Saturday, March 29, 2008

A Cure for Spring Fever

"April is the cruellest month..."

---T.S. Eliot

I'm not quite sure what the great Mr. Eliot meant by this; personally, I never liked February. For gardeners, though, especially this year, I think March probably has to be the cruellest month of all--teasing us with a little sunshine, a day of warmth here and there, and then laughing at us with a downpour, a hailstorm, or even one more snowstorm.

My friend Beckie of Dragonfly Corner and I have found the cure for this year's spring blues, though. We attended an open house and series of workshops at a local garden center today. What fun! We were greeted as we walked in by trays and trays of bright pansies in all colors .

Our first session was on adding whimsy in the garden, taught by a professor of horticulture at the University of Illinois. She entertained us as well as informed us, demonstrating her ideas with various plants selected from the center. I especially liked the idea that you don't have to plant masses of the same plant, as long as you repeat a color or mound shape. That reassured me because I tend to plant a variety of plants, because I'm always finding something new I want to try.

The second session was on "Shady Characters," a topic I'm particularly interested in since I added more space to my tiny shade garden last fall. Besides the usual hostas, she showed a variety of perennials and even a few annuals for shady spots. My favorites of the annuals had to be the primulas, which I assume have to be related to the primrose. Just look at this candy-pink flower! My camera doesn't do it justice; Beckie and I both commented that it looked as if someone had painted it.

And if you don't like pink, they come in nearly every color. Wouldn't these really catch your eye in the shade? I am going to buy a whole flat of these as soon as the weather gets a little warmer.

We attended two more sessions: one on caring for roses and one on annuals. I'll let Beckie discuss the roses--I'm too intimidated by them. The annual talk was great, though. The speaker, a Master Gardener, brought in photos from last year of her garden as well as the Idea Garden on the U of I campus, since the annuals in the greenhouse are still very small. I wish I had taken pictures of her photos! I came away with lots of new ideas I can't wait to try this year. Two annuals she specifically recommended were Euphorbia "Diamond Blast," which she called a "froth of white" in containers, and "Raspberry Blast" supertunia. The small specimen of euphorbia she had gave no indication of how beautiful it can be as we later saw in the photos. This is one annual I am definitely going to include in containers this year. The raspberry supertunia is one I actually planted last year, and I agree it's a beauty.

By 2:00 Beckie and I were suffering from low blood sugar or just plain starvation, so we didn't stay for the next session on hypertufa pots. Too bad; I'm going to lie awake all night wondering what hypertufa is. After a much-needed lunch, we capped the day by stopping at the Master Gardeners Idea Garden on campus. Nothing is blooming yet (now I don't feel so bad about my lack of blooms), but we intend to make it a frequent stop during the summer to see how their garden grows. Look for it on later posts.

All in all, a great way to lift our moods after this long, hard winter.

(Check out Dragonflycorner, too, for another view of our day.)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

One Mission Accomplished

It's a gray day outside and the forecast is for rain the next few days. I am so glad I took advantage of the beautiful weather we had yesterday.

Wednesdays are "me" days: I take a Tai Chi class with a friend at our local community college, then we "do" lunch, sometimes with another old friend. I always look forward to Wednesdays, coming home tired, but in a good mood. Yesterday was no exception, except the weather was so beautiful--bright sunshine, mid-50's, but feeling much warmer--that I felt guilty about not getting outside to accomplish some yard work. By the time I got home at 4 I was tired, but checking the forecast, I saw the rain coming. So I forced my protesting body out of the chair and gathered up the necessary tools for one simple task--expanding my roadside flowerbed.

Two years ago I created a small flowerbed in front of these burning bushes. I planted coneflowers and Stella d'Oro daylilies, two of my favorite perennials, along with some Victoria blue salvia. They have done very well, and I've gotten a lot of compliments on my plantings. But every day as I returned home, I realized the bed was much too small. So my goal this year is to expand the flowerbed in front of all the bushes.

Now this bed doesn't look very big in this picture, but I remember the work it took just to dig up this small area. We had rented a large tiller for my vegetable garden, but it was so big, only my son could use it. So I decided that I would make things easier on myself this time.

I had found an article that suggested laying down a layer of newspapers to kill the grass first. This sounded like a good idea, since spading up the grass is the hardest part.

I laid down the newspapers and fastened them with landscaping U-clips I purchased at the local Menard's. Now I'm sure you experienced gardeners have probably used these clips, but they were new to me. I wish I'd had them before when I tried to lay down landscape fabric on a windy day!

The area still looks too small to me, but it's a start. Now all I have to do is wait about a month and hope the grass has died enough to make spading a much easier task this year.

I'm not sure what all I will plant here yet, but I was inspired by an earlier post of Lisa's at Greenbow to start with some zinnias. The rest is still a blank canvas--time to check out those gardening catalogs again!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New Gardening Year's Resolutions

I hope that everyone had a happy Easter. Our family gathered at my mother's for Easter dinner, and while it was pretty chilly outside, the grandkids did manage to have one Easter egg hunt before the cold got the better of them. While there, I marvelled at my mother's plants she has managed to keep blooming over the winter. Even a wave petunia was still in full bloom, looking as if it were July instead of March. But her geraniums are the star performers. She keeps her flowers in a sunny, south-facing window on an enclosed porch. I don't know anyone who manages to keep geraniums thriving all winter long as well as she does.

Looking at her beautiful geraniums, I thought wistfully of the planter I brought in for the winter, hoping to save the geraniums and asparagus ferns for the next season. While the ferns have survived, the geraniums are turning brown and look very spindly. Hmmm, could it be that I forgot to water them??

Every year as the gardening season approaches, I have grand plans and all sorts of good intentions that seem to fizzle out as time goes by, especially in the heat and humidity of July and August. So I have decided that now, while I am waiting for the ground to dry out and the temperatures to warm up somewhat before attempting anything in the garden, this would be a good time to remind myself of what I've learned from past mistakes.

Here are my resolutions for this year in the garden:

1. I will not waste money on cabbage and cauliflower plants, unless I get a compassionate urge to feed the rabbits. (Actually, they were given to me last year so I didn't really spend any money on them. Over a week's time, leaf by leaf, they all disappeared.)

2. Before mowing season begins, I will edge the roadside flowerbed or at least point out to my husband the difference between an emerging lily and a clump of grass. (I think you get the picture.)

3. I will resist the urge to plant more than two hills of zucchini. (I still have bags of chopped and shredded zucchini from two summers ago in my freezer.)

4. I will spend more money on potting soil and not buy the bags that have been sitting next to the Walmart parking lot for the last month. (Last year I bought a few more bags in early June, and the soil felt like black bricks. No wonder the last few containers that were filled with this soil never did very well.)

5. I will not submerge the Jiffy peat pellets in a pan of water before planting, and have all the soil spill out into the water. (Yes, I did do that this year. Beckie gave me good instructions; I just visualized them differently. Fortunately, I retrieved them before they lost all their soil.)

6. I will not take the first warm day in early April to transplant half of my perennials. (Last year in early, early April we had two balmy days, so I decided to dig up some of my overcrowded plants and move them. The next day the temperature dropped 35 degrees and nearly killed those that had just been transplanted. One knock-out rose is still slowly recovering.)

7. I will put down mulch and weed the vegetable garden regularly before the green beans are hidden in a growth of grass and weeds. (I am too embarrassed to add any more...)

8. I will water the flowers, especially the potted ones, regularly and not tell myself each day, "Well, it looks like rain any time..."

9. I will write down notes in a gardening journal so that I remember what containers worked well and which ones didn't. Also, so that when a strange-looking plant begins to emerge in my flowerbed, I will remember what I planted there last year. (I did actually start this last year--just a simple three-ring binder with pockets for magazine or internet articles I've found. The notes, though, I didn't write down till December--I sure hope my memory was good at the time.)
And finally,

10. I will plant any annuals I purchase immediately, or within the next two days. The same goes for anything ordered from a mail order catalog. (I have discovered that after planting a dead plant in good,rich soil, it is still dead.)

I am sure that there are other things I need to do differently this year as well, but if I can stick to keeping these ten, my plants will thank me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The grass is always greener...

Yesterday I drove my youngest daughter to Indianapolis to catch a flight to Arizona to visit her older sister. I was ready to jump on the plane with her at the last moment! Although the temperatures are slowly getting warmer here at home, the forecast is for rain all week, making me long for a warmer, drier climate. I did get to visit my daughter in Phoenix at the end of January and had a wonderful time. For a girl from the flat prairies of central Illinois, the mountains of Arizona were awe-inspiring. Sedona, about two hours north of Phoenix, has picture-perfect scenery and is a popular destination for tourists. While I was in Phoenix, my daughter had to go to work, so I had to entertain myself during the day. The last full day I was there, I had a few options from my handy AAA travel guide and decided to visit the Desert Botanical Gardens. I am so glad I did! The gardens are located in Papago Park on the Southeast corner of Phoenix. If you are ever in Phoenix, it is well worth visiting.

When I arrived, I planned just to walk around the gardens, but fortunately, a guided walking tour was about to begin, so I joined the group. I am so glad I did! Our guide was very knowledgeable and told so many interesting anecdotes about various plants; I never would have gotten this much information by myself. I was told the tour would take about 30 minutes, but it actually took over an hour, which gave us twice as much time to enjoy the experience.

I don't remember all the exotic varieties we saw, but my favorite has to be the saguaro cactus, just because it is the symbol of the Southwest and because I didn't realize how large they could be. They live for 150 years or more; the one below had to be 20 to 30 feet tall. The Saguaro, though not on the endangered species list, is protected by Arizona state law. If a land developer has to remove one while clearing the land, he is required to transplant it. Our guide also told us that in his neighborhood he has seen the police arresting cacti poachers. I can't imagine that they would have been digging up very large specimens, though, as the saguaro's roots are as wide as they are tall.

If you will look carefully at the photo, you will notice some holes near the top of the cactus. These are commonly made by a native woodpecker (sorry, you bird enthusiasts, I don't remember its name), but the point to remember is that these holes then become popular nesting places for other creatures, especially snakes. You can see why I didn't want to get too close to take a picture! Several of the saguaros we saw also had holes chewed out at the bottom by rabbits--apparently those cute little Easter bunnies are the bane of gardeners everywhere.

The tree above is near the entrance of the gardens, which is fitting since it is the state tree of Arizona, the palo verde. I have no idea if the trunk remains green ("verde") all year.

My other favorite in the garden were the agaves. Of course, many Midwestern gardeners have some varieties of this plant, but one desert variety was particularly interesting. I believe it was a type of century plant, but you will have to forgive my memory.

These plants live 100 years or more, but they only bloom once in their lifetime. When they do bloom, they shoot up a tall bloom and then die. Although you can't really see the plant in this picture, if you look carefully at the middle you will see a tall, slender stalk arising from this agave. I don't know why this impressed me so much--I guess it's the wonderful idea of one "last hurrah" before leaving this world.

At the end of the tour, I eagerly visited the gardens' gift shop and found much more than the usual touristy souvenirs. Unfortunately, I was running out of time when I discovered a large area filled with cacti for sale. Between trying to choose among all the interesting choices and trying to figure out the logistics of flying home with a cactus, I am sorry to say I came home empty-handed.

Again, if you are ever in Phoenix, make the time to visit these beautiful gardens. In fact, this would be the perfect time of year, since the cacti should be in bloom right now. As I sit here watching the rain fall once again today and think of my daughters sitting in tank tops watching a Cubs spring training game, I wish I was in Phoenix. But then the grass is always greener somewhere else, isn't it? And in a few weeks when my tulips and daffodils are blooming, the lawn is a lush green, and my redbud is in all its glory, there's no place I would rather be than right here at home!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cat Quandary

That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of minds.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, and some are worse...

---T.S. Eliot

I have always been a cat fancier. Growing up on a farm, I played with the "barn cats" whose job it was to control the mouse population. I can remember my grandfather and my father milking the cows each evening, then pouring off some of the fresh, warm milk into a pan for these workers. And every spring there was a new litter of kittens for me to tame and give strange names to. I would often sneak one or two of them into the house, trying to convince my parents they would make wonderful house pets, but unfortunately, they were always relegated to living in the barn or various sheds around our farm.

Charlie the cat was a willing substitute for one of my dolls.

Today our family has just one housecat named Toby. He is the quintessential cat: he does what he pleases, when and where he pleases. All he demands in return is a clean litterbox, a full food dish, and an occasional petting. Toby can usually be found sleeping on one of our beds, but he does enjoy finding the unusual nook or cranny for a nesting spot, particularly the highest bookshelf or the top shelf in my husband's closet. Recently, while I was babysitting my 8-month- old grandson, Toby decided that the porta-crib was the ideal napping spot and wasn't too happy when I banished him from the bedroom for the day.

"You mean you didn't set up this bed just for me?"

But living on a farm, we do have our outdoor cats as well, five to be exact. They don't dine on warm milk and mice like my childhood cats (well, I've never seen any mice, anyway; perhaps the mere presence of these five is enough to frighten the mice away), but prefer a steady diet of "Meow Mix." However, outdoor cats can present some challenges to the gardener. A freshly dug hole for a plant is an open invitation for any cat to take care of "business." And my nepeta is flattened every summer as the cats seem to find it the perfect spot to sun. (I guess there's a reason it's called catmint.) But two summers ago they added two more challenges: one, using my flowerpots as a resting place and two, using the planter on my front porch as their litterbox.

Tarzan finds a flowerpot the perfect place for sunning.

I surfed the internet for solutions to my problems and found a variety of suggestions. Many of them, though, like setting out mothballs or spraying the plants with a solution of hot pepper sauce sounded harmful, if not toxic. I decided to try the easiest and most innovative method, which was to place plastic forks, tine side up, all around the bare soil. Amazingly, it worked! The cats found my pots very uncomfortable and avoided them. Of course, my grandchildren looked at my planters in confusion until one of them asked, "Grandma, why are you growing forks in your flowerpots?"

The porch planter, however, is another story...

The cats have found the planter again this winter.

I planted geraniums, wave petunia, and different accent plants the first year we lived here, and they flourished. The summer of the cat invasion, the plants were not as hardy, needless to say.

So last spring, after arming myself with a few bags of plastic forks, I dug out about half the soil (and the "gifts" from my cats--ugh) and replaced it with new soil. Even though the forks deterred the cats from disturbing the plantings, my flowers were downright puny, and some even died. I wondered if I had over-fertilized them, but I am more likely to be guilty of neglect than overfeeding! My husband said perhaps there was excess nitrogen left from the cats and the fertilizer was, in a way, overkill. The planter is made from Indiana limestone, as is the rest of our house, and I am wondering if perhaps chemicals from the cats' deposits leached into the stone. I don't know whether to remove all the soil and start over (it takes a lot of soil to fill it) or whether I can try something else.

I really want to have the lovely planter I had a few years ago, so dear gardeners, if any of you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them. Just don't tell me to give away my cats!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Strange blooms in March

A beautiful spring-like day here in Central Illinois, but my flowers have yet to hear the wake-up call. I did discover a tulip popping up through the thick mulch of leaves in my flowerbed, but unfortunately, I had to work today and didn't have time to run to get my camera. At least now I do believe that spring is finally on its way.

I do have something else "blooming" in our cornfield, if not in the flowerbeds--Canadian geese. For the past several nights six or seven of them have landed near dusk and settled in the field. I wonder if they might be laying eggs? If so, I do hope the eggs hatch before the field work begins.
Yesterday I searched through my flowerbeds for a sign of life (I swear that tulip wasn't up yesterday!), and the only green I could find was this yarrow plant. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if this little shoot had stayed green all winter--this plant is virtually indestructible. I believe it is called "Appleblossom," and it turns a lovely shade of pink when mature. Thank goodness I planted it next to a large landscaping rock rather than my flowerbed, because it spreads rapidly and could easily overtake less hardy plants. This is my first ever "Bloom-day" blog; in fact, it's only my second blog posting. But I am excited about joining in on the fun, and I hope to have some real blooms to share the next Bloom day.

Monday, March 10, 2008

To Blog or Not to Blog

Welcome to my first ever blog. My best friend Beckie of Dragonfly Corner introduced me to the world of blogging about a month ago. I must admit I thought blogs were just for chatty teenagers or sportswriters, and I have since found some unusual ones. So far, the blog about the questionable use of quotation marks has been the strangest I have found. (My blog might be cited later on the overuse of exclamation points!) But when I saw Lisa's Greenbow blog and then all the other wonderful gardening sites, I was hooked and decided to attempt my own. Please bear with me as I begin to navigate through yet another new technological experience.

First of all, although I do love gardening, I am truly a novice gardener. I began my first perennial bed about six years ago and have slowly become a little more knowledgeable about the world of gardening through trial and error. Reading gardening magazines and internet articles has also helped, so I am excited about reading all your blogs and learning so much from them as the season progresses. Already I am indebted to Carol of May Garden for her very helpful article on sowing seeds indoors. Ironically, just a few days before, I had purchased a few packets of seeds and some seed starter cells to try to banish the winter doldrums. With Carol's helpful tips, I may actually get some flowers to grow!
A little bit about myself...I recently retired after 34 years of teaching high school English. That will help to explain today's title--I firmly believe there is a Shakespearean quotation for every situation in life. I am enjoying my newly found free time, but most of all, I am looking forward to actually working in the garden before June! I have always lived in east central Illinois, but three and half years ago we moved to the family farm which is on the outskirts of the small town of St. Joseph. Our house sits back quite a way from the road, as you can see below(or above--I must learn how to insert pictures!) in the view from my living room window.

Obviously, I have lots of room to plant! That's the problem--I have grandiose plans, but not the energy or the wherewithall to carry out all of them. I have started on a very small scale and hope to share some pictures of my flowerbeds once they begin to bloom.
I have been so impressed by the gardening blogs I have read; the beautiful pictures, the articles, not to mention the mechanics of posting these must take a lot of time. I am afraid I may not be so faithful in posting blogs, but I will do my best. I am especially looking forward to sharing ideas with all of you and taking advantage of your expertise. In fact, my next blog will pose a couple questions for you experts, so I hope you will read it.