31 May 2009

On the Perimeter

Another month has flown by and I've just completed the second of three work rotations in the gardens this spring with the Perimeter group. These guys work under Longwood's Land Steward and are responsible for health and well-being of the 450 or so acres that make up the outlying areas of Longwood property. While it was a relatively short period of time, there was lots of activity: hunting for native Trilliums, battling invasive species, planting trees and shrubs, thwarting beavers, and avoiding poison ivy (which I managed to do successfully!). It's really almost too much to write about so I'll leave you with a photo gallery of memorable moments:

Rush hour commute.

Mr. Groundhog pops up to say hello.

A misty morning at Webb Barn. Quite often deer would venture out of the woods and one morning we watched a pair of foxes romping in the grass.

The water tower at The Row seen from Abbondi (so called because that was the name of the family who previously owned the land), one of the areas of managed wetlands.

Birds and Nests (clockwise: Starlings, Swallows, Oriole nest, Robin eggs)

This is how we dig holes and plant trees with the Dingo!

Unclogging the drainage pipe in one of the ponds (no thanks to Mr. Beaver) created this whirlpool about the size of a dinner plate.

This is Mr. Beaver's house
Once the pond drained a bit we rigged up The Beaver Deceiver!

Don't believe me about the size of the whirlpool? Check this out:

And we meet two more IPM Cats (why do they all think I'm a scratching post!?)

29 May 2009


For a few days now my classmates have been bemoaning the pests that have taken up residence in their gardens and made the cabbages their personal smorgasbords. While I was shocked at the abundance of flea beetle during the first real heat wave, the subsequent drop in temperature along with the rain brought the population down significantly. I was also pleased to observe that my lettuces were unscathed, having been planted close to the onions, which are supposed to repel flea beetle.

Day after day I would search for signs of nibbling on the onions, lettuce, cabbage, and parsley, blissfully finding none. Imagine the horror then, the shock and unparalleled dismay, at strolling into the garden to check on my newly emerged zucchini to find this:

And this...

But worst of all, this...

Immediately I was on my knees, craning my neck to peer under the leaves in search of the ne'er-do-well that was making a feast out of my garden and I found it! Or should I say THEM!!!

Striped Cucumber Beetles, ravaging my zucchini!!! I ran, not walked, into the potting shed, grabbed a couple of sticky cards, and began turning over every leaf. On half a dozen seedlings I caught twice as many beetles! Just look for yourself!!

It was only then that I realized the awful truth - my garden's been besieged! To make matters even worse, these little beetles have super-beetle powers and are immune to the sticky on sticky cards! Darn if those little buggers skated right off like they were rollerblading on butter!

I stared at the beetles on the sticky card. They stared back. We knew each other for enemies. As one flew off the card I knew right then and there that the gauntlet had been thrown.

War has been declared in the garden!

25 May 2009

I'm a Farmer!

My first zucchini from seed!
Sow date: May 17; Germination date: May 25 (first sowing)

20 May 2009


The garden is coming along and so far all the required crop families have their representative members: zucchini (Summer Squash) for Curcurbitaceae, tomatoes for Solanaceae, lettuce for leaf crop, onion for a root crop, snow pea for Legumes, corn for uh, corn and cabbage for a Cole crop. I just need a Tuber. There are so many options for the tuber crop that I was having a hard time choosing when a small voice at the back of my head decided me:

To those of you thanking me because now you'll have that song in your head ALL DAY LONG, you're welcome!

16 May 2009

Houston, we've got a garden

Don't look now, but it's starting to look like a garden. Of a fashion, anyway. The thistle has become the bane of my existence. I spend more time digging it out and no sooner do I get the patch over here than it pops up over there. It's like playing Whack-A-Mole with a dinner fork.
I did manage to weed, compost, and top dress the Summer Squash patch, the small beds around the raised planter, and the two tomato beds. In keeping with my companion planting experiments, the tomatoes are sharing their beds with more onions, garlic, shallots, parsley, and marigolds. And if you think that's suggestive you should read what they said about Linnaeus and his ideas. So far, I've had little to no insect damage to my crops, so there must be something to the companion theory!

There were even three new toads skulking under the marigolds so I herded them into the toad house. Ever try to herd toads? 'Nuff said. They seemed to prefer the wide open prairie, er, onion patch and hopped out the back door. As long as they're eating the wee buggies, I don't care where they roam.I planted 10 Zucchini 'Black Beauty' seeds and another 10 the following week for a successional harvest. On the trellis on the edge of the zucchini bed I planted Snow Peas. I even made good on my threat to add a pink flamingo!
Isn't she a beauty!
Bad news, though. My 'Black Cherry' tomato has a large black spot on the stem a few inches above the soil and some of the lower leaves are shriveling up. Even the 'Costoluto Genovese' is showing signs of crankiness. At first glance, it looks like stem rot - a bacterial disease which likely came from the grower - but since all my tomato books are packed away in a closet in Arkansas, I'll have to ask our Fruit and Vegetable Culture instructor Harold to confirm the diagnosis.

The news that's really worth writing home about was our shopping trip to Groff's nursery. I had heard of this venerable plant haven in hushed and reverent tones so I was as eager as my classmates to go. After work on Friday we all piled into the Short Bus (it so fits sometimes) armed with plant books, lists, dreams, and $50 compliments of Longwood smouldering in our pockets! Soon as we arrived and got the lo-down from Joyce (who brought our mascot Sweet Pea, her new chihuahua), we scattered like a bunch of quail being chased by birdshot and probably made as much noise in the process! On impulse, I purchased an artichoke, a cardoon, and a Burkheya - my nod to the dreaded thistle that plagues my garden. I'm hoping the altitudinous stature of the first two will give the wee weed a complex and it'll go somewhere else.

Meanwhile, on the Ornamental side of my garden, I decided to abandon my study of invasive weeds and re-tilled the soil, reworking the design in the process.

And I've got this large container to plant. I'm thinking a tall grass for height, a couple of container tomatoes, something spilly...decisions, decisions.

It's still very much a work in progress so stay tuned for more exciting developments. And if you'd like to see it yourself, bring a fork. I'll put you to work pulling thistle!

Nature's Alarm Clock

This is the sound that wakes me up in the morning. I could say something pithy about the lack of picture like, "the performers shun the spotlight" but the real reason it's black is because, well, it's that dark at 4:30am. How much more dark could it get, you ask? None, none more dark.

Oh, by the way, this alarm clock doesn't have a snooze button but it definitely goes to 11.

07 May 2009

A lesson in Plant Exploration

A dear friend and fellow gardener just gave me an awesome book for my birthday, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire & the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf. It’s all about the “small group of eighteenth-century naturalists who made Britain a nation of gardeners and the epicenter of horticultural and botanical expertise.” Ironically, many of the new plants these adventurous naturalists exploited for their (and now our) gardens came from America. I’d be willing to bet my grandma’s Fuchsias that some of those plants came from the brothers Pierce who collected the trees and planted the arboretum that was destined to become Longwood Gardens.

In another ironic twist, the Museum of Garden History in Lambeth, England - also known as St. Mary's Churchyard - is the final resting place of the John Tradescants, father and son plant hunters, along with William Bligh, he of the ill-fated HMS Bounty (all that drama over a little plant called Artocarpus altilis. Tsk, tsk).

Flipping through my new library addition, I was reminded of a coffee table book of tropical plants my dad received while he lived in Hawaii. The breadfruit tree was, of course, one of the plants profiled along with an account of the historic mutiny. What intrigued me even more was the mention of a botanist on board the previous Bounty voyage whose surname is the same as mine. I have no idea if this botanist was an ancestor but given that no one else in my immediate family has the Plant Geek Gene to the extent that I have, it made me wonder if the botanical predisposition for green fingers could indeed have been passed down through the generations. Things that make you go, “Hmmmmm…”

Stories of plant hunters’ adventures have always fascinated me, like the tales of Scottish botanist David Douglas (who happens to share my mother’s maiden name. Hmmmm….). This guy, for whom the Douglas Fir is named and who kindly introduced the California Poppy to the world, traveled to the wilds of the American West, the Sandwich Islands, and islands of Hawaii looking for plants. He surmounted inhospitable terrain, survived plagues, pestilence, thieves, and attacks by ill-tempered Indians only to tumble to his death at the bottom of a pit dug to trap wild bulls. He was 35. These plant hunters were serious about plants and many of them died in their quests to bring us the flowers, trees, and shrubs that now adorn our landscapes.

In a small way, I got a taste of what it might have been like to be a plant hunter when, one fine spring day, I was dropped in the middle of the woods with a bucket and a trowel. My mission was to search for native Trilliums (Trillium cernuum L.) that were in the path of the proposed relocation of Route 52. The Trilliums had to be moved to another forested area within the gardens, there to live long and prosper (when I e-mailed a friend about my adventure, he said Trillium sounded like some rare element that the crew of the Enterprise would look for on a distant, deserted planet, only to be attacked by the "Keeper of the Trillium" who is in reality a really nice alien computer. You really have to be up on your 60’s and 80’s space adventures to get that one).

The satellite image below shows my approximate location within Longwood's 1,050 acres:
Pardon the crayon, but it's the best I could do on short notice. The blue arrow is roughly where I worked that day and it looked something like this:
No wild bull pits, nor wild bulls, but there were other dangers to beware. What made this particular plant hunting excursion challenging was that the Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) were also out and look similar enough to my objective that finding the Trillium was tricky indeed. Luckily, many of the Arisaema were in bloom, which made my job a bit easier.

And thus it was that I had to be able to tell the difference between this and this:
But perhaps more importantly, the difference between this and this:

Three guesses what they are!? And wouldn't you know, both of them were EVERYWHERE!! Now, I've never had the opportunity to enjoy the afterglow of an encounter with Toxicodendron radicans, mostly because there isn't any poison ivy in the concrete jungle of LA (though there is poison oak, which I apparently never came in contact with either) and I really wasn't all that eager to make it an intimate acquaintance, if you get my drift. But part of being an Intrepid Plant Hunter is that you must actually advance through the forest in search of that which you seek. That means your boots and the hems of your jeans will trod on and brush against these two plants, one of which could really make life miserable!

And you think being marooned on a boat in your pajamas is bad.

I decided to cowboy-up (thank goodness for Tecnu) and in the end I did find a few Trilliums, dug them carefully and put them in my bucket then looked around to admire the majestic scenery and realized with a growing sense of excitement that I really had no idea where in the bloody forest I was. Panic did not ensue because my supervisor was coming back to get me, but can you imagine trekking through new and uncharted territory with potentially hostile natives as your guide? Far enough away from signs of civilization and the state highway, hearing nothing but the mysterious forest sounds around me, I sure could. There is a theory that poor David Douglas was pushed into that pit, you know, so I admit to a sigh of relief when I heard the rumble of the Kubota’s engine on the path signaling lunchtime.

I still wonder if this venturesome spirit is handed down through the gene pool because obviously not everyone would relish a day stranded in the woods. It must, I think, because another dear friend and fellow horticulturist sent me another book, the Eyewitness Travel Guide to Philadelphia, which means more adventures!

On that trip, at least, I'll remember to take my towel*.

*For an explanation, please refer to the thrilling Sci-Fi best seller The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

05 May 2009

On Garden Making

I once read about a garden designer whose M.O. was to visit a client's garden and sit in it for several hours before she ever put graphite to paper. The goal was to get a feel for the place - the sounds, smells, light, breezes, to listen to what the land was saying. The message, once deciphered, would help inform the ultimate design of the garden. I also read somewhere that when you move to a new home, you shouldn't do anything in the garden for a year, in order to see what might come up through the seasons.


This year, not only am I faced with a new home located in a completely foreign (to me) climate, I’m also the proud owner of a naked plot of earth that is mine to cultivate into a riot of floral and vegetable lovliness. I thought of trying the designer's method of sitting in the soon-to-be-garden and contemplating it, seeking 'the genius of the place' as some of my former Landscape Architect acquaintences would put it, but when I did all I could see were the ranks of hulking compost storage containers at the far end of the field. "Well, that was genius" kept creeping in and stealing my concentration.

In the end I decided to keep it simple: one square raised bed planted alternately with red onion, basil, and parsley, punctuated by the cool rusted rebar espalier sculpture which will find new purpose as a tomato support. The other beds are simple rectangles bisected by mulched paths. Laying them out was a highly technical and precise operation in measurement. I could tell you my secret but then I’d have to feed you an Amanita phalloides.

Oh, alright. Since you ask so nicely (she leans in conspiratorially, stealing quick glances over both shoulders to make sure no one is watching her type). I took a steel rake, stood roughly in the middle of the plot and scraped a line down the center, marking the edges with lengths of bamboo. Path. Setting the rake parallel to the path and counting the footprint (or rakeprint) three times equals the width of the bed. More bamboo. Another raked line perpendicular to the first, more bamboo, and voila! another path. And so on until my plot is a celebration of Nicholsian* madness, perforated with little sticks of bamboo and darker swaths that will become paths.
Highly technical and precise. Don't get me started on the military operations that will encompass weed abatement.

The next step will be to mulch the paths, eradicate the weeds, compost the beds, and plant my cool season crops in time for Mother Nature to water them in. Then, as it thunders without, I’ll be cozily ensconced within, drooling over catalogs and taking notes from the two newest additions to my veg growing library: Carrots Love Tomatoes and Square Foot Gardening.

*A reference to one of my favorite garden writers, Beverley Nichols, who used a similar technique to mark the placement of trees in his garden.

03 May 2009

The fine art of gardening: Transplanting Seedlings

Someone said to me that my experience at Longwood would be instrumental in helping me discover not only what I do want to do, but what I don't want to do. While I can say with a fair amount of certainty that one of the things I would not approach with a great amount of enthusiasm is digging a planting hole for a 48" balled and burlapped tree by hand, one of the things I love to do is transplant seedlings. I spent a happy day one summer in the potting shed at Great Dixter 'pricking out' (as the English put it) perennial seedlings and found it absolutely to my liking. When I was asked to transplant some basil and chive seedlings in the Idea Garden greenhouse here at Longwood, I jumped at the chance. If I'd known I would be pricking out, I'd have brought my dibber!

Adam, one of the gardeners in the Idea Garden whose domain includes the cozy greenhouse, had all the supplies laid out and ready to go: cell packs, seedlings, labels, flats, etc.

Seeds are sown in trays and labeled with the plant name, sow date, location in the garden where the plants will be used, and the number of transplants needed. When the seedlings are transplanted into cell packs, the label is copied and a new label placed in each transplanted flat.

The next step is to turn out the seedlings and gently tease them apart. The cell packs are filled with moist planting mix and lightly pressed - careful not to compact too much, but not left too fluffy or the soil will wash out when the plants are watered in. You also want good root-soil contact so the new roots will take in much needed water and nutrients without crushing them.

Each seedling is handled by the leaves - you don't want to pinch the stems or you will run the risk of crushing the xylem and phloem (the plant's 'arteries' that carry water and nutrients to the plant tissues) and damaging or killing the little seedling. By gently grasping one of the leaves, the risk of damage in minimized. If one of the leaves is accidentally torn or breaks off, there are others that will continue the process of photosynthesis and the plant will grow.
Since I didn't have my dibber to hand, I used a small twig (a chop stick would work just as well, or a size 6 knitting needle, maybe!) to make holes in the cells and placed one seedling in each hole (cell), ever so gently coaxing the roots down deep and prodding the soil back around the seedling's stem.
As I finished a row, I'd make the holes in the next and tease in more seedlings. The smell of the tiny basil plants made my mouth water!
As each flat was filled, it was placed in the greenhouse and watered. If desired, a water soluble fertilizer can be used at this point. The hose had a rose with a fine spray so as not to batter the delicate seedlings into the soil. In a few weeks, each little seedling will have grown large enough to be transplanted into the garden.

To me, this was a very soothing and enjoyable job. To see the flats of new baby plants, knowing that soon they would add their herbal scent to the garden (and later their flavor to a nice pesto, perhaps!) was immensely satisfying. And the best part: I got to keep the extras for my own garden!