Tuesday, February 26, 2013

MOVING - CHECK OUT MY WEB PAGE

Hi Fans and friends - I have finally jumped on board and started a web page. This means all my blog content is moving there!

Check out www.gardenguru.net
A Stunning garden viewed at the GWA meeting in Tuscon, October 2012

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Straw Bale Gardening -messy but fun

In huge news I am speaking at the Seattle Flower Show next week (Feb 23, 2013). Okay it is technically not the flower show it is the Northwest Flower and Garden Show (Gardenshow.com or tweet @NWFGS).
Initially, bales are laid on the ground in a square 

In day to day life I am not a speaker, I am a gardener and a consulting horticulturist and because I don't have to make my living off farming or raising food for my family I have plenty of time to play in my garden, a practise that is fun, gives me an excuse to go outside and brings surprising results.


No- I don't want anyone to dredge up that long-past incident with the flame thrower and my ornamental grass. Yes - there was a small fire and a few neighbour's came running down the street but I quickly hosed my garden and husband off and there was no harm done. In fact I would suggest the grasses look stronger than ever this year.

Anyway - this year there will be no flame throwing. Instead, I am playing with straw bale gardening. I picked up the bales on January 1 because they need to "season" a bit before planting. In farmer lingo they will go "punky" or rotten. After sitting outside all winter they definitely won't be animal fodder by spring. A couple of weeks ago I was taking riding lessons (No - I am not a hip chick Snow Boarder, I am fulfilling a childhood dream and learning to ride a horse.)

While at lessons in the indoor ring I casually asked about manure. What did Gordan do with all he was scooping out of the stalls when I arrived that morning? We give it away, was the simple answer. So by later that same afternoon my  husband has stopped around with our utility trailer and loaded up a few scoops for our straw bale project. Now the bales are neatly arranged in squares of four bales per "planter" and they are filled with fairly fresh manure. Do I suggest gardening in fresh manure? Of course not- but have you checked the calendar? It is a long time until spring and that gives plenty of time for bales to condition and manure to break down. As it sinks and decomposes, the manure will be topped with garden soil and planted into. I will probably grow heat loving crops like squash and pumpkins.

But meanwhile I get to speak in Seattle next week and tell tales of my garden and vegetables generally. I can hardly wait to speak of manure and other exciting gardening topics. And, no, I will not speak of the flame thrower. Such things are best left to the memory banks.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Deer Proof Vegetables?

When I was speaking to the Qualicum Beach Garden club last night I posed a question to the audience at the beginning of the talk.  I didn't rush the process. I knew I was in the company of garden keeners so I thought I would crowd source the question so many of us veggie gardeners want to know. I had them think about what they would grow in a deer prone area.

My ten day-old pea shoot micro-greens growing under lights are not deer proof
I started speaking about my New Year's gardening projects. I chatted up my indoor and very successful micro-greens project seeded December 27, 2012. I spoke about already eating three salads of pea shoot micro-greens this week just 7-10 days after seeding.
After a fun 45 minutes describing the Ten Things I Love about Vegetables I reminded the audience I needed their help. I started a straw bale garden on January 1, 2013 outdoors. Part of the garden is outside my deer-proof fence. I still need to wait for the straw to mellow and the season to improve but when the planting time comes I need a list of locally hardy vegetables for this trial area.

The audience bantered back and forth. Many ideas came forward and many were dumped right away. I discovered last year the deer avoided my squash so I put that on my list but others booed that idea. Someone suggested Shitake mushrooms but most of the audience thought no- it just wouldn't be warm enough to grow mushrooms outdoors (more on that in February when I go to a lecture on growing mushrooms outdoors and report back).
Artichoke is a beautiful and deer proof vegetable
Photo courtesy No Guff Vegetable Gardening

In the end we came up with a short list of plants I can try in  my straw bale garden (more on that in a later blog post as the garden evolves). I crowd sourced the answer and together with over 100 people we decided if you are thinking ahead to spring and wondered what might grow in an area likely to be visited by deer,  these vegetables are worth a try:

Garlic, Artichokes, Cardoon, Broad Beans, Amaranth, Corn Salad and Squash (maybe). 


Let me know at donna@gardencoacheschat.com if you have any other ideas for deer proof vegetables. Let's expand this crowd sourcing to the whole world. If you write, please tell me where you live so we can create a map of deer proof vegetables!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Making A Rustic Wreath

I have been following Michelena at her new Rocky Mountain Wreath workshop in Calgary, Alberta. Here is a little video I made of her and her staff hard at work for the Christmas season. Enjoy!



PS. If this doesn't work here for some reason check out YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Na7H7HxgE8

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tsk Tsk- YOU really should clean your tools


It’s a common problem. Everyone thinks they are a designer. No one wants to be in maintenance. It’s just not sexy enough. It’s dirty fingernails versus dreamy figurines. 



And I should know. I help people design their gardens. I don’t help them maintain them. I speak to groups about planning great vistas and intimate garden corners. I don’t get out and pull their weeds. I am guilty as charged. And yet in my own yard weeding is something I love doing – puttering around planting, pulling weeds, rearranging perennials, seeding vegetables, tugging out old overgrown shrubs, trimming off offending branches. It is a hobby and a vocation – but only in my own yard. Gardening gives me a reason to relax. It is mindless once it is underway.But sometimes it is tough to get the train moving down the track.

I am not sure how my tools got into so much trouble. One day I was reliably snipping and trimming and the next day the shears seized up and would not open after a cut. They were clogged with years of tree sap and rust. It was so annoying.  You would think the maintenance ferries would have stopped by to help out.  

Instead of cleaning and polishing my hand shears after using them (also called secateurs if you are in horticulture school) I was just dumping them in the tool shed between uses. Because I am a garden writer I get free samples of the newest and best tools and I have added those to my growing collection. When I moved households recently I collected together the various shears and took a look at them. My beautiful tools, including a pair I got, as weddings present 35 years ago, were all mucked up. I had to pry the shears open with two hands to make a cut and then they stayed closed and I had to pry them open again to cut again.  It was time to start a maintenance program.

Luckily it is winter- I have started some lettuce under grow lights and have been doing odd occasional jobs in the garden but there isn’t a real need for me outdoors right now. So I decided to clean shears. Of course after the move the honing stone (still in its original packet from Lee Valley Tools) went missing. No need to buy anything special this time- I went to Home Hardware and bought their cheapest stone and honing oil to pour on it. The oil helps the stone sharpen better.

I lined up the tools and took them apart to clean them. Yes- you can also sharpen the blades leaving them on the handle.  If you have a cheaper pair they might not even come apart. But I don’t believe in half measures. I loosened the main bolt on my 35-year-old Swiss Felco’s. Into soapy water they went. Then I tackled my French Sandvik’s, and Bahco’s and Finish Fiskar’s. I wiped them vigorously with an oily rag to clean away dirt and sap. Adding a drop of oil to the honing stone I made circular motions, running the blade over the stone in tiny sweeps.

After reassembly I tested the blades. I was cutting paper with tools that would only rip bark and smash cambium a few minutes earlier. I am back in business. Too bad I don’t do this maintenance thing for a living. It’s easier than thinking up planting designs and creating concepts for talks. But at least I now know if I feel like delaying putting that next talk together or stalling on writing an article there is something else to occupy my time. And I plan to do it more often. Even, I considered, after every time I use a tool. But wait. I still have plenty of edges to sharpen on shovels, and forks and spades.  I better get at it. It’s looking like a long winter.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Grafted Tomatoes: Scary Franken-Fruit?


Brandywine tomato in my greenhouse this summer could have been even
 better if I had grown it grafted on to a hardy root stock.
Everyone who has eaten a store bought tomato has eaten a grafted tomato.

I have been humbled. My garden wisdom suddenly seems feeble, lacking and inadequate. After 30 years of reading, writing and speaking about gardening I found out there was a huge whole in my brain bank.

I found out about grafted tomato plants last week, and after hearing loads of testimonials,  life for me, as a gardener and tomato grower has changed forever. I found out why grafted tomatoes are not the weird Franken-food I had considered them. I found out they are better in every way than seed started heirlooms or even the latest hybrids.

So just as I finish eating this summer’s harvest, I am already planning for big changes in my garden next year. And I am excited about it.

What are grafted tomatoes? Well, just like grafted apples or pears different tomatoes are now pieced together.  Yes, two distinctly different plants with different features are cut and connected.

One plant is grown for its hardy vigorous disease resistant roots. The other plant is grown because of its luscious, delicious fruit. Maybe your favourite tomato is the super sweet Sungold cherry tomato or maybe it is the always reliable heirloom Brandywine.
Sungold tomatoes are super sweet. They
could produce more fruit if they were grafted.


Either way the fruits and the roots no longer need to be the same. We can combine what we like to eat with all the benefits of hardy tomato genes from the wild. The top of a grafted plant can be anything. Preferably it is something you have grown and loved. The bottom of a grafted plant is turbo-charged, frost resistant, disease fighting and drought tolerant.  Grafted roots are not susceptible to disease so they are huge compared to seed started plants. And bigger roots mean bigger top-growth and – yes- more tomatoes.

Over 3,000 different types of tomatoes are grown today but many of them came from the same or closely related parents. That is a lot of inbreeding.

Think of past royal families in Europe. Weren't Queen Victoria and her close Austrian relatives Hemophilic? Think of  specialized dog breeds. You have to be careful your labrador has good hips or watch out for high vet bills.  When the gene pool is limited  weakness follows. Now think of heirloom tomatoes. We have to baby them just to get 5 fruits per plant.

With inbreeding, it doesn’t matter if you are a royal or a dog or a tomato.  Disease builds up and weak traits multiply.  With tomatoes the roots are susceptible to disease and are smaller; fewer fruits are formed and plants are feeble. Its no surprise. We have been breeding from the same few original plants for 200 years.

I had 5-7 fruits per plant on my heirloom Brandywine tomatoes this year. That’s normal, said John Bagnasco , of Garden Life, a large California-based online store, who spoke at the Garden Writing Association Annual General meeting in Tuscon last week . Graft old varieties on to a new genetic stock and suddenly you get 50 instead of 5 tomatoes.

Grafting is done by people or by robots. The idea is to grow, cut and match-up two different tomato plants preferably when they are very small. Ideally growers combine an old favourite with a newly discovered hardier plant. Favourite fruits on hardy roots.

Over a billion plants are grafted annually. Most large commercial farms work only with grafted tomatoes because they produce so much more fruit. They are so common. I am guessing everyone who has eaten a commercial tomato has eaten a grafted tomato. But we don’t want to grow those bland commercial tomatoes in our home gardens – so why am I yacking about grafted tomatoes? Because growers are now producing many of our favorite home varieties on sturdy roots and they are producing more fruit than ever because they are grafted.

Grafted plants are not glued or tied the way woody plants like apples and pears are. Instead, a small plastic tab holds the two pieces of plant together and they are kept in the dark and in 100% humidity for three days. After a week the grafted plants are back on the greenhouse shelf among friends.

Have you felt like a failure when you have tried to grow tomatoes? Here’s a tip:

Don’t buy seed started tomatoes from me or anyone else at the farmer’s market. Instead, seek out and buy your favourite tomatoes grafted onto a hardier, disease resistant root. Or better yet, see for yourself by trying one grafted heirloom like Brandywine next to a seed started plant of the same kind.  

A new variety of tomato found in the wilds of Mexico is being tested for its frost and drought hardiness right now. Yes- you’ve heard right.

In the future we may not need to water or worry as much about cold weather when we grow tomatoes. This is not because of hybridization or weird GMO breeding. This is because hardier stock, found in the wild, is replacing shop-worn inbred varieties in the soil while we continue to enjoy our favorite types of tomatoes grafted to the hardy roots.  

Don’t be the last to grow these fabulous new tomatoes. I understand Superstore sold out in one day last year, so I am not taking any chances. I am ordering early from a wholesaler. I am also on the list to get the latest greatest roots from John before spring fever hits and I start buying all kinds of crazy seed.

Next spring I will get as much fruit from one plant as I normally get from 10. My only problem is - what am I going to do with all the empty garden space?




Monday, October 8, 2012

More Deer Proof Plants

Rudbeckia in front of Calamagrostis in Qualicum Beach are definitely deer proof.
Perhaps I am a slow learner or maybe I just haven't taken the time to look around  before now. Yesterday I realized anything blooming and thriving in a public space in Qualicum Beach is - by definition- deer proof. This a a town where deer lounge on most front lawns at night and when you see the signs saying to slow down- deer ahead- you actually see deer. Like boomers from across Canada, deer have gathered on Vancouver Island. But even with all the deer, the town grows award winning floral displays and the Community in Blooms awards are posted proudly around town.

Among others, deer-accessible flowers include alyssum, ageratum, begonias and salpiglossis. Perennials include Sedum, rudbeckia, salal, oregon grape, phormium and most ornamental grass such as Calamagrostis and Blue Oat grass.

A few years ago after we put up our deer proof fence around the back garden a baby deer got stuck on the garden side with the mom was on the other side of the fence. We were right there trying to figure out how the baby got inside the fence. After some frantic erratic dashes past us and towards mother deer, the baby suddenly found the spot and  crawled under the eight inch gap at the bottom of the fence and pranced away.

If you live in a town with deer the first step (and better than looking on the internet) is to walk around town to see what is thriving and plant that. Seems too simple - doesn't it?