The Blend

Long ago, I attended a master gardener training on container gardening. My big takeaway from that was the idea of soil mixes. I was amazed to learn that many people don’t just use the soil as-is from the bag that they pick up at the garden center. 

The recipe that I learned is:

  • ⅓ potting soil
  • ⅓ peat moss
  • ⅓ pumice

My friend and fellow gardener is the one who I think started calling it “the blend” and the name stuck. Sounds like coffee and I can ALWAYS get behind that!

For a long time, I stuck to the recipe because I thought, “Who am I to mess with a master gardener’s recipe?”

After living in several different regions of the country with varying access to ingredients, I have modified this a bit. Pumice has been impossible for me to find outside of Arizona. There are potential sustainability issues with using peat moss. And that proportion isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’ve learned that it largely depends on the quality and type of potting soil that you start out with. Also, different plants–indoor vs. outdoor and cactus vs. tomato plants–have different needs.

Also, Google soil recipes and explore the wonderful world of gardening. There are so many soil mix recipes on the Internet; I’ve tried several, and a few were a complete failure for me. 

So I hereby give you permission to experiment. Use this recipe as a guide rather than a hard and fast rule. Explore other mixes or go by feel and texture. Observe your plants and ask yourself, “Are they doing well? How’s the drainage?” If you see issues with plant growth or waterlogged soil, you can adjust the recipe. I have been known to re-pot a plant to amend the proportions of soil, peat, and perlite. 

Now my recipe is probably more like this:

  • ½ potting soil
  • ¼-⅓ peat moss or coconut coir
  • ¼ perlite

This year I purchased some compressed blocks of coconut coir that were fantastic–and I bought a few that were less so. Same goes for potting soil–I have had some bad blends that I thought needed more work than they were worth.

For my vegetable container gardening this year, I added compost to the mix or used a compost-amended potting soil that I LOVED. I wish I had purchased 10 bags of that stuff. So far my plants are doing well, and all the tomatoes and peppers are setting fruit. The eggplants haven’t yet decided if they are going to play. (Pacific Northwest Gardening is an adventure. Especially compared to other places I have gardened, June and July were downright cold.)

My go-to potting soil is Kellogg Garden Organics Raised Bed & Potting Mix. I don’t like it on its own, but when it’s part of the blend, it feels perfect to me. 

I buy huge bags of perlite from Home Depot or a local garden supply center that I like that has perlite in sizes that I didn’t know existed before I walked through their doors. Wow.

I do add a cactus soil to the blend when I am potting cactus and succulents. I don’t know if it’s essential to do this–maybe adding more perlite would be sufficient, but I tend to rely on the bagged cactus mixes as an ingredient and that works reliably. 

A note about perlite: You absolutely don’t want to breathe in perlite dust. Wear a mask, or better yet, wet it down completely before handling it. I spray it down in the bag or as I am pouring it into my soil can. (I used a large lidded trash can with wheels for my blend.)

If you used compressed coconut coir, put it in a wheelbarrow or a trash can to soak it and give it time to expand. Give yourself time to soak it, tease it apart, soak it some more and repeat until it expands to its full size. (A coir brick the size of a large paver will expand to about two cubic feet.) It’s an easy and satisfying task to tend to while you are doing other things.

Experiment with your soil mix so that it suits your plants and your growing environment. 

Keep going and keep growing!

Removing barriers and embracing a few weeds

Last week, I got up one morning with the birds to work in the yard. We live in the woods but there are several landscaped portions of our yard with gardens and raised beds.

One particularly vexing spot is a section we call weed hill. One corner of our yard in the back slopes down. There are large trees growing there but I guess they weren’t always there because we inherited a lot of weed barrier. 

Nothing is more surprising than finding weed barrier in a rural wooded landscape. And there’s a lot of it.

I’ll let you in on a secret:  I &%$#@! hate weed barrier. In theory, it’s a good idea, but in practice it doesn’t work as advertised. I actually think that it probably needs to be maintained and people skip that step. Instead, there’s a pretty good chance that you will wind up with a weed carpet like we did. So slowly, we’ve been cutting and pulling up large chunks–yards and yards of it. The good news is that underneath is almost completely weed free, a blank slate. The bad news is there’s a lot of it–did I mention that? And unfortunately, a previous owner decided that carpet remnants might be a good substitute for actual weed barrier. 

Um–no. That’s a really bad idea. That cannot be good for the environment. Also, I am here to tell you that I have weeds growing on top of that carpet.

So we keep cutting and pulling one 6-10 foot section at a time. Weed barrier zero is the goal.

The true secret to keeping weeds at bay is probably plant density. PLant enough that the desirable plants give the weeds a run for their money with plants that out-compete them. Mulch helps, too. Last summer, we picked up about 50 bags of free mulch from someone on Freecycle. We are still using it. Freecycle and Craigslist are great places to get free or cheap landscaping materials and plants. 

Also, mindset shift: weeds are a way of life when you have a garden. When we try to be weed free with weed barrier or chemicals or what I call “zero-scaping” (i.e., rocks), there are unintended consequences. Instead I accept weeds as part of the natural world. Pulling weeds can be as meditative as sitting on a meditation cushion. And it connects you to your garden in a visceral way. And unless the weed is an invasive plant that endangers the local flora and fauna or creates a fire hazard, a few weeds here and there are really okay.

I’m not busy

clouds

I’m ashamed to think about the many times that when asked, “How are you?” I answered with some variation of “Busy, but good.” I know now that busy isn’t a feeling. And it’s not a virtue or an excuse. I wore it as a badge of honor for so long, and I took it as a sign that what I was doing was important–that I was important. I willingly and also, at times, unwittingly participated in zero-sum games of oneupmanship in the name of busy.

I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but I stopped being busy in the last two years. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not bored or lazy. My days are filled with lots of interesting activities and tasks that I am on the hook for, but busy has been banished. Instead, I have been learning to say precisely how I feel. I am learning to name my emotions.

It turns out that naming emotions puts us on the path to regulating them. And it lets us connect more fully with the people around us instead of erecting the police line do-not-cross-tape of “I’m just so busy.”

So, contact me, will you? I can’t wait to catch up. 

Garden update: June 2019

plants on the light table

How did it get to be June?

Wow, my garden update feels like one of those cooking shows where they put the uncooked dish in the oven and a moment later pull out the finished dish! 

I assure you, it was nothing like that. First of all, many of my seedlings keeled over when the power went out for days and the temp inside my house was down in the 40s. No light table, no bottom heat, no ambient heat. It was sad. I had to start over with almost everything. Amazingly, my tomatoes made it through snowmageddon, but one variety, a cherry tomato called Cherriette, lagged well behind the others. I thought they would never grow up. (They did.)

I live in the woods and there is no open space that gets full sun all or most of the day. This is a good news/bad news situation. And really the only bad news is providing enough sun to the veggies that demand it. I am trying lots of plants in pots this year and moving them around to find the best spot. 

So–do you think I have a pot problem?

Here’s what did well:

  • Tomatoes
  • Texas Sage
  • Eggplant
  • Squash
  • Cucumbers (though I lost a couple after transplanting)
  • Artemesia (but sooooooo slow to start–but, first time growing from seed!)
  • Yarrow (also slow)
  • Verbascum (first time!)
  • Hyssop (first time!)
  • Asters

I have a couple of these:

  • Bok Choi
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Thai Basil
  • Melons
  • Some miscellaneous flowers including bachelor buttons and Chinese forget-me-nots

#Fail

  • Basil
  • Jerusalem Sage (first time)

Wild success with no help from me:

  • Tulsi Basil
  • Mint 
  • Strawberries (I can’t believe it)

A couple of my bell peppers from last year may be coming back–they are sprouting new leaves. Fingers crossed. 

Some plants will be transplanted into bigger pots or grow bags. I bought some 7- and 10-gallon grow pots to try this year. 

You might notice some other things in the photos that are definitely not veggies. Last year I bought seedlings from the Thurston County Conversation District. I could not dig holes fast enough so some plants went in pots. They all did well and in some cases outperformed their fellow plants that are in the ground. 

How’s your garden this year? 

Surviving a freak snow storm: Eight lessons on preparedness

On Friday, a winter storm moved in and on Saturday it knocked the power out–and it stayed out for the better part of three days. By Sunday, our unheated house was competing with single digits outside and the inside temperature dropped into the 40s. Our hands were unbelievably cold and we started to lose it a little bit. It felt like everything was slowing down. Our short coated dog and cat were shivering. We gave in and packed up for a hotel. We returned on Monday and the power stayed on for the morning and went out again for about an hour. It stayed on for a few hours and then out again. In the meantime, it snowed and snowed and snowed. We were stuck. The power finally came on again this morning (Tuesday) and has thankfully stayed on.

There’s more winter weather in the forecast; we aren’t out of the woods yet. Which is kind of a joke because we live in the woods. We will never be out of the woods. 🙂

I feel like we have been in survival mode. We are trying to learn from this and prepare for future outages now. I think most people don’t think that disasters will happen to them. Not because they are exempt from calamity, but because we are focused on what’s on our plate today. I was not thinking “long-term power outage and no heat” when I saw the weather forecast last week.

Lessons Learned

Lesson number one: it takes us too long to pack and leave. Partly it’s because of having pets, partly it’s because we were trying to save the contents of our refrigerator, but mostly, we just were not as prepared as we could have been. As it turns out, we got out of our neighborhood shortly before the highway was closed.

Lesson number two: a non-electric heat source like a wood burning stove, or a generator or battery backup to connect a heater would have provided a game-changing heat source. A generator or battery backup would have powered the refrigerator, too.

Lesson number three and one we learned: know how to light your gas stove without the electric igniter. This turned out to be easy but it didn’t occur to us until we were on outage number three. It’s a game changer to have coffee, tea and hot food.

Lesson number four: Having a lot of refrigerated backup food doesn’t help you if the power goes out and it just becomes another problem to solve as mentioned in Lesson #1. More canned foods/dry goods would have been better. Snack foods help you cope. You burn a lot of calories when you are cold and shoveling snow.

Lesson number five: Make sure you own more than one shovel if snow is in the forecast. I have a mini shovel for the car that I bought several years ago after having to dig out my truck bed while out of town. That’s it. Additional shovels are a priority purchase this weekend.

Lesson number six: Have backup water. This morning, we ran out of water. We have a well with an electric pump and we used up everything in the lines, I guess. This morning around 8 am, nothing came out of the tap. We did have jugs of drinking water set aside but not water for flushing toilets. So we got to work melting snow in case we needed it. Luckily we did not, the power came on about an hour later. But I was really wishing that I had filled all of my plant watering jugs (old 1.5 gallon vinegar jugs) ahead of the storm just in case.

Lesson number seven: Clean up ahead of a storm. Run the dishwasher and do laundry. Vacuum. Shower. It’s really hard to clean without light and power.

Lesson number eight: Don’t wait too long to cut your hair or any other self-care activity. I have been putting off the haircut and spent the last several days wishing I hadn’t. Taking a hot shower or using styling tools might be out of the question and you may feel lousier than you have to.

Bright Spots

We didn’t get everything wrong and there were some bright spots:
Our laundry was done.
We had a half tank of gas. A full tank would have been better, but still.
We knew the closest hotel that allows pets (and they were great).
We have a vehicle with 4-wheel drive.
We have a manual can opener.
We had hand sanitizer (and we usually don’t).
We have a propane stove and backup propane.
We have a battery backup for our home network that lasts for a few hours. (We plan to buy additional batteries to extend that.)
Our important papers are organized in a grab-and-go envelope; our current papers are in a portable file box.
We have solar and battery-operated LED lights and two heavy-duty headlamps that helped us navigate a pitch black house and yard.
We have extra batteries, candles and matches/lighters.

Do you have a plan?

Think about what you would do if you are without power. Or stranded. Think about food, water, warmth, and even entertainment. How will you power your devices if you lose electricity? Can you leave quickly if you need to? Do you have a plan for pets and livestock? Ready.gov can help you put a plan together.

Having checklists and packing lists for you, your pets and other family members is a huge help. Under stress or duress, you may find you are not as sharp as you are in your finest moments.

Check on your neighbors

Everyone on our street was in a slightly different boat. Be friendly. Offer to help. Share information. Ask if they are okay.

Seed starting 2019

Bok choi seedlings

Off to the races!

On Sunday, I started my first round of seeds for my Olympia garden: tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, ground cherries, bok choi, basil and some flowers. I started a little earlier this year based on last year’s experience. (Actually, I planned to start two weeks ago but broke a finger–ouch–and that set me back.) Last year I started most of my seeds in March and I was wildly successful. So many plants. But I found that a few plants needed a little more time so I am starting earlier this year. It’s day 6 and the bok choi is up, a couple of flowers and one tomato seedling. It seems like a miracle every single time.

Tomato seedling on day 6!

Last year, I started most of my seeds in small paper cups. This year I made mini flats out of white plastic tofu containers, drilling drainage holes planting 6-12 seeds per container. Eight tofu trays fit in one black flat. We eat a lot of tofu. (I use the heavy duty flats from Bootstrap Farmer–they are great. I bought mine last year and they still look new. And now they have fun colors!)

I was MUCH better at labeling this year after confusing the tomato varieties and mixing up the bok choi and brussels sprouts seedlings repeatedly. I decided to use my Brother Ptouch labeler and reinforce it with tape.

I decided to try Black Gold Seedling Mix. This is my first time with it, I’ve always used a vermiculite-peat moss blend in the past. I dampened the mix thoroughly before filling my tofu trays. Stay tuned for updates on that! I have one flat on the heat mat but the one off the heat mat is coming up all over so stuff grows, no matter what.

I am growing PNW varieties of tomatoes exclusively this year after some uneven results last year. I had tomatoes but it wasn’t a bonanza. I really was hoping to be inundated. (I know, I know. Careful what you wish for!) To be fair, June was really cold and not tomato friendly. This year I am going to move the plants to a warmer, sunnier location and start them out in a portable greenhouse when I first move them outside.

The gardening experiment continues!

Funny enough, we are in the midst of a winter storm warning in Western Washington, low thirties with unusual single digits and 3-5 inches in our immediate future. Everyone and their mother was at the grocery store when we went out at lunch time. I am hoping this passes us by quickly and return to the 40s ASAP. In the meantime, I will reassure my tiny seeds and whisper the words loved by gardeners everywhere: spring is coming.

How does your garden grow?

Seedlings

I planted most of my seeds in early March and today I am overrun with seedlings, some of which have been potted up more than once. I guess that’s the good news. The somewhat bad news is that when you plant 28 tomato seeds because you are worried that you might not be successful, you have to deal with the reality of 28 tomato plants. I have thought about planting all 28 but I am fairly certain that I cannot keep up with that many. I seem to have a whole tray of China Aster, too. The seedlings have been hardening off on the porch and I hope to plant them in the newly updated raised beds next week.

Now for an update in the bareroot saga. Planting bareroot has never really worked out for me before so when I bought about 100 bareroot plants and plugs from the Thurston Conservation District, I had low expectations.

Bare Root PlantsAnd then almost everything grew.

I had a couple of ferns that looked iffy from the get-go and one black hawthorn looks like it was the daily special at the critter salad bar (it might be fine). Something dug up a salal plug and I fear the worst but I haven’t given up on it yet. But the other 96 plants are doing great. Anyone need some Douglas Fir saplings?

Adding to the insanity, I bought some bareroot hostas, bleeding hearts and columbines. The columbines and hostas are coming up. Not sure what the bleeding hearts are going to do. So this additional “success” has added to the planting frenzy in my Olympia garden.

Notes to self:

  1. 20 plants sound nice.
  2. Plant seeds expecting most to germinate.
  3. Start earlier with pepper plants. That’s the one area where results were less than I hoped.

Spring is here!

Nature’s Cure

Burfoot Park, Olympia

I just finished The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams.

As the title suggests, this book explores the way that nature–from houseplants to city parks to hiking trails to wilderness restores us, energizes us, makes us more resilient and creative–even cures us of maladies that are hard to cure. I’ve always been a person drawn to plants and animals and the outdoors. I love the mountains and the ocean in equal measure. My ideal vacation is always time in nature. I’ve been thinking a lot about how my present home is so different from other places I have lived. Very often these days, I feel like I live in the forest but with flush toilets. It will be hard to accept a more suburban or urban environment after this. Maybe I won’t if I can help it.

I’ve also been thinking about the times that I went without my nature fix and how I was the worse for it. I am planning more immersive trips to nature sans technology this year. I will embrace the Finnish government recommendation of a minimum of five hours in nature a month — but I’ll try to go deep, and technology free, for my five hours.

I recommend this book if you are interested in the ways that our brains react to nature. Williams will take you on a whirlwind tour of the latest and greatest in nature research.

Check out the review of The Nature Fix in National Geographic.

More on Habits and Rituals

I just finished the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey. The book features the work habits of over 150 artists, writers, composers, musicians and poets. The common thread throughout the book is the ritual of going to work as an artist. Many of the people featured in the book had a very set schedule and many were absolutely dedicated to the schedule. There are always outliers of course but I was more fascinated by the people who held rather traditional 9-5 jobs and found time to do their art and writing.

Something that I learned from both my Learning How to Learn class and Productivity Hacks for Writers is that you really do need to rely on habit (AKA  your zombie brain). We have limited stores of willpower and will quickly run through it if that’s the only tool in the toolkit. Habit, on the other hand, becomes more automatic. After taking the productivity hacks class, my latest habit has been to get up every morning at 4:30 am and write. And amazingly, I have kept this up for weeks now. Even more amazing – I even look forward to it. I have blogged every day in 2018  for my Olympia blog. So now I am on the lookout for anything that helps harness the power of habit to get things done. (My other early morning habits are meditating, gratitude journaling and unloading the dishwasher and the drying rack. On even days, I add a workout to the routine.) Believe me when I tell you that it’s easier to do things every day or on a regular schedule.

Last week I read a post on cleaning your house in 20 minutes a day in the Apartment Therapy blog (which I love and recommend: no apartment required). And you guessed it: it relies on habit, making cleaning an everyday habit. But before you get the wrong idea, it’s not a clean your house in 30 days and never have to do it again recipe. Instead, it’s a habit-forming plan to make cleaning an everyday thing so that it doesn’t pile up or leave you with a full Saturday of housecleaning chores. The post includes a 30-day checklist of chores and we started it on February 1. (I know, I know, that’s funny.) So far, so good. It’s easy to do and it makes a difference.

Get ready to start those seedlings

Light stand with seedling tray

January is the time for many gardeners to get excited and start planning their gardens. If you live in Phoenix, the timing is a little different: those tomato plants need to be started right around Christmas Day. In my maritime northwest garden in Olympia, I have to sit on my hands a bit and wait to start seeds until the end of January and into February.

BUT–I can be prepared.

Yesterday, I pulled out my seed tray and my light stand. I purchased the light stand a couple of years ago and it was still new in the package. It’s a Jump Start two-foot grow light. I am happy to report that even after a couple of moves, it’s in good shape and I am really happy with it. It’s just the right size for a flat of seedlings. The stand uses a pully system to raise and lower the light so the light can be adjusted to be close to the seedlings.  I am using a flat that holds 72 peat pellets. I like peat pellets because they are easy and easy to transplant without too much overhandling of delicate seedlings. Plus, if you have things ready before others, you can just swap the seedling for a new pellet. I placed my light stand in the guest room where it’s relatively warm and there’s plenty of light thanks to a large skylight. I am planning to add a heating mat, too. And I set up a timer for the light.

This year, I am also going to try some DIY newspaper pots for squash. You can plant squash seeds directly in the ground and in some cases, that’s probably better, but starting the seeds ahead helps me to be able to see the plants and I do a little better with spacing. Everyone is different so remember that you can adjust methods to suit your style and still be very successful. The best methods are always the ones that work for you.

I made a list of what I want to grow. I have five garden beds in my fenced-in garden area.

  • Tomatoes (two varieties)
  • Sweet Peppers (two varieties including one named after me! more on that later)
  • Yellow squash
  • Delicata squash and another winter squash
  • Zucchini
  • Eggplant (mini)
  • Cucumbers
  • Snap peas
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Rosemary
  • Basil
  • Thyme
  • Scallions
  • Leeks
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Melons (two varieties)
  • Ground cherries
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Kale assortment
  • Salad greens

I decided to order most of my seeds from Oregon-based Adaptive Seeds. They sell Pacific Northwest grown, open-pollinated organic seeds. I really enjoyed reading through all of the varieties and selecting new things to try. There is a lot more plant diversity out there than you would realize from a stroll through a typical grocery store produce section. It’s worth repeating that varieties grown for mass marketing are rarely the best tasting varieties. An interesting tidbit that I will share from my Reno garden and Phoenix garden: northwest seed varieties often do well in both Phoenix and Reno. I think that’s because they are short season gardens. Particularly with tomatoes, you need a short season variety that will tolerate cooler temps if you want to harvest tomatoes in either Phoenix or Reno.

I have some leftover miscellaneous seeds and they are all going to be used. Not sure that I can hope for great germination but I also know that they will never grow if I don’t plant them. I might have a happy surprise.