Garden Diary - July 2003

Weeds Redux

What a year for weeds! It is always a race to try and keep ahead of them, but this year it was a losing proposition right from the start. A friend claims that if you can get the garden weed-free by the Glorious Fourth (July 4th), you can coast for the rest of the summer. The spring was week after week of cool rainy weather. When summer temperatures arrived the weeds were primed to grow, and I fell seriously behind. By now I have touch-me-not, Impatiens capensis, that are almost large enough to be cut down with a chainsaw. And that's my husband's simple taxonomic criteria for plants: you can't cut grass with a chainsaw. It places annuals, perennials, bulbs and such into the "grass" category. At 6 feet tall, the touch-me-not, also known as jewel weed, is verging on "not-grass."

In a way, touch-me-not is a friendly weed. Even the biggest ones are easy to pull from the ground. And, with their juicy stems, they wilt very quickly, never to revive. One bright sunny day I pulled a mass of them in an area around some forsythia, and just dropped them on the ground around the shrubs. What with the sunshine, breezes, and low humidity the touch-me-not quickly wilted into a green mulch. I would never try this with garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, which would revive come nightfall.

As I've said before, some weeds need to be bagged and put out with the trash. Garlic mustard for sure, and I also put beggars ticks out for collection. I don't know the Latin name for beggars ticks. It is a woodland plant, with a terminal cluster of tiny white flowers in July, which quickly mature to little green spheres coated with Velcro. They stick to the cats' fur, my socks and blue jeans - happily availing themselves of such hosts and their ambulatory locomotion for distribution to new locations. And as if that were not enough, when I pull them up there are long white strings of horizontal roots, clearly intending to pop up elsewhere. No, beggars ticks is another I do not trust in the compost heap once the weeds have begun to set seed.

Crown vetch is another weed I keep under close observation in order to catch it before the seed is ripe. Popular with highway departments whose crews sow it on steep roadsides to prevent erosion, it was used for the same purpose on the bank behind our house. Lengthy stems flop on the ground, mingle with perennials, scrabble up into shrubs, all for the purpose of displaying the clusters of small, pink, pea-like flowers to passing pollinators. The other day I pulled huge amounts, rolling them up and pitching the bundles down to the lawn. When collected, I had a heaping garden cart full of the stuff. While many pieces broke off at the soil surface, leaving their roots behind to regrow, at least I had the seed clusters while still green and immature, before they had shed. What to do with the stuff? I did not want it in the compost heap, and besides, there was too much of it. I briefly contemplated taking it up into the woods, and dumping it in the erosion ditch that I'm slowly healing with brush and punky logs. However, even though crown vetch is a sun-lover, I decided that was a risky proposition. Then the "Eureka!" inspiration struck, and I wheeled the cart down the driveway, across the road, and tossed it into my neighbor's sheep pasture - after first asking if this was O.K. It was a win/ win situation - the sheep were happy and I was too.

As you might have gathered, when I taught the BelleWood Gardening School class on "Coping with Weeds" there was ample material for the students to practice on. They got to try out various hand tools from small picks to two-prong forks and curved claw scratcher/ weeders. I have both a long shafted and hand version of the Circlehoe, an easy-to-use, very practical version of a hoe with - what else? - a circular head that allows you to get very close to desirable plants while still removing weeds. It was so popular that I know at least two of the students ordered a set for their own gardens. If it sounds like one would be useful in your garden, you can reach the company e-mail Circlehoe, or telephone them, toll-free, at 800/ 735-4815. For woody weeds we tried out my Weed Wrench, a handy-dandy tool for yanking shrubs and small trees right out of the ground, roots and all. What's more, not only is it easy, it's fun - take that you inconvenient box elder!

One problem I find when I get involved in a lengthy weeding session is the up and down, make that down and up. It's not the getting down I find to be a problem, it is the getting back up from squatting or kneeling. The Weed Wrench folks also sell a handy one-legged Toad Stool, just right for carrying out to the garden where you can plunk it down, sit, and weed at your ease. It was also popular with my students. You can e-mail Weed Wrench, or telephone them toll-free at 866/ 223-3371. Both companies are in Oregon so keep that in mind if you telephone for more information.

Re-Tiring in the Garden

If you have read other BelleWood Garden diary entries, you've figured out that I garden on a hillside. The intermittent drainage creek - wetter and a better flow in spring than in summer - is at the lowest point of the property. The driveway serves as my main thoroughfare to the toolshed and our house. In addition, I'd like to have a mean of getting up to the Forest Deck. Without, that is, scrabbling up the steep slope made slipperier by fallen leaves. Steps. I need a set of steps. Probably, given the distance from bottom to top, with a minimum of two switchbacks (zig-zags, if you prefer.) Wooden steps would take a lot of lumber, with all the necessary measuring, sawing, and screwing the pieces together. For environmental reasons I'm cautious about pressure-treated wood, and equally concerned about using rot-resistant redwood or cypress. This project will be done using an eco-friendly, recycling material. I'm going to use tires. Stop and think a minute before you gasp in shock and dismay.

Used tires abound. You have to pay to get rid of them. Abandoned tires collect rain water, providing pools in which mosquitoes breed. And West Nile virus is ever more of a concern. So finding a way to use old tires is a good idea. Tires have a lot to reccommend them from a construction point of view, since they are durable and rot-resistant. And, they are free. My garage mechanic is happy to provide me with old tires, since it means they don't have to deal with their disposal. If you are concerned about health and/ or environmental hazards, relax. Studies have shown that there are minute traces of heavy metals in the rubber, they are so tigltly bound into the rubber that they are not released into the soil. This makes tires much safer than pressure-treated lumber.

I've been making tire planters for years. For these, you need a tire on its rim in order to create a graceful urn. First, pull out the valve stem or otherwise release any pressure left inside the tire. You will be cutting in the sidewall area, not in the tread portion of the tire. Make an initial hole on the valve-stem side, using an awl or electric drill. I cut free-hand, in a zig-zag pattern, using a serrated Ginsu-type kitchen knife. If you prefer, mark out the pattern first with a China marking pencil. Another design option is to use a soup can as a template, to mark scallops rather than pointy zig-zags. Once you have cut all the way around, the fun begins. The tire now must be turned inside out, and it is what I imagine wrestling with an anaconda must be like. The tire wants to stay in its original orientation, and you want to get it inside out.

Stand the tire up on the tread. Get both hands into the cut at the top of the tire, and, while pulling towards yourself, bash your knee into the sidewall hard enough to dent it. Pull along the cut, as hard as you can. Pulling the side wall is not too hard. It is reversing the curve on the tread portion that is difficult. Once you get it started, it will try and flip back. Have a friend help you, by holding the successfully reversed portion while you further work along the cut. The last little bit seems the hardest, since the tire will still, at this point, spring back into its original shape. Persevere. The moment will come when the tire conceeds defeat and accepts its new configuration. You now have a lovely urn with a gracefully curved rim, the metal wheel rim as a pedestal, and a narrow ground-level skirt from the piece of sidewall left attached to the rim.

Should you happen to cut from the side opposite to the valve stem, the rim will stand up inside the tire bowl. In that case, use a hole-cutting drill bit to make one hole in the tread portion near ground level, and another in the tire's side wall, where the bowl touches the ground. You now have a tidy place to store your garden hose. The hole at the low point allows water to drain away, and the hose fits through the hole in the side of the bowl.

In order to use tires for steps, one side wall must be completely removed. The technique Paul uses works as follows. Stack tires three high. This saves your back since there is less stooping. Using a power drill, make four holes approximately equidistant from each other in the sidewall close to but not in the tread. Now connect the dots using a hand-held electric jigaw to cut through the sidewall close to the tread. Stop cutting just before each hole, leaving a little tab that connects the sidewall to the rest of the tire. Cutting in this manner leaves the tires with enough stiffness to restack the tires. Bring the next tire up to the top of the stack and cut. Continue in this manner until all the tires are cut in this manner. Now, cut the tabs to remove the sidewall completely. Use a 6 tooth per inch wood-cutting blade for your jigsaw. Modify it by grinding a bevel on each side of the blade to flatten the set of the teeth. Another refinement I think is important - cut three drain holes in the opposite sidewall, again equidistant. Then if you get a period of heavy rain the tire step won't stay soggy where the remaining sidewall is sandwiched between the ground and the compacted soil inside the step. I take the sidewall pieces back to the garage and toss them in their dumpster. Or, you can use them for tree protectors, to keep weeds from growing around the base of a tree thus avoiding damage from a weed-whip or lawn mower.

I like to turn the tires inside out. It gives another inch or so of height, and hides the tread from view. Instead you'll see the former inside of the tire, which has a nice smooth surface. Lay the tire on the ground, cut side down. Stamp on the sidewall and mash it flat to the ground. Reach across the donut hole and grab the opposite side. Yank towards yourself. If you can knee the tread portion and get it to reverse its configuration - go from convex to concave - that's helpful. Maybe it is simply that I've turned so many tires by now, but I think these are easier to turn than urn-shaped tire planters. Take the tires to wherever you are building your steps. I work from bottom up, rather than down from the top of the slope. Use a level! Eyeballing it is not precision work. Clean the area for the first step, removing weeds, leaves, stones, roots, whatever. Compact the soil with a tamper. Place the tire, making sure it is level. Start filling the tire with soil, compacting it every few inches. Trying to tamp it down all at once when the tire is completely filled with soil simply doesn't work as well. The next tire is set so it just overlaps the previous tire to give you a comfortable "step up." I like to have several tires cut and ready to set. Then, as time and energy allow, work can progress. Take your time. Tires don't warp or rot. Build a few steps now, more later, next month, next season. And then, bingo! one day you'll be done and can look around for another project.

To use tires as raised planting beds, simple cut out both sidewalls, using the method described above. Take the ring of tread and turn it inside out. It will try to twist into a figure-eight pretzel, but again, if you bash the tread to change it from concave to convex the tire will be better behaved and more obedient about turning. I just use the ring shape. However, since the resulting ring is flexible, you could configure it into a rectangle should you want to.

If the use of tires as construction/ building material has caught your fancy, there are other tire projects that might be of interest. Tirecrafting has a small book for sale, with illustrations on how to make planters, swings, retaining walls and more, all constructed from tires. They even have a video. And out West and in Canada people are building Earthship houses using earth-filled tires for the walls. What will they think of next.

Penn Allied Nursery Trade Show

Every year in late July the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association sponsors the Penn Allied Nursery Trade Show. A huge, three-day event, this year 650 vendors and exhibitors utilized 1,100 booths in a massive exhibition of plants, trade goods, and seasonal exhibits for the wholesaler and retail nursery and garden center. There were trees in every size from huge to plug trays, perennials in full bloom, tender perennials for summer color, and bulb vendors with attractive (but empty) packages. Other vendors had displays of decorative containers in every size from tabletop to too large to lift, everything from attractive and colorful glazed pots, imported Italian Impruneta terra cotta, molded fiberglass in terra cotta look-alike, to plastic. Containers for the production nursery were also on display, from cell pack size up to multi-gallon pots, hanging baskets, and more. Of course containers need to be filled with more than just plants. There were all sorts of options for potting medium. Several vendors offered peat moss, soilless peatmoss blends, custom soil blends, mushroom soil, and the equipment to automatically pot up plants on a production line. There were booths offering carts to trundle trays of plants around the nursery. Watering equipment. Water garden supplies, everything from pond liners to pumps and filters, ornamental spouting fountains, and plants from water lilies to insectivorous sarracenia. Stone was presented as rounded cobbles, sharp-edged crushed stone, dressed granite paving stones, and pierced for fountains. Concrete stone-like pavers were on display, as well as cast in blocks for paving and wall building. Mulch in bags or bulk. Hand tools. Power equipment. Topiary forms. Statuary from cutsy to massive bronze figures, concrete columns, arbors, decorative gates and fencing. Halloween pumpkin carving kits, plastic pumpkins, and holiday banners. Christmas yard art in the form of light-up reindeer, life-sized plywood carolers, and more. Aisle after aisle after aisle. I became quite bemused, wandering down aisles I thought I had not visited only to recognize a booth. And I also found that an aisle I thought I was backtracking through to get somewhere was not one I'd traversed before. I severely restricted the number of brochures, pamphlets and handouts I accepted, and even so my bag heavier than was comfortable. I saw a few attendees with luggage wheelies, the sort of thing that follows you down the aisle of an airplane. I'm not sure if that is smart or not. Just think of all the stuff you'd have to sort through afterwards.

I stopped at the Babikow booth to admire their gorgeous coleus. Located in Baltimore, Maryland, this wholesale-only company offers a wide range of annuals and tender perennials for the summer garden, pansies for spring and fall/ winter, perennials, grasses, ferns and water plants to retailers in near-by states.

Premier Horticulture, Ltd is the company that sells various sphagnum-peat based growing media, such as Pro-Mix. Originally developed at Cornell University, such peat moss, perlite, vermiculte blends and mixes are popular for seed starting, starting cuttings, and in other situations where sterility and light weight are important. They have a new product, Pro-Mix + Biofungicide, that should protect seedlings from damping off. Their products are found at nurseries and garden centers across the country.

Liquid fertilizers have an important role to play in my garden. They are useful in starting off seedlings, and helpful as a quick pick-me-up when heavy rains (such as we've had in July) temporarily wash fertilizer below the root run of summer annuals. Liquid fertilizers are particularly helpful for spring flowering bulbs. Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and especially the little bulbs such as snowdrops, are up and flowering while the soil is still cool and nutrients are not readily available. Liquid fertilizers, which plants can absorb through their leaves, are a stimulating spring tonic. But only in the right proportion of N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash.) And for bulbs the best ratio is 10-30-20, which used to be available from Peters but one I have not been able to find for the last couple of years. So I was especially pleased when I stopped by the J. R. Peters booth, manufacturers of Jack's Classic water-soluble fertilizers. Started in 1997 by Jack Peters, son of the original company's founder, they package their fertilizers in several sizes of plastic tubs as well as commercial size bags. A visit to their web site will allow you to search for a dealer near you.

North Creek Nurseries in Landenberg, Pennsylvania offers a wide range of native plants and perennials in 72, 50, and 32 plug trays and DP38 super-plug sizes. Some of their offerings: Anemone canadensis, Asclepias incarnata, A. incarnata 'Ice Ballet', A. syriaca, A. tuberosa, and A. verticillata all the way through the alphabet to Veronicastrum virginicum, its cultivar 'Lavender Towers' ('Lavendelturm'), and Zizia aurea. One hot new cultivar they were selling this year is an introduction of their own - Geranium maculatum 'Espresso', with pale lavender-pink flowers and attractive red-brown foliage. A wholesale provider of starter plants, they sell plants only in complete flats and have a 9 flat minimum initial order.Perhaps you and your friends could encourage your local retail garden center to place an order.

I was attracted to the Valleybrook Gardens booth by some Echinacea purpurea 'Razz-ma-tazz' I saw, which were looking much more attractive than those I observed at the Floriade in Holland a year ago. The flowers of 'Razz-ma-tazz' have small pink petals in the center instead of the usual orange disc. The Dutch plants must have been further along in bloom, since the central disc had expanded into a shaggy pink haystack, which was not especially pretty. Those I saw at the Valleybrook Gardens booth had white centers just flushed with pink, changing to soft pink as they matured. Other new perennial introductions they will offer next year include two handsome ferns, Athyrium 'Dre's Dagger' and 'Ursula's Red', a couple of new coreopsis, 'Creme Brulee' and 'Limerock Passion', and three more echinacea: 'Fragrant Angel', 'Prairie Frost', and 'Rocky Top'. Hellebores, heuchera, several phlox, pulmonaria, and more make quite a wish list for this gardener! Keep in mind that this is a wholesale company, but you could ask your local retail garden center place an order.

When you consider that seventy of the exhibitors have been coming for 25 years or more it is easy to see how popular and helpful this event is to the nursery industry. In 2004 the Penn Allied Nursery Trade Show will take place on July 27th to 29th. I intend to be there.

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