Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Year of Composting Dangerously - A post by Jenny Sullivan

There was a time during 42 years of teaching literature that spring meant lines of poetry would soon be spilling out of my mouth from Hopkins or Housman: “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring/ when reeds in wheels shoots long and lovely and lush” or “Loveliest of tree, the Cherry now/ Is hung with bloom along the bough."

But then I retired and took a Master Gardeners course! Talk about being a lonely little petunia in an onion patch—or more accurately-- a wild, invasive onion in a cultivated petunia patch. While my teachers talked of monocots, calyxes, endocarps, and bracts, my fellow students carried on about their compost piles. Carbon/nitrogen ratios are very important. Huh? Bulking agents, leachate, and worm castings were the topics of many a lively conversation among my supposed peers. I sat and remembered that year I grew zinnias from seed…and was ashamed.

So, predictably, I did not make it through the internship. Trust me, no one should ask me how to avoid blossom end rot on their tomatoes just because I am at a Master Gardeners’ table at a Farmer’s Market wearing an official  name tag. My best advice would be, “Look around you, fool. A dozen people are selling beautiful tomatoes today.

Buy what you need, then go home and watch Jordan Spieth and Jason Day duke it out on the back nine.”

Still, all that talk of compost got to me. The thought of making my own dirt was not only intriguing but absolutely empowering. What could be more creative? But the more I read about composting, the more confused I became.

So I watched gardening shows where men took 20 hours and $300 to build large wooden composting bins, enough bins to have one for “mature” compost and one for the new pile being formed, and one bin in the middle. What that bin in the middle was for was never clear to me. Other TV guys suggested a far corner of the property (I have a yard, not a “property.”) where bins would not be needed, only real compost piles,  and where any raccoons attracted to the piles would not find themselves at the edge of the patio terrifying guests and their children.
Scary? Moi?

One rotating bin in a catalogue looked great. It was like a giant bingo barrel with a handle to crank it. But that bin would have necessitated a second mortgage and would have been the dominant design element in the back yard.

Then one day, I saw a little, unassuming garbage can with holes all over it sitting out back at the Variety Store: a Behrens RS 20 gallon steel rubbish burner/composter sitting up on little triangular legs (good for the leachate) and priced at only $30. I could do this. My pulse quickened. I fantasized where I would place it, on the cement slab where the air-conditioning unit sits. I scooped that baby up and carried it inside the store, using it as my shopping basket, tossing in the socks, the jigsaw puzzle, the wrapping paper, and the embroidery floss I had come for and proudly presenting it and its contents to the cashier. “I don’t need a bag,” I told her. She applied my senior discount, and I walked out of there swelling with the thrill of anticipation. 

We had lots of scratch cooking from that June day forward. All summer long I made vegetable soup so that I could have potato skins and carrots peels. I was happy when the green parts of scallions were not good enough for the salad.

I ripped open used Keurig cups to get those grounds. Everything destined for my compost bin I collected in a little yellow plastic tub and happily carried out to the Behrens RS 20, dumping everything on top of the leaves that the guys neglected to collect from under the shrubs when they were supposed to be blowing them all down to the curb the previous fall. But no matter, I crawled under the bushes and dragged that “brown material,” as they call it at Master Gardeners, out from under its shelter to add it to the “green material” from my kitchen. I needed that carbon/nitrogen ratio, don’t you know.

My Behrens was not on a platform constructed for rotation, so moving the green and brown around in order to introduce a little air into the mix (which all the articles, websites, and TV shows say you must do) was going to be a problem-- or so I thought. Then I remembered the “garden weasel” that I had bought 10 years earlier and that stood abandoned in a dusty corner of the garage. Although it had proved useless for cultivating the clay in my yard, it was perfect for weaseling my compost pile. The cement pad that the RS 20 sat on was even near the outdoor faucet, so adding water, a must to speed decomposition, was a breeze. The universe seemed to be lining up for me to have a great batch of compost, magnificent handmade dirt for spring 2017.

Over the winter, it hurt me not to be able to add new organic matter from the kitchen since it would not decompose in time to be dirt in the spring. Now I appreciated the value of having more than one bin. Every time I threw away a pear that had gone mushy or potatoes that had shriveled away in the dark of the cupboard or onion skins, banana peels, bruised apple slices, garlic papers, I kissed them goodbye. Were I a smarter gardener, they would be on their way to becoming precious compost rather than putrefying in plastic bags at Mt. Trashmore.

Finally the time came. Winter broke. The spring day was warm, the plants were emerging, and everything in the compost bin was black and beautiful, rich and luscious, full of vigor, ready to get the season going. I weaseled everything one more time, fluffed it, gave it oxygen.

The gesture served no practical purpose at this point but was a token of my sentimental affection: we had spent so much time together. I tipped the mix into my wheelbarrow and headed off to my rose bed.  I had almost enough compost to dress all eight rose bushes, almost. That’s pretty good, right? Then I went to Home Depot to buy three more bags of compost for $21 and finished the job.

Jenny N. Sullivan is a gardener, author and garden club member in Northern Virginia. Her first novel, From My Father's House., was published in 2015. Sullivan grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, enjoyed a long teaching career in the Virginia Community College System in the Tidewater area and in Northern Virginia.



Historical Gardening and Bloggers Who Love Other Blogs

I don't normally blog about other blogs. But I have to share this link to the Early American Gardens and Cultural Landscapes.

You cannot live in the National Capital Region of the United States without occasionally if not  constantly immersing yourself in history - whether it be colonial, revolutionary or civil war era.

Gardening in the 'new world' was quite an adventure for our intrepid ancestors. While they were able to bring much technical experience from the 'old world', farmers and gardeners were faced with growing conditions that required them to be innovative, agile, and quite optimistic.

Transforming wilderness to precise gardens, we can look back on now, was folly. But obviously they succeeded.

If you love gardening and history, this blog is for you.  Enjoy!  Thea

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Ultimate Flower Show experience (Think Philadelphia Flower Show...) A post by Thea McGinnis

Magnificent bridge lined with delft tile at the entrance to
the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's 2017
Philadelphia Flower Show "Holland - Flowering the World"

Like tens of thousands of you lovers of all things flower and garden, I attended this year's fabulous Philadelphia Flower Show.  But my visit was a bit different than yours - because I got to attend before the show opened. How did I finagle that?

One of the many beautiful display gardens at the Show

 I was honored to be asked to participate as a student judge - one of eighteen student judges invited to serve within panels of amazing, talented and professional judges from around the United States.

My team included Andrea Little from Boston, Massachusetts, Barbara Hamacheck from Ketchem, Idaho, and Amelia Crumbley from Mississippi.

 Andrea has been an accredited judge with National Garden Clubs for twenty-seven years.  Amelia is a brand new Garden Clubs of America accredited judge. And Barbara is an accredited judge with Garden Clubs of America.  I'm an NGC student judge and working toward my accreditation.

 This opportunity would never have come my way if I hadn't decided to attend NGC's Flower Show School.  I never really seriously considered becoming a flower show judge but I took Course I (of four) to find out what it was all about.  Honestly? I loved immersing myself in the course work. The Courses are like going back to college for a weekend.  Taking each course for credit is the key, though.  Yes, it requires you to take a very challenging exam at the end of each course, but a few of my fellow students learned the hard way that if you don't go for course credit, and you do go on to become judge, you will have to repeat the course.  What has impressed me the most, though, is the caliber of our instructors. Whether it is horticulture or design, the depth of knowledge and expertise shared with students is an awesome value.

 Back to my experience as a student judge with the PHS -  I arrived Thursday afternoon and immediately met up with NCAGC President-elect and fellow student flower show judge, Robin Hammer.  Robin and I have been lucky to go through our flower show school courses together.  Let's just say - we laughed a lot!!

NCAGC President-Elect
Robin Hammer
Robin and I, plus our dear garden friend, Julie Wadsworth, were invited to a dinner party for judges at the lovely Acorn Club, where we had the opportunity to meet many of the judges and chairpersons we would work with the next day. That's when I realized our fellow judges were from all over the U.S!

We got up early the next morning and met up with our panels. We started at 8:00 a.m. and didn't wrap up our work until about 1:00 p.m.  What impressed me most was how my fellow judges were able to make meaningful points that counted powerfully within our evaluation and decisions. And we were able to give exhibitors instructive comments that always circled back to principles and elements of design we adhere to in NGC and GCA.   I learned so much about the judging process and decision making that day, and best of all, made new friends.  Robin was assigned to a different panel of judges and had a wonderful experience as well.

 After all the scoring and collaboration with a great team of judges, we wrapped up our day with a lovely luncheon. We then got to experience the flower show in all its glory. All in all, it was a unique, fantastic opportunity and an awesome experience. And I loved visiting Philadelphia!

 I love garden club in all aspects of it's mission - as a community organization in your town, on-going member education, hands-on learning, and friendship.  I invite you to attend your local garden club's flower shows and meetings.  Come learn about horticulture and design.

Here are just a few of the exquisite designs competing at the Philadelphia Flower Show:

A charming bicycle basket of tulips

The Philadelphia Flower Show had top quality horticulture specimens, like this
gorgeous Hellebore, on display

Many go home with the names of new plants they can try in their gardens.  I also highly recommend attending any of the NGC courses for accreditation or certification as a consultant, offered to garden club members in your state - whether it is Landscape Design, Environmental, Flower Show Judge, or Garden Studies schools.

Robin and I are now immersing ourselves in completing our credentials by student judging flower shows in the National Capital area.  I'm looking forward to bringing what I learned from judging at the Philadelphia Flower Show to those shows.  My next post on the blog will include a list of our upcoming flower shows.  Flower shows are free, fun, educational and open to the public. Plan to attend one in your area this Spring!  - Thea