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Mid-Summer Resolutions


The year is half-gone. The summer solstice is past; the days are getting shorter already. It’s irritating the way time moves inexorably on, especially in a garden. I went on vacation for one lousy week and everything went to seed. It’s time to whack a path through the undergrowth, take stock of the situation, and make a few plans for the rest of the year. Here are some ideas for getting the most out of the warm, late summer months we have left:

Harvest. Those zucchinis aren’t going to pick themselves. Stay on top of the vegetable garden, take scissors out to the lettuce patch, and don’t let the berries rot on the vine. This time of year, a fruit can ripen while you have your back turned, but make the harvest a priority. If you can’t eat everything you’ve grown, drop your extras off at Food for People (food banks can always use extra produce—you’d be surprised how quickly a bag of lettuce will go out the door with someone who needs it), or freeze your surplus for later in the year.





 










Flowers need to be harvested, too. I can hardly walk through my garden because the Shasta daisies, yarrow, hollyhock, and catmint grew tall and flopped over. Get out there and cut those fresh flowers—it will encourage the plant to bloom again later in the year, and believe me, this winter you’ll be wishing you had enough flowers to fill every room in the house.

Water. Most people make the mistake of watering too often and not deeply enough. The water just penetrates the first few inches of soil, never really reaching the deep roots of mature plants. All that shallow watering does is encourage weeds. Instead, water deeply once or twice a week. Pick a few test plots and dig a hole after you’ve watered—if the ground’s not wet 6-12 inches down, keep watering.

Also, remember that getting the plants wet can help spread disease. Soaker hoses and drip irrigation are good solutions to that problem, but if you’re like me, you just dig the whole stand-outside-with-the-hose-and-a-cocktail vibe. It’s a nice way to end the day. But do try to get the water on the ground, not on the plants.

Stake. Speaking of floppy plants, this is a good time of year to put a few stakes in the ground. I’m a lazy staker; the best I can manage is a piece of twine wrapped around a perennial or looped through a fence to keep things upright. But staking a plant can give it better form, keep branches from breaking, and prevent leaves from coming into contact with the soil and picking up a disease. Sometimes all it takes is a single metal or wooden spike in the center of a shrub, or a length of chicken wire folded like a tent over a plant so that the stems grow through the spaces in the chicken wire and eventually conceal it altogether.

Feed. I visited a friend’s garden in Ukiah earlier this summer and she told me that the only thing she feeds her outrageously gorgeous garden, besides a top-dressing of compost, is kelp meal. Kelp meal is generally touted as being full of all kinds of trace minerals, amino acids, plant growth regulators, and other magical ingredients. It’s very affordable—you can buy it in bulk at Mad River Nursery, and most of the garden centers around town carry it by the box. I like it because it doesn’t include any animal products, and now that I’ve got chickens in my backyard, there’s something a little creepy about scattering bone and blood meal in the garden where they might be scratching around for food. You can work kelp meal in around existing plants or mix it with water and spray it everywhere.

Plant for fall. Brussels sprouts need to go in the ground this month if you want a winter crop, and root vegetables like beets and turnips can be planted, too. You can keep lettuce going all year long; just seed in a new row once a month or so, and switch between warm-weather and cool-weather greens as the seasons change. Kale, chard, spinach, and arugula are all good fall greens to start planting soon. The same is true of flowers—this time of year, you can still get sunflowers, calendula, and snapdragons in the ground and harvest them in the fall. It’s hard to think about Thanksgiving at a time like this, but if you start planting now, you’ll have bragging rights during the holidays. Call the family and tell them somebody else is going to have to bring the beer this year. Let this be the year that you pulled a salad right out of the ground in November—all because you started thinking about it in July.

 


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Late Summer Planting


If you live near the coast like I do, you’re probably wondering what happened to summer. It’s as if the season showed up for a couple of days, looked around, and said, “Well, never mind.” Like a houseguest who is not nearly as excited about visiting you as you hoped they would be, summer showed up with full suitcases and a tote bag packed with reading material, looking as if it might stay a few months, then nonchalantly announced that it was really only passing through on its way to Portland, but thanks for fixing up the guest room all the same.

But don’t give up hope. September and October can be surprisingly warm and sunny, so there are still plenty of possibilities for the garden. The trick is to treat the fall like a full gardening season all its own, not just a graceful decline into winter. Think of Labor Day as a beginning, not an end. Here’s what I’ll be up to this weekend:





 










Water. The most important thing you can do for your garden right now is to give it a good, deep soaking once or twice a week. Even when it’s cloudy all day, even when the sidewalks are damp with dew in the morning, the ground does dry out. Plants that don’t have enough water stop growing and blooming, and they’re less able to take up the nutrients that are in the soil. Avoid overhead watering, which can bring on disease, by using drip irrigation or just letting the hose trickle under shrubs and trees.

Feed. Seriously, there’s a long blooming season still ahead. Really. I mean it. Scratch a dry, organic “Fruit and Flower” formula in the soil around roses and other shrubs. Use a liquid fertilizer that contains fish emulsion, kelp meal, and worm castings and spray it directly onto leaves as a foliar fertilizer. Or brew your own compost tea by mixing aged compost and worm castings with water and pouring around plants that need a lift. (The best compost tea is brewed for 24 hours first, but to do that you need an aquarium bubbler or something that will keep the water oxygenated to help feed the beneficial aerobic bacteria. If you don’t have the gear for that, just stir and pour.)

Deadhead. Shear back flowering perennials to get rid of dead flowers and seed heads. Low-growing, spreading groundcovers like geranium, catmint, and yarrow will burst right back into bloom if they’re cut back this time of year. Even lavender will produce some more flowers if you just keep cutting, but be sure to leave at least a third of the greenery on the plant—lavender won’t re-bloom on old, bare wood.

Mulch. I know, again with the mulching. But really, there’s nothing better than a pile of rotting grass clippings, leaves, maybe a little manure from the chicken coop, and some old kitchen scraps to reinvigorate the garden and keep the soil moist. If you’re not making it yourself, buy a couple bags. Spread it over bare spots in the soil and around the plants that need to perk up.

Plant. You heard me, plant. There’s plenty of time. You can get some herbs in the ground—in fact, the (slightly) warm fall months are sometimes the only time I can get basil and cilantro to grow—and there’s plenty of time for a few crops of lettuce before winter. In fact, if you start out with regular mesclun mixes and gradually start sowing cold-tolerant arugula, spinach, and mache, you’ll have salad greens at Christmas. It’s also a good time to plant beets, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts so that you can show off at Thanksgiving by bringing vegetables from the garden.

There’s still time for flowers, too. In my neighborhood, gardeners are just getting started on sunflowers. Icelandic poppies and bachelor button will bloom through fall. Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susan) still has time to get going, and this year I’m even experimenting with planting cosmos in August. They are surprisingly intolerant of cool weather, but I’m hoping for just enough warmth this fall for a quick crop.

Finally, remember that fall is the best time to plant perennials. If you want to make any big changes in the garden—add a tree or shrub, put in a new flower bed—now’s the time to get it figured out. When it comes to perennials, don’t look for glamorous, blooming plants in the nursery. Find something with a sturdy root system and healthy green growth, and plant when the fall rains start. They’ll have all winter to put down roots and get ready to bloom in spring.

 


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Sweet Peas


The sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, has been in cultivation in Europe and the United States for three hundred years. It was easy to hybridize—think of Gregor Mendel and the elegantly simple experiments he carried out on peas to demonstrate how genetics worked—and the flowers themselves were popular as cut flowers in the Victorian era, when short-stemmed, ephemeral, highly scented flowers were popular. At the end of the nineteenth century, the most popular form was the Grandiflora, which was known for its large, sturdy blossoms, new colors, and wild, old-fashioned fragrance. A few years later, the Spencer types, with ruffled petals and even larger flower head, came into vogue and have never quite gone out of style again. Spencers and Grandifloras have also been cross-bred to expand the range of colors for both.

When you’re choosing a sweet pea to grow, there are two things to consider: growth habit and temperature. A sweet pea will either be classified as a dwarf or a climber; for the most part, you’ll select dwarf-style plants for containers and climbers to scramble up a fence or a trellis.





 










Subtle changes in temperature and day length also make a difference, so if you’re going to try to keep sweet peas going year-round, it’s a good idea to switch to a winter-blooming variety when temperatures drop and go back to a heat-tolerant summer variety when it warms up again. Renee’s Garden Seeds, for instance, offers ‘Velvet Elegance,’ which blooms early in cool weather, and a more heat-tolerant ‘Perfume Delight’ for summer. As a rule, red and orange varieties can’t take the heat, so although it may wreak havoc with your seasonal color scheme, you’re better off planting pastel varieties to bloom in the hottest months of the year.

The most economical way to start sweet peas is to grow them from seed. The seed is covered with a tough coating; most companies now sell them pre-nicked to encourage better germination. If yours don’t already have a fine slit in the coating, you perform the operation yourself with a knife or simply move on to the next step, which is to soak the seeds. (I know this sounds like a lot of work, but come on, these are sweet peas we’re talking about here.) Wrap the seeds in damp paper towels and set them in a warm spot—a window sill, maybe—and within several hours, they will have started to swell, which means that germination has begun. Now you can plant them. And if that’s too much trouble, look for sweet pea plants from Annie’s Annuals or at nurseries around town. They’re foolproof and fabulous.

Now—where to plant them? A chicken wire or chain link fence works well, as does any other trellis or wall that has been covered in the kind of fine mesh netting or string they need to get a grip. Bird netting is nearly invisible against a wall and is easy for tendrils to grab. You can also start seeds in a pot and transplant them later, when the plants have plenty of young tendrils and look ready to climb.

Pick a site with full sunlight and dig in plenty of aged compost—sweet peas like rich, loose soil. Work in a little bone meal before you plant. Keep the soil damp (soaker hoses are great for sweet peas because they’ll keep the roots moist without getting the vines wet) and feed with a weak solution of fish emulsion every couple of weeks. Finally, don’t be shy about cutting the flowers—it’s absolutely essential that you keep seed pods from forming, because once the plant starts making seeds, the show’s over. I start out very carefully cutting individual stems and placing them in slender, narrow vases or even champagne flutes, but by the time the vine’s mature, I’m chopping off whole sections of vines and dropping them in water. Anything to keep the plant from getting ahead of me. (And by the way, the cut flowers will last nearly a week in the vase if you use commercial flower food, change the water, and keep them out of the sun)

To keep a crop of sweet peas going throughout the year, start a new batch every month or two. Ideally, each new batch would get its own freshly-dug space to grow in, but I don’t have enough space for that in my garden, so I continue to plant new seedlings in the same row around my chicken coop. They scramble up the chicken wire and provide a little shade for the birds. By cutting back the old vines drastically as they start to go to seed, I create enough room for the young seedlings to climb.

If you’re really into sweet peas, whatever you do, don’t go buy Graham Rice’s The Sweet Pea Book. It’s sheer torture. I flipped right to the photograph of the tangerine and cherry-colored ‘Glow’ on page 61 and just about passed out on the spot. As far as I can tell, it’s only available from one seed company in England, and I can’t get an e-mail through to them. (Does anyone get the Unwins seed catalog, or am I just going to have to go over there myself?) Then there’s the heavenly “Lavender Bridesmaid,” a dwarf bicolor that is described as “white with pretty purple whiskers and purple wire; shaded purple at the top; bolt of deep purple on reverse.” What this means in non-sweet pea speak is that it’s the most gorgeous, delicate lavender and white flower you’ve ever seen.  I may have to go to England for that one, too.

But there’s no reason to travel that far; you’ll find a great selection at local nurseries and garden shops, and if you need a few hundred more choices, check out Fragrant Garden Nursery in Brookings  or Enchanting Sweet Peas in Sebastopol.

 


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Getting Ready for a Backyard Wedding


Janis Eastman-Moore contacted me a few weeks ago about her garden in Eureka. She’s planning to get married there next August, but the place is completely overgrown with weeds. She doesn’t have much experience gardening, and on top of everything else, it’s a rental. She wanted to know if I had any ideas. I like nothing better than telling other people what to plant, so I headed over there last Sunday to check it out.

            Janis and her fiancée Scott Grant have lived for a couple of years in a small house near CR with sweeping views of the ocean. They’ve got an enormous backyard filled with fruit trees, roses, orange crocosmia, and a few other plants that are half-buried under the weeds. Because they’re both going to school and working, whatever they do has got to be affordable and not terribly time-consuming.
      

      Here are my suggestions for making over a garden in time for a wedding that’s twelve months away. If you’ve ever tackled a project like this, write to me with your ideas and I’ll print them in a future column.





 










Stick with what works. Take good care of the larger, more established plants that aren’t going anywhere. A nursery can recommend organic products to fight pests and diseases so there aren’t tent caterpillars dropping on the guests’ heads during the ceremony. The garden’s full of neglected roses; many of the same biological products that work on fruit trees will be effective on the roses, too.

            Clear out the rest. If the landlord allows it (and who wouldn’t?), offer to pull out what doesn’t work and replace it with something even better. Anything that can’t be removed—maybe a shrub whose flowers don’t match the color scheme—can at least be cut back so it’s more of an insignificant clump of leaves on the big day. Pull weeds and bring in a truckload of compost to pile on the flowerbeds. Once the overgrowth is cleared away, it’ll be easier to make a plan.

            Use a simple color scheme. The bride wants yellow, and lots of it. She’d already figured out that to really make yellow pop out in a garden, it needs a contrasting color like purple or blue. There are lots of pink roses and some pink fuchsias in the garden, but they’ll look fine with yellow and purple/blue flowers.
      

      I suggested that they limit themselves to a few plants that were easy to grow and bloomed over a long period of time, and plant those in mass quantities. Easy yellow plants might include lady’s mantle and ‘Moonshine’ yarrow, and, for contrast, purple catmint and ‘Johnson’s Blue’ true geraniums. All four of these plants are so prolific that Janis and Scott might have friends who would be willing to divide their own plants and share the extras. (Whoever you are, friends of Scott and Janis, this is a hint).

For height, it’s hard to beat the tall purple Verbena bonariensis, which puts up spikes of purple flowers on thin, wiry stems, creating an airy effect that won’t block the view of the rest of the garden. Dill or fennel flowers would also add some height and yellow blossoms, as would yellow hollyhocks, but it would be important to get a true “annual” hollyhock that blooms in the first year—otherwise you’ll end up with biennials that won’t bloom until your first anniversary.

The bride was particularly fond of the cutting of yellow ‘Honeycomb” buddleia I brought. With only a year to go, it would be a challenge to nurture this plant into a full-sized shrub, so I suggested spending a little extra money here and buying the shrubs in large, landscape-sized containers. Most of the rest of the plants will be available in affordable four-inch pots, so the buddleia would be the place to splurge.

Fill in with containers. Containers are another place to splurge because, as renters, they’ll be able to take them when they move someday. Containers don’t just belong on decks and patios—by placing them out in the garden they can add some height and some charm. Use logs, stones, cement blocks, or upside-down wine barrels as the base, then set a container on top and fill it with flowering plants the weekend before the wedding. (Simplicity is the key here, too—it’ll look much more coordinated if every pot is filled with the same one or two plants. Most nurseries can special-order extras with a little advance notice.)

Use high-impact foliage. Since it’s nearly impossible to make plants bloom on cue, I suggested using lots of gorgeous foliage in between the flowers. They already had a couple of silvery artemesias, so it makes sense to add more of those. The soft silver or pale green foliage of helichrysum would work well, as would the large-leafed peppermint scented geranium or some good-sized euphorbias, all of which are also available in inexpensive four-inch pots.

Feed with care. It’s easy to get over-excited and feed a garden so much that you burn it, but a monthly dose of dry organic fertilizer is critical. The established plants can use a balanced, all-purpose food now, and there are transplant formulas available for the new plants. The roses should get organic rose food, and the fruit trees need a special fruit tree formula. Scratch it in around the base of the plants and water well. Lay off during the coldest months of winter, then resume in spring. About six weeks before the wedding, switch to a “fruit and flower” formula that will help push everything into bloom.

            Water, weed, and deadhead. Plants need steady water to be able to take up nutrients and grow. This is not the time to put your garden to the test and see what kind of abuse it can stand. Water regularly, pull weeds, and keep cutting flowers. The garden will start to look gorgeous in June; it’ll take real discipline to cut back the flowers to encourage another round of blooms in August.
      

      Expect the unexpected. Anybody who’s ever tried to time a garden to bloom for a wedding knows that gardens have minds of their own. Some flowers will bloom a little early, some a little late. Welcome to married life; it’ll be the first of many things you can’t control. My words of wisdom to the bride: You get to pick the day, you get to pick the dress, and best of all, you get the pick the guy you’ll spend the rest of your life with. But when it comes to the garden, just give it all the love and attention you can, then stand back and let it do what it wants to do.

In fact, that approach works with husbands, too. Good luck to you both.
 

 


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The Abundant Garden


This time of year, when everything blooms at once, I realize that I should work a little harder to keep something flowering all year long. In the winter, when my front garden is cut down to nothing but dead sticks and pale green shoots, the place looks more like an abandoned lot than a carefully tended garden.  But I love these peak seasons when everything’s overflowing and out of control. That’s why I was drawn to Debra Prinzing’s new book, The Abundant Garden: A Celebration of Color, Texture, and Bloom, just out from Cool Springs Press.  It’s all about celebrating big, showy, wild gardens.  This time of year, I’m not in the mood for “refined” or “understated,” and neither is she. 

Prinzing, a garden columnist and speaker, profiles nine gardens that all operate under the principle that too much is never enough. She offers this definition of an abundant garden: “It means you can’t see the dirt.” She sets out nine design concepts that the abundant gardens in her book illustrate; here are just a few of them:





 










Intimacy: No matter how big and showy a garden is, little enclosed spaces give you a way to settle down into it and take it in a little at a time. Even if your garden has no fancy gazebos or sunken patios, you can cut a path through the jungle and put a chair at the end of it. There’s your intimate space.

Layering: This is about more than putting the short plants in the front and the tall plants in the back. It’s about letting plants “grow true to their forms,” as Prinzing puts it, and letting plants fit together like pieces of a puzzle.

Patterns: Let shapes, colors, and textures repeat themselves throughout the garden. There’s something about repetitions and echoes in a garden that can make the most overgrown tangle look pulled together.

Timelessness: Now, this is a tricky one. An old garden feels mysterious, grand, and elegant, but it’s not exactly a look you can create overnight. Prinzing suggests grouping younger trees into a dense grove, framing views of adjacent gardens and parks, and incorporating moss-covered boulders, weathered wood, and aged copper into the design to help make it old before its time.

She goes on to illustrate these ideas with photographs of gardens—many of them in the Pacific Northwest—that take a painterly approach to color, use odd and interesting materials (colored golf balls sunk into a concrete planter, flowery old china hung in the kitchen garden), and create the sort of layers and patterns that allow a garden to look abundant without sinking into complete chaos.

The Abundant Garden is a gorgeous, coffee-table sort of book, the kind of thing that’s nice to page through in the middle of the winter, but I was glad to find it in June, when my own garden is galloping along and I need to be reminded to take a step back, look at the big picture, and think about what changes I might like to make before next year. But of course, the changes aren’t entirely up to me. Spontaneity is another one of the gardening principles Prinzing advocates; in the introduction she writes that “Abundant gardens are thoughtfully grown, yet there’s also something serendipitous about them. Mother nature has her way in an abundant garden, embroidering that which human hands have formed with self-sowing plants and unexpected surprises.”

 


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Herbs and Other Urgent Matters


Judging from the tone of your e-mails, you people are busy this summer. I’ve had a flurry of questions from people who are undertaking some large, impressive garden project or another. If you’ve got questions about your garden, send them to me, and at some point in the not too distant future you might get an answer along the lines of:

Q: Every summer I plant an herb garden, but it seems like we never get enough herbs to even justify the expense of buying the seedlings. They either bloom right away and don’t put out a lot of leaves, or they disappear entirely. What gives?





 










A: It sounds like you’re talking about annual herbs, like basil or cilantro. These kinds of herbs should be easy to grow, but the fact is that they are a little fussy about temperature, and that can make them challenging on the North Coast. Basil, cilantro, parsley, and dill are fantastic herbs to have around as long as you’re willing to give a little thought to their needs. I recommend planting them in a pot so that you can move them around. On chilly days, they’ll want to be in the sun, but if it’s scorching hot where you live, they could use a little shade. The trick with these annual herbs is to make sure that they get steady water, protection from wind, and moderately warm temperatures. Too much heat and they’ll stop producing leaves and bloom; too much cold and they’ll sulk and refuse to grow at all.

It’s also important to know how to harvest annual herbs. Don’t just pick off a leaf or two when you need it. Instead, cut an entire stalk back to the base of the plant, leaving only a leaf or two on that plant. That way, you’ll prevent the plant from blooming and encourage it to put out more leaves. And if it does start to look like it’s blooming, pinch off the flowering stalk and consider moving it to a cooler spot.

Another advantage growing annual herbs in a pot is that you might stand a better chance of keeping the snails and slugs away from them. In my garden, I let the parsley bloom and set seed because snails don’t seem to like the taste of young parsley seedlings. But they do love basil, so the best strategy is to keep it out of the garden and on a patio or in a windowsill where you can keep it away from slimy predators.

That may sound somewhat complicated, and it is compared to perennial herbs. Rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano are freakishly easy to grow. All they need is a reasonable amount of sun—a little over half a day. They don’t care if your soil is horrible, and they don’t mind if you forget to water. Just stick them in the ground and watch them grow. If you don’t cut them, they will bloom and attract bees and butterflies to your garden. If you do cut them, they’ll just grow more vigorously than ever. Our local farmers markets have an incredible selection this time of year, so check it out.

Q: I’d like to attract more butterflies to our garden, but I have two small children and I’m afraid that we’ll get a lot of bees, too. Is there anything we could plant that would bring in some butterflies without making a lot of bees swarm around?

A. This may not be the answer you’re looking for, but really, there is absolutely no reason to be afraid of bees. Kids are never too young to learn that they shouldn’t hurt creatures that are smaller than them. That’s the only thing you need to teach them. Most of the bees that will turn up in your backyard if you plant butterfly friendly plants are native species of bumblebees that have absolutely no interest in you. The only reason they would sting you is if you trapped them and forced them to. Even if you manage to lure a healthy population of European honeybees, the species that is currently threatened by colony collapse disorder, I guarantee you that these creatures are far more interested in your flowers than they are in you. So yes, by all means, choose plants that will attract butterflies, and eliminate pesticides from your garden so that you don’t inadvertently hurt the good bugs. Go outside with your kids and just sit very quietly in the middle of all those flowers. Pretty soon, your insect population will buzz to life. It’s way more interesting than TV. And in the unlikely event that they do get stung, it’ll be a good story on the playground tomorrow.

Q: My husband insists on using herbicides on the weeds that spring up between the cracks in the sidewalk. He says it’s not a big deal because the chemicals are only going on the pavement. What do you think?

A. Yeah, you can probably guess whose side I’m going to take in this argument. Any chemicals you use around your house can end up on you, on wildlife, and in runoff that flows to the ocean– not to mention the environmental impacts of manufacturing, packaging, and shipping those chemicals in the first place. Besides, weeds that spring up out of pavement are too easy to deal with using non-toxic methods. Chop them down with a hoe or shovel — just think of all the money you’re saving on gym memberships — and if there’s any vegetation left, spray a mixture of white vinegar and water on them, or pour boiling water into the cracks. Easy, huh? And isn’t it nice to win an argument with your husband? Glad I could help.

 


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How the Worm Turns


Birds have all the luck.  New or rare species get discovered and written up in scientific journals and celebrated for their curved bills or their salmon-colored feathers or their unusual techniques for extracting seeds from pine cones.  When the ivory-billed woodpecker was spotted in Arkansas after fifty years in hiding, the bird became an overnight celebrity. Just this spring, scientists announced a new species of crossbill finch in southern Idaho to much fanfare, and last year a team of scientists declared that they’d encountered a treasure trove of new species in a remote area in New Guinea. 

Among them was a rare type of bowerbird, a creature known for building elaborate structures for its mate, complete with walkways and decorations made from berries, shells, and shiny coins.  Many of the newly-discovered birds, mammals, and amphibians in this area had never seen humans; the scientists found that sometimes they could simply walk over and pick the animals up.  Discovering new species?  No problem.  Just stroll into a jungle and get one.





 










But earthworm taxonomists don’t have it so easy. One has to dig for earthworms, and despite the fact that they are blind and deaf, worms are remarkably good at evading the probes and shovels of nosy scientists.  There’s also the problem of knowing where to dig.  An ornithologist can simply meander through a forest and look up; an oligochaetologist must keep an ear to the ground, so to speak, and try to divine the ideal earthworm habitat.

In spite of these difficulties, new earthworm species do turn up.  Dr. Sam James, research associate at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, has named about eighty new worm species in the last twenty years.  These discoveries don’t garner the same level of attention that a new bird might—after all, a worm does little more than slither through the mud to attract a mate, and that just doesn’t make for good television—but they are important nonetheless.  Earthworms are bellwether creatures; when they disappear, it probably means that vital habitat has been lost, too.

That’s why I’m so encouraged by the recent rediscovery of earthworms that had been classified as extinct.  On a recent trip to Brazil, Dr. James found Fimoscolex sporadochaetus, a fairly ordinary-looking pinkish-grey worm whose demise had been greatly exaggerated.  In fact, it had simply gone underground in 1969 and hadn’t resurfaced in the presence of an earthworm scientist since.

“Our position on these extinctions,” James said, “is that they are more likely to be off the radar than off the planet.”  Buoyed by this realization, James hopes to go hunting for Rhinodrilus fafner, which measures an impressive six feet in length but is equally reluctant to slither up to a taxonomist.

That’s not all.  A sighting last year in Washington of the giant white Palouse earthworm Driloleirus americanus, which stretches to three feet long and smells of lilies, sent shock waves through the earthworm community.  If the Great White Worm was back after nearly twenty years in hiding, what else might still be out there?

Dr. James had been watching the destruction of rare earthworm habitats with dismay.  If their forests and swamps disappear, he once told me, the worms may vanish, too.  “On the other hand,” he said after the sighting of the Palouse worm, “who knows?  One of these creatures could show up in the corner of a soccer field.  Stranger things have happened.”

So on this Earth Day, I’m encouraged by the idea that there are still some mysteries left in the world. The lonely and obscure earthworm scientist may be more in touch with the unknown than an astronomer.  After all, no telescope can penetrate the deep reaches of the earth, and there is no reason to believe that an earthworm is extinct just because it avoids human contact.  In fact, this may be further proof of Charles Darwin’s assertion that earthworms possess some intelligence.

Unlike those flamboyant bowerbirds, a worm might simply decide that it is better off without us, and retire from public life.  That’s a sensible decision. I wish it well.

 


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Pick Your Poison


New York Times Op-Ed, May 14, 2006

WHEN I send a bouquet to my mother on the second Sunday in May, I’m motivated by this familiar scene from childhood: Mom walking in the door at the end of the day, paperwork spilling out of her briefcase, her feet aching to get out of high-heeled shoes and her mind already turning to what she could cook for dinner. She worked a series of difficult jobs that she didn’t particularly like to help keep food on the table. For that, she gets flowers.





 










 

This annual floral tradition — one that I participate in along with roughly half of all Mother’s Day shoppers, bringing in about $1.98 billion to American flower shops — was fairly uncomplicated until I started wondering about the women who might harvest those flowers. The question of where and how our flowers are grown raises all sorts of thorny issues for consumers. But today I’ve sent my mother a bouquet that doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s mother, working under much worse conditions and for much less pay.

Of the roughly four billion stems we buy each year, 78 percent are imported, mostly from Latin America. One impetus for moving cut flower production to countries like Colombia and allowing the flowers to be shipped to the United States tariff-free was a misguided hope that such projects would provide an alternative to coca production.

While the drug war rages on, serious labor and environmental problems associated with floriculture have now moved south of the border. Imported flowers can’t show any signs of bugs and fungus when they arrive at Miami International Airport for inspection. In their eagerness to make sure that their flowers pass muster, many growers in Latin America douse their crops in agricultural chemicals that are banned or severely restricted here at home.

On a flower farm in Ecuador, I saw workers dunk bunches of roses, blossom-first, into a barrel of fungicide just before shipment. The stench was so overpowering that I had to resist the urge to run outside for air. Chemicals dripped off the flowers, they sloshed on the floor and it seemed impossible that the workers — almost all women — could get through the day without getting covered in them, too.

In addition to the health hazards that such chemicals pose, the runoff of pesticides and fertilizers into streams and aquifers threatens already fragile water resources. This has prompted agencies like Canada’s International Development Research Center to invest in long-term projects to study the extent to which these chemicals persist in the environment. All this for a flower? When I watched Ecuadorean workers move through a field of baby’s breath — a filler that is nothing but an afterthought in most arrangements — dressed in full protective gear to shield themselves from chemicals, I realized that something had gone horribly wrong with the Mother’s Day bouquet. I couldn’t stomach the idea of buying those flowers for my mom. But until recently, there weren’t many alternatives.

One is the new VeriFlora label, which establishes sustainable agriculture and labor standards for flowers grown anywhere in the world for sale in the United States. Two farms in California and two in Latin America have been certified so far, representing about 250 million stems per year that enlightened consumers can send their mothers. Some of those flowers are organic, and others are grown using the least toxic methods available with a commitment to move to organic practices eventually. All growers are monitored for compliance with local labor laws.

So where are these eco-label flowers? Good question. I’ve asked dozens of florists why they don’t offer organic or certified flowers, and every one of them told me that their customers haven’t asked for them. Some didn’t want to call the rest of their flowers into question by offering socially responsible bouquets as well. But organic and conventional products are sold side by side in grocery stores; there’s no reason flowers should be different.

It’s a vicious cycle. Growers won’t participate in the program unless they see a market for certified flowers. Retailers won’t stock them unless their customers demand them.

And although shoppers might prefer ”green” bouquets if they saw them, they can hardly be blamed for not asking for them.

Try this experiment: Call your florist and say that you’d like a dozen pesticide-free roses delivered to your mother. Explain that you also want an assurance that the woman who picked them wasn’t forced to work unpaid overtime or take her children to work to help her meet her quotas.

Silence? Yeah, that’s the response my florist gave, too. But my mother didn’t raise a shrinking violet. I said that I would find certified flowers somewhere, and eventually I did. Mom, your roses are coming from an Internet florist that sells only organic bouquets. I don’t know what the woman who picked them will do with her day off, but at least I know that she gets a day off. I wish a happy Mother’s Day to both of you.


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Local Color


New York Times Op-Ed, February 14, 2007.

 

IF a city is an ecosystem, the flower shop is perhaps its most vital and endangered habitat. In the last 15 years, the number of florists in the United States declined 17 percent. In 1992, there was a florist for every 9,300 Americans; now florists must serve, on average, more than 12,000 people each — if they serve them at all. Half of cut flower purchases are made at supermarkets now, and less than a third of American households buy flowers in a year. It’s no wonder that third-generation florists are closing their doors. But if flower shops go extinct, what have we lost?





 










 

The urban florist is a fairly recent invention. In 1864, this newspaper observed that ”a few years ago, the business of selling out flowers and bouquets was confined to one or two peripatetic vendors of cheap trash; now we mention it as evidence of growing taste.” The florists of Broadway, the account continued, filled their shop windows with ”a profusion of costly exotics.” Flowers were no longer a crop to be sold out of the back of a greenhouse or from a street cart; they had become horticultural jewels, and florists earned their place alongside the city’s other luxury shops.

Since then, flower shops have been green spots of nature in the city. They mark the change of the seasons, even in this age of global commerce when roses come from Ecuador and orchids from Thailand and peonies from New Zealand. Gnarled branches of cherry blossoms emerge in shop windows in March, followed by a show of lilac so short that it will make even the most harried city dweller’s heart ache for the brevity of spring.

Sunflowers spill onto the sidewalks in summer, attracting honeybees from hidden rooftop hives. And in the middle of a winter snowstorm, nothing is as gloriously alive as the inside of a flower shop, with its chrysanthemums and tulips as bright as flames.

Florists don’t just celebrate nature; they celebrate us as well. New York City alone sees 169 marriages a day, 340 births and 157 deaths. Florists understand what it is that we cannot quite bring ourselves to say at these moments; they wrap up a few dozen delicate, ephemeral blossoms and rush them across town to do the job for us.

A florist in Hattiesburg, Miss., who just closed his family’s shop after over a century in business, remembered that drunks would sometimes wake his father up in the middle of the night, demanding flowers so their wives would let them come home. Without a florist to finesse our clumsy emotional transactions, we might all be sleeping on the stoop.

But today florists are grappling with the same problems faced by other specialty stores. Supermarket chains, discount clubs and Internet retailers use their buying power to purchase directly from growers, selling bouquets at prices that can be lower than what mom-and-pop florists pay at wholesale. We’ve bought into the myth that flowers are too expensive, sacrificing the sensual delights and emotional comforts of the flower shop along the way.

In fact, it is surprising how affordable flowers really are: 120 years ago, the best roses sold in New York for $18 a dozen, and arrangements went for $40 or $50 — this at a time when hotel rooms rented for $5. Today a bouquet costs about the same as it did then, but $5 won’t cover cab fare to a hotel, much less a room for the night.

It’s puzzling to florists that their wares, those exquisite purple lilies and sweet heavenly freesias, must be sold at bargain-basement prices to get anyone’s attention. A dozen roses, a florist will remind you, still cost less — and last longer — than a dinner out, a night at the theater or a bottle of good Champagne.

This is the challenge facing florists: they must hold the attention of the distracted shopper rushing past on the street. They have to convince us to choose irises over iPods, magnolias over Manolos. This is especially critical every Feb. 14, when they hope to earn about a third of their annual revenue in one day.

I once sat in a florist’s workroom on Valentine’s Day, and I listened as desperate husbands and lovesick suitors called seeking the calm, good-natured help of a stranger who understood what was at stake. You can place your heart into the hands of a florist. Flower shops remind us who we are — fragile, transitory creatures, not nearly as tough as our suits and our briefcases make us look. They call our attention to the passing of spring, and to the fullness of love. Every city needs that.


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The Joy of Compost


I’ve always been something of a compost bin addict. In my life I’ve had five bins, (not counting open compost piles) and there are a few more models I’d still like to try. The satisfaction that comes from turning over a pile of dead leaves and moldy fruit and discovering dark, damp, worm-infested muck underneath—well, if I have to explain it to you, you probably wouldn’t understand anyway. You’ll find the rest of this column profoundly dull and you’re better off skipping ahead to the movie listings.

When I talk to people about their compost piles (it’s a topic that comes up more often than you might think) I’m always surprised at the widely different approaches that gardeners use to get the same result. Composting is an inexact science, and what works for one gardener may not work for another. Also, I’ve learned that the state of a person’s compost pile can be a fairly reliable predictor of their personality. Some people love to turn a compost pile every day and check its vital signs (temperature, moisture content, pH), while others would rather pile everything in a messy heap in the corner and turn it over once a year to pull out whatever compost has accumulated at the base of the pile.
Fortunately, there’s a compost bin—and method—to match every temperament. For instance:





 










 

The Martha Stewart Method: The primary goal of this method is to make it clear to your neighbors that you are a far superior gardener than they could ever hope to be. To do this correctly, you’ll need plenty of space—it is assumed that you live on a large estate with some sort of service area in the back that can accommodate an enormous compost pile—and perfect yard waste. By “perfect,” I mean that you should always have about three parts carbon—dried leaves, hay, shredded newspaper—to one part nitrogen—grass clippings, manure, kitchen waste. Everything should be cut into small, tidy pieces, watered, and turned regularly. (Depending on the size of the pile, turning it may require some farm equipment. You do have a John Deere, don’t you?)
If it’s managed properly, your pile will soon begin to give off steam from the heat that is generated as your perfect yard waste decomposes. The goal is to create enough steam to make one of your neighbors call the fire department. This actually happened to Martha, and she was able to spend a very satisfactory afternoon out in the driveway explaining her compost system to her neighbors and the firefighters. Naturally, she took an opportunity to brag about it in the next issue of her magazine. While you can get excellent compost from this method, the bragging rights are what it’s really all about.

The Amy Stewart Method:  Feed it all to the worms. It’s all about the worms. Keep some worms outside the back door for your kitchen scraps, and make sure your compost pile has plenty of worms wriggling around at the bottom of it. Keep the worms happy, and you can’t go wrong. I won’t go into all the details about worm composting here, but I’ll be teaching a free workshop at the Compost Festival, and I’ll tell you all about it then.

The Lasagna Method: A book called Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza popularized this method, but it’s actually been around for quite a while. Some people call it “sheet composting,” but basically it’s a lazy person’s way to expand the garden without digging. The idea is that in the fall, you pick a spot where you’d like to build a new garden bed for spring. Chop down the weeds, lay down a thick, damp layer of newspaper or cardboard to smother any remaining weeds and grass, and start adding layers of whatever you’d put in a compost pile—grass clippings, dried leaves, manure, etc. You can make this pile over a foot tall—even two to three feet tall—because it will decompose and shrink within a few weeks. Top it with finished compost or a bagged soil amendment, and wait. By spring, the grass clippings and dried leaves will have composted, and you can plant right into the bed.   

The Gearhead Method: This method involves using the maximum amount of gear in the creation of your compost. Start out with a chipper/shredder (people keep asking me where I got my electric shredder–go here for more information.) and chop everything into bits. Then load it into a compost tumbler, a metal drum that you turn daily to get finished compost in just a few weeks. Add some compost accelerator, check the temperature with a soil thermometer daily, and use your pH meter to monitor the acidity. When it’s all done, use a screen to sift out the larger chunks and sprinkle the remaining product around your garden like fairy dust. Total up-front cost for the Gearhead Method: around $500.


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