Thursday, January 31, 2008

Seed and plant catalogs and web sites = rainy day shopping

OK, Meg, you asked for it, you got it -- Janet's guide to garden catalogs and online shopping. The best thing about winter IMHO is the absence of bindweed. The second-best thing about winter is stepping into a steaming bubble bath with a stack of seed and plant catalogs to peruse. Aaaahhhhhh... Plant catalogs = porn for gardeners. I wonder how that sentence will affect our hit rate from Google searches. As usual, I digress...

Winter is a great time to shop catalogs and web sites for seeds and plants. There's not much to do outside, and it's usually too cold and miserable to cruise the nurseries. Plus, you can order bare-root plants this time of year and have them arrive early in the spring, the perfect time to plant them. I'm including only companies from which I've actually made purchases, so this is by no means a comprehensive list. I hope readers will add their favorite sources in the comments.

I've done business with all of the following companies and had great experiences:

Territorial Seed: Territorial Seed is based in Oregon, so it's a great source for varieties that do well in our cool Northwest climate. They offer a great selection of vegetable seeds, as well as flowers, herbs, onion sets, seed potatoes, and other stuff. They also sell some live plants. You can request a free print catalog from their web site, or you can browse and order online. If I know exactly what I want, I go straight to the web site, but if I'm not sure, I find the print catalog to be a great reference. If you prefer to see what you're buying, you can find Territorial Seed at some nurseries, including Portland Nursery.

Totally Tomatoes: Like to grow unusual varieties of tomatoes? This is the catalog for you! I bought from them for the first time last year, and I was delighted with their selection. If it's a tomato, they probably have seeds for it: heirlooms, hybrids, funky colors, varieties for containers... they're all there. They also have a great selection of pepper seeds, both sweet and hot, along with a few other vegetable seeds.

Rich Farm Garden Supply: I ordered some heirloom seed from them in 2006 and was pleased with what I got. They have the best selection of heirloom squash seeds I've found, plus lots of other heirloom vegetables, flowers, herbs, trees, and shrubs. HOWEVER, a quick check of the Garden Watchdog reveals a slew of complaints, including several people accusing them of fraud. Under those circumstances, I can't recommend them, but if you decide to give them a try, be careful.

FYI, I buy a lot of my seed from seed racks in nurseries, grocery stores, and discount stores like Dollar Tree and Big Lots. The discount stores don't usually have a great selection or unusual varieties, but if you aren't picky, you can get basic veggie and flower seeds for $.10 or $.20 per pack. Not bad!

I buy most of my plants from local nurseries, unless I want something unusual or I find a bargain. But I have had good luck with the following:

Logee's: Logee's specializes in tropical plants for the home and greenhouse. They have a great selection of unusual items, making their catalog fun to browse even if you don't plan to buy anything. Everything I've ordered from them arrived quickly, well-packed, and healthy. I just took a quick look at their web site while writing this entry, and already I've found an unusual citrus tree I simply must have, but I'm not sure where to put it. Maybe I should convert my bedroom into a sunroom. Their web site should come with a warning: Visiting this site is hazardous to your bank account!

Yamhill Soil and Water Conservation District Native Plant Sale: This one isn't mail-order; you have to pick up your plants in person. But you can download a pre-order form online, and the prices are great! If you have a big restoration project or other need for lots of Pacific Northwest native plants, it may be worth a drive to McMinville for their sale.

Trading and other options
EBay: EBay can be a gardener's dream for both seeds and plants, but watch those feedback ratings so you don't get ripped off.

Garden Exchange on GardenWeb: Nothing brightens up a dreary winter like trading plants! I've acquired all sorts of interesting plants through trades. You say you don't have anything to trade? Don't be so sure! What's common as, well, dirt in your neck of the woods may be a rare, exotic item halfway across the country. For example, I've had good luck trading marionberry and boysenberry starts (which root by themselves when I don't prune my berries at the end of the season) with people in parts of the country where these berries aren't so common. I also trade things that I can propagate easily from cuttings--not much effort for me, and I get cool new plants for just the cost of postage.

How to avoid getting ripped off
No matter what you're shopping for, including plants, it's wise to research a new business and proceed carefully, so you don't end up with poor-quality merchandise. The best place to research garden-related vendors is the Garden Watchdog, part of Dave's Garden. Here you'll find customer comments and ratings plus responses from the companies when comments are less than complimentary.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Winter sowing this week

Now that winter is about half over, I finally started winter sowing. If you aren't sure what winter sowing is, see my post from last year on the topic. Winter sowing is a great way to use up leftover seed from the previous season, and it's also a great antidote to the winter blahs. This morning I planted parsley and baby's breath. I'm going to try to sow something every week, but that may be overly optimistic.

Anyone else out there doing some winter sowing?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Why do you love to garden?

I know, I know... my next post was supposed to be the sequel to my "information management for gardeners" series. I'm working on that one, really. Today, though, I was practicing some information management, scanning articles from some old garden magazines, when I ran across a gem: "Why We Love to Garden", from a 1992 issue of Garden Ideas & Outdoor Living. The editors asked people to write in, explaining why they love to garden, and the magazine published some of the letters. Here are some quotes from the letters:

I love the seasons and am excited by the wonderful surprises that each one brings, especially in the spring when the first crocuses peek out"--Kate Gutierrez, New Jersey

My garden is my place. My peace. My nourishment." -- Janice Zimarik, California

Even in the dead of winter, my garden is a continual reminder that life renews itself. It's a magical place where I can rub fingers and toes into the warm earth, coaxing each plant to reach its potential promise--a gentle communication passing between us"--Beverly Beaty, Idaho

I love to garden because it brings me in touch with a miracle--every plant I touch, every seed I hold, every flower I caress--Kathy Thompson, Maryland

(Why we love to garden. Garden Ideas & Outdoor Living, Spring 1992, p. 54-56.)

I don't have time to compose an essay on why I love to garden, so I'll share a few random thoughts. For me, gardening is a creative activity. I'm not very artistic--I can't even draw a decent-looking stick figure, and I could never compose a beautiful flower bed like the ones in garden magazines. But I can take a pack of seeds and some dirt, and in a few months I have something beautiful. I can stick some cuttings in rooting hormone and vermiculite, and in a few weeks, I have a new plant. I can take stinky rotting produce from the bowels of my refrigerator, mix it with some pulled weeds and fall leaves, and in a few months I have compost. Nowhere else in my life can I be part of creation on that scale (unless I decide to have more children, and I'm too old for that). Gardening is dirty, messy, and exhausting, but it's also almost spiritual--I can lend my hands, literally, to God's miracle of creation. Not too bad for a hobby, huh?

Why do you love to garden? Leave me a comment and let me know. I need all the inspiration I can get on these dark, cold days.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Information management for gardeners, part 1: managing tasks and projects

What happens when librarians become gardeners? No, we don't catalog our plants (well... at least *I* don't) or shush the birds (oh, wait... I have been known to yell, "Shut up!" at the crows when they start squawking outside my window at 5:30 AM on the one day a week I get to sleep in, those nasty, stinking... ) Er, wait... where was I? Oh, yeah... librarians as gardeners. When we librarians embrace a hobby, we do research--lots of research. As a result, we gather lots of information on our new passion--information that needs to be organized to be useful. Since it's a bit cold outside for gardening (understatement of the year), this is a good time to find some indoor activities till the temperature breaks 50 (probably sometime in March at the rate we're going). So, let's talk about how we gardeners can organize ourselves to support our hobby.

I can think of three areas in which we might have information to organize:

  • Planning
  • Managing tasks and projects
  • Organizing information for future reference

I'm not even going to attempt to talk about planning, because I'm awful at it. I occasionally map out my veggie beds with a pencil and graph paper, but mostly I just stick plants in where I think they'll grow well and look good, then spend the rest of the season complaining that they look funny and aren't doing well. My advice on planning is: Don't do what I do.

OK, one topic down, two to go...

Let's talk about managing the work of gardening. First, you need to know what you should be doing. I like to read lists of what I'm supposed to be doing in the garden, so I know exactly what I'm neglecting at any given time. It makes my guilt more specific. There are several good resources for finding out what should be done when:

  • The Oregon State University Extension Service posts monthly garden calendars for Oregon gardeners. Much of this information is probably also relevant for gardeners in Washington, parts of British Columbia, and extreme Northern California. If you live somewhere else, check your local Extension Service web site to see if they offer something similar.
  • The Homes & Gardens section of the Oregonian publishes seasonal garden planners, which are linked from the section web site. Look near the bottom, under Special Sections. Other newspapers may offer similar resources too.
  • Books such as this one:

    Searching Amazon for "gardening month by month" will pull up similar books for other regions.

Once you know what you're supposed to be doing, how do you remember to do all that, along with all the projects you dream up for your garden? I spend lots of time in the winter, thinking up cool things to do once the weather gets warm. By the time spring rolls around, I've forgotten half of those good ideas. Once again: Don't do what I do. Or, don't do what I *did*. I've started using a personal information management system to manage my gardening to-do list. Now I know precisely, at any given moment, exactly how far behind I am in my yard work. It keeps me humble.

Care to join me in the exciting world of web 2.0 tools for task management? You could start by reading that modern classic, Getting Things Done:

If you'd rather skip the self-improvement book, just dive right in. You can use whatever system you use for managing other tasks (e.g. day planner, Outlook, nagging spouse) or try out one of these tools:

  • Airset: Airset is designed to help families and small organizations manage their calendars, tasks, and communication. My family uses it, so I enter my garden to-do list there, keeping all my information in one system. I especially like the fact that it sends me my schedule and reminders via text message.
  • Remember the Milk: This site focuses on task management, rather than including calendaring or other features. One of my co-workers swears by it.
  • BackPack: BackPack lets you manage to-do lists, notes, calendar, and more.

That's enough for today. Next time I'll talk about how to organize all your gardening-related information so you can actually find the item you need when you need it. Till then, curl up with a mug of cocoa and some seed catalogs, and indulge your wildest (gardening-related) fantasies. (Keep your other fantasies to yourself!)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Book Review -- Radical Prunings by B.T. Abbott

I'm working on a blog post about moss, but in the meantime, I thought I'd post a book review for something a little different.

Bonnie Thomas Abbott's book Radical Prunings: A Novel of Officious Advice from the Contessa of Compost is written in the style of short newsletters -- that is, each "chapter" of the novel is actually a newsletter called "Radical Prunings," published by Miss Mertensia Corydalis. Miss C is a master gardener who opens each newsletter with some musings about her garden, certain plants she loves or hates, her employees (the dashing Tran and his obfuscating little sister Miss Vong), and her awful ex-husband, celebrity gardener Norton Doyle. Then she launches into a Q&A, written sort of like an advice column, with fictional people writing in fictional gardening questions, and Miss Corydalis. . . well. . . Miss Corydalis pretty much sniping their heads off and calling them all stupid for daring to have questions in the first place.


And here's where I struggled a bit with this novel. You see, in my experience, "snarky" is only the same thing as "funny" one time out of ten when it's being heavily employed. And since Miss C is always snarky (especially when answering lawn questions, which by the third one begs the question, "Why keep answering lawn questions, if you hate them so much?"), that means this novel of 235 pages is only amusing for about 23.5 pages.

Oh, I'm being facetious -- this novel is actually pretty amusing, and it really got me excited for spring to hurry up so I could get out into the dirt (I also learned a few things, one of which I'll be talking about a bit in my upcoming post on moss). But I confess I almost quit reading it about thirty pages in. You see, as a librarian whose job it is to answer questions, stupid or not, I can't help but bristle when rookies get the slap-down from snooty know-it-alls instead of just an answer to their question, simple and clear and without patronizing judgment.

Luckily, I stuck with it, and Miss C started to lighten up a bit on her readers by about the midpoint. After that, she even managed to get me to chuckle a few times out loud. As it turns out, this is a pretty entertaining little novel, and if Miss Corydalis ever puts together another collection of her newsletters, I will definitely put it on my to-read list.

All in all, I definitely recommend this one, especially if you're looking for something light to help you get through the dark days of January. But, seriously, Miss C, you would've made a truly abominable librarian. Don't quit your day job!

Have you read any good books about gardening lately (fiction or nonfiction)? If so, share 'em in comments!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Winter weekend warrior

This past weekend, I did my first real yard work of 2008. We had a few hours of hazy winter sun on Saturday and Sunday, and I decided to tackle a hillside infested with Himalayan blackberry vines. I had avoided this project all last year, because the hillside was an overgrown mess, and I knew I'd be shredded by thorns and probably fall and/or turn an ankle, because with all the growth, I couldn't see where the slippery spots were. When I finally started working on it, I made an important discovery. Tasks like this are much easier to do in winter. Without all the overgrowth, I could see where to step. I could also clearly see the base of each blackberry vine, so I knew where to direct my clippers. And, a major bonus, I didn't break out in hives from touching grass pollen (oh, the joys of being a gardener with allergies). The work was still hard, but it wasn't unpleasant. And, I was able to clear in a couple of hours what would have taken a half day or more during the growing season.

I did some other weeding as well and realized that weeding is also easier in the winter, when the ground is soft and not overgrown. It can be difficult in clay soil, because a huge ball o' clay may come up with each weed. If you have loam or well-amended clay, though, you may be able to launch an effective attack against perennial weeds, catching them off-guard while they are resting up for the spring onslaught.

Obligatory health and safety warning
If your idea of exercise for the last couple of months is walking to the refrigerator to fix a plate of leftover holiday food, take it slow out there. If you go from sedentary to full-throttle in one weekend, you may spend the following week becoming good friends with an icepack and a bottle of Advil. In my experience, the best way to avoid muscle strains from yard work is to do moderate weight training year-round. You don't have to be Mr. (or Ms.) Universe, but about 20 minutes of weight lifting a couple times per week will keep your muscles in good working shape for your next war on weeds.

Now get out there and fight! (er, I mean weed...)