Monthly Archives: January 2012
CRRRITIC,   Everybody's a Critic

Kudos to GrowWrite! and Michael Nolan

Grow writeHave you seen the first issue of GrowWrite!?  It’s the online magazine for garden communicators that hit the web recently to much acclaim and kudos for its editor, Michael Nolan.  He’d previously served as editor of Garden Writers Today and when that was shuttered by its publisher (Cool Springs Press) a friend asked Michael, “You’re not done with this, right?”  He agreed and proceeded to make GrowWrite! happen.

I was so impressed with the premiere issue, I had to find out more about it.  A phone call with Michael later, I can report that it’s his first magazine project, will be published monthly, and that the goal is to pay all its contributors (actual pay, not the free ads the first contributors were paid with).  So, advertising is being pursued – with the lure of a highly targeted audience and a multiplying impact – so that this magazine can practice the professional treatment of garden communicators that it advocates.

I also learned that in future issues, GrowWrite! will cover food, too.  There’s more and more cross-over between food and garden writing, so why not include that (huge) audience, too?

Another professional practice Michael is employing is including disclaimers that describe the exact nature of any financial connection the magazine may have with a product that’s mentioned, including sales commissions on purchases readers make by clicking through (popular “affiliate agreements”).  There’s been some acrimony among gardenbloggers about money issues and I love Michael’s approach – following the law by disclosing (something he sees plenty of blogs not doing) but DO make a buck where it’s appropriate.  No shame in needing to make a living!  Again, I see this as a model for how other communicators might handle this sticky wicket.

Growwrite memorial
Something else I particularly like about the first issue is this page honoring people in our world who died in the last year.  It’ll be a regular feature.

What you may not know about Michael 

  • When he calls himself an urban gardener, that’s no stretch.  He’s gardened in cities all over the U.S. (NYC, Atlanta, Philly, etc) first as a child in a constantly relocating family and later as a constantly relocated member of the Air Force.  (Who knew?)
  • How can he look so young and claim to have been gardening for over 30 years?  Because he started gardening at the age of five and is now all of 39 (though complaints of arthritis and gray hair have already begun.  Really!)
  • He’s spent time in a Buddhist monastery and today calls himself a “sitting Buddhist”.  What type?  Composters-001Loosely Tibetan.  On Facebook he lists his religion as “compassion”.  And on the garden writers Facebook group he started the popular meme of announcing good news every Friday.
  • He’s ghost-written about not just gardening but the environment more broadly, and also food.  And that’s all he would tell me about that.
  • His favorite T-shirt says ‘Composters make shit grow’ but I couldn’t get him to send me a photo of him wearing it for this post.  Michael, it’s not too late! Here it is!
  • He’s always been bothered by the stigma that gardening is just for women, until he moved not long ago to Alabama.  Turns out, gardening crosses the gender divide there in that agriculture-dominated region.  For men living in other parts of the country his message is “Chicks dig gardeners,” and who among us can argue with that?

Message to Rant Readers

Contact Michael if you’d like to contribute, or have a topic you’d like the magazine to cover.  Also send along suggestions for the calendar of food- and garden-related events that will start in the next issue.  Here’s the website for his writing, speaking and graphic design work, which includes contact info for him.

Posted by on January 31, 2012 at 6:55 am.   This post has 9 responses.
Shut Up and Dig

Ta da! Welcome to 6a


Now that the controversy of Scotts and the NWF has come to a more or less satisfactory close, let us turn to the newly released USDA zone map. It may not be as scorching a topic, but I think it has plenty of interest—especially since this map has been so long in the making.

I remember nurseryman Tony Avent talking about the new zone map when I interviewed him in 2007.  Back then, it seemed like it was almost ready to announce. First Avent talked about the botched zone redo of 2003: "That map was not accurate. It got rid of half the zones [the a's and b's]. It was easier to use, but it was wrong. Chicago would have been zone 6." After that first map (which Avent says was created by a consultant the USDA sent off to make a map so he'd "stop bugging them"), the UDSA called together a new committee (of which Avent is a member), and decided on a 30-year average of temps rather than a 20-year average, which would have created too dramatic a shift. An early plan to have a, b, and c zone gradations rather than just a and b was put off for a future revision.

And now, more than five years after we had that conversation, the map he was discussing is finally out. What took so long? The process was a comedy of errors in many ways, according to Avent—read the whole story on his website—but basically they had to go back to the drawing board a couple of times. They’re happy with the results, despite the delays, because the new map is much more functional than previous versions, as well as incorporating the subtle a and be gradations. Their map has all the pretty colors we’ve come to expect, but this time it’s clickable; you can zoom in on your area to get a better look at the color gradation to figure out exactly where you fall, you can check by zip code, and there's more data available however you check.

There’s also already criticism. I have heard comments that the 30-year average was chosen to minimize the effects of global warming, and the USDA seems to have anticipated this with the following statement included in the map’s accompanying narrative:

Climate changes are usually based on trends in overall average temperatures recorded over 50-100 years. Because the USDA PHZM represents 30-year averages of what are essentially extreme weather events (the coldest temperature of the year), changes in zones are not reliable evidence of whether there has been global warming.

Others think the USDA doth protest too much. In a WaPo AP story, a Boston professor remarks, "“People who grow plants are well aware of the fact that temperatures have gotten more mild throughout the year, particularly in the winter time," and one of the creators of the 1990 map states "the latest version clearly shows warmer zones migrating north." Whether the map is reliable evidence of climate change or not, even its own narrow standard indicates that the coldest days are not as cold as they were. Which NOAA will officially confirm in July. It seems like the rabbit's out of the hat on this one.

FWIW, my zone did change. I have gone from 5b to 6a, which I checked by comparing this with the one on the National Gardening Association site—still the 1990 one. The Arbor Day map has me between 5-6. After a decade-plus of gardening, however, I generally choose plants based on what I think will happen to them on my property, often not even looking at the zone on the card. (When I do, it can be surprising; some nurseries have been selling zone 6 plants here for years.)

The thing is, there are so many things besides technical hardiness that have an impact on plant survival. I trust a good nursery (of which we have many) to sell what should survive in my locality. But I fret about too-damp soil, too much shade, root competition, and—of course— my own ineptitude. I deal out death with abandon, regardless of zone hardiness. Zone maps are not for the likes of us, really. They provide guidelines for gardeners just starting out, innocents who cherish hopes that the illiterate plant world pays any attention to rules, zones, and fine print.

I have to be honest. This confirmation that Buffalo is slightly balmier than was previously thought might lead to a few changes. I won't be planting palm trees, but maybe I won’t baby the macrophylla hydrangeas as much.

Have you played with this map yet? Has your garden moved, compliments of the USDA?

Posted by on January 30, 2012 at 5:00 am.   This post has 20 responses.
What's Happening

Rant on the Road: Newport News, VA

I'm off to the Mid-Atlantic Horticultural Short Course, one of those horticultural gatherings that ends up being a who's who of botanists, entomologists, garden writers, and industry people.This year, Thursday's programming includes a whole day for home gardeners focused entirely on bugs.  Imagine my excitement.

If you're going to be there, I hope to see you! 

February 1-2, 2012
Mid-Atlantic Horticulture Short Course
Newport News, VA

Posted by on January 29, 2012 at 6:05 pm.   This post has one response.

NWF Abandons its Deal with Scotts

NwfCiting the supposedly unexpected guilty plea by Scotts, the National Wildlife Federation has announced that it's severing ties with Scotts. In not mentioning the overwhelming condemnation of the deal by their supporters, NWF leadership has chosen to behave dickishly even in defeat.

Posted by on January 29, 2012 at 4:02 pm.   This post has 14 responses.

Groundcovers that can replace lawns in Landscape Architecture Mag


I've regularly praised Landscape Architecture Magazine, but I'm really loving it this month because of Linda McIntyre's article about alternatives to lawn. She's promoting the Lawn Reform Coalition's new searchable Flickr group for groundcovers that can be used en masse to replace lawn.  (And yes, that's my own lawnless former garden in the top two photos.)

In related news, the Association of Professional Landscape Designers has recently joined the Coalition in sponsoring this new project and we expect lots more helpful photos will be added to the Flickr group after their thousands of members are made aware of it.

Posted by on January 29, 2012 at 9:29 am.   This post has 2 responses.

Beautiful No-Mow Yards – we have a winner!

Beautiful No-MowOur winner, chosen at random, is Kris Peterson in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.   Congrats to her and thanks to all the 157 people who entered to win. 

The book will be available in early February but can be ordered now from Timber Press, from any online bookseller or your local bookstore, if you still have one.

Posted by on January 28, 2012 at 12:03 pm.   This post has 5 responses.
What's Happening

Scotts Fined for Knowingly Selling Toxic Bird Seed

Wow, Scotts is in the news again, with this announcement of their $4.5 milion fine for Freebies2deals-songbird-300x300selling pesticide-laden bird food, and falsifying their EPA paperwork about it, no less.

So, back to the hot topic of Scotts being the National Wildlife Federation's new best friend, here's the NWF's statement defending their relationship with Scotts, whose "commitment to sustainability" they tout.

And here's the NWF's FAQ about the partnership, which contains this timely quote:

NWF becomes a key partner in Scotts' Save the Songbird campaign, a nationwide cause marketing program that addresses the alarming decline in songbird populations which kicked off in New Orleans on January 26, 2012. Over the last several decades, songbird populations have declined at an alarming rate–some by as much as 80 percent in the last 40 years due to lack of sufficient habitats and nutritious food sources. We know our supporters would agree, this is a major threat to wildlife. NWF and Scotts share a concern about the decline in songbird populations. We believe backyard birding offers millions of Americans an opportunity to learn about songbirds and how to protect them. Part of this partnership will include a $1 donation per bag sold of Songbirds Selections NutriThrive bird food to the National Wildlife Federation.

It's all unfrickingbelievable.  Since this latest announcement, the NWF has taken to removing some of the angrier comments on their Facebook wall, claiming the comments violate their policies.  I'm hardly the first to suggest that removing their entire leadership would be a more appropriate move – in conjunction with severing their ties with Scotts, of course.  Doing just the latter and leaving the organization essentially  unchanged isn't enough.

Posted by on January 27, 2012 at 11:46 am.   This post has 14 responses.

A Pair of Felcos and a Dream

Hobson_CoverLet's face it, as a gardener, I am mainly a farmer. Yes, I have strong opinions about the aesthetic questions in gardening. No, I do not have a fascinating yard. Too busy planting food and cooking it!

Nonetheless, I was really inspired about a decade ago by a photograph of a Dutch garden in one of Penelope Hobhouse's books. The perennial beds in this garden interspersed boxwoods strictly pruned into balls among the mound-shaped herbaceous plants. I loved the mix of hard and soft, and formal and informal. So I tried to reproduce it in my own desultory, diffident fashion–in a colder climate where we can't grow English boxwoods and have to settle for coarser Korean hybrids. In seven years, I've probably pruned the boxwoods just three times.  

Nonetheless, just this week while picking up the mail, I looked down at the shrubs by my front door, and thought, wow, they are starting to have some shape!  This miniscule success so inflamed my ambitions that I decided it was time to read a new book, The Art of Creative Pruning by Jake Hobson.  

Come spring, I will almost certainly ignore the shrubs once again in favor of the vegetables, but no regrets–what a fantastic book!

Hobson, a Brit, definitely attended the Penelope Hobhouse School of Garden Pornography, in that the writing here is far livelier and wittier than it really needs to be, given how tasty the photos are. There is some how-to in the book, all of it of a very high standard.  Here is Hobson on shaping boxwoods into a mushroom or blob:

The trick is to keep moving and never dwell too long on one spot.  To get a good finish, I find it helps to get down to the same level as the plant, so you are looking down at it, not drawn into it. If you have trouble getting clean outlines, imagine you are a lathe-like machine that is set on automatic, and cut to an invisible outline. In some places, you will take more foliage off, in others you might barely touch it, or even clip through thin air, but this helps to iron out any irregularities and in time will give a much better outline.

Though the recommendation here is to see things the way a machine would, this is very unusual gardening advice, in that it actually sounds as if it was written by a human being.  

But Hobson has the good sense to make this book much more than mere how-to. Its real subject is his wild enthusiasm for the dreamy unreality that plants treated as sculpture add to a landscape.  And Hobson–a triple-threat who photographs beautifully as well as gardens and writes–includes ample evidence of the surreal contributions pruners have made to his native Britain.  

My favorites are the many old yew hedges pruned into cloudscapes and buttresses and fortresses, though there is also a photo of an allee of yew standards in a churchyard that blew me away.

(For cinematic proof of the power of yew topiary, take a look at Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, namely the scene where Kate Winslet rushes out into a grand garden at a moment of grand romantic despair.)

I love Hobson, however, for his unsnobbish appreciation of well-pruned plants all over the world. For example, he is very enthusiastic about the insanely artificial quasi-Japanese style of landscaping you see in suburban yards in Northern California. He also has the nerve to prefer this suburban exuberance to California's more museum-like Japanese gardens:

Personally–and I will probably be shot for this–I feel that the residential gardens of the California suburbs have much more to offer than the larger Japanese-style gardens, however authentic and well-done they are. Having seen countless gardens in Japan, I have seen very few foreign imitations that quite lived up to their aspirations. Outside of their native country, to me niwake seem more interesting when removed from their native context and placed in the real world.

A garden writer who prefers real gardens!  Fantastic.

The Art of Creative Pruning is a tribute to all those gardeners all over the world who turn reality into a dream–hence, the perfect book with which to escape a few of these excessively real hours of slushy mid-winter.

Publisher Timber Press has kindly agreed to give away a copy. The commenter who has done the most creative thing with his or her pruners wins.

Posted by on January 27, 2012 at 3:53 am.   This post has 21 responses.
What's Happening

Everyone Furious at National Wildlife Federation!

The yard Scotts wants us to have.  No wildlife allowed.

Wow, I've never seen so much spontaneous action by gardenbloggers for an important cause as the sh*itstorm that's erupted over the NWF's decision to take money from/give greenwashing cred to Scotts Miracle-Gro.

Others have covered this thoroughly, so I'll send you to them.

On the Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens blog Vincent Vizachero has a good overview, with links to many other blog stories about the partnership.

And DO check out the action on the NWF's Facebook page!  The commenters are almost unanimous in their expression of anger, and nobody's mincing their words.  Many are swearing to take down their NWF-certification signs and quit the organization.

NWF's response

First, there's not a peep about the big news on their NWF in the News page. The press release is here at their Media Center.

NWF people do pop up occasionally on their Facebook page to offer assurances that they're listening to this feedback, which no one seems to believe.

Carole Brown has been a leader in responding to this issue, and even snagged an interview with NWF spokesman David Mizejewski, in which she quotes him as claiming: “The reason that people are upset is that there has been prejudgment about Scotts.” But Carole's reaction?  "I wonder. I think we’re probably mostly right about Scotts. But is it possible the real reason we’re so upset is that we’ve been living with a mis-judgment about the National Wildlife Federation?"  Carole provides the audio file in that link, but for the impatient, she has a nice summary of what David had to say later in her post.  Good work, Carole! 

SafeLawns' Paul Tukey has also done great reporting on this partnership and the reaction thereto.  In that link he covers the "awkward" interview with NWF CEO Larry Schweiger by an NWF staffer (full interview here).  Paul's reaction:

Looking more like a man who will probably be forced to resign soon than someone we ought to trust with our important environmental decisions, Larry Schweiger declared, “I will not apologize for working with Scotts.”

It really does come off as an incredibly interesting case study of an organization that just made the worst public relations move of its career — with little or no skill set in place for spin control. Every time Coyle tried to ask Schweiger about the toxicity of Roundup and weed ‘n feed, the CEO grimaced and said, “We don’t have to agree on everything in order to work together to find answers to the tough problems.”

Time and time again in the interview Schweiger insisted that it was better to deal with this devil, Scotts Miracle Gro, from close range. That way, he said, he can help Scotts become better environmental citizen.

“They want to change. They want to be a better company,” said Schweiger.

Yet as Tukey points out, Scotts' CEO is at this moment working hard to have Florida's recently passed water-protection law overturned (it mandates no Nitrogen in lawn fertilizer). 

Things I didn't know

Scotts-Miracle-Gro doesn't JUST sell tons of pesticides and fertilizer and promote the overuse thereof.  It also has exclusive distribution right in the US for Roundup, which is owned by Monsanto.  A company that all good greens loathe.

One blogger is not surprised, saying We've seen this story before.  He's referring to the fact that "In 2000, the National Wildlife Federation formed a partnership with oil conglomerate BP/Amoco in which BP gas stations would sell stuffed “Endangered Wildlife Friends” with NWF branding."  Oy.

And I'm not the only one (by far) who got their yard NWF-certified and came to regret it due to the onslaught of junk mail that followed.  I've worked for nonprofits, done fund-raising for them, but never seen anything like the weekly pleas for money from the NWF.  How many stuffed polar bears do they think we need?

And even some of the claims Scotts makes to its products helping wildlife – like their bird seed – are challenged here.

From Carole Brown I learned that Scotts tried to buy the Wildlife Gardens team blog – which voted unanimously to turn down the offer. 

On Facebook I found this link to a story about the NWF's Schweiger being "money hungry" when he was with the Nature Conservancy.

Sue Reed wonders if we've been wrong about the NWF all along.

Some are suggesting that disgruntled and disgusted NWF members lend their support to Wild Ones, instead.  I second that.

And I've learned that blogging gardeners and conservationists aren't push-overs when it comes to standing up for the critters they care about.  Great group!

Next Up

You can still register your reaction, as SafeLawns reports that so many have done:

Many were calling on friends, followers and colleagues to make life miserable for the NWF. It was the kind of tactic that got Earth Day to cave two years ago and rescind the ChemLawn money. Some suggest tweeting a message to NWF on twitter, including @NWF in your message, or calling NWF: 1-703-438-6000 to chat with the organization’s headquarters…

Or you can add to the growing outrage on the NWF's Facebook page.

Elizabeth here at the Rant tipped me off that "for you tweeters, Monday's #gardenchat is with the NWF."

Will the mainstream media pick this up?  As of this morning, the only item in Yahoo News was the original press release, though I did find a story on Treehugger and more will surely follow.  Right?

Posted by on January 26, 2012 at 6:00 am.   This post has 25 responses.
Ministry of Controversy

For Sale: One Botanical Garden

photo: Garden Conservancy

In other bad news, UCLA is putting its Hannah Center Japanese Garden up for sale. That's right:  if you have a few million bucks, you can actually own this place.  The university needs the money, and they decided they couldn't continue to spend $140,000 per year to maintain a garden that is visited by 2000 people per year. 

And isn't used by any academic program.

The garden, according to this LA Times article, was donated to the university in 1965, back when times were good and it seemed like a no-brainer to agree to maintain it.  Now a court ruling has made it possible for the university to sell it.

The Garden Conservancy has raised the alarm about this situation. In this press release, they ask people to send an email and ask that the garden be kept open.  But as is always the case with these situations, no one wants to nominate some other program or property to get the axe.

And–I gotta say–it is really a shame that the garden didn't get used for some educational purpose. UCLA is a world-class university–was there no academic purpose to which a fine Japanese garden could have been put?

Discuss.  And hey, if you want to buy it, Coldwell Banker has the listing and it'll be live in a few weeks.

Posted by on January 25, 2012 at 10:29 am.   This post has 9 responses.
Ministry of Controversy

A Tree? For Me? Oh, You Shouldn’t Have!


The San Francisco Chronicle has reported that the City of San Francisco is working through a process of notifying residents that the street trees next to their property are now their responsibility. Each tree is individually assessed and a notice is posted and sent to the property owner when the transfer happens.

The problem is that the city simply can't afford to trim and care for the 100,000 trees in public spaces in the city. According to the plan they've posted, they will be transferring 3000 trees per year to private maintenance.

Street trees continue to be planted at the rate of about 1200 per year, but those are now automatically placed in the care of the property owner.

So here's the thing:  these trees should be pruned every 3-5 years, according to the city and general common sense, but the city's only been able to trim them on a 10-12 year schedule.  People who plan to hire this out can expect to spend $300-$1000 to get this done, depending on the tree. 

And of course, the efficiency of having someone come along and trim all the trees on the block will, presumably, be lost when one property owner at a time decides to deal with tree-trimming.  It would be nice if people would work together and coordinate this and all chip in to get the work done on a regular schedule for a good price–but come on, this is San Francisco.  How likely is that to happen?

So–there's no good answer.  Money's tight, budgets are being cut, and tough decisions had to be made.  Sure, it might end up costing more in the long run, as things like street trees fall into disrepair or, at best, are unevenly maintained–but it's hard to see what else they could have done.

Any San Francisco property owners out there dealing with the unexpected gift of a few street trees?  Or any other communities dealing with the same issue?  We'd love to hear your thoughts.


Posted by on January 25, 2012 at 5:28 am.   This post has 12 responses.
Lawn Reform

More Beautiful No-Mow Yards

As promised in my first post about this book, here are more photos from the book, just a few of my favorites.

Above, the tiny urban back yard of DC Master Gardener Barbara Dinsmore.  Photo by Lucy Dinsmore.

Below, pink muhly grass in a California yard.  Photo by Saxon Holt.


Next, spring-blooming trees in a meadow of fescue at the Olbrich Botanical Garden.  Photo by Jeff Epping.


That's all the eye candy for today.  Be sure to enter to win the book, or just order it now!  Publication date is February 7.

Posted by on January 24, 2012 at 1:15 pm.   This post has 12 responses.
Everybody's a Critic,   Lawn Reform

Beautiful No-Mow Yards is just what American gardeners need. And you can win it right here

Beautiful No-MowIn the last year or so, we’re hearing that there are better uses for our land than turfgrass, that unless it’s needed for sport or play, you can save on resources and probably your labor, too, by switching to an array of alternatives – meadows, vegetable gardens, native grasse, and so on.

All good!  Well, mostly good – because that well-intentioned advice isn’t easy to actually implement, without a LOT more information.  Which groundcovers? Which native grasses – and native to where, anyway?  How much do the alternatives cost, can they be walked on, and how much work does it really take to maintain them?

My mixed reviews of much of the lawn-free cheering has me wildly cheering the thoroughly researched and honestly reported definitive book about reducing or eliminating lawns by Evelyn Hadden.  Beautiful No-Mow Yards contains exactly the kind of info that’s needed, and its gorgeous photographs (most by Evelyn and the wonderful Saxon Holt, too) are deeply inspirational to anyone looking to make their yards more interesting, more beautiful, and more wildlife-friendly.

Meet EvelynEvelyn

Readers of GardenRant are no strangers to this subject (see the many stories in our Lawn Reform category), but may not be familiar with the author.  Well, Evelyn is THE original lawn reformer, having written Shrink Your Lawn and created the Less Lawn website back in 2001.  She’s a pioneer whose cause has caught on.

What’s in Beautiful No-Mow Yards

  • Photos and stories about gardens sunny and shady, flat and hilly, a “shockingly simple meadow garden”, a “patio for pennies”, rain gardens, edibles, ponds, terraces, hellstrips and more.
  • “Smarter lawns” using fine fescue mixes, carexes, and other low-resource grass types, including where each type works best and what it takes to install and maintain them.
  • Real gardeners and the truth about their attempts to replace their lawns, failures and all.
  • How-to chapters for killing the lawn, designing alternatives, and maintaining them.
  • An illustrated guide to groundcovers by type.

Here’s Evelyn’s quick video introduction to the book.

Holt_1004_086Just one more photo from the book for now (more coming this afternoon, I hope), and a confession.  That’s my garden on the cover!  And in the photo on the left, both by Saxon Holt.  (Though I suppose I should start saying “former garden,” since I sold it three weeks ago. Sigh.)

Plus, I wrote the foreward, happy to help in any way I could because this book is soooo needed.

So I feel like the proud aunt to Evelyn’s baby. Her beautiful, superbly written baby.  Great job!

Just leave a comment about lawns or alternatives thereto, and I’ll choose one at random.  Entries close Friday at midnight Eastern.

Posted by on January 24, 2012 at 6:54 am.   This post has 161 responses.
Gardening on the Planet

Scotts MiracleGro and the National Wildlife Federation have Partnered Up

Almost two years ago we posted the news that the National Wildlife Federation was seeking input about possibly partnering up with various corporations, including such known wildlife-huggers as Ortho, Scotts Miracle-Gro and Spectracide.  Your comments were pretty darn negative, but seem to have gone unheeded.  Scotts DOES have tons of money, after all.

Here's the story.

After announcing the programs that Scotts will be funding, the company reinforces its "similarities" to NWF.

"During our support of the NWF's wildlife relief work in the Gulf of Mexico, we realized how many similarities our organizations shared – and started exploring ways to work together," said Jim Lyski, executive vice president, ScottsMiracle-Gro. "NWF offers a unique perspective that we believe can help shape our sustainability initiatives, and proactively engage thought leaders on constructively developing solutions to environmental and societal challenges. This partnership for us is about building a business that leaves our world better off than we found it."

Posted by on January 23, 2012 at 11:27 am.   This post has 23 responses.

We’re talking Asheville


It’s a big blind date without the pressure. You get to meet the people whose posts you’ve been reading and you get to tour at least 3 days worth of beautiful gardens.  This year’s garden blogger meet-up takes place in beautiful Asheville, NC, May 18-20. It’s organized by—among others—Chris C./Outside Clyde and Frances/Fairegarden. The hotel rooms are only being held through 2/15, so if you’re thinking of attending, the time to sign up is now. Follow the first link to do so.

We had some questions (in itals, below) for Chris C. regarding what’s in store at Fling 2012:

If there was just one thing you could mention—just one item—to entice bloggers to attend the Asheville Fling, what would it be?

The wild cultivated gardens on the low spot of a North Carolina mountaintop. The combination of forces at play here have created something very distinct. For twenty years, two gardeners with over-sized appetites and more space than they could fill have planted things in the forest. In the absence of a real budget to speak of and with limited time to spend on the mountain, nature has had an equal say in the garden. Ample native wildflowers have been allowed to remain or added to the mix.

Imagine hiking along the Appalachian trail and all of a sudden you come to a ridge top where the number of plant species around you increases a hundred fold. What was a cool mostly green shaded forest is now carpeted with an array of hundreds of flowers and many more shrubs. You keep walking and it just keeps on going for a couple hundred yards. The forest and the feeling of being in wild nature is just the same, but you know something is radically different about this particular place because of the plants you are seeing. [Chris is referring to Bonnie Brae and Ku'ulei 'Aina, his own two mountain top gardens, which will be toured on Sunday afternoon.]

As for the rest of the weekend, there will be funky urban homesteading in older neighborhoods as well as the posh landscapes of well-to-do gardeners who also have the sickness.

Are you at all trepidatious about the prospect of hosting a large group of demanding (mostly) women for a whole weekend?

No my wife has me well trained. Ha. Other than that I don't believe I am really in control in this life. I could not have asked for a better planning team. Frances G, Helen Yoest, Lisa Wagner, Nan Chase, Rebecca Reed and Charlotte Germane have done a lot of the heavy lifting putting this together. The garden owners, the vendors, and the sponsors have been willing, helpful and most pleasant. Our team will arrange things the best we can and then things will happen the way they happen.


What would you say is utterly unique about gardening in North Carolina?

I think gardening in North Carolina for the most part is fairly typical zone 6 and 7 gardening with the usual site-specific issues everyone has to deal with. What is more unique in is when you get into high elevation gardening. The zone you may or may not be in can change on a daily, monthly, or annual basis. The steep terrain presents other gardening challenges unique to the mountains. Sure, you can plant a garden there, but can you get to it in order to maintain it?

I'm sure the gardens are great and all that, but what about the food in Asheville? What should we absolutely be sure to have when we are there?

Well I am not a real foodie and maybe not the best person to ask because I will eat anything you put in front of me—except Lima beans and Brussels sprouts. I'm gonna feed you 12 Bones BBQ, so that’s covered. I love downtown’s Tupelo Honey Cafe for the Southern Fusion cuisine. You get a taste of real Southern cooking with a more modern and healthy approach. Asheville is a noted food mecca and the types of restaurants within walking distance of the hotel pretty much cover the world's major cuisines. There are restaurants for vegetarians, vegans and the gluten intolerant. In Asheville it is all about local and farm-to-table food. I do hear a lot of chatter about The French Broad Chocolate Lounge, or is it the Chocolate Fetish? One of those two.

Is there a bar in the hotel?

Yes there is a bar in the hotel and three or four along Broadway in the closest block to the hotel. There are more bars on Lexington the next block over, a bar or two around the corner from there and a few more down the street. I have no idea how many craft breweries there are in downtown now. Seems a new one opens every couple of months. Asheville beat out Portland, Oregon for Beer City, USA or some such unscientific online voting poll. There is even an annual Brewgrass Festival. Plenty of beverage choices in Asheville.

Will there be dancing?

Ani and I plan to escort you to some dancing on Saturday night.

Will we meet Bulbarella?

Yes you will meet Bulbarella. Don't ask her what the name of anything is and expect much beyond a common name. She only cares about pretty. You can ask all about her gardening methods and how she has managed to create all this exuberant chaos. Some of the answers may surprise you.

My father, the Building Contractor, was the codependent gardener on this mountain for the last twenty years and is equally responsible for the wild cultivated gardens. He was very much looking forward to this and would have loved all these woman fawning over him. Unfortunately, he died on us last April. His garden lives on and his love of gardening and his gardener genes were passed on to me.

Posted by on January 23, 2012 at 5:00 am.   This post has 17 responses.
Drink This,   Ministry of Controversy

Sign a Petition to Stop Mexico’s Botanical Foolishness


(via Flickr)

This just in:  Mexico’s trademark bureau (called the IMPI)  has issued a proposal to restrict the use of the word “agave” as it is used to describe some agave-distilled spirits.  Under the proposal, which is sponsored by the tequila industry’s trade group, only spirits produced within a limited geographic area would be able to put the word “agave” on the label.  Any agave-based liquor produced outside that area would have to carry the designation “Aguardiente de Agavácea” (spirit of agavaceae) or “Destilado de Agavácea” (distilled from agavaceae).

So there are a couple of strictly botanical problems with this.  First of all, there are many species of agave in Mexico that could be used to make some sort of alcohol.  In order for a spirit to be labeled as “tequila,” it must come from a specific geographic area (the very area the tequila industry group has proposed for this new restriction), and it must be made from Agave tequilana ‘Weber Blue,’ the species traditionally grown in the region.  So to claim exclusive use of the genus, when the tequila industry by law only uses one species (and one particular cultivar of that species, for that matter) seems both silly and innacurate.

The other problem is that to insist that all other agave-based spirits be labeled “Agavácea” would be sort of like requiring that all sugarcane, wheat, and rye-based spirits be labeled Poaceae, the taxonomic designation for the grass family, of which they are all members.  The Agavaceae family (which is missing an “e” in the Spanish version–why, oh why, can’t we all just use Latin if we’re trying to be all botanically correct?) is a rather large family that includes yuccas, the grass lily Anthericum, and those crazy beautiful ornamental grasses that aren’t grasses Cordyline (you know, like these), among others.  So isn’t that a little broad?

Such a proposal is irritating to those of us who would like more botanical accuracy, not less, on not just our bottles of booze, but our seed packets and our plant tags.  Think about it this way:  Plant taxonomy is gloriously simple.  Yes, it’s intricate, but it’s not really complicated.  It’s a straightforward family tree, with names written in a universally agreed-upon language, and changes to that family tree are made according to a reasonably well-ordered process. So how hard is it to simply go with that and tell the truth?

Meanwhile, here’s how this matters to drinkers:  Agaves can be used to make all kinds of very nice drinks.  In Mexico, geographic designations have been established similar to the Champagne region in France. Tequila, mezcal, and a couple other spirits enjoy some protection under a geographical designation. An American distiller, for instance, can make “agave spirit” but cannot call it tequila, just as sparkling wine made here cannot be called Champagne.  And most importantly, the good stuff is always labeled “100% agave,” which lets you know that it hasn’t been mixed with cheap grain alcohol. It’s a pretty clear system that allows someone to read a label and buy what they really want.  It’s also a system that lets small, artisinal distillers produce a very fine product and get into the market with a clear, honest label. This new law actually prevents distillers from labeling the bottle with the actual name of the plant with which the drink was made. Lunacy.

If you’re interested in reading more:  There’s a petition you can sign here,  more from those in the know here,  an article about the situation in the Economist and one (translated) from Spanish BBC, and you can even read the proposal itself (in Spanish) here.

Posted by on January 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm.   This post has 8 responses.

An Interview With The True Potato Seed Man

New World

For years, I've planted potatoes from seed tubers, which are now getting shockingly expensive. But I paid the money because of the disease-free certification.  I did save my own seed tubers a few times and felt that this was merely an opportunity to pass on disease from one season to the next.  Why subject myself to the hangover?

Stupidly, I never once questioned why I wasn't growing potatoes from seed until I learned about True Potato Seed (TPS) from The Complete Book of Potatoes last week.

Commenter Laine helpfully mentioned New World Seeds and Tubers as a place that sells such seed. New World Seeds is a business co-founded by breeder Tom Wagner, who is probably most famous for his 'Green Zebra' tomato, but has also done decades of work on potatoes.  I called him up to ask him about the 20 or so varieties of seed he is offering–heritage varieties as well as his own–and learned quite a lot.

Q: How did you get started as a breeder?

A:  This is my 59th year of doing this. I've been producing potato seed all my life and sharing it with people.  There are very few people breeding potatoes.  But poor people have poor ways, I guess, so I've always thought, why buy seed potatoes?  I grew up on a farm in Kansas, where there was extended family, people who'd lived through the Great Depression and World War II and got used to producing as much of their food as possible.  Today, we live in uncertain times as well, and TPS is the ultimate in food security.  

Q: What do you mean?

A: Right now, with our commercial varieties, which are propagated by tissue culture in laboratories, we are at a bottleneck of genetic susceptibility.  If you save true potato seed, on the other hand, you are preserving the ancient diversity of the potato.  

Eighty-three percent of modern potato varieties have a sterility problem.  Most of them are not self-fertile like tomatoes.  Many of them don't produce much in the way of flowers or fruit.  After years of breeding for good flower production, I've gotten more free-blooming varieties.  I've had 353 berries on a single plant. You could plant five acres of potatoes out of that single plant!  If you save potato seed, you are prepaying for the future.  You can put the seed away, and it will keep for 20 years.

Q: What else are you breeding for?

A:  I still have potatoes in the ground now that are covered in 12 inches of snow.  I'm breeding potatoes that can stand wet soil. 

I've been doing pretty good also, finding strains that are late blight resistant.  And I've been breeding new colors.  We rely too much on white potatoes, when colored potatoes have more nutrients. My  'Skagit Valley Gold' is a yellow potato like 'Yukon Gold,' but it has 16 times the carotenoids.

Q: Seed tubers are clones, right, but there is less uniformity within seed mixtures.  Your website mentions that some of the mixes are very variable and some are not, depending on whether the plant is self-fertile or not.

A: We try to maintain the old lines and look for new diversity coming out of it.  With the more variable mixes, I want to encourage people to find potato clones that are adapted to their climate, varieties that have even better flavor.  

Q: I learned that domestication of the potato has been about breeding down the levels of toxic glycoalkaloids.  Since there is genetic variation in the potatoes you are offering, couldn't some of them have high levels?

A:  Potatoes probably produce those glycoalkaloids to protect both the tubers and the foliage from insects.  As a breeder trying to prevent the use of chemicals, you want some of the alkaloids in the foliage. However, we're not breeding for them in the tuber.  Fortunately, they are easy to detect–they make the potato bitter.  I'll taste a bit, and if I detect bitterness, the plant goes in the trash bin.

Q: You mention on the website that some of your varieties mature late. We have long days in summer in the North.  Do the varieties you're going back to, from the birthplace of the potato in Peru, have different day-length requirements?   

A: Yes.  The parents of 'Fripapa' for example, were bred in Peru, where the day is about 12 hours long year round.  In the North, it won't tuberize until the days shorten in fall, when the weather may be too cold.  We're working on that disparity by crossing potatoes with day-length sensitivity to those that are day-length insensitive.  

In addition, I'm trying to create indeterminant potato plants that will grow and grow and keep on setting tubers throughout the season.  These plants would have root systems that could reach nutrient deposits deep in the soil and require less fertilizer. 

Q: What varieties of your seed would you suggest that I order, as a home gardener?

A: 'Negate' is one of my own, a black-blue potato.  'Fiesta Gold' has good flavor and stores well.  'Juanita,' which came out of Mexico, has good blight resistance. 

If you'd like to learn a little more about Tom, here is a news story from the Seattle Times.

Posted by on January 20, 2012 at 8:56 am.   This post has 5 responses.
Drink This,   Garden Rant Cocktail Hour

You Deserve a Toddy. Maybe.

Apple hot toddy

Here's the latest in a series of columns I'm writing for the North Coast Journal. The column is called The Drunken Botanist; my book of the same title will be out next year.

A friend of mine has been on a grueling book tour to promote her new novel. One night in early December, after she’d been on the road for weeks, she posted a note on Facebook that she’d developed a scratchy throat on the road and had done the only sensible thing: called room service and asked them to send up a pot of hot water, lemons, honey, and a shot of Jack Daniel’s.

For just a minute, I think we were all jealous of the many comforts her slight discomfort entitled her to. Room service. Hot toddy. The other luxuries of hotel living: an enormous clean bed, an unrestricted thermostat, a tub that fills endlessly with hot water, and a telephone that will be answered, at any hour, by a person whose only job is to ensure that you have a pleasant evening.

This is why hot toddies were invented: as a consolation prize to life’s small, wintery difficulties. They cure nothing—they certainly don’t cure colds—but they offer such warm solace that you almost want to suffer through something so that you might deserve one. For instance, it would be worth getting lost on a mountain ridge (for, say, half an hour), or trudging (a few blocks) through the snow, or having to run out in a storm to throw a tarp over that thing you were hoping wouldn’t get rained on, just to get something hot and boozy at the end of it.

And that is why, after a warm, sunny December that made Eureka look like Santa Barbara, it’s almost a relief to finally descend into the gloom and misery of a winter on the North Coast. Now, at last, we have earned our hot toddies. Just living in Humboldt during January and February entitles you to one of these. (Those of you who are escaping to Mexico or Hawaii this month don’t get one. Go drink your daiquiris, send us one of your cheery postcards, and post those blurry sunset cell phone photos to Facebook, which we will obligingly “like”—but leave the toddies to us. It’s all we have.)

A toddy is a very old drink; cocktail historian David Wondrich, in his wonderful book Punch: The Delights and Dangers of the Flowing Bowl, finds evidence that Scottish and Irish drinkers were dipping into hot bowls of whiskey and water and sugar and lemon in the mid-1700s and calling it a toddy. Our first recipe—the classic hot toddy—is just that.  

Hot Toddy  

1.5 oz whiskey

1 sugar cube or dollop of honey

1 lemon wedge

5 cloves  

Fill a heat-proof glass or mug with boiling hot water to warm it; set it aside while you gather your ingredients. Cut a generous wedge of lemon and push the cloves into the rind. (Punching holes with a toothpick helps.) Pour out the water, drop in your whiskey and sweetener, and fill the glass with more hot water. Stir well. Squeeze a little lemon juice on top and drop the wedge in the glass.

Warning: Some members of my tasting panel thought this drink tasted like Theraflu. There is no point in explaining that Theraflu is intended to taste like a hot toddy. The bottom line is that if this is too medicine-like for you, drink something else.

Using an orange instead of a lemon is a nice variation, and a splash of honey liqueur, such as the delightful German Barenjager, will dress it up a little. Jack Daniel’s makes a whiskey blended with honey liqueur called Tennessee Honey. I haven’t tried it yet, but you could. You might also try maple syrup for the sweetener, or perhaps even a maple syrup liqueur. (Yes, Virginia, there is a maple syrup liqueur. The one I have comes from Quebec and is called Sortilege. If it is your lifelong dream to combine your love of maple syrup with your love of booze, look no further.)  

So a basic hot toddy is easy enough, right? But somehow, it is not universally available in this form. Don’t ever walk into a bar and simply order a hot toddy. You risk wasting eight bucks on a beastly concoction of artificial syrups and instant flavorings in little packets. Instead, ask your server how the bartender makes a hot toddy. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, just lean over the bar, issue the above instructions quietly and pleasantly, and get something worth drinking.

That’s not all there is to a hot toddy, though. We live in apple country, so you owe it to yourself to make at least one nice, warm apple toddy this winter.    

Hot Apple Toddy  

1.5 oz applejack, apple brandy, or calvados

1 cup hot apple cider (unfiltered apple juice)

1 orange wedge

1 cinnamon stick

1 apple slice for garnish  

Fill a heat-proof glass with hot water. Empty it and refill it with brandy and cider. Squeeze the orange over the drink, drop it in, and stir with the cinnamon stick. Garnish with an apple slice.

This, too, could be dressed up with a spicy liqueur like Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, or St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram.  

You’re getting the idea, right? Okay, now check this out. It’s a recipe I adapted from Imbibe magazine, a fine publication celebrating the art of drinking that you should all subscribe to.  

Chai Rum Toddy  

1.5 oz dark rum

1 cup hot chai tea

1-2 sugar cubes or 1-2 tsp honey

1 wedge of orange or tangerine

Star anise or cinnamon stick for garnish  

You know what to do.  

So there you have it: the warm and rewarding toddy. A serving of liquor, a cupful of a nice hot beverage, some sugar, some spice, some citrus. A splash of sweet or spicy liqueur if you want to jazz it up. Use these recipes as a template and invent your own combinations.

Now, just remember: you have to deserve a toddy. Let’s all hope for a big, dramatic storm, the kind you get caught in but not for too long, the kind that makes the lights flicker but not quite go out, the kind that makes the windows rattle and the cats run under the couch. If we have one of those, congratulations. You get a toddy.  

Posted by on January 19, 2012 at 4:37 pm.   This post has 11 responses.
Eat This

The Organic Egg Scorecard



This winter, I bought two dozen eggs.  I'm generally content to just do without as my hens go through their winter moult, but there were a couple of times when I just needed eggs for something or other, so off I went to try to pick up something that would vaguely resemble the eggs my girls produce.

It's not easy, really.  Most of the organic eggs at my grocery store seem to be produced on large, factory farms.  It takes a lot of carton-reading to find a batch from a farm that actually lets their hens go outside.  The carton that I finally chose actually had something on the label like, "Free range.  Pastured.  All day.  Every day.  Seriously.  We just let our hens go outside and wander around.  No joke."

The eggs were surprisingly expensive–seven bucks for a dozen, maybe?–but I was willing to pay it.  I mean, it still worked out to less than a buck an egg, and an egg and a piece of toast qualifies as a meal around here.  So the money's no problem–it's just a matter of finding real eggs from real hens to get to really spend their days in the real outdoors.

Here's one solution–the Cornucopia Institute has published an organic egg scorecard.  Sure enough, the eggs I'd suspected of being organic-but-probably-industrial actually are.  So go check that out, and watch their video, too:



Posted by on January 18, 2012 at 4:55 am.   This post has 15 responses.
What's Happening

When zoos teach gardening, do they get it right?

On my visit to the National Zoo last October, I discovered something new and previously unimagined – a whole exhibit about wildlife in our backyards.  How to encourage and protect critters.  Good stuff.


So, what do you all think of their advice?  Especially this part:  "Don't apply fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides."  Labeling all fertilizers as harmful?  Wow.


And in several signs, they take a very hard line against outdoor cats.  As a bird-lover and indoor-cat owner, I fine with that.

This next sign provides a possible explanation for their no-fertilizer position – that it harms pond animals.  If you have a pond, which most people don't.



Readers, have you seen something like this at any other zoo?  And was the message the same?

Posted by on January 17, 2012 at 5:09 am.   This post has 23 responses.