Don’t Forget to Enjoy the Process

Remember this photo from a few weeks back? At that point, I was using it to illustrate sustainable gardening. Today I am using it to tell you that it has become my “waterloo,” for lack of a better word.

What do I mean by that? Well, when I originally posted the photo, it said that I wouldn’t clean up this garden until the soil temperature had reached 50 degrees.

Okay, well, that’s happened and the garden still looks like this, except with a little more growing in it. Ugh! And every time I walk the dog, I walk right by it and I cringe. And I think, wow! If I am cringing, what do other people think?

Now they (the “other” people I refer to) know that people live here and are still gardening here because I did manage to get one of the other roadside gardens cleaned up.

But in fact that’s partly what the problem is. Cleanup this year is taking longer than usual. I am finding a lot more deadwood than in prior years–not the least bit unexpected, but all that pruning takes time. So when I think that I can get something done in an hour, it’s taking 2 or maybe 4.

But the whole point of this post is to say that gardening should NOT be stressful. So what if it takes me longer to clean up! There isn’t a time clock on this. It might be slightly more difficult to work around plants that are growing but it’s also a bonus to see the plants coming back.

And it’s always a pleasure to be outside among the birds singing–which they do constantly this time of year.

We have just had a wonderful rain which will make weeding so much easier. I can’t wait to get back outside again to get to this and the other gardens that still need a little helping hand from me.

April’s Holidays Remind Us to Be Kind to the Earth

In just a few days it will be Earth Day, celebrated officially on April 22. But really, ideally, shouldn’t every day be earth day? This is the only home we have.

And despite the attempts to go back to the moon and colonize Mars, I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

Arbor Day is another day coming up just a short time from now. In my state, as in many states, it is the last Friday in April.

How do these days differ? While Earth Day celebrates the Earth and care for our common home, Arbor Day is all about trees–planting, caring for and maintaining them. And while that may seem like a “minor” thing to consider, let me assure you that it is not!

For just one thing, streets with a tree canopy are 10% cooler than those without. You have heard of “urban heat islands?” Trees help cool those as well.

There are so many fascinating ways that trees truly help us and you can find it all out at the Arbor Day Foundation site (and even find which trees will grow best in your region).

Finally, as we approach the end of the month, consider letting at least a portion of your lawn go un-mowed for pollinators in the “No Mow May” initiative. It might look something like the photo at the top of my post.

I will try to find photos of other colorful lawns as well to show what this “no-mow” look realistically can be. It’s definitely not for everyone but the pollinators will thank you!

Who Planted These Here?

You can see that these cracks at the base of our stone wall and in our driveway are just prime spots for all sorts of “vegetation,” to put the best possible spin on it. Weeds love them, but so do opportunistic bits of other little plants.

There are always little bits of some sort of sedum growing here. I keep hoping that the sedum will out-compete the weeds, like the chickweed that you can see already sprouting. But they have different growth cycles and the sedum don’t really get going until later in the season, while this is prime chickweed time.

If you’re wondering how the grape hyacinths got here, it was my buddies the ants 🐜. Muscari have a special little structure called an eliaisome that ants love. They bring that back to their colonies and spread plants around that way. It’s not exactly pollinization–it’s mechanical movement.

My lawn is filled with grape hyacinths that I haven’t planted, courtesy of my buddies, the ants. So I am always very careful to leave them alone, so long as they are away from the house. In my kitchen, well, it’s a different story. But luckily that happens pretty rarely.

It’s yet another benefit of being pesticide free in the yard!

With Lawn Applications, It’s All About Timing

Unfortunately, this is a very common sight in my neighborhood. Some weeks, it so bad that until it rains or gets watered in by sprinklers I either need to walk my dog in the middle of the road or keep her on my own property.

Generally, I choose the option of keeping her on my property, but even that’s not perfect. The topography of my neighborhood is sloping gently, so any runoff from my neighbor’s yard will bring his pesticides right down onto mine. But it’s better than nothing.

What you can’t really see in the above photo (since I didn’t really want to trespass too much when taking it) is the dusting of snow on the lawn.

Here are the forsythia bushes on the edge of the same property (taken from the driveway, so again, I am not trespassing too much–and by the way, notice the body of water–the lake–in the background. This guy is lakefront!)

Proper timing in my frozen part of the world for pre-emergent application should be before the forsythia stops blooming. It’s not before the forsythia starts blooming!

Even if we–for the sake of argument–say that this IS proper application, let’s remember what a “pre-emergent” is supposed to do. It’s supposed to suppress weeds.

So what are we suppressing? Chickweed? No, I don’t think so, that’s already up and blooming. Violets? They’re perennials–pre-emergents don’t work very well on those. Dandelions? Forget about it. And crabgrass for us doesn’t get going until much warmer weather, when this “pre-emergent” will be gone–they’re usually only effective for a period of about 3 months at best.

I understand that it’s been a long winter and the lawn guys are anxious to work–but this is just wrong and a waste of the homeowner’s money. The application is too early.

Further, here on the lakefront, it’s just contributing to lake pollution. Needless to say, I am not amused!

This is What Sustainable Looks Like

A lot of time when I lecture, I talk about “leaving the leaves.” That means leaving the leaf litter, without doing anything to it, where it falls, in my garden.

Needless to say, I get a lot of questions, comments, and sometimes remarks about how unattractive it might be. Yes, at this point in the season, it’s mighty unattractive. This is right down in front of my property, where I, and everyone who walks dogs or walks in our neighborhood sees it. Even I avert my eyes sometimes.

What I hope people notice is this sign, which is on the telephone pole just ten feet away. I hope they connect the “backyard wildlife habitat” idea with all these messy stems lying on the ground. I hope that they might remember that the “messy stems” are actually stems of native plants like asters, goldenrod and white snakeroot which feed my pollinators from late June into November.

What I also hope that some of them might know is that the reason I leave the stems on the ground long after most of my other tidy neighbors have cleaned up their gardens is because I hope that any overwintering insects that might be using the hollow stems are hatched out.

I wait to do my garden cleanup until my soil temperature reaches 50 degrees or warmer–something I can easily find out with a soil thermometer (although I know people who make do with old meat thermometers). For those who like more up to date methods, there’s a great web site called Greencast Online which will give you the soil temperature for your zip code if you don’t mind that it’s run by the huge agribusiness Syngrenta.

Why are soil temperatures important? That could be the subject of weeks’ worth of posts. Suffice it to say that at about 50 degrees, beneficial insects begin to become active and the lovely little mason bees that I hope are sheltering in the hollow stems of those goldenrods will hatch out and begin flying.

Similarly, the ground beetles and other overwintering “good” bugs will become active and start moving out from under all that lovely leaf little that I have allowed to lie in my gardens. So if I start working in there, I am not going to disturb them unduly.

Finally I hope this photo addresses the last question that I get a lot about the leaf little which is “how can the plants come up through all that?”

I always say that if my delicate little snowdrops can push up and bloom–as you see that they can and do–so will everything else.

And by mid-June, I assure you, you won’t be able to see a leaf here, or in any of my gardens. They will be a solid walls of green plants!

Please consider some of the sustainable practices I have described. Your insects will thank you!

And I Didn’t Even Lose the Frog!

King of the pond

This past weekend, I wound up cleaning the pond. This is definitely one of those “do not try this at home” kind of things, even in the relatively mild temperatures (mild being a relative term literally–it was 85 degrees, but I know many of you would be overjoyed with that!) we were having.

But of course, there is no reasoning with the Spoiler when he gets something–or someone–in his mind. He found someone to help me and despite the fact that I said that it was not a good idea to do this–for the health of the pond and the fish–until cooler weather set in–he said that someone was coming to help me on Sunday so I had better be ready. Before you ask if he is any of the particular ethnicities that tend to be ridiculously stubborn, the answer is, we don’t know. He’s adopted.

So, I worked all day Sunday to “be ready” (which meant) lowering the water level, scraping the pond sides, and trying to catch those pesky fish. You can see 3 of them here. What you really see are four. There’s a black one as well. I had the pond drained down to just about mud before I could actually see him well enough to get him out.

What this photo also shows is the icky dried on algae on the sides. It also shows the nicely brown dissolved algae in the water. I am astounded that the fish were able to survive in there. My frog was loving it, however!

Then there was all this mess to clean up. This is actually an earlier photo, before I started dropping the water level. I cut back some of the bearberry (that lovely green creeper on the spillway) and I swept all the pine needles off the spillway. No sense in cleaning the pond just to have the next rain was all that crud right back into it (if there ever is a next rain, that is).

Newly cleaned pond

And of course, as this and the photo at the top shows, it’s now sparkling and pristine. But the water is about 25 degrees cooler than it started because it came straight from the hose and is still chilled. Luckily, because the fish sat out of the pond in the shade for about 8 hours, they had some time to cool down as well so it wasn’t as if I were dumping fish used to 80 degree water back into 55 degree water.

And the frog came back, clean water and all.I guess it forgives me for displacing it.

Next year, perhaps I will managed to avoid surgery so that I can get this done when it should be done–in early to mid June!

A Slightly Different Take on Companion Planting

I read an interesting article in PopSci (the online version of Popular Science) about “pest repelling plants.”

The article had different plants for each region of the country, and while it promised that many of the plants were perennial, I found that those recommended for the “North,” were not. I also found that those recommended for other regions (the Midwest, for example) would work equally well in my garden, and some of those were perennial.

The basic premise of the article was that certain plants attract insects and will therefore keep those insects from other plants. I am not sure that I call that “pest-repelling,” but hey, whatever works.

They did mention marigolds as repelling nematodes and garlic for repelling rodents. I am not sure about the garlic, never having grown it. I do grow the catnip they recommend and while I cannot be sure about the mosquito and fruit fly (?) (do I even care about that outside? And why?), I can tell you that catnip has worked as a wonderful Japanese beetle repellant for me in a bed of roses. In fact, since I have planted catnip, I have no more Japanese beetles in my yard at all. Coincidence or cause and effect–I am not sure but I will take it!

Another of the plants they recommend (for the West) is nasturtiums. They say that they attract beneficial wasps and repel squash borers and whitefly. I suppose that their effects could be entirely different in different parts of the country but for me I have always found that they are aphid magnets. I have never particularly liked this effect, but if you have plants that always have aphids, you could try nasturtiums as a trap crop, I suppose. I like to grow them to eat, and I don’t enjoy eating aphids!

In any event, the article is fascinating and a great example of “working smarter, not harder” in the garden. I am always a fan of that, as I am a fan of gardening without pesticides. Definitely check it out! You might find some ideas that work for you.

The Stress Less Lawn

The less than perfect lawn

We used to call this the “Freedom Lawn”–as in “free” from pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. But these days, that almost sounds like a political statement, so in the interest of maintaining political neutrality, I am renaming it the “stress-less lawn.”

What am I really talking about? A lawn that doesn’t look like a perfectly manicured golf course or estate lawn–because let’s face it, those lawns are ridiculously difficult to maintain. Most of us do not live in climates–or have the soil–to have acres of lush rolling green grass. That sort of monoculture is problematic at best.

Why? Well, first, it is a monoculture, and any sort of monoculture requires that everything look the same. Since soil (and subsoil) varies over your property, it’s difficult to maintain grass well.

Then there are those pesky trees! You know those lovely things that you planted for shade? Well, darn it, now they’re shading out your grass! And their roots are competing with the grass’ roots! The nerve!

And if you have island flower beds, it gets even worse–so you see my point. You really have to struggle to get all that grass to grow under conditions that are not the same, even on your own property.

Or, you could just let whatever grows there, flourish. It will be different in every season. Right now in my yard, I have some lovely white and purple (and a few solid purple) violets.


Then there are these sweet ferns that come up here and there. They’re not terribly bothered even when their tops get mowed down every couple of weeks. They just come back again. If I need a fern for the garden, I’ll transplant one.

Fern in the lawn

Around the edges–and even in some low spots in the middle–I have some moss. This stays low enough that it never gets mowed down–the mower just goes right over it.


And while it’s a little early for clover, I have that to look forward to–as well as a sweet, low-growing St. John’s wort that blooms with a pretty yellow flower.

Speaking of yellow flowers, I do have some dandelions, which are very welcome to the bees. I generally do not weed them out until after the first flowering. They are very cheery after a long winter.

And that is how you grow a “stress less” lawn. We don’t irrigate at all and of course, being completely organic, we don’t use any of the “cides:” pest, herb or fung at all, ever. A little hand weeding and some mowing is about the extent of the “hard” work.

Our pollinators are happy–and we have more free time as well!

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


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.


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.


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!