Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Philosophical Musing? Or Not!

Maybe it is the recent thaws, the signs of warming or the advancing of spring, or the influence on my student's project on horticulture therapy, but I have been in a more philosophical mood lately. I have been thinking about the question "what do gardens mean?" What are the many meanings of gardens to people?

This is not a new question, nor am I the first to ask it. When I think of it, I can divide the meaning of gardens in three categories (or metaphors):

The garden as drudgery: as a culture we have a dominant philosophy, an ideology even, that "labor saving" is a good goal- doing less work is having more. As with all beliefs, I guess there is a germ of truth in this: in the past, outdoor labor was literally "back breaking." People wore out early from intense levels of labor they had to do to survive. Many people today (OK this is anecdotal) seem to view outdoor work as undesirable labor, work to be avoided or assigned to teenagers as a chore (cycling the hatred to the next generation?). And when the labor is repeated (and seemingly pointless) mowing, weed-wacking and trimming, I believe they have a point. I don't include lawn care in my notion of gardening and neither should others who say they "hate gardening." Lawn care is pointless drudgery, and lawns are costly in time, water and chemicals. That's why we have whittled our lawn (actually a collection of mowable, green weeds) down each and every year we have lived here. I would guess that people who view gardens in this way (drudgery) are fully able to appreciate botanical beauty, a walk in the woods, joy at the sight of that first crocus. So maybe a different definition of gardening is needed here? [Side note: is this notion of outdoor work as drudgery related to being overweight? And another side note: we want to have "labor-saving" life options, just so we can pay that gym membership and go to the gym???]

The garden as a near-holy, mystical setting in which to commune with nature: OK, I love gardening to get to that state of "flow" and this has a Zen-like quality. A garden does represent labor, but if it is a labor of love, then that is no work at all. But think about it, gardens are a highly artificial, man-made contrivance (even if you have a "native plant" garden). Human beings decide what to put where. We bring plants from all around the world (sometimes with bad consequences) to stick in our created places. I guess this does not make then less mystical, but it does somewhat counter the the idea of "garden as nature." Sure, there is nature in the garden, but a garden is not all "nature."

The utilitarian garden: I have been reading about Colonial gardens in the US. Aside from the few show gardens of the rich, every home, if it had dirt, had a garden to grow food, medicines, dyestuffs, material for weaving and other utilitarian purposes. No mysticism here (for the most part), just practical needs being met. Sometimes these gardens did produce something pretty (calendula or "pot marigold" flowers), but that was not their first purpose. The purpose was to grow things you could not buy, to feed your family or to save money. There is a movement in this country to take back the front and back yards from the dominance of green lawn to a place to grow food, herbs and flowers- to delight the senses as well as feed the body (counter to all those restrictive homeowner association rules!)(for more, see the book "Food Not Lawns" or google "edible landscaping")

I will ponder this more...I am sure there are more meanings and metaphors for the garden to find....till then... Happy gardening!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Horticulture Therapy

I am mentoring a student who is doing an independent study on Horticulture Therapy (Therapeutic Gardens). Here is a blog I wrote for her on my current thoughts on HT. If you know of any gardening-as-therapy interventions in your area, please comment and let me know where (this can include school gardens, prison gardens, gardens in residential facilities or garden programs to teach social skills, reduce anxiety, etc).

As a near-lifelong gardener, I know that working with plants, outdoors in a garden setting, is one of the most blissful experiences I have had. Being in the garden is a Zen experience for me- I experience a clear and intense focus (what Mihaly Csíkszentmihály, the cognitive psychologist, calls “flow”) along with a sense of meaning and purpose, as all my cares fade away. Gardening has other benefits for me, I believe, including health benefits from stretching, hauling, digging and lifting, not to mention eating home grown organic produce at the peak of perfection. But a key word in that previous sentence was “believe.” As a gardener, I believe these things to be true from my own experience (which is, however, only anecdotal). As a University instructor, I need to find evidence for a practice that goes beyond the state of anecdote or belief. I need evidence that fits at least some of the rigorous requirements of science, though perhaps true empiric and experimental evidence would be hard to find for this multi-faceted practice, i.e. the one we call horticulture therapy.

I have not been able to do an extensive review of the literature on this subject: that is my student's job. The literature I have looked at comes more from what I described to my student as “the heart” versus “the head.” The heart is an important component of social work and all social services: without the heart, we cannot have productive relationships with others. But our hearts need some guidance from our heads. We all see and filter phenomena through special lenses and we need science to make sure the lenses are the clearest and most objective possible.

There are some indications that horticulture therapy is a useful adjunct to other treatments and is useful in itself, but the field appears to be in its infancy. Even developing a definition of HT is difficult. What is HT? What are its methods? Actual gardening, lessons on foods and nutrition, school-garden-to-cafeteria-table initiatives? Using the plant metaphorically as a symbol of growth and change? Simply using the garden as a neutral environment to discuss emotionally-charged or difficult problems? What are its goals? Reduction of psychological distress? Meditation to reduce stress? To improve physical health? Vocational training? Improvement of social skills and socialization? What populations do we use it with? Children, the elderly, prisoners, and those in residential care facilities. Anyone or everyone else?

The last question is how do we study it? There seems to be qualitative and exploratory work in the literature, but few reports of specific HT interventions compared to non-HT interventions and controls. Until we have this kind of evidence, we do not know if it works…and isn’t this the bottom line? You want your physician to objectively know what works and to use those methods, right? And so it goes with HT. So, to refer back to the title of this blog entry, my clumsy paraphrase of Gertrude Stein when speaking of Cleveland (I actually love Cleveland) “is there a there there?” Is there really something to the positive, therapeutic effects of horticulture, or is it just a nice thing to do?

Happy Gardening!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Garish Garden Show

The Peoria, Illinois area parks people are hosting (though March 6) a conceptually brilliant event, the Garish Garden Show! It is complete with garden gnomes, plastic flowers and the ubiquitous pink flamingos! I think this would be a hoot to put together and to see. For a few photos (enough to tease, not satisfy-I am still looking!) go to:


Happy Non-Garish Gardening!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rain Gardens

My university is installing a rain garden, an ecological way to deal with storm water runoff (it is in front of a building that has flooded on the first floor in the past due to topography). To learn about installing a rain garden in your yard, here's one source:


Happy Gardening!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Books Reviews:Yes, BookS

Three Quirky Books:
Del Tredici, P. (2010). Wild urban plants of the northeast: A field guide. Ithaca NY: Comtock Publishing.
Alcorn, J (2006). An enthusiasm for orchids: Sex and deception in plant evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, A.F. (1994) The tomato in America: Early history, culture and cookery. Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press.

I love odd little gems and over the past few years I have found these three books. The first is available at most major bookstores, but you will have to search to find the other two. When my son was younger, we used to go to DC often and would head right to his favorite place, the Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian. We LOVED that bookstore and over years I came away with odd and interesting books, including the latter two listed above.

I listed the urban plants books first, because it is the most useful for the gardener (the other two, while interesting to the amateur scientist/naturalist in me, most decidedly have little practical import tot the US gardener, except to interest and delight). Even though we are in the Mid-Atlantic region, with many rural areas, Del Tredici's book is useful and relevant to us- after all, urban plants of the urban northeast set seeds and show up in a wider geographic region. What I like most of this book relates to my sorry state of knowledge of names and type of "adventitious" plants (a.k.a. weeds). I know if a plant is a desirable one, or a weed and I know some of the common types- dandelion, wood sorrel, cinquefoil, pokeweed, nutsedge, and crabgrass among a few. But Del Tredicis book shows the many types of adventitious plants, along with photos (OK, my one gripe- not so great photos, but good enough to help you identify the plants). He tells you the common names, botanical name, how it grows, where it came from, characteristics, fruiting, etc, but, most interesting to me, the "ecological functions" and "cultural significance" of each plant. For example, the entry for Paulownia (a distinctive plant we have all seen countless times, and probably did not know what it was): "...Introduced into North America in 1844. Its spread through the East was supposedly facilitated when seeds used as packing material to protect imported Chinese porcelain were discarded. The species is hyped in Sunday newspaper supplements as a "wonder tree" that grows 6 feet...a year." Love it!

John Alcorn is a professor of life Sciences at Arizona State University. He is a entomologist, that is, he studies insects, but makes the point that you cannot fully understanding insects without understanding plants (part of the broader notion of inter-connection of living things). As an evolutionary biologist, he is able to tease apart the connections between plants and animals and show what has been variously described as a "dance" and "an escalating arms race" between living organisms, all with the goal of reproducing their own kind. Alcorn is apparently smitten with orchids, especially the odd and unusual ones that grow in parts of Australia. I love books in which the writer's passion shines through the words, and this book is one of them- plus it is full of great photos of some very strange plants, and stories of their strategies to get insects to assist in their (the orchids) reproduction (check out the photos of "the flying duck orchid" and "the hammer orchid" they are fascinating!) This book has helped me become a better observer of nature and in the garden, to see the unusual plant "behaviors" we have right under our noses.

The tomato is often polled as the favorite garden vegetable to grow. You cannot get a good tomato unless you grow it yourself or are very lucky (store bought tomatoes are picked green, chemically ripened and chilled, which ruins any flavor they might have acquired. Want a sure fire way to ruin the flavor of a garden tomato? Refrigerate it). Smith is a garden "hobbyist" turned historian of tomatoes and thus book is fun and interesting, tracking down the myth, lore and history of the introduction of the tomato to the US. Plus, he gives historical recipes (tomato wine and tomato marmalade are my favorites- I make and can a tomato jam, the forerunner to ketchup)! I have actually found myself citing parts of this book at social gathering (and no, people don't run away!) (my sure fire, non-controversial topics at faculty gatherings? Gardening, crafts and dog stories)(well, non-controversial unless I meet another passionate gardener with definite ideas-crafts and dogs seem a safe bet).

If you have any useful or quirky gardening, botanical or life science books to recommend, please do!
Happy gardening!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Forcing flowering branches

From Andre Viette, a method to force branches of flowering trees and shrubs indoors (quince, peach, apple, forsythia, apple, etc)(I've done this with peach and it works!)(above photo: Moonglow pear, it can be forced indoors!)

Warm Method:
  1. Bring the cut branches inside and place them in tall containers filled with warm water (90-110ºF).
  2. Place a tent of plastic over the branches and the containers and set them in a dimly lit, warm room for 24 hours. The warmth and humidity will encourage the scales covering the flower buds to expand and activate dormant buds.
  3. Re-cut the ends of the branches at an angle and arrange them in vases filled with fresh water.
  4. Remember to check the water levels often and top them off if needed.
Happy Gardening! Winter is half over and spring is coming!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

When To Start Seeds!!!

Here is a a great seed-starting chart from Organic Gardening Magazine:
(sorry my earlier link did not work- I checked it and it was the url to the page, but???)


The Spring Frost-Free Date in My Garden is_______________








1 week after



2 weeks before



2 weeks before



4 weeks before



2 weeks before



4 weeks before



0 to 2 weeks after



1 to 2 weeks after



2 to 3 weeks after



4 weeks before



4 weeks before



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4 weeks before



2 to 4 weeks after



4 weeks before



2 to 3 weeks before



6 to 8 weeks before



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3 to 6 weeks before



2 weeks after

Swiss chard


2 weeks before



1 to 2 weeks after

* These crops are usually direct-seeded outdoors, but they can be started inside.

Happy gardening!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tips from NBG http://www.norfolkbotanicalgarden.org/home

From the Norfolk Botanical Garden:
February Tips
by Director of Horticulture Brian O'Neil at
  • The word for the month of February is "prune." Any time this month, as weather allows, is the time to prune back the spent stalks of perennials and ornamental grasses. Shrubs that bloom on current season's growth such as butterfly bush, beautyberry and roses may also be cut back now.
  • Prune watersprouts and suckers from fruit trees, flowering plums and cherries. These stems tend to clog the inside of trees reducing air flow and promote weak growth and disease. Prune for an open center that a bird can easily fly through.
  • Now is the time to apply a slow release organic fertilizer or a compost topdressing to beds and borders. A light covering of your favorite mulch helps keep spring weeds at bay.
  • Take a look at your winter garden to determine where you lack some evergreen structure or winter interest. The bones of the garden are readily apparent now.
  • Complete your catalog seed orders this month to be ready for planting the vegetable garden. Some seeds, such as English Peas, can be planted toward the end of the month.
  • Happy Gardening!


Happy Groundhogs Day!

Punxsatawney Phil (the official United States Groundhog) saw his shadow,

so spring is just around the corner!