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…

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

Peacock I

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…

Feral Cat “Zenith” Joins the Crew at Super-Sod

Cat 2

Everyone loves a friendly kitten. They are cute, fun, energetic, bouncy, cuddly…did I mention cute? And friendly adult cats are almost as adoptable as kittens. But the overlooked cats in shelters all over the country are the feral cats brought in by animal control officers. Feral cats are different from strays. Strays are domestic cats who have been lost or abandoned, but who still want to interact with humans. Feral cats were usually born wild, and have not had much if any positive interaction with humans. They are nearly impossible to place because they are so fearful.  They will likely never cuddle with a human. Giving a feral cat a second chance is not about our needs, it’s about their needs – a purely altruistic gesture.

One solution is TNR (Trap Neuter Return). If you see a feral cat with a notched ear, that is the indication that they have been neutered and vaccinated through one of these programs. But many were taken from locations where they are not welcome to return. So the sad reality is that many feral cats captured by animal control officers are euthanized. But at the Wake County Animal Center in Raleigh, NC, staff have come up with a creative solution – a program they are calling Feral Farm Friends (check out their Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/Feral-Farm-Friends-1721076118136119/?hc_location=ufi ). They are reaching out to farms, garden centers and storage facilities and encouraging them to adopt feral cats.

And what does this have to do with gardening? Farms, large gardens, and garden centers are great placements for feral cats. They can keep the rodent population down without using poisons (organic pest management), they will have outbuildings for shelter, and their lives are saved! The Super-Sod team in Cary (my workplace) thought this was such a good idea, we have adopted a feral cat for our store through Wake County’s Feral Farm Friends! Daniel is cleaning out the shed and turning it into a cat house with a cat door for access. I’ve set up the transition crate with a warm nest out of a milk crate, cardboard, wheat straw and a blanket, as well as a temporary litter box and food and water dishes. Our cat will stay in the transition crate for several days, getting used to the fact that we are a good food source, before being released to the property. The crate will start out in my office, and then be moved to the shed.

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We have named our Feral Farm Friend “Zenith”, after our best-selling Zenith Zoysia, hoping she will be as resilient as this beautiful, adaptable turf grass. www.supersod.com/sod/zoysia-sod/zenith-zoysia-sod.html So far Zenith is very shy and quiet. We are giving her space and time to learn that she can trust us, and that we are her food source. So keep checking back in to Personal Edens to follow the adventures of Zenith. Better yet, come by the store and meet her! If you would like more information on adding a couple Feral Farm Friends from your local shelter to your farm, garden or store, just ask. I’ll help in any way I can.

Groundhog Day Starts the Garden Season

If you have seen the movie Groundhog Day, you know the theme: if something really matters, keep repeating it until you get it right. As a gardener in NC, this hits home every February when it’s time to venture out into the garden and begin again, repeating the annual gardeners’ rites of Spring – cleaning, pruning, composting, mulching, re-designing – all in an attempt to get it right this year. I’ve ordered my organic vegetable seeds, and my Big Yellow Bag of Soil3 compost. It’s time to put on the gloves, pick up my tools and get to work.

Task List:

Cut back perennials and ornamental grasses

Prune shrubs that bloom on new wood – particularly my roses

Prune fruit trees and Japanese Maples

Identify hops rhizomes to share with beer brewing friends (mmmmm, beer!)

Muck out the water garden

Edge the beds to create that clean line between beds and turf

Top-dress perennial, annual and vegetable beds with compost (I love Super-Sod’s Soil3!)

Clean out containers and add more compost in preparation for new plants (mmmmm, new plants!)

Clean outdoor furniture and yard art

Check landscape lighting and add new bulbs as needed

Pruning Roses Groundhog Day 1 BYB

Have I forgotten anything? I know I have! Will my garden be perfect this year? Of course not, but is that really the point? Every gardener knows the process is more meaningful than the end result. My nails are short, my hands are calloused and scarred, I have lots of sensible shoes and I know my way around tools. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. So out I go to try to get it right…I’ll do the same next year with a smile on my face. Happy Groundhog Day!

 

 

Snow Is Good For Your Landscape! (with caveats, of course)

From South Carolina to New York and points further North, this weekend was full of winter precipitation. Rain, snow, sleet and … well, you know the saying. Monday morning, the questions came rolling in from concerned gardeners – will the snow and ice hurt my garden? my lawn? what should I do? The simple answer is “relax”, and I’ll tell you why.

Snow 2016 Sign

Nitrogen: There are two old sayings worth mentioning here, the first being, “Year of Snow, Crops Will Grow.” The second calls snow “Poor man’s Fertilizer.” Precipitation captures atmospheric Nitrogen molecules, and studies show that snow does a better job of this than rain. The Nitrogen comes from many sources, but the most prevalent is industrial output. This map shows the concentration of atmospheric Nitrogen and its concentration in industrial areas of the United States. http://nadp.isws.illinois.edu/lib/brochures/nitrogen.pdf

Nitrogen Map

Another major source of atmospheric Nitrogen is lightning activity. The Nitrogen added to the soil by precipitation is not as concentrated as one would find in a chemical fertilizer, but it helps. Now I am not an advocate of pollution, but precipitation does, in fact, clean the air, and contributes Nitrogen, Carbon and trace minerals to our soil.

Insulation: A layer of snow protects the plants in much the same way as a layer of mulch. The soil temperature is stabilized, protecting tender roots from radical temperature changes like deep freezing or abrupt thawing. Deep freezing can inhibit the activities of earthworms and beneficial micro-organisms that are still active in the Winter, breaking leaf litter down into compost. Quick thawing can heave the soil, damaging roots. Plants covered by snow are protected from the drying winds of Winter. But here’s one of the aforementioned caveats – heavy accumulations of snow and ice can damage shrubs and tree branches, so, if possible, gently remove heavy snow to avoid splitting and breaking. Snow covered ground can also act as an insulation system for irrigation pipes, protecting them from cracking and bursting.

Snow 2016 Iris Snow 2016 Lawn

Nature’s Drip Irrigation: Rain soaks into the ground to the point of saturation and then runs off. Snow melts slowly, allowing the moisture to be absorbed more deeply into the soil before it starts to run off. The actual depth of moisture penetration is dependent upon the depth of the snow, the permeability of the soil, and the pace of the temperature change. Deeper moisture penetration means deeper penetration of the Nitrogen found in the precipitation as well. Caveat number two – snow treated with salt or chemical ice melt products can be harmful to gardens and lawns. Avoid piling treated snow on your landscape.

Snow as a Pesticide: Warm Winters mean buggy Summers. Snow, ice, and cold temperatures may kill off some of last year’s insects, leaving us to deal with newly hatched bugs, but not with as many over-wintering bugs – specifically Emerald Ash Borers and Japanese Beetles. Mosquitos, unfortunately, seem immune to cold Winters. This is an important part of the balance of Nature – organic pest management. Low Winter temperatures can kill off fungi and some bacterial diseases as well.

So rest assured that the recent precipitation is good for your Personal Eden! Now where did I put my seed catalogs?