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old gardening wisdom

At some point in history, probably not too far back, people didn’t have the ridiculous range of choices from all kinds of nurseries in terms of ready-to-plant flowers and vegetables. They started it all on their own. My grandmother loved bulbs of all kinds, and she always had a massive carpet of wildly arranged snapdragons underneath her grand oak trees all summer long. I’m sure she planted those snapdragons herself from seed. She didn’t have some big set-up. She might have had a little glasshouse, but no lights and expensive seedstarting flats. No exact recipe to her soil. No polymers or seaweed sprays. Most probably were sown outside right in the ground.

For an urban person like myself, starting from scratch is a little intimidating at first. I didn’t learn anything about planting or gardening from my mother. I know she gardened, because she was always canning stuff every fall… peas, corn, tomatoes. But I don’t ever remember digging anything as a child. I remember the rows of corn on my grandfather’s farm but I don’t ever remember being told how they got there.

Such is the case with a lot of people, especially urbanites, of my generation. So much of the tradition of passed-on wisdom of farming and gardening has disappeared. After my grandfather’s generation, most people no longer had to farm out of necessity. My husband’s grandparents worked in tobacco and cotton fields. In our generation gardening is now mostly just a pleasure or leisure activity and not a profession–and just like many of the things our grandmother’s did–sewing, gardening, house-building–we are having to learn all the basics on our own.

And one of the things you find out real quick is that there are a lot of experts offering gardening information, but most of the experts didn’t become that way from traditional know-how, in having grown up on a farm. My friend in North Carolina grew up on a farm and tends his 5-acre country land with all kinds of vegetables, flowers and herbs. He has a lot of that kind of know-how, rare for our generation, but he’d never put it in a book (or read it in a book). From his experience, one just learns by doing it.

He once told me he thought “organic gardening” was a funny idea to him. All the things that are being “invented” as best gardening practices are old techniques he did every day as a kid, that all the country people just knew. He laughed in his North Carolina drawl, “They put all these fancy names on it like ‘organic’, but people, it’s called FARMING!”

My grandfather’s farm had so many barns with stuff… manure, grain, one barn filled to the top with hay that he baled himself for horses. I’m sure he had all kinds of compost too–it wasn’t a science to him and he didn’t read a book about it. And I’m also sure he never used chemicals. He was descended from Appalachian country people. All you needed was your John Deere and a big old tiller trailing behind it.

My friend is right. The popularity of organic farming, do-it-yourself composting, ‘heirloom’ seed collecting, native-plant gardening and old tricks like growing onions to fend off bad bugs are not new things. Once people had no choice but to do these things, but now they have been re-framed by a whole generation that is nostalgic for something they never learned. Along with that also comes a little bit of idealism and a lot of seriousness about one’s expertise (especially when they had to learn it on their own).

I learned this the hard way when I posted a question about fertilizers and lawns on a popular organic farming discussion group. The responses I got back were so overwhelmingly presumptuous about my lack of knowledge and also a bit punishing about the things I did ‘wrong’. I vowed never again to ask questions on the internet (as I find the internet encourages all these little dispersed dominions of emphatic, personal authority).

I am not an authority, but I relish old gardening wisdom when I find it. Now and then someone shares something with you that is a little secret nugget of gardening wisdom. This person knows things, but they do not pronounce that they know them. Usually they are much older people, and they have a lot less to prove. But you have to ask for it.


Sad to say, for the time being my bougainvillea adventures have come to an end. Every spring, the nurseries are overflowing with these lovely Central American beauties. They are the essence of Mexico… where they grow like mad and hang over awnings and buildings with their bright splash of color. Read more

resist the urge to sow them all

Going on my successful wildflower seed planting last fall, I’ve decided to try my hand at other flower seeds… and vegetables, and herb seeds. In fact, I have so many seeds I’m embarrassed to admit how much of my refrigerator they are starting to fill up. (I bought this cool tupperware-like seed storage bin at Kew Gardens in London last spring; it was made for beginner seed-collectors and includes stuff for drying seeds.)

I’m sure all beginners (and experts) go crazy with seeds. I mean, how can you not stop at the seed rack and think, ‘ooh I should try that variety’ especially with the cool illustrations and sometimes lavish descriptions of the seed inside. My first big mistake started last spring when so many purple coneflowers germinated that I pulled most of them out and transplanted them into small plastic containers, in order to give room for the bigger plants to grow. The idea was to save as many as possible–maybe give some away, maybe move others to another bed.

I’m discovering I have this same ‘save it all’ energy when it comes to sprouting seeds in my house. This is my first fall growing seeds indoors. I’ve already started several flats and am using up all the available light. The problem is, out of my five flats, three are taken up by just one flower. I sowed the whole packet and now I’m scrambling around trying to delicately move each sprout into its own container. Now where am I going to put all these seedlings!

I bet I’m not the only one who doesn’t have the ruthless heart to sacrifice any of these precious seedlings. I want to conserve every piece of success I have, but despite myself all the advice says to kill off the weak ones, thin out and throw away, so that plants don’t compete for space.

Either way, anyone who is willing to bother to raise plants from seed (and harvest seeds as well) already has a conserving heart so I figure that I have to conserve elsewhere. Note to self: don’t sow the whole packet in one shot. Save the seeds instead. Most seeds save for awhile, at least a year.

So what are these little seedlings?

“Dwarf Ten Week” Stock (Matthiola incarna) take up the three flats. I don’t know if I’m sowing them at the right time of year, but I’ve discovered that planting many early-spring flowering plants in fall gives them a good start and healthy growth in spring here in Austin. Even with wildflowers, my best bluebonnets and poppies were already fairly good-size plants in October. They stood still in our short winter and then took off as soon as things warmed. Bluebonnets that germinated in spring, still grew and bloomed but late and only for a short period.

The other flats include varieties of Dianthus, my latest obsession. All of them are fragrant varieties–Sweet William, Cottage Pinks, and China Pinks. I’ll save ranting about my new romance with Dianthus for another day.

fall has sprung

For many Texas gardeners, I suppose fall is like a second spring. It lasts long and has the mild weather that many ‘spring’ plants love. My husband and I spend a good portion of our summers abroad and so I usually come back surprised to see what’s made it and what hasn’t. Summer here is a beast, and leaving my plants to its beat-down heat and sometimes drought for an extended period involves a lot of trust (both of the friends who water and watch out for things and trust in the weather).

This year couldn’t have been any different from last summer. Obviously it rained, sometimes too much. Things look overgrown and stringy… many many bugs, and lots of rusty moldy looking stuff. Sometimes extreme wet heat is worse than dry heat. Last year so many things died from the heat and drought I was forced to reconsider what I wanted out of my garden. I wandered around my neighborhood when I first got back last week, looking at the plants in people’s yards that survived. Cosmos, zinnia… and a yellow trumpet flower bush I can’t remember the name of right now. So I know I’m not alone even as a new gardener. “Stringy” is the look everywhere. There’s just not much you can do.

But in any case the nice thing about leaving and coming back is that I don’t have to deal with ‘garden-itch’ all summer long–looking outdoors, wanting to plant. When I arrived back home last week, it was already time to start ordering bulbs, plotting new plants, starting vegetables etc.

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