A Love Letter to First-Time Gardeners

Dear First Time Gardeners,

Lately, I have been reading stories that things might not have worked out quite the way you planned. And I am here to say that that is perfectly okay. Please don’t get discouraged.

Some of my best gardening “accidents” (I call them “Happy Accidents” and will post about them regularly here) are things that I never planned to happen. What am I talking about?

Roses and hydrangeas

This for example: shrubs and roses that I planted together simply because at the time I had no place to put them. They’re not exactly in the right spot–they get a little too much shade for the roses–but the combination of the hydrangeas and the roses blooming together is lovelier than anything I could have dreamed up!

I understand that many of you have not had stunning success with your vegetables this year. It’s okay, that’s almost a cliche by now. Remember, there’s a book called The $64 Tomato about all the effort it takes to grow vegetables!

I am patting myself on the back because I got at least 50 cherry tomatoes–50! That’s a ridiculously high harvest for me. And I literally had to snatch them away from the squirrels and the chipmunks in the drought year. But they weren’t vine-ripened by any means–oh no! I had to bring them in green before anything could even think about wanting them–so if your harvest was spotty due to critters, believe me, I get it!

But do I stop growing? Oh no. I just keep trying to come up with ways to outsmart the critters. And I admire them so much. If I had to survive outside all winter, hunting up my own food–well, suffice it to say, this blog wouldn’t exist.

Back when I first started growing vegetables here, I will never forget the number of folks who told me, “Oh you can’t grow…..” whatever it was. And sometimes they were right. And lots of times they were wrong.

So please, beloved first-time gardeners, every year is different. Don’t give up. Next year will be better–you know so much more now!

So relax during this autumn and winter and make bread or take up knitting or do a jigsaw puzzle or write a book or whatever everyone is doing during this pandemic. And next spring, please do try again! It will be better–I promise!

At First Light

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I love going out with the dog first thing in the morning. Everything is still and quiet, if we’re lucky, we see no one else and no other cars either.

On this particular morning, there had been a light rain the night before and it had caught all the spiders’ webs in the grass. This isn’t something I usually see in my neighbors’ lawns as we walk because most of them use pesticides, as I have remarked before.

Nature is going to do a lot of the work for you if you let it. There’s a nice combination of funnel web weaving and sheet weaving spiders that have made webs here on my lawn, just waiting for whatever might happen by.

When we think of spiders’ webs, we most often think of–and notice–the large orbs that look like the Halloween decorations. But spiders build all sorts of webs.

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This is a sheet web between these two plants. It looks just like a messy bunch of silk, but it’s quite effective at catching–and holding–insects.

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And this is a web built by a grass spider, who is a funnel web weaver. It gets its name from the “funnel” you see at the top of the web. The spider hides at the bottom the funnel and when something gets caught in the web, it comes out and pounces.

Grass spiders in my part of the country can actually get quite large. Of all the spiders in my yard, they–and the orb-weaving cross spiders–are about the largest. By the end of the season, their bodies can be larger than a quarter–or so it seems to slightly arachnophobic me!

So I am actually quite brave taking photos of all these webs. I shudder at the thought that the spiders are anywhere near–although I love that they are the “good guys” in my garden and yard! I do treasure them for that!

A Tale of Two Lawns

Happy National Pollinators Week! This is the week in June, every year, that the Pollinator Partnership uses to focus attention on the plight of declining pollinators and the role pollinators play in our ecosystems.

With so much going on in the country and the world, it’s tempting to ask if this isn’t just a distraction. I assure you that it isn’t. Pollinators play such an important role in our world that without them, humans literally cannot survive. We need to care for them because they cannot afford to be wiped out.

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So with that being said, take a look at the photo of these lawns. It’s pretty clear that there’s a line between them. The one at the bottom–or closest to the eye–or in front of the “thank you first responders” sign–is my lawn.

As you can notice, it’s all full of clover again, thank goodness. Why is this important? Clover is a great resource for bees and butterflies like the sulphur. I regularly see all sorts of bees on the flowers–I need to be careful when walking the dog through there, although I think the bees are so busy gathering nectar that they would most likely just move on. Still, I don’t want to test my theory on her.

The lawn in the upper portion, beyond my garden, belongs to a neighbor who uses Trugreen. Most of my neighbors use some service who treat the lawns chemically. Therefore, it’s possible to walk down the street and see who treats and who doesn’t by the clover. It’s really interesting.

Of course clover isn’t the only “weed” that we have, but surprisingly, many of those other “lawn weeds” are also butterfly nectar sources as well. Violets host frittalary butterflies. Plantains host the buckeye, painted ladies and crescents.

Once you begin to see your lawn weeds as food for pollinators, having a perfect lawn becomes far less important. At least it does for me. And it’s nice to know that I never have to worry about letting the dog walk on it either (except where the bees are nectaring)!

Leave the Leaves–Some Places

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You probably will be seeing scenes like this shortly all over people’s posts. You’ll see a montage of nice colorful scenes here on Wednesday. Autumn is one of the nicest times to live where I live.

And for the most part, I do try to garden sustainably on the land that I have (although I read something the other day that suggested that the way I garden is “ecologically” not sustainably. That’s something for another post–maybe).

What I try to do is to leave most of the leaves where they fall. But of course, there are limits to this.

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This is one afternoon’s worth of maple leaves. They had been cleared the day before. Obviously, they can’t remain on the driveway. Not only do they become a hazard to driving, but at some point, the drift would become so deep we would have to leave our home by the back entrance.

And they can’t remain on the lawn either. They kill the grass. If you get them early enough, you can chop them with a mower and mulch them into the lawn–but when this much is falling every day, that doesn’t work.

They can–and do–remain in my garden beds. Thankfully there are lots of garden beds to absorb them.

The rest are moved to the curb where the town collects them. Only the leaves from the lawn and the driveway get collected. The rest stay on site for us–either mulching the beds in place, or blowing–or being blown–into our woods.

A Tale of Two Lawns

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This is my front lawn right now. You know that we are completely organic and that we don’t irrigate at all–the only water this lawn has gotten all summer it got when it rained–and this is a slope, obviously (this abuts the ski slope driveway that I occasionally reference or photograph).

Obviously because we are organic there have been no pesticides used at all. Occasionally we use a corn meal gluten fertilizer in the spring. I don’t recall if we did this year but we certainly don’t do so yearly.

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Not all parts of the lawn look so fabulous but they’re all equally lush. This section, as you might be able to tell, is right next to the road. It’s got lots of clover for the bees, some plantain, and some creeping Charlie (or Jenny, depending on which common name you prefer).

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Now, not to engage in neighbor shaming but this is just one of several of my neighbor’s lawns that looks like this. What do they all have in common?

First, supplemental irrigation. This lawn gets watered twice a day, whether it needs it or not. Mushrooms are growing here, and I have seen the sprinklers going in the rain.

Next, this lawn gets cut religiously once a week, again whether it needs it or not–although with all that watering, it sure needs cutting a lot more than ours!

Finally pesticides. It seems that I regularly have to avoid the street in front of this house because of some sort of pesticide treatment. I used to think there was a “4-step” lawn care program. In my neighborhood, I think pesticides are applied every 2 weeks–& I am not kidding! And yet–this.

Whenever I lecture and say I am an organic gardener, I will get asked about weeds, to which I shrug and say that many of our so-called lawn weeds are actually nectar sources for bees and butterflies.

Then I am asked about grubs and I am genuinely mystified. It’s not that we don’t have grubs–I will find larva in our gardens when I am planting.

It’s just that we don’t have them in any quantity to do damage. I attribute that to our organic property. Birds come and feast on the grub larva before they can do any damage. They won’t eat from poisoned lawns–would you?

A Good Day’s Work

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Remember this? What I want you to notice are the weeds in the stone patio. And that’s not as bad as they got either.

You might have noticed that you could barely see my Little Joe joe pye weed because of the weeds in last Friday’s post. It’s been pretty bad around here while my arm is healing.

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Thankfully one thing got addressed this past weekend. After a couple hours of weeding, this patio, and a bed along the back of my house, along with the bed that adjoins this patio, are relatively weed free.

The Spoiler was priceless. He asked what I was going to do to get the weeds out. I made a pinching motion with my thumb and index finger. He just shook his head and said “wow. ”

In all honesty, some of the weeds were so robust that they took my whole hand–and on occasion both hands–to get out. Luckily those were easy enough to pull or I think that I might have ripped open my arm!

Now I have to tackle freeing up that poor joe pye weed!

Native versus Nativar

I won’t even wade into the definition of what a native plant is. That alone can be fairly controversial. And people who love native plants have different ideas about them.

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What do I mean? I might say that I am growing native plants and I might be referring to my echinacea. A very strict constructionist would say that coneflowers are not native to Connecticut and therefore I can’t consider them native.

To me, that’s silly–but I do know people who will only plant regionally appropriate native plants. Bless them.

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Other folks might be growing the double form of coneflowers–these photos are of a neighbor’s plants–and still consider them native.

Technically these double forms are considered “nativars.” That’s a cute form of native and cultivar, combined.

But here are things to consider when planting these types of plants.

First, what is your goal? Are you just planting ornamentally? If so, plant what you like and what will be hardy for you.

If you are planting for wildlife, consider how closely the nativar mimics the native plant. In the case of the coneflowers, the “cone” is replaced by petals. So there is no place for insects or butterflies to nectar. That’s not a good “mimic.”

On Friday I will show a different nativar that maintains the attributes of its parent.

Pest Patrol

It’s that time of the year–although in the garden, as soon as there is green, any time of the year is time for insects.

One thing I am always sure to talk about when I lecture is insect life cycle. Many insects in my part of the country can simply be ignored. This may not be possible in warmer parts of the country where ignoring an infestation just permits continuing infestations.

But in my cold climate, most insects only have the ability to have one life cycle–or one chance to breed, reproduce, chew and die.

If I had to worry about repeated infestations, I would surely have to be more proactive.

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So when I see these rose sawfly larva on my rose leaves, I know that they are going to disfigure the leaves and then they will pupate and become the tiny wasp-like insects that they turn into and fly away and that will be that.

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You can see the little larva here on the leaf. While it looks like a caterpillar, it’s not: it’s a sawfly larva. Why am I making this distinction? Because I could spray bT all day on this and it would have no effect. BT only affects caterpillars. Know your insects.

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It’s the same with the hydrangea leaftier. Most years they are so minor that I just ignore them completely. If an infestation seems to be getting out of hand, I cut them off, bag them up and they’re gone. That solves the problem for several years. The moth that this caterpillar becomes is an unremarkable tan and brown–nothing worth writing home about and certainly nothing worth poisoning a plant or the earth over!

But the point about both of these insects is that their caterpillar stages are relatively short-lived. True, the rose sawfly can cause quite a lot of leaf disfigurement in a short period of time, particularly if you can’t tolerate that look.

But I will repeat: is it worth poisoning your earth, your plants and possibly yourself over? Catch it early and the sawflies succumb nicely to being sprayed off with a hose. If you need something stronger, some insecticidal soap or a great OMRI registered product called Rose Pharm works.

But I’d never resort to anything stronger than that. And even then, because those products will affect the pollinators, I would be extremely careful with them.

Planting for Pollinators

I’ve done a lot of posting over the last week or two about what I’m planting–my herbs, both for me and for the pollinators, the annuals in the herbs garden, my indoor succulent corner (which no pollinators can get to, of course, unless they accidentally get inside the screened porch–and why would they want to?

As I was thinking back over this and thinking forward to Pollinator Week, which occurs this year June 17-23, I realized that for all my talk about native plants, I hadn’t planted any native plants.

Is this a catastrophe? No. I already have a lot of native plants in my yard. But as someone who talks a lot about native plants, I do like to add them when I can.

But one thing I didn’t do this year was add any trees, shrubs or perennials–the sorts of plants that are native plants. So that’s why no natives this season.

So should I consider my whole season a loss? I guess that depends on what you are trying to accomplish. This season, I am lucky that I can get a little gardening in. I am hoping to be able to harvest just a few tomatoes and some green beans–and to have some fresh herbs to cook with.

I’d like a few pretty flowers to look at and I have chosen those flowers with pollinators in mind. In the past, I have seen both hummingbirds and sphinx moths on impatiens so I chose those for a semi-shaded spot.

For the sunnier spots, I chose annuals in colors of blue and yellow, primarily to attract bees and butterflies. One of the containers has some lantana, which I know the butterflies in my area love.

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My earlier spring container, which was a Wordless Wednesday photo, was violets and alyssum. I have watched honeybees and smaller bees on that until I moved it to a shadier spot where I don’t get to observe it so readily.

So I am not feeling too sad about the gardening season so far. I am just hoping that the deer don’t eat the green beans, as they have in some years. Time will tell!

Re-Cycling

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Trash? Or someone else’s treasure? For a couple of years now the Spoiler has been whining that my flower pots were taking over his garage–and it is his garage. I have to park outside, under the old trees, even in snowstorms, because he has more vehicles and accoutrements than our garage will accommodate. But that isn’t the topic of this post.

So after moving the house plants and deciding that I really did have far more pots than I would ever use again, I agreed that we could put them out for the neighborhood version of free cycling. What you see is about half of what’s left.

At least I know that they will go to good homes. Presumably you don’t stop for flower pots unless you need them.