Monthly Archives: February 2011

Salvia Problem

By | My Garden, plants | One Comment

I have a salvia problem.

That’s salvia, not saliva. Plants in the sage family. Huge, huge genus, has something like 700 species in it, very popular in gardens. Many of them are very tough, durable, drought-tolerant plants, they all tend to be quite popular with the pollinators and while I’m sure there are some thugs in the genus, all the ones I’ve tried have been well-behaved and non-invasive in the garden. (Although I’m not all that pleased with some of the ornamental cultivars currently out there–very pretty, but can’t take our humidity, tend to melt.)

I kinda collect them.

Generally I’m really good about the native plant thing. I browse the nursery aisles with my phone in hand, googling plant origins. There are far more natives in my garden than non-natives, and immigrants have to pull their weight in the nectar department, or they get the boot. But the system breaks down when I come to the salvias.

I went to this garden center in Sanford today, called “Big Bloomers” and I got a dozen or so plants, and all of them were native…until I got to the salvias. (Okay, okay, some of the Agastaches, while native to North America, are not actually native to my chunk of it. I’ve kinda started collecting those, too, I confess.  And okay, fine, the Chipola River Coreopsis is endemic to Florida, but I’ll fudge a lot for a coreopsis that takes wet soil and part-sun.)

But their salvia collection…dear lord. I could do my entire garden in nothing but salvias. (AND DON’T THINK I HAVEN’T THOUGHT ABOUT IT!) They had whole aisles of nothing but salvias. Belize Sage. Andean Mountain Sage. Florida Sage “Volcano.” (Legitimately native to my region!) Sages from Baja, Brazil, Uruguay.  On and on, every color of the rainbow, every shape and variation of leaves, salvia after salvia. It was glorious and terrifying and I had gather my shreds of willpower and not just start shoveling them into the cart with both hands. (I got a few–the one from Florida, a hardy bog sage, a beautiful little dwarf called “Champagne Blush” and “Of the Night” which would take semi-shade. Believe me, this counted as “exercising restraint.” There were HUNDREDS. I was lucky many of them were not hardy to zone 7b, or else I’d be in trouble.)

Clearly I have to get the one side bed in the backyard done as quickly as possible. Of course, before I can really work on that, I need to finish the expansion of the vegetable bed, which is ALMOST done (and I’m sticking some of my new mountain mint varieties in there to attract pollinators to my veggies) and I should probably finish digging the pond, and I think I’m supposed to be writing a book or something, but oh god, it smells like spring out there, and what am I, made of stone?

Ephemerals and not-so-Ephemerals

By | Day-to-Day, My Garden | 2 Comments

Very early spring is a great time to go away on vacation, because everything is happening so slowly in the garden that you barely see anything from day to day, but when you come back, stuff has actually happened! (Stuff! Glorious stuff!)

There are plenty of buds on the shrubs (although the Redbud That Looked Sad is still iffy) but they’re the same buds that were there a month ago. (Although I think my little painted buckeye is coming back! Woohoo! It had a rough time transplanting and I was skeptical.) And a lot of plants in the garden haven’t really gone that dormant in the first place—late summer heat killed them back, but they put out another flush of leaves at ground level, most of which weathered the winter and our multiple snows just fine. The mountain mint in particular is goin’ hog-wild. (I have Pycnanthemum incana in my garden–I just found a source of virgianium, so I’m hopefully gonna give that a try this spring.)  The black-eyed susans and giant coneflower are also going nuts, the hyssops are all plugging away, and the spread of the bergamot assumes moderately terrifying proportions already.  There’s also something I’m hoping is the sundrops I planted there and not some random weed. (If it IS sundrops, it’s spreading like crazy…)

The real excitement, however, upon coming back from New Orleans was the stuff that had gone dormant, but which is now returning.  The one that I’m really jazzed about is the bloodroot—one lonely red tuber, looking like a small ugly sweet potato, which the squirrels promptly dug up and I promptly re-buried. It did not look encouraging at the time. But when I got back and nervously peered at the little nook I’d planted it in, I see the top of the ugly sweet potato and a swollen green node to one side that means either A) green sweet potato cancer or more likely B) it’s actually gonna flower! Woohoo!

My other favored spring ephemeral, the celandine poppy, has thrown out a spray of teeny little leaves, which is exciting. And the chives apparently decided that it was Grow Time and are now six inches tall (they hadn’t even poked their heads out when I left!) as has the spiderwort.

My prairie planting is pretty unimpressive—the narrow-leaf mountain mint overwintered and is spreading, but the grasses won’t break dormancy for a long while, and I fear the cup plant, which was supposed to be indestructible, may have destructed. The pale coneflower has a tiny spray of dark purply-green crumpled leaves and isn’t sure about this whole thing yet while the prairie winecup displays the determined optimism of a botanical Anne of Green Gables and is going to bloom even if everything around it is deader than dirt. But I was ecstatic to find that the rattlesnake master and a yucca-like relative, which I had thought was a total long-shot, have set rosettes of fleshy little green leaves, and are gonna return this year! Yuccas! Dude! Those are desert plants! But here they are! Madness!

Ahem. Sorry, spring gets me a little worked up. As you can tell.

Really, All I Wanted Was Hummingbirds

By | Inept Activism | 10 Comments

This is all YOUR fault.

When I started gardening, seriously, all I really wanted was to have hummingbirds in the garden, because my parents had hummingbirds in their garden—Da Hummingguys, as my stepfather call them—and y’know, hummingbirds are just so inherently neat.

But I’m way too scatterbrained to reliably clean and refill a hummingbird feeder every week, so it was much easier for me to plant plants that the hummingbirds would like. So then, because I was on a budget, I had to research what kinds of plants hummingbirds like, instead of just buying everything with a silhouette of a hummer on the label

Then the hummingbirds needed more than nectar. They needed little tiny bugs. Lots of little tiny bugs. Apparently they are not exclusive nectarvores. So I had to do things to bring in little tiny bugs, which involved reading books about wildlife gardening, which led me to discover all the shocking facts about the amount of ecological lifting a native plant does vs. the vast majority of ornamental immigrants. (Bringing Nature Home is a great book for charting this all out in layman’s terms.) So then I wasn’t just working for the hummingbirds, I had to do something for all those poor specialized little bugs that would be starving in my yard. The butterflies were easy to love, but my affections are broad, if largely unrequited, and I found myself fretting over the fate of the milkweed assassin bug.

Plus I had to clear space for my plants, which meant that those take-over-the-world viney things had to go, which led me to discover Japanese honeysuckle and English Ivy and Chinese Wisteria (They call me…Wisteria-bane…) and also I lived in the south, where you learn about kudzu very rapidly. And this taught me about invasive species in a big and practical way, beyond the abstract knowledge derived from an 8 AM biology elective in college, which turned out to be one of the more important classes I ever took and I kinda wish I’d been more awake for it.

And then it turned out all those little bugs fed frogs, and I knew amphibians were hurting around the world so they needed all the help they could get, and I started trying to dig them a pond, and then it turns out that bees are in trouble too, so I had to plant more things for bugs, because let’s face it–bugs run the world under our feet and largely out of our sight, and planting spring things for bees, because without bees and pollinators in general, we are in A Whole Lot of Trouble. This is pretty much enlightened self-interest, particularly since I had discovered tulip poplar honey and what it can do to tea.

Then I started reading about why the bugs and the birds were in trouble–factory farming and pesticide use for one, habitat loss for another. Eating pesticide sprayed bugs kills some unbelievable number of birds a year–millions and millions, even by conservative estimates–and we need the pesticides because we killed the predatory bugs with last year’s pesticides, and every time it takes more to kill the pests because the bugs are growing resistant but of course big Agribusiness isn’t interested in changing this state of affairs, because they’re the ones who sell pesticides.

And that led to reading about organic farming and the way our food really works, and once you start reading about farming and food you are utterly lost, because the whole system as it is set up is so insane and so warped and so…unkind…that it’s nearly impossible to get your head around.

To go off on a tangent for a minute, I had two grandmothers, like most people. You’ve heard me talk about them. I usually think of them like fairies at a christening–this is the Good One and this is…the Other One.

To cite a representative example, she once called up a relative who had just miscarried to inform her that it served her right. That sort of thing. She was not precisely a good person and she got worse as she aged. She could be very engaging when she wanted to, but it generally lasted as long as it took to get the outcome she required, and then she went back to something that was…oh, just this side of pathological, honestly.

So anyway, having been the chief victim of this madness for a stretch, one day my stepmother turns to my father and I and cried “Why didn’t you warn me?”

Dad and I looked at her in mild amazement and one or the other of us said “You can’t. If you try, it makes you sounds crazy.”

Most of my reading about food in this country has reminded me of that–you can’t explain to people how weird and broken parts of it are. You sound crazy if you try.  Nobody could really be so greedy as to decree that saving seeds from a crop for next year is a serious threat to the bottom line, and allot millions to pursue farmers who do it…except they are, and they do, but if you try and explain this, it’s like yelling that somebody’s pointing a death ray at your head. Nobody is going to believe you, because that’s just crazy talk.

Seriously, try talking about Monsanto and monocultures and the Irish potato famine at your next party. If you manage to get very far, you have awesome friends. (Also tangentially, just ‘cos I think it’s neat, the potato that Ireland was hit by was a variety called “the Ol’ Lumper.” I don’t think it still exists.)

All I wanted were hummingbirds. I’m not an activist. I’m nothing even resembling an activist. You couldn’t get me to sing a protest song if you had sheet music and a cattle prod. I have never waved a sign. I do not march. I occasionally give a few bucks to the Nature Conservancy and Planned Parenthood, but that’s as far as it goes. I can only get angry about politics in short spurts–mostly I just get tired.

But all this stuff makes me want to do something, except that I don’t even know where to start. Little tiny stuff turned out to be connected to huge big terrifying stuff. I feel like I went out fishing for minnows, whistling and thinking about nothing in particular, and then I looked down through the clear water, and saw that I was fishing over top of a kraken, and his back went on for miles in every direction. I don’t even know which way to row.

For what it’s worth, some people estimate that if everybody in America ate one local meal a week, we’d save a million barrels of oil. Per week. It’d take a little over a month—five local meals, say—to save more oil than went into the Gulf of Mexico. So I guess that’s a place to start, even if my cooking skills are such that said meal is likely to be scrambled eggs. Local eggs, local milk, both available at the co-op. It still counts!

…I think I might need to learn to cook.


You hummingbirds better appreciate this…

Gardening Tradition

By | My Garden | One Comment

If you looked back over the years of gardening entries, you’d see me go from containers to my garden to losing my garden to reading Noah’s Garden to moving in with Kevin and going into Major Garden Frenzy. Lotta changes in there, lotta mulch under the bridge, lotta lessons learned.

But I can pretty much guarantee you’d see one thing stayed the same through the whole history of my personal gardening—the bit in spring (and sometimes later) where I massively overexert myself, and then wonder why I feel like I’ve been beaten with hammers.

Today, we begin that tradition anew.

The vegetable bed needs to be expanded. Expanding the bed means it needs dirt. The pond needs to be dug. The pond has dirt in it. Clearly this is a fine synergy! Remove dirt from pond, put dirt on bed! What could be simpler?

Anybody who thinks Digger is supposed to be me has not seen what happens when I spend some quality time with a pick.

I got three very small wheelbarrow loads of dirt (I have a wee little wheelbarrow probably designed for children, but which is just about the right size for someone of my noodle-like musculature) excavated from the pond site and moved from pond to bed, I put the finishing load of topsoil on the narrow bed designed to hold the peas and beans, I used the rest of my edging pavers to lay out the rough shape of the new veggie bed, and I killed a little honeysuckle. (Any day I spend gardening will usually have “kill a little honeysuckle” in it somewhere.)

By the time I limped back inside at noon, my biceps were aching so badly that drawing tomorrow’s Digger was physically painful. The backs of my thighs went “wub” and “swoot” and “thawunk” when I tried to stand up. The next time I see my doctor and he lectures me about the need to exercise, I’m gonna kick him in the shins.

But there is an upside! The air is cold and crisp and wicks the heat off you, which is fine, but better yet–it is not yet tick season! There are no nasty little hitchhikers after the day’s labor! Which is frankly enough to make me vow to get all the yard work done before mid-March right there…


By | My Garden | One Comment

Seeds from Baker Creek!

So I ordered a half-dozen vegetable seeds last fall, in my ongoing quest to actually do a little vegetable gardening.

The vast majority are peas and cucumbers (for pickling) and thus are to be sown directly into the dirt once the soil warms up, thus giving me a month or two to actually get the beds good and constructed. One needs a bit of edging and a load of mulch, and the main veggie bed needs to be expanded significantly, and probably the one hugel-bed that has the raspberry and the serviceberries should get edged too, which should keep me plenty busy with lugging and fiddling around at least through April.

The artichokes, however, need to be started indoors a whopping TWO TO THREE MONTHS before the last frost. I have never started seeds indoors before, having A) a strict no-coddling policy towards plant life and B) an excessive number of cats. But the snapdragon seeds that Kevin’s youngest planted in a plastic pot and put on the windowsill over the sink have survived unmolested for the last month, which gives me hope.

Well. Last frost in my area is in mid-April. Two and a half months…good enough.  Also spring has me by the teeth now, despite the fact that it’s damn cold out and I know winter is going to come crashing back at any moment.  But I had to do SOMETHING.

So, I grabbed the little clay elephant pots that my buddy Otter got me, which are adorable but too small for most of the plants that I tend to favor. They’re perfect for starting a couple of seeds, though, and hopefully will be sturdy enough to resist flipping over if a cat pokes them.  Three artichoke seeds apiece, three little clay elephants…we’ll see how it goes.

If they survive, I’ll actually have to do all that hardening-off stuff. Eeep. If they die, I still have most of a packet of seeds–I’ll probably direct sow them and let ’em live or die on their own. This would mean I wouldn’t get artichokes this year, but possibly next year, since they’re perennials.

While I was at the store I picked up onion starts and asparagus bulbs. Asparagus are also perennials, and I have never grown them before.  They’re apparently easy to grow in North Carolina, but you shouldn’t harvest the first year. So we’re thinking long-term here! (Also, apparently you should plant at least ten “crowns” per family member. Assuming the kids have no interest in them, that still means I need to go get more asparagus. Hmm.)

I’m also hoping to actually get onions this year, since my problem is that I have no damn idea when to plant or when to harvest, and I’ve never quite figured it out, and now I’ve totally lost track of the first batch of onions, which I think died anyway. But this year I will actually make a note of where they are! And plant in early spring! And harvest in late summer! I CAN DO THIS!

…I should probably get a notebook or something and actually write this stuff down…


By | My Garden | 2 Comments

A hit of spring! Finest uncut!

You see that? That’s spring, right there! Finest kind! Pure and uncut!

Well, actually they’re daffodils, part of the large drift planted out here many years ago, which are always the first to come back. They’re also the only successful bulbs left from the pre-Ursula-gardening days—the lovely purple iris always falls over and rots and is getting wimpier and wimpier, and the tiger lilies so poorly placed along the back walkway get sickly and burnt almost immediately and are slated to be overgrown with vegetables this spring. (If it kills them I won’t miss them, and if they survive, I do not object to tiger lilies standing amongst the peas.) But the daffodils soldier on, even when I disrupt them by plunking in mountain mint over the top of them.

Daffodils do little useful for wildlife—beekeepers say that they aren’t a favorite of bees, although they do produce some pollen and will occasionally be visited. (If you’re looking for an early spring flower for bees, Virginia Bluebells, Dutchman’s Breeches or Bloodroot would do a lot better—or if you’ve got the space, dogwoods or redbuds are a REAL feast.) But the daffodils do a lot of good for ME by showing up and waving the flag of encroaching spring, even in absurdly early February, so while I won’t plant any more, I’m glad they’re already there.

In other garden news, I’m now one of the full-time bloggers at Beautiful Wildlife Garden. I am somewhat humbled that they’re letting a gardener as inept as I am in, but hey, I tell it well.

I’ll be blogging alternate Mondays, and my post on Carolina wrens is up today!

Thaw Smell

By | Gardening Downtime | 5 Comments

It is almost seventy degrees out. Tonight it’s going to freeze. I do not pretend to understand the weather.

What I do know is that the thaw-smell is out in force, and it’s making my brain jitter.

I’ve tried to describe the thaw-smell before, and I’m never sure if I can actually explain it. These days I’m not even sure it’s a smell. It’s that odd jittery feeling that hits when the snow is finally melting and you can smell the wet earth underneath.  In Minnesota, where I spent a lot of my formative years, it’s quite literally a thaw–the gutters turn into rivers, the big piles of snow start to melt, people are wandering around in their shorts and tank tops, despite the face that it’s 33 degrees out, because we’re Minnesotans and that’s just how we roll.

Then I moved to North Carolina, and discovered the thaw smell in a climate that doesn’t even reliably get snow, and now I don’t know if it’s a smell at all. So…it’s the thing that happens on that warm day toward the end of winter that makes you feel that spring is coming. The smell of wet earth is part of it, I’m sure of it, but there’s more than that. Some powerful unknown emotion wells up under your breastbone and you don’t know if you want to laugh or cry or dance around the room. It tastes like joy and closes the throat like grief. There is a maddening frustration to it, as if the world is demanding something of you, and you do not know what response you are supposed to make. You are energized and restless and you itch inside your skin, and throwing all your worldly belongings in a van and driving cross country for no reason whatsover suddenly starts to seem like a great idea.

They say that people have used the Santa Ana winds blowing as part of a murder defense. I can believe it. The air does weird things to people. The thaw smell does not make me stare thoughtfully at butcher knives, but it sure does something.

So I opened the windows and went outside and did yard work. When I was young and angry and pretentiously pagan, I probably would have mucked about with candles and my own self-importance—these days I am a gardener, which involves less sandalwood and more steer manure, so I picked up a rake.

It’s not spring yet, although it’s probably not far off—we’ll get a few more cold snaps and possibly even a good solid snow, the way this winter is going. So there’s a limit to the kind of gardening I can really DO. I settled for raking the leaves off the deck and onto the site of the future vegetable bed and plotting out my nefarious plans for an herb mound.

I don’t know if that was the response the world wanted, but apparently it was close enough.