Gardening Failures

Gardening, plants

I am a newbie when it comes to growing food. I have had both success and failure gardening with native perennials but attempts to grow fruits and vegetables have mostly resulted in failure. In 2017, we owned a small house on a very shady 0.14 acres. I supposed we were doomed from the start, but we decided to experiment with growing vegetables anyway.

The south side of the house was shaded out by the neighbor’s large Pin Oak, and to the west we faced a 1480-foot mountain (Bearfort Mountain), which resulted in an early sunset. Stationing the raised beds on the east side if the house would have been more productive, but that was the front of the house where shrubs and various other plants were proudly displayed. The north side was our last resort, so we placed a few 4’x 4’ raised beds where the plants would receive a few hours of morning sun before the sun became hidden behind the house and trees.

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Before the fence. Did anyone bring a level?

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Rising stars

We started way too many seeds indoors and we had space for only 3 raised beds, so many of the seedlings had to be thinned out eventually. We put the beets, carrots, cucumbers, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant in the ground around Mother’s Day. The plants did grow, but they just did not get enough sunlight, which meant a very low yield for some plants like peppers and eggplant. The tomatoes developed slowly, and many remained green into the fall. We pulled them off before the frost killed them in hopes that they would ripen on a windowsill, but they weren’t that far along.

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Mildewy Squash. A trellis would have helped.

We harvested tiny carrots and beets, which did not develop well either due to due lack of sunlight (and probably insufficient soil depth). Some plants shaded out other plants due to the arrangement of the raised beds, but we had no choice due to property boundaries. The only good news was that we did not experience and major pest issues that year. At the end of this little experiment, we confirmed that that adequate sunlight and soil depth (depending on the crop) are essential. If we continued to live on that property, I think we would have used that same space to grow shade tolerant herbs or replace the beds with more shade-loving, deer resistant native perennials.

Today, in our new location, we are armed with more space, a greenhouse, and better light conditions. It is time to give the vegetable garden another shot. Mistakes will be made, from which I hope to learn and adjust what needs adjusting. Happy gardening!

Winter Gardening

Gardening, plants

Usually, early January is when I get the impulse to start growing things. How do you decide what to grow? For some it might be the exclusivity of growing something rare. For others, it might be the dream of self-reliance by growing most of what they eat. Or, it may simply be the challenge of getting things to germinate that do not germinate easily. For me, it is whatever has caught my attention this time, but usually there is influence from the realm of “grow it to eat it” or “grow it for the native ecosystem”.

And, occasionally I get distracted by shiny things like a cat after an orb of light reflecting from a piece of glass. For instance, I recently sowed the all too common Nasturtium because, well, they’re pretty. But subconsciously, I may have decided to sow them because they “grow before your eyes”. What else would be as fun to watch unfurl in green splendor in the middle of winter? The best part is that when the round peppery leaves start to stretch out of control, I get a snack. You might think that there are better things to munch on, but I have seen this plant used in “serious” restaurants as both garnish and salad ingredient.

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This year, the “grow it to eat it” influence seems to be at the forefront of my plant obsessed brain. After I completed the greenhouse in November, I got to work on planning a vegetable garden. Throughout the winter, I have been driving T-posts in and building raised beds (and a garden gate made from PVC pipe). But that wasn’t enough, so I grew sprouts in a mason jar and microgreens under LED lights. Both the sprouts and microgreens were a success, despite some aphids that showed up unannounced. Later, I found a ladybug in my daughter’s room and then I unleased it on the aphids, which seems to have declined in numbers drastically since then.

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Recently, I had a bout of the “grow it for the native ecosystem” syndrome. I raided the fridge for any remaining native plant seeds. I was determined to sow any 3-year old seed reserves because some species may no longer be viable after a few years. I grabbed Paw Paw (Asimina triloba), Gray Birch (Betula populifolia), Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Late Purple Aster (Symphyotrichum patens), and Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). I sowed these seeds in plastic trays inside the greenhouse under another mini-greenhouse to experiment with giving the plants a jump start on the season. When it warms up enough I will move the tray out into the main greenhouse.

What will I do with these plants? Care for them for a little while, plant some where I can, and hopefully give most away to friends and family. The recipients of these plants might be curious about them because these species aren’t typically sold in commercial nurseries, though species like Paw Paw are quickly gaining popularity. The plight of the honey bee and the monarch butterfly seems to have been heard loud and clear. Maybe most are ready to hear about what it means to garden with native plants.

Inheriting a Garden

Art, Gardening, plants

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As luck would have it, the former owner of our new home is a dirt digging, hose wielding, wheel-barrow commanding, gardener! A good fellow, for those reasons. As a result, the garden beds are already made, layers of mulch are already decaying, and a newly inherited compost bin awaits! But there is also a big disadvantage – you inherit plants you’re not crazy about (and disposing of them, if no one else wants them, is a drag). Imagine being surrounded by an army of Miscanthus ornamental grasses when you subscribe to ideas from books like “Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy.

I should point out that, without an 8-foot fence, the plant palate here is limited thanks to a cute, but extremely over-abundant, 3-foot tall, plant-eating-machine called…white-tailed deer. Surely, you too have nightmares about this creature, as you recall getting out of bed, peering out the window, and shrieking wildly in despair at the sight of what remains of your precious flower garden. For this reason, I completely understand why the entire property is decorated with Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Butterfly Bush (Buddleja spp.), Japanese Spirea (Spiraea japoniza), and Miscanthus grasses. These plants are easy to find in commercial nurseries and they are the last resort for deer.

But, I’m not a purist either when it comes to natives. I’m a sucker for blooming Crocus, Daffodils, and Tulips when most other plants are still dormant. There are few things more comforting and inspiring than the sights of Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellate) and other ornamental magnolia blooming in early spring. Among all the inherited ornamentals, I found a new mysterious plant I knew nothing about. Its speckled and contorted branches turned and twisted in odd and interesting ways. I could not resist investigating further.

The more I looked, the more familiar the plant became. I noticed catkins, which were very similar to catkins found on the Betula (birch) genus. The leaves now started to look familiar too; much like that of American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana) but larger and rounder. Finally, I was convinced that it was some sort of Hazelnut hybrid. Turns out; it is a Hazelnut cultivar commonly referred to as Contorted Filbert, Corkscrew Hazel, or Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.

The plant’s Latin name is Corylus avellana and it is originally from Europe and western Asia, but according to online sources, the contorted variety was derived from a shrub found in the UK and named after a famous entertainer from Scotland. I do not mind this shrub at all and I am enjoying the winter interest it offers with its weird twisting branches. Soon we will find out if this shrub will produce Hazelnuts, but I will be surprised if it does. I am realizing that sometimes to gain a certain aesthetic appeal, a cultivar is a necessity that I can learn to embrace if most of the plants in my yard bring value to wildlife (especially native insects) in the form of food and reproduction.

Frost Heave

Gardening

Walking around the yard, I noticed a miniature reproduction of the opening scene from the original Superman- strange crystals arranged in an interesting pattern. What could have caused this event?

Frost Heave! It’s a thing. When there is plenty of moisture in the ground, pressure created from freezing and thawing cycles can lift the soil, along with ice particles out of the ground, as shown. Sometimes plants can also be lifted out of the ground. A good way to protect plants from frost heave is to have a layer of mulch around the plants. This will help mitigate temperature fluctuations.

Snowy Woods – Anthony Wayne Recreation Area

Art, Outdoor Adventure, watercolor

I painted this watercolor in January 2020. A typical northeast gray winter afternoon. The sun is shrouded in thick clouds. In January this place is very quiet and solitude is possible. In the spring, summer, and fall – get your socializing hat on.