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.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Update: Franklinia Back From the Brink

It's been a long time coming, but the franklinia that barely survived voles last May is back in the game.

After rescuing the little tree and doing triage, I put it in Big Momma's Garden for recovery in a 5-gallon bucket during summer. The other day, I took it out of the garage where it had wintered, carefully pulled it from the bucket and saw that the injured tree  had grown enough roots to make it a candidate for replanting.

Loathe to put this, my second franklinia vole victim, back in the ground, I  potted the tree, reasoning that voles couldn't get to it.

Supporting the tree with stones (not enough roots to anchor it), I was ready to watch the tree grow and prosper. A day later, I had second thoughts. Dammit, I wasn't going to let the varmints dictate where I planted my tree.

Out of the pot and into the ground it went. As I planted this time, I added my usual bone meal to the hole, and I also fortified the position with crushed oyster-shell chicken grit, which has a good reputation for protecting plants against tunnel-digging moles and their root-eating beneficiaries, voles.

Again, I piled supporting stones around the tree, watered it in and began the wait. Too, I used the occasion to contemplate this gardening life, which teaches lessons large and small.

Take the franklinia episode. It illustrates that sometimes the hardest part of planting is deciding where to plant. The franklinia saga also raises the question of knowing when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em.

Well, last year, putting the tree in the bucket, I folded. Not this year.

Come on, varmints – hit us with your best shot. But watch your back. Last summer, one of your buddies didn't.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Noticed: Pileateds Playing

A pileated woodpecker is hard to miss. Two? Downright impossible. So, when I was standing at the kitchen sink early this morning, sleepily looking out the window, my eyes knew what my mind couldn't believe: a pair of these huge birds cavorting around a tree in Big Momma's Garden.

It was hard to believe they stayed in place long enough for me to go upstairs for my camera, return to the window and get a couple of shots (from about 20 meters). They appear to be closer to the cymbidium orchid on a baker's rack than they are.

Round and round the tree they went, in and out of view, their primeval calls piercing the Monday morning silence and the fog around my brain. What a wake-up call.

Clearly, they were not serious about finding insects on this tree; half-heartedly, they jack-hammered the bark from time to time, then resumed their skipping along the ground and around the tree.

Play-time ended as they took off and lumbered out toward the woods, making an intermediate stop at the big oak. Then they were gone. But, the marvel they lent the morning lingers on.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring Bursts Through Climate Concerns

Amid the scarily warm and beautiful weather that covers the land but instills concern about the future of the planet, there is the irresistible pull of spring's delights. Anticipation has, in a flash, turned into full-blown presence; the season is everywhere.

Like millions of gardeners, I've been going out early and often. Spring happens too fast to keep up. One minute it's a bud, and the next, it's a flower. Only a camera can preserve the moment. Today, I caught some of both in a spot where I grouped three plants: a cherry, a pine, a rhododendron.

The cherry, which a few days ago, was mostly buds, now is mostly flowers.

The rhododendron 'PJM', a New England favorite because of its reliable and early bloom, remains tightly budded but could burst into purplish flower any day now.

Nearby, several pieris, one of my choices for perfect shrubs (read this), have been in full bloom for days. I grow this show horse of the garden in several flavors – red, white and an appealing color in between. It's even suitable for bonsai.

Speaking of bonsai, quince, that early sign of winter's end, has begun popping in the last few days. At the rate it's going, it'll be fruiting any month now.

'Scuse me, I gotta go now. I have to see what's bloomed since I came indoors.

Wait . . . just one more image. Crocuses, which I am used to seeing contrasting with snow, got no snow, but they look just as beautiful. Also, they seem in no hurry to disappear, despite record heat. And, so we are left to ponder the future while we enjoy the present.

OK, now, I really am down and gone; I hear something blooming.

Friday, March 16, 2012

It's Pollarding Time in Connecticut

In gardening, as in life, one mistake often leads to another. So it was with the paper-bark maple, also known as Acer griseum.

Several years ago, I bought a small version of one of these maples and planted it near the porch. Too near.

Mistake Number 1.

As it grew, it got closer and closer until its canopy was touching the porch roof line. No worries, I thought, I'll just prune the tree severely, leaving only the west-facing branches. That way, the sun's pull will create a dramatic effect.

That became Mistake Number 2.

The sun pulled the branches westward, alright, but instead of looking dramatic, this maple's trunk grew fatter, while the top remained sparse and characterless. Instead of getting curve and flow, I had produced a dork with a ponytail.

This was not the first time I'd learned that we fearless pruners may be more prone to making one cut too many than are gardeners who fear the knife.

Undaunted, I decided more radical surgery was needed; I could not undo what I'd done, so this time I went all in: I began pollarding the tree, heading several branches to the same height. Each year, I let these branches put on vigorous new growth in spring and summer, then I cut all that growth back in late winter-early spring.

The image below shows a year's growth, just before recent pruning.

As the growth-pruning cycle continues, the pruned branch ends become more and more gnarly, looking more and more like clubs pointing toward the sky.

Pollarding reminds me of streets of San Francisco and Europe, where pollarded trees line streets. Makes sense, as this type of pruning keeps trees small, conserving space. I love the look.

After I had done my early-spring pruning this year, I took Lyn for a walkabout, showing her the knobbiness that has developed during the last few years on the maple, one of her favorite trees.

She stared at the tree, its cinnamon-colored peeling bark back-lit by afternoon sun. I waited proudly. She pronounced it "in-te-resting," in that certain tone that says it's not interesting in a good way.

I got the message; In Lyn's opinion, I'd made Mistake Number 3.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Noticed: Rose Among the Ruins

Reading a New Yorker magazine from September (does anyone stay caught up on reading this magazine?), I smiled out loud at a cartoon showing a woman talking on the phone.

She says: "I hate country living – I just like country-living magazines."

This cartoon resonates with me for a couple of reasons. One, I live in the country, and, two, I write for magazines that focus on country living; in fact one of them is named Living the Country Life, and the other is Country Gardens.

Like the woman in the cartoon, many people hate country living. They can't get used to the idea of having to drive five miles to buy a carton of milk, or 30 miles to big shopping malls.

And, then there's gardening; you know it ain't easy. Coping with countless critters that spend their lives trying to undo what you do is not for the faint of heart or mind. The list is long. Voles, moles (volemoles for short), rabbits, squirrels, ground hogs . . . and, perhaps the most reliably destructive: deer.

Deer are living, breathing, hooved-rat, grazing machines. I've seen plants eaten to nubs, never to regain growth they lost to deer. One horticulturalist, explaining why this can happen, told me deer saliva contains a growth inhibitor. Which seems nature's big joke on deer. Not funny. Even if they take a bite and kill or stunt a plant, they just move on to others.

For my part, I plant enough for myself and the deer, too.

And I concede losses of some plants, including most of my hellebores. Usually, deer get to Lenten rose blooms before I enjoy them. But, this year, I lazily let my plants get mostly covered up with oak leaves; some hellebore leaves were exposed. They, of course, became deer snackage. I figured I wouldn't have any blooms, either. Again.

But, wait, what's that? Walking among the raggedy ruins of two of my favorite hellobores this week, I scratched away the leaf cover, and what did I see – burgundy blooms, apparently saved by their habit of drooping their heads, thus eluding deer, which are known to be visually impaired.

No big deal, you say. Just a few blooms on a beaten-up, nibbled-down plant. But, unless you garden where the deer run wild, you can't understand how sweet this is. To save the blooms and savor the triumph, I hurriedly doused the hellebores with repellent. Score one for those of us who love country living.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring's First Planting: a Research Order

My history with ordering plants amounts to a look at the evolution of technology; decades ago, I ordered by mail, literally. Now, with a few clicks of the mouse, the Web is my nursery. Browsing Nurseries Caroliniana's Website, I came upon a hardy orange that I needed. Not just wanted, needed.

It's Poncirus trifoliata 'Snow Dragon', pictured below and on the site, where a description says the new growth "comes out totally white, both stems and leaves. Then as the wood begins to harden off, the stems turn green. Its leaves may be totally white or have a green center with a broad white margin."

My need for this shrub is based on already having a hardy orange whose leaves remain solid green (see this earlier post).

I can now compare the behavior, fruiting, hardiness, of the old and the new oranges. In the interest of horticultural science research.

So far, so good.  A few days ago, in my first spring planting of the year, I carefully lowered 'Snow Dragon', which is a graft onto a 'Flying Dragon' seedling, into the ground by a window, one near where the other hardy orange lives.

The newcomer already has its dragon teeth, those numerous lethal thorns. As the weather promises to remain unusually warm, I'm hoping to see my first snow-colored leaves sometime soon.

Meanwhile, I'll tour the garden, looking for something I need for another research project. To be sure, this is a pricey plant for a pensioner like me. But, hey, anything for science.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Caution: Weird Warning Ahead

So, here I am, cleaning up over-wintered leaves, raking, then stuffing them into my wheelbarrow. Pushing toward the compost pile, I feel a wheel lagging. To the garage I go to get my bicycle pump.

After pumping away, I glance at the tire, and I cannot believe what I see:

OK, a picture is worth a thousand words, but permit me a few, starting with two:

Come on!

I know we live in litigious times, and manufacturers need to cover their assets, but, please. Come on!

First, is there anybody out there who takes the ol' wheelbarrow out for a spin on the Interstate? Or even on Main Street?

And, if you do, are you pushing, or riding? And, if you're riding (on one or two wheels), what kind of engine are you running that'll get you to 20 kilometers per hour? I reckon you'd outfit your wheelbarrow with brakes, too, or maybe just steer off onto a soft shoulder, coasting to a stop.

I have more questions, but I've almost used up my few words. Just one more thing, a warning of my own. Caution: Warnings on some objects are sillier then they appear.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sun Bowl Paints Neon Leaves

Light has always been one of my favorite household furnishings, adding unique character to indoor living. It's always there, of course, but I notice light more in winter and early spring, when I'm indoors more.

I wrote about light and color and shadows (Precious Moments . . . . ) last April, posting images created when when light plays its magic. One of the images, a rainbow, appeared when sunlight passed through a small crystal bowl. Call it a sun bowl.

Well, the bowl is back. And now it has a brand new act.

Visiting my three paphiopedilum orchids on the kitchen island the other day, I was stunned by what the bowl prism had done to one of the orchids. Its waxy, mottled leaves were transformed into neon lights, competing with the blooms themselves for stardom. Knowing this moment would be gone in a flash, I hurriedly fired off a frame.

Without question, the long-lasting pouch blooms on these orchids are mesmerizing in their own odd way, recalling the plant Audrey in the movie Little Shop of Horrors, which inspired my Audrey's appearance in this January post.

But the added element created by light on one of Audrey's pals takes this orchid to a more dramatic level. Leave it to light; its creativity is as surprising as it is fleeting.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Lasting Appreciation

Bamboo sends me.

The appeals are many, including its messages on the wind – messages that change with the seasons and with the air currents running through leaves and canes.

Sometimes bamboo whispers softly like a gentle spring breeze speaking of peace and love and renewal. In a gale, it rustles, hoarse, dry, crackling, like a fire or a rattler, signaling trouble ahead. Some winds blow hard enough to knock canes together. Thock. Thock-thock.  Often, it simply stands, offering mute testimony to the power of silence. And, to the pull of simple beauty.

That beauty and power, along with bamboo’s airborne poetry, always draw me back to the Bamboo Farm, which I first visited in the 1990s. It is home to some 100 groves of various types of bamboo (and other plants). The giant golden vivax in the image above, (Phyllostachys vivax 'Aaureocaulis') can reach a height of 70 feet and 5 inches in diameter.

Located less than 15 miles south of Savannah, Georgia, the 50-acre farm with a storied history has enjoyed “a lot of improvement” since Lyn and I visited three years ago, according to Jim Fountain, an official. I look forward to my next visit, maybe when we’re again making the drive from Savannah to Florida.

My relationship with bamboo goes way back. Back to my childhood in Meridian, Mississippi, in the 1950s, when we boys made whistles of canes cut alongside streams, and my parents and I turned tall reeds into fishing poles. In fact, common old golden bamboo is also known as fish-pole bamboo. (Alas, unlike much of the world, we Americans still don't use bamboo widely in construction. I do use it to stake plants indoors and out, and to support morning glories, however.)

In Atlanta in the 1990s, I grew a half dozen varieties, including fish pole, that thrived in Georgia’s hospitable climate.

Moving from Atlanta to Connecticut in 2001, my bamboo love was tested severely here, where the reeds were expensive to buy and difficult to establish. I was fortunate to find a few Nutmeggers who loved bamboo, and after begging enough clumps to plant along the property line, spaced about 10 feet apart, I waited and waited for the clumps to grow together.

In an effort to help, my son-in-law gave me a little novelty sign reading: “Grow, dammit!”

Eventually, a combination of time, patience and who knows, maybe the sign, finally resulted in a mighty fine stand of bamboo – the ultimate grass – that stretches along the line, virtually obscuring the house and garage next door.

My collection includes, golden bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea), black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra) and the aptly named yellow-groove (Phyllostachys aureosulcata), all mixed in one happy grove. Cold-hardy in my increasingly flexible Zone 6, these bamboos after 10 years remain leafy all year, surviving the hardest winters. Even when a late freeze kills off leaves, new ones grow back.

Just as it is a transporting experience to see and hear bamboo, walking inside a grove amounts to a tonic for the spirit, making it understandable why bamboo groves appeal as Buddhist temple sites.

My bamboo canes, above, are mere matchsticks compared to the farm's golden vivax, (above mine).

To be sure, growing bamboo can be a difficult proposition; the older mine gets, the farther the roots spread. Each spring, I break off shoots when they reach six or seven inches. Still, the canes are easier to deal with than dwarf bamboo, which I fought and killed last year. Here's a link to the battle.

Not surprising, some folks I know fear bamboo and think I’m either brave or crazy to grow either dwarf or canes. I explain that I can’t help myself.

My big bamboo can do whatever it wants; it gives back, incomparably. When I look out across the field, or sit on a stone in or near the grove, I feel the magic, the powerful beauty.

Bamboo not only sends me; it takes me there.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Observed: It's Spring Again

This year, many of us skipped winter as we know it. Instead, that season showed up from time to time, bringing cold and snow only occasionally, but mainly it was warm enough to feel more like spring. Including spring-like tornadoes that spread death and massive destruction.

Today, it really is the start of spring in the northern hemisphere, meteorologically speaking. Based on the Roman calendar, it makes a neat package: four seasons, three months each, with summer taking over from spring on June 1, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Regardless of how the start of spring is observed officially, my plants tell me the growing season is here again. Among house plants, little tips of green have begun showing up on phalaenopsis orchid roots crawling out of pots; they, like humans, are responding to the ever-increasing daylight hours.

Outside, green foliage on the Southern magnolia is just a little bit greener. Several flowering shrubs show what could be called pre-buds, slight coloring and swelling.

It may not have been much of a winter, but spring promises to be a powerful one.