Saturday, October 13, 2012

When Will I Learn?

Every fall I say never again, and a year later I'm right back in the same place. Every spring I swear I won't put myself through the heartbreak, and seven months later I've convinced myself it will never happen again. I'm talking about spring bulbs, notably tulips, which I've fallen hopelessly and stupidly in love with over the last few years.

But planting bulbs six inches down in rocky clay is absolute hell. Or, more accurately, digging to plant those bulbs is hell. And while the flowers thrive admirably in the terrible soil (part of why I keep putting myself through the misery), they are all too often cut down just as they're about to burst into bloom, thanks to the abundance of rabbits and other rodents around here.

And then there's the forced bulbs. Potted hyacinths are intoxicating, in both form and fragrance. Beloved tulips, the finicky Triumph varieties that are drool-inducing in catalogs but really just high-effort annuals in the garden, are ideal for potting and forcing, which is by its nature a one-time deal, an excuse for palette-defying colors and experimentation that is only justifiable in the depths of winter.

But the fungus gnats! Every year they grow in intensity! I have no choice but to let the pots overwinter in the musty garage...there is no greenhouse, cold frame, basement, or cool closet where they could possibly go. And in that same vein of helplessness, I cannot banish the fungus gnats from the garage, even when I leave the potted bulbs almost completely dry throughout the winter, as I did last year.

So what is to be done? Well, in terms of the potted bulbs, it's to re-focus and go small. I potted only five 'Brown Sugar' and five 'Gavota' tulips and am taking a year off from hyacinths (having to throw them in the compost after the house became infested was so painful anyway that a break is good to heal that wound).

I developed the above contraption so that the pots can dry out on the patio, not in the garage where the fungus infestation would surely begin. And the wire mesh (held down unattractively but effectively by a hose and doormat) will hopefully keep out the rodent life until the soil dries up. At that point, the plan is to move the pots to the garage so they don't get destroyed by the cold temperatures, spray the top of the soil with chamomile tea (recommended by many gardeners for keeping fungus gnats at bay), and then displaying these pots outdoors in April, so even if they are infested with the damn gnats, the chilly spring air can take care of it.

As for toiling in the clay, I did it again but on a smaller scale than the last three years. I planted only 10 more 'Dordogne' and 10 'Cum Laude'. The former are so beautiful that I couldn't resist adding more, and the latter are a seductive purple that will offset the yellow-pinkish-ness of the 'Dordognes' at the end of the tulip season. It was hard work, but I've accepted the risks involved and plan to arm myself with hideous-smelling Liquid Fence again and hope for the best. I guess it's that "try again next year" attitude that is inherent to gardeners!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Not Cool

So far it's been a rather dismal year for cool-season edibles. We went from winter straight to mid-80s summer conditions (which was tough on my seedlings), back to rain and cold (which they survived, but it inhibited their growth), back again to hot, humid summer.
 Most of my lettuce seedlings fizzled, and the broccolis aren't going anywhere. I did get a couple small heads of Tom Thumb butterhead and a few Rough D'Hiver romaines may make it. But most will bolt or wilt before reaching full size. What's worse, my cilantros are stunted by all the heat and may be too small to bolt into the pretty white umbels that give them their second life in the garden.

On the bright side, I'm hoping for a banner year for heat-loving vegetables, like tomatoes, chili peppers, and squash. How have your cool-season veggies done?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Belated Bloom Day

Traveling caused me to miss the official Garden Blogger's Bloom Day for May, hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. But like gardeners all across America, I am enjoying the explosion of spring blooms! Without further ado...
My spring stalwarts, native columbines, are blooming... are golden alexanders (Zizia aurea)
And fellow carrot-family member, Taenidia integerrima. See how similar they look with their yellow umbels? The latter likes shade and can tolerate dryness, however, while the former likes moist sun.
Some prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is still in its "flower" stage, prior to forming the "smoky" seedhead.
Salvias are starting to bloom too...
...but best of all is saved for last! Proving the old adage about good things and those who wait, after three long years my 'Twilite' Prairieblues baptisias are blooming!
Ahhh, worth the wait! Also blooming: Peonies; Heucheras; Chives; Camassia (mostly finished)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Damn-ping Off

My second round of seedlings was just hit with damping off. I tried to salvage what I could with a frantic planting effort this evening, but without a hardening off period, survival doesn't look good. (What's with seedling activities being followed by the word "off"?) And that's assuming the seedlings I planted aren't carrying the fungus with them! Twelve baby cabbages are all lost, as were my basils and coleus. The only silver lining is that I have more seeds to direct sow. But after successfully avoiding damping off for the last two or three years (and in an earlier round of seedlings this year), it's disappointing to say the least. So if you're starting seeds, make sure they have good circulation! Next year, I'll need to look into getting a fan.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wildflower Wednesday: Look Closely

Spring wildflowers are in full bloom, and not just the ephemerals. In the rain garden, golden alexanders (Zizia aurea) are happy with the recent (much needed) rain,
and sedges (genus Carex) are "blooming" too.
Columbines are just starting to flower...
...and these native geraniums are shyly avoiding the camera. I planted a number of these in the shady part of my front garden, but only this one seems happy. I'm hoping the others are just in their "creep" year and will be more robust by this time next year.
Also sulking after being moved around last year are the shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia)...
...but the prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) makes up for those other poor showings. I never get tired of these unique flowers, and I'm hoping the camassias bloom soon enough to catch up with them. The combo of prairie smoke and camassia was one of my (few) design successes in this border! Many spring wildflowers require close inspection to really appreciate them. These are not the big, bold coneflowers and goldenrods of summer! For example, my favorite unknown native, Taenidia integerrima, is just starting to open its puffy yellow umbels...
...and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) hides its jug-shaped flowers under its expansive leaves. The flowers won't last long, and it's definitely the foliage that matters with these plants. But look close and you will find these surprises! For more wildflowers this Wednesday, check out Clay and Limestone where Gail hosts this monthly showcase!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

April Bloom Day

If you've checked out any of the posts over at May Dreams Garden, where Carol hosts Garden Blogger's Bloom Day every 15th, you've noticed that plants are well ahead of their "usual" schedule. Here at Casa de Rankin, the situation is much the same, although since things typically bloom/ripen later here than they do everywhere else, even down the street, we're really only running a few weeks ahead of what would be considered normal.

So without further ado...

...many native wildflowers are blooming, such as golden alexanders (Zizia aurea)

and prairie smoke (Geum triflorum).

Columbines aren't fooled by the warm weather we've had; they're ready to bloom a few weeks early but aren't as audacious as these others natives.

The Polygonatum is blooming...

...and the lilacs are definitely ahead of schedule! They've been covered in little butterflies all weekend, an extra plus!

And what would April be without tulips?! Every year I declare that I can stand digging in the terrible clay to plant more tulips, and every spring I fall in love with them anew and pledge to plant more. So it goes again this year!

These 'Dordogne' tulips are the "single late" variety, but they're ready to burst into their full glory. I am definitely adding more this fall.

Disclaimer: The following photos came from a few days ago because these beauties were decimated by strong storms last night. But they're too lovely NOT to share:

I discovered 'Ad Rem' at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show in March 2011, and they confirm for me why I worked so hard to plant bulbs in my unrepentant, stubborn clay.

Paired with yellow 'Jaap Groot' they were breathtaking. I know I'm going to add some contrasting purple tulips (plus those Dorgognes), but I may make some space for more of these too!

As mentioned previously, check out May Dreams Garden for more Bloom Day!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

March Bloom Day: Summer's Here

You've been hearing it all over the blogosphere: unseasonably warm weather has settled in for the past week or so across much of the country.

Here in Chicagoland, it feels like we've skipped spring completely (although I'm pretty confident it will rear its chilly, sleety, muddy head at some point).

In the garden, Iris reticulatas have already come and gone, and the pasque flowers (Anemone patens) are finally living up to their name! ("Pasqua" is Easter in Italian, and these flowers are supposed to bloom around the holiday. Usually, mine are far behind the Easter bunny.)

The few daffodils are blooming of course...

...and the forsythia is a brilliant yellow.

The rest of the garden is quickly coming to life thanks to the abundant warmth and sunshine. Unfortunately it doesn't look like the hellebores are going to bloom this year, and I've been jealously observing pictures on other blogs of their graceful, nodding flowers. In typical Chicago pessimism, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop and cold, dreary spring to come roaring back. But until then, I'm enjoying summer!

Garden Blogger's Bloom Day is hosted by Carol of May Dreams Garden. If you haven't already seen other posts, stop by to see what's blooming everywhere else!

PS-I completely missed my own blogoversary! I am so careless these days! So happy third belated birthday to my blog, and thanks for reading!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

As gardeners, we think of the connections between plants and people all the time. But unless you're a full-fledged farmer or international aid worker specializing in famine zones, it's difficult even for us gardeners to appreciate the impact plants have had on human civilization. That's why Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws is a valuable read for any plant lover. It illustrates how peoples' uses, and at times abuses, of plants are inextricably linked to the ups and downs of our society.

Arranged alphabetically by Latin name, Laws' selections encompass cereal grains, medicinal plants, garden flowers, and trees and shrubs that have impacted humanity by providing us with a product or benefit. Entries typically consist of a few pages, thereby providing a brief yet informative glimpse at how, say, black pepper drove international trade from the Late Roman period through colonial times.

Laws effectively places plants in their historical context: for example, he ties the rubber tree to the rise of the automobile, the poppy to the Opium Wars and their impact on Chinese history, and tea to British colonialism.

While a few aesthetically pleasing and benign plants make an appearance (roses, cilantro), the list of significant plants reminds readers how, all too often, the cultivation and use of plants has been tied to human suffering (cotton, sugarcane, tobacco). Laws does not preach or demonize groups of people, or plants for that matter, but the conclusion is unfortunately inescapable.

At times Laws jumps between eras within the same chapter, which is disconcerting. The information in each chapter can also be rather cursory, so if you're looking for an in-depth exploration of mulberry and the development of trade along the Silk Road, look elsewhere.

But if you'd like an intelligent and breezy look at the way plants and people have interacted, you'll enjoy Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. It shows us how our past, present, and future are intrinsically connected to our relationship with plants.

(Photo from Amazon)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Flora of Costa Rica

I have been very bad about blogging lately, and part of my excuse is that I recently went on vacation to the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. (This, by the way, is a great way to beat the winter blahs; I highly recommend it.)

Guanacaste is in the northwestern portion of Costa Rica, along the Pacific Ocean. It's an arid environment--not the rainforest ecosystem found in the central and eastern parts of the country. If you look at the mountain in this photo, you'll see how, especially now in the dry season, this region resembles a more savanna- or even desert-type landscape.

But at the resort where we stayed, I found lush, manicured landscapes.

I honestly couldn't tell what a lot of these plants were, but cannas and palm trees were everywhere, as was a green, well-groomed lawn.

You can see the contrast between the indigenous (mountain) landscape the "gardened" landscape in the foreground. As someone who cultivates plants native to my corner of the world, this was a little disconcerting.

But I have to admit I enjoyed being surrounded by vibrant, colorful, and yes, non-native landscaping. And it was just plain fun to see plants that grow as annuals in Illinois to be flourishing happily outdoors in January!

We also had a chance to see the "transitional" forest at a nearby volcano, where it wasn't a full-on rainforest but it was wetter than the coastal area. It was wonderful to experience different landscapes, and the variety of birds and butterflies was astounding.

If you have the chance, I recommend you see this beautiful country. I would love to see the rainforest areas, but don't overlook the more arid Pacific side!

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