The Garden Writers Discussion Board


So this weekend at the Garden Writers Association conference, the association’s new website was ‘unveiled’ after 18 months of planning and design by the website committee.  It’s not live yet, but we’ve already heard about one thing it doesn’t have:  a discussion board for members.  This news resulted in groans from members who want some other way to communicate besides the (paper!) newsletters that GWA mails out. 

Maybe in the next version, we were told.  If they can find room for it in the budget.

I know I’m a techie lightweight, but I’m just not up on the kind of technology that takes a long time to implement and costs a lot of money.  I’m only acquainted with the fast and free variety.

So in the garden blogger session, I told the audience that GardenRant would launch a discussion board for garden writers.  I got home Sunday night, spent a few hours setting it up, and tested it yesterday.  And here it is–very much in beta, but live.  Check it out here.

This board is open to anybody who calls themselves a garden writer, including, of course, bloggers.  It’s a place to talk shop about the profession of garden writing, but GWA membership is not a requirement.

We’re just putting this out there as a free and easy way for garden writers and photographers to communicate.  I know there’s already a garden writers listserv and a forum on GardenWeb devoted to garden writing, and this isn’t intended to replace anything that’s already out there.  But I think discussion boards have certain advantages–they’re easy to read, it’s nice to have more or less permanent forum topics to browse, and of course you can read it online or subscribe via email or RSS. 

So please–help us spread the word by re-posting this on your own blog or emailing your garden writer friends.  Because this is a private board, it won’t turn up in Google searches.  So the only way people will know about it is through word of mouth.

After the jump, a step-by-step explanation for joining the board.

The Straw Bale Affair

As the Summer That Never Quite Was draws to a close, I submit to you my final report on the state of my straw bale garden. Thanks to all of you who keep inquiring about it – actually, I’m surprised that the idea has sparked so much interest. In the last few weeks several people have emailed me to say that they might like to try something like this next year. It is a very simple and ecologically friendly idea, and it solves a lot of the peculiar problems that Humboldt gardeners face. So here’s what I’ve learned:

Location, Location, Location. The real advantage of the straw bale garden is that you can put it in the best possible spot in your yard. For me, that spot was a wooden fence that gets blasted (well, blasted is too strong a word. Exposed to?) south-facing sun all day. The fence also serves as a windbreak.

I did not, however, choose a spot that would make it easy to harvest vegetables. Between the fence behind the straw bales and the chicken run on one side, it was not always easy to get access to this little vegetable plot. Usually I would step right into the middle of the bales, which is a risky move that compacts the root systems. So think about access when you’re picking a location for your garden.

Garden 2.0

For months I’ve been ignoring the Facebook and LinkedIn invitations my friends have been sending me. I spend too much time on the computer anyway; the last thing I need is to get sucked into social networking. A cousin who is also a writer told me that Facebook was a wonderful way to procrastinate. While that should have been a warning sign, I was somehow seduced by the possibility of all the non-work she and I could accomplish together online. So I signed up.

At first I only had two friends, which made it a little sad to be on Facebook. I’d log on and feel like a little kid at the edge of the playground waiting for someone to come talk to me. But these social networking sites have this weird, organic, spidery way of growing, and now I have twenty-five friends, which is more people than I could probably get to come to a party at my house in real life.

Some of those friends are gardeners. And they Facebook about their gardens. One person posts a picture of their compost pile, and somebody else posts a comment suggesting that they might like to add a little manure to get it going. Someone puts up pictures of their flower garden. Everyone says how pretty it looks.

Remedial Flower Arranging

For the last month, I have stood guiltily by and
watched my flower garden fade. The daisies, feverfew, butterfly bush, and
catmint have bloomed so aggressively that I couldn’t possibly keep up with
them. After hacking his way through the flowers to get to the chicken coop
recently, my husband meekly suggested that I could cut a few flowers and bring
them into our bookstore. I had assumed that my flowers would be banned from the
store on the grounds that they shed pollen on the books, introduce spiders and
other charming but unwelcome creatures, and aggravate allergies. But having
flowers by the counter has been nice, and the Shasta daisies in particular have
proven to be well-behaved and long-lasting.

Really, there is no excuse not to
fill the house with flowers in the summer. Most flowering perennials need to be
cut in order to keep blooming; if you do this regularly, you’ll avoid the late
summer gaps in the border that I’m about to start experiencing as the summer
flowers wither and fall-blooming plants have not yet gotten going.

To make flower arranging really
easy, I’m going to share with you the one and only rule you need to know in
order to be able to take full advantage of whatever is blooming in your garden.
I learned this from florists when I was researching the flower trade; it is a
kind of secret weapon that works when time is of the essence. If your attempts
at flower arranging have failed before, consider this to be a one-step remedial
flower arranging course. Here it is:

Art and Gardens

A couple of months ago, I spent an
afternoon at the di Rosa Preserve, a private art collection housed on a lovely
piece of land between Napa and Sonoma along the Sonoma Highway. The collector,
Rene di Rosa, is almost 90 years old. His collection of modern art, which now
totals over 1700 pieces, fills the house he once lived in, a newer gallery
space, and the land surrounding it. The gardens around the house and gallery
are beautiful, making it a worthwhile horticultural outing and picnic
opportunity if you’re burned out on wineries. (Hey, it happens. It’s called a

This is all modern art, mostly
collected since 1950, and walking through the galleries made it clear to me how
little I know about modern art. Some of the very biggest names in the art world
were absent from the collection, leaving me to guess about the significance of
the rest of the artists. Were these big names, important pieces, significant
early works? I had no idea.

Vegetatitve Matter

In February, a couple dozen of our friends and relatives
made the windy, rainy trek to Humboldt County for the grand reopening of our
bookstore. It was yet another winter family gathering. They’ve been here before
at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and now, after having made the journey in
February, they probably think that Eureka has nothing to offer but gray skies
and storms.

probably also think that I am a completely incompetent gardener, which is not
entirely off the mark. However, the garden is at its worst in February, and I
was embarrassed to have anyone even look out the window over that weekend.

The backyard, which I have come to
call the “chicken yard,” is the worst. It’s planted with tough perennials that
grow into larger and larger clumps every year and produce nothing that the
chickens would be tempted to eat. What that means is that in the winter, the
chicken yard is nothing but mud and scraggly little patches of green. A vacant
lot looks better than my backyard in February.

Then the family goes away, and
summer rolls around, and the garden positively explodes. Right now it is awash
with Shasta daisies, some of which are almost as tall as I am. I have two
chairs in the middle of the backyard; when you sit down in the chairs, you
completely disappear. I’ve never liked gardens that are nothing more than a
carpet of flowers on the ground – I like to be enveloped in a garden, to be
completely surrounded by it, to look plants in the eye rather than having to bend
over and study them. And that’s the kind of garden I’ve ended up with.

What astonishes me is that so much vegetative matter
is getting created in my backyard everyday.

Mammals of Mass Destruction

I could have put a layer of chicken wire under my straw bales before I set up my clever new straw bale vegetable garden. How easy it would have been. Clear the weeds, lay down the chicken wire, arrange the bales on top. Had I done that, I would have had a no-dig, weed-free, compostable and biodegradable, gopher-proof raised bed. What a wonderful thing that would’ve been.

But no. I’ve never had gophers in my garden here in Eureka, with the exception of one unfortunate soul who burrowed underneath a poisonous plant and was never heard from again. So it didn’t even occur to me to gopher-proof my straw bale garden.

I’ve been out of town a lot lately, which has not been a problem for the vegetable garden thanks to my brilliant soaker hose irrigation plan. I just pour a couple of buckets of liquid sea kelp in the bales for fertilizer before I leave, and remind my husband to run the soaker hose every morning while he’s downstairs drinking coffee. It’s a no-fail strategy.

Or so I thought.

Eat Your Trash

For years, people in the gardening industry — seed
companies, plant growers, owners of garden centers — have complained that
gardening is on the decline. People don’t have time to garden anymore, they
said. This younger generation just
doesn’t want to spend the weekend in the backyard. Or if they do, they don’t consider the time they spend out there
to be "gardening." They see
it as "outdoor living." Outdoor living, according to the experts, seems to involve throw pillows
and tiki torches, not manure and pruning shears.

A friend of
mine just returned from the California Pack Trials, a strangely named annual
exhibition of new plants being rolled out by California’s nursery
industry. He actually heard
horticultural consultants tell garden center owners that they should not refer
to their customers as "gardeners" at all anymore. This new generation of customers would be
insulted by such a term, as they consider a gardener to be someone who gets
paid to work in a garden, and apparently, according to this consultant, that’s
not a good thing. In other words, a
gardener is a member of the staff, and the lady of the house would be insulted
to be mistaken for a member of the staff. She sees herself as a decorator, and
it is the job of a garden center to sell her plant-shaped decorations.

exhibitor even posted a series of banners with a single-line caption on each
banner. The first three showed a picture of a woman, and the last one had a
picture of a man. The captions went
like this: “She Looks. She Shops. She Buys. He Pays.”

is all enough to make me want to dig a hole in the bottom of my compost pile
and crawl into it.

Wind Damage

I’ve been getting e-mails from  gardeners in my neighborhood all
week. Everyone’s freaked out about the blazing heat followed by the rain and
the fog followed by the maddening wind. “What’s up with this weather?” people
keep asking me. Like I would know.

As I write this, it’s the wind
that’s making everyone nuts.It’s a forceful, antagonistic wind, the sort that
flares up on sunny days just when you thought you could finally get outside and
do something in the garden.The wind fights you and you fight back, but it’s a
losing battle.Wheelbarrows get toppled over, buckets go flying across the yard,
and chickens, if you happen to have chickens, are lifted unexpectedly off the
ground, their wings functioning as sails (or, well, wings) as they flap about
and try to get their feet back on solid ground.Hens get grumpy when their
feathers are ruffled too much. So not only are you people e-mailing me about
the weather, I’m getting grief from the poultry as well.

And the thing is, wind really does
mess up a garden. It’s not just the broken branches and the downed trees.A
stiff breeze will knock the moisture right out of a newly-leafed plant, drying
it out and leaving it crippled, burned, exhausted. Plant cells rely upon water
as a delivery mechanism for food, so when a plant is deprived of water, it’s
also not getting its vitamins.

Straw Bale Gardens, Part Two

Recently, I wrote about
my new experiment in vegetable gardening. The idea was to build raised beds out
of rice straw bales, creating a no-dig bed that would basically turn into one
giant compost pile at the end of the season. I heard from several people who
were interested in trying the same thing themselves, so I told them I would
report back and let you know how the setup went.

I ended up buying four rice straw
bales and arranging them in a square, with an opening in the center that I
filled with straw and compost. Most of the instructions I’d read about straw
bale gardening said to place the bales on the narrower edge, so that the cut
end of the straw was facing up and the strings were running around the sides of
the bales. The rationale for this arrangement is that it is easier for plant
roots to work their way down into the straw if the straw itself is running
perpendicular to the ground rather than parallel.

But I didn’t like the way that looked, so I did it
the other way. With the straw bales sitting on their edges, the whole thing
seemed unreasonably tall. This might be a good thing if you’re trying to avoid
bending over too much, but I liked the look of the bales when they were flat on
the ground, and besides, they covered more ground that way. This is exactly the
sort of approach that gets me into trouble with experiments like this: I am
always disregarding the advice of others who have gone before me and making
impractical changes for impractical reasons.