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Digging It Down Home

Spring and Renewal

Susan Slape-HoysagkIt has certainly been more than just the winter’s months since I last wrote. Last summer was full of sunshine and the bounty of my garden as well as of losses including my English Springer Spaniel dog soul mate, Max. I still miss him every day. I knew his short dog life was just going to be that but the pain is no less because of this knowledge. Two months later it was my German Shepherd girl, Sadie. Both were older, yet helping them cross the Rainbow Bridge was still bitter sweet and rivers of tears. 

There have been other losses that were not deaths per se. The emotional toll is still the same. Many days this winter I have felt like the coastal storms and their deluge-ish rains, like my sorrows, would go on ad infinitum. Then there was today. I stepped out of the front door to a beautiful blue sky and sweet perfumed air.

I have a beautiful evergreen clematis growing on the northeast side of my house’s front porch area. It was growing at my mother’s house many years ago but never really thrived, and that is putting it mildly. Because of her frustration with the poor vine’s apparent lack of vigor she was going to “rip it out and toss it.” Fortuitously for both the clematis and myself, I was present for her lamentation and offered to take it home. What a sad sight that straggly vine was peering out from a large black shroud of a garbage bag. Pitiful. I was actually not too hopeful of its survival.

Snowdrift is a great description, don't you think?

Today was a reminder of spring and renewal, of hope and yes, survival. That initially pathetic little vine has graced the side of my house for years now. Mom did not know what kind of evergreen clematis she had but it looks like an Armandii from the pictures I have seen. The late winter to early spring is the time when this beauty really shines as exemplified by “her” snowdrift of abundant stark white, simple star-shaped beautiful flowers. The clear, crisp air is delicately sweetened by her fragrance. As summer winds down into the cool days of fall I can count on another flush of flowers, not as magnificent as spring, nonetheless beautiful and aromatic. Beauty, strength, resilience. 

Simple beauty.

Each simple flower is a part of a larger cluster. The glossy, dark green leaflets of three leaves are truly evergreen with new growth a bronzy show-off in contrast. Flowers develop on the previous year’s growth. Propagate in early summer with softwood cuttings. This clematis likes full sun to light or open shade according to the experts, and likes to grow in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9. My beauty gets full morning sun.

A real

A happy vine can reach 25 to 30 feet. I do recommend pruning to keep things in check, keeping in mind the timing is important so you don’t remove all your potential spring treats. However, I had a few years I did not follow my own advice and ended up with a hard pruning session. Naturally the next spring was not graced with a bountiful flowering. That was just that spring. The next year I was again rewarded with an avalanche of spring flowers. Remember, clematis like their feet to be cool! The bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds are especially fond of my vine. Slugs and snails are not a problem.

Alert! According to the ASPCA this plant’s toxicity is: Toxic to dogs, cats, and horses.

Toxic Principles: Irritant glycoside (Protoanemonin)

Clinical Signs: Salivation, vomiting, diarrhea.

It Was Ground This Morning

Susan Slape-HoysagkOregonians love their coffee (and not exclusively, I know). We brew it at home or get it on the run. There are coffee “stands” everywhere, chains and local artisans. Standalone kiosk drive “thrus,” corners of the local grocery market, bookstores, craft stores, public library, gas stations, or even a knife store (totally serious). All kinds (latte, Americano, cappuccino, and the like), flavors, milk types (cow, soy, coconut), and organic or not. Caf or decaf. Single-, double-, or triple-shot. How did coffee get so complicated?

There is simplicity to be found in all this coffee hype and jargon – the lovely leftovers – coffee’s little sister – the wondrous grounds. My dear maternal grandmother saved her stove-top percolator’s grounds, dumping the pot’s basket into an old metal coffee can she kept in a kitchen cupboard. Once full, her garden inherited the dark brown stash. As a child I asked her why she saved what so many simply put in the trash. “For the worms in the garden.”

Worms are very fond of coffee grounds and wonderful for your soil! 

Worms are very fond of coffee grounds and wonderful for your soil!

Maybe she knew or maybe not, but worms are not the only reason to indulge your garden with coffee grounds. The worms do seem to love them, and attracting earthworms (aka nature’s plow) to your soil is great for improving soil structure by loosening the soil, which aids with aeration and water permeability. Never mind the benefits of their super nutrient-rich castings (fancy word for worm poop).

Coffee has a pH of 5 while the spent coffee grounds (SCG) are reported to have a pH of about 6.9 or 6.2. Or 5.2 … or even less. Make up your mind, you say? Not so simple. There are authors and labs sure of their numbers but obviously in conflict. So for now, moderation until I can get back to you with the real scoop. That is if I can find it. I do use grounds in my compost (not more than 10 to 20 percent of the volume), add some to my worm bin, and dig some into the ground around my acid loving plants. Coffee filters can be added into your compost too!

Spent coffee grounds have many uses in the garden.

Spent coffee grounds have many uses in the garden.

Quick pH lesson for those inquiring minds: pH is short for potential Hydrogen. Pure water is neutral with a pH of 7. Less is acid, more is alkaline (basic). My dad used to talk about soil being either sweet (alkaline) or sour (acidic). He would add lime to his lawn every spring to “sweeten it up” and improve the growing conditions.

We have clay soil here and that, combined with our rainy weather, equates to lime being leached out and a more acidic soil. Now, some plants not only don’t mind that lower pH but thrive in it. Which explains why we have so many happy azaleas, rhododendrons, ferns, trilliums, dogwoods (Cornus), camellias, Pieris japonica, hydrangeas, and blueberries (Vaccinium). Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), astilbe, bleeding heart (Dicentra), and heathers (Calluna vulgaris) also are among the many that thrive in acidic soils.

Other benefits of using SCG in your garden:

  • Coffee grounds have low amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, sulfur, boron, copper, iron, manganese, sodium, chloride, zinc and magnesium. Not in any special order.

  • They also seem to suppress common fungal wilts and rots during decomposition.

  • Sprinkled around your plants – there are claims SCG will keep snails and slugs (gastropods) at bay. I think there has to be a decent swath for this to work. The slimy critters don’t care for crushed eggshells, either.

  • Some folks say grounds will repel cats and lessen the likelihood of your garden bed being used as a litter box.

  • Grounds are a great way of adding organic matter to improve soil structure.

  • According to some studies, composted grounds are better for your plants and shrubs and have less potential detrimental effects secondary to acidity.

Rhododendrons are one of the many plants that prefer an acidic soil.

Rhododendrons are one of the many plants that prefer an acidic soil. 

Other plants that will grow in acidic soil:

  • Acid-loving herbs and vegetables include cilantro, endive, garden peas, garlic, parsley, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rhubarb, soybeans and sweet potatoes.

  • Those that prefer only a slightly acid growing environment are beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, corn, cucumbers, onions, squash, tomatoes and turnips.

What experience have you had using coffee grounds in your compost and/or garden? Want to weigh in on the pH debate?

Until next time, keep diggin' it!

Mon Potager

Susan Slape-HoysagkOutside my backdoor is my kitchen garden or potager. This area is really more an herb garden now with a newer kitchen garden not too far away. Having the herbs right outside the kitchen door makes snipping fresh herbs for cooking so easy, even when winter brings early sunsets.

Potager, or a traditional kitchen garden, is a mix of edibles and non-edibles, flowers, herbs and vegetables. Some you will find to be very ornate, geometrical designs hedged with trimmed boxwoods. Mine, not so much. For the most part, the small area I call my kitchen garden is inhabited by frequently consumed edibles (in my household) such as green onions, lettuces, chards, radishes, spinach and mustards. Zinnias brighten the border and provide some companion benefits for certain vegetables.

Bright, bold zinnias are perfect vegetable garden companions. Photo courtesy Flickr/Scot Nelson

Bright, bold zinnias are perfect vegetable garden companions. Photo courtesy Flickr/Scot Nelson

If you hanker for easy, cheap and fast color – zinnias are your answer! Never boring, the bold zinnia rainbow of colors includes pinks, reds, oranges and yellow faces to brighten your garden wherever you plant these beauties. Want something less intense? Zinnias also come in white, pastels, and a wonderful chartreuse as well as multi- and bi-colors. Plant heights range from 18 to 36 inches. Then there are the multitude off shapes and flower forms including single, double, semi-double, quilled, cactus, pom-pom, crested and dahlia. Whew, so many to choose from!

Zinnias starts transplant well, and they also grow easily from seed in well-drained soil (Zones 2-11). Seeds give you myriad choices not found in store-bought transplants. Just be sure to plant in a sunny location, according to packet directions, and about four to six weeks before your last frost date. You could also get ahead of the game by starting your own transplants indoors; also four to six weeks before last frost. Remember, zinnias like warm weather. Fertilizing and watering regularly along with dead-heading old blooms will keep your zinnias blooming from mid to late summer.

Not just another pretty face in your garden, zinnia’s colors and nectar attract predators (that feast on undesirable insects) and pollinators. Hummingbirds love zinnia nectar and will thank you by eating white flies that go after tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers. Butterflies flock to zinnias for the same reasons as the hummers, as do bees, predatory wasps and hover flies. Zinnias have an additional effect of deterring tomato worms and cucumber beetles, and they are deer resistant to boot! 

Zinnias attract and nourish many garden helpers like this hummingbird. Photo courtesy Flickr/Amy Ashcroft 

Zinnias attract and nourish many garden helpers like this hummingbird. Photo courtesy Flickr/Amy Ashcroft

I said zinnias were easy to grow but they are not without potential problems. Aphids and spider mites are the most commons pests you will encounter with zinnias. Nothing insecticidal soap can’t fix.

Powdery mildew (PM) is the main disease affecting these plants, and it loves humidity, usually rearing its ugly head later in the growing season. This fungal disease (different species of the order Erysiphales for inquiring minds) looks like its name – a whitish or light gray powdery film appears on leaves and stems and can make your beauties look just plain awful. Not only does it look bad, PM interferes with the plant’s photosynthesis and gas exchange. Not good.

Since the spores of PM are everywhere in the environment, preemptive actions are important to prevent the environment conducive to an outbreak. First, do not water at night. Second, space your plants to provide adequate air flow and ventilation. If you have ongoing problems with PM, there are cultivars that less prone or have shown resistance to PM.

Powdery mildew is the most common disease in zinnias. Photo courtesy Flickr/Frank Boston

Powdery mildew is the most common disease in zinnias. Photo courtesy Flickr/Frank Boston

There are some easy spray options to run interference:

  • 1 tablespoon baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) in 1 gallon water with a few drops of environment-friendly dish soap. Spray plant weekly.

  • The scientist jury is still out on exactly why this works but cow’s milk sprays have been found to be very effective in preventing PM. I have seen varying dilutions from 10 percent to 40 percent milk to water, sprayed on a sunny day and repeated every seven to 10 days. It is believed the milk’s protein is the soldier in this war so no worries about skim versus 1 percent, 2 percent or whole, because for once is not about the fat.

  • Garlic’s antifungal properties to the rescue! Blend two whole bulbs (not the little cloves) of garlic with a few drops of environment-friendly dish soap in a quart of water. Strain out the solids and dilute 1:10 with water. Keep unused extract refrigerated.

  • The bacteria Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus pumilis are available in folar spray biological fungicides for the control of PM. For those seed savers out there be advised zinnias love, love, love to cross-pollinate so be prepared for ensuing surprises.

I would love to hear your powdery mildew battle success stories, please do share.

Spring Sprung Splat

Susan Slape-HoysagkThere is an old Chinese proverb that touts “rain in the spring is as precious as oil.” I dare say these words have never been spoken by anyone here on the Oregon coast! Here spring = rain. Even more so if it is spring break. I remember my own mother lamenting the rainy weather spring break always seemed to attract, and we lived in the less-so-rainy Willamette Valley just south of Portland, Oregon. I sang the same song when I had school-age children.

Beautiful fluffy ephemeral flowering cherry blossoms usher in spring. 

Beautiful fluffy ephemeral flowering cherry blossoms usher in spring.

Rain is precious, and I would rather have more than less. However, boggy, soggy spring clay soil should not be messed with lest you desire a nasty compacted earth. Not good. The difficulty with spring, speaking only from my own experience in the Pacific Northwest, is that we can have some really rockin’ weather. Warm (for us) sunny days are great medicine for the winter weary soul. And us dreamy-eyed, winter-weary gardeners are waiting in the chute, chomping at the bit with seed catalog orders and starts in hand, ready to charge out the gate into the garden! Stop!

Spring is not for the faint of heart or the impulsive soul. Frost dates are quickly forgotten when seduced by the beautiful nursery plants waving their gorgeous herbaceousness in our faces. Some of them could survive some chilliness while others would be dead, dead, deadski. It is hard to reign in that anxious glee like that felt by a child lying awake in the wee hours of Christmas morning.

Winter is nice, a good down time from the physical toils of gardening. A time to relax, rejuvenate, rejoice, dream and plan. I embrace the time. Then around the beginning of February the cabin fever starts to creep in. Cutting back the rose bushes helps a little but the musky, sweet smell of the earth entices. Plotting and planning the garden helps until the sun comes out and I wander outside to find some weeds are already taking up residence. The nerve. Those weeds are unfortunately much hardier than a good number of those nursery temptresses.

Hardiness zones are important to know as they provide a good guide to follow for planting various flowers and vegetables. Some of you enjoy plants as perennials that are an annual in my neck of the woods. Do remember even your own yard has its own microclimates. I have had tomatoes in one area of my property survive longer into fall than those in another equally sunny area. Time and observation are key to understanding your personal property’s special attributes. Some find it helpful to keep a sort of diary. Doesn’t have to be anything more than a three-ring binder or dollar store composition book. Make it as complex or simple as you desire and need.

One of my favorite spring plants is lettuce. Lovely cool weather loving lettuce. So many to choose from! There are so many more than the typical romaine, iceberg, leaf and butterhead lettuces. I know many lettuce aficionados poo-poo the poor, lowly iceberg – but baby that is what I grew up on! At my house lettuce was always iceberg. Densely packed wedges cut from a crisp head slathered in Best Food’s mayo (and only BF. Eastern folks know this same wonderful store-bought mayo as Hellman’s).

I remember exactly the first time I made “from scratch” mayo. It was a Girl Scout cooking class (going for the badge!) with a local neighborhood chef. One of the many skills he taught us was how to make mayonnaise. Up until the age of 12, I had no idea that mayo was egg yolks, oil, salt and vinegar. There was a sort of mini epiphany that day in the classification of things we take for granted. A huge can of worms opened for me because suddenly I was challenged to consider all the everydayness I previously gave not one thought to. Yet years later I found out my grandmother sure as heck knew how to make mayo, catsup (ketchup v. catsup is another blog, I promise), mustard, and a wide assortment of salad dressings. My mother, and like many her age at the time, shunned the made-from-scratch foods for the new, fast, wondrous supermarket shelf jewels. All dressed up in their pretty packaging and ready to go. No muss, no fuss. Also, I only remember seeing iceberg lettuce.

As I said, I still have a soft spot for iceberg and have grown some of my own. They are never the giant firm monsters in the stores but are more flavorful. I am now accustomed to eating very freshly picked lettuce and that right there makes a huge difference.

One of my favorite romaine varieties is Forellenschluss, an old Austrian heirloom. This tasty beauty has a deep red splattered over a brilliant green background that easily lives up to its name, “speckled like a trout.” This variety is a little more heat tolerant than other varieties. Lettuce does prefer cooler weather and will bolt (go to seed and become bitter) when the temperatures start to climb. Some varieties are slower to bolt and shading the area where the lettuce grows can help delay the plant’s inherent race to seed.

Even the baby Red Sails lettuce will tolerate a little frost here and there. 

Even the baby Red Sails lettuce will tolerate a little frost here and there.

Sometimes I harvest lettuce by plucking a few of the larger outer leaves. Other times I cut it off with a sharp knife, leaving the base and roots to provide me with future lettuce crops. Cut and come again. I honestly have never met a lettuce I didn’t like.

What is your favorite lettuce variety?

My Grandmother's Garden and Simpler Times

Susan Slape-HoysagkWarm, sweet pea-scented summer breezes, dappled light filtering through the concord grapevine roof of the back porch, bright yellow marigolds poking their giant faces out of some of her open-lidded cold frames … so many wonderful memories of my grandmother's garden.

My maternal grandmother lived in a very small rural lakeside community on the southern Oregon coast. About 1 mile inland and nestled against Tenmile Lake, Lakeside (creative folks were in charge of naming the town, apparently) was once a popular retreat destination for Hollywood’s elite.

The late 1930s and 40s saw the likes of Bing Crosby, Sidney Greenstreet, Bob Hope and other stars of the time gracing local newspapers and staying at wealthy producer Roy Currier’s cabins at Currier’s Village at Lakeside. His Lakeshore Lodge hosted dining, live music, dancing, and gaming in the amusement pavilion on the village pier.

“Oregon’s Coast is Heaven’s Nearest Point” claims a menu’s cover. Coffee was 10 cents in the 1940s and a good filet mignon dinner with all the trimmings would set you back $1.50 at Lakeshore Lodge.

Smokes such as Luckies, Old Golds, Philip Morris and Chesterfields were also on the menu along with Robert Burns or Van Dyck cigars. All of this must have seemed rather surreal for a rural logging and fishing town with a population of 134.

Among the menu pages of fancy appetizers (caviar!), hors d’oeuvres (caviar again!), cheeses, relishes, soups, steaks, imported wines and other bar offerings is a short list of desserts. Choices includef fresh fruits in season (Remember what that was? You know, where we only ate fruits available during their growing season here?), pie, ice cream, sherbet, or JELLO (sic). Yes, after your wonderful meal of fine American cuisine and for a mere 15 cents more, you could tantalize your palette with some delicious flavored gelatin.

Looking back on my own childhood this suddenly does not seem so strange. Visions of pineapple chunks and cottage cheese afloat in a beautifully executed molded lime Jell-O ring or an equally clever suspension of fruit cocktail in “red” Jell-O quickly come to mind. For decades American families were gaga over these congealed salads. Did you know the grocery shelves once held Jell-O flavors such as celery, seasoned tomato, Italian salad, and mixed vegetables? I kid you not.  

Picture a milk glass cake plate artistically lined with iceberg lettuce leaves, topped by a shimmering sculpted tower of green mixed-vegetable-flavored gelatin embedded with slices of cucumbers, bell pepper, tomatoes and cauliflower. Just another night at the family dinner table.

Sadly, the former resort’s lodge and steam-heated cabins were long gone before I came into the world. By then Lakeside had reverted back to its natural rural state with a small grocery store, tavern and post office. But the lake, oh that beautiful 170 miles of forested shoreline!

Grandma sometimes rented a rowboat and took me and my brother fishing. In the 1960s the lake’s clear cold waters still gave up perch and catfish easily and much to the delight of us youngsters who had nothing more than a cheap pole and a wiggling earthworm dancing on a hook. I learned to fish and how to row so we would actually go out into the lake and not just in circles 10 feet from the dock.

Oh, and to gut and clean the fish, a feat that did not come easy to the little girl bordering on tears the first time she impaled her bait worm on the “careful, don’t shove that into your finger” fishhook.

Perch were easy enough to clean but the catfish required driving a 16-penny nail through the fish’s head and into a board, anchoring it so Grandma could skin it with her special (meaning slice-your-little-kid-fingers-off) knife. Oddly enough my real take away was the treasure of a little glass jar of formaldehyde showcasing the yellow perch egg sacs I had gleaned while cleaning one of my catches.

Showing off our fishing trophies in Grandma's backyard.

Still, it was her garden that intrigued me the most. Not the movie star stories, fishing, shooting blackberries off the vines with her .22-gauge rifle, rowing, or exploring the train rails across her heavily rutted, one-lane street. Given her property was like a giant sandlot, I was even more in awe. She knew the secret of amending the soil and had carved out a multitude of garden areas scattered around her yard that entertained me for hours on end.

My favorites were the sweet peas that managed to cover the entire side of her garage every year and the clumps of nasturtiums dotting her gardens. She had Gravenstein apple trees from which she made a divine chunky applesauce, another favorite. She kept coffee grounds in an old metal coffee can in her kitchen “to feed the worms.” So many things I learned from watching her and did not even realize it at the time. Although she passed many decades ago, my grandmother continues to be my mentor and muse as I tend and nurture my own gardens. And I upped the whole feeding the worms game to a different level when I purchased a pound of red wrigglers 20 years ago. Their original repurposed camping cooler is now a fancy-smancy bin system that is occupied solely by the descendants of that original pound. Although my sweet peas have never measured up to hers – see my crazy nasturtiums!

Nasties Maters
My nasturtiums take over this wall every year, and they taste great in salads!

Speaking of Jell-O: Do you remember Perfection Salad? Have a recipe?

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