GARDEN TIP: Resurrecting A Norfolk Island Pine

Seventeen years ago, my friend Cecelia was new to Florida and in love with all the greenery and blooms. On a lovely, sunny day she was pushing her garden cart up and down the street collecting bagged leaves for mulch. One of her neighbors, about five houses down, was working in his front yard when she spied in his garbage the root ball of a Norfolk Island Pine. He had removed the three gallon pot, the tree limbs were completely brown, and the root ball was dried out.

Cecelia was determined to resuscitate it. “But it’s dead,” the neighbor declared. “We’ll see,” Cecilia said, thinking that some water might help it. He helped her get it in the cart and away she went.

The tree thrived at the back corner of her house and the neighbor who trashed it often rode by on his bicycle to check on his tree. He was thrilled to see the tree growing and looking so pretty and even became good friends with Cecelia’s husband.  The neighbor has since passed away but is still in their hearts and the tree, now two stories tall, is still in Cecelia’s yard.

The next time you see one of these trees at the curb after the holidays, drag it home and plant it.

GARDEN TIP: Hand Plows

We got our first walk-behind, wheeled hand plow from a friend of Momma and Poppie’s. By the time it went to meet its maker, I was the only one using it and Poppie was not interested in replacing it. He was using a big honkin’ terrifyin’ gas-powered rototiller. I tried to use the rototiller but it didn’t like me. Like a snarling dog, it sensed fear and gunned its motor at me. More than once, it took off across the yard without me. On one occasion when I was too stupid to let go, the rototiller jerked me off my feet and whipped me up in the air to flap in the breeze like a flag. I immediately began the search for a new hand plow.

The search did not go well. I live in a major metropolitan city. Feed and seed stores, for the most part, are a thing of the past. I wrongly assumed a feed and seed store would most certainly know about hand plows. What I encountered, instead, were blank expressions rivaling Barney on the Andy Griffith Show. I encountered this enough times to wonder if they had even seen a pitch fork up close and personal. I don’t know who was more embarrassed – them or me – so I stopped asking. I skulked around in every corner of half a dozen feed stores and small hardware stores hoping to clap eyes on one. Finally, I turned to the internet.

I had a little trouble with the internet, too, because it had been infused with an injection of uppity-mindedness. Here’s your garden tip for the week: a hand plow is now called a high wheel cultivator. It gets hard to pretend you’re a farmer when half of ‘em look at you with the “Huh?” expression and the other half had to go and git uppity about farmin’. Why on earth would you saunter into a store and ask for a high wheel cultivator when all you want is a hand plow? Did they have that uppity name between 1910 and 1940 when hand plows were in wider use?

I finally obtained one of the uppity contraptions via internet. My 6500 Earth Way High Wheel Cultivator was made in the U.S.A. and came with three attachments – a moldboard plow, a furrow plow and a 5-tined cultivator. Quite frankly, I would have rather had the optional slicing hoe. I like slicing hoes. Matter of fact, I like any kind of tool that doesn’t involve gasoline, a pull cord or a lot of heart-rending noise. I’ll admit that such tools require more manual labor but at least I don’t have to screech “dadgummit” following each attempt to fire it up.

I had one basic use for the hand plow all those years. After using a half-moon edger to cut a line in the grass four inches out from my liropi border grass, I would run the plow between the border grass and the cut edge to get rid of grass and weeds to expose raw dirt. To keep up appearances, I periodically ran a slicing hoe in the trench but weeds have a nasty habit of taking over and the plow would be drug out again. Nowadays, the plow has been pressed into more traditional service. With the furrow plow, I can hill up rows in my vegetable garden or dig trenches to plant potatoes and then plow along beside the potatoes to cover them. It can also be used to cultivate weeds in the walking paths between rows but I tend to cover my walking paths with leaves. One caveat: my plow is tubular steel and not intended for breaking ground although I did give it a good try. After torturing both myself and the plow, I walked over to Mr. Beekeeper’s to ask if he could till up my 2012 garden expansion.

NOTES: See the updated, more informative post on hand plows

See the updated, more informative post on hand plows here.

See a hand plow used as yard art here.

GARDEN TIP: Reduce Reuse Recycle

I got these foam pots at Dollar General a couple of years ago for $6 each. I don’t remember what year, exactly, but I believe it was before Dollar General’s ownership was transferred in 2007.  You will note that the passage of time, and probably wild animals, have taken their toll on the foam pots.


Prior to the Crash of ’08, I would have likely trashed these pots and purchased new. Given that today’s purchases enrich corporate america but do not help working Americans replaced by part-timers or cheaper overseas labor, I see no reason to spend money. Besides, I now have more time than money, so I tend to think in terms of reduce, reuse, recycle. I am fast becoming an expert on baling wire, duct tape, and paint. 

Momma was always a fan of the quick coat of paint to clean up a decrepit-looking item. Even Poppie making fun of her painting ability did not deter her from whipping out paint and brush or a can of spray paint. The fact that he did make fun of her is probably why I remember the coat-of-paint-trick.

While the pots look really bad and the top rim appears to have been gnawed by some kind of critter, they are still in good shape and recycling them with the coat-of-paint-trick came to mind. You can’t buy really small cans of paint anymore, except for a limited palette of colors in Wal-Mart, so I bought a quart of paint in this celery green color. A quart is a lifetime supply of paint when all your projects are small. By the time that quart of paint is gone or dried up, I’ll probably be sick of celery green but, for now, the pots look good again.


Black Gold Compost

Today I emptied my compost trash can onto an old shower curtain liner. You should have seen all the bugs that skittered out of it. My bug averse, chicken-livered, non-gardening friends would have bolted for the front gate or fainted dead away.

A little more than half of it was not ready for use. Those pink eye purple hull vines, in particular, stubbornly cling to existence. I did my best to layer browns, greens and the bag of frozen stuff. The leaves I was trying to layer got mixed in this pile but isn’t this some great looking new soil? I would estimate there was a bucket and a half that went on the garden.

GARDEN TIP: Composting

My compost bin

Now that you have plotted your spring garden and determined what seeds should go on your shopping list, I want to suggest composting.

After three years of playing with a small veggie plot and learning a lot of things the hard way, I got really serious about food production in spring 2011 with a newly tilled 12×28 plot. I also decided I had to have a compost bin because good soil is the number one necessity for organic gardeners. Traditional bins running upwards of $200 were beyond my psychological limit so I headed to YouTube. I watched several videos and settled on P. Allen Smith’s compost trash can as my plan.

After purchasing a 20 gallon plastic trash can, Poppie helped me drill holes in it just as P. Allen Smith had done. I used a bungee cord from handle to handle to keep ‘possums and ‘coons out of it. The obvious is never obvious to me and when the bungee cord didn’t fit exactly right, Momma and Poppie had to tell me to tie a knot in it. Do you know how many years it would have taken me to figure that out on my own? Sometimes Evie is right. I am SO stoopit.

I had studied composting books and learned that my compost bin needed a mix of browns and greens and it needed to be watered from time to time. I filled it up, gave it a squirt of water and waited.

Mostly, it sat there and did nothing. A ghastly assortment of critters that would have sent the bug averse screaming towards the next county had taken up residence. I didn’t see any worms, though, so I was okay with it.

I did not get rich, crumbly black gold in 8 or even 12 weeks as promised by P. Allen Smith. Maybe a compost scientist can get compost in 8 weeks but the rest of us? I’m skeptical. Still, I refused to give up. After three months, I dumped the whole mess out on an old plastic shower curtain and managed to scrape a shovelful from the bottom. One.

I think the biggest mistake I made was over-stuffing it in late August with the spent plants of pinkeye purple hull peas without cutting them up into small pieces. It took the critters more than five months to break that down enough for me to add new kitchen scraps to the bin. I had to revert to throwing my veggie peels out the back door in the azalea bed. I refused to throw anything in the kitchen garbage pail that held the promise of becoming dirt.

I now cut everything up into two inch chunks. I also made a mental note of the Worm Lady’s instruction to her vermicomposting students on the contents of their worm bins. She had them start with shredded newspaper. That’s probably the first thing I would put in my compost bin if I were starting from scratch.

Other things you can cut up and add to your compost trash bin are paper towel and toilet cardboard rolls, coffee grounds and tea bags, grass clippings and garden waste (except diseased), leaves, straw, nut shells, eggshells (toss them in a grocery bag, throw a towel over the bag and beat the living daylights out of it), and all manner of itty bitty kitchen scraps – bread, cabbage, celery, cores, peels, stems, pineapple husks, cantaloupe and watermelon rinds. Some sources have even suggested seaweed and kelp, aged manure, wood chips, branches, twigs and brush. No meat or fats.

If it stinks, it’s probably too wet, needs to be fluffed for air circulation, and more browns added to counteract high levels of nitrogen. If nothin’s happenin’, add more kitchen scraps, grass clippings, water and fluff it. Kitchen scraps of the green kind really seem to excite my compost residents.

One of the most annoying aspects of composting is getting your materials into the compost bin. I’ve experimented with several in-house storage systems, all of them plastic, bargain basement versions of the stainless steel kitchen composter.  I found myself making numerous trips to the compost bin rather than have the stuff yuk-out in the house. This means I am encountering those swarms of flying gnat-like things every time I open the lid on my compost bin. Agggh! They fly up your nose, in  your ear and you’d better keep your lips tightly shut! Wes Spence (Letters to the Editor, Organic Gardening, Feb./Mar. 2012 issue) offered an idea that I had begun to think about. His family collects compostable materials in a container in the freezer door. He claims that freezing compost material helps it break down more quickly. Far from being a mad scientist, I’ll take his word for it but I tell you what, after reading his letter, I stopped thinking about the freezer baggie plan and put it into action. This might prove the best solution because it doesn’t take up precious counter space.

Start thinking twice about what you are throwing in your kitchen garbage pail. Can it go in the composter? Can you run printer paper, envelopes and grocery lists through a shredder for the composter? Are you tossing the pulp from your juicer in the composter?

Pick up a trash can or two, and a bungie cord, while you are in the store getting your spring seeds. Another possibility are food grade 55 gallon drums, metal or plastic. I can get them for $20 in my city but would probably have trouble tumping them over to roll for mixing the compost. Still, the idea of $20 for 55 gallons over $15 for a 20 gallon trash can intrigues my frugal wallet. All you have to do to find them is plug into your browser the name of your city/state + food grade drums.