Early spring is the time for watchful weeding. Not only are weeds early to sprout, but they’re easy to see when not blocked by preferred plants, and their roots have not yet cemented deeply into the soil.
But one person’s weed might be another’s salad, as Aileen Hewitt describes in the New York Times. Her article is a delightful read and lists many edible ‘weeds’ found in her garden. But she also illustrates a side-effect of compost that I, too, use to my advantage – her compost ensures that multiple volunteer greens are available in her garden, my compost brings perennial benefits I’ll discuss in a future post. Still, I bet there are some ‘weeds’ Aileen hesitates to compost as they are truly insidious.
My compost piles will never intentionally see a common blue or wild violet (Viola papilionacea). These often adorable heart-leaved early bloomers that delight with tiny purple, lavender, white or mixed-color blossoms love the climate of my established planting beds. Keeping them in check requires regular vigilance. Miss one post-flowering thinning session – as I did last year – and these seemingly innocent plants broadcast enough seeds to crowd out the toughest neighbors.
Last season, by late summer I had beds of violets highlighted here and there with ‘other’ perennials. By the first of October I was so sick of looking at violets, I went on a weekend cleansing expedition that relegated loads and loads … and loads … of violet plants to the neighboring woods.
Still, and as expected, my fall weeding frenzy did not remove them all but simply thinned them enough to ease keeping them in check this year. I will enjoy their early fresh-green color, and their engaging, happy blooms; I’ll even transplant some – especially the miniature white-flowered varieties – to more appropriate locations, but once those purple beauties cease flowering they’re finding a new home.
My husband advocates using the right tool for the right job. Taking his advice, I am always in search of really useful devices to ease gardening tasks. I stumbled upon one of these tools a year ago at the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show. Actually my friend spotted it first and had she not stopped to investigate further, I likely would have passed right by the Bagz-It booth thinking it another gardening gizmo. That would have been a mistake.
The Bagz-It looks like a large vinyl scoop with wheels. The scoop end is large enough to accept a rake-full of debris. The lower portion of the scoop lays flat on the ground so raking leaves, or shoveling mulch into the Bagz-It is easy. When full you simply grab the handy handle, wheel your load to its dumping place, flip the wheel end up to remove the load, and wheel the Bagz-It back to your work area. This New Hampshire-made unit is light-weight so it does not add a lot of extra poundage to your load, and the wheels easily roll over rough ground, through wooded areas, and up and down steps. My commercial sized Bagz-It (30 inches wide and 46 inches long) saw its first use when it carried my show purchases from the convention center. My friend bought one too – she and I made quite a spectacle as we wheeled our twin Bagz-It away from the show, down the stairs, through the main doors (we avoided the revolving ones) and into the parking garage. Since then this giant vinyl scoop has eased spring and fall perennial bed clean up to the point that I don’t ever want to go without – it sure beats fighting with wind-blown tarps. Plus it folds flat for easy storage along the garage or shed wall.
I’m now into year two with my Bagz-It – I would not have recommended it without giving it a good, thorough test transporting numerous loads to my compost piles, through wooded areas, up and down slopes and stairs – and despite heavy use it still looks relatively new and shows no sign of wear. My friend has similar kudos, and we stopped by the Bagz-It booth at this year’s show to share our praise. Take a look at the different sizes offered, read through the testimonials listed by others, and consider purchasing the size that will work best for you. I have no connection to this product other than being a big fan, but if you buy one, tell them you heard of it here.
Observation is one of the key tools I use as a gardener. Watching a plant’s growth or lack thereof, adds to the knowledge and understanding both seasoned and aspiring green-thumbers compile about their surroundings. The saga of my disappearing-reappearing crocus serves as an example. Years ago I planted crocus on either side of my front steps knowing I would enjoy their happy blooms in early spring. The crocus rapidly multiplied to two good sized clumps. Then last summer when the vole population exploded I noted the consistently uplifted, tunneled through soil on one side of the steps. I would firm down the soil and a few days later tunnels reappeared indicating a frequent vole hang-out. I knew my crocus had suffered and, as expected, this spring brought no blooms on one side and few on the other side of the steps. Unexpectedly though, I found single crocus blooms popping up in other locations – a welcome surprise, but not one created by forgetting where I planted since I have not planted crocus bulbs for years. Rather, I suspected voles did some underground re-arranging as they transported their food (my bulbs) from one location to another. Therefore, any crocus replanting in these locations should involve a barrier (such as metal screening) that will prevent underground vole penetration. Had I not paid attention I might have replanted and re-lost the crocus … in essence, spending hard earned cash on crashing stock.
New gardeners can obtain a wealth of information simply by observing neighbors’ or friends’ gardens and by picking their brains. In early spring, those plants first poking out of the ground or leafing out are often the hardiest – they don’t mind the cold or even a light snow. Those that come up later or leaf out later do so because their leaves like warmer weather. New gardeners can also take garden center walk-abouts to observe what plants they offer, when they are available for sale, and where they are placed for sale. Reputable garden centers will not risk losing their stock by placing plants in open areas too early … if caught off guard they will have to cover tender plants to protect them against a late frost. So if a particular garden center plant suits you, yet it is stored under cover when other plants are outside, take this as a hint that this plant might like warmer temperatures. Likewise, when you see garden center plants stored in shade or under sun-protective cover, suspect these plants may not like full sun. Ask the staff questions. A local, established garden center should be experienced with local conditions, have local knowledge, and be more than willing to impart local advice. If they are not, then move on and find one that does.
Now that I’ve started numerous flats of coleus, I’m full of anticipation for what this year’s crop will bring to my flower beds and containers. Coleus provides constant leaf color, whether used in sun or part shade. I combine complimentary types of coleus in pots for the deck and hanging planters, while other coleus plants find their way into perennial beds as shown here.
This year I’m planting the dark red, ruffled-leaf Black Dragon, the large green leaved Limelight, as well as two from the Wizard series (lemon-lime and red Pineapple and a more copper orange and gold Sunset – both pictured below). I’m also trying Palisandra, a nearly black coleus with dark green leaf veins.
Coleus Pineapple with eggplant
Many catalogues offer only coleus plants, but search out companies that sell coleus seeds as a way to maximize coleus plantings for minimal outlay. The miniscule seeds easily sprout when sowed on top of the soil in indoor flats about this time of year. The tiny plants may get off to a slow start, but they grow quickly once placed outdoors after there is no longer a risk for frost. Unfortunately, deer will seek out the fleshy leaves, so coleus is best planted out of their reach.
Coleus have been one of my must have plants for years and now that their popularity has increased, I have many varieties from which to choose. Though I start many types of coleus from seed, I always manage to find new varieties in local nurseries that scream for a place in my garden.
I managed to get the first set of seeds planted outside before today’s rain began. The combination of thawed planting beds and forecasts for heavy rains over the next few days makes for optimal planting conditions for cold-hardy seeds. I planted two varieties of peas; my favored Carouby de Maussane snow peas which turn beautiful purple flowers into tasty, crisp morsels, and the new-to-me Snowflake pea pods. I started with one sowing of each planted in pots sunk into one of the vegetable garden beds. Three additional long, narrow planters now hold the promise of Cherry Belle and French Breakfast radishes, and Winter Density and New Red Fire lettuces. I’m determined to reap vegetables from my planting beds in spite of my population of hungry voles (see ‘Think outside of the plot’ below).
Today’s indoor plantings included pots of tomato (Martinos Roma, Manyel, and Sweet Million cherry) which now accompany the Pruden’s Purple flat planted about a week ago. Indoor pepper plantings include Early jalapeno, Hot Hungarian Yellow Wax Hot, Dancing Spirit, and the frying pepper Cubanelle, and last week’s planting of 2008 seeds of Early Jalapeno and Hot Hungarian Yellow Wax. To last week’s planting of Ichiban eggplant I added a flat of Lavender Touch eggplant. I also planted numerous basil varieties such as the new-to-me Italiano Classico and Basilico Finissimo Verde a Palla, and my tried and true favorites Italian large leave basil ocimum, Basilico Mostruoso, lemon basil, and the bush variety O. Basilicum Minimum. I started some Afina cutting celery, an herb that provides celery flavor in a leaf form, as well.
Most of these plants will find a place in my vegetable or flower beds. Extras I’ll share with family and friends without the means or time to start plants themselves.
Last season I planned new planting areas to soften the look of a newly installed fence. But these extensive future beds were covered with grass. I might have been able to tackle the job with a shovel and a lot of energy, until I broke my foot on Memorial Day weekend. No matter how hard I tried, I could not figure out how to dig up such a large area with a shovel and one foot in a walking cast. Fortunately, patience and ingenuity kicked in. Rather than rush the project along by begging for volunteers, I marked the edges of the beds with an old garden hose, collected all the corrugated cardboard I could, and placed the flattened cardboard over the grass I originally planned to remove. A few flat rocks held the cardboard in place then, when able, I covered the cardboard with wood chips. As my foot healed, I arranged collected potted plants so I could imagine, through the summer, how the beds might look in the future. By the time I was ready to attack this project in the early fall, the grass under the cardboard was dead, worms were abundant, and the soil easily loosened for its new occupants. After planting, any remaining cardboard held weeds in check between the new plants, and replenished wood chip mulch covered the beds.
You can use a similar process to create an instant garden, according to Lee Reich, author of Weedless Gardening and other gardening books. Lee described this instant garden method during his presentation at the Garden Conference, held March 13 at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. The method involves marking out the shape of the desired bed, covering the entire area with layers of newspaper kept in place by wetting the paper with a hose, and covering it with a few inches (Lee says 2 inches is ample) of good garden soil or compost. This top layer is ready for planting shallow-rooted plants. If planting deeper-rooted plants, Lee said to simply cut through the papers, plant, replace any disturbed papers and the top layer of soil and, voila, instant garden. In a short period, the papers will break down, but by this time the grass and weeds under the papers will likely have died; any that do survive will be weakened and easily removed. Mulch the area after planting to minimize the establishment of weeds in the new layer of compost/topsoil.
Either method uses a commonly available resource to ease a gardener’s chores so more time can be spent enjoying the garden’s beauty.
At the March 13 Garden Conference at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Len Giddix described the vegetable gardening solution he devised when faced with the soppy clay soils surrounding his home. Rather than fight his soils Len opted to garden in pots. But rather than ‘plant’ these pots into his soil, the technique I used to ward off a vole infestation, Len – who has a self-described dislike of bending over – raised his potted garden on benches. He places his ‘raised beds’ in rows, as in the standard ground-level garden, which facilitates easy movement, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, and easy mulching of the ground below. Len claims no problems with slugs, as they cannot reach the vegetables in his raised pots. He likewise notes no problems with voles, and since he fills his pots with rich compost, he says his harvests are great.
You may hear Len describe his method on the radio, during his and co-host Lisa’s “Garden Talk” show. I can attest that the photos of his gardens were quite impressive. My take-away from his Garden Conference presentation is that gardeners are a vastly resourceful group who constantly adjust to find solutions to their problems, no matter their surroundings.