Excerpt for The Weekly Gardener - Volume 10 - 2016 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







WEEK ONE

January 3rd - Happy New Year!


Something to look forward to

Every January is filled with the promise of a bountiful harvest, and this one is no exception. I took a quick stroll through the garden, ignoring the chilly drizzle that has been visiting for the last couple of days. It has been very warm so far, even on the day that usually brings the coldest temperatures of the year, the feast of St. John.

The wet dirt is dark and shiny, and it surprises me, used as I am to see yellow clay everywhere around the yard. It seems that my efforts to amend the soil during the last few years brought about lasting change.

Now, every time I see dark, shiny soil, that immediately translates into bloom and fruit inside my mind, so I set aside the fact that January is not a gardening month to figure out what to plant.

I’m sure that weather will remind us really soon that winter is for snowing, but tell that to the daffodils which are already half way to bloom by now. For now, it rains. So, back to planting.

This year’s priority is going to be fall blooming perennials, there are never enough of them, especially for the shade. Monkshood, black cohosh and wind anemones are definitely on the list. I need to replant asters, Wonder of Staffa looked beautiful, with its lavender blue daisy like petals surrounding a bright yellow center, but it gave up the ghost a few winters ago to temperatures that were too cold to bear. Time to replant it.

Maybe a few more toad lilies, don’t mind if I do. I never tried turtle head or heleniums, so this is the year to do it. For the non-fall bloomers, maybe I should try Solomon’s Seal in another area of the garden, and maybe primroses.

After that, whatever inspires when the season starts at the plant nursery. Definitely roses and more herbs, there is an empty spot in the herb garden that hasn’t found a resident yet.


Perennial garden

Two autumns ago I started a lot of perennials from divisions: irises, daisies, garden phlox, daylilies, and this is the year for them to start blooming. Of course, this fall I forgot to move the beautiful Pink Sorbet peony, which means it’s going to spend another spring trying to dig itself out from under the rugosa rose, and let me tell you, that’s not an easy feat.

The hellebore babies that sprouted around the mature plants like chicks around the mother hen seem to be very happy in their new locations, where they have lots of room to grow. And grow they did, although I think they’re still too young to start blooming.

The thing with starting perennials from divisions and cuttings is that not all of them are quick to develop, but I know from experience that patience is always rewarded.

Way too much tick seed already! Those things would sprout in cement, I kid you not. I feel bad about pulling them, and not a single one survived transplanting, so, there’s the conundrum.

Again, victim of fall procrastination, the part shade garden is still lopsided, with the resilient clumps of the day lilies all crowding one side. I was supposed to distribute them evenly through the garden, but it did not happen.

Not actually perennial, but judging by the amount of seeds they produced, forever in my garden, I’m sure to have a lot of giant purple cleomes in the garden.

Now if I could only find some room for the roses. Oh, well, I was planning to extend the flower beds anyway.



July border

This is the garden at its best, the beginning of July. It has everything: the roses, the late spring perennials, the early summer perennials and none of the tiredness of the late summer garden.

Of course the weeds are always out of control at this time, but who has time to mind the weeds when the flowers look like this? I so wish I could get more delphiniums! They are not easy plants, but once they take off, they’re a garden’s crowning glory.


Summer herbs

The lavender finally bloomed this summer. It grew into a large clump, so I’m guessing it’s here to stay. I hope the new additions to the herb garden, the yarrow and the valerian, have made themselves at home, and that the wet, warm winter helped them build strong roots.

The peppermint is a little slow, and the chives skipped a year and showed up unexpectedly on top of the revised planting scheme. The weeds showed no respect for the medicinals, but I’m watching them, the fiends!


WEEK TWO

January 10th - Here comes the snow


Winter still

The snow showed up, as expected, covering the ground with thick blanket of snow. Snuggled inside the house with a hot cup of tea, I quietly looked out into the strange landscape, a blend of snow storm and wind driven fog, its milky atmosphere so thick it reduced visibility to only a few feet. From this eerie cloud that melted into the ground pulling and swirling like translucent taffy, snow kept sifting down, first icy and windswept, then thick, serene and fluffy, then windswept again.

The chill set the watery blanket into its surroundings and for a few days everything looked frozen in place, totally still.

It’s warmer now, and most of the snow already melted, except a few shady patches on the north side, but I know snow will visit again, and thankfully so. There is good moisture and protection in it for the plants, who, even when asleep underground, are very much alive. Mother nature never lets us forget the natural order of the seasons, and winter is the season for cold weather, rest and renewal. So, I’m resting and renewing.

Of course with the predictions of Punxsutawney Phil only two short weeks away, I’m not going to question the inspired wisdom of the famous rodent on whether or not we’re going to have six more weeks of winter, I just want to point out that if it’s February, it’s supposed to be cold, and, just looking back on the last ten years, when did we ever see spring before April, like, ever?

That being said, I engage, pleasantly if not enthusiastically, in “winter gardening activities”, words I can never put together in a phrase without a chuckle. That usually means getting lost in daydreams about gardens in bloom and swooning over beautiful pictures in landscaping books.

It’s too early for nursery catalog orders and the garden planning for spring was done in the fall, as was the cleaning and storing of tools and supplies. If I learned anything in twenty years of gardening, is the art of patience and the wisdom of waiting on activities until their time has come. The garden always does.




Under the snow

One of the best things about winter is that one doesn’t feel guilty about indulging in a little pampering. After all, the weather is god-awful, there isn’t a lot of activity in the garden, and dry winter skin gives one every justification for a well needed home spa session.

There is a lot said dry skin can enjoy at this time of year, right from the kitchen cupboards and pantry: a hydrating and nourishing oatmeal, clay and honey mask, warm herb infused oils to smooth out rough skin, just a little lemon juice to strengthen and brighten brittle nails, a blend of essential oils for fragrance.

Skin needs to be fed, hydrated and protected throughout the year, but at no time more than in the middle of winter, when a disciplined regimen of care is essential.

Here is a blend for a very nourishing cream that comes in handy when cold temperatures and biting wind chill stop by, it just skips the water based components and goes straight for the fats and oils. It also smells like a tropical island, which is great for shaking off the winter doldrums.

Add one tablespoon of almond oil to six tablespoons of coconut oil and one tablespoon of cocoa butter. Melt it all together in a double boiler, until completely blended, and add twelve drops of lemon or grapefruit essential oil. Pour it in jars and let it blend and solidify for twenty four hours. Not only will your skin thank you, but lemon oil draws out toxins from your system and stimulates the function of the lymphatic system to reduce puffiness.

If you want an extra dose of vitamins that skin especially loves, you can replace the almond oil with avocado oil, but the latter takes a little longer to be absorbed into the skin.




Weird wind effects

The wind works some strange effects sometimes, as you can see demonstrated in this footed planter. I took a stroll through the sleepy landscape, but quite frankly, that’s what one expects to see in mid-January.

I just remembered that the hellebores will start out very soon, especially since the cold let out. They seemed to be in pretty good shape, so I’m guessing they’re going to bloom early.


Heucheras

Again, a testimony to the warm winter, the coral bells didn’t lose their foliage. This beauty is part of a new shade garden that is coming along nicely, especially since I planted a lot of new spring bulbs last fall. There will be daffodils, and crocuses, and even a few tulips to keep it company.

The thing is, I usually forget what I planted, which makes for pleasant surprises come spring. I can hardly contain my anticipation.


WEEK THREE

January 17th - Still cold


Eighteen and snowing

I woke up this morning to a wispy snow flurry, the thin and icy kind that comes about when temperatures drop too low. Eighteen degrees, to be precise. It settled, unsure, in a thin, powdery layer that still lets the ground show through.

I almost hesitated to disturb the pristine cover when I went out into the back yard to put seed in the bird feeder. It doesn’t feel cold, though, I don’t know why, just eerily quiet and still, like it is in winter sometimes, as if the thin layer of snow absorbed all the sounds.

As the temperatures slowly rose the flurry turned more substantial and kept churning steadily but didn’t accumulate.

I don’t like winter, just saying.

On a more cheerful note, it seems it’s going to warm up even more over the next few days, whatever that means, considering it’s still winter, and to celebrate this I gave the nursery catalogs a first glance.

Designing the garden is the most important step and a task that usually becomes an afterthought, a consequence of random impulse buys that happen as the endless rows of blooming beauties entice you at the plant nursery.

As it is with fashion, not everything that looks good in the display window is going to fit you or meet your needs. You need to know your garden well before you start dressing it up, so to speak. Here are three important characteristics that make or break your landscape design, and they are things you can’t do much about, at least not without extreme effort: soil pH, sun levels, and climate zone. In theory, the soil chemistry can be altered to make it anything you want, but if that were easy, raised garden beds would have never been invented. One observation, soil is heavy and tends to revert to its natural state, because the conditions that made it acidic or alkaline in the first place are still there.

Garden enthusiasts usually pay attention to the last two characteristics when bringing plants home, but not the first one, even though the soil acidity makes all the difference to the plants, which have adapted to draw nourishment from a very specific combination of elements. So, before you even start thinking about what plants to add, do a quick soil test. I wish I’d thought of that before I brought those azaleas home; they would have been much better off left at the store.



About soil pH

So, since I brought it up, a little more information about soil pH.

The alkaline soil is quite easy to recognize, it’s usually clay, heavy, and out in the open, away from any large trees and shrubs, whose annual leaf drop helps acidify the soil. It tends to dry out on the surface, but deep down it keeps moisture better than other soil types, and plants who had time to develop a good root system thrive in it. It is usually found in the open plains and arid areas.

The acidic soil usually goes hand in hand with woodland settings, it is loose and crumbly, smells like humus and would dry out very quickly if it weren’t usually found in areas with heavy rainfall, which tends to wash out some of the elements in the soil and increase its acidity.

The ideal soil, the Holy Grail of gardening, seldom found in nature, is deep black, rich and buttery, holds on to its water, is not as heavy as clay, but still gives the roots some substance to sink into, and it is pH neutral. It is very fertile, and usually doesn’t happen all by itself, but as a result of adding natural fertilizers, tilling nitrogen rich crops back into the soil and regular turning.

See, now I don’t have to test my soil to know that it is alkaline: the hellebores, yarrows, lilacs, delphiniums, purple cone flowers, geraniums, sedums, magnolia and phlox are all proof of that. I just wish I did a soil test before I bothered planting astilbe, lupines and azaleas.

Who loves acidic soils, beside the three plants I just mentioned? Rhododendrons, holly, gardenias and camellias.

What grows in pH neutral soils? Mostly anything that doesn’t require a very acidic or alkaline medium. That means almost all vegetables, except for the brassicas, which don’t like sour soils, and herbs, although the latter tend to favor alkaline soils too, true to the conditions of their native habitat. As you may have guessed already, by their even distribution in acidic and alkaline gardens alike, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squashes don’t much care one way or another, as long as they are well fed.

Hydrangeas are the classic acid test for the plant world: as we know, they turn blue in acidic soils an pink in alkaline ones. This makes for an interesting gardening challenge, but unfortunately I never managed to keep mine alive. In neutral soil their flowers stay greenish white.

Most plants can tolerate a deviation from the soil acidity they are accustomed to, but if you have a really acidic soil, don’t try lilacs or grapevine. They won’t thrive, no matter what you do.




Big flowers

Peonies like neutral soil, very slightly on the acidic side. Mine don’t seem to care that the pH needle veers off into the sweet zone a little, they love their sunny location where they bloom abundantly.

They are one of those plant it and forget it flowers that thrive on neglect, but you have to be patient, because they need three full years to mature.


Little drops of perfume

Speaking of acidic soil lovers, how about lily of the valley? It tends to become invasive under such conditions, but they will tolerate neutral to sweet soils, where they behave themselves.

They are slow growing in my garden, tucked as they are in the shade of a large evergreen shrub, but they are reliable bloomers and quite delightful.


WEEK FOUR

January 23rd - January bloom


Right on time

I wasn’t sure if I should go out in the garden and attempt to take pictures, ‘cause what are you gonna find in this climate in the middle of winter, and then I remembered the hellebores. What a glorious plant that is, evergreen and blooming in January as if weather is not one of its concerns!

I had them in the back yard for a few years and still can’t adjust to the idea of winter bloom, especially since spring seems to make us wait longer and longer each year, or maybe it just feels like that to me, because I loathe the cold season.

Hellebores own the garden for almost two months, the only flowers in bloom until the early spring bulbs come along, then they share the garden with the other spring perennials for another two months, and boast of the fruitfulness of their very pregnant seed heads until the middle of June.

They bloom in the sunshine, they bloom in the shade. They like dry clay, poor soil, neglect and overcrowding. Are these for real?

Gardeners say hellebores don’t like their roots disturbed. Before I learned this, I dug mine out in the middle of summer, unceremoniously chopped them up into small clumps and used them to populate an area of the garden that is as close to dry shade as it gets before it gets labeled impossible to plant. They loved it.

Now I have an entire garden of hellebores, and here is a picture of them, blooming faithfully at the end of January, right on schedule.



Hyacinth

I could never resist a hyacinth. I always plant some in the fall, of course, and am sure the squirrels and rabbits really appreciate my efforts, so every year I end up replenishing the fall bulb supply with full grown winter plants, which spend a few weeks of pampered bloom indoors and are then planted in the back yard as soon as the weather allows.

A few considerations about growing bulbs, and hyacinths in particular.

They need to be watered consistently, they are among the plants that really don’t tolerate drought, and a good mulching and fertilizing will keep them coming back stronger year after year, because it allows them to replenish their nutrient stores, instead of exhausting them.

Planting depth for bulbs is a very important factor, and one of the reasons flower bulbs don’t perform as well as expected. Daffodils, hyacinths and tulips for instance, need to be planted four and six inches deep, whereas Madonna lilies and irises like to lay right under the soil surface, their roots barely covered.

When hyacinths are planted in shallow beds, if they by some miracle happen to make it through the winter uneaten, they will emerge too soon and get hit by the frost before they have a chance to bloom.

Even though they are woodland plants, they like full sun and prefer neutral to alkaline soils, but they will tolerate slightly acidic conditions if the medium is well drained and nutrient rich.

Layering bulbs over late spring, summer and fall blooming perennials will allow their foliage to die down to the ground in its own time, without creating empty or unsightly spots in the flower bed. The plants will compete for nutrients and moisture in this setting, so remember to double down on watering and fertilizing. Did I mention bulbs really don’t like dry soil?

People expect bulbs to exhaust themselves in a few years, and this is why some gardeners treat them like annuals and replant them every year, but that can’t be the case, because if it were so whole plant species would have been extinguished a long time ago. Quite the opposite, under the right circumstances the bulbs split and the clumps expand quickly, as everybody who had the pleasure of growing irises can testify.

I’m sure somewhere on earth there is a place that exhibits the ideal growing conditions for hyacinths, a place where they thrive beyond their wildest dreams. Given that they originated in Turkey, I assume the aforementioned miracle soil must be around that area somewhere.

Just don’t forget to water them.



Old faithful

Seven years old and still growing strong. The middle of winter used to be its peak blooming season, but my beautiful cyclamen seems to have figured out that it is an indoor plant, and therefore doesn’t need to go dormant in the summer anymore, so it has flowers all year round, with no particular preference for a season.

It bloomed consistently all through the summer and fall, and now it looks like it’s preparing for the big flush of flowers that comes around just in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s got the right colors and everything.


Flowers in winter

Every January reminds me how happy I am that I planted these faithful shade companions in my. It is a real luxury to have flowers in winter if you live in zone five, and hellebores never disappoint. These resilient January bloomers perform even better in years with lots of snow, when their flowers emerge from under the white blanket fully formed, like Venus from the sea foam.

It seems that the big snow didn’t visit us this time, so their buds are developing out in the open. They seem slightly peeved about the exposure. I moved a lot of their offspring to the other shade areas, but I don’t think they’re not old enough to bloom.


WEEK FIVE

February 1st - Seeds


February sowing

If you thought February is when the gardener has nothing to do but wait for spring, that would not be correct: February is planting time.

Every year in the middle of winter my otherwise serene living room turns into a wild jungle, and for two blessed months I live inside a miniature greenhouse. It’s not all fun and games, of course, and between the water and dirt spilling on the carpet on my side, and the lack of appropriate lighting and the mold promoted by the excessive humidity of the starting trays on the plants’ side, come April I look forward to moving the little sprouts outdoors, and they do too. For now, however, their presence is nothing short of bliss.

Because the tomatoes tend to develop too fast and grow leggy and chlorotic if they get more than six weeks indoors, I always make the mistake to plant all the seeds late, and when the last frost passes I have to transplant outside small and wispy perennial seedlings that subsequently have trouble adjusting to the transition. Compared to the little cocoon of their starting tray, the vastness of the garden feels way too harsh for the little plants.

If you ever planted annuals and perennials together, no doubt you noticed that the perennials, programmed for longer life, are neither in a hurry to germinate, nor eager to sprout every one of their seeds. They take their sweet time to emerge, three weeks, four, even longer, during which the wise gardener keeps watering bare dirt, nervously chewing on his or her fingernails and feeling more and more inadequate as time progresses. At the end of this nail biting period, rarefied seedlings sprout. They are never vigorous and fast growing like the ones in the picture, and the gardener spends another couple of weeks wondering if they’re going to grow big and strong or give up the ghost. The few triumphant plants that decided to grace the seed pods linger for a few days longer between growing leggy and forgoing the opportunity altogether.

When the fittest specimens finally start to develop, it’s usually time to plant, and what looks like a strong, healthy start in the seed pod suddenly appears tiny and helpless in the barren dirt, still dry in the chilly spring, easily overtaken by any annual that sprouts in its vicinity, be it flower or weed, and looking for any excuse to check out.

And this is why this year I decided to give the perennial seedlings an extra month, which starts right now.


Warm sunshine

Maybe the groundhog is right after all, the temperatures have been in the fifties and sixties in the last five days, and last night, when it rained, I saw lightning and heard thunder.

After the rain cleared we’re looking at periwinkle skies. The sun is shining, it’s warm, and it suddenly makes you remember what spring is like, what summer is like, and the fact that they are going to be here soon. I’m giddy.

Maybe this year, if we’re spared the traditional April hard freeze, the magnolia is going to bloom again, and the trees will keep their blossoms long enough for me to take some pictures.

The blades of spring bulbs are already out, and in a burst of enthusiasm I decided to trust them that winter is winding down. I miss daffodils!

There is a humid scent in the air, a smell of humus mixed with a delicate fragrance I can’t identify, tree blossoms maybe, or primroses, a fragrance which, quite frankly, it is very unlikely at this time of year.

I haven’t gone on the spring garden tour yet, the plants are still sleeping under their thin winter blanket of barren leaves, the ones that fell after the first snow.

The young hellebores I transplanted in barren areas of the shade garden have grown so big I can’t believe it. Just in case you’re wondering if hellebores grow from seed, the answer is try and stop them! The thing is, none of the young ones bloomed yet, so I don’t know if they came true to the original breed. The mommy is a White Spotted Lady, it will be interesting to see what the offspring looks like.


What to plant outdoors

There are a few annuals that don’t get any benefit from being sown early indoors, either because they don’t take kindly to transplanting, or because they grow so fast they’re not worth the fuss of setting up seed pods. All the cucurbits, beans and annual vines, especially those with hard, wooden seeds feature on the list.

Another group includes the cold season annuals, like calendulas, snapdragons, poppies and love-in-a-mist, whose seeds need to be sown in the fall and spend the winter in the ground in order to thrive. If planted in spring they won’t have enough time to mature and bloom before the weather gets cold again.


What's in a name

Maples seeds are samaras, clematis inflorescences are diaspores, dandelions bear cypselae, cherries and plums seeds are pyrenes, and grass seeds are called grains.

Birches and willows bloom catkins or aments, dills and fennels carry umbels, hawthorns and rowans produce corymbs, a Calla lily or Jack in the pulpit flower is called a spadix.

Daisies and sunflowers bear capitula and they are not real flowers anyway, black cohosh blooms racemes, oats carry panicles, geranium flowers are cymes and dead nettles produce verticillasters.

Admiring a beautiful flower will never be the same again.


WEEK SIX

February 8th - Valentine's Day


Garden valentine

Valentine’s Day brought with it the mandatory winter weather event, complete with sub-zero temperatures, snow showers, and light levels lower than those of the White Nights. Got to love February!

So, since nature banished me indoors, I grabbed a steaming cup of coffee and spent a couple of blissful hours shopping for seeds online. After getting all set for the spring planting, my renewed enthusiasm pushed me to organize the seed box, only to find out, to my surprise, that I already have a full vegetable garden inside it. I eagerly rummaged through the box, delighting in one seed packet after another, my lovely and colorful garden valentines.

The discovery gave me the motivation to get out, chancing frostbite, and grab the starting trays and the potting soil, in order to plant the seeds I found. Now I have to be patient and wait for the new ones to come in the mail.

The peppers, the hot peppers, the eggplants, the spider flowers and the delphiniums are in their pods, covered, watered and labeled. It’s hard to describe the joy of seeing the first tiny sprouts emerge, and I have that to look forward to for the rest of the month.

The cat witnessed the unusual activity with her customary curiosity, stepping in the empty seed pods before and lifting the lid to sniff the wet potting medium after the planting.

Towards the evening it started snowing again, and the stingy light dimmed all the way down.


Tree blossom symbolism

I will continue with the love and romance theme, since it’s Valentine’s Day and all, a day when the meanings of cut flowers suddenly rise to prominence, fact made evident by the dire scarcity of red roses around this blessed date. On this day it is impossible to escape the knowledge that the flower of love represents, well, love and passion, but did you know that tree blossoms have symbolism associated with them too?

Citrus blossoms have been forever associated with weddings, and were traditionally used to make crowns and headpieces for the brides, because they represent chastity, fidelity, innocence and fruitfulness and are thought to express eternal love.

Cherry blossoms have different connotations, according to cultural customs. While held to represent both the beauty and the fragility of life in Japan, they are a symbol of feminine beauty and power in China.

Linden blossoms are said to inflame lust, but are also the purveyors of protection, luck and the essence of immortality.

Apple blossoms stand for love, hope, happiness and beauty. A flowering apple tree in the garden brings abundance, balance and peace to the household and encourages artistic endeavors.

Plum blossoms represent long life, strength, courage, fidelity and promises fulfilled. They are usually considered a symbol of steadfastness and wisdom. Not too far removed, the blossoms of their cousins, the peach trees, are another favorite of wedding decorators, because they are said to usher in long life and good fortune. To continue on the same theme, the pear tree blossoms honor motherhood, and embody its tender, hopeful love.

To compliment mature beauty, bring pomegranate blossoms, which suggest grace and elegance, or almond blossoms, whose silver white flowers seem to reflect the poise of old age and its contemplative, caring nature.

Bay flowers, as expected, are a symbol of victory, fame and glory, and the pure white magnolia flowers represent women’s beauty.

Flower symbolism is not restricted to fruit trees, for instance the black locust flowers mean platonic love, the elderflowers humility and kindness, and the chestnut flowers a search for justice.

Last, but not least, the helicopter seeds are seen as messengers from above. I’m just bringing that up to put you in a better mood for when they are delivered abundantly over every square inch of your planted garden bed from where you’ll have to subsequently clean them up by hand. Those things can get into any crevice, no matter how small, I swear! I had mini-maple trees grow out of the cracks in the concrete pavers, stick out of the gutters and grow sideways from the walls.


How to care for hyacinths

The potted bulbs are too tempting to resist, so blooming hyacinths always make their way to my window sill at the end of winter. After the delightfully fragrant indulgence had stopped blooming, cut the faded flower stalks and keep the soil moist until the weather is warm enough to plant the bulbs in the garden.

The foliage must be allowed to die down naturally, so the bulbs have a chance to replenish their food and energy reserves for the following spring. Don’t let the soil dry out and they won’t mind a bit of bone meal worked into the soil in the fall.



Love

Flowers in general are associated with love, but some more than others. Roses go without saying, but there is also jasmine for unconditional love, asters - the love talisman, balsam for ardent love, red carnation for romantic, passionate love, clove for undying love, tulips, but only if they are red or purple, primrose for eternal love.

I guess that brings the point across. Of course, pretty much every flower inspired to a folk tale, and most of them are about love too. Some are hopeful, some are sad, but then again, such is life.


WEEK SEVEN

February 15th - New page


Drops of sunshine

The cheerful blossoms of these early buttercups enjoyed a few days of seventy degree temperatures and now they are staring, confused, at the thick, fluffy snow that came out of nowhere. The caprices of weather bewilder plant life again, as they often do in February.

The first set of seedlings already emerged, most of the annual flowers and some very enthusiastic bell peppers, eager to enjoy the sunshine and a little taken aback by the meager light of an overcast sky. The perennials are, of course, taking their sweet time, some of them need weeks to sprout, but they’re worth the wait.

Since the one gardening task I had planned for this month is already completed, I turned my attention to the gardener’s calendar for February, where I learned the following facts.

If you plan on planting any trees or shrubs, this is the time, provided the ground is soft enough to be worked. Once the buds swell on the branches it’s already too late.

It is not too early to plant tomatoes, but since mine always make it to the garden later rather than sooner, compliments of the unpredictable April weather, I’ll wait another week or two.

Since the days are longer, the indoor plants will soon start growing again, so now would be a good time to resume feeding them. Oops! I should have learned this two months ago; they look no worse for the wear, though.





Spring bulbs

The bulbs I plant in the fall sometimes don’t make it through the winter, but the potted bulbs I get from the grocery store in January always do. I finally figured out that happens because bulbs with fully grown foliage usually get planted at the required depth.

Most of the hyacinths that dress up the garden year after year have spent a few weeks on the window sill in the kitchen. Two days ago, deceived by the summer like weather, I took the opportunity to plant this year’s batch of potted bulbs in the garden, and I don’t think they are too happy to be there right now, but they’ll be coming back next year. Who knows, with a little luck they might even bloom again before the end of spring.

Yesterday a thick rain washed the garden clean, wiped the skies clear and periwinkle blue and brought with it a rainbow. I took a walk through the garden after the rain and I could already see the tips of violets peeking through the ground, despite the fact that it’s so early still. The drumming of the rain lulled me to sleep and was shocked to wake up to a snowy landscape, my heart still dreaming of summer.

I long for the rain, the morning sunshine in June, the song of the nightingale before dawn, the lightning, the thunder, the sound of the breeze ruffling the leaves, the scent of heated grass on sweltering afternoons. There is no saving grace to winter, what a pointless season!

Yesterday, for a few blessed hours, I remembered summer, and it was just as beautiful as I remembered, and I wished it lingered, but it seems one can’t have June in February, no matter how much one might wish.





Rosy blush

One of the few hellebores that decided to bloom. They are very late this year, I don’t know why but the plants usually do. None of the other spring flowers seem to be in a rush either.

The good news is that in the absence of a hard freeze the southern magnolia kept its leaves through the winter, so I hope this year it will have enough energy left to bloom again.




First bloom

The first spring blooms, the hepaticas and the buttercups, are not here yet. I’m waiting for that wonderful moment in spring when all the plants shoot out of the ground together, as if they all got the message that it’s safe to sprout.

Over a few blessed days the garden comes back to life suddenly, and then all of a sudden, summer is there, and I am dreaming of those days while the latest February sleet rolls around. What else is a gardener to do to pass the time during this godawful season?


WEEK EIGHT

February 22nd - Flowers


Finally

Given that the hellebores finally decided to bloom, I think spring arrived, and by the look of it, we’re going to experience it in a blink again. Temperatures have been consistently in the sixties and seventies and abundant rain brought the reluctant vegetation back to life.

Every March mother nature tries to trick me into planting early, but after more than a decade of gardening I know better than to plant anything frost tender before the third week of April. That rule doesn’t apply to garden cleaning, however, and if the weather continues to be warm, this would be the perfect time to spruce up the garden in anticipation of the new growth.

To this end I took a stroll around the yard in order to assess the magnitude of the task, which always looks more daunting than it actually is. Of course, the hardy perennials don’t abide by the “don’t plant until April” rule, and they have already grown significantly underneath the yard debris, and the sight of their arrested growth usually guilts me into cleaning the flower beds.

There are crocuses and daffodils, and magnolias in bloom, and of course the Lenten roses, which are very late this year, but particularly enthusiastic.

My curiosity was finally satisfied: the baby hellebores that the Painted Lady volunteered two years ago have started blooming, and they are hybrids! The greenish white of the mother plant blended with the dull burgundy of the pollinator and yielded a delightful rose gradient and large flowers with yellow middles that look almost like Alba roses. I am a proud breeder, even though they did it all by themselves.

Otherwise, nothing much going on, at least nothing I can see until I scrape off the dried up yard waste to see what’s underneath. Lots of work between now and next week.


Periwinkle

Periwinkle doesn’t usually bloom this early, it’s been a strange spring. I’m so glad to have had a milder, shorter winter for a change and I’m keeping my fingers crossed not to jinx its intention to leave us sooner than usual.

It was so quiet in the garden this morning, so peaceful under the crude sunshine of early spring, that for a second I set aside the activities that had brought me outside to listen to the silence and watch the perfect dance of the tree shadows on the ground, their contours still dappled and airy in the absence of foliage.

It feels strange to see a barren garden when the weather is so warm, March is a weird month no matter what the weather. Indoors the little seedlings that sprouted in the seed pods are coming along nicely, even those that came with the warning of erratic germination.

I started a lot of wildflowers this year, some medicinals, some meadow natives, and of course the vegetables, can’t skip them! It is hard to imagine, when they emerge from their tiny cells, that some of the fragile sprouts which can barely hold the weight of two tiny seed leaves on their long sappy stems will grow six foot tall come July. Life is a miracle indeed.

Meanwhile their older, more resilient outdoor relatives have started leafing out vigorously under the windswept layer of dried up leaves and stems.


Under the rain

Because the weather is so warm, yesterday we had a storm with heavy skies, thick lightening and booming thunder. The clouds weighed dark and low over the land, the way they do in the heat of summer, as they dumped their excess water to the ground.

Washed clean after the rain, the hellebores flaunt a glut of flowers. I’m so looking forward to summer! There buds on the clematis are already swelling.


The last buttercups

I’m a little late with this photo. Unlike most of the vegetation, the buttercups bloomed and faded on time, but I didn’t have the necessary enthusiasm to go out in the sullen garden and photograph them on time.

When the sun came out and the clouds cleared after a few days of rain, they had almost completed their flowering cycle for the year. Oh, well.


WEEK NINE

February 29th - Leap year


Crocus cheer

And here I thought that crocuses didn’t like my garden! To be fair, I never tried the yellow ones before, but I also thought the lack of acidity in the soil didn’t agree with them. Apparently I was wrong.

I’ll take the opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions about spring bulbs.

Shade tolerance

Because they come from the forest, people assume they will tolerate a fair amount of shade. They will tolerate it, but they won’t bloom. Remember that the trees are still bare when these beauties bloom, early in spring, and that makes the forest floor quite sunny and bright. They perform much better in the sunshine. As a general rule, the “shade tolerant” label basically means they won’t die. Immediately.

No maintenance

Just because you don’t see them for three quarters of the year, that doesn’t mean the bulbs don’t have needs. They really don’t tolerate drought well, so remember to water them deep and often during the summer, and like all plants benefit from a good feeding every now and then. They should get a good helping of bone meal when they are planted, and a few handfuls for top dressing in the fall. They also need to keep their foliage until it dies down naturally, which creates a little bit of a challenge for the neat and tidy gardener.

Yearly planting

Bulbs are treated almost like annuals, because it is assumed that between the ones that get eaten over the fall and the ones that die down due to exhausting their food reserves, drought or being accidentally dug up, there will not be many of them left from one year to the next. If they find favorable conditions, they will live for many years and the clumps will grow larger, just like they do in the wild. I have a clump of white hyacinths that doubled in size since I planted it five years ago. I noticed it is much easier to plant at the right depth and keep alive the potted bulbs with foliage, and this was one of them. Also it is planted in full sunshine, in an area that is fed and watered regularly and has benefited from amending the soil.

Short blooming season

The tulips are exclusively responsible for this criticism, most spring bulbs stay in bloom for weeks, the grape hyacinths will don flowers for almost two months, and so will some of the summer bulbs, like liatris. Depending on the cultivar, lilies can have a reasonably long blooming time. Anyway, the bulbs that lack in range make it up in volume, so by all means, do plant irises.




Love and happiness

Ish. Still reluctant to bloom in my back yard, the daffodils presented the mandatory yearly flower and then called it quits. Maybe it’s still early. Maybe they’re just not that into me. Maybe they’re just like shaking the ketchup bottle, you keep planting them and planting them and they all come out in one big glop when you least expect it. Who knows? I try not to take it personally and obsess over being dissed by the poet’s favorites while the giant flowered clematis and the hellebores bend over backwards to make me happy.

Every garden has a personality, it has likes and dislikes that need to be respected if you want it to thrive, and mine is very peculiar about what it will allow to grow. In defiance of the classic advice my flower beds go by the motto “if at first you don’t succeed quit wasting your time trying it again”. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, like changes in sun exposure for instance, but they are few and far between. I have bleeding hearts that thrive in a patch of dirt so petrified even the weeds hesitate to challenge it, but daffodils? Not so much.

It’s not that bulbs don’t like that soil, see those spectacular crocuses above? There are also the prolific grape hyacinths, some quite happy and floriferous toad lilies, lush fragrant hostas and even hyacinths when the spirit moves them. I had a Casablanca lily towering over my head summer after summer for years, so tall and heavy with flowers that it needed staking.

So I’m going to respect the daffodils’ wishes and stop trying to cultivate them. I’ll just stare in disbelief at the ones in the front yard, the ones that came with the property and have been there forever. Every year their clumps grow larger and bloom masses and masses of flowers in full shade on the north side of the house, oblivious to the fact that they are literally smothered by ivy.


Almost March

If it weren’t for the leap year, this would be a March article already, but it is leap year, isn’t it? If you don’t like the concept of a extended February, you can blame Julius Cesar for it. I wish he added the day to June instead, but nobody asked me. I looked up February 29 and a lot of interesting trivia popped up, of which I selected one.

The mascot of leap day is the leap frog. I guess the symbolism of this choice doesn’t require explaining.


Hepatica in bloom

Hepatica sprung up finally, with the delicate but deceivingly resilient blossoms of a woodland native. The crocuses and daffodils out staged it this year, it gets a little bit lost in the exuberance of yellows in the garden.

I divided it a couple of years ago, but it looks like the new plant isn’t ready to bloom yet. The fact that it is in a shadier location probably didn’t help.


WEEK TEN

March 7th - Hyacinths


Spring garden activities

Two days after planting the tomato seeds I lifted the plastic lid off the starting tray to see if it needed watering and was startled by plants that had already grown one inch out of the ground. For those unfamiliar with starting tomatoes from seed, their germination rate is one hundred percent, so adding the few extras in order to ensure something will sprout is really unnecessary.

I decided to stick with Supersweet 100 and Brandywine and, lessons learned from experience, didn’t plant the entire packet again. Just because there are so many seeds in the packet, it doesn’t mean you have to use them all up. You’d be surprised how many years it took me to figure that one out.

Thus displaying restraint I ended up with a reasonable number of plants, nine of each variety to be specific, which will be more than enough for the needs of my tiny garden. I’m trying to make sure they don’t crowd the bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplants and squashes and topple their supports again.

What does that have to do with hyacinths, you ask? Not much. The beautiful spring bulbs were in bloom and I wanted to show them off. I’m working up the enthusiasm to start spring cleaning, oh, dreary task, and have ran out of excuses to put it off: the weather is great, the perennials have already started coming out of the ground and the weeds are intruding upon the herb garden.

Today I found three violets in bloom.

This year’s garden is going to have an interesting color scheme, it’s all asters, goat’s rue, vervain and bells of Ireland. I’ve never grown green flowers before.

I’m still waiting to see buds on the flowering trees, but there is no sign of them yet. I wonder why.


Bulb propagation

If you would like to try your hand at serious bulb propagation, a method often used by professional growers, especially for hyacinths, is called scooping, and it is known to produce up to thirty bulblets from a single bulb.

Clean and dry a large and healthy hyacinth bulb and scoop out the basal plate, together with the shoot and flower bud at the center. If possible, apply fungicide to discourage the development of mold. Stick the cored bulb upside down, buried about half way in coarse wet sand and keep the container in a warm, dark location, making sure the sand stays moist.

In about twelve weeks bulblets should have formed in the scooped out area, and at this time you should take the hatching bulb and plant it in the garden, bublets and all, right side up.

After a winter in the garden you can dig it up, remove the rotten matter around the bulbs and plant them individually in the desired locations. Keep in mind that it takes about five years for the bulblets to reach maturity, but this method presents the advantage of yielding large crops with very well controlled characteristics.

There are a few variations of this method, the bulb can be scored or cored, which are just different means of removing the basal plate and the center shoot, but the rest of the procedure is very similar. Cored bulbs produce larger flowers and take less time to mature.

Of course, you can just chip or twin-scale the bulbs, a process very similar to making a blooming onion, but without removing the basal plate and the filaments, and separating the pieces so that every chip or slice has a portion with roots attached. When placed in a constantly moist medium the chips will develop bulblets at their base in about three months, after which they can be planted. The method usually yields sixteen to thirty two bulblets, depending on the size of the mother bulb.

For scaly bulbs that are loosely packed together, like those of lilies, irises and amaryllis, the work is a lot easier, they can just be dug up, have their scales separated from the mother bulb and planted in a different location. This natural process of propagation is a lot slower and produces fewer bulbs, but the plants usually reach maturity in a couple of years. No new bulbs will bloom sooner than two years, so be patient with them. I’m still waiting on my amaryllis bulb, which has very healthy foliage, but hasn’t bloomed in three years.


March calendar

Things to do in March:

Plant and graft trees and shrubs, plant bare root roses and prune the established ones, plant cold weather vegetables like peas, carrots, beets and cabbage, do the spring cleaning and treat against pests and diseases before the dormant plants leaf out, fertilize shrubs and trees, divide and transplant summer and fall perennials, weed, assess the condition of the lawn and seed bald patches, mend broken gates, fences and trellises and prepare the flower beds.

That was a mouthful.


Garden hygiene

Because March is a month that sees intensive usage of pruning shears it is worth bringing up the issue of basic gardening hygiene. Make sure to clean and disinfect all cutting implements with alcohol to make sure that you don’t bring pathogens into the fresh cut, which to a plant is what a wound is to a person.

Remove all old foliage from under the trees and shrubs and burn anything that looks diseased or pest infested. Some fungi like to overwinter in the soil and return to damage the plants year after year, powdery mildew for example, so if you noticed a problem, treat the soil around the plant with a fungicide before the leaves appear.


favorite


WEEK ELEVEN

March 15th - One bright morning in the back yard


Little miracles

The amount of time I spend contemplating the fresh seedlings in the starting tray would probably irritate an action oriented person. I would likely have some difficulty explaining to that person the wonderment of seeing the first set of leaves emerge, or the excitement of watching the tiny shoots develop from delicate strands barely hanging on to life to healthy plants ready to withstand whatever circumstances bring.

Starting plants from seed is especially rewarding when you know what the plants will end up looking like, when you see, for instance, a proud six foot delphinium in that wispy and uncertain bit of greenery that at this point could be just about anything. When they first come out of the ground, most of the plants look exactly the same: two opposite leaves with no indentations on a gangly stem that can snap under its own weight.

So, I wait for the second set of leaves to emerge, and those are nothing like the first, and I’m excited to finally be able to tell the tomatoes from the peppers and the calendulas from the marigolds without having to read the labels, which have faded by now from the humidity under the lid of the starting tray.

I scan carefully for the little tell tale grains of dirt that look like they have been thrust up, and gently move them out of the way to find disappointment when they are covering nothing, or joy when they have been lifted out up by the rounded head of a sprout pushing through.

Days pass and the barely visible threads turn into straggly plants under my very eyes. A more action oriented person would, right about now, lose patience with all this navel gazing; after all they’re just plants, as far as life is concerned it doesn’t get any lower than that, what is there to look at?

Meanwhile life’s little miracles keep going, undeterred by having been relegated to the status of lesser life forms, churning up new growth and stretching their necks towards the window to get their fair share of the sunlight.


The favorites of spring

Every summer I plan to thin the violets and every summer I change my mind at the last minute, and this picture is the reason why. How can I pull these delicate flowers that cover the earth in spring in every shade of blue between aqua and indigo?

Sweet violets are to the flower bed what Pac-Man is to the dots in the maze: they consume all the space available to them and then fly out to greener pastures in search for more. Their rapacious spreading habits are fed by two biological advantages: they are irrepressible seeders and they also spread by runners. I guess I have to add reason number three: who can look at their innocent heart shaped leaves and their equally heart melting flowers and pull them?

Come summer, however, they act tougher than bar bouncers, no plant can intrude upon their territory. I’ve seen them win in battle against day lilies and hostas, and those are tough cookies.

Don’t judge a flower by its suave blossoms. No matter how determined you are to get rid of violets they will come back until you give up and let them run the show. I spread a few seeds a few years back on a bare patch of dirt in the shade. Nothing came out, so I forgot all about it, but a couple of years later they started sprouting stealthily here and there and now I have them in every corner of my yard.

There is one month of the year, the month of April, when none of this matters because then the world is covered in violets and you can only be happy about that.




Sunshine

More crocuses, they seem to be everywhere this year. I wonder if they’ll bloom again in the fall. The grape hyacinths on the other hand don’t seem to be too eager. In other years they would be ready to bloom by now.

The apple tree is still asleep but I can already see the rosy and white at the top of the crabapple. We’ve had so many hard winters I forgot when exactly are the trees supposed to bloom.


In the garden

I spent some time in the garden this morning, soaking up the sunshine. The clematis has sprung two new shoots and the old canes are leafing out already. The bleeding hearts and the delphiniums are already out, the early spring really suits them.

I’m so grateful that we had a mild winter for a change! The amount of effort vegetation has to put out in order to recover from a late hard freeze is simply exhausting.



WEEK TWELVE

March 22nd - Leafing out


Guacamole

Way to go spring foliage! It is another one of those springs that pass in a blink of an eye, I’m afraid. The landscape changed from winter to summer in two days. The grass is lush green and the trees will be full very soon.

The cherries are in bloom, so beautiful and fragrant, but the ground underneath is already covered in a blanket of petals. The hardy perennials are already almost a foot tall.

Forsythia is in bloom, which means that I have to prune the roses, those that need pruning anyway. The shrub variety already has leaves and unfortunately most of the roses that do need pruning died off, kind of.

I’m looking forward to the new one, which is supposed to arrive soon, if only I could remember what it was.

The weather is not going to fool me again this year. Every mid-March looks like this: periwinkle skies, beautiful green grass, perennials galore, and then I plant the annuals and freeze comes. No, thanks!

I will be waiting until the end of April and hope that the sneaky and deceitful weather doesn’t put off said frost till May, like it did the last time. Besides, giving the tiny sprouts another month to grow protected isn’t bad at all.

I finally got to see bluebells sprout, due to the inspiration to try another breeder, and even got blessed with a couple of delphiniums, even though the seeds were a little old.

The tomatoes are well on their way, and so are the peppers, eggplants and way more cleomes that I know what to do with. All the blue asters germinated. It’s going to be a beautiful summer!


Early spring border

The area I’m really looking forward to this year is the herb garden. I must have just the perfect soil for herbs, because they’re thriving, every one I planted doubled in size.

The herb patch concept started as a wheel, but the space allocated has the wrong shape, so it follows the wild and unruly personality of my garden instead and has no definite contours. It sometimes spills into the lawn, but more often than not grass grows into it, to my great chagrin. I’m very fastidious about keeping it free of intruders, nobody wants crabgrass in the turkey stuffing.

All of its inhabitants came out of winter with renewed enthusiasm, especially considering the fact that most of them are still donning their dried up winter wear. Suffice it to say the spring cleaning is not done yet. Oh, the shame!

When you plant herbs, remember that many of them will grow way beyond the space allocated to them and you will get a lot more plant material that you’re able to use. Don’t crowd them and go for variety, not quantity.


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