Sunday, March 30, 2014

Donkey Droppings

There were times this winter, as I trudged through bone-chilling early morning winds and snowstorms to feed the cats and donkeys, that I wondered if deep insanity had prompted me to adopt these money-burning parasites or if I had merely been prey during a weak moment.  Today, however, I was reminded why I took on housing of the donkeys, Ding and Dong.  It was all about their poop.

I trust that many of you who read this blog followed your normal Sunday routines this morning, perhaps coffee and paper with a loving spouse, or time spent in pursuit of spiritual knowledge or experience. ProfessorRoush, however, was not engaged in such high-minded or polite endeavors.  I was loading donkey crap into a cart shovelful by shovelful (as pictured above) and then, as any self-respecting rosarian would, unloading it in measured fashion as more shovelfuls onto my roses.  Four carts of donkey dung were distributed among approximately 200 roses by early afternoon, interrupted only by a minor drip in the basement ceiling and by personal time to rehydrate.  I threw donkey poop onto the feet of 'Charlotte Brownell' and 'Maria Stern'.  I cast manure onto 'Queen Elizabeth' and at 'Madame Hardy'.  I even tossed a little donkey crap on 'Jeri Jennings'.   I should apologize to the latter since it is entirely possible she could run across this blog entry, but Jeri is an outstanding rosarian of great reputation and I'm sure she will understand my transgression.
Four heaping carts of donkey crap may sound like a lot of work, but I'm a long-time feces-slinger.  When I was the tender age of 12 or 13 or so, at the end of our first year with registered Polled Hereford cattle, my father decided the barn needed cleaning and bade me to load the accumulated manure into my grandfather's 2-ton manure spreader.  "It'll only be a couple of loads," he said.  Two weeks and 28 tons of manure later the barn was clean and Dad and I had reached an understanding that he was going to buy a front-end loader for the tractor.  Today's job was not nearly so taxing as that, and this afternoon I have a garden that looks like the bed pictured at the left, roses surrounded by piles of donkey poop.

There were learning opportunities today, as always.  After some period of applying donkey-based fertilizer, it dawned on me that Mrs. ProfessorRoush was not going to be happy about the aroma in the vicinity of our house after the predicted rains later this week.  Additionally, based on personal experience, I can now recommend that those who shovel donkey excrement into the face of a Kansas wind gusting up to 41 mph should take care never to exert themselves to the point of breathlessness and open-mouth breathing.  Such inattention to detail may have dire consequences, the least of which is the likelihood that Mrs. ProfessorRoush, upon reading this blog, will subsequently withhold any affections until she forgets or at least stops gagging at the thought.  The latter is, as stated, the least of my problems because after shoveling, unshoveling, and aspirating dust from four cart loads of donkey muffins, I could frankly use the rest.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Encore! Encore!

I'm sorry, Mother Nature, you must have misunderstood me.  I was not shouting "Encore!  Encore!" in hope of seeing winter continue.  I was shouting "No more, no more!"  Not even the best available weathermen and scientists predicted yesterday that I would wake up to more snow from you this morning. When will it end?

You are getting old and hard of hearing, aren't you? Fighting to stay when you should be welcoming rebirth and youth.  Now look where we are, my crocus babies shivering and buttoned up to hide from your icy touch.  Trust me when I recommend that you let those last tired, cold, and scrawny bones of Old Man Winter splinter and crack back to dust.  Let winter go.  I'm done with it and you should be too. Stop trying to cling to last year victories and move on.  Please.

Let Spring cover naked limbs with fresh new wood, sprout plump buds that seep sticky sap, and ripen flowers that open to sunshine.  Let light green leaves be your epitaph, shiny new skin to cover the tortures of winter.  Let roots warm and stretch beneath the soil to welcome rain and feel the embrace of earth.  Let fruit swell and blush and drop for the nourishment of all.  Fight not against life's end, but welcome at last the cycle of renewal .  Live again as moonlight and warmer winds, as brighter sunshine and as dewdrops.

Oh my beautiful snow crocus, mere yellow streaks now, memories of the glorious palette of creams and yellows from only yesterday.  Will you come back?  Encore, crocus! Will you wait out the frozen rain to bloom again this year?  Encore, crocus! How much more can you take?  How much more can I take?       

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Hollyhock Hunger

Friends, I really miss my many hollyhocks.  Yes, I pine for peonies and rave on roses, but today I'm thinking only of light, cheery, woolly hollyhocks.  They bloom at the end of the roses for me, staring down the barrel at the coming heat of summer, but they've never failed to brighten up the borders as the early garden wanes. 

Stubborn and unknowing gardeners lump hollyhocks with other heirloom plants and disdain their contributions to today's gardens, but our grandmothers, as always, were sound and wise with the few ornamentals they chose to trouble with. 

Alcea 'Black Beauty'
We garden today with a multitude of companion plants for roses; of the value of clematis for complementing the bloom of a rose, of the tidiness of phlox and verbena and bulbs to extend the flowering season of a rose border, of the solid background of an ornamental grass.  But many have forgotten the lowly and coarse hollyhock in their rush to modern garden design.  Forgotten the height and structure and texture contrasts that hollyhocks provide against the shiny new rose leaves.  Forgotten the bright blooms that open wide each sunny morning and then fall cleanly to the ground a few mornings later.   

I sing today of the wonders of my hollyhocks.  I sing of the ethereal beauty of those cupped blossoms, translucent against their backgrounds but colorful and substantial in the border.  I sing of the large light green leaves, fuzzy and rough, hardened against drought and wind.  I sing of their rapid reach skyward, to tower for a brief time in the sunlight, to fade into the fall background of foliage and seed.  I sing of their carefree nature, self-seeding themselves into the perfect niche to complement a rose, requiring neither deadhead nor cultivation for procreation or survival.

Witness the delicate membrane of petal, fragile as glass.  Notice the feathery stamens and glistening pistil, aching to join forces. See the play of form and color between rose ('American Pillar') and hollyhock as pictured to the left.  Hail the vibrant crimson of 'Charter's Double Red' to the right.  Alcea all, rosea some, tough and proud faces turned to scorching sunshine, defiant and strong to wind.

I choose and covet my hollyhocks by their survival and their deep color.  I have long friendships with  'Charter's Double Red' and 'Black Beauty' and a beautiful pink variety whose name I've lost to the depths of time.  I've been briefly acquainted with more fickle visitors such as 'Charter's Double Yellow' and 'Queeny Purple', who have disdained my hospitality and faded on.  But if they live, they stay, and if they stay, they serve.  What more can I ask of a plant that can outshine a rose?

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Yesterday was the day I've been waiting for, hoping and praying for, so long now.  Pure golden sunshine, a minor warm breeze, and 75ºF.  I attacked the garden at 8 a.m., determined to get a start on the Spring chores, to feel sweat on my arms and aching muscles again.  Determined to soak in the sunshine, to end up with red-tipped ears and rosy cheeks, melanoma be damned.

CatMint 'Nepeta cataria'
I was not the only creature on God's earth waiting for this day.  The Eastern Bluebirds are back and the Killdeer showed signs of nesting on their usual spot.  Moose, our Maine Coon cat, demonstrated his blissful enjoyment of the day by rolling over and over in the first bunch of catmint (Nepeta cataria) that I uncovered.  You can see it there next to the top of Moose's head.  Another clump is beneath him.  As I related before, I originally was thrilled to discover this native Kansan and I carefully nurtured it wherever it self-seeded.  These days I spend more time grubbing it out then preserving it, else I'd have a garden of white catnip and be overrun by most of the cats from neighboring Manhattan.  You can see in this picture how Moose was affected, his tongue hanging in drugged stupor. This picture isn't very flattering, but the silly boy deserves a few moments of Nirvana.  He's had a rough winter recovering from being the victim of a tug-of-war by two neighboring dogs back in November.

All in all a successful day for both of us.  I cleaned out the back patio bed, cut off all the ornamental grasses in the garden, reattached the lawn mower deck and leveled it, greased the tractor, crab-grass-prevented the buffalograss lawn, fertilized the sprouting daffodils and crocus, potted some left-over tulips bulbs I discovered in the garage, and mused about what I was going to move this year.  This morning I am sunburned indeed, a little bit sore, scratched up from tying up my 'American Pillar', and completely satisfied.

About 7:00 p.m. last night, the wind started howling out of the north, and this morning it is 30ºF and the wind is still threatening to lift the house from its foundations and send it rolling across the prairie.   I don't suppose I'll get much outside work done today although it it is tempting to enlist the wind on my side and just go out, tear out the brown remnants of perennials, and toss them into the air to let the wind dispose of them instead of having to drag them to the compost pile.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with the thought that those brash yellow crocuses that I wrote of just a few days ago look much better when joined by their blue and white cousins,.  Don't they?


Friday, March 14, 2014

Acquired Yellows

At this early date, there are two and only two blooming plants in the garden of ProfessorRoush; both  falling somewhere into the ugly brassy or chrome yellow range of the flower world.  Adding to my gardening irritation factor, they are also about 2 weeks later than in the average year.  These lovely plants are, of course, some yellow snow crocus and my 'Jelena' witch hazel.   I'm not at all sure that I like either of them, but now, a brief week or two past the snow and in contrast to the tired color of the dried grass everywhere else in my landscape, I suppose I should take what I can get.

My acceptance, nay, my naked lust, for snow crocus is based entirely on the fact that they are the first blooms I see every year.  If they flowered in late April in the wake of larger and flashier tulips and daffodils, I'd never grow them.  If they bloomed in September, just past the burning fires of August, I might give them the time of day but I also still might not grow them.  They're just too low to the ground and small to receive notice.  Still, I'm thankful every year when I see them in March.

Besides, I'm not that crazy about yellow flowers in general.  I was interested to learn recently that yellow is supposed to be the color of the "mind and the intellect," for those who follow the "psychology of yellow,"  whatever that is.  Yellow "relates to acquired knowledge," and "resonates with the left (or logical) side of the brain stimulating our mental faculties and creating mental agility and perception."  It "talks," it is "non-emotional", it is the "entertainer, the comic, the clown."   Poppycock!  The only part of that I agree with is the "acquired knowledge" part.  After years of hard-won gardening efforts, I acquired the knowledge that the first two plants that will survive a Kansas winter and bloom are two screaming yellow plants;  snow crocus and witch hazel.

As for the witch hazel, my devoted readers know that I've struggled with it here on the Kansas prairie.  I've never been impressed with the bloom and its impact on my Spring garden, but for the first time, I'm a little closer to tolerance for it.  My 'Jelena' has finally bloomed with enough gusto that I can see that it is blooming over ten feet away.  That's not much, but it's a worthwhile beginning on the road to acceptance, and what I've seen is enough for me to keep the plant around for another year of growth.  Perhaps, someday, I can hope to see it blooming from the house windows so that I don't have to walk right up to the plant to check on it.    

Friday, March 7, 2014

Gathering History

ProfessorRoush hasn't read his way completely through a gardening-themed book all winter.  I've picked around at several, picking them up for a few pages and putting them back down, but none of them grabbed my attention.  Until recently, that is.

The winner of this year's ProfessorRoush Winter Gardening Reading award goes to Ms. Diane Ott Whealy, for her portrayal of herself and her family in Gathering; Memoir of a Seed Saver.  Those who don't recognize the author may be more familiar with her as the founding "mother" of the Seed Savers Exchange and the wife of Kent Whealy, the founding "father" of the movement.

Gathering is a memoir that I didn't want to put down once I got hooked.  Part biography of the Whealy family, part history of the formation and growth of the Seed Savers Exchange, it chronicles the farm and lifestyle that became the forefront of current efforts in heirloom seed preservation.  The early nomadic lifestyle of the Whealy's as narrated in the first few chapters made me a little worried that I was really going to enjoy it.  Diane spent some time early on talking about the 1970's and '80's, and this is the first time I've read a book that talks about events in my lifetime that make the 1970's sound like they were ancient history.  That realization can be quite a blow to an old gardener.  But things took a turn around the time of their move to Missouri and the founding of the Seed Savers Exchange, and then got exciting during the purchase of Heritage Farm.  About this time in the text, recipes and descriptions of heirloom vegetables and apples started to fill the pages and it all took life before my eyes.   In past years, I've ordered some of the very varieties from Seed Savers that Ms. Whealy describes, and her stories of saving those heirlooms bring their tastes right back to my palate.  If you want to try some of those varieties yourself, the new digital catalog of the Seed Savers Exchange is here.

Gathering was published in 2011 and I'm not sure how I missed it until I found it last month on the shelves of the local Half Price Books as a used copy.  During my own pre-gardening years and before Seed Savers were a household name, I probably drove past Heritage Farm scores of times as I traveled around the Midwest, but now I've got to schedule a special trip to visit.  Anyway, if you're ready for a story of hard work, perseverance through difficulties, acceptance of life's twists and turns, and single-minded pursuit of a dream, then pick up Gathering and it will surely keep you reading.  The good recipes you'll find along the way are just icing on the 'Moon and Stars' watermelon.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Souvenir du President Lincoln

'Souvenir du President Lincoln'
ProfessorRoush is mildly late at observing the fabricated President's Birthday holiday, but since the importance of that holiday has dramatically decreased from the separate observances of Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday during my elementary school days, I don't feel overly guilty about it.  Truth-be-told, I'm kind of anti- all the little Monday holidays, anyway.  I never saw the point of anything other than Memorial Day and maybe Veteran's Day, but the rest just kind of interrupt my work flow and seem superfluous.  Heck, I had to work on President's Day this year, so what was the point? 

You can always choose to honor President Lincoln, however, by growing a healthy red Bourbon rose named 'Souvenir du President Lincoln'.  He was bred by French breeders Robert and Moreau in 1865, the year of Lincoln's assassination. I have a little trouble, myself, calling him red since he is more of a magenta-pink in my garden, perhaps showing a little fuchsia overtone from time to time.  In fact, there is some broad acceptance in the rose world that the rose currently being sold as 'Souvenir du President Lincoln' is not the original, which was indeed described as dark red, purple, or almost black.  The impostor stands, however, with no rival;  all the complaints about this rose differing from early descriptions may be accurate, but no other rose has stepped up as a candidate for the correct original.  This current one will also not be mistaken for the more modern deep red Hybrid Tea 'Mr. Lincoln', but he has just as strong a fragrance as its modern cousin, and a  blossom that is far more double, with about 80 petals packed into a cupped bloom. 

My 'Souvenir du President Lincoln' is entering his third full season in my garden, provided, of course, that it survived this long winter as it did the previous two.  Last year, as a two-year old, he gained some height, but his straggly nature seems more suited to being a pillar rose than a garden bush.  My specimen has several thick and long canes that grew to about 5 feet high and then proceeded to flop.  It is a very narrow bush, all legs and no torso, hoping only to find something to lean against.  The foliage is matte-surfaced, and grey-green, and the rose suffered from some moderate blackspot over last summer.  Definitely a Bourbon by nature, 'Souvenir du President Lincoln' is often described as an alternative to 'Madame Isaac Pereire, but in my garden I think MIP is by far the more vigorous bush and has a stronger fragrance. 

It has been so long since I've written about a rose that it almost feels unnatural, a bit too "in-your-face" to a winter that has surely not yet released its grasp on my snow- and ice-covered fields.  I hope I'm not tempting fate by thinking about summer roses during a minus zero morning.   



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