Monthly Archives: September 2008
Everybody's a Critic

Ok. I was wrong. And here’s a free book to make up for it.


What was I thinking, picking on dumb, generic gardening advice for the colder zones only? There’s plenty of boring, meaningless fall gardening advice across all the zones, heck, even across oceans.

A few choice bits:

From North Carolina— Clean out your vegetable garden of overgrown and harvested plants; clean out the weeds while you’re at it.
I hate to think of all the weeds and leftover tomato vines that would be choking the gardens of NC if that hadn’t been printed.

From Australia: Yates has just released its new Dynamic Lifter Advanced for Fruit and Citrus, and this excellent product will ensure your trees produce both healthy growth and abundant crops.
I agree. Why make them buy an ad? Push commercial products whenever you can, and don’t bother to include any evidence for the claims.

From Nevada: Petunias are very showy annuals and so simple to grow.
That’s right. And in Nevada, they know showy.

From Kentucky [about Knock Out roses]: These roses grow well anywhere in the country—from the wintry landscape of Minnesota to the sultry shores of Florida—and come in seven colors and bloom styles to suit every garden and landscaping need.
Why write when you can just copy and paste the press release? Works for me.

There. I know I feel better.

Now, what’s the silliest or most unnecessary garden advice you’ve ever read or heard? Let me know in comments and the winner will receive a copy of The Truth About Organic Gardening, by a writer whose advice I always heed: Jeff Gillman.

OK, Craig wins the book: “annuals—not just for pots anymore” indeed. I am also sending Ginny a special surprise gift for alerting us to that harmful Florida practice.

And I further assure you all that I will continue to (occasionally) call out bad writing, boring content, or advertising masquerading as editorial when I see it in the garden writing world. It’s not about withholding knowledge at all. It is about giving that information in an entertaining manner, inspiring gardeners, and not being afraid of controversy. It’s about passion. What I see in food writing all the time, I’d also like to see in garden writing.

Posted by on September 24, 2008 at 10:00 am.   This post has 17 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling,   Shut Up and Dig

How I’ve forgotten everything I learned about bulbs

These images from last spring provide motivation for spending vast sums.

Over the past ten years of gardening with spring-blooming bulbs, I now realize that I buy completely differently and plant completely differently than when I started.

Once I used “bulb-planting tools.” After a couple seasons of struggling with big plugs of dirt stuck in metal tubes, I realized that a small spade for groups of small bulbs and a big spade for groups of large bulbs would do the job faster and better.

Once I bought Darwin hybrid tulips and hoped they would come back for a few years. Now I buy a different gorgeous combination of two single lates each year, treating them as annuals, and planting them in tightly packed clumps of 50.

Once I skipped over the species tulips in the catalogs, thinking them too insignificant to make much of an impact. Now I plant different species every year; they provide charming groups of small blooms and as for their foliage, insignificance turns out to be a good thing. I’ve also learned to value other dainty cultivars, like erythronium and galanthus.

Once I planted big groups of showy daffodil hybrids; after a season or so of dealing with never-ending foliage that looked awful well into summer (with spotty return), I got rid of most, left a few here and there, and went back to admiring roadside daffodils planted by county volunteers.

Finally, I’ve learned that one of the best ways for a zone 5 gardener to get through the winter is to force lots and lots of hyacinths (which don’t work that well in the garden anyway).

I love bulbs because, unlike most other plants, their promise is almost always fulfilled by the results—at least once. But there is much more to bulbs than the instructions on the bags or the generic advice in the garden columns. In ten years I’ve figured out some of it, but I’m hoping to unlearn much more. Unlearning is more fun.

Posted by on September 24, 2008 at 5:00 am.   This post has 9 responses.
What's Happening

The Garden Writers Discussion Board

How to Join the Garden Writers Discussion Board:

1.  Visit  If that doesn’t work for some reason, try going straight to the login page:  I’m showing you the URL for both of these so you can also type the link in manually if you need to.

2.  Sign up for an account by following the "Create a New Profile Here" link.

3.  You’ll be directed to a screen that asks you if you want to see if you have any friends on Yuku. Forget about that for now.  Just hit the Later button at the bottom of the screen.

The next page will say "Getting Started Guide" at the top.  Also at the top it says "Back to Garden Writers."  Click that link. 

If you don’t see that link or if you get lost somehow, after you’ve created your Yuku account you should just be able to go to again and you’ll be right where you need to be for this next step.

4.  Here you’ll be prompted to write a few words about yourself that would somehow prove that you’re a garden writer.  A link to your blog, website, newspaper column, published book, etc. would be most helpful. But just give us something short and simple that lets us know that you’re a garden writer and not a spammer.

5.  We will approve you just as soon as we can–hopefully within 24 hours. Once you’re approved, you’ll get an email from Yuku (oh, happy day!) and you’ll need to click on that validation link to be approved.  If you have a tough spam filter, make sure it allows emails from  And if you don’t get that email, just try coming on back to the board in a day or two and logging in.

Now you can start reading and posting!  Start with the ‘About the Garden Writers’ section at the top for some introductory information.

Questions? Problems?  Issues?  If you can’t go there, post a comment here.

One follow-up:  someone wanted to know why a birthdate was required to sign up.  That’s Yuku’s way of preventing spammers–not my requirement, but theirs.  Many services now require birthdates.  I use a fake birthdate, and you can, too.  Just make sure it’s one you can remember (and one that makes you seem a little younger!).  In fact, for most "personal questions," I give fake answers that I can remember but that cannot be easily guessed by someone else.

Posted by on September 23, 2008 at 9:07 am.   This post has 31 responses.
Real Gardens

Ketzel Levine’s Garden has Everything – Except Ketzel

I was NOT going to spend 5 days in Portland for the Garden Writers thingie without taking Ketzel up on her invitation to see her garden, so I found a couple of her fans with a car, and off we went for a private tour.  Ketzel2400

Turns out her garden is just as wild and sociable as you’d imagine, and packed with plants I can’t grow in Maryland.  Seating areas start in the front yard (fenced and very private, top photo) and continue in the back where there’s a stunning water feature to mask the sounds of the city.  And check out the great colors of the house itself – pea green, orange and brown on a cute bungalow.  Ketzel3400

Too bad the gardener herself was missing – still back in D.C. talking to her NPR bosses – and not available to ID all her weird plants for us.  Not to mention pour us a nice Oregon wine.

Posted by on September 22, 2008 at 10:26 pm.   This post has 12 responses.
Unusually Clever People

GWA Photos on Flickr–and bloggers.

Tons of beautiful Portland garden photos from the GWA conference attendees here.  If you’re going to be posting photos, tag them gwa2008 and everybody can see them here.

And a round-up from bloggers at GWA:  Judy Lowe of the Christian Science Monitor wonders why people garden.

Mr. Garden Wise Guy has several posts and great photos, including yet another one of Susan in her boa.  What a vamp! 

Homewood Nursery posted garden tour photos.

Kelly Norris managed to get a post a day up, too.

And I’m sure there will be more coming from Susan soon!

Posted by on September 22, 2008 at 5:04 pm.   This post has 2 responses.
Unusually Clever People

Back from GWA

Best part about the Garden Writers Association conference?  Meeting GardenRant readers. Wow! There are a lot of you.  And at last we know your faces.  (Well, except for this face.  Quick–name a famous garden photographer who wears red feather boas when he’s among friends.)

And I think we’ll have a lot of new GardenRant readers stopping by this week.  Several people wanted the very useful handout from last year’s GWA blogging panel, and I said I’d post it, so here it is:

Kathy Purdy’s post about last year’s panel

and the handout she developed.  Basically, if you want to start a blog and need some links and pointers to get going, that handout will really help you out.

And also thanks to Kathy Purdy for posting the link to the Twitters coming from GWA.

But Susan & I also talked to a lot of people who thought a conference call about blogging for garden writersGwaportland
would be really helpful. We could go through some of this stuff step-by-step, but everybody can be home in front of their own computers. Could work.  Stay tuned here at GardenRant–we’ll try to set that up.

And finally–there was talk (OK, mostly from me) of setting up a discussion board for garden writers.  Working on it.  Again, stay tuned.

Oh, and the Portland gardens we toured were gorgeous, of course–even when (or perhaps because?) they were filled with garden writers.

Posted by on September 22, 2008 at 7:15 am.   This post has 5 responses.
Unusually Clever People

Christopher Walken, Googly-Eyed Gardener

I meant to post this a while back and give a shout-out to the new Fine Gardening blog, where I first saw it.  And yet I did not.  Or at least, I don’t think I did.  So here it is.  Happy Monday.

Posted by on September 22, 2008 at 5:15 am.   This post has 4 responses.

Blogging 101 – the Missing GWA Hand-out

This is what the fabulous audience members at the Garden Writers blogging panel were supposed to receive as a handout – check it out!

Amy and I heard SO many requests for basic blogging info, and it’s all there in the hand-out Kathy Purdy assembled for last year’s GWA blogging panel.  It’s still great.

I can’t resist pointing you to "Ranting about Blogging Programs" that Kathy lists there, by yours truly.  In it I complain about WordPress, despite the excessive praise you may have read about it.  Here’s the key – if you’re super-geeky, great; it gives you total freedom.  If you’re a regular person, it can be hell.  With no support at all.  So consider yourself warned.  But Typepad?  We LOVE it. 

Now get blogging.

Posted by on September 21, 2008 at 9:57 pm.   This post has one response.
Taking Your Gardening Dollar

Don’t let this happen to you


After careful perusal of my bulb orders of the last few weeks, I find, with some horror, that I have ordered 430 bulbs. Yeah. I know.

How does such a thing happen? I’ll tell my story in the hopes that some of you may be able to avoid this fate. First, here’s the tally.

40 tazetta narcissus (Martinette, Grand Soleil, Inbal, Golden Rain)
25 galanthus (ordinary type)
15 lilies (Amazing, Honeymoon, Touching)
60 hyacinths (Carnegie, Raphael, Isabelle)
100 single lates (Blushing Lady, Mrs. Scheepers)
100 triumphs (Negrita, Amazone)
40 double lates (Orange Princess, Black Hero, Yellow Mountain)
50 species tulips (t. biflora, turkistanica, vvedenskyi)

The single lates fill two large raised beds in the front, 50 a bed, so that’s fine. They are composted at the end of the season, as summer shade and the nature of hybrid tulips make it unlikely that they will return successfully. The triumphs and hyacinths are used for forcing, containers, and one front planting. The number of triumphs MIGHT be high, but I know I will get through the hyacinths, as I use them as gifts, with 3 to 4 in a pot, and in special forcing vases.

I think 10 t. marjolettis were purchased only so that an order would get to the necessary $35. The tazettas? Should be fine; those are all forced.

But some of this is just crazy. The double lates were purchased purely on impulse because Michele mentioned Orange Princess. It kind of developed from there. Thanks, Michele. I have no idea where I will put them. The galanthus came about because I paved over a bunch of them and I really miss them. The lilies are pure obsessive insanity and I will have one hell of a time finding sunny space for them.

I’m not done. There are some tazettas to get from Old House and the Lily Garden catalog has not even arrived. Forget it—there’s no hope for me. Save yourselves.

And I’m a little embarrassed by the lily names.

Posted by on September 21, 2008 at 2:00 pm.   This post has 9 responses.
Taking Your Gardening Dollar

The way it should be: a garden center in early fall


Yes, there were mums and a few bales of hay. But there was also so much more. I attended a “Fall Garden Fest” at my favorite local nursery, Lockwood’s Greenhouses, not so much for the craft vendors and the hotdogs, as to see what stock they still had at this time.


They had everything. Tables and tables of sun or shade perennials, rows of shrubs and vines, even a surprisingly large selection of annuals, even hanging baskets. There were classes going on addressing grasses, hydrangeas, and—most interesting to me—how to winter over annuals and keep houseplants alive. It’s a good time for workshops; people aren’t as busy in their gardens and in just the right frame of mind to think about what they might want to change and add.


I can easily imagine wanting to freshen up my containers with some new annuals at this time, particularly those—calibrachoa, diascia, the little blue daisies you see above—that will withstand nighttime lows in the 40s. I don’t know that I would be buying hanging baskets, but it’s nice to know you can.


Too many nurseries around here clear the decks at this time and all you’ll find in the big boxes now are mums, bulbs, shrubs and trees. I stick by my story of not liking to plant past Oct. 1, but if anyone could convince me to take the risk, it would be these guys.

Posted by on September 21, 2008 at 11:00 am.   This post has 7 responses.
Unusually Clever People

SRO at the GWA blogger panel

Posted by on September 21, 2008 at 9:59 am.   This post has one response.
Ministry of Controversy,   Real Gardens

Let there be messy


Compost was apparently the culprit in a New Jersey case where, according to this story:

a blind 69-year-old Cliffside Park man, who weeds and plants by touch, buries in his soil a compost of decaying egg shells, coffee grounds and other kitchen scraps most folks send to the landfills as trash

is being persecuted by his neighbors and local officials for trying to do the right thing. The sad thing is that it’s all too believable. For whatever reason, we here in the U.S. have an unnatural passion for garden neatness. I’ve had personal experience with this: a perennial public garden I worked on with a neighbor was bulldozed by the property owners because it looked unkempt—i.e., didn’t have continuous color in the form of petunias and cannas from May through September. It had foliage without flowers.

But you don’t have to go to the extremes. Too often, I hear from people who cut their hydrangeas to the ground (killing all buds) because they look “bad.” Or I hear from fellow gardeners concerned about anything that has turned brown or has too many seedheads. “I should cut this down, right?” “Leave it alone,” I implore, but I know I don’t stand a chance in the face of dozens of garden “fall clean-up” columns.

And that’s not to mention the front gardens that eschew lawns for vegetables or meadow-like perennials, and then face recriminations from neighbors and officials. We have a garden policing culture here that is hard to conquer.

Let there be messy!

Posted by on September 21, 2008 at 5:00 am.   This post has 16 responses.
Unusually Clever People

susan and her men

This is Susan, attaching some names to the adorable faces of my New Best Friends, Male Division.   From left, Scout Calhoun, Duncan Brine, and the photographer who’ll be revealing my garden to you all in the April ’09 issue of Organic Gardening, Rob Cardillo.

Posted by on September 20, 2008 at 6:34 pm.   This post has 3 responses.
What's Happening

More GWA Meet-ups


Among the coolest people at the Garden Writers thingie in Portland are Idaho Gardener Mary Ann Newcomer with photographer David Perry. 

Posted by on September 20, 2008 at 12:21 pm.   This post has 2 responses.
Everybody's a Critic,   Shut Up and Dig

Some advice on fall gardening advice: keep it to yourself

My un-mums: flowers and foliage that last me though October

Never an avid gardening column reader at the best of times, in the fall, I give them a wide berth. It’s not just because the advice is often the type of banal “duh” stuff that I would assume very few gardeners who take care of their own properties would need. (That’s something we rant about all the time.) It’s also because it reeks of finality and has no imagination. Here in four-season-land, we must face the fact that the garden is going dormant. Stuff is turning brown and dying back. Flowers are becoming fewer and fewer, except, thank god, the stalwart annuals and some common late season perennials. I know this. I don’t need a columnist to chirp: School is back in session, leaves are just beginning to turn! … before launching into a list of gardening to-dos like the following:

Plant bulbs now for a colorful spring! I won’t bother to say which paper had this; I am sure hundreds did. I feel sorry for the writers and editors who have to regurgitate this every single year. Here’s a typical opening graph:

About this time of year, you can’t turn around in many stores and garden centers without coming across displays and cardboard kiosks full of bagged spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and crocus.

Well, if that’s true, then why do I need to also read about it? How about some advice on using hybrid tulips in containers, planting them in close groups for treatment as annuals, easy forcing methods, or other interesting things to do with bulbs that aren’t in the mainstream? And let’s hear more about species and unusual bulbs that, unlike hybrid tulips and daffs, return reliably and do not have bushels of hideous foliage to uglify your landscape for weeks after bloom is done. (Some of our garden bloggers like Carol/May Dreams and Mary Ann/Idaho Gardener have been talking about minor bulbs in their columns.)

Then there’s the tool-sharpening advice. Now, if someone has tools, they pretty much make a decision to take care of them, sharpen them, oil them up, and have them hanging in the garden shed all pretty—or they keep their tools like mine. That decision is not likely to be affected by anything one reads in the newspaper. There is a gene for this. My husband has it. I don’t.

Fall is the best time to plant! Okay, it’s arguable, but for zone fivers and lower, I have major problems with this advice, and I see a lot of it in the colder-zone press. I won’t plant perennials after the end of September; they’ll succumb to frost heave or they’ll simply disappear. (And not to quibble, but most of September is technically summer.) Either way, they’re dead. Your mileage may vary, and I am sure it does, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence to support my view. There may be some plants that are better able to survive such a short establishment period, but I would argue that in my area and similar areas those plants are few. It must help the nurseries, though; they get my dollar when I buy in the fall, and when I replace in the spring.

There is some advice I would like to see, and sometimes do in the better publications. Now is a great time to remind gardeners of long-blooming annuals that will keep their garden lush late into the fall, not just talk about mums and fall planting. It’s also a great time to look to the future; what are the common mistakes people make and how can they be avoided by judicious actions in the spring? I’m not big on planning; I do think gardens are the most fun when they just happen, but what can you build or have built now? This is actually one of the best times for hardscaping—you’re not as worried about disturbing the beds. I’d rather be doing that or making lists of my spring must-haves than planting mums (bleh) in my dying garden.

Or tidying up my tools. Though that does make me laugh.

Posted by on September 20, 2008 at 5:00 am.   This post has 14 responses.
Unusually Clever People

susan and billy goodnick in portland

Posted by on September 19, 2008 at 4:27 pm.   This post has 4 responses.
Unusually Clever People

The Great Government Tulip Bailout

This just in from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Carroll:

I did not issue any home loans to people who could obviously not
make their mortgage payments. I also didn’t deal in derivatives, which
I don’t really understand. It turns out that people who did deal in
derivatives didn’t understand them either, although they developed a
nice easy line of chatter to persuade rollers higher than myself to
enter the derivatives market.

But, you know, the back stairs need replacing, and I’d like to buy
some tulips. If you’re buying tulips, you really want to get a lot of
them because they look best when massed together. The people in Holland
know that. So I’d like a tulip bailout. I mean, it really wouldn’t even
be a bailout because I have given the government hundreds of thousands
of dollars over my long and generally productive life.

An entirely sensible plan. Read the whole thing here.

Posted by on September 19, 2008 at 1:54 pm.   This post has 8 responses.
Real Gardens

Fishing For Advice


I’m about to write a proposal to the principal and PTA of my kids’ elementary school that this sunny east-facing piece of land be turned into a vegetable garden.

Have any Rant readers helped with school gardens? Any advice for what seems to work best with kids? Start a club and give each member his or her own plot to plant? Convince the teachers to bring entire classes out? Talk about soil science or just hand the kids trowels and let them have at it?

Many thanks.

Posted by on September 19, 2008 at 11:56 am.   This post has 19 responses.

I Dare You…


Just try to look at this low-growing dahlia and not feel cheery. I have a dozen of them in my front border and they really come into their own this time of year.

Posted by on September 19, 2008 at 11:47 am.   This post has 8 responses.
Ministry of Controversy

The Week That Was

Langemigrantmother02_3 It was perfect weather for gardening in Saratoga Springs this week–cool and sunny–perfect weather for getting the pinks away from the burgundies and the talls away from the smalls. Except that it was no time to be thinking about gardening.

It was time for reading the business news obsessively, every hour watching for breaking news and mulling over the really pressing questions:

1. What is happening when countries all over the world have been privatizing state-run enterprises right and left in recent decades, yet our government has just bought 80% of property-casualty insurer A.I.G.? Remind me quick, where are we living and under what political system?

2. Is Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson the Leader of the Free World? Because our president has been peculiarly absent while the financial system as I understood it collapsed in the last two weeks. Henry Paulson, the same person who as late as July of 2007 was fatuously proclaiming this the best global economy he’d seen in his lifetime.

3. Are our granite countertops and fancy backyard grills really to blame for this global financial panic? Is the world falling apart because we foolhardy Americans borrowed too much in some fantasy of what hearth and home should be like? Should we blame the entire debacle on HGTV? Or is it that financial firms all over the world have largely subsisted in recent years on selling air to each other–and each taking their bit in terms of fees?

4. What about that other completely unexpected twist on world events, the return of evangelical conservatives to the political stage in the eerily attractive form of Sarah Palin?

5. And what does this all mean for the gardeners? Will we all be turning into backyard farmers out of dire necessity in extremely short order?

All I can say is that as investors flee to safety and our retirement accounts crash into nothingness and we all lose our jobs and vote for one of two seemingly idea-free presidential candidates–it’s important to remember that there is no market, anywhere on earth, that delivers the returns of a vegetable garden.

A packet of organic seed of my favorite pole beans, Blue Coco, costs $1.20 at Fedco. I devote two sides of an arch to said beans–two patches two feet long and one foot wide. I expend exactly as much forefinger labor as is necessary to push about two dozen beans into an inch of soil. In return, I harvest about $30 worth of beans a week, every week for at least eight weeks. That’s a 20,000 percent return in a few short months. No hedge fund ever delivered anything like it.

Or is the vegetable garden overheated and showing signs of becoming the next great bubble?

Posted by on September 19, 2008 at 4:43 am.   This post has 15 responses.