December 20, 2011

High Maintenance Houseplants

Let me state at the outset:  I love White Flower Farm.  They are the class act of mail-order gardening and their Litchfield, Connecticut headquarters contains, without question, some of the finest display gardens I have ever seen – and I have seen a lot of them.  So, when White Flower Farm sends me catalogs and emails, I read them.  I do so as much for the writing style (both friendly and learned) as well as for the breadth of uncommon plants being offered.

This is what our jasmine should look
like in January (photo from
White Flower Farm)
Two weeks ago, I received an emailed offer from them that was too good to pass up:  a jasmine plant (Jasminum polyanthum), with buds already set, that was both attractively priced and the purchase of which would support the Massachusetts Horticultural Society.  I pushed the ‘buy’ button.

The plant arrived a few days later.  White Flower Farm knows how to package a live plant for shipment: an oblong box held the pot in such a way that, irrespective of whether UPS acknowledged the ‘this side up’ plea, the potting mix would stay in place and the plant would be undamaged.  The plant’s tendrils were cushioned (though one arrived broken, which is still a very good survival rate).  Best of all, the plant had hundreds of tiny buds that will lead to a beautiful and fragrant display in January and February.

And, inside was a complete booklet of care instructions.  This is where things began to get complicated.

According to the booklet, in order to promote blooming, the jasmine plant needs to spend the next month in a very unusual environment.  It needs a) “a cool place” with b) and c) “bright, indirect light”.  We are fortunate to live in a home with 64 windows, and that excludes skylights.  But finding a location that met all three criteria was going to be tricky.  According to the video on the WFF website, our jasmine should be kept in a room “between 50 and 60 degrees”.  We tend to keep most parts of our house at 65 degrees in the winter, which is cool by most homeowners’ standards, but above the level specified.  Some exposures get bright sun, but we eschew curtains in those rooms specifically because we want the solar heating benefits. 

We finally settled on our master bathroom, which drops to 62 degrees during the day, has a large, triple window, and which faces northwest and so gets no direct sunlight between November and March.  Of course, we’re only in that room for a brief period each day, but we’ll cross that particular bridge when the plant starts flowering.

If finding a proper place for the plant while it’s getting ready to flower is problematic, the real high-maintenance part of its ownership comes once the blooming cycle is done.

“After bloom, give your plant at least six hours of direct sun and normal room temperatures.”  Check.  We can definitely do that.  We have lots of windows with direct sunlight.

“When the danger of frost has passed, set the plant outdoors for the summer, shifting it gradually from a shady spot to full sun.”  OK, we’ll put it in our screened porch in May.  Sometime in June, we’ll let it spend a few hours a day on the back deck. Maybe I’ll set a timer.  In July, it moves to the deck full time.  Maybe.

“To encourage the formation of flower buds for next winter, be sure your plant experiences the cooler temperatures and shorter days of early autumn.  The plant needs 4-5 weeks of nighttime temperatures between 40° and 50°F, plenty of sunlight and the complete absence of artificial light after sundown.”

Next spring, the jasmine goes out on
our screened porch with the
rest of the houseplants.  No special
treatment thereafter!
The jasmine wants what?  Our cat requires less maintenance than this plant.  We have very little control over the nighttime temperatures around here.  We can get a frost in September.  “Plenty of sunlight” rules out the screened porch which provides some retained heat but fails the sunlight test.  As to the ban on artificial light, I’m at a complete loss. Maybe one of those birdcage covers at sundown?

Because I have an investment in it and I happen to love the smell of jasmine, I’m going to pamper this plant for the next month.  With luck and a little TLC, January and February will include a sweet, heavenly scent around our house.  Come May, we’ll pop the jasmine out onto the screened porch with our other houseplants for a spring and summer of leisure.

But after that, it gets no special treatment.  It lives by the house rules.

(December 2012 update:  To bring the story full circle, we kept the jasmine on our screened porch until mid-September; then put it in our basement, which gets low light through a bank of windows and stays at a relatively constant 55 degrees. The jasmine is covered in buds as this is written and is coming 'upstairs' for the holidays.)

December 15, 2011

The Big Bright Green....

If you are reading this from a subtropical climate, be prepared to scratch your head for the next few minutes.  You see, I have a problem.  One of my shrubs refuses to acknowledge that it is winter.

Our spirea Ogden Mellow Yellow,
still hanging on, with a yucca in
the foreground.
Here in New England, we cherish a group of shrubs that hold out against the end of autumn.  There is a spirea Ogden Mellow Yellow that is still a golden brown-yellow, and it is framed against a yellow-green yucca.  It’s a pleasure to look at, as is an itea ‘Henry Garnet’ with mottled golden leaves that cling tenaciously in mid-December.  Ultimately, of course, they will drop the last of their leaves, but they will have earned my appreciation for their providing a memory of summer as we approach the shortest day of the year.

And, of course, we have our evergreens up here.  Our property is studded with rhododendron; wonderfully dark green shrubs with waxy leaves that brighten up the winter.  There is also multiple forms of ilex – holly to the rest of the world – and boxwood.  We do not lack for greenery and, if we do, there are always the white pines, framed against a chalk-white sky.

Why is this buddleia
still green on December 15?
And so I am at a loss to explain a yellow buddleia that, for reasons known only to itself, is still in full leaf – full green leaf.  Green leaf as though it is still July.

There is rule around here: deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves in the autumn.  This butterfly bush seemed to have forgotten the lesson.

Next summer, it should look like this...
There is science at work: less sunlight (and we are down to eight hours a day right now) means an end to production of chlorophyll.  During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As the days shorten, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and show their colors.  This buddleia seems to have skipped that class.

The reason I’m not rejoicing at having a green shrub is that – well, it’s wrong.  Leaves fall and we get bare branches around here.  I’m used to it.

So, do your thing, buddleia.  Join your compatriots on the property and shed those leaves.  Winter starts in a week, for crying out loud. 

December 4, 2011

All the Leaves Are Brown...

Possibly the worst comic strip running in America today is ‘Pluggers’, a treacly concoction populated by characters who are almost universally morbidly obese.   In the Plugger world, being a cheeseburger away from a stroke is OK if one has a kind heart.  I generally scan right past it in the morning but, one day last month, the phrase ‘leaf blower’ caught my eye.

This is the way our neighbors remove
the leaves from their lawn.  The next
day, it's as though the lawn service
had never been there.
I have a thing about leaf blowers.  And it’s not a good thing. Leaf blowers are the single most unnecessary invention ever foisted off on the gardening public.  They are a way for lawn care firms to hit up homeowners for the expense of multiple visits at what would otherwise be the winding-down part of the season.

Leaves fall from trees for roughly eight weeks in New England.  For that period of time – mid-September through mid-November - every morning brings a fresh crop of leaves, culminating in a cascade of brown from oaks.  Lawn care companies come out weekly (why not daily?) and blow their customers’ leaves into a pile where they are then sucked via a giant vacuum hose into a truck, then hauled away to a landfill.  Twenty minutes after the truck departs, the winds pick up and blow newly fallen leaves onto the formerly pristine lawn.  To those leaves are added a bonanza of additional leaves from neighbors’ lawns.  By the next morning, it is as though nothing was ever done.

This is an aerial photo of our home.
The lawn is relatively small, but it is
surrounded by deciduous trees.
There is just one sane thing to do with the leaves that fall on your lawn:  run a lawn mower over them periodically.

We have been doing this with our own lawn for more than a decade.  Every week, we spend 45 minutes with our lawnmower set at two-and-a-half inches, and we chop whatever leaves are on our lawn into a fine mulch.

What we have discovered is a simple, elegant truth:  leaves left undisturbed on a lawn will form an impenetrable mat that prevents winter moisture from getting through to the soil and promotes the growth of mold.  Leaves chopped up by a lawnmower and left on a lawn decompose in a few weeks and become… fertilizer.  No matter how deep the leaves, the lawnmower minces them. 

This our lawn this afternoon,
December 4, 2011.  It has not been
raked this autumn, just moved weekly.
Best of all, every spring, we watch the snow melt to reveal a clean, green lawn that has already received its first dose of fertilizer.

So, why do our neighbors put themselves through this?  Asking the question would just annoy them.  And, of course, it’s their money.  They pay to have their leaves hauled away and then pay again to fertilize their lawn in the spring to make up for the nutrients that the decaying leaves would have otherwise provided.

Which brings me back to ‘Pluggers’.  In last month’s cartoon, an anthropomorphized (and, naturally, obese) bear mows over his leaves with the caption, “A Plugger’s Leaf Blower”.  I still don’t condone the it’s-OK-to-be-fat mentality, but at least they got the gardening right.