While I was gardening

The art of gardening and the science of life.


You May Not Ride an Ugly Horse.* (But you can buy an ugly plant.)

I find very few animals to be ugly.  Besides the fact that beauty (or lack of) is entirely subjective, all creatures have some feature that can be off-putting.  After all, who’s perfect?  And if I did encounter an animal that could be considered ugly I certainly wouldn’t want it outlawed.  So, when I read about the above referenced law I was intrigued.  What prompted it?  After all, who determines that the horse is ugly?  For instance, if an entire town has judged a horse to be ugly, and the owner of the ugly horse needs to come into town and has no other means of transportation, what choice does he have but to ride the ugly horse?  If the animal’s looks are that offensive, don’t look at it!  Or if your cows got loose and wandered away, and the only means of rounding them up was to ride your ugly horse, what do you do?  I can understand a law that makes riding a hostile horse that bites against the law, but ugly?  That’s just mean.  An Oklahoma law states that you can be arrested for making ugly faces at a dog.  That makes sense.   But, what if an ugly horse makes a face at a dog?  What if the dog is ugly?  What then?

And I usually feel the same way about plants.  A common expression I agree with is “I’ve never met a plant I didn’t like.”  I even like juniper.  Really.  Not all junipers, of course, but many species in this genus would be welcome in my garden if I had adequate space.  So when my long-suffering spouse told me that he found a plant he fell in love with and wanted to add to our garden, I assumed it would be a beauty.  He does have good taste, and he has accepted with grace (or at least with silence) the many unique plants I’ve added to our garden over the years.  Reciprocation was in order.  But you can imagine my shock when he showed me a full-screen picture of this plant.  “Holy monkeys!” I said.  “That’s one ugly plant!”  After I apologized, I asked what aspect of the plant he found most appealing.

“All of it.”

“Even that?”

“That most of all.  I’m off to the nursery.  Want to come along?”

Well, it’s always been difficult to turn down a trip to our favorite nursery, and I mistakenly thought I could talk him into favoring a different plant.  Nope.  When he found the plant, Corokia cotoneaster, ‘Little Prince’, I thought it best to just keep quiet.

“See?  Isn’t it interesting?  Where are you going to plant it?” he asked.  In the alley, I thought to myself.

“I don’t think I have any more room for a full-sun plant,” I said.

“Ok then, let’s buy a container for it.”

To make an ugly story a bit more appealing, we purchased the plant and a beautiful Mexican terra cotta pot in which to plant it.  The plant and its lovely container have pride of place on the terrace next to our pond.  I still don’t like the plant, but the container is gorgeous!  And my spouse is very pleased with it all.

And, after all, that’s one beautiful aspect of gardening.


*It’s the law in Wilbur, WA.


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Bad Squirrels! Bad!

A busy time of year for a gardener, autumn is.  Chores include mulching, transplanting, dividing, some deadheading, selective pruning, and of course, bringing new plants into the landscape.  Our property is pretty fully landscaped right now, but there is always room for one more.  I don’t have a ‘back 40’ in which to move older plants to, but I do have a ‘front 20’ that I like to use for the smallest of our new plants.

Anyway, autumn is, also, a time that includes interacting with resident wildlife.  And autumn is a busy time for them, as well.  The wildlife freeway running through my neighborhood is experiencing high traffic volumes, traffic jams, the occasional tailgater, and the ubiquitous idiot who swerves into oncoming traffic to get to the front of the line.  (He never figures out that the bowl is always full regardless of when he arrives.)   At first appearance, it seems as if the creatures who call my neighborhood home never work together.  Each little being is out for him or herself, even when working together might produce better results.  But recently I experienced something unusual, and by all appearances intentional, so that it can only be the result of two minds working together to defeat a common enemy – a human.  Specifically, a human gardener.  In other words, me.

On a day that seemed made for gardening – bright blue sky, soft breeze, rain-washed and wind swept air, golden sunshine – I got busy.  I had at the ready my list of jobs in order of priority, tools and supplies at hand, and enough time to accomplish it all.  First up was the transplanting of a few perennials (from container to garden) purchased back in April with the intent of filling in vacant areas where sod had died the previous summer.  I removed the sod and added it to a compost bin I use exclusively for making new soil*.  I prepped the soil with compost, watered the area deeply, planted the perennials, watered again, and then top-dressed with mulch.  I replaced the pavers and stones that outline the bed, cleaned them of soil and mulch, and stood back to observe.  Beautiful.  Just as I hoped the area would look.  The plants were very full and healthy because life in a container in my garden is much easier than life in the ground.  These guys had been babied all summer.

Next up, some careful and selective pruning of Ceanothus ‘Julia Phelps’.  This tough and very drought tolerant plant was encroaching into the golden/green foliage of Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’, and when any plant bullies a conifer in my garden the conifer always wins.  On my knees with my head inside the Ceanothus canopy, humming my favorite tune-of-the-day, I was oblivious to everything but my work.  I had no idea what was happening to the area where I had just finished working.  After all, what was there to worry about?  I’d hardly seen a squirrel all summer.  I took time with pruning and thinned the interior of the tall shrub.  In addition to a couple of overly-long limbs, it had acquired an extensive collection of small, dead interior branches over many summers which caused it to look uncared for.  Once that job was completed, I began the cleanup.

I walked around the conifer garden to get the bucket I had left next to the new perennial area.  And there I stopped in my tracks.  Dead center in the new garden, front parts down and hind parts up, digging faster than a blender on high, was a squirrel.  A guilty little squirrel.  This little rodent was, apparently, digging for the Golden Nut.  Mulch and soil flew in all directions.  And not only did I see all my hard work scattered around the bed but two freshly planted coneflowers were almost completely dug up.  Both plants were on their side, roots sticking up like helpless little legs.  This guy had been busy.  I yelled at him and he tried to run in 4 directions at once.  Amusing to me but unsuccessful for him.  Once he decided upon a direction, I chased him a short distance just to ensure he got my point.  I replanted the Echinacea, replaced the mulch, tidied the bed, and went to the other side of the yard to work.

This is a troublesome area of my property as it shares a full-sized Crataegus monogyna, the common nuisance hawthorn tree.  There are multiple problems that arise from having this tree so close – it takes up an enormous amount of water leaving the entire surrounding area dust-dry 24 hours after watering, it produces abundant seed that wildlife love, and the seeds are very fertile.  The owner of the house next door, where half of this tree resides, is not willing to share in the cost of its removal.  But at some point, the tree will have to be removed.  In the meantime, however, it is a significant part of the wildlife freeway that runs through my yard, into the neighboring yard, under a hedge, and into a beautiful old Pinus sylvestris that a crow family calls home.  So, this is where I worked pulling out hawthorn seedlings, dandelions, and shot weed.   Enough in this bed to keep me busy for hours.  This is, also, where something hard landed on my head from the tree above.  I looked up to see my crow perched on a branch immediately above me.  He blinked and looked at me as if to say “What?”   I responded, “Stop it.”  I resumed work and encountered a hawthorn seedling about 7 inches tall hiding under a rhododendron – the perfect place for an obnoxious plant to take root.  And speaking of roots, this seedling had such a tenacious tap root that I fell onto my side from the force of pulling it out.  The crow, still watching me from his perch, let out a loud “Cack!” while looking directly at me.  ”Next one is yours, guy.” I said.

Once the bed was cleaned I decided to apply a layer of mulch in hopes of preventing seedlings from sprouting through autumn.  As I walked up towards the work shed where I store mulch, I glanced around the Cryptomeria to check the new perennial bed.  You can guess what I saw.  At this point I was irritated.  After all, I let them do their work.  They could, at the very least, reciprocate.  I repaired the damage – more extensive than the previous time – and returned to the Crataegus bed.

While finishing the mulching chore, my crow flew from the hawthorn and perched in our apple tree, adjacent to the Cryptomeria and Ceanothus bed.  From there he let loose with a loud “Caw!” followed by a cackle, which sounded to me suspiciously like a laugh.  I was pretty sure what he was referring to, so I quietly walked over to the new perennial bed and this time found 2 little bushy-tailed rodents digging as if to reach nirvana.  I yelled, jumped up and down, and startled them so much that it will take years for them to reach it.  I replanted the coneflowers, filled in the holes, cleaned the pavers and and replaced some stones, smoothed the mulch, and decided to call it a day.  After all, I know futility when I see it.

Later that afternoon, I imagined the two scruffy little squirrels at home in their little den, sitting on their little fir cone sofa, tiny beer in one paw, tiny cigarette in the other paw, laughing at the crazy gardener they had kept running in circles all morning.  “We got her good this time!”

Maybe so, but I’m the one with the unopened bag of treats labeled Squirrel Food, and until I decide otherwise, unopened it remains.


*This is a slow process – sod that is removed from the landscape is placed in a bin then mixed with a thin sprinkling of grass clippings and home-composted material, watered, and then left alone.  This pile is refreshed yearly with more sod, but monthly during the growing seasons with chopped herbaceous material.   Each spring or early summer, I open the bottom of the bin and have a small supply clean, rich soil to use as necessity dictates.  Patience is required with this method as it takes approximately 3 years to make 5 dry gallons of soil.  But if your top soil needs are small and you want to ensure your landscape is organic, this is the way to go.



The Science of Growing Tomatoes

I grew very few crops this summer because of the drought.  I weighed the pros and cons of growing my own food (pros: fun, I know what’s been used, etc.; cons: water, water, water, etc) and decided that shopping at my local farmer’s market every Friday was the best choice.  With one important exception: tomatoes.  I’ve been growing tomatoes for over 20 years and haven’t missed a summer yet.  Tomatoes are a high-water use crop, but as I grew almost nothing else this season and traditionally use very little water for my ornamental landscape, I felt the water use was justified.  Besides, the taste of a vine-ripened tomato cannot be matched, and this summers’ tomatoes were outstanding.  No doubt every summer I will continue to grow tomatoes, worry about water use, and then enjoy the harvest.

From conversations with fellow gardeners over many years, I have found that people believe there is more of a science to growing this crop than with any other crop.  A science with details sometimes so specific that even phases of the moon are to be considered when determining the best planting time.  Not so with me.  I plant as time allows; this was especially true when I was working full-time.  But because a few of these methods were well thought-out and interesting, I decided to write about 3 methods I tried during a warm summer a few years ago.  For this very unscientific experiment, I chose 6 Sun Gold tomato plants (all from the same grower) and used 2 plants per method.  All plants had full sun and equal amounts of water, all were watered at the same time each morning, and all were planted during the first week of June (much later than I usually plant).  All plants were fertilized with organic fish fertilizer, in identical amounts, and on the same mornings.

Method 1: Plant Deep and Late.  (Planted in a raised bed.)  This method requires the gardener to remove all but the top 2 – 3 leaves of the plant and then bury it up to its neck in rich soil.  Plant during the first week of June only.  The theories behind method 1: greater planting depth facilitates root growth, stem strength, and decreases the amount of energy a young plant spends in maintaining existing foliage.  Late planting ensures soil warmth which facilitates root growth.  Proponents of this method claim it results in highest yield and best tasting fruit.

Method 2: Plant in Black Plastic Containers Only.  This simple method requires that plants be grown in large black plastic pots.  It claims that the containers heat soil faster and retain heat longer than in-ground planting; resulting in a faster growth and higher fruit yield.  I used 5 gallon-size pots and high quality, organic potting soil

Method 3: Cover Plants with Fabric at Night until nighttime temperatures reach 60˚F.  (Planted in a raised bed.)  This method required that I cover the plants at night with plant fabric.  Since I had some porous black plant fabric on hand (used for covering raised beds during winter), I chose this material with which to cover the 2 plants, from sunset to sunrise.  These plants were in the same soil, and the same raised bed, as the plants grown using method 1.  The theory behind this method states that covering the soil at night retains soil warmth, which facilitates faster plant growth.


Method 1 resulted in strong, sturdy plants with an abundance of healthy foliage, but produced no more fruit than what I had seen in past (normal) years.

Method 2 resulted in very fast growth and a slightly increased and earlier fruit yield but the plants wore out by mid-August when fruit production decreased considerably.  Since black plastic pots dry out faster than in-bed plants and I did not give extra water, this probably caused the decreased fruit production.

Method 3 produced no noticeable increase in fruit production or taste, nor in plant size or strength.  In short, lots of extra work for no benefit.

This was an enjoyable experiment; but in truth, I found no difference in the quality of the tomatoes when compared to my usual method – plant in mid-May, water as needed, fertilize when I remember, and hope for the best.  Someday I may try a few of the more creative methods suggested – planting only during a full moon, planting only on certain days of the week or time of day, surrounding the tomatoes with companion plants (I always have summer blooming plants in the landscape), or doing a little dance before each watering.  But for next summer, I will most likely stay with my usual planting methods – after all, our tomatoes are consumed almost as soon as they look ripe enough to eat.  And that’s good enough for me.