Garden Gifts

Agrostemma
Agrostemma

Between April showers, I’ve been playing in the garden–weeding, digging up perennials to share, planting carrots and greens and sweet peas. My bee colony died in December so I cleaned out the hive and on Saturday I installed a new package of Carniolan honeybees. The next day they were out and about, returning to the hive with pollen. I missed the golden sparks of bees, and it’s a joy to have them buzzing around. The cat and chickens keep me company in the garden while carefully avoiding each other. Henry has been known to pop out of nowhere to startle a chicken minding her own business, but they have been known to chase and peck him when he’s not paying attention. Their antics provoke me into snorts of chuckling.

Something about the garden gathers my focus and slows my thoughts. My attention turns to the feel of fingers in the soil, to tending and ordering. To tiny seeds and their potential. I hear a high-pitched racket moving from south to north and gaze up to see a V of birds winging toward nesting grounds. Not sure what they are, perhaps lesser Canada geese or brant. The lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” run through my head—-
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to you imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It is spring and the world is full of possibilities. What will you grow this summer? I offer seeds I collected from agrostemmas last year. They are tall and airy pink annuals, easy to grow in sun with average water. Add a comment to this post if you want some and I will contact you about where to send a small packet of seeds so you can try agrostemma for yourself.

99 Daffodils

She grew daffodils. At first, she dug up bulbs from old homesteads nearby. Later, when the Breck’s catalogs came in the mail she would order some. They had names like ‘King Alfred’, ‘Rosy Cloud’, ‘Mrs. R.O. Backhouse’. In time the flowers multiplied, surrounding the house with clumps and drifts of daffodils. After the long dreary winters in southwest Washington, the yellow interspersed with cream and orange was a cheerful sight. Neighbors passing on the road would honk and wave when they saw what was going on at Dorothy’s house. Everyone enjoyed the daffodils, including me. Most years I tried to visit my grandparents during rainy blustery March, and I always came away with an arm-filling bouquet.

After Grampa died, Gramma’s zest for gardening declined. She wasn’t physically able to tend the domestic landscape she had tinkered with for years. Daffodils don’t need much care, so they came up every spring and she looked forward to that. I was instructed to dig up a bunch to plant at my house. They haven’t thrived here, and I don’t know why. Daffodils usually grow happily and multiply. For me, they straggle along slowly after the snow has melted. There are never enough of them that I feel I can bring any into the house. They are best enjoyed outside.

But I’m trying again. Gramma departed from this world in August at the age of 99. Today I finished planting the last of the 99 daffodil bulbs in her memory. I sent for a bag of 100 from Van Engelen, and was delighted at how big and robust the bulbs were. The collection is called “Sparkling Spring Mixture”, which reminded me of Gramma. I dug holes along the west side of my house between viburnum and ocean spray bushes. The shovel clanked on rocks left here by a retreating glacier. I picked some out and nestled seven or eight bulbs in each hole. Then I sprinkled the dirt back into the holes, and hoped for the best. Maybe there will be a long row of sparkling spring daffodils next March and April.

The hundredth daffodil bulb I tucked into a corner in another part of the garden. It’s a sentimental place, my garden. Like my gramma, I dig plants up from elsewhere. Some are from her place–the honeysuckle, peonies, phlox, goatsbeard, ferns, hop vine, Christmas rose. The latter is a start she got from the Benthien Brothers Nursery near Orting in the 1940s or 50s–my grampa’s maternal family (Benthiens) had a horticultural bent. That must come down through blood and bone, because I am certainly not the only gardener among my relatives. I’m trying to think of a single one of them who doesn’t have at least a partial green thumb or appreciation for plants.

The garden is tucked in. The leaves have been raked and piled for composting. Beds have been composted, the last lanky plants cut back. Garlic has been planted, and two plastic tunnels protect kale and other greens. I even tacked black tar paper to three sides of the beehive, to help the bees stay a little warmer this winter. A few staggered out when I swiped a little bit of honeycomb from them–both boxes are nearly full, so they should eat well till spring. The ground is frozen an inch deep, and a few flakes fell as I finished the chores. Even under snow, I can see the structure of my garden and remember how it looks when it’s growing. For now though, it rests.

Garden Update



“Gardening is an instrument of grace.”

May Sarton

Recent posts have been all about the woods, so it’s time to check in with the garden. Lettuce is flourishing, which means salad every day. A bowl of lettuce dressed with garlic and balsamic vinaigrette makes me happy, but super-fresh radishes, grated carrots and a few cilantro leaves give the lettuce flavors and textures to play with. My current favorite combination is ‘Buttercrunch’, ‘Continuity’ and ‘Two Star’. Many other varieties are growing as well, as I happily indulge my whim to try nearly every kind of lettuce there is.

The weather swings from cold and windy to warm and sunny and back again. In spite of this, the tomato plants are filling out. There is even one tiny green tomato. Pea vines climb. Cucumbers and beans are planted. Flowers too.

The garden really seems established this year. I wander around out there, remembering how it looked before I started digging and planting. It’s gone through many stages. I reflect on the changes from weeds to flowers and paths. Some plants have died, some have moved–dug up by me, or wandered on their own. Billows of purple catmint entice the bees. Two kinds of dianthus bloom now, filling the air with a clove pink scent that reminds me of my gramma’s house long ago. Purple and gold irises stand stately by the arbor. There are rose buds coming along, and lilies. Volunteer sunflowers will bloom before the seeds I planted do.

Time retreats when I am in the garden. In Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton frequently describes flowers she has brought from her garden to enjoy in the house. This book was published in 1973, and she wrote how important it is to garden in order to slow down and connect with nature. Important then, perhaps critical now. When I think of 1973 compared to 2012, it seems like a faraway simpler time even though I know it was not.

Well. I feel fortunate to have my little patch of dirt with growing things. Lucky to be able to walk outside and pick something to eat. And to have bees living a few steps from the house. An everchanging tapestry of flowers to nourish my senses. A place to touch my feet to the ground, and slow down. It’s never finished, and that’s good.

Changes Every Day

Poking around in the garden this afternoon, it struck me as it does every year: spring reaches a point where it barrels ahead faster than I can pay attention. I visit my garden daily and make the rounds to see what’s new. It moves at a slow pace in March, but after some rain, a spell of warm weather and more rain, it seems that the growth and change just start erupting.

The little clump of trilliums have opened in the shade garden. Two kinds of anemones are blooming, the currant bushes have leafed out. I can walk out for fresh chives and parsley to add to recipes. A coworker gave me a huge bag of rhubarb, which I have stewed into sauce. I’ll have some with my morning yogurt and think of my grandparents who enjoyed it as a spring tonic. It’s one of the year’s first fresh foods after winter. Fresh nearly-local asparagus is available at the produce stands. My first sowing of lettuce is ready to harvest as baby greens. Henry can be found pouncing on bugs in the grass.

The bees are taking sugar water from their feeder, and are also bringing pollen back to the hive. There’s a spot on the ground where the sugar water drips, and often I see mourning cloak butterflies there along with wasps. The air is filled with bird sound–juncos trilling in tree tops, white-crowned sparrows, evening grosbeaks, tree swallows. A pair of rufous hummingbirds has set up shop nearby, and they keep up a vigorous conversation of chirps. I wonder if they’re nesting? I wonder where the Steller’s jays are nesting?

This is my fieldwork now. April is almost as frustrating as November for trail technicians. Winter recreation season has ended, we’ve taken down all the signs, and are almost ready to hang up the snowshoes. The snow melts and rivers are high with murky water. There are reports to compile, grant applications for funding to write, summer projects to plan and coordinate. It seems too early to be thinking about work parties in August–we don’t know what damage the melting snow will reveal. I’m still filing crosscut saws and overhauling hand tools. And recovering from a nasty cold.

So I am especially fond of my little native plant gardens right now. They remind me of the woods, and of specific places. It’s considered unethical to to dig up wild plants. But I confess I’ve done it. These wild onions and pussytoes were retrieved while doing fall drainage along a trail on Table Mountain. The bulbs and roots were dry, just lying there in the dirt. I brought them home, and they have thrived. I have a deer fern that was dug up during the reconstruction of the Tired Creek trail. It came home in a plastic bag–I keep a few in my pack in the fall, because that’s the best time to transplant. Just in case. Other plants have been dug up from Gramma’s place in western Washington (we share a love of native plants), and purchased at a native plant nursery. So I don’t have wild patches of forest floor or shrub steppe, only semi-feral conglomerations.

From a purely practical point of view, there are few reasons to grow plants that don’t produce food for human or animal bodies. Having committed fully to my artistic nature, I gave up on being purely practical long ago. For me, gardening can have an element of the irrational–I keep coming back to the memory of an old Elvis Costello song about useless beauty. Is it useless? A fascination with living things, the cycle of the seasons, the predictable and the surprising, the reminder that the lilies of the field neither toil nor spin, the hands in the dirt and feet on the ground, the green that arises from death and decay, the feeding of the soul that comes from participating in life. The past and the future dwell in my garden, as a thread of continuity. But the joy is in this moment, as I step out onto the front porch to listen for frogs singing in the rainy evening and hope for a whiff of spring to penetrate my stuffy nose.

Garden Tunnel

It’s been snowing here. I feel smug because I have lettuce and radishes started out in the tunnel.

This evolved because when I initially rototilled the garden spot, logging chokers and battery cables and other cultural artifacts turned up. A neighbor walking by told me the junk man used to live here. Hm. No way was I going to plant my food in that soil. I found the plans for raised garden boxes in Sunset magazine, took a deep breath and invested in cedar lumber. Then I did research on wood treatments, and chose a product called Lifetime which was the safest thing I could find for use with garden soil. I cut the lumber to size to make three 4′ X 8′ boxes, treated the wood, and assembled with stainless steel lag screws. The 4″ X 4″ posts in each corner measured 16″, and were buried in the soil to stabilize the boxes in place. I leveled them, then filled with purchased topsoil. It was full of bark mulch and gravel which I screened out with a hardware cloth screen. Over the years I have added homemade compost and watched the soil structure and fertility improve.

The next development was the tunnel. Pico passed along some PVC hoops, and I figured out how to keep them in place by using galvanized pipe straps from the hardware store. At first I clipped clear plastic to the hoops, then found a better idea in Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest. He drapes the plastic over the hoops then draws the ends together and stakes them, which keeps the plastic taut. What I have learned is that PVC won’t take the snow load. I dream of hoops made of aluminum electrical conduit. 5 mil plastic is the way to go, and I leave plenty of overhang down the side of the boxes. It’s easy to lift the plastic to plant, water, harvest. When the weather settles and the wind stops blowing, I put the hoops and plastic away till fall.

For a couple of years, I’ve been thinking about how to put in automatic irrigation so that the garden stays watered when I’m out in the backcountry. One year I tried thin soaker hose, but there wasn’t enough water pressure to lift up into the raised beds. I’m still scratching my head on this problem, and am determined to do more experimenting this year.

This way of gardening has worked out well for me, and I’ve added more boxes. I don’t have to till, and I hardly have to weed. I can plant intensively and use the space efficiently. Every year the soil gets better. I rotate crops, and can grow greens from March to December. The four raised beds are surrounded by pea gravel paths, which act as solar mass and heat the soil earlier in the spring. I didn’t intend that, but it worked out.

That’s the thing about gardening–you get to keep learning. Every place you garden is a little different. The weather here is a challenge, and the garden varies from year to year. For me the payoff is seeing those sprouts of green as seeds germinate, followed by harvest and the joy of eating and sharing homegrown produce. Knowing where your food comes from–what could be more satisfying?

The Tunnel

Gardening is painting the canvas of the earth.
Jean-Luc Danneyrolles

There’s plenty going on in the garden these days. Bulbs blooming, perennials breaking dormancy, rhubarb pushing up through its compost blanket. This is the third or fourth spring that I’ve had the lettuce tunnel. The idea was to extend harvest in the fall, and start plants earlier in the spring. I’ve also had some success wintering over cold-weather crops, such as the kale in the photo. Lettuce can be started in the fall and left to come back with renewed vigor when warmth hits the plastic.

I’m reading Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman. He and his wife are market gardeners in Maine, and they have refined year-round gardening to an art. Part of the book is taken up by stories about their travels to France to learn about winter gardening there, as well as raising ducks and root cellaring. There is solid information on organic soilbuilding and composting, in addition to selecting varieties to grow in cold weather. What excites me are the ample illustrations for cold frames, high tunnels and planting schemes. If I had more space and time, what experiments I could conduct! And food I could grow!

I have learned from my 4′ X 8′ raised bed. 6 mil plastic is better than 4 or 5. Plastic hoop supports are not strong enough for the snow load here. They collapse and can only be repaired a couple times. I’ve seen plans in Mother Earth News for making hoops from electrical conduit, and that seems the way to go. There are various techniques for keeping the plastic taut through snow and wind. It’s possible for the tunnel to get too hot when the sun hits it all day, so remembering to pull up the plastic on warm days is essential. Radishes do very well in there. So does lettuce. Last year I had the best spinach I ever grew. I am fond of mesclun, a mix of baby lettuces and greens–the possibilities are endless. A couple times a year I add more compost, and keep small crops rotating as much as I can. When summer weather finally settles, the plastic comes off till the fall rains.

The only downside to the tunnel is that it’s a highly preferred nap spot for a certain heat-seeking cat who has no regard for my little plants. Keeping the soil damp seems to discourage him, but he waits for me to let my guard down. Brat.

He had to leave when I showed up with the watering can.

Compost

As I tidy the garden for winter, it’s time to put compost on the vegetable beds. Compost is amazing stuff–a soil amendment made from things I would otherwise throw away. My maple tree drops all of its leaves, and I rake them up. The whole pile goes into a bin, along with grass clippings, some horse poop, and other yard “waste” like iris leaves. I have another bin for kitchen scraps: coffee grounds, tea bags, carrot peels, apple cores, faded flowers, egg shells, and on and on. During the hottest part of summer, I water the compost, and sometimes poke the spading fork down in to stir it.

What happens is like magic, but it has a scientific explanation. A compost pile is a sort of ecosystem. Invertebrate creatures find their way to the bins, and chew the vegetable matter into smaller pieces. Decay happens. The whole pile cooks and rots. It’s dead stuff, but full of life. Twice a year, I completely turn the piles over, and sift out the finished compost using a hardware cloth screen. Anything not cooked is returned to the bins. I end up with wheelbarrow loads of rich deep brown organic material. Sometimes I use it as mulch, but most of it goes into the vegetable beds to amend the soil.

It seems thrifty and smart to maintain my backyard compost bins. I reduce what I put into the waste stream, and I build my garden soil. There’s no reason not to compost, not even when I have to traipse out the the bins in the dark, in the winter, in the snow. It’s still worthwhile.