Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bye-bye bonSPi, hello peppers in pots

When last I posted, I was all excited about trying to bonsai some sweet pepper plants, to turn them into mini pepper-trees by restricting their roots and growing them under lights. Yesterday, I turned one out of its pot to see that the roots, previously so lovely and white were turning brown and drowned-looking.  So, today, the peppers are in bigger pots, terra cotta pots, this time, which I'm hoping will let their roots dry out between waterings, to return the roots to health. The trouble is, in these bigger pots, they are unlikely to remain "bonsai'ed," that is: they're going to get big.  So, now, it seems I am overwintering peppers in the house at a size maybe a quarter or a third the size of an outdoor plant, but not a real miniature.  So bye-bye bonSPi, and hello overwintered peppers in pots.  Here's a photo of their recent progress.

More leaves than last time, ay?

The plants actually have tiny flower buds on board. The buds might fall off and break my heart, but no sign of their doing so yet.


Sunday, October 14, 2012


Poking around the web about a week and a half ago, I stumbled across a site which tells how to make BonChi.  These are bonsai formed from fully grown chili  ("chi") pepper plants.  The full-grown plants are cut down, then re-potted and re-grown to look like classic bonsai, as miniature tree-form peppers.  The icing on the cake is that, next spring, these miniaturized peppers can be planted out after all danger of frost, and they re-grow into normal-sized pepper plants with a big head start on peppers planted as seedlings.  What a smashing idea--something to fool around with all winter, followed by early peppers next summer.

There was just one problem: I saw this at 11 PM.  At 5 AM the following morning I was due to leave town for four nights, while a big frost was expected the following night.

The rational side of my brain regretfully filed BonChi away in the list of things to try next year, and went to bed.  The gardening side of my brain had different ideas.

At 4 AM it woke me. "Get a flashlight. Go dig pepper plants.  You don't have to pot them up, just dump them in a wheelbarrow and wheel it into the shed.  Water the rootballs, then you can pot them when you get back into town. They won't freeze in the shed.  Get UP!"

"Are you kidding me?" asked the rational side of my brain. "Flashlight gardening? In October?  In Wisconsin? No. Further, even if it might possibly work with chili peppers, we don't GROW chili peppers, we grow SWEET peppers.  So fugedaboudit.  Isn't going to happen. Go back to sleep."  

Sounded logical. Over I rolled for another hour's sleep.

Yet somehow, five minutes later,  I found myself outside, shivering in my pajamas, pruning peppers.  Then, a flashlight in one hand, a shovel in the other, I whacked the poor mutilated things out of the ground and dumped them, rootballs and all, into a wheelbarrow.

Now, this sort of adventure is the sort of thing which makes my poor husband sigh and roll his eyes.  Simple solution: don't tell him, right? Yet he too, woke early. Although he isn't the world's most observant man, even he could not fail to notice when at 4:30 AM, the back door opened and in stepped his wife, dressed in a fetching ensemble of gardening boots and muddy pajamas. So yes, there was eye-rolling and sighing.

But so far, it seems to have been worth it.  When I got back into town, the pepper stumps were duly potted up into disposable plastic soup bowls--I buy my son these soups just so I can have the bowls when he's done. The soil is pro-mix, a soil-less potting medium. Have a look: the pepper stumps have been under grow lights for several days.

The pepper stumps under grow lights.  These are
are Gypsy peppers, a quick-to-mature variety. 

Although the stumps look barren, you can see new leaves forming.

New leaves sprouting.  The trunk isn't really
red: the grow lights distort color 

We'll see if this turns out to be anything--it's six months at least until the frost-free days of next spring, a long-ong-ong  time for any plant to thrive under grow lights.  Yet I don't think the whole thing is utterly hopeless for two reasons.  First, peppers can live for years, and do so in the tropics.  Second, this technique was developed in Finland, where the winters are even longer, and where, even in summer, it's too cold to put peppers outside: they must be greenhouse-grown.

In the meantime, though, what to call this experiment?  BonChi is a great name for chili peppers, but seems all wrong for sweet peppers.  How about BonSPi?


PS: The nights I was out of town? There was no frost after all.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Staying, going and coming in--an October snapshot of the veggie garden

From extreme left (yellowish leaves) to extreme right (plants hanging into frame)

Winter squash--status: going. Still dying back and drying up, prior to harvesting squash.
Broccoli--status: staying. This is the Packman variety, it has been producing all summer long, through the heat, through the drought and now, the cooler weather.  Each plant must be on its seventh or eighth cutting. An amazing super plant, I expect we'll be eating broccoli for another few weeks, at least.
Peppers--status: going. This is the Gypsy pepper variety, another amazing super plant.  We've had two almost-frosts, lower 30's, but these plants don't seem to realize they're living on borrowed time.  They aren't setting any more flowers, but the peppers on the plant continue to ripen.  I'm keeping a sharp eye on the weather forecast.  Any day now all those peppers will be headed for the root cellar.
Buckwheat--status: going. This was planted in late August as a green manure in the bed where the old leeks were harvested out.  The plan was for it to die back in the frost before setting seed, but the frost is 2 weeks late and counting.  No seed set yet, but unless we get that frost pretty darn soon, I'll have to brave the bumble bees and cut off the flower heads or else...
Sugar snap peas, foreground--status: coming in  These were planted in mid-August where the beans were taken out.  They look good--strong plants--but we'll see if they make any pods before they die: there have been no blooms yet.  The summer weather was so hot and so extended that the plants stayed small longer than they ought to have.

Note: The raised beds do help stave off a ground frost, and the stone walls hold heat, too.  However, the real reason everything is still going strong is because, unbelievably for Wisconsin in October, we really haven't had a frost yet (!!)

PS:  Close up of the super broccoli bed, you can see the dying-back squash to the left, the peppers to the right.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Nonesuch lunch

A handful of cherry tomatoes and a young leek.  A fall lunch fit for royalty.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Pavers amidst groundcover: putting in a secondary pathway using sheet composting

Out in the garden there's a little path, perhaps 30 or 35 inches wide, which runs between two semi-raised flower beds. Until a few days ago, this little alley-like path, about 20 or 30 feet long, was "paved" with grass.  However, being so narrow, it had become increasingly a pain to mow and trim.  The path isn't much used for walking because a much broader path parallels it, but it remains important because it is the only access to one of the beds it borders.

My goal is to reduce the mowing and trimming while maintaining the path as a secondary walkway, yet not add so much paving that the area will get hot during the day, or will feel barren. Further, I have to be able to do the whole project by myself, meaning that the inputs have to be fairly light.

It seemed to me that a paver pathway laid amidst a ground cover would suit the situation--the pavers would maintain the path, while the ground cover would soften the pavers and keep the area from becoming hot.  Further, separating the pavers with a ground cover would mean fewer pavers required to fill the area--less lifting for me!  Round pavers give more bang for the buck--providing a spot to land your foot, but weighing less and taking up less room than a square paver of (seemingly) "the same size." Plus, we've used round pavers in lots of other pathways, so they're a signature material for this garden.

After cogitating a bit, I installed a paver-and-groundcover secondary pathway as follows:

1. As stated above, the path run between two semi-raised flower beds.  Each bed is bordered with two layers of limestone landscape blocks--2-3" high, 6" wide and variable lengths.

2.  Between these borders, I laid newspapers in the pathway.  The newspapers were first wetted, then applied 8-10 sheets thick, in an overlapping pattern. If the blocks had not been there (in other words, if I were laying border blocks just to outline the path) I would have laid the newspapers first, them put the block atop the newspapers.  However, since the block was already laid, I just got as close as I could with the wet newspaper sections.

3. Next came a layer of corregated cardboard which had been kicking around out by the recycling ever since we got a patio table delivered--a huge sheet of corregated which had come through several rainstorms intact.

4. Over the cardboard, I laid pavers--for this project, I chose round concrete pavers stones 20" in diameter.  For variety, I added a few 12" steppers, as well as one 24" honker for right in the middle of the path. All these pavers were loaded into my car at the stone yard, and I drove home with the heavy load at low speeds, with the blinkers on.

5. On top of the cardboard, and around the edges of the pavers, I applied a thin scattered layer of pine bark nuggets.  The cardboard was about 1/3 to 1/2 covered with this thin layer.

6. Next came a layer of sterile potting mix. For this project, I used pro-mix (an organic growing medium which also contains some perlite, contains a wetter and which is pH adjusted). However, although pro-mix is handy stuff, the fact is that I bought it because it was on sale.  I would have used any sterile potting mix which happened to be on sale at the big-box store.  The combined layer of pro-mix and nuggets came just below the level of the round pavers.

7. Into the pro-mix/nugget planting medium, I placed 2-4 inch long sprigs of Angelina sedum.  There are many stands of this all around my garden--it is one of my favorite ground covers--and I harvested a strand here and a strand there until I had a big armful.  The shorter sprigs were pushed about half-way into the pro-mix/nugget medium, longer sprigs were laid on their side and covered half-way along their length with medium. Experience shows that in the climate conditions of my garden, Angelina can be expected to root readily under these circumstances. (In fact, it will root into bare soil, so I expect it to really take off in this soft springy planting medium.)

Angelina sedum in an established planting, fall color

8. To bring the final level up to the top of the pavers, I topped all with cocoa hull mulch, placing it carefully by handfuls around the sprigs.

The basis for all this rigamarole is a rather old-fashioned method known as sheet-composting. (Sheet composting is currently staging a comeback under the catchy name "lasagna gardening.")  With sheet composting you can bring soil under cultivation without actually having to dig it up.  It works particularly well on sod, as I had in my little pathway: the sod does not have to be removed or killed back before a ground cover can be planted.  The newspapers topped with cardboard stops the weeds and grass from growing, depriving them of light and air, and so choking them back to die.  The weed/grass roots and tops decompose in place, adding significant organic matter to the soil.  The sterile planting medium above the weed-barrier layer allows plants placed in it (the Angelina sedum) to get a good start with no weed competition.  Unlike a situation where the soil is tilled, there are no weed seeds brought to the surface to compete with the stuff the gardener actually wants to grow.

The newspapers and cardboard eventually decompose (I'd expect that by next fall, all the newspaper and cardboard will have disintegrated). The pro-mix, too, will decompose--all organic matter does, and the pro-mix is mainly organic.  I'd expect it to be pretty much gone by the summer after next (summer of 2014) at the latest.

As a result of all this decomposition, the level of the medium will drop.  However, by then, the sprigs will have gained traction and will grow upwards--if the Angelina sedum runs true to form, this sedum will grow above the level of the pavers, leaving the pavers as islands in a sea of sedum. The look is charming, and quite suitable to a secondary path such as this one, although the charm would turn to annoyance if the path were a main one and one had to lift one's feet high with every step to avoid crushing the sedum.

Even when the medium has rotted away completely, so that the sedum has actually come to sink its roots down into the original soil, I would still expect the sedum to grow to a level above that of the pavers. I expect this will happen for three reasons:
  • First, even when the pro-mix and cardboard and newspaper breaks down, the bark nuggets will remain for years.  Bark has a substance in it (lignum) which breaks down much more slowly than ordinary wood
  • Second, the sedum (like any thickly planted perennial) adds organic matter to the top soil level, such that the soil level rises over time. In other words, although the pro-mix, newspapers and cardboard all shrink and decompose, I'd expect the soil level itself to swell and grow due to the additions of organic material at its surface from the sedum shedding leaves, growing new roots, thickening up, etc.  
  • Finally, even if the sedum were not part of the equation, pavers will sink steadily into the ground--in my experience, even quite a thick paver simply laid on sod or even bare soil will eventually sink so far into the ground that it becomes level with with the ground's surface, if not actually half-buried.  I'm not sure what the mechanism is here, but I think this is why archeologists dig into the ground to find evidence of the past--the ground simply rises up over time. 

Naturally, weeds will find their way into this system at some point--some hardy runners may survive under the sheet composting, particularly along the edges where the newspaper leaves a gap.  Further, new weed seeds are blown in all the time, ready and willing to take root in the nice, soft medium at the surface.  However, that same nice soft surface ought to make the weeds  pretty easy to root out, especially if I keep after it and don't let them get big until such time as the Angelina can thicken up to do the job all on its own--probably by the middle of summer 2013.  Also, Angelina is a very distinctive- looking plant, and weeds are easy to see in it (which is one reason I chose it as the groundcover for this pathway project).

Here is a photo of the path to this point: you can see the sprigs of Angelina sedum in the planting medium.

Round pavers with Angelina sprigs in planting
medium, bordered by limestone blocks

I will try to keep adding photos as this little pathway matures.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The miser's hoard: tulips

The days have been noticeably shorter, but not until last night, when the first branch-rattling rain swept in, has fall been in the air.  Which of course, you know, leads to thought of next spring's tulips.  The first fresh shipments from the Netherlands have already arrived in the big box stores--I noticed them but only began coveting them last night as the wind knocked around.

The first issue is how to keep the bulbs from immediate destruction--nothing so infuriating as a fat squirrel on a branch overhead noisily eating next year's hope of spring.

If the bulbs survive to bloom, the second question is what happens next. Although tulips are an unquestionable necessity after the short days of winter, these beauties are soon followed by gasping dying brown foliage--dismayingly contrary to the tulip-spring-renewal meme.

The solution, it seems to me, is to again plant tulips in pots.  And, that is actually today's project, the rain having made the ground too wet for other projects. So, I'm off to the big box store with a glad heart: no miser handling a hoard of gold could be as greedily satisfied as I will be when I return with bags and bags (and bags) of tulips.  Mwahaha!

Labels: ,

Friday, August 31, 2012

More or not enough: rain and gardening

Looking at this past growing season from the beginning (late May) and near the end (late August) leads me to ruminate upon water.

5/26/12 The garden has never looked better than it does this spring.  Partly this is because the plants in the new gardens are now big enough to look right, but mostly this is because there was SO much rain earlier in the spring.  I've always known that water is essential to plants, yada, yada but WHAT a demonstration.  Mature perennials which reliably grow to a certain size are much larger, although the only change has been more water.  Sufficient rain (which we get most years) turns out not to be the same thing as optimal rain (which we got this year).

(Interlude, featuring the worst drought in 50 years)

8/31/12 Here at the tail end of a drought (and its STILL droughty out in the garden) the power of water has been shown once again.  Without getting into the philosophical questions raised by running 750+ feet of hose (all summer long, sometimes 24/7) the LACK of rain demonstrated convincingly that no other input (including hose water) can substitute for water from the sky: Hose water kept the garden limping along without any major die-back, but limping along and doing well are quite different states.

If the conditions we experienced this summer are to become the "new normal," I believe that home gardening will have to adapt in at least a couple of ways.

1) An increase in container gardening.
Container gardening takes less hose-water to keep going that in-ground gardening (although it takes more human input to run those hoses--so I suppose some sort of automation of the watering function will also have to take place).  Since the technically-oriented method of planting containers and running automated watering systems are not the traditional mode of midwestern gardening, I would expect fewer people to self-identify as gardeners going forward (and I'd expect more people to give it up and stay inside in the air-conditioning, as is only sensible, if you think about it).

2) An increase in non-native plantings, especially of "backbone plants" like trees and shrubs.
Natives around here expect a certain amount of water and won't thrive with reduced water availability.  For example: although I would expect to have to keep new trees/shrubs going with hose water for a growing season or even two seasons, having to keep giant oaks and maples going with the hose was a daunting proposition this summer.*  A maple big enough to shade a house drinks a LOT of water.  Perhaps a more drought-tolerant tree from a drier climate would be a better choice for the next tree-planting spree around here.  In this regard, the recent trend toward requiring "all-native" or "mostly native" plantings (a west-coast phenomena) seems to me to be going exactly backwards in allowing gardeners to adapt their landscapes to the changing climate (yet another reason, I fear, that sitting in the air conditioning seems increasingly likely to supplant gardening).

* Most people around here did not water their trees, and their trees look OK.  However, in the next few years I'm afraid I'll see trees which were stressed in this summer's drought succumb to the stress of disease, insects or further drought.  Reading that hundreds of millions of trees are considered lost in Texas due to drought had much influence on my decision to water even giant and well-established trees.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Lettuces, tulips and party dresses

The first long cool Wisconsin spring since I started gardening has been a sort of a trip down memory lane, to the long cool springs of my childhood in Europe and on the US east coast. The lettuces and tulips of a cool gray German or Dutch spring, shining with drizzle, these are the plants which came to my mind's eye in this weather. Astonishing to see them growing just that same way, here in the continental interior of the US, which is such a remarkably different climate, usually.

Spring here in Wisconsin is a three-day affair, with summer heat coming on while the last snow melts from where it was piled high in the corner of the parking lot out at the Target store.  Sometimes, the last tulips catch the first roses.  And, this year SEEMED as if it would follow that same pattern, only more so--in March, we got some 80 degree days.  However, the freak heat retreated, followed by the inevitable frost (which just blasted the tips of the Catalpa trees) and thereafter, the weather stabilized into wet and cool, a pattern which has held for nearly 6 weeks or so.

I bought some ranunculuses at a big box store (they looked so sad in their tiny pots) and thought them a great extravagance, because they will die back in the heat, but they have repaid all.  They are blooming beautifully in some pots near my office window, looking fiery and bold against the muted gray sky, almost like early poppies with their papery petals.  Every last bud opened, which I did not expect.

I was up in Minnesota over the last weekend, and on the way back to Madison, the mixed forests of Wisconsin's northwestern tier were shining in every color in which a leaf can shine.  It looked more like autumn than spring, except that the trunks shone out clearly because the leaves are too small to hide them, a particularly striking effect for the white white trunks of the paper birches.  A leaf-haze one might say, rather than true leaves, and these tiny leaves were red, purple, all kinds of greens, with here and there a softwood in dull green needle, and the white flowers of the little ironwoods everywhere along the hedgerows. It was a remarkable display, and as soon as the sun finally comes out for the season, it will all fade to a sameness of green, the more usual clothes of a tree which has to take off its party dress and settle down to making a sober living. The party dresses will be back after work, this fall, but it was remarkable to see every tree all dressed up together in the AM of the year, which pretty much has never happened since I moved to Wisconsin in the early 1980's.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Humbug in paradise

The end of summer is in sight. The days are getting much shorter. The veggies are all dried up and bug eaten.  The annuals are blooming their darn fool heads off.  The perennials are sulking--dried flower pods everywhere.  Gardening has been intense this summer.

With the weather so fine, and the mosquitos so nonexistent, and every day more perfect than the one before, I should be grateful beyond measure. And, I am, I am!

Yet, dare I say it?  I'm ready for summer to be over.  Specifically, I'm ready to see the last 2 foot long zuke, ready to put away the hose and trimmer and turn my mind to something else.  It's heresy, especially after all the winter moaning and whining I did while waiting for spring, but, basta!  Enough!

Let the frost come.  Let the leaves commence to fall.  Let mold eat up the zucchinis.  Let the honey bees nesting in the compost huddle tight in the cold and stop flying about so alarmingly.  Let the tools and gloves stay in their nooks in the shed. Even paradise needs a little change-up.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Japanese beetle control in a Wisconsin home garden, part 1

Six summers years ago, Japanese beetles first made their appearance in my Madison WI garden.  Not knowing any better, I went and bought traps.  Literally tens of thousands of beetles were caught. The traps filled up so fast that by midday, some traps were so overflowing that there was no room for the beetles still being attracted to drop through the bottleneck of the bag and be caught, so that in the top of each bag, they swarmed over each other in seething masses trying to get to the trap-attractant.

A garden helper, A.H., was working on the flight path to one of the more popular traps, and he had to move his work station because unholy numbers of beetles kept flying straight into him, ten or a dozen strikes a minute by midday.   Other than colony-dwelling insects, such as ants, I had never seen so many insects in one place at one time to that date. Their buzzing around the traps sounded like a bee-hive--a strong bee-hive of several supers.

Fortunately, I conceived of the idea of flaming the dead bugs before burying them. I have since read that their bodies contain eggs ready-to-go, so that burying dead beetles from traps simply places the eggs where they want to be--underground--despite the death of the beetle carrying the eggs.

The next year was a little better. I had read more about traps in the meanwhile, enough to know that the traps should be placed as far away from the garden as possible rather than in the garden itself, since only about 70-80% of all beetles attracted wind up in the traps.

This improved siting helped somewhat, yet, "better" is a relative term, and there were still no rose buds or hollyhocks that year from early July through mid-August, not a one.  Instead, there were swarms of beetles, sometimes in a mass as big as a grape, sometimes in a mass as big as a golf ball, around each unfortunate bud. It was enough to make me want to quit gardening.

One step taken was to buy a cheap blender and knock masses of beetles into it in the cool of the morning.  Once blended (ICK and DOUBLE ICK--it was a long time before I could bring myself to kill living things--even rose-eating Japanese beetles--in a blender, believe me) I poured the beetle-juice all around.  I believe this helped control the numbers somewhat, by spreading about any disease any beetle may have been carrying.  Also, the bags of dead beetles were lain under the most susceptible plants (mainly Guaras) and I believe the dead-beetle smell (they stank to high heaven) helped somewhat to repel their friends from landing on those plants.  (By "somewhat" I mean that the day's Guara blooms lasted until maybe 1 PM before the last was eaten up, rather than being gone by 11 AM.)

Mainly, though, the thing was to grit my teeth and hang on until mid-August when the onslaught died away all by itself.

The next year, I grubbed up the most susceptible plants and either got rid of them or transplanted them into the shade.  Thus, the Guaras were all pulled out and the Rhubarb (a great beetle favorite) was moved into the shade of a tree.  (High shade, but shade nonetheless).  It has been my observation that beetles strongly prefer plants in full sun, passing over those planted in shade.

Several more years went by in this manner, with incremental improvements: fewer susceptible plants, better siting of plants and better siting of traps. In fact, I got rid of the traps altogether. The biggest improvement, however, came from there simply being fewer beetles. You see, I believe we were on the leading edge of an invasion into new territory. With no natural predators and no diseases, the numbers exploded. After having been established a few years, the diseases and predators caught up to the bugs, and nature has commenced to rebalance their numbers. (I have since attended a lecture by Phil Pelliterri--the entomologist who runs the Insect Diagnostic lab at UW-Madison) who agreed that this theory may be likely.)

All of which brings us to this year, the best year since the beetles have arrived. The next post will detail how the beetles have been kept under better control this year than ever before.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Uncontrolled experiments--the fish pond

The fish pond was quite cloudy, and getting smelly.  To solve the problem, here's what happened:
  • Half the water got pumped out. (It was used it to water the nearby plants) 
  • That water was replaced with new water treated with a chemical said to turn tap water fish-friendly
  • Two little "bale-ettes" of barley straw (said to clear pond water) were sunk below the pond surface.
  • A heaping teaspoon of beneficial bacteria (bought at a pond store) was thrown into the filter
  • The pond was "shocked" by pouring in ten different places, ten (total) capfuls of a liquid from a bottle claiming to be pond clarifier (motto: "fish love it")
  • The pump was reconfigured to allow more water to run through the UV (algae-killing) light on one portion of the pump
  • Water plants were added, the thinking being that these would remove nutrients from the water for their own growth purposes. Added were: 2 plants of golden moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia "Aurea") and three plants of water buttercup (I think this one is Ranunculus flabellaris).  (Truthfully, these were both chosen on the grounds of being the cheapest water plants in the water-plant house at Flower Factory, rather than because I knew anything about their special fitness for my purposes.)

Result? Clear water, sure enough, although somewhat green-or golden-colored from--I'm guessing--the barley straw, as all the other additives were clear.

The problem? Which of these step(s) caused the improvement?

Must all of these steps be repeated when the pond becomes cloudy again? This would be unfortunate, given that cloudiness occurs pretty much every time it rains--seems the spore for algae are washed out of the air to multiply like mad in the pond.  So, I'm left to guess and intuit which of these treatments had the most power.

The combined treatments were effective, yes.  Yet this is not a very scientific method of proceeding, is it?


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summertime, crazytime, great helpers

There is hardly a moment to sit and write--the garden is in its full flood now. A long-term plan has come to fruition, finally--a shade garden, long planned, is being constructed and planted.The garden-helper working on this project, D.,is gifted for this work. He learned stone-laying right away and he had taught himself to cut stone cleanly with a hammer and chisel, thus far outstripping my stone-laying skills, despite the relative times we have been doing it: me=25 year, D.=8 weeks. As I said, gifted. He also does a neat-handed job of planting the beds he's constructed. Quick, willing, hard-working. I'm lucky, I know.

Mostly, though, the daily life of the garden involves weeding, cleaning the fountain, feeding the fish, weeding, and--since the weather has taken a settled turn for hot and sunny--watering.  And did I mention? Weeding. Also, planting. There are two garden helpers who do this work--R. and N.  Both are willing, thorough, neat-handed.  Lucky, again, that's me.

(My camera is broken, but one of these days, I'll get it fixed or get a new one, and then these posts will have some photos...)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A post in which Russell Page goes to Keukenhof, and by which Newton is elevated above his station

Today, a grab-bag post, which all ties together at the end

Part 1: Russell Page
Russell Page was one of those odd Englishmen, a "serious amateur." He accepted garden design commissions from royalty and plebes, and designed well-thought-of gardens in a mass-planting sort of way. In his famous book "The Education of a Gardener," he talks about what his own garden would look like, if he ever had one.  To my recollection, one fantasy feature would be apple trees, underplanted with spring bulbs.  Whether I correctly remember this passage or no, this image has stuck with me through all the twenty or more years since I read the book.

Part 2: Keukenhof Gardens
Keukenhof gardens in Holland is a real Dutch phenomena--a calculated mix of gardening prowess and serious commercialism. Each serious bulb grower in the land gets a little plot to show off the best of their best.  These little plots are all crammed together in the remains of a once-elegant parkland, along with rented swans and trays of rollmops.  The sound-track is an ever-running steam calliope by the main gate, the smell-track is flowers mingled with innumerable tiny pancakes frying, the population is busloads and trainloads of tourists.  Yet rising, nay, soaring above these potentially fatal annoyances, Keukenhof Gardens stand as a mecca for bulb lovers--millions upon millions of bulbs in a perfection unearthly to behold

One of the unifying features of the garden, a feature which draws together its disparate little plots, is an unbelievable number of grape hyacinths planted  into a "river" between the trees of an allée which runs lengthwise down one axis of the garden--not in the actual allée itself, but at the tail end of it, where it runs off into a sort of naturalistic woods.  The deep purple river twisting through the dappled shade is one of the most enchanting things I ever saw.

Part 3: Newton, the worthless apple tree
In my garden stands an old, gnarled, worthless apple tree.  Its main use in life has not been to provide apples, no, for these, though plentiful, are mealy and bruise easily.  Rather, its purpose has been to irk--to pelt the unwary passing below with apples in all stages, from tiny springtime green to autumnal wasp-infested brown--we call the tree "Newton" for this reason. Worse yet, Newton harbors mosquitoes, which congregate in unholy numbers under his broad, moist, shady canopy. Fortunately for Newton's continued existence, he is just the sort of decayed tree beloved of chickadees and other small cavity-dwelling birds, thus utterly refuting all arguments of the gardener eying him with malice, saw in hand.  Yet, despite his sacrosanct nature, his no-go domination has become unbearable.

Last fall, determination hardened.  I conceived the idea of cutting out those of his sound branches the old fellow could spare, while preserving nearly all of his decayed, yet nest-bearing limbs.  The idea was to lighten up the canopy, allow sun and wind through to dispel the mosquitoes and permit creation of a planting bed.

(As an aside, never were there more confused workers than the tree guys called in to do the work. By training and inclination, they wanted to cut out the decayed wood and save the sound limbs. However, being the one with the checkbook, and being on hand to point and insist, it got done the way I thought it ought--sound limbs out, rotten branches kept!)

Part 4: Newton (conceptually, at least) is elevated far above his station
Inspired by Page, the vision was to plant spring bulbs in the newly-made bed around Newton's trunk. Yet, a bunch of random bulbs under so large a hulk as Newton? An absurd spectacle! Page undoubtedly had in mind charming young trees, in size-proportion to their underplantings, yet tulips the size of bushes would be needed to compete with Newton. Then it came to me: not just clumps of bulbs, but how about a little grape hyacinth river of my very own, to wind between them?

So, profiting from our late, beautiful autumn last year, and armed with boxes and bags of half-off bulbs from the big-box store, I planted a river and some clumps while lofty thoughts of Page and Keukenhoff danced in my head. The bobcat operator and his helpers, working in a different part of the garden, worked hard to suppress their mirth at the spectacle of me, an ungainly middle-aged spider, crawling under an backward-pruned tree, raising an army of popsicle sticks by which to mark the location of this future cut-rate masterpiece.

And do you know? As absurd as the whole thing really was--this melding of worthless apple tree and fine gardening and sale-price bulbs--it worked!  See for yourself...


Labels: ,

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Wall 'o waters

A couple of weeks ago, I set up 18 wall o'waters.  With this cool weather we've been having, the wall o'waters  have had a hard time collecting enough sunlight to really warm the soil inside of them, but it finally seemed warm enough a couple of days ago to get the tomato, eggplant and pepper starts out into the garden.  Of course, these tiny little starts are nothing like the giant starts now for sale at the garden center, but they are the varieties I prefer, whereas those starts are someone else's preference.

The idea behind the wall o'waters is that the tubes of water which make up the sides provide a convenient form of thermal mass--the water holds heat collected from the sunlight during the day, and releases it at night, smoothing out the temperature differentials and preventing a frost from killing their little tropical inhabitants.  The water stays in the tubes--it never comes out and is not for the purpose of watering.

They certainly look impressive set up in the garden, don't they?

The tiny starts inside look less impressive, but actually, will catch up and do better than a larger transplant would--these small transplants are less likely to be set back.

There are 6 each of peppers, eggplants and tomatoes.  The tiny charmer above is an eggplant just showing its first set of true leaves.  The wall o'waters have a little bamboo rod in each to stop them from collapsing--a trick dictated by bitter experience with squished and broken starts. 


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An unexpected doorstep garden

An unexpected doorstep garden

Last fall, I potted up a whole bunch of sale bulbs into old plastic pots I had hanging around.
The bulbs were layered--larger bulbs below, smaller bulbs above--in ordinary garden soil.  It was my intention to hold the pots in the root cellar (40 degrees average temperature) for a few weeks, then move the pots to the unheated shed, where they could freeze for a few weeks.  The further plan was to bring the pots into the house, one pot a week, so as to enjoy a never-ending succession of spring bulbs.

What actually happened was that the bulbs immediately began sprouting, making me afraid to take the pots to the shed.  The fear was all the tender new growth would immediately freeze, causing the entire experiment to fail.  Instead, I just left the pots in the root cellar, watering VERY infrequently in an attempt to get the damn things to STOP GROWING before I was ready for them to do so.

My readiness, however, was not the issue--not at all.  The issue was the BULBS' readiness, and they just kept growing, in the cold, in the dark, until they were like horrible underground mushrooms, tall, spindly, white spears falling over the pot.  It was like a horror movie--the things that lived in the basement.

Not zombies any more...
When the weather consistently got above freezing in the daytime--about late March this year, I brought the pots of horrible white creepy-crawly growth outside and lined them up on my doorstep. I wasn't expecting much from these bulb zombies, but it was too muddy to take the mess to the compost, and I figured maybe, just maybe, there would be a few blooms.

Well---what can I say?  The darn things greened up and bloomed madly, now there's a whole spring garden out on the stoop--a cheerful welcome to anyone coming to the front door.  Perhaps next year's crop can be planted in better-looking pots, now that the bulbs have shown how they want to be grown, and for what purpose--an early spring doorstep garden, rather than a succession of indoor bulbs.

Oh, and by the way--the one pot I did bring into the house also greened up, but the light in the house was not strong enough in mid winter.  The bulbs did bloom, but they made a sickly-looking falling-down mess.  So, doorstep bulbs it will be from now on.

You can see how far ahead the doorstep garden is over the bulbs planted in the ground
PS: the elapsed time of planting and hauling around was maybe two hours total, the expense negligible--I had the pots, the soil was dug from the garden, and the bulbs were on half price sale in at the end of October.  Pretty good return, I'd say.

PPS:  The bulbs will be truly worn out from this, and must be composted.  The soil will be returned to the same bed it came from, and mixed thoroughly with amendments (leaf mulch, compost) to renew it after its winter-long sojourn in plastic pots.  And, despite the fact that it was heavy and seemed to be a lot of soil when it was dug, the fact is, compared to a whole garden bed, this is a very little soil, really.


Sunday, April 17, 2011

Disappointment in a big box

Yesterday at Costco, I saw a huge display of plants which will never thrive in our soil--blueberries, azaleas, rhododendrons.  These plants require acid soils, yet the soils in this part of the state are neutral to sweet.  Once sold to the unsuspecting and put into the ground, these many plants will stunt and die.  Similarly for sale were tree roses, box bushes of a non-hardy variety as well as many other plants which will never survive a Wisconsin winter.

I wanted to station myself at the display and warn all comers, or talk to the manager and tell him or her to send all these plants on to a region south and east of here--somewhere with a milder climate and an acid soil.  But, however, I did nothing--the ignorance of plant requirements which sends a semi-load of plants to the absolutely wrong region is unlikely to be cured by little old me registering a complaint to a store manager. After all, the plants were well-grown, beautifully packaged and well-priced--sure to sell.  Too bad that not a one of them will thrive, and most will be dead by this time next year.  What a pity, what a waste--disappointment guaranteed.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nature hits the pause button

For each 10 degrees (C) of temperature, the biological activity doubles, and the opposite is true too--when it's cold, nothing grows, despite longer days and plenty of sunshine.  It has been so cool (below freezing every night) that the day lilies, those hardy beasts, have barely poked their heads up, the new apple trees carefully wrapped up in the root cellar are starting to worry anxiously about getting their roots into the ground before they dry up, while the potted-up bulbs overwintered and set out on the stoop have simply stopped growing, although they were doing fine in the protected environment of the shed.

This being the upper tier of states in the midwest, with no moderating body of water nearby, the prevailing weather will veer around one of these days, and the wind will blow off the gulf of Mexico, rather than down off the Canadian shield as it is now doing.  Suddenly, the garden will explode--roses and late tulips blooming together, lilacs and strawberry blossoms compressed into a concentrated riot of spring, followed shortly by the first mosquitos.  For now, though, nature has hit the pause button--the days are getting longer and longer but nothing is growing.

Monday, March 21, 2011


The first robin arrived today.  That means it's

1) time to start indoor seeds
2) time to set up the wall o'waters in the veggie garden.

Oh mercy!  I've lived through to another spring.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The tree guys, a leading indicator

The tree trimming guys were here yesterday and the day before.

The fact that they came shows they know their time for winter trimming is dwindling.  Just as sailors are said to be able to feel the loom of the land, so tree guys can evidently feel the loom of spring: rising sap and mud are coming, oak wilt will soon be on the prowl.  One swallow does not a summer make, and the tree guys don't make a spring, either.  Yet the lengthening days evidently shook them out of hibernation to finally do the trimming contracted for last fall. Not spring itself, but a harbinger of spring, perhaps. A leading indicator, as the economists say--a sign, an omen.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tipping towards the light, faintly

When little master TECH and I pulled out of the driveway at 7:15 on the way to his school this morning, we were greeted with more light than we've had for a long time.  Two feet of snow sheeting the landscape adds considerable brightness, yet even snow cannot dispel darkness.  The sun has evidently begun her long slanting climb to the zenith she will achieve in mid summer.  Every day she rises a little further north along the horizon, every day hoists herself a little higher overhead at noon and today her climb brightened a drive which seems to have been undertaken in darkness for the past two months.

With the greater light, life faintly shimmers.  A flock of mourning doves here-and-gone, shockingly fast on the wing. The crows, their daytime flocks smaller, become sporadically territorial. The buds on the silver maple swell larger every day, a wonder to me--what living mechanism can make that happen with day after day of single digit temperatures?

Yet there is still a long way to go.

No tracks disturb the snow.  The little creatures huddle together, nested tight, breathing so slow they'd look dead if you could see them. On overcast days, only the trees nail the landscape to any sense of proportion--the snowy distance would otherwise fade imperceptibly into the gray sky.  (How do folks know their own scale out on the prairies or in the deserts?  Without trees, contemplation of human insignificance must ensue: it's clear to me why shepherds are the heralds of religion.)  And of course, a sea of mud to come still separates us from walking outside to visit the garden.