Monday, April 28, 2014

Good Lilac Intentions

What was the old aphorism about the "road to hell being paved with good intentions"?  Or maybe, "no good deed goes unpunished?"

Each year, as the lilacs and peonies bloom, ProfessorRoush tries to brighten up the desk staff and waiting room by occasionally bringing in fragrant flowers (of appropriate purple, cream, or lilac colorings since those are the school colors).  This morning, I gathered a bouquet of lilacs, light 'Annabelle', and darker 'Patriot' and 'Sensation', unceremoniously stuck them in a Mason jar, and drove them into school to place them in the waiting room.

I often wonder if the practice will have to end when a client will finally complains about the strong fragrance offending them or setting off their allergies (what a world we live in now!), but if that occasion ever occurs, the flowers can be easily moved.  What I never dreamed of is finding, as I did several hours later, that they would attract bumblebees into the building.  I suppose it is possible that this little guy could have been hidden within a blossom as I collected them, torpid from the cold night air.  Surely, however, the warmer air of the Jeep would have awoken him as we drove.  An alternative, but hardly more likely hypothesis is that somehow this bumblebee followed the fragrance and found these flowers through double doors about 30 feet away from the outside.

If his presence had been widely noted, I'm sure it would have called for much clamor and strife, but luckily he seemed satisfied to perch on the same spot for awhile and then disappeared about ten minutes later, never to be seen again.   I do hope he found his way back out through the double doors and stocked his larder up from the trip so he doesn't return later.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

I Think That Any Rain is Good Rain

And if that's true, then this morning we had a great rain. Thank the skies above, I heard the thunder at 4:30 a.m. and then rose with the patter on the windows reminding me to close the windows that were open. One thunderstorm followed another and by 7:30a.m., I woke singing to an old Bachman Turner Overdrive song;

"She said, I've had it comin' to me
But I wanted it that way
I think that any love is good lovin'
So I took what I could get, mmh
Oooh, oooh she looked at me with big brown eyes
And said, 
You ain't seen nothin' yet
B-b-b-baby, you just ain't seen n-n-nothin' yet"

Rain on the Kansas Flint Hills is always a time to rejoice. Parched spirits are replenished along with the thirsty hills who are just waking to Spring. In the midst of euphoria, I had enough presence of mind to set up the iLightningcam app so that I could capture the moments of lightning and rain on my greater garden. In the photo above, you can see the paths of the garden turning green, emerald against the prairie grasses still cloaked in winter gold. My tower of Sweet Autumn clematis is greening in the center, and behind it, a Jane Magnolia holds onto it's last rain-soaked blooms. At the left foreground, my iris bed readies a banquet of blooms, the aptly named 'First Edition' already in flower. An early viburnum or two stand out white against the dark foliage of the early morning in the greater garden. Even in the golden carpet of the foreground, you can see the forbs greening up, the genesis of wildflowers that will come along as the seasons mature. This is the area of native prairie between the house and garden that I mow just once a year, every Spring, to allow the wildflowers a chance to compete. Fed by the rain and by the nitrogen generated out of the lightning, all this is going to explode these next few weeks, a bounty of foliage and flowers miraculously generated from dead twigs and brown earth.

It's 10:30 a.m. now and I just braved the continuing lightning and sprinkles to check my closest rain gauge. There is 2.4 inches in the gauge and it is still coming down, more slowly now as if the skies know the earth needs some time to bask in the glory of wetness spreading deep beneath the surface. According to this morning's sodden newspaper, we were 2.86 inches behind average rainfall for 2014 yesterday and an inch behind April's average rainfall. No more. Now the promises of the peonies and the roses are freed to fill us again with joy and beauty and grace.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kansas-Tested, Bella-Approved

Remember the "kid-tested, mother-approved" 1970's jingle from the Kix cereal ads?  Well, my recently blooming, Kansas-tested Paeonia tenuifolia was Bella-approved during a walk yesterday.

I had the exuberant and rambunctious puppy out for one of her many daily jaunts when she spied this blooming peony from across the garden and made a Beagle-line for it.  Since Mrs. ProfessorRoush and Bella have recently confessed to accidental beheading of a foot-tall concrete garden gnome (and I suspect the same irresponsible pair for the recently-broken wing of a small garden angel), I allowed Bella to approach the peony but with some trepidation, expecting her to plop on it enthusiastically like she does on the cats.  Instead of blundering into the clump however, she halted a foot away and tentatively sniffed first one bloom and then another, sampling the plant's aroma like an oenophile assessing a new vintage. 

During the sampling, Bella kept a respectable distance as if expecting the plant to bite, and it occurred to me that the impressions that she and I get from the same plant are likely very different.  I wonder, even, if we could agree on anything about the plant's fragrance?  I haven't spent a lot of time investigating Paeonia tenuifolia for fragrance and I don't recall if it has any fragrance at all.  In fact, I can't even confirm that I've ever buried my nose in it, a deficiency that I intend to rectify tonight.  For me, however, to take a fragrance description beyond sweet, fruity, or musky would be a tremendous leap of imagination.  To a half-Beagle nose like Bella's, for all I know, Paeonia tenuifolia could smell like anything from milk chocolate with a sprig of mint, to a drunken sailor unwashed from a month at sea, to a hungry Cretaceous predator.  The latter may, in fact, be the more likely possibility based on Bella's reticence to get close enough to allow the plant to bite.

Paeonia tenuifolia does look a little bit other-worldly with that finely segmented foliage and single bloom at the tip of each stem, but I haven't observed a similar reaction from Bella towards other plants, so I'm at a loss to explain the behavior.  Come to think of it though, this is one of the first plants, other than daffodils, to bloom at her shoulder level, and it was the first bright red plant to bloom at all this year.  Bella is only a baby and she hasn't experienced the garden in all its bountiful glory yet so this may just be the first of many surprises to come.  I waited for her to go ahead and ravage the plant, but after a few gentle sniffs, she turned her attentions elsewhere, as if to say "Well, I know what that is now and it is not interesting."   ProfessorRoush, however, is left now to wonder just how different my garden looks to a dog's nose.  And what I wouldn't give to experience it like Bella, just one time.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Friends, I knew that we had a long, hard winter here, but I didn't know how exactly how hard it was until my normal spring chores came around to my "formal rose bed."  You can see it below and then from a different angle, just after cleanup, open and bare, ready to begin new growth again.

It has been years since this bed looked so bare, so lacking of the beauty within.  It probably hasn't looked this way since I first planted it, over 10 years ago.  In most years of late, as Zone 6B has moved up to our region, I've given most of these roses a mere trim with a hedge trimmer, leaving 3-5 foot bushes throughout the garden.  Only one or two Hybrid Teas get a regular scalping, and sometimes even 'Tiffany' or 'First Prize' stays at the 3-foot level.  This year, however, most every rose was either growing back completely from the roots or had only spotty growth higher on the bush.  I could hear them whispering.  "Renew us."  "Help us."

Many of the 50+ roses in this bed are cane hardy to at least Zone 4, so that really tells me what our winter was like.  The remaining tall roses of the picture are 'Therese Bugnet', 'John Franklin', 'Martin Frobisher'  'Earthsong', 'Variegata di Bologna', 'Red Moss', 'Leda', 'Blush Hip', and 'Coquette de Blanche'.  Notice that most of these are either Canadian Roses or Old Garden Roses.

As for the chopped off group, they're a varied lot of fame.  Two English roses, 'Golden Celebration' and 'The Dark Lady'.  About eight Griffith Buck roses went down, including 'Prairie Harvest' and 'Autumn Sunset'.  'Sally Holmes' and 'Lady Elsie May' became midgets, along with two Bailey Roses including 'Hot Wonder and 'High Voltage'.  Even two Canadian roses, 'Winnepeg Park' and 'Morden Fireglow', got burr cuts.
I would be upset at the winter kill, but, to be truthful, this wholesale destruction needed to happen anyway.  The bushes here were tangled and overgrown, some of them massive things that were shading out more delicate neighbors.  And, in the end, it is fitting that the renewal of this garden took place on the eve of Easter.  What better day to ready oneself and one's garden for a new beginning?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


This is what a night low of 25ºF does to a beautiful magnolia flower. The only casualties seem to be this magnolia and one other, an apple tree full of open blossoms, and the daffodils that were blooming.  Thankfully, everything else, including the baby roses made it with minor or no damage.  Until next time.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Stellar Magnolia

Magnolia stellata 'Royal Star'
Despite the lack of much rain, there is a bright spot in my garden.  I've mentioned it before, but a nine year old Magnolia stellata is once again the center of attention in my garden...or at least it was yesterday.  A "center stage" performance, even though it is positioned in the wings of the garden, east of my peony bed.

My M. stellata is a cultivar named 'Royal Star', according to the label.  Those wonderful waxy white blossoms began opening a week ago and seem to be peaking today.  I believe this year's performance is the best of its short lifetime in my garden, and perhaps because it is reaching towards the heights promised at maturity.  My 'Royal Star' is about 5 feet high and 3 feet in diameter, a bit below its advertised 10'X8' maturity, but still a respectable size to make an impact.  She's reportedly hardy to Zone 3B, and I've never worried about her health, only about whether a late spring freeze would shorten the life of these blossoms.

M stellata's best input to my garden is undoubtedly sensory.  During these showy days, a unique fragrance wafts across the garden.  Although I'm not a "fragrance expert", I'd describe this one as dense or heavy, warm, moist and musky, a suiting aroma for a genus that first made sugar from sunlight in company with the dinosaurs.  If I were to make a dinosaur park, a playground reminiscent of Crichton's The Lost World, I'd surely fill it with magnolias from edge to edge.  Those thick heavy petals also echo the mists of time and the presence of swamps and humid breezes and dark jungles. Creamy white at first glance, if one looks closely at a flower, one also sees a slight pink blush when the flower first opens, as if it were embarrassed to be caught in such an immodest display.  Born new into a world when asexual means of plant reproduction were old and unfashionable, and pollen and stigmas and flower sex were new and "hot", magnolias exude sex, from the heavy musk of their fragrance to their brazen display of desire.  "Come up and fertilize me sometime," says this early Mae West.

So, if there's a plus side to not yet having spring rains, its that M. stellata is blooming in peace, petals unstained, perfect and beckoning in the sunlight.  It is a sad thing to think that I'd trade all this beauty for a measly inch of warm spring rain.

Update:  I wrote this before things turned bad yesterday.  This morning my 'Royal Star' is almost stripped clean by last night's wind.  Plus it's below freezing out there.  A fleeting moment of beauty followed by bare nothing.  I'll bet the dinosaurs went out the same way.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Thor Kind of Night.

ProfessorRoush is angry today.  Lightning bolt throwing angry.

We need rain here in the Flint Hills. Lots of rain.  As a result, I've been waiting all week for the predicted rain this Saturday and Sunday.

Last night, we saw this thundercloud form just to our west.  Mrs. ProfessorRoush was excited for me and for the garden.

I watched it, however, with a sinking heart.  Because I saw this pattern all last year.  And I knew this cloud was going to move north and west of us.

And it did.  Oh, we had a wonderful lightning show.  My iLightningcam app triggered off 220 pictures in under 5 minutes. Click on the pictures if you want to see more detail.

I was happy to get the pictures, however, I had to quit because the cats kept rubbing around my legs.  Standing in a lightning storm with cats rubbing their fur all over your legs is probably not a good idea.  Think static electricity.

Not a drop to drink here though.  Another storm also came and went to the south and east of Manhattan.  Nothing.  We've got a 60% chance here today, but nada currently visible on radar.

We'll see.  It's going to get cold here again tomorrow.  There's a predicted low of 27ºF here Tuesday morning.  Maybe it'll snow.  Does anyone else see a sneering face in the middle of this cloud pictured at right?  Cause I totally think it's laughing at me.

Excuse me now, I need to go cover a few baby roses.  And throw some more lightning bolts around.  Stupid weather.

Update 2:46 p.m.;  Got 0.3 inches rain at noon, but the predicted high today was 72ºF.  It only reached 52ºF an hour ago and is back to 50 already with a stiff north wind.   Yesterday, remember we had a high of 86ºF   Predicted low tonight has gone from 38ºF to 32ºF a...a 54 degree swing in a little over 24 hours. And snow is now predicted after midnight.  Tuesday morning's low is now predicted to be 23ºF.  That would be a catastrophe to just about everything...lilacs, roses, magnolias, etc.   Maybe I can mow it all off and just have lawn.....

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sensory Saturation

Newcomers to the Kansas Flint Hills, during their first March or April in residence here, are often surprised to see seemingly mentally-stable new neighbors and friends turn into enthusiastic arsonists that happily participate in the wanton torching of the surrounding countryside.   This annual ritual, a Spring rite of passage in the Flint Hills, is a necessary part of proper range and ranch management.  Carefully timed burns suppress invasive shrubs and trees and keep them from out-competing the prairie grasses and forbs.   Burns also improve the pasture quality and increase the weight gain of grazing animals the summer after a burn.

Prairie burns also have a number of opponents for various and sundry reasons.  Burns from the prairies increase the daily ozone levels in nearby overpopulated cities; this serves to distract the affected public from directly facing their own contribution to the perpetually marginal ozone levels in these regions.  Lately,widespread annual burns have even been blamed for contributing to the endangered status of the Lesser Prairie Chicken by destroying habitat, as if these beautiful and elusive birds did not evolve in the midst of frequent natural prairie fires.

Setting all of that aside for a moment, however, I always enjoy the majestic beauty of the Spring burns and savor my participation in the age-old cycle of burn and renewal that anchors the existence of the prairie ecosystem.  Columns of smoke from these burns provide grand and epic visions when the burns are controlled, and can terrify and panic the greater region when they are not.  The massive fire pictured above occurred recently on a beautiful spring Saturday and was on the horizon directly to the north of my house.  At such times, one prays for an southerly breeze and good fortune to keep the flames at bay.

The most beautiful burns, however, occur at night, such as the one above. I captured this image of the living flames near my neighbor's house last night.  He wanted to burn the pasture directly behind his house and I assisted, at times worried about the slightest gust of unanticipated wind and at other times bathing in the childlike joy of playing with the fire at my feet.  The sensory impact of a prairie fire is unique and spectacular.   Lines of fire grow from darkness, move forward, meet and blaze up, and then die back to charred earth.  The sight and smell of rising smoke and the crackle of flames in the dry grasses fills the immediate universe.  Smoldering piles of horse and donkey dung add earthy scents to join those of burning sage and prairie earth.  Heat licks at your face while damp night air slithers down your back.  Feet are sore from walking on the flint-strewn ground and muscles tired from spreading and monitoring the fire.  At times you're still, watching the fire creep forward with tentative fingers, and at other times breathless and running to check a worrisome and suspicious area of smoldering debris.  In the midst of a prairie fire, the Earth and the prairie and you are one, merged beneath the timeless gaze of distant stars in a black firmament, one entity enjoined in this single moment of today, in this cycle of cleansing renewal and rebirth.    

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Oh, Bother!

"If memory serves"....but memory often seems to fail to serve the old gardener, doesn't it?  I'm always exasperated when I find that I failed to write the name of a plant down or failed to note when I moved it.  I like to call things by name and know where they are.  It is partially a surgeon thing; it's comforting to be able to name the warm and glistening organ beneath your fingertips, and also to know where it should or shouldn't be in a body.  As a gardener, it is especially taxing to me if the plants in question are beautiful and even more if they're a rare and special shade of blue that isn't often seen here.   As Winnie The Pooh often said, "Oh, bother".

These few beautiful iris pop up every year in my "viburnum" bed, protected and shaded during summer beneath a number of roses and viburnums, but they rise early in spring in the dappled shade of the bare stems of the neighboring shrubs.  They are likely Dutch irises (Iris xiphium or Iris hollandica).  Except that I have no memory of planting any Dutch iris here.  I do remember planting some Siberian irises (Iris siberica) in this bed.  And the cultivar names 'Harmony' and 'Sapphire Beauty' ring a distinct bell in the back of my mind.  Except that the latter cultivars are Dutch irises, not Siberian irises.  Oh, bother.  

My planting notes say absolutely nothing about planting anything but tall bearded irises in this border.  In fact, my planting notes say nothing about planting any Siberian irises anywhere in the garden (and I'm sure that I have).  My notes do say that I planted 30 bulbs of the Dutch iris 'Sapphire Beauty' in the "peony" bed in 2006.  That's nice, but there are no iris of any kind in my peony bed.  What happened to all those Dutch iris bulbs in the peony bed?  Internet sources say that they often fade out and disappear, but all of them lost in a few years?  Did a squirrel root them all up and move them to another bed?  That would be a fine theory but there aren't any squirrels (or large trees) within 300 yards of my garden.  Did I write down the wrong name when I noted the planting bed and these are the few survivors of those 30 bulbs? That might make sense, but I seem to recall these iris blooming in this bed long before 2006.  Oh, bother.

I shouldn't care.  They're there and they return and they are beautiful, a sight for sore eyes after a long winter and their quiet tones are much more restful than cheery yellow daffodils or bright forsythia.  I'm darned well going to plant some more around.  Just as soon as I remember what they were.  Oh, bother.

I need to stop saying "oh, bother" too.  I already vaguely resemble Winnie The Pooh as I putter around the garden, tottering slowly from plant to plant.  I avoid bright red t-shirts in the garden for that very reason. Adding "oh, bother" to the mix might further dampen my manly appeal to Mrs. ProfessorRoush.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Peas and Dirt and Worms, Oh My

Peas and dirt and worms, oh my
Tendrils climbing to the sky.
Peas and dirt and worms, my word,
Winter's gone and Spring's occurred.

Little worm digs deep to hide,
Last year's straw mixed deep inside.
Little worm churns dirt and rubble,
Making soil from all that stubble.

Broken soil now wet and cold,
Clods and clay and loam and mold.
Broken soil to hold the seed,
Grow the crop or grow the weed.

Soon the peas come bursting out,
Growing, stretching, flowers sprout.
Soon more peas will fill the pods,
Sun-kissed by the garden's Gods.

Continuing my pattern of the past few years, I waited until well after the traditional St. Patrick's Day target to plant spring crops.  For Midwest gardeners of this latitude, the 17th of March is the day that our fathers told us to plant, but the delayed Springs of late have me reaching deep down within for patience before I put hoe to ground and plant my own.  This past weekend however, the rare conditions of afternoon warmth and personal energy and spare time all collided in a whirlwind Saturday of planting and pruning and cleaning.  There will be other days like that to come, of course, but my vegetable garden is now squared away for the season; new strawberries started, peas and potatoes properly planted, and empty trellises placed to await tomato vines.  
These peas look happy, pre-soaked and plump, ready to be covered by soil and to begin the cycle of replication once again.  The ground temperature in my garden was 46ºF when I planted them, proving once again that one of the most essential tools that a gardener can own is a soil thermometer.  The ground here is still pretty cold for peas, even though it was March 29th when I planted them.  The Kansas Garden Guide, from K-State Research and Extension, is an excellent resource for vegetable planting, and it tells me that I may still be planting peas too early.  Other Internet sources, such as the University of Vermont Extension, suggest that soil temperatures around 45º are adequate for pea germination.   I've come to the conclusion that I can plant peas and potatoes on March 17th and then wait 4 weeks before they come up, or I can plant them 2 weeks later and wait a week for germination and not have to wonder if they've rotted in the ground.  Maybe Global Warming can get us back to planting on March 17th, but for the near future, I'm staying near April for potatoes and peas.  


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...