Monday, January 30, 2012

Geez Genista!

Yes, I was aware that the weather has been abnormally warm in Kansas this season.  I know that the Bluebirds have stayed put this winter rather than heading south for a month or two.  A Kansas duck hunter told me that this season is the best hunting season he's ever known because the geese are staying farther north this year.  I, myself, was about ready to start pruning roses yesterday (something I've never done in January before since I value the mobility and integrity of my fingers). 

Even knowing all that, I was still surprised when yesterday, on January 29th, I discovered the flower pictured at the right above, giving me this solitary bloom on January 29th in an east-exposed bed next to the house. This is a Genista lydia, a shrub I planted some years back and then promptly forgot whatever was the actual cultivar name.  I planted it originally due to some plant propaganda leaflet dropped upon me that raved about how drought and deer resistant the Balkan native was.  In fact, I've found it so invasive here since I planted it that I've been trying to grub it out for the past 2 years.  Part of the Fabacaea family, it is a low-growing deciduous shrub classified by some as a groundcover and by others as a pernicious pest.  The pea-like bright yellow flowers bloom only a short time, but they bloom thickly, covering the plant. 

I knew that Genista is one of the earliest in my landscape to bloom, but this time it has outdone itself for horticultural confusion.  Blooming on January 29th?  The earliest I've previously noted Genista to begin blooming was March 5th (in 2005).  Based on that timeline, I should expect to see forsythia blooming within the next week and daffodils by mid-February.  This goes far beyond the USDA's announcement last week, that my garden has moved an entire climate zone south, from Zone 5B to Zone 6A.  I must have slept through the move because I don't remember potting things up and replanting.

On one hand, I hate it when WEE's (Wild-Eyed Environmentalists) get any evidence in their favor.  I haven't been a big believer in the idea that Man, however stupid we are, can destroy the Earth, but I am starting to waver in my conviction.  We may be setting record temperatures today, January 30th, when it is supposed to reach a balmy 70F in Topeka, but I always try to keep in mind that the previous record on January 30th was set in 1974, a time when I recall that scientists were predicting industrialization would result in a new Ice Age. If the experts can change their minds, why can't I? 

On the other hand, why fight it?  At this rate, a couple of more decades of global warming and I'll be in Zone 7 and can grow real antique Tea Roses in my garden.  Wouldn't that be something?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Heart's Safe

First October, red and gold,  
Spread through forest, cross the fields,
The Garden long past summer's heat.
Squash rich and heavy, corn hangs low,
The frost moves in and seedlings shiver,
The Gardener sounds a swift retreat.

November leads to bitter cold,
Barren soil and harvest done,
The Garden runs to fortress strong.
Hiding from approach of Winter,
The sunlight dim and hours waning,
The Gardener mourns as days grow long.

Then December's shortest days,
Night grows long and silence deep,
The Garden bides its time secure.
Tall grasses dance in frigid wind,
The Solstice comes and starts the siege,
The Gardener braces to endure.

Blizzards howl and Janus reigns,
His icy hands a death force hard,
The Garden lingers brown and dormant.
Dead some would say, its bones exposed,
The green of life stripped from the bare stems,
The Gardener wails of sunless torment.

Yet deep within the seedman's chest,
Secluded well from Hornung's lash.,
The Garden lives and safely grows.
On through Winter, on to Spring,
The beds are turned, the planting planned,
The Gardener stirs and finally knows.

That March will come again in glory,
Blooms will burst with April's rain.
The Garden lives inside, apart,
From Winter's cold and stony grasp,
Within a fortress warm and verdant,
The Gardener safes it in his heart.
The Gardener holds it in his heart.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Thank you, Milady

Sorry everyone, I've been in a bit of a posting funk this past week, probably as a result of the lack of green vistas or other garden stimulation to get me moving.
'Milady Greensleeves'
Thankfully, I was momentarily rescued last evening by an email from a daylily hybridizer/AHS volunter asking to use my 'Final Touch' daylily picture to serve as the picture of that particular cultivar for the online AHS database.  I got a little excited about the thought that, however anonymous and unanticipated, I am able to make a contribution to the database.  That got me to looking at my other daylily pictures from last season, which led further to this post.

A standout daylily picture that caught my eye this morning was that of 'Milady Greensleeves'.  I captured 'Milady' on the 3rd of July, just at the beginning of our summer heat wave.  She is a delicate but large blossom, 7 inches in diameter, and fragrant as a rose.  I love the gradation of the green throat morphing into yellow and leading to the pastel lavender petals, marred in this picture only by the orange pollen staining the top petal. 'Milady' is a dormant midseason daylily, and despite her size is supposed to be only a diploid.  Hybridized by Lambert in 1978, I think she displays her color better on cloudy days here in the Flint Hills, where a harsh mid-day sun will bleach her out in minutes.

It interests me that I have used a number of pictures of daylilies from this 2011 group, but that until now this picture had escaped my notice.  Am I so hungry for color and the start of the new garden season that I've widened my criteria of beauty?  Or did I just get overwhelmed last year in the midst of all the blooms and photos and miss this delicate prize?

Unknown Yellow Daylily
Regardless, if there was ever a perfect yellow daylily, it is pictured at the left, another forgotten photo that I ran across.  This one is an unknown for me, but the soft yellow hue and perfect form has no peer in my garden.  Those frilly petals and ribbed sepals rival the finest ladies lingerie, I think.

 Gracious, what am I thinking about?  I most definitely must need some warm weather, sunshine, and flowers to work off my pent-up winter energy.  For now, still in the grip of January, a cold shower and dreams of daylilies will just have to do.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Burn, You Must

Somewhere in the midst of Winter, I've begun to think of Spring, and thoughts of Spring here on the prairie lead to plans for burning of the prairie, if not annually, at least on a periodic basis.  Around this same time, in preparation for the clouds of eastward-blown smoke, regional newspapers begin to spew forth various editorials for and against the prairie burning, with "pro" articles highlighting the benefits to the local environment (i.e. the immediate prairie) and "con" editorials bemoaning the detrimental effects for air quality in the eastern cities.  Take note here that both arguments are based on ecologically-principled arguments.  Particularly, in the last few years the EPA has begun to regulate the prairie burning with the excuse that it raises the ozone levels in Kansas City (already high from their human infestations) to unacceptable levels.

But, echoing Yoda, if prairie is to exist, burn you must.

So, ProfessorRoush, surely you exaggerate?  No, I'm afraid I don't.  While driving down the road this weekend, I took just a few pictures to illustrate the point.  In anticipation of the gnashing of teeth and wails about air quality loss, I'd like to make sure all my readers understand what will result from a complete ban on burning of the prairies.   If you don't burn the prairie, after three years or so, you get a view that looks like this:

 I've referred before to the colonization of the unburned prairie by Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).  Red Cedars are dense, slow-growing evergreens that are native to the MidWest and they are quite simply fatal for the prairie grasses and forbs who cannot exist at their dry, sunless feet.  Underneath a stand of cedar trees in the Flint Hills is a barren ecosystem; bare, arid dirt without the slightest hint of herbaceous plant or moss.  Perhaps there will be a scattering of needles, which themselves raise the pH of the soil, making it more alkaline and the nutrients less available for plants.  The Red Cedar has been found to reduce the nitrogen available in prairie soils and, more importantly for those who hope to store excess CO2 from industrialization as soil-bound carbon, have also been found to reduce the carbon content of the soil, in contrast to the deep-rooted grasses that they outcompete.

In ten years without burning, it looks like this, an impenetrable thicket of stiff, worthless weed trees.

If these were California Redwoods, beautiful and pristine, or some useful tree species to man or animals, I might feel differently.  But even when they're allowed to grow with plenty of space around them, Red Cedars often aren't very pretty or useful.  The lower branches get singed by burns or die off one by one, and sometimes you're just left with a naked trunk and branches, bleached white by the sun, which stand alone for decades before the rot-resistant wood succumbs to wind or weather.  And then it lies on the ground for another decade unless removed by man.   

So please remember, when you're complaining that the air is a little hazy or smells a little burnt this April, there really is no alternative to burning if we want to keep a prairie.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Bliss in a Garden

My primary reading material this week (now that I've gotten past the latest Tom Clancy and Stephen Hunter novels) is The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.   Subtitled "One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World", the book is exactly that; a tour of places in the world where people seem to have high levels of happiness, from Bhutan to Switzerland, to Asheville.  This was a bargain-bin hardback I picked up last week for $2.98 and it is, as bargain books often are, slightly outside of my normal reading genre, but I've found it both entertaining and thought-provoking.

So how, you might ask, is this book related to gardening?  And my answer is that it isn't, but there are many lessons inside it to apply to our gardens.  As you read, you internalize some of Mr. Weiner's thoughts on the nature of happiness and realize that Eric is on a quest of places with high average happiness.  And that leads you to thinking that you don't care about Bhutan's penis-adorned fertility shrines, or the legal pot and prostitution party that constitutes The Netherlands, or the regimented clockwork society of the Swiss.  What you care about as you keep reading is thinking about what would make/does make YOU happy, or your immediate family happy, right there in your own little world.

So, my fellow gardening friend, what makes you happy?  And how much of your happiness is tied to your garden?  These are the deep questions of our gardening souls and each strikes at the reasons we bother to garden at all.

ProfessorRoush, unlike the grumpy Eric Weiner, is generally a happy guy.  I have my manic times, but those are not balanced much by black periods; in other words, I have lots of "ups", but very few "downs", generally making myself a cheery nuisance in the lives of those nearby me who prefer instead to go through life in a sour mood.  And part of my happiness does indeed come from my relationship with my garden, but, as I think about it, not in the way you might expect.  I don't gain a lot of joy from walking around patting myself on the back for the beauty or design of my garden (it commonly lacks both).  I actually grumble a lot about my frequent poor vegetable production or strawberry production from my garden.  My frequent readers can probably easily recall a number of blogs complaining about the drought or Kansas soils or freezing rains, or the wind.  You'all know that most of those complaints are tongue-in-cheek, right?  Or at least good-natured grumbling?

No, it is the PROCESS of gardening that strokes my happy note.  The simple daily activities of planting and pruning and digging and caring.  The blooming of a baby rose, a daylily not yet seen, or just the tall and rapid stretch to the sky of an ornamental grass. The sweetness of a blackberry warmed by summer sunshine, or the sound of rain quenching the thirst of the earth.  The intense concentration and smile on Mrs. ProfessorRoush's face as she inhales the perfume from yet another new rose.  I go through my garden work in a Zen-like trance probably closer to Bhutan's Buddhist lamas than I would have admitted.  Those are the good days, the days of not thinking, but just being, in my garden. Outside the garden, my happiness is in life, in total, lived once and lived well.  If only I could stay on that path every moment, there would be no regrets at the close of daylight.

So what, my friends, makes you happy about your gardening?  For some of you, we've spent enough time corresponding that I could almost guess; for others, I have yet to learn your dreams.   But we would all benefit from taking time, in this winter of our leisure, to think about happiness, in our gardening and in our lives.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Perfect the Dawn

Last fall I finally broke down and planted a classic rose on a new pergola leading from my garden down to the cow pond; a 'New Dawn' climber that I hope will grow next year to grace the south side of the pergola and cover the 8 foot span.

'New Dawn', KSU Rose Garden, 2010
 I don't know exactly what took so long for me to finally add 'New Dawn' to my garden.  Perhaps the poor quality of the plants I'd seen, limited availability, or always having a different or better choice to make when sending in a mail order let me keep putting it aside.  But a local nursery had them on hand, and potted, late  last season I was filling a new spot.  Of course, I don't have a picture of the rose in bloom yet in my garden, but the picture at the left of the 'New Dawn' in the KSU Gardens should suffice so that all can appreciate the spectacular display of this beauty.  At least I already know the rose is a survivor in my climate because I've watched the KSU rose through ten seasons now, trellised against the north wall of the old dairy barn where it gets little sun.  It has been an incredibly healthy rose at the KSU rose garden, and never has blackspot despite its site in long shade.  Here in Kansas, the moderately full blooms occur in small clusters at a frequency of 3 flushes over the summer.  The rose has a  moderate sweet fragrance, but the beauty is in the blush pink coloration of the blooms, as pictured at the right, below.  The canes grow about ten feet long and 'New Dawn' puts up many strong canes every year. 

'New Dawn'
There are probably very few gardeners who aren't familiar with this rose, but, if you have missed out, this beautiful light pink Large-Flowered climber has a bit of a mystery of a history.  It is believed to be a sport of the single-blooming Dr. W. Van Fleet (hybrid Wichuraiana), and was, according to most sources, "discovered" by the Somerset Rose Nursery and introduced into the US by Henry Dreer in 1930.  I was fascinated to find out that The Plant Patent Act was signed into law in 1930 by Herbert Hoover and 'New Dawn' has the distinction of being the first patented plant in the United States; PP1.  'New Dawn' was also named one of the first of Texas A&M's Earth-Kind Roses, adding still more evidence for its vigor and health in the Great Plains climate.

Unknown white climber, single blooming
I do have an unknown identity short white-flowered climber, a rose I obtained from rustling a cutting near an elementary school in town, that I initally thought was 'White Dawn', but due to its lack of repeat bloom and decreased number of petals, I now think this one is an entirely different animal. I don't, however, now have any clue as to what it might be.  Pictured as a young rose in my garden at left, it seems to be healthy and grows canes about eight feet long.  It blooms every year in a nice display over several weeks, but then its done, finished, for the year. It's beautiful, but it'll likely remain a mystery as long as it grows in my garden.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Construction Sunday

Since the unseasonably warm temperatures are holding, I spent my Sunday out on the concrete garage pad making a few more of my own North American Bluebird Society-approved bluebird boxes.  Five boxes took me 3 hours, including the time it took to haul all the saws and drills out of the basement and into the sun.  I did the work outside so I could gain the advantage of the sunlight on my retinas to also ward off any seasonal affective disorder, which I'm not really prone to, but everybody can use some extra Vitamin D in the winter.  You might say I was both holding back the blues and preparing for the blue (-birds) at the same time.

Yes, I know that the entry holes on a few of them are a little askew and there may be a crack or two in the fitting of the sides, but hey, I never claimed to be a carpenter.  Anything over changing the oil in the lawnmower or reprogramming the garage door opener tests ProfessorRoush's competencies.  And I'm paying the price today for my three hours of labor performed standing, sitting, or kneeling on concrete and waving a heavy battery-powered drill around.  When I put bone plates on dogs, I rarely need more than 10 screws.  Every birdbox here is 17 screws, predrilled and then placed.  But, whining aside, they are done and I needed them to replace a few of my older style boxes.  And soon, because them Eastern Bluebirds will begin nesting here in a few weeks.   

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Turd Trees

Quick!  Can everybody identify these seemingly big brownish-green turd-looking things laying among the brown-er prairie grass of my pasture?  I'll give a hint to the non-MidWesterners...they're a fruit.

But not a fruit that anyone really wants to eat, since it is mildly poisonous and may cause vomiting.  Probably to no one's surprise, this is the Winter appearance of the ubiquitous Hedge Apple, Maclura pomifera, also known as the Osage-orange tree.  Second in number only to the invasive Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) in Kansas, they are a very, very common weedy tree here, originally native to the Oklahoma-Texas region.  We can probably blame FDR for the invasion of these trees; the WPA's Great Plains Shelterbelt" project planted hundreds of millions of Osage-orange trees on the Great Plains between 1934 and 1942.

Personally, I tend to hate Hedge Apples; thorny, multi-trunked, small trees that are impossibly hard to chop down and nearly impossible to kill since they sprout back every time from the stumps (unless you resort to herbicides).  In fact, another reason they're believed to be common in the Flint Hills are because they are often used as fence posts and if you plant a bright orange-yellow fresh post, with a little bit of bark still on it, you'll often have a living tree soon afterwards.  The species tree is pretty lousy as a gardening specimen, but it was useful to the Native Americans, who made bows of the strong, springy wood, and to the prairie settlers as fence posts, resistant to rot and very strong, in fact so strong that it is difficult to pound a fencing nail into a seasoned post.  Usually I get a couple of good whacks at it and then the nail goes winging off into another dimension or bends in half before it is buried enough to hold up the wire. 

All that aside, the large, heavy, fruit fascinates me.  There is a large Osage-orange tree near my fence line that I've left alone primarily out of lazy aversion to dulling a chain saw or two on the trunk.  Last year, I noticed that the tree had no fruit at all and I speculated about the effects of the late Fall drought in 2010, but this year, in a full low-rain and very hot summer, the tree produced more fruit than ever and the ground is covered with these hard lumps oozing sticky white latex.  It makes mowing a jarring, messy experience, at the very least.  Now, I'm wondering if the tree wasn't so much stressed last year as just demonstrating its diecious nature.  Is it possible to be a male tree one year and a female tree the next?  And if so, would these trees be allowed at all in the yards of Religious Right Republicans or banished from the kingdom?

Osage-orange trees also bring out the dinosaur-fascinated child in me.  Most fruits, you'll remember, have evolved to be attractive to one or more species that were likely to harvest the fruit and aid in distribution of the seeds (often after passing through a digestive tract). But if we look around the prairie today, no animal is a distribution host consuming the Osage-oranges.  They lay there all Winter and finally rot after multiple freeze thaw cycles, never moving far from where they fell.  Neither cows, nor horses, nor even mice seem to care for them.  Current theories for the "dispersal-host" of Osage-orange ranges from extinct giant ground sloths to other extinct Pleistocene megafauna such as the mammoth, mastodon or gomphothere.  Now isn't that a neat idea?  Just picture a giant sloth picking one of these off a solitary tree on the prairie, or a mastodon picking up one with its trunk and dropping it down the gullet. 

A few thousand years back, that was the prairie, an endless savanna of big animals.  Another ecosystem lost in time, represented today only by the grasses and the Osage-orange trees.  And by me, wondering what used to be around to eat and digest these big rubbery balls.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Alexander Mac

One of the more straggly roses that I grow on the prairie is the deep pink Canadian rose 'Alexander MacKenzie'.  She provides a bit of frequent color for me in my "rose berm" bed, but more often than not, this rose is an afterthought for me when I'm looking through the garden. I hate to say it in such sexist terms, but I think of  'Alexander MacKenzie'  like an old style prairie farm wife;  a tough and thorny hide to the world and never needs any extra attention, but with occasional glimpses of beauty.  That is, when I think of her at all.

Yes, I know I'm referring to 'Alexander MacKenzie' as a "her", but, in keeping with my gender-biased impressions of plants, I just don't feel this one as a male, even if it is named after Sir Alexander MacKenzie, a Canadian explorer who trekked across Canada to the Pacific Ocean in 1793.  'Alexander MacKenzie' is one of the larger Explorer-series shrub roses, bred by Svedja in 1970 and introduced by AgCanada in 1985.  Officially a red-blend flower, I think of her primarily as hot pink, maybe a little deeper towards the red side than other Canadian roses such as 'William Baffin', and accordingly much easier to blend with other colors than the latter.  Heirloom Roses describes her as "deep raspberry-red" in "sprays of six to twelve."  'Alexander MacKenzie' has very full (over 40 petals), but small buds, which are occasionally perfect, but more often a little raggedy as pictured above and I don't detect much fragrance from the rose.  The clusters repeat several times over the summer, with breaks of four weeks or so between flushes. Several times, I've noticed that the flowers tend to ball up with Botrytis blight in damp Springs.  On the plus side, I've not had to spray her for blackspot at all and the foliage is sparse but stays glossy and green.   She grows to an unpruned height of around 6 feet for me, with vicious thorns and long whipping canes that punish you when you attempt to prune her within bounds.  Frankly, I tend to give this rose a wide berth when I'm walking down the path near her.  So far, she's been bone-hardy, cane hardy, with no winter dieback at all in my Zone 5B climate.  Officially she should be hardy into Zone 3.

 I'm portraying her as a "bad" rose, but she's really not that bad, she's just not my favorite by any means.  Certainly others like her more; I noted that on Dave's Garden, one comment from New Hampshire stated that the rose was "possibly the best rose in my garden."  I believe perhaps that I was mislead to expect too much from this cross of 'Queen Elizabeth' and ('Red Dawn' X 'Suzanne'). I love the pink perfection of 'Queen Elizabeth' and thus refuse to believe she could ever have offspring that lacked royal bearing or beauty.  Perhaps, if instead of naming the rose 'Alexander MacKenzie', it had been otherwise designated "Prince Charles", then I might have developed more realistic expectations for her impact in my garden. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Year Activities

I don't know how the rest of you MidWest gardener-types spend your dreary brown winters, but beyond my feverish browsing through the plant and seed catalogues that now appear in  my mail box every day, I spend the early Winter catching up on chores and planning for next year's gardening.  And enjoying my Christmas presents.

Mrs. ProfessorRoush presented me with a Christmas gift this year that allowed me to do all three activities at once (chores, planning, and enjoying presents, that is).  Knowing that my Purple Martin gourd-type houses are on their last legs, she presented me with a second Purple Martin condo to put out this Spring.  As those of you who stoop to providing these plastic monstrosities to the Martin masses are aware, these houses must be assembled from detailed plans, and that was how ProfessorRoush spent his New Year's Eve this year; first spreading out the parts over the living room floor and then watching it slowly form a new bird domicile. What a wild and crazy New Year's Eve that was.  What, you thought I'd do it outside?  It HAS been unseasonably warm in Kansas so far this Winter, but I'm not that crazy. 

I realize that I should probably go after something more classy for my garden than these pre-fabbed S&K Manufacturing Purple Martin Houses, but these are all that are easily available from Tractor Supply or Orschlen's in this area, so that is the harvest I reap.  And, anyway, the Martins seem to love them. 

Do you keep Martins?  I've become convinced that beyond entertaining me with their acrobatic antics as I mow, my Martins really do cut down on insect problems in my garden.  Since I don't spray insecticides anymore, the area is safe for their families; ideal really with their house perched fair above the prairie grasses.  And maybe, just maybe, when the Japanese Beetles make it this far west, a family or two of Martins will create a Japanese Beetle non-copulation zone around my rose garden.


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