Monday, December 26, 2011

Elusive Nature

I admit I'm not the most patient of photographers, but I'm completely convinced that Nature herself conspires to keep me from capturing a number of what would be really great images. 

Take for example the picture at the right.  This is a photo of an upper level window in our stairwell that faces due East.  I was downstairs and calmly browsing the web a few minutes ago, trying to keep quiet so that the wife, daughter, and visiting son could sleep in, when suddenly I heard "flutter, flutter, flutter"....."flutter, flutter flutter"...repeated over and over.  As I got up to see what was going on, I found what I think was a Mockingbird flying into the window, presumably fighting its own reflection.  In the growing morning light, snapping on the light didn't make any difference, so I thought, "okay, if you want your picture taken, I'll oblige by going to get my camera."  A quick trip downstairs, a quick trip upstairs, and I'm ready.  Evidently the bird was ready too because it never appeared again from the moment I got the camera turned on.   Fink.

I've had a similar problem all Fall and Winter trying to get a picture of a hawk.  They're everywhere on the prairie in winter, watching over the fields by day for the slightest mouse-like creep or squeak.  But every time I try stopping the car or getting close enough to grab a picture with even my long-range lens, off they go.  And I've got such a good blog planned around a hawk picture.  I'd hate to waste the writing on a picture of a stark, empty tree limb.

Why, oh why, can't Nature just cooperate?

Thursday, December 22, 2011


A mere mention of the word "ornament" to a gardener usually brings forth a variety of mental images of garden gnomes, gargoyles, naked statues, cement rabbits, or abstract art laying around the garden.  I confess that it is no different for ProfessorRoush, who has detrimentally overpopulated his garden with beloved cement statues that range from the thoughtful to the absurd. 

But, it occurred to me this week, during the Christmas season I practice a different form of garden ornamentation, although to no less excess.  You can essentially forget about "stewardship of the planet" during Christmas at my house.  


The other members of my household, Mrs. ProfessorRoush, the absent son, and my diminutive clone of my mother, all are in agreement that the annual Christmas tree in our house must be "live," or rather, one of those cut-off but once-living classic Christmas trees. In fact, it must be a Frazier fir, preferred by all for the stiffness of the branches and the longevity of the needles.   I've personally been tempted to obtain the orderliness and ease of an artificial tree, but I've been overruled for a number of years now. And, due to my confusion caused by the various advocates for potted living trees or for the plight of poor Christmas Tree farmers and the distractive screaming of the WEE (Wild-Eyed Environmentalists) who bemoan the fossil fuel consumption represented by an artificial tree, I'm not sure what is the ecologically correct solution anyway.  So every year, I'm hauling in another dying tree to hope that it doesn't become a fire hazard before I can dump it into a pond (for fish shelter) after New Year's Day. 

 Regarding ornamentation, however, that poor dying tree is gaudied up to the nines every year.  And the ProfessorRoush household isn't into the scene of a purchased set of matching Christmas ornaments or a store-bought, designer approved, ornamentation schema.  No, our tree gets decorated with a hodgepodge of ornaments, all individual and all weighty with family meaning.  

They start at my favorite, the Kansas Wheat Ornament pictured at the very top right of this blog, handmade by my daughter in nursery school.  This one, so special to me, represents Kansas and my former toddling daughter all at one time. There are a number of other homemade ornaments as well like the one pictured to the right, this particular one made by ProfessorRoush himself in a ceramics store to which he was dragged against his better judgement at the time.

There are ornaments to commemorate vacation visits, from the White House and other areas.  And friendships, like the one given to my wife by her best friend and carrying each of their names. There are a whole bunch of soft cloth ornaments like the one at the left that were handmade by my mother one year early in our marriage, most of which still make the tree.

 A very special group of ornaments that decorate our tree represent a tradition started by my father, to give an ornament as a gift most every year to the children, so there are various anonymous ornaments representing a child's age (as for my son's 3rd Christmas at the right) or some that are more professionally done that are personalized to each child, like the one pictured below.  The latter group, of course, will follow the children someday to their homes and I'll be left missing the ornaments at Christmas, probably almost as much as the children.

Alas, it may be a dying tree that provides holiday cheer in the ProfessorRoush home, but it is given the best prettying up we can give it, with each bauble and bangle cherished all.  Merry Christmas to all!


Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Cactuses (or is it Cacti?)

I feel that I must confess.  I'm a crazy collecting Christmas Cactus closet connoisseur. (Yes, I also have a fondness for alliteration).  I can't help but purchase any new color of Christmas cactus I run across.  There surely must be some twelve-step program to help me.  Hi, I'm ProfessorRoush and I am a Christmas Cactus addict....

There is, in my estimation, no easier houseplant to grow than the Schlumbergera sp. epiphytes, otherwise known as Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Crab Cactuses (Cacti?). I should reveal that at one time I grew over 30 orchids, 15 Christmas Cacti, a handful of African Violets, and some assorted other houseplants.  When we went away for Christmas one year, somehow the heat for the house got turned off and upon our return one week later, I found one frozen upstairs toilet that had to be replaced and a whole bunch of dead orchids and violets.  The supposedly tropical Christmas Cacti survived somehow.  Or maybe it wasn't such a miracle since one plant hunter has described collecting specimens in areas of overnight temperatures down to 25F.  I've got one fuchsia Christmas Cactus that's been alive for 20 years and has produced umpteen offspring.  How many other houseplants do you grow that can claim such longevity in the face of the desert-like house conditions and the poor care of a typical homeowner?

Most of the year, they sit there in my windows, dark green and healthy, needing water only about every other week and a repotting in organic matrix every third year or so.  But now, around Christmas, they bloom forth to add to the colorful holiday.  I know there are lots of instructions available for bringing them into bloom by exposure to cold nights and decreasing photoperiods, but mine are right on schedule this year, aided only by the decreasing light level of the insulated windows they sit next to.  They're even quicker to bloom if you've got them in an old house with single-pane old-style windows.  If you have to resort to trying to force buds, flower buds will form reliably by providing 16 hours of darkness daily for 8 days at 61F temperature. 

I've seen no insect predators on the plants and the biggest danger to their survival is by overwatering them;  remember that these are succulents and treat them as such.  An overwatered Christmas Cactus will shrivel up and become limp, which just encourages more watering by the unwary, killing the plant.  Most sources say to keep them away from strong light sources such as South-facing windows, but yet mine seemed to thrive this Summer outside, placed in a corner of the house where they got full Eastern and Southern sun exposure from sunrise through about 1:00 p.m. 

The easy reproduction by rooting stems of Christmas Cactus makes me look like a genius to the friends who have benefited from the divisions I've given away.  To propagate them, twist off pieces of stems one to three segments long and then allow them to dry for 3-4 days to allow formation of a callus at the broken end.  Planted into a suitable humus-rich medium, they'll usually then root quickly in warm environments.

Native to the moist coastal mountain forests of south-eastern Brazil, Schlumbergera are leafless epiphytes with segmented green stems.  The tubular downward-facing flowers, composed of 40 or so petals that are actually "tepals", are adapted for pollination by hummingbirds, although my Christmas Cacti won't ever benefit from the arrangement here in Kansas.  You can find named cultivars, but typically all the cacti we ever see for sale locally will be labeled only by color.  The white Christmas Cactus above is, however, named "White Christmas", and I think the true red one at the left may have been "Kris Kringle".  But, whatever their names, at this time of year when everything outside is bleak, brown and drab in Kansas, I welcome the color they bring to the interior of my house.  And at least I can say that I'm able to keep a houseplant alive. 

By the way, according to the dictionaries I can find, either "Cacti" or "Cactuses" is the correct plural.  Evidently, for once, we're allowed to choose.   

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Pineing Away

I saw Greggo's recent beautiful sunrise picture and post about the recent marriage and move of his son shortly before my bluebird trail cleansing Sunday and while browsing onto parts of my land I don't see routinely, I happened across a large reminder of my own son.

This Scotch Pine (Pinus sylvestris) was planted, as I recall, when my son was about a 4th grader, or about 14 years ago.  He came home excited from school with the gift of a small seedling tree for his father, provided to him during a demonstration by some local foresters at school.  When we planted it, down near the pond, it was approximately 4 inches tall and I protected it then, and still protect it, by mowing the tall grass around it every summer so that the lower branches don't catch fire during a Spring prairie burn.  The pine overlooks a small fishing dock that we built together and from which I used to watch him fish the small bass in the farm pond.  You could call this area and this pine my "memory bank" of my then young son. 

Now towering over 10 feet tall,  it is healthy as can be, either resistant to the pine wilt disease that has run rampant all over central Kansas in recent years, or more likely, just lucky.  Certainly, the disease incidence seems tied to drought and high summer temperatures and we've had enough of those lately to stress this one to the limit.  I knew about pine wilt even as I planted the tree with my enthusiastic son.  You would have thought that the foresters knew better in the late-90's than to give a bunch of kids a susceptible tree to plant, but I guess they didn't.  Most of the pines in Manhattan have died of the disease over the past decade, so perhaps the disease has passed my son's tree by and moved on without a reservoir of susceptible trees around.  I had hopes that its isolation, about a mile from landscaped Scotch pines in town, would save it from pine wilt and the associated Sawyer beetles and nematodes, but I was discouraged recently to read that pine wilt disease usually only attacks trees that are more than 10 years old.  So it is possible that I've protected this tree through childhood and young adulthood and I still might lose it soon.  Just when I thought we were beyond the danger.

I was surprised recently to see that the tree has  made it to puberty and now develops pine cones, as pictured at the left.  I'm hoping that the development of pine cones is not a sign, since the tree and my son seem to have matured at the same rate, that Mrs. ProfessorRoush's dreams of grandchildren are to be fulfilled anytime soon.  I'm happy to plant a few seemingly wilt-resistant Scotch pine offspring around, but this gardener is not ready for grandfatherhood.  I'm not nearly that old or cantankerous yet. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bluebird Nest Boxing Day

The combination of an otherwise overcast and dreary Sunday, a warm south wind, and the sighting of a pair of Eastern Bluebirds, male and female, this morning convinced me that it was time to traipse over these grassy hills I call home and clean out my bluebird trail boxes.

Regular readers know that I try to do my part for the survival of the Eastern Bluebird and I maintain a number of boxes over 20 acres of Kansas prairie.  In fact, last year I got my own nest box design approved by the American Bluebird Society, which pleased me to no end.  Regular cleaning of the nest boxes, removing old nests and debris, is important to keep disease and overwintering insects to a minimum and thus improve the fledgling rate from the boxes.  And it must be done in the cold weather of late Fall, since the bluebirds begin nesting right after the worst of winter.

On this year's box cleaning hike, I found that 10 of 16 boxes had been occupied by nesting bluebirds, and three others looked like nests had been started but abandoned before completion.  It's easy to tell a bluebird nest from other nests, for instance from those produced by wrens, because the bluebirds build a shallow messy nest, usually of grass, as pictured at the right.  Heck, if I was starting my own nest in chilly February, as the bluebirds do here, I wouldn't be very particular about the construction either.  I have three sets of boxes out; my new box design, which had 5 nests in 6 boxes; my older box design, which is identical except for a smaller lid and which had 4 nests in 6 boxes, and 4 older NABS-type boxes, only one of which was previously occupied. 

There's always a little maintenance to do on the boxes and this year was no exception.  The older-style box pictured at the left must have had a rough year, showing signs that it was pretty singed by the Spring burn here on the prairie, but it will make it another year, I think.  I was most disturbed to find 3 boxes knocked off of the fence posts and lying on the ground.  I'd never seen that before, but at least I don't think it was due to human activity.  The pastured cattle this year were a bunch of steers who liked to rub under the boxes and I had already put one back up near the house that I had witnessed them trying to destroy.  I don't know what complaint this particular group of steers had against bluebirds but this is the only year that I've seen them single-mindedly attack the boxes. 

All in all, it was a pretty successful Bluebird year here on the prairie.  Now I just need another warm day to get busy and build a few more boxes to replace some of the older ones.  Happy Bluebird Trails to everyone!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Eclipsed Morning

I'm not a superstitious gardener, nor a howling Druid worshiping every single tree in my garden, but I do try to take note of celestial happenings when they occur, lest the gods take displeasure that I'm ignoring their handiwork.  I was therefore pleased when CNN warned me this morning that a lunar eclipse was underway.  CNN, after all, has to be good for something besides keeping me up on Kim Kardashian's short-lived marriage and the actions of the latest nutball in the sports world.  At 7:23 a.m. this morning I was able to grab this shot of a partial eclipse just before the moon dropped below my prairie horizon:

A lunar eclipse occurs twice a year during a Full Moon when the Moon is "behind" the Earth and the Sun in "front" resulting in the passing of the Earth's shadow over the Moon.   In fact, I snapped the picture above at a special time called "selenehelion," which occurs when both the Sun and the eclipsed Moon can be observed at the same time, just at sunrise or sunset.  In my case, the Sun was just cresting the horizon over my right shoulder.  Mr. Moon is looking a little reddish because the sunlight reaching it is being scattered by a long passage through a long and dense layer of Earth's atmosphere.  While again, I'm not superstitious, lunar eclipses have played a part in a number of historical events and were quite frightening to prehistorical cultures.  No wonder that some cultures cover their wells or eating utensils to prevent contamination by the blood-colored Moon during a lunar eclipse.   Christopher Columbus is said to have intimidated the natives of Jamaica into provisioning his ships by predicting a lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504.  Hey, his superior knowledge may have been just another exploitation of a less-developed culture, but at least all that navigational expertise was good for something.

I don't know what part, if any, today's lunar eclipse played in my garden's ecology, but I'm not holding my breath.  Maybe, next year, I'll think the red roses have taken a deeper crimson hue and I'll think back to today.  But I doubt it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Slow Love, Busy Life

I've been caught up reading Slow Love by Dominique Browning lately.  Subtitled "How I Lost My Job, Put on Pajamas,& Found Happiness," Slow Love is not so much about gardening as it is about facing change and growing older.  I picked it up because I've enjoyed several of Browning's other, more garden-centered works including Paths of Desire and Around the House and In The Garden

This one, though, is not so much about gardening as it is about life.  I seem to be on a binge of reading works more suited to despairing or overheated middle-aged females than crusty old males, but I still enjoyed Slow Love.  Perhaps I should see my physician for a testosterone-level check?   Well, anyway, I enjoyed the book except for all the hand-wringing relationship angst about a non-committal male nicknamed "Stroller", so there still may be some hope that I can keep my grouchy and crotchety image for the public.   I also had a little problem identifying with Ms. Browning's divorced state, since the extreme patience and tolerance of Mrs. ProfessorRoush has allowed me to avoid that particular moniker.   Mrs. ProfessorRoush, however, does always takes care to point out that I'm continually on thin footing. 

What Slow Love does offer, for the gardener, is a little bit of gardening advice mixed in with a lot of good life advice.  I was particularly taken by two ideas.  One was the simple idea of running your own current troubles by "the stranger in the street".  In other words, if you explained the situation to a stranger in the street, what would he/she/they think about it?  Following this advice would make any person face their problems to the point that if any of the "Kardashians" or the characters of "Teen Moms" would think about it, they wouldn't be nearly as successful on TV as they are.  I've always used this one, whether I consciously knew it or not, because of a really good innate ability to step outside myself and look at things fairly objectively.  It works in gardening too.  Try it. The next time you place that hot pink impatiens next to the orange marigold, just ask yourself, what would Sydney Eddison or Lauren Springer-Ogden think of that combination?  Would they vomit uncontrollably, laugh in derision, or applaud your boldness? 

The other interesting thought from the book was Mrs. Browning's definition of introverts and extroverts.  She states something to the effect that "extroverts are energized by public encounters while introverts need to recover from them."  I agree wholeheartedly with this one, since I function acceptably in public, but I need loads of alone time, reading or writing or in the garden, to recharge and rest.  My introversion comes honestly and genetically from my own Mother, with whom I share many personality traits, not the least of which is the ability to keep myself occupied and perfectly happy free from contact with people and society in general.

It is a useful trait for a gardener, this ability to withdraw into nature for long periods of time, but not so useful for the gardener's family life or relationships.  I could have told Ms. Browning that without reading Slow Love, but that would have cheated both of us from her enjoyment of writing the book and mine of reading it. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Large Rats at Work

While inspecting my garden this past Saturday, I noticed this (pictured) damage to a small deciduous tree that is placed in the middle of my Evergreen bed.  I think it occurred sometime during the previous week, although, since I didn't see my garden in daylight hours last week, I am not absolutely sure of the exact day.   ProfessorRoush is definitely NOT an expert on wildlife biology and behavior, nor do I have any extensive knowledge of garden pests or their control beyond personal experience, but I'm pretty sure that the picture at the left is evidence that several large prairie rats with long skinny legs, fluffy white tails, and antlers have been visiting my garden.  This particular varmint must have been suffering a mighty itch along those antlers to scratch out this big of a section of trunk.  Alternatively, I suppose this rutting stag could be some sort of a garden snob offended by the fact that I put a deciduous tree in a bed otherwise composed of evergreens, and he simply expressed his displeasure by trying to off the tree.

The particular tree in question is a volunteer Double-flowering Red Peach (Prunus persica 'Rubroplena'), an offspring of one of my other landscaping trees, that cost me nothing as a volunteer, but with whom I was well-pleased.  The trunk is currently about three inches in diameter and the tree about 8 feet high.  I don't have a vast experience with damage of this magnitude, but I'm pretty sure it will permanently damage the tree.  Any bets out there?

I'm not sure why this tree is the only one damaged at present, but truthfully, fully half my young trees are protected by fencing wire just for this reason.  And I'm partially at fault here, both for not circling this tree with fencing and because I haven't yet instituted my standard deer repellant program this winter. I guess if I had to pick a tree to sacrifice for the purpose of honing the antlers of rutting deer, this was about as good as I could have chosen, but that doesn't mean I'm mitigating the death sentence of the bounding hart.  In the long run, I may have to fell my baby tree, and if I catch the perpetrator in my garden, he's going to unwillingly contribute more organic fertilizer to my garden than the little pellets he left near the tree. We must protect the children (or in this case the baby trees). 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dear Santa, Bring Christmas

Dear Mr. Claus,

I'm having a little trouble getting into the Christmas spirit this year, dear Santa, and someone suggested that writing you a letter might open up my floodgates to holiday cheer and goodwill towards marauding deer and nibbling rabbits.  However, I feel I've got to be truthful to you here at the outset, since I'm, after all, writing Santa, and trying to be good for goodness sake and all.  I need to acknowledge that I feel a little awkward writing to you as a gardener searching for Christmas, because, abiding up there at the North Pole, Santa, you're not exactly the patron saint of gardening.  I mean, I'm sure you've got a nice warm greenhouse nearby, and I'll bet the elves can create spectacular topiary, and all that reindeer poop must result in some fabulous compost.  But I suspect there's not much green in your landscaping and that red roses are hard to come by as a gift for Mrs. Claus.  Come to think of it, it is a good thing I don't live near you, because I don't know what I'd do without the roses I grow to help me beg forgiveness for the many trials and tribulations I create for Mrs. ProfessorRoush. 

My malaise is probably just that the Kansas skies are clear and blue and the sunshine is overwhelmingly bright, like the August sun except that it doesn't last as long every day.  I look outside the windows and I think, "What a nice sunny day to go work in the garden," and then I step outside, and my toes start to blacken and my fingers grow icicles and I remember that Spring is a long time away.  A little bit of brief warm wet snow or a few more days of heavy frost would actually go a long way, Santa, towards getting me into that holiday spirit, but I suppose that weather miracles actually are a little beyond your powers and more in the realm of the real Child of Christmas.

I've been a good boy this year, Santa, and I think even Mrs. ProfessorRoush would grudgingly allow that I've tried hard to toe the line of good garden principles and to be a moderately-tolerable husband.  I confess that I should have deadheaded a whole lot more and that I didn't get that viburnum moved, and that I should have trimmed back those forsythia last Spring.  And I admit that I could have brought more roses inside for Mrs. ProfessorRoush to enjoy and that I could have raised better tomatoes and peppers so that she could make more of her prize salsa.  I know you don't like excuses, Santa, but I do feel I did the best I could despite the late Spring freezes and the Summer drought and heat.

So, if you could see fit to sprinkle a little Christmas cheer my way, Santa, I'd appreciate it.  I'm not asking for much in the way of presents, maybe a gift certificate from the elves promising they will trim back the roses for me this Spring, or even just a little bottle of cougar urine to repel the rabbits.  Or, if you could see fit, a 10X12 foot greenhouse placed just to the south of my vegetable garden would go a long way towards improving my holiday spirit.  Just let me know and I'll stake out the area and get the water line run down the hill for it.

Yours truly, ProfessorRoush

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wonder 'bout Wonderstripe

For those who are searching out the "unusual" for next year's garden, I thought I'd add a preliminary note on a rose that tweaked my interest this Spring.  In my annual Heirloom Roses order, I included one of the roses that John Clements (of Heirloom Roses) bred himself; the striped yellow and pink rose he named 'Wonderstripe'.  I can't testify to its full performance yet, but I can tell you it does pretty good in an extended drought when provided a little extra water.

All who read this blog know that I'm a sucker (pun intended) for striped roses.  I don't know what it is about seeing stripes, particularly on Old Garden roses, but put a thus-afflicted rose in my hands and I'm a goner.  I'm the same way with Rembrandt tulips and I'm sure that if I'd been alive during "Tulipmania", I'd have lost the farm while trading in virus-infected tulips.  I was no less resistant to 'Wonderstripe', which offsets its pink tones not with white, as in most striped roses, but with a creamy yellow.

'Wonderstripe', which also goes under the registered name 'Clewonder', was introduced as a shrub rose by Clements in 1996.  The blooms are supposed to be large (4 inches) in diameter and double to the tune of 98 petals according to the Heirloom catalog, but so far my young rose has only been extended about 2.5 inches in diameter and is mildly double. It did bloom several times after I planted it as a band in the Spring however, and based on a thread about the rose on a Gardenweb forum, I have hope to believe that by the third year it will make a thriving bush with the promised large blooms. Again, I don't know how the mature bush will bloom, but I would rate the fragrance so far as moderate.  In a single season, 'Wonderstripe' is now about 2 foot tall and it showed no sign of blackspot this year. 

I guess I'm about to see how this Zone 5-rated plant does in a Kansas winter. I'll keep you informed about the condition of this rose in the Spring, after we see if it can survive this first winter unprotected here in my Flint Hills garden.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Queen Matrona

September, in the Flint Hills, is the time that sedums become the stars of the garden, or at least they become the stars of my garden.  In my "add no extra water" garden, sedums are a great group of plants to propagate again and again throughout the garden, tying it together and allowing you to fulfill that "repeat theme" fundamental of good garden design.

'Matrona', pre-bloom, mid-summer
My favorite sedum, and one I'd recommend for every garden, is  'Matrona', full of gray-green foliate,  dark red stems and pink flowers.  This one is a four season performer for me;  tall, strong and disease free through Summer, colorful in Autumn,  a copper-brown support for snow in Winter, and then with the cutest little purple buds in early Spring as I clean off the beds. I've copied 'Matrona' over and over in my garden, and just this year I started a hedge of it on the southeast edge of my newest rose bed.  I'm hoping the 10 or 12 clumps planted there will make a nice and neat, if tall, border to its rose backdrop next year.  The entire 20 foot line cost me just one clump from my front garden, divided a dozen ways with a shovel early this Spring. 

The foliage of 'Matrona' always acts as a foil for its neighbors, either through the fleshy, thick character of the leaves or by color contrast with the purple-blue-green color of the leaves and red stems.  Look at it at the upper right, planted alone as an accent among green shrubs and daylilies, or as pictured to the left, in the garden and in full pink flower in front of 'Wine and Roses' Weigela and between Blue Lyme Grass (Elymus arenarius) and 'Emerald Gaiety' Euonymus.  Isn't she just the center of attention?

'Matrona' was a 1991 selection from Germany, and she received recognition as the "Perennial of the Millennium' from Europe in the year 2000 and also received the Royal Horticultural Society 2006 Award of Garden Merit.  The name comes from the German word "matrone", which means "lady of well-rounded form", so just in case your spouse spends a lot of time on the Internet, I'd suggest that all the male gardeners reading this resist any temptation to compare their wives to the beauties of 'Matrona.'  In the Netherlands she is known as 'hemelsleutels', which supposedly translates as "keys to heaven", so perhaps we should refer to this sedum by that name. 'Matrona' grows trouble free to about 2 feet tall in my garden in a nice compact clump, and she gets no extra water or care.  The one mistake to avoid with 'Matrona' is NEVER overfertilize a mature clump.  Fertilization with high levels of nitrogen just causes her to grow lanky and sprawl over her neighbors, a little too voluptuous for her own good.  If she is in extremely rich soil, it often helps to give her a little beheading in late June, to keep her compact, and I sometimes use peony supports on the bigger clumps so that the Kansas wind doesn't flatten her out.  Mainly, just keep her in full sun and leave her parched and 'Matrona' will be a star in your September garden.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Too Soon For Dreams

Every year I watch the commercial Christmas season creep earlier and earlier and, like all of you, I wonder where the creeping will stop. I hadn't, however, realized until today that the Spring planting season is also slowly moving forward year by year.  A spam email from Thompson and Morgan today, advertising an extension on their Thanksgiving seed sale, opened my eyes to the new reality. 

I dutifully opened the provided link to, an action at least slightly better than the rapid deletion that recent commercial emails from Wayside and High County Gardens have received.  A few brief glances at the website, however, were enough to convince me that I have no enthusiasm to shop for seeds yet.  I haven't moved far enough past the disappointments of this year to even begin to dream of next year's glorious garden yet.

Plant and seed companies need to be more considerate of the delicate condition of North American gardeners right now.  Those of us in the Northern climes are still in that "just-broken-up" phase of our relationships with our garden, fresh from the loss of daily intimate contact and too depressed to think about flirting with the next garden yet, let alone committing to a date with one.  We need some time to let the emotional wounds heal, time to begin to believe again that the next garden could be The One, that perfect garden that we've hoped for and dreamed of all our lives. Twenty-five percent off all seeds for next year just isn't enough to make me put down the chocolate truffles and move off the couch yet. I need a cold winter of rest and the lengthening days after the Winter (Southern) Solstice to heal my drought-stricken, wind-beaten, sun-scalded gardener's soul.

Save your advertising budget, nurseries and growers, for January, when the blizzards are raging, my fingers are frozen, and I've forgotten the doldrums of summer. Spam me again then, when I'm thinking of the gardens of Spring, flush with the beginnings of new love for another gardening year and early romance with the soil. The passing of time alone brings healing and hope, and hope creates gardens. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

Stalwart Roses

Hibiscus syriacus 'Blue Bird'
If there is a stalwart plant of the autumn garden for the Flint Hills, a prime candidate must be the various cultivars of Hibiscus syriacus, the Rose of Sharon.  Tall and drought-resistent, the Rose of Sharon or Shrub Althea begins to bloom in the heat of summer here and laughs at the worst of autumn.  By no mere coincidence, it is also one of the more "tropical" looking perennials available to grow here.

Hibiscus syriacus 'Rubis'
Hibiscus syriacus is a native to much of Asia, although not to Syria as Linnaeus thought when he named it.  This is group of tall bushy shrubs in white, purples, pinks and reds for the most part, reaching about 6-8 feet in height and four feet in width.  Flowers last for a day on the plant and they are edible, although the thought of eating a flower rarely crosses my mind.  But if you want a "plant and forget shrub" for Kansas, this is the one.This shrub alongside the viburnums, are backbone shrubs for the Flint Hills, hardy far north of my 5B climate and sneering at the worst of both summer and winter.

Hibiscus syriacus 'Double Red'

I grow all six varieties pictured on this page; 'Notwoodtwo' (also known as 'White Chiffon'), 'Red Heart' (with its red center of an otherwise white flower), 'Rubis' and its cousin 'Double Red', 'Paeonyflorus' (or 'Double Pink') and, my favorite, 'Blue Bird', the latter pictured first here, at the top.  It was that light blue of BlueBird that first attracted me to these shrubs, and then I realized the wider variety available.  Recently, as noted on a previous blog, I've also added the large white blooms of 'Diana' (a newer, sterile triploid) to my garden, although it will take her a couple of years to make an impact on my garden. 

Hibiscus syriacus 'White Chiffon'
Hibiscus syriacus 'Paeonyflorus'

Hibiscus syriacus 'Blue Bird', in full flower

'Blue Bird' actually blooms a lot earlier than the others, often at the end of June before the summer heat arrives, and it is all the more welcome because of it.

Hibicus syriacus 'Red Heart'

It takes a fairly large garden to place a Rose of Sharon, but if you've got the room, they've got the flowers for your August garden.  Sometimes, these shrubs are the only left blooming in my August garden and they tide me over to the cooler nights of September.  You could say that they keep my heart beating during the August doldrum.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Cardinal de Spread-Alot

It has surely been awhile since I featured a rose on my blog.  After I fled my garden in the heat of summer, the roses and I parted company for the year, except for a brief reunion in late September when enough rain came to stimulate a little late blooming.  My collection of pictures, however, has not been nearly exhausted and I'm going to use them to help us scrape through another dull winter in the Flint Hills.

One rose that I've never blogged about is my (surmised) 'Cardinal de Richelieu'.  CDR is a Gallica attributed to Laffay and dating from 1840, but at least one source has it being bred by Parmentier near that time.  Regardless, he is a low-growing (about 2-3 feet tall) but hardy creature, the worst of the Gallica spreaders in my garden, dancing all over the bed I've placed him into.  I tolerate those bad manners simply because of the prolific, very double, fat blooms and their deep, dark purple color, the darkest of the Gallica roses.  A once-bloomer, over a long period in late May here, I've also found that the flowers stand up to the summer sun and humidity of the Flint Hills pretty well, gaining a little powdery mildew on the leaves occasionally, but never fading too quickly in the sun nor balling up in the worst of wet Springs.  CDR has a strong fragrance, increasing as the petals dry, and very few thorns, so even though it tends to become a thicket, it remains an inviting one.  When it does get a little too aggressive, every two or three years, I appreciate the fact that the lack of thorns doesn't leave me reaching for a shovel to spade-prune it.

I call this my "surmised" 'Cardinal de Richelieu' because my rose is one of my cemetery cuttings, from a local grave whose headstone places the family in the late 1800's.  I could be wrong about its name and provenance, but I don't think so.  It fits the pictures, habit, and growth of that rose to perfection.  If not, then it's another lost Gallica, and a deep purple one at that.

The real Cardinal de Richelieu was Armand Jean du Plessis, a clergyman and French nobleman of the early 1600's, Described as the first "Prime Minister", he was the minister to Louis XIII from 1624 through 1642.  He was also known as the "Red Eminence" and quickly rose to power in the French court.  Richelieu was a dichotomy as a leader, ruthless against the peasants who revolted against taxes levied to pay for the Thirty Year's war, but at the same time, a renowned patron of the  theater and literary wings of the art world in France. I'm not sure how this particular rose came to bear his name, but Cardinal de Richelieu is still an honored patriot of France and the rose 'Cardinal de Richelieu will always have a place in my garden. 

Unless he loses his manners completely.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Red Rain

By a strange coincidence, "Rev" of Red Dirt Roses blog commented on yesterday's post and asked for more pictures of my southern view just as I was examining this morning's Ipicture of the same view with the intention of showing everyone how a little (very little) rain makes the red colors of the bluestem predominate.  We had a little dampness, almost a very wet dew last night:

Unfortunately, this picture just proves to me that I need to dump the iPhone for taking pictures and go back to dragging out the good digital camera, especially in the morning, because I can't hold the phone still enough in the early morning light to keep things from being blurred.  Maybe this picture of this morning's view from my house to the north, in a little better focus, will help show what I was trying to portray:

The most dramatic morning picture I intended, a closeup of a stand of Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is, of course, hopelessly out of focus, so I took my thought from yesterday about making these into impressionistic-type photos:

How about that?  Now I'm wondering exactly what the object is about 3/4ths of the way across the picture just above the right end of the grass.  Doesn't look like much on the original, and I saw nothing when I took the picture, but in the modified picture it looks like I caught a raccoon sneaking away.  The same "face" appears when I try to sharpen the focus.  This is almost like one of those UFO pictures where somebody is taking a shot of a transformer junction and notices the saucer hovering nearby.  I wouldn't suspect this was real, except that coming home two nights ago, I definitely startled a pair of raccoons crossing the gravel near this point.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Frosty Morning

We had the first nights of freeze several weeks ago here in the Flint Hills, but the actual frosts have been few and far between.  It takes humidity in the air to condense as a frost and the average humidity hasn't allowed it save for a few delicate mornings.  But now, as the nights grow longer and my hibernation begins, I bless the mornings when the quiet reigns and the sun still promises a warm day at the end of the afternoon.

This picture, taken at dawn a few days ago with my  iphone, is probably not striking enough to attract any real attention by others, but for me, it hints of many marvelous possibilities. The first thing I notice is that, in its original form, the pixels are just coarse enough that if you blow it up, all the garden grasses appear a little blurred as if from in impressionist painting, showing me by example that I need to modify some photographs of my garden creatively this winter and expand my vision.  Gardens designed by Gertrude Jekyll are supposed to have been influenced by her poor eyesight. Perhaps blurring the camera can help me with mine.

The moisture of the frost brings out the winter colors of the drying foliage, showing me a little more color in this early morning picture than I had anticipated in my dreary winter landscape.  I need to spend some time thinking about this view.  Since it corresponds to four months of looking out my bedroom window, improving and expanding the interest and structure of the garden could brighten my winter. 

The mowed paths through the drought-shortened unmown prairie now look too rigid, too straight, and too formal to lead me down to my haphazard garden.  Next year I'll mow them with a little less stiffness and with a little more weave.  And I think the trees need to hurry up and grow, as I need height to separate this garden from the prairie around it. 

And last, the picture tells me how late in the seasonal path we are.  That point of sunrise is closer and closer to Winter Solstice, and far south of where the Summer sun rose at dawn.  It will be interesting to see where the Solstice sun rises in relationship to my new neighbors house on the ridgeline opposite.  It's just possible that while their encroachment messed up my horizon, they've created a Stonehenge for me to measure the passing of years.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Winter Garden Reading II

The second "relaxed" winter garden reading series that I would introduce to readers is Ann Ripley's excellent mystery series that features another heroine of the gardening world, Louise Eldridge, this time a housewife who actually works a real garden while she snoops around.  The series begins with a book titled simply Mulch, where she is drawn into a murder investigation when body parts turn up in the leaves and clippings she purloined from neighborhood streets on trash day (come on, you do it too!).  The series currently runs to six or seven different murder mysteries, all well-written and interesting. 
I must confess that I liked this series a little better than the Flower Shop Mysteries, even though it seems not to be as popular and you'll probably have to go to Amazon to find it.  And I've read them all.  Louise Eldridge is a grounded woman with a mild-mannered husband, Bill (who just happens to work for a secret agency of he government), and a pair of daughters that grow up through her books.  Louise works out of the home as the host of a television garden show, so her character grows and well throughout the mysteries.  The series starts near Washington DC and then Ms. Eldridge moves to the front range of Colorado, where I believe the author now lives as well.  The sweaty hunks are missing (for the most part) from these novels, and the villains are harder to identify, so this series keeps you reading.  Pick one up, on Amazon, or otherwise wherever you can find it.  I have a copy of one of the books that I purchased at The Strand in New York City.  Where better to find a garden author?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Winter Gardening Reading

In Winter, my reading about gardening takes the place of my gardening, so I'm already in that phase where I'm accumulating things to read for the winter.  There are times I like serious gardening texts and times that I'd rather vegetate in what is the garden equivalent of a summer read.  You know what I'm talking about; those mostly mindless novels that have a little gardening, a little mystery, and a lot of relaxation.

Along that line, I know of two authors with a plant-focused novel series that other readers might enjoy.   Just last week, I learned of a series of around eight or ten mysteries written by author Kate Collins.  Of course, I just had to find one immediately to see if I liked it and was able to purchase the first book of the series at a local bookstore.  The series is called The Flower Shop Mysteries, so named because the main character, Abby Knight, is the busybody owner of a flower shop, "Bloomers", and is a former flunked-out law student.  Abby is constantly involved in some kind of trouble, and the series seems to be popular since it makes it onto local bookshelves. The first book of the series is titled Mums The Word, and it's a fairly decent tale of a local murder and Ms. Knight's investigation of it.  The other books in the series follow on the first, and all have clever titles like Slay It With Flowers, and Dearly Depotted.  I so love a good pun.

To be frank, I think Mums The Word was an engaging read, but I don't know how many of the rest of the series I'll be reading.   Don't get me wrong, they are good, but they are definitely written for a female market, and (as a middle-aged, hopelessly archaic, male) I'm just not the prime demographic.  In Mums The Word, the villains are easily recognizable, the women are often victims of bad dates and bad men, and there is a gratuitous hunk named Marco who makes several appearances as Abby's rescuer and heartthrob.  Being male, and hoping for a twist in the plot, I kept expecting Marco to turn out to be one of the bad guys, but, no, he just stayed a sweaty, bodice-ripping savior.  Really didn't do much for me since I never could understand the pirate-lusty maiden genera.  Carrying the book around bothered me a little as well, because, as you can see above, the cover is designed a little frilly and pastel-colored for my tastes.  Maybe I can put a plain book cover over the next one?

I thought I had already blogged about the other author, Ann Ripley, whose series I finished long ago, but it turns out that I haven't. I guess I'll make this week a "two-fer" on that front so stay tuned in a couple of days for that review.  And in the dead of winter, when you're staring out the window at a snow-covered landscape, Mums The Word could be just your ticket.  If you are a middle-aged or older female who likes pirate novels.  Hey, come to think of it, Mrs. ProfessorRoush might like this one.


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