Friday, September 27, 2013

Meetings, Marketing, and Mosaiculture.

Atlanta Botanical Garden
Garden blogging tends to be a solitary life. You start seeds, pull weeds, write about what's working and what's not. And, if you're like me, you fret, wondering if anyone reads what you're writing. 

Helloooo? Is anyone out there? 

A comment left on a post incites a happy dance. So, armed with this positive reinforcement, you go back and do it again.

But there are a few times each year when we garden bloggers abandon our gardens and lonely desks.

This year, more than 80 bloggers gathered for the Garden Bloggers' Fling--an annual garden tour extravaganza. I've been remiss in writing about this garden love-fest, last held in San Francisco, simply because it's taken me three months to sort and edit the 2,000 photos I took over the course of three days.

Yes. The Fling is that good.

This week, however, I spent two days at the Garden Bloggers' Conference in Atlanta, hosted by Digital Sherpa. It was the antithesis of the Fling but in a positive way. For two solid days, we lovers of the outdoors sat sequestered in a windowless conference room, learning. Social media, SEO, technology,, a healthy dose of star power inspiration from garden bloggers who've made it big.

It was exactly what this non-techie girl needed.

Not only did my brain nearly explode from so much information, my social network expanded. I adored meeting and chatting with garden bloggers whom I've followed online for years. 

Of course, one of my most memorable moments involved one of my favorite garden writers. 

Amy Stewart.

Garden-writer guru, I've always adored Amy's books and her collaborative blog, Garden Rant. So, like a 12-year-old with a crush on One Direction, I approached Ms. Stewart after her presentation to gush over one of my favorite books she's written, From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden

I promptly spilled red wine all over my peach silk blouse and slunk away.

OK, so maybe it was too much socializing for those of us who spend days alone and afternoons chauffeuring 8- and 12-year-olds.

While the conference was fabulous (I now have so much work to do!), what would a garden conference be without a trip to a garden?

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Before driving home to resume mom-duty, I headed to the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Of course, mom-guilt kicked in after being away from the family, but it was worth the two-hour delayed return to reality.

 Atlanta Botanical Garden

You see, there was a special display I needed to visit.

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Imaginary Worlds: Plants Larger than Life lived up to its name. 

A creative partnership between the Atlanta Botanical Garden and International Mosaiculture of Montreal, the living sculptures inspired awe, both in the enormity of the endeavor and the detailed care for each complex form. 

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Incorporated throughout the garden, each sculpture showcases the art of "Mosaiculture"--a combination of art and gardening. First popular in 16th century Europe, where wealthy landowners commissioned three-dimensional "embroidery beds," mosaiculture became the term known in 19th century France for geometric, mosaic-like forms of planted sculptures.

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Atlanta Botanical Garden

International Mosaiculture of Montreal, a nonprofit organization created in 1998, launched the first international mosaiculture competition in 2000 to showcase gardening and horticulture as representative of "new millennium values." Many of the garden bloggers who attended the Garden Writers' Association's conference this fall visited Montreal's mosaiculture exhibition. However, Atlanta's exhibition is the first time Imaginary Worlds is on display in the U.S.

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Personally, I think the Ogre would make an excellent statement in our front yard.

Atlanta Botanical Garden

I'm rather enamored with these bunnies. I wonder if I can stretch my gardening expertise to make up for my lack of artistic ability and create these for our garden? A funny thing happened when Proven Winners ColorChoice Flowering Shrubs posted a photo of the mosaiculture bunnies on its Facebook page: they were inundated with queries from potential customers! I think, perhaps, they should add mosaiculture bunnies to their product line. (I know I would be first in line to purchase.)

Part of the fun involved discovering the mosaiculture sculptures throughout the gardens. Yes, you could cheat and look at the map, but it was more interesting to wander the paths, admiring anemones and art...

Atlanta Botanical Garden

...then--BOOM! A bigger-than-life, rotating, dancing fish sculpture greets you.

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Or, perhaps you're admiring camellia sinensis, reading a sign about its usefulness in making tea...

Atlanta Botanical Garden

...and when you look up, you find a giant strawberry hovering over you.

In fact, while I was delighted with the mosaiculture, I also found myself impressed with the breadth and diversity of the edible garden. Most botanical gardens tuck a few tired tomatoes and perhaps some peppers into a tiny plot, just to join the edible trend.

Atlanta Botanical Gardens

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Atlanta Botanical Garden
(I will plant a living herb wall some day. I will.)

Atlanta Botanical Garden

Atlanta Botanical Garden

The Atlanta Botanical Garden appears to take edible gardening seriously. Bravo!

After wandering the woodland paths, I finally reached my goal: the Cascades Garden...

Atlanta Botanical Garden

...and the Earth Goddess. Isn't she fabulous?

I headed home, filled with gardening inspiration.

Now, to put all of that knowledge and inspiration to use...

Happy Friday!



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

12 Truths about Backyard Chickens.

They're sweet. They're fluffy. Their little “peeps” will quickly steal your heart. Honestly, how can you not become enamored with cutie-patootie little chicks, especially when they will ultimately provide fresh eggs for frittatas?

Two years ago, we took the leap and joined the backyard chicken craze, which you can read about here.

It's been an—interesting—experience.

In May, we welcomed our latest chicks: Tinkerbell (Buff Laced Polish), Sprite (White Crested Blue Polish), Willow Wisp (Blue Andalusian), and Pixie (Silver Laced Polish).

Everything went well with the newest chicks. They grew, they thrived, the kids became smitten with their newest pets. 

Even integrating the new girls into the existing flock went fairly smoothly.

 And then, Pixie crowed.

Yes. Crowed.


When we began our chicken adventure, we knew the odds. Although we ordered pullets—female chicks—the hatcheries very carefully explain on their websites that sexing is not an exact science. In fact, there's a 10% chance that your order will contain a rooster.


One in ten.

Every year since our adventure began, I've warned the kids that if one of the chicks falls into that 10% error-margin, we cannot keep a rooster.

(For those of you just joining us: we live in a subdivision. On less than an acre. With a Homeowners' Association.)

Each year, we've held our breaths—and we've been lucky.

Until now.

“Third time's a charm” apparently didn't apply to our third flock of chicks.

Truthfully, we knew before Pixie announced it. While Polish possess an unmistakable “hairdo,” Pixie's plumage appeared significantly different than his sisters' feathers as he grew. Kristen suspected Pixie's “roo-ness” before he ever uttered his practice crow.

As I searched the Internet, images of young Polish roosters appeared that looked just like Pixie. When I cautioned the kids that Pixie would need to leave if and when he began to crow, they began researching ideas about how we could keep him. Kristen, my animal lover, even researched surgery for roosters to remove their crow. 

My sweet, animal crazy girl lost all reason.

She also plotted to paint his nails pink, put a bow in his feathers, keep him inside the coop so the neighbors wouldn't hear his crow, and basically LIE to anyone who asked if we owned a rooster.

I must admit, I actually thought of a few of those ideas, too.

But we parents must set aside our own emotions and help our kids make good decisions. We weren't going to subject Pixie to potentially fatal surgery, embarrassing hair-bows, or pink nail polish.

And we certainly weren't going to lie. (Tempting...but no.)

Instead, I reminded the kids that if we were inconsiderate neighbors, the entire flock could be at risk. Who knew what could happen if a neighbor complained? Instead of finding a new home for Pixie, we could potentially lose all of the girls.

The kids cried harder. 

It was a fine parenting moment.

So, when I heard Pixie's first crowing attempt, my chest tightened. The second attempt was also rather pitiful—but unmistakable.

The third time sounded almost like a real rooster.

It was time to make a plan.

Truthfully, it was past time to make a plan. The plan for Pixie's theoretical home should have been in place BEFORE we added chicks to our home. After all, we're not the only people who try to re-home a rooster. I remember reading Theresa's account of re-homing her rooster on her blog, Living Homegrown. I even sent her a sympathetic message, praying that we'd never be in the same boat. Silly me.

In the excitement and emotion of selecting chicks, most of us never really properly plan. Although Kristen read more than a dozen books about chickens, we attended a seminar about raising chickens, and I spoke with several farmer friends, we learned some things the hard way.

I hope you can benefit from our experiences.

12 Truths about Backyard Chickens

1. Tiny Chicks = Big Chickens.

Those cute little fluff balls at the feed and seed store will grow into large eating and pooping machines. Do you have the time and space to provide a good home for them? A Rubbermaid container in your house might hold chicks for awhile, but then what? Did you check with your Homeowners' Association, city, or neighbors to make certain chickens are allowed? Check your local ordinances before those cute fluff balls follow you home.

2. Cute Coops vs. Safe Chickens
The adorable coops you've pinned on Pinterest or that you plan to order online may be darling, but will they keep out predators? Our first precious little coop that I bought online was guaranteed “raccoon-proof.” And yet, a raccoon opened two sliding latches and killed Saltine. It was horrible. Granted, our chickens are pets, so we all took it very hard. Our new Chicken Fortress is like Fort Knox for chickens. Peter constructed it from scratch, and the door handle/lock requires two hands to open it by turning the latch down. We've yet to cute-ify it—it's not Pinterest worthy. Yet. But our girls are safe, and that's what matters.

3. Free-Range Fun. For Dogs. And Hawks.
Free-range is fine and dandy, and the neighborhood dogs will thank you for their mid-afternoon snack. Supervised free-ranging is a better idea. We let the girls free-range while we're working in the garden or swimming in the pool so that we can keep them safe. Speaking of gardens...

4. Gardening with Chickens = Hungry You.
Chickens will eat your garden. It's an urban legend that chickens and lettuce will coexist. I assure you, the minute we let the girls out into the forest to free-range, they head straight for the kitchen garden, while I fuss and yell and tell them to stop eating the chard. They don't listen to me. However, they do eat the bugs in your garden. They're also great mulch movers. If you let them play in your garden, I can assure you that they will do a fine job of removing all of the mulch surrounding your plants.

5. Chickens Are Not Penguins.

Chickens fly. Yes, I know you think they don't—but they do. Not all breeds are flighty. Silkies tend to be land lovers. But boy—do your research. Just ask our neighbors, who knocked on the door one Saturday morning to inform us that our two Golden Campines, Sugar and Spice, had joined their yard sale. Mortifying. By the way, clipping a wing does not necessarily cure flighty birds. We clipped one wing on each of our Campines, as recommended, but they quickly regained their balance and continued cruising the air. If you don't have an enclosed run, research the flightiness of the breeds you want to raise before your pick up your chicks. And install bird netting to keep them contained.

6. Picky Chickies.
Some breeds like warm climates, some prefer cool. Research, research, research, and then select which breeds are appropriate for your climate. Regardless, always watch the temperature to keep your flock healthy. Provide good shelter and insulation in the winter, and keep the girls cool in the summer.

7. Mission: Impossible.
Covert chickening keeping is impossible. If your HOA doesn't allow backyard chickens, please don't assume that you can sneakily raise them. Have you ever heard the proud announcement a chicken makes when she lays an egg? It's loud. While it's not as annoying as our neighbor's hound dog that brays for hours, it's an unmistakable sound. Plus, sometimes they like to cheer each other on as the egg laying progresses. Trust me. I've done the walk of shame to the school bus stop on many occasions, pretending that I don't hear our girls' raucous party. 

Oh. Ditto for covert roosters. Just don't try it. You'll get an ulcer.

8. Don't Quit Your Day Job.
You will not get rich selling eggs. And if you think that raising chickens will be an excellent lesson in entrepreneurship for your pre-teen daughter, just realize that she will never, ever approach anyone to ask if they'd like to buy eggs because she is too shy. (Just my experience.) Friends will offer to buy eggs, but usually you'll give them away to neighbors to keep the peace when chickens show up at their yard sales. There IS a good market for free-range, organic eggs, but will your 6 backyard hens provide enough eggs for you to sell at the Farmers' Market? No, they won't.

You will, however, enjoy delicious eggs with deep, orange-yellow yolks. Now, that's rich.

Also, you will most likely buy eggs in the winter. Or when your girls molt. Or when they get stressed. As daylight shortens, hens' egg laying slows—and even stops. Yes, you can provide supplemental light to make them continue laying, or you can let their bodies takes a much needed rest, as nature intended. Studies have shown that the supplemental light can decrease the number of years a hen lays.

9. How Organic Are Your Eggs?
We all want organic eggs, but organic chicken feed is tricky to find, plus it's pricey. Our local feed and seed doesn't carry organic feed, and I haven't found it anywhere in our area. A permaculture group I belong to is working to find a supplier, but until then, our girls get Layena, plus organic fruit, veggies, and free-range goodies. I'll always prefer our eggs over organic store-bought eggs any day, because I know we have happy, healthy hens.

10. There are no chicken-friendly hotels. (If you find one, please let me know.)
Leaving for a quick weekend get-away just got a little trickier. While it's pretty easy to ask a friend or pet sitting service to check in on your pooches, not many people are as enamored with chicken-sitting. Really, it's not difficult, it's just...different. If you find a friend who will watch your chickens, you've found a true friend. Make sure to bring your friend a present from your trip—and, of course, reward your chicken-sitter with some eggs.

11. Chicken Retirement.
Chickens typically lay well for about 3-5 years. Then what? What's your exit strategy? They can live another 5, 10, even 15 years. It's important to have a plan. Our girls will have their home here always, and when they stop laying—they'll live out their old age being our pampered pets, just as they are now. But what will you do? Will your chickens be pets, or will they become dinner? It's not easy to find homes for your non-laying chickens. There's no such thing as a chicken retirement home, so make certain you have an exit strategy.

12. Cock-a-doodle-do Party Crashers.

Roosters happen. What will you do? We were VERY lucky. A woman that works for Peter raises chickens on her land in the country, and she's just as crazy about them as Kristen. After checking into several issues (are there other roosters that might attack Pixie? Will he be inside at night? How safe is the coop?), we all agreed that Sandy's farm would be the perfect place for Pixie. Plus, lucky Pixie—he has 50 ladies to woo! Off he went to live with Sandy. The kids were thrilled, knowing that they could visit Pixie and get updates on him. I'm thrilled, because I can finally go outside again, without fear of being accosted by our neighbors. Peter is thrilled, because I've stopped stressing and obsessing about what we should do with a rooster. And apparently, Pixie is thrilled, because he's enamored with a black bantam lady-friend. Go, Pixie!

But we were lucky. Do you know a farmer? Have you asked that friend with land if he would be willing to take in a rooster, should you fall into the 10%? I can assure you, there aren't many people willing to take in a rooster. Kristen's horseback riding trainer laughed at me when I asked, then realized I was serious.

She suddenly found a stall to muck out.

So please, for your sanity, for your kids' emotional well-being, for the health and safety of your new fluffy babies--make a plan.

13. OK, It's a Baker's Dozen of Truths.
Even with the raccoons, the roosters, and the escape artists, chickens ARE fabulous. Our kids learn the responsibility of caring for their pets, rarely griping when they tend chickens before breakfast. With backyard chickens, you can cancel your cable, because there's nothing as entertaining on TV. We spend a lot of time amusing ourselves, laughing at our silly girls.
We love our chickens, and we thought we were well prepared. But raising chickens is a constant learning process. The chicken blogs, Facebook pages, and magazines sometimes sugar-coat the reality of chicken-owning. Cute coops, fluffy chicks, funny pictures, they're all lovely. And it IS fun.


But like with any living animal, you need to be prepared. 

You might just find yourself in the 10%.

Good luck!



Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fall's Fading Blooms--September Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.

Ah, September. This morning truly felt like fall--slightly chilly, a bit overcast, less humidity. Perhaps the fact that I walked into at least half-a-dozen spider webs cemented that fall-feeling. As soon as the temperatures cool and the days begin to shorten, the spiders throw a convention at our house, inviting friends to spin their webs conveniently along the path I take to the big kitchen garden. 

Have you ever picked a spider web from your eye lashes? No? Well, let me assure you--it's an experience you'll never forget.


I might admit to a touch of arachnophobia, but don't tell anyone. I'll lose credibility as an organic gardener. In fact, this is the time of year that the neighbors think I'm looney. I'll walk through the gardens, waving a stick in front of my face, desperate to avoid repeating that web-in-the-eyelash experience.

I know, poor spiders. They work so hard building their webs, and then a wimpy gardening girl goes and swishes a stick through their home.

Last week, though, I fought my fear and battled a writing spider to save two swallowtail butterflies. Normally, I really admire writing spiders--they're not only creepily gorgeous, but their webs are works of art. This one, though, ticked me off. It built its web in my lantana, where dozens of butterflies converge for high energy sips of nectar. As I walked to the bus stop to meet Mikey, I saw two swallowtail butterflies struggling in the web.

No! My poor butterflies!

Taking an envelope from the mailbox, I scooped one butterfly free from the web, while the ginormous spider hung but an inch from my hand, wrapping up the second butterfly. The first flew free, but try as I might--I couldn't rescue the second.


And when I looked more closely, I found a butterfly graveyard in my lantana--dozens of butterfly wings lay on the lower leaves.

OK, it's nature, and I shouldn't intervene--but somehow, I just HAD to rescue the butterflies from that crafty spider. Finding so many butterfly victims made me sad.

But fall always tends to make me a tad melancholy. The faded blooms, the disappearance of summer produce, the kids back in school, and our hectic schedules...

Fortunately, our fall seedlings bring a sense of excitement and rejuvenation, just as the rest of the garden looks so tired.

As I walked through the garden today to play along with May Dreams Gardens' Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day, I felt a little more peaceful about the impending arrival of fall. 

The snail flower vine, one of my favorite heirloom flowers, bloomed for the first time this season. I love this plant and its history.

The fraise ds bois continues to charm with its tiny blooms, and thankfully we're still enjoying its incredibly sweet fruit.

The soft pinks of the aged oakleaf hydrangea blooms will soon be complimented with the stunning red foliage. How can you not love oakleaf hydrangeas? 

The caryopteris still draws bees like mad... 

...and the few late 'Provence' lavender blooms are like bee-candy.

The toad lilies brighten our shady back garden, although I think they'd appreciate a bit more light. They're stretching and searching for the sun, trying to find it around the neighboring plants.

The dwarf gardenias surprised me this year. After an amazing show in the spring, they decided to host a repeat performance in September. Our front entrance way smells delicious. 

Fortunately, many plants loved by pollinators continue to produce and bloom in our gardens. Perennial hibiscus...



...and even the marigolds in the kitchen garden are working hard this month. I'm hoping this Gulf Fritillary butterfly finds one of the 18 passionflower vines I planted this summer. I'd love to play host to Gulf Fritillary larva.

Although the nectar sources are still plentiful, I always supplement with feeders for the hummingbirds, especially as fall nears. 

Really, is there anything more lovely than watching hummingbirds? With three feeders outside the office window in the front gardens, I admit that I'm easily distracted, watching their swooping and hovering.

A happy fall event--plant sales! Soon, it will be time for my favorite plant sale at Hatcher Gardens. This sale, though, was too good to pass up: two tropical hibiscus for $5! Yes, it was at a big box store, but honestly--who cares? They're pretty, and they'll become organic, living in our gardens. (Of course, they'll spend the winter in the greenhouse.)

I'll also move the hanging baskets of fuchsia into the greenhouse, once the temperatures threaten to drop. In our area, our first freeze is expected near the end of October.

We've successfully overwintered the mandevilla for the past two years. But for now, it continues to bright the pool gardens.

The viburnum, which bloomed extravagantly all spring, is at it again--huge, lovely, cheerful blooms began appearing last week, and the bushes are filled with buds.

The Pee Gee hydrangea continues to show off, but it's slowly quieting down as the weather cools.

As some of the blooms wind down, our shiitakes are just beginning to pop. The amazingly wet summer, such a rarity in South Carolina, bodes well for a great mushroom harvest. The first shiitake of the fall rests on our counter, awaiting a chef's inspiration.

The poor, neglected herb garden is a tangle of blooms and scent. Tomorrow, I must, must harvest herbs to dry for the winter. I've been remiss in tending these babies, but they seem to like the lack of attention. The mints, of course, don't need much help--except the wisdom to keep them contained in pots. I love mint blossoms--they're so cheerful.

While a few scraggly tomato vines and pepper plants remain in the big kitchen garden and potager, the edible beds need to be cleaned up and readied for the fall veggies. However, the beans continue to produce like mad, much to the agony of the kids. (We've eaten a lot of beans recently.) Scarlet runner beans' blooms provide a darling addition to the vertical garden...

...while the purple blossoms of Rattlesnake pole beans also provide a bit of beauty.

I adore Asiatic dayflower, but I wish it would stay out of the kitchen garden beds. While I appreciate this adorable wildflower, it's quite invasive in our forest--and in our compost pile! Still, it IS awfully pretty.

While there are still quite a few blooms in our gardens, the true stars of the September garden are the Japanese anemones. What began as five plants purchased three years ago became a forest of bright pink and yellow cheerfulness. It's constantly bobbing and swaying, filled with pollinators feasting gluttonously.

Japanese anemones are truly the best part of our fall garden.

What's blooming in your garden? Will you plant a fall kitchen garden, or will you take a rest for the winter?

Happy Bloom Day!