Gardening In The Time Of Disaster

Friendship is golden

Pressure Drop

How are you managing your days right now? As the weeks and months roll by, there have been so many shifts in my own attitude, from stunned shock to obsessive researching to bone deep grief to overloaded numbness. It’s not quite apathy, but more just a feeling that my circuits are full. This state of being has a silver lining or two; as a reluctant driver, I dread off-island trips, usually freaking out as my tiny car gets buffeted by wind on the high bridge to the Kitsap Peninsula. This week, I found myself halfway to Indianola before I remembered to panic, and by then, it was too late; I just couldn’t find the energy to get upset. I’ve been dropping off plant starts and fresh bread for my family, but keeping my distance, just to be safe, and it usually leaves me sobbing all the way home because I miss being with my grandkids so much. This time, I realized that I wasn’t anxious or fretting at all, the whole time.

On the way home, I figured out that my anxiety pocket are simply full up, topped off by all the fresh disasters that face us every single day now. I drove home without a twinge, wondering if this is how normal people feel all the time when they drive all over the place, as I haven’t been able to do before. In some weird way, the mounting pressure is tapering off and I’m sleeping better and feeling more peaceable. Wow, right? Is homeostasis really so strong that we can get used to pretty much anything? I’m fascinated by the idea that we can be too worried to feel worried, though it does bring back echoes of times when I was caring for dying family and friends-you just keep on keeping on because that’s what there is to do. This time, though, the deep sorrow seems submerged, far below the surface. I feel like a waterbug, skimming over deep, deep water, safe as long as the surface tension doesn’t break. This morning, I recalled that back in February, my doctor described what she and many colleagues were calling a national epidemic of climate and/or political depression. I had forgotten all that, but it’s worth remembering that the pandemic found us already in a state of profound, powerful grief. We went into this crisis fully loaded with sorrows and we humans are only built to bear so much.

Remembering The Mountain

Today is the 40th anniversary of the explosion of Mount St. Helens, a sight I’ll never forget. Along with a few hundred others, I climbed up the old stone water tower in Seattle’s Volunteer Park, peering on tiptoe over the trees of Capitol Hill to watch the roiling, boiling mushroom cloud climb higher and higher into the clear blue sky. Though expected, it was still shocking and terrifying to see such an exhibition of raw power. Even though we were too far away to feel the results directly, just watching the towering explosion expand was an overwhelming experience. I can’t help but think of the pandemic in a similar way, a gigantic, almost unimaginable event that we can only watch in powerless amazement.

Today I’m feeling that our nation and much of the world is like that mountain, with intolerable pressure building up to the bursting point. An explosion is inevitable; how and when it will occur is unknown but occur it will. In my lifetime, there have already been a number of significant blow ups, from the civil rights campaign to a wide range of human rights and ecological movements that have left the old norms teetering. Right now, the current regime is trying desperately to revoke and erase all the progress made in the past century but it’s not going to work. The bad old days were horrible for far too many people, and as the middle class is being systematically destroyed, an even larger majority of people are hurting, frightened, worried and increasingly angry. Something’s gotta give; the result won’t be pretty, but it will be powerful. I pray it will eventually be healing, but it’s obvious that more hurting is on the immediate horizon.

Peace Be With You

Every single day now, I feel exceptionally fortunate to be able to work in my garden. It is preserving my sanity, my balance, my health, in no uncertain terms. When appalling events come too fast and too furious, I can spend a few hours weeding or planting out baby beets and kale starts and feel my building blood pressure drop down. I can work quietly amid the purposeful bees, soothed by their gentle buzzing as they nuzzle each bloom to see if there’s any nectar on offer. Few things are more calming than potting up tomatoes and turnips, interlacing them with Clarkia and Limnanthes, California poppies and Achillea for the native bees, sweet alyssum, cosmos, petunias and marigolds for the honeybees. I’m tucking hardy herbs into cracks and crannies, especially all sorts of oreganos and thymes, which I use in the kitchen all year round. Tiny as it is, the garden is visited by a surprising number of little birds, from juncos and goldfinches to towhees and chickadees, sparrows and mourning doves.

Though this place is a teeny fraction of the size of my former gardens, it provides as much peace and comfort as the acres wide under my care have ever done. From this replenishment, I find renewal, returning strength I thought was all used up. Like a lot of people, I’ve been exploring careful ways to connect with friends who are equally careful, usually sitting together outside, facing the wind, feeling a precious little bit of normalcy. After an outdoor, distanced knitting session yesterday, I told my friend that I felt as satisfied as if we had shared a lovely meal together. Some deep hunger for plain old companionship was now replete and content. When I said, “Friendship is pure gold,” she replied, “Amen.” We need each other, and I believe that we will find a better way forward together.


Posted in Hardy Herbs, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, Pollination Gardens, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Traditional Plant Partnerships

So many beans, so little space….

Once Upon A Time There Were Four Sisters

Tomatoes and squash. Onions and lettuce. Peas and spinach. Carrot and peppers. Such beneficial garden partnerships are as often the result of many gardeners’ experiences as of formal research. Perhaps the oldest plant partners are the Three Sisters, traditional varieties of beans, squash, and corn grown for millennia by Native American Tribes from South And Central American clear up to the Great Lakes area. All are nutritionally dense food crops with compatible cultural requirements; full sun, decent soil, adequate water, and good drainage. In many traditional farms and gardens, seeds of all three are planted in mounds or hills of soil, especially where summer rains are heavy. Where rains are scanty, the plants are nestled into shallow troughs in the soil, so all precious water will be conserved. As corn grows tall, beans stabilize the sturdy stalks, keeping them upright in heavy wind and rain, while squash foliage forms a living mulch, suppressing weeds and keeping soil moist.

Since corn is wind pollinated, it’s not an easy crop for small gardens, as it grows better in generous blocks than skimpy rows. Corn can also cross pollinate easily, making seed saving chancy where gardens are small and close together, and neighbors may be growing different kinds of corn. Gardeners who lack room for corn can add a different sister to the mix; sunflowers. Another traditional American crop, sunflowers were long grown for their oil-rich, nutritious seeds. Tall, sturdy-stemmed sunflowers make excellent ladders for clingy sisters to climb. This classic partnership works best with dry beans, as the plants can grow old together and dry up without disturbance. Grow shell beans and green beans and flageolet on a trellis, chain link fence, or tack chicken wire on a wooden fence and let peas and beans roam freely.

Beany Babies

I love growing beans from seed, watching them burst through the soil, popping out their leaves like wide wings and leaning ardently towards the sun. If you want to try this, it’s definitely not too late; in warm gardens, they’ll be up and climbing by Memorial Day. Because nights are still cool around here, I start mine indoors between layers of damp flannel, slid into old zip bags to keep them evenly moist. Most will sprout within a week or so, when they can be gently tucked into 4-inch pots (held by the leaves, not their tender necks). Within another week or so, they’ll have several sets of true leaves and can be hardened off over a few days before we plant them out. My beany babies have been spending the days on my sunny porch steps and the nights back inside, but now they’re ready for planting.

WI’m especially excited about growing Good Mother Stallard beans, a heritage variety I was gifted. I cooked up a cupful, adding just a little onion, carrot and celery and was immediately hooked by the smooth, creamy beans and the flavorful broth. I sprouted a handful of the dry beans and they’re already rarin’ to grow. I’m also growing heritage Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake pole beans, as well as a newer hybrid of the two called Kentucky Blue Pole, which ought to be excellent, given the parentage. Cherokee Golden Wax beans are my favorites for eating fresh, slivered into salads, quickly steamed or stir fried. My sunny space is so limited that I can’t indulge in more beans than this or my garden would be overrun, but sharing extra starts with neighbors is part of the pleasure of gardening.

Growing Gardeners

I know my grandkids will enjoy making a tipi of tall sticks and planting beans to grow up the sticks, creating a snug, shady play space. When my kids made these, I initially worried that someone would get stung, but the flowers stay on the outside of the structure and bees are too busy harvesting pollen and nectar to bother people who don’t bother them. As lower-growing blossoms set pods, they’re quickly claimed for the kitchen and later blossoms are soon out of reach. The kids love spending time in their tipi and always have stories and observations to share. Clearly, the best way to interest children in the natural world and the foodweb is to let them play and explore outdoors, in gardens as well as natural settings.

I’ve heard so many stories from ardent gardeners who learned to love gardening from a grandparent. Where young parents have very full plates, we oldies are often less busy (or can be less busy if we choose, as we are learning right now). In normal times, I’m apt to over-fill my own calendar, but it’s always felt important to keep time available for my grandkids. Since their infancy, they’ve been with me several times a week until just a few weeks ago. In mid March, I started sending them cards and seed packets, encouraging them to plant sunflowers and sweet alyssum, rainbow carrots and Easter Egg radishes. When I discovered that neither parent had time to help them, I took over flats of little pots full of good soil. So often getting help with a first step or two can nudge us into actions that don’t seem so daunting if all the materials are close at hand.

Seeds Of Future Gardeners

Now the kiddos are watering their plant babies faithfully and showing me their progress on our FaceTime calls. Will they become lifelong gardeners? There’s no telling; neither of my own kids are especially interested as adults, but I’ve been mentoring a growing number of young people who want to grow organic food. Passing along good soil and healthy starts is like offering benign, beneficial “gateway drugs” that make it easy to become enchanted with the whole green world. That’s why the starts we give away may turn out to be the most important seeds we ever plant. Onward, right?




Posted in Gardening With Children, Plant Partnerships, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Safer Slug Solutions

Death by salt is cruel and painful. Try a toad.

Kinder, Gentler Killers

This has been a banner year for slugs; yesterday I counted over 40 babies and moms in a single flat of 4-inch pots. I’m more laissez faire than I used to be and won’t kill slugs or bugs unless they’re doing obvious damage, but this little herd was mowing down my veggie starts before they could get started. Sorry, critters. It’s doom time for you. So what’s the best way to off a slug without cruelty? Ecologically speaking, it’s the oldest; predators. Toads, frogs, moles, shrews, and songbirds are all slug eaters, as are ducks and chickens. In an organic garden, predators can safely feed on slugs and bugs, and the balance of nature rarely gets out of hand.

Even in urban settings, ground beetles and birds can keep the slug population adequately low, as long as no toxins are present. Some folks argue that an abundance of slugs means our garden ecosystems are out of balance. That may be true to some degree, but it may just mean that the weather is favoring slugs over veggie starts. I admit that in a bad slug year, I’m not above giving nature a nudge. Back in my college days, an elderly Quaker friend asked college kids to buy beer for her so she could bait for slugs without shocking the neighbors at the grocery store. She put a little beer in a jar, then placed it where slugs could crawl in and drown. Given the willingness many fellow students displayed toward drowning themselves in beer, I figured this wasn’t such a bad death, certainly better than salt, which offers an agonizing death by burning desiccation. That’s just mean.

Best Beer Or The AA Special

Independent tests (and not just mine!) show that St. Pauli Girl Dark is the most slug-attractive beer, but pretty much any kind will do. It only takes an inch or so (even of flat dregs) to drown slugs in presumable bliss. Those who prefer not to mess with alcohol can make an attractive bait with watered-down sour dough starter or this even more compelling concoction:

Safer Liquid Slug Bait

1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baker’s yeast
1 cup warm water

Mix ingredients in a jar and let stand 20 minutes before using. Makes about 1 cup, use in beer traps. Highly attractive to indoor fruit flies and fungus gnats.

No Great Bait

What about “safe” bait? For years, I promoted the careful use of iron phosphate based baits, which were considered deadly to mollusks but harmless to vertebrates. Like a lot of organic gardeners and growers, I was horrified to learn that wasn’t true. Iron phosphate itself is a harmless naturally occurring substance found in many kinds of soils and even in streams and waterways. To convert iron phosphate to a toxic form, manufacturers add a substance called EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid). In itself harmless to vertebrates, in combination with iron phosphate, EDTA creates iron toxicity not just in molluscs like slugs and snails but in cats, dogs, birds, and also in worms. Because it wasn’t considered an active ingredient, EDTA wasn’t listed on the bait packages, so it required some investigation to reveal the full ingredient list.

It turns out that vets had been seeing dogs and cats with relatively mild (but still nasty) “safe bait” poisoning for years. We now know too that iron phosphate baits can kill worms, which even the metaldehyde baits don’t do. Recognizing this, some countries now insist that EDTA be labeled as an active rather than inert ingredient, making these baits ineligible for organic certification. In the USA, there have been several unsuccessful attempts to get such baits de-listed, but they encountered significant push back from manufacturers and were dropped. (Surprise!)

Buyer Beware

Hearing about my slugfest, a kind neighbor offered me some commercial slug killer. Several people got involved in our conversation, asking what’s so bad about metaldehyde baits. For starters, they’re quite toxic to wildlife, people, and pets as well as pests; many a dog has been harmed or even killed by eating slug bait. According to the EPA, “Metaldehyde is a systemic toxin. There is no antidote.” But wait, there’s more: “Harmful if swallowed. Harmful if inhaled. Causes moderate eye irritation. Harmful if absorbed through the skin. Avoid contact with eyes, skin, or clothing. Avoid breathing dust. IMPORTANT This product can be harmful to children and fatal to domestic animals when ingested. Children and dogs may be attracted to the product. Application of this product is prohibited unless children and domestic animals can be excluded from the treated area from the start of the application until application material is no longer visible.”

People who actually read the label are usually horrified, especially when they discover that safely disposing of toxic baits isn’t simple. Per the EPA: “Do not contaminate water food or feed by storage and disposal. This product can be harmful to children and fatal to dogs and other domestic animals if ingested Dogs have been known to ingest metaldehyde after opening or tearing packaging Store this product in its original packaging in a cool, secure location, and out of reach of children and pets.”

Can I Toss It?

“To avoid wastes, use all materials in this container by application according to label directions. If wastes cannot be avoided, offer remaining product to a waste disposal facility or pesticide disposal program (often such programs are run by state or local governments or by industry). Nonrefillable container Do not reuse or refill this container Completely empty bag into application equipment Then dispose of empty bag in a sanitary landfill or by incineration.” Yikes! I’m putting out toad houses, how about you?

Posted in Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, pests and pesticides, Pets & Pests In The Garden, Pollination Gardens, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Forming A Future

Feeling overwhelmed by the waves? Time to go high!

Pushing The Positive

Spring is truly here now; buds are bursting and blooming, birds and frogs are singing, the nights are warming up, slowly but steadily. Everywhere I turn there are sweet scents on the air. My starts and seedlings are growing happily. The plants that have returned to the garden have revealed themselves; where others passed on, the soil has been refreshed and new plants are settling down to the business of new growth. My space is very limited in this garden, so there are choices to make; there’s not enough room and resources to support endless growth. Thus, some plants that might have made it got yanked to give something else a chance. A few weak yet wonderful plants were moved to more comfortable situations in containers, but anything less than stellar went to the green waste or compost bin.

As I choose what to make room for, what to coddle, and what to recycle, I find myself hoping that we as a society will find the strength and courage to do this on a larger scale. The endless growth model of capitalism just doesn’t work when resources are finite. It’s been fascinating (in an infuriating way) to watch huge corporations grab the lion’s share of government bailout funds, while thousands of small businesses are left to flounder. Like many others, I find myself wondering; if capitalism is so successful, why do mega-corporations require government bailouts every decade or so? Hmm? In the garden, the players that are allowed to stay are the biggest contributors; either they work hard, produce or bloom a great deal, or they are utterly enchanting.

Working Plants

What’s a working plant? Trees clean the air, capture carbon, and offer homes and larders for lots of critters, so if they’re healthy and well placed, they stay. Native shrubs are also habitat for native creatures, and many are beautiful to boot, so for the most part, they stay, as do most native annuals, perennials and bulbs. Hardy herbs are useful in the kitchen, as traditional medicinals, and are terrific pollinator pleasers, so they stay. Edibles stay unless they require more space or more fussing than I can provide. Ornamentals stay if they are utterly enchanting for more than two weeks a year. That seems fair, right? In return, I supply balance; I provide good soil, compost and other soil conditioners, and adequate water. I also control weeds and keep rapid spreaders from taking over. If the garden gets out of balance, my work load goes up and the pleasure factor goes down. That’s how good governance works.

In our society, it’s time to look at business the same way. If our economy is based on a flawed model, it will flounder and fail repeatedly, as we see. It’s perfectly clear that multinational corporations don’t care about the well-being of the people in any of the countries where they are based (usually in order to avoid paying taxes and to take advantage of resources that belong to other nations). When we choose to support small businesses, local farms, family restaurants, regional banks, we support each other as well. In 2008, when world banks were in trouble, Iceland allowed their largest to fail (and also sent most of the top executives to jail for fraud). In the aftermath of total economic collapse (in three days), a band of savvy women took over the country and brought in reforms designed to foster the public good. Iceland recovered and is now well protected against similar abuses, the kind that flourish in American, the UK, and lots of other capitalist cultures. That’s how good governance works, right?

Thinking Ahead

Despite the obvious, painful, and too often fatal consequences, this Great Pause created by coronavirus19 has its positive side. Skies are clearer, water is cleaner, ecosystems are showing signs of recovering faster than anyone had imagined possible. The huge ozone hole over the Arctic has healed already. People have per force slowed down and at least some of us have started seriously thinking. (And some people are seriously drinking, certainly understandable but not especially helpful). Both thinkers and drinkers are wondering what on earth is going to happen. Great question, and I don’t know the answer, but I do know this: what happens is on us. The future is ours to shape and it won’t just magically happen.

One of the hardest parts of the lock down stay home shut down orders is feeling helpless. It’s vital to our sanity and health and to the health of the planet that we remember that we are not helpless. Watching the current regime work its worst on the world, on the American people, and upon the planet is gut wrenching and horrifying but we can’t allow the destruction to be spirit crushing. We do have power, more than we imagined. Yes, voting is a valuable tool (or has been, during fair elections), but it’s not our only tool. Public opinion still has power, as we see when the current POTUS stops offering nightly insanity tips because of enormous public pushback and ridicule. Weirdly enough, though the members of current regime don’t care at all about our welfare, their skins are thin enough that refusal to let rampant idiocy pass unnoticed stings. Exposure of dirty tricks like paying foolish stooges to protest shut down orders stings. Calling out malfeasance when elected officials assist corporations to rob small businesses stings.

The Shame Game

Shame, however, only seems to work when it affects a bottom line; thus, if we want to change “their” behaviors, we must change our own. Given that so many corporate and governmental behaviors are overtly shameless, we have to study the keys to effective manipulation carefully. First, watch and learn; many things that I personally find shameful seem perfectly acceptable to the current regime and its followers. Calling those out obviously doesn’t change anything. So what does motivate them? The fear of the loss of our business. Yup. If we want to scare the pants off corporations, we can vote with our pocketbooks. Boycott any big business, however inconvenient (hello, Amazon), that values money over people. And make sure you bring a bunch of people along for the ride.

It’s also time to put steady pressure on the Democrats. Where the hell are they? A few governors are standing up (thank you, Left Coasters), but we are not hearing anything like enough from our elected officials, from senators and congressfolks down to the local school board. Let’s call and write (using letters and stamps, to help the Post Office!) and demand statements and action both. Speak out, speak up and make sure our message is clear; we want American to be reformed from bottom to top, with government by and for the people, not Citizens United. I’m so damn tired of being angry. I want so deeply to be FOR people and principles and platforms that promote social, economic and racial equity and justice, health care, education, freedom, and peace for everyone. It’s on us. Onward.


Posted in Climate Change, Garden Design, Health & Wellbeing, pests and pesticides, Pollination Gardens, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , | 6 Comments