Posts Tagged ‘gardening’

Home Garden Crop Rotation

Growing the same crop in the same location year after year can deplete essential soil nutrients in that area, subject plants to harmful diseases, and adversely affect the crop’s growth, health, and production. To avoid this, for thousands of years farmers have practiced two, soil-enhancing, growing methods. The first is allowing a field to lie fallow. Periodically after harvest, plants are turned into the soil and allowed to decompose for a year; essentially it is in-place composting.

The second method is crop rotation. Different crops are planted in different years in a single field. For home gardeners, allowing a garden to remain unplanted goes against the very essence of why we garden so practicing crop rotation to prevent a cycle of diminishing harvest is the best idea.

Crop rotation is used to keep soil from losing nutrients that a specific plant needs. A plant like corn needs a lot of nitrogen from the soil. When it is planted in the same spot repeatedly, it will ultimately deplete all available soil nitrogen, committing a slow suicide. On a commercial level, farmers add tons of nitrogen fertilizer to soil to artificially feed the plants. On a local level, home gardeners add nitrogen fertilizer to their soils when they notice reduced plant growth too.

Effective home garden crop rotation can drastically reduce the need for supplemental fertilization and helps maintain a healthy, balanced, nutrient-rich soil. For organic gardeners it is almost a must.

Each year my garden looks different with crop rotation

Each year my garden looks different with crop rotation

The concept of crop rotation is simple. Crop A is planted in year one, Crop B is planted in the same location in year two instead of Crop A, Crop C is planted in year three instead of Crop A or B, and so on until the cycle is repeated.

The simplest cycle is a two-crop rotation where a plant like corn is planted one year and a crop like peas is planted in the same bed the next year. Then the cycle repeats each year with corn followed by peas followed by corn followed by peas; each cycle is completed in two years. A three-crop rotation takes three years to complete. A seven-crop rotation takes seven years.

The selection of the plants for each year is the most important aspect of crop rotation. To be effective, each successive planting should grow differently than the previous planting. In the two-crop example above, corn grows in a spot, depleting soil nitrogen. The next year a legume like peas is planted to replenish soil nitrogen. Many legumes have root nodules that harbor beneficial bacteria that takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it into the soil.

Peas are producing with plenty of space for new seeds

Peas are a perfect legume to plant

In a home garden, legumes are a great choice in an easy crop rotation cycle. Peas, beans, lentils, and soybeans provide a nice harvest while adding nitrogen to soil. Other plants like clover, alfalfa, and vetch don’t offer a harvest, but have the same beneficial properties. I use vetch in my garden as part of my crop rotations; the vetch is attractive with pretty little purple flowers. After a season of growth that fixes nitrogen into the soil, the plants are tilled in to add additional organic material.

Vetch looks good and adds nitrogen to soil

Vetch looks good and adds nitrogen to soil

I like to practice a three-year crop rotation in my garden. In recent years I’ve done a tomato-pea-cucumber cycle, a garlic-pea-spinach cycle, and a beet-bean-cucumber cycle. In each of those cycles I also grew vetch. Vetch can handle cold weather so I sow it in fall after I’ve harvested and cleaned up a bed. The vetch grows into winter and again in early spring; I turn it into the soil about six weeks before planting the new season’s crops. For plants with early summer harvest, I’ll sow vetch and allow it to grow during the remaining summer and early fall.

A basic three-crop cycle of sowing plants that produce nitrogen, followed by plants that are heavy nitrogen feeders, followed by plants that are light feeders is easy to start.

A four-crop cycle is also easy if you divide plants into groups. Fruiting plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, and pumpkins is one group. Leafy plants like spinach, kale, and broccoli is a second. Root vegetables like carrots, beets, and potatoes is a third. Legumes like fava beans, peas, and lentils is a fourth.

Another important reason to rotate your crops is to reduce disease and pest problems. Tomato plants are very susceptible to soil-borne pests and pathogens. In the first year of planting a new bed, tomatoes often do very well, but after being in the same spot for a period of years they suddenly seem to have problems with early blight, fusarium wilt, or leaf spot. The fungus or bacteria that causes many potential tomato problems lives in soil.

Once a plant is infected it spreads that pathogen into more soil. Any new plants in the bed will become infected and help spread it further. Crop rotation breaks this cycle. An infected plant may adversely affect soil, but if there is no new plant to spread the fungus, bacteria, or virus, it will eventually diminish and no longer cause problems.

Tomatoes with problems can infect soil

Tomatoes with problems can infect soil

This works because the pathogens are plant specific; tomato disease will not affect corn, peas, spinach, or pumpkins. Crop rotation helps keep plant problems from becoming established in your garden. Before tomato pathogens develop, another plant like beans grow in the bed, then a plant like spinach is planted before bean problems develop.

Knowing what plants you want to grow and the most likely diseases in your region will help you determine the best cycle. Many fungi that affect tomatoes remain viable in soil past three years so a four-crop rotation is recommended. By the time tomatoes are planted again, the threat is gone.

It’s important to be aware of plant families when planning and planting. Tomato, eggplants, and potatoes can be susceptible to the same pathogens. Tomatoes and peppers have similar problems. For that reason similar plant families should not be included in a crop cycle; avoid planting tomatoes and peppers or tomatoes and potatoes in the same bed within a single crop cycle.

I practice a three-crop cycle because it’s easy to plan and easy to do. It reduces the potential for problems, but isn’t foolproof. If I do encounter problems in a bed, like tomatoes, I’ll make note and transform that bed’s cycle into a four-crop or five-crop model.

Occasionally I get lazy or behind in planting and repeat crops in a bed. Problems don’t automatically develop, but I do try to get back on track for the next year.

Only perennials like rhubarb stay in the same spot

Only perennials like rhubarb stay in the same spot

For virtually flawless results, a seven-crop cycle can be followed. There are very few pathogens or pests that will survive seven years in soil. Extra effort should be taken to insure adequate legumes are added in the sequence. If you have the space and the inclination to develop this more-complicated cycle plan, seven is the magic number.

Home garden crop rotation also provides a great opportunity to amend your garden soil. Because you’re cleaning up each bed before planting a new crop, the addition of compost is easy to do as part of soil preparation before sowing or planting. Tilling in the spent plants from the previous season, like I do with vetch, also adds important organic material to soil.

The combination of crop rotation and soil amending acts to maintain a healthy soil environment. Beneficial soil bacteria and organisms thrive while harmful ones diminish and the microorganisms help make soil nutrients available to plants, enhancing overall garden production.

It does take a minimal amount of extra time to plan and initiate a new crop cycle. Depending on the size of your garden you may have to forgo certain crops in some years if there isn’t enough space for a complete cycle for all garden plants. I accept these limitations as a tradeoff for a better garden overall. Occasionally doing without chard or parsnips or butternut squash is okay.

Home garden crop rotation is easy to do and has many benefits. While you’re planning your next garden, think about doing it a little different than last time.


Starting a New Garden

Dreaming of, planning, and building a garden are my favorite aspects of gardening. I like selecting plants, tending to them, and enjoying the fruits of my labors, but it’s the actual garden development and construction that gives me the most satisfaction. Standing quietly, looking at a bare spot for hours or days, and envisioning the potential that lies in the soil offers me a true connection with the process of creation, growth, and fulfillment.

Many flower, grass, and xeriscape beds have adorned my landscape over the years and planning the steps through completion have evolved with each of them. Staking out a space and bringing it to bloom is fascinating, but it is in the development of vegetable gardens that my true gardening spirit soars.

I’ve enjoyed the effort and success of two major vegetable gardens. One began as a rock-covered slope that evolved into a productive, terraced, lush and verdant space. Over the course of eight years it progressed from barren, sandy soil to an amalgam of beneficial amendments producing healthy plants in a challenging environment.

The starting point

The starting point

The finished vegetable garden

The finished vegetable garden

The second garden began as a sun-baked patch of prairie sod and evolved into a deer-resistant, biochar-infused, raised-bed nirvana at 7,500 feet elevation. Three years of labor have just begun to lay the foundation for future growth.

The open space

The open space

The transformed vegetable garden

The transformed vegetable garden

Now I have the opportunity to birth a third vegetable garden. Last week we closed the contract on a house back in the city of Colorado Springs and will begin the move in a few months. The new garden spot will be a full 1,000 feet lower in elevation and grant me two to four extra weeks in the growing season. It too has deer and a new challenge, rabbits.

A rabbit in the front yard

A rabbit in the front yard

A previous resident had a good-sized vegetable garden there many years ago, but it is overgrown and in great need of repair. A rusting iron skeleton of hoops cover a large bed that will soon support a plastic cover protecting the plants beneath. The basics are there, and it offers great potential.

The forgotten garden

The forgotten garden

Huge stands of scrub oak cover the lot in intertwining masses. Dying, spindly pines and harshly-hacked junipers fill forgotten spaces. Ignored lawns are now nothing but eroding dirt. Supposedly-decorative rock smothers large spans of abused soil. It is a perfect gardening palette and I’m thrilled for the opportunity to create a beautiful landscape.

The barren back yard

The barren back yard

Already I’ve spent long minutes standing, observing, and imagining. The ground is currently frozen, but the process of clearing the brush, cutting straggly trees, and terracing the slopes will start soon. As soon as the soil is warm enough to work, amending and improving begin.

As with past gardens, I’ll document each step. I’ll discuss the missteps and successes. I expect to make mistakes along the way, but also to learn many new things. On these pages, photos and words will share my thoughts and spread my knowledge.

This will be my biggest gardening undertaking to date. An entire landscape screams to be transformed. In the vegetable garden the positive transformation may be quickest to observe, but it won’t be the only space encountering a new life. This effort will be years in the making and I anticipate the results with joy.

Join me as the adventure begins.

How to Read a Seed Packet

Ordering seed packets online or picking up a few as you wander through a garden center is a nice way to get motivated for spring planting. The colorful photos in catalogs and the eye-catching store displays can get our gardening fingers twitching. One of the best things about buying seeds is that almost everything you need to know about the plant you want to grow comes with the seeds. Seed packets house a wealth of knowledge and can make the planting and growing process easy.

Some of last year's seed packets

Some of last year’s seed packets

Reading and understanding what the seed packets say can be a bit daunting and hard to understand for new gardeners. Even experienced gardeners can be thrown for a loop by some phrasing. By focusing on the important pieces of information, you can start sowing your seeds in no time at all with everything you need to know in hand.

A wealth of information in a small space

A wealth of information in a small space

Most of it is usually on the back side of the packet. Some packets will show this information as an image instead of with words, but the information is the same.

Pictures may replace words

Pictures may replace words

Here are 20 things to look for on a seed packet before purchase and at the time you place seeds in soil.

1. When to Sow. You’ll find terminology for when you can begin growing the seed different on different packets; each seed supplier wants to be unique. Look for key phrases like: “Start Indoors”; “Sowing Indoors”; “Sowing Outdoors”; “Direct Sow”. This is where you find out the best time to begin growing the seeds. Some seeds can be started indoors while others should only be sown outside. Finding this out as soon as you buy the packet is important for determining a planting schedule.

Some seed packets will be very specific by saying something like, “start seeds 3-4 weeks prior to your last frost date,” or “start from seed indoors 4-8 weeks prior to the last frost of spring,” or “sow after all danger of last spring frost and soil has warmed thoroughly.” This makes it easy if you know your average Last Frost Date (link to my article “Know Your Last Frost Date“).

If the packet says something like, “direct sow after danger of frost”, that means plant outside only. If there is no mention of starting seeds inside, that also means you should sow outside only.

Others will include information for both starting indoors and for sowing outdoors. For those seeds you can do it either way.

2. Where to Sow. This is a very important piece of information too. If the packet says “sow in fertile soil in full sun,” that’s what you need to do for best results; don’t sow in unamended soil in the shade and expect anything good to grow. “Direct sow in well drained soil” means that full sun isn’t as important as the soil. Take the time to prepare the site for your seeds.

For starting indoors, the assumption is usually that you’re growing in a nice soil medium or potting soil so packets will rarely tell you to do that. The packet may say something like, “place in a warm location and keep moist” or “do not let the soil dry out.” That’s an important clue to keep an eye on the seeds and new sprouts so they don’t dry out and die.

3. Seed Depth. Different seeds require different conditions to germinate; you can’t plant everything the same. Placing the seed at the proper depth will improve germination results. The “Seed Depth” or “Planting Depth” will usually be described in inches. If it’s a specific number like 1/2″, try to get close to that depth when you sow. If it’s a range like 1/2″ – 1″, you have a little more leeway, but you still need to get within that range.

“Surface-sown” or “lightly cover seeds” means you don’t need to place seeds in a measured hole; you can sprinkle them on the soil surface and sprinkle a little soil over them to keep them from blowing away.

4. Seed Spacing. Packets will also be very specific about how far apart the seeds should be sown. This helps ensure that the plants will have enough room to grow. Often it’s expressed as a range of inches that the seeds are apart from each other, along with how far apart rows should be. While many traditional gardens may have plants 6″-10″ apart in rows that are 2′-3′ apart, you can usually plant a block of plants in a bed with everything 6″-10″ apart from each other; it comes down to how you garden, with rows or blocks.

The packet may also tell you to “thin plants” to a certain spacing. This provides a number for how far apart the final plants should be. For example, onions can be sown close together and after germination should be thinned to 5″-7″ apart for bulbing varieties or 2″ apart for bunching varieties.

5. Days to Germination. Knowing how long it takes for the seeds to send a sprout to the surface helps you determine if conditions and seed viability are good. It also tells you if you should relax and not worry while the plants are growing. Some seeds only need a couple days to germinate while others may need a couple weeks. Don’t assume something’s wrong if you don’t see plants right away.

Packets will give a specific range of days for “days to germination” or when “seedlings emerge.” Within this range of days you should begin to see little green seedlings begin to break through the soil surface. If at the end of the range you still don’t see plants, that’s when you should become concerned. The soil heat or moisture may be wrong or the seeds could be bad. Give it a few extra days before you completely sow over again.

A few years ago my squash seeds were late in germinating and I became concerned. Just about the time I began to sow again, the first seedlings emerged. My guess is that we had a few cold nights that lowered the soil temperature enough to delay germination.

6. Soil Temperature for Germination. This information is only available on very thorough seed packets like those from Territorial Seed Company. The soil temperature needs to reach certain levels for all seeds to germinate. As mentioned above, if you sow when the soil is too cold it will affect how well the seeds germinate.

Most seed packets cover this subject with the general information described in “When to Sow” as described above.

7. Days to Maturity. This may also be expressed as “Days to Harvest” and may be the most important bit of information on the packet for vegetable garden seeds. This is how long it takes for the plant to reach the point when it begins to produce fruit. What’s critical to know about this number is that it is based on when the plant is in the outside soil. Though seedlings may be growing for weeks inside, the days to maturity don’t begin until transplanting outside. For seeds sown directly in the garden, it is the point when the plant has true leaves.

The reason this is such an important number is because many gardeners may not have a growing season long enough for specific plants. Many varieties of garden plants like melons, heirloom tomatoes, and winter squash have very long days to maturity. On average, my growing season at high altitude is about 130 days. If I try to grow a plant that takes 120 days to mature, I’m pushing the limits of my growing season and probably won’t get any ripe fruit.

As important as this number is, it is just a guideline and not a definite timeline. Typically it is the number of days when you should expect fruit, assuming everything about your growing season is average. If you’ve had great conditions and you’ve done a great job caring for your plants, you may get fruit sooner. If you’ve had cool weather and the soil is marginal, it will probably take longer.

Before sowing seeds, have a good understanding of whether the plant will grow to maturity in your specific garden.

8. Light requirements. This goes along with “where to sow.” Look for “sun”, “full sun”, “shade/sun”, or an image of the sun on the seed packet. This guidance isn’t for where you plant the seed, but rather where the final plant needs to be. Consider how the sun moves during the growing season in your garden, particularly if you have trees or fences. You may sow a seed in a spot with full sun, but at the end of the season that spot may end up in partial or full shade. The plant can suffer if it doesn’t have the light requirements listed on the packet.

9. Growing Tips. Many seed packets will provide additional information about subjects like transplanting, weeding, how to water, pollination, thinning, and mulching. This varies greatly between seed companies. If there is extra information on the packet you should pay special attention to it because it is unique and probably important.

10. Fertilization. Few seed packets include this information, but it’s nice to know. If you find it on the seed packet you’re looking at, you’re probably dealing with a company that cares about more than just selling seeds.

11. How to Harvest. This is another helpful piece of information found on few seed packets. This can be beneficial for plants like peas or beans that have different tastes and textures depending on when they’re harvested. Suggestions for the size at which to harvest squash is helpful too. You’ll seldom find this kind of information on seed packets for common plants like tomatoes that are colorful at harvest, but it’s nice to find on less common plants like parsnips (A Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company seed packet says to harvest parsnips “in autumn after a few light frosts have mellowed and sweetened the creamy-white roots”).

12. Diseases and Pests. Information about diseases and pests may be the rarest information on seed packets, but it shows up occasionally. If a hybrid is particularly resistant to a common scourge it will often be mentioned. It may also be mentioned in the form of acronyms after the plant’s name, particularly in tomatoes. “VFN” on a tomato seed packet means the hybrid is resistant to verticilium wilt, fusarium wilt, and nematodes. You can find out what all the codes mean with a simple internet search.

13. Seed specifications. All seed packets should tell for what year the seeds were packaged. This may be the second most important piece of information on the packet and is often overlooked. This is usually printed on one of the flaps that seal the packet, either top or bottom. It may be printed in big letters on the front. Regardless of the location, find it before you buy.

Seeds don’t last forever and some only remain viable for a year or two. If you end up buying a packet of seeds that is a couple of years old, you may end up with a very low germination percentage. Try to always buy seeds for the year you plan to plant.

Some packets will list the percentage of germination you can expect and how the long the seed life is. This is helpful if you don’t sow all of the seeds and want to save the packet to plant next year. I save many seeds from one year to the next because many packets come with more seeds than I can use; I accept a lower germination rate with older seeds.

14. Botanical name. Many seed packets include the Latin name of the plant so you can increase your scientific knowledge. This can be helpful for conversations with botanists, but in practice I don’t know many gardeners who use Latin descriptions on a regular basis. Probably because of that commonality, I’m finding that fewer packets include the botanical description and are opting instead for common names. Even when it is included it is often a generic title; on two different seed packets from Territorial Seed Company, one for shallots and one for Spanish onions, only the common name for bulb onions, “Allium cepa”, was listed.

15. Blooms. Like for vegetable fruiting, many flowers seeds will include the blooming period. It is often expressed as “summer”, “midsummer”, “fall”, or something similar. This is very helpful so you know how long it will take for new plants to flower and for how long the flowers will be produced.

Typically this is information on annual flower seeds. For perennials expect information about how long it will take for the plant to produce flowers; it could be one to two years after sowing.

16. Preservation. Ferry-Morse seed packets include a “preserve by” method on packets so you have an idea of what to do with abundant crops. This is great for new gardeners or new preservers so they understand that there are alternatives to eating everything right away.

17. A picture. Almost all seed packets have a picture of what the plant, fruit, or flower will look like at maturity. The picture is often intended to grab your attention for an impulse buy in box stores and garden centers. It may be a photo or drawing; I prefer a color photo so I can know what to look for at harvest.

Be sure to read the text throughout the seed packet to fully understand what you’re planting because some companies may post the same picture for different varieties. I have several packets of tomato seeds from Baker Creek with the same display of various tomatoes on the front; only a sticker with the name of each packet’s tomato variety differentiates them.

Some companies like Livingston Seed will have clear plastic on the front of the packet along with a photo. This helps you see the actual seeds so you know their quality and quantity.

18. Weight. It’s pretty universal that seeds are weighed in grams. Initially this may not mean a lot to you other than give an idea of how many seeds are in the packet; 3 grams of sunflower seeds will produce a few dozen plants while 3 grams of radish seeds will produce hundreds of plants. I find it most useful when comparing the price of seeds from different companies and for determining how big a packet to buy. I know 1/2 gram of onion seeds will do me fine and I don’t need to buy more.

19. Contents. Look at what the packet actually contains. Some packets will actually tell you how many seeds are in them. Along with weight this gives a good idea of the space you need for all of the seeds. Read carefully. I bought a relatively expensive packet of monster pumpkin seeds only to discover three actual seeds when I opened it; it forewarned me if I had looked at weight and contents more closely.

When you’re buying a blend, the photo is often misleading. I’ve purchased flower seed blends that look great on the front, but when you read the contents you find a list of plants that may be far different from the image. Also for flower seeds it’s beneficial to read the contents so you don’t buy a blend that may include an invasive species for your area.

For vegetable blends, particularly salad blends, reading the contents will help you identify the plants as they grow. It’s nice to know you like the purple leaves in your garden, but looking at the contents of the seed packet can help you identify it as “Orach” (this happened to me).

Also note if there’s any filler in the seed packet. “Inert matter” is anything except seeds. “90% inert matter” means it is only 10 percent seeds.

20. Company Name. Pay attention to the name of the company selling the seeds. You may find a favorite for quality, price, information, or find that certain packets have limitations. I love the seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, but I find their seed packets to be hit or miss. Some of their packets are filled with helpful info with a conversational tone that is easy to read, but others are often stingy with information. It helps that their catalog is about the best in the business.

For beginning gardeners I often recommend the seed packets at garden centers from companies like Burpee or Ferry-Morse. Their packets have nice, visual representations of how to sow seeds, along with the important basics.

Ultimately selecting a seed packet comes down to the gardener buying what he or she wants to grow in their garden, but if you like the seeds and like the information on the packet it helps to remember the company that gave you a good product.

Those are the 20 things you can expect to find on seed packets. I’ve yet to find a company that includes all of them on a single packet. Decide if certain factors are important to you and look for those factors when you get new seeds. If you don’t fully understand a statement, number, or picture, refer to my descriptions above and do a little more research on your own.

I recommend saving seed packets after you’ve sown all of the seeds. I keep each year’s seed selection in a box during that season so I can refer back to the packets if I need to be reminded about a variety or to confirm important things like days to harvest, especially when the fruit is slow to set.

Write yourself notes on the packets so you can refer to them in the future and know which ones you liked, or not.  They’re like mini encyclopedias of gardening information. These little envelopes usually provide everything you need to get the seed in soil and begin growing.

The Best Birder Book

About a year ago I began “birding”. Birding is a common term for bird watching as a hobby; birdwatching and birding are interchangeable words. It’s all about people paying attention to birds in their environment. Birdwatchers can be called birders. Though the term “birder” is usually reserved for someone who is very serious about birdwatching. In practice, I’m more a birdwatcher than a birder.

Watching a hummingbird

Watching a hummingbird

My interest in birding began with the 2011 movie, “The Big Year“. It starred Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson as fanatical birders. I liked the movie and the appealing story of a passionate group of people traversing the globe in search of unique birds. Hundreds and hundreds of different species of birds. The movie was a critical and financial failure, but it motivated me to venture into a new arena.

Arriving home from the film, I instantly began paying attention to the birds in my landscape. There were big ones and little ones. Plain ones and colorful ones. I knew the robins and doves and jays, but it wasn’t long before I realized I had no clue what I was doing when it came to unfamiliar birds. Without formal training or reference material, I couldn’t identify most of what I was seeing.

I researched birder books. My friend Deb recommended a few field guides of birds in my area and I followed her advice. A Field Guide is a very handy book filled with pictures and descriptions to help in identifying birds. Most are pocket-sized guides that can be taken into the field, literally.

I chose three books and decided to compare the attributes of each as I learned about birding. They are: “Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America”; “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds”; and “Birds of Colorado Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela. I discuss each book below. All of the books are written with the assumption that the reader doesn’t know what kind of bird they’re seeing and the field guide will help identify it.

Three field guides

Three field guides

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America” is physically the largest of the field guides and doesn’t fit into a jacket pocket easily, though it’s fine for a day pack. It includes birds from throughout North America. This means that it has a shorebird section even when its owner resides in the Rocky Mountains. That translates into many wasted pages for an amateur birder like me.

It has a nice section in the front of the book that tells “where, when, and how to find birds.” Designed for a beginning birdwatcher, this part explains just about everything you need to know about looking at birds, choosing binoculars, documenting finds, and bird conservation. It’s a marvelous section for beginners, while experienced birders can skip this part and use just the reference material.

Kaufmann has the most interesting Table of Contents of the field guides. It’s pictorial. The hardest part I found when using all of the field guides was in trying to find the bird I was looking at within the book. When you spot something you want to be able to identify it quickly. Kaufmann groups birds by their primary attributes and shows actual photos of these groups in its table of contents. Groups like “Chicken-like Birds”, “Wading Birds”, and “Typical Songbirds”.

Kaufman's index

Kaufman’s index

When you see a bird you look for a picture of it within these groupings in the front, then turn to the section that offers more information about it. The table of contents color-codes each group and the rest of the book has headers and tabs that match the respective color code.

When you flip to the corresponding section for any given bird, you see many more photos. The book has more than 2,000 images. Each section begins with basic identification factors of the major bird groups in that section. In successive pages you look for the photo that matches the bird you’re seeing and then read about it. Generally, the book has water birds first, then large birds, and then progressively smaller birds.

Similar birds are listed together. On one page you’ll have descriptions, to include the taxonomic name, of Barn Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Cave Swallow, Bank Swallow, and Northern Rough Winged Swallow. There are photos of each for comparison. One of the best attributes of this field guide is that it often displays photos of juveniles and adults, in resting, flying or nesting postures. That can make identification much easier.

Typical Kaufman page

Typical Kaufman page

The text for each bird describes its attributes. Characteristics of size, activity, nesting, and flight are mentioned when appropriate. It highlights distinctive coloring on wings, head, and body to help in identification. For some birds it describes their voices.

For each bird, a small map of the United States depicts its range. The range map shows migration areas and where the bird is in summer and winter. This can be very helpful because identifying birds is harder than it seems. Many look quite similar. If you have a preliminary identification and the range map matches where you are viewing the bird, it helps confirm your guess. However, if you identify a bird and it doesn’t normally reside in your location, that means you should continue looking for a bird that does match.

At the end of the book, all of the hundreds of birds represented are listed in alphabetical order with a little box preceding each. When you see the bird you can check the box. This is a very effective way to keep track of your birding.

The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds” is compact and easily fits into a jacket or your back pocket. National Geographic has many field guides available for different regions of North America. My book is the Colorado edition; field guides are available for Michigan, New York, the Carolinas, Arizona & New Mexico, and other locations.

This field guide has a brief section at the front that describes how to use the book. It explains “field marks” and shows where to look on the bird for physical identification features; places like the head, wings, and tail. It does not include any information for a beginner birder on how to bird watch.

National Geographic uses the table of contents and two indexes at the back of the book to help in bird identification. The contents page is just a list of primary bird families with no pictures; sections like “Swifts”, Shrikes”, and “Swallows”. If you are a beginner and have no idea what kind of bird you’re looking at, this is useless. For an expert this can be a quick way to turn to the appropriate section.

In the first index, birds are grouped by color. You determine the color of the bird you’re looking at, look at the small thumbnail images within headings like “Mostly Black” or “Mostly Brown” or “Prominent Yellow”, and then turn to the page corresponding to your guess. The second index is just an alphabetical listing of the birds in the book with a small square to check off when you see it.

Color-coded index

Color-coded index

Each bird in the book is given two pages with a large photo of the bird on the first page, usually in a resting position. The heading of the second page identifies the bird’s taxonomic name and general size. It begins with “Field Marks” that describes primary physical coloring. There is a color-coded, seasonal range on a small state map. Paragraphs on “Behavior”, “Habitat”, and “Local Sites” follow. The description concludes with “Field Notes” that describe a unique characteristic of the bird, often with another image.

Typical Nat'l Geo page

Typical Nat’l Geo page

Similar birds are usually described on successive pages. So the American Tree Sparrow is described, you flip the page to the Chipping Sparrow, and then turn to the Vesper Sparrow next. This can be helpful in comparing similar birds to decide on your specific subject, but it’s not consistent. The House Sparrow is described 40 pages later in the book, in its own section, right after the Evening Grosbeak, a totally different kind of bird.

The “Birds of Colorado Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela is slightly larger that the National Geographic book, but still pocket-sized. It has a thorough section in the beginning for beginner birdwatchers. Like National Geographic, Tekiela offers field guides for many locations throughout North America.

The first section is “Why Watch Birds in Colorado?”, with very specific details about the state and how birds fit in with terrain, habitats, and weather; I assume he includes similar detail for other regional books. The guide includes sections on observation strategies, bird coloring, nest building, and migration.

The first page of the book is an index that lists birds by prominent color, like National Geographic, with similar headings like “mostly gray”or “prominent green” and directs the page for that color. There are no pictures of birds. The corner of each descriptive page corresponds to that color, so that the “mostly black” birds have a black tab on the page and the “mostly black and white” birds have pages with black and white tabs. This helps in thumbing directly to that section once you become familiar with the guide, something National Geographic lacks.

Color-coded index with no image

Color-coded index with no image

Within each color section, the pages are organized with smaller birds listed first. That can be helpful with identifying some birds because the 6-inch Black Rosy-Finch is at the beginning of the mostly-black section while the 30-inch Turkey Vulture is last. But I find it hard to differentiate between a 5-inch bird and a 6-inch bird, so you have to thumb through every page of the mostly-brown section to find the numerous types of Sparrows.

Like National Geographic, each bird gets two dedicated pages with the first page being a large photo, usually of a resting bird. When the male and female differ greatly, there is often a photo of each. The second page has the scientific name, a small range map, and descriptions of: size, the male, the female, the juvenile, nest, eggs, incubation, fledging, migration, food, and a comparison of similar birds. Helpful information about the bird’s activity, song, features, or history are included in a helpful section at the bottom called “Stan’s Notes”. The book concludes with an alphabetical index with a check box for keeping track of identifications.

Typical bird page

Typical bird page

Of the three books, I found the “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds” to be both the most difficult and the easiest to use. While being the easiest to carry, it required that I have some basic understanding of the bird I was watching to be able to identify it. Many of the descriptions only included a single photograph and the subject birds were rarely in that pose. The text adequately described prominent coloring, but it was often hard to understand for a beginner (i.e, “Underparts whitish with bold dusky bars; bar on tail in males”).

That being said, the primary index was color coded and had a small image of birds so I could thumb to the suggested page with a good feeling I was headed in the right direction. For a birdwatcher who wants to know what that brown bird is, this was the easiest way to find the bird in a guide. I could find the suspect bird quickly, but couldn’t always be sure I was reading about the same bird.

“The Birds of Colorado Field Guide” was similarly easy to use but required looking at multiple pages once you found the appropriate color section. The information in the beginning of the book is very good and the layout of each bird’s description was easy to read.

This book and the National Geographic book were very similar in their descriptions and include specific location information about where specific birds could be found in Colorado. Surprisingly they each include birds not found in the other, and don’t list many birds that probably call Colorado home. For example, Tekiela has a two-page spread on the Olive-Sided Flycatcher while National Geographic has nothing; National Geographic has a brief mention of the Cordilleran Flycatcher in the Field Notes of the Western Wood-Pewee, while Tekiela has nothing. These are the only two Flycatchers mentioned in either book.

“Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America” is easy to use and has both Flycatchers described, along with many more. However, the small national range maps are difficult to read, so I can’t quite tell if Hammond’s Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, and Gray Flycatcher reside in my part Colorado, but they are definitely birds in this state, something the other two books overlook.

Overall, I give “Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America” the best score for a beginning birder’s field guide. The thousands of photos make identification relatively easy and while the birds aren’t categorized by their color, the index of basic size, shape, and family is easy to use after a few tries. While it includes many birds that I will never see, it does offer the opportunity to take it on a vacation and identify birds throughout the country. Most important, while I have to wade through birds that are irrelevant it is very inclusive of birds in my region.

The specific descriptions aren’t as thorough as the other books, but do include good information for identification. The front sections that talk about binoculars and bird physiology are very important for a beginner. Kaufman’s was the best for me to positively identify a bird.

What I found in practical birdwatching was that no single field guide was completely adequate. While Kaufman made final identification surest, it was best to use the books in conjunction with each other for the entire process. National Geographic made initial guesswork easy, then a referral to Kaufman made it definite.

This morning I encountered a woodpecker on our big Ponderosa Pine tree as I fetched the morning paper with Lily. I looked at it closely and took a photo.

Today's woodpecker on the trunk

Today’s woodpecker on the trunk

I began with the National Geographic field guide and, using the quick index, was able to identify it as a Downy Woodpecker within about 30 seconds. Using Stan Tekiela’s guide took a few seconds longer and led me to a page for the Hairy Woodpecker; the key factor is the size of the bird, the first characteristic listed in that book. There is also a page for the Downy Woodpecker so I was able to thumb back and forth comparing the two birds and tentatively ID it as a Hairy Woodpecker. Score a point for Tekiela. Tekiela has photos of both male and female birds for each type. National Geographic only has a photo of the female Downy Woodpecker, but has a small image of a male Hairy Woodpecker in the Field Notes at the bottom of the page.

Turning to Kaufman’s guide involved thumbing through quite a few pages before finding the woodpeckers, definitely more time than the other two, but only by a few seconds. It has side-by-side male and female photos of both birds. The text for Hairy Woodpecker begins: “Like a bigger version of the Downy, usually less common, requiring bigger trees.” It goes on to say, “…can be told from Downy by much longer bill, larger size.” The tree it was on is the biggest in the neighborhood and it had a long bill. Kaufman got straight to the most important factors and confirmed my identification. Home Run by Kaufman.

Because “National Geographic Field Guide to Birds”, Colorado Edition, and “Birds of Colorado Field Guide” by Stan Tekiela are so similar, there are virtually interchangeable. For a beginning birdwatcher who needs to learn about the activity, Tekiela’s guide is clearly the best between these two. It has more photos, better explanations, and allows for better comparisons.

There are many other birder books on the market and many field guides. These were recommended to me and I’m comfortable in recommending them to others. When seeking a good field guide, my experience suggests that an easy, color-coded index is best.

Quick, easy-to-read descriptions are ideal. There were many times that I spotted a bird and pulled out my field guides. Often, by the time I finished reading the description, the bird was gone and I couldn’t confirm identification. Becoming familiar with a favorite guide and learning to use it quickly would help in those situations.

Regardless of the guide, I suggest you get one and begin birding. It’s fun, gets you outside, and keeps you active. Before you know it those little boxes in the back of the book will be checked off in great numbers.

More Gifts for Gardeners

Gardeners are a giving group. As the growing season progresses, we’re more than willing to share our flowers, produce, seeds, and advice to anyone willing to partake. We give our time, labor, and effort to build gardens and grow plants of every type. After giving so much during the growing season, it’s nice to receive thoughtful gifts during the holiday season.

In my previous article I discussed some of the simple items and tools that many gardeners might like to receive. There are many other potential gifts for the gardener in your life and today I propose a few more.

Two gift ideas top the list and are quite obvious, as I was reminded when the last article was published. Plants and seeds are the basic ingredients that make what we do possible. They’re the foundation of the garden and few gardeners would refuse them. The hardest part is trying to figure out what to give.

The easiest way to do give green is with a gift card or gift certificate from a local nursery. Many gardeners go over budget at planting time because there’s always another plant they’d like to try. Being able to make those purchases without budgetary concerns is a great gift.

While I’m not a fan of gift cards normally, I recommend this method because gardeners can be picky about their plants. A plant given with the best intention may not be appropriate for our specific gardens. While orchids are beautiful, I don’t have the facilities to grow them properly and while the gift of a live plant would be appreciated, the plant would begin a lingering death as soon

as I touched it. Many other plants that can be purchased from catalogs won’t survive my dry, hot summers or harsh winters. For gardeners like me a gift certificate makes more sense.

Seeds are a better option than live plants at Christmas because there are many more to choose from and they won’t die before it’s time to sow. I recommend Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds ( and Territorial Seed Company ( as good online sources. Take the time to determine if the plant that comes from the seed will survive in your region before buying. For the best success, select seeds that you know your gardener already grows.


Seeds can be a good gift

Another basic, yet great, gift is a book about gardening. I have a pretty substantial gardening library, but there are always new books coming out with new ideas and techniques and I’m always willing to learn more. If your gardener has expressed interest in a particular type of gardening, find a book on that subject. Lasagna gardening, square-foot gardening, hydroponic gardening, roof gardening, container gardening, and bio-dynamic gardening are just a few of the topics that would be new to even experienced gardeners.

There are many great reference books that should be part of every gardener’s library. Here are a few: “A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants” from the American Horticultural Society; “National Garden Book” from Sunset Magazine; “The Practical Gardener’s Encyclopedia” from Fog City Press; Reader’s Digest “Illustrated Guide to Gardening”. These are just a few of the books that I reference regularly.

For a flower gardener interested in beginning to grow vegetables, buy a book on vegetable gardening. For a vegetable gardener buy a book about flowers. For all gardeners, buy a thorough book on composting. I’d suggest you take a look at the books they already read and enjoy for an idea of appropriate subjects, and so you don’t duplicate any.

Magazine subscriptions are another nice option for readers. I subscribe to eight different magazines and go to the library to regularly read the ones I don’t get. I prefer sitting in my own chair, in my own house, when I settle in to read and look at the great garden photos so a subscription is better for me. One of my favorites is “Garden Gate”; it’s well written and always has information appropriate to my gardens. Another good mag is “Horticulture”; the photos are amazing, though most of the articles are written for gardeners who don’t live in the mountains. For Western gardeners, “Sunset” focuses their gardening articles to regional specifics, though gardening is just one part of the magazine that also includes sections on travel and cooking.

“Gardening How-To” magazine is a nice resource for gardeners, particularly new gardeners. It is written for the entire U.S. with some region-specific information. It’s produced by the National Home Gardening Club, of which I am a lifetime member. Membership in the club includes the magazine and access to their very informative website. The gift of membership might be a good idea. Check them out at

While I proposed garden art in the last article I neglected to mention the most basic decorative garden component. Pots and planters are readily available year-round and easily used by gardeners. A pot that is brightly-colored, uniquely-crafted, or over-sized can look great as a garden focal point. Pots can be moved around by the gardener until they find the proper home and there are always enough plants to fill them. Even if your gift ends up in a hidden garden corner you can expect that it will be used.

The pot makes this garden art more unique

The pot makes this garden art more unique

If your gardener is a social animal or you would prefer they leave the house occasionally, consider giving the gift of club membership. Many cities have gardening clubs and they usually have a membership fee. Sign your gardener up. Locally we have an Iris Society, a Rose Society, and a Horticultural Arts Society. There are neighborhood garden groups. There are volunteer gardening groups for schools and churches. Do a little research and see if there’s a group, club, or society that matches your gardeners strengths.

While I could spend a great deal of time listing the great power tools that I’d love to own or the large structures I’d love to build, every gardener is different and my desires may not be ideal when it comes to your gift purchases. Take a look at your gardener for the best gift ideas. If he’s always complaining about his torn jeans, buy him a new pair. If she keeps harping about the weeds or an area that needs to be cleared to make a garden bed, give the gift of your time in the garden.

The best gardening gifts are the ones that come from the heart. Taking a little time to ensure your gift matches what your gardener needs will make your efforts memorable and welcomed. While the tools are nice, the books are good, and the seeds will grow, it truly is the thought that counts.

Gifts for Gardeners

Gardeners are pretty easy to please. We find enjoyment in getting our hands dirty and find that the simplicity of nature can be quite beautiful. While there will always be an expensive plant or tool that we drool over, inexpensive and thoughtful gifts are usually very welcome.

For those looking for a welcomed gift for a gardener friend or family member, the following suggestions should help you make a wise decision. Be aware that a good gift doesn’t need to cost much and each gardener’s personal tastes and gardening methods should be taken into consideration when choosing. There are some snobby gardeners out there, but most of us aren’t.

At the top of my list is a good hat. Granted, we can be vain and picky about our wardrobe and selecting the perfect headgear is important, but if your gardener doesn’t wear a hat they should. The sun can be very damaging and my own skin cancer attests to the worst-case scenario. A wide-brim hat needs to be on every gardener’s head. A gifted hat can change the way they garden and could save their life.

My favorite garden hat

On a lighter note, the gift I always look for in my Christmas stocking is a nice pair of leather gloves. While I enjoy the feel of warm soil on my fingers, I wear gloves for most of my gardening tasks. Digging, weeding, constructing, and clearing brush are all tasks that are made easier while wearing gloves. I will buy a three-pack of cheap cloth or cloth-leather gloves for a few bucks, but laying down a couple sawbucks for a nice leather pair doesn’t happen often. When I have a good set I’ll use them until they’re worn out. That’s why I hope for a new pair at Christmas each year.

These gloves are about done

My shed and garage are filled with garden tools, but most of them are still the ones I bought when I first began gardening years ago. And back then I didn’t really know what I was doing so cheap tools seemed a good choice. I still make do with hand tools that have broken handles, bent spines, or dull edges. It makes sense to buy new ones, but that’s too much effort. A gift isn’t any effort at all.

Pruners are a good example of a tool that many gardeners need upgraded. There are many wonderful hand pruners that are ergonomically designed with cushioned handles. Deadheading and small pruning chores are easier when the tool is comfortable. A little information about a gardener’s personal preference can help when choosing hand pruners. There are basically two kinds: bypass and anvil. While each type has its purpose and usefulness, some gardeners have a clear preference. For pruning live plants, I prefer bypass pruners because I think anvil pruners can damage plant stalks and stems. Luckily many stores sell hand pruners with both types packaged together.

A couple of uncomfortable bypass pruners

Trowels are another common gardening tool that may need an upgrade. A good quality hand trowel can last a lifetime, but few of us have one. I have different trowels and they all have problems. My favorite, with a nice, wide, padded handle, was discovered by Lily the Lab when she was a puppy; the handle is now chewed up. On another, the wood handle has separated from the metal blade and I spend as much time sticking the two pieces together as I do digging in the soil. A sturdy, ergonomic trowel would be nice to have. There are skinny trowels and wide trowels and they all have a use.

A good trowel is hard to find

I discovered a wonderful weeder years ago and remarkably I’m the only gardener I know who owns one. It’s a stirrup hoe, also called a Hula Hoe. It’s amazingly easy to use and removes small weeds below the soil surface. Every year I use it when weeds begin to sprout. It eliminates most of them before they become a problem. It’s a tool I think every gardener should own.

Stirrup hoes are great

Another nice tool is a dandelion weeder. It has a forked tongue on a long, narrow spine designed to dig along the root of dandelions and pull out the entire plant. It works. You can find them with handles long enough to use while standing, but I prefer the hand-size ones. They are great for dandelions and many other long-rooted weeds. Every gardener should have one.

Dandelion weeders work well

Many other garden items are nice to have, but seldom purchased by the gardener. I’m always in need of plant markers. Galvanized metal ones with zinc or copper nameplates are very attractive, but I haven’t purchased many because they’re a bit extravagant. I own a few, but find myself using cheap aluminum or plastic ones. If I had more of the fancy ones I’d use them.

Cheap plant tags don’t always look good

Plant ties are similar. A twist of twine is all that’s needed to hold a plant to a stake, but I recently saw Velcro plant ties. They’re reusable, strong, and a great idea. For a gardener who wants a fancier plant tie than twine, Velcro could be the answer.

The simplest items can be the most useful. I never seem to have enough staples in my garden. I’m talking about the galvanized metal staples that are six or eight inches long. I use them to hold bird netting, soaker hoses, and plastic row covers in place. By the end of the season many of them “just disappear.” Very inexpensive, they’re a wonderful stocking stuffer.

Staples have many uses

I tend to think that a gardener can’t have too many bird feeders. While some gardeners don’t want birds in their garden, I do. I have hummingbird feeders, and suet feeders, and seed feeders. Especially in winter, birds can use the thoughtfulness of a gardener who supplies free food. Bird feeders can be simple or fancy and in all cases can be a nice gift.

Decorative bird feeders look good

I love garden art, and I do think that is one thing there can be too much of in a garden. But a few tasteful pieces can be fun and add character to a garden. Last year my wife got me a nice, welded iron, tricycle plant stand. It blends nicely with the other scattered pieces of art in my landscape and I think of her every time I see it.

A nice sight in the garden

There are many catalogs and stores brimming over with wonderful gift ideas for gardeners, but it’s often hard to choose the right gift. The suggestions above are just some of the useful garden items that make my gardening experience better and can make your holiday shopping easier. Gardeners aren’t hard to buy for and we’ll accept anything useful in the garden.

San Diego Botanic Garden

The mission of the San Diego Botanic Garden “is to inspire people of all ages to connect with plants and Nature.” After strolling through its incredible 35 acres, I am inspired. I’ve visited many gardens, both small and large, and I always try to imagine what the gardener was thinking during plant selection and placement. The horticulturists responsible for the San Diego Botanic Garden were apparently channeling heaven as they constructed the park.

Real flowers, not plastic

It’s amazing! I felt like I was experiencing natural nature and the actual habitats represented in the many earth zones throughout the garden. While enjoying the shade of monstrous bamboo, I was transported to Asia. Then suddenly I forgot I was walking through a botanic garden and felt like I was discovering a passionate gardener’s home garden as a pond and vibrant flowers appeared.

Enjoying the bamboo garden

Bananas, pomegranates, grapefruits, avocados, and other mysterious, exotic fruits dangled enticingly in the subtropical fruit garden. Around the corner I stumbled upon an expansive herb garden with “living” sculptures that made me want to sit, relax, and sip a little Sangria.

Bringing a Mariachi band to life

Many large cities have botanic gardens that represent their region and highlight local plants. With the construction of greenhouses and pavilions they can grow and display non-native plants. San Diego is blessed with a temperate climate that mimics disparate locations of our planet. Without a single greenhouse they can showcase Mexico, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, and Central and South America. All of their gardens are in the open air.

The San Diego Botanic Garden began as “Quail Gardens” in 1971, and the address and local signs reflect that start. In 1993 they lost financial support from Dan Diego County and the non-profit Quail Botanical Gardens Foundation, Inc. was formed to operate the gardens. The current name was instituted in 2009.

Stewards of the environment, new parking lots have permeable surfaces to reduce runoff, solar panels produce electricity, green roofs cool buildings while reducing water runoff, and of course all plastic, paper, and metal is recycled.

They’ve constructed the botanic garden using water wise gardening methods. Through the use of recycled water, weather sensitive controllers, and low-water sprinklers, they use and display remarkable ways to save valuable resources. Prunings and leaves are shredded and composted and reused naturally in the gardens as mulch.

A water controller proudly displayed

The entire Garden is very user friendly and educational. There is an obvious attempt to encourage local gardeners to replicate the plantings. So many civic gardens operate with an attitude of, “look what we’ve grown and you can only look at.” San Diego Botanic Garden operates with an attitude of, “look what we’ve grown and you can too.”

A tutorial on using rocks in the garden

I find that approach very appealing. I don’t live anywhere near San Diego and am inspired to try some of their designs and plantings in my gardens. I recognized plants that grow well for me already, but in new displays and settings. The creative gardener in me is already planning new beds and new designs for next year.

I can construct a similar succulent bed

A separate children’s garden makes gardens fun with a tree house and outdoor activities for the little ones. I’ve always believed that capturing the positive spirit of gardening for children benefits them and us.

So often in professional gardens one wanders through, admiring the beauty, while stupefied by the plants. Everything mingles together with no identification of the individual components. That experience is non-existent in San Diego. Everything is exquisitely labeled with an abundance of interesting plant information. On the few occasions I saw a planting with no identifying sign, a quick search revealed information hidden under a branch or limb of a neighboring plant. They’re unobtrusive and blend in well.

An informative plant label

The design of the self-guided tour allows visitors to experience the gardens at their own pace and allows lingering. A walk on a boardwalk overlooking natural, native zones ends at an overlook of the garden, the town, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. A spectacular waterfall and meandering creek lies hidden in a back corner of the gardens. Imposing and interesting sculptures from professional artists are mingled with the plants and are available for purchase.

A waterfall hidden in a jungle

The San Diego Botanic Garden doesn’t reside in San Diego itself, but rather in Encinitas, California, about 30 minutes north of the city proper. There are few signs announcing it’s location so I recommend getting directions ahead of time or relying on a GPS.

At this writing the admission price for adults is $12, with a $2 parking fee. I found a 50% off coupon in the magazine “101 Things To Do In San Diego”, which can be found in most local tourist centers and visitor bureaus. The $14 total price my wife and I paid was the best expenditure of our vacation.

I don’t know when we’ll get back to San Diego; our last trip was two years ago. Even with that uncertainty I’m sorely tempted to become a member of the San Diego Botanic Garden. Even though I won’t be able to use the benefits, I can help an organization that is doing everything right for the world of plants and gardening.

If you’re a gardener, and planning to visit San Diego, check out the San Diego Botanic Garden. If you live in or near San Diego county, consider becoming a member. You be a richer gardener for either choice.

Link to San Diego Botanic Garden