Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Mother of All Days: Pleasing the Woman Who Runs Your Garden

I have to give my kid brother credit. He’s a good boy. Makes his mother proud. And it grassed me no end that he already had her yard raked, plucked, and staked out for planting before the snow was even thinking of leaving my gardens. Of course, mom lives in the banana belt in Anchorage and her garden thinks it’s in Vancouver. But, being shown up by a novice and your kid brother at that? Well. Really. On the upside, the ‘kid’s’ loathe to admit he’s gaining on fifty and pretty soon his rake arm will be handing out twenties to a neighborhood kid to do the annual cleanup. ‘Kid brother’, indeed. Yeah, well, I have to keep him in line somehow.

She doesn't look 86 does she?
I, on the other hand, have the goods. I’ve got Mother’s Day covered in spades this year. Tall cosmos, sunflowers, bachelor buttons, calendulas, dahlias, and lilies are all ready to go in mom’s containers and garden. The ‘kid’ gets to plant them for me. And mom. Sibling rivalry. It’s a good thing.

Looking at the brown mess in the garden I can’t help but wish someone had my Mother’s Day covered. There are still my garden beds to clean up. If I’d done it in the fall I’d be home free, but, the pre-snow winds would have redistributed my soil to the inlet and beyond. At least, that’s my excuse. Usually, there’s just me to do the cleanup of three gardens, pot up stuff in the greenhouse, dig out the over wintered pots from the cold frames, turn the compost, get the greenhouse ready for opening, do the artwork, water, stay sane, water some more, plant some more, rake, stake, and drop. Argh.

Ah, real food ! Thanks, mom.

But, hey, voila! An email from my own ‘good boy’. He’s clearing his calendar, packing his bag, coming home for a week and he’s ready to dig lilacs, divide perennials, and help his mom . . . for Mother’s Day? Right. No, the way you finagle a deal like this is you loan your young adults money. There’s nothing like owing mom and dad to keep your priorities straight when it comes to developing a love of gardening. And you don’t have to buy mom anything for Mother’s Day. You don’t have the money, anyway.

So, what are you doing for Mother’s Day this year? You’ve got all week to think about it. Actually, you’ve only got a week left to get the woman who runs your garden something to keep you out of the dog house. Here are a few tips to stay out of the penalty box:

-Dad, buy her a new rake. But, get one with an attached yard slave. Tie a nice bow around your ten year old and fix his hair.

-Kids, recycle mom’s old hand tools and spray paint the handles day-glo pink. She won’t lose them in the garden anymore. Don’t worry. If she’s not amused you can always blame it on dad.

-Want to get mom out of the house? Why not get her a garden club membership? The Valley Garden Club meets on the first Tuesday of each month (except July) at 10:30 am. Membership costs $20/calendar year. For more information call Jill Parson, 892-0993 or Florene Carney, 376-5390. For those of you in the northern end of the valley there’s North Root Big Lake Gardeners. They’ve got a full calendar of events happening on different days, so for more information call Linda Lockhart at 892-8112. Memberships are $10 per person, $15 per couple or $25 for a family.

-Does your wife throw up her hands in despair at the lumpy lawn and that dead tree you bought her at the hardware store last year? Get her a garden design consultation with a skilled professional from one of the local nurseries. Your garden will thank you and your neighbors will, too.

-Darling. Take your woman out for breakfast and a long leisurely drive, checkbook firmly tucked in your back pocket, and a little mood music on the radio. Then hit the local nurseries that are brimming with colorful plants and toys for your garden. Put a little romance in those flower beds. Think of gardening as a couple’s thing that you do so the woman who runs your weekends will let you watch the playoffs. A little champagne and showing off your skills with a wheelbarrow will do wonders for your relationship.

Remember. Mother’s Day isn’t just a day for mothers. Women think of it as a whole different anniversary than the one you usually forget. You get to shop for the whole Rose bush this time. And don’t forget the chocolates!

Stop in and visit Brooke this month at WoolWood Studio & Gardens up on Lazy Mountain in Palmer., 746-3606.

Smart Gardeners Celebrate Earth Day with a Local View

On the drive into town, I’d been thinking about my column for Earth Day. Slowing down to enjoy the morning sunshine I tuned in to the discussion on National Public Radio’s Science Friday (KSKA fm 91.1, April 13) about global warming. Authors Bill McKibben, Deep Economy, and Chris Goodall, How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, had the idea that there was something we as individuals can do to effect positive change that doesn’t rely on waiting for those dinosaurs - politicians and the corporations – to do it for us; unless, like my husband, you’re anticipating beach front property on Lazy Mountain in 2020.

The late E.F. Schumacher, economist and author of Small is Beautiful, would’ve been tickled to hear that we need to start thinking small if we want to change the big picture. Of course, people don’t like change very much; they like to preserve things, to keep things as they remember them. Yet, change is such an elemental part of the universe. A small change can be quite devastating or it can make a whole new world depending on your perspective. Of course, it’s the big changes that get all the media attention and the red carpet into our anxieties about the future and our place in the order of things. The big changes are surprisingly reliant on the incremental effects of small changes, however.

Global warming. Climate change. Call it what you will, it is happening. Even the Governor says so. ‘Isn’t it a natural cycle?’ you say. Yes, some of it is. Maybe a lot of it is. But, it’s the little things that add up that can push nature over the edge. We’re the little things, and we’re pushing as hard as we can. We’re a very successful little critter in the grand scheme of things. We have natural cycles, too. Our civilizations start as tiny villages, grow up to be cities, outgrow the available resources, and then - they crash. Archaeologists and historians have been making a good living off these successful extinctions for years. While change is necessary to growth and success, we are rapidly becoming too successful for our own good.

What’s this got to do with gardening? Both McKibben and Goodall suggest that we need to change to thinking in ‘local’ terms about our economies and daily activities. Goodall points out that a major source of the world’s carbon emissions, the stuff that’s helping climate change along, is produced by the world’s food industry. It takes tremendous amounts of fossil fuels to power farms and make fertilizer to grow our food, to process food, transport and store food, and to transport folks like us driving off to the store to buy all this stuff. Add in the steel and iron used, methane from the dairy industry, carbon dioxide from intensive farming techniques, and you leave a large carbon footprint on the earth.

Interestingly, Goodall notes that you produce less carbon if you drive your car to the market to buy a bag of locally grown organic carrots than you would if you walked to the same store to buy a granola bar bought from a California-based company.

What can you do? Buy local whenever possible, which means supporting our local farmers and nurseries. Are your local nurseries growing their own plants from seeds, cuttings and divisions, or tiny plugs; the smallest units they can ship in? Big box stores ship in weighty pots of ‘retail ready’ plants that are part of the larger carbon emissions problem. And, while these plants are cheaper than those from smaller nurseries, they are often poorly cared for with poor survival rates. Local organic farmers use no fossil fuel-based fertilizers that could otherwise taint our streams, lakes, and coastal waters through rainfall runoff; a major cause of algae which feeds the coastal red tides making local clams and shellfish toxic.

So, grow your own food, go fishing, mow the lawn less, use a rake instead of a blower, or ask your local power company to look into green options for electrical generation, these are little changes we can make. Check out for some good information on reasonable changes you can make to mitigate global warming. I’m sending KSKA a check so I can keep listening to Science Friday. Maybe send a ‘thank you’ note to Governor Palin, for her new sub cabinet to study the effects of global warming in Alaska. Be a smart gardener and get active for your community when you’re not down on your knees pulling weeds!


Saturday, April 14, 2007

How to Get a Nicotiana Fix and Stop Smoking

Weeding out tobacco addicts is all the rage these days.Smokers are having their habits restricted in cities all overthe world. Even the French are regulating this most iconic symbol of the Paris café. I smell regime change in the air. But, pitchforks aside, as these crusades go, we tend to lose sight of the significance of the plant behind the story. Tobacco, the first major export from the New World, formed the backbone of colonial American agriculture. From this rugged Native American plant has come many beautiful and fragrant bedding flowers, a highly effective insecticide, a major tax source, and a world-wide addiction industry.

Nicotine is named after Jean Nicot, the consul of the King ofFrance, who introduced tobacco to Paris in 1560 to promote its medicinal use. It was the alkaloid, nicotine, a highly addictive chemical attracted to the brain’s pleasure centers that made this plant the new ‘New’ in agriculture and European society. Nicotine is an alkaloid found in the deadly nightshade family of plants. It is an aptly named group, but, one that includes such family favorites as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, green peppers, and petunias. These alkaloids are also found in the leaves of the coca plant, a South American native, which forms the backbone of the cocaine industry. Both nicotine and cocaine have their medicinal benefits, but, you’ll have to go to the library to read up on that one. It would seem that humans are continually searching for ways to abuse their systems with vegetable matter. Of course, it would be equally harmful if we were to be fixated on potato chips and popcorn.

Tobacco is a beautiful plant that not only packs a wallop to your central nervous system; it is one of the few poisons insects have not evolved a resistance to. Nicotine is a very effective defense for the tobacco plant. I’ve seen clusters of dead gnats stuck to the sticky and fuzzed surfaces of the enormous leaves of my five foot tall specimens of Nicotiana sylvestris, a lovely white flowered evening-scented ornamental annual. Remember the word ‘neurotoxin’ next time you want to fall off the wagon and light up. Pretend you’re an aphid. Rumor has it a florist once sat on a chair that had some nicotine insecticide spilled on it and lapsed into a coma for a couple of days! Nicotine insecticides can kill you as well as those bugs on your roses. As in the transdermal nicotine patch, the insecticide also passes into the blood stream via contact with your skin, so, wear gloves while using it and a respirator. Some organic gardeners make insecticidal sprays from tomato leaves, tobacco’s cousin, which they grind up and soak in water. Ironically, you cannot use tobacco products around tomatoes or other nightshade cousins or you may spread the Tobacco Mosaic Virus. For those of you who abhor tomatoes I recommend for a good laugh.

After reading Kevin Bourzac’s Nicotine I am amazed that we haven’t outlawed the growing of Nicotiana in the home garden. The government has regulated the sales of the popular annual Papaver somniferum making it difficult to find seeds of many garden varieties. Opium poppies. Those poppy seeds in the bulk bin at the grocery store are Papaver somniferum, or renamed ‘bread seed poppies,’ and have a low level of opiates in them. And those gorgeous blood red poppies with the lush blue green foliage that we all love. Well, you get the idea. Ah, the vagaries of law enforcement when confronted by the adventurous gardener. I hope we don’t protect ourselves to the point that we’ll be stocking our garden beds with everlasting plastic flowers. Even the pink garden flamingo is thankfully extinct now!

N. langsdorfii

Fight the garden nannies and start some Nicotiana before it’s too late. You won’t regret it. They’re easy to grow and come in sizes to fit any garden. Huge, tropical, and lush, the Nicotiana varieties langsdorfii, sylvestris and alata have white and green flowers that perfume the evening garden. With heights ranging from three to five feet, two of these plants will take up a space big enough for a bathtub. Tobacco seeds like N. Tabacum, the South American native and N. rustica, the North American ‘Indian’ or ‘Wild’ varieties, or the variegatum, a variegated plant with huge leaves splashed with cream can be found at Solana Seeds and J. L. Hudson's Seeds. They’re the real thing, but, just enjoy growing and looking at them because they’re beautiful and exotic. Then go smoke some salmon, instead!

Thanks to Solana Seeds in Quebec, Canada for

sharing their lovely photos of variegated Tobacco with our blog. The photo of N. langsdorfii was graciously loaned by Chiltern's Seeds in England. Bev Wagar's lovely photo of pink Cleome and N. sylvestris is from her garden in Ontario. Be sure to drop in on her website for some cold hardy garden information. If you have any photos of Nicotiana you'd like to share please drop me a line
at and we'll try and upload them into this article.

Happy gardening,


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Happy Spring . . . No More Snow ! Ha Ha !

DD Two is out of hibernation and picking green plant materials out of her ears! Hello, dears. Yes, I'm back. And I'm up to my ears in little green growing things in the greenhouse. It is sooo nice not to have to shovel snow anymore, isn't it? To heck with sunscreen! I just want to fluff up my pineal gland and make like a lizard in the sun. Even the mud looks good these days.

Believe me, it beats working on my computer and trying to figure out what ails it. Maybe a nice dose of 'If you don't start working right, I'm going to take you to the dump,' might do the trick. Ah, technology. I yearn for simpler days . . . right. Like I want to spend hours at the library and days waiting for a book loan to come through! Okay. The computer can stay. Anyway, I'm going to start uploading some of this spring's columns, so, hold on to your seats . . .

Biennials - Garden Divas Worth Waiting For

Last week, my Irish cousin Sue, emailed me some old black and white photos of my father’s family. They were black and white, but, the memories they evoked were all in color. The huge blue green hydrangeas with orange tiger lilies leap frogging through them, and the neat clipped privet edging in a tiny knot garden were grandma’s little bit of England in the middle of Milford, Connecticut. Growing up in Miami, I was used to huge blowsy hibiscus hedges, mangoes dripping from trees, and white and mauve orchid-like flowers in banyan trees where we climbed like monkeys and chased after chameleons. A tropical paradise I took for granted, for all I wanted were the cool weather gardens of the English persuasion. Ah, youth. Now all I want is for spring to change winter’s coat for something in a lime green, neat, no rocks.

English biennial Forget-me-not 'Ultramarine'

While our zone three gardens grow tall stately delphiniums, bell-flowered campanulas, and blue poppies that any English gardener would kill for, the true stars of the cottage gardens are the ones we rarely grow anymore - the old-fashioned biennials. Patience is required for the full effect of these divas as they only give us a peek at their wares in the first year of growth. Hollyhocks have huge crinolines of round velvet leaves that tower over the Sweet Williams and Forget-me-nots with their neat mounds of green flushed with bronze. English daisies make prim rosettes of shiny green almost good enough to eat. And Angelica gigas taunts with her bold voluptuous divided leaves of deep green and maroon. Teases, the lot of them. Think of them as the salad before the entree.

Black Hollyhock with Sunflower and Sweet Peas.

The real show is worth the wait. With tall spikes of hibiscus-like flowers from white, pink, and rose to peach, yellow, and near black, the hollyhocks make a great foil for campanulas, geraniums, annual poppies, bachelor buttons, cosmos, and Nicotiana. My black hollyhock looked marvelous paired with a gold Provencal sunflower threaded through with a pink-white sweet pea. The bumblebees loved it, too. Their large seed heads look like cheese wheels and are easy to dry and save.

Many biennials are just perennials that need a new set of threads by year three. Fortunately, they produce lots of seed so they tend to naturalize or ‘volunteer’ in your garden so they’ll always be with you. Some of them are quite promiscuous and cross with themselves and their near cousins to make new colors and sometimes whole new varieties. Pansies and violas do that. What was once a black viola is now a black wine viola with yellow speckles knee deep in the pavers. Some of them are rather large, so I know there’s a pansy lurking in the DNA.

Sweet Williams 'Purple Oeschberg' and 'Dunnetti's Crimson'
with Lady's Mantle and Campanulas

My first Sweet Williams were planted firmly in the middle of my eighth birthday cake. They were the hit of the party. Mom and I drove down Dixie Highway to the local flower nursery and I picked out the most Englishy looking flowers they had. Mmm, they smelled just like cloves and allspice. They were perfect in the middle of a vanilla tube cake with real butter cream frosting. No cans. No boxes. Just the real cake ma’am. Sweet Williams are still my favorite flower. There’s nothing like their lush mounds of deep wine red and rich violet flowers set among the acid green clouds of Lady’s Mantle to light up the early summer garden. They are nature’s perfect cut flowers and perfume the garden all summer long.

Biennials are hard to find in nurseries these days since customers tend to only buy plants that are already in bloom. But, they are very easy to grow from seed. If you can baby them through the vagaries of an Alaskan winter, they’ll reward you with a show that’ll knock your socks off. The trick is convincing them to stay the winter. Hollyhocks have deep tap roots that freeze out if the soil’s too heavy and wet. You need to know the idiosyncrasies of your garden - is it protected with sufficient snow cover and well-drained? Give first year biennials a warm sunny spot and plump up the bed with plenty of compost, alfalfa meal, and bone meal so they’ll have lots of foliage and a nice healthy set of roots before winter sets in.

So, build a little mystery and suspense into your gardening scheme and try some biennials this year. There’s plenty of time to start some seeds before summer gets here. What do you know? It’s snowing again!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Design and the Paralysis of Choice

DD One
This is the time of year we gardeners are supposed to sit back and happily finish our plans for summer activities. We’ve made drawing, plans and lists. We’ve looked at glossy magazines until our eyes burn. Now we’re planting our dream seeds and resting our bodies for the onslot of summer activity. But wait! Why do I feel so tired?

Perhaps, its because my reality is something closer to a state of anxious obsession. For starters, those restful activities really don’t provide me a lot of rest. Instead they fill me with longing, anxiety, and angst. Talk about over planning! In my manic mind I can do it all – not a limit in sight! Until spring hits, that is. The problem now, of course, is that spring is growing closer and I am beginning to see the cracks in my over ambition. When was I going to dig up that perennial bed? Oh that’s right, at 4 am one morning when I have nothing else to do. Therein lies the true reason for all the winter knitting - just working off that neurotic energy. It looks so innocent, doesn’t it? Even a simple design like the garden entrance shown above requires a considerable amount of yarn working to get right.

Fortunately, this time of year, I am often saved from the brink of a complete and total planning breakdown by people calling about their own garden designs. As it turns out I can pull unsuspecting clients into this gardening frenzy as well – how fun! So I march forth to spread the disease as best I can. But seriously, It brings me special pleasure to help earnest clients make pleasing, and hopefully reasonable, decisions about where to place trees, shrubs and apple trees; to mull over, with them, the perfect spot for a perennial bed; a berry patch or an herb border; to solve complicated drainage and wind problems and choose the perfect place to place a pond or a staircase, like that shown here. The is part of a large project that took weeks to concieve and several months to complete. The chances for paralysis were many! It is a myth to believe that I know what I’m doing all the time, but I do enjoy doing it, wherever it leads.

So before you have some lolly-headed designer come and make sense of your gardening woes, turn to other resources. Books are what I have in mind. They are a heck of a deal if you compare them to a living designer, and will loop you right back into garden fury without ever leaving the couch.

But first this. Curt Mueller, a friend, fellow gardener, and a great plants man, recommended the following sites and asked that I pass them on to you for the valuable information on germination they provide. I checked them out, and he’s right, of course. Here they are: and Thanks, Curt!

Now for some hard-cover therapy. Classic Garden Plans by David Stuart is a fairly new book of pre-designed gardens. Its advertisement touts it as being “… invaluable to any gardener who wants to design a garden with powerful historical associations, ...” It has great information on how to adapt classic designs into limited spaces and even gives you detailed shopping lists to carry out the plans.

Along the same lines, with pre-designed gardens in varying degrees are; Theme Gardens by Barbara Damrosch, Shortcuts to Great Gardens by Nigel Colborn, Rosemary Verey’s Garden Plans by Rosemary Verey, The Impressionest Garden by Derek Fell and Penelope Hobhouse’s Garden Designs by Penelope Hobhouse. Each of these books has its own take on good quality designs, and grouped, they are a virtual feast for the eyes and hours of fuel for the frenzy! Chucked full of lovely drawings and photos, these books are a collective treasure trove of valuable plant information and design hints on color, form, texture and problem solving. I could go on and on – I do read when I’m not knitting, you know. Well, actually, sometimes when I am knitting. Oops! There’s that neurosis again! If I must be honest, sometimes I draw while I'm knitting (don't ask). I like simple plans, such as this one, which focus in on one or two areas of the yard at a time. Leaving some areas as only ideas allows the opportunity for more drawing later, thus more ideas.

At any rate, suffice to say that there’s a splendid pile of new books on the floor in front of the bookshelf – they seem to grow faster than I can read – or knit. I’ll let you know what I think of them later, but for now I’ll leave you with this thought for spring: no matter how much you plan, there is no such thing as a perfect garden. Those who fall captive to the paralysis of design perfection find themselves unable to turn the earth in the spring. For heaven sakes! Just get on with it! The only thing you’ll regret later is that you didn’t do it sooner.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

For the Love of Ferns! (and killer moths)

DD One
There are over 12,000 named varieties of ferns world wide. As a hobby, ferns could keep a person busy for a lifetime. Or perhaps you just want something to scare the burglars away. I think one of the Platyceriums – the giant stag horn or elk horn ferns - would fit the bill. Hang it in the entry and make sure it is faintly silhouetted at night. In the darkness it would surely look like a giant man-eating moth and put fear in the most hardened heart. Remember, only you know it’s just a fern!

But burglars aside, ferns are not just so much fluff on a pedestal. They come in an impressive variety of color, shape, size, texture and even scent! Take, for example, Nephrodium fragrans. It is, at first glance, just a green fern with fairly short fronds. Stroke its leaves, however, and you’ll be in love. It has a sweet scent, something akin to violets or soft roses.

Ferns range from the graceful to the bizarre. Some look more like aliens than plants, with weird spiky arms and tentacles. They are lacy, frilly, tufted, spiked and puffed. Their colors range from pink to cream, striped to mottled, variegated, maroon to blue and silver to gold. The individual fronds can look like hearts, coins, leaf lettuce, hands, tongues, fingers and toes. Some plants are shaggy, some look like moss. They creep, climb, grow in rocks, in full sun, in the dark, on rotten wood, in bogs, in high humidity, in dry air and in water. The Sheild Fern, shown above, grows on a mountain side in Seward, Alaska. It's growing on a lump of compost and moss at the edge of a small cave in a hillside made of solid rock. The 'tree' to its left is actually a giant root from a tree growing far above.

The Doodia spp. are short ferns of around 15 inches with dark pinkish red new fronds, turning to dark green when mature. Lygodium palmatum, the ‘American Climbing Fern’ is really gorgeous! It’s a vine with finger-like under leaves and frilly upper leaves and has the distinction of being the first plant in the US to be put on an endangered list in the 1860’s. It is available commercially from selected fern nurseries, but make sure they are legitimate and have permits to grow it. Also make sure you know what you are getting. It’s cousin, Laygodium microphyllum – the ‘Old World Climbing Fern’ has run rampid throughout Florida and is considered one of the most destructive invasive plants in the US, suffocating acres of natural landscape in its wake.

In the mean time, back in your budding fernery, don’t over look these guys. Hymenophyllum tunbrigense , one of the so called ‘Filmy Ferns’ has leaves that are nearly translucent. It’s incredible growing out of hanging balls of damp moss with the light casting a greenish glow through its fronds. The photo of P. Tunbrigense here is from John Crellin whoes spectacular photos can be seem at .

Pyhllitis scolopendrium is an upright fern that looks like a cluster of lizards tongues shooting from underground; complete with curled ends. A native of Hawaii, Trichomanes reniforme looks sort of like a collection of climbing, dark green calla lily flowers. Hymenophylllum australe and H. flabbelatum both like to grow upside down, and lend themselves well to hanging baskets or mossy frames hanging from the ceiling. They are breathtaking in a colony, but need to be kept constantly damp, so are perhaps not for beginners.

Look for a Petris tri-colour. An attractive fern with bright red new growth that changes to bronze and eventually dark green. The mid veins remain red even in maturity. Finally, not to be overlooked are the ‘Lady Ferns’; in fact there are over 200 of them with a wide range of color, size and shape. A nice one to try is Macrophyllum ‘Strawberries and Cream’. It boasts bright pink new fronds on a nearly lime green background and is an impressive 22 inches tall.

One more thing. Growing ferns gives you a great excuse to buy more books! After all, you need to research your new hobby. Books on ferns abound, but not all are that great. Although pricey, the Fern Grower’s Manual by Barbara Joe Hoshizaki and Robbin C. Moran is one I go back to time and time again. Both useful and comprehensive, it provides detailed advice on almost every aspect of these wonderful plants. It costs around 60.00, but is worth every penny! Another great source is Choice Ferns for Amateurs: Their Culture and Management in the Open and Under Glass by, George Schneider. This is an old book that is out of print, but I did a google search and found it online for around 20.00.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

New Year’s Resolutions Aren’t Written in Snow!

DD Two

Whew! There’s nothing like working off holiday food stuffs by digging yourself out of the New Year snow drifts brought to us annually by the comedy team at Mother Nature. Is that a run-on sentence? Who cares? I’m still trying to get my breath back and think straight after tossing chunks of concrete disguised as snow off my driveway. Actually, half of my driveway is now a legal road. So, it’s about a tenth of a mile long. Get my drift?

The end of the year has a way of highlighting all of our flaws and fears. You know, like, ‘I need to lose about 20 pounds!’ and ‘I really need to get to the gym more often’ and ‘I hope I can get in shape for gardening next spring.’ Yeah, the usual backsliding whining about stuff we should be doing on a regular basis, but, find a myriad of excuses not to do. We really ought to be resolving to have more actual resolve in the new year. So, even though I really loathe those seasonally correct garden columns about what we’re all going to resolve to do next year, I took a look to see what I lectured our dear readers to do last year.

Make a compost heap. Heck, I didn’t even have time to turn mine, let alone use it! I just kept piling on the waste. True compost takes time. It needs to age. Keep telling yourself that and you can live with it till spring.

Keep a garden journal. That’s an easy one. ‘Get my husband to do more weeding, raise the lawn mower higher, get him a nice luxury style kneeling pad.’ I kept my journal up to snuff with little or no problems.

Take photos of the garden all year long. Hmm. I didn’t do so well on that one. It’s kind of hard to take pictures in a driving rain in June, July, and August. Did we actually have a gardening season this year?

Buy Alaska Grown nursery plants. Did you see those dead hanging baskets at the big boxes last May? Do you ever see plants like that at your neighborhood nursery? Of course not! Can you ask intelligent questions and get an intelligent answer from your local nursery? Do their plants usually survive the winter better than those beaters you buy at Mall Mart? Just say ‘Yes!’ and we’ll let you off the hook.

I guess I have to keep these on my list of New Year’s resolutions for 2007 again. But, I know I’ll be encouraging gardeners to add the following resolutions as well:

Get in better physical shape! Boy, is your back ever your friend? You betcha! If you can’t see your belt buckle or your knees when you look south, you will pay dearly come spring. Those muscles that hold up your back are holding up that front end as well. Extra weight puts a lot of stress on your knees, hips, and lower back and increases the risk of osteoarthritis while wearing away the cartilage that protects these joints. So, get those boots on and get out the door and walk, talk, walk, and shovel snow or something. Join a gym if you can because it’s awful hard to fake a workout while others are watching! Nobody goes to the gym and quits after fifteen minutes. So, work out with a buddy or a group of friends. Your gardening will be less of a chore and you’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor without laboring to bend over. You’ll live longer and be happier as well. I know my back feels a lot better when I work out regularly. Now, if I could just stop eating. . . .

Go to the Alaska Botanical Gardens Fair in June. You’ll see lots’ of folks from the Valley there and you’ll have a good time and see beautiful plants, art, hear great music, eat, buy plants, eat, walk through the woods, eat. (Is it lunch time yet?)

Go to the Blue Poppy Garden Walk, Les Brake’s Coyote Garden Tour, and the 3rd annual Art and Garden Festival at the fair grounds in July. Keep an eye out for the garden calendars or check our blog for the dates on these Valley fairs. There are so many beautiful plants, art, and things to eat at these events that you won’t want to miss them!

So, are we resolved enough for next year? I for one, resolve to eat lunch now and shovel snow later. Happy New Year!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Musings from the Outhouse Garden

DD One

There’s nothing like the cold shock of that first contact with an outhouse toilet seat at twenty below to make one’s mind turn to gardening! The thing is, if your mind is not in its ‘happy place’ it could be a different experience altogether.

I don’t suppose one should admit that they use an outdoor privy, but sometimes that’s the way it goes. We live in my grandmother’s home – it is small, with plumbing designed for one little old lady. The septic moans and protests on a regular basis as it struggles to keep up with four times its designed load. The result is a periodic revolt, usually in the middle of the winter when the temperatures are the least outhouse friendly. It is during these times that we are blessed with the walk to the outhouse.

The facility is located on a ridge behind the house, and the walk takes several minutes. The path goes up a small hill, across a little clearing and into a small forest. Here it winds a bit as it dips down then up another small incline to its final goal. This miniature forest is my favorite spot on our property. The trees are tall and well spaced, the under story lovely. It’s not a man-made garden, but a garden none-the-less - naturescaping at its best.

Mixed with the Birch (Betula papyrifera Var.humilis) and Spruce (Picea glauca) are two members of the Populus family: White Poplar (Populus balsamifera) and Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). From the privy door the odd Mt. Ash (Sorbus sitchensis) can be seen, though their berries have long been striped by Grosbeaks and marauding Bohemian Waxwings. Under the heavy snow fall I can just make out various shrubs: High Bush Cranberry (Vivernum edule), Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum), Prickly Rose (Rosa acicularis) and an occational Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera). Out of my view, just over the edge of the hill I know there is a beautiful stand of Devils Club (Echinopanax horridus). It is magnificent in the spring as the giant leaf buds pop out of the bare prickly stems, changing them from gruesome into something glorious almost overnight. Later when the thicket has become impermeable, the red berries glow against the huge leaves, contrasting with the rest of the woods in their tropical beauty.

Although I can’t see them, I know the snow conceals Red Currant (Ribes triste) and a pallet of mosses, lichens and evergreen Lingenberry (Vaccinium vitis idaea). Further down, dormant now beneath the ground, are perennial plants such as Twin Flower (Linnaea borealis), Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium), Bluebells (Mertensia paniculata), Alaskan Violet (Viola langsdorfi), Cranesbill (Geranium erianthum), Baneberry (Actaea rubra), Angelica (Angelica genuflexa), Creeping Bedstraw (Galium triflorum), Ground Dogwood (Cornus Canadensis), Watermelon Berry (Streptopus amplexifolius), Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris) and the semi-evergreen Timberberry (Geocaulon lividum) and Wintergreen (Pyrola asarifolia).

The path just outside the door follows downward through a thick patch of Club Moss (Lycopdium annotinum) as it works its way between trees, its bright arms poking out here and there as a reminder of its evergreen tenacity.

Why all this outhouse drivel? I receive frequent questions about Naturescaping. "How do you design natural plantings, how do you choose your plants, how do you know what likes to grow where, what wants tending, what doesn’t?” The answer is simple. I visit the outhouse.

The answer is also complex. To get it right you need to study the directions of the sun, the wind, the snow buildup, the drainage, and the moss growing on the trees. You need to notice when things bloom, when they fruit, when mushrooms emerge and when they melt into piles of slime filling the woods with their own distinctive musky odor. You need to be aware of details such as what grows next to what, which moss is happy on decayed wood and which is happy on stone. What embraces traffic and what shrinks from it? Observe through an entire year of seasons; take notes, and photos. And if you’re really serious about a natural garden, give me a call. I’ll let you visit the little house. I promise you won’t be disappointed. Don’t forget to check out the Outhouse Garden photos in the album to the right! Enjoy!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Applesauce! Oh Applesauce!

For me, winters are incomplete with out fresh apple sauce. Actually, we make it all year round. It goes without saying that made in the fall out of fresh apples plucked from our trees, gives us the tastiest brew. If fact, if the harvest is good, I can usually make the season last till Christmas by freezing those that do not store. For the rest of the year, organic apples from the store make a fine substitute. The recipe below is for an even mixture of red and green apples, but I prefer to mix several varieties together. We grow five varieties that bear well, which thrown together, produce spectacular flavor. The joy is not just in the tasting, but in the making of this delicious treat. The smell of apples and spices floating on the air is an aphrodisiac to the senses. Served hot or cold it satisfies the appetite for festive fare and is as easy to make as it is to eat. Here is Christmas Eve dinner with applesauce taking its rightfull place of honor in the foreground.

Winter Apple Sauce (or fall or spring or summer)

Core unpealed apples and chop into bit-sized pieces - not too small. Use half red apples and half tart green apples. DO NOT use red or golden delicious. These are nice to look at, but are nasty to eat. They lack the flavor, vitality and body that it takes to make a good apple for sauce (not to mention anything else! They are just sort of nasty all the way around...) Put the apples in a sauce pan on low heat; add some sugar and a mixture of mulling spices. Put the spices in a cloth bag so they can be removed after a couple of hours or the sauce will become bitter. Simmer until the red apples are beginning to fall apart. DON'T FORGET TO REMOVE THE SPICE BAG AFTER TWO HOURS! The green apples should still be firm, but cooked. What you are looking for is a sauce that is half chunky and half soft. You now have the perfect food! This is not a soft, mushy sauce like that which comes in a can, but rather a full bodied, real food.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Beginnings Born from Loss


For Readers: an apology.

What’s been keeping us offline? Michael finally lost his battle with skin cancer on Dec. 14. (See posting on Nov. 12 “Gardeners Take Care of Their Own”). He was a fun, funny, cantankerous Welshman and is painfully missed. Some of his ashes have gone home to Wales to be cast upon the mountains he loved. The remainder will be spread here in his adopted home with the family he wished not to leave. Michael was more than a fellow gardener to me, he was also my brother-in-law and his death has left a deep void in my extended family. We have been compensating with lots of days and nights spent together knitting, crocheting, playing games and visiting.

From loss is often born new beginnings, even from the most devastating loss. In a strange way, Michael’s death has birthed one such beginning. My sister and her girls, myself, my Mother and my son have started to felt. We call ourselves the Fat Felters, comically suggested by my Mother and immediately pounced upon by the rest of us. In the photo above I am in the forefront, my sister, Hally, in the back. You can see why we loved this handle! It will be our winter passion, our therapy, our healing hands. It will lend in pulling us through this difficult year of transition and help bring us out the other side whole again. It is a wonderfully comforting thing to do when one’s heart is sad, there is three feet of snow outside and the temperatures are in the negative teens.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Oganic beauty good enough to eat

DD One

A number of years ago, I saw a picture in a magazine of an outdoor table set for lunch. It was completely covered in deep moss from the woods with pots of daffodils nestled into the moss at the center. It looked very organic and I imagined it smelled of that wonderful earthy-musk that wafts up when you mess about in the woods on a damp day. It was beautiful; all green and soft. The place settings were also nestled in making it look like it was set for a feast for woods fairies.

But it’s winter here and pretty cold at the moment. I’m afraid a mossy table will not be our lot for this holiday season. Do not despair! Along with poinsettias, garlands and Christmas cactus, much can be done to bring the beauty of growing things to our holiday festivities.

Artichokes or pomegranates, for example, make fabulous candle holders! Both of these are rich in texture and color. Use an apple corer to make a hole in the top about 1 ¼ inches deep. The Pomegranates can be placed directly on the table but you’ll have to cut off the bottom of the artichokes to make them sit flat, so they will have to rest on little plates to protect the cloth or table.

A four inch container of wheat grass can also be magical. Remove the planted grass from its plastic growing pot (it will be all root), shove it into a four inch terra/cotta pot and place a candle in the middle. Simple beauty at it’s best! Try serving kabobs or other squired hors d’oeuvres poked into these pots of grass; it’s a lovely presentation. If you’re inclined, you can even grow your own for almost nothing. Plant wheat seed very thickly in a pot about one month before an event. Keep in the window or under a grow light. It’s best to use at about 3 inches high.

Napkins look elegant tied up in a bit of raffia or satin ribbon, with a tiny birch or spruce sprig tucked under the tie. Holly sprigs, rosemary and other herbs work as well, as do any number of small peppers. But don't use anything poisonous! All-in-all, a nasty thing to put on the table! If you use place setting cards or menu cards, a couple of holes punched along the side or top of the card will allow a birch or herb sprig to be slipped through. Any of these simple touches will warm your holiday feasts and help satisfy the urge to be surrounded by growing things on these frigid days. Even a basket of fresh fruits or veggies can do wonders for a table in mid-winter!

Another great tactic for a festive table is making brightly colored foods. A few suggestions would be things in greens, reds and oranges such as fresh cranberry sauces and chutneys, biscuits and bread made out of sweet potatoes, yams, or carrots; and avocado bisques. Sweet potatoes, yams, and beets also make yummy mashed dishes, just like potatoes, and are so pretty to look at. Yes, mashed beats! They are so good you’ll wonder why you never ate them before.
Try this: Pick out fresh, preferably organic, beets and trim off the tops and the root. Put in boiling water with about ½ cup kosher salt (yes, that’s right, ½ cup!) and ½ cup lemon juice. These additions will keep the flavor and color in tack and are essential for a great tasting beet. Boil until tender enough to mash. Slip the peelings at this point, and mash with a little fresh pepper and butter. Do not add cream! Cream is tasty, but it will turn your lovely colored beats into a shocking, Pepto- bismal pink that is indeed unappetizing.

Pumpkin or carrot soups and borsch are also a feast for the eyes as well as the tummy. They are perfectly suited for first course fare at even the most elegant meal. Once again the humble vegetable rises to a place of honor!

Pears poached in mulling spices and dark red wines, or peaches poached in a clear vanilla syrup make excellent, colorful endings. Likewise, apple currant tarts or candied lime, lemon and orange peels are most satisfying with coffee or tea at the end of a grand banquet.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Gardeners take care of their own

DD One

Gardeners preserve and pass on techniques, seeds and secrets. In fact, gardeners love to give. We give starts from the greenhouse, seedlings from the garden, prizes for garden fairs, demonstrations to whoever will watch, exchange seeds like maniacs, and offer way more free advice than anyone wants to hear. It is difficult to visit a gardener without loading the back of the car with diggings, cuttings and what ever else happens to jump in while the trunk is open.

Sometimes we give because one of our fellow gardeners is in need. So it is with tomorrow’s fundraising event being hosted by the Mat Su Master Gardeners and non-other than your own, The Dirt Divas. We have fallen gardeners out there folks, and we need to lift them up in our soiled hands and show them what this community is all about.

Here is their tale. Michael and Hally Truelove are simple gardeners who love the earth. Hally loves her flowers and herbs, Michael, his apple trees. They have been members of the Mat Su Chapter of the Master Gardeners for years and both have worked in the garden industry here in the Valley. Michael is an import from Wales, who fell in love with Alaska (and Hally) while here on a family holiday nearly 20 years ago. Together they are raising children whose love of gardening is second nature. Hally was instrumental, two years ago, in forming the first-ever Alaskan Junior Master Gardener club here in the Valley. Michael has permanently placed his mark while helping to plant a number of lovely gardens throughout the valley with his work in the landscaping industry. Michael and Hally are not unlike all of us who love to garden, always working hard, always trying one more type of apple tree.

But even surrounded by growing beauty, things can go wrong. A year and a half ago Michael was diagnosed with a rare, particularly gruesome form of skin cancer. It has brought unrest into their home and introduced the color of pain into their green world. These everyday gardeners now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of needing help. As with most ravaging diseases, this one has taken a financial toll on the families resources. And that’s where the rest of us gardeners come into the picture. We can not change Michael’s chances with this disease, but we can do what we do best, give.

So in this spirit, we have asked the Art community to join with us in a fund raising gala to help the Truelove family, and it has quickly shaped into a must-do event. A dinner catered by Stonehill Gardens will feature their always yummy soups, fresh pastas and ever-popular breads. Heck, if you’re a bread lover (and who isn’t) it would be worth coming for this alone. Six specialty varieties will be baked up for the occasion! After eating, event goers can nibble on pastries and drink coffee or wild mint tea while bidding on dozens of art and garden related items that have been donated for the silent auction.

Among the artists to be represented will be potters Dennis McKenzie, Leonard Peck and Robin McClain, felter Salley Combs, wood artist Brooke Heppinstall and photographer Christine Kendrick. Too many tantalizing things to list include great fiber arts such as quilts, hats, sweaters and shawls. Books, art stationary, hand made soaps, Alaskan birch syrups, jams, jelly’s and fine wines will grace the auction tables. Greenhouse and Nursery gift certificates will make great Christmas gifts as will quilting and felting do-it-yourself projects. There will be garden benches of birch and cedar, garden art, bolga gardening baskets and twig art. Many generous merchants have donated a variety of top of the line gift baskets. As if this wasn’t enough, our neighbors in Anchorage have kicked in with Concert Association tickets, Opera tickets, gift certificates from Orso and The Brewhause and more!

In short: if you want to give back, if you need Christmas gifts, if you want a good meal – don’t miss this one! Monday (tomorrow) in the social Hall of the United Protestant-Presbyterian Church in Palmer – the log church across from the borough building - at 6pm. Donations will be taken at the door for the dinner. Silent auction for all who want to participate. If you can’t attend you can donate directly by calling 745-7071 for more details. Come with a hungry tummy and a generous heart. Come to give.

If you are reading this on-line and would like to contribute, please send donation to Truelove Benefit Fund, and send it to PO Box 2876, Palmer Alaska, - 99645; c/o Stonehill Gadens. You will recieve a tax-deductable reciept in return. Make sure you include the 'c/o' on the address or it may not get to us.

Thanks so much all you gardeners! All large efforts are made up of many samll ones.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Oscar Wilde and the art of independent gardening

DD One
Now that we have snow, we are officially released to think about next years gardening. The data is in, the reports are out and the forecasts have been published. We’ve all read them - what’s in and what’s out for the 2007 garden season. Am I the only one who thinks some of this stuff is just a bit silly?

Trends that will be passé by next year, as reported by The Garden Media Group at the Garden Writers Association 2007 Symposium in Philadelphia in August, are: indoor living, everyday gardens, shabby chic gardens, chemical needy gardens, peek-a-boo accessories, flower-only gardens, time consuming gardens, basic plants, store bought veggies, colorless masses and daytime only gardens. Wow! Where do I begin?

Let’s see. I guess the trend setters don’t live anywhere too cold, and by the sound of it, don’t believe in shopping at the grocery store when it’s zero degrees outside. It’s a little hard to raise designer veggies at these temperatures, unless, of course, I’m the one who’s confused. As for chemical needy gardens, flowers only and time consuming concerns; I think they’re a little behind the times, don’t you? After all, that’s pretty much what good gardening is all about – time to enjoy your outdoor space without being its slave; healthy, chemical free flowers, fruits and veggies; and who has time to garden during the day anyway? And have colorless masses even been ‘in’?. Hmm.

What about the ‘in’ trends? Outdoor living is in. That’s novel. Escape gardens, streamlined gardens, eco-chic gardens, small space gardening, larger than life accents, foliage, multi-tasking gardens, fancy plants, designer veggies, masses of color, and 24 hour gardens. Great scott! They really haven’t been to Alaska, have they? 24 hour gardens are a way of life up here.

Escape garden, I suspect, is really a new name for what has long been called a secret garden or a private space - nothing too new here, although why they have to be re-named every few years to keep them in the forefront is beyond me. Streamlining is another way of saying formal, semi-formal and trim lines are returning to favor over the age-old cottage or ‘everyday’ garden mentioned on the ‘out’ list. Nothing wrong with wanting a little order I suppose, but I fail to see how it couples with the multi-tasking, time saving line of reason. Those lovely trim lines just don’t happen – there’s a lot of work behind them. Perhaps it’s meant to be balanced against those darn shabby chics on the ‘out list’.

Eco-chic says we should use environmentally friendly products and techniques. Again, I thought these things have always been at home in the garden. Maybe not. Some of us have always pushed great foliage and small space gardening has been the rage for a while, not to mention a practical necessity for much of the world. Designer vegetables are fun and lovely, but I’m not ready to throw the cabbage out with the compost water just yet. I’d like to see a nice borsch made from designer greens. That leaves us with fancy plants and larger than life accents. Now we’re talking. What fun!

I have this vision of a lovely, though somewhat streamlined, small space garden dominated by a 7 foot, human shaped urn; designer vegetables, outrageous foliage and bazaaro plants flowing from its head. Actually, I rather like it.

I guess I don’t see the big deal with all this – apparently I’m not interested in someone else’s idea of a great garden. May be it’s because I lived so long here in the land of independent thinkers. Here, where I’m proud to grow the old-favorites along side the new because they are such good friends. Here where fashion seems to touch us so lightly. Here where the trend setters live thousands of miles away. By the time a ‘hot’ trend floats our way, it has often moved on or circled back to something we still like that we were supposed to have stopped liking several years ago.

Garden on, I say. Let’s be proud of our diversity and flaunt it. Plant what makes you happy and makes good soup. Embrace garden art that makes your heart jump. Love those bleeding hearts! Fling refined, good taste to the wind. Oscar Wilde reminded us, ”Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry…” Thank you, irreverent Sir! Pray, let this not happen to us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Garden Dogs

DD One
No matter how much we know about the habits of our animals, I believe the gardening lives of our dogs will always be a world that is secret to us.

Every time I see some strange phenomena in the garden - a plant I’ve never seen before, a rock placed in an interesting spot beside the pond, a diminutive path through the alders - perhaps just tall enough for a wee elf – I take pause. No harm done, just odd goings on. Are there ‘little people’ in the garden? Well yes, there are; in fact I make a habit of feeding them. They have fur, paws and noses that follow everywhere. And, in reality, they’re not all that small.

I’ve always kept the company of dogs and consider them to be quite irreplaceable. They provide unconditional love, companionship, a ready source of entertainment, a reason to take exercise and an unsurpassed sounding board for a bewildered designer. They are also very good gardeners!

Our oldest dog, Rosemary, is the self-proclaimed pond gardener of the family. She and her late brother, Basil, took that job away from me six years ago. The first thing she does in the morning, after creeping out from under the bed, is head to the pond. It’s her last destination before crawling back into her den at night. She drinks from the pond, plays in it, sits by it, watches critters swim in it, and just generally co-exists with it. It’s her favorite garden spot. She goes there in the winter and even though it’s frozen, icy and covered with snow, she paws, digs and ‘drinks’. She’s there every day as it thaws in the spring, encouraging its breakup, drinking scummy thaw-water and wading into its icy depth. It is Rosemary that keeps the vegetation at bay along the edges. It’s Rosemary who propagates the water plants as she pulls on them, distributing little bits here and there to grow anew. It’s Rosemary who moves the rocks and gravel along the bottom into positions more suitable for footing. She and Basil were the architects that created their own special drinking hole and molded the sloping walk-in approach that we all enjoy.

Basil was a trim one hundred and fifteen pounds, and Rosie is just under one hundred. Their superior weight and wonderfully large paws did things in the depths that I could never have accomplished – smoothing the bottom, rearranging the flora, working the leaf compost and insect environment – gently keeping the pond alive. Ever vigil, the furry ones quietly gardened while I was occupied elsewhere.

We now have a new gardener, steadily learning under Rosie’s tutelage. His name is Chervil and he is a vigorous addition to our staff! Although his talents are yet undeveloped, it looks like he’ll be more of a terrestrial gardener; a keeper of the trees and paths. Eighty pounds of puppy thundering down the walkways has a very stabilizing effect on the stones. His interest in tasting the shrubs has already provided some unexpected propagation and creative pruning, and his love for fruit should provide seedlings galore next spring. I look forward, with interest, to the changes in the garden as he learns his craft. While I have great hopes of lending some measure of control to his horticultural education, I harbor no false expectations. Perhaps a nudge here and there as to what actually needs pruning, as I remind myself that surprises are fun and change is good!

A wee nibble here and a new shrub shape evolves; a visit to the pond – some overdue separation of your water plants, but wait! There’s more! Dogs are the happiest, most non-kvetching soil mixers on earth! Training dogs to dig only in a soil-pile is quite simple and, in fact, is a useful outlet for their digging instincts. Mound your dirt, compost and amendments in a pile and repeat the command ‘mix’ as they plunge vigorously onto the mound - soil flying. (It would be a good idea to step back and shut your eyes about now). The tiniest bit of raking will re-gather your soil and provide you a mixture that will be the envy of your fellow gardeners. Even if you don’t have a garden, providing a pile of dirt with a bit of judicious training will save your lawn - and you’ll make Rover very happy!

For more photos of dogs at work in the garden click the Garden Dogs link to the right.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Holms and the case of the dead apple tree

DD One
Every spring I get a raft of phone calls asking about dead plants. No, people aren’t asking to buy them, they just want to know why something looks dead when it looked so great in the fall. While I’m not Sherlock Holms, or even Miss Marple, it often boils down to one thing. Fall water, or a lack thereof.

When I ask if the plant went into winter with good, moist soil, I usually get a long pause followed by, “What do you mean by that?”

This time of year it seems like it’s always wet outside. Fog, mist, cool evening temperatures causing heavy morning dew, quite a few clouds; these all give us the impression that we are experiencing moisture. Remember, we are above ground and we feel cool and damp, but the life of a woody plant is all about what’s happening underground.

Two weeks ago I was digging (chipping would be a more apt description) on a steep hillside in an attempt to create what I hoped to be a really amazing staircase of rock and aggregate. The hillside is primarily hard packed shale and concrete-like mud. Just inches below the surface it was so dry and hard that I needed a pounding bar just to loosen the surface. (Remember – everyone has been complaining about how wet our weather has been!) For several days I chipped away at the ground with my bar and scooped out the freed bits with my hands. Not a lot of fun! Making no progress, and having tons more productive things to do, I walked away from the never-to-be-finished-much-less-started staircase and stayed away for a week. In the mean time it rained - long, hard, healthy rain! I rallied myself for another attack this week and to my shear joy I was rearranging dirt on the hill like a giant gopher! One long rain made all the difference! The soil was soaked down at least two feet, and a thrill to work in. Yes, I know; being bent over nasty ground on a hillside too steep to perch on, pitching dirt, is not a thrill for everyone, but I was in heaven!

As you guessed, or at least I hope you have, all of this is to illustrate a point. Moisture matters! In this case it loosened the ground and made my job easier, but in the case of roots, it can literally mean life or death. While we are in a frenzy changing tires, putting on snow blades and getting ready for winter, our plants are quietly doing the same. They need to be at their healthiest right now; plump cells full of stored energy with fleshy, thick roots, not emaciated drought shriveled ones. The trouble is it’s all happening underground. They don’t show the outward signs of drought as they do in the heat of the summer, and it’s not likely they’ll holler at us, “Hey! We need water over here!” They just keep quiet, look stoic and die in the spring.

Trees and shrubs in the apple (Malus) and prune (Prunus) familes are quintessential for this. These include eating apples, rose-tree-of-china, and nanking cherry. They often begin to get nice leaf and flower buds then suddenly shrivel. Soon the wood begins to dry and dark spots appear on the bark. The once puffy buds are now dried and the branch tips are crispy. The fact is, their roots are too damaged from winter freeze and they can not feed themselves. Once all stored energy is gone, they go kaput!

A number of evergreens such as Norway and Colorado spruce and many juniper are especially susceptible. Surprisingly, even our native birches are not safe. Their particularly wide platter roots can suffer fall drought with ease. They leaf out in the spring, after which it is common to see the tops of the trees looking dead. Looking around our forest with this in mind says a lot about our past several summers without the need to have experienced the weather first hand.

So! You’re not quite through watering yet. I’m not talking about daily watering, just keeping the ground nice and moist until it is frozen. And don’t forget your friends that are planted under eves or other obstructions. This may require some awareness on your part and perhaps a hose hook up once in a while, but just think - you won’t have to wonder why your orchard looks like a graveyard next spring.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Inside the World of Carnivorous Plants or How Audrey 2 Ate the Gardener

DD Two

Audrey 2 ready to eat!

Gardeners who know me know I love really BIG plants. But, those are found in my garden and not in my workshop. I just spent the last month breeding a man-eating plant and nurturing it with anxiety, blood, sweat and tears! And she . . . Audrey 2 . . . really ‘eats’ actors. Audrey 2 is the carnivorous plant character from the play Little Shop of Horrors. Remember the movie with Rick Moranis as the dweebish Seymour who discovers the exotic plant that winds up eating his boss, his girlfriend Audrey, and Steve Martin’s wonderfully sadistic dentist character? That’s the plant! Instead of getting my nursery stock put away for winter and enjoying the last of my garden’s bloom, I’ve been living inside a giant theater prop cum carnivorous plant. The last time I did this I had to build a 25-foot tree with a 12-foot root base for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Hmmm. I think I’d rather be outside weeding on my knees than on my knees bleeding on chicken wire in the studio. Maybe theater plant props are all carnivorous. I know they eat the artists who build them. But, I digress . . .

Carnivorous plants don’t come from outer space and they’re not just found on stage or in exotic and tropical environments. We have some carnivores and semi-carnivorous botanical species living in the backyards and wilds of Alaska. A carnivorous plant has to attract, kill, absorb, and digest its prey. The semi-carnivores might rely on fertilization from the droppings of bugs eating smaller insect specimens caught on sticky plant surfaces or the compost created when those trapped insects are broken down by bacterial action.

Capsella bursa-pastori - Shepherd's Purse (Photo: Dr. Barry Rice)

A common weed in your yard, Capsella bursa-pastori, commonly known as Shepherd’s Purse, is listed as a semi-carnivore. This widespread European mustard has seeds which release an adhesive compound when moistened. This traps small aquatic animals whose demise and composted remains appear to help fertilize the germinating seeds. Wow! Maybe this will work for mosquito larvae in our ponds. Shepherd’s Purse, notes Dr. Barry Rice, Director of Conservation International Carnivorous Plant Society, while”striking, it is not clear if this really means the plant is carnivorous. There are a few problems with this hypothesis---in particular, this plant does not grow in particularly wet areas, so why should its seed have a carnivorous technique that it cannot exploit? It is more probable that the seed's mucous has other valuable properties we have not yet figured out.” I’m still going to throw some in the pond next spring to see if it has an effect on the mosquito population. Of course, that might have a negative effect on the other species that rely on them for food. Oh, well . . . we can always cook the greens up for stir-fry.

Imagine my surprise while cruising around Dr. Rice’s website finding a photo that looks just like Audrey 2! A member of the Butterwort family, the winter buds of Pinguicula macroceras are perfect stage props. In the original play Audrey 2 is thought to be a cross between a Butterwort and a Venus Flytrap. There is a very pretty Butterwort in Southeast Alaska, Pinguicula vulgaris that looks nothing like you’d imagine as a carnivorous plant. If you go to Matt Goff’s website and look at his Sitka Plant Photos under Lentibulariaceae, you’ll see a lovely image of a Bog Violet or Common Butterwort. The Hairy Butterwort, P. villosa, can also be found in Alaska’s wilderness.
Pinguica macrocera - winter bud stage (Photo: Dr. Barry Rice)

Speaking of Venus Fly Traps, have you seen the latest crop in our local stores? Did you know you can find Fly Traps that are red, pink, or almost dark wine colored? A trip to, will take you to Cook’s Carnivorous Plants (they have a great animation introduction!) where you can purchase such aptly named varieties as ‘Red Dragon’, ‘Red Piranha’, ‘Big Mouth’, and ‘Fang’. Who knew they came in so many colors and sizes? If you’re tempted to buy one go online at Dr. Rice’s site for thorough instructions on how to keep these exotics alive or look for his new book “The Complete Grower’s Guide to Carnivorous Plants” just released this month by Timber Press.

Thanks to the folks at the Spenard Builder's Supply, Keenan & Deborah Retherford and Peter Ann at The Fence Emporium, Robin Wessel at Off Her Rocker, and neighbors Ahna and Chan Simonds for keeping me in glue, sanity, and digging out raspberries that were taking over the planet and my garden! And hats off the puppeteer Bowen Gillings for going along with this project! I just hope his back survives the run.

. . . . Now, I can get back to building my sculpture of a giant stylized calendula seed!

Little Shop of Horrors is playing September 21 through October 28 - Thurs Fri, & Sat. 7 pm at Mad Myrna's in Anchorage 530 E. 5th Ave, 276-9762 or

Little Shop of Horrors director Christian Heppinstall surrounded by 'the street goils' Crystal (Charlotte Kopp), Chiffon (Shelly Wozniak), and Ronnette (Sarah Alvarez). Photo sans chewing gum!

To see more photos of Audrey 2 go to or to read Donna Freedman's article in the Anchorage Daily News about the building of the Audrey II go to For other photos of Brooke's previous theater props and costume design go to and click on the 'Productions' link and go to 'Androcles and the Lion', 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow'.