Armchair Gardening

Realizing that no one wants to actually work outside in the garden the week after Christmas, this column is devoted to something you can do from the comfort and warmth of an arm-chair or while looking out your windows.

Make an entry in your garden journal  (If you don’t have one, it’s never too late to start.) 

 Record what did well this year in your garden.  Were the fruit trees loaded with fruit as you’d hoped?  How many times did you fertilize them?  Did they flower well?   How many bees did you see pollinating them?  Should you add more plants to attract them?  Insect or disease problems?   Room for more?  What kinds would extend your harvest season?

Make notes of what other edibles you want to include in the garden next year.  Bare root season starts in January making it easy to plant grapes, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, artichokes and asparagus.
 
How productive were the tomatoes and other veggies?  Did you add enough compost to the beds to really feed the soil and the microorganisms?  Did you rotate your crops to prevent a build up of insect and fungal problems?

Think about how the perennials in your garden fared – the successes and not so great results.  Make a note if there are any higher water usage plants among the drought tolerant ones.  Come March, move them to a spot you’ve allocated a bit more water. 

While you still sitting in that comfy chair,  think about what changes you want to make to your garden.  Here are some tips for successful garden design:

    Take inventory
        How do you want to use your garden?  What activities do you want for outdoor living?  Examples include outdoor dining, a play space for the kids, watching wildlife, or a cutting garden that can be enjoyed form the kitchen window.  Look out your windows and decide if what you see needs  a little enhancement.  Use this list to lay out your design or improvements.

    Know your site
        Just as important as knowing your needs is exploring what your site has to offer.  You can call it site analysis but it’s simply observing your garden over time.  Where does the sun rise and fall as the seasons change?  Which spots are hot and sunny and which are shady and cool?  Put the terrace for morning coffee where you’ll be warmed by the morning sun and that relaxing retreat for reading where you’ll be shaded on a hot summer afternoon.

    Choose a style

        What feeling do you want to express in your garden?  Do you like the look of an Asian garden or maybe a country garden like those in Provence?  Maybe your ready for the clean look of a contemporary garden.  Choosing a theme helps pull the design together.  Think of the difference in feeling between a terra cotta pot overflowing with herbs and a modern water fountain.  Find inspiration in garden books and magazines and turn to them when shopping for materials for a path, furniture for the patio or plants for the beds.

    Add a framework
        Whether it’s the stone patio that gives the garden structure or the curve of a path , the bones of your garden are created by all of the elements in it.  Mark the boundaries of your garden.  Add privacy with screening from fences, arbors or informal hedges.  Create garden rooms- distinct areas using plaints or a change of grade.
    Sometimes a garden can seem larger if you block out what’s beyond it, drawing the eye inward.  On the other hand, know when to borrow scenery like a view of the mountains or a neighbors tree.

    Select the right plants
        Choose plants that support your design and meet your time available for maintenance.  Plants bring life to the garden.  They provide seasonal change, abundant bloom and bring wildlife.  Keep in mind how much time you want to spend taking care of your garden.   All gardens require maintenance.  A combination of shrubs and ground covers requires the least amount of work.  Perennials take more work- deadheading, trimming and dividing.  Native plants need little summer water and minimal care once established.  Whatever the size of your property, consider devoting a portion of it to native plants to create a wildlife area. 

Take stock of your garden from the comfort of your home and be ready for action when spring arrives.

 

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the Night Before Christmas
                 A poem for Gardeners
                    by Jan Nelson "The Mountain Gardener"

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.

 

Winter Containers and Holiday Wreaths

Ahhh… the holidays.   You’ve put up your decorations and perhaps a  tree or what ever your family does  traditionally.   Friends and neighbors wave  ‘ Merry Christmas ‘  when you see them in town.  The  relatives from back east are arriving soon to celebrate with you. 

What?    Did you say… people will be coming from parts of the country where it’s bleak and cold and miserable?   Well,  show them how lucky we are that our ground doesn’t freeze.  Put together some  handsome winter containers using  these cool ideas for those big empty pots by the front door or on the patio. 

Cool season annuals like pansies and primroses are great for containers but there are many more plants that are hardy, easy to care for and offer texture and color, too.   White artemisia combines well with almost any other color.  Here’s a good place to show off those burgundy pansies.  Or combine it with the silvery and purple-patterned foliage of heuchera ‘Amethyst Mist‘ .    Dwarf nandina is perfect in winter containers,  especially now that their foliage has taken on red and orange tints.  Use them  with a grass like orange sedge or reddish bronze carex buchananii.  Rainbow chard would look equally stunning.   Dwarf conifers look elegant surrounded with white primroses.  How about a container with the bluish foliage of euphorbia ‘Silver Swan‘  combined with ajuga ‘ Black Scallop ‘  or  an ajuga like ‘Burgundy Glow‘  with variegated pink, purple and cream leaves?  Add lavender pansies and pinkish coral bells to set off your container.   For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and best of all, they will be blooming very soon.  Hellebores bloom in the winter, too and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and will be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.  
   
Here are some tips for keeping your containers looking good through winter:

Any good potting soil will work but drainage is particularly important for plants that will be out in the rain.     To improve drainage in containers that once held summer annuals, dump out the soil and add one quarter perlite.   Don’t use a pot of soil that had polymers in it to retain summer water.  Winter plants don’t need the extra dampness. 

When filling the containers, don’t add gravel or bits of broken pots to the bottom.  Gravel and pot shards will hamper drainage.  Instead, fill the entire pot with the soil mixture.  A paper coffee filter or screen over the drainage hole will keep the soil from slipping out andl allow water to disperse.  And it will keep earwigs and sow bugs from finding a new home in the bottom of your pots.

Choose the biggest containers you have.  Not only can you tuck more plants into it, but the room will also help protect roots from the cold.   Unlike summer containers, winter plantings won’t be growing much so you can put the plants closer together.  Don’t use saucers under containers.  Plantings that are left standing in water-filled saucers can rot.  Instead, set containers on planter feet or bricks. 

Wreaths and swags

What else should you be doing to get ready for the relatives?   How about making a wreath or a swag to drape over the mantel or front door and in the process getting a little pruning done? While you’re in the decorating mood,  take advantage of this opportunity to prune your evergreens to use in wreaths and swags.  Cuttings from Douglas fir, redwoods,  pine, holly, mahonia, make fine additions to your wreaths and swags.  But don’t whack off snippets indiscriminately.  To reveal the plant’s naturally handsome form, prune from the bottom up and from the inside out.  Avoid ugly stubs by cutting back to the next largest branch or to the trunk.  If the plant has grown too dense, selectively remove whole branches to allow more air and sunlight to reach into the plant.  To force upward growth, cut the branch just beyond an upward facing shoot.  To foster spreading growth, cut the branch just beyond a downward facing shoot. 

After you’ve finished pruning, spray the greens with water to remove dust and insects.  Trim cuttings to desired size.  To keep them fresh, immerse the cut ends in a bucket of water and store outdoors in a shady spot until your ready to decorate.  Be sure to strip the foliage from the portions of the stems that will be under water if you are using the cuttings in a bouquet.       
   
Most of all, whatever you do (and even if you don’t get everything done you planned) , enjoy the season with friends and family. 

 

Grapevine “Christmas Tree”, late Bulbs & Rosemary

 It’s great to see so many magazines and TV shows showcasing quick, inexpensive Christmas gifts and decorations to make from simple objects.  As we all try to reduce, reuse and recycle , here’s  an idea that you can use to decorate your deck or front porch with items you already have.

What’s more "green" than recycling your own garden cuttings?  You probably have a large pot where the plants are just about through for the season.   Pull out the spent plants but keep the soil.  You’ll be making a Christmas "tree" from a tomato cage turned upside down and secured with large U-shaped staples poked into the pot’s soil. Tie the wire prongs that are normally sunk into the ground with twine to make a pointed top. 

 Once the cage is anchored in place you can weave prunings from grapevines or honeysuckle in and around it.  Any vine will work as well as  long flexible branches from shrubs like cotoneaster, willow or abutilon.
If you have an electrical outlet nearby you can weave small lights throughout the tree.  If you want to get fancy, poke dried hydrangea flowers or berry sprigs or rosemary cuttings into the "tree".    After the holidays, you can plant primroses in the container and store the tomato cages for next summer. 

 It’s not too late to plant bulbs.  We get enough cold around here for many more months so the bulbs will get enough chilling even though you’re getting a late start.  The worst that can happen is the blooms may be slightly smaller and bloom on shorter stems.   I always start my bulbs about now as the squirrels have buried most of their acorns for the season and tend to leave my pots alone.  If they do discover them, I put gravel over the the surface and that seems to stop the party.   I plant lots of pots because the color will be so welcome in early spring. 

A simple ( read lazy ) way to plant that I’ve always had success with is to reuse the soil in a pot that just finished up like impatiens or other annuals.  Some I plant with cool season color but many, especially the glazed ones, I take out half of the soil, layer some bulbs, and pack the top with the rest of the soil.  Voila !  Instant spring bouquet in less than two minutes.  If you haven’t planted any bulbs yet,  do go out and get some now.  You’ll be very glad you did.

A word to the wise:  protect against killing frosts that often hit this month.   Watch out for still, starry nights and be prepared to protect tender plants with frost blankets.   Even a sheet, tarp, cardboard box, or regular blanket will help. If you do use plastic, make sure it is supported by poles and not draped right on top of the plant.  Better yet,  sink four 1×1 stakes to make a frame around tender plants,  then you’ll be ready  to throw something over quickly on a cold night.  Plants must be watered adequately to survive a freeze.  Drought stressed plants are more susceptible to damage. 

A plant that’s hardy, drought tolerant, blooms in the winter and makes a nice wreath, too, is the rugged rosemary.  One of the most versatile of all herbs, rosemary can be used in a variety of ways in both the garden and kitchen.  You can use an upright version like for a deer resistant screen.  Low. prostrate types make great ground covers.  And they do well in pots on the deck or outside the kitchen door.  Native to the Mediterranean region, rosemary tolerates a wide variety of growing conditions from hot sun to partial shade  and survives down to around 15 degrees.   It will accept regular watering as long as there is good drainage.  You can add it to a mixed perennial bed or delegate it to the back forty.  Rosemary will flourish for decades in your garden but too much fertilizer will result in a shorter-lived plant.

 Harvest leaves for cooking anytime.  Plant some by the barbeque so you can toss plant sprigs over the coals to flavor food as it cooks.  Or use rosemary branches dipped in sauce to baste grilled food.   Mmm… yummy.

Japanese Maple tips for fall foliage

 If the foliage on your  Japanese maple recently dried up before turning color or during the process, the following question I recently received may be of interest to you. The reader  was concerned because he had had some dieback in early spring while his maple was leaving out.  So when his tree fritzed this month he thought the tree might be having more fungal problems.

Leaves change color when they are going into winter dormancy.  When nights get long enough, leaves  develop a corky layer of cells between the leaf stalk and the woody part of the tree.  This slows the transport of water and carbohydrates.  The manufacture of chlorophyll is slowed and the green color of the leaves begins to fade, allowing the other pigments to show through.  Since the transport of water is slowed down, food manufactured by the remaining chlorophyll builds up in the sap of the leaf and other pigments are formed which cause the leaves to turn red or purple in color, depending on the acidity of the sap. 

 For example, sumacs and California wild grape almost always turn red because red pigments are present and their leaf sap is acidic, While many of the oak and sometimes ashes will get a purplish color because the sap is less acidic.  Trees like birch don’t have much orange pigment, so they appear mostly yellow in the fall.  Others don’t have much yellow pigment, and turn mostly orange or read.  Some trees have a balance of pigments and look pinkish.  The brown color or many oaks can be attributed to a buildup of tannins which is a waste product in the leaves. 

Getting back to that poor Japanese maple with the dried up leaves,  the whole process of fall coloring can be disrupted by wind and rain coming at the wrong time.  Japanese maples have a more delicate leaf than some of other trees and are more susceptible to the elements of nature at this time. Rain and wind during the display will put a quick end to the autumnal display.  The good news is that your maple will be just fine next year.

Japanese Maple tips for fall foliage

 If the foliage on your  Japanese maple recently dried up before turning color or during the process, the following question I recently received may be of interest to you. The reader  was concerned because he had had some dieback in early spring while his maple was leaving out.  So when his tree fritzed this month he thought the tree might be having more fungal problems.

Leaves change color when they are going into winter dormancy.  When nights get long enough, leaves  develop a corky layer of cells between the leaf stalk and the woody part of the tree.  This slows the transport of water and carbohydrates.  The manufacture of chlorophyll is slowed and the green color of the leaves begins to fade, allowing the other pigments to show through.  Since the transport of water is slowed down, food manufactured by the remaining chlorophyll builds up in the sap of the leaf and other pigments are formed which cause the leaves to turn red or purple in color, depending on the acidity of the sap. 

 For example, sumacs and California wild grape almost always turn red because red pigments are present and their leaf sap is acidic, While many of the oak and sometimes ashes will get a purplish color because the sap is less acidic.  Trees like birch don’t have much orange pigment, so they appear mostly yellow in the fall.  Others don’t have much yellow pigment, and turn mostly orange or read.  Some trees have a balance of pigments and look pinkish.  The brown color or many oaks can be attributed to a buildup of tannins which is a waste product in the leaves. 

Getting back to that poor Japanese maple with the dried up leaves,  the whole process of fall coloring can be disrupted by wind and rain coming at the wrong time.  Japanese maples have a more delicate leaf than some of other trees and are more susceptible to the elements of nature at this time. Rain and wind during the display will put a quick end to the autumnal display.  The good news is that your maple will be just fine next year.

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