Friday, December 10, 2010


I'm not sure whether it is more about the glass or the moss.
I've been smitten by an idea.
I know it is the moss that consumes my attention, trying to identify them, judge how best take care of them, how to restore the spots they come from.
But I have to admit a junk-a-holics love of plundering thrift and antique stores, looking for whatever is unusual and cheap.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Squirmy Dilemma

When we decided to leave the forests of North Florida for the parks of South Carolina, there were decisions to be made about what we could take with us.
Our debates on the issue bordered on contentious.
I had, for instance, an lovely assortment of potted plants. When you raise a plant for three years, and move it from a one gallon container to a three gallon, and then to a seven gallon, it becomes part of your life, kind of a stationary pet. I had a lot of these pets. Every week the DH would ask, "How are you coming along with the plants?" His way of saying "They're still here. Why haven't they found a new home yet?" As if they could follow someone home. And I hedged, and evaded, and avoided, but eventually I foisted them (most of them) on friends and customers who are now scared to death to let them die.
We also had too many boats. Way too many. More than we use, more than we could lug up to the mountains. If I had to let go of plants, DH had to let go of boats. And he did. (He got a lot of money for his boats. My plants... not so much.)
We came to an impasse at my worm and compost bins. He said they had to go. I said no.
A few weeks passed. He said, again, they had to go. I said no.
He finally asked just how I intended to take a full Can-o-worms and a full compost bin with us. Roll them into teeny-tiny home? Errr, no. Not even I would risk a house full of half rotted food and worm poop. Put them in the VW, the Suburban, or the truck? Hmm, no. No room, for one thing. I stubbornly refused to discuss leaving them behind. Our departure date grew near.
At last, we reached a compromise. I agreed to sell my precious Can-o-worms to a friend and customer who had not so secretly coveted them since one day, a year past, when I had jubilantly dug into the castings and shown him my wiggly friends.
I got to keep the composter. By that time, the contents had done their thing and returned to the state of earth. Bucketful by bucketful, I emptied the container and fed the compost to my customer's garden plants. Roses at the farm, the perennial bed out at the plantation, and the veggies at Damayan's garden all got a generous share. And with them went a plethora of worms.
Because the worms, it turns out, don't all stay where they are supposed to. Not with a big tub of good garbage stuff right next door. There were nearly as many worms in the composter as there were in the worm bin.
So, I cheated. I emptied that bin, almost, but I left one little shovelful of compost, with worms, in the bottom. They would become... The New Generation.
For nine months (the time it takes to have a baby, btw) I have been raising more worms even as I spin our egg shells, tea bags, veggie and fruit scraps, lint, floor sweepings, paper towels and old newspapers into compost.

Ta da! Here it is - a container full of rich dark healthy compost - and worm castings - and worms.
Now what?
The container is full, the compost is ready.
My back up container, a 15 gal. nursery pot where I save scraps while the bin is working, is completely full.
But when I empty this, I'LL LOSE MY WORMS!

Look closely. Can't you almost smell that rich, earthy goodness?
Of course, I could just pick some of the worms out, and throw them in with the new stuff. Right.
I mean, there are a LOT of worms in here. Millions, maybe.

Enough to give everyone I work for a good start on their own worm farm.

Any takers??

After all, a new mess of scraps awaits.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

No workee today!

Following around the first of the loons.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Anniversary Date

We hereby interrupt the garden part of this blog to share some of our fall experience. For some reason, I did not take many pictures of the autumn leaves even though this was a spectacularly beautiful year here at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains. No photograph I took did justice to the colors that changed, deepened, softened, and mesmerized daily.

The end of October marks Brooks' and my wedding anniversary. We took the day off for a walk in the woods. We had never explored the west part of our county, so we went to Chau Ram Falls, among other places.
This spring was hidden off to the side of one of the trails at the park. It didn't look too inviting... the water inside was murky and brown. It looked more like... I don't know... a resevoir? The water inside was not flowing. But it still looked pretty cool, with this big rock capping the top.

This is a lovely plant called hearts-a-bustin'. The botanical name is Euonymous americana. It grows all over this area, and I have had the pleasure of introducing several of my garden clients to this plant, growing in their yards. When the orange seed capsules split open to reveal several bright red seeds inside, it is pretty special!

I'm not really sure this picture was taken on the same day, but it is so pretty, how could I not include it?
This might have been the Horsepasture River, where it spills in to Lake Jocassee.

The Chattooga River is the dividing line between South Carolina and Georgia. It is a whitewater kayaker's dream. This particular spot is the very treacherous Bull Sluice run. It is rumored that not all kayaker's who attempt this run make it. While we were there, a trio of young men did make it. It looked like quite a rush.

Finally, here we are at Brasstown Falls. Pictured here is the middle falls. We had to climb down a steep and slippery path to get here, and the lower falls was further, steeper, and even more slippery, so we did not venture that far on this trip.

But we did make it to the upper falls. To get there, we had to take off our shoes and socks, roll
up the ol' pants legs, and wade across the creek. That water gets pretty cold by the end of October! It was worth it though. What a beautiful spot. What a beautiful day.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm having a really hard time focusing on work right now. It is the end of October, my first Autumn back in the mountains, and all I want to do is play!
Every time I see this trellis it inspires me. I want to do more of these! This one was super simple, super easy, and it turned out quite beyond my expectations. Normally I have to screw something up several times on the way to getting it right. In this case, though, the whole project just... worked. My intent was to mirror the window on the house with the framework of the trellis. I 'almost' did. At the end, though, I had not properly figured out my materials and doing what I wanted to do would have cost quite a bit more than I estimated.

Still, I love the shadow this throws against the garage, and I love the way the middle clematis has outlined the one pole. The clematis were added late summer, so they didn't have a chance to grow much. But, just wait 'til next year! This will look awesome...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Another re-post. When I was working at The Preacher's house a couple of weeks ago, this article was so familiar, I thought I had written it within the last few months. Much to my surprise, it has been a year. Here goes:

Yesterday I worked for a client who is my favorite kind... someone who truly loves her garden. She has a small front yard in a suburban neighborhood that is still in its early years, and from her front windows she looks out into a sweep of color. The house sits down from the street slightly, and the colors she has chosen for the garden pick up colors in her drapes and artwork. Her favorite view is from her office, where she looks through a foundation planting of loropetalum, thinned and trimmed back to frame a view of the Knockout roses that grow right in front of them, and then the upward slope of the yard allows her to see, through the Radrazz red blooms, a bed of deep blue salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue' surrounded by lantana 'Gold Mound'. It isn't quite the design I would have done but she loves it, and patiently adds more of the same to the mix to achieve a fuller, and fuller, and fuller, look.
And so that's what I was doing yesterday, filling in with more salvias, more artemesia 'Powis Castle, more salvia leucantha 'Purple on Purple', tucking new plants into existing borders, weeding and trimming as I went. A pleasant enough job. It was a cold day with temperatures hanging around 46 degrees, and my helper and I were moving along at a pretty good pace.
Until I hit the freaking ground cloth. I was going to move a line of hydrangeas from the west wall of the house to a shadier spot in the back yard, and as soon as I put shovel to ground I knew I was in trouble.

I hate ground cloth. Hate is a powerful word, and I reserve it for truly awful things, like terrorism, and ground cloth. I hate hate hate ground cloth because it keeps decomposing mulch from adding humus to the ground, and because the cheap stuff tears and pokes up through the mulch and shreds into pieces that end up who knows where, and because the good stuff -- like the fabric I had just hit with my shovel -- is expensive and just... wrong. It is hard to change plantings with ground cloth in the way. The mulch we dutifully add to the beds each year decomposes and sits on top of the fabric, making it oh so much harder to remove, and eventually seeds sprout on top and wiggle one little hair root down through the weave of the textile, and next thing you know there's some big honking weed firmly rooted right through the cloth, and you either have to cut it back and suffer with sprouts that continue to grow from the root forever, or you rip the thing out through the ground cloth and tear the cloth... grrr. Stupid ground cloth.
Now, to be fair, this particular yard had been mulched with lava rock originally, and that is one circumstance in which I have used ground cloth, too, as a barrier to keep rock from sinking into the soil. But have mercy, this bed had ground cloth pinned so tightly around the base of the hydrangeas, the poor things couldn't sucker and spread at all. On top of the fabric was several inches of lava rock, and on top of that was a layer of wood chips, because the current owners of the house had decided they didn't like the lava rock, and on top of that was the generous layer of pine straw we had put in, because they didn't like the look of the wood chips either. Here is what I had to do: rake off the pine straw, shovel up the rock and wood chips, schlep it around to the backyard in a 15 gal. nursery container (I didn't have my wheelbarrow... thank goodness I had the container!)and spread it underneath the back deck, pull, tug, and cut the heavy fabric from around the shrub, and then do another two feet. A job that should have taken one hour took four, thanks to that ground cloth. Stupid ground cloth.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Plant Blindness -- I wrote this in 2006

Late one evening a few months ago, (this was written in 2006, from a barrier island off the Florida panhandle) a truck hauling a trailer pulled up to the empty lot across from our house. The driver got out and backed a Bobcat off the trailer, and set about his business of mowing down a trail into the lot. The lot was for sale; it is not uncommon for a realtor or owner to have a path cut so prospective buyers can walk into the property and have a look around.

For half an hour or so I heard the machine snapping branches and cracking limbs, then the machine was loaded up again and the truck left. I didn’t think too much about it.

The next day, though, I walked over to check out the new trail. I was dumbfounded. The Bobcat driver had driven right over a beautiful, healthy red cedar. It tilted at a forty five degree angle, trunk deeply scarred, roots mostly exposed. Why? He could easily have gone around the tree, and left it as a focal point for a new home. Was he was testing out his machine to “see what it could do”. Why would someone wanting to make a good impression leave a beautiful tree partially uprooted, halfway laying over on its side?

I don’t believe this was a callous or insensitive man, but I do believe he saw this cedar tree as a challenge, an obstacle to be overcome. He did not see it as a living, breathing and quite beautiful specimen, as I did. He exhibited what is known as ‘plant blindness’, a term coined by James Wandersee, PhD, a biology professor at Louisiana State University. Plant blindness refers to our failure, as a society, to see plants as anything more than a green blur or a background. Until something calls our attention to a particular plant, we tend to overlook it.

Even as a professional gardener, I am no different. There are countless plants I never ‘see’ until some particular characteristic is pointed out. Then, suddenly, I will see that plant everywhere.

Without the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom would not survive. In short, no plants, we die. Or, if animals ever out-breath the plants, the animals lose. Duh.

Why then, are we so unimpressed by the plant kingdom that provides the very air we breath? Humanity is more interested in animals than it is in plants. There are terms for this, too: zoochauvinism anidd plant neglect. Our educational system does not help. Biology classes at all levels place much more emphasis on animals, though that symbiotic relationship between plants and animals cannot be denied.

Maura Flannery, a longtime columnist for American Biology Teacher, said, “I am not alone in my prejudice; to many, botany is synonymous with what is dry, complicated, and uninteresting in biology.” Indeed. I have to admit it was pretty dry stuff to me, too. Not one of my various biology teachers was willing to take the class outside to introduce us, up close and personal, to a plant. We learned about photosynthesis from a book.

By putting more emphasis on the study of animals, my teachers were demonstrating zoochauvinism. By not taking us out and showing us how to measure the rate of growth in a vine from day to day, or pointing out the vivid colors that attracted insects to a flower, or letting us marvel at how a blade of grass could break through an asphalt parking lot, they were exhibiting plant neglect.

Think about it. How often do we read articles in the newspaper that relate to plants? The 2002 demise of the Wye Oak, this nation’s largest, and some say oldest, white oak (Quercus alba), hardly got any press coverage, but a story about a dog being rescued from a boat that same year was carried all over the world. We read articles about the longevity of sea turtles, but who in the world knows what the oldest living tree is? (It’s a bristlecone pine, nearly 4800 years old, and it is still alive, growing in the United States.) Curiously, one botanical story that does get coverage is the blooming of a voodoo lily, which smells like rotting meat. Whenever this occurs in a public garden the press is always there, ready to record the disgusted reactions.

Our children are being shortchanged by the lack of plant knowledge, but there is still little impetus for them to be curious about that half of their world. Video games certainly don’t feature plants. Neither do movies, or games, or books, though library shelves bulge with children’s books about animals. Plants drawn into cartoons are only vague green shapes without detail. Television has long featured shows introducing us to the animal kingdom, and now there are entire channels devoted to animals. And the plants? Well, there is HGTV, which reduces plants to accessories good for decorating our homes. Never has that program really educated me about how a plant grows, or thwarts its enemies, or has sex.

If we don’t know a plant, we don’t really see it, and if we don’t see it, it becomes nothing more than an obstacle, a challenge to our machines. Something to be knocked over, and left at a funny angle in the woods. And yet if they all die, we all die. The image of a big bulldozer capable of scraping up all the plants in its path flashes through my mind. Another image flashes, of thousands of acres of a single crop, which could all be wiped out by a single pathogen. Another image flashes, of rain forests slashed and burned so grass and grain can be grown to feed cattle. Diversity lost, and we never really realize it, because we didn’t recognize what was there to begin with.

As gardeners, we can combat plant blindness by becoming plant mentors. This simply means sharing what we know about the plant kingdom and its wonders. We can mentor children, especially, since they are so open to the wonders of the world. We can also mentor our peers. Would it have made a difference to the driver of that Bobcat if he had known the name of the tree he tried to run over? Would developers slow down just a little in the scraping of every inch of land if they realized a plant in their pathway might be older than their great-grandmothers? Can we help a teenager make the connection that plants breathe out, so that he can breathe in?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hurry up, and WAIT

It's been a funny summer. We've tried to jumpstart a business in a brand new place, with virtually no connections, and at first, we thought we had succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. Our prospects were looking so good, and so close to home, that I did not aggressively pursue more work. After all, as anyone who knows me knows, I am loyal to existing customers and loathe to put them on hold while I go off doing other jobs.

This is my first 'steady', a garden coaching job with perfectly delightful people. But, they actually ARE doing their own work now, and what was a weekly job became twice a month, and now that has turned into every three weeks, and one of these days they won't need me at all.

I thought I had a nice arrangement with this house. I was mowing the grass (!) for him, getting the weeds in the beds under control, and slowly, here and there, incorporating some new plants into the landscape. Maybe too slowly. I don't know.
Around the end of July he asked me to hold off for a while so he could get these decks replaced. And, he had mentioned that the decks needed work in our initial conversation. But it is now mid September, and as far as I can tell, no work has even been started on the decks. Makes me wonder, and makes me a little sad.

These steps down to the lake would have probably been the last area to work on, but can't you just see the possibilities here? I sure can.

And then there is this place, which I thought 'for sure' we would be working for this summer. A good initial meeting with homeowners, who were importing their landscapers from Greenville, and seemed thrilled to have someone in the neighborhood who could come in and take care of the property. I have been assured of the work. But it has been since June, and we are waiting... an occasional email is always answered, eventually, and I have no doubt that they will use our gardening services. What year that will be, I'm not so sure...

Who wouldn't want to work here?

This one is especially frustrating. The homeowner stopped landscape work after the hardscape was in, and little was planted except for this extensive border of... liriope. Liriope? Really? This home is located on one of the most spectacular settings you can imagine, and someone saw fit to adorn it with one of the most boring plants ever. Okay, in a few years, when it fills in and blooms, and has complimentary plants behind it, it will probably be quite pretty. In the meantime, the whole place looks quite naked, while homeowner waits on previous landscaper to replace a few dozen of the liriope that died. And while I feel that he and I have made the connection that will get me some nice work out of this place, in the meantime I wait, and wait, and wait.

I won't bore you with the rest. And, there are more! Instead, I need to concentrate on the work that I do have, and stop wondering whether some internal memo has circulated around the lake regarding some crime I may have committed. Hmmm, a crime of passion... flower? A murder... of crows in my cornfield? Maybe they have seen my sad potted succulents that I have tried to nurse through a summer of shade, and extrapolated that to my gardening experience. Or, I try to convince myself, they simply know as well as I do that there is no hurry in the garden.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

One day we are all full of travel plans, mapping our way around Mexico to see whales, deserts, the Copper Canyon, the monarch migration, ancient pyramids, and endless tropical beaches on both sides of the country.
Two months later we were homeless and jobless, spending our travel money on something to live in and something to move it around with, and spending the downpayment for our future home on doctor bills.
C’est la vie.
The hardest thing about moving into a 31’ Airstream travel trailer is not the small quarters... quite the contrary. Having sold and given away virtually everything we owned in order to travel, the Airstream is a mansion compared to the VW Westfalia vanagon I was well prepared to live in for a year.
No, the hardest thing is for a dedicated gardener to be told that she is not allowed to put plants in the ground. We had taken a park host position in a beautiful little day-use park in the Apalachicola National Forest, and while there was nothing pristine or undisturbed about the park in which we lived, I am still acutely aware of the importance of not introducing cultivated plants into such an area.

We were given permission to plant what we wanted so long as we kept everything containerized, and I was faithful about making sure than no seed or cutting ‘escaped’.
Because gardening is my business, as well as my passion, there was an endless parade of different plants gracing the front of our teeny tiny home. Most moved on to new homes in my clients’ gardens, but the longer we were in one place, the more I was inclined to purchase a ‘bonus plant’ for myself now and then. The 4” or gallon size I purchased would be immediately potted up to a slightly larger container, and then, if necessary, potted up again the following Spring. This agave geminiflora on the left (which looks like a large pincushion) was the size of a large grapefruit when I bought it. The edible ginger had to be cut out of its one gallon container, and a year later had to be cut out of the seven gallon container I had transplanted it to.

One reason our plants are so happy has to do with the big round thing on the right hand side... a composter that sits on rollers and spins in place to aerate the coffee grounds, vegetable peels, fruit scraps, paper towels, lint, egg shells, shredded paper, and various other items I feed it daily. (Oh yeah, it did come with us.) It also contains a fair amount of red wigglers that migrated over from the worm bin during Tropical Storm Ida, which hit last summer while we were vacationing in what would become our new home. (Some of them came with us, too.)

When I began working with the nonprofit Damayan Garden Project I got more interested in growing food as well as ornamental plants. Because the square foot garden technique promised that you could grow a lot of food in a small space, we build our garden right on top of the concrete pad and filled it with the recommended soil mixture, including our homegrown compost.

We grew one ‘stacked’ garden, with strawberries in the top planter so they could trail over the sides, carrots on the next level where they would have plenty of room to send down the tap roots, shallots on the corners, and various greens planted around the edges.

The second garden proved that yes, we could grow veggies in six inches of soil on top of concrete.

We used large nursery containers, too. After all, more is better, right? especially when my DH vowed to cook everything we grew.

This lemon sorrel was planted at the suggestion of a friend who did a lot of Indian cooking. It added a wonderful tangy flavor to stir fries, and lasted through the summer and well in to the following winter.

The oak leaf lettuce went in to salads from early spring into mid-summer when it finally bolted and turned bitter.

The sweet peas were delicious, but not one single sweet pea made it into the cooking pot. They were eaten right off the vine, every day.

We planted the cabbage too late, and never got a good crop... just one small head from six plants. However, it is one of my favorite plants! I love using cabbages for their ornamental look, and have nothing against sneaking them into my clients’ flower beds to fill space during the winter.

Needless to say, when we decided we were moving to SC I had a lot of plants to find good homes for. Thanks (a lot!) to Debra Lee Baldwin, a fair amount of them were succulents that I have fallen in love with since reading her books.

My dear clients will never realize how many ‘freebies’ were placed into their gardens from my own beloved collection. Other plants were placed into the hands of good friends just before we left. I had promised Brooks not to take any more plants with me than would fit into our small shower. (I stowed just a few into different containers... shh! He’ll never know!)

I did manage to keep some of the nice planters I had collected, and they are waiting impatiently (or is that me?) for new, zonal-appropriate plants to fill them.
We will soon be living in a state park that comes with this rule: “Don’t look like you live there.” Does that mean no plants for me? Nah.
When the love of plants, nature, and design defines you, THERE IS ALWAYS A WAY!

Friday, February 26, 2010

A New Life

Talk about an alternate reality...
I wake up one morning in my comfy bed, I’m brought morning coffee by a kind and loving husband, and look out the window at the trunks of massive pines that tower overhead, scrub oaks that surround a small yard, and the glint of Silver Lake off in the distance.

The next morning I wake up in the same comfy bed, same smells, same dog climbing up to snuggle while I enjoy the morning coffee, but out the window a mountain laurel brushes the screen and blue mountain ridges outline the horizon.

It confuses Pearl a little, to be sure, but she is a dog, and dogs are remarkably adaptable.
We moved this week, leaving behind a three year accumulation of friends and garden clients in Tallahassee, Florida. We moved because we can, because sometimes a place whispers “you are home”, because we are not city people, and Tally, small and lovely as it is, is still a city.
The alternate reality part comes from my ability to take ‘home’ with me. For the past three years my husband and I have lived small, so to speak, in the cozy space of a 31’ Airstream travel trailer. I don’t call it ‘teeny tiny home’ for nothing!

The story of how we came to live in such a small space, I will save for another day. After all, it is only the end of February, and so it might be many days before I get the chance to blog about gardening again. Suffice it to say that I am happy in my teeny tiny home, and it may indeed be the case that I choose never to go back to a traditional house!

Newly arrived, not yet set up, but here we are. This spot is temporary, as we can’t move to our spot on Lake Jocassee until the first of April. This is the Lake Jocassee RV campground, where at least 20 people have parked their RVs long term to have a summer getaway on a cool, breezy mountain ridge close to Lake Jocassee. Right now we are the only humans staying here.
For the past two nights the temperatures have sunk into the low 20s, and last night the wind gusted up around 30mph. Teeny tiny home was snug and warm, laying to rest one of my only concerns about moving.

Pearl is fine with it all, as long as she has a spot on the sofa and her favorite blanket.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Canada! Oh, Canada...

...why is it that your government has so much more on the ball than your southern neighbors? Not only do you have universal health care to keep your citizens coming home every summer, but now you have taken the very pro-active step of ordering your nurseries and garden centers to remove an overused and minimally understood garden product from their shelves. As of the end of 2012, no longer will Mr. Joe Blow Homeowner be able to wheel cartloads of weed and feed lawn products out the door. Good for you!

Of course, Scotts and Monsantos of the world will not take this news lightly. Punitive lawsuits have already been filed against the Canadian activists and lawmakers responsible for banning the products in the provinces, but the move by the federal government to outlaw these products nationwide might indicate that Big Ag will not get any satisfaction in court.

In what might be a very shrewd move, the government bases its decision not on the health of its water supply, which very certainly is adversely affected by rainwater runoff carrying 2,4D, atrazine, dithiopyr, and the like, but on simple landscape "best practice" principles. They may well have avoided a long and costly court battle by using the common sense approach: a lawn does not have to be a strict monoculture of grass to be healthy and beautiful.

Having been in the business, I have given a lot more thought to the quest for the perfect lawn than most humans. It simply is not worth the cost to our water supply, to our own health, and the health of our children and our pets, not to mention the health of the entire ecosystem.

I can't tell you how many of my friends have announced to me -- quite proudly, I might add -- that they or their spouse had used a weed and feed product. One friend uses it on a lawn so small I could easily hand-weed the entire space inside of an hour. Another friend has an expansive lawn with weeds confined to one small corner, but of course he uses an atrazine-based product on the entire lawn. Did he read the label first, and apply according to the manufacturer's instructions? Doubt it. If so, does he have a clue how to calibrate a spreader, or even what that means? Doubt it. Seriously. By the time I am told, though, the damage is done. Preaching falls on deaf (and dumb) ears.

Last Spring I was standing in line at Lowe's and a nice looking fellow came up behind me pushing a cart loaded with faded-looking bags of a weed and feed product. He must have mistaken the look I gave him. "Look!" he said gleefully. "These are 75% off just because the bags are old!"
"Wow." I said. "You must have a big yard."
"Half an acre," he replied.

I did a little quick math in my head. Those bags treated 5,000 square feet, and there are roughtly 22,000 square feet on one half acre of yard. Subtracting 2,000 square feet for the house, not counting any additional landscape or driveway area, he had enough product to treat his lawn for four and a half years!

Here is my guess: he would either a) over apply the product to get rid of it b) throw it away c) no longer be able to read the label at all within two years, at which time he would forget what he even had. Either way, there is small chance that those bags of product will not ultimately end up contributing to the pollution of our water supply.

I just smiled, though, and said "What a deal." Coward.

Canada has opted to remove these products from their shelves, thus eliminating misuse by hundreds of thousands of people. Licensed lawn care professionals will still be allowed to use them, making the cynical me wonder whether they had anything to do with the homeowner ban. ChemLawn and TruGreen and other such companies will be the biggest winners here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Venerable Cycad

No one plant in my gardening career has been so ubiquitously requested as the sago. Most people don't know the name of the plant, but they don't have to get far into the description for me to know what they are talking about. "The bottom is shaped like a pineapple..." "It has long leaves, and they grow in a circle..." "It is dark green..." "It looks like a miniature palm tree..." No matter how they describe it I can show a client a picture of a sago and they light up like wet pavement. Everyone who comes to Florida from Somewhere Else wants a sago in their landscape, so about 98% of the homes here have at least a couple.

Small wonder these tough plants have survived 250 million years here on planet Earth. They are hell to work around, with their sharply-tipped leaflets and their hard, equally sharp spines, but work around them we must. Otherwise, they become quite a mess, as they have in this landscape that I am trying to reclaim from the wild. Sagos are prolific producers of 'pups', those offsets that grow around the base of the trunk. Removing pups after they have a few years jump on you is HARD WORK!

Then there are the seedlings... Pictured here is a seedling, a pup that was about six inches in diameter, and a pup that was about four inches in diameter. There were seedlings around two of the sagos (of the five we have cleaned up so far). Though the plants are King sagos, they include male and female plants.

The females are seed-bearing, and the males produce a bizarre, extremely phallic-looking cone. There were hundreds of seeds to pick up, roughly one-third of which had sent down a root, or sent up a shoot, or both.

Some people can grow a wonderful looking sago by letting some pups remain, but that is an art and takes skillful attention as the plant develops. More often, we like to see the form of a single, mature plant.

Like I said, it is a lot of hard work, and sometimes it is better to have your helpers en route before you let them in on the plans for that day. Otherwise, mutinies have been known to occur.

I am saving this one for another day. This sago has developed several dominant heads and someone has cut all the fronds off one side of two of those heads, because it was planted too close to the driveway. "But they are so cute when they're little!" Like puppies, plants grow, and we have to plan for the mature size of any plant we put in the landscape, as well as any puppy we bring home. Most likely there will be no limbs left on this plant when I finish, and it will have to re-grow a head for the sake of uniformity.

I am now 32 man hours in to the reclamation of this landscape.
Depupping the sagos has made a big difference, but there are still still a few to go.
I am SO GLAD this qualifies as winter work. At least it is not hot weather!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What Does A Gardener Do In The Winter?

(or... Why Am I Still Paying You In January?)

It was a fair question. After all it is January, we've just been through 15 straight days of below freezing nights, and the flower border is sparse, to say the least.
But when my client poses the question to me from behind the wheel of his pretty little silver roadster, I stop just short of rolling my eyes. I am in the process of blowing storm debris off his extensive driveway. And even as he says it, he wavers, a little unsure of the territory, knowing that he doesn't have much time and he could be presenting me with a soapbox.
"It's endless" is what I say, with a little sweep of my hand. He knows what I mean, and I know what he means.
Obviously he knows I'm there every week because his yard needs me. My primary function there is to keep weeds from winning, to keep flowers blooming, and to keep the potted plants from drying up.
If I wasn't there, he'd know it.
The oxalis would take over. Leaves would bury delicate winter annuals. The container plants on the patio would dry up. Dead limbs that fall on the shrubs would go unnoticed. Leaves and litter that collect on the sago fronds would remain, making an elegant plant look dirty and unkept. The vines... oh! those vines! would continue to weave a tapestry across the edge of the woods, blocking sunlight and choking the very trees that support them. The driveway would grow slick and mossy from the layer of damp leaves and litter that would collect. Little silver roadster would not like that. Nor would the patio furniture like it if I didn't clean the pine needles out from under the seats.
The unasked question is this: Why am I paying you more in January than I did in August? Simple answer? Because in January it is 65 degrees. In August, it is over 90 degrees, and the humidity is about 80%. In January, I can tackle those vines without fear of heat stroke. In August, I can barely make it through the necessary tasks of weeding, watering, and deadheading.
Bare with me a little while longer, good sir.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Tsk Tsk

See what happens when we don't pay attention to the landscape?
This is a pretty landscape gone bad. The natural form of the crape myrtles has been compromised by repeated 'pruning', the 'Shillings' hollies are almost dead from the drape of vines that covered them, and this crape myrtle has become a trellis for honeysuckle, smilax, Japanese climbing fern and other opportunistic fiends.
When I first saw this landscape three or so years ago I admired its elegance. As time went on, it looked shabby, and then downright terrible. It doesn't look as bad in the pictures only because winter freezes have defoliated the vines and saplings.
The gentleman who lived here recently died, and I guess he was the one taking care of the yard work. That happens, sometimes, and I guess this wasn't the kind of neighborhood where someone would send their teenager over to lend a hand keeping things up when he became too... whatever... to do so.
Thanks goodness its wintertime, and cool. I hate tackling jobs like this in the hot summer.

After hours of work, we have dug out vines, dug up saplings, weeded, and dug out more vines. My right wrist has broken out in what could have been a major case of poison ivy. Thank you, Tecnu! The landscape looks a lot better, but we still have miles of weeds to go, and then we will have to prune the shrubs, clean up the sago palms, and give everything a good thick layer of mulch. Oh, and those yaupon hollies really need to go. I don't think they would even rejuvenate.

The moral? If you get too sick, old, or busy to take care of the landscape yourself, hire someone sooner rather than later.

Friday, January 8, 2010

They Are All Mine

Here is a warning to all my clients, past, present, and future: Let me be clear. Your plants are my plants.

I pick them out, plant them where they will be happy, water them, feed the very soil which supports them, and wish them well.

I inspect them all regularly, individually, for signs of distress, and I fix what I see wrong.

I sweat it when thug plants try to take over the neighborhood, but I also know that not all babies grow up to be thugs, and so some seedlings, I nurture.
Others I yank out and throw in a compost pile.

Do you know this?

I am a slave (a very willing slave) to the needs of your plants, constantly on my knees, examining leaves, spreading mulch under the limbs, eliminating competitors.

I am a doctor who amputates broken limbs, or splints them so they heal and grow strong again.

Occasionally I dig up a plant and move it, to better compliment the scene, to give it more room to grow, or to rescue it from a stressful situation.

If your plants are in containers, I am the one who watches the temperature, doing whatever it takes to protect them from extremes of heat and cold, and wind, and rain.

I keep my pruning shears sharp and handy, tidying up as I go, snipping out a crossing branch, an errant shoot, or a fading flower.

I treat plants like this because I want them happy, just like I want my clients happy, and I want them to look their best, so my clients will notice. We may think of plants as possessions, you and I, but they are really our neighbors, as alive and co-dependent as we are.

I want every one of you to have the experience of seeing a plant as an individual, which it is. I want you to get to appreciate it, to get to know its particular scent, its form in the landscape, its ability to feed its friends, and fend off its enemies.

I want you to really see your plants, because that is what makes them your plants, too.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

It's hard, sometimes, to keep in mind that a gardener's livelihood requires going out into what we unpoetically call 'the elements'. This is especially true when it is raining.

Today it is not raining, but it is cold. Again. We are expecting a high of a balmy 47 degrees today here on the north end of the sunshine state, a veritable heat wave compared to what the rest of the east coast is experiencing. Still, as I get older, it is tempting to spend days on end holed up in teeny-tiny home, waiting it out.

When I lived in my beloved NC mountains, today would have qualified as warm. I got out in much colder weather if there was work to be done, and there always was work to be done. I remember raking leaves that were frozen to the ground, and frozen in big chunks. I remember peeling out of coveralls when it was 22 degrees, because the work would warm me up so much. I remember one spectacular day up on Cowee Mtn., working by myself. The morning was fairly warm, and sunny. Around noon I watched a dark thundercloud roll towards me over the distant ridges. The storm that it brought was ferocious. The mountain shook with thunder, and lightening struck all around. There was hail, marble-sized. And then the sun came out. I went back to work that day, only to have gray clouds descend upon my head, envelop me in fog, wrap me in sleet, and finally, snow.

Being a gardener forces me to get out into the weather, and that is one of the greatest blessings of this life... except when the weather is HOT. How did I ever end up working in Florida? I always said I could never work outdoors if I lived in Florida. I'm pretty sure the Lords of Karma laughed when I said that, and began setting up that very circumstance right away.

Sixteen years later, I've done my time. I call it my penance, for past wrongs, but I think I'm all paid up now. Time to go home. The Sunshine State is a beautiful place to visit, but not so much fun if your profession keeps you outside all day.

I'm looking forward to working in the cold. Think I'll go out today and do some wrap-up work on my gardens here, just for practice.