Monthly Archives: July 2011
Designs, Tricks, and Schemes

Cool stuff to do with weeds


Weeds have been on my mind lately. They always are, really, but after reading the Mabey book, I've been looking at them more closely, even to the point of stopping to examine the countless specimens I see in my daily travels. (Above is a Cirsium vulgare—bull thistle—I spotted at a family event over the weekend.)

While I'm not totally sold on the beneficial properties of weeds/invasive, via a New Zealand newspaper gardening column, I came upon a different way of using them. It’s similar to composting but not quite. Regardless of how you define weeds (it doesn’t really matter), just throw the plants into a barrel with a lid, until it’s full. Add water—preferably rainwater.  Give it a few months and you have liquid fertilizer that can be diluted and used at will. According to the article, the seeds are no longer viable thanks to their lengthy soaking. Important note: a tight-fitting lid is essential.

What do you think? I like the versatility of liquid food and I'm kind of bad at composting (don't ask), so I'm intrigued. I wonder if it would smell as bad as alfalfa tea?

Posted by on July 18, 2011 at 5:00 am.   This post has 14 responses.

Loretta Lynn loves to garden too much

Gardening in 100+ heat sent the 76-year-old Tennessean to the hospital with heat exhaustion and forced her to cancel two shows. 

According to this story, Lynn now says "There ain't a tomato worth it."  No argument here.

Posted by on July 17, 2011 at 10:56 am.   This post has 4 responses.



Now hear this. Count your bees. It's that simple—and then let the Bee-a-Thon know your results. Go here for more.

And even if you don't, why not take a little time today to think about bees. Do you have as many as you had last year? More? Less? What about other creatures in the garden? It doesn't hurt to check.

Posted by on July 15, 2011 at 9:31 pm.   This post has 18 responses.

The Start-Up of Vines

IMG_3877 Trust me–there is a house under there

This week, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times followed up the Labor Department's most recent jobs report with a semi-fatuous column titled "The Start-Up of You."

Friedman's answer for an economy that is producing no jobs, three and a half years after the start of recession?  We American workers are all going to have to be more entrepreneurial in future.

Here is a sample:

Indeed, what is most striking when you talk to employers today is how many of them have used the pressure of the recession to become even more productive by deploying more automation technologies, software, outsourcing, robotics — anything they can use to make better products with reduced head count and health care and pension liabilities. That is not going to change. And while many of them are hiring, they are increasingly picky. They are all looking for the same kind of people — people who not only have the critical thinking skills to do the value-adding jobs that technology can’t, but also people who can invent, adapt and reinvent their jobs every day, in a market that changes faster than ever.

Oh yes, we need to become more inventive.  This is the right prescription for the country, because we Americans have all been such unimaginative slackers in the past!

Friedman neglects to consider the larger problems in an economy that seems to define "adaptability" in its workers as a readiness to be outsourced, downsized, and foreclosed out of the house.

As far as resilience is concerned–Friedman recommends strengthening "the muscles of resilience," wherever those are located–the best example of resilience I know is my sister-in-law, who has been out of work in Silicon Valley for two years and whose unemployment checks are running out–and yet still manages to keep looking for her next opportunity, stay cheerful, garden, and dance.

Don't get me wrong: Entrepreneurs are great.  But the idea that all of us should be entrepreneurs is total nonsense.

We cannot all afford to live in a constant state of risk, not if we want happy kids who can count on going to the same school tomorrow as they go to today.

Some of us are never going to have cash thrown at us by VCs. 

We can't all make our own jobs–especially if our neighbors are all broke, too. 

None of us is entirely self-sufficient, and most of us need to rely on a healthy economy that makes jobs for us. We are not all Olympian characters.  And even if some of us could be Olympian characters, well, it's not always nice for the spouse and offspring to tag along behind our more grandiose dreams.

Does Friedman know this?  I doubt it.  He clearly moves in a world in which every character fancies him- or herself Olympian. Read Friedman's interminable bio on his website, and you get the distinct sense that it has been a very long time since financial worry or job insecurity prevented his doing anything he wants…and possibly these were never a factor in his life.  He seems to have no imagination for such problems. And isn't this exactly what's wrong with our economy?  A failure of our leaders to imagine the problems of the small? 

I'd no more take employment advice from somebody like this than I'd take marital advice from a eunuch.

Meanwhile, the Great Recession has made me more adaptable, more keenly aware of the things that differentiate me in the marketplace, more willing to chuck the best-laid plans in favor of changing market conditions. 

Not in my work.  I've always been those things there.  But in my gardening style.  I can't afford to have the house painted or the porch fixed or a new foundation installed under the garage, so I am stepping back and allowing the vines to take over.  I have roses and clematis around my front stoop, a volunteer Boston ivy climbing the bay window, a variegated Virginia creeper snaking its way up an obsolete cinder block chimney, and grapes and honeysuckle erasing my carriage house.

My house is beginning to look like a tree house. You can barely see the crumbling Victorian woodwork behind all the vigorous plants twining around it, clinging to it with tiny cuplike appendages or wicked thorns, sending out large leaves and small tendrils, and ascending the architectural summits as if there will be no stopping them until they are waving at Zeus and Hera on high.

My house looks like the place where somebody wise lives.  Somebody who knows that economic trauma comes and goes, but the power of the sun and the vine is eternal.

Posted by on July 15, 2011 at 6:46 am.   This post has 16 responses.
Ministry of Controversy

This Just In: Oak Park, MI Front Yard Veg Garden Case Dismissed

According to Julie Bass' blog, the case against her has been dropped. As you know, local city officials were giving her grief for putting raised beds in the front yard, the objecting being that her "plant material" was not "suitable."  I guess they wised up.  I'd like to think that we can all take credit for making a ruckus in the blogosphere, but it's also possible that city officials simply took a minute to think things through and came to the only logical conclusion, which is that people should be able to grow a little fresh food in a few raised beds in their front yard, for chrissakes.

So.  All's well that ends. 

Posted by on July 14, 2011 at 1:20 pm.   This post has 10 responses.

A world of weeds

Here's my take on Weeds (on Kirkus last week). If you missed Amy's Washington Post review of this book, check here. And go here for Susan's Kirkus post on the digital revolution at Timber and more.

Some delightful weeds I've been hosting behind the garage.

Weedscover How you define weeds is intrinsically connected to how you define gardening. For someone whose garden consists of little more than a front lawn, a back lawn, and maybe a shrubbery surrounding the house, a weed could be anything higher than grass level that does not flower. For example, a perennial garden I helped install on behalf of my neighborhood association consisted of—among other plants—epimedium, brunnera, daylilies (hemerocallis), Russian sage (perovskia), and flowering bulbs. The owner of the empty lot that contained our garden saw it at a time when none of these were in flower and immediately sent for a bulldozer to have all the raised beds torn down. His explanation? “It looked like weeds.”

I have also been with non-gardeners on garden tours who thought a lot of what we were praising “looked like weeds.” In the City of Buffalo, homeowners can be cited by neighbors for “high weeds” that may in fact be perennials, sunflowers, shrubs, or tomato plants. Whether a fine is actually levied depends on what definition of weeds the city inspector uses.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are truly horrific situations like the kudzu that now covers 2 million acres of forest land in the American South, the Japanese knotweed that forms immense, smothering thickets in the UK, and the prickly pear cactus that is considered the most widespread weed on earth, and once covered 25 million acres in Australia. I recently read about all these scary weed infestations and much more in Richard Mabey’s delightful new natural history title, Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants.

I’ve been dipping into this book much in the same way I weed my garden—browsing around, noticing certain things, and choosing to ignore others.  It seems to me that Mabey is sharing his fascination with how weeds survive, thrive, and revive throughout the world rather than defending them. It is a fascination with which I have great empathy. One of my favorite and most optimistic gardening strategies consists of allowing strange plants to grow to maturity in the hopes that they might be desirable additions to the garden, rather than—as they inevitably become—lanky invaders with miniscule, unattractive flowers and spiny foliage.

Like me, Mabey eschews the “take no prisoners” attitude that wants to eradicate alien invaders in the landscape. He points to plants like the horse-chestnut and snowdrop; both are cherished to nearly fanatical degrees in the UK., and both are aliens from other continents (though the snowdrop was introduced centuries ago).  Mabey also notes that “there are invasive species which ought never to get their naturalization papers,” but the purpose of his book is not to discuss weed control. Rather, he reveals fascinating moments in the social history of weeds, and our relationship with them.

It was by no means surprising that the British naturalist looks to Buffalo, NY for one of the most famous disagreements over what makes a weed.  As Michael Pollan did before him in Second Nature, Mabey retells the story of Stephen Kenney, a University at Buffalo grad student who attempted to grow a wildflower garden in his front yard during the 1980s. After enduring a trial, an appeal, gunshots, an attempt by neighbors to infest the garden with snakes, and, finally, the illegal mowing of his front yard, Kenney moved to Pennsylvania, where he finished his doctorate on Thoreau. (He now teaches at a small college in northern New York, and owns 10 acres where he grows vegetables and raises chickens and ducks.)

The most poignant intersection of weeds and history is told in Mabey’s chapter on the role of poppies during WWI.  In the wake of the bloody devastation wrought upon the farmlands of northern France, wildflowers flourished, most notoriously the poppy. As writer William Orpen said in 1919:  “Red poppies … stretched for miles and miles. … It was like an enchanted land, but in the place of faeries, there were thousands of little white crosses, marked Unknown British Soldier.”

Mabey does not ask us to grow or even tolerate such plants as burdock, nightshade, nettles, thistles, or docks—but his book is an important opportunity to understand how and why we share their world.

Posted by on July 14, 2011 at 5:00 am.   This post has 12 responses.
Drink This,   Garden Rant Cocktail Hour

Drink This.

Basil gin cocktail

Gin.  (vodka if you must, but really–gin.  Hendrick's would be a fine choice.)

Basil and cucumber, muddled.

Squeeze of lime juice.

Splash of Dry Cucumber Soda

Happy Wednesday!

Posted by on July 13, 2011 at 2:42 pm.   This post has 12 responses.

Talk to the Planning Department

This business with Julie Bass, renegade kitchen gardener who dared put raised beds in her front yard, is all over blogland.  I particularly adore Plantgasm's blog badges, pictured below, but click through to grab one for your own blog:


Julie has her own blog where you can keep up with the latest developments.  But if you really want to make a difference?  Send an email.  Pick up the phone.  Think about it:  this is one thing you can do for the world today that is clearly, unambiguously, good.  Obviously cities should not devote effort to punishing people for growing vegetables in the front yard.  Quite the opposite; they should be encouraging it.

So you really want to help?  Go tell them.

Send an email to planning director Kevin Rulkowski, whose contact info is here.

But be sure and copy City Manager Rich Fox.

And while you're at it, you might as well let the mayor and the city council know how you feel. (Scroll down to see those links.)

I just did it, and it feels real good.

Posted by on July 13, 2011 at 4:33 am.   This post has 11 responses.
Designs, Tricks, and Schemes

How not to use landscape fabric

IMG_2860 And to be clear, this is a FRONT YARD and this planting technique continues across the entire property.  (House not shown, to protect the guilty.)

But wait, maybe this isn't landscape fabric after all, but sheets of black plastic – how creative! 

Addendum:  This is how it's looked for months now.  No lie.

Posted by on July 12, 2011 at 5:25 pm.   This post has 28 responses.
Real Gardens

Google-mapping front-yard gardens

What did we DO before Google Maps and Mapquest?  I have only vague memories of trying to read folding maps while driving, a chore that's now almost unthinkable (good thing, too – drivers are way too busy texting and calling to fuss with maps).  But there's something I hadn't done until recently – checked Google's street view of my destination. 

Before heading off to a party over the July 4th weekend I did just that to case out the joint – was it an apartment building or a detached home where the party might be outdoors?  And here's what I found:

They're gardeners!  Suddenly my interest in the party spiked; I could hardly wait to check out the back yard. 

Also upon arrival I learned that Google may warn that their addresses are approximate, but they got this one right – shown above on Google Maps and below in person, with holiday decorations.


Now the last time I'd checked, Google Maps' street view of my own home was indeed approximate – and off by eight houses.  They'd also captured a male friend getting out of his car in my driveway, a detail that fortunately caused no marital discord for me but sure could for someone else.  (Privacy is something else I have only vague memories of.)


But this time Google got my address exactly right, and after toggling up a bit I could even see over the fence into the garden.  And the incriminating shot of my mystery visitor was gone.

What does Google's street view of YOUR address show?  The right house, your garden, evidence of an afternoon liaison?

Posted by on July 12, 2011 at 4:37 am.   This post has 21 responses.
Guest Rants

Roses—now more than ever

How did your roses do this year, and are they still going strong? Friend of Rant Pat Leuchtman/ Commonweeder wants more people to grow roses—here’s her guest rant explaining why.

6-26 Pink Grootendorst
Pink Grootendorst

How many times have I heard people say, “I love roses, but they are too much trouble and I can’t be bothered with all that spraying.” The problem with that statement is that the people who make it are usually thinking about hybrid tea roses—which means they are not keeping up with the real news in the rose world.

When I met with the amazing Peter Kukielski, Curator of the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden I learned that he has tripled the number of roses in the garden since he arrived four years ago. He chose roses that are disease resistant and will not need spraying. Indeed, they cannot be sprayed because New York State has outlawed most of the ingredients in the traditional sprays.

Where did he find all these disease resistant roses? It turns out that this isn't such a new idea. During our chat, he mentioned the EarthKind varieties, which are old roses that have been tested by Texas A&M. The test involved caring for roses for one year, with proper planting, watering and weeding. For the next nine years the rose care was minimal. The result? A list of hardy roses that can take it, providing carefree beauty, as well as (often) scent. Last spring The Rose Garden began hosting a Northeastern version of the EarthKind trials. I am eager to see what they learn.

Speaking of Carefree Beauty, the popular variety was hybridized by Dr. Griffith Buck at Iowa State University. He wanted to create roses that were hardy and disease resistant, a novelty in 1950. Now dozens of Buck Roses are available.

Applejack 2

Buck got help and advice from Wilhelm Kordes, the world famous German rose breeder. Over the years the Kordes family has continued to work on disease resistant roses; they stopped spraying their fields entirely 20 years ago. American gardeners can now buy Fairy Tales roses like the brilliant orange yellow Brothers Grimm (highly resistant to black spot and mildew) and Felicitas (equally resistant with double pink blossoms on arching canes). And the Fairy Tale series is just one of the disease resistant Kordes families. There are also low growing Vigorosa landscape roses, climbing roses and even Kordes hybrid teas.

Most people are familiar with Conard-Pyle’s KnockOut roses, but may not know about hybridizer Ping Lim’s Easy Elegance line. Easy Elegance is so confident about the hardiness and disease resistance of these roses that they offer a two year guarantee.

Currently the NYBG website lists the top 115 roses of 2010. I watched Kukielski and a volunteer go over an exhaustive evaluation form. When he says a rose performs well he is speaking from documented evidence.

Harrison's yellow 5-31-10
Harrison's Yellow

If Peter Kukielski at the NYBG can find thousands of disease resistant roses, we can all find at least a few varieties that will provide beauty and scent without compromising the health of our gardens for ourselves, our children, and all the other creatures we welcome.

Posted by on July 11, 2011 at 12:00 pm.   This post has 14 responses.
It's the Plants, Darling

Doubles—it depends


The other day, while I was trying to look up why my L. tigrinum flore-plenos have white fuzz all over their stems and buds, I came across the following: “has double flowers, but, in my opinion, is rather coarse. The style and grace of a lily flower lies in its clean lines and simple architecture. Double-flowered lilies destroy such grace.”

That’s in Armitage’s Herbaceous Perennial Plants. Thankfully (as I suppose I should have known), he also informed me that the white fuzz comes with the plant. I am not so sure a single tiger lily is that much more elegant than the flore-plenos (above), which are not really fully double. I’m not sure I’d apply the word elegant to either, actually, though I like both.

There does seem to be some prejudice against double hybrids, depending on which authority you read. Here’s Christopher Lloyd: “Double daffodils may seem like an unwelcome aberration, …”,—although he does modify the statement.

I can see where a double Casa Blanca or Silk Road would make very little sense—the single forms of these are heavy enough on their slim stems and can seldom get along with staking. But the flore-pleno, rare among my lilies, can stand up on their own, and I prefer the fascinating henryi to a single tigrinum, which too often get confused with orange daylily types.  That said, I would agree double forms aren’t a good idea for lilies.

As for daffodils, I’m fascinated by the doubles, but recognize their problems (mainly, too heavy, especially in wet spring weather).  Mileage varies widely with attitudes toward extreme hybridization. Should it be anything the market will bear or are there limits? The only thing I worry about is the disappearance of the traditional cultivars or species from stores. (Imagine a world of nothing but Endless Summer hybrids with not an arborescens or oakleaf in sight.)

And then there’s the problem of all the crazy names under which lilies are sold.  Tree lilies, anyone?

Posted by on July 11, 2011 at 5:03 am.   This post has 6 responses.

Check out Amy’s Weeds review


It's in today's Washington Post and I'm showing you what the print version looks like because it's so gorgeous.  Kudos to WaPo's Carrie Lyle for her illustration.

Btw, if you don't recognize the word "florilegium", I didn't, either.  The best definition I've found is "a lavishly illustrated book on flowers."

Posted by on July 10, 2011 at 7:49 am.   This post has 8 responses.

City goes after front-yard veg gardener


The gardening blogosphere is up in arms over this story.

“They warned us at first that we had to move the vegetables from the front, that no vegetables were allowed in the front yard.". .

Whether these gardeners in Oak Park, Michigan face 93 days of jail time depends on the interpretation of "suitable landscaping", which is required by law.  The city official in charge is saying, “If you look at the dictionary, suitable means common. You can look all throughout the city and you’ll never find another vegetable garden that consumes the entire front yard… What's common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers.”

As bad as that sounds – defining "suitable" narrowly AND so that there can never be change – the problem started with the writing of such a vague law.  Which is now outdated altogether.

The homeowners are vowing to fight this, so stay tuned.

In a related story about front-yard criminality, xeriscaping in California is also a no-no.  Seriously?

Posted by on July 9, 2011 at 6:33 am.   This post has 37 responses.

Arrest The Federal Gardeners?


When I visited the amazing and wonderful United States National Arboretum with Susan Harris ten days ago, I was amused to see the seedpods of what appeared to be opium poppies.

Scroll down this DEA bulletin to the seizure of poppy plants, and you'll see that the DEA's position is that growing Papaver somniferum is illegal.  But gardeners, including me, plant the seeds anyway–the plant is too beautiful not to grow!  At least, we do it once, and then the amazingly well engineered seed pods take over and scatter the seed in our gardens forever more.  In 1997, Michael Pollan wrote a superb piece about the ways in which this county's confusion over garden poppies illustrates our larger confusion, as a culture, about the "war on drugs."

Posted by on July 8, 2011 at 8:46 am.   This post has 10 responses.

More Gardenlike


Here's my new garden, made Memorial Day weekend.  By now, I've moved beyond excitement into impatience. I'm ready be eating something from here besides the instantaneous leaf crops–arugula, romaine, cilantro. I'm ready for a cucumber.

Posted by on July 8, 2011 at 7:51 am.   This post has 7 responses.

The Aphorists

Here is my latest post for Kirkus blogs.  Don't miss Elizabeth's post today on Kirkus about Richard Mabey's fantastic book Weeds.

Mrs-greenthumbs-danz When I was a beginning gardener 20 years ago, I devoured how-to books.  But then I became older and wiser and understood that the most important teacher in the garden is experience, as you begin to your understand your own climate and soil, the way various plants behave in the conditions you offer, and the fact that character is destiny even in the backyard.

So the gardening books that have really meant something to me in the long-term are not those written by people purporting to infallible horticultural expertise.  The ones I value most are written by men and women who understand something about life.  They recognize the comedy inherent in gardening, as well as the essentially sacred nature of the activity.  The best of them are as gently crisp as Austen, as deft with a rollicking picaresque as Fielding, and as harrowing in their depictions of suffering as Dostoyevsky.

Here’s a small sample of the fun offered when a truly stylish writer takes up gardening:


“There is no need for every American to be lured into gardening.  It does not suit some people and they should not be cajoled into a world they have no sympathy with.  Many people after all, find delight in stealing television sets; others like to make themselves anxious with usury and financial speculation; still others rejoice in a life of murder.  None of these is very good material for a gardener.”

Henry Mitchell, One Man’s Garden

“I have come to understand the distance between naturalists, who gaze benignly on all of nature’s operations, and the experienced gardener, who perforce has developed a somewhat less sentimental view. Particularly toward woodchucks. I am not ready to see them banished from the planet altogether—they must have some ecological purpose—but I seriously doubt that news of some form of woodchuck megadeath in this part of the country would put me in an elegiac frame of mind.”

Michael Pollan, Second Nature


“After compost itself, mulches in general are the subject most actively boring to the organic gardener’s friends.”

Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Like youth, horse manure goes all too quickly.”

Henry Mitchell, One Man’s Garden


“I wouldn’t presume to know the thoughts and feelings of bees, but if I saw a bunch of teenagers sipping nectar, rolling around with their feet up in the air, covered with fragrant pollen, and then racing off to do it again and again, I would assume that they were having a wonderful time and would probably call the police.”

Cassandra Danz, Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned A Boring Yard into A Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too.


“Iceberg lettuce; topless carrots and half-spoiled spinach packed in plastic bags; turnips and cucumbers dipped in wax; overgrown string beans—not to speak of melons and stone fruit shipped so unripe they would make effective ammunition in a street fight—all these are evidence that Americans, basking in the belief that they are the best-fed people in the world, will put up with almost anything.”

Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden


“Peony hoops, metal rings designed to fit around the whole plant to keep the flowers from falling over are worse than useless…after the first rain, the soaked flower heads leaned over the rails like drunks at a race track.”

Cassandra Danz, Mrs. Greenthumbs: How I Turned A Boring Yard into A Glorious Garden and How You Can, Too.


“The small garden of Washington would almost always be astonishing in its beauty except for the small gardener of Washington.”

Henry Mitchell, One Man’s Garden

Posted by on July 7, 2011 at 8:12 am.   This post has 19 responses.
Eat This,   Taking Your Gardening Dollar

Speaking of Tomatoes…


I am not a fan of plastic tomato supports, and this proves the point.  I was sent this to try out a few years ago, and I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the company that makes it.  Anyway, I think I did give it a try the year it arrives, but given how tomatoes tend to fail in my climate, it didn't get much of a workout.  So I got it out in hopes of using it to support this year's tomatoes–and look what happened.  One firm shove into the soil (not into rock, just into firm soil) and it broke.

So much for that.  What are you people using for tomato supports?

Posted by on July 6, 2011 at 7:55 pm.   This post has 34 responses.

The Wild Artistic Implications of the New Google Image Search

I just love this post that Gen did at North Coast Gardening about horticultural uses of the new Google "search by image" feature. It searches based on an image, not on words, by sifting through other images to find similarities.  It's interesting when it works, but even more interesting when it doesn't work.  Look what a search for an orange carex turned up:

Carex pictures

Brilliant.  Go over there and read the whole post–it's terrific.

Posted by on July 6, 2011 at 3:22 pm.   This post has 6 responses.
But is it Art?

Chicken Paintings!

Dolley3 Now that the book tour madness has settled down a bit, I'm hoping I'll get to pick up my paintbrush more often.   I always paint small–it's all I have time for–and the most expedient way to move them out of my attic and on to someone ele's wall seems to be eBay.  If you're interested, follow along on my blog.

I've also joined a very smart group of artists who have created a site called Daily Paintworks. They sell small, affordable paintings online every day. There's some fabulous work there, and it's encouraging to see artists finding their own way in this new and ever-changing economy. So do check that out, too.

One last thing–this is something else I used to do and have only recently revived–notecards of some of these paintings are available through Zazzle. I'll continue to post more images there over time, so do check back. Who knows–there might even be a calendar before Christmas!

Posted by on July 6, 2011 at 2:00 pm.   This post has 6 responses.