Category Archives: Design

THE SHOW GOES ON

Lesser Known

A whole slew of clear, sunny days and cool nights caused sugar maples to put on a particularly fiery show of yellow and orange leaves this fall. That’s mostly over now around here — but a number of other trees and shrubs, many not well known, are keeping my farmden and beyond colorful longer.

Little known, for instance is Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica). I planted it years ago as a shade tree. Big mistake! For shade, that is. It doesn’t grow very large and is more of a large, multistemmed shrub. I’m glad I planted it, though. The smooth, gray stems grow thick and often horizontally, then downward a little before heading skyward, sort of like a miniature beech.

But I’m writing about color, and Persian ironwood has it, the leaves emerging purplish in spring, turning a lustrous green in summer, then morphing into variable shades of yellow, orange and red …

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I’M NO MICHELANGELO, BUT . . .

Lawn Nouveau

I’m taking up sculpture. Not in bronze, Carrara marble, or granite, but with plants.

My easiest sculpture is one I’ve been doing for years. I can’t really say “working on for years” because every year it vanishes, to be started anew each spring. It’s “lawn nouveau,” as I call it in my book, The Pruning Book, and then go on to describe the technique as “two tiers of grassy growth . . . the low grass is just like any other lawn, and kept that way with a lawnmower. The taller portions are mowed infrequently – one to three times a year, depending on the desired look (and my need for hay) — with a scythe or tractor.” The sharp, defining line between the high grass and the low grass is integral to the design.

I’m lucky to have a meadow bathed in sunlight bordering the south side of my …

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STIRRING MY BLOOD, CLEARING (PARTS OF) THE MEADOW

Nearing Influence

What struck me most about Scott Nearing was his sturdy appearance, arms hanging loosely from broad shoulders, his near perfect teeth, and the deeply creviced wrinkles of his face. He was 91 years old. Looks aside, his influence on me was deep despite the brevity of my visit.Scott Nearing was a professor of economics, a political activist, a pacifist, a vegetarian and an advocate of simple living. And a gardener. For many of these reasons, he was almost a cult figure back in the 1970s when I, a young man, visited him. He was then known mostly for his book Living the Good Life. I had read the book, and decided to drive 1,000 miles from Madison, Wisconsin to show up on his farm, unannounced, in Harborside, Maine.

I thought of that visit today as I was swinging my scythe. Would I have been out in the field this morning …

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SEEKING TRUTHS

(The following is adapted from my most recent book, The Ever Curious Gardener: Using a Little Natural Science for a Much Better Garden, available from the usual outlets or, signed, from here.)

OBSERVE AND ASK

Charles Darwin did some of his best work lying on his belly in a grassy meadow. Not daydreaming, but closely observing the lives and work of earthworms, eventually leading to the publication of his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. He calculated that these (to some humans) lowly creatures brought 18 tons of nutrient-rich castings to the surface per acre per year, in so doing tilling and aerating the soil while rendering the nutrients more accessible for plant use.

We gardeners can also take a more scientific perspective in our gardens without the need for digital readouts, flashing LEDs, spiraling coils of copper tubing, or other bells and whistles of modern …

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The Season Begins

One More Thing? Ha!

I have one more important task to do before planting any vegetables this spring, and that is the annual mapping out of the garden, something I generally put off as long as possible.

In theory, mapping out my garden should be easy. I “rotate” what I plant in each bed so that no vegetable, or any of its relatives, grows in a given bed more frequently than every 3 years. In practice, I mostly pay attention to rotation of plants most susceptible to diseases, which are cabbage and its kin (all in the Brassicaceae), cucumber and its kin (Cucurbitaceae), tomato and its kin (Solanaceae), beans and peas (Fabaceae), and corn (sweet or pop, in the Gramineae).

Crop rotation prevents buildup of disease pests that overwinter in the ground; removing host plants eventually starves them out. (Insect pest are more mobile, so crop rotation has less impact except in very …

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A Farmdener, That’s Me

A New Word is Introduced

I’d like to introduce the words farmden and farmdener into the English language. I wonder if there are any other farmdeners out there.

What is a farmden? It’s more than a garden, less than a farm. That’s my definition, but it also could be described as a site with more plants and/or land than one person can care for sanely. A gardener and garden gone wild, out of control.

You might sense that I speak from personal experience. I am. My garden started innocently enough: A 30 by 40 foot patch of vegetables, a few apple trees, some flowers, and lawn. That was decades years ago, and in the intervening period, the lawn has grown smaller, the vegetable garden has doubled in size, and the fruit plantings have gone over the top.

Originally, I had less than acreage – 72 hundredths of an acre to be exact. But over …

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Read the Book, Bro’

To Prune or Not To Prune, That is the . . .

So I visited my brother and his family for Thanksgiving. As usual, we walked around his yard to look at his plantings. As usual, he asked my advice, this time about pruning. (As usual, he didn’t want to consult a copy of my book, The Pruning Book, which I had given him a few years ago. “Why read it, when I can just ask you?!” he says.)

He was considering taking blades to a row of handsome, evergreen shrubs along the front of his house. Over the years, the lengthening branches had sprawled out to encroach upon the bordering lawn, in some places leaving exposed bare stems. He questioned whether new growth would sprout if he lopped all those sprawling stems back to near the roots.

But what was the plant? I had an excuse, admittedly rather lame, …

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Shaving and Composting

 . . . But My Garden is in Order

“Some men there are who never shave (if they are so absurd as ever to shave), except when they go abroad, and who do not take care to wear polished boots in the bosoms of their families. I like a man who shaves (next to one who doesn’t shave) to satisfy his own conscience, and not for display, and who dresses as neatly at home as he does anywhere. Such a man will be likely to put his garden in complete order before the snow comes, so that its last days shall not present a scene of melancholy ruin and decay.” So wrote Charles Dudley Warner in his wonderful little book (much more than a gardening book) My Summer in a Garden (1898). I gave up shaving a few months ago, but I am putting my garden in order for autumn.

The scene …

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New York Grown Oranges!

Yes, A True Citrus

Oranges? In New York, planted outdoors in the ground? Yes, I have them ripening on the branches now. No matter if they ripen thoroughly or not because, although they are true oranges, delicious flavor  is not one of their assets. It’s still a plant well worth growing.

The plant is the aptly named “hardy orange,” actually a true citrus species, Citrus trifoliata. (Previously, hardy orange was a citrus relative; botanists recently moved it to the Citrus genus from the closely related Poncirus genus.)

Mostly I planted hardy orange for its stems, whose show is at the same time intimidating, interesting, and decorative. Stems of the variety that I grow, Flying Dragon, twist and contort every which way, and then add to the show with large, recurving thorns. Stems and thorns are forest green, even as they age, and remain so all through winter to make the plant especially …

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Wild and Cultivated Pleasures

Mythbusting

Before going any further, let me bust a myth that still might be having some traction: Late summer and fall allergies are not caused by goldenrod (Solidago spp.). Goldenrod gets the blame for its showy, yellow blossoms during this allergy season. But the true culprit is ragweed, which goes unnoticed because it bears only small, green flowers.

It makes sense that the pollen of a showy flower would not cause allergies. Showy flowers put on their show to attract insect (and, in some cases, bird or bat) pollinators. Wind can’t carry their heavy, sometimes sticky, pollen.

Pollen that causes allergies wafts around in the wind. Wind-pollinated flowers (euphoniously called “anemophilous” flowers) don’t need to attract animal pollinators.

And Now, Enjoy the Flowers

With that said, I can safely revel in the rich golden yellow with which goldenrod’s flowers are painting sunny hillsides and fields this year. Goldenrod’s beauty comes as no surprise once you …

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