The Herbarie

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Lessons From The Garden

One of my favorite books from childhood is still one of my favorites as an adult – The Story of the Root Children originally written by Sibylle von Olfers. This story is about the wonderful, magical transformation of Winter into Spring! This story has been retold several times, but my favorite version is by Helen Dean Fish and is called When the Root Children Wake Up. My mother read it to me when I was 4 or 5 years old and every year, about this time, I think of the story which begins like this:

“All winter long the trees are bare, the wind is cold and the fields are empty. But very early in the Spring the Sun begins to grow warmer, the air softer and the sky bluer. And the boys and girls grow happier though they cannot tell just why. Down underground something is happening. Something secret and wonderful. The root children who have been sleeping soundly all winter are awakened by the Earth Mother. She comes with her candle and her little firefly helpers to tell them they must be up and at work for it will soon be Spring. They are very sleepy at first but soon begin to stretch and open their eyes and be glad that it is time to wake. Wide awake at last, in their root house, the root children work busily on their new Spring dresses. Each chooses the color she loves best – violet, yellow, blue, white, orange or red – and with needle, thread and thimble, sews happily till her work is done.”

I’ll admit that even as an adult this story is exciting for me and I can still feel the wonderful anticipation of Spring and envision it through a child’s eyes.

The seeds that were sown in flats under lights a few weeks ago have germinated! The tomatoes were first, followed by the peppers and eggplant and broccoli. The USDA NOP Organic Certification requires that we use Organic Certified Seeds which has led us to try many new varieties this year! Along with the usual Roma and Park’s Whopper tomatoes, we’re experimenting with two new heirloom varieties this year – Arkansas Traveler and Costaluto Genovese. I bought them based on the delicious sounding descriptions, but later someone mentioned problems with these two varieties. But we’ll try them this year and hope for the best. The Rose tomato is another heirloom variety that proved to be delicious when we grew it some years back so we are growing it again this year.

We are growing two new varieties of peppers – Aji Colorado and Corno Di Toro. The Aji Colorado was purchased from Horizon Herbs. Horizon Herbs is one of the absolute best seed and plant sources available. They describe the Aji Colorado as a "fast-growing, flat-topped bush 24-30 inches tall, loaded with ornamental flowers giving way to red, elongated lantern fruits. These sweet, thin-walled fruits make incomparable chile powder.” A few months ago, a customer/friend from New Mexico gave me some of the most delicious chili powder I’ve ever tasted. I’ve been using it on everything I can think of – from my lentil soup to sprinkled on popcorn. I am now inspired to grow peppers for making chili powder! I am also planning to use these moderately hot peppers in my Hot Pepper Jelly that I make every year. Hot Pepper Jelly is great with cream cheese on crackers or on biscuits or as a condiment with meat or vegetables – yummy!

Good news!! Our application for USDA NOP Organic Certification as Handler/Processor has been approved! We are excited about this achievement and will continue with our application for Farm certification as well.

One of our small gardens – I call it my secret garden - is located just outside my office window. The garden is my special and private place – not really secret, but more or less protected from the foraging of the deer by a lattice fence. As I sit at my computer much of the day, I can watch as summer changes to fall, fall fades into winter, and winter becomes spring. In this garden we have several bird feeders and two bird houses and dozens of birds. Spring through Fall, this cottage-type garden is filled to overflowing with roses, herbs, daylilies – too many plants I’m told. But, this jumble of plants makes a great habitat for the birds, rabbits, turtles, frogs, and other critters that I welcome into my space. This time of year – late winter – the birds and other wildlife struggle to find food to eat. We fill the birdfeeders with seeds several times a week to make sure they will be fed. At any given time, we can see 25 to 30 cardinals in and around the garden and perched in the bare branches, they look like beautiful red ornaments! This huge family of Cardinals must have their own territorial rules because they certainly seem to live in harmony. Along with the cardinals are dozens of goldfinch. Through the winter these little birds are a dull greenish brown. As the days grow longer and spring and mating season approach, the little birds become brighter and brighter until they are a brilliant yellow by springtime! We also welcome the wrens, house finch, chickadee, sparrow, tufted titmouse, rufus-sided towhee and others.

On one of the warm days this week, I noticed the behavior and calls had changed. When I took a closer look, I saw the cardinals staking out territory and searching for nesting spots – they seemed to be on a mission! I was surprised and thrilled to see two bluebirds – male and female – come into the secret garden. The bluebirds don’t come to the seed feeder, but prefer to forage inside the big garden and out in the fields for insects so this was a rare and special treat. We have several bluebird houses – two in the fields and one in the secret garden – and this pair seemed to be very interested in the house by our secret garden. The male perched on top while the female inspected the inside. After a few minutes, they flew over to the smaller wren house to inspect, but after a quick look they flew back to the bluebird house. They continued to inspect the bluebird house for quite a long time. I am hoping it met with final approval as their spring nesting spot!

We’ve pruned our grapes and most of the roses, but still have some more work to do. Even though I know pruning is necessary, it’s never been my strength since I fear hurting the plant. How do I know precisely where to prune or just how much to prune? What if I prune too much or not enough? Am I being brutal or kind to the plant when I prune it back severely? These thoughts lead to philosophical thoughts about life in general. I recognize the fact that I have a tendency NOT to prune at all. I have a tendency to plant as much as possible – even plants that are often called weeds. I love Queen Anne’s Lace and Plantain and Chickweed and encourage them to grow. How do I decide which plant lives and which plant dies? To me, it’s an important and difficult decision. So most of my gardens are crowded and by Summer some of the plants struggle to survive. Maybe my lesson is to learn when and how to prune - when and how to weed. Because I know that even though it goes against my nature to prune the roses and pull up the plantain, it’s necessary for the overall good of the garden.

I’ll quote a passage from one of my books about roses, 100 English Roses for the American Garden by Clair G. Martin: “There are some basic guidelines for how, and how much, to prune. Most English Roses naturally have a V-shaped, or open pattern. Opening the center of these cultivars will not require as much pruning as some of the larger English Roses, which produce many basal canes. Once a rose has been growing for three years or so, it is a good idea to renew the shrub by removing some of the oldest canes. A cane will continue to grow and flower for a number of years, but after three years, its best flower production will be over. So for each new cane produced by a mature shrub, you can remove one old cane. This helps keep the shrub to a controllable size and maximizes flower production by encouraging the production of new flowering canes. Also, we should remember that pruning activates the growth cycle built into the roses. After the shrub is pruned, chemical processes are initiated that cause the dormant cycle to produce tender new growth. This tender new growth can be adversely affected by a sudden freeze to the point of being killed, so timing is important.” The author goes on to say: “If a cane or branch is dead, it’s dead-it won’t ever come back. Pruning out dead growth simply helps tidy up the plants and creates room for new, healthy growth. Dead or diseased wood is just a potential source of infestation, and removing it will help suppress the spread of the problems.”

These are words of wisdom that can be utilized in the garden as well as other areas of our lives. Many of us stay too busy with too many things. Sometimes it’s necessary to select the most important and weed out the rest. Sometimes we need to prune out the old wood to promote new growth. We are weeding and pruning at the Herbarie right now! After almost 10 years of successful business, we are much like the mature shrub. It’s time for us to remove some old canes, open up the center, to make way for new growth! This means that we are discontinuing some of our products to maximize our overall production and growth. We currently have nearly 500 products and a number of them are on sale for closeout as we move to a new phase in our business. It’s exciting to plan for new growth!

Today, is a gorgeous almost Spring day and I can't wait to get outside and enjoy it! I will be planting sugar peas as well as weeding and pruning. As Winter fades and prepares for Spring, I’m ready!