This weekend we spent a lot of time in our garden. It was not exactly planned but the bare root plants I ordered last spring suddenly arrived and had to be put in the ground within 2 days. So, we reordered our plans and cleaned up the back garden. I wanted to share with you some of the experience.
Today’s post will have only a tenuous connection to this month’s theme of communications but an interesting one. Manual labor has a funny way of giving you time to think. As I was pulling weeds, scooping compost and planting, I was thinking about how a large number of the best gardeners in the world likely don’t use the Internet at all. Since gardening is part art and part science and rewards experience, many excellent gardeners are older and may have no interest learning the Internet. Other gardeners may be younger but due to the physical labor and literal dirt involved in their day-to-day activities, accessing a smart phone to check email, Facebook and Twitter on a regular basis is mostly impossible.
Many sources of gardening information typically offer a paper/mailed version in addition to electronic versions. Catalogs, magazines, newspapers and newsletters are still staples in the gardening world. There is a lot of fantastic gardening information on the Internet, however, and if you like to buy exotic plants, the Internet is a shopping goldmine. For my gardening project, I got a lot of great information from gardening websites and instructional YouTube videos.
Fall is the time to pay it forward in your yard and garden. If you want green grass in the spring, fall is the time to aerate, fertilize and overseed according to this article from Joel Lerner in The Washington Post. Similarly, now is the time to plant bulbs and seeds for spring growth . . . or, in my case, bare root plants.
After reading/writing the Ruly posts this spring from Washington Gardener editor Kathy Jentz on zero lawn landscaping and James Wong’s Grow Your Own Drugs, I was inspired to seek out more native plants for my own garden. I joined the Virginia Native Plant Society to learn more about Virginia plants–most of which you will never see in a local garden center. (Interestingly, the Virginia Native Plant Society does all communications by postal mail, although they do have a website.)
After some research, I found an online seller of plants native to Virginia. Although it is a bit odd that my “native” plants come to me by way of Vermont, I understand that some native plants have a broad geographic range. The plants were only available in bare root form.
The roots arrived in the mail last weekend with few instructions or information. The roots were packed in little plastic sacks along with some shredded moistened newspaper. The Internet was a huge help here. I researched each plant and found great information about each one. I also found some information (but not a lot) about working with bare root plants.
One site recommended taking the roots out of the sacks and putting them in room temperature water for 2 hours before planting. This made a lot of sense to me since the plants had been in the mail for a week and were probably a bit parched.
While the roots soaked, we prepared the garden beds. Without constant attention, the natural woods take over our back garden. It was getting to be quite a jungle and I pulled out tons of weeds and pruned overgrown trees and bushes. We dug out “the vine that ate Fredericksburg” that literally was sending out 30-40 foot stems in every direction, was wrapping around my lawn furniture and generally taking over.
After clearing the beds, I started to dig a hole for the first set of roots and found the clay soil incredibly hard (as usual). With the number of plants we had to put in, I realized there was no way to chip out enough holes to finish in a day. The Internet to the rescue, I found a great video featuring a man tilling soil on his farm with a machine. “That’s what I need!” I thought. “Do they make one small enough for gardens?” After some more research, we learned the answer is yes! Small garden tillers are called “cultivators” and one of the most popular brands is Mantis.
The cultivator in action.
These machines basically have numerous spiked blades that cut through the soil and chop it up into little pieces. You can then mix in compost or soil conditioner and till it all together to make a nice light soil that is easy to dig. It took quite a few phone calls but we finally found a local store to rent a cultivator from for the day.
The cultivator was relatively lightweight and easy to operate but it did take quite a bit of body strength to maneuver. I did a little bit but then turned the task over to my husband. What a difference the cultivator made! Planting is actually pleasant when the soil is easy to dig! We both wondered why we had never thought of this before.
Planting was fun but not altogether easy. With bare root plants the big challenge for the novice gardener is “Which end is up?” Some of the roots came with greenery attached making this decision much easier but some were just roots. If it was too hard to tell up from down, the root went into the ground sideways.
What did I plant? Some really fun things! Native plants have some great stories to go along with them and are far more interesting than the standard garden center fare.
The Turk’s Cap Lilly, Lilium superbum, is a beautiful orange speckled flower that blooms in summer and is distinctive for petals that fold backwards into a turban-like shape. The bare root for this plant was a bit hard to decipher up from down so I put it in the ground sideways.
Creeping wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens, is another native plant. It gets bright red berries in summer and the leaves can be used to distill essential flavoring oils, similar to those used in chewing gum and medicines like Pepto Bismol.
Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis, apparently has such beautiful bright red blooms it is frequently picked and rare to find in the wild. These plants like to be constantly wet so I put them in a large container that we can drown with water whenever necessary.
Black Cohosh, Actaea racemosa, also known as “Bugbane” is supposedly a natural insect repellant–although many people have commented that bees like the flowers. It apparently has a strong smell that some people find unpleasant. I hope we don’t have to pull out a bunch of stinky plants next year but if it can reduce our insects by even a fraction the smell would be worth it! Black cohosh apparently has natural estrogen-like properties and was used by Native Americans in various healing remedies for women. Black cohosh tea is being investigated as a possible treatment for the symptoms of menopause.
Spiderwort, Tradescantia subaspera, is an interesting small purple flower that was once used to cure spider bites. Today, it is used as a natural environmental sensor. When exposed to severe pollutants or radiation, the flowers change color from blue to pink.
Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, is a fascinating and dangerous plant! It’s name comes from the red “blood-like” color of the root of the plant and some say that when you cut the plant it “bleeds.” It is one of the first flowers in the spring. It is also extremely poisonous! The plants contain sanguinarine which kills animal cells. Some natural healers make a potion called “black salve” from bloodroot which is supposed to burn off skin cancers or cure gangrene. Due to its poisonous nature, it is a deer-proof plant. Fortunately, I researched the poisonous nature of the plant before I handled it. I wore gloves and washed my hands after planting.
My drinking straw garden.
The downside of bare root gardening is that you don’t have much to show for your efforts afterward. Since I couldn’t even see where I had planted, I marked each root location with a plastic drinking straw (until I can think of something more appropriate). It makes it easier to ensure that I have watered each plant and will help me decipher whether something is a weed or growth from the root I planted.
I won’t know until spring whether the roots will take or if I will have just a graveyard of drinking straws to contend with. Until then, we are watering regularly and hoping for the best.
Are you working in your garden this month? What projects do you have planned? Please share in the comments.