Tools of My Trade-Part II

With an acre of land that is heavily planted with landscape areas, edibles, vineyard and orchard, I have to limit my attentions to plants that basically grow themselves or to those that just need a bit of work to keep them thriving. In spring I can do all the maintenance chores required with 3 simple tools, my red flyer wagon, mulch, and of course, water. This last resource has been provided to me by Mother Nature, with the rainbarrels full most of this spring. Watering cans stand ready to divy out the precious stuff to the daffodils waking up, the evergreen, hardy succulents that are sending out new green growth and for any new plantings going on in the beds.

The iris are sending out new foliage with the dead straplike leaves lying on the ground around them. I use the heavy-tined landscape rake and using some force, rake through the bed, scraping the dead foliage out in piles. If any rhizomes pop out of the ground in the passing, I grab up a handful of moist soil and push the errant bulb back into the hole, covering it up with the toe of my boot. It may seem like rough treatment to other plant enthusiasts, but this has been my practice since planting the drift eight years ago from a shoebox full of the rhisomes gift to me from my gardening buddy, Cindy. As you can see, they do not mind the rough treatment!

To divide the iris (which is supposed to happen every three years, but is more likely every five years in my garden), my tool of choice is the digging fork. It works well to dig the bulbs, causing little damage in the process. The digging fork is used extensively in the kitchen garden, where I try to limit the use of the rototiller, turning the garden by hand instead to protect the soil tilth and micro-organisms. It goes into the wagon or the wheel barrow so it is at the ready for turning the compost and to spread mulch.

Once the clumps are dug, I use my hand pruners to cut through rhizomes. The hand pruners are always in my rear jean pocket, the first tool in my garden trug, and the most ‘broken in’ of all the hand tools. The pruners cut back the perennials either by the handful in the case of the oregano and thyme or selectively as with the agastache. I toss the old, center rhizome into the compost, split the rest up with my hands and they are ready to plant.

After filling a bed with the new divisions and watering the area thoroughly, I toss out mulch with the digging fork, covering the entire bed with about 5 inches of leaves and pine needles. Mulch is not only beneficial to the plants, reducing evaporation, cooling the soil and roots and sealing in moisture, but it gives the bed a finished look.I got about ten huge trashbags of the mulch used in this iris bed from a neighbor who had set the bags out for the trash collection. His trash, my treasure.

The tools of my trade make the tough jobs easier, leaving energy and time to devote to the rest of the garden when it needs me.





The tools of my trade….

February here in beautiful southern Utah usually means freezing temps with sporadic snow flurries, wind and rain. 2016 is quite unusual, away from the norm, but everyday the sun shines, it is summer in the greenhouse. February is a busy month in the greenhouse as it’s time to sow the seeds that will fill the tomato and pepper beds in the kitchen garden. Because of our shorter growing season, I try to set out quart sized plants, some with blooms on them, to get a jump start on the season when I plant them out in May.

I have learned over the years how to stretch my gardening dollar in creative ways. This allows me to buy more seed and more bags of potting soil, thus perpetuating my plant habit. Potting soil is mixed with perlite to create a lighter mix, which doubles the soil volume. Packs and pots have been gifted to me, or previously came from nursery-bought plants. I give them a hosing off with the rainwater in the greenhouse (See “With a Flip of the Switch” blog post), then fill a bucket with a solution of bleach and rainwater to soak the pots to disinfect. The ratio is perfect when the water feels slimy.

After filling the pots and packs, wetting the soil, then leaving them on the heat mat overnight to bring the soil temp up, I grab my favorite seed sowing tools, a pair of tweezers and a paint can opener.The tweezers are perfect for sowing the paper-thin pepper seeds, because as we know, it is the seed that carries the bulk of the heat from hot peppers. This eliminates the afterburn that may linger on my fingers, even  long after washing my hands.

The paint can opener is my seed dibble. Odd, I know, but it is smaller than a pencil that makes a too large hole for tomato seed and one end has a looped bottle-opener handle to hold onto. With a jab into the moist soil, it forms the perfect-sized hole for the seed. The tool (free with the purchase of a can of paint) has a little ‘pry’ on the end, that I use  for moving the tiny seed about to get it situated properly and to pop it up a bit, should it be planted too deep.

I go to the craft store and buy my plant labels by the box of 1000 for under 5 bucks. They are about 6 inches long, so I cut them in half with my clippers, so I can fit the cover tightly over the flats at night with their fitted plastic lids. I use a lot of labels when I propagate. It is difficult to tell pepper and tomato plants apart when they are seedlings and I usually plant a half dozen or more differing types all at once. Peppers will cross germinate so its important to keep the sweet bells away from the hot peppers when I plant in the garden. A box of 1000 lasts me about two years.

For covering the flats at night to keep the soil from drying out, I use bubble wrap that I received as packing in boxes sent in the mail. When you look at my cost outlay in planting my garden from seed, I am planting an entire season’s worth of fresh veggies for pennies. A packet of seed usually lasts me two years or more. Some seed I collect myself from favored heirlooms when I harvest in September and October. Just these two flats contains over 24 finished assorted peppers, 15 tomato plants and over 40 basil plants (for eating, but more for the bees who flock to their blooms in late season when all else is done blooming). The pretty pots and baskets contain seed for winter baby greens, so we will be eating fresh salads by Mid-March. I water everything with water from the rain barrel, which also contains nitrogen, so I don’t have to fertilize until transplanting at the end of March.

The tools of my trade…saving money, time, and resources, allowing me to order more seed and buy more potting soil so the cycle (and the gardening addiction) continues!


With the Flip of a Switch….

With the flip of this switch, I have room-temp rainwater pouring out of the hose and onto my overwintering plants in the greenhouse. A simple thing to some gardeners, this occasion brought tears of joy and I even did a little rain dance in the greenhouse while an even flow of water covered the plants, washing all the vacationing scale and aphids off the leaves in its path.

We have various sizes and shapes of rain water catchment containers spread out throughout the property, placed under the eaves of the house, my husband, Steve’s blacksmith shop, the chicken coup and my hut that all fill quickly in the spring and summer with monsoonal rains, and in the winter with rainfall and snow melt. Some are little more than empty trashcans that I dip the watering can into so I can deposit the water where it is needed. The main receptacle, placed just outside the back door,  is a 60-gallon rain barrel. I keep a soaker hose attached to the bottom outlet, which provides all the water the adjacent lawn needs throughout the growing season. The top outlet dispenses water to the water cans so I can provide supplemental water to container plants. All in the all, when the weather is warm, our conservation efforts in capturing, storing and using rain water work well.

The problem comes in the winter when the irrigation systems are turned off, the pipes are frozen, and we must rely on what falls from the sky to water the plant collections in the filled to capacity greenhouse. A few days of rain or snow and the containers freeze into giant ice cubes, making drawing off the precious resource impossible. The rain barrel is in the sun for a few hours a day in winter, so it might thaw enough to get a trickle of water to fill the watering can. Sometimes it takes days to fill the cans needed to water the greenhouse plants, so I divvy out the precious stuff plant by plant. A rotation schedule goes on from December to February: bring the trashcans via tree dolly to the sun, thaw enough to dip the watering can past the floating iceberg on top, set the watering can on the prop bench heat mat to warm up, then water sparingly.

Steve set to the task of remodeling our home greenhouse last spring. With a new double layer roof, new floor, added insulation and new benches, came his plan to bring rainwater into the greenhouse for use during the winter months.

The system begins at the rainbarrel overflow, where he installed a flexible hose that feeds through the greenhouse wall and into a 100-gallon galvanized feed tank, situated perfectly under the propagation bench in the greenhouse where it will not freeze and will warm to room temp. Inside the tank is a pump that feeds into a hose outlet where the hose is  attached. The switch on the wall (situated away from water source) activates the pump and the beautiful stuff pours forth. We have been having a steady supply of rain and snow this winter, so the tank is full all the time. It’s not a lot of water pressure, but sufficient enough to blast off pests and keep the plants clean, to water everything with nature’s fertilizer and there is enough of it to leach the soil in the pots every few weeks-a necessary task to keep salts from building up over the winter.

bay, geranium, bulbs in a corner

Do you hear that sound? It’s the flip of a switch!

To learn more about capturing, storing and using rain water, read my book, Water-Smart Gardening (check out Chapter 3: Water-Smart Design Solutions), due for release in Feb. or pre-sales now at

100 gal. water tank under prop benchfrom water barrel overflow to greenhouse

I can’t talk, I am in Deadline!

I have not yet seen Water-Smart Gardening in its actual book form, but viewed it numerous times on the computer screen. It will be in my grasp this month and into yours in February. Marketing has four copies in their hands at this minute (I’m on pins and needles here!), and I am told it looks great–even getting some in-house kudos from the higher ups!

The process began almost two years ago, when the first of many outlines and proposals went to the decision makers, only to have them rejected. After a year of rewrites, new proposed titles, different twists and turns, my editor and I had given up all hope. Then, the drought took hold (sadly), the value of the title hit a cord (finally), and we got the green light to proceed.

Water-Smart Gardening has taken a year of writing, editing, re-editing, and then editing again to come to fruition. The reward comes when the thing finally comes together and becomes a book. When I received the final PDF file that was set to go to print, I cried (tears of joy) looking at the finished product. The photos are awesome (We gardeners love the pretty photos!), the illustrations are standouts in beauty and function, the gardens are shining examples of what water-smart gardening is all about, and my message is clear.

What a journey! What a learning process! Not only in the research, refreshing my horticultural knowledge, and in the search for supporting photos and illustrations to bring my words to light, but in the entire publishing process. There is so much going on in the making of a book, the wheels turning at an alarming rate while artists and designers lay out each page, editors account for every word, heading, subheading and caption and somewhere in the process, they have to deal with cranky, tired, and way too emotional writers (speaking for myself here).

In this day and age with the internet, online publishing, digital imaging, etc. etc. etc., one would think the options are endless, easy to pick the photo that bests suits your purposes, making the final decisions with a click on the keyboard.  Finally I would make a selection after hours of searching, but it would not be the correct resolution or require special licensing or not be a large enough file (?) or too small (??) or not have the ‘look’ the publishers were looking for. Sources come from all walks of life on the internet, and so a constant check of resources adds to the weight of ‘getting it right’. Add to that, my ignorance of computer speak, technology and photo imagery. What is a simple chore for many (like putting a file on a ‘cloud’–still not sure what that is) required time away from my writing so I could go through the tutorials and numerous detailed email instructions from the graphics/art department–just so I knew what to do with something once I had it. Whew!

Looking back, I am in awe of any person who chooses the publishing industry as a vocation. The stress alone would kill me. My editor, Billie Brownell, Cool Springs Press, told me years ago that there were three deadlines in publishing: The Deadline, the ‘Drop Dead’ Deadline, and the ‘Running From the Building Like Your Hair’s  on fire’ Deadline. I have experienced all three, every step of the way…but survived. When I finally hold Water-Smart Gardening in my two, dirt-under-my-nails  hands, it will all be worth it!



water-smart cover


What I did on my summer vacation…

harvest 2015

I see looking back in my calendar that it’s been almost 6 weeks since my last entree. Not much of a blogger, am I? But my daughter pointed out if I don’t write in my blog then no one will visit. So if I write it, will you come?

While I lost the month of May entirely as I sat at the computer day after day, I seem to have lost August as well. I see two weekends were supposed to have been spent camping. Alas, the tent trailer has not left the driveway. The garden that was so neglected in its formative months brought forth a bountiful harvest and I must say after last year’s garden not breaking any records, it was a welcomed event. The goal is to not throw any fruits or vegetables to the compost pile, but to eat or preserve every harvest so that we are partaking of the garden all year long, up until it’s time to harvest again. Well we don’t live in Alaska and there are farmer’s markets and grocery outlets so it’s not as if we will starve. But I am obsessed. If the garden can put forth all this effort then I will not let that effort go without appreciating every last bit of fruit or veggie.

On alternate days I go to the garden, baskets in hand to harvest. Tomatoes, peppers of all types, garden huckleberries, blackberries, summer squash, lemon cucumbers, basil, oregano, thyme and flowers for the table fill the kitchen island. It takes nearly the entire day to pick, rid the plants of tomato horned worms-they like peppers and tomatoes-water and do a bit of maintenance. The next day I sort tomatoes-cherry types are cut in half and laid on cookie sheets with garlic cloves, drizzled with olive oil and slow roasted for 3 hours. Table tomatoes are cored, cut in half, dipped in a paste, then set on racks to roast for roasted tomato pasta sauce. Or they are peeled, stewed and frozen.  Roma tomatoes are sliced and laid out on racks in the food dehydrator. Peppers are roasted or grilled, peeled, sliced or diced and then frozen. Summer squash is eaten when small-just a few larger ones got grated and frozen for bread and muffins later. The cucumbers were out of control, but the chickens love them so not totally a wasted effort. Now the tomatoes are slowing and the freezer is full so I can gift the delicious fruits to neighbors. The peppers have stopped growing in girth and begin to turn red (perfect for red pepper flakes!), berries are finished and its time to dig potatoes, onions and carrots, but they are easy crops to preserve after the flurry of the rest.

My husband, Steve comes home each day to the aroma of roasted veggies and to me sitting on the couch with an ice pack placed strategically on by body. He says, “But honey, how much is a can of roasted tomatoes at the market?” I moan and reply, “It’s just not the same!”  Next year, I say, I will cut back. Only 5 tomato plants next year. Really, how much do we need? Okay, well 10, how ’bout 10 tomato plants? And I never have enough sweet bells, so….

A Garden That Grows Itself

anasazi beans bees and clover in the garden cilantro in bloom cucs up a fence fingerling potatoes 2015 healthy peppers lettuce in a shady bed liberated carrots, tomatoes superstars 86 2015

Last Monday was the first day that I could get back to work in the garden. It had been so badly neglected in the months I sat at the computer, writing. After my buddy Cindy planted the tomatoes and peppers, I spent one more day sowing seeds of carrots, beans, cucumbers and planting starts of red bull onions and basil. Then I left it to grow on its  own. I thought of taking before and after photos, but it was all just so overwhelming. The clover cover crop I had planted the year before and turned into the soil never got completely dug in, growing deep tap roots anchoring it to the soil, holding tall, bushy shrub like stems that were covered in bright yellow blossoms. The clover could only be cut back to the ground, pulling the roots would unearth the veggie plants sharing the space. Then there was the crab grass, germinated from seed carried in the green waste we collected from other sources, blanketing the aisles like the grassy groundcover it imagined itself to be. We use straw mulch in the veggie gardens to hold in moisture and keep the roots and soil cool. The drawback is when it is fresh, it carries the seedheads with it. As the plants get water, the seeds germinate, so there were ample quantities of tall field grasses growing in the veggie beds, covering any seedlings and towering over the tomato plants, buried beneath. I have a long patch of cilantro that self sows each year, which  I leave in the garden so it can flower.It is also a great attraction for butterflies and bees, and I collect the coriander seed for grinding.  It had grown out of its boundaries, completely hiding the pepper plants that I knew Cindy had planted so carefully there just months before.

As I began to cut back the clover,I heard the hum of bees, so looked more closely at the blooms–our bees were covering the plants. Hmm honeybees in the garden, collecting pollen, maybe I won’t cut back all of the clover just yet.I cut back only the plants that were starting to set seed, but left others, intermingling with the growing, sprawling tomato plants.  Steve took on the pathways, armed with a shiny new hoola hoe, and a digging tool, he was finally able to rake all clean, hauling the offending crabgrass to the trash pile should any seeds still loom. The straw grasses pull out easily in the damp soil, with each handful, the garden emerged. Carrot seedlings with little tufts of green tops, short blades of foliage were attached to tiny onion bulbs, clumps of sweet basil, self sowing New Zealand spinach is back again this year (great for pesto!) and there are Anasazi bean seedlings, just starting to send out their curly tendrils. I found tiny green tomatoes on the Superstar 86 plants-truly super stars in the garden, but looking particularly healthy this year. As i pull the weeds and trowel about a bit, the earlthworms wriggle their way back into the soil, a sign that the soil is healthier for all the cover crop and composting, and with the girls (chickens) churning it all so well. I gently found the base of the cilantro plants, and they pulled up without resistance. Underneath the aromatic stems were the little pepper plants, trying to bend their way through the thicket to the sun.

It took just a week to get the garden to rights and all through the process of pulling weeds and toiling in 110 degree temps, each day was like Christmas with new discoveries of oh-so-green and healthy plants, neglected for months, but miracle of miracles…It is a garden that grows itself!

Our Girls….


bb chicks chickens chickens in their yard chick in a pot girls cultivating girls trying to gain entree to the swiss chard

The Girls

I have not given any credit to our girls. They give us eggs everyday, even through winter. They dig up weeds in the garden, eat bugs that hang out in the compost pile, probably a few worms too, but they earn them. They cultivate the garden beds, digging in, kicking around the soil, and rolling in it until they make a little in-ground cool nest. I find them in midday all in their holes, taking a nap in the shade of the juniper. They climb up on the rainwater barrel, teetering on the edge while they get a drink of water. They have a giant 10 gallon water jug hanging in their house that gets a constant supply of fresh water from the irrigation system it is connected to. But they like the adventure of the teetering on the edge. I worry that one will fall in head first and drown. We open the bales of straw and they come running when they hear the ‘snap’ of the string. Within minutes the bale is strewn upon the ground and they are picking at the weed seeds. After they have messed with it for a week or so, I rake it up, chicken pooh and all, and use it as mulch in the veggie garden. We planted them a special garden, all their own for when they are banned from the veggie beds. It is seeded with all sorts of legumes, grasses and flowers laden with omega vitamins. Their eggs are huge, with large orange yolks, clear whites and delicious. They like to play with tomato horned worms and pasta, the longer pieces the better. They tease each other, snatching a big piece of bread and running around, well, like chickens with their heads cut off, so proud of their find! They are inquisitive, loving, they like to be petted (well a few do, the black and white ones, not so much), playful, and at times, quite the b@#ches, as they try to gain entree to a crop or plant that they do not have access to. They are free range girls, but if allowed to be free-free range,there would not be a plant, a fruit, a shred of anything left in the garden. They live in a 4-star chicken house, have a huge winter yard, a summer garden, two compost piles, numerable abandoned beds and planters, treats in special bags (which they have figured out how to open the zip lock to gain access), things to climb upon, shade in the summer, windows to look out of from their perches if it rains. All in all the girls have a good life and we are the better for it.

Bee-u-tiful! The Bee Whisperer

bee whisperer 2bees come homebee whisperer 3IMG_1051 the pond succulent garden 1

Last gardening season brought little tomatoes, no berries,  no grapes, few squash. They were given all the TLC they normally receive, but as the season progressed, no fruits. Then we figured out the problem. There were no bees buzzin’ about. We heard the humming coming from the vitex, the peppers, and flowering plants, but upon close examination, they were black pollinating flies. As we reviewed the situation, we decided to get our own hive of bees for gardening year 2015. We ordered the buzzers in  December, a Christmas gift to us. Steve read book after book about their needs and care. Apparently there is maintenance involved, flowers that they are particularly fond of, various treats they need to keep them happy and buzzin’ on our homestead.

The bees arrived, after some delays in northern Utah while we had late season freezes, rain and snow in Cedar City and they could not make the trip safely. He brought the box home, placed it in the back of the property, where we have left the landscape wild. We cleared out some underbrush, trimmed up the trees so the sun would touch their home in the early morning so they could get to work, but have shade in the hot afternoons should they want to nap. Well I don’t know about that last part, but we want them to be happy at Casa Maranhao.

This weekend marked two weeks that they had been in their new home, so Steve, the beekeeper, donned his suit and went forth to check out his hive. I was no help, a one man job, and I’m sure I drove him crazy with, “Is there honey yet?, honey”…

There presence is obvious. As we sit at the fish pond in the evening, the nearby garden sage, in full bloom, is humming with them as they flutter about. Then they come to the pond to get a drink. They seem to like the moving water better than the countless water troughs Steve has set up for them. We plant flowers everywhere-always a good thing. There is even a ‘Bee Garden Seed Mix’ that we scattered at the base of the ginkgo and fruit trees. In addition to the native sunflower and mallows, which they love, we sowed seeds of sunflower, alyssum, coneflower, agastache, bachelor’s button, nasturtium, marigold, and poppies.

The garden is planted, the vineyard is leafing out, the blackberries in flower. We have hope….It’s a bee-u-tiful day!

The garden 2015 begins

Today is a milestone. My gardening friend, Cindy, is here from CA  in answer to my plea for help. She comes, armed with gloves and work clothes to help me get the forty-something tomato plants in the ground and the equal amount of peppers planted, all intercropped with flowers, carrots, onions, basil and nasturtium. The ‘grils’ (our chickens) have been at it for weeks, churning up the soil, mixing in the compost. There is going to be a scene when they are barred from the garden. They are living at the Maranhao chicken spa to be sure. In a few days they will be allowed entree into their own special chicken garden-yes it is just for them, but everyday I can count on the girls to supply my breakfast table with fresh, organic, free range eggs. Today the hive comes. Our own pollinatoTomatoes ready to plant Seedlings for the 2015 garden girls cultivatingrs and soo our own honey.mmmm

Spring is sprung

Well, May Day marks the beginning of our planting season here in beautiful Apple Valley. We (hubby Steve and I) commemorated May Day by planting out the refurbished herb garden-what a mistake planting the mint in the ground ten years ago! i dug up the savory, St. John’s Wort, Echinacea, isolated the lavender. We  left the oregano in ground, it is more than we could ever use, but makes such a lovely soft groundcover in the landscape and the sage is a permanent resident as well. Plus, I think both are pretty much indestructible. The past two years the seasonal maintenance entails weed whacking both down to the ground in early spring, as soon as they  start putting out fresh green growth. They thrive with the abuse. I grew from seed-tarragon, marjoram, Greek oregano, Monarda, Chamomile and still have seeds of alyssum, dill, and variegated cat grass. It was a beautiful day, full of promise of herbs to come, a good day to begin anew. garden sage as a border groundcover planting

native mallow joins oregano in the herb garden

native mallow joins oregano in the herb garden