The Power of Sheet Mulch

In its simplest form, sheet mulching is a two-step process: First, apply a layer of weed-suppressing newspaper or cardboard…and top it with about a foot of organic mulch. Many gardeners do this in fall, so that the mulch rots to become humus-y earth over the winter. Also, the weed-stopping layer breaks down enough to allow spring-planted seeds and transplants to thrust their roots deep into the earth. Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden

Friday, January 21, 2011

While Our Garden Sleeps

16 teeth-chattering degrees this morning and the garden seems to be shrinking under its blanket of snow, which is, after all, part of the plan.

There are tracks nearly every morning now through the yard -- definitely a well-used path for fox, deer, cats and rabbits. Fortunately, we haven't had evidence of any predator/prey interactions, though the long stride of running deer and zig-zagging rabbit tracks hint at diversionary tactics. We're definitely going to be needing a fence. 

The larger prints are mine, of course. And no, I didn't go out in bathrobe and boots to get the shots.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Seed Catalogs

Everyone appears to be snowed in today, ("Feels like it's snowin' all over the world!" -- apologies to Bill Withers) so the seed catalogs have come out at Jayne At Weed Street. She's got some great winter pictures as well.

We haven't done a great deal of growing from seed -- mostly the usual stuff like some herbs, lettuces, kale and chard, and beans. We buy seedlings of the things that are hard to propagate from seeds. But this year we're going to try to start our own seedlings -- Bill got the equipment and we're hoping the breezeway will be sufficiently sunny and warm. Bill has worked up a chart for our planting dates, which though we're supposedly in Zone 6 (where the zone calculators insist on putting us, though we were always 5 in the past), our last frost date can be in mid-May. Depressing. We're going to need a lot of help and advice on this project! And if we aren't successful, well, we'll just get plants!

More of our adventures in coming posts...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Indoor Distractions

Well, we’ve gone from one distraction to another. And from outdoor fantasies to very real indoor orchids.

Margaret Roach, in her A Way to Garden blog, recently posted about keeping orchids happy and blooming year after year. As it happened, today was watering day for my orchids, so I thought I’d do my own little post about them.

I have four orchids:  three phalaenopsis and one dendrobium (I think). 

The phalaenopsis (phalaenopses?) were given to my mother when she was in her late 90's and lived alone in an independent living apartment. They had pedigree—they were bought at a local orchid show—the purple one in 2002 or 2003 and the other two white ones in successive years. Easy-care floral gifts were de rigueur for the old ladies, though even minimal care was hard to come by (as was light). The curtains stayed closed most of the time unless someone (usually me) came to open them for her (and them). I did manage to capture a shot of one, in 2004, as it basked in a rare sunbeam with my mother’s beloved cat and an amaryllis (another favorite floral gift to my mother). They weren't blooming then and didn't bloom again while they lived there.

That picture was taken just months before we moved into a house with my mother and the orchids found themselves in orchidaceae  heaven. They bloomed enthusiastically in the semi-shaded sunroom, where the morning sun slanted in and then disappeared behind the blinds and the pergola as it continued along the south side of the house. There was a whole-house humidifier and, after I attended a workshop at a local orchid show, new pots with holes for air circulation.

The dendrobium had its own story.

It was sent to me by my sister when I was in the hospital recovering from my second cancer-related surgery in 2006. The room I shared was very cramped and, as might be expected, a delicate orchid stem was no match for harried medical professionals. The single blossom stem lasted just long enough to be admired but not long enough for me to remember what it looked like. There was no identifying tag (it was ordered through a florist) so I had no idea what type it was. It took the poor thing nearly a year to bloom again, though bloom it did, and though it’s never been typed by an expert, I assume from its stems and blossom type that is indeed a dendrobium. A very tall dendrobium.

In our four years in the house, many plants cycled through the sunroom. Overwintered failures like mandevillas carpeted the room with their leafy tears. Rosemary looked fine but turned into a dusty shadow of its former fragrant self. Bulbs arrived year-round to commemorate events, including my mother's 100th birthday. But when we finally sold the house and moved, only the orchids remained, and I was certain we would have to give them away to eager orchid lovers because there would be no suitable place for them in our new space. 

Wrong again. We found a rental house with a marvelous breezeway and the orchids spent their summer vacation basking in the filtered light of their new home.

Once the breezeway turned into a walk-in cooler, they took up residence in east and north-facing windows, quite contentedly. 

I have never pampered them and have probably let them get drier than they would like. I water them in the kitchen sink, leaving them there most of the day to drain, spritzing their leaves with orchid food as I pass by, (only when they're blooming). 

Maybe in the spring, I'll find some bigger pots for them. I think the dendrobium would thank me for it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Entryway Garden

The Plan

On paper, the little garden looks huge.

Seen from the back door, it looks more like a postage stamp. It measures roughly 11' X 7'. Hm-m-m. Too many plants?

A funny thing happened on the way to the edible landscaping design. If all goes well, it might be tasty, and yes, it might even be pretty (one can only hope), but the issue of who’s going to be doing the eating has evolved.

The original plan, 15 sheets of graph paper ago, was to have a small garden with edible flowers as well as scent—a sort of mash-up of edible landscaping, permaculture, and native habitat gardening. Something for us, something for the natives:  an equal opportunity garden.

The more I puttered over the design, the more the agastache began its inexorable march into the center of the plot. I threw in some of Bill’s favorite lavender, and some nasturtiums and chive blossoms for our salads. But the flashing red “Diner Open” sign is out for the celebrity of the winged world:  hummingbirds. I won’t turn away the bees, butterflies or any other beneficials that might come for a blue-plate special, but the velvet rope at the door to the VIP room drops for the hummingbirds.

I became a hummingbird addict at our previous house. I was choosing some plants for containers for our new patio when I spied a salmon and pink agastache. I didn’t have a clue what it was or what it would attract—I just thought it was pretty. It brought the hummers like gangbusters and that was the beginning of a long love affair.

There are many plants that hummers will visit, but it’s been my experience that pink/salmon-toned agastache is the most reliable. The wonderful thing about the plant is that the hummers seem compelled to go to each and every one of the dozens of blossoms before they leave, making for great viewing. It also grew quite well in a container, so you can put it anywhere there's sun and a comfortable chair.

I got so I could hear the tiny wings before I saw them. Friends who visited during hummer season learned to recognize the signs--the glazed-over eyes and slightly raised finger that meant conversation would grind to a halt as I strained to locate the birds. For me, the delight never faded, but I suspect my guests were not always so charmed.

Later, we built a pergola over the patio and planted it with honeysuckle and trumpet vines. The vines offered them shelter and rest—the small dead twigs in the midst of the knot of leaves and blossoms were just the right size for their miniature feet. 

They would sit for long periods—5 or 10 minutes—flicking out their microscopic tongues and scraping off their beaks on a nearby vine. Sometimes they could even feed from the comfort of their perches—the hummingbird equivalent of a waterside bar in a Caribbean resort. (I still haven’t managed to capture them very well on film—or digital—but here are a couple of near-misses.)

The honeysuckles were their preferred vine flower, possibly because the far more numerous bees got to most of the trumpet nectar before them.


Tiny but fierce, they’d merely duck when bumblebees blundered past. The only thing that would roust them from their restorative perch would be the appearance of another hummer. Then it was WAR! Hummer dogfights. Can’t be beat. I caught them here, at the end of a season, in a moment of rare truce.

We won’t be planting any perennial vines anytime soon, so the annual spanish flag and the nasturtiums on the small trellis will have to do as a bit of shelter. Perhaps the nearby evergreens will suffice. As for the other plants, the monarda especially, will have to prove their worth.


ASSORTED HERBS (whatever there’s room for), especially chives and parsley

The  number of plants will have to be more realistically plotted out when Bill, the square-foot-gardener, measures out the squares for me early in the spring. I hope to have at least three agastaches and two lavenders. The rest is gravy. Or nectar, depending on your perspective.