March 30, 2019

There's a Hole in My Lilac Bush (Dear Liza)

This was May of last year. It seems very far away right now! 6 more weeks, though. Yay!

Before the 6” of snow that we got last night and today, I actually had some time this week to get a few more of my spring chores done! One that has been on my list ever since we moved here was to get the lilac bush pruned. It is right in front, between the driveway and the…gravel place where my husband parks his truck. (Would that be the second driveway?) It is big and bushy and very hard to see past when you’re backing out of either driveway.

Besides, several of the branches looked pretty bad at the base, and were only producing flowers at the top ends. This brings me to the timing of my pruning job. Normally, you would wait to prune a lilac bush until the end of June—soon after it has finished blooming. That’s because lilacs form blossoms on current year growth. In other words, the flowers blooming this spring were formed last summer. So if you go about cutting off branches right now, you are depriving yourself of blossoms here in another month or so. However, I was doing what some call a “rejuvenation pruning;” essentially—taking out older wood to allow room for new growth. In order to do that, I needed to be able to see what I was doing! It was therefore quite helpful to do it now before any leaves unfurl to block my view!

The basics of rejuvenation pruning

Start with a flowering shrub that has grown long and leggy, has a lot of dead branches interspersed, and/or doesn’t produce many flowers anymore.

Each year cut 1/3 of older growth all the way down to the ground.

In 3 years your shrub will be brand new! (It will look much better in the meantime, too!)

** This works with lilacs, forsythias, spirea, mockorange, and probably others. Those are the ones I have done it on myself.

So that’s what I did. Except I probably took more like 1/2 of the bigger branches all in one go. I also had to lop off several of the smaller, newer ones as well, because they were growing so close to the oldies that I couldn’t even get my saw in there without cutting them off at the same time.

Sing it with me now: “There’s a hole in my lilac bush, dear Liza, dear Liza, there’s a hole in my lilac bush, dear Liza, there’s a hole.”

So yeah. There’s a pretty big hole right smack in the middle of the bush now. However, it looks the worst from this side—driveway view. Front or back views aren’t so bad! Besides, it feels so darn good to get those big lunkers out of there! Every single one of them was either diseased or causing problems with the younger, healthier branches.

There are 3 or 4 more along that right side that I wanted to chop pretty badly, but I’m making myself wait. They’ll go next spring for sure, though!

My handy-dandy folding pruning saw was a lifesaver for this project!

 No loppers big enough for these guys!

I will be interested to see effect this pruning job has my lilac display this year. Even if it drastically reduces the blossoms, however, I am okay with that, because I know that next year will be 10x better!

I read something the other day that said you should prune out any lilac branches bigger around than your thumb. Well, as you can see, these fellows were more like as big around as my arm!

Glad I got this chore done before the snow. Once it all melts off again, I am chomping at the bit to get my flowerbeds all cleaned out, weeded, mulched, and ready for the growing season ahead. 

March 23, 2019

Seed Starting, Soil Test Results, and Business Updates


YAY! It’s officially spring! Cue Mother Nature’s crazy mood swings! Over this past week, we’ve had everything from beautiful sunny days to snow on the ground. Again! On one of the nicer days I was able to get a bit of work done outside. I managed to do some weeding, and sow dill and chamomile seeds. Hey, I even noticed some of my California poppies had germinated! Woohoo! So in that case, the snow was a good thing this morning. (I suppose. Sigh.) It watered all my seeds for me.

Speaking of seed starting, it’s time to do the next round! I got some peat moss—finally!—and have everything else to make a mix for soil blocking. If you are unfamiliar with that method, rather than using plastic trays or peat pellets to plant your seeds into, you mix up some very wet soil and pack into metal forms. When you push the plunger, soil blocks are formed. Each has a depression in the top for the seed. The ones I want to use this year are tiny—3/4” square is all. However, I took a seed starting course from Lisa Ziegler—flower farmer and author extraordinaire—and that’s what she uses for nearly everything.

I remembered to take a picture at the last minute!

Just today I got my snapdragons sown into the soil blocks, as well as the rest of my carnations. I also got some gladiolus planted, in a tub. My son drilled drainage holes all around the bottom of it first. Gladiolus are yet another type of bulb that can’t stand our winters, so will need to be lifted out and stored. I’m not a big fan of that. In a tub, I can just let the whole thing dry out and put it in the garage or something over the winter. At least, that’s the plan!



I received the results of my basic soil test. My soil PH is 7.5, which is alkaline—not a surprise for this area. I learned that raspberries tend to like a lower PH, of 6.0-7.0, so I’m planning to mulch the raspberry row with pine needles and see if that helps them thrive a bit more. Pine needles are acidic, so I’m hoping that does the trick. They have really struggled!

My Phosphorus levels were listed as “very high” and Potassium as “high.” Salinity normal. So, from what I looked at, high phosphorus levels usually mean to much manure used on the garden. I think we did use composted steer manure last year. Other than not using that again, I’m still not exactly sure what to do about that reading.

I plan to order soil amendments soon. I need them here, so I can get them spread on the garden and then at the first break in the weather—Till, Baby, Till! In related news, it’s supposed to rain and snow all weekend. So I may need to pinch back my sweet peas again to last under the lights until I can finally get them outside.

The Other

It has been a great week with the business side of things. I finally got some business cards designed and ordered. For some reason, this has been a long, slightly overwhelming process for me, but I finally got ‘er done! Part of it was some advice from my brother, who is also an entrepreneur. He told me that it doesn’t have to be The One and Perfect Card from the get-go. Get something made, and order a lower amount (I got 250), knowing that as my business evolves, my business card will too. It was the kick in the pants I needed to move forward with it.

I also attended a free business class put on by our Small Business Development Center here in town. It was all about “Planning for Growth.” One big take-away for me was to have a 3 year and 5 year plan and be very specific. You want a new workspace? Great! How many square feet? What color will the carpet be? Put specific numbers to your plan, otherwise it’s just a wish.

Another thing I’m excited about is my email newsletter: Bluebird News! I chose an email marketing site, and have started building my subscriber list. Yay! I have so much I would love to share with you all! Bluebird News will go out every 2 weeks, and will include tips for growing, harvesting, and arranging cut flowers. I published the first issue this week and am already working on the next!

* * * * * * 

On the home front, we’ve had the stomach flu going around. My 6 year old came down with it yesterday. So far me and my oldest are the only ones unscathed. Crossing my fingers that it stays that way!

So, how has your week been? Has spring truly sprung in your neck of the woods?

March 16, 2019

Have You Planted Your Peas Yet?


There are some people I have talked to who insist that St. Patrick’s Day is the day to plant peas. No matter the weather, the condition of the soil, or the condition of the gardener. You get them in on March 17! I will admit to being a bit less fanatic in my pea-planting views. You see, I have also read that if you stick those peas in the ground when the soil is still very cold, it can take them up to a month to germinate and grow! On the other hand, if you just wait a bit longer—say—early April, when the soil has warmed up a bit, they will germinate within 10-14 days. So the later planting tends to catch up to the earlier anyway.

I am hoping that is truly the case, because my garden is not ready for any type of planting just yet! I failed to get a soil test done last year, and I paid the price for my impatience! Soil fertility was very patchy last year. Even though we tilled in a goodly amount of composted steer manure, some things did great (sweetmeat squash, tomatoes) and others didn’t do well at all (beans, cucumbers.)

Garden takeover by the sweetmeat squash. That’s my oldest there in the middle of the jungle.

So this year I knew that I had to get a soil test. At the very least I need a baseline to go from in my soil amending.

It just so happens that I dug all my somewhat-evenly-spaced holes all over the garden, as directed, took a slice out of the side of the hole, and put only the middle section of each slice in a bucket, and stirred. As directed. After all that, they really only want 2 cups worth of soil. I sure hope I stirred it up well enough to get a decent reading on what’s going on! Also, I hope no-one falls into one of my holes in the garden before I get them filled back in. I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Got it sent off. Done! Check it off!

Then I realized—it’s March 17 tomorrow. I’m behind schedule! My sweet peas are getting leggy (I’ve already pinched them once) under the lights, and it is really time to get this show on the road! Except now I’m waiting for soil test results, and then I will order the amendments, and buy the supports, and you know—do a lot of shoveling and tilling and such. THEN I can get my “plant in early spring” stuff put in.

Can you see why I went ahead with the poppies last week? I’m probably a good 2 weeks out as it is with all this other stuff. I will still sow seeds that won’t go into the garden proper, while I’m waiting. I want dill along the fence, between the peonies, and chamomile around the base of one of my peach trees. Yes, there will be plenty to do between now and then. Here’s hoping my sweet peas survive inside that long!

By the way, you do know what I’m talking about when I say “sweet peas,” right? The flower, not the sugar snap edible peas. Please don’t ever eat any part of the sweet pea vine—it’s a bit toxic, so I’ve heard. Even though they’re not the same thing, they seem to like the same kind of weather—cool to cold.

What about you? Are you a die-hard March 17 pea planter, or do you wait until a few more weeks?

This fine patch of peas grew in my Washington garden. These are the edible kind, in case you hadn’t figured that one out already!

March 9, 2019

Poppies are In!


This one grew in my Washington garden.

I’m actually a little surprised that I got this done this week! Monday and Tuesday were beautiful early spring days—mid-40’s, sunny, dry (dead) grass to walk on. Perfect! I decided where I wanted to plant my poppies and got the ground weeded, raked, big rocks removed. My plan was to then sow the seeds Wednesday.

Never enough poppies!

Then it snowed Wednesday. And again Thursday. Oh yep, also Friday. Friday was more sleeting—what they like to call a “wintery mix.” Blah! Woke up this morning to more snow on the ground. Another inch or two. Sigh. Looked like my plans of poppy planting were getting pushed to next week.

This afternoon, the whole story changed! The snow all melted off. The sun came out. It was once again, a beautiful early-spring day. Well, you’d better believe I got my mud boots on and got out there!

California poppies are actually their own species. I planted 2 varieties in my poppy row anyway!

I have never had great success growing poppies from seed. Then recently I learned from the incomparable Lisa Ziegler that poppies are COOL flowers. That means, friends, that all those seed packets I had telling me to wait to sow them until after the last frost were wrong! They like it cool to cold, as a matter of fact. Other experienced gardeners have since told me that they sow their poppy seeds anytime from February on—just as soon as the snow melts and bare ground appears, get them in! In fact, one intrepid gardener in Chicago tosses his seeds onto the snow—with a warning that they will move a couple of feet with the snow melt!

I went a little crazy buying poppy seeds this year, so I had quite a few to get in. Oh, the other tip I learned was to mix the seed with sand or sugar, since they’re so tiny and grow to be so large. The ratio I did was 1/4 tsp to 3/4 C. sugar—or so. Once they grow I will thin them out to be spaced 9-12” apart. I put them in 2 long rows about 6 inches apart, at the one end of my garden area.

I let the chickens out after I had them sown and I was a little worried they would be curious about the white stuff on the ground and go scratch it up! They didn’t even seem to notice it. Are chickens color blind? Hmm…a post for another day, perhaps.

So, when it comes to cut flowers, poppies are notoriously short-lived in the vase. You can get a little more vase life out of them by searing the stems soon after cutting—either with a flame or in boiling water for 7-10 seconds. Even so, you’re looking at 3-5 days, probably, tops. So, that makes them great for event work, where they really only have to look pretty for the one day, or just to enjoy on your table.

Aren’t they pretty? These are dried, but they are just as beautiful when they’re green.

I’m just as excited about the seed pods, actually. I love the way they look! I’m planning to use them in boutonniers and arrangements. The seed pods last a long time in the vase, as you might imagine!

One more poppy picture from my Washington garden.

March 2, 2019

The Truth About Organic Gardening, by Jeff Gillman


The Truth About Organic Gardening, by Jeff Gillman

5 stars

A fair and open-minded look at the various methods for controlling weeds and pests in the garden.

I found this to be a very clear-eyed look at what we’re putting on our soil and plants. From the title, you might think this book is some sort of expose on organic gardening practices. That is not the case. Gillman is a big proponent of organic methods. However, not all organic practices a) actually work, or b) are harmless to the environment. While many of the synthetic products work very well, there are generally big drawbacks when it comes to how they effect the ecosystems in which we live.

Gillman is (or was—it’s 11 years old) an associate professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. All of that to say that he has had experience either using or studying all of the products and methods he covers in this book. In the book, he goes through several types of weed and pest control methods, and as the subtitle suggests, comes up with benefits, drawbacks, and a bottom line for each. He discusses what each is made of, how effective they are at what they claim to do, and the effect they might have on beneficial plants, bugs, and the health of the soil. He backs up what he says with research. He even includes several methods that would fall into the realm of “old wives tales.”

I would call myself MOSTLY an organic gardener. As a general rule, I reach first for my weeding fork and gloves when confronted with problems in my flowerbeds. I am a fan of compost and mulch. I don’t want to worry about my kiddos getting poisoned from playing on the lawn or eating unwashed vegetables out of our garden.

However, there are some situations where I am ready to admit defeat! My back corner flowerbed is so full of bindweed that it’s about to choke out everything else. I weeded that bed so many times last summer! (Bindweed laughs at weeding. It THRIVES on weeding!) Every time I planted something back there, I sifted through the dirt to get out every tiny scrap of bindweed root I could find. It helped—in that one spot—for about 3 weeks. Then the bindweed was back, bigger and bushier than ever.

In other situations, I have removed everything I wanted to save from a flowerbed, dug out all the weeds, and then put all my good stuff back in. That’s not going to work with bindweed. It’s roots can go down 10 feet. ANY piece of root that gets left in the ground can grow a new vine. If you let it flower and go to seed, good luck to you. I admit, I’m feeling rather desperate. Letting the bindweed win is not an option! I don’t have the time in the summer to weed that flowerbed on a bi-weekly basis to stay on top of it.

So what’s a mostly organic gardener to do? If I go over to the Dark Side and pick up that RoundUp bottle, how bad is it going to be? This is such a hot-button issue these days, that it’s difficult to get advice from other people without stirring up a big argument. It can be hard to sift through passionate opinions to get to facts.

This is the point where I got out this book. Gillman spells it out. You have to be very careful in its application (I knew that), because it kills ANY plant it touches. However, used sparingly and in accordance with the directions, it’s a lesser evil in the world of weed killers. It is very effective. Residues stay in the soil for about 3 weeks.

Really, I think I can live with that. I plan to either put it on a sponge (wearing gloves, of course), and give each weed the swipe of death, or pull the bindweed up into a cut-off milk jug to spray it, in hopes of limiting the overspray.

While I had the book out, I also looked up neem oil (helpful for aphids on fruit trees) and the entire section on keeping out deer. Reading those chapters helped me remember to add “dormant oil” to my business shopping list, so there you go. Winner.

This is one I’m glad I have on my shelf at home as a reference.