Here’s the question today: When should I till in my garden? I was talking to my dad about tilling. I’ve read in various places that tilling can be detrimental…but in a home garden it is a common practice to prepare sites for planting and get rid of weeds.

The short answer is you don’t need to till at all. If you want to, you can use tilling to incorporate organic matter during the initial site preparation, and to break up soils that are already compacted. Past that, I think it causes more harm than good. I’m going to ramble a bit and get into more specifics: feel free to stop reading if you aren’t into detailed explanations.

Tilling is thought to make the soil easier to work with (it doesn’t), control weeds, and incorporate organic matter. But there are also detrimental effects of tilling. These include propagating perennial weeds, bringing annual weed seed to the surface, decreasing earthworms and beneficial microorganism, deteriorating organic matter, destroying soil structure, injuring plant roots, and it also takes a lot of labor and effort.

Some of the perceived benefits aren’t as beneficial as they seem. The first misconception is that tilling will loosen the soil. Tilling actually destroys the soil structure. In farms that are frequently tilled, soil compaction actually increases.

The second misconception is that tilling gets rid of weeds. For some weeds, it does. But it can also increase the populations of other weeds. For instance, tilling quackgrass does a good job of chopping up the rhizomes and propagating the plant. After tilling, the quackgrass will come back more aggressively.

The last benefit of tilling is to incorporate organic matter. For initial bed preparation, tilling in organic matter can help it move down in the soil profile and improve soil health. But continued tilling will lessen the effects, as the organic matter deteriorates.

You don’t have to get very deep in the literature to realize that adopting no-till methods can be very beneficial. No-till systems have better aeration and drainage, more earthworms, and less soil erosion. Most of the research has been done in large-scale crops, but the same principles apply in the home garden.

Home gardeners have the added advantage that everything is small-scale. One issue in till vs no-till is that tilling can be a good weed control method. The other option in no-till systems is often herbicides. But with small-scale home garden, mulch and hand weeding work well.

The alternatives to tilling include:

  • Mulching: Includes organic mulch or plastic sheeting. Mulching will reduce weeds and help regulate water. Organic mulch also add organic matter to the soil. Plastic mulch raises soil temperature for earlier planting.
  • Smother: Use plastic sheeting, layers of corrugated cardboard or newspaper and organic mulch. I’ve used cardboard topped with a couple of inches of compost to kill off lawn. It takes some time, but does a great job of killing off whatever is underneath.
  • Top dressing: Instead of incorporating fertilizer or compost, just apply it to the top and let the earthworms and rainfall do the work. Plant roots are most concentrated in the top of the soil profile anyway.

Tilling can still be useful during the initial site preparation and to help break up soils that are already compacted. Whenever you till, make sure and apply a good layer of compost at the same time. Don’t be afraid to just ditch the tiller altogether: the soil will probably thank you.

*The picture has nothing to do with the post. I was just enjoying the flowers in my tiny garden. 


Tomato Flavor

I first ran across an article on NPR that made me miss my Cherokee Purple tomatoes from last year. The article discussed a study in science (see abstract) about how choosing uniform ripeness in tomatoes also lead to a decrease in taste. The study was also discussed in this article in the  NY Times. It’s big news in the horitcultural world, and another piece of evidence why modern agriculture stinks and heirlooms are wonderful.

Later on in the week I read this by Graham Rice at Transatlantic Plantsman. His response reminds us that not all modern bred hybrid tomatoes stink. For me, even the much deplored grocery store varieties have their place. I would rather go and buy a decent looking tomato than buy the mess of a shipped Cherokee purple tomato. (Sometimes just transporting them in the car a few miles left gooey soft spots.)  If I really want the taste of a homegrown tomato, I’ll grow it. Hybrids and supermarket tomatoes can make great tomato sauce, cooked dishes etc, where the tomato is masked by other introduced flavors. There are times when sacrificing flavor for traits like uniform color make sense.

Heirlooms and modern hybrids are not competition, but are compliments. Something I do not agree with in the organic agriculture movement is a push away from modern-bred plants. I’m not even against all GMO’s. (For example, at the end of the Times article they mention re-engineering the lost flavor genes back into tomatoes, creating a GMO.  Alternatively, breeders could cross different tomato plants, look for mutations and desirable gene traits and after many generations, and years of effort finally find a tomato that resembled or might even be identical to the GMO. The GMO took far less time and energy to produce, so I’d take the GMO.) The original research is not another piece of evidence why modern agriculture stinks and heirlooms are wonderful, but simply an interesting look at gene play.

The World of Fertilizer: Again

Hello Readers. But really I mean reader which means you, H, since I believe all others who have stumbled over this blog have quit reading due to boredom. Thank you for being blood-related to me too much to give up. And if you aren’t reading this, well then I’m just talking to myself, so by the way remember that you just left a very important document on the scanner that needs to be dealt with shortly.

The only interesting gardening think I’ve done lately is water plants. They are doing much better due to the fertilizer mentioned in the previous post. In thinking about the whole situation, I’ve decided to rewrite the last post. I know you were bored the first time round…

Still here? I have no idea why, but here’s the re-written post for you:

So the few potted plants out on the balcony were not doing hot dying. With a degree in horticulture I probably should actually care about gardening and have a lush little book-worthy mini-garden out there. In reality in takes about of month of zero growth from my plants and bright yellow leaves before I realize those plants need fertilizer.

Even then I probably wouldn’t do something except I needed stuff at Target and Home Depot happened to be next store. So I ran over there (literally because it was raining) and went to go buy a fertilizer.

Drawing on a hazy memory of scientific posters from school, I knew I needed a fertilizer with something like a 5-1-2 ratio. If you have no idea what that means you can simply buy the first thing that is labeled for what you are growing and leave within a sane amount of time. There’s not much fun in that though. I looked at the gobs of miracle grow and thought of how it is the devil of gardening. Maybe they have something angelically organic instead.

Then I realized that shopping at a hardware store for a chemical fertilizer also probably falls into the devil category and stopped looking for organic stuff. (Not a big fan of “organic” anyway, but let’s save that for another post.) I’m back looking for a 5-1-2 ratio.

Miracle grow turned out to be an epic failure at providing me the desired ratio. You would think some company would take advantage at what experts are recommending, but after staring for five minutes I have found zilch. I’m still looking for that stupid ratio….and found it! (or close enough):

Hmmm…it’s labeled for trees and shrubs. I really have no idea why you need different kinds of fertilizer for different kinds of plants. Varying amounts, sure, but nitrogen is nitrogen. (Well actually, it can come in various chemical forms…but the labeling is still very off).

This stuff should work fine. Got to be better than a 10-10-10 miracle grow, since phosphorus is frequently over applied in the home garden and hence destroying waterways and possibly the whole ecosystem. It’s slow release granular which appeals to the lazy side of me—I can put it on once and be done. It also happens to be cheap! I have a hard time arguing with price tags.

My containerized pots got a good helping of evergreen shrub fertilizer. The fertilizer shelf at home depot got a D- grade from me.

The World of Fertilizers

Did you know that most fertilizers on the shelf at hardware stores are not based on good science? There seems to be a plot to get us to over apply phosphorus, which is bad for the environment. They have taken phosphorus out of lawn fertilizers, but non-lawn fertilizer still have incorrect fertilizer ratios, resulting in the continual overapplication of phosophrus in our gardens. Garden chemical suppliers at hardware stores are not doing a good job of getting us products that are healthy for the garden.

I went to home depot to get some fertilizer for my potted plants outside. They haven’t been growing well, mainly because I have not put any form of fertilizer on them. Potted plants are difficult to grow successfully without additional fertilizer. I was looking for something fairly cheap and easy. When I got there I stared at the shelf in bewilderment. I knew I wanted a fertilizer with an unbalanced ratio, something looking like  5-1-2, and I wanted a slow-release granular type for ease and to avoid over application. At first glance, nothing was close. I finally found this:

I am using this on potted herbs and flowers. It was the closest I could find to what I wanted. It was interesting looking at these fertilizers marketed for different kinds of plants. Fertilizer is fertilizer and tomatoes, lawn and flowers all use the same chemical stuff. They tweak rations and percentages but its all marketing and not based on good science.

The general public will often go to a store if they have a problem with the garden, or need a good product. Most of the time they don’t come prepared with the knowledge of what they actually need. When they get there, they find a lot of chemical-junk products. I found out that even if you go knowing what you need and what would be best for your plants, the product is often just not there. What results is a lot of overuse of chemicals. Unfortunately, if you want a decent garden and reduced chemical use, you usually also have to have some sort of garden training. Without it, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the massive amount of horrid chemical products on the shelf.

I’m not necessarily again chemical use: I have yet to grow a completely organic garden. Chemicals, including pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, can be part of sustainable gardening, mostly as a last result. But walking into Home Depot they seem like the only option and often the ones that are heavily promoted are poor products. I can never seem to find the type of low-impact chemical solutions that I would also recommend to people.

What I would like to see is gardening education in the store so that you can walk into a store and the most sold and promoted product is also the one that is best for your garden. Right now there is a great divide between what is recommended by experts and what is actually on the shelf. If we really want sustainable and smart gardening to take off, it’s going to have to happen in the hardware stores and garden centers as well as in blogs and book. Authorities can recommend practices and types of products all they want, but to really be effective the products need to be available on the store shelf and marketed correctly.

The New American Landscape

While at the library, I saw this book sitting in a display on gardening. I had been eyeing the book for a while and immediately took it out of display and checked it out. (I’ve always wondered if this is proper library etiquette. Should one keep the display intact, or is the display made to get the books checked out?) This book is now added to my increasingly long list of books I’ve checked out from the library and read but now want to actually own. I’d love to add some notes and mark it up a bit. In the meanwhile, a short book review will at least capture some of the information in this book.

The book is a collection of essays from various experts and authors. The different viewpoints contributed to an arching theme of sustainability. The editor writes this about sustainability:

The accepted definition of sustainability is to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Applied to gardening, this means using methods, technologies, and materials that don’t deplete naturals resources or cause lasting harm to natural systems. (pg. 9)

Within the collection of voices, the interpretation of sustainability in the garden was varied, although there are several principle that hold true throughout. Some principles that I found include:

  • Reduced resource use, including chemicals, fertilizer and water
  • Planting adapted plants
  • Working with, not against, nature
  • Using more natives
  • Contributing to soil health
  • Creating landscapes that are productive
  • Planting a larger variety of plants

I actually wrote a senior paper for my horticulture degree that was in the same topic as this book. I’ve always liked the idea of making our landscapes more a part of nature, rather than a doorstep from inside to wherever else we are going. This book is a great intro and in-depth look at sustainable gardens, including information on sustainable solutions, meadows, natives, wildlife, climate change, edibles, green roofs, waterwise gardens, and soil health. I gained a better grasp on water gardens and permaculture, two concepts that I head a lot about but had yet to understand how to go about.

Most of the authors avoided being too doomsday sounding or preachy, instead presenting tangible benefits of gardening sustainably, and using scientific references. (One essay did make be cringe a bit. I would rather be persuaded to do something, not guilted into it.) This is a great read if you are at all interested in sustainable gardening.

Garden, Landscape, and Yard

I use the following terms a lot, and often interchangeably: garden, landscape, and yard. The words do have different connotations for me, and here’s what I think of each term.

YardA piece of land surrounding a house. Nothing is required here except for physical space.

Landscape: The features of a yard or outdoor area. A landscaped yard is purposely planned out and filled with various hard-scape and plant material. 

Garden: A place for plants. In a garden, the highlight is the plants and how they interact and grow.

When I think about the area surrounding the house, I often think about it in three tiers. The bottom is the yard. If you have a yard you have a bunch of land that is not devoted to any purpose, including aesthetics. Think a dirt pad, weed patch, or even a run-of the mill lawn with boxwood foundation plantings. Nothing special or desirable here.

The next is a landscape. The area is purposefully planned out to be functional and beautiful. There can be good or bad landscaping and a slew of different styles…but there is always some thought and effort behind it. Most commercially done landscapes fall into this tier (with a few exceptions). These usually have a “before and after” type approach, with a one time installation and only minor modifications after the initial installation.

Finally, the most desirable tier is a garden. A garden is all about plants. There almost always has to be a gardener attached as well, someone who appreciates and cares for the plants. A garden changes dynamically through the years as plants are appreciated, cultivated and experimented on. In the culture where I grew up, a garden usually meant a kitchen garden with vegetables and such. Most people only cared about their vegetables too…the rest of the landscape was not cultivated by a caring gardener but occasionally hacked at with a mower and pruning shears. But there are also flower gardens, mixed borders, meadows, and more that can accurately be described as a garden.

I said that a garden is most desirable, but I think a lot of people aren’t actually looking to have a garden. They want a nice landscape, something that is functional and pretty, but avoid the effort and knowledge that is necessary for a garden. There is always something missing from these landscapes though: no piece of land can reach it’s full potential unless it is treated as a garden.


I like to read…though sometimes it’s hard for me to get into serious how-to gardening book. But I will read them straight through (not out of necessity just because I like it), even if it takes me a while. The most recent one was The Well-Tended Perennial Garden. I should have read it eons ago. The main complaint was it was a library copy so I had to return it after I had maxed out my renewals.

The Well-Tended Perennial Garden is the bible on maintaining perennial plants. If you are taking care of perennials, you should have a copy of this box. I don’t necessarily agree with or follow everything she recommends…but the book is an excellent place to start and then experiment on your own. I read straight through the first half, which is a how-to on installing and maintaining perennials. Even after maintaining perennials professionally, I learned a bunch from this guide. The second half is an encyclopedia with specific maintenance instructions for individual species, and that is why I want to own the book.

Because I’m currently nursing a lot, and I read when I nurse, I’ve read a lot. The next book I read was Four Tenths of an Acre by Laurie Lisle. Not a bad garden memoir about the author’s garden in New England, though nothing stood out to me that much either.

I’ve also read The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels–a Love Story and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh (Aladdin Fantasy) to polish off the week. Niether are gardening books, but both are good reads and at least have gardens in them. I read them faster and probably enjoyed them more than the gardening books too.

Woody Plants

I’m trying to get up on my knowledge of woody plants in the area. I pulled out my woody plant book, which is Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs. I crossed an invisible line in my travels. Most trees and shrubs I see are not in this book. I needed the companion book: Dirr’s Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates. I proceeded to check it out from the library. So far I’ve made it through the introduction and looked up one plant.  The intro was very fascinating to me since it’s about Dirr’s Georgia garden, and I’m now in the same area. I found out the botanical name for a crape myrtle (it’s …Lagerstroemia). I had no idea before, even though crape myrtles are nearly as common as bark mulch.  I managed to get a horticulture degree without learning any plants that are used in warmer climates. Now I’m able to happily increase my knowledge.

A library copy of this kind of book will prove to be insufficient, but I’ve wanted to buy this book for a while. However, recently they released the new Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs.
I could go ahead and buy both, but it appears that the new book is mostly a compilation of the previous two Dirr woody books. This makes a lot of sense in my mind, and here’s why:

The invisible line in Dirr’s two book was going from a zone six to a zone seven. There’s no reason really to divide the zones like this, so I’m happy to see that they combined the books. I’m only half a zone apart from where I moved from: a 7b to a 7a. I’m wondering if things like a loropetalum wouldn’t grow well in many Utah landscapes: at a zone seven they are supposed to be cold hardy.  But I’m also still not sold that going off and planting a myriad of zone seven plants is wise. Like I said in this post I’ve seen winter damage on zone 5/6 plants.

There are other factors going on too. Like rhododendrons and azaleas still don’t make it far past garden center shelves before suffering a quick death due to alkaline soils. (Why they are on garden center shelves is beyond me. I once tried to convince someone in a hardware store they really didn’t want to buy that azalea…it would shortly die. It didn’t go over so well since I was just buying screws, and the associate in the garden center thought it was a good choice. I have yet to see an established azalea in a Utah landscape…)  Not only are winters more mild in Georgia, but acidity and humidity play a huge role in the plant pallet.

The native plant pallet that should be drawn upon and used frequently will be different as well. I also believe in regional gardening…Georgia is a great place for woodland gardens. Utah (at least to me) caters to dry desert and mountain alpines. So when I’m done in Georgia I might have a whole new list of landscape plants…but I’m not necessarily in a hurry to go ahead and plant them in Utah.

But I really do need to go and buy that new Dirr book, one way or the other.

Waterwise: Native Plants Book Review

I read this book right before I move to Georgia. To me, this year long stay in Georgia is just a year long adventure. I’m planning on being back in the Intermountain west after we are done here. (We moved out here for my husband to finish his schooling, by the way). My gardening heart is still very much rooted to the Intermountain west. I’m finding little desire to learn about what plants grow well in overly moist acidic soil, rather than the calcium carbonated dry stuff I’m used to.

I need to own this book. I actually checked it out from the library, read it straight through, and had to return it when I met the renewal limit. I would love my own copy to mark up and use. It will probably wait until we are no longer on a student budget and I actually live in the intermountain west again.

If you live out in Utah or nearby, and have any interest in growing native plants, you should own this book. It is basically a database of almost all plants that are native and one would consider growing in the garden. The layout is great and makes it easy to find specific details and growing conditions on each of the plants. I basically read this cover to cover, but it’s probably more of a reference book. The front section is wonderful, in that it spells out the different native plant associations that are in the area, and the specific growing conditions associated with each. Even if you are mostly using it as a reference book, the front sections is worth reading straight through.

One caution about this book, is many plants that are in it are not available to go buy, and certainly not at the local Home Depot. Sometimes the only way to get your hands on a native plant is to propagate it yourself. But that can actually be a lot of fun too.

The amazon price is $43. When I worked at the Extension Office we had a large pile we sold for $40 a piece. So if you are going to buy this book and live in Utah, go try the county extesnsion office first.

Also, I am considering re-purposing my blog. I have another blog that I use for anything not gardening related, but I am thinking of combining the two into a new unique site. But I’m not sure about that, and wonder what my readers would think, if they have any opinion.

USDA Follow up

Just a few links that were interesting :

An interactive version of the map, where you can zoom in and see the details of the zones here.

Half-way through this article is more information about how the map was created.

The old 1990 version for reference of changes.

Another old version if you want to get even more confused:

Also, my main gardening website is down. I spend several days getting it all fixed up, only to come back to it and have it not working again. This is frustrating, because I haven’t touched it in the meanwhile. The blog seems unaffected luckily. In many ways I don’t care: this year is turning into a sabbatical from gardening work. With a baby coming and less family around to help out with the other kid, that’s fine by me. If I don’t post here that regularly, just know I’m enjoying kids and focusing on other things.