Finding Joy Beneath the Snow: The Hides of March

Brown is the color of the garden beneath the snow, which has nearly all melted. Dried oak and maple leaves are everywhere, and served as soil protectors for the winter, but now it's time for them to go.

I've been using my Fiskars shrub rake to gently scrape them back. The other day,  I spied something green beneath the nearly translucent snow.

Green joy: Poppy sees tiny tulip
stubs on March 28.

It was a little bit of tiny Thyme huddled up against a gnome sculpture left to fend for itself when the first snow fell.

It's little things like that that keep us gardeners going, that heat up the need to plant, prune, rake and feed.

Even the spring bulbs close to the house are slowed by the lingering snow cover. I planted tulips in the raised bed on the south side of the house, and they're usually at least a week ahead of those planted in the yard. But when you have a couple of tons of snow on the roof that has to be shoveled off, it has to go somewhere. And it goes in a humongous pile below the roof line and on top of anything planted there.

Hunkered down Hellebores
waiting for a warm day.
We're so thirsty for any color at all in March, especially when it's allowed snow to cover the ground for the lion's share of the month.

Surprisingly, things are just a couple of weeks later than normal. Like 2012 only in reverse, growth has been picked up like Dorothy's house and plopped down on a completely different date on the calendar.

Hellebores are hunkered down like turtle heads afraid to come out of their shells. The tips of hydrangeas are pinned down in the icy remnants of the snow. I couldn't help popping one up and out of its private refrigerator. A mistake. The movement popped the viable flower head right off.

My first snowdrop - March 29.
There will be some lower branch damage, I suspect, on some trees and shrubs. I discovered flowers on the American witch hazel, but only on the half closer to the ground. These flowers won't reach out and grab your attention like a Magnolia or a peony. I call them one of the "Hides of March"-- wonderful surprises hidden from those unaware.

March usually provides us with the first egg hunt, only instead of eggs, we're hunting for color beneath winter's detritus.

It's a good thing for us gardeners we've been made much more aware through this rewarding pastime.
Hamamelis virginiana or American witch hazel

Bellini Cooks a Meal and Cleans up afterward

Cleans up afterward!!?? A statement like this better have some back-up. I recently attended the International Housewares Show in Chicago and saw a huge number of really cool appliances. One was the Bellini Kitchen Master, a multi-tasking wonder that seems perfect for small meals. Fancy, healthy, four-course small meals, that is.

Bellini Kitchen Master by Cedarlane Culinary chops, stirs, boils, kneads, steams and is easily cleaned, I had to see it. Joe Zundl did a little demo for me.

I Heart Pineapple Lily

A garden can never have too much vertical accent. Well perhaps, but not my garden. It's why I'm in love with Eucomis, aka "pineapple lily.' I'm not certain when I fell for this tender plant, but I've ordered a few to add to the one that I've successfully gotten to regrow from a bulb in a pot from a supermarket.

Eucomis on March 14
Supermarkets have the honor of offering a first taste of horticulture to budding gardeners. The three stores I frequent all have been beefing up their offerings in their floral departments. I'm not certain where the three plants I've purchased over the winter were grown. Ideally, the Ornithogalum, Orchid and Eucomis come from Florida, California or Texas, but more likely were from South America, the Netherlands or even Africa.

Eucomis on March 18

The Eucomis I purchased was a sale plant, several weeks past its prime but with several bulbs crammed into an eight-inch pot. I watered it until the leaves were dried up and then let the soil dry out before cutting off the foliage and putting the pot on the floor in my garage inside a Styrofoam container with no lid. It hung out there for a couple of months. I popped the bulbs out of the pot in mid-February and potted up the two largest ones separately into small pots. Around three weeks later the larger of the two bulbs started growing!
Eucomis 'Oakhurst' beginning to open July 24 in Barbara's garden.

My excitement about this plant was underscored and I was duly inspired when I visited a private garden in southwest Michigan that utilized Eucomis along with dozens of tropicals planted among just as many hardy plants.

The variety that Barbara, the garden's owner, plants in her tropical border is 'Oakhurst', and she especially loves the plant's longevity in what can be a brutal summer climate.

The only drawback, Barbara tells me, is their need for support, which she provides invisibly with a combination of upright stakes and twine. The leaves of Eucomis are broad and somewhat succulent. Once they begin to flop, they'll take the flower spike down with them.

Barbara likes to combine Eucomis 'Oakhurst' with Phormium, castor bean, coleus, Zinnia, and Nicotiana.

Eucomis 'Oakhurst' in foreground September 18 in Barbara's garden.
Eucomis 'Zulu Flame' (photo by Terra Nova Nurseries)
In addition to the unknown variety I'm nursing back to life, I've ordered Eucomis pole-evansii and 'Toffee' from Digging Dog Nursery.

Terra Nova Nurseries has some new varieties on offer, one of which is said to be an improvement on 'Oakhurst', with a more upright habit.

Eucomis 'Zulu Flame' is a dwarf pineapple lily, the result of a cross between two Eucomis species. 

'Zulu Flame' close-up  (Terra Nova)
'Zulu Flame' is new this year, so you might want to ask your garden center about getting it in. 

AeroGarden Gets Me Through Long Winter

I set it up January 31 and planted the basil seeds that came with it. The AeroGarden has been the perfect distraction for the long winter, and I'm still finding it quite useful in starting seeds. It's quick, giving me more basil than I knew what to do with just seven weeks later.

I have the AeroGarden Ultra, which was sent to me to test by the company that sells them. It was easy to put together, fill with water and plant food, and pop in the pre-seeded plugs. The kit came with basil, but you can get a wide variety of seeds for the table-top hydroponic garden.

One of seven full-sized basil plants after just seven weeks.
What I did after the basil reached just a few inches high was transplant them into small pots to place under my separate grow light setup. I had ordered some blank plugs and more baskets so I could plant some of the seeds I'd been frantically ordering since my first catalog arrived in November.

I chose to grow Blue Monday Sage from Baker Creek Seeds, an ornamental Salvia that blooms in a wonderful shade of blue.

Salvia Blue Monday - photo by Baker Creek Seeds
The Salvia sprouted in three days, and formed true leaves after just eight days! I started a couple plugs on March 6, March 10 and March 14th because I'd originally decided to try lettuce and peppers, but changed my mind a few plugs at a time. Anyway, suffice it to say the Salvia was a huge success, and I hope to have sizable plants well before the end of April.
The AeroGarden Ultra has room to grow seven plugs at a time,not perfect for someone who starts a lot of seeds. But my garden is limited, and because of the quick turn-around, I know I can have more than a dozen Blue Monday Sage plants to put in my garden when the ground warms up.

AeroGarden's website shows many applications for the seed grower. You can plant yourself a tiny table-top flower garden, or an easy-to-harvest salad. You can even grow some tomatoes to maturity in one of the units.

Salvia started March 6
Salvia started March 14 - just 3 days!

Salvia started March 10
A new AeroGarden is available that uses LED lights. The AeroGarden EXTRA LED and ULTRA LED use 65 percent less power than the other models, which use three 78-watt full spectrum compact fluorescent lights. The new units are more expensive, but the lights last nearly 10 times as long as the fluorescents. And that, as far as I can tell, solves the only drawback I could find to this fun and productive plant starter/grower.

It's Springtime Damnit!

The crocuses are under a foot of snow. There are areas in my yard I haven't dared tread as I don't own hip boots. Even the witch hazel is buttoned up tight. In short, my outdoor plants are mum. My husband is mum when it comes to commenting on my plant orders. He understands my obsession, and knows I'll spend a few hundred dollars before the ground even thaws.

Each year I introduce myself to a few new species, and fall more fully and inexorably in lust with several more. It doesn't matter if they're hardy or not. In fact, it seems I'm gravitating more toward the non-hardy, or the marginally hardy. I think of it as my own personal adventure. Below, I've included three of probably half a dozen or so orders. I already have seeds from three different sources that I'll mention in another post.

From Digging Dog Nursery, I have on order one each of:
  • Disporum cantoniense ‘Night Heron’
  • Eucomis pole-evansii
  • Eucomis ‘Toffee’
  • Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jonas’
  • Lupinus ‘Chandelier’
  • Lychnis viscaria ‘Schnee’
  • Primula bulleyana
  • Rodgersia podophyllum ‘Rotlaub’

From Comanche Acres Iris Gardens:

Four Spuria irises, a species I've never grown before, but how intriguing they sounded in their descriptions. There is even a society devoted to the Spuria Iris.

Spuria irises grow up to five feet tall, and are known for their beauty in cut flower arrangements. I won't get my new irises until fall, and they likely won't bloom in 2015, but I look forward to many years of gorgeous flowers. Along with Siberian, Japanese and Louisiana irises, Spuria iris are considered beardless, and bloom later in the season than the bearded types. The American Iris Society offers cultural information on the beardless iris.

From Grassy Knoll Exotic Plants:
  • Passiflora subrotunda
  • Passiflora 'Thuraia'  
  • Passiflora 'Preciosa'
  • Passiflora 'Blue Velvet'
I'm not sure what possessed me to order four tropical passion flower vines. But if I'd seen the Passiflora Society International website before I placed my order, I probably would have wanted more.

While this post was written for Garden Bloggers Bloom Day, a day when bloggers from all over the world write about what's blooming in their own gardens, I hope readers will find my obsession and subsequent orders a nice distraction. Please head over to May Dreams Gardens for a peek into Carol's wonderful posts and photos along with links to lots more colorful gardens!

Plant by Numbers Makes it So Easy

Is there a correlation between casseroles and container gardening? With me there is. If I had to choose between making a main meat, veg and starch meal in which all were presented in separate dishes, and making a meal that included all of those in one pot, I would hands-down choose the latter.

I wonder if Steve Asbell is a casserole guy. If I had to judge by the cover of his book, Plant By Numbers: 50 Houseplant Combinations to Decorate Your Space, I'd have to say yes. You see, Steve calls his first combination "Lime and Coconut," an adorable medley of ornamental pineapple, two varieties of Peperomia, a pink earth star (Cryptanthus), and a perky little ivy. And one of the best things about this mix is that it doesn't need a whole lot of sun to keep it happy.

Steve gives just enough detail about potting mixes, amendments, containers, texture and color contrast, and even planting without the planter!

Mixing up houseplants is different than combining plants in an outdoor container. For one thing, they are totally at your mercy for water. Steve gives some of the best explanations I've seen on this topic, as it's the first thing people tend to ask about a plant: "How often should I water it?"

Plant by Numbers (Cool Springs Press) devotes a page and a half to watering, all laid out in easy-to-follow whys and hows. Getting a grip on the watering goes a long way toward becoming a great gardener. Get its name and origin for a start, Steve says about each plant obtained, as this is his first secret to growing healthy plants. The second secret, he reveals, is to learn how to listen to the plant's signals in order to determine its needs.

I started my gardening career growing houseplants. It's a great way to learn the basics, the importance of paying attention to your plants, and when to toss a plant and replace it with something else. As Steve says, "Every time you kill a plant, you learn a new way to keep the next one alive."

Steve writes a blog, The Rainforest Garden, that takes you further along in the world of tropicals. Residents of tropical regions world-wide, after all, are the ones that find their way to his designs. It's easy to get lost for awhile in the many and creative pages of Steve's blog. Wow!

Plant by Numbers is like Alton Brown's first cookbook, blending science, taste, and in Steve's case, plants. Like the best cookbooks, Plant by Numbers also offers substitutions, which is great because some of the plants listed might be difficult to find at a certain time of year.

I wish I'd had this book when I started out gardening with houseplants. Plant by Numbers is for beginner gardeners, anyone who is given a plant to care for, and the experienced gardener looking for ways to bring the mixed container indoors. I can't wait to get started!

From baby diapers to baby plants--my re-purpose coup

I'v wanted a grow light for ages, so when I got a gift card from my husband for our local garden center, I invested in a Jump Start Grow Light System. But where would I put it, I wondered. I went to my local resale shop, where we had found a sun room table with fold-down sides at a great price.

I was looking for a utilitarian, no-need-to-be-pretty table about 2 and a half feet wide and a foot or so deep. Anything would do, I told myself as I walked into the shop. 

And then I saw it - a pretty white-painted table with two shelves and a drawer. I took out my tape measure and determined it was the right size, and asked a volunteer how much it was. He found the tag for me--$25! I was ready to do a little dance--this was in great shape, the shelves and drawer would be great for plant food, seed containers, etc. 

I have an attractive stand that is light enough to move around after I've moved everything outdoors for the summer (Yeah, like THAT's going to ever happen), and find another use for then, perhaps on the covered patio for my tool storage. Or not.

I'll be playing with seeds really soon, as I've already received orders from three different sources. More on that later.

Poppies from Seed: You Can Grow That!

Shirley poppy or Papaver rhoeas
As much as our choices in everything from paper towel to hand sanitizers have increased over the years, there are still more that we might not even know about. For instance, there are some plants you will rarely see at your local garden center or even as a mailorder plant. One reason is that they're just so easy to start from seed.

Bread poppy or Papaver somniferum

Plants that are considered easy to start from seed involve just a few little tips. For instance, when the poppy seed packet tells you to mix the seed with sand, it's really a good idea. Otherwise, you'll end up with piles of seed so crowded none of them will succeed. Get a bag of playground sand, put about a cupful into a large baggie with one packet of poppy seed, and shake it up like your life depends on it. You can enlist a kitchen strainer into the game so that the seeds are even more finely sown.

Scatter seed onto soil that has been cleared of leaf litter, leveled and moistened.  After scattering your seed, pat it down gently, and water. Poppy seed needs light to germinate.

If you're going to be starting poppy, or any other small seed, it will pay to find a hose nozzle with a very find mist spray setting. While it might not seem to do much, it will serve its purpose of settling the soil and the seed so that they form a nice cozy partnership.
California poppy - Eschscholzia californica 'Wrinkled Rose'
Both Shirley poppies and California poppies make good cut flowers, as long as you pick them just as they open. They're not long-lasting in a vase, but being able to view these beauties up close is part of their charm. Bread poppies and opium poppies both are botanically known as Papaver somniferum, the plant from which opium and poppy seed of the type used in baked goods is obtained.

Papaver somniferum 'Lauren's Grape' is a hybrid bread seed poppy.
The best bang for your poppy buck is with Shirley poppies, aka corn poppies, or botanically Papaver rhoeas. A good selection is available at Renee's Garden Flowers, including "Angel's Choir" and "Falling in Love." Either of these mixes will give you a great variety of flowers that will draw you in for closer inspection.

Papaver rhoeas shows off its variations.
Papaver rhoeas often comes in a double form.
This antique-shaded flower is from the "Angel's Choir" mix.

Sometimes a Shirley poppy will just keep putting out more and more petals.

There is no end to the variety inside a packet of Shirley poppy seed.
For practically pain-free planting, get some poppy seeds. I hope you enjoy these harbingers of what will surely come. Some day. When the snow melts...
Enjoy more inspiration at the Garden Bloggers You Can Grow That site, where bloggers share their tips and experience.

It Just Might Be a Sweet Pea Year

  'Painted Lady'
Planting sweet peas is one of a Midwest gardener's biggest gambles. Ok, I'll qualify "Midwest" by narrowing it down to the whole state of Indiana and the southern half of Michigan. In a good year, I can get about a dozen small bouquets from seed sown as early as I can in a spot in the garden that is cooled by shade in the afternoon.

I created a pea-planting area a few years ago that fits the requirements. It's currently under nearly three feet of snow. And that's why I think it might be a sweet pea year. While I'm pretty certain I won't be planting the seeds of sweet peas on St. Paddy's Day as the old wives' tale goes. I see the March 17 date as more of a guideline for a perfect world scenario.

A variety called Cupani, developed in Italy, is said to be more heat-tolerant than the English hybrids. It's impossible for me to tell, as I've only tried sweet peas half a dozen out of 20 or so years of gardening, and don't know if I had success because of the weather or the timing or the placement.

Lathyrus 'Charlie's Angel', a pale blue variety in foreground
I had luck a couple of times by planting them in a big pot into which I'd inserted a tomato cage. It wasn't pretty, but I had a succession of blooms through mid-July.

Another year I planted them in my cutting garden, and they provided me with a modicum of flowers until August.

The type of success achieved by a gardener in hot, humid summer weather is measured by small bouquets, because sweet pea plants aren't all that pretty.

It depends, also, on when the heat hits and how long its first visit lasts. We've had years when its arrival was in early May, remaining through the month to light a fire under the remaining tulips and long-awaited peonies and poppies. Those are not good sweet pea years.
Lathyrus 'Charlie's Angel'

The last time I grew sweet peas was 2012, the year that confounded our memories with record numbers of record-setting high temperatures. Ordered last minute, planted on a whim, I had more success than I'd expected. The first bloom of 'Painted Lady' came on the last day of May, and I had a succession of blooms through the entire month of June. I planted 'Charlie's Angel' a few weeks later than 'Painted Lady' and it provided fewer blooms, the first ones not until mid-June.

I don't remember that it had enough flowers to make a bouquet, likely because of its late planting.

'Painted Lady' sweet peas in a jelly jar enjoyed by a "friend."
Bouquets of sweet peas are so decadent for anyone who gardens in rampant heat and humidity following ridiculously schizophrenic winters and early springs. If you don't have enough sweet peas, they can be mixed with lavender or other small flowers, and brought in to enjoy for a short time.

'Painted Lady' with single gardenia flower, Oso Easy 'Peachy Cream' rose and Clematis recta.