Sunday, October 31, 2010

Great Gardener's Wives

Behind every dedicated gardener is a Significant Other who may sometimes complain that the gardener is spending too much time in the garden but who, at other times, secretly hopes that the gardener quits lazing around on the couch and surrenders the remote.  Now that I've referred to my own SO in the requisite politically-correct way, let me be frank: A Sunday or so back, Mrs. ProfessorRoush kicked me out into the garden.

It's true that I've been slow to get back into the garden as the weather cooled down this Fall, but a couple of frenzied days in September seemed sufficient to keep my low-maintenance garden in a condition better than a complete disaster and they allowed me to keep the Winter preparatory chores caught up to my vague gardening chores schedule.  Additionally, since the immediate surrounding lawn of my house is buffalograss, now entering dormancy, and the outer lawn is mowed prairie, also entering dormancy, I have mowed the lawn a grand total of once in all of September.  I have yet to have to mow at all in October, here at the end of the month and it appears, in fact, that I'm done mowing for the year except that I'm still waiting for seedheads in my new wildflower garden to mature before I mow it off. Only then will I stow the mower, add winter stabilizers to the gasoline, and sharpen the blades in preparation for spring.  I've planted the Fall bulbs and I have tied up some of the taller rose canes so that they don't whip themselves to death with winter wind. 

But I suppose that She Who Must Be Obeyed (SWMBO) was perplexed that I wasn't pushing on with a new project such as bulldozing berms into the back yard or constructing a 20X100 foot greenhouse. Since SWMBO doesn't garden herself, she may not easily recognize the remaining symptoms of August gardening depression, that melancholy that hits gardeners when the temperatures soar over 100 and the garden shrivels to brown crepe paper.  Or, perhaps more likely, she just wanted some alone time in her domain of the house proper.  So she used the feeble excuse that I looked pale and needed a little sun and sent me packing with instructions to find something to keep myself busy outdoors.

And, of course, needing little urging beyond a well-timed spousal kick in the pants, I did just that.  I spread some well-rotted alfalfa tea that had been percolating for a week on several roses, divided a couple of daylilies, took pictures of a few late flowers for the blog, watered the compost pile, watered the recently-transplanted irises, cleaned out the bluebird nest boxes on my bluebird trail, took down and cleaned out the purple martin houses, drained two hoses and put them up for winter, and sat down for a minute or two in my gazebo.  That pretty much constituted a full afternoon of garden dawdling.  Well, I guess I also daydreamed a little bit about future garden plans and projects while sitting in the gazebo. On that beautiful October day, the perfect garden seemed yet within my grasp.  Refreshed, I returned indoors alongside the fading sun. Most importantly, SWMBO seemed satisfied with the duration of my exile to the garden and pronounced on my return that I had some color back in my cheeks.

Good marriages are made of many things, but great marriages are made when a gardener's spouse recognizes those moments when the soul of the gardener needs to merge with the soil of the garden. I am lucky to have found my Helen of Gardening, she sufficiently beautiful to launch a thousand garden beds. If puttering in the garden is what it takes to keep Mrs. ProfessorRoush happy, then puttering is the least I can do.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy Bluebird Trails

Yes, I'm one of those wild-eyed environmental (WEE) wackos that cares to keep bluebirds from the brink of extinction, and so I annually maintain a "Bluebird Trail" for the purpose of providing proper nest areas for those beautiful creatures.  Former President Jimmy Carter may have his Habitat for Humanity thing going, but I'm much more interested in seeing the bluebirds stay on the prairie.

Eastern Bluebird in my backyard
Bluebirds are in danger of becoming the next Carolina Parakeet or Passenger Pigeon without our help. Their numbers became dangerously low in the 1970's because they are cavity nesters.  Man, in his infinite wisdom, cuts down and destroys all the dead tree stumps that would otherwise provide natural cavities for the bluebirds and they also have competition for the few remaining natural cavities from sparrows (introduced to this country in the 1850's, again as a mistake by Man because He thought sparrows would eat crop insects, not become the nuisance pests they proved to be) .

Bluebirds and I have a special relationship.  My spirits are revived each spring as they arrive to begin nesting in February.  When we were building our current home, more than once I visited the framed but not yet walled-in house to find a bluebird sitting on a windowsill, as if blessing the building of our house with his presence.  Their quick little bounces while flying always lighten my mood.  And if you've read this blog long, you know I'm a sucker for light sky blue colors in the garden in any shape or form.  I've maintained a Bluebird trail, now up to sixteen boxes, for a number of years in my small attempts to aid the bluebird comeback.  This year I fledged 6 bluebird families from the 16 boxes, with 2 more nests of other species found.  My record was 8/12 bluebird nests several years back.

 In fact, I'm so into the Bluebird Trail concept that I've done some investigation into box design and also designed my own.  I started out by purchasing some typical commercial boxes from Walmart, but along the way I've built and tried lots of others. Somewhere out there on the Internet, you can find specific designs for different forms of bluebird nestboxes, from the NABS (North American Bluebird Society) box to the Peterson box and back again. Bluebird enthusiasts can debate front- and side-opening designs, floor designs, hole shapes and diameters, and hole positions till eternity passes.  Placement and construction of the boxes is critical to draw bluebirds and repel other species.  The box should be placed in grasslands away from trees and shrubs and about 4-5 foot high.  It should be away from houses as well to deter sparrows.  Size dimensions for the nest box are critical and the hole is also carefully shaped and sized (Starlings don't use oval holes and sparrows need wider ones than the 1 3/8 X 2 1/4 inch oblong hole now recommended).  Classically, the hole is placed closer to the top of the box, but another researcher has suggested that sparrows are also deterred if the nesting cavity is shallow, with the hole nearer the bottom.  Every year you must clean out and maintain the boxes to prevent disease in early Winter, before the bluebirds return to nest in February.

I've taken the best features from research to create my own simple design, which I must say seems to be remarkably effective on my little patch of prairie. Five of the six bluebird nests I had this year were produced in the six nest boxes that I've built of my own design and the sixth box was simply empty (without a sparrow nest).  The other ten boxes of commercial and other designs had only one bluebird nest among them, but two other nests from other species. At Photobucket, you can download a jpg of the "Roush Bluebird House" construction (page 1) and a diagram of how to cut up the boards (page 2) if you click on the links.  It's cut from standard lumbar widths; cedar is best for durability. It's a similar box to the Peterson box, with a larger bottom and a lower entrance.  I find front-opening boxes to be the easiest to clean.

So please, whatever design you choose, choose to help the Eastern Bluebird. I regret that I will never be able to see a Carolina Parakeet or Ivory-billed Woodpecker and I wasn't even responsible for those extinctions.  I'd like my grandchildren to still be able to enjoy a flash of blue in their gardens.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Late Surprises

I have seen a lot of posts lately on GardenWeb about late-blooming daylilies. There seems to be a relative contest to see who has the latest blooming daylily this year. And I've seen several of my own precious orange garden stalwarts come on and bloom late.  But I never expected, on October 26th, to see a daylily still blooming happily in my Zone5B garden.  

The daylily here is 'Hesperus', which I've never seen listed as a reblooming daylily, but which has certainly gotten mixed up this year and decided that the proper response to a summer drought and intense temperatures was to brighten up the garden one last time before a long winter's nap.

'Hesperus', hybridized by Hans Sass in 1940, happens to be (have been) the first winner of the Stout Silver Medal, in 1950.  The Stout Silver Medal is given in memory of Dr. Arlow Burdette Stout, a director at the New York Botanical Gardens and the father of modern daylily breeding in North America. It is the highest award a cultivar can receive, given only to candidates who have also previously received the Award of Merit and Honorable Mention status from American Hemerocallis Society judges.

'Hesperus' is a very tall daylily at 36 to 48 inches, one of the tallest in my garden, and its large 5 inch wide blossoms certainly provide a focal point. Now, I must admit, that I've never been a real fan of the orangeish daylilies, partially because of how common they are and partially because of the ridiculous ubiquitiousness (what a phrase!) of the garish Stella d' Oro. 'Hesperus', seemingly another nondescript, albeit healthy, yellow-orange daylily just converses along with its neighbors when the other daylilies in the bed are blooming, but, all alone in Autumn, it shouts "Hey, here I am!" and it becomes the most beautiful daylily the gardener has ever seen. Certainly it brightened my heart as I returned back from dark, wet Seattle on Sunday to the bright sunshine of the Flint Hills where the daylily still reigns as king of the summer garden.

Addendum;  Yesterday (10/28/10) Hesperus was beaten in the Late Sweepstakes by 'Happy Returns', which posted a cheery goodbye for me.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Borrowed Thoughts

I've had some readers inquire where I get the ideas for all the blogs. It's true there are slow times for blog ideas and other times when the thoughts tumble out like high mountain streams.  I've found that two infallible areas that stimulate blogs are looking through the many pictures I take in my garden (and my garden photography has increased substantially since I started blogging) and from simply observing and noting what plants look good or what activities I'm doing in the garden in a particular week.  But when I get stuck, picking up a new garden book will always trigger a few new opinions to blog about.

My latest read was found on the trip I just took to Seattle.  Titled The Gin and Tonic Gardener, by Janice Wells, it bore a 2006 publication date, but I don't recall that I'd ever seen it before. Certainly, I chose it because I felt the short, humorous essays of the book would make a light refreshing read on the trip and for no other specific reason.  Sometimes, a gardener likes to just sit and read, okay? 

The Gin and Tonic Gardener was exactly that, an interesting, loosely autobiographical chronicle of a year's worth of gardening efforts by Ms. Wells.  But, like many of the gardening manuscripts I read, here and there were statements that either made me sit up and think "well, there's a new thought", or "there's a beautiful thought," or "really?  That's not what I think."  The latter more critical opinion comes, of course, from the cynical professor side of my nature; that mind-image that is always sitting in a comfortable chair in the den, reading in dim light in a well-worn sweater, and mumbling "Hhhmpfff, Humbug" once in awhile.

I ended up jotting a note for 9 different potential blogs from The Gin and Tonic Gardener, so you can look forward in the future to blogs about purple-leafed honeysuckle ground covers, puttering in the garden, and the concept of waiting for the garden to tell you what to do.  These notes/ideas are written as simple one-line concepts to remind me what random thought crossed my mind, sometimes supplemented by the page number of the book I was reading at the time. I certainly never copy anything from a book without quoting it, but I'm not above expanding on good ideas from other writers or taking off on a tangent from their words.  If I were to paraphrase the famous quote by Sir Issac Newton about "standing on the shoulders of giants," it would be to say "If I have gardened or written about gardening better, it was by picking roses planted by great gardeners past."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


I fear I am at risk of writing too many blogs in succession about the wonderful roses of Dr. Griffith Buck, but I have promised the GardenWeb rose community that I'd post soon on 'Polonaise', so I should get that done before I move on down the list of roses that I eventually want to accentuate.

The first question one might have is "why did Dr. Buck name this red rose 'Polonaise'?"  Many of the Buck roses have whimsical or unusual names and I wish I knew more about the selection of this one. The definition of polonaise, according to the Free Online dictionary, is either a) a stately, marchlike Polish dance, primarily a promenade by couples, b) the music for the traditional, triple meter rhythm of this dance, or c)  a woman's dress of the 18th century, having a fitted bodice and draped cutaway skirt, worn over an elaborate underskirt.  Now personally, I'm hoping that Dr. Buck was referring to dance or music which might make a little sense considering the dramatic fall display I just had in my garden, but it's always possible that an old professor might have had other ideas in his head when he named this beautiful rose.

Regardless of the name's origin, 'Polonaise' the rose is a beautiful red hybrid-tea like rose which opens to somewhat blowzy full-double flowers.  I think I actually prefer the fully-open flowers to the barely open, but I tend to like double roses and more old-rose style in the blossoms.  I was quite surprised about 10 days back when I realized that my two year old 'Polonaise', shown at right, was the most blooming rose in my garden at this late time in October.  And it continues to bloom, a rose that has been quiet and parsimonious with its blooms earlier in the summer, but now has decided on its own to dress up the garden.  

'Polonaise' is described on the Iowa State Buck Rose website as a deep pink rose, but I would have said it was closer to bright red in my climate than to pink.  You decide, because the closeup picture is pretty true to color (although these late blooms are a little bit weather-beaten).  I will agree with the official description that it is a very double rose (40-45 petals) with 3.5-4 inch clustered blooms that age lighter.  The rose has a light fragrance and the bush is fairly tolerant to fungal disease as you can judge yourself from the picture taken in a garden (mine) that hasn't been sprayed for fungus all year.  It grows 3.5-4 foot tall and is supposed to bloom continually.  From the way it looks now, in Fall, I think my early-year sparse bloom on this plant was probably just that it's a young bush and had some growing to do before it started blooming.  It also survived a pretty tough Zone 5B winter last year without protection.  What more can one ask from a budding garden stalwart?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Local Bookstores; Neglected Writers

I know that my posting and times have been erratic this week, but dang it, my real life sometimes interferes with keeping a schedule for something that is, when you come right down to it, only a hobby. From the picture at the right, you can probably guess where I spent the past week, so I hope I’m excused.

As a minor garden writer, I’ve long had a small complaint regarding local bookstores that my Seattle trip confirmed and magnified, and so I have to finally get it off my chest. When visiting two national-chain large bookstores (stores that have destroyed most of the local independent booksellers, but I’ll leave them nameless since I’m not into lawsuits), I found that they were stocked, as elsewhere, with the usual encyclopedias of plants and basic how-to gardening manuals and both had a conspicuous absence of the more conversational gardening writing that I adore. For instance, several well-known local Seattle-area writers with a number of books to their credit were absent from both the gardening and local/regional sections of the bookstores. I’m fully aware that Des Kennedy gardens and writes just a little bit north of Seattle and Ann Lovejoy is a fixture of Pacific Northwest garden circles and gardens on Bainbridge Island just across the Sound from Seattle. Of these two eminent writers, Kennedy wasn’t represented at all and I found only the Ann Lovejoy Handbook of Northwest Gardening to represent the latter. Amy Stewart, currently a very popular and prolific garden writer based in Eureka, California, had only a single book on either shelf; in both cases it was her latest text, Wicked Plants. But there were lots of unenjoyable texts on the shelves that were probably originally conceived by some editor who thought the world needed another book on the basics of how to compost or a book listing which plants were useful perennials and then said tyrannical editor created one by hiring a mercenary writer. They’re useful references, but they’re terribly uninteresting to read.

Now it’s true that bookstores are in the business of selling books and that Stewart’s recent book is currently ranked #7265 in books and #9 in gardening reference books (behind several books on growing marijuana and wine and some quasi-gardening books that are bestsellers in a wider audience than gardeners). But in truth, people only buy in local bookstores what the bookstores sell and promote (Amazon and other online stores may be an exception in that regard for book choices). And even though I’m a relatively unknown writer self-published by a vanity press, my experience is that local bookstores were astonishingly resistant to placing my book on their shelves. I sent over 100 flyers announcing the book to every Kansas and Nebraska bookstore I could find on the internet, including two chain bookstores in Manhattan. None of them, to my knowledge, ever stocked the book, nor did several local outlets that I contacted repeatedly in person. The only success I had influencing the local stocks of Garden Musings was by following up the flyer with a personal talk with the manager of a large national chain bookstore in Topeka.  On a subsequent visit, I found 4 copies of my book in that bookstore (1 hardback and 3 paperbacks). All were gone before I checked back a month later, but yet the store, over the past year, has never restocked the book. So it seems they’re even ignoring that their own sales tell them local garden authors would sell well in local markets. And in this day and age, even with thousands of titles on the shelves of large stores, I'm sure their inventory can tell them exactly how long a book stays on the shelf.

I suspect that better known authors are more successful in getting new books on local shelves, but my experience in Seattle tells me it is not that much better. BOOKSELLERS: WISE UP! If you don’t show the average gardener books written by local authors, then the average gardener doesn’t know they exist. And thus, the average gardener doesn’t get a chance to gain knowledge from experienced garden writers in their area. In the Flint Hills of Kansas, for instance, you can’t learn much about gardening by reading plant references or gardening technique books from England or the Pacific Northwest.  I assume the same would be true for be true for gardeners from New Mexico or Arizona or Michigan. 

For local gardeners wanting to read local authors, it might help slightly that if you know of a local writer, please request that your local store stock the book rather than ordering it online.  Online sales may help our Amazon ranking, but it doesn't help us reach the audience that would be the most interested in our writing.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fall Color in the Flint Hills

The colors of Fall here in the Flint Hills are not the bright reds, oranges and yellows characteristic of the NorthEast forests, but rather a more even russet that coats the landscape in late Autumn.  Native and invasive tree species that are common here either don't change color much before they drop their leafy coats onto the ground, or else they turn some form of brownish-yellow that just fades away.  It's just the prairie grasses, particularly the blue-stems, that provide the red to brighten the browns.  The russet color is especially pronounced on misty or rainy mornings, so it's those Fall and early Winter days that I look forward to, knowing the landscape will come alive with reds. 

We often borrow the red shades by choice, though.  Certainly, in town, the varieties of chosen trees improve the variability of fall color for the eye.  And there are sometimes some happy accidents that Man can't improve on.  In the case of the tree on the left, an otherwise unassuming Siberian Elm on my drive to work, the brilliant red is provided by a wild Virginia Creeper that is entirely invisible the rest of the year, yet it proclaims its existence in the colding months before it fades away again.
Another form of a darker wine-red that dots the prairies in some areas is the Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) pictured to the right above.  Smooth Sumac can be almost an invasive weed if left unchecked, or more exactly unburned, in some areas of the prairie, but in the Fall I welcome the clumps that often outline the peaks of the ridges.  Backlit by the morning sun, the leaves of Smooth Sumac glow a very bright red, and the seeds make up for the dull unnoticed spring flowers of the sumac by providing a red "drupe" of frosted berries above the plant.  Smooth sumac, a member of the cashew family, is said to be eaten by deer (although I've never seen deer nibble on it at all) and was used by Native Americans to treat sunburn, sore throats and mouths, and to make red and black dyes.  Since I haven't tried any of these uses, I can only attest to its welcome addition to the Fall colors of the Flint Hills.

All in all, I can't complain that we can't match New England for fall tourist color.  The colors of the Flint Hills are what God gave to this unforgiving soil and they are quite sufficient to propel me into winter.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

GGW Photo Scanner Contest

 Time flies, and although I had prepared these photos some time ago, I thought I had a couple of days left to enter the GWG monthly photo contest, which is the formation of one of my previous blogs on Garden Scanner Photographs.  Since I think I'm now 3 hours late for the contest and hope to still get in, I think I'll just post this without much comment.  My entry is a dual photo, suitable in real size, for hanging on a wall, that I call "Impossible Flower A" and "Impossible Flower B"  Click on them and you'll see them larger, but not yet full size.  Enjoy.  And call me if you want the real files to print out and decorate your home.

Mama's Sedum

If we searched, I think most gardeners could trace the roots of their love of gardening to some family or acquaintance, or, as in my case, find their lineage back to generations of gardeners (both sets of my grandparents were farmers as were, respectively, their parents).

But many of us also have plants that we can trace to other family members.  My maternal grandmother, whom we called "Mamaw," would not really have thought of herself as a gardener, since most of the gardening she did was in the process of raising food in the vegetable garden and preserving it for use throughout the year.  She did however, out the back door of the farmhouse, have a small 8'X10' plot containing, as I recall, some portulaca, a species of yellow and pink columbines, some "hens and chicks" and a tall sedum. 

Mamaw's Sedum
Sometime after I started gardening at our first home, and before Mamaw passed on shortly after that, I got a start of the columbines and sedum from her and when we moved to our current home, I transplanted them again.  Currently, the sedums, along with some goldenrod, provide the fall flowering and foliage in a bed that is composed primarily of peonies long past their prime.  They do this year after year, without any care or extra water at all, and they suffer neither from insect pest nor fungal disease.  They're not called "live-forevers" by coincidence!  In fact, looking at the list of what Mamaw grew for enjoyment, all of them are low-maintenance, low-water survival plants that don't take time away from the more important business of putting food on the table. The columbines are the same easy care plants for me as the sedums are, popping up here and there with wild abandon in my garden, but it is the sedum I associate, for some reason, with my grandmother.      

I don't know what exact species or cultivar of sedum I inherited from my grandmother.  I thought for awhile that they were simply the ubiquitous 'Autumn Joy', but I've seen the two side by side and Mamaw's sedum is a little more pink-purple and fades to a duller brown than the currently commercial 'Autumn Joy'.  It doesn't really matter.  I very much enjoy other more modern sedum cultivars and I grow, for instance, Mohrchen and 'Vera Jameson' and 'Frosty Morn and Matrona, but some stay small and sprawl and others get big and sprawl (unless cut back severely in August or grown through supports), unlike my inherited sedum who stands tall and stays vertical without support at the end of the season.

I've lost the chance to listen more to the wisdom of my grandmother, but I can still enjoy her plants.  And maybe, just maybe, she's still teaching me that it's not flashy new appearance, but long-term staying power that is the most important criteria to keep us going in gardening and in life.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The UnFrightened Gardener

Of all things, it was the November, 2010 Reader's Digest that triggered my thoughts for this blog.  An article written by Lenore Skenazy, The Petrified Woman! is in the issue.  Skenazy's article was a rant on what she termed "Watch Out! mania" by a media warning us continually about the dangers of  everything from consuming onion dip to riding elevators to thunderstorms.  Since I have an ongoing low tolerance to similar nanny-state actions that affect my gardening practices, it tripped my own similar frustrations.

For starters, every day I open up my att.mail home page that briefly lists the weather high's and lows and other weather data for Manhattan, Kansas.  Nowadays, it seems like there's always a severe weather warning out, for heat, cold, ice storms, thunderstorms, wind, you name it, seems like it whatever it is, it's  "severe."  I've seen severe weather alerts listed for bright clear windless days when the air temperature was going to reach 87F.  C'mon, I know it's Kansas, but we do get some normal days, and global warming just hasn't advanced enough to make that much difference yet.  I promise that if it's hot out I'll drink more water and seek shade more often without being warned.  And there is a similar panic epidemic among television weather people.  I've seen television programming interrupted more and more here, for everything from a misty rain shower to storm clouds that pass over without precipitation.  When we had a real tornado in Manhattan a few years back, we had over a half-hour warning and by the non-stop coverage you'd have thought Satan was coming in on a black horse.  Really, the best indication I have that the weather is really bad is that right at the moment that I'm most interested in hearing what's coming at us, the satellite reception always goes out.  That's the time to batten down the hatches.

Look at the warning label above. "Rotating blades cut off arms and legs." Really?  And just how do you remove blades from children so you can carry them safely, by the way?  As a gardener, I'm sick and tired of the government bureaucrats ruling my life.  Riding lawnmowers have become impossible to use since they are rigged to shut off every time you get off them.  I can't move a hose or a tree limb or empty the grass catchers without having to restart the lawnmower or at least having to set the parking brake and turn off the mowing deck.  For god's sake, I mowed my father's lawn when I was 8 years old and I still have both hands, both feet, and ten fingers and toes on them. Maybe I just have more common sense than most kids, but I never stuck my hands into the mowing deck without shutting off the mower, nor did I ever stand in front of the mower and leave it in gear and running. 

How many readers mow without ever backing up to catch a little tuft of grass you just missed?  You can't back up a riding mower anymore because it will shut itself off unless you first push a button that says, "hey, I'm awake and I've looked all around and I'm not going to back over the two-year-old's cute chubby little feet."  I'm surprised you don't have to push it twice while some electronic message shouts "Are you sure?"  The last time I used a push mower, if you weren't gripping the handles with a death grip, it would trip the stop bar and shut it off, and my hands got cramps after mowing a few minutes. So of course, since I don't want to restart mowers every 10 minutes to empty the bags or move the hose, I rigged it to bypass the sensors so that it would stay running but stationary while I moved a hose.  That in itself wouldn't be so irritating if I didn't know that I paid more for the mower to have the "idiot safeties" on it in the first place.  And the warnings in the equipment manuals!  "Don't try to mow slopes exceeding vertical."  "Don't mow over large boulders."  "Avoid trying to cut off full grown trees with this mower." 

Just this summer, I learned that all those years I've been drinking out of garden hoses, I was placing my life at dire risk. Really? Walmart had three different hoses labeled "safe for drinking" this year that were made of antibacterial rubber or some other such artifical concoction.  Walmart! What makes any marketing genius think that I wouldn't be more worried about the chemicals keeping the vinyl sterile than I am about the bacteria growing in the hose?  And anyway, what is more satisfying on a hot summer day than that cool clean vinyl taste coming out of the hose?

When was the last time you bought a new hoe or axe and didn't find it as dull as a spoon?  The issue here is that most young gardeners don't know anymore that hoes are supposed to be sharp so we can cut off weeds at the surface, not hack away at the dirt.  What's that? I think just heard several of you get up to run out and sharpen your hoes.  Heck, I'm surprised they allow Felco pruners to be sharp these days. 

Soon there will be a government agency whose sole purpose is to inspect our lawn mowers to make sure they're as unfunctional as possible and whose agents come around to dull our hoes if there's a possibility they might cut butter.  There will be a special SWAT team tasked to search out foxgloves and hot peppers in our gardens with the use of specially trained dogs.  At some point, if this keeps up, I'm sure that any plant capable of producing allergens or poisons or irritant sap, or thorns capable of scratching will be banned from our gardens by government decree.  Let's see, that'll leave us with spireas, mums, and maybe, if we're lucky, a strawberry or two.  I'm going to go out on a limb and state right now that they can have my mums and spireas too, but if they mess with my strawberries, that's the last straw.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Autumn Color, Winter Sunset

One of the rarest colors of roses has always been that perfect apricot-orange color that I, myself, happen to really covet.  Do we like it only because it is rare?  Is it just a hard color to reach with a rose-breeding program?  Is it rare because yellow, itself, is such a relatively new color in Western-bred roses, considering that they were unknown before the Persian rose was introduced to Europe?  Regardless, it seems like every rose that hits that perfect hue of golden-peach-orange ends up on the popular list, whether it is 'Alchymist' or English rose 'Abraham Darby', or the new Paul Barden gallica 'Marianne'.

 Every year, as Autumn rolls around and provides other red and gold hues to mix in arrangements, I appreciate more and more the glorious display and delicious color of another of these copper beauties, the Dr. Griffith Buck-bred rose 'Winter Sunset'.  'Winter Sunset' is a shrub rose introduced in 1997 whose deep saffron-yellow buds open as large, fully double orange-yellow blossoms. Parentage of this rose is supposed to be the Buck rose Serendipity (seed) and a cross of Country Dancer and Alexandra (pollen). The blooms are borne continually from June through frost in clusters of 3 to 7 flowers on a three foot tall shrub.  The foliage of 'Winter Sunset' is dark green and glossy, and here in my Flint Hills garden it seems to be almost completely resistant to blackspot and I've never seen mildew on the plant.  This rose, like many of the Buck roses, is completely cane-hardy here in my zone 5B winters.

If I've had any difficulty here with 'Winter Sunset', it is that new canes seem to be easy to topple in the Kansas winds, so I have to make sure I "tip prune" each new cane before it reaches two feet high so that I cause the cane to strengthen and thicken before the large flowers weight it down. 
'Winter Sunset' will eventually open to expose a more yellow base and golden stamens, and it ages to a pink-orange hue on the outer petals, but the hybrid-tea style buds open slower than most of the Buck roses in my garden and so I get to enjoy them longer, both outside and, if cut, as house roses.  Fragrance is slight but present, and Mrs. ProfessorRoush tells me that she considers it fragrant so I don't quibble over its true degree of fragrance.  In a vase, with red fall leaves and foliage from other shrubs, it will make a dazzling group for the house.
So if you are in the market for hardy, unusual, healthy roses, try 'Winter Sunset' in your garden.  I consider it one of the best flowers Dr. Buck created, rivaled only in health by 'Prairie Harvest' and 'Carefree Beauty'.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010

Yes, Gardener/Reader, I know that it's a Friday and I know that I just posted recently that I try to write something about roses on Friday.  But I was tipped off to a rather special event held today and decided to postpone the rose blog until tomorrow. You'll have to bear with me because Friday, October 15th is Blog Action Day 2010, and this year, October 15th is all about water.  Safe water, clean water, plentiful water for all.

Regular readers of this blog probably don't take me as a crusader for anything except the art and practice of gardening, but stay around a minute while I mentally don my nonexistent (in reality) Birkenstocks and tie-dyed shirt (also doesn't really exist) and join the U. N. and bloggers worldwide in an effort to raise awareness of the condition of our global fresh water supplies.

Fresh, unpolluted water is an important consideration to inhabitants of the tall grass prairie ecosystem here in the Flint Hills because we simply don't have enough of it even here, in the midst of the North American bounty. Once you get to wandering around the Flint Hills, you'll find the remains of many old, very small, limestone houses, usually near the shallow muddy streams at the bottoms of the hills.  Frankly, I look at those houses and the terrain and wonder how anyone survived here before modern plumbing and septic systems.  I, at least, hope the cows were pastured downstream from the homes.  The biggest issue with potable water for the pioneers here was that clean water is deep.  In fact, one of the most advertised tourist spots on any Kansas guide is the "world's deepest hand-dug well" at 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide in Greensburg, Kansas (What can I say?  Aside from the world's largest prairie dog and the world's largest ball of twine, we suffer for tourist attractions around here).  Contrast that with my native soils of southern Indiana where the picture at the right is of a pump andwell in my father's vegetable garden, hand-driven by my father when in his late 60's.  Heck, in our bottom ground there, I used to dig fence post holes and hit water.  Here in the Flint Hills, I could probably dig past the center of the Earth without moistening my shovel.

Average annual precipitation in the Flint Hills is around 34 inches, not bad compared to the majority of North America, but the wind and summer heat dry it off fast.  Besides, as I've said before, we get about 25 inches of that rain in April, May, and June as torrential rains with dark storm clouds.  The rest of it is spread over the rest of the year, with very little normally in the hot months of July and August.  My point is that generally, this is an arid land, with native yucca's and cacti starting to make their appearance in untilled areas only an hour west of me.

I try to do my part to conserve water here, as every good gardener should.  I'm a deep mulch fanatic, and I try very hard to select plants that will do well both in the cold wet clay of spring and the hot brick-hard clay of summer.  It certainly limits my plant selection, but as a general rule I water plants and trees only the first full year that they're in the ground.  Beyond that, it takes a pretty bad summer to get me to provide water.  This year, in the midst of a 6 week drought with 100 degree temperatures, I watered the garden beds exactly once, in late August when established shrubs shriveled to brown.  I have no permanent irrigation at all and my immediate lawn is buffalograss.  I am considering adding some drip irrigation on my strawberries and blackberries to supplement their growth and my harvest, but the rest of the vegetable garden and orchard is on its own as well.  I use artificial fertilizers as little as possible and used no insecticides this year save some Sevin on the squash.  Somewhere down the hillside from the house and garden is a pond muddied by cows, but with a thriving amphibian population, which I take as a good sign for the impact of my runoff.  

Anyway, all of this to say that I believe that gardeners can and should do what we can to minimize our impact on our local environment.  We may fight tooth and nail to hold back the ferocity of nature, but we CAN keep our gardens without resort to chemical sterilization and nuclear holocaust.  For further viewpoints, you can read all about the global effort to improve water supplies at the Blog Action Day site and visit over 4000 blogs about all aspects of the effort.  And I promise, the roses will be back tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Burbank's White Blackberry

I've been caught up recently reading a wonderful biography of Luther Burbank titled The Garden of Invention, a 2009 publication authored by Jane S. Smith.  For a biography of a non-exciting and non-current public figure, this is a surprisingly easy read that introduced me to a whole aspect of gardening history of which I had little prior information.

Luther seems to have been an odd duck, born as a New Englander, but transplanted to California on a post-Civil-War whim to make money.  His methods, coming on the heels of the dissemination of Darwin and Mendel's discoveries, seem to have been as much mystical as science, based more on the writings of Emerson and Thoreau than the new science of hereditary.  Descriptions of his poor note-taking and nebulous written records of crosses only contribute to his eccentric persona.  I didn't know he was awarded an early Carnegie grant, but it doesn't sound like the Carnegie Foundation put up with him long. 

In a table that appears before the table of contents in the book, Ms. Smith lists Luther Burbank's most famous introductions.  I was both shocked and disappointed that, although I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable amateur gardener, I could only recognise a few from a list of about 40 plants.  I recognized the Burbank potato (1873), Shasta daisy (1901), and elephant garlic (1919), which most other gardeners would know as well, but I wasn't even aware that the latter was a Burbank introduction. I always knew that the Shasta daisy, which I hold in high regard, was a Burbank creation, but I, an avid rosarian, had never heard of the 'Burbank Rose' and I still don't know what his 'Surprise Daylily' looks like.  Neither it nor Luther Burbank are mentioned in Sydney Eddison's A Passion for Daylilies or any other daylily encyclopedia I can find.  I have had some previous experience with Burbank's Sunberry, mentioned in the book although it didn't make the top 40 list, which I had purchased a few years ago from Seed Saver's Exchange and which I found to be extremely disappointing in taste quality and a bit of a nuisance in terms of reseeding itself. 

I am currently captivated though, by the thought of the white blackberry (named 'Iceberg'), that Burbank had introduced in 1894 after crossing the wild New Jersey blackberry marketed at the time as 'Crystal White' with the well-regarded 'Lawton' blackberry.  A pretty good description of the development of 'Iceberg' can be read on the web at the website.  The white blackberry leapt from the pages of the Smith book into my compulsive mindset and I HAD TO HAD IT. Even if it was disappointing in taste, I reasoned it would be worth growing as an heirloom conversation piece.

Alas, after three frustrating hours trying to find a current source to procure the white blackberry, I struck out.  It isn't offered for sale at any commercial nursery that I can find and my only remaining hope is an email I sent to another blogger who posted last June that he is growing it in California.  Of course, I could have missed finding a nursery offering on a Google search, given the difficulty of this particular search.  Just try searching for "white blackberry" on the Internet.  Today, all you get is 100,000 sites about some crappy second-rate phone called a "Blackberry."  Who the heck would name a phone after a fruit? And I'm going to write a letter to the Gold Ridge Experimental Farm.  That's the former experimental farm of Burbank's, now made into a tourist attraction.  The gift shop to the farm sells only typical tourist shirts, notecards and other crap.  No plants.  I don't know who runs the gift shop but it ought to have dawned on the curators that most of the visitors may have some gardening interest and might be interested to buy some of Burbank's famous plants.

Like a white blackberry for instance.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mums The Word

My muse for today's blog is a coworker and friend who has become a new homeowner. She's faced with the dilemma of all non-gardeners that suddenly find themselves with a town lot whose previous owner seemed to have neither the talent nor the interest for gardening. A forsythia seems to be the only salvageable landscape-worthy plant in her yard at present. Thus, she has been slyly and periodically pestering me with questions about plants and landscaping, seeking out knowledge from her captive manic Extension Master Gardener, and probably secretly hoping that I'll show up with a bulldozer and a truckload of plants and a sixteen color, meticulously thought out plan for the landscape.  Alas for her, like most poorly-trained men of my generation, I'm oblivious to feminine hints.

Her latest gardening question though, struck a nerve, as did her suggestion later that I should write about it and call it "Mums The Word" (she loves really bad puns).  She had just asked via email if I thought that "mums" would do well under a large shade tree that borders her property.  I calmly replied that mums wouldn't do well in the constant dry shade that I knew her spot had, and that she needed to plant them where they'd get six hours of sun or more.

That's not what I wanted to say, though.  She doesn't know that I hate mums, or more properly Chrysanthemum sp. with a passion second only to my distaste for spireas.  Spireas are a special case with me as readers of Garden Musings (the book) know, but mums are about as worthless in the garden in my estimation. Yes, they provide us some nice fall color, if you just want flowers, but they provide nothing interesting in the way of decent foliage contrast or shape variation for Fall, and the rest of the year they're either just a slowly-growing blob that sits there like a green turd in your landscape or else they are just dead stems that break with the first snowfall.  To add insult to injury, although mums are a perennial elsewhere, they're really an annual in Kansas, weakening in at most a year or two likely because of the dry hot Kansas summers and drier cold Flint Hills winters.  I'd really sooner have my friend plant ragweed in her yard than a border of mums.

Look, for instance, at the picture above of the current landscaping (taken this morning) around some KSU apartments that stand opposite the exit I use every night from work.  Let me repeat that;  I'm forced to look at this landscaping debacle every night.  What insanity overtook the K-State groundsmen that they thought these alternating yellow and orange mums would make a wise display?  K-State colors, guys and gals, are purple and white. Now it's true that the most common colors of mums put up for sale seem to be yellows and oranges and russets, probably because the fall colors sell best in what people think of as fall flowers, but mums do actually exist in purple and white.  I've seen them.  If we must have round balls of color alternating in our college landscape, perhaps purple and white might have been a better choice, here at a stone's throw from the KSU football stadium.  Luckily these were just planted this year; I'm betting they don't survive till next year and thus we'll have a chance to get something better.

I have no chrysanthemums at all in my garden, just as I have no spireas.  The closest thing I'll allow is the wonderful Shasta Daisy, which blooms during the height of summer and used to be classified as a chrysanthemum, but today has been wisely moved to the Leucanthemum x superbum taxonomic group.  Please, everyone, let's not whisper the word "mum" around me again; it plays havoc with my blood pressure, as you can now attest to.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Books and Blogs

Those who have been following this blog in its short life since late July have been seeing its evolution and my slow learning process here, so I thought I'd take a single blog to address the whole "why do you (I) blog and write?" and "where is this thing going?" series of questions.

Here is the key;  I've always been a bibliophile and I've always said that someday I would write a book about something.  I started writing the book Garden Musings (pictured and linked on this blog) a few years back solely as a release for me.  I simply enjoy the writing process and years ago I was conditioned by a great set of high school English teachers to be able to sit down and vomit my thoughts in a relatively coherent fashion onto paper.  But, after a couple of decades where my writing was confined to dry scientific papers in my chosen profession of veterinary orthopedic surgery, I simply missed the more creative outlet of writing for the fun of it.  And I know I'm not even close to being a horticultural expert (I should barely claim amateur status based on the survival rate of flora that I place into the ground), but I didn't want to write about veterinary patients after treating them all day, so the next best choice was a book of gardening experiences. So I started slowly writing Garden Musings and finally, during the cold winter of 2008-09, I made a push to put enough essays together to make a decent-sized book, went to an independent publisher (iUniverse), and got it out. What a learning experience publication was! 

Now, notice that I said I started writing Garden Musings solely for me.  Because I, like many others, stated loudly and clearly at the beginning that I was NOT writing because of ego.  Well, the second key here is this:  I don't care who you are, writing may be for the writer, but publishing is ALL about ego.  You may think you start writing for yourself, but once your baby is out there in the world, you suddenly CARE that others read it and you suddenly want to know what they thought of it.  There's even a whole new addictive syndrome, "Amazon-Rank Fixation," where the gardener begins checking the ranking of his book on Amazon at hourly intervals and comparing the rank to books by other well-known garden writers.  Not that that ever happened to me. 

I've had good feedback on Garden Musings the book. Much of the feedback was surprising, though.  I didn't write it to be a comedic work but I was told by some readers that it was side-splitting funny in places.  Some did think it was informative, those few poor souls who didn't realize that I kill more plants than I grow.  I was told by one reader that it's the perfect book for reading on the toilet;  each essay is three-four pages long on average...just long enough.  My mother said "I suppose it's a good read if you like gardening" (she doesn't) and my father suddenly realized, as he told my sister, "that I was a deep thinker."   

Regarding Garden Musings the blog though, there is, if you haven't run across it yet, at least one book out there specifically about writing on gardens, Cultivating Words by Paula Panich, and of course I came across it after I already published my book.  Cultivating Words covers the whole gamut of garden writing, from weekly newspaper columns to monthly magazines to books, and it's a very informative work. Using ideas from Panich's book and elsewhere, I even put together a pretty good presentation for gardening groups on the process of garden writing (lecturing is, of course, yet another form of ego-stroking as any other professor will tell you).  Ms. Panich cautions "book writers" not to become "blog writers" because blogging funnels the creative instincts away from finishing books.  And I heeded her advice for awhile, but at heart, I tend to be a little resistant to authority. A friend suggested starting the blog and that sounded like a new and fun experience, and the software seemed to be easy enough to figure out, and off I went. 

Blogging, though, is also still all about the writer's ego and it is even easier to measure the ego boost by counting numbers of comments and page hits and ranking sites and all that. These days it is all about the voice provided to me by the audience. I write for you. If you have followed me long, you may have guessed that I'm trying to settle down into a pattern: a random thought that has been occupying me on Mondays, something I'm reading or reviewing on Wednesdays, a rose feature on Fridays, a gardening technique on Saturdays and a little garden philosophy on Sundays. Of course, my obsessive-compulsive disorder occasionally rears its head and I blow that schema, but I'm trying.

I'd love to have feedback whenever my readers get time. What articles did you like?  Which were thought-provoking?  Which will keep you coming back?  God knows, except for the poor curious souls who click on the advertising and provided the $2.26 I've earned so far, I'm not in this for the money, I'm in it for the camaraderie of gardeners.  And, to be honest, the occasional ego boost of having someone else listen.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Kon-Tiki Seasons

When I considered the suggestion by horticulturist Kelly D. Norris to take pictures repeatedly of the same view in the garden (see my blog titled "Sometimes a Diversion"), I realized that I had presciently taken that advice, but only in regards to one or two specific places in my garden.  And "The Head" was one of those places that I haven't yet written about.

The Head, an Easter-Island-type statue I obtained from a local garden store, has been in my garden since the beginning.  It was the first statue of any size that I placed in the garden.  I keep the somber Head on a pedestal in the middle of two yellow 'Rugelda' rugosa hybrid roses, backed up by the white 'Marie Bugnet', and facing, of course, due east on the compass.   There it waits daily for the sunrise and stands watch for me to spread the alarm in case of the return of the Gods.

I'd always thought The Head provided a handsome conversation piece, flanked by the glory of the 'Rugelda' roses, but since I purchased it, it was always a point of ridicule for me from my loving wife, who despises it.  The last laugh was mine, though since the identical piece of concrete appears frequently on HGTV in the garden of Paul James, the Gardener Guy, forever muting my better half's questioning of my gardening tastes.  Anyway, when the 'Rugelda' fades, pink 'La Reine Victoria'  and blush white 'Comte de Chambord' are there to pick up the slack.

The Head is a good soldier, standing firm in the face of thunderstorms, prairie fires, and the ever-present Kansas wind (at least after I finally created a stable concrete foundation for it to keep it from slowly listing and falling off the pedastel).  It takes the harsh eastern sunrise on its face and the full burning Flint Hills non sun on its hatless skull without complaint.  And even when the ice comes down and glazes its features, it stands silent, immune to the world.


But I have seen The Head, in the depths of winter, weeping with me at the cold damage to the naked rose canes surrounding it and its poor perennial friends shivering in the show. The Head is always a good garden companion for the plants and for me alike. It doesn't talk to me though, really it doesn't.  At least not that I'm telling.  And I'll let you know if it informs me that the Gods have returned from space.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Hope for Humanity

'Hope for Humanity'.   If ever there was a rose named to increase sales to the WEE (wild-eyed environmentalists) and the Birkenstock herd, it is certainly 'Hope for Humanity'.  It's fortunate for the more cynical human personality types, including the many gardeners that prefer to spend time with plants rather than their fellow Homo sapiens, that 'Hope for Humanity' is also a healthy and beautiful rose so that we can claim we appreciate it for something other than its name.

'Hope for Humanity'
'Hope for Humanity' is a 1995 introduction in the Parkland Series from Agriculture Canada that was released to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Red Cross Society. Appropriately for that commemorative purpose, she is not the muddy magenta-red rose color that many "red" roses have, she's a deep vivid crimson red that makes the bush appear to be studded with enormous rubies.  The Red Cross had exclusive rights to market the rose until 1998 when it was released to sale by commercial outlets.  Like most of the Canadian releases, you will most often find 'Hope for Humanity' growing on its own roots, increasing the hardiness and survivability of the rose here in Kansas.  She blooms continually with those blood-red, fully double blooms held in trusses of 4-5 blossoms about 3 inches in diameter.

There seems to be a lot of recent interest in this rose on several gardening forums I frequent, particularly among the zone-poor gardeners like myself who are denied the less cold-tolerant rose families.  As I stated in an Internet posting recently, I constantly fight a bad case of zone-envy and regret that I can't grow tea roses or Noisettes, or camellias or gardenias outside of my house. And there's a lot of confusing information about 'Hope for Humanity', particularly in regards to height.  Agriculture Canada lists this rose as growing only 2 feet high, but numerous internet gardeners describe their specimens as being from 2 feet variably to 6 feet high.  Here in Zone 5B, my 'Hope for Humanity', about 6 years old at present, has never been cut back and is about 4 1/2 feet tall at present, with a half-dozen strong canes.  It is reportedly hardy to Zone 3 (it should be since it was developed at the Manitoba-based Morden Research Centre by Colicutt and Marshall) and I can confirm that I've seen no winter-dieback at all here in Zone 5. There's also some argument as to the repeat flowering of this rose, with sources listing it anywhere from 2-3 repeat cycles during the growing season to continuous flowering.  As I said, mine is continuous flowering from May through September and into October, rarely, if ever, without a bloom.  And it's a disease-free rose;  I never spray it and it gets only mild blackspot in the most humid weather.  It has survived wind storms, ice storms and the determined cane-gnawing by a family of rabbits in its short time with me.
If you're a suppressed Victorian who prefers hybrid-tea roses and is turned off by the shrub-like form and floribunda blooming of 'Hope for Humanity', another Canadian rose that might better fit your desires is the less sickly-sweet named, red hybrid-tea style 1967 introduction named 'Cuthbert Grant'.  The majority of internet sources list 'Cuthbert Grant' as another Parkland series rose, but the rose is named after the Métis explorer and leader.  'Cuthbert Grant', the rose, is a good hardy performer in my climate (also rated as hardy to Zone 3), of almost the same red color but perhaps a little more venous than arterial blood-toned in its particular red.  Growing a trifle taller to six feet and a bit faster, Cuthbert is also more suited to bringing into the house in a vase for display and has a better fragrance than HFH.    

Luckily there's a rose for every fool, a fool for every rose, and still some 'Hope for Humanity.'

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Undaunted Garden

I had occasion recently to re-read Lauren Springer's (now Springer-Ogden) first text, The Undaunted Garden.  What a treasure trove it is of gardening information for the Kansas gardener beset by wind and storm and ice.

Subtitled "Planting for Weather Resilient Beauty," it remains one of the most readable and beautifully illustrated garden-related books I've ever read.  First published in 1994, the text and photographs were all created by Ms. Springer in an obvious labor of love and belief in what she was producing.  It has become a classic garden read, first, I believe, because the writing is aimed not at the highbrow level of garden designers, but at the dirt's-eye level of the struggling gardener.  Second, the lessons for plant selection and plant survival on the Great Plains are well thought out and presented in logical order and in language easily understood by all levels of gardening experience.  Lastly, Springer's Undaunted Garden heralded her embrace of native plants, and further yet, her recognition of "adapted" plants as a means to transform gardens in the prairies and Colorado foothills, beginning her reputation as the premier garden designer and writer she has become.  Until this book, I don't think that I had ever seen the concept that one can create a garden that smiles through the worst of a climate by not planting just with natives, but by extending a home to plants that are adapted to similar climate conditions, whether those plants were found bordering the Mediterranean or in Australia.

I've always sympathized with her opening thought "I don't understand the concept of the low-maintenance desire a garden that requires no time spent except the occasional stroll in well-laundered clothes is like having the most beautiful and appetizing food laid out on a table before you and not wanting to take a bite."  Ms. Springer invites us in, and then teaches us, with named examples, to select plants that survive the extremes of drought, hail, wind, and driving rain, all while keeping an eye on the design of a bed or garden.  My favorite chapter, Roses for Realists, increased my own interest in Old Garden and hardy roses, to which I was especially susceptible after only a few short years of beginning gardening where I learned that Hybrid Teas were perhaps not the best choice for the Flint Hills climate.  And the last section, Portraits of Indispensably Undaunted Plants, which is a glossary of Plains-adapted plants, provided us all the tools we needed to reform our own gardens.  In reviewing that section, I found that I have tried most of the plants highlighted for sunny exposures.  It was the first time, for instance, that I ever heard of Knautia macedonia, which is now a mainstay of my front border.      

I see from the site that a revised second edition is coming out soon, expanding both the photographs with new additions and increasing the number of highlighted plants from 65 to 100.  Although the bibliophile in me will always prefer my first edition hardcover, I may have to fork out the money from my gardening budget to get the revised edition as well.  I can always consider another 35 recommendations for my garden from an established expert, particularly one writing, it seems, especially for my Flint Hills weather. 

Monday, October 4, 2010

Just Cut It Out

I must admit there are times, even though I'm a plant fanatic first and a garden designer second (or, truthfully, last), that I am forced to see the folly of my ways and can even grow to hate a given plant. I don't often hate the plant for being a bad plant, mind, I usually just hate a specific specimen because of my own error of putting it in the wrong place or underestimating its ultimate size or for not providing the proper maintenance, or some combination of all of the above.

At such times, the longer I garden, the more willing I am to face facts and sever the apron strings; or in this case, the plant's stem.  Look if you will at the 'Josee' lilac (Syringa x 'Josee') in my front garden (arrows).  Now five years old, it has grown far bigger than the tag suggested, it obscures a window, and it is out of proportion with the rest of the front shrubs and perennials.  I tried cutting it back severely once, but a year later it is right back where we started; too big. To make my distaste for this plant worse, although I planted two of these beauties because they were the only reblooming lilac on the market (one in this bed and one in back of the house), neither has rebloomed well;  they do have a nice bloom in the spring towards the end of the period of the S. vulgaris hybrids, but then they have only a few sporadic small blooms over the summer and fall.  Now I could be partially to blame for that problem since the front bed of my house faces almost due north and so this particular lilac gets too much shade except in the summer, but the specimen I planted out back doesn't bloom any better and it gets southern exposure, full-day Kansas summer sun. 

So, on my list of things to get done this fall, I included banishing this lilac to a far bed on the property, perhaps never to be seen from again if it doesn't survive the move.  As you can see in the second picture, my front garden benefited tremendously from not having this behemoth squatting and pouting in the shade, and you can now see the house has a third nice window on that side.  And I'm happy, oh so happy, to be rid of that display of my horticultural ignorance. 

Sometimes I think I just need to let my surgeon side shine through more in the garden.  Amputation or excision is almost always the best first choice for treating a cancer and I know that, at least on a professional level.  Remove the tumor, cleanse the soul.    

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sometimes a Diversion... just what a gardener needs.

As the active gardening year is winding down (I say "active" gardening year because the fantasy gardening season pf winter is getting ready to begin in Kansas), I had the wonderful opportunity today to see a really exceptional gardening presentation by Kelly D. Norris, of Rainbow Iris Farms. The occasion was the annual Extension Master Gardener continuing education meeting here in Manhattan and Mr. Norris gave the keynote address, titled "Zoneworthy."

Kelly is a young guy, full of vigor and excitement and knowledge, but best of all, a great presenter with lots of beautiful pictures and sarcastic humor thrown in to spice up the lessons.  If fact, he had everything I love to see in a speaker, except maybe a sense of deep cynicism, but since he's young and not a jaded, tenured professor, I guess I can forgive that. 

Being somewhat local to me here in Kansas, from western Iowa, Kelly certainly understood what we go through to garden here in Kansas.  I've taken several lessons and witty comments to heart from his lecture, including:

"Nobody plants something thinking, gee, I wonder what this will look like covered in ice?"  I've never heard a truer statement about Flint Hills gardening, and Kelly accompanied this with a great picture of an ice-covered plant in his own garden.  As shown by the picture of  the ice-covered 'Heritage' English rose on the right, and of my front garden pictured below in December, 2007, I'm right there with him.  It never occurred to me to picture rose hips on 'Heritage' with a half inch of ice on them when I purchased it.

"There are five gardening seasons in the Midwest; spring, summer, fall, winter, and hell.  No, actually there are six; spring, summer, hell, fall, winter, and hell."  The first season of "hell" was defined as being the last week of July and first week of August, and the second the last two weeks of January.  Absolutely an accurate description of my climate, except I'd add that spring and fall are only two weeks long each. As an example, we just went from the 95 range to the 67 high of today in less than two weeks.  Tonight it's supposed to get down to 35 and we've got a chance of frost.

"Grow know-maintenance versus no-maintenance plants."  Kelly's point here was that there is no such thing as a "no maintenance" plant, so we should select plants knowing what their maintenance requirements are and if we can fulfill them in our gardens.

"Stop looking to see if a plant merely survived through a year and stop celebrating when it does."  His point being that we should select plants that not merely survive in our gardens but we should seek out those that THRIVE there.  Zonal denial is not a healthy state of mind for a gardener.

"Take pictures of the same spots in your garden over and over."  Great advice for a guy who likes to take garden photographs anyway.  What better way to see the seasonal progression of our gardens.  I'll start today.

There were lots of others, but that should give you a sampling of the wisdom of a good gardener and a great presentation.  If your garden group needs a speaker, take it from this old Professor who lectures for a living and get Kelly to come down your way.  I'm betting I just saw the guy who will be the next Paul James or P. Allen Smith of gardening circles.  


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