Sunday, January 25, 2009

Failure is No Excuse

I should have known better than to start seeds in the dead of winter. Cosmos, no less, which are heat lovers. But I needed pictures of the seed-starting process to accompany a PowerPoint presentation I'm prepping for my lecture catalogue.

I really thought it'd work. My large bay window faces west, and over the years has successfully launched a thousand seedlings. (though never in midwinter, admittedly) I gathered my favorite apparatus for germinating and growing. They include:

a) commercial seed-starting mixture (to exclude pathogens)

b) a clean plastic 6-pack leftover from pansies purchased in a previous spring

c) watering tray (a jelly-roll pan), Saran wrap (to serve as mini-greenhouse cover until germination)

d) a package of seeds from last year, stored in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator

I moistened the soil with warm water, and packed it gently into the plastic tray. I sowed the cosmos seeds and lightly covered them with dry mixture. I covered the entire tray with Saran wrap, and placed the setup on a floor heat register. As anticipated, germination took only 3 days. Then I placed the tray on the windowsill.

Big mistake.

As the days wore on, not only did the growing process abruptly slow; my little plants leaned and leaned toward the meager winter sun. They were starved for light, though I tried to tell myself that cosmos are leggy anyway. Not that leggy!

Then came one of our 5-degree nights. Even sheltered from the windowpane by honeycomb blinds, the temperature on the windowsill the next morning was 45 degrees. Half the seedlings had surrendured their souls to the inevitable. Prostrate they lay on the soil.

I gave up. I'll try again when the days are longer and the nights are warmer. The PowerPoint will have to wait on Mother Nature's largess.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Birds Get Thirsty, Too!

Winter can be a time of drought for north country birds. Available sources of water may be frozen, but our avian friends' needs for drinking and bathing remain. In harsh winters like the one we're experiencing this year, it's a kindness, indeed, a survival mechanism to provide a source of clean, reliable water. And if you wish to have bird buddies help keep your garden clean of noxious insect pests once spring arrives, it's wise to help them out now.

It's not that difficult. I keep the plastic birdbath attached to my deck rail, adjacent to the hanging finch feeder filled 12 months a year. Come mid-November and the first freezing nights, I string an extension cord some 12' from my screened porch to the birdbath, and plug in a small heating element which sits in the water. I've learned to anchor it with a stone, as in the past it's shifted in a high wind, or been dislodged by an eager jay. Such implements use little electricity, shut off when temperatures are above freezing or the water reservoir runs dry, do not harm the birds, and are available comercially in several modes. They keep the water just above freezing. (Mine is a Nelson Blue Devil, purchased 3 years ago at Agway, for approximately $40.)

The water must be kept clean, of course. The water quickly fouls without a twice-a-week attention. I use a soft-bristled brush saved for the birdbaths, and simply dump out the old water, swish the brush around a couple of times, then rinse and refill with a small pitcher of water I've brought along. Takes all of 3 minutes.

Birds have been know to eat snow, break off icicles, and even catch snowflakes to obtain needed water. But Nature doesn't always furnish icicles or snow, and anyway, who would deny themselves the sight of a small junco, wren or finch dipping its beak into the fresh, clean water you've provided these winged beauties?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hydrangeas I Have Loved

All gardeners favor certain plants; our penchant changes over the years as we develop expertise and daring. I'm currently enthralled by hydrangeas, and have been for the past several years.

What's not to love? These beauties offer 3-season color, lasting blossoms, structure in the garden, a range of hues from pure white and ivory to pink to lavendar, to blue, red-purple and on through to green. They're relatively deer-resistant, and increasingly hardy here in Zone 5. I plant at least one each year, and my collection has flourished to now include approximately ten different types. I'm already scouting the catalogues for my '09 baby. (maybe climbing hydrangea, H. petiolaris?

One of the varieties I put in last year was 'Lady in Red'. I'd seen her mentioned in several publications, and finally spied a well-grown specimen when Muriel and I visited the New York Botanical Garden last June. Oh my! The serrated leaves, flushed with red, the quantity of pink- shading to-antique-rose blooms, the full, old-fashioned arch of the branches....I knew I had to own one. Luckily, my local Agway had several. One landed in the bed of my truck and was soon at home in Back Yard Garden #1 (all my gardens have names), tucked in nicely between miscanthus 'Morning Light' and hosta 'Sagae'.

What other hydrangeas do I grow, and why? My all-time favorite is 'Preziosa', (see above, snugged in behind the perovskia and hydrangea 'Nikko Blue'). 'Preziosa' is an old variety, difficult to find in these parts. (though White Flower Farm offers it this year---good thinking!) It's a loosely rounded shrub, bearing a quantity of pink/rose/green/beige blooms from July to October. Its flowers dry beautifully. I also enjoy 'Glowing Embers', a deep burgandy. And 'Nikko Blue', which I find not too different in appearance from 'Endless Summer'. (Neither of the preceding two varieties dry well). 'Blushing Bride' is a petite wonder at the front edge of the White Pine Garden. I'm in awe of hydrangea paniculata 'Pinky Winky'. The colors! The size! And my blue lacecap, 'Bluebird', with a bit of assistance, blooms a deep blue each summer, though not for as long as the mopheads.

New to me is 'Let's Dance Starlight', a compact, deep-pink lacecap, and 'Limelight' which promises to bloom an intriguing yellow-green.

My hydrangeas have seldom been deer-nibbled, but I do apply repellent once a month, 12 months a year. I grow my garden in rich, compost-laden soil, and thus do not fertilize much, except for an occasional dusting of Milorganite, which is broadcast as part of my defeat-the-deer arsenal.

The whole issue of changing color on hydrangeas is best taken up in a future post, and will be.

It may be time for you to get back in touch with a shrub from grandmother's garden. Try hydrangea; you won't be sorry.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Last Bouquet of Autumn

The ground is frozen a good six inches deep by now, the first week in January. There are no flowers to be had in my gardens, not even a hardy Johnny-jump-up braving the frosty ground under the crabapples. There's no breath of spring evident, and therefore no bounty from Mother Earth's cloak to brighten my kitchen table.

But there is the last bouquet of autumn, picked in October when the garden was vibrant with late season color. The last bouquet, gathered every year as the autumn chores wind down, warms my heart as I await March, and the warmth of spring.

Hydrangea 'Glowing Embers' associates nicely with spiky astilbe 'Visions' fronds. Seed heads of sea oat grass dangle over the vase. A button of Japanese anemone rises from the center of the arrangement. Sedum 'Autumn Joy', of course. A frond of miscanthus. Air-dried 'Knockout' rose blossoms. All these, and more, adorn my winter vases each year. Their presence reminds me of the satisfaction derived from the gardening year gone by. The dried flowers provide a spark of interest in the days that are too short; the nights that are too cold. In their papery texture I sense the soil that grew them . The last bouquet of autumn sustains me, gives me the hope of a new year.

Spring will come again. The last bouquet of autumn proves it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Garden Catalogues

At 2:30 yesterday afternoon I dropped my busy schedule of de-Christmasing the house, fixed a mug of cocoa, and settled into my favorite armchair with a pack of sticky notes and a grateful sigh.

The White Flower Farm spring catalogue had arrived.

Now, I do find WFF a bit overpriced, but their offerings are varied, the prose breezy, and the pictures, delectable. And they're from my corner of the world, just a bit north of here, in Litchfield, CT. My modus operandi with each of my favorite catalogues is to savor every page, circling plants such as hibiscus 'Sugar Tip' and buddleia 'Lo and Behold' that I planted last year and need to know more about. I note that such old favorites as hydrangea 'Preziosa' are back. I scan the annuals, and how they're grouped in pots. I chuckle at how expensive self sowers such as cleome and verbena bonariensis are this year. I jot musings on wished-for plants in my garden journal. The sticky notes mark catalogue pages to which I plan to return, and I've learned to write on the stickies what it is that's caught my attention. After half an hour or so the catalogue, now somewhat resembling a porcupine, goes on the shelf with other "keepers". This untidy bundle includes Bluestone Perennials , known for their impressive yet inexpensive selection of perennials; and of course, Park Seed, , and Burpee from whom I order many of the seed packets I use each year. ( This year I'm contemplating 'Heavenly Blue' morning glories, cardinal climber, and snapdragon 'Rocket'.)

Yes, the garden catalogues allow us to enter a different world on these deep winter days. A world where the ground is not frozen, where the deer turn up their snouts at our yard, and and where gardening dreams come true.

Bring 'em on!

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Garden Birds

We're off to a genuine winter here in southwestern CT; three significant snowfalls in two weeks brings to mind winters of years gone by, before global warming. The nights are cold, the daytime sun glints off the snow, and the birds are active at the feeders.

It's part of a gardener's imperative to care for their winged visitors. There are several ways we can do this:

Feeders are important, of course. I have two----a finch feeder on my back deck, kept full of a mixture of niger seed and sunflower chips. This one is generally busy with arguing juncos, olive-drab goldfinches and the occasional downy woodpecker. Attached to the deck rail, close to the hanging feeder, is a birdbath complete with an electric de-icer. I keep it filled and cleaned for the birds to drink. And they do. I've never seen them bathe in it, but they sure do drink the water. My best friend, Muriel, on the other hand.....she also keeps a bird bath going in her yard, and darn if she doesn't get bathing birds! Even in the dead of winter.

In the front yard I have an hopper-type feeder, with a perch that dumps off squirrels, and a metal baffle to further discourage them. This feeder is kept full of a mixture of cracked corn, hulled (to keep litter to a minimum) sunflower seed, peanut chips, dried fruit, and whatever else happens to be in the mix I purchase that week. (No millet) Attached to the feeder is a suet cake.

To this feeder & suet come an array of birds and wildlife. It sits directly outside my library window, so as I'm reading or writing I can glance out and see the action. We get cardinals; three different kinds of woodpeckers (red-bellied, downy, hairy); chickadees, blue jays, juncos, wrens, and many more.

Seed spills from the hopper, of course, and this ground bounty feeds the gray squirrels, occasional visiting pheasants, and assorted other wildlife.

What else can a gardener do to sustain the birds? Grow some berrying shrubs, viburnum for instance. Grow crabapples. Leave a few berry-producing wildlings such as pokeweed in the fringes of your yard. (Blubirds love 'em!) When you clean up your garden in the autumn, leave standing such perennials as rudbeckia to provide seeds and winter structure.

Birds add movement, color, sound, and a naturalness to the gardener's attempts to harness nature. They are a integral part of Nature's Design and, as we humans destroy their habitat, it's incumbent upon gardeners as stewards of the earth to do what we can to mitigate the damage.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Winter Composting

The back porch thermometer read a no-nonsense 6 degrees this morning as I trekked the few steps out to my winter compost container on the deck. Here in Connecticut, composting in the usual manner is impossible from early December 'til early March, as the ground is determinedly frozen.

But that's no reason to relinquish the pleasures of composting. After years of trying various methods of cold-weather recycling of my organic leftovers, here's what I've struck upon as the most successful.

Grab a 30-gallon plastic garbage can, drill holes in it all along the sides and the bottom. (very satisfying, wielding that drill!) Place the can on a deck, an unheated porch, or anywhere convenient for you and where marauding night critters aren't going to cause too much trouble. Commence composting.

That's all there is to it. Of course, you want to follow the basic rules, such as layering, not using bones or meat, etc. Two 30-gallon containers suffice for my household of two for the winter months, and I compost almost everything.......paper towels, soft-walled cardboard cartons, pet hair, coffee grounds, as well as the usual array of stale toast and soggy cereal.

An added benefit of winter composting is that after repeated freeze and thaw cycles, by spring the contents of the makeshift bin has turned into a rich slurry. One caveat-----the can will be heavy as you haul it to the regular compost pile.

But the lumpy, fertile mixture will jump start your warm weather composting; you'll have saved your winter organic garbage from the landfill, and you got lungfuls of brisk winter air most mornings.

What can be be better than that?