Thursday, January 3, 2013

Becky Heath quells my bulb-planting qualms

"Springtime turned slooow-ly into aut-ummmmn" according to Bob Dylan.  For me, here in the Hudson Valley, it was summer that turned unknowingly into winter.

And that's just great! Why? Because I didn't order my bulbs till about three weeks ago (not really that great). Brent and Becky's Bulbs had a killer 50% off sale, and while I was too late to get any Cyclamen coum, or Arum italicum, I did, however, get a couple thousand dollars worth of ah-mazing bulbs without spending a couple thousand dollars (really great). And, I got them all in before the first major snowfall.

Oh, not that I had that strategy all worked out or anything. I thought there was time--I really did! In my  defense, I believe I was duped by the short-sleeves I was wearing throughout most of the bulb planting season. I know a few others who were duped as well . . . the many daffodils who got the wrong memo and started peeking their leaf points up out of the mulch. I am not the only one who responds to the weather.

What I saw in the garden was the result of silent communication from a darkened world: the bulbs--planted last year--were responding to unseasonably warm soil temperatures. Cells sent chemical messages to other cells to initiate the process that ends in a flower's seed head. I felt sorry, I did, that there was no way to wind back that growth, knowing that those energetic leaf tips would be purposeless once winter really set in.

The hundreds (and hundreds) of ScillaAllium, species tulips, Narcissus, Hyacinthoides, Crocus I planted a few weeks ago are colloquially called bulbs. More specifically, and botanically, they are geophytes. These types of plants have enlarged underground storage units of modified stem and leaf tissue that could take the shape of a rhizome (banana), a tuber (potato), a corm (crocus), a bulb (tulip), and all have the same purpose: to store nutrients and energy to push vegetative growth once soil temperature indicates it is hospitable to do so. For this reason, bigger is always better. And, for this reason too, global warming is not.

Instead of delving into the murky why's of a warming climate, I am more interested in questioning the common culture of fall bulb planting. When, exactly, is the best time to do so? Did I send the wrong message to all the bulbs that I hastily plunged into the earth a week before temperatures dropped? Did I plant them too late?

The minute we plant our bulbs in the fall, the bulb is immediately triggered to begin root growth to seek, uptake and store nutrients, and water. Bulbs have the energy to perform this first function post-planting thanks to the storage of carbohydrates from the previous seasons' photosynthesis of sunlight into sugar. Even if the top inches of soil are frozen, roots are alive and will continue to function--this is true for all plants, and is the same reason planting trees in the fall gives them a precious head start come spring.

So did I plant too late? The big chill is settling in, and even though we had some good rains after the bulbs were planted, was that enough time for them to grow roots, or does it really matter?

Because I wasn't sure, I did what any of you can do: reach out to someone who knows more. I called on Becky Heath, the Becky of Brent and Becky's Bulbs. While she is not on a road trip visiting family, or keeping up with her nine grandchildren, she always has time to talk bulbs, and for this I thank her!


Resting bulbs are dug and transported, with enough time to package and ship to you, or your local retailer for the "planting season". Is it inspired marketing, or proper horticulture to have bulbs offered for sale in September, like you see at mass-market outlets like Home Depot or Wal-Mart? Well, it is true that the earlier you get your hands on freshly available bulbs the better--bulbs will start to deteriorate if not stored in a cool, well-ventilated area. The little green sprout you might see (even from your bulb of garlic at home) indicates it is too warm, the stores of carbs are depleting, and that little bulb is doing everything it knows to survive, even at its own demise.
Well, certainly not too early! If bulbs go in when the soil is too warm, combined with autumn rain, you are headed for rot. Not a happy circumstance. However, there is a sweet spot, and a way to know just when that is. Becky explains the ideal soil temperature to plant bulbs is about 60℉. Don't have a fancy soil temperature gauge? Neither do I. When the nighttime mercury hovers at 50℉, and/or when you've noticed the first killing frost, you're good to go. The first frost helps to cool the soil, and it is these optimal conditions that trigger geophytes to grow roots.

Maybe. And that is the plain, painful truth of it.

Becky revealed that the very reason why we plant bulbs when we do is to allow those bulbs to develop a vigorous root system. From the time you raise your hand from that last pat of covering soil, your bulbs need a minimum of three weeks to develop great legs, and by legs I mean roots (roots do all the legwork). Once those roots have developed, they need to remain at a consistent temperature. How do I ensure that when it was 40℉ yesterday and 20℉ today? The soil remains at a constant temperature below the frost line, one thing in my favor. A consistent temperature is also ensured by planting your bulbs at their recommended depths so that they do not freeze, and can sustain their life. If that recommendation is six inches, make sure it's six inches! Clearly, now, this is not an arbitrary admonition.

Did I plant too late? I might be just on the cusp. I calculate maybe two weeks of solid growth, with some good, deep rain before the tundra we have now. I'll have to report an update in spring. Becky counseled that my mistake will be revealed if my bulbs emerge much later than expected, and when they do, they will be much shorter than normal.

I will say, miracles happen, and plants are surprisingly resilient. The image below is from a client's garden, fully accessible to the herds of deer, and squirrels in her suburban neighborhood. Understanding culture, and how to manipulate it, will yield great results, great lessons, or both!

Many thanks to Becky Heath for her enthusiasm for her work, her intimate knowledge of the subject, and her cheerfulness in her communication. I am grateful to have you, and Brent and Becky's Bulbs, as a valued resource.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The shape of things to come . . .

"To appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity."
-excerpt from a Japanese scroll, Kamakura period, 1185-1333

Who doesn't appreciate the art of bonsai? It's mysterious, it's funky, and it employs a kind of intention that not many other endeavors have these days; not just in its training, but in its endurance. In a world where many strive for elusive perfection and immediate gratification, the art of bonsai allows its practitioners to revel in the freedom of imperfection, to achieve an enduring intimacy with the essence of nature.

Originating in China over 1,000 years ago, it was the Japanese who adopted and elevated the art of bonsai with admirable patience and meticulous horticultural skill. But for the past 20 years, it is in Stamford, Connecticut that the practice of bonsai is alive and well.

At Shanti Bithi Nursery, Saeko Oshiro  is the bonsai specialist who trains, and maintains the impressive collection of bonsai specimens "behind the fence" of the white country house that serves as the Shanti Bithi office.
This one? Over 100 years old.  

Weather-worn tables display pot after pot of individuals of all sorts of character:



Saeko is currently in Japan, and will return in March. Upon her return, I will speak with Saeko at Shanti Bithi Nursery about what it takes to turn a humble beginning into a personal masterpiece. 
"To develop a fine bonsai collection, make one hundred and keep two or three." - Nobu Kajiwara 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Beyond Organic, Beyond Brooklyn . . .

My sister said I had to.

Tell this story, that is.

She visited us over the past holiday. She's not in NY that often, so when she is we usually go into Williamsburg, Brooklyn to visit our friend Greg.

After a cozy morning of lounging with coffee and Scandinavian deliciousness from Bakeri, I asked Greg about a good local butcher. Without hesitation, he suggests the Meat Hook, located within The Brooklyn Kitchen just off of Meeker. Love the name. Before I get too excited, I must remind myself that in typical hipster demeanor, reactions to all things clever must be carefully stowed beneath a cool countenance because, as any self-respecting hipster knows, BK is nothing less than immensely clever. Because it is just that, immensely clever.

So off to the Meat Hook for a Frenched rack of lamb that I would be serving to a very intimate gathering at our home in the woods. Well. That was the plan, anyway.

A letter to the Meat Hook days after my purchase:

Went to the Meat Hook on a suggestion from a friend in the neighborhood, and was really happy to find you guys. Around every corner was wave after wave of the next gadget, pan, spice, utensil which was exactly what I wanted to explore.

My mission that day was lamb as I was prepping a holiday dinner for friends and family. After discussing the option of a Frenched rack, I decided on the loin chop. The butcher cradled a carcass from the cooler and showed me exactly the spot where my meal was coming from. Honest. Respectful. Honorable. Then the whole butchering crew stopped and did the Dougie. Only in BK. Awesome.

ZZZZZzzzzzzuuuuuuoooooo went the blade, chop chop chop went the loin. Wrapped in brown paper, and $125 later, I was off to my kitchen. Now, here allow me to insert this: 10 chops @$16.+/lb.... $125?

OK. At home I unwrapped the chops to find a shocking amount of FAT around each loin. I paid for all that FAT! I am no expert, but I certainly expected the butcher to TRIM the fat from the chops. I also expected the butcher to trim the chops in a presentable way (this hanging floppy, fatty piece was flailing from the ends of each cut). After speaking to him about the Frenched rack, he should have certainly surmised that presentation was important to me. Why didn't the butcher think to trim off all this excess? No joke, at least one half of what I bought was fat. I am really disappointed that this is what I bought, and brought home. The quality of the meat was fantastic, but the butchering skills, well, I can't say the loin was butchered, but rather, not butchered enough.

So what did I do? I said to self, "Self--relax, the butcher's there must know what they are doing, just throw these bitches on the grill, and let's eat". Well, short of burning down my porch because all that crazy fat caused a serious 5-alarm "flare-up" (a tame euphemism), I had to drag the grill off the porch, onto the driveway, and rescue the now propane-blackened lamb loin. You can't make this shit up. Ironically, they were grilled perfectly MR, but hardly edible, and certainly carcinogenic. $125 of lamb.

If I was an 80 year old woman, I'd go in there, and wave my ancient purse at you guys, and raise bloody hell. So here is my summoning the future 80-year old in me: What are you going to do to ensure that you did not just lose me as a customer? Do I never again trust a butcher with a mustachio? Do I become a meat hawk and inspect and insult the experience of every butcher I now engage? I'd love to come back for the quality, experience, and destination that The BK Kitchen/The Meat Hook is, and I want you you ensure that I do. How will you do this?

The 31-yr-old 80-yr old"

The response:
"Hi, Erika! This is ---- from The Meat Hook. I'm one of the partners here and also one of the two mustaches. I just got your email and I wanted to take the time to apologize. I'm very sorry this happened to you in our shop and even more sorry it happened around the holidays. It's the policy of the shop to show you everything you buy before we wrap it up to make sure you're happy. Obviously that didn't happen this time and it's regrettable.

I'm also very grateful that you took the time to write to us. We always want to know if something goes wrong or if someone isn't happy. We always want to make it right and do right by our customers. With that in mind, I'd like to give you a $125 credit at the shop. I hope this will go
some way into making up for our mistake and making things right again. Alternately, you can pass on the credit and flog the person responsible for 2 minutes with a piece of bamboo. I leave the choice to you. If you would like the credit, would you mind emailing me your full name? I don't want to be hooking up any old Erika from the block.

In answer to your inner-80 year old woman--you should never trust a man with a mustache; especially accountants. You should also always insult your butcher. They're meddlesome by nature and need to be put in their place.

Once again, I'm sorry this happened. Let me know if there's anything else I can do to make this right.

The 30 year old 14 year old,

How 'bout that?! I am so impressed with not only the quality and sourcing of meat (my lamb came from Milan, NY not that far from where I live), but the quality of interaction of this local biz dude who wants to make sure to get it right with his local peeps. Cheers to YOU, mustachioed hero. Me? Customer for life. Seriously. If you are in/near Williamsburg, this should be your one stop to get Fleur de Sel, roasted grains for your home-brewed beer, merguez sausage, Rancho Gordo beans, and the essential Mexican hot cocoa frother.
Obviously, I have one of these. Who doesn't? Every girl should.
Thank you, Meat Hook. I ♥ you.

Beyond Organic

I recently sent out, what I called, 'A Little Manifesto' to some of my closest friends via email. My Manifesto was NOT regarding Miley Cyrus smoking Salvia divinorum out of a bong (Party in the USA?), NOT commentary on Tom Delay's conviction, NOT praising this season's prodigal return of the wide leg trouser.


Rather, I outlined my intentions for the New Year within the parameters of, something we all can't do without, FOOD.

I just re-read Michael Pollan's groundbreaker, The Omnivore's Dilemma; a consciousness-changing book, it is The Jungle of our time.

If you eat food on a daily basis, you MUST read this book.

In a feat of sincere, well-reasoned (dare I say, beautiful) prose, Pollan traces the journey of four different kinds of meals from to their origins to his mouth. He pushes aside the curtain to reveal: the industrial network that invented and supplies our current food chain; the capitalization of the organic movement, and raises the question is "commercial organic" a contradiction in terms, and/or a lesser of two evils; what happens to man and beast when it is nature that is deferred to in the management of food animals; the ethics of eating animals and the varied philosophies of that topic; lastly, what it takes to be solely responsible for the food one intakes. If you are more the book-on-tape type, here he is arguing the sustainability of our current food system at UC Davis: YouTube - Michael Pollan: The Omnivore's Dilemma.

It made me think. A lot. Not only about committing myself to eating home and locally grown produce, but also about the meat that I eat. I have long had a conflict between my head:mouth when it comes to eating animals. I was a vegetarian for years. Then, one fateful afternoon, my friend John and I walked into Gold's Delicatessen in Westport, CT.

He orders the pastrami on rye, with a celery soda. Me?

"Oh, I'll have a potato knish."
"Sorry, hun," the waitress returns. "We're all out".

While I take a moment to restrategize, John's pastrami comes out. All it took was the smell. The browned edges of the cured meat dangling excessively between the slices of rye. The dish of rich, spicy brown mustard just a dollop away.

The waitress clanked his plate down in front of him, and before she could flip the paper of her little pad, I explode, "I'll have what he's having". And that was it. Oh, I also had a cheeseburger later that evening for dinner.

John laughs at me all the time; whenever we have lunch I am either on or off the meat-eating wagon, and it results in an obligatory status update. John was a successful chef in his past life, now a fellow horticulturist, so we are always talking about food. I'm not sure you could really be a gardener without being in love with food. Fresh, bountiful harvests of produce that either you nurtured yourself, or know what it takes to be produced, is something you end up deeply appreciating.

It is because I deeply appreciate food, that reading Pollan's book a second time helped me realize where my convictions lie, and just where on that meat-eating wagon I sit. And sit on that wagon I do. Unless, tomorrow I don't . . .

I attempt to understand, and do all I can to align myself with, nature's complex processes when working in a garden. Being connected to the natural world, I cannot help but be consumed with how I fit into the cycle of consumption. As far as eating meat goes, I feel I've found a way that makes sense to me.

The animal husbandry equivalent to my garden philosophy is grass-fed, pasture-rotated animals. Pasture-raising poultry, pork, lamb, and beef ensures that the animals are fully engaged in their domesticated surroundings, fully capable of living out their numbered days grazing as their natural inclinations demand, and free from the artificial and unethical trappings of the massive commercial industry that otherwise supplies our meat and dairy. Check it: cattle graze in a biologically and nutritionally diverse "grass" pasture. They eat, they excrete. Cattle is moved on to another pasture allowing the grass to regenerate. Chickens are rotated into the pasture where they peck through and spread out the cow pies in search of larvae, grubs, that are high in protein resulting in amazing eggs and high-quality flesh. Chickens are effectively spreading manure as a result of searching for their natural food source. An effective model of symbiosis, and certainly, the lesser of the alternate evils.

Did I mention grass-fed beef is far superior in nutrients than corn-fed? Yes, it costs more. As Pollan argues, what costs more to our health and our environment is cheap, industrial meat. I want to see more than just the price tag. I want to know where these animals came from, how they were raised, visit the farm, be connected and conscious towards my choices. So if I have to eat less meat that is of higher quality and more conscientious, I am willing and wanting to.

Since humans long ago domesticated these animals, they are already, and have been for centuries, living an unnatural life. My conviction to my self is to consume animals who have been given the respect and consideration for their comfort and well-being in exchange for my meal. For me, this pasture-raised meat is a way for me to reason my carnivory. Perhaps not for you, and I welcome you to reason out your convictions for yourself.

Check out Eat Wild. There you can find a local farm near you that is committed to closing the gap between you and your food source.

For me, 'Beyond Organic' means to look beyond the packaging, the marketing, beyond the idyll of the romanticized farm. In 2011 I will connect to my local resources, and align myself and my purchasing power with new standards and responsibilities. Ask yourself, how do you live in support of your convictions? As our world spins wildly beyond our control, how will you make the wobbling stop in your world?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Resurrection

And . . . . it's been almost 2 years since my last post. (Wh-aaaa-t?)

Shame on me.

It is winter, yet again, in the Northeast, and I find myself in the same frame of mind as when I started this blog in the first place: reflective, energized, in touch.

The very reasons I started writing this blog was to channel my energy after I stopped working for Martha. There was no reason why my enthusiasm and creativity for horticulture had to end just because I was no longer working for Her. I took all that I learned from her--the delight in daily discoveries, the value of documentation, and the want for the world to know what could be seen in a heightened way--and made it my own. I am appreciative for having observed those good qualities in action during my tenure there.

Since the start of this blog, so much has been seen, noticed, recorded, unrecorded, and accomplished, that I am happy to share again with renewed focus and energy.

So where the HELL have I been?

I have had the distinct pleasure of building and being one half of ANTHROPEK Gardens Inc. This is the landscape and garden design firm that I started with Kim, my business partner, co-coworker, and fellow colleague at Martha's. We started by creating those very cool hypertufa troughs I've previously posted about, and have since been pushing and expanding our way into who we are as a business, and what we offer to the world. It has been in this endeavor that my head and heart has been devoted the past two years. The process of taking a creative lust for what one does, and directing it into a business model has been quite the education. February 2011 will mark the beginning of year 3 that we have been working, collaborating, relying, and growing with each other as business partners. Cheers to us, Kim!

So there you have that. I've also missed writing! It's another craft that I really love and enjoy. Never having been much of a physical crafter (oh, sure I've set up my sewing machine, but there are so many possibilities: napkins, bags, pillows, vintage patterns... ugh. I just can't start), I find words so effusive and exact that I can easily and comfortably patchwork anything to my heart's specifications.

I look forward to sharing with you all again, and know that this coming season will be full of interesting ideas, and plants, and places, and observations to inspire many latent posts.

Happy New Year, New Beginnings!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Stonecrop Gardens and the Pinnacle Posse

What brought us out to Stonecrop Gardens on Saturday morning? It was the garden's annual spring sale of all things alpine: charming and diminutive plants, hypertufa troughs, and tufa rock for sale. And of course, all this was decorated by the obsessive niche group who love this kind of gardening.

Kim, John and his friend Neil met me at the Foundry for breakfast in the little riverfront town of Cold Spring before heading out on route 301 to the garden. You'd pass the entrance unless you were intent on finding it. 

Stonecrop is garden/home of Frank Cabot, founder of the Garden Conservancy. To grossly understate Cabot's many contributions to horticulture, he his perhaps most known for his work to protect America's stellar private gardens. Stonecrop Gardens is the model for what the Conservancy's goal is. Through the Conservancy, special gardens have been made accessible to the public through the Open Days program. Wherever you live in the United States, thanks to Frank, there is a private garden open near you.

Well, thankfully, Stonecrop is near me. I've been to the garden one and a half times before (do your self a favor and call ahead to check garden hours!), but never to attend the alpine plant sale they host there annually. Since being introduced to the underworld of alpines and their devotees (the Pinnacle Posse?), this was the first time I've seen so many of these little plants in person. My eyes were as big as the biggest Gentian I saw, but nowhere near as blue.
I was so overwhelmed by the names! So many genus I'd never heard of before, or had any clue what they would do once I planted them in my troughs.  All I could do was allow my curiosity and reactions to guide my choices. How was I supposed to know which ones would naturally grow beside one another? In what kind of location? Crevasse? Scree? Do I treat a trough like a garden and attempt to achieve a long season of bloom, or stick to the spring explosion? Oy. You can see what was running through my head. John has been into this for some time now, and is much more knowledgeable than me; he encouraged me to just choose what I am attracted to. Great advice. I am psyched with what I chose, and I can't wait to get them situated! Kim got some plants that looked really nice together; can't wait to see how she arranges them. I am really excited to dig into these exciting new plants!

The troughs were amazing. Check it out:
This is a really interesting twist on planting rockery plants: plant them in rocks!
What about the textures that the Stonecrop trough builders were able to achieve?
This was my favorite; I just don't know how they did it!  Doesn't it look like coral?
Tufa rock, already planted.  This can be placed right into your trough as is. Insta-garden!
A little planting vignette:
These pieces of tufa are very porous and are basically more air than rock. Alpine plants grow exceptionally well in this media as their specialized roots find their way into these air pockets and adhere. How else is a teeny plant supposed to stay put on a windswept slope towering high above sea levels? 
So after I put my little ones in the car, I went back out into the garden. The last time I was here it was late summer and raining. Today it was 80˚F, pure blue skies, and I'm armed with a bottle of water and my camera on this sunny spring day . . .

I walked up to a trough-making demo, and stopped to ask some questions. Steve, the superintendent of the garden, was packing Stonecrop's hypertufa mix into molds. He let me in on some of his experiences making troughs over the past 20 years.

Steve dyes his mix because the sun bleaches the troughs so quickly, that they end up looking like what they are: cement. 

He uses a foam core to pack the mix around. His method is easier than what I've done, but is best suited for smaller troughs. The stick he uses to pack the mix eliminates any air pockets that may lead to cracking. 
I love speaking with fellow gardeners: there are so many ways to do the same thing, each method more ingenious than the next. Thanks for taking the time, Steve! 

Steve suggested I follow the path to the ledge garden by the pond. This was good advice.

Consider this good advice for anyone who is in and around the Hudson Valley. Go visit this garden gem! Not just a garden for alpines, Stonecrop encompasses a conservatory, alpine houses, perennial garden, woodland garden, and many charming elements are there to be experienced! Cheers!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

PLEASE, people . . . it's 2009, part 3

Problems need solutions.

So now that Earth Day is over, Arbor Day has passed, what can you do to keep the momentum going? 

To illustrate, a sidenote: this past Earth Day I listened to Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx speak with, among others, Robert Redford in an interview on WNYC.  Of all the things they spoke about, Redford said something that totally resonated with me.  To paraphrase, 'green' is a word that has lost its meaning. We are bombarded by it and now it has lost its power.  What 'green' now means for Redford, and for me, is the future. 'Green' is a state of being, of living, of responsibility that will guide our actions from now on.  Living responsibly is the tao, the new way, that we are beginning to live, and will continue to live.

A simple, yet powerful message.

What is the tao of the garden? The new way is one that is thoughtful, responsible, harmless, and harmonious.  It means taking into consideration that all life forms that a gardener deals with has a purpose (cue The Byrds' "Turn, turn, turn").  

When taking a deeper look into our environment, we see that it is a beautiful choreography of life and function.  To destroy that complexity with force and chemical is to deeply disrespect what exists around us.  Rather, we should join the dance, and lead what occurs in in our gardens like a strong partner. Many ways abound to kindly and gently achieve the gardens and landscapes of our dreams without bitch-slapping Mother Nature.  

To carry the theme of the other posts in this PLEASE, people . . . series, we'll look at the three main topics that gardeners preoccupy themselves with: unwanted plants, troublesome pests, and encouraging growth.

The cutesy "weeds are plants with bad press" is not enough to make you love them. Here's how to get rid of them:
  • Get out there and pull them out.  So many observations and quiet moments are had when engaged in the seemingly mindless task of weeding.  With the right tools, it doesn't take much effort, and being regular about the task reduces weeds, and keeps you up-to-the-minute of the many moments in your garden.
  • Mulch. There is great benefit to using good quality mulch.  First, it keeps weed seeds in the soil from germinating, and it prevents surface weed seeds from penetrating the soil. Secondly, it will break down and add loads of nutrients and  beneficial microbial life to your soil. Third, mulch retains soil moisture, thus reducing your watering needs.
  • Cover the ground. If wisely chosen, plants will help you! Covering the ground with either traditional ground covering plants, or by a densely planted garden means no exposed soil. No exposed soil leaves very little space for a weed seed to germinate, let alone survive.
  • Reduce compaction, apply compost, and overseed; mow high. This is for the lawn-lovers. Some weeds thrive in compacted soil (um, isn't the lawn for running, playing, and all kinds of compacting activities?), so the natural alternative is to reduce that compaction. Aerating the soil allows for air, and water to penetrate, thus creating favorable conditions for the turf grass species to thrive in.  Spreading compost over the aerated lawn puts those nutrients directly in contact with the soil and roots, virtually injecting that turf with nutrients and microlife. Overseeding is the same concept as covering the ground: leave no space for weed seeds to get light and moisture.  Follow that with a high mowing height (3-4") and now you're shading out any possible chance for weed seeds to thrive.
With over 1 million insect species in the world, it is a losing battle for you. What you should realize is that 99% of the insects you see in your garden are BENEFICIAL.  They are your friends.  Kinda like the people at the bank: you don't really care to know them, but they help you out, you know they work for you, and generally, you are glad that they are there. I happen to love my bankers. And I love insects.  Get to know them, encourage their existence, and they will silently reward you, I promise. Pests can also mean disease, and there is a better way around that too.
  • Identify your "pest". Chances are, what you are seeing is a beneficial insect that is eating the things that you didn't even know were causing you grief. Why mindlessly destroy a benevolent creature? You may not kill an insect unless you know if it is doing you and your crop harm. A great book to get your hands on: Photographic Atlas of Entomology, James L. Castner, and Garden Insects of North America, Whitney Cranshaw. If it IS a pest like aphids, whitefly, imported cabbage looper, or leaf hoppers, there are beneficial insects that prefer to dine on these nuisances. Introduce these insects, and watch the problem go away. Anecdote: last spring I was monitoring my crop of fava beans. The previous year's crop was bunk as the plants were COVERED in black nasty aphids. But this year, I noticed the aphids were back, but there was something else . . . lady beetle larvae were deee-vouring the aphids.  I even saw some adults in on the smörgosbord! Sweet!  So, I did NOTHING!  I simply monitored the populations of aphids:lady beetles and satisfactorily allowed them to do their work.  Not an extra ounce of work from me for a problem that resolved itself.  Nice.
  • Attract beneficial insects. I've written of this topic before. Being sure to plants flowers that are full of nectar will ensure that a bevy of beneficials will be stopping by your watering hole.  Umbel flowers are known to be some of the best: fennel, dill, angelica, Ammi majus, etc. Providing a shallow source of water is also helpful to keep your bennies happy. 
  • When they just have to die, use non-toxic remedies. My favorite? 1:1 rubbing alcohol and water! Mix in a spray bottle, and you have a serious dehydrating solution for soft-bodied insects. You can see the aphids shrivel before your eyes. Very satisfying. I'm obviously no Buddhist.
These are definitely a problem for many, but most issues can be solved by the culture you provide. Same as with insects, properly i.d. your plant diseases.  Bring samples to a trustworthy garden center, or call up your local county cooperative extension office and have them help. Here are a few common phyto-ailments:
  • Powdery mildew is the result of poor culture, and one of the most common foliar diseases.  PM will only infect plants susceptible to it. The spores of this fungi overwinter on infected leaves left from the previous season -- a good reason for fall clean-up! If you have it, it probably infected your plants during a time of high humidity, excess shade, and poor air circulation. Either way, mix baking soda and water in a spray bottle and treat infected leaves out of midday sun. You may also selectively prune shrubs, roses, even perennials to create a more open network of branches, canes, or stem. This will encourage air to move freely around theses plants. Better yet, research which plants are most susceptible, and avoid them.  If you already have some of these plants in your landscape, consider their location and move them as necessary. And, if you can't move your ancient heirloom lilac, then be vigilant about cleanup, foliar spray with compost tea to prevent an infection, and monitor and treat any signs if you see them.
  • For other common diseases, check this out.
Every gardener wants to ensure that their plant investments will make floriferous and fruitful returns. For far too long, that insurance was blue and made of salt.  The tao of fertilizing uses only compost, compost tea, minerals, sea nutrients, and deep consideration.  Seriously, the combination of these nutrient sources will greatly, naturally, and vigorously affect the growth of your plants. 
  • Compost. The rocksteady way for you to build better soil.  Build better soil, release more nutrients for your plants. Apply 1/4"-1/2" of compost in early spring as soil microbes are warming up to the idea of eating again. It has been said that you can never add to much compost to your soil. Because the nutrients are not yet fully available from the microbes that live in the compost, this organic material acts as a slow release fertilizer. Its bulk aids in moisture retention in the soil, and acts as a soil conditioner. Too much is just enough.
  • Compost tea works in perfect conjunction with compost. A highly concentrated, biologically-active soil amendment, compost tea puts an exponential amount of beneficial soil microbes right where they need to be: in the soil. These microbes get to work immediately releasing nutrients essential for accelerated growth and disease resistance (not to be confused with treatment) in a form that is immediately available to plant roots. Bi-weekly to monthly applications of well-brewed compost tea will give you vigorous results that will sincerely, and happily, shock you. Think Red Bull for your soil.
  • Minerals make up almost 50% of soil composition. Pretty essential part of soil fertility, no? By adding natural sources of minerals to your soil, you are ensuring a constant stream of slow-release nutrients that will last for years. Rock phosphates, and many other alternative soil amendments will give your soil a deep and powerful fertility.
  • Sea plants and kelp are not naturally available in all climates and environments, but sea plants offer a powerhouse of micronutrients that are pretty hard to beat.
So this 2009, you now know there are so many ways to make amends with our previous sins. Please, people, let's choose the new way.  Even if you don't jump on this train now, check out the schedule and know that whenever you are ready, it will be waiting for you in the station with a reserved seat of good conscience.

* A note on insect and disease pests: a stressed plant is a weakened plant. A plant in this predicament actually gives off plant-pheromones equivalent to distress signals.  These signals are picked up on by hungry insects who descend and attack. Diseases will only take hold on a plant whose defenses are inadequate to ward off their objectionable overtures. Take care to keep your plants well-placed, well-hydrated, and well-nourished to keep them free of preventable problems!