31 December 2009

Resolutions for the garden

For my 2010 garden, I have a few resolutions:

1. Experiment with scent in the garden. A resolution inspired by Louise Beebe Wilder's The Fragrant Path (my review). I'm used to thinking about designing my garden in terms of color, form, texture, etc, but designing for fragrance is new for me. So I'm going to do some exploring this year -- grow more fragrant plants, sniff about, and think about how they might go together to add another layer to my garden. Should be a fun project. It will also be fun trying to describe scents in a blog...

2. Plan for winter color. I talked about this one recently so I won't belabor the point, but it is now an official goal: next winter is going to be a lot livelier 'round these parts.

3. Add non-plant items to my garden. Currently, my garden is all plant, all the time, but this year, I want to add sculpture and such. I'm going to try making hypertufa balls following the instructions from Faire Garden, and maybe play with other home-made sculpture. And candles... I want candles in my garden. Since seeing Avatar, my mind is full of ideas on how to play with light in the garden at night, and the natural, flickering light of candles seems perfect.

4. Plant a HUGE cutting garden. I'm nuts about cut flowers, and have always had a cutting garden, but last year amid the chaos of moving to a new house I didn't get enough ground prepped to have room for both vegetables and cut flowers -- and I sided with vegetables. This year will be different: I'm doubling the size of my vegetable garden area, and devoting half of it to cut flowers.

What are your resolutions for Garden 2010?

30 December 2009

Movie review for gardeners: Avatar

I'm not a big movie person. I don't even have a functioning television, and my trips to movie theaters are few and far between. But I went to see Avatar. Not only saw it, but went back to the theater and saw it AGAIN – something I've never done before in my life.

You've heard about Avatar – super big-budget film by James Cameron of Titanic fame (this is how much of a not-a-movie person I am: I've never seen Titanic) about blue cat people. You may have heard that the visuals are a technological breakthrough, or that it is a heavy-handed commentary on race -- but what you probably haven't heard is that this is a perfect movie for gardeners.

Don't believe me? Well, let's just say that the first time you meet one of the main characters, you are told that “she likes plants more than people.” Sound familiar? And once the movie arrives on the planet Pandora, you are immersed in an incredibly lovely, lush, digitally generated jungle packed with plants you will wish you could grow. Sadly, the chances of finding anything biolumenescent in your local garden center are pretty slim, but still: some of the scenes are startlingly beautiful, and have got my brain churning with garden design ideas.
Sure, the movie is a sci-fi action thriller with lots of big explosions and exciting fight scenes – but even those are built around things a gardener can understand: They are battles to save beautiful trees. Lovely trees around which the religions and emotional lives of the alien Na'vi are built.

So go see Avatar. Ignore the sci-fi action, explosions, and racial subtexts: Go see it for the plants!

29 December 2009

Memo to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Sell seeds not politics.

I just put in my first ever order from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds. I'd heard good things about them from other bloggers, but when their catalog arrived, I was a little put off by the random quotes scattered throughout the pages. Most of  the quotes are simply inspiring or religious, but a few are wildly, irrationally, anti-science and made me quite upset (I'm all in favor of debates about genetic engineering – but sweeping statements about the “tyranny of science” are nonsensical and show a profound ignorance of what the word “science” actually means). Despite the annoying catalog, they had stuff I wanted, so I bit my tongue and placed my order.

The seeds I ordered arrived promptly – in envelopes which, most of them, had pictures not of the plant in question, but rather generic images of tomatoes or corn and MORE quotes denouncing things like using biotechnology to help feed the world's poor, and government investment in plant breeding -- both things which I feel rather strongly about. Government investment in plant breeding happens to pay my salary at the moment, and is one of the few things I'd like to see out government doing more of. More importantly, the self-satisfied efforts of well-fed, rich, first-world environmentalists keeping incredible technological breakthroughs like genetically engineered vitamin fortified rice out of the hands of the world's starving, malnourished people makes me frankly enraged.

I'm sorry but, I wanted seeds, not extreme, holier-than-thou statements about the moral superiority of their products. Baker Creek will not be on my list of seed companies to order from next year.

23 December 2009

Wednesday Links:

Studio G's blog had a piece on an amazing looking topiary garden in South Carolina. Well worth checking out.

Tired of the cold and snow? Consider a trip to the lovely gardens of New Zealand. Oh, I wish I could...

Garden Rant's Susan Harris makes the point that snow is a design opportunity in the garden.

If you aren't a sort of academic plant geek, you might not appreciate this but: Allan Armitage is going to be dancing the hustle at a fund raiser! I want to see a dance-off between him and Michael Dirr!

The Inelegant Gardener explains the reason that some vegetables (his example is parsnips, but the same applies to a number of things) are sweeter after cold weather

Linda Chalker-Scott on The Garden Professors does a spot-on debunking of the "chemicals are evil" mindset.

20 December 2009

Most surreal seed packaging ever.

If you recall, I've been wildly anticipating the arrival of blue impatiens seeds I ordered off of ebay.

So when I found a pleasingly plump envelope in my mailbox today, I was thrilled. I ripped it open to find:

An invitation to a high school graduation for Southern High School in 2007.


Inside the invitation was the ebay invoice, and the seeds.


Are these blue impatiens with a high school diploma? Am I supposed to travel back in time to attend their "commencement exercises"? Do they expect a graduation present?

18 December 2009

Winter color -- or, how GBBD is changing how I garden

In November, I started participating in Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, the monthly event hosted by May Dream's Gardens where garden bloggers post pictures of what is blooming (or just looking pretty) in their garden. At the time, I didn't think much of it other than "Oh, this will be fun!" but it is already making me think differently about my garden. I've never focused much on having stuff in my garden in the winter -- basically November through February I just hunker down with books and catalogs and wait it out. Now, seeing all the other posts from other gardeners with bright berries, stems, and leaves in their gardens is making me think differently. 2010 is going to be the year I get serious about making my garden lovely in the months I usually ignore.

So I took a walk through the MSU horticulture gardens, and noted down what was looking good now, in the middle of December, after we've had temperatures into the teens and below.

Red twig dogwoods are looking great -- such an intense color for this time of year.

Sedum 'Angelina' -- I walked past this planting every day all summer and was completely unimpressed, but in the cold the colors have intensified, and today it shone out at me from the other side of the gardens -- this picture doesn't capture how bright it looks compared to the dim, gray Michigan winter around it. I am definitely including a lot of this in my garden for next winter.

I've always liked deciduous hollies, but this planting takes them to another level -- the Miscanthus makes a perfect background to ensure every berry glows. A great combination I'm also going to steal for my garden.

Ornamental Kale. I'm not totally sold on these... This much color this time of year is hard to turn down, but I don't like their growth habit so much. A grouping of plants doesn't seem to blend together into one mass. Does anyone know a variety which has a looser, more open habit? That's what I'd really like -- those same intense colors, but not in such a rigidly define blob.

Yucca filamentosa 'Color Guard' Another plant I'm not a huge fan of in the summer, but in the dim grey winter days, that yellow is AMAZING, a burst of sunshine.

So that's what I've been looking at. What other plants for winter color should I be considering? I know I want more conifers, and I'm also considering some heaths and heathers, some of which are supposed to have great winter foliage color (but will they be hardy?) But what do you recommend? What really shines in your winter garden? Before you answer that: if you live somewhere warm, and think of marigolds as winter color I don't want to hear about it! It will just make me jealous and malcontent and I'll have to creep off to a greenhouse to recover.

17 December 2009

A BLUE impatiens!

 I've been wildly, crazily excited about this since I was browsing through the Secret Seed catalog on-line, and stumbled across their listing for Impatiens namchabarwensis.

Okay, drooling yet? A blue impatiens -- And such a lovely shade of blue too! According to Strange Wonderful Things, (which is SUCH a great name for a website) it is a new species only discovered in 2003 in Tibet in a remote canyon twice as deep as the grand canyon! Even more excitingly, everything I've been able to find describes it is very easy to grow, carefree, and even "gently" self seeding!

At this point I was almost jumping up and down. Well: Let's be honest, I was jumping up and down, nothing "almost" about it. My partner is used to this by now and simply asked me what plant I was excited about, to which I replied "A BLUE impatiens! BLUE, I tell you, BLUE!!!"

Finally, I sat back down to put in my order for the seeds, only to see the words "OUT OF STOCK" in big red letters.

Out of stock? Are you kidding me? I rushed to google. Out of stock. Out of stock. Everyone seemed to be out of stock. Finally I went to e-bay and found someone selling 7 seeds. Just 7 of them! On auction, and the bidding wasn't to close for 6 DAYS! I quickly put my bid in, and PRAYED no one else would notice it. Thank goodness, no one did, and the seeds are now on their way to me! Glorious blue impatiens, you shall be MINE!

The good news is that this looks like a super awesome plant you are all going to want. The bad news is that I just bought the only supply of seeds I could find anywhere. So I guess you are all out of luck... (I should feel bad about this, but mostly I'm just feeling smug that I snatched up these seeds in time) But as soon as I get the plants growing, I'll be harvesting all the seeds I can so I can spread the joy around to anyone else who wants to try this amazing looking plant.

Addendum: I just re-read this post before publishing it, and it comes off as a little... extreme. But what can I say. I ALWAYS go completely, utterly, head-over-heels gaga for true blue flowers. If you don't suffer from a similar true blue obsession (Carol, is there a name for this particular gardening disorder?), you might think I'm a little crazy. Whatever. I don't care. It is BLUE.  

16 December 2009

Wednesday Links:

Starting off this week with celebrity gossip: Gardening is Nicole Kidman's stress-buster, according to the Times of India.

A nice piece on composting that doesn't follow the rules from the Christian Science Monitor -- a piece I can totally get behind, as I never make a proper compost pile -- I just throw stuff in a mound, and eventually, it breaks down. Patience is all you need

From MATT Kinase, aka The Scientist Gardener: A virus that melts caterpillars. Yes MELTS. It is really cool, but in a really gross way.

Here is the US news papers are busy publishing their best songs or movies or books of the decade ending, but in the UK (where they understand gardening) the Telegraph has a piece on the decade in gardening with a major emphases on the naturalistic design ideas of the amazing Piet Oudolf (see my pictures of the Oudolf designed Lurie garden in Chicago here). Reading stuff like this makes me so jealous of the Brits. This article honest to goodness discusses the "signature color combination of the late Nineties" as being Dahlia Bishop of Llandaff and Verbena bonariensis. Can you name the signature color combination of ANY decade in the US? Besides green lawn and too much dyed wood chip mulch?

Funny post on Cactus Blindness (the inability to tell different species of cacti apart) from Plants are the Strangest People

Great book review from Zanthan Gardens -- I confess to being a total essay addict, so to learn about a new (to me) book of gardening essays is always a treat.

By way of Garden Rant: Looking at nature makes us nicer

Extreme guerilla gardening -- planting 200 trees to protest a proposed shopping center! And the town isn't even going to remove them! Gotta love the Brits.

Looks like one thing to come out of Copehagen is a system to pay countries to preserve forest lands. The article includes the surprising (to me) statistic that rainforest destruction accounts for 20% of global CO2 emissions. Really? That's crazy.

15 December 2009

Bloom Day December 2009

This is only my second bloom day and I was worried I would have nothing to show. Outside everything is covered is snow, so even if it WERE blooming, I wouldn't know it, or be able to take a picture of it. And I'm not much of a house plant person, so inside, all I had was this mum, a leftover from a friend's research

and this kalanchoe, a gift from my... what do you call her? My aunt-in-law, I guess. (what is the proper term for your spouse's aunt?)

I thought I was going to have to resort to the paper snowflakes I made, "blooming" on the Christmas tree (I'm not sure why the tree came out blue... it is actually green. I was messing around with the evaluative white balance on my camera, this happened, and I decided I like it)

But then I had a thought: My research for my PhD involves a whole greenhouse full of blooming plants! Not technically my garden, but close enough! Quite a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. There is anyways something blooming at work! I shall never be without on a bloom day. Well, until I graduate anyway...

Salvia cacaliifolia

Salvia involucrata

Happy Bloom Day everyone!

14 December 2009

Go check this out!

If you don't read The Garden Proessors blog (which you TOTALLY should, because it rocks) you need to go over and check out this post by Bert Cregg on native vs nonnative plant issues. Really interesting, thought provoking post which goes way beyond the native vs nonnative dichotomy to really think about choosing plants that maximize diversity and ecological health of urban plantings.

11 December 2009

Portrait of a gardener

I pulled out my sketch pad and started drawing, while looking out the window at all the snow. What sort of garden drawing does snow inspire? Well, as I drew and thought, I realized: Mostly, I'm dreaming about spring. I'm dreaming about May... So I drew a picture of Hortense Hoelove, (aka Carol) in the snow, with her hoe, dreaming of May.

Happy dreaming everyone!

See all my gardening drawings here

09 December 2009

Fuchsia decidua -- anyone know anything about it?

Margaret Roach, of A Way To Garden (NOT Away to Garden, though she's apparently made peace with that mistyping) Asked for suggestions of good seed catalogs (check out the post -- tons of great suggestions in the comments) and got lots of great ones, including one that I'm head-over-heels in love with: Gardens North. They are a seed house out of  Nova Scotia, Canada, so when they say North, they mean NORTH. Which is marvelous, because when they describe a plant as hardy it actually means it is hardy! It is such a nice change from reading English seed catalogs where I am forever reading about some amazing sounding hardy perennial and falling in love only to google it and find out that by hardy they mean it might take temperatures slightly below freezing.
So I'm utterly in love, and my "seeds to buy list" is getting unforgiveably long. But, to get to the point of this post: Fuchsia decidua. (picture below, taken from their catalog)

Ever heard of it? I haven't, but based on the description in the Gardens North catalog, I'm itching to grow it. Before you leap to conclusions, no it ISN'T hardy -- but it is native to Mexico, and naturally drops all its leaves and goes mostly dormant in the winter, so it is easy to keep around in the north -- which is hardly that amazing, the same principle applies to dahlias and cannas and all the other "tender bulbs" but what makes this cool is that during it leafless winter dormancy, it FLOWERS! Tons of brilliantly red flowers on the bare stems of the shrub. I'm putting this together in my mind: Grow it outside in the summer, then bring it inside, let it dry down, put it any old place and it bursts into bloom -- maybe even for Christmas? And since it is mostly dormant and leafless when flowering, I don't have to worry about trying to give it enough light or anything -- I could just park plants where ever they'll look pretty! Then come spring, water it again, move it outside, and forget about it until next fall.
How cool is that? But will it really work? Well, I'm absolutely going to order some seeds and find out. Has anyone else ever grown it? The catalog says it is "almost non-existant in cultivation" so I'm guessing not. Which will just make me feel all the cooler when I get a whole bunch of them...

Wednesday Links:

Gardening Gone Wild has posted a list of "Great Books for Gardeners" which I am very excited about. I need to stock up on good reading for the winter.

The British magazine Hort week has a brief article about the government trying to deal with an increasing lack of people with the skills to be successful horticulturalists. An issue here in the US too, but I don't think it is even on the government's radar screen in this country.

Gardening Gone Wild  (again! They're on a roll... and I had been considering removing them from my google reader list!) has a great post -- a "Letter to me as a new gardener" of the basic gardening advice she wishes she had known when she first started gardening.

Biotechnology -- a Solution to Hunger?  An excellent little article looking at the pros and cons of using genetic engrineering to try and help global hunger problems. So much of the coverage on GMOs is insanely polarized, with people either yelling: "It is EVIL!" or "It will SAVE THE WORLD!" that I was very happy to read this --  actually talking about some of the specific good genetic engineering could do, and some of the potential risks.

More on Biotechnology  in this piece from the Economist about Monsanto, everyone's favorite big ag company to hate. A good big picture view of where genetic engineering is and where it is going.

By way of the Fine Gardening website: A man arrested for while trying to prune his tree with a shotgun. Silly. Everyone knows semi-automatic machine guns work WAY better.

07 December 2009

Global warming and transparency in science

A couple news stories this week that got me thinking.

First, this interview on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday:

In the NPR piece, Scott Simon moderated a sort of debate between Freakonomics (and Super Freakonomics) author Steven Levitt and Peter Frumhoff of The Union of Concerned Scientists. Levitt advocates geoengineering to fight global warming in the short term while we get CO2 under control -- things like pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the earth. I'm personally skeptical, though a little intrigued, but Frumhoff's arguments against it were... well, fairly shocking. He started arguing that it wouldn't work, but when Levitt pushed back, he basically confessed he thought it was dangerous mostly because it would make it harder to get people behind reducing carbon emissions. In other words: talking about this will make it harder to get people to do what I want them to, so it is better to just pretend it isn't an option at all, especially as world leaders are meeting to try and agree to significant emission reductions.

In response, Levitt asked: "And if the U.S. were to meet the standards that Barack Obama has proposed, what will happen to the temperature of the Earth over the next 50 years?"

There was a long, uncomfortable pause, and then finally Frumhoff admitted: "Well, we're going to see some warming."

In other words: Carbon reduction, on any scale being talked about, will not solve the problem in the short term, while geoengineering possibly could. But we mustn't talk about it.

Now, geoengineering certainly could have lots of other negative effects as well, it seems far from a perfect fix or even a practical one -- but shouldn't we at least be having a discussions about it? We hear so much about how horrible severe global warming could be, so shouldn't we at least consider all the options, no matter how wacky they may seem? Yet the attitude taken by Frumhoff is frankly antidemocratic: don't tell people all the options in case they decide on a different option than the one we, the experts, think is best. Don't discuss the pros and cons of emission reduction vs. geoengineering, just accept as decreed that carbon emission reductions are the one true way.

Even more disturbingly anti-Democratic is this story in Science about leaked private e-mails between top climate scientists. A lot of disturbing content, most strikingly this particular quote from CRU (Climate Research Unit) Director Phil Jones referring to requests from global warming critics for a file of raw global temperature data. He wrote: "I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone." Other e-mail exchanges regarded trying to keep controversial research findings out of the 2007 IPCC report, saying "Kevin and I will keep them out somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is."

Basically, the e-mails contain various versions of the same story: Rather than releasing data that they feared could be misinterpreted, they made an effort to control the message so only information that supported their conclusions were made public.

The factual omissions revealed by these e-mail exchanges are apparently not that damaging to the actual science -- the scientists seem to have good reasoning behind drawing the conclusions they have from their data, but the choice to simply promulgate their conclusions rather than the full course of reasoning that lead to those conclusions is very disturbing -- beyond disturbing. If I, in my research in grad school, tried to hide data which didn't support my conclusions I would be kicked out of school, and rightly so: Transparency is at the very heart of science. You always present the data that supports your conclusions, AND the reasons you might possibly be wrong.

I consider myself an environmentalist, and have never considered myself a doubter of global warming, but this story has frankly shaken me. What these scientists have done is put political dogma ahead of honesty and truth. How then are we to trust them? They think, I guess, that because global warming is so serious, it is too important to debate. I feel quite the opposite: For something that important we need all the facts and all the debate we can get.

03 December 2009

Goodbye and good luck!

The national weather service says: "Snow showers likely, mainly after 7pm. New snow accumulation of around 1 inch."

So, winter is here, and soon my plants will just be lumps and bumps under the snow. Most of my plants, of course, are old hands at this winter thing, and shall breeze through it just fine. But every year I try at least a few things that aren't SUPPOSED to be hardy, just to see. So today, before the snow starts flying, I went and said goodbye and wished them luck... Here are a few of the things I'm HOPING to see again in the spring:

 This is Agave parryi 'Super Hardy'.  The Arrowhead Alpines catalog says "from the most cold hardy population we know." I've put it in the best drained spot in my garden, and where it will be piled deep under insulating snow when I shovel my walk, so let's hope it lives up to its name!

Ophiopogon plansicapus 'Nigrescens', black mondo grass is such a cool plant, but all the references seem to say it is only hardy to zone 6. But that is just one little zone colder than here... I just have one test plant this year -- if it makes it through the winter unscathed, I'm going to get a bunch more and mass them in the shade garden.

This is a very, very bedraggled looking Echium fastuosum I grew from seed this year. Yes it looks bedraggled, but it is supposed to be only hardy to zone 8 and we've had already had temperatures dip into the 20s, so what do you expect. Actually, I had fully expected it to be dead by now, and I dug up one to bring inside before our first frost. But since it is still hanging in there -- still has green leaves even -- I've decided to hope against hope, mound up a protective layer of mulch thick over its lower branches and see what happens.

I've got other things I'm hoping against hope survive: Verbena peruviana, Leptinalla squalida 'Patt's Black' (Arrowhead says it 'needs some protection here' so we'll see), some roses in the cutting garden, and a few other oddaments.
What are you gambling on this winter?


02 December 2009

Wednesday Links

Here's some links to things I found worth reading this past week:

Council orders grandmother dig beloved garden store unsightly wheelie bins I love that in the UK, someone having to rip out their garden is correctly viewed as a news-worthy tragedy.

Keep off don't touch Michele from the always great Gardenrant gives a spot-on analysis of bad landscaping -- my favorite quote: "...yards are not petting zoos for spruces, nor passive sponges for weed-and-feed, but places that actual humans should enjoy."

Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector Totally off topic for this blog, but human rights and fair labor practices should matter to everyone. This is a fascinating piece on sweatshops, and has some really good information on how to figure out if a company is exploiting its workers.

Gardening books for Christmas A cool list of new books that would make great Christmas presents from The Daily Telegraph. Some cool looking books! I'm particularly intrigued by the title: Everything You Can Do in the Garden Without Actually Gardening

Breeding blight resistant chestnuts  A nice little story from the Baltimore Sun about efforts to restore the now virtually extinct American Chestnut via breeding with the blight resistant Chinese Chestnut. My grandfather has always been extremely interesting in this project, so I like keeping up on it.

Biodegradable = scam A thought provoking little post by the always worth reading MAT Kinase

Chocolate Flower Farm  I don't remember how I stumbled on this nursery, but: they specialize in flowers which are chocolate colored. Kinda strange. First time I've heard of a nursery specializing by color. But if you are into black/brown foliage and flowers (Ahem: Fern) you might want to check them out.