By Jocelyn Lena Twight
The birds are singing in the spring sun as I sit on my deck to collect my thoughts. I begin to write, and I cannot separate my thoughts from the women in my family and how I learned about growing. The force of nature I call “Mom” raised me in the garden between the Swiss chard and the strawberries. As a young, fiercely independent single mother she took her girls, both under the age of seven, to a farm in northern Minnesota. My family still owns a maple syrup farm on one side and a commercial greenhouse on the other. My very essence is rooted in nature because of her choice to live off the land.
What business does this give me to write as if I am an authority on horticulture? None. I have no pretty printed papers to declare my knowledge is better than Google. I was a strong-willed child who was taught about the science of growing things by simply doing it with the women around me.
My mother has said I did not so much have a first word as I had a first sentence. I never sat still and I questioned everything in a time when children were seen but not heard. My maternal grandmother would walk with me all over town and country, while listening to me recite Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry from a “Children’s Garden of Verses” by memory. During these walks she taught me birding along with the names of flowers and trees. I got to see first-hand how the plants and birds are bound together.
Soon after, the Brownies declared me 4H material at a glance. I spent my summers canoeing through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area collecting lake water samples for the U of M to study the effects of acid rain with a handful of friends. I learned the importance of water conservation and the effects our environment has on a clean water supply.
Girls were learning about makeup and clothes while I was a geeky jacket wearing member of the Future Farmers of America. I spent hours studying plant and pest identification. I took horticulture and floriculture courses at the university when I should have been learning how to socialize in high school. I learned how to turn dirt into soil. I turned an internship into a full time green plants manager job at a local floral shop.
Oh, but how I tried to move away from the land to become an uptown girl.
I moved to the concrete jungle far away: Minneapolis, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The further away I got, the closer it pushed me to Colorado where I found my way back to the land. Through it all I have come to realize that they are absolutely correct when they say we are the sum of our experiences. Not everyone can have had the experiences that shaped me. How could they?
I have spent many a year riding a bike to work. I have built a micro-home and I live off-grid with no running water, using minimal electricity, which means I do not have a TV or the Internet. I try hard to make up for the overuse of natural resources. This means I take the abuse of the land or nature as a personal insult. I become a hot mess. I end up barefoot in a field praying for peace.
Colorado winters require some variation in my source of salvation (although standing barefoot in the snow really does bring you around.) The real issue, I often find, is that we are not present and paying attention to stop issues before they get out of control. There are many alternatives in nature to using pesticides and chemicals, but they all require time, work, and patience. If you do not have birds, ladybugs, and worms in your yard there is almost certainly a problem. The plants and the animals need each other.
Watching the birds with Grandma, we noticed they will happily help you remove pests; you want them in your yard. Many gardeners will let their birds range free for this reason: ducks, chickens, and turkeys. Not an option? Plant berry bushes or flowering trees to encourage the wild birds to help you out. Serviceberry, mountain ash, or honeysuckle bush are bird favorites.
The birds require places to hide from predators, with food and water. You can buy material to hang in your yard that encourages them to make a nest nearby. Create a bird bath with a place to perch in the middle. Place a feeder or two near the garden edge to encourage them. Please do not do this if you are going to use a chemical spray on the bugs they eat and the plants they perch in.
Instead try soap. Yes, soap. Man scented bar soap shaved around the garden with a vegetable peeler to keep away the critters. Try using insecticidal soap for the “bad bugs.” First, take the time to remove as many by hand as you can. I use just the basic ratio, 1 teaspoon dish soap to 1 quart water to spray on plants with bugs. That is almost always my first weapon for any pest without a shell.
But, first you have to find them. Look at the back side of the leaves to find most pests. Spray directly on the pests. Not during a hot sunny day or you might scorch the leaves. During rainy weather it will just wash away. Pick calm weather and make sure you do it more than once. Not working? Try neem oil. Even soap and neem oil can affect nature, (bees) so use only when needed and apply to the bugs, not the flower heads where the nectar/pollen is found.
My aunties taught me not just about the love between family members, but also the love of all beings, even bugs. Bees, ladybugs, praying mantis, green lace wing, assassin bugs, garden snakes and even toads are on your side. Many garden supply stores carry ladybugs and will give you direction. If you have used some of the more deadly sprays they can continue to cause kill off for up to three years after use. Not just the bind root you sprayed dies, the good bugs, and the worms will not survive.
Instead, look up these “good bugs” and encourage them in for lunch. Do not water in the evening if you have issues with slugs and snails. If your soil is missing worms when you turn it over, then stop by a bait shop and save some from the fisherman’s hook. They will thank you by aerating the roots and leaving happier plants behind them. Unless you never fix the original problem in which case they will head to your hippie neighbor’s dandelion patch.
I would need a whole book to go into fertilizers and soil. Instead, I will try to break it down like Mix Master Mike; a three number code. You will see this on all fertilizer packages. These numbers stand for Nitrogen-Phosphate-Potash. Along with air, water, and sunshine, your plants will not grow without these at an absorbable level.
If you use too much of the wrong thing you will get all leaves and no buds. Not enough nitrogen and you won’t get those healthy green leaves. Do your leaves have a red-purple hue? Are they not getting the root growth your plant needs? That could be phosphate deficiency. Potash is a nutrient form of potassium that is water soluble. If it is missing and you’re paying attention, you will see thin-skinned plants that are not thriving.
My aunties taught me this lesson; one shot of tequila makes you smile, but a bottle later you will feel much different. My mom used wine, and my grandma was an old-fashioned Manhattan kinda gal, but the lesson is the same. The moral of the story is: all things in moderation.
With non-organic chemical fertilizers you will see numbers like 18-24-16, 18-18-21, 15-30-15, 14-14-14. The organic fertilizers will have lowers numbers, like 5-2-3, 3-1-2, 1-3-1, 5-4-6, or 4-4-2. The difference is easy to see when you put them side by side. No robins in your yard because you have no worms to eat? What has run-off into your soil? Have you been using fertilizers with high numbers where the plants cannot use it, forcing it to remain down in your dirt until the rain washes it into our water supply?
We are all one big circle. If you are creating right angles you are messing up the flow. Take that shot of tequila (hopefully it is infused with healthy peppers from your garden), sit on your deck, and be present. Make a list of what is missing and make a point to bring it back into your garden sanctuary. Feel your soul smile in the sunshine. Grab your daughter, or borrow one from a friend, and let her help you. You just may change her life and your own.
While many of us are Red Queens running around thinking we’re Alices, Jocelyn is an authentic Alice, in every possible sense. She has an extensive base of knowledge rooted in all things living, an innate desire to nurture, and an explosive laugh that moves her whole head.