Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lasagna Garden: Not A Pretty Picture

The lasagna garden is finished and as you can see it is not a lovely thing. In fact, it looks a bit like I've murdered someone and buried the corpse out back (would that be good fertilizer?). The so-called no-till garden is created with layer upon layer; beginning with cardboard, and stacked with newspaper, sticks, yard trimmings, composted leaves, orange peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, and finally a layer of soil. It will eventually decompose itself into a wonderfully rich bed and I will plant my cucumbers and my zucchini there this summer. But right now, peeking up in neat little rows across the top are teeny, tiny lettuce sprouts. Also, coming in just adjacent to that bed is the arugula that I planted last fall. Patsy and I had a taste of the leaves and Patsy enthusiastically endorsed it as the "Best Arugula, Ever," (in valley girl-ese).

Today, the Putterer was expecting some putter time. Throwing caution to the wind, I took the day off in hopes that I'd get outside and work in my garden. But the weather was not cooperating, windy and cold. So instead, I visited Brookside gardens and took a lovely stroll to see the early spring blooms--the Lenton Rose, the weeping cherry trees, the redbuds, the forsythia and a host of other unrecognizable plantings. In the childrens' garden, I made note of how smart the gardeners are in re-purposing garden waste materials as borders for the beds. Vines were bent and twisted into little fences and tree trimmings were laid artfully along the path. Then, I wandered through the sale books in Brookside's library and came home with a stack of $1 offerings, including Helen M. Fox's 1973 The Years in My Herb Garden; a 1963 Golden Nature Guide to Trees; the Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Wildflowers and a 1948 Wild Flower Guide by Edgar T. Wherry, this one complete with pressed leaves and flowers still in its pages.

Patsy and I had lunch and did a little shopping in downtown Takoma Park, only to arrive home to find that the plants that I'd ordered over the winter were now beginning to arrive. So, picking them out of their packaging, and carefully releasing them from their boxes, and watering them thoroughly, and squirting them with mist, and setting them under the fluorescent light in the mudroom to acclimatize to Silver Spring, I managed to putter a bit today. Outside the tall oaks and tulip poplars are swaying in the wind. March is going out like a lion. The Putterer

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Healing Power of a Garden

Yesterday, a friend stopped by my garden. She called and ask if she could come and sit awhile. My friend is recovering from a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery and I was so honored that she wanted to spend some healing time in my garden. I fixed her a glass of water and brought her down to the old chair. She propped her feet up on the stool and there she sat, some couple of hours. While she sat and talked, I worked away, clearing leaf litter. Two old gals, both of us survivors, and time ambled pleasantly by us.

My friend, like me, has a good health care insurance plan. She was able to deal with her breast cancer in a timely, effective manner. She had good doctors, an efficient hospital stay, and her employer gave her the time off that she needed for recovery. The cost of her care is plenty, but thanks to her insurance, not unaffordable. My friend will heal and become once again a productive, healthy citizen.

Meanwhile, beyond the solitude there, and the glorious sun and warmth that was filling many hopeful hearts with spring tidings, a certain sickness was infecting our country. Just miles away from my garden, an angry mob on Capitol Hill shouted racial slurs and other insults and obscenities at leaders within the Democratic party over the issue of health care reform. Leaders who are just trying to extend the same type of health care that my friend has to some 40 million uninsured Americans. On my Facebook page, a couple of my high school friends reacted with great umbrage when I posted Paul Krugman's closing arguments in support of reform. One of them left an angry, defensive note somehow conflating reform with a program in her city that extends humanitarian care to our Mexican neighbors at the border. Over the course of the day, this discussion on my wall devolved into near fisticuffs.

I am ever hopeful that reform will pass today and become the law of the land. But I am so saddened, and even frightened, by the vitriol and the lack of civility and the hurtfulness that is playing out between friends and fellow Americans. It seems we are all going to need some healing time. We are all going to need to sit awhile together in the garden. The Putterer

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Clover For Saint Patrick's Day

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,—
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few. --Emily Dickenson

St. Patrick's Day is a good day for clover. I just placed an order for two pounds of Dutch white clover.

If you have trouble keeping your grass watered in late August when there's no chance of rain and the temperatures are hovering around 100, plant clover in your lawn instead. You'll be not only be luckier, but happier.

This is the the story of how the grass that we plant in our lawns was bred to become a mono-culture that requires too much water and too many fertilizers to thrive. It began around the turn of the century before there were lawn chemical companies. This was a time when people actually liked the look of clover in their lawns and mixed the seeds of Dutch white clover with grass seeds. The world was rife with mangy-looking lawns that were healthy and vibrant, thriving with multiple species of plant in them that lived in mutually beneficial harmony.

But then, (cue evil sounding music here), some guy working for a lawn chemical company invented an herbicide that killed the clover. The lawn company wanted to sell the product far and wide. So the company began a marketing campaign that labeled clover a noxious weed. And guileless lawn owners were sold on the idea that their turf had to be made up of single blade plants. And that is how we ended up with the lawn aesthetic that we have today. And clover, once praised by Dickinson and Emerson, was hexed.

A few years ago, I had a grass lawn that was gorgeously green and perfect in every way. A landscaper laid in the turf and the day that she drove away was the last day the grass ever looked good. That's when I discovered clover. Clover is a kind of fertilizer for the lawn. It's nitrogen rich and if you grow it and turn it under, you make your soil all the richer. In early March or late fall, if you seed your lawn with clover, it will grow in the spots where the grass won't grow. It will be green when the grass is dry and thin. It will grow flowers and attract pollinating bees to your garden. And, you don't need to mow as often, because clover doesn't grow more than a few inches tall.

As luck would have it, planting a lawn of three-leaf clover improves your chance of encountering one of the great treasures of St. Patrick's Day, a four-leaf clover. Because the chance of a three-leaf plant mutating into the lucky four-leaf clover is, I've learned, just 1 in 10,000. With a lawn of clover, there's every possibility a mutation is yours for the finding. And get this, I've also read that if a clover leaf is closed up tightly, that is a sure sign that a rainstorm is coming. The Putterer

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Forever Learning

I was rather amused this week when one of my friends asked me if I was a master gardener. For a moment, I dared not spoil the pretext. Because to be a master of anything would be such an honor. But I quickly dispelled the idea. For one thing, I believe I am too young yet to be a master gardener.

I met a master gardener recently, who told me that the program in Maryland accepts only retirees. And I have many years of service yet ahead of me (and a lot of tuition to pay, as well) before that can happen. But still the idea of expert comes with the territory of writing. For one really shouldn't presume to write about something one knows little about. That might be true about every other topic except for gardening. I think mastery of the garden and all its horticultural and metaphysical secrets is near impossible. A garden, perhaps, is one of the few places where young and old can both marvel at the miracle of new knowledge that is gained there.

This weekend, rain came down for two days straight and produced a misty fog and a mess of mud and crud everywhere. I was master enough of the garden to know that only a fool would venture out there. But outside, the rain came down and nourished the daffodils that are at the bud stage. The herbs began to show that fresh lime green of new growth. The hydrangeas displayed some spark of life amongst their old growth of sticks and dried flowers. And a few of the perennials began to just barely show a hint of things to come around their dried base.

If I am expert at anything, then I can say with certainty that I am an excellent observer, a well studied chronicler, an avid pupil and a fearless experimenter. To watch the seasons bring in the annual changes in a garden; to chronicle the happenings year after year in hopes of gaining some expertise; to ask a question and design a seasonal experiment that will either fail or flourish--this is all the gardener that I am. That's why I call myself a putterer. The Putterer

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Making Lasagna In the Garden

I'm becoming ever more radicalized these days. News reports that reveal our food distribution system is increasingly irresponsible when it comes to providing our country with safe and nutritious food seem to come more often and with more of a vengeance. Remember the spinach? Then there were the beef articles in the New York Times. And the peanuts? Did you see the film, Food Inc? I'll never forget the scenes about the chicken farms.

I'm starting to behave peculiarly in the market, questioning every purchase and shopping at multiple stores to try to assure myself that I am bringing home food that won't harm my family.

This also feels a little bit like a Susan Faludie backlash moment. In the Faludi conspiracy theory it follows that women are kept powerless and unproductive as they become ever more distracted by false and minor issues set before them by the male-dominated power structure. Is some mastermind asking the question: How can we further undermine the American woman in her pursuit of a purposeful and meaningful life? How about if we make nutritious and healthy food a high-stakes game. The winners waste all their energy in endless pursuit of safe food. The losers buy whatever over processed and contaminated treakle found on the store shelves, risking salmonella poisoning, even death.

"Tis (another) unweeded garden."

This morning as the sun comes through my windows and the promise of spring is in the air. I'm thinking about my ever more ambitious vegetable garden. Last weekend, I hired a bunch of helpful neighbor friends, the highly productive middle school team consisting of Christian and Katherine Mussenden and Nathaniel Marshall (above, Patsy took their picture from the deck).

I offered them every digging and cutting tool in the shed and with care for their little hands, I outfitted them in old gardening gloves and set them to digging out the pachysandra for yet another vegetable patch. I came back an hour later to find my team covered from head to toe in mud, my tools equally caked in wet, heavy soil, and a refuse bag filled to the brim with soil and pachysandra, and weighing at least 60 pounds. The little gardeners were satisfied with their work and Christian pronounced himself to be exhausted. I paid them and sent them on their way. My back was most grateful for their labors.

Now, the plan begins. I'm going to make there what is called a lasagna garden. First I'll cover the area with cardboard and then I'll layer it with a thick cushion of uncomposted leaves. After that, I'll pile on layer after layer of detritus from my compost piles until I reach the bottom of the piles where the thick black gold resides. Into the layered lasagna will go all the kitchen waste that I've been pitching into the compost pile all winter. I'll build my lasagna garden at least two feet tall before I top it off with a rich organic soil and then for the next few weeks until the growing season begins on Mother's Day, I'll watch as the two feet of material falls gracefully back to the Earth decomposing and creating a miniature realm of bacterial goodness and rich garden soil for my eggplants and cucumbers. It's going to be a dish worthy of kings and safe and healthy for my family. The Putterer

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hocus Pocus and Here Come the Crocus

When the crocus appear, it's like magic. The marvel of their sudden appearance makes me wonder that I never actually catch them coming in. As often as I'm there, I should be able to see them in a kind of stop-action film-style as they poke up through the dirt and then, unfurl six delicate petals to reveal their sexy, saffron-tinted stamen. These delightful early bloomers aren't afraid of a little frost or even snow on the ground and they have arrived as early as January in the back garden every year since we bought our home in 1986.

Equally fleeting is my daughter Patsy's good will in donating her photography skills to this blog project. I don't own a digital camera yet, so I am always pleading for a snap here, a shot there from my talented young photo-trix. And yesterday a perfect storm of crocus emergence and happy girl came together and the result is this masterpiece that I'm calling, "A Busy Bee Tends My Crocus."

I had long wondered what kind of crocus this might be; and over the winter, I'd studied my books and isolated a number of candidates. Crocus imperati was at the top of my list. But thanks to Patsy's picture, the imperati was quickly ruled out by the shape of its petals (mine are more rounded against imperati's more pointed ones). Instead, I've decided these are Crocus tommasinianus, which surprisingly are not natives. I had assumed these were some kind of eastern woodland wanderer, but I've learned from another ambitious garden blogger, Paghat the Ratgirl, that these Tommies hail from Hungary and Bulgaria. So someone must have planted them and over the years they've naturalized into the velvet, violet carpet that is the highlight of my first days of spring. (Some day in another post, I'll have to describe the state of our backyard when we first bought the property. It was indeed a Secret Garden that we had to dig out and rediscover.)

Today, a sunny Sunday, I'm choking on all the possibilities the day will bring. I've got to get to it. The Putterer