Posts tagged garden

Plants Need Rescuing Too!

The other day I was out for my morning run when I happened upon an all-too-common urban sight: gardeners pulling up plants to make room for the next season’s flowers in commercial flower displays.  To be precise, the gardener was pulling up young boxwoods which over the course of the growing season had lost their perfect lollipop shapes, and replacing them with rounder versions of the same plant.  Anyone who has boxwoods in their yards will know that they are perennial plants which grow slowly and make excellent living borders.  Certainly not landfill material after a growing season.

To replant the same thing and toss the old plants seemed like such a waste for a little aesthetic symmetry, so I stopped and asked to rescue as many as could be carried.  The gardener said sure, and in fact, wouldn’t I like to come back the next morning, too, when they would be pulling all the marigolds and replacing them with mums?  Of course I would!  So the next morning I bundled up early and went to retrieve the flowers.  Though marigolds are annuals, and were near the end of their lives, they were heavy with seeds, and easily yielded at least 2000 for planting in the spring.  Not bad for a morning’s work!  And in two months, the whole process begins again as a new season’s colors take over the beds.

This is pretty much the norm for commercial landscaping services.  If you are looking for inexpensive (usually free!) plants for your garden, consider asking your local plaza who does the gardening and contacting them about rescuing unwanted plants.  They usually keep a regular schedule which you can put on your calendar.  Even almost-spent annuals can make great displays of color for entertaining before yielding seed for future plantings.  If you have a compost pile, this organic matter will greatly aerate your pile, increasing the speed at which the soil is formed.  And, of course, you learn a little more about what goes into creating the perfectly manicured version of the world that we urbanites take for granted.

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Living Roofs: A Little Greener than Usual

When installing a photovoltaic, solar heat, or wind generation system, one concept with which you’re sure to become familiar is that of structural load. The concept of a twenty foot wind tower on your roof spinning down free energy all year is nice, but in practice, you’d more likely rip a hole in your house without some careful consideration.  Therefore, sustainable roof design has adapted to include a variety of green techniques, each requiring their own load profile.  When used in combination, the elements can add a visual and technological depth to a space that is almost hard to describe.

Living roofs are required by law in some European cities, so it’s strange that so few people in the US have ever even heard of them.  Basically, in a city, roofs cover between 30-40% of the available land acreage. Streets cover a good percentage more.  By building a living roof, you offset the loss of porous surface area by simply elevating the layer above the structure.  New sustainable design firms tend toward relatively autonomous plantings so that care needs are minimized.  Varieties of drought resistant grasses or low-water plants like ice plants for a more spectacular display.  Traditional examples of living roofs often display a more cultivated cover.  Some are actually used as rooftop garden spaces, with fully functional plant beds in frames. They slow down water across their surface area and help promote local biodiversity.

The largest challenge in making a rooftop garden (besides keeping the frame watertight so it doesn’t leak onto your roof) is one of structural load.  Obviously, cubic feet of dirt are heavy – just ask anyone who’s done construction or landscape work lately.  On your roof, they bear down on the surface, creating stress on the seams between fastenings and structural supports.  It is important to find ways to relieve this stress either in the building phase, or, as is more common, in the design phase of a remodel. Soil scientists have designed artificial soils that weigh less than traditional soils, and other growing mediums such as local crushed brick can be used. But usually this involves restructuring the load on beams so that the roof avoids carrying actual weight.

As mentioned earlier, a living roof may not be the only alternative energy installation vying for structural load bearing on your house.  If you install solar panels or a solar heat collector, the same weight issues come into play, and careful siting along strong structural axes or retrofitting are necessary.  With wind, add in the force of the tower’s rotation and the wind profile of the actual tower and it’s probably better not to site a tower on your house at all unless you like weird noises and warped beams.  Save that for the back yard.

If you are considering installing one technology already which calls for boosting the load structure of your roof, why not design for the (future) implementation of another complementary technology now? As hurricanes so aptly illustrate, a little extra roof support ain’t gonna hurt you.  With as much roof space as we have in this country, we could probably meet half our food needs if everyone started a garden today.  Victory Gardens for a new millennium.  Even just switching from a traditional tar shingle roof (made from petroleum) to a gravel-based cover slows water loss considerably across your whole property.  Take a look at these examples of how nice living roofs can look, and consider integrating a little (more) green into your next roofing project.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fresh! Seeds of the Past and Food for Tomorrow

Fresh! Seeds from the Past and Food for Tomorrow

It’s been a big week of reading, trying to stay ahead of the library due dates.  This was a great book, a bit different from any I’ve read before in the general gardening arena.  Brian Patterson takes a scientific look at human history’s tenuous relationship with the foods we eat and illustrates how cultivation of seeds created the culinary landscape we take for granted today.  Part science, part history, and very interesting, he goes beyond the superficial facts and examines cultivation on a chemical level. How did we learn that potatoes, though poisonous when green, can be eaten when cooked?  Or that by fermenting grape juice and adding it to flour, we can enjoy light, fluffy leavened bread, but only if that grape juice doesn’t turn to vinegar first?  When viewed through the lens of science, even the most mundane of foods take on a magical quality.

It’s not a super long book (160 pages) but it’s surprisingly full of facts to be so easy to read.  I especially enjoyed the sections on the global spread of foods from one culture to the next and the final section which contains his look toward to future of plants and humans.  For those considering gardening as a nutritional endeavor, I can’t recommend this enough. Though not expressly a gardening book, you’ll find plenty of solid tips on how to get the most from your plants in terms of flavor and nutrition.  And who doesn’t want either of those?  You’ll also get a clearer understanding of the miracles that led to the availability of foods in your favorite seed catalog, and it may inspire you to try a few new exotic varieties.

There’s also plenty here for those interested in botany or cultural anthropology. After all, seeing what detailed culinary data we can glean from Egyptian society based upon their meticulous burial practices, one can draw some interesting conclusions about how we might preserve our own history for future generations.  For the general reader, and especially for those interested in going off-grid, knowing more about locally grown foods and their health properties can only be helpful in today’s 1500 mile to plate global food culture. And it might make you befriend a local farmer or two for their floral insights.  Strawberries never tasted so sweet as when you know that the farmer used sustainable scientifically sound growing practices to deliver them to your kitchen.

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BOOK REVIEW: It’s a Long Road to a Tomato

It’s a Long Road to a Tomato (Google Books) Keith Stewart (2005)

Any home gardener out there know that the title of this book is indeed truthful. For every fruit or vegetable harvested from your garden, hours of time and plenty of resources went into cultivation. As Keith Stewart so eloquently describes, things get even more extreme when you turn to commercial gardening, and even more so when you commit to gardening organically.

This book was extremely entertaining and educational. What I liked best was the honest depiction of the amount of work it takes to be a farmer in the 21st century. Next time you go to a farmers’ market, take a moment to talk to a vendor about their farm: you’ll really appreciate how hard they work when you hear stories of 4am waking and hand weeding in a commitment to earth-friendly growing practices! Suddenly, paying $0.50 more for an avocado doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.

The story is a personal one, outlining Mr. Stewart’s journey from city-dwelling ad man to wildly successful organic farmer at NYC’s most famous farmers market. You’ll read about the stringent hoops one must jump through to call produce organic, the unglamorous life of digging in the dirt, current governmental and policy landscapes for the independent farmer, managing a staff of farm workers, and many interesting little unrelated tales from the journey. When the cover quotes “you’ll laugh out loud”, they aren’t kidding.

I was inspired from reading this book to plant some garlic, which Mr. Stewart praises as perhaps the best plant on earth. True to his word, the plants have done very well even under my inexperienced care. It was nice to see his progression from a hobbyist’s garden to a commercial venture… it makes the leap seem that much more tangible for those of us looking to break into that market.

All in all, I have nothing but praise for this book. If you’ve ever considered growing professionally, you really should read this book first. Not that it will scare you off (on the contrary, I found it very inspiring), but it WILL give you a much better idea of the things you need (a garden, a good accountant, and a dream) and the things you had better not need (like sleep and a social life!). And even if you aren’t trying to change careers, it will help you connect the food you eat to its source, and encourage you to buy local and support your local independent farmers as they battle the giant conglomerates who control our global food supply. So go on, savor that local tomato, it will be so much sweeter!

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Find Balance (or it will find you!)

What is it about balance, the great equalizer, that makes it so circumspect a teacher? In life I have always had a tendency to go overboard on things… not dangerously or nuttily so (hopefully!) but if I decide that nothing beats peach ice cream, well, three or four pounds of that stuff might make it into the shopping basket!   Which is where I find myself now: having discovered all of a sudden that there IS a corner fit to raise a few plants in the confines of my current tiny living space, I proceeded to buy about seven pots and plant all sorts of seeds that I’ve collected over the past few years while waiting for a spot to garden again.

I was feeling a little guilty about taking up so much available real estate with pots.  However, so busy was I watching the pretty little seedlings push up out of the soil and grow stouter and sturdier with each passing day that I neglected to notice that my kittens are also growing each day, and getting into more and more mischief along the way.  So it was that the other night there occurred a tragic plant homicidal incident that I knew was coming somewhere in the back of my head.  The kittens, having recently discovered the joy of heights, have taken to sleeping in my plant pots, tipping them wantonly, and chewing off the young greens.  Every morning, I awake to a new field of floral carnage and (literally!) soiled carpet. My plants have become refugees in their own biosphere, moving every few hours to places where they can be guarded against feline attack.  One kitten in particular has decided that nothing beats an aromatherapy nap in my basil, rosemary, and mint, and all three are currently trying to adjust to the daily stomp-down.  Not that I blame him, it DOES smell good there!  But at least it forced me to redecide on an appropriate amount of space to devote to growing, since several pots required replanting or retirement.  Ah, balance, the great teacher.

Growing an herb garden is shockingly easy, as herbs generally tolerate spottier care than other plants and they smell so wonderful along the way.  Of course, each has its own desired care prescription (planting mint, a water lover, and sage or lavender (drought lovers) together in the same pot might not be the best idea, unless you like seriously wilted sage!), and likes differing amounts of light.  But in general, all will stand up to more abuse than a “pretty flower” plant.  (If your growing conditions are seriously strenuous, consider cactus gardening.  Mine have survived and even thrived in trying conditions, and they require little to no water except when flowering.)  An added bonus of a kitchen garden is that fewer pests will be able to find your tender plants and unleash their destructive forces.  Of course, as I’ve found, you might have bigger pests to deal with!  Also, you’ll be able to enjoy fresh herbs for cooking year-round.  Basil, mint, lavender, wild strawberries, rosemary, ginger, and garlic are reliable performers for the beginning gardener.  To find out more about planting an herb garden, see the WikiHow article link in the gardening section of the links panel.  In no time, you’ll be kicking those packaged 1500-mile-to-plate supermarket herbs to the curb.

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Nurturing My Weed: A Fable

Okay, to go along with my previous post about foraging, let me tell you a brief story.  A few years back, when I had access to a place to plant flowers, I used to spend a lot of time in the garden watering, pruning, even just looking at my plants as they grew.  It was meditation of the best sort.  Well, one year, after the daffodils had bloomed, I planted a few overstock seeds in a planter and started watering, waiting to see what emerged.  When a plant did poke its head out of the soil, I was surprised (they were old seeds, and I didn’t know if any were still viable) and pleased.  I kept looking after it daily, watching it grow and wondering what sort of mystery seed I was raising. 

Still being relatively new to SoCal at the time, I didn’t recognize the leaves of the plant, and when buds formed, I was so excited.  Now I’d finally know what this lovely little planty was!  And so it bloomed.  A tiny little yellow flower, and then another.  Hmm, I thought kind of disappointing for a cultivated flower, but hey, maybe I didn’t give it enough love.  I kept on watering and hoped for the best. 

Now shortly after that, I was walking down the road one day, and I saw my plant, or rather dozens of them, growing on the side of the road.  My little plant, the object of all that devotion, was a weed!  I was not happy to make this discovery at all, especially since it was only days after I’d let the seeds from my plant scatter wantonly across all of my flower beds, and I was therefore looking at the prospect of having hundreds of them growing in my garden.  I went home, pulled the “weed” and did my best to collect the seeds I could see on the rest of the soil. 

Fast forward to this year, as I’m reading all the foraging books, and lo and behold, there is my “Weed” on the pages of the wild foods guide, listed as a particularly nutritious foodstuff for hikers.  What?  I killed a plant that would have fed me if I’d known better, and spurned it daily as I passed its brethren on the the roadsides of CA?  Never again!

The moral of the story is this: the things we think we “know” about the world are often just perceptions we’ve been taught that have little to do with the reality of a situation.  My disappointment in finding that the plant I loved was a common weed didn’t even compare to the disappointment I felt when I realized that I’d allowed myself to be swayed by common opinion into killing a useful plant.  I guess in the end, it’s all about making sure you learn from reliable sources, and educate yourself on all sides of an issue before you feel comfortable saying you “know” what you’re talking about. 

Wild Lettuce

For more information about wild lettuce, see PlanetBotanic.ca

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BOOK REVIEW: the Self Sufficiency Handbook

The Self-Sufficiency Handbook: A Complete Guide to Greener Living by Alan and Gill Bridgewater

the Self-Sufficiency Handbook

The title of this book is perfect. There are no crazy survival tips here, although I wouldn’t mind having this book along in a pinch. It’s a guide for getting your existing house off the grid, and also for evaluating properties in terms of their sustainability potential. The writers live in the UK, after years stateside, so the companies and tips are both oriented toward those countries. But there is a nice discussion of navigating local laws no matter where you decide to drop your hoe and start gardening.

After a nice discussion of housing, which includes talks about insulation, orientation, ambient heating/cooling, alternative energy sources, and materials, they move on to daily living practicalities. First, getting light. That done, next you need food. This is where the book really shines. There is an in-depth lesson on growing an organic garden, including successful composting and which crops should be planted where and when, what needs rotation (and a sample rotation schedule that will leave you with fresh foods year-round) and what can stay put, and the care profiles for a large variety of different garden plants. They are careful to share wisdom on how much land you need to make your off-grid dreams happen, and also on how to choose property that will lead you to success.

Animal husbandry is covered in detail species by species, along with construction considerations, possible worries and probable successes of owning each type. The sections are not overly in-depth – I thought they were perfect for the off-grid enthusiast with lots of commitment but no experience with husbandry. Of course, one can never emphasize enough the time it will take to properly care for animal on your own property. They cover it nicely, if briefly, by saying this: if you own animals, you will have to feed them EVERY DAY, holiday or not. Yes, that’s EVERY day. Having kept horses growing up, I can relate to the urgency with which they repeat this statement throughout the book. Take heart.

The last section of the book can best be described as a tutorial section of recipes for survival. Not pemmican or Gorp-style recipes, but rather old-fashioned recipes for things like candles, making soap, making chutneys and jams, and brewing beer and making wine. Their recipes are pretty short and look easy to handle. In fact, the whole book was particularly well planned to fit each concept on two facing pages, so you’re never left looking for information in a thick chapter of words. I’m sure this limits the amount of information that can be presented a little, but I didn’t notice.

If you’re even considering moving off-grid, or even just converting a section of your yard to an edible garden, you should pick up this book. It’s fairly new, but with its special emphasis on looking at your actions in terms of an overall lifestyle, I think it will one day be considered a standard text in self-sufficiency. Which, as gas rises toward the $5 mark, is something we could all afford to learn more about.

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