28 October 2009

Illustrated guide to Gardener's Quantities

I, like many others, was laughing out loud when I visited May Dreams Gardens yesterday and read Carol's "Gardeners guide to quantities" So I decided to create some drawings to illustrate the principles Carol set forth so clearly.

First a little drawing to illustrate the meaning of the word "Couple" to a gardener:
Next A drawing illustrating the fact that for gardeners, the smallest quantity of plants we're capable of thinking of is 3. 1 and 2 just don't exist for us.
Check out my other garden drawings here

26 October 2009

Flowers without forcing?

I potted up some daffodils and hyacinths a week or so ago, and popped them in the fridge to get their requisite cold period so I could pull them out and have lovely, fragrant flowers come February. I can never remember just how long they need to be in there, so (of course) I went to google, and up popped a website giving me the information I needed -- about 12 weeks of cold.
But then I read down farther and saw they stated that Iris reticulata and Scilla require no cold period to flower.

Wait -- what? You can just pop them in a pot like paperwhites and they'll flower? I looked for confirmation and found this fact sheet from University of Rhode Island confirming that Iris reticulata needs no cold period. Haven't been able to confirm the Scilla -- this page from the University of Wisconsian says they need 6 weeks of cold, and I'm inclined to believe them. Perhaps the first page was refering to the tropical Scilla peruviana.

So now I'm going to have to try it -- incase you've never grown it, Iris reticulata is one of the loveliest bulbs in the universe (as you can see in this photo I nabbed from wikipedia) -- Tiny, intricate, delicate blooms with a light fragrance... I've long considered them as essential as crocus for the early spring garden... but if I can just pop some in a pot and have them flowering all winter... Time to make yet another run out to buy bulbs.

22 October 2009

Book review: Merry Hall

I'm a great lover of used book stores, and a while back I picked up a copy of Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols.

Now I'm totally entrance, and shall have to track down all his other gardening books.

This isn't a gardening book in the sense of a book of facts and information about gardens, rather it is a rambling, gossipy story of one man's garden. Nichols was a celebrity author of post-war Britian, and his enthusiatic account of creating his garden at Merry Hall is a delightful romp through the joys and frustrations of gardening, complete with stories of his crusty gardener Oldfield, his miraculously efficient valet Gaskin (think Lord Peter Wimsey's Bunter or Bertie Wooster's Jeeves and you get the idea), his prying neighbors Emily and Rose who object to every change he makes to the garden.

Anyone who gardens will love his accounts of returning from vacations with luggage stuffed with plants and his hilarious account of trying to pocket the huge, sticky seed of an avocado at a formal dinner without anyone noticing. Other stories will have you jumping up to buy plants.

"That was the moment when I first saw the lilies. They stood in rows of glistening white down the whole length of one side of the kitchen garden. A faint breeze was stirring, and as they nodded their heads there drifted towards us the most exquisite fragrance. Never before, in any garden of the world, have I seen such lilies; their loveliness was literally dazzling; the massed array of the white blossom was like sunlite show."

Running out to buy lily bulbs yet?

How about these two quotes on planting bulbs:

"Every Autumn, when the new bulbs arrive, a proportion of them are handed out to any friends who may be around so that they may plant them in some secret place, where I can have the fun of discovering them in the spring."
"As we all know, the only way to plant daffodils is to pile them on to a tray, and then run to the orchard and hurl the tray into the air, planting them exactly where they fall. There may be other, less orthodox methods; if so they should be spurned. The tray, the ecstatic gesture... that is the only sure road to success."

I'm going to have to go buy more bulbs! I love the idea of hidden troves of spring flowers to be discovered, and the joyful image of hurling daffodils into the air and planting them where they fall! How have I never done this before?

All of which points to the very great truth of this final quote from the book:
"An important truth about the gardener's life as opposed to the lives of other people: the fact that each new year is, ipso facto, most startling and more rich in beauty than the one that preceded it."

"Bathe" in forest air

My last post got me thinking... every garden knows that plants make them feel better, but I wondered if there was an scientific research on the subject?

Turns out there is lots, and being around green spaces and plants is decidedly good for you:
It reduces stress related illness , reduce depression -- and the positive effects of living around parks it not just due to the increased exercise as this study found that even controlling for increased exercise, people living around lots of green spaces still have better mental health.

Usually reading scientific studies is fairly dry, but in the study I link to above on reducing depression (by a Japanese group of researchers) includes a perfectly wonderful Japanese phrase: Shinrin-yoku,  which they translate as "forest air bathing" -- it is an awkward translation, but much people sun bath at the beach, you can also "bath" in the rich, restorative atmosphere of a forest. I've always loved the peace and beauty of woods, but I never thought of it was bathing before... What a lovely image! I'm going to have to go forest bathing this weekend.

21 October 2009

The power of gardens

I really think there is something pretty powerful about gardens and greenspaces that can have a big impact on how people live their lives and look at the world.

Another bit of evidence here: A neighborhood in that most down-and-out cities, Flint MI, transformed as people take vacant, weedy lots and start making gardens.

20 October 2009

Not your average geraniums

Frosts and freezes have become a nightly occurrence here (but no snow yet!) so I've been retreating into the house, browsing through books, and, well, making lists of plants to try growing next year (I can't help it, I'm addicted).
The other day I pulled Pelargoniums by Diana Miller off the shelf and started browsing through it. (An aside: I HATE the name Pelargonium. Totally unwieldy. Yet the common name geranium only leads to confusion with Geranium Pelargonium needs a new, unique common name. Anyone have a good idea of one?)
I have to admit, the text is a bit dry – it is all about the wild species pelargoniums, and the descriptions of more scientific than horticultural, but the diversity she describes is quite amazing! Look at some of these photos I took from the Pacific Bulb Society:

Not your everyday red geraniums from the local garden center!

I'm always amazed at the sheer diversity that lurks behind the seemingly most boring of genera. And apparently, the wild species are just the tip of the iceburg – check out some of the cool man-made pelagoniums in these photos I took from the holt geraniums website:

Absolutely gorgeous... I'm writing down on my Plant list 2010: Freaky Cool Pelargonium!

19 October 2009

Does this flower NEVER die?

When frost was first threatened, I ran out and cut a flower and three leaves from my calla 'Edge of Night' (A lovely plant... black flowers, dark green leaves flecked with silver and edged with red). The flower had opened several weeks back, so I didn't expect it to last too long in the vase.
In a week it looked like this:

Since when do flowers last longer than leaves? The frost had spared the front garden, so I went out and got replacement leaves -- which also yellowed in a week, with the flower still going strong!

At this point, a freeze had eliminated all calla foliage (along with most everything else), so last weekend I searched for a replacement to set off the lovely flower.

They are the (incredibly spiney!) leaves of my scotch thistle. Looks pretty fantastic, doesn't it? Three weeks in the vase, and still, this flower shows no signs of fading. Maybe someone slipped me a plastic one?

15 October 2009

Save your Salvia 'Black and Blue' tubers!

I'm a huge fan of Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue' -- actually, I think everyone is. Dark blue flowers, contrasting black calxy -- it is a supermodel of a plant. And, for me, tender. But: I learned something: It produces tubers. So, after our recent freeze, I went out with a garden fork and popped the plants. Sure enough, nice, fat, funny looking tubers. They've now been wrapped loosely in news paper, popped in a plastic grocery bag, and are sitting in the basement to wait for spring. (BTW: I used to avoid tender bulbs like dahlia and gladiolus because gardening books I'd read talked of storing them over the winter in damp but not wet sand (?) and such nonsense. But I've found a sheet of newspaper, a loosely closed plastic bad and cool basement work perfect.) Sure beats re-buying them every year!

13 October 2009


Fall speaks of death

With promises of rebirth

12 October 2009

More on invasive species

I've been reading about invasive plants. In my post about purple loosestrife, I promised more about invasive plants which actually have been shown to have significant negative effects on native species.

Easier said than done.

I though I had hit what I was looking for when I found a paper titled Ecology and ecosystem impacts of common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica): a review The paper starts elucidating why it is so successful: Shade tolerance, rapid growth, high photosynthetic rates, etc etc. Sounds great. But when it gets to showing how it hurts native plants, it all sort of falls apart – even though the authors clearly WANT common buckthorn to be a bad guy. Allow me to quote:

“Although the surveys and removal experiements do not definitively implicate R. catharica in the decline of native species, and the controlled experiments under individual R. cathartica threes did not show detrimental effects on understory plants, it is quite likely that R. cathartica thickets have negative effects on native species in North America.”

Which I translate as:
“All the evidence shows it really isn't a problem, but we bet it is bad anyhow. Just because.”

I could keep plowing through other species, but I decided to get a bird's eye view of the issues of non-native species, so I read the book Invasion Biology by Mark A Davis (Not to be confused with another -- much less reputable -- book by the same title by David Theodoropoulos). It's aimed at a professional academic audience (professors, grad students) but is very readable, and pretty interesting.
Basically, they say that there is good evidence of serious damage caused to native species by non-native predators and diseases – eg: emerald ash borer, dutch elm disease – especially on islands and small lakes, which ecosystems tend to be more fragile. But most non-native plant species are off the hook (which makes the practice of introducing new non-native predator insects to control non-native plants even more suspicious... let's import something very likely to be a problem to control something which most likely isn't a problem!)
There are plant species which cause significant damage --  not by out-competing native species, but by changing the environment. The best example (actually the only example I've been able to track down so far) are the European grasses in the genus Bromus which changing parts of the Western US. They are much more flammable than native species so areas they have invaded burn more frequently, causing enormous impacts on the entire ecosystem. So some non-native species are bad. Some non-native plants are bad. But my impression from all the reading I've been doing is that in most cases, people have simply seen a non-native species outside of cultivation and ASSUMED it must be doing damage even though indepth studies rarely support that assumption.
So... as a gardener and someone who cares about the environment, what do I do with this? First, I'm certainly not going to support organizations that spend large amounts of time and money trying to eradicate invasive species unless they have very good evidence that it is actually worth it. Pollution, urban sprawl, and global warming are issues I'd much rather spend time and money fighting against. And in my garden? I'll still avoid planting species with the potential to invade natural areas – no one is arguing that invasive species are a GOOD thing – but honestly (and I know this is going to make people mad...), I'm not going to make it the priority I used to. It looks like the carbon dioxide my car emits driving to the nursery to buy the Iris pseudacorus is way more damaging than the presence of that non-native species in my garden.

07 October 2009

The Loosestrife Drama

One of my goals in ths project is to present information from hard-core academic literature in simple, everyday language. So it is my great pleasure to present to you today the great Loosestrife debate, as a play, in one act.

Rawinski and Malecki (1984):  Purple Loosestrife is taking over! AHHH!! STOP IT!!! HORRIBLE PURPLE WEED!!!!

Government, environmental groups, people in general: Dude! It is purple and evil! (run about trying to kill purple loosestrife. Spend tons of money. Introduce non-native beetles to eat it. Generally go nuts.)

Hager and McCoy (1998):  Umm... People? Have you actually READ Rawinski and Malecki's paper? It sucks. Basically, they just decided to hate on loosestrife because it is so purple and they noticed it everywhere.

Government, environmental groups, people in general: Lalalalala! I can't HEAR you! (keep spending lots of money trying to kill purple loosestrife)

Anderson (1995), Farnsworth and Ellis (2001), Houlan and Findlay (2004) : (Do a lot of actual research to see if loosestrife is hurting anything) Um... People? Like, Hager and McCoy were right, this loosestrife stuff doesn't seem to be that big of a deal. It just sits there being purple.

Government, environmental groups, people in general: Lalalala! I can't HEAR you! (keep spending lots of money trying to kill loosestrife)

Okay, so I'm being silly, but I started reading about purple loose strife because I wanted to use it as an example of what, exactly, invasive plants do to native species in areas they invade. Surprisingly (to me anyway), in the case of purple loosestrife, the answer seems to be... just about nothing. That's not the whole story – many other invasive species do a lot of damage (more about that in a future post) but it is shocking that so much money and time has been invested in killing purple loosestrife without good evidence that it is worth it. No less than three non-native species of insects have been introduced to the US just to eat the loosestrife. And what if those beetles start eating some other native plant as well?
The lesson I'm taking away from this is: While no invasive plant is good, many aren't all that damaging, and we need to make sure we invest the limited resources we have to save the environment on the issues and species that matter the most -- not just the ones which are easy to notice because they have bright purple flowers.

(Photo: from Urtica on flickr.)

05 October 2009

Introducing The Natives Project

Beyond feeling vaguely virtuous when I plant something labeled 'native' and vaguely guilty when I hear a plant I love may be invasive, I've basically ignored the issues of native and invasive plants as a gardener. Partly because I'm afraid I'll have to stop growing some of my favorite plants, partly because it quickly becomes confusing.

What even makes a plant 'native' for my garden? Native to the US? Native to Michigan? Native to the Great Lakes Region? What about those (fabulous) new echinacea? Man-made hybrids between two species native to the Eastern US, neither of which would have grown in the woodland that was my yard before it become part of an ailing industrial city. Native? Non-native? Synthetic abomination? Just plain lovely so who cares?

Same with invasive species... Should I stop planting my beloved cardoons because they are an invasive weed in California? They can't make it through a winter here, but who knows, maybe the seeds could.

And what about plants for wild life habitate? Is native always better? What about the  non-native crab apples loaded with fruit that native song birds love?

There are so many issues to consider and questions to answer, but I've decided I can't ignore these issues any longer. Environmental stewardship is important to me: I ride my bicycle instead of driving, bring my own bags to the grocery store -- I ought to be informed on this significant environmental issue.

So I'm going to figure it out -- here, on this blog. I'm going to be reading everything I can find on the subject, thinking about it, talking to people who seem knowledgeable, and blogging about it all here. Hopefully, comments and questions from you, my readers, will help expand the discussion along the way, and we'll all come out at the end with a clearer understanding of the issues involved.

01 October 2009

Beautiful bulbs...

I got home yesterday from a long day at work to find a satisfyingly heafty box from McClure and Zimmerman. I rushed inside, pulled it open and started pulling out bag after bag of allium (schubertii, christophii), daffodils ('Minnow', 'Rinjveld's early sensation', my all-time favorite, 'Thalia'), not to mention iris, eranthus, and more allium. I was giddy. There is nothing like bulbs -- so healthy and hearty looking, so easy to slip into the ground, such compact little promises of spring. When I got to the 8 dozen Scilla siberica bulbs (I know... I should have ordered more) I was so happy I couldn't resist any more -- I lifted the bags to my lips and started kissing the little beauties.

At which point my partner walked in.

Oh well. He already knew I was a deranged gardener.