Friday, September 30, 2011

October - Support Your Independent Nursery Month

"The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it." -Henry David Thoreau 

My favorite local IGC
The end of September is a busy time of year for me what with NFL games to watch, the baseball season wrapping up, and the inevitable list of social obligations to attend to.  A lot of the "busyness" is self-inflicted so I can’t complain and still expect to receive loads of sympathy like I normally would.  But my schedule has kept me from spending anything but the bare minimum of time in the garden and, as a result, I haven’t had much to write about that would be of any interest.

However, I have had a little time to read and yesterday I visited one of the blogs I find most interesting: “The Blogging Nurseryman by Trey Pitsenberger”.  I like Trey’s blog because it gives readers an inside look at the challenges of running an Independent Garden Center (or IGC) and, as a gardener who relies on independent nurseries to satiate my desire for quality and uncommon plants, I find Trey's topics to be both insightful and useful. 

Yesterday, Trey wrote about Pam Pennick’s latest post on her blog, “Digging”.  Pam decided that she wanted to declare October “Support Your Independent Nursery Month”.  Trey acknowledges the struggles that independent garden centers are going through in the recession and his blog deals with those challenges and offers up ideas on how to compete in a market that is not very competitive (at least not in the sense that the little guys have a real chance to compete) thanks to the long advertising arms of corporations like Home Depot and Lowe’s. 

I felt compelled to comment on Trey’s blog to say that I do like to align myself with the little guy and that I fully support indepedent nurseries.  But I also admitted that I frequently give my money to larger corporations like Apple, Starbucks, and Amazon even though I recognize that I am turning my back on the "Mom and Pop" music, coffee, and book shops that need my business just as much as nurseries do.  To (attempt to) paraphrase myself, I said that I had long ago decided that I wouldn’t spend my gardening dollars at Home Depot even if I happened to already be shopping there for other products.  I don’t have a problem with Home Depot at all – they have been there for me when I needed their products, they have been helpful to me as a customer, and I certainly didn't mind collecting a dividend when I was a shareholder.  But they get enough of my money when I purchase tools, ceiling fans, and PVC pipe.  My local nurseries offer me both better quality plants and a better shopping experience so I really try to honor my commitment to support those companies that support my gardening.  The nurseries I shop at offer me a place to seek advice from people who actually care about what they sell and my success with their products.  They do things to build authentic relationships with their customers.  And they genuinely seem happy to have me as a customer which is more than I can say for many of the checkout clerks that I routinely interrupt at Home Depot when I'm ready to pay for my items.  

In that vein, I would like to join with Pam in encouraging gardeners and garden bloggers to remember their favorite independent nurseries this October - and every month.  I think about how my enjoyment of gardening would suffer if my favorite nursery were to close.  I owe it to myself to support them in any way I can.  It is a tough economy and it seems no one is immune to that reality.  But if you still have money to spend on your garden, I hope you will consider spending that money where you think it will do the most good both for you and for the company you give it to.

And while we're at it, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to give some more thought to the other places we give our money (I'm looking at you and make sure that those are places we truly want to support as well.  

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Changing Leaves: Science or Philosophy?

Entertaining TV for nerds and people who like explosions.
I don’t have a very scientific mind.  That’s not to say that I don’t occasionally watch Myth Busters or that I don’t want to know why things are the way they are – I just mean that when it comes to complex science my brain takes a little while longer to process things if I can process them at all. 

One of the primary reasons I bother with learning the science of things though is so that I might later be able to tell someone that they are wrong.  Petty, I know.

While following links today, I was led to the web site of a professor of plant physiology at Appalachian State University.  He calls himself “The Fall Color Guy.”  That sounded like a good place for scientific simpleton's like me to find a few takeaway factoids that could prove useful to me later on.  

My step father is of the age where he has a few pet shticks.  One of them is a conspiracy theory related to Daylight Savings Time.  Another one is that he has always claimed that leaves change colors in the fall because of the changing trajectory of the sun’s light waves.  That’s the kind of thing that sounds just scientific enough that it could be true but it also sounds like total bull to me because I am pretty sure it has something to do with chlorophyll and not light.  But I never challenged him on it because I didn't know the real, complete answer.  I have operated on the assumption that it had something to do with the colder temperatures causing chlorophyll to recede from leaves but I had no idea if that was totally correct and I had no explanation for why the colder weather would cause that effect.          

This is what passes for fall "color" in my neighborhood.

So, having stumbled upon a site written by the Fall Color Guy, I decided it was high time I got an actual, reliable scientific explanation for what causes the color of leaves to change in the fall even if it meant I would have to turn on, warm up, and then actually use the left side of my brain to decipher the explanation.

I clicked around the web site trying to find a one-sentence answer along the lines of “because it gets cold and trees stop making chlorophyll in the cold” when I stumbled upon the following paragraph:

“Why do leaves appear Green?  [emphasis added]  The green color in leaves results from the production of a compound called chlorophyll (chl). We see the leaf as green because this compound is most efficient in absorbing red and blue wavelengths of light, and relatively inefficient in absorbing the green wavelengths. This means that the light reflected from the leaf back to our eyes is enriched in the green spectrum, making it appear green to us.”

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple hours now.  It is, quite frankly, blowing my mind.  This isn’t just science we're talking about, its philosophy.  Its metaphysics! 

Aristotle - the "father of metaphysics".  I wish I could ask him about how we know what colors we are really seeing.
Given that he has apparently lost all his color, I think he'd have something important to say about the subject.

If the leaf just appears to be green then that statement implies that the leaf isn't really green.  And if it isn't really green then couldn't it be said that green leaves don’t really change colors in the fall since they weren't green in the first place?  Do leaves merely appear to change colors in the fall?  Or, more accurately, do we just start seeing leaves as they really are when fall comes?  If that’s the case, then what sounded like an absurd supposition made by my step father could actually have some truth to it.  After all, if the chlorophyll does a bad job at absorbing green wavelengths, could the different trajectory of light waves in the autumn reduce the amount of green wavelengths reflecting off leaves? 

Clearly, I still had too many questions to let it rest at this so more reading was required. 

A Japanese maple photographed in November of 2010 with what "appears" to be fall colors.

A few clicked links later and I was on the USDA Forest Service's web site which had a page titled "Why Leaves Change Color."  It still didn't provide me with a sound byte answer, but this was close:
"During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and broken down and leaves appear green. [There's that word "appear" again!]  As night length increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed.  The carotenoids and anthocyanins that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and show their colors."
Okay, I accept that it's a scientific process that causes leaves to appear to change colors in the autumn.  But I prefer my philosophical interpretation of the annual occurrence: leaves only reveal their true identities in the fall.  In my half-working mind, the changing colors of leaves encourages me to remember that what I see on the surface isn't always a true reflection of the essence of a thing.  I suppose that's true for people too. 


The USDA's web site had some other good explanations for what triggers the changes in color, what leaf fall does to the tree, and what role weather plays in it all, but frankly, I OD'd on science for today and I'll just have to bookmark the site for future reference.  Hopefully I'll get back around to it before my mom and her husband come to visit again. 

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Growing Excuses Not Food

A must-read book about
our relationship with food.
In theory, I’m big on the whole “grow your own food” trend.  I passionately believe that doing so makes sense on so many levels.  It’s economical, it’s environmentally healthy, it’s a source of exercise, it provides the grower with a better sense and appreciation for what it takes to get food on the plate, and (for the Mad Max scenarios of my imagination) it will be what keeps us alive when the whole world goes to hell.  I follow Michael Pollan on Twitter, I have King Corn on my Netflix queue, and I refuse to support Monsanto so, you know, I totally get it

In practice, however, I’m basically a hypocrite.  It’s not that I don’t grow any of my own food; I do.  But it’s more of a novelty than a bona fide food source.  For example, I have a mature peach tree that produces more fruit all at once than we could ever hope to eat.  So for about 10 glorious digestively-regular days we have peach milkshakes, peach cobbler, and grilled peaches but that’s where it all ends.  We don’t can our extra peaches to extend our bounty and we don’t have any other trees that produce fruits or nuts for us to eat until December when the oranges are ripe so we'd probably develop scurvy should the world as we know it come to a screeching halt.  You can basically repeat this scenario for all the other things I grow.  A lot of my tomatoes end up in the compost bin.  Much of the lettuce I grow in the spring winds up there too.  I chewed on one single piece of broccoli (and spit it out) before I pulled up this year’s plants in favor of the warm season bell peppers I planted a couple months ago (and have yet to harvest).  I have every intention of increasing my homegrown food yield, but when it comes right down to it, I haven’t devoted the time and, more importantly, the garden space to doing it right. 

Part of the problem is that we just don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables in my household to make it worthwhile.  My three-and-a-half year old recently interrupted a conversation we were having about what we needed from the grocery store to note that "we eat a lot of potato chips".  The other part of the problem is that I’m still hung up on growing ornamentals and perennials in my yard.  I don’t want to apologize for that.  It’s just where I’m at in my evolution as a gardener.  But at the same time, I am apologizing for that because I disagree with myself philosophically and it’s about time I confessed before it ate me up inside.

You see, for years I’ve found excuses not to become a more self-sufficient link in the food chain and my excuses are growing (unlike my neglected butternut squash). 

My friend, Brian, took me along on a fact-finding trip to a bee shop a while ago.  He was interested in starting his own hive and I was curious about the whole thing too.  Who doesn’t love honey?  And more bees in the yard would be great for my plants.  Besides, bees need a little help with that colony collapse disorder, right? 

I could stretch my dollar by also using one of these suits to play paint ball in.  If I played paint ball.

Well, in spite of being gung ho about it all initially, I found ample reasons not to pursue bee keeping myself.  First, my wife is allergic to bee stings; a fact that, by itself, should have precluded me from even thinking about keeping bees.  Plus, I’d be signing up for regular trips to Walgreens to restock EpiPens and after the first ER visit I have a feeling that my Queen Bee would make me look for a hive/apartment of my own.  Second, it’s not exactly cheap getting set up as a beekeeper.  It could easily run a couple hundred bucks after you get the robotic looking netted-hat contraption, a smoker, the wood boxes for the hive, the bees, and the equipment to extract the honey from the honey combs.  And really, it seems like a whole lot of effort for just a little bit of honey.  And that's the real reason.  I don't have the time or the energy to do it right.  So I chose instead to spend $10-$15 a year to buy local honey and support those dedicated farmers who’ve already got the set up and depend upon customers like you and me to keep them in business. 

Not sure exactly what the message was,
but this was part of "Chalk It Up"
in downtown Sacramento last week.
"Besides," I told myself, "I’d rather have chickens."  Which was a convenient thing to tell myself, because I already knew that Sacramento County prohibited keeping chickens unless you had a lot that was at least 10,000 square feet (which most homeowners in this area don't even begin to get close to).  Oh, and one minor financial consideration: in case you did have a 10,000 square foot lot, you still had to submit an application along with a non-refundable $4,500 application fee.  Yes, that’s four-thousand-five-hundred United States dollars.  And just because you applied did not mean you would be given approval.  So you could either fund your Roth IRA for a year or apply for the privilege of keeping a couple chickens.  Clearly, Sacramento’s City Council was just egging us on to follow the old adage “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” 

Undaunted but uncommitted, I researched the quietest chicken breeds (Black Australorps, apparently) and some covert coops designed to look like garbage cans and herb gardens so nosy neighbors wouldn’t have enough audio visual evidence to turn me into the chicken coppers.  I was really into the idea and thought it would be great.  Free, nutritious eggs and an ongoing source of manure for the garden?  Plus they would make fun pets for my daughter.  How awesome would that be?   

But I never followed through with it.  I told myself it was because I didn’t want to break the law.  And now, in my revisionist historian ways, I’m telling myself it was also because of my wife’s debilitating ornithophobia, but we all know my sympathy for that has its limitations.  The truth is probably closer to the fact that I don’t want to add taking care of chickens to my list of things to do right now.  Not without a good place to keep them.  Not with an aggressive shepherd-mix dog that would harass them non-stop.  Not with dreams of going on vacation and not wanting to ask my neighbors to water the plants, take in the mail, turn on the porch light, get the dog water, AND feed the darn chickens. 

So last week when the City Council finally came to their senses and lifted the backyard ban on chickens I knew that it wasn’t going to change anything for me.  I’m really, really thankful that people in my county can now pay just 1% of the former application fee to keep up to three chickens.  They have to pay $15 upfront and then $10 for each hen – no roosters allowed!  Still, in spite of the drastic reduction, $45 in up front costs for a few chickens, not to mention the cost of the coop and the feed, reduces the economic benefit when a dozen eggs is only $1.89 right now.  Even if you consume a dozen eggs a week, half the annual money you'd save by having chickens of your own would be lost due to the fees.

Of course, once those Mad Max scenarios come to pass, those chickens are going to be worth their weight in gold.

*For a really great chicken related blog, check out Scratch and Peck.  And do yourself a favor.  Start reading from the very first blog entry.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Seasonal Vertigo

"Summer ends, and Autumn comes, and he who would have it otherwise
would have high tide always and a full moon every night." -Hal Borland

I am in no hurry to say goodbye to summer.  Summer is long here and the nights are beautiful.  Summer is freedom and warmth.  Summer brings out the neighbors and their kids play in the park down the road and their games sound like joy given voice.  Summer smells like barbecues and rosemary and hefeweizen.  

But autumn is short here and the break from the heat is precious and invigorating.  Autumn is quiet and cozy.  In autumn we rake leaves and find that we can look up through the branches and see clouds in the sky again.  Autumn is when we take walks together and when it becomes permissible to drink hot chocolate again.  Autumn smells like apples and smoke and nutmeg.  I am looking forward to autumn. 

And so it has become tradition for me to sit down around this time of year and grapple with the psychological vertigo that I succumb to when I begin to take notice of the dark in the evenings and how school buses have emerged from memory and make their plodding way through the neighborhood.  I start to feel the dizziness when the mornings are cooler than they were just a heartbeat ago and when football season literally kicks off. 

Everyone feels the change and knows what it means.  Fall is coming.

I also succumb to the gardening cliche of buying mums in the fall.

And yet, in my non-native home of California, it is still going to top 100 degrees today.  I struggle to reconcile what my internal clock says is happening with what the nerve endings in my skin tell me: that summer is still very much here.

In America, we spend 13 of our most impressionable years in school.  More if we go to college.  By the time we find ourselves navigating our way through life in the “real world” our psyches are fused with the academic calendar.  Labor Day comes and something in us tells us that life needs to change course because we are used to going back to school after Labor Day.

I work in an office where any one day is practically indistinguishable from the last.  Though there’s something to be said for predictability, that daily sameness that I can depend upon all year suddenly seems to stand in stark opposition to the post-Labor Day feeling that my schedule is supposed to change. 

For the life of me, I can’t decide if spending time in the garden helps me cope with this disorientation or if it just makes it worse.  On one hand, I sense the subtle presence of autumn’s approach and I am gladdened by the sensation.  It is reflected in little ways like a new flush of growth in trees that seemed to sleep all summer.  

The new growth on my Acer palmatum 'koto-no-ito'
is very different than the old growth.

On the other hand, it is still too hot for me to safely move those same trees to new locations in the garden and I feel frustration and impatience rise up in me as I am forced to wait for the kinder days ahead.

I wonder if I will ever find my equilibrium in these times of transition.  In a couple years my daughter will start school and we will surely find our movements in perfect step with the rhythm of the academic calendar again.  I suspect this will delay any progress I would have made.

So while I wait for balance to find me, I am trying to find some truism to hang my hat on that will help me frame my outlook.  I have tried to tell myself that perhaps this feeling is my new normal for this time of year.  Perhaps feeling disjointed is a more honest encounter with the not always smooth transfer of the baton from the running hands of summer to the waiting hands of autumn.  Or perhaps this dizziness is just life's effort to trip me up for a minute so I will stop and take notice of all the ineffable changes taking place in the air, in time, and in me.   

Crepe Myrtle blossoms have littered my sitting area.  But I couldn't sit here anyway because this
'Glowing Embers' Japanese maple has put on several feet of
gangly growth this summer and now stretches across my chair.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tools of the Trade - Felco Pruners

I received something in the mail last week that made me feel like I had graduated to the next level of amateur gardener.

No longer am I just a guy that plays around in his yard and writes about it on a blog.  Now I'm a guy that plays around in my yard, writes about it on my blog, and invests money in tools that I don't necessarily need.

For the last two years I've been quite pleased with my ergonomic Fiskars pruners.  They are comfortable to use thanks to a rotating bottom handle, they seem durable enough, and they do their job.

But the more time I spent on garden forums and reading gardening blogs the more I began to recognize a pattern among longtime gardeners.

That pattern was that these experienced gardeners kept mentioning their fondness for their Felco pruners.  That there might be something special about these pruners started registering with me when I read things like "if I could keep only one tool it would be my #8 Felco pruners" or "I bought Felco pruners 20 years ago and they still work great today" or "If Felco pruners were human, I'd totally marry mine."  I may have embellished a little bit on that last example but the sentiment is accurate.  And the point is, I don't recall anyone ever whispering or typing a disparaging word about their Felco pruners.

My old pruners worked just fine, but things had gotten stale between us.

Adding to their mystique was the fact that I couldn't find a seller locally.  Home Depot doesn't carry them, my favorite Garden Centers didn't have them, and they certainly weren't turning up on garage sale tables so I went to the Internet (God Bless the Internet) and purchased a pair through after researching them on Felco's web site.

It's a little disconcerting to spend $45-$60 for a pair of pruners without the benefit of holding them in your hand first so if you don't have that luxury, I recommend that you spend some time reading through all the descriptions of the different models Felco produces.  Each model has it's own number - mine are Felco 2s.  And each model has a different size or distinguishing feature that you may find more useful or better tailored to your specific needs.  They even have pruners specifically designed for left-handed users which is a good thing because my favorite bar has a poster over the urinal that says that each year 2,500 left-handed people are killed using tools designed for right-handers.  And if it's hanging over a urinal in a dive bar, you know it's serious.  (Not to get too sidetracked, but here's The Straight Dope's take on lefties dying young.)

I chose the Felco 2 model because it is designed for manly Paul Bunyan-like hands such as mine.  It also has the benefit of each part of the pruner being easily replaceable.  Cool features include a notch for cutting small wires without worrying about dulling the cutting edge.  It also has a sap groove feature that is supposed to keep the blades from getting sticky.  I haven't figured out how that works yet though.

They are Swiss made.  It says so right on the forged aluminum.

As for how highly I will prize my right-handed, specially-selected-for-me pruners, I will let time be the ultimate judge.  But after just a week of use, I can attest that they feel good in the hand, they cut sharply and easily, and they feel like quality objectified.  But that might be just the euphoria of a new long term relationship talking.