Winter is a time of reflection, study and dreaming about the garden. It is a time when we hold a garden in our hands - in the form of a good book. It is a time of wild creativity as we dream, ponder new plant selections and cultivate good ideas.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (English poet, 1809-1892) was probably correct when he observed in his painfully long “Locksley Hall” that “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love…” But we gardeners are experiencing a pseudo spring; just warm enough to drive us mad as we search for signs of returning plant life in the garden.
It is distressing for many of us that in this search for new garden life, what we find in abundance are piles of deer poop covering the yard. It isn’t enough that the blasted deer ravage the plants and shrubbery at every opportunity; no, the final, taunting insults are the piles of pellets.
Thanking Sun Tzu (Chinese general 544-496 BC) who observed ‘Know thy enemy,” and agreeing that information is the first weapon in any potentially distressing situation, I browsed bowsite.com, to consult an article by C. J. Winand, whitetail biologist from Randallstown, MD and staff writer for Bowhunter, Deer and Deer Hunting magazines. His article is entitled, ‘You don’t know crap, everything you ever wanted to know about the tail end of a deer.’
To be frank, there is much I probably don’t care to know about the digestive process of deer. Need I know the various textures and shaped droppings that indicate what the animal has been eating? Do I care deeply that deer droppings usually have a slight indent on one side and a point on the other? Must I appreciate the mechanics of the colon and sphincter of deer?
No. I wanted an explanation for the amount of deer poop …in our yard. And here it is. According to Winand, in 1940 an unfortunate researcher named Logan Bennett collected the crucial fecal facts: a healthy deer poops on average 13 times a day, and each deposit averages 75 pellets. That is roughly 975 tidy little turds dropped on our lawns DAILY by JUST ONE DEER.
I marvel that we are not buried in mountains of deer poop. But we are not. In time the tidy little parcels disappear into the soil. Why waste these, I wondered? Consulting “Poop 101 in Good Game Hunting” (author: Kyle Gardner of Casper Wyoming) revealed and cautioned that deer scat could sometimes contain chronic wasting disease prions (a prion is a protein particle that is believed to be a player in ghastly brain diseases like Creutzfeldt-Jakob and mad cow disease.) Gardner makes the suggestion that the droppings can be collected and composted for a minimum of 40 days with at least 5 days at 140 F or more.
I am inclined to under-react. Another gardening friend says she scoops the poop with a cat sand strainer and puts the pellets in a large gunny sack to soak in water to obtain what one must call turd tea. That liquid then is used to fertilize flowers and shrubs, but not vegetables.
At this point, I can only appreciate the small size of the pellets. Small is good even in piles of 75 or more.
Winter sowing. If you speak those words one could ask, “Who can plant in the snow?” or “Mending? Sewing? I need a blizzard to do that.”
The absolute delight of winter seed sowing/planting was taught to the Hill City Evergreen Garden Club last year by a Master Gardener member, Hilde Manuel. Many of us went on to “sow” perennial seeds successfully in January 2016.
On January 31 of this year I set out my containers of hollyhock seeds, Sweet Cicely, and Asclepius tuberosa in deep snow in the garden…and smiled. Gardening in January. Who would believe that?
The process is simplicity itself. It is also inexpensive, easy, and requires little to no supervision or care. You will need plastic containers. I used a couple of gallon milk jugs, a half gallon jug, a large plastic juice bottle and two small plastic, lidded berry boxes. Cut the jugs almost in half. Leave an inch or two uncut area so that it acts as a hinge for the top. Make drainage holes in the base of the jug. Fill the base almost full of good potting soil without any of the time release pellets and moisten it well. Sprinkle the perennial seeds on the surface and press them in a bit or cover lightly with more soil. Using duct tape or clear packing tape, tape the top and bottom together. Mark the jug with the seed name and the date you set it out. Remove the top cap of the jug and bury the jug in the snow as deeply as possible. (My jugs have about 2 inches of the top showing.) The open top will allow snow and rain to enter during the winter.
If, as spring approaches, the snow melts away and the bottle is exposed, simply secure it with stakes or something similar to keep it in place. And as the weather and the soil begin to warm, the seeds will germinate and the much anticipated sprouts will appear for the gardener to plant out when all is ready.
Last year my hollyhocks germinated right on time to rest in the unopened jug for a couple of weeks and then get planted out into the garden.
The advantages of this are obvious: the perennial seeds are exposed to the right amount of cold and temperature fluctuation and moisture – no special lights or heat mats required. The only cost is the seed packet if you must buy the seeds. Saved seeds, of course, cost nothing. The amount of labor invested in the process is minimal. And, it is fun.
There are some tutorials on the web. The best of these is found by Googling “winter sowing” and getting the site posted by Bachman’s in Minneapolis. It is easy to understand and well illustrated.
It seems to me that this is an experience well suited to encouraging interest in the garden for children as well as delighting some more experienced gardeners who think kneeling in the snow to plant a jug of hollyhock seeds in a snow drift in the middle of the winter is the best thing ever.
This is a garden column I never believed I would write. Its topic is the helpfulness of computers for gardeners.
Many years ago – almost twenty, I started writing the Digs column. I thought my computer might be a great help to me because of the statements, at that time, that computers were to be considered as research libraries. I am very at home with libraries and heaps of books. But I found nothing friendly and book-like as our relationship began. Quite the opposite: I found I had to address my questions carefully or…nothing happened. I also found the information quite limited, not at all what I expected from this machine holding the promise of the ancient and great library at Alexandria.
Time passed. I became more comfortable with the computer and we tried to repair our initial toxic relationship. I felt unbelievably clever after spending a morning tracking down the original source of a gardening-related statement. It was time consuming but I began to understand how the system worked. It felt almost…friendly.
Over the years I have seen the amount of gardening, horticultural, and botanical science material on websites grow and become easier to navigate. Webmasters for the sites that target the home gardening community have paid attention to the interests, aspirations, abilities and demands from those gardening folk for easily accessible, credible information.
Electronically, I prowl the science sites because it is usually there that I find my primary source material. I often pick up clues about research that is heading to the printers to appear as a popular book. For example The Hidden Life of Trees; What They Feel, How they Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World (Wollenben, Greystone books). The research for this best seller was discussed on the web before the book published.
At this time when we hear the faint Siren call of spring and seek solace in catalogs on line, we discover that many – perhaps almost all – online catalogs have excellent video tutorials, growing instructions and more. They are a feast of information.
Let’s say that we have made the commitment to garden as chemically free as possible. Good idea, but where do we start? Try this: Google the plant family that is one of your choices…say Hubbard squash. Google “Life cycle of Hubbard squash”.
Bingo! Several pages of all you wanted to know about squash appear. Read several.
The next question is, “What are the typical insect pests of squash?” Bingo! again. Read several. Be certain that you have found photographs of the common squash pests. Google the life cycles of those that you might be familiar with. Find at what stage they are the most destructive.
Now, based on all the data found and read, the gardener should be able to construct the following informative plan: what the plant needs to thrive; what various varieties of insects might appear, what they look like and at what stage of their life they are the most destructive and some thoughts on how to avoid or control the problem.
At this point it pays to check with a gardening friend or two and share the information that has been gathered. Talk about it. Have a cup of tea. Exchange garden experiences. Get knowledgeable. (Knowledge = information + experience.) Thank the Internet.
Despite the one-day-foul and one-day-fair winter weather, gardeners are dreaming/planning for the spring garden. It is an exercise of anticipation, of hope and of experience. And the practices and purposes of all gardens are different.
It is this very difference that is worrying some in the green industry and here’s why. We know that as the multigenerational families, all of whom lived in the large family house with the large kitchen garden, disappeared into the suburbs and developments, many of the elders moved their garden knowledge with them.
That leaves many young families wanting to garden, wanting to teach their children about gardening for its beauty and food. According to a number of surveys in professional magazines, younger consumers don’t know a lot about gardening and don’t like feeling ignorant.
Ignorance is a temporary condition remedied by learning: take a class, ask questions, read helpful books, ask for help.
The Pennington County Master Gardeners offer an excellent series of classes on gardening. This program, Gardening in the Black Hills, begins Feb. 28 and meets every Tuesday for six weeks at the SDSU Extension office (across from Menards), offering two classes per evening plus refreshments between classes. The classes change slightly yearly. The advantage, besides the reasonable price of $35 for all classes and the abundance of class notes and printed material, is the opportunity to meet other gardeners and make friends.
Additionally, the Master Gardeners offer a daylong gardening event, Spring Fever, the first weekend in March at the Ramkota. This day offers presentations from professionals in addition to a series of Table Talks on specific topics. A lunch is included in the price.
For more about these two events, visit blackhillsgarden.com for additional information as it becomes available.
To harvest credible information about gardening, the web can be a true friend. The websites of reputable seed companies — Territorial, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Renee’s Seeds, Pinetree Seeds, John Scheppers Kitchen Garden Seeds, Terroir, Select Seeds and more — have excellent, helpful information. Notice the abundance of "heirloom" and "organic" seed selections and germination tables and additional gardening information. You, the consumers, made that happen. The educated consumer has great influence and it pays to remember that.
The local greenhouses have helpful printed information sheets about most of the perennials and trees they sell. Take those, put them in your garden file, read them and use the information as you garden.
Our gardens are faced with often-difficult soil, unpredictable and sometimes punishing weather and some plants that simply don’t want to grow here. Don’t add personal ignorance to that. Be wary of products, websites and publications that promote “easy”, “guaranteed” or other pie in the sky promises.
Being in the garden, noticing the changes in the plants, discovering the populations of fascinating (and 99 percent beneficial) insects, admiring the butterflies, eating vegetables fresh from the garden, listening to the sounds and enjoying the fragrance. All of this is gardening.
Some define gardening as work. Most of us think of gardening as a full body exercise which includes eyes, mind, heart and soul. Bring to the garden knowledge, information and reasonable expectations and harvest success.
A good friend and fellow gardener gave me a weekly planner for Christmas with the following quotation: “Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year for gardening begins in January with the dream.”
Not only do I appreciate and agree with that, I think there is value in reviewing the "dreams" professionals in landscape architecture are creating for their customers.
The top 10 project types rated by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in early 2016 are: rainwater/graywater harvesting, native plants, native/adapted drought tolerant plants, low maintenance landscapes, permeable paving, fire pits/fireplaces, food/vegetable garden, rain gardens, drip/water efficient irrigation and reduced lawn area.
My opinion is that area gardeners are creating many of these projects and that most of them can be homemade, following dreams on a slightly lower budget. Rain barrels (aka roof water harvesters) are increasingly common. For a thorough discussion, go to blackhillsgarden and look under the soil/water tab.
We are fortunate that we live in an area of native flower abundance. It is easy to find and plant native adapted plants. For example, our native Monarda is Mondarda fistulosa and the nurseries are filled with cultivated varieties (cultivars) of the native/adapted plant.
We are increasingly creating low water use and low maintenance gardens, often by reducing the lawn size.
The one area that I feel could and should be examined is the use of permeable pavers. A driveway utilizing them would allow rainwater and snow melt to percolate directly into the soil rather than run into storm drains. There may be other areas in America where permeable pavers are common, but I surely would like to see a greater availability and use here.
On the ASLA survey the use of decks, pergolas, arbors, gazebos and lathe houses is discouragingly low. All of these structures have one important purpose: to get people out into the sunshine/shade and into the garden. Fill the decks with plants, tables and chairs and friends and family. A pergola is a lovely structure and perfect for vines. An arbor can be a simple structure or support for vines over the chair or bench the gardener has cannily put into his garden. Gazebos can be large enough for the city band or small enough for two persons (and the cat). Lathe or shade houses are commonly seen at nurseries but are an easy and inexpensive addition to add shade to a sunny garden.
We welcome 2017 with dreams of projects, catalogs and a season of great gardening.
It's time to talk about soils…because they are all different. Gardeners who start from seed look for bags of Seed Starting Mix (with NO added time-release fertilizers.) Germinating seeds do NOT need the fertilizer.
Sterile potting soils are just that: sterile. However, they might have time-release fertilizer prills added. If sterile potting soil is used, I’d suggest mixing equal parts of that with the city compost or what you make in your garden with a handful of perlite or vermiculite to lighten it. Material planted in this mix would profit from a regular (weekly) feeding of a dilute mix of your favorite fertilizer.
Bags of steer manure are often a secondary product from large feedlots and can contain a high rate of nitrogen (from animal urine) and the possibility of residues if the animals are given antibiotics. The bags rarely give a detailed list of contents.
Bags of garden topsoil can be a bit of a puzzle. We gardeners think of topsoil as lovely, black, sweetly aromatic, nutrient rich material as found in the Nile delta and the Imperial Valley of California. Here it is often only the top of native soil, ground and screened and waiting to turn to cement after the first rain.
However, the soil we need for containers can be easily mixed by the gardener if we understand the following. The purpose of soil is to hold the plant in place. The structure of the soil (think of it as formed like a kitchen sponge) allows the roots to penetrate and allows moisture and soil and air gases to move through it. The function of roots is to take up nutrients.
To make potting soil mix most of us use formulas something like this: combine equal parts of city yard waste compost, healthy productive soil from the garden (if we have it), compost from our own compost piles, Ball potting soil or something similar used by the local greenhouses plus a handful or two of perlite or vermiculite to lighten the mix. Depending on what you put in the container, you may want to use a dilute fertilizer weekly.
In-ground gardening usually begins with native soil and that can range from various kinds of shales, clays, sandstone and limestone – all of which need to be amended and treated with knowledge and care.
Remembering that the structure of the soil is most important and that the crucial beneficial soil bacteria, fungi, and micro-creatures need intact soil structure to deliver nutrients to the soil, DO NOT TILL the soil. Rather, if planting row crops, use the hoe or a grubbing knife to make the shallow ditch for the seeds, fill the ditch with damp seed starting mix, press the seeds in for good seed to soil contact and cover with more seed starting mix. For started plants, dig the planting hole and mix that soil with seed starting mix, put the plant in the ground and backfill with the soil you removed. Between every row or the started plants, mulch to a depth of 3-4” and maintain the mulch level throughout the growing season.
Keep the soil structure intact. Feed the microbes in the soil. They will eat the mulch and deliver nutrients to the plants.
Spring Fever. Three weeks! A mere three weeks and spring officially arrives. For almost 770 years English-speaking gardeners have sung the “Cuckoo Song” first in England and preserved now in English literature books. The celebration is familiar:
“Summer has arrived,
Sing loudly, cuckoo!
The seed is growing
And the meadow is blooming,
And the wood is coming into leaf now,
We have the opportunity to celebrate spring by attending Spring Fever! the annual day-long (8:00am to 4:00pm) gardening seminar sponsored by the Pennington County Master Gardeners on Saturday, March 5 at the Ramkota Hotel in Rapid City.
The focus this year is on the growing seeds sung about by birds and gardeners for so many years. Patti O’Neal, Colorado State University Extension Horticulturist will give two presentations: “Three and a half season gardening in South Dakota” and “Starting from Scratch: Building My First Vegetable Garden.”
Dr. Amanda Bachman, South Dakota State University Entomology Specialist will discuss “What’s that Bug? Diagnosing Garden Insects.”
The event also includes a lunch, door prizes, a Silent Auction and a series of short Table Talks on various topics by Master Gardeners. Registration for the day’s events is $35.00. Download a complete registration form from blackhillsgarden.com or call Joe Hillberry at 348-1322. To ensure a lunch, mail the registration form and check by February 29.
My history of starting from seed is more like a dirge than a carol of joy. I have grown fascinating mold and astonishing populations of fungus gnats. However, still inspired, I tried my hand at micro-greens, a currently popular improvement on sprouts. I (successfully!) grew mine in recycled strawberry clamshell boxes under lights in the basement. Once we have mild weather, it will be easy to keep several pans of these growing.
It could not be simpler: put 2-3” of thoroughly moistened potting soil (without the added fertilizer) in the clamshell. Sprinkle the seeds heavily on the surface of the soil and (begin caps) BARELY (end caps) cover them. Keep the container moist. I put my clamshells in a tinfoil cake pan and watered from the bottom.
The idea is to harvest by clipping the 2-3” long greens or pulling them and washing off the potting soil and enjoying them root and all. They can be used in sandwiches, as garnishes or added to salads. They are tasty and nutritious.
What do we plant? I used some radish, lettuce and kale seeds from last year. Mizuno, cress, culinary dandelion, spinach seeds and more would give interesting tastes. An Internet search at “Johnny’s Seeds – micro-greens” will provide directions, germination rates and seed mixes.
Since I have a record of failure, I experimented on the cheap side – reused clamshells and year old seed. The keys to success are to keep the soil constantly moist (not saturated), seed heavily, plant seeds with similar germination rates and provide good light.
At Spring Fever there will be three greenhouse flats of ready-to-harvest micro-greens as Silent Auction and door prize items, donated by Jolly Lane Greenhouse.
Celebrate spring! Spend the day with gardeners!
Yippee! Valentine’s Day is a mere weekend away! This is one of my favorite celebrations, professing fondness of family and friends with flowers, candy, special foods and cards.
Our family includes a potentially petulant cat and a sweetly timid Border collie that fill our hearts with happiness...and the red worms that, well, eat our garbage and provide nutrient-rich poop to fertilize the garden.
It is easy to find cards and special treats for the cat and dog. The cat is content as long as her illusion of total control of the household is intact. The dog is moderately entertained by cute Border collie cards but his heart is filled to overflowing when he hears those three little words, “Want to eat?”
In the past, I have chafed in what seems to me to be righteous despair that the garden worms of the world are uncelebrated in card and song. I have searched the greeting card racks for Valentine affirmations of love and appreciation of the worms…alas, in vain.
This year I trolled the Internet and found there a wealth of annelid adorations. It is possible to purchase cards that express “Mere worms cannot express my love for you.” The pictured worms are endearing but the thought is a bit off the mark. Worms are hermaphrodites – a single worm is both male and female. They handle the business of love quite adequately. What bothers me is that it is still difficult to find a card expressing gratitude for their prodigious and garden-essential poop.
I found an interesting array of worm jewelry – a rather cute set of earrings that picture a worm on one and an apple with a hole in it in the other. Again, alas, accuracy suffers in the name of art. Earthworms do not eat holes in fresh apples.
A limited selection of genuine antique scientific engravings of the anatomy of various worms caught my eye. The prints are beautifully done and when framed would be a perfect Valentine gift for…well, I’m not certain.
The prize of my web search however, is a DIY kit from aKNITomy for those who love both knitting and biology. It promises, “Yes! You too can knit your very own awesome dissected earthworm, just like the one you had to do in junior high!”
And, if you don’t knit, it is also possible to purchase one, ready made. What a deal!
Earthworms and composting (red worms) have a growing fan base however. Families that are part of the Gen Xers are increasingly curious and concerned about the sustainability of soil, the nutrient value of foods, clean water and general livability on the planet.. They know that one of the easiest tests of soil health is to observe the earthworm population.
During the gardening season many of the coffee shops put out bags of used coffee grounds to be taken, for free, by gardeners to feed the earthworms in their garden soil. Many more of us maintain containers of red worms to consume clean kitchen waste. The worms give us the best gift of all. They demonstrate their skill of transforming waste to resource. And that is worth loving any way you can.
Gardening begins for me right after Thanksgiving when I open the first of my pile of books. I love the natural sciences - botany, soils, insects, horticulture, and ecology. I especially enjoy books that chronicle how ideas develop, books that excite my curiosity. (I was delighted to discover that the Latin root of curious/curiosity is ‘cura’ meaning care, attention or anxiety.)
Thus it is easy to say that one’s curiosity describes a degree of caring or directing attention. So from Thanksgiving to sometime in late March I am driven by curiosity and informed anxiety for the coming gardening year.
I especially enjoy reconnecting with the works of previous curious gardeners – Luther Burbank (1849-1926), himself inspired by his reading of Darwin, doodled around with potatoes and came up with the popular Russet. We remember Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) whose fascination for common garden peas founded the modern science of genetics.
The author, Andrea Wulf, is appreciated by many for her previous books, Founding Gardeners and Gardening Brothers. Her new book, The Invention of Nature, Alexander Von Humboldt, provides the reader with a sublime historical (reading) trip through major portions of South America and wide swaths of Russia. I learned not only of the contributions to the natural sciences from the observations and studies of Von Humboldt but also of those of scientists unknown to me. Foremost of these was George Perkins Marsh, an American polymath, naturalist (among other skills) who, following Von Humboldt, made critical and some would say the first ecological insights relative to humankind’s impacts on the earth. His best-known work is Man and Nature Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. It was hot off the press in 1864, was the first to comment that civilizations (and resources) decline by the pernicious activities of man. This remarkable work is available at no cost to those of us who have Kindle e-readers.
So as the soil begins to warm, my curiosity about all things gardening is at a fever pitch.
The best way to assuage that is to be present at two prime gardening events in Rapid City this spring.
The Pennington County Master Gardeners host and teach the six-week “Gardening in the Black Hills” series of different presentations given each Tuesday evening from March 1 to April 5th. There are two different presentations each evening, lots of handouts and ample opportunity to meet fellow gardeners over refreshments, which are available between presentations. Topics range from talks on soil, herbs, container gardening, vegetables, seed starting, composting, pollinators and garden art and more.
The classes, held in the SDSU Extension-Rapid City Regional Center at 711 N. Creek Drive, begin at 6:30 and usually wrap up by 9:00. Cost for the entire series is $35.00 Registration is required. Call 394-1722.
Taking place on Saturday, March 5 is the daylong Spring Fever event in the Rushmore Room at the Ramkota in Rapid City. Doors open at 8:00 and all the programs will finish by 4:00.
Featured presenters are Patti O’Neal, Colorado State University Extension Agent for Horticulture speaking about creating vegetable gardens and expanding the season. Amanda Bachman, SDSU Pesticide Education and Urban Entomologist will give a talk about identifying common home and garden insects. In the afternoon there will be four “table talks” addressing pruning trees and shrubs, making container “fairy gardens”, landscaping using native plants and gardening in raised beds. The Cost is $35.00 and includes a lunch.
There is more information and registration information about both events on www.blackhillsgarden.com. Also call the Extension office at 394-1722.
Become a student of the soil. At last! Soil microbes are being valued for their part in facilitating the exchange of nutrients in the soil.
A Jan. 8 article on page C2 in the Journal was primarily about companion planting. Suggesting that might reduce insect predation, a paragraph closed with: “All we need to do is familiarize ourselves with the inner workings of each plant’s defense mechanism and strategically use it to our advantage.”
“All we need to do … .” All? Really?
We should be familiar with tenets of soil physics — the dynamics of physical soil components — solid, liquids and gases. We might understand a bit of soil chemistry — the study of the chemical characteristics of soil affected by mineral composition, organic matter and environmental factors. But the study of soil ecology is recent.
Many gardeners are aware of the work of Elaine Ingham at Portland State University on the soil food web. Her work illustrated the dynamics of the soil biome — moving nutrients through the soil — and the chemical communication between plant parts and the multitude of bacteria, fungi and other residents of the soil.
People have been curious about plant growth for centuries. In 1634 Jan Baptist van Helmont, a Flemish scientist, concluded after five years of study that trees grow by taking on water. In 1804 Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure, a Swiss chemist curious about plant physiology, made the water, carbon dioxide, sunlight connection and developed the first understandings of photosynthesis.
By 1840 German botanist Carl Sprengel was beginning to understand that plants needed water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and (rock-derived) phosphorus and potassium to grow. His work was expanded by Justus von Liebig, who became known for the “law of the minimum” — basically adding whatever the soil most lacks. A bit earlier, German explorer Alexander von Humboldt had brought seabird guano back from his travels. The chemical treatment of soils took precedence over the use of organic materials – humus.
While the tools of modern science have enabled a fuller understanding of soil dynamics, curiosity and observation about soil fertility were delivering other insights.
In the early 20th century, Sir Albert Howard, famous for his "law of returns," advocated composting on a grand scale and returning that partially biodegraded material to the soil. Lady Eve Balfour recognized that healthy soil equals healthy food connection.
Then, for a number of years, a battle of both wills and products ensued between agrichemicals and avid, back to basics composters. Slowly the realization grew: Fungi and bacteria were a vital part of the living soil. We need to know how to culture soil microbes.
Contemporary soil ecologists are just now beginning to understand the chemical conversations that ensue between roots and soil, the commands that are issued from the leaves of a plant to the roots, and from the roots to microbes … and back.
I know that we will be reading more about this because we already use Rhizobium leguminosarum — a nitrogen-fixing bacteria — when we plant legumes, the fungus mycorrhizae when we plant shrubs and trees, and Bacillus thuringiensis, the bacterium that is toxic to many species of insects.
Agribusinesses Novozymes and Monsanto (BioAg Alliance) are already field testing microbe soil inoculants to make specific crops grow better. Plants grown from over 2,000 different microbial seed coatings were grown in about 500,000 test plots from Louisiana to Minnesota (11 were in eastern South Dakota).
Soil ecology will be in the news for home gardeners in 2016. The challenge is to be a knowledgeable part of the soil-plant-gardener team.
I look forward to another year of garden writing. This is also a time of reflection, reviewing the past and anticipating the future.
There have been events in my life that have taught me the importance of a personally constructed elegant exit. I remember standing at the top of a narrow, steep trail in Nepal watching a trekking party climbing toward us. I caroled cheerful greetings to the porters who were talking and laughing. One of the trekkers, a European woman, sweaty and streaked with trail dust snarled at my cheerful greeting as she passed.
I thought, “Wow, that’s a bad memory,” and always made it a point to stop just a bit before the top to tidy myself a bit and smile. That experience, - construct the exit - has grown not only in practice but also in importance in my life.
Later as we prepared to leave Indonesia, the de rigueur “goodbye” parties were becoming grim as the price of oil fell and jobs were being cut. We had loved it there and, in the spirit of the elegant exit, gave our own goodbye party to include virtually everyone we had come to know and love – company officials, local office staff, street food vendors and our Indonesian neighbors. It is a great memory.
Crafting elegant exits becomes more of a challenge as we age. We find ourselves saying goodbye to sustaining locations and activities as well as people we love. Thus it is with LeRoy and me. He is 80 and I am within striking distance of that. We will put our home and property on the market in early spring and look for something smaller in town that will accommodate our changing needs. My need for garden space (and in the best of all worlds – chickens) is important as is LeRoy’s need to have a garage/shop for his interests and abilities.
More important is the imperative that neither of us dwell over-long and clingingly on the past. Neither of us is good at being dramatically wistful, nor do we lament. Someplace and sometime in our lives we both, thankfully, have learned to live pretty much in the moment and that serves us well.
Have our collected years in the gardens taught us anything about life …beyond a fascination with soil bacteria, worms and compost? Yes, because if ever there were a setting with “live in the moment” opportunities, a garden has to be that. For example, a gumbo lily’s flower will open white in the early evening then turn to pink and be done in less than 24 hours. We bury our noses in the fleeting evening fragrance of the tuberose. We watch short-lived forest fungi appear then disappear in the wood-chipped paths.
I think the two-headed Roman god Janus has it right as the guardian of entrances, exits and transitions. As gardeners do we not look back seasonally to concepts learned and experiences valued? Of course. And, although we joke about frenzy-by-catalog, do we not look forward with a gardener’s zeal to new settings, new experiences and new understandings? Of course.
Truthfully, I have no precise definition of the possible transitions for us in 2016. I intend to be grateful to our garden for the life lessons learned and excited and curious and eager to possibly be the student of a new garden…and write all about it in Digs!
For many of us the holiday season is a time of miracles. Stories, poem, hymns attest that. Even planet Earth gets in the act, producing the winter solstice on December 21 at 9:45 p.m., the shortest day, the turning of the year.
If we accept Webster’s definition that a miracle can be an extraordinary event, or an amazing product or achievement, then summer in the garden brings many examples - from photosynthesis to a waking bulb.
When I see the magnificently beautiful branching of winter’s leafless trees, especially our Plains cottonwoods, I accept Webster’s first definition of a miracle –“…an event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.”
The branching of trees follows the mathematical law of fractals. They have a property known as self-similarity – which means that a little piece of the object has the same general shape as a bigger part – thus, a branching twig resembles the whole.
Trees, broccoli, ferns, river deltas, frost patterns, snowflakes and others of Nature’s creations are demonstrations of the wonder and beauty of fractals. Our world is filled with examples, as are our bodies. Our lungs, brains and circulatory system follow the rules of fractals.
They have a fascinating history. While mathematicians puzzled about and worked with fractal geometry in the 19th century, it was Benoit Mandelbrot (1924 - 2010), assisted by the power of computers that were able to graph the iterations of a function, who is best known. He coined the word “fractal” and the phrase “self-similarity, ” As gardeners, it is these functions that we recognize in Nature.
Although my math skills are limited to remembering where I sat in class, I can readily understand the beauty of math in the mature Plains cottonwood trees that line Rapid Creek, grace Canyon Lake Park and many of the older neighborhoods. They are a study in the beauty of fractals.
My favorite cottonwood tree is a majestic giant at the north end of the little strip mall at 2050 West Main, across the street from Culver’s . It is 50 feet or more high and probably that wide. It is beautifully balanced, intact and untrimmed. Plains cottonwoods can live 100 years or more and maintain their shape.
In our recent history settlers regarded the Plains cottonwood primarily as a source of firewood, shelter and building materials. But several centuries earlier the Italian polymath, Leonardo Da Vinci recognized the mathematical beauty of tree structure. He noted that if a tree’s trunk splits off into three main branches, each of the new branches would be one third of the trunk and each new branch will be a particular fraction of the size of the trunk. Some scientists continue to ponder different natural possibilities to explain the structure of trees, but it seems obvious to me that this self-similarity pattern of growth easily combines physics, math, and biology.
American poet Joyce Kilmer’s saccharine poem, “Trees” expresses in syrupy tones his sense of wonder. I prefer to see trees formed and driven by the law of fractals, abstruse, perhaps miraculous.
Archeologists and soils. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils and I could not be happier. The website (International Year of Soils) is filled with information and graphics both dire and hopeful. Explore some of the links on the FAO website.
Likewise use the site at TheUSDANRCS.com to view short but excellent videos on soil health. If we gardeners can concentrate on growing soil (by consistently adding organic material – dried grass, animal manures, clean fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, etc.) and we keep the soil covered year round with mulch and we disturb the soil by tilling as little as possible, the soil will thrive, our plants will thrive and, as many farmers like to say, “The soil will be in good heart.”
Soil health is not a recent concern, however. Archeologists have found garden records and structural remnants dating back to the time of the pharaohs. Cultures knew that soil had to be fed and they, almost literally, threw everything but the kitchen sink into the gardens. Excavations have revealed potshards, bones, shells and human and animal manures. There is a record of a lease of land in ancient Greece that required the lessee to buy 150 baskets of manure (presumably from the owner) each year for the orchards.
The ancients got part of soil care right but, in Italy and Greece, the farmers felt the soil should be plowed six to eight times a year. The result? Massive erosion and nutritive failure of the soil. It will be remembered that Rome outgrew the sustainability of their soil and had to import wheat from North Africa.
Since the Master Gardeners recent event, Spring Fever, is just behind us and the Master Gardener gardening classes, Gardening in the Black Hills is just underway, thinking about gardens and planning for them is on many minds.
My contribution to the garden series was a presentation I called Honor the Soil and stressed the point that soil is a diverse and complex living community that is fully capable of functioning at the highest productive level if we remember that our one mandate is to feed the soil by utilizing both compost and mulch.
We often get mired in feelings of our own superiority or we dumb ourselves and give control of our little patch of earth to brightly colored containers of product that promise to deliver success, beauty, flawless fruits and flowers…and often fail leaving the gardener discouraged and disillusioned.
Know that a bagged “planting mix” is not soil. It is a sterile mix of usually unnamed material, which provides an anchor for the plant roots. Nutrients need to be delivered by the gardener following a regular fertilizing schedule. There is much to learn about contemporary bagged mixes and how, what and when to fertilize.
In our gardens, however, we can be smarter than the ancients. Remember two things: Feed the soil. Cover it with mulch.
Surprises in winter garden. Recently, on a day when I could restrain myself no longer, I wandered out into the garden to see what was up. Expecting nothing, I was delighted to see a handful of the tiny (about three inches) Galanthus nivalis, common snowdrops, blooming happily in the pine needles and snow.
“What ho!” I said, “What are you guys up to?” I should know better than to talk to flowers. This conversation began with a bit of history then a swift trip through plant biology, pausing to ponder the importance to many plants of utilizing various plant acids and discovering the interesting wintering habits of ants and their relationship with the snowdrops.
In 1735 Carl Linnaeus, the inventor more or less of taxonomy and the binomial system named it Galanthus nivalis, meaning (in Greek) “milk flower of the snow”. Sweet. A century before that, villagers had other names for it, including February’s Fairmaids, snow piercers, and dingle-dangle. Personally, I would be a little reluctant to invite someone in the garden to see the dingle-dangles.
Knowing there are crocus and daffodils in the same area, I wondered why the snowdrops were up and flowering. Many bulbs and perennials have a complicated and fascinating control and use of plant acids to prevent or promote germination or to begin or break dormancy.
Abscisic acid is a plant hormone that is most familiar to us when it causes leaves to abscise and fall from the stems of branches. It also is a promoter of dormancy and inhibits seed germination. Scientists think that the chilling (various plants have differing “cold-hour” needs) actually promotes the accumulation of a growth hormone, gibberellic acid) in the bulb or seed. In addition to the action of these plant chemicals, plants also respond to the length of the night (we think day length) to regulate growing.
It should be obvious that plants have developed these skills to have the right energy at the right time to complete germination, to produce vegetation, and most important to produce flowers to attract specific pollinators to fertilize the plant so it can set seed and survive.
However, I’m still standing in the garden with snow over my toes wondering what the plan is for the little snowdrops. Where are the pollinators for these little jewels? Do they really plan to stay patiently in flower until…?
The answer is the relationship these little bulbs and their sexually frustrated flowers have with ants. Some ants actually put on weight to help them overwinter in addition to becoming sluggish and still. Most nest in a communal wad deep in the soil. However when or as the soil warms, they become active and hungry and venture out for food.
Although Galanthus nivalis will cross-pollinate, they can also self-pollinate. When that occurs they set seed. Each seed has an elaiosome, a small structure rich in lipids and proteins attached to it. These are a desirable food reward for the ants as they carry the seeds into their tunnels, helping to plant more.
“There you have it,” I thought still standing in the snow. History, plant biology, a bit of chemistry, plant-insect relationships…and it isn’t even spring.
Unexpected joys of winter. I love this time of year because the mail brings us more plant catalogs than bills. To avoid torture by plant catalogs, I ponder miscellaneous loose ends of garden thoughts.
Cries of anguish fill the air as gardeners find tunneled pathways in yards and gardens and lilies, iris, and carrots savaged by the rodent we all love to hate – the vole. Our cat, ever the patient hunter, has been celebrating The Year of the Vole and presents us with from one to four of the rodents almost daily. Warm days find me dropping poison pellets (available at most garden centers) deep into the tunnels. There will be necessary spring repair of the beds and replacement of lost plants.
A friend called to remark on a large amount of bees at the bird feeder. We also had a bee or two join us for lunch on the deck. I floated my thirsty bee hypothesis to a group of friends. I was told that the urge they were responding to was peristalsis not thirst. Some of the bees were experiencing a “cleansing flight.” Because bees try very hard not to defecate in their hive, these were performing that function on a sunny day “on the wing.”
This year I noted the increase in pots, baskets and even seed starting cells made of recyclable, sustainable coir, shredded coconut fiber. This is part of a world-wide effort to solve the unsustainable and expensive use of traditional plastic pots.
Almost all of us are interested in strategies or structures that will help us extend the growing season. There are many options available: seed starting under lights, cold frames, various types of tunnels, and small hobby greenhouses. The first three are familiar, relatively inexpensive and successful strategies.
One also sees “assemble it yourself” hobby greenhouses. I offer a word of caution from personal experience. I acquired a 4 x 8 foot hobby greenhouse and learned three things: the instructions were unintelligible, it would withstand neither wind nor snow load and making it durable added to its total cost. LeRoy reengineered its design, set it on a cement foundation, provided more bracing and secured the various panels so they would stay in place. My point? If you have never worked with a cold frame and have a level site with good sun, build a cold frame first (much less expensive and a good introduction to alternative gardening.) Then later, with a happy combination of time, site, money and greenhouse research, build a greenhouse that meets your needs and is a perfect fit for your site. Proper greenhouse panel material is available locally.
Beginning on March 3 and running for six weeks are the Gardening in the Black Hills classes taught by the Master Gardeners. There are two different presentations each Tuesday evening. More information about this as well as the day-long garden event, Spring Fever on March 7 is available on blackhillsgarden.com.
Roman wisdom about gardens. I was delighted to stumble across the following quotation from Cicero (106-7 BC), Roman statesman, philosopher and thinker, “'If you have a garden and a library,' wrote Cicero to his new friend (Gaius Terentius Varro), 'we will want for nothing.'
“Aha! A kindred spirit,” I thought, eyeing my wall of books on all things gardening. In all reality, comparisons to long dead Roman politicians were fantasy but even the happy conjunction of “library” and “garden” encouraged me to think of books that have made a major impact on how I see the practice of gardening and what I feel are philosophical – (“relating or devoted to the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality or existence”…according to the dictionary) benefits of gardening.
I owe Ruth Stout (1884-1980) greatly for vigorously and sometimes defensively advocating her ‘mulch gardening’ practice. In addition to her books reassuring me that ‘ultra-tidy’ was not a synonym for ‘healthy’ I began to realize that well-fed, mulched (as opposed to well-fertilized) gardens produce bountiful harvests of disease-free nutritious produce and support vast beneficial insect populations.
Pursuing that good thought, I found the life-changing (for me) books of Sir Albert Howard that not only praised the benefits of compost but also caused me to change what I see as waste. (Hint: clean, fresh kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps are NOT.
Comments made by Eric Grissell in his book, Insects and Gardens, struck not only notes but full chords of understanding. For example: “The simplest, most obvious way to accomplish this (ecological garden structure) is to grow plants that differ and to grow lots of them!” and “ A diversity of plants growing in the garden…allows a maximum chance of survival for insects that help maintain balance.” And this, “Why not accept the garden’s soil, or at least patches of it, for what it is...we should use the plants that best fit the needs of the soil.”
Thus, and with no apology, I advocate year-round mulch in the gardens, great chaotic plant diversity in our borders and flowerbeds and yes, also in the vegetable plots. I consider earthworms and insects as gardening partners and I rejoice in each new understanding I gain about our incredible, crucial, dynamic, life-giving soil.
I learned a long time ago that I have very little control of the garden and I am coming to believe that time well spent is watching the cycle of insects as they appear and disappear in the garden. What plants are insect targets, which are not? What conditions might encourage slime fungi? When should I see the green ‘noses’ of snowdrops and crocus popping through the mulch? Which insects are drawn to the early blooming golden perennial alyssum? Which come late in the season to the late blooming goldenrod? What can I learn about sites from the wandering self-seeders?
We have no way of knowing, exactly, what Cicero and Varro were discussing. But I know that thanks to my library and my garden, I am served heaps of wonder, reverence, curiosity, delight, questions, understanding, good hard work, accomplishment and failure. Armed with the library and the garden my head, hands and heart are full and Cicero was right – a gardener lacks for nothing.
Seed catalogs. Ask a gardener, “What do you look forward to in the winter?” and the answer probably is “The arrival of the seed catalogs!” While I do my share of superficial skimming through the stash of seed catalogs that are bathroom literature in our house, I reflect that I ended the year wanting very much to activate a year-end Digs thought: think globally and act locally.
I didn’t have to look far to find like-minded activists and passionate seed growers. An article in the December issue of Mother Earth News, “Sourcing Truly High-Quality Garden Seeds” by Margaret Roach (check her website at AWAYTOGARDEN.com) makes several important and easily summarized points. Seeds are alive, albeit in paper envelopes, and where they were grown and how they were fed (organic seed or fertilizer-infused) will affect their growth and ability to produce. Gardeners have every right to expect this information on seed packets.
Many persons do not know the tiers of authority/control/management that goes into both commercial and retail seed production, sale and resale. Most of the seed catalogs are selling seed purchased from middlemen who purchase from growers from we-don’t-always-know-where. Use your web browser to find the excellent graphics by Philip H. Howard an associate professor at Michigan State University, which illustrate how Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta and DuPont, among others are acquiring small seed companies.
Happily, there are independent seed companies that are out front in their passionate commitment soil and seed stewardship, and education. Here are some examples:
Sow True Seed, established in 2008 in Ashville, North Carolina fills the first several pages of their catalog with a homily-like discussion of their five founding principles: Sow, Germinate, Grow, Pollinate and Save. Their mission statement is clear: “Sow True Seed was created to preserve our shared botanical heritage and grow a new era of sustainable culture and ecological wisdom. We support independent, regional agricultural initiatives that foster a vibrant, sustainable economy, and true food sovereignty.”
Terroir Seeds in Chino Valley, Arizona speaks their commitment clearly: “We believe in a world of healthy soil, seed, food and people. Everyone has a fundamental need for vibrant food and health, which are interrelated. We work to achieve this by challenging conventional gardening practices, providing successful agricultural methods along with the finest heirloom seeds, all while inspiring the power of individual choice and action. We work for a world where the food we grow is good for us, our health and our communities!
An additional benefit of knowing these independent, small seedsmen is that they have excellent free, educational e-newsletters. For further education about the challenges of seed growers, enter “independent seed companies” in your web browser.
Remember that Seed Savers in Decorah, Iowa is a resource that deserves gardener support. And if you haven’t read them, here are the two best books on the subject: Where Our Food Comes From, Gary Paul Nabhan and The Murder of Nicolai Vavilov, Pringle. Vavilov was a Russian botanist who discovered the centers of origin of cultivated plants. These are easy reads and, in my view, everyone who places a seed in the ground should know the work of these two men.
Christmas day is now behind us but it may be reassuring to remember that the famed 12 Days of Christmas continue through Epiphany, usually ending on January 6th. This is reassuring if there are still cards to write and perhaps a box or two to mail. Ah well, the long dark night of the winter solstice, December 21, is also behind us and we eagerly arrange thoughts for the New Year.
I’m thinking of a fragment of the jingle, “Something old…something new…”
Something new is that 2015 has been proclaimed by USDA and partners in the field as International Year of Soils. I’m all for it.
Something old is a careful reread of Soil and Civilization a comprehensive history of the treatment of soil by numerous civilizations published in 1952 by British author Edward Hyams. New to me is Hyams’ categorizing man as a parasite on the soil – striking an iffy balance between the health of the soil and the crops produced; categorizing man as a disease organism of the soil – vigorous and now regarded as stupid misuse and destruction of the Oklahoma soils leading to the Dust Bowl; and, happily, man as a soil maker – cultures that understood the need for manuring the soil, rotating crops and allowing some fields to fallow.
What concerns me is the reluctance of the human animal to learn from history. We have good and often complete records of what should and should not be done. What is it that we forget or deny or ignore? Do we not understand that the soil supports life in a reciprocal manner: we care for the soil, feed it and keep it in good heart and it feeds and supports us.
So what if Hyam’s soil history tour de force is over 60 years old? His discussion and points are current and relevant. The footnotes are superb. The book is in print. It can also be downloaded free.
Something new is the release in America this spring of ‘Ketchup “N” French Fries’ – a tomato plant grafted onto the root of a potato. Quirky? A fad? No, there is serious science and good marketing invested in this. The cherry tomato is grafted to the white potato rootstock. This is possible because both are members of the Family Solanaceae, and Genus Solanum . The tomato species is S. lycopersicum and the potato is S. tuberosum. No DNA is exchanged in the grafting and neither plant is genetically modified. There is no potato foliage.
Over a decade of various techniques and trials led to tasty fruits and enough data on the plant to put it to market. In 2013 it was offered in New Zealand as Potato Tom and in England as Tom Tom. It can be found this summer in America as Ketchup ‘N’ French Fries. The grafted plants are available through Johnny’s Seeds, Territorial Seeds and Garden Life among others. They are expensive compared to other grafted plants, running about $20.00 per plant. For persons with limited garden space this has appeal. For me its curiosity. I ordered two.
Voles in the Garden. “Well, that certainly adds insult to injury,” I thought as I read the opening sentence of an article entitled, “Voles in Love” in the February Smithsonian magazine. The offending sentence stated, “Burrowing balls of fluff, recently plucked from the American prairie, hold the secrets to our deepest bonds and affections.” Really?
I have a lengthy relationship with voles and I can state with some emphasis that I have no deep and affectionate bonds toward them. A recent ankle-turning assessment of the waking garden exposed several telltale mounds of soil and other soil irregularities that barely disguise the presence of vole tunnels and voles. The wretched rodents are wintering in the lily beds and enjoying the equivalent of breakfast in bed as they gnaw some of the bulbs.
I am not alone in lacking deep bonds and affection for voles. Years ago I had some sort of scan at the hospital done in a darkened and cold room on a table that slides through a large, humming machine. When the machine quieted, the sliding table stopped and the lights came on, the technician peered at me and announced, “You are Cathie Draine. I have voles!” He then recounted one of the funniest stories I have ever heard about trying to clear the vole tunnels in his yard with a smoke bomb. I am not certain if 911 got calls about smoke rising from a front lawn, but they surely could have.
My approach to vole control is two-pronged and has nothing to do with affection. As soon as the soil warms a bit and before I start seeing obvious damage to the bulbs, I place poison as deeply as I can into all the tunnel openings and follow that with my best efforts at tunnel destruction. Unsure of my efforts, I then enlist the cat, the patient hunter, in my war on voles.
Acknowledging the clearly non-loving feelings I have, I puzzle at the possibility that modern neuroscience feels that the daddy vole’s loving parenting and monogamous caring of his mate might be a clue to human affection. The answer apparently is early-life oxytocin release, stimulated by the licking and grooming of the baby voles by their parents. How sweet.
It’s not that I deny the power of oxytocin…but a rodent as a model for passionate bonding?
Even if the study of the love lives of voles helps neuroscientists learn more about animal bonding, even if we can appreciate good (vole) parenting, even if the behavior of voles inspires books like Make Love Like a Prairie Vole: Six Steps to Passionate, Plentiful and Monogamous Sex, even if the amorous rodent engineers can construct tunnels up to eighty feet long, I don’t want them in the garden.
Even though their very name spells... love.
Lay out the smorgasbord for the insects
Plan now for garden pollinators. As we page through the plant catalogs that are arriving, it is important to remember the profound words of (probably) Aristotle, when he (probably) said, “Moderation in all things.”
I mention this on behalf of our bees and butterflies and a myriad of native pollinators. Be certain to include plants that are vital for them as well as pleasing to us. How’s that for moderation?!
The insects want to remind us that gardens, while they feed human sensibilities with glorious color and scent and form, are truly bread and butter for them. Plants’ nectar provides carbohydrates and the pollen provides protein for these vital pollinators.
Also remember that one third or more of our food supply is pollinated by insects, which also pollinate the alfalfa and clover crops that feed our livestock.
If we accept that moderation means balance and something for all, we need to gather information about what’s for dinner for the insects.
In spring, our native pollinators are looking for columbine and spiderwort, penstemon (especially the shell-leaf) and blanket flower or gaillardia. Choose the following mid-season plants: bergamot (bee balm), liatris, any of the glorious milkweeds and the annual sunflower. And for late-season insect food sources, provide plantings of various goldenrods (no, they do not cause hay fever), fall asters and our native Maximilian sunflower, one of the plants "discovered" by Lewis and Clark.
All of these natives and cultivated varieties are lovely, hardy perennial plants for this area. If you have space for a shrub rose or two consider the Harison’s yellow, which attracts an absolute buzzing net of insects. Another good attractor is one of my favorites, the red leaf rose, rosa rubrifolia. It blooms a bit after the Harison’s and it produces stunning, almost cherry-sized red-orange hips that stay on the canes all winter.
Insects, we know, are drawn to flowers by "flower guides," colors and patterns in the flower that only they see. As you plan your garden remember that bees are drawn to simple, open, bowl-shaped flowers (apple blossoms, sunflowers, wild rose and some with complicated petals such as alfalfa and vetch.
Butterflies seek large flowers, preferably pink or lavender, and those with deep tubes that hold the nectar, such as liatris, purple coneflower and milkweed.
If your garden is small or you only garden on the deck, consider a large container (whiskey barrel) planted with agastache. It is a magnet for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Plant up a pot or several of parsley as food for butterfly larvae. If there are larvae, they will eat vigorously and the parsley plant will recover with enough for you as well.
While I have no specific caution about "sprinkle gardens" — those canisters of mixed seed and filler material for "butterfly gardens" — perhaps it is a better use of time and money to plant specific plants for the pollinators.
Remember that when you set the table for pollinators, the first course is for the larvae, then come the plants that supply carbohydrates and the pollen.
If there is a feeling to beat the pleasure of sitting in a garden that welcomes butterflies and bees, I’m not certain I know it.
Bugs Rule! Winter reading at its best. There are trade-offs for the gardener when winter deprives us of time in the garden. I am referring, of course, to reading. To be specific, I am referring to Whitney Cranshaw and Richard Redak’s new book, “Bugs Rule!” Cranshaw is a horticultural entomologist at Colorado State University and Redak is a Professor of Entomology at the University of California Riverside. Gardeners know Cranshaw and his first book, Garden Insects of North America, which should be in every gardener’s library.
Several tears ago I determined to change my juvenile (Oh, ick!) attitude about insects and their place in the garden to one that was more informed and appreciative. I get no credit for high-minded altruism, however; I was simply overwhelmed by numbers.
Scientists speculate there are 30 million species of insects and 200 million individual insects for each human. Additionally it is postulated that there are 300 pounds of insects for each human pound. An article in The New York Times claimed that the world holds 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans. Comparing insect biomass to human biomass, we are outnumbered and outweighed.
The authors want the book to appeal to general readers (think: gardeners) and explore both the science and the fascination of insects. All my criteria for being fascinated were met in the discussion of the household insects everyone loves to hate – cluster flies. They are the irritating, bumbling, seriously stupid flies that invade our homes in the fall, hang out in sunny windows and kamikaze awkwardly into our teacups. I thought they had no redeeming value
Wrong! The creatures, Pollenia spp., do not reproduce in the home (they simply like the warmth in winter,) nor are they considered filth flies. In the summer they drink nectar from flowers and hence (Tah Dah!) are pollinators. They lay their eggs in the soil in the early fall and the larvae seek out a common specie of earthworm which they parasitize over the winter and emerge in the spring.
Who cannot love a book that gives a recipe for Thai fried water bugs (serve with cold beer), explains the aerodynamics that allow a cockroach to run in a bipedal (two hind legs) fashion, explores the chemistry that allows certain insects to manufacture their own internal antifreeze, and describes the fascinating human follicle mite, a minute creature that lives in the eyebrow follicles of 95% of the human older adult population. Lest one be inclined to write the eyebrow mite off as a minor irritant, consider this: according to the authors, the mites eat so efficiently that they produce no waste and lack an excretory opening.
The genius of this book, in my view, is the easy segue from fascinating insect anecdote to serious scientific discussions. The text (480 pages) is supported by an abundance of fine color photographs, drawings, excellent appendices and a helpful glossary.
“Bugs Rule!” is a book like none other. It is solidly scientific, historically informative and often funny.
A primer on pruning tomatoes. I learned two very important things last summer when the Master Gardeners had a space at the Saturday Farmers Market. Very few of the home gardeners knew the variety name of their tomato plants or if they were determinate or indeterminate types. This matters.
(Pause for a crucial vocabulary lesson: determinate tomato plants tend to be short(er) and bushy. Almost all the fruits ripen together and then the plant dies. This is a type that generally requires very little to no pruning.
An indeterminate tomato tends to be tall with continuously ripening fruit. It will grow until frost (or removed by the gardener.)
It is important to know a plant’s attributes because more and more gardeners are curious about and wanting to try to prune their tomatoes whether grafted or non-grafted
Pruning indeterminate tomatoes can increase the fruit by removing suckers and pruning the plant to two leaders. This process removes vegetative (leaves) growth and refocuses the plant’s energy into generative (fruits) growth.
The thought of tomato pruning can be a little daunting and cause sweaty palms and a queasy tummy. However, have faith. It is as obvious as the hand before your face.
Hold your right hand with fingers spread, back of your hand facing you. Curl the last two fingers into your palm. Visualize your thumb and first two fingers as the first 6-8 inches of a 12-18 inch tall plant. Your index finger represents the main stalk (leader). The second leader (second finger) is branching off just below the first flower cluster on the primary leader. Take out (pinch or cut) all vegetation below the flower cluster. (In your visualization your thumb represents the leaf stems below the flower cluster that need to be removed.) You now have two leaders.
Pinch out the suckers in the leaf axil (the site where new branches are formed) when the suckers are about 2-3 inches long. This process, which you will continue every week or ten days throughout the growing season, will force the plant into greater fruit production.
The plant will be heavy with fruit and need early, careful and consistent support. Additionally the removal of some of the shading leaves can create opportunities for sunscald on the ripening fruit. Either leave more leaf stems on the plant for shade or invest in some shade cloth (available at our home-owned greenhouses) for those plants.
We also deal with wind and hail. If the plan is to force the plant to heavy production by pruning, then think of some sort of protection against the stormy days of summer.
Additionally, if you are growing indeterminate varieties, you can remove the growing tips of the tomato about 30 days before our average frost. This rerouting of plant energy will force allow the existing fruit to finish ripening.
Save the plant tags and label your plants. Those tags are a good reference throughout the summer. You can learn more about the varieties on the Internet and from the greenhousemen.
It is beneficial to prune the tomatoes but be prepared against heat, hail and wind.
Grafted tomatoes are high-yield and disease-free
Most gardeners are familiar with grafted fruit and ornamental trees, grapes, roses and tree peonies. Early last spring many of us encountered grafted tomatoes at the greenhouses for the first time. They were 10-12 inches tall, had well developed stems and branches, buds and developing fruit.
Late May was warm and many, including me, set out plants early. And then the hail came. My young seedlings became pesto in a pot but the grafted tomatoes, while they looked affronted, kept producing buds and fruit with little setback.
I grew six varieties of grafted tomatoes. They were vigorous, almost six feet all and could barely be contained in the Texas Tomato Cages. The yield was far greater than I had ever experienced and they were disease-free.
Surely I was impressed…and curious. A conversation with John Bagnasco, the owner of Garden Life (in California) a radio show that sells plants online, who has partnered with Alice Doyle of Log House Plants and Tim Wade of Plug Connection, provided good history of vegetable grafting in the United States and helpful information about SuperNaturals Grafted Vegetables, LLC, North America’s largest producer of grafted vegetables for home gardens, marketed as Mighty ‘Mato, Mighty Veggies Grafted Peppers and Eggplants.
Grafting of the desired scion to a hardy, disease resistant rootstock was practiced by farmers in Japan and Korea in the early 20th century as a strategy to create certain soil disease resistance as well as tolerance to abiotic conditions (heat, drought, and soil salinity).
Tomato grafting in the United States began in earnest in the 1960s as a strategy to avoid soil-borne diseases like bacterial wilt. Grafting has also emerged as an eco-friendly response to the use of methyl bromide, a gas used to fumigate soil pests that adds to the depletion of the ozone level.
Bagnasco stated, “There were a billion vegetables grafted in 2011 but hardly any in the U.S.” That was because the U.S. had not signed the climate-change treaties, and other countries that were signatories to the treaties were pushing farmers and commercial growers to use grafted plants because they could then avoid sterilizing the soil with methyl bromide.
SuperNaturals, the company developed by Bagnasco, Doyle and Wade has seen sales of grafted vegetables rise from 40,000 to 250,000 to over a million in 2013.
I certainly think grafted vegetables have a place in home gardens. While they are much more expensive than seeds or even seedlings, the vigor, yield and opportunity for desirable heirloom variety scions on super-strong rootstock is appealing.
I think grafted vegetables are a good choice for small gardens where plant rotation is not an option but a good harvest from a single plant could equal poor or indifferent harvests from several non-grafted plants.
There are new gardening strategies to understand when working with grafted plants. Neither the graft nor branches of the plant should come into contact with the soil. Pruning strategies for generative (fruit) production are advised.
More information about grafted vegetables is increasingly available. Meanwhile check the Internet for information from these named sources as well as reports from a number of universities that are helping with development and assessment of grafted vegetables.
Winter stroll in garden warms heart of gardener
While many people are decking the halls with seasonal glitter, prowling the malls with hands clutching billfolds and praying for 40-hour days to "get everything done," I took advantage of the recent pleasant weather for a stroll through the garden.
LeRoy saw me wandering the path clutching a watering can to be put away for the winter. "Mother," he said, "surely you are not going to g ..." Good judgment and 50 years of marriage stopped him from uttering the magic word, garden.
I explained I was wandering to see if the status was quo or if there was activity in the garden. I was wonderfully rewarded by the appearance of my oft-declared favorite plant, ground cover, the magnificent viola odorata, "Queen Charlotte." It has spread over time to every garden area. And on that sunny day, fresh green leaves were pushing through the old leaves, killed by the frost.
Many of the plants contained little sweetly scented nosegays of blooming violets. Elsewhere, I checked on the many clumps of shallow-rooted sedum, which I also use as ground cover.
Almost all of these were hearty and actively growing. Many of the sedum, especially the ones that bloom white, go through several changes of form. The tiny sedum alba appear in winter and spring like tiny red balls, and as summer passes, the leaves elongate a bit and turn green just before the bloom in late summer.
I was delighted to find the clumps of Rocky Mountain penstemon, penstemon strictus, vigorous with glossy deep green leaves.
These tough adapted natives produce a mat of procumbent woody stems. In the early summer, 12- to 14-inch stalks rise straight up from the leafy mat and produce rich blue flowers.
I usually try to describe flowers in the simplest, most familiar terms possible. Hence I would describe these as looking like denim-blue snapdragons. There is nothing at all correct, botanically, about that description, but I'll bet everyone can imagine the appearance of the flower stem.
In the interest of personal education, clarity of comprehension and botanical accuracy, I consulted the botanical dictionary. I was delighted to discover that the inflorescence is a thyrse, which is a compact panicle (usually four to 10 verticillasters), having an obscured main axis and cymosesubaxes, making its paniculate nature hard to discern.
The verticillaster, by the way, is a whorled dichasia at the nodes of an elongate rachis. I'll stick with denim-blue snapdragons.
Even though the garden looks brown with plant stalks catching the snow, when I look at it, I see all sorts of activity. And occasionally, I am greatly rewarded by the violets, or glossy leaves, or tiny red sedum leaves.
As Christmas nears, enjoy the traditional flowers of the season, the holiday cactus, cyclamen, poinsettia, the holly and mistletoe and the richly scented evergreens.
Plants, holidays, and gift-giving. For many persons “the holidays” describe a time from Halloween to Valentine Day filled with lists of items to buy, cards to write, foods to prepare and prayers for strength, calm and fiscal responsibility. While we eagerly participate in some of that I try daily to be aware of the many gifts in my life. Two immediately come to mind.
‘Pass-along’ plants remind us of the donor. Many years ago I received a strangely elegant houseplant known familiarly as a ‘pregnant onion.’ The fact that its botanical name is albuca bracteata adds little to its charm. But the fact that the plant was a gift from the late Alice Smith, a gardening and writing friend who lived in Hill City gives it great value to me.
A large, round green onion-like structure sits at the surface of the soil. Large strappy leaves grow from its top and drape gracefully over the pot. Strangely, if the leaf tips touch the soil or any hard surface that bit turns brown and dies so it is best to place the plant where it can dangle elegantly. If the spirit moves it, it will produce a flower stalk. At this moment I am expectant - waiting for mine to open flower buds.
It’s onion-like shape gives it part of its name, but pregnant? The plant reproduces by producing bulbils, small grape sized mini-‘onions’ just beneath an onion-papery skin on the ‘onion’s’ body. The skin will open, the bulbil will fall to the soil and root and produce a single long, thin blade. In several months this baby will begin to produce more leaf blades. The plant has taught me about another interesting bit of botany and makes me smile. Alice, bright, opinionated, straight spoken also taught me a great deal and often made me smile. It is a gift of continuing delight.
As a result of post-storm trimming and pruning the trees in our windbreak, I was renewing my love affair with my long-handled ratchet loppers. I have little strength left in my hands, but wielding my ratchet loppers, I am a force to be reckoned with.
I asked LeRoy to explain the principles of physics behind the efficacy of ratchets. He said, “Basically when you use your long loppers (24” handles) you are utilizing the length of the handles to transfer (think: lever) the force from your shoulders to your hands and to the handles and focus that force on the ratchet teeth (think: gear teeth) and ultimately the cutting blade. It involves foot pounds (the length of the handles), lever action (the handle fitting into the ratchet teeth) and focused strength (gear action) on the cutting motion. This combination of handle length, lever action and gear teeth allows the advertising to state correctly that the 3:1 ratio of the tool makes cutting three times easier.
So here is the bottom line: whatever constitutes a gift to you, value it and be grateful. And if you do not yet own a fine pair of long-handled ratchet loppers, put it on your list for Christmas.
Food fresh from the garden. That’s no midwinter fantasy. In fact, recent conversations, arrivals of garden catalogs, advanced book notices and local events all demonstrate that many gardeners are embracing their gardens as primary sources of fresh food.
The arrival of a catalog new to me, Botanical Interest Seed Catalog, stimulated old memories. Although I surely support companies such as this — which sign the Safe Seed Pledge, are certified organic and do not deal in genetically modified seed — the primary attraction to me is their listing of USDA-certified organic seeds for sprouting.
When we lived in Indonesia, we sprouted mung beans constantly because it is so unbelievably easy to do and is a delicious addition to many meals. So a memory and a catalog have drawn me back to sprouting.
One of my favorite authors, Michael Pollen, a professor at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism has a new book, “Cooked,” in which he “discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.”
Pollan moves the argument with transcendental urgency, saying that “taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable”…and leads to a more nourishing life.
But living a "nourishing life” means understanding how to prepare unfamiliar foods. I’m thinking of eggplant, which I love and LeRoy tries to ignore. The many eggplant varieties produce fruits that range from large to small, long and thin to round, and white and striped to purple and almost black. All are excellent but you must know how to cook them. The same is true for most of our fresh foods.
Some of the people who manage CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and businesses like Bountiful Baskets often include recipes and cooking suggestions for unfamiliar foods.
Many of the better seed catalogs and e-newsletters also include recipes. Use them! Learn to eat new foods! Take a chance and be transformed (in Pollan’s words).
Closer to home, Saturday at Jolly Lane there are two programs, free and open to the public on this very topic. In the morning, Liz Albrecht, a landscape architect on the Jolly Lane staff speaks about growing fruit trees and soft fruits. In the afternoon, Toni Schmidt, a Pennington County Master Gardener will speak about growing vegetables and herbs in pots.
This summer, coming to the Farmers Market on Omaha Street will be a tent hosting Master Gardeners the first Saturday of each month during the sales season. They will be there with printed information and answers to common gardening questions.
They are also prepared to talk and teach about how to prepare the fresh foods. And, in the spirit of sharing a common table, be prepared to bring your favorite recipes to share. We can teach each other.
I have been thinking a lot about change lately. Perhaps it is because every sunny day compels me to think of a landscape changing from white to green — a changing scene.
Perhaps it is because a recent Rapid City Journal article promoted the value and goodness of animal manure — a positive change of attitude.
Perhaps it is because I was one of several people who had the recent opportunity to suggest that keeping a small flock of egg-producing chickens could be a positive, “green” practice — a huge change from the contemporary fetid practice of commercial chicken factories.
I hope that our area gardeners are noticing the significant changes in seed catalogs. For example, Scheepers Kitchen Seeds in Connecticut is including the average seed life in the description of every seed variety. This is a huge and important change. As I read it, this is an acknowledgement that more and more of the gardening public is now interested in saving and storing seeds.
Other seed companies offer free, excellent on-line newsletters. Landreth Seeds from Pennsylvania offers a monthly historical spotlight of a fabulous vegetable or flower. I was so seduced by the poetic praise of heirloom dahlias that I ordered the first I will ever have planted.
Renee Shepherd’s Seeds in California promotes eating healthily from the garden. She has a highly informative newsletter and promotes her own excellent cookbooks.
Terroir Seeds (Underwood Gardens) in Arizona promotes heirloom seeds, good soil stewardship and ways to cook healthy meals.
Some, I admit, may not see much of this as change, but I would politely disagree and suggest that reputable companies are seeing gardeners as students as well as consumers. Gardeners are increasingly viewed as wanting and needing to ‘connect’ with the process of growing their food.
Vegetable gardens are moving from back yards to flower beds, appearing in containers, on patios, in raised beds. Rain barrels are increasingly visible in town and for sale in greenhouses, big-box stores and online. Compost piles are no longer seen as stinking eyesores but rather relabeled as vital soil builders.
Farmers markets and organic markets are not only open but also thriving. The value of freshness and the acquaintance with the grower trumps the "need" for every fruit or vegetable to be flawless in appearance and waxed to a shine.
More people are seeing that partnering with the composting redworms is an easy and cost-free way to turn waste (kitchen scraps) into resource (compost for the garden).
Hmmm. Waste to resource. This is a concept that has some of our finest and most forward-thinking minds on fire. Read "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things," Braungart and McDonough; or "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature," Benyus or Google Copenhagen Cleantech Cluster.
Or keep it simple. Support the efforts of our city yard-waste compost. Put up a rainbarrel. Keep a tub of worms to gobble up kitchen scraps. Allow a small flock of city chickens. Change. It’s a good thing.
It is good to have an answer when asked, "How has gardening changed for us in the last decade?"
If gardens have changed, gardeners have changed, and if that has happened, it is because learning (and its partner, change) have occurred.
Surely, the first answer to that question is the rapidity with which gardeners have embraced the multiple concepts that promote adding native plants to the garden. Until recently, there were few authors who could make the case for natives, especially in this area.
When Doug Tallamy, author of "Bringing Nature Home," spoke here last spring, many were stunned to learn of the vital connection between native plants, insects and the birds. Suddenly, "aliens" were exposed as some of our favorite plants (hollyhock, lilac, hosta, foxglove and more). Many gardeners want to turn information about native plants to action, but wince at having a garden that might look so different.
When I received notice from Ohio University Press of the publication of "The Midwestern Garden: Native Alternatives to Nonnative Flowers and Plants" by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard Schwartz, I immediately wrote the Press saying that it looked good, but was South Dakota considered part of the Midwest by the authors?
I was delighted and relieved to receive a lengthy email from one of the authors stating the value of her work for South Dakota gardeners. The book followed quickly.
It is excellent and valuable in its many parts. Reading the preface and the section on how to use the book illustrates the authors' commitment to natives. Gardening, they seem to suggest, now carries an imperative to garden also for nectar, pollen and reproductive habitat for butterflies, bees and birds. But this is not done at the expense of beauty and pleasure.
And that is exactly where this book fills a niche not previously addressed: informing the transition. The book contains approximately 200 pages of color photographs and data-packed text of familiar (read alien) plants that could be removed and replaced by natives that share the same appearance (bloom, leaf, height), the same cultivation requirements and their value to insects.
The alien plants are named in red print, the nonnatives in green. That makes the pages attractive, but it also leads the eye immediately to the myriad of native choices. Can we pop into the nearest big box store this spring and expect to find these desirable natives? No, but we can urge our local greenhouses to expand their selection of natives, give suggestions, and - more to the point - buy them in the spring.
The authors give several pages of resources, plant databases, web vendors, and native plant and insect contacts. The material in this book - comprehensive, impassioned and highly focused - is valuable and supportive for the gardener who is tentative about growing natives. It offers a huge menu of plants for a person who is committed to creating a dynamic, healthy environment of native plants.
Bizarre. We wondered what the cold, slow, wet spring would bring.
It brought me a fairly decent tomato harvest the last week in October. One of the 55-day tomato varieties took about 95 days to achieve maturity. I picked a large bouquet of blooms from the 25-year-old "Bonica" shrub rose on Nov. 2.
We have plenty of lettuce in the cold frame, although the one bunch I left to bolt and scatter seed will not mature before the cold nights truly kill it.
Cold wind blows my attention to the houseplants. Violets and orchids are blooming and the holiday cacti (downstairs under lights) are fully budded for Thanksgiving.
However, my current favorite is growing in a small pot in the west kitchen window filled with draping stems and small, leathery oval leaves.
It is blooming rapturously, creating tiny bunches of mini hoya-like flowers. Each bunch is less than 1 inch in diameter and contains 12 to 16 tiny, highly fragrant, waxy, white star flowers. I did not think it was a true hoya and I tentatively placed it in the dischidia family - relatively unstudied tropical twiners. It gets treated as all our houseplants do - with benign neglect. Things get watered when I have time or notice that one is experiencing a near-death moment.
This morning as I was inhaling the subtly sweet fragrance and understanding why insects were driven mad to be near it, I realized that I had room to hang another. I love this season when grocery stores and greenhouses become our gardens. Which reminds me of the basic houseplant rules: East or south winter light works for most plants.
Most of the common houseplants like to fit their pots or even be a bit pot-bound, and if they are repotted, like a pot barely bigger (think of shoe sizes). By all means, use the commercially prepared potting soils.
My personal bias to thrift forces me to suggest that a good potting soil without the slow- release fertilizer and hydrogels is not only the best buy, but in all likelihood, the best choice for the plant.
Why? Because now we must be mindful of watering and feeding responsibilities. Bring on the cold and wind.
With sincere apologies to Irving Berlin, we can think we've got our houseplants to keep us warm.