Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Hard Work Always Pays Off

Happy Summer Solstice! There is no better day than today to celebrate the joy gardening can bring to an individual, a family and a community. I've read and heard about the positive impact of gardening from so many people. Not only does the work of gardening provide a chance to sink into a meditative, happy place, but it also creates a bond between the person and what Aldo Leopold would call our land community (his renowned "land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land"). We learn so much about ourselves and our environment/community when we take the time to look and learn about our surroundings.

I've only been "gardening" for two years, so I'm as green as they come. I'm learning so many things that most experienced gardeners do in their sleep. I'm often guilty of creating a dream garden in my mind and forgetting all of the time, money and hard work that goes into that dream garden. I've recently learned that a garden is never "finished." You can never turn your back on a garden and expect it to thrive on its own -- no matter how hardy. Since we completed the construction and planting in the fenced-in garden/wildflower area, I've put very little time into the maintenance of it. I've been focusing all of my efforts on the landscaping of the area next to it.

Posing by the new addition to our family, Xeriscape. Lady (friend's pup) and Scout (ours) pose with us.
Now the garden area is crawling with weeds that are sucking up vital moisture and nutrients, giving nothing in return. Everyone has "weeds" in their life that choke and stifle growth. If we leave them be, they overrun us and all we've worked to build in our lives. Like friends, family and so many other vital parts of a happy life, we cannot turn our backs on one while we focus on another. I'm still working on this aspect of life and gardening.

This is what we've been doing while the garden sat neglected:
Plans for the entire backyard (bottom) and  xeriscaping (top).

Patrick spray painted an outline for the xeriscaping, edged it out and pulled up any grass in the area (all while I was at a Saturday morning Bat Mitzvah!)

A friend's help is priceless. Tyler came up from Denver to help us move the fill dirt.

The next day we put the weed barrier down.

Patrick and Scout pose by the new Xeriscape area.

3/4 inch river rocks were added and I began planting the xeric plants. I'm still planting. 13 more to go as of today.

To keep our sanity, we also took a short but relaxing camping trip in the Rockies.

I ordered around 30 xeric plants for the xeriscaped area and I have 13 left to plant. The planting has been taking a long time due to all of the prep work that goes into transplanting perennials. First, I rake and shovel all of the rocks from a 12-18x12 inch area, depending on the expected size of the mature plant. I then take a now-dull box cutter to cut away a circle of weed barrier cloth. Then, I shovel the clay loam fill dirt into a separate bucket and shovel  clay buster garden soil into the hole. I mix everything together with a "claw" garden tool, then plop myself down with the new plant and plant it in the fresh soil. Finally, I pull or rake the rocks back into place around the new plant. If I plant a few plants every night this week, it should be completed by the weekend.

A Minor Set Back

There's nothing quite like a hail storm to totally deflate a gardener. We get more hail in Fort Collins than I saw growing up in the Midwest. Couple that with too little rain and you've got a very tough place to be a gardener. But, there is always hope! I received some plant-saving tips from a local garden center the day after the storm. I put these tips into practice and the garden is already looking so much better.

The aftermath of the hail storm looked like this:

A sad garden
Shredded Strawberry plants

Lots of compost food
 I followed the garden center's tips and pinched off all damaged leaves, being very careful to leave slightly damaged and healthy leaves to provide energy for the struggling plants. Remembering that nothing is wasted that goes into the compost, I was content with the fact that I'd be able to use the depressing remnants of once-thriving plants to help plants thrive next year. There's nothing like compost to remind you of the ecological cycle! Then, I bought some "compost tea" (a liquid solution made by steeping compost in water) from the garden center and poured it on all of my veggies and most of the new perennials. I continued to water as needed. Now, about two weeks later, all but one plant (a Hubbard squash I wasn't too excited about anyway) have bounced back and grown many new leaves.

Yet another lesson learned -- no matter how dire the situation looks, there is almost always a way to save your plants. Just look to the experts; they've likely dealt with all of the set backs you will encounter more than once and have found a useful way to cope.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Yet another reason to grow your own herbs (and veggies)

Cilantro is a favorite herb for many because of its tasty addition to garden salsas and Southwestern/Mexican dishes. However, in the recent "USDA Pesticide Data Program (PDP), which tests thousands of food samples for pesticide residues every year," (in which Cilantro appeared for the first time) the data does not look good. Read below for the released information.

Read the full article here: Cilantro, chlorpyrifos & flying blind

If you don't have time to read the short article, here are a couple of important excerpts:

"This was the first time cilantro was included in PDP testing, and as reported by the Chicago Tribune, more than 30 unapproved pesticides were found, with 44% of samples contaminated with at least one illegal pesticide. In addition, one sample had levels of chlorpyrifos in excess of permissible amounts. Chlorpyrifos and many of the unapproved pesticides are organophosphate insecticides; research links prenatal exposure to these chemicals with cognitive disorders in children"

"Among the dark underbellies of how we regulate pesticides here in the U.S. is a near-complete lack of enforcement, and the fact that we have no national use reporting. Enforcement is handled by "state partners," typically ag departments and commissioners who are notoriously lax (if not recalcitrant) about monitoring and reporting illegal pesticide use. And EPA has no funding or mandate to require pesticide applicators to disclose what they're doing in the fields."

This information is brought to you by an excellent resource for dependable information on pesticides and their effects on the environment and humans, the Pesticide Action Network. Because information on the negative consequences of pesticides is suppressed by big name, big money corporations, we must dig a little deeper for the simple facts.

Check out the website "What's on my Food" to better understand the pesticides and hormones you might be digesting daily.
  • As a note, I'd like to stress the fact that I'm including this information on my blog because I believe it is information we should all have easy access to. The struggle to know what's used on our food before it reaches our mouths is raging today as more and more people realize the ill effects of commonly used pesticides. Buying organic and/or growing your own veggies isn't always an option, but when it is, I believe paying the extra money for something that will save you money on medical bills (not to mention the emotional expense of a funeral) in the future is a smart thing to do. Although I know many people don't share my views on environmental issues, it's clear that agriculture is intrinsically tied to these issues and ensuring that our children, grandchildren, etc. have a safe and healthy place to grow and thrive. I never write with the intention to look down upon different buying/eating/living habits. I only write with the intent to educate myself and possibly a few others. And here's a secret: I don't have the best diet myself. It's something I'm still trying to work on!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Xeric plants for the waterwise garden

I've become obsessed with the mail-order xeric gardening website High Country Gardens. I began looking at the site before we even moved into our new house, writing down my favorite plants and imagining where I'd put them. Realizing that I could spend our life savings on plants, I asked for gift cards for my birthday. I got a couple gift cards as house-warming gifts and one for my birthday, so I was set to order without breaking the bank.

High Country Gardens stops shipping today (June 13th) due to the heat of the summer. They begin shipping again once it cools down in the fall. I was getting a little worried because June was upon us and we still weren't ready to get the plants ordered. Luckily, we were able to devote the entirety of this past weekend to landscaping, so I got the plants ordered last week. Some of the plants on my list were sold out, so I had to re-think my order. I ended up getting a good amount of plants ordered and I'm really excited to get them planted. They should arrive any day now. We will be working every week night this week to get the plants planted and the river rock hauled to the landscaped area.
These are some of the plants I ordered:

I ordered three types of Penstemon:

Penstemon palmeri (Pink Wild Snapdragon)

Up-close picture of the tall spires of Penstemon palmeri

Penstemon pinifolius (Tall Orange Mix Pineleaf Beardtongue)

Penstemon strictus (Rocky Mountain Penstemon)
 Two types of Salvia:
May Night Salvia

Blue Flame Salvia
 And many other flowers:
Nitrogen-fixing Purple Prairie Clover
Sundancer Daisy

Arizona Sun Blanket Flower

Veronica oltensis (Thyme-leaf Speedwell) - groundcover

Jupiter's Beard

Wild Four O'clock
All of the above plants need very little water except what is needed to get them established the first summer. All of them thrive in low-fertility, well-draining soil. I imagined that the "fill dirt" we bought to fill in the area we edged and landscaped this weekend would be just that - low fertility and rocky, well-draining soil. However, the soil we got ended up being very clay-based. That worries me quite a bit, but some of the flowers I'm getting do well in almost any soil, including clay. Others, like the Penstemon, really need well-draining soil to thrive. I added some rocks to the clay where those would be planted in hopes that they will help drain some excess water. I may also get a bag of sand and/or gravel to mix with the soil as I'm planting the pants. I'm crossing my fingers that all will survive and thrive in the area we plant them, but trying not to get my hopes up. Either way, in a year or two, at least some of these plants will be thriving and looking gorgeous. I can't wait to get them in the ground soon!

Friday, June 10, 2011


Yes! I've succeeded in getting pictures posted. And now they are outdated. Oh well, newer ones to come. 

In the process of re-vamping the previous owners' dog pen. To the left is  future Xeriscaping. To the right are veggie beds and wildflowers.
  It took many weekends of digging up weeds and T-bars to simply get this part of the yard to look like a dirt patch.  I was most likely weeding when the above picture was taken. That's our 7mo. old dog, Scout standing by the wheelbarrow. She hates being separated from me when I'm working behind the garden fence.

Flowers discussed in June 2nd post in front and rear, two garden beds, flagstone path and wildflowers seedlings
 There were old Lilac bushes lining the entirety of the back fence. We pulled up all of the old, dead and dieing Lilacs and trimmed up the rest. You can see a couple of the remaining buses near the back fence. One of them shades a Zucchini in one bed -- the veggie I thought could stand the most shade. The bloomed so profusely during the beginning of May that a wave of sweet-smelling Lilac goodness washed over you anytime you walked out of the house. 

Four types of hot peppers, sweet onions, germinating carrots, three types of tomatoes, two types of squash and chocolate sweet pepper
  I've learned that you have to be very patient with peppers. They are slower growing than most and they seem pretty fragile, too.

Wildflower patch contains two Hollyhocks, three Coneflowers, Coreopsis, Lupine, Bee Balm and constantly reappearing weeds.
  It's been a real challenge trying to tell the difference between sprouting weeds and wildflowers from the seed that we spread over a month ago. I'm not sure how the wildflower patch will turn out, but I always plant wildflower seeds with the vision of a lush, vigorously growing area of gorgeous, varying wildflowers. Someday I'll get there!

Strawberry plants
  Squirrels LOVE strawberries...almost as much as they love picking the seeds out of growing sunflowers (we've learned from experience in both areas). We've lost two or three new berries to the squirrel and as soon as I see a new one growing, I'm putting chicken wire around these. Fresh, home-grown strawberries are more important to me than aesthetics.

Window boxes contain Trailing Petunias, Zinnias and Snapdragons
  I bought home-grown, organic Zinnias, Marigolds and Calendulas from a lady who posted an add on Craig's List a while back. I planted them all right away and watched as each succumbed to the forces of wind and/or the resident squirrel. Now, I only have one Marigold left from the beginning bunch. I had to buy all of those healthy plants you see above (other than the lonely Marigold seen bottom left). Luckily, I recently had a birthday and asked for a Bath Garden Center gift card.

I planted Belleflowers and Minifamous annuals under the mailbox
 The previous owners had a nice and fresh bunch of fake flowers planted below the mailbox. I can't believe it took me a month to replace them with real plants. I chose trailing types of flowers for the container with the vision of vivid flowers cascading over the edges. We're not there yet, but they are remaining healthy and are a step above the fake stuff.

It's taken me so long to post all of these pictures that I've got to hurry and post new pictures...of our HAIL-DAMAGED(!!) garden. This weekend will be full of damage-control as well as our already planned landscaping work. We are planning on edging and landscaping the area to the left of the fenced-in garden with river rock, cobbles and eventually xeric (low-water) plants that I recently bought with my b-day gift cards to High Country Gardens, my new gardening obsession.

Tip: While it's certainly encouraged to have high hopes for your garden, remember that it takes lots of time and hard work.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Living Downstream Documentary Film

I was thrilled to see that one of the most informative, eye-opening and personally influential books I've read has been turned into an amazing film.
Check out the Living Downstream website

"Published in 1997, Living Downstream was the first book to bring together toxics-release data—finally made available under right-to-know-laws—and newly released cancer registry data. Sandra is also the first to trace with such compelling precision the entire web of connections between our bodies and the ecological world in which we eat, drink, breathe, and work." -http://www.livingdownstream.com/about-book

Living Downstream is by cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. The book examines the link between environmental carcinogens and their often hidden link to rising rates and clusters of cancer patients -- clusters of high cancer rates in regions that are especially exposed to carcinogens resulting from synthetic chemicals such as pesticides.

Sandra is a Pekin, IL native and was diagnosed with bladder cancer when she was 20. Driven by the question that many cancer patients ask, "Why me?", Sandra spent years researching in medical libraries. After so many signs pointed to environmental factors, Sandra spent the four years years of her doctoral fellowship at Harvard researching the link between synthetic chemicals and human cancer (there is also an abundance of evidence involving animal cancer).

After years of research in libraries, Sandra returned to her hometown of Pekin to delve into her ecological roots. This return became the making of her internationally acclaimed book Living Downstream. More than ten years later, there is much more evidence for the claims Sandra makes, and backs up by scientific evidence, so a second edition of the book was published in April of 2010.

Please take the time to visit the link posted above to educate yourself on this eye-opening subject. Hopefully the information you find will change the way you view the food you eat and the ever-changing world around you the way it did for me.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Digging: Wildflowers

Thanks for being patient with this burgeoning blog! I've spent too many weekends focused on weeding and preparing the land for my dream garden. It was a little disheartening to see the slow, barely visible process of preparation, but, like the search for "solid ground" in the life we lead, the digging is hard work that must be done.
 After painstakingly digging out the myriad of weeds in what used to be the previous owner's dog pen, P restructured the pen to be the perfect size for two raised garden beds and a wildflower patch. All of the T-bars in the area we will be xeriscaping (gardening with plants that need little to no water) had to be removed and the wire fencing was re-attached to the remaining T-bars to fit the garden area. We left around three feet between each bed for a path and Patrick added flagstone stepping stones for the path between the garden beds and the wildflower patch.
 Before I had the patch weeded, I picked up some gorgeous single-flower hollyhocks from a lady who was thinning her hollyhocks for the spring. I came home with three fledgling hollyhocks and planted them near the North fence of the garden. Hollyhocks are extremely easy to grow, thrive in hot, sunny areas and need to be planted near a wall or fence for support because they can get up to eight feet tall.
Single-Flower Hollyhocks (the variety I have)
One of the Hollyhocks, planted end of April (pic taken end of May).

Double-Flower Hollyhocks

 A good friend gave me a packet of wildflower seeds as a gift when we bought the house. After getting the wildflower plot clear of weeds (for the moment, at least), P & I added garden soil, manure and compost to the plot and mixed them together with a garden rake. Then, P spread the seeds and we raked the soil again to cover them. I kept the soil wet for a couple of weeks and slowly the seedlings appeared. The only problem is that I'm having trouble telling the wildflower seedlings and weed seedlings apart! P's mom is visiting this week and she happens to be a super-weeder, so I'm hoping she can help me with determining what to pull and what to leave.
 On top of the wildflower seeds and the three hollyhocks, I picked up some perennials at the garden center to add some established flowers to the garden for near-instant visual intrest. Thanks to a generous gift card from the in-laws and a  Living Social 50% off coupon, I picked up three different types of coneflowers, one bee balm (aka monarda), three coreopsis (aka tickseed) and one agastache.


Bee Balm
Both the coreopsis and the agastache require little water once they are established. The coneflowers and the bee balm are simple to grow, spread easily and require the same amount of water as the veggie garden and the seedling wildflowers.

Tip: Planting flowers/plants of similar water, soil and light needs in the same area simplifies maintence and reduces the chances of under- or overwatering.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Putting Down Roots: An Introduction

P and I have officially become homeowners. The trouble of half-heartedly beginning a garden in a temporary home has left us. The fear of leaving a fledgling garden has faded. And now I've begun limitless and excessive dreaming of what can become of our little 40x75 foot back yard. Years of work, waiting, learning and disappointment lie ahead as I continually dream up landscapes, flowers and vegetables to populate our place on this earth.

In My Garden (Book), Jamaica Kincaid shares the hope, joy and despair that most gardeners feel as they go about creating their own little piece of paradise. My goal for this blog is to do the same. I plan to not only use this blog as a gardner's notebook -- recording the plans and progress of the cultivation of our small "land community" -- but to also extend the thoughts, questions and research I began in school with my work centering around sustainable agriculture, sense of place/space, environmental ethics, cultivation metaphors found in literature and everyday life, and questions of how we see the (un)natural world around us. My academic studies culminated in my Master's project of the same name, "Meditations on Cultivation." I plan to weave some of the same threads of thought through this blog, but with lighter use of Literature references and Literary Theory. And, it should be much more fun, lighthearted and blunt. Oh! And there will be pictures. Lucky for you, you won't be subject to my drawings. I wonder what Thoreau would have done if he had a digital camera? Would he even spend the time drawing all of the plants he saw on his walks? I'll stop there before I get out of hand with the diversions.

Now that I've laid all of that out there, don't be surprised if this blog morphs into something completely different. That's what most of my academic writing and studies did as I found different passions and ideas along the very long and winding road of discovery and "enlightenment" (I'm not talking 18th century "Age of Reason", so don't even go there). Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. I hope you learn as much as I do along the way and have many laughs at my expense.

Happy Spring and happy gardening!