Sunday, November 25, 2007

On a clear day you can mulch forever (or at least till it gets dark)

It was clear and sunny today, so I bailed on my household chores and headed outside. My church's annual leaf-raking party took place a couple of weeks ago, so I had a ready supply of oak leaves to use to mulch my perennial and shrub beds. Most instructions recommend shredding leaves for mulch, and that's great advice. When I've used shredded leaves, they broke down into soft, rich humus by spring. I don't have a shredder, however, and I'm way too lazy to run over the leaves with the mower, then gather them up again to mulch the beds. So I just dump the leaves on my beds as is and hope for the best. They do tend to mat a bit, but that helps with weed suppression and doesn't seem to cause problems. Come spring, I'll dump about 3" of compost on what's left of the leaves and fertilize the shrubs and roses. I've gone through this routine for two years in a row, and I find that instead of spending an hour or two every other week weeding from March through July, I spend only a few minutes per week. The soil is also getting much better. It was mostly clay when I started, but now I have really nice, soft humus in most of the bed.

I'm sure there are several sound horticultural reasons why I shouldn't dump a truckload of oak leaves on my perennial beds. But since weeds are my #1 garden problem, the method seems to work for me.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A gardener gives thanks

Thanksgiving was two days ago. For my non-US readers (Do I have any non-US readers?), Thanksgiving is a day set aside for us to focus on what we are thankful for, as well as a day devoted to getting together with family and friends to eat large quantities of food, especially turkey. As a gardener, I have even more to be thankful for than my non-gardening friends. Here are just a few of those things:

  • My garden itself, with its great variety. I'm fortunate enough to have lots of different growing conditions in my 1/3 acre lot: full sun, part sun, morning sun, afternoon sun, dry shade, damp shade, and woodland. There's a creek too, with boggy soil at one end, which makes my skunk cabbage happy.
    Dangerously close to a skunk cabbage blossom
  • A big white pine that makes one section of the garden smell like a campground in the Sierras
  • The cool bean tepee my husband built for me a few years ago
  • My greenhouse, where I can putter on cold days, start flats of veggies and annuals in the spring, and overwinter my ever-growing collection of citrus trees
  • The pretty yellow daisies that pop up every spring under the Asian pear tree. They came from my husband's grandmother's yard. I don't know what they are, but they're bright and cheery, and the bees like them.
  • Hellebores. In January, when the garden lies barren and asleep, and the mud is so thick I run the risk of sinking up to my knees whenever I set foot on the soil, the hellebores provide a spot of color and a reminder that spring is just around the corner.
    Hellebore Hellebore
  • Tomatoes -- Some years are better for warm-season veggies than others, but tomatoes never fail me completely. One of the greatest pleasures of vegetable gardening is biting into the first ripe tomato of the season, still warm from the sun.
  • The pair of mallard ducks that visit every spring. I don't know where they spend the winter or where they go after they leave our place, but a pair have come every spring since we moved in eleven years ago. They're fun to watch, especially when they're chowing down on the army of slugs that infest my yard (and for which I cannot bring myself to be grateful).
    Mr. Duck
  • Compost. I pile up kitchen waste, weeds, spent annuals, leaves, and old straw, wait a few months, and something magic happens: Instead of the smelly gunk, there's earthy-smelling black compost, ready to nourish the next generation of weeds... er, I mean garden plants.
  • The first sunny weekend day of the year. We usually get ours sometime in February, and it's magical. After two or three months of being inside, I rush out to prepare vegetables, weed flower beds, and boost my vitamin D for a few hours. Despite years of experience to the contrary, I imagine that spring is really here and start making grand plans for getting cool-season crops in early. Naturally the rain returns in a day or two, and I'm back to armchair gardening for another month. But for a couple glorious days, anything seems possible.
  • Bags of leaves and pine needles from the grounds of our church. Each fall church folk rake up and bag these precious materials, and I haul them away. Then I mulch the veggie and flower beds with leaves, and mulch the blueberries and paths with pine needles. Come spring, I have rich soil and few weeds, perfect for spring planting.
  • Seeds. Is there anything in the gardener's world with more potential than a packet of seeds? Anything more magical than seeing the tiny seedlings poke through the soil? Any greater feeling of accomplishment than harvesting veggies you grew from seed?

So often I focus on what's wrong with my garden -- weeds, slugs, and the endless to-do list (pruning, mowing, watering, fertilizing... *sigh*). How wonderful to spend a few minutes thinking about what's right.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

If I had read this book last spring, I might not have time to write this post

(Note: The above link goes to the 1994 ed, but my review is based on the 1989 ed.)

While excavating my spare bedroom a couple weeks ago, i ran across a stash of gardening books I'd bought at a plant sale last spring (Yes, that does tell you how long it's been since I cleaned my spare bedroom. Sad, isn't it?) Anyway, one of them, Winter Gardening in the Maritime Northwest, caught my eye. We're heading into winter, and I'm dying for something garden-related to do. There's always winter sowing, but it's still a bit early (i.e. warm) for that. And of course I could pull weeds, but that isn't much fun.

Back to the book. I curled up with it on a foul, rainy day, with high hopes that it would give me some good ideas for the next sun break. Alas, no. If I wanted to have edible stuff in the garden to play with now, I should have planted it last summer. Bummer. Who thinks to read a book about winter gardening in June? That said, this book is a useful companion for rainy day gardeners, because it includes detailed information about growing a variety of cool-season crops into late fall and, in some cases, winter. Here's an outline of the contents:

Chapter 1: The Principles of Winter Gardening
This chapter covers Northwest climate (especially the difference between the northern and southern regions of our wet little paradise), site (with great info on how to choose sites that will stay as warm as possible during the cold months), some principles of organic gardening, and more.

Chapter 2: Cloches and Frames
In which we learn the various ways to fend off the winter cold with various forms of protection. Interestingly, greenhouses aren't mentioned. I need to find a book on growing edibles in greenhouses in the Northwest.

Chapter 3: Sharecroppers
No, this chapter isn't a digression into agricultural economics in the American South a hundred years ago. Rather, it's a catalog of garden pests and how to deal with them in mostly nontoxic ways.

Chapter 4: Which Vegetables and Herbs to Grow
The longest section of the book, this chapter is an alphabetical list of vegetables and herbs that grow in the cold months, with detailed information on planting times and varieties to choose.

Appendix A gives brief information on winter gardening in other parts of the country, referring to available books on the topic. Appendix B lists winter crops for livestock, Appendix C is a directory of seed sources and organizations, and Appendix D is a list of resources for further reading.

Now I just need to keep my copy handy for when I prepare my seed orders for the spring. So much for instant gratification.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Don't coddle the codling moth

11/25/07: edited post briefly to correct spelling and fix a typo.

Last time I wrote about how to use wormy pears, because I've been too lazy to control the codling moths whose larvae infest my fruit. This morning I read a useful article in Gardens West (a great Canadian gardening magazine that I recommend highly) on how to control codling moths. The article isn't online, unfortunately, but you can buy the issue (October 2007) from their site for $3.18 CAN (about $3.29). I'll include the main points here, but if you want their instructions for making your own coddling moth trap, please buy the issue.

The article includes background on the codling moth life cycle and the damage they do. The codling moth pupates over the winter, then emerges in spring to mate. Females lay their eggs on your fruit tree, sometimes on the fruit itself. When the larvae hatch, they eat their way through your immature apple or pear to feed on the seeds at the core. They leave behind the ever-attractive brown trail made of larva frass.

Brief, immature aside: Have you ever noticed all the clever, academic-sounding terms we have for... um... poop? I hadn't heard "frass" till I read this article (according to, it means "insect excrement"), but now I think I'll throw it around in casual conversation.

Husband: "How was your day?"
Me: "Frassy!"

OK, maybe not.

Back to our entomology lesson... After the larva has feasted on your apple seeds, it emerges to look for a good place to pupate. According to the article,
A safe spot can include cracks or grooves inthe bark of the tree (or any other piece of nearby wood), leaf litter or even just in the soil (pretty much anywhere protected from the ravages of winter weather or predators).
Codling moths are hard to control with insecticides, because the larva is sheltered inside your formerly-appetizing fruit all season. So, according to the article, we have to try different methods:
  1. Constant vigilance and hygiene: Check your developing fruit and destroy any that show moth damage. Other articles I've read emphasize cleaning up around your trees in the fall to get rid of leaf litter and other places the moths can pupate.
  2. Traps: You can buy pheromone traps that will lure horny male moths inside. This gives a whole new meaning to that line from the old Roach Motel commercials: Moths check in, but they don't check out. It's basically a fake no-tell motel for moths. The article includes instructions for making another kind of trap that provides an attractive food source as bait. Those work for both males and females (and there has to be a joke there somewhere, but I'm not going to look for it).
  3. Pheromone distractions -- bits of plastic impregnated with pheromones, intended to confuse the male moths so they can't find the real females. (And yeah, there's probably a joke there too, but I'll spare you).
  4. Trunk banding -- wrap the tree trunk in corrugated cardboard (for exact instructions, see the article) to create an attractive place for the moths to pupate. Once they're tucked away for their winter sleep/metamorphosis, remove and destroy the cardboard. Yes, you too can be the Freddy Krueger of the insect community.
I guess I don't have any more excuses for having frass-contaminated fruit. Since I'm way too lazy for constant vigilance, I think I'll try the pheromone traps and homemade food traps. Mwaaahaaahaaaaa...