Filling A Tiny Garden

Finding Room For Favorites

In just a handful of days, I’ll be moving into one of the last genuine neighborhoods left on my beloved island. By policy, growth has been concentrated in and around the small town center, taking advantage of city water and sewer lines and seeking to keep outlying areas more rural. To some extent, this policy works, but as huge new housing developments replace modest old cottages, charm and character are erased by bland (and sometimes brutally homely) conformity. Great tracts of creepily similar homes now surround the holdouts, which look a little forlorn sandwiched between giant blocks of concrete, sleek but anonymous.

In rich contrast, my new neighborhood boasts a full spectrum of mobile homes in all sizes and styles, from authentic vintage to ultramodern blocky. Years ago, this was a larger trailer park, but a hostile takeover removed a large chunk of homesites. Alarmed, the remaining owners banded together, created a coop residents association, and secured a hefty HUD loan. Now there are fifty lots, each with one voting share, regardless of lot size, which varies wildly from miniscule to modest to (relatively) mammoth. Where a dozen mobile homes once sat, several high-rise blocks are rising, jammed with nearly 60 units with tiny “garden” strips and very little parking.

Sharing The Love

In the park proper, mine is one of the smaller lots, nearly filled by my vintage mobile home. A 1977 double-wide, it’s 24 x 48, with a great floor plan and wonderful light, indoors and out. Two bedrooms and two bathrooms make it a good fit for me and my daughter, who will be living with me. A young friend recently said that America needs to stop stigmatizing young people who live with their parents and I heartily agree. All over the world and for millennia, shared family homes and multi-family living situations have been more normal than nuclear family dwellings, and not only for economic reasons. It’s not easy for single folks of any age to find comfortable, affordable housing these days, and home sharing offers social and emotional advantages as well as lower living costs.

I’m especially interested to see how our aging cats adapt to feline company, as both have been single girls since kittenhood. We’ve always been a cat family, with occasional dogs, rabbits and chickens joining the mix, and usually all the critters coexisted quite happily. We’re hoping that our sweet old girls get along and even enjoy each other’s company, perhaps even napping together on the sunny windowsills. Because we love birds, ours will remain indoor cats, though we’re contemplating installing some caged cat windows so they can sit and watch over the garden and the street.

Small Spaces, Special Plants

Like all remodels, ours uncovered unsuspected issues, among them a serious drainage problem caused by deferred maintenance. Huge overgrown shrubs had knocked off the gutters, so water poured under the house, causing one side to sag several inches. To fix that, we jacked up the house, rebuilt the supports, then removed a mossy, rotten little deck that ran the length of the lot on the North side. Once the huge shrub rootballs, came out, we had to build a long, low retaining wall to hold up the tottering old fence, since the lot to the north is several feet higher than mine. My thoughtful garden contractor is making the wall into a narrow but 60-foot long strip of shade garden to soften the new gravel path and give me some planting space. Kind friends have offered some truly choice treasures for this bed, and as soon as it’s prepped, I’ll be tucking in small hostas and podophyllums, fritillaries and ferns, hellebores and tiny bulbs, black mondo grass and snowdrops.

The little back yard is still a disaster but I’ll have some planting space out in front. Most of the narrow front strip will be graveled for parking, but some big galvanized watering troughs will hold herbs and tomatoes, blueberries and raspberries, asparagus and potatoes. A small garden by the front path will hold some of my all-time favorite shrubs and perennials, from the fragrant, apricot colored Austen rose, Just Joey to Bowl of Beauty and Coral Charm peonies, Orange Rocket barberry, and Lemon Thread chamaecyparis. Some grasses, of course, and zinnias, poppies, and pollinator annuals, and seasonal bulbs…

Privacy And Screening

Though the old wood fence is sagging and rotting, I love the weathered look. Indeed, I’m considering lifting the panels off the ground and hanging them in sturdy frames like artwork, so they help screen our space from the neighbors but aren’t rotting from soil contact. One section is already gone; when I was discussing ideas with my clever house contractor (the uncle of my long-time garden guy), my neighbor popped her head over the fence and said her elderly mother loved to grow tomatoes but this section of fence blocked her light. In response, Jorge simply lifted the 8-foot panel away. Poof! We’ll replace that section with stockade wire and build out a bed to hold my three-way espalier apple tree, which I’ll train on the wire.

On the other side, I’m planting a beautiful Pacific Fire vine maple, a compact, upright form with good fall color and gorgeous red stems that remain brilliant into maturity but won’t get too large for its allotted spot. My backyard, now a mud pit, will eventually be floored with pavers and a little fire bowl for evening garden savoring, as well as large planters filled with much loved plants. My back neighbor’s lot is almost eight feet lower than mine (the original grading must have been pretty free-form) so I’m planting an Italian prune plum in his yard, where there’s more room than in mine. As the plum tree grows up, it will screen his handy-guy collection of useful materials and provide fruit for both of us (if the raccoons don’t snag them all!).

Present And Future

Some of this work will have to wait a while, as the interior remodel is (surprise!) costing more than expected. We’re delighted with the way our cozy cottage looks, though, from its dove grey aluminum siding to our renovated black-and-white kitchen to Alexis’ lovely lavender bedroom and my sunny yellow bathroom. It’s adorable inside and before too long, the outside will also be attractive and usable. right now, the long deck is jammed with tools and saw horses but eventually it will host our vintage metal table and chairs so we can sit outside and enjoy the neighborhood.

By summer, my big mother pots will hold hardy fuchsias and hostas, and those galvanized troughs will offer up basil and thyme, rosemary and sage, parsley and lavender. I’m excited to have an actual full-sun place to grow tomatoes as well, though they probably won’t go in until Mothers’ Day. By then, night temperatures should be in the mid fifties, the critical temperature point for tropical plants like tomatoes, which often drop blossoms and lose ground if temps dip lower than that (their roots can actually shrink a bit when nights are cool). Back in the day, we used soil thermometers which have little markers that register the day’s high and low temperatures to determine when it was safe to plant tender crops. These days, most Smartphones show hourly temperatures for each day, what a boon!


Posted in Annual Color, Drainage, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Pets & Pests In The Garden, Pollinators, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Tomatoes | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Tax On Plants

Manipulating Deer

Today is tax day and the local deer seem to have figured that out. The deer tax is paid in foliage and flowers, sometimes fruit, but as with all taxes, it would be easier to bear if we got a say in how the tax is collected and what it pays for. (Right?) A trampling herd of deer ran riot last night in several nearby gardens, browsing heavily on newly emerging peas, nibbling hydrangeas to the ground, and dis-budding the roses. This morning, I noticed two moms with twins as well as a few single girl hangers on wandering through the carnage. Perhaps they were feeling the need for some spring tonic in the form of fresh greens….

Given the rate of local development, I definitely understand the pressure woodland critters are under. When their own habitat gets turned into million dollar McMansions by the dozen, hundreds of trees and shrubs are stripped off the land, leaving a barren wilderness. As the giant houses are built, tiny gardens are inserted with a handful of token plants that do little or nothing to replace the mature woodland that’s been lost. Add that to the trend for “parking out” wooded properties, removing the abundant understory in favor of bark mulch and a few rhododendrons, and animals’ options vanish fast. When we set out our tasty, tempting smorgasbords in spring, what’s a hungry critter to do?

Plant A (Hedge)row For The Hungry

One thing we can do to help is not remove every scrap of native vegetation when we tidy up our yards. Instead of ripping out all the underbrush, we can edit, trim, and (definitely) remove recent deadwood that’s likely to burn should a fire sweep through. (I know, nobody wants to think about that, but please do. Rotting, crumbling old nurse logs may smoulder but winter blow-down can burn like a bonfire.) Make a few wandering paths but leave the healthy native stuff as intact as possible/practical. Where space allows, I love to embellish the woodland edges with lovely natives, from manzanitas, flowering currants, and wild roses to Indian plum, Salmonberry, and Ocean spray. If these lovely plants aren’t already present, add some for your own pleasure and that of the wildlife around you.

In rougher areas, we can add extra plantings of preferred deer fodder like redtwig dogwoods, which offer lively winter-stem colors and (usually) can grow faster than the deer can chew. Once they’re full sized, deer can browse the lower branches with impunity. If deer are chomping your roses, plant wild ones as a barrier hedge; rose hips feed birds and other creatures, and their bushy stems provide shelter as well. Salmonberry is too eager to spread in prickly thickets to invite them into the garden proper, but those thickets make excellent bird habitat in out-of-the-way areas and are great in mixed hedges that protect gardens while supporting wildlife.

Don’t Tempt Fate

Once we create areas where deer are welcome, we need to consider ways to keep them away from places we don’t want them. I’m always amused by lists of plants deer love and plants deer hate, especially since quite often some of the same plants appear on each “definitive” list. Clearly, deer in one area eat things that deer elsewhere don’t. They can also change their habits, perhaps as one herd moves away and another drifts in. For many years, I grew azaleas and peonies without ever seeing deer damage, but one year, both groups were gnawed to the roots. In a former garden, the resident deer family eagerly ate the new growth on ivy (that was a new one on me). I’ll never forget the time a curious deer devoured most of a large and extremely toxic angel trumpet (Datura). I kept waiting to find a dead deer in the nearby woods, but apparently the toxin isn’t as potent for deer as for humans.

Though young deer will eat pretty much anything, mature deer are (usually) more discriminating. And if there are no reliably deer-proof plants, there are less preferred ones. Generally speaking, deer don’t like hairy, smelly, waxy, dense, or highly textured foliage. So far, I’ve never seen deer eat sword ferns, or ornamental grasses, or eucalyptus, or madrona, or cedar, or Doug fir (though they often like Thuja). Anyway, I prefer to coax deer to stay in certain areas rather than try to keep them away from obvious temptation. I’ll plant lots of preferred browse to entice them to non-critical areas, then use less preferred hedges (often informal and never clipped) to steer them away from the garden proper. With no guarantees, here’s my current list of plants my local deer rarely eat (all of):


Allium Ornamental onions
Begonia Begonia (tuberous)
Crocosmia Crocosmia
Dahlia Dahlia
Endymion Spanish bluebells
Freesia Freesia
Fritillaria Crown imperials (specifically)
Galanthus Snowdrops
Gladiolus Gladiola
Hyacinthus Hyacinths
Narcissus Daffodils
Scilla Squills
Polianthes Tuberose

Shrubs & Subshrubs

Abelia Abelia
Berberis Barberry
Brugmansia Angels trumpet
Buddleia Butterfly bush
Buxus Boxwood
Ceanothus California lilac
Cistus Rockrose
Cotoneaster Cotoneaster
Daphne Daphne
Datura Angels trumpet
Erica Heather
Escallonia Escallonia
Gaultheria Salal
Hypericum St. John’s wort
Ilex Holly
Juniperus Juniper
Kerria Kerria
Lavandula Lavender
Mahonia Oregon grape
Nandina Heavenly bamboo
Picea Spruce
Pieris Lily-of-the-valley shrub
Pinus Pine
Potentilla Cinquefoil (usually)
Prunus Laurel
Rhododendron Rhododendron, Azalea
Rhus Sumac
Ribes Flowering currant
Rosmarinus Rosemary
Salvia Sage
Sarcoccoca Sweetbox
Senecio Sunshine (specifically)
Skimmia Skimmia
Spirea Spirea
Syringa Lilac
Viburnum Viburnum


Acanthus Bear breeches
Aconitum Monkshood
Achillea Yarrow
Agastache Hummingbird plant
Alyssum Basket-of-gold
Artemisia Artemisia
Aster Aster
Aubretia Rockcress
Bergenia Leatherleaf
Chrysanthemum Chrysanthemum
Crambe Sea kale
Digitalis Foxglove
Echinacea Cone flower
Erigeron Fleabane
Eryngium Sea holly
Euphorbia Spurge
Ferula Fennel
Gaillardia Blanket flower
Geranium Geranium
Helleborus Hellebore
Iris Iris
Kniphofia Poker plant
Lavatera Mallow
Lupinus Lupines
Meconopsis Welsh poppy
Monarda Bee balm
Nepeta Catmint
Oenothera Evening primrose
Papaver Poppies
Penstemon Beardtongue
Perovskia Russian sage
Phlomis Phlomis
Phormium New Zealand flax
Pulmonaria Lungwort
Rheum Rhubarb
Rudbeckia Black-eyed Susan
Santolina Lavender cotton
Scabiosa Pincushion flower
Stachys Lambs ear
Thymus Thyme
Verbascum Mullein
Verbena Verbena


Alyssum Sweet alyssum
Calendula Pot marigold
Clarkia Farewell to spring
Cleome Spider flower
Eschscholzia California poppy
Heliotropus Heliotrope
Lobelia Lobelia
Myosotis Forget-me-nots
Nasturtium Nasturtium
Nicotiana Flowering tobacco
Papaver Poppies
Pelargonium Geranium
Petunia Petunia
Ricinus Castor bean
Tagetes Marigold
Verbena Verbena
Zinnia Zinnia

Good luck!


Posted in Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, Pets & Pests In The Garden, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Gardening Without Plastics

Replace plastic with reusable woven row cover cloth

Because Every Day Is Earth Day

Plastic. Say the word and someone will start talking about Dustin Hofmann and The Graduate. Actually, that used to be a typical response. Now, the very word is more likely to start a conversation about recycling, about ocean plastic contamination. Or about whales dying with bellies full of plastic. Or about sea turtles dying wrapped in discarded plastic fishing nets. Or birds dying with jaws wrapped in plastic 6-pack carrier strips. Or straws on beaches. Very rarely does the list of woes and horrors extend to the gardening world, but seriously, it should.

Years ago, when I became the manager of a lovely, family-run independent nursery, I remember being so excited about the opportunity to replace toxic horticultural chemicals with natural care alternatives. We did that, and it was a huge success. We even created  accredited programs for nursery staffers, landscapers, and municipal grounds keepers who wanted to learn how to use these new (or old) natural care products and techniques on every scale, from backyards to schools, city parks, and golf courses. Those years were amazing times; all over the country and the world, people wanted to find better, safer, wiser ways to care for their lawns and gardens. Fabulous!

The Bright Side Of The Dark Side

Around that same time, I discovered an enormous mountain of plastic trash tucked away in a back corner of the nursery. Heaps of brittle old plastic sheeting that came off the greenhouses. Plastic row cover, cracked and discolored. Vast numbers of plastic plant labels and signage. Mound after mound of plastic pots. Hundreds and thousands of them. And it turned out that nearly every commercial nursery had an equivalent area. I remember sitting on a nearby bench with tears running down my face as I struggled to figure out how to work with this horrible legacy.

I eventually discovered that in Oregon, a family run business called Agri-Plas had been working very hard to recycle a wide range of nursery waste plastics. They found manufacturers who would buy clean, dry plastic of many kinds, but to make recycling practical, they had to train workers to sort nursery pots and containers by plastic type. Since nursery pots were not labeled at that time, we all needed to learn how each kind of plastic looks and feels. Our willing staff quickly mastered this and we were able to load pallet after pallet with sorted pots and other plastic waste. Agri-Plas would come by every few months to pick them up, and within a year, the plastic graveyard was cleaned up.

Time To Take Responsibility

I talked about the Agri-Plas service to nurseries all over the West Coast and for a while, this recycling effort was wildly successful. However, the honeymoon ended as nurseries decided they couldn’t afford the time to train staff or pay them to sort pots. To make matters worse, international markets for recycled plastics started to tank as national and international transportation costs rose. Most recently, China (the biggest purchaser of used plastics) announced that they will no longer accept the world’s trash. Since we had grown accustomed to sending our plastic trash overseas, suddenly there are very few options for recycling small nursery plastics. Some communities are still collecting recycling but putting it into landfill sites if they can’t find a market for it. Other places simply dropped their recycling programs.

If you want to find better options near you, contact your local disposal company. If they don’t have helpful suggestions, call your County Solid Waste Division. If we don’t ask and keep asking, our municipalities will assume that we don’t care what happens to our plastic trash. And we do, right? Right? So here’s some good news; it’s getting easier to find alternatives to plastic all the time. In a one-minute search online, I found many kinds and sizes of trash and garden waste bags made from recycled paper, from 100% post-consumer recycled plastic, from all-recycled paper, and/or biodegradable, plant-based plastic, and many more options. So why aren’t these products everywhere? One guess: They cost more than mass-produced, single use plastic bags of any size or kind. When we’re used to paying almost nothing for large amounts of something we are only going to throw away, there’s a pretty significant sticker shock factor.

Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

But let’s think this through. How much are we willing/able to pay for a week’s worth of trash bags? And how many do we need, anyway? There is a significant price break when we buy these ecologically responsible products in bulk, as we might at a big box store. If we buy a package of 30 eco-cool bags, we might pay around a buck a pop. If we only use a bag or two a few times a year, that’s probably not going to break the bank. If we use a lot more, we can buy a package of 144 or even 288 and pay more like 30 cents a bag. Since the same bags can be used for indoor trash as well, that kind of investment in the health of the planet might feel more comfortable.

We can also make an effort to reduce plastic garden waste. If we buy compost and potting soil in single use plastic bags, we can see if they can be recycled locally (see below for ideas). If not, at least we can reuse them by filling them with trash instead of buying yet another trash bag. And let’s pay good attention when discarding garden detritus like flimsy pony-packs that can break down into tiny shreds. Old bird netting is especially dangerous for birds if left lying around (or blowing away). Just like plastic fish netting, encounters with garden netting can be fatal for wildlife, from birds, turtles, frogs and fish to larger aquatic animals such as seals, otters and yes, whales. To dispose of old netting, carefully bundle it up, securing it with string. Now stuff it into one of those empty potting soil bags and fasten THAT with string before tossing.

Open Our Eyes And Mouths

One recent trend that makes me mad is packaging garden fertilizers and care products in plastic instead of cardboard boxes. This especially gets me going when companies selling ORGANIC products are doing this. Please join me in writing or calling these companies; there’s always a toll-free number on the package, so feel free to call every hour or so…

So can any plastic bags truly be recycled now? Yes, though it can be tricky to find locations where plastic bags are accepted. Clean, dry, single use bags can be turned into plastic “lumber”, playground sets, chairs and benches. Some companies even re-make them into reusable shopping bags. How can you find out where to take them? Again, check with your local disposal and recycling agency or call city hall and ask that this info be put on the city website. Or all of the above! How about a community project, working with a nearby manufacturer and a coalition of kids, or old women like me, to get plastic bags to a place they can be useful?

Pots, Pots, Pots

And about those pots: It’s quite easy to avoid plastic if we seek out small pots for seed starting that are biodegradable, or made from paper pulp, coir fiber, or even DIY newspaper versions. And don’t forget that sturdy garden pots (preferably made from recycled plastic) can be reused many times. I sort mine by size and kind after use, then store them in the flats they fit best. When I’m ready to start my seeds, I’ve got a ready supply of pots, and I use them again and again for potting up garden-worthy volunteers, native seedlings and shared extra starts from neighbors.

Got more? Check with growers at your local Farmers Market; many willingly take clean, dry 4-inch and gallon pots for reuse. The 4-inchers are most welcome if sorted by size and kind so they fit plant flats properly. Check too with with folks who regularly put on plant sales, from Master Gardeners to Land Trusts and Native Plant Societies. Some nurseries, including many Lowe’s stores, offer pot-swap bins; again, they accept anything from 4-inch up to tree pots if clean and sorted by size and type, and I’m assured that very little gets thrown out, as the exchange rate is very favorable. Onward!

Posted in Garden Prep, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Planting & Transplanting, Recycling Nursery Plastics | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Never Too Late For Garlic

Since It’s Better Late Than Never

This morning I told a friend I was preparing to plant garlic starts and his response was, “What is this, April Fools?” No indeed! Though garlic planted in autumn or late winter may fatten up more than spring planted sets (still dry and barely sprouting), leafy garlic starts have been growing all winter and will produce perfectly delicious bulbs if planted in spring. The key to keeping garlic plants’s minds on bulb building is not letting them bloom. Dis-budding your garlic plants will re-direct their energy into forming bigger bulbs, as will harvesting fresh garlic greens lightly. If you love to grill garlic scapes, harvest them before the flower sheaths open.

In fact, much of the garlic I planted in November did not have a happy winter, what with the crazy weather swings. Vigorous garlic starts will catch up with those battered winter-weary ones quickly, now that the soil is warming up. To keep garlic growing well, top dress the bed with a little compost and keep an eye out for weeds, as garlic can quickly be overwhelmed if crowded by lush spring growth. Cultivate with care, trying not to annoy the garlic feeder roots close to the soil surface; hand weeding is best as you can quickly re-cover any roots that accidentally get exposed when a wandering weed is yanked out.

Weed ‘Em And Feed ‘Em

In spring, garlic shoots really do seem to shoot out of the ground. To keep them happy, gently scratch in a little cottonseed meal and/or corn gluten blended with kelp and compost when the foliage starts growing well. If you prefer liquid fertilizers, try a blend of seaweed extract and high-nitrogen fish fertilizer. Feeding every other week will help build strong plants, and that will promote bigger bulbs. However, it’s important to back off once the bulbs start to form (usually early May), when high-nutrient fertilizers can distract garlic from bulbing.

That compost top dressing will provide slow, steady nourishment and help conserve soil moisture as well (who knows what our rain distribution will be this year? It’s already crazy dry for April!). Most years, it wouldn’t be necessary to water in spring, but these days, where soils are already drying out, a little watering is wise. Garlic needs moderate moisture when the greens are in rapid growth but rarely needs to be watered after that. Exceptions might be if soil is very sandy, and if we get sudden heat that causes foliage to flag even after the sun goes off the beds.

Garlic Scapes

If you’re longing to harvest garlic scapes, watch for those flower buds to appear in May and June, especially on hard neck types such as the zingy Deerfield or spicy Dugansky. Picked young, before blossoms open, garlic scapes can be used much like asparagus. Steam them briefly, then drizzle with fruity olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Saute in butter and sprinkle with minced basil and pepper. Grill them and serve with a dollop of aioli or pesto. Slice them thinly on the diagonal and marinate in an herbal vinaigrette, or simply add those tasty slivers to salads, stir fries, or soups.

You can of course make pesto with garlic scapes, adding oil, nuts and cheese and grinding them into a smooth, luscious paste. Add basil if you like, or cilantro, or Italian parsley; all will be beyond wonderful tossed with hot angel hair pasta and a little coarsely grated pecorino or Romano. For a spunky twist on garlic bread, blend minced garlic scapes into creamy local butter, add a pinch of sea salt and fresh lemon zest, then spread thickly on fabulous bread and toast until crisp.

Uncommonly Good

Beloved all around the world, garlic variations have been selected for thousands of years. When I was growing up in Massachusetts, garlic was something we only tasted when visiting the Little Italy neighborhood in nearby Boston. (Seasoning consisted largely of salt, pepper, butter and cream back then.) Ever since Julia Child set America’s imagination on fire with her artful French cooking, our palates have become increasingly sophisticated. As we changed the way we cook and think about food, the restaurant scene and the foodie scene exploded. As a result, today we can grow not just generic garlic but unusual kinds from all over the world.

Like what? Like brightly flavorful heritage Asian garlics such as zesty Munlung, milder Siberian, and creamy, almost sweet Russian Kishlyk. We can experiment with subtle Middle Eastern garlics such as Hadrut, a Porcelain type heritage hardneck from the Caucasus with especially large cloves, or zippy Shavat, a wild garlic collected in Northwest Tajikistan. When we want our entrees to sizzle, we might turn to spicy-hot UK types such as Kilarny Red, Basque country Donostia Red, or smooth, velvety Spanish Ajo Rojo. South and Central America boast many specialty garlics, from Peruvian Cuzco, rich and lively, to delicate Argentinian Dario. North American offers heritage garlics such as saucy Creole and new introductions like the fiery Silverskin Mount Saint Helens. Rarest of all is Navistar, a seed-grown garlic. (Almost all commercial garlic is propagated clove by clove, since seed can be notoriously difficult to germinate and doesn’t necessarily run true to type.) Can’t choose? Try some of each!



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