Zinnias can take the heat

zinnia single yellow 3

It’s been appallingly hot, in the mid- to high 90s (35C), but the zinnias don’t seem to mind. The more I cut them, the more they bloom, so I cut them and enjoy indoors. I grew these from seed; they’re an excellent flower for gardeners new to seed-sowing to try.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Homemade composter: Upcycled pickle barrel

I have never met a gardener who believed she had enough compost.

English: A picture of compost soil

English: A picture of compost soil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the past, I have generated my compost in homemade bins made of 2x lumber and window screening, chicken wire, or whatever materials I had to hand. Those enclosures work well enough, but of course compost does take time.

I have always eyed those compost tumblers in gardening supply catalogues and wondered if they work as well as they allege. When I happened across a design for a homemade compost tumbler, from the blog Potholes and Pantyhose, I recognized a golden opportunity.

It was an especially fortuitous discovery because I happened to have most of the materials on hand.

Some years ago I obtained four pickle barrels off of Craigslist (about $15 apiece) with the intention of creating four rain barrels. I successfully made three. The fourth barrel had a lid that would not come off, no matter how we tried. It sat behind our shed until now, waiting for its opportunity to serve. I also had lumber and most of the necessary hardware, including a discarded metal closet rod that would serve beautifully as the tumbler axis.

homemade compost tumbler

The instructions at Potholes and Pantyhose are straightforward enough.  I found that the window latch hardware was insufficient to hold the lid closed, though, so I used a T-hasp closure instead (yes, that’s a stick stuck through the closure).

I’ve placed the tumbler next to my regular compost pile. Every time I go out to the pile, I give the tumbler a few spins (the kids also like to give it a whirl, which only accelerates the decomposition). Kitchen scraps, weeds, and newspaper go into the tumbler, while larger garden debris and shredded leaves and twigs go into the pile.

So far, it’s working brilliantly.

This year’s obsession

I have recently–within the past week–become obsessed with rain gardening.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept, a rain garden‘s purpose is to expedite replenishment of groundwater and to reduce pollution by harnessing the filtering power of soil and plants. In a residential setting, the homeowner chooses a site for the garden, perhaps where water tends to naturally flow or accumulate during heavy rains, but in general it’s sited between the house and wherever the water returns to the storm runoff system. The ground is excavated between 3 and 6 inches below the normal soil line, and the soil is amended with generous amounts of organic matter to create a filter bed. Swales help direct the flow of water into the rain garden and berms slow the flow out of the garden. The water sits there and drains into the surrounding ground slowly, filtered by the soil and the plants’ roots. The plants chosen for the bed should be resilient, able to withstand about 3 days of waterlogged soil, but also be accommodating of periods of drought. The bed should not retain water for longer than 3 days, Continue reading

Cultivating patience

Of all the produce yielded by the habit and practice of gardening, perhaps the most important product is patience. I often believe I have this in short supply; perhaps the mice in my shed eat it. But despite what may be observed at, say, the Chicago Flower and Garden Show, which I used to attend regularly when I lived in the Windy City, nature will not be rushed.  So patience is forced upon me.

purple hellebore

Most of my hellebores I acquired from my neighbor Martha, and are the standard white and rose-colored ones. But a few years ago on my annual pilgrimage to Big Bloomers Flower Farm, I decided to spring for a hellebore in a different color and spice up the mix a bit. I thought I was getting a blackish-blue one, and of course by now I’ve lost the tag and can’t find the scrap of paper on which I scribbled down the name. I’ve waited two years for it to bloom.

Finally, it is blooming. As you can see, it’s not blackish blue, but a deep violet-burgundy. It has been in this bud stage for three weeks but has refused to open up.

Today is the day.

purple hellebore profile

It grows much closer to the ground than my other hellebores; it’s only about 4 inches tall. I must kneel with my ear to the ground, literally, to look into its blossom. This is not a becoming posture for me so, wishing not to be an unpleasant neighbor, I decided perhaps I’d better just turn its face up to me instead.

purple hellebore in bloom

I had a lovely lunch with my friend Ginger today. We are a generation apart in age but we have similar professional backgrounds and interests. Our conversation turned to hellebores and we decided we may try to explore the hellebore specialist Pine Knot Farms together one of these days. Perhaps they can identify this one for me. I think they originally grew it, actually.

It was a long wait for this little guy, but worth it, not least for its perpetual reminder that everything happens in its own time. If I am lucky, patience may prove for me to be one of those volunteers that pops up in the garden out of nowhere; one that I know for certain I did not plant but am thrilled to see. If I am honest with myself I will want it to grow six inches a day and flower abundantly for six months. I am determined, though, to nurture it so that though it may grow very slowly, it will be sturdy and resilient.


January check-up

We had a “wintry mix” on Thursday night and on Saturday I took a stroll around the garden to check on my seeds post-precip. There is so much going on in the garden, even though from the house it looks merely like a field of mud.

Hundreds of hellebore seedlings are coming up (and apparently, my plant choices make me terribly fashionable). My acanthus is looking fine, although I need to move it to a place where it can show off properly. (One problem with acanthus is that moving it is essentially dividing it; it’s hard to get all pieces of the roots and they do come back from root fragments). (c) 2013 AWH/MissingHenryMitchellMy yellow crocus along the front walk are flowering, and crocus foliage is up elsewhere in the garden. It goes without saying that the daffodils are poking through everywhere.

The blueberries are all showing buds, as are the stems on my shrub roses. This reminds me that I need to spray the roses to force them into dormancy, at least for a short time. The new bronze foliage emerging on a few of the roses will not do for January. The roses must have at least a short period of dormancy if they’re to do well in the summer. And the Rosa banksiae lutea, which I moved late last summer and was uncertain whether it would survive, seems to be doing well enough. This means I had better get cracking on building the new screen upon which I expect it to luxuriate.

And my seeds! Holy cow, so much germination. The pans of dill, beets, kale, feverfew, poppies (Danebrog, paeoniflora, and California), coreopsis, urtica (nettles), the red hollyhocks, geum, pink nicotiana, English lavender, rue, blue flax, bachelor’s button, chamomile, Thymus vulgaris, tithonia, alyssum, gaillardia, and Anemone hupehensis ‘Pamina’ have all sprouted. I am not worried about the dill, beets, and kale. Beyond that, who knows? Time to put in a query to my winter sowing compatriots to ask whether it’s time to panic.

Finally, rethinking my part-shade trellis seems more and more advisable. I may prefer an evergreen screen, but this is not something to be rushed into.

There are always ideas simmering away.

Soil testing 101: How to prepare a soil sample


This gallery contains 5 photos.

Soil testing is not sexy. It’s like eating my spinach. I know it’s good for me; I know I should do it; but it’s just not the first (or second, or tenth) thing I want to do right now…But the best time to do it, I say, is when you can get around to it. Better sometime than never. It’s a free service and the task is not onerous. Here’s what you need to do. Continue reading

Propagation, part 1

With the weather being rather miserable last week, I decided it was time to bring the garden indoors. As things naturally slow down this time of year, and we return to school and work routines, my head clears a bit and it’s easier for me to realize that I’ve got to begin planning for those inevitable bursts of gardening drive that hit me in late February (or maybe sooner, weather permitting).

I have had fairly good luck with propagating plants from cuttings. Some plants work better than others, but it’s the easiest and cheapest way I’ve found to get loads of plants quickly. I also have had moderate success growing plants from seed. So I’m starting the process now, hoping to keep myself and my budget out of trouble later.

I begin by scrounging whatever pots and containers I can find in the shed (self-watering are the best option for lazy gardeners like myself), and giving them a good sanitizing with a solution of bleach and water. Scrub vigorously and rinse well. A little baking soda helps get the encrusted grime off.

My starting medium of choice these days is coir, which comes in compressed bricks from various sources (I got mine at Gardener’s Supply Company). These are easier to deal with and far lighter than sacks of potting soil, and using them alleviates eco-guilt over peat bog destruction. Plus, when it’s all done, it goes in the compost and won’t set up like brick when it gets mixed into the sticky clay of my garden beds.

I unwrap the brick and drop it into a bucket, and cover it with about 4 quarts of warm water. It blows up as it absorbs the water and becomes the lovely fluffy stuff you see here.

I found a slug in one of my pots. Eeeaauugh. Pass the salt.

A sparkling, shiny container ready to go.

These are seeds and seedpods from Iris tectorum, Japanese roof iris. Okay, these aren’t cuttings. But I am going to give them a try.

I fill the container with the coir, water thoroughly, sprinkle the seeds over it and add a little more coir over top (just enough to cover). Water again, and stick it outside in the cold frame.

My theory here is that if they scatter their seeds this way in nature, and they’re open to the elements, and they’ve managed to reproduce themselves for who knows how long, then surely I can use the same minimal approach in my garden and expect at least some similar measure of results. Who knows. I imagine it’s perhaps easier with Iris tectorum to divide the clumps, but if I’m lucky with this approach I will be able to have a lovely river of purple-blue blooms next year or year after, whereas with the dividing approach I will have merely a puddle.

Next up: actual cuttings.