December 19, 2008

Geranium, Star of Houseplants

A key appurtenance for sanely navigating the long, frozen winter here in the north country is the simple houseplant. The houseplant allows us to be indoor gardeners when the outdoors becomes churlish. For an all-points outstanding indoor plant, the common regal or Martha Washington geranium stands right at the top of the crop of candidates.

Geraniums come in every flower color except blue and yellow, which in itself is a pretty remarkable attribute. The range of pinks, apricots, reds, purples, variegated, and whites give the gardener a delectable assembly of choices, and the opportunity to enjoy a diversity of flower color indoors. The flower heads open into bonny symmetrical sprays or spheres like small handfuls of summertime. Geraniums will flower continuously all year, a rare talent in the flowering plant kingdom.

The shape of the plants is also uniformly pleasing. The leaves favor dark green tints, or can be variegated green and white with pink or dark red edging. The tidy, full, rounded form of the geranium is worlds neater and more shapely than the many vining, trailing and spiky types of houseplants such as leggy spider plants, ivies and pendulous ferns. They don't require more space than a decent windowsill and do not grow to massive proportions which hog and block the scant winter light.

No houseplant is easier to propagate or maintain. They need only about four hours of direct light a day, and are perfect, well-behaved, decorative occupants for windowsills or tables, erecting their comely, colored flowers on short, straight stalks as a cheery foil against the bleak grey and white landscape beyond the windowpanes. From fall through spring, they like to drink slowly and allow their soil to get dry between waterings, which need be done only about once a week. They respond happily to potting up in plain old composted cow manure, eschewing any demand for expensive or fancy potting soil compounds. They are not persnickety, easily offended, high-maintenance divas, like orchids and African violets can be.

A brand new geranium plant can be generated through the dead-simple technique of cutting a well-leafed branch close to its base from an established plant, sticking the cutting into a pot of soil, tamping the soil down firmly around it to hold it upright, and keeping it moist for a couple of weeks. New leaf growth and soon, flowers, will follow. There are a couple of red geraniums on my windowsills whose ancestor plants harken back to many years' past. If you acquire a geranium you're particularly fond of, it really is a cakewalk to keep its offspring and new generations with you across the decades.

Once every couple months seems sufficient to apply a liquid fertilizer to potted geraniums to keep them blooming. The flowers open slowly over a lingering two-week period, hold in full flower for at least a week, and repeat bloom about once every month or so throughout the year and the seasons. Cut and placed in a vase, the flowers will last two weeks or more. Deadheading spent flowers promotes growth of new flower buds. Leaves that begin to yellow around the edges also should be pinched off at their base, and this action will encourage new, fuller leaf growth. If the plant appears stunted or yellowing occurs on lots of the leaves, it calls for a boost in nitrogen fertilization, and/or a reduction in the watering schedule.

A freshly potted geranium cutting takes about six months to become a vigorous, full-leafed adolescent, and will gain about six to eight inches in height during this time period. That growth chart makes geranium cuttings a great choice for harvesting from outdoor and container plants in autumn, slotting into a window, and enjoying the leisurely, blooming, compact development throughout the late fall and winter. By late spring, fall-harvested cuttings will be full grown, flowering plants that can then be transferred back to the outdoors as the centerpiece for containers or directly into borders, thus eliminating the need to purchase new stock. Start more new cuttings from the late spring houseplants before moving them outdoors and Bob's your uncle, you've got another crop of potted sprigs to grace your windows through the summer (when they will like drinks of water twice weekly with the increase in sunlight).

Most common geraniums have little scent except a faint peppery, spicy aroma if the leaves are rubbed. Scented-leaf geraniums can be obtained if that's to your liking, in flavors of lemon, rose, mint, nutmeg, apricot and more. Extract of geranium root has been renowned among the Zulu people of South Africa for centuries for its uncanny ability to rapidly cure nasal and chest congestion of flu, colds, sinusitis, strep throat and bronchitis. A British gentleman named Charles Stevens claimed in 1897 that South African geranium root reversed and knocked down his tuberculosis, and he went on to market “Stevens' Common Cure” tonic from it. Be that as it may, the geranium does possess anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, and boosts the immune system, so geranium-leaf tea or a root tisane could come in handy for under-the-weather spells. As well, geranium leaves, in common with all green houseplants, will purge the indoor air of toxins produced by wood fires, tobacco smoke, candles and cooking.

The author Victoria Glendinning maintains that conversing with your geraniums will make them even more blithesome comrades, but cautions against overdoing it or pouring your heart out to them in a fit of cabin-fever solitariness. “A kind word every now and then is really quite enough,” she opines. “Too much attention, like too much feeding and weeding, inhibits and embarrasses them.” Heaven knows, given all the pleasure and companionship they afford the gardener, the last thing on earth one wishes to do is to embarrass one's geraniums. Maybe just the occasional, “How are you today? Get you anything?,” is about right to encourage and thank geraniums for their houseplant finesse.

December 12, 2008

The Garden and the Night Visitors

Baby, it's cold outside. Temperatures dug in at the teens and twenties day upon day, the daytime high temperature as this is written predicted to ascend only to 17 degrees. And the snow just keeps coming, heavy-laden fronts of pewter-grey cloud banks following one upon another with payloads of snow, snow, snow. The newspaper weather map shows Michigan's mitten tinted purple for days when snow is forecast, and the mitten map is purple for every day this week, next week also. In the garden, the snow banks are now up to my hips, everything buried in white drifts.

One advantage for the garden of the daily-restocked, pristine snow is that it reveals what the deer are up to, which constituents of the garden they take a particular interest in and thus which ones likely are most at risk from deer foraging. In this village bordered on all sides by national park wetlands, dunes and forests, small herds of six to twelve deer reliably walk through every morning and night, going east at sunrise, west at twilight, and spending the wee hours between midnight and dawn fanning out to graze for leaves, bark and berries. It is said a deer spends its lifetime following ancestral trails, never moving more than a mile from where it was born. Put up houses, barns, plant crops or gardens, pave roads, move in human inhabitants, it doesn't faze the deer or change their instinctual, ritual trailways, even if those now carry the herd through village backyards or right down Front Street, past the post office and grocer.

First thing in the morning a few days ago, what greeted the eye in the backyard was an area completely and precisely dug out of the three feet of snow around a bird feeder normally filled with sunflower seeds. Since late fall, when most of the birds except crows pretty much disappeared from my windy neighborhood, I stopped stocking the bird feeder after realizing it was drawing the deer into the yard, where they would not only scarf up it's scant two cups of sunflower seeds, but then proceed to nibble on every plant in the immediate vicinity. Deer must rival elephants in their memory, however, as the fresh hollow around the bird feeder showed, returning to scavenge where they previously struck lucky, even for so small a payoff as a few handfuls of sunflower seed.

On this morning, the still-empty bird feeder was left snuggled under yesterday's new snowfall, and the deer tracks instead carved furrows across the backyard to the lilac bushes, then along the side of the house to the pear tree in the front yard, on to the tips of rosebushes sticking up above the snow, then finishing their tour at the young cherry tree on the front easement. Donning boots (pointless when the snow comes up to your hips, but oh well), gloves, hat, scarf, etc., my legs plowing the deer track a little deeper and wider as I climbed and clambered through the snow, an inspection of the trees and shrubs thankfully did not find damage or evidence of deer-inflicted pruning and bark-stripping.

A few weeks back, before the endless snowfall of winter 2008-9 really got up a head of steam, deer-proofing measures were undertaken. Small muslin bags of meat meal and red pepper, a deer odor-repellent, were tied to hang on the rosebushes, young trees, and the shrubs deer like to eat, namely the lilacs, witchhazel and hydrangea. Then for good measure, these plants were sprayed until dripping with a liquid repellent made up of garlic and eggs (available at garden stores as Deer Off, Liquid Fence, etc.), which deer quite sensibly hate the smell and taste of. We had a hard freeze the night after this treatment, so with luck, the spray repellent froze onto the branches where it will continue to make them taste disgusting to the deer until the next thaw.

Oddly enough, the muslin deer bags were gone altogether from the lilac bushes, though still in place on the other shrubs and trees. Perhaps they're on the ground, buried under the snow, but they were tied on close to the center of the lilacs, behind branching limbs, and could not have blown or been slipped off. The deer bags on the roses hung strangely shredded, just their top half and the tie remaining, the contents of the bags and the bottoms ripped away. How did the bags get off the lilacs? How did the bags on the roses get torn apart? Surely not by the deer, who have never disturbed or so much as touched the bags before. One of the mysteries of the winter night in the garden. Maybe it was the coyotes, who often can be heard crying to the moon between midnight and dawn, out on coyote patrol. Maybe they took offense at the blood-meal scent of another species, and promptly showed it whose territory this really was by biting the intruder bags to pieces.

The deer and coyotes are not begrudged their traditional, ancient travel ways and hunting grounds. Beguiling, enthralling to watch, they complement and complete the landscape much more than do the buildings that have been erected on their turf. This time of year, this kind of deep winter unfurling with a fury from the first of December, is simultaneously so beautiful and so dangerous. The deer are welcome to walk through the garden on their familiar route every nighttime, but hopefully discouraged from stopping while there to consume late night snacks.

December 9, 2008

Planting a More Perfect Union

At last, at last, a new administration has been elected to take the reins of government in Washington, and hope rises that Barack Obama will begin to lead our country out of its long, ugly morass of launching wars, stealing the world's wealth and despoiling the environment. Many of us are ready and willing to participate in propagating a new era of peace, growth, health and being good stewards of this green and golden earth. For gardeners and smallholders at this turning of the year and our country's path, what can we do to help? Thinking about this and wanting to pitch in for the communal good, here follows my impromptu list of actions gardeners could undertake to contribute to rebuilding wellbeing on the planet.

Plant trees. Give a home to birds, clean the air and generate fresh oxygen, shade and protect dwellings from sun and storms to reduce energy demands. Keep your neighborhood from becoming a tundra or desert.

Reduce energy demands and pollution. Use ceiling and window fans instead of heavily polluting air conditioners, open the windows in cars and let the breeze cool you. If we're hotter in summer, cooler in winter, that's okay -- don't fall into the earth-hurting trap of trying to maintain a perfect, unnatural 70-degree temperature wherever you are, all year round. If there is a lawn that really must be cut, use hand, solar or electric-powered mowers rather than carbon-dioxide spewing gas mowers. Build a windmill. Power water fountains and features with solar energy. Use a rake or a shovel, not noisy, dirty leaf and snow-blowers.

Conserve water. Shut down automatic sprinkler systems that spray automatically at set intervals, rain or shine. Put a rain barrel under eaves where water runs off, use the captured rainwater on the garden and save your foundation from floods. Don't waste fresh water resources on grass, let it go brown in dry spells, brown is a color too. Use water from boiled vegetables for watering house and container plants, vegetable water is full of nutrients and oxygen. Ban toxic pesticides and fertilizers from your garden (remember any chemical that kills bugs and slugs will also hurt pets, children and gardeners), keep these chemicals from running off into the water table, where they cause algae growth and fish kill.

Plant a victory garden. Cut down on purchase of foods transported in trucks, trains and other internal-combustion engine machines. Save money on groceries. Produce fruit and vegetables to share with neighbors and food banks. Get cutting flowers from your yard instead of shipped thousands of air miles from far and distant lands.

Buy local and support community businesses. Shopping at nearby garden centers, farms and orchards, seed and feed suppliers, bookstores, and other small businesses preserves jobs and the local economy. It eliminates truck, airplane and other carbon-heavy miles for mail-ordered or shipped-in goods. Local food sources will give you fresher, safer, known-source comestibles for the table, plantings and art for the garden.

Turn off engines. Don't let trucks, cars or SUVs idle for more than five minutes, the carbon dioxide and particulates from them harm plants, animals, fresh water and people. Use cross-country skis or ice skates instead of snowmobiles that tear up the earth. Use canoes, sailboats, kayaks instead of water and fish-killing motor-driven watercraft. Walk, ride a bike, ride a horse or public transport as often as possible as an alternative to driving.

Clean up as you go. It's inconceivable how anyone can just toss trash down on their Mother, but some do. Be a counter-trasher when out and about in your neighborhood, on trails, beaches, parks, in the city. Pick up the plastic and non-decomposing trash you come across, bring it to a trash receptacle. Carry a bag with you for litter and discarded bottles, cans, cigarette butts, styrofoam, your next stroll and that of others will be nicer. Your Mother and her denizens will look and be healthier.

Vote only for candidates who will fight for and take care of the earth. Support efforts to green up your community with hybrid public transportation, low-energy and non-petroleum-fueled building and utility practices, rehabilitation and reuse of existing building stock rather than new development, recycling programs for waste, creation and preservation of parks, wildlife habitats, community gardens, green spaces. As we undertake together the nation's fresh start, my goals are to go forward in peace and engage in actions to make my corner of the earth better because of my tenancy upon it.

December 1, 2008

Shrubs to Raise a Hedge

Upon moving into a rental home some years ago, my young sons found themselves the gleeful lords of a 6-foot wide, dense thicket of shrubs and evergreens all around the boundary of the backyard. Not only did the thicket screen the neighbors' view of the backyard, it also offered a small, secret woodlot, perfect for building forts, and playacting Indian and superhero fantasies. As season followed season, the gardener learned to love this thicket too, for the juncos, cardinals, finches, jays, squirrels, rabbits and groundhogs it attracted, fed and sheltered, and for its green, blooming beauty.

Most of the thicket was made up of Japanese honeysuckle shrubs, maybe 20 to 30 years of age and 10 feet in height, with nectar-sweet flowers in spring, scarlet berries through late summer, fall and winter. The benefits of encouraging wildlife (human boy and animal), and proffering structure, privacy and lush color to the yard taught the gardener to highly value hedges.

In the present garden, therefore, I was determined to create hedges which would bring these same rewards. As development proceeds apace across our land and formerly wild spaces, it is especially important to generate new hedges to replicate disappearing wildlife habitat. Of the vast array of shrubs available to gardeners, how to choose which ones to foster? My choices were founded on just a few basic principles: the shrubs would feature alluring appearance, in leaves and fruits; they would be quick growers, since a tall, screening effect was needed on my very bare and exposed lot; they should be native and suited to northwest Michigan so as not to face an untimely demise; and they should produce food and cover that would warm the hearts of birds and convince them to take up residence. And okay, there was also a nostalgia factor in opting for the lilacs and forsythias that had featured in gardens of grandmothers and great aunts during childhood.

Although I'm really taken with the characteristics and hardiness of Japanese honeysuckles, master gardeners advise that this is an invasive shrub in Michigan, overwhelming the native shrubs as it proliferates, so that option was sadly passed over. A black beauty elderberry shrub, planted at the front of the yard, went into a decline over its second and third years, and in the fourth year generated only a sparse handful of leaves. Despite its handsome burgundy leaves and the berries it is supposed to (but never did) bear, elderberry doesn't like the quick-draining, sandy soil and all day sunshine in this garden.

Viburnum shasta and onondagas, with assiduous (more than anticipated) watering, have leafed out very fully, but don't gain much height at all, and remain disappointingly low-reaching, two-foot high shrubs. All the shrubs chosen were advertised as capable of reaching heights of at least six feet, so even though the virburnums do sport captivating dark green leaves that shade into reddish gold in autumn, their lack of volume puts them into the category that would not be chosen again. This is also the case of the wine and roses weigela, also only about two feet tall after five years of cossetting, and the blue girl and boy holly bush, another slow grower which has yet to generate a single berry.

The successes on the road to a perimeter hedge start with the American high bush cranberry. This shrub is a rapid grower, and the two in my garden have shot up from one foot in height to five feet, with equally healthy, spreading circumference. They turn the most brilliant red in autumn, brighter even than the well-known burning bush, and also offer the boon of clusters of red berries (photo from at start of this entry). Lilacs also do well here, speeding upward and outward. There are four purple-flowering bushes, two white. If the lilac blooms are picked when spent, the bushes reward the gardener with many more blooms the following spring. One of the white lilacs has not yet flowered in five years, the suspicion is that this is due to having been planted between my house and my neighbor's along the plotline where the sun only reaches for a few hours a day. Last spring I moved this lilac to the backyard, full-sun plotline, and trimmed about a third of the branches back close to the ground, which is said to encourage rejuvenation, so we will see if next spring it breaks free of the flower drought.

Normally the only fertilizing agent applied to the shrubs is a heap of composted cow manure each fall. The two forsythias, however, while covering themselves in felicitous egg-yellow flowers each spring, had not shown the enthusiastic growth forsythias usually revel in. This spring the gardener followed the advice of a village lady with a gangbuster of a garden, and fed them a helping of slow-release Osmocote pellet fertilizer. They responded by adding a foot of height by the fall. The plan is to similarly feed all the garden shrubs next spring, having come round to the village lady's viewpoint that nature, for all her wisdom and nurturance, does not in fact provide all the food that growing plants need without a little help from her friends.

A snowmound spirea under the front windows has grown about four feet upward as well as in width in five years, and is a perfect sphere of frothy white flowers in spring. A younger blue mist spirea also comes on zestfully, and brings a unique turquoise blue flower to the yard in mid-to-late summer, when most shrubs are past their bloom. The final entries begun five years ago, two viburnum Chicago lustres, a dark red Diablo ninebark, a gold flame honeysuckle, and a northern bayberry, have displayed slightly more sedate but still strong growth. The Chicago lustres bear a purple-black berry, but the bayberry has yet to fruit, despite promises at the garden center that it had cross-pollinating male and female roots.

There was a purple-flower butterfly bush for several years, but last summer this was removed and replaced with a fledgling upright cottoneaster. Butterfly bush flowers are undeniably pretty, do have an engaging sweet-grape scent, and do indeed attract butterflies. Their somewhat surly and unsightly characteristics outweigh these pluses, to my thinking. The flowers turn from their dark purple tones to faded brown within just a couple days of opening. The limbs of the shrub have to be cut back by two-thirds each spring, and these limbs grow thick, very tough, and several feet in length in just one summer, making it a real job of work to prune them every year. The trunks and branches are a dull grey color, depressing rather than enhancing the winter landscape. And the shrub begins to green up very late, toward the end of June, so all through the color unfolding of springtime it just sits like a big dead lump in the garden. With hollyhocks, columbine, yarrow, lavender and lots of other butterfly and hummingbird seducers, the butterfly bush just wasn't worth its drawbacks.

The last shrub planted, this past spring, is a fall-flowering witchhazel. Right now it's about two feet high and numbers maybe half a dozen branches. The pictures of its cascading, spiky gold flowers and the fact that it will bring one more autumn bloom to the garden were the determinants in its selection. This shrub is said to be capable of a 20-foot height, if it attains even half that dimension, the gardener will be more than pleased. With the assistance of the shrubs, most of which now reach to my shoulders, one day the garden will boast a true and robust, tall and fruitful wildlife hedge.