Grow Love: Organic ‘Like a Boss’

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Hello friends!

And welcome to the first edition of my new feature, ‘GrowLove’. Basically an excuse for me to pick the brains of my favorite gardeners. First up, is my dad Randy.

My dad is the kind of gardener who shows up at family campouts with a cooler full of giant heads of cauliflower, enormous carrots and lush collard greens. His ability to grow healthy and beautiful plants is definitely one that any gardener might envy. He once espaliered an apple tree and a rose bush together on the side of our garage. It was one of the most gorgeous feats of pruning I’ve ever seen.

He’s been a big inspiration and influence on me as a gardener. So when I saw Gayla Trail’s latest ‘Grow Write Guild’ post, I knew he would be someone I’d have to interview. Luckily, I was home over the weekend, so I got to take a few pictures of his current vegetable garden.

Below is a rough transcript of our recent phone conversation, complete with tips for novice composters!

Hey Dad. How’s it growing? (tee-hee)

Hi Erin. I’m actually out in my garden right now. My beans are starting to do good so I’m babying those.

How are you babying them?
Leveling the soil, fertilizing with a solid organic fertilizer, watering and cultivating. I’m careful with that, you know the more you disturb the soil the more you’re disconnecting the mycorrhizae.

Why are you leveling the soil?
That makes it so that the water distributes evenly.

Okay, so what does your garden say about you?
It says I enjoy eating out of the garden. I like helping the environment, cutting down on transportation costs. Keeping things natural and organic. Simplifying. “Simplify, simplify” remember?

What early experiences led to you becoming a gardener?
Well, my dad forced me to weed the flower beds when I was a kid. Also, you know it was part of the hippie days to grow your own food. I was a little bit good at it and I liked it.

Why is it important to you to garden organically? [I had to ask him this question, because I know that gardening organically has always been one of his guiding principles over the years, and he always has such high-performing gardens.]
Because you cut back on using the oil based fertilizer and pesticides that have been linked to some diseases. They’ve only been around for a hundred years. I think of a garden as living with nature, which those synthetic things aren’t. So what’s the point of that? And nature’s so complicated…why slow it down?

What people have been your big gardening influences?
Probably Gene’s dad, a guy I worked with at the lumberyard. I made a delivery to his dad in Orting. His garden was amazing. It went alongside the house all the way from the alley to the street. He had about three fifty-foot rows of kohlrabi. I’d never even heard of a kohlrabi before. And I was like this is awesome.

And then every once in a while, I see an 80 year old with a huge garden, like they really know their stuff and it’s nice to see it in person, not just in a magazine.

I agree, older gardeners are definitely a great source of inspiration.

What got me going recently was taking a biology class and reestablishing my respect for the complexity of biological things.

Like at night, it’s pretty scary with the nightcrawlers.

How so?

Well they stick out their hole, half their body out, just flopped on the ground. When they see you, they slip back in their holes really fast.

That’s so cool! Why are you out in your garden at night?

Catching slugs. I checked for slugs and snails pretty often for the first two months of my garden, twice a day. I threw them across the creek, by the time I got them thinned out, I started using safe slug bait. Not the nasty stuff. But I still keep my eye out for them so I don’t have to kill them. I’ve also got lots of toads. They pop up in the weirdest places. There was one in my fire pit this morning.

Has being a father changed the way you garden?
Well you just try to plant things that your kids can eat right out of the garden. You guys used to go out and pick things when you were teensy kids.

Most of your vegetable gardens incorporate flowers, why?
At first it was because of companion planting, and I like edible flowers too. I like flowers in general. It’s nice if you’re working on the garden so much to have some flowers to look at. And it attracts bees and butterflies.

Any tips for novice composters? [My dad’s been composting for as long as I can remember, and always produces large amounts of beautiful black and rich compost that he uses generously on the garden. I think this might be one of the secrets to his giant vegetables.]

You know you can order a free pamphlet on composting from the government.  I like ‘Compost’ by H.H. Koep. [This may be out of publication but here's a useful how-to guide that I found online] There’s different ways to make compost, you don’t want to have too much dirt. About 20% at most. I like to use lots of weeds, use those whenever possible, grass clippings are good. When you bring out your kitchen waste, mix it in good. It’s important to turn it. I move my compost and keep it watered all summer. Manure’s good, maybe 10% or so.

My compost piles are usually about seven feet wide, and six feet tall. It reduces down to about 5 feet tall. Make it as long as you want. I usually turn it in over the fall. Mainly I use stuff out of my goat pen, or from gardening customers. You might have to go out of your way to get good materials, if you’re working on your garden a lot, you may not have a lot of weeds. But it’s worth it.

Awesome. Dad thanks so much for talking with me today!

Thank you Erin. Good luck with your garden!

 

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What Does Your Garden Say About You?

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In a recent ‘Grow Write Guild’ post, Gayla Trail challenged her fellow gardeners to contemplate how their garden reflects their identity. I find this to be an interesting question. Between growing at a community garden, volunteering with Master Gardeners and working as a horticultural professional, I am surrounded by gardeners from all walks of life, with all manner of experiences and memories.

The pictures above are from a garden I was lucky to help tend while living in Norwich. The gardeners were an older couple, who were quite devoted to each other. They’d gardened in that spot for many, many years. I loved working in that garden. The lush and colorful foliage, the interesting collection of plants and the relaxed flow of the space felt like a tangible expression of my clients.

And so, I thought it might be fun to turn this question to you…I’d really like to hear about your garden and how it has evolved over time. Below are a few questions to get you started…

Question-y Questions: What does your garden say about you? How long have you worked in this space? Does it reflect your original vision? How has that vision metamorphosed over time? What would you like to change about your garden? What would you like to keep forever? What sort of memories are connected to your garden?

If you e-mail the answers to me (erin[at]blackberryburrow[dot]com) and a few pictures, I’ll post them next week!

Making Taiyaki & the Shinjuku Greenhouse

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The other day we made ‘fish’ pancakes with our taiyaki maker that we bought in Tokyo. We had some at a street vendor outside an Inari temple, and immediately made it our mission to find something on Kappabashi street in the kitchen district that would allow us to make our own.

Since this was our first attempt, we just made a random waffle batter recipe and went for it. We didn’t have the beans to make the genuine filling, so we substituted with mashed bananas and chocolate chips. They were very tasty. That said, we both love bean paste and are excited to make some with a more traditional type of filling as in this Cooking with Dog video.

All this got me thinking about our visit to Shinjuku Park and the greenhouse there. Friends, I have to say that this was definitely one of the most interesting and unique collection of plants I’ve seen. From the mind-boggling collection of orchids to the fantastical Dr. Seuss-essque tropical plants, we spent the better part of an afternoon wandering. Below are a few pictures of what we found.

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The plant above, Heliconia mariae, was my favorite. At first I thought, there’s a giant cockroach in that tree! But no, those are blossoms actually. The plant world is truly amazing, and methinks when I have my own greenhouse, I may have to send away for some of these. Have you ever seen a plant like this? What’s the most bizarre plant you’ve seen? Happy Tuesday all!

Hello Garden: Cauliflower vs. Mildew

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The garden is really starting to take off.

We harvested our first head of lettuce the other day, and our first handful of sun-sweetened red berries, delicious! As you can see from the photos, I’ve got a good amount of Sluggo laid down. I imagine this will be my last application, I just want the peas and the seed starts to get ahead of them a bit. Once the plants are larger, they’ll be left to fend for themselves. Our zinnias, beans and squashes that we planted just 10 days ago are already up and looking good.

Our broccoli seedlings continue to progress. I got some cauliflower starts from the garden shop down the street, but they’ve developed downy mildew…so those are definitely coming out. I’m curious as to the cause…could it be the mushroom compost? I haven’t had downy mildew on my cole crops before, so I will probably be quizzing my garden buddies to see what their thoughts are. This is my first time using mushroom compost, so I’m a bit suspicious. The cauliflower starts were planted high and dry in a raised bed and have plenty of air circulation, so it’s an odd problem to ‘sprout’ up. (Ha ha ha pun totally intended)

Note: If you haven’t seen the Hortsense website put up by the WSU Master Gardeners check it out. All kinds of great photos, so that if you do have some plant weirdness this year, like I did, it’s a great diagnostic tool.

Okay that’s all for now! I leave you with a few more photos. As you can see, I’ve put up a barrier around my poor dahlia which has been fighting off slug predation. How is your garden growing? What are you most excited to harvest this year?

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This heirloom viola was a gift from one of our garden neighbors. Very pretty for salads!

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Washing the lettuce roots before we take it home to eat, om nom nom.

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We’re pretty excited about our “brainy” celosia. Do you think it will attract zombies??? Maybe zombie rabbits…

 

‘Green Thumb’ What Does It Mean?

Sometimes, despite all your best efforts you lose a plant. That moment when you realize it’s not thriving….the leaf color looks a bit off, or brown tips appear at the terminal point of each stem, or that creeping fungus that seems to have turned up everywhere…it’s a little bitter, a little sad and most definitely frustrating.

Generally we don’t plant things intending to kill them. And there is such a multitude of reasons a plant might fail that Sherlock Holmes himself would be hard put to discover the source. There’s light, soil nutrition, soil texture, soil ph, moisture, possible pathogens, insect damage, human damage, critter damage, sunscald, wind, over-fertilization and well I could go on.

A plant that is bright with healthy green growth is pretty amazing. And while nature will always be the best gardener, there’s something deeply satisfying in participating in that. Creation, nurturing, the ability to say, “I grew this”. It can be enormously difficult to let go.

On some level, the survival of plants in our garden can get tied up with our identity, our self-perception and even especially when it’s a front yard…competition and “keeping up with the Joneses”. I’ve talked about this with my fellow Master Gardener interns, “Come over next week, after I’ve weeded the yard,” is a common refrain. Beyond the sadness of losing a plant, we connect that loss with what it might say about us, time and again. Are we not good enough gardeners? Why didn’t we go out and water that one hot day? What did I do wrong? And so on.

Right now I’m struggling with slugs in my garden. They will not leave my peas alone, despite liberal applications of Sluggo. My peas as a result, are a bit stunted and a lot lacy. That said, I want to reflect on what it means to lose a few plants, in the protection of a greater goal. Preservation. This is not something I tend to talk about a whole lot here, many other far more eloquent folks than I have discussed this. Nonetheless I think it’s important, and it’s a conversation that should be ongoing.

What do we really want from our gardens? Over-fertilization and the liberal use of inorganic pesticides and herbicides have caused serious problems in our waterways throughout Washington. And what for? So that our grass can be a little greener? To keep from losing that tomato we were so excited to grow? If gardening is meant to bring us closer to nature, why are we using products that cause such harm to this profoundly beautiful place that we’re so very lucky to live in?

Maybe it’s time, I include myself in this, to check our egos at the door. If your rhubarb bites the dust or your rose succumbs to black spot, what does this really say about your gardening skills, your nurturing skills, or who you are? It simply didn’t work out. And I think that by learning to let go, we as a gardening community can make a profound difference in how the coming generation of gardeners learn to view “success” in the garden and what it truly means to have a “green thumb”.

Written in response to Grow Write Guild Prompt #27. Are you a gardener that enjoys blogging? Join us!

Hello Garden: Sprouts Aplenty

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This year, between fun garden classes, travel and new projects, I planted my early season crops in mid-spring. I’m looking at it as an interesting experiment to see how potatoes and peas like being planted quite late. For the last several years I’ve been planting my peas later than the average ‘President’s Day’ planting, but this year they were planted even later, as in late April. So we’ll see what happens. Next year, maybe I’ll try planting them early in a cold frame and see how that goes.

Either way I’m excited to be out in the garden this spring. My fellow community gardeners’ patches are all looking very beautiful. A row of gleaming green spinach here, another of burgundy-crinkled radicchio there. Next time I’m at the garden I’ll try to take some pictures of the other patches. My immediate neighbor, who is retired, has a penchant for creating garden art out of found objects. His latest creation is a bamboo and driftwood wind chime, lovely!

My favorite ‘found’ object in my garden right now is a vintage folding chair in bold stripes of blue and yellow that my father gave me. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to sand down and spray paint the metal, I kind of like it in all its shabby glory. But an update might be a good thing.

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Right now things are just starting to peek out of the ground.  So many succulent green sprouts ready to grow into tasty vegetables. I love this time of year. And as you can see, so do the slugs!

Happy Thursday Folks. What are you growing in your garden this year? Send me pictures if you can! I’d really love to see them.

Springtime in Tokyo

 

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A little while back we were able to visit Tokyo, thanks to an invite from a friend who had a pretty flat in the laid back, artsy Tokyo neighborhood of Shimokitazawa. As an added bonus, we were able to see two other friends that we hadn’t seen in….three years, and two years respectively. There being the slight puddle called the Pacific Ocean between us. Although in the first friend’s case, it’s usually the Atlantic between us, but that’s neither here nor there I suppose.

After making the plane reservations a “birthday” surprise, and getting our affairs in order (mostly procuring a willing cat-sitter for kitty)….I pulled husband away from his studies and we were on a plane outward bound, with phrase books in hand.

I love traveling in the spring. I think that’s the best time to see a city. Everyone blinking at the sunshine, coming out of their offices to picnic and make merry as the weather allows for it.

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These pictures are from Shinjuku Park. That was one of the warmest days. We walked around and marveled at the unusual plant specimens. School kids, retired people, families and all sorts of locals were out picnicking, with bento boxes, and eating ice cream sandwiches and jostling to take the perfect picture of the cherry blossoms and other things in bloom. Including the quince pictured above. Competitive flower photography you say? Husband was way into it, and I promised we could retire in Tokyo someday that so that he too could rove in a pack of old dudes with thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment and compete for the best cherry blossom photo ever.

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I took some early morning walks while we were there. I’m not sure if I was out of my mind with jet lag, or just too excited to sleep, but I got to know our neighborhood pretty well that way.

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Lots of well-manicured pooches in Tokyo. Many of them tucked into the couture handbags of some of the most exquisitely dressed ladies you will ever see. Walking the streets of Tokyo was not unlike a Pinterest page come alive.

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Our friends were kind enough to take us to an izakaya the first night. I guess you could call it a sort of gastro pub… Needless to say the food was amazing and it set off a week long odyssey into the unparalleled delights of Japanese cuisine. From delicious seafood pancakes like okinomiyaki to salty roe filled onigiri to octopi-stuffed takoyaki to noodle-tastic ramen…let’s just say we were some happy food lovers.

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What does the Fox Say?

We also had the chance to make a couple of day trips outside the city. We took the holiday train to Kamakurra one day, and later in the week visited Kyoto. Husband took over travel arrangements for the Kyoto jaunt. I hadn’t done any research on Kyoto, so it was a pretty great surprise when we arrived at the Inari shrine (Wikipedia article) and I saw the kitsune or fox statues scattered all around the temple grounds. This was hands down my favorite shrine. A mysterious path up a beautiful mountain framed by red gates and foxes? I was one happy critter lover. We saw shrine kitties cavorting at one shrine, another had a pond filled with huge turtles and one even had a little white fluffy dog who greeted everyone who came by. Then of course, as I said, we were walking up a mountain. All kinds of awesome.

And then of course there was haname…. translation…”cherry blossom viewing partay“.  On our last night in Tokyo we partook in the custom of haname with some old friends and new in Ueno Park, a beautiful park covered in cherry blossoms in the spring with a big lake and beautiful pavilions and skyscrapers that come up right to the edge of the park. We picnicked under the trees with thousands of locals. It was perfect. So while we were excited to get home to our own critter, Cuchulainn the kitty, we definitely were sad to leave this vibrant and culturally rich city.

Arigatou gozaimashita Tokyo!

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Book Crush: The Black Count

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Happy St. Patty’s Day folks! Today’s Book Crush takes place at one of my favorite outdoor reading venues in Bellingham. On the walk between downtown and Fairhaven, there’s this ramp overlooking the water that is peopled with wooden benches. And while they may not be the softest benches ever, the view is great, the air is salty and I can’t think of many places I’d rather read on my day off…always providing it’s warm enough of course.

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When my girlfriend Scarlett and I were girls we loved the book The Count of Monte Cristo. I’m not sure what appealed to us. The adventure, the exotic locales, or just the writing itself. Later in life I picked up The Black Tulip, another adventure story by Alexander Dumas, and thoroughly enjoyed it both as a discussion of a very interesting time in horticultural history and simply because it was a ‘ripping yarn’.

black countBeing also a fan of history itself, I was delighted to come across this book one Sunday afternoon. Author Tom Reiss spent over a decade researching the life of Alexander Dumas’ father, General Alex Dumas. And when you start to look at the facts, suddenly Dumas’ outlandish tales of derring-do and conspiracy seem a lot more grounded in reality.

Are you interested in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era? This book will give you a whole new perspective on them. It turns out that Alexander Dumas’ father was the son of a French gentleman and a Haitian lady. Tom Reiss delves into the history of the sugar plantations in the Caribbean as well as Napoleon’s failed attempt to conquer Egypt. The range of this book is fairly far-reaching, all told through the lens of one incredible man’s life story.

My only beef with this book is that I would have liked to see more primary sources from the perspective of General Alex Dumas. That said, perhaps not many of his letters have survived. In either case, I enjoyed Reiss’ spare, though evocative prose. And this is a story that certainly needs to be told. Even just the two pages devoted to the fate of Toussaint Louverture’s sons gives the reader a greater understanding of that era, as well as the contemporary era. It is an unmasking of history that has been buried whether through determined ignorance or deliberate malice.

If you enjoy reading history, pick up this book next time you’re at the bookstore. Reiss’ book is well-researched, finely written and significant. Plus it’s a ripping good yarn.

Hello Garden…RAWRrrrr!

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Today I went down to our garden patch and started digging up the soil for new garden beds. We’ve rented a second patch this year, which means we’ve got about a twenty foot by twenty foot space. I’m so excited. This is probably one of the bigger gardens we’ve had in awhile.

While I was digging up old roots and the odd buttercup today, I dreamed about putting in some blueberry bushes and how we would construct our deer fence for the new patch. We’ve got some four by fours leftover from last year, so I might just use those rather than buying fence posts.

It was so sunny today. Sunny like wearing a t-shirt and not even being that cold kind of spring weather that makes you want to jump up and down and dance around and plant a million seeds all at once. We’ve had a spate of cold weather as you can see from my pictures. It was so fun to have snow, but I’m glad I waited for a few weeks after the melt to start gardening.

I used to be an early gardener, but I’m finding that I enjoy my garden a lot more, when I can be patient and wait for the warm days to put my garden in. I don’t get any less of a harvest, if anything the plants seem to thrive in the warmer soil. I’ve become a believer in garden procrastination I guess you could say.

I know I’ve been a bit AWOL on this blog over the winter. But I did get my garden on a little bit via the Master Gardener’s class I decided to take this winter. I’ve never had any botany or pathology or really any formal horticultural education. So really I’ve been enjoying this class immensely. The section on soil science I wish could have gone on for a few more weeks. It was FASCINATING.

The best part about taking the Master Gardener’s course is that once you get through it, there are more classes you can take as a “Master Gardener” in a range of subjects. So the education is ongoing and you also get to volunteer in the clinics and see all the interesting plant diseases and things that come through.

Last Saturday I taught my first vegetable gardening class ever. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and the idea was bandied about last spring when I first got hired at my nursery. I don’t know about you, but the more I learn about a subject, the more I feel I don’t know. So I was really nervous to teach the class. Like ridiculously nervous. Then it all just kind of came together. Once I got up to talk with the class, I realized I knew a lot more than I thought I did, and it became kind of a conversation and it was SO MUCH FUN. (Forgive me for the proliferation of all caps in this post, we all need them sometimes right?)

At any rate, that’s where I am garden-wise right now. Just getting started, with a whole bag of seeds ready to plant but still some soil prep to do before the planting begins. I LOVE this time of year.

Where are you with your garden? What do you think you might grow this year?

Zombies, Abutilons and Air Plants! NWFGS Photos

Just wanted to share a few of my favorite garden bits and bobs from the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. I have to admit, I was fairly overwhelmed by all the awesomeness.

This garden was designed by a mother-daughter team, I love the concept of garden-sharing and also the plants were gorgeous. Take a look at that witch hazel in the foreground of the first picture. Also, pretty sure I too should be outfitting my garden for the zombie apocalypse. ;)

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Um, chandelier of Tillandsias anyone? I fell in love with living walls all over again here.

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IMG_4641 It was a really fun show for plant geeks this year. Vance Lumsden and Judith Jones really brought it with their garden, “the Art of Upcycling”.

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Vanca said the greenhouse was made out of all salvaged sliding glass doors. Also, how awesome is the potting bench made of an ironing board? I’m pretty sure this will be my potting bench in my next garden. Now for the plant geek part, these ladies take it to a whole ‘nother level. I could have spent the entire time just drooling over the plants in this garden.

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Vanca said that the abutilons make their own crosses in Judith’s greenhouse, om nom nom.  Then there was the ferns! Asplenium anitquum ‘Cristatum’ anyone? These ladies created a garden that showcases beautiful design and awesome plants. Way to go!

Alright, I’ve got to dash to work. But tomorrow, I promise to share a few more pictures from the Sky bridge etc.

Happy NWFGS all!

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