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Armchair Gardening

Winter has definitely arrived.  A few nights have dipped into the high teens; a few days have topped out around freezing.  There’s just not much to do outside right now.  Oddly, this is one of my favorite times of the year for gardening.  It’s all still in my head, and it’s BEAUTIFUL.  As the year goes on, I deal with real plants, and they’re taller or shorter than they were in my head.  They bloom earlier or later than I planned and the combination that was amazing on paper doesn’t happen at all in real life.  Worst of all, the beautiful picture in the catalog and the spindly dying twig in my garden share no resemblance at all.  I’m a gardener though, so hope springs eternal…

This time of year, I’m neck deep in planning next year’s garden: sorting through seeds, scribbled notes, garden catalogs and gardening books while I jot new notes, sketch out plans, and review lessons learned and previous successes.  I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pulling together scattered notes, documents and spreadsheets to put together an organized Garden Journal.  As I complete each “chapter”, I’m posting it online.  To see progress so far, click on the new Garden Journal link at the top of every page.  It will probably take a couple of years to finish, but the work in progress isn’t too bad.

Of course, all the planning leads right to execution.  I’ve already placed several seed catalog orders, with a few more planned.  Pinetree Seeds (https://www.superseeds.com) is my first stop for gardening every year.  The prices are reasonable, the selection is great, always including a few fun odds and ends, and their catalog includes the bonus of a book section with fun bargains.  My next stop is Select Seeds (http://www.selectseeds.com).  They’re a little more expensive, but extremely fun.  They specialize in old fashioned flowers full of fragrance and style, many of which reseed.  This year, I’ve also ordered from Plant World Seeds (http://www.plant-world-seeds.com) a company in Britain which offers many unusual seeds not available elsewhere.  Shipping is quite reasonable, especially considering it’s international.  Finally, a friend pointed me to the Sample Seed Shop (http://sampleseeds.com) where I found some great bargains including an heirloom strain of garlic.  It will take two years to grow from bulbils, but the fruit trees will enjoy the protection while it’s growing.

After last year’s fruit planting extravaganza, I’m focusing on the new vegetable garden this year.  It’s been years since I had a full vegetable garden, and the new planned garden is more than twice the size of my old vegetable garden.  I’ve also been reading up on permaculture and sustainable gardening and farming, so that’s impacted my garden planning this year.  Check out the vegetable garden plan in chapter 22 of the Garden Journal.  (Link to the Garden Journal is at the top of the page, remember?)

It’s also prime season for Winter Sowing.  After two short sessions, here’s a list of what I’ve winter sown so far:

Latin Name Common Name
Meconopsis cambrica ‘Muriel Brown’ Welsh Poppy ‘Muriel Brown’
Meconopsis cambrica floro pleno aurantiaca Welsh Poppy, Double Golden
Roscoea cautleyoides
Roscoea scillifolia (alpina) pink
Primula auricula ‘Viennese Waltz’
Primula japonica ‘Miller’s Crimson’
Liatris spicata Gayfeather
Eupatorium maculatum purpureum Joe Pye Weed
Ligularia dentata ‘Othello’
Lysimachia punctata
Eryngium giganteum Miss Wilmott’s Ghost
Leycesteria formosa aurea ‘Gold Leaf’
Helleborus lividus
Allium sativum ‘Niawanda Park’ Garlic ‘Niawanda Park’
Amsonia tabernaemontana
Adlumia fungosa Alleghany Vine
Aquilegia flabellata var pumila kurilensis ‘Rosea’ Columbine
Aquilegia sp Mixed Double Columbine
Aristolochia fimbriata Native Dutchman’s Pipevine
Primula beesiana
Vernonia fasciculata Ironweed

At the top of the page is a snapshot of my small herd of winter sown milk jugs.  For more information on winter sowing, check out http://www.wintersown.org/

Happy Armchair gardening to all!

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Achy, Breaky Fruit & Rotten Stuff

DH & I spent as much of the weekend as we possibly could installing cinder block raised beds for fruit trees.  Six of the seven trees I ordered are planted now.  We can both barely move and are trying to muster energy for positioning blocks and planting that last tree tonight. As you can see from these pictures, the trees are barely visible in the center of each cinder block square.  Truly a triumph of faith over reality!

Two plum trees: 'Early Laxton' in back, 'Stanley' in front

Baby pear trees: 'Moonglow' in back, 'Seckel' in front

Two apple trees: 'William's Pride' on the left; Liberty on the right (Enterprise to be added later behind.)

These trees are comfortably ensconced in that mythical garden environment:  moist, rich, well-drained soil.  The magical ingredient for this is of course compost.  Reading most modern garden books, compost is good for whatever ails your garden.  Soil too dry?  Add compost!  Too wet?  Add compost!  Too much clay?  Add compost!  Too sandy?  Add compost!  Children are failing in school?  Add.. no wait..that doesn’t help.

Seriously, compost is an amazing all purpose soil amendment.  I’ve been as generous as I can afford with it over my gardening career and NEVER regretted adding compost or wished I’d used less.

It was a marvelous addition to the hardpan clay front yard in my first garden when we renovated the lawn and ordered 10 cubic yards of “half horse,” that is compost that is a half and half mixture of composted leaves and composted horse manure.  I still remember my four year older daughter gleefully informing a horrified peer, “You know what THAT is?  It’s HORSE POOP!”  Ten yards was a rather excessive amount, and I’ve promised DH never to buy more than 5 yards of anything.

That same hardpan clay got another dose of compost when I put in a large flower bed using sort of a lasagna gardening approach:  Six to ten layers of newspaper (no colored ink) topped with six inches of compost.  I moved away several years ago, but the bed is still going strong.

After checking out the book Lasagna Gardening from my local library, I’ve adapted a slower approach,letting mulch turn into compost over time.  For existing beds, mulching once a year with shredded hardwood has made a significant difference in soil quality in just a couple of years.  The “new” oval bed where the plum trees are located was lawn before spending Spring through Fall of 2009 covered with cardboard and six inches of mulch.  I’m gradually adding shrubs and perennials over time, and topping off the mulch with a couple of new inches every year.  So far the weed problems have been tiny to nonexistent.

Now we’re systematically working our way through five yards of Leafgro compost to amend raised beds for this year’s edible gardening extravaganza.  In addition to the fruit trees, there are 50 strawberry plants, 8 blueberries, 13 raspberries and an assortment of ornamental plants from Burnt Ridge Nursery waiting to be planted.  Hopefully I’ll have plenty of fruit in the coming years!

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Spring Gold

Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold.

Robert Frost

NNarcissus 'Tete a Tete' & Scilla sibericaarcissus, in all their golden glory, are one of the earliest signs of spring.  Here’s one of my favorite daffodils (Narcissus ‘Tête à Tête’) combined with another very early spring bloomer, Scilla siberica, often called Siberian squills.  The yellow and blue blooms really perk up chilly spring weather, especially rainy days like the last few.

In a few weeks, this combination of complementary colors will be repeated with Narcissus ‘Baby Moon’ and grape hyacinths (Muscari armeniacum ‘Saffier’) just behind this planting.  This repeated combination of striking colors gives a visual punch that lasts for weeks when most of the garden is still sleeping.

For maximum impact, plant clumps of bulbs, rather than lonely orphans.  My preference is to plant a circular clump of bulbs in three tiny staggered rows.  Bigger bulbs are planted in clumps of seven — a row of two, a row of three, a row of two.  Smaller bulbs are planted in clumps of ten, with three rows containing three, four, and three bulbs.  This particular planting also includes 30 or 40 smaller bulbs surrounding the daffodils.  This is the second year for this planting, and they’re filling in nicely, despite some canine rearranging.

When planting bulbs, there are several things to consider.  As with any plant, location and soil are critical.  Most bulbs need sunny conditions while their leaves persist and well drained soil during dormancy.  Spring blooming bulbs are often planted under deciduous trees since the bulb foliage dies back about the time the tree foliage fills in offering the bulbs sun when they need it and tree roots to slurp up summer water the bulbs don’t need during summer dormancy.  Spring bulbs aren’t generally big feeders, and mine make do with regular mulching and VERY occasional bonemeal.

Visually, bulb foliage isn’t exciting, and dies back early in the gardening year, leaving a blank spot.  Since it’s critical for developing next year’s flowers to leave the foliage until it yellows naturally, plan for disguising the fading foliage and filling in after it dies back.  Perennials and annuals are both useful to succeed spring bulbs.

Planting in clumps as described above leaves spots around the clumps for other plants to distract from the fading foliage and fill in.  The planting described above has a row of golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) behind each row of bulbs.  As this slow growing perennial grass establishes, it will fill in around and over the bulbs and provide gorgeous foliage through the summer and fall.  I’m planning to add a row of Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis ‘Thriller’) this year in front of the daffodils for more foliage contrast with the Hakone grass.

There are plenty of other options for ‘filler’ plants around spring bulbs. Options include hostas, ferns, daylilies, astilbe, and Japanese anemone.  It all depends on your fancy and your site.  While planning for what will come after spring bulbs, plan accompaniments for the bulbs too.  Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are gorgeous with early yellow Narcissus.  Sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), Viola species like pansies and Johnny Jump Ups, and Primula are wonderful early spring annuals to combine with spring bulbs. Spring bulbs can also be planted in ground covers like Vinca minor.

The biggest problem with spring bulbs is that they need to be planted months before they bloom.  The best time for planting many bulbs is mid to late fall after the weather has cooled off.  They spend the winter growing roots preparing to burst forth when the weather starts warming. This is the time of year to PLAN for bulbs, but not to PLANT them.  I’m already walking around the yard taking notes about where to add or move bulbs for an even better show next spring.

There are literally thousands of Narcissus varieties available.  Gardeners around the world have been selecting and breeding for hundreds of years, all across the world.  Local box stores and nurseries carry a small selection in the fall when most spring bulbs need to be planted.  For a bigger selection, there are a wide variety of bulb catalogs available, with prices for nearly any budget.

Brent and Becky’s Bulbs is a little expensive, but their quality and selection are outstanding.  The catalog is ruthlessly organized by officially recognized bulb categories like Narcissus Divisions.  It can be quite educational.  They’re active daffodil breeders and have authored some excellent books.  I order from both their Fall and Spring catalogs fairly regularly.

Van Engelen and John Scheepers are sister companies with Van Engelen’s catalog focusing on wholesale quantities.  I often peruse the glossy full color John Scheepers catalog and then order from the Van Engelen’s photo free catalog to get the fairly large quantities of bulbs I like to plant.  I’ve ordered from them several times and been very happy with the results.

Clever bulb companies often send out catalogs in spring when bulbs are the biggest thing happening in the garden and encourage customers to order NOW for delivery in the fall.  That’s correct timing for planting bulbs, and can make it easier to figure out what spots need to be filled.  Just remember all those bulbs have to be planted when they arrive months after ordering!

To wrap up, here are a couple of idiosyncratic lists:

Peggy’s Favorite Daffodils

  • Narcissus ‘Tête à Tête’ – a very early bright yellow miniature, rock solid performer and rapid multiplier.  Particularly pretty combined with Scilla siberica
  • Narcissus ‘Accent’ – a mid season pink cupped daffodil with substantial flower.  Not a fast multiplier, but a gorgeous color
  • Naricssus jonquilla simplex – a late bright yellow classic with reedy looking foliage and gorgeous tiny yellow flowers.

Other Wonderful Bulbs

  • Scilla campanulata – commonly called wood hyacinths, these bloom late spring in white, pink or blue.  They multiple rapidly, and seem to grow nearly anywhere:  dry sunny, damp shady, you name it.  Their biggest drawback is the unattractive fading foliage.  I love the blue varieties in the woods combined with bright yellow Celandine Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum.)
  • Lycoris squamigera – the most amusing common name for these is Naked Ladies.  The leaves emerge and die back along with spring bulbs, but the flowers don’t show up till August, hence the common name.  Flowers are a large pink trumpet on a two or three foot tall stem. They can be slow to establish, so be patient.
  • Ipheion uniflorum – These have a long bloom season for spring bulbs and come in white and pink as well as the more common shades of blue.  For the best blues, choose a named variety like Rolf Fiedler or Wisley Blue.  They’re durable and nice combined with mid and late season daffodils.

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