Friday, January 8, 2010

A friend gave me a ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) back in 1981, and up to this summer it looked something like a palm tree sitting atop a large onion. Or a long-leafed dracena plant whose stem, near ground level, had swollen almost to the size of a bowling ball. The plant looked very interesting, but not particularly attractive, and the sharp edges of its long, strappy leaves were getting bothersome.

So last summer, I was going to toss the plant in the compost pile; instead, I lopped off its top to about 3 feet in height. What remained was nothing more than the bulbous trunk out of whose top arose a bare stem.

After pruning, I ignored the plant just as I had done for the past 3 decades. Ponytail palm doesn’t crave attention. As testimonial to the ability of the bulbous trunk to store water, the plant went months between waterings. What’s more, it’s been growing in the same pot with the same potting soil for all these years, no small accomplishment with the bulbous base of the plant, rather than potting soil, occupying much of volume within the pot. And fertilization? A rare event.

Now for the good part: Since being decapitated, the ponytail palm has sprouted tufts of leaves in various places. A few new sprouts appeared near the top of the plant, just as most plants would do when the top bud or portion of a stem is cut back. A tuft also appeared lower down along the stem. And seemingly out of nowhere, a couple of tufts of leaves sprung from the rounded surface of the swollen bulb.

Over time, each of those tufts of leaves is going to elongate into a stem capped by a tuft of leaves. The plant is more verdant and very attractive now, and I should be able to direct its growth to remain so. If not, I can lop back one or more ponytails and start again.


Years ago, the routine was that seed catalogues would arrive in the mail sometime after January and all of us gardeners would place our orders to receive seeds a couple of months later. Now, I have catalogs that have already been sitting on my kitchen table for a few weeks, with orders waiting to be finalized. And not primitively finalized, with pen and paper, but seamlessly, on the internet.

Seed companies realized that the early bird gets the worm: We gardeners, once cold weather has set in, are likely to get seduced by any reference to fresh tomatoes, so are most likely to order from the first catalogs we see. All this is for the better, for me, at least, because my efforts to limit down time in the garden mean that I need to have seeds in hand and ready to sow that much sooner. Onion and leek seeds get sown in seed flats at the beginning of February, lettuce follows soon after that, along with pansies and snapdragons, and the march continues from then on right through September.

One thing that has not changed over the years is that I’m still enticed and thankful by what we gardeners have at our fingertips. From just a phone call, a few dollars, or a few computer keystrokes, plants from all over the world end up in my garden. How can I resist trying Ruby Mist Love Grass, Cajun Jewel Okra, and Blazing Stars this year, along with such old standbys as Buttercrunch lettuce, Blue Lake beans, and Lemon Gem marigolds?


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