Monthly Archives: February 2012
Unusually Clever People

It’s Not Gardening, It’s Cactomania

Calhoun cactus

Y'all please welcome Friend of Rant Scott Calhoun, author of a new book called The Gardener's Guide to Cactus. Read on for the chance to win not just a book, but an actual cactus. I have to say, this is a totally amazing and really fun book.  Gardening with surgical instruments?  Japanese plant smugglers?  Cacti that are so rare that the only remaining specimens wear metal tags in the wild?  Cacti bred by Luther Burbank?  Who knew? Oh, and after reading his book, I now know how to select a cactus that is seed-grown, not poached from the wild, except when poaching is a good thing,which involves conservations groups grabbing rare cacti from sites that are about to be strip-mined or drilled for oil.  There's a lot of international intrigue in this book, is what I'm saying.  But let's let Scott say it: 

 Why cactus?

I tend to specialize in horticultural lost causes, and cactus are the outcasts and misfits of the gardening world. While I was photographing gardens around the U.S. for my book, Designer Plant Combinations, it occurred to me that most home gardens contain exactly zero species of cactus. In my estimation, they are the most underrepresented group of plants in gardens, nurseries, and plant books.

As I stewed over this injustice, my own cactus collection expanded. I grew a species of pincushion whose flowers smell exactly like Lemon Pledge, and a prickly pear cactus whose fruit makes alluring magenta lemonade and margaritas. I added the totem pole, whose spineless skin looks like melted wax, and the feather cactus whose furry spines feel like the hair of a terrier. I became ensnared in a love affair with spiny plants. I caught, and still have, an STD (spine transmitted disease) called cactomania.

Snow leopard

An impressive pot of twin-spined pincushion (Mammillaria geminispina) growing with the wildflower sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii).

I began taking long dangerous trips into the Mexican backcountry with succulent plant explorers. I became acquainted with a vast subculture of spiny plant enthusiasts and cactus traders across the globe: a Bangkok peyote grower, a Tokyo executive who collects living rock cactus, and a young Czech organizing a Prague conference called “Spiny Perspectives”. I lusted after artisan made pots fashioned to resemble meteorites and sea creatures.


A display of otherworldly Mike Cone spiny pots and assorted cactus and succulents at Sticky Situation nursery.

Got Weirdness?

The gardens cactomaniacs cultivate are hardly traditional. Their plants are not potted, but rather “staged”. They plant cactus among knobby rocks to approximate their natural habitats and the most discerning collectors apply a final top-dressing of micro-gravel collected from special anthills whose locations they keep secret. As a final flourish, wildflower seeds from the same range of the staged species are sprinkled over the gravel. Many cactus species are exceptionally slow-growing and long-lived—some so much so that they will be passed down to the next generation. They more closely resemble sculptures set on plinths than plants. I’m not even sure if what cactus growers do with their plants can be called gardening, but don’t care because it is so weirdly beautiful! I’ve decided that weirdness is a greatly undervalued quality in gardens. In my horticultural pursuits, I aspire to high weirdness.


A grouping of the aptly named Bishop’s Cap cactus in a mid-century modern Vessel Pottery container.

Prickly and Tasty

The ethno-botanical history of cactus is deliciously culinary. It is full of marvelously tasty but strangely packaged fruit absent from the produce aisles of the First World: hedgehog cactus fruits are encased in a web of spines that magically fall off when the fruit is ripe, revealing a strawberry-like nugget; the whortleberry, whose grape-sized fruit has the acid-sweet zing of a cranberry-blueberry cross; the organ pipe, whose golf-ball sized gems are said to be the tastiest of all cactus. The organ pipe’s fruit are eaten fresh, and turned into wine by the native Seri in a wild bacchanalia celebrating their New Year. The organ pipe fruit, which is full of tiny seeds, is so prized that the Seri historically enjoyed it twice—picking through their own feces to reclaim the nutty high-fat seeds in a “second harvest.” This is not a practice I recommend for the home gardener, but to each his own.


The fruit of the dinner plate prickly pear is delicious and mysterious.

Kings of Xeriscape

And then there are the practical reasons for growing cactus. Cactus are the undisputed grand champions of drought tolerance. If climate doomsday scenarios prove true, neither watering restrictions nor hotter temperatures should prevent gardeners from planting cactus. When climatologists speak of desertification, I think, more cactus! As a person who is occasionally forced to live a life outside my garden, to hit the road and sell some books, I find it comforting to know that my cactus collection will be stoically enduring whatever the Mother Nature dishes out in my absence.

They are the ideal antidote to fussy perennials that wilt in a warm breeze or trees insistent on dropping their leaves around the yard. Cactus, on the other hand, are nearly perfectly clean, dropping almost no annoying leaf litter on your patio. They also require less watering than any kind of plant that isn’t plastic. When I walk by my cactus, they seem to say, “By the way old chap, would you mind giving me a sprinkle of water when you think of it, it is bloody hot out here. No rush, don’t trouble yourself, just next time you have a watering can at the ready.” Yes, my prickly ones speak to me with British accents. In fact, my cactus sound like Keith Richards.


To me, cactus are more masculine than any other plant group. Even those with stunning flowers (and there are many), avoid prissiness by arranging them in a snarl of thorns. The sort of frilliness associated with cottage gardens is nowhere to be seen in the cactus world. When garden clubs ask me to speak, they often say something like, “you can speak on any of your areas of expertise, but please, no cactus.” I usually sneak some cactus in anyway.


It is hard to get manlier than a Totem Pole cactus in front of a tangerine colored wall.

Beyond Ouch!

The pain factor is way overblown. With good gloves and a little technique, you hardly ever get poked. And when you do, it is just not a big deal. Take it from someone who is horrified by needles. In fact, the pain you share with your cactus may further endear you–a sort of horticultural Stockholm syndrome. You too may contract an STD in these intimate interactions with your plants, but the symptoms are largely manageable and not completely debilitating. Buy some long tweezers, a set of welding gloves (for the very prickliest species), and you are pretty well set. For small plants, regular gardening gloves work fine. You can also handle many species by their roots without gloves at all.

But I live in Zone 5?

Well, yes, you cannot grow as many species outdoors in the coldest parts of the country, but in a sunny windowsill, you can grow a host of potted cactus plants that you can bring onto the patio during the warm months. And if you want to grow cactus in the ground, there are a few hardy species to choose from. Consider the following: Potato cactus (Opuntia fragilis) is the most cold-hardy cactus and grows well into Canada. It is low growing, forming a mat of little round pads, blooms pink or yellow, and is hardy to Zone 1. Beehive cactus (Escobaria vivipera) grows from Mexico to southern Canada, and sports hot pink flowers and fruit with a strawberry-kiwi flavor. It is hardy to Zone 4b.

A Beehive cactus in all its pink glory near Denver, Colorado.

Obsession with spiny plants is not limited to the desert Southwest. Just ask the Oregon-based author of the Danger Garden blog, whose mantra is, “Nice plants are boring – my love is for plants that can hurt you.”

Okay!  We promised you some free stuff.  Any cactus-related comment will get you the possibility of winning Scott's book.  But wait, that's not all!  He'll send a purple fishnet prickly pear pad (or a more cold hardy species) to the reader who posts the most interesting cactus love tweet to his twitter account: @scottcalhoun.

Posted by on February 15, 2012 at 1:01 am.   This post has 37 responses.
Lawn Reform

An Anti-Valentine to the Lawn

Lawn flickr sunstarr For Valentine's Day, Timber Books has invited some bloggers to write anti-valentines to lawns, to help spread the word about Beautiful No-Mow Yards. (Click here to see the anti-Valentines of my blogging buddies.)

I'll start with a photo that shows lawn at its most perfect and ridiculous.  Next, here are some tidbits gleaned from the 160 or so comments competing for a copy of the No-Mow book:

Husbands are frequently blamed for hanging onto their lawns for dear life, no matter what the gardening wife wants.  But wives can be sneaky:

My husband asked me, "Is it my imagination, or is it taking me less and less time each year to cut the grass?" I have gotten rid of about half of it.

There are plenty of reasons for lawns not doing well: shade, drought+flood cycles, black walnut trees, and DOGS.

On the other hand, dogs are what's keeping lots of respondents from removing their lawns, and they ask about plants that can stand up to them. One commenter is hoping that Carex can, another reports that moss definitely can't.  Another is resigned – only mulch or gravel will work.

Ingenious, adventuresome gardeners report replacing their lawns with everything imaginable – the expected veg plots and garden beds but also meditation gardens, an olive grove rising above native grasses (gotta see!), a sea of mondo grass, a permaculture forest, and prairies appropriate to the climate, like this Little Bluestem in the prettiest blog header I've ever seen.

Plano prairie

One writer reported great success with sheep's fescue, which needs mowing just once a year – and then only if the seedheads are looking ratty.  It's not happy in the sunniest spots, though, so she'll be overseeding there with clover.  (Wanna see!)

And lastly, a commenter needs a lawn alternative that's good for grazing dairy cows and chickens.  Oy, the challenges!

Now how about some eye candy?  These are my Valentines to lawnless gardens, from my travels around the U.S. 

Austin, TX

Buffalo, NY

Prairie Dropseed at Chanticleer Garden in PA

Poppie Field at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Salvia in Chicago's Lurie Garden

Long Island Garden of Dennis Schrader

Portland, OR

Portland Garden of Ketzel Levine (now living in Ecuador)

Seattle Garden of Linda Chalker-Scott

Takoma Park, MD

Lawn photo credit.

Posted by on February 14, 2012 at 4:30 am.   This post has 18 responses.
Unusually Clever People

My Author Crush: An Armchair Garden Classic for $1.99


My very clever publisher, Algonquin Books, is trying something new:  they're pricing seven of their backlist ebooks at only $1.99, for one week only, as a way of sharing the love we all have for some of these, shall we say, vintage titles.  In February, they asked seven Algonquin authors to choose a book by another Algonquin author that they especially adore.  An Author Crush, they called it.

So I was one of those seven authors, and I chose Richard Goodman's garden memoir French Dirt.  This book came out in 1991, ten years before I published my first book.  My editor suggested I read it to get a handle on how garden memoirs work.  That's how we talked about my book:  she would say, "Have you read this?" and I'd read it, and come back and say, "Okay, yeah, I see what you mean, but have you read that?"  and she'd go read that, and then she'd say, "That's a good point, but now go read this."  No wonder it took French Dirt a couple of years to edit that book–we had a lifetime's worth of reading to do just to get through a conversation!

Anyway, I eventually got to know Richard and realized that he's an extraordinarily interesting person.  Moving to France and planting a garden there–even though he had no experience with either France or gardens–made good material for a book, but he's a writer first, and really barely a gardener at all.  Maybe that's what I love about this book.  He was more concerned with writing an interesting work of literature than with saying anything in particular about gardening.  (He's since gone on to write two books about New York, my other favorite subject, including a fine limited edition work illustrated with letterpress called The Bicycle Diaries: One New Yorker's Journey Through 9/​11, and a lovely book on creative writing.)

Algonquin has been fiercely loyal to this book.  Most publishers let their backlist (meaning their older titles) dwindle away and go out of print, but Algonquin has this crazy idea that if a book is worth publishing, it's worth keeping in print.  They used to publish hardcovers and let another publisher do the paperback, but now they publish their own paperbacks, too.  In Richard's case, another publisher did the paperback version, but when they were done with it, Algonquin re-issued the book in paperback, giving it not just a second, but a third life.  That is crazy.  Seriously, nobody does stuff like that.

And now–the $1.99 ebook edition!  This is a very interesting and worthwhile experiment.  The questions of how an ebook should be priced, and whether an older book should be priced lower than a new release (much as movies are) is a subject of hot debate in the publishing world and impossible to address here.  All I know is that I would love to find out that these kind of special pricing deals can kick-start a great book from a few years back, and send a few bucks flowing into the bank account of some hard-working writer.

So!  Whether you read ebooks on a tablet, a dedicated e-reader, or on your computer, you can get a lovely bit of armchair garden/travel writing in the form of French Dirt this week for $1.99.  Go here to see all the books on the list, and click on any one of them to get a list of links to download to your device.  And remember, if you read ebooks on anything other than an Amazon Kindle or a Barnes & Noble Nook, you can buy your ebooks directly from a real, brick and mortar independent bookstore.  Go here to find out how.

A bit more techy advice–A couple people emailed me with this question, so here's the info if you need it:   If you don't currently own an ereader or tablet but think you might be getting one, you can still buy the book this week and read it later.  If you purchase it through Google eBookstore, it will remain in your Google account–you could read it on your computer now or read it later on any tablet or ereader that works with Google (which is all of them except the Kindle or Nook, I believe.)  I believe you can do something similar on Amazon–you can buy the Kindle edition now and read it later on a Kindle or any computer, tablet, smartphone etc. running the Kindle app. The price is only good this week, but the book will stay in your account long after this week is over. Hope that helps.

Posted by on February 13, 2012 at 5:18 am.   This post has 11 responses.
What's Happening

You Can Grow That! Blog Campaign Launches

C.L.'s front garden on Cape Cod.

by C.L. Fornari

Bloggers need topics to write about and the gardening “industry” could use a boost. I have a proposal to help with both. Every month there will be a “Garden Bloggers Grow That” day. Four words (You Can Grow That!) on the fourth of every month. Here’s why: 

In hort-industry trade magazine, Facebook groups and private conversations, people are talking about the need for a national campaign that promotes plants and gardening. The opinions about why this is needed and how it might be done are as wide and varied as the plants we all love. We could all debate the “hows” and “whys” forever.

I personally think a national campaign is important not only to build our businesses but to tell the truth about what we do. I also believe it’s something that everyone can begin today, and in many ways garden bloggers are the perfect people to get this growing.

About the truth: we need to remind the public that plants and gardening enhance all aspects of our lives. It’s not just about pretty flowers and nice landscapes.  

I’m preaching to the choir when I tell garden bloggers that plants and gardening provide seasonal celebrations, exercise, entertainment, better air quality, children’s well being, healthy diets, habitats, enhanced spirituality, creativity, tasty food, community connections and more.

Gardens improve quality of life. They connect us with the deepest parts of ourselves and give our lives more meaning. We all know that, but we need to be doing a better job of getting these truths to the general public.

I like the phrase “You can grow that!” for a national campaign for several reasons:

1.  This phrase can be used as a way to talk about those quality of life benefits. Seasonal celebrations? You can grow that! Your daughter’s wedding bouquet? You can grow that! A lush, fragrant party venue? You can grow that!

2. This phrase works for everyone in our industry: growers, retailers, Master Gardeners, public gardens, bloggers and plant breeders.

3. It’s a phrase you can use seriously or lightheartedly. It can be made silly and surprising so it has an element of fun. It can also be made fun of…think “Where’s the beef?”

4. You can grow that! can be combined with other phrases such as “Plant Something” or “Passionate about Plants.” It allows for those who have signed onto a local campaign to join their ideas with this one. “A private place to sit with your wife in the evening? You can grow that! Plant something.”

No where is a grass roots campaign more appropriate than in our industry, and perhaps bloggers are the best people to kick this off.  


I invite you all to post a You Can Grow That! every month on the 4th. It can be about a specific plant, garden, or benefit gained from gardening. Just start with a question that can be answered by You Can Grow That! Flowers in winter? You Can Grow That! (article about heath or hellebores); Bouquets for the office? You Can Grow That! (flowers for cutting); A connection with nature? You Can Grow That! (kids in the garden); A tomato with taste? You Can Grow That! (your favorite heirloom).  You get the idea.

Tweets can include the #youcangrowthat! hashtag. We could start a You Can Grow That! facebook group.

You and I know that individuals have great power to make something happen…let’s prove it. A national campaign to get more people into the garden? You Can Grow That!

C.L. Fornari shares her passion for plants on her website,, and blog,

Posted by on February 11, 2012 at 5:37 am.   This post has 20 responses.

We Have A Winner…


Thanks for the great comments. Gene wins for cheerfully admitting to slaying large trees by over-pruning. I am sure he will make the best possible use of this book–and his neighborhood will soon be pollarded and cloud-pruned into oblivion. Gene, please send your address to, and I'll have Timber Press get you a copy.

Posted by on February 10, 2012 at 12:05 pm.   This post has 2 responses.

Go Burpee!


So, my theory is that everybody should grow a little food in the yard: Take a little pressure off the world's limited arable land, cut greenhouse gas emissions, eat better quality food in terms of both nutrients and flavor, and enjoy the miracle.  No big deal on the cost side, huge returns.

Admittedly, however, after 20 years, my own backyard vegetable garden is a little out of step with the populism of my ideas.  In fact, it is a hothouse of esoteric experimentation.  I order my seeds from catalogs that offer the weird and the wonderful.  I'm fussy about certain varieties and then take wild fliers on others. I don't want the seeds labelled "Swiss Chard," I want the special Italian chard with tiny white ribs.  I plant things just for the sake of comparison.  I plant things I may not even care about cooking.  I am a mad scientist.

Still, I don't have infinite reserves of imagination and time, and for the elementary school garden I do, I buy seeds in a local store.  And sometimes even a mad scientist forgets to order one of life's key ingredients from the catalog–cilantro!–and it's a big relief when the Big Box store has plenty.

This week, I was super-delighted to see the enormous rack of Burpee's seeds in Lowe's.  And even more delighted to see that a big portion of those seeds are organic.  And pretty surprised at the incredibly low prices of even the organic seed–most stuff is under $2 a package.  

I bought lots.

Posted by on February 10, 2012 at 5:43 am.   This post has 13 responses.

“Give (Flowers) and Ye Shall Receive”

Among the buzzed-about Superbowl ads this year is this one from Teleflora.  So readers, what do YOU think of promoting flowers because they guarantee sex on Valentine's Night? 

Posted by on February 9, 2012 at 7:06 am.   This post has 17 responses.
Eat This,   Guest Rants,   Unusually Clever People

Chicken Gardens: We Have a Winner!

Free range gardensThanks, everybody, for your comments in response to my chicken gardening dilemma. Jessi Bloom, author of Free Range Chicken Gardens, chose a winner and offered all kinds of interesting ideas for keeping the girls out of the vegetable beds. 

First, our winner is Kerry, who Jessi chose because she loved her ideas about creating a chicken "spa."  (Oh, please do not let my chickens find out what a spa is.  I'll never hear the end of it!)

Okay, here's what Jessi has to say on the subject:


It is no surprise that Garden Rant readers have a lot of great suggestions about how to handle your free range chickens and a vegetable garden.   No one wants to go through all of the hard work of growing your own food to have it scratched up or eaten by your hens. 

There are a lot of factors in deciding what to do and it depends on several things: how many chickens you have, how serious you are about growing food, what kind of food you are growing, and how does your garden currently function – is it good chicken “habitat” with a lot of food and shelter for them, or does it have sparsely planted beds with an expansive lawn and a few raised raised beds?  The same solution isn’t going to work for everyone. 

For this situation there are a few main options:

1) Protect your plants with some kind of barrier method. This is what I do personally in my vegetable garden and in a recent blog post I wrote about what I keep in my “chicken garden toolbox”.   By using these tools, you can still employ the chickens to help you with tasks like pest control without confinement, but it might be kind of annoying to set up, move and take down your barriers every season.  And then there is the aesthetics factor.  I personally don’t mind it one bit and early spring my veggie garden starts out with a little touch of steam punk style.  Then it quickly turns into an edible jungle.  

Jessi Bloom garden
My vegetable garden mid season – the small wall is to keep rabbits out, but the chickens can hop right over it

2) Keep your chickens in a separate area away from your food crops. If you have too many hens to free range or your garden is only for your own food production, this is going to be a lot easier for you to manage.   

3) Integrate your chickens into your garden by using a confined range system.  My favorite method would be to use paddocks.  Basically you rotate the flock through different fenced paddocks or zones at different times of the year.  Much like a rotational grazing system that a smart farmer would use with their livestock on pasture so the land isn’t overgrazed.  You could have different types of edibles (perennial and annual) in each and rotate them out when the crops are ripe or starting to get overgrazed.  I envision many ways of doing this and it is great for the chickens to food to forage, keep pests in check and help with soil fertility without a lot of work on your part after the initial set up.

This is an example of what a paddock system layout could be in a small back yard

Amy, on page 88 in the book there is a sample drawing with 3 rotational zones for edibles which you could use as a guideline if you wanted to go that route, but for now you may find that barriers are the easiest way to manage.  And, if you are up for a redesign and I am ever in your neck of the woods I’d love to stop by, have a few drinks and help you come up with a brand new chicken garden with lots of edibles!

Posted by on February 8, 2012 at 4:31 am.   This post has 3 responses.
Ministry of Controversy

Dilemma: Finding a Nonprofit you can Trust

Issues related to money and nonprofit organizations are popping up all over the place – whether it's Money flickr  401Kpoliticizing their grant-making or taking money from unsavory corporations.  In that latter category and receiving almost no attention in the mainstream media (with one exception) is the National Wildlife Federation's partnership with Scotts Miracle-Gro (one link of many here on the Rant) and in the same week, news of the Sierra Club no longer taking money from the natural gas industry, from which it's gotten 25 million bucks over the years! That would be the same industry that promotes the much-hated-by-environmentalists practice of fracking.  The Sierra Club had endorsed fracking over the years, until (finally) a new CEO pulled the plug on that source of millions and went clean.

So the hero of this piece is the Sierra Club's CEO Michael Brune, who when he got that job in 2010 made the decision to turn down an additional $30 million from the industry and offered this explanation:

We need to be unrestrained in our advocacy …The first rule of advocacy is that you shouldn’t take money from industries and companies you’re trying to change.  Source.

As Paul Tukey pointed out in more of his excellent reporting on this issue, that's the opposite of the tack taken by the NWF's CEO in claiming that in taking money from Scotts, they could help it become a better company.  Right.

But as Paul also pointed out, there are consequences to turning down tainted money, which in the Sierra Club's case amounted to a quarter of its yearly operating income.  The Club had to reduce programs and lay people off.  

Funding Options for Nonprofits

So where should nonprofits get their funding, anyway?  Not by stepping up their onslaught of direct mail, thanks very much.  Many critics of the NWF complain of their excessive fund-raising and lord only knows what portion of their operating budget goes to fund-raising. (More on that below.)

How about partnering with companies whose products and practices don't directly contradict the mission of the nonprofit?  The Wilderness Society seems to have this figured out – by the look of their list of corporate partners and the policies they have in place for accepting corporate money.  (In my Googling the Wilderness Society I found this report condemning its "socialist origins".  See, just not capitalist enough!)

That small list of benign companies and strict standards contrasts not just with the NWF, mind you, but even more starkly with the list of "companies we work with" proudly displayed by the Nature Conservancy.  Companies like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and BP, among others.  Oh, yeah!  (Never mind the occasional bad publicity.)

How to Judge a Nonprofit

Think I know?  I just know what doesn't work – those Good Housekeeping-type ratings of nonprofits according to what percentage they spend on program versus administrative and fund-raising.  NWF's fund-raising is reported to be just 14 percent – really? 

My cynicism about these reported and trusted numbers comes from experience, a bad one.  I once worked (briefly) for a nonprofit whose executives instructed us underlings to lie about our activities on the forms nonprofits submit, so that administrative and fund-raising work magically turned into programmatic work. On top of which, a lawyer hired to help them improve their program percentage set up an operation whereby clothing was donated to the nonprofit, which turned around and donated it again, the effect of which was to boost their program-related numbers without ever handling the clothes. And I see from their current Better Business report that they supposedy spend an astonishing 93% of their funds helping the homeless, and only 7% on admin and fund-raising.  Reversing those numbers would come closer to the truth.

Nice to get that off my chest.  Moving on…

Money-Giving Options for Nature-Lovers

Over on the Ecosystem Gardening blog, Carole Brown continues her reporting on the backlash against the NWF by compiling other ways readers can get their gardens wildlife-habitat-certified without having to pay the NWF for the privilege (and pay more for a sign).  She found three national or North American organizations that fit the bill as substitutes for the NWF.

Even better, she suggests going local – by giving to nature centers and any number of conservation groups "right in your own backyard." 

These small environmental organizations are often struggling to get by on a very small budget of donations. They are able to do amazing things with very little money.

I couldn't agree more with her suggestion or the assertion that our dollars go farther with these small, local groups than the large national ones.  (For example, they probably don't pay their CEOs super-sized salaries.)  There are at least a dozen good conservation groups in my area, and if I want to recommend backyard certification I can just send people to the University of Maryland's "Bay-Wise Yardstick" program.  It's not only free but in my opinion, its more science-based literature is superior to the NWF's.

Carole goes on to recommend giving of your time, too.  And that's always going to be local.

Think Scotts will Change?

While Carole's post ends with a rallying cry to get Scotts to "clean up its act", I'm way too cynical (or just too old) to think that boycotting Scotts would change the company in any way.  There are plenty of reasons to avoid their products, and I do, but thinking it'll cause Scotts to have a "come to Jesus" experience is not one of them.

Money photo credit. Scotts graphic by Carole Brown.

Posted by on February 7, 2012 at 6:01 am.   This post has 14 responses.

What’s the point of a snowdrop when there’s no snow?


For me, snowdrops are simply the first indicators that spring—and a much more interesting display—is on the way, and I think one of the nice things about them is that they often appear as if by magic during a partial thaw. But if I lived in England and belonged to some wacky snowdrop-worshipping cult, I might feel differently. There, where it is usual for them to bloom in February, annual snowdrop galas are held and single bulbs of unusual varieties like “Green Tear” and “E. A. Bowles” go for $500 each. I’m no snowdrop connoisseur; I have nivalis, nivalis “Flore Pleno,” and elwesii, and that’s good enough for me.

In Britain, as they are here, the snowdrops are early; they started in December and were forming carpets by January according to garden writer Monty Don. Early February snowdrops are the norm in the UK, but not in Buffalo, where I usually see them in March. Gardeners throughout the Northeast are getting their early spring blooms in late winter; in Philadelphia, some have already seen tulips come and go.  The groundhog may have predicted 6 more weeks of winter, but if it is 6 more weeks of the gray, dull winter that wasn’t, at least we'll have some unexpected flowers to enliven it.

Posted by on February 6, 2012 at 4:05 am.   This post has 12 responses.
Drink This,   Garden Rant Cocktail Hour

Drunken Botanist: The Website

Drunken botanist screen capture


It'll be at least a year-possibly more–before my new book is actually printed and in my hands.  But it's never too soon for a website, right?  So here it is:, named after my forthcoming book of the same title, which is due out in 2013, probably in spring.

I do hope you'll bookmark the site, subscribe to the RSS feed, give it a link-back now and then, etc.  And if you've got any booze + plant news, ideas, questions, recipes, etc you'd like to share–well, you'll know where to find me.


Posted by on February 4, 2012 at 1:29 pm.   This post has 2 responses.

HGTV and Home Depot

xx This report

Home Depot has agreed to sponsor the series “Color Splash” on Scripps’ HGTV this season. As part of the deal, a special Valentine’s Day episode of the show will include a scene shot in a Home Depot and will feature the hardware chain’s associates dispensing advice.

Home Depot is one of HGTV’s biggest advertisers.

Product placement:  Jon Steinlauf, senior VP for ad sales at Scripps, said many of the company’s clients, large and small, have said they’d like to be involved in its networks’ content.  HD will also sponsor Color Slash's website. 

Posted by on February 4, 2012 at 12:01 pm.   This post has Comments Off on HGTV and Home Depot.
Gardening on the Planet

The Brand New USDA Hardiness Map: Already Out of Date?

UntitledMeet David W. Wolfe, Cornell plant scientist and expert on the impacts of climate change on agriculture. Wolfe is also the author of an absolutely delightful book about the soil, Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life, that ought to be required reading for all gardeners.

In the 2011 Timber Press title The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening, Wolfe wrote the chapter on gardening and climate change. This week, I called him up to ask about the new USDA hardiness zone map, after I looked up my own zone and got a result that in no way corresponds with current reality. Zone 5a?  Maybe 20 years ago, but not now. (For more about the map, see Elizabeth's post here.)

Q: The old zone map was based on a 13-year average of winter minimum temperatures from 1974 to 1986. The current map is based on a 30-year average that reaches all the way back to 1976. In a time of rapid winter warming, how does looking at this longer time scale make any sense?

A:  First, hats off to the USDA for doing a new map.  We haven't had an official one since 1990 and a lot of nurseries and commercial growers have been waiting a long time for a new map. Why the USDA chose a 30-year average, I don't know. It means we can't really compare it to the past map.  

And since the spans overlap, a good percentage of the data in the new map was already in the old map. This dampens the perception of change.

Of course, there is the argument that looking at a bigger swath of time is more reliable. On the other hand, we know we are on a trajectory, so a longer time span will dilute more recent changes. A 15 year-map would have been preferable in my opinion.

That said, the map still shows a significant shift towards higher average minimum winter temperatures in the Northeast and Ohio, as well as other places.  The map corroborates changes we are seeing in the living world, as plants bloom earlier, as insects appear earlier, as their ranges move northwards.

For conservative gardeners, this map is fine.

Adventuresome gardeners, on the other hand, would probably prefer something else. In fact, in 2002, the New York Botanical Garden planted a test garden in the Bronx of plants hardy only to a zone warmer than its zone on the 1990 map. These plants are all doing fine.

Q: Though I'm delighted that warming winters make similar experiments plausible in my own yard, your chapter in The New American Landscape makes it clear that climate change is not all fun and games.  We're all probably aware that warmer winters mean new pests, but you mention other effects, such as "de-hardening" during winter warm spells.

A: Well, when you say "pests," your readers probably think of insects, but warmer winters are also really great for deer. Without a long period of snow cover when they can't feed, they have better survival rates, produce more young, and are likely to want more food from your garden.  

About "de-hardening": The buds and stems of perennial plants go through a physiological hardening process so they are protected from winter damage. If they "de-harden" during a warm spell, then the threshold for winter damage is at a higher temperature. In the winter of 2003-2004, we had a very warm December in upstate New York and then cold temperatures in January. It caused millions of dollars' worth of damage to new plantings of European wine grapes  It wiped them out down to the ground. In late winter, a warm period can cause a premature leafing out and frost damage.

Many perennials also have a chilling requirement that may not be met in future, so they may not be able to produce a good amount of flowers and fruit. Apples, for example, have a long winter chilling requirement: 1200 hours with temperatures below 45 degrees. So do our native Concord grapes. On the other hand, European wine grapes, Vitis vinifera, have much less of a chilling requirement.  We may be growing more of those.

Q:  In The New American Landscape, you recommend "cautious exploration" with less hardy plants on the part of gardeners.  Why not wild experimentation? 

A: Actually, gardeners can lead the way here, figuring out how we can take advantage of the opportunities offered by a warming climate, because it's not their entire livelihood at stake, as with farmers.  Maybe we need VIctory Gardens in a new context, that of climate change.

Posted by on February 3, 2012 at 3:58 am.   This post has 12 responses.
Ask Dr. Bleedingheart

Speaking of the NWF…

…as we have this week, I've been meaning to share this little gem from Dear Abby. It's so rare that she gets a gardening letter!  

Dear Abby,

I have very nice neighbors who believe in leaving the wild and natural growth on their property. They have posted a sign that claims it to be a “certified natural habitat.” They never weed or cut anything back. At first, it was cared for, but now it has become an eyesore.

I have tried to grow border plants to hide the mess, but nothing seems to help. I believe it affects the value of our home. My husband doesn’t want me to say anything for fear of hurting their feelings. We don’t live in a rural area where this might be more acceptable.


Thorn in Our Side

Abby's response begins, "Dear Thorn, Who certified your neighbors' yard as a 'natural habitat?'"

Yes, who indeed?

Just for fun, why don't you be Dear Abby for a day, and write your answer to Thorn in Our Side?  You can read Abby's full response here.


Posted by on February 2, 2012 at 5:31 am.   This post has 20 responses.
Unusually Clever People

My Chicken Gardening Dilemma

Chicken garden

Please excuse the dismal condition of my backyard.  It is winter, after all,  In a few months, the perennials will be in flower and the whole thing will be quite cheerful.  But here's my problem–and if you've got an idea, you might win a book, so read on:

I've been growing very little in the way of vegetables the last few years, in part because I travel too much to take care of them, and in part because the chickens free-range and will either eat or dig up whatever I plant.  But this year, inspired by Michele's fantastic book, I am determined to make more of an effort.  I've got a timer for irrigation and I'm prepared to use it.  Now I just have to figure out how to keep the chickens out of the veggies.  In addition to the six raised beds you see here (placed roughly where they will go–more clearing and adjusting to come), I'll put a straw bale garden back there along the fence, next to the run.  That's always been an easy place to exclude the chickens, because I only have two sides to worry about.  (video on my straw bale experiment here, btw.)

So!  I need help.  I need to figure out how to keep the girls out of my vegetable beds.  Fortunately, there's a new book devoted entirely to the subject of gardening with chickens:  Jessi Bloom's Free Range Chicken Gardens, just out from Timber Press. Everything you want to know about gardening with chickens–including how to keep them away from poisonous plants, a subject close to my heart–is here.

Chicken garden

And yes, as you can see, I blurbed the book.  So–you know.  I already know I like it, and I've already read all of its good advice and studied the very pretty pictures.

Now it's your turn!  What's your advice for me?  Short of fencing off half the yard, how can I keep the girls out of my raised beds?  What would you do for something short like lettuce as compared to something tall like cherry tomatoes?  My two smaller Ameraucanas can fly–at least a little–and they can squeeze into some pretty narrow gaps. So how do I keep them out but make it easy for me to get in? 

(And by the way, I don't really need a wooden structure around a vegetable bed.  I just thought that would make it easier to attach chicken wire or whatever.  I could even go taller than the boards, making them all straw bale beds.)

Post your suggestions, or just make a comment, and feel free to link to something you've tried or you like. Or ask your own chicken/garden question.  Next week, we'll have Jessi on to offer her ideas, respond to your comments and questions, and choose a winner!

Oh, and by the way–Jessi's doing a bunch of events, primarily on the West Coast, but she'll be in Maryland, too.  Check out her schedule here.

Also, there's a contest going on at Timber to win a chicken garden start-up kit.  Check that out.


Posted by on February 1, 2012 at 3:13 am.   This post has 55 responses.