Thoughts for the New Year from The Mountain Gardener

Well, it’s happened again– the sun made it’s way around our planet once more. As the calendar turns to a New Year these are some of my thoughts for 2018.

The New Year – 2018

You, fellow gardeners, are unique. I can’t imagine any group of people more diverse and feisty and independent than gardeners. Yet we have such a connection. We love and are fascinated with nature. We find our deepest satisfaction in coaxing plants from the earth, in nurturing their growth. We are enduring pragmatists.

Enjoy your garden. Set realistic goals. After all, who cares if there are a few weeds here and there when you’re sitting under a shade tree next July? Enjoy a beverage of some kind often in your garden. That clean up or transplanting will still be there tomorrow.

Allow some empty places for new plants, transplants or garden art. It makes a garden your own. Add whatever makes you happy and your heart soar when you’re in your garden. Pay attention to the size that a plant will attain. It will save you lots of problems later. Weed often but not when you’re enjoying a beverage.

Dreaming is more than an idle pursuit. It’s good for you and improves the quality of your life over the long haul. We gardeners are eternal optimists. Why else would we plant a tree, a seed or a garden?

Sherman looking for squirrels

New Years resolutions for gardeners should be mere suggestions. Don’t worry if you don’t get to everything you hoped to accomplish. It’s all in the baby steps. Your wish list will serve you well during the cold, wet days of winter even if you don’t get them implemented. Sure planning a landscape that conserves water will benefit the environment and your budget and ordering seeds for the spring garden is great therapy for winter blues but there’s always next year or next month or the summer after next.

Learn something new every day. Whether it’s something new in the garden or elsewhere, keep learning.

Accept a few holes in your plants. Walk around the garden regularly to identify if a problem is getting out of control and you need to break out an organic pesticide. This is a good time for to have that beverage.

Plant more edibles if you can. Edibles in the garden feed both the body and the soul. More than just vegetables and fruit, growing food connects us to the earth and to each other.

When you grow something you are being a good steward of the land as you enrich the topsoil using sustainable organic techniques. You connect with neighbors by trading your extra pumpkins for their persimmons. Knowledge of how and what to grow can be exchanged, seeds swapped. Do your best even if you only have a few containers to grow an Early Girl tomato or some Rainbow chard.

Enjoy the simple things. Laugh often. Life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath away. Everyday is a gift, that’s why we call it the present.

Happy New Year to all of you fellow gardeners from The Mountain Gardener. May your tomatoes be sweet and your roses as fragrant as a summer’s eve.

A Christmas Poem for Gardeners

Hydrangea Christmas tree

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the garden,
All the creatures were stirring, the deer got a pardon.
The hummingbird feeders were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that the Anna’s soon would be there.

The flowering cherries were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of spring glory danced in their heads.
The summer vegetables were harvested and beds put to nap,
The compost’s a brewing so next year’s a snap.

When out on the native grass lawn there arose such a clatter,
I ran into the garden to see what was the matter.
And what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a big flock of chickadees and eight black-tailed deer.

They spoke not a word, but went straight to their work,
The chickadees devouring aphids with amazing teamwork.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the deck,
Prancing and pawing, the deer making a wreck.

A hydrangea here, an abutilon there, this garden’s a feast,
Fruit, vegetables and color: it must belong to an artiste.
We love this garden, they whispered to themselves,
With any luck, they’ll think we’re the elves !

Beautiful flowers and nectar and fragrance abounds,
We’ll include this forever on one of our rounds.
The birds can sing and fly in the skies
But we have the charm with huge brown doe-eyes.

We get a bad rap, it’s not all our fault,
Our old feeding grounds are now covered with asphalt.
Just give us a sleigh and we’ll make you proud,
We’re good for more than just eating roses, they vowed.

Call us Dasher and Dancer and Comet and Vixen,
Or Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen,
Then maybe you’ll forgive us for our past mistakes,
We can’t help that we eat plants, we just don’t eat steaks.

Now if you’ve been good this year, go ahead and make a wish,
And each time you see one of us, think welcome, not banish.
And all of us creatures will give you our best shot,
To feed and nourish your garden with nary a thought.

So everybody listen carefully on Christmas Eve,
And maybe you’ll hear us and then you’ll believe.
You may even hear us exclaim as we prance out of sight,
” Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night ! ”

My thanks to Clement Clark Moore who wrote this poem in 1822 in New York. I’d like to believe that he would enjoy my version for gardeners everywhere.

Holiday Wreaths, Traditions & Lore

It happened again last week– the annual gathering of wreath makers at Barb Kelley’s house in south Felton. The day was crisp and clear and with ginger bread and Prosecco in hand, a dozen or us shared techniques and ideas for this year’s wreaths. 14 wreaths were made on the day I was there but Barb told me the total last year was 44 for the week-long event. Creating a wreath or swag for the holidays from foliage cut from your own garden is a good way to make a little light pruning around the yard fun. Here are some tips.

Hydrangea-holly-juniper-pepper berry wreath

Every year the foliage and flowers provided by Barb and her husband, Reg varies. Some greenery like the Hollywood juniper comes from a neighbor who waits until December and then allows the Kelley’s to prune to their heart’s content. The gardener at the bank near Safeway allowed the magnolia tree to be pruned along with some of their impressive pink seed pods. The hot pink Chinese pistache berries come from a secret source in Scotts Valley. Variegated holly is harvested from another garden as are the Ruby Glow tea tree branches.

Huge piles of douglas fir boughs, cypress branches, oleander and eucalyptus flowers, purple Japanese privet berry clusters and feathery Japanese black pine boughs were also available for the making of our wreaths. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Barb decided to rejuvenate her hydrangea shrub collection and there were boxes of blue and rich pink flower clusters, too.

Take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreen shrubs and conifers but don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately. To reveal the plant’s natural form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out. Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or back to the trunk. If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach inside the plant.

The author making first of three wreaths

Winter solstice is December 21st. Solstice literally mean “Sun stands still” and for a few days around this time of year the sun does appear to stand still in the sky. Nearly all cultures and faiths have some sort of winter solstice celebration. These celebrations date back thousands of years starting at the beginning of agriculture among people who depended on return of the sun. We have incorporated many of the same plants into our holiday traditions like holly, ivy, evergreens, rosemary and mistletoe.

Holly remains green throughout the year. Decorating with it has long been believed to bring protection and good luck. Placing a ring of holly on doors originated in Ireland. Norseman and Celts use to plant a holly tree near their homes to ward off lightning strikes. The crooked lines of the holly leaf gave rise to its association with lighting and in fact holly does conduct lightning into the ground better than most trees.

Evergreen trees also play a role in solstice celebrations. Early Romans and Christians considered the evergreen a symbol of the continuity of life. Fir, cedar and pine bough wreaths were used to decorate homes. Small gifts were hung from evergreen tree branches which may have been where the Christian tradition of decorating an evergreen tree in December originated.

Take a few minutes to create your a wreath for your door or tabletop or to give away to friends and neighbors. It’s a fun way to celebrate the holidays and trust me, you can’t make a bad wreath. They all turn out beautiful.

Holiday Plants that are Toxic for Children & Pets

Throughout the year we enjoy many types of plants inside the house but it’s during the winter as we spend more time inside that we appreciate them even more. With the holidays season upon us I like to enjoy some colorful plants on my tabletop and window sill. My cat, Archer, sits on the same window sill. How safe are holiday plants for pets and small children?

Amaryllis flowers

I have a beautiful poinsettia on the table and soon I’ll be getting other holiday plants such as cyclamen, paperwhite narcissus, maybe a pink jasmine wreath or one with holly, ivy and evergreens. I also like those rosemary topiaries that are trained in the shape of a Christmas tree and have already started one of those huge showy amaryllis bulbs. Christmas cactus grow in several locations.

Pointsettia

The classic plant to decorate our homes at this time of year is the poinsettia. Are poinsettia poisonous? Ohio State University conducted extensive research and concluded that although poinsettia sap from leaves and flowers that might give you a stomach ache if you ate them they won’t seriously hurt you. The sap may cause a rash if it comes in contact with the skin on some people. With this in mind, you should keep poinsettia plants out of the reach of curious pets and small children.

The other pet in my household, Sherman, the Welch springer spaniel. doesn’t usually pay attention to the plants but if they have plastic wrapping he’s been known to get into mischief. I usually put a couple red and white cyclamen on a table in the house. Are cyclamen safe around the dog or cat?

Cyclamen

According to the Pet Poison Helpline cyclamen are mild to moderately toxic to dogs and cats if ingested but it’s the root or corm that is especially toxic if ingested in large quantities. Pets and people react differently and it is unlikely that children) would eat the corm and be affected.

My beautiful amaryllis flower and leaves are safe but the bulb is toxic. Amaryllis bulbs contain the same alkaloid that is found in narcissus and daffodil and is the reason deer know to leave them alone. Keep them away from pets and small children although ingesting a small amount will produce few or no symptoms.

Christmas cactus

Azalea leaves and Christmas cactus are toxic and should be kept away from pets and small children. Holly berries are also toxic if eaten in large quantities. Same for ivy.

Mistletoe contains multiple substances that are toxic to both dogs and cats, It can cause severe intestinal upset as well as a sudden and sever drop in blood pressure, breathing problems and even sometimes hallucinations. If a large amount of mistletoe or ivy is ingested, seizures and death may follow. The leaves and berries of holly and mistletoe plants, even dried, should be kept well out of your pet’s reach.

While serious complications aren’t likely with most holiday plants it’s still best to keep them away from small children and out of your pet’s reach.

Holiday Gifts from the Garden

I’m getting excited about the holidays. Time to dust off the Christmas list. I admit I look forward to what might be under the tree for me but half the fun of the holidays is coming up with an inexpensive gift that is just right for each person. With so many gardeners on my list, there are a lot choices.

I know some of the best gifts are the ones from nature or something that I made myself. With that in mind I have a few ideas up my sleeve.

Coreopsis ‘Mango Punch’

Plants provide needed food year round for wildlife in the garden and especially during the winter. Why not give a friend a plant or offset of one of your plants that birds, bees or butterflies would appreciate? Some easy-to-divide favorites that attract birds include foxglove, coral bells, red-hot poker, California fuchsia, mahonia and purple coneflower.

Or you might have one of the following butterfly favorites that you could divide and pot up for a friend. Yarrow, aster, veronica, agapanthus, astilbe, coreopsis and gaura are just a few that butterflies favor. Ceanothus and columbine are two plants that self sow in my garden and would be easy to pot up for a gift.

Another simple, inexpensive gift for the gardeners on your list is the tillandsia. Sometimes called air plants, these relatives of Spanish moss and pineapple have tiny scales on their leaves called trichomes which serve as very efficient absorption systems to gather water. They are very tolerant of drought conditions and will grow with just an occasional spritzing of water although I like to run mine under lukewarm water to mimic the showers they might get where they normally grow in tropical tree limbs.

Tillandsia mounted on drift wood

Tillandsia prefer the light from a bright window but not direct sunlight and are among the easiest of indoor plants to grow and maintain. Wire one on a branch or piece of driftwood or place in a shell and they will live happily for years growing pups at the base that replace the mother plant.

echeveria ‘Lace’

Succulents are also easy to grow. They are very forgiving plants when it comes to watering and light conditions. Seems I’m always coming across someone who has a story about how long they have had a particular specimen and where it came from. “You see that hens and chicks over there?”, they say. “Well my aunt gave me a little slip way back when… and it blooms every year.” If you have succulents in your own garden, break off a couple, allow the bottom to callus and pot in a small recycled cup or container to give as a gift.

It’s not too late to start a couple of hyacinth bulbs in the refrigerator to give as gifts. Part of the fun is watching the bulbs put out roots well before the fragrant blooms. Choose a hyacinth jar or other narrow necked jar that will support the bulb just above the water and keep in the frig until roots start to fill the jar. Take the bulb out of the dark and give it a bit more light each day for a week until acclimated to bright light. The house will fill with the sweet scent of spring even though it may only be January.

The holidays are a time to bring a smile to someone you care about. Your gift doesn’t need to cost very much to show your love.