15 Minutes to Better Garden Photos

I’m enamored of projects you can do in 15 minutes.  As my hero, Fly Lady (www.flylady.net) says, “You can do anything for 15 minutes.”  She’s often referring to cleaning up or decluttering, but in my busy life, sometimes I need to schedule 15 minutes to do something artsy or creative…because otherwise my day is just full of work and to do items.  So when I ran across this video about how to take better garden photos yesterday, I decided to take my new little Sony camera out to the garden for 15 minutes.

Here’s the video by photographer Gavin Hoey that inspired me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s66-vVCKtWM

The info is pretty standard:  change your angle, work with light or water, try close-ups, change your settings…my little camera has some automated standard settings like blur background. Don’t always center your shot. Take pictures of leaves or furniture…not just flowers. Etc.

So have 15 minutes of fun in your garden today…You’ve put a lot of work into your garden…you can spare 15 minutes just to enjoy how it looks. Here’s my quarter-hour this morning before coffee.

 

 

Apple Windfall

by Sandy Swegel

While I continue to have a good supply of huge zucchini from the four zucchini plants my neighbor is growing, the bounty and surplus this year is from apples.  Talk about a windfall.  Day after day there are dozens of apples that fall on the ground and they are starting to taste pretty good.  The first small immature apples aren’t really good for much besides the compost pile.  And the apples on the tree shouldn’t be picked until they’ve been sweetened by Fall frosts.  But the ones that nature is lobbing (wind, gravity, squirrels) on the ground every day are a true gift from above…if you process them every day.

The problem with a windfall is that the apples aren’t perfect, so you can’t just put them on the counter or in the refrigerator to use later.  These apples have split open when they hit the hard ground.  Or greedy squirrels ate one or two little mouthfuls before throwing them to the ground. Wasps are feeding on the juicy parts. Or, ickiest, codling worms ate through part of the apple leaving their brown crusty frass. Occasionally, there’s even still a codling worm in the apple.

One bad apple does spoil the batch.  One rotting place on an apple will soon spread to even perfect apples…so you have to keep processing the apples.

Here’s what I do:  I hold a formal apple triage whenever I have time.  Perfect apples without splits or bad spots get spread on a counter in the cool basement or in the refrigerator.  With a little humidity (a root cellar and a box of wet sand are traditional) the apples will last through late winter.

Not perfect but pretty good apples can be:

1. Eaten on the spot. Yum.
2. Have the bad spots cut out and made into sauce, cobbler or juice.
3. Pressed into cider.  Some people in town here had a big apple pressing last year where everyone brought apples and they pressed them all together.  That’s when I learned part of the rich flavor of apple cider comes from all the bad parts and cyanide seeds and occasional worms being pressed together with all the good apples.  The final cider is strained so there’s no chance of getting anything visible in your cider…

When I’m in a hurry and just want the apples not to go bad, I make the world’s simplest cider in small batches in my mighty Vitamixer.

I wash the apples.  I quarter them and remove the disgusting and rotten parts.  I start with one cup of water in the Vitamix and fill the rest of the Vitamix to the top with apple parts.  I pulverize the whole container…having to use the plunger to keep the process started.  Then, the secret to this quickie cider is to pour the entire blender-full through a sprouting bag into a bowl.  Actually, I’m too cheap to use the sprouting bag and I buy the five-gallon paint straining bag from the hardware store.  Then with clean hands, you squeeze the bag, not too unlike milking a cow, until all the juice flows out. Repeat.  The pulp goes to the chickens or earthworms. The juice is good to drink or freeze or even let ferment if you want some old-fashioned hard cider.

Now if only I could develop a taste for zucchini juice, I’d have both abundances of food taken care of.

Vitamix recipes

 

 

Ignoring what “they” say.

by Sandy Swegel

I visited a garden yesterday tended by my friend Lou.  Lou has gardened for other people for many years and the heavy shade garden I visited has lots of color despite being in shade and the fact that we’ve been in high temperature, drought conditions.

As we walked around and she told me some of the secrets of the garden’s success, I found myself thinking, “But “they” say not to do that.”  Things like “they” say native plants don’t want rich soil and shouldn’t be fertilized like other garden plants.  Hah. Her well-fed natives were twice the size of mine.  Or “they” say dahlias don’t do well in shade and need full sun.  She had twenty magnificent blooming dahlias that begged to differ.  And she used all kinds of plants the opposite of what the labels say:  Euonymous species, sold as shrubs, were tough interesting reliable groundcovers when kept short by pruning.

My favorite gardeners have always been the ones who don’t do what “they” say without thinking about what might actually work.  My first experience was an older gentleman who had grown tomatoes for 70 years by the time I met him.  He had tried all the tomato techniques I ever heard of.  “Epsom salts,” he guffawed…”don’t do a thing except make the tomatoes taste salty.”  “Water has to be consistent.”  He had watered every day with soaker hoses since they had been invented.  So as I watched him fertilize, I expected some down-home advice.  Instead, I watched in horror as he just spooned tablespoons of dry Miracle Grow crystals right next to the tomato stem.  “But, but…” I stammered, “Aren’t you going to burn the plants and kill them?”  Nope….they just got watered in slow-release-like with each soaker hose watering and he had the best tomatoes in town.

That still didn’t match the shock of watching my friend Barbara.  She definitely walks her own path and is agreed by all to be the best gardener we know.  She never fertilized with fertilizers. She composts and mulches and puts goat manure and earthworm compost on everything, but she has never bought a bottle of something and put it on her yard. Geraniums bloomed in containers for fifteen years with only compost and maybe grass clippings in the bottom of the pot for the earthworms to eat. The most startling part of watching her garden was that she never treated pests.  Sawflies came two years in a row and ate every single leaf on her six-foot-tall gooseberries. They looked terrible.  She made sure the plants were watered and had lots of compost, but said the plants needed to figure it out if they wanted to survive. It was up to them to figure out how to defend themselves.  She just made sure the garden environment was good.  To my amazement, the plants survived and put out new leaves, and the third year the beetles didn’t return.  Who knew?

I still do lots of things “they” say because much is based on someone’s research and experience.  But I keep an open mind. Every time somebody gives me a lecture about the right way to garden or what “they” say I should be doing, I ask myself, “Who is this ‘they’?” “And who gave them all the power?”

 

 

What a Plant Knows

Back when I was a teenager, summer reading was all about pulp fiction and romantic novels, except for the summer when I read everything Arthur C. Clarke ever published.  Now that I use podcasts for pulp novels and nonfiction, I can spend summer on eccentric or unusual new books.  What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses is my latest extraordinary discovery.

Author Daniel Chamovitz points out that it has been over three decades(!) since Secret Lives of Plants was published and there has been lots of hard scientific research about plants since then.  Chamovitz emphasizes over and over that plants DON’T experience the world as humans do, but they do sense the world in their own ways.

Some tidbits from this provocative book:

Plants are aware of the world around them.

They can “see” in that they differentiate between red, blue, far-red and UV lights (better than we can, incidentally).

They can “smell” in that they are aware of aromas and minute amounts of chemical compounds in the air.

They can “touch” and respond differently to different kinds of touch.

They are aware of the past and can remember past infections and conditions and change their physiology based on those memories.

They can communicate with other plants and warn them of predators.

And my favorite:  plants dance…all plants move in a great spiral when they grow and when they adapt to their environment.Broccoli, Organic Romanesco

This book isn’t a metaphysical exploration of plants. It is a long scientific discussion of specific plant actions and reactions. For people like me who want to know why plants do things…why they thrive and survive sometimes and why they wither and die sometimes, ‘What a Plant Knows’ is a great treasure.

 

Walk on the Wild Side

by Sandy Swegel

Sometime every year mid-summer, when the weather is hot and the weeds so darn big, I start to think gardening is just dumb. Nature creates beautiful gardens all on her own without requiring WORK from me.  Why do I garden? Why does anyone garden?  Can’t we just go back to hunting and gathering?

The quickest remedy for mid-summer malaise is a nice walk on the wild side.  I head out into nature where, in the nearby foothills, I don’t have to pull thistles or cut dead branches.  It’s all part of the beauty of the natural world.  With 150,000 people in our county, there’s really not enough there for all of us to hunt and gather.  We’d mostly be eating a diet of raccoons and thistles…not an appealing lifestyle.

But we can FORAGE!  I now have three favorite foragers I follow online.  Wendy was the first modern-day forager I met at a local foraging dinner. In my urban mind, foragers were the wild men who lived in the swamps of southern Louisiana and hunted opossum and squirrel. Wendy is a city girl who spends every spare moment hiking and exploring nature all in pursuit of exquisite flavors…a delicate mushroom from secret forests, the explosive flavor of a high-bush cranberry at peak ripeness, or tender nettle and dock greens she slips into a goat cheese spread.  Everything about Wendy is a reminder of how voluptuously she regards wild food.  Her website name is Hunger and Thirst and her handle is butterpoweredbike.  This is just the kind of inspiration I need on a tedious summer day. Check out her “Wild Thing of the Month” purslane.  I know you have lots of purslane growing in your garden?  Do you know it’s high in healthy omega oils? http://hungerandthirstforlife.blogspot.com/

I’m a big fan of one of butterpoweredbike’s foraging buddies, WildFoodGirl.  Her website http://wildfoodgirl.com and facebook page has great recipes and her website has awesome links to other foragers. Plus if you sign up on her webpage she’ll send you a Wild Things Edible Notebook every month (or so) highlighting plants that can be foraged and recipes for them.  You too can make Wild Mustard Potato Chips.

Another great forager, on an epic scale, is Hank Shaw who travels the country hunting and gathering and hosting dinners in local restaurants with locally foraged food. Hank’s handle is Hunter Angler Gatherer Cook. His recipes are beyond compare.  Where else can you find recipes for “wild ginger ice cream” or  “barbequed wild turkey.”  Hank published a great book last year, Hunt, Gather, Cook.  Even his website address http://honest-food.net/ tells you about what it is we all crave:  honest food, wild tastes, vibrant living.

So if the tedium of gardening in mid-summer heat is wearing on you, head out to wild roads near you…or surf some great foraging websites.

 

4 Things to Learn from Botanic Gardens

Waterwise strip of plantings at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

by Sandy Swegel

I’ve been going to our local (and extraordinary) botanic gardens, The Denver Botanic Gardens, DBG, every two weeks this year.  Every year I intend to go but get busy and only get there once or so.  But I bought a family membership that included six tickets per visit….so now I’m getting to see the gardens and making new friends every time because I invite all kinds of people so I don’t “waste” the tickets.  Even though I’m a professional gardener and am in other people’s landscapes all the time, I am learning so much. I encourage you to go with observant eyes and watch how public gardens are designed and managed. (On the weeks I don’t go to the DBG, I take a hike in the nearby foothills to see how Mother Nature designs and manages gardens. She’s a bit messier.)

Some of the things I’ve learned this last week:

Plants want to Mingle.  Although DBG tags its plants so we know what is what, they aren’t really a single specimen sitting alone…all the plants grow next to one another and through each others’ branches and leaves.  A tall flower that falls doesn’t need to be staked right away…it starts to grow up toward the light from its down position and still looks great growing out of the groundcover.  Trees and giant viburnums are all artfully pruned so they send long arms through each other, never having to stand alone.  Old trees keep their place, but new ones of a different variety are planted nearby. The old one’s broken trunk and nasty gashes are covered and the new tree doesn’t look so scraggly.

The same plant can look so different in another setting.  The DBG has a policy of gentle tolerance toward reseeding plants.  As long as they look good and aren’t choking out other plants, the repetition of salvia or verbena from one display garden to another gives a feeling of unity to the entire area.

Giant Buddleia bush at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Photo by Sandy Swegel

Giant plants look great at the periphery.  Giant shrub viburnums or 15-foot tall lilacs or this massive Buddleja alternifolia ‘Argentea’ planted along the far back of a garden area are stately and give a sense of structure and enclosure to a garden. Some of the nearby trees seem small in comparison.  But a garden full of small plants can look like just a lot of little things that are hard to distinguish from one another.

Use more Art and Light and Water.  Sculptural pieces of art, strategically placed solar lights, and even very small water features turn a garden from beautiful into delightful!  As dusk descends on the Denver Botanic Gardens, strands of lights and solitary spotlights come on turning what was a lovely day into a magical evening.

Tour your local Botanic Garden soon.  You’ll find like I did, the inspiration for dozens of ways to do things differently in your garden.

http://www.botanicgardens.org/

Photo credits: Sandy Swegel

 

Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart?

by Sandy Swegel

One thing is certain.  The older you get, the more you understand the depth of this saying.  Most of us finally get smarter –in gardening, in life, in work, and in love—but some of us are slow or stubborn learners and by the time we finally “get” something and understand with clarity, we’re already getting a bit crickety and reaching a “mature” age.  But it doesn’t have to be this way with gardening.  Gardeners are natural teachers and mentors and are generous to share the wisdom of their hard-learned lessons.

And sometimes you find someone who is a learner and collector of wisdom and who has taken the time to reflect on that wisdom and share it.  Jane Shellenberger, a friend of BBB Seed, is a gardener who does all of those things.  She has created and edited Colorado Gardener, a free print publication, that six times a year presents articles from the leading gardening minds in the greater Denver area.  Over the years she has been an avid learner from our scientists, nursery owners, the people who invented the word xeriscape, and our home gardeners. In her spare time, she writes about gardening for the Christian Science Monitor. (links at http://www.coloradogardener.com/)

So you could spend whole days on her free website and get a lot “smarter” about gardening without getting too old, or you could read the book she has just published: Organic Gardener’s Companion: Growing Vegetables in the West.  I’ve spent the last week with this book and I’m surprised how many new things I’ve learned….and I’m a gardening research junkie who scours the internet and grills friends and strangers about gardening practices.  Jane has gathered the gardening wisdom of her lifetime and the life-long wisdom of stellar home and professional gardeners, scientists and entrepreneurs, and written a book that will teach you advanced gardening techniques but is still beautiful to read and easy to understand.  Sort of Acres Magazine meets Martha Stewart Gardening.

We all yearn to pass on the wisdom of our lives. We want the young not to struggle as we did to learn life-lessons.  We wish we knew then what we know now.  Jane has gathered many lifetimes of garden smarts (and she’s not even close to old) and written a good and useful book.  In a world filled with garden books with the same old beginner’s knowledge rehashed, this one stands out and will help make you garden-smart.

 

How to Make Garden Friends

by Sandy Swegel

Many of the ideas for this blog come from questions I hear from an email list of gardeners I belong to.  I introduced a new gardener to our group this week and she was so grateful to suddenly have a whole network of people she could turn to when she had a question.  She’ll soon realize what we all know:  that it is so cool to have so many plant-geek friends.

Our group started rather accidentally, but you can start your own low maintenance group of garden friends.  You’ll learn lots about gardening and many of your gardening buddies will turn into real friends because gardeners are really nice people.

Most of our group had gone once or twice to a local gardening club but didn’t really fit in because we were interested in growing food and the garden clubs here were more interested in flowers.  Our group started accidentally by one of us posting a note on the virtual bulletin board of one of those proper flower groups that said, “Tomato Seed Swap, Saturday. Email for details.”  We just wanted to try some new varieties of tomatoes without going broke by each person ordering 10 different packs of seeds. We’d just order seeds together.  Well, ten people showed up for that first meeting.  Then, of course, we had to trade emails so we could find out how everyone else’s seeds were doing.  Then someone brought up the topic of manure and if that made tomatoes grow better.  Soon one person took a truck to a local farm and we all showed up at his house with an empty bucket for manure.  Come harvest season, another person invited us to her place to see her tomatoes.  The key to us becoming a cohesive group was that Niki saw how much fun we were having and declared “We needed a name.” and She announced we were the “Boulder Culinary Gardeners.”  Soon we were having email discussions about zucchini and herbs and organic pest control.  Although we had all been gardening on our own and felt we didn’t know much,  collectively, we knew a lot about gardening.  Post a question on the list and one of our small group had an idea of the answer.  Since then 10 people has become 150 and we all know so much more now.  We haven’t saved much money on seeds though.  Turns out gardeners can never have enough seeds.  So we still share tomato seeds, but we take the money we saved on those to buy heirloom squash and watermelons and plants we had never heard of before like broccoli raab.

You can make new garden friends pretty easily using this method.  Or help others build a community of friends who grow food.  A friend belongs to an HOA where people didn’t know each other well but all of them belonged to an email list for HOA business.  My friend offered HOA members a  free Seed Starting class and Seed Swap. (Seed avarice seems to be the real secret to bringing gardeners together.) Five people showed up and now are making friendships across the high fences of the HOA.

Make some new friends today.  Everybody wants to grow food these days but don’t know for sure how to do it.  Just about everybody wishes they had more friends with similar interests and don’t really know how to do that.  Seeds can bring people together.