Monday, February 28, 2011

Visitors in the Mist

Sometimes, God gives us little miraculous gifts to lighten our load for the day.

That is the only way I can explain it.  I was walking the treadmill yesterday morning at 6:30 a.m.  It was a misty, cold morning, in the Flint Hills, about three days after the last snowfall.  Another sad day towards Spring without being able to work in the garden.  I glanced up at the window to see movement in the garden.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear but four hungry deer feeding in my back garden?  I rushed upstairs in an instant and grabbed my camera to capture the moment.  I'm sorry for the quality of the pictures, but what can I say?  It was still dark, I was using a zoom lens and handholding the camera, and I woke up fifteen minutes before my fine motor skills were tested.  Not to mention that I had been exercising seconds before. 

Now, some gardeners would be outraged or dismayed at seeing four deer carefully selecting their morning menu from the gardener's larder, but sometimes, as a Darwinian gardener, I'm willing to allow my soft-eyed neighbors a little charity.  That is especially true when I know that the weather has been nasty and the pickings are probably getting a little thin on the prairie right now.  And when I know that the howling of the coyotes last evening was likely unnerving to these guys and may have driven them out of the bottoms.  Besides, most of the stuff I really care about is either surrounded by woven wire or buried deep beneath the snow.

Anyway, this little guy seemed to think that my Clematis paniculata was particularly scrumptious.  It is brown and likely will die back a little with the cold winter anyway, so what do I care?

I drew the line at this one, however, when it nibbled at my sole witch hazel, which is just beginning to bloom.  I suspect that the scent of the witch hazel may really have been what enticed them up to my garden.  Shortly after this, I thought I probably had enough pictures and chased them off, using the camera flash as a substitute for a muzzle blast.

My anti-deer defences are at minimum effectiveness this time of year.  I normally have little problem with deer in the area.  Well, at least after one group "trimmed" my new apple trees down to bare stems years ago and I learned to keep fencing around all new trees for several years until some stature is obtained.  Thankfully, the deer mostly leave my treasured roses alone due to my second defensive tactic.  Along with the fencing cylinders around trees, the defensive measure I use successfully in the rest of my garden is a proprietary secret brew that I use to "mark" my territory boundaries frequently during the spring and summer.  Forget whatever you have read or heard about hanging soap or human hair in the trees or purchasing lion or wolf urine at $50/ounce to repel deer.  I utilize a natural substitute that's readily available nearly every morning, biodegradable, very inexpensive, and almost 100% effective.  It even has value as a source of nitrogenous fertilizer if it is not applied too heavily.  Production of the substance is by the most natural and organic means and I am able to brew a new batch nearly every morning.  I believe it is more potent if the anti-deer application takes place while one is picturing a good venison steak or perhaps a deer head mounted over the fireplace.  Unfortunately, my secret ingredient is difficult to apply in winter and the little guy at the left is telling me what he thinks of my efforts to repel him in this coldest of winters.

Only one other person knows about my secret deer-repelling elixir, that is unless the neighbors have been rising early recently. That person happens to be my spouse, who once again proved her tolerance of a slightly-eccentric husband by responding to the news that there were deer in the garden with the command "You need to start peeing in the garden again."

And I shall, just as soon as it warms up a little bit out there.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

First Dates

Although I'm a gardener who likes to write, up until I began blogging I was terrible at keeping a gardening journal.  That statement probably raises in your mind the question of whether or not a blog qualifies as a journal, but for the sake of argument, and to ease my conscience, we're going to pretend that it does.  And for clarity, I intend "terrible at keeping a journal" to mean that I was inconsistent at it; I refuse to comment about it or worry about whether an English language fanatic is reading my writing, lest it stifle my output.  Sometimes fools trudge along where wise men fear to tread.

I previously started out each year with good intentions, fast out of the gate, but I normally faded at the first turn.  Each year for at least a decade and a half, I have written down the dates that those first few garden species come into bloom and then peak at the bottom of my computerized plant inventory.  There will usually be a few other random loose notes about something here or there, but after a few weeks my notes trickle off and disappear.  Thus, while I have an excellent idea of when the 'New Hampshire Gold' forsythia first bloomed each year, and when the Rugosa rose 'Marie Bugnet' first bloomed, I have no idea when the Hydrangea paniculata bloomed, or the crape myrtle or the Rudbeckia hirta.  From these notes, I can tell you that my snow crocus, recently blogged on, is right on time, with the earliest I've ever seen it bloom on February 22nd, and the latest March 9th.  Forsythia usually peaks around the 20th of March, but I've sighted the first buds as early as March 6th and as late as March 29th.  Twice, the bright red 'Great Scarlet Poppy', or 'Iranian Poppy' (Papaver bracteatum) has first bloomed exactly on my May birthday.  

Even when I've made an effort, there are long periods when I cease to enter anything, usually due to depression about the garden's progress.  In 2004, I entered nothing between April 27th and June 1st except to note on 6/1/04 that it was official that May ws the windiest May on record in this area of Kansas, averaging over 10 MPH continual wind.  And in 2007, my entries simply ceased at the very hard and very late freeze around April 19th which put an end to the spring flowers that year and threatened all the young plants of my garden.

I have also defaced my Tallgrass Prairie Wildflowers guide (authored by Doug Ladd and Frank Oberle) with the dates when I observed the first blooms from a number of native forbs on the tract of land we own (see the sample page pictured above).  In fact, it may reveal a small megalomaniac streak buried deep within my psyche, but I always secretly hope some of those records survive to be used by a future naturalist to document climate changes, just as Thomas Jefferson's garden notes have been used by biologists of the 20th Century.  Mr. Jefferson and I have little else in common, but at least I take some comfort in the fact that his garden notes were also sporadic.  For now, during the 15 or so years that I've been keeping records, I can tell you that I'm unable to conclude anything about global warming or cooling in the Flint Hills, except to say that the native plants follow the general average temperatures of the year pretty well.  The earliest noted bloom of Blue Wild Indigo (Babtisia australis) in this area was on 4/26/04, one of the hottest years on record in Kansas, while in the more recent and cooler years I've found them around May 10th.  In fact, the date I noted for the first bloom of this plant in 1996 (the first year I recorded it) was May 10th, exactly the same as it was last year in 2010.  Maybe if I can keep this up for a hundred years, we'll at least know if Global Warming has affected Kansas. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stylish Blogger Award

Sherry, of her blog If Only Sweat Were Irrigation, was kind enough recently to bestow on me the Stylish Blogger Award.  As a garden blogger, I'm thankful that at least a few others are reading and enjoying the blog and I hope I can live up to those expectations.

According to the guidelines given for the SBA, I must a) link back to Sherry's blog (see above), b) give seven facts about myself and c) pass the award on to other bloggers that I consider deserving.  So, in that spirit, my seven disclosures are:

1. I hate Spirea in all forms and colors.
2. My writing interest goes way back, encouraged by a 4th grade teacher who gave us brownie points for writing poems and then by a pair of very dedicated high school English teachers who essentially created an advanced English curriculum specifically for me, long before "Advanced Placement" classes became common.
3. I got hooked on Old Garden Roses because of a book by Thomas Christopher, In Search of Old Roses.  It's an addiction I'm unable to break.
4. I'm a Taurus, earthy and stubborn.  Anyone surprised?  What's your sign Baby?
5. As a young boy, aged 6 or 7, I would paint the wooden fence posts around the farm all afternoon for a 60 cent book.  My mother should have been jailed for violation of child labor laws.
6. As a teenager, I used to chuckle at my father planting flowers around the house.  It seems that he got the last laugh.
7. If you'd have asked me when I was 17, Kansas is the last place in the USA I would have told you that I was likely to move to.

And I would like to nominate two bloggers that I follow every day for the Stylish Blogger Award.  I found both of them through the rose forums and they've become friends I've never met.   The first is Connie @ Hartwood Roses who writes a really nice, varied blog about her greyhounds and her home and her roses.  Oh yeah, and she runs a mail-order rose plant business.  The second is Paul Barden @ Paul Barden's Roses.  Paul is a rose hybridizer extraordinaire whose knowledge of rose breeding is far beyond anything I've ever heard of or encountered, and I suspect I've only seen the surface so far.  I expect Paul to someday end up being spoken of in the same breath with Austin, Moore, Buck, McGredy, Kordes, and other legends. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Golden Teases

Crocus chrysanthus 'Goldilocks'
Well, for a very short time, we almost had a glimpse of Spring here in the Flint Hills.  Every year, I carefully scrutinize my Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'), and also the locations of previous snow crocus for their first blooms.  And this weekend, suddenly there it was; the snow crocus that was nowhere to be seen a week ago suddenly popped up and is showing a little flirtatious yellow to tempt me into premature excitement.  One glance and my spirit soars and my heart races at the sight of the brazen little wench.  Spring has sprung!

But alas, the coy little lass will have to gather her petticoats back around her and hold on for a later opportunity because we are under a Winter Storm Watch and have 3-6 inches of snow predicted this afternoon and evening.  As is common for the Great Plains, we went from the 70's when the picture above right was taken to a daytime high in the 30's in less than 24 hours this past weekend.  And four days later, here comes the snow.

I don't even remember how I came to have these few clumps of snow crocus, but they're planted beneath my forsythia and, true to their name, they often bloom during and through the late winter storms for me.  Yellow always blooms first, followed by the white and purple. I also don't know why I have not divided these clumps or purchased more, since they are so important to my spring mental health.  I don't recall seeing them frequently in fall stock at the "Big Box" stores and since I purchase most of my spring bulbs in bulk in those stores, it could be simply that I haven't had my memory jogged about them.  However, I should have ordered some last year when I mail-ordered a group of Lycoris squamigera if I'd had my wits about me.  I must redouble my efforts in this regard.  The Snow Crocus that I adore (Crocus chrysanthus) are actually just the earliest blooming of four common Crocus species (including Crocus vernus, the Dutch Crocus) which are all sometimes popularly called Snow Crocuses.  And to confuse the matter, there are a handful of obscure and more rare Crocus species that can be obtained by collectors.  The Dutch Crocus blooms well here, but the Kansas wind rapidly shreds the blossoms, so enjoyment of them is a fickle possiblity for me, while the smaller and shorter C. chrysanthus are much more reliable bloomers.
Daffodil stems
Of course, another first sign of spring that just appeared are the daffodil stems beginning their push towards the sunlight.  As a less-experienced gardener, I used to worry incessantly about these on colder nights and sometimes kicked more mulch over them or even covered them with blankets. Wisdom and laziness now prevail and I let Mother Nature take care of these in her own time.  They seem to survive the frosts and bloom just as well without me as they did with me.

As gardeners, we like to pretend we have an effect on our gardens, but at the final measure, perhaps our gardens just patiently tolerate our efforts and hope we don't cause them more harm than good.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Spring Cuttings

Anyone living in or near the MidWest knows that we had a miraculous warm spell last weekend, and I know that some might be asking "What did ProfessorRoush do on his glorious weekend?"   Or, more likely, probably not, since most of you were too excited to be out in your own gardens to think about your blogging companions.

In the last "warm" spell of a couple weeks back, I took advantage of a 55ºF day to finally get the fruit trees trimmed and the dormant spray applied.  So the next thing on my yearly list, other than waiting for whatever little floral creature decides to be the first to bloom and brighten my Spring, was to tackle trimming the grape vines into shape before their sap flow starts.  I had intended to do them along with the fruit tree pruning, but realized on that particular weekend that I would have to stand knee deep in the remnants of a snow drift to prune them, and that action seemed a little too extreme.  But this past weekend, the temperatures hit 68ºF and out came the pruners and "Voila!", the grapes were ready for spring.  From there, I went to trimming back all the ornamental grasses, since I had noticed that the KSU garden had done their grass haircuts already. I went on to start cleaning off the front landscaping beds but finally the brisk Flint Hills winds drove me indoors.  It was either that or have chapped hands and an earache to start out Spring.

I don't know how everyone else cuts back their grasses, but I had the fortune of purchasing, a few years back, a Black & Decker battery-operated set of tools containing a sander, circular saw, reciprocating saw, and drill.  The reciprocating saw, with a 4 inch blade, is what I use for trimming back fruit and landscape trees and it makes quick work of my spring trimming chores. But even better than that, I separately purchased the long-handled hedge trimmer (pictured below) that was compatible with the set and I've found it a snap for some grasses, allowing me to stand upright and shear them off with the greatest of ease. The portable trimmer makes quick work of the small-stemmed Panicum sp, and Calamagrostis sp, and the Pennisetum's, or the Schizachyrium cultivars.  Seeing the grasses cut back and the garden lines so much cleaner is one of  my favorite feelings of springtime, sort of on a par with the satisfaction of washing my Jeep after running it down a muddy country road.  Old men and their power toys are a match made in gardening heaven.

Unfortunately, like everything else, my portable trimmer fails me during assaults against the majority of the Miscanthus cultivars.  Some cultivars, like 'Morning Light' or 'Gracillimus' are moderately susceptible to the wiles of the trimmer.  On many of those monsters, however, like the mighty striped Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus', I grumble and cry and finally get down on my knees at the base of the grass clump to pray to the Prairie Gods that I'm still young and fit enough to chop through a large clump with manual hedge trimmers.  If you haven't grown Miscanthus, you might not know about this, but these beasts of the grass family cannot be hacked with machete nor trimmed with power equipment.  It takes a pair of good strong arms and a stiff set of shears to bring them down each Spring.  Even worse than cutting them back is any attempt to move them, as their root masses form solid clumps of wood deep in the ground that I have found impossible to lift or divide without the aid of a bulldozer.  I'm currently planning the division and move for several of my taller misplaced Miscanthus this Spring, and I'm vacillating between using dynamite or hiring several unsuspecting teenagers for the task.  It's a tough choice, but I'll likely gravitate in the end towards the explosives since they'll be quieter and less destructive to the surrounding plants than the teenagers. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Eden Photographed

Gardening Gone Wild's "Picture This Photo Contest" for February 2011 has had me in a tizzy now for a couple of weeks, tossing and turning in my sleep, and flipping and flopping like a landed fish over my choice for entry.  The photo contest theme (each month has a theme) is to take or choose a photo that captures your favorite place in a manner to display its "Genius Loci," the special atmosphere of that place.  In the words of guest Judge Andrea Jones she wants "your personal interpretation of one of your favourite outdoor spaces. Your special place photographed in such as way to show what you love most about it.  Please keep the view wide as possible to encompass of a view as you can but capture that spirit – that’s what matters." 
 Although I'm fairly new to both garden blogging and garden photography, I've already amassed a number of pictures of the Flint Hills landscape around me.  The dilemma for me is which of my stored photos best represents the feeling that this land stirs in me?  Kansas presents so many faces to experience that I hardly know where to start. Is the best choice a photo of a typical golden Kansas sunrise as viewed on the right?  

Or should I choose a photo of the summer thunderstorms coming from the North (as at left), the clouds so low that they touch the land? 

Do I choose to highlight the characteristic agricultural activities of the Flint Hills?  Would viewers be interested in the streams of fire rolling down the prairie hillsides in the annual burns?

Or would the August moon over the late harvest of summer grass be more captivating and inspirational?

Perhaps the sunrise creating a cheerful morning mood over my garden to the Southeast of the house?

Or will the frosts of winter highlight the Southern view of my garden towards the town serve to grab the attention of those who have never experienced the beauty of Kansas? 

After long consideration, I still believe that all of these photos, all taken essentially from the walls of my house, represent well this special place on the Earth. Perhaps the choice of "the best" depends on the mood of the viewer at a particular moment. But in the end, the view that I have chosen to exhibit the innate spirit of the Flint Hills is the same picture that has been the background of my computer desktop all winter.  That image, below, taken late in the day in early Winter before the start of the December snow, starts at my front lawn and looks North towards the horizon. The gravel road visible in the picture winds around the rolling grassland and hints towards the promise of travel, of life beyond this barren prairie, this Great American Desert.  The rust and beige hills sit in somber silence, and the gray winter sky is not yet allowing the promise of Spring.  Except, of course, in my heart, where I know that these weathered hills will pass through frost and fire and emerge again emerald green in the Summer that will surely come again.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Faith in a Seed (Packet)

As the winter moves on, I've amassed a respectable collection of seed packets from a number of different sources, all designated for enhancement of my summer garden.  And it occurred to me today that if you are a searcher for faith, whether that search be for God or for strength to prop up your waning conviction that spring will come again,  a seed packet is a most marvelous place to start.  The writer of Matthew 17:20 was not far off the mark when he wrote "if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move."   In like fashion, every gardener knows that within a single seed is hidden all the promises of Eden.  If you haven't yet read it, Thoreau's last manuscript, published as "Faith in a Seed," is a good starting place for hungry winter gardeners to ease their worries.

The entire concept of next summer's garden is a leap of faith when viewed from the winter-sterilized Flint Hills.  Outside, if the biting cold air is still, nothing moves or breaks the silence.  The rusty tones of Little Bluestem break the tan monotony of buffalograss and switchgrass, but not a single bird or animal ventures about.  You can find an occasional hawk, motionless on a telephone line or tree, watching in vain for the furtive movement of field mice, but it will be diet by starvation in the frigid air tonight.  And when the wind blows it comes suddenly and briskly, shrieking past the houses and over the prairie, relentlessly pushing aside leaf and stem and feather and piling the dry snow into mountains.

But there, in my seed packets, safe in the artificial heat of home, lies the promise of my summer dreams.  Small bundles of DNA and starch, cotyledon and seed coat, they await only the touch of warmth and water to initiate the future.  All shapes and sizes, without the packages, I have no hope of telling dill from poppy, lima bean from field bean.  But somewhere inside, Rudbeckia hirta 'Cherry Brandy' awaits.  Will it sprout and survive the inevitable late and unexpected frost?  Will the color match the package and match the surrounding plants where it is placed once it begins to bloom?  Will the blue corn grow tall or be bent low by a June storm?  Will the dill and fennel draw in beneficial insects, as angels to protect my garden against the hordes of chitinous Huns that threaten to steal the summer bounty?

My thrust and plans for garden changes this summer are threefold.  Encouraged by wild-eyed organic converts whispering into my ears, I am collecting dill and fennel, daisy and parsley, to provide sustenance and homes for monstrous predators that I hope to enlist on my side of the battle for garden supremacy.  I have also been searching far and wide for cosmos and poppies and helianthus and daisies to brighten up an area designed as a wildflower meadow and attract the flittering beauty of butterflies for me to contemplate as summer nears its end.  And I'm carefully choosing varieties of edible garden plants, some heirloom and some the newest hybrids, to allow the garden to pay back my labor in sugars and starches and flavors. I am placing my faith in the seeds, enlisting their support to transform my garden once again, as summer rolls towards me.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Harison's Yellow

If I were to choose a rose that I believe exemplifies the spirit of the prairie, it would be the drought-tolerant, thorny, scraggly mass that is 'Harison's Yellow'.  Harison's Yellow, an early season bloomer, always serves to remind me that the brightest days of Spring and Summer are yet to come.

This has long been one of my favorite roses but I'm convinced that my fondness for it is entirely due to the cheery bright yellow color in the early Spring.  Ever the optimist, I tend to gravitate towards interaction with, and enjoyment of, plants and people that will keep my day on a cheerful note, whether it is watching the perky Robin Meade on the Morning Express of Headline News ("Good Morning, Sunshine!") or picking the next perennial to go into my garden.  As a consequence, I shy away from the trendy "black" and chocolate flowers that the designers rave about and instead I choose bright colors.  My garden tends to be on the flamboyant side at times, at least among the roses.  Harison's Yellow is just such a cheery yellow that I can't help but feel lighter at the sight of it.

Of course, Harison's Yellow (R. spinosissima X R. foetida 'Harison's Yellow') has other positive attributes that make it one of the few roses I grow in multiples.  The dark green foliage provides a great contrast to the vibrant semidouble yellow blooms, and I believe the small leaflets, delicate in appearance, give this rose a bit more drought-tolerance than the average Rosa.  It is also, unusual for a yellow rose, highly resistant to fungal disease and I never spray this rose for blackspot or insects.  Don't get me wrong, it does get blacksport, but it rarely proceeds to affect the plant significantly.  And hardy?  Harison's Yellow is stone-cold temperature-hardy into Canada.  This is a rose that laughs at the worst of my Zone 5 winters and shrugs off late freezes and frosts.  It grows about 6 feet tall in my climate, and, due to it's suckering habit, can be as wide as I let it range.  It is a once-bloomer, but that is not something I count among the deficiencies of this rose, for its beauty is all the more cherished by me for its fleeting nature.

All great beauties have their drawbacks though and Harison's Yellow is no exception.  This is an exceptionally thorny rose;  not with great gouging thorns like 'Chrysler Imperial', but with more delicate, sharper and more numerous thorns that pierce you every which way from Sunday.  It has tall gangly canes that have a delightful brown tone, but tend to sprawl in a mass.  It also suckers and spreads like there is no tomorrow on the prairie.  This is a rose to use as a barrier for human marauders or livestock, reportedly one of its original uses on the prairie. A final regret, however, is the musky scent carried in the blossom. Harison's Yellow has a history clouded by various myths of origin, but undoubtedly this rose is a cross from Rosa foetida 'Persian Yellow', because it carries the bright color and rotten scent of the latter parent in every bloom.  From several feet away, I tend to like the aroma surrounding Harison's Yellow, but not when my nose is buried in an individual bloom. 

Part of the allure of Old Garden Roses as a group is the history surrounding the roses, and there are many stories surrounding Harison's Yellow.  Its introduction ranges anywhere from 1824 through 1842 in various sources, but all seem to relate its origin point as being in New York during that period.  The most common story, unverified and under debate, is that it first bloomed in the garden of attorney George F. Harison on 32nd Street and 8th Avenue and was introduced by nurseryman William Price in 1830.  It is also known as the Oregon Trail Rose and the Yellow Rose of Texas and seems to have followed the pioneers across the United States, leaving pieces of itself at every homestead. I always hold a picture in my mind of a heart-worn pioneer woman bringing Harison's Yellow along in the wagon as a reminder of home.  Rosarians should keep in mind though, that the famous song "The Yellow Rose of Texas" refers to Emily D. West (aka Emily Morgan), a woman who reportedly aided the Texans during the Battle of San Jacinta with her ability to keep Santa Anna preoccupied in her boudoir.  Lovely flowers, it seems, come in all forms and were helpful to the struggling American pioneers in many different ways. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Totally Zen Insanity

During this time of year in the nation's heartland, every garden store and nursery should be required to display a large and inherently noticeable warning sign, saying something to the effect of "Beware!  Winter Ennui Helps Us Empty Your Pockets!"

Like other Flint Hill and Midwestern gardeners, I've taken to browsing local centers regularly, drawn irresistibly to find those early seed-starting supplies, house plants, and bird-feeding supplies that allow me to pretend I'm doing something for the garden in the dead of winter. And of course, also like other gardeners, I have the ulterior motive of needing to make sure that others don't beat me to those first few packets of seeds that arrive in the stores, lest some rare and treasured find disappear before I can purchase it.  

At such times, I'm unfortunately at extreme risk of impulse purchases, a realization that was reinforced recently when, on a trip to Omaha, I visited what has become my prime source of statuary.  There, I simply was unable to resist the Totally Zen Frog pictured to the right. Although this errant-Methodist youth does not practice meditation or Zen, I've always had some admiration for those who do, as well as a soft spot for the quiet calm of the philosophy.  Therefore, forgetting that my garden really does not have any other whimsical focuses, nor that I really don't appreciate of whimsy in any form, garden or otherwise, I was sure that this Zen Frog was meant specifically to live in my garden.  That belief was hardly weakened when I found that this particular identical statue sells all over the Internet and probably lives in thousands of other gardens. 

If you sense I'm a bit disappointed in myself, you would be correct.  Until now, I've successfully resisted adding pink flamingos, TraveloCity Gnomes, and other cliches to my garden.  Okay, there is one of my rabbit statues that is dressed in a suit like a gentlemen caller, but I swear that all the other rabbits are strictly natural in form.  Then along comes the Zen Frog and I fall, hook, link, and sinker.  The webbed feet got me.  Please don't tell Mrs. ProfessorRoush because I slipped it into the garden with all the furtiveness of a philandering husband.  The Frog has been in my garden over a week and she hasn't asked about it yet.  By now she probably thinks of these hunks of concrete collectively as "his statues," perhaps with a slight indulgent smile, and she has hopefully stopped counting the statues and the money spent on them, so there is a chance she'll glance over it.  And if a little more time goes by before she sees it and a few bird droppings adorn it, I might be able to successfully convince her that it has been in the garden for years.   

For now, I've placed it on the bench in the center of my "formal" rose garden on a bench, surrounded by the melting snows, but I doubt this will be a permanent spot for the creature.  I've got a vision of it placed on a pedestal across from a meditation seat made for myself from two large flat stones (one for the seat and one for the back).  A sort of a mirror meditation spot in my garden where I will perhaps be enticed to sit, relax, and enjoy the garden, hidden from the neighbors who'll think I've gone senile.  Sitting is about all I'll do, however, since I'm getting to old to make it into the Lotus position and further experential enlightment is probably a hopeless quest for me.  Besides, I'm not sure that the smug smile on the frog's face is conducive to my inner tranquility, especially since I'm also not convinced that the frog isn't giving each passersby, or me, "the finger."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Teaming with Information

In my reading pile lately was a book I purchased with a Christmas gift card (somehow, friends and family have realized at last that a prime Christmas gift for me is a gift card to a book store).  I had previously glanced through Teaming with Microbes, published recently in a revised edition by Timber Press and authored by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, but I had never bitten the bullet because the book appeared, well, a little too dry and scientific.

Was I ever wrong--and yet right at the same time! Teaming with Microbes is a book that every gardener should read.  Yes, it can be a little dry to read in the first section titled "The Basic Sciences", but the photographs are so perfectly amazing that I can't begin to describe how it will open your eyes.  Each chapter discusses how a specific organism, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, algae and arthropods, lives and interacts to form your soil's food web.  Okay, okay, okay.  This first section is interesting and well-written and filled with statistics but didn't ring my bell just yet.

But the second section of the book, "Applying Soil Food Web Science to Yard and Garden Care," is where the corn and potatoes core of the book resides.  I finally "get it," much better than ever explained by my Extension Master Gardener courses, why some plants prefer some soils, how acid pH and alkaline pH soils differ in nitrogen type and availability, and how plant succession mirrors soil development.  Did you know that some plants prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form, others as ammonium?  That the number of bacteria per gram of soil doesn't really differ between garden, prairie and forest soils, but that the number of protozoa and fungi are logarithmically increased in the latter?  That nitrogen-fixing bacteria don't function well at acid pH's and that fungi increase the acidity of the soil?  Why aerobic compost teas are necessary?  That mulches of different materials support different microorganisms?  How to increase protozoa in your soils?  Teaming with Microbes will convince you that half of what you think know about or have been doing to your soil is just flat wrong.

Therein lies the downside to this excellent and readable text.  It makes it harder and harder for a professional organic gardening skeptic to stand secure in his ignorance instead of teetering on his biodegradable soap box. I've already eliminated insecticides and fungicides from my garden (except during my annual battles with the dastardly squash bugs).  This year I might have to try some areas without artificial Walmart-purchased fertilizer as well.  What's left?  Except for the evidence of a coming Ice Age outside my window, will I to be forced to start considering the possibility of global warming?  Naaaahh!  Ain't going that far! 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Ode to Oothecae

I discovered a surprise in my garden last weekend, and with a little research and a little more searching of the garden, my surprise has turned into pure delight.

Delight, I have found thee, and thy name is Ootheca.

As I was walking around the garden with our Brittany Spaniel, or more accurately as I was being pulled around the garden by our manic Brittany Spaniel, the bright winter sun caught the structure pictured to the right just enough to make it sparkle and catch my eye.  It was attached to a cane of the winter-bare red stems of  'Therese Bugnet', one of my longest-grown rugosa hybrids. I was examining the rose closely to see how its structure was revealed by its temporary lack of leaves.  And there it was, a pale brown, misshapen honey-comb-like structure that looked like it would flake away weightless at the slightest touch. 

Isn't it marvelous that, on a visceral level, all gardeners will instinctively recognize this thing, this unplantlike structure, as something related to or made by an insect?  What otherworldly factor does it have that says "not mammal," "not plant," and "not natural," and leaves us at "insect"?  That single certitude was enough to start me off in the right direction to investigate and determine to my joy that it was an ootheca, an entirely new term in my vocabulary. "Ootheca" (pronounced ˌō-ə-ˈthē-kə) is derived from the latinized "oo", meaning egg, and Greek "theca", meaning cover, literally translating to an "egg case."  From my brief research, I quickly learned that only a few creatures, primarily cockroaches, the praying mantis family, and mollusks, create proteinaceous oothecae to provide protection for the embryos of the next generation.  And since I was not near a stream, nor did I feel it likely that a cockroach would have climbed up my rose bush to lay this thing, I concluded that it must be from one of the 1800 worldwide species of the Mantis order, best known by the collective "praying mantis" moniker.

Now, the question might be, which Mantis?  There are websites available to aid in the identification of these egg capsules, but with literally hundreds of possibilities and complicated by the fact that I don't have a PhD in insect identification, I'll probably never know the exact species present on my roses.  It is enough for me to know that they are present, biding their time, in my garden.  To a gardener, finding evidence that future generations of praying mantis will inhabit and protect your garden is a blessing equivalentto finding gold flakes in a stream in your backyard.

After searching more rose bushes and then over the rest of my garden, I found numerous other examples of oothecae around the garden. One of the more curious is the smaller and more symmetrically neat structure pictured at the left and below, found perfectly placed in the ear canal of a concrete greyhound statue.  Another mantis species, or something else?

Despite finding Internet instructions to raise the little critters by hand however, my curiosity does not extend to trying to hurry along Mother Nature.  I'm quite content to await the chitinous inhabitants of the garden as they appear in their own good time, secure in the knowledge that it's all part of the life cycle of my garden. 


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