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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Rare Dutch Tulips and Other Fabulous Bulbs

You know your gardening habit has gotten out of control when:

A. You look forward to receiving junk e-mail from your favorite gardening catalog

B. You are willing to pay $10 for a single diseased bulb because it’s so rare

C. A traveling exhibit on the history of the flower pot actually sounds interesting

D. All of the above.

This brilliant flash of insight came to me when I got my last ‘Friends of Old Bulbs Gazette’ e-mail from Old House Gardens. I got to know this heirloom bulb company last year after I went to Holland and became interested in the old Dutch tulips that were still being cultivated at the Hortus Bulborum in Limmen. Some of these bulbs have been around for four hundred years, and they’d probably vanish entirely if a group of very dedicated, and mostly quite elderly, volunteers didn’t keep them going year after year.



One of the reasons why these tulips aren’t more widely available is that some of them are diseased—sort of. In the late 16th and 17th century, Holland’s tulip mania was fueled by a desire for tulips with wild streaks of color on their petals. These streaked tulips were almost impossible to propagate, and the very randomness of the color variation drove speculators to gamble enormous sums on a single bulb. What the Dutch didn’t know at the time was that the streaks of color were caused by a fairly harmless virus called “tulip breaking virus.” It’s spread by aphids and infects tulips and lilies (with less pleasing results in the lilies.)

So I returned from Holland with a craving for weird old tulips, and Old House Gardens was the only company that could help. The owner, Scott Kunst, has been growing and selling antique bulbs out of his Queen Anne house in Ann Arbor since 1993. Among their offerings I found “Exquisite Rarities from the Hortus Bulborum,” a collection of bulbs that came directly from the hands of the aforementioned elderly Dutch volunteers. They cost a small fortune, but I had to have a few. I called Kunst to ask him about the alleged virus in these bulbs.

“Yeah, it freaks out our customers and sometimes it freaks us out, too,” he said. “But I try to explain that it’s a kind of benign virus, like the naturally occurring bacteria that improve wine or cheese. This is just a virus that causes the pigments to clump together and reveal the naturally white or yellow color of the petals underneath.”

I asked him if gardeners should be worried about the virus spreading in the garden. “Look,” he said. “There’s viruses all around, all the time. Tulip breaking virus is really out there in the wild all the time. Even in my garden, before I ever grew broken tulips, I had a tulip that broke. The virus was already here. But we do encourage people to plant them away from other tulips or lilies.” (It is true that nothing in a garden is ever clean or sterile. Even the “beneficial microbes” added to organic fertilizers are actually bacteria and fungi that do far more good than harm.)

So why grow a diseased old tulip when there are perfectly new, squeaky clean tulips on the market every year? “You can grow what they call ‘modern Rembrandts,’ which look similar, but they’re modern hybrids,” he told me. “The coloring is very crude and harsh, like a paint-by-number painting. In true broken tulips, you’ll see more refined feathering patterns, more damask-like. These modern hybrids totally lack the grace and beauty of the old tulips,” he said.

Old tulips aren’t their only offerings; they also sell any number of spring and fall-blooming bulbs. For instance, you can find two rare and well-loved hybrid lilies developed by Leslie Woodriff, who bred lilies in McKinleyville for many years. They offer both ‘Black Beauty,’ an astonishing lily that grows 5-8 feet tall and produces up to 40 ruby blooms, and ‘White Henryi,’ which produces flowers with creamy white petals and a butterscotch throat with nutmeg freckles. (I didn’t come up with that description myself—that’s actually how Kunst described it to me. This guy knows how to sell lilies.)  Of course, the tulips and lilies aren’t shipped until fall, but many of these rare bulbs are available in such small quantities that you’re better off placing your orders this summer.

There’s something so daring and decadent about buying something old and rare and costly and just sticking it in the dirt. What if a gopher gets it? What if the snails mow it down? What if it gets lost in a sea of geranium or a drift of love-in-a-mist? On the other hand, these bulbs have survived the hit-or-miss attention of generations of gardeners before me. They might just make it in my garden, too.

To feed your habit, visit www.oldhousegardens.com or call 734-995-1486 and ask for a catalog. And yes, they will send you an e-mail once a month if you so desire, and from that newsletter you will learn about a traveling exhibit of old flower pots that is not, as far as I can tell, coming to the West Coast, an article on heirloom daffodils in Oklahoma that may date back to the Trail of Tears, and a list of any number of obscure old bulbs that you probably never knew you needed.

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Raising Chickens in Your Backyard

In the off chance that you haven’t been cruising through your favorite feed store every weekend to check for new developments, let me be the first to tell you: the chicks are here. We’ve been wanting to keep hens the backyard for a few years now, but it has taken all this time to build a coop and make the other necessary arrangements to welcome chickens into our lives.

We got our chicks at the beginning of April. The first two, a Golden Laced Wyandotte and a Rhode Island Red, both brown egg layers, were a week old when we brought them home from the feed store. A couple days later, a shipment of day-old Araucanas arrived (those are the ones that lay blue and green eggs) and we bought two of those, too. One of our earliest preparations for the arrival of chickens was to decide what to call them, and we’d long ago decided that we wanted to name them after first ladies. After they arrived and we evaluated their personalities and political affiliations, we settled on Abigail, Eleanor, Bess, and Dolley.

These four chicks have been the center of our lives every since. I will use any conversation as an excuse to talk about my chicks, introduce them to guests, or display pictures of them. Because I talk about chickens almost incessantly, I’ve managed to assemble a short list of frequently-asked questions. If you’ve ever thought about adding poultry to your garden, maybe this’ll provide some inspiration.


Q: Why chickens?

A: Are you kidding? Chickens are cool, really cool. They eat bugs, produce manure, till the ground, and generally add a kind of organic, back-to-the-earth vibe to the garden. Oh yeah, and they lay eggs. But eggs alone are probably not reason enough to keep chickens. (see the question on the economics of hens, below.)

Q: How do they get along with your other pets?

A: I’ve heard that dogs are quite likely to attack chickens and should be kept separate from them. I’m sure some dogs can be trained to leave chickens alone, and I’ll probably get a dozen photos of dogs napping contentedly with a flock of chickens as soon as this goes to print, but it sounds like a risky proposition to me.

Cats are another story. At the moment, my chicks are still a bit smaller than a pigeon, which means that when my cat sees them, he gets a look on his face that says, “Oh, hors d’oeurves! How nice. Will you be serving cocktails with these?” But once they grow into full-sized hens, the cats will know that they’ve met their match and will negotiate a truce.

Q: Is it better to raise them from chicks or buy adult hens?

A: If at all possible, raise them from chicks. (It’s not too late to get some from local feed stores, although they usually get their last shipment by mid-May.) We were hesitant to try it ourselves, figuring that nurturing four baby birds into adulthood might be terribly time-consuming and difficult, but the truth is that they are adorable and interesting and extraordinarily tame as a result of our efforts. They’ll live inside for about eight weeks, and frankly, when they move outside, we’ll be sorry to see them go. If you do buy an adult hen, remember that egg production declines after their first year. Also, it can be difficult to introduce new hens into an existing flock, so you’re better off getting all the birds you want at once rather than buying one or two a year.

Q. Will the hens earn their keep by producing eggs?

A. Very funny. Nice try. These are pets, not egg machines. What this means is that they live in a highly secure and very well-decorated henhouse, eat the finest commercial feed, and enjoy the attention of two owners whose books on chickens outnumber the chickens themselves. Here’s my best guess at what we’ve spent to date on this foolish enterprise:

$300 for chicken coop construction (keeping in mind that we are utterly inept with tools and made many mistakes.)

$100 for books on chicken-rearing (If you get just one, get Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow.)

$100 for feeders, pine shavings, brooder lamps, chick feed, and other feed store impulse purchases

$50 worth of accessories such as cute bucket labeled “Fresh Eggs”

$12 for the four baby chicks.

I don’t know how many eggs you buy in a year, but no, these chicks will no sooner earn their keep than our cats will. Which reminds me—LeRoy still owes me five hundred bucks for emergency surgery after he lost a fight with a dog ten years ago. And he has yet to provide a single meal for my table.

Q: Will they trample the garden?

A: Experts differ. One gardener I know says to kiss my self-sowing annuals good-bye because the chickens will pluck the little seedlings out of the ground. Another tells me that her hens range free all day and do very little damage. Yet a third gardener reports that chickens avoid strong-smelling plants like herbs but go crazy for lettuce and strawberries. I intend to let mine range free for a little while in the late afternoon and see how it goes. If you have a large garden with some fallow areas, consider a portable coop called a “chicken tractor” that allows the birds to work one area of the garden, loosening soil, devouring weeds, and depositing manure, until you are ready to move them to another spot.

One of the odd little incidents that set us firmly on the path to chicken husbandry was an encounter at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show with a Fort Bragg chicken farmer who sells a portable henhouse made out of a wine barrel. He calls it the Chick ’N Caboodle, and he sells it with two Araucana hens and will even deliver and provide technical support for the first year. (To find out more, e-mail email hidden; JavaScript is required.) We admired his setup, petted his hens, and after we’d talked for a while, he said, “You two will do good with chickens. I can tell. You have good chicken energy.”

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A Garden From a Hundred Packets of Seed by James Fenton

In James Fenton’s book A Garden from a Hundred Packets of Seed, he not only explores the possibilities of creating a garden on a small budget and entirely from seed packets, he also advocates another kind of gardening entirely. He points out that most garden design experts recommend focusing first on structure, laying out the location of trees, large shrubs, ponds and patios, and then filling in the gaps with those little blooming things called flowers. The idea is that a garden should have good bones, and that annual flowers, as well as perennial flowers that don’t offer much in the way of structure when they’re not in bloom, should be seen as extras in a show whose major stars are trees and shrubs. Fenton argues otherwise, claiming that you should plant what you love, let the flowers themselves shine, and don’t get bogged down in ponderous graph paper designs and hardscape.

Actually, he later admits that there is a certain wisdom to the shrubs-and-trees-as-backbone approach, but points out that many of us don’t stay in one place long enough to fully experience the garden in its maturity, and besides, a garden built on packets of seeds is a perfect way to pass the first couple of years in a new garden, while you get to know the site, improve the soil, and figure out the unique microclimate of your property.

There’s something to be said for Fenton’s approach. I allow part of my garden to look perfectly boring all winter—no bones, no structure, no shrubs, no trees—because in May, it explodes into bloom and stays that way until October. I’ve planted all my favorite flowers there with just one rule in mind: when fall comes, there must be no large plant mass left to deal with. Everything gets chopped down to the ground where it sits, failing to inspire, never drawing praise, utterly lacking in curb appeal, until the following May.

The nice part about planting a garden like this—a flower garden that’s all about the flowers—is that the kinds of plants you’ll choose are likely to be very affordable. Cosmos, daisy, bachelor button, yarrow, poppy—they’re all available as seeds or inexpensive six-packs, and they’re so widely available that you can slip one into the grocery cart every time you walk past that little rack of plants outside the store and no one will be the wiser. Over time, many of these plants re-seed or allow themselves to be divided so that the territory you’ve devoted to them can expand. And if you decide later to make the garden more permanent and put in some of that “structure,” it’s no great loss to rip out some plants and move them or give them away.



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Growing Your Own Wedding Flowers

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me if I’d do the flowers for her wedding. Now, I know that “doing” the flowers mostly means figuring out what flowers we should use, ordering them from a florist, and arranging them myself. But I couldn’t let it be that simple, and why would I want to? Every year I grow more flowers than I know what to do with, and every year I wish someone would ask me to supply the flowers for their wedding, their dinner party, their open house, whatever (don’t everybody jump up at once). The sad truth is that I just don’t have an active enough social life to put all of my own flowers to good use.

            So I agreed to do the flowers for the wedding on the condition that they let me bring some flowers from my own garden, and they agreed with great enthusiasm. The bride loves sweet peas, and she also loves poppies—two flowers that are impossible to get from the florist because they are too fragile to transport. I also plan to bring as many filler flowers—little extras to round out what we get from the florist—as I can. Lady’s mantle, feverfew, and scented geranium leaves will all be at their best in June, so I’ll just bring them along and work them in where I can.

            If you’ve got a Big Event of your own this summer, here are some suggestions for getting the flowers to bloom just in time.


Get started now. Even if you’re timing your blooms for, say, August or September, there’s plenty you can go right now to move things along. Dig as much compost as you can into empty beds, and keep them clear of weeds until planting day. Side-dress established plants with compost and scratch in a balanced organic fertilizer. Also, pay close attention to watering needs throughout the spring. You’ll be in the habit of watering by summer, but a dry spell in spring can stress young plants and throw off their blooming cycle later.

            Overplant.  It’s absolutely vital to have a backup, or several backups. I’m filling every vertical space with sweet peas, even the chicken wire around the compost bin. That way, if the flowers in one location don’t take off the way I thought they would, I’ve got plenty of other options. Don’t worry about stylish planting schemes—if you have a few empty spaces here and there in the garden, fill them with extras of whatever you’re growing for your big event.

            Watch the clock. Many seed companies advertise that their annuals will bloom in 12 weeks from seed, but this assumes perfect growing conditions and probably a warmer climate than we have. Create a realistic schedule, and then pad it by an extra week or two.

            Pinch and feed. Feed and pinch. You can hold plants back when you need to, and you can push them along, too. If my Iceland poppies start to bloom too soon, I’ll pinch off the young buds to encourage more flowers later. I don’t have time to waste with the sweet peas, so I’ll pinch off side shoots and encourage one sturdy, central stalk that will bloom earlier. And if the weather is unseasonably cold, you might consider creating a temporary greenhouse with plastic sheeting and stakes to warm the plants up.

To keep plants moving along, feed them a weak dilution of a balanced, organic liquid fertilizer every week, but switch to a “bud and bloom” formula in the last month. Follow the instructions on the package closely, and if you feed more often, make sure you use less. (For instance, if you’re going to feed the plants twice as often as the directions recommend, give them half as much food.) And if you’re an almost-organic gardener and you’re considering breaking your vows, this would be as good a time as any: during the last month before the big day, a mineral-based inorganic fertilizer designed to encourage blooming will push the flowers along without causing irreparable harm to your garden. Just don’t tell anyone I said so.

Get ready to cut.  Plan on cutting flowers the day before the event. Gather your materials ahead of time—you’ll need buckets, sharp flower shears (don’t use paper scissors, because the blades can pinch off the stem before they cut), and professional flower food, which you can usually buy at a craft store or from a florist or garden center. It’s got just the right amount of sugar, acidity, and antibacterial ingredients to extend the life of flowers. (For a homemade substitute, try a dollop of lemon-lime soda and a few drops of bleach.)

Cut in the early morning or late in the evening when the flowers are holding more water in their tissue. Make a quick, angled cut, snip off whatever foliage will be underwater, and drop them into a bucket of warm water and flower food. Move the flowers into a cool, dark spot and keep them there until it’s time to arrange them. If possible, keep each kind of flower in its own bucket, and remember that different flowers have different needs. Poppies, euphorbia, and other flowers that excrete a milky sap, for instance, and do best if the cut end is seared quickly with a match to keep them from losing sap. (They’ll draw in water through the sides of the stems.) Many flowers, including poppies, should be picked just before the bud opens so they’ll be in their prime the next day. And always keep flowers away from fruits and vegetables, which can cause flowers to ripen and wilt prematurely because they excrete a clear, mostly odorless gas called ethylene.

When it’s time to arrange the flowers, cut the stems again and put them right into fresh water with more flower food. Keep the finished arrangements out of the sun and away from heat, and mist them with water to keep them looking good until the dinner party/reception/company picnic.  And finally…

Be modest. When your guests arrive and shower you with praise for your floricultural prowess, just shrug and say, “Oh, these? You know, I got up this morning, and I saw these blooming in the garden, and I thought, oh, why not bring some inside.” You’ll know the truth, and so will I, but we’ll never tell a soul. After all, it’s all about making it look effortless.

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Garden Show Gadgets

I’ve just returned from the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle. It’s going to be a busy, garden show-ish kind of spring for me: I’m trekking to the Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco shows this spring to teach workshops, always with my worms in tow. So this column is the first of what may turn out to be a two or three-part series on the wild and wonderful world of garden shows.

Last weekend, for the first time, I checked a worm bin through as baggage. When I presented it at the ticket counter, packed neatly in a cardboard box, the guy behind the counter eyed it suspiciously.

“Uh, whatcha got in the box?” he asked.

“Yes. Well,” I said, having prepared myself for this question, “it is an empty, unused worm composting bin. Basically it’s a big plastic box.”


“So it’s…new?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s worm-free.” (The worms were in my carry-on.)   

“You’re going to have to sign a waiver for that,” he said, and I signed a little form to indicate my agreement with the premise that it is perfectly ridiculous to check a worm bin as baggage and that if anything went wrong, I had only myself to blame.

I arrived at the show on Friday afternoon—too late, I realized, to see Noel Kingsbury give any of his talks. He’s become a very hot commodity in the gardening world lately for his naturalistic approach to gardening—if you’ve been reading this column for a while, you may remember me raving about his book Natural Gardening in Small Spaces a while back. He’s got a gorgeous new book called Designing Borders, in which he asks his fellow hip garden designers to each contribute a section. Penelope Hobhouse, Piet Oudolf, and others take up the challenge, and the result is a compact and beautifully illustrated guide to the very best work of the very best naturalistic garden designers out there. (More coming soon about Piet, by the way. It’s all I can do not to pack my bags and move to Holland to work for this guy. Just turning his compost pile would be a privilege.)

Kingsbury had a talk scheduled on “Men, Women, and Gardening” that was billed as, “An entertaining look at whether men and women garden differently. If so, how and why? And is there really a gay garden?”

The answer is, I hope, yes, yes, and yes, but I deeply regret that I missed Kingsbury’s take on it. Please write to me with your own thoughts on the subject—if you say something clever, I just might print it.

I did get there in plenty of time to wander the convention center, stunned at the size of the crowd that turns out on a weekday to go to a garden show. Seattle is a city of hardcore, serious gardeners. Over 70,000 people were expected to attend over the show’s five days. A couple of the vendors explained to me that the real gardeners show up during the week, their routes mapped out, their programs marked so they don’t miss the best seminars. Then the amateurs come on the weekend. After all, if gardening isn’t worth missing work for, you can’t be that serious about it, right?

But in spite of the uncomfortably crowded halls, I realized that it is impossible not to be happy at a garden show. The display gardens—crazily fake displays of potted plants jumbled together to resemble a real garden, often around some over-the-top piece of garden architecture like a treehouse with a sod roof—come together in the main hall to create a kind of theme park for gardeners. You can step into these tiny little fantasy worlds for just a minute, just long enough to imagine yourself as the kind of gardener who builds retractable window boxes that allow you to move your plants in and out of the sun, and the kind who recirculates the fishy water from your pond into your greenhouse as fertilizer (a process that allows the plants in the greenhouse to clean up the water so it can flow back into the pond, of course).

I am not one of those kinds of gardeners, so eventually I got bored with the display gardens. The flower show was also a little difficult to connect with—take a look at the photo on this page and try to imagine this arrangement on your hall table—so I moved on to one of my favorite aspects of gardening: shopping. The north and south halls were filled with vendors selling The Next Big Thing. Two of my favorites: Y-shaped plant supports with bendy arms that allow you to use the support to grab just one stem or embrace an entire shrub (available from www.createagarden.com) and these crazy little muddy things called SeedBallz, which are basically flower seeds mushed into a ball along with some clay and some good compost. You toss the balls around the garden, water them, and the flowers sprout as a big cluster. I have no idea if this works better than planting seeds the old-fashioned way, but I can’t resist a gimmick so I bought a few of them. You can check them out at www.gardenbasket.com.

And because I was traveling by air, and I already had the worms in tow, I resisted the temptation to buy orchard mason bees, which come packed in straws as near-adult larvae, ready to hatch and fly off to pollinate the spring garden. The bee guy and I got to talking about traveling with bugs; turned out he was once minding his own business on a flight to the Philadelphia Flower Show, his bees stashed in his carry-on, when he heard a familiar buzzing.  A young female had hatched and landed on the window, where she peered out at the impossibly high clouds. He asked the flight attendant for a couple of cups and carefully scooped her up. “She rode with me like that to Philadelphia,” he said, “and I took her to the flower show and set her free.”

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The Kindest Cut

The most dangerous moments in my garden come, not surprisingly, when I have a pair of pruning shears in my hand. What is surprising is the sheer stupidity of my attempts at self-inflicted injury: I grab a bunch of dead stalks with one hand, reach in to cut them down with the other, and somehow manage to nearly slice off one of the fingers on the hand that’s holding the plant. I usually attack a plant with some vigor, so it’s a wonder I’ve never succeeded in severing half an index finger. Fortunately, my pruning shears are usually pretty dull and rusty and they don’t pose much of a threat to anyone, including the shrubs I’m working on. These close calls did get me in the habit of wearing tough gloves in the garden—not to protect myself against thorns, but against my own tools.

Last week I discovered a nifty new gadget that might just save my digits and make smaller pruning jobs go much quicker. A blade and tool company called Techni Edge manufactures Snip-It, a gardening scissor that slides onto the thumb and forefinger. All it takes is a cutting motion, castanet-style, to slice leaves, stems, and thin branches.

What makes this little toy so injury-proof is the two-handed technique. You buy a pair of them—they’re only four bucks apiece—and strap one onto each hand, then go after your perennials with double the fervor. With so many fingers occupied, it’s far less likely that any of them will get in the way of the blade.


I spent the morning outside, whacking away at salvia, gaura, veronica, and all the other neglected perennials in my garden that were desperately in need of a haircut. The trick is to grab just one or two stalks at a time; anything more than that will jam up the works. I found that Snip-Its were able to handle anything up to about the diameter of a pencil. It makes fast work of deadheading and light pruning, but shearing back low-growing perennials like geranium and catmint was not worth the trouble: the plants were so dense and damp that Snip-It’s small blade was not as effective as a pair of pruning shears would be.

You may want a third pair for the kitchen as well, because you can use them to keep cut flowers fresh—just pull the stems out of the water every couple of days, snip off an inch, change the water, and put them back. Using knives and kitchen scissors can pinch off the stem before making a cut, which prevents the flower from taking up water the way it should. You’ll also find that Snip-Its are useful for snipping away at kitchen herbs and houseplants.

Perhaps the reason that I like this gadget so much is that it appeals to the cheapskate in me. I can’t stand to spend money on pots or statuary or tools when I could have spent the money on plants. So a four-dollar tool that actually works is a delight. I can let it rust and fall apart and it’s no big deal to pick up another one next time I’m at the nursery. But the way things are going, they’ll probably last forever: I’m so enamored of them that I wash them off after every use, pat them dry, and even use a silver martini pick to dig out any bark or leaves that might have gotten stuck in the groove the blade fits into. The pruning shears, meanwhile, get dumped into a bucket of tools, where they will sit, covered in mud and rusting, until I come up with another job the Snip-It can’t handle.

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Zen and the Art of Apple Tree Maintenance

“I expect to fully master the art of pruning by the time I’m eighty years old.” That’s how Michael Phillips, author of The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist begins his chapter on pruning. It’s not an encouraging start.

I didn’t think it would be all that complicated to care for an apple tree until I planted one. I bought a tree, evaluated the young plant’s branching structure, and vowed to make a few judicious cuts after the first year. But somehow a couple of winters passed and I never even touched the tree. I was paralyzed by indecision and inexperience.

In fact, there is an art and a science to the pruning of fruit trees. It’s helpful know how to use phrases like “stubbing cut” and “water sprout” in a sentence, and to be able to discuss the pros and cons of the open vase style as opposed to the modified central leader style. And you’ll have to navigate through advice like this:


“Midsummer is the time to snip back the four or so invigorated top shoots (caused by heading the whip back at planting time) to the chosen leader. Laterals just below these sharp-angled upper shoots are left to develop as scaffold candidates for the following year.”

I’ve had better luck with stereo instructions. But an academic grasp of the facts isn’t enough: Phillips encourages “oneness with the tree” and advises approaching the tree with an “introductory intake of the breath.”

Maybe that’s my problem. I’d been approaching the tree with a bottle of Alleycat Amber in one hand and a pair of rusty pruning shears in the other, humming ‘Octopus’s Garden’ and paying no attention to my breathing whatsoever. Inevitably I’d lose my nerve, drop into a chair next to the tree, finish my beer, and resolve to study Phillips’ book again before I had another go at it.

Fruit tree growers, perhaps exasperated by the utter incompetence of gardeners like me, have developed new techniques for “no prune” bareroot trees that will survive benign neglect and rough handling. The new EZ-PICK trees from the L.E. Cooke Company in Visalia are one such example; their novel approach to grafting and rootstock selection result in a tree that, they claim, requires very little specialized pruning, produces fruit a year or two earlier, and takes up no more space than a large shrub.

Sales rep Lloyd Cassidy described how it works. “We start with a two year-old rootstock,” he said, “and this is a rootstock that would normally produce a full-sized tree. Then we graft the fruiting wood on and force a branching structure that will be easy to maintain.” The first branches, he said, would be only 10-18 inches above ground, and the tree will already have been trained in an open vase shape to encourage a short, shrubby habit that allows sunlight into the center of the tree. “You’ll prune it in the dormant season to keep the open shape,” he said, “and do a little light summer pruning to keep it down to the size you want.” The use of larger, more mature rootstock forces the tree to set fruit earlier. “We graft a little bit of fruiting wood onto those two year-old rootstocks,” Cassidy said, “and all that all that energy gets pushed right into the tree.”

Photos of EZ-PICK trees show wide, graceful nectarine trees that would not be out of place in a Japanese garden; the highest branch doesn’t reach five feet tall. Young plum and apple trees are shorter than the women standing around them and already producing fruit. The notion of an apple shrub might take some getting used to, but the idea has merit: the trees could make themselves at home in a perennial border and would even do well in a tiny courtyard.

I don’t know if I’m ready to commit to another fruit tree, but if you’ve got a few feet of space, you might give EZ-PICK a try. L.E. Cooke is using this approach with apples, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, and cherries. You can’t order directly from the grower—it’s a wholesaler grower only—but they’re available at nurseries in winter.

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Kiss Me Under the Vascular Plant Parasite

The big insect-related holiday story this year comes from Saginaw, Michigan, where a receptionist named Marianne Luth unpacked her new artificial Christmas tree and noticed a line of tiny bugs—brown fir longhorned beetles, to be precise—scurrying across the carpet. Turns out that the tree, which was made in China, featured a trunk covered in real bark, and the real bark was infested with real bark beetles.

Marianne had the good sense to return the tree to Ace Hardware and notify the Michigan Department of Agriculture. State officials laid the blame squarely with the Department of Homeland Security, which is short about 400 agriculture inspectors. As a result of this shortage, some evildoers—mostly of the six-legged variety—were able to slip past our borders. Marianne took it all in stride, pointing out that she got a tree with free moving ornaments.

I cut down my own blue spruce on a tree farm last year, and it came with moving ornaments, too: Diabrotica beetles, also known as spotted cucumber beetles. Like Marianne, I didn’t get alarmed. After all, cucumber beetles aren’t so bad. All they do is destroy cucumbers, melons, squash, beans, corn, and roses, and spread bacteria wilt. Oh, and they’re extraordinarily difficult to control organically. So what’s all the fuss about? Besides, they’re light green with black spots, and that makes them so adorable.


It was all I could do to keep from Napalming our living room. What was I thinking, bringing a live tree in the house? My garden will harbor Diabrotica beetles until the day I die. I’m screwed, Marianne, and so are you.

So much for Christmas cheer. Now I’ve started to eye all holiday greenery with suspicion, if not outright contempt. That wreath I bought at the hardware story had spiders in it.  The poinsettia is harboring whitefly. And the mistletoe? That’s a pest all by itself. Since when did kissing under a vascular plant parasite become romantic?

Well, since about the sixteenth century, as it turns out, but gardeners in those days can be forgiven for failing to understand host-parasite relationships. We, on the other hand, have no such excuse. Broad-leaf mistletoes like Phoradendron macrophyllum can suck the life right out of a tree by sprouting in the bark, forcing its root-like structures into the trunk, and living off the water and nutrients that the tree needs for its own survival. A mature mistletoe plant can grow to the size of small shrub, and all the while the tree it’s feeding on gets smaller and weaker. Now, there’s a metaphor for romance. Go ahead, sneak a kiss. I dare you.

Mistletoe makes itself at home in any number of common trees: Alder, birch, maple, walnut, oak. There’s even a dwarf variety, Arceuthobium spp., that plagues pines, firs, and other evergreens. Apparently the commercial possibilities of a mistletoe-infested Christmas tree are lost on forest rangers in the Sierras; they seem more concerned with eradicating the parasite than exploiting its market potential. (By the way, if you want to get rid of mistletoe, cut early and often. Get it out of the trees and throw it away. It’s not a very sophisticated strategy, but it’s all we’ve got.)

There’s a charming old Victorian tradition involving a man plucking a berry from a sprig of mistletoe and presenting it to his intended before he claims his kiss. The berry-producing mistletoes, it might interest you to know, are all female. There are also male mistletoes, which produce pollen, but no one is much interested in those. Although the notion of a berry-laden female sounds more charming than a male that drops pollen all over the rug in the hallway, the fact is that the females aren’t very well-behaved either. Some dwarf mistletoes wait until they are ready to reproduce, then the berries erupt so forcefully that they hurl seeds 30 to 40 feet in every direction. Abominable behavior, but it’s about what I’ve come to expect from Christmas greenery. 

This year, maybe we’ll get a fake tree. The aluminum kind. Just imagine how festive the green Diabrotica beetles will look against all that shiny silver foil.


Go Here to Read More Gardening Articles and Essays by Amy Stewart