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.

Hobby Greenhouse

Gardening, plants

We have always dreamed about having a greenhouse. Build it out of wood and PVC pipe? I’d like to, but I’m not there yet. So, as a first time go at it, I decided to get a greenhouse kit, which included aluminum, plastic parts, and polycarbonate panels for assembly. We went with the Palram Mythos 6 x 14. At this time, it sold for around $1,000. Not too big, not too small, and most importantly – “not a permanent structure”!

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After a bit of research, I learned that a sturdy wood or concrete base is highly recommended. I have seen YouTube videos where people put up that same greenhouse without a base and it seemed functional. Without a base, you would need to make sure to anchor the greenhouse to the ground to prevent it from moving in inclement weather. Also, the ground must be perfectly level to avoid assembly issues.

For my base, I used 4″x 4″ untreated cedar. Cedar is a naturally rot-resistant wood, which makes it a great choice for outdoor projects. Of course, it will rot after a few years, so I’ll need to replace the base eventually. I hear pressure treated wood is fine too because they no longer use arsenic, but I didn’t want to take the chance.

For site preparation and base construction, I used this tutorial from ACF Greenhouses for general reference and modified as needed. Before constructing the wood base, I leveled out a roughly 8’ x 16’ area using a hand-tiller (to remove the grass), hard rake, and tamper. Next, I laid down a weed barrier where I planned to put the base. I cut the cedar wood to fit a 6’ x 14’ greenhouse by making a couple of 45° angle cuts to connect pieces in the middle where needed. The corners of the base were connected using a ratchet wrench and 8” lag screws. Plenty of mistakes were made along the way!

Time to assemble the greenhouse! Warning: there is (at the time I am writing this) a typo on the front page of the Palram Mythos instruction manual where it indicates greenhouse dimensions in inches for the 6’ x 14’ model (the inches do not equal the feet specified). You can imagine the rage when I thought I had to redo the base and the relief when I realized they had made a boo-boo.

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It took about 15 hours to put up the greenhouse by myself, but I’m not very swift. If assembling by yourself, I find the hardest part is getting the long sides of the greenhouse to stay upright until the cross-bar is installed at the top to secure each side. I used a wheel-barrow and some chairs on the outside and inside of each side to hold it up until I installed the cross-bars. Generally, the greenhouse assembly for this model is pretty good, no major headaches.

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I had also purchased an anchor kit to secure the greenhouse to the ground, but I realized I did not need it, so I returned it. Instead, I secured the greenhouse to the wood base with wood screws. Shortly after, we had 45 mph winds overnight and it did not budge. I only had to re-adjust one of the roof panels that became slightly displaced.

We then got 13 inches of snow, including a 2-inch-thick layer of ice. The greenhouse held up nicely through it all. I went out to clean the snow off the roof a few times just in case, and to let light in, but the ice remained until it melted. I plan to use the greenhouse to get a head start on sowing seeds for spring and to grow cold hardy crops like kale and spinach for late fall and winter harvest!

The Thing About Planting Trees

Outdoor Adventure, plants

Climbing Trees

I often get excited about the idea of planting trees near my home. Trees that will grow to become old, gnarled giants – beautiful sentient beings that amaze us. Then, a selfish reminder sets in. I will not be around to witness the transformation; my lignin endowed friends and I live on different timescales.

But wait. I can still plant things and watch them grow to large proportions in my lifetime! Trees, such as water loving willow species grow rapidly and reach mature size in just 15 years. Shrubs likes Red Osier Dogwood can grow to their maximum size in just a few years. Better yet – tall native perennials like Joe-Pye weed can grow a foot taller than me by its 2nd year of growth.

Still, how many of us have watched a little green Shagbark Hickory sapling spring 120 feet upward and put on fierce slabs of gnarled bark, pointing every which way? How many of us have planted American Sycamore and hung around long enough to see its smooth gray bark become a rugged mass, adorned with white, brown, and gray-green flakes? In the winter, the Sycamore takes on a ghostly form, as monster’s white tentacles reach out over icy water.

Finally, I come full circle and realize that my initial excitement is valid. Shortsighted are gardeners who plants trees for themselves only. Who am I to prevent air and water purification, food and shelter for living organisms, and many other gifts offered by trees? Plant trees I will – and if the exotic bug doesn’t get them, maybe my grandchildren will have a magical place to swing and climb

Stairway to Heaven Hike, Vernon NJ

Art, Hike of the Week, hiking, New Jersey, Outdoor Adventure, plants, watercolor
Sunny Mud Path

Sunny Mud Path, Vernon NJ

The Stairway to Heaven hike in Vernon showcases some of the most beautiful parts of northern New Jersey. But what did I choose to paint from this hike? A puddle of mud! I’m sorry, but beautiful vistas don’t always scream “paint me”. I found beauty in this mud puddle for these reasons – simplicity, reflection, composition, and color. The view from a mountain top can make for an excellent painting, but I’m craving a certain something else these days – something sort of interesting, though difficult to pinpoint.

Simplicity

I like a good architectural challenge once in a while – buildings in truthful perspective, arranged with charm. This time, I”ll take a couple of cedar trees and a muddy path, please. The freedom to paint a simple landscape promotes a sense of joy and relief, as if a tremendous weight has been lifted.

Reflection

I’ve broken a painting rule – the reflection of a subject in water should be darker than the actual subject. Not in this painting. But that’s the way it is – there is a thin layer of water covering the muddy path, making the reflection of the tree appear lighter because the sun shining on the mud under the water is bright.

Composition

There’s no mountain in the background, but artistic liberties must be taken to make things a bit more interesting. Even without the mountain, the composition of this scene made me stop walking. I saw the potential for wonderful depth  – the muddy path and lighting draws the viewer further into the painting.

Color

This scene is located at the base of Waywayanda Mountain. The habit is mostly field with numerous red cedar pioneering the area. Whether the trees were planted here, I do not know. I found the color contract tremendous. Red-ish green cedar trees (hence the name Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana) against a straw-yellow field, with a cobalt-blue bright sky (some of that in the reflection).

That’s what hooked me then, not sure what will hook me next 🙂

 

Annual Sunflower (watercolor 10×14”)

Art, plants, watercolor

Annual Sunflower

Helianthus annuus – the annual sunflower. Bright like the sun with its radiant yellow petals surrounding a giant disc. We plant the seed every year waiting for it to sprout, with childlike excitement, until finally the plant grows into a towering beast. Birds love to feast on the sunflower’s seeds and perch on it’s strong limbs. We too enjoy it’s oil, seeds, and the many horticultural pleasures it brings. Oh yeah, the bumblebees think it’s okay too.