Recycle, Re-use, Re-Imagine

Finding Good Homes For Plastic Plant Pots

Now that spring has finally arrived, plant accumulation is definitely on the rise. After the long, wet, wet, WET winter and slow, sodden spring, the belated arrival of sunnier days has most of us gardeners in a positive planting frenzy. Though the planting is delightful and the outcome is happy, empty nursery pots can mount up fast at this time of year. Since most nursery plastics are not recyclable in many communities, it can be tough to figure out what to do with them. Happily, there are quite a few good ways to put them back into use and keep them out of the garbage stream.

You can always use a few plastic pots in creative ways. Your local library probably offers lots of craft books, and many online craft sites demonstrate inventive ways to paint and decorate plastic pots. Wrap them with twine, stencil them in elaborate patterns, add mosaic trims, or sew quick slip-on “pot skirts”. Some folks turn old pots into sculptures or bird houses, while others create artful imitations of terra cotta, marble or metal. As-is uses abound, from twine holders and button sorters to hanging planters for home grown green walls. I keep a pair of round quart pots around for spreading baking soda on mossy walkways (stack two pots of similar size so the bottom holes don’t quite line up. Fill with baking soda and shake over the moss to get nice, even coverage).

Round And Round They Go

Despite all this creativity, many of us end up with a lot more empties than we can find good homes for. Once you’ve used all you can yourself, look around for other uses. Since I’m involved with many plant projects, I try to keep a few hundred 4-inchers around. That way, I can pass them along with packets of seeds when inviting both kids and adults to help with keeping local play parks and other public places full of edibles and flowers. Early in the year, I visit each group, explain the project in detail, then ask for their help in growing seedlings and planting them in public places. Such groups might include 4-H, scouts, school classes, garden clubs, the Senior Center, or the local affordable housing community. When planting time rolls around, we can arrange for a planting session in a park, at the library, the new community housing site, or wherever the need is.

After that, of course, there are once again a bunch of empty pots to deal with. Large scale projects can result in a plethora of pots in many sizes, none of which are recycleable. Now what? If clean and sorted according to color, type and size, some nurseries will take back 4-inch pots as well as 1- and 2-gallon pots. Generally, they’ll be most interested in larger sizes that can hold bare root plants that are ready to be potted up, such as 3- and 5-gallon pots and tree pots. Nursery flats are also happily received at most nurseries, since they generally pay the growers a fee for them. This can be as much as a dollar per flat, so do your local nursery a kindness and return any plastic or wooden flats you may find in the shed. (Clean them out first, please.)

Reaching Out

Local specialty nursery plant growers may be interested in reusing 4-inchers, quarts, and 1- and 2-gallon pots, especially in early spring. I often take a bag filled with clean, sorted pots to the local farmer’s market where some venders are happy to take them. Garden clubs, Master Gardener groups, and grassroots nonprofits such as land trusts and native plant societies often run seasonal plant sales as fund raisers and willingly take clean pots. If you finally run out of options, take your (clean, sorted) pots to the nearest Lowe’s and ask where they keep their empties. In my neck of the woods, the local Lowe’s stores have a big outdoor swap bin where gardeners can leave and take home plastic pots. If yours doesn’t, ask if they might consider starting such a service. Around here, I’m told by store staff that the pots come and go quickly and only broken ones end up being tossed.

If you want to recycle whole or damaged ceramic or terra cotta pots, find your nearest mosaic artist. Many of my friends indulge in this emerging art, decorating everything from birdbaths and tiles or bricks to old watering cans, tools, and even tea cups with bits of broken pots. Indeed, mosaic garden art is very hot these days, and it’s rare to see a open garden on tour that doesn’t sport at least a mosaic stepping stone. Some go whole hog, with mosaic mirrors, chairs, tables, and tea pots, not to mention shovels and trowels. Some, like the furniture, are usable, but the tools are strictly decorative. Quite a few nurseries offer books and classes on garden mosaic projects. Next time you crack a piece off your favorite pot, don’t curse, just glue it to your bird bath and call it art.

End Of The Journey

When really large and lovely pots suffer tragic accidents, a further method of recycling involves placing the broken pot strategically in the soil so it looks half-buried instead of broken. Plant a foaming skirt of something billowy–perhaps a silvery santolina or a frilly petunia–inside the sloping pot and you will have a container that functions like a mini folly. Follies or mock ruins of temples and so forth were extremely fashionable in England several centuries ago and no self respecting estate would be without one. In the current challenging economy, not everybody can afford a real ruined temple with an accompanying hermit. However, every one of us may break a pot now and then. How rewarding (and how much more fun) to make it look like a deliberate piece of referential art instead of a dreadful mistake!

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Farewell To Orange Petunias?

GMO In The Garden

Petunias are among the most popular of garden plants and no wonder. Prolific, long blooming and increasingly easy to please, these tropical belles are among the most reliable of basket fillers. In my young days, petunias came in just a handful of tints, mostly in the purple-to-pink range, and their blossoms were fairly small. Today’s petunias are powerhouse plants, robust and vigorous enough to make traffic stopping displays without much effort.

Cousin to tobacco, tomatoes and the lowly potato, petunias were first introduced from South America to Western horticulture in Elizabethan times. The first examples were fragrant but unremarkable, with little white blossoms on straggly stems. By the mid 1800s, John Tweedie, plant hunter and early hybridizer extraordinaire, brought a purple flowered species to the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. Within a few decades, Japanese breeders had stabilized the gene for double blossoms, and the race for bigger, better blooms was on. By the 1930s, American and Japanese breeders were leading the way to today’s showboat plants.

Bringing On The Rainbow

Along that way, some folks were feeling frustrated by the limited petunia color range. Not satisfied with the shades of pink and purple, true red Comanche was introduced in 1953 and pale yellow Summer Sun in 1977 (I remember being so excited by this one, yet frustrated as it was rather weak). Development picked up speed; Ball Seeds brought out the Madness floribundas in 1983; the first Wave petunias appeared in 1995; millifloras in 1996. Ruffled, double and triple blooms, petals with varicolored throats, edges, and petal markings, all in amazing profusion. More recently, shades of orange, coral, and peach appeared, making petunias even more dazzling than ever. But.

Though the petunia family is extremely tweak-able, those marvelous new colors are not natural expressions of the petunia genome. Instead, they were evolved using genetic engineering that involved introducing a corn gene to the mix. Is that so terrible? Certainly this is not an edible crop and no possible harm to humans is involved. Right? As annuals, petunias are not around very long and their seed is killed by winter cold. Right? However, the first bans have begun as Evira, Finland’s Food Safety Authority, has ordered that, because genetically engineered petunias are not permitted under EU law,  all orange petunia plants and seeds must be pulled from the market and destroyed. In England, a British watchdog campaign, GM Freeze, is questioning the assumed safety of these petunias, reminding us that in the past, GE modifications have harmed butterflies and other insects when corn genes were manipulated to include Bacillum thuringiensis in a effort to destroy corn borers, accidentally destroying Monarch butterflies as well. Since corn genes are involved, is it possible that the Bt insert could be as well? (I have no idea, of course.)

What’s Next?

As this news ripples through the horticulture industry, a number of companies are considering dropping the orange petunias. Personally I am sad to lose such gorgeous flowers in a favorite color range, yet I admit to being adamantly opposed to a lot of genetic engineering, especially when food crops are involved. We humans love to think that things that provide something we want must be beneficial and we can be very slow to accept or even look for fatal flaws in them. New and not-so-new information about the dangers and drawbacks of GE crops keeps surfacing despite active suppression by powerful industry interests. And what makes sense about inserting genes for glyphosate resistance into plants so more human (and critter) DNA disrupters can be sprayed all over the world?

It’s a fascinating situation because it forces me to take a new look at the bigger picture. I find myself wondering about making “harmless” exceptions, while being fully aware that the exceptions already being made are not in the best interest of the planet and are far from harmless. Thin edge of the lefty liberal wedge? And more is in store; back in 2015, a pair of plant molecular biologists put out a crowd sourced plea for funding to help them create a color-changing petunia that could be manipulated by gardeners; spray an alcohol-sensitive flower with beer and it will change from white to red. Though their campaign failed, the intention was to capture the granny market of older gardeners and help create a positive attitude toward genetic engineering in general by way of this popular flower.

Getting To Know You…

In a 2015 interview for Popular Science, Keira Haven, the CEO of Revolution Bioengineering (responsible for the color shifting petunia plan), said, “When people talk about GMOs, a lot of things get conflated with the agricultural practices, the large corporate nature of the science—that sort of thing. We’re two independent scientists and we’re definitely not going to be mono-cropping petunias.” Why choose petunias? “It’s a place outside of the traditional context where people can interact with the technology and hopefully find some wonder and delight,” according to Haven.

In 2013, a project involving a GE glow in the dark plant touted as a light source not dependent on electricity raised almost half a million dollars through its Kickstarter campaign. However, so far, no such plant has materialized, because GE manipulation isn’t easy. Even if a “product” emerges, it still has to pass regulatory standards (unless the current administration succeeds in removing them completely). Though while Kickstarter no longer allows GE plants to be project rewards, the USDA indicated that such plants wouldn’t require regulation since there was no proof that they would harm other plants (same argument that got the GE Arctic apples deregulated).

GE Not Needed

Given the petunia’s extremely adaptable genes, splendid plants will continue to appear even without benefit (or not) of GE interference.  For instance, the stunning Petunia Headliner Night Sky captured the 2016 Greenhouse Grower’s Medal of Excellence Award for Readers’ Choice with its midnight blue petals stippled with streaks of white, for all the world like a swirl of stars and galaxies. A sister variety, Pink Sky, boasts vivid lipstick pink with similar white markings.  Both are German Westhoff introductions, soon to be followed by others in their Constellation series,starting with Virgo (deep rich plum with splashes of galactic white) and Aries (rosy magenta purple with starry flecks of white).

Want to know more?

Posted in Annual Color, Genetic Engneering, Health & Wellbeing, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Learning To Love Our Neighbors

A Dazzlement of Deer

Since my move last week, I’ve settled into a new home on wooded property that backs into a lovely ravine. Thus, the land is shared with a rich and wondrous array of wildlife. There are birds galore, some of which are trying to make nests under the deep eaves of the shake roof. My cat Sophie finds this enchanting, and she spends many happy hours on various windowsills. Several mourning doves are the most determined of the would be nesters, but they don’t seem to be very good at it. They keep piling a random looking assortment of twigs and grassy bits into the soffits, most of which falls out fairly quickly. The birds keep trying and though I find it a bit sad Sophie seems vastly entertained by the rather hapless process.

There are definitely raccoons and opossums out there as well as squirrels and rodents large and small, as I can tell by the scat and/or obvious signs of browsing. However, the most frequently seen visitors are the largest (I hope). A sizable and quite tame herd of Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) also call this place home, and have for many years, or so I hear. In the past, I’ve worked hard to re-route deer, which habituate to certain plants and pathways. This usually involves creating barriers and baffles that redirect the critters away from their accustomed superhighways (where they intersect with the garden) to new and fresh territory where they’ll hopefully find lovely things to eat that aren’t planted by me.

Being A Buttercup

This herd is by far the largest and most at home around humans of any I’ve met so far, and I don’t think simple distraction techniques are going to work. Since I’m likely to be here for just a few years, I’m thinking that the most likely win-win strategy is the one called “suck it up, buttercup”. If my best choice is to deal with it, I figured that I might as well learn how to live with these admittedly graceful and beautiful creatures. For one thing, I’m seeing that left to their own devices, they seem to enjoy eating the lush, long lawn grasses, which are mainly ryes and fescues. That’s intriguing, since I never had deer browse on ornamental grasses in garden settings (so far anyway). Ok, deal! You can crop the lawn and I won’t have to mow!

Sadly, they don’t seem to have much sense of order, or the kind of work ethic that involves finishing the job. After a few nibbles, they wander over to snack on alders or willows, or hazelnuts. Well, that’s fine too! They also enjoy the various Rubus species that flourish around here, from salmonberry and thimbleberry to upstart blackberries. Still ok, and explains why they went after my raspberries so determinedly in the past. And salal as a preferred munchie, huh. The new growth is fairly tender, with a fresh, rather earnest flavor that is endurable if not endearing. (I ate the young leaves all one spring as an experiment after reading that local tribes used young salal foliage as trail snacks because they suppress hunger. Huh.)


Another really noticeable thing about these critters is that they are big. Seriously big, and very healthy looking. The does run anywhere up to about 130 pounds, and well fed bucks can top 200. A doe with fauns is very protective, like any mom, and can get surprisingly aggressive if she feels that people are threatening. Though most people killed by deer are driving cars (and the deer do not walk away either), people who get between a mom and her babies can end up badly hurt. When you see deer up close, as in a few feet away, you realize that they really are big, powerful animals and a little respect is definitely in order. So far, however, it’s a one-way street, as I don’t seem to strike fear into any deer hearts. Indeed, they barely look up when I walk out the door or even when I drive up. They’re too busy munching on the lawn, the clovers, the dandelions, and even the new growth on ivy. (Now that strikes me as hardcore; how good can leathery, waxy ivy taste?)

Maybe they aren’t as concerned with taste as nutrient quality. Like cows, deer are ruminants, swallowing in haste to digest at leisure. Though this herd hangs around the hood (a neighbor fed them for years), they can cover a fair amount of ground. Where pickings are slimmer, they may wander through a 2-3 square mile range. Some of the more distinctive island deer are definite roamers, sighted all over the place. They seem to be connoisseurs of expensive plants, as they specialize in visiting well stocked and varied gardens. Maybe they just want a taste of the good life; after all, even well fed deer don’t live all that long. Between their natural predators like coyotes, cougars, and bear, and the dangers of civilization, from cars to domestic dogs, few deer make it past their fifth birthday.

Making A Haven

I often keep a stash of compost or dairy manure in my gardens, and over the years, I’ve often seen deer snuggle up into the relative warmth of the decaying material on chilly winter nights. I’ve also found deer “nests”, mashed down places where they clearly come to snooze in peace. It’s kind of endearing, and gives me a feeling of compassion for these innocent animals who get hated and harassed by people like me who want our gardens to remain undamaged.

So what would I plant if I wanted to make deer feel at home? It’s more a case of what would I not rip out, since deer feed mainly on native plants (really). Here’s a list of their preferred foods: notice that it does not include roses, lilies, clematis, daturas, or many a precious plant that they eat for novelty or perhaps even spite!

Natural Deer Favorites

Vine maple (Acer circinatum)
Red alder (Alnus rubra)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Snowbush (Ceanothus)
Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)
Hawthorne (Crataegus columbiana)
Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
Oak (Quercus spp.)
Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana)
Blackberry, Thimbleberry, Salmonberry (Rubus spp.)
Willow (Salix spp.)
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)
Creeping Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa)
Clover (Trifolium spp.)
Dandelion (Tarraxacum spp.)
Burnet family (Sanguisorba spp.)
grasses and crops
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
Wheatgrass (Agropyron spp.)
Orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata)
Fescues (Festuca spp.)
Mushrooms and fungi

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Moving Day. Again.

May Baskets & May Flowers

As a child, one of my favorite traditions was making May baskets and leaving them hanging on neighbors’ door knobs. Back east, early May produced daffodils, tulips and azaleas, as well as pansies and forget-me-nots. I often put in a few dandelions, admiring their cheerful, sunny shagginess and the way their stems split and curled tightly into little slimy coils. This year, May 1 saw me moving flowerless from the big house where I’ve lived for well over a decade to a charming, cozy rental a few miles away.

My own house will go on the market on a few weeks and we’re still making all tidy and splendid back there. Here in my new space, I’m realizing that while it just takes a little while to cram things into boxes, it takes far longer to figure out where they will go at the other end. And if they will in fact fit at all. While spacious, this house is a lot smaller than the former one and there are still many decisions to be made. Drat. I’ve come to feel rather resentful of needful decisions, having had to make far too many in recent days, weeks, months, years. I’m longing for a little time out, though as a certified adult I am aware that true retreat can be hard to find; I can go wherever I like, but my mind comes with me.

May Flowers

Happily, a friend who loaded her car with my stray belongings on moving day also brought me food and a huge bunch of May Day flowers. Creamy pink roses, pale green hydrangeas, gently tinted waxflowers are cradled in salal and ferny fronds. Outside, I can see more salal and ferny fronds, along with billows of creamy and rosy rhododendrons and the pale foam of wild cherry, bright against the backdrop of cedar and fir. A few madrones are wreathed in softest chartreuse blossoms, as are the bigleaf maples (just looking at them makes me sneeze but they are indeed beautiful).

This house backs onto a ravine that’s alive with birds, who create enchanting morning and evening choirs. It’s also alive with deer. Indeed, as I am learning, the resident herd numbers around 20, thanks to a kind hearted neighbor who enjoyed feeding and nurturing them. All of them. Ah well. Though pleasant, airy, and welcoming, I suspect that this house will be more of a perching place and less of a garden spot for the next few years. There’s a large, low deck that the grandkids have already claimed, as well as several small brick terraces that will make excellent spots for a wading pool and sandbox (which will definitely need to be the covered kind, given the wildlife quotient). The big pots from the old house deck are being delivered today and I’m curious to see how long the kale and greens will last…

Making May Memories

I am utterly blessed to have my grandkids spend a lot of time with me. As we wandered the new yard yesterday, exploring between the huge old trees and making our way through tangles of tall grass, I realized that despite Tuesday being The Wrong Day, we can enjoy our own May Day tradition here and now. We made a game of finding all the flowers we could, from the ubiquitous pink violets that seed themselves with amazing determination to blue stars of Vinca minor, the rhododendrons and wild cherry, and a few lingering daffodils. The long grass is spangled with fluffy dandelions, which we put into a clear glass so we could watch the stems do their curling act.

As I settle into the house, I’m already thinking about what to do out of doors. If full-on gardening is limited (which it certainly will be, thank you Bambi), I can still have some of the more compact Rugosa roses, as well as hardy herbs like rosemary, sage, lavender, and thyme. I can see stinging nettle rising from soggy patches of ground, and I recall that their long, snaky roots are ripped up most readily in spring, so I’ll put on long gauntlet gloves and go after them before the grandkids get stung. We can make tea with the nettles, then replace them; blueberries might be happy, as well as hydrangeas (though some deer eat both sometimes). If the next few months and even years are filled with pondering about gardens and people and material possessions, that’s sounding pretty rich and wonderful. I’ll keep you posted.

Posted in Garden Prep, Gardening With Children, Pets & Pests In The Garden, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Weed Control | Tagged , , | Leave a comment