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.



  1. Hi, I enjoyed reading about your garden. It gets me motivated to work on some of those projects too. I saw the same compost bin featured on the Gardening by the Yard show, but he didn't mention where he got the compost bin. Could you tell me where you got it and who the manufacturer is?



  2. Hey, Kristina--
    The corner brackets came from Lee Valley Tools, a mail-order company. There's a link to their website on the sidebar of the post. The set of four, complete with screws, cost $101., delivered. No instructions are provided, so my husband says an extra pair of hands or some spring clamps would be helpful with assembly. You supply the 1-x-6" boards, cut to any dimensions you want. My boxes are 6 foot long by two wide because that what fits in the spaces I have.
    Thanks so much for writing. Let me know if I can be of any more help.
    Regards, K