Gardening as spiritual practice: Slowing down, looking around

Sometimes, when I approach my house from the road, I think “Oh, what a terrible mess.” I see the weeds that need pulling, the plants growing in the wrong places, the big gaps where plants haven’t filled in as quickly as I hoped.

Thinking about the garden this way–Don’t I owe it to the neighbors to stay on top of my weeds? Is my garden turning into the neighborhood eyesore?–turns it from a joy into a chore. Moreover, such a mindset prevents me from enjoying nature in its cycle, where it is and as it is, in the present. So yesterday I took a few minutes out from weeding to appreciate the gorgeous rosy colors of fall in my garden. The oranges and yellows are here, too, but today I’m sticking to a softer palette.

aster tataricus

Aster tataricus

rose chrysanthemum with yellow center

An unknown chrysanthemum, picked up from a bargain table a few years ago. I’ve made many more of it from its cuttings.

Bee on aster tataricus.

Bee on Aster tataricus

iris domestica seed pod

Deep purple-black seeds of Iris domestica (blackberry lily)

ceratotheca triloba

Fuzzy, foxglove-like blossoms of Ceratotheca triloba.

spider egg sacs in yucca plant

Two egg sacs of Argiope aurantia

anemone hupenensis 'Pamina'

Anemone hupenensis ‘Pamina’

physostegia

A pass-along Physostegia (obedient plant) begins to flower.

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Tutorial: Propagating chrysanthemums from cuttings

In late June, I cut back my chrysanthemums to make sure they’re compact and full of buds when flowering time comes in September and October. You can root the pieces you cut back from your own plants, and have dozens more plants the following year. It’s very easy to do.

Rooting cuttings of chrysanthemums:

1. Cut back the stems of your chrysanthemum plants by about half, cutting just above a leaf node (where the leaves join the stem).

2. Separate the stems. Cuttings should include between 3 and 6 leaf nodes. Remove the growing tips to force the plant’s energy into making a vigorous root ball. Then remove the leaves from the bottom half to 1/3 of the stem.

3. Pour a small amount of rooting hormone into a container. Don’t dip stems directly into the container, which could contaminate the entire jar. Thoroughly coat the cut end of the stems with hormone.

4. Use a chopstick, pencil, or other tool to make a hole for the cutting in a pan of sterile potting mix. Insert the cutting into the hole, and firm back around the cutting. Water the cuttings gently, using a rose attachment on a watering can, a light setting on a hose nozzle, or a fine mist from a sink sprayer.

5. I keep my cuttings outside, weather permitting (i.e., it’s not freezing). I put them in a shady spot, like a north-facing wall, where they can get rainfall but not direct sun. Keep the tray watered if the weather is dry; do not allow the mix to dry out entirely.

6. Your cuttings will be ready when a gentle tug on the leaves gives resistance. If the cutting doesn’t come out easily, it has formed a good root mass. In early summer, the process takes me about one month. You can then transplant the cuttings into the garden. Keep them pinched back and watered, and you’ll have abundant flowers in fall.

 

Montrose: Asters done brilliantly

I have always felt ambivalent about asters. They bloom at a time of the year when things are winding down, so their bright colors are welcome. They provide choice food for bees. But I haven’t often seen them grown well enough (certainly not in my own garden), I suppose, to firmly persuade me that their autumn benefits compensate for their rangy, dull, and unattractive appearance during the rest of the year.

Nancy Goodwin’s aster border at Montrose may have changed my mind.

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'Fanny's Aster'

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Fanny’s Aster’ at Montrose

One side of a long border holds masses of Symphotrichum oblongifolium ‘Fanny’s Aster.’ Pruning the plant aggressively in summer before the flowers set encourages dense growth and lots of blooms. Just across the way, a combination of smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve or Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’) and Chrysanthemum x morifolium ‘Ryan’s Pink’ blazes so intensely you forget that summer is over and frost is in the forecast.

Chrysanthemum x morifolium 'Ryan's Pink' with 'Bluebird' aster

Chrysanthemum x morifolium ‘Ryan’s Pink’ and Aster laevis ‘Bluebird.’

These might be worth a little square footage in the garden after all.

Aster laevis 'Bluebird'

Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’

Glorious fall

It rained all last week, and it looks as though this week may serve up more of the same. I believe, though, that those dreary skies may be just what my peach asters needed to coax them into bloom at last.

peach asters or chrysanthemums

Like a number of the faithful bloomers in my garden, I received these as pass-alongs in a plant swap a few years ago, and the donor did not know the plant’s name. I suspect it may be Chrysanthemum ‘Single Apricot,’ also known as Chrysanthemum x ‘Single Apricot Korean.’  They have multiplied assertively, but not aggressively, in a spot that I would describe as having bright shade.

peach aster

I adore this color. It may appear a bit more pink than it actually is; it has a definite, clear orange tint to it, like the color of cooked shrimp. Yet it is a soft tone, unlike my beloved electric orange zinnias or the brassy mums that light up my border from across the garden.

Alas, they make terrible cut flowers, drooping irrevocably within a day. But perhaps if I must linger in the garden in order to appreciate them, then it is just as well.

peach aster

Propagation, part 2 (cuttings)

Following from my initial tutorial on plant propagation, here’s the second installment, on growing plants from cuttings. I meant to publish this ages ago. Sorry about that.

Propagation from cuttings is easier, I find, than from seed (at least, it was before I tried winter sowing). Lots of plants root easily from cuttings. Here’s how you do it.

1. Remove a section of stem, perhaps 4-6 inches long, from your plant of choice. Here, I have taken cuttings of some unknown variety of pink chrysanthemum. Cut off the flower, if there is one.

strip lower leaves

2. Strip the lower leaves off the cutting, leaving about 2 inches of bare stem.

rooting hormone

3. (Optional) Dip the end of the cutting into a small bit of rooting hormone. Rooting hormone is easily found at garden centers, and comes in powder and gel form. Don’t dip the cutting directly into the container; doing so will contaminate the rest of the rooting hormone. But it’s not absolutely necessary to use rooting hormone. Some plants will root just fine without it.

poking holes 2

4. Fill a squeaky-clean pot with your choice of potting medium (potting mix, coir, perlite, etc.) Moisten the mix thoroughly. Using a pencil, chopstick, or your finger, make a hole in the dampened growing medium in your pot.

completed

5. Insert your new cutting gently into the hole, taking care not to remove much rooting hormone in the process. Use the pencil or chopstick to gently firm the soil around the cutting.

6. When your pot is full, water the cuttings either from the top or bottom. Personally, I prefer bottom-watering, wherein you place the pot in a shallow bowl of water and let the water wick up through the drainage holes. Don’t leave it too long–just until the pot feels a bit heavy; maybe 15 minutes.

7. To elevate the humidity levels around the plant (important while the cuttings are forming roots), you can cover the top of the pot with plastic wrap, a plastic bag, or (my favorite), a cheap shower cap from the dollar store (they come in multi-packs and you can rinse and reuse them). Poke a few drinking straws into the pot to prop up the plastic; you don’t want it touching the surface of the leaves. Cut a couple of slits in the plastic to allow a bit of air to circulate; this will stanch mold development (alas, you won’t be able to use the shower cap for its original purpose). Or, you can leave it untented, but you must be more vigilant about watching the pot’s moisture level.

8. Keep the potting medium just moist, not wet. The classic comparison is that the soil should feel as moist as a wrung-out sponge. Check it regularly until you get a sense for how rapidly moisture evaporates from your medium.

9. Make sure the pot has adequate light. You can grow the cuttings under fluorescent lamps, or if you’re lazy like me, you can stick the pot outside and let the cuttings work with the elements. In the winter, this approach won’t work with tender cuttings, like those of houseplants or summer annuals, but hardier plants do just fine. These chrysanthemums spent the winter outdoors with no shelter at all.

10. You’ll know when the cuttings have rooted when they resist a gentle tug. Please don’t check them too often, or you will defeat the process. Patience is essential. Give them a solid 3 weeks, at least, or if you take cuttings of hardy plants in the fall, let them sit around all winter. I’ve propagated chrysanthemums, lavender, rosemary, Carolina jessamine, and Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ using the leave-it-to-the-elements method.

At the end of this document is a list of plants that reproduce easily from cuttings. Give them a try!

Winter sowing continues

I hope you had a wonderful and relaxing holiday. Mine was pleasant if not always relaxing!

I love January and the promise the new year always holds. I’m not the type to make formal resolutions, but I love planning and anticipating and trying always to improve myself and my surroundings. It’s a long haul, of course, but we make the road by walking, right?

This winter sowing business is addicting. So easy! I keep my container of coir potting mix handy, and when I’ve got a spare half-hour I cut open a few milk cartons and plop in some seeds. I am a  little nervous about what will happen in spring when (with any luck) I’ve  got more plants than I have time to install them all (ah, anticipation!).

seed pans early onChristmas Eve I planted another handful: an unidentified variety of red hollyhock, amethyst flower (Browallia americana), feverfew ‘Flore Pleno’ (Chrysanthemum parthenium ‘Flore Pleno’), and something that is either horehound or German red strawberry tomato. The envelope came labeled on both sides, and not knowing what horehound seed looks like (and now having sown all of it), I will have fun guessing until the seedlings pop up.