Garden with Grace

"I hope that while so many people are out smelling the flowers, someone is taking the time to plant some." ~H.Rappaport


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Digging Deep into the Science of Gardening

You can have the most artistic ambition and grandest plan for your garden, but the reality is a ‘green thumb’ really doesn’t happen by accident.  While William Kent once said, “All gardening is landscape painting,” a beautiful, bountiful garden filled with annuals, perennials, and vegetables is actually a work of art and science.

The Science Cafe Nashua recently hosted it’s July gathering at the Riverwalk Cafe in Downtown Nashua (New Hampshire) to discuss  why it’s important for gardeners to understand how science impacts their gardening aspirations.  The discussion on “The Art and Science of Gardening” while free to attend, was a ‘sell-out’ with all 80+ seats at the cafe filled with gardeners ranging from novice beginners who participate in local community gardens driven by GrowNashua to expert master gardeners with beautifully designed landscapes that are worthy of Fine Gardening magazine.

While the midsummer topic was compelling, it was the strong lineup of panelists who brought people to the cafe during the midst of a week-long July heatwave. For two-full hours we participated in a Q&A session with gardening experts including:

Gene Harrington, owner of the Nashua Farmers Exchange;

Cameron Bonsey, executive with the Coast of Maine Organics (he traveled from Portland, Maine to join us!);

Isabelle Burke, an expert gardener with the Merrimack Garden Club and beekeeper who represented the Merrimack Valley Beekeepers Association;

Dave McConville, a permaculture designer and educator with GrowNashua;  and

Paul Shea, the executive director of our Great American Downtown who also happens to be a “Master Gardener” certified by the UNH Cooperative Extension.

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The Art & Science of Gardening Panelists during the July 11, 2018 Science Cafe Nashua. (L-R: Gene Harrington, Cameron Bonsey, Isabelle Burke, Dave McConville, Paul Shea)

The lively discussion covered  a full range of gardening topics, including how to control blight (specifically in tomatoes and peppers) to why we see so many rabbits in the Nashua area, and what’s the best way to ‘feed’ soil.

Here are a few of my big ‘ah-has’ from the panelists who did an excellent job at explaining how science impacts gardening. (If you’re reading this blog after attending this Science Cafe Nashua session, feel free to share what you learned with a comment.)

Smokers – You can attract blight! Nightshade plants like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are in the same plant family that include tobacco. Paul Shea explained that nightshades are very susceptible to blight – it’s a big issue and can wipe out entire tobacco farms.

With the smaller scale of a backyard vegetable garden, blight is typically spread when leaves touch contaminated soil. Helpful hints to avoid blight included keeping plant leaves trimmed well above the soil line and watering at the bottom of the plant to drive moisture directly into the soil versus via leaves.

Here’s what really surprised me. Gardeners who smoke can be more prone to finding blight on their plants – the two reasons are that some gardeners leave cigarette butts (remember tobacco attracts blight) in their gardens and the nicotine from tobacco sticks to fingers and spreads to plants when touching, pruning, and picking. This nicotine residue of tobacco attracts blight.  So, gardeners who smoke now have another reason to stop their habit if they want a bountiful harvest.

Bees don’t like the red flowers.  A question was asked why bees haven’t returned to one participant’s garden this year.  After some discussion with Isabelle Burke, we learned that the person seeing fewer bees this year changed their garden color scheme and has almost all red flowering plants and very few purple and yellow flowers, which are  favorites of bees.  This surprised me for a few reasons – since pollinators include hummingbirds, and they like red, I just assumed that all pollinators, including bees,  were attracted to that color.  I also didn’t realize bees are drawn to color. I thought they were only attracted to the scent of flowers.

Nashua is being overrun by rabbits. Gene Harrington told us that rabbit populations have an 11 year cycle and our region appears to be in year seven or eight of that cycle. So we should be seeing fewer bunnies in coming years. He shared that he’s heard over the past few years from more customers who are seeing  rabbits and, of course, they reach out to Gene to find solutions to their rabbit problems. Apparently, the best way to control rabbit damage is to put up fencing/barriers around the plants that they find delicious to eat. Another option is to plant things rabbits don’t find so delicious. In my case, the rabbits in my neighborhood love the clover that I’ve been planting as an alternative to grass, so I will just keep buying clover seed to replace it. (But I will confess, I actually enjoy seeing bunnies hop through the garden and just hope that the experience of another Science Cafe participant doesn’t happen while I’m watching – his garden bunny became lunch for a red-tailed hawk – which are also prevalent in our region. I guess everyone needs to eat.)

Soil lives and breathes – we need to treat it well. Cameron Bonsey talked a lot about soil. He likened the work of creating soil blends at Coast of Maine to the craft brewery movement in New Hampshire. He explained that their employees experiment with different mixes for different purposes. I specifically asked him about their Stonington Blend that I blogged about late last year. He explained that soil is all about biology and something things plants respond differently to different mixes of nitrogen, castings, etc. He also talked about the importance of mulch and how it feeds soil. Cameron quipped that “all the organic matter under the mulch is eating and greeting – there’s a great party going on under there.” This is why it’s better to mulch with a compost-based product and not cheap wood chips that take forever to break down and don’t provide nutrients back into soil. (Hearing this made me feel good as we stopped spreading bark chips in our garden because of this and started to mulch with compost instead.)

GMOs are not a natural evolution.  There was a question about the scientific aspect versus personal feelings on the surge of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). This seemed to be a sensitive topic to both the person asking the question, as well to the panelists asked for their input. Dave McConville, the panel’s permaculture expert shared that GMOs are not a natural evolution, while not speaking for or against them. I urge you to learn more about permaculture at Dave’s website – here’s a teaser, “Although permaculture is first and foremost a design process, it is also a philosophy, a life style and a framework for making decisions. Permaculture gives us a toolkit with a set of ethics and principles, design processes and proven strategies to help us design a better culture.”

Ultimately, I learned that true gardeners – no matter how long we’ve been digging this hobby –  are always eager to learn from one another and to share our own experiences, including the successes and failures.  What worked this year, might not work next year – and there’s often a cause that someone learned before us. For example the gardener who wants to see more bees left the Science Cafe with the the information not to plant all red flowers next year and perhaps add a little more lavender – a favorite of bees.

Speaking of lavender, here are a few more photos from the July 2018 Science Cafe Nashua at the Riverwalk Cafe. Let’s start with the top two photos that include the fabulous “Gardener’s Gimlet” made with local lavender syrup that was offered as Riverwalk’s special craft cocktail of the evening in honor of the Science Cafe event (the woman in the top right photo with the gimlet is Jane Ruddock, co-owner of Riverwalk and quite the expert gardener herself). The other photos are of the full house of gardeners asking questions and sharing ideas and experiences.

 

 

“There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.” 

~Janet Kilburn Phillips


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Garden Hack #3: Hosta Hides Fading Daffodils

The Garden Hack Series continues!

The first two Hack’s led to so many wonderful conversations among friends. Especially popular is the Wine Cork Mulch hack! Now, whenever friends open a bottle of wine, they tell me they are ‘making mulch’ for my garden! I still need a few more corks for one project, but with the help of so many ‘mulch makers’ in my life, it should be finished soon!

With summer on our doorstep (we’re actually on day 2 of a 3-day heatwave in New England right now), I look around the garden and still see some fading foliage of the daffodils from early spring. In order to ‘charge’ the bulb for next year’s blooms, it’s necessary to keep the daffodil foliage after cutting the spent flowers. As the foliage starts to brown and wither away, it’s not the most attractive sight — but I’ve been using a solution that I read about a few years ago, and it works quite well!

Garden Hack #3: Hosta Hides Fading Daffodil Foliage

In the fall, as the hosta falls apart after the first heavy freeze in New Hampshire, I’m usually preparing all the garden beds for their winter rest. By this time, gardening feels tiring – almost exhausting. But there’s always the final big push to plant spring bulbs. I just keep reminding myself that the extra effort to plant some tulips and daffodils will be rewarding come spring.

I can’t remember where I first read about this idea, but it’s one of my favorite Garden Hacks (after the Wine Cork Mulch!) When daffodils are planted among the hosta in late fall, you’ll save some time cutting back the withering foliage come June. The newly emerged hosta grows at a rate to completely camouflage the brown daffodil foliage, but doesn’t detract from the spring blooms. If anything, it enhances them, but bringing more color and depth to the the bare ground. I liken this to the work that florists do when they ‘green the vase’ before creating a flower arrangement.

This photo is from mid April of this year, just as the daffodils started to bloom. I love how the newly emerged hosta gives a bright green look of life to that entire garden bed.DSC_1053

The wonderful thing about this hack is the daffodils bloom for several weeks and just as they start to fade, the hosta really takes off to hide the fading flowers.Daffodils-Hosta

By early June, the hosta reaches it’s full size for the season, completely covering the daffodil foliage that is working hard to charge the bulbs for next year’s flowers.Hosta-Daffs

Here’s a broader view of the garden from last week. You can see on the right, the arrows point to the section of the garden where the hosta is doing its magic trick of making the daffodils disappear!Garden Aerial_LI

“Gardening is learning, learning, learning.

 That’s the fun … You’re always learning.”

~Helen Mirren

 

 


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Garden Hack #2: Wine Cork Mulch

For many, many years, my friends and I saved wine corks – always thinking of all the crafts we would create with them, including wreaths, trivets, tree ornaments. Those crafty days never  really took shape (other than one or two wreaths), even though we always had the best of intentions.

After collecting hundreds (if not thousands!) of wine corks for nearly two decades, it was time to do something or to pass the corks on to someone who would. At the same time, a young paper bark maple tree was planted in the backyard. It needed mulch, but there’s an effort underway in my garden to cut back on bark mulch because it zaps nutrients from plants.

Hack #2: Wine Cork Mulch!

corkmulch-paperbarkmaple

Suddenly, the idea of Wine Cork Mulch became a reality and good use for more than 25lbs of corks! I just place the corks where I’d normally put bark mulch. It worked out perfectly for the Paperbark Maple planted a few years ago, adding whimsy to a new garden focal point. After nearly three years, the natural corks weathered to a silver-grey, similar to how teak changes color over time. Yes, there are even some plastic corks mixed in – adding tiny splashes of yellow, blue, and dark purple.  Occasionally, on a very windy or rainy day, a few corks may blow or bounce out of the bed, the same happens to bark mulch.

The success of this mulching project resulted in the continued collection of corks to mulch another bed across the garden.

CorkMulch-2017 Before

This spring, we started to mulch the bed that leads to the secret zinnia garden behind the garage. Surely, this big bucket of corks would fill the space completely — or so we thought!

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We were close. But definitely needed more corks to complete this project. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that it’s okay to ask for help. Friends love to help other friends, especially for interesting projects. When I realized more corks would be needed, I simply put out a call to my friends via social media on a Sunday afternoon to bring corks when they visit over the summer.

Within hours, my good friend and fellow gardener, Terri (aka: @TerriinRed on Twitter) stopped by, not with corks, but with unopened bottles of wine that included corks!  A few days later, Liz came over after one of our Friday morning walks with a huge bag full of corks – well over 100 of them! (Liz was featured in one of my earlier Garden with Grace stories when we spent an evening in 2014 Gardening at the Gardener Museum in Boston.) 

The cork mulch has definitely become a fun conversation among my friends in recent weeks, especially as more people drop by to contribute to what I call a ‘worthy cause!’ Most recently, Cathy dropped by to catch up after her vacation to Italy. She brought corks (and a few rocks from Tuscany – for my garden!)

Rosemarie brought over A LOT of corks a few days after Cathy. Like the start of this story, she also saved corks for years for craft projects. However, she did make some good attempts and many of the corks donated by Rosemarie have drill holes! (I love my friends!)

As you can see, I put Cathy and Rosemarie to work to help with the actual garden mulching. (Another benefit of cork mulch over bark mulch is that it’s not a dirty or buggy project!)  Of course, both of these wonderful women were rewarded with a glass of wine!

I’m constantly finding corks in my pockets and purse now! After a visit to other friends’ homes for gatherings like Mother’s Day or an afternoon lunch, instead of bringing home a ‘doggy-bags’ with leftovers, I simply keep the corks, knowing one cork here and another there will add up fast.

A successful cork finding mission took place this week.  During a stop for a drink at MTs Local Kitchen & Wine Bar in Downtown Nashua, a conversation was struck up with the bartender about my Wine Cork Mulching project.CorkMulch-MTs

I shared some of my photos and asked if MT’s kept their corks or just tossed them away. By the time I was ready to leave, I was offered a bag with 48 corks! All are now in my garden. My one regret is not counting ALL of the corks before putting them into the garden beds. (That knowledge would have sparked some interesting conversation when entertaining in the garden — of course with more wine to keep the cork beds full!)

It’s going to take a few more weeks to fill in all the gaps for the latest project, so I’ll keep on my mission to find more corks. And, if you happen to visit MT’s Local in Nashua, the cork from your glass or bottle of wine enjoyed with your dinner just may end up in my garden one day!

I think cork collecting may now be considered an ongoing adjunct hobby connected to a gardening obsession. I’ve already found a new bed to mulch with wine corks. I’m thinking the one with the Wine & Roses Weigela and Summer Wine Ninebark would be ideal!


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Garden Hack #1: Screen Out Seedling Problems

Sometimes, we all need ideas, tips, and tricks to make our work in the garden easier. Over the the past five years, I’ve tried and tested several “Garden Hacks” and want to share the ones that truly work so others may use them too.

My first Hack involves recycling and upcycling. Honestly, there is no better place to engage these practices than in the garden!

Garden Hack #1: Screen Out Seedling Problems

This is my favorite Garden Hack because it was published in Fine Gardening magazine’s February 2016 issue. (There’s nothing more rewarding than your favorite gardening publication validating your tip – in print!) 

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The tradition continues this growing season. Despite a cold, rainy month, my future salad (Black Seeded Simpson lettuce) is thriving in its screened setting.

Lettuce hack

Once the seedlings get a little bigger, I’ll remove the screen for a few hours each day, but will cover it up at night to keep out the visiting nocturnal critters. We’re hoping for a first cutting for salad in early June.

Do you have a favorite Garden Hack? Share it with a comment!