The More Things Change….

I am preparing for a “new” lecture:Organic Gardening 101. And although I can’t believe it, I have not given this particular talk since 2007.

Organic gardening is a large part of every lecture I give, of course. I can’t talk about gardening for pollinators or for wildlife or even about how to grow vegetables or flowers without getting asked about pesticide use or how to deter a particular type of critter.

Many times, I am a bit flummoxed. There’s only one insect that visits my yard with any regularity. I know when it’s coming (sometime in May, depending on temperatures), what plant it will visit (my mugo pine) and that I just need a few squirts of insecticidal soap at dusk to get rid of it.

But I can often tell folks how to organically rid themselves of other things. Sometimes I ask them if those other things are worth the trouble? For example, for me, I just don’t grow lilies, as lovely as they are. Between battling deer and the lily leaf beetle, I am not going to do that. There are too many other choices that don’t require all the effort.

So in pulling out my 12 year old lecture copy, I knew that I would have to revise some things. What I was not prepared for was all of the organic companies that have simply fallen off the face of the earth. I must have had 12 references on there. I am down to 4. That’s a little sad. People are more interested in things organic and healthy living–I thought.

With certain things, I know it was an issue of not wanting to fight the issue of government licensing. Several of my favorite weed killers and pesticides made with essential oils (and even some deer repellents) have all left the market. Most of them were excellent.

I have found another product that I love–and again, it is not registered for sale in Connecticut. It was sent to me as a test product. This sort of thing is so disappointing because how can I recommend a product that I can’t even buy?

And while there are more lawn care companies than ever offering organic lawn care, the two companies that had been selling the equivalent of an organic “4-step” program no longer even exist. The do it yourself homeowner has no option except to try to cobble together organic lawn care on his or her own without guidance. That is NOT a good option. It surprises me.

So I have to say I am a bit discouraged by what I am finding for the organic homeowner. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 12 years for that to change!!!!

A Time For Everything

Gardening is regional and local. I was reminded of this on my trip a couple of weeks ago. I flew into Dallas and could see the spring trees flowering as we came in to land (that was all that I saw of Texas, but it was a lovely sight!)

When I flew into Oklahoma, nothing was flowering–not even the spring bulbs. You wouldn’t think a distance of a couple hundred miles would be so dramatic, but there it was.

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And of course here in the frozen north, even now, all I have are the earliest of the spring bulbs–not even daffodils or tulips (although I have seen some very sorry looking tulips that folks have purchased somewhere and then put out in planters. We can still have snow yet–if tulips aren’t up in your yards, why might you think they’re okay in planters? I mean, I know we’re starved for color, but….)

The amazing thing is that out in California, they are pulling out their cool season annuals and planting warm season ones. A recent post by a great blogger a follow talked about this and it nearly blew my socks off. You can read that post here.

No matter what Tony is posting about, it’s always interesting.

I’m just looking forward to the time–say 6-8 weeks from now–when I can plant my own annuals!

Is “Instant” Gardening a Plus or a Minus?

It was bound to come to this: “instant” pre-grown hedges in a couple of different sizes. Just dig, drop, and “voila!” You have your hedge or your knot garden or your privacy screen or whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve. The web site of the grower to which I am referring is here, along with the different types of plant material.

So cost aside, the question becomes, is this a good thing? And even I am not entirely sure. For one thing, it does seem that there are “sustainable” planting options offered, like biodegradable planting boxes.

And there are valid reasons to need–or want–hedges for one reason or another. I recall the Christmas that my young abutting neighbor got an ATV that he insisted upon driving around his much too small 1/2 acre lot. “Instant” shrubbery would have done a lot to deaden that sound.

Even now we have another abutting neighbor whose son has a log splitting business. It sounds harmless and charming doesn’t it–until you realize he’s using a commercial log splitter for 4 hours or so at a time. Again, some “instant” shrubbery would be useful here, except that I am not sure that it would grow in competition with the roots of my large pines. (Luckily, he is off to college in the fall! Whew!)

In my retail gardening days, I always advised clients to buy “the largest plant they could afford.” (Actually the way I phrased it was that I always buy the largest plant that I can afford because I am not getting any younger–which still happens to be true). So again, “instant” plants solve a bit of that conundrum as well by taking some of the work of “growing the hedge” away from you.

And yet, even with all of these very positive things, there’s something about this that troubles me.

First are the inappropriately sheered plants that don’t want to be hedges like magnolias, cornelian cherry, viburnum and even sheered arborvitae (nevermind ‘Witchita Blue’ Juniper!)

Next, there is the danger that some folks will order plants that are invasive to their region–here in Connecticut, for example, privet is banned.

And then there is just the idea that gardening–the idea of growing things–teaches us so many things about our soil, microclimate, etc. Now, we can probably still learn that with a pre-grown hedge, but it’s going to be a different lesson–a more expensive one, I venture to say. And since part of gardening involves killing a lot of plants, that’s not how I want to learn, thanks so much!

So maybe this “instant” hedge idea is going to be better for commercial applications and large residential projects. If I were a home gardener (as I am) I think I would prefer to grow my own to learn about them and let them settle in. But, then again, I am not getting any younger.

Gardening for Some Other Pollinators

I’ve talked about gardening for bees and butterflies and some of nature’s “happier” pollinators.

But what happens when we garden for some of nature’s less popular pollinators? I think I mentioned that ants are some of my favorite pollinators. Here in the northeastern United States, they pollinate our spring ephemeral wildflowers. In fact, they pollinate anything with a specialized structure called an eliaosome.

Without getting too technical, this is a food source for the ants–and a way of dispersing seeds for the plants. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is a post that explains things far better than I can and lists several of the plants that rely on this wonderful means of seed dispersal.

Plant pollination isn’t the only reason that I love ants–but we’ll save that for some other time.

Another great pollinator that’s a sort of “out of the box” pollinator is the beetle–or more correctly, beetles. Most of us see beetles in our garden and we run of some sort of chemical but did it ever occur to you that they might actually be serving as pollinators? There are several types that do as this article can attest.

And it doesn’t really require any effort to attract these “out of the box” pollinators. They just show up in our gardens, particularly if we aren’t using pesticides to begin with.

The next time you see an insect–or insects–in the garden, before grabbing something to spray it with, try to determine its function. It’s said that 90% of all insects are benign. If that’s true, you might accidentally be spraying pollinators–and no one wants to do that.

We all have phones that have cameras now–snap a photo and try to ID the bug before deciding it doesn’t deserve to live. Chances are, it’s just something harmless–or even better, something beneficial.

You’ll be helping your garden, your ecosystem and our planet.

Gardening for Butterflies

Gardening for butterflies is actually a two-step process, although you don’t have to participate in both parts of the process if you don’t want to. But remember, the adult butterflies that we see are first caterpillars–and those are the more finicky eaters that you hear about when you hear “monarchs will only eat milkweed,” for example.

It’s actually a little more complicated than that. The monarch caterpillars will only eat milkweed. Adult monarchs will seek nectar from a variety of flower sources. But when adult monarchs go back to lay eggs, again, they seek out milkweed. And again, in different regions of the country, different types of milkweed predominate.

So it’s not just as simple as saying “monarchs eat milkweed.” For more on this complicated–or symbiotic–relationship, take a look at this handout prepared by MonarchWatch.

Other butterflies are equally finicky, if you want to put it that way. Every butterfly that visits your area will have a “host” plant–that’s the plant that the caterpillar form of the butterfly feeds on, as well as nectar plants that they prefer (although they are not as fussy about those)

This awesome list of resources from Prairie Nursery lists host plants for a wide range of butterflies as well as additional resources to find out more.

What else is good for butterflies? In general, sunny spots that are protected from wind and protected from their predators, the birds–so that means no birdhouses in the butterfly garden. Birds love caterpillars, remember!

Make a “puddling” area for them to get water. This is even more shallow than the places where bees drink–if possible, it’s just a wet spot on the ground where they can absorb moisture and even salts from the earth. That can be tough to achieve so some folks fill a shallow saucer will sand, water and even some salt.

This site has some ideas and even an embedded video to give you a sense of how it’s all done.

Finally, what’s most important when watching butterflies is time: take the time to be still in your garden and watch them. One of my best moments last year was the 15 minutes I took to sit in the grass and watch the monarch larva on my milkweed. It wasn’t quite “forest bathing,” but it was certainly peaceful. I highly recommend it.