Wednesday, May 23, 2012


            Fitzgeralds Gardening is busy these days, too busy for me to keep all the balls I’m juggling up in the air. We’re supposed to be working for a client right now, digging up her winter gardens and containers and setting up the summer show; instead, here I sit, enjoying the air-conditioning, typing away.

            I’d like to tell myself it’s because Tim hasn’t brought me my second cup of coffee yet, but that’s pretty lame: I’m sitting as close to the coffeepot as he is. Besides, cup numero dos just arrived.

            Actually, the reason for the circuitous path this post is taking is the Benadryl I’m scarfing down like peanuts to take the edge off the itch of my first significant case of poison ivy this season. Unaccustomed as I am to popping pills, antihistamines make me even less focused (read “stupid”) than usual. Never a revved–up go-getter at the best of times, I’m currently reduced to the status of a muddy puddle. (Why a muddy puddle? Because I like the way the words sound, that lovely assonance. Have I mentioned I’m a poetry reader?)

            Anyway. In an effort to convey some useful information, I’ve copied and pasted, in its entirety, Chapter 20 of my excellent but sadly unpublished book, modestly titled The Best Gardening Book Ever. I find the strictures of mathematics and whimsy of doodled illustrations soothing in my current addled state. With no further ado…


In the course of gardening events, it often becomes necessary to ascertain the square footage of an area in order to accurately estimate the amount of mulch or soil amendments you need. Occasionally a familiarity with calculating perimeters helps too, like when your wife sends you to Lowe’s to get enough edging for that new bed you’re going to dig when you get back. Yes, ninth- and tenth-grade math classes recessed long ago, but you’d be surprised at what Mrs. Tillinghast and Mrs. Taback managed to brand on your brain.

Area, or square footage, of any rectangle is simply length times width: A[rea] = ab; P[erimeter] = 2a + 2b. In the real world, however, gardening projects are seldom rectilinear. One strategy is to roughly block the space into contiguous rectangles and add the various areas together. This works okay if pinpoint accuracy isn’t too crucial.
Circles are another common bed shape. Remember pi? A.k.a. 3.14…, symbol π? (My youngest son has pi memorized to about a hundred places. On our first trip to New Zealand, as the plane sat on the tarmac in Auckland, four persons in spacesuits entered the fuselage and emptied the aerosol cans they carried all around the passenger compartment as we sat there, stunned and trying not to breathe. It was not a particularly welcoming experience, although it may explain why Sam, who was three months old at the time, turned into a genius. He certainly didn’t get it from his parents.) It—pi, not the charming Kiwi disinfect-the-foreigners ritual—comes in handy here. Where r = the radius of the circle, A = πr² and P = π2r.  

            Triangles occasionally come into play as well. Where b = base of the triangle and h = the height, A = bh/2 and P = a + b + c.
Alas, most garden beds are actually kind of blobby. To get an excellent estimate of an amoeba-shaped space, try this formula I stumbled upon in an issue of Fine Gardening years ago and have been using ever since. It goes like this:

Make a drawing of the space you need to know the area of—to scale if you’re not outside taking on-the-ground measurements.

Draw a straight line through the longest dimension of the bed; label the end points A and B.

Divide AB into segments of equal length. In our example, AB = 27’. I divided it into 3-foot segments (you could also use 9-foot segments, but there will be three times as many three-footers, giving a more accurate picture of the bed).

Measure the width of your bed at each segment-point perpendicular to AB. Label the line running through point A as S1 and continue on through to point B, which in our example is labeled S10. I know this is confusing. Just look at the next sketch.

Now it’s formula time. L = the number you divided AB by and S = the length of the perpendicular lines through the segment points. The formula is:

Area = L/3 [(SA + SB) + 2(S3,5,7…) + 4(S­2,4,6,8…)]

            In our example, the area works out like this:

A = 3/3 [(3 + 5.5) + 2(10 +10.5 + 16 + 17) + 4(9 + 9.5 + 12.5 + 18.5)]
A = 1 [8.5 + 2(53.5) + 4(49.5)]
A = 1 [8.5 + 107 + 198]
A = 1 [313.5]
A = 313.5 square feet, round up to 314 square feet

I don’t know why, but this formula provides amazingly accurate results. And, after the first time you use it, you’ll know the area of that oddly shaped bed in less time than it took to read this explanation.

            Once you’ve figured out the area of your bed, divide it by the number of square feet a unit of mulch/soil amendment covers based on the estimates below:

·         a 3-cubic-foot bag of pine bark nuggets covers about 10 square feet to 3 inches deep; a 2-cubic-foot bag, about 7 square feet

·         a 3-cubic-foot bag of shredded hardwood covers about 15 square feet to 2½-3 inches deep; a two-cubic-foot bag, about 10 square feet

·         an average-size bale of pine straw covers about 40 square feet to 3-4 inches deep (it’s fluffy by nature)

·         a 50-pound bag of Black Kow covers about 20 square feet to 1-1½ inches deep

(To mulch the blobby bed example above, I’d need 55 2-cubic-foot bags of pine bark nuggets, or 314 ÷ 7. Always round up.)

When edging, the following approximations will help you determine how much material you’ll need once you’ve determined the perimeter:

·         For standing-brick edges: measure how many units comprise a linear foot (bricks are usually three inches wide; ergo, 4 bricks = 1 foot) and multiply by the number of linear feet in the perimeter.

Rough estimates for various other materials:

·         1 ton of rip-rap ≈ 85 linear feet of edging

·         1 ton of widely spaced flagstone ≈ 64 linear feet of two-foot-wide path

·         1 ton of closely spaced flagstone ≈ 46 linear feet of two-foot-wide path

·         1 ton of wall stone (I’m talking veneers here) ≈ 50 linear feet of wall to 8 inches high

Now get out there and make your high school math teacher proud.

[End of Chapter 20.]

            This is as helpful as I can be this week, under the circumstances. I’m going cold-turkey on the Benadryl: by next week it will have cycled out of my system.

            Thanks for dropping by. Itchily yours,


Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Dozens of flats needing care
            Business is booming. I’m pooped. As detail man for Fitzgeralds Gardening, my brain is overtaxed by client container and garden designs with plant lists complicated by the onus of pulling inspired substitutions out of my hat when grower extraordinaire Christine tells me she’s out of this or that pivotal specimen. Other self-imposed duties include keeping the dozens of flats on the south side of our house watered, cut back and perky-looking, and ensuring we bring the right plants to the right job. These activities fall on top of the first three design jobs we’ve landed since the Great Recession, reminders of how out of practice I've become with vellum and templates. And then there’s Toadflax Farm, where the produce is beginning to drift in, as are the kudzu bugs and the imminent threat of pickleworms.

            Have I mentioned that multitasking is not among my character strengths?

            Have I mentioned that lickety-split is not my favorite speed?

            Have I mentioned my occasional melt-downs?

Innovative Organic Solutions
             Had one of the latter this past weekend. Took the whole two days off, to putz and stare into space. I ignored emails, only turning on the computer to collect weather data and blog statistics, and to ascertain I had emails to ignore. I didn’t dust, vacuum or mop. I didn’t look at the pile of work on the drafting table, which we’d cleverly relocated from office/studio to living room during the winter so it’s harder to forget. Instead, I called my mom and nattered for two hours. I did laundry, an enjoyably mindless task. I leisurely hose-end-sprayered the farm with Growers Secret emulsion, because watering is fun when you’re not in a hurry. I knitted. I played cards (Solitaire’s my game). And I read.

            One of the things I read, cover-to-cover, was the June-July issue of Organic Gardening (OG). Always informative, the little articles bracketing the features ended up more dog-eared than usual this month. After closing the magazine with a contented sigh, it occurred to me that the information on those marked pages would make a good, if scatter-shot, blog post. So here it is.

Where Cabarrus County is in NC
            Page 22:  In rural Cabarrus County, NC, northeast of Charlotte, wannabe farmers get a chance to practice organic agriculture at the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm. No, these novices aren’t making incubators: rather, Don Boekelheide informs us, they are incubating themselves into sustainable producers of food, livestock and flowers for local consumption.

            Unsurprisingly, the idea of incubator farms first took root (haha) in that hotbed of self-sufficiency, Burlington, Vermont, back in 1990. By 2001, it had crept across the continent to Salinas, California. The USDA belatedly joined the party in 2008 with its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. These projects build participants’ skills and confidence with access to on-the-job training; land; animals; equipment; greenhouse, storage and packing facilities; and agricultural and marketing mentoring.

            Many farms provide both educational and hands-on volunteer opportunities for home gardeners as well; others “…report unanticipated interest” from this group of dirt-diggers, including full-time enrollments in their programs. Brings to mind my brief brush with commune living back in the ‘70s, only cleaner. And possibly not as cold, if one elects not to incubate in Vermont.

            Page 26:  “Homemade preserves with half the sugar and none of the fuss” promises Sara Foster in the subtitle to her article on making freezer jam. Since berries of all types are pouring into our kitchen from Lewis Farms of Rocky Point, NC, and since horrible memories of pre-air-conditioning summertime hot canning marathons make freezing my preservation method of choice, I’m going to give this one a go. Sara swears all you need is fruit, a potato masher, pectin, sugar, jars and freezer space.

            Page 62:  In the “Ask Organic Gardener” feature, Rose Rogers of Cary, NC, wonders if using some of her home-grown compost will improve her scraggly lawn. Well, sure, replies Cary Oshins of the U.S. Composting Council. It’s calling top-dressing, he says, and putting down a quarter-inch or so of screened organic matter benefits the grass by benefiting the soil. In the time-honored way of mavens, he goes on to outline the proper, officially sanctioned application procedure, and tacks on a recipe for compost tea that “… delivers some of compost’s benefits.” (Emphasis mine: seems like a whole lot of trouble to brew enough poo-water to drench an entire lawn area for only a fraction of the value of the exercise.) If you want to calculate how much compost you’d need, check out the compost calculator at the Composting Council’s website.

            Page 66:  Jessica Walliser, author of Good Bug, Bad Bug, offers a primer on the family of beneficial parasitoid tachinid flies. (Parasitoids end up killing their hosts in particularly gruesome ways, whereas your basic parasites don’t. Just in case you didn’t already know.) We differentiate these flying good guys (“good,” that is, if you’re not a host) from their ickier kin, the houseflies, by a) the dark, bristly hairs on the their abdomens should you manage to observe them up close; and b) the fact that they live in the garden as opposed to the house. While their cousins prefer garbage or whatever you’re having, all tachinid species eat nectar. So in addition to laying eggs on or in common pestiferous insects like grasshoppers, Japanese beetle grubs, gypsy moth caterpillars, cabbageworms, etc., tachinids also pollinate their food sources in the carrot and aster families. What’s not to love?

Hedera helix could kill your cat
           Page 68:  Did you know most pets only chew on plants when they’re bored? Did you know some plants that merely inconvenience dogs will kill cats? And vice-versa? Yew, on the third hand, is fatally toxic to dogs and cats, but not deer or birds. It’s a dangerous world out there for Spot, Kitty  and Flicka, says Ilene Sternberg, so check out the ASPCA’s website for a list of potential pet poisons.


That's one Red Admiral...

            Page 70:  Attention, citizen scientists—it’s time to count butterflies! Cristina Santiestevan lists five websites for Americans and Brits to access for getting involved.

Death to plastic nursery pots!
                        Page 76:  Finally, Katie Walker profiles five commercially available biodegradable garden pots. Made of materials varying from cow poop, ground-up spruce mixed with peat moss, and coir to rice hulls, bamboo, and newspaper, many can be planted directly into the soil, minimizing both transplant and landfill stress. Is that cool or what?

            So maybe you ought to go pick up a copy of the June-July Organic Gardening, if only to see what it was I didn’t dog-ear. 

            Thanks for dropping by.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012


May 5th's "supermoon"
            Speaking of edgy, try translating Sky-Guy’s sentence about May 5th's “supermoon” into words of two or fewer syllables: “This particular Full Moon occurs one minute after lunar perigee, and since perigee coincides with a Sun/Earth/Moon syzygy, it is the closest perigee for the year.” Here’s a hint: astronomically speaking, a syzygy (SIZ-ih-gee) is either of two opposing points in the orbit of a celestial body—specifically the moon—at which it is in conjunction with or in opposition to the sun.

            Did that help?

If There Is Something to Desire cover
            Syzygy, a word that looks Hungarian or Polish to me, actually derives from the Greek for “yoke.” It is also a term poetry scholars use for “a measure of two feet, as a dipody.” Because they don’t just say dipody (DIP-oh-dee, reminiscent of dippidydoodah), whose meaning is easier to ferret out (di=two, pod=foot), explains why nobody reads poetry. And nobody and his brother read poetic criticism. Who else but jargon-loving elitists would call the spaces between lines or stanzas “lacunae”? The wonderful Russian poet Vera Pavlova (whose first collection in English—If There Is Something to Desire—was published by Knopf in 2010) once wrote that postmodern poetry is merely “vulgarity trying to pass for irony.”

            Seems I’m a tad edgy myself today. Blame it on syzygy.


Nothing makes a garden look more garden-ish than crisp edges. My favorite material for edging is the eight-inch-high, heavy-duty steel stuff botanical gardens use—five inches underground, three above, hunter green or chocolate brown, understated yet effective. The only place I’ve ever found it for sale is by mail-order. Each twelve-foot long section weighs in excess of a hundred pounds: prohibitive shipping costs as well as respect for UPS drivers make it entirely unaffordable unless you are, in fact, a botanical garden with a healthy endowment.

Over the years, Tim and I have tried a variety of less expensive products offered by home improvement stores and gardening catalogs. Most (excuse my French) suck. Pound-in plastic panels balk at obstructions in the soil and shatter should you pound too vigorously. The plastic coils (with the rolled edge to differentiate the top edge from the bottom, reminding me of how some old ladies at the Baptist Home used to wear their stockings) are a pain in the butt to straighten for installation. They also develop irremediable kinks, and heave out of the ground in places, making it look like you hired Mayberry’s Otis to do the job. (Our sympathy to Goober’s family, by the way.) Plastic also invariably deteriorates in the presence of ultraviolet rays, of which we have lots and lots here in southeastern North Carolina.

See what I mean?
 Moving on from plastic, those foot-long sections of cast concrete with the scalloped tops look doofy. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Because they sit on the surface of the ground, they tend to lean or fall over. Because they’re cast, the sides never join tightly. Even though curved sections are available, your ability to deviate from the rectangular is severely curtailed.

Next up—the wood blocks/pickets/faux stones stapled to rubber-like strips and the flimsy folding metal pretend-fence sections. These you might consider for a quick cosmetic fix when your more critical relatives descend on your homestead, but won’t last in the long run.

Okay, then, what’s more substantial? When Tim and I started in the business, we stacked a lot of landscape timbers. Pressure-treated to resist damp-rot and termites, when they lay flush against one another (once the rebar made it through the slightly misaligned pre-drilled holes and we’d wrestled the worst of the torques into temporary submission), the result didn’t look too bad. At least for the first two or three years. That is, if you don’t mind straight-ish eight-foot sections, curves remaining problematic.

(Some years ago, the Perfectly Safe lobby successfully applied pressure to prohibit the pressure-treating industry from using arsenic chromate as termite-icide. "What if our children chew on the playground equipment?" they cried. Like there aren't any other issues at work there. So now your timber edging only lasts five years instead of ten.)

For keeping poisonous substances from leaching into the ground—assuming you don’t consider lime toxic—and for preventing stoloniferous warm-season grasses from creeping into places they are not wanted, I like the extruded concrete that resembles curbing. Designed so lawn mowers can do their thing right up to the, um, edge, it is not exactly a subtle touch in the landscape. At upwards of eight dollars a linear foot, you also pay a premium for permanence. Back when we had a lawn, Tim and I defined the beds fronting the house and our big island this way. It saved me hours of pulling centipedegrass out of those areas, but it is awfully white.

Extruded concrete, fancy
Extruded concrete, plain

            Natural stone edging materials include granite rip-rap irregulars, smooth river rock (we used evocatively named turtle-backs at Gen and Ed’s house—see March 17th's "The End of Deer Is Near.") and Belgian block. I covered low formed-concrete-block walls as edging on April 21, in “The Great Wall.” Dry-laid veneer stone walls are another option, but only if you have a great deal of time and patience or the wherewithal to hire a mason.

Granite rip-rap
Turtle-back river rock

Dry-laid veneer stone wall

Neat, unobtrusive standing bricks
               Lately Tim and I have become enamored of standing-brick edgings, a relatively simple, unobtrusive and not-too-expensive technique. You dig a six-inch-deep trench, stand the bricks in it vertically, and backfill. For this dry-lay method, it helps to have: 1) a climate where the ground doesn’t freeze and heave; 2) sandy soil, which is marvelous for compacting itself around stationary intruders, such as fence posts, pergola legs and bricks; and/or 3) a hard edge to work against. If you lack any approximation of these conditions, consider mortar.

Client projects always result in leftovers, which, as reigning Recycling Queen of North Carolina, I bring home for domestic use. Tim used to call the messy pile of bricks and blocks my “snake house,” but he can’t say that anymore because I’m using them to make an eclectic edge around the New Bed.

I never claimed to be an artist, y'all
Everywhere else in our yard,  the Fitzes edge beds with English trenches, a labor-intensive-because-oft-repeated method with the signal advantage of costing only time. (English trenching means shoveling straight down around the outer edge your border, then making an angled cut from inside the bed toward the bottom of the straight cut, resulting in a V with a starboard list. See dinky illustration.) 

Eclectic recycled edging materials

With so many options to inspire us, gardeners needn’t allow their ornamental borders to wallow over into the lawn and vice-versa. Edging decreases weeding time, increases definition of that which you’d like defined, and imparts an air of caring and elegance to a landscape. If you’ll excuse me, I want to add a few more pieces from the snake house to crisp up the New Bed.

Thanks for dropping by.