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irregular times logoPlowing the Targeted Garden

Two gardening products catch my attention as I take a rest this afternoon from working in the garden.

"Garden products" is a strange phrase, given that for thousands of years human beings have created gardens without the help of any products. In fact, it was gardens that created "produce" for people to consume. It would have been regarded as a terrible waste for people to buy things to accessorize their gardens.

That was then, this is now. In spite of the oddness of the term, I must call these things "garden products", because there is no other name for what they are. They aren't plants, or soil, or seeds, or even the fruits or vegetables that a garden might produce.

In fact, these things aren't even products made from natural materials that could be by-products of a garden, like willow stems, or barley mulch. They're completely synthetic, manufactured in big factories, just like cars, microwave ovens and cell phones.

So how exactly do these "garden products" fit into the garden? Well, they're supposed to help people do their gardening faster and easier - better, some would say, than the traditional way.

They're offered in the Gardener's Supply catalog, which lists, um, things that can be supplied to gardeners.

The first garden product that caught my attention was a mat of soft spiky things made out of rubber that could be tossed out onto bare garden soil to deter cats from using the soil as litter. Now, I agree with Gardener's Supply that there is a real problem with cats and fresh garden soil. This spring, I planted some darling little violas over and over again because they were dug up repeatedly by my cats. Ten feet away, there was a bigger patch of overturned soil, but the cats apparently prefer finely cultivated soil.

The mats are pretty thin and flexible, and you're supposed to cut them into shapes that will fit the area of the soil in need, where you just toss them out as protection. The idea behind the spikes is that they won't hurt the cats, but will bother them enough that the cats will just go somewhere else.

As I see it, there are two obvious downsides to this garden product. First, if you use them you're going to have to put up with a garden decorated with funny little bits of spiky rubber mats tossed here and there. Most of us gardeners prefer at least the appearance of a natural setting, and these kitty caltrops break that illusion. I also worry about what it would say about me if I were unable to keep my garden going without this newfangled cat scat mat.

Second, this garden product costs money. Me, I'd rather spend my bucks getting a nice perennial to put in an addition to a flower bed than on a fancy rubber mat.

The truth is that gardeners have found ways to keep cats out of their patches for thousands of years. Some gardeners say that they can merely put in some plants that act as a kind of anti-catnip, driving cats away with their smell. Others concoct bizarre recipes using rotten eggs mixed with garlic and lots of nasty but natural stuff.

As for myself, I favor a simple physical technique, one which probably inspired the spiky garden mat invention in the first place. If I've got some garden soil that I've just planted and I don't want my cats to dig up, I just put a bunch of short sticks in the ground, ends pointing up into the air (if I'm planting peas or another climbing plant, I use longer sticks for double purpose.)

Sticks blend into a garden view. Little cut up sections of rubber mats do not. Besides that, the sticks are free, falling out of the trees all around, though I'm sure I could buy some kind of plastic stick-substitute from a jumbo-sized hardware store.

The second garden product that caught me off guard is a new device for creating pressed flowers. Now, there has long been some silliness in this area, with specially-produced flower presses dating all the way back to the Victorians, and perhaps beyond that. But this new product goes the flower press one better: It's an instant flower presser for your microwave oven.

This microwave flower press kit amuses me, because I've always thought that the point of pressing flowers was to enjoy the preservation of beauty at a leisurely pace, without worrying about the results until months later. Using a microwave-powered flower pressing machine is kind of like playing a new age serenity album on fast-forward so that the listener can get relaxed really fast and be done with it.

I'll give you a tip, now. If you want to press flowers, just put them in the pages of a big, unabridged dictionary. The second half of the alphabet works best. Then, forget about the flowers until you're playing scrabble and have to confirm whether "snigglish" is a real word.

What kind of gardener would use a microwave oven flower press or an anti-cat rubber mat? Actually, this kind of question is buzzing through the minds of gardening marketers. Garden product companies are eager to devise new ways to "target" gardeners. Sounds like an assassination plot, doesn't it?

A few months ago, I talked to a representative from Scott, the company who makes Miracle Gro. He wanted to know about why so many gardeners don't use fertilizer. He was incredulous, ranting about how odd it was that gardeners expected their plants to grow without feeding them what he preferred to call "plant food". He insisted that a huge number of gardeners just don't fertilize their gardens at all.

When I asked him about whether he counted compost as fertilizer, he said no. Composting wasn't part of the targeted behavior. He was talking about plant food, not kitchen scraps.

Well, I'm happy not to be part of the target of big garden corporations like Scott, and here's hoping that you stay out of the crosshairs as well.

You can make compost without a specially engineered bin with ventilation slats and a vermin-proof lid. You can water your plants without plastic funnels designed to get the liquid to the plants' roots, where it's needed most. You can design a flower bed without a multimedia CD for your computer.

Heirloom seeds have been been enjoying renewed popularity for some years now. It seems like it's time to bring back heirloom gardeners as well.

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