After a holiday season of excess, most of us are looking forward to a pleasantly Spartan start to the new year — spending less, exercising more and aiming for a slightly less wicked cookie to vegetable ratio. I love cookies too much to give them up, so I'm differing from the norm by keeping my resolutions in the gardening world, which coincidentally will probably help both health and the pocketbook more than that unused membership to the gym. My resolutions?
In previous years, I've been all about the shrubs and perennials because I've wanted low-maintenance color. So many of the annuals available are squat little things that cost money and take time to plant, don't have a huge visual impact when planted in the ground, and won't outcompete weeds. However, in recent years, I've experimented with tall reseeding annuals and biennials with great success. The impressive growth (my spider flowers went from 4 inches to 4 feet in two months) is both fun to watch and perfectly practical: At the end of the year when they died back, there wasn't a weed to be found.
The caveat is that once you plant a reseeding annual, you may continue to see it for some time in ever-increasing numbers, so make sure you choose a variety you like, and be willing to take a casual approach to your garden's design, as the plants will shift from year to year. Check out spider flower (Cleome cvs.), Salmon Sunset and Exotic Dreams 4 o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), Snowland daisies (Leucanthemum paludosum), blue honeywort (Cerinthe major purpurascens), tower of jewels (Echium wildpretii), and of course our gorgeous native California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).
I have a confession to make: I'm a terrible edible gardener. The problem with working in the horticultural industry is that my busy season coincides with the times I should be most active in the garden. This means I usually end up planting late, watering sporadically and forgetting to space out my planting so everything ripens all at once. This year, I'm going to plan ahead using books like Eddie Tanner's The Humboldt Kitchen Gardener, and my new fave, the Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Pacific Northwest by Lorene Edwards Forkner, both of which have charts and month-by-month instructions to keep me on track. If I end up with an overwhelming harvest even after following their advice about staggered planting times, I plan to offer the bounty to friends, neighbors and, if all else fails (I'm looking at you, zucchini), the free section on Craigslist.
The problem with reading about health and trying to eat organic is that you end up learning things you almost wish you didn't know. Take manure, for instance. I've long thought of manure as being one of the great gifts for the gardener, since it's not only packed with organic matter but also nitrogen which helps plants with green growth. Unfortunately, many manures are from factory farms, and a University of Minnesota study showed small amounts of antibiotics present not only in the manure, but in the food crops grown with it. Yuck! If you grow your own veggies and want to eat organically, it is apparently just as important to talk to your sources for manures and fertilizers as it is to know the farmers growing the rest of your food. Since even certified organic fertilizers are allowed to use blood and bone meal from conventional agriculture, I personally plan to enrich my vegetable beds using compost, worm compost, and chicken manure from my own garden and restrict bagged manure and commercial fertilizer products to the ornamental beds.
Another element of the garden to reconsider is the use of soaker hoses. Most avid veggie gardeners use soaker hoses to avoid overhead sprinkling which can cause disease (tomato blight, anyone?). However, the vast majority of soaker hoses are made from recycled tires, which can have high concentrations of heavy metals which accumulate in the soil and are easily taken up by plants, especially in the acidic soils of many Humboldt gardens. Though the labels on these things appeal to the eco-crowd ("made of 100 percent recycled materials"), there's got to be a better way of recycling old tires than putting them in the garden.
One of my favorite delights of summer are the frost peaches and yellow plums growing in my garden, but this juicy and ephemeral pleasure is easily derailed by a lack of pollinators in February when the trees are blooming. This year, I plan to install multiple homes for mason bees, which are out and about in the garden at just the right time to help pollinate my fruit. Mason bees are both peaceful and solitary, and make their homes in small holes in either stems or wood. Local author and insect geek Peter Haggard advises planting our native checkers (Sidalcea neomexicana) and snapping off the tips of the finished flower stalks to expose the hollow stem, which is an ideally sized nesting place for carpenter and mason bees. Our local nurseries also sell ready-made mason bee houses, which you can hang in the garden.
For extra help pollinating tomatoes, squash and more in the summer months, leave a few spaces of packed, dry soil for our native sweat bees to make their home. Sweat bees are another peaceful and solitary pollinator, and they dig tiny holes throughout the garden to nest in. They rarely sting, and their shimmering green bodies add cheer to the summer garden.
Along those same lines, I want to continue planting more native wildflowers, perennials and shrubs in my garden to attract native insects, which form the foundation of nutrition for our local birds. Though birdfeeders are a fun way of bringing birds closer to the house so we can appreciate them, as far as food sources go, native plants fed the birds appropriately throughout the entire year before birdfeeders were ever invented. Not only do native plants provide nectar, berries and seeds at just the right times of year, but these plants also feed native insects for birds to eat. While I realize that attracting insects is a hard sell for some people, birds need that food source in order to reproduce and feed their young (a vegetarian diet doesn't cut it for those babies!). In addition, native insects thrive in balance with our native plants and don't overwhelm them the way exotic garden pests do, so it's a boon to our wildlife that is neutral and sometimes even beneficial for our gardens.
Genevieve Schmidt is a landscape designer and owns a fine landscape maintenance company in Arcata. She blogs over at www.NorthCoastGardening.com.