Sunday, December 27, 2009

New Year's Garden Resolutions

It's that time of year again when we promise to improve ourselves and our lives in the freshness of a brand new year. I try to keep those promises rather modest because, well, if I set the bar fairly low it's tough to be disappointed in myself. So there will be no grandiose declarations about new workout regimens or truly life-changing activities. But before getting bogged down in the challenges the year throws at us, I will set our some modest yet worthwhile (and achievable) resolutions for being a better gardener.

1. Mulch frequently. Smothering weeds, retaining moisture, and adding organic matter--mulch has the garden trifecta. Not only is it totally worth the time and effort to reap these benefits, but mulching doesn't cost me a dime. There is a municipal mulch pile literally at the end of my street. It's locally recycled brush ground up by the city, so it's environmentally easy-going on a number of levels (few resources used for transport, no packaging, etc.). Also, it's completely free to whomever takes the initiative to shovel it into his or her car/truck/bucket. Sure, I find the occasional piece of metal debris, cigarette butt, or un-mulched branch that made it through the chipper inexplicably unscathed, but it's free and did I mention it's down the street? Basically I have no excuse for not keeping this garden mulched constantly, and I am reminded of that each time the weeds threaten to overtake the place. In 2010, I will mulch frequently.

(This is not OK.)

2. Plant a Japanese maple. Yes, I've chosen to go with a Japanese maple for my empty shady corner after a minimally exhaustive quest for a shrub. Dogwoods and dwarf conifers sounded appealing, don't get me wrong, but I think this is the only spot in the garden where a Japanese maple could conceivably thrive.

I shouldn't pass up that opportunity. I'm still on the fence about the particular cultivar, although 'Bloodgood' is a frontrunner. This spring will entail a search of local nurseries that will hopefully lead me to a lovely weeping variety. Regardless of what the exact specimen turns out to be, in 2010 I will plant a Japanese maple.

3. Fix that @$!# front border. The tiny strip of solid, nutrient-free clay that I call my front border has been the bane of my gardening existence for five years. Over that time I've reclaimed some small swathes of land from the lawn and planted as much as I could, from the dry shade under the red maple to the scorched, sunny area next to the driveway. But this year I laid down newspaper and mulch to smother enough grass to make this a respectable garden border.

(Perhaps those basils need a little more space?)

Hostas, coleus, and more woodland wildflowers are on tap for the shade area, and some Hakone grass (Hackonechloa macra) may find its way behind the bearded irises. For the sunny part, purple and white prairie clovers (Dalea purpurea and D. candida), various phlox, more salvia, prairie grasses, and some sweet alyssum (which is tougher than its name implies) will fill the newly cleared space. If last year's additions move to the "creep" phase of the perennial cycle, "sleep, creep, leap," then the border will continue to make strides. "Finishing" this part of the garden is not what I intend or desire (because I don't believe a garden is ever finished). In 2010, I will fix that @$!# border.

4. Grow more vegetables. I've got the raised bed, I'm choosing the seeds, it's time to increase the edibles in this garden. People contributed wonderful advice during the seed giveaway contest, reminding me that there is no shortage of resources or support. All that monitoring of the sunlight in the southern portion of the yard will hopefully pay off, and I must remain diligent about watching for pests and diseases. In a bit of serendipitous timing, I've been working on an article about vegetable gardening, so I have no lack of familiarity with the subject. It's time. In 2010, I will grow more vegetables.

There are all sorts of other goals I want to accomplish in the new year, such as dividing a bunch of houseplants, chilling bulbs for forcing in October, establishing a second compost pile, moving some herbs to a different location, and planting halfway decent containers, but I know better than to resolve for more than I can handle. These four resolutions represent the most important changes needed in the garden this year. In 2010, I will accomplish them. What about you? What are your garden resolutions for 2010?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition

It is an odd thing to read a book about gardens that is written by someone who is not actually a gardener. But, then again, this book is about much more than the growing and arranging of living plants that comprises our notion of a garden.

Robert Pogue Harrison's book is a discussion of the essence and significance of gardens in literature, including poetry, prose, and religious texts. As such, it explains how gardens reflect and embody the human soul. It ranges from different philosophical interpretations of gardens to depictions of them in Renaissance Italian literature to contrasting the symbolism of gardens in the Bible and the Koran, and much more in between. Twentieth-century and twenty-first-century garden imagery is addressed as well, creating a whirlwind of garden interpretation through many continents and centuries in barely 200 pages.

The variety of subject matter sometimes gives Gardens an uneven tempo; the book periodically lurches from an elegant, cogent discussion to a sudden critique of an entirely different era in time or aspect of humanity. Unsurprisingly, Harrison is at his best when discussing Italian literature, which he teaches at Stanford. (I must admit at this point that Renaissance Italian history was my concentration in college, and therefore my familiarity with this subject matter may bias my opinion that these chapters are the best.) Quality expositions on other writers abound, however, particularly Harrison's explanation of Epicurean philosophy and its contortion by modern readers. This chapter alone makes the book worthwhile.

I enjoyed how Gardens taught me about writers whose works I haven't read, such as Pablo Neruda and Karel Capek, the latter who shares with me an understanding of the frustrations of bad soil: "And if you have no appreciation for this strange beauty, let fate bestow upon you a couple rods of clay--clay like lead, squelching and primeval clay out of which coldness oozes..." (31). Harrison's discussions of ancient Greek philosophy and Italian literature also informed and even enthralled me. But while I enjoy reading cantos of The Divine Comedy in Italian (or trying to, because Dante's work is so difficult), other readers might not share my sentiment. Likewise, Harrison's penchant to occasionally veer off into overly academic territory, such as the "objective correlatives" in modern literature, detracts from the garden-based interpretations rather than complementing them.

This book is a lovely read for those interested in philosophy, literature, poetry, and thought-provoking, unorthodox discussions of religious texts. A traditional gardening book it is not; a learned treatise it is.

Dear FTC: I received no compensation for this review. I bought the book with my own hard-earned cash. Thank you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Contest Winners!

I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who participated in the seed giveaway contest, which was generously brought to us by Renee's Garden! I really appreciate all the tips, ideas, and encouragement from my fellow gardeners. I am truly thrilled to be starting this vegetable garden, and I will be sharing my successes and failures with it right here all season long next year!

So without further ado, our first winner of the Rainbow Kitchen Garden Collection is Miss Nessa!

And our second winner of the Basil Lover's Bonanza is Dee at Red Dirt Ramblings!

Congratulations to the winners, and I will contact you for your mailing address. Thanks again to everybody who commented and to Renee and Nellie at Renee's Garden!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Could it be?

It is!

It's my forced hyacinths beginning to do something!! Now, for those of you who are experienced at forcing bulbs, my excitement probably seems a little overdone, but this is my first attempt at forcing and I can't believe it might be working! I am a bit of a bulb skeptic; don't get me wrong, I like tulips, hyacinths, crocus and all those, but they're not topping my list when I think of favorite plants. And honestly I'm not a big fan of lilies (apologies to lily-lovers out there!).

However, if I actually get these hyacinths to bloom in bleak, miserable February, then a shift in my relationship with bulbs might be underway!

So here's my question--do I water them now? The soil is pretty dry to the touch, but I don't want to water them at the wrong time. Come on, bulb experts, help me out! It's only been about 4 weeks since I potted these, so what do I do now?

Like many others around the country, we were greeted by this landscape this morning. The snow is continuing to fall and we may have 8-10" total by the time it's all over. At least it's lovely for now!

Don't forget to enter the seed giveaway contest if you haven't done so already! The contest closes at 7pm CDT on Sunday Dec. 13th so there is still plenty of time!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Seed Giveaway Contest!

What is this random rectangle?

It's the new vegetable bed! Tech Support graciously constructed this beauty to my specifications, and now its soil, compost and topping of leaves (hidden under the snow) are mixing and hopefully making a rich base for next year's veggie crops. (I didn't fill the entire raised bed because I got worn out by hauling 40-lb. bags of topsoil and compost, so it's still a work in progress and yes I am lazy.)

Until now my edible gardening has consisted of containers, my herb garden, and a failed attempt at growing peppers in the spot where the rain garden now resides. It failed because that location is way to shady to grow any vegetables, especially bell peppers, but it was our first year in the house and I hadn't thoroughly evaluated the sun situation around the whole yard. Live and learn!

But for the past few years I've been watching how and when the sun's rays sweep across different parts of the garden and how long they stay there in the various seasons. Not surprisingly, the south side of the yard has the most light, and hence we literally squeezed this raised bed into this little patch of the yard. My containers of vegetables grew well on the south side of the house this past summer, and that was in a weird summer with relatively few sunny days, so I'm fairly confident I'll get adequate light here.

What does this have to do with a seed giveaway contest? I'm getting there. I'm already voraciously planning what will grow here next year and how I can maximize this bed, which measures 9x3. I have a trellis for the cucumbers and summer squash so as to get some plants growing upwards. (It's getting put in after the winter so it is not pictured.)

I am focusing on vegetables that I am confident my family will eat, so some decisions were pretty easy. For example, neither of my kids like peas or beans, so I am not growing either of these popular crops next year. Rather than try to heroically turn them into legume-lovers, I'm going to wait until the following year and maybe by then they'll be so excited to eat what they grow that I can slip some peas past them. Plus by then the soil will really need the nitrogen-fixing. But for this year I'm devoting the space to carrots and broccoli, which I know will get consumed and which I spend considerable money on at the grocery store.

Of course there will be bell peppers, but the chili peppers will be relegated to the containers where I can make sure they're in the absolute sunniest spot. I will probably only grow 2-3 tomato plants (gasp!). Why? Because they take up a lot of space, and in general I'm trying to follow the maxim of starting small. I don't want to bite off more than I can proverbially chew. Spinach, onions, Swiss chard and various lettuces will likely round out the menu, although some beets may make a random appearance as the outlier plant.

So, what does this have to do with a seed giveaway contest?? The folks at Renee's Garden sent me two lovely seed collections for two lucky readers, which you saw pictured above. One is the Rainbow Kitchen Garden Collection.

It contains Bright Lights Chard, Tricolor Bush Beans, Garden Candy Cherry Tomatoes, Jewel-Tone Sweet Peppers, and Monet's Mix Mesclun Lettuces.

The second is Basil Lover's Bonanza, which includes Scented Basil Trio, Italian Pesto Basil, Mrs. Burns' Lemon Basil, Salad Leaf Basil, and Green Windowbox Basil. Fabulous!

So here's how it works: leave me a comment with your best vegetable-growing tip, and I will draw two numbers on Sunday, December 13, to decide the winners! Your tip can be general advice about edible gardening, or it can be something specific to the plants I discussed. What should I know about growing and caring for those particular vegetables? What pests or diseases could really get them? Or what's the best variety out there that I should choose? I mentioned I'll only have a couple tomato plants, so what are the downright best heirloom varieties that you just couldn't live without? Or, is there a glaring omission in my choices? Is there something I must grow that I'm not thinking of? Let me hear it!

I will close the contest at 7pm CDT on the 13th, choose the numbers and announce the winners. Your comment will be assigned its number by its order, obviously. Only one comment per person will count for the contest, but you're welcome to keep telling me other ideas if you want!

So let's hear what you got! And you might win a nice present for yourself, just in time for Christmas!

(Many thanks to Nellie and Renee of Renee's Garden for our lovely prizes!)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The quest continues...

When I last left off with my quest for the right shrub, I had narrowed down the choices to sweetspire (Itea virginica) and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia). The particular front-runner was 'Golden Shadows' dogwood, whose yellow leaves would complement the purple and yellow color scheme of the newly planted border.

I received a number of encouraging comments with helpful recommendations! Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) came up repeatedly, and these are both certainly great shrubs. I had considered ninebark at the start of the search, but I'm concerned this site is too shady. I believe ninebark can thrive in partial shade, but this location leans to the "full" side of "partial-to-full shade." Oakleaf hydrangea is on my radar screen, but I wanted to consider some other options before going with a hydrangea. (I think I'm suffering from hydrangea overkill. I see them everywhere, and I'm feeling a little burnt out on them. That's not to impugn anyone else's love for hydrangeas, but for me it's a maybe...)

Some of you fabulous people even offered me shrub seedlings right away! And I intend to take you up on those offers of St. John's Wort (Hypericum frondosum) and species pagoda dogwood (you know who you are!). In fact, while evaluating those shrubs' chances in this location, I realized how many other places I could put flowering shrubs in my yard. (Isn't garden blogging great?) But I decided there are indeed other places for those shrubs: a sunnier spot for the Hypericum and another currently bland, shady border for the dogwood. (Bland shady borders are not lacking around here, apparently!) Those are topics for another day, however, and I still felt something else was needed for my problematic place by the fence.

So I started to think of other types of woody plants that could perhaps grow here...trees! Why just have a shrub when I could have a tree? But it would have to be a diminutive one; I don't think an oak or hickory would be appropriate for this little spot. But as I mentioned before, this site is very sheltered from the wind, so I wondered if I could indulge my desire for a Japanese maple?

Japanese maples are notoriously fussy, but perhaps this oddball location could work. Fortunately, Chicagoland Gardening magazine ran a cover story on Japanese maples in September (along with my piece on native sedges, sorry for the blatant self-promotion!). Deb Terrill's article stated, "A taller tree canopy, large evergreens, buildings and fences can all offer some protection." Perfect! I have all of those things here! My soil may need some amending with leaf mold or mulch to bring the pH down little, but this is a real breakthrough! With the Siberian irises I planted near this spot, I could have a little Eastern/Eurasian vignette going here.

Then I started to think of the downsides to a Japanese maple: What if it died? I would be horrified to have a tree die. A little perennial here and there is one thing, but a beautiful (and expensive) tree?? And what about wintertime? How interesting would more bare branches really be? If it's a tree I want, how about an evergreen? There's no better winter interest than that!

And I am sorely lacking good evergreens. There are my hated yews that I keep complaining about, and two scraggly spruces near the edge of my driveway that aren't aging gracefully. But what about this?

I could have purple cones to match my purple coneflowers! I am in close proximity to a nursery specializing in rare dwarf conifers. (Remember Rich's Foxwillow Pines, all you Spring Flingers?) I could finally have some delicious weeping conifer, preferably a Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). This photo is of a spruce (Picea spp.), but you get the idea:

It would have a unique shape, provide structure, and of course have the winter interest factor. But would it get enough sun?

That idea slowed me down. According to Rich's catalogs, Tsuga canadensis 'Pendula' can take partial shade and prefers protected sites. But what if this site is too shady and I end up with a midget conifer that looks really disproportionate? Oh, the risks of gardening! Why do I feel like I'm gambling?! So I set two tasks for myself before getting further confused. First, I need to research Japanese maple cultivars to see if there's one that might be happiest here. Second is to find out if my preferred Tsuga is even available and get some honest feedback about its sun requirements. And of course I could just go find that 'Golden Shadows' dogwood and be done with it, but I'm not quite ready to end the quest yet...

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