Recently, I decided to start gardening selfishly—although perhaps I should say I decided to continue gardening selfishly.
There are a number of ways in which a garden can be a force for good in the world.
A garden can do social good by providing food for an individual, family, or community.
A garden can support bees, butterflies, and other pollinators—which in turn supports our ability make food.
A garden can support wildlife beyond pollinators by providing food and habitats for birds, small amphibians and reptiles, and invertebrates like bugs, worms, snails, etc.
A garden can support water management, either by being efficient in its use of water or by mitigating flooding by absorbing rainfall.
A garden can help support and preserve populations of native plant species.
My garden… doesn’t really do any of those. I mean, I grow some food, and I have some pollinator plants and plants that provide seed for birds. I have one or two native plants. My planting containers are probably better than bare concrete as far as managing water goes. But my garden isn’t really designed around any of those purposes.
Instead, my garden is an entirely selfish endeavor. Its purpose is to lift my mood and give me something to do. And maybe that’s enough?
Like most of the northeast, we had some unseasonably cold weather last weekend. I had already planted several cold sensitive plants and was worried that they’d freeze and die. I devised some covers out of old clothes and bedsheets for the beans and basil seedlings. I didn’t manage to get everything under cover though.
It turns out, I probably needn’t have worried. Everything pulled through—even the beans that didn’t get covered.
The patio is almost all concrete, which traps heat. In winter, or during a cold snap like the one we just had, it’s often quite useful. I can often start gardening a little on the early side and continue later into the fall.
The difficult months for my garden are July and August, but I’m slowly learning how to deal with those—mainly by carefully selecting which plants I try to grow. I suspect the beans will be fine this summer. We’ll see how the basil does.
Interestingly, my perennial salvia (Blue Hill) has put out some flower buds. I’m not really sure if this is normal timing for it. I got this plant last June. It thrived last summer, and was already lush and green even in early March. We had a strangely warm winter, so it may have just gotten an early start, or it might be that the cold snap tricked it into thinking it was later in the year than it actually is. Either way, I’m eager to see how the salvia does this year, especially since these will probably be the first flowers to bloom on the patio this year.
When I’m in the garden, the cats are usually with me. They seem to enjoy being out in the fresh air,* and Leo especially enjoys chomping on plants.
This has meant that I’ve had to modify my plant selection in order to keep them safe. A remarkable number of plants are toxic to cats, including:
Daffodils, hyacinths,† tulips, lilies, and irises
Garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, and chives
Parts of the tomato plant
Hydrangeas, azaleas, and rhododendrons
Foxgloves, lupines, and monkshood‡
I don’t grow any of the plants listed above, and I usually spend a good bit of time checking if a plant I’m interested in is reasonably cat safe.
I say reasonably because some plants are more toxic than others. Most of the ones listed above are pretty bad for cats, and can even kill them.
I do, however, grow some plants that could have some mild effects, such as mint and rosemary. Even catnip can be dangerous in large quantities. In addition, some cats, like Leo, will inevitably throw up the plants that they eat onto the carpet. (That seems to be part of the fun for them.)
For other plants, I make concessions about location: Hostas are also toxic to cats, so I only grow them in front of the house, where the cats are not allowed to go. Eventually, I may grow some other shade-loving plants that aren’t cat friendly, such as hellebores (lenten roses) and dicentra (bleeding hearts) out front as well.
The big exception to all this is snake plants. They’re toxic, but I have some in the house because Leo shows no interest in them and they do well in low light.
At some point, if I can figure out a way to keep them out of the cats’ reach, I may try growing chives and other, less cat-friendly people food.
If you’re thinking of growing a plant, I recommend first checking out the ASPCA’s lists of toxic and non-toxic plants. It’s not a complete list, but it’s the most comprehensive one I’ve found.§
If you just want some suggestions for getting started, though, I recommend snapdragons, petunias, alyssum, pansies and violas, cornflowers, and cosmos for ornamentals. For edibles, chard, beets, lettuce, the broccoli and cabbage family, cucumbers, and most squash seem pretty safe.
Some beans do contain toxins that break down when cooked, but most are fine to grow around cats. You should probably avoid castor beans, though. Hyacinth beans are fine to grow, but can be tricky to cook properly.
Finally, if you’re not familiar with sweet peas, they aren’t edible and are toxic to animals and people. Edible peas (ie, garden peas, English peas, snow peas, and snap peas) still often have pretty flowers, though.
Footnotes *Or what passes for fresh air in the city. †Grape hyacinths are a different species and are listed as cat-safe by the ASPCA. ‡These are often featured in cosy/country mysteries. §Sometimes, a plant isn’t on either the toxic or nontoxic list, and you have to decide if you’re going to risk it.
Saturday was gorgeous, and I took advantage of the weather to mix up some potting mix and plant some seeds. The cats, meanwhile, rolled around in the dirt and chomped on the baby chard.
I love mixing up potting mix, and I take various approaches. Sometimes, I take previously used potting mix and add amendments. I did that on Saturday with potting soil from empty containers and some worm castings. In those, I planted some catnip, cat grass, sage, and lavender seeds. The catnip and lavendar are in small pots that are now living on my kitchen windowsill. The catnip and cat grass are for my garden supervisors (to distract them from the other plants), and the lavender will move outdoors if it survives. The catnip, cat grass, and sage seeds were leftover from previous years.
I also have started mixing coconut coir with compost and perlite to make my potting mix. The coir comes in compressed bricks that expand with water. A lot of folks use peat, which is included in a many commercial potting mixes. I definitely use those, but my understanding is that peat isn’t that sustainable, so I try to go with the coconut coir when i can. It also means I don’t have to fiddle with the pH.
I used the coconut coir and compost potting mix to move re-pot my mint into a bigger container and to plant several basil seedlings into a large pot.
It rained all day today, so I only had a few minutes in the garden. However, that was long enough to see that one of my painted lady runner beans had germinated!
I still have some annual salvia and rosemary seeds that I’d like to plant. The rosemary is another from my collection of leftovers.
The garden is a 9’x14’ patio on which live a 3’x3’ raised bed and many containers. The walls are cinder block, so it’s basically a concrete oven in the summer. I’ve finally learned to work with what I have, although I expect this year to be really bad. The cherry tree out front bloomed 3 weeks earlier than it did last year, and last year already felt early to me.
The perennial salvia, phlox, coneflowers, and asters have all coming back, as has the mint. The asters were mostly dead last year, and I may have to baby them a bit this year. (Also, Leo keeps chomping the leaves.) The coreopsis hasn’t come back yet.
For annuals, I’ve scattered some alyssum and heart’s ease seeds in the 3×3 raised bed. I also have some annual salvia to start from seed, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Of course, we’re still getting bursts of cold, so that’s probably okay.
This year, after a long hiatus, I’m trying food things again. That’s not because of the virus. I ordered my seeds in early January. I’ll be trying painted lady runner beans, baby chard, basil, and alpine strawberries—all from seed. (I do realize that the birds will probably get the berries before I do.)
I also have some lavender seeds, but i”m not sure if I want to try and experiment with it, as I’ve heard lavender is really hard to grow from seed. In addition, I have lots of old herb seeds from previous years, and I may see if they’re still viable. Ultimately, it might depend on when I run out of space, containers, or potting mix. I do have a bag of seed starting mix, a bunch of coconut coir, several quarts of perlite, and about 5 gallons of compost.