Saturday, July 18, 2009

Determinants of Health

Yesterday I saw a film about social inequality and health. The gist was basically that poorer people live shorter lives than wealthier people, blacks live shorter lives than whites, people in positions of subservience live shorter lives than people at the top, etc. The figures given were stark.

Most relevant to this blog, however, was a thought I had about plants and people. Bare with me, this is kind of obvious, but it's just SO obvious that I need to say it. The reason poorer, black, and disenfranchised folks live shorter lives is that they have poorer access to resources and opportunities. Blaming folks for this is like blaming a rose bush for looking bad when it is being grown in the shade, in poor soil, with sporadic watering. You can pour all the fertilizer on it you want, but it won't thrive unless you move it or do something to improve its conditions.

Of course, if it's already spent most of its life in the shade with its roots scrabbling for nutrients or going leggy in search of light, it may not transplant well. To some extent, the damage may be done. But it would do better. And if it self-seeded in its new location, the little roses would do as well as any rose grown in optimal conditions, or at least have the opportunity to do as well.

What startles me is how obvious this all is and yet we're not taking responsibility for it. Not really. People tend to accept that this is the way it is. We walk past that sorry rose every morning and say, "Ugh, what an eyesore," or, "Someone really needs to water that poor thing." We throw some fertilizer at it and hope for the best.

Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, describes an invisibility device used by aliens when they visit earth. It's called an SEP field, and it cloaks their ship. When people look in the direction of the ship, the field makes them atuomatically dismiss it as Somebody Else's Problem.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Building a Raised Bed

[Note: All the highlighted links in this article provide additional information or helpful resources and I recommend exploring them.]

There are a number of reasons to grow vegetables in a raised bed:

1. In the Northwest, veggies like the drainage.
2. In the Northwest, veggies like the warmth (sun beating on the side of the bed)
3. It is easy to build custom cloches that fit the bed perfectly, thereby extending your growing season.
4. In urban yards, a raised bed is tidy and attractive, and may fit in better with ornamental plantings.
5. In urban areas, our soils are often contaminated with arsenic and lead. A raised bed that is high enough will keep your plants' roots out of the contaminated ground soil.
6. If you don't enjoy stooping, you will find that a high raised bed is easier to work.

There are a few drawbacks to raised beds as well. A permanent bed of any sort means your veggie garden will be in the same place every year, and many experienced Northwest gardeners say this can result in a nasty build-up of soil-borne plant disease. A raised bed also involves a greater amount of initial work, and raised beds made of wood won't last all that long in this climate.

That said, for the urban gardener, there are probably more ups than downs to using a raised bed. If you want to play it safe in regards to soil-borne plant disease, consider using one (or a couple) of your beds for several years, and keeping an equal number of beds planted with grasses. In a farm setting, these would be grazing grasses, but I imagine you could find some ornamental grasses to do the job in the city. After a few years, switch the beds.

Building a raised bed is a perfect do-it-yourself project (though if you want a particularly attractive bed, are short on time, or just want to support your local craftspeople, you could hire a professional). Assuming you are going to be involved at least in the planning process, there are some considerations:

First of all, you want to consider placement. A raised bed should go in the sunniest part of your yard. If this means digging a rectangular patch in the middle of your lawn, I recommend doing so.

Secondly, you want to consider materials. How much money do you have to spend on materials? The simplest raised beds don't involve any materials at all; the bed is "raised" simply by mounding the soil up a few inches above the general soil level. I waxed romantically about a mounded bed in a prior blog post. These are the easiest, the oldest, and in many respects the best kinds of raised beds. However, they are very farm-like (not what many people would consider pretty, though I love it), and they don't address the issue of contaminated soil.

To find out for certain if your soil is contaminated, you can test the soil and send it to a lab.

If you are going to build a higher raised bed, you might use cedar boards, brick, stone, cinder block, or other materials you find lying around. My housemate recently made a 7" high bed with our old cedar decking boards, which isn't going to last long but was free.

Bricks are long-lasting and often found lying around. However, it takes a lot of bricks to build a bed, and you'd want to use mortar if you were building it high. Moreover, if you don't find used ones for free, they can be a bit expensive.

Be careful about using certain materials as not all materials are safe. For information on this--and for the closest thing to the definitive word on whether or not it's safe to use pressure-treated lumber for building raised veggie beds--refer to this King County report. Interestingly, the report debunks the idea that store-bought pressure-treated lumber is unsafe.

I've seen very nice beds built out of large cedar planks. My guess is that they last anywhere from 4 -7 years in the Northwest before they completely fall apart (anybody have any data on this?), though if you treat them with a natural product like boiled linseed oil you may get an extra year or two out of them.

I've seen many wooden beds built by screwing or nailing the planks into 4"x4" corner posts. I don't recommend this. I would recommend what my brother did: using metal "L" brackets inside the corners, with holes for bolts that run all the way through the planks.

I recommend this because my understanding of rot is that it generally begins at the ends of boards and around screws or nails. Moisture condenses on metal quicker than on most materials, and will rot the wood out around the hardware. The only question is whether the wood will rot quicker than the screw will rust. A bolt, on the other hand, will provide a secure connection until the plank rots out completely.

Another thing to consider with wooden beds is that a bed of any length, especially the standard 8 feet, will tend to sag out in the middle as the soil settles over time. You can address this by pounding a post (or rebar) into the ground outside the boards at the midpoint of their length, but this will not necessarily be pretty.

You might, instead, pound a nail stake into the ground on the inside of the boards at the midpoint of their length, and attach them to the stake with skinny bolts.

I built a raised bed out of cinder blocks last year, and am mostly happy with it. Stacked three blocks high, it is two feet off the ground, which keeps the plant roots completely out of any contaminated ground soil.

The process is pretty simple: lay the first run of blocks out in a perimeter, lift them up, dig a shallow trench (only an inch or two deep, and barely wider than the blocks), pour in some sand, level the sand, and lay down the first run of blocks. Use a level to level them from one to next and build up the wall. Cinder blocks are heavy enough that you can just stack them dry, without mortar. Unless you back into them with a car or kick them ferociously, they will hold their shape.

One thing to be wary of is keeping the bed square, as an un-squared bed will come together poorly, resulting in a corner that is not flush. Though not the end of the world, it's unnecessary and annoying. Square the bed ahead of time by running string between posts to mark the perimeter. Measure the length of the diagonals between opposite corners ("kitty corner"). If the measurements of both diagonals are the same, you're good to go.

Finally, if you've made a high raised bed, you will need to import a lot of soil. For my 4'x9' cinder block bed that is 2' high, I imported a yard and a half of topsoil from Pacific Topsoils, and brought in nearly a full yard of compost. The veggies performed swimmingly.

If you're the solo weekend-warrior project type, making a raised bed can be a great way to spend time outside and play with practical and aesthetic design considerations. If you're more of the group-project type, or want something the whole family can be involved in, a raised bed is of sufficient scale to occupy a handful of people for half a day or more. Remember: it doesn't have to be perfect and it's not rocket-science.

It's spring! Get out there and get dirty!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ready, Set, GROW!

The vegetable gardening season is heaped upon us and nary a word from this blogger! Lo siento, my apologies, my computer was stolen and it threw me for a loop.

But I'm back, and full of scheming.

Right now, you could be planting peas, lettuce, spinach, Asian greens and mustard, if you haven't already. My housemate got some peas, lettuce and spinach in the ground a couple weeks ago, and though the peas were dug up by something, the lettuce and spinach--despite the brief snows and cold spells we've had in the last couple weeks--are sprouting. It is not too late to get these crops in the ground.

Other things you can do right now: Weed (as mentioned in the last post) before your weeds get big and/or go to seed.

If you've had Kale over-wintering, eat it right after a frost and it will be sweeet. This is, I found out, because the plant creates sugars in its cells to keep its leaves from freezing when the temperature drops.

If you've been growing a cover crop over the winter, you will want to chop some of it up with a hoe (or you can use snips for a real thorough job) and till it under so that it a portion of your bed will be ready to plant in a couple weeks. You want the "green manure" to have already begun to decompose by the time you plant. In a couple weeks, turn it again, rake it level, fertilize lightly, and plant!

Don't chop up ALL the cover crop unless you plan on planting the whole bed at once (which is a bad idea--you want to stagger your plantings to get an ongoing yield). Prepare the bed bit by bit a couple weeks ahead of your planting schedule.

Remember: I am no expert. Mostly, I am re-hashing information from reading and talking to "experts", and interpreting it all with a dash of common sense. I have grown vegetables for two years in this climate, which means I have a bit of experience, that's all.

Helpful regional books include Steve Solomon's "Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades" and Seattle Tilth's "The Maritime Northwest Garden Guide". Other good general gardening resources that I've been using are the friendly folks at City People's, my dad and brother, my peers, the regular columnists for the Seattle P.I., and random web sites found when googling specific topics.

Get out there and good luck! If you have any questions, feel free to email me and I will do my best to concoct an answer. If you post a comment, you may even get a more experienced gardener to weigh in on the subject.

p.s. I am preparing an article on building your own raised bed. Coming Soon!

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Timely Tip

I was out at our P-Patch today and realized that among all our fava beans, which we planted as a cover crop last fall, are a rabble of weeds, and they are flowering. This is not to be taken lightly. I recommend getting out there now and weeding them out before they go to seed. Do this consistently enough, year after year, and it's possible the weeds in your garden may even begin to diminish. Or at least get demoralized.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Onward from the 2009 Northwest Flower and Garden Show

Well, more than a week has passed since I visited the show, and I'm still trying to process the experience. It was so big, and so much. Plus, I got in on a media pass (my first time, courtesy of this blog!) and thus I feel responsible to deliver a masterwork of reporting. But in the end, I think I have this to say: It was inspiring and it was overwhelming. I would like to go again. It was not terribly relevant to my gardening, as I lack the resources to implement any of the ambitious ideas put forward in the display designs, but it was a lot of fun. It was like the Sundance film festival must be to a kid who's shooting movies in his backyard with an old digital camera. Nice to see what others are doing; a little daunting.

So I am turning my attention back to my own, current reality. Spring is fast approaching in Seattle, the winter-bloomers have been active for some time (Hellebores, Witch Hazels, etc.), and swarms of Crocus are erupting out of the ground.

The Forsythia in my front yard is on the verge of bursting with a thousand suns and the daffodils are standing at the ready.

At my house, we have planted several bare-root fruit trees, including a plum, a persimmon, and a peach (courtesy of City People's). We have built a fence to keep the chickens out of one half of the backyard, as they were turning the whole yard into a chicken-scratched wasteland. We now let them out regularly and have found that they put themselves back in their coop at dusk, so we need only close it up nightly before the raccoons come prowling.

At our P-Patch, my housemate planted peas, mesclun, and spinach, then it snowed. Hopefully the seeds hadn't sprouted yet. I dragged home a discarded window from a nearby curb and have put together an impromptu cloche for starting lettuce and peas at work. That, hopefully, is today's project.

The sun has arrived. Oddly, that is not unusual these days. They don't make winters like they used to.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Thought #3 on the 2009 Northwest Flower and Garden Show

Something that was definitely missing among the display gardens was a backyard urban farm garden. Turns out Seattle Urban Farm Co. built one for the show in 2008, complete with chickens and a chicken coop with a green roof. The photos look beautiful (scroll to the bottom of the linked page to watch the slideshow).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Thought #2 on the 2009 Northwest Flower and Garden Show

There were several vendors offering extraterrestrial life forms for sale. I don't know if these were legitimately acquired or poached illegally, but surely the Flower and Garden Show Space Alien Regulatory Committee looks after the interests of vulnerable backwater planets, at least when sustainability is the theme.

This strange creature, which its vendor called a "Wind Chime," was a little spiky, I thought, to be a good indoor pet. Its vendor suggested that it be kept outdoors and hung by a string, which struck me as a little cruel.

Another species for sale--a round, wooly little creature called a "Snooter-doot"--seemed much better suited to indoor pethood. Yet looks can be deceiving! Many of them were cunning enough to have escaped, and had gone native among the display gardens.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Thought #1 on the 2009 Northwest Flower and Garden Show:

I don't know what about the show appealed to me more: it's relevance to gardening, or the fact that the display gardens looked like mock-ups of other planets. I kept expecting to come around a corner and see Yoda's hut, or be pounced on by a dauntless Fizzgig. I kept waiting for a plant to start walking, sigh, or unfurl a tendril and whip it around my ankle. In fact, if I ever have my own Flower and Garden Show exhibit, I am going to make it a haunted house. An extraterrestrial man-eating forest! You would think you were walking through just another display garden until one of the exotic pitcher plants leaned over and screamed. AAIIIEEEEEE!!! Too cool.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

2009 Northwest Flower and Garden Show

Pretty spectacular and pretty overwhelming! I suggest you go see it for yourself. In the meantime, here are some photos to whet your appetite, and more text will be following soon...

A lot of striking exhibitions:

A few too many wine patios like these (you wonder if the wine industry isn't behind the whole thing):

(Though the second patio, if you didn't notice, is a miniature!)

A nice selection of ikebana and bonsai and other plant arts:

And plenty of great plants, wares, crafts, and services for sale...

Go, have fun, and support your local gardeners and craftsmen!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Surreal Refuge for a Snowy Day

Hard to believe after two sunny days in a row, but remember when it was snowing two days ago? I do. A friend and I took the opportunity to wander down to the Conservatory in Volunteer Park and get tropical for a couple hours. It felt so cozy at the time. Now it seems a little silly.

Nevertheless, these photos are to remind you that there is a place where you can go in the middle of winter (or any time of the year), leave your coat and scarf by the door, and feed on warmth, light, and mist like an epiphyte.



Apparently, if you visit at the right time of year, the Conservatory provides free snacks. If you can reach.

In the temperate room full of flowering plants, the fragrance in the air is amazing. There were a few best-smellers that stole the show. We couldn't find a tag on a single one of these plants, which are placed regularly throughout the room, but I believe it's a Magnolia...?

Couldn't find a tag on this one either, but its subtle, sweet scent was refreshing after getting a bit overwhelmed by the intoxicating "Magnolia":

This inconspicuous bush, Michelia figo, or "Banana Shrub", has little blooms that smell intensely rich, like banana pudding:

Finally, the cactus room is otherworldly...

"Bye!" (says Old One Leaf, waving.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Aucuba japonica, before and after



The canopy has been raised high enough to walk under without stooping. My dad was surprised I could get a canopy out of it at all. It's a slow grower, supposedly, and this must be an old shrub, for it's reached it's maximum height according to the books I've read. I have a suspicion it may be one of the original plantings on the property, which is a very exciting idea. In fact, I may suspect this just because it is exciting to think so. I have no corroborating evidence.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

If I were a mid-winter pollinator...

The sun has been out too much! Doesn't it know that I have things to do? Things that involve being indoors? I am swept outside.

Yesterday, running in the arboretum, my nose discovered something. I slowed, stopped, and was led off trail into the nearby foliage, sniffing around like a bear. Eventually I sourced the fragrance in an evergreen shrub with small off-white flowers blooming regularly along its stem. I was entranced, closed my eyes and immersed myself in it. A smell reminiscent of jasmine, which I remember from California nights as a kid; it always nabbed my attention when I passed, as distracting as this.

I opened my eyes to the reality of mid-winter, the deciduous plants hardly budding, the evergreens hunkered down. What a niche this little shrub has discovered, making a stir when all else is still. It certainly got my attention. I whispered to it: "If I were a pollinator, I would pollinate you." I pinched off a branch-end and put it in my pocket.

I have since identified it (tentatively) as Sarcocca hookeriana var. digyna 'Purple Stem.' Prettier than the standard Sarcoccas, with thinner leaves and a red stem. The time to take cuttings is late summer, and I have put it on my calendar.

If you haven't been to the J.A. Witt Winter Garden at the Arboretum this year, go now. The Witch Hazels are all in bloom, some more fragrant than others, some richer in color. My favorite is Hamamelis x. intermedia 'Orange Beauty' with its large blooms like exploded crayons (their petals look like wax shavings; in the case of Orange Beauty: Laser Lemon #FFFF66) and its syrupy fragrance. There are a number of other plants at the Witt Winter Garden that look great in winter, whether for their blooms or for their trunks and branches. The Corylus avellana 'Contorta' tree is an example of the latter with its corkscrew branches, any of which would make an excellent magic wand.

I have pruned the Aucuba japonica I mentioned in the last post, and will be posting photos shortly. It looks good from most angles, but from some it becomes clear that I gave it a mullet.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"I will lay it waste; it shall not be pruned...I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it." Isaiah 5:6

I am a different kind of gardener than my brother, my dad, or my great grand-father. I am not a professional, and I do not spend a large portion of every day gardening. I do not work obsessively, consistently, or even necessarily effectively. I work sporadically, when I want to, and only until I don't feel like it anymore. It's entirely possible that I think about gardening more than I actually garden.

But as the days grow longer and the sun makes more frequent appearances, I am drawn outside again to work, to play.

Yesterday, weary of psych homework, I turned myself loose in the yard (with the chickens) for the evening and stayed busy until well after dark. I divided ferns, hung a bird feeder, and glared at this overgrown beast of a shrub-tree we have in the side yard, desiring to lay it waste.

In the spirit of knowing one's enemies, I snapped a photo and emailed it to my dad and brother (the quickest method I've yet discovered for identifying plants). Aucuba japonica. Spotted laurel. A dense, ten-foot-tall wooly mass, untended for years and shadowing everything in its path.

I envisioned the Aucuba cleared away, and a stand of black bamboo in its place. I have grown to love the mature groves of Phyllostachys nigra, their forest-like leaf litter and aery interiors, their straight black culms and buoyant canopies of delicate leaves. I was excited about the prospect, but a couple of my housemates expressed concern over the invasiveness of many bamboos, and pointed out that the existing Aucuba is a mature, healthy, low-maintenance shrub that provides great small bird habitat, and is only a few feet from my new bird feeder.

There is a mischievous spirit in this world that loves to face us with the positive aspects of things we'd prefer to hate. I resented the Aucuba for its size and bullishness; it blocks all light from getting around to the dark north side of our house, and there is a hydrangea behind it that is a living bouquet during its blooming period, which it obscures entirely. I wanted that Aucuba gone. But I could see that I was being a bit irrational, and with night upon us--and having been faced with the shrub's "humanity"--I decided to sleep on it.

When a thing breaks, I'll generally take it apart and try to fix it before buying a new one. I've learned to see broken things as ideal learning opportunities, as there is nothing to lose, and a lot to learn, in trying to fix them, even if I fail, which I often do. I realized, upon further consideration this morning, that the same approach might be applied to the Aucuba. I needn't hate it. It might prove the subject of an interesting experiment.

I am going to try a thorough pruning of the Aucuba to clear out its interior and see if I can't get something shapely out of it. None of the growing tips I've read recommend this; most say it has unattractive bark and makes a good hedge. I will take pictures. If I turn it into something grotesque--which is very likely--perhaps my housemates will want it gone, and I will get my black bamboo.

If not, I am one step closer to master status.