Friday, March 15, 2013

Green Out Every Window

Green out every window. Four words. But they were four words that made a difference. For me they contained the essence of an entire garden. A garden I would build, from the ground up, for our home in Northern Nevada.

From its windows, high on a windswept hill, we saw only a dead yard and a dusty desert landscape rolling away in the distance.

Green out every window was my vision for a lush shawl of landscape buffering us from the brown. I saw green draping over fences, spilling out of planting beds, and climbing up trellises. I wanted green everywhere I looked. Green out every window.

With single-minded focus, I pored over glossy garden magazines, plucking ideas from the verdant confines of someone else’s courtyard, or the lush lines of a cottage garden bed. I took notes, made plans, drew pictures and wrote lists.  Then I visited nurseries, purchased plants, and punctured holes in the rocky dirt, tucking my new prospects into place. Slowly, little mounds of green began to stud the brown expanse.

 I snapped photos and wrote blog posts detailing my plans, my progress, and my vision for green out every window.  Green out every window.

About a year into this process, with only a quarter of the garden planted, we learned we would move for one year for my husband’s job. Our destination: a suburb on the outskirts of Washington DC. I was not pleased. My dreams of green were only just beginning to take shape, and big stretches of the garden remained empty and brown.

Alas, I snapped some final photos, hired a fellow gardener to tend to my young starts, and we were off. We ended up in a townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia. For those familiar with the region, it will come as no surprise what greeted us when we arrived last summer: green. Green out every window. Green with a dozen different textures and a hundred different hues. Green that towers above our three-story townhouse, spills out of window boxes, and cloaks garden walls. Green out every window.

Looks like all along I thought I was making a garden, but what I’d actually made was a mantra. A mantra fueled by every turned page of a magazine, and every blow of my pickaxe. A mantra so effective it wouldn’t abide the sluggish growth of a new garden, so it transplanted us to an established one.

One question remains: What will be my mantra now?

What will be yours? 

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Nation Sown by Gardeners
"Founding Gardeners"
Reviewed by BEL MILLS

George Washington was an obsessive gardener; Thomas Jefferson, a stealthy seed smuggler; and John Adams, so taken with manure, he once examined a pile of it while on a diplomatic excursion in Europe.

These are just some of the amusing revelations awaiting readers of “Founding Gardeners,” Andrea Wulf’s engrossing follow-up to her award-winning book, The Brother Gardeners. Here Andrea Wulf makes the case that we can’t understand the first four presidents, and the nation they envisioned, unless we understand how these men saw themselves: as gardeners, first and foremost.

Take George Washington, Revolutionary War hero and first U.S. president. When 32,000 British troops prepared to invade New York the summer of 1776, General Washington rallied his men, reminding them they were “Freemen fighting for the blessings of liberty.” Washington knew his men were not only inexperienced but also woefully outnumbered and weakened by smallpox. With these facts no doubt weighing on his mind, Washington made certain, before he slept, to write a long letter to the manager of his Virginia plantation, pondering, Wulf wrote, “’the voluptuous blossom of rhododendron, the sculptural flowers of mountain laurel and the perfect pink of crabapple.’”

On the brink of war, Washington was busy planning two groves to be planted on either side of his home.

While this scene will ring true for any gardener who has obsessed about their hobby at an inopportune moment, Wulf says Washington’s timing was not altogether inappropriate. He was, in fact, planning a garden planted with trees native only to America, with no British trees allowed. At a time when British landscape design was all the rage among colonists—Washington was planning the first all-American ornamental garden.

These overlaps between plants and politics are everywhere in Wulf’s book, and for good reason. For America’s Founders, she writes, politics and plants were a single patriotic endeavor. In fact, even though every one of them, except for Adams, used slaves in their farming operations, they nonetheless believed that self-sufficient farmers were the guardians of liberty and the key to America’s future as an independent agrarian nation.

So it should come as no surprise that Jefferson, during his early trips to Europe, not only assisted Adams in trade negotiations, but also toured British gardens, and risked death to fill his coat pockets with Italian rice grains to distribute to green-thumb friends back home. Indeed, despite having penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson insisted that the “greatest service that can be rendered any country, is to add an useful plant to it’s culture.” True to his word, after he retired from the presidency in 1809, Jefferson devoted the crowning glory of his Monticello estate-- his 1,000 foot-long vegetable terrace-- not to feeding his own family, but to experimenting with new crops for American farmers.

By now we shouldn’t be surprised that the Founders were also fascinated with manure.  Jefferson declared a British pamphlet on the topic a “charming treatise,” and Washington went as far as to dream of a farm manager who “Midas like,” could “convert every thing he touches into manure.” Adams mixed his manure with mud, lime, and seaweed, and once --while serving as the American Minister to the court at St. James’s Palace-- even hopped into a  pile on the outskirts of London, “teasing apart the straw from the dung…before announcing with glee that it was ‘not equal to mine.’” Madison’s appreciation of animal waste was perhaps the most advanced of the four. Though soil chemistry was still in its infancy-- and the carbon and nitrogen cycles had yet to be understood-- he argued that vegetable matter that springs from the earth must return there. This, together with his arguments against exploiting nature for our own purposes, Wulf points out, marks him as the first pioneer of the American environmental movement, predating both John Muir and Henry David Thoreau.

Some of Wulf’s claims, to be sure, are overambitious. Her suggestion that a fortuitously timed garden tour helped the delegates of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia overcome a political stalemate, for example, is speculative at best. But her insistence that America’s Founders saw themselves as gardeners at heart has evidence on its side. In no other person is this more poignantly clear than in Washington, who fell ill after spending hours inspecting his farms during an icy storm in 1799. He ventured out again the following day nonetheless, marking trees he wanted removed to improve the appearance of his back lawn. He would die just a few days later, but not before he’d penned one last, nineteen page letter to his estate manager with instructions on crop rotations and manures.

History buffs, for sure, will find bushels of insights in Wulf’s new book. But gardeners, I have no doubt, will be this book’s most grateful audience. For us, Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison will no longer be just Founding Fathers, but kindred spirits as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Weed Diaries

My husband discovered it first. Waving me into our bedroom with a look of growing alarm on his face, he pointed at something on the floor. From across the room, it resembled an unnaturally long carpet fiber near the air register. I remember thinking I’d have to fetch some scissors to trim it. When I approached for a closer look, here’s what I saw:

By Bel Mills

Yep. It was a weed. Growing into our bedroom. Suffice it to say, this was the moment I realized we had a spectacular weed problem at our new house.
Funny thing is, I thought we had a weed problem at our old house. Boy, was I wrong. Now that I’ve met the weed pictured above, I can tell you our former weeds were cake. Total amateurs.  One firm tug, and they’d release their grip on the soil with a satisfying ripping sound, all roots present and accounted for. End of story. 
This current weed, on the other hand, is an actual thug of the weed world. A professional.  Master gardeners call it a perennial weed because it returns from the roots every year, whether it drops seed or not. Known as Convolvulus arvensis, or field bindweed, it grows in all 50 states, and considered noxious in 20—though not here in Nevada. My Rodale’s guide to weeds gives a stern warning to “not let it remain in the garden long enough to gain a foothold…because the roots are extensive and can grow 10 feet below the soil surface.”
So much for not giving it a foothold. By the time we moved in, it was practically the only plant thriving in the neglected yard, happily winding itself amongst half-dead roses in the front, and sprawling along the foundation in the back.  I remember being charmed by its pale, morning glory-like blooms.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

With more than a twinge of regret, I methodically ripped it out. I knew nothing about different types of weeds at the time, and I thought once we pulled it—and installed new pavers, turf, and planting beds-- we’d be rid of it. I certainly didn’t know the roots, which snapped when tugged, would spawn new plants from every fragment left behind.

In no time, we found shoots growing through our new pavers,

By Bel Mills
into our new grass,

By Bel Mills

and filling our new planting beds.

By Bel Mills

Eventually it even emerged between the foundation of the house and the concrete in the side yard.

By Bel Mills

Then, spectacularly, it moved into the bedroom.  At that point, we knew more investigation was required. Removing the air register in our bedroom, I saw the plant had grown into the house from the crawl space by wedging its way between the edge of the metal air duct and the subfloor. When I pulled the duct aside, I saw the remains of the shoot—which I’d impulsively yanked on sight: several telltale winding brown stems.

By Bel Mills

They look thoroughly dead, and yet they’d managed to produce one very alive shoot.

At this point my husband put on his brave pants and ventured under our house with a garbage bag to do battle, the chorus from Little Shop of Horrors no doubt ringing in his ears.  He made his way through the cramped crawl space, to the ground underneath our bedroom. He emerged about fifteen minutes later…
By Bel Mills

…with his bag full of this:
By Bel Mills


After that, we were certain we’d eliminated the section of weed growing into, or through, the house. But this spring, we found another shoot between the wooden trim of an exterior door and the stucco of the house.
By Bel Mills


What happened to that one, you ask? Officially, it’s known as acute glyphosate damage. In other words, my husband sprayed the heck out of it with Roundup.  The chemical route was a no-brainer in cases where the weed was growing through construction material. But when my husband eyed the lawn, I balked. Not wanting to disturb the precious circle of life I’d read about in Teaming with Microbes: the organic gardener’s guide to the soil food web, I insisted on just pulling it out. And pulling it again. And then pulling some more.

You can imagine how happy I was to learn, during master gardener training this year, that Round Up breaks down readily in the soil, as does 2,4-D (which will kill the weed in your lawn without killing the lawn.) I also learned it can take up to five years of consistent pulling to successfully eradicate a perennial weed.
No thank you.
Since then, my husband and I have unleashed round after round of chemical fury. We use Roundup where no other plants are present, and a product containing 2,4-D, which won't kill grasses, in the lawn. We are making progress, though some patches are proving remarkably resistant.

By Bel Mills


We will prevail!  Um, I think. Wish us luck.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Designer Pants? Or Designer Plants?

Did I mention I have a weakness for designer plants? It’s true.

If I had to trace this tendency back to some starting point, I’d probably end up in high school.  Maybe even junior high.  That’s when I realized that brand-name clothing was cool, and that my closet was conspicuously devoid of it.

Remember that iconic Jordache horse?  Never galloped its way onto my teenage derriere. I longed for, but never wore, Esprit’s breezy horizontal lines. And that Guess question mark ever lent my 80s-era outfits that certain je ne sais quoi . My parents simply didn’t go in for that sort of rubbish. They had other, weird, grown-up priorities like paying the mortgage and figuring out how to get three meals out of one chicken.

 No matter. Now that I’m grown-up, too, I understand my parents’ priorities, and I also can’t help compensating for those early deprivations in little ways. I don’t buy BCBG dresses or Prada sunglasses. No, I pamper myself with ‘May Night’ salvia, and ‘Hot Summer’ Echinacea.
But most of all, with David Austin Roses.

Oh, those David Austin roses. I don’t know what it is about them. At the risk of sounding like a paid advertisement, they are, for me, the floral embodiment of abundance. The blooms evoke generosity, and warmth, and plenty. When I see pictures of them on the David Austin website, it makes me wish I were small enough to curl up inside a fluffy bloom and have a nap. 
St. Swithun

Lady Emma Hamilton

Princess Alexandra of Kent
See what I mean? Unlike the stiff, pointy, hybrid tea roses I grew up around, Austin’s English roses have a lush, blousy decadence that recall antique roses-- without the diseases and short bloom period that often accompanied them. For some, they may recall grannies and kittens and doilies. For me, they are pure cottage garden charm.

What happened to my devotion to drought tolerance, you might ask? Dear reader, I ask you to permit me this deviation (and perhaps a few others down the road). You’re right. Roses are, as a rule, a little thirstier than my beloved gauras and yarrows. But what they require in water they give back in wanton beauty and pure work ethic.

In fact, many repeat-blooming roses will grace your garden with color and fragrance, almost continuously, from early summer until frost. You could say they have an exceedingly high Wow to Water ratio. So I make an exception. Or, more accurately, I just can’t help myself. Roses must have a place in my garden.

The first David Austin roses I bought were a yellow variety named Molineux. Here are two of them lining the walk of our old house, back in 2008.

Unfortunately, the above photo  doesn’t capture the rose’s captivating habit of becoming suffused with delicate pink as it ages.  Here’s a better photo from 

Though I can’t remember how much those beauties cost me, today it’s hard to buy an Austin rose at a nursery without swiping at least $45 onto your card. So when I received their catalog in the mail this year offering bare root roses for closer to $22, I placed my order for three shrubs.

One, naturally was a Molineux, for a spot near the backyard fence. For the plot of earth against the back of our house, right underneath our living room window, I chose two in contrasting shades of pink. One is named Benjamin Britten (after the British Composer).

 A David Austin rose.
Courtesy of

The other is called Strawberry Hill (named after a Gothic revival style house in the U.K.).


 The roses should grow tall enough to offer a glimpse of blooms through the window, but not so tall as to crowd the glass.  After placing my order back in April, I cheerfully awaited the arrival of my shrubs.  The box didn’t disappoint.

But I imagine anyone unfamiliar with bare root plants may have been shocked and disappointed with the contents. To be blunt, bare root roses look like the Ugly Stick we hear about people being hit with. 

Planting these babies required some preparation and effort. First, soaking for several hours in water.

Then intense digging, since the bud union-- which is that bulb you see where the branches meet the “stem” of the rose-- needed to be at least five inches below ground to protect it from our cold winters. So I dug, and dug (and yes, I removed that very large rock myself, thank you very much).

 Then I dropped the plants in, perching the spray of roots on a pyramid of dirt and compost at the bottom of the hole.

Once they were tucked in, there was almost nothing left to see. Here is Sir Benjamin Britten:

Pretty stark, right? I, too, had my doubts as to whether these sticks were going to wake up. But then…about six weeks later…TA DA!

That’s the Strawberry Hill with his baby bottle drip line. Here is Benjamin Britten taking off.

And here are some of the blooms we’ve gotten so far.


Strawberry Hill

That one doesn’t look much like the catalog pictures yet, huh?

And here’s a pair of pictures of Benjamin Britten, first partially open, then in the final stage of bloom.

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

 Here are Sir Benjamin and Strawberry Hill with the 'Ivory Halo' variegated dogwood bush I planted in the center of the bed for contrast.

Finally, here are the three roses in our full-color garden scheme with arrows pointing to each one: M=Molineux, B.B.=Benjamin Britten, S.H.=Stawberry Hill.

So am I thrilled? Well, Yes. And no. Sir Benjamin has been developing a discoloration problem on his leaves which my local nursery tells me is a nutrient deficiency, but which our organic fertilizer is not remedying.

 The Strawberry Hill, so far, has a rather odd growth habit, with some stems heading straight up, and all of the flowers ending up face down in the mulch.

Ah well, it's early yet. With a little luck, the photos I post next June will chase away my current doubts and worries. If not, we’ll just have to enjoy the ‘Pierre de Ronsard,' a.k.a. 'Eden,' climbing roses I found at a nursery shortly after I purchased the D.A. roses. This rose was introduced in France by Meilland in 1987. Here's ours, while still in its container:

Ahhhhhhhh... Nap, anyone?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Poo for You, Too, & The Beard of Jupiter

My good friend Patti says if you're a parent of very small children, your real job isn’t raising kids. It’s managing poop.  Specifically, keeping poop where it’s supposed to be (in the diaper or the toilet) and out of the places it’s not supposed to be, (the toilet seat, the bathroom floor, the carpet, the bed, the walls, the car, you name it). If the previous sentence horrified you, I’ll guess you don’t have children. Any parent who has seen a child through diapers and potty training knows exactly of what I speak. They’ve seen it, they’ve cleaned it, and then they’ve eaten a big plate of meatloaf afterwards. No sweat. New parents deal with poop.  A lot of it.

It goes without saying that when my twin boys graduated out of diapers, I believed that my days of being up-close-and-personal with poop were through.

I was wrong.

Whilst tucking new plants into the garden beds this season, I’ve had a realization about organic gardening. I see, now, what it’s really all about. You guessed it:  managing poop.

Now you composters out there will beg to quibble with me, and I get it. If you’re creating your own Gardener’s Gold out of kitchen scraps and grass clippings, then I commend you. And I envy you. Because you don’t have to deal with poop.

But if you’re like me, and you’re purchasing organic soil amendments and fertilizers at the nursery, then you’re dealing with the dirty stuff. It doesn’t matter what they call it: worm castings, bat guano, chicken droppings, cow manure. It’s all poop. And if you want to get your plants off to a really nice start (without chemical fertilizers) you’re going to have to get your hands in it. Or at least your gardening gloves.

Which is why, if you’d been eavesdropping on my gardening efforts recently, you would have heard me murmuring  the strangest  incantation as I christened some freshly-dug planting holes.  It went “Here’s some poo for you….and here’s some poo for you… and here’s some poo for you, too!” 

My favorite poo sources this year have been Gardner and Bloome Starter Fertilizer, whose first ingredient is “dried poultry waste.” 

(Though this product has little smell, if you leave it out in the rain, like I did, there is no mistaking what's in it. Don't try it at home.)

Then, to amend the soil I return to the hole-- because our soil in Northern Nevada contains lots of clay and doesn't drain-- I’ve used Kellogg All Natural Garden Soil (containing the powerful triumvirate of “composted chicken manure,” “worm castings,” and “ bat guano.”)

Both products above are OMRI listed (by the Organic Materials Review Institute) which means they are certified for use in organic food production.

So, what have I been planting since the yarrow and gaura adventure? Well, one of my favorites, actually. A fantastic perennial called centranthus ruber. Luckily, most people call it red valerian, or, even more poetic, jupiter’s beard. Here it is in all its cosmic loveliness:

Attributes? It’s fairly drought tolerant, for starters, though it does bloom more profusely with a bit more water. The blooms, as you can see, are large and showy. They're also long lasting, and boast a color somewhere between hot pink and cherry red (unless you get the white variety). Butterflies love them. Here is a photo I snapped of a lone, full-grown plant at a local restaurant:

Here it is growing with catmint in our former garden:

And here it is, cheerfully cohabitating with California poppy. 

 My favorite thing about this perennial, if you must know, is its long, long season of interest. For you non-gardening types, that means it looks great for months. You see, there are lots of other summer bloomers that will put out nary a leaf until May around here. Jupiter’s beard, however, starts making a nice green mound around March, and is usually in full bloom by late April. Amazingly, the blooms continue through May, June, and even July and August if it doesn’t get too hot (as in, over 100 degrees).

Now, one caveat: you must deadhead, or remove spent flowers, to keep this plant blooming through the summer. Truth is, most plants simply won’t go through the trouble of making new flowers once their flowers have set seed. So your job is to thwart the seed-making process at every turn, snipping the flowers before they dry. Deadheading also prevents jupiter’s beard from spreading itself about your garden willy-nilly, which it is known to do. A jupiter's beard bloom is ready to snip when you start to see a lot of its yellow skeleton, which looks like this:

Those white fluffy things in the photo are seeds, so this bloom was probably left a little too long. When you snip, you'll notice the plant usually has two baby flowers waiting to put on a show once the parent bloom is gone (like kids throwing a party when their parents leave the house). Here is a picture showing the parent bloom and the two babies waiting in the wings.

This is how I positioned the three jupiter's beard in my garden bed before planting:

And here they are after I planted them:

(Ignore the little purple sage in the lower left corner, we'll get to him later.) Finally, let's return quickly to our garden map to see where we've arrived. Here is the complete plan:

And here are the three jupiter's beard within the scheme:

Here are the plantings I've posted to date, including yarrow (light pink) and gaura (white). Our water feature is in black.

And on we go.

Up next: designer roses.