Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reblooming Iris?

Are there really reblooming irises? It does sound like a great concept, primarily because irises are ALL ABOUT the FLOWER;  after the spring bloom, the foliage, with a few notable exceptions such as I. pallida 'Variegata', doesn't add much to the garden and in fact, can look pretty ratty at times.  I've yet though, to my chagrin, to find the intersection of good care and good weather that will allow irises to rebloom consistently here in Kansas.


Earl of Essex
I first became aware of the possibility that some irises could have fall rebloom a couple of years back and once the concept sunk in, I sought out and planted a row of eight or ten varieties that were labeled as "reblooming" on the edge of a raised west-facing bed.  I now find that it was not as simple as it sounded.  The Reblooming Iris Society (yes, there is one), actually lists several types of reblooming irises including "cycle rebloomers" which bloom spring and fall, "repeaters" that produce new flowers right after the first spring flush, extending the spring bloom to one or two months, and "all-season rebloomers" which produce flowers irregularly over the season.  Unfortunately, most retailers, including some specialty nurseries, don't distinguish between these types and call them all "rebloomers", so you takes your chances.  I also have learned that gardeners in zones 3 and 4 can forget it;  little or no rebloom is seen in those areas ('Immortality', a white reblooming iris that is almost continually blooming in Southern California  may be the exception for cold areas).  And tropical areas may not see rebloom because cooler weather is needed to set off the second part of the cycle.  Finally, some varieties take a couple of years to start reblooming, so, once again, the gardener is asked to be patient. Luckily for us, selection for patience in gardeners is a Darwinian process. You are either patient, learn patience, or you don't garden long.  

This fall, my ' Immortality'  has produced a couple of anemic-looking blooms and the iris 'Earl of Essex', pictured above, did save the day with a few gorgeous and fragrant specimens.  Thus, two out of ten varieties that should rebloom have given me back a little bit for my efforts so far.  Even then, the 'Earl of Essex' was a bit aggravating because that particular plant in that place should have been the purple 'Grape Accent'.  I've become a fanatic about recording plant positions in my garden (because I long ago lost the names of most of my daylilies and the once-blooming irises) and when I put the new reblooming irises in the bed I made a special effort to get their positions right.  And, somehow, I still got them messed up.  Fiddlemuffins.

If you're going to try the reblooming irises, they require just a little more attention because they are said to grow more vigorously.  They benefit from a little low-nitrogen fertilizer in spring and fall and they should be watered more often during the summer to prevent dormancy.  And, of course, since water tends to make iris rhizomes rot, it is recommended to keep the rebloomers separate from other iris and to take extra efforts to make sure the soil drains easily.  They also need to be divided more often than usual for best results.  And good luck.  Schreiner's Iris Gardens lists 65 iris varieties that consistently rebloom in Oregon, including three iris that I grow with my regular iris and which I've never seen rebloom, and then they follow the list up with the admonition to "remember that remonancy is NOT guaranteed."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Garden Game

Recently, O.N.E. at her blog "Onenezz" or "One with Nature and Environment" challenged me to list ten things I enjoy doing as part of a little "Garden Game," which is in reality a little gardening blog ponzi scheme.  Okay, what the heck, I'm game:

Ten Things I Enjoy (in no particular order):

Planting
Despite the horrific clay mixed with flinty boulder soil that I have to dig in, I love to plant something new.  Particularly something that I've never grown before.  It's a little like giving birth, over and over, with the expected amount of sweat but not with all the icky fluids associated with animal births.

Reading
I'm a reader, always have been. As you can tell from my blog, I follow most of the better known garden authors, and beyond that I read fiction and mysteries and current events and biographies and generally most everything I can lay my hands on.






Browsing Garden Centers
There's nothing better to waste time than browsing garden centers. Doesn't matter if I've got a need, I can always make another hole to plant something in. That I enjoy this is something long recognized by my family, who refuses to go anywhere with me unless I promise I'll stick to a route that doesn't pass a garden store. Once, when we pulled up to a store and parked, my three year old daughter exclaimed "Oh No, Not More Roses!" with the same timber and pitch that a Titanic passenger would have exclaimed "Heaven Help Us!"

Waiting for the First Bloom
The first bloom on any new plant is always an anticipated joy.  Okay, sometimes it's a disappointment, but most of the time it's a joy.

Eating Strawberries
When the Greeks talked about ambrosia, I think they were referring to Strawberries.  Particularly sun-warmed, and eaten directly in the garden.  There is no fruit above them, in my opinion and they're the only fruit really worth all the trouble to produce.  Felt that way since I was a small boy. 

Garden Sounds and Fragrances
Nothing like closing my eyes and listening to the rustles of the Kansas wind in the Cottonwood trees. Or the Meadowlarks singing on the prairie in the morning. Many of the plants I grow are grown for their fragrance. Honeysuckles, Sweet Autumn Clematis, Roses, Peonies, and Iris all work best on the Kansas prairie for providing scent.

Writing
Writing follows as a natural consequence of reading and gardening and it also is an integral part of my work as an academic veterinary surgeon and educator, so I write during a significant portion of my time in one way or another.  That won't be new to those who have been to this blog before, nor will it be new to those who read the Garden Musings book that came before the blog.

Veterinary Orthopedic Surgery
What can I say? I'm lucky that I like what I do for a living. Surgery is a place where I immerse myself in a smaller world without the greater world's troubles, a world of anatomy and bone and muscle that is fixable and finite and leaves me at the end of the day with a feeling of accomplishment.  It's a Zen thing for me.  And I think the dogs appreciate it.

Watching Movies with my Wife
Dating, for us, was always a movie and it still is. Almost every week.  Not a lot of talk, just some popcorn and quiet time spent in proximity to one another.

Target Shooting
Yeah, with guns.  I won't try here to analyze the Freudian implications, but late in life, I've come to enjoy the concentration and satisfaction of placing a lead projectile into a small area of paper from a distance. Maybe it's a surgeon thing;  doing something carefully and accurately, the first time and every time. 



I've invited  the bloggers listed below to join in the game.  For those invited, the rules are simple:

a)  List ten things you enjoy doing.
b) Tell who invited you and where they blog
c) Invite another ten bloggers (or thereabouts) to join in.

A Photographer's Garden Blog
A Way to Garden
Fold, Fallow and Plough
Gardening Gone Wild
Hartwood Roses
High Altitude Gardening
May Dreams Garden
The Citrus Guy
This Garden is Illegal

And good luck.  In the meantime, we'll all get to know each other better, right?




Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ban the Dust in the Wind

I thought I'd heard the pinnacle of supreme bureaucratic overreach when I learned about the EPA considering the banning of our annual spring burn (see my blog titled Burn the Prairie!) but it seems the EPA was just getting warmed up.

Recent frantic headlines and editorials across the Midwest, all something on the variation of "EPA to Crack Down on Farm Dust," have alerted anyone with the slightest interest in current events that the EPA is reevaluating the dangers present in the air we breathe; particularly regarding PM (particulate matter).  Twenty-one farm state US Senators signed a letter on July 23rd opposing changes in PM standards.  The local news picked it up about 5 nights ago and the local Manhattan, Kansas newspaper even ran an editorial on the subject late this week.   

All the hubbub is about the Policy Assessment for the Review of the Particulate Matter National Ambient Air Quality Standards (released to the public via the Federal Register on July 8, 2010).   Now, I'll tell you, even with my generally good scientific background, the 357 pages of this report are tough to read.  And it's difficult to take away anything that suggests that this is a farm issue.  The word "farm" only occurs in the report when discussing past litigation of standards and listing the American Farm Bureau Association as being one of the parties to the litigation.  And "agriculture" is only mentioned referring to a previous study that found that western airborne "contaminants were shown to accumulate geographically based on proximity to individual sources or source areas, primarily agriculture and industry."  In fact, all I can essentially glean from the report is that it is a comprehensive review of the evidence that particulate matter has detrimental effects on the cardiovascular, respiratory and visual systems, among other important body stuff.  All the hype about farmers having to wet down their fields before harvest and all dirt roads needing to be paved is coming from somewhere else, not from the report.  The big news that I can understand comes in Appendix 2, Table 2A-1 where it's revealed that under current PM standards, 12% of US counties (and 24% of the population) fail the standards, while the alternative standards being considered would result in anywhere from 29% to 79% of the counties (accounting for the living area of most of the US population) failing the new standards.  

So, I don't get it, myself, but out there in the public view there's a fairly dry report on particulate matter standards by what I'm sure are a bunch of highly knowledgeable, well-meaning scientists working for the EPA, and somewhere, some other intelligent scientists, who can draw conclusions from that report far better than me, are raising alarm sufficient to rile 21 US Senators that the EPA is trying to destroy America. 

I don't know how all this will finally shake out and whether we'll all just agree in the end that we can't really control (or it's too expensive and cumbersome to control) agricultural dust, or whether the EPA will establish new standards that will either lead to the total destruction of agriculture and business in the US or to another Revolution.  In the meantime, my feeble brain is pretty aware of the fact that "all we are is Dust in the Wind" to quote the famous rock song by Kansas.  Since most of the problem here is recognized as being created by human action, maybe People are the dust that the EPA will ultimately recognize should be banned.  Seems we're heading in that direction.  

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Idiot-Proof Scanner Photography

For all those poor souls who, like me, sadly have the artistic ability of a donkey no matter what the canvas, I've got to show my first results with a new technique; using a computer and scanner to create collages with my garden bounty.


I became aware of scanner photography through the GardeningGoneWild Bloom Challenge website which had wonderful examples and was itself linked to a blog containing the works of photographer David Perry titled A Photographer's Garden Blog.  The breadth of possibilities and expression demonstrated on Perry's blog inflamed my obsessive-compulsive nature and, although pausing for supper, I spent the evening after my discovery choosing flowers and vegetation and trying the technique out my home scanner, and after a little photo editing, I created, among many others, the images here.


You've just got to try this technique out.  To get started, you need only a computer, scanner, and some garden material and after that, the sky is the limit.  Literally.  As far as tips go, I've already got a few from my brief experience:

a)  Use only perfect blooms and foliage;  the scanner will pick up every little imperfection.
b)  Keep the scanner surface perfectly dust- and streak-free.  Again, any defect will mar the final picture.
c) The only perfectly focused items will be right on the scanner surface. Items and blooms even slightly off the surface quickly lose focus.
d)  For pictures without a background, keep the room lights off and do the scanning at night to get a background that a little photo manipulation will turn to seamless black.
e)  You can try colored or patterned backgrounds, but in practice, I found it tough to make the textures of these backgrounds fit the pictures.
f) The photo editing software need not be sophisticated, but you will need some editing capability.  I used Microsoft Office Picture Manager for these pictures.


Give it a shot;  you'll amaze yourself and stun the friends and family who've given up on ever seeing your artsy side!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ravishing Madame Hardy

Over forty posts into this blog and I am remiss by not admitting that while I don't, as a general rule, pick favorites for most things, I do, however, have a favorite rose.  I confess publicly that I love the delectable purity of Madame Hardy.

Madame Hardy
'Madame Hardy' is an 1832 Damask rose that is probably one of the most unique and recognizable roses of all time.  The first indication of her delicate nature is the unique fringed sepals that surround the developing blooms. The blooms open flat and completely, normally revealing a fully double rose of pure white petals around a central green pip, but  in cool weather Madame Hardy seems a little embarrassed about revealing so much of herself at one time and there will be a slight cream or pink blush when she first opens.  Those perfectly formed blooms are held above a light matte green foliage on a bush completely unlike that of modern roses.  Instead of coarse, thick-caned, thorny and stiff legs, Madame Hardy has a perfect vase-like form, with thin long canes that seldom branch, but run from foot to head, and her thorns are reserved and ladylike in their lack of aggressiveness.  And the fragrance!  Sweet honey with overtones of lemon, Madame Hardy has a perfume that is strong and at the same time light upon the senses.  She doesn't beat you with fragrance like an Oriental Lily, she entices you, she lures you, and finally seduces you into worship.  If I were to chose a single word to describe this consummate lady, it would be "elegant."  She blooms only once a year, Madame Hardy, but when she blooms the angels have come to earth and blessed us with a glimpse of heaven. 

Madame Hardy was known to be a special rose from the beginning.  Her breeder, Monsieur Jules-Alexandre Hardy, was the Superintendent of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and an acknowledged expert on fruit trees, dabbling in roses on the side.  Some references, including Michael Pollan in Second Nature, a Gardener's Education, state that Monsieur Hardy was the head gardener for the Empress Josephine's rose collections at Malmaison, but the timing seems a bit off to me since Monsieur Hardy was born in 1787 and would only have been 25 years old by the time Josephine died in 1812.   All sources agree that Monsieur Hardy named this rose after his own wife, a testament to his devotion for eternity, and if that was his intention, he couldn't have chosen better.  One source states that the original name for this rose, after his wife, was 'Félicité Hardy', while another source gives the wife's name as Marie-Thérèse Pezard, but regardless, the rose has come to us down the ages as 'Madame Hardy'. According to Alex Pankhurst, in Who Does Your Garden Grow?, "by 1885 there were over six thousand varieties of rose available....that year a French rose journal recommended 'Madame Hardy' as one of the best..."  More recently, the celebrated British rose expert, Graham Thomas, wrote, “This variety is still unsurpassed by any rose.”

Alas, for all rose fanatics, Madame Hardy remains chaste in the garden and won't form hips or contribute pollen to other roses.  She would have undoubtedly been a great source for breeding a line of fantastic modern roses, but leaves us with no rivals, only her own beauty to be admired.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Little Piece of Texas

Like most of the US population, Kansans sometimes exhibit a little bit of Texas envy, manifested in the gardening population of Kansas by a desire to grow Texas Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush.  Since neither of the forementioned plants are reliably hardy in my climate (don't think I haven't tried!), I've turned to another native Texas plant to satisfy my yearnings; Red Yucca, also known as Texas Red Yucca or Red False Yucca.

Of course, since I've only been in Texas once, not counting a few hops through the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, I was introduced to Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) in Las Vegas, where it serves as a common xeri-landscape plant.  I'm sure any native Las Vegans, if in fact there are any, could identify the plant on sight, but I suffered on that particular trip from being in a foreign climate where a) I had no real idea what I was looking at, and b)  neither did any of the people working for the hotels and casinos that I asked.  From experience, I'm guessing that casino dealers and hostesses as a general rule don't spend a lot of time admiring the casino landscaping.  Identification had to wait for my return home and access to a computer, where I recognized Hesperaloe on the High Country Gardens website as the plant I'd just spent three days lusting after.

Hesperaloe parviflora 'Yellow'
Red Yucca is found native to the Rio Grande and northern Mexico area, in the Chihuahuan desert, where it matures to a 2-3 foot high and 4 foot wide succulent mound with narrow blue-green leaves and filamentous edges.  The plant flowers over a long period with inverted bell-shaped flowers of coral red, and it is well-suited for xeriscaping by its drought-tolerant, full-sun requirements and its preference for alkaline soil.  I was happy to see that it's a favored plant by hummingbirds and requires little or no maintenance beyond cutting down the flower stalks.  In fact, one helpful Internet gardener commented that it grows in very poor soil, "virtually no soil," so it seems made for my Flint Hills clay.  It's supposed to be hardy to zone 5, and evergreen to boot, so I'm giving this one a chance in my garden.  I've planted two different varieties from High Country Gardens, the red Hesperaloe and a yellow form (Hesperaloe parviflora 'Yellow'), both in somewhat well-drained poor-soil areas. Both survived the hot, dry summer we just had and needed minimal extra watering for establishment.   The yellow form, pictured at left, is doing great and probably has doubled in size since June, although it hasn't yet bloomed. I have great hope for it as I've seen reports of it growing in Denver, Colorado, and Shawnee Mission, Kansas, the latter just a hop, skip, and dead plant away.

So, once again, I'm stepping out into the murky waters of zonal envy and pinning my dreams for garden excellence on a whimsically-chosen plant glimpsed in someone else's climate.  You'd think I'd learn, expecting providence while staring from warm September down into the depths of a Kansas winter.  You'd think all gardeners would learn, but gardeners, more than all other human strains, seem to remain eternal optimists in the face of repeated failure.

Monday, September 20, 2010

BumbleBee Harvest Time

Ornamental grasses are all the rage in the fall garden these days and gardeners also crave any shrub whose foliage turns red, orange, or yellow to light up our fall landscapes.  As we design our landscapes solely to ease us softly into bitter winter, however, we should not forget that while it's harvest time all over Kansas and the Midwest for the grain needed to sustain mankind though the winter, it's harvest time for all the other creatures of Earth as well.

While fall gardeners still value flowering plants for adding color to the garden, there is no better reason to keep fall-blooming plants in your garden than to provide that final fall burst of energy for the many creatures who need nectar for winter stores, whether it's the hummingbirds migrating south for the winter or it is the bumblebee at the right, sipping at the 'Blue Mist' caryopteris.  In fact, take a closer look at that blue-collar workaholic bumblebee; covered in pollen from the many visits, it doesn't have time for a shower or a deodorant spritz, it's just buzz buzz buzz till the cold saps its energy.  Bumblebees store only a few days energy in the nest and each individual must reach a certain weight before entering their hibernation state if they are to survive the winter.  Astonishing efficient and cooperative, they leave a little scent deposit on every flower they visit, a gentle way of communicating to the next bumblebee to come along not to bother wasting time at that particular blossom.  In the fall, they benefit most from lavenders, asters, sunflowers, hyssop, sedums, goldenrods and salvias, which accounts for the activity around my lavenders and for all the Blue Sage (Salvia azurea), goldenrod, and sunflowers blooming all over the Kansas prairie right now.  I've not had a lot of luck with heather here in the Flint Hills, but a dense patch would help shelter the bumblebees in inclement weather so it might be worth a try in a sheltered area. Several sources noted that honeysuckles are also valuable in fall as a rich supply of nectar for bumblebees.  And I noticed just this weekend that my 'Florida Red' honeysuckle was blooming again.  Smart vine, that honeysuckle!

Of course, other flowers and plants are useful for these and other visitors.  The  Buddleia sp. keep up their display to attract butterflies like the late season Thoas Swallowtail pictured at the right.  The milkweeds sacrifice themselves for the greater glory of the Monarch.  And of course, nothing likes the honeysuckle better than the migrating hummingbirds.

Every plant has its favorite pollinator, every insect a favored plant, all synchronized to mix and mingle just at the right time to keep them all going, year after year, eon after eon.  Seems like there's a Grand Plan to all this, doesn't it? 


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seventh Generation Gardening

Jim Nollman, in "Why We Garden"  tells a unique story in the chapter on his Sequoia tree garden.  He relates that whenever the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy held a council meeting, the  Haudenosaunee (Iroquois tribal government) took a moment to invoke the presence of the seventh future generation.  According to Nollman, under the Great Law of Peace, any vote among the living council members also included an equal vote for the needs and dignity of those who would live in the seventh generation to come. 

Isn't that just a great concept?  If in everything we did, in everything done by our system of government, there was a voice or a vote by a representative for the Seventh Generation, how would that change the debates?  What would it mean for US environmental policies?  For drilling in the Arctic tundra?  For saving the Spotted Owl?   At the turn of the 20th Century, would it have saved the Ivory-billed Woodpecker?  Or the Carolina Parakeet?  If the Executive Board of British Petroleum had a member whose sole duty was to represent the Seventh Generation, would the Gulf Spill have happened?  Unfortunately, the modern expression  of the "Seventh Generation" idea seems to have only spawned hype for any number of modern products and outcomes, from the green cleaners and laundry detergents made by Seventh Generation Inc., to the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, to the proposed Seventh Generation Amendment (Common Property Amendment) for the US Constitution.

 Unfortunately, it also all seems to be based on a myth.  I'll admit that I'm cheating on the research effort, since I've only searched the Internet, but in two different translations of Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois available to me, the word "seven" is mentioned only twice, both times in relation to how thick a skin a council member should have, and the future generations are only invoked in a vague sense, as in Article 56 "They therefore shall labor, legislate, and council together for the interest of future generations,"  or in another passage that states, "Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground."  And in practice, I suppose the idea of a representative for the Seventh Generation wouldn't work in our government.  Who would speak for the Seventh Generation?  Al Gore?  George Soros?  Rush Limbaugh?
 
Luckily for gardeners, the Seventh Generation concept does work well in our own gardens.  When I planted a slow-growing Scarlet Oak at the back of my garden, who did I think would benefit from its shade?  Not me, surely, for 8 years later it still barely lifts its branches four foot above the ground.  When I plant a pecan tree, what generation am I expecting will finally be the beneficiary of the nuts that will rain down sometime in the distant future?  Do I maintain my Purple Martin houses and Bluebird trail for my enjoyment, or so that there will be a chance that Eastern Bluebirds and Purple Martins will always return to this bit of Flint Hills prairie with each Spring? How long will vanity let me leave the volunteer milkweeds alone, creating a shamble of my garden design, but providing food for the dwindling Monarch butterflies?  
 
Whether or not the story told by Nollman is true, please plant something today, make a new garden bed, or put up a new birdhouse, I urge you, for the Seventh Generation. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Garden Tranquilizers

If, my fellow gardeners, you missed the news while you were out digging and planting, Science has recently discovered that gardening is addicting, or at least responsible for our generally cheerful moods, and even better, that gardening might make us smarter.

Stupid scientists.  We already knew both those things, didn't we?

It's all about a natural soil bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae.  Previous research studies have shown that heat-killed M. vaccae injected into mice stimulated growth of some brain neurons that resulted in increased levels of serotonin and decreased anxiety.  Serotonin, for the medically uninitiated, is a neurotransmitter that helps us sleep, regulates our body clocks and our body temperature, and regulates our daily cycle of endogenous cortisol, calming us down at night. So, in essence, due to bacteria we're exposed to as we dig, gardening is just a big dose of anti-depressants for its stalwart devotees. It's also true that LSD acts through stimulation of serotonin receptors, so draw your own conclusions from there to some of the gardeners you know.

More recently, a study presented in San Diego by Dorothy Matthews and Susan Jenks at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology reported on the ability of mice to navigate a maze after being fed the bacteria..  The result;  M. vaccae-fed mice negotiated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors than control mice.

As gardeners, we're constantly exposed to M. vaccae through breathing or ingestion (for those who garden with an open mouth), so, in theory, every time we dig into the dirt, we relax a little bit and we get a little smarter.   I, for one, am happy to keep digging (or I'm digging to keep happy)  to get my daily fix of M. vaccae.  I'll leave it to the WEEW/OGB (Wild-Eyed Environmental Wackos/Organic Nut-Balls) to promote eating dirt clods or drinking muddy water for the "natural" benefits.

Follow-up experiments by Matthews and Jenks showed that the increased intelligence effect was temporary (diminished after several weeks)  if the exposure to M. vaccae was withdrawn, suggesting that it is important for us to keep digging regularly and perhaps explaining why Northern Hemisphere gardeners are so depressed during winter months.  Rebecca Kolls of Rebecca's Garden TV show fame was always telling us to "Keep those hands dirty!" wasn't she?   If nothing else, we now have some evidence why gardeners should be better at getting around those corn mazes that crop up everywhere in the Fall.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Green Rose Surprise

I'm sure we've all seen those cheap, small, sad-looking supermarket roses that we either pass by or we purchase on a whim, keep indoors until the blackspot denudes them, and then toss on the compost heap.  But how many of us ever consider planting one out in the larger garden?

In a moment of late summer weakness last year, and knowing I had a few square inches in the miniature rose bed, I was hijacked by the striking appearance of one of these little orphans which appeared to have, I'm not kidding, light green petals.  I did a double-take after noticing the green buds and examined it further, knowing that a green rose was impossible (except for the mutant Rosa chinensis viridiflora that has no petals and lots of sepals).  I suspected that the soil was dyed to temporarily create this appearance, but, despite feeling foolish, I purchased the little creature (partially influenced by the fact it was marked down from $6 to $3). 

Honora™
This particular rose is Honora™ also known as 'Poulpah051', a PatioHit® rose released in 2007 from Poulsen Roser A/S, and it has more than lived up to my expectations and further, surprised me again and again. Planted into my garden and on its own roots, it first surprised me by surviving a Kansas winter. And not just surviving, it was cane hardy in my zone 5 climate.  It has bloomed in several flushes this summer, and it still maintains the light mint green look in the outer and younger petals while the inner petals are white with a very light pink blush. Honora™ is classified as a miniature, but it has very large, fully double flowers (about 3-4 inches when fully open).  I'm at a complete loss to explain where the green tinge comes from, but I don't really care as long as it stays.  I haven't sprayed Honora™ all summer long and the foliage is completely immune to blackspot.  But the biggest surprise of all is the vase-life of this rose.  The spray pictured here was cut from the garden in the middle of a 95+ degree day FOURTEEN days ago.  I've done everything you do when you don't want to prolong vase life; I didn't cut the stem under water, there are no preservatives in the water, and it's sat by a window at room temperature.  But here it is, still shining and in perfect form two weeks later.  When was the last time you were able to keep a cut rose in good shape that long?  Poulsen Roser has included this rose in a trademarked group known as Long Decorative Value™, evidently for very good reasons.

I've got another of the PatioHit® roses, a bright orange rose named Estepona™, or 'Poulpah028', which also survived the winter and decorates my garden.  Who knew that those dumb little supermarket roses would do so well outside?  So, bottom line, when you get a chance or a bargain, don't dismiss these little jewels just because they are sold in mass at the supermarket.  They may just surprise you.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mountain Sweet Yellow

If there is one group of plants that I have no complaints about attempting in the Flint Hills, it's the melon and gourd families.  Our usual early summer moisture followed by the hot, dry late summer and falls of Kansas normally result in good crops of these rampant vines.  Aside from avoiding the damage of vine borers and squash bugs, and in some years I'll admit losing everything to the little demons, I usually don't even have to work very hard to gain a good harvest.

Mountain Sweet Yellow
 I've tried a number of different watermelon's and cantaloupes since I began gardening in Kansas, but I heartedly bless the impulse that resulted in me purchasing the seed for 'Mountain Sweet Yellow' watermelon from the Seed Savers Exchange (http://www.seedsavers.org/)  several years ago.  Mountain Sweet Yellow was an heirloom melon that was very popular in the 1840's in NorthEastern markets. When Seed Savers described it as "truly one of the jewels in SSE’s watermelon collection," I felt I had to give it a shot and well worth the effort it was. Mountain Sweet Yellow results in long, large, 20 pound or so melons with dark yellow flesh and black seeds that matures in 95-100 days.  Along with the decorative appearance comes a very high sugar content and a mild watermelon taste with overtones of honey.   From a single hill, I usually harvest 4-5 large melons before I give up and let the box turtles eat the rest and, of course, since its a seeded heirloom, the only cost was the original packet of seeds. 


Of other heirlooms, I've grown the fabled Moon and Stars Watermelon, also a very large melon and a good one, but although the devotees of Moon and Stars may consider this blasphemy, it is not nearly as tasty as Mountain Sweet Yellow.  I think the former stays popular because of the fascination by children with the unique appearance, but I've found the yellow flesh and black seeds of MSY to be just as enticing to children.  I did appreciate the taste and smaller size of  a watermelon called 'Blacktail Mountain' when I grew it.  Blacktail Mountain is a red-fleshed ice box style melon that matures faster than Mountain Sweet Yellow.  There's a great comprehensive book on watermelons by Amy Goldman, Melons for the Passionate Grower, in which she described Blacktail Mountain as the "quintessential watermelon." Blacktail Mountain was bred relatively recently (in the 1970's) by a then teenager, Glenn Drowns, trying to find a watermelon that would consistently mature in the short growing season of his native Idaho.  It did perform well here in Kansas, but had a slightly lower yield than my MSY.  Blacktail Mountain is also supposed to have one of the highest sugar contents ever tested, but I find Mountain Sweet Yellow to be sweeter to taste. 

Watermelon sweetness, for those who are interested, is measured by a refractometer in degrees of Brix (essentially sugars or more accurately soluble solids).  A good watermelon has a Brix of 10, while an exceptional watermelon might be 14 Brix.  Interestingly, because of the low glycemic diet craze, there are recent breeding efforts to produce a watermelon with a low sugar content.  It isn't enough for dieticians that watermelons are naturally high in carotenoids including the lycopene that we hear so much about, no, they have to mess with the taste.  Personally, given a choice, I'll take my watemelon as sweet as possible, thank you.  Darned nutritionists ruin everything.

Moon and Stars

Monday, September 13, 2010

Labeling; well, I tried

A recent post on Gardenweb.com reminded me to check up on an experiment I tried a summer back in my garden.  In 2009, when my garden was on the local annual Garden Tour, I put a little time into labeling most of the roses.  Knowing that the zinc/soft pencil labels are notorious for fading, I decided to spray some of the labels with Helmsman Spar Urethane, chosen because "it forms a protective barrier against rain and moisture" and "the enhanced ultraviolet absorbers found in Helmsman reduce the graying and fading effects of the sun."

Well, you can see the results below.  The three labels pictured were all created and put into the garden in Spring, 2009 and remained there, so they've been exposed to two Springs, two hot Kansas Summers and one very cold Kansas Winter. The urethane coating did decrease the fading, but there was a drawback, as you can see in the third picture;  at some point the urethane flaked off a number of the labels leaving them worse than before.  I'd say about 50% of the labels look like the first picture at this point and the other 50% look like the third; or worse.  We'll call this experiment a gigantic fail.


Coated Label at 1.5 years

Uncoated Label at 1.5 years

Oops;  flaking away...should say "Buck Rose" at the top

Back to the drawing board, eh?  Must make a note to redouble my efforts to keep plant locations listed on the computer....and backed up.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Survivor Lessons

Last weekend I was puttering around the garden, doing all the usual things, pulling weeds, deadheading roses, sobbing over some drought-stricken perennials, and then, stumbling dehydrated up the cement stairs from the back garden beds, I came unexpectedly face to face with a shining example of eternal truth.  The truth that, as said best by a character in the now ancient movie classic Jurassic Park, "Life always finds a way."

Growing in a quarter-inch deep deposit of wind-blown organic debris, surrounded below, and to three sides by limestone or cement, exposed to the burning southwestern sun, stood a small volunteer lavender plant in perfect health.  Never mind that we hadn't seen any appreciable rain for a month, never mind not a sprinkle for a week, this little baby plant had germinated and grown on nothing but air, limestone, and a little organic dust.  About one and one-half inch tall and wide, its entire time on this planet must have been as precarious as a trapeze artist without a net.  One wrong step by a dog, a too-forceful gust of hot wind, a wandering herbivore, and the time of this plant would have been over. 

There are many lessons here for all of us, lessons both of gardening and of how to live our lives.  I'm sure that others can take their own thoughts from the image above, but I, for one, was struck first by this blatant demonstration about wants and needs; that we must, for our own sakes, find an environment that contains everything needed to prosper, including shelter, moisture, food and sunlight.  And yet the best survivors don't really ask or expect much more than that, as this little plant was telling me.  Lavender is surely adapted well to the Kansas climate, as many Mediterranean plants are, but scratching out a living on my cement steps was not something I would have predicted for it.

The little trooper also shows us a lesson about going with the flow. I don't know how long it has been growing, probably no more than a few weeks, but it started life in the middle of the hottest, driest days of summer and then found the strength and moisture, from dew, from translocation through the concrete, or from the very air, to keep growing. It scoffed at the burning sun and the 110 temperatures. It held fast to the rock despite the searing Kansas summer winds. It protected itself by drawing around it the little fuzzy gray-green coat common in lavenders.

Can we be as strong, we gardeners, we humans?  To grow without over-ambitious expectations, to survive in the face of adversity, to cling to the wonder of life? Are we all ready to take the chance, to take the leap of our lives and then to hang on with all our God-given gifts and just be thankful for the sunlight?  I suppose, for my little lavender friend and for each of us, that time will give us our answer.    

Saturday, September 11, 2010

White Tower

My Sweet Autumn Clematis bloomed in September this year instead of late August, keeping me waiting a bit for the annual wrapup of fragrancy in my garden, but bloom it finally did.   I worried about its health all through the spring, but it nevertheless returned to sweeten the September air.

Although most of the summer it merely provides iron-clad green foliage, and after flowering silvery, plume-like seed heads will decorate it, every gardener should grow Sweet Autumn Clematis merely for the few weeks of unmatched fragrance it provides.  But talk about your confused Latin nomenclature!  Sweet Autumn Clematis has been variably listed, and can still be purchased as Clematis terniflora, C. paniculata, C. maximowicziana or C. dioscoreifolia.  The species most commonly grown in the United States, and listed by the USDA as C. terniflora, is native to Japan, although one source says that C. paniculata is a separate but identical species native to New Zealand. 


Whatever you want to call it, I grow Sweet Autumn Clematis on an 8 foot tall wire cylinder in the center of my garden, pictured above as taken on a recent misty morning.  I question the oft-repeated information that C. terniflora is hardy to Zone 4, because my history with the plant has been to grow one, lose one, have a volunteer come up in another spot, and then had that volunteer cover the wire tower for three years running until this past winter, admittedly a bad one, when it was killed back to the ground.  I waited patiently this spring, hoping to see signs of life and knowing that clematis often take some time to put leaves on their seemingly dead vines, and just as I was about to give up and was ready to find and plant a new one, some nice green shoots popped up from the ground in the center of the tower. Luckily for me and my garden, Sweet Autumn Clematis grows 20 feet in a single season and blooms on new growth, and it recovered 2/3rds of the trellis again before blooming this year.  In the Flint Hills, it seems to be completely free from disease and the flowers, though small at one inch across, are so fragrant with a rich vanilla scent that this single vine perfumes my entire garden for weeks.  To stand downwind of this central white pillar is to overdose on the scent of heaven.

Although I understand that the Internet is not always a reliable source, it sometimes pays to do a little reading anyway, and in my readings about this vine, I discovered that clematis is in the buttercup family (a neat little factoid for cocktail parties that I never attend anyway) and was called "pepper vine" by Western pioneers and used as a pepper substitute since true black pepper was a rare and expensive commodity for them.  I don't know which clematis would have been carried on the wagons westward, but the entire genus supposedly contains essential oils and compounds that irritate the skin and mucous membranes and can cause bleeding into the gastrointestinal tract if ingested in large amounts.  Thankfully, since I don't like black pepper anyway and the long-suffering Mrs. ProfessorRoush has indulged me by limiting its use in her cooking, I won't be tempted, come the Revolution, to try this dangerous substitute.

It just occurred to me that I've blogged on two white fall-blooming plants in a row.  Maybe I should start a White Garden and create a prairie Sissinghurst out here in the middle of Kansas.  What a fantasy, me and Vita (Sackville-West), gardening together at last.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Prairie Poinsettia

I'm bad about letting volunteer plants grow at their whim if they look like they might turn out to be something worthwhile, but sometimes it pays to grow a few weeds to help you cheat through the dull days of the garden.


A native Kansas annual that grows everywhere I choose to allow it is Euphorbia marginata, or "Snow-On-The-Mountain."  Look at the single volunteer at the left blooming in late August in front of the bright red crape myrtle Lagerstroemia indica ‘Centennial Spirit’.  Now, I ask you, what better plant combination could you want then this three foot tall spurge growing in front of the five foot tall crape?  I counted across the garden this week and I've got over 20 of these volunteers spread out making bright spots over the beds.  And look at the flower detail in the picture below.  In early September, after a summer's drought and when every other plant has insect or wind damage to half its foliage, look at the crisp, clean margins of these flowers and the white-margined foliage.  Green and white may not be everybody's cup of tea, but surely few would argue against the impact of this plant at a time when little else blooms.  This relative to the poinsettia has a  prolonged bloom period, commonly open from August to October.   As an added benefit, this is not a tough plant to pull out from where you don't want it; it may love xerigardening conditions, but  the taproot slides right out of the soil when you tug the stem.  Just don't get the sap on your hands if you're sensitive.

Snow-On-The-Mountain contains a milky sap that is said to be as irritating as poison ivy on exposed skin.  Since I'm immune to poison ivy (how neat is that for a gardener?) and Snow-On-The-Mountain doesn't bother me either, I can't confirm the comparison.  One reference said that cattle won't graze on it and if E. marginata is dryed along with hay it can cause sickness and death in cattle.  Another says that all parts of the plant are poisonous, so take care with children and don't eat it in your salads. 

Now some, of you, I know, are thinking, wait, I have "Snow On The Mountain," and it doesn't look like that.  Aegopodium podagraria 'Variegatum', is an invasive ground cover that is also known as "Snow On The Mountain" or "Bishop Weed."  It's a variegated perennial, grows well in shade, and doesn't have the milky sap, so you can't confuse the two when you see them .  Just another reason for gardeners to bite the bullet, learn genus/species nomenclature and ask for exactly the plant they want when ordering.  Seeds are available from several select sources, including Jefferson's Monticello, but look especially for a cultivar named 'Summer Ice' if you can find it, because not all the offered plants have the best bright white margination.

Since my native Euphorbia marginata is identical to 'Summer Ice', I guess I'm just one of the lucky ones.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Assigning Blame

Early Fall is always a good time to look over the garden and determine which individual plants haven't done well over the growing season, and then to assess blame and amend our gardening practices to allow us to improve next year.  At issue, though, seems always the uncertainty of the cause of the failure.

 For example, take the 'Jen's Monk' Hybrid Rugosa rose pictured at the right.  Normally a dependably- blooming, care-free and disease-free rose, I first noticed the browning of a majority of the bush in mid-August this year, far too late to prevent it.  Literally, about 3/4ths of the canes were bare when I  finally discovered the damage and the remaining leaves already shriveled and dead, while the other 1/4 of the bush looked relatively normal.  It would be easy to attribute the damage to the summer drought we've experienced, but was it really?  I could find no other explanation, no insect damage or webbing, no evidence of mildew, and the ground was indeed bone dry around it, but why this rose and not one of the other twenty-six in the bed?  Who would think that a rugosa would be more likely to have drought damage than the more smooth-leaved  'Alchymist' in front of it or the 'Robusta' or 'Louise Odier' on either side of it? Not me.  Thankfully, the damage seems to have stopped spreading (because I watered it, or just on its own?) and I have hope that only the leaves are lost and those bare canes will again leaf out anew next year and maintain the vase-like shape of the bush. If not, I'm resigned to trim it back next year and let it regrow from the base. 

Looking around the yard, I also have decided that I finally am giving up on a Weigela florida ‘Wine and Roses’ in a lower bed because it never did leaf out well this spring.  It has been in the spot for 3 years, now a four by four foot bush, but while it did well in the previous years, it never got going this time around.  It put up a spare few leaves in the spring at the tip of the stems and then, as the spring continued, those leaves collapsed and dropped off.  Was it the colder winter we had last year?  If so, why did another 'Wine and Roses' exposed to the full northern wind in a raised bed survive just fine?  Was it the wet spring and my clay soil?  Did it develop root disease of which I'm unaware?  What can I learn from this other than to put something else, say a crape myrtle, in its place?

I'm also perplexed at the seeming collapse of an enormous Sambucus nigra ‘Beauty’ elderberry that's been growing in the same spot in my "peony" bed for 6 years now.  This dark burgundy finely-leafed specimen is surrounded by three yellow-foliaged shrubs, making a nice dependable contrasting foliage spot in my garden.  Yet, two weeks ago, there it was, leaves completely gone and bare stems covered only by an invading green wisteria vine from nearby.  What the heck?  Another drought victim?  Insect raid?  Cold damage?  I think it had started out the year well, but now, I can't remember for sure if it bloomed as expected in the spring.  All I can do is cut it back and hope it grows out again in the spring.

I hope you learn what you can from your own gardening disasters this year, but if not, you're in good company.  I, for one, have learned only that I have a lot left to learn about gardening.  

Monday, September 6, 2010

An American Pillar


For this Labor Day of the year of our Lord 2010, I'd like to highlight a now infrequently seen but delightful rambler, the rose 'American Pillar'.  'American Pillar' has been variously described as being a cross between  R. wichuraiana and the native prairie rose, or R. wichuraiana and an unknown hybrid perpetual, but regardless of its parentage, the result was a once-blooming cold-hardy and disease resistant rambler.  In bloom, it's covered with hundreds of small (1 inch) five-petaled carmine pink flowers with white center eyes and golden stamens. Although it's once-blooming and lacks discernible fragrance, it blooms for a long (3 week) period towards the end of blooming of the other roses, and then leaves behind a number of small orange-red hips for winter interest.  It was introduced by famous rose-breeder Dr. Walter Van Fleet in 1902, so this rose has its centennial well behind it. 

Here in the Flint Hills, 'American Pillar' is unfailingly healthy and makes a monster of a rose.  I've read stories of it rambling around to 30 feet and smothering everything in its path, but here in Kansas new canes reach about 12-16 feet by the end of a season and I seldom grow a cane into year two. In my garden, I train the rose by spiraling it on a ten-foot tall four-by-four post and it regularly threatens to pull the post over under its bulk.  Many new canes arise annually from the base, and since those canes are said to provide the best bloom, I trim out the two-year old canes in favor of the new canes in late winter.  This annual cleaning improves air flow to the otherwise clogged center and gives me an occasion to collect and tie up the new canes which have sprawled over several 'Rugelda' roses, a "White Profusion" buddleia, two rustled cemetery roses and a number of daylilies in the near vicinity.  It makes, as you can see at the right, a stunning display in my garden to highlight the end of the first summer bloom cycle of the roses.  

'American Pillar' is a long-lived rose as well.  Plants set in the ground almost a century ago at the Pierre du Pont estate (now Longwood Gardens) are still climbing over metal arches in a courtyard.  I've grown 'American Pillar' for 9 years now in its present position and it shows no signs of weakness and never needs spraying for fungal disease. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I might not mind it if the rose would weaken, at least a little.  Those vigorous 1/2 inch thick canes are armed with exceedingly vicious thorns and I try to do the annual pruning and lashing up of 'American Pillar' on a particularly cold day so my skin doesn't feel the pricks so much and so that all the blood stops flowing and freezes quickly.  I've had bouts with this rose that leave me looking like I'm one of the victims in a slasher movie, but I wouldn't have it any other way.  Those incredibly thick blooms are simply too gorgeous to turn away from.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Organic Agnosticism

I'm going to take this opportunity to confess that while I do try to practice some organic gardening techniques, I also spend some time looking at the whole organic gardening tidal-wave with a bit of a hairy eyeball. 

I try to follow most organic techniques recommended to improve soil fertility and conditions, right up to the point where it becomes manual labor. I'm happy with deep mulching of organic sustainable materials and letting the worms move the carbon into the soil, but I don't double-dig.  If you'll observe carefully, most of the gardening "authorities" who propose that double-digging and deep soil amendment are the solutions to all evil are either a) standing next to and employing the young guy who actually does the digging work, or b) gardening in a soil that has the tilth and mass of sifted flour and where a shovel actually penetrates the soil without jumping on it repeatedly with both feet. Neither of those conditions exist in my garden. The laborer here is me and the Flint Hills soil resembles the consistency of pound-cake with imbedded boulders. I'm a big proponent of mulches to prevent weeds instead of herbicide use, whether the herbicides be synthetic or corn gluten meal. And I'm good with the important idea of selecting plants adapted for your climate and conditions, rather than trying to grow an orange grove here in Zone 5.


I believe we should decrease our use of pesticides and herbicides, but I'd push further for decreasing the use of all garden chemicals, whether natural or synthetic. We've learned over the past few decades that while DDT was perhaps not the best choice to release into the environment by the millions of tons, it's also true that so-called natural substitutes aren't always safe either, as seen with the recent EPA banning of a number of the pyrethrin derivatives. Nature, at its heart, is really nasty, folks, and there are some really nasty chemicals being produced outside your window by the most benign-looking of plants. Still, even while proclaiming that I support the decreased use of chemicals in my garden, I will use them in limited quantities and where necessary for efficiency. I don't mind spots on my apple skins (I peel them), but I don't like finding worms inside. I don't like using pesticides, but on the other hand, I don't know anyone in Kansas who can grow squash consistently without them. I'm not the guy who prefers to spend hours hand-picking bagworms off my Mugo Pine instead of 20 seconds of spraying with an approved pesticide. In truth, I'm the guy who got rid of his Mugo Pine because I didn't want to do either.


The organic gardening movement has many thoughtful and useful aspects, including the concepts of decreased use of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, decreased overall water usage, increased and deep mulching, and local food production and consumption.  I'm with the WEE* people on all of those and I try my best to be a good locavore.  But, you see, where I fall out from the Kool-Ade drinkers (look it up) is when reason, knowledge and logic give way to zealotry and fighting over issues of faith. Show me that increased mulching moderates soil temperatures and decreases watering needs and I'm your huckleberry.  Go off on a rant about how the wearing of sack cloth and the double-digging of beds halfway to China will decrease Global Warming and you're going to lose me within minutes.

In most instances, it's because I don't agree that "natural" necessarily means "good", any more than "modern" necessarily means "bad."  I don't really want to go back to "natural" if it means forsaking steel tools, automobiles, and computers in favor of stone tools, caves, and starvation. There's a reason that life-expectancy and personal productivity increases go hand-in-hand in developed countries and there's a reason that modern pharmaceutical's are more effective than bat-wing and newt's eye stews in treating disease.

In short, the true road to gardening Shangri-La is by applying organic methods in moderation. Zealotry without Reason is the Devil's tool.

*WEE = wild-eyed environmentalists, the natural constituency of idiot ex-Vice-Presidents who fly around in private planes, live in energy-burning mansions, and doesn't have the slightest idea of what constitutes scientific inquiry.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Burn the Prairie!

A recent post on the Flint Hills of Kansas Blog refocused my attention on the geology and ecology of the Flint Hills and reminded me again just how unique the environment really is in which I put forth my sad attempts at a garden. The post linked to a National Park Service pamphlet located at   (http://www.nps.gov/tapr/upload/Geology%20brochureFinal.pdf%20) that focuses on the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve and describes in simple terms how my thin prairie soils evolved and why any plant that I place into the soil has to find a way to grow roots around and through the layer of loose flint that underlays the black soil between the one and three foot deep levels.  The topography and barely-covered sedimentary limestones and shales of the hillsides make the whole region practically impossible to crop farm and it barely allows an attempt to garden as my occasional despondent weeping will testify.  Often, my only consolation at the end of a long, hot day is the sunset, when the blue sky turns to glorious color and far-off clouds on the horizon look like the buildings of a city beyond this world.


We grow only grasses well here on the prairie, both the crop farmers and I, and we grow them because our plough eventually breaks on this unforgiving ground.  Trees fight to gain a hold and to obtain enough water on the exposed terraces and then they grow short and thick under assaults from the constant prairie winds.  Shrubs hasten to put on growth with the abundant spring moisture but the colors of Fall are often blunted with the loss of summer's leaves and energy during the July and August droughts.  Herbaceous perennials suffer in the hot summer sun and pull reserves back into their roots for another try next year.  Deep roots are needed to preserve and protect life from the sub-zero January days. 

The native prairie is dependent on all these things; sun, heat, moisture, drought, cold, wind and crappy soil.  Yet, it's also dependent on one other unique feature under attack from the greater world; Fire.  Sweeping Fire is the creator  and the destroyer of the prairie ecosystem, clearing the land of the ubiquitious junipers and foreign invaders that seek to transform the prairie into ecogarbage, and preserving the unobstructed beauty for the deeply-rooted survivors that have adapted here.  Fire is cleansing for the prairie and also sometimes cleansing for the time-worn souls of the people who live here, particularly as the lines of controlled fires sweep across the prairie nightscape. 


All this, though, is under threat from the bureaucratic slugs who work for the Eastern cities beyond our horizon.  There are recent suggestions and discussions seeking to place bans on the annual spring prairie burns because they temporarily raise the ozone levels of the populated scars on the earth downwind of us.  Burning the prairie is bad, they say, because you push our already polluted cities over the brink; it's your fault, prairie-dwellers, that we're in such bad shape!  These same thoughtless dweebs that push us towards an economy based on carbon credits and whale preservation forget that cessation of burning on the prairie would cause a final loss of the sweeping vistas, the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid, the Prairie Chicken, and an ancient way of life.  How deficient, the vision of Man!

Let the wind turbines populate the prairies, if you must, to help decrease the impact of the human blight on the planet, but leave the prairie burning alone, I say.  The prairie will survive beneath the artifical towers, but it won't survive our ignorance of the natural processes of fire and season.  





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