Sunday, April 30, 2006

In Defense of the Cottonwood

DD One
Finally, a new garden club to join! And this one is for the underdog, what more could you ask for? It's really easy - just log onto comments and tell us you're in. ‘Save the Cottonwood Society’s time is here!

Populus balsamifera ssp trichocarpa, known more commonly as Black Cottonwood, or just ‘cottonwood’ here in our Valley, is spectacular, underrated and abused. If it sounds like I’m about to defend this tree, you’re right. It’s been systematically annihilated for years. It’s a big, humble tree that’s treated like a dispensable weed. Well, it’s neither a weed nor is it dispensable. If you’ve chopped them down and cursed the name, please read on. This column’s for you!

Cottonwood can reach amazing heights – up to one hundred and twenty feet! This makes it the tallest broad leafed tree in Alaska. Its rapid growth habit means you don’t have to wait your whole life for the wind breaking and shade giving qualities it provides. We have a lovely, thirty foot specimen in our back yard that wasn’t even there when we moved in twelve years ago! This photo shows an award winning garden in North Palmer. The gardener’s have groomed a pair of these giants for years. It is a thing of beauty and shelters a small patio under its wonderful branches.

Cottonwood also can keep the air in your garden clean. Read on.

The soil surrounding these trees nutures a colony of special macrobiotic organisms that live only around cottonwood roots. These organisms transfer carbon from the tree roots to the soil. Carbon is also captured in the above ground portion of the tree which, when combined with the root community, creates a system of air filtration for the carbon dioxides emitted into our atmosphere, and effectively slows the increase in harmful atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. While all trees perform a similar duty, the cottonwood has one of the fastest and most efficient rates of carbon sequestering. Cottonwoods also increase soil’s fertility and ability to hold water. This saves on the need for erosion control as well as cutting down the need for manmade, fossil-fuel- eating, fertilizers. Important stuff! After all, what is the plan for dealing with our atmosphere when our trees have been reduced to a marginal level? I don’t have one, do you?

The waxy resin in cottonwood buds is used by bees to caulk, and seal out intruders such as mice, or other insects that might bring disease and destruction into their hives. The chemical in this resin is also being developed for tree trunk paint to keep rabbits and mice from girdling them in winter. The same resin holds anti-infectant properties and is used in many modern health ointments and soaps. Soap made from the early buds is magical. It leaves the hands feeling clean and smooth as though lotion had been applied. Of all the wonderful herbal soaps my Mother makes, her Cottonwood Balm is my favorite,and soooo good after a long day in the dirt.

The deep, cracked bark of this mighty tree is a major over-wintering habitat for butterflies, bats and spiders. Cottonwood trees are also a valuable bird sanctuary and their foliage, twigs, buds, flowers and roots provide food for many small creatures, such as shrews, voles, squirrels, porky pine and beaver.

My father, Jerome Koppenberg, is one of Alaska’s most knowledgeable log home builders, and while he prefers using spruce because of its relative lightness, easy peeling and cutting, he says that cottonwood is not without value. As a testament to this, there are two wonderful, cottonwood log homes, built by him, on Lazy Mountain. He lists, among its attributes, its height and straightness, its size – each, single, round easily replacing several of spruce, its superior insulating qualities and its longevity.

Now, lets talk about what you’ve all been waiting for. The cotton! For starters, not all trees produce the dreaded stuff. While both male and female trees can potentially flower, the male catkins are fairly cotton-less and only get up to a couple inches long. The females are the trouble makers with catkins up to eight inches long! But even these beauties, if kept in the back yard or on the edge of your woods, should be welcome. No flowers will appear until the trees are ten years old. Think of the joy and the height a cottonwood can bring you in ten years?

Converted to a cottonwood lover? Good! Remember, cottonwood can only provide its many benefits if left standing. Embrace these majestic giants and enjoy a warm, fuzzy feeling every time you swallow cotton on the breeze. One more thing! Don’t forget to join the ‘Save the Cottonwood Society' and tell us your favorite Cottonwood story. It’ll do your heart good.

Monday, April 24, 2006

If you can't weed them, eat them!

DD Two

Some cultures eat the heart of their adversaries both as an homage to the enemy’s courage and strength and to strengthen their own ! Hey, whatever works to get rid of these weeds . You can do a delicious stir fry with young fireweed and cucumber berry stalks, fiddleheads, stinging nettles, plantains, and that old stand by ...the dandelion. Stinging nettles are both an indicator of good soil fertility as well as a very mineral rich pot herb. Once they’re cooked they no longer sting. Just wear some gloves when picking them.

Warm Dandelion Greens
Fry 2 0z. Diced lean or Canadian bacon in a large skillet for 2-3 minutes, until edges curl. Drain on paper towels. Pour off fat and add 2 tsp. olive oil. Add 1 clove garlic, minced, and saute until light brown. Add 12 cups young dandelion greens, rinsed well and briefly shaken dry, stir to coat with the oil, cover pan and steam about 3 minutes, or just until limp. Add 2 tbsp. Balsamic vinegar, the bacon, toss lightly and serve at once with dandelion flowers and leaves for garnish. Serves 6

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Snow, Snow, Snow! Will it ever end?

DD One

Unlike Brooke, who is soooo lucky to have a fabulous greenhouse with wonderful artwork hanging about, we have a field of snow (to which I have referred several times already). Yes, I know, it's all quite boring, but while others are posting information on lovely plants popping up out of the ground all I get to do is watch the snow melt. Check out these picture! We had two inches of snow overnight! This, of course, on top of plenty that's still there.

SO, I am thrilled that our tiny little house at our downtown outlet is is FINISHED and full of plants! Thanks to my friend Nancy, who grew the babies for me this year, I don't have to wait. Nadia and I have already planted most of our special-order containers and have now moved on to fun things. Our new baby, Chervill, loves to help out but looses interest pretty quickly. Such are the ways of a 12 month old puppy.

I have been looking at Basil's puppy pictures - way too cute! Rosemary was PLAYING with Marley and Chervill today! I was so happy for her. Perhaps she's learning how to get on....good girl! The flowers are cheering me up. May be I need to do more annuals, they really are wonderfully cheerful.

Wishful Thinking

DD One

Rudolph Crabapple and Darwin tulips on May 14, 2005 in the Colony Garden at the United Protestant Presbyterian Church in Palmer, Alaska. I don't think we'll be there quite that early this year. The tulips are only 2 inches high today and they're not looking all that happy.

Another thrill of the North Land...constant climate changes and grossly unpredictable weather.

On this day last year I was planting perennial roots by the hundred on an outside workbench in 72 degree temperature! The ground at the nursery was mostly thawed. The perennials were placed on the ground under plastic that actually had to be removed during the day because of the heat. It was 45 degrees today with rain and snow and a chilly breeze. The nursery still has at least a foot of snow with more in many places. Last year Rosemary and Basil were playing on the snow bank behind me. This year Rosemary plays with her new friends and Basil romps above, perhaps with Bear-Bear or TD, his bones burnt and in a tin waiting to fertilize tulips in the garden. Change is constant and certain, companionship is not. I think it best to enjoy blessings we have while we can, like today's moisture. It will soon surround us in green.

Don't Treat Your Soil Like Dirt

DD One

Dirt Divas column from May 10, 2005

To have great plants, you need great soil. This is not a mystery. We live in one of the best agricultural areas in the world, renowned for its soil (really), but many a manic gardener lives in the surrounding gravel and swamp. So, we buy soil, usually a ‘three-way’-mix’ – 1/3 top soil, 1/3 humus, 1/3 sand. These mixes vary greatly, depending on where the parent ingredients come from. They range from OK to not so good, but all fall short of being the Holy Grail of garden soil. A little care to the under layer of your garden now, will reap amazing results later.

Soil needs several basic things, nutrition, airspace, drainage, and humus. To address these needs the ‘squeeze test’ works well. That’s what’s going on when you drive by a farm and see folks hunkered down in a field, hands in the soil, apparently talking to the ground. It’s easy to imagine that the uncertainties of farming have finally gotten to them, but really they are just examining their dirt (at least that’s what’s usually going on).

Grab an undisturbed handful of soil from your garden. Squeeze it. If it clings together when you open your hand, it may have too much clay. If it runs out between your fingers, it may be too sandy. If it feels heavy it may be lacking humus. Getting the picture? To get the Holy Grail you need a magical balance of grit, dirt and humus. It should feel fairly light, smell fresh (not stale, nasty or putrid), and rest loosely in your hand. Small to tiny rocks are OK.

So what do you do if your dirt feels all wrong, or worse yet, smells like used socks or your kid’s dirty underwear? Bad smells usually mean two things – you are gardening in a chemical waste dump or your soil doesn’t have enough aeration. The first scenario is highly unlikely but the second is common. No air space means no channels for water movement, which, in turn, causes organic matter within the soil to go stagnant, thus the smell!

Try this guide to great plants – err, soil.

1. Remember, grit allows air and water movement. So, not enough grit? – add sand or pea-gravel. Up to 25% grit usually does well in a solid, clay-like soil. Just break up the soil as best you can, spread the grit, and mix. A rototiller works wonders for large areas. For those of us who prefer the back-breaking method, a spade is great. Don’t go overboard! A garden with too much grit will be hard to keep watered!

2. Humus is organic matter. Humus adds nutrition, fluff and critters to your soil. Yes, critters! There are many faithful ground-dwellers hard at work for you (for free!) if encouraged. Earth worms, ants, beetles, centipedes and microscopic organisms constantly travel under your garden, opening up airways while leaving their own nutritious fertilizers behind. Humus is a wonderful thing, but heed these warnings. Peat moss can have a drying effect on the soil. Peat is dried, decayed, ancient moss and it is very thirsty! While quenching its thirst it pulls moisture from the surrounding soil. Aged manure is wonderful, but can bring in a lot of weeds. Use packaged steer manure sparingly – it is high in nitrogen. Extra-fine bark mulch is great, but adds up in price. So the winner is…..the humble leaf! Leaves are free and abundant. Beware of diseased leaves, however. They can court disaster to the garden!

3. Once grit and humus are balanced with the top-soil in your garden, drainage follows. Some plants like Dwarf Jacobs Ladder need extra drainage and fairly dry conditions to survive. Create a bed with at least 50% grit and plant varieties that all enjoy such conditions, or make a little area for your single, gritty-loving plant.

Soil Recipe for Perennial/Shrub Boarder
For every three portions of pea-gravel, mix in two portions each of top soil (plain old dirt), humus, and sand.
This may seem high in grit, but it works wonders for root permeability, aeration, nutrition, water retention and stability. Warning! Shrubs will grow huge and perennials will spread. Ah! Such a shame!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Chicken Garden and more

DD one

The 'Chicken Garden' at Stonehill Downtown

You're right, Brooke, this is what we all want long for time of year, but when it hits 68 degrees I start to sweat and can't stop. Hot is relative, I suppose since our hot is cold to some. But really, global warming is catching up to us - all those weeks of 70 and hotter were unheard of a few years ago. And oh, those apple varieties we can grow now - another unheard of gift from the destruction of the earths biosphere. Trash the earth but bring us apples...Hum, an interesting bumper sticker, don't you think?

The worst part of the whole business is keeping all those potted plants happy in the hot weather. It's enough to make me want to grow all our stock in the ground, but there's a significant problem: we don't have any ground! Our part of the mountain is one big lovely swamp, lots of soggy ground, running water, alders, devils club, willow and Moose, but very little soil. In fact, the gardens at the main nursery are all from man-made mixtures of this sort and that. One more year of struggling to keep pots cool. I agree, it looks like we're in for another hot one, though it's slow in coming.

DD Two

Ah, this photo is
more like it.
Now that's nice weather!
No rain, no brown, no sleet,
no frown!

Gray, dreary, drizzle, and spring

DD Two

Ugh, it's chilly and drizzly and very gray-brown outside. But, there are little rosy-green things poking up through the dirt in front of the greenhouse. If the sun comes out a bit tomorrow there are a handful of squill that will open their blue eyes. Flowers in April! In Palmer, Alaska! Just think, only ten years ago I'd still be skiing in the back yard this time of year. Who says Global Warming isn't significant?

I've been watching slide shows of last summer trying to get my mind ready for gardening. With this drizzle...oops...I mean snow( it just turned into white stuff)watching digital slide shows beats pulling wintered-over plants out of the cold frames! The only thing I've done outside today is bring in more firewood for the big kitchen stove. It's cosier than turning up the thermostat. Ah, spring. Well, we do need the rain. This winter and last summer were too dry. The University of ALaska climatologists are predicting a hotter, drier summer than last year. Lots of forest fires and lots of hazey, smokey days are ahead. So, I guess this chilly drizzle isn't so bad after all. At least the air smells clean and fresh.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Spring chores - getting on

DD One
Getting on. Someone left a wonderful felt dog in my truck with a little scarf knitted from dog fur around its neck. I have seen the little creature at someone's house before, but don't remember where. Its bothering me. Such sweet sentiment, but from whom? No note.

Jay says the greenhouse will be done today. Hooray! The flowers are waiting. I am getting ready, I think. It will be interesting to see how the creative gray matter reacts to the smell and color of bedding plants. A healing effect, I hope.

I have been working on my spring designs, but without much zest. My clients seem quite happy, but I feel I have let them down. An acute lack of imagination would sum it up nicely. Still, the physical business of drawing, thinking and coloring is a relief. A mind-busy activity. Perhaps design classes for those in mourning would be the thing? I wonder if you would come out with a bunch of sorrowful looking gardens? Interesting thought.

I'm going to take my first walk through the nursery today and see how things are coming along. So far I have just peered through the fence. Its a mixed up mess over there - snow, mud and ice. I wonder if the soil in the soil building is thawed? That would be handy. It's always so much fun to thaw it out this time of year. The new roof Jay put over it last fall should have made all the difference. It would be good to be able to get to the potting shed without a foot of mud, but I have low hopes for that. I need stuff from there.

The boys will be here soon for tutoring. Writing is such a struggle for them and they work so hard at it. What a pleasure to have such fine young men to work with. They are sure to brighten (and confuse) the day. I look forward to it, as always.

Basil Erickson, Oct. 31, 1999 - March 24. 2006

DD one
Here is my beloved.

Surely you romp now in some heavenly plane, enjoying which was denied you here in this realm.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Break up and loss

DD One
Mud everywhere! Dog tracks on the rugs, dog tracks in the car, dog tracks on my cloths.
The wind is cold, the water is running down the driveway and the mountains are crisp with new fallen snow. It makes the green grass popping out from under the porch somewhat surreal.

The guys nearly finished the new greenhouse today. I'm glad their working out there. I'm not quite ready to buck into the wind. The safety of the office seems cozy for me just now. When I am outside I miss Basil so much I can't focus. His beautiful eyes, his nose pushing my leg, his huge frame beside me, watching and patient. This will be a summer of sorrow and I am not ready for it. In the office, I changed my screen saver to his image, then quickly to something else. I was working through tears - the constant pain too real. I miss him beyond what I would ever have imagined, beyond reason and logic. The ache has settled in like an unwelcome visitor, keeping me raw and vulnerable inside.

The new, young dogs seem contented to play and watch, but Rosemary is melancholy. I'm afraid she will never be the same Rose that we have known. Basil was half of her, her joy, her brother. She needs time to refocus, shift, find a new spirit to life. I hope she finds it.

I need to focus as well. I need to find a spot of harmony and peace. Perhaps working in the earth will help. I am out of shape after a winter of sitting. I am out of focus. I am out of wack. I need to be on my knees in the dirt, moving rocks this way and that. I need to be so tired at night that memories and tears are not an option. I need the physical aches that summer brings to my aging body. Perhaps they will help the heart aches fade. I just need to get on with it.

There have been Robin songs the last couple of weeks, in spite of the cold. Thousands of Canadian geese have been in the grain field north of town. The tulips are up in the church garden, and primrose are up at Stonehill Downtown. There is sign of life everywhere as the Day of resurrection has come. Just grab onto it and fly, woman, just fly. So many things to do.
The plants are ready to move into the greenhouse as soon as it is done, perhaps in two days. The plants outside are frozen in, but each day they inch their way closer to a full thaw. I can see the tops of the perennial pots with some wonderful green emerging. The trees leaf buds are full and swollen, waiting for a week of warm weather to burst into unimaginable color.

I look forward to having the main nursery closed this summer. Perhaps we will enjoy the solitude so much that it will remain appointment only. That's a thought. But for now the gardens need major renovation. They are lovely and rambling, but make little sense anymore. They have been left a bit too much to their own devices and need to be reined in. I talk about it like it's a trifle, but work it will be! Heavy, bold, back breaking, wonderful work. A plan would be nice before we begin. Something at least more than a whisper in the back of my mind. I see it dimmed and unclear. I wish I could see my own gardens as clearly as I see those of others, crystal clear and finished, far before we begin. But Lola's Garden at Stonehill.....what a foggy, faded picture it is. I love it so, but can not see its next incarnation. I have a few more weeks to conjure it up, I'll just hope for a few good moments before then.

In the mean time I need to wrap my brain around getting on. All things in their own time I guess. All things in their own time.