Thursday, February 28, 2008

Seed Shopping!

Based on Janet's recent advice on online seed and plant vendors she likes, I finally sat down last weekend to do a little armchair gardening of my own, ordering seeds from the web for the first time ever (from Territorial Seed). Yay for me! And, while I'm at it, yay for Territorial Seed too -- I placed my order Sunday afternoon and my package arrived Wednesday morning. Wow, they're fast!

I'm joining Janet to take the "Growing Challenge" this season, and have decided to give mesclun salad mix a try. Last year was the first time I'd ever tried growing lettuce, and I had gone with a butter lettuce of some sort (I forget what it was now) and had no success with it at all. The plants grew pretty well, but the lettuce itself was inedibly bitter.

We tried eating the leaves when they were younger, and then when they were older. We tried harvesting the leaves more often so it would put out more of them. We tried watering more, then watering less. We tried singing Beatles songs, then punk rock songs (I swear, those leaves perked up when I was humming The Ramones, but they still didn't taste any better).

Eventually, I dug the plants up and chucked them in the yard waste bin, because I resented keeping them alive any longer if they weren't going to do anything for ME in return. Whatever, butter lettuce. You're on your own.

I've since read that getting too hot can make lettuce bitter, and am wondering now if maybe I planted it too late in the season, or if full sun wasn't the best spot for it after all. This year, I'll do some reading on the optimal conditions for that mesclun salad mix before I put it in the ground and see if I can't do a better job of it. I'll be keeping you posted! I can't promise I can actually post weekly, as the Challenge dictates, but I will certainly try my best.

While I was picking out those seeds, incidentally, I also threw in some for Cosmos, my favorite flower. Chocolate-colored Cosmos (which I have never seen for sale anywhere, alas) was my wedding flower, and I just love everything about those plants. They have gorgeous flowers that last almost all summer long, it seems, and even their foliage is pretty -- soft and fluffy-looking.

My Mom plants a lot of Cosmos in her yard every year and hers typically do extremely well -- they get really tall and look absolutely stunning (the photo at the top of this post is of my twin sister and her adorable son in front of my Mom's Cosmos, by the way -- see what I mean by stunning? And thanks for letting me include this photo here, sis!). I'm not having that same kind of luck, though, and in trying to figure out why this winter, I learned that Cosmos like to be both hot and dry. It IS both hotter and dryer at Mom's house in Salem, Oregon, and maybe that's why hers thrive and mine struggle? But I also know I'm extremely guilty about overwatering everything (being thirsty gives me a headache, and I definitely project that onto my plants) so that may be another reason why my Cosmos don't seem to do all that well.

This year, I may try them in big black pots, so I can move them around and find the optimal spot for them, as well as get them up closer to the house where they'll stay warmer. They want hot and dry? I can give them hot and dry. Or, at least, I can give them "somewhat hotter and possibly a bit on the drier side." I'll let you know if that seems to work (it sure worked last year for our tomatoes!).

This weekend, assuming I feel up to it and it's not pouring down rain (I've been down with a cold or sinus thing most of this week), I'm hoping to get both my mesclun mix AND some sugar snap peas into the ground. I can't believe it's just a few days away from March already! I'm very excited for spring gardening, and looking forward to seeing how this whole Growing Challenge thing works out. Cross your fingers for my lettuce mix! And if you have any pointers on how to make Cosmos OR mesclun grow well in Seattle, I'm all ears!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Information management for gardeners, part 2: Organizing articles, books, web sites, and more

In my previous post on this topic, I wrote about ways to manage your gardening to-do list. This time, I'll share my method for organizing all the garden-related information that comes my way.

I've tried several methods, but until recently I hadn't found one that worked well for nearly all the types of information that cross my path--magazine articles, books, pamphlets, web pages, blog posts, online discussions, etc. Paper-based systems like subject files and binders are ok for printed materials, but they don't work well for online stuff unless you want to print it out. Browser bookmarks work fairly well until that really useful page you saved is taken down or moves. Then all you get for your trouble is a 404 Not Found error. Then I decided to use a tool from my work life: Zotero.

Zotero is a free Firefox extension that's also a full-fledged bibliographic management program. What the !@#$% is a bibliographic management program? Glad you asked! It's a database for books, articles, and other information sources--kind of like the 3x5 cards we Old Farts (tm) were taught to use in high school to keep track of the stuff we used to write our term papers. Unlike those cards, however, a bibliographic management program lets you search and sort your stuff--and it won't give you paper cuts. You can buy a program like EndNote, or you can download Zotero for free. Guess which option this cheapskate gardener chose?

In the rest of this post, I'll explain how to install and use Zotero to manage your garden info. If you want to manage printed information too, you'll also need a scanner. Here we go...

Installing Firefox and Zotero
In order to use Zotero, you must have the Firefox web browser. If you're still using Internet Explorer, come on over to the good side and try out Firefox! If you aren't familiar with Firefox, check out a document I wrote for a class at work, Introducing Firefox. It'll tell you everything you need to know to get started with Firefox.

Got Firefox? Great! Now let's get Zotero. If you've never installed a Firefox extension, go to my presentation, Customizing and Extending Firefox, and read the slides on extensions. Once you're comfortable installing extensions, head over to and grab yourself a copy of Zotero. Once you have it installed, congratulate yourself on your excellent taste in software, and move on to...

Getting started with Zotero
The Zotero site includes a quick start guide to help you get acquainted with the software. The screenshots and notes below will show you a few basic functions, but if you want a solid introduction, view the quick start guide and look at the documentation.

  • Launching Zotero
    Once you install Zotero, you should see the Zotero logo in the lower righthand corner of your Firefox window. Click the logo to open Zotero. See the screenshot below for an example (click the image to enlarge):
    Opening the Zotero window

  • Adding an item to Zotero
    The next screenshot illustrates options for adding an item to Zotero:
    Adding items to Zotero

    The first step is to create a new collection. I called mine "Gardening." Then add your first item. There are four ways to add items to Zotero:

    1. Import from an existing database. I'll assume this is your first experience with bibliographic management software, so I won't explain this one.
    2. Add an item manually. I enter most of my information this way, because I'm usually working with a stack of old gardening magazines, adding selected articles I want to keep.
    3. Add a web page while viewing that page.
    4. Add one or more items from a web site compatible with Zotero, e.g. Amazon or certain library catalogs.

    This screenshot shows you what to click to do items 2, 3, and 4:
    Adding items to Zotero

  • Adding items manually
    As I said, I add most of my items manually. I find an article I want to keep and scan it, saving the image as a PDF file. Then I enter information about the article in Zotero. This screenshot shows you what the input window looks like:
    Adding bibliographic information for an item in Zotero

    In addition to the bibliographic information, you'll want to get to the actual article in the future. To do that, you can attach files to each entry in your library. Zotero can store a link to the file or the actual file. I have it store the actual file, so I don't have to worry about accidentally moving the file and breaking the link. To attach a file, click the attachments tab: Adding attachments to an item in Zotero
    Then tell Zotero where to find the file and whether you want it to store the file or a link.

    To help you find articles later, I recommend you add some tags to describe your article. Because I am a Trained Information Professional (ha!), I try to be consistent in the way I tag things. I usually add tags for the names of plants discussed (common and Latin names if possible), plus the types of plants (perennials, annuals, vegetables, fruits, shrubs, trees, etc.). Here's a screenshot illustrating tagging:
    Tags in Zotero

    You can also attach notes to items in your library or add a standalone note.
    Adding notes to Zotero
    I use standalone notes for plant lists, landscaping ideas, etc. I attach notes when I want to remind myself of something especially interesting or useful about an article.

  • Adding a web page
    Zotero can create an entry from the web page you are viewing. This screenshot shows you how:
    Save a web page in Zotero
    The actual content of the page will be saved to Zotero's database, so even if the page goes away, you will still have a copy of the information. You can edit the information, add tags, etc., just as you can with other types of Zotero entries.

  • Adding items from Amazon, etc.
    Zotero can collect items from certain web sites, like Amazon or some library catalogs, that have information about books. To try this out, do an Amazon search. See the screenshot below for details. Adding items from an Amazon search to Zotero
    Note that this method only stores bibliographic information about the item. It doesn't store the actual book, article, etc.

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but it's actually pretty easy. And you'll love having your gardening info at your fingertips.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Take the Growing Challenge!

I'm taking the plunge and taking the Growing Challenge! Follow the link for details, but the gist is that you grow some new edible item from seed and agree to post at least once a week about gardening. The new items shouldn't be a problem; I'm trying celeriac and parsnips for the first time this year, as well as a couple new things not from seed (Jerusalem artichokes and a plum tree). The challenge will be to post weekly, especially as the gardening season gets underway in earnest. Already I've started spending lots of weekend hours in the garden, leaving minimal time for research and writing.

So why would I want to participate in something like this? I suppose because growing edibles is a cause near and dear to my heart. I got my start as a gardener when I was about four, helping my mother plant squash and tend our veggie garden. As a result, I always knew where food came from (including meat, since we raised cattle, chickens, ducks, and even a turkey once. Trust me, there's something to be said for ignorance in this case.) I also knew what vegetables were supposed to taste like; hence I've never been able to endure a store-bought tomato. Now that I'm older and no longer a starving student, I've started buying organic produce, because I hate the thought of exposing my family to a bunch of toxins. Having grown up in an agricultural area, with crop dusters dropping who-knows-what near my neighborhood, I also hate the thought of farm workers being exposed to so much poison. So I'll do what I can, and gardening is a part of that effort. If I grow it, I know what's (not) in it, I can grow varieties that aren't found in the grocery store... and I can save a ton of money. Organic produce is *expensive*, and so are weird veggies like leeks and parsnips that I like to eat but don't like to pay for.

So there you are--a rambling dissertation on why I grow edible stuff. Care to join me? You don't need a big yard. There's lots of great information on growing veggies in small spaces. Maybe I'll work up a post on that topic. In the meantime, do a little Googling and give it a try!

Monday, February 11, 2008


Every year about this time, I get an entire day to work in the yard--the first full gardening day since about October. And every year on that day, I get very ambitious, hoeing everything in sight and completing some big project that involves shoveling and moving heavy objects. On that day, I get a bad case of Almost-Spring-Fever and forget that I'm not 20 anymore, with nearly limitless stamina and a nearly-invincible back. Today was that day.

I built a new bed to house what was formerly a crabgrass patch decorated with a few rosebushes, hoed out the crabgrass, shoveled out a whole pickup load of compost onto the new bed, dumped wheelbarrow loads of the (rather wet) compost, emptied a very large (and very heavy) terracotta pot, planted a bed of strawberries, carted a heavy planter uphill from one end of the yard to the other, pruned all my roses, and dragged a yard waste bin around. I'm basking in the warm glow of accomplishment, while my lower back is basking in... pain. What the !@#$% was I thinking? I'm a 40-year-old librarian! But the new bed looks really nice. I'd take a picture of it, but that would require getting up and walking.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I gardened this weekend!

So what if it's dark, dreary, and cold. I did some gardening this weekend anyway. Saturday was "let's do my least favorite winter chore day," a/k/a the day I pruned the marionberries and boysenberries. There are two good reasons why I hate that job: 1) I don't do it in late August, when I should, so the darn things have sent out a gazillion runners at least 15-20 feet in every direction, which I have to pull up and either wind around the wire supports or cut off; and 2) the berries fight back. Oh, don't bother to tell me that plants aren't sentient and can't behave aggressively toward humans. If you believe that, you've never met my berries! After I wrapped a 20'-long runner around the berry fence, the last 5 feet snapped back and rake me across the face, leaving big thorn scratches on my cheek. Then, when I bent over to pick up the cuttings, the runners reached out and grabbed me by the hair--nearly every time. By the time I came in, I looked like I'd been locked in a small room with about 50 angry cats. But I won! I pruned the stupid things and stuffed the, I mean prunings... in the yard waste bin. I showed them.

Today was more fun--and considerably less painful. Today was dark and dreary, and I was bored. Bored, bored, bored. I decided to go plant shopping, but most of the nurseries are either closed till later in the year or closed on Mondays. Desperate to spend what was left of my paycheck, I ended up at Lowe's, which had a few bare-root perennials, shrubs, and trees in stock. I came away with two bare-root peonies. And then, something amazing happened. I planted them THE SAME DAY I BOUGHT THEM! Really! Someone should alert the media. Usually I go on shopping sprees, and by the time I get home it's either pouring rain, or I'm too tired to do anything. I add the new purchases to the pile already waiting for permanent homes and hope they don't die before I plant them. But not today!

After planting the peonies, I started a flat of cool-weather seeds--leeks, coleus, lettuce, and broccoli. It's now sitting in a 20-gal aquarium topped with fluorescent lights, one of the many places I germinate seeds in the house. What a productive afternoon.

Ouch. I think I just dislocated my elbow while patting myself on the back.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Spring Ho!

I know it's a little early to be getting ridiculously excited about the onset of spring, but I can't help it! When I went out to run a few errands this weekend, I didn't take my coat with me. Know why? Because it just didn't feel that cold outside! And while I know a single warm-ish day in February is pretty meaningless up here in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather changes with more frequency than John McCain's position on George Bush, after a couple of weeks of frigid temperatures and gloom, I had this little burst of glee on Sunday. I was 100% parka-free in the grocery store, and they were selling bunches of tulips, three for ten bucks!

Spring -- it approacheth!

So, when I got home from my errands, I decided it was time to sit down and start making a list of all the things I want to get done in the yard/garden this year. It's a work in progress, of course, but I thought I'd share the first draft with you guys and see what you thought (remember, of course, that I'm the resident rookie, so advise away!).

One of my goals for this year is to simplify a few areas in our yard -- areas where I spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy every year struggling to keep them ship-shape. Every year I think to myself that I should just take a weekend and do something about those areas, so I could quit spending all my time weeding and get back to the garden-related things I enjoy more, like planting, nurturing, and eating!

I also have chronic pain problems -- my back, hips, legs, and hands -- and the more time I spend on my knees pulling weeds, the more I start to connect being in my yard with agony. That ain't no good, my peeps! This year, changes will be made! Here's what I've got down so far:

1. Replace all the soil in our raised beds with better, healthier stuff. We have five small raised beds in our backyard, and the soil in them is rocky and full of dead, disconnected roots. We keep meaning to scoop a bunch of it out (we can use it to fill a few sunken areas in our backyard) and replace it with good plantin' dirt, but it's going to be a huge (back breaking!) job, so we've put it off every year. The problem is, stuff doesn't grow well in those beds because that soil stinks. This year I'm ready to take a weekend to make that section of the yard a healthy place for plants, in the hopes it'll turn into a healthy place for ME once we finally get things to grow there that taste delicious (hooray for peas!) and make me happy! I have no idea how much dirt I'll need, but hey, that's what they made geometry for.

2. Replace the gravel walkways around those same raised beds with something else. I don't know if you guys know this, but there's nothing more torturously hard to keep looking nice as white gravel walkways underneath lots of trees. They look great when they're pristine, but they only stay pristine for about thirty-seven minutes (I've timed it, seriously -- okay, not really).

I've tried everything I could think of to keep those walkways looking nice -- I even spent six hours last summer washing all the gravel (stop laughing!) so it would look great for a barbecue we were hosting. It worked really well, actually -- all you have to do is fill a wheelbarrow with water and scoop a bunch of the gravel in there, then stir it a bit and let it sit for a few minutes. Soon all the dead leaves and twigs and such will float to the top where you can scoop them off. Dump the gravel back out on your paths, and voila!

But, frankly, life's too short for that kind of nonsense. And seriously? Washing ROCKS? That way lies madness. . . I'm thinking maybe mulch instead of gravel? But if anybody has any recommendations, hit me with 'em in the comments.

3. Build a fence in the front yard. We have no sidewalks in our neighborhood, so our front yard directly abuts the street. In order to make it look a little nicer -- so it didn' t just look like grass running irregularly into gravel running irregularly into pavement -- the original owners had created a mulched strip that runs across the edge of the yard. It looks great, that mulched strip. But the grass takes it over extremely quickly every fall and spring, and I've spent WAY too much time over the last three years out there weeding it. If we had a short fence that served as a boundary instead, we could let the grass roam free (vive le herbe!), and even plant some shrubs and flowers along the inside of the fence as well. It'll look nice AND be a lot less work to maintain, an extremely appealing combination.

4. Do not let the blackberries win.

5. Finish removing the strange bush thing that runs along the fence by the driveway. We have this strange bush thing -- I see it all over Seattle but don't know what it's called (when it flowers this year, I'll post a picture of it and maybe you guys can help identify it) -- and it's a nightmare! It looks fine, and the yellow flowers that spring out on it in the spring are lovely. But the problem is it sends little shooters out under the ground -- hundreds of them! -- and they spring up in our grass and start turning into more bush! No more bush! (Hey, I sound like Obama!)

I go out there regularly to chop the heads off the little springer-uppers (and yes, before you ask, that IS the technical term!), but that's really all I can think to do about them. They're connected securely to the mothership underground, so I can't just yank them out, and yet, if I leave them alone -- well, did you ever read that online novel Stephen King started called The Plant? The one that was about a plant that started to take over an office building? Unchecked, I think we'd have a jungle on our hands. So, it needs to go, and then we need to put something else in its place -- something less aggressive but still pretty. Anybody have a hedge-type shrub they like? I prefer leafy to pine-y, and it helps if it's something that doesn't grow too insanely tall (this one is about mid-thigh height at its tallest, which is about right for where it is located).

6. Take a day in the next couple of weeks to sit down with my gardening guides, all the catalogs the brilliant Janet just educated us about (thanks, Janet!), and a hand-drawn map of my yard, and really make a planting plan this year. You know, instead of just going to the nursery and winging it, which, to be honest, is really not workin' out all that well for me.

7. Do not let the dandelions win.

That's all I've come up with so far, but I'm already super-excited to get started! What are your plans for this year's gardening season? Got any major changes you want to make to your yard? Got any new plants you want to try out? Got anything gardening-related you want to learn more about? Let's hear it, people!

Friday, February 01, 2008

3000 hits!

I just peeked and discovered that we have reached 3000 hits! OK, so we aren't Google or Yahoo, but still... 3000 hits beats a boot to the head, doesn't it? Thanks very much, dear readers. We're grateful for the time you spend here.