Yes, You Can and Should Garden: Part I

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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54 Responses

  1. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    WooHoo! Always love gardening posts!

    Thanks Rose!Report

  2. James Pearce says:

    Just curious….why no fertilizer?Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to James Pearce says:

      Not no fertilizer ever ever. I use fertilizer with bulbs, potted plants, and anything that seems like it might need it (vague, I know, but I mean anything that is higher maintenance or just seems like it’s not thriving – then I use seaweed or fish emulsion). Only because: with enough compost, etc, you really don’t need it. And some fertilizers damage ecosystems.Report

      • James Pearce in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        That makes sense. I guess I just consider compost to be a type of fertilizer. The granulated stuff you buy in bags at Home Depot? Yeah, don’t need it.

        I also deliberately use some “fertilizers” to damage certain ecosystems. I had an ant colony in one of my garden beds and several heapings of coffee grounds told them, “No, you gotta move.”Report

  3. Burt Likko says:

    Natasha and I are on our third attempt to grow herbs and vegetables. This time, we’re using all pots and nothing is going directly in the ground. This is partly because our soil is heavily alkaline and partly because (perversely) the desert soil’s hard pan causes a great deal of pooling and ponding and accumulation of enough water to cause root rot. We noticed tomatoes getting too much water and the tough, tasteless butt on the fruit the last time we tried this.

    We’re also fencing off the garden from the dogs because the last time we tried growing edibles, the dogs ate basically everything they could get at, as soon as they starting giving off aroma. (They left the tomatoes alone, thank the gods — tomatoes are poisonous to dogs so those beasts would have shit like minks for days when the tomatoes ripened enough to smell like actual fruit.)

    So that means buying potting soil, and that means fertilizer. Anything special we should note about pots, growing things in pots, and especially dealing with very hot days in the summertime?Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Burt Likko says:

      First, I’d ask if you tried amending your soil with 4 inches of compost and rototilling. Or asking a landscaper to aerate it for you. On the assumption that you have and/or don’t want to, I will suggest you could use rain garden plants in those spots (I will have a post on that – they are plants that can handle both droughts and sudden influxes of water.

      I’ll have a post on containers. But I used to grow all my food in containers. Quick notes: either bagged organic potting soil or homemade (will describe) is fine. You should use fertilizer in this case. I would use seaweed fertilizer. If it’s getting hot and your plants are wilting you can either buy something called a shade cloth and suspend it over your plants (will describe how). Or, this is the advantage of containers – put them someplace shady for a few days. Also, definitely err on the side of bigger containers!Report

      • I’m trying to grow rosemary and basil this year in containers. We have a beautiful English-style garden leftover from the prior owners, which is getting steadily more weed-infested.

        One of my major tasks, however, is dealing with a largish part of the lawn that isn’t growing (and if it grows, it grows weeds). My current hypothesis is that there was too much thatch, so I raked that out and seeded it a couple of days ago. I wouldn’t personally mind making it into a garden instead, but the better Bath disapproves.Report

    • Robert Greer in reply to Burt Likko says:

      You could also try focusing on plants that fare better in your area. Prickly pear are native to SoCal’s weather, as are dragonfruit (you know, that stuff at Whole Foods they ship 6000 miles from Vietnam?), and I bet they’d do very well for you unless you live in a particularly hot or frostbitten area. Incorporating plants native to the area into your diet can make gardening damn near effortless.

      If native plants aren’t your thing, you could try plants that hail from similar climes. Pomegranates, olives, dates, and figs all do very well with high heat and saline soil. If you’re closer to the ocean, you could also try growing a natal plum bush, which are native to Mediterranean-ish South Africa but are very commonly grown in the San Diego area. Blackberries and raspberries are also somewhat tolerant of salinity, and depending on how salty your soil is they could also do quite well.

      Good luck!

      • I know that cherries, pears, and olives do well here. But all are very slow growers. I planted an olive tree and two cherries last year. One of the cherries got what I assume is root shock and I think it’s dead.

        Other edibles that do well here are onions, carrots, mint, and rosemary; we work on these but I suspect we over water them. Dearly love fresh chives in my eggs so I’ve a few chives going too and I think they’re enough like their relatives the onions that they enjoy the desert weather. In our pots, corn is doing well, which I wouldn’t have suspected.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Robert Greer says:

        I’d love to know what works in other areas, so keep me posted.Report

  4. dexter says:

    Looking forward to your garden chats. Need to know where you are. I live in the subtropics, (Louisiana) and bet I plant things at different times of the year than Zic.Report

  5. Lowbrow Liberal says:

    We are fortunate to live in the corner lot of a cul de sac, meaning we get that large pie shaped backyard. I have been growing vegetables year round the past 4 years, and have come to deeply love the practice. Currently I have tomatoes and herbs as well as corn, to which I am adding pole beans and squash this weekend.Report

  6. Michelle says:

    Great idea for a series. I’m looking forward to future posts.

    I’ve grown stuff on and off for years, but it wasn’t until a couple years ago when we got this house that I’ve had enough space (and actual ownership) to plant a real garden. Last year, I put in two raised beds. This year, I added two more. Plus I had the guy who mows what little lawn we have till up an area by the garage where we had a huge dandelion crop and planted a shade garden instead. I’m feeling a real sense of achievement as I’m the one who’s dragged hundreds of pounds of soil, compost, and mulch into the backyard; assembled the raised beds; and planted all the stuff. The Russian helped out a bit, but he prefers indoor plants–gardening and yard work really isn’t his thing.

    What I’d like to know is how to keep squirrels away from my tomatoes. The little buggers ate about half of last year’s crop. I’m going to experiment with cayenne pepper and cat fur but I’m not optimistic.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Michelle says:

      Isn’t it a sense of achievement? And I love shade gardens.

      Squirrels: people say tons of black pepper and garlic spray work, but I’ve never tried it. I have had pretty striking success with blood meal (which you can get at most gardening supply stores). Just sprinkling it around the area. Since it’s tomatoes you’re talking about and not ornamentals, you could put up a chicken wire fence. Also, to prevent insects, I’ve draped green tulle (that you might get at a fabric store) over tomatoes, propped up with stakes, and pinned it to the ground. Presumably squirrels would be able to chew through it, but they tended not to. My cats started sneaking out into the garden this year, which probably cut down on rodent attacks, but I don’t know if it was their fur or them.Report

    • PPNL in reply to Michelle says:

      My dog Yen keeps my garden safe. He has caught about half a dozen squirrel and rabbit both this year. English bull terrier and collie mix.Report

  7. North says:

    My mother loves gardening, she ran her own exterior landscaping business for years when I was a teenager and in college. Even before that she and my father transformed the home they bought when I was around Nine.

    When I moved in it was a century old farmhouse on a sloping clay hill. There were some hundred year old apple trees (gnarled, virtually inedible, beautiful in that ugly kind of way) and a tumbling acre of purple knot weed. The wind would roar down that hill like a wave and the whole house would shake. Now my it’s an endless maze of gardens, trees, hedges and rock walls. People have asked to have their wedding photographs taken in the front yard. My siblings and I planted eight black chestnuts in a circle at the cardinal points of the compass under her supervision when we were twelve. Now her gardens and workings stretch from the house all the way up to that circle; you can’t even see down the hill any more and those chestnuts are taller than I am. My sister and I have both gotten married in that circle.

    I love gardens, but I was raised working constantly on them, weeding, compost turning, ditch digging, rock dragging, wood chipping, soil reclaiming*. When I was old enough I fled the countryside and never looked back. I adore gardens but I despise gardening, alas, I am simply too lazy to desire one of my own. I’m always happy to go home and wander my Mothers labyrinths.

    *Nova Scotia’s soil is like solid clay, my Mother uses garden design, water stops and all manner of design elements to prevent erosion but still her good soil slowly washes out, so she would marshal us all to the ditches by the road and literally excavate out the sediment and drag it back onto the gardens. This is a woman who will -not- let her dirt go!Report

  8. Mike Dwyer says:

    Looking forward to this Rose (and so glad to see your name on a post).

    I was really fortunate growing up that my dad was a SERIOUS vegetable gardener. His gardens started out in the backyard, then he got permission to use the empty field behind our house and it grew to about 2 acres. When my parents divorced and he finally purchased a proper farm then it got crazy. We had about 5 acres total of garden space. Memories of walking barefoot between rows of tomato plants will stay with me forever.

    My brother and I both caught the bug. We don’t do anything major but we both put out enough plants to keep us in fresh vegetables for the summer. My only problem now is that our current house has very little flat ground in the backyard. I have considered raised beds to mitigate the problem but that chops up the yard for the dogs and our pooches need the room to run. I tried terracing a section one year but we had a lot of rain and it mostly washed out. Nevertheless I keep trying.

    One thing I would request from the series is something about compost. I am obsessed with composting. We have two 60 gallon drums on our composter and it’s become an ongoing science experiment. That first year we got to use the ‘black gold’ that came out them was one of the best harvests I have had. I amend my soil with a mix of compost, peat and sand (we need a little sand to break up our KY clay). Run the tiller over once, add the amendments and then till again. Works fantastic and I agree about having no real need for fertilizer. The only spraying I do is a couple of treatments with Miracle Grow on the tomatoes because that’s what dad did.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      Thanks Mike! Awesome that you had such a great experience growing up.

      Re: compost: I was just planning on talking basic browns and greens, and the extreme importance of amending soil with it. Anything you specifically want covered?

      There’s been a new trend to avoid sand in amending clay soil. The idea is that it can actually worsen compaction, making a sort of cement. Maybe try the rototilling with compost only? I have clay soil, too – although not as bad as some – and I’ve gotten by with compost only. The only thing I use sand for is succulent containers.

      With terracing: how did you do the terracing? Walls?Report

      • North in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Rose, my Mum uses leaf matter a lot though she wrings her hands over them since she prefers to put them into her beloved compost piles.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        North, you mean to deal with clay? Did she find it more effective than composted leaves? Had not ever heard of that. Interesting.Report

      • North in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        We’d rake up leaves -everywhere- in the fall (the neighborhood loved us) and keep them over the winter in jumbo garbage bags. Needless to say though there was some anaerobic composting it wasn’t much what with the winter. She’d walk up and down her rows of garbage bags and wring her hands, “if only we’d raked up in some of the fields” she’d fret. My Father drew the line at raking fallen leaves off of pastures. Then she’d reluctantly select a large number of bags, lay the leaves in a thick layer over the garden and till them under. Added air and fluff to the soil and of course as the leaves decayed that added nutrients. That said she always asserted that they were preferably used for feeding her compost heaps.Report

    • North in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

      I have never quite understood people’s confusion about composting. It has always seemed dreadfully simple. You take your gooey gloppy stuff (house organics, fecal matter from animals, etc) and layer it with your twiggy and starchy stuff (plant trimmings, lawn clippings, leaves leaves leaves) and let it cook. Just a layer of starch then a layer of goop then repeat till you run out. Wait a couple weeks and then make your poor children turn the thing over with a pitchfork (adding in any waste you’ve accumulated during the interim) and you’ll have a heap of black dirt crud in no time.Report

      • zic in reply to North says:

        I don’t even turn it; I just let it build for a year, and use the previous year’s bin each summer. This is because I don’t have access to child labor any more; it’s the old-lady solution to compost.

        Compost, if it has a healthy dose of red worms, spread on clay should actually, over time, lighten the soil. Those worms are wonderful soil mixers. I also wouldn’t hesitate to add leaf litter or (if you can find them anymore) barley hulls. I love barely hulls, little cups that break down slowly, hold water and air, and lighten soil tremendously. /this said by a Mainer who dwells on deep, glacier deposits of sand. But it doesn’t really matter if the drainage is too fast or too slow, the answer to both problems is plenty of organic material.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to North says:

        But it doesn’t really matter if the drainage is too fast or too slow, the answer to both problems is plenty of organic material.

        Which is exactly what I say in my next post, which I just posted.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to North says:

        North, I feel like so much about gardening is made far more complicated than it has to be. More controversially, I think much advice on the internet focuses on being as absolutely as green as possible. Which is great! But it’s pretty effortful. I suspect some people find all the homemade trellises, etc., daunting and think they cannot garden. I would rather people go part way than none of the way.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to North says:

        so much about gardening is made far more complicated than it has to be.

        How else to cultivate an aura of superior knowledge?Report

      • North in reply to North says:

        @zic Oh I believe you zic me dear, but keep in mind that turning was absolutely necessary on the scale that I am talking about. My Mother’s compost heaps would never fit in a bin. Envision if you will a mound coming up about level with a dejected 14 year old boys head. You had to turn those puppies, first to accelerate composting and also to keep them from catching fire. You’d be pitchforking the damned things over and you’d periodically hit patches where the heat had turned the compost matter into white char. We would mow the back field several times a summer to feed the grass and purple knot weed into those damnable heaps. I think the knot weed eventually gave up and died out of sheer frustration*.

        *in reality a surprising number of plants die if you keep clipping em down to a couple inches. Go fig. Grass, of course, is a super plant.Report

      • North in reply to North says:

        Rose, I believe you. Though you need some expertise in weeding. I remember one year Mum sicked my eight year sister on her garden and Katherine went and weeded out all the good plants and left the weeds behind. Then again perhaps she did it on purpose.Report

  9. Miss Mary says:

    Fantastic to see you posting!!!

    I’ve graduated from brown thumb to black thumb. Although, I’ve managed to keep a few potted pansies alive this year. I’m very proud of my green onions from a jar on the windowsill as well. Perhaps I’m not hopeless?

    I think I’d like gardening if it weren’t for the bugs and snakes. I can’t get past my fears.Report

  10. PPNL says:

    This year is the best garden I have ever had. The corn is just about ready. I have a tomato that I have been expecting to get ripe for the last two weeks but instead it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Today it showed the first blush of ripening. The bell peppers are looking good which is a good thing after last years disaster. I have already harvested some squash. The cucumbers aren’t doing so well. Slow growing and today I noticed they seemed to be wilting a little. I dunno what gives. Maybe not enough sun and a little much rain.

    Not bad for just my second year. Next year…Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to PPNL says:

      That’s fantastic for your second year! You cannot learn to garden without killing lots of plants. Do your cucumber plants have powdery white splotches on them?

      My tomato plants that self-seeded are still babies, but I finally saw green tomatoes on the ones I started early today. Hooray!Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        I finally saw green tomatoes on the ones I started early today.

        Damn, that’s some fast growth.

        So what would you recommend for ornamentals for a small bed, about 8×4, on the south side of the house? Because of the wall of the house reflecting heat back onto it, it get extra hot. The soil is pretty good, it’s just the heat that beats a lot of plants down.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        James, will have a long post on which plants to choose in the next day or two. But for a quicker answer and just a few suggestions, first tell me your gardening zone.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        5B, (although it got colder than that last winter!).Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Sun/shade, moist/dry, shrubs/perennials/annuals?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        That spot is full sun, all afternoon and long into the evening. Reasonably moist and well drained, but the heat dries out the top inch or two of soil.

        It grows hollyhocks really well, but last year we cleaned out most of them (and our record-setting cold winter seems to have killed of the remainder) and grew some tomatoes and peppers, but this year Johanna decided to do ornamentals. We generally do perrenials. We like color. Some shrubs are ok, but that spot is too small to have any large shrubs. Basically the space is a filler between the wall of the 3 season room and the pathway from the driveway to the back yard.Report

      • PPNL in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        No blotches on the cucumbers. They were slow to grow when started but finally took off. They were just putting on some small fruit but yesterday morning they had a wilted appearance like they were overheated or needed water. this morning they looked worse but late this evening they looked normal. They are planted in an area that probably has a little much shade and the last week or more has been cloudy and rainy. Maybe after all the clouds they just needed to adapt to sun and heat again. Or maybe they aren’t getting enough light.

        The squash a few feet over is monster lush green. I don’t think I could kill it with a backhoe.

        I did something different with my corn. I started them inside several weeks before the last frost. Most people don’t do this because corn does not take to transplanting very well. The roots are intrusive and exit the bottom of your starter planter giving you little choice but to damage them while removing them. But I have found that a proper choice of starter pot and transplanting them with a big helping of potting soil minimizes the damage. And anyway last year I had poor luck with planting directly in the soil. The result was spotty with a big variation in sprouting time. This year my corn was over two feet tall while everyone else was just seeing sprouts.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

        Since it’s a small-ish plot that you can see from a three season room, I would go for the longest bloom times plus good foliage when not in bloom (which will pretty much be my advice in the next post).

        Small shrubs:
        my favorite shrub of all is a cutie. Amsonia hubrichtii – light blue flowers in the spring, pretty ferny foliage in the summer, gorgeous glowing yellow in the fall.
        Weigela spilled wine
        Sweetspire Little Henry

        Karl Foerster
        Korean feather reed grass
        blue oat grass
        Acorus calamus variegatus

        Alcea rugosa is a hollyhock that is hardy to zone 3a and rust-resistant. Awesome, awesome plant.
        Obvious choice: echinacea. I’m growing Mama Mia and Aloha now, and they have cool different colors.
        Obvious choice: rudbeckia (back-eyed susan). I’m also growing rudbeckia cherry brandy, which is a nice color change. Rudbeckia maxima is certainly a showstopper! I grow that, too.
        Ascelpias incarnata
        Geranium Rozanne (popular for a reason!)
        Dianthus “Firewitch” or “Rose de mai”
        Baptisia australis (looks crappy the first year, gorgeous thereafter)
        Aquilegia songbird (columbine)
        Joe Pye Weed – either “Little Joe” or “Gateway”
        Achillea (yarrow): sunny seduction is nice, also growing strawberry seduction and rosy red, which I like.
        Centranthus ruber
        Nepeta “Blue Wonder” or “Walker’s Low”
        Coreopsis: esp. “Full Moon”
        Agastache (hyssop) “Golden Jubilee”: striking foliage, nice smell. Other agastaches are great, too.
        Eryngium planum “Big Blue”
        Siberian iris (not bearded)
        Lobelia cardinalis
        Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) – beautiful edger
        Helianthus lemon queen
        Penstemon “husker Red” or “Mystica”
        Any taller sedum (Autumn Joy, Maestro, Chocolate Drop)

        Any heuchera
        Artemisia Powis CastleReport

  11. DRS says:

    If you want to get fired up with some seriously excellent garden porn, check out Canadian Nikki Jabbour’s book about gardens for various sized locations:

    It’s very motivating.Report

  12. zic says:

    I have a compact vegetable garden, which grows enormous amounts of food.

    For ornamentals, I don’t so much grow flowers/shrubs, etc., as I selectively edit what nature provides. I encourage edge habitat for wild life (that’s that edge between the field/lawn and forest). I nurture stands of wild flowers. I’m a seed spreader. I let the dandelions grow and blossom in my lawn before cutting it because they fill a gap in the blossom sequence and the honey bees need them. I do have a more ‘formal’ garden in the front of my house; but it’s mostly a collection of plants that have settled into low-maintenance care; a simple weeding or two through the summer for a parade of constant bloom.

    My vegetable gardens are in raised beds, 4′ square, edged with wood that needs to be replaced periodically. This allows for intensive growing, easier watering, and hand preparation.

    And to all this, the most essential thing is compost. I have a compost bin that collects kitchen and yard scraps throughout the year. Every other year or so I’ll find a load of animal manure to add to it; preferably well composted before it’s brought here (to minimize flies). I do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, other than the occasional application of neem. I do use dry fish dung, mixed into a compost tea, to water occasionally; but only on the vegetables.

    And my biggest gripe about many home landscapes is the “Scott Lawn,” the combination of broad-leaf herbicides, fertilizer, and grass seed we encourage our children to roll around on. Nasty stuff, and a leading cause of phosphate runoff that pollutes water supplies and contributes to algae bloom and fish kills.Report

    • Rose Woodhouse in reply to zic says:

      Ornamentals are my raison d’etre, but otherwise, our garden practices are reasonably similar. I don’t have a wild area, and if I provided one I don’t think my kids and neighbors would be pleased. (I’m very close to a city in a place with small-ish yards). Not that that stops any and all critters from visiting. I certainly encourage honeybees and butterflies and all manner of birds. I allow dandelions (although if I had more, I might weed some of them out w/out herbicide), and I will talk about tolerating weeds in my lawn post. I actually think the purple deadnettle that invades my lawn is beautiful. I let it flower, and then mow it before it goes to seed.

      I choose high maintenance plants for myself, but focus on low maintenance for others (unless they want high maintenance).

      Scott lawn is the devil. So my second client (I love saying I have clients, it’s very exciting to me!) was talked into some insane system by Scott that involved killing off his lawn, using their seeds, and then their chemicals. Their back lawn (which is the only part they used the Scott system in) is now absolutely ridden with plantain weeds. Meanwhile, their front lawn is a perfectly respectable mix of mostly fescue with some clover and dandelion. He was about to go back to the Scott guy for more advice. NOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!Report

    • James Hanley in reply to zic says:

      fish dung…tea


    • Robert Greer in reply to zic says:

      “For ornamentals, I don’t so much grow flowers/shrubs, etc., as I selectively edit what nature provides. I encourage edge habitat for wild life (that’s that edge between the field/lawn and forest). I nurture stands of wild flowers. I’m a seed spreader. I let the dandelions grow and blossom in my lawn before cutting it because they fill a gap in the blossom sequence and the honey bees need them. I do have a more ‘formal’ garden in the front of my house; but it’s mostly a collection of plants that have settled into low-maintenance care; a simple weeding or two through the summer for a parade of constant bloom.”

      This reminds me of Genesis 2:15: “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.”Report

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