Il Faut Cultiver Notre Jardin

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life –Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Actually, I’m not (yet) as quietist as the headline suggests; but I need a short break from the cacophony, not so say pandemonium, of the competing narratives produced in overplus by our political economy. The Trump transition is drowning out everything else, and that includes whatever the elites are getting up to when our attention is fixed on it, which can’t possibly be good. Nevertheless, I need to step back from it (or set the controls on my armchair from 30,000-feet to, say, 35,000, to get a better perspective.

* * *

The seed catalogs arrive in the dead of winter, and I’ve always gotten too optimistic and ordered too much; those little packets add up, as the shrewd growers know! (I use two organic suppliers in Maine, Johnny’s Seeds and MOFGA — Johnny’s is employee-owned and MOFGA is a co-op — and one from Ohio, Ohio Heirloom Seeds.) I won’t be ordering too much this year, for reasons I’ll get to; but it’s a pleasure to sit at the wood stove — or would have been; I finally got rid of my father’s romantic though dangerous stove, even though I miss the quality of its radiant heat — and thumb through the catalogs. I understand the more fanatical gardeners make diagrams and actually rotate what they grow, but I’ve never been that disciplined.

Perhaps gardening, like politics, runs in families. My father’s mother had a garden (a grandmother’s garden, in fact, like mine), and when I was growing up, we grew tomatoes on the university plot. When I moved to Maine, more than ten years ago now, the house’s front yard was a mere front yard, but there were still a few vegetables about, which have survived to this day. Like these chives, which are so pretty even if I never do eat them:

In my second summer, I thought I would grow some tomatoes, and so made a small tomato patch in one of the few spots with really good sun; I didn’t know then about sheet mulch, and so I watered them every day. Foolishly, I surrounded the patch with round river stones, not considering that I’d want to expand, or that the stones would sink into the earth; I still encounter those stones today, digging, and I move them to where they’ll do some good.

Fast forwarding through a decade, I abolished the yard in favor of the garden, cut down one tree (the evil Norway maple) and cut back another. Out of what I felt to be necessity I grew lots of sheet-mulched vegetables in beds, on the assumption — my situation from the Crash onward for several years was filled with what 10%-ers call “economic anxiety,” as if not having any money or work were a feeling — that if things went really sour I would have grown enough food; indeed, a patch my size would yield enough squash to take me through most of a winter. And I do like squash, which would have been a help. Of course, if I’d been thinking ahead, I would have put in some fruit trees immediately, and now they’d be bearing, and I’d also have birds. But vegetables are so seductive! In any case, my affairs improved, and I’ve ended up for the last several years growing far more tomatoes than I can ever eat — even though there’s nothing better than a warm tomato with some fresh mozarella and a little sea salt, still, one can only eat so many — giving away a large number of cukes to a friend, and struggling with squash bugs after I was foolish enough to buy flats from the Farmer’s Market (I was in a rush) instead of from seed. And as it turns out, what I really like is flowers:

An aesthetic of density, a great blooming, buzzing confusion:

In fact, in one of the best things I ever did for myself in my life, I ran an extension cord (at right, hanging off the compost bin) from my house to a shaded spot, where I set up my desk:

And from my desk I can count… I forget how many, but I think it’s over twenty varieties of flowers: Roses, raspberries, bee balm, honeysuckle, lilies, clover, Black-eyed Susans, sunflowers, geraniums, and a whole lot of flowers that I forget the names of (because I buy them and lose the little nametags).

(Sorry for the overexposure.) As it turns out, my garden has many functions, just not the one I though it would originally have: I’m going to de-emphasize growing food. (Of course, if there’s another crash….) The periphery will remain the same: Raspberries up front to hide me when I’m at my desk and prevent drunken students from blundering onto the property at night; clover round the garden proper so deer eat that and go no further; and a display piece, an embassy to the town, as it were, along the sidewalk. But in the center, wildflowers instead of tomatos and squash, although there will still be cukes for my friend.

So, sitting at my desk I will be in the midst of even more blooming, buzzing, and confusion. I may even start a photography project:

Or a yield of a different color; I’m thinking of picking out one patch and photographing it at more or less the same time, from Memorial Day — when Mainers plant — through the fall; from first growth all the way to rot (which is very photogenic). Of course, the first year would be a dry run, as I figure out what I’m doing, but the second year might be more interesting.

Of course, the plans one makes in the winter have a way of changing when the actual planting begins. So we’ll see. And perhaps these plans aren’t as quietist as all that, depending on the patch I pick. What are your plans?

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Rory

    I’ve been wondering when you would get to this point of needing a break, and I’m glad to see it’s happened. You’re smart.

    1. Robert Hahl

      It’s been said that Trump is waging a kind of Denial-of-Service attack on the media, through provocative tweets and statements to keep them off balance. This may go on for a while, perhaps 8 years. Got to pace.

  2. Isolato


    We must all find a refuge from these battered times. The smell of breaking bread, the light off a flower, a friend’s smile.


    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Thank you. Moving my desk to my garden really was one of the best things I’ve ever done; it’s intensely pleasurable, and so much better than a cube. I highly recommend it to all readers.

      The only issue is sun on the screen. I’ve tried a polarizing filter, but it makes the screen dark. So I periodically move my desk into shadow.

  3. fresno dan

    I am really hoping I can buy a house by at least early March so I can get a bunch of plants in the ground. Fresno gets hot so fast that transplanting anything later than that is fraught with peril of it not surviving.
    roses, hibiscus, camellias, and trumpet vine for the hummingbirds. Lantana – so easy to grow. Golden poppy. And no lawn – just succulents

    1. ambrit

      What? You can’t squat and declare the house so chosen and environs as a “Community Redevelopment Zone?”

    2. johnnygl

      Your hypothetical house in fresno probably needs shade and mulch around the trees, first, i’d figure.

      I found out where the town drops the tree trimmings near my daughters school. Free mulch for me. I brought in a few barrels full in the faal. I’ll grab more soon.

      I’ve decided i need more multi-graft trees. Need more nuts, too. Anyone ever get uzbek pistachios? I love the nuts and i guess that breed is cold hardy.

    3. nippersdad

      That sounds beautiful, but you may want to do some research on the trumpet vine, though. Lots of vines attract hummingbirds, and not all of them will eat your yard and house in a couple of years.

    4. Lambert Strether Post author

      No lawn. Well done, that man!

      I’d recommend, though, based on my own experience, that you consider putting some trees, maybe fruit or nut trees depending on your site, in first. If you do that now, you’ll have fruit in five years. If you want a year, you’ll have fruit in six years!

      I think it’s also a good thing to think in three dimensions — bed, canopy — right away, from the very beginning. For one thing, that stretches the imagination.

      1. clarky90

        “Leonard Charles Huia “Len” Lye (/laɪ/; 5 July 1901 – 15 May 1980), was a Christchurch, New Zealand-born artist known primarily for his experimental films and kinetic sculpture.”

        There is a photo of a “Wind Wand” in the article.

        Thanks for noticing. Skynet has been eating my posts!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author


      I started out stacking functions to grow vegetables and protect the property (physically and diplomatically).

      As it turned out, I ending up optimizing for a beautiful workspace. Who knew?

  4. ambrit

    We’re starting some seeds in flats inside for our spring planting. It’s not much, but, as the complete hypocrite that I am, a perfect display of virtue signalling. Now the flowers, which Phyllis prefers; those are a real virtue signal. Just thank whatever deity or demiurge you abase yourself to that you don’t have fire ants up there. The little buggers bite! And territorial? They’re worse than sectarians at a resources conference.
    I see a business opportunity in sales of heirloom cannabis seeds. I wonder who’s palms I would have to grease to obtain Department of Agriculture approval? If the DEA’s attitude is any guide, it won’t be a ‘States Rights’ issue.
    Happy gardening!

    1. Oregoncharles

      We encountered fire ants in New Mexico. Not only did they cut down the corn around their nest, they also stung our kid, who was very trusting with insects.

      Solution: household ammonia makes a very effective fumigant. Pour down nest, cover with a bit of dirt. Then we discovered the BIG nest in the vacant lot next door. Solution: ammonia AND bleach, observe sinister white puff, cover and run.

      Did in both nests. The ammonia will kill roots it touches, too, but longer term it’s fertilizer.

      1. ambrit

        Cool. Ecofriendly chemical warfare!
        Our big nest is now in the compost pile!!! Blast and other imprecations!
        I’ll try the method and cross my fingers and toes, (and if I was like fresno dan, tentacles too.)

        1. Stephen Gardner

          How is bleach eco-friendly? Amdro is pretty eco-friendly. It works too. The little demons gather it up and feed it to the queen. No queen no nest.

            1. Oregoncharles

              Yes, we were practicing chemical warfare. Fire ants make you crazy.

              The ammonia alone, is poisonous, but safer than the bleach combination.

  5. Sluggeaux

    This anecdote was the perfect antidote to current events in this, the best of all possible worlds.

    1. flora

      ah, a Candide/Dr. Pangloss reference.

      ‘Candide, as he was returning home, made profound reflections on the Turk’s discourse. “This good old man,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “appears to me to have chosen for himself a lot much preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honor to sup.” … “Neither need you tell me,” said Candide, “that we must take care of our garden.” “You are in the right,” said Pangloss; “for when man was put into the garden of Eden, it was with an intent to dress it: and this proves that man was not born to be idle.” “Work then without disputing,” said Martin; “it is the only way to render life supportable.” ‘ -Voltaire, ‘Candide’

    1. Waldenpond

      I found this youtube guy (allotment gardening) which has a season similar to mine.

      What’s his garden look like this year? Is he covering others at his allotment this year? I’m holding out till I start my first seeds. I haven’t even written up my (craft store) tongue depressors yet let alone purchased or sterilized starter soil.

  6. Eclair

    I’m growing a sourdough starter …. almost like having a new baby, as it needs feeding twice a day and a warm room (a problem in our house) to rest in … and using the discarded starter to make: crepes, pancakes, sourdough bread, Norwegian sour rye bread. Fortunately, neither my spouse nor I have problems with gluten.

    I have given up FaceBook and am … not shutting out the world … but being more selective in my sources of information (like naked capitalism). Spending more time being with friends and family. Resting, mending, breathing … waiting ….

    1. Katharine

      Have fun with that! I started mine over a year ago and have never looked back. I like the bread I make, and I like the changed tempo of my baking. (Really need to find someone to give those old yeast packets to before they’re wholly useless.)

      1. Katharine

        Isn’t it wild when it first starts to work and you say hey, there’s stuff in there! And not at all in the same tone in which you say it about the old forgotten jar at the back of the fridge.

    2. Charlotte

      Once you get it established, it’s really pretty sturdy too. I don’t bake in the summer because — well, I hardly cook indoors in the summer. So by October my starter looks like hell — but a week or two of feeding and it’s back. I make boules at least once a week all winter, and lately I’ve been playing with baguettes. A great break from … well … all that.

  7. Carla

    Uuhmm… my favorite sandwich: warm from the garden tomatoes on good white bread with Hellman’s mayo and a little salt. Nothing else needed.

    Or for a slightly fancier menu, linguine with fresh raw tomato and basil sauce (recipe in Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn” — but she got that condition from Carl Bernstein, not from the linguine dish.)

    1. Bass is the Place

      Carla, my favorite is so close to yours. Tomato and Cucmber – mayo, mustard, whatever else. MMMM Sumer is icumin in

  8. upstater


    My garden is one of the few things in my life that I can actually “control”. But having said that sometimes weeds get the upper hand.

    It is a place of order and peace. A place to meditate while working and to make sense out of life.

    PS: it is not supposed to be 60F during the historically codlest week of the year.

  9. Mark Alexander

    I think this is the correct link to MOFGA. I hadn’t heard of them; thanks for the link. We buy most of our seeds from Fedco, another co-op in Maine.

    We’re taking a winter break from the farming, but we’ll probably start growing seedlings under lights in late Feb. or early March. It just doesn’t get quite warm enough up here to start things in the greenhouses then. We grow maybe 3/4 of the food we eat so it’s going to pretty busy soon.

  10. Annotherone

    Oh my! What a gorgeous garden, Lambert, and such a beautiful place to work! Thank you for allowing us to share. I envy your climate. Here in south-west Oklahoma extremes of weather have deterred us from trying to be gardeners, though I loved pottering in my garden back in coastal northern England. When we moved to this house in 2005 there were 3 huge Cottonwoods in the back yard and two big Maples in the front yard. One by one, after droughts, ice storms and insect or disease attack, all but one Cottonwood and one Maple have had to be taken down; the remaining two trees are to be taken out this year for safety’s sake (when finances allow). We’ll attempt replacement, maybe just with some Crepe Myrtle or Redbud bushes rather than trees.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Plants are pretty smart; it might be possible to work something out. Maybe start with a wind break? Oklahoma gardeners please chime in!

      I’m sorry about the trees.

  11. Waldenpond

    I’ve used Johnny’s and Annies. I am buying through local suppliers so they get a piece of the action. The only disadvantages are I enjoy the January ordering, local shops don’t have seeds in January and sometimes I am forced to use starts. Last year was a break so I’ll be back at it this year.

    We are too temperate to grow tomatoes (well, they grow, they just don’t ripen) but it provides an opportunity to get creative. Can’t grow tomatoes?… grow blueberries, raspberries, strawberries for salads and herbs for pasta. Not a long enough season for onions? I have a longer season for lettuce and spinach and can grow chives and spring onions.

  12. Juneau

    Thank you Lambert for a much needed boost!
    I am going to look at my most favorite catalog (Burpee!) for hot chili seeds which I will need to plant soon enough for transfer to my terrace garden. Nothing like fresh Cayenne and Habanero and Jalapeno peppers to spruce up rice for my veggie dishes.

    1. juliania

      Keep your seed flats in a warm place – chilé (NM spelling)seeds are more finicky than tomato seeds, but you can plant the plants together. Because I have difficulty getting seeds started for both, I winter over the plants in my sunroom – they don’t do much and you have to watch for bugs, but they’ll give you an early start if you have a short growing season. Plus the tub plants keep the house air moist in our dry alpine air.

  13. Oregoncharles

    As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m a professional gardener – a landscaper, in the upper Willamette Valley. Semi-retired, because my body won’t take too much of that any more. We live on a small acreage by a small river. It came with 4 overgrown standard apples, our favorite grapes (Interlaken – if you can grow grapes, grow those), and some old-fashioned raspberries. Also the remains of hazelnut and walnut orchards. That was 30 years ago. The walnuts died of black-line disease years ago and are now lumber, but I did plant more that are just starting to bear. Hazels seem to be eternal, but then so are squirrels and jays, but we get enough to eat.

    Then I did a lot of planting – I posted a list a while ago. We’re in Zone 8, summer arid but with plenty of water available, so it’s a long list of stuff we can grow. Like Lambert, we converted the front yard to garden, mostly ornamentals but with food plants scattered through, including tea, my drug of choice. We have deer, so they’re the main limit on what we grow; they love strawberries and roses, so those have to have fences. My dream is to putt a deer fence around that front garden, but that’s a sizeable building project for me. I’ve sent in pictures from it before; will send some more. We have a lot of green right through the winter.

    Like Lambert, I’ve learned quite a few lessons: that standard apple trees will fall over if not pruned; with soft clay soil and winter wet, all the old apples and some other trees have braces under them. So did Italian stone pines (pine nuts); grew like mad, never made cones, and fell over. The bark goes off like Chinese firecrackers in the fireplace, so to burn the wood I have to strip the bark off. And some “hardy” citrus proved not all that hardy, but I think I’ll keep trying, given global heating. In this climate, we’re always tempted to push the limits, so inevitably we lose things.

    The other big lesson is that there’s only so much fruit you can eat at a time; if you plant a lot, you let yourself in for huge amounts of processing; in my case, mostly cider and fruit drying. I love the products, but sometimes just burn out and stuff goes inexcusably to waste.

    And always: the wonder of gardening is that so many plants live. For instance: an apple tree isn’t dead because it fell over. They will grow vigorously in a horizontal position. Pears, on the other hand, won’t.

    1. Waldenpond

      Oh the fruit, yes, I dehydrate and make jams, but there are always more plums and apples than we can get through. I still have a basket (30 obs or so) of granny smiths on my floor. I’ll make another pie and some juice this week.

      I admire people who are skilled at food production. The first couple of years were glorious, but I quickly found out that ‘plant it and they will come’ means pests and fungus. Every year I learn something new…. what the heck is that and how do I treat it? and little things (that upon reflection are so common sense it’s embarrassing to admit) like: if you tie your fruit trees up too high on the trunk the branches will snap off when a wind hits them and you can’t rely on an insufficient spring drop, you’ll need to thin or again, you’ll lose another branch.

        1. Waldenpond

          Yep. Organic apple cider vinegar is good but expensive. So I am looking forward to that. I have too many plums too. A neighbor works at a brewery and I offered pounds of apples and plums in exchange for showing me how to make hard cider and he’s looking forward to trying the plums. I have two pear (1 single and one multi-graft) that are getting mature and should start cranking out a decent supply in the next couple of years.

          1. Carla

            Here’s a variation on jams: chutneys.

            My late aunt introduced me to the simplest hors d’oeuvre EVAH — dump some chutney on a brick of cream cheese and serve with your favorite crackers. Cheap, too, especially if you made the chutney. People can’t believe how good it is.

            Oh, and if you really want to guild the lily, sprinkle some lightly toasted sliced almonds over the whole thing. But they’re not at all required.

          2. PQS

            Two words: Plum. Jam.

            I have made berry jam, peach jam, and various other things over the years, but nothing was as tasty as last summer’s plum jam. It has a wonderful, deep flavor that is quite apart from plums themselves, which are really nature’s candy….

            Thank you, Lambert, for this respite. I’m going to scheme on how to install a desk in the yard now.

      1. Oregoncharles

        My son (now grown up – I just mentioned him getting stung by fire ants when little, up above) has experimented with apple jack: put hard cider in the freezer, pour off what doesn’t freeze. The old New England method. Makes apple liqueur with a punch; much easier than distilling. You still have to make the cider, though.

  14. Bass is the Place

    Big Chuck, We’re in the south of said valley and have a group in our town that will come and glean fruit, make ciders, and give one a few bottles back for free – selling the rest. Maybe someone does that in your area as well. inch by inch………

  15. HotFlash

    I still encounter those stones today, digging, and I move them to where they’ll do some good.

    Yes! I have come to consider my gardening, and my house-keeping in general, as a species of herding. I move stuff from where it is to where it would be happier or more useful. Riffing off Wm Morris, have nothing in your garden but what you know to be tasty or believe to be beautiful.

    Wood from the dead beech tree forms a hugelkultur terrace out front, some cast-off stone lintels make a raised bed crowned by three (soon to be six) haskaps, which are in turn replacing the utterly useless euonymus. The barberries are being scaled back, coming in are rose-of-sharon — welcome colour in late summer, will grow under my neighbours’ maple and best of all, leaves and flowers are edible. My kale is nice but slugs get the best of it, so I am augmenting with dandelions and orache — weeds. My bemused neighbour said she’d never seen anyone transplant dandelions before. She has a sunny south side, I grew tomatoes and herbs in a few containers there last summer for us to share and hope to do more this summer.

    I currently have my eye on her south-facing verandah, covered with (useless) ivy — it would be a great location for grapes or kiwi.

    I have baby quince, rose of sharon, forsythia and redbud in flats, the first three as cuttings (just sticks, really), the last are seeds, overwintering as they would do in ‘the wild’. All are edible as well as decorative. What a wonderful world, so have so many tasty things in it!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      All these things I forgot to write!

      > I move stuff from where it is to where it would be happier or more useful

      That’s just what I do. I have a lot of self-seeding annuals and perennials right now, so a mid-summer process is moving Black-Eyed Susans and sunflowers and borage and bee balm from where they are to where I want them to be (and where they would like to be, if they had legs and could go find out).

      > Wood from the dead beech tree forms a hugelkultur terrace

      I had good success with hugelkultur, using scraps from the cords of wood for the wood stove (now defunct). Very interesting technique. Tomatoes loved it.

  16. Skip Intro

    Just last month, before the ground froze, I buried my first logs under mulch and earth and leaves, for what will be a hugelkultur garden. The wood holds water from the winter and provides it and nutrients over the summer. The mounds increase the planting area relative to the flat area of lawn that has been replaced. The wood came mostly from an old yellow plum tree that, sadly, fell over. I’m still not sure what to plant… I feel the need to make a diagram and study which plants interact well. At the moment I’m excited by Tomato and Basil, which complement each other in the garden (allegedly) as well as on the plate. If I’m ambitious, I’ll add a conduit from my roof downspout to make a swale next to the mound, which, BTW, has a very rough spiral shape leading to a very young sour cherry tree.
    I’m looking forward to seeing the timelapse project. I hooked up an old iPhone with a timelapse app to get four seasons in the garden. Now the fallen plum tree can bloom and fruit forever more, albeit digitally.

  17. lyman alpha blob

    Since you mentioned MOFGA and seed savers, I’ll just throw this article out there – Maine farmer, seed curator forms new grass-roots group.

    It’s about seed saver Will Bonsall who I got to see speak at the MOFGA-sponsored Common Ground Fair in 2015 IIRC. He was pretty entertaining and spoke about the need to replenish the nutrients in your soil and what constitutes real sustainability. He did mention that he wasn’t so hardcore about it that he required his dinner guests to use the outhouse prior to leaving the property though.

    I was just discussing with the kid over lunch what new thing we should plant this year. She was chowing down the edamame at a sushi place so we decided on soybeans. Not sure if those grow in Maine or not but my Johnny’s Seeds catalog just arrived a few days ago so I think I’ll order some and find out.

    That is if I can keep the evil Norway maples in my backyard at bay. They grow very rapidly and put my garden in shade a little earlier in the day every year. Unfortunately they are just over the property line so I can’t whack them. If anyone knows how to disguise a chainsaw cut as a lightning strike please advise.

    1. Waldenpond

      Yeah, I’m not hardcore either. I compost kitchen scraps, chicken waste, trimmings, prunings (weeds go in the chicken run) etc but I never seem to have enough compost and buy a bit every year…. so uh, what about composting human waste?

      1. HotFlash

        Ding! We don’t *actually* compost all that on site here, but we have a compost pick-up with our weekly garbage. They are fine with kitty litter and dog whatnot, and we have lots of sawdust from various hobbies, so, um, well, you don’t have to tell them *everything*. A couple of times a year the city brings the finished compost to local drop-offs, so what goes around, comes around. Liquids go into a bucket of sawdust and thence into the composter. Umm, nitrogen! If you have space and time, Gaetan has a plan for on-site.

        We use flannel squares for tissue, wash’em up like diapers every week or two — waste not, want not. We do keep some ‘regular’ toilet paper on the wall so as not to terrify guests, but it is sad to contemplate the distance betw what is ‘normal’ and what is sustainable.

        1. Waldenpond

          oy. I’m laughing. I doubt it’s even legal in our city. They finally allowed the chickens I’ve had for awhile now. Oops.

          We don’t have space outside for an outhouse type situation. No one would allow me to convert the bathroom (even if I were willing to be the only one to haul it out and I’m not) and there is no space in the bathroom to add an additional toilet (I would have to stick a bucket under the sink just for squares). I have a side by side (3x3s) composter but no additional space to add a third (add straw and you’re good to go) so that’s out. One option is to give over one of my 4×4 beds for a straw house but do I give up the potatoes, raspberries or asparagus bed?

          Our cat litter/dog waste is considered garbage. This year I am going to cut the bottom out of a mid-size can, find a sunny spot, put it in the ground and deposit waste there. Apparently, you can just get septic tank enzymes if it needs help breaking down. So one more thing I will be keeping on site and out of the landfill.

          Keep trying to adapt and try new things, but there isn’t always a practical revamp just yet.

            1. Carla

              Oh, my inner-ring suburb legalized chicken-keeping a few years ago. But the limit is 4, and the permit costs $85 a year, so those are some damned expensive eggs.

              1. Waldenpond

                Ouch! While the council dithered over property lines, distances from structures, numbers, fees, penalties, enforcement… people just kept adding small flocks (I have 3). They quietly voted in 6 with no conditions other than already existing noise and nuisance.

        2. zapster

          Last summer I started experimenting with biochar, in a fire pit in the yard. Made lots of charcoal, discovered that if you add urine to a bucket of it, there is no smell and the charcoal holds the nutrients, supposedly. I have added it to some potted plants (about 10%) and it hasn’t killed them. We have sand here, very little soil, so in the spring a lot of it is going to be dug in. It holds water and nutrients so they can’t be washed away by rain. Whether the plants can extract them remains to be seen, but reportedly they do. Bacteria figure in to the whole thing as well. In any case, the ability of the charcoal to completely eliminate the odor of standing urine is astonishing.

      2. Isolato

        The output of our composting toilet (a Sunmar) goes right into the compost pile along with the kitchen scraps (mostly coffee grounds!). We use “medium bark”, mostly fir, as a bulking agent in the toilet. Our fireplace ash also goes in the pile. The soil that results gives us good results in our raised beds and “alternative medicine” greenhouse. We just rarely mention it to guests at dinner. The earthworms are ecstatic.

    2. HotFlash

      Um, I have heard that a copper nail into the trunk will kill a tree. Cannot verify and do not recommend.

  18. EndOfTheWorld

    I have some hostas, which are eaten by the Japanese and Koreans. Some Americans are catching on, too. It’s said the new shoots in spring are the best, steamed with ginger and soy sauce. Anybody eat hostas and/or know any good recipes?

    1. HotFlash

      Oh, yeah! Start here, and don’t forget that daylilies are edible, too, as well as lambsquarters, chickweed, and my favourites, purslane and dandelion. And as Green Deane points out at his foraging site, Eat the Weeds, you don’t need to get a bunch of the same thing to have a meal.

  19. moving left

    Thanks for the pictures of your beautiful “tangled banks.”
    Was just looking through the seed catalogs today, Johnny’s and Seed Savers, but not sure I will order anything this year. A friend and I do two community garden plots together (will add a third this yr) and we were going through the seed packets we have, pledging to use those up first before buying more. We don’t plant too many of any one thing so those packets last a few years, sadly postponing the day we can try something new.

    1. Waldenpond

      I tossed everything in the garden one fall, tried to leave enough time for it to sprout and then called it a ‘cover crop’. Anything that survives the winter is turned under in spring.

      1. moving left

        That’s a good idea! Lots of early spring salad greens that way. But our community garden plots get tilled under so I can’t do that…

        1. Waldenpond

          So you could make up another lie to dispose of seeds so you can buy new ones…. how about experimenting to see which birds like which seeds? haha!

    2. Oregoncharles

      I used to work at a place that sold seeds, and was given a bag of black beans because they were low germ. We ate them for several years, but they got so old they wouldn’t cook up soft. So I tilled them into a section of the garden – and hundreds of them came up! Had quite a stand.

      The persistence of life can be amazing.

      1. moving left

        Oh, thanks for that reminder! There is a local home-garden-promoting org that has a seed exchange and plant sale every year. That’s what we’ll do!

  20. John

    Flowers: Food for the soul. You have a garden for a balanced diet. My garden this year will be the charnel ground of the huge native ashes that have sucumbed to the purple ash borer…but the native woodpeckers have had a population explosion…the fire wood should last for years and there will be a bit more sunlight so I get tomatoes. I am still in mourning for the loss of one favorite beautiful ash tree friend. Things die catastrophically…new life comes to feast on the remains and the great wheel turns. And we generally get flowers in the spring. On these winter nights, I dream the peonies, the wistaria and the tiny blue flowers of a speedwell I planted last year.

    1. HotFlash

      Yeah, neighbours to the south cut down a lovely mature linden and trimmed a couple of maples and a birch *way* high. So sad to see, but we will take advantage of the sunlight on our side.

  21. AnnieB

    Thanks so much for the gardening post, Lambert. I love your lush flower garden! I don’t have much garden space any longer, just a 5 x 6 raised bed in my townhome’s courtyard and some space for a flower garden. I plan to add oriental poppies this year. And I plan to get involved with community gardens and hope to use my plot for the vegetables that take more space, such as winter squash. It’s been a odd winter here in Colorado, a few very cold and snowy days with lots of mild weather in between. My little spinach plants in the raised bed are still alive,crunchy and sweet.

  22. Chris B

    The pictures look beautiful. I’d never heard of “grandmother’s garden” as a style before, but I think here in the UK we’d just call them cottage gardens, which aren’t as common as they should be. I think some people (e.g. Carol Klein) make people think they require a lot of expertise, whereas my experience has been that if you let go a bit nature is quite forgiving.

  23. TheCatSaid

    The Perelandra Garden has a photo gallery that includes weekly updates.

    The Perelandra Garden is a research garden focused on learning from nature and sharing the resulting information, tools and processes with anyone else. As it’s a research garden, it’s different from a conventional food garden / permaculture / herb garden / flower garden. But the processes can be applied to any garden or environment. I mostly use their “soil-less” garden processes (e.g. for our finances, our house, many projects, personal health). This year I will will do more with our property/gardens/fields.

  24. dbk

    Thanks Lambert, I really needed a break too, I’m overwhelmed, despondent, and confused recently.

    As if things in this country the EU has decided to destroy as a test case weren’t enough, we had a week of freezing weather up here in the north (hadn’t happened in nearly 30 years), and almost all my balcony plants have frozen to death. Seventeen years of work, more than 100 pots and planters …

    I’m going to start over, but this time I’m going to call in a professional who can help me decide what can survive our summers (a couple of months of continuous 95-100 degree heat and full sunlight) and our weird winters. I want some big stuff that will last, some perennial greenery I can cut back and feed myself, plus a good show of color with hardy annual flowers – pink and yellow are the colors I’m looking for now.

    My father, an Iowa farm boy, was an outstanding gardener, he had the gift. He maintained the garden by himself until he was 100, then sowed Illinois wildflowers for a few years … passed away at 106 this year.

    Garden stories always remind me of him.

  25. vegasmike

    I remember reading Candide when I was much younger. I’m a New York City boy who mostly lived in apartments.
    I sometimes dreamed about owning a villa in a mild climate. The villa would naturally have a wonderful garden. I re-read Candide a couple of years. Voltaire pointed out that Candide and his friends had to work very to keep their garden going and to sell their produce in the local market. I retired to Las Vegas. In Las Vegas it’s easy to grow herbs. So in my old age I’ve become an herbalist.

  26. Eureka Springs

    Chives are wonderful. Easy to cut, clean. Just keep a bunch in the kitchen..use fresh or dry in just about everything. You will be asking yourself, what was I (not) thinking…) Sure beats cutting up onions.. especially when you don’t need a lot.

    The relentless squash bugs and giant tomato worms have turned me away from “produce” gardening the last couple of years as well. Flowers and herbs are my love now.. which also allows me to spend more summer time on the rivers and lake, guilt free. With so many gardeners around me I still manage to restock the deep freeze and can a little anyhow.

    What I’ve enjoyed most is turning 80 percent of my yard into a wildflower plot. It’s not for the feint of heart, perfectionists or city dwellers with yard police, but I love the savage garden look. And there is no way I could compel mother nature to produce as many flowers on my own. For the most part one just lets it happen. I simply help distribute seeds when they dry on the vine…and mow only after they are finished. Friends alway bring an empty vase or two when visiting so they have a good week worth of arrangements to take home.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The relentless squash bugs and giant tomato worms

      I’ve been lucky on tomato worms; my issue has always been (wind-born) blight.

      I’m sure I could defeat them, but that would be work. That’s not my goal, work!

      > turning 80 percent of my yard into a wildflower plot

      How did you plan that? Just scatter the seeds, or something more formal?

  27. JCC

    What are your plans?

    When you live in one of the driest deserts in the western hemisphere plans are limited, but…

    Two things happened to me over the last couple of years.

    One, I bought a piece of property that had been abandoned for a few years and had 25 to 35 mostly small, and very inappropriate for the area, trees growing on it. I was only able to salvage 5 or 6 of them and had to cut the rest down as they were deader than doornails after at least two years of no water.

    Two, I read about Hill Gardens, or hugelgartens, an old (8th, 9th century) European method of growing food.

    So two weeks ago I dug a hole about 4 feet deep, 15 feet wide, and 36 feet long for all the dead limbs, bark, and other scrap left from the trauma of cutting down oaks and pines. I also have some co-workers that raise horses and they are always looking to dump the manure and now I have the perfect place. I hope to have it full of the above + plenty of straw within the next few weeks and then re-filled/covered with the removed dirt.

    With the amazing amount of rain we’ve had here (40 miles directly west of Death Valley) to get things started, and appropriate use of water in the future, I figure I can grow a few native trees at each end and the middle for shade (mesquite and desert willow) and hopefully some tomatoes and other veggies and desert bloomers in between.

    I’m not sure how the experiment will work here, but as a former Upstate New Yorker and no fan of scrub, tumbleweeds and other inedible spiny things, I’m willing to see what’s possible with this method and a few groasis products over the next few years. If it’s successful, plan on seeing a few photos in the coming years.

  28. HotFlash

    As it turns out, my garden has many functions, just not the one I though it would originally have: I’m going to de-emphasize growing food.

    Isn’t life interesting? I am finding that, too. Here in the Big City, I am finding foraging much more efficient than growing food, and my tiny yard is more for soul-food. Although, if it is edible too, that counts. Love how you have ‘herded’ your workspace out to where the beauty is.

  29. glib

    With a large garden since 1997, I have gone more and more feral. I grow and eat mostly easy to grow roots and leaves, and juice all manners of weeds and trash greens. Except for friends, I grow no tomatoes, peppers and all those other things people seem to prefer. Several of my vegetables reseed themselves, and I weed only what is going to seed or I need for juicing. The toughest plants are more nutritious in general anyway. It goes well with the high fat/low carb that has improved my health a lot.

    Just yesterday, with 56F in Michigan, I dug up some 20 lbs of carrots and harvested another 20 lbs of collards from the hoop houses. I pulled the last three cardoons from under the leaves. With the garden based on greens and roots, a root cellar in the garage, a sprouting operation and micro greens operation in the house, and overwintering veggies in early spring, I eat 12 months a year.

      1. glib

        I came to this realization when I realized I had been eating forage chicory for a month. That is a cover crop that is reseeding itself. And I eat the large root, too.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > With the garden based on greens and roots, a root cellar in the garage, a sprouting operation and micro greens operation in the house, and overwintering veggies in early spring, I eat 12 months a year.

      Beats flying to a compound in New Zealand…

  30. Kurt Sperry

    I’m partial to ornamentals too. I’d grow more food crops if the yard were sunnier, but it isn’t. And here in NW Washington State, even full sun isn’t all that full most years. I do get lots of wild blackberries, and small crops of tomatoes and other things depending on what I fancy planting in the spring. Oh yeah, lots of apples and pears too, those are super easy. There aren’t a lot of food crops that thrive in even partial shade. At least not ones I want to eat.

    1. bob

      FWIW- I’d get a soil test. A few of them, from different spots, and depths. You’re getting high energy crops (apples and pears), you may just need to adjust the chemistry.

      Little bits of the the right stuff can make a HUGE difference. For instance, tomatoes prefer more acid soils. Apples and pears thrive in basic soils, which I a guessing, is what you have.

      1. Kurt Sperry

        I’ve spot tested the soil pH many times, it’s mostly actually 5.5-6.0, that’s what the rain does. There were even a couple spots that tested closer to 5 but I’ve sweetened those. But of course the pH will typically vary a lot from place to place on any property. The back of the property had big chicken coops for several years during WWII and the soil back there is *still* to this day notably hot N-wise, the blackberries eat that s**t up. Nitrophilic plants love it back there.

        1. bob

          It’s not just pH. I’ve seen other areas where a slight adjustment of something else can make a huge difference. All soil is not equal, even in areas where it seems to be.

          But, it also does sound like pH. what’s the bedrock/geology of the soil?

          With pH that low, you’ve got to deal with a whole bunch of other decomposition issues.

          I’d look around more locally. The internet isn’t of much use on this stuff.They’ll sell you anything. It’s much more localized. Farmers co-op? Cooperative extension around here. Also, shop and visit the stores that farmers do, not “garden stores”. Too many of them bring EVERYTHING in. They never deal with local soils, they make their own. Guess what they’re making it for?

          For instance- You can buy lime anywhere. Getting the right lime, for your soil, is key. The wrong chemistry, and/or application, can do more harm than good. Not all “lime” is the same.

          1. Kurt Sperry

            Thanks but I’m quite happy with the condition of my soil. I’ve found plants that seem to enjoy it just fine. I wasn’t looking to resolve any “problems” with it. I’m not sure where you got that I was.

            1. bob

              “I’d grow more food crops if the yard were sunnier, but it isn’t.”

              “even full sun isn’t all that full most years. I do get lots of wild blackberries” Not a sun issue, see blackberries, and to a lesser extent, apples and pears. However, blackberries do like poor soils.

              “There aren’t a lot of food crops that thrive in even partial shade. At least not ones I want to eat.”

              Sun ain’t the problem, if you even have one, which you don’t. Whatevs, bro.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      My iPad!

      Adding, to clarify:

      1) Some are the native lens

      2) The closeups were done with a clip- or rather slide-on lens system from iPro that I was chivvied into buying when I complained I really wanted the iPad to work like a view camera. The lenses are glass, not plastic.

      I might take a different approach for a new project, if I undertake it. The nice thing about the iPad is that it’s almost like street shooting; so fast and on impulse. My current approach is more contemplative, and I’m also sure that photographing flowers is not like photographing landscapes, or architectures. Also, I’m not sure pretty pictures of flowers are what I want. I like systems, and systems include wind, rain, insects, birds, rot…

  31. Samuel Conner


    No tomatoes at all?

    Allow me to send you a few Reisentraube seeds. Two plants will keep you in salad tomatoes.

    These are seeds I saved back in 2010 and immediately lost but found again last year. In January of this year they are still germinating at about 90% rate.

  32. Cee Ayche

    Love the gardening post. Sheet mulching with newspaper or cardboard has been shown to impede penetration of air and water into the soil, reducing beneficial microbial activity. Heavy layers (6-12″) of wood chips (not mulch, but chips from a chipper) allows air and water to penetrate while keeping weeds down. I’m taking a break from new plantings this spring but in fall I hope to lay down a thick layer of chips in my ornamental beds and pathways.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Got a link on that? I’ve gotta say that worms really like my sheet mulch, and I don’t have to water. At all (after the first week or so).

      Now, this may be because I’m really lazy and cheap, and so my layers are thin!

  33. meeps

    Your flowers are inspiring, Lambert. What a welcome respite.

    A time-lapse of your garden would be lovely. You captured the rudiments nicely in your poppy pic, from bud to flower to seed capsule (the structure of which is a marvel of natural engineering).

    This year I’ll start a small selection of proven and rugged varieties from last year. Glacier and Cour di bue tomatoes were the tastiest. Ring of Fire Cayenne (aka the double entendre pepper) and Grandpa’s Home peppers were insanely heavy producers and as hot as I’ve been able to find in short season varietals. I grow as many potted herbs and edible flowers as can be managed in my tiny greenhouse and fenced garden beds. Anything out of those bounds is devoured by wildlife before it flowers. I constantly remind the critters that they need to let the plants go to seed but they just stare at me blankly, chewing contentedly.

    Not yet

    gone are those hugest hours of dark and cold
    when blood and flesh to inexistence bow

    but your post makes me eager to bust out some E.E. Cummings!

  34. Portia

    I love your garden, everything coexisting and comingling in a beautiful tapestry. My fav, Gerard Manley Hopkins came to mind

    Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.

    33. Inversnaid

    THIS darksome burn, horseback brown,
    His rollrock highroad roaring down,
    In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
    Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

    A windpuff-bonnet of fáwn-fróth 5
    Turns and twindles over the broth
    Of a pool so pitchblack, féll-frówning,
    It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

    Degged with dew, dappled with dew
    Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
    Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
    And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

    What would the world be, once bereft
    Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
    O let them be left, wildness and wet;
    Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

  35. JEHR

    Lambert, We live just north of Maine so we can grow similar plants to yours but we have to put them in later (May 20th) and harvest them earlier. I have a 20 ft by10 ft vegetable garden and rotate my crops to keep the pests puzzled. The deer ignore my garden because I put stakes around the perimeter and threaded two tiers of twine around them and for some reason they won’t jump this. I buy my seeds locally (Vesey’s from PEI) and they always turn out great. I also have four flower beds that I added lilies too (and for the first time got lily beetles) so I am slowing getting rid of most of those. I have day lilies, hostas, coneflowers, small cedars, peonies, tiger lilies, some succulents whose names I don’t know, some fancy grass, balloon flowers, bee balm, yellow and white daisies, and I put in a few annuals each year, etc.

    In my back yard (we live on an acre), which is 100% weeds (except for a lilac tree, a hydranga, a burning bush, a magnolia and another whose name I have forgotten), I plan to make a wild flower field this coming spring. I love my trees and bushes as these are mostly second attempts after killing the first ones inadvertently.

    These plants are good antidotes for what is happening in the world. I always enjoy watching everything grow; it makes my spirits soar.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Memorial Day is May 31 or thereabouts so I think you’re early!

      I’ve tried planting early, because late May seems so extreme, but every time I’ve done it there’s been a disaster. A cold snap, or seeds rotting in the rain. So Memorial Day it is!

      I would like to have more tall, decorative grasses. As it is, I have quack grass! Horrible. In general I try to destroy grass where found, but it’s a losing battle.

  36. Charlotte

    I find myself with more and more flowers among my veg. I just pull all the seedheads of the sunflowers and calendula and marigolds and cosmos and scatter them all over. Oh, and borage! Which will grow everywhere. And Iris and shrub roses and a ton of mint and other herbs (summer savory! who knew? I’ve fallen in love and it self seeds). Going on 15 years here in Montana — tomatoes, some squash (Himself hates it, so limited), lots of green and roma beans, and greens. Greens love it here. Planted 2 new sour cherry trees after a freeze 2 years ago killed every tree in town. Couple of apple and plum trees, currant, gooseberry, elderberry and raspberry bushes — a strawberry patch. Chicken coop in the back. Paid off the house last summer and have gone freelance — which is good practice in case everything goes to hell.
    But we’re a small town full of creative weirdos, and between the gardens and the hunters and the folks who know how to brew (and the couple with secret stills in the basement) we can feed one another and make enough booze for the occasional party.
    And now back to the seed catalogs … I can’t really start much until the Vernal Equinox, but a girl can dream.

  37. Questor

    I love my flowers, especially really blue Delphinums, but needed veggies for intense juicing for Celiac…hence, a greenhouse bigger than my house!

    Oh, the learning curve. 3 years in, and everything grows too well, and then ants bring in aphids to harvest it, or the spider mites over run everything. Azazol from the Neem tree does the best protection.

    Being in the SoCal Mountains, that means any greenery is an instant target for gophers, rabbits and birds, so one has to use the greenhouse, and then figure out just how many of everything you need, because it all over-produces. presuming you get to the veggies or flowers (I grow them together) before anything else does. With steel cloth two feet down, and a complete enclosure, I get more than I lose, which is an accomplishment, and it’s is the perfect adult playroom in all weathers! And it nice to have cut flowers from one’s own growing in the midst of a cold, and blessedly wet January.

    The idea of a desk in there sounds nice…such a fabulous idea…but what about the humidity and a computer? Sigh. Well, perhaps in the Rose Garden under the Robinia that keeps the worst sun from frying everything in the late summer. I found more roses to replace those I had 20 years ago that the Gophers ate…they were hard to find. And Johnny, Heirloom, and Burpee are great, along with every other things one might want on the internet from Stokes, and many others.

    It is nice in January, despite no heating as yet (my electrician was injured, and I am only half installed) to have a few heirloom tomatoes in their first flower in 5″ pots, hanging on for when I can plant it length wise in another month when the sun shows plentifully again (and I have to run the fans by extension cord!), And sugar snap peas managing now without heat, and despite heat next to the cooler in summer. It is the greatest continuous experiment to have some food and beauty growing all around.

    Still there is nothing like the Tangerines I raise in there at 4000 feet, and the BlackBerrys…three crops a year! So if not a good climate…there are ways! And it is a great place to hid from the noise of the world.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > what about the humidity and a computer?

      I have no issue with humidity, but if you use a Mac laptop, I’d recommend an Air (no fan) over a Pro (fan). The repair people (I had an unrelated logic board issue) were amazed at the dust that ended up on the inside of the keyboard compartment.

      So fanless and not your $5000 behemoth laptop, for sure. But since I’m just working in a browser, I laptop that’s next door to a throwaway is fine.

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