Monday, August 31, 2009

I Love You Grandpa Ott … But We’re Through!

I just can’t keep up with you anymore. You were climbing Baptist John Ott’s hedges when I was just learning to crawl and you haven’t slowed down, not one little bit. You’re outrunning me, Grandpa. You’ve impudently out-muscled Heavenly Blue, your elder by 50 years, crawled all over William Forsyth’s namesake (a dangerous move … if his boss King George II was still alive he would banish you as he did his very own son!), and now, Grandpa, you have the audacity to clamber onto sweet Carmelita.
It is not without sadness that I rip every one of your 10,000 hearts from my garden. There was a time when we were friends, no, more than friends. I loved waking up to your lively purple presence, and watching you slowly fold your red-violet streaks out of view each evening. I loved it when you dominated my brick wall, and leaned happily on my weathered wood fence. But I must be frank, Grandpa. You’re just too much! From now on I’d appreciate it you would just sow your progeny on my neighbor’s side of the fence. She still finds your looks appealing, your vigor exciting. She doesn’t know you like I do.
I mean it Grandpa! I don’t even want to see the whites of your eyes peering through the slats!  

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Small Pond = Big Rewards

I’ve never been involved in the building of a home. I’m told the process is arduous, but the results make it all so worthwhile. So it is with this little pond I made this summer in Bob’s backyard.

Here’s how it went:

February: I proposed a magazine story about a container pond, with fish and plants.

March: I ordered and received a clear, heavy-duty, plastic bag liner for a half-barrel.

April: I bought a half-barrel from Home Depot.

June 1: I inserted the liner in the barrel, trimmed it to size, bought plants, and put it all together. I admired the creation.

June 4: Bob bought three goldfish.

June 6: The liner leaked, a little.

June 7: The liner leaked, a lot.

June 8: The magazine story was cancelled.

June 11: The fish died. The half-barrel needed to be refilled twice a week.

June 12: I was tempted to throw in the towel.

June 13: I ordered a hard plastic half-barrel liner (about $20) from Dries Do-It Center.

June 19: The hard plastic liner arrived.

June 20: The hard plastic liner was made for a genuine half-barrel, rather than the cheap garden version. It didn’t fit.

June 20: The barrel now needed daily refilling. It was making a muddy mess of the patio.

June 20: I was tempted to throw in the towel. Seriously tempted.

June 21: I dismantled the plastic-bag-lined barrel and put the plants in a leak-free bucket.

July 26: I dug a hole in the ground for the hard plastic liner, inserted it, leveled (very important step) and filled it, and added plants. I stood back and admired the creation.

July 29: Bob bought three more goldfish.

August 8: A visiting frog arrived!!

How sweet is success! The goldfish are subsisting on algae, floating water lettuce roots (maybe), and mosquito larvae (hopefully). The frog is not eating the fish. Plants are thriving. Butterflies are happy. Life is good.

And all it took was two hours of digging!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dwarf Evergreens--for Now and Forever

I have a thing for dwarf evergreens.

Spruce at the Glasbern Inn, about 20 years old

This was not always the case. In my reckless youth I loved bad boys—fire-engine red monarda that will paint an entire field in three years, and archangel lamium, the devil dressed in yellow. I planted galloping grasses, furry masses of snow-in-summer (Cerastium) and expanding borders of flash-in-the-pan forsythia. Lysimachias and gooseneck loosestrifes, hederas and houttuynias, I loved them all. But over time, as my hot desire for sparkle and speed subsided, I erased them, one by one, from my little black book. I still appreciate a glossy calendar photo that shows their best assets under a summer sunset, but I don’t need to possess them in my beds.

Dwarf Hemlock, age 5

Slowly, my roving eye turned to something that could sustain me for the long haul. I began to appreciate the sweet rounded shape of a ‘Mops’ mugo pine, and the alluring new needles of a hemlock that can be coated with oil (for woolly adelgid—the insect version of snow-in-summer) with ease.

'Goshiki' Osmanthus, age 5

I place them in the garden, these little cuties, and fill in the gaps with the latest new zinnia or gomphrena or argyranthemum. Every spring I savor the wee bits of fresh new growth, and dream ahead to a time when they’ll have put on a couple of new feet of gorgeous girth.

Falsecypress at the Glasbern, age 20

A few decades hence I will hobble out to the garden on my new-fangled knees and pet my soft beauties, which will have grown together amiably, neighbors stroking each other’s needle-y boughs. The openings between will have slimmed to nothing, leaving no more room for flashy flowers that bloom and die. But that’s okay. In our older years we will have transcended that sort of thing, my ‘Mops’ and I, and left the wildness of youth behind in photos, and in the memories of friends and lovers. Sweet serenity will be ours.

This is my 'Mops' Mugo Pine, and he's with LaRita (Argyranthemum)

Well, except for the occasional visits from uninvited guests, Neodiprion sertifer and Chionaspis pinifolia.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Success! Tomatoes in Containers!

Husky Cherry, the winner!

We all have our personal challenges. On my list are calmly navigating the NY subway system, remembering names of people (plants I have no problem with), and growing tasty tomatoes in containers. What’s the big deal, subway savvy gardeners may wonder. But I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that gardeners who only have a rooftop to grow on just might forget how a real tomato tastes. My halfhearted attempts have gone like this: plants thrive until mid-August; a daily watering gets skipped; the lanky plants wilt; tomatoes end up tasting like February. This year, I resolved, I’ll get serious! I searched the catalogues for petite toms: Florida Basket, Smarty, Vilma, Maskotka, Gold Nugget, Heartland, Polbig, Husky Cherry. I scanned gardening experts’ websites for growing tips. Big containers, plentiful fertilizer, and lots and lots of water, they counsel (duh). I purchased container mixes and concocted my own—compost and peat moss with kelp meal and worm castings, and in some cases soil.

The results:

1. Organic Mechanics peat free potting mix plus kelp meal was a clear winner through early August. Plants thrived and produced, outgrowing the competition by several inches. But wait … by the third week in August, the Smarty plant in my own mix (½ pro-mix [peat, vermiculite, perlite], ¼ compost, ¼ soil, 4C worm castings, plus kelp meal) was just as tall and greener, supporting my hunch that tomatoes like the real stuff. Both mixes produced BTSB (better than store bought) cherry tomatoes.
2. The sturdiest and best-looking varieties were Husky Cherry and Heartland. Heartland tomatoes are big enough to slice, but growing them in grow bags like I did is probably not the best plan. Drying out caused some blossom end rot.

Maskotka was an impressive producer for a foot-high plant, but weak-looking.

If I were to recommend just one container tomato, Husky Cherry would be it.

So there you have it. Now I can go back to moving my tomatoes around the yard and skirting them with flowers. But if I ever do find myself without a plot to plant in, I will fill the bottom half of the container with my plus-soil mix to sustain the adults, the top half with Organic Mechanics to give my puppies a fast start. I also relearned a design lesson, first learned with impatiens and trumpet vine, that I have no excuse for forgetting.

Red-orange (Husky cherry tomatoes) and magenta (mini-petunias) do not make a pleasing pair.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

My Favorite Container

This is my favorite container of the year.

I popped these leftovers from the annual plant sale at Morven into a big pot in May, expecting big bold Dragon Wings begonia to engulf little India Frills coleus and overpower Purple Heart (Setcreasea). But instead they mingled in a model of harmonious cooperation. Frills found the gaps and filled them with touchable texture. Heart wiggled its way to the sun to prove that the shine of flash only brightens when juxtaposed with the seriousness of strength. 

I admire the gracious way the different interests coexist in this pot of limited resources. Such a contrast to our warring world, where attempts to share and compromise are met with shrieking mobs of protesters who shout out and shut down the cooperative spirit, causing tender frills to vanish in the shadows and purple hearts to fight for their life source. I will picture this sweet triumvirate as a model for living. 

Until it dies.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Making Room for Lettuce

I murdered a cotoneaster today. It wasn’t an evil cotoneaster, it just didn’t contribute enough to my garden. It functioned beautifully for the hawthorn lace bugs that called it home, and I feel awful about giving them the heave-ho …well, not awful, but slightly empathetic. Ok, I don’t feel bad in the least … after all I provided them with food and shelter for ten long years, it’s time they learned to live without my largesse. It’s tough out there for us all!

But I digress (cleansing breath) … in place of the lace bug hotel I planted this bed of greens for the late summer and fall. From left to right I sowed my saved 'Loma' seeds, a blend of red lettuces from Territorial, 'Bergam's Green' , and another red lettuce (get it? green, red, green, red). I expect, with the soil as warm as it is, that germination will be spotty, so I’ll probably have to fill in some gaps. The perfect soil temperature for germinating lettuce is between 60 and 75 degrees. You can germinate the seed indoors where it’s cooler if (unlike me) you condition your summer air.

My plan is allow my pretty lettuces to grace my garden until the first frost, and then cover the bed with a modular cold frame, which is still in my head. If I’m lucky, and persuasive, I will get the help of one of my able sons to build it, or maybe even the help of one of my able sons’ able friends. Then I will have fresh salad greens for the first part of winter too!

Meanwhile, in the back 40 (feet) I am producing a bumper crop of lettuce seeds for next year. 

One of the very hardest things for a gardener to do is to allow a plant (and all you need is one or two) to go to seed. Now I’m not saying there’s not beauty in the sight of a lettuce plant in flower … but it ‘s not the harmonious kind of garden beauty. It’s more the sort a geologist might see in a roadcut, or a furniture crafter in an old burly tree. Here in PA my lettuce is at its full 5-ft height now; if you live in Texas or Missouri, the timing will likely be different.  In three or four weeks the seeds will be dry and I will cut down some stalks and put them in paper bags on my porch. (One thing I will not do is set the bag on the ground and allow thieving ants to chew little holes in the bottom and run off with my future salads). Some of the seedheads I’ll just leave on the stalk to break and scatter in fall. I’ve found that I get the very earliest spring lettuce from fall-scattered seed.

Did I mention that the evil cotoneaster also sheltered the pesky Indian mock strawberry weed that skulks around my hosta? I have no guilt. None at all.

Really I don’t.