper’s hawks fly low and flit between trees and branches as they hunt little birds.Tufted Titmouse
This is a little songbird that shows up to my feeders less frequently than cardinals, sparrows, and chickadees. It’s a favorite bird of mine for one simple reason: it’s adorable. Tufted titmice look like a stuffed animal version of a songbird. They have a rounder shape than other birds with big black eyes and a cute little crest on the top of their heads. Also, they make a sweet, chirpy call that always reminds me of warmer weather.
Tufted titmice live in my area year-round, but they are a little more shy than other small species. To encourage more to show up and stick around, I put out their favorite foods: sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet.Woodpeckers
A few years ago, my neighbor complained about the sound a woodpecker was making in her backyard. She found the repetitive knocking of its bill against the tree annoying and disruptive. I can see her point. It’s not as nice a sound as the call of a songbird, but nevertheless I do enjoy woodpeckers in the garden. They come for the suet and nut feeders in particular.
The most common species that come to my suet and nut feeders are red-bellied and downy woodpeckers. The downy is quite small and easy to miss. It’s not as showy as other species with just a little tuft of red feathers on the top of the male’s head. The red-bellied woodpecker is a little bigger and has a bright red crown.
The woodpeckers I see less often are a real treat to spot. The male of the red-headed species has a deep red head with all over color set strikingly against a white chest and belly and black back.
Even less common in my garden is one of my absolute favorite birds: the pileated woodpecker. This is the biggest species and the one that inspired Woody. I have only seen a couple of these, but they are spectacular. They are large and have a big, pointy bill and impressive red crest, unlike any other bird that visits my yard.
All bird species are welcome in my garden. I even have a hard time summoning up negative feelings for the non-native house sparrows. With plenty of winter foods, a few areas left natural, and native plants, any garden will attract and host a diverse array of native species.
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There are many things I dislike about gardening. I don’t love to mow, I hate insect pests, and I dislike babying the few roses we have. The one thing that is my worst enemy though, is weeds. I go into this battle annually with the deck stacked against me. This is due to an abandoned house on one side, and a neighbor on the other who lets weeds grow wild. Across the street, my neighbor tends the weeds because she uses them for medicine and food. So my battle with weed pests is constant due to the presence of seeds floating over into my landscape. It is an eternal struggle, one that I never truly win.Weeding Woes
The one thing that makes me really grouchy regarding gardening is weeds. I understand that dandelion flowers are important food for honeybees, and wild milkweed feeds various butterflies and moths. However, I can’t stand the disorder and chaos that weeds represent. Plus, weeds are so stoic, my wanted plants hardly stand a chance. The latter would be pushed out if I didn’t wage war on weeds from February into the first snow. Since my landscape is organic, I must battle with natural weed control, something that requires more physical activity than a chemical war.
The main persistent weeds of this area are purslane, dandelion, oyster root, puncturevine, sagebrush, various grasses, thistle, skeleton weed, curly dock, and poison hemlock. Most of these are listed as noxious weeds and it is our duty and home or landowners to eradicate them when we see them. In the fields, the farmers just spray them out with chemical cocktails. Here, I use organic weed control. That is a combination of homemade non-toxic brews and hand pulling.
Hand pulling weeds is the bane of my existence. It must be done weekly and every time it is an all-day chore. I am often out in triple digit temperatures trying to rein in their takeover. It is a thankless task because just a few days after doing all that weeding, the hellish things are in evidence anew. As the prevailing winds blow over from the abandoned house, I can view the parachute-like dandelion seeds and downy thistle float gently over to my dirt farm and settle in for occupation, and occupation it is. It is an unsolicited invasion, one that seeks to drain me of energy and sap my will.Homemade Weed Killer
I don’t only practice manual removal. My arsenal of tactics also includes my home brews. These concoctions are the result of kitchen items, often paired with things like white vinegar, essential oils, and dish soap. I also rely upon black plastic, weed barrier fabric, boiling water, and my trusty flame weeder. This last item is a true back saver but can only be used when there is no wind (which rarely happens here), and in the presence of a hose, just in case.
I can safely and accurately say that weeds are my enemy, my nemesis, my foe. I detest weeds and the actions I must take to eradicate them. If my efforts were successful for more than a few days, it would all be worth it. Yet they are not, and I can look forward to a growing season of battlefield strategies and trench warfare. It is an ugly battle and one that seems fruitless, just like most wars that are waged. However, I will persist because I am crazy, and pig headed. Let the weeds try to take me, I’ll fight ’til the bitter end!
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Spring has long been one of my favorite seasons in the garden. As days grow warmer, I find myself immersed in outdoor activity. Though many annual flowers are slow to become established and begin blooming, spring flowering bulbs are ready to burst into life. With careful planning in the fall, ornamental flower gardeners and landscapers can create beautiful green spaces that are sure to dazzle. Below, I have outlined some of my favorite spring blooming flower bulbs.The Beauty of Early Spring Flowering Bulbs
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It seems like the first crops of the season make the biggest impact on me. Whether it’s lettuce, peas, green onions, or asparagus, these early spring veggies just seem loaded with extra freshness and flavor. These foods are always a welcomed sight on the dinner table, especially after having relied on frozen vegetables during the winter.
So which of these early spring veggies is my favorite? It can be tough to single out one, but for me the winner is English peas. I love to eat them fresh from the garden. And since they are first crop I plant in the veggie patch each spring, English peas signify the start of my vegetable gardening season.When Do You Plant English Peas?
If I could have asked my grandfather, he would have told me exactly when to plant English peas. It would be St. Joseph’s day, which is celebrated annually on March 19. At least, this is what my father passed along to me.
So for years, I made it a point to plant my English garden peas on this date. Sometimes, the peas germinated well, but more often than not, many rotted in the soggy cold soil. I would end up with patchy rows, half-filled with pea seedlings. Even heavily sowing these spring legumes didn’t give me full rows.
Now I don’t blame my forebears for this advice. After all, most pea seed packets indicate this crop can be sown as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. It’s possible the microclimate of my grandfather’s urban garden made St. Joseph’s day the ideal time for him to plant these early spring veggies.
Which brings me to my point. Sowing the first crops of the season is inherently risky due to the instability of spring weather. This is especially true for gardeners like myself, who have gardens located in more rural areas.
My garden is more exposed to the elements than my grandfather’s or father’s. It’s not surrounded by heat-retaining roads and buildings. Nor does it benefit from the intricate drainage systems which cities and suburbs use to remove excess rainfall.How to Plant Peas
Bottom line, I’ve had to adopt different criteria for when to plant English peas. I now sow my first crops of the season when the conditions are right for germination, rather than on a set date. Here are key factors I consider before choosing my pea planting day:
Once conditions seem right, I dig in (literally) and welcome the start of the growing season!
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One of my favorite annuals to grow in containers on the back patio is coleus. This stunning tropical comes in varieties with foliage that range from variegated yellow and green to a red so deep it’s nearly black. Instead of watching these beauties die at the first frost, I’ve tried a couple of coleus overwintering methods so I can plant them outside again in spring.Bringing Containers Indoors
The easiest way to overwinter a tropical plant is to bring it indoors. It’s not necessarily the ideal situation for a coleus because it needs a lot of warmth and humidity. It can work, though, if you take good care of the plant.
Start by taking the plant out of the pot and rinsing the roots to get rid of any bugs or eggs. Repot it in a clean container with fresh, moist, high-quality potting soil. Give your indoor coleus a north-facing window, as it prefers indirect light. Make sure it’s a warm spot and use a humidity tray for moisture.Taking Cuttings
One reason I don’t like overwintering coleus using the full plant is that it just doesn’t do well indoors. If you can keep it alive, it should thrive again in spring, but in the meantime, it will look scraggly and dull.
A better way is to take cuttings from your favorite plants. A cutting is like a baby coleus at an earlier growth stage. It will be eager to start growing new foliage throughout the winter.
Be sure to take cuttings before the first frost, or you’ll lose the plant. Place cuttings in water just long enough to get root growth. You can use a rooting hormone to speed the process. Once you see roots, pot up the coleus cuttings with some good potting soil. Give them a sunny spot and plenty of moisture.Getting Coleus Ready for Spring
Whether you saved the whole plant or grew new ones from cuttings, it’s vital that you acclimatize them properly before replanting outdoors. Take the plants outside on warmer spring days for a few hours and increase the time spent outside day by day.
After a couple of weeks, they will be ready to go outside full time. If you kept an entire plant, you can now cut it back a little, removing any faded or browned leaves. Pinch back both plants regularly to help them grow fuller and to avoid leggy growth.
I’ve used both methods in the past to save coleus and find the cutting method works best. They look healthy and vibrant in spring. All they really need is to be hardened off for a couple weeks. My patio looks like I bought new plants from the garden center.
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Long before I lived here, glaciers spread across the land. These geological events shaped the surface of the earth and deposited various types of rock and sediment. During the roughly 12,000 years since the last glacier, water and wind has eroded much of the finer soil from my property. I was left with clay and growing vegetables in heavy clay soil is not fun.Properties of Clay Soil
Like most new homeowners, I was excited to make the place our own. This included fixing up the inside of the home, redoing the landscaping around the house, and of course, planting a vegetable garden. The last turned out to be the hardest.
After all, who thinks of taking a shovel and digging into the yard when looking at houses? Little did I know that under the thin covering of grass was approximately 2 feet (61 cm.) of red clay. Dig deeper and it turns to gray clay, much like what I played with in kindergarten.
Thus, during my first year growing a vegetable garden, I learned two very important lessons about clay: dry clay is rock hard, and wet clay is sticky. I broke many tools my first years of gardening and wet clay ruined just as many shoes.
The size and shape of the individual clay particles are responsible for these clay soil properties. Unlike sand which is angular, or silt which is round, clay particles are much smaller and flat. This gives clay the ability to be cohesive and stick to itself. It also allows clay to be adhesive and stick to other things.Clay Soil in the Vegetable Garden
Growing mediums which contain mostly clay particles are often called heavy soils. Clay drains poorly in wet weather and cracks when dry. Although clay soils contain the nutrients plants need, there is little air space between the clay particles for the root system to expand and reach the available nutrients.
For me, this meant my vegetable plants did not grow to their full potential or produce expected yields. Clay soil doesn’t break up to a fine powder but stays chunky when tilled. This decreased the germination rate of the carrots, cucumbers, and cantaloupe seeds I planted.
Clay is also slow to absorb water, thus an inappropriately timed heavy rain would sometimes wash my seeds away. Poor drainage resulted in losing plants to root rot. However, the worst issue I faced was weeding. It was impossible to pull weeds out by the roots, so they quickly re-grew and overtook the garden.
I knew if I wanted to successfully grow vegetables in the future, I would need to do something. As a new homeowner with a mortgage to pay, a raised bed system was too expensive to install. This meant amending the soil that was already in the garden.How to Amend Clay Soil
I have to admit, I was a young and naive gardener back then. Yet, I managed to get it right. Amending clay soil is an easy process of slowly adding organic material over the course of many years. I used the organic waste from my own property, including horse manure with wood shavings, grass clippings, and fall leaves.
These materials must be added slowly over a period of time to prevent nitrogen depletion. This occurs when the microorganisms in the soil use nitrogen to break down carbon-rich materials. Just as in a compost pile, the nitrogen-rich or “green” materials included the horse manure and grass.
These must be balanced with “brown” carbon-rich material such as the wood shavings and leaves. When the microorganisms die, they release the nitrogen back into the soil. By adding organic materials slowly, the nitrogen released will equal or exceed the nitrogen being consumed.
It’s now thirty plus years later. The nutrient and water holding clay particles are still present in my garden soil, but their ratio to organic material has changed significantly. I no longer see hard, cracked soil. Instead, it breaks apart easily and creates a bed of fine dirt for starting seeds. The drainage has improved, yet it retains sufficient moisture during dry spells. My plants grow to full size and produce bushels of produce. Most importantly, I can easily pull those darn weeds!
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Annual plants always seem to be a waste of money to me, since they die every fall. But that doesn’t stop me from planting self seeding plants. They are free after the first year and I can enjoy them season after season. Flowers are chief among these, but there are also plenty of annual plants that will reliably come back in early spring.Some Vegetables Overwinter
I’m an avid vegetable gardener and can’t wait until the first veggies are available in my garden. There are some that overwinter and keep producing, and some that can be harvested in winter. I’ve had carrots and leeks when the soil was soft enough to harvest them. We had cabbage and Brussels sprouts fresh from the garden even in January. But as I’m cleaning up the garden I’m excited to see some annual plants reappearing.
We still had some snow, but I went outside in my mud boots and began to remove old plant matter anyway. Imagine my surprise to find 4 inch (10 cm.) tall snow and snap peas. For a flash I thought they had survived winter, but then remembered they were annuals. Plus, it had never happened before. So what miracle had transpired to make these plants reappear? I assume some pods were on the ground and the seed inside matured and got planted naturally. So up they sprang, bigger than they would be if I had seeded them myself.
In the vegetable garden, it isn’t just the peas that will reappear. The old zucchini, pumpkins and other squash seem to pop up everywhere from left behind fruits. Sometimes they hybridize, resulting in a mystery food. Any allium left behind in the garden will send out seed and reproduce. My chive plant is a classic example of reseeded plants. They die out in fall but there are always several new plants to replace them by the start of summer. I will soon find tomatoes and basil plants volunteering near their old location.Flowers Self-Seed
Self-seeding plants are little miracles of nature. They drop seed which grows on site or gets spread by wind or other machinations. I get new petunia plants in my pots every year that grow up to flower and spread. Not all annual plants will self seed, but in the right conditions, most will. I always thought snapdragons were annuals, but the ones that grow here come back every year. Plus they spread like wildfire. I now have a significant stand of the brightly blooming plants. We also have calendula, nasturtiums, zinnia, and bachelor buttons beginning to show. The cleome is a particular surprise, re-blooming year after year from fresh plants. And don’t let me get started about my sunflowers. I rarely seed any but the whole garden is filled with the towering plants due to messy bird activity.
It is crucial to recognize the little plantlets, so you don’t weed them out. I accidentally did that with some leeks that were coming up, thinking they were grass. I’m pretty savvy now, with some experience under my belt. And that means freebies from my re-seeded plants.
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Some gardeners mark the planting location of every bulb and garden seed. Others keep a garden journal with the plantings duly recorded in dated entries. But, alas, I am not among their numbers.
I am the kind of a gardener who hits the garden store to buy some potting soil and comes home with 10 different kinds of bulbs or packets of seeds. It’s not that I don’t plant them- I do! But life moves so fast it’s hard to keep hold of what I planted where. That makes for many happy surprises in springtime.Random Planting Locations
When I say that I plant my seeds and bulbs in random locations, I don’t mean that I toss them into the air and let they grow where they lie. I find an appropriate location, with the exposure the particular plant needs, and plant it – seed or bulb – with a lot of care.
But since most of the beds in my garden have good afternoon sun exposure, I never quite know what is where. And did I end up buying the tulips or the crocuses? Who remembers this stuff?Happy Surprises
It is an odd system but one that works for me. Since I have no expectations come spring, I am never disappointed. No tulips? I must have bought the crocuses and moved them into that planting location. Whatever does appear and grow is a happy surprise.
Then of course, there are the happy surprises of reseeder plants, those that take it upon themselves to make their own comeback. California poppies are number one on the list of reseeder plants that create their own destiny, but they aren’t alone. Have you ever tried to plant one nasturtium? Or to limit the salvia to a couple square feet? Good luck.Avocado Surprises
But my biggest surprises this year have been in the compost pile. Since I am a fan of avocados, lots of avocado pits end up in the compost pile. Then, come spring, I discover many of the pits have grown into avocado plants.
I have never officially grown an avocado in my garden, but I have done the avocado thing with toothpicks and a glass of water in the house. So, I know what avocado plants look like. I currently have 12 of them growing in the compost heap, one almost 3 feet (1m) tall. It will be an even greater surprise if they produce avocados, but for the moment, the plants themselves are a big enough wonder.
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When I moved into my current house, I was thrilled to find three large, healthy, and flowering peonies in one of the beds. I had never grown them before, but I adored this ostentatious flower. So, imagine my dismay when a couple years later they stopped blooming.How I Reinvigorated My Peonies
Not only were the peony shrubs not producing flowers, they had grown smaller and scragglier every year. It was disappointing to see the once thriving plants decline so much. At the time, I didn’t really know anything about growing peonies.
Instead of doing extensive reading, I decided they didn’t have enough sunlight. They were situated against a west-facing wall that got only some afternoon and evening sun. I asked my husband to move them to a bed farther from the house and with more sun exposure.
The peonies promptly died. Much to my relief, they came back the following year, but they didn’t grow much and still didn’t have flowers. By the second year, the peonies were back and blooming. A few years later, they look as good as they did when I first saw them.Peony Problems
What I have subsequently learned about the situation is that I was right. Peonies often fail to thrive or bloom with too much shade. They are also pretty tough and will hold out for years, declining slowly, which is what happened with mine. I have also learned that it is normal for them to take a year or two after transplantation to bloom again.
There are several other reasons a peony might not produce flowers if shade isn’t the issue:
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Virginia “Ginny” Henderson, president of the garden committee at West Plains Community Garden, and Dawn Hicks, health educator with the Howell County Health Department, are enthusiastic about community gardening, to say the least. Recipients of a Gardening Know How sponsorship in 2021, they work to ensure that the residents of their low-income food desert community have access to fresh food.
With a seemingly endless supply of energy, Dawn pioneered several programs in the community, including working with parents on the WIC program. She created Eating Local Foods (ELF), a voucher program for low-income mothers to use at the local farmers’ market. Among many other health-related initiatives, Dawn, with the help of local food activists, recruited local support to form a community garden.History
In 2009, a group formed to explore the idea of a community garden. The group included people from the local health department and the extension office. They sought, and the city approved, an area that was formerly residential but located on a creek that repeatedly flooded. Homes were removed, and the property was transformed into a park, with ground for the community garden broken by horse-drawn plow. The city ran water lines for spigots and the initial planting took place in 2010. Since then, with the help of AmeriCorps Teams, 3 railroad car-sized loads of Bermuda grass were removed. Thirty-six framed beds, 4’x22′, surrounded by ADA-compliant pathways, were built. In 2017, a 1000-year flood wiped out the Garden, but it has been built back over time to include a security fence and covered tool storage.Gardening Together
The garden’s design is formatted in what the British call the “allotment” system, meaning that members rent their own space and care for it from beginning to end, growing their own food and controlling what happens to it, whether used privately or donated.
The garden is located in an impoverished part of West Plains, which itself sits in the Delta Region of the United States. Many residents have no easy access to grocery stores or the finances to buy food, thus there is a considerable level of food insecurity. It’s a relatively small town; and the garden site is within 5 blocks of apartment complexes housing low-income families and disabled residents. Many visit the garden on foot or via wheelchair. Each member has a key to the garden’s gate, and there are beds on legs to accommodate those who need them.
Some residents have come to West Plains from the Ukraine and surrounding areas of Eastern Europe and Russia, and in many cases still have relatives there. The community garden offers the opportunity to grow familiar foods. During a typical summer, the garden yields potatoes, both sweet and white, cucumbers, onions, garlic, green beans, tomatoes, pumpkins and herbs. Also growing well are melons, berries, okra, black-eyed peas, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini, salad and cooking greens, and corn.Kids Gardening
The Garden and the local Boys & Girls Club have joined forces to promote healthy eating and a healthy lifestyle for Club members. The Club operates from an old schoolhouse just a few blocks from the Garden. On Friday mornings in the summer, Club Members visit the Garden to tend their own spaces and help with chores. The Garden helped establish a seed-starting room back at the Club so that Club members can experience the entire cycle – planting a seed, transplanting the seedling at the Garden, then tending and harvesting the results. Working in the seed-starting room and coming to the Garden have become favorite activities for many Club members.Busy Gardeners
There are plans in place for developing a Mason bee system and making improvements to the dedicated insectary bed planted with native perennials to attract beneficial insects. They are always working on improving the soil and have a booth in March at the annual Home & Garden Show where people can apply for a plot.
Gardening Know How is happy to support this active, dynamic garden, and we applaud people like Ginny Henderson and Dawn Hicks for their hard work and enthusiasm that helps it grow and thrive.
Every year, Gardening Know How awards $1,000 to 20 different, hand-picked garden projects across the United States and Canada. If your community or school garden has a growing, unmet need for more soil, seeds, fertilizers, building materials, or even just help getting the word out about your program, we’re ready and willing to help you meet those needs. As community gardens and school gardening programs spring up all over, we’re happy to do our part to help. Click here to learn more about how to apply to the GKH Sponsorship.
Interested in learning more about school or community gardens? Visit our Community Gardening for Everyone page today.
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Sustainability has become very trendy, with people of all walks of life indulging in the concept. It is quite easy to dip one’s toe into the trend with small changes such as recycling and composting. Still others are more hard-core and go all out with their sustainable life style. I would say we are somewhere in between. But one thing we rarely do is buy new items. This approach to sustainable living is sensible but has also provided us with everything we need by repurposing old items.Upcycling
I am very frugal by nature and necessity. We don’t tend to purchase much beyond the necessities, unless you are referring to my plant obsession. Yet even with these, many of my acquisitions were cuttings, divisions, or gifts from other gardeners. We live a sustainable life for several reasons. One of them is our motto and the other is due to our isolated location. I cannot pop off to shop every day, which keeps my purchasing in check and helps avoid unnecessary spending. It also avoids wasting fuel and contributing to greenhouse gasses. We have the advantage of volunteering at the local thrift store which supports our community. When new items arrive, we have the first glimpse and can opt to buy.
I have little new furniture in my home. I love to refinish wood and have made old bookshelves, my roll top desk, end tables, and more, look brand new and modern. We did purchase new beds for ourselves and the guest room, but really, as I look around, everything came from someone else. Even my artwork came from Goodwill and other thrift shops. All my tchotchkes were given to me. My cookware is used, my dishes were my mother’s, and even my curtains were made or purchased used. My containers for the plants are old or I fixed them up for repurposing as plant homes. Upcycling comes very naturally to me, as I have a crafty nature and love fun projects.Sustainable Living
Our clothes are occasionally purchased new. That is the case for socks, under garments and the like. I have a few shoes that were new, but many were used. I knit our slippers, hats, gloves, and sweaters, as well as throw blankets. We are not fancy people and live in the sticks, so it matters not what we look like. Our clothes are worn until they are nearly threadbare in most cases and are primarily practical garb. We each have a “nice” outfit for family get-togethers or other special occasions.
I admit to having many kitchen gadgets. I was a chef and love to cook, and I “need” a big stand mixer, waffle maker, and air fryer. Even many of my appliances are used. My coffee maker died and I needed a new one. Found one at the thrift store. My neighbor had an extra microwave for some reason, so he gave that to me. I wanted a rice cooker and found a free one. Much of what we use on a daily basis can be found used, free, or bartered. Speaking of bartering, I have acquired items by doing landscaping, trading plants, and even cooking for small events.
I find this lifestyle to be budget friendly and as an added bonus, makes me feel like I am contributing to the sustainability movement. When it comes down to brass tacks, who really needs all that stuff? There is so much waste in the United States and other countries. The landfills are full of stuff that is still usable. People throw out perfectly good things every day. It is really almost criminal how much waste we have because of our consumer society. I’ll take my free, but old, stuff any day.
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Some of our strongest memories are directly tied to scent. From the rich smell of freshly worked soil to sweet honeysuckle blossoms, the same is also true in connection to the garden. Many of my own garden memories are directly linked to the scent of specific varieties of plants that I have grown. One variety of daffodil, called “Geranium,” is especially meaningful, as it always serves to mark the official start of spring in my backyard.Fragrant Daffodils to Signal The Arrival of Spring
I first obtained a small handful of Geranium daffodil bulbs, by chance, during a sale at my local garden center. At more than a 50% discount, my expectations for the bulbs were quite low. Still, I was eager to plant daffodils in my backyard for the first time ever. I soon began to research the variety online and admired the photos I was able to find that had been taken by various garden bloggers.
As their namesake would imply, Geranium daffodils are noted to have an unmatched fragrance. Though I was already quite familiar with daffodils, I had never encountered any fragrant varieties. My expectations in terms of scent were very low. When spring finally arrived, I was more than surprised to find that the Geranium daffodils had far exceeded my presuppositions.Growing Geranium Daffodils
Unlike their more traditional counterparts, Geranium daffodils produce 2-6 smaller flowers on each stem. Each bloom features pristine white outer petals and a shallow orange cup. Though beautiful in their own right, the true magic of Geranium begins once the flowers begin to open.
On the first official day of spring, I stepped into my garden and was immediately immersed in a delightful cloud of fragrance. Naturally, I began to search for its source. As I came closer to my small daffodil bed, the scent became stronger and stronger. Though difficult to put into words, the heady aroma of Geranium daffodils is simply unmatched in the spring garden.
Though this variety is certainly not the most showy daffodil available, it will always have a much loved home in my spring flower beds.
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I have a lot of early failures in my horticultural timeline. There was the bare crown of thorns I kept alive, and probably shouldn’t have, for a few years. The ficus that was destined to fail didn’t even last one season. The first plant I remember growing that was truly my own was a philodendron.My First Houseplant
I got this philodendron from a friend who made a cutting for me. I wanted a houseplant of my own for my bedside table. I didn’t have any idea what to do with it beyond sticking the new roots in a pot of soil.
I didn’t know what a philodendron was, and because this was pre-internet, I didn’t research it. I simply planted it, watered it, and hoped for the best. Little did I know then that this is the perfect beginner houseplant.
That philodendron stayed with me for several moves, from home to college, to first apartments. In fact, I still have it today. It sits in my office by the window and keeps me company.Philodendron – the Plant for Newbies
This could not have been a more perfect plant for my first. If I had started with that crown of thorns or the ficus, I may never have continued gardening. You can neglect it for weeks and still not kill a philodendron.
Philodendron is a genus of tropical plants from Central and South America. There are many species in this genus, of which a plant may be vining or not vining. My philodendron is a vine. It grows long stems that drape down over the bookcase on which it sits.How to Grow a Philodendron
To grow philodendron, you need a warm climate or to grow it as a houseplant, which is what most people do. They like indirect light rather than a bright window. Mine grows next to a north-facing window with a tree outside that filters afternoon sunlight.
Although I’m guilty of having neglected to water my plant for periods of time over the years—and it has forgiven me—it does best with consistent moisture in the soil. I water it once or twice a week. It usually lets me know I’ve forgotten to water it by getting droopy and yellowing a little bit.
Our next adventure together is to create a terrarium. I took cuttings recently from my long-lived philodendron. Once they sprout roots, I’ll see how they like the moist conditions inside my terrarium. I have high hopes that it will thrive.
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