Friday, December 31, 2010


            Well, the weather outside is less frightful, the weekend’s supposed to be delightful. Nonetheless, with Wilmington clocking 26 consecutive days of below-average temperatures, this December ranks as the coldest in 135 years. (The government only started keeping systematic records in 1875, so we don’t know about the countless millennia before then.) Oak Island shivered through 19 sub-freezing nights, compared to the average four-and-a-half, according to my own eight years of recording observations.

            A seemingly endless round of low-pressure systems rolls in from the west, sucking in frigid air from Canada. My son Sam returns to McGill University in Montreal next week: I hope there’s some cold left for him up there. My son Sean is in Brooklyn, digging out from the 24 to 30 inches of snow dumped by the Christmas Blizzard of 2010. Makes me think I should stop whining about local weather. Here, as in every other facet of life on Earth, someone somewhere has it worse than I do. Probably much worse, because I’ve led one astoundingly lucky life.
            So far.
                    December 10th’s post, “Stuffing Stockings,” got the most hits this month. Hope it was helpful. Not that I’d know for sure, because comments are few and far between, although pageview stats climb steadily. I thank you all very much—especially my fan in Slovenia—but I’d really, really like some feedback. Nothing bad happens if you post a comment. You won’t go to hell. Plus, it’s easy. At the bottom of every post is a box entitled “Post a Comment.” You move your cursor inside the box and type something, perhaps a flattering remark about what joy this well-written blog brings you, enquiries about my astrological sign or hair color, a story about your community garden or gardening community, your pickleworm phobia, your astrological sign or hair color, whatever. I’m into dialogue, y’all. As long as I don’t have to use the telephone, which I despise more than pickleworms.
            I’ll lay into you about signing on as followers next month, if this comments tirade helps.

            Let’s see, what else? I did, in fact, manage to catch a part of the lunar eclipse. Being of a certain age, I generally have to get up once during the night to visit the bathroom. On December 21st, the bladder call happened at 4 a.m. “What the heck?” I thought, so I bundled up and tiptoed out to our back deck. The eclipse had started to recede, so there was a crescent of white light topping the otherwise dusky red globe. I must have stood there, agog, in that strange light for almost ten minutes. Then Petey the Possum lumbered up under the potting table to check for scraps of catfood Rocky and Rowena Raccoon may have missed, breaking my reverie. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not afraid of Petey, but maintain a healthy respect for his status as a wild creature.

            The pallet of 50 25-pound bags of Black Kow I asked Santa for failed to materialize, alas. I was hoping to use them to counteract the pound of dark-chocolate-covered macaroons and the dozen coconut igloos that were waiting for me under the tree. Guess I’ll have to keep schlepping 50-pounders of Kow around one or two at a time.

            Houseplant status report: the Solanum pseudocapsicum is totally defoliated. Turned out it had an infestation of little green caterpillars. Two soakings with Safer Insecticidal Soap at ten-day intervals took care of them, but it was too late for the leaves. The plant sits in its corner of the Fitzgerald Kitchen of Death, looking rather minimalistically sculptural with its orange fruits and bare green stems. I find I prefer it this way: beats the daily dustpan-full of crunchy leaves and caterpillar poop. Some tiny new leaves are starting to unfurl, stoking hopes of ultimate survival. 
The defoliated yet sculptural
Solanum pseudocapsicum

            A few caterpillars tried a change of address to the verbena/pentas pot, but a single shot of Safer quashed that tactic. Both plants continue hanging in.

            The dahlia drowned. The mango sprout damped off.

            Incredibly, the poinsettia still has most of its foliage and to date hasn’t lost a single red bract. This is little short of a Christmas miracle. All other specimens of the uber-hybridized Mexican beauty sentenced to a holiday term chez Fitz give up within three weeks. The current season’s mutant is a month old and going strong. It's true—wonders never cease.
Aha! It's a
Physalis heterophylla,
a clammy ground cherry

            The tapeworm fern is holding its own, even sporting some new shoots. Our cat Three (it’s a long story) keeps trying to ingest it, but every time she does, she has to throw it up within minutes. I know this because the vomit spots are all in the immediate environs of the piano upon which the plant sits. This behavior raises doubts as to exactly how smart this wily old feline survivor really is

            The papayas are both doing very well indeed, recovering nicely from their initial shock defoliation. I attribute this amazing turn of events to the fact that both were spared any time at all in the Kitchen of Death, and weekly doses of Super-Thrive.

            The biggest houseplant story of December, however, involves that mystery plant I asked you for help in identifying. Well, never mind. I found it in on page 47 of the February 2011 issue of Garden Gate, in the “Weed Watch” section. It’s a clammy ground cherry, Physalis heterophylla. Leave it to me to attempt to overwinter a weed. The plant itself succumbed last weekend, but I’ve kept some seeds. Hey, a weed’s only a weed if you don’t like it, right?

Gulf fritillary caterpillar
munching on passionflower foliage

            This out-of-the-clear-blue-sky plant identification happens to me quite a bit, mainly because I read a lot of gardening magazines. The other instance I remember with crystal clarity is when I learned the name of the ugly orange-with-black-spines caterpillars eating the life out of the passionflower adorning our outdoor shower. I keep back issues of various magazines in the bathroom, so that no minute goes by without its opportunity for expanding horizons. On this occasion, I picked up a three-year-old copy of The American Gardener, and opened it at random. Well, slap my ass and call me pinky, there was a picture of the wriggly creatures devastating my vine. They were the larvae of Gulf fritillary butterflies!

            I don’t really believe in coincidence. Tim and I had been batting the idea of killing the little things back and forth when I felt the need to use the convenience. And voilà! It would be spooky if it didn’t happen so often.

            The seed catalogs are rolling in. Comstock Seeds, Burpee’s, and Cooks Garden have arrived, along with a new Gardens Alive! offering 25% off KaBluey blueberry plants. I’m already salivating, having spent four dollars for six ounces of the antioxidant powerhouses from Argentina just yesterday. (It was for a party—I don't normally buy non-U.S. produce, and try to keep purchases to what’s in season. Which, at this time of year, is practically nothing.)

            Thanks for dropping by. Take the plunge and leave a brief comment, okay? See you in the New Year.

Monday, December 27, 2010


          Welcome back! Hope you all had yourselves merry little Christmases. I enjoyed the time off from the computer, but am happy to be typing away again this afternoon.  

          I had my teeth cleaned this morning. Because I take really good care of my choppers and don’t suffer from excessive dentophobia, it was an enjoyable experience. In the course of conversation, such as it is with someone else’s hands in your mouth, the hygienist, Jamie, mentioned her 15-year-old daughter had made an insightful comment a few days ago. “Mom,” she’d said, “the whole Christmas season is just one big excuse. An excuse to buy whatever you want, eat whatever you want, drink whatever you want and it’s all okay because it’s Christmas.

Desolation in the vegetable garden
            Out of the mouths of babes.
            This past weekend, a good chunk of the East Coast disappeared under a blanket of snow, which is a big deal here in the South. Raleigh enjoyed—if that’s the word—its first white Christmas in over six decades; Atlanta had plodded through green Yules for more than a century until this year. Having lived in upstate New York for 20 years, I know for a fact, Der Bingle notwithstanding, white Christmases are overrated. Oak Island escaped any significant accumulation, although flakes filtered down desultorily out of a pensive grey sky all of Boxing Day, only to melt upon contact with our unfrozen ground. Sunday chores being Sunday chores regardless of weather, I went outside to feed the birds, turn the compost and go walkabout. Brought the camera along to capture the garden in solemn mode.

Passiflora, past
            “What a mess,” I thought, peering through the viewfinder.

            Pitiful remains of once glorious passionflower, sere, brittle stalks of various genera of daisies, liatris and amsonias, veronica and butterfly weed, false indigo and sea holly, daylilies and phlox, cannas and crinums crackled underfoot. The semi-woody stems of my humongous seashore mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica) creaked querulously in the no-nonsense northwest wind. The hodge-podginess of the assemblage struck me, hard.

            I’ve neglected my own garden for the past few years. When I paw through my not-very-well-organized photo files searching for pictures for articles and such, shots of the glory days of the middle part of this decade reproach me.

            Fortunately, I have lots of excuses. 
The garden glory days

1.      I’m too busy. I work at gardening for others, I do all our business and personal paperwork, I’m Fitzgeralds Gardening’s CFO. I write articles for magazines and this blog. I keep journals. I spend hours on the phone every month with my kids and my female relatives. (Okay, not so much with the boys these days. Little buggers went and got their own lives.) I email a lot, and in the form of real letters, complete with greetings and closings, indented paragraphs, correct spelling, and complete sentences. I subscribe to six gardening magazines and The Writer. I buy books like they’re going out of style. I’m addicted to BBC cozy mysteries. My Monday-through-Saturday home chores include doing dishes and laundry, and what passes for the weekly houseclean. (F.Y.I., Tim does all the cooking, maintains both our trucks and the mechanical house systems, mows the lawn and cleans the litter box. Everything else we share, except the ironing. Nobody does that.)

2.      I’m too old. I get tired easier. I get cranky easier. I choose not to go outside when it’s too hot. I refuse to go outside when it’s too cold. My knees are getting creaky. I have one dodgy elbow. Those 50-pound bags of Kow don’t get any lighter.

3.      I’m too disorganized. Whatever tool I want is invariably somewhere else. I don’t always remember just where I put it last, either.

4.      I’m too distractible. I frequently have trouble making myself stick to finishing one task before dithering off to tend to some other, usually unrelated, little job. (Ask Tim for corroboration. This trait of mine drives him nuts.)

5.      Nature is against me. After all, she invented mosquitoes, fleas, biting flies, no-see-ums, pickleworms, sand spurs and poison ivy.

            Standing amidst the wreckage of my garden, I heaved a deep, discouraged sigh.

Defiant Lycoris radiata
in front of  frozen Siberian iris

But then I looked closer, and the line from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” came to mind: “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

            In front of a frozen clump of Siberian iris, graceful white-striped blades of Lycoris radiata (spider lily) foliage defied all of this December’s miserable weather. Likewise, stokes aster (Stokesia laevis) rosettes and the stubby sword-shaped leaves of Peruvian squill (Scilla peruviana) hunkered down, unrepentantly verdant. Even in the blasted vegetable garden, the strawberry plants promised better days on the way. On the other side of the yard, the squirrels have left about 20 buds on the paperbush (Edgeworthia chysantha), and the hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) foliage glowed.
Cyclamen hederifolium,
a bright spot in winter

            Over the years, we occasionally undertook jobs that felt like we’d bitten off more than we could chew once we got to work on the ground. Tim always rallied the troops (me) by saying, “Think like an ant. Concentrate on moving one grain of sand at a time. That’s how we’ll work through this—one grain at a time.” (I always kind of expected him to break into a rousing chorus of “High Hopes,” but he never did.)

            He’s right, though. Doesn’t matter if I’m too tired, too ancient, too flustered, too fluttery, too flummoxed. All I have to do is pick up the grain closest to me, and shift it.
eleagnus hedge

            Okay, so what if the eleagnus hedge and the wisteria are out of control? I know what to do about that. Whack away. Good stress reliever. So what if my garden is a formless mass of random vegetation? I can handle rearranging that, too, with a plan on paper translated to moving first one plant, then another. Pickleworms threatening the cucurbits again? Plant earlier, keep them under row-cover. January’s traditionally a quiet month for the Fitzes, work-wise: I can use part of that down-time to whip 2011’s gardens into some kind of shape.

            That is, as soon as the temperatures moderate, the wind calms down, those two Carolina Gardener articles get sent out, my neck stops aching and my allergies abate. After all, in addition to being the time of year for resolutions, ’tis also the season for excuses, right?

            Thanks for stopping by. Will let you know how I get on.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


            Raised the mailbox’s red flag yesterday on the last of the Christmas cards with their non-religious stamps. Waited in line this noon with a well-behaved throng of fellow procrastinators to post the parcels that absolutely, positively have to be there by next Friday. One anvil lifted from my shoulders and a second floated off my chest: duties discharged in a timely fashion for another year.
U.S. Naval Observatory logo

            Generally I relish the whole holiday potlatch, but not this year. Don’t know if it’s the view of the consumer economy from the cheap seats, the depressing business-as-usual going on inside the Beltway or the early cold snap; whatever, this year’s holiday preparations have been a trudge. Then news from the U.S. Naval Observatory cheered me up.

            Guess what, kids? December 21st will see major big doin’s this year. Not only does the sun mark its southernmost declination at the Tropic of Capricorn over the South Pacific island nation of Kiribati, the moon goes full nearly simultaneously with a total lunar eclipse. It rarely gets more astronomically exciting than this. Stonehenge’s neo-druids will be peeing their pants.

I know, I know. What, you’re wondering, does astronomy have to do with gardening?

A past lunar eclipse,
not Solstice related,
at Stonehenge
Well, I reply, there are several connections. Astronomy imposes order on the natural world, just like gardening. You have to be outside to practice hands-on astronomy, just like hands-on gardening. Both disciplines increase your awareness of and appreciation for the wider universe, of which the human race is so insignificant a part. Both make you humble. Both gladden your heart. And what if the astrologers are right, that what’s in the sky at any given time influences what happens terrestrially?

            Mostly, however, the convergence of these three celestial events is just so totally cool that I wanted to share it with you.

The phases of a lunar eclipse

            I came by the knowledge of this astronomical bonanza serendipitously. I’m a hardcore gardener, so I track weather. Have done for years. I take three or four wind-and-sky-cover observations a day, note minimum and maximum temperatures and rainfall amounts, all duly recorded in my weather journal (makes me feel close to Thomas Jefferson). In addition to ambient conditions, daylengths and moon cycles matter to me, as they should to all gardeners. This is where the Naval Observatory comes in. It has a website offering daily and yearly charts of sunrises and sets, and moonrises and sets, the correct atomic time, and so on. (Check it out at In addition, some lovely guy who lives in Northern Virginia contributes a regular column called “The Sky This Week.” I don’t know his name, but he’s one of my favorite cyber-chums. He’s the one who clued me in.
            The moon becomes officially full at 3:13 am EST on the 21st. The eclipse starts rolling a few hours before that, around 12:30 am, with the lunar surface completely covered by Earth's shadow between 2:40 and 3:17 am. During this time, the moon takes on coppery to dark red hue, depending on the opacity of Earth’s upper atmosphere. The USNO guy says the recent eruption of Indonesia’s Mt. Merapi will affect the murkiness Monday morning.

            Just so you know: I will not be awake to observe this exciting phenomenon first-hand, peering through the telescope I don’t own. The last time I was up past midnight on purpose (not including childbirth) was sometime in the 1980s. Supremely content with foreknowledge of its occurrence, I shall snore right through the actual event. 
Those wacky druids!

            Not so the neo-druids, those keepers of what they believe to be the ancient Celtic religious philosophy of the soul's immortality through reincarnation and health and fertility through mistletoe. Stonehenge on Salisbury plain is probably already chock-a-block with the faithful, all prepared to spend a frigid night honoring Luna. They’ll have time to thaw out and grab a nap before reconvening at the standing stones to usher in the beginning of astronomical winter, the venerated solstice.

            Here on the East Coast, at precisely 6:38 pm on the 21st, the sun reaches the point where it’s as far away from us as it gets during Earth’s annual orbit. Allegedly, this marks the longest night of the Northern Hemisphere’s year. In actuality, at least on Oak Island, the “longest night” repeats from December 17 to December 31. Yep, that’s more than two weeks of exactly 14 hours and six minutes between sunset and sunrise. We don’t notice it much because the sun continues to straggle up later—in fact, the length of days during the first two months of the year doesn’t seem to budge at all, which caused me to slide into a Seasonal Affective Disorder depression each and every February of the 20 years I lived in upstate New York. The good news is, sunsets get later too. It’s a tremendous psychological boost to me to know that, beginning on January 1, we pick up a minute or two of daylight each 24 hours. Can spring then be far behind? 

Those wacky Kiriatians!
            While we shiver and winge, I wonder what the inhabitants of Kiribati think about as they enjoy their couple of weeks of sun-dappled longest days. Since they inhabit one of the archipelagos that Al Gore predicts the Pacific will completely inundate at about the same time the last Himalayan glacier melts in 2035, maybe they have other, weightier matters on their minds. Then Tim showed me this picture of approximately 50 Kiribatians enjoying a tractor ride, so maybe not. Perhaps they’re more grounded in and grateful for the present than Americans tend to be.

            ’Tis also the season for eagerly awaiting 2011’s seed catalogs to arrive in the mail, with their promises of next summer’s colorful and delicious bounty. I’m thinking of adding more fruit and berry bushes and trees to the yard come warm weather. In my quest to eat primarily local produce in season, I’ve found I miss fruit more than salad fixin’s during winter. (I’ve progressed to where I feel really guilty, even a little criminal, about buying bananas, ever.) The peaches, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries I froze as they came in last season are nearly all gone, and it’s months and months until the next harvest.

            Maybe the pictures in the catalogs will help.

            Ah, gardening—and astronomy—is like raising kids. The days—and nights—are sometimes very, very long, but the years just flash past.

            Thanks for dropping by. I’m taking a little blog-break until after Christmas, so I’ll see y’all a day or so after Boxing Day. Have a peaceful and pleasant holiday, regardless of the one (or none) you celebrate.


            P.S.—Big kisses and hugs to Tim for pulling all the pictures for this post off of Google, and apologies in advance for any copyright infringement unintentionally committed.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


This morning's heinous low
            Southeastern North Carolina has been in the grip of an unconscionably early, ridiculously prolonged and completely unnecessary cold snap for the past few weeks. I mean, it’s not like Minneapolis, where a mere 17 inches of wind-whipped snow collapsed the inflatable roof of the VikingDome (or whatever they call it), but it’s freakin’ bad enough for those of us who work outside. Sunny South, says who?

            Last week, for example, Tim and I had ten hayracks, six 16-inch pots and about 40 feet of bed space to fill with winter plants for our dentists’ office. This is how that unfolded.
Monday, the sky was overcast, the thermometer refused to rise out of the thirties and the north wind never took a break. We “left the ladder” (an insider term for a contractor’s visual implied notice of intent) by disposing of the sad and slimy remnants of summer’s display and building a pyramid of 15 bags of potting soil. We also delivered 30 flats of pansies and violas, sweet William (Dianthus barbatus), snapdragons, dead nettle (Lamium maculatum 'White Nancy'), kale and Swiss chard, all of which we prudently covered with Remay against the predicted nighttime low of 20°F. Chilled to the bone, we called it a day.

Good-bye, summer glories

 On Tuesday, we awoke to brilliant sunshine, the only meteorological difference from the day before. Well, maybe the wind had ramped up a bit. Looking like Michelin men in our many layers, we decided to wait another day to plant as the local weather guys predicted an even more frigid night. For four hours, Tim filled pots and hayracks with soil while I cleared weeds from the beds. My feet slowly solidified into single-toed blocks of ice. The ceaselessly whipping wind created a little maelstrom in my sinuses, resulting in a three-ibuprofen headache, even though I kept my sweatshirt hood pulled up and one of those skier’s ear-cover bands in place. (I learned long ago that one’s appearance to casual passersby ranks at the stony bottom of gardeners’ concerns.) At 3:30, as the angle of the sun declined, Tim pulled me away from the patch of Florida betony I was waging war on. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the fan motor on our HVAC jolted us awake as it screamed through its metal-on-metal death throes. Not as horrific as it could have been—after his trip out into the darkness, Tim reported that, bad as the noise was from inside the house, outside it truly impressed—the heater guy told us to switch the thermostat to the “Emergency” setting, allowing the astronomically expensive electric back-up heat to kick in. Fortunately, we were not without heat. Unfortunately, the heater guy also said that the part for our 13-year-old unit would take a few days to arrive.

The phase “adding insult to injury” came to mind.

By Wednesday morning, the wind moderated to a mere zephyr. By 11 o’clock, I had shed the ear-warmer, the outermost sweatshirt and the scarf. Primed to plant, we moved our poor, sad-looking flats into bright sunshine to facilitate thawing. The plants had lots of time to bask because the potting soil Tim distributed the day before had frozen nearly solid. We attacked it with trowels, but gently: cold terra cotta is fragile and breakage-prone, and, if one were to address one’s task too vigorously, the hayracks might fall off the fence onto one’s still-icy feet, causing said feet to shatter into trillions of tiny pieces.

I have a thing about the fragility of cold feet. When I lived in upstate New York, I took up cross-country skiing because one had to do something to get outside occasionally from December to April, preferably something not involving a snow-shovel and/or a roof-rake. The park at the end of our street groomed spotlighted trails for after-dinner practice runs. Whenever I encountered a hill of any size, the same vision would pop into my head with heart-stopping clarity: I fall hard as I pick up speed down the hill, and my feet break off at the ankles, whereat the skis and my feet continue on without me. I can still see it happening, clear as day—the tumble, the reverberating SNAP, the skis with my lowest extremities still in the boots gliding away into the forest, me on the ground looking at the strangely bloodless stumps and knowing the imminence of death by hypothermia. Needless to say, I never became one of the world’s most enthusiastic cross-country skiers. But I digress.  
Pansy popsicles, planted

Once the soil was workable, we stirred in fertilizer (the standard mix of six 16-ounce cupfuls Holly-Tone to one 16-ouncer of kelp meal to a 32-quart bag of potting soil). Then we started planting our 514 pansy-popsicles. The going was slow, given the lumpy media in the pots and the wooden consistency of the rootballs. Nonetheless, by late afternoon, the deed was done.

The plants won’t be beautiful until this unwarranted cold lifts, but they should survive it. Pansies, violas, snapdragons, dianthus, lamium and Brassicas like kale and chard are tough little buggers. (See the November 10th post for more on winter containers.)
What a cool-season hayrack
is supposed to look like

 Mercifully, Tim had a doctor appointment on Thursday, after which we drove to Wilmington for another batch of cool-weather plants. These activities required minimal time outside. Friday was even better: we stayed home to wait for the HVAC repair guy, who'd assured us he'd be around to install our new fan and motor "sometime between eight and six." Ah, the perqs of self-employment! Good as his word, the new motor and fan were up and running by 4:30 that afternoon.
My toes finally became ten separate units again along about Sunday afternoon. I’m more than ready for our regular, mild-mannered winter to resume, but the weather guys say to count on continued cold and blustery northwest winds the rest of this week, at least. Where’s global warming when you need it? (Remind me I said that come next summer.)

Well, the untouched boxes of Christmas cards on my desk are staring at me accusingly. Plus there’s the wrapping and package-mailing to see to before Thursday to ensure timely arrivals. Since everything happens for a reason, maybe this atrocious weather has an up-side after all.

Thanks for dropping by. Stay warm, and don’t let the frost-bugs bite.


Friday, December 10, 2010


Cheapies but goodies

Stumped for stocking stuffers for your favorite gardener? I’ve got some suggestions that won’t go amiss for dedicated dirt-monkeys
 Most of us who play in the dirt have one favorite pair of tools: our hands. Two obvious gift choices here—gloves and hand cream. Good gardening gloves need to breathe, be flexible and allow fine finger movements. They do not need to last forever or break the bank. Available at any home-improvement store, six pairs of three-to-five dollar gloves trump one expensive pair of a name-brand every time.

Keeping your hands soft

            When it comes to hand cream, the one I like best is No-Crack Lavender Hand Cream in the 16-ounce jar. What’s so special about it? It’s thick and penetrating without leaving your hands feel like they’ve been submerged in a vat of Crisco. It’s pleasantly but not strongly scented. Best of all, it’s actually made in the U.S., by the Dumont Company of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is available from the Duluth Trading Company’s website, Or, if you can't find it there, try, a site run by a lady in West By-God Virginia who got tired of having to search all over the place for sources of this excellent stuff.

            If you’re as old as I am, you were raised that it’s tacky to resort to giving cash, or its modern incarnation, the gift card. It took years, but I managed to overcome my up-bringing: a gift card from any of the following companies would put a smile on my face come Christmas morning.

A cornucopia of catalogs
Duluth Trading Company, mentioned above, carries some sturdy, practical clothing—it’s the only place left in the world that stocks women’s overalls. Gardens Alive! ( supplies a wide array of mail-order organic fertilizers, pest control and vermiculture supplies, while Gardeners Supply ( is a good general source of gardenalia. Lee Valley Tools and The Kinsman Company ( and carry quality tools as well as garden accessories and ornaments.

Felco # 2 and # 4
with scabbard,
slightly used
Speaking of tools, a top-notch pair of pruners is always welcome. Tim and I both use Felcos: he prefers the heavier-duty #4, while I stick with my lighter #2s. Corona makes good-quality pruners as well. (A quick aside: When in the market for pruners, make sure you look for scissors-bladed models rather than the anvil type. Why? Scissors make clean cuts; anvils smash.) Both companies produce excellent hand-saws as well, for those jobs too big for pruners to handle. You can find both of both—Felco pruners and saws, and Corona pruners and saws—at both big box home improvement and finer garden centers. Yes, they’re both relatively expensive. Yes, they’re both worth it.

Kathy models a volleyball kneepad,
also available in white
 Another gardening pearl-above-price is comfortable, durable kneepads. Forget anything that fastens with buckles or Velcro: in addition to being hard to put on, they’re going to get painful fast. What does Kathy recommend? Nike’s Bubble volleyball kneepads, that’s what. They’re like soccer shin-guards for the knees—easy to pull on, easy to tolerate for those long days rolling out sod, easy to toss in the washer and dryer. And they last, for about a year of heavy use, indefinitely with lighter wear. We used to find them at our local mall, in Champs Sporting Goods, until the store closed. Now we go online to If your Champs is still open, you’ll save the shipping.

Balm for plant-induced itches
 Another specialty product, indispensible for those of us allergic to poison ivy and its evil cousins, is the Tecnu family of topical creams. Tecnu was developed during the 1960s expressly for the lucky fellows assigned to witness atom-bomb blasts, to “wash off” all that nasty radiation fall-out. It didn’t work so great at that application, but it does take urushiol, the oil that makes us susceptible ones so miserable, off the skin. Tecnu is not a cure-all, but I can testify that it helps, especially if applied before and/or immediately after contact. The Tecnu Extreme wash helps ease the itching, and can be safely repeated as often as necessary. I keep a supply in our truck at all times. If you or a loved one suffers from poison ivy sensitivity, Tecnu products are gifts that keep on giving. Find it at CVS, or order online from

On a less itchy topic, one thing all gardeners love is plants. Give yours the opportunity to choose something exotic with a gift card from a local nursery or one of the national catalogs. A list of some of my favorites has a distinct southeastern bias, but you get the idea.

When I lived in upstate New York, you couldn’t beat White Flower Farms for cool ornamental perennials and shrubs not readily available locally (  These days, I rely on Plant Delights Nursery and Wayside Gardens for unusual and experimental specimens ( and, respectively). When it comes to vegetables, I’ve had good luck with starts from Cook’s Garden ( For bulbs, my number one choice is Brent and Becky’s ( see my November 16th post for more details). Seed catalogs featuring heirloom varieties are legion: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Select Seeds, Territorial Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Johnny’s Seeds, Renee’s Seeds, The Park Seed Company, and the venerable Burpee’s. All have eponymous websites and catalogs to make you drool. Many offer plant starts as well: I have had good luck with Select Seeds, who offers a selection of annual vines and flowers seedlings.
A gift that really counts

Does the gardener in your life already have every tool and tschotke he wants? Well, then, how about giving part of or even an entire starter garden to someone who could really use it? Heifer International ( turns your donation into potentially life-changing livestock or tree seedlings or, my personal favorite, a gardener’s basket, including “… everything a family will need to start a sustainable farm—tree seedlings, rabbits to generate organic manure, chickens to eat pests and a hive of bees to pollinate crops and increase yields,” to quote the catalog, along with on-site technical support to families in war-torn and developing nations, as well as poverty pockets—which are growing larger daily as the global economy continues to stagger—right here at home. Besides, as I understand it, that’s the kind of giving Christmas and all the other winter-solstice holidays are really about.

A hint for blog neophytes from my resident computer nerd: just click on any of the websites in the post and you'll be transported right to the site. No dithering required. To return here, click on the "back" arrow. He swears it works.

            So merry Christmas to you and yours from me and mine. Tim says if anyone’s racking his brain for gift ideas for him, a Mercedes (any model) or a Rockwell Commander would be nice. Ha. What he really loves is chocolate, the real thing, Belgian or Swiss, crafted with high cocoa content and actual sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (which, by the way, does not taste like sugar, no matter how many analyses agribusiness waves under our noses).
            Me? I’d like a pallet of fifty 25-pound bags of Black Kow, delivered.

           Thanks for dropping by. And promise me you’ll never use the oxymoronic phrase “free gift” again for the rest of your life.

Monday, December 6, 2010


An unexpected pleasure
            We gardeners are a lucky lot when it comes to gifts. We get unexpected little ones all the time. On Saturday, for instance, when Tim and I left the house on the annual Christmas tree quest, what to our wond’ring eyes should appear? Two perfectly formed cerise Zéphrine Drouhin blooms on the plant I’m training to swag over the front porch. And after two consecutive nights of frost, no less. Does that not have “gardeners’ gift” written all over it?

            Again yesterday, while doing my usual Sunday chores—feeding and watering the birds; turning the compost heap; taking the trash and recyclables bins out to the street; going horticultural walkabout to keep a lid on potential problems—I wandered out to the blasted vegetable beds for a look-see. Well, good golly, Miss Molly! Another little gift: 29 grape-sized green tomatoes that the frost had missed still clinging to their vines. Brought them in, gave ’em a wash, and put them on the kitchen windowsill.

            It may be that we’re just an easy-to-please bunch. But if you’re in the unenviable position of trying to top nature in the Christmas-morning-surprise department, I have a few suggestions you might whisper into Santa’s ear.

            Gardeners love reference books. I’ve listed some of my all-time favorites.

·         Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses by Michael A. Dirr, 2009 edition. Sounds like a real snoozer, doesn’t it? Au contraire, it’s an absolutely-must-have reference for any serious gardener. I trust this book implicitly when it comes to woodies. The information is meticulous and often humorously presented. You won’t find many encyclopedias that make you chuckle, but this one will. Line drawings by Mrs. Bonnie Dirr illustrate the text. (The accompanying photo is of my well-worn 1998 edition. The new one has a snazzier cover.) Stipes Publishing, L.L.C., P.O. Box 526, Champaign, IL  61824.

·         The Well-Tended Perennial Garden by Tracy DiSabato-Aust, 1998. The go-to guide for information on pruning perennials for manipulating bloom-times and for maintenance of plant size and habit. Lovely pictures from the most successful Ohio gardens she's designed. This one’s DiSabato-Aust’s first book, and, in my opinion, her best. Timber Press.

·         The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why and The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line, by Jeff Gillman, 2008. Mr. Gillman appeals to me because he doesn’t seem to have any particular axe in need of grinding. His stated aim is for people to understand why they do things in the garden, and the science behind how the thing works... or not. Both Timber Press.

·         Weeds of Southern Turfgrasses by Tim R. Murphy, Daniel L. Colvin, Ray Dickens, John W. Everest, David Hall and L. B. (Bert) McCarty, 2002. Proof that it takes a village to identify a weed, this is hands-down my favorite pictorial reference. You'd think this one would be hard to find, as—oddly enough—it never hit the New York Times best-seller list. But it's not. University of Florida, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Gainesville, FL.
·          Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw, 2004. Don’t know ladybug larvae from elbows? Add this book to your reference shelf right now. This is the best bug book for gardeners I’ve ever stumbled upon; it has lots and lots of good pictures and useful information for the non-entomologists among us. Princeton University Press.

·         What’s Wrong with My Plant? (And How Can I Fix It?) by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth, 2009. Deardorff and Wadsworth are poster children for IPM (Integrated Pest Management), providing user-friendly flow charts based on plant appearance to diagnose pathologies. Then they offer organic solutions. Who could ask for anything more? Timber Press.

This next is not precisely a reference book, but it is the most accessible introduction to the science and Zen of dirt I’ve yet to come across, which makes it indispensible reading.

More from the Fitzgerald bookshelf

·         Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, 2006. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The first part illuminates the ecosystem of living soil in such a powerful way that I kept saying “Wow!” out loud and waking Tim up to read him whole sections. The second part, about actually applying all those “Wow!” moments, got a little too intense (read: ’way too time- and space-consuming), but the true-believer methods can be adapted to forms that work for us less-evangelical types. Timber Press.

For pure enjoyment, try one of these classics about the charm and wisdom lurking in gardens.

·         An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter, 2001. First published in 1894, Miss Thaxter’s narrative of growing her garden on Appledore Island off the coast of Maine evokes a gentler time and a smaller, nicer world. This handsome boxed edition features the same Childe Hassam illustrations as the original and a new introduction by Tasha Tudor. Houghton Mifflin.

·         Being There by Jerzy Kosinski, 1970. Not your conventional gardening book, nonetheless Kosinski has a lot to say about the important lessons learned from a life spent digging in the dirt. Originally published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, my more recent paperback is from Grove Press.   

Prefer your reading matter in smaller doses? How about a subscription to one (or more!) of the following magazines?

·         The Avant Gardener: The Unique Horticultural News Service. This monthly newsletter is a digest of about a million horticultural publications, and so worthwhile. Mr. Powell has been around a long time: he types his newsletter on a typewriter and runs it off on a stencil machine (anyone besides me remember those?). And he doesn't have a website. You gotta admire him for all that. Thomas Powell, editor and publisher. P.O. Box 489, New York, NY  10028.

·         Carolina Gardener.  Published seven times a year (bimonthly and a special spring issue). Aimed at gardeners in the Carolinas (duh) and Georgia, it features articles by well-respected regional writers, including yours truly.

Kathy's favorite gardening magazines
 ·         Garden Gate. Coming to you every other month from the wilds of Iowa, Garden Gate’s focus is national with a slight Midwestern bias. Written entirely by its staff, there are lots of easy-to-read plant profiles, how-to construction projects and design suggestions. August Home Publishing Company.

·         Heirloom Gardener. Published quarterly by the fine folks at Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. Kind of kitschy and down-home, it specializes in articles about non-hybrid, heirloom plants, many of which I’d bet a nickel you’ve never heard of. I certainly learn something new every issue, particularly from their Frankenfoods alerts. www.TheHeirloom

·         Organic Gardener. Six issues per year. The granddaddy publication of sustainable gardening, it still delivers.   

Wow. Kind of makes you wonder how I find the time to actually go outside with all this reading material hanging around, begging for attention. It’s a physical thing, really: my butt gets sore if I sit too long. As a matter of fact, my nether regions are sending up some twingey messages right now, so I shall call a halt to these proceedings for the time being. I'll be back in a few days with other gardener-gift suggestions.

Most of these titles are available through Amazon. For subscriptions to The Avant Gardener, Garden Gate and The Heirloom Gardener, contact them directly.

Thanks for dropping by. And stay tuned.