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Autumn

Autumn is all things wonderful! The garden harvest is coming in. The last of the fall-blooming flowers are at their brightest and best. The days are cooling but still inviting. There is time to ponder the growing season that just finished.

“Name-dropping” is conversational one-upmanship to impress about business associates or hint at great wealth or life experience. It’s also considered tactless and an exercise of bad manners.

            This is emphatically NOT the case when discussing the wonderful history of the “Scarlet” runner bean. Many years ago I noticed (and then forgot) its beautiful deep red sweet pea-like flowers. I also forgot its vigor and its attraction for bees, butterflies and birds as well as small children who love to play in a tipi covered in the vines.

            Good friend Carol Valentine was visiting in Arizona a couple of years ago and I asked her to pick up some beans from Native Seed Search in Tucson, Arizona. Among the stash of heirloom drying beans was “Scarlet.”

            Time passed, we moved and I was digging through the stash of beans to plant this spring. I had read that the flowers as well as the beans of “Scarlet” were edible so into the pot these beautiful scarlet and white beans went.

             Carolyn Tedford , a gardening friend, came for lunch and to sample the soup. Yum! We ordered seeds for this spring. Brenda Pates, another gardening friend, has grown them for years. “Plant them right after Labor Day about an inch deep by a strong support,” she said. (The definition of ‘strong support’ is something like a cattle panel or metal rebar well anchored in the ground or a short run of well-anchored fence dedicated to runner beans.)

            What is the history of this vigorous vine with heart shaped leaves , beautiful red flowers and edible seeds?  It is native to the highlands of Mexico, the countries of Central America and Nicaragua. Sources suggest they came to America with some nameless gardener in the 1700s. What is known is that President Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello in 1812. John Tradescant the Younger, a British botanizer in America is credited with introducing them to England around the middle 1600’s.

            When the bean pods are young and tender  (about 4-5 inches) they can be cooked and eaten as green beans. Residents of Great Britain favor them. The edible flowers can be added to summer salads or used as a garnish with cold summer soups.

            The mature pods are large. Pick them regularly when they are evenly tan and dry to keep the plant in production. Shell the dry pods and store the beans. Each is about the size of a lima bean.

            To cook them, rinse and soak them as you would any dried bean. I made a basic bean soup recipe. Then, when the beans were soft I pureed them and produced a thick, almost velvety soup with a pleasant, mild flavor.

            It is great fun to grow a plant cultivated for centuries by the tribes of Central America, noticed by Tradescant, enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson, eaten by the British and other Europeans. It is satisfying to have an heirloom in the garden that will attract the pollinators. It meets our needs to have a multi-purpose plant: eye-candy for the blooms, and protein-on-the-vine for us.

            Because the plant is vigorous and in a good summer can run to 20 feet or more, gardeners in this area need to remember what a hard wind can do. Make a seriously strong support, consider trying to get it to run more horizontally than vertically.

            The web has numerous sources for “Scarlet” runner bean seeds. Also look at the selection of other heirlooms offered by Native Seed Search.

December is a month that gardeners generally sit and watch amaryllis or paper white bulbs grow, or they dwell in anguished anticipation of the first seed catalog. Or they read. I’m in that last group and recently finished The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by German forester/ecologist/author Peter Wohlleben.

            I was concerned that Wohlleben’s book might be as fanciful and generally ridiculous as Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s The Secret Life of Plants (1973) in which in spurious “tests” plants were shown to prefer classical music and register pain in the presence of a broken egg.

             Wohlleben states that a forest comprised naturally of mixed species (rather than the monocultures of pines and spruce grown by timber companies) creates in its roots a network of communication, nutrient sharing, defense and mutual support for all the trees in the forests, facilitated by the friendly symbiotic fungi – mycorrhizae.  This is similar to the work done by Suzanne Simard, PhD, (University of British Columbia)who describes and illustrates her research and discoveries in a TED talk (YouTube), “How Trees Talk to Each Other.”

            These titles suggesting trees feel, communicate and share nutrients could make a gardener uneasy were it not for the fact that Wohlleben and Simard (and others since then) have demonstrated that what is “hidden” in the life of the tree is the very network that creates ‘the family’. It is the vital presence of mycorrhizae.

            In 1880 the Polish botanist Franciszek Kamienski observed the fungal threads (hyphae) of mycorrhizae but lacked either curiosity or means to give it more study.

            In 1885 Albert Bernhard Frank, a German botanist and mycologist began to study the fungal activity and gave it the name, mycorrhizae. The time since then has given us sophisticated tools to see, measure and quantify the fungal activity.

            In the last decade the word and the function of mycorrhizae have become familiar to many gardeners. We used mycorrhizae both as a slurry to coat bare root tree roots and as a powder additive to the planting hole soil.

            Michael Pollan, one of my favorite authors whose books are widely available and often quoted, wrote the best discussion of current scientific and pseudo-scientific activity about plant sentience in The New Yorker, December 2013, entitled “The Intelligent Plant.”

            What amuses me are the heated discussions and disagreements by scientists about plant consciousness, or plant brains, or the neurobiology of plants. What fascinates me is the credible research that describes and quantifies the nutrients delivered to plants by the fungi and/or the sharing of those nutrients among trees discovered to be in a fungal network.

            This is exciting but at some point one might ask either callously  “Why should I care?” or as an informed and curious gardener, “How can I use this information?”

            I strongly suggest that the common thread through all this research is the fungal thread, carefully knitting up this truly hidden (about 6-10 inches underground) ‘other world’ of the plants. The beneficial and almost invisible fungus becomes another crop that we must care for.

            And we already know how to do that…we just might not have known the extent of the benefits. We care for the fungus we cannot see in the soil by avoiding the two extremes that cause soil structure trauma: excessive compaction and excessive tilling. And we abandon the neat row of one plant type and plant wider rows of vegetables and flowers – the crucial diversity. That really gives the plants something to talk about.

The new garden is almost ready for winter. Loads and loads (and more loads) of city compost have been spread over wet cardboard and newspapers and hay to kill the grass, age and settle over the winter. Some iris and peonies have been transplanted from our previous home.

            As we work I keep trying to be laborer and observer. Here is what I learned: I am happy to develop a modified raised bed garden. I have 18 blow mold garden pots, each 18” wide and 14” tall. We use those for vegetables – container tomatoes, zucchini, beans, peppers, melons and eggplants as well as spinach, chard, radishes, lettuces, and spring onions. These pots are placed about two feet apart and in those spaces will be pollinator-friendly perennial and annual flowers. City compost half fills each pot. In the spring I will mix in a professional growing mix and some of our home made compost. There will be a small amount of bending over, but I can also work seated on a small garden stool.

            I have found that a 5-gallon bucket is my new best friend. It may hold tools or plants or soil but what I appreciate is that I can use it as a helper to rise from my knees.

            I have also learned that gardening is all about time. Naturally, I would have said that I knew that already…but this is different. This is the LIFE time of plants, of trees, of soil and of the gardener.  A garden, I am appreciating, can be seen as a container of sorts of all kinds of time and I think we work to find our place in it. For example, the normal life span for a Ponderosa pine in healthy native conditions is 300 years; a bur oak could live 200-400 years and healthy soil can be formed in 600 years.

            I have seen gardens that a decade or two ago were stunning productions of skilled gardeners…gardens that have now passed into the hands of new owners and languished or disappeared entirely. My initial reaction was a great rush of sadness that something so lovely and loved was gone. That avalanche of emotion was enough to encourage me to hang up my hoe forever.

            “Wait! Stop that thought!” was the message from my inner gardener.  I hope that our slightly elderly-adapted garden thrives and is beautiful and that we enjoy the harvest from the “Mt. Royal” self-pollinating plum trees and the brand new tart pie cherry bushes (Yes! Bushes!) that we will plant in the spring. I hope that the bee blocks and insect hotels and the carefully planted vegetables, flowers and shrubs for pollinators will create a busy, beautiful, buzzing and bountiful garden. Reading about long-lived pines and bur oaks and slowly forming soil taught me that patience on my part is the most effective tool I can use in the garden.          

            My determination to keep gardening in the face of time has taught me this: the greatest harvests from any garden…no matter the size, no matter the time…are moments of joy. Garden writers through the centuries have said just that elegantly, spiritually, emotionally and euphorically.

            I’ll speak it plain. I am joyously happy in the garden.

Some time ago I wrote that one of the consequences of down-sizing to a smaller home was my opportunity to construct a Keep-on-Gardening-Even-Though- I’m–Almost-80 garden. I have surrendered a bit of (non-political) stamina, am more aware of where I walk and have relinquished the use of the wheelbarrow. But, I remind myself, that sort of physical stuff would happen whether I gardened or not. The key to pleasure-providing life-long gardening, I am convinced, is attitude. I realized I needed a little help from my friends. Thankfully, being as addicted to reading as I am to gardening, I found several.

            Here are three books and a blog, all accessible on the Internet, which I found to be wonderfully different, thoughtful, honest and, for me at least, right on the money.

            The first is Kansas native Ruth Stout whose books, thankfully, are back in print. I recommend Gardening Without Work: for the Ageing, the Busy and the Indolent and If You Would be Happy: Cultivate Your Life Like a Garden. Stout was a gardener who advocated organic practices, copious amounts of mulch, a bit of cheerful garden clutter and a commitment to frugality and meaningful work.

            Contemporary author and acclaimed gardener, Sydney Eddison wrote an excellent book, Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older.

It addresses those who have had large, high maintenance gardens and must downsize, possibly reconfigure the garden and most important, reconfigure one’s attitude toward gardening, asking for help and being more realistic regarding gardening cost, time, expectations and…accepting the changes. 

            A recent release is Late Bloomers: How to Garden with Comfort, Ease and Simplicity in the Second Half of Life. The author, Jan Coppola Bills, left a corporate position to launch a landscaping business. Her book is beneficial for those perhaps in their late 40s or early 50s who are feeling the urge to either begin gardening or take it up again. She lists her Late Bloomer’s credo: Plant only what one can comfortably tend; give oneself no task beyond one’s ability to easily achieve; ask for help when necessary; eschew perfection; encourage and allow the garden to deepen one’s connection with nature; and garden because it pleases ones soul.

            And because I am one who admits to a sense of wonder, awe, peace and centeredness while in the garden, I recommend a blog, Pull Up a Chair by Barbara Mahany written in spiritual, poetical tones of wonder about the garden. Her latest entry is “bulb therapy” and I thought about it as I tucked an assortment of spring bulbs into a small corner of my new, late-in-life garden. Describing her desire to plant  bulbs, writing  lyrically and without benefit of punctuation, “…that when the dregs of winter at last melt away, tender green slips will poke through the earth, will rise and reach for the light, will open in bloom. will  whisper: “here’s your reward for believing.” or “here’s what you get when you hold on to hope.”

There are advantages to taking a long and careful view of how gardening has evolved. I’ve described how gardening has gone from ‘eye candy’ floral displays and “plant in groups of threes” to a realization that now gardeners are encouraged or expected to be capable amateur soil scientists, chemists and persons knowledgeable about sustainability, wise water use and more.

         My task, as I see it, is to find, study, understand, and adapt the newest, good, science-based information for gardeners of the Black Hills.

         My current interests are working to be certain that a healthy garden is defined as a place where the soil, the plants and all the insects attracted to the garden are successful – healthy, in balance, sustainable.

         I am keenly interested in techniques that allow persons who plant in large containers of the whiskey barrel types, those who have multitudes of containers on decks and porches, those who plant in the currently popular raised bed “bunkers’ and those who maintain traditional in-ground garden beds to keep their soil productive in the summer and fed by organic mulch and cover crops in the winter. All these soil mixes are very different combinations of potting mixtures, actual soil, perlite or vermiculite, mulch, compost and a possible dollop or two of manure.

         Assuming that most growing mixes can be removed and saved in large trash cans to be remixed and vivified with compost for spring planting and that the garden plot will be mulched for the winter or planted with a cover crop that leaves the growing mixture for raised bed and bunker gardens to care for.

         There has been a great amount of information recently about the value of cover crops, especially those that utilize a custom mix of seeds. Stephen Scott of Terroir Gardens in Chino, Arizona has written extensively about his Garden Cover Up Mix which he promotes for a variety of good reasons. “Cover crops slow erosion, improve soil, enhance nutrient and moisture availability, help control many soil-borne pests….Lots of research on the ground experiences proves this…”

         The Leopold Center for Sustainability at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa is studying the value of planting permanent plants in areas within a field of non-permanent plants to support soil health as well as the agriculture industry.

The concept is simple: in addition to doing all the good that Scott alluded to, the Leopold Center finds that by replacing a mere 10 percent of a row-crop field with perennial plants in strategic areas, “The research has shown that prairie strips can reduce nitrogen leaving the filed by 85% and phosphorus by 90%, and sediment loss can be reduced by up to 95%. Additionally the prairie areas create habitat for insects, birds, and other pollinators.”

         It seems to me that gardeners would want to ask, “How can I take this good science studied in large ag operations and apply it to my pots? Raised beds? Garden beds?

         Reasonable strategies might be these: remove and save or stockpile the soil (aka growing medium) from deck and porch containers and remix and add organic material in the spring. Remove and save at least half of the soil in the very large pots. Remix new organic growing mixture with the remaining soil in the spring. In raised beds and bunkers short-lived cover crops are possible and beneficial. Because they generally are small, plant heavily your own mixture of cool season annual seeds – spinach, radishes, lettuces, chard knowing that the roots will add nutrients to the soil just as the young plants will when they die in cold weather. With raised beds and bunkers add 3-4” of good organic mulch sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

         All of these suggestions are inspired, “tweaked” and offered as a home gardener’s take on the sort of work that is being done to encourage soil sustainability in agriculture.

After a couple of nights of killing frost, gardeners get in high gear to deal with bags of leaves and garden refuse and do the typical tasks that constitute getting the garden ready for winter. Over the years I have noticed that almost all of what happens – building compost piles, using tillers, pulling dead plants, ‘cleaning’ the garden into a condition of nakedness – makes the gardener feel as though all responsibilities have been met.

            My question is this: how does the garden feel about all of this?  So I have devised a little quiz. Answer the following Yes or No.

  1. Removing the remains of all annual vegetables and flowers is good.
  2. Leaving the remains of all disease-free plants in the garden is good.
  3. It is true that the soil life community eats all winter.
  4. Tilling in the fall is great preparation for the spring.
  5.  Keeping the soil bare over the winter is beneficial.
  6. Using a chipper/grinder on leaves and garden refuse is a waste of time.
  7. There is a difference (to the garden) between practicing The Law of Returns or The Law of the Minimums.
  8. When in doubt the gardener should think like a tree

            The answers are: 1. No. Leaving the garden debris on and in the soil feeds the microorganisms in the soil as well as catching and holding snow on the surface.             Number 2. Yes. This provides habitat for beneficial insects as well as well as depositing ‘food’ both above and below ground.

            Number 3. Yes. Although the activity slows a bit, there is a constant consumption and deposition of nutrients.

            Number 4. No. Tilling at any time destroys the structure of the soil (it resembles a natural sponge.) This structure provides access for gases and water as well as a sort of roadway for the movement of all assorts of life in the soil. Tilling the soil is similar to blowing up a 10-story apartment building and telling tenants, “Now you can move in.”

            Number 5. No. Bare soil invites erosion by wind and water. Bare soil deprives the life in the soil of food.

            Number 6. No, it isn’t. Grinding up leaves is one of the best uses of the chipper. These can be mixed with other yard (grass) and garden (plant stalks) waste and ‘fed’ to the soil by literally covering the soil with it. Think of it as a ‘blanket’ for the soil. By spring all the microorganisms will have ‘eaten’ their blanket and the soil will be well fed and ready for planting.

            Number 7. Yes – there is a great difference. The Law of Returns (made famous by Sir Albert Howard) suggests that organic material equivalent to what was removed from the garden (fruits, vegetables, flowers) be returned  (compost, mulch) to it. The Law of the Minimum (made famous by Justus von Liebig) contributed greatly to the still common dependence on NPK chemical fertilizers.

            Number 8. Yes. If we think about it, a tree draws from the soil that which it needs to survive and flourish. The tree then, seasonally, returns to the soil dead leaves and branches, which thanks to the action of weathering and various detritivores return the nutrients to the soil. We can follow these simple concepts by simply being in step with the natural order in the garden.

The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils.  World Soil Day is tomorrow, December 5. The purpose and importance of the year’s events depends on which side of the shovel you are on…the producer or the consumer. Through the centuries cultures and civilizations have been aware of the fertility of the soil. They have been unaware (or uncaring) of the ways in which the soil has been damaged and killed.

            The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations lists six key soil messages. Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production and the foundation for vegetation, which produces feed, fiber, fuel and medicines. Soils support diversity of life and contain a quarter of the total. They play a key role in the carbon cycle and the climate. They filter and store water and help with resilience to floods and droughts. Soil is a finite resource, meaning its loss and degradation is not recoverable within a human lifespan.

            My contribution to the celebration of soil is to list some of my favorite resources to learn about soil, how it is formed, how it is used and abused, how we can care for it in our gardens and farms and how science is learning more about the life in the soil.

            (Spoiler alert and hint– all of the materials I discuss can be gotten on the Web in time for Christmas!).

            The 104 minute DVD documentary, Symphony of the Soil, is a joyous mixture of great science, mouth-watering photography, and information about soil presented by an impressive list of authors, agriculturalists and scientists.

            David R. Montgomery is a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, studying geomorphology, the evolution of landscapes. He has written two books, which I highly recommend.

            A review of Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations makes the case that soil erosion should be seen as a threat to our planet as serious as climate change. Once exposed to wind and rain through agriculture, cultivated soils erode bit-by-bit, faster than they can be naturally replenished. The erosion is slow enough to be ignored in a single lifetime (see: the 6th key message above) but fast enough over centuries to limit the lifespan of civilizations.

            Montgomery’s latest book is The Hidden Half of Nature. According to a review it discusses “our tangled relationship with microbes and their potential to revolutionize agriculture and medicine, from garden to gut. In discovering the complex world of soil microbes, he realizes that we are not what we eat – we are what our microbes eat and the health of the soil is paramount.

            That statement – we are what our microbes eat - ought to drive any curious gardener into the books of Ruth Stout – contrarian and avid composter, Daniel Hillel – soil scientist and historian and hydrologist, and Sir Albert Howard – compost scientist.

            As you relax after feeding your personal gut microbes their holiday food, spend some time on the websites of soils.org (Soil Science Society of America) and ourworld.unu.org (United Nations University) and nrcs.usda.gov (National Resources Conservation Service) and fao.org/soils-2015 (United Nations Food and Agriculture Association).

            And, of course, Merry Christmas to your mind and to your soil.

United Nations World Toilet Day. There was a major celebration yesterday and I’ll bet almost everyone missed it.  November 19 is United Nations World Toilet Day. The theme for this year is “Toilets and Nutrition.”

            Quit laughing. This is serious stuff, personal for some of us. Having lived and traveled for many years in Africa and South East Asia, I unintentionally was host to a variety of unpleasant intestinal parasites. As a fortunate recipient of good medical care, appropriate medicine, and modern plumbing I survived.

            The statistics for those without medicine and proper toilets is grim – no laughing matter. One thousand children die daily from preventable diarrheal disease. Fifteen percent of the world’s population has no access to proper toilets.

Adults, weakened by parasites and disease caused by poor sanitation cannot work, can’t prepare healthy meals, and often have limited or no access to clean water.

            I remember many years ago anxiously pleading with the market ladies in my literacy class in Lagos, Nigeria to boil their water for 20 minutes to protect themselves from the cholera epidemic that was coming towards us down the coast of Africa. They favored me with a penetrating stare while I realized quickly and painfully that they had no access to clean water, clean food or any sort of clean/safe toilet. They collected their water from who-knows-where in jerry cans. Wood for cooking fires was pricey. Flies covered food in the markets. Defecating was a do-it –where-you-can choice. What was I thinking?

            Let’s remember the gardener’s mantra: healthy soil grows healthy plants and healthy plants support healthy humans.

            Many gardeners, and I am one of them, sing the praises of all sorts of animal manures as fertilizer for the soil. The science is in on this. Remarkably the manures of many animals are more carefully valued, collected, stored and used than that of the human animal – us folks.

            A careful reading of science makes it clear that our use of bathrooms (a good thing) allows us to basically ignore and undervalue the act (potentially a bad thing.)

While we score high on basic sanitation, we might just be kidding ourselves that we can ignore both the amount of human waste and its potential for good.

            We are increasingly the victims of our fondness for embracing the “Yuk factor.” Worldwide, access to clean water is a growing problem and there is a need to clean, treat and recycle as much as we can. A growing number of scientists, cities and businesses are working to recycle human waste. 

            An April 9, 2014 article in the ACS  (American Chemical Society) Weekly Press Pac announced that astronaut urine was being recycled for drinking water.          The familiar Milorganite garden fertilizer is made from sewage solid waste.  (It is composed of heat-dried microbes that have digested the organic matter in wastewater).

         An article in the National Geographic news of February 2014 asks “Is Peecycling” the Next Wave in Sustainable Living?”

            World Toilet Day may seem chuckle-worthy, but it is truly no laughing matter.

Here’s the question: when is a book not a book? And the answer, no matter what American poetess Emily Dickinson said, is not a frigate taking the reader lands away. For me, the best possible book is one in which I acquire new information, sometimes pit my opinion against the author’s, write “Aha!” or “Oh, no!” in the book margins and finish with a desire to learn more.

            I had just closed Kristin Ohlson’s book, the soil will save us in which I learned more about the value of carbon sequestration in the soil and expanded both my knowledge and respect for the uncountable and vital life forms in the soil.

            My initial opinion of  Ohlson’s book was that she perhaps had gone a bit off the rail in her lengthy discussion of the conflict between the growing body of ‘soil farmers’ who grow the soil organically and the agrochemical businesses and their influence with the government and the USDA specifically.

            That changed when I read the article in the October 31 Rapid City Journal about Jonathan Lundgren, PhD, an entomologist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Brookings, South Dakota. He had filed a whistleblower’s complaint with the USDA citing, among other things, the suppression of a recent study (Lundgren’s) demonstrating that the use of neonicotinoids, (neonics) a highly promoted group of insecticides, is harmful to both the monarchch butterflies and honey bees. Further two research reports by Lundgren concluded that farmers received no yield benefit at all in using the costly neonic seed treatments.

            Lundgren is one of the scientists mentioned and praised frequently in Ohlson’s book for the work he is doing to introduce and promote generalist insects in crop fields to manage damaging insects without the heavy use of chemicals. He is also studying the “food web” of the beneficials to learn what plants could be introduced to support these beneficial communities.

            For those of us who wish to either stop using insecticides totally or practice Integrated Pest Management this is exciting, promising and practical. (In Europe ‘beetle banks or havens are especially planted to provide food and cover for beneficial insects. Also ‘insect hotels or habitats are becoming more common.)

            It took only a moment to search the Web to find the October 29th edition of Bee Culture, the Magazine of American Beekeeping where Dr. Lundgren and his conflict with the USDA was the lead article. If sides are going to be taken in this case, it surely seems apparent that the editors of Bee Culture support Dr. Lundgren.

            Dr. Lundgren describes his research area (ars.usda.gov), “I am a predator ecologist, and my main areas of research include predator feeding ecology and nutritional physiology, integrating generalist predators within modern farming systems, the importance of biodiversity in managing pests, and carabid (ground beetles) taxonomy and natural history.”

            Everything about the possibility of broadening our understandings of garden and agricultural practices to include the sheltering and feeding of (beneficial) predator insects excites me. And I imagine the collective enthusiasm of more gardeners, farmers and ranchers to promote insect ecology, reduce pesticide use, and ‘heal’ the soil by carbon sequestering threatens the bottom line of several agrochemical companies.

            …And it all would have passed over my head had I not read the soil will save us. Nothing beats a good book.

It is my view that home gardeners are currently being exposed to science-based changes in traditional gardening practices, increased and elegant comprehension of atmospheric, plant and soil chemistry and physics, botany, biology, soil science and more…whether they realize it or not.

            In many gardening magazines there is a movement away from seeing gardens only as carefully planned eye candy to the expanding awareness that gardens are part of a living ecosystem incorporating the living community in the soil, the crucial functions of insects, birds, bacteria, water and air purity – the general health of the planet.

            Much of this information has become available within the last twenty-five years or so thanks in large part to highly sophisticated tools of analysis – scanning electronic microscopes and more.

            Three highly readable books and one blog that I recommend for winter reading that best present this new knowledge are: “How Plants Work”,  Linda Chalker-Scott (Timber Press), “What a Plant Knows” – Daniel Chamovitz (Scientific American Press) and “the soil will save us” – Kristin Ohlson (Rodale Press). The blog,  The Garden Professors, is easily found on line.

            Chalker-Scott  (Washington State University Co-operative Extension) is one of the contributors to The Garden Professors blog in which she shares her experience and her scientific viewpoint. She expands on that in her book. She discusses the soil food web and the importance of feeding the soil, explains the wonder of photosynthesis and often presents herself as a science-based gardening myth buster. Her suggestions for further reading as well as the index make this book a fine, readable reference.

            Chamovitz  (Director of the Manna Center for Plant Biosciences at Tel Aviv University) discusses in easily understood terms how a plant sees, smells, feels, hears, knows where it is, remembers and is aware. This is a book of good science , wildly different from “The Secret Life of Plants” (Thompkins and Bird) or “The Findhorn Garden” (the Findhorn Community). The first is pseudo science and the second deals with garden fairies and Nature spirits.

            I was very excited when I found  “the soil will save us” because I continue to feel that our first crop must be the soil.  The first four chapters of the eight-chapter book are excellent. Ohlson, a freelance writer, gives one of the best discussions of what it takes to build, use and maintain healthy soil. She also gives numerous convincing examples of soil renewal or “healing” by creative and informed gardeners. The point which most of her illustrations support is that we can and should be more aware of the carbon that we can and should sequester in the soil.

            Acknowledging that it is very difficult to quantify the degree of soil renewal in a manner that satisfies strict scientific protocols, she turns to a several chapter-long discussion about the evils of the various government farm bills. Those are muddy waters indeed and, no matter a personal position on the issue, frankly should not keep anyone from reading, understanding and applying the material in the first half of the book.

            With a slow down of busy hands in the soil, this is a good time to lay in a supply of materials to keep one’s mind busy in the ‘printed garden’ of worthy books.

As days cool and shorten my pleasure of being in the garden, I fill the teapot and launch into the pleasure of winter reading. One of my favorite sources for current and breaking science-based news is from Science Daily on the Web. Not only is the news current, it is free and you can choose with astonishing specificity those topics you are interested in.

            On September 19th under the headline “Immune system may be pathway between nature and good health” researcher Ming Kuo, at the University of Illinois had found as many as 21 pathways between nature and good health. She commented, “Nature doesn’t have just one or two active ‘ingredients.’ It’s more like a multivitamin…and can protect us from different kinds of diseases –cardiovascular, respiratory, mental health, musculosketal, etc.…”Kuo adds, “Finding that the immune system is a primary pathway in all but two of the pathways studied provides an answer to the question of ‘how’ nature and body work in concert to fight disease.”

            Another headline was a thrill to read. “Biodiversity below ground is just as important as aboveground.” Scientists at the University of Copenhagen stated “…the richness of animal species belowground play a key role in regulating a whole suite of ecosystem functions on Earth.” The authors call for far more attention to this overlooked world of worms, bugs, and bacterial in the soil.

            They state that ecosystem functions such as carbon storage and the availability of nutrients are linked to the bugs, bacteria and other microscopic organisms that occur in the soil and state further that as much as 32% of the variation seen in ecosystem functions can be attributed to biodiversity in the soil and that plant biodiversity accounts for 42%. One of the results of the study states that focus must be placed on how changing climate temperature and precipitation can affect the above and belowground ecosystems.

            Another article described research done on alpine bumblebee tongues (which is interesting). The last line was the most important: The result of the research highlights…”how climate change can decouple well-established mutualisms between bees and plants.” Gardeners who heard Dr. Tallamy’s talk at Spring Fever several years ago on co-evolution between plants and animals will recognize the value of this study between beneficial ecological partnerships (alpine bees and the flowers they pollinate) that are lost due to climate shift.

            The results of studies like this do affect home gardeners who try to grow plants that will not only attract insects but also support them, especially as some plant ‘designers’ modify flower shapes to be more attractive to gardeners, forgetting the needs of plant/insect mutualism.

            Although I think awareness of this research is important in our understanding of the activity in our gardens, the headline gave me a laugh: “Flower declines shrink bee tongues.” Well, ok.

            Combining history with science was a wonderful short article on chemical research that has identified mosquito-repelling chemicals in native sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata). The study reported that the steam-distilled oil from the plant matched the repellent potency of DEET.

            Simply growing the native sweetgrass that does well here does not in itself guarantee that it will repel mosquitoes in the yard, but it is a fun fact to know and a great reason to welcome the plant, available locally, into your gardens next spring.


Thrips in the garden.  As diversion from obsessing about voles and thistles, we revisit thrips, the insect we love to hate, review how and when we feed the soil and ponder a fun way to grow potatoes (next year!)

            There is fascination as well as irritation with thrips. Even their name causes confusion; “thrips” refers to one or a million – and it is usually  millions So small they can feed on a single fungal spore or plant cell, they are from 0.5 mm to 14 mm long and typically yellow, black or brown in color. If you miss seeing the critter you notice the slick varnish-like appearance on the damaged leaf and the tiny black dots of frass or insect poop.

            Adults emerge in spring from protected places in the ground and lay eggs in plant tissue. Within days, the eggs hatch and the (immature) nymphs begin eating for up to three weeks before molting and turning into adults which can produce up to 15 generations of 150 eggs each throughout the summer.  Adult thrips can reproduce sexually or asexually.

            They are poor flyers but, like leafhoppers and other miscreants, are easily blown about by the wind and delivered to our yards.

            They can be difficult to control, but consider that they have had millions of years of practice being irritating as science first recorded them in the Permian Age, roughly 299 to 251 million years ago.

            While we have only marginal control of thrips, we can care for our soil. Consider adding organic materials directly to the soil now. Materials such as rotted hay, or rotted silage (or urban products like coffee grounds) can be added and turned under the soil using an earth fork. Coarser materials such as tree leaves or garden residue should be shredded. A lawn mower with a bagging attachment can be used to shred this material and collect it in one operation.

            Organic materials can be spread to a depth of about 3 inches and turned under the soil.  During warm weather, the material will decompose quickly and the process can be repeated every two weeks. Later in the fall, it may take longer. This process can be repeated from now until late November to early December. Organic matter helps almost any soil.

            Many of us utilize 5 and 10-gallon plastic buckets as self-watering pots. Here is a new way to grow potatoes in buckets. According to the instructions (which I have not yet tried), use two identical ten-gallon plastic pots that will nest inside one another.

            To prepare the inner bucket for planting, make drainage holes in the bottom of the bucket and with a box cutter make two large “windows” in each side of the bucket. These need to be almost the height of the pot and almost the width, so that the inner pot can be removed to inspect the soil and root mass for harvesting of any early potatoes that form around the inside edge. After the early potatoes are picked the inner pot can then be slipped back into position to allow the plant to keep growing and produce more potatoes.

            Be certain that the outer bucket has some drainage holes as well. Remove the inner bucket from time to time to make certain there is good drainage. Provide a growing medium that is a mixture of a sterile potting mix, good compost and perlite or vermiculite if needed to lighten the mix.

Soils and winter.  For several summers the Pennington County Master Gardeners have had a presence at the Farmers Market location on Omaha Street during the summer. Those of us who "work" at the booth know that it is much more fun than work, and we also know it is the absolute best way to understand what is on the minds of area gardeners.

As we near the end of one of the strangest growing seasons in memory, most of us are still puzzling over the one thing that we hope we can affect — the soil. A Natural Resources Conservation Service bulletin on Soil Biota from February 2013 tells us everything we need to know. 

Almost all of the available nutrients, almost all of the soil biota (the biologically active, powerhouse of the soil), and a great part of a plant’s roots are in the first 6 to 8 inches of the soil.

This dynamic living area, the rhizosphere, is what grows our vegetables, flowers, trees and grasses. We become custodians of the soil biota by keeping the soil fed with organic mulch and compost. The soil biota help create soil structure. For example, threads of fungal hyphae bind tiny soil particles together. Bacteria and algae excrete sticky material that also binds the soil particles. Additionally, many members of the soil biota move around on the film of water that coats most of these particles.

Plant roots, clever things, find their way through the soil via the air and water spaces between the soil particles. This huge living community of often almost microscopic creatures delivers nutrients to the soil in various forms.

The soil biota community (and that also includes the creatures we can see and identify — ants, earthworms, various insects, etc.) multiplies vigorously when the soil is moist and warm. The bulletin states, “Seasonal patterns of biological activity coincide with plant growth stages, litter fall and root die-off.” If the rhizosphere stays structurally intact, everything is in place for the soil to function vigorously.

However, there are numerous common garden situations that can challenge the rhizosphere to function efficiently. Compacting the soil by walking or driving on it can crush the larger air and water pores and pathways reducing the amount of habitat for soil organisms.

And, there is the damage done by tilling the soil, which destroys its structure — the very scaffolding of the soil. I really don’t know why or when or where the tradition of vigorous tilling before planting began. The most primitive gardeners did (and some still do) use planting sticks and simply make a hole for the seed or the plant. Perhaps it is out-of-control joy at the coming of spring ... the same sort of joyously irrational behavior that makes us want to immediately wash and wax a brand new car.

Soil scientists know the value of keeping the rhizosphere intact and the soil biota fed. More and more gardeners understand that as well.

So as autumn knocks at the door, what do we do in and for the garden? Feed it. Mulch it well. Send it into winter fully clad with mulch and compost and in the spring, simply run a hoe to make a row for seeds. You can trust me, but in reality trust the biota.

During the horticulture presentations at Central States Fair, I listened to the comments and questions generated by Beth-Anne Ferley, Rapid City Recycling Educator, as she spoke about her experiences and recommendations about the use of the city yard waste compost. I realized there might be a small piece of understanding missing for many of us about the use of these fine products. (Spoiler alert: apply compost in the fall and give it all winter to become “alive”.)

            We know that mulch is put on the top of the soil to control moisture and temperature in the soil, feed the soil and control weeds. And we also know that the function of compost is to feed the soil. For compost of any sort (the city products or bagged and labeled ‘compost’ from retail stores) it needs to become “alive”, hosting active bacteria and microorganisms to begin the process that will turn the mostly inert compost to material actively utilized by beneficial bacteria and all manner and sizes of insects. This takes six to eight months. We forget that.

            When mulch is applied (dug in) in the spring, the soil is forced to repair its structure damaged or destroyed by the tiller as well as imbibe as many microorganisms as possible to bring the mulch and soil to life and vigor. Soil authorities note that it can take as many as 4-6 months for the soil structure to repair itself.

            Here is a different thought: after a killing frost this fall, pull and compost the plants. Hasten to the landfill and purchase a ton (more or less) of the new product, 3/8” compost with bio solids.  It is $10.00 a ton (a penny a pound!). It is fine textured and sweet smelling. It has been processed, heated, watered, turned and tested for 28 days and is ready to be placed on the top of your garden soil to be incorporated naturally into the soil over the winter. Hint: put down a thin layer, rake and water that in and repeat until it is about 4-6” deep. That’s it. Done. Ignore the tiller.

            That organic compost, resting on the soil surface will receive all manner of microorganisms in the rain, snow, wind and from the soil itself. By spring, much of it will have been incorporated naturally into the soil. Plant, being as gentle with the soil as possible. As plants appear and develop keep them side dressed with compost/mulch.

            In the fall, get a load of 3/8” compost with biosolids, store it either directly on the garden or nearby over the winter. It needs time to mature.

            One can ask, “Why?” A bag of potting soil might be labeled “Sterile mix.” (Sterile = nothing alive) Top soil (a questionable commodity here) can be almost anything with an unknown amount of or lack of nutrients. However, organic material resting over the winter and imbibing whatever the storms bring, will deposit in the spring an uncountable amount of beneficial bacteria, micro and macro organisms in the soil.

            To repeat: every fall either spread the compost directly on the garden or store on or near the garden over the winter. In the spring, plant, side dress the plants. Repeat yearly.

The planet is a global garden. A recent United Nations document stated: “The 20th session of the Conference of the Parties and the 10th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol is taking place from 1 to 12 December. COP20/CMP 10 is being hosted by the Government of Peru, in Lima, Peru.” I hope that was clear because it is important and it ended today.

            What’s happening in the atmosphere, in the oceans, across the land – whether called climate change or global warming or weird weather – affects us all. Because scientists, since French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier first described the atmosphere’s contribution to planetary temperature in 1824, have been measuring changes, it seems to me that there is a body of evidence to support  the reality of a changing climate. What continues not to be completely clear is what (or whose) actions are contributing to this.

            The UN meetings are about agreements between nations in the broadest sense. But increasingly policy makers are aware that strategies – accommodation and mitigation – are best planned regionally. The Journal recently had an article about Rocky Mountain governors meeting to determine what could be done to save the Colorado River water system, which supports over 40 million people. While it is unrealistic to think that great water decisions can be achieved in a weekend of talks, perhaps being more aware of the dread potential of water scarcity across large areas will encourage creative and positive thinking.

            I am as confused as anyone about weather anomalies, atmospheric change, inputs, outputs, greenhouse effects and carbon issues so I joined an online (free) class taught by the University of Reading in England. From the many classes accessible on FutureLearn, I chose “Our Changing Climate: Past, Present and Future.”

            Predictably, I enjoyed the sections on the past, dealing primarily with civilizations in the Middle East, India, Asia and Central and South America that rose because they controlled productive soils and water sources and fell as those finite resources were over used and abused.

            We have those tragic stories at our fingertips in books like Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations, (Montgomery), Soil and Civilizations, (Hyams), Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World, (Mithen), The Soil and Health (Howard), and Where Our Food Comes From (Nabhan). And we can reread the wisdom of Aldo Leopold, of Lady Eve Balfour, of Sir Albert Howard, J. I. Rodale and Ruth Stout.

            The on-line course stressed that in the future (and that might be now) strategy for dealing with global warming might be/should be cooperation and consolidation of goods and services as cities and populations grow.

            The discussion of climate change/global warming is head spinning and hard to understand. The task is to think globally and act locally. I wish I had said that first. I didn’t, but I can say it again…and again.

            Actually Walt Kelley’s greatest cartoon character, Pogo the possum, said it best in a comic strip on Earth Day, 1971. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”


Winter dreams and garden impermanence.  Our “weather memories” are often short term and inaccurate which allows all of us, including me, to redefine “autumn.” Beautiful foliage and bountiful harvests aside for the moment, I think of autumn primarily as a time of CHANGE.

            Several years ago I wrote in praise of leaves and quoted Gertrude Stein’s undeservedly famous comment “A rose is a rose is a rose”, changing it for my purpose to “A leaf is a leaf is a leaf”. Most authorities acknowledge that Stein was simply saying that the rose (or leaf) is just that and I admit I was having my way with her words.

            However, I have always thought that autumn leaf fall was a wondrous and restorative natural event. It is instructive, demonstrating for me, a glimpse of a transcendental natural moment.  

            And I am not the only one. Consider this: The poet, Khalil Gibran, probably best known for his book, The Prophet, written in 1923, is less known for his 1918 book, The Madman: His Parables and Poems. That one contains a dialogue between a falling leaf and a blade of grass. The theme is impermanence and includes a beautiful swipe at self-importance. 

SAID A BLADE OF GRASS

Said a blade of grass to an autumn leaf, “You make such a noise falling! You scatter all my winter dreams.”

Said the leaf indignant, “Low-born and low-dwelling! Songless, peevish thing! You live not in the upper air and you cannot tell the sound of singing.”

Then the autumn leaf lay down upon the earth and slept. And when spring came she waked again — and she was a blade of grass.”

And when it was autumn and her winter sleep was upon her, and above her through all the air the leaves were falling, she muttered to herself, “O these autumn leaves! They make such noise! They scatter all my winter dreams.”

            So…how do Kahlil’s themes of impermanence and self-importance relate to gardeners in this month of gratitude and change? I think that almost everything gardeners do at this time…cleaning tools, putting garden beds to rest, pondering rearranging the garden, selecting seeds and plants for the coming year…all of this fits under the broad category of change. This is no wispy philosophical observation: it is a statement of fact. It is a fact because we all know that it is absolutely impossible to replicate one year’s garden success in following years. Soils, plants, weather, gardeners change. The bottom line is that we really have very little control over natural events.

            Personally, I see change as an ever moving, self-driving force. It can excite me, it can puzzle me and it can delight me. I have no illusions about my ability to control or influence it because I can’t. But I can participate in and observe the process and learn from the experience, an opportunity missed by the self-important leaf in the poem.

            If you forgot to be grateful for change in your recitation of thanks yesterday, slip it in with your meal of left-overs today. It’s never too late.

Autumn gold shines in the Black Hills.  Word association for most of us is a fun game along the lines of “What comes to your mind when you hear this word?” I was playing that game with myself and happened to glance at the unbelievable beauty of every tree in Rapid City clad in leaves of gold.

Leaving hyperbolic descriptions of golden leaves to the poets, my mind wandered associatively over the way we use “gold” to illustrate what we feel but often cannot fully explain.

Two examples spring immediately to mind. A short decade ago the state Master Gardeners initiated a gold star badge award for individual Master Gardeners who had demonstrated continuous participation in Master Gardener projects and also excelled as teachers, organizers, workers and promoters of gardening skills throughout their communities and across all age levels.

This year the gold star badges were presented to a select group of honorees at the Master Gardener state meeting in Yankton. Three West River gardeners were among the recipients — Marge McColley of Custer, Brenda Pates of Piedmont and Theresa Treinan of Rapid City.

Their activities and interests demonstrate the standards of the gold star award. Each has worked in Master Gardener projects and local programs. They have taught classes, organized events like the Plant Share, the mid-winter gardening classes, Children’s Fair gardening activities and community education classes. They have helped establish community gardens and taught younger generations to grow and preserve foods. They are models for aspiring gardeners, willing mentors and helpers.

The other example of the use of the word “gold” to carry an expanded meaning is perhaps my favorite quote from our first president and notable gardening founder, George Washington. In 1785, Washington asked a friend to help him find a farm manager who was familiar with the usual farm tasks, but "above all, Midas like, one who can convert every thing he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold.”

Washington was referring, of course, to the compost pile, that absolute necessity in any garden large or small. He understood fully, by experience and familiarity, the stages of the transmutation of garden material as well as animal manures, although understanding the vital activity of microorganisms and bacteria and beneficial fungus probably eluded him.

As the brilliant golden yellow leaves fade a bit and fall, we will be gathering them to create a golden compost pile in the sure and certain knowledge that, come spring, that will have been transmuted into a very different gold material — humusy, rich, sweet-smelling compost garden gold, the best kind.

We must use words that describe excellence with care, I feel. In this case the sight of astonishingly golden leaves makes one grateful for the gift of vision. A gold star badge for the Master Gardeners is well earned and deserved. And Washington’s request for one who can make “gold” for the garden is as timely now as it was almost 230 years ago. Remember: he was serious — he never told a lie.

Seriously Strange Growing Season. Most gardeners are quite willing to say, “I don’t know” when faced with a question or situation that they don’t understand. It’s a fine answer. It’s truthful.

            However, for many of us, this truthful admission of bewilderment or ignorance was pilloried time and time again by this seriously strange growing season.

            For example, this year I grew grafted tomatoes and was thrilled with the performance of almost all the plants. Then we had the early, heart-breaking cold and I saw the vines, blackened and severely damaged but still loaded with tomatoes in various stages of ripeness. Would they ripen? I watched them mature normally. The scene was surreal. What’s going on? I don’t know.

            After the cold, I cut the columnar basil and potted tomatoes at ground level, intending to dump the soil later. After sunshine and warming days, I discover both the basils and several of the Patio tomatoes putting out new growth. How can this be? I don’t know.

            I never ever thought I would be picking four and a half pounds of nicely ripened tomatoes for slicing and juice and two and a half pounds of large green ones for frying in the middle of October, but I did. Is there an explanation? I don’t know.

            I say frequently that I want to be a student of the garden. I want to observe and be taught by the soil, the insects, birds and the plants.

            I think the basil resprouting was a fluke; perhaps the plant was more protected than I thought; perhaps the soil was warm enough to protect the roots. I don’t know.

            But the tomatoes…there I think I have a clue. Remember that with grafted plants and grafted tomatoes specifically, you have two plants – the super hardy root stock and, presumably, a hardy disease resistant scion chosen for its ability to produce massive amounts of fruits. The tomatoes that performed heroically after the cold were Costoluto Genevese, German Johnson, Black Krim, Pineapple and Cherokee Purple. Cherry tomato Indigo Sun was astonishing as was Pachino, a cherry not yet widely available. These are generally thought of as long-season tomatoes. Ripening fruit after severe cold (from a tomato’s point of view)? How can this be? I don’t know.

            Even the flowers behaved strangely. I have two whiskey barrels of petunias at the top of the steps to the back garden. In early October I noticed a single petunia plant blooming (purple Wave petunia) happily in the gravel walk way behind the house. Despite loving care I have never been able to grow petunia from seed. This had to have been planted by the wind or a bird…in gravel. How can this be? I haven’t a clue.

            Watching the plants more or less live on their own and perform in a manner that I could not have arranged, without my help or hindrance, is both humbling and exciting. I am in awe again of the driving force of plants to live, to produce flower, fruit and seed to keep the variety alive. I understand only a small bit of how they do it. It’s worth watching…as a student.

Gardening Is Doorway to Mindfulness.  Fall is the time of gathering-in, of vegetables, of seeds, or of ideas. It was those latter that I gathered in during the recent annual state-wide Master Gardener Update in Yankton.

            Keynote speaker, Kim Todd, Associate Professor and Extension Horticulture Specialist at the University of Nebraska Lincoln set the tone by displaying a bit of grammatical wizardry. She urged us to change the directive in landscaping from I want a (specific tree or plant…)” to I want to …create a space of color, or blend into the wildness of surroundings, or define a specific area. More than once Kim, well known for her presence on Back Yard Gardener (Google it), urged us to look deeply, to create a gentle footprint in our gardens.

            Bookending the Update was a presentation on Sunday by Michael McVey, MD, a well-known cardiologist interested in mind-body medicine. His topic was “Nature: a Doorway to Mindfulness”. He mentioned briefly that his interest in helping patients understand and practice mindfulness grew from a desire to help them deal with the stress that causes some illness and the stress of the illness itself.

            After a brief breathing exercise, he asked for comment. Many gardeners voiced that gardening was ‘dirt therapy’. Others described mood changes from anxious to peaceful by being in a garden. After a brief discussion, Dr. McVey read quotes from Buddhist literature and Chapter 4 – Sounds, in Walden, by Henry David Thoreau.

            Saying less and meaning more, the Buddhist statement is “…walk slowly and bow often…”  and implies making a gentle footprint and working with reverence. Hmmmm, let’s have a show of hands of those of us who race through the garden or garden tasks, raging at weeds or insects or weather without pause.

            Thoreau has given us many salient phrases to ponder that are invitations to further thought: “I did not read books that first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands…”

            Walking slowly, blooming in the present moment are powerful concepts. I wondered if they might not be a response, perhaps an antidote to concerns expressed in Soil and Civilization, written by ecologist, Edward Hyams in the 1950s. He states that humans are members of the soil community that ideally keeps itself in balance by observing the natural law of returns. But he opines that our treatment of the soil that sustains us is terrible. “ …it may be destruction first of the soil balance; then…of fundamental soil fertility; and this being the basis of life of the soil.... all living members of it perish, including, in the end, the community of men which brought about this death from turning from a contributing, co-operating member of a delicately adjusted organism, into a parasite upon it, and a parasite which it is not constructed to endure.”

            Ouch. I gathered-in a clearer sense of our options: acknowledge that we are of the soil and cherish it…or as a parasite kills its host, destroy it and perish.

Gardening in the Fall.  I take little pleasure that the recent foul and garden devastating weather set records. I tried to practice philosophical acceptance: seasons change, (tomato) plants mature and die; uncontrollable weather happens. That barely works to raise my spirits as I pull blacked and limp stems from my vegetable pots…Aha! Pots. There were some real successes so let’s begin there.

            I have commented often that I have no lovely level space, deep with rich loamy soil in which to have a traditional garden. However, I have learned to find vegetables that will produce happily in large containers. Each year the selection of these carefully developed plants expands, but there is more to growing in containers than just the plant selection.

            The recipe seems simple: pots, soil and plants. When choosing a container for vegetables, remember that most require from six to twelve inches of soil for good roots. Tomatoes need containers of at lest eighteen to twenty inches of depth.  Pay attention to the width of the container as well. Hungry, vigorous roots need room to spread. It is so easy to forget that at least half of the plant is out of our sight, underground.

            If in doubt, choose a larger container. Growing media for containers should be light, loose, nutrient rich and well draining. That means the gardener might well consider creating his own soil mixture. As an example, we use equal parts of Ball professional growing mix, available locally, and our homemade compost which is rich in composted chicken and horse manures. Then we add as much perlite or vermiculite as necessary to lighten the mix. Notice that native garden soil is not part of the mix.

            As we remove plants now (killed by the freeze but disease free), we dump and store the soil in large garbage cans. Next spring that is remixed, amended anew and used again.

            The good news is that there are more and more plants and seeds being offered that have been developed specifically for container culture. ‘Patio’ tomato has been around for almost three decades but it is hard to beat for an all purpose container tomato.

            Renee’s Garden Seeds  (Google it) has some of my favorite, always dependable, always-successful seeds specifically for containers. ‘Astia’ bush (Yes! Bush!) zucchini is not only lovely but also a steady producer of just perfect 6-8” zucchini. She offers a selection of  gourmet French filet beans…slender, tender, stringless and altogether divine that love growing in pots. The fairytale eggplants, ‘Hansel’ and Gretel’ do well in pots. She also offers seeds for a container tomato, ‘Superbush’ which at 77 days from transplant might come in a little later than ‘Patio’ but it surely is worth trying.

            Check Landreth Seeds (Google it) under Special Collections – Children’s Garden to find a wide assortment of seeds for container culture.

            There is information to be found on various state Cooperative Extension sites about growing vegetables in containers. Know, however that most of that information assumes that regular garden seeds will be used in containers.

            Look for plants and seeds that have been developed especially for container culture, a slightly different take on gardening.

Gardening Lessons Soar on Butterfly's Torn Wings

      Many of us know the pleasure of gardening with small children.

     Seen through a child's eyes, gardens can be truly magical places, filled with rainbows of color, animal, bird and weather sounds, unfamiliar creatures and glorious scents.

     Gardens can also be the setting for life lessons, especially when presented in chapter-book form by an accomplished author.

     Nancy Lorraine, a retired social worker and an active master gardener, has combined her understanding of children and her love of gardens and their creatures with the lush watercolors of Dorothy Herron to produce a sweet chapter book for young readers, Tatty, the Lonely Monarch (Prose press).

      Tatty begins her first long migration to Mexico from South Carolina with a major challenge: one of her wings was ripped and is damaged. As the little butterfly's trip begins, she encounters numerous situations that children can identify with readily: she can't keep up with her "family"; she relies for help on the kindness of strangers--a gleeful chickadee, the busy inhabitants of a garden (a toad, some bumblebees, a tiny lizard regarding butterflies as meals on the wing, all watched over by a cat lurking beneath the bushes).

     It is her encounter with Hector the_Hummingbird that helps her realize that she needn't fly to Mexico. The Gulf Coast is a reasonable, reachable destination.

      Each chapter "adventure" is filled with garden information that any adult can elaborate on. There are lists of nectar plants that butterflies crave. There are gentle--but--truthful allusions to insect life and death in a garden. There is a lovely description of a cluster of butterflies"playing tag." Any of us who have stopped work on numerous occasions to watch butterflies at play can relate to the beauty of that moment.

      This book's text and illustrations offer gentle encouragement to learn and to plant the nectar plants that draw and support butterflies in the garden. The true gardeners "tools" are the excellent end notes and photographs, the list of resource books about butterflies and attracting insects to the garden and a list of helpful web sites. Personally I was delighted to see the Xerces Society listed as a resource, In my view, anyone interested in learning about the value of a large and varied insect population in the garden would be well-advised to explore the information available from the Xerces Society.

     The book fits well in a child's hands, or better yet, in the hands of a caring adult reading it and sharing the story and pictures with a treasured child.

     It is available in hardback or soft back editions from Amazon online.  By all means, consider this as a gift for your favorite child or children--and plan to plant and share a butterfly garden this coming summer.


Giving thanks.  Even though I understand fully the economic importance of this day, Black Friday (and Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday), I want to step out of the shopping crowd for two reasons.

      First, Thanksgiving Day is a fine holiday with a noble purpose and anything that will encourage us, however briefly, to tally the goodness that fills our life deserves acknowledgement and respect and I can’t do that on the run.

Second, gardening shares with Thanksgiving a spiritual aesthetic that most will acknowledge but many find difficult to articulate. I was struck by a comment of contemporary author Anne Lamott, who said that “(writing) motivates you to look closely at life as it lurches by and tramps around.”

I would suggest that gardening provides that "look-closely" opportunity as well. Bent over, on hands and knees, the task demands total attention. Is there a benefit to this sort of total mindfulness other than a sunburned neck and a growing pile of weeds?

To my delight I found a communication from John Caddy, relative to his website morning-earth.org, that includes earth education, stunning nature photographs and insightful poetry. Speaking of the need to protect wild nature, he states that most humans are now urban, distanced and often afraid of nature. He adds ominously that we will not protect what we do not love. And we surely aren’t thankful for it.

But consider his words glossing a photograph of autumnal oak leaves:

“In the oaks

brown has chased the last

of chlorophyll green

and anthocyanin red

from stubborn leaves

as sap retreats to root

and browns prepare to fall

Once on soil

brown will sink to black,

sharing again minerals that roots

sucked from subsoils

dissolved and pushed into leaf buds

riding spring sap resurgent”

To me, this is thanks aplenty — appreciation of color, of soil chemistry, of nature’s cycles, of death and rebirth. This observation requires the calm, quiet stillness and keen observation that many, including me, would call a spiritually fulfilling moment.

Garden writer Fran Sorin, broke new ground with her book "Digging Deep," (2007) which discussed gardening as she described it “…within the context of transformation, creativity, and spiritually.” I don’t think she speaks of tidy soldier rows of tulips. Rather, her background and experience as a media person, ecologist and ordained interfaith minister provokes her to encourage us to pause, breathe deeply and slowly (at least) once a day to marvel at nature. Softly speak the words, “Thank you,” she suggests. Enjoy a state of surrounding gratefulness and peace.

The point is that although it is painful to some of us to see Thanksgiving pushed to the remainder rack, the reality is that we can and should celebrate Thanksgiving daily, watching closely for those connective moments of appreciation as life lurches by.

It’s a simple process: Stop; be alert to sounds, sights, smells; and allow yourself to savor and to absorb the wonder of it all.

And remember to say "thank you."

Thanksgiving Musings 

Well, here we are -- digging out the turkey platter, shining the silver and stalking the seasonal cranberry. This is the month of Thanksgiving, and let us not allow the very serious business of thoughtful gratitude get blindsided by the coming holidays.

I think it is vital that we are thankful for more than a sumptuous meal and friends and family. And forget the Pilgrims for a moment. It is possible they were more lucky than thankful.

We are correct to be grateful for a fine harvest and our souls are fed by the act of sharing. We are well advised to be aware and grateful for the skills, hard work and wisdom of our farmers. These are the folk who for unnumbered generations have had their hands and hearts in the soil, who read the weather signs, who dialogue with the seeds and cherish them, who understand the cycles of bird, animal and insect movement, and who tend the crops.

Far from the over-loaded table, our thankfulness for life begins in the fertile soil. But the soil, as we know, is not a single entity. Soil -- the uncountable life forms, (perhaps a googleplex - a 1 followed by 100 zeros) also must eat.

Our family’s experience living in cultures where the primary festival was the placing of seed in soil certainly changed how I see Thanksgiving. I am profoundly grateful for seed and those who care for it. I know that the vigor of the seed depends on the vigor of the soil and the activity of a myriad of microscopic critters whose life cycles and chemical abilities contribute mightily to the soil. And there are the soil creatures we can see: crickets, centipedes, millipedes, ants, and more. But what I love to see are the worms.

Worms? Why be grateful for worms? Turn a spade of garden soil and if you expose a wriggling earthworm or two, you have good, nutrient rich soil. And we know that healthy soil will produce healthy plants, which will produce healthy crops, which when consumed will produce healthy people who then have a party to be grateful.

But, as seems always to be the case when we think about profound, numinous matters, there is a circular feeling to all of this. We can – and in far too many places – kill our soil. We have that frightening ability. To maintain the circle of life, if one cares to see it that way, we must feed our soil, acknowledge that we are all connected, admit that however humbling, we all feed in some way, each other.

For us this welcome month of introspection, gratitude and awareness begins with gathering leaves for the compost pile and the jillions of bacteria, fungi and other life forms that will eat it. Shells of squash, peelings of vegetables and fruits are added. All winter, the compost pile and the mulched gardens will rest, eat and deposit nutrients into the soil that I cannot obtain in a box. Come spring, the compost is spread, the garden eats and in the fullness of time we eat.

The circle turns. And we are grateful.

Our Recent October Blizzard

Many words come to mind to describe the early October, 2013 blizzard. The one that fits for me is ‘surreal’, which generally describes a 20th century avant-garde approach to art and literature, and which features irrational juxtaposition of images.

We had irrational events and scenes in abundance: warm temperatures, horizontal wind and snow, still-leafed trees toppled by a deadly snow load and shrub roses blooming above shallow drifts.

            However irrational this may have been, the tragedy, the heartbreak, the loss in plant material and money is measureable and painfully raw.

            As gardeners, what do we do? What can we do? How do we react rationally in the face of a devastating, irrational event?

            Clean up. Carry on. Get a clearer vision of what happened and what we do next. In the face of this, as irrational as this might sound, it is beneficial to be patient before making Draconian decisions about home landscaping. Let some time pass to see if and how the woody landscape recovers. We actually have until late winter to trim and clean and ponder and plan.

            Ah, to plan. If that includes change, that can bring conflicted emotions as well. Perhaps there is a realization that tall, brittle trees are not the best choice for an area exposed to hard north and northwest winds. Perhaps there is a decision to replace with smaller landscape trees that are easier to prune and maintain. Perhaps thought will be given to building a sturdy gazebo or a pergola to provide the shade previously given by a magnificent cottonwood.

            As time passes and emotions heal, there are some lessons to be learned from this, no matter how rare an event it might have been.

            The first lesson is to be very familiar with how the wind affects your property. Know the prevailing winds and how snow will drift. Snow fences are not a common garden embellishment but there might be purpose is being able to put them up fall through spring to protect vulnerable plantings. Be especially caring of new plantings that might have to break that wind. Remember that generally one considers that a snow fence will slow/redirect/break the wind and snow for a distance six times the height of the fence. Thus if you have a four foot tall (snow) fence, it will break the force of the wind and drop snow up to twenty-four feet.

            The second lesson is to be dedicated to the care and correct maintenance of the tree. Know when and what to prune. There is an abundance of instructional material that is not only helpful for the homeowner, but if used wisely,  beneficial  for the life of the tree.

            The third lesson is buy with your head and not your heart. Put the right tree in the right place.

            The event, the memories, the reality of calamity may seem surreal. But our responses can and must be calm, caring and rational.

The Very Cool Days of Fall

            When the temperature shifts from warm to cool, it engages all manner of fleeting delights. We enjoy watching the Virginia Creeper vines in the trees turn burgundy as flocks of birds come to feast on the ripening berries. I wander through the gardens, tea in hand, doing a casual summary of the summer garden activity. 

This year there were fewer butterflies, bumble bees and leaf cutter bees. But pollination was good so perhaps my determination not to spray paid off. I had purchased two praying mantis egg cases and discovered four mantid adults in various parts of the garden. I can only hope they will find and use an insect dating site (E-Harmony for bugs?) and flourish next year. I saw no blister beetles although I saw slight damage. Not one grasshopper was spotted in the gardens. Swirling curtains of birds graced the gardens all summer.

            Late last winter, good friend and fellow Master Gardener Tammy Glover encouraged me to grow dahlias (for the first time). I took every bit of advice I could find. The flowers were fine enough to do well at Central States Fair. Then we had the last August early September deadly heat. I watched the plants fry on the west deck. Once I realized that dahlias were originally from the highlands of Mexico and Central America, I made plans to grow them next year on the east deck (morning sun and afternoon shade). From the staff at Old House Gardens I learned that the Dahlia Society of Georgia (Google it) has a lengthy list of varieties that do well in the south (read: heat tolerant.) When I found the name of the one plant that still thrives on the deck (Thomas A. Edison), I realized this is a trustworthy source. I’ll grow and enjoy dahlias again next year…and they will all be heat tolerant.

            Dr. John Ball, SDSU Extension Forester spoke at the recent state Master Gardener Update on the subject of new thoughts on pruning. My attention was caught by a comment he made when discussing the response of Sioux Falls to the tragic and destructive spring ice storm. He said that while it was good that groups were organizing to replant trees, he wishes that that same enthusiasm, and sense of purpose could be acted upon to care for – mulch and prune – those new trees every year for the first ten years. If that were done, he said, the incidence of fatal damage and tree removal would go down markedly. There would be money saved, homeowners’ pleasure in their property heightened and beautiful, healthy trees gracing yards and parks.

            That is such a simple fix. We must not let ‘maintenance’ become a dreaded four-letter word. Knowledge about the tree’s needs – regular, correct mulching, and knowledgeable pruning when the tree is young will lengthen the tree’s life and strengthen its vigor. The local greenhouses have free guide sheets on correct pruning.  Ask for guidance for your trees. The city provides excellent wood chip mulch for trees and shrubs. ‘Maintenance’ is good. Now, there is a four-letter word that should guide all of us in our gardens.

 

Fall Brings Changes to the Garden 

The autumnal equinox arriving on September 23, along with presumably atavistic cues like cooling sun rays, soft-edged air, ripening fruit, and plants setting seed conspire to re-set my personal garden clock. I no longer panic if the entire garden is not watered by early morning. I have no seedlings to mother. Life in the garden is good – slower, cooler, changing. We have time to watch the emerald hummingbird that has paid two calls on the agastache on the front deck. Simple weeding has become methodical weeding, cutting back and mulching. Maintenance is a rhythmic cadence with no rush.

            It was in this watchful reverie that I noticed not simply the appearance of my favorite fall aster but also its sheer, eye­-popping abundance this year.  Aster ericoides, our sweet, native, wonderfully floriferous heath aster is blooming now. This captivating little plant’s floral display reminds me of the floral abundance seen on the old-fashioned Wedding Veil spirea, but shrunk to become a plant that might be six inches high and 18 inches wide. The tiny strap like leaves on the woody stems are unnoticeable. Ah! But the flowers, each one half inch wide,  smaller than a dime, fill the stem and  approximately twenty snow-white petals surround each corn-gold center. They sparkle in the meadows and along the roadsides like scattered stars.

            So disbelieving was I that to check that they were not in fact the seed heads of something like the dread sow thistle,  I pulled to the side of the road and stopped to confirm this glorious display of end-of-season flowers.

            I have two or three of the plants that moved into the garden courtesy of the wind or perhaps a bird. I would love more, lots more. A quick search of the USA plant database indicated that the plant is widespread from the east coast to the Rockies, the eastern half of Canada and most of the counties in South Dakota. I feel very strongly that this is a plant we need to invite from the meadows into our area gardens. It belongs in rock gardens, in xeric settings, in full sun exposures. We need to claim this as our own.

            I once tried to dig one from our pasture. It has a serious root and the attempt was a failure. It sets abundant seeds but I know nothing about germinating the seeds of our wild  natives. A scientific site assured me I could propagate from green wood cuttings but it assumes a skill I do not have.

            This is one of those natives that we who love them (and the late season pollinators) need to lead cheers for and ask that the plant be available in our local greenhouses in the spring. Just as we adore the native pasque and geum triflorum (Prairie Smoke) in the spring and the leadplant in the summer, so should we learn to love the sweet heath aster, aster ericoides.

 

Latin Lessons and Garden Maintenance

The British Broadcasting Company online news recently announced that researchers at the University of Oxford found the stable isotope Nitrogen-15 in the 8,000 year old, charred remains of various grains in several Neolithic sites in Europe. This is big news because that isotope is abundant in animal manures and it led the researchers to postulate that the New Stone Age (10,200 BC to 4,500 BC) tribes kept animals, practiced in-place farming and knew the value of manure to the soil and to crops. The article further states that “...they (the Neolithic farmers) invested in plots of land and cultivated it for future generations.”

            This strongly suggests that the bond of humans working the soil, using manures and maintaining the health of the soil for future use is both long and strong.

            I thought immediately of our Sturgis High School Latin classes taught by Bea Knapp where we conjugated verbs and declined nouns and adjectives under her enthusiastic supervision. Because of her and what we learned in that class, I believe I can establish a historical line from the Neolithic hand to that of the 21st century gardener. The Latin word for hand is manus and its earliest recorded use meant to 'work with the hands.’ That suggests a profound intimacy with the soil.

            Next, thanks to the beginning of technical understanding the word ‘manufacture’ appeared in use. Translated literally it means ‘to make with the hands.’ The meaning of the word responded to the growth of cities and changed needs.

            Following soon, we have the appearance and use of ‘maintain’ which means to  ‘hold in one’s hands’ (in a caring, responsible manner.) At that point my mind moved from the entertaining harrowing of Latin root words to the Existential responsibility of maintaining that which is in our care – in this case, our soil and environment.

            I learned early on in gardening that ‘maintain’ is not a four-letter word. But each of us knows gardens that have failed because they were not maintained. We did not hold them gently and responsibly in our care.

            We are approaching the season of serious maintenance. This is when we trim, cut back, shred, and stack material for the compost pile. This is when we spread the animal manures just as the Neolithics did to ensure fertility for the coming year. This is when we clean, oil, sharpen and otherwise maintain our manufactured tools – so crucial to efficient gardening. This is when we look with pride and satisfaction at garden beds sleeping under layers of mulch knowing that because the soil is alive, it is eating and spreading nourishment throughout for the coming year’s crops.

            Chipped fingernails, ragged cuticle and permanently earth-stained fingers are something – along with experience and knowledge – that we share with those Neolithic farmers. I would hope we also share those marvelous hands.

Autumn is a good time to relax, reflect and read

After we enjoy the crisping air, mourn briefly over the tomato vines, black and grotesque from the killing frost, we begin to look ahead. That’s just the way we are.  We are well served by having short term goals  and  long term goals. That works for the garden as well as  the gardener.

            Thus, for the garden, here are my short term goals. First, assemble all the materials (leaves, clean garden debris, animal  manures mixed with city yard waste compost) and  get the compost pile built. Watch the weather and water whenever possible until the ground is frozen. Sometime around Thanksgiving (if we are not buried in snow) when the soil is cold, get the gardens mulched to a depth of at least three inches to protect them from intermittent winter warmth. This, in a sense, gives the gardens a jacket and a packed lunch for the garden to consume over the winter. By spring very little of that material will be left on the surface of  the soil. And if you have watered as long as possible, all your garden and landscaping will survive.

            Then , it is time to relax with a good book or two…or twelve. I recommend The Murder of  Nikolai Vavilov (2008) by British author and correspondent Peter Pringle. Pringle was co-editor of Food Inc, a book (and movie) about industrial agriculture; and Where Our Food Comes From, by  Gary Paul Nabhan , an agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist, activist, and faculty member at  the University of Arizona. Nabhan is one of the founders of  Native Seed/Search, which is the source of the Flamenco  tomato that  performed  so  well here this summer  in the heat.

With the interest in heirloom foods, the importance of agricultural biodiversity, seed saving, and the spectre  of the loss of a vibrant, broadly-based agriculture , I suggest the book on Vavilov , in addition to be a chilling remembrance of Stalin’s rule, will clearly illustrate not only the connection but the  need to honor and protect the seed  knowledge  of  numerous cultures. As a side note, Vavilov’s gardens at  Leningrad , USSR, were recently in peril to real estate developers. Seed saving groups as  well as  academicians and politicians  launched  a  campaign to save  his gardens and the plants growing there for the seed banks.

            Nabhan’s book is a contemporary (2009) retracing of Vavilov’s travels to visit again those sites where Vavilov collected seed, did research and learned  from tribal farmers. Nabhan’s journeys were not so extensive as Vavilov’s, but listing only some should  raise  the blood  pressures  of those who value travel and  respect the  knowledge of other  cultures.  I’d love to have these  visas in my passport: the Pamirs, the  Po  valley, the Levant, the Maghreb, Ethopia, Kazakhstan,  the Sierra  Madre and the Amazon.

            These two highly readable books are geographies, political intrigue, cultural discovery, a challenge to industrial agriculture and a measured survey of efforts to find and protect native seeds.

            Both books are in print. Check the library or on line sources.

Thanksgiving

Someplace between the frenzy and fiscal foolishness of Halloween and the manic monied moments of Black Friday, we mislaid a vital part of Thanksgiving. Surely there is abundant, glorious, traditional food on the festive day and surely we are filled with grateful anticipation for the meal to come as we take our seats around the festive table. But I feel there is more to be remembered.

            According to folk history, the Native Americans shared their harvest of fish, fowl and vegetables from their gardens with the European newcomers. Their motives for this generosity can be speculated but probably never exactly known. But we know this: the Europeans were fed by natives who knew how to farm.

            Early in America’s history, Presidents Madison and Jefferson held strong views of America as an agrarian republic, defined as a country of independent farmers. Indeed, in 1790 90% of our citizens were farmers. Everyone had a vegetable garden, usually a kitchen garden tended by women and children, located near the kitchen door. Field crops were a bit removed from the house and tended by men and boys. We fed ourselves from our gardens.

            As cities grew, demographics changed and wars – first the Civil War, then World War I - rearranged the availability of young men to farm. Horses replaced oxen, family gardens near the home gave way to market gardens on the fringes of town and by 1910 only 31% of our population were farmers.

            The pattern of home gardening – and there is one – is influenced by many factors.  Early on, one factor was space… space in the cities (home gardens), space near the cities (market gardens), and space for hay meadows to feed farm animals.

Change was rapid and memories of self-sufficiency were short. Cities grew, fed by a rapidly growing transportation technology that delivered food from great distances. Wars brought a revival of home gardens – Liberty Gardens and Victory Gardens; good times saw the gardens vanish.

            As the events of our history took us from fear of hunger to confidence of abundant food, we lost a sense of regional food, of eating seasonally, of eating locally. Many of us no longer knew the farmers who worked the land, who planted the seed, who gathered the harvest. We also lost a reverential awareness of what our land, our immediate area could produce.

            By 1970 fewer than 5% of Americans were living and working on their farms.  Slowly, and fueled by many and disparate motives, some of America’s families, mostly young, began to establish home gardens. Traditional teachers – parents, grandparents, and neighbors – had become disconnected from the soil. Farmers, those who grow the food, seemed, and often were, very distant.

            On Thanksgiving I give thanks for those among us who cherish the seed, who nurture the soil and the plants, who share the harvest – the farmers, the growers, the gardeners.  We need to remember that this combined act of cherishing, nurturing and sharing one’s own personal harvest was in place before the first Europeans placed a foot on the shore.

            It is quite possibly America’s oldest tradition.       

News


15 Slow-Growing Seeds Smart Gardeners Start In March 

Some seeds must be started indoors in most parts of the country — otherwise their fruit may not come to maturity before fall frosts:

1. Basil

2. Broccoli

3. Cauliflower

4. Celery

5. Eggplant

6. Kohlrabi

7. Mint

8. Oregano

9. Peppers

10. Tomatoes

11. Cabbage

12. Cucumbers

13. Melons

14. Parsley

15. Squash (summer and winter, including zucchini)

 


more such survival gardening from Off the Grid News