Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bye-bye bonSPi, hello peppers in pots

This is part 2 of a 3-part series
Part 3 (report of how it came out) is here.

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


This is part 1 of a 3-part series.
Part 2 is here
Part 3 (report of how it came out) is here.
* * *
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?
* * *
links, again:
Part 2 is here
Part 3 (report of how it came out) is here.


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

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, 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
2014 addendum: A new post shows this path after two years, and expands this idea, showing a perennial flower-bed established in this same no-dig sheet composing manner.

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!

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.