Marion Owen Alaska
In Kodiak, Alaska, I’m an organic gardening geek. I teach the stuff through the University of Alaska and write about weeds, seeds and the beauty of kelp in my weekly newspaper column.
My husband and I grow a lot on our ‘postage stamp’ property. In the summer, it’s mostly greens, herbs and edible flowers …
Exciting photo, eh?
Yeah, I know. But taking the image sent me on a little journey for which I’m grateful. You see, I needed to know a “why.” And it took a National Geographic article about gardens to teach me a lesson in night photography… …
Gardeners often ask me what my favorite tool is. It’s not a rake, cultivator hoe or pair of good gloves (though if you gave me a pair I wouldn’t argue).
My favorite tool is the No. 2 pencil. Not those mechanical jobbies; just a wooden one.<!–more–>
See for yourself. Pick up a pencil and roll it in your fingers. Think potential here. Like paper clips, Q-Tips, and toothpicks, pencils have more than one life. And for gardeners, it’s a dream-tool come true.
While pencils can’t pull dandelions or help you lose weight, there are many things they can do to make life easier. Let me explain the many ways I’ve fallen in love with the humble pencil, starting with handling seeds.
Starting seeds indoors is a ritual that I look forward to as the official kick-off of the growing season. After filling containers with potting soil, I can hardly wait to break Old Man Winter’s grip with the sowing of the first seed. But most seeds are tiny buggers and making a pinch of seeds go where you want them to go is like trying to mobilize a litter of kittens.
Oh sure, seed packets provide some instructions, like, “Sow seeds sparingly over the soil,” or, “As seed is very fine, they should be barely covered with soil.” Easier read than done.
Have you ever tried to pick up only 3 — count them – lobelia seeds? They’re so tiny, an ounce of them contains 400,000 seeds. How about the Cycnoches chlorochilon orchid? Each pod produces an amazing 3,700,000 dust-like seeds. Spinach seeds are monsters by comparison.
Maybe you’ve had similar encounters with handling small seeds. Here’s how a pencil can solve your seed-sowing problems:
With your containers filled with moistened potting soil, take a packet of seeds and empty it into a dish or the palm of your hand. Pick up a pencil in your other hand. If the tip is sharp, round it off a little. Touch the soil with the pencil to moisten the tip. Now, bring it over to the seeds in your hand and connect the tip to one or more seeds, depending on what you’re aiming for. Try it a few times to get the hang of it. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to pick up just the right number of seeds.
Now, roll the pencil tip on top of the soil to wipe off the seeds. Cover them with soil if necessary and mist them with water. This little trick makes short order of sowing seeds. In fact, it works so well, you’ll find yourself carrying pencils and seeds to parties so you can show all your friends.
The next step: transplanting seedlings
After seedlings have formed their second set of leaves, it’s time to transplant them into larger containers. Here’s where a pencil works better than a dinner fork or chopstick. It’s a trick I learned years ago while visiting a local garden nursery. I watched in amazement as the owner deftly separated out perfect clumps of pansies using a pencil. In fact, at transplanting time, all of her employees use pencils. “We’ve tried everything,” she said, “and pencils work the best.”
Pencils by the way, don’t really contain lead. That dark gray stuff is graphite and clay, which means you can use it for a swizzle stick to stir your favorite beverage. I think it adds a nice, nutty flavor.
I’ll leave you with a few more pencil tips. I didn’t make these up; I found them online:
- A good-size tree will make about 300,000 pencils.
- You can also impress them with this clever factoid: More than 14 billion pencils are produced every year–enough to circle the globe 62 times.
- Pencils didn’t have erasers on them until 100 years ago because teachers felt they would encourage children to make mistakes.
- The average pencil can be sharpened 17 times, write 45,000 words or draw a line 35 miles long. No doubt, that’s why novelists Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck used pencils to write their books.
Can using pencils help us in other ways? Hmm, I like to think so.
“Everything that slows us down,” wrote May Sarton, “and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”
There are times though, when we need to pause in our stormy efforts to do, do, do. To step back and admire the beauty around us. So put your feet up. Take a break. Consider picking up a sketchbook and a pencil.
The end of the year is the time that most of us associate with turning over a new leaf, making plans, and evaluating. Taking it one step further is territory where resolutions and goals follow. Hmm, I’ve learned (often the hard way) that if you don’t have a goal to shoot for, you’re more likely to miss the target.
“Honey, if you don’t try,” Mom would tell me, “the answer is always no.” So here goes…
1) To spend as much time in the garden as I do reading, writing and talking about it.
2) To donate more vegetables to the local food bank.
3) To grow something new from seed. For instant inspiration, head over to Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Fedco Seeds.
4) To introduce at least one person to gardening. Getting your hands in the dirt is a good habit to develop in 2012.
5) To plant more flowers for bees and other beneficial insects.
6) To sniff more flowers with my nose and camera lens.
7) To try at least one natural pest control that I’ve never used.
8) To have more faith in plants. “Plants want to survive and live,” reminds Amy Pennington, author of Apartment Gardening. “They will go to great lengths to make sure their genetic strain lives on. They don’t need constant monitoring—they just need a helper.”
9) To take better care of my indoor plants. It’s the least I can do for those who brighten my interiorscape.
10) To learn the names of (and photograph) more local wildflowers. Mid-June to mid-July is the best time to get out and botanize around Kodiak island. Once you’ve hung around wildflowers for a while, your garden varieties seem, well, tame.
11) To set the timer when I head outside to do some weeding. It’s easy to get distracted with all that cries for attention.
12) To learn or improve on some garden techniques like pruning, composting, or grafting.
13) To keep the wonder of plants, flowers, and nature in my heart, realizing, as the saying goes: “I am not the doer; I am a mere instrument in His hand.”
With blessings, here’s to a glorious year!
More resources you might enjoy:
You can find dozens of articles, tips, recipes and essays by Marion on her original PlanTea.com website.
To enjoy more of Marion’s photographs (or to order canvas prints, mouse pads–you name it–using Marion’s photographs), please visit www.MarionOwenPhotography.com.