Thursday, June 25, 2009

Up until last week, every time I looked at my mockorange, I wondered why I would have planted such a bush so prominently right next to the greenhouse door. The bush looked like nothing more than a blob of greenery, a not especially graceful blob of greenery.

This week I did an about-face on my mockorange; I’m enthralled with it as it sits there draped in large, lily-white, semi-double flowers. And if those flowers weren’t enough just to look at, they fill the air with a most delicious, fresh scent that is vaguely reminiscent of orange blossoms.

Mine is not just any old mockorange. It’s a named variety, perhaps Flora Plena. Blossoms on run-of-the-mill mock oranges open earlier and are smaller and have single rows of petals.

It’s sad, but I know I won’t be looking fondly upon my mockorange again in another week or so. Until next year.


You’d think it was a simple enough question from my brother: “I want to get a good watering can. What would you recommend that's reasonable?”

Let me begin by stating that I own, not one but two (one for each hand), of what I consider to be the Cadillac (Prius?) of watering cans: The Haw’s Classic Long Reach Galvanized watering can. Each has a nice balance, holds a reasonable amount of water, and has a rose – the thing that breaks the stream of water into many, gentler streams – from which water falls like a gentle rain, but not too slowly.

Yet I wouldn’t recommend this watering can to my brother. I paid

about $60 twenty or so years ago, but now they cost more than twice that! You can get a similar plastic watering can for about $20. I had one. It only lasted a couple of seasons. So what would I recommend? First and foremost: No plastic. Plastic watering cans don’t last.

No sooner had I started asking whether the can was for houseplants or outdoor plants than my brother rolled his eyes and suggested that perhaps he should have started with a simpler question, like what kind of pencil I’d recommend for keeping garden notes. Ha, ha. But if a watering can is for watering just houseplants, you don’t want it to have a rose. For general watering, indoors and out, a watering can should have a removable rose. (My Haw’s does.)

Okay, I’ll make it simple. For general, outdoor use, I suggest a can that holds about 2 gallons of water, is made of heavy metal (hot-dipped galvanized ones usually are), and, unless decoration is also to be one of its functions, is not in the cutesy shape of a snail, elephant, pig, or other animal.

A good hardware store might have what’s needed, as well as web retailers, for 20 or 30 dollars. Haws does makes “SlimCan Galvanized Watering Can” that sells for about $70. It that might work a tad better than the others.


I may have gone overboard with poppies this year. But can any garden have too many poppies?

The overboarded poppies to which I refer may seem, at first glance, to be the usual Oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis). But no, these poppies are corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas). Both poppy species have petals that are as delicate as fairy shawls and usually vivid red, but the red of corn poppies is more pure. And rather than unfolding on the ends of sprawling, clunky stems like Oriental poppies, corn poppy flowers perch high on the ends of delicate, upright, 3-foot-high stalks. A most significant difference between the two species is that corn poppies are annuals, while Oriental poppies are perennials.

Like most poppies, corn poppies transplant poorly so are best sown where they are to grow. The seeds are almost as fine as dust so there’s a natural tendency to doubt that they could amount to anything, especially just sprinkled on bare ground. With such doubts in mind, in early April I sprinkled two packets of the fine seed over a bed soon that I knew would be dense with various fritillaria and allium species, as well as licorice mint (Agastache), snow-in-summer, soapwort (Saponaria), and espaliered Asian pears.

I should have had faith. After all, corn poppy is called corn poppy because it once dotted (i.e. was a weed in) Europe’s corn fields, “corn” meaning any “grain” in the Queen’s English. My corn poppies sprouted with vigor, as did some seeds from last year’s corn poppies, so that now parts of that bed are happy riots of scarlet blossoms.

I had also sprinkled on that bed seeds another annual poppy, California poppy, a low-growing plant with ferny leaves and buttery yellow flowers. There’s no sign of these poppies, which were evidently overrun by the corn poppies.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I have some of the nicest volunteers in my garden this year. A few of them are people, many of them are plants, and one of my favorites – among the plants, that is – is columbine. Years ago, I planted some native columbines, those dainty plants whose orange and yellow flowers hover on thin stalks above the ferny foliage. Since being planted, these wildings self-seed – volunteer, that is -- every year in various nooks and crannies around my yard.
I once also planted cultivated columbines, probably the common McKana Giants, and their offspring have also been volunteering around the yard as well. Flowers and foliage of these more cultivated sorts are similar to the natives, just bigger in all respects, which is not necessarily better, just different.
Colors of these larger columbines are different from that of the natives. My original McKana Giants were mixed colors both between plants and on individual flowers. Seedlings of these plants, 20 years later, have segregated out into just a few solid colors, and the cool thing is that each year’s colors are a bit different from the previous year’s.
The once “high-bred” columbines back by my vegetable garden have mostly soft pinks flowers, a color that marries well with the scarlet of the trumpet honeysuckles behind them. Right near my front door, poking through cracks between the bluestone path and brick wall, is a big, beautiful columbine with dusky, purple flowers.
I do help out these volunteers by weeding out those in excess or interloping where they shouldn’t.
Looks like I’ve already failed with broccoli this spring. And this was the year that I was going to grow it really well so that, parting ways with broccoli-hating, ex-president Bush (the better Bush), I might actually enjoy eating this vegetable.
The plants are making buds already, too soon and too small, not surprising considering that the plants are only about 8 inches high. This runting out occurred in spite of my starting seeds on time, transplanting the seedlings into extra large containers, and moving the seedlings out into the garden at the end of April into ground made richer with extra nitrogen.
I know what the probable problem is: dry weather. I watered the plants religiously after transplanting, but soon tapered off. Neglect perhaps resulted from the broccoli’s being planted in a part of the garden furthest from my back door. Perhaps neglect was inevitable: Broccoli, after all, is not (yet) a vegetable I like to eat. Perhaps that’s why it ended up planted so far away.
I haven’t given up mastering the art of broccoli growing and possibly enjoying this vegetable. Broccoli, kale, cabbage and their kin all taste best in the cool weather of autumn, and the time to sow broccoli seeds for autumn harvest is very soon. I’m poised and ready for another try.
All is not lost in that bed with broccoli. Few vegetables get beds all to themselves, and that broccoli had to share space.
So it was broccoli up the center of the bed at 18 inch spacings flanked on either side by two rows of lettuce. The near lettuce rows were only about 6” out from the broccoli row, which was plenty of space because the lettuces were transplants and the broccolis could rise up in the offset 1 foot of space between lettuces. The next row out of lettuce transplants was only about 6 inches out from the inner row, but staggered again so these offset lettuces could fill some of the space between lettuces in the inner row.
Not to leave well enough alone, I decided to also squeeze some popcorn into that bed. In early May, I dropped 6 seeds of Pink Pearl popcorn every 2 feet into the shrinking open spaces between the lettuces on either side of the bed about a foot in from the bed’s edges. By the time Pink Pearl poked up through the ground, the sprouts were being shaded by lettuce leaves that were almost touching between adjacent plants. Tonight’s salad, as well as those for the last few and coming nights, cures the shading as I selectively harvest lettuce leaves to allow the corn sprouts to bask in light and soon rise up above everything else.
The plan was for lettuce to be harvested first, then the broccoli, then give over the bed to popcorn. Not bad for a 3 foot wide bed, even if the broccoli was a failure.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


I know that wallflower is a plant, but my wallflower is acting just like a wallflower, the human kind. It’s one plant, sitting there all alone in the bed atop my stone retaining wall among lots of fritillary, peony, anise hyssop, and snow-in-summer plants.

Still, the plant is very unwallfloweresque in broadcasting its presence with egg-yolk orange flowers that practically jump out (visually) amongst its more subdued neighbors. The flowers have the sweet scent for which wallflowers are so famous, although I have to admit they smell to me too much like baby powder, which is fine on a baby but not on a flower.

It’s not my fault that my wallflower is a wallflower. Last year I sowed many seeds and ended up planting out a slew of plants, so my one plant was supposed to have neighbors. Wallflowers are generally short-lived perennials around here, evidently very short-lived on my wall, except for that one remaining plant.

Our hot summers don’t suit wallflowers so I don’t expect to see this lonely wallflower again next year.


You have to get your nose right into a wallflower bloom to smell it. On the other hand, if a wonderful, sweet scent is filling the air all around you, look up. Is it a bird? No. Is it a plane? No. It’s black locust trees, now in a profusion of blooms.

Here’s a tree that, to me, challenges the “invasive plant” paradigm. Black locust is native to the U.S., but is treated as a “non-native invasive.” And that highlights the fact that “native” or “non-native” depends on where you draw your lines. Black locust is more specifically native to the southeast part of the country. Is black locust, then, truly native at your grandma’s house in Georgia? Not necessarily, because even in the southeast, only certain habitats are suitable.

Black locust has been planted and spread over much of the country. One reason it has established so successfully everywhere is because its roots can take nitrogen from the air and use it to feed the growing tree. Another reason is because it sprouts from spreading roots and cut stumps. It seeds readily because its large, fragrant blossoms compete well with other plants for bees (black locust honey is particularly dark and rich). And the tree is also all over the place because it has been widely planted for it’s wood, which is one of the best for burning and is as rot-resistant as pressure-treated, commercial lumber.

All these are the reasons, and more, are why I love black locust. The trees also cast a pleasant, dappled shade and the blossoms dangle in white chains similarly to those of wisteria.

I have my own, very small locust grove, a 50 foot by 15 foot wide clump of trees from which I harvest 6-inch-diameter posts every few years for use around the garden. Here, it takes about a decade for sprouts to reach that size, but I now have a continuous, though small, supply. But how many arbors and fences can I build?


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

May 21, 2009

For a day every week or so, my yard smells like salad dressing. No, I’m not getting the lettuce dressed while it’s still out in the garden. Yes, that smell is vinegar. For the past few years, regular strength vinegar, straight up, has provided nontoxic (except to sprayed weeds), sustainable, “green” weed control on the edges of beds, in paths, and on my brick terrace.

I specify “regular strength” vinegar because our USDA has also been looking into vinegar as weedkiller. On the theory that if a little of something is good, a lot must be better, USDA research focuses on using more concentrated solutions of vinegar – even 20%. Those more concentrated solutions are more effective but you have to be very careful using that stuff. It burns. I’ll stick with salad dressing strength 6% solution.

A couple of benign additions increase the power of my “regular strength” vinegar. First comes vegetable oil – no, not salad dressing again, but to helps the vinegar stick to weeds’ leaves. I use 2 tablespoons of canola oil per gallon of vinegar. Then comes soap, specifically Ivory liquid detergent, 1 tablespoon per gallon, to better spread the vinegar and oil over the leaves.

This mix only kills greenery so needs to be applied regularly to starve roots. Hence my repeated applications.


It’s amazing how many seedlings you can grow in a small space using a Speedling or some other multi-cell plastic (or “plug”) tray. These trays are re-usable, with tapered cells each about an inch square. For example, a 1 foot by 8 inches area was home to my 54 zinnia seedlings. The tapered design allows for good root development and, if the trays are elevated on a screen, the roots stay in bounds by being air-pruned as they try to exit the bottom hole.

I had 54 zinnias, 54 Signet marigolds (ferny, lemon-scented foliage and small, yellow flowers), and a slew of other flowers that I had sowed a month and a half ago in the enthusiasm of spring. A few days ago, the time came to figure out just where to plant all those seedlings. Flowers generally look best when planted out in large masses rather in isolation or anemic strips, so with this many plants, it’s hard to go wrong.

Planting is quick with plug trays. The seedlings were at just the right stage for transplanting, so all I had to do was yank on each stem to pop out a whole plant, root and all. A quick poke of my trowel into the ground was all that was needed to make a home for each seedling. Firming the soil around each plant after dropping it into its waiting home completed the planting . . . except for watering. That watering was thankfully supplied by the inch-and-a-half of rain that followed my planting.

Small plants establish more quickly than large plants, and with less care, so I’m finished with these plants except to enjoy their flowers.


I must have a built-in temperature sensor in my head. Last night (May 18th) my eyes sprung wide open at 1:38 a.m., I walked over to my remote thermometer, and saw that the temperature had just reached that magic number of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky was clear and the morning was, to say the least, early, so I guessed that the mercury would dip even lower.

Preparations had already been made for a light frost, but who knew just how cold temperatures might plummet? After all, last year at about this time, a sunny morning greeted me with leaves blackened by a severe freeze. So I got dressed and threw any coverings I could find over any plants that could be protected and needed to be. Key lime, pomegranates, lemon trees, and other potted, tender plants went into the garage. Nothing could be done about the blossoming hardy kiwifruit vines, the soon to blossom grapes, and the fruitlets already developing on apples, pears, and pawpaws.

I went back to sleep.

Morning saw the thermometer reading 28 degrees, hoary frost on the lawn, and a sunny day in the offing. Damage assessment would have to wait until the sun melted frost off everything. And the damage, assessed this morning at 9:30, was  . . . . zip, nil, nein, nada, rien, nothing. It’s amazing the way even tender plants, like those marigolds and zinnias I had planted (and had not protected because there were too many of them), toughen up after a few days outside. It looks like a good year for fruit – unless we get another, more serious, freeze.