Writings about

the many life lessons

unearthed when we dig

in the dirt . . . and pursue

a range of other interests

in the constantly evolving

garden of life.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fall Squeeze: Bringing Them Back In

The hardest part of gardening this time of year is bringing in the plants.

Quoting myself from April 14:

Despite my repeated threats to let indoor plants be indoors all year, I  again cannot resist putting some outside. Even though I know that, come fall, I’ll curse the forth-and-back moves as I scrub dirt off pots and try to make sure worms and spiders and such don’t hitch rides on the incoming plants.

Well, it's cursing time in Connecticut. The return began slowly a couple of weeks ago as I brought in a few tender plants, including a Thanksgiving cactus that had budded up.

Since then, I've done watchful waiting, allowing two cymbidium orchids to set buds and giving the rest of the plants as much outdoor time as possible before the long winter sets in.

As the cold snap threatened this week, my pace quickened; I cleaned plants and pots and hauled dozens of them inside, more than I ever would have guessed. Jasmine, crown of thorns, gardenia, cactus, lime, clivia, geranium, chrysanthemum . . . and on and on. Some three dozen in all.

Clivia, repotted, returns to the living room
Am I the only one who gets surprised every autumn at the huge number of plants that need to come indoors?

I thought this fall would be different, because I spared down back in the summer.

Quoting from my July 12 post:

First to go was a split-leaf philodendron . . . . Then a parlor palm . . . a nice camellia that I had nursed into bloom for several years had to go.

The way I was moving out plants, it might as well be spring. The difference: I don't plan to bring them back indoors in the fall. I unpotted them and put them in the ground, where I will enjoy them as tropicals until the weather turns New England.

The weather's turned, and I kept my promise; what I took out stayed out.
Buuut – and I hadn't counted on this – with so much rain, every plant bulked up, taking up more space than before. The cymbidiums, for example, put on a lot of size, as did several other orchids and a pony-tail palm.
Cymbidium orchid, budded, and bulked up

Moreover, I bought two good-sized oleanders, one red, one white. I couldn't help myself. Too, I thought I'd simply leave out some I didn't want anymore. Wrong.

It was a struggle, but I managed to get all the plants in before the freeze and snow-dusting Thursday night. Am I glad I didn't wait any longer, as a big snow storm is predicted for the weekend; that would have made my moves a harder mess. As it was, fitting them in seemed more like a jigsaw puzzle than ever before, and it seemed to take longer than last year.

When I'd finished, the reading room had again become the plant room, with the red oleander, (in the foreground), backed by a table full of outdoor-indoor companions.

And, the living room has gotten a bit more crowded, now that the bulked-up plants have come in for the season.

Now that the moves are done, and the puzzle pieces fit, if snugly, I have to do some serious thinking about whether all my big clay pots have grown too heavy, whether I really want to make these out-in-out moves again. Will the appeal of a seasonal ritual offset the time-consuming, arm-stretching, back-straining work?

I know the answer, and I'm betting you do, too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Finding Color in This Reluctant Fall

Ususally, late October in southern New England is prime time for crisp colors, amounting to the flip side of spring. But not this year. No conversation starters like, "Did you see the maples this year?"

Instead, it's, "Strange year; my leaves went from green straight to brown." Oh, there is some color, of course, but not the show we've come to expect, the one that draws visitors from around the world.

Call it the reluctant autumn. It's a season for hard times, wary, not wanting to invest too much capital in color, holding back until the times improve.

We blame some of it on Irene, the August storm that laid a one-two punch on New England leaves, blowing many off the trees and sprinkling ocean salt on others, browning them to crisps. Driving north to Massachusetts last week, I noted that we're not alone in missing the usual profusion of fall colors.

As always, most of my leaf-peeping is in my own garden. Expectations lowered, this year I take – and enjoy – the color I'm dealt. In this odd year, it's hit and miss, with yellow leaves showing off better than the other colors.

A small ginkgo growing by the garage is nearing the point when its leaves are at their brightest, when, as legend has it, they will all drop at the same time, like pieces of gold on the ground.

Among my two dozen Japanese maples, the ones coloring most are the coral-bark maples. One in a pot out back and one in the ground out front both show up, even if they don't show off the way they usually do.

Alas, the red Japanese maples, especially the threadleafs, mostly lost their leaves before they gained their usual vibrant color. This year, I am left with a garden full of memories of red threadleafs past. Like one I photographed in early November, 2010. How bright it was.

This year, that same maple never got enough color to mention, and its leaves already are mostly gone, brown, dry and scattered on the ground. I'm hoping this tree will be its old self some year soon. Maybe next year.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying what color there is, getting it where I can, including a whole lot of chrysanthemums, like a hardy one that appealed to a monarch butterfly, presumably on its way to Mexico. If the monarch is starting late – or reluctantly – well, I wouldn't be surprised; it's been that kind of autumn.

Friday, October 21, 2011

This just in: night-blooming cereus

The wind. Always the wind.

Any time it blows, it's likely to blow down something I have to pick up. Not just the named storms; just any old storm can be a blowdown as the wind roars out of the field, rattling the chimney cover, gonging the garden bell. I've seen small trees uprooted in my garden, which is why I place stones on top of some root balls until they get strong enough to remain upright.

So, I should not have been surprised Thursday morning, when I was looking out the window, checking to see what had blown down or out of the ground. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was.

I thought the stones bracing the metal stand would withstand the big winds, as they had a few days earlier. Wrong. Now, I feared that this night-blooming cereus had busted out of its pot when it hit the ground, breaking off its blooms at the same time. I rushed outside to examine the heap of tangled leaves and blooms, counting almost 20.

This was not just any plant. This cereus was a passalong plant from Ana Cabanas. She was not my grandmother, but she asked me to call her Grandma when we met in Atlanta years ago, while I was writing gardening and food columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. After reading one of my pieces about a visit to Puerto Rico, she invited me to a sumptuous meal of pork, rice,  beans, fried bananas – and proudly showed me a huge cereus dripping with blooms, a plant that had come from her native Puerto Rico.

We were not kin, but we were kindred spirits, sharing a deep love of food and flowers. From that day, she was Grandma.

After I moved to Connecticut, Grandma sent me cereus cuttings, wrapped in wet newspaper. I hoped I'd have better luck with this cereus than I'd had with several others I'd grown over the years, eventually throwing them away because I couldn't get them to bloom.

Sure enough, Grandma's cereus bloomed last year, after being potted for only a year. I had watered and fertilized sparingly, nursed it through the winter indoors before setting it out in spring, in bright sun. A few blooms last year turned into a bonanza this month.

Recalling this history of the fallen Grandma cereus, I lifted a blossom off the ground and inhaled the sweetness, just in case the fragrance disappeared as the sun warmed this cool, rainy morning. Then, I picked up the plant and returned it to its stand with its stems and pot, amazing, unbroken.

Back on its feet, the plant looked OK. I thought seriously about leaving it in its old spot, as the wind had subsided. But no; better to take heed and take the plant indoors.

In its old indoor home, it seemed none the worse for wear, a little dirty from its fall, a little wet from the rain. But, the blooms, apparently happy to survive, stayed open the whole day and into Friday, surprising me because I'd heard and read that they'd vanish overnight, like some kind of Cinderella.

I'd also heard how mesmerizing the blooms are. Midnight parties are held to celebrate them. To be sure, Lyn and I held our own celebration long before midnight, staring at the cereus (named Grandma, of course), enchanted by its perfect blossoms and fragrance, sweet but not too sweet.

The cereus still has buds and blooms that are not fully open; here's hoping they will stay healthy long enough to open and amaze. But even if they do not, this cereus has more than met expections.

Grandma died this year, in her 90s. During one of our telephone conversations, a mix of Spanish and English, I told her about the blooms last year. She chuckled, delighted by my success. How she'd have loved to see her cereus now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Time to Sharpen My Scythe and Skill

Not much has been usual in this strange autumn of warmth and wetness. There is, however, a traditional chore that marks the season, no matter what the weather: the clearing of the field.

I will haul out the scythe and begin cutting whatever I can in the acre or so that I have left wild, while building an acre of ornamental gardens on the rest of the property. The wild acre includes a field that I have tried and tried to turn into a meadow, or prairie, of wildflowers and native grasses. But no matter how many of those wildflower seed packets I buy and spread, few, very few, wildflowers grow.
Ferns (center left), but wildflowers are scarce

Instead, the field bursts with wild grape, wild blueberry, wild strawberry, poison ivy. And, ferns. Maybe I should eat the fruit, but I leave it alone, hoping it will keep deer from the garden. The wood ferns, thick and spreading, try to make up for my failed wildflowers. But they have a long way to go.

Each fall, still trying to make way for wildflowers and grasses, I cut these plants down.

Not liking string- or blade-cutters that roar and run on gasoline, I used swingblades, shears and loppers for years. I even tried a machete. These worked OK, but after hours of twisting and stooping, my back did not. Then, about two years ago, my friend Rob Smith lent me a scythe, which I'd only read about and seen in pictures, including those of the Grim Reaper.
My scythe, resting on bed of cuttings

A year ago, I bought a scythe of my own and got a tutorial from Rob, who wields this ancient tool with the greatest of skill.

I do not. While swinging the scythe feels like it's intuitive, my results do not match; during my scything lesson, it was clear that I was not getting enough cut for my swings, not keeping my blade parallel to the ground, swinging in an easy arc from right to left. My form needed work, Rob noted.

So, during the spring, I practiced on my own, getting comfortable with the scythe, enjoying the connection it gave me with men down through the ages (according to Wikipedia, the scythe was invented around 500 B.C.), men with fluid motions who cut huge fields and made it look as natural as swinging a club.
Way to good scything? Practice, practice . . . .

Now that it's scything time again, I'll return to the field and discover whether that connection I feel with these scything men is anything more than a thought in my head, whether it also includes getting the job done.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Big Hydrangea Dig Frees Hardy Orange

Almost a decade after I planted it, I needed to move a lacecap hydrangea because it had grown so large it covered up one of my favorite plants: the strikingly beautiful hardy orange. What I wanted was to view this tree/shrub as I walked the path between the porch and the sedum garden. This move was a routine procedure, just one among many in my moveable garden.

Seemed easy enough, but it turned out to be the hardest dig I'd ever done.

It started on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon in October and didn't end until three days later. During that time, I used a regular shovel, along with a jagged-edge one. I got out the pick axe, then a digging knife to slip under the huge root ball that had sent growth deep into the ground. Eventually, I had to bring out a pruning saw to sever these tentacles.

Meanwhile, I cut the hydrangea way back from its 4-foot girth, leaving it about half that big around. Finally, on the third day, when I sawed the last root, I gave the plant a pull that ripped it free so suddenly that I fell into a sitting position, where I stayed for a minute to celebrate a hard-won victory.

Here's a look at the hydrangea after I'd pruned much of the growth away – just before the final tug. You can see the orange behind it, yearning to be free.

Similar to many efforts in gardening and life, this one seemed more worth doing after it was over than it did while I was doing it – and wondering why.

Now, that the lacecap finally has left the spot, the hardy orange, aka Poncirus trifoliata 'Flying Dragon', can finally be seen, freed. Why did it take me so long?

Like the hydrangea, the orange was planted almost 10 years ago. In this next image note the razor-sharp thorns, which explain why many years ago people planted this orange in front of windows; few burglars would climb through this.

Showy all year, the orange produces fragrant blossoms in the spring, followed by green fruit that matures and turns orange in the fall. The sour fruit usually is not eaten, but some people make jam from it.

For my part, I'm happy just to look at the oranges. Now that I finally can see them.