Of Tonka Toys and Little Boys

tonka truck

Now a "little boy" in mind only, Michael rediscovers his youth through his favorite Tonka front-end loader.

A few weeks ago, while I was in Kansas filming the pilot for my new show, Garden Earth, I came across something I hadn’t seen for 30 years. No, not some lost old rose cultivar, but a veritable garden heirloom nonetheless : a metal Tonka toy front-end loader. I had this very same toy when I was a kid, and spent countless hours in the sandbox under our big willow tree, contentedly creating and breaking down and remaking imaginary roadways, hills, and landscapes with the loader and its companions, the dump truck and the bucket crane.  I often think that these toys, more than almost anything else, were responsible for my interest in outdoor construction and design, and there’s never a time that I climb into a Bobcat or loader without thinking fondly of those metal miniatures.

These days, I’m told Tonka toys are entirely plastic, and not much in vogue. Kids are too busy playing indoors in front of computers, much like the children I visited recently who on a beautiful summer’s day a few weeks back, were “getting exercise” by balancing on a board in front of a televised “Wee” hula-hoop. Now call me old fashioned, but I can’t for a minute imagine that this kind of thing is particularly healthy, either mentally or physically. Not only are these kids deprived of sun, air and real physical activity, but where’s the incentive for imagination, where’s the ability to create in such pursuits? How many future design careers will be spawned by playing a video game? Without the dreams of Tonka toys and little boys, (and little girls!) the world will be a far duller place, and it’s high time we, as gardeners, get our children outside, active and interested in the environment around them – before we discover to our horror that an entire generation’s only appreciation of nature is delivered through canned images on a television screen.


Pathogen Alert: Late Blight Spreads to New England & New York

Of course: the year I decide to go all out and plant 60 tomatoes in the new vegetable garden, late blight, the deadly fungus-like disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine, has surfaced in New England. Or, more pointedly, in my garden. No sooner did I receive an email bulletin from the Massachusets Pest Outreach Project, that I noticed that one of my plants was starting to discolor. Sure enough: what looked mightily like the characteristic stem lesions of late blight had already appeared. late_blight_tomatox500According to the bulletin, the blight was brought into the state by infected plants sold under the Bonnie Plants label at various box stores and nurseries, and has been pumped up over the last decade into an even more virulent form than the one that sent thousands to their graves in the 1840s. The spores of the fungus can be carried for miles in wind and rain, both of which we’ve had a-plenty this spring, and it seems some have floated into my garden, even though I raised all my own plants from seed. I decided to take no chances. I immediately removed the suspicious plant, bagged it, and disposed of it in the trash. (Infected plants should not be put into the compost.) The only remedy for Late Blight is an active spray program using the fungicide chlorothalonil, which is found in the Ortho product Daconil and several other compilations. I’m certainly not thrilled at the prospect of spraying, but I’m even less thrilled at the prospect of 60 dead tomato plants, which is the certain result of doing nothing, so off to the home center I go. Fortunately chlorothalonil is non-systemic that degrades quickly; as the plants have yet even to set fruit, I can still expect a reasonably chemical free harvest later on this year, as long as this bloody incessant rain stops!

For more information on Late Blight, consult the following:

Breaking Info from UMass Extension, including the signup sheet for email bulletins
Fact sheet from Cornell University
More Photos of Late Blight
Info about systemic fungicides


Garden Blog Directories

As a blogger writer and blog reader, I’ve found the world of gardening blogs a bit daunting – there are hundreds out there, each with a different take.  How do you find one that works for you? Turns out there are resources that can help: garden blog directories: Kathy Purdy’s (http://www.coldclimategardening.com/garden-blog-directory/); Moosey’s list (http://www.mooseyscountrygarden.com/garden-news/gardening-newsdesk.html); Sheila Lennon’s compilation (http://www.projo.com/cgi-bin/include.pl/blogs/shenews/gardenblogs.htm) and Stuart Robinson’s map-based Garden Blog Directory (http://www.blotanical.com/index.php) at Blotanical. None of these are general blog directories; they all focus exclusively on garden blogs, which makes selection much easier. Thank you Kathy of Cold Climate Gardening for pointing me in the right direction!


Oh Well, Oh Well

well picI’ve been carrying on a secret love affair for years, and the time has come to finally admit it: I’m enamored of my garden well. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. One of the reasons I decided to purchase this house in the first place was that the property still had its original 1852 14’ shallow well. Granted, our initial meeting wasn’t precisely providential – I discovered the well’s exact location during one of my first visits with the realtor by stepping on, and partially falling through, the rotted wooden cover. If you ever want to be profoundly, utterly shocked, try having the earth fall out from beneath you, desperately grasping a wet slimy stone edge to prevent yourself from slipping further into unknown depths. I guarantee you it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Once past that unpleasant introduction, however, I warmed to my well quickly. Truth be told, I’ve been fascinated by running water since I was a child, often amusing myself for countless hours diverting and funneling snow runoff in the alley behind my boyhood home into little streams and rivulets. There’s something hugely magical about flowing water, and something even more so about places where water emerges from the ground. I’m not the only one who felt this way: the Greeks and Romans believed that special divinities controlled the springs, and they often made offerings of small coins to ensure the continued beneficence of these aquatic gods. (A practice that continues to this day, without anyone quite realizing why, every time you throw a penny in a fountain.) In my case, the well is both well, fountain and spring rolled into one, as whoever dug the first stone-lined pit chose the location, pardon the pun, well: for a large part of the year the water table is so high that my well is artesian, producing a little stream that flows of its own accord out into the pond. Over the course of 17 years, I’ve slowly built a bog garden around the stream, and constructed a country inspired fountain over the wellhead that burbles merrily during the daytime, thanks to a timer and a small submersible electric pump.

bog garden

The well head, stream and bog garden from the pantry deck. You can just glimpse a bit of the pond in the distance behind the gazebo.

Best of all, though, is the fact that one of my predecessors here in the 30s decided to electrify the well, and ran a 2” underground water line into the basement. While the house had long  shifted over to town water by my day, the old line to the well was still extant, and gave me an idea. Thanks to my father’s plumbing knowledge, he and I reinstalled a shallow well pump in the basement, and ran an independent series of PVC lines to all the exterior spigots. A few years later, we added, luxury of garden luxuries, an irrigation system to the garden – what a relief! – that is also fed by the well. Not only do I have the satisfaction of being able to irrigate the garden with my own water (a marvelously closed, environmental friendly circle) but I also save many hundreds of dollars a year in water costs.

(A short digression here in the form of a caveat: it’s illegal to use shallow wells in many communities for potable water. Animals and other things have a nasty habit of falling into them, providing a possible source of contamination. Though we’ve had our well water tested – it’s purer than the water supplied from the town – only the animals and plants drink it, and the irrigation operates on a closed loop completely separate from the municipal supply.)

Granted, a system like this is not for everyone. Shallow well pumps are finicky, need to be replaced periodically, and require constant surveillance when in active use, as the water level in can shift dramatically over the course of the summer, requiring adjustments to the pump’s pressure shut-off switch to prevent the motor from burning out. (There were ample reasons for shifting to town water years ago, ease of use being principal among them.) And then of course there was the time I got back from a lecture tour to find that one of the pipes had frozen and burst the in basement; my dear old pump, sensing the drop in pressure, had obliged by striving mightily to supply the water it thought I demanded. It did, but I didn’t. Sensing an odd noise as soon as I entered the house, I opened the basement door to discover water gushing out of the pipe, the pump running merrily away, and four inches of water accumulated on the floor. Fortunately the bulkhead had allowed some of the water to drain outside, or else the entire basement would have filled until the pump was submerged and shorted out. Ah, the joys of old house living.

Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every time I turn on that hose, I get the most remarkable thrill: cold, clear, clean, liquid gold, from my own little piece of the earth. And one day, when I have a spare 20K or so, or if energy prices spike again, I’m going to replace my antique natural gas fed, low-pressure steam radiator system with a heat pump, and I will use the almost endless supply of 55º water from the well to heat and cool my house. But that’s a story, and an adventure, for another day.


Martha Stewart, Me, and a Drunken Beauty

I’ve  just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York City, gratefully abandoning the car after four hours of driving in torrential down bursts, to make an equally whirlwind tour of my vegetable garden – that is, before I was driven indoors by more rain.

Despite the almost continual deluges we’ve had recently, the garden seems to be doing very well . The tomatoes are growing by leaps and bounds (due in large part to all those wheelbarrows full of compost and manure I laboriously hauled into the new garden); the squash and pumpkins are straining at the cloth enclosures that protect them from the vine borers; the beans are beginning to climb their poles.

All’s seemingly well in the vegetable world – for the  moment. (Gardening gods take note, I am thy humble servant…)


We are not amused: Martha Stewart awaiting audio rescue at the New York Botanical Garden Conservatory Stage

As for my trip, I had been invited down to the City to speak at the Edible Gardens Symposium at the New York Botanical Garden. I, along with garden gurus Martha Stewart, Amy Goldman, and Rosalind Creasy gave talks on the various aspects of gardening for the table. My lecture was entitled The New American Victory Garden  – Eating Better for Less.  Rosalind gave a fascinating presentation on what makes heirloom vegetable and flower varieties worthwhile – and worth saving. Amy expanded on her new book, the Heirloom Tomato, From Garden to Table, elucidating the intricacies of growing, harvesting and enjoying the hundreds of enticing heirloom varieties now available to home gardeners. And Martha spoke on, well, being Martha:  a not so brief plug of her show & magazine; a fledgling print attempt entitled Body and Soul; plus her newly installed herb garden at the New York Botanical Garden – Martha’s branding now supplanting the previous donor’s, society matron Nancy Bryan Luce.

Sic transit gloria nominis.

And yes, should you ask: Martha in person is precisely like Martha on TV. Intelligent, witty, funny, informative, occasionally self-deprecating, and far less occasionally… imperial. During her presentation, the wireless microphone system malfunctioned badly,  despite the many well intentioned sound checks I had painfully experienced earlier that morning during my own book signing at an adjacent venue. After a frustrating minute or so of crackles, whistles and howls, Martha was reduced to glowering balefully at the cowering technicians. “Inexcusable, guys” she uttered between clenched teeth, while we in the front row silently mouthed thanks to whatever gods we each prayed to that Martha’s punishing glare wasn’t directed at us. Fortunately for speaker, audience and hapless soundman alike, audio was ultimately restored, and the successful production of Martha’s herbal cocktails, including a gin concoction modestly dubbed the “Martha-tini,” seemed to soothe ruffled feathers.

laurens wine

We are highly amused: bees taking delight in Papaver 'Lauren's Grape'

For me, the true queen of the show was one of the most spectacular poppies I have ever seen: Papaver ‘Lauren’s Grape.’ I’m rarely bowled over by a plant, but this flower was almost…drinkable. (Perhaps I was still under the hypnotic influence of Martha’s cocktails – purely vicarious, of course, as unlike the principal, we never got a sample.) Nor was I the only one carried away by the glaucous foliage and wine-dark blossoms of this drunken beauty. The honey bees were simply intoxicated by the flowers, to the extent that I, as a beekeeper, have never witnessed before. This cultivar, named after the indefatigable author Lauren Springer (of Undaunted Gardener fame) is truly one of the great beauties of the garden –  one that I fully intend to incorporate into my landscape next spring.

The Edible Garden, by the way, runs through the summer at the New York Botanic, with another festival weekend in September, and is well worth checking out.


Hosta Holocaust

Mixed Hosta Display

This is what a healthy hosta border looks like. Add voles, subtract hosta.

Seventeen years ago, when I first moved to the house, I intermixed a wonderful assortment of hosta among the shrubbery of the front foundation planting. The clumps grew and prospered, providing a welcome burst of color each summer beneath the green shade of the overhead trees. This spring, however, disaster struck; the entire planting, some thirty large clumps, entirely disappeared. Investigating, my feet sunk slightly into shallow depressions where the plants had been, with not a shoot left as testimony to their former glory. Thousands of dollars of hosta, and almost two decades of growth had simply vanished.

What happened? The nasty vole.

These herbivore rodents, similar to mice, burrow under the snow in the winter, and devour whatever tasty roots they find. Hosta, it seems, is one of their favorite treats. Now I don’t mind a little rodent damage here and there; all of god’s creatures deserve a treat now and then, and I’ve been even known to tolerate the occasional mouse in the house or stable. But this is out and out war. Next fall, I intend to put down rodent poison, carefully placed about the garden under shallow clay pots heavily weighted with several bricks – this last to prevent the stray dog or cat from accidentally consuming the surprise I have in mind for the voles. (In gardens with children, special child-proof dispensers are required.)  I’ve found this method to be the only effective means to combat such a level of infestation; as the voles burrow under the ground seeking a meal, they encounter the poison, and carry it off to their burrows. Death rapidly ensues. While this is not an optimum solution – I’m slightly troubled from a karmic perspective, and I detest chemical remedies – in this case, I’m forced to fall back on my grandfather’s dictum: 10% of the garden freely surrendered to forces of God; 10% to depredations of animals; 10% to insect pests. And if anyone besides God steps over the line, whack ‘em!


Not Your Grandmother’s Agave

While filming the pilot for my new show, Garden Earth™, I came across a plant at the Family Tree Nursery in Overland Park, Kansas that I think is a real winner: Agave schidigera ‘Durango Park.’ This lovely plant grows to 2-3’ across and 2’ tall, with dark green leaves an inch wide at their widest point. The foliage is decorated with white markings, but it’s most striking feature is the thin white marginal fibers that form a soft haze about the leaves. Truly exceptional!

Agave schidigera 'Durango Park'

Agave schidigera 'Durango Park'

I know many people think agaves are rather common; they were over-used favorites of the Victorians, and from that developed a bad rep. But recently there’s been a considerable resurgence in garden circles for species, like the agave, adapted to low water conditions, and plants like ‘Durango Park’ truly deserve a second look. This cultivar, by the way, was grown from seed collected in Mexico along the highway to Durango, which only goes to show that it pays to keep your eyes open for interesting new plants wherever you travel. ‘Durango Park’ requires full sun, and is hardy to 15º F, meaning that for us Northern gardeners, it’s a candidate for pot culture.

The Plant at a Glance
The Plant at a Glance: Agave schidgera ‘Durango Park’
Common Name: Agave
Zone: 8?-11 (hardy to 15º)
Plant Type: Herbaceous perennial
Family: Agavaceae
Native Range: Northern Mexico
Height: 2-3′
Spread: 2′
Bloom Time: summer
Bloom Color: 10-12′ deep purple
Sun: Full sun
Water: dry
Maintenance: Low


Knee-high Never

Growing up in Wisconsin, I constantly heard the refrain that corn should be “knee-high by the Fourth of July.”  Well, in my garden, this year the corn is going to be knee-high never. It seems I had a complete crop failure. Or, perhaps more accurately, a germination failure. Corn is not something I plant every year; in fact, I haven’t planted it in the last five years, principally because it takes up so much room, and because freshly picked corn from the farm stand is easily available locally. But this year, I thought, what the hay, it would be nice to have several rows in the back of the new vegetable garden. So I ordered a sugar enhanced variety called ‘’Trinity,’ and planted it. Well, I forgot one crucial factor in ordering corn: always get treated seed. I know, some people don’t like to use seed treated with fungicide, but in my part of the world, our weather is often insufficiently warm to insure decent germination – the soil must be at 70º or better for corn to sprout. If not, untreated seed quickly rots in the ground. And sure enough, this spring has been cold and damp, and only one or two miserable looking seedlings have appeared in the entirety of four 10’ rows.


Ah well, looks like the local farmers market is guaranteed my patronage again this year…


One Man’s Weed…

I just got back from Kansas City, where I went to film the pilot for a new show called Garden Earth™. The concept is unique to TV: essentially, we’ll be telling the stories behind gardening: the fascinating history of the plants we take so for granted; the why’s and wherefore’s about how we garden; new trends in growing; spectacular new introductions for the home garden; green landscape practices; the latest in edible gardening – all thrown in with a hefty dose of practical information that you can translate right into your own backyard.

Filming the pilot of our new show, Garden Earth™.

Here I am, along with cameraman and project co-conspirator Mike Wunsch from Outpost Worldwide, filming the pilot of our new show, Garden Earth™.

Here’s an example of what we’re planning: in the photo to the right, I’m standing over a cow pie in the middle of Kansas, filming a segment of a future show entitled “One Man’s Weed…”  Sounds enticing, right? Actually, I’m explaining how many of the weeds we think of as natives are really imports, brought to our shores in the bellies of the Pilgrims’ first cows. Dandelion, feverfew, wild garlic, tansy, and a host of other plants were either accidentally transported in the fodder for the cattle, or, like tansy, were deliberately sown here by the first European settlers for culinary or medical use. The list of imported invasives goes on and on: kudzu, bittersweet, knotweed, loosestrife, and even that most allergen producing of plants, ragweed. As you’re sneezing your way through this summer and fall, you can contemplate the sad fact that in 1620, there wasn’t a single ragweed plant in all of North America… In other segments of this program, we’ll be talking about environmentally friendly ways to turn the tide on weeds in your own garden; interesting new uses for problem plants; green methods of weed removal; and the latest scientific efforts to combat some of these pests.

So over the next few months as we’re developing and marketing the show, feel free to drop me a line, and let me know what topics you might like to see covered – the possibilities are almost endless, because on Garden Earth™, the world is our garden!


Slug Fest

The last few weeks have turned out to be unusually cold and damp in Boston, the perfect habitat for that slimy garden menace, slugs. I’ve already noticed incipient damage on my hosta – one of the slugs’ favorite plants – and short of putting out slug bait or traps, there’s often not much you can do. But recently I’ve come upon an unexpected ally in my battles: our ducks.

My new best friends, our slug eating heritage ducks

My new best friends, our slug eating heritage ducks

Several years back, I ordered 36 ducklings through the mail from Holderead Waterfowl Farm and Preservation center in Oregon. They sent me a rare fowl mix, assorted ducklings of breeds like Ancona, Magpie, Swedish, Runners; interesting and colorful varieties you generally don’t see very often. My intention was to have the ducklings manage the algae and duckweed problem on my small pond, which they have done admirably. Too admirably in fact. The problem is  that now,  having eliminated the aquatic overgrowth, these insatiable nibblers have spread out into other part of the garden, incessantly trilling for bugs, worms, and other tasty bits wherever they can find them. Normally I’ve discouraged this foraging in the presentation garden areas, as the ducks are pretty careless about where they step and what they nibble,  can trample young plantings, and can quickly make a neatly mulched bed an unneatly mulched mess. But the other day, after they had again managed to climb underneath the chicken wire that separates the wild and cultivated parts of the landscape, I noticed that the flock was avidly rummaging beneath the leaves of the large hosta clumps in the shade garden. Sure enough, a quick lift of the leaves revealed several white anconas scarfing down those mucousy masses faster than you can say “Rin Tin Tin.” Turns out ducks LOVE slugs. Who knew? So now, rather than try to keep the little buggers out of the borders, I’m thinking of herding them in for an hour or two each week, which only confirms the old adage, so often true in gardening, “if you can’t beat ’em…”