Friday, December 4, 2009


It's been six weeks since I've posted?  I knew it had been a while, but eek... six weeks is much longer than I thought.  I've been kind of busy the last month or so with a new little project I like to call, "Find a new house before the next gardening season is a total loss."  Yes indeed, we are house hunting and looking for a much bigger property, and a little bit bigger house.

It gets so complicated when, as it does for me, the size and quality of the lot is just as important as the house.  And damn, I'm picky.

What's amazing to me is how BAD the landscaping is at some of these houses.  It's clear that not one of them has watched curb appeal or similar shows on HGTV!  In the last 2 weeks, we've looked at one particular house several times.  The house is great, the yard is amazing (2 acres and flat)  but on the front walkway, flanking the entry to the house are 2 very large (about 15 feet) and very dead junipers.  I'm convinced that their front landscape would look significantly better with 2 empty spaces in the bed versus these monstrosities.  It takes absolutely no horticultural skill to pull out shrubs like these, so what are they waiting for?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day for Climate Change

Okay, I know I've totally been procrastinating with this whole blogging thing. Then I finally got my butt in gear today, and realized that it's blog action day for climate change and I'm supposed to write something about that topic.

You all know where I stand on this issue (next to my rain barrels!) so go out and plant a tree, make plans to plant a vegetable garden, compost, harvest your rainwater, go meatless one day a week.  One small thing can make a difference you don't need to do them all.  Need help with any of the above, call me, email me, I'll be here....

There are over 9,000 blogs participating in this event today, which is pretty cool. Check them out at Blog Action Day

It's inevitable at this time of year

I had been trying to figure out how to tackle #1 on my list for a while now, how and when to prune hydrangeas.  Then the inevitable phone call came from an out of town friend, "we had a landscaper come clean up our yard, and he pruned the hydrangea down to about an inch off the ground, that's not what you are supposed to do right???"  Um, nope...

Here's the thing, pruning hydrangeas is not that tricky, it's all about knowing when to do the job.  In order to know this, you actually need to know what kind of hydrangea you have.  Really people, you need to save those little tags that come on the plants somewhere in your garage or shed because the information that it has is really important. I'll try to make this as simple as possible.

If you've got Hydrangea macrophylla (the big  mop head blue or pink flowers) there are two types it could be; Nikko Blue (probably what you have if it was planted more than 3 years ago) or Endless Summer (rebloomers, they keep blooming all season long).  If you've got an Endless Summer, you are in luck, because you really can't screw it up.  Best idea would be to prune now, or early next season and you should have plenty of flowers, because they bloom on new growth.  If you've got a Nikko Blue it's a lot tougher, and you've already missed your window for this year.  The only time to prune them is late summer, as they flower on the previous year's growth.  Prune now and you can kiss next year's flowers goodbye!

If you've got a Hydrangea paniculata, (white flowers also, may be in tree form) it's easy as can be.  Like the Endless Summer, it blooms on new growth so pruning now or any time in the late winter/early spring will do the trick.    There are several other types of hydrangeas, but paniculata and macrophylla make up 95% of what I see in the suburban landscape.

Okay, so that covers the when. I'll tackle the how another day as it's going to require pictures or diagrams or something like that.  That's going to take a little more organization on my part.  Time to go dig out my notes from Hort school.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Simply awesome!

First lady Michelle Obama has said that the White House garden has been, "one of the greatest things I've done in my life so far."  Love it!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I'm finished procrastinating

Beyond the fact that doing this blog thing actually takes some work (work which I have not had time for the last few days) this topic is a big one.  I'm finding it hard to put all the information I have into one semi-normal sized blog post.

If you've been following along, we are up to #2 on our top 5 gardening questions list.  Why do the deer eat everything in my yard and leave my neighbors yard alone?  Ahhh... the glories of living in the Northeast.  It's kind of like "if you build it, they will come" a la Field of Dreams.  Your yard looks like an all you can eat buffet, and the deer are really, really hungry.  Understanding deer feeding habits does shed some light on the situation.  Deer will eat almost anything if they are hungry enough.  Even plants sold as "Deer Resistant" are at risk, unless they are poisonous. Deer tend to take a bite of a plant they like, then take a step, take another bite, and keep moving on in a set path every day.  They rarely defoliate a plant all at once,  but over the course of a week or two can really destroy one or your whole garden.  They are creatures of habit, and only change their feeding path once a year.  Unless you get in there and make things unpalatable to them, then they will move on (to your neighbor, perhaps?)

Short of putting up a seven foot high fence around your entire property, which doesn't always keep them out anyway, there are several easy steps you can take to reduce deer damage in your yard.  Using all three is the most effective way, doing just one is probably not enough.

1) Repel, repel, repel
2)Companion plant
3)Don't plant deer candy

Okay one, repellants do work, and I mean certain repellants aka really smelly ones.  Deer do not like things that smell really strong.  Here is the trick to using them however, you have to change it up, and follow the reapplication directions.  If you use the same repellant for the entire season, they'll get used to it and start to ignore it.  So buy 2 or 3 different repellants at the beginning of the season and switch off.  You can also add things like hot sauce to the repellants for a little more kick!

I've been using companion planting for a couple of years with a lot of success.  Although Hydrangea macrophylla (the big beautiful hydrangeas that everyone envies) do appear on some deer proof lists, I can tell you from personal experience that they are not.  I underplant them with lavender, and catmint (not catnip, different plant) and voila! No more deer browsing at all,  the deer walk right past them, and eat other plants that I haven't protected.  Hey, I'm not perfect, just because I know how to get it done doesn't mean I actually get it done all of the time.  Because deer do not like strong smells, underplanting with any herbs, culinary or otherwise will be a deterrent.  Even if you are in a heavily infested area the combination of companion planting and repellants should make a big difference.

The most important thing however, is do not put in plants that attract deer to your garden.  Some of the most common suburban landscape plants give deer the message that you actually want them to stop in for a bite.  Hostas, sorry, I know you've got shade, but this one is out.  Also on the list are tulips, arborvitae, euonymous, hybrid tea roses, and yew.   Better yet, plant things that they do not eat foxglove, lamb's ear, hellebores, vinca, viburnums, and many more.  Pictured below is Agastache or perennial hyssop, favorite of butterflies, but detested by deer.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Finally getting to #3

Hi all, sorry it's been a few days of one internet/computer problem after another.  Finally we seem to be okay for the moment.

Since those upside down tomato planters burst onto the scene a few years ago I've had tons of questions about them.  Do they work? I would say yes, but haven't personally tried it.  Do they work any better than a regular plastic pot?  Probably not, sorry.  All the things that are promised on their packaging and website (no cutworms, no ground fungus, no harmful bacteria) are true of conventional containers as well.  So you could use any plastic container for a dollar or two fill with potting soil and have the same benefits.

In addition they claim that hanging upside down, "water and nutrients pour directly from the root to the fruit."  I think this is questionable science at best.  Are you smarter or have higher brain function if you hang upside down and let all the blood rush to your head?  I won't bore you with a botany lesson, but the xylem and phloem do a pretty good job and moving nutrients and water up and down the stem, they don't need help from gravity.  In fact gravity may confuse the issue, and on many drive by sightings this summer I saw plants that had turned themselves around and started growing upright anyway.

In researching their website If found that the same company that makes this tomato planter also makes the roll n'grow seed mats. Oh brother... more on that another time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

sorry guys

Being plagued with internet issues.  I can't keep a connection for longer than a few minutes at a time.

In the meantime I'll share this with you, I may just have to take a field trip!

NYT article about farmer's market near the White House

Saturday, September 12, 2009

That Pesky crabgrass

Comments are fixed I think, no more needing to log in to post comments. In working on this and a few other back end things yesterday I realized that I have absolutely idea what I'm doing. Just so you know.

Crabgrass in your turf getting you down? I get questions about this all the time, and there are a couple of different answers. First you must know that I hate turf, period. If I didn't think there would be a riot in our cul de sac I'd rip our entire lawn out. Okay I'd leave a little bit of grass for the dog and the kids to run around, but overall I think Americans are way too obsessed with having the perfect lawn. Personally crabgrass doesn't bother me but I know that it bothers many of you (including my dad who obsessively picks it every time he is here.)

There is one simple thing that you can do to significantly reduce the amount of weeds in your turf. It's completely organic, and may even make your life a little easier. Let your grass grow a little longer or mow it higher. Most turf weed seeds need sunlight to germinate, so if you are cutting your grass too short, especially during the hot days of summer when the grass is barely growing, you are setting the perfect stage for crabgrass. I'm including a link from the University of Minnesota Extension service as they explain how to mow much better that I can.

Corn gluten meal persists as the most effective organic herbicide. The most important thing to note is that corn gluten only works on annual weeds (so not dandelions) and must be put down on the lawn at the correct time for several years before it is really an effective means of weed control. More about corn gluten application here. I have not tried corn gluten personally, as I'm afraid that the dog will eat it (he's not too smart.)

This time of year is also perfect for overseeding. I need to get on that pronto. And then don't mow for a few weeks after, give it some time to grow in nice and thick and choke out the weeds.

Friday, September 11, 2009

I'm trying

Fixing up the comments and a few other technical snafus. Maybe.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Top 5 lists

I'm a big fan of top 5 lists; music, food, plants, cities. So today I give you my top 5 gardening questions asked by clients/friends/family/those trying to get free advice out of me. I'll cover one a day for the next 5 days in the interest of keeping the posts down to a manageable size.

5. Why don't my Hydrangeas bloom?
4. How can I keep crabgrass out of my turf?
3. Do those upside down tomato planters actually work?
2. Why do the deer eat everything in my yard but don't touch a thing in my neighbor's yard?
1. How and when am I supposed to prune my Hydrangeas?

So... #5, I just got asked this question again this past weekend. The answer is most likely quite simple. Unless you have an Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) it's not getting enough sun. Any other type of Hydrangea minimally needs part sun conditions, which means at least 4 hours of direct sun daily. Some even prefer full sun (6-8 hours). They'll survive in the shade, putting out plenty of nice big green leaves, but that's about all. It's possible that they need nutrients as well, but this would be a secondary cause of not flowering. It's best to just give them a light feeding of Garden tone or Plant tone in the spring (NOT NOW!) when the plants are actively growing. So if your hydrangea is in the shade, get out the shovels and put it someplace new. Now is the perfect time to transplant.

Of course there is the possibility that you pruned them incorrectly??? Well, we'll get to that in the next few days.

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Endless Summer'

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Please don't give up yet

This has been the year, I've been waiting for it a long time. The year that vegetable gardening went completely mainstream. It seems like everyone and their mother had a vegetable garden this year, or at the very least tried their hand at growing tomatoes in pots on their deck (discussion about those upside down tomato things another time.) You could actually get transplants at every nursery, supermarket and big box store with lots of variety. Heirlooms, improved hybrids, I had a hard time sticking to just the amount of plants that I needed for mine. The National Gardening Association reports that between 2007 and 2008 there was a 10% growth in home vegetable gardens and between 2008 and 2009 there was a 19% increase. The reasons noted for the rise are food safety, prohibitive cost of organic food and focused attention on childhood obesity. So of course everything is going along fantastically, and out come the haters.

It was bound to happen, those who want to rain on our garden parade. The New York Times published a series of articles this summer called "The Starter Garden" by Michael Tortorello your average joe newbie gardener. The self effacing author makes all kinds of mistakes along the way, as most new gardeners do. Last weeks article detailed his economic failure with this endeavor in which he states that he spent $940 in equipment and has only grown $190 (66 lbs) worth of produce. I'm not really sure how he spent so much money (composting with gold flakes perhaps?) But looking back through all the articles it became obvious that for someone with no experience, he went way too large. He does admit that he can amortize the cost of some of the supplies in future years, and that he doesn't mind running in the red, but what a way to discourage readers! Please start small if you are planning to start a vegetable garden. If done right, you can grow a lot of produce in a very small space. I'd recommend containers for those who are really new at the game. There is a lot to be learned by trial and error with gardening. Just for the sake of contrast I share with you this blog, Compost Confidential in which the author had very different results that Mr. Tortorello.

The weather this year has been challenging for even the most experienced gardeners and farmers. Late blight on tomatoes became widespread throughout the Northeast months earlier than normal due to cool wet rainy conditions through July. I lost 10 tomato plants to the blight, all heirlooms, due to the fact that I would not use potent fungicides to keep it under control. Many others I know, including several farmers had the same battle on their hands. So hater #2 came in the form of an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Dan Barber in early August. Mr. Barber is the well known and well respected chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY. What really bothered me about this article is that Mr. Barber blames the spread on the disease not on the weather (which is the #1 factor) but as he says, "Here’s the unhappy twist: the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory." Really? I'd love to see scientific proof of that. The disease spreads via airborne spores which can travel up to 40 miles. So yes, I live less than 2 miles from a Wal- Mart and Home Depot (also shouldering part of the blame) but I also live less than 40 miles from Stone Barns, how can I be sure that the spores didn't travel all that way from your farm to my yard. I could tear apart this op-ed line by line, but don't want to come across as too angry (probably too late for that.) I'll leave you to form your own opinions on the article.

My main message remains however, please grow vegetables, don't listen to the naysayers. You can even start now, with veggies for fall and winter harvest. More on that another day...the kids are almost home from school.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What is a weed?

Seems like a simple enough question doesn't it? On one of my first days of hort school a few years ago the professor posed this question to the class. The whole class sat there dumbfounded. Some brave soul finally raised their hand and starting listing off various "weeds"; crabgrass, clover etc. The professor instantly shot it down and said that he wanted, "the botanical definition of a weed." We were all stumped.

So it's a bit of trick question (Thanks Professor Mike) because the botanical definition of a weed is any plant that you don't want in that place. Kinda crazy, no? So that old yew you hate that's been in front of your house for 30 years and looks like crap because it's never been pruned or been pruned the wrong way, it's a weed so get rid of it!

There are some plants that we commonly associate as weeds like creeping charlie, mugwort, purslane and many more. The one pictured above has been growing in my yard for years, and I leave it, because to me it's just not a weed. It's common name is Jewel weed, which if a home gardener would identify it would probably cause them to rip it out. I leave it, because I think it's pretty, and the flower color goes nicely with my back woodland garden. It also happens to be an antidote for poison ivy exposure. It won't help you once you get the rash, but if you touch some poison ivy while working it the garden you can crush up the jewel weed and get some of the oil off before it sets in and you are in agony. The best thing about jewel weed however, is it generally grows close by poison ivy. That's one smart plant. So since the jewel weed seemed to be spreading in my back garden I went on a little hunting mission, and guess what? ugh.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Out of the mouths of babes

"Mommy" says the six year old, "I wish the whole world was made of chocolate." Amen kiddo.

Labor Day

A friend sent me this quote this morning "Labor Day is a glorious holiday because your child will be going back to school the next day. It would have been called Independence Day, but that name was already taken." - Bill Dodds As a reward to ourselves for ensuring that our kids survived the summer without major injury or massive sunburns we have a little field trip planned for tomorrow. More on that later.

But for today, no thanks to the guardian of the potting bench, I got my fall pots done. There was something weird with the settings on my camera, so my photos of them are crappy. I'll take more later. I realized however that they are strikingly similar to last years pots using many of the same plants. Oh well, I guess I had the same good idea twice. The purple of the small ornamental kale really stands out in real life, just not in the picture, I swear!

Moving on to the back it was time to deal with the little tomato seedlings that are popping up just to taunt me. You see, I was affected my the tomato blight like so many others in the Northeast this summer. I can hardly talk about it anymore, since it seems like I've explained it a thousand times to people needing horticultural advice, and am still pissed off about the Dan Barber op-ed that appeared in the New York Times a few weeks ago (Dan Barber). I will rant on that another day, because I've got a lot of pent up frustration about it. I had to pull out all of my tomato plants about 6 weeks ago but I must have left little bits of the roots behind, because little seedlings are popping up. Unfortunately our growing season is not long enough to give these little guys an ounce of a chance, so out they go. In their place we started our fall sowings of Arugula, Beets (red and gold) and Swiss Chard. The nice cool nights we've had lately (in the 50's!) are perfect for these veggies.

I'm not sure why I can't add photos intermittently to my post. I can either do them all before or all after. I guess I need to spend some time figuring all this blogger stuff out. Scratch that, I guess I kinda figured it out.

Husband is out to band rehearsal, kids are winding down, glass of wine in hand and things are almost quiet. And now I probably just jinxed myself.

Here I am world!

In my haste to get that rant about clients off my chest yesterday I neglected to write an introductory post. So here is my blog....mostly about gardening and related stuff. Desserts too, because it will give me an excuse to bake more. Comments are most welcome.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

How one recipe changed my life

Okay, that is a bit of an overstatement. However, since I started making homemade oreos we seem to be getting a lot more invitations to get together with friends. Or maybe it's just that I finally let my professional gardening life take a bit of a backseat this summer that I actually have time to have fun, and bake.

Tomorrow we are going to brunch at friends, and one part of the couple happens to be a chef/caterer. She and I have been talking about these oreos for months, so how could I not bring her a batch. And before you ask, yes they are that good. It is baked goods like this (full of butter) that is one of the reasons I could never become a vegan.

I think I'm also going to make brioche to bring. I've been wanting to try and make a "fancy" bread like this for a while, and when a recipe turned up in this month's bon apetit magazine I couldn't resist. The dough was easy enough, but time intensive. It's rising again, then will chill overnight before baking in the AM. But for now my husband is making margaritas so it's time to relax...

Please, I'm begging you

Don't ask me. Just don't ask me to design a maintenance free, drought resistant, disease resistant, deer proof garden. It simply does not, and cannot exist. You think that I'm joking, but I've had it happen, more than once.

Oh, and when your garden gets 2-3 hours of sun a day, that's not full sun, in fact that's not even what we in the trade would call part sun. So don't lie to me and tell me your yard is really sunny on the days I'm not there. And watering does not mean standing with a hose and nozzle attachment and sprinkling water on the leaves. Plants don't take in water through their leaves, so that water is merely evaporating off into the universe. It's no surprise all the plants died.

And last but not least, Miracle gro,that electric blue liquid or crystals, is not organic. You can use it if you want, as I'm not the boss of you. But no, I don't recommend it (great, now I'm probably going to get sued by Scott's).

Can you tell that I'm frustrated by clients who want their gardens to look they belong in Better Homes and Gardens? It's probably the main reason I pretty much threw in the towel on the gardening design biz for this summer. If you want to have a beautiful garden it takes work, either by you, or hired hands but not by me. I've got my own gardens to take care of and am doing a sucky job at that. It also takes a lot of time. Gardens if they are designed properly in their first year don't look great, which is a shame. The well designed border leaves room for the plants to get bigger before needing a complete re-design, or major maintenance (splitting, moving, etc.). That "cottage garden" style that so many people want is a look that I adore, but oh so difficult to take care of.

Thanks for letting me rant. I feel quite a bit better now and am contemplating working on my fall planters.