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 CafĂ©, 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.