When I was five my parents took me to New York City for the flower show. I remember only two things from that trip, a redwood brought in for one of the landscape displays and my very first flower purchase. That redwood was awe inspiring but what little girl could resist the pull of a tiny flower that looks like a purple teddy bear? The argeratum, a low growing annual with tiny, fuzzy purple flowers, no longer fits my grown up tastes but thinking of them always makes me smile. However, some of my other early favorites have a secure place in my garden. The first of these old friends is not only purple but smells like grape candy. In fact, I’ve been inspired to write this post because they are in bloom now, the grape hyacinth. I can’t resist lying down on my belly and breathing them in!
Another grape-scented beauty I still love is a deep purple bearded iris. The unusual shape, again the fuzzy patch, the beard, on the falls was exciting to me. But that sweet grape scent was its greatest draw. These old-fashioned bearded irises are hard to find. Anyone who has one of these in their garden….I’d love to discuss a trade!
Others whose scent intoxicated my young brain were the lilac and lily of the valley. These both bloomed on my birthday. Since I have moved farther north I have to wait a month longer to enjoy them. The sense of smell plays an important role in the physiological effects of mood. Scents take a direct route to the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions of the brain related to emotion and memory. No wonder these fragrant beauties have cemented themselves in my mind.
I am first and foremost a gardener. But who among us couldn’t use a little help now and then? I don’t mean the two-legged kind that can be reluctant or not share your enthusiasm. No, I mean animals. There are many permaculture models that have cows on pasture, followed by sheep, followed by chickens. I am not interested in raising animals for meat. I am a meat-eater and have come to terms with what is means to nourish myself with the flesh of other living things. I have killed a chicken to eat and it has taught me what a gift it is and never to waste any part of it. Still, I don’t have the desire to raise and kill my own animals. I have made connections in the community with those who enjoy the raising of animals and all that entails and I am happy to support them with my purchasing dollars. My animal partners help me with gardening and don’t need to give up their lives to do so.
I have an 8,000 square foot vegetable garden, two hundred-foot flower borders, herb gardens, fruit orchards, and a food forest. This seems like a lot and it has evolved over 20 years but it is not a pasture farm with large animals described above. In fact, you could probably squeeze all this to an acre or two of land. So who are my animal helpers and what do they do for me? I keep chickens and bees and my garden flourishes as a result.
Incorporating animals is following nature’s example. It is ridiculous to think the basic rules are not in play in our own gardens just because we have taken on the role of orchestrator on our given plot. The first and most important rule of gardening with nature is to do no harm. No chemicals of any kind. No artificial fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides. None. If this is not how you are used to garden you may be afraid to let go. Trust me, the partners who come to help will more than make up for what may be lost by the occasional nibbling insect or invading weed. Clean healthy soil will encourage worms that aerate the soil and nourish it with their droppings. Putting up a few bird houses will encourage them to stick around for lunch and eat unwanted insects. I once had been dismayed by squash beetles that had descended on tender transplants I had recently put out. They were covered and I feared were a total loss. Rather than have an empty patch I added a pretty trellis my sons had made for me. I went in and attempted to soothe myself with a cup of tea on the deck which overlooks the garden. While sitting there I saw a bird land on the perch, look down and seem to be delighted at the feast below. He dropped to the bed and gobbled up all the beetles. I had a bumper crop of squash after all! Now I always add perches for these helpers. I could also wax poetic on the value of the microorganisms and fungi in the soil and how they feed the plants. But the truth is, follow rule number one and you can reap the rewards of the soil microcosm without needing to know the details.
Now the the animals I “hire,” these animal partners and I work together for mutual success. First the chickens. I keep layers. So the first, obvious gift I receive is eggs. But too many folks overlook how helpful chickens in the garden can be. We (read: my dear husband) used to muck out the chicken coop regularly and compost this for a year or so until it was ready to add to the garden beds. We have found easier, faster ways to have the chickens help build our soil. If you haven’t yet heard of a “chicken tractor” look it up and find one that works for you. Basically, this is a moveable coop that is either bottomless or has a mesh bottom (use 1″ mesh) so manure falls through. No more mucking out the chicken coop!! Simply move the coop around your garden. The chickens will scratch to their hearts content eating insects and weed seeds and dropping their fertilizer and scratching it in to the soil. Often times not much else is necessary to prepare the bed. Simply rake it smooth, add an inch or so of compost mulch then your bed is ready to plant or seed. This is best done in the early spring and late fall, before or after planting. During the summer, I rotate the “girls” on my orchards, food forest, and lawns. In winter, I add a foot thick bed of wood chips to my greenhouse (plastic high-tunnel). I roll in their nest boxes and put in a few perches. They scratch and poop all winter into this mulch creating a lovely compost to add to my beds the next season. You only need 3 square feet per bird. I also throw all my kitchen scraps to them over the winter. Chickens are wonderful alchemists turning garbage to garden gold!
Not to be outdone, my other partners, the bees also serve me in two ways. They give me honey of course and pollinate my fruits, vegetables and flowers. In return I give them houses (hives) and protection from bears. The keeping of bees does take a bit of courage but once you have made friends it is a thrilling undertaking. Most of you know that bee populations have been declining over the past few decades. This has the potential to be devastating to worldwide food production which relies on these and other insects for pollination. Keeping your own can help restore the wild populations as well as pollinate not only your plants but those in the wild that birds and others wildlife need for survival. I plant many of their favorites in the garden like sweet alyssum, poppies, and herbs like lovage and parsley that I let go to seed. They return the favor with beautiful flowers and bountiful harvests. Then their golden honey keeps me sweet all winter!
What a leap of faith it is to start seeds in February. To wake up early on a February morning to feed the woodstove and note not that it’s 5F outside but that the sun is up even earlier today, is belief in tomorrow. To think that this bitter cold, snow covered morning is the day to start seeds may seem madness to some; the true believers know that spring really is just around the corner.
So, I prepare. I have a tall stainless steel shop shelving unit that I picked up at an auction years ago. It works well for seeds because the shelves are adjustable. I have most set about a foot apart which gives me enough room for the seed trays and to hang the shop lights above on a chain two inches above the plants. The shelves are not solid and are water resistant so water drips down to the level below. I use an old plastic toboggan as a water and soil catching tray on the floor under the bottom shelf. Each shelf is the width of a seed tray placed the short way. I set up two four-foot shop lights with reflectors side-by-side per shelf for two shelves. I have one shelf with no lights but with a bottom heat source. I use a rubber, heated floor mat for this then repurpose the mat in the shop to warm my feet in the late fall. This shelf is for germination which requires heat but not light. Finally, I have a taller shelf for potting up larger, tender plants that need to be kept warm until being set out after frost. I store a collection of pots and trays on top. This set-up allows me to start hundreds of seeds in only 10 square feet of floor space.
My favorite seed starting and potting mix is called BM1 a peat based mix from Canada. I soak the mix well with water in a pail to the consistency of chocolate pudding before adding it to trays and seeding. Then I don’t water again for about a week so as not to disturb the seed and burgeoning roots. I have trays in an assortment of sizes. I almost always start seeds at a very large density in a small six-pack size tray then transplant them to individual cell trays. the most common size I use are the 50 cell and 72 cell per tray sizes. Occasionally I transplant a second time to a 2″ or 4″ pot. I do this for plants I will sell as well as tomatoes who like to be transplanted and are kept indoors for longer than most.
What I plant is dependent on two things: the date I plan to plant outdoors (the cold-hardiness of the plant) and the time it takes to get to plant out size. This is generally speaking 4 weeks after germination for most plants. Germination time, however, can be quite variable from a couple of days to 3 weeks. More specifically, onions are the first seeds I plant, then hardy greens like lettuce and spinach, then parsley because it takes a long time to germinate, and cilantro because it thrives in the cold to name a few. Observe, take notes, and don’t expect to get everything right. This is an art form with nature as collaborator; learn to work with her.
The forgotten dimension, the vertical. The lack of this one feature is the easiest way to spot a beginning gardener. And conversely, the easiest way to make your garden look as good as anything in a glossy magazine spread is to add vertical interest. Vertical interest can be defined as anything that rises at or above eye level. This interest can be plant material or hardscape. When creating two very large perennial flower boarders for my son’s wedding I added six 8-foot tuteurs (wooden towers) painted a deep purple. They added color, continuity, and height to a new garden making it appear more mature than it was.
Staggering heights in a flower garden also adds interest. Don’t fall into the trap of regimented tall plants in the back with medium and low growers in front. Mix it up a bit and have a surprise tall spike here and there upfront. The classic English mixed perennial border is when trees and shrubs are combined with perennial flowers. This combination guarantees vertical interest. Be careful to pay attention to the mature heights and widths when adding these larger elements. If you only have room for a small garden anchoring it with one well-chosen shrub will suffice.
Vegetable garden interest and productivity are also enhanced by growing up! Examples are pole beans growing up a bamboo tepee or simply adding tall crops like corn or sunflowers to the mix. Similar to the tuteurs in the flower boarder, paint a post a fun color and top it with a birdhouse. Grow a vining flower or vegetable on it or not, it’s up to you. Vegetables that grow on vines can be trained to grow up on a support. Try cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, peas, beans, gourds, or even tomatoes. The types of supports they can grow on is only limited by your imagination. Use upcycled materials when you can. An old gate, a recently pruned or fallen tree branch (white birch looks especially good used this way), the base of an old standing lamp are some examples. Building a trellis using a piece of fencing or hog wire which is very heavy gauge fencing that comes in 4’x20’ panels, works well for heavier vegetables like pumpkins. Attaching it to metal or wooden posts makes a great archway entrance to your vegetable garden. If you have a small poly tunnel for starting seeds, you can remove the plastic in the summer and use the upright hoops to train vines. This has the added benefit of creating a shaded area underneath to set up a sitting or dining area. Add fairy lights…magical.
I have gardens that are mostly vegetables and gardens that are mostly flowers but none are exclusively one or the other. I simply don’t think that way. I prefer to blur the lines. There are too many beautiful vegetables to not include in the flower garden. Bright Lights Chard has gorgeous colorful stems and leaf veins that look great in flower beds. Ruby Perfection cabbages are fabulous edging the garden or anchoring the corners. Scarlet Runner beans or Dwarf Grey peas are as beautiful on a trellis as any flower vine. Leeks are biennials that flower and go to seed in their second year. Planted in the flower garden they reward you with their giant steel blue globes. Parsley and cilantro also serve double duty when they flower in tall delicate clouds. Even common parsnips form a statuesque golden umbrella flower. All of these flowers in addition to being beautiful, attract beneficial insects. The insects benefit plants by pollinating for greater production or eating the eggs and larvae of harmful insects.
Flowers are equally helpful in the vegetable garden. Marigolds are famous for reducing nematode worm populations in the soil. I love Lemon Gem and Tangerine Gem marigolds that are named for their color and scent. The best crop of squash and pumpkins I ever had was the year I planted Sweet Allysum all around the bed. The bees loved it and stopped for a while on the squash blossoms in between getting drunk on the alyssum! So now I always plant drifts of Sweet Allysum for the bees. And the poppies, everywhere the poppies, they attract the bees and me! My favorite is “Lauren’s Grape.” I planted hundreds in honor of my beautiful daughter-in-law, Lauren, to bloom on her wedding day.
The herbs go everywhere. Herbs give beauty, scent, flavor, and protection. Herbs make good companion plants. A companion plant is one that improves the growth of its neighbor. Some herbs confuse hungry plant-eating insects who rely on scent to find their food. The strong aromas of herbs dominate the subtler scent of vegetables. Dill deters cabbage beetles and basil deters tomato hornworm, for example. While others use their scent to attract pollinators like lovage, a tall, celery scented perennial herb. Some herbs like yarrow and comfrey improve the health of the plants around them by improving the soil. Both use their long tap roots to bring nutrients deep in the soil up to the surface to be used by other shallower rooted plants. And comfrey is an excellent mulch adding nutrients to the soil as its leaves break down. Additionally, herbs help the gardener by releasing their perfume to soothe and invigorate the weary weeder.
This is the potager, a French word for vegetable soup, filled to the brim with the practical and the beautiful. So break the rules and mix it up a bit!
The first rule of the successful gardener is to work with nature not against it. Every plant has a range of optimum conditions for growth. Learn what your plants like and they will reward you with abundance. For example, some plants are cold tolerant compared to others that are heat-lovers. This fact is helpful in spreading out the work in the garden. You need not wait until the last frost date to plant cold tolerant types. After these are up and running you can turn your attention to the heat-lovers.
As soon as the ground is dry enough to work in the Spring, (between March 30 and April 15th in my Zone 4b/5a garden) make smooth seed beds for carrots, beets, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, peas, and lettuce to name a few. They can hold steady through some cold days or nights. As soon as the conditions are right they will take off. By early May you could already be harvesting tender greens.
Note that cold tolerant plants conversely are usually sensitive to heat. Lettuce can be grown very early in spring but goes quickly to seed when the temps start to climb.* These cold tolerant plants can be grown again in the fall when in cools down. Just make sure you leave enough time for them to mature. To do this you need to know two things, the number of days to maturity (from the seed packet) and the date of first fall frost in your area (call your agriculture extension office if you don’t know). Cold tolerant vegetables can withstand frost and colder temps into the fall as well as the spring. Figure about one month past your fall frost date and count back the number of days to maturity for your vegetable. That is the last date you can plant and expect to have a fall harvest. In my area I plant carrots in early July for fall (and winter).
After the threat of frost is past in Spring, you can seed your heat loving plants. Now is the time to plant green beans, corn, zucchini, and cucumbers. When planting seeds always prepare a smooth bed. Summer’s heat and plenty of water will have you picking bumper crops of these veggies.
You may have noticed I have left out many common garden vegetables. These are the ones best started indoors or in a cold frame and transplanted later into the garden.
Transplants are required when there aren’t enough warm days in summer to guarantee a mature crop. Remember the “days to maturity” mentioned above? This implies number of days at optimal temperatures. Tomatoes need days over 80F and nights no colder than 65F. To get that, I need to start these indoors several weeks before the last frost date and plant the established plants after all danger of frost is past. Other plants that require this are peppers, winter squash, pumpkins, and eggplant. So, find out the first and last frost date in your area to see which plants can be grown directly from seed and which need to be transplanted.
*Staggered planting times
In addition to an early planting of lettuce above, guarantee fresh heads by planting a dozen or so seeds every few weeks in Spring and again in late summer into fall. This isn’t necessary for plants like kale and chard that have a wide heat tolerance. Cut leaves rather than the whole plant and come back again and again as the plant continually grows new leaves.