Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Turkey Trauma

I've long held that the Kansas Flint Hills provide the ultimate challenges for gardeners, whether it be from hail, high winds, ice storms, clay soil, summer drought, below zero temperatures, prairie fires, locust plagues, or just a vengeful Jehovah.  You name the catastrophe-maker in your own garden, and I bet I can match it here in Kansas.  

 One garden scourge that I hadn't counted on when I moved out onto the prairie, however, was the Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), an American native much more adapted to the prairie than I or most of my shrubs.  The picture at the right was taken early in June several years back and approximately 4 feet from my front door in the midst of my front garden bed.  The two vibrant males here were battling for an invisible female in the way of males of many species during early summer. Although they are normally cautious birds who run or fly at the first sign of danger, these two old boys were so oblivious to their environment that you could have hit them over the head with a club.  If you've been to a public pool anytime during early June, you can observe similar behavior in the teenagers of our own species. 

Unfortunately these particular turkeys were having their little tussle all over two variegated red twig dogwoods (Cornus alba variegata) that I had been nursing along for several years.  According to Wikipedia, the males heads turn red when ready to fight and blue when excited, the blood-engorged flopping wattles and snoods displaying their ardor. It is obvious we were in fight mode here as it has been some time since I've seen something so engorged and so red in my garden.  Seen in the background on the picture at left, neither dogwood survived being stomped on for several minutes by the 15-20 lb. skirmishers.   
I have since tried several other shrubs in those spots, including a couple of holly, but nothing quite perked my interest as much as the dogwoods. So this year and $100 later, I'm back with two more, this time with a more specific and I hope hardier cultivar,  Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’, pictured and circled at the left.  So far, one entire season into the repeat experiment, both survive and the turkeys are staying down in the prairie grass out of the cultivated landscape.

So, all those gardeners out there who gnash teeth and bemoan their bad luck;  anybody else had a shrub die by turkey attack?  Welcome to the Flint Hills and my gardening life. 

Monday, December 27, 2010

Gardening Resolutions

In the spirit of public service, I'm going to transmit, with some modification, some advice regarding New Year's resolutions that I heard on the radio last night while traveling back from a Christmas visit.

The radio topic was about how to improve your success rate on your New Year's resolutions (if you are foolish enough to make any). I'm sorry that I can't quote the station or the announcer for this info but I'll freely admit that it is purloined from such a source.  Anyway, the radio personality presented a four-part plan for making your resolutions stick which can be summed up in four "P's" (my modification):  Passion, Present tense, Put it in writing, and (have a) Plan.

I'll illustrate the above concepts in terms of a gardening resolution for me for 2011.  The first P, "Passion," stands for making a resolution on something you are passionate about.  It wouldn't, for instance, do any good for me to make a resolution that I'm going to add some marigolds to my garden because I have little interest in placing marigolds in my garden, nor any other annuals for that matter.  One thing I am passionate about right now is that I need to improve the garden bed pictured above by moving the large ornamental grasses (circled in the picture) somewhere else, maybe at least to the back of the bed, so the plants behind them can be seen better.  So my 2011 resolution is to move the darned Miscanthus cultivars in this bed somewhere else.  And if you think that action is not worthy of needing a resolution, you've obviously never moved a full-grown Miscanthus sp. anchored in rocky, clayey soil.

The second P, "Present tense" means that you should always refer to your resolution in the present tense.  For example, you're not GOING to quit smoking, you HAVE quit smoking.  I'm not going to move the Miscanthus sometime this spring, I'm already "in the process of moving the Miscanthus" (dread and procrastination ARE surely part of the process, and so I really have started moving them).

The third P, "Put it in writing" is obviously accomplished for me by writing this blog.  The act of writing down your resolution reinforces the chances that you'll carry it out.  It is a simple contract with yourself that you'll see later and be reminded that you were doing something about it.  In the case of this blog, I also risk the embarrassment of not moving the grasses and then facing local friends who read the blog and who may see the clumps next summer, still unmoved, sprawling all over the neighboring roses.

Finally, the radio emphasized that you should "have a Plan" for how to accomplish your goal.  My plan for moving the Miscanthus is to waddle forth sometime when the frost leaves the ground in late March, and, armed with mattock, spade, chainsaw, and a colorful vocabulary, I will begin to pry the Miscanthus from their current sites.  After about 30 unfruitful minutes of that effort, during which I shall likely accomplish nothing aside from bruising my insoles by jumping repeatedly on the spade, I will then go into town to hire three young strapping men to accomplish the feat while I observe and direct them from the comfort of the gazebo swing. That method seems to work best for the landscaping gurus I see on the TV shows, and so I have high expectations that I will, in fact, accomplish my New Year's gardening resolution.

How about you?  What gardening resolutions will you make?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Bluebird Approved

I posted previously on my bluebird nest box design, so I wanted to update the blog to tell one and all that the "Roush" design is now NABS (North American Bluebird Society) approved. If you'd like to make one, my hideously self-drawn plans are here (page 1) and here (page 2).  Someday, I'll get someone involved with some drafting ability so they can make them a little easier to follow.  Right now, suffice it to say that I've aimed at making a design that uses standard cedar lumbar sizes for ease of construction.  It's front-opening, but could easily be made side-opening instead.  All I ask, in return for posting the plans, is that you help me save a few bluebirds...and support the North American Bluebird Society if you're able to.

Roush NABS-approved
 Bluebird Nest Box
For the unwashed, there is a whole sideshoot of science and pseudoscience involved in the creation of nest boxes that will attract bluebirds but will also be unattractive to sparrows and other winged rats.  They need to be a certain size and of exacting entrance hole diameters.  Ventilation is very important so that they don't overheat, particularly during the summer during the second nesting cycle.  They sometimes need various types of predator guards attached, depending on what roams in your area.  One of the things different in my design from the standard NABS box or Peterson box is the entrance hole is a little lower since it has been recently discovered that bluebirds will use shallower nest boxes and sparrows won't.  Every little advantage helps.

I got interested in the survival of bluebirds because they are a welcome bit of bright color in February against the brown Kansas prairie, and I don't want to see them go the way of the Carolina Parakeet. One of the best books I ever read, and a life-changing experience, was Hope Is The Thing With Feathers, about 10 or 15 years old now, by an English professor named Christopher Cokinos.   The book is a winner of several national awards and in it Cokinos tells of six birds that have gone extinct in North America within living history, chronicling the fall of each species and the heart-breaking attempts to save them.  Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, Heath Hen, etc, all have a place in this unique and engrossing text.  The extent of his research is amazing. For instance, from an old magazine article about the last wild Passenger Pigeon, he found the family of the young boy who shot it in 1910 and received from them a manuscript written by that now deceased individual that described every detail about that fateful day.  You'll find yourself rooting for the birds, and then grieving as the last Heath Hens are wiped out by a grass fire.  Don't miss this wonderful read.

And please take Cokinos' book to heart and help us with the bluebirds.  More information is always available at the North American Bluebird Society webpage, but the "Roush Eastern Bluebird Nest Box" is only found here.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

No Point in Being Sensible

There's always inspiration and support on the Internet for gardeners, isn't there?  In a recent post on GardenWeb, a poster asked about extending their garden into a neighboring vacant plot of land with a near-vertical incline and the response by a reader named "catsrose" on 12/15/10, was to "Go for it. If it works it will be gorgeous and if it doesn't the goats can have it.  There is no point in being sensible about this sort of thing." 

What an absolutely great sentiment!  "No point in being sensible about this sort of thing" salves the conflicts we feel about so many of the enthusiasms we gardeners constantly get side-tracked into.  You've got 649 concrete rabbit statues in your 0.7 acre garden?  Who cares if that is a sensible number as long as you're happy?  Your back yard is impossible to navigate because of the overgrowth of 35 massive species roses hanging over the pathways and snagging everything in sight?  What could possibly not be sensible about having 35 fabulous specimens of the rose clan and even adding the 36th or 37th or the hundredth?  Traveling next summer to Nepal to pursue that mythical blue poppy species that will survive tropical heat as well as mountainous cold?  No lack of sensibility there since such a specimen is the dream of all who belong to the Meconopsis-less clan.  The last example, alas, may indicate that the gardener, however sensible, has taken a step towards living in a dream world since the desert climate Meconopsis sp. only exists on the planet Sirius Beta 3. 

Requiring sensibility, in a garden or in the gardener, drives out all the passion and love of gardening and makes the garden a boring place.   I, myself, should probably heed the advice and make a point of being a little less sensible about my garden.  Why shouldn't I create a nice water feature in my Kansas landscape, despite my arguments about wanton water usage being a little out of character for the Flint Hills?  As a compromise, even a dry, faux creek bed might make an interesting addition.  Why shouldn't I start working on a nice stone wall around the vegetable garden with the primary goal of being able to place several espaliered fruit trees up against it?  Such a project might indeed take years and involve some back-breaking labor, but why be sensible about it?  And lastly, why, pray tell me, does Mrs. ProfessorRoush think that the cement head pictured above, is creepy and disturbing rather than an interesting focal point in my garden?  Can't she be sensible about it?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Compost Musings

YES I compost, YES I do, YES I compost, how about YOU?

Sorry.  Some of the enthusiasm I occasionally run into when I talk about composting within earshot of the WEE crowd (Wild-Eyed Environmentalists) brought to mind an old cheer from high school basketball games when I thought about starting this particular blog, and that led to memories of friends and classmates who were high school cheerleaders or "pom-pom" squad, and that, of course, revived other old enthusiasms and left me mentally wandering....but I digress.

Actually, to be truthful, I was late to the composting game as a gardener and I still do it haphazardly.  For the first years of my gardening life, I was fond of throwing the weeds back down where I pulled them and letting nature do the work (I still do, to the chagrin of my wife, if I'm weeding far from the compost pile).  I am certainly not a religious convert to the organic-only mindset and, forgive me Gardener, but I routinely sin and don't compost many items which are compostable.  I don't, for instance, walk my wife's coffee grounds down the hill in the freezing Kansas wind to add them to the pile.  Nor the banana peels, or eggshells, or wilted celery.  My desire to compost, I'm afraid, ends at the onset of cold weather.  Just last week I read a locally-written article on how we should turn our compost piles every month in the winter.  Really?  I don't know about you, but here in Zone 5B, my compost pile has been frozen rock solid for the past three weeks and it'll likely remain that way through March.  I wonder if the local writer has really gotten out and tried to turn his compost pile lately, or if he was reading and passing on information written in Britannia or southern Texas?

Towards my salvation, though, over the past several years a good friend who lives amidst the trees has provided me with as many bags of fresh  fallen leaves as I can drive away with.  Routinely, that means that in making the compost pictured above in my makeshift compost pile, I've added about 50 large bags of leaves to the mix annually.  In fact, as you can see pictured below, I have several bins where leaves remain half-rotted until I begin cutting summer grass and pulling weeds.  I mix in the leaves with the green fresh material as it becomes available, and then turn the pile back and forth between bins until finally, all those bushels of leaves and grass become the pictured half-bin (2X4X4) of mostly compost.  

I certainly don't make great compost, however.  Somehow, I never reach the black, crumbling texture described in all the books, even though my soil thermometer tells me that I reached the prerequisite temperatures at least twice this year.  Perhaps, being intrinsically lazy, I don't turn it enough since I probably only turn it completely about 3 times in a summer.  Sue me, I just can't face turning the compost pile when the July sun is high and the temperatures start at 90F and end up at 109F.  And I probably don't water it enough. Although I try for the "wrung-out" sponge dampness, I mostly see repeatedly watering the compost pile as a bit of a waste of water in a landscape where water is a precious commodity during the summer. And maybe I fail because I mix in whole leaves and grass clippings and I don't chop them up fine enough. 

But, even half-finished, the plants don't seem to complain when they're mulched with my meager offerings.  And I trust the ingredients of my compost enough to put it on my vegetable garden, in contrast to the local municipal compost.  The latter, while free and available in large quantities, tends to have a bit of gravel, bottle tops and rubber items occasionally mixed in.  I might not mix my partially-aged compost into the soil for fear of losing a little available nitrogen, but the worms seem to appreciate its presence as a mulch. 

I'll leave you with this very deep thought:  however reluctantly and imperfectly, I suppose all gardeners eventually compost.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

'Rugelda' Sounds Regal

In choosing a rose for my not-quite-weekly focus, I had several refined and delicate roses in mind earlier this week, but at the last minute, I thought "Hey, it's time I displayed 'Rugelda'."  And indeed, it is time and perhaps past time.

I've alluded to this somewhat little-known rose before in other posts, but I've never fully expressed my admiration of it.  'Rugelda', or 'KORruge', is a hybrid rugosa bred by the great rose breeding family W. Kordes and Sons in 1989.   While not known well in the United States, she perhaps has more recognition in Europe and she won an award of Anerkannte Deutche Rose (Anerkannte means "Recognized") in 1992,  A cross of 'Bonanza' (a yellow and red blend 1983 shrub by Kordes) and bright red 'Robusta' (a 1979 rugosa hybrid by Kordes), 'Rugelda' really doesn't exhibit the textured leaves of the rugosas, but I've always felt that it has some of the nicest glossiest mid-green foliage of all the roses I grow (next to 'Prairie Harvest'). That perfect disease-free foliage has been described as "holly-like" and it certainly has a bit of that look and indestructibility to it.

'Rugelda' is a double, bright yellow rose made unique by the unusual pink edges of the petals.  She fades to a more graceful lighter yellow and open form as she ages.  Cane hardy to at least Zone 5b by personal experience and, according to one website, perhaps into Zone 3, I've got two 'Rugelda's' that have survived now upwards of 10 years without winter protection or spraying.  'Rugelda' is trying to be a climber and annually puts out strong, lean canes up to 6 feet tall.  She is one of the roses that I cut back to about 4 feet each fall so that the long canes don't whip about in the Kansas wind.  Sge is also one of the roses I am most wary about being around; the thorns are wicked, much like the 'Robusta' parent, and really reach out to grab idle bystanders.  Fragrance is moderate in my garden, but reports on the Internet range from little fragrance to very fragrant.
If 'Rugelda' has a unique feature that sets it apart, however, it has to be the perfect hybrid-tea-like form of the buds in contrast to the normal blowsy open form of other Rugosa's.  That beautiful red/yellow coloring of those buds does not hurt them either.  Take a good long look.   Don't you want one in your garden?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Perpetual Garden Fantasy

A recent post on threw me for a momentary loop, but it also turned my thoughts and outrageous fantasies in a new direction.  A simple post from someone talking about his Old Garden Roses being in the peak of bloom seemed innocuous until I thought, "Wait?  What?" and checked the date on the post, and found the date to be correctly listed as the end of November.  Further investigation, of course, revealed that the writer was based in Australia, where evidently early summer has just arrived.  Easy sometimes to forget that the world has gotten a lot smaller with the Internet, isn't it? 
But dream with me a minute, won't you?  Imagine that suddenly you've won the lottery and have riches beyond your wildest dreams.  Planning to buy that yacht for around the world sailing?  Thinking about that trip to Egypt and the Orient to see the Seven Wonders?  Well, it occurred to me that a great choice to spend my unearned gains would be a second home, Down Under.  I suddenly have visions of two seasons of 'Madame Hardy' every year.  Two glorious summers of waves of Old Garden Roses with no need to wait around to see the browning buds and the onset of August blackspot.  Two periods of delicious fragrance from 'Madame Issac Pierre', 'Variegata de Bologna' and 'Salet'.  Two summers a year in the garden.  

And why stop there?  If it's a really big lottery win, homes in Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, and Canada might be in order as well;  four seasons of Madame Hardy in the northern hemisphere and then another season or two in the southern.  Just follow the wave of rose blooms northward, and at the northern end fly to the opposite pole of the earth and start over.  Or back to Texas again to see the succession of daylilies start up.  Bored as the perfect blooms of  'Madame Hardy' fade?  Just a short skip in the private jet and you're back to 'Harison's Yellow' again!  Think those surfers in the documentary "Endless Summer" had it good?  "Hey man, those 'Charles de Mills' blooms look pretty rad, dude" could become our new mantra.

'Ballerina' at Denver Botanical Gardens 06/24/10
I do have to confess it's not the first time a similar thought has occurred to me.  I've always joked with friends that when the rest of the world finally broke me, I would run away to a secluded cabin in Montana.  On a trip this summer to Denver Colorado in late June, I chanced to visit the Denver Botanical Gardens and came upon a most gorgeous display of old garden style roses. Thinking that I'd come across some new David Austin varieties that I'd never seen before, I took a long look at the ID tags and realized that I was seeing the same old garden roses that had bloomed in my garden a month earlier, at  roughly the same latitude, just at 5000 feet higher in altitude and one month later.  At that moment, my crumbling escape cabin in the Rockies got mentally surrounded by a few acres of imaginary roses. Blooming, healthy, disease-free imaginary roses.

While I'm dreaming, do you think it's too much to ask that the cabin would be in a magic deer-free zone of the mountains as well?         

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Seeds of a Trellis Future

One of my fall projects, just completed, was to place another walkthrough trellis structure on the beginning of the path down from the back of my garden to the cattle pond, hoping to define that view and the walk as one of my garden entrance or exit points. My trellis's are certainly not things of beauty, made to take advantage of standard commercial lengths of treated posts, lumber, and lattice, but they are quite functional and easily built (and easily cemented into the ground so they won't blow away within the first week of creation). I already have one similar trellis at another point leading from the garden, covered from both sides with different varieties of Wisteria, but I was thinking for the second trellis of something more like a grapevine, or climbing rose.

Passion Flower /Maypop seeds
However, serendipity has stepped in and I've now decided that the second trellis will be covered with annual and perennial vines obtained for the perfectly affordable price of $0.  On one side, I'm going to plant seeds from a Passion Flower vine (Passiflora sp), obtained simply by picking up a mature fruit dropped in late September from the vines at the KSU Gardens. I cleaned these rather unique seeds with their golf-ball textured exteriors from the slimy fruit and dried and stored them.  At the Gardens, they completely cover a long stretch of chain-link fence and flower over a long summer season. Because of their size and perennial nature here, I suspect the species of which I purloined seeds is Passiflora incarnata, or the "Maypop," a common species in the southeastern US. This subtropical variety of this mostly tropical family is cold hardy to  -4°F (-20°C) before its roots die.  At least, finally, I'll have some passion in my garden and be able to enjoy the fruit of it.
Hyacinth Bean Vine seeds
On the other side, I'm going to plant some Hyacinth Bean vine seeds gifted recently by a fellow Master Gardener.  The Hyacinth Bean vine (Dolichos lablab) is a fast-growing annual with maroon sweet-pea type flowers that blooms in mid-summer.  It is certainly not a new find for the world (it's also known as Indian Bean, Egyptian Bean, Chinese Flowering Bean, and Pharaoh Bean), but I'd never heard of it myself until the beans were thrust into my hands at a local meeting.  I also had to resort to the Internet to lear about them, as I couldn't find them at all in my not-inconsiderably-sized reference library. Hyacinth Bean is drought resistant, and the only cultivation tip that it seems to need is to soak the seeds overnight before planting (which I would do with any bean seed as a matter of habit anyway).  It is reportedly used as food for both humans and livestock in some parts of the world, but several sources caution that the beans (that look like small ice cream sandwiches) must be boiled carefully, changing the water twice during cooking, to allow one to avoid the toxic cyanogenic glycosides they contain.  I don't know about you, but I'm not about to provide Mrs. ProfessorRoush any poisonous beans that I expect her to feed back to me.  I don't think I've done anything that might lead her to a simple cooking "mistake", but I always find it better not to tempt fate when one can avoid it. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Buds of Hope

M. stellata
Even as the garden winds down for winter, I gain hope and strength from the briefest hints that my garden fully expects that Spring will return in due time.  I'm writing, of course about the many hardy buds on shrubs and trees that each are whispering to me, "Just wait, you'll see, I'll be green again when April beckons."  Hope springs eternal in the gardener's breast.

There were four candidates for faith in Spring in my garden this past weekend.  The first of these were the small fuzzy buds of the magnolias, most prolific of which are my Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’).  Magnolia stellata is one of the few magnolias hardy enough to prosper in this area (I grow three different magnolias in total), and so I watch it carefully during the winter, holding my breath as the buds swell and the shrub proves to me that it has yet again survived the winter. 

Lilac bud
Lilacs, of course, provide a reliable display of tight brown buds in the Kansas landscape during the winter, seemingly armored against the winter cold, and the lilacs are our alkali-soil-loving stalwarts for spring fragrance.  Native sumacs, of course, dot the prairie everywhere, but their buds in my garden are best contemplated on the tamer Cutleaf Staghorn sumac, 'Tiger Eye's' (Rhus typhine) cultivar. The fuzzy stems of the sumac resemble, of all things, deer antlers (interestingly, since deer love to eat these stems) and the buds as small scars, but eventually the buds grow out.


'Tiger Eyes' Sumac

If there are buds that I watch most closely, though it's the hard brown orbs born by Aesculus carnea 'Briottii'  that stands as a specimen tree, albeit still small, in my back garden.  I had a heck of a time getting this one to grow, trying twice before I got a specimen to survive its first winter.  And even now I must watch carefully in the spring as the turtle-like shell of these buds opens to reveal the most delicate fuzzy green innards that slowly expand like cabbages.

A. carnea ‘Briottii’

The second year I had this tree, I was examining the newly opened buds and looking at the delicious-appearing light green foliage and I thought "hey, I bet the deer would really love this thing and I'd better get some fencing up."  I procrastinated of course, and the very next morning I found half the tree denuded of the new pubescent foliage.  Figuring that the deer had already had their fun, I still didn't cover the tree and, unsurprisingly the following morning the other half of the tree had been nipped in the buds.  That spring, the tree started all over again producing leaves, but it survived and ever since, I make sure to protect it when the smallest green shows through the buds.  Fool me once, shame on the deer, fool me twice and I'm going to be stocking the freezer with venison. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Henry Mitchell Lives On

Every Sunday, without fail, I turn first to the portion of our local newspaper that features a column by the county Extension Horticultural agent.  There is just something comforting and satisfying about having that weekly local perspective on my garden travails in Kansas.  In a similar vein, although I don't often feel that I've been shortchanged by never living nor gardening in our nation's capital, I do regret that I never had the pleasure of anticipating the Washington Post's Earthman columns from the late, great Henry Mitchell.

For almost 25 years, Henry Mitchell wrote of his own garden and his interactions with it for the pure pleasure of the readers of the Post.  He died in 1993, alas before I became an avid reader of garden literature, so I never saw one of the columns in its natural newsprint. Thankfully however, for the reading gardener, many of the best columns were reprinted in one of three collections; The Essential Earthman (1981), One Man's Garden (1992), and the posthumous On Gardening (1998).  Rest assured that all three books would make my top ten list for best garden literature.  I read them for the very dry, sometimes dark humor of Henry commenting on life, garden, and his dogs.  I read them for the useful technical garden tidbits and his assessments of specific plants. Sometimes I read them just for the pure pleasure of Mr. Mitchell's command of the English language. I have read and will continue to re-read them over and over.  Whatever the subject for any particular essay, there is no doubt where Henry stood on the subject.  It is a measure of his genius (and perhaps of the slow pace of garden advancement) that after thirty years and more, none of his writings seem out-of-date or inaccurate.  Sometimes kind-hearted and jovial, sometimes cynically and with the best voice of the curmudgeon, Mr. Mitchell's wit and love of gardening and human-kind (and dogs) lives on. 

A brief scan of any of these books yields a treasure trove of good gardening thoughts and quotes.  The following examples from One Man's Garden are just a small quick sample:

"Some people are clearly better at maintenance in their gardens than others--the same ones, probably, that keep files of birthdays and jokes for all occasions and have neat desks."

"If you must have an oak or one of those wretched Norway maples, at least plant it in the center of the garden and build the garden around it, thus sparing neighbors as much as possible from the effects of folly."

"One of the truly dumbest things a gardener can do is start building something.  I speak with full authority on this as I am always in the midst of a shed or a summerhouse...when the work of weeding is already neglected."

"A stout plastic bag of manure is a splendid gift.  I think a whole load (of manure) is too much like giving emerald cuff links--a bit much and rather improper, unless you know the gardener well."

"Peace comes to the gardener when at last he has all his flowers in reasonable and sane balance--the day after the undertaker comes."

"The trouble is--one trouble is--I like agaves, the bigger the better.  Well, these things work themselves out.  Sometimes the gardener gets hit by a truck before he has to face the fact that the house won't hold but so many..."

"It sounds very well to garden a "natural way." You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners."
I even used a quote from The Essential Earthman for the opening chapter of my own garden manuscript, Garden Musings, repeating the immortal statement that "Wherever humans garden magnificently, there are magnificent heartbreaks. It is not nice to garden anywhere. Everywhere there are violent winds, startling once-per-five-centuries floods, unprecedented droughts, record-setting freezes, abusive and blasting heats never known before.”  My only wish now, with Christmas coming on, is that the Washington Post and Mr Mitchell's family would release a "complete collection" of the Earthman columns so that we could judge the best for ourselves, unfiltered and raw as Mr. Mitchell intended. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Edge your Paving!

For all the do-it-yourselfer gardeners out there, this post is a flat-out informational piece in hopes of having you learn from my mistake.  And this particular one concerns the importance of using "paver edging" for your brick paver projects.  Please do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do (did).

About two years back, during my preparation for having my garden appear on the local area Annual Garden Tour, I erected an octagonal gazebo from scratch (kids, don't try that at home!).  Because of the prevailing gale-force winds of Kansas, I erect all outdoor structures with the anticipation that a tornado will appear over the next ridge at any moment, and so my structures are overengineered to last wherever possible; no less so this gazebo which is anchored by eight posts cemented into the ground.  For a floor, since I disdain wooden raised gazebo floors under which snakes and pack rats may breed in private perpetuity, I laid brick pavers for an approximately 10 foot square floor.  I'd had good luck with pavers elsewhere in contained areas, so I knew to place a good sand base down and level the pavers, but I'd never made a free-standing form in the middle of the yard before, and I'd never heard of brick paver edging.  Such are the mistakes made by those who think they can just muddle into the job.

Alas, you can guess that the result was having the bricks at the edge eventually shift away from the center on all the edges, as pictured at left above, leading to an unattractive affront to my in ordnung sensibilities.  Fortunately, the K-State Gardens had recently installed a paver walkway and I had carefully observed the construction and learned of the importance of paver edging.  Paver edging is a simple commercial strip of plastic, "L"-shaped in cross section, that we lay down beneath and along the edges of our paver constructions to prevent just such migrations.  Priced at approximately the weight of the plastic in gold, it should nonetheless be viewed as  a necessity in your paver designs.

The result of a few minutes work yesterday was to lift the bricks at the edge, lay the paver edging and re-square my gazebo floor.  Happily, the Gardening Gods gave me a 60oF November day to make it all work out.  Now, hopefully, a real tornado won't come over the hills and send my gazebo to New York by air mail, but if it does, I have a nice ten-foot square dance floor in the middle of my garden that should hold up to foot traffic for years to come.

Monday, November 29, 2010

'Linda Campbell'

One of the first Rugosa hybrids I ever grew, at my old town garden, was the crimson Ralph Moore cultivar 'Linda Campbell' (trademarked 'MORten').  I had just begun my search for hardy roses to survive Kansas and had not yet jumped on top of the Griffith Buck or Canadian Roses, but I had happened across mention of the phenomenal breeder Ralph Moore and his many unique cultivars.  My 'Linda Campbell' came directly from Moore's Sequoia Nursery when it was still in business, and the specimen that I now grow is a sucker from that original purchase.  All on its lonesome out on the prairie, it lights up the entire end of my garden bed in the hottest of summers.   

'Linda Campbell' was introduced by Moore in 1991 and named after a friend.  It's namesake was a two-term President of the Denver Rose Society, ARS Life Judge, and was involved in her husband's rose business (High Country Rosarium, now named High Country Roses and located in Utah).  A cross of the salmon miniature rose 'Anytime' and the pink Van Fleet heirloom 'Rugosa Magnifica', this bright red rose with yellow stamens lacks perceptible scent, for those who care about such things, but it is also a disease-free performer in the Northern garden.  'Linda Campbell' blooms continually with clusters of 8-15 semi-double blooms highlighted against that dark green barely-crinkled foliage, and she is entirely self-cleaning on her own. Fully cane-hardy in my Zone-5 garden, Linda stands about 3-4 foot tall and spreads around to 5-6 feet when left on her own, but she rarely suckers and is nearly thornless.  The picture of the young bush, at the left, hardly does justice to the glory that she is in mature growth.  She has a nice upright habit and never makes a nuisance of herself except to brighten up her area of the garden every time you look.
Ralph Moore, who is known to rosarians as the "Grandfather of the American Miniature Rose," dabbled in breeding various different rose strains for over 50 years.  Sequoia Nursery, which he opened in 1937 as a general nursery, became his center for breeding miniature roses.  His work in miniatures was monumental, but his breeding programs of striped roses and moss roses also form the foundation for much of the work still going on in those areas. Alas, the world lost him in 2009 when he passed at the age of 102 and Sequoia Nursery closed the same year.  I've since seen pictures of Sequoia Nursery as posted on the Internet only a year later and it is sad to see the disrepair that only a year has brought in this former mecca of the rose world.  There are rumors, though, that Moore's breeding stock may have been transferred into safe-keeping and that the tremendous potential of his breeding lines may not yet be lost.  'Linda Campbell' is a testament to his genius and should be grown in every rose lover's garden.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Garden Tour Requests

To all the trembling gardeners out there;

Yes, this is the time of year when Extension Master Gardener's are busily planning out next year's Garden Tour in your local town.  Take it from me that this is no reason to rush out and spread trash around the vegetable garden nor to maim the Weigela in hopes that your garden is overlooked for consideration.  In truth your garden was likely scouted out during the previous summer in anticipation of the coming year by some cunning Master Gardener and your name was placed on a list of possibles and a secret file generated about your garden.  Remember when you found the dew marred by footprints moving through the garden one early summer morning, but yet nothing seemed to be amiss save the roses that were mysteriously deadheaded?  Remember that dark summer night when you could have sworn you saw lights floating about your daylilies for a few seconds, and the thyme walkway looked trampled, but all you found was that the tomatoes had been staked up a bit higher? Those weren't the actions of a new SWAT team at Homeland Security, they were the next most dangerous group, a stealthy bunch of Master Gardener's with a mission and a complete inborn inability to leave the plants alone.

When the fiends finally reveal themselves with a request to display your lovely garden on the tour, take a deep breath and just say yes.  Despite what you've read about the horrors of hundreds of people closely scrutinizing your azaleas and trampling the clematis, the gardening public that will visit your garden on G-Day (shorthand for the actual tour date) will never notice the henbit springing up among the roses because their eyes will be only on either the smallest details of that double peach-colored miniature rose or on the larger picture of your garden composition.  Mirabel Osler, in A Breath from Elsewhere, describes these visitors to her garden as either Crouchers or Gapers, respectively. The Croucher’s move bent over at the waist, meticulously naming, admiring, and coveting individual plants, while the Gapers saunter around a garden in a state of enlightened bliss but miss the details of the latest daylily cultivar you just spent $100 for.  Despite what you've heard, the public won't mutter that your lilacs are ruined with mildew, or comment on the unholy color of the white marigolds (at least within your hearing range).  I've been a site for my local garden tour and I found the people that came through are truly delightful and only inquisitive and complimentary, not overly critical.  Sometimes, you'll even gather enough compliments to deceive you into believing you might actually be a real gardener.

It won't be any more work than normal, either, to get ready for the Tour.  You won't do anything crazy like shoveling off three feet of snow over the garden in January so you can begin Spring cleanup early, and of course you won't begin to build the Taj Mahal of gazebos or put in that 3 acre water feature just to impress visitors.  And those rumors about evening up the grass ends with hand-trimmers at midnight the night before G-day are just myths circulated by scaremongers. Trust me, you'll barely feel the urge to spread a little extra mulch this year.

So, for the benefit of Master Gardener's everywhere, just say "Yes."   Please.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Glorius Sunrise

There are mornings, beyond understanding, when we wake up and the world that has lately seemed small and brown and drab is suddenly made golden and magical by the sunlight.  As I went outside to do the morning thing with the dog, what greated me on a recent morning was this sight at sunrise:

Sometimes the gray, late Fall mornings just steal the life from the morning here on the Flint Hills, but other times, most times, the sun turns haze to a prism and brings the prairie alive.  Yes, the picture shows this area of the garden needs some ornamental grasses moved and a better wall to block garden from prairie. And yes, the milk jugs protecting the new rose bands distract from the picture. And, yes, my Marsala Aga statue in the center background looks lonely and small on the greater scale of the garden. But the morning dew has picked up the red tones from the grass and the few evergreens in this view are holding on bravely.  And I'm happy that the prairie has chosen to greet me with a smile this morning.

I've often said that Manhattan has the most sunny days of anywhere I've ever lived and somewhere, sometime, I always remember that I heard the number quoted as 330 sunny days a year.  However, I confess that I can't find anything near the 330 day figure on an Internet search.  According to a USNews report of best places to retire, Manhattan only has 36% (131) sunny days/year.  Okay, that site may not be accurate anyway, particularly since it states that the OZ museum is in nearby Lincoln (it's in nearby Wamego, 20 minutes away, and the closest Lincoln is Lincoln, Nebraska at 2.5 hours away).  Manhattan is listed as having 127 sunny days/year on an astronomy site, 145 clear days on a Hi-Tunnel Gardening site (126 additional days that are partly cloudy), and 219, 218, or 214 sunny days as listed on various pages of and finally 218 days on

Who's to say who is right?  The low figures seem to count only cloudless days, and since our clouds here are often small and intermittent, the 271 day total listed on the Hi-Tunnel site as having some sun may be closer to our real figure.  I don't know where the real answer lies except to say that there seems to be plenty of sunlight here to feed the full value of life and I'm thankful for what each day brings.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chicken Fetish

One of the definitions of "fetish" by The Free Online Dictionary is an "object of unreasonably excessive attention or reverence."  If that's the case, then I must admit that along with my collection of cement rabbits in my garden, I also have a certain small fetish for artificial roosters in my garden.  Oh dear, Sigmund Freud, what exactly might that say about my psyche?

The rooster at the right watches over my lavenders right outside the back door.  This is a straight western exposure, lots of sun and wind and cold during the winter.  Made of cast iron, I was pretty sure when I purchased it from the garden store that it would withstand the prevailing Kansas winds in this exposed site, and so far, it has "withstood" the worst that the prairie can throw at it.

The second rooster, at the left, is a nice addition to my front landscaping, even placed as it is overshadowed in the summer by the bright red bee's balm (Monarda didyma 'Jacob Cline') surrounding it.  It is also a perfect example of why "permanent" garden ornaments shouldn't be formed from terra cotta.  It slowly decays a little bit each year, but at the same time, I so love the patina and the color of the thing that I can't bare to provide it any shellac or coating.  I assume that someday, after another long winter or two, it will become just another an unrecognizable crumbling clay pillar, but till then it stays vigilant for me to scratch out  any insects that try to invade the house from the front. 

There's just no accounting for garden taste now, is there?  Wait till I finally write about my rabbits!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Fall Foliaged Roses

'Morden Centennial' Hips
There is no doubt that I miss the roses when winter hits and the final buds shrivel as they decide it just isn't worth it to continue struggling through the cool days and cold nights.  I've been watching my garden carefully for the opening of those last buds, grabbing them greedily each night for a quick trip inside so we can still enjoy their beauty before Winter grips the Flint Hills.

Rosa 'Purple Pavement'
Roses, in the past and currently, have not been great contributors to the fall and winter garden.  Yes, there are a number of roses that provide some nice red or orange hips that contrast nicely against the snow.  There are also a few roses whose leaves, given the right fall conditions, turn a nice yellow or yellow-orange before they finally tumble down.  In my garden, 'Purple Pavement' is one of those roses that gives me a nice yellow before the leaves drop and sometimes it might even leave a nice juicy red hip or two around.  And gardeners in-the-know have been aware for a number of years that a few roses, such as 'Therese Bugnet', have a nice purple-red hue to their winter canes that even rivals that of the red-twig dogwood.

'Therese Bugnet' winter canes
The future, though, is bright.  Paul Barden has been talking about breeding new bright-red fall foliage into roses on his website and his blog here and here.  He's reporting good results from crosses of 'Therese Bugnet', R. foliolosaR. solieana, and R. arkansana, among others.  He doesn't know what all the blooms look like yet, but with further breeding, I'm sure he'll end up with some beautiful four-season roses.  I didn't purloin the pictures, so you'll have to follow the links to get there, but make sure you take a look at them and while you do it, dream of an improved Knockout with bright red fall foliage to rival a burning bush.  Now if Mr. Barden can just improve the yucky red-orange color of Knockout in the process!  

P.S.  Yes, I've been a little slow posting the last 10 days.  Alas, preparing lectures and allowing for the twists and turns of life sometimes interfere with my hobbies.  Readers, please keep checking back when I get lax.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rose Readings

I've been long in the midst of a wonderful book combining some of my favorite roses and their histories.  Titled Pink Ladies and Crimson Gents, by Molly and Don Glentzer, this one is a must read for any rosarian who loves old garden roses.  Molly is the writer and Don is the photographer and they've collaborated on a unique project.

This colorful text looks at fifty different roses, most of which are old garden roses but some of which fall into the modern category.  For each rose, there's a delicious full-page photograph of a perfect specimen of that rose, taken against a pure white background to be free of distractions.  No insect damage or blackspot on these roses! You can almost feel the roses on each page and sometimes you think that the briefest wisp of old rose scent has passed by on a draft as you read.  'Mme Eugene E. Marlitt', 'Mme Isaac Pereire', and 'Lady Banks', 'Sir Thomas Lipton', 'Napoleon', and 'Don Juan', all the cultivar-honored names of history are there, along with the individual stories of both the breeder of the particular rose and a short biography of the honoree.  

It's a highly readable book, and in a perfect format, one of those books that I refer to as "throne reading."  You know, those books that can be read a page or two at a time while you are otherwise briefly occupied in a sitting position on a white porcelain chair and biding your time with necessary physiologic pursuits.  It takes me a while to get through a book in that manner, two pages at a time, but I'm pretty sure that 'Gertrude Jekyll' and 'Graham Thomas' don't mind, as long as I get to their stories at last.

Old Rose fanatics will appreciate that the authors acknowledge that many of the blooms were taken at G. Michael Shoup's Antique Rose Emporium in Texas and at Vintage Gardens.  I myself grow several roses from the former, having enjoyed its Brenham, Texas establishment once as a sort of side-trip pilgrimage during a visit to friends.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Time Change Blues

If there is any motivation that is most likely to change a mellow-natured gardener into a raving anti-government libertarian, I believe that it is the semi-annual ritual we go through here in America involving the move to and from Daylight Savings Time.  No greater proof exists that government has intruded into our private lives than its audacity to mess with our internal biological clocks.

As lamented by other gardeners this week on several garden forums, most perturbing of all is that I no longer get to see my garden in the daylight during the weekdays since it is suddenly dark as I come home from work. My relaxing evening stroll around the garden is gone and my quick jaunts outside to photograph the last rose or the last daylily are over. I'm entering the long winter's depression of not being able to see anything living or growing for days at a time.

The whole history of Daylight Savings Time (called "summer time" in Britannia) is quite interesting and entire books have been written about it. Whether you want to blame Benjamin Franklin or George Vernon Hudson (an entomologist who liked the increased evening light for collecting bugs) or Robert Pierce (a Liberal Member of Parliament who wrote the first legislation), or your respective meddling government divisions, most of what you think you know about Daylight Savings Time is either not true or is debatable. It doesn't routinely save energy, in fact in warmer areas it increases energy use because air conditioners are used more when the evenings are longer. It reduces late afternoon traffic accidents, but causes difficulties and increases costs for business with travel, timekeeping, and record-keeping efforts. It primarily benefits retailers and sports venues, at the expense of late night entertainments and farmers. And we have no idea what fiddling with our biological clocks is doing to our health. I'm sure that if I ran enough statistics, I could prove that DST causes cancer.
Benjamin Franklin, by the way, shouldn't be blamed. His 1784 suggestion to Parisians to rise earlier and use less candles (complete with suggestions for governmental taxes on window shutters and candle rationing) was a satire. Somewhere a number of governments haven't gotten the joke.
Please, I beg of the vast uncaring federal bureaucracy, either send us to DST year-round or at least leave us alone on Standard Time so we can adjust once and for all. I am a simple native farmboy, raised to open my eyes with the sunrise and close them at sunset, and I have never adapted well to sudden changes in my wake-sleep schedule.  My failure to roll with the clock is arguably worse than for others because I was raised and spent my first 20 years in one of the small areas of the continental United States (Indiana) that never changed time until the bureaucrats messed with our biorhythms further in 2006. When I take trips, like my recent trip to the two hour-delayed time zone known as the West Coast, I've always found myself waking at around 4 a.m., raring to go while the rest of the city is still long asleep.  And then when the nightclubs or late evening business meetings beckon, I'm sure to be semi-somnambulate, or else actually dozing quietly between the rented hotel sheets, while the parties rage on.  I can only sleep in when I travel east.

My semiannual aggravation with DST is getting worse, not better, as I get older.  I just know I'm going to end up being one of those old farts who walk into the living room in my pajamas around 8:00 p.m. during the wife's Christmas party and proceed to tell everyone goodnight. Of course, as I age further and I cycle through DST a few more times, the guests will be lucky if I remember the pajamas.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Secret Assassins

The website "Garden Adventures" runs a weekly creature feature that I learned about from Toni's Signature Gardens blog, so I just had to add a plug for my own candidate for Little Shop of Horrors.  The picture below was taken last weekend while I was on my Bluebird Trail, cleaning out the boxes for winter.  Near one of the nestboxes, sitting on the top rail of an iron fence and presumably soaking up the sunshine to warm it and start the day, was this 1.5 inch long monster with an iridescent back and a central ridge of spikes.  Since I'm not one to collect insects, nor to touch them without provocation, I hoped that the picture would suffice for an entomologist to identify it.

This spiked creature was subsequently identified for me by a KSU Entomologist as a Wheel Bug, Arilus cristatus, the only member of its genus and a formidable predator of soft-bellied insects, particularly caterpillars and pests such as Japanese beetles.  It is considered a beneficial insect, although it has also been noted to feed on other beneficials such as honey bees and lady beetles. The larger females kill and eat the male after copulation, similar to the fabled Black Widow spider.  One of the largest terrestial North American bugs, it pierces its prey with a sharp beak and injects saliva to dissolve the soft tissues from the inside-out, first immobilizing and then killing the victim in less than 30 seconds. My reticence to touch it was wise as I've learned it can inflict a very painful bite on people, described as being worse than a hornet's sting, and it will create a wound that may take months to heal and often leaves a scar.  For such a vicious bug, one web site noted that in captivity, it quickly becomes accustomed to being handled, but I, for one, am not contemplating keeping one as a pet.

Do you ever wonder, with such a killer bite, why this bug needs all the scary appendages, the ridged back spine and the spikes on top and in the middle?  This thing is right out of the movie Aliens, only needing a wee Sigorney Weaver to make it fit the part.  Does an insect predator really need to advertise that it is a predator?  Isn't that counterproductive to obtaining dinner?  I would have predicted that it would make more sense for predators to look like lambs and lambs to look scary, but I guess it doesn't work that way in the bug world.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

October Glory Survives!

While the fall colors have generally been disappointing in the Flint Hills this year, I had held out hope for my October Glory Maple (it was so spectacular last year!).  Alas, it too is lacking some of its normal vibrant red tones in this long warm fall, although the leaves still look pretty darned good against the clear Kansas sky.

I should be happy though, about this tree's continued survival amidst my rocky soil and the past summer's drought.  I planted this beauty in 2007, and as you can see from the pictures at planting time, chiseling out a hole from the loose flint took some effort and resulted in a pile of flint chips that rivaled the tree's root ball.  I wanted it in the front yard, high near the house, so it could be a flaming beacon seen for a long way away when fall comes, but the soil on the top of these hills is a bit sparse.  The local Extension Horticulture agent and I have a bet as to the ultimate survival of the tree, but so far, it seems to be holding its own, having grown about a foot in each of its three years in my yard.

Acer rubrum 'October Glory' is a rapid growing Red Maple cultivar with one of the best fall displays of red leaves in commonly available cultivars.  As advertised, it holds its leaves longer than most other trees, and as I look now across my yard, it is currently the only tree out there with a full compliment of leaves, except for the dull brown Bald Cypress and my tiny Scarlet Oak out back.  It grows with a nice globular form, ultimately stretching 40'-50' high with a 25'-35' spread.  Although it is said to prefer slightly acid and moist conditions, it seems to grow fine on my alkaline, dry prairie. 

One never thinks of a maple tree as being lethal, but as a veterinarian I was interested during my research to learn that the dead or wilted leaves of red maple are extremely toxic to horses, with ingestion of three pounds considered lethal.  I don't treat horses anymore, but I'd better file that one away and make sure I don't put my compost pile near the north fence lines where my neighbor pastures horses. 


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