Wordless Wednesday

Just a week ago there was snow–not unheard of for our climate. But 36 hours prior to the snow it had been 70 degrees. Now I know much of the country is going through this sort of thing this spring, giving rise to the term “bi-polar vortex,” but it’s certainly set the plants back a bit–at least some of them.


These, for example, are my hellebore–my outdoor ones. They are otherwise known as Lenten roses. This year perhaps they’re better known as Memorial Day roses?


And these little bulbs, chionodoxa, better known as glory of the snow, usually bloom with the snowdrops is February or March. Since everything was so late this year, late April is better than never.


These little bulbs are also early bloomers. They are known as striped squill.


And these poor hyacinths laid right over and played dead for a few days–but the warm sun–if not the warm temperatures–have revived them.

Work With Nature, Not Against It

On Friday I talked about not having any grub damage despite the presence of grubs in my gardens. I presume I also have them under the lawn–without damage, why investigate?

Earlier I also talked about having over 30 different butterflies and moths on the property–although I suspect it’s really more. Those were the ones I could identify.

What the heck is the all about? Well, I’ve got my “backyard” certified as a habitat through the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). I’ve also got it certified through my state environmental protection department, although they don’t do that anymore, rightly choosing to focus spare energies on educating the public on things like invasive plants.

That’s how I know what’s there–and sort of what shouldn’t be there. The NWF does a great job at educating gardeners at all levels–and with all sorts of backyards–about how to bring wildlife to the yard and how to enjoy it and work with it. To learn more about his program, go here.

If you’re wondering why you should care (other than maybe it’s cool to look at some birds or something), remember what I said: I don’t have any grubs because the birds eat them. After all, what are grubs but big fat caterpillar larva. And what do birds need to feed their young? Insects of all sorts. It’s pretty simple! Invite birds into the garden and you’ll have a lot fewer insects!

Of course you’ll be rewarded with lots of beautiful color (from the birds) and lots of song–and you needn’t even use bird seed. I can no longer do so because of bears. But the birds still keep coming because I have lots of things they need: water, places to raise young, cover from predators and berry producing shrubs.

And it’s that last one that you’ll want to think about. I have juniper, holly, a few native dogwoods and some crab apples–those are my “berrying” shrubs. We’re not talking anything that is attractive to the bears, nor anything I have to net or fight off the birds to get to the fruit.

I am thinking of adding some blueberries. That could be more problematic. But I’ll start with smaller, container varieties and see how that goes. After all, the chipmunks and I have managed to share the strawberries…..

What else can you do to help the garden? Plant larval crops for everything–bees, butterflies, maybe hummingbirds. What do these look like? Often you can find seed mixes already made up. Botanical Interests,
Select Seeds and Renee’s Garden are a few seed companies that sell mixes.

But I know a lot of folks worry about starting seeds. So do a little research. Often these same companies will sell plant versions of some of the plants in these seed mixes. And if you are buying plants, you don’t necessarily need to buy everything in the seed mixes. The way those mixes are designed, they have a mix of annuals, bi-enniels and perennials. The annuals come up and flower the first year, and the bi-enniels and perennials will come up the first year but not flower until the second. So if you’re looking for a perennial garden, you can just buy the perennials in the mix.

And of course, once you attract all this beneficial wildlife to your yard, don’t spray with anything. 20 years ago, I had far fewer choices on the market so I just didn’t spray at all. Even now, I will often just hose a plant off–or prune a buggy shoot off and throw it in the trash–rather than spray anything on it. It’s not bad advice.

Feed The Soil….

On Monday I got rather long-winded about soil amendments. I talked about the CT NOFA standards, the importance of researching what you put into the soil, and even touched a bit again on some prohibited amendments and some amendments that CT NOFA asks us to either use with caution or to consider not using at all (peat moss because of its harvesting practices, fish emulsion because of mercury and overfishing).

By now you may be thinking, “Oh the heck with it! I’m getting some Miracle-Gro or some Osmocote and I’ll be done with it!”

Well, that’s certainly one option–not the organic one, but it’s always your choice. But if you’ll bear with me a minute longer, let me tell me what happens if you do that.

Back in my days of retail gardening, folks would ask me about fertilizers. And because I was there to sell and not espouse my personal philosophy, I would need to recommend a fast acting fertilizer on occasion. But this is what I’d say.

Use the Miracle-Gro now. But think of it like Slim Fast. It’s not a permanent weight loss solution. It’s a crash diet for the plant. It goes in fast, it’s used up fast, and you have to do it again, over and over, if you want results.

If you want something to feed the plants for the long haul–and who doesn’t? You don’t want to be a slave to your plants, right? Here. Use this. And then I’d give them whatever organic-y fertilizer we had on hand.

Most times it worked like a charm–as well it should–because who does want to be a slave to our plants?

But that’s not the only reason to avoid synthetic fertilizers. They are extremely good at what they do. When I have clients that use them, I am often shocked and dismayed at how lush their houseplants are compared to mine (not that mine are any slouches, mind you–but we’ve all seen those commercials on TV!)

But they don’t feed the soil. And feeding the soil (see Monday’s post) feeds your plants. And then there’s none of this little problem of “how do I fertilize my plants?”

The other thing the synthetics do is actively kill the good stuff in the soil. For those of you using synthetics, think about it: do you have earthworms? They are nature’s aerators. And never mind what you can’t see. There are billions of good bacteria in the soil. Pouring synthetics in there weakens and kills off the good stuff. And when we disturb the ecosystem, no good can come of that. That just invites insects and disease.

When I lecture, folks ask me how I control grubs, one of the most pernicious destroyers of lawns and plant roots in our part of the world (and I don’t just mean Japanese beetle grubs. In my part of the world, it’s European chafer and oriental beetles grubs too–the trifecta of grubs!)

I see the beetles all over my yard–but I have no grub damage (for that matter, I have very little beetle damage. Do you know what I tell them?

Invite the birds into your garden. But it’s really hard to do that with synthetics all over the place. You don’t want to poison your best method of pest control. But that’s Monday’s post!

Wordless Wednesday

After the recent article in the New York Times on gardening with moss (called “Gathering Moss” and found here) I have a renewed appreciation for the moss in my own yard.

While it’s been fairly dry by me so the moss doesn’t show in its best light, here are some examples.

moss and tree roots

This is in an area on a slope where the soil has been eroded and the moss has taken hold and stabilized the area. It’s under some maples and those are the maple roots.

moss in rock patio

This moss–two types actually–wants to take hold in some gaps in our rock patio. The Spoiler keeps wanting to kill it so I try moving it to other places in the yard to preserve it. The Spoiler is not a moss fan, sadly.

moss on bedrock

This bedrock is jutting out of the ground, about 5′ high. Its surface is becoming colonized with moss and lichen. While I haven’t yet cleared the pine needles off from winter (necessary if the moss is to flourish) you can still see the mosses underneath.

mossy lawn

Finally, this is our most successful area of moss–or mine, I should say. If it were up to the Spoiler, this would be grass. But this is a very narrow sloping area on the north side between two houses. We’re lucky anything grows at all!

You can see the moss colonizing the garden bed on the right of the photo as well. That’s fine. That bed has 5 large blue hostas in it once “summer” comes.

Organic Fertilizers And Soil Amendments

Because this is easily the most controversial topic, I was going to save it for last. But it is planting season in a good portion of the country (although not by me, yet) so I thought I’d better get this out there.

My post on Milorganite raised a bit of a kerfluffle late last month when the good folks in Milwaukee sent me all sorts of literature letting me know that they were more than “poop in a bag.” If you missed that and want to catch up, you can read that here.

My defense, and rightly so, was that they made a great product for certain things, but as an organic gardener following CT NOFA standards, I was prohibited from using it. And in drafting these posts about fertilizers and soil amendments, I urge you to take a look at what the NOFA standards say, not just about “sewer sludge” as they generically define products like Milorganite, but about all the types of amendments to the garden. After all, it’s best to know what to use as well.

Another thing they do prohibit, which I also mentioned in the above-referenced post, is any animal manures in certain types of constructed gardens within 120 days of harvest. Heck, in my climate, we’re lucky if we get 120 growing days on certain crops!

So just because you don’t live in Connecticut, don’t ignore these standards. They are wonderful guidelines for all organic gardeners to follow. I’ve been doing so since the first ones came out in 2001 (I think that’s when the first ones were published–they may have been earlier than that).

But what’s nice about a set of published guidelines like this is that–whether you agree with them or not–they give you a framework. When I lecture I can say, “And when I say organic, I am using the definition from….” and we all know what I mean.

But back to the fertilizer and soil amendments chapter. It begins on p. 27 of the CT NOFA standards and continues to p. 38. Pretty much everything I’ve said in my Let’s Not Be Mindless… series is covered there (with the exception of the seed starting and removing a shrub topics)–they even suggest that one not use peat moss.

Since it’s been quite some time since I’d read these, I was pleasantly surprised to see the peat moss recommendation there.

The primary soil amendment that is recommended is compost, preferably made on site. Next best is locally sourced. But of course, we all can’t do that–and one of my loyal readers says she can’t even get decent compost in a bag!

After that, there are discussions of different amendments and why they are not so much recommended but acceptable, and then a list of prohibited amendments.

Please read why sewer sludge is prohibited. It opened my eyes. That section has been expanded as well.

Finally a section on the various rock powders and bone and blood meal are discussed for their various nutrient capabilities. CT NOFA notes that both bone and blood meal should be handled with caution as they may contain pathogens. They even suggest that fish meal be used with caution–or thoughtfully–because of overfishing and possible mercury contamination.

Organic gardening requires a lot of thought but the rewards are well worth it. Please do yourself a favor and be a thoughtful gardener.

So What Exactly IS Organic Anyway?

As I am fond of saying, if we asked 10 traditional landscapers, “Is Roundup safe?” we’d get 10 “yes” answers.

But ask 10 organic gardeners a simple question and you’re likely to get at least 5 different answers as my post about Milorganite just hinted at. Fertilizers and soil amendments are two of the most divisive topics in organic gardening.

But before I even attempt to go there, what do we mean when we say “organic” gardening? I say I’ve been an organic gardener since 1994–20 years now. In terms of organics, that’s a lot longer than some, and not nearly long enough for many. But it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a contest. I became totally organic when I moved to my current property and found no butterflies.

In researching butterflies, I found that they were extremely susceptible to pesticides. I said, “well, that’s easy. I just won’t use any.” And that was that.

My results brought over 30 different species of butterflies and moths back to the property–within 3 years. And except for invasive species, which even my neighbors who regularly have Chem-Lawn visit have (I’m sorry Tru-Green, as I believe they now call themselves)–and in more numerous quantities, because those neighbors are not constantly scouting their properties for the invasives like I am–the lack of “pesticides,” if you will, on my property hasn’t affected it at all.

Here is the incredibly long-winded definition of “organic” from Connecticut NOFA’s web site. A publication for homeowners with further information can be found here.

According to CT NOFA: “Organic Landscaping:

•Eliminates your children, your pets and your own exposure to harmful pesticides, many of which are carcinogens and/or are thought to affect childhood development
•Cuts the costs on repeated chemical applications, gasoline and sprinkler systems by using the free services offered by soil organims, pollinators, compost, plants and beneficial insects
•Makes your yard a force of nature. Promoting biodiversity and choosing native plants supports a self-sustaining yard that is resistent to pests.
•Uses natural fertilizers such as leaves and compost to add soil nutrients to the soil instead of synthetic fertilizers which disrupt soil biology and often run off into rivers polluting freshwater and marine habitats.
•Conserves water by using plants adapted to local rainfall patterns and by incorporating compost and mulch to retain moisture in the soil.
•Encourages beneficial insects to naturally control pests as a form of organic integrated pest management.”

There’s a lot here that goes way beyond my original, “Gee, that’s simple–I’ll just cut out the pesticides.” So over the coming days I’ll talk about the ways I incorporated some of the rest of these into my yard–what worked, what didn’t, how I’m still trying–and where there’s lots of room for discussion!

Wordless Wednesday–What Do Aphids Tell Us About Spring?

hellebore with aphids

Ah aphids–the insects that Stephen King couldn’t make up if he were trying. What do they tell us about spring? Well, first of all, they tell us that spring is arriving, even if it’s still snowing.

I took the above photo on March 30. On the 31st, we had more snow. I wanted to hurl myself out a window. Luckily, I don’t live or work anyplace tall enough to do myself damage so I restrained myself.

It may be a little difficult to tell but that’s a real close-up of one of the hellebores I got from the Flower show. Both of them have aphids. I was not happy to see that except in the sense that it meant spring had actually arrived.

Why do I insist that’s true? Well, aphids are the first insects out in the spring (and the last to go dormant in the fall). They are the hardiest of the bunch. But even they won’t come out until there’s new growth to feast on. And what sparks new growth? Lengthening days and warmer sun–spring!

I also tried to get a close-up (hence the somewhat weird photo rather than a traditional one.) Notice on the green leaf in the foreground the white specks that look like dust? Those are the nymph stage of the aphids. That’s your first chance to catch them, before they become full bodied, sap suckers.

The real “full-bodied” aphids, as I call them are on the flowers. Again, they might be hard to see. They’re up near the stamens and pistil and are almost translucent. These guys are clever and like to hide so they can do their work and sap the plant of energy before you even notice.

Most of us miss the nymphs completely because they look like dust. But when you’re watering you can often see them floating on the water. Pay close attention. I’m sure they’re out there, waiting to grow up and start affecting your plants too!

And after you wash the aphids off–or spray insecticidal soap–make sure you check all the plants around where the affected plant was. And wipe down the windowsill as well. There are dozens, if not hundreds of nymphs lurking there, just waiting to grow up. That way you won’t wonder, “Where did all these bugs come from?!”