Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Tenacious Tip Tuesday - Use Low Maintenance Plants

The first year I grew bee balm (Monarda didyma), a variety called ‘Raspberry Wine’, it was a fantastic success. The tiny, little plant I started with expanded politely to about a foot and a half across and stood 3 feet tall, with many lovely flowers. The leaves had a minty, spicy scent and not a speck of disease. It was a hummingbird magnet, too; every evening we could count on watching a couple of the little birds squabbling for control of the flowers.

The following year, the polite expansion continued, a little less politely. By the end of that season, the patch was four feet across and barreling over a rose and 2 daylilies. The flower stalks had grown to 4 feet tall and the nightly battle among the hummingbirds had taken on tones of a World War 2 dogfight. Scrappy little critters, those hummingbirds.
The third year began my annual battle to keep bee balm under control. After a few experiments, I decided the only way to control it was to lift the entire patch every other year first thing in the spring, cut out the old, woody growth and replant a piece from the expanding edge. This got to be a somewhat brutal affair as there was a great deal of viable plant material left at the end. I tried giving the pieces away for a while but people began to avoid me; you’d have thought I was giving away excess summer squash. I wouldn’t get around to that till August.
What I couldn’t give away got composted or at least hit the pile. There’s now a lovely patch of bee balm surrounding the compost bins and Brian mows it down when it gets too rowdy.
Every gardener has their own way of dealing with thugs. Some enjoy their rampancy, giving them their own space to pillage, some limit them to pots, and others refuse to grow them at all. A lot depends on the particular plant, too. Is it worth the effort to accommodate? Is it a major thug or just a minor hooligan? If you do let it loose in the garden, can you get it out again without high explosives?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Slimy Boozing Boogers

Slugs are the bane of many gardeners, especially those who grow tasty stuff like lettuce, beans and squash. There are, apparently, a million ways to combat the crawling booger menace:
·         Place pennies around the plant being attacked – the copper gives them a shock
·         Sprinkle assorted substances around the plants – wood ashes, diatomaceous earth, sawdust, lime, crushed egg shells, talcum powder, coffee grounds, Epsom salts, oat bran, builder’s sand, etc., etc.
·         Spray them with ammonia
·         Pick them off and drown them in soapy water
·         Use store-bought repellents, like Sluggo or Escar-Go
·         Place roof shingles or sandpaper on the ground around the affected plants – slugs won’t crawl across the rough surfaces
·         Grow “trap” crops to entice them to other areas of the garden
·         Lay old bits of carpet, lumber or wet newspaper around for them to crawl into, then destroy
·         Use herbs as repellents – horseradish roots, geranium leaves, rosemary, wormwood, tansy, comfrey

I found all of these and more in just 15 minutes of Googling. I can’t vouch for any of them as my garden is, thankfully, not badly affected by slugs. The only slugs of note were the leopard slugs when we first started the garden, but I haven’t seen any in a while. In my opinion, these solutions are much like the cures suggested for hiccups – more for the amusement of the victim’s friends than to actually cure the hiccups.

Leopard Slug

My favorite solution, though, has got to be this article in the Bangor Daily News. The author used beer to bait the things into a pan where they would drown. Gruesome and disgusting, but a time-proven remedy. The hilarious part was the discovery that slugs are beer snobs with no taste. After experimenting with several different kinds of beer, the author concluded that Budweiser is the beer of choice for Maine slugs.
Believe it or not, there is actual, scientific research backing up her conclusions. This study, conducted at Colorado State University, agrees that Budweiser is the favorite, but the slimy little boozers will also fortify themselves with Pabst Blue Ribbon and Coors. A commenter in the Maine article claims they will even imbibe Old Milwaukee. All this while ignoring a perfectly good pan of Rolling Rock! Slugs are clearly a lesser breed of drunk.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tenacious Tip Tuesday - Feeling Overwhelmed

The hardest part of being unable to go gonzo in the garden is watching chaos reassert itself. Knowing that weeds, insects and varmints have free reign while I’m stuck plodding along is very difficult. All the beautiful plants I spent a great deal of time and money on are slowly being overwhelmed and there is very little I can do about it. Rescuing the occasional victim, one in most imminent danger of extinction, gives a certain satisfaction but it feels awfully like fighting an incoming tide.
I made the mistake of expanding too much all at once and it has definitely caught up with me. While I was busy with the new section, the old gardens fell to wrack and ruin. Instead of bright patches of flowers, I have waving fields of grass. The roses are competing with tall stands of fleabane and Queen Anne’s lace has replaced the bee balm. The stupid, f-ing groundhog now smirks at me from under a besieged weigela.
Pardon my language. I REALLY hate that groundhog. 

A part of The Wild Zone

Reclaiming the old gardens is not going to be an easy task. It will take a lot of work that I can only do in short spurts. I’m being smart about it for a change, though, and completely finishing a section before starting another. The sections are smaller, too; no more than a few square feet at a time. Still, there are a lot of square feet to work on and some days I despair of ever finishing, especially after a visit to the untended areas. The amount of work to be done is staggering and most of it requires hard labor with a shovel, not exactly my forte anymore. The feeling of being overwhelmed is . . . well, overwhelming.
What do I do at times like that? The classic response is to flee screaming into the night, never to be seen again. Since this is impractical, I flee, sighing, to a patio in the shade and read a book. Distraction is a wonderful thing. Sticking one’s head in the proverbial sand, however, is not a long-term solution for being overwhelmed, no matter how good it feels at the time. Not to mention you run out of reading material rather quickly.
There is really only one real strategy for times when I can’t stand to look at the mess my garden has become and it is a horrible cliché. Embrace the chaos. That’s it, just embrace the chaos.
Now, mind you, this is easier said than done and there are several parts to it. First, I had to firmly remind myself that I chose to preserve my health over my garden. It’s a good choice, but all choices have consequences and a weedy, messy garden is at least temporarily the cost of this one. If I had continued to rage against it and feel put upon, I would have driven myself, and everyone around me, crazy in very short order.
So. Accept the situation with what grace you can manage. An attitude adjustment was the first step for me. I forgave myself for only being able to do so much. Perhaps that’s not so much embracing the chaos as embracing myself, but it was a necessary step.
The second part to embracing chaos for me is taking the time to observe what’s there, not just worry how to change it to suit me. Gardeners, to my mind, seem to have an eye for beauty in all its forms, but the trick is remembering to look. There are an unbelievable number of insects, birds and animals I’ve never seen before crawling, flying and oozing through the weeds. Some of them are quite intriguing and a few are surprisingly pretty when seen up close.
Not the groundhog, though. He’s ugly. And smug.
I have begun carrying my camera around with me any time I go outside, especially when touring the wild side. Butterflies are quite taken with the weeds, especially the stands of fleabane I keep meaning to rip out, and I’ve managed to get pictures of several different kinds. One very special flier, the hummingbird moth, is pictured below sampling the nectar of a balloon flower.

Hummingbird, or sphinx, moth
I’m even learning a few things as both He of the Strong Back (aka my darling spouse, Brian) and I run for the insect/bird/plant guides as soon as we spot something unknown. Did you know there is a caterpillar, called a Wavy-lined Emerald, that picks pieces off the plant and sticks them to its own body for camouflage? How cool is that? I never saw one before I slowed down to look. I may even keep a few patches of fleabane when all is said and done. It a bit like baby’s breath and looks rather nice with the daylilies.
Be gentle with yourselves, all.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Daylily Heaven

Once every summer, the spouse and I make our pilgrimage to North Country Daylilies in Buskirk, New York to get our annual allotment of daylilies. NCD is owned by Melanie Mason, a nationally reknowned breeder of daylilies and one of the nicest people you could meet. Her knowledge of the genus hemerocallis is only eclipsed by her willingness to share it.

Her farm, Longlesson Farm, is located smack dab in the middle of nowhere and takes some finding. Fortunately, the directions on her website are excellent. When you arrive, you are usually greeted by a good-natured pack of yellow labs whose only calling in life is playing fetch. One warning - they will outlast you, no matter how strong your pitching arm.

I'm guessing the daylily field takes up most of an acre, give or take a hectare, between the sale field and Melanie's breeding area. No matter where you look, you're surrounded by a riot of color.

A cluster of trees serves as an office of sorts, with lists of the daylilies for sale, a large cooler of iced tea and many Adirondack chairs for lounging. There are always several people around to dig up your chosen plants and bag them for the trip home.

The selection is amazing! Every color and form you can imagine is out there and the rows are well maintained and labeled. We only bought 3 this year, but I have limited space. It would be extremely easy to blow an entire year's gardening budget there. This tall, bright orange daylily tempted me greatly but was out of my price range.

If you're in New York between the end of June and mid-August, give Melanie a call. She's usually open to the public on weekends, but it's best to call ahead. It is definitely a unique and wonderful place!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tenacious Tip Tuesday – Tools for Getting Up and Down

Garden plants, and the weeds that love them, live much closer to the ground than we do and reaching to care for them presents the gardener with a problem – bending over all the time and damaging your joints further or parking your butt on the ground and risk not getting up again. In the old days, one might carry a walking stick or staff to help lever oneself up from a sitting position but this is not always a convenient solution. What happens if you’ve wandered away from your prop? It’s a dilemma.
While I am not an old-fashioned person, I am a practical one and any device that allows me to keep working in the garden is a welcome one. I do actually have a staff of sorts to help with the ups and downs of gardening life. It’s a ski pole that someone left next to the old fire pit when we first bought our house and, from the blackened tip, I presume it was used as a poker. With the loop on the end and the strength of the metal, though, it makes a superior walking stick and lever. The sharp point also makes it handy for marking out new beds.
Ski Pole, minus the snow guard at the bottom
Unfortunately, there are times when a simple staff is not enough to get my backside off the ground. At times like that, I rely on an odd device that functions as both a kneeler and a seat, depending on which side is up. As a kneeler, the 2 sides stick up, giving you sturdy braces to pull yourself upright. Fortunately, while I have a bad back and bad left knee, there is nothing wrong with my upper body strength and those uprights are all I need to get vertical.
Levering myself up with the kneeler
You can also flip it over and use it for a seat. The wide sides that helped you get up also provide sturdy and stable legs for sitting on. I like to use this for pruning taller plants and shrubs; bending over just slightly is actually more painful than bending all the way to the ground. With this seat, I don’t have to bend at all.
The kneeler/seat usually runs around $35 to $50 at most of the sites I checked.
The kneeler as a seat
For folks who may have difficulty with upper body strength and have limited leg strength, it might be best not to get down on the ground at all. I certainly have days like that and the kneeler above can be very helpful when I just want to work at sitting level. However, it’s too high to do serious weeding or planting, unless you are working in waist-level raised beds. To work closer to the ground, I count on my Scoot-n-Do.


I bought this many, many moons ago and in all that time it has only taken minor damage, despite being dropped from pickup trucks and wheelbarrows onto every surface imaginable. It features a nicely padded seat, roomy carry space under the seat for small tools, and space next to the seat for larger items. There is even a cup holder for the beverage of your choice. I recommend a nice, frosty . . . root beer.
There are several versions of the Scoot-n-Do on the market, many now made of metal with swiveling seats and pump up tires, instead of the very sturdy plastic of my model. I’m not sure you can even get the plastic version anymore (I wasn’t able to find it, but your Google-fu may be better than mine). The metal ones run from $80 to $130, depending on the features you add on – detachable baskets, seat pads, etc.
These are the particular items I count on to go from vertical to horizontal and back again. How about you folks? Any other devices you care to mention?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cortisone Shots for the Unitiated

For those of you who are new to this blog, my intent was to share some of the challenges of gardening with a chronic injury or illness, arthritis and a back injury, in my case, and some of the solutions I have used to continue (hence the "stubborn" in the title). Some of these problems and resolutions may even help those of you who are perfectly fit. I certainly hope so!

If you are suffering from joint pain, you may get to a point where your doctor recommends cortisone shots. At that point you may cringe visibly, shudder violently and make haste for the exit. I can, of course, only speak from my own experience. The very idea of having a needle going through the skin and all the way into a joint which is already screaming at you is usually enough to give anyone the cold grozzells.

I personally put it off as long as possible.

Eventually, though, the nagging of joint pain overcame my inability to even entertain the idea of shots and the first set, one for each side of my back, was scheduled. I won't lie - the first time was awful. Mostly due to fear on my side; fear somehow always makes pain worse. I swore I'd never get another one. Until 2 days later when my pain was completely gone. Huh. Who'd'a thunk it?

The next time I needed some relief, almost 6 months later, my doctor mildly suggested a sedative to 'help me cope with the stress of the injections'. I could have kissed him. Drugs were duly administered and after that set of shots, as I staggered out to the car, I told my husband that maybe these shots were OK after all. I'm not sure what was funny about that, but he laughed most of the way home.

I have since worked out a schedule of sorts to cope with the shots. I always schedule them for a Friday afternoon, my darling spouse drives me, and my doctor provides me with a lovely anti-anxiety medicine that knocks me loopy for the duration. Without the added stress of fear, the shots are usually quite tolerable. Fortunately, I only seem to need them every 6 months or so, unless I do something stupid like trying to unload mulch from the pickup truck by myself. Ahem.

For anyone considering cortisone injections, talk to your doctor about sedatives if you're as nervous (read terrified) as I was. There is absolutely no excuse for you to suffer both from pain AND fear during your treatment. If your doctor is not sympathetic, consider finding one who is. My doctor is a pain management specialist with an orthopedic group who is just as willing to consider mental pain as physical.

Best of luck to anyone who is considering this treatment or who has already endured it. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments section - I'd be happy to expand on any points!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tenacious Tip Tuesday – Change Activities Every 20 to 30 Minutes

As a confirmed Virgo, I almost cannot function in the garden without lists. Lists of plants, lists of plants longed for, lists of ideas for neat color combinations, lists of color combos never to be repeated, lists of things to do, lists of things to ask someone else to do, etc., etc. Nothing is more satisfying to me than having a list with lots of little check marks all over it; I really feel as though I’ve accomplished something.

A sample of some of my lists
One legal-sized notepad is dedicated to an ongoing list of everything I can think of that needs to be done in the garden, no matter how huge or how minor. The first page says “Master List of Things To Do”. One entry is to fertilize the lilies in the pond, the next is to redesign the bed with the apple tree and the one after that is to divide the helenium in bed #2. There is no rhyme or reason, just a free-flow of things to do. As an item is completed, it gets checked off and the date entered next to it.
I first made this list purely because my anal-retentive Virgo-ness forced me into it. Also, it was somehow very comforting to see that, despite the huge amount of work to be done, it was finite. There was a beginning and an end, see? Right there on the page(s)! That I kept adding to the list was beside the point. The goalposts kept moving, but consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds anyway. Or something.
Anyway, I read a tip a few months ago about switching activities every little while when you garden to help protect your joints and muscles from over-use, especially for people with back problems or arthritis. Every 20 to 30 minutes, they said, take a 5 minute break, then switch to an new activity which uses a different set of muscles. Repeat.
That certainly seemed reasonable so I tried it. Weeding is an endless task, so I chose the next bed in line and started with that. After crawling about, flinging greenery, for a half hour or so, I got up (creaking a bit), got a drink and grabbed my pruning shears.  Rolled around on my Scoot-n-Do, pruning roses for a bit then went to transplant an over-shaded daylily. Hey, isn’t that daylily one of the items from my Master List of Things To Do! Why, yes, it is! Cool, check that little bugger off. What’s next? Let’s see . . . weed out section 5. Already started that - may finish it today. Awesome – another check mark!
As the day went by (and it went quicker than usual), I found switching out not only helped my back, but it felt like I was getting more done without burning out on a given task. Yeah, blasting through an entire bed and weeding the whole thing is satisfying, in its way, but you can’t move the next day and nothing else gets done. And all those little check marks made my Virgo self very happy.
So there are 2 tips for the price of one: switch activities regularly and keep a master list to give you other activities to switch to!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Independence Day!

Happy Fourth of July to all my friends out in cyberspace! Brian and I were busy! Here is a photo montage of our day:

A butterfly joined us for breakfast on asclepias "Cinderella"

The new bed before we started work on it

Daylily "Scarlet Orbit"

The new bed when we finished

Lastly, a very special visitor - a pileated woodpecker!

I hope everyone had a fun holiday! Tomorrow, I will be starting a new feature called Tenacious Tips Tuesdays where I'll talk about different techniques that make gardening easier for those of us with limitations. I'll only spotlight techniques, tools or tips that I have tried myself. Please let me know what you think!

My tip for tonight is relax and enjoy your time with friends and family!