Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lagging behind the sun, remembering June

By 4:30 this afternoon, it was dark, and this isn't as bad as it is going to get--we are still 3 weeks from the shortest day of the year.  Optimistically, this means days will soon start getting longer.  Pessimistically, this means six full weeks will have passed until another day occurs as long as today.  Three weeks of ever-shrinking daylight must be followed by three weeks of slow, slow climb out of winter's hole of darkness just to get back to dark at 4:30.

The impending climb out of darkness isn't as hopeful as it might be for another reason also: the seasons lag behind the sun.  Here we are, almost at the darkest night but winter proper has not yet fully begun.  At night the ground freezes hard enough to hold the remaining beets tight, but they can still be prised out of the ground in the afternoon on a warmish day. Not for much longer, though, will the ground thaw so readily.  Soon the ground frost will settle in, having caught up with the fading sun at last.

What's needed now is a little cheerfulness.  Poking through the photos on my hard drive, I found proof that things will get better; that in June, 4:30 in the afternoon is still hours from dark.

June, 4:30 PM

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Why a gardener would clean house

Due to a bit of luck with the removal of a large useless object, a room opened up in my basement recently. Into this newly-empty space, I intend to move my seed-starting operation.  Although I'm sure the neighbors (and maybe local law enforcement) will wonder at all the bright lights streaming out of the basement windows on a daily timer, I'm as excited about this as a dog with two tails.

To get ready, I've begun a major house-cleaning project.  Once everything is truly clean and orderly, it will be a lot easier to draw together all the plant resources currently tucked into random corners and move them to their new space.  The vision of a large, clean, new plant-starting space, with room for every sort of plant my heart could desire is such a shining promise, that the cleaning is going far faster than any cleaning project in the history of this house.  Faster than any cleaning project in the history of my life.

Since "hitting the high spots" is more my cleaning style than massive cleaning projects, I KNOW my family is wondering what's up.  None of them is foolish enough to enquire too closely though, lest they be ensnared into cleaning too.  Further, none of them cares the least bit about gardening, so none of them reads this blog.  Result: I haven't yet had to come clean (har!) with the details.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Dressing the garden, scaring the crows

As it gets colder, more and more clothes go onto the gardeners--a hat, scarf, jacket, sweatshirt and gloves are added to the usual uniform of jeans and t-shirt. Doing active work like raking gets hot, so off comes the hat, then the scarf and sometimes all the rest of it, piece by piece, propped on or draped over whatever garden fixture is nearby.  When several people have all been working for some time, the garden looks like a rummage sale.

Roses in hats, posts wearing gloves and clematis wearing scarves are usually transitory sights, cleaned up by the end of the day.  When forgotten, though, they have the unintended side effect of keeping the crows off balance. A jacket hung from an arch yesterday and forgotten overnight has kept them away so far today. I almost hesitate to bring it in.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Timing the gardener's year: the pre-catalog season

The garden is put to bed.  All the bulbs are in the ground, all the beds dug, even the hoses are put away.  The last chore, done yesterday, was heeling in the few unplanted potted divisions.  Other than raking the never-ending litter of leaves and branches from the neighbor's weeping willow and topping up the bird feeder, there is little to do outside.

Although I have some indoor work (potting-up fuchsia and autumn clematis starts from cuttings) it is way too early to start seed, too early to even have received the catalogs.  And, in fact, recent years have brought fewer seed and garden catalogs by mail than previously.

Catalogs are expensive, I guess: expensive to print and expensive to ship.  Using the internet is cheaper, more accurate and makes it much easier to compare offerings.  Further, even those catalogs still sent aren't due until after the holidays. Sad.

There's nothing so wonderful as laying in bed with a stack of catalogs, planning next year's garden.  Looking over last year's is no substitute.  Once so treasured, they've become too familiar.  The very sight of their dog-eared covers makes me long for their successors, anxious that these replacements might not even be sent.

This restless boredom, this anticipation are bad signs. I'm afraid it's now officially the most miserable time in the gardener's year: the post-gardening, pre-catalog season.

(How much worse it will be when no catalogs come at all.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Divorced from the weather

It came to me the other day that those of my kids who are still home have no real connection with the weather. To these kids, winter does not mean the smell of wet wool, rain does not mean getting wet.  Hats, mittens and scarves are fashion accessories and sandals are not reserved for summer. Whole categories of clothing are unknown to them: rain boots, rain coats, balaclavas. It gets different when the kids leave home, and have to fend for themselves, but for the kids still at home, that's how it is.

It's not that these kids are inactive. They do spend significant amounts of time outdoors, but it is on their own terms--they go skiing in specialized gear on a nice sunny day, they run when it is not raining and ride their bikes to school only when there is no ice on the road. They might ice skate but this is as likely to be done indoors as out, they might swim outdoors on a nice day.

Bad weather requires no engagement, not even a coat.  To the contrary, a coat is an inconvenience requiring a trip to a faraway locker, unnecessary for the dash from the car to the school door. Even getting in the car is not an issue, because the car is in an attached, covered garage.

I facilitate these choices for them.  But I don't choose this for myself.  Instead, I choose to muck around in the mud in rain boots, and get cold hands and a frosty nose.  Or, a tan so dark that people at parties ask when I got back from the tropics.  "I've just been out in the garden all summer" is not the answer they expect to hear, especially in the middle of mosquito season.

I do realize how incredibly lucky I am to be able to make this choice.  I clearly remember what it is to be soaked to the skin in a cold rain, the smell and weight of a sodden woolen coat, the rain jackets in the bathtub, the lost mittens a minor catastrophe. Actually, it is because I heed the voice of that long-ago cold wet unhappy little me that I drive those kids still at home, around everywhere.

Still, I think I've gone too far.  The kids are missing something, so divorced from the weather. They wonder why I choose to garden. I wonder why they don't.  I hope in the future, they will.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Seeing the future

When I look out the window at the garden, I see a square of tree roses underplanted with tiny box bushes. I'm quite proud of how every bush has survived in our harsh climate, and how everything lines up really well. I look with deep satisfaction at how each perennial bed is centered on a 6' willow grafted to a standard, with the plants in each bed rising like a pyramid to this centering planting.  The paths are raked, the patios free of leaves, the fountain sparkling and birds fly between the birdbath and the feeder, both immaculately clean. Also, it is sunny, I am sipping a cool drink and the patio umbrella casts its shadow on a fully laid picnic.

When a reality-based person looks at the same scene, they see a patch of lawn torn up, perennial beds completely empty of any plants whatsoever, muddy paths, patios littered with leaves, a bird feeder which could use a topping up and a birdbath with only an inch of water.  They see that the fountain is empty and has been for a month and that because the temperature is hovering around 35 degrees, the patio umbrella has been put away as has the table.  However, the hoses are still out, although they should not be, as the weather is liable to plunge into a winter-long freeze any day now.

This disconnect is called the "gardener's vision" by me, and "delusion" by everyone, but everyone, around me.  Should I be worried?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Galium odoratum aka sweet woodruff

Galium odoratum --sweet woodruff
Formal plant descriptions on major university websites are rarely enthusiastic, even more rarely lyrical.  So when you read that a plant is "very attractive and fine-textured in foliage" or "smells like sweet freshly-mown hay," you might be curious.  Add in "almost unique in the landscape" and "exquisite, whorled leaves," and you've got a plant worth knowing more about. 

The plant is sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) a part- to full-shade ground cover of the madder family.  Originating around the west end of the Mediterranean where Europe, North Africa and Asia crash into one another, the plant crept on its shallow stolons to northern Europe.  In Germany, it became a medicinal herb and flavoring, used most famously to flavor May wine ("Maiwein."

A subtle scent is inherent in the plant itself--its leaves and stems--and is therefore present all year long, not just at flowering time.  Some people (and lucky me, I'm one of them) seem to be able to pick it out from a great way off, even on cold days.  However, others don't seem to be able to smell it, not even by rubbing or tearing the leaves--I was raving to two of my neighbors about this plant and neither got the scent. Yet it is no figment of my imagination.  The "odoratum" part of the plant's Latin name refers to this delicate scent, so distinctive, so sweet, a scent I will never willingly be without.

A common use of this plant even so recently as a half century ago was pillow-stuffing.  These pillows were particularly thought to help children sleep.  Woodruff was also traditionally classified as a "bedstraw," because when people slept on straw mattresses, its fresh odor was evidently much appreciated. 

The color of the plant ranges from old leaves of dark green through bright, almost chartreuse, new growth. The leaves are arranged in overlapping layers, creating an intricate texture. The white flowers, in substance much like tiny wood-violets, make a very pretty (although short-lived) display in its mid-spring bloom season.  A dense mat of these has been described as "briefly spectacular."

The plant, which is about 4-5 inches high, creeps about the top layer of soil, sending out runners which develop tiny plants at each internode.  Although this sounds like a creeping menace (and its cousin G. aparine is a terrible weed) woodruff itself is not generally considered invasive.  To the contrary, sweet woodruff is not very good in the heat, so the problem here in Wisconsin is how to get it through the hot summers between its annual spring bloom and the time of its usual annual autumn revival.

Stated otherwise, a hot dry summer may make woodruff disappear entirely, having gone dormant until it revives again, generally in fall, but sometimes only the following spring. The plant is hardy in zones 4-8,  and the plant ought to be in deeper shade, the further south you go. Although it grows under trees, it does not do well with wet heavy leaves on its crowns, and can be smothered out of existence if these are not kept off. Similarly, although it grows pretty much where hostas grow, flopping dead hosta leaves can wipe it out.

Woodruff is said to like acidic soil, but it grows reasonably well in my garden where it must live in soil only barely acidic ("blue" hydrangeas come pink here).  Similarly, it is said to require a moist rich soil, but here tolerates a reasonably dry, reasonably lean soil. Deer are said not to like it.

One last thing:  Although sweet woodruff has long been used in small amounts as a flavoring and is generally regarded as safe for that purpose,  the sweet scent comes from a compound which is the precursor to many powerful drugs. So don't eat the plant itself, OK?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

English advice for the Wisconsin garden

Many of my mistakes in this garden have been caused by relying too heavily on what I read. Among the worst offenders are those splendid full-color books about gardening published in England. It's not that the books are wrong or mistaken--no. I'm sure they are perfectly correct for England. Not so useful for Wisconsin, though.

As near as I can figure, the English winter must be a lot like an October or a mild November here: days with a high between 32-40 degrees, lows perhaps 32-25. I derive this from books which mention the plants which will bloom in winter, and call February "early spring," and confidently mention construction projects which can safely be left for winter.

English summers must be a lot like a lovely late April or early May here: highs around 70, maybe 75 degrees, lows around 50. In other words, the sort of temperatures in which tomatoes need a little extra help in setting fruit--a heavy wall behind them or a poly-tunnel.

I may be wrong about these exact temperatures, and of course, England varies in climate zones throughout, but I am completely confident that nowhere in England does there exist anything approaching Wisconsin weather--polar winters and tropical summers. Our "continental" climate, unmoderated by any significant body of water or mountain range, swings wildly. Winter weather whistles straight down from the Canadian shield, summer weather billows up from the Gulf of Mexico. These weather swings aren't just seasonal either--everyone here says "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes," and that can literally be true. Children routinely lose their coats, hats, mittens because they simply forget the need for them: the kid walking to school, shivering, in a snowsuit may well return, comfortable, in a t-shirt.

The winters here are well-known--"Wisconsin" is a byword for bitter cold. One-hundred-and-twenty inches of snow cemented to the ground by weeks of below-zero temperatures is bad but not unknown. This is matched by equally ferocious summers, yet such summers are actually standard issue for most of the continental United States. Tomatoes grow like weeds starting in mid June and produce heavily until September's end. My neighbor is routinely featured in the local paper harvesting his tomato crop from the top of a 8 foot ladder. Indeed, feats like this are so common, many US readers will wonder why I bother reporting this at all, yet this sort of thing simply does not happen in England or most of Europe.

With such a climate difference, English gardening books are useful for inspiration, less useful for how-to. For example, large-flowered clematis such as "Nelly Moser" are advised to be planted in full sun, with roots shaded by a mulch. In my garden, regardless how thick the mulch, such positioning is a formula for toasted, washed-out blooms on spindly, pest-ridden vines, no matter how often watered. Far better would have been to plant Nelly in half-sun: three or four hours of direct summer sun turns out to be more than enough to bring on full bloom, and the Nellys planted according to the English instructions must now be moved or given up. Of course, I imagine US how-to advice is no more useful in England. Autumn clematis -- formerly C. paniculata, now -- I think -- C. terniflora-- is a hardy beast, thriving in full sun, even here in Wisconsin. Internet gardening forums are filled with complaints about how invasive it is in states like Virginia, Alabama, even New Jersey. Yet, I wonder whether it can be grown in much of England at all.

Another subject on which English books are not useful is trees. Evidently, tree owners in England have to get permission to cut down their trees. Also, evidently, the cutting must be done according to a plan filed by a qualified tree-surgeon. If I wanted to hack down every tree on the place, myself, with a 30" chainsaw, no one here would have anything to say. This legal difference in itself does not render English garden-book advice useless, but the caution with which tree-planting is advised might lead one to believe trees are far harder to site and grow than they actually are. It was not until I realized that a poorly-chosen tree in England might be a lifetime mistake that I came to appreciate why such caution and intense study is advised before planting a tree. With our different legal requirements, that's not so necessary here. True, careful study is still a good idea or you will lose the time invested, but many trees grow quickly in this climate--a 20 year old elm will top the chimney handily, as will a five-year old cottonwood--so our mistakes can be erased within a decade or so. A sad waste of time, but not a horrid lifetime error.

Plants advised for English gardens often don't grow here. The box and yew which form the backbone of magnificent and famous English gardens are dicey propositions in Wisconsin. Selected cultivars are capable of growing, yes, but are unlikely to make a uniform unblemished hedge without such winter fuss as being wrapped in burlap, sprayed with anti-desiccants and somehow protected from deer, rabbits and other garden-destroyers. Consequently, not only hedges, but all forms of topiary, arches and the like are not really feasible here (although that doesn't mean we don't dream about them and try, try again). Likewise, wisteria, jasmine and other staples of English garden books are completely impossible here. Or at least, impossible of the displays shown--the wisteria which consents to grow in Wisconsin (W. macrostachys) is an insubstantial shadow of those in the glossy picture books.

Having become cautious of following English gardening advice too literally, I wonder whether I am now about to go too far the other way. Several different English gardening books I've read recently caution against planting roses where roses have previously been. "Rose replant disease" is said to cause roses to fail, or at least seriously sulk, unless the soil has been replaced to a depth of 30". The cause is thought to be either allelopathic properties of the previous rose rootstock, or some lack of vital micronutrients. However, in comprehensive rose guides, US gardening authorities might not mention this disease at all, or perhaps only in passing.

Could this be because the soil in England is so different than here? Of course, soil is so variable that it changes from field to field, and even within the same field, but that's not the difference I mean. In many parts of England, and Europe too, the soil has been cultivated for hundreds or even thousands of years. By contrast, my soil was pushing up forest trees until 100 years ago or less, then corn until 50 years ago, then lawn until 25 years ago. Surely there is a fundamental difference to be found in that fact? Might not such issues as "replant disease" be less of an issue in our far more-recently tamed soils?

At any rate, having been burned by following English gardening advice too closely in the past, I am drawing my own line on this matter. I am planning to put new roses in spring where old ones were taken out last fall. Then we shall see just how far English gardening advice may be safely ignored in a Wisconsin garden. Watch for further reports in a year or two.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Artificial paradise

We don't live far from a lake--maybe 1/2 mile, maybe less.  When the fish pond was filled up this summer, it wasn't long until frogs hopped by and took up residence, 5 in total.

It was a real thrill to see them basking, or leaping arcs into the water.  Seeing them in the pond felt like a validation: a froggy seal of approval for good maintenance and design.

As autumn began to descend, I wondered about the frogs.  We were planning to take the goldfish into the house for the winter and drain the pond, and it was not clear how the frogs would manage.

When we did drain the pond, we found 4 of the 5 hunkered down in a hollow undrained part, the fifth in muck at the bottom. They were hiding in low-flow areas, in water so green from algae that almost no oxygen could exist.  In other words, quite apart from our draining the main part of the pond, the condition of the water in which the frogs chose to hibernate would soon have killed them. Not only were they shrunken and lethargic--normal for hibernating frogs--but they were also covered in green goo--not normal.

We took the frogs to the lake in a bucket and let them go.  They perked up the instant the lake water touched them, the goo sluicing off, the lake water clear, the bucket water slimy. All my messing around with beneficial bacteria and filtration and calibrated pumps and clarifiers--all that was instantly shown to be insufficient to keep our little fish pond clear to the edges, the way that nature kept the lake.  Now the frogs' presence in our fish pond seemed more a sign of their own bad judgement than a seal of approval.

A tightly exclusionary fence is now being put up around the garden in an attempt to keep out rabbits, groundhogs, squirrels.  As an unintended side effect, it will also stop frogs from hopping up to the pond.  In a way, though, I'm glad.  While the main part of the pond might successfully support goldfish (those hardy creatures) the edges of the pond are no place for frogs.  Their near-fatal choice of hibernation location revealed the pond to be only a poor analogue for a natural lake.

As a dedicated gardener, I like to think I'm working on a small slice of paradise here, where the flowers and trees and vegetables flourish in a manner impossible outside of a garden.  But could comparing our little pond to the far superior big lake be a lesson about a man-made garden's relationship to the fields and streams and woods of the un-gardened world? Could our plants be as captive as our frogs, as stuck in an unsuitable environment, as (figuratively) covered in green goo?  And wouldn't that be a bitter pill for a gardener to swallow?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Animals in the garden

Animals in this garden, ranked from most to least troublesome are groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits, voles and chipmunks, crows.

Originally, groundhogs presented the worst danger.  Their holes and mounds in the wild-ish parts of the yard were a dangerous trap: catching a foot in their holes could easily have snapped a bone.  Their depredations in the vegetable garden were astounding--entire rows of peas and beans fell to their distinctive nipping. Large and fearless, they had undermined the toolshed, and when that was replaced with a woodshed, they started in on it.

It took a lot of ingenuity to close their holes.  The most obvious things all failed miserably.  Nothing put down their holes, from gooey tars to cat litter, deterred them--the worst substances just made them dig a second entrance right next to the first, making the hole problem even worse.

Fifteen or so years ago, experimentation finally revealed a workable method: a box of mothballs down the hole, followed by a plug of chicken wire wound into a sort of ball, topped off with posthole cement.  I'm guessing that the slowly dissipating mothballs made that part of the tunnel unpleasant enough for long enough to discourage second-entrance digging. By the time the mothballs dissipated, they had reconfigured their tunnels to exit elsewhere.

This solved the hole problem, but did not eliminate the groundhogs.  Their burrows are extensive and I see them sitting on my neighbors' woodpile to this day. Further, this did nothing to solve their vegetable-raiding habits.

Like groundhogs, squirrels, too, are major pests of a vegetable garden. Their specialty was spoiling entire lines of beets, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers--some sampled with a bite or two, others torn off without even that excuse.

I say "was" because the squirrels and groundhogs have now been excluded from the vegetable garden by a wood-framed fence.  This is clad in metal poultry netting dug several inches into the ground and topped with electrified wire. Yet, this exclusion was not cheap: the cost equaled a decade's supply of vegetables.

Excluding squirrels from the vegetable garden has not eliminated them as a pest, however. Their depredations among any flower bulbs are horrible, and made worse in that they dig out the bulbs, then sit on a low branch noisily eating them while I seethe.

Much worse is their habit to dig and dig and dig, until the ground is quite uneven.  Mindless walking of the kind you might do on a flat sidewalk becomes an invitation to a twisted ankle when performed on what looks like a flat stretch of lawn.  This problem is increasingly acute since a broken ankle last spring (not squirrel related) has badly affected my balance.

dig, dig, dig

Rabbits are of a different order of pest-ishness. They content themselves with the merest dip in the ground for a nest and so create no bodily danger--no holes or uneven ground. However, although benign to people, they are a menace to plants.  From the top of the snowpack to as high as they can reach on hind legs, they chew bark.   Some winters, they kill young trees and bramble fruit canes outright, other winters, they merely damage them badly.  An entire line of young espaliered trees fell to the rabbits 20 years ago, a most discouraging situation.

Voles and chipmunks generally cause only minor annoyance on the order of a chewed bulb or two. Sometimes, however, conditions conspire to make their presence truly worrisome. Multiplying wildly after several mild winters, these small rodents will scuttle out in surprising numbers when digging in a garden bed.  Surprise is not the only problem: increased numbers means increased droppings--sometimes so thick on the ground as to be positively disgusting.  These, as with all rodents, can carry hantavirus, a disease fatal to half those who contact it. (Rabbits also carry disease in their droppings, but there have never been enough rabbits to create concentrated droppings, as voles and chipmunks do.)

Crows present no health hazard of which I am aware (and if you know, don't tell me, please!) but can develop faddish tastes which doom certain plants. Most recently, an entire tribe of crows has been picking out each and every sprouted grass from a recently re-seeded lawn area, while past taste-fads have doomed an entire season's squash seedlings, pepper starts, cucumber vines.

I want to take back my garden.  I want to walk without tripping, plant bulbs without seething, try my hand at espalier again.  Of course, it would be hubris to imagine I can actually reduce the animal numbers around here to zero, but I am becoming determined to subtantially reduce the populations. 

This is particularly true of the squirrels, whose destructiveness is multiplied by their sheer numbers. (Looking up from a project in the garage last summer, I saw 18 squirrels crossing the driveway, nose to tail to nose: a squirrel convoy.)  These numbers, completely unsustainable in a more natural environment, arise because various of my neighbors feed them, either purposely (peanuts and shell corn) or unwittingly (bird feeders and cat food).

Exclusion worked so well in the vegetable garden, that I am now replicating this strategy on a larger scale.  Several people have been working for several months to put up a metal framed wooden fence, which is to have an impervious board dug in below it to several inches, and a stand of electrified wire on top.  The expense in labor and materials in enormous, especially when the expense of tree-trimming for overhanging branches (squirrel highways) is added.

The fence should keep out the groundhogs and rabbits--I know they can dig under the fence, but I plan to patrol and fill any diggings with my old friend, posthole cement. (This cement powder need only be poured into a hole, then water added afterwards--no need to mix it up in a wheelbarrow.  A  few cupfuls will do to seal most animal holes, especially if the diggings are new and not well established.) I hope the electrified wire on top will discourage squirrels, as it has in the vegetable garden, but I do know that they will still be able get in over the roof of the house--up one side and down the other, thus avoiding the fence.

After all this enormous expense, there will probably be some squirrels coming into the yard. That poses the ethical dilemma which I have sought to avoid:  should the squirrels be trapped?  If their numbers are relatively low and their depredations minor, the answer would be "no."  However, if the fence does not work to substantially reduce their numbers, I can't think of another alternative to trapping.  Any thoughts?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bulbar triumph

bulbar triumph
For the first time ever,  ALL the bulbs bought in the annual fall bulb frenzy were planted.  Just made it too--the weather report predicts that our sweet, long autumn is due to end tonight with rain and cold and wind.

Of the 1500 plus bulbs, some were put into dedicated springtime beds. Some bulbs were planted for a one-time outdoor display where perennials were and will be again but aren't now. Some were put in the vegetable garden, destined to be cut for indoor bouquets. Finally, some were planted in pots for indoor forcing during that miserable interlude between winter and spring the Russians know as "rasputitsa--" the sea of mud when gardening is impossible.

My back aches, the taste of ro-pel sticks in my nose, I could hardly be dirtier.  Not conditions one would think conducive to triumph, yet triumph will keep welling up.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Weeding in tight places

Japanese hand weeder
The usual implement for hand weeding is a hand hoe, and the best of these, in my experience, is the so-called "Japanese hand hoe" also called a nejiri weeder. This is a sharp-edged relatively long-handled tool, balanced and light enough to use for hours without strain.

Sometimes, the work to be done--a rock garden, say--is too delicate for even the smallest hand hoe. For such tight spaces, very good is a worn-out paring knife re-purposed as a mini-weeder.

Yet another excellent mini-weeder for delicate work is a table fork--a large, sturdy old-fashioned fork, often silver plated--much larger than those we eat with today. The highly-curved tines work well to pop tiny weeds right out of the ground.

out of the kitchen: re-purposed mini-weeders

However, in my garden is a hillock steep enough so that even these great tricks won't work.   The slope, as yet imperfectly stabilized, is planted to a ground cover which is in the process of setting down roots. A useful soil crust has formed on this hillock, and I am loathe to disturb it.  Where it has been disturbed, rills have began to wash with every rain, but where it remains undisturbed, the rills are fewer, and the rain tends to sheet more uniformly off the crust.
scissor grip

Disturbing this crust with even so small a weeder as an old-fashioned table fork is too disruptive. As the hillock slopes away sharply, I cannot successfully get close enough to the top of the slope to be at all accurate with the paring knife.

In this situation, a pair of scissors from the discount store worked very well. I held the scissors with my thumb and pinkie finger, with my forefinger along the top blade. (Make sure that forefinger stays along the top blade, too, or there will be a cruel pinch!)

Using scissors, it was possible to weed with precision and control, very close to the establishing ground cover, without disrupting the soil surface.
very close to the ... ground cover

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dutch light in the upper midwest

This has been the sweetest, longest fall since I moved to Wisconsin, nearly thirty years ago.  Never have I been outdoors, actively gardening, so late in the year.  Putting in bulbs, watching (closely) the landscapers and cleaning up the place brings me outside for long stretches far later in the year than normal.  Despite gardening in this same spot for almost twenty-five years (latitude 42 north) it has a been a new experience to actively watch the sun climb lower, far lower into the sky every day.

Of course, the sun does climb lower or higher every day than it did before, all year long, and I know this intimately well in an indoor sense.  I've lived in this same house for enough years to use the various windows as a seasonal sun dial.  In high summer, the light pours in even the north windows, in winter, the light slants in the east windows low enough to illuminate the dust under the kitchen stove.  Yet, absent this long mild fall, I would never have realized that the horseshoe beds in the back (semicircular flower beds arranged around the circular fish pond) are actually not in full sun in autumn, but rather, in the surprisingly deep shade of my neighbor's still-leafy silver maple to the south.  The bed is fully sunny in summer and again in winter when the leaves are off. Yet, ever since the sun has sunk so low along the southern horizon, it has been caught in the maple's still-leafy branches for many hours every day casting deep shade on this normally sunny part of the garden. 

The quality of the light is actually strange--so slant-wise even at high noon as to give the subtle feeling of being on a different planet.  Or at least, on a different latitude of this planet--somewhere like Holland, perhaps (latitude 52 north)  Comparing the slanting light in this garden to the slanting light illuminating their compositions demonstrates that the Old Dutch Masters painted nothing more than the truth when they captured the girl sitting at her desk, the gent with the feather. Watching this garden transformed to a Dutch Master painting for so many hours a day is strange--exhilarating, but profoundly strange.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Bulbs in pots--planning now to chase the winter blues

As part of my bulb mania, today's chore is to plant out bulbs in old plastic pots I have laying around all over the shed.  The idea is that I will have a house full of spring bulbs at a very cut-rate:  at 40 tulip bulbs for $6.00 on sale, that ought to make up at least 4 pots of tulip bulbs.  Of course, I didn't just buy one bag. The soil will be ordinary garden soil, dug out of a bed and returned to the same bed in spring.  I'll keep the pots in the root cellar for a week or two, watered and above freezing so the bulbs can put down roots, then move them to the unheated shed.  The shed has windows--so the little bulbs can tell that days are getting longer, if they want to know.  After a couple of months of Wisconsin winter weather, I'll bring the pots into the house, a pot or two each week.  We'll see if this doesn't produce a rotation of growing bulbs in the house.

Anyhow, I have to do something to stave off the winter blues.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Bulbs in the ground, guilt-free

The latest fever to sweep over ChezTECH, garden-wise, is bulbs.  Specifically, this year, I'm trying out bulbs in a whole new guilt-free way--bulbs purposely grown as annuals.

For not very much money (and less now that they are on sale, so late in the year) bags of bulbs can be picked up at big box stores all over town.  Of course, the top size bulbs, or the fancy ones, like giant alliums, require a trip to the garden center, but even these are sure to be on sale--at least in November in Wisconsin, where a sudden snowstorm could come any day, instantly converting any bulbs still in stock into worthless inventory.

Each bulb takes but a minute to plant.  If you can keep the squirrels away each is pretty much guaranteed to pop up a beautiful flower--at least in the first spring it sits in the ground. And that's part of the trouble, do you see.  The bulbs we get have been artificially grown--their heads popped off as soon as they flower-- in order to conserve all energy for the bulb itself.  Scientifically fertilized and grown with high culture, then carefully sorted and stored, the bulbs we get for sale are primed to pop up a big fat flower.


After this enormous and artificially delayed effort, the mother bulb will split up into a series of smaller bulbs.  Absent some care, these will never grow as big as mama.  What kind of care would it take to make the babies grow up?  Well, let's look at tulips.

Although most grown today have been extensively cultivated by generations of Dutch breeders, tulips' ancestral sensibilities hark back to their "native air--" dry Turkish hillsides, hot in summer, cold in winter.  Consequently, tulips resent summer watering and require extensive winter cold. Further, their foliage--unattractive at any time,  ghastly as it dries and yellows--has to be left on the plant for a long time--long enough to allow the photosynthesis necessary to create next year's bulb. So, if you want tulip bulbs to grow and divide naturally, no problem: just plant them on a Turkish hillside, around the back where you won't see them all summer.

If that's not your situation, though, you've got to scramble.  It's really a lot of work, too: almost exhausting to just read about.  After the flowering, cut off the tulip stem right down to the ground to prevent the plant from putting energy into seeding.  Mark each bulb with a stake.  When the foliage dies, dig, split and re-plant in soil which will stay dry all summer.  Absent sufficient summer dryness and winter cold, you've got to store these little bulbs (and they will be little) in a cold dry place--but NOT your fridge--or at least, not a fridge with fruits and veggies in it.  Tulip bulbs cannot co-exist with the gasses these give off. The stored bulbs go into the ground in fall if you have a winter, in spring if you don't.  At bloom time, cut off any blooms as cut-flowers for the house.  Again, mark the bulbs, dig the bulbs, split the bulbs, store the bulbs, plant the bulbs.  This time, you may get top-size bulbs, or it may take another round.  Or two. Or never.  The bulbs have to be stored with sufficient humidity, grown with the right amount of fertilizer, be kept from mice, voles, squirrels, your garden fork...

Being an ordinary mortal, I never could keep up with this schedule of tulip-maintenance.  Each previous time I planted tulips in the ground, I got lovely flowers the first year, less lovely flowers the next.  Finally, all that came up were mounds of broad, floppy leaves--leaves which exuded guilt for my neglect in letting things come to this pass.   So this year, I've decided to do as botanical gardens do--treat tulip bulbs like giant annual seeds and plant them for one glorious show.

Of course, I haven't got the budget of a botanical garden, and not the staff either.  So here's what I've been doing for the past several days: around the place here are several beds which were recently renovated--all the old perennials taken out and split, peat moss and leaf mulch worked in, and double dug.  (Yes, really! I even amazed myself with this burst of gardening energy.)   So, into this wonderfully prepared ground, I am putting scads of big-box store tulips bulbs, and hyacinths, and daffodils. I'll sneak a few (a few bags worth, that is) into the vegetable beds, too. After their big garden display next spring, I'll just pull them  out of the ground, return the beds to the perennials and veggies they were designed for and compost the bulbs.  And I won't feel guilty. Not a bit. No sir.  Not me.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Why another blog?

Recently, we have been having the sweetest autumn ever in Wisconsin.  Day after day of clear, dry weather, and warm enough to be outside, at least around midday.  The garden has been getting a complete makeover (as has my wallet) since I met a bobcat operator who will lay paths where I want them, re-grade where I want re-grading, build mounds, excavate pits and so on.

Instead of knitting (my other great love--see TECHknitting blog) I have been gardening.  Usually, gardening does not overlap to this extent with knitting.  Knitting usually starts like an itch as soon as the days get cool, and since 2006 (when TECHknitting began) with knitting comes blogging.  But this year, in this sweet, sweet autumn--the mosquitoes long gone, the Japanese beetles snug in the ground, the roses still carrying a few last blooms--this year, the weather permits of overlap.  This autumn, gardening is happening INSTEAD of knitting. 

With gardening comes an absence of blogging because--well, because TECHknitting blog is not about my exploits, but about knitting.  Yet, blogging has become an itch too. 

It'd be a stretch to say I have conventional bona fides for blogging  this topic.  A middle aged female frump, I hardly fit in the demographic for popular garden writers--neither British nor trendy and certainly not possessed of impeccable taste.  Plus, what little Latin nomenclature I have is surely out-of-date. In fact, I don't even know any famous gardeners--the closest I ever got was sending an e-mail to a "plantsman," who was quite short in his reply--not a promising start in the article of garden gossip.

I do, however, possess a vast curiosity and a surprising amount of actual college-level soil science.  Aaaaand, I do have the qualifications, hard-won, in at least one major field of gardening endeavor: I've made enough mistakes to fuel any amount of garden writing: paths put in with unsuitable materials which had to be ripped out, stone patios built and re-built and re-re-built, "perennials" which either were not or much-too.  In fact, this blog's pre-debut name was "what not to do and how not to do it," being in the nature of reports from the front lines of gardening's Hard Knocks U.

visiting the goldfish
The bottom line-- I'm blogging because I like the discipline which writing provides, because I can possibly save you some big (and expensive) mistakes (don't thank me, I did it all for science)and because it's too damn dark to garden so early in the AM in Wisconsin in November, too dark to even visit the goldfish. So, with the knitting still sitting quietly by in its basket, a new blog is born.