Monday, February 28, 2011

Three Helpful Guys

Jeff & Kevin

Three helpful guys—Kevin, Jeff, and Kenny—recently cleaned up winter damage at Meadow Glenn, and they did it in half a morning.

After surveying all the winter storm damage of our trees and shrubs, I wondered how many weeks, months, or years it would take me to get all the work done. In addition, I wanted to remove nearly 20 Hollywood junipers from my living snow fence because they just didn’t look right among their shorter relatives, Sea Green junipers.

But then our grandson Kevin suggested that he and his dad, Kenny, could come over and help. When the appointed day came, Kevin drove in with friend Jeff, and Kenny drove up a few minutes later.

In about two hours the three younger sets of muscles—with Jeff’s two Stihl chain saws—pruned damaged limbs from flowering plums, our ancient red maple, pines, and a wild cherry or two, plus cutting out the Hollywood junipers. They also cut the biggest limbs into sections and used Kenny’s Ford pickup to stack the cuttings on two compost piles in our woods.

They did all that in about two hours.

Two hours? If I worked on the heavy stuff just two hours a day by myself, the work might have taken weeks, months, perhaps into next year and given me plenty of back, joint, and muscle pain. It’s hard to admit, but I’m not 20, 30, 40, 50, or 60 anymore.

Thank you, Kevin, Jeff, and Kenny. Thank you very much.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Deer Country 12: Summer Perennial Flowers

Spring perennial flowers that deer don’t eat were our focus in “Deer Country 11.” This “Deer Country” and the next will feature perennial flowers that bloom in summer and were listed by Howard County Master Gardeners in a survey as plants their local deer don’t eat.

Plant breeders must be having fun with blanket flower (Gaillardia spp.). Spring catalogs show a new cultivar or two each year with new color combinations. You can buy blanket flower seed packets, but generally you will not get blooms until the second year. It’s a favorite of butterflies but not deer.

If you like blue flowers, salvia (Salvia spp.) will make you happy and leave the deer looking for snacks elsewhere. Over the last 10 years I’ve planted ‘May Night,’ ‘Purple Rain,’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue Sage.’ Since I have planted them on the east side of our house where they don’t get the full sun they prefer, they don’t grow as tall (up to 2’) as they should, but they still bloom profusely in early summer. My current salvia, ‘Rhapsody,’ has a tendency to collapse in July thunder- and windstorms, which disappointed me at first, but it soon puts up new stems from the center of the plant for a second, late-summer round of blooms.

If you want to grow orchids in your garden without having a greenhouse, plant hardy orchid (Bletilla striata). I hadn’t the slightest idea that such plants existed until I saw them growing in the garden of a Master Gardener, Irene M.  I ordered up tubers (underground stems with buds) of two colors—white and pink—from a mail-order catalog. I planted them in a small garden on the east side of our home, where they get only a couple of hours of direct morning sun. They grew slowly for the first couple of years but soon began growing vigorously.

You may like to eat onions, but deer don’t. Feel confident then to plant members of the onion genus, Allium, which is Latin for “garlic.” But if you don’t want to plant onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, garlic, or chives in your flower garden, plant ornamental alliums instead. Bulb catalogs often list a score or more varieties with blooms ranging from “sparkler” and “hairy” types to those with various sizes of ball-like blue and purple blooms. In the photo are my ‘Drumstick’ alliums.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is another butterfly favorite. Years ago I planted ‘Cerise Queen,” which had deep-red blooms. However, over the years the color of the blooms gradually has reverted to a more natural white. Bright yellow is now a popular color. Yarrow multiplies both by seed and rhizomes (underground stems), so I restrict mine to an area between a sidewalk and concrete patio-stone pavers. Yarrow has been used for centuries for many purposes around the world, so it has many common names, such as gordaldo, nosebleed plant, old man’s pepper, devil’s nettle, sanguinary, milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, and thousand-leaf (which is the meaning of its binomial name, millefolium.

I grow veggies because I love to eat them. I grow garden pinks (Dianthus spp.) because I love to be engulfed in their fragrance when I walk nearby and deer don’t eat them. Current varieties include ‘Cheddar Pink’ and ‘Spangled Star.’

Deer love to browse daylilies except one: Stella d’Oro (Hemerocallis ‘Stella d’Oro’). Though its golden-yellow flowers may be less dramatic than newer daylily hybrids, what gardener in Deer Country will complain when deer pass it by to chow down on other daylilies and the taller Asiatic and Oriental lilies? Daylilies, of course, get their name from the fact that each bloom lasts only one day, unlike the Asiatic and Oriental lily blooms that often last for a week or more. Mine grow about a foot tall. They grow best in sunny locations but will tolerate some shade. If you cut out the stems after all the blooms are spent, you will encourage Stellas to rebloom, often into the fall. Every few years I look at my Stellas and say, “Hey, they need to be divided.” I get out my spade and cut off large parts of each plant, often dividing those parts again, and then giving the divisions as starter plants to friends looking for deer-resistant plants.

Note: Remember there are no guarantees that deer in your neighborhood won’t eat perennials listed here. There is no “deer-proof” plant. Browsing depends on many things, including number of deer, availability of other foods, and preferences of individual deer. If you’re serious about finding perennials that deer won’t eat, remember to check the lists in the brochure and the books I recommended in “Deer Country 3” and in lists available online. Research your favorite candidates and give them a try.

Next week’s “Deer Country” posting: more summer perennial flowers.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Herbs: Tasty, Tasteful, or Both?

Think “herbs” and you likely think of something tasty to season your food. In her “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Washington Post, Barbara Damrosch focuses on another dimension: beauty.

Yes, you’ve caught the drift. Grow herbs for both taste and beauty.

Enjoy the accompanying photo of Pink Candypops mint.

Damrosch just might be onto something here. And to think deer don’t generally browse strongly flavored or scented herbs, such as mint.

To read her column, CLICK HERE.

Shelf Fungus: Part of the Woodland Scene

I’ve seen them growing on fallen, decaying limbs and trees in the woods but haven’t taken the time to find out what they are. When you link to Patterson Clark’s “Long-lasting shelf life,” in the Science section of the Washington Post, you’ll look at the graphics and say, “Oh, I’ve seen them too.”

To read Patterson Clark’s four-paragraph column about shelf fungus, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Football Fan Becomes Herbicidal Fanatic

When it comes to the mail and the Washington Post, I’m “Jack Sprat could eat no fat” and Ellen is “his wife could eat no lean,” and it all works out perfectly.

When we sort the mail, Ellen gets Sports Illustrated magazine, which she’s read weekly for about 40 years. I get Fine Gardening magazine, which I’ve read for nearly 10 years.

When we divvy up the daily Washington Post newspaper, I get A-Section (international & national), Business, Editorial Pages, Health & Science, Local Living, Metro, Real Estate, and the Washington Post Magazine. Ellen gets the Sports section.

You may be able to impress me with your sports knowledge, but you can’t impress her, I guarantee you.

It was a bit of shock Tuesday evening when she called from her rocker, “Did you see the story in the Sports section about the Alabama football fan who poisoned Auburn’s 130-year-old oak trees?”

I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was talking about. Remember—the Sports section is Ellen’s turf. I cannot imagine poisoning an historic oak tree, but a sports fan—well, football is very serious business in Alabama, and “fan” is short for “fanatic.”

Ellen passed the Sports section on to me after she was finished with it. Sure enough, Tracee Hamilton, a Post columnist reported that a fan of University of Alabama football, angry that Auburn beat Alabama in their annual Iron Bowl contest last November, dowsed the roots of two ancient live oaks at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, traditional site of Auburn’s victory celebrations, with herbicide.

The herbicidal fanatic demonstrated his brilliance by calling a radio call-in program to brag about his misdeed.

The alleged perpetrator, 62 years of age, has been arrested and charged with “criminal mischief.” Horticulturists, agronomists, and engineers spent several days trying to remove the poisoned soil, though experts say there is about a 1% change the oaks will survive. And sane sports fans already have donated nearly $100,000 to help save or replace the trees—including nearly $40,000 by the 99.999% of Alabama fans who don’t have “issues.”

If, as expected, the trees die, I suggest they be salvaged and the lumber made into appropriate Auburn souvenirs.

First should be a gavel to be presented to the presiding judge to call the court to order at the perpetrator’s trial. Instead of throwing the proverbial “book” at the perpetrator, the judge could, well, throw the gavel. Athletic and other student awards could be attached to finely finished boards made from the larger limbs of the oaks.

And the leftovers? They’d make fine oak flooring for Auburn basketball courts.

Hey, basketball fans, take off your shoes. You’re walking on sacred wood.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Pain of Spring

I posted on Monday about pruning our storm-damaged flowering plum. On Tuesday I posted about cutting back our fountain grass. Total time spent on those two projects: about four hours. Total hours of back, hip, shoulder, ankle, foot, and “other” pain: about 24 hours.

As I mentioned near the end of the second posting, by the end of the fourth hour “this Ancient Gardener was aching here, there, and just about everywhere.”

Yes, an acetaminophen tablet helped. The pain was gone in about 24 hours, though some stiff muscles remained a few more days.

What’s with the pain of spring these days? It seems to be getting worse. Is spring so much different than it was 30 or 40 years ago, when I worked eight hours a day in the yard and hardly thought about it?

Why more pain now?

Global warming? Hardly.

Are plants growing closer to the ground so I have to bend more? Hardly.

Am I 40 years older now?

Well, yes, that’s likely the reason. I bend easily—but then don’t stand again so quickly. I stoop easily—but sometimes have to use a shovel handle to gain the perpendicular stance I’d like. If Weed A and Weed B are four feet apart, sometimes I find that a crawl between the two is more efficient and less time consuming than standing and walking the two steps.

Ok, age is a factor we all face. As children, we dreamed of being “old”—or at least “older.” In our 20s and 30s age seemed all but irrelevant. In our 40s and 50s we watched our parents age but didn’t take it too seriously ourselves. In our 60s and 70s, well, we graying adults bought back braces and bottles of pain-killing tablets and learned to crawl again, at least from weed to weed.

To state the obvious, age, like weeds, comes naturally. No one is exempt. We exercise regularly. We watch our diets—at least keep an eye on the chocolate-covered almonds. We keep a bottle of acetaminophens in the kitchen cabinet. We try to remember to wear our back braces. We learn to use our hoes more efficiently, rather than bending low to snatch a weed from under a tomato plant. We do the heavy stuff just an hour or so, rather than all day.

And we seriously begin thinking of the time when we should perhaps hire a landscaper to do some of the heavy work. We decide to let the deer take over a stand of viburnum shrubs, rather than our building a fence to protect them.

Age. It’s coming to a body near you—to somebody you know—in fact, to you.

As I’ve started living in my eighth decade, I’m tuning in more to the realism in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. From time to time I use Chapter 3 as a springboard to create paraphrases that speak directly to me:

There is a time for everything:
A time to be born,
And a time to die;
A time to plant,
And a time to mulch;
A time to harvest,
And a time to uproot;
A time for back pain,
And a time for an aspirin or two;
A time to hire out the work,
And supervise from the porch
With peace of mind, muscle, and soul.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Crew Cut for Fountain Grass

Fountain grass needinglate-winter trim

February days don’t get much better than last Friday—overcast, then sunny, temperatures rising into the low 70’s. “Make hay while the sun shines,” goes the old saying, and I got out my electric hedge trimmer and pitch fork and started serious front-yard garden cleanup.

First I gave crew cuts to the three clumps of fountain grass (Pennisetum) that share a small island bed with a boxwood. The island surrounds the access port of our septic system, and the plants hide the white, PVC plastic pipe from view most of the year. The evergreen boxwood grows between the port and our house, hiding the port year-round on that side.

Why didn’t I cut back the fountain grass in late November or December? Well, I could have, once the ornamental grass died back. But I leave it over winter to add some character to our landscape. And we especially enjoy feathered characters—chipping sparrows—that in early winter hop onto blades of the dried fountain grass and peck away at the seed heads as the grass slowly sinks toward the ground.

Crew cut finished
Even with electric trimmer, cutting fountain grass is slow going because it is so tough. Remember the point I made in “Deer Country 2,” that deer don’t have top incisors so find it difficult to browse on tough or woody foods. I suspect they don’t browse on ornamental grasses because the grass is too difficult to bite off.

After I finished giving crew cuts to the fountain grass, I put the trimmer to work cutting back nearby liatris, Siberian iris, butterfly weed, lychnis, and coreopsis plants that I had also allowed to stand over winter in nearby flower beds. The iris had tough-to-cut leaves too, but the trimmer made quick work of the others.

I had planned to trim the 20 or so clumps that stretch along the outside of our backyard fence. But cleaning up the island garden and then cutting back the perennials in the nearby beds, plus cutting back raspberry canes in the back yard, took two hours, after which this Ancient Gardener was aching here, there, and just about everywhere.

Ok, let’s keep some of the clean up for another warm, late-winter day.

And remember, Bob, to wear your back brace next time you do yard work.

In “Deer Country 11” and subsequent postings, you’ll meet the perennials I’ve mentioned in this posting.

And a future posting will tell you about my Heritage raspberries.
'Weren't we doing spring yard work last week?'

Monday, February 21, 2011

Message from B.J. and Jessie


Welcome home, family!

We hope you had a great time skiing in Colorado over the holiday weekend. We had a great weekend too, warmer than average for February. Thursday it was in the 60’s and Friday in the 70’s. When Bob came to let us stretch our legs, we ran right outside to enjoy the spring-like weather.  And when Bob gave us special treats when we got back inside, we were two happy dogs.

Can life get much better than this?

Love, B.J. & Jessie

Searching for the perfect piddle spots

Ladder & Saw: Pruning Our Flowering Plum

Sunny, 63°F, a February Thursday that didn’t seem like part of winter. It was time to get out my extension ladder and do a close-up survey of the January 26 snow damage to our flowering plum.

Getting the ladder out of the shop was a chore because of the snow shovels and other stuff I had piled in front of it over the last weeks and months. And then I had to find my large saw and my pruning saw, easily done because I had used them recently.

When I climbed the ladder to inspect the two major splintered limbs, I found one a relatively “routine” challenge and the second much more complex. The first was fairly far out on a limb and would require a single cut, but the second was at a junction of two limbs with damage reaching back toward the trunk of the tree. It would require at least two cuts.

I soon discarded the bigger saw, a fine-toothed carpenter’s saw that I thought would make a smooth cut. It was too large to work efficiently in the tangle of limbs around the broken limbs. My much smaller pruning saw was the better tool for both jobs.

I started on the simpler limb and cut back to a larger side branch. Good pruning technique means more than just sawing or lopping off a limb wherever you feel like it. The best place to prune is on the branch side of the collar, which is the thickened area where branches intersect. I’ll add a link below so you can read why cutting outside the collar is important to the tree’s healing process.

The second damaged area involved a fairly large limb—about four inches in diameter—and a smaller, two-inch limb, but the splintering continued beyond the intersection toward the trunk. It took two cuts, but eventually I removed both damaged limbs. I’ll need a larger saw to remove the remaining stub at the main trunk—a chore for another day.

While I was removing the damaged branches, I discovered another three-inch limb had split about twelve inches down its center, with a gap large enough for light to come through. I’ll have to remove that limb later—or it will splinter in a future storm.

When I was done pruning, did I swab the wounds with paint or tar-like dressing? No. As the pruning brochure explains: “Contrary to what was once recommended, tree wound dressing, paint, or shellac should not be applied over the cut surfaces. Research shows that dressings can shelter disease organisms and slow the wound-healing process.”

If you plan to prune winter-damaged trees or shrubs, take a 10-minute refresher course by reading “Pruning Ornamental Plants,” a publication of the Maryland University Extension. To link to the publication, CLICK HERE.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Deer Country 11: Spring Perennial Flowers

When I surveyed Howard County Master Gardeners about perennial flowers that deer don’t eat, they recommended 27 plants—too many for one posting here on Ancient Gardener Blog. I’m going to divide the list into four parts for weekly postings, dividing the plants roughly according to when they bloom. Sometimes that makes the division easy because a plant blooms only for a short time, and sometimes I’ll just have to arbitrarily place a plant on the list knowing that it blooms for many weeks or several times a summer. This week’s posting covers six plants that bloom in the spring.

Drum roll—the all-time winner of the “Deer Resistant Flower Trophy” is the daffodil (Narcissus spp.). It appears on every list of deer-resistant plants. When I tallied their votes, Howard County Master Gardeners put it at the top of their list. When we first moved to Meadow Glenn, I began my “deer-resistant plant” education by noticing that hoof prints of deer went around the daffodils I had planted and ended where the deer had devoured nearby tulips. Bulb catalogs offer scores and hundreds of varieties of daffodils in a wide range of colors and heights. Choosing varieties that bloom at different times can extend overall bloom time for several weeks. They grow best in full sun but can take a little shade.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.) is an early-spring beauty. My six-year specimen spreads more than two feet in each direction, even though I’ve moved it twice to give it more room and shade. Yes, it’s a true shade plant that thrives in the shadow of the east side of your house. A plus: after a few years, it will drop seeds, and you can share young plants with your gardening friends. A minus: After it blooms, it dies back rapidly and usually is “history” by mid-June.

Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). This plant makes a great ground cover for shady locations, which is how I use it on the eastern side of our house. Is there any springtime fragrance sweeter than that of lily-of-the-valley? When I was a wee lad in New Jersey, I picked two or three lily-of-the-valley flowers and a leaf or two, tied them together with white string, and presented this rustic, somewhat wilted corsage to my mom. She pinned it on her best dress and wore my gift to church. I hope your mom was like that too.

Peony (Paeonia spp.) loves the sun and rewards us every spring with its huge, fragrant blooms that last about a week. Every year in May my dad picked a bunch of peonies, and then we took our annual drive to a nearby cemetery where Dad arranged the red and white flowers in a quart jar of water by a gravestone. The names on the stone: Warren and Angela Nixon, Dad’s parents. Dad often stood by the tombstone, just looking. Later in life, I learned his parents died in the Spanish Flu epidemic two days apart in October 1918. Both were 29 years old, and they left six children. My dad was only three. When he stood there quietly in the cemetery, I now wonder, was he trying to recall a faint childhood memory of his folks? Sometimes I wonder if the love he showered on my brother and me compensated for the love the H1N1 virus robbed him of during his childhood.

Moss phlox (Phlox subulata). This makes a great ground cover for sunny spots in Deer Country. It hugs the ground and gradually expands into a thick green mat covered with pink or white flowers in the spring. Yes, deer don’t eat it, but they do rip off a stem or two from time to time, especially in winter when food is scarce—and promptly spit it out.

Vivid purple blooms of Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) are a springtime garden brightener. I see new colors creeping into current catalogs. I suspect deer don’t eat this iris because the leaves are so tough. When I cut them back with an electric clipper in the spring, they are difficult to cut. Without top incisors, deer don’t like tough-to-browse food. It’s too much work for the nutrition gained, I suppose.

Remember that there are no guarantees that deer in your neighborhood won’t eat perennials listed here. There is no “deer-proof” plant. Browsing depends on many things, including number of deer, availability of other foods, and preferences of individual deer. For example, lily-of-the-valley appears on this week’s list, and even though it was recommended by Master Gardeners as highly resistant, I’ve had two gardeners tell me recently that deer in their neighborhoods eat it.

If you’re serious about finding perennials that deer won’t eat, remember to check the lists in the brochure and the books I recommended in “Deer Country 3” and in lists available online. Research your favorite candidates and give them a try.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Gardening Politics: GMOs and RRA

My garden is the place where I cleanse my mind from the mundane political issues of the day. But there is “politics” in gardening and agriculture. If you aren’t aware of that, you should be.

Historically a new veggie variety was discovered growing in a garden or field or developed through laborious cross-pollination and harvesting of seed and "proving" the new variety over a period of years. Now scientists graft desirable genes into traditional plants to create GMOs, Genetically Modified Organisms.

You probably have been eating foods made from grains that are GMOs. Most soybeans grown in this country are GMOs. Much of our corn is too. In Europe, food products containing GMOs must be so labeled, but not here.

Barbara Damrosch’s “A Cook’s Garden” column in Thursday’s Washington Post gives you a taste of the controversy. You’ll have no doubt that she doesn’t approve of GMOs.

To read Damrosch’s nine paragraphs about GMOs and RRA (Roundup Ready Alfalfa), CLICK HERE.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Diamond in the Snow: Franna’s Greenhouse

“It’s like a diamond in the snow,” Franna explained. “Most of the orchids are blooming, and I have them positioned so I can see them from the house.”

Franna, who lives in the Hillandale section of Silver Spring, Maryland, is talking about her greenhouse. One of her orchids is the offspring of the first orchid she bought in 1964.

“Five or six years ago, the electric went off in a winter storm and everything froze,” Franna added. “I decided it was just too much. I was going to sell it—or give it away. But I just couldn’t. It’s a part of our family and always will be.

“My husband used to take care of everything in our yard. Once we even grew pansies to sell, but we put them out on the patio for some sun and rabbits wiped us out. Allen and I exchanged orchids on Valentine’s Day. When our son was in high school at Takoma Academy and was going out on a big date, we’d buy another orchid plant. I’d make a corsage for his date, and we’d add the plant to our collection. Oh, the memories.”

“My husband and son bought a Janco kit and assembled it in 1971,” Franna said. “We just had to have a place to garden year-round.” The greenhouse is 10 x 14 feet and tied into the house’s hot-water heating system.

The greenhouse is home to Franna’s orchids and those of a friend who used to work at Kensington Orchid, which no longer is in business. A neighbor brings red and pink geraniums to overwinter. A bird-of-paradise plant thrives, but a gardenia doesn’t, probably because the temperature occasionally dips too low.

'My Redskins orchid, burgundy and gold.'
If you like the story of Johnny Appleseed, you’ll like the story of Franna Orchidplant. “I’ve encouraged so many friends to grow orchids,” she explained. “Julie and Larry and June and Charlie grow them now in Florida. Arnie and Dollie and Orlando and Selma grow them here in Maryland. They are so good at it that they have blooms when I have none.”

Franna loves her greenhouse. It’s memories, beauty, her diamond in the snow.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Don’t Look Now: Crane Flies Are Mating

What’s all that bobbing up and down in the woods these late-winter days?

Hmm, I hadn’t noticed. But the action is getting hot and heavy as male winter crane flies are doing their mating dance.

Patterson Clark describes the annual ritual in his “Urban Jungle” column, “Snow swarms,” in the Washington Post. Warning: Graphics are “G” rated.

To read “Snow swarms,” CLICK HERE.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why I Ordered the Seeds that I Did

I’ve made my “big” seed order online this year, with Johnny’s Selected Seeds.    I ordered six packets of vegetable and one of flower seeds.  Let’ me tell you why I ordered what I did.

Plato zucchini, $2.95 (average 30 seeds).  What’s a veggie garden without zucchini?  I usually pick a cheap packet off a rack in a big box store, but it was so easy to stop and browse in Johnny’s catalog.  Highlighted names in this catalog are called “Easy Choice” selections that are easy to grow, widely adaptable, and good tasting.  A plus is that Plato has excellent disease resistance, which may prevent problems if this summer is extra hot and humid.

Diva seedless and thin-skinned cucumber, $2.95 (20 seeds).   Johnny’s says Diva “just might be the best-tasting cuke on the planet.”  Hmm, “just might,” but then, maybe not.  Quite frankly, I’ll settle for a good-tasting cuke in my garden and will let the planet fend for itself.  Since powdery mildew wiped out my cukes last summer, I was attracted to Diva because it’s resistant to mildews and scab.  The fruit is “bitter-free,” which also is a plus.  And for those who never read anything without their Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary by their side, this cuke variety is gynoecious and parthenocarpic.

Ok, I surrender.  “Gynoecious” means the plants are all-female, which most likely makes that part of the cuke universe interesting indeed.  “Parthenocarpic” means it can grow fruit without pollination.  Just what is Mother Nature up to these days?   I rush on and refuse to speculate.

Coastal Star lettuce, $2.95 (600 seeds).  For several years I’ve grown Parris Island Cos/Romaine, a lovely upright, green lettuce that does well even in our mid-Atlantic heat.  Johnny’s has Parris Island, but I noted Coastal Star just above it with this note: “Similar to Parris Island but … darker green and more tolerant to heat.  Since I usually plant early and late crops of lettuce so it can flourish in the cooler spring and fall weather, I thought I’d try Coastal Star for just a little more heat tolerance.  Lettuce bolts (grows a flower stalk) and turns bitter in hot weather.  Maybe Coastal Star will extend my lettuce season.

Sun Gold, our favorite tangerine-orange cherry tomato, $2.95 (40 seeds).  I don’t think I’d plant tomatoes if I couldn’t grow some Sun Golds.  They’re vigorous, long-bearing indeterminate plants.  You may find Sun Golds available at a farmer’s stand near you, but they tend to split, especially after rain, so the best place to find them is in your backyard garden.  They have one serious downside, though.  If you pick a bowl of them, by the time you get the bowl to your kitchen, it will be half empty.

A determinate tomato variety is one that continues to grow, bloom, and fruit until frost or disease kills the plant, so there is a continuing series of fruits growing and maturing during the growing season.  An indeterminate variety tops off at a specific height and tends to bear fruit over a relatively short time period.  Determinate varieties do well in containers or in small garden spaces.

Defiant PhR tomato, $4.95 (20 seeds).  Every year I try out a new tomato or two, and this is one for this year.  Several seed companies have new varieties advertised as resistant to late blight, but Johnny’s says this one, developed in cooperation with North Carolina State University, has “high resistance to late blight and intermediate resistance to early blight combined with great taste.”  Late blight devastated tomato crops in many areas of the country in 2009.  Early blight is a minor bother endemic to my garden, so I’m going to give Defiant a try.  The “PhR” in its name refers to its Resistance to Phytophthora, the water mold that causes late blight.  Defiant is a determinate variety, so I will be eager to see if it produces well and for how long.

Helenor rutabaga, $2.95 (300 seeds).  It’s an embarrassment that at our local Giant Food store the checkout clerks generally don’t know a rutabaga from a football and the store’s veggie chart lists them under “Yellow Turnip.”  Clearly this is a veggie that gets no respect.  But I love rutabagas!  We cannot have Thanksgiving dinner without a bowl of rutabagas—simply boiled and mashed with butter or with cream.  Oh, why do I salivate as I type this?

Love-Lies-Bleeding amaranthus, $2.95 (100 seeds).  I have a soft spot for beautiful flowers.  For several years I’ve grown Cock’s Comb celosia, which in late summer has a dark, red comb like a rooster that all but invites you to cut and dry it for winter display on your desk or mantle.  I usually start a half dozen to 10 plants, put two in my garden and give the rest away.  I recently asked Linda, who enjoyed a gift Cock’s Comb last year, if I should repeat or try something new, like Love-Lies-Bleeding, which features deep red, trailing chenille-like blooms.  She said they’re both beautiful, would complement each other, and suggested I start some of each.  Since I have extra Cock’s Comb seeds from last year in the seed jar in our fridge, I quickly agreed.

Five packets, $23.65 plus $6.95 shipping—reasonable price, unlimited summer exercise and delight.  Yes, Grow It Eat It, but I’ll pass on the Love-Lies-Bleeding.

If you’d like to see what these varieties look like, you can see good photos in Johnny’s catalog.  To go there, CLICK HERE.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Try a Garden-Centered Dinner Party

Tired of the same old, same old dinner parties with all their uncertainties?

In her “A Cook’s Garden” column in the Washington Post, Barbara Damrosch takes a look at the traditional dinner party and joyfully pulls the plug. She replaces it with “a spontaneous convergence, based on the appearance of a special food, usually from the garden.”

Go, Barbara! Great idea!

I think you will love her idea too. As she says, when you plan around fresh garden produce, people who accept the invitation come because they want to: “No one clears their calendar for zucchini.”

I think you’ll enjoy reading the seven paragraphs of her “Picks of the social season.” To read her article, CLICK HERE.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Deer Country 10: Annual Flowers

Browsed marigold

Nearly every gardener in Deer Country has a list—a short list—of annual flowers that local deer don’t eat. Over the years my short list included—note the past tense—marigolds, petunias, and vincas.

In “Deer Country 1,” I mentioned how the sunflowers and pansies I planted when we first moved to Meadow Glenn disappeared and how I then realized that deer were going to use our flower gardens as a salad bar.

My defense was to start planting annuals that I thought deer would pass by. Friends advised, “Try marigolds. They have a strong scent that the deer will avoid.” Others suggested, “Try petunias. They have furry leaves the deer don’t like.”

I planted marigolds, and, amazingly, the first year had beautiful blooms. But the second year, deer regularly browsed the marigolds—and we had no blooms to admire.

Browsed petunia
I planted petunias and they grew for several months and started to bloom. “Ah, ha,” I thought. “The deer really don’t like the furry leaves. I’ve outwitted them.” Then one morning I was greeted with petunia plants consisting of just stems. The deer had eaten all the blooms and leaves. The plants struggled to releaf, but they never bloomed again.

I had better luck with vincas, a tropical import. I planted a line of them in the narrow bed between our front sidewalk and our front porch. In fact, I planted them successfully for about five years, and we enjoyed their pink and white blooms in mid-summer until cold weather set in. And then in year six the deer decided to browse the vincas. They ate the leaves and as they browsed pulled up many of the plants, which don’t have much of a root system.

Browsed & uprooted vinca
I don’t plant annuals in our deer-accessible landscape. I do usually grow a row of zinnias and marigolds in our fenced backyard, but I’ve surrendered to the deer elsewhere. I now spend my effort and time on perennial flowers with which I’ve had much better luck, which means I planted them, they grow and bloom, and the deer generally ignore them. In the next several Deer Country postings, I’ll be talking about those perennials.

Are there annual flowers that I could grow without deer browsing here at Meadow Glenn? Probably. Are there annual flowers you can grow without deer browsing in your landscape? Probably. The only way to find out is to experiment. Grow some good candidates and see what your deer think of your additions.

There are lists of good candidates in the publications I mentioned in “Deer Country 3.” The Soderstrom book lists a page and a half of “Annuals and Biennials.” Hart lists seven candidates, including zinnias, which our deer browse. Adler has several pages of “Plants Rarely Damaged,” including some annuals, and Drzewucki lists a dozen annuals. Both Adler and Drzewucki include marigolds and petunias, which Meadow Glenn deer browse heavily. University of Maryland Extension Fact Sheet 655 includes several annuals in its “Rarely Damaged” section on “Annuals, Perennials, and Bulbs.”

If you’re serious about growing annual flowers in Deer Country, I recommend that you invest in a deer-resistant fence, experiment to find varieties your deer don’t eat, or use a deer spray.

To go to “Deer Country 3,” which lists the books and brochure mentioned in this posting, CLICK HERE.

To go to “Deer Country 4,” which discusses repellents, CLICK HERE.

Please post a Comment to identify annual flowers that deer in your part of Deer Country don’t eat.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Tulips—from Holland or Virginia?

Anniversary tulips from Reagan & Mark

When you think “tulips,” you most likely think “Dutch.” Dutch growers raise 45 million tulip buds per year in—no, not Zeeland Province in the Netherlands—but at Fresh Tulips USA in Stevensburg, Virginia, just outside Culpeper.

Yes, the Dutch growers still raise about 1.5 billion tulips a year in Holland for the florist trade, but they now have eight-acres of greenhouses in Virginia to grow tulips for American flower lovers—in order to deliver fresher flowers and keep prices down by cutting out trans-Atlantic transportation expenses. Go green, go Dutch!

In his “Gardening” column in the Washington Post, Adrian Higgins details—with 10 photos—the precise timing and conditions it takes to grow a greenhouse tulip. The article, “From bulb to bouquet,” will help you appreciate the people and skills that result in the bunch of tulip buds you buy for your love on Valentine’s Day at your local supermarket or florist.

To read Adrian Higgins’ column, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Veggie, Flower, Herb Seeds Have Arrived!

Who could be happier on a gray, 33°F February day than a gardener standing before just-assembled Burpee seed racks at a local store? Forget Pauxatauny Phil and his shadow. Burpee seeds are here—ready for you to buy! Spring is coming to a garden near you soon!

Yes, seed racks for 2011 are ready for your perusal in many local stores. The snow crust on your lawn may encourage you to stay close to the glowing embers in your fireplace, but don’t linger too long. If you wait until April or May to buy, you may be disappointed at the selection remaining. I’ve been there, done that.

I was pleasantly surprised at the size of the new Burpee display when I stopped by Wal-Mart this morning. I did a rough estimate: more than 400 pockets of seed packets; 60% veggies, about half organic; 25% flowers, both annual and perennial; 15% herbs, both annual and perennial.

Being a tomato fanatic, I usually rate seed racks by the number of tomato varieties offered. The Burpee racks at this store offer: Baxter’s Bush Cherry, Beefsteak and Super Beefsteak, pink and red Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Delicious, Lunch Mate, Polish Linguisa, Red Lightning, Roma, Snack Attack, Summer Salsa, Super Sweet 100, Yellow Pear, and two mixes—Best of Show and Rainbow Heirlooms. That’s nearly double the varieties offered last year.

Price: about half the packets are $1.00 each, the other half $1.50, including most of the organic selections.

What did I buy?

Brandywine red tomato (organic), $1.50; Goldtender summer squash ($1.00); Short ‘n Sweet carrot, $1.50; Cylindra beet, $1.00; Detroit Dark Red beet (organic), $1.50; and Silver Princess Shasta daisy (perennial), $1.00, a short “pretty” that the deer won’t eat.

That’s all? Well, yes, that’s all I bought at Wal-Mart. The section was excellent for a big-box store but didn’t have all that I’m looking for. Within the next day or two I’ll finalize my online order from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and I’ll be pretty much set for seeds for Garden Year 2011.

Is there a difference between a packet of veggie seeds bought from the Burpee catalog and a packet bought from a Burpee rack at a local store?

Yes, an obvious difference is price. A packet of Detroit Dark Red beet seeds in the Burpee catalog (and online) costs $3.25, while the packet from the Burpee rack at Wal-Mart costs $1.50. Burpee prices seem to vary from store to store.

Surprise: 469!
I’ve always suspected another difference is the amount of seeds in the packets. The number of seeds in the Burpee catalog beet packet is 350. The Burpee packet at Wal-Mart says 5g, with no number of seeds indicated. Frugal Bob opened and counted each seed, expecting the number to be significantly less than 350. The number: 469. I admit that I was surprised, pleasantly surprised. I had always assumed there were fewer seeds in the lower-priced packet.

Not totally convinced, I went to Burpee online and priced a packet of red Brandywine tomato seeds (organic): $3.95 for 50 seeds. I opened and counted the packet I bought at Wal-Mart, which indicated 150mg. The count: 66 seeds.

Ok, I surrender. The lower-priced Burpee packets at Wal-Mart contain just as many seeds, if not more, than their more expensive catalog counterparts. Could Burpee be using inferior seed in the lower-priced packets? Burpee’s name is both famous and trusted in the world of gardeners, so it would be business suicide, it seems to me, for the company to sell seeds of lesser quality in a packet labeled Burpee.

There is another difference I’ve noticed between seed varieties on the racks and those in the catalog. The varieties on the racks seem to be older, better known varieties. The catalog lists many of them too but often features the newest and latest varieties, which may—or may not—be better in some ways than older varieties.

I’ll mention one risk in buying all your Burpee seeds at a neighborhood store. You may eventually be dropped from the Burpee catalog mailing list, though I suspect the trend for most seed companies is to wean their buyers from print to Internet catalogs to help keep down costs.

Now I’ve got to finalize my order for Johnny’s.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Totally Tomatoes Isn't Totally

Totally Tomatoes doesn’t sell only tomato seeds. I suppose the company was named when it sold only tomato seeds—but over the years its product lines have expanded to peppers (sweet, hot, & ornamental), cucumbers, and a smattering of other veggies, such as lettuce, cauliflower, squash, carrots, watermelons, and cantaloupes.

To give an idea of company offerings, the 60-page catalog devotes 25 pages to tomato seeds, 14 pages to pepper seeds, two pages to cucumbers, and about 10 pages to a mixture of the above or other veggies. Most packets contain 20 or 30 seeds.

The catalog contains a two-page article under the headline, “These Simple Steps Yield Totally Terrific Tomatoes” that should move any student of tomato growing to the head of her class. Subsections include “Seeding,” “Growing On,” “Hardening Off,” “Site Preparation,” “Transplanting,” “Culture,” “Diseases & Pests,” “Container Gardening,” and “Preserving.”

For tomatoes, variety names are followed by “disease resistance” abbreviations, such as Celebrity Hybrid VFFNTASt. Abbreviations are explained in the “Simple Steps” outline. Variety descriptions include days to maturity, factual highlights, and whether the variety is determinate or indeterminate.

Cucumber descriptions also indicate disease resistance, with five varieties labeled as resistant to downy and powdery mildew and others indicating “excellent disease resistance” or similar characteristics.

The company website contains convenient tabs to help find what you’re looking for: New, Tomato Seeds, Pepper Seeds, Tomato & Pepper Plants, and Other Vegetable Seeds. For a free catalog, click the “Get Catalog” tab at the top of the home page.

Price of a sample seed order: Packet (30 seeds), Big Beef Hybrid VFFNTASt tomato, $2.55. Packet (20), Juliet Hybrid tomato, $2.35. Packet (25), King Arthur Hybrid pepper, $2.85. Shipping: $4.95. Total: $12.70.

CLICK HERE to link to the Totally Tomatoes website.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Thundersnow: How Does It Happen?

Lightning lit up the room, followed by moderate thunder. July thunderstorm? No, it was January 26, with its forecast for heavy snow.

Ellen and I looked at each other.

“Wow, that’s unusual,” I said. I got up to look out the window. It was snowing.

Media instantly dubbed our January 26 snowstorm “Thundersnow” after the lightning and thunder at its beginning.

Just how does “thundersnow” happen? In his “Urban Jungle” column in today’s Washington Post, Patterson Clark explains the phenomenon. To read his short column, CLICK HERE.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Deer Country Extra: Browsing on Flowering Plum

The heavy snow last week split two substantial limbs on one of the flowering plum trees not far from our front door, leaving branches dangling to the ground. This afternoon a doe and a yearling decided to browse on the now-reachable limbs.

I watched the brunching deer for nearly a quarter hour as they tugged at the branches, often shaking them in their attempts to eat.

After the two moved on to easier eating, I went out to check on what they had been eating. It appeared they were nibbling at still-tight buds and the smallest, softest, though woody, limb tips from last summer’s growth.

Because the deer don’t have upper incisors, they don’t easily sever woody foods. The biggest twig they had severed was about a quarter-inch in diameter. Most were smaller.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Deer Country 9: Two Resistant Trees

'Sea Green' juniper

When I asked Howard County Master Gardeners what kinds of trees deer don’t eat in their landscapes, they listed two: junipers and spruces.

Those two broad categories, however, cover many varieties, some of which you might consider to be shrubs because of their small size. But you’re not alone. In his authoritative Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael Dirr points out that the term “junipers” covers a wide range of trees and shrubs and that “spruce” covers several short varieties that you might call shrubs or bushes.

Why do deer shun them? Their leaves tend to be prickly or needle like and often are strongly aromatic.

I have two kinds of junipers, Juniperus chinensis ‘Sea Green’ and Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star.’

Several years ago I planted a row of Sea Green junipers along the north side of our driveway to serve as a snow fence. They’ve grown to six-feet or more and are serving their purpose well. Deer on rare occasions nip an inch or two of new growth, but Sea Green obviously is not on their “must eat” list.

'Blue Star' juniper
I’ve planted several short Blue Star junipers in our flower gardens, where they serve as accent plants that add both color and texture, especially during winter months. After four years, the Blue Stars are still less than one-foot tall by one-foot wide. I don’t think the deer have taken even one nip of Blue Star’s prickly, aromatic leaves.

You might be wondering about one of the best-known native junipers, the Eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana. Seedlings frequently sprout under other trees here at Meadow Glenn from seeds dropped by birds. Twice I’ve moved seedlings to better growing locations, only to be met with disaster. My most successful transplant grew beautifully to about seven-feet tall and then over one year died of a rust disease. A second, smaller transplant became lunch one winter day when a neighbor’s Angus cattle got out and needed a strongly flavored snack. Even though red cedar has prickly, aromatic leaves, deer will browse on them when food is scarce. During Snowmageddon 2010, I watched deer rearing up to browse on the lower limbs of a neighbor’s red cedars.

Ellen's blue spruce
I also have two varieties of blue spruce, Picea pungens, both of which the deer don’t eat.

When we moved to Meadow Glenn, one of the first things Ellen asked that I plant was a blue spruce. That four-footer that I planted now towers near our driveway adding color year round.

I also planted two Montgomery spruces—also blue—in a small bed between our front sidewalk and the garage. Dirr calls this variety a “dwarf bush.” I’m counting on these “dwarfs” to stay small and to continue adding color and texture to the landscaping along the front of our house for many years.

'Montgomery' spruce
The two trees I’ve written about here are those that Howard County Master Gardeners say their local deer don’t eat. The books and brochure I mentioned in “Deer Country 3” list many others you may wish to consider. And remember that just because you find a tree listed as “deer resistant” doesn’t mean the deer in your neighborhood have read the list and agree not to eat it. “Deer Country 7” describes how you can cage young trees to help them survive browsing deer.

Next week’s “Deer Country” will begin a discussion of deer-resistant flowers.

If this is the first “Deer Country” posting that you’ve read, I suggest that you click on the “Deer” label at the end of this posting and read earlier “Deer Country” postings.