Thursday, March 31, 2011

How Long the Rose?

During that dreaded time period that pulls many gardeners reluctantly away from their Spring gardens (i.e. tax preparation time), I happened across some important information that I want to reproduce here for the benefit of other rosarians. While I was hauling off the truckloads of worthless annual paper and filing the few sheets of information that are actually important to my life, I found my copy of a February 1992 Horticulture article by Ian S.Ogilvie and Neville P. Arnold titled Roses From the North.

The purpose of Ogilvie and Arnold's article was primarily to review the history of the breeding of hardy roses in Canada, but they have an interesting table in the article that provides an extra bit of information I wish was available for all roses in commerce, particularly for those that are blurring the boundaries between once-blooming and remontant roses.  In a table listing the Canadian cultivars, their color, habit, number of petals, and hardiness zones, they also listed the number of weeks each cultivar was in bloom between June 1st and September 30th, presumably at the L'Assomption site, and the relative blackspot resistance there:

Cultivar                                     Weeks of Bloom                  Blackspot Resistance
'Assinaboine'                               9.0                                        medium
'Cuthbert Grant'                           10.0                                      high
'Morden Ruby'                            8.9                                         medium
'Adelaide Hoodless'                     8.8                                        medium
'Morden Amorette'                      10.0                                      medium
'Morden Cardinette'                    10.0                                       medium
'Morden Centennial'                    10.7                                       medium
'Morden Blush'                            12.3                                      medium
'Morden Fireglow'                       9.0                                        medium
'Martin Frobisher'                        13.3                                      medium
'Henry Hudson'                            13.4                                      high
'David Thompson'                        12.7                                      high
'Charles Albanel'                          11.3                                      high
'John Cabot'                                10.3                                      high
'William Baffin'                             10.4                                      high
'Henry Kelsey'                             9.0                                        medium
'John Davis'                                 11.6                                      high
'John Franklin'                             14.0                                      medium
'Champlain'                                 13.6                                      medium
'Alexander Mackenzie'                9.4                                        high
'J.P.Connell'                                8.1                                        medium
'Capt. Samuel Holland'                12.2                                      high
'Louis Jolliet'                                14.5                                     high

I know this table reproduced from Ogilvie and Arnold leaves a lot of questions for those of a scientific mindset (how many years of bloom were averaged to obtain these numbers, spraying protocols, etc), but this information from two individuals involved in the breeding of these roses is still priceless for gardeners who are choosing roses for their landscapes. Yes, I agree that it would be nice to have disease resistance ratings and bloom periods like this for various climates and locations (in Virginia versus Kansas for instance), but for now, this information is the best available and I think that it relatively fits what I see for these roses here in Kansas.  'Champlain' for instance is almost never without bloom and perhaps once or twice in a bad year I have sprayed it for blackspot, compared to 'Cuthbert Grant' who seems to have several cycles with rest periods in-between, but whom I've never sprayed for blackspot.

It also encourages me to keep better records. I grow somewhere around 150 roses at last count.  Information on the dozen Buck roses I grow, for instance, might be of interest to others.  If only I didn't have to earn money to support the lifestyle the missus has become accustomed to, I could just walk around Thoreau-like with a notebook jotting down the blooming periods of roses.  I'm sure that someday I'll have the time.  I should perhaps plan for reincarnation as a bumblebee.  I'd have time to visit all the roses and the ability to sting those who annoy me.  Not a bad life, eh?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Russell's Brand of Gardening

This isn't the blog I had planned for today, nor is anyone likely to stumble across this blog by combining a search for "Russell Brand" and "gardening," but a news headline today, "Russell Brand: Katy Perry helped me swap sex for gardening" caught my eye.  I simply find that I can't refrain from commenting on it, especially since I don't know how long the link will last before people believe I just made it up.

Please allow me to state unequivocally that I'm not a Russell Brand fan, in fact I've never seen a single movie or comedy act by him. I've glanced at his autobiography in a bookstore, but never purchased or read it.  I  barely know who the man is, although I will admit the previews for the upcoming move "Arthur" look interesting. My tastes in humor run towards the extremely dry genera and I've never found the British slapstick, ribald comedy types very funny.

But Russell has been quoted recently that his sex life has decreased significantly since marrying Katy Perry (another celebrity of whom I have only a vague knowledge), compared to that during his single life, and that he's become "a bloody good gardener."  Those quotes will evidently be expounded on in a Piers Morgan interview yet to be aired.

To quote Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie, "Welcome to the party, pal."

If I could speak directly to Russell, I'd say that I understand, even though I'm almost an old man (but not yet dead), that trading a 20-a-week sex life for gardening may be disappointing to you, Russell, but perhaps your new wife might be more willing to help you control your rampant wild oats if you talked less dirt, particularly about her abetting the improvement in your personal gardening time.  And  while trying hard not to play the typical male "who has the bigger green thumb" game, I would also be careful to point out to Russell that I, myself, am only a moderately good gardener due to other demands on my time.

It is not surprising to me that gardening is Russell's alternative to sex.  Gardens certainly share the juxtaposition of alternating relaxing and strenuous activities of the latter.  Both have their peaceful, serene and beautiful moments, and both are at times messy, wet, and noisy.  Both have their enjoyable aspects whether performed outside on sunny afternoons or inside on rainy Sundays.  Both occasionally lead to strained muscles and can increase the incidence of heart attacks in old men engaged in the activity.  They only differ in that one may lead to a delightful,soul-restful experience while the other can possibly result in teenagers. 

There was one useful aspect to the inappropriate Russell Brand quote.  Someone named "Fluffy Flowers" commented to the article that if you listened to Dave and Jon's Gardening Calendar podcasts you could have both (sex and gardening).  I've only listened to one, episode #10, but I'm definitely downloading  the rest to listen to while   

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Premonition of Peonies

Paeonia tenuifolia budding
In the past few days I noticed that my brave peonies had decided it was time to stick their noses up above the ground.  Every year, I find myself anxiously awaiting the appearance of these delicate stalks and happy to see them pop up and slowly unfurl.  I still sometimes find it amazing that these few buds will cover the area of a bushel basket in a mere month or so, and I find it still more miraculous as the enormous fat buds swell larger than these stems ever dreamed of being.

Herbaceous peony sprouts
No plant that I grow can beat the peony for low maintenance care here on the prairie.  They ask only to be mowed off in the Fall and tossed a little fertilizer each Spring.  A little fertilizer goes a long way in fact, and this year I'm going to try a little organic compost on each peony instead of my usual handful of high-calorie lawn fertilizer in an effort to try and keep them a bit more compact. Watering, deadheading, pruning, insecticides, and fungicides are not ever on the menu for herbaceous peonies in Kansas.  The largest varieties might ask for a little stem support during their bloom periods, but I just plant them close and make them shoulder up against each other for support during the Kansas winds and storms. 

05/25/2010 in my peony bed
Despite the recent cold and the rain and possible snow predicted this weekend, peonies are the one early plant that I never, ever worry will sustain frost damage or freeze back.  I used to cover these early buds with blankets and milk jugs, but after a few years, I decided that this "lower" life form has a far better grasp of when their time has come than I do.  Principally, the disastrous snow and freezes of mid-April in 2007 provided the evidence to me.  In that rare year, when the lilac blooms froze on the stems, the daylilies were frost-bitten, and the fruit trees dropped their buds, the peonies simply smiled at the freak cold and perked right back up when the weather warmed.   Not for nothing do peonies dot the oldest gravestones in comfortable ancient graveyards and are often the sole survivors at old abandoned homesites. They are, it seems, the wisest of the wise.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Life Inside the Windows

Ignoring for a moment that we've got about 1/2 inch of snow on the ground outside this morning after the weatherman predicted last night that nothing would stick....I still have hope that Spring is coming soon.

Anybody care to guess what the prairie-based (hint) Garden Muser is growing ahead for planting?  I'm not a great plantsperson for growing seeds under lights, but I think these have a slight chance of making it till last frost.  Each row is a different seed.  I'll provide a left-to-right listing of the cultivars in a few days.

There are also a few other surprises for my landscape sprinkled behind the windows. These are some Hyacinth Bean Vines (Dolichos lablab) that I planted in peat pots and enclosed in a plastic bag a couple of weeks ago.  They're just getting window sun, no artificial light, but they seem to be ready to sprout for the sky.  One of my fellow EMG's provided the seed last fall and I'm putting them on one side of a naked pergola to climb on this summer.  The other side, as mentioned in a previous post, will be a Passion Flower vine.  I plan to let them fight out who controls the center of the pergola.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Adelaide HoodWho?

As an accomplished botanical serial killer, I would truthfully state that there are few roses of which I am able to say that I only purchased once and still have a surviving specimen to display.  One of those tough, against-all-odds roses however, is the bright red Canadian shrub rose 'Adelaide Hoodless'. 

'Adelaide Hoodless'
'Adelaide Hoodless' is a 1973 introduction from the Parkland Series of AgCanada, bred by Henry Marshall in the Morden Research Station of southern Manitoba (floribunda 'Fire King' X seedling of 'J.W.Fargo' and 'Assiniboine') . She was named to honor the esteemed 19th century founder of the Women's Institute, now an International Organization dedicated to providing women with educational opportunities.  I first purchased her way back in the early 1990 or 1991 as I first "got into" roses, and I placed her as the backdrop to some moisture-stealing junipers in an elevated front planter with a straight southern exposure at our first home.  There, in that arid, crowded, hot environment, with a brick wall as a backdrop and tended by a neophyte gardener, she defied the odds through summer after summer and winter after winter, blooming her little top right off for several weeks each summer.

When we moved to the prairie, I moved a rooted portion of my own-root 'Adelaide Hoodless' out to the site of my first rose experimental bed (now abandoned) where she continues to survive unaided amidst the taller prairie grass and ice storms and prairie fires, but I have also propagated other plants from that one and the original rose now has not one, but two cloned grandchildren in protected positions in my shrub rose beds.   This rose is a true survivor in Kansas, with no winter dieback seen in any winter of my 20 years here.

'Adelaide Hoodless' is a good rose, but I don't think I would say she has been a great rose for me.  She's listed on some websites as "deep pink," but while I can see the pink tints, I would list this rose closer to bright red, especially at a distance. She has a stupendous first display of  those red, semi-double, 3 inch blooms borne in large clusters, but despite her rumored continual bloom through summer and fall, I have found her to have a long first season, covered for over a month with flowers, but  then only sporadic repeat throughout the rest of the year.  Her semi-double form opens quickly and a little flat for my taste, but the open form allows her to display lots of yellow stamens, and the blooms then stay on the bush in good form for a long time.  She grows to about the 4-5 foot range, with a round form that is more reminiscent of a floribunda than a shrub, and I can confirm her complete hardiness in Zone 5, probably not surprising anyone who knows that this rose should be good to Zone 2.  'Adelaide Hoodless' is supposed to have a number of hips in winter, but I've found the hips small and uninspiring.  She has a mild fragrance, and is generally a healthy bush, although she's prone to a little blackspot in the summer, dropping her pantaloons a bit if I don't keep a close eye on her. I do spray this rose in an occasional bad summer, and I use her as an indicator that it is time to spray other black-spot susceptible varieties, but I don't want to mislead anyone into thinking she is a blackspot magnet to the degree of a Hybrid Tea. 

So why, you might ask, do I still grow this rose of minor fragrance, unspectacular bloom form and repeat, small hips, and occasional fungal disfigurement?  To put it most simply, I strongly admire any plant that I haven't been able to kill at least once.  The vigor of this rose is simply unsurpassable.  I saw it yesterday in bagged form at Home Depot and even there, I found myself admiring that in those prematurely-budding decrepit bags, 'Adelaide Hoodless' looked much healthier and had more new buds growing than any of the other varieties offered.  If you need a bright red rose of better shrub form than Knockout, but with most of the other drawbacks of Knockout, then this is a shrub rose for you.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Mowing Bedlam

If my regular readers suspect that they have begun to determine a pattern in the "Roush Gardening Method," today's blog will remove all doubt and expose me for the gardening charlatan I truly am.  I know that some might apply the words, "cynical," "skeptic," and perhaps "shameful" to many of these blogs as I discuss emotionally-charged subjects such as Global Warming, organic gardening dogma, and WEE (Wild-Eyed Environmentalists).  Yes, I fully admit that I am sometimes unable to resist poking the Birkenstock herd as they meander across the garden drinking the Kool-Aide.

But truthfully, for all the "low-maintenance" hype I spew about my garden endeavors, the core basis of the "Roush Gardening Method" is simple laziness.  I don't aim for low-maintenance, I aim for "low-work," however that result can be obtained.

As an example, I resolved a few years back to limit the annual maintenance of my two mixed daylily and iris beds to the simple technique of mowing them once in the Fall or late Winter.  As you can see from the picture at left, the resultant bed has a nice clean look that took about 10 minutes to create at the end of the last growing season.  Please go ahead and ignore the variably-sized limestone edging that keeps the prairie fires out of my beds. Doesn't it look like a knowledgeable and dedicated gardener has been hard at work clearing this bed of plant debris?  I did not, as recommended in numerous books, take some nice hand scissors out to carefully and individually trim the iris into angled fans, nor did I remove the previous foliage from the daylilies.  I simply mowed off both at a height of 3 inches with a mulching, riding lawnmower (gasp!).  This resulted in a nice 2-3 inch layer of chopped mulch that matted down nicely and didn't blow to the next county over the winter.      

As you can see from the 2nd picture, the result, pictured during early daylily season in the middle of a hot summer, leaves little room for complaint, at least by me.  I get two solid seasons of bloom, iris and daylily, out of this bed, plus a little third bloom season due to some daffodils that pop up and cycle before the daylily or iris foliage is evident.  Yes, it is not a varied shrub border, but I have those in other places and they bloom in their own time and space. No, I wouldn't do this to a formal rose garden.   My daylily and iris beds are intended only for full colorful climax at the height of summer.  It is also important to know that I have not yet seen any disease nor detriment to the practice.  In fact, the disaster of the late Flint Hills freeze of 2007, which reduced the majority of my irises to soggy and very dead plants, will likely not be repeated as there is not much green growth yet to freeze.  KSU's advice in 2007 to "not-cut-back" the irises after the freeze, which I now believe was a mistake, will be moot for me in the future;  I don't have any iris foliage at this time of year to freeze.

I'll tell you a secret;  I also did this mowing technique on my peony plantings last fall and I'll show you those pictures in a later post as the peonies bloom.  Yes, it's true that my garden design is in some danger of becoming a set of display beds of various plants without architecture or form, but I'll make sure to keep some mixed beds around and there is always the formal rose garden and the shrub rose borders.  Anyway, I prefer to think of my garden as a symphony, with a set of sax notes here, a refrain popping up over there from the violas, and later a flute taking up the melody from the background.  As opposed to creating a jam session of uninhibited jazz players, if you'll allow me to continue the metaphor...

The success of this quirky methodology is encouraging me to try a different type of bed this year.  I'm planning a large garden bed of self-sown annuals that I'm going to try to keep the prairie grass and weeds out by hand, but to just mow down each fall to re-spread the mature seed heads.  We'll see, we'll see. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thoughtful Author

I know that I haven't blogged about a new garden book for quite some time, but I have been slogging through Robin Lane Fox's 2011 collection of essays, Thoughtful Gardening.

Robin Lane Fox is an English historian, currently placed as the University of Oxford reader in Ancient History, and is the long-term gardening correspondent for the Financial Times.  Evident in the book are his wide and varied interests in history (particularly regarding Alexander the Great) and gardening. 

For an American reader, this was a bit of a tough read.  Mr. Fox's essays are widely varied and there is certainly evidence throughout the text of a deep and exhaustive knowledge base about many gardening subjects.  As one would expect from an Oxford Fellow, the grammar is exacting and the vocabulary stupendous as measured by this poor Midwestern professor/gardener. But if there is a real drawback to reading an English gardening author, it revolves around cultivar names which haven't made it across The Pond, or the use of different common terms and names for plants between the esteemed gardener-writer and my amateurish knowledge.  In one essay, for instance, Robin discussed "Buddleja" extensively.  It wasn't until he mentioned the cultivars "Nanho Blue" and 'Nanho Purple' that I was absolutely sure he was discussing Buddleia sp.  After some later research, I discovered that my bastardized Americanized Latin has been wrong for a number of years. The correct spelling is, in fact, "Buddleja," honoring Reverend Adam Buddle, a botanist of the 17th and early 18th centuries  Wikipedia informs me that modern botanical Latin usage would make the name "Buddleia," but Linnaeus spelled it "Buddleja" in 1753 and as of the 2006 International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, Linnaeus' spelling is the orthographic variant (priority by date of publication) that is the recognized correct term.  

It is obvious throughout the book that the author does not shrink from the use of herbicides and pesticides, so this book should be read by WEE (Wild-Eyed Environmentalists) and organic gardeners with a sense of trepidation and some smelling salts nearby. I did enjoy his skepticism of global warming as he discussed the similarities of the modern British climate to the descriptions in Gilbert White's The Garden Calendar, a book that serves as a record of  the climate from 1751 through 1773, long before the Industrial Revolution could be blamed for global warming.  Facts are so inconvenient at times, aren't they AlGore?

There are also some great observations about gardening.  Discussing "middle-age" gardens, which I understand he thinks is an awkward period in a garden's development, Fox says "The first sign of middle age (of the garden) is when owners talk about growing only the things that seem to suit them."  He also gives some practical advice to approach fixing the problem:  "The easiest way to treat middle-aged gardens is to leave them alone to become senile."

I nearly stopped reading the book early on, however.  I was reading along, deeply concentrating, when suddenly, a seemingly innocuous statement leapt out of the page and bit me.  In the chapter on climate change, lamenting the storms that touched England in the past decade, he had written, "What we need is to dig in with the full variety of the thousands of plants, still underexploited, that flourish in the British climate, as ever one of extremes."   One of extremes?  He thinks the British climate is one of extremes?  All I could do was shake my head in disbelief and mutter "You'd never make it in Kansas, Robin."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spring Resolutions

Fellow Gardeners, let us forget about New Year's Resolutions, loud and irritating fireworks on New Year's Eve, and the whole false pretense of getting soused off of your feet for an excuse to neck with the neighbor's wife (not that I've ever practiced any of the above, particularly, the latter due to obvious inherent dangers to my appendages from the missus).  I propose a revolution or at least a re-evolution of our gardening lives based on a return to the natural cycles of our seasons.
Spring Equinox, March 20, 2011, Flint Hills
I feel it is evident that we should recognize that the new year does not begin for Midwestern gardeners on January 1st, it begins instead with the Spring Equinox on March 20 or 21st.  Humbug(!) on the forced celebrations and the bone-chilling cold of December 31st, and January 1st.  To a four-seasons gardener, those days and the three months following are merely the drabbest, grayest days of the year; the low of our gardening experiences when we are forced to force bulbs and branches into unnatural bloom to feebly claim that we've extended our gardening season.  Our real gardening year begins with the Vernal Equinox, the equality of night and day for the planet.  It continues as the flowering of our gardens peaks with the Summer Solstice, and then we wind down our year with only a few plants blooming after the Autumnal Equinox.  Winter is merely that interminable period between the last Fall flower and the first bloom of Spring.

I was struck, yesterday, at the Equinox, that here in this mid-continental Eden of the Kansas Flint Hills, the gardening season really does begin with the Spring Equinox.  Only a few different flowers have bloomed this year in my garden before March 20th; the over-achieving and uninspiring Witch Hazels a few weeks ago, a few stray snow crocus a couple of weeks back, and then finally my Dutch Crocus and Siberian Iris, jumping the gun by only a couple of days.  But yesterday, exactly on the Equinox, the first Forsythia and the first Daffodil opened in my garden, these true Spring flowers confirming that Spring has indeed arrived in the Flint Hills.    

The Ancients knew better about such things. Zoroastrianism, one of the world's oldest organized religions,  uses a calendar with the first day of the new year coinciding with the vernal equinox. The concept of Oestara (light and dark balanced with light gaining power) was named for Eostre, a Teutonic goddess of spring and new life (who also lent her name to the English word "Easter"). Many of the older Teutonic rituals for Eostre involved eggs, rabbits, and pastel colors, nature walks and the act of seed-planting, similar to our modern Easter rituals.   It is only right that the celebrations of a new year should be related with the stirrings of green life, and not emphasized by the clamor of fireworks, but by the quiet call of the Meadowlark.  Pagan rites of sowing seed and the symbolic sacrifice of a few virgins (always a decent addition to a drunken celebration) should be reinstituted and balanced by the Fall rites of Harvest and Thanksgiving.

The metamorphosis begins now!  I propose that our yearly resolutions, those annual statements of good intent and purposeful existence, be made at the Spring Equinox.  Last night, sitting in the gazebo after moving a few roses and trimming back the damaged boxwoods, I made the following promises for my gardening year:

1.  I resolve, this year, to spend at least as much time sitting and listening to the life of my garden as I do imposing my will on it.  The specific action plan will be to sit down at least at the end of each working chore to enjoy the quiet of a job well-done.
2.  I resolve to allow more self-seeding by annuals, letting their natural wisdom choose the sites where they can flourish best.  Action:  designate a bed of bare, disturbed ground without mulch or extra water and simply weed out the weeds.
3.  I resolve to spend less time pushing the envelopes of Hardiness Zone and individual plant water requirements with new introductions and to grow more of those plants that are "Zone-Worthy" by their obvious delight in this climate.
4.  I will make specific plantings to attract and support avian wildlife to my garden and I will replenish and clean the hummingbird feeders at least every 3rd day.  Nowhere are God's miracles more evident than in the flight of a hummingbird or the glimpse of a bluebird.

So join with me, my gardening friends, on this first day of the Northern Hemisphere New Gardening Year, and add your resolutions to mine.  Rejoice ye, sow some seed, and sacrifice a few virgins in a drunken orgy if any can be found (I live, remember, in a College town).  In absence of the latter, at least share a little grape juice with a Significant Other beneath the stars of a new Spring.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Corn Gluten Hub-bub-i-cide

Since the 1990's, corn gluten meal (CGM) has taken the gardening world by storm.  CGM is the protein by-product of milling corn, and this high-nitrogen compound was discovered by researchers at Iowa State University to be an effective pre-emergent herbicide, reducing seed germination by inhibiting root development.  Organic gardening and farming communities have quickly adopted this natural miracle substance as a method of weed control.

Continued research, however, is showing that CGM is, in fact, far from a natural cures-all for organic gardening.  It does not adversely affect existing weeds.  To the contrary, the nitrogen in CGM (about 10%) benefits existing weeds as much as the desired plants we're trying to help.  It's not a selective product, nor is it effective as a pre-emergent against all weeds.  Most importantly, it is failing to reach an important milestone to recommend its continued use; it seems unable to make the leap from greenhouse to the field.  While greenhouse trials demonstrated efficacy, field trials in the same locations have been unsuccessful.  Washington State University and Iowa State researchers found no differences in weed control on field-grown strawberries using CGM.  Researchers in California found that the use of mulch alone in containerized plants was more effective in controlling weeds than CGM.  California and Oregon researchers found no control of turf grass weeds by CGM, although the turf itself responded to the nitrogen in the CGM. The truth is that moisture, light, and warmth all affect seed germination and these factors are all much harder to control in natural environments than in the laboratory. Since CGM inhibits seed germination primarily by desiccating soil and denying moisture to seeds, it's no wonder that it does not work well in areas of the country with abundant moisture in the spring (most of America).  Linda Chalker-Scott, in The Informed Gardener Blooms Again, concludes that corn gluten meal may act adequately as a pre-emergent herbicide in the Midwestern US, but that it's not effective for western climates or for climates with abundant pre-spring moisture.

There are many lessons in the continuing saga of CGM. I've seen the step from laboratory efficacy to field efficacy fail often in pharmaceutical trials and surgical procedure trials in my chosen profession of veterinary medicine.  There are a couple of hidden messages here to gardeners as well, though:  First, organic gardening principles are great in theory, but it's obvious that weeding is so much of a chore that even organic gardeners will seize on any chance to reduce the work involved. So just who is kidding who?  Second, just because a substance is natural does not mean it's a miracle cure or that it is economical to use. We're going to be driving the price of corn high enough with all our driving around on the ethanol we derive from corn; we shouldn't throw our gardening budgets out of whack by using up even more corn as a partially-effective pre-emergent herbicide.  And if it is not useful as a herbicide, but we use it anyway as an organic fertilizer, somebody out there had better be doing some calculation on whether we use more inorganic fertilizer on Iowa and other Midwestern fields to grow the corn for a bag of CGM than the bag of CGM provides us back as organic fertilizer.  As the grandson of Indiana crop farmers, I guarantee you that no dirt farmer is growing 200 bushel/acre field corn without artificial nitrogen and herbicides.  Is CGM really "organic" or is it organized hype?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Crocus cavils

Yesterday, notwithstanding the six inches of snow we received 4 days earlier, the temperatures turned a balmy 76F and my giant "Dutch crocuses" (heavily hybridized Crocus vernus) suddenly bloomed.

Crocus 'Remembrance'
I wait every year for these crocuses to be those first prolific little flowers to brighten up my beds, but in truth, I confess that I'm not overly fond of them.  Now, before my readers tune me out entirely, I admit that my misgivings about Spring crocus are few and these little darlings do have their fine points, some of which are not widely known.  I know for instance, from Louise Beebe Wilder's writings, that Dutch crocus have a really nice scent if you lay down on the ground at their level, and having done so at risk of being observed and judged harshly by the neighbors, I can confirm Ms. Wilder's observations.  Gardeners in general seem to rarely pick these 6 inch beauties and raise them up to sniffing level as they would do with most other flowers, so those who haven't read Wilder do not seem to know this fact (I'll leave that alone now since this is not the time or place for garden literature snobbery).  Perhaps picking these diminutive blooms smacks too closely to plant abuse for many gardeners, but however you go about it, give them a sniff.  Children, as noted by the esteemed writer Henry Mitchell in The Essential Earthman, seem to be particularly prone to pick these giant colorful blooms and thus are often more familiar with the scent of these beauties.  The quickest road to hell, quoting Mr. Mitchell, is to "growl at a child for picking crocuses."  Henry seems to share my general ambivalence about crocuses though, calling them "vulgar" and recommending more stringent measures ("a tub of boiling oil") for children who pick irises or lilies without permission.

Crocus 'Pickwick'
 One of my minor complaints against Dutch crocus is that the Kansas winds tear the blooms to pieces quickly if they are not in a sheltered spot.  Many garden writers, such as Lauren Springer in The Undaunted Garden,  make a strong case for planting crocuses freely in warm season grass lawns such as the buffalograss that closely surrounds my house, but I've found that the crocus survive to please me only in my cultivated beds sheltered from the prevailing Spring winds of the Flint Hills.  Shortly after moving to this land, I planted over 100 Dutch crocus in the center patch of my circular driveway, but their blooms survived on this flat plateau only a day or two, if that, before the winds swept them away. The overall mass effect also dwindled over five or so years to nothing, despite my efforts to refrain from cutting the grass in this area until early summer.  I surmise that between the summer heat and the surrounding prairie grasses, they just didn't compete well in this area. When the flowers don't stay around, crocus are just not worth the planting efforts.

I'm sorry that I'm not a connoisseur, but I grow only the most common commercial varieties, the old deep purple 'Remembrance' and the striped 'Pickwick'.  I'm not fond of the common yellow crocus 'Yellow Mammoth', because this crocus is a little too orange or brassy for my tastes, like that of the daylily 'Stella de Oro', nor do I grow the white forms of Spring crocus.  As the result of choosing only the darker colors, my crocus don't compete well for attention against the gray remnants of last year's mulch unless you're looking for them, and that drawback is all entirely my fault.  I do look for them though, every year, to confirm that Spring continues to advance towards me and to ease me gently into the massive displays of daffodil and forsythia that come shortly afterwards.  Short-stemmed, short-lived flower or not, what would Spring be without a few gaudy crocuses in the garden?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Boxwood Issues

If you can handle the anger, frustration and disappointment of being a Kansas gardener long enough, you'll eventually receive the practical equivalent of a PhD in horticulture or plant pathology.  That wisdom, of course, comes in bits and pieces bestowed by innumerable little plants who came into your garden wholesome and happy from their nursery greenhouses and then exited from your well-intentioned care  in a brown and unhappy state.  Now, I'm not claiming that I am solely and personally responsible for all the plants that have expired in my garden despite or because of my efforts.  I'm certainly aided in that regard by ferocious winds, summer droughts, frigid winters, rabbits, deer, pack rats, and the occasional insect pest.  But when push comes to shove, I can usually point to a lack of knowledge or foresight that resulted in my abetting the actual criminals.

My hard-won garden lesson this year comes in the form of my front boxwood hedge, formed 8 years ago from twelve tiny plants of Buxus microphylla koreana 'Wintergreen'.  I planted this hedge around the curve of a driveway circle in front of the house to both define the circle when it was just a dirt and later a gravel path, and also to block a little Sha energy from the front entrance (some attention paid to Feng Shui never hurts).  These grew well for the first 6 years, but last year, in arguably the snowiest and coldest winter of the past decade, one bush in the center of the group had some stems which yellowed and died back. I wasn't sure of the cause, but a large snow drift did cover the center of this hedge for a couple of weeks in January, 2010, so I surmised it might be a little winter damage.  I treated it by some judicious pruning of individual branches and assumed new growth would cover the defect.

This year, after a second snowy winter, perhaps even colder than last, several of the center bushes have the same damage visible, as you can see from the pictures above right and below.  The picture below was taken just as the last remnant of another snow drift was melting, and as you can see, the damage is in the center of the hedge, right at the point where the highest drift occurred.  A little Internet research tells me that since it is unlikely that insect or fungal damage would occur only in the center bushes, this is probably just a classic case of winter injury to boxwoods.  Symptoms include yellowish, reddish, or colorless foliage, dead branches that occur particularly in the middle and apical parts of the crown, and loose bark or cracks in the stem, all of which fit my hedge.   Winter damage in boxwoods is exacerbated by allowing them to suffer in dry summers and  to go into winters without applying supplemental water, and I'm guilty of that since I haven't hand-watered these since 2005.  And it can be minimized by spraying with anti-desiccants in November and January, and my no-maintenance goals caused me to be guilty of that gardening transgression as well.  Guilty, guilty, guilty-as-charged.

Admittedly, hardy boxwoods are new to landscapes in the Flint Hills, and this hedge is an experiment to see if Global Warming has allowed us to shift climate zones.  After the severity of the past two winters, of course, I'm not sure that even Al Gore still believes in Global Warming.  I planted these because I like broadleaf evergreens more than conifers for Kansas landscaping, particularly since bagworms seem to be particularly plentiful in this area for gardeners who forego pesticides. I knew the constant cold dry wind in winter would be a challenge for the boxwoods, as would the full sun exposure of this area.  'Wintergreen' is one of the most cold-hardy of its cousins, as well as being the variety recommended to stay more green than bronze in winter so I thought I'd give it a shot. I also grow 'Winter Gem' and 'Green Mountain' in more protected areas as specimen plants and they seem to be doing alright where the wind isn't so dessicating and where the snow doesn't pile up.

So, for this hedge, instead of letting it grow au natural, unpruned, as I have in the past, this year I'm going to give it a second chance by pruning it to half-height, which will get rid of most of the damage and even out the topline.  I'll keep it watered better if it is a dry summer, but I refuse to stoop to spraying anti-desiccants.  the survival of these boxwoods is certainly dependent on thin ice, literally and figuratively.  Further bad winter damage in the near future and these babies get shovel-prunned in favor of something more resistant to the whims of Kansas.  Like a stone wall. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Linseed Learnings

In a recent post I recommended the use of boiled linseed oil for the annual care of wooden tool handles and in doing so, and making sure I was conveying correct information, I got quite an education on linseed oil.  Here are ten facts about linseed oil that every gardener should know:

1. Linseed oil is actually flax seed oil.  I always wondered what a "lin" plant looked like.  Flax, I know. As an old man who hates burping  the fish oil recommended by the doctor, and who has been taking flax oil (also high in the Omega-3 fatty acids) instead, I think it's important to know that I'm preserving my arteries with the same crap that dries sticky and yellow on my wooden handles. Now the question is, should I, as a frugal gardener, save money and just drink from the $5.00 linseed oil can instead of buying the bottles of gel-caps?  Maybe the "do not take internally" text on the Linseed Oil can is a message in itself.

2.  The particular characteristic of linseed oil that makes it useful for our purposes is that it is a "drying oil" (along with tung, soybean, safflower, and poppy)  that polymerizes in combination with oxygen into a solid form.  It also shrinks very little on hardening and penetrates wood well. It is a traditional finish for gun stocks, cricket bats, billiard cues, and surfboards.

3.  In Europe cold-pressed linseed oil is eaten with potatoes and Quark cheese (a bland type of cheese).  The "hearty taste" of linseed oil supposedly offsets the bland taste of the cheese.  That means that a really terribly bland meal is made to taste like cardboard and is now considered edible.

4.  Linseed oil is water-repelling, but not water resistant.  Water penetrates a linseed oil finish in minutes and water vapour bypasses it completely.  Garden furniture treated with linseed oil may develop mildew.

5.  Linseed oil is a common carrier in paints, puttys and varnishes due to its drying properties.  Okay, no surprise, everybody knows this one already.

6.  Linseed oil was once used commonly to bind wood dust and cork particles into linoleum, a floor covering invented in 1860.  The use of real linoleum has declined as more durable PVC floor coverings have been developed.

7.  Linseed oil used to be boiled to cause it to begin polymerization and oxidation, thus making it thicker and shortening drying time.  Today most "boiled linseed oil" products are a combination of raw linseed oil, petroleum-based solvents, and metallic/catalyst dryers.  Modern boiled linseed oil is not edible, so stop chewing on the handles of your garden tools. 

8.  There was a National Linseed Oil Trust, formed in 1885 and based in St. Louis, that protected "linseed" interests in the United States.  It was dissolved in 1920 under charges that it violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.  As I read the history, essentially this was a linseed oil "cartel" that was accused of colluding to raise linseed oil prices.

9.  The polymerization of Linseed oil is an exothermic reaction, which creates a cascade of  heat buildup and make linseed oil-soaked rags particularly likely to cause spontaneous fires.  Always. always spread these rags out to dry before disposal and never just throw them into a trash can wet. 

10.  The primary world producers of flax seed  are Canada and China.  The United States was fourth in production in 2007 and almost all of the crop is from North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana.

So, that's the short story of linseed oil.  Now that I know more about it, and have learned that it is one of the worst protectants of the natural oils against water, I probably need to choose something else to protect the handles of my garden tools.  Tung oil, for example, is more resistant to water, doesn't yellow with age, and would be a much better choice as a protectant.  But that brings up a whole bunch of other questions about using local versus imported substances (not many Tung nut trees are raised in the US) and the environmental effects of growing flax in mass quantities and on, and on.  Being a world-conscious consumer is so exhausting.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Well, it was almost Spring.  For a moment.  We've had a few days in the last few weeks where it was warm enough that I had a decent start on cleaning up the spring beds.  In fact, Saturday I cleared the last bed adjacent to the house of the debris of fall and it is ready for mulch as soon as the last of the daffodils break through.  Then, yesterday, this:

Just God's little way of reminding me that Spring doesn't officially begin until the vernal equinox; March 20th, 2011, at 7:21 PM EDT.  I fear not for the daffodils, but it probably doesn't do the new red poppy foliage any good.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Shrubs for Your Soul, cont.

  Continuing with an earlier post (also published in a new online gardening magazine titled Toil the Soil at discussing early flowering shrubs that are well-adapted for the Great Plains.  Suggestions 1 through 3 were for  Forsythia sp., Magnolia stellata, and Lilacs, and we continue now with:  
'Arnold Red'
Honeysuckles:  Honeysuckles are great performers in Kansas gardens, and I’ve seen decent success with either bush-type introductions such as Lonicera tatarica ‘Arnold Red’ (blooming in late April in this region), or with the more vine-like and later-flowering Lonicera japonica cultivars such as ‘Hall’s Honeysuckle’. I grow the latter on a woven-wire cylinder-form trellis and it can always be counted on for a bright display in mid-May just as hummingbirds arrive in the area.

'Arnold Red' Honeysuckle
'Hall's' Honeysuckle

Lilac 'Josee' in front of Viburnum 'Nannyberry'
Viburnums: Visitors to Kansas gardens often seem surprised that many Viburnum sp. are among our most stalwart spring shrubs, and it is often perplexing to me to find that many experienced gardeners don’t believe that viburnums, as a group, tolerate full sun well. Take it from me that many species of viburnum tolerate the worst August sun that Kansas weather can throw at them. The viburnum season starts for us with fragrant offerings from Viburnum fragrans ‘Mohawk’ and Viburnum juddii, proceeds through the Viburnum lentago ‘Nannyberry’, and Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum’, and then finishes with the Viburnum dentatum cultivars such as ‘Christom’ and ‘Synnestvedt’, all flowering in their own special times and in their own ways.

'Coles Red' Quince
Quince: Chaenomeles japonica, or Quince, cultivars such as the older ‘Texas Scarlet’ and newer varieties such as ‘Coles Red’ bloom in late April in Kansas gardens, and these shrubs are all so well-adapted to our climate as to be almost rampant in their growth habits. I have, in fact, grubbed out several of these shrubs who overgrew their anticipated bounds. Many local landscapes count on these shrubs in late April to shine briefly for a week or so and then to fade into green, undiseased obscurity as the summer and fall move ahead.

Variegated Weigela
Weigela:  I was always jealous of a neighbor who had a beautiful specimen of Weigela florida ‘Red Prince’, which always shone like a spotlight beside his front door, until I realized that just about any gardener can grow Weigela in the Flint Hills. Lately, I’ve been partial to the variegated form (pictured), whose white flowers make a different statement against their pale green and white foliage than ‘Red Prince’ does against its dark green clothes. Occasionally, Weigela will take a little extra water in the heat of the Kansas summer, but it is well worth it to carry a bucket or two at a critical moment if the reward is this early display next spring.

Philadelphia lewsii 'Blizzard'

Mockorange:  Finally, I believe no Kansas or Midwest garden is complete without a specimen or two of Mockorange to perfume the air in May. Philadelphia lewsii ‘Blizzard’ makes a 6 foot tall tower of blinding white flowers every spring in my garden, but visitors have been known to swoon with range of its dangerously strong scent.

'Marie Bugnet'
As an unabashed rosarian at heart, I can’t simply end an article recommending flowering spring shrubs for Kansas without rounding out the spring season by mentioning a few early shrub roses for the area. Without fail, the first rose to bloom in my garden every spring is the Rugosa hybrid ‘Marie Bugnet’, a white, disease-free shrub that reaches about 3 foot in both height and width in my garden. ‘Marie Bugnet’ is followed a week later by the dependable prairie pioneers of ‘Harison’s Yellow’ and ‘Therese Bugnet’, and then the whole rose season ushers me finally into summer. Soon, another growing season moves along, from June promise through August doldrums to November quiet. And I’m left as I am now, in the depths of Winter gloom, waiting for the Spring shrubs to soothe my soul.

'Therese Bugnet' (pink) and 'Harison's Yellow' (yellow)


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