Ponderosa Pines are easy trees to love. They smell like vanilla cupcakes, maple syrup and sausages, or pineapple to some lucky noses, and when the sun strikes them in the right way, they light up like pillars of pink salt. 40 to 150 foot tall pillars that can reach up to 8 feet wide and 600 years old under the best conditions. And they are everywhere, pouring over the Rocky Mountains, covering the southwest, and standing off against the prairies to the east.
The Scottish botanist David Douglas named them for their “ponderous” size (he hadn’t seen the Redwoods yet) but Ponderosas have a particular aspect and mood that goes beyond bigness, approaching the sublime. Qualities that have everything to do with two factors: drought and fire.
Drought forces their roots deeper and wider than most conifers, spacing them well apart and making Ponderosa forests feel airy, peaceful and light. Dry seasons inevitably lead to combustion, whether by lightning strike or, now, by people who grasp how deeply fire is woven into the character of Western woods.
In fact, Ponderosas are quite literally fire bugs. They need it so bad, they provide their own kindling by continually shedding bark and limbs en mass every year. Bare trunks keep flames from reaching vital crowns and lanky, draping needles shield their cones from heat. Brush fires clear out shade-bearing competitors like White Pine or Incense Cedar without seriously injuring older trees. At the same time fire coaxes sap into the lowest, deepest parts of Ponderosa trunks, bracing the heartwood so it can stand under its own weight for hundreds of years.
Fire is tough, necessary love. It’s the natural history lesson of a century and a funny thing to learn from any tree.
When it comes to understanding container gardening, my old boss came up with a saying I like to use: ‘first you thrill, then you spill.‘ I think it gets at two of the most crucial elements to crafting a real whizzbanger of a pot quite nicely. Here’s three great tips for making a great garden container:
1. Height: Height is part of the ‘thrill’ element of a pot. You need something eye catching. A colorful, vivid, imposing ‘je ne sais quoi’ to firmly establish the pot’s presence in the world. Choose foliage over flowers for this part of the display- something that will give you volume and bulk. A great summer choice are canna lilies, as is woodland tobacco, or a big plume of elephant ears.
2. Stuffing: This is what goes along the edges of the pot and gets crammed in in every available blank space. No bare patches allowed. Feel free to choose 1-3 different annuals to make it interesting, but don’t select anything that will compete with the size of your background anchor plant. Something with lacy, differently colored foliage that stands out, like any of the wormwoods, is a good choice here. You can’t go wrong with coleus, either. Even something like coral bells is great for stuffing- the airy flowers it produces midsummer add another element to the mix, too. I like to use some of the salvias here. Don’t be afraid to step it up a notch on the color and texture. This is the layer to do it with.
3. Spill: My favorite part, this is where you can get buck-wild messy. Lantana is a failsafe for full sun and it comes in a myriad of tropical popsicle colors. Million bells is good in the same way. For shade, sweet potato vine is tenacious and brilliantly lime-green or purple, however you want it. And if you’re looking for an upward climber, try moonflower- it blooms at night!
While you’re at it, don’t forget the golden rule of container gardening: water, water, water.
Image by Helen O’Donnell
May 15th is the traditional cut off date for a final frost. Meaning, starting next week, everything goes – in your garden. I will be seeding watermelons and transplanting chile peppers. As you prepare to fill your summer plot, consider not only what you’re planting, but where you’re planting. The logic and tradition of companion planting is based on setting up mutually beneficial relationships between plants. This method of organization can encourage pest control and stimulate vigorous growth. It is even said to produce tastier tomatoes.
Every plant demands and provides differently – absorbing certain soil nutrients, attracting specific pests while repelling others. It makes sense, then, to arrange your garden in a way that takes advantage of these individual properties. Companion Planting originated with the Native American custom of the “Three Sisters” guild. Historically, Native Americans would plant corn, squash and beans side by side on a small plot of land. The tall stalks of corn provided trellis for the beans, while the sprawling squash offered ground cover, stamping out potential weeds. Beans, a legume, are nitrogen fixing, and will not disturb nutrient intake of corn or squash.
Trap crops are another example of companion planting. If you are concerned about squash bugs attacking your cucumber bed, plant zucchini nearby. Summer squash leaves are sweeter and more preferable to the pests, thus deterring them from your main crop cukes.
Overtime, growers have collectively developed a comprehensive guide to companion planting. Inevitably, these guides are part truth, part lore, but in any case, a home garden offers the perfect scale in which to trial some of this knowledge. We can’t tend to our garden at all times, so why not let the plants themselves do some of the work?
Here are a few suggestions:
Basil with tomatoes – repels tomato hornworms
Nasturtiums with squash – deters squash bugs
Radishes and cucumbers – trap crop for cucumber beetles
Lettuce and carrots – for best flavor of both
Bee balm and tomatoes – for enhanced tomato flavor
Tomatoes and lettuce – tall trellis can provide welcome shade for tender greens
So, if you haven’t picked up on it yet let me tell you again: I am lazy. Fortunately the natural world is so beautifully accomodating, I haven’t yet found any incentive to turn over a new leaf and become a new me. Lazy suits me just fine. Which is why I’m partial to growing natives, particularly in the garden setting where they do all the growing work themselves. Below are my top three edible natives- where you can get ‘em and how to treat them right. Sit back, and enjoy.
The Ramp: Yeah, you’ve all heard of it before, but how many of you have actually gotten off your lazy behinds and grown it yourselves? The farmer’s market is a lot easier, right? (I know, I know. Look who’s talking). Rule numero uno when buying native plants for food, particularly in farmers markets is this: ALWAYS ask your vendor where their product comes from. If it’s wild foraged, stay away from it. Ramps are rare in the state of Vermont, and they take a long time to reach maturity in any of the woods that they’re found. A single picker can decimate a population in no time, and then what? There’s no coming back from that. Give ramps moist, rich garden soil and plenty of early springtime light and they will perform like total gems in the garden setting, steadily taking over if given ample space. This website sells both ramp seeds and bulbs.
Stinging Nettle: This beast is tough to wrangle. I love it for its nutritious, succulent spring greens and usefulness in cleansing tonics. It seems to pop up everywhere around my house, thriving in the sandiest of soils and hottest locations. However, give it good garden soil and it will go NUTS. So be careful, because this mother stings (hence the name- we all got that, right?). The cool weather of spring gives nettles an almost buttery texture and they are supremely tender when steamed. Buy the seeds here or venture out into your local park later in the summer with a pair of snips- you’re sure to find a tenancious specimen in seed.
Miner’s Lettuce: This plant is a rare example of an exceptionally yummy garden variety weed that Americans took to Europe- and not the other way around. Dandelions, chickweed, mustard, and lots of other popular edible plants are European in origin- having arrived here in the ballast soil of ships and other supplies the colonist brought over hundreds of years ago. Miner’s lettuce was first discovered, named by botanists, and cultivated as an edible on the west coast. What a joy its been since! Buy the seeds at Territorial. The plants are cold hardy, and can almost tolerate those early unpredictable spring frosts. They like freely draining rich soil, but they’re beautifully weedy and will tolerate just about any circumstances (just the way I like it!).
You may be thinking – I don’t need no plants. In reality you do. Plants improve air quality in your home by filtering out volatile compounds and capturing dust providing some relief to those with allergies and asthma. More so, according to The Journal of Environmental Psychology, they improve your mood. People with houseplants tend to be in better spirits, suffer less stress and have more energy. While that’s all well and good – if you live in city, ideal growing situations are hard to come by. Here’s a list of some easy to care for, low light plants perfect for dark corners and shallow lit windowsills.
1. THE MONEY TREE
Walk into any plant store and you’ll be sure to find a Money Tree with its signature braided trunks. The myth is – the healthier and bigger your Money Tree, the more financial success your home will yield. (My tree is huge and lovely, but I’m still awaiting). Known to be prolific in low light, the plant is certainly an apartment dwellers best friend. They’re easy to care for requiring attention once a week or less depending on your growing environment. As a note – upon relocating the plant to your home, you may see a few leaves scattering to the floor. There’s no need to worry. This a normal shock that the plant goes through upon entering a new environment.
2. SNAKE PLANT
The Snake plant with its sword shape leaves loves medium light and can fair well in low light. This plant doesn’t require a lot of effort either. Water and walk away. The danger here is over0-watering if anything. Native to tropical Africa, this plant is also known as Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, and is known to improve air quality in the home. Asthma? Allergies? This one is for you.
3. CAST IRON PLANT
This was the first houseplant I ever had and bless its soul. The Cast Iron is indestructible. Or, close to anyway. If you have a habit of neglecting your plants, the Cast Iron is for you. Spotty watering? Incredibly low light? No problem. The only drawback is that it grows slowly, so buy a plant whose size you are relatively happy with it.
4. PEACE LILY
The Peace Lily renowned for its ability to neutralizes toxins such as carbon monoxide making it perfect for your city crib. The other benefit is a every plant owners dream. Essentially, the plant will tell you when to water it by letting it’s leaves sag and fall forward. In general, watering once a week is a good plan. For best results – keep the plant more than a few feet away from a window as it prefers indirect light.
Peperomia are all around winners. They’re easy to grow, compact and with a lovely coloring to their leaves. These plants don’t require very much attention, which makes a perfect houseplants for beginners. Most peperomia require moderate to low light. These guys love humidity so a good spritzing of the leaves on watering day will go miles to creating a happy plant.
The best tools always feel like a natural extension of your own body. A simple hand weeder perfectly demonstrates the beauty of an intuitive, efficient tool.
The best time to weed is as soon as you see a thin carpet of unwanted green surrounding your plants. Obviously, it would be far too tedious to pull each tiny sprout by hand. Luckily, a sharp hand hoe can clear an entire area in a single swipe. Glide the blade along the soil at a shallow depth – just deep enough to kill the blanket of weeds without disturbing the soil too aggressively. Be careful, of course, to avoid cutting the plants you are trying to save. In fact, when you are first getting used to the tool, it is a good idea to hold the stem of the planted crop with your free hand as you weed around it with the other. A new hand hoe will have a sharp tip at the edge of its blade. It is wise to file down this point to further prevent accidental slicing.
By May there will be twice as much happening in your garden. Now is the time to get a good, thorough pass on your rows. The weeds will inevitably persist, but clearing them at this early, mid-spring stage will at least save you more arduous battles later.
Spring is a time to clean, detox, and investigate how we feel in our bodies. Ask these kinds of questions: Do I feel sluggish or energized? Is my skin clear or broken out? Am I excited about life? Indifferent? Depressed? When it comes to my mind and body, if something is feeling off I turn to nature. I’ll smell the Jasmine, walk through a Redwood grove, lay in the grass (unless, of course, my allergies are acting up). It’s not a coincidence that there are so many natural remedies. The healing is there, we just have to find it!
Feeling tired, anxious, and behind in everything, I decided to give up caffeine this Spring. I was addicted, so I slowly weaned off until cutting it out entirely. It was then than I turned to my savior: Dandelion Root. Though the flower (Taraxacum) is a pestering weed to many, I wouldn’t hack it away so fast. Health-wise it detoxes the liver, promotes healthy digestion, and aids weight loss. It is a brilliant substitute for caffeine, serving as an energy boost and a taste twin. The roasted root is toasty and bitter in flavor, emulating those comforting qualities of coffee.
You can buy prepackaged tea bags at any health food store or try a home remedy. The roots and leaves provide the most nutrients (add flowers for a flavor burst), just make sure to chose dandelions that have not been sprayed. Once you’re past the caffeine withdrawals, you won’t miss the coffee, the jitters or the sleepless nights. You’ll feel just dandy.
Fennel’s not my favorite and I was reminded of this when I brushed my teeth the other day. I borrowed some Tom’s of Maine toothpaste and it was fennel flavored. My reaction was one of distaste—similar to when I take a sip of the spirit Fernet or dabble with anything licorice flavored. With some reflection, I found myself inspired by my repulsion and eager to learn some more about this plant species, Foeniculum vulgare. After all, it makes its way into many delicious salad, soup, and pizza recipes. It’s a staple of Italian cuisine (one of my favorites) and it lines many of California’s winding roads, resembling one of my favorite flowers: Queen Anne’s Lace.
First finding: it’s a member of the parsley family. Not great news to me because I’m also not a fan of that herb (along with cilantro). I keep trucking away though—grasping for a bite. A few more findings: fennel can be used as an herbal remedy to sooth digestion, calm spasms, and clear respiratory passages. Not bad, fennel. Another pro (and possibly the deal-breaker for yours truly): the strong aromatic properties of fennel mellow exponentially the longer it cooks.
Best news yet: fennel is a multipurpose plant, perfect for gardening. The entire plant is edible. It offers fine, feathery leaves to be used as kitchen herbs, aromatic seeds for seasoning, a vegetable bulb for sauteing, braising, roasting, etc, and thick stalks to enjoy as you would celery. Although I won’t be eating fennel raw anytime soon (and it’s likely I’ll stick to mint toothpaste), I’m willing to grill it up and do as the Italians do.
Longwood Gardens is surely one of the best and brightest botanic gardens in the U.S. Known for their artistic endeavors and research rigor, the garden is also a force in the cultural conversation around community, as well as climate.
Today, I’ve been asked to speak at their Garden Educator’s Forum, “Changing the Conversation - Communicating Climate Change.” Not because I am as well versed in the science. My fellow speakers Steve DelGreco, Acting Chief of The Climate Services and Monitoring Division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center (whew) or Caroline Lewis, Founder and Director of The CLEO Institute are taking care of being the experts. Rather, I am here because of my past as a digital advertising executive, someone whose job it was to help big brands engage people in online spaces from Facebook to search engine optimization. I hope to inspire and educate the leaders of America’s best public gardens on how social media can help educate their communities, as well as those on the fence about climate change.
Let’s face it – the new reality is here evidenced by the change in gardening zones to the effects on our food cycle and extreme weather such as Sandy. Each region in the world, the U.S. has and will face its own unique challenges, but the innumeral long term effects to our biodiversity are a global concern.
What does this all mean for you? At the micro level, it might change your idea of how and what you plant. It’s been so interesting thus far to consider questions about planning in lieu of climate change. For example, as DelGreco pointed out, “Should someone in the Northeast be replacing a fallen maple tree taken out by Sandy? Probably not with another maple tree.” There’s also been a lot of talk about the small things gardeners can do to make a difference in preparing and also, slowing down climate change.
It’s easy to get lost in the big headlines and old school talk centered around things like recycling. Take a step back and really learn about what climate change means. You can also watch PBS’ Earth, The Operators Manual. Pretty fantastic. For gardeners, check out The Climate Conscious Gardener, which outlines small things that you can do that can make a big impact.
I am pleased as punch to be part of this conversation today. I need to start thinking about what I’m going to do, because honestly – I’m not doing my part… yet.
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