February 14, 2007

Dear Readers

The diary of my garden is a bit thin of late.  Apologies.  Lots of mortgage-paying work and not much happening in the frozen yard.

You can, however, find me very reliably every Friday at Garden Rant.  And the fun of Garden Rant is that you get to read Susan Harris, Elizabeth Licata, and Amy Stewart as well.

January 12, 2007

Let God Sort 'Em Out

Groundhog_1 Last fall, my readers will recall, I once again sought out advice for my groundhog problem.  Namely, the fact that the lard-asses keep me from ever harvesting a crucifer in my vegetable garden.

My lawn guy Ernie said, "Trap 'em and move 'em."

I said, "Great. I'll get my husband to do it."

My husband said, "YOU do it."   A very serious compact violation, and my lawyer and I are still determining how to make him pay.

So back to square one.  Well, today's New York Times piece  about a zoo-keeper who trains groundhogs for their February 2 media moment confirms that I was correct  first of all, in trying to foist off the job of trap-and-release on my spouse and second, in not running out myself and acquiring havaheart traps for the dears.  Here is how the zoo-keeper described the experience of training "Chuck":

“The patience involved is staggering,” Mr. Schwartz said. “He’s got a brain the size of a cashew, so you really don’t have much to work with.” And, he added: “They’re known for their aggression, so you’re starting from a hard place. His natural impulse is to kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly.”

Fortunately, I got a more congenial piece of advice while cutting down my Christmas tree:  solar-powered electric fence, with two hot wires set a few inches above the ground.  The tree-farm owner swore that it worked to keep the groundhogs out of his vegetable garden, with the rabbits as a bonus.

I say, zap all their fat butts and let God sort it out.

December 18, 2006

Fine Fettle

This unusually warm fall and early winter is keeping me cheerful long after I usually sink into the slough of despond--or, as we call it around my house, Mom's cranky mood when she can't garden. 

Thanks to a mind-blowing lack of frost, I'm still using earth-moving tools at both my houses.  First, I've been getting the last of my spring load of compost out of my husband's parking space in the city.   He gets cranky, too, but it usually involves his wife's attempts to farm an urban yard.

And in the country, I spent all weekend pitching shredded leaves over my vegetable garden.   The leaves were delivered by my lawn guy, and I suspect they are mixed with grass clippings, because the pile of them is the hottest compost pile I've ever seen.  I forced my big kids to stick their hands into it, just to experience backyard science at its most fascinating.  "Cool!" they said, meaning HOT--and then went back to whacking each other with sticks.

Anyway, I'm experiencing the kind of immense good cheer that's usually unthinkable by Thanksgiving, when, in a non-carbon-impacted year, the ground freezes solid.  Yet here it is, the downside of December, and I'm still digging.  Worrisome, all wrong, a world out of balance, and yet, hurray!

December 14, 2006

Grateful Gardener of the Northeast

Weeds_1 Every once in a while, I stumble across a book that I suddenly realize I've been longing for for years and waiting for some random writer to write.

That happened to me last weekend in my local Barnes & Noble.  There is was, Weeds of the Northeast, a manual for weed identification.  Insanely expensive, $29.95 for a paperback!  But entirely necessary.

For years, I've been frustrated by my inability to identify the various vicious things springing out of my soil.  And this frustration intensified this year, when my vegetable garden at my weekend house got completely out of control and my most significant crop was millions of weeds, thousands of different varieties, all oddly fascinating.

Ideally, there would have been some sagacious old gardener a generation removed from me who would have patiently wandered my garden with me over the years, taught me the names of the native plants, and imparted all the ancient knowledge...but no such luck.  No one's passing on much folk wisdom these days, it seems to me.

So we have to turn to scholarly books like this one.  My only complaint about this book is that it's a little doctrinaire in its descriptions of individual weeds and does not explore their relationship to ornamental plants... or really admit that some of them ARE ornamental, and some so beautiful, they are worth living a bit dangerously for.  And it doesn't discuss edibility, which is a big issue for me.   Lamb's quarters--how can you print photos and yet not admit what a delicious citrusy green it is?

November 16, 2006

The Legacy Question


I didn't like gardening much as a child. My mother didn't grow what I now consider the really exciting things: flowers and vegetables.  She basically just maintained her landscaping very meticulously.  So to work in her garden as a child meant spending an hour or two with one's head poked into a cave of yews and rhododendrons, pulling out dandelions.  Not terribly appealing, and if I agreed to do it more than three times in my whole childhood, that was a lot.

To give her credit, my mother did love the soil enough to head outdoors the second she arrived home after a long day at the office, and then she watered and fussed until dark dropped, ignoring the kids all the while.  Some day my children will be making similar complaints to their therapists about me.  "She wasn't interested in me," sniff.  "She was interested in tubers."

Except that I really try to get my children out there with me.  My four year-old helped me plant tulips at her pre-school on Saturday.   She's willing to do tulips with me because she likes counting them out--five to a hole--and she likes filling in the hole partway and throwing a fistful of fertilizer on it.   She is very big on emptying bags of PlantTone all over the garden.  Of course, her interest lasted about 20 minutes, and I had an hour's worth of planting, so soon I was working away while she was driving one of the pre-school's many foot-powered sports cars.

My eight year-olds garden with me, too.  My eight-year-old daughter now uses a shovel authoritatively and can accomplish amazing things in a hour.  Her twin, my son, prefers a trowel and is better at finesse-work, contemplation, and interesting conversation while weeding the leeks.   These two garden because I pay them a few dollars an hour to do it.  Though on Saturday, my son, who also helped with the tulips said, "Gardening and getting paid, what could be better?"

I'm not quite sure how I became a gardener from the embittered little girl unwilling to weed her mother's dandelions at any price.  All of a sudden, in my early 30's, I just was a gardener.  I don't even care if my children become gardeners.  But I do want them to understand the power of nature and the miracle of life.  I don't know if they are getting those things from the experience of gardening with me, which might be too much about don't spill the fertilizer, no I won't pay you for an hour when you've only worked 14 minutes, and don't bug me now.   But I do hope so.

November 01, 2006

Maturity Proves Elusive


Gardeners, beware!

I can never decide whether Halloween in my town is completely out-of-control and frightening or a charmingly weird and life-affirming little holiday.  And I suppose that's exactly how it should be, or Halloween would just be Easter with pumpkins.

But we get a LOT of traffic.  First of all, Saratoga Springs is dense and urban, unlike the surrounding area, so we draw every short little efficiency expert for miles around.  Lots of candy for little walking.  And second, there is a wild enthusiasm among the Victorian house owners in my neighborhood for Halloween decor.  Creepy architecture meets the right holiday, I suppose.  We are talking fog machines, bubbling cauldrons, apes jumping out of the bushes, skeletons half-buried in the lawn, the works.  The nice young couple who live next door to us are among the most over-the-top decorators, with an animatronic figure in a crypt named Sully who screams and rips open his chest if you clap.

Last year, I'd barely planted 76 daylilies on my hell strip when the flat-footed Halloween hordes arrived, the parents waiting with their heels grinding my little plants into the ground, while their children collected several dozen bags of candy from me.  I spent the entire evening grousing, "Get offa the daylilies!"

But most of those daylilies came up in spring anyway, bloomed in summer--and turned out to be a bad color that reminded me of white underwear washed, hot, with an orange sock.

So I gave them away and instead bought, at considerably more expense, 36 good-sized miniature daylilies from Slate Hill Farm in a considerably more interesting purple color.

Older and wiser and more determined than ever to become a calm and compassionate adult before I become a crabby old crone, to have more humane values and to be less of a plant-obsessed materialist, to morph into one of those relaxed and happy middle-aged ladies whose lust for life keeps them attractive despite their thickening waists, I managed this Halloween to sit on my porch and actually enjoy all the sweet children moving up and down the steps, including my own. 

It looked like I'd actually get through this Halloween without once yelling at anybody for tromping on my daylilies--until the Headless Horseman arrived on my sidewalk.  On an actual horse.  The adult woman accompanying this pair led the horse across my hell strip and then ground out her cigarette in my flowerbed, while the terrified animal listened to Sully scream and considered bolting.

"Keep the horse off the daylilies," I groused.   I think what I really meant was, keep the horse off the kindergartners.  Utterly insane!

Halloween...feel I should like it, but not sure I do.   

October 28, 2006

Tulips Need A Publicist


Amy Stewart, whose fascinating book on the cut-flower industry, Flower Confidential, will be published this winter, sent me an amusing link the other day.  The Society of American Florists seems to be taking credit for my O Magazine piece on the psychological power of flowers because they funded one of the scientific experiments I mentioned.

Of course, I wrote the piece hoping it would convince people to plant more lilies and dahlias, not call up FTD.    However, let's give credit where credit is due.  Some clever public relations person probably really did give the world's florists a boost by convincing the right scientist to design an experiment testing the flower-happiness connection.  The scientist was intigued by the results and began conducting a bunch of other experiments with her own funds.

I've been thinking of late that the Dutch tulip growers' association could really use the services of that public relations person, whoever he or she is. 

Every yard in my town should be full of tulips in May, yet I'm the only person in my neighborhood who really plants them.  Let me explain why this is ridiculous.  Saratoga Springs was once an inland sea.  The soil is beach sand, absurdly easy to dig, and bulbs do fantastically well in it.   No problem, putting 100 tulips in the ground in half a hour. 

We can reliably stick tulips in the ground until Thanksgiving.

Come spring, they are the most beautiful things in the world.

Yet hardly anybody in my town knows it.  When I called up the woman who runs the gardening committee at my daughter's preschool and said I wanted to plant tulips around the school, she said, "Well, we put eight in the ground last year and somebody said they'd come back."

Eight!  I had 20 times that number in mind.   I can't wait to see them next spring--including a tomato-red tulip with yellow fringes called "Davenport."

The PTA at my older kids' school runs a bulb fundraiser every year.  They send out a sheet of boring offerings--nothing purple or black or orange or fringed or lily-flowered--without instructions or encouragement. 

Here's what that sheet ought to say: It's easy to plant tulips.  They will work.  They come in amazing shapes and colors.  They're temporary, so be as wild as you want to.  It's not too late to plant them.  They will make you happy.  Just do it.

Thank God Almighty, Weed-Free At Last!

Weedfree_a \

The most back-breaking single gardening job I've ever done was rid my vegetable garden of giant weeds this fall.  I don't own a rototiller, so it was many fall weekends of pick, shovel, and yank.

Why the weeds?  Total management failure in a weekend garden.  Incredibly witless choice of soil fertilizer when making the garden--farmyard manure, the gift that keeps on giving stinging nettles and many other horrors.  Predation by groundhogs that kept the vegetables from growing big enough to shade anything out.  My old reliable vegetable garden mulch--straw--that sprouted giant fountains of grass after a rainy spring.  A four-year-old who'd rather that I play with her than spend all day making the vegetable garden nice.

But I don't plan on knuckling under to failure.  Ernie, my lawn guy, suggests that I simply drop all grass-based mulch products and head on over to leaf mulch.  Apparently, he's been building a pile of maple leaves on a non-gardening customer's property for ten years and is going to dump a few truckloads onto the garden.

Of course, it would be preferable to have no mulch at all in the beginning of the season.  The soil is heavy, wet clay, slow to warm up in my Zone 4 spring.  But weekend vegetable gardeners have to make compromises for the sake of order, I am finding.

October 17, 2006

Sign of the Shovel Invades O Magazine

Omag_200611_cover_75x102The new issue of  O, the Oprah Magazine contains my first foray into print on a gardening topic: the psychological power of flowers.   Those tulips or peonies or lilies you like so much?  It's not an accident that they make you happy.  They are happiness factories, with shapes, colors and scents that evolved over thousands of years just to light up your brain.   

October 16, 2006

Masculin Feminin


My husband is not the sort of man to encourage feminine frailty.  From the time we met, when I was but an eyelash-batting little girl, his line has always been, "You're a big girl.  Figure it out yourself.  Do it yourself."  And I credit this attitude for making me the formidable/borderline scary person I am today.

That's not to say that there is no sex-linked dependency in our marriage.  I do all the grocery shopping and cooking in the household, and my husband feigns helplessness when he has to so much as fix the kids lunch.  On the other hand, I rely on him to remove from my view the few things that make me really anxious: bills, letters from the IRS, warning lights on car dashboards, and rodents dead or alive. 

I'll spare you the details of the only truly disgusting rodent episode in our marriage--the rat that died under the dishwasher in a 200 year-old house we used to own.  Suffice it to say, that's the deal.  I cook.  He takes care of all the unpleasantness of life, including rats that turn into slop under the dishwasher.

So, it was with shock and horror and a sense of violated contract that I received this verdict from him last week:  "If you want to trap groundhogs, you're going to have to deal with them."

What, I say?  What!

The issue only arose because I have a groundhog problem in my vegetable garden, a source of misery as great as any in my otherwise comfortable and happy life.   Thanks to the groundhogs, I harvest only things that don't appeal to rodent palates.  Hot peppers, potatoes, leeks, and arugula are about it.  Forget about parsley, cilantro, any crucifer--or, make me weep, the celeriac I babied in a windowsill from February on, only to lose it as soon as I planted it.

So, I finally took the  bull by the horns, or the rodent by the short hairs, and consulted with the great Ernie last week.  Ernie mows our lawn in the country and has been mowing for us for a dozen years.  He knows everything yard-wise, including exactly the right moment to ride over the peonies, to keep the foliage from overwintering any blight.

I asked him whether I could hire his crew to sink wire underneath the picket fence that surrounds my vegetable garden, in order to keep the groundhogs from digging in.   He said he'd wired up vegetable gardens before.  "But I won't guarantee that it will keep the groundhogs out.  I will guarantee the rabbits, but I won't guarantee the groundhogs."

Groundhogs, apparently, can tunnel too deeply for any such easy answer.  Instead, he recommended trapping them.  "It really works," he said.  "Especially if you set a trap now with something tasty, when their favorite foods are dying off."

He told me to buy big havaheart traps, catch them, and then drive them ten miles away to some garden-free spot.  He had only one word of caution: "They are vicious.  Do not let any of your kids poke a finger into the trap.  Don't do it yourself, either."

No worries, I assured him.  My husband would deal with the enraged groundhogs.

But Jeff has other ideas, on the theory that it's my garden, and to be a gardener in full, I should learn how to deal with angry groundhogs.   I am a gardener in full, and wasn't the rodent thing in the articles of marriage?  Doesn't he have to return my dowry and spend the rest of his life trying to make amends to my family for abandoning me to my fears? 

My lawyer says no. 

The upshot?  I confess that I still have not bought any traps.  But I do intend to.  Life has taught me that Nietzsche and Jeff are generally right.  If the groundhog doesn't lop off your damned hand, it will make you stronger. 

Imagine Gardening In Your Bathroom

If you are thinking about bathroom remodeling (as I have been recently) you might want to think about how you can turn your favorite hobby in the world (gardening), into your dream bathroom retreat/gardening paradise!

Why only settle for gardening outside when you can you can garden inside your house as well? I know it sounds crazy but just hear me out.

I have been doing a lot research on the different kinds of bathroom designs. Just on a hunch I decided to look into whether or not people have actually built a garden into their bathrooms.

Just think about it for a moment. The bathroom is the room in the house built for water and moisture. It has plumbing you can use to water the plants. So it would be the ideal room if you want to have an indoor garden in your home.

If you are like me and worried about bathroom renovations cost on a budget, think about how making a bathroom design into a garden theme could significantly reduce the cost. How? Because much of the space could be plants and plant beds. That means less labor tiling, finishing, etc.

Where I live is not like Sydney, Australia for example where they can garden year round. We have snow and ice. Imagine gardening in your bathroom in the middle of winter! It can be a reality. Even better you can have fresh fruits and vegies the entire year. And you won't have to take a break from gardening!

 I will do more extensive blog posts covering how I might be gardening inside my bathroom indoor garden. For now I just wanted to throw the idea out to everyone else. If you have any experience or input on it I would love to hear from you.

I think it is an amazing idea for a bathroom design that would work for both a small or large bathrooms. Although you might not be able to grow as many plants as you can in your regular garden you can still have some space to engage in your favorite pastime.

bathroom renovations

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About The Blogger

  • Michele Owens, who bites off more than she can chew as a matter of policy, has two gardens: a town garden in Saratoga Springs, NY and a country garden in Salem, NY.

The Shoveler's Manifesto

  • This is the diary of a wildly enthusiastic gardener.

  • Here are my principles:

  • 1. Add manure. There. That's the only advice you'll get from me.

  • 2. Advice is ridiculous if it's not local. It's all about the terroir, baby.

  • 3. Advice also makes for very boring copy. Snoozy voice of God stuff. I recommend the New York Times on Thursdays if that's what you're looking for.

  • 4. No anglophilia. Ever. Sissinghurst! Very pretty, but what in God's name does it have to do with the collection of mostly plant-hostile places that is this democracy called America? Even the blue states are mostly tough going for plants.

  • 5. If I'm going to read about gardening, I want to read about a particular struggling gardener in a particular garden. And, of course, the garden's connection to God and Man and Pluto. So that's what you'll get from me.

Find Me Here

  • Ranting with Amy and Susan

The Garden Writers' Pantheon

  • Henry Mitchell: The Essential Earthman

    Henry Mitchell: The Essential Earthman
    These delightful essays were orginally columns for the Washington Post. Mitchell was a blogger before his time. He purported to offer advice, but the advice was so personal as to be preposterous. Feed the squirrels and build structures out of copper wire indeed! No, this is the story of a particular place at a particular moment as apprehended by a particular sensibility--warm, wise, and deliciously aphoristic.

  • Michael Pollan: Second Nature

    Michael Pollan: Second Nature
    A brilliant premise elegantly developed--that there is no such thing as an untouched wilderness any more, so the proper relationship between man and nature is gardener and garden.

  • Eleanor Perenyi: Green Thoughts

    Eleanor Perenyi: Green Thoughts
    Urbane and funny. My favorite thing about the book may be the author photo: Eleanor sitting on a garden bench with cocktail and cigarette.

  • Dianne Benson: Dirt

    Written by a former fashion-witch turned gardener, this is another blog that purports to be an advice book. But the advice is so unusual--be weird, be original, be stylish--that we'll take it. Dianne B., I hear that you are now a formidable 60 year-old lady failing to suffer fools gladly in the Hamptons. Stop casting disparaging glances at people's shoes! Do something useful! Write more gardening books!

  • Barbara Damrosch: The Garden Primer

    Barbara Damrosch: The Garden Primer
    Much more literate than it needs to be, this is the perfect book for beginners. For years, I never planted my vegetables without dragging this out into the grass to remind me that beans like acid soil.

  • John Stilgoe: Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845

    John Stilgoe: Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845
    Not a gardening book, but a history of the American landscape that explains why the world around us looks the way it does. As such, essential reading for anybody who'd like to shape that landscape even on a small scale. Like "Guns, Germs, and Steel," a big work of non-fiction that manages to be mind-blowing page after page after page.