Killer Compost

bewareComposters Beware !

I thought I knew composting pretty well, see my post ‘Here’s the Dirt on Composting’ at http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/heres-the-dirt-on-composting/. But I just read a post by Joe Lamp’l, who is the host and Executive Producer of the award-winning PBS television series Growing A Greener World, of about the dangers of using manures or hay from chemically sprayed fields. Who knew?!! But every gardener who grows edibles should be aware of this important wrinkle. It makes total sense, but it just goes to show you that we are poisoning ourselves slowly but surely. Go to Joe’s blog http://www.growingagreenerworld.com/killer-compost-it-happened-to-us/ to read the results of doing all the right things – composting manures, amending the soil, mulching, etc., and see what happened to Joe’s vegetables when unknowingly he used tainted compost.  This is scary, as I live surrounded by farm fields and I know that the local farmers all use these herbicides.

Spray Residues

Used container of herbicide in farmer field ca...
Used container of herbicide in farmer field causes harzard (Photo credit: IITA Image Library)

Amazingly, spray residues from broad-leaved weeds can persist for a long time, from a couple of months, to longer than 3 years! The pathway goes like this; absorption of the herbicide  by the roots, the fodder or hay is fed to the animals, then is excreted as manure full of herbicide traces that is resistant to biological degradation when added to the compost pile.  The “cooking” of the manure in the decomposition process does not break the herbicides down, persisting into the compost that is carefully added as a soil amendment to nourish the soil. According to the US Composting Council http://compostingcouncil.org/, the molecular bonds joining these herbicide compounds can be resistant to the normal decomposition methods in composting.

Effects on Plants

Herbicide damage in wheat
Herbicide damage in wheat (Photo credit: CIMMYT)

Joe’s tomatoes were visibly affected with twisted and distorted leaves. Other effects – reduced fruit set, cupping of the leaves, and generally diseased looking plants.

Diseased tomato plant
Diseased tomato plant

The herbicide container should note in the directions that manures and fodder should not be used for composting, but who reads all the directions?? And does the farmer pass that information on to the hay buyer, or consumer?

What Can You Do?

So, how can you as a homeowner and compost maker and user, avoid these residues?

The traces can be present in hay, manures, leaf, and lawn debris. If an herbicide was used on your lawn to kill broad leaved weeds, then I would not be using any of the lawn clippings in my compost. In the future, I will be asking questions of the farmer that I buy my straw from, and will be checking out any leaf or manures that I put in my compost. A test to see if the herbicide residue is still present is very expensive to do, over $300 a sample, and the debris is not homogenous, so it is hard to test.

Composting Council

Weeds sprayed by a herbicide. Taken in Victori...
Weeds sprayed by a herbicide. Taken in Victoria, Australia in March 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I wondered if these findings were new and again the composting council could answer my questions.

This is not new, scientists have been aware of this for a long time, and it is just percolating throughout the gardening world. Go to http://compostingcouncil.org/persistent-herbicide-faq/ for a fascinating read on this topic. Multiple composting facilities have been affected and even had to close down because of tainted compost. A class action suit was filed against Dow, one of the big producers of these herbicides.

Well built composting unit
Well built composting unit

Chemicals are Everywhere

Nothing is simple anymore, even compost which I thought was pretty straight forward. We need to be more aware of the chemicals that are used around us, asking more questions, and contacting our local politicians about our concerns. Being a beekeeper has really brought this home to me with the increasing use of Neonicotinoids and the link to Colony Collapse Disorder. See my post on Colony Collapse Disorder http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/colony-collapse-disorder-answers-are-coming-in/

Swarm of bees in my apple tree
Swarm of bees in my apple tree

Filoli Knot Gardens

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Filoli miniature knot garden
The larger knot gardens at Filoli, You can see the beautiful Copper Beech hedge in the distance
The larger knot gardens at Filoli, You can see the beautiful Copper Beech hedge in the distance; the mini knot gardens are set to the side of the larger ones

On my recent trip to California with the Garden Blogger’s Fling, we visited Filoli, an estate garden that wowed us with all of its formal gardens and big expanses. Composed of 16 acres of formal gardens in a 654 acre estate, Filoli is a California State Historic Landmark Site.

Scenes from the gardens and house at Filoli
Scenes from the gardens and house at Filoli

I loved wandering the gardens that hot, hot day(over 100!) and looked for every bit of shade that I could find.  But when I saw this miniature knot garden standing next to the larger knot gardens, it stopped me in my tracks and I took my time to look at it and marvel. I have always loved the precision and beauty, and the geometry of knot gardens. And I love miniatures, so this little garden was a combination of my passions!

The miniature knot garden at Filoli
The miniature knot garden at Filoli

Designing Knots

I have designed a  total of one knot garden in my landscape design career and would love to do another. The primary hurdle to knot gardens is the high degree of maintenance, which entails constant shaping and trimming, and that doesn’t fit into modern lifestyles anymore. All that clipping, fussing, and weeding is not most people’s idea of fun. But a miniature one; Much more doable! I was instantly smitten and ready to try one at home for myself.

Installing a knot garden for a client
Installing a knot garden for a client

Plants for Knots 

So, what plants did they use at Filoli for the minis?:  Myrtus communis ssp tarentina ‘Compacta’ or Dwarf Myrtle,  Teucrium chamadrys or Germander, Leptospermum scoparium , and Buxus microphylla var. japonica or Morris Midget Boxwood.

The gift shop sold small plants of three of these varieties if you wanted to start your own little knot garden.

Sign in the gift shop at Filoli
Sign in the gift shop at Filoli

For the larger knots, the plants used were Lavender, Wooly Horehound, Germander, Crimson Pygmy Barberry, Tuscan Blue Rosemary, Grey Santolina, and Dwarf Myrtle.

Large knot gardens at Filoli
Large knot gardens at Filoli

History

Knot Gardens were thought to originate from ancient Arabian gardens, but are more commonly associated with European gardens of the Middle Ages and Elizabethan England, where the nobility enjoyed the colors and patterns from their castle windows.

English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bri...
English: The Knot Garden at the Red Lodge, Bristol. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main purpose was to display royal coats of arms. Also popular were designs of plants or animals, or stitches of embroidery. An open knot, like at Filoli, would be filled with colored gravel and soil, and a closed knot, would be filled with flowers.

One garden that I worked on similar to a knot that we filled with Dragon Wing Begonias
One garden that I worked on similar to an open knot, that I filled with Dragon Wing Begonias
I saw this magnificent knot garden at Nemours, a Dupont estate in Delaware
I saw this magnificent knot garden at Nemours, a Dupont estate in Delaware

Filoli Knot Gardens are Unique

What makes Filoli’s knots unusual is the three-dimensional look of over and under-lapping strands that are shaped very carefully to give an intricate and wave-like appearance. Filoli’s large knot gardens were designed and donated by the Woodside-Atherton Garden Club in 1976. Each knot is 36 feet square, and plants were placed on one-foot centers using string lines to get everything precisely square. The knot gardens are located in the panel gardens, and are bordered to the north and south by hedges of Hibiscus syriacus and Copper Beech, Fagus sylvatica. The plant material in the knot garden was chosen for attributes of contrasting colors, fineness of the foliage, and their similar rates of growth.

The miniatures were the idea of Mrs Duncan Low, also a member of the garden club, in 1991. Workers made two 36″ square boxes of wood that were engraved on the sides with brick lines to resemble the brick walls of the garden. The tiny plants were planted one inch on center and are weekly pruned with bonsai sheers.

Care of the Knots at Filoli

The larger knots are renovated every five years, with the lavender and santolina being totally replaced as these plants don’t perform well under intense pruning and sheering. They are watered by irrigation once a week in the warmer months and fertilized annually in late fall because of the extreme root competition. The knots are also hedged hard in late summer after blooming, and an application of redwood sawdust is applied annually.

Creating a miniature knot garden is maybe a future winter project for me. I have located a source of plants, and I just need to create that wooden box!

I visited this knot garden at the Garden Museum in London; I love the variegated holly topiary in the center
I visited this knot garden at the Garden Museum in London; I love the variegated holly topiary in the center

Labyrinth Plantings

Peaceful vantage point
Peaceful vantage point

Last year, I posted about installing a stone labyrinth for a client.  We started in the fall, worked through the winter, and just finished up the spring plantings. Go to Healing Labyrinth-Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, to see how I created and implemented the design and installation.

The theme for the plantings was pollinator friendly shrubs and perennials to surround and embrace the labyrinth to soften the harshness of stone and to bring nature in. When it came time to plant, I had to consider that the site is shady to part sun, with some parts in full sun, so I had to use an entire spectrum of plants that would attract pollinators.

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Hillside above labyrinth planted with many native plants

Where the wall surrounds the labyrinth pathway, I left a small space of 6″ to plant something simple but beautiful to soften the stone edge in the shade.  Hakenochloa ‘All Gold’ was chosen for its bright color in the shade and its graceful form. It has no attribute as a pollinator friendly plant, but was perfect for the spot. A slow grower that stays under 12″ high, the grass will not outgrow its space and is very low maintenance.

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Hakenochloa All Gold
Hakenochloa All Gold

The only plantings that were original were extremely fragrant pink climbing roses on the fence. I kept them as a backdrop for the new plantings.

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Clethra ‘Ruby Spice’

The garden surrounding the labyrinth is in partial to full sun and I went wild with the pollinator friendly plants.  The main shrub that I used was Clethra ‘Ruby Spice’ –  seven of them spotted around the space. Clethra is a highly fragrant deciduous shrub that blooms in July and August in shade and partial shade and is frequently visited by an array of pollinators.  The racemes of dark pink flowers last for weeks and the foliage turns a bright yellow in the fall.

Butterfly bushes were also used to give late summer color as well as perennials such as stachys hummelo, salvias, sedum, vernonia, hibiscus, coral bells, and nepeta. A few annuals were selected for color and pollinator appeal –  petunias and pentas.

Just planted bed with stepping stones planted with grass seed
Just planted bed with stepping stones planted with grass seed
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Planted area 6 weeks later

The upper slope over-looking the labyrinth was in full shade and was planted with colorful foliage plants-coral bells, hostas, carex, toad lily, Lenten Rose, tiarella, brunnera, lamium, heucherellas, and woodland phlox to give texture and brighten the shady area.

Toad Lily- bees love this in the fall
Toad Lily- bees love this in the fall
Hillside of foliage plants for shade
Hillside of foliage plants for shade

Under the teak bench, I planted Mazus, a steppable creeping plant with tiny purple flowers.

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Mazus is a purple flowered creeper

 

In and among the rocks of the water feature, I planted several Deutzias for spring bloom, and variegated Iris, sedums, annuals, coral bells, and balloon flower. The water feature looked very stark without any plantings, so I was careful to plant things next to and within the rocks surrounding it so that plants would cascade over it.

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Water feature 3 years later in the spring

To frame the picture, and provide some privacy, a screen of Skip Cherry Laurels was planted behind the fence to anchor the new space. These will eventually grow up to over 8 feet and knit together for a nice hedge.

Planting the Cherry Laurels for a screen
Planting the Cherry Laurels for a screen
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Downward view of labyrinth with Helleborus in the foreground
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A Helleborus or Lenten Rose opening up in the winter
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Clethras turn a wonderful yellow color in the fall

Container Lust

This one has that fun whirligig orange coleus, a streptocarpus (purple), tuberous Begonia, New Guinea Impatien, and Asparagus Fern
This one has that fun whirligig orange coleus, a streptocarpus (purple), tuberous Begonia, New Guinea Impatien, and Asparagus Fern

I love putting containers together and saw some especially beautiful ones this spring that stopped me in my tracks. I did not create them, but I wished I had! I took pictures and thought maybe one day I would duplicate them. I am constantly amazed at what others put together so creatively.

Like a canvas waiting for paint, containers are seasonal so you can experiment and go wild with your colors and combos and try something else next year.

The one above would be for shade.  Who says a shade container has to be uninteresting and not colorful like sun ones? I would rather create a shade or partial shade container than a full sun one.

All foliage container by Leigh Barnes
All foliage container by Leigh Barnes

This container which is a quiet study of leaf shapes and textures, has Hakonechloa ‘All Gold’, Helleborus, Ferns, Creeping Variegated Fig, and a gold Coleus. For shade only, this container will winter over minus the Coleus and the Fig, giving you the opportunity to add something else for next season.

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This window box is showcasing some beautiful forms and colors of succulents.  You hardly have to water it and it can take full baking sun.  I found this at Ladew gardens.

Found at a local nursery by my friend Millie-The orange and reds pick up the container colors
Found at a local nursery designed by my friend Millie-The orange and reds pick up the container colors

The above ‘carnival of oranges’ container has Orange Wave Petunia, Coleus, Lantana, Tuberous Begonia, Croton, Ferns, and Shrimp Plant. I wasn’t sure how this would perform in the long haul, as the Lantana, Shrimp Plant, and the Petunia like full sun, and the others like partial shade or shade. But it is a stunner.

Another container designed by my friend Millie in cranberry shades
Another container designed by my friend Mille in cranberry shades

This container is playing off the reds and burgundies with a touch of white and yellow. Calibrachia, Vinca, Dahlia, Hibiscus, Cordyline, and Angelonia are included to make this a full sun containers.  The designer chose a plant with visual punch, which is the beautiful pink-edged Cordyline, and built the plants around it, echoing those colors. A splash of white adds contrast.

Another Leigh Barnes creation in a beautiful purple pot
Another Leigh Barnes creation in a beautiful purple pot

Purple  is an uncommon color for a container and this pot was amped up a notch with orange flowers.  Gerber Daisy, Agastache, Peach Verbena, Sweet Potato Vine, and I think the small pink flower is Mexican Heather or Lobelia, were combined to make a statement. Full sun is required, and the Gerber Daisy does require cleaning of the old blooms to continue it’s show. This combo has structure, texture, and movement. Beautiful!

The secret to combining the right plants in a container, is to use good color contrast, by picking up the leaf, stem, flower, or container color. Another important element is to vary the form of the plants.  Always  start with something bold and architectural, like a cordyline, croton, canna, or papyrus, and combine with finer textured plants. Three to five plants is usually enough variety or the container can get too busy. Avoid a rainbow of colors for the same reason.  The container which I did below has a rainbow of colors, so I broke the rules on that! But seriously, there are guidelines, but in the end, experiment and make your own statement with what you select.

Strong textural cannas give this container visual impact
Strong textural cannas give this container visual impact

Try to select plants that will survive the environmental stressors of wind, pounding rain, and extreme heat.

My advice to get these beautiful results is go to a nursery and pick a strong, structural plant that you love, and try different plants next to it at the nursery. Keep in mind the light requirements when gathering your finds, and it is like picking flowers for a beautiful bouquet.

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Plants at Your Fingertips!

Planted table ready to go
Planted table ready to go

Planted Furniture for the Patio

I went to a cocktail party at a plant lovers house, saw his planted table and was enthralled! I was sure that I could create one just as good, if not better.

I looked around for a table that I could buy and convert to a planted table, but it just wasn’t practical.

As I create drawings and plans of gardens for a living, I drew what I wanted to scale and took the drawing to a carpenter friend and explained what I was going to do. He made a beautiful table out of treated wood for me with very sturdy legs to carry the weight of soil and plants.  I told him that I needed at least 3 inches of soil in the top for root growth and he created the perfect table.  I stained it and made sure there were plenty of drainage holes in the bottom and set to work.

Drainage holes were drilled into the bottom
Drainage holes were drilled into the bottom

I lined the whole thing with landscape cloth and filled it with soil.

Lined with landscape cloth
Lined with landscape cloth

After adding a good quality potting soil with plenty of vermiculite to lighten the load, I added fertilizer and leveled the mixture into the table top about an inch and a half below the top of the sides.

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I let the soil settle over the course of a week and then started the fun part of planting.

Since the table was to be placed on a patio in partial shade, I selected shade plants with beautiful foliage and some seasonal pansies for lots of color.  The pansies can be rotated out later in the spring when the weather warms up.

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Ferns, pansies, lamium, polka dot plants, mazus, and forget me nots were all planted

I placed flat stones to set drinks on and then covered all the soil with moss mounds from a local florist.

Moss adds the finishing touch
Moss and a glass ball adds the finishing touch

I have had it for 6 weeks now, and the plants are growing and filling in.  I keep it misted with water about every 3 to 4 days and the moss is holding up fine.

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All grown in 6 weeks later
All grown in 6 weeks later

Outdoor Fairy Garden- Go Wild!

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Fairy Garden-A stream running through it

At a recent Decorator Show House, I had the task of designing a space in a courtyard area that was a perfect location for a fairy garden. Fairy or miniature gardens have become an immensely popular gardening trend and I thought this would really draw attention to my area.

The centerpiece was going to be my fairy house that I made on an earlier post out of bark, branches, and antlers. Go to http://thegardendiaries.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/the-realm-of-fairy-creating-fairy-gardens/ to see how to make this. But first, I had to prepare the site for the house by creating a small contained garden in the landscape with fencing, hills, plants, and moss.

A fairy house under construction
A fairy house under construction

Construction Schedule

  • Site

    I found the perfect spot under a large Chamaecyparis tree that had no lower limbs. The upper limbs would hang over and shelter the area and create a ‘ceiling’.  There was a straggly yew that had to go.  It was chain sawed down and the leaves cleaned up. The drain pipe was relocated and the wheel stayed as a great visual element.

    Selected site with a scraggly yew off to the right and backed by a great iron wheel
    Selected site with a scraggly yew off to the right and backed by a great iron wheel
  • Fence

    A fence had to be added to delineate the space.  My curly pussy willow was looking good so I cut a bunch and wired it together. I kept it in a round tote for a week to keep that nice rounded shape.

Wiring curly pussy willow together to make a fence
Wiring curly pussy willow together to make a fence
Keep the fence in a round tote for a week to keep the rounded shape
Keep the fence in a round tote for a week to keep the rounded shape

To keep the fence firmly in place, I took short pieces of wire stakes and drove them into the ground at the perimeter of the fence and inserted the bundled pussy willow onto it. This will keep the fence from moving when I fill the interior space with plants and moss. I made an arbor out of the same material and placed that at the entrance, inserting the ends into the soil.

Little stake holding the fence in place
Little stake holding the fence in place
Pussy willow fence in place
Pussy willow fence in place

I experimented with different positionings of the pathway and house and once satisfied, I remove everything to start placing the accessories. Once I knew where the pathway would go, everything else fell into place.

Getting the layout right
Getting the layout right

Mounding up soil and pressing it firmly in place to mimic hills and valleys made the space more interesting.

Then, I placed the largest items, like the houses – the bark and a gourd house, and the bridge. Once situated, I started with the plants. I chose plants that were colorful enough to contrast with the moss covering that was planned to top everything off. I planted my plants both inside the fence and outside. I used a couple a miniature conifers, violas, polka dot plants, ivy, ferns,  armeria, and saxifrages.

  • Stream

    To construct the stream, I first placed a strip of landscape cloth on the ground as the base for the stream bed. This prevents the gravel and stones from washing into the underlying soil and keeping it clean.

Laying a strip of landscape cloth, a base of clean gravel on top
Laying a strip of landscape cloth, a base of clean gravel on top
  • Mood Moss

I added my pathway and topped everything off with a layer of mood moss.  Mood moss is a moundy, springy moss, much nicer than regular sheet moss. It gave dimension to the whole garden. Moss also gives the garden a finished look and a good backdrop for all the accessories and plants. I bought a case of this from a local wholesale florist.

  • Final Touches

To the stream, I added colored gravel and small boulders. Colorful glass balls were pressed into the moss to add color. Wheelbarrows, chairs, and various other fairy accessories were added on top of the moss.

Outdoor fairy garden
Outdoor fairy garden
  • Upkeep

To keep this garden going, I will spray it with a fine mist attachment of the hose to keep it moist, once every couple of days depending on rainfall. The garden is in the shade so it will not dry out quickly.  It is important to keep the moss moist but not drenched. The plants need to be pruned and groomed every few weeks to keep them small.  The garden should last the entire season and will need renovation next spring.

Setting up the arbor at the entrance
Setting up the arbor at the entrance

Heirloom Tomatoes

A sinkful of Roma tomatoes
A sinkful of Roma tomatoes (good for sauce)

Picking those juicy tomatoes is just around the corner, and if you are thinking about growing them from seed, you better get planting!

Everybody has heard of heirloom veggies and there are entire seed companies that dedicate their offerings to continuing the thousands of varieties that the mainstream companies don’t offer any more. You are missing out, if all you plant are ‘Better Boytomatoes because there are tomatoes for eating, slicing, canning, juicing, making paste or sauce, or just to pop in your mouth for that fresh tomato flavor burst. Here is a guest post from John Fendley of Sustainable Seed Company:

Heirloom Tomatoes – Varieties for Every Palate, but Where Do You Start?

By John Fendley of Sustainable Seed Company

 

There are hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes as deliciously unique in their flavors as the people who saved them over the years.  Varieties range from black tomatoes with a sweet and smoky flavor and cherry tomatoes with a tart tang to giant beefsteak tomatoes that drip with juice as you bite into a summer BLT.

Beautiful Heirloom Tomatoes
Beautiful Heirloom Tomatoes

Hungry for summer yet?  I know I am, and it is compounded by looking online at all the heirloom tomato seeds!  Each seed carries the promise of a flavor explosion in my mouth as I stroll through the garden, with the thought of tasting all those summer time tomato treats.

But where do you start?  Since these are edibles, flavor seems like a good place to start.

But you should also consider space requirements.  How much room do you have?  Will you want to plant determinate (short non-sprawling) varieties because you only have patio space for pots?  Or do you have lots of room to plant giant beefsteak tomatoes that sprawl for miles?

Next, consider how you plan to use and enjoy your tomatoes?  Will you can them?  If so you want can varieties that have dry flesh making it easier to cook them down like Chico III.  Chico is prolific, producing tons of fruit all at the same time.  It makes a great all-around sauce, but if you are looking for a little more flavor from a canner, try black plum.  It makes a sweet and smoky sauce that is sure to have your dinner guests raving!

Maybe, you are not a canner and want to eat your heirloom tomatoes fresh.  Try cherry tomatoes varieties for salads.  Perfect for those of us that don’t like cutting things up, just pop them right in the salads.  Coyote is perfect for this and you will love the flavor.  That is if you even have any left from the trip back to the kitchen.  Yes, they are that good!

What about the beefsteaks we talked about?  These are big, fat tomatoes, so good that the juice literally drips down your face when you take a bite out of them.  Everyone loves them, but they need lots of space to grow and plenty of staking, which prevents their heavy, fruit-laden vines from falling over.

Then there are colors!  Heirloom tomatoes literally come in every color of the rainbow, and this is the reason great chefs around the world love them so.   It is like painting with a palette of rainbow colors.  There are reds of course, but also purples, yellows, oranges, blacks, green, red / yellow striped and even white tomatoes.

Start growing your own delicious rainbow of heirloom tomatoes today from Sustainable Seed Co.  We have 300 varieties of delectable heirloom tomatoes sure to fit everyone’s palate.

The beautiful array of colors of heirlooms
The beautiful array of colors of heirlooms

Enter our Pin-it to Win-it Contest where 10 lucky gardeners will receive $50 gift certificates to create their own organic seed garden. Check out Sustainable Seed on Pinterest for a chance to win your Dream Garden.