The Magic Of Mulch & Patience

Let nature work in peace and prepare to be amazed

Nature’s Healing Takes Time

Every Friday for over twenty years, I’ve worked with a band of vigorous volunteers to plant and maintain the extensive grounds at our local public library. Even during the pandemic lockdown a handful of us kept coming, wearing masks and keeping our distance as we worked, finding solace and satisfaction in planting and weeding and pruning. Sometimes pruning has been especially satisfying, notably when the news was particularly dire. In early January, two of us who love to prune decided to tackle a huge, overgrown variegated redtwig dogwood that had spread almost 30 feet in width, spilling into the sidewalk and smothering nearby neighbors. Fueled by fury and horror, we whacked the crap out of the poor shrub, which was a tangled mass of gnarled and twisted stems. Once we removed the dead and damaged stems, not much was left, but twiggy dogwoods are tough and hardy. If didn’t re-sprout, it would be removed altogether. Oh well.

As winter fades and spring approaches, there’s always plenty to do. Dormant bindweed pops up, lusty and vigorous. Crowded plants need dividing and new plants need just the right home. The whacked dogwood left a large gap of bare earth near a sidewalk, so we put our minds to choosing some attractive new plants to fill in the now-empty bay. However, several busy months passed before we returned to tuck in native mock orange and golden flowering currants. I was astonished to see masses of plump bulb shoots emerging from what we thought was bare earth. As weeks went by, it became clear that over a hundred large allium bulbs were getting ready to bloom.

Letting The Seeds Fall Freely

About 15 years ago, I tucked a group of five Allium christophii into the library garden. They’ve persisted but I had never found any seedlings. I always enjoy gathering the dried seedheads and using them to decorate bare twigs and branches each winter, then tossing the battered remains into the back of the borders each spring to give them a chance to self sow. Invisible under the spreading skirts of the twiggy dogwood, these highly ornamental onions had sown themselves into a flourishing colony. It take a few years for seed-grown alliums to reach blooming size and this undisturbed area was clearly a fine nursery for them.

Each winter, we weed and mulch all the borders, first with compost, then with coarse wood chips, which open the hard soil enough that weeding is much more successful than it used to be. As the soil heals under its comforting blanket, we start to find many seedlings, not just weeds, but also offspring of our border plants. This spring, those lovely alliums were joined by clouds of black chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris Ravenswing) and deep purple columbines, all self sown volunteers which look smashing together. Nearby, waves of California poppies and calendulas line the driveways and sidewalks. Lettuce leaf poppies appear here and there in luscious clusters, their huge, ruffled flowers nodding over silver-blue foliage. Moon plant (Lunaria annua) rises in tiered towers, some tinted purple, others jade green, all tipped with flat, round seedpods that strip to silver at summer’s end.

The Gardener’s Choice

Yes, many weeds are also ardent self sowers, and part of the gardener’s task is to choose which plants to let bloom for hungry pollinators and which to yank without mercy before they can go to seed. In my own gardens, I ruthlessly root out bindweed (aka morning glory vine), Scotch broom, Bishop’s weed and buttercups whenever I spot them. However, I also allow a few of the overly enthusiastic purple toadflax (Linaria purpurea) to bloom for the bees but pull at least 90% of the hundreds of seedlings that pop up here. Even if I were to yank every last one, the seeds in the soil would keep on sprouting for years to come, so I might as well let the local pollinator community get some pleasure and nourishment from this prolific flower. Feverfew is also permitted to grow here, though I may give seedlings a new home; its cheerful sprays of starry little white and gold daisies look lovely with California poppies and calendulas and are endlessly useful in cut-flower arrangements.

Naturally enough, there’s a learning curve to this live-and-let-live policy. It takes a few years to discover which plants are lastingly mannerly and which are biding their time before beginning an invasion. It also takes time for starved bare soil to heal enough to support new life. This morning I met a friend who told me how well her once-barren garden is doing. When she first moved in, she was dismayed to find solid clay and hardpan throughout the yard. One small wooded area was weedy and overgrown, yet it was almost impossible to remove weeds because the ground was so hard. We brought in truckloads of hog fuel, the coarsest, cheapest form of wood chips, and raked it out to a depth of about 8-12 inches under and around the tall firs. Now, when my friend digs down, she finds actual soil, and what she plants no longer dwindles and dies. Victory!

Time & Patience & Wood Chips

She excitedly described making mounded beds, planting everything from annuals and vegetables to ornamentals, and watching them thrive. The satisfaction of bringing a static landscape back to life, turning a wasteland into a flourishing garden more than makes up for the work involved, which was surprisingly little. Despite daunting initial conditions, continuing remediation consists mainly of spreading more wood chips under the trees as the original layer breaks down. Weeding is much easier in mounded and mulched beds and takes very little time and effort. Instead of a still life, her property is now a vital garden, lovely with plants and lively with birds and pollinators.

At the library, we found that nothing heals clay and hardpan like annual layers of mulch and coarse wood chips (not bark). Year after patient year, we spread mulches; compost, aged dairy manure, flaked bedding straw, shredded leaves. That helped, but it was only when we added thick layers of coarse wood chips that we finally got the upper hand on long-existing perennial weeds that plagued the site. With patience and mulch, a barren clay parking lot has bloomed into a living garden. Amen! Oh, and Happy Summer! Here in the maritime Northwest, Real Summer is here at last, with warm, sunny days that make the vegetables burst into happy growth spurts. Onward, right?

 

 

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Messy Or Marvelous?

Messy, marvelous, or both?

Chaos And Natural Order

Yesterday I was showing a young friend my new P-Patch, which is in a churchyard community garden a few blocks from my home. I always enjoy seeing people’s reaction, since my garden plot is both abundant and untrammeled. When I first saw it, back in March, it looked like bare earth. The top soil had been removed and the undersoil clearly needed some love. I layered on compost and started planting peas and patches of catmint and various kinds of oregano. I scattered seeds of sunflowers for my beans to climb up, and calendulas to bring in the pollinators. Before long, it was apparent that the previous gardener grew potatoes, as sprouts popped up here and there. And here. And there. Some I removed, but others were left in peace (who doesn’t love home grown potatoes?).

Clumps of lovage also appeared, which I pulled because one can quickly have more than enough lovage. Borage invited itself along, and I left those nearest the bed edges for the pollinators. Volunteer kale and chard were everywhere, along with parsley, feverfew, and columbines. Forget-me-nots made clouds of blue which I ripped out as soon as they got funky foliage. Raspberry canes poked up from broken bits of roots, along with a lost piece of grape vine, so I decided to let them have the summer to size up. Come fall, I’ll gather them up and build a stout cage for them at one end of the bed, but for now, they’re free to roam.

Free Range Vegetables

Among all this effortless bounty, I’ve tucked in more kinds of kale and lettuce, onion and garlic sets, peppers and way too many tomatoes. Beans now wind up the rising sunflowers and bushy basil scents the air as I weed. Strawberries run between larger plants, which share space graciously, since with amended soil, there’s enough and plenty for all. The lovely melange is full and fluffy, with an enticing variety of foliage forms and textures and colors. There’s barely a bare inch of soil without a delicate covering of thyme or creeping oregano, a feathery plume of dill or a spire of shallot.

To my eye, this intermingling echoes the natural planting patterns that delight us in open meadows. Plants gently overlap just a bit, enough to create a bubble of moisture at soil level, which promotes rapid root growth and allows soil biota to flourish. Nature doesn’t really do bare earth; even in deserts that look empty in the dry season, thousands of flowers sleep just under the surface, waiting to burst into brief and glorious bloom when the rains arrive. To my great pleasure, my young friend turned out to be a passionate devotee of permaculture. Her garden is much like mine, and she and her partner revel in the marvelous mixtures and rich relationships that arise through happenstance and the force of nature. To my fellow P-Patchers, with their tidy rows and carefully bared soil, this wild profusion looks like utter chaos (so I hear). To me, it looks like vegetable love and vegetable happiness.

A pleasing profusion can echo natural plant relationships

Blueberries And Bindweed

But what about weeds, I hear you say? If you have weeds, you don’t have enough plants. Besides, weeds can be allies as well as enemies. Years ago, a friend who is a professional gardener and a whiz of a weeder told about clearing a large blueberry patch of bindweed (aka morning glory vine). Her client was elderly and her extensive property needed more help than she was able to give any longer, so my friend went over periodically and weeded, trimmed shrubs, and generally tidied up the place. She noticed that the blueberries were half hidden under bindweed vines, which blew their white trumpet flowers triumphantly over the bushes. Patiently, strand by strand, my friend unwound the twining stems, trying to clear the bushes without knocking off the ripening berries.

It took a long, long time and while she was finally finishing up this daunting task, the older woman hobbled over to the berry patch. She leaned on her cane and looked over the newly cleared bushes for a long moment, then said quietly, “I imagine you think you’ve done me a favor.” Stunned, my friend just gaped at her. With a sad little smile, the older woman explained that the blanket of bindweed hid the ripe blueberries from rapacious flocks of birds and other critters that can strip a bush in minutes. “Ever since I learned to let the bindweed grow here, I’ve harvested nearly all my blueberries for canning and freezing, jams and pies. Now I’ll be lucky to get a handful.” Ever since I heard that story, I’ve viewed weeds a little differently.

Flag Day Musing

And Happy Flag Day! Today we had our first meeting of our new LGBTQA Club at the Senior Center, with Pride flags and buntings aflutter. Ten people had a lively debate about whether the term ‘queer’ has transitioned from slur to supportive descriptor. I can remember a time when calling someone queer was pejorative, either deliberately or casually offensive. For younger people, queer seems to be an affectionate, widely embraced term that’s used in any and every situation. Anyone under 60 or so uses ‘queer’ as the most inclusive and comfortable term for all sorts of things; queer family, queer community, queer culture. Among the ideas tossed out today were hosting Queer Bingo, an event that drew over 250 people in Kitsap County some year back. And Queer Movie Night. And Queer Family Picnics. Of course!

Last night, our Transfriending family support group had our summer gathering. While rain poured down, little kids played with the family kitty, teens and tweens hung out happily, and 20-somethings graciously mingled with parents before quietly fading to find more congenial company in each other. The parents who were newer to the experience of having offspring spring gender-bending announcements on them were pantingly eager to bond with other parents who could understand exactly what they were thinking and feeling and trying to do. Every one of the attendees was clearly reveling in the delicious feeling of normalcy; in queer communities, everyone is welcome to be whoever they are, openly and with pride. Onward, right?

 

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When Basil Blooms Too Soon

Pinching out blossoms makes basil bushy

New Basils That Take Their Time

As summer arrives—or doesn’t—I gotta say that I sometimes envy gardeners in Oregon and California. There, summer is a real presence, with warm days and sultry nights that keep heat loving plants growing happily. I love my little island home, but I admit that there are times when I could willingly exchange the gentle grey mornings for the routinely sunny days southern gardeners enjoy. When it’s blisteringly hot down south, I’m grateful for the marine layer that keeps our nights blissfully cool. When days are chilly and night temperatures remain in the 40s in what’s supposed to be summertime, heat lovers tend to sulk, people and plants alike.

This year, my poor beans sprouted cheerfully in our little sunporch, but turned yellow when I planted them out and the temperature wobbled for a week. They’re back on track now, after a spell of warmer days, but so far, only the grafted tomatoes are flourishing (they’re definitely more resilient than most of the “regular” tomatoes). As for basil, the plants in my sun porch are growing lustily, so much so that I’ve already made pesto twice. One of the issues with my usual go-to Genovese basil is that when it gets happy, it starts to bloom like crazy. To keep it bushy and productive, I have to pinch it every few days, which makes it bush out and start blooming again, which means we eat a LOT of basil-flavored sauces and omelets and salads and sandwiches.…

Late Bloomers

This year I’m excited to be trying out a trio of later-blooming basils, including Everleaf Genovese, which is bred to bloom as much as 8 weeks later than usual on plants that may reach two feet in height and girth. That’s a boon for those of us who want to stagger the harvest and have fresh plants coming on when the earliest are petering out. Some forms of the Everleaf series promise to extend the harvest for up to ten weeks past the typical annoying bloom stage, and some are also columnar, making them easier to squeeze into small gardens like mine, where space is at a premium.

As the season progresses, I’ll replace overblown sprawlers with Everleaf Emerald Towers, a sturdy Genovese type with big leaves on upright stems that form natural columns as much as three feet high. So far, trial nibbles show that the foliage is every bit as fragrant and flavorful as its wider-spreading kin, and the plants look amazing, truly rising (ok, towering) above their neighbors. A third form, Everleaf Thai Towers, has pretty purple stems and stout foliage with a spicy-sweet licorice-like twist on the Genovese types. It’s also got a great, sculptural form and looks pretty enough to grow as a dramatic ornamental accent in a mixed pot or on its own. Everleaf Thai Towers basil can reach three feet in height without losing its columnar form and looks astonishing rising straight up from a deep pot, as if pot and plant were extruded together. When it finally blooms, as much as ten weeks after traditional basil, the pinky purple flowers are pretty enough to pick for cocktail garnishes and tabletop tussy-mussies.

How To Please Basil

I never tasted fresh basil until I went to school in Italy; nobody I knew grew basil except our Italian neighbors (same goes for cilantro). These days, basil is one of the most popular herbs in America since pretty much everyone loves pesto. Native to India, basil appreciates hot, sunny, and relatively dry environments, gaining extra savor and snap from conditions some plants find mildly stressful. When happy, many culinary basils will quickly build into bushy mounds that reward frequent tip-pinching with ample new shoots and leaves. A single plant can turn into a green balloon the size of a large beachball. Alternately, a happy, healthy seedling can damp off into grey mush, or limp along, leaves yellowing and dropping drearily, without quite dying.

Why? For starters, any decent, neutral garden soil will please basil, but where soils are heavy or sandy, it’s wise to create a more benign and encouraging environment by layering several inches of mature compost on edible beds every year. For optimal results, add an inch each spring before planting and add more each fall after harvesting your edibles. Those who tend to pamper their plants may struggle with basil, which prefers benign neglect. Like all herbs, basil loses intensity when over-fed, which promotes rapid growth at the expense of flavor. Similarly, over-watered basil may rot and its leaves will be relatively tasteless.

Helping Basil Succeed

Basil is very sensitive to cold, making it harder to please in cooler climates. Since night temperatures have a lasting effect on soil temperatures, cool nights can retard growth in heat lovers like basil, tomatoes, peppers, corn and beans. Water-filled plant wraps or tents can help, as will placing a sheet of floating row cover over heat lovers at night. However, good air exchange is vital, since damping off, molds and mildews can all plague basil. To minimize problems, give plants an airy spot and spray weekly with diluted (90% water) skim milk (calcium helps strengthen foliage).

Basil’s most common disease is fusarium wilt, a soil-borne fungal pathogen that can devastate basil crops overnight. There’s no cure, so if your basil plants develop it, just pull them immediately, and don’t replant in the same bed for at least a few years. However, some sweet Genovese basils, including Nufar Genovese and Dolly, are especially fusarium resistant. If basil’s soft, lush foliage attracts aphids, whitefly, and other sucking insects, hose them off daily.

Basil Bliss

What do you do when basil just won’t quit? You can always whirl it into a slurry with a little oil and freeze it for a welcome touch of summer when autumn arrives. For now, fill large basil leaves with slices of nectarine and ripe brie, or crisp mini peppers and goat cheese, or shredded carrots and a dab of hummus. A handful of thinly sliced fresh basil can garnish gazpacho or be tossed with salad greens. Minced basil adds a refreshing bite to appetizers, sauces, and even cocktails as well as dressings and marinades. Basil-infused oils can be drizzled over steamed corn, spooned into hot dishes, or basted on grilled fish. And if you love pesto but don’t like the way it can discolor, here’s an Italian tip: pesto will stay bright green without pre-blanching the basil if you grind the basil with non-iodized sea salt. If you freeze extra pesto, leave out the garlic and add it fresh after thawing to avoid off-flavors.

A Traditional Pesto

Rich, creamy, savory and spicy hot from the garlic, this is an authentic basil pesto recipe from my cooking teacher in Perugia. I admit that these days, I use a food processor instead of a mortar and pestle. Include some stems for fullest flavor!

Pesto Perugino

3 large cloves red-skinned garlic, chopped
1/4 cup raw pine nuts or walnuts
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt (non-iodized)
1 bunch (about 4 cups) Genovese basil, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup grated Pecorino cheese
2-3 teaspoons fruity olive oil

In a mortar, mash garlic and nuts into a rough paste with the pestle (or grind in food processor). Add basil by the handful, adding salt and grinding each addition well. Work in cheese, adding olive oil sparingly as needed to make paste smooth and creamy. Spoon into glass jars, cover with a little olive oil and store, tightly sealed. Makes about 2 cups.

 

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Books That Build Us

Books I Love

Books That Become Friends

Yesterday a dear friend sent me an article by Salman Rushdie called Ask Yourself Which Books You Truly Love. The author talks about the power of story and the kind of stories that get told and re-told in different cultures and at different times, then challenged readers to figure out which books we truly love. Rushdie thinks that the books and stories we love make us who we are, though that can certainly change over time. It started me thinking about the books that have meant the world to me throughout my life, some of which have definitely shape my world view.

One of the first books that I can recognize as deeply influential was Blue Mystery by Margot Benary-Isbert, and to a lesser extent, her Wicked Enchantment. Both were translated into English when I was just beginning to read to myself and I loved them as stories about magic and brave girls who stood up against injustice and loved plants and animals as much or more than people. Only on reading them to my granddaughter did I discover how deeply this author shaped my attitudes about and relationship with the natural world through her passion and respect for wild things.

Outgrowing Old Favorites

These books still offer a great deal of enjoyment, unlike another great early influence, The Lord Of The Rings. I discovered that trilogy when I was eight or nine and read it over and over for many years. Last year, when I turned to this beloved book for comfort in the dire times, I was saddened to see more misogyny than enchantment. Tolkien’s nature writing is still lovely, but his characters are shallow and the women are just paper dolls. Similarly, I can’t read Dorothy Sayers—once a great favorite—with pleasure anymore, as I keep getting caught by her racism and classism.

That’s true of the Little House books too; they have sections that are truly awful and I can’t in good conscience read them to my granddaughter. Instead, we’re reading Caddie Woodlawn, a pioneer story set in a similar time period but with a far more respectful presentation of Native Americans, as well as the truly delightful Tea Dragon Society series, which is lovingly respectful to everyone and everything in nature.

Books That Made Me A Gardener

In my college years, a friend’s dad who worked at Rodale Press donated a bunch of organic gardening books to guide our newly formed Big Brother Big Sister community garden project. I memorized those books and was enchanted with soil building, turning garbage into compost, and watching beans sprout from dry seeds into soaring vines with leafy wings. A few years later, a clerk at my neighborhood coop gave me a battered copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book and I moved from vegetable love to infatuation with ornamentals. Vita was a poet and a vivid writer who taught me to really LOOK at flowers and foliage, buds and branches. She also got me using a magnifying glass to discover the tiny details that reveal the natural magic of the plant world, something my grandkids now enjoy as well.

My fellow New Englander, Ruth Stout, was another early influence, practicing practical soil healing and feeding plants with her own compost. Down to earth and wryly witty, she intelligently simplified the information she imparted, rather than obscuring it, as high falutin garden writers of the time tended to do. Instead of writing down to the lowly, she wrote as a neighbor and a friend, offering useful information backed up by science when available and always by experience. Margery Fish had a similarly pragmatic style; she came to gardening late in life, after a successful career, and viewed conventional wisdom as a guideline to be tinkered with freely. She taught me to experiment and try things that “shouldn’t” work, and if they didn’t, to try again, changing variables, until I could figure out why this or that plant preferred certain conditions.

Natural Love

I think I’m a writer because of Louise Dickinson Rich, whose book, We Took To The Woods, I bought for a nickel at a library book sale when I was in second grade. Louise knew she wanted to be a writer and live in the woods and she by gum did it, however unlikely that was for a woman in the 1930s. Homesteading in the midst of thousands of acres of deep woods, she held a more practical view of nature than other writers I admired, making it clear that living in the wild was not a stroll in the park. Later, I spent a year at 10,000 feet in the Rockies, in a small and funky log cabin abandoned after a gold mine shut down. As I hauled water and cut and split astonishing amounts of deadwood for our tinny little wood-stove, I remembered that book and those lessons with gratitude.

Since I grew up back East, I spent that year wandering around the mountains, learning just where I was and what was going on all around me. I sketched wildflowers and birds in the meadows and fish in the little streams, then looked them up in fat handbooks by night, reading by lamp light, memorizing their habits and intertwining families. One patch of avalanche lilies would all have black stamens, while another cluster not far away would have fluffy, golden stamens. What was that about? How did ouzels manage to walk under water? Why were the fish tiny in this stream and plump in that one? Why were the floating sheets of tiny bugs that clogged the streams all black over here and bright orange over there? Why are the shooting stars so tiny as you go higher up the mountain?

A Pattern Language

Learning to make sense of all these patterns and many more helped me feel grounded in this new territory. I felt far from the tame New England woods and meadows of my childhood, yet found comfort in identifying cousin families of plants and critters I knew well. Later still, when I began designing gardens, I found The Pattern Language book an enormous help, as the various patterns it presents explain why people never use this bench but often use that one, or why some parts of a garden never get used despite being as well planted as another area that saw constant use.

Now in my 70th year, reflecting on all this helps me see these influences on my patterns of thought and action that I hadn’t recognized before. I was an odd and lonely kid, with few friends and very little congenial family, so it was natural to make friends with books instead. The people in my favorite stories were as real to me as anyone I interacted with, and much more fun to be around. The ideas and skills my book friends gave me helped shape who I am, how I experience the world, and what I do well. I started reading very early and remain a constant reader, finding books that stretch me, like Amber Ruffin’s You’ll Never Believe What Happened To Lacey, an almost unbelievable true series of vignettes that will curl your hair worse than any horror movie.

How About YOU?

So how about you? Are you befriended by books as well? Have your old favorites held up to the test of time? I’m always bemused when people tell me they never re-read a book, because re-reading a book I truly love is like visiting a dear friend in a much-loved environment; I can relax into it, enjoying the familiarity even as I freshly notice details and nuances that I might not have been ready for earlier.

This past year-plus of woe has enabled me to see shades and shadows I may have missed or glossed over before, in my comfort reading as well as my challenge books. Living in the present also affirms my deep and abiding love for both the wildness of natural world and the smaller, more comfortable world of gardens and gardening. That balance and that grounding has helped me stay sane (more or less), and I’m so grateful for it. All of it. How about you?

 

 

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