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Bugs are Our Friends

by Sandy Swegel

“Stop! Spiders are Our Friends” is the phrase I’ve been shouting lately.  A young teenage house guest has been alarmed at the wolf spiders (big but harmless to us) that seem to make their way into our bathtub.  I’ve been in another room in the house and heard a high-pitched squeal and a quick fumbling around for a weapon of destruction such as a shoe.  My house guest can’t help it…she’s grown up in a city condo and isn’t used to the wild ways of my semi-rural house. I’m happy she hasn’t noticed the cricket who happily lives beneath the steps by the water faucet.

Spiders and all kinds of bugs really are our friends.  Not everyone of course, and I’m not suggesting you invite black widows spiders to live with you.  But I cringe when I am in public places and notice people enthusiastically killing bugs and spiders because they think they are bad.  Ants, in particular, seem to be the target of children who stomp on each one with glee.  Nearby adults usually take no notice because they think of crawly things as something to be destroyed.  The shelf space at the local hardware store devoted to weedkiller is matched only by the shelf space of bug killer.  Here at BBB Seed, we educate people a lot about pollinators and we’re especially protective about bees. But we also respect the other lesser known pollinators like flies and ants.  When we respond to crawly things as creepy and something to be feared and killed, we actually hurt the environment by disturbing the natural balance of insect life and the many creatures that work hard to pollinate our plants or eat the bad bugs.

One of my top garden rules…don’t pull any weed if you don’t know its name…applies to the insect world as well.  Don’t kill any bugs if you don’t know their name and what purpose they serve in your little ecosystem.

This doesn’t mean I think your house has to be crawling with bugs.  Just as the garden has designated “no weeds here “zones,” I think you can declare the house a “bug-free” zone. But the world around you doesn’t have to be bug-free.  And you can teach your friends and your kids the difference.  If you are killing an insect (more often I catch them with a glass and put them outside…it’s easier than cleaning smooshed bug), act with a clear purpose to remove it from your home not because all bugs are evil.

My rule for bugs is that they have to respect my space and play well with others.  No flies or ants in my kitchen, but ants and native flies outdoors are great pollinators.  A few aphids, or even a cabbage worm or two are fine in the garden because the predators usually come to eat them. But if the plants start suffering, the insects lose their right to stay. Aside from a few miscreants, most of the time the garden world is a zoo of beneficial insects.

Protect Yourself from Nature

by Sandy Swegel

Being in the garden is lots of fun…the time with nature, the growing, even the weeding are all a joy to the gardener.  Less fun is how dirty we get and how irritating nature can be to our bodies, especially in the form of excess sun and pollen.  Here are someBotanical.GritSoap good old-fashioned tips that will allow you to enjoy the time in the garden and still be able to be seen in polite company without dirt-encrusted nails and wheezing from allergies.

Protect your skin with sunscreen of course.

Protect your fingernails.  I’ve found the Gardeners Grit Soaps are a nice treat after gardening, helping to remove the dirt that seems to work its way right into my skin. But the best part of a bar of soap is to run your fingernails over it before you go in the garden. Soap under your nails (or in cracked skin) blocks the dirt from settling in and your hands are much easier to clean later.

Protect your nose.  Pollen is one of the most annoying aspects of spring.  Gardening is a lot less fun if you’re sneezing and wheezing.  A trick I learned from a holistic doctor is to put a dab of petroleum jelly just inside your nostrils.  The jelly catches lots of pollen and keeps it from being inhaled and getting into your nostrils and sinuses.

Protect your lungs. Wear a face mask if you’re stirring up dust or pollen.  There are three times I am sure to wear a dust mask even if it looks funny.

  1. 1. Cutting the grass. I don’t want to breathe in those weed seed heads that get blown around by the mower.
  2. 2. Cleaning up old leaves and debris.  Molds and fungi get in old leaves that have been sitting around all winter. This is good for making leaf mold. Not so good in your nose and lungs.
  3. Spreading mulch. Mulches, especially wood mulches are full of dust and fungus.  When you’re doing something aerobic like spreading mulch, you often breathe with your mouth open and you’re just sucking the dust right into your lungs.

Protect your house.

You know to take off your muddy shoes so you don’t track dirt all over the house.  You need to be equally careful not to track pollen in.  The mud you’ve accumulated is visible, but pollen has also coated you and lodged in your hair and clothes. When you’re finished gardening, go directly to the shower and put your dirty clothes immediately into the laundry. If you’re bothered by allergies, be sure to wash your hair. Pollen in your hair and clothing is just waiting to fall on your pillow and bed where you can breathe it in all night.

Protect your immune system.

I just learned this tip this week.  Dehydration is the most important thing to protect your body from, especially if you have allergies.  A Danish medical study showed that dehydration greatly increases your bodies allergic response to pollen and to events like wasp stings.  Drink water before you go outside, while you’re working, and when you get back in. HYDRATE.

Nature is beautiful and inspiring, but also a bit wild and dangerous.  Be prepared.

Name Your Garden!

by Sandy Swegel

A friend told me years ago that everything should have a name, even inanimate objects. She was helping me garden one year and within just a couple of weeks, everything we might ever have a need to refer to had a name. The big orange wheelbarrow, of course, was “Pumpkin.” The red bargain shovel was “Scarlet.” My little hand shovel was “Scout.” Soon my old truck had a name (Zohar) and it just went on and on from there. Her premise was, that if you’ve named something, you take better care of it. This must be true because I lost my good pruners that season, most likely because they were anonymous.

I love gardens. In the past few months, I’ve become so infatuated with making my garden look as amazing as humanly possible, and I’ve even managed to get my friends doing the same. Just the other day a friend of mine had new composite fencing installed by Ecomposite, whose fences are made from recycled plastic and wood. However, out of all of my friends, none of them have the passion for gardens that I do, to the point where I even have names for the gardens that I see.

Gardens just begged to be named. They even name themselves. The wild area with the chokecherries and wild roses is “The Thicket.” A client’s garden that is full of lavender and has the best mountain view in town is “The Anti-Depression Garden.” The part of the yard with two apple trees and a cherry is “The Orchard.” My names aren’t particularly clever sometimes, but they either convey the essence of the garden to me or they are a convenient way to talk to other people. Or most other people. A gardener who happened to be an engineer left me a message once asking me to weed in the “Ovate” garden. The what? I said. But ovate was very clearly the proper technical name for the shape of the bed.

You get the idea. You can name your garden after the plants that live there or the shape of the bed or the emotion the garden evokes. Garden writer Lauren Springer coined the phrase “hell strip” years ago to describe the space between the sidewalk and the street. Everyone knows what you mean when you say “The Hell Strip.” For years a favorite area at the Denver Botanic Gardens was the Red Garden…every plant, every foliage and bloom, was red.

Other gardens I’ve named are the grassy area in the back where I threw the wildflower/grass mixture, “The Meadow.” The small bed near the entry door to my house is “The Nursery” where I heel in all the plants I acquire but don’t know where to put them. My very friend Rosemarie’s garden beds are very practical and organized like the busy engineer and supermom she is. Her favorite bed though is a small strip we named “The Diva Garden” where she can plant outrageous purples and reds and those “OMG I have to have that plant” purchases to nurture her wild side.

I think the plants in the named beds do thrive better. Maybe it’s because once garden areas have a name, I have a relationship with them and take better care of them. I named my new pruners “Snippy” so I won’t lose them so fast this time. Now if only there were a way to link them to the ICloud so I could just hit the button “Find my Pruners” and they’d ring until I found them.

Less is More!

by Sandy Swegel

One of my favorite things to do is spend other people’s money.  Or better said, to go shopping with them and encourage them to buy the cool things they want to buy.  I always covet plants and yet I know I don’t have the time or space to buy as many as I want, so it is fun to live vicariously through others. “Yes that Japanese maple would look beautiful by your front door.”  “You just have to get this hand forged trellis, wooden ones are so dinky and break after awhile.” etc.

I’ll still encourage people to buy quality garden structures or funky garden art, but I’ve slowed down on encouraging them to buy lots of plants.  It was writing last week about biointensive gardening that reminded me. One of the themes of John Jeavons’ book is to create one garden bed and create it well (double dug, good soil amendments). Better to have one bed producing a lot of food than three beds barely eking out enough for dinner.

Plants need attention to establish, at least if you live in a difficult climate like Colorado.  You can’t just plant a bunch of plants and ignore them.  I know, I’ve accidentally killed a lot of plants that way.  You just end up guilty at the waste or feel like a failure as a gardener. So slow down before you buy out the garden center or plant out hundreds of seedlings. Just because it’s inexpensive to grow from seed doesn’t mean your work growing and planting isn’t valuable. We’ll leave for another day, and a bottle of scotch, the esoteric discussion of the karmic implications of killing plants.

How to Practice Less is More Focus on one section of your garden for new plantings Decide to spiff up just one area this year with new plants. I encouraged my friend to focus on the entry bed for now and later get plants for the rest of the yard. Many gardeners have “nursery” beds for new plants where they let them grow the first year.  They can remember to take care of the babies in the nursery.

Pick a learning theme of the year. I kept twenty new plants alive and thriving the year I made an herb bed and planted twenty different herbs just to learn how they grew. (FYI it’s easy to grow lots of ginger and one tansy plant is enough for the rest of your life.) Another year I focused on containers and planted containers of annuals each of one color in a matching pot.  So cute.  The focus on one kind of plant helped me be a better gardener.

Repetition I love one plant of every kind, but a designer friend showed me how cluttered and unattractive that can be.  Pick a few plants and repeat them and your garden will look professionally designed.  For example, in a perennial bed, plant one kind of grass as a “bones” of the bed and plant a few native flowers around the base of each grass.

So enjoy the season and the new plants…but make “Less is More” your mantra. Unless of course you have a full staff like Martha Stewart does.

A Tip for Impatient Gardeners

by Sandy Swegel

Gardening can be frustrating for people who hate to wait.  It’s not easy to speed Mother Nature along, so on a fine warm day, we find ourselves at the garden centers spending a lot of money on bedding plants or transplants.  Seed lovers know that is not always a good use of money.  Sure, if you didn’t start long season plants like tomatoes, it makes sense to buy a plant because you want lots of tomatoes soon, but here are some crazy plant starts I saw for sale this weekend:

Lettuce starts. Once the weather is warmer lettuce seeds will be growing in two or three days from seed.

Chard and kale starts. One grower was selling weak-stemmed red chard starts for $3. Sure they were organic, but you could buy an entire bunch of organic kale for less than that.

Bean starts. Beans germinate so easily that they are a reliable seed for kids to germinate for science projects.

Cucumber plants.  Another seed that comes up so easily all on its own.

Zucchini. Another plant that germinates quickly and then grows a foot when your back is turned. It doesn’t need a head start.

Pre-sprout your seeds if you’re in a hurry. If you’ve soaked peas overnight before planting, you’re already half-way to pre-sprouting your seed.  Take any seed and soak it overnight in water.  Then pour the damp seeds onto a paper towel or coffee filter and put in a baggie or put a plastic lid over it.  As soon as you see the first white roots coming out, you can (gently) plant them in your garden.  This works great for slow germinators like carrots, or old seeds.  My neighbor pre-sprouts all the big seeds like corn, beans and cucumber. She wants an orderly garden without having to do a lot of thinning…so when she puts pre-sprouted seeds every three inches….she knows that exactly where plants will come up.  This saves time thinning too.

Pre-sprouting doesn’t save me from spending some money on garden center plants. Besides tomatoes, I sometimes buy a winter squash that takes a long time to grow to maturity.  And I can rarely resist buying some flowering plants in bloom.  Little yellow marigolds and hot pink dianthus in full bloom are making my garden a happy place.

How to Transplant your Veggie Starts

by Sandy Swegel

You’ve done all the work of getting little seedlings started.  Maybe you’ve already hardened them off.  Now, planting them in your garden has a few tricks that can make a big difference in how many vegetables you get to eat.

“Breakfast-Lunch-Dinner” was one of the things I learned from a “mature” gardener who took pity on me when he saw the pitifully few tomatoes I had in my first garden.  This was something taught by the great biointensive gardener, Alan Chadwick. His idea was that if you raised little seedlings in nice light soil with fertilizer, like most of our seedling mixes, and then put it into hard not too fertile garden soil, the plants did poorly.  Instead, he advocated starting seeds in a flat with a good planting mixture, “Breakfast.”  Then he transplanted into a second flat of fresh soil for “Lunch.” Finally, he treated his plants to “Dinner”  when he put them in his loamy, fertile intensive beds.  The plants got over their transplant trauma because they were so happy about all the yummy things in their new home.

Transplanting like this actually stimulates new growth.  So before you plant your loved and coddled transplants, make sure the soil in their new home has compost and fertilizer and the soil has been loosened up so little roots can find their way.  And make big holes. No fair hurrying up to get the plant in the ground and just carving out a spot only as big as the pot you’re planting. You can see in the photos how big vegetable roots can be…you need to make sure that the whole root zone has good soil with nutrients.

Lots of food and minerals in well-composted soil will make your vegetables give you bountiful food!

For more info on “biointensive” gardens, I recommend the garden bible I use every year: “How to Grow More Vegetables” by John Jeavons.  His techniques really work.

Heads up . . . Danger

 

by Sandy Swegel

It is, alas, another snow day in Colorado.  May 1st brought us 12 inches of snow. We’re so happy for the moisture but very grumpy about not being able to play in the dirt.  Gardeners most often have our heads close to the ground. We’re weeding or digging or looking for bugs or vegetables.  Sometimes after an entire day nose to the ground, I have to remind myself to “Look Up”  There’s a whole world up there.

My favorite look-up experience was another May when I had scored some free leftover tulip bulbs at the Garden Center and was planting them not knowing but would happen.  (Incidentally, they immediately started making roots and a few bloomed in July!)  It was a fun day because I had five adorable foster kittens that had lost their mom and were living with me until they weighed two pounds when they could be adopted. So this was about as magical a May Day as there could be….planting tulip bulbs out of season and having tiny kittens leaping about in the dirt.  Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, an ominous shadow crossed over where I was digging.  How odd I thought. I hadn’t seen clouds.  Then the shadow appeared again.  I looked up.  And there was a large hawk circling down hoping to snag tender morsels of kittens for lunch!  I threw down the bulbs, frantically stuffed squirming bundles of kittens in my shirt and ran for the house.

Now I look up all the time.  Most days there are hawks, owls and even eagles atop every utility pole and treetop scanning the land for food. Even most fence posts have smaller birds looking for worms. Cranes lurk over the marsh. Nature is fraught with danger in ways civilized gardeners have forgotten. Frankly, we’re all being hunted.  My cat is stalking the mice that hide under the chicken coop.  The neighbor’s dog has a firm eye on the squirrel in the tree.  I can see footprints in the snow that showed the fox came from the thicket to make her early morning walk around the chicken coop just in case a chicken was loose.  Thank God the lions and tigers and bears aren’t living in the woods.  Well, wait, the mountain lions and bears are.  Be careful out there.

Another Reason to Love Dandelions

by Sandy Swegel

I may never pull another dandelion again.  Well, at least not in my yard.  But it was an utter joy to learn something new about dandelions yesterday while enjoying my morning coffee and looking out the window.  We’ve had a very late Spring with heavy snows and everyone is worried about the bees having enough food.  Dandelions started blooming seriously last week and I sat drinking coffee and watching at least forty bees feed on the patch of dandelions in pasture grass outside my window.  And then came the delight. A tiny house wren…one of those little birds that live by the hundreds in tree or thickets…flew down and delicately started pulling on the puffball of a dandelion seedhead.  With great industry, the bird pulled off two or three of the seeds at a time (and dandelion seeds are tiny) and teased them from the hairy chaff.  He stayed pulling off the seed and threshing them for several minutes.  Naturally by the time I got the camera he was back in the tree chirping away.

There’s so much beauty and bounty around us every moment.  All these years I’ve been gardening and I never noticed how much little birds depended on finding weed seeds.

 http://www.birdsinbackyards.neth