Phase four in preparing your Spring garden: Spring digging

>> Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Grab your shovel, your favorite gloves and garden clogs, we’re going to play in the dirt!

I love the image that brings to mind. Come spring time gardeners everywhere are itching to get out into the garden and start digging, cultivating, pruning, and planting again. We are ready to shrug off the long gardening dry-spell of winter that has tested our patience and are ready to unleash our pent up plans and dreams for this years edition of our dream gardens. Our tools, long hidden in the dark recesses of our sheds, yearn to be brought back out into the open and put to good use. Our playing-in-the-dirt toys have gotten more sophisticated since we were kids but the old urge never seems to die.

Dirt, actually if you use this word around a gardener you will likely be told in no uncertain terms that soil is the proper term because dirt can be found just anywhere, but after you have poured you heart and soul, not to mention an untold fortune in compost and soil amendments, into your garden plot, dirt graduates to the exalted designation of soil. Soil, that substance from which all life springs, is aching to be a part of your dream garden. And so, with memories of gardens past compelling us to return to our labor of love, we are eager to resume our pursuit of creating our own personal, peaceful oasis in a world that has become too hurried and too demanding. We welcome any opportunity to get out and begin digging.

Every ailment, every problem, every nutrient, every joy (as it pertains to gardening, that is) springs from the soil. It’s a heavy responsibility, but healthy soil is the single most important ingredient to raising healthy plants. Healthy soil allows nutrients to be taken up by your plants. Unhealthy soil sucks the life right out of anything you plant in it. You can throw all the high potency fertilizer you want into your garden and water it religiously but if the soil is not healthy you will have wasted all your time, energy and money.

Soil cannot be healthy without organic matter, which can be any combination of or all of the following:

leaf mold, aged manures, worm castings, household compost, certain kitchen waste, chopped up leaves, newspaper, cardboard, grass clippings, etc.

There is no set formula for mixing and preparing any of these ingredients because it all breaks down, and gives back what it has collected over its useful life, some faster than others. The purpose of adding organic matter to your clay garden, is to allow the movement of water and air to the roots and to allow roots to penetrate the soil more easily. The purpose of adding organic matter to your sandy garden, is to slow down the movement of water and air around the roots and to provide something for the roots to hold on to. If you have ever tried to garden in hard clay you will know the importance of loosening it up so plants can take root without drowning. If you have ever tried to garden in loose sand you will know the importance of providing some substance for the plants roots to take hold without drying out. Organic matter is this key substance to taming both of these extremes.

Organic matter also supports the microbial life that is the basic building blocks for all soil life. Just as in the sea, where tiny plankton support almost all sea-life, microbes support almost all soil life. Without either of these huge populations of tiny life forms, life as we know it would simply cease.

Of the organic material I listed, two stand out as being the gold standard for soil improvement. Compost and worm castings. Properly made, compost and worm castings provide natures most balanced form of nutrient rich amendments you could ever spread onto your garden.

Garden Compost
Creating garden compost is a symbiotic form of science and art and has become the holy grail of serious gardeners everywhere. The mythology and ceremony around creating it puts a lot of people off to the idea of making their own but it really isn’t as difficult as it first seems. Plus, a side benefit is you get to reuse what was once considered garbage, in the form of kitchen scraps, and yard waste. There are many great websites devoted to composting that will take you by the hand through the entire process. This is something that each of us should do if only from an environmental standpoint. You don’t have to buy precisely designed bins or tubs to make compost, and the formula does not have to be exact, it is a very ‘ballpark’ type of thing and you can soon learn the adjustments that need to be made to have your very own black gold. So, you can help the environment and cut your costs on soil amendments, what more can you ask for?

Worm castings
You can harvest your own worm castings, too. Of course, for this you must have an enclosure for your worms, and this can be anything from plastic tubs to wooden crates. Feeding your kitchen scraps to worms is the ultimate in recycling. Worm farming uses specialized worms, you cannot just pull any earthworm out of your yard and expect them do your bidding. One of the best blogs I have found that covers the whole worm farming thing, called vermicomposting, is at Redworm Composting. Bentley Christie, the posts author, is extremely knowledgeable concerning vermicomposting and will readily answer any question or concern you may have. Check out his site for some great info.

To get the most from your garden soil, you should have it tested for pH balance and nutrient deficiency.

Proper pH balance
An improper pH level, alkalinity and acidity, can cause your plants to literally starve to death. In a balanced pH environment, bacteria is better able to decompose organic matter and microorganisms can convert nitrogen in the air into a form that your plants can use. When the soil is too acidic or alkaline both of these processes are greatly impaired. Inorganic fertilizers will make your soil more acidic over time and adding amendments to the soil alters your soil's pH. Testing and adjusting your soil’s pH level accordingly will help maximize your plants' potential in size, health and quality of flowers, vegetables and fruits. You can buy pH test kits from your local nursery and they are very easy to use.

What fertilizer is needed?
Get a soil test to determine what other amendment is needed to bring your garden to optimum performance levels. A soil test can tell you such things as how much nitrogen, potassium or phosphorous is needed. This information can save you a lot of money by not adding unnecessary fertilizer and it will definitely help your success rate with growing more beautiful and bountiful plants. Your local agriculture extension office will test your soil sample (usually for a small fee) and will tell you how to collect the sample and what size sample they require. Expect to wait 3-5 days for results. You can also buy soil test kits from your local nursery, it won’t give the complete or more accurate analysis a lab would but it can give you a general idea of what is lacking as far as the three basics (NPK) for around $20.

Let’s dig in
You don’t want to dig in mud, good for mud pies but not for gardening. Digging in wet soil will leave clumps after the sun dries out the sogginess and we don’t want clumps in our garden! Test the soil down to about 10” to see if the soil is dry enough to work. Spread your soil amendments and fertilizer (a balanced slow-release is best, 10-10-10) and then dig it all in to about 8-10” deep. A note here, as tempting it is to use a roto-tiller, my advise is, don’t! Roto-tillers have a tendency to break up the soil too much (destroying much needed soil structure) and they can compact the soil just out of reach of the tines. The tried and true pitch fork and shovel are still the best way to go.

As of this posting it is late February and with weather patterns changing as they are, we’ll soon be able set our seedlings out to harden off. If frost threatens, you can always use cloches or simply throw a sheet over your tender seedlings, see Extending the Gardening Season. Personally, I’m counting the days with the excitement of an expectant father.


Attracting and keeping beneficial insects

>> Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Quick, what do you do when you see insects in the garden? Do you cover everything with netting hoping to keep them all out? Do you reach for the pesticide hoping to rid them all with extreme prejudice? Hopefully, you don’t do either of these things until you know if they are beneficial or harmful. As a gardener, it would be to your benefit to know the difference.

Beneficial insects are on your side when it comes to controlling those harmful nasties that we all love to hate. But they wont stick around in your garden unless they have a welcome environment in which to live, especially when the harmful insects are not there.

Some beneficials have voracious appetites when feeding on other insects, some parasitize them by laying eggs in the host body giving their young a food source. Isn’t nature just delightful?

Beneficial insects may consume large numbers of pest insects, but their diets are not limited to other insects. Keeping them around when there are no insects to prey on is a matter of providing the right shelter and the food they need. A term I recently learned that describes such a haven is: insectary. A small garden plot of flowering plants designed to attract and harbor beneficial insects. Think of it as a garden within a garden. Often set off to one side in an out-of-the-way area that doesn’t get disturbed by regular cultivating and weeding. A wild place that these friends of ours can call their own.

Many beneficial species have periods in their life cycles when they survive only on nectar and pollen. Therefore, planting a variety of insectary plants with different bloom times and different bloom sizes will ensure an adequate supply of nutrients to keep the beneficial insect population going strong.
The tiny flowers of fennel (left), angelica, yarrow (right), coriander, rue, dill, and carrot are suitable for parasitoid wasps. Insectary plants also include those plants that provide another critical need, shelter. Providing plants tall plants will help protect flying insects while low-growing plants, such as thyme, rosemary, or mint, provide shelter for ground beetles and other beneficial insects.

The plot does not have to be large, just big enough to hold 6-7 varieties of plants which attract insects. Once the garden has matured you can watch your personal insect security force do the work for you.

Creating your habitat can add color, texture and height to your garden. Start luring beneficials early in the season with annuals like alyssum, cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers, and marigolds. At the same time, set out perennial flowers and herbs, including golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria), yarrow, lavender, mint, fennel, angelica, dill, parsley, and tansy. When you've finished harvesting allow cilantro, cabbage, brussel sprouts and carrots to flower providing nectar to act as a treat for a job well done.

Some gardeners refer to the insectary as a form of ‘companion planting’, based on the ability of a plant to draw a beneficial insect toward another plant that is susceptible to pest damage. The plants can be inter-planted among your regular plants and serve the same purpose. They may plant alternating rows of insectary annuals with rows of vegetable plants. I have seen an ‘island’ of insectary plants with vegetables planted around them in a circle and vice versa.

Insectary Plants
- - Beneficial Predators Attracted

Achillea filipendulina
- - Lacewings, Aphidius, Ladybugs
- - Hoverflies, Lacewings, Tachnid flies
- - Ground beetles
Anethum graveolens (Dill)
- - Ichneumon wasp, Ladybugs, Lacewings
Angelica gigas
- - Lacewings
- - Parasitic wasps, Hover flies, Robber flies
Convolvulus minor
- - Ladybugs, Hoverflies
- - Hoverflies, Lacewings, Parasitic wasps
Cosmos bipinnatus
- - Hoverflies, Parasitic wasps, Lacewings
- - Parasitic wasps, Hover flies, Robber flies
- - Dicyphus
Daucus Carota (Queen Anne's lace)
- - Lacewings, Ladybugs, Hoverflies
Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel)
- - Damsel bugs, Ladybugs, Lacewings
Helianthus annulus
- - Pirate bugs, Beneficial mites
Iberis umbellate
- - Hoverflies
Limonium latifolium (Statice)
- - Hoverflies, Parasitic wasps
- - Aphidius, Aphidoletes, Hoverflies
Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm)
- - Parasitic wasps, Tachinid flies
- - Parasitic wasps, Hover flies, Robber flies
Petroselinum crispum (Parsley)
- - Parasitic wasps, Hover flies, Tachinid flies
Scabiosa (Pincushion flower)
- - Hoverflies, Parasitic wasps
Shasta Daisy
- - Pirate bugs, Beneficial mites
- - Pirate bugs, Aphidius, Parasitic wasps
Tanacetum vulgare (Tansy)
- - Ladybugs, Lacewings
Verbascum thaspus
- - Dicyphus
- - Hoverflies, Parasitic wasps, Ladybugs

If you have used selective pesticides in the past, you may have chased away beneficial insects as well and so you will have to wait at least a couple of years before a natural balance between beneficial and pest insect population is achieved. In the meantime the pest population may grow to a scary size and seemingly out of control but soon predators will come in and begin feasting. While you are waiting, you can use Bt, Neem or insecticidal soap to help manage them. Just keep in mind that this balance between beneficial and pest insects existed for millennia before we came along and it will return if we provide enough variety.

Your success will probably vary from year to year as the climate and vegetation change and new pests arrive. You should expect the development of a habitat where pests and beneficials exist in a rough balance to be an effort of several years rather than a season or two. Despite the presence of so many beneficials, you will still need to hand-pick squash bugs or rub scale from the branches of the fruit trees.

While your insectary matures, you can:
* Provide water areas with shallow dishes or pebble areas. The larger good guys, toads, will appreciate these areas too.
* Include some permanent hardscapes such as stone paths and decorative rock.

Common beneficial insects.
First, learn how to recognize common beneficial and pest insects.

Lady bugs, or lady beetles, prey on aphids and other soft-bodied insects. These must be their favorite meal because ladybugs can consume up to 50 aphids per day.
The larvae will each eat close to 400 aphids before entering its pupal stage. There are many species of lady beetle that attack many different prey. The adults are independent, flighty creatures and may not all stay in your yard, but if they eat aphids in the neighbors yards then at least that’s a few less aphids for you to worry about.

Ground beetles (carabus nemoralis)-don't fly much, preferring to run away when disturbed. You probably won't see them unless you uncover their hiding places, usually old piles of weeds. They're relatively large (about 3/4 inch), and dark, with long, jointed legs. They're nocturnal hunters, rooting among leaf litter for insect eggs and larvae.

Soldier beetle (rhagonycha fulva)-show up for the late spring aphid feast.

Rove beetles (tachyporus)-feed on mites and snails and inhabit piles of decaying organic matter. They are similar to thrips, but without the ‘pincers’ on the back.

Lacewings-Watching these graceful, almost butterfly-like adults searching for pollen or nectar, it is difficult to imagine it in its fiercely predacious larval stage, during which it devours aphids, caterpillars, mealybugs, leafhoppers, insect eggs, and whiteflies. It even eats other lacewings.

Up close, the lacewing larva looks like a tiny (1/2 inch) alligator. If you keep a supply of flowering plants, adult lacewings may take up residence. If you decide to introduce beneficial to your garden, lacewings are the most effective predators you can buy.

Hover flies-With their striped abdomens, hover flies look like small bees, but they move through the air more like flies, zipping from plant to plant, hovering briefly before landing. Some people call these sweat bees since the flies enjoy a little tasty drink of sweat periodically. The hover, or syrphid, fly is one of many predatory flies and one of the most conspicuous beneficial in our garden. They can be found just about anytime and anywhere in the garden. They visit a variety of flowers in search of pollen and nectar, and they lay their eggs near aphids or other soft-bodied insects. The eggs hatch into ravenous larvae that eat up to 60 aphids, thrips and small caterpillars per day. The adult hover flies do not eat other insects, but feed on nectar and pollen.

Praying mantis-undoubtedly the most well known garden dweller, this insect is a master of the hunt and at camouflage. Larger species have been known to prey on small lizards, frogs, birds, snakes, and even rodents. Back in my home state of Indiana, we used to find these growing 5-6 inches long.

Parasitic wasps-These very helpful creatures, ranging in size from small to minuscule, will defend your garden against caterpillars like corn earworm, tomato fruitworm, cabbageworm, and tent caterpillars. The smallest and perhaps most popular parasitic wasp is the trichogramma, a dust-size creature that lays up to 300 eggs in moth or butterfly eggs. You can buy them through the mail if you're expecting an infestation of caterpillars. They don't live very long so timing their release to coincide with the presence of pest eggs is pretty important.

Spiders. All spiders feed on insects and are very important in preventing pest outbreaks. The spiders normally found in gardens do not move indoors, nor are they poisonous. Permanent perennial plantings and straw mulches will provide shelter and dramatically increase spider populations in vegetable gardens.

Tachinid Flies. Although they look similar to house flies, tachinid flies are very important enemies of cutworms, armyworms, tent caterpillars, cabbage loopers, gypsy moths, sawflies, Japanese beetles, squash bugs, and sowbugs. Grow pollen and nectar plants to attract them.

Predator insect populations will vary in size according to the amount of available food much the same way pest populations arrive when their favorite treats are available.

Beneficials by mail
Many beneficial insects are available by mail. You might find it useful to release a few to get a jump start on pests while your habitat is developing.

Perhaps the most effective and economical are lacewings, available as eggs, larvae, and adults. A thousand lacewing eggs, enough for 2500 square feet, will cost about $5 plus shipping. A thousand larvae cost about twice that.

Lady beetles are widely available in garden centers or by mail. Five hundred will cost you about $7.50. Remember to have some aphids and pollen around before you release them, and don't be surprised if many fly away.

Trichogramma wasps are available in the form of parasitized eggs glued to a card. In the event of a caterpillar invasion, you hang the card in the garden, the wasps emerge, and you're on your way to victory. It's important to consider, however, that trichogramma will attack butterfly larvae, too. Timing and accurate pest identification are very important. A card with 100,000 eggs costs about $15.

Minute pirate bugs and big-eyed bugs are available, but very expensive.

Keep in mind that if you don’t have a food source for these insects they are not going to stick around. They just might find your neighbors yard more to their liking.

Once you have put your faith in beneficial insects, the next time you see a cloud of whiteflies around your cabbage or a crawling mass of aphids on your roses you can rest easy knowing that hover flies and lady bugs will soon move in to feed and deposit their eggs on the leaves. New hover flies will emerge in a few days and begin looking for pollen and nectar. A large Asian lady beetle is grazing through the crowd. I guess I can relax. It looks like the insects have this outbreak under control.

In summary, beneficial insects provide an undeniable service by 1) protecting our valuable and desirable crops from pests, 2) eliminates our need to introduce chemicals into our environment, and 3) gets us to expand our garden variety by adding plants that we probably would not have considered adding. All for free. Quite a magnificent plus if you ask me.

Further reading:
The Bugman on Bugs This sequel to the authors’ Ask the Bugman (2002) contains more valuable information on how to identify assorted insects and arthropods and the best ways to keep them out of your house, all presented with the wry humor that fans of Fagerlund’s nationally distributed newspaper column have come to treasure.

Great Garden Companions: A Companion Planting System For A Beautiful, Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden
Let master gardener Sally Jean Cunningham show you how to keep pests and diseases at bay with her unique companion-gardening system. By planting special combinations of vegetables, flowers, and herbs, you can minimize pest and disease problems and create a high-yielding, beautiful garden!

Other helpful resources
Biological Control: A Guide to Natural Enemies in North America

Biological Control Systems

The Beneficial Insect Company

Companion Planting

Garden Toad’s Companion Plant Guide

Insect Identification
Dave’s Garden

What’s That Bug


Creating a backyard Wildlife Habitat

>> Saturday, February 16, 2008

One of the reasons I like to garden is, of course, growing my own food. I also have a love of nature that I share with all gardeners. A couple of years ago I was finally able to begin my dream of building a perennial garden that would also provide a habitat for the wildlife that our ever expanding urban-crawl is displacing.

Of course, one of the first wildlife that comes to mind, and goes hand in hand with any garden setting, is birds.

The week of February 24 through March 2 has been designated as Homes for Birds Week®. This event sponsored by The Birding Consultant Group is held each year to encourage people to clean out and fix up their existing bird house as well as put up new homes for wild birds.

Moving into an older community with established trees has helped get my dream started because of the large population of birds already here.

Even if you don’t have large established trees in your neighborhood, erecting a post to attach a bird feeder to will bring birds. You can also attach a device to hang a birdfeeder from a fence, your house or shed or your deck or patio. Hanging a bird feeder is the single most important thing anyone can do to help maintain a bird population in your area. Yes, apartment dwellers can do it too. If you can’t attach a feeder to your building then place one in a nearby tree and take it upon yourself to keep it filled. Get your neighbors involved and ask for their help in sharing in the cost and cleanup. Keep in mind that feeders need to be cleaned once a month (every two weeks is better) to prevent the spread of fungus such as Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus which causes respiratory infections in birds. Hummingbird feeders need to be cleaned every four days.

Here is a nontoxic solution and technique to make this chore easier and safe for the birds.
If you have more than a couple of feeders, cleaning them on a rotating schedule will prevent having to clean them all at once – a potentially burdensome task.
Obtain a tub big enough to hold your birdfeeder(s), a scrub brush, outdoor hose, gloves, scent-free liquid soap or detergent, and white distilled vinegar.
Place your feeder in the tub outdoors, fill it with warm water and a squirt of liquid soap or detergent. Wearing gloves, scrub the parts of the feeder you can reach, and rinse thoroughly with a hose. Empty the tub and fill it with clean water and 4 cups of vinegar. Let the feeder soak for 1 hour. Rinse thoroughly.
Note: vinegar is considered a non-selective, contact herbicide. Therefore, don’t get it on grass or plants you don’t want to kill. It only affects parts of the plant it actually touches so it is unlikely the roots will be affected.

Another important consideration for wildlife is to provide a source of water. A small pond, a bird bath, or even a shallow pan of water are much appreciated. As you can see here size doesn't really matter. Butterflies, bees and other insects that don’t drink directly from standing water would benefit from wet sand. I created a dam in one of my birdbaths to hold sand just for this purpose. Just keep it wet and these insects can drink from that.

Shelter and cover are also essential. I know this is just nature at work, but it is not a pretty sight! All wildlife need somewhere to hide from predators and to nestle down at night. If there are large trees in your neighborhood that already provide this shelter for birds then you don’t need to necessarily plant them in your yard. Shrubs are small enough that you can add these to your yard without too much sacrifice to open areas. Birds get very territorial in spring and summer in their search for nesting places so it is best they have multiple sources of cover. They especially like evergreens, hollies and pines.

Insect populations, as well as amphibians, like rocks and logs.

Add a toad house to your garden. OK, so not everyone finds toads beautiful, however, a single toad can eat about 110 beetles, ants, June bugs, grasshoppers, slugs, moths, sowbugs, armyworms and other bugs every day. That's around 3,000 every month! Toads are most active at night, so during the day they need a fairly dark, cool place to hide from the sun and predators. Encourage these bug-hungry hunters to have a nice long stay in your garden by providing these adorable toad houses. Place in a moist, shady area in your garden and before long you'll have a new neighbor.

You can make a toad shelter by creating a shallow depression in loose soil under ferns, shrubs or flowers and arranging flat stones for the sides and roof. Make the inside area about 6-8 inches high. Also, you can punch a hole in an 8-inch flower pot, invert it narrow side up and place in shaded and moist garden site. Or, simply prop the pot up like in this photo.

Butterfly houses are easy to build. Here’s a simple, fairly easy plan. Butterflies add a beautiful, graceful dimension to any garden or wildlife area.

A bat house would make an interesting addition to any garden, as well as a conversation piece. Believe it not, bats can eat up to 300 hundred bugs an hour! These bugs include mosquitoes, moths, locus, grasshoppers, etc. Such bugs can destroy crops and spread disease. American farmer's biggest pest is the Corn earworm moth.

One bat can eat 20 female moths a night reducing the number of crop eating caterpillars. Bat Conservation International, Inc has a website that provides all the necessary details and dimensions for building a bat house. Kids especially would love this. And aren’t they just lovely creatures? How many people do you know have a bat house in their yard?

Here are some great tips form Claire Hagen Dole of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden:
Fall cleanup often triggers us to cleanup the garden in preparation for spring, but in doing so we are removing important food and nesting materials for birds and insects. Spent perennials like purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and globe thistle (Echinops sphaerocephalus) provide seeds that will be picked over by finches and sparrows long into the winter months. The downy fluff of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) provides nesting material in early spring. Examine plant leaves and stalks carefully for tiny butterfly larvae, such as that of the Pearl Crescent, which favors aster leaves. If you find any, leave them alone until fresh spring growth lures them off the old plant.

Goldenrods (Solidago species) host the larvae of goldenrod gallflies—tiny insects responsible for the galls on the plant stalk—as well as the wasp larvae that parasitize them. In winter, downy woodpeckers and chickadees tear open the galls, seeking an insect meal. Juncos forage for goldenrod seeds on the ground.

In the vegetable garden, let broccoli, carrots, mustard, fennel, and parsley go to seed to attract finches and chickadees. Leave a few cornstalks standing to shelter foraging birds and field mice.

If you have a lawn, allow a section of grass to remain unmowed as a safe corridor for frogs, snakes, mice, and insects. In winter, birds will search the grass for seeds and an insect meal, such as the hibernating larvae of satyr butterflies.

If you are serious about getting your backyard recognized as a natural habitat by other than the direct benefactors, wildlife itself, the National Wildlife Fund has a certification program you can strive for.

Even spiders have a place in the garden. Of course they can make their own homes wherever they go.

For more information on:
Bats see Organization for Bat Conservation
Toad houses
All About Frogs and Toads
Butterfly shelter
Attracting butterflies


A Gardeners Christmas Season

>> Saturday, February 9, 2008

Woke up this morning with a thrill of excitement flowing through my body, a giddiness if you will. What was on my mind was planting tomatoes. In Utah, the ‘official’ day for setting out tomato plants is Mothers Day. This year that day is May 11. Today is Feb 9th, only three months until I get to set out that most celebrated of warm-season crop, the princely tomato.

My mouth is watering in anticipation of that first bite. Its like looking forward to Christmas day, and I am my own Santa.

The Christmas holiday season traditionally begins after Thanksgiving and runs to December 25. Entire cities decorate themselves and homes are dressed-up in anticipation of the joyous event. People celebrate with parties and gift exchanges.

The gardening season begins quietly with seed and plant catalogs arriving in the mail in early January/late December. We busy ourselves with preparing a list of what we want to grow each new season, and we check it twice. We pour over catalogs with the same child-like delight as with Christmas gift catalogs. We go to sleep at night with visions of fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers dancing in our heads. We prepare a ‘special’ place in our homes for seed starting with the same care that we give our Christmas tree. Our target date for the ‘big event’ is the average last frost date. That magical date around which all garden activity revolves.

Every year we pour our hopes for the future into our gardens. We plant seeds in anticipation of reaping the rewards that represents the fruit of our labor, much as Christmas represents the hope of all mankind.

We share our bounty with friends and neighbors for this is a time of celebration. We are acknowledging and validating our future. I cannot help but get giddy when I see gardening from this perspective.

Whatever plants you look forward to nurturing into full bloom, I hope every attempt is fruitful and that you celebrate it for the miracle it is.

Happy Gardening to All and to All a Good Crop.


Great Backyard Bird Count Feb 15-18, 2008

>> Thursday, February 7, 2008

For the past several years I have participated in this annual event and I want to encourage others to do the same.

Ever wonder how scientists know what the migratory range is for a specific bird? Or how many birds of a particular species there is? Well, since no single scientist or team of scientists could hope to keep track of the complicated patterns of movement of so many species over an entire continent, the information taken from GBBC participants provides valuable information to scientists as they try to learn how birds are affected by environmental changes.

The information you send in can provide the first sign that individual species may be increasing or declining from year to year. It shows how a species’ range expands or shrinks over time. A big change, noted consistently over a period of years, is an indication that something is happening in the environment that is affecting the birds and that should be followed up on. GBBC information also allows us to look at what kinds of birds inhabit different areas, such as cities versus suburban.

This is very valuable information and can only be collected by dedicated scientists and concerned individuals. If you want to do something to help birds survive this is one of the best ways to participate.

More information can be found at the Great Backyard Bird Count webpage.

I especially encourage those of you with good photography skills to document any birds you see and enter your photos in their photo contest.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds.

How to participate

1. Plan to count birds for at least 15 minutes during February 15–18, 2008.
Count birds at as many places and on as many days as you like—just keep a separate list of counts for each day and/or location.

2. Count the greatest number of individuals of each species that you see together at any one time, and write it down.
You can get regional bird checklists here.

3. Enter your results through GBBC web page.

They have a great photo gallery of birds from all over the U.S. along with names.

The reasoning behind why this is one in February is that it gives a snapshot of how birds are surviving the winter and where they are located just before spring migrations begin in March. Scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and elsewhere can combine this information with data from surveys conducted at different times of the year.

There are answers to all of your questions from the main page, just click on the FAQs link.

Also, check out eBird, a free, real-time, online checklist program that accepts bird counts at any time throughout the year. You can use eBird to store detailed lists of your own sightings, a list of your favorite birding spots, and checkout where birds are seen throughout the U.S.

A great online source for identifying birds is

This is a great opportunity to help further understand the nature of birds and a wonderful way to introduce more people in your area to bird watching.


Color palette, should it change every year?

>> Monday, February 4, 2008

It’s a personal preference, of course, keeping your beds looking the same every year, but then again what part of gardening isn’t personal? As I was looking through this springs garden catalogs at all the various colors I began to realize that the plants I chose for my perennial beds will be the same color every year. It then struck me that I might get bored with this ‘sameness’.

My bedding plants are still young, this being the first year I planted a perennial bed, so the plants were really too small to make much of an impact. I keep trying to envision them as larger and fuller and filling in the space I left between them to see if the colors would clash. I already went though this before planting them but I can’t help second-guessing myself.

One of my backyard beds, B3, is mainly dark blues and pinks with a scattering of yellow and white. This in itself is a wide enough variety to not become too boring and the bloom times cover spring through fall so the colors show at different times and in different places. Sort of like moving targets of color, if you will.

After examining my map, for the umpteenth time, and sketching out when the colors appear, i.e., blue (various shades), yellow, white and red are present the entire growing season with pink only in spring and purple added in summer and fall, it looks pretty busy. But the different heights and textures and flower sizes make it look better in real life than it does on a two-dimensional piece of paper.

They are set into groupings so the colors compliment and everything is spread out enough so that no one plant overpowers another. Remembering back on when I looked at them last summer and looking through the photos I had taken of them, they did not look as bad as it sounds as I am writing this. The bed does sound awfully busy though.

Another backyard bed, B2, so far is red and dark blue, this sounds like it clashes big time, but there are only six plants there right now with many more planned and about six feet of empty space between the two colors. I had originally planned perennials for this space but am leaning towards annuals so that the overall look changes every year.

This part of the bed is where I have had trouble getting anything to survive.

The Clematis Jackmanii is doing fine next to this space. The problem space gets visited by a large number of box elder bugs every year. It is next to a shed that sits directly under a Box elder tree and these bugs don’t stay in the tree. These bugs supposedly do not harm live plants but my experience so far leaves them as the only possible reason why I can’t get anything to grow here.

Two years ago I put a yellow rose ‘Honey Perfume’ and two lilies here and the rose began slowly dying so I moved it into the front yard and it came back. The lily bulbs shriveled up, either due to box elder bugs or whatever else is lurking beneath the soil. Also, I put sunflower seeds here and less than half of them sprouted. Anyway, I’ll get it figured out and work on a better color scheme here.

But my question is, will a perennial bed become boring if it is the same color scheme every year?

If you leave judiciously placed empty space(s) in each bed for annuals then the overall color scheme can’t help but be different each year and hopefully will lessen the ‘boring’ factor. Sounds good anyway.

Keeping in mind that I am new at this perennial gardening thing I have to realize that there is most likely something I am overlooking that will prevent the sameness from being boring.

I recall reading in several different blogs about how people tear out some plants and move them to somewhere else and generally rearrange their beds. I don’t know how often they do this or whether or not a boring color scheme is why they go through this trouble or if the reasoning relates to something else, but it is very likely they just like to change things. I know I do in almost every other thing in my life, so maybe I don’t even need to worry about getting bored with color I’ll probably just rearrange the beds for the fun of it.

Does anyone else change their beds because they are bored with it? If so, how often? Let me know, I’m really curious.


Landscape/Garden design software

>> Friday, February 1, 2008

Does anyone use these? When I looked into them last year I decided they were pretty much designed for large yards or people who consider themselves perfectionists or for businesses who would use them more often than the home gardener and therefore stand a better chance at getting their money’s worth out of them. I don’t have a large yard by most standards: 7,700 sq ft with 2,300 sq ft of that devoted to garden space, I certainly am not a perfectionist and I don’t run a business. The ole ‘pencil and paper’ method works fine for me.

Some people need to see the layout on paper whether it be via hand or computer and printer, while others have the ability to envision it all in their talented heads and bring it all to life without ever touching paper.

I need to see it on paper and I use Excel to layout rectangular representations assigning a separate workbook for each garden space. Next to the design I list each plant and its color, bloom time and length, height and width, and how many plants are planted (or going to be). The plan ends up as squares and rectangles, which can get a bit tricky for curves and rounded ends, and trying to determine the exact amount of space used is a bit skewed, but it all works. I even have hyperlinks to photographs so I can quickly see what the plant looks like in full bloom. The one thing that using a spreadsheet or drawing it out on paper lacks is, how the whole layout looks with all the plants together. This requires that talented ability to imagine the space as it might look.

There are some very good landscape design products on the market and some of these are getting more press lately, presumably because this time of year is when we are all itching to get back into the garden. We all know the best time to put a garden in is in the fall but we can design one any time we want.

Advertising for these products typically starts off by making sure you know that by using their product you will save ‘time and money’, make ‘fewer mistakes’ and prevent your frustration level from making you want to kick the family pet.

One major improvement I have noticed this year over last years offerings is the ability to import digital photos. This, to me is a nice touch. It helps prevent the cartoonish look of your design by using your own photos of plants you really want to design with and you can actually use a photo of your own house! Some software allows you to edit and touch-up the photos to give your plan a little more sparkle. And while this isn’t a deal breaker it does add a bit of value. Most have diaries to track your gardens progress, and a built-in video tutorial on how to use their product, and the ability to add in hardscape, such as, walkways, driveways, decks, patios, birdbaths, etc.

The more complete software packages, in my opinion, have pre-designed garden plans to get ideas from, access to a (large) plant encyclopedia, helps you identify your hardiness zone, guides to common diseases and insects and their treatments and controls, and the ability to print out a shopping list of plants to order from.

Some extras, that would probably drive the price up, would be:

tips on when to plant,
watering and techniques on how to save it,
soil preparation,
seed starting,
companion planting,
basically a ‘complete package’ (provided there ever could be such a thing).

I realize that all of this information could be found in many good books found at book stores and libraries everywhere, but let’s face it, a lot of people are turning to the internet and their computers and, sadly, away from books.

With this in mind let’s look at a few examples of landscape/garden software for purchase in the $30 to $200 range. Trust me, they do come a lot more expensive than this.

Stand alone Computer Software

Graphics have come a long way in recent years and the ability to draw in 3D will greatly enhance your experience. One software product that takes full advantage of this selling point is 3D Garden Composer. This is an upgrade from their Garden Composer 2004.

This software package has one of the most extensive and complete encyclopedias I have seen yet. The illustrations are full color and some come with slide shows. Plant entries include growing zones, sun exposure, soil moisture, soil composition, colors of flowers, leaves and fruit, the colors of autumn leaves, growing rates, spreading rates, plant sizes and annual flowering, fruiting calendars, plant origins, and other useful information.

A plant and resource editor allows you to create your own plant encyclopedia of your own digitally photographed plants with customized fields, and backgrounds, such as fences.

You can publish your garden plan on your webpage allowing visitors to take a virtual tour of your garden. Very nice touch.

You can also publish a detailed list or create an illustrated catalogue of your garden plants.

It comes with a garden care calendar, garden tools database, notepad, photo designer, photo editor, guide to garden pests and diseases, pre-designed garden plans, and the ability to view your garden design throughout the changing seasons.

One drawback is it’s learning curve. Plan on devoting several hours to learn to use its features and apply it to your own landscape.

Another major bit of landscape design software is Landscape Vision Design Software.

This package has one of the best features yet, it allows you to use a picture of your own home. This is a definite plus and I think more software ought to have this capability.

Some other features are:
Drag and Drop pictures of plants from their plant data base of over 1,000 plants, or import your own.
Import images of stone and pavers from select vendors, or draw your own.
Draw garden beds and fill with your choice of mulch.
Draw walkways and patios and fill with pavers or stone.
Drag and Drop images of lawn furniture, gazebos, arbors, bird baths, mailboxes, grills, etc.
Print a shopping list.

A third software package is from Realtime Landscaping and comes in three flavors-Pro, Plus and Photo.

It too has 3D graphics and most of the popular bells and whistles.
Realtime provides:
allows you to edit in 2D or 3D,
shows day and night visualizations,
allows designing of raised flowerbeds and decks,
has a plant growth tool,
allows importing of digital photos and custom materials,
can design sprinkler systems, ponds, waterfalls, etc.

Plant databases for these and other design packages range in size from 16 to 15,000 different plants. The three mentioned here fall somewhere in between.

Website based landscape design
Another area of landscape design offering allows you to use them online.

Some are free and some allow you to download their software for a trial period with limited functionality. Not all will allow you to print the design you create while online but you can use it for a quick look at how some plants might look together. They all come with a small list of plant shapes for a birds-eye view.

Here are three, picked at random, that highlight the range of functionality you can expect (listed in no particular order).
BBC – Gardening Design
I have used this one several times for a quick look at how some plants will look together. It requires a plug-in to be downloaded but it provides the usual grid where you can quickly layout your chosen bed and add a few plants to see the colors together. The software is easy to use and is quite useful for design basics.

This package uses real color photos, includes photos of real homes or use a photo of your own, allows you to select your hardiness zone, shows the plants grow over a five year period and also is very easy to use.

Garden Planner Online
This design software can be used online or you can download a trial version. The online portion is pretty handy to get a quick representation of your yard and plants in general terms.
Besides the usual trees, shrubs, plants, groundcovers, etc, you can add buildings, paving, ponds, fences, garden furniture and you can print the plan.

Each object you place can easily be resized.

The downside is that you cannot save the plan, but you can print it out.

Do it Yourself Websites
There are of course loads of do it yourself websites that are ready to show you their projects and walk you through designing your own great looking yard/garden.

One of the most detailed websites, full of great information, is Landscape Design Do It Yourself. Landscaping is very informative as well.

These are only two but if you do an online search you will find a large selection of information sources from webpages and books.

For those of you who are talented enough, there are graphic design software packages, such as IrfanView, Adobe Illustrator, and a host of others that require a fair amount of graphics understanding and talent to freeform the whole shebang. With these you have to build everything from the ground up.

All in all there are loads of options to help you design your own landscape depending on how much time, effort, and money you are willing to spend.

To me, gardening is not spending time on the computer designing, but designing is part of the overall gardening experience. So it is something we all do sooner or later.

If you are ready to throw your hands up in the air and turn everything over to someone else, you can always pay a landscape designer to do it for you.

During the winter months we may have time on our hands to design but how many of us actually shell out money for design software?

Disclaimer: I want to take the time to point out that there are no promotional considerations taken or given for listing any product or website on this post.


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