We all know that sunlight changes across a landscape throughout the day and over the seasons, but there's something exceptional about the light of predawn.
If you’re an early riser like me, you already know about this special time. The air feels softer, sounds are muted, and everything smells fresh and clean. Unless it’s fire season, of course. But even then, the smokiness adds depth to the predawn air.
Before the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a few minutes in the garden can do wonders for your morale. Just grab a cup of coffee or tea and slowly walk through your garden. You’ll be surprised at how much you see when there aren’t as many distractions pulling at your attention. You may want to bring a small notepad with you.
In the predawn quiet, you can still see everything, but the air is cool and the world is quiet. You may be surprised to notice slugs and snails in a raised strawberry patch that you thought they didn’t know about. You may finally see how birds are getting into your tree cage to poke holes in your apricots.
Of course, you may also be treated with rare delights, such as finches and wrens snagging bits of sunflower leaf, hummingbirds catching gnats over a birdbath, or a singing thrush. Most of these sights and sounds are lost on us during the day, behind traffic, work, and family.
Even if you’re not an early riser, give yourself a treat some morning and get up before the sun crosses the horizon. You’ll be amazed at what you see and hear. And you may find that the magic of an early morning in the garden stays with you throughout the day.
There are plenty of strawberry flowers which is funny since I never managed to grow them successfully in California. Here, on my Seattle balcony, they’re growing like crazy. The local insects seem to be doing a decent job of pollinating. Even so, I touch each flower with a tiny paintbrush every couple of days, just in case. I’m hoping that my supplemental hand-pollinating will improve the quality of pollination since that results in better quality fruit.
My apple tree is taking its time getting settled. I’m a little worried about it, though there is one active bud. Trees are in it for the long haul, so I must be patient. The blackberry cutting I took a while back doesn’t seem to have taken root, so I’ll have to try again on that one. Luckily, there are plenty of blackberry canes in Seattle.
Despite being limited to just a balcony, I now have chives, cilantro, lettuce, parsley, and spinach outdoors, and my indoor stevia is thriving. It still amazes me how sweet those leaves are. Soon, it’ll be time to plant basil and tomatoes, though all of my plants will be heading indoors because we have another move on the horizon. It should be interesting.
What's growing in your May Day garden?
My balcony orchard
With today being the first day of spring, I thought I would tell you about my balcony orchard.
When most of us think of orchards, we probably picture acres and acres of commercially cultivated fruit or nut trees, irrigated with massive pipe systems and managed from the seat of a tractor. In my old yard, I had several fruit and nut trees. I suppose that qualifies as an orchard, too. But now I live in a downtown Seattle apartment with a balcony, so my definition had to change a bit.
My balcony orchard currently consists of one tree. I bought it from Online Orchards. It’s a dwarf apple tree, but it has four different types of apple grafted onto the central stalk. That’s a good thing because most apple trees are not self-pollinating. This means they usually need a neighboring apple tree to produce fruit. I don’t think my balcony can handle two apple trees. I could be wrong. Anyway, with four different varieties on one tree, pollinators will be able to move pollen from one variety to another. Fruit should appear in a couple of years.
My balcony apple tree should produce Cortland, Gravenstein, Red Jonathan, and Winesap apples. Each branch started out as a scion that was grafted onto a horizontal shoot.
My apple tree may look like nothing more than a stick right now, but I hope to see lots of leafy stems and blossoms this time next year. Of course, I will have to remove all those pretty blossoms to encourage further root development the first time they appear. That’s okay, though. I should get 15 to 20 years of blossoms and fruit from my balcony tree if I take good care of it.
This particular tree is growing in a large self-watering container. It doesn’t actually water itself, so the name is misleading. If you aren’t familiar with these pots, they have a reservoir in the bottom topped with a grate. Potting soil goes on top of the grate. Eventually, plant roots will go through the grate to access the water. This helps avoid rotted roots and fungal disease. Over-watering is a common problem with containerized plants.
As for the rest of my balcony garden, the strawberry plants I got for free through freecycle seem to be thriving, but I’m not so sure about the blackberry cutting I took last week while out walking the dogs.
Time will tell. It always does.
Where to find free native plants
Native plants are those that have evolved over thousands of years to grow where you are. They tend to be low-maintenance and naturally resistant to local pests and diseases. They are also part of an intricate web of interactions between insects, microorganisms, mammals, reptiles, and all the other life forms that ought to be living where you do.
Except that, very often, they’ve been pushed out by lawns, streets, and construction plant deals. We can’t yet expect the companies who build our homes to consider native plants. Maybe someday. Until that day comes, it is up to us to help return at least part of our landscapes to their natural state.
How to start adding natives
I started the process by allowing my lawn to become a meadow. This was after reading Linda King’s guest post, Gardening With Nature. The results were nothing short of delightful. First, nearly all the work was eliminated. Once my meadow was established, I didn’t have to water, weed, mow, or aerate it. I could just sit back and enjoy watching the butterflies, birds, and other critters who were attracted to my new offering.
Second, creating a meadow in my landscape let me see my space with a new perspective. Instead of an artificial collection of lines, colors, and textures, my garden design looked more natural and relaxed while still providing plenty of fresh groceries. For one thing, I added native currants and hazelnuts to my tomatoes and basil, which provided food for me, and my wildlife neighbors.
Native plant resources
Luckily for all of us, there are a growing number of native plant societies around the world. These organizations offer tons of information about the plants that should be where we are. In most cases, all you have to do is conduct an online search for your local group and then enter your zip code. From there, you are given a list of all the flowering plants, ground covers, shrubs, trees, and vines that are native to your region.
For example, having moved to Seattle, I searched online for “Seattle native plants”. I got 18 million results, including the Washington Native Plant Society and three native plant sellers. That was just on the first page. What I’m trying to say is that the resources are there for the taking. All you have to do is look.
Choosing your native plants
Once you’ve tracked down some resources, the fun begins. For me, plant selection is something akin to looking at toy catalogs as a kid just before Christmas. The possibilities were limitless and exciting. Of course, being significantly older now, I know that there are limits, such as sun exposure and soil health, but it’s still exciting.
Even if you simply add one native plant to your landscape, you will help reverse some of the damage done in the past. Add one native plant each year, or each season, and you will end up with a lovely landscape that appeals to a surprising number and variety of butterflies and other visitors.
What about those free plants?
If you buy native plants, I urge you to look for certified pest- and disease-free plants. And put them into quarantine before adding them to your landscape. Those simple precautions can save you from years of trouble.
But what if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on native plants but want to do your part?
In most cases, those plants are already in your neighborhood, struggling to survive amidst the concrete and traffic. Armed with a list of desirable native plants, a trowel, a few resealable plastic bags or containers, and a cooler, head out into your neighborhood to see what’s available nearby. You may also want to keep these tools handy in the trunk of your car, just in case.
If you happen to see a plant you really want, but it is in someone’s yard, knock on the door and ask for a cutting. You may be surprised at how many people will say yes. You may also discover a friend with mutual interests. If they say no, well, move on and continue your search elsewhere. Never take a plant from someone’s property without asking. [Someone once stole my entire almond crop. It was heartbreaking.]
If you can’t find what you’re looking for in your immediate neighborhood, look on a map and see if there are any green belts or wild areas nearby. These are often safe harbors for many wild native plants, but there are some very important rules about taking plants from the wild:
Other sources for free plants include county government, local plant clubs, sites such as PlantSwap.org, and social media groups dedicated to responsible gardening.
I was walking my dogs the other day and collected a piece of wild blackberry cane.
The possibilities are still nearly endless…
My Mobile Garden Story
I lived in a 31-foot RV for nearly five years, and I traveled a lot. Sometimes I lived in the north, sometimes in the south. I've lived west and east and everywhere in between. I've driven all the major highways and more little back roads than I could ever recall, and I garden
Being on the road all the time made it hard to develop roots of my own. It's pretty hard on a garden, too. But every winter, long about February or March, when those seed catalogs start showing up, I simply couldn't help myself. The thought of fresh, flavorful tomatoes, crisp green and purple bush beans, and endless supplies of scallions and garlic danced through my head, and I was smitten.
I think my garden provided the roots and the foundation I couldn’t get any other way at that time in my life. Thousands of miles from friends and family, my life was spread across North America, my garden was my home. Wherever I happened to place my pots and planters, the act of planting, weeding, and harvesting my crops kept me sane and well-fed, both physically and emotionally.
There's something so basic, to me, about gardening. It was and is sustenance and therapy. Early each growing season, I pulled my garden from its bins under my RV and started the cycle anew. The smell of fresh earth, rich with nutrients and potential, I saw and felt my own possibilities. Compost was added, very much the way I took my daily vitamin, ensuring that the necessary materials were available for building and maintaining a healthy life.
Dirty fingernails and facial smudges never deterred me from my task. Neat little paper packets of future crops would lie on my table as I decided what would go where this time around. How deep, how tall, how much sunlight, how much water, compatibility, and competition, they are the stuff of life that ground me to the realities we all experience. Gardening is the parallel by which I run my life. Decisions must be made, options selected and others put aside.
The first green shoots look so vulnerable as I tend and protect them from marauding snails, squirrels, and foraging birds. I don't blame them for wanting what they want, any more than I blame people for their needs or their short-sightedness. It simply requires my attention and dedication, as do all the important things. The shoots became stems and I would search under rocks and debris for worms to import into my pots. Occasional weeds would be watched for just as dishonest and dangerous people must be avoided and removed from our daily routines.
New leaves and young stems strive and reach for the sun as their roots spread down and out, gathering all that they need. In the same way, I must make time for sun and water and enough space to grow, to create my stories and my life. Eventually, flower buds emerge, leaves spread and my stories are written and submitted to publishers around the globe, with hopes for both to receive the pollination they need to continue.
Tiny green tomatoes develop under drying flowers; thin bean strands push buds away to claim their rightful place. Flat garlic and tubular onion stems spike upwards, hiding all their efforts deep within the soil, a gastronomical iceberg. I was tempted to fry up some green tomatoes but I had to be patient as my crop was limited to portable pots and window boxes. Life is full of decisions about immediate and long-term gratification. Self-control and delayed gratification are valuable skills whether gardening or simply living.
My garden feeds me and fulfills me. It tethers me to the natural cycles of growth and death, seasonal changes, and truisms. Every year presents different conditions, different problems, and different rewards. Growth and harvest come in many forms, and I will forever let my garden teach me.
Gardening as therapy
I have a T-shirt emblazoned with, “Gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes.”
In these days of reiterating Covid viruses, time spent in the garden gives you far more than just tomatoes.
The truth is that we’re all tired of living with Covid. We’re tired of the interruptions, inconveniences, and lack of social contact, tired of the masks and social conflicts. Amidst our pandemic fatigue, it has become easy to forget that this disease continues to be a life-threatening ordeal for many because of illness or medical therapies. Healthy individuals seem to forget that their lack of a mask or vaccine can mean a death sentence for the rest of us. As of this morning, friends and families of more than 5.6 million people are mourning the loss of their loved one to Covid.
See how we are these days?
We rant, we withdraw, we divide and shun. And spending time in a garden or working with plants is a big help during those times.
Gardening slows your pace
You can’t rush an artichoke plant. You can’t hurry thyme. They will grow as they do and all you can do is nurture them and watch. As you look closely at your plants, at the soil, you may start to see details you never knew were there, and some of your stress will slip away.
Many years ago, I owned a private school called Children’s Academy. Our slogan was, “Where K-12 learning is fun!” And it was. One activity we did each year was the Red Yarn Circle. Each student was given a clipboard with a large sheet of high-quality drawing paper, a freshly sharpened pencil with a good eraser, and a 3-foot section of fat, red yard. They were told to select a spot of their choice on the school’s 3-acre property, create a circle with their red yard on the ground, and draw whatever they saw within that circle. It was common for new students to groan when they heard this assignment. “There’s nothing there!” They would protest. But I would insist, and they would begin.
Being made to stop, look closely, and think about (or draw) what you see can take you into an entirely new world. Battles are still being fought, but they are between beetles, not nations. Bits of shale become bejeweled boulders. Your perspective shifts, and things that were upsetting fade away. Gardening helps you achieve the same sense of tranquility and perspective. If you let it.
Working the soil improves mood
Some therapies are more effective when combined with medication. Gardening has its own chemical benefits. One soil microorganism in particular, Mycobacterium vaccae, improves mood. This microorganism is absorbed through tiny cuts in our skin and inhaled on dust particles as we garden. Once inside our bodies, these microorganisms cause a chemical reaction similar to the effects of Prozac. [Note: If you are having an especially difficult time dealing with life these days, call 800-273-8255 for help.]
Gardening helps you focus
You probably don’t watch the news or follow social media while in the garden. The sheer volume of information faced by people today is enough to send anyone to the madhouse. The human psyche can only handle so many conflicts. Working in the garden lets much of that slip away. Instead of thinking about global problems that you have no control over, you focus on the here and now. What’s causing a misshapen leaf or stem? What might be feeding on your squash? You may notice the asparagus has begun to send up delicious shoots. It’s a much healthier perspective, in my opinion.
I believe that, as you notice the needs of your plants, you are probably more likely to notice your own needs as well. Did you remember your hat or sunscreen? Are you staying hydrated? Eat a fresh, sun-ripened cherry tomato. You know. The important stuff. And this isn’t just my opinion.
Over the past few years, a significant body of evidence has demonstrated that gardening provides a wealth of benefits. Not only does gardening help you lose weight and put you back in sync with natural cycles, but research also demonstrates that gardening reduces depression and anxiety while improving “life satisfaction, quality of life, and sense of community.” [Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis, Masashi Soga, et al]
If you feel your mental reserves have been used up, head to the garden or pamper your potted plants. They really will help you feel better.
Plus, you get tomatoes!
Cold Weather Plants
Some plants handle winter better than others, while others can’t handle the cold at all. And winter in central Florida is a whole lot different from winter in central Wyoming. Brrr!
How plants protect themselves from cold weather is pretty fascinating. And you may be surprised at the number of plants that can withstand the cold.
How plants react to cold
Most vegetable plants react badly to freezing temperatures. The moisture held within each plant cell expands as it freezes and those cells rupture.
From the outside, we see blackened leaves and stems that indicate decomposition has begun. But there are degrees of cold. And the conditions that exist before temperatures drop to freezing matter, as well.
Degrees of cold
Just as water droplets will condense on your glass of summer iced tea, plant surfaces also collect dew on their surface. When temperatures drop below 36°F, that dew becomes frost. Frost can be light (28°F-32°F) or hard (below 28°F).
As temperatures drop, some winter-hardy plants protect themselves by producing more sugars. This is why cabbages and many other crops are sweeter after a light frost. The sugar lowers the freezing temperature of the water held within, making the plants more cold-tolerant. [I just read an article about how sugar beets are being used as road deicers instead of salt as a method of protecting the environment while keeping our winter roads safer.]
The condition of the plants before freezing also makes a difference. Plants grown in warm temperatures that are suddenly exposed to a hard frost will usually die. Those same plants, exposed to gradual cooling over time, can tolerate surprisingly low temperatures.
Plants that tolerate cold
Many plants that grow from bulbs and corms can withstand bitter temperatures. Tucked away safely in the soil, saffron crocus plants often send up green shoots before the snow even melts. What these plants can’t tolerate is excess moisture. Cold, wet plants tend to rot in the ground.
Before cold weather hits, you will want to harvest everything that will be ruined by frost. Common garden plants that are damaged by a light frost include:
While these plants are often made sweeter with a light frost:
*Winter hardy lettuces are planted close together and are often called "winter density" lettuces.
And these plants can tolerate a hard frost:
Did you know that greens such as kale and spinach with savoyed, curled, or textured leaves are more cold-tolerant than smooth-leaved varieties? Now you know.
Most of your fruit and nut trees will produce bigger and better harvests because of the cold as they collect chill hours throughout the winter.
Protect your garden from winter cold by giving it a blanket of aged manure and compost or a layer of straw mulch. All those tiny air pockets will act as a cold buffer. And be sure to drain those garden hoses and drip irrigation systems. You can protect frost-sensitive plants by covering them with a tarp, sheet, or umbrella. Just make sure that the cover doesn’t touch the plant or it won’t work.
You can always extend your growing season and protect frost-sensitive plants with hoophouses, row covers, and cold frames.
How cold do your winters get? Your USDA Hardiness Zone can answer that question.
From the outside, gardening looks pretty tame. Plants don’t race around. They don’t seem to attack. It’s just greenery, water, and soil, right? The truth is, if you garden regularly, some amazing things are bound to happen.
It’s not just the plant oddities that appear. Many of us have come across twinned tomatoes, dancing carrots, and fasciated stems, but gardens are full of surprises. These are just a few of mine.
I never gave mold much thought before gardening, other than to make sure it never took up residence in my bathroom. I knew that mold could spread, but it never occurred to me that some molds, specifically slime molds, can move across areas intact. The dog vomit slime mold pictured below did just that. On the first day, it was a bright yellow blob above and to the left of a seashell. On the second day, my slime mold had changed color and started to engulf said seashell. I certainly didn’t expect that!
Glowing bananas and bursting stems
Because of my time in the garden, pruning and harvesting, I was able to see, firsthand, what happens to a stem when the water inside freezes.
I was surprised to learn that the sugary brown spots on ripe bananas glow when illuminated with a blacklight. You can use one of those penlights that tell you if a dollar bill is counterfeit.
Baby praying mantis, napping bees, and ambling grubs can all be surprise discoveries if you take the time to look for them.
Even watching a simple grub walking can surprise you.
I caged my fruit and nut trees to protect against bird, squirrel, and rat damage. Sometimes, small birds would still find their way into the tree cages. Once, a Cooper’s hawk managed to get in. I must assume he was trying to get at the songbird since the figs probably didn't appeal to him. I used my old wildlife rehabilitator skills to capture and release the magnificent bird properly. The songbird escaped on its own.
In the end, the closer you look, the more you see. And gardening never ceases to amaze and surprise me.
What has surprised you in the garden?
We’ve all had them. Moments when we realize that irreversible damage to a plant (or many plants) has occurred. Sometimes we can save them, and sometimes we can’t. Let’s look at some of the more common plant catastrophes and what can be done about them. Then I’ll share my plant catastrophe story. I’ll give you a hint: it has something to do with fish.
Most plant catastrophes occur when plants are grown in containers, though not always. These disasters can occur suddenly or slowly over time.
Crashing to the ground
Potted plants are known to fall. A gust of wind, an exuberant pet, or a stray elbow can tip the scales of balance, sending a plant crashing to the ground. Containers are usually lost in these scenarios. Luckily, most plants can survive a fall. Discard the broken pottery, or you can save the pieces to cover the drainage hole in other containers. [Note: do not add a layer of shards, rocks, or gravel to the bottom of a planting container. This wastes space better dedicated to soil. A shard over the hole simply reduces soil loss.]
You may want to spread out a couple of sheets of newspaper before you begin. Gently collect your fallen plant and place it on the newspaper. Then you can sweep up the soil and debris, placing it on the newspaper, as well. This is an excellent opportunity to examine the roots of your fallen plant for signs of pests and disease. You may also find that your plant has become root bound. In that cases, you can either trim back the roots or provide it with a larger pot. If pests or diseases are present, you may want to shake off any soil and toss that soil in the trash. Wash the root system under running water. Remove any damaged or diseased roots before repotting. And remember, rather than tamping the soil down when planting, which only damages valuable root hairs, mud in your plant with water.
One of the most common causes of plant disasters is overwatering. It’s an honest mistake. The top of the soil looks dry. We want to care for our plants, so we water them. And then we water them again. And again. They start wilting, so we water them some more. [Plants can wilt because of too much or too little water.] What we don’t always realize is that the soil’s macropores and micropores can hold a lot of water. Those spaces are also supposed to hold air but the air is pushed out when too much water is present. Overwatering not only drowns and suffocates our plants, but it sets the stage for several fungal diseases and invites fungus gnats. More on insects below. The easiest solution to overwatering is to let plants dry out more often, provide good drainage, and invest in an inexpensive moisture meter.
On the flip side, failing to water a plant can certainly lead to disaster. Without water, plants cannot perform photosynthesis or remain upright for long. Put plant watering on a regular schedule that keeps the soil moist enough, but not too much. Again, a moisture meter is helpful. And if you know you are going to be away for a while, avoid the DIY idea of using diaper crystals to moisten your plants. It’s a bad idea. One easy self-watering idea is to place a water bottle next to the plant and lay a thin strip of cloth, paper towel, or yarn from the bottom of the water bottle to the planting soil. The soil will draw the water up the strip for as long as water is available.
Stray stink bugs and aphid clusters are common when working with plants, but sometimes they can get out of control. This is especially true for indoor plants where pests are protected from their natural predators. Here is a list of the most common indoor pest invaders and the ways to manage them.
Many insect invasions can be thwarted by placing new plants into quarantine when they first arrive.
My plant catastrophe
There was a time, many years ago, when my apartment was filled to overflowing with plants. It was lovely and I took great pride in their good health. I also had a fish tank. Every so often, I would treat my fish with brine shrimp. I would scoop the brine shrimp up with a net and deposit them in the tank. Their tiny legs would flutter in unison, caterpillar-like, as they tried escaping my fish, but they never got away.
On one occasion, I must’ve gotten a bad batch of brine shrimp. When I went to feed my fish, all the brine shrimp were dead. My young adult brain said, “Well, there are lots of nutrients in those brine shrimp, so I’ll give them to my plants.” I proceeded to pour the brine shrimp into each and every one of my beautiful, beloved plants. In a very short time, I saw firsthand what happens when you use brine (saltwater) to water your plants. Most of them died.
I didn’t know, at the time, that I could have saved more of those plants by removing them from their soil, washing the roots, and placing them into containers of fresh water. Live and learn, eh?
What’s your plant catastrophe story?
My first gardening experience
I learned my love of gardening as a child. It all started with a clear plastic cup, a black sponge, and four hard, dry corn seeds.
When I was very young, my mother bought us educational toys. Living in rural Upstate New York before laptops existed and while televisions were still rare, these toys were a real treat. In the early 1960s, children spent nearly all day, every day playing outside. The rule was, “Come home when the street lights go on.” Those were good times. But the arrival of a package from Creative Playthings was always very exciting.
A cup in a box
This particular shipment was to affect me all of my life. It was nothing more than a clear plastic cup, a black sponge that fit neatly inside the cup, four hard, dry corn kernels, and a piece of paper with instructions and a place to document what I observed. I was four years old.
The instructions told me to insert the sponge into the cup, which was easy enough. Then I was to slide the kernels of corn between the cup and the sponge, taking care to make sure that each kernel was pointing in a different direction. This was a little more difficult and required some patience on my part, but I recall feeling that it was important that I do this thing correctly. Nearly 60 years later, I can still feel and see the experience of pushing and prodding those seeds into position.
Just add water
Once my seeds were in place, all I had to do was add water and wait. Every day I checked on my seeds. Every day I checked to make sure the sponge was moist but not soggy. At first, nothing happened. I diligently noted this lack of activity on my record sheet. I’m sure I felt the same frustration and worry that I still feel at times toward slow-to-germinate seeds. But then, things started happening.
The magic of germination
My child-sized fingers knew how hard and pointy those corn seeds had been. To see tiny roots and shoots emerge was nothing less than miraculous. No matter which way the kernels had been turned, those first roots always knew to go down, while the first shoots always found a way to move upward, even if it took some twisting and turning.
Every day, I drew pictures of what my corn seeds-turned-seedlings looked like. Eventually, we planted them outside, but I don’t think they did very well. [Corn needs to be planted in clusters that allow for wind pollination.] It didn’t matter. I was hooked. It amazed me. It still does.
My first gardening experience is with me still. It taught me patience, nurturing, and good record-keeping. It left me with a sense of awe about the growing process.
What was your first gardening experience?
Kate Russell, writer, gardener, and so much more.