Archive for December, 2007

One word: Sustainability. That’s the top gardening (maybe also eating or even living) trend of 2007. But what does sustainable gardening mean, especially in light of the green industry’s rush to provide gardeners with new products? You can find a variety of definitions for sustainability on the Internet and in environmental journals and magazines, but here’s mine: Growing a garden that is appropriate for your climate and location, choosing organic methods as much as possible, nurturing the soil as well as the plants in it, and conserving water. Growing as many of your own vegetables and fruits as your time, talent, and landscape allow also strikes me as a sustainable–not to mention, healthy–practice.

Sustainability is an idea most gardeners support, but working out the details of sustainable gardening can be confusing and costly. Where I live, many gardeners have long preferred compost and other bi-products of nature to chemical fertilizers. Those are cheap, good sustainable alternatives, especially if you make your own compost or take advantage of compost available at city facilities. I also like to buy plants from folks at my local farmers’ market–a way to get unusual varieties without having to do seed starting at home as well as avoiding the expense in fuel and packaging that comes from buying pre-started plants. Many people are planting rain gardens, and I’ve been intrigued by the number of rain barrels I’ve seen in my area. Interest in native plants is strong, as evidenced by the huge interest in C. Cole Burrell’s upcoming talk in Minneapolis.

When the garden catalogs hit mailboxes in the next few weeks, many companies will be pitching their versions of sustainability with everything from heirloom seeds to organic versions of what have previously been non-organic garden products. Advertisements abound for certified organic deer repellents, liquid soil amendments, and organic water-retention products, among others.

My experience is that the organic replacements often work well, but sometimes cost more. Deciding if the trade-off is worth it, is something each gardener has to work out. At our old house, we used corn gluten as a pre-emergent herbicide and fertilizer on the lawn. You had to apply it at just the right time, but it prevented weeds and provided a light fertilizer to the lawn. It made our yard a safe place for our then-young daughters to roll around on, and it had the added benefit of attracting frogs to our yard. But, it cost two or three times what the chemical stuff cost. This past summer, I tried Liquid Worm Poop as a fertilizer for tomatoes and it worked well, too, though maybe they could think of a different name for the product. I’m not sure it worked better than compost, however.

The organic repellents are often made of botanical oils. Just for fun, I checked the active ingredients in three organic deer repellents. One contained a garlic oil, another cinnamon oil, and the third, the same chemical found in habenero peppers. Apparently deer do not like spicy food. I don’t have problems with deer (is there an organic gopher repellent out there?) so I won’t be trying those.

With sustainability so much on the minds of consumers, it’s guaranteed that companies catering to gardeners will be working overtime to come up with new “sustainable” products. Gardeners can spend 2008 figuring out if they are worth it.

Happy New Year!


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Given how hot native plants are, it’s no surprise that Cole Burrell’s public presentation at Bachman’s at 10 a.m. Jan. 12 has sold out. Fortunately, a second session has been added at 1 p.m. on the 12th. If you are interested in native plants and the historical roots of the native plant movement, contact the Minnesota State Horticultural Society for tickets to Burrell’s presentation.

The event is co-sponsored by MSHS, Bachman’s, the Minnesota Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society, the St. Paul Garden Club, and the Twin Cities Chapter of Wild Ones. The cost is $20 for MSHS members, $25 for non-members.

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I’m not the diamonds and jewels type, and some of my favorite gifts of all time have been garden tools. Many years ago, at my request, my husband gave me an ice scraper for Christmas. Not a small one you use to scrape the ice off the car, but a full-sized one that is just perfect for prying big chunks of frozen goop off the driveway. Clearing the gunk off the driveway is a very satisfying and stress-reducing activity, and I recommend it to anyone feeling a bit claustrophobic from the holidays.

More recently, he gave me a beautiful pair of English tools, a square shovel and a spading fork. They make moving dirt or compost a joy. This year, I received an ergonomic trowel. It feels light in the hand, and the curved handle is supposed to reduce wrist injuries. Since I spend so much time on the computer and have seen many people with repetitive motion injuries, I’m careful about my wrists. I can hardly wait to start using the new trowel.

I also received two great garden books for Christmas: Melinda Myers’ Month by Month Gardening in Minnesota and a book on container gardening. Melinda Myers is based in Milwaukee and has written several gardening books for the Midwest. This one gives you month-by-month lists of what to do when in the garden. I’m sure I’ll be using it all year. Like many gardeners, I keep thinking of new ways to use containers. (My plans for next summer include an herb garden in containers on my deck.) My sister-in-law, who gardens in zone 6 in Indiana, gave me Stephanie Donaldson’s Practical Container Gardening. The book gives step-by-step instructions for 150 container combinations. It has a section on techniques for container plantings that I’ll be studying carefully.

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A Coleus for Christmas

img_0717.jpgThis is a gift I gave myself. Today I potted up a coleus stem-cutting that I took in November, just before the frosts killed all my coleus plants. Coleus are one of the easiest plants to grow from stem cuttings. Just snip a piece of the plant 4 to 6 inches in length, then set it in water and place it in a sunny window until roots start developing. Once it has roots, you can put it in a pot.

img_0716.jpgI took cuttings of several of my coleus this fall, but most of them did not take root. My guess is that I took the cuttings so late that the sun in my window was not strong enough to get them started, or possibly that the frost had already damaged them. It may also be due to the type of coleus from which I took the cuttings. It’s a mystery. Last year, I successfully rooted about a half-dozen plants and kept them on my kitchen window sill until spring when they were planted in pots on the front porch.

To pot the coleus, I filled the bottom of a decorative, ceramic pot with about 2 inches of sand, then filled the rest with potting mix. I watered the mix thoroughly, and made a place for the roots, placing a couple of inches of the stem in the soil as well. Then, I firmed the soil around the plant, and it was ready to go. Based on my experience from last year, the plant won’t really get growing until mid-February when the sun is higher in the sky and stronger light comes through this corner window.

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img_0668.jpgSaturday, I began putting together my holiday-themed container. Since it was very cold outside, I put some newspapers on the floor in our mudroom and worked there. Before starting, I brought in all the things I thought I’d put in the container. Potting soil, two bunches of spruce branches bought for $1 each at Lansing Hardware, a $20 bunch of curly willow from Squire House Gardens (my splurge on this pot), and some pine branches, red-twig dogwood sticks, and sumac fruit from my back yard.

img_0674.jpgAs instructed by Kathy Oss of Squire House Gardens, I filled the bottom of the container with a mixture of potting soil and compost. I started working around the edges with the spruce boughs, cutting each branch at an angle and jamming it into the dirt. I packed them in tightly, and then inserted the pine boughs among the spruce for textural contrast. With the greenery set, I added the curly willow and my red-twig in the center, again trimming the branches before putting them in.

img_0678.jpgAt this point, my husband looked into the room and commented that, “it looks like something out of The Hobbit.” It did have that mystical forest look–not exactly what I was aiming for. I inserted the sumac, which gave it more of a holiday feel, but still didn’t pull it together.

When in doubt, take a break. So, I put the pot outside to freeze and cleaned up the mudroom.

img_0698.jpgSunday afternoon, I considered the options. I did not want to spend any more money on the project. We have some left over lights, but that seemed like too much bother. We also have a fairly large collection of ornaments, so I started looking for something there. My mother recently gave me a bag of her old ornaments and that’s where I found this Santa figure. Shades of Bilbo Baggins! My mom had four of the ornaments, which have that 70s retro thing going for them. The bag also contained two strands of wooden beads that matched the Santas. I hung the Santas on the curly willow and dogwood and strung the beads through the greenery.

img_0710.jpgSince the pot is on our porch, I hope the weather won’t be too hard on it. It’s, as Minnesotans say, “interesting,” and I think it will make a great addition to our holiday decorations.

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I’ve been planning to put a holiday-themed container on our front porch for awhile, and decided I’d better get to the job before New Year’s arrives. The first step was to make a pot with a holiday look.

I’m not particularly artistic, which is why I love decoupage. For a couple of years now, I’ve been making plain plastic pots look more interesting by surrounding them in colorful papers. The process is messy but fun and requires almost no artistic talent.

img_0490.jpgYou start with a pot. In this case, it’s one I picked up free on the side of the road. (I will not dumpster dive, but I’ll stop to look at free stuff anytime.) You also need a decorative paper. Since Northfield’s Art Store was going out of business, I stopped there and picked up several sheets of decorative paper. For the Christmas pot, I used a red paper that had a texture like alligator skin and a sparkling gold paper on top. You also need the amateur artist’s best friend: Mod-Podge, a thin glue that leaves a shiny finish.

To begin, use a large pan (I used the utility sink in my basement) and fill it with a small amount of water and some Mod-Podge to make a thin sludge. Also paint full-strength Mod-Podge on the pot. Then, cut the paper into pieces that will wrap easily around the pot, dip them in the sludge water, and stick them on the pot. Your hands will get wet and messy, but there is something very satisfying about this process. Make sure there are no air bubbles under the paper. Once the paper is on the pot, let it sit for about 15 minutes to set up, then paint a layer of Mod-Podge over it. Wait another 15 minutes, and continue this process until you have about 5 layers of Mod-Podge.

img_0667.jpgWhen you are done, let it dry thoroughly, probably overnight, before you fill the pot with greenery or plants. What surprises me about these pots, is how well they hold up. I’ve had a couple of pots done this way for two years, and though they look a trifle dirty on the bottom, the paper is still attached and they are reasonably attractive.

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img_0553.jpgYesterday I visited Squire House Gardens in Afton, a wonderful garden and gift shop. The shop is dressed for the holidays, with container plantings, lots of greenery, and an arbor decked with ornaments–well worth a visit on a sunny, winter day. During the gardening season, Squire House, which is owned by Martin Stern and Richard Meacock, has a large garden where customers can see the plants they might want to grow used in a real garden. Martin studied in England and his garden style might be described as “semi-formal.” Snow covers the garden now, although you can still see its basic architecture.

img_0583.jpgWhile I was there, Kathy Oss, a Squire House employee, put together a holiday-themed container planting, which will eventually be displayed in front of a house on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I’ve got a similar project on the to-do list at home and was thrilled to get some advice from a pro.

img_0587.jpgThe urn Kathy used is cast cement, so she inserted a large plastic pot to hold the greenery and protect the urn. She fills the bottom of the insert pot with natural, fast-draining material, such as bark, sand, or gravel, then adds compost. Kathy used a variety of greens for the basic structure of the container: red pine, cedar, and spruce. The contrasting colors and shapes of the greenery provide interest and a substantial backdrop for the contrasting elements to come. Once she’s satisfied with the scale, size, and texture of the base, img_0640.jpgKathy adds the exciting elements. In this case, several red-twig dogwood branches for height and color contrast, gorgeous red silk flowers, a red ribbon wound through the greenery, and large pinecones. In other pots, Kathy and Martin will use elements such as willow branches, large woven or metal/glass ornaments, or berries. The only limits are your taste, your budget, and your creativity.

Once she had the pot completed, Kathy watered it thoroughly and set it outside to freeze. This keeps the elements in the pot healthy and prevents them from blowing away. A container planting like this one can still look vibrant and attractive in March, depending on its location and the weather.

If you are interested in more information on planting containers, check out the Squire House web site for a video of Martin designing a container.

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