Monday, February 28, 2011


            I’ll start this wrap-up by wrapping up the “Food for Thought” series with a brief botanical dissertation.

Plants have two kinds of roots, structural and feeder. The structural ones hold trees and other larger members of the plant kingdom upright. They radiate out from the main stem or trunk, those big viney things that make navigating a bicycle or baby-stroller over sidewalks of tree-lined streets a dicey proposition. Feeder roots are the fine, fibrous, hair-like bits that, with the help of bacteria and fungi, take in nutrients from the soil. (See “Food for Thought, Part 2.”) Feeder roots are found at the drip-line of the plant in the top six inches or so of the soil (a plant’s drip-line, where rain drips off the foliage, is located at the outer edge of its canopy), and where you want to put your carefully chosen soil amendments. Their fortuitous location makes your job easier, because you don’t have to fret about getting right up against the stem.

It must be spring!
First Crocus tommasinianus

Feeder-root positioning and its relation to the application of fertilizers seem intuitive to Tim and me, but we get reminded from time to time that not everyone finds it so blazingly obvious. We had a client once who, upon our recommendation, bought some azalea food for her yellowing hollies. She carefully studied the helpful illustration on the back of the box meant to aid in the efficacious distribution of the granules, then with great solicitude doled out a dime-sized amount of them at the trunk of each eight-foot-high plant. This is an extreme case, of course, but illustrative nonetheless. Much more common and just as silly is the great handful of product tossed on a plant’s stem, where it does no good whatsoever, and may actually cause harm.

Timing matters, too. In temperate climates, optimum nutrient uptake occurs when the plant is actively growing, between the time the buds start to open in the spring and when the leaves begin to change color in the fall. For semitropical and Mediterranean areas, nutrient uptake is most efficient during the wet season. Of course, if you choose slow-release formulations, the importance of seasonal timing diminishes. But it seems foolish to offer someone a meal if they’re not in an eating mood. And remember, Osmocote won’t osmose when soil temperatures dip below 70°F.

First daffodils ('Tete-a-Tete')
of the season

The main thing to remember about fertilizing is Hippocrates’ dictum, “First, do no harm.” Compulsively following a fertilization regimen based upon each plant’s individual needs may be the ideal to strive toward, but it’s not worth making yourself crazy over. For mild-winter areas, April is probably the best time to feed your landscape plants (although not your warm-season grass—you’ll need to wait for Memorial Day weekend for that). But May is okay too, and so is March, or June. With the understanding you now have of what plants need and how they absorb nutrients, it’s usually better to do nothing until you have the time to think a bit about what you propose putting onto the ground, and about the most productive (and easiest!) way to go about it when you do get around to it, so that all the time and effort you put into building your soil and feeding your plants really counts toward furthering your gardening goals.


Globe at Night's magnitude chart

Let’s move from Earth to the stars. The sixth annual GLOBE at Night citizen-scientist project is underway, continuing through March 6. The Naval Observatory’s “The Sky This Week” writer explains: "The premise is very simple. All you need to do is go outside one evening between 8:00 and 10:00 local time and look for the bright constellation of Orion, the Hunter. Compare the number of stars you can see in and around the constellation with the sky charts located on the project’s website, then submit a report."

            Sounds like fun, so check it out. Orion’s an old friend of mine, so I’m gonna.


Prunus mume 'Peggy Clarke'
(ornamental apricot)

            One more cool link for you. The most recent post on the Irish Cathy Fitzgerald’s website, EcoArtNotebook, will introduce you to climate art. Personally, I think the parameters of what is deemed “art” these days are ’way out of line. A friend of a friend once used the phrase “No bad art” in my hearing. That’s patently ridiculous. The world is awash in bad art. I’m sorry, but throwing paint on a baby stroller doesn’t count, nor does slopping tar on Masonite. Nor does writing tiny numbers in and then gluing the little circles produced by paper punches on a board. Nor does dropping a crucifix in a jar of urine. But I loved the picture Cathy posted of a knitted hurricane hat, juxtaposed with a satellite picture of a hurricane.
            Ah, but is it Art?


Here’s a correction that applies to information supplied in the popular “Stuffing Stockings” post from December. When I ran low on No-Crack hand cream two weeks ago, I couldn’t find it on Duluth Trading Company’s website. No luck at Vermont Country Store, either. Oh, no! What to do?

Iris reticulata

            In desperation—once you’ve tried the stuff, you never want to be without it—I typed “Dumont Company Hand Cream” into Google’s search bar… and found Ms Billie Bennington, a fellow true-believer, who is happy to put some No-Crack in the mail for you from her home in Flat Top, West-by-god-Virginia. Service is astoundingly fast: my online order arrived three days after it entered cyber-space. And, Miss Billie sent a note apologizing for charging too much for shipping and said she’d notified my credit card company.

            When’s the last time a business treated you that good?


Not dead yet!

            Spent a lot of February chasing down and sweeping up tiny caterpillars fleeing the Solanum. The largest was about a centimeter in length, dull green in color with a black area (like the veiny thing you rip out of shrimp) running from its head to its waist… if a caterpillar can be said to have a waist. They had dozens of hair-like legs, reminiscent of pill bugs’. Don’t know what made them jump ship: could it have been the coffee drenches?

            When I moved six of the houseplants to the screened porch on the 19th, I found a cluster of cream-colored egg cases on the Solanum’s saucer. I gave it a scrub with Clorox, and that was pretty much that for caterpillars.

            In addition to the Solanum, the Cordyline, Hemigraphis, Ledebouria, penta, verbena and dahlia left the house for the porch. We’ve not had any frosts or freezes for the past couple of weeks—so far, so good. The four cyclamen and the sad-looking-but-hanging-in poinsettia are still on the piano; and both papayas and the tapeworm fern moved to the kitchen. I’ve reached the point where I’m really tired of plants, caterpillars and fungus gnats in the house.

My new compost bin
            Out in the garden—where plants belong—things are humming. Tim built a second compost bin, which is up and running.  Seed packets arrived from Renee’s and Baker Creek. On the 20th, I planted both my 3x7 foot raised beds, filling squares with beets, carrots, peas, onions, cabbage and broccoli. On the 23rd, three cultivars of potatoes went in. Yesterday, I started 54 3-inch pots of tomatoes, strawberries, sunflowers, hollyhocks and four different annual vines, and have set the three flats around the kitchen to germinate: one of top of the fridge, the other two on the soffit above the cupboards.

My vegetable garden planting chart
(click on the image
to make it readable)

            My track record with seed-starting-by-the-rules is abysmal. This year, I decided it can’t really be as difficult as the “experts” indicate, and cut out all the fussy steps. Used regular potting soil fortified with kelp meal instead of seed-starting mix; sowed only one or two seeds per pot, eliminating pricking out. Didn’t soak, score, or cold-stratify anything. The cotyledons should arrive in seven to ten days. I’ll keep you posted.

Heavenly scented
Edgeworthia chysantha

            Spring blooming has begun in earnest in southeastern NC. First crocuses, first daffs, first reticulated iris—check. My ‘Peggy Clarke’ apricot perfumes the back deck with her spicy-scented flowers. And the buds on the paperbush (Edgeworthia chysantha) have broken with their tradition of mildewing before dropping off and opened, their delightful gardenia aroma wafting around the back yard for the first time ever. Pictures are scattered throughout this post.

            The speaking engagements all went well. Power Point slides made keeping Tim on topic a little easier.

            Thanks for dropping by. Hope your February was as pleasant and fun-filled as mine.


Thursday, February 24, 2011


            Meanwhile, back at the miles of shelving full of plant foods, how do you know if a product is organic? Why, it’ll say so, right on the label. How do you know if using the product constitutes a sustainable practice? That’s a little trickier. As Tim likes to point out, there’s nothing more organic than petroleum: it’s just dead plants aged under great pressure for eons.

Never assume “organic” on the label automatically means “good for you.” In addition to crude oil, poison ivy is also 100% organic. So are cyanide, and strychnine, and curare. In The Truth about Organic Gardening, author Jeff Gillman cautions that rotenone, a botanically derived insecticide (from South American derris root), is extremely toxic to beneficial insects, fish and humans. He believes that it would not be available, ironically, if it were not “organic.”

Espoma's Organic Traditions line
Tim and I espouse Espoma products. They are almost entirely sustainably derived and environmentally neutral, and readily available in our area. For mail-order, I like Gardens Alive! products. They use ’way too many exclamation points, but sell good stuff.

To reiterate, Tim and I feed our soil just before spring kicks in by mixing two cups of kelp meal into every 50-pound bag of Black Kow. The 2727 square feet of planted area on my 55-by-120-foot lot uses about 25 bags of Kow and kelp, or roughly about one 50-pound wheelbarrow load of Kow and kelp per 100 square feet. Tim occasionally topdresses the 2459 square feet of lawn (that shrinks a little every year as the resident plant-fanatic needs more space for her newest treasures) with eight to ten bags of sun-dried, unadulterated Kow.

Sandy soil needs all the nutrient help it can get. At your house, adjust amounts according to your soil-test results.

Length in feet times width in feet
equals square feet

(Don’t know how to figure square footage? Slept through that geometry class in tenth grade, eh? Just measure your beds as if they were all rectangular, and then multiply length by width. For example, the lovely uterus-shaped area in my front yard measures 1044 square feet when rectangle-ated, 36 feet times 29 feet. Ergo, this bed needs roughly ten 50-pound loads of Kow mixture.)

Let’s talk a little bit about everyone’s favorite soil additive, nitrogen. The following gets a bit technical: just read it slowly, going back over the parts that don’t sink right in, and you’ll be fine. We Americans need to get beyond our science-phobia.

The microorganisms in your dirt really matter, precisely because the amount of nitrogen available for plant use depends upon the total biomass of bacteria and fungi in the soil. This is how it works: a good chunk of the energy photosynthesis creates gets expended in the production of chemicals, which ooze out through the roots. These exudates, as they’re called, are sugars that attract and nourish beneficial bacteria and fungi. The microbes consume the exudates, thus fixing (immobilizing) nitrogen and other nutrients in their bodies, becoming in essence tiny, living bags of fertilizer. Enter the fertilizer-spreaders, the protozoa and nematodes. These guys eat the bacteria and fungi to power their own metabolisms. Whatever they don’t use is excreted (or “mineralized”—isn’t that a nice way to describe poop?) in a form plants can use. Without microscopic organisms exuding, eating and excreting, your soil becomes sterile. Most plants really struggle in sterile soil.

In fact, they die.

The nitrogen in protozoa poop comes out as ammonium (NH4—nitrogen bonded to hydrogen), but may be converted to nitrate (NO3—nitrogen bonded to oxygen) in the presence of bacteria.

So what? you ask grumpily.

So this. Pay attention: behavior-changing enlightenment follows. Research has demonstrated that, in general, perennials, shrubs and trees prefer their nitrogen to be hydrogenated, as ammonium. The ammonium excreted by protozoa stays in that form in a soil where fungi outnumber bacteria. If bacteria hold the upper hand, as in sandy soils, they oxygenate the nitrogen, converting it to nitrate. Annuals, grasses and vegetables (which are just annuals we eat) like their nitrogen as nitrate.

Read that paragraph again. It’s telling you something really important about your plants’ dining preferences.

Here’s the kicker: the nitrogen in most commercial fertilizers comes in the form of nitrate, favoring bacteria at the expense of the fungi. So while nitrate fertilizers are great annual-and-grasses pleasers, they’re not the first choice of your perennials, shrubs and trees.

Now it’s time for a little question-and-answer period.

Question: How do I know if my soil is full of fungus or brimming with bacteria?

Answer: Depends on the pH. Acidic soils favor fungi; bacteria prefer neutral to alkaline.

Q: I live on the coast. What kind of soil pH am I likely to have?

A: Neutral to alkaline.

Q: So that means my lawn, annual beds and vegetable patch will do okay without amending?

A: Well, I wouldn’t say without any amending. You still need composted materials to add organic material to sandy or swamp-mucky soil. And you should attend to any glaring deficiencies noted on your soil test.

Q: But I have a lot of shrubs and trees around my house, and I’ve been thinking of putting in a cutting garden. Short of moving inland, what environmentally responsible steps can I take to encourage more fungi in my soil?

A: Offer them food they like. Use organic mulches like shredded hardwoods, shredded leaves, or newspaper. The browner, the better. (What’s “brown”? See the “Compost Happens” posts.) Apply supplemental nitrogen only as ammonium—no sense making it easier for those nitrate-loving bacteria. Always study the label on any fertilizer you spread, even the organic ones.

Q: So what you’re really saying is that I want to feed my microbes, not my plants?

A: Bingo.

Thunderstorms bring atmospheric
nitrogen down to earth

If your dirt’s in pretty good shape, with healthy populations of microbes, protozoans and arthropods, it already has sufficient nitrogen in it. Earth’s most plentiful element, nitrogen accounts for 78%-by-volume of our atmosphere. Another significant bit of terrestrial nitrogen comes from lightning and rain-water. (That’s why grass looks so much greener after a thunderstorm.) Certain bacteria, either living free in the soil or colonizing the roots of leguminous plants, convert nitrogen in the atmosphere to a plant-friendly form. The damn stuff is everywhere.

And, yes, Virginia, you can have too much nitrogen. Besides root burning, overdoses cause lanky growth and favor foliage development at the expense of flowers. Wisteria, for instance, will bloom sparsely or not at all if you dose it with nitrogen. You’ll get leaves and shoot growth galore, but no flowers. And frankly, there’s no point in putting up with wisteria if you don’t get those gorgeous, fragrant, spring blooms.

Bulb-Tone has 2.4%
Water Insoluble Nitrogen

If you still feel compelled to apply nitrogen, spread it just before a rain or an irrigation cycle. Nitrogen moves easily into the root zone as long as enough water is present. When buying formulations with high N numbers, check the label for the WIN (water-insoluble nitrogen) percentage. In order to increase nitrogen uptake and decrease loss through volatilization, WIN should be at least half of total nitrogen. In the unlikely event your soil test comes back declaring a lack of nitrogen, use cottonseed meal (6-2-1) to remedy the situation. (Lowenfels and Lewis advise avoiding formulations that have more than ten percent of any of the primary nutrients, eliminating most commercial inorganic formulations with the ironic exception of the yucky 10-10-10.)

There! Now you’ve made your well-thought-out, sustainable decision about what to buy, paid for it and had the nice man load it in the trunk. Now are we done? Not quite yet. The little matter of where you ought to place your plant food needs some discussion, requiring a tiny bit of botanical knowledge.

But that’s for next time. Thanks for dropping by.


P.S.—For my new Winding River readers, here are some pictures of Lespedeza thunbergii ‘Pink Cascade.’ Nice plant, huh?

Sunday, February 20, 2011


As spring barrels down upon us, today we start a multi-part tutorial on supplemental fertilization. This is a longer-than-usual post, but so worthwhile. Honest.

In an ideal world, plants get everything they need from the air, soil and water around them. In environments where perfectly adapted plants choose their own spots to grow, this is exactly what happens. Once we gardeners start imposing our personalities on a space, however, things change. Managing our landscapes includes removing “unsightly” leaf litter and other plant debris, disrupting the cycling of nutrients and organic matter to the soil. To make matters worse, many soils fall to the left or right of dirt’s bell-curve, in the somewhat-nutrient-deficient zone. No worries; we can just toss some fertilizer around, right?

Well, yes and no. And, from where I stand, mostly no. So first and foremost, get a soil test (kits available from your local Cooperative Extension agent). How you gonna know what to add if you don’t know what’s missing?

In my opinion, fertilizers head the list of most-abused gardening products. The two main problems: 
1)      most people never think about why they fertilize; and 
2)      the combined powers of habit and advertising.

It’s just not as simple as the fertilizer industry wants you to believe. Never assume all plants need identical nutrient casseroles (horticulturally speaking, a nutrient is an elemental substance necessary to the metabolism of a plant, or one that allows it to complete its life cycle). Some plants actively resent supplemental fertilization, and some pests are actually encouraged, or the plant’s natural resistance lessened (scientists aren’t sure which way it works), by the practice.

So why fertilize? Here are five reasons for bothering to amend our soils:

·         to ameliorate visible nutrient deficiencies;
·         to eliminate deficiencies that may not be visible but have been detected by soil tests;
·         to maximize plant growth, flower and/or fruit production; 
·         to improve overall plant health; and
·         to reduce potential disease and pest problems.

Who wouldn't buy Miracle-Gro
on this guy's say-so?

           Where do habit and advertising fit in? Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that you subscribe to the soil amendment mindset picked up from your parents’ behavior and from TV commercials featuring genial James Whitmore. Most of us base our fertilizing behavior on these types of things. To overcome your early conditioning, ponder this list of pertinent questions as you stand, soil-test results in hand, before the miles of shelf-space dedicated to plant food at your neighborhood home-improvement store.
  • What does that N-P-K number mean?
  • What’s the difference between complete, balanced, and single-element formulas?
  •  Should I choose a timed-release or an quick-release product? And what does it matter?
  •  How about those tree spikes? And my old favorite, Miracle-Gro?
  •   Do I want organic stuff or are inorganic formulations just as good?
  •  Is there anything else I need to consider or should I just take my headache home for a nice nap?       
      To demystify the topic of topical fertilization, I’m going to run through a brief, ridiculously basic overview of plant chemistry. (Don’t stop reading: “brief and basic” represents the sum-total of my knowledge on the subject. I promise it will be practically painless.)
      For optimum health, growth, reproduction, and resistance to pests and diseases, plants require the presence of 16 essential elements.
1.      three structural elements: carbon (C), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O), obtained by the plant from air and water;

2.       three primary elements: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K)—to vastly oversimplify, nitrogen produces lush, green foliage; phosphorus encourages blooming; and potassium aids in building strong healthy roots;

3.       three secondary elements: magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca) and sulfur (S); and

4.      seven trace elements: iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), boron (B), molybdenum (Mo) and chlorine (Cl).

(There are also seven important-but-nonessential trace elements: sodium, cobalt, vanadium, nickel, selenium, aluminum and silicon, but they come under the rubric of too much information.)

Structural, primary and secondary elements are called macronutrients, because plants need relatively larger quantities of them. Trace elements, only needed in tiny amounts, are micronutrients.

Plants take in primary, secondary and trace elements from the soil. Just like in humans, a serious lack of any of these elements results in one or more deficiencies, adversely affecting health and appearance.

Your basic commercial

            Commercial fertilizers emphasize the three primary elements, and express them as an N-P-K number, those three digits connected by hyphens emblazoned on most plant-food packages. This number, known as the “guaranteed analysis,” refers to the percentage by weight of each element per bag of mixture.

            For example, a 40-pound bag of 10-10-10 works out to ten percent (four pounds) of N (nitrogen), ten percent (four pounds) of P (phosphorus), ten percent (four pounds) of K (potassium), and 70 percent (28 pounds) of inert ingredients, in this particular case, 28 pounds of itty-bitty rocks. In the interest of thoroughness, 50 to 60% of the active ingredients (6 to 7.2 pounds out of 12) are volatile, meaning they turn gaseous and dissipate upon contact with soil and water. You also lose some of those Ns, Ps and Ks to run-off. And we’ve already covered how much of that 40-pound bag is rocks. Think before you buy.

Read labels closely to determine if what you’re buying is complete, i.e., containing the secondary macronutrients and trace minerals in addition to N, P and K. To up the confusion ante a little further, complete is different from balanced. Balanced means the fertilizer has some amount of each of the primary nutrients, although not necessarily any of the secondary or trace elements.

Osmocote's nine-month
balanced formula's
guaranteed analysis
Huh? you say.

Osmocote, with an N-P-K of 19-6-12, is a balanced blend, but it isn’t complete. Why not? Because it doesn’t contain any magnesium, calcium, sulfur, or the trace guys. Rose-Tone, with an N-P-K of 6-6-4, is both balanced and complete. Confused? See the guaranteed analysis panels at left. 

And then there are single-element formulations, such as blood meal (12-0-0), superphosphate (0-45-0) and greensand (0-0-.1). Some secondary and trace nutrients, such as garden lime and Ironite, are sold as single-element formulations too. These particular soil additives have N-P-Ks of 0-0-0 because there aren’t any primary elements in the bag. In our example, lime provides the secondary element calcium and Ironite (not surprisingly) gives you the trace element iron.

complete formula
guaranteed analysis
(click on the picture
to make it larger)

Still with me?

Okay. You’ve decoded your soil test and written down what the state says will be most beneficial for your shrubbery/flower beds/vegetable garden/lawn. (By the way, don’t waste a lot of time looking for the exact N-P-Ks the state recommends, because many of them don’t exist commercially. Soil tests are primarily a tool for farmers, who custom-blend their chemicals.) The next big thing to think about is whether you should buy a quick-release or timed-release product. Regular ol’ 10-10-10, for instance, is quick-release, meaning that the Ns, Ps and Ks get set loose all at once in the presence of water and/or high temperatures. Timed-release blends such as Osmocote keep their Ns, Ps and Ks in little sacs made of inert material that require the nutrients to osmose out over time, once the soil temperature reaches 70˚F.

 What does it matter, fast or slow? When it comes to synthetic fertilizers, speedy delivery—damningly called nutrient dumping—increases the likelihood of your plants' foliage and/or root system suffering fertilizer-burn. Any time you mess with roots, you’re asking for trouble. Just like people, plants can process only so many nutrients at a time: unlike us, they can’t vomit or take Alka-Seltzer to relieve the effects of over-indulgence. Although more expensive by the pound (although not necessarily by available nutrients), timed-release blends are much better for the health of your plants.

Just say no to tree spikes

I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings here, but please avoid tree fertilizing spikes. Aside from the fact that they go all slimy and nasty after a short time in the ground, research indicates that supplementally feeding established trees is probably not just unnecessary but deleterious. Renowned arborist, former chief scientist for the U.S. Forest Service, and iconic author of many books on tree biology and care, Alex Shigo tells us that trees shut down all their other life systems, like photosynthesis and defense mechanisms, in order to convert inorganic fertilizers into a form they can use. Beyond a small of shot Plant- or Holly-Tone at planting, Tim and I only use poop mixture around trees. (What's poop mixture? See February 8th's "Spring Prep" post.)

As for Miracle-Gro and other water-soluble products, well, they don’t hurt anything (if you don’t count compromising the water table). The problem lies in how water goes through your soil. In sand, water drains away rapidly, so plants can only snatch at nutrients as they flow by on their way to the ocean. If your petunias and hollies are looking the other way at the time, they’re out of luck. In swamp-muck and other heavy soils, nutrient retention is higher, but I’d discourage liquid fertilizing until you’ve improved the soil to where it drains more freely, to decrease the likelihood of your darlings drowning. Water-soluble plant foods are fine for containerized plants, however; pots leach out water and nutrients quickly, so a shot every other week or so would be appreciated by their occupants. Besides, the “soil” in most containers is actually soil-less (read: “nothing alive in it”) anyway. As always, read and follow label directions.

That’s all I have to say about inorganic—a.k.a. “chemical” or “synthetic”—plant foods. (Literalists point out that everything is, at base, chemical. They’re right, of course, but they should lighten up.) Next time I’ll reveal what I really think about fertilizing vis-à-vis increasing sustainability in our gardens, and, by extension, on our planet.

Thanks for dropping by. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


            Quiet is a commodity hard to come by in this world. All around us, noise rules. Machines whine and snarl and whuff and clatter. Traffic thunders. Horns blare. Radios blast music and advertisements: the reverberating bass lines emanating from adjacent vehicles rattle my brain and make me fantasize about owning a loaded bazooka. There are fire sirens, police sirens, ambulance sirens, and—in neighborhoods like mine, within the fallout areas of nuclear power plants—“growler” sirens. Bells ring. Buzzers buzz. Tim’s computer constantly startles me when music plays or people talk. (I keep the sound turned off on my Hewlett-Packard.) Snippy GPS ladies tell us where to turn, and when. Announcements and annoying music fill the air in malls, airports, train stations, schools, restaurants, elevators.

The end of polite society as we knew it

            The modern obsession with cell phones troubles me too, especially the ones with obnoxious ringtones to summon their owner/slaves. The owner/slaves answer as if trained by Pavlov himself, no matter the venue and without consideration for anyone in their vicinities. What’s with this need to be in constant touch from distance at all times, while ignoring the person across the table? People blab the most intimate details of their lives to anyone with ears, in banks, theaters, stores, checkout lines, restaurants, classrooms, churches, playgrounds, parking lots and on sidewalks. Sure, you only get one side of the conversation, but even that’s ’way too much information.

.           Ubiquitous televisions babble at us unrelentingly, keeping us abreast of the doings of celebrities not celebrated for anything in particular, and telling us what to think about politics, the stock market, our health, our children and our houses’ decor. It seems everybody’s talking, all the time. Nobody’s saying much of substance, but maybe the number of words trumps meaning.

            I wouldn’t know. I try not to listen.   

            Chez Fitz, we consider television-watching the equal of Internet browsing as a time-sink. We don’t subscribe to cable or satellite. Tim refuses to pay $100 a month for an antenna, and I can think of better ways to waste my time. When we travel and have access to hotels’ cable TV, it always strikes me that the quality of the programming is inversely proportional to the number of channels available.

Can you feel your blood pressure rising?
            The Grinch may not win any personality contests, but I totally empathize with his dislike of those rollicking Christmas-morning Whos—“Oh, the noise, noise, noise, NOISE!”

            All this surround-sound isn’t good for us. “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS (it was an hour well-spent) recently addressed the consequences of the chronic stress our lifestyles engender in an episode aptly titled “Worried Sick.” High hostility levels predispose many of us to cardio-vascular diseases and gastrointestinal woes. No wonder Rush Limbaugh is addicted to prescription pain-killers. Stress also impairs immune responses and healing of wounds.

What can we do to turn down the volume? Scheduling time to practice breath-focused meditation and yoga helps. So does going outside to play in the dirt. Gardeners know the therapeutic value of their avocation.

The peaceable kingdom, Kowed

Gardening is such a peaceful pursuit, so solitary, so quiet. Just you, your hand tools, earth and plants.  Sometimes I hum, or sing to myself, often the same bit of lyric over and over. But mostly I listen. Birds call. I love the cardinals: they say, “myrtlebeachmyrtlebeachmyrtle.” Or “prettyprettyprettypretty.” And who knew tiny titmice could produce such piercing screeches? Squirrels scream warnings about cats on the prowl or chatter and quarrel among themselves. Wind soughs through the pine tree branches. The metal trowel-blade clinks against the odd rock or buried concrete shard. The wheelbarrow’s axle complains about having to work on Sunday. Kids play on the next block, a dog barks somewhere. The occasional car whooshes past. And, if the wind’s from the south, I can hear the ocean whisper secrets to the beach.

            I come back inside, when I must, refreshed and renewed.

* * *

HRH Prince Charles,
sustainable farming advocate

            Spent some quality time around the yard on Sunday. Mixed up a 100-pound batch of Kow-and-kelp and spread most of it on the vegetable beds. It’s about time to set out potatoes and peas, onions and beets. I certainly want to be ahead of the temperature curve with the spuds. Last year it was mid-March before I got them planted, and lost them all to heat-induced bacterial soft rot.

I’m particularly anxious to grow some of my own food this year: the more I learn about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the less I trust that supermarket produce won’t hurt me. Sustainable-methods farmer HRH Prince Charles wrote, “Science has tried to assume a monopoly—or rather, a tyranny—over our understanding of the world around us… We are only now beginning to understand the disastrous results of this outlook.” The latest Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company catalog warns, “Each year we have a harder time getting [corn] seeds that test GMO-free. It is getting to the point where most heirloom corn varieties test positive for GMOs; even growers in remote areas are having problems with Monsanto’s GMO [Roundup Ready] corn.”

Frankenfoods are here, and there is no legal requirement they be labeled as such. That scares the hell out of me.

Grey Boy supervises progress
on the new bed

Also worked some more on my new bed, continuing to clear around the edge, and spreading the remainder of the poop mixture on the east end. It’s coming along nicely. Over on the south side of the house, I noticed the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) has some swelling buds already.

I ordered seeds for Malabar spinach (Basella rubra), castor-bean plant (Ricinus communis) and the totally awesome lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus) from Baker Creek in addition to all those packets from Renee’s Garden. Obviously, the it’s-almost-spring enthusiasm that’s grabbed me by the throat has no intention of slackening its grip. Which is as it should be.

Thanks for dropping by. No, really, I mean it: the blog passed the 1,000-pageview mark on Monday. It wouldn’t have happened without you.


Click at the arrow for newer posts
 A blast from the future: dateline 12 March 2011: Because Blogger has mysteriously stopped updating my new posts; and because this is the last post the cyber-forces-that-be officially recognize, I am here to state that, yes, there are newer posts, one arriving every four days. And here is how the technologically challenged (such as myself) can access them. Below the Comments section (still empty, by the way), you are given three clickable choices: Newer Posts, Home, and Older Posts. Click on "Newer" for the next chronological post; "Home" for the most recent post, and "Older" to go back in time to those exciting days of yester-month. My resident geek has taken a screen shot of the relevant area, edited for your, um, edification. Of course, you could always LEAVE A COMMENT if you're having trouble. I live in hope.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


            Been an interesting week. And I mean that in a good way, not in the Chinese-curse sense of “May you live in interesting times, snark, snark.”

            Know that old saw about not being able to teach old dogs new tricks? It’s totally bogus, and I have proof—the queen of the neo-Luddites learned how to prepare cyber-slides for Power Point presentations. She not only understood the process, she enjoyed doing it. Yes, I mentioned this little accomplishment last post, but I’ve worked on it, and refined my technique since then. I whipped out two different sets of slides for the pair of clubs Tim and I had the privilege of addressing this week with an absolute minimum of angst and/or fury.

Power Point presentation # 1
(not shown due to technical difficulties)

            Those who have witnessed my tortured relationships with machines won’t believe things went so swimmingly.

            There was one tense moment when I somehow managed to lose everything—stupid Microsoft—just as the “Jeopardy!” theme music came up. My resident geek rushed in and hit the “restore” button (or something like that), saving the presentation and my half-hour with Alex Trebek. (Actually, it’s only 22 minutes with Alex: the other eight, relentlessly cheerful people try to sell me cars, prescription drugs, furniture, mufflers for the car and eggs. Does strident advertising sell anything to anyone?)

            Our first outing, on Wednesday morning, was the St. James Service Club. Unfortunately, their spanking-new Community Center hasn’t worked out all its bugs yet, especially where the electrics are concerned. So our inaugural Power Point presentation had to wait. No worries, Tim and I belong to the tiny minority of Americans who fear death more than public speaking. We get a little Donny-and-Marie shtick going on, and actually have a good time talking to groups. For St. James, we just followed the outline without the pictures.

Power Point presentation # 2,
a smashing success

            In Boiling Spring Lakes on Thursday, however, the Garden Club had the necessary technology up and running. Having big pictures to point at worked really great, I thought—kind of fun. Our computer-enhanced presentation was well-received. The amorphous disaster I feared never happened. Cool.

            Thursday afternoon, the rain stopped long enough for me to get outside for a few hours. (The alternative was a nap. Weather-enforced physical inactivity has been driving me nuts, so I opted for staying awake.)
Started out by sawing the four lowest limbs off the Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus) on the corner of our house, to keep them from beaning Tim when he mows. That’s our main tree-pruning criteria: if a branch whacks either of us in the head more than once or twice, it’s history. In the front yard, our Sargent’s crabapple and ‘Natchez’ crape will be receiving similar ministrations soon, too.  

After hauling the severed limbs to the lot next door, I dumped the dead stuff out of the last three summer pots along the sidewalk and moved them. I’ve envisioned a blueberry patch in that bed, to be planted in another five or six weeks. One thing I’ve learned about myself from vegetable gardening: if it’s out of sight, it’s likely to be out of mind as well. The potted cucumber vine by the front door and the lettuces and beans on the back deck got more attention than anything else I grew last year, pickleworms, army worms, and all. I shall capitalize on this knowledge.

Pots emptied and moved, I turned to the main event—marking out the new bed along the north side of our property.

The new bed,
viewed from the east
 Burdened with a succession of town governments with delusions of grandeur and led by flimflammers, Oak Island recently completed its top-of-the-line sewer system, so high-tech and complicated, rumor has it that ours is only the second like it in the world. (The first is alleged to be somewhere in Sweden.) This is lovely in theory. What the town fathers glossed over is that there’re only 8200 of us to cough up the requisite 150 million dollars. Can you spell “kick-back” and “overrun”? Long story short, hooking up to this Rube-doggle left Tim, me and our next-door neighbors, the Fraziers, with a 40-foot long and ten-foot wide sand pit. What better place for a lovely blended border of some of my experimental specimens—red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), sweetheart tree (Euscaphis japonicus), maybe seven sons tree (Heptacodium miconiodes)—this year’s Great Sunflower Project ‘Lemon Queens,’ vines like Malabar spinach and hyacinth bean, veggies and fruits?

The new bed,
viewed from the south

On Thursday afternoon, I broke ground. With my shovel, I drew an outline in the sand of a 24-by-seven-foot oblong running west from the houses toward the street. Finally satisfied with the shape, I dug out a little trench around the edges. Then I retired to the other side of our property to scrabble around in the pile of spare flagstones we’ve accumulated over the years, loading the wheelbarrow with likely candidates for a path through the bed between our yard and Fraziers. Once the stones were placed to my liking, I began cleaning up the edge, cutting roots, pulling out grass and weeds and the odd rock. By five o’clock, the knees of my overalls and my gloves were wet through, and the knees on my legs and my hands were thoroughly chilled—time to quit for the day.

I’m pleased by what I got done. I meant to be out there today, but was prevented by a kerfuffle with the town’s Water Department in the morning and, after lunch, the absolute necessity of cleaning our house before a representative from the Health Department shows up with a clipboard and a disapproving glare. Well, there’s tomorrow, complete with good forecast. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for dropping by. Stay tuned.