Two out of three isn’t bad

>> Saturday, December 29, 2007

Birds and I have a pretty good working relationship. I feed them and they come around and eat.

There are also two bird baths available for their drinking and bathing pleasure. I try keep them cleaned and filled regularly.

The one missing element, in this otherwise garden of eden, is shelter. Shelter from the weather and predators and shelter for nesting.

There are two trees in my front yard, this large Catalpa tree, left photo, and a fairly full Dogwood tree, photo on the right, but there are many larger trees in the neighborhood that bear leaves all winter and therefore are far better suited for sheltering the birds that grace our humble part of this planet. And I have no intention to compete with these beautiful trees just to get birds nests built in my yard.

Here is a small example of these sheltering trees within my immediate vicinity.

There are several fruit trees in my back yard but they don’t provide the suitable shelter these evergreen trees do. As you can see from this photo taken last Spring, the apple tree, pictured here to the right, gets pretty full but I have never seen a birds nest in it.
The cherry tree doesn’t seem to be attractive to nesting birds either.

I don’t really have to have nesting birds in my yard. I suppose it’s just one of those ‘nice things to have’.

I feel fortunate enough to be able to provide these birds with at least two of their requirements for survival. And they seem to ‘appreciate’ it because they come back every day, rain or shine, or snow, mainly finches, chick-a-dees and doves. Other birds come in once in awhile, but my guess is they only come around when they can’t find what they want anywhere else. A family of Northern Flickers show up every winter for the suet. Dark-eyed Juncos also show up in winter for whatever falls from the feeders because they won’t sit on the feeders’ perches. Maybe the finches are too aggressive for them.

Nowadays I only put out sunflower seeds, because the birds throw every thing else onto the ground and it doesn’t get eaten.

Many people think there has to be a variety of plants to keep birds coming around, but I have found, as long as you have feeders, they will come.

So, as long as someone else is taking care of the shelter and nesting requirements for these birds, I am satisfied with two out of three.


Shifting climates provide good and bad news

>> Friday, December 21, 2007

Found this on ecoscraps blog

Climate Change Reflected in Hardiness Zone Maps

Woodrow Wilson of the Arbor Day Foundation: What the hardiness zone map clearly shows is that the climate has warmed, certainly since 1990 when the last USDA map was updated.

Kim Kaplan, spokesperson for the USDA, on the climate change reflected on the maps: It’s not the purpose of the map. It’s not good evidence. It’s not a matter of [whether] there is or isn’t climate change; it’s just that this isn’t a good argument.

Good argument or not there have been many instances where gardens in different areas of the U.S. are able to now grow plants that they once were not able to due to warmer climates. And this has been the case since as early as 2003.

Tropical plants like mangoes and orchids are growing in zone 7! This may be a boon to those gardeners but for natural ecosystems, significant warming could have far-reaching, perhaps disastrous, effects. According to recent research, many wild plants and animals are currently showing significant responses to rapid climate change.

A January 2003 paper in the journal Nature analyzed 143 separate studies on how global warming might be affecting the physiology, behavior, and evolution of wild species. Coauthored by scientists from NASA and Stanford University, among others, the paper concludes that consistent temperature-related shifts have already taken place in organisms ranging from mollusks to mammals and from grasses to trees.

These shifts include flowering and leafing out are taking place earlier in the season. Also, animal migration and egg laying is taking place earlier than normal. As more plants extend their growth range poleward and upward in elevation they bring with them their associated insects and diseases. However, don’t count on both beneficial insect and pest insect populations to increase equally. The history of our planet teaches us that during rapid climatic changes in the past, species showed differential movement. In other words, they reacted independently, rather than in unison, to the environmental stress.

Therefore, just because a particular habitat grew harmoniously two zones warmer than where you are doesn’t mean that it will in its new environ. For example, the pollinators needed for those mangoes or kiwis or orchids may not follow them to your area.

Another worry is that a new species introduced outside of its normal growing zone may become invasive where it wasn’t in its home growing zone.

On the flip side, there may be plants that can no longer grow in your hardiness zone. In a study published in the open access journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, researchers show, using mathematical modeling, that the ideal climate for Cyclamen will become increasingly rare and might have totally disappeared by the 2050's. Some species of Cyclamen are adaptable enough and could survive climate change, but many would probably disappear.

The type of plants that have the greatest chance of extinction are those that require hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters.

A common Great Plains prairie plant, the partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), could face severe reduction in numbers if climate conditions in the Midwest change to the extremes predicted for the next 25 to 35 years, according to a study to be published in the Oct. 5 issue of the journal Science.


On seed catalogs and weather

>> Sunday, December 16, 2007

Weather seems to be the big news item these days so I’ll start off about ours here in Utah. During the past week we have ranged from 16F overnight to highs in the upper 20’s. Clouds have been regular guests here with no signs of going away anytime soon. The humidity is pretty steady at 28-29%.

We got 3” of snow last Saturday and another 1” on Sunday. There is more snow predicted this week with possible rain on Friday. But we here in Utah have learned that predictions usually turn out to be wrong, or at least put off a few days.

With nothing much to do outside due to the cold, I am happy that I started receiving garden catalogs and it seems next years garden layout will soon need to be worked out. This year has flown by pretty quickly.

I feel fortunate that the garden beds and tools have been cleaned up last month and now the only thing hanging over me is planning for next year and seed starting.

I have a very small seed-starting operation which consists of a small folding card table under two four foot long shop lights. I can fit four seed trays on it, with a little overhang. The ambient room temperature in this little store room is around 60F and it was warm enough for most of the seeds I started last winter to germinate. I still feel the need to go over my notes and quiz the experts to determine what I can do to improve the germination rate. The heat mat was placed under the warm-season seeds, like tomatoes and peppers, and almost all of them came up. I still have some sterilized seed starting soil left from last year and a bunch of peat pots and trays so the supply situation seems to be okay.

I am happy with the overall size of my gardening landscape and plan on adding to it slowly and I keep having to remind myself that the gardens I see in my fellow gardeners’ blogs are more mature than mine as they have been at this a little longer than I have. This is the first winter for my perennial beds and as such I am anxious about how they will fair. It is both a test of the plants ability to survive temperature swings from teens to middle thirties that Utah is known for and it is a test of how well I have both interpreted what to do for their survival as well as what I have actually done.

In deciding what I want to plant this year I am a bit intimidated by what everyone else has accomplished. So many garden blogs I read show garden spaces that are much larger than mine. I have to restrain myself from going overboard and remember not to start more plants than what I have space for. But then I think, if I grow the plants then I will have to expand the beds for them. This could be a dangerous way to go and doesn’t fit in at all with my overall garden master plan. I have containers I could put them in until the bed is ready. Holding back and doing a little each year is the most difficult part of garden planning. So I will have to keep my seed order small.

As far as that planning thing goes, I had written down ideas over the past nine months of blog reading and recorded my ‘wish list’ on my computer. The problem is that I recently suffered a computer crash when my motherboard crapped out on me and I had not saved the latest version of my wish list. So, I have to rely on my memory, a scary prospect at best. All is not lost however, because in going through the garden catalogs I am sure I will be able to find something I want to plant, whether it fits in with my plan or not. I really do try to be disciplined, but I am making no promises.

Patience is a virtue, so they say, but spring is still way too far away.


My bird family

>> Sunday, December 2, 2007

I have been feeding birds that visit my yard since about one week after moving here in May of 2004. Everyday, rain or shine or snow, with the exception of the occasional vacation and mini-vacations we take, I have trekked out to all four sunflower feeders, one thistle feeder and two suet feeders and filled them all as needed. I have recently decided that I would like to place some native plants in my yard that will help feed these birds.

I feel an acute responsibility to these birds. In part because I attract them for selfish reasons. One is so they will help keep the population of insects down, another is because hearing their songs add so much to my general sense of well-being. It is very difficult to be depressed when birds are singing. I am not given to bouts of depression anyway, but you gotta love hearing birds singing all around you.

I am certain these birds could probably find food elsewhere, after all they survived here long before I ever showed up, but I also feel that if I did not attract them to my yard then I would probably have a big problem with insects. Of course, I don’t know how valid that fear is because I feed them everyday and I am not going stop feeding them just so I can find out.

The flock of birds I feed has grown tremendously over the time they have been visiting here, from maybe twenty or thirty to well over one hundred. Also, the diversity of birds has grown from those first few Finches to include juncos, doves, chick-a-dees, starlings, flickers, robins, hummingbirds, ducks, an occasional magpie, downy woodpecker, coopers hawk and blue-jay. The Blue-jay was a real surprise, because I haven’t found one map that shows they even exist in Utah. I have also seen some birds that I am unable to identify, but not very often. I figure they are probably just passing through.

When I first began feeding birds I would give them the standard wild bird mixture found at any discount store. It consisted of millet, sunflower seed, safflower, thistle, etc. It didn’t take long to figure out what these guys did and did not want. What they didn’t want was anything that wasn’t a black-oil sunflower seed. So, that is what I have been feeding them ever since.

That Fall I hung a second feeder as well as a thistle feeder for the goldfinches. It was weird how the other Finches never ate from the thistle feeder, but the goldfinches love it. During the second year I was visited by five or six Mourning Doves and each year their number has grown. Just this morning I counted 18.

There is a family of Northern Flickers that feed on the suet, usually only in the morning and only in Winter. I don’t know where they go the remainder of the year or in the afternoon, for that matter.

The Chick-a-dees, juncos and Coopers Hawk only come around in Winter too. The first year I saw only one Chick-a-dee and I have read that their numbers are decreasing due to humans taking over their habitat. But yesterday and today I counted five. It is fun to watch these little guys, they go to the sunflower tube feeder, grab one seed then fly back up to a high branch, hold the seed in their foot and peck at it to crack the hull open to get to the seed. Sometimes they go to the suet feeder and peck away to their hearts content, all the while looking around for any sign of danger. Also, they really like peanut butter. I place a big lump on a piece of stale bread and they will devour all of it in no time.

I counted six juncos and never more than one Coopers Hawk. The juncos will only eat off of the ground or from a large flat container of seed. I have never seen one at the tube feeders, maybe their feet won’t grasp the small-diameter perches.

Today I was able to catch this Coopers Hawk just as he flew into the Dogwood tree outside my office window. I heard all of the birds suddenly take off with a loud flurry of flapping wings and there the hawk was sitting, looking around, without the meal that he came in for. He sat there for about three minutes, allowing me to finally get a picture of him from the front. Previously I have only been able to get his back and from no closer than about 100 feet. This time he was sitting six feet away.

Starlings, well, they flock, boy do they flock! Yesterday I took this video of a very small number of them sitting in six trees. I have seen, literally, close a thousand of them almost blacken the sky as they fly in crazy patterns seemingly as one unit. When they all sit on telephone lines they remind me of a football stadium full of spectators. They will eat anything. And generally do. I have seen them hanging onto the tube feeder perches that are made for the small feet of Finches digging sunflower seeds out of the small holes.

What I can tell from the numbers of birds coming to my yard is that this must be the only place around where they can find food. Logic tells me that this cannot be the case, but I am blown away by their numbers.

I was reading Wild Flora’s Wild Gardening post of Nov 20 and she says that research into the habits of birds that visit bird feeders indicates that they use the seed we supply primarily as a supplement to other food sources. If this is the case then they must be eating quite a lot from somewhere else! I go through 40 pounds of black-oil sunflower seed every 12 days! In Winter I fill the feeders twice every day trying to keep their energy up so they survive the cold, and the feeders are empty when I go to them at night. At other times of the year I fill them only once and they are usually emptied by about 2 PM. I fear of making them too dependant on me for their food even though research again shows that they never really become dependant on backyard feeders. I don’t know if I can be convinced of this because they sure do eat at lot here.

After reading her blog I am even more driven to provide more of a variety of native plants in order to help feed these birds.

Now I need to learn more about Utah native plants.


Would growing herbs make me clever?

>> Friday, November 30, 2007

Gee, I want to be a clever gardener! Someone said that clever gardeners know about companion planting. I’ll have to look into this ‘simple technique’ just to see if it makes me feel clever. I’m already learning about putting perennials together for color, fragrance, and texture, so it seems learning about companion planting shouldn’t be any great stretch.

In the past, I have grown nasturtium and marigolds along side my tomatoes as a pest repellant. Not every year, since I’m not sure if it works or not. Sometimes I would find the dreaded Tomato Hornworm merrily chomping away on a tomato stem next to nasturtium, so I don’t think he was too bothered by that repellent plant. Maybe he didn’t know he was supposed to be repelled.

There are many plants that benefit from having companions around. People benefit from having companions, so why shouldn’t plants? Many of the companion pairings I have seen listed involve at least one herb.

Herbs are something that have both intrigued and mystified me for a very long time. I see herb gardens featured on TV garden shows and in magazines, etc and they either look manicured and formal or wild and unkempt. I like the wild, natural look myself. It just seems more inviting and alive.

I always think after viewing these gardens that I would like to have one of these but then I think “what would I do with all of those herbs?”

Herbs are that branch of the plant world that cries out to be used. And it seems there is an herb that can be used in almost every aspect of our daily lives. But when it comes right down to it I don’t know if I would or even could use them properly. Like I said earlier, they mystify me.

I have great admiration for anyone who can take a plant and make soap out of it or spice up a bowl of soup or add a sweet fragrance to a home. The utilitarian aspect of herbs is what, I suppose, appeals to me most. Maybe its my frugal upbringing that tells me that if a thing can be used for more than one purpose then it becomes more valuable. Herbs both look good and can be used for other beneficial and useful things.

Despite my few failed attempts to use herbs as an insect repellent, I still am motivated enough to expand my knowledge of how the plant kingdom can do more than just look good and feed us.

I have read plenty of books about the culinary and medicinal uses of herbs but I’m not sure where to start or what use I should go for. Using a plant for medicinal reasons just seems out of the question, what with all of the fast acting medications we have available to us. It’s not that I have overwhelming trust in the FDA when it comes to allowing only the best medications to reach the market, it’s just that I’m not sure I want to be experimenting with something that may not be very effective in ‘curing’ me when I’m sick and want to get well quickly. There are an awful lot of people who swear by herbal remedies and herbal preventatives, my wife being one. She takes these Wellness Formula tablets every cold season and urges me to take them as well. She never seems to get sick but I do every year just before Thanksgiving, just like clockwork, whether I take them or not. So, based on these two samplings of using herbs as preventatives, I’m not convinced they work all that well.

As far as culinary use goes, I know fresh herbs add a little something extra to foods, because I have tried them. We have bought basil, thyme, rosemary, etc from Farmer’s Markets and our foods do taste better as a result. But honestly, I don’t know just how much parsley or basil our family would use for cooking if we grew it ourselves. I suppose the excess could go to the compost pile or friends.

We lead pretty simple lives and are not given to extravagant or gourmet meals. Occasionally I enjoy testing my culinary skills by trying a new recipe that sounds especially tempting. Sometimes the recipe tastes pretty good, if I may say so.

I would like to make potpourri, sachets or soap, etc but that would take an awful lot of Lavender and I just don’t have that kind of space.

Making my own insect repellent seems, to me, to be the most practical reason for growing herbs. There are many herbs that can be ground up and mixed with water and used as insect repellent and/or fungicide. A few are elder leaves, chamomile flowers, chive leaves, horseradish leaves, feverfew flowers, etc, all of which can be interspersed throughout my perennial beds since they require the same growing conditions. And they put on a show of flowers as well.

So, let’s see, scattering them throughout the garden would add some fragrance, help fill in the odd gap here and there, attract beneficial insects and help feed birds. Maybe companion planting can make me a clever gardener after all.


Deciding on what path to take

>> Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My yard is beginning to evolve from a typical suburban landscape of lawn, a few trees and a fence. I have added some raised beds and a few level beds. Although I am pleased with the progress in this first year of perennial gardening, I can’t help but think the design is boring.

Maybe it’s because I have time on my hands now that the winter chores are done and I can take the time to just look around.

I have noticed a distinct pathway developing between the rear door of the garage, where I keep the bird seed, running past the deck and on toward the two trees where I have bird feeders hanging. I make this trip every evening at dusk to refill the feeders so I don’t have to go out at the crack of dawn when the temperature is at its coldest. Plus, this way the feeders are already stocked full when the birds decide to show up. Sometimes, they would actually get their before I would in the morning so this method just works out better for all of us.

It is amazing to me how a path can be worn through the grass by only two human feet making this trip just once a day, but I’ve been doing it now for about three and a half years. Granted the path isn’t real obvious yet and it gets blended in when I mow the lawn, but I know it’s there.

Now that I see this path being laid out for me I have turned my thoughts to building a path through the yard. It would make sense to have the path follow this straight-line course that I obviously have felt is the best way to get to the feeders because, as they say, a straight line is the shortest distance between two points. And since there are no obstructions, a straight line is what I take. But sometimes taking the long way around is more enjoyable and my right-side brain tells me to make the path more, shall we say, 'interesting'.

In order to make the trip from garage to feeders most interesting there should be planting beds along the way. This intimates that I would design the path first and then the beds, but hold on. I have a few concerns about what I want to see from the deck, since that is where I will view the garden most often, and what I don’t want to see. For instance, I would like to be able to view the bird feeders and the birds on the ground under the feeders that don’t sit on the feeders, such as the Mourning Doves, the Dark-eyed Juncos, the ducks, etc. Also, I would like to block the view of the compost area. So these consideration dictate that I should design the beds first and build the path around them.

Starting a path from all entrances and destinations would seem to be the most logical, i.e., the garage, both sheds, the deck steps, compost area, bird feeders, vegetable beds and both side entrances from the front yard. Where the individual starting points of the path would meet depends on the design of the beds and the path would, of course, run along side some of the beds. Maybe this path design is creating itself for me.

The beds would have to be designed to be inviting enough to come off of the deck to investigate. Up to this point my beds have abutted fences around the outer edges of the yard, in a very typical manner, and although the leading edge is curved, giving each bed varying depths, I have not yet reached toward the center of the yard. Since I have been thinking about paths, I now feel compelled to expand my gardening experience into this uncharted territory. I will no longer be restricted to creating beds for three view points, I can now design them for viewing from four sides. The shape of the fourth side, previously dictated by the straight line of a fence, will now become curved as well. I feel so liberated.

I have never been fond of a balanced or symmetrical appearance in any design, except where efficiency or safety has to be a factor. Even the wall hangings in my house are not perfectly balanced or symmetrical in their layout. I find symmetry to be boring. Nature is not symmetrical so why should I force symmetry where it is not natural?

But I digress. Allowing oneself to be drawn into parts of the garden that are unseen from somewhere else in the garden is like giving yourself a gift. Rounding a shrub in order to view a particular plant, and then comparing that new vision with that which you remember from the last time you saw it offers a sense of newness, a freshness that cannot be had with the constant familiarity of a plant that is always in view such as that obtained from standing in the middle of the yard and being able to see everything at once..

Your garden should be a place of surprises. It should be your personal amusement park drawing your senses from one combination of plants (grouped by color, texture, fragrance or height) or single specimen to a contrasting group or single specimen. You should be able to arrive at your destination by traveling through a range of sensory triggers. Textures, fragrances and colors that both soothe your spirit and give a sense of well-being and peace are something we all strive for in our gardens.

Most books I have read concerning landscape design says you should have one or more focal points for your eyes to rest on. I can see merit in this. Focal points could be anything, a statue, a trellis, a shrub or other planting and can fit anywhere within the garden. But they don’t necessarily have to be seen all at once. Winding paths through the garden allow these focal points to be hidden and encountered singularly.

Hiding focal points can be extremely challenging in a small suburban yard so the paths and beds need to be constructed in such a way as to make the yard appear larger. I have heard the term ‘garden rooms’ used to describe just such an illusion. I’m not so sure I want garden rooms in my yard, mainly because of the limited space I have to deal with, but smaller areas along the path like pockets can work the same way.

We are told to always put the shorter plants up front with the tallest to the rear in order to see everything. Nature doesn’t do it this way and I would prefer not to either. So creating pockets of surprises tucked in here and there allows you to see everything from the path but not from everywhere on the path. For instance, if you move just two feet to the right you can now see that 18” tall Heuchera that was hidden between the 36” tall Chrysanthemum and the 6’ tall Viburnum. This apparent randomness in design, I think, is much more appealing. It may be considered too messy for some, but I think it looks more natural.

Building a pathway that forces you to explore, in addition to getting you to where you are going, should be a worthwhile goal. And as such I think I should build curved beds, not necessarily circular or symmetrical beds. This, hopefully, will allow visitors to want to explore and discover. If you cannot see the entire garden from the porch, deck or windows of your house then you are more likely to walk out into the garden in order to see everything, to experience it more first hand, if you will. Standing in the center of the yard, turning 360 degrees to see everything your garden has to offer, seems a bit boring. This is what I have now.


Winter sowing

>> Monday, November 26, 2007

On Tuesday Nov 20, 2007, Kylee of Our Little Acre, brought up a term I had not heard of before. Winter sowing. This idea intrigued me enough that I followed her link back to another of her posts from January 14, 2007 where she describes how this thing works.

It is such a surprisingly simple idea that makes use of an item, plastic milk jugs, that almost everyone has in their kitchen and gets thrown out when they are emptied.

I put them into the recycle bin and know they get re-used somehow but if I can re-use them myself, all the better. I have saved a few of them to use as cloches, which work pretty well, but after seeing this idea I can now use more of them as mini-greenhouses as well.

The idea probably won’t replace my indoor seed-starting setup but it will sure give me more space to start even more.

I’m going to set my jugs in the raised beds which are currently covered in about 6” leaf mulch. The mulch should give the little greenhouses a bit of extra protection from the cold. Plus, with the jugs being filled part way with soil, they will provide extra protection for the raised beds. I love this idea!

Now I can start those sweet peas that my wife loves so much. I haven’t had any success starting them early enough and this just might work. Also, there are a bunch of other seeds I could start and haven’t because of limited space, like cosmos, lithianus, zinnias, candytuft, and, and... Oh boy, I can see this is going to take up my ‘extra’ garden space pretty quickly. Hmmm, maybe I can find some space in the neighbors beds.

Thanks for enlightening us to this marvelous, simple idea, Kylee.


Warmer drier winter predicted

This winter is predicted to be the warmest winter since record keeping started 127 years ago. This is according to the National Climatic Data Center. Previously the record was set in 2005. I didn’t have a perennial garden bed during that winter so I wasn’t as concerned with sustaining a garden as much as the usual worry of getting enough snowfall to get through the next summer.

Utah depends a great deal on winter snow melt to provide most of our water. Snow, tricky to forecast, might do well this year in the Northern Rockies. That may or may not mean much for Utah. It is too early to tell.

The Climate Prediction Center says La Niña strengthened during October, making it even more likely that the USA will see below-average precipitation in the already drought-stricken regions of the Southwest and the Southeast this winter.

I am beginning to worry about the new plants I put into the ground this past month. Do I continue to water them? Are they going to make it through a drier than normal winter without my help?

With temperatures, December through February, predicted to be 4% warmer than the 30-year average, is this increase in temperature enough to make me drag the garden hoses out of storage and start watering again? Are we going to expect future winters where we don’t even disconnect our irrigation systems because we will use them year round?

Predictions coming from the Farmers Almanac aren’t very rosy either. Their predictions pretty much match everyone else’s.

The only areas forecast to be wetter-than-average are in the Pacific Northwest and the Ohio Valley. And since I don't live in either of those areas, I guess I'll just have to break out the hoses and continue to water.

Well, enough whining for now, there are plants to be saved! So what if I have to drain the garden hoses every day and put them away every night, this is what I signed on for and this is what I’ll have to do.

Happy gardening everyone!


Do you have to plan a garden to become a gardener?

>> Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I want to thank Michelle of Garden Rant for her thoughts on garden planning. She states that garden planning is a ‘poisonous myth’.

I have to agree with her, garden planning made a paralytic, indecisive, procrastinator out of me. As a first year perennial gardener, I feel that my insight in this matter, being as fresh as it is, affords me some expertise on whether or not planning is ‘an important step’. I have been planning my perennial garden, literally, for years. I have drawn up so many plans I can’t even remember where I have put them all. Every house we have ever lived in has become a masterpiece of gardening excellence, if only in my own mind. Why did I never act on these most excellent plans? Because I didn’t feel I could pull it off.

Meeting the so-called ‘requirements’ of a true garden such as creating focal points, balancing ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ colors, creating a pleasing symmetry, and timing blooming factors for all-season color in order to be worthy of the distinction of being a garden and not just a plot of soil with plants on it was downright daunting.

I wanted something that would stop people in their tracks and exclaim their admiration. If they came to my door with a desire to learn the secrets of my masterful talent, even better.

But alas, I was fearful of taking the second step. What was the second step? What was required to take my plan from paper to full blooming reality? Should I overwhelm the soil with all things organic in an attempt to call forth those masters of soil tillage, the earthworm?

Should I hire a designer to get the all important sign-off on what I was certain was ‘the’ plan that would draw every garden periodical in the western hemisphere to my doorstep to learn my secrets?

What if I started my plants at the wrong time of year and they all died? What if, just after planting my precious beauties, our city became the scene of the most epic swarm of the most voraciously hungry insect population to ever darken our skies? What if, no matter what I planted, bees shunned my yard like the plague? In other words, gulp, what if I failed?

After all this planning, I still had cold feet. Nay, I had become so paralyzed with fear of failure of not living up to expectations of gardening experts everywhere who repeatedly recited the mantra of ‘plan, plan, plan that garden until you’ve got it right’ that I had finally reached the point where I would allow a garden nursery, Bluestone Perennials, choose the plants for me.

Yes friends, realizing that time will not stand still while I try to decide when to force my ‘frozen-to-the-chair’ butt to get up and actually plant something besides vegetables, the only decision I could make was to let someone else decide for me. I had reached a vulnerably weak moment in the career I had made of garden planning and came to the realization that I would probably never be able to reach any higher zenith in pursuit of the perfect garden than I already have without a good swift kick in the pants.

That kick in the pants came in the form of 59 plants that were guaranteed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Guaranteed to meet the all important requirements of a perfectly planned garden i.e., ‘long season of bloom, different foliage textures and colors, and their ease of care’. I felt as if a giant weight had been lifted from my shoulders. If the landscape did not look beautiful, hey it isn’t my fault. Blame it on Bluestone Perennials. See, it says so right there in the catalog. Guaranteed satisfaction.

After planting their planned garden, I must admit, I felt that I had somehow cheated, and yet been cheated. I felt that, having not adhered to the unwritten law of a true gardener, ‘Thou must plan and plant your own garden’, that I cannot wear the badge of a true gardener.

Perhaps my guilt stems from the lingering effects of the poison I have been fed by gardening ‘experts’ attempting to indoctrinate me into the belief that I have to plan in order to become a real gardener.

Maybe if I told you that I bought this ready made garden for only one plot, then maybe I could be forgiven my transgression of trying to become a gardener overnight. I do have several other plots that remain a work in progress and are slowly being filled with ‘whim’ plants. For those plots, I confess to planning, although, not one of those plots actually matches my plans. Except for the shape of the beds.

Looking back on it now, I think that, maybe, buying that ready made garden helped propel me towards become a true gardener or, at least, it put me on the right path. Some of those plants died. Most survived. I have now gone through the trauma of loosing plants, just like a real gardener. I have managed to nurse some plants back from the brink of death, just like a real gardener. I did actually buy perennial plants without any real idea of where they might end up, all the while knowing they might not survive wherever they went. If nothing else, this alone shows a willingness for independence from expert gardeners and shows that I am gaining enough confidence to go my own way, just like a real gardener.

I still have yet to go through at least one winter to make one complete cycle of being a practicing perennial gardener. Maybe then I can feel better about calling myself a real gardener. Oh, and about planning, I don’t think I will fret too much about it anymore. I have built up an immunity to their poison because I have come to realize that plants are going to make it or not whether I plan or not.


Happy Thanksgiving!

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

I am grateful to be healthy enough to pursue my love of gardening. I am thankful for the mistakes I make and the opportunity it affords me to learn. I am thankful for this electronic miracle called the internet and blogging that allows me to show off any good things that come from my garden and hopefully inspire someone else to get theirs started.

I am thankful for the many other gardeners who have freely given their inspiration for me to overcome my fear of failure and to just do it.

Most of all I am thankful for family and friends for their support in all that I do.

I am thankful that this day comes along when I am forced to stop everything and be reminded of all I have to be thankful for.

I want to send my prayers to family members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and assure them that although they cannot be here with us as they have in so many years past we will miss them all the more for their love and duty to their country.

I am thankful that I can watch my Ohio State Buckeyes and Indianapolis Colts march down field to victory over their rivals. Yeah, Go Buckeyes! Go Colts!

Happy Thanksgiving to all!!


Expanding plot

>> Monday, November 19, 2007

I decided to expand the plot where my raspberries are growing. Earlier this year I put a birth bath here and it just looked naked in a grassy plot. Besides this will be easier to tend to than running a lawn mower and getting on my hands and knees to trim grass around the bath.

I saw a picture of snapdragons and marigolds surrounding a bird bath and thought this would look good here.

After placing 8-10 layers of newspaper on the ground they were covered with 6 cu ft of shredded bark and small bark chips.

Hopefully by the spring the ground will be ready to dig into.


Appalachian Trail wildlife

>> Thursday, November 15, 2007

Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution set up 50 motion-triggered cameras along 600 miles of the 2,175 mile long Appalachian Trail this year for the purpose of capturing wildlife in their natural habitat.

They were able to photograph black bears, bobcats, deer, coyote, even a wild horse.

The Appalachian Trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and serves as an important remaining piece of wildlife habitat for these disappearing animals. The cameras captured 1,900 photographs from over 250 locations throughout Shenandoah National Park in Virginia as well as in Maryland and West Virginia.

The Smithsonian Institute partnered with Appalachian Trail Conservancy to form an inventory of mammals along the trail. The survey also helps land managers and scientists to understand and illustrate the impacts of the environment surrounding at trail on wildlife populations.


Morning on the Homestead

>> Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Good day fellow gardeners! Today I awoke to a brisk fall day (25F), just the kind we all know and cherish for its refreshing coolness. Yeah, Right! It was downright cold!

The plants do look beautiful though, in their frosty garb. The Dianthus especially looks like it was made for winter. Sedum turns yellowish-brown as if trying to compete with tree and shrub leaves.

Fall colors aside, the frost adds so much more to the overall beauty of a garden.

I grew up in Indiana ans always looked forward to the fall colors. We lived near a large corn field, who doesn’t in Indiana, and it was always bittersweet to see the skeletons of corn stalks standing as reminders of the wonderful ears of corn they always gave us. And fall always brought out the most gorgeous reds and yellows, especially southern Indiana around Morgan-Monroe State Park. Here in Utah, we don’t get much of that spectrum of color. We have the golden shimmering leaves of Aspen as our color guard. But their large swaths looked like gold veins running through mountain sides.

Every morning the Mourning Doves look so peaceful sitting in their high perches atop the trees gathering up the suns warming rays. I always feel so bad when I walk out to the backyard and they all leave their warm, sunny perches as I approach to fill the two birdbaths with fresh water. I have to do this to break up the ice from the previous evening thus allowing them to drink. They soon come back as though to forgive me for disturbing them.

Every morning, at 8:45, the elementary school, which sits the other side of a row of houses from me, plays a song to get the children’s day started. They play a wide variety of songs, from ‘Good Vibrations’ by the Beach Boys to ‘Good Morning Starshine’ by Oliver. And then one of the students recites the pledge of allegiance. It’s a very pleasant way to start a school day.

The birds are constantly singing and vying for a perch to sit and eat. They can never sit for very long as there is always another bird waiting its turn, and they are not afraid to push each other off so they can eat. All in all I guess it is a system that keeps them all fed.

I noticed the Dark-eyed Junco has returned. They don’t sit on perches as the other birds do so they eat off of the ground with the Doves.

I have been suffering a head cold and sore throat for the last couple of days so I don’t feel real cheery but the these morning sounds and rituals are comforting.

I have been reading ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ by Barbara Kingsolver about one families attempt to escape our dependence on industrial-food to the rural life where they vow to buy only locally grown produce, grow it themselves or learn to do without. The book serves to enlighten us to how corporations are replacing America’s once thriving, diversified family farms with mono-cultured acres of corn and soybeans to feed ‘food animals’ who spend their entire lives stuffed in pens and loaded with antibiotics and growth hormones to fatten them up for market.

The book has really awakened, in me, the need to get back to celebrating local farmers by buying our produce at farmers markets instead of supermarkets and shunning the out-of-season produce, with its bland taste and questionable nutritional value. Growing our own is much more healthy and would help cut back on the vast amounts of petroleum required to transport produce from thousands of miles away.

With the cost of fuel rising so rapidly we may for forced to return to the local farmer for our produce out of financial necessity. Wouldn’t that be ironic? To have to buy locally because fuel prices are too high.

We have become spoiled by having out-of-season fruit and vegetables at our fingertips. The price of that luxury is far higher than we know. Read this book and you’ll be surprised at how much it really costs us.

Well, I have chores to get to and miles to go before I sleep. Good day!


Turning clay to workable soil, a progress report

>> Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I thought I would take this time to report on how well my clay soil is turning into workable garden soil. It is coming along quite nicely. When I first began planning these beds three years ago they were covered with grass and the occasional weed. Mainly bindweed and what I used to (until today) call buttonweed.

Just now I looked up buttonweed on the internet to provide a picture or a description link of it here and learned that what I thought was buttonweed is actually something else. I found Virginia Buttonweed and this clearly is not what I have. My education continues and now I have to figure out just what weed I do have. I swear it looks like a bunch of buttons on the end of each stem. So, what is it?

To date, I have converted 1,135 sq ft into eight perennial and four vegetable beds.

All four vegetable beds and two perennial beds are raised using untreated redwood and cedar lumber, to resist rot.

The remaining perennial beds are not raised but currently bordered with cherry wood logs partially buried. I plan on replacing them with stone or brick within the next few years.

Looking back on it, I can’t believe I have dug up this much soil. That is a lot of ground to cover with mulch and amend with compost every year.

I chose to experiment in preparing the beds by using three different methods, one, weed killer and then waiting until the soil was safe to use; two, digging the soil up with a shovel and pulling up grass for the next two years; and three, covering the area with newspaper over winter and then digging in the spring.

The weed killer is by far the easiest and quickest method but the prospect of poisoning the water table scared me. I read extensively about the product and decided it was safe. The product I chose to use was glyphosate. It is the main ingredient in RoundUp (produced by Monsanto), and since the patent ran out in 2000, there are now other products on the market that use it. I chose to use Hi-Yield Kill-Zall.

Glyphosate is non-toxic to humans and animals. Glyphosate moves through the weed to the root, and stops the function of an essential enzyme found in plants (but not in humans or other animals). Any Glyphosate not absorbed by plants breaks down into natural materials without moving in or on the soil to untreated plants. It is only effective on actively growing plants and breaks down over the course of ten days or so.

Weeds and grass will generally re-emerge with one to two months, so it doesn’t get rid of them completely but you now have a really good head start towards getting your garden in. If I want to start a bed quickly I will use this method again. But, I plan on having enough patience to let newspaper and mulch do the job.

Spreading newspaper over the ground and then laying mulch on top of that was pretty simple and effective but I had to wait over winter. Since I wasn’t going to plant anything for awhile this method worked pretty well.

Using a shovel was obviously the most labor intensive and after it was done the grass kept coming back for a couple of years until I had pulled up enough of it that I finally got all of the roots out.

The soil under the grass was fairly easy to work in and I added composted steer manure and shredded bark mulch over two years before finally planting anything. I used a rototiller in one bed but was told that it can create a hardpan beyond the reach of the tines so I won’t be doing that again.

Paul James, of Garden by the Yard, says it is okay to use a pitch fork to loosen the soil each year and I guess it will have to be an ongoing thing.

After all of this work on these beds I feel pretty confident that they are all life sustaining. I find fat worms and baby worms so that is a good indication that the soil is thriving.

Although I will never be free of weeds, don’t I wish and pray for that miracle, at least with enough good stuff growing in the beds most weeds will be crowded out and weeding should get better over time.

After all the work I have put into it, the soil is fairly easy to work in but I will need to add compost to it every fall.


Final fall cleanup?

>> Tuesday, November 6, 2007

I decided to try something different this year with my leaves. I have three fruit trees along the west side of the backyard and they drop a prodigious amount of leaves. The pile looks so nice and yellow and thick.

The rest of the yard doesn’t get any leaves on it unless there is a good wind. The last few years I have been raking the leaves onto the perennials beds, beds that I had not yet planted anything in waiting for the compost and mulch to breakdown in preparation for planting.

This year, I decided that since those beds have been planted and will get lots of mulch dumped on them after the ground freezes, I will share the wealth of those fruit tree leaves with the entire yard.

I raked all of the leaves over the entire yard and let them sit for a few days. No special reason for leaving them sit, I just didn’t feel like dragging the mower out until today. The weather gave Utah another beautiful, clear, 55F day and I, in my usual capricious manner, decided that today was the day for mowing. I find that as I get older I do things whenever I feel like it more so than when they have to be done. I am more or less within acceptable bounds as far as the proper timetable, but don’t count on me to do anything by a strict schedule, is all I am saying.

Now that the leaves had rested there a few days and it looked like they weren’t going to be blown away by the wind, I thought today would be a perfect day to follow through with my brilliant plan and put those leaves to work. The grass wasn’t really in need of mowing but that wasn’t why my intention. Besides this way I could run the gas out of the mower to get it ready for winter storage. I love it when I can do two or more things at once, thereby saving time. Ah, if only it would work out that way. If I timed it right the gas would run out at the exact moment when the last leaf was mulched. And if the mower just happened to be at the storage shed door when it happened, all the better. That kind of luck doesn’t usually come about easily so I wasn’t really counting on it.

The lawn looks nice now, all cleaned of leaf clutter. Of course, the next frost or gust of wind that comes along will sever the remaining leaves tenuous hold and another pile will be created. That pile I think will go to my pseudo-compost pile. There is still the apple tree, which hasn’t dropped any leaves yet. I guess it’s because it still has quite a few apples on it. But, I am sure that after all of the leaves have fallen and they are all sitting in their final resting place, only then will all of my fall chores finally be done.

Let’s see, I better double check my to do list...


Coopers Hawk is back

>> Friday, November 2, 2007

A couple of days ago I wrote about the puzzle of why there weren’t as many birds at the feeders as usual. Today I discovered why. the Coopers Hawk is back.

I saw him sitting high up in the cherry tree and all of the Finches and Doves immediately took off.

The hawk eventually left as well.

He wouldn’t turn around so this is the best shot I could get of him.


Gurney’s Seed & Nursery order

>> Thursday, November 1, 2007

Received my order from Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co.

Some plants were in plastic ‘coffins’ and all of the others were in plastic bags as bare-roots. Packing peanuts were placed on top and sides but this delivery didn’t use as many.

UPS delivered the package and as you can see it is once again damaged. The order I received last week from Michigan Bulb Co was also delivered by UPS and it too was damaged. Although no plants were hurt in either incident.

The plants all look healthy and unblemished. The instructions that came with them said they are to go into the ground immediately.

The bed I just built for them next to the deck is where they will all go.

Delphinium Blue Butterfly
Listed as dwarf Chinese delphinium, Chinese larkspur and Siberian Larkspur. It is a member of the buttercup family. It can grow to 12”-18” tall and wide as opposed to the standard Delphinium which grows up to 36” tall. It can take full sun to part shade and blooms early summer to early fall. It attracts bees, butterflies, birds. All of my favorite wildlife.

Two things I wasn’t aware of when I ordered it was that contact with foliage may irritate skin and it is short lived so reseeding is encouraged but cultivars don’t prove true to the parent. If I had known this before hand I probably would have not ordered it. So, I am going to look at this plant as one of those serendipitous things that nature throws at you, and sometimes works out knowing full well that I may have to replace the plant with something more desirable.

The flowers are good for cutting and in cutting I may be able to get another bloom. I definitely want to keep some seed heads on it so it will reseed itself just to see what comes up next.

Geranium Birch’s Double
This is one of the perennial Geraniums, a true Geranium, the Cranesbill. The ‘other’ Geranium is not really a Geranium at all but a Pelargonium, although it is a relative. As the name suggests this one has double flowers.

My wife loves Geraniums but my experience with them is that they can get leggy and straggly and therefore not very attractive. Now at this point I must confess that I probably have, in my pre-gardener awakening, confused Pelargonium with true Geraniums. Now that I have discovered the difference, I am willing to give these ground-hugging true Geraniums a chance.

There are three commonly grown Geranium species: clarkei (most common), endressii (Wargrave Pink, which is a quick spreader), and sanguineum (Bloody Cranesbill, bright crimson foliage). The newest Geraniums are hybrids, and there are many, that have been bred to bring out desirable traits such as a true blue flowers (Johnson’s Blue), a neater growth habit (Rozanne), height (2’ tall Patricia), and early blooming (Ann Folkard).

Double Geraniums are the newest hybrids, such as Birch’s Double, Double Jewel (upright habit great for pots), and Southcombe Double (also good for containers).

Birch’s Double foliage turns red in the fall but is not listed as a sanguineum (Bloody Cranesbill). It is actually a himalayense which will grow to 14”-16” tall and blooms from early summer to autumn.

The plant will spread out among other taller plants and I have planted them between Monarda Jacob Cline and Stella de Oro Daylily. It sounds like it could be a good groundcover. The daylily might be a little too small for it but I’ll have to wait and see. After all, part of gardening is the fun of experimentation.

The planting instructions says to plant 1” below the soil so along with a good layer of mulch they should come through Utah’s winter just fine.

Monarda Jacob Cline
Aka Bee Balm, Bergamot, Oswego Tea, Horsemint. The many different names attests to how popular the plant has been throughout American history. It is native to eastern North America and its leaves were used by Oswego Indians of western New York to make tea. They shared its use with early American settlers who gave it the name Oswego Tea. It was used as a substitute for imported tea after the Boston Tea Party. The Shakers thought the tea effective in treating colds and sore throats and many have steamed the aromatic plant and inhaled the fumes to clear sinuses.

The genus was later named for the 16th century Spanish botanist Nicolas Monardes.

The name Bergamot was given because the scent closely resembles that of the bergamot orange.

Horsemint is similar to this Monarda, didyma, but is actually another Monarda, punctata, which is very similar in growth but its flowers are a lighter purplish color.

Herbalist have used this plant to treat nausea, vomiting, upset stomach, antiseptic, flatulence and insomnia. Its flowers can be used in salads, its leaves can be used in tomato dishes and as a substitute for sage in stuffing. No mater what the name, its herbal qualities and ability to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, along with its beautiful deep red flowers make it a very useful addition to any garden.

Monarda can grow to 5’ tall and, since it is a member of the mint family, it can spread rapidly, especially in shady damp areas.

Jacob Cline is the most mildew resistant and rust resistant cultivar on the market.

Daylily Stella de Oro
This daylily has once been named Perennial of the Year. It has outstanding color and is a definite rebloomer, more than any other in its family. As is typical of daylilies, the blooms last one day but there are many on strong stems. They can be used for cut flowers, edging, borders or in mixed containers.

Stella de Oro is a compact daylily reaching only 12” tall in May-July. The flowers are fragrant and the plant forms a dense clump that can functions as a groundcover. It is also drought-tolerant, a real bonus. I am really looking forward to seeing this plant bloom. This is my first daylily.

Lavender Hardy
What more can be said about Lavender. It is a very popular herb mainly for its fragrance. Running your hand over the tops of the plants fills the air with a sweet aroma that makes you think of English gardens and a sweet, unpolluted countryside. It has been used for over 2,500 years as a stewing herb, a mood tonic, an insect repellant, and a food flavoring. Ancient Egyptians used it in the mummification process. Medieval and Renaissance laundresses were called "lavenders" because they used lavender in the storage of clean laundry. The Pilgrims brought the plant to North America in the early 1600s; at that time, lavender flowers sewn in a cap were thought to "comfort the brain very well."

Some lavenders are ‘hardy’ and some are ‘tender’. The tender lavenders are best grown in pots while the hardy lavenders can be grown outdoors as perennials. The best way to determine which is which is by checking the botanical name. The most widely grown hardy lavender is English lavender which comes in two varieties, ‘Munstead’ (18” tall with lilac-colored flowers) and ‘Hidcote’ (16” tall with deep purple-blue flowers). This plant, from Gurney’s, was not labeled as Munstead or Hidcote. The height listed for this plant is 15”-20” with purple flowers. My guess is that maybe they plant one or both varieties together and since they are so similar it doesn’t really matter which one is sold. My rookie eyes cannot tell the difference and I’ll wager the fragrance is just as sweet with either one.


Not as many birds lately

>> Tuesday, October 30, 2007

For some odd reason I haven’t seen as many birds as usual around the feeders and bird baths for the past several days. I get an eerie feeling when I walk out back and don’t see them flocking around as they normally do.

These photos were taken at 2PM, here is the cherry tree, these feeders are usually empty by 1PM.

And this one is in the apple tree.

It isn’t that cold weather is coming on because these House Finches and Mourning Doves and have stayed at these feeders every day for the past three years, right through winter.

When I go out to refill the feeders just after dark, the feeders in the backyard are almost full. I always fill them to the top so some of it is being eaten.

Today, the feeder in the front yard, just outside my office, was half full at 4 PM. This feeder is usually empty by 1 PM.

I have seen cats come around, and I know their usual hiding places. But they always come around and after I chase them away the birds come back.

The Doves are still coming around in the morning and sitting on the top of the chain link fence at the back of the yard. It is the spot that first gets the morning sun, so they warm up there.

I see Finches in the tree tops throughout the day and they do occasionally come down to eat.

I don’t remember this happening last year. It is just so quiet without hearing their usual chirping. I don’t know what to think.


Looking for a few good shrubs

I still have some extra space to fill. Conventional wisdom says you should start any landscape with a good solid foundation, in the case of gardening that foundation is trees and shrubs. I have never found convention to pave the ‘sunniest’ path to happiness for me. Aside from the occasional vine, rose bush and raspberry cane, I have not broken through the three foot height barrier that most perennials live in. Now, I find it is time to reach a little higher into the stratosphere with shrubs. I have fruit trees that should satisfy my need for height, but somehow, the fact that they were a part of this landscape before I was does nothing to fulfill my need to grow a tree and a shrub.

I really should use drought tolerance as a major decision factor since we are undoubtedly heading for a warmer drier climate. That being said, I still want lush growth, fruit for the birds and/or flowers that attracts butterflies, hummers and bees and needs to have at least three seasons of color. Is that asking for too much?

The list of drought tolerant shrubs is fairly short and is usually lacking in at least two of what I consider desirable.

The only shrubs that come close are Butterfly Bush, Red-Osier Dogwood, Viburnum, Purple Beautyberry.

Butterfly Bush-I already have one, and I’m still waiting for the butterflies to come flocking to it. This one is Black Knight.

Red-Osier Dogwood, aka Red twig dogwood- a Utah native, very drought tolerant. The dark red branches make a nice winter accent. There are several varieties of dogwood available that will grow anywhere from 2 to 12 feet high. Beautiful in winter.

Viburnum Aurora-aka Korean Spice, 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, water need is listed as medium, whatever that means. blooms March-April, not much said about winter interest. Attracts birds and butterflies and is fragrant.

Viburnum Red Wing-aka Highbush Cranberry, 8’-10’ tall and wide, good fruiting and flowering

Purple Beautyberry-attracts bees, butterflies, birds, blooms mid0summer, 4’ to 6’ tall and wide, berries in fall, yellow or purplish autumn color.

All of these shrubs have lush growth and attracts wildlife. As far three seasons of color, well, I guess that is asking for too much. These five shrubs are all very nice looking shrubs for my zone 5 conditions and overall I’m pretty pleased with these.


Recycling urine?

>> Sunday, October 28, 2007

Average rainfall in Utah is around 1” per month. June and July are the lowest at .7” and March, April and October are the most at 1.3”. By comparison, Georgia’s lowest rainfall is in October at 3.1 which is almost two and a half times more than Utah’s highest month.

If you have been watching the weather, as most good gardeners do, you will know that Georgia is under strict water restrictions due to lack of rainfall.

At this rate, the Southeast is quickly becoming the new Southwest as far as aridity goes.

Utah received less rain than average this year but we did not suffer any water restrictions. Hopefully this winter will bring heavy snowfall because we depend more on our snow pack than we do on rain to help fill our reservoirs.

Reservoirs are very low, well, I guess it’s the same everywhere.

But did you see what NASA has come up with?

NASA has worked out how to recycle urine into drinking water.

Take a deep breath.

Okay, I know we need to do something to conserve water, and I am perfectly willing to cut back some when ever I can. And if I have to I will cut back a little more so I don’t have to drink my urine.

Are we really at this point? Please, say it ain’t so.


Bulbs are up, oops, wrong season

While weeding yesterday I discovered that the Irises and Grape Hyacinths having broken ground! I don’t recall this happening last year but it seems odd that they didn’t wait through the cold first. Do they have to have that cold spell before they come up? and will this affect them coming up next spring?

Grape Hyacinths


It is possible that I did not plant them deep enough. But what I have read says they should be planted shallower in heavy clay soil. I worked this soil to about 8” deep before planting the bulbs and put them in about 4”-6”.

My research shows me that a little top growth is to be expected as bulbs settle in for winter; flowers now are unlikely. Once the weather cools off, this growth will subside; don't expect it to continue too much longer.

The bulbs were planted in November 2006 and came up this past spring.

I also discovered that established grape hyacinths put up top growth in late summer which can stay evergreen through winter. I did not know that.

This top growth should not affect the spring flowering, so I guess they are okay.


Is this a compost pile?

Went out this morning, 9 AM, 41F, and emptied all of the containers I had sitting on my back deck. Every time I walk out there lately it seems they are taunting me with their half-hearted growth of lettuce, chives, carrots, radishes, chamomile and parsley. As if saying “I’m not getting any better, so you may as well toss me out before we freeze to death!” They all sprouted okay. It’s just that I haven’t done justice by them by putting together a workable ‘thriving’ schedule, just a ‘surviving’ schedule of the occasional watering and feeding. It is definitely an aspect of gardening I want to work on. Just like I want to work on having a compost pile.

I dumped seven containers of soil and plants onto the ‘compost pile’, if I may be allowed to call it a compost pile. That term may not be accepted by people who have ‘real’ compost piles. The soil I dumped on it was potting soil and full of roots so I think it is a worthwhile addition.

I started the ‘pile’ three summers ago with a little soil and a lot of good intentions of starting a compost pile. It’s been sitting on a 9’x12’ concrete slab that looks like it might have been planned for a shed.

Since then the pile has languished through the heat of summer and the freeze of winter slowly collecting grass clippings of a yard that has been sprayed with weed killer and whatever feed that my lawn company has been using. I also throw the occasional small trash can of shredded paper. When I think about it I’ll dowse the pile with water and if memory serves, I even threw a 5 lb bag of Blood Meal on it once, thinking I would actually start actively working the pile for its intended purpose. But, that didn’t work. The part about me working the pile, that is.

I haven’t been brave enough yet to throw kitchen scraps on it. For one thing we don’t seem to generate much in the way of useful kitchen scarps. It just doesn’t seem that what little we do produce would add much to it.

It isn’t a trash pile, I mean, I don’t throw anything on it that shouldn’t be thrown onto a full fledged compost pile. I guess this is what you would call a ‘passive’ compost pile. More passive than I would like.

As for the ‘tainted’ grass, my thinking is that the bad stuff in it will leech out and it would not harm my garden plots, if I wait long enough. How long is long enough? I’ve heard that with rains and regular watering the grass should be usable in about two months. I have also heard that it is okay to throw this tainted grass onto a compost pile but it is not okay to put the clippings directly on the beds.

I’ve toyed with building a couple of bins so that the pile can be easily tossed from one to the other as a means of turning the pile. The pile is by no means big enough to use in every plot I am working so it’s not like I would benefit a lot by having a compost pile. I guess that what little bit I get out of it would help a little.

One of these days I’m going to have to turn it all over to see if the stuff at the bottom has turned into anything useful. In the meantime it is going to sit there looking, to the casual observer, like I know what I’m doing.


Michigan Bulb Co order

>> Saturday, October 27, 2007

Here’s another order to help fill up my beds and my insatiable need for more. Michigan Bulb Co usually offers a one cent sale and their selection isn't as exotic as some, but they have a good selection of plants and fair prices.

This order was packed liked they care. I love it when a nursery uses extra packing to protect their plants. I'm not crazy about the 'peanuts' but the Hydrangea is the only plant that received this treatment. The box was slightly damaged in transit on one end, and I expected to see some internal damage as a result. Everything inside was unaffected which attests to the care they put into the packing material.

Everything else came in plastic which completely encased the plant. The leaves are very healthy, when I looked at the roots of several of the plants at random they are very well-developed and healthy as well. This protection scheme is one of the best so far.

Dianthus Maiden Pink.
Grows to 6” tall and 12” spread. Loves neutral to alkaline soil which is any clay area so it should do marvelously here in the Utah valley.

When I search for Maiden Pinks I get info on a long list of plants called Maiden Pink. For instance, Zing Rose, Flashing Light, Confetti, Brilliancy, etc. The catalog I ordered these from just calls them Maiden Pinks so I don’t know which plant from this long list this one is. I can eliminate some of them because they are white but the others are all bright pink to rose-red to crimson-red. So it will be a mystery. This photo from the internet calls it Maiden Pink.

Dianthus in general confuse me. Some people call them carnations, pinks, Sweet William. I wonder why so many cultivars use the same generic name. Most other flowers are pretty specific with their names.

Campanula Glomerata. Commonly known as Bellflower.
Here’s another plant whose name could get you a wide variety of cultivar. When I search for Campanula Glomerata I can get Clustered Bellflower, Clustered Bellflower Joan Elliott, Clustered Bellflower Superba, Campanula Glomerata Caroline, etc. Some of these plants look so similar that I don’t see how they can be differentiated. Some are blue, some are white. The catalog I ordered this one from just says Bellflower. It is beautiful though, regardless of the name.

Hydrangea Annabelle.
Now this one is very distinct in its name, size, shape, color etc, so that when you ask for Hydrangea Annabelle you know exactly what you are going to receive. The white blooming heads are over 10” in diameter (sometimes up to 12") and bloom no matter how they are pruned. This is my kind of plant. The perfect beginners shrub.
I just learned that this shrub can live up to 50 years! I never thought about how long a specific plant lives I just figured that they always leave seeds behind to continue their line.
There are several categories of Hydrangea, this one is a “smooth”.
This is the one shrub I want most to grow. My Grandmother had one of these and it was HUGE! I have my doubts as to whether or not Utah is the correct climate for it. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Veronica Red Fox.
Aka Speedwell. Flowers from June until September 15” tall by 18” spread. These are quickly becoming some of my favorite plants. They are very widely grown because they compliment so many other flowers and they attract bees like crazy. I have three other Veronica varieties, all blue, so I am looking forward to seeing these rosy-pink spikes. They say these are not as invasive as other Veronica but I'll probably add more, just in case they are not.


Not all roots are created equal

>> Thursday, October 25, 2007

While looking at my desk this morning, my eyes stopped on the stack of reading material that has been growing since, well, the last time I whittled it down to manageable size.

I spotted a planting guide pamphlet and I opened it. There on page 4 was a little box separated from everything else and entitled Root Types.

Okay, now, I know there are basically two types of rooting systems, bulbs, with all of its various shapes, each with its own name, such as rhizomes, tubers, corms and cormels, and then there are, well, roots. But I never realized there are actually five different root types, each with its own method of planting and growing.

When I put a plant into the ground I’ve been concerned only with spreading out the roots, once I’ve pull them out of their little containers, and simply plopping them into a well prepared mix of potting soil and time released fertilizer, and then pressing them in until their crowns are at ground level. And of course watering them well after that.

Now I learn, that since there are five different types of roots, I need to pay a little more attention to how I set the plant into the ground instead of just plopping it in. It seems I may have caused the little buggers some undue stress.

Here’s the lowdown: there are fibrous roots, long taproots, rhizomes, roots with eyes, and fleshy roots. This mix still looks like bulbs and roots to me.

Bulbs are pretty easy to figure out, and curiously missing from this list. Anyway, place them 2-3 times their diameter deep, pointy side up, and cover with soil. Pretty straight forward.

Roots however are a bit more, shall we say, particular. Fibrous roots (carnations, mums, phlox) want to spread downward and not be cramped. Don’t we all. Their crowns want to be at or slightly above the soil. Rhizomes (bearded, Japanese and Lilliput irises) want the same thing, their top should be slightly visible above the soil.

Long taproot plants (hollyhocks, hibiscus, columbine, etc) need to be placed just below soil line so they don’t rot.

Roots with eyes (peonies) and fleshy roots (daylilies and hostas) like to sit on a cone shaped mound with their roots spread around the mound. Roots with eyes should be lightly covered with soil while fleshy roots like to be covered and then firmly pressed in.

I hope my phlox, irises, columbine, hostas, etc will forgive my ‘barbarian’ assault on their roots by planting them all at ground level and firming them in. I don’t think I’m going to go back and replant them just to satisfy these rules. May the plant gods forgive me.

I guess planting perennials is different from planting vegetables. Unless I learn that I have been doing that wrong too. It seems their needs are a bit more refined than vegetables.

Hmmm, I should read a little deeper through this pamphlet and see what else I have been doing wrong. But then, why stress myself? I'll learn as I go.


Winter mulch

>> Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Here’s what I discovered in reading about mulching for winter.

What is the difference between summer mulch and winter mulch anyway? I mean, you mulch to protect your plants, right? Something I never considered was timing. I was just going to throw a couple of inches of mulch on everything before it snows, much as we throw on a blanket on cold winter nights to keep us warm. Well imagine my surprise when a neighbor told me to wait until the ground freezes before mulching. I must have looked at him as if he were crazy or just pulling my leg. I told him that it would be too late then, that the tender roots of my newly planted plants would freeze to death by then.

So, I went to the internet to do some research. Not that I doubted what he told me. Well, alright, I did doubt him. After being told I should cut my Butterfly bushes to the ground in the spring so they will come back more beautiful and fuller than ever and that action led to their deaths, I decided for my own peace of mind that I’m going to have to double-check everything I hear.

What I found really made sense. The time to apply mulch is after the temperature is consistently below freezing. That’s right, wait until the ground freezes and then apply the mulch. This is because the plant needs to be dormant and winter mulch allows the plant to remain dormant until the spring sun can warm it up again. If you apply it too soon then you create a layer of warmth that could cause the plant to produce new growth and if this happens then the tender new buds will be killed when it does freeze.

Also, by applying mulch before the ground freezes you can smother a plant that is still growing. Because it is still growing and needs air circulation you are actually creating a perfect environment for diseases. So, wait until the ground freezes before mulching.

Typically, 2”-4” is adequate. Organic material, such as stiff leaves, straw, pine needles, hay or bark chips, is best because of two reasons. One, is that this bulky stuff allows some air circulation, whereas anything that mashes down creates a soggy mess that completely seals the plant which leads to, again, that perfect environment for diseases.

Now when I say stiff leaves, what I mean is Oak or Beech because they won’t mat down. Softer leaves such as Maple pack down and blocks air and water from passing through.

Okay, the second reason to use organic materials, as opposed to inorganic, is because it will break down into the soil, while inorganic materials won’t. The reason this is beneficial is because it will allow the soil to become more coarse which facilitates the flow of air and water and prevents clay soil, like I have here in Utah, from packing down into a brick.

Another thing I didn’t consider is the soil needs to be protected from the freeze/thaw cycle that can cause damage by heaving. So again, it makes sense to wait until the soil freezes and then the mulch to keep it frozen. Heaving pushes plant roots up out of the ground and is most harmful to shallow-rooted plants and any newly planted specimens that have not yet rooted.

For roses, it is best to mulch after the first hard frost by mounding soil over the crown, usually 6” deep. This is especially important for grafted roses. As I learned the hard way, a grafted rose is a rose of a specialty color that has been grafted onto a root stock, usually a red rose because they are most common. If the rose dies back to the ground and the root survives you will be greeted with a very different rose than the beautiful yellow or white rose you had last year.

Just as a side note, own-root roses do not suffer this problem.

Remove winter mulch in spring as soon as new growth begins. Pull it away from the base of the plant by about 3” to allow air circulation.

Now that was an especially informative trip to the internet and I told my neighbor he was absolutely right and I will believe whatever he tells me in the future. Well, only after I verify it first.


My ‘to do’ list is burying me

>> Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Over this spring and summer I have been making a list of all the cool ideas I have seen in magazines, books, blogs, websites, etc that I would like to put into my yard and garden.

Last week, I took a look at that list. Then, after stepping back, taking a deep breath, and developing a very skeptical frown, said to myself "There is no way you are going to get all of that done!" I may have created a monster. One that will most assuredly demand every free minute of my time. I know me well enough to know that I won’t do all of this. Hmmm, maybe if I break it down into smaller pieces so it doesn’t look so overwhelming, I can get it done. I am a hopeless optimist. Time management will definitely play a huge roll if this list is going to be completed.

1-Replace grass under the fruit trees with groundcover so I don’t have to mow under them.
2-fill low areas in lawn with top soil
3-replace west gate with new gate, trellis and plant bed
4-replace grassy area at east gate, next to garage/shed with brick pavers in a lattice design (with thyme growing in the open areas)
5-build a cover over the deck, to block out sun, and to hang plants from
6-build trellis over B3 perennial bed to provide some relief from the intense sun
7-build a ladder trellis for containers to set on back deck
8-build shelves in back shed to store pots, plant trays, etc
9-lay a flagstone walkway to back shed
10-install walkway lights along driveway and front/back walkways
11-design an herbal bed and make herbal vinegars, potpourris, teas, etc
12-design and build a row cover system to extend growing season
13-design and build a cold frame
14-paint bird bath and shed doors deep blue?
15-make edging more permanent with bricks or stone
16-make hose guides for garden hoses until irrigation system is installed
17-build another tower for runner beans
18-build a better trellis for tomatoes, those wire jobs are just not strong enough
19-install irrigation system, tired of dragging garden hose around, timer would be a life saver
20-design a trellis for front of house to grow clematis and or honeysuckle

I am sure the list will get longer before it gets shorter. I find so many great ideas from reading garden blogs, etc that I can't help but want to try them myself. Maybe I should just learn to restrict myself a little. Oh, where's the fun in that?


Where does our food come from?

>> Friday, October 19, 2007

I found an interesting article on the website Grist. The article tells of how Iowa has traditionally been the “bread basket” of the U.S. producing a variety of foods for humans but since the advent of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides the number of farms has diminished and food production has become specialized in other parts of the country. Iowa has turned to being the biggest provider of livestock feed instead of human food.

The article tells how local farmers are beginning to return to the small local farms of years past, when they produced their own natural fertilizer, shunned synthetic pesticides and produced healthier more natural foods for humans.

The article is part of a series on food and farming and deserves a read.


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