24 September 2009

Falling for Dahlias

I've long mentally classed Dahlias with bearded iris and hybrid tea roses as plants which look great in close up photos in catalogs or in a vase, but don't really make much of a show in the garden. But looking over beds of different dahlia varieties in the MSU annual trials this year, I came across these two plants:

The plants are (unforgivably) unlabeled, but are looking ravishing -- in stark contrast to the other dahlias in the beds, which look perfectly rotten with sparse flowers on gangly plants.
My realization: Some dahlias rock. Most suck. Now to try and figure out which are which.
Anyone have recommendations?

23 September 2009

Michelle Obama: Garden "one of the greatest things I've done"

Just saw this from the Chicago Sun Times -- Michelle Obama (Love her!) talking at the opening of the new DC farmers market described starting the vegetable garden at the White House as "one of the greatest things that I've done in my life so far."

I read that, and thought, "Really?" I mean, Michelle Obama has done a lot of great things, is the garden actually near the top of the list?

I thought back to when gardening exploded into my life as a high school student -- More than just a great thing, it changed me in innumerable ways. Gardening has become the passion that has driven my education, life and career -- and changed how I live, how I face the world.

What do I mean by that? I could list a thousand examples, but one comes to mind:

 A few years ago, a friend of mine took her own life. It was the worst possible news. I cried, of course, talked to friends, of course. But what I really did was sit by a clump of blooming daffodils with my hands on the good earth around them.

A garden teaches me how to live. One of the greatest things I've done? Absolutely.

22 September 2009

Wait, some earthworms are BAD?

European earthworms are destroying northern American forests.

Here's the story: Native American earthworms were pushed south by the last ice age, and haven't moved back up into the northern US and Canada. In other words (I never knew this) in the Northern US, there are no native earthworms. It is (or was) a worm-free zone. European worms escaped from those used as fishing bait and home worm composting are moving into these northern forests and changing the environment. Unlike native decomposers which slowly break down leaves, making a thick layer of partially decomposed organic matter called duff, these exotic earthworms gobble it all down in no time, leaving exposed soil which dries out faster, killing native plants, changing soil chemistry and so changing the populations of symbiotic fungi that native trees depend on, and even making the forests more suitable for invasive species like buckthorn and garlic mustard.
While it is too late for wild areas already infested, worms spread very slowly on their own, and humans discarding worms used for composting or fishing are the main way they expand their territory. Spread the word! I don't think enough people know about this.

Read more here and here and if you want to get more technical, here.
Photo from crocknroll on flickr.

18 September 2009

Teaching the homeless gardening myths...

I just saw this story in the New York Times about a community center in the Bronx teaching the homeless gardening skills. Either the reporter didn't understand what was going on, or the "skills" being taught are fairly useless. First, they're dusting all their cuttings with Vitamin B1 shows up in this list of gardening myths to beware of. The reporter also quotes the teacher telling them how to root cuttings and telling them not to tear the bark... Um, okay. But you know, wounding is a key step in cutting propagation. Some studies have found actually crushing the stem with a hammer works wonders.
I love the idea of teaching people down on their luck how to garden -- gardening is the best therapy. But how about actually teaching them to garden not spreading myths?

16 September 2009

Is gardening financially worth it? WHO CARES?

I saw this article today on Slate's The Big Money stating that "gardening won't end the recessions." The New York Times starter garden blog has also addressed the issue of the finances of gardening, as have many other articles, and I've seen wildly different numbers showing gardening to be a waste of money, or penny pincher's dream. For me, vegetable gardening makes sense financially. I (sort of) know what I'm doing, I have an established garden and so spend less than $20 on my vegetable garden each year while my grocery bill each week reduced by close to that during peak production. But that's not why I garden.

It seems all these articles about gardening are written assuming that because a financial crises prompted gardening, people must be gardening to save money.
But that assumption is wrong.
Plants are comforting. A garden is between you and nature, not you and speculating bankers. A harvest of vegetables is a solid, simple reality in the face of confusing mortgage backed securities and tangled health care debates. I heard from friends in the nursery business that people bought plants after 9/11 -- not to save money, but to feel better. And unlike other ways of making one feel better (alcohol, ice cream) gardening is guilt free: I'm not wasting money, nor harming my health.
Home grown vegetables are the perfect comfort food for a financial down turn.

Field Guide to the Gardener's Brain #3

Check out my other gardening drawings here

15 September 2009

Goodbye to Ralph Moore

Ralph Moore, the rose breeder who virtually single handedly created modern miniature roses, died yesterday at age 102. Nearly every miniature rose in the world was either bred by him, or is descended from a rose bred by him. An astonishingly brilliant, creative breeder who will be sadly missed.

14 September 2009

Plant breeders hard at work...

...making plants uglier.
Not meaning any disrepsect to plant breeders -- I love plant breeders, and want to make a career as one, but really, did we need a petunia that clashes with ITSELF?

10 September 2009

What I learned from the MSU annual trails

I've been browsing through the Michigan State annual trial gardens this summer and, as usual, getting ideas, and learning new things. I love university trial gardens -- it is a great way to get objective, local information about new cultivars. Most universities with a good horticulture department (read, land-grant state universities) run trials, and a quick google search will usually turn up a university trial in a climate similar to your own. Most compile their results on their websites, but there is nothing like visiting and seeing all the plants in person.

And here's what I learned from the gardens this year:

There are a lot of intense new coleus out there

But nothing comes close to my long-time favorite, 'Sedona'
This is a new Gomphrena, 'Fireworks' The growth habit is fantastic, almost like a Verbena bonariensis.
I'm not too sure about the color though -- it is a screaming pink (brighter than it looks in this image). I want that growth habit with the color of my favorite Gomphrena, 'Strawberry Fields.'
Here you see the long beds formally filled with petunias which have rotted and died. Lesson being: Petunias don't like cold, wet summers. Yet another reason not to plant the wretched things.
One plant I am definitely going to try next summer is this Colocasia 'Heart of the Jungle'
As you can see, huge plants, a good 4 and a half feet tall with luscious dark leaves.
But I was even more excited by what I saw close up: Runners and baby plants like a strawberry. Colocasia are easy to over winter indoors, and all those babies mean one expensive plant could result in lots of free plants the next year. Definitely on the "to buy" list.

What have you seen this summer that's been added to your list to grow next year?

08 September 2009

Some pictures

My new camera (Cannon powershot SD880 as recommended by the NY Times here) purchased off ebay arrived, so I shall include some pictures.

 First, some images of my beloved cardoon I raved about here:

And secondly, some images of my moss lawn project I discussed here:
Here we have the cleared ground with my little moss patches planted on it. 

And here a closeup of one of my little baby moss clumps. Still looking green and healthy, and beginning to spread! Hopefully by the end of next summer I'll have a lovely moss lawn.

01 September 2009

Let the bees do the breeding

I learned to garden as a teenager by trail and error. Mostly error. But one early success came when I grew some violas from seed. A mix of colors, they flowered in the spring, limped through the summer, perked up in the fall. They grew and flowered, and I was delighted. Not dying was all I asked of plants.

But imagine my delight when they reappeared the next spring, not just not dead, but accompanied by a carpet of self-sown children. Given my garden budget at the time consisted of about $10 a month I greeted these free and effortless plants enthusiastically. Once they began flowering, I was amazed to discover each was different. Different colors, bicolors, tricolors, some with whiskers, some without, big flowers, small flowers. I picked my favorites, pulled out the ones I liked less, and next year up sprang the children of the favorites I had picked the year before.

Each year the seedlings arrived healthier and more vigorous as natural selection picked the ones best adapted to my conditions, and each year I liked the colors more and more as my personal selection saved only the ones I liked best. I realized, with pleasure and pride, that what I now had was my very own strain of violas, uniquely adapted to my garden and my tastes -- created not with deep skill and expertise, but as a novice gardener who wasn't sure of the difference between an annual and perennial.

I subsequently lost that strain of violas (time spent over seas, most of the seeds saved mislaid during moves, and those I retained suffering an sad death during a bleak gardenless period living in an apartment) but I was reminded of that lovely, personal, serendipitous strain of violas by this comment about marigolds on Garden Rant. I wish I had seeds from that original strain, but it is never to late to do it again.

So I'm buying a lot of violas this fall. I'm going to plant them all over the garden, then wait for seedlings, and allow a new strain of MY violas to emerge.
Photos from flickr by: tapsphotos, Just Neva, and Joyeux artiste.
My new camera should be arriving later this week!