Answers to your gardening questions
Key No. 1: Soil Basics. Getting to know your foundation. Our Precious soil's origin, purpose composition, inhabitants and struggles.
Key No. 2: Identifying The Ingredients. Testing your foundation. A simple and inexpensive test solves problems before they become problems.
Key No. 3: The Right Food For The Job. Getting the scoop on fertilizers. NPK, trace elements—what's it all about? Problems and solutions.
Key No. 4: Creating A Sensible Plan. Setting some parameters. Setting down attainable goals, precise limits and a sensible itinerary.
Key No. 5: Preparing A Garden's Foundation. Neglect it and ensure failure! Building a firm foundation first avoids many serious problems later.
Key No. 6: Making the Right Choices. Realistic plant select- ion. Understanding requirements of plants. What to look for and what to avoid.
Key No. 7: Uninvited Guests. Those cursed weeds, bugs and varmints. Plants where they ought not to be, good bugs, bad bugs and feathered and furry "friends."
Key No. 8: Keeping Up Appearances. Timely and effective Maintenance. There's more to gardening success than some people think! Staying ahead of the game.
Key No. 9: Getting Into Composting. Why and how straight talk. You haven't enjoyed truly satisfying garden- ing until you're at least a passive composter!
Key No. 10: Understanding Garden Etiquette. Our respon- sibilities to our neighbors. There is a way to act and talk while visiting the gardens of others. Giving back to the community and the environment
Summary: Pulling it all together.
The 10th Vital Key:
Responsibilities To Our Neighbors
First: Understanding Garden Etiquette
While most of us would like to think that all gardeners are always courteous, thoughtful and respectful of the rights and property of other gardeners, there will always be a few who are, at least occasionally, downright rude, disrespectful, thoughtless, and who allow their children and pets to trod upon the garden tranquility of friends and neighbors. It happens in our gardens, and a number of others have mentioned similar unpleasant experiences in theirs.
True, difficult and stressful times like these certainly seem to fray delicate nerves and stir deep frustrations. Polite society, however, does require garden visitors - out of sorts or not - to observe a sort of "code" - to at least attempt to avoid trampling on another's sensitivities or property rights. Here are a few suggestions to make your visit to someone else's garden - private or public - more pleasant, informative and relaxing while, at the same time, avoiding the ire of its gardener or manager.
For parents with youngsters in tow, one of the kindest things you can do is make a serious effort to control your little ones (and those that aren't so little, as well).
Please understand, one of my greatest joys is the presence of cheerful, inquisitive, well-behaved children in the garden. The world of business stops for me when a bright-eyed child shows genuine interest...excitement at witnessing the antics of a hummingbird or beetle...when she asks why do flowers bloom?...when he inquires, how do they get so many colors?...and the excitement on young faces when I ask if they'd like to learn how to pollinate, show them how, let them make a selection and then actually do it themselves. And the wonder on a face when told that, when the resulting seeds mature they can come collect their seeds...and that I'll then show them how to plant them in their garden.
In my years as a gardener and nurseryman, I've seen more than a few young gardening careers launched by the simple act of patiently responding to the questions and curiosity of genuinely interested youngsters. And you have no idea how satisfying it is to have a parent of one of those kids visit or email a few seasons later to tell me about the incredible new colors now inhabiting their Daylily garden!
But not all children are cut from the same cloth...or taught respect by their all-too- often unconcerned parents. Those are the ones who I often wish had been left at home with a sitter! Filled with energy and exuberance, youngsters can do a great deal of damage as they race around.
I groan when a car or SUV drives in, parks, and its doors burst open to disgorge a literal explosion of loud, disrespectful and sure-to-be destructive children. That is certainly not among my greatest joys!
Many gardeners, and surely every manager of every public garden and retail nursery with gardens, have witnessed a car- or van-load of excited, sugared-up and probably under-exercised youngsters - some of them, it seems, almost literally bearing horns and barbed tails - boil over into the grounds. They tear through gardens, rampaging, trampling, screeching, picking, wading, throwing rocks, chasing or otherwise terrorizing resident domestic pets, all the while leaving a trail of dust, candy wrappers, bruised plants, broken labels and quite severely frayed nerves.
Parents: Please advise them to stay on paths; forbid rock throwing, flower picking and branch tugging; and assist them in keeping their sometimes-cheeky remarks to themselves. One of my favorite recommendations to visitors with rambunctious kids is "You might want to tell them to stay on the paths; that way they'll steer clear of the poison ivy." It's true...there really is poison ivy in some areas just outside of the gardens and their paths.. That veiled warning is usually reasonably effective - but not always! At least twice, guardians - rather than take steps to control their destructive or otherwise troublesome little hellion - have retorted: "Oh, she's not allergic to poison ivy!" — a repulsive (and unfortunate) attitude reflecting a general disrespect for all but themselves and their darling (usually cheeky and undisciplined) children.
The great sadness of it all is demonstrated by the defensive and negative stance struck by some parents and guardians when asked to control their rowdy and undisciplined youngsters. At least one highly insulted parent was so incensed at the suggestion that her children were being disruptive and destructive that she harrumphed!, gathered up her kids and promptly drove away in a rage, a cloud of dust and squealing tires. Neither she nor her little gang of miscreants has ever returned. Thank Goodness!
Like untethered and uncontrollable youngsters, domestic pets of visitors - on or off a leash - have no place wandering around in someone else's garden unless specifically invited, granted permission or warranted by physical challenge. True, there may be resident dogs or cats, but that's never a reason for the visiting public to turn their pet loose to rip and tear, dig and chew, or otherwise pollute a carefully maintained garden environment with their wastes.
Animal urine can burn and disfigure valuable landscape plants - in a hurry. Animal feces is never acceptable in a garden where children and adults are apt to follow. Leaving Fido (or Boomer) home is always the safest bet. Besides, gardening friends will appreciate the kindness. Enough about "domesticated" pets.
Stay on the paths! Stepping off obvious paths to go plodding around in the cultivated soil of a friend's garden is definitely out! A person may do that in their own garden, but it's not going to be appreciated by other gardeners and, if they persist, may result in a swift - perhaps pointed - invitation to leave. Healthy, high-organic-matter soil is light, airy and fluffy when cultivated. Needless tramping about compacts soil, making it a less-hospitable environment for plants and their roots. Meandering footprints are also distracting and are very quickly noticed by the next visitor, serving as an open, engraved invitation for them to stroll across garden soil as well.
Collecting seeds or taking cuttings without specific invitation is another grievous sin committed by an occasional disrespectful and, frankly, dishonest garden visitor. Yes, I've seen it in my garden and the gardens of others, as you may have witnessed it in yours. Often, offenders will glance around first to see if they're being observed; then snip! or snatch!, and into a pocket or purse it goes. Seed-snatchers and cutting-crooks are rarely invited back.
A variation on this type of unacceptable behavior are the rare visitors (thankfully) who will deliberately snap off a stem, branch, flower or cluster of flowers from a plant in the garden, then boldly bring it up to the gardener with the irritating question, "What's this?" Sadly, it never occurs to them that their action might offend someone. When it happens in our garden, an offender's response to my apparent unhappiness usually goes something like, "Well, it was such a big plant . . . this little piece is no great loss!" I can't help wondering what their response would be if a guest in their garden at home did the same thing to them. Imagine what your favorite public gardens - or your own - would look like if every visitor snapped off a stem, leaf or flower!
Appointing oneself as the official visiting weed-puller or bug-stomper can land a visitor in deep trouble, too. Remember that one person's "trash" may be another's "treasure." Who knows, maybe they wanted that "weed" (wildflower?) there, and perhaps that just-squashed insect was a valuable, beneficial type, nurtured and protected by its host, the now-offended gardener.
I know of plenty of gardens that are carpeted with plants which most gardeners consider to be pernicious weeds. Yet they like them; they think those plants are beautiful! As for the bugs visitors might notice as they stroll through another's yard - well, it is not a guest's place to poke his or her nose into someone else's garden affairs - foibles or not - unless invited. One of a great many valuable lessons my Father left with me: "Keep your eyes and ears open - and your mouth shut!"
Maintain an up-beat, positive, giving, sharing, pleasant attitude while visiting another's garden. Even if you see all sorts of terrible things (mistakes, misadventures, unfinished tasks, weeds, bugs, diseases, stones, snaggly trees and shrubs, pet residues, scattered tools and hoses, odors, etc., sometimes ad-nauseam), try hard to put a positive spin on even the worst of circumstances. Avoid insensitive remarks like "Oh, I see you have [some plant or other]; mine's taller and doesn't have bug-holes in the leaves, and mine has bigger flowers, too." Or, "Wow! You've got a Really Big slug problem, don't you?!" Another real "killer" goes something like, "Yeah (yawn) . . . a hosta . . . I've got 40 different varieties in my-y-y-y garden!" Such insensitivities hurt - and are rough on relationships.
Finally, for you tobacco users, please don't grind out cigarette butts or spit tobacco juice in others' gardens. Most avid gardeners treasure the sanctity, peacefulness and, hopefully, the purity of air in their garden retreats. Nothing invades that refreshing, rejuvenating, clean, microenvironment like the pervasive smell of cigarette or cigar smoke. Few things are less pleasant to clean up than someone else's stomped-in cigarette "butt."
"Field-stripping" a cigarette (a military trick to lessen chances of detection by an enemy) is even worse. Few smokers realize that virtually every shred of processed tobacco is infected with an organism known as TSWV (Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus). The malady can wreak havoc among many different varieties in a once-healthy garden, causing stunting of plants and a yellowish mosaic pattern on the leaves, accompanied by unsightly leaf distortion (puckering). Infected plants must be destroyed - there's no cure, only prevention. The disease is so destructive that operators of greenhouse ranges where tomatoes are the primary crop absolutely forbid smoking within the system, and cringe when they smell tobacco on visitors.
So, if you're a smoker, the next time you visit a friend's (or public) garden, whip out a stick of chewing gum; leave the smokes in your pocket. It all boils down to this: treat others, their gardens - and their gardening efforts - with the same kind of respect, gentle honesty and caring with which you'd like to be treated. Where have I heard that concept before?!
Digging From "The Wild"
Closely related to seed-snatchers and cutting-crooks are the "side-of-the-road-plant- and-wildflower-nappers." This genre is rarely without a trowel or small shovel in their car's trunk. Driving slowly along and scanning both sides of some unfrequented stretch of road, they'll stop, step out of their car, look around to insure privacy, then with the deftness and agility of big-city abandoned-car-strippers uproot their prize, toss it in the trunk, slam down the lid, jam the car into gear and race off down the road.
Inexplicably, some of these "gardeners" are proud of their roadside finds, even to the point of boasting of their disreputable clandestine antics. Others, on the flip side of this covert coin, are openly embarrassed when a trowel and cardboard box filled with fresh roadside treasures suddenly appears as they open their trunks for a nursery or garden center employee to load purchases.
I'm not saying that gathering a few wildflowers from roadsides and woods is entirely wrong. It's the attitude of secrecy and guilt that casts a dubious pall on the practice. The point is, they think and act like they're somehow doing something grossly unlawful. While the actual act of retrieving a plant growing on a public right of way may certainly not be illegal, the clear impression is that some of these people seem to sense that what they're doing (or about to do) is somehow "wrong" or inappropriate (why else the caution and stealth of the act?).
Stepping onto someone else's private property to collect plant specimens without permission, however, is unequivocally wrong and illegal - and offenders can be prosecuted for the crime! Yet it happens and, unfortunately, these plant thieves are rarely apprehended and made to pay for the violation.
Additionally, hundreds of plants - once healthy residents of a meadow, ditch or roadside - are brutalized and killed because road-siders fail to consider really important things like season, root or bulb depth, and the environment a plant had originally chosen as it's preferred home.
Canada lilies are a favorite target yet most attempts to dig them end in failure because of the great depth and position of the bulb and the fact that a majority are moved to a place which wildflowers certainly would not have chosen - had they been given a choice.
Ladyslipper orchids (Cypripedium ssp.) are another frequent target. Few survive beyond the first year - at best, two - because their environment has so dramatically changed and, of course, most attempts are made during flowering - not a good time. While it is not technically unlawful to dig one, most naturalists and responsible gardeners question the wisdom of attempting to move a ladyslipper from the wild to a more structured and disciplined home garden. It can be done but not without a huge section of surrounding soil (depth and width) from their original home.
A very common mistake which unknowing gardeners make is to provide their cypripediums with the same food and water that other parts of the garden receive. Ladyslipper orchids want very little - if any - artificial food, and only rare watering after early July. Their natural setting is perfect and usually in a location where many other people can enjoy the show. Being tucked away in a secluded, shady corner of a home garden after having been uprooted from the wild has a tendency to limit its accessibility, wouldn't you agree?
It is far better to first mark a roadside plant in flower (or one found in a meadow - once permission is granted) so it can be more safely dug and transplanted at a more appropriate time. The worse possible time to dig and move a lupine, for example, is when it is in full color.
A useful (and responsible) rule of thumb for gathering seeds, bulbs or other acceptable wildflowers: Count. If there are ten, you may dig or collect one and leave nine. If there are less than ten, you may take none. The same principle holds for seeds: take a few; leave a lot.
Brutal lessons of the inadvisability of digging unfamiliar plants from the wild are often learned - the hard way - when a roadside plant-napper goes after something exquisitely invasive like coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara). Oh, it's wonderful stuff. Lovely, rich, carpeting foliage; delightful early spring dandelion-like flowers which arise before the leaves; ideal for that out-back, wild area; but placed in improved soil and given a little food, it can quickly spread six feet or more in all directions through frozen ground—in one season—causing much stress (most of it the gardener's).
Our Responsibilities To Our Neighbors - Our Environment - And Our Children
It's now time to take another - much closer - look at one of our most stunning responsibilities: all those chemicals commonly found in and around the home. When most people hear the word "pesticide," thoughts go immediately to a bottle of bug spray out in the barn or garage, or to an aerosol can of common house and garden insecticide under the kitchen sink. Many of those same folks are surprised to learn that their homes, laundry rooms and garages are full of other substances which are equally dangerous and are every bit the killers that insect sprays are. Since the most fragile and vulnerable among us are our children, this section will focus chiefly on the dangers most of them face every day - while in the presumed safety of their homes.
A quick visit to a good dictionary shows what a "pesticide" really is. "A chemical preparation for destroying [killing] pests." A "pest" is defined as: "A destructive or troublesome person, animal or thing; a deadly epidemic disease, especially one produced by bacteria or other micro-organisms; plague; scourge, bane." Just about covers it all, doesn't it?
So a pesticide is any substance which is capable of killing any person (for our present purpose, "child"), animal or thing ("thing," in this sense, includes insects, plants, fungi, bacteria, nematodes and virtually any other micro- or macro-organism).
Having established those definitions, let's take a look into our kitchen, bathroom, basement and garage cabinets and shelves for substances capable of killing "anything." First, the kitchen.
We've already mentioned aerosol spray cans, so we'll start there. See it? Right over there: it's a can of highly-pressurized bug spray meant to propel a solid stream or coarse fog up to 25 feet away. So what, you say? Harmless enough, you think? Think again! There are few things more fascinating or enticing to a small, unattended child than the promise of a noisy blast of wet "air" from a pressurized can! Is he concerned about it's contents being a potentially lethal poison? Unlikely.
What if the nozzle is pointing toward his face and he receives a stiff shot in the eyes, nose or mouth¾ or all three? You or I, at a physically mature and healthy 125 to 160-plus pounds, would likely escape with a moderate chemical burn. At least we might have the presence of mind to dunk our heads under a faucet. But a child, who may only weigh 30 pounds or less, could quite possibly receive a lethal dose from just one "little squirt."
A "squirt" is one thing, but to an asthmatic, an almost invisible cloud of ultra-fine mist (or fog) from any one of dozens of aerosol bug sprays can spell hours, sometimes days, of misery: coughing, wheezing and perhaps even emergency medical attention.
Other common chemicals normally stored in lower kitchen cabinets and which could kill a person, animal or thing include: household disinfectants (they can kill germs and small children); and crystalline drain un-cloggers, exquisitely poisonous chemicals which could incapacitate or kill just about anything, including a child or adult. Dishwashing detergents, scouring powders, ammonia, chlorine . . . the list can go on and on!
Let's move into the bathroom. Under the sink are more drain cleaners with the same killing power as those found below the kitchen counter. A can of powerful spray disinfectant, and another of "basin, tub and tile cleaner," in the wrong little hands might spell hours, perhaps days, in an emergency room or intensive care unit. Scary? Certainly scares me!
One level up, just behind the mirror, rests another "pesticide" - a spray can of fungicide for athlete's foot disease. It's label warns of the danger to little ones: "Do not use on children under 2 years of age . . . . In case of accidental ingestion, seek professional assistance or contact a Poison Control Center immediately."
The list of dangerous substances grows longer when the many other potentially dangerous (if not lethal) proprietary products are considered: wart and nail polish removers; hair sprays; chemicals used in permanents; deodorants; styptic pencils; powerful dandruff preparations, hair coloring chemicals and more.
Now, the basement: weed and insect killers (including such "safe" preparations like BT, rotenone and insecticidal soap, all of which could do great harm to a small child); so-called safe herbicides; detergents and bleach; more drain openers; paint, thinner and petroleum-based solvents; quite possibly a can of gasoline, turpentine or kerosene.
The garage or barn may hide some real danger: larger quantities of insecticides, weed killers, slug bait, fertilizers, lubricants and solvents, very often left unattended, unsecured and easily accessible to adventuresome little fingers. Particularly insidious is the second-hand soda bottle now filled with left-over bug or weed killer, innocently placed on an easily reached shelf without some effective locking mechanism or child-proof cap - or even a label! Who knows, there might even be an old, rusting - perhaps even leaking - container of concentrated DDT, 2,4-D or 2,4,5-T.
As a youngster of 10, I once found a small bottle of "gopher poison" on a shelf in our garage. Its main ingredient: strychnine. Later, as a teenager, I recall purchasing tiny, white strychnine tablets at a local pharmacy. "Sign the book," the pharmacist said. I was 14 years old! Those deadly little pills were intended for rodent control; I have no idea whatsoever why I didn't try one on a pet or myself.
There was even a tin of granular material in our garage which, when placed in a rodent burrow and moistened would expel a lethal gas - cyanide! The stuff could be bought at any farm supply or hardware. I remember feeling a sense of god-like power as I marched around our home orchard and vegetable garden doling out a teaspoonful here, a teaspoonful there. Slug and snail pellets were just as bad! Arsenic.
All this may sound like wild exaggeration. It is not. Let this frightening statistic soak in for a moment: over half of all reported pesticide deaths involve children! Most of those got into incredibly toxic chemicals that should have been meticulously controlled and kept under lock and key but, tragically, were not. And, while I have no actual facts to back up this speculation, I'd be willing to bet that dusty old, inadequately-labeled containers of these potent killers - many of them deteriorated and fragile - are still to be found in cellars, barns, sheds and garages all across the country!
Homeowners, gardeners and farmers take on an awesome responsibility to their families (especially children), neighbors, community and environment when they purchase and use any substance, whether for garden or home, which could pose a threat to life or limb of any person, animal or thing. That responsibility extends to knowledge of safe handling, use, storage, disposal and immediate first aid for an accidental exposure or poisoning. How're you doing?
Giving A Little Back To The Community
As we near the end of this work, our ring of keys is nearly complete. Only another notch or two remains to be filed onto Key #10.
We able-bodied gardeners are a particularly fortunate group. Daily we see the mystique and wondrous beauty of things natural. We enjoy fresh air, the sights and sounds of birds, the gentle dance of butterflies, the scents and textures in our garden treasure chests, marvelous combinations of vibrant color, form and balance. And we drink in all this delicious wealth and abundance until we are filled to the brim.
There are others, however, who, because of health, age or physical - perhaps even emotional or mental - limitations or handicap are denied the therapy inherent in the myriad natural luxuries which we tend to take for granted. For them, a full ring of keys is not enough. They find themselves in the oftentimes-lonely position of relying upon others to share simple, yet wonderful, treasures with them.
Our ring of keys, you should by now grasp, will not be complete until we, as successful, loving, caring, sharing members of our communities, take our wares and talents beyond our own wide-open garden gates and make them a part of the lives of those less active or less able to cope with the physical requirements of gardening.
Our sharing doesn't stop there, however. Schools, youth groups, adult education classes, public gardens and sidewalk flower beds - all of these and more - rely on the tremendous resource resident in every truly successful gardener.
You see, a successful gardener's responsibility is not only to themselves and their families, it extends to their entire community as well. So I call on every reader to take up your now-completed ring of keys and use them over and over again to help others to gain access to the same joys and successes which now, or soon will, spill from your brim-full cup!
|Find your State and County Cooperative Extension Office||Which Maine Hardiness Zone Do I Live In? (.pdf)|
© 10/2007 Hill Gardens of Maine; 107 Route 3, Palermo, Maine 04354. All Rights Reserved. Updated: 08/07/11