Tag Archives: Gardening

The Stranger’s Garden

21 Apr

The Gardener didn’t pay any attention as the Stranger exited the front door of the neighboring home.  New to town, it was the only neighbor the Gardener hadn’t met.  Other than the occasional person that mowed the long turf, rarely was there anyone outside. The postage stamp lots in the historic neighborhood were filled with mature trees and shrubbery, creating more privacy between the yards.  The birds chirped and the squirrels were scurrying about.  With dirt stained hands, the Gardener steadied the handle and forced the spade deep into the soil with the thickly-soled leather boot.  There were ancient roots intertwined tightly throughout which would surely suffocate anything new planted there.  The Gardener moved into the grey 1940’s two-story home five months ago,  but this was the first time the weather cooperated along with time allowing the Gardener to get out and remove the old overgrown landscape.  A month prior the overgrown mass was sprayed with herbicide, creating less curb appeal to the front of the house.

 Before Front Side

“Excuse me.  Hello?  Hello!”

The Gardener’s brain tuned into the faint voice of the Stranger who was walking toward the edge of the grassy property line.  The Stranger was short with gray hair, polyester pants, an over sweater, and corrective shoes.  The Gardener’s dog began to bark at the Stranger whose voice could hardly be heard.

“Quiet!  Shhh!  It’s okay.  Sit.” The black dog obeyed sitting quietly while watching the Stranger step cautiously across the lawn toward the Gardener.

“Hi, I thought I should introduce myself to you since I am the one that sold you the house.”

“Hello!  What a pleasure to meet you.  I love the house.  It has been so well taken care of.”

The Stranger pointed at the browning leafy landscape with an arthritic finger and bulging eyes.  “Oh my!  Did this all die or was it done intentionally?”

“Um. It was intentional.”  Oh my God!  How am I going to explain this?  What a horrible landscape the front yard had.  So overgrown and ugly.  I had to kill it all.

Somewhat distracted, the Stranger pointed again with the same arthritic finger toward an arbor further back in the front yard.  “What is that purple flower on that vine over there?  It’s so big and beautiful!  I have never seen anything like it.” 

“It’s a Purple Hyacinth Bean.  It’s really starting to show off right now with the cooler nights coming on.  There’s nothing out there blooming like this right now.  It’s not an edible bean though.  Well, I guess you could eat it, but it is grown more for ornamental purposes.  Would you like to take a closer look?” Why am I so polite?  The last thing I need to do is walk closer to that side of the house where I cut down the tree.  Too many people keep asking me why I cut down that tree.  I don’t’ need to tell this person that I couldn’t stand the sight of it and how the flowers smelled like moth balls.  The tree was probably planted ten years or more ago.  Maybe this Stranger planted it and in a day I tore it down.

With arms crossed and a stern look, the Stranger boasted, “First tell me what you are going to do in the front.  What is your big plan? ”

“Well, I am removing the groundcover, along with the few overgrown shrubs, and then I can plant a few boxwood at the front of the porch entrance, and a redbud tree, you know, with the small purple flowers that bloom along the stem in the spring, oh, um, and I think some annuals surrounding the bottom of the tree, like impatiens, oh! I found some impatiens tags in the planter box and thought to myself that must have been something that you used to plant there in the planter, which is cracking, so I was taking out a few bricks to repair it before it fell down, but then decided that since I have it almost all tore down, I won’t put it back up, so I will plant some flowering shrubs in its place under the window, and then a few annuals for color again here.” What is my plan?  Gee whiz, I don’t know my plan other than having to kill everything so I can have a clean slate, then I can figure it out, I just need to stop rambling on and on to this person.  Wait a minute, I know!  “Since this is the front yard, I am going to create a more formal landscape!  That is what I am doing.” The Gardener spoke out loudly as if to present the grandest landscape plan of them all.

“Ah. I see.  I am not a gardener; my sister is the master gardener.” The Stranger stood with arms folded and a nodding head. “I had the dirt replaced twice in this garden because there was something wrong with it.  I won’t tell you who brought me the first dirt.  I had to have it all taken out.  Nothing would grow.  I would water and water, but nothing would grow.  So what about over there, the purple what?”

“Purple Hyacinth Bean.  You plant it from seed, and it grows into this beautiful large vine that produces this beautiful flower in September right before the frost comes.”  I can’t believe I am about to say it, but again I feel compelled to walk the stranger over to the plant.

They both walk to the side of the yard to a culinary garden.

September Garden

“Oh my!  Look at these tomato plants!  They are so big!  Oh!  Peppers?  Are those peppers?”


“Well this is interesting, different, but interesting.  Oh and look here, squash?  Very nice, very nice.”

“The leaves are a little too purple on this bean plant, and I am not getting any flowers on the pineapple sage, so I am thinking that they are lacking something nutritionally.”

“Oh I see.  Like what?  What are they lacking?”

“I haven’t tested the soil, but with these symptoms I am thinking Phosphorus.”

“Ahh, add bone meal.” The Stranger slowly nodded and had somewhat of a smile.  What?  Not everyone knows that bone meal is a source of phosphorus.  I thought this stranger wasn’t much of a gardener?   

The smile left the Stranger’s face.  “What happened to the tree that was here?  In the space behind the purple bean?” 

Oh gee, the dreaded question.  The Gardener looks at the ground, unable to make eye contact with the Stranger.  “I had to cut it down.” There wasn’t anything wrong with the tree, but, it shaded almost all of the space. “This is the only area in the yard that can get any sun, and since I grow a lot of vegetables and herbs, I had to cut down the tree to create this sunlit patch.”

Nothing else was said.  The heavy silence was awkward.  The Stranger gazed over the space, as if looking for something else that wasn’t there, and then quickly changed the subject.

“Did you take out all of the carpet?”

“Yep.  We finished the wood floors.  They are beautiful.”

“I remember my mother always polishing the floors.”  The Stranger’s voice quieted.

“Would you like to come in and see them?  The house is a little messy, but you are more than welcome to come in.”  Again, why did I invite this stranger into MY house.  Especially since it is not as clean as it was when I moved in. 

“I don’t want to impose.  I pick up my cousin every Sunday for church,” pointing to the neighboring house, “I’ll stop by again.  In the mean time, I will be watching what you do out here in the front.”  As the Stranger began to walk back to the property line the Gardener noticed the gray Ford Taurus parked in the street in front of the neighboring house.  I’ve seen that car before, driving slowly past the house.  That’s who it is.  Gray house, gray car.

“I’ll keep watching.  I’m curious to see what you do.” The Stranger called out while waving.

Haunted by the visit, the Gardener continued to remove the rooted mass and decaying plant material.  What will I do here?  How could I have gone and killed everything that someone else had tried for so many years to grow?  This is my house now, but why don’t I feel like this garden is mine?  Formal landscape?  What am I thinking?  I am not formal.

With bare hands buried deep into the cool musty soil, the final steps are taken to remove all green life from the front landscape.  I know now, I need to create an inviting landscape, one that welcomes any stranger to this home, filled with colorful flowers and native plants that should be growing in this garden for bees, butterflies and insects, and using methods that benefit the creatures living in the soil.  The earth will never be owned by me, or anyone else.  It is shared by us all, for a moment in our time.  I will just tend the soil for now, garden how I feel is best, until I am gone and the next gardener comes to do what they want to do. 

bee and lavender

are we done gardening yet?

30 Sep

It is not in doing what you like,

but in liking what you do that is the secret to happiness.

Sir James M. Barrie

It is the last day of September and I have to admit, after gardening this past summer in the dust, I’m looking forward to a long cool autumn to re-energize my overheated body and sun-leathered skin. Some gardeners that I have talked to over the past few weeks said they gave up long ago on their gardens. “Too hot! Too dry! Maybe next year.” I detected slight sounds of guilt in their cracking, squeaking, high pitched voices. In the community garden I belong to, many people abandoned their garden over the summer. I’m so confused. How could anyone give up on gardening? I didn’t know that it ever ended. Could these just be the crazy thoughts of an obsessed gardener? There must be a devil and angel gardener on my shoulders. I’ll be the first to admit, I wanted to give up too, but something (or someone) kept me going. “Patti…you need to go out in the garden…you will know what to do when you get out there.” These were some of the whispers that would haunt my ears. Ok, alright! I would go out, and before I knew it, hours would pass. I lose track of time, and get lost in the many things that occur in this amazing world. For me, gardening is never done, and this is the best time of year to prep the garden for next year. Here are a few things to remember to do this autumn before you decide to hang up your shovel for the year.

  • Weed, weed, weed! Perennial weeds are growing like gangbusters and will spend the winter months sending their roots deeper into the soil. Make sure you remove all weeds! Annual weeds have flowered and set seed. You don’t want these to disperse in your garden. The key to eliminating weed problems is to clean, clean, clean!
  • Aerate the soil. This can be done with a spade or fork. Gently lifting the soil while weeding or adding amendments will be sufficient. You could also use a shovel, broadfork, or small tiller.
  • Amend the soil. Autumn is the best time to add bone meal, greensand, and rock phosphate which will improve soil fertility in a sustainable earth friendly way. Follow directions on the bag for amounts. You can find this in local garden centers and nurseries. Save composting for spring time.
  • If you experienced a drought this past growing season, it would help to water your garden. Hopefully we will get a good snow this year to help build the low soil water content.
  • Get your soil tested. Now is a good time to get your soil tested by your local county extension. This can also be done in the spring. Be consistent from year to year. If you have it done in the spring, then continue to do so.

So, to answer the question, “are we done gardening yet?”.

The answer from me is, “NEVER!”

Happy Autumn Gardening!

Honoring with Poppies and Flags

27 May

Memorial Day Weekend has always been a tradition of planting the garden in my family. This is about a week after our frost free date, so naturally, everyone is talking about planting the garden on Memorial Day. I do recall while growing up going to parades, or my mother visiting the cemetery to plant something on someone’s grave that I never knew. I think it would have been a cousin of hers, or my great grandfather. We would cook hot dogs on the grill and eat potato salad, raise the American flag on the flag pole, and if I was lucky, get to go to the beach. I never knew anyone that died in a war, although my dad and step dad both served state side in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy. I just found my grandpa’s draft card for World War II. My son is serving in the U.S. Marine Reserves. I am proud and thankful for them all; including the men and women I don’t know who have and are serving in the military. I don’t agree that war is always the answer, but is has, and will probably always be, the way of our world.


Photo of my son courtesy of Toni Elliott-Lee

I think that my generation fell short from many of the traditions of my parents. I hadn’t experienced a war in my lifetime, or at least one that I could remember, so I never felt close to it. After 9-11, I thought differently. And when my son chose the military, well, it really opened my eyes and I could never imagine what families experience when they lose someone due to war. I wanted to know and understand more about Memorial Day and what it meant, not just plant my garden this weekend. So by doing very little research,I learned a little history from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs website. This holiday was started to honor the people who have lost their lives while serving our country. Planting flowers on the graves of the people that died during their service on “Decoration Day” has been a tradition since its declaration by Major General John A. Logan three years after the Civil War ended in 1868. It was celebrated throughout the country on May 30th honoring those lost in the Civil War by the end of the 19th century. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday and was meant to honor all service men and women who have died in American wars.

Soon after the first distribution in 1922, the VFW adopted the poppy as the official memorial flower of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States. You may be familiar with the paper poppies mounted on a green wire with a white paper tag being sold for a dollar at the intersections in your town by members if the VFW. These are assembled by disabled veterans or those veterans in need of financial assistance. This morning when I went out to my garden, this poppy had just bloomed overnight and now holds a whole new meaning. My garden will always have red poppies from here on out.

In 1971 Memorial Day was changed to the last Monday in May by Congress and in 2000, Congress passed and the president signed into law “The National Moment of Remembrance Act,” which encourages Americans to pause in a moment of silence at 3:00 p.m. to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation. The change of date has caused some controversy, and there is an attempt to change back to the original date of May 30th.

So whether you are gardening or attending a parade, planting in a cemetery or cooking on the grill, whatever day, the last Monday in May, or May 30th, take a moment to honor those who have died in service. Now I will grow red poppies in my garden, maybe reciting the poem by John McCrae In Flander’s Field when they bloom, and as always, I will plant my garden and raise the flag while remembering those who served and lost their lives to make sure I have the freedom to do what I chose.


10 May

Radishes, Raphanus sativus L. are a very fast growing cool season crop belonging to the Brassicaceae family. Originating from Asia, their flavors can range from mild to hot. The most familiar radish to Americans may be a round red radish with white flesh and a mild flavor. I don’t like them. When I was growing up, my mother would ruin a perfectly fine potato salad by smothering the top with layers of sliced radishes. I learned how to pick them off and out of things fast. I will grow them, but I really don’t like harvesting them either. Their leaves are covered with fine hairs that feel a lot like thorns poking my flesh. They are there for a reason, and just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean I won’t grow these in my garden. I just won’t eat them. They are a great veggie to grow and share.

Radishes before thinning

There are mainly two types of radishes. Like I mentioned above, the round fast growing radish that is best grown in the spring, and the Daikon radish which should be grown in the fall and is best for winter storage. There are many colors and shapes but all germinate best when soil temperatures are between 45-90 degrees Fahrenheit, with the optimum temperature being 60-65. The soil temperature in my garden right now is 55, so I will be sowing radishes without cover (cold frame) this weekend. Ideally, you want to direct sow about 1/4 to 1/2 inch below the surface in rows spaced about 8” to 18” apart. Sow the seeds in a line. After they have germinated, you will notice that they are too close together, so you need to “thin” them. You will know how much just by picturing the size of the radish when you will be harvesting it. That is how much space it will need to grow, with a little extra in between. If you continue to plant every 2-3 weeks, you will have a continuous harvest for most of the year. Radishes don’t grow very well during hot summers, but if you interplant them between other plants that may shade them to keep them cool, you might surprise yourself with how long you can grow them. For winter radishes, start them at the beginning of September and you will be harvesting through late fall. Daikon radishes are good to grow through the winter in a cold frame and also grow well in raised beds. Traditionally, radishes are the first crop harvested and the last crop sown.

Radishes after thinning

Harvest when they are about the size of a large marble except for Daikon radishes which are so large you need to loosen the soil with a garden fork. If you wait too long, they get too large and mealy. You may wonder how I know this without eating them. Well, I do have radish testers living in my house. So I get my information from them. And if you slice them, they should be nice and crisp. Remove the leaves and wash. Some people like to eat those hairy greens. Do as you choose. Store washed radishes without drying too much in a plastic bag or container in the refrigerator to keep the humidity high and temperatures cool.

Radish “Easter Egg”

Radishes are susceptible to flea beetles and cabbage root maggots. You can avoid this by rotating crops, not planting anything from this plant family in the same place for three years. Using a floating row cover can also help by deterring cabbage moths from laying their eggs on the plants.

Interesting is that the U.S. standards for radish grades hasn’t changed since 1968. It reads “Tenderness, cleanness, smoothness, shape, size, and freedom from pithiness and other defects; tops of bunched radishes fresh and free from damage.” So, if you are growing radishes for someone, these are the standards you should be following.

Want something weird. Grow the radish from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds called “Rats Tail”. It is an edible-podded radish that produces large seed pods that are good for stir fry and pickling. Maybe I would like this radish? If you grow it, let me know how you like it. For now, I’ll stick with fewer plants from this family in my garden, and learn from all of you brassica lovers.

Rats Tail Radish. Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

UFO’s: Urban Farmscape Options

6 May

I sometimes think to myself “there is no way I have the space to grow what I want to grow” or “there is no way that I have the time to grow what I want to grow”. I hear this from others too, well maybe a few crazy gardeners I know. Even when I gardened at my organic farm I still didn’t have the time, or maybe I just didn’t like growing certain plants, especially those brassicas. So what other options do Urban Farmscapers have?

The first option is probably one that you are more familiar with, Farmers Markets. A weekly visit to your farmers market will ensure that you are buying fresh seasonal produce. Well, this may not be true. What!? The biggest piece of advice I have for you is when shopping at the farmers market, get to know your farmer. There may be vendors that buy produce wholesale and bring it to the market. This is just like your grocery store produce manager. You can quickly identify who these vendors are because they typically have produce that is out of season, or maybe something like bananas, and as you know, bananas don’t grow in Michigan! There is nothing wrong with these vendors, especially if you are shopping for bananas or tomatoes in May. For seasonal produce, get to know your farmers and support your local economy by making your purchases from them. The best opening question is, “Where is your farm?” Find out if they are certified organic, how many acres they farm etc. A farmer that follows organic methods, and sells less that $5000 per year, can say they are organic. What about the farmers using the words “natural” or “chemical free”. Ask questions about their growing practices, what kind of compost they use, how do they fertilize or handle pests and diseases on their crops. Like I said, get to know your farmer, odds are if they are a local farmer they are working hard to bring you the best produce they can. Some farmers markets will only allow people to sell only what they produce themselves. Rochester and Traverse City Michigan come first to my mind.

Community Supported Agriculture, CSA, is becoming a well-known option for Urban Farmscapers. The idea behind a CSA is that you pay for a “share” of weekly produce. These weeks can range from just a summer, to a full year. You buy your share directly from the farmer, who in return grows and provides your weekly produce. You will learn how to eat seasonally with this option. Your weekly share will consist of what is ready for harvest that week. Cool season veggies in the beginning such as radishes, lettuces, arugula, spinach, onions etc. Then as the summer starts to heat up, beans, squash, maybe some herbs. You still won’t get tomatoes in May, but that’s okay! You’ll have plenty starting late July. I have belonged to a CSA twice in my life. One year I had rotator cuff surgery, and knew that I couldn’t grow as much as I liked, and the next time was when I lived in a studio apartment while transitioning to Mid-Michigan and had no garden at all. I found that I was having withdrawals from getting my hands dirty, and maybe testing the product in the field (secret!). I asked to volunteer at the CSA I belonged to, weeding, harvesting and packing produce. I really got to know these awesome farmers! What a great experience, even if my share for the week occasionally consisted only of veggies in the brassica family, which I mentioned how I despise them earlier, so I gave them with others. While I’m on the subject, I will share how to grow plants in the brassicaceae family, but I won’t share my liking of them, maybe my disliking.

A third option if you don’t have the space to grow vegetables, but want to get your hands dirty, is to join a community garden. Community gardens are popping up all over, becoming one of the hottest local gardening trends. Some organizations are turning city lots into patches of land for people to rent space to grow their own veggies, herbs, and flowers, whatever they choose.

This is the second year for me gardening at My Urban Farmscape. I still wanted more space, so I joined a community garden, Campus Grow, located on the campus of Central Michigan University, in Mt. Pleasant, MI. When I first joined I was excited to have the additional 10 x 10 foot space to grow extra veggies for my family. Then, as I became more involved with other people from the community garden, my plot has started to change from the extra space for myself to the extra space to grow for others. I am really excited to garden this summer while participating with Plant a Row for the Hungry, growing and collecting fresh produce to share with people in need through the Isabella County Commission on Aging. My Urban Farmscape will provide me and my family with the produce we need and in addition I will be making weekly trips to the farmers market. I’m not sure where this year’s UFO’s are heading, I’ll just have to watch and see where they grow. I do know that gardening in a community setting will provide the additional space to feed my dirty addiction to the earth while helping to grow food to feed the mouths of others. This year I won’t be wandering Mid-Michigan looking for a CSA to join or volunteer with. So, whether you like to garden, or just want to participate in the local food movement, get out and about and look for some UFO’s!

Links to Urban Farming Options

www.MyUrbanFarmscape.com of course!

Community Supported Agriculture in Michigan www.CSAfarms.org

Swier Family Farm http://swierfamilyfarm.wordpress.com/

Local Harvest (find a CSA (or other local options) across the U.S.) http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

Michigan Farmers Market Association http://mifma.s434.sureserver.com/find-a-farmers-market/

Contact Campus Grow at: campusgrow@gmail.com

American Community Gardening Association http://www.communitygarden.org/index.php

Plant a Row for the Hungry http://gardenwriters.org

When do I plant (insert veggie or flower here)?

4 Apr

This has been the question of the week. Yikes! My weekly posts are not enough. So here is a little extra. Don’t forget, you can click on the GrowVeg.com banner for a 30 day trial to help plan your garden. They offer e-mail reminders too! Something I’m not ready to do yet, unless you sign up to receive an e-mail each time I post on this blog. There’s an idea! Also, while I’m at it, please share My Urban Farmscape with your garden friends via Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, or any of the sharing links below. Keep in mind my Garden Revolution Resolution!

For Michigan, our frost-free date is typically May 20. You can plant cool loving vegetables and flowers prior to this date, starting the first week of April for spinach and peas, but save the majority of your planting until after the frost free date. Remember to “harden off” your plants that have been growing indoors. This just means to acclimate them to the outdoors by setting them out during the day, bringing them inside (or protect in a garage or shed) at night for a few days before planting them. First frost dates are determined by historical records. This year, spring has sprung a lot earlier, but we are back to freezing temperatures and frost can still occur after our first frost date. If that happens, you should protect your plants using lightweight fabric or newspapers. Don’t use plastic if it will touch the plants.

This may not be everything that you want to grow, but it’s a start. Refer to earlier posts and make your calendar!

Start indoors 8-10 weeks before frost date. Transplant in the garden AFTER first frost date.

  • Peppers (Best to plant at least two weeks after first frost date)
  • Eggplant (Best to plant at least two weeks after first frost date)
  • Snapdragon
  • Forget me nots
  • Coleus

Start indoors 6-8 weeks before frost date. Transplant in the garden AFTER first frost date.

  • Tomatoes
  • Basil (Best to plant at least two weeks after first frost date when nighttime temperatures are consistantly above 50 F. Can also be directly sown in the garden at that time)
  • Calendula
  • Gomphrena (Globe Amaranth)
  • Marigold
  • Strawflower
  • Zinnia

Directly sow outside in the garden 4-6 weeks BEFORE frost date. Provide protection if freezing temperatures occur at night.

  • Peas
  • Spinach (can also be started indoors 4 weeks before planting in the garden)
  • Mustard Greens (can also be started indoors 4 weeks before planting in the garden)
  • Mache (corn salad) (can also be started indoors 4 weeks before planting in the garden)
  • Kohlrabi (can also be started indoors 4 weeks before planting in the garden)
  • Kale
  • Radish
  • Carrot
  • Flowering Sweet Peas

Start indoors 4 – 6 weeks before frost date. Transplant to the garden two to three weeks BEFORE first frost date.

  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Swiss Chard
  • Lettuce
  • Parsley
  • Cilantro

Directly sow in the garden (you can start 2-4 weeks before frost date if you wish, but not necessary) AFTER first frost date.

  • Beans
  • Cucumber
  • Corn
  • Squash
  • Pumpkins
  • Melons
  • Cosmos
  • Morning Glory
  • Nasturtium
  • Sunflower
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