A Glorious Garden Renovation

Dreaming Into New Possibilities

I’m in the throes of a major garden renovation and feeling like the luckiest woman on the planet. It seems like all my friends are feverishly emptying their closets, but I did that a few years ago and they’re still pretty not bad. My kitchen drawers and cabinets are tidy and organized too, and I’m working on the pantry. The garage is three-quarter empty, almost ready for a remodel. With so much done, I feel utterly justified in ignoring the basement and digging in outside instead.

This house is built on a hillside, so you walk in and find yourself 20 feet off the ground. The only flat place to garden is within the circular driveway, which just doesn’t feel like a place to be. However, thanks to the tree rats that want to live in the attic, we’ve been taking out damaged and failing trees as well as everything that touches the house. The result is so open, light and airy that it allowed me to rethink the lie of the land. That slightly sloping circle is pretty big, some 60 feet long and about 40 feet wide. Once the overgrown Norway maple and the dying antacid-pink cherry were removed, I could see beyond what was to what could be.

The Green Bowl

Rather than surround a house with trees and shrubs, I’ve always preferred to create a green bowl effect by planting woodies well away, leaving open space for human-scale gardens that embrace without smothering. The same pattern holds true for making ‘secret gardens’ tucked within a greater landscape, so the driveway was handing me a terrific opportunity. Soon, a running berm will wrap around the circle (oval, really), with a curving entrance so there’s no direct view into the center. The handsome Japanese maple now outgrowing its position by the front entry will eventually be the main focal point, but it leafed out so early this year that we missed the transplanting window.  That’s ok, we can work on the back half of the new garden now and finish off the front half this fall.

The outer edge will be bermed and planted with small trees and good-sized shrubs, and the berm will slop gently down to the inner edge where I’ll cluster smaller shrubs, bulbs, grasses and perennials. Back in the day, many of us were so excited to get our hands on new-to-us perennials that we cheerfully paid amazing sums for what are now considered mediocre plants. Indeed, I recall being able to swap a 4-inch pot of Crocosmia Lucifer or Euphorbia Chameleon for the rarest treasures on the American market. Now the one is ubiquitous and the other regarded as unreliable and weedy.

Perennials That Earn Their Keep

Gardeners who get fed up with high maintenance, prima donna perennials often find that shrubs make better backbones for beds and borders. I’ve long been a proponent of mixed borders, which feature artful combinations of all sorts of plant, from trees to groundcovers. Shrubs can be both beautiful and useful, supplying architectural strength as well as colorful, shapely foliage, even if flowers are minor or missing.

The good news is that, these days, many perennials can make the same claims. The 80s saw a boom in perennial improvement, through breeding, selection and discovery of well-behaved new species. The best of the bunch are not just beautiful, but also deer, drought, and disease resistant, don’t need staking and can thrive for years without division.

Dream Book Still A Good Guide

To my mind, there is still no better guide for would-be perennial gardeners than Dream Plants For The Natural Garden by Henk Gerritsen and Piet Oudolf. Published by Timber Press back in 2000, this illustrated handbook lists only perennials that reward minimal care with prolonged seasons of good looks. Among other things, these two Dutch masters ranked for a plant’s ability to grow well in dreadful soil, to thrive in shade and drought, and to remain attractive well into winter.

Between them, they’ve grown pretty much all there is to grow, and evaluated plants ruthlessly for many years. The book isn’t perfect (they take slugs and bugs into consideration, but don’t discuss deer and other plant-eating wildlife) but it’s extremely useful. Still widely available in paperback, this once-pioneering work is a terrific guide for anyone wanting to add some perennial icing to a shrub-based garden. Gardeners battling poor soil, lousy drainage, heavy shade or blazing sun will all find inspiration for gussying up a boring bed or border.

Almost Perfect Perennials

As I’ve been flipping through the pages, looking for problem-free plants for my new but deer infested garden, I’m making careful notes. Acanthus or bear’s breeches come in several forms, but I’ll stick with the Dutchmen’s favorite, A. hungaricus. A heavy bloomer, this deer proof (so far, anyway) 4-footer produces statuesque spikes of white and purple flowers despite heavy shade. I’m planting native Amsonia tabernaemontana as much for the golden fall color of its slim, grassy leaves as for the masses of starry blue blossoms in summer.

Anemones are among my favorite flowers, so I’m using spring windflower, A. blanda, as well as 4-foot tall, white flowered A. tomentosa. Goatsbeard, Aruncus doicus, is a strapping native that makes a bushy mound 5 feet high, with handsomely divided leaves and great creamy plumes of blossoms. I love astrantias for their intricate, starry flowers and their habit of luxuriant self sowing, which means I can get bags of them from friend’s gardens.


That’s just strolling through the As, and there’s an alphabet more awaiting! We haven’t touched on Epimediums, those peerless groundcover perennials, Euphorbias, another favorite family (E. palustris and polychroma), or hellebores in the very sturdiest forms (H. argutifolius)… Actually, I’ve been potting up dozens of strapping seedlings of my H. orientalis, which I will always grow despite the black spot issues. I’ve found that as long as I am scrupulous about removing the old leaves the minute they head earthward, my plants remain clean and healthy, and I am envisioning sweeps of soft purple, rose and cream hellebores under my newly repositioned Japanese maple next winter. What a wonderful dream!

Posted in Easy Care Perennials, Garden Prep, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged | 1 Comment

The (Even) Dark(er) Side Of Roundup

When Dangerous “Helpers” Do More Harm Than Good

For many years, Roundup and similar glyphosate-based weed killers have been widely promoted as boons to humanity, saving time, money and energy and boostin crop productivity. Meanwhile, more than a few of us have been stubbornly resistant to using these toxic herbicides despite corporate insistence on their safety. We gardeners are not alone: Sources as diverse as the European Journal of Agronomy and the open source scientific journal Entropy have called out troubling issues with both human health and that of flora and fauna, from Monarch butterflies to frogs and birds.

Not only has the main ingredient, glyphosate, been shown for decades to be harmful in many circumstances, but a French study showed that even one of Roundup’s inert ingredients destroys human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells (and that was back in 2009). Inert ingredients are supposed to be harmless, and some 4,000 of them have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Inerts Can Be Anything But

Made from animal fats, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, is considered harmless by the EPA and can even be used in USDA organically certified materials and substances. The French study discovered POEA’s more harmful effects when examining how Roundup acts in human tissue, not by looking at each ingredient separately. The EPA still considers POEA to be safe. Should we be concerned? Hmm, let me think for a minute.

There are hundreds of studies about the safety of Roundup and of glyphosate, and plenty of scientists line up on both “sides” of the issue. Monsanto, manufacturer of Roundup, often uses a circular argument that it is safe because it is used in public parks. Indeed, in 2007, about 185 million pounds of Roundup were used on North American farm crops. Almost 80 million pounds are used on American lawns each year. Crop residues may contribute to an enormous range of human woes, from Parkinsons’s disease to cancers. Lawn residues are mostly harmful to children at play, pets who roam yards, wildlife and aquatic life. (So no big deal, right?)

I’m SO Ready For The Last Roundup

The most recent French study created a bigger-than-usual stir in the European community, with repercussions in North America as well. This time, the World Health Organization’s research branch has reclassified glyphosate as “probably” contributory to cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) publicly announced that their studies have revealed “convincing evidence” that glyphosate can cause cancer in lab animals. Not surprisingly, Monsanto refutes both the charge and the evidence.

The study, published in the journal Lancet Oncology, also reported “limited evidence” that glyphosate could cause “non-Hodgkin lymphoma” in humans. The research combined evidence over the past 14 years from studies of glyphosate exposure in agricultural workers in the United States, Canada, and Sweden. During that time, more than 750 pesticide sprays contained glyphosate, and the chemical broths were traced in air and water as well as soil.

The Plight Of The Butterflies

Ironically, if all that isn’t enough to make the EPA ban Roundup, the loss of Monarch butterflies may be. Monarchs are important pollinators that take a double hit when their main food crop milkweed, is lost to corn crop pesticide sprays and when they encounter GMO corn that contains Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which is deadly to butterflies in the caterpillar stage. After reporting on the  dire situation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently launched an effort to save the beloved butterflies, acknowledging that some 90 percent of the world’s Monarchs (over 970 million of them) have been lost since 1990 (though they don’t admit that the butterflies have been killed by Monsanto’s double edged sword).

In the face of the widespread butterfly losses, the Center for Biological Diversity and similar watchdog agencies are calling for Monarchs be placed on the endangered species list before there are too few left to remain viable as a species. Some spread their nets wider still, hoping to protect other vital pollinators are also threatened by agricultural and lawn pesticides, from bees to beetles.

Helping At Home

So what can we do about it? First of all, do not use or allow the use of Roundup or any gyphosate-based pesticide on your property, and do all you can to get them banned at your local schools, parks, and public places. Secondly, plant milkweed. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has teamed up with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to encourage milkweed replanting across the country. Why not see what you can do in your own hometown? (Monarch habitats are a pretty appealing project for garden clubs, schools, and church groups…)

The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to invest $2 million this year in an effort to restore over 200,000 acres of prime monarch habitat. Some 750 schoolyard habitats and pollinator gardens will also get support. Though most of that effort is focused on the Monarch’s main migration flight path, Monarchs can be found throughout the country. We can encourage their survival by providing safe, pesticide-free gardens and public plantings as well as appropriate fodder and nectar sources. Now would be a good time!






Posted in Garden Prep, pests and pesticides | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Million Ants Before Breakfast

When Nature Cuddles Up To Technology

This morning did not begin well. Before my wake up cup of tea kicked in, I discovered that my modem wasn’t working. It looked fine, but my computer could not find it. I shut everything down for a few minutes, then picked up the modem to reset it and what seemed to be a million tiny ants fell out. They formed a boiling mass around several hundred eggs that also fell out and instead of being awed by the wonders of nature I freaked out.

These ants and I go way back. They are Odorous House Ants (Tapinoma sessile), native throughout the continental US and especially native to each of my Northwestern homes. I know from my studies that the wrong way to deal with these puppies is to spray with something they recognize as dangerous. Such products make ants split into multiple colonies, each reproducing as fast as possible. I know that the best way to deal with them is by using special baits that they carry back to their nests. Treated with slow acting poisons, these baits become the preferred food of a colony, eventually offing the whole boiling of them, or so they say.

Don’t Think, Act Now!

I called the safe and sane pest control company I use in such situations but they were overwhelmed by similar ant stories (no other modems, though) and nobody is available until midweek. In the meantime,  ants were still pouring out of the modem and also now my phone base. As it happens, I am not capable of letting sheets of swarming ants take over my kitchen for several days (that’s where the modem is located, though that could change). As it also happens, a natural cleaning product made by biokleen called Bac-Out Bathroom Cleaner (Lavender Lime) melts ants instantly. Thus, I immediately sprayed the countertop, the modem, and the phone base and the ants died by the cupful. Really.

I feel mildly guilty when I kill a wandering ant or two as they stroll across my stovetop or counters, but after years of living unwillingly with the ant hordes I do it anyway. Now I felt mildly triumphant as I wiped up revolting quantities of ant mush, even though I suspect that, as the saying goes, They’ll Be Baaaack!

How To Keep Ants Out

Clearly, the best way to deal with these little critters would be by keeping them out of the house in the first place. They love to make nests in crawl spaces, in the walls, around water pipes and in damp basements, then make forays out into your kitchen and/or bathroom. All IPM (Integrated Pest Management) programs recommend using the slow acting baits, but several also suggest offing visible ant infestations with soapy water and closing off obvious entry points with vasoline or caulk.

To keep food in cupboards ant-free, put anything sweet (honey, dried fruit, etc.) into zip bags or canning jars with tight sealing lids. If you find that ants have made themselves at home in your indoor plants, you must bite the bullet and toss them, pot and all. You can save the pot by soaking it in a bucket of hot soapy water overnight if need be, but the plant and soil must go into the compost heap or the green waste cart.

Clear Away The Clutter

The pest control service strongly suggests removing trees and shrubs that touch the house. I also strongly recommend that practice, yet my own house had several encroaching trees–until last week, when they were removed. Actually, a lovely old maple is still in place by the front door, but it’s merely waiting until we create a new bed for it. I’m having the driveway regraded, and while the excavator is here, we’ll do some major plant moving as well.

I was surprised at how much lighter and less cluttered the house looks now that the aging trees are gone. None were especially lovely or shapely, and all had become stairways to rat heaven for tree rats, who were leaping from amazingly slender twigs into the roof, then making their way into the attic. Ick ick ick. As it turns out, most of the trees had some rot started anyway, and the house will certainly be drier without their presence.

All’s Well That Ends Well

Partly as a result of all this, I am remaking the front garden, which never really got made properly, since we focused on the house first. Now I’m putting in a gracefully curving berm, filling it with many of the shrubs from around the house, and adding some lovely young trees, including a plump magnolia and the handsome front door maple. I’m saving all the bulbs and perennials before we start earth moving, and am planting up zillions of baby hellebores into flats, along with white violets and black mondo grass.

We are tucking a little secret garden sitting area into the middle, with stone benches and a fire pit. The space was never very inviting because it didn’t feel like a place to be. Reshaped, I think it will become appealing enough to actually get some use. A garden that only gets weeded and never loved is a sad one indeed. Oh, and the modem? Works fine. How’s yours?

Posted in Pets & Pests In The Garden, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | 2 Comments

Crispy Cauliflower Cakes & More

Celebrating Colorful Cauliflower

I love cauliflower, and am tickled that finally, after years of glory for its cousin kale, cauliflower is becoming trendy. Long considered a ho-hum vegetable, plain Jane cauliflower turns sublime when partnered with fresh herbs, snappy spices, or savory sauces. Brightly or subtly tinted cauliflowers are the latest rage, and happily, those lovely gold and purple heads are not GMO constructs; instead, hybridizers have carefully hand bred selected colorful forms from chance variations. The result is cheery orange cauliflowers like Cheddar and Sunset, which are high in carotene and vitamin A, as well as gorgeous Violet Queen and Purple Graffiti, both rich in anthocyanins, the antioxidants that make blueberries blue.

Fractal_BroccoliThe heritage Italian romanesco cauliflower is sometimes sold as broccoli, since these cole cousins are closely related, and indeed, it marks the transition of one vegetable into the next (kind of like plums and cherries, which are so closely related that’s it’s sometimes difficult to suss out which a given fruit really is). Spiky green romanesco has a mellow, almost nut-like flavor without the peppery bite of white cauliflower. It’s beautiful when broken into slim spears and grilled, making an elegant side for almost anything.

From Boring To Bodacious

If you still think cauliflower is dull, try a new prep technique. To my mind, cauliflower tastes best when lightly steamed, or roasted into caramelized sweetness, and horrid when boiled to sludge. If raw cauliflower doesn’t thrill you, serve lightly steamed florets with garlic-enriched hummus, Tuscan bean spread, or goat cheese mixed with fresh thyme or basil. After roasting, rub cauliflower with chili or curry powder for a piquant flavor twist. Toss steamed cauliflower with a lime vinaigrette and toasted pumpkin seeds.Add thinly sliced purple or golden cauliflower to sandwiches and wraps for extra color and crunch. Roasted with avocado oil and a little sea salt, it’s one of my favorite suppers for one. Before you know it, cauliflower will be your new go-to veg.

Crisp Cauliflower Cakes With Lemon & Capers

1 large head cauliflower, cut in florets (about 8 cups)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour OR rice flour
1 tablespoon avocado oil
2 tablespoons butter
juice of 1/2 lemon, rind grated
2 tablespoons caper, drained
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika

Steam cauliflower until tender (5-7 minutes). Mash, cool, and stir in salt, eggs, and green onions. Form into 8 balls. roll in flour and pat into flat cakes about half an inch tall, set aside. Heat oil in a wide, shallow pan over medium high heat and cook cakes until crisp, turning once (4-6 minutes per side). Remove to a warm plate and add butter to the pan. When melted, add lemon juice, capers and paprika (and more salt to taste if need be) and spoon over cakes. Serves 4.

Riced Is Nice

Light and delicate, riced cauliflower brings our the best in sauces, and can replace mashed potatoes or top a shepherd’s pie.

Basic Riced Cauliflower

1 whole head cauliflower, cut in florets
1 tablespoon pastured butter
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Steam cauliflower for 5-7 minutes then press through a ricer into a serving bowl. Gently stir in butter and salt, set aside and serve with mushroom sauce (see below), or any pasta or curry sauce.

Savory Mushroom Sauce

1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
6 ounces crimini or any mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup dry red wine or water
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a wide, shallow pan, combine oil, onion, and salt over medium high heat and cook until soft (10-12 minutes). Add wine and mushrooms, cover pan, reduce heat to low and simmer until mushrooms shrink by half (10-15 minutes). Season to taste with pepper and serve at once over cauliflower, rice, or pasta.

Spicy Roasted Cauliflower & Carrots

1/2 head (about 4 cups) cauliflower florets
4 plump carrots, quartered lengthwise
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon garam masala or chili powder

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Rub vegetables with oil and place ina single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and roast until lightly caramelized (30-40 minutes). Toss with your preferred spice and serve hot. Serves 4.

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