March 30, 2011

Harbingers of Spring, Reminders of Winter

The Hellebores outside
the front door
There is a pair of Hellebores outside my front door that between them sport at least 30 blooms. Until three weeks ago they were under a mound of snow that varied between two and three feet deep since the Boxing Day Blizzard. This is called resilience.

Winter is finally in full retreat in eastern Massachusetts. Most homes in my town have long since seen their mounds of snow melt. Because so much snow needs to be removed from the top of my driveway, there is still a swatch of snow (ice, really) that is more than a foot high in spots. Each year at the beginning of March, Betty and I make a bet as to when the last ice will melt. This year, I guessed April 10; Betty took April 15. With eleven days to go until my deadline, it is touch and go as to who is going to win.

How deep was the snow this winter?  Compare the lamp post in the two photos.

But the melting snow yielded its share of bad news. The snow mound in the inner sidewalk bed – the site of those Hellebores – hid the fact that our oxydendrum had taken a major hit, losing seven lower branches. Planted three years ago, we had chosen that particular sourwood for its perfect shape. Now, with a third of its apparently delicate branches shorn by ice and snow, the tree is top-heavy. No, we won’t yank it out, but recovery will likely take years and, in future winters, we will likely construct a barrier around it as we do the nearby thuja occidentalis.

Another casualty is the Chamaecyparis ‘Sungold’, a ground-hugging so-called ‘false cypress’ that is – or perhaps was – a key part of the ‘structural elements’ Betty has been adding to the outer sidewalk bed. Many New Englanders simply abandon their front doors for the winter and don’t bother to shovel out their sidewalks, making their garages the de jure entrances as well as the de facto one. While we would no more park our car in our garage and then walk back outside to use the front door than we would drink tea with our pinkies extended, we maintain a quaint notion that guests should not have to inspect the detritus in our garage as a precondition of entering our home. And so we shovel the sidewalk down to bare concrete after every storm, no matter how inconsequential.

Chamaecyparis 'Sungold' -
or its remains.  Time will
tell if it is salvageable.
The condition of the Chamaecyparis became known only in the past few days as the snow along the sidewalk retreated. We readily dumped snow from the sidewalk onto the area where the shrub was thought to be sleeping safely. The multiple broken branches show we ought to have been much more careful. ‘Sungold’ did not cost a fortune, but its color was perfect for the site and it had reached a size that it was eye catching.

Much of our garden remains to be uncovered. A thick blanket of oak leaves covers the rock gardens and those leaves are removed delicately so as not to injure the plants underneath. I don’t expect a lot of surprises there; killing stonecrop is next to impossible and our extensive hosta garden seems to thrive after a vicious winter. (One exception:  the carefully placed markers identifying the hostas have a disturbing habit of disappearing every winter.  We suspect raccoons.)  Elsewhere, the customary number of pines are down and a birch bordering the driveway lost its top. The town plow ‘relocated’ several plants in our xeric garden and these have been restored to their proper sites. These are the expected casualties of winter.

I keep reminding myself that the long New England winter and ugly early spring have the effect of making the later spring and summer here all the more beautiful and precious. I’m going to make a point of enjoying the blooms on those Hellebores every day… even if it means I have to use the front door.

The snow mound in retreat on the last day of March.  I say it will be
gone on April 10, Betty says April 15.  We'll see who is right.

March 8, 2011

Walkin' Miracles

We have been growing Neomarica as houseplants for at least a dozen years.  Our first one came as a gift and, to the best of my knowledge, the 100+ specimens we have given away have all been offspring of that first one in its three-inch pot.  Neomarica is a tropical plant, a member of the Iridaceae family (iris to us mere mortals).  Each plant puts up dozens of thin iris-live leaves from a thick rhizome but some of those leaves are flower stalks in disguise. 

Neomarica, in its brief hours of glory
 For 350 days a year, Neomarica is a snoozer of a houseplant.  In fact, to be both unkind but entirely accurate, its sole benefits are that it is green and requires little care.  But then, for two weeks a year at the end of winter, something wonderful happens.  A couple of those leaves begin to swell near their tips.  And then, miracle of miracles, little flower buds appear and then open to form a stunning and complex flower.

Look fast, though.  The flower you see open when you get up in the morning will already be flagging by late afternoon.  Overnight, it folds back into itself and, by morning, it's a little ball of brown mud.

But then, lo and behold, another bud swells up from the same stem and there's another day of beauty.  And then a second stem gets into the action and third.  For about a week, you get to play this marvelous game of guessing how many flowers will be open this morning - five?  six?  eight?  One morning, an especially thick clump had a total of 14 flowers open all at once.

Just as quickly, however, bud production falls.  A few days later you're back to sporadic bloom here and there and, a week later, there's one or two laggards as the stem is spent.  Then.... it's back to being green background scenery.

350 days a year, it's green
background scenery; but for
two weeks at the end of
winter, it's glorious.
Neomarica has one more trick up its sleeve.  After the last stem has produced its last flower, it bends over as though it had been to the maternity ward one too many times.  The stem lays down on the ground if it's in the tropics.  If it is in your home, you need to get a little pot and some potting mix, and steer that poor, tired stalk toward your pot.  In a few weeks, it will root.  And, a few weeks after that, the rooting is putting up a new crop of leaves.  When that happens outdoors, the plant is growing by 'walking', hence the name 'Walking Iris'.  When it happens indoors, it's an opportunity.

We have rooted upward of 15 pots each year of Neomarica this way.  An established pot can also be readily divided into half a dozen plants after a year.  Those pots go with her when she gives presentations on houseplant care to garden clubs.  They're always a hit.  And, perhaps one of them will be given as a gift to a friend, who will watch it grow, see it flower, and put out a pot...

March 7, 2011

The Watering Can Report

A writer for a regional 'lifestyle' magazine called yesterday.  They are doing a feature on 'fun' watering cans for an upcoming issue and wanted some gardening tips to go along with the watering can story.  I'm not the family expert on watering cans, but one of Betty's most popular programs is called 'Water Smart Gardening', so I figured she was the right person to speak to the writer.
The result was, shall we say, something other than what the reporter expected.

As near as I could tell, the writer is a young freelancer eager to turn in a 'feel-good' piece that her editor will like.  She already had spoken with the designers and manufacturers of the watering cans that would be featured in the piece; all she needed now was some stuff from a gardener; what to water and what to plant - that sort of thing.

Betty started with some physics: a gallon of water weighs eight pounds.  So, a two-gallon watering can requires the person wielding it to lug around sixteen pounds of water.  Water an entire vegetable garden with one?  Come on!  Get serious!  If the water spigot is 100 feet from the garden and the garden is 20 feet by 20 feet, that's 400 square feet of garden area. 

Betty then noted that shallow watering of a garden encourages shallow roots, which dry out quickly in heat and sun.  A gardener needs to soak the soil down a foot to encourage deep root growth.  How many gallons does that take?  Lots.  Probably a hundred gallons of water on a hot day... and all of it carried a hundred feet eight pounds at a time?  Do the math....

OK, the writer asked, how about watering the houseplants?  What's wrong with a nice, little watering can for that purpose?  Well sure, Betty said, as long as you make certain you've allowed the chlorine in the water to evaporate.  Betty explained that chlorine is a salt and that she keeps around half a dozen gallon-size plastic milk jugs to collect the water that runs out our taps while we're bringing up hot water for washing or bathing.  We let the water stand in the garage overnight and that's the water - once it warms up - that we use to water our houseplants.  In the summer, we use water straight from our rain barrels.

"Then do you use a watering can?" the reporter asked, hopefully.

"No, the milk jugs work just fine," Betty replied. 

"How about watering your container gardens?"

Betty explained that for our exploding population of containers, we have a basement full of two- and three-gallon jugs that originally held cat litter.  Those, too, we fill from rain barrels.

The interview went on for a while longer, but the chances are extrememly slim that any of Betty's excellent gardening tips are going to make it into print.  Lifestyle magazines depend on ads, and advertisers want readers who are eager to drop $50 or $100 on a designer watering can.  Experts who suggest substituting cat-litter containers and milk jugs just aren't a desirable demographic.

Which is why Betty's excellent blog ( will likely never carry ads.  But it's also why she is consistently one of the top-rated and most-in-demand speakers on the garden club circuit.  You win some, you lose some. 

The reporter is likely still reeling.

March 2, 2011

Flower Show Fever

I’m testing out this theory of mine that exhaling warm air on houseplants speeds up their bloom cycle. Scientists may pooh-pooh the idea, but I think I’m on solid ground here. Fact: plants thrive on carbon dioxide. Fact: they also want a little warmth this time of year. So, every time I walk past a plant in my house, I lean over and exhale.

Why am I doing this? Frankly, it’s because I have flower show fever. Last year, my wife took three plants into Blooms! at the Boston Flower & Garden Show and walked out with two blue ribbons for her efforts. My contribution to that enterprise amounted to lugging in gallon-size jugs of water once a week. This year, I have my eye on entries that will actually bear my name. They don’t all have to be blue ribbons. A red one will do.

The kalanchoe and bougainviellea are both blooming
beautifully.  Unfortunately, they're in the same pot.
There’s a kalanchoe that has bloomed an orange-red on the plant rack right outside my office. I figure all the hot air that comes out of my office (both from the computer and from telephone calls) is responsible for its unexpected and unseasonal display. That, plus Betty wouldn’t be caught dead taking credit for something orange.

My problem is that the kalanchoe doesn’t live in the pot all by itself. It’s a volunteer that appeared one day alongside another plant that had a long-term lease on the site. I don’t think the Amateur Horticulture classification people are ready to bifurcate their entries. So, alas, no kalanchoe blue ribbon this year.

OK, I’ll enter a bougainvillea. Having grown up with them, I’m also the official bougainvillea guy in this household. Two of our plants are showing tiny, delicate blooms right now. One is a tender lavender, the other yellow-gold. One of them is certain to get me that blue ribbon. Of course, any probing on the part of judges and I’m toast, because there are plenty of childhood friends out there who will attest that I hacked at the half-dozen bougainvilleas around my house without mercy. Those plants had thorns as nasty as any yucca and their branches could grow two feet overnight. It was only when I moved north that I decided bougainvillea was not a weed.

Then, there are the orchids. As readers of this blog know, I love orchids and buy them whenever I think I can sneak one into the house without being seen. However, the rules of the show are straightforward: an entry must have been owned for three months or more. Well, some of my best orchids have a little less than the requisite three-month residency period. The best one, in fact, is still getting acquainted with its brethren. The ones that have been around the longest are just starting to show flower buds and, frankly, they have persistent scale. My conscience won’t allow me to enter the new ones in the show; the old ones will end up in some awful quarantine. Nuts.

OK, Our neomarica are in bud. One pot in particular has six buds forming and each swollen bud site may produce half a dozen flowers. Unfortunately, the blooms are spent in a single day. I could bring the plant in on entry day bursting with spectacular iris-like blooms only to find that the next morning the thing has gone dormant. I know how the guy in One Froggy Evening feels.

Betty has already tagged and is assiduously grooming the plants she intends to enter. I’m welcome to anything left over – say, any of the dozen or so Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily) that bloom randomly around the house. I have my eye on a begonia whose full bud seems to have escaped her attention. So, I exhale on houseplants and hope for lightning to strike. That’s what it’s like to have Flower Show Fever.