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'.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Wiches wilt, wicked whiteness - what's next?

DD One

By this time of year, most of us have smelled something strange in our gardens or woods. What is that stinky, mushroomy scent in the air? Never smelt it? Count yourself lucky indeed! It’s another one of those garden nemeses, ranked right up there with Moose for difficulty to control. Powdery Mildew, the ‘Witches Wilt’ of the Middle Ages, is one of the oldest recorded plant diseases. And with a name like Witches Wilt, need I say more?

Like moose, powdery mildew is always ready to attack, is rarely seen approaching and is always harmful if allowed to wallow in your garden. And they are both equally impossible to chase out once they’ve entered the gate!

Powdery Mildew is a common name for a small group of closely related mildews that manifest themselves in a similar manner. The primary sign that these microscopic beasts have invaded your territory are grayish white, powdery blotches on leaves, stems and buds. If left unchecked, the growth will soon devour its victim. Once a plant is infected, leaves can turn yellow and drop prematurely. Young growth is especially susceptible with twisting and deforming, sometimes before the mildew appears. Flower buds may also develop abnormally or not open. Even before the plant is swallowed up in white, stinky yuck, it can look like it was abducted by aliens and used for some horrific experiment. Worse yet, it can leave you feeling desperate to know what in the world (or other-world) has hit your beloveds.

Powdery Mildew on Rose Leaves

Without introducing too many dull and sleepy details, it is important to know this tiny enemy. First, realize that the spores are carried by air currants so they cannot be kept out of your garden. Once settled onto your plants they lie in wait for the perfect day to pull out their fangs and spring to life! The optimum germination temperatures for these mildews are between 68 to 77 degrees F with optimum relative humidity above 40%. It is a popular belief that water on the leaves encourages germination, however dry leaves under ideal conditions are just as susceptible. Low light also seems to favor powdery mildew development. From the time of infection to the sign of symptoms takes about a week or a little longer, and by this time the secondary spore production is well underway, reproducing every 48 to 72 hours since the initial infection! What all this means is that once you’ve sniffed out the problem or noticed that your once-favorite rose is in deep trouble, the stuff could be anywhere!

While I will be the first to tell you that it can sometimes be a pain to keep up with this miniscule life sucking force, it is not impossible.

Sulfur is a traditional combatant with two major positives: it’s cheap and effective. Furthermore, it’s been used effectively to control Powdery Mildew throughout the world for nearly 150 years, with no development of resistance, however, fungus are nasty and sometimes so is the cure. There are many sulfur containing fungicides on the market but the solution has to be at lease 33% sulfur to be effective. Because sulfur acts largely through vapor, its activity is temperature-sensitive and does not work too well if the temperature is below 65 degrees F. That limits some of our application times right there! It is also somewhat phytotoxic (in other words, it is toxic to foliage and will defoliate your plants) at temperatures above 85F. In spite of these limitations, I have been nuking these mildews with sulfur for years. If you’ve ever had a disgusting infestation reducing your favorite perennial to a lump of dried up trash, losing a few (or a lot) of leaves along the way is an acceptable liability.

Potassium bicarbonate works in a similar fashion, with similar limitations, but must be present in the fungicide at least 85%. There’s a bit more information on both of these weapons online at

A more drastic (or is it?) approach would be to yank the plant out by the root, put it in a plastic bag and throw it out, but perhaps a gentler, though less thorough approach would make you happy. If so, try mixing up the following and attack with a spray bottle.

2 ½ T. light olive oil
1 gallon water
A few drops of liquid soap
6 t. baking soda

Most importantly – think wicked whiteness and beware! It’s out there and waiting to pay you a personal visit!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Gardening, and a reflection on life and death

DD One
A particularly difficult summer of loss has me contemplating the roll of gardening in the grieving process. As some of you readers know, this spring started with the loss of my giant dog and best pal to wabblers syndrome (see first blog post). My father lost his battle with esophageal cancer two weeks ago. It was a particularly rough go that has had us in upheaval for well over a year. This painting of him was done in May of this year, just as he began his final journey. He was 78 years old.

My sister's husband fights on the losing end of a rare, non-treatable form of skin cancer. The extended family has had several losses and the entire clan has been thrown into what seems like a permanent time of grieving. All the while the gardens continue to grow and the blooms continue to ebb and flow. Fall colors are showing the reminder of another season coming to a close. There is no way to make certain predictions about gardens or grief. Just when you think you've got everything under control tears tumble down, and out back the weeds are invading the rock garden! Darn! Here we go again!

Grief counselors suggest a number of tools to help you through a difficult time of loss. Things like journaling , eating well, exercising, getting rest, reading and learning, seeking solace, practicing comforting rituals, letting out your emotions, and nurturing something. Now if that's not a description of gardening, what is?

Garden journaling is a great process of recording, creation and just plain distraction. You don't have to be scientific to make a garden journal, just say what you want, record your planting, harvesting, likes, dislikes and feelings. If your thoughts spill over into grief, all the better. Read up on your favorite flower and draw pictures to convey your emotions. It may be time to bring new plants to your garden or read some of those gardening books gathering dust after the summer. While feeling especially low it is good to put your gray matter to work and concentrate on something new.

What about solace? The company of plants never passes judgment on a teary, grieving gardener. If anything, I believe that your garden would lift you in its arms and comfort you if it had opposable thumbs (as well as a few other anatomical alterations). I've had some of my best crying sessions while watering. As for comforting rituals, while I'm not much of a weeder, I have friends who love to weed and find great solace in its rhythm and repetition not to mention a feeling of elation when done.

We tend to think of ourselves as the keepers of the garden, but I think the opposite is often true, our gardens keep us. They hold us upright when we are off kilter, they knock sense into us when we are whacked out and they heal us when we are sad. Whether it be the ritual of weeding, the solace in being alone with your thoughts, or the love extended in nurturing the earth, I know of no other place I'd rather be when I am down than outdoors. For many a non-gardener walking or roaming about in the woods has the same healing effect. It's often difficult to show our true emotions to others and sometimes even more difficult to work out our troubles with the added burden of conversation, but quiet time in the garden offers a host of therapeutic needs without outside confusion. I think the salt of our tears even benefits the soil - perhaps a little added potassium?

Time in the garden fills our lungs with fresh air, clears our minds and almost always ends up with inspiration. Inspiration to write a note to someone in need, to re-design a corner of the garden that's always been a bit strange, to dig through all those old photographs on the shelves in the office, to call a friend, to plant a tree for a loved one, or just to order more tulips!

The Victorians obsessive craze for reinventing our language in flowers has long fascinated me and brought me solace. I walk in my garden when overcome and after an initial outburst of anguish I find myself saying out loud the meanings of the plants that surround me. It is a therapeutic thing and brings smiles, tears and contemplation, but it has a healing affect. The wormwood by the pond speaks of healing and the honeysuckle of thoughts of bonded affection. There is strength and protection in the juniper and the feverfew. The borage tells me to have courage while the chamomile speaks of patience. The sweet basil and for-get-me-not tell me that all love is not lost. The iris at the pond's edge tell me to have hope and faith, the burnet reminds me to keep a cheerful heart while the forsythia demands of me thoughts toward the future and anticipation of things to come.

It occurs to me that I am very fortunate to be a gardener. Embracing our emotions and our gardens can open us to many wondrous things. Though following their paths will change our lives forever, they both offer us opportunities for full and incredible futures. If you've never planted anything and are sad, start now. Your happiness, or perhaps your life, may depend on it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Think Spring - Think Color - Think Tulips!

DD One

The humble tulip is not humble. The first drawn tulip on record is a calligraphy character on an Italian bible dated 1100 AD. Since the 16th century tulips have been bred in England. The Dutch started cornering the commercial market in the 17th century. And no wonder! Though under used here, tulips are the kings of spring beauty. There is nothing more glorious than a carpet of red against a background of melting snow and tuffs of green.

Tulips are really quite simple to grow, but have gained a stigma as hard to deal with. I think it’s because they are often planted in poor drainage, too deep or too close to the surface, or non-hardy varieties are planted. There are currently 15 classifications of tulips – from short to tall, wild to tame and hardy to fussy. I prefer to think of them in two categories – those that are hardy perennials, and those that are not. It makes things a whole lot easier.

Hardy tulips that grow well here include some of the oldest varieties – Darwins, Darwin Hybrids, Cottage and Triumphs. All of these are early bloomers, flowering throughout mid to late May. Colors range from bright red, to true yellow to a variety of pinks and pastels. For success it is essential to think ‘drainage’ – then think ‘drainage’ again, plan drainage and talk drainage. Wet, undrained soil is a killer for these bulbs. Use common sense and follow a check list. Is the under layer of your garden clay, rock, or some other impervious surface? If so, your bulbs will not be happy, but a raised bed may be your answer. Is the soil wet all the time? Is it always dry (also not good)? A decent, well drained soil with 1/3 sand added is ideal.

Running a close second for cause of failure is your best friend, Rover. Dogs love to dig up bulbs! They are delighted when you are thoughtful enough to spend hours on your hands and knees hiding little treasures for them to dig up, especially if you use the usual recommended dose of bone meal as you plant. “Hummm, something to dig that smells yummy – thanks Mom!”

This is not a warning that is to be taken lightly. A couple of years ago, five of us spent most of a day in a clients landscape putting in thousands of bulbs only to have a friendly, lovely creature follow us around digging them out - with us following her around putting them back in! Alas! After our departure they were all hers and the digging continued. In the end only a couple dozen bulbs emerged in spring, having managed to outwit the little darling. Please plan for this if you have four legged family members.

Planting tulips about five inches deep is perfect. This gives them winter protection, space to grow and allows for their tendency to ‘float’ nearer to the surface through winter freezes and thaws. If planted too shallow, this ‘floating’ will freeze out the bulbs or produce weak root structures and plants that do not stand up or develop well.

What about all those exotic looking tulips that grace the covers of magazines and are common in florist’s coolers? The bulk of these are in that second category I mentioned earlier, non-hardy plants that grow well in pots. This is really great news for us! Potted tulips are among the loveliest of deck décor for spring. Varieties suitable for containers include Lily Flowered, Fringed, Parrot, Peony Flowered, Water Lily Tulips, and the hard to find Greigii. These tulip groupings run from frilly to flared, green striped to mottled, double and triple petalled to single, undulating leaves to grass like ones. Planted in groupings of color, shape or texture, they are true head turners.

To have successful potted tulips, buy bulbs now and store unplanted in sand at forty to forty five degrees until April. On April first, pull them out and plant in pots with good drainage using well drained soil. Keep moist and very cool. Growing forced (potted) bulbs in warm conditions will produce tall, nasty looking foliage of poor color. It also makes funky flowers that bloom through very quickly. I like to put them outside in a cold frame outdoors. This method makes a strong plant that blooms in mid to late May.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Chocolate Saves Local Gardener From Too Much Rain!

Dirt Diva Two

“Man Nearly Killed by Monster Vat of Chocolate.” Mmm, headlines make me hungry. It’s raining and blowing and raining and . . . well, you get the picture. There’s no way I’m going to go out and garden in this deluge. The plants are soggy, the raspberries are soggy, the rose buds are brown mush. It's perfect mushroom weather. I feel like I’m turning into a mushroom with all this rain. It’s 44 degrees out and it’s not even September! So, I’m sitting here cruising the internet, thoughts of hot chocolate mushrooming through my thoughts. I pull my sweater up to my ears and mindlessly type ‘chocolate gardening chocolate gardening’ on the Google search bar. Surprise!

Lily 'Coral Butterflies'

& Atriplex hortensis

There are references to chocolate, gardening, and flowers galore! Well, not actual food chocolate, but, plants the color of chocolate and some that smell like chocolate. Apparently, chocolate is the ‘new’ black - the ‘in’ color for modern gardeners. Browns, tans, black, wines, and maroon, all make up the more flexible dark gothic colors of the chocolate garden scheme. They even had a chocolate garden at the 2005 Chelsea Flower Show inspired by Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The Roald Dahl Foundation Chocolate Garden, designed by John Carmichael, had cocoa pod-like gravel and a water fountain that seemed to flow with chocolate. Hmm. Chocolate scented and colored flowers? Okay, I’ll bite. Let’s see what will grow in our zone 3 gardens shall we?

I know my Columbines, the black and white Aquilegia vulgaris ‘William Guinness’, and the deep wine ‘Ruby Port’ will qualify. Aquilegia viridiflora ‘Chocolate Soldier’ actually smells like chocolate, but, it’s only about ten inches tall, so, you’ll have to get down on your knees to enjoy it! The Sweet William, Dianthus barbatus, ‘Sooty’ is almost black with deep purple flushed foliage and would look lovely paired with the columbines. Bugleweed, Ajuga ‘Chocolate Chip’ or ‘Caitlin’s Giant’ have deep chocolate colored foliage and pretty blue spikes of flowers. Don’t forget the Heuchera family which has many dark wine to almost black-leaved members like ‘Chocolate Ruffles,’ ‘Palace Purple’, or ‘Plum Pudding.’ Throw some butterscotch on top with the hot gold Heuchera ‘Marmalade’ for a mouth watering effect.

The tall Hollyhock Alcea rosea ‘Nigra’ has satiny black flowers which are beautifully set off by annuals like deep gold or wine red sunflowers (for a photo see August 10th posting on, deep burgundy sweet pea ‘Midnight’, the black bachelor’s button ‘Black Ball’, and Nasturtiums ‘Black Velvet’ or ‘Mahogany.’ Asiatic lilies like deep maroon 'La Toya' or 'Nerone', the white ‘Tinos’ with her deep carmine throat, or chartreuse ‘Latvia’ with a maroon stardust pattern will look lovely as well. Add some contrast with golds and yellows for a hot look. For a cooler effect try annuals like white Borage and Cosmos or the perennials Thalictrum rochebrunianum, a tall meadow rue with delicate lilac rose flowers and the white
Monkshood ‘Ivorine’ and shell pink ‘Carneum roseum’.

Berberis thunbergia 'Crimson Velvet'

If you’re lucky to have a Canadian red-leaved choke cherry tree and the maroon leaved shrub Physocarpus opulus ‘Diablo’ you could have a garden room planted in all wine, maroon, black, and deep reds. Actually, gardens designed around one color scheme are very cool. Instead of planting a lot of just one kind of wine red lily, try to find several different shades of wine red and black lilies to plant together. This livens up the colors and keeps them from being too ‘flat,’ a problem that often plagues plantings of solid colored lilies.

The trick is to place these dark colors so that they don’t disappear from view. Either use them as background to highlight a bright colored specimen or place them in the foreground in front of lighter colors. I read where a British garden designer actually held up a bar of chocolate, squinted one eye, and perused the dark heart of his chocolate garden. He claimed the Cadbury’s bar “disappeared” into the color scheme thus the design was a success. No doubt he said that while tucking his chocolate stained hanky back in his pocket. I’ll have to try that myself and see if it works! Maybe I’ll get one of those chocolate bars with lavender flowers in them to keep to a gardening theme. Well, if it keeps on raining check out this online nursery for some interesting ideas and garden gifts. For photos of the Roald Dahl Chocolate Garden and some terrific garden pictures go to or Stoke up the fire, grab your chocolate, and relax. The weeds will wait for you.

Byer's Peak in the Chugach Range with Asiatic lilies and Campanulas after days of rain.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Late Bloomers and the Fruits of Summer’s Garden Labors

Dirt Diva Two

It always amazes me that the perennials that
color my garden in August are, for the most part, the big dogs of summer. Like fists rising from the soil, they tower above the garden in defiance of the frosts sure to come by mid-September. Magnificent Inula is opening her golden rayed flowers studded with bumblebees above huge tobacco-like leaves that glow with a fresh summer lime green. The Port Alberni tiger lily is smirking alongside with his brown freckled orange trumpets looking down at the plum blue catmint, Nepeta transcaucasica. Tall, stately Valerians are still sending their perfume out over the garden, but, will soon set their ubiquitous seed daring me to cut them before they escape to the ground. Only the Scabiosa-like flowers of the twelve-foot Cephalaria gigantea have yet to bloom. The magenta mist of the plum stemmed Thalictrum rochebrunianums is an elegant foil for the Cephalaria, reaching just a couple of feet below her arcing stems with their butter yellow stars. Even the walls of blue and purple Delphiniums are still pumping out color along with the Monkshood. I wish I had a Plume Poppy, Macleaya cordata, (one of Sally’s favorites) with its large fig-like, blue-green velvety leaves and feathery plumes of cream-colored flowers. It would be lovely next to the beefy Ligularia przewalskii’s tall spikes of yellow flowers in the shade.

Late bloomers in our gardens aren’t always looking down at us, but, many are so large that it takes all summer to grow before they can get around to flowering. Trying to figure out how to extend your garden’s bloom and color right into the frost isn’t difficult. You need to get out and visit public gardens such as the Matanuska Valley Agricultural Showcase Garden at the Visitor's Information Center in Palmer, the Alaska Botanical Garden in Anchorage, the various garden displays at the State Fair grounds, the gardens at some of the small specialty nurseries, or just take a Sunday drive to check out what’s blooming in the neighborhoods.

Asiatic lilies, particularly the tall1c or down facing types, can be in bloom right up
to the last weeks in August.The lacquer red ‘Red Velvet’is an old-fashioned small blossomed lily that looks at her feet instead of the sky. Tiger lilies are also late bloomers that come in freckled white, yellow, red, and pink nodding
trumpets. The taller varieties of Veronica should still have some bloom left and make a
good pairing with lilies. Under plant these sun lovers with some Dianthus deltoides, a creeping, self-seeding pink that comes in wine red, deep pink, or white.

Other late bloomers are Monarda, Yarrow, Sedum, and Filipendula Rubra Venusta (meadow sweet). The Sedum will need good snow cover, full sun, good drainage, and hopefully no winter rains and ice, to survive our winters. The Yarrow family tends to be promiscuous and seeds itself everywhere spreading surprise colors all over the driveway as it loves gravel and poor soils. I love volunteers and spontaneous plant surprises, but, yarrow are easy to deadhead and their seedlings easy to spot for weeding out of your beds. A member of the mint family, Monarda likes good rich soil, regular watering, and dividing to perform well or it is a short-lived perennial. Like the yarrow, it is also an herb that can be used for tea and culinary use with leaves that have a marjoram-like fragrance and flavor.

Foliage and shrubbery are an important background for the late summer garden. The annual salad herb, Atriplex hortensis, also known as Mountain spinach or Red orach, has a beautiful deep burgundy color. A relative of the equally tasty weed, Lamb’s Quarters, the leaves can be used raw or cooked and make a great floral filler for cut flower arrangements. Colorful shrubs such as the green- gold Spirea japonica varieties, ‘Fire Light’ and ‘Magic Carpet’, have a red tinge to their leaves that is enhanced by cool weather. Their deep pink flowers are an added plus in the late garden. The florescent gold leaves of Physocarpus opulus ‘Luteus’ (Ninebark) and Berberis thunbergia ‘Aureum’(Thorn berry) really set off the deep plum and rich burgundy of their siblings Physocarpus ‘Diabolo’ and Berberis thunbergia ‘Rose Glow’ and color the garden all season long.

Remember, you can plant your perennials and most shrubs as late as September, so you can still find a few bargains at the nurseries to plump up your late summer garden color. These cloudy days are perfect planting weather, so keep on gardening!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Be There or Be Square - The Alaska Garden & Art Festival!

DD Two

Summer is NOT over, yet!
I know we all feel like we’ve been shortchanged by Mother Nature lately, but, we do still have a few weeks left before the next frost sets in. July is the month when our gardens are really hitting their stride and a great time to get out to the garden tours. Next Saturday will be the 2nd Annual Garden and Art Festival at the State Fair grounds-an event that will knock your garden clogs off! This is the best way to enjoy all that head gardener Becky Myrvold and her staff have done with the over 35,000 plants that are planted in the beds every year along with 200 hanging baskets and 100 whiskey barrels that make the Alaska State Fair sing with color. So, stop your whining and get out to see the efforts of some real gardening athletes.

With a small crew of gardeners planting and pruning to get those great blooms for the fair, Becky hopes to be finished planting by next week. This year Becky decided to do the unthinkable-a white monochromatic color scheme. “I decided to go out on a limb and do an all white theme – so all of our beds and baskets will be all white, silver or gray and their wonderful variations! It was a challenge to myself – to see if I could create enough interest using only a monochromatic scheme. Did I pull it off? I really won’t know until later in the season.” Personally, my favorite part of my garden is mostly white with a hint of pink veronica. It just glows in the evening light! But, it’s a scheme sure to bring out the garden nannies and their grousing about color. “I suspect that the gardens will look lovely as usual, but, anxiety is part of the job. I vacillate between being worried that I have failed and being excited to see if it will be beautiful,” she noted. Becky’s really excited about the Ptilostemon diacantha, a thistle-looking plant with gray green foliage and white variegations.

Of course, it all started last fall with the seed orders and planning the garden theme, followed by the actual seeding in January. By March things are in full swing with pricking out the seedlings and starting the transplants. “The magic of seed germination” is Becky’s favorite part of the job. Going to the office in the morning to be greeted by “the beauty of a greenhouse in mid-April when all the plants are young and actively growing” is something many of us yearn for in the early dawn gloom. For Becky “the wonder of walking into the Perennial Garden and finding someone blooming I had forgotten I planted” and “poking around in the early spring for new shoots” is part of the joy of the job. You’ll notice she personifies her wards as ‘someone’ rather than as just a plant. This gardener is really ‘into’ her plants!

Part of the State Fair’s agenda is to educate the public about agriculture in Alaska. Their garden program illustrates just how many varieties of plants we can grow in our Alaskan gardens.
Like a movie director, the head gardener is invisible in the wings while the public enjoys the fruits of her labors. For Becky there’s satisfaction of a hard job well-done if all those perennial “plant crazies” who come each year can learn something new. And there will be lots of new things to watch for this year with the revamped plantings at Raven Hall, more paved paths in the Eckert Garden, and a picnic retreat at the Flagpole area.

Of course, the whole festival would not take flight without the unflagging efforts of the indomitable festival organizer Margo Frey, whose energies and organizational skills should be distilled and marketed as a supplement for the rest of us following in her wake! And she expects gardeners to heed the call to enter the Classy Container Contest. Do you have a stunner out there on the deck just waiting for the limelight? Well, bring that work of art to the Red Walk-In Gate on Saturday, July 22 from 11 to 2 for the judging. There will be wagons and helpers to transport your entries to the judging area. Be sure and make room for all the prizes, too!

Alaska Garden & Art Festival, Saturday July 22, 11-6, Alaska State Fair Grounds. For more information go to

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Garden Tours to Inspire!


Alaska State Master Gardeners hold a state-wide convention once a year. It rotates around the state with various MG chapters hosting. Some of you may remember the last one our local chapter hosted, in April of 2001. It was a great conference with lots of speakers, wonderful seminars and an array of interesting garden related venders.

This year, the state convention once again returns to the Mat-Su MG chapter and they are aiming to correct something they feel has been missing from the state-wide conventions, including their own past efforts. Garden Tours! It sounds terribly fundamental – garden convention, garden tours, right? Well, not exactly. Traditionally the Master Gardener conventions have been held in Feb. and I need not tell you how difficult it is to have a proper garden tour that time of year! While tours of commercial, year-round greenhouses filled in somewhat, there’s nothing like getting your feet inside someone else’s garden to make a gardeners life complete. Granted it can also make one feel tortured and inadequate as you gaze on those giant vegetables and perfect roses, but what’s to inspire if not wonderful gardens? If torture is part of that, so be it.

The days to reserve are July 21 and 22. The conference starts with a keynote from Ed Buyarski, the president of the American Primrose Society. Ed is an entertaining and knowledgeable speaker and promises to fill your head with lots of practical – yes, appropriate for our area! – information on these lovely plants. In addition to Ed, Dan Elliot, past president and current vice president of the Alaska Fruit Growers Association will present on growing apple trees in Alaska. Dan has over 100 varieties of apples in his home orchard and is a wealth of valuable information on the subject. I also understand that it’s a bit of a coup to have him as a speaker.

Stonehill Gardens will be catering a dinner on Friday evening and two Local Master Gardener authors will have their books available for signing. Jeff Lowenfels has just returned from a book promotion tour for his new book ‘Teaming with Microbes’ and will be introducing it that night. Hazel Koppenberg’s cracker and flat bread cookbook ‘The Cracker Box’ will also be available. Herbal Crackers from Hazel’s book will be featured at the dinner, along side wild Alaskan foods and fresh valley produce.

An extended lunch hour on Friday will include a self-guided walking tour of gardens in downtown Palmer featuring the Dr. Myron F. Babb Arboretum, the visitor center’s agricultural showcase garden, the historical garden at the United Protestant Church (the old log church across from the borough building), and the city garden at the Purple Moose Espresso. Three additional gardens will be featured on private tours throughout Friday afternoon: an urban rose garden in Palmer and a Master Gardener’s vegetable garden will be featured. Plant listings will be provided for each tour.

On Saturday there will be another keynote from Ed Buyarski followed by a full day of classes, presentations and activities. Saturday’s events will be held at the state fair grounds in conjunction with the second annual Alaska Garden and Art festival. Between the conference and the festival, Saturday topics include composting, potato late blight, landscaping for wildlife, beekeeping, pruning, garden photography, invasive plants, an ‘ask the experts forum’ with a wide range of plant expertise, beneficial insects, garden wildlife, children’s story time, children’s ‘build a fairy house’, yoga in the garden and sand cast birdbaths. In addition there will be tours of the three main gardens on the fair grounds; the Eckert Memorial Herb Garden, the Perennial Garden and Millie’s Vegetable Garden. These gardens are the babies of Becky Myrvold, head gardener at the fair, and are well worth a look. Becky is a treasure of plant knowledge and design insight and will be giving the tours herself.

Another first for this year’s conference is a children’s forum along side the adult forum, complete with a child’s registration fee. Speaking of price, the two day conference sounds like a bargain in any gardener’s book – only $85.00 per adult and $40.00 per child!

Participation in this event will be guaranteed to turn your brain into garden mush and you’re likely to walk away spouting Botanical Latin, or even worse, discussing microbes with you neighbor! But it still sounds like a no-miss happening. TO REGISTER, JUST CALL 745-7071 OR SEND YOUR REGISTRATION FEE TO: MAT-SU MASTER GARDENERS, C/O PO BOX 2876, PALMER, AK. 99645 ALONG WITH YOUR NAME, PHONE NUMBER, EMAIL ADDRESS (IF YOU HAVE ONE)AND KNOWN FOOD ALLERGIES. It's as simple as that and you can join the fun!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hurray for PAR!

DD One
It’s not every day that I talk about vegetable gardening. I don’t hate vegetables – in fact, I love them! Not only are they one of my favorite food groups, they are fun to cut and chop, and look so lovely in the garden. But I don’t grow them. There’s a perfectly good explanation. I have a sister and a number of friends who have fabulous vegetable gardens. They give me veggies, I give them perennials. It’s as simple as that.

So what made me plant a vegetable garden this year? My first ever, I’m ashamed to say. No lightning bolts letting me know I’ve gone astray with all the shrubs and flowers. No fundamental conviction that I should start growing my own vegetables for a change. Just a decision to get behind a good program designed to provide food for those who need it. For you skeptics, here's a photo, but please don't laugh! Remember, this is my first ever!

The Garden Writers Association (GWA) is sponsoring a campaign called ‘Plant a Row for the Hungry’ (PAR for short). Aside from generating over nine million pounds of produce for donation last year, PAR started right here in Alaska! Garden columnist Jeff Lowenfels, (Anchorage Daily News) started the whole thing twelve years ago when he asked his readers to plant a row of vegetables for Bean’s Café, a soup kitchen in Anchorage. Since then, with the sponsorship from GWA, the program has spread across the country and has begun to make a significant contribution to our country’s hunger plight. According to hunger statistics from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, over eleven percent of American families experienced hunger in 2005. There are an estimated ninety million gardeners in the US today! Think of the hungry we could feed if every gardener planted just one row or donated their excess produce each fall to their local food bank? You got it – that’s the whole idea!

PAR follows in the footsteps of the great War Gardens of ninety years ago. This was a very successful campaign launched during World War I, again, from the inspiration of one man, Charles Lathrop Pack, who set up the national War Garden Commission to organize his brain child. The posters showed militant vegetables marching off to war calling “The seeds of Victory ensure the fruits of Peace!” Later, when the war ended, posters boasted victorious vegetables returning home holding high the American flag with the words “War Gardens Victorious, Every War Garden a Peace Plant!” Canning was the most common form of food preservation at the time and there was even a poster encouraging people to “Can Vegetables, Fruit and the Kaiser to”.

The war garden effort, promoted both here and in allied countries, is largely attributed for saving Europe’s food supply during the last two years of the war. By 1916 major portions of farmland throughout Europe had been devastated by war and food reserves had run out. Solders were getting what food rations were left and not much at that. Their families at home were getting even less.

Our country had entered the war late and was not fighting on home soil. As a result, our cities were in tact and we still had healthy, strong citizens who could garden. Why not put these people to work growing food? The War Garden program went beyond home gardening in their effort to feed the troops. Vacant lots, primarily in the US, but also in Britain, France, Belgium and Italy were put into the cultivation of vegetables. The emphasis of this program was in the cities where there were people to man the gardens, mostly ladies groups, Girl Scout troops and hastily formed garden clubs. A survey conducted by the War Garden Commission in 1918 conservatively estimated the number of such gardens in the US at just over five and a quarter million, with some 186,000 vacant lots under cultivation in New York City alone!

PAR is similarly successful because of individual gardeners volunteering their effort to grow food and make sure it is being donated where it needs to be. To join this effort, just designate a portion of your garden as ‘A Row for the Hungry’, it’s that simple. To find out where to donate your produce, call your local food bank, Master Gardener's organization or PAR's toll free number 877-492-2727. There are volunteers all over the country working with this program. Why not make this your year to join?

Confessions of an untidy gardener

DD One
This time of year is always a hard one for me. You’d think I would be whooping for joy – the grass is up, the apple trees are in bloom, the perennials are growing, the alpines light up the nursery and we’re making money. Instead I am grumpy, annoyed and making life miserable for all those around me. There’s a persistent nagging in the back of my mind that I should be somewhere doing something that I’m not. There’s always an unfinished list on my desk and uncompleted tasks in my garden book. It’s all about time and I don’t have enough of it.

Which dragons do I slay and which do I leave standing? Oh dear, oh dear! The dandelions must at least be headed before they start to fly, the tree seedlings need to be removed from the garden before they grow strong and root deep, and any remaining winter die-back on the shrubs needs to go. Really, it is June already! Aside from that, I don’t know where to turn, the list just goes on and on.

I suppose all of you organized decisive gardeners know exactly what you’re up to. I see you out there digging, raking, lifting, separating, cutting, planting and trimming and I am jealous. Yep! Jealous! What a life! Not me and my garden. We are, at best, a disheveled, overgrown partnership of compromises. Mysteries lurk behind each rose bush, surprises in each patch of currants. And nature abounds.

Birds aren’t especially fond of tidy gardens, which makes them feel right at home in mine. Robins have built a nest in the atrium and talk about untidy! Twigs and grass everywhere, which of course I won’t pick up - that would just be wrong. There’s a pile of garden scraps by the alder patch that stayed one day too long and now must stay for the summer. A mamma Junco chose to make her home in there. Soon she will be dodging garden traffic as she darts in and out of the pile to feed her young.

The bugs in the old, dead birch are a feast for the Woodpeckers, both Downy and Hairy, bringing such wonderful rhythm to the twittering air. A bedlam of songs greet us when we step out of the house in the early morning. By mid day they have ebbed, only to pick up later in the evening and continue late into the night. From the look of the activity in this unruly mess, I know we would be missing a lot of life if we cleaned the place up.

In the heart of the garden, Dragon Fly larvae are thriving in the pool. It’s all those dead leaves in the bottom! A lingering sit on the ground by the water, looking into the shallows will reveal a long list of little critters to ponder, as well as a chance to take note of the visitors nearby. Chickadees busily explore the larch tree, Robins hop about after worms and bugs, and, if you’re there very late, when it’s nearly dark, you can feel and sense the little brown bats swooping past your head in pursuit of the dreaded mosquito. All these wonderful creatures are comfortable guests in their disorderly home.

So while I ponder the tidy gardeners and wonder at their organizational skills, my little jungle thrives. Every time I get brave enough to plunge into the cluttered chaos with my trowel in hand, I get lost in its magic and do just about nothing. Oh sure, the paths get narrower every year, the bushes more ragged, the pond smaller, the ground cover larger and the rock work less visible, but what’s a nature lover to do? I planned all this, after all - the right selection of shrubs, the location of the pond in filtered shade, the apple tree arbor, the crazy lilacs and those out of control currants. These were all by design to do exactly what they are doing now – attract life to the garden. So now that they are doing their job, who am I to tidy up?

The moral of the story is this: choose your garden design wisely, for it may bring just what you hoped. Tidy rows of organized, back breaking beauty, or relaxed disorder - or it may be that I’m just a lazy gardener. Either way, this is for all you who love to garden but just can’t be perfect. Don’t sweat it, perfection isn’t natural anyway.