Letting Go of Your Garden

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I have been tending my Personal Eden for 24 years. It started as a brand new lot on 1/3 of an acre in a subdivision in Cary, NC. It was a flat, nondescript corner lot. There were a few skinny pines in the front yard and a wooded area in back with pines and sweet gums. A few “builder bushes” lined the front foundation, but that was it. Not much to look at, but I saw potential.

I started with a few beds around the side and back foundation, and right away I learned that my soil was very poor. So each new bed was mounded with added topsoil and compost. I started small, but soon I began to work about half the property. I left woods in back and along the road as a buffer, and as a sanctuary for birds and other wildlife. I left a side lawn for my kids at first, but beds soon began to encroach there too.

Our whole family loves to be outdoors, so I added entertaining spaces in the form of outdoor rooms. I’m a fan of out-buildings and structural landscaping elements, so we transformed a kids’ fort into an outdoor bar/potting shed, added a pergola over the dining patio (one of two patios we built), an entry arbor, and an arbor swing. The fire pit became the center of evening activity. My son Jack helped design a waterfall and small pond that added sound and attracted more wildlife. A rain garden was added to absorb run-off. And stone walls – lots of stone walls! My son Tim added a flagstone path around the side of the house that wound through the vegetable beds. But those beds did not provide nearly enough room for all the edibles I wanted, so I began incorporating edibles in my ornamental beds. Because we spent so much time around the fire pit, we hired Southern Lights to add landscape lighting to the back yard.

The pines and sweet gums did not provide nearly the tree diversity I sought, so I added a ‘Little Gem’ Magnolia, a few Crepe Myrtles, 2 Beech Trees, a weeping Styrax, a ‘Silver Cloud’ Redbud, a Vitex, a Dawn Redwood, a Skylands Oriental Spruce, a Red Maple, an Okame Cherry and 9 Japanese Maples. (I think that’s all, but maybe not…) I won’t overwhelm you by naming every shrub, perennial, herb and vegetable I grow, but suffice it to say I could fund a long trip to Europe with the money spent on plants.

And now, after all this work, all this love and care, I have said goodbye to my Personal Eden. We have decided to downsize and invite my aging parents to come live with us. We don’t have a downstairs bedroom, so we are building a new home that meets our needs. Financially, it makes good sense. But it is hard to leave the home and garden I have tended for 24 years. Two beloved family cats are buried in the garden. Countless parties and family gatherings have been hosted here. I have shaped each Japanese Maple and pruned each rose bush over 20 times. I hope the new homeowner will love it as much as I have, but my fear is that they will tear everything out and cut down the trees. The birds will leave, as will the rabbits and the squirrels. When I drive past as I visit friends in the neighborhood, I fear my heart will break. My real estate agent has told me a buyer could see the landscape as an asset or a liability. I can only hope it’s the former.

But I have to let go. Transitions are a part of life. I know I can take on another landscape and make it thrive. At my age, I may not see as much growth in the trees, but I will enjoy each year’s growth.

To the new owner of my Personal Eden, I hope you will see the beauty and the value in your new garden, and take loving care of it. I hope your family has parties around the fire pit and your children climb the trees. I hope you take time to swing under the arbor, and cut Edgeworthia and Viburnum to bring their heady fragrance inside. I wish you a lifetime of happy memories. I know I will cherish mine. Forgive me if I dig up a couple Japanese Maples before I leave. And my mother’s Irises. And some Comfrey from the medicinal garden. And…

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Bee Downtown keeps the Triangle Buzzing

We cannot survive without bees. No bees, no food. We ignore this relationship at our own peril. Central North Carolina has a couple of hive-minded organizations that recognize the urgency of maintaining a healthy bee population – Bee Better and Bee Downtown. I have volunteered for events sponsored by both organizations, and I highly recommend them both.

In December, I spent an afternoon at the Interfaith Food Shuttle’s Geer Street Learning Garden, planting fruit trees, herbs and perennials that attract pollinators. The Geer Street Learning Garden is part of the Interfaith Food Shuttle’s effort to bring fresh vegetables, and the knowledge of how to grow them to a neighborhood that was once a food desert. The garden helps feed the hungry and educate the community, especially children, so that they can grow their own fruits and vegetables. The Durham Agricultural Manager for IFFS,  Eliza Bordley, brings creativity to the endeavor – incorporating hugelkultur, a pizza garden and a soup garden. This planting day was a joint effort between IFFS and Bee Downtown.

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“Bee Downtown installs and maintains sustainable bee communities for businesses in urban areas. Starting with one of the Nation’s fastest growing regions, the Triangle, our beekeepers work to repopulate the environment with healthy hives while providing partnering companies a one-of-a-kind green marketing opportunity.” http://www.beedowntown.org

Bee Downtown has installed hives all over the Triangle, with their most visible hive at Burt’s Bees World Headquarters at the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. They have placed hives at Bull Durham Beer Company, Capitol Broadcasting Company, and Durham Public Schools’ Hub Farm, to name a few.

What makes an organization successful? Its people. While volunteering, I met Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, the founder and CEO of Bee Downtown, and Justin Maness, their lead beekeeper. Both impressed me with their knowledge, commitment, warmth and enthusiasm.

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Super-Sod of Cary donated a BigYellowBag (one cubic yard) of OMRI listed Soil3 compost to the Geer Street Learning Garden. Personally, I welcomed the opportunity to get my hands dirty helping two local organizations do a good thing for the community. If your hands are itching to dig in the dirt and help your local community, contact one of these local organizations.

Nature wins. Every time.

blowing-rockNovice gardeners are often looking for the “rule book”. If only gardening were that simple – you follow the rules and you get the perfect results! But those who want to follow the rules in gardening miss the critical catch: Nature doesn’t follow rules. But please don’t misinterpret this to mean nature is capricious. That would be an inappropriate anthropomorphizing of nature. Nature is a complex force that is ever-changing. It has no human qualities – no sense of vengeance, no motherly tendencies, no good and no evil.

Throughout history, humans have anthropomorphized natural elements (and animals) to make them more comprehensible and more relatable. We put things into human form because we are egotistical and can only see things through our own lens. The ancient Greek gods are the perfect example. Remember Poseidon? The god of the sea, controlling the tides and the sea creatures, using tidal waves to exact vengeance on disobedient humans. And when we contemplate the possibility of life in outer space, we picture humanoid alien life forms. We have difficulty imagining that extra-terrestrials are more likely to look nothing like us. In our attempt to understand nature, we humanize it. Nature is not a mother, not a Green Man, not a god. Nature does not punish or reward us. Nature is a collection of the 4 elements (earth, air, fire and water) and the carbon based life forms that can choose to either fight those elements or work with them. And that is the most fundamental decision – to fight nature, or to work with it. Just remember one thing: Nature wins. Every time.

Novice gardeners want a set of rules, a calendar, a formula. When can I plant tomatoes? April 15? When can I install a warm season lawn? May 1st? Which chemical fertilizer works best? 10-10-10? They come to the experts and expect a set answer. Often we give them one because they are lost without one. But it is never as simple as we would like it to be.

When can I plant tomatoes? When the threat of frost has passed. When will that be in Raleigh? Well, the Farmer’s Almanac predicts April 4th for 2017. But that could change… Every year it is different. So we say April 15th because that is safe…not necessarily accurate, but safe. Because we know that if we say April 4th, we could get a later frost, and that client will come back and be angry with us because their tomatoes died. Nature doesn’t read the Farmer’s Almanac. The Farmer’s Almanac attempts to read nature. They are quite good at it, historically, but their writers understand the most important rule in gardening: Nature wins. Every time.

Click here to read the Farmers’ Almanac for Raleigh, NC.  http://www.almanac.com/gardening/frostdates/NC/Raleigh

When will Emerald Zoysia be available? When it greens up. When will that be in Raleigh? At Super-Sod we say May 1st because, again, it is a safe bet. But we don’t know the exact date because we do not control nature, we work with it.

https://www.supersod.com/raleigh

Which chemical fertilizer is best? That depends on your soil health and the plants you are growing. We strongly recommend that you do a soil test so that you apply the correct amount of fertilizer and, more importantly, so that you don’t over fertilize. Working with the pH you have is another aspect of a soil test.

The NC Department of Agriculture performs these tests for free most months (they do charge a small fee December through March when they are inundated with farmers’ samples).

http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/sthome.htm

So how does the novice gardener become a good gardener? By spending lots of time outdoors, paying attention to the air, the soil, the lake levels. By observing the plants – really looking at them. Grass leaves react to water shortages by folding their blades in half to minimize sun exposure. When your grass blades look skinnier and grayer, they are telling you they need water. Certain plants are known as “indicator plants”. When your hydrangea leaves droop, all your plants need water.

Ask lots of questions. Don’t just ask where you should plant a hosta, ask why you should plant it there. Dig a hole and get to know your soil. Smell it, squeeze it in your hand, and look for worms and insects in it. Poor soil will support very few life forms. Good soil should be brown and smell earthy. It should hold together when squeezed in your hand, but should not just be a lump of clay. Amend poor soil with compost.

http://www.soil3.com/

Most importantly, let go of that need for control, and reconnect with nature. You will make mistakes and lots of them, and that’s OK. That’s how we learn. I’ve been a horticulture professional for over 20 years and I am still learning. It’s a process, not a destination. Learn to love the earth, because it is the only one we have. And don’t try to win because you cannot (and should not) defeat nature.  Repeat after me: Nature wins. Every time.

Bee Better Garden Tour 2016

Nothing inspires you to whip your garden into shape like committing to a garden tour. Suddenly you have a hard and fast deadline. And then there is the pressure of dozens of people with high expectations coming to tour the garden and…gasp…critique it! I commit to a tour about every 10 years or so. So my garden looks (almost) perfect every 10 years.

This year I signed on to the Bee Better Garden Tour. Bee Better is a great local non-profit dedicated to educating homeowners on the critical importance of pollinators. http://www.beebetter.info  I kept bees for about 3 years, but the bees were better off with another beekeeper. This is not a hobby for someone who works 6 days a week. However, I learned quite a bit about what to do, and what not to do, and beekeeping strengthened my commitment to gardening organically.

Years ago, when I was young and my back was strong, my husband and I would have done all the work ourselves. This time around, I hired two dear friends (and excellent gardeners) to help me with the heavy work – removing overgrown and crowded shrubs, pruning the ones that had “high aspirations”, and hauling away the debris. The detail work I did myself. My husband was a huge help as always. The day was a great success! So much so that I am inspired to commit to another garden tour…in about another ten years.

 

Vegetable Gardening in NC

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8JhO_wN9_Y

I have been teaching a series of classes at Super-Sod in Cary this year, and we now have a video of my first class, Vegetable Gardening in NC. I hope you find it helpful. We have had great success gardening in pure Soil3 organic compost. We have a bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes this year, as well as eggplant, cucumbers, peppers and herbs! Be sure to watch the section on building a potato tower!

 

 

Gardening: It’s Not Just About Plants

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With every garden space I create, one of my side goals is to invite more animal life into my garden. Butterflies, birds, bees, my dogs and my friends’ dogs, wandering cats, turtles, salamanders, and even squirrels and rabbits. I’m a sucker for a cute furry, flying or feathered face. I’ve always felt that since we have invaded their habitat, we should welcome them into ours.

Without meaning to (well, maybe, a little), I have brought that need to embrace all things animalia to my work world as well. My boss and my co-workers have been very supportive and understanding. I introduced two feral cats to our work environment. One is still here, but seen only on night camera footage. The other passed away weeks after her installation in my office. She was old and ill, and we gave her a wonderful place to convalesce. Maggie, the neighborhood dog, wanders in every other day or so, looking for affection and treats. Customers bring their dogs in pretty frequently, and they get balls or frisbees and treats. Always treats.

Peacock IV

Word must have passed through the animal pipeline that this was a pretty cool place, because a month ago Mr. Feathers, an Indian Blue Peacock, came to stay. What did we offer that was so inviting? Well tended green space, some rough green areas as well, a small shaded pond, open site lines, shelter, and food. Of course. But there is something special about this place. Animals just show up – uninvited, but always welcome. Turtles have ambled into the store. Little frogs hop in on a regular basis. Crows dance on the tin roof and eat the figs off the tree by the pond. No one shoos them away. Someone usually finds them food and water. None of the animals seem to mind the tractor trailers, the forklifts, the comings and goings. They have found a haven that may not be perfect, but it meets their needs. They are welcomed without questions, fed, housed, loved. And along with the ordinary creatures, a rare bird has graced us with his presence. There’s a lesson here somewhere…

Visiting Helen’s Haven

Gardeners love visiting the Personal Edens of other gardeners. They provide insight into the style of the gardener, as well as the whims and impulses that make each of us unique.

Helen's Garden Art

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be invited to visit the Personal Eden of one of Raleigh’s most well-known garden writers, Helen Yoest. Helen calls her garden “Helen’s Haven”, and what an apt description. Not only is it a haven for Helen, her family and friends, but for birds, bees, chickens and other wildlife fortunate enough to enter. On a small city lot, she has created a living, breathing, blooming and buzzing environment, with just enough structure balanced with just enough exuberance. Art is everywhere – some in prominent spaces and some in hidden nooks. And honey bee hives are supplemented by bee boxes for mason bees and other pollinators. Outbuildings (oh how I love outbuildings!) provide shelter for chickens and people, and her small greenhouse is just perfect!  I made the rounds three or more times, and saw something new on each pass. (And I must admit, I may be stealing an idea or 3 or 4…)

Helen’s new non-profit project is a Go Fund Me called Bee Better https://www.gofundme.com/pyt2cc9g, and I hope to have my Personal Eden on the Bee Better Fall Pollinator Garden Tour. Stay tuned…