Saturday, May 02, 2015

Book Review: Three books for small-space gardeners

A good veggie reference for those who
don't need books with pretty pictures
When you nickname your garden The Microgarden, as I do, one thing is certain: Abundant space is not a feature. 

The first is Karen Newcomb’s The Postage Stamp Vegetable Garden that invites you to grow tons of organic vegetables in tiny spaces and containers. 

This bestseller has already sold a half-million copies, and this edition is completely revised. But in the 40 years since it arrived on the scene, book design has changed. Garden readers who've come to expect splashy pictures, cover to cover, won't find them here. Other than a few spot illustrations, this mainly text. 

On the plus side, the matte paper does invite marginal notations (if, like me, you’re not only a small-space gardener but an inveterate book defacer marginal notator). 

While, Newcomb’s definition of “postage stamp” appears less postage-stampy than mine, she does give sound ideas for squeezing more veggies out of less space. Info on common veg includes her postage-stamp “star” rating on how well each suits small-space growing, and she names more-compact or better-yielding varieties. She also suggests ways to stretch your crops such as by interplanting with other veg or repeat sowings. 

Advice on things like planting by moon phases or double-digging seem to me like vestiges of another age. But Newcomb covers all the vegetable-growing basics. Now I just need more "postage stamps."

Kerry Ann Mendez tells how to create the garden
you can manage with the time and energy you have
If flowers are more your thing, you might like The Right-size Flower Garden by Kerry Ann Mendez, published by St. Lynn's Press. The subhead says: simplify your outdoor space with smart design solutions and plant choices

Simplifying our gardens is a common theme as lives get busier, whether because we ourselves are aging or because our families or jobs require more time than we have to give. Mendez’s own journey began when she – an experienced gardener – had to suddenly downscale her garden due to her husband's accident. 

The pretty pictures we're used to are here in Mendez' book, including befores-and-afters of her own right-sized perennial beds. She also suggests plants for easy care or best use of small space as well as fussy, time-sucking plants to avoid. 

One thing I could wish for would be a cross-referenced index; not just plant names but topics or problem areas. The table of contents lists general categories (I like her "Design solutions for almost autopilot garden"), but while plants for specific purposes are given in different chapters, there’s no easy way to refer back afterwards. Unless you have a good memory or a plentiful supply of Post-Its.

But if you're wondering how to simplify and where to begin, Mendez will talk you through it like a kind friend. And that, as La Martha might say, is a good thing.

A nicely organized compendium
of vertical garden DIY projects
Finally, we have Grow a Living Wall from Cool Springs Press. Author Shawna Coronado writes about creating what she calls “vertical gardens with purpose” such as for pollinators, herbs, veggies, or aromatherapy.

On the picture scale that seems to be happening in this post, this book the most up(ha ha!)wardly mobile; lots of glossy images, including many of Coronado herself. She includes good how-tos with details such as tools you'll need and suggestions for different ways to plant your vertical garden. 

Many of the living wall ideas Coronado presents use commercially available kits that you can modify with different plant material, so there is some repetition. For instance, one vertical wall system from Sage is used four times: with houseplants; as an aromatherapy garden; with cacti; and with succulents. They’re all attractively done, but I wouldn’t necessarily class these as different projects. 

She does have Pinterest-worthy ideas, though. One mounts multiple cone-shaped hanging containers on a wall, rather than suspending them, and plants them with ferns. Another uses coloured glass mason jars, with holes drilled in the base, to create a hanging herb garden for a fence. Very cute and photogenic. There’s also a cool moss living wall project I'd love to try. 

Simple projects include the use of self-watering planters on a recycled bookshelf – quite practical for condo dwellers who have restrictions on what they can attach to balcony walls.

A living wall is the very definition of gardening within a small footprint. If you want to give one a try, this book would be an easy way to begin.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Book Review: The Allergy-Fighting Garden

Not all pollen is alike. Despite its abundance (or in this bee's case perhaps "a-bum-dance"), Thomas Ogren tells us the pollen of Alcea or hollyhock is a low-allergenic pollen. He warns those sensitive not to sniff it, however.
It gets right up your nose. And in your eyes. And down your wheezy throat. Pollen. At this time of year, for allergy sufferers, pollen begins to make itself felt in the worst possible way. 

Well, get out your hankie, dab your runny nose and streaming eyes, and prepare to find help in The Allergy-Fighting Garden by Thomas Leo Ogren from Ten Speed Press.

Ogren's book takes a clever approach to fighting allergies: Become a sexist. Because the pollen-producing parts are the boy bits – yes, that's the botanical term – which some plants separate from the girl bits either on different boy or girl "flowers" or on separate boy or girl plants. So, to be smart about landscaping, keep this in mind.


The cover's double peony is OPALS-rated 1.
One of the strategies Ogren suggests, for example, is to favour plants whose gender produces no pollen problem. Yay, girls! When it comes to your garden, girl plants are allergy-fighting superheroes. Not only do they produce no pollen, they capture the dastardly pollen that's floating around – protecting your delicate membranes from assault. 

Roughly the first 50 pages of Ogren's book lays out his approach in clear, simple detail. He talks about principles of plant selection, and how to use landscaping to reduce the flow of pollen into your private space.

What I really like is his rating system OPALS (the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale), now used by the United States Department of Agriculture or USDA. This scale considers things like how much pollen a plant produces, how hard it is on allergy sufferers, how often the plant produces flowers that might cause allergies, and how the size and weight of the grains impact pollen distribution. OPALS then rates plants on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the least allergenic and 10 being the most.

Birches (Betula) are pollen bad-boys, OPALS-rated 9.
Then Ogren devotes roughly 200 pages to his A to Z listing of these OPALS-rated plants. The least allergenic (rated 1 and 2) get a star, while the most sniff-drip-and-sneeze-producing (9 and 10) are marked with a strike-out symbol. It makes for quick and easy visual reference, as does the pollen calendar in the back.

As a Canadian gardener, my wish is that Ogren were more consistent about giving hardiness zones in his plant index. While he does claim to attempt to do this, it's clear that this is the writing of a warm-climate gardener (he lives in California). A small quibble, though.


In the end, I'm very glad to have this useful book in my garden library. Any garden designer, master gardener, or allergy sufferer should make a bee-line for it in the bookstore.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Gardening can be like a marathon

In winter, I walked past this snowscape on Unwin Avenue (shown through the lens of the Waterlogue app)
Spring and fall are the big work seasons for gardeners. They're also when my other hobby messes up my gardening life. I'm a power-walker. Since 2003, I've averaged 3.27 half marathons a year, in spring and/or fall. So when others are planting or raking, I'm likely training for a race, too.

Though some power-walkers, like my husband Mr. TG, are freakishly fast, we aren't like runners. We cover the same 21 km or 13.1 miles as they do; it just takes us longer. You might say we're the true endurance athletes, and we have time to think. Like about the similarity between my two "sports".

In both cases, you need to put in the miles. In both, you'll sometimes hit the wall. Persistence wins.

In spring, you might find us training on the Leslie Street Spit. I'm often way at the back, looking at plants and taking pictures – and staring aghast at invasive species.
One of our favourite walking destinations in any season – a summer turnaround at Rosetta McClain Gardens in the Bluffs
Fall training might take us through the grasses at Woodbine Park. They look great in winter, too.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Scarification and other life lessons

Glorious sweet peas – wish our blog had smell-o-vision.
Some seeds, like sweet peas, must be nicked or scratched to help them germinate. That's called scarification. Other seeds need to be subjected to long periods of cold; even frozen. Stratified, in horticultural terms. For others, fire is as necessary to the seed as food and water will be later to the growing plant. Perhaps someone can tell me the word for that.

Right now, I'm feeling a little nicked and scratched; perhaps somewhere between ice and fire. Like those warm October days last year that straddled summer and fall, or 2015's never-ending winter-cum-spring, I feel poised between two states, neither one nor the other.

A well-planned garden will withstand a certain amount of neglect. Mine, while a little overgrown, still gets positive comments from passing neighbours. Even when all I see are the weeds, the plants that need hacking back and the 'Autumn Joy' sedum planted in the wrong spot.

But what about the gardener? At the moment, I'm focussing on the benefits of being scratched and dented. Muscles tear with exercise and heal stronger; tree trunks gain strength from buffeting winds.

And spring does come again, all present evidence to the contrary. What life lessons have you learned from your garden? Spread a few seeds here…

Thursday, April 09, 2015

My hoya blooms for the first time in 30 years

A gardener sometimes needs faith. And, often, persistence. Hoya carnosa in bloom.
Celebrate, hoyoo, hoyay! After much anticipation, my barbecued hoya is blooming for the very first time. No one could be more pleased…or surprised. Perhaps if I'd read this from the International Hoya Association, that headline might have been written 30 years ago (albeit, not on this blog).

Whatever I did right (and who's to know where barbecuing falls into that process?), I'm happy to say that hoyas not only have very nice foliage, they have cool buds and flowers, too. You can tell they're members of the dogbane family, with a flower structure similar to distant cousins milkweed (yay!) and dog-strangling vine (a very big boo!). I've been told their scent is heavenly, but I find it mild.

A small victory, but something to sustain hope during this never-ending Wintpring 2015.

Waxy, button-shaped buds (the reason for the common name "wax plant") pop open to reveal star-shaped florets. The flowers develop on unpromising-looking flower spurs – at first, they seemed like tiny clusters of brown bristles. Flowers will rebloom – fingers crossed – on the same spurs, year after year. 
I was surprised at how fuzzy the petals are inside. Like fine velvet. They naturally produce a nectar from the central corolla, which some tell me is drippy. No sign of that here, yet.