MARTIN CHEMNITZ PRESS
A MIGHTY FORTRESS LUTHERAN CHURCH
Pastor Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.
6421 W. Poinsettia Drive
On February 19th, about a month ago, I wrote about my first gardening efforts in Phoenix. Our yard is progressing rapidly.
I am sure that some said, “Aha! Aha!” when I wrote about chopping up weeds in one section, planting seeds in a rush, and throwing pine needles on top for mulch. Sceptics said to themselves, “He will never admit how that turned out.” But I will. The sunflowers came up through the mulch. Now they are more than knee-high. They may squelch the other plants in that section, but I’m not worried. I wanted a little dill to get started and some borage. Both will reseed themselves forever and ever amen.
A member gave me some sick tomato plants. Both of them are growing well where the sunflowers are rather thin. I believe in wide row planting, or self mulching.
Weed seeds love sunlight for germination. I assume all soil is loaded with weeds. If not, the wind will blow more in, believe me. My neighbor took out the grass in her front lawn and put in granite gravel. She used to weed her lawn. Now she weeds her gravel. And that was a three month project, at least, to turn the front lawn into rock. The wind blows in weed seeds and fine soil. Both settle into the gravel. The seed germinates and grows. The plastic mulch below holds moisture on top of it, so the weeds get some soil and moisture. God will not let a bare area alone. In time He will break it down into soil.
Breaking the weed cycle can be done through weed killers, pulling and hoeing, and with mulch and wide row planting. Weed killers are considered vitamins for weeds in Phoenix. Sure they kill their targets, but that only makes room for the next batch, roaring out of the soil behind them. In garden areas I prefer mulch and wide row planting. The sunflowers are planted “too close together” along the sunny block wall of our bedroom. But I was interested in shade not producing sunflower oil. The sunflower leaves already overlap in a wonderful geometric pattern. (Look at the seed pattern in a fully developed sunflower. Overlapping spirals, very artistic of God, in my opinion.)
The result of the crowded sunflower planting is that the soil is shaded. The “Aha!” crowd says, “What about all those weeds you chopped into the soil so carelessly?” A few of them came up, rather tentatively, after being beaten so badly before. I like weed plants in soil. They are loaded with nitrogen, moisture, and essential nutrients. Most weeds concentrate certain elements, each one having its own specialty. Horse-tails (seldom seen in the desert but often in muddy Midwestern ditches) are gritty with silica. They make great scrubbers. Back to my Phoenix weeds. They poked their heads out of the mulch, but they were leggy and easy to pull. Most people think, “Ugh! I tried to pull a weed out and it was fastened to the earth’s core.” Mulched soil is soft and damp, so the roots give up easily. The plant is leggy because it is growing up out of mulch.
So at first I was on the lookout for the remains or the issue of the weeds I killed before I planted the sunflower patch. Weeds are like false doctrine. They are easier to remove when young and less established. In time weeds will take over and seed the patch themselves, because, by design, God has appointed weeds to be the guardians of the soil. Weeds will protect and improve the soil over time.
Orthodox Christian doctrine does not blow in on the wind. It is taught and cultivated with great labor and care. Skill and education are needed. No one looks at the sunflower patch and says, “Oh, so you spilled the bag of bird seed.” Too much design is apparent. Although sunflowers are considered a noxious weed by some, they are unique in their ability to grab energy from the sun and turn it into food. They are more efficient than corn in using solar energy. Although I have grown them for years, I bought a book on sunflowers to learn more about them.
I learned in this sunflower book (discounted at Barnes and Noble) that I could grow a sunflower fort by wide-row planting sunflowers in a big rectangle. It was easy to dig a big rectangle and throw sunflower seeds into it. I left the pole bean bag (Kentucky Wonder pole beans, about a zillion of them) where the hose got it wet, so I planted all of them too. Supposedly that was an error, since sunflowers do not like competition, but I thought the kids would like to eat raw beans while they were playing in their fort. I mulched the floor of the fort with plastic mulch, held down with birdbaths and some logs. I can shovel sand on the plastic to keep it down and provide a floor for the fort.
Sunflowers are a great way to shade people and plants. I planted them across the walk from some roses that thought might get too much sun. If the sunflower screen is too thick, I will just chop a few and add them to the mulch on the sunflower brethren. Sunflowers do not make good companion plants but they could be used for shade for cucumbers.
1. Planting anything is better than planting nothing, because the process of digging, watering, and growing new plants will improve the soil.
2. There is always an easier way to garden.
3. A ton of seed costs only a little more than a few itty-bitty seed packets.
4. Read everything on gardening and then try to break a few rules.
5. Usually what someone solemnly declares about gardening or feeding the birds is wrong: item – watering in the sun will burn plants; item – birds will die the moment you stop loading the birdfeeder; item – roses are a lot of trouble; item – tie string to stakes to make straight rows.
6. Soil seldom needs to be osterized, so do not till organic material into the soil. Let the soil creatures do the work for you.
Contrition is good for the soul but bad for the reputation. I took some pride in my crooked rows (corn and beans). But then I tried to mulch with newspapers. The concept was good, but the wind blew them out from under the rocks and bricks I placed to keep them from blowing away. Thanks to our block walls, I found the newspapers blown together in one place. A few survived. They were already killing the weeds in the corn patch, holding moisture in, and sheltering our hard-working earthworms from the blast of solar radiation. I had to cough up some real money to buy plastic mulch to lay on top. My crooked rows looked even worse as I bent the plastic sheets. I had to cut holes in some of the mulch to let the beans and corn survive. In the Midwest I would have simply thrown leaves and grass on the newspapers to keep them in place. Evergreen needles would also work.
I miss the usefulness of the autumn leaf. They are great for insulating the rose garden in the fall. When the snows threaten, circle the roses with chicken wire and fill the area with leaves. All winter the rotting process will convert some of the leaves into humus for the soil. The worst winter will not harm the roses. I will refund the cost of your leaves if you lose any roses from cold. Mine survived minus 50 windchill.
In the spring the leaves seem to be a boggy mess. Dabblers are inclined to burn or throw them away. Woodman, spare that leaf! If the garden is covered with leaves, the rows can be carved easily with a hoe. The leaves are left in place for mulch. If they blow all over the place when dry, it’s a problem. But usually at this stage they slime together. The leaves raked under the bushes in the fall can be raked out and mowed back under the bushes. This turns the leaves into a papery mulch, easily digest by God’s Creation. Gardeners are amazed at how much organic matter the soil can swallow, even when left on top. I have never owned a tiller. I almost bought one, but my wife Chris pictured me tilling my toes into the soil. Blood meal is good for the soil, loaded with nitrogen, but she was not willing to fertilize our garden so generously. I thought she was taking counsel of her fears, but it saved me money and time.
I also planted 20 roses at a member’s home. At one point I had a toddler, a 4 year old, and two dogs stopping by to advise, consult, and inspect the work. The chocolate labrador retriever was so unhinged by my neglect that she nosed me away from the roses to pet her. She also lay down across the areas I was working on.
We now have 40 rose bushes growing. I will list what I purchased, because people often ask:
a) Queen Elizabeth – the best grandiflora.
b) Double Delight – perfumed and bi-colored. No photo does it justice.
c) Liverpool Remembers – orange-red, orange reverse, early and perfect blooms.
d) Peace – giant yellow blooms, edges turning to madder, planted with Liverpool.
e) Opening Night (red) planted with Chrystalline (white), near the front door.
f) Tropicana – the first day-glo rose, still popular.
g) Mr. Lincoln – old, perfumed, large dark red. If you fear the “delicate” rose, plant Mr. Lincoln.
h) Harlequin – Lavender with a white reverse. It’s not in bloom yet.
i) Rugosa – grown for their hips or seed pods, loved by birds, a thorny solution for hedges. No one wins in a fight against a rugosa. Very rugged.
j) Purple Simplicty – Jackson and Perkins always puts these on sale late, so I got 9 for $29. They make colorful hedges, require no care, and survive cold well. They also come in pink, red, and yellow (I think).
k) Don Juan – climber. This is the highest rated rose of all. The flowers are just like hybrid tea blooms, well shaped, deep red, velvety. The rose bloomed fast and produced new blooms after the first one faded.
l) Pefume Delight – I saw it at a vegetable stand and it followed me home, so I planted it. Six dollars. Pink and perfumed.
m) Madam Isaac Pereres. (maDAM eeZAC peRER) I bought two to provide shade for my car, since the garage turned into a chapel. My song (to “Farmer in the Dell”):
Madam Isaac Pereres,
My budget’s in arrears,
I bought too many roses and
I will be broke for years.
Avoid Planter’s Panic
Buyer’s remorse is a common condition after purchasing an expensive item. Planter’s panic is similar. Bare root roses do not seem to pop their leaves very easily in the desert. I phoned in 8 failures and got a friendly tongue-lashing. Seven of the failures have popped. We tried to save them with paper bags and additional pruning. They took forever, but they leafed out. Remember than rose canes are wide awake when shipped. The roots are asleep. The roots take two weeks to get going. Pruning the canes is absolutely necessary in all climates. Covering the canes (for two weeks) with a paper bag is very good if it is already warm, windy, and sunny.
I watered a transplanted pigmy palm as often as I could, often twice a day. I noticed that the rose near it leafed out first and best. Keeping the canes moist will speed things along better. But, as I cautioned one overly eager gardener, “You are not growing rice. The roses do not want to sit in a pond of water all day. The roots will rot.”
When I plant seeds, I always get planter’s panic. I buy a lot of radish to mark rows and help my insecurities. But I still think, especially now, “My corn will never come up. Everyone will laugh and call it the Weedhaven Garden.” Birds can eat newly planted seed, especially corn, so it is good to put an ugly tie or a leather belt on the ground. Birds think it’s a snake and stay away. I prefer to use an ugly tie.
I also water the new seeds twice a day, especially here. In other areas once a day is probably enough. The ground around the seeds should be damp every day and not dry out. New seedlings are like new believers, easy to crush and destroy. Peasants used to wear their wooden shoes, called sabots in French, across the newly planted fields. That’s where we get the term sabotage. If we let the seedlings dry out, we are sabotaging the garden. Once the roots are deeper, less watering is needed.
This idea is from Jerry Baker, “Plants Are Like People,” a great book. He reissued the book, adding “Still.” I hear people say that they water at night. Wrongo! Bad idea. His analogy is excellent. Would you go to bed on cold sheets after having an ice water shower, getting into bed wet? That’s what people do to their lawns and gardens when they water at night, because they imagine sunlight will “burn” the plants when watered during the day. Actually, water evaporating from plants and the soil will cool off the garden area. We use a mister system outside, to cool the patio by 20 degrees. We ran it all afternoon today. No one has been “burned” by the droplets of water.
This goofy idea must come from the universal human experience of it raining when it is fairly dark. But we like to have water first, before we are dried up. And we like to dry out after a shower. In the desert, drinking enough fluids is not a luxury but a necessity. So I argue for watering in the day, to give the plants a boost for the day’s work. Early evening watering gives plants a chance to dry out here. But in the mildewy Midwest, watering late is an invitation for mold attacks. Golf courses water at night because people do not like to golf wet, but the courses make up for it by using a lot of fungicides.
I was told the bird population would fade when it warmed up. Wrong again, solemn advisors. We often have 50 birds feeding at once. One member, Noye Balmer, calls them entitlement birds. The doves sit on the fence all day, waiting to get hungry. One large bird (crow family) eyed me before taking his bath in the waterfall. He walked across it and hopped up to eye me again. Then he bathed and eyeballed me. Then he took about 20 dips, sticking his head into the water, fluttering the water across his body, flipping it off his tail. He also scratched near his eye with his claw and wiped his beak on the rock several times. Birds wipe their beaks on hard objects quite often.
My mother, going on 87, loves to work in the garden and relax while watching the birds. We have a seed bell outside her bedroom window. It took about two weeks for the birds to find it and decide it was safe. Now they are entitled. Birds are on it all day. We have only one feeder in the back, plus two hummingbird feeders. Many of my projects are designed to feed birds without the feeder. We have scarlet runner beans blooming for the hummers. Bee balm (mondarda) is ordered as a sure-fire hummer feeder. The sunflowers, all planted at different times, will feed many birds and insects.
Weeds also feed the birds. We often forget that tiny weed seeds are loved by birds. I even find doves in the front yard, working the lawn, looking for seeds. They are great entertainment.
I was watering the roses when I thought I saw an insect pass by. I looked around and saw that a hummingbird was looking for a flying bath. I knew from books that hummers do not use bird baths but prefer misting or getting water from wet plants. The little guy flew back and forth across the gentle spray of water. At first I thought he was gray. Then I saw he had a green irridescence. He came within arm’s reach. My heart was beating with euphoria. Hummers delight people so much that they will stop and point when one cruises a garden shop, sipping from flowers.