Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Compost: the second coming

People may argue why our present day is called Anno Domini (Did He come, did you miss it? Is He coming, do you look busy?). Whatever calendar you hang, you can't argue that it is spring and it really has arrived.  So for me, that means compost--not Christ.

Compost saves! 
Save garden cuttings, weeds, grass clippings, autumn leaves, veg and fruit peelings and other appropriate kitchen scraps ('forbidden fruit' is allowed), and compost will happen. Compost will save you from buying costly soil amendments that won't do the job as effectively.  Making compost saves all the natural resources from a garden and recycles them right back to the very plants that produced them. Pretty tight, huh?

Compost is coming!
Many methods abound for creating compost. Hot vs. cold piles, C:N ratios and the science of layering your "greens" and "browns". Do you pile or do you bin? Do you turn or do you spin? It shouldn't be overwhelming, but it definitely can be. Just remember that whatever method fits your time, energy, and compost needs, if you do it, it will come.

No compost, no peace--know compost know peace!
Compost is the great unifier. Compost comprises so many positive elements that together create a one-pot meal satisfying many a garden hunger. From building better soil structure, balancing pH, and increasing soil-moisture to inoculating soil with vital bacteria, fungi, and beneficial nematodes, compost redeems all previous garden sins. 

As an educator, I encourage gardeners to familiarize themselves with the organisms that make compost (and great soil) what it is. Reading Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels is a great start for any gardener curious about what happens beneath their feet. Billions of beneficial fungi and bacteria break down organic matter above and below the soil level. Increasing these populations in the soil has tremendously positive effects. These beneficial organisms "guard" roots, fight pathogens, release plant-available nutrients, and can help extend a plant's root zone increasing the ability of said plant to retrieve water and nutrients up to 3 meters away! There is so much more to it, of course.  The specifics are fascinating, and the soil food web is really a phenomenal underworld.

We all have one: a favorite meal, drink, or snack, that is just sooooo tasty, you ingest in disbelief that it is so good for you. Mine is carrot-beet-orange-apple-celery-ginger juice straight from my juicer. Yum. That is just what compost is to your garden: guilt-free goodness for the garden's soul. 

So to get your soil out of garden hell, spread a 1/4-1/2" layer of compost on your beds in early spring. A smart plan is to get in on the ground before bulbs are really going.  Personally, I prefer to compost the gardens when the soil is warming up and those winterized organisms are now awake and ready to work. It's a great idea to gently scratch, or as Fergus says 'tickle' it into the garden soil to incorporate it. If you know you'll be planting spring annuals you'll be turning enough soil then. Some people prefer to get the composting done in the fall if they have the time. There is merit to this practice as well: decomposition will continue to take place until the deep freeze sets in. Through the winter and spring the soil will freeze and heave, and together with seasonal snow and rain, the compost will work it's way into the soil where its got to be. 

Whatever works, I say, just as long as it gets done.   

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sympathy is for suckers.

I am pissed.  And the last thing I want is a pat on the back or a pathetic, compassionate gaze.

I need to vent, and on top of it all, you are not even my captive audience. You've got that convenient little 'X' above this window to escape my rant.  But as for me, this is my life.

My roses are DEAD. Rosa 'Night Owl' and  R. Long Tall Sally'  are laying on my walk as still as the corpses they are.


So this is what happened.  After searching for my misplaced pruners, I started in on getting my climbers in shape. They are really the only roses I bother with. They are up and out of my way, and do double duty in covering up a wall, a fence, whatever. I love pruning these roses: I love the way the canes will look after I've finished, like the tail of a Stegosaurus with spiky side shoots.

So, *snip* there goes a brown branch back to that essential outward facing bud.  But it looked all wrong.  It was brown inside where it should have been green, especially just above a decent-looking bud. Hmmmm. So I get in a little closer and notice that the whole plant is wobbling at the soil level.

"What the F---?!"

The WHOLE THING comes right out of the ground and THIS is what the "root system" looked like, gnaw marks included:

Can you BELIEVE that?  Ooh, I am so angry.  

So then I go over to 'Long Tall Sally' and give her a wiggle. Out she comes. Again with the profanity. 

Instantly I know. Bloody bastard vermin. See, last year we had a mouse issue. But that was fine because all they wanted to do was hang out in the laundry room, shit on our clean towels, and drag dryer lint around. But we smartened up, crushed a couple skulls, and Keith (being dramatic) left one or two of them in the traps as a "warning" to others. Sweet, ain't he? During the spring, summer, and fall, I guess they had time to plot their revenge. So they thought it might be all mousey-cute to sharpen their teeth on my rose roots? What kind of vindictive rodents ARE they? 

I just hate this. Not the mice, not the lost roses, but this:  for years, I would be the back patter and give the compassionate eye contact in response to garden annihilation. People who work slavishly only to have their results ruined by rabbits, woodchucks, deer, etc.  See, I didn't have any of that. I lived in a shiny garden bubble. But now?  I am one of YOU.  

Now, to reminisce after the loss . . . 

R. 'Long Tall Sally' was a share from my friend and former classmate, Peggy of Westchester Environmental Tree Service who gave me this rose when we were back in school at the NYBG. I nearly killed it, resuscitated it, then planted it safely in my garden. Tall as its name suggests, its canes climbed high, and its flowers were a very pretty pale peachy pinky yellow.
The 'Night Owl' was a cultivar I was SUPER excited about.  I even had a really funky clematis planted in anticipation for the color combo.  This is a very fragrant and deep dark plum-wine colored rose with shocking yellow stamens--ooh, I am getting delirious thinking about it.  Also a climber, this one promised to re-bloom and re-bloom, if only those BLEEP/noun BLEEPING/verb  BLEEPers/noun (Mad Libs, anyone?) didn't play God with my garden.  Maybe God was playing with me? I'll throw one back His way that's even better: your R. 'Night Owl' looks like the color of R. 'Dr. Huey', the crutch of all grafted roses! Ha! Wouldn't want that mistake in MY garden.  Oh, listen to me. I'm not bitter.

So enough. It's over, it's done. I hate mice, rats, voles, whatever resists my will to do garden-goodness. Lesson for this gardener: I will never look with pity upon anyone with a garden story of rodent victimization.  It's too painful to experience it, forget being patronized. 

Instead of the insufficient back pat, maybe I should just hand out mousetraps to lighten the mood.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Tony Avent: the Howard Stern of horticulture?

This past week I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Tony Avent, founder of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina. Tony is a renowned and dedicated plantsman who, like many of us plant geeks, is fueled and fascinated by the odd, the dangerous, the bizarre, and the gorgeous. Relentless and unapologetic in the garden, Tony waves his hand at hardiness zones, adventurously daring to plant, and grow, the unthinkable. With 18,000 plants and counting in his collection, Tony's botanic garden in Raleigh is the 4th largest in the nation, and is neighbored by some of the best gardens in the country: JC Raulston Arboretum, Duke Gardens, and the UNC garden at Chapel Hill. Tony's sweet tea timbre only enhances the enthusiasm he has for the plants he loves. And his humor? Who hasn't seen the provocative and hysterical covers of his famous mail-order catalogs? Well, for those of you who haven't, take a look at the latest:

Oh, and there's more!!! Instead of wasting time on YouTube and Facebook, scroll through the hate mail that Tony receives regarding his catalog, and that he unashamedly shares. Now that's a guy with character. 

So how did this happen? My friend Darrin Duling organized two lectures at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich, CT where this event was graciously hosted. We heard Tony advocate his most notable plants suited for Connecticut gardens on Tuesday evening, and vicariously journeyed with him on his plant explorations on Wednesday, where Tony explained the process of how plants go from the wild into your hands.

Oh it sounds just lovely doesn't it? Let me break the still water with this:

We horticulturists are dirty, there's no other way to say it. We gladly live in a world dominated by loose and promiscuous pollen, where flowers seduce insects making them drunk on their juices, and where plants engage in acts of bondage then slowly swallow their partners, where ovaries swell with the seed of another, and . . . 

Anaïs Nin or Nature?  Maybe a little of both. Either way, Tony Avent is one of us. Just as Howard Stern is a pundit on pornography, Tony turns up the heat describing new plants and hybrids in such a way that plant sex has never sounded so good, so natural, so right.

I think after spending a few hours with Tony, the crisply coiffed chatelaine's of Connecticut have been deflowered of the gentility of gardening.  While they may never admit that they furtively look at plants online, or that they might keep a few catalogs in their nightstand drawer, the facade has been breached!

What could be better than hearing Tony burst about 'late night rendezvous under the cover of darkness', and the morning-after shock of a night of 'wild plant sex'? If you're into hardcore plant sex as much as I am, you'll know that Baptisia 'Purple Smoke' was soooo worth it (and she's disease-free)!  

It wasn't all hanky-panky, though.  Tony brought to light some poignant perspectives on plants, gardening, and the world as we know it.

Let's begin at the end. Tony let out a few great closing remarks that I thought were important to share:

"If you are not killing plants, you are not growing as a gardener."- Tony, quoting  J.C. Raulston. Tony says he won't give up on growing a plant unless he has killed it at least three times. The lesson here is don't be discouraged by your garden failures. The epiphanies learned in a garden cannot be taught in a book.  So go, kill your plants; find out what works to keep them alive and thriving. 

"Plants don't always grow best where they are found in the wild". This next example is a bit of a shocker. Sarracenia sp./pitcher plant. Typically pigeon-holed as a "bog" plant, Tony has somehow realized that they flourish in his mixed borders, even under his peach trees. WHAT? Yeah. Peach trees. Basically, just because a plant is found growing happily in a ditch (or a bog), doesn't mean that it won't reward you for moving it and providing it with a few different variables. Don't think (I don't commonly suggest this): just DO. Throw the plant tag away, and experiment! If you lose the plant, refer to the above quote.

"You do not learn duplicating what you already know." Priceless. This is permission to be creative, try the absurd, challenge the book-logic, and GROW: as a gardener, as a person, as a creative force. For further clarification, refer to the above two quotes.

"Gardens are about anticipation." This I relate to 100%. Every day now I go outside and silently beg my Crocus 'Jeanne d'Arc' to hurry up. Classical music calls them 'movements', and the garden equivalent is something I call 'moments'. A garden is a relentless crescendo of moments that is planned and planted for in anticipation of the unfolding drama in the season to come.

A theme through both lectures was plant origin. Whether a natural hybrid, a selection from an intensive breeding program, a chance seedling, or a cutting from a foreign plant, the question that Tony invariably knows the answer to is: who's your Daddy? Origin in terms of "how did this this plant get into my car", Tony uncovered some interesting criteria a plant must meet to survive in the nursery industry. 

Overall, I was privileged to listen to Tony's adventures, and to be introduced to some of his favorite plants. I was fascinated by his extensive knowledge of breeding and plant parentage, and his experience in this industry that spans many, many years. 

Please visit the Plant Delights Nursery page to read up on Tony's many plant collecting excursions, and articles.  Also, while you're there, sign up for the email updates. Oh! And of course, lose yourself in the pages, pictures, and descriptions of the odd, the bizarre, the dangerous, and the gorgeous.

Darrin, thanks so much for giving me the head's up about Tony coming into town. And to Tony, I genuinely look forward to seeing your garden soon.