Monday, November 30, 2009

In the Garden... Winter Thoughts

In the Garden
By Catherine Dougherty

The past few weeks have been unusually dreary. With the clouds and drizzle, we feel as though we live in the Pacific Northwest rather than the central plains. The first few frosts simply nipped the garden and we had our first real freeze only last week. It is unbelievable that December is upon us.

I began rereading the Foxfire books again a few weeks ago. They were first published as magazine articles in 1966 but became so successful that the articles were published in a series of books. They are fascinating reading for in them one finds a multitude of little known and almost archaic information. Everything from forecasting the weather by observing the animals, insects, plants, or the patterns of fire to planting by moon signs, dressing a deer, building a log cabin, or making home remedies is covered, all of which seem timely as the recession deeepens.

The articles were initiated by Eliot Wigginton, a Cornell graduate with a master’s degree, who began teaching at a small school in Rabun Gap-Nacochee, Georgia. Deep in the Appalachians, the 240 pupil school was located in a rural community where the traditional culture was dying. After centuries of self-sufficiency, interest in maintaining the life style of the mountain people had ebbed and the next generation was opting for an easier life. As the elders died, the information they carried with them was gradually being lost forever. In the final days of that culture, Mr. Wigginton asked the students to collect stories and information from their grandparents for preservation. It is fascinating reading available at most Libraries and quite inexpensively online.

In keeping with that thought, we should recognize that much information known to our grandparents has been lost to us in our community as well. In the mid 1970’s we visited Marion Wise at his home east of town on many occasions. He was truly a remarkable man. Not only was he totally self-sufficient, but he had knowledge of the medicinal qualities of plants growing in his back yard and the fields beyond. He added a little of this and that to petroleum jelly and had a salve that truly cured skin cancer. Chew this for a cough, boil that for a headache; the information was priceless. I kept meaning to talk to him about his knowledge, to learn from him the old ways, but days turned to months and months to years between visits and suddenly he was gone. His home was sold and bulldozed, his garden became a cotton field, and it all of his secrets were lost to us forever.

Mankind depended upon remedies and concoctions from the garden for thousands of years for health and vitality. This knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next and everyone understood the connection between nature and mankind. Perhaps this winter, since flu shots are in scarce supply, we should think of adding Cranberries to our daily diets. They are a natural antiviral and boost the immune system. With a little vitamin C containing rose hips, a cup of red clover tea, and maybe a blackberry cordial if we’re feeling under the weather, we should survive the winter very nicely.

Monday, November 23, 2009


For our forefathers to have planned a holiday around giving thanks for nature’s bounty is indeed remarkably fortunate for us. In this hurried world of far flung families, Thanksgiving day combines two of the most important elements of mankind… food and the company of loved ones.

Since the dining is the center of the festivities, it is appropriate to decorate the table with interesting and eye catching elements. Whether one chooses to use Grandmother’s white linen tablecloth, placemats, or a roll of natural burlap rolled the length of the table, an impressive centerpiece is freely available and close at hand. One needs to look no farther than the garden, the bar ditch or a friend’s wooded field to gather items to use as decorations. With the mums still intact there are lovely additions from the field to include and they have changed to hues of yellow, orange and brown... perfect colors for a Thanksgiving arrangement.

Now that we have had a freeze, the field flowers and weeds have dried and stand in stark contrast to the more delicate plants that perished. Collecting then spraying them with inexpensive hair spray will keep them intact and eliminate any allergens still left on them. Pyracantha berries are glorious at this time of year and since they resemble baby pumpkins, they look adorable dancing along a table runner. Add acorns, maple leaves, and bittersweet twining among them for a show stopper. Additionally there are battery operated twinkle lights to lend additional magic to the table.

If one chooses a large centerpiece,it may be arranged from wispy native grasses, sumac, and seed pods and heads. The tallest must be placed in the center and then work outwards, placing the smallest at the outermost edge of your vase. Should one choose a Cornucopia, a Thanksgiving tradition, a variety of miniature pumpkins and gourds are sweet and inexpensive and may be mixed with highly colored natural leaves for a stunning effect.

Sprays of wildflowers and grasses look festive hung on doors secured by decorative ribbon or placed in baskets on porches, stairways and entrances. Using branches with colored leaves and straw-colored grasses and grains surrounded by fall pumpkins is also an excellent composition.

However one does not necessarily need to limit the theme to the natural colors. On impulse one year we spray painted our branches, weeds, leaves, gourds, and acorns gold. We even spray painted our shoes… it was a magnificent year!
Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why gardeners love winter.

An account of one of my typical summer gardening days... it is the reason we gardeners find winter so relaxing.

My day in the Garden

This is how my gardening days usually go lately; I can’t find anything in the yard anymore. I spend all my time looking for lost tools. I’ll prune something, stack it then drop the pruners to carry off debris, planning to return momentarily. I see something else on the way back to the pruners and become distracted from the pruning job.

A large clump of grasses or weeds lurking amongst the flowers catch my eye. I weed a bit then I begin to look for the rake to rake the weeds and grass I’ve just pulled before they can rebound and reroot. On my way to find the rake I see a lily with a heavy head that needs to be staked. I remember a stake is on the spent Iris so I go looking for it. I finally locate it then stake the plant.

Then I remember, as I see the wilting weeds, I am looking for the rake. I finally find it in some obscure place then rake the weeds into a pile. I need my gloves to pick up the pile so I go to the garden table to get them. Not there. I remember I took them to the house so they would not get rain soaked, so I go to get them on the ledge of the porch. Bingo. Gloves on I pick now up the weeds.

As I am carrying them off I see a six pack of wilting Petunias that desperately need to be put in the ground. I need my trowel. Hmmm? I look for one of my three trowels and finally find one in the herbs where I was digging grass days ago. I plant the Petunias then notice something that needs to be pruned.

I can't remember where I left the pruners, it’s getting hot, I’m beginning to sweat and need a drink of water. I’ve gone full circle. No wonder I'm tired at night.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fall Fun With Gophers and Moles.

In the Garden
By Catherine Dougherty

Although this subject has been broached before, it bears repeating about now. Almost overnight it seems the semi-dormant gophers and moles have become incredibly active. Since they are a problem of fairly vast proportion to the gardener, a brief description of their physical appearance and habits might be helpful. They are rodents and require strong measures to eliminate and exterminate them.

Gophers live in long, complex tunnels below the ground. They dig with their powerful front feet and their sharp teeth. Their bodies are well suited to their lifestyle below ground as they have poor eyesight and move slowly. Most of their lives are spent digging and patrolling their tunnels to protect their territory from other gophers. Their tails are hairless and tactile; it is an organ of touch which can “feel” as the gopher backs up in his hole. Their food choices include the gardener’s favorites…vegetables, buds, grass, nuts, roots and bulbs. They can totally decimate a lovely garden in very few days.

The mole is a fast, tireless digger whose body is shaped for burrowing. With its narrow pointed nose, its wedge shaped head, and its large forelegs, it is a virtual digging machine. The forepaws, especially designed to scoop the earth, are hinged sideways on the mole’s body and equipped with large broad nails to act as a shovel. They are almost blind and although they have no external ears, their hearing is excellent. A mole’s home is recognized by the large mound of earth above it. Their nest is usually about a foot below ground and lined with leaves. The smaller mounds surrounding the nest are indicative of places they are searching for food. Their diet consists mainly of insects and worms, rather than plants however their mounds will easily spoil a lawn or garden. An odd bit of history is the fact that moleskin was once quite popular for coats, gloves and hats. It is warm, soft, thick and lightweight; gray fur was preferred, but brown and black were also used. In my opinion collecting enough for a coat would be a mammoth chore.

Now with an understanding of the habits of the two, methods for extermination must be examined. For the gardener, dropping bits of poison into gopher runs is ineffective as it seems to be the equivalent of giving them a vitamin tonic. And the old wives tale about dropping Juicy Fruit gum into a mole mound so it will destroy their digestive system is false. It is also ineffective to drop bits of poison into the mounds. The “bomb” one may obtain from Tractor Supply to drop into holes is ineffective as well. Flooding with a hose makes an unsightly mess and often the water will completely destroy a flower bed by imploding the underground burrows leaving deep crevices in its wake. Trapping is time consuming and a full time job.

The easiest and most efficient way to eliminate these pests is to purchase a marvelous invention which attaches to the exhaust pipe of your car and then to a simple garden hose. When the engine is running you can fill the burrows, tunnels, or holes with highly toxic, extremely fatal carbon monoxide exhaust. Available at True Value Hardware stores for only $16.95, it works! This handy device is guaranteed to provide hours of Fall fun for any gardener.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Black Flowers and Gothic Gardens

Heirloom Privet berries are about as dark as I can find in my garden.

I had planned to include such a garden in my lower bed to 'celebrate' my 62nd birthday and the marriage of my youngest child... a Mourning Garden as such for the passage of time in a such twinkling.

My newspaper article dated January 20th, 2009 included my musings:

'For the Gothic gardener or to please the family teenagers, there are a variety of ‘dark’ choices to plant. Black Mourning Bride, of the scabiosa family is a perfect choice. A native of the Mediterranean, it has been in Europe since 1629 and grown here since colonial times. Called the pincushion flower and prized by Victorians, it is still used in Portugal and Brazil as a funeral flower. Its showy and fragrant little blossoms last to three weeks when cut making it a prize for the cutting in the garden. Its flowers also attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds further enhancing its continued popularity'.

As the idea began to take hold within me, I consulted my gardening friend Malcolm Brown, who is British about inclusion of of Gothic theme. His response is noteworthy for his interesting historical perspective.

From Malcolm:
"O Death were is thy sting
O Grave where is thy victory

Dear, dear Victorians. I suppose you have to blame their Queen for producing such a dour, turgid era fixated with death. Hundreds of inventors created coffin designs for the avoidance of being buried alive. Lots of bells, fireworks and so forth. But almost all of them forgot to include any way for the luckless entombed to breath!

Mourning garden? Well, the Victorians used flowers not as a mark of respect but to help cover the smell of the corpse as it lay in state. As the corpse would remain in the house for three days under constant watch to ensure it was really dead (!) then the stronger the scent the better! Laurel and yew were also used for wreaths. Black was certainly the right dress colour for mourners and would be worn for many months (or even years) after the event. But in fact red and white flowers where generally used for funerals. The strength of the scent may of course be the reason.

Frankly, if I were to design a mourning garden, I would fill it with every vibrant colour I could find. To celebrate a life well lived... Catherine, I have no doubt whatsoever that your life to date has been amazing. And think of the fun yet to come! We are only young twice (or three times, or four, or five)! So use the garden to describe yourself. Lots and lots of bright colours and deliciously strong scents. That’s who you were, who you are and who you always will be. Malcolm"

I loved his perspective! *During my research I discovered there is not a 'true' Black flower in nature. There exists only dark purple or bluish black. However I did discover many sites for the purchase of dark flowers in the Alchemy and Gothic sites should anyone wish to research further or purchase.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Leaves and Mulch~ Gardener's Delight.

In the Garden
By Catherine Dougherty
By now most of the leaves have fallen from the trees and gardeners have begun raking them into sumptuous piles. These marvelous gems protect us from the sun in the summer, provide a breath taking display of color in the Autumn, then fall to the ground to continue their work. Their merit is far beyond providing a marvelous crackling pile where the children and pets frolic. They are a source of natural and valuable fertilizer.
The forest floor is covered by undisturbed leaves that break down over time creating the rich soil that nourishes the fledging saplings until they grow to become forest giants in an ever-repeating cycle. If one takes inspiration from this natural cycle, the value of this process may be utilized in the garden. Suddenly the leaves are no longer a nuisance; they are the final gift of the season.
The average gardener does not have the decades needed by the forest to perform this process so enterprising individuals may take a short cut which presents the same results. The fallen leaves must be raked and then shredded before breaking down over the course of the winter. Work only with dry leaves as wet are far too heavy and difficult, making the effort a lesson in futility. For those gardeners without a leaf shredder, the easiest way to chop them is to run over them with the mover.
They may be added to the gardens as such or an industrious individual may make a compost bin such as the 3' by 3' one shown. To compost add the leaves in 12 - 18 inch layers. On the top of each later, add a handful of urea, ammonium nitrate, bone meal, or a layer of grass clippings. These ingredients will add the necessary nitrogen required to break down the leaves over the winter. Then toss about the leaves and nitrogen additives mixing with water. You want the ingredients dampened well, but not saturated. Repeat this layering until your bin is full, cover with a clear plastic tarp, and let the ‘batter’ cook over the winter.
It is a good practice to toss it about again in February. By that time you will see the creation of true mulch which will be ready to add to the garden by Spring. You may see white areas on the leaves. This is a leaf fungus that adds to the mulch's nutrient value and is currently coveted by organic gardeners everywhere. While it doesn’t provide as much nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium as manure, leaf mold is rich in calcium and magnesium, which are essential for healthy gardens.
Happy Raking!