Tag Archive | Let’s Not Be Mindless

Stop Right There! Is It Safe to Clean Up Your Garden Yet?


You’re going to hear a lot about pollinators from me and all the other Garden Writers (yes, I use capital letters because we’re all members of GWA, formerly Garden Writers of America) in the next few months.

For years we’ve been hearing about particular individual pollinators like bats, who were in decline from white nose fungus, or monarch butterflies who were declining because of loss of habitat and perhaps pesticide use and of course the honeybee and colony collapse disorder.

But have we ever stopped to consider that we might be the cause of some of the problem? It’s a dreadful thought, and not one that any of us want to think about I’m sure.

I know that I like to think that I do my part for pollinators. I plant native plants whenever possible. And I am the organic gardener that I am specifically because of butterflies–or the lack that I found when I moved to my current property in 1994. As soon as I convinced the Spoiler we had to stop using pesticides, the butterflies came back (now, if only I could convince the rest of the neighborhood!)

But I recently read this fascinating piece from the Xerces Society about leaving spring clean up in the garden until later in the season to allow the ground nesting native bees to seek shelter on cooler nights and to permit the overwintering butterflies to hatch out.

Whoa! That’s huge! Why does no one ever talk  about this?

I know we’re just starting to publicize leaving leaf litter and twigs, etc in the garden in the fall for just these same reasons–shelter and cover for beneficial insects and native bees.

You’ll be seeing a lot more from me–this month and in June, during Pollinator Week–about this topic.


The realization that for my climate I still need to be leaving the stems of my perennials standing a wee bit longer was amazing. I’ve been thinking about cutting them back for weeks and only time and wet weather prohibited me (thank goodness it’s raining again!)

If you live somewhere warmer, file this under “to be remembered.” The Xerces Society post has a great chart about how to know it’s safe to do spring clean-up by simple things like whether you have done your first spring mowing or whether the apple and cherry trees in your neighborhood have finished blooming.

Considering that’s a big fat “NO!” for me right now, I guess I and my neighbors will need to look at a messy yard a little bit longer–at least on my property!

How Did the Garden Gift Givers Do?

In the days leading up to Christmas and Hanukkah, I heard and read a lot of different stories about “the best gifts for gardeners.” I may have shared a few on Twitter myself.

But I probably shared very few because for the most part very few of them actually appealed to me!  Call me jaded–or perhaps it’s just that after 20-plus years of gardening in the same location, I have what I need–but lots of suggestions for gloves, pruners, twine and things like that I just didn’t find the least bit appealing.

For one thing, I have very tiny hands–so tiny that I will occasionally buy child-sized gloves. Anyone who buys me gloves is going to have to know me pretty well to get that correct.

And that will go for pruners as well. First of all, after all these years, I have literally dozens lying around the garage–and house. I have them in just about every room (with all those house plants, they come in handy!) But I don’t like just any pruner and when I am outside pruning most things a particular pair of Felcos™ is my go to pruner of choice. I don’t want–or need–anything else.

I did get a gardening book for Christmas but I have so many that it’s one I specifically asked for. Again, unless you know your gardener well–or unless it’s one of the very latest offerings from a publisher, how do you know the gardener hasn’t read it? I adore books as gifts and think winter is the perfect time to catch up on new reads and new gardening techniques. But I wouldn’t just spring a book on an unsuspecting gardener unless I were somehow sure he or she hadn’t read it.

The one suggestion that I heard a few times that I thought was good was a garden gift certificate. Yes, it’s unimaginative–one step above cash–but at least you know your gardening friend will truly be able to put it to good use for plants, tools or books that he or she really wants. Nothing wrong with that.

So if you haven’t finished your gifting yet–and some of you haven’t, with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa just beginning–maybe these thoughts will help you with the gardeners in your life.


The Garden Contrarian

There are days when I just feel like a big curmudgeon.  Last season I did a whole series of posts called “Let’s Not Be Mindless…” about different things including how to use mulch.  Most times when I talk about why I don’t use mulch on my heavy, wet clay soil I feel a little like John the Baptist: a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness.

Unlike John, however, my voice is rarely heeded. I think people think I am just a contrarian.

Now it’s “spring” (at least according to the calendar) or what passes for spring in my part of the country: cold, wet damp days on end followed by an occasional nice day or perhaps even an unseemly warm day.  Mud season. People ask my why I’m not out working in the garden.

“Can’t,” I reply. “The soil is too wet. I’ll ruin it.”

Now I might as well be one of those mythical beasts with 3 or 4 heads from the looks I get. Even the magazines are running articles and newsletter posts with titles like “Get Out There!”

Well, yes, and no. Depending on where you live, what your conditions are, and how wet your soil is, you can really be doing a lot of harm if you “get out there” and walk on wet lawn or soil.

So gardeners, know yourselves, your gardens and your conditions. And on a bright sunny day, if those conditions aren’t right for working in the garden, take a walk instead!

Let’s Not Be Mindless About…Pre-Emergents

I’ve saved one of the best for last because this is something that I think too few folks understand. I even saw a garden center recommending that we apply pre-emergents to our garden beds now without any recommendation that the beds be weed free first (or snow free, for that matter–at the time I read the blog post, 6″ of snow still covered most of my beds and the garden center wasn’t too far from me!)

Pre-emergents are just that–for weeds that have not yet come out. If there are weeds already there, forget about it. If you have perennial weeds, forget about it.

What do I mean by perennial weeds? Well, dandelions are perennials. Did you get all those out last year? I know that sadly, most of my weeds are perennial or I wouldn’t be back there going over the same thing year after year after year. And if they’re not perennial, they’re bi-enniel, like garlic mustard, for example. No pre-emergent is going to stop that from coming back.

Worse yet, the advice was simply to apply a pre-emergent with no mention of how to do it correctly. In order for the darn things to work (and please keep in mind that unless you’re applying corn gluten meal, all pre-emergent are not organic) you must water them in. So perhaps that’s why the garden center made no recommendation about how to do it–because they knew it was impossible to water right now.

But without water, the pre-emergent doesn’t work properly so all you’re doing is basically applying a chemical to your garden that will not control even annual weeds–so why are you doing that? Don’t go there.

If you want to control weeds and don’t have heavy clay soil, you’re much better off mulching. If you do have heavy clay, try what I saw one garden writer describe as a “living mulch”–otherwise known as plants or a low groundcover

But these pre-emergents are way over-sold for what they can do. And if you cannot apply them properly and water them in, and if your area is not weed free to begin with, do not expect good results.

Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Removing A Plant Too Soon

overgrown juniper

You may remember this plant–or a portion of it–from a few Wordless Wednesdays ago. There was a robin standing under it.

At that time it didn’t look too bad. Now that you see the whole thing, you think, “Ick! I would have chopped that plant down years ago. What is she thinking?!”

Well, there were 2 different times I almost chopped it down. This thing, if you can believe it, started its life as one of those cute little 5 pom-pom balled junipers. I’m not entirely sure how it got so overgrown but the Spoiler with his electric hedge trimmers hasn’t done it any favors over the years.

The first time I started making noises about “this thing has got to go!” my neighbor erected a playscape for his children directly on my property line (why do people do that?!) and directly in my line of vision from every room of my house. This was the only thing that saved me.

But thankfully, kids grow and the playscape has fallen into disuse and so I thought about getting out the saw again. And then we had a really bad winter. And a flock of robins came through and descended on it and stripped it bare of its berries. And from that year on, the robins have always come back to nest there.

So now you know why I permit this “eyesore.” Sometimes nature trumps beauty after all.

Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Milorganite

Uh-oh–now what’s wrong? Can she really be talking about a brand name product here? And is that a good idea?

Here’s how this post came about: I was visiting my sister over the holidays and we were in a garden center, wandering around looking at all the great things garden centers have. We walked over to where the large bagged goods were stored (I think we were looking for some soil) and we saw, among other things, Milorganite.

I said something like, “that’s an organic fertilizer, but it’s not approved for organic gardening in Connecticut because of what it’s made of. Lots of folks use it as a deer repellent.” So naturally she asked what it was made of and I said, “Look at the name. Mil-Or-ganite. It comes from the Milwaukee sewers.”

She shrieked and said, “Does it say that?!” and I told her to flip over the bag and read it for herself.

And it’s not quite the Milwaukee sewers–it’s the Milwaukee sanitation system.

Now actually, this is a great product and it is at the forefront of the way we should all be thinking. We should be using rain barrels and re-using our gray water and it would be great if more towns could find useful ways to use the by-products of their sanitation systems. After visiting my sister, I went on to Vail, Colorado, where they heat the sidewalks and streets with heat produced, at least in part, from their wastewater and sanitation systems. More power to them (no pun intended!)

An update: less than a week after I wrote this post the good folks at Milorganite contacted me. They wanted my readers to know that they were so much more than “poop in a bag.” (Their words, not mine, and I hope I didn’t leave you all with that impression)

This actually is the problem with organics. I’ll address that in April. But I digress here for a minute. Tina from Milorganite directed me to a video on their web site (which I actually am familiar with) that shows how it’s made. I attach the link for you here (they actually have a whole video library for you if you’d like).

She also sent along some literature saying that Milorganite is perfectly safe for use on vegetables. And again, it’s here that we have the issues with organics. I know lots of organic gardeners that won’t even use animal products (bone meal, blood meal and chicken manure) on their edibles. Others are fine with that but get a little squeamish when they hear the source of Milorganite.

I make no judgments. What I go by is my state NOFA rulings. They have decided that for my state, Milorganite is not considered an organic fertilizer for any purpose–not for lawns, not for ornamentals and not for edibles–not even as a deer repellant. Therefore, I personally do not use it even though I am on a deer trail.

I do however, greatly appreciate the opportunity to clarify things.

Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Seed Starting

I have been a seed starter from way back–probably from childhood. So this was a bit of a wake up call for me. I’ll tell you how it came about (and how I’ve changed it, obviously)

I was reading an article in my local paper about how March gives gardeners the gift of time (I presumed the writer meant that gardeners still had the luxury of planning the garden). The article asked a series of questions that “the gardener” was supposed to ponder. One of the most shocking questions–and I hope it was asked tongue in cheek–was something like, “Do I really need that big vegetable garden that’s not sustainable because it uses all that water, or should I just sneak over and steal a few tomatoes from my neighbor?”

One thing the writer has correct is that vegetable gardens, even if they are using drip irrigation fed by a rain barrel, are not the most xeric gardens out there. They can’t be. You need water to grow good vegetables.

And of course last year I had the well-publicized battle with the deer.

So that got me thinking (not about stealing my neighbors’ veggies, I hope you understand!). But it did get me thinking about whether there were ways to do what I was doing any better. Or perhaps I should just get my tomatoes from the abundance of Farmer’s Markets in my town. Is that more sustainable and would I regret that?

I do have a week or two left to decide. I could also try to come up with Plan C, which I haven’t yet thought of.

You all will obviously see the results–or not–here this summer.