January 26, 2009

To Prune an Apple Tree

As sub-freezing temperatures lay their cold paws across the landscape and veils of windborne snow course endlessly up hill and down dale, the gardener grumpily endures nature's enforced season of dormancy upon those who would till. Just as all growing things must pause and wait out winter's months of quietude and inactivity, so must gardeners. Hankering after some means of keeping one's hand in and being productive during the mid-winter exile from the garden, plans are drawn up for the pruning of the two-year old Fuji apple tree.

Very little pruning has been practiced in my garden, to date. The roses do get lopped back by about a third early each spring, as this is universally recommended as essential for their health and bloom. A white lilac that hasn't yet deigned to flower in five years had about a third of its young branches cut to the ground last summer, again because such pruning is supposed to bring bloom. In general, however, the shrubs and trees grow on uninterrupted, and may ascend to whatever width and height they are comfortable with, as the bigger they get, the happier the garden and its wildlife appear to be. And shrubs and trees alike are all still in their youth and smallish in size, pruning more than broken or crossed branches isn't needed at this juncture.

Except, apparently, for the apple tree. A radio garden show happened to mention that apple trees must always be pruned in their first years or they will go into a long pout of poor growth and delayed fruiting. This was news to me, but a little research indicated that indeed, the consensus among farm and garden arborists held pruning to be essential for apple trees (though not for other fruit-bearers, like cherry). The extension service at Tennessee's Clemson University, at www.hgic.clemson.edu, puts up a very broad and deep body of information on home garden topics, with detailed factsheets on many matters and species from peonies to pruning.

To begin, its necessary to remove all but one “leader” or central branch on the apple tree, cutting competing leaders back close to a bud and to their starting point. Looking at the little Fuji, it does in fact have three or four about equally tall central branches vying for the role of leader, so all but the biggest and best shaped will have to come off.

The leader central trunk then needs to be “headed back” by pruning about one-third off the top, again making a cut close to a bud. All downward pointing branches and suckers (branches that point straight up) must be removed, cutting just above the “collar” of raised bark that circles the branch where it emerges from the tree trunk. Branches with narrow crotches and those at less than a 45-degree angle from the trunk also get sliced off above their collars.

The Fuji in the garden, now that one knows what to look for, actually has every single one of these reportedly inferior, inhibiting branch growths. Perhaps that partially explains its production of just one lone apple its first year in the garden, and one lone apple again last summer, its second year.

Finally, the tree should be relieved of all but three-to-six scaffolds or side branches, evenly spaced around the central trunk. The cut limbs must be removed from the area, and burned or recycled in a distant brush pile, as left as layabouts on the ground they make very desirable residences for insects and diseases which feed upon and harm fruit trees.

Not until February 14 to 18 can this pruning plan be carried out. That, according to the Blum Farmer's Almanac (available at most grocery stores or www.blumsalmanac.com), is late enough in the winter dormant period to not be facing too many more weeks of freeze, yet before new spring growth will have begun. Those particular days in February mark a phase when the moon is waxing (or increasing in size), and the planets are best aligned to allow pruning to promote, rather than discourage growth. The Farmer's Almanac maintains that pruning during a waning period of the moon will certainly decrease growth, why they do not say. The waxing moon building toward full exerts a stronger gravitational pull upon the earth, its tides, tree sap and other energy fields, and thus probably also beckons forth growth spurts. The full moon, after all, which exercises the maximum gravitational pull each month, always brings the most births of human babies, as well.

Plotting and planning, researching and ruminating, gazing out the windows or braving the elements to hike through the snow drifts for closer inspections of the drowsing garden, so do the frustrations of not gardening get somewhat mollified. So do the days and weeks of January, the most unforgiving month, tick more usefully by. Or as Edward A. Bowles, English gardener and author, so eloquently states, “if only the gardener will plant enough plants of the most different types and habits procurable, there ought to be never a day in which he cannot find some pleasure...no minute of the daylight hours in which there is no interesting and health-giving work to be done.”

January 16, 2009

Green Warfare

City and town environments can be harsh, monochromatic, fairly lifeless places. When I lived in the city, my favorite aspects of the surroundings, contrarily, were the parks, waterways, bordering woodlands, botanic and private gardens, the places where water flowed and plants grew. In economically depressed neighborhoods and in heavily-built municipal centers, the eyes and heart can languish for the uplifting presence of greenery, flowers, trees.

For the past several years, guerrilla gardeners have embarked upon a mission to redress the paucity of plant life in urban landscapes. From New Zealand to Canada, Great Britain to South Africa, Chicago to Berlin, a loose coalition of rebel gardeners have made it their business to introduce growing, blooming specimens into city hardscapes. Sometimes it is a single rosebush at the corner of a blacktopped schoolyard, or a ladder of ivy vines against a chainlink fence, or a bed of perennials in a barren traffic island. A flow of daffodils scattered on a streetside verge. A wildflower patch sown into the neglected yard of an abandoned house. Rows of beans, squash and salad greens tucked into an empty city lot.

Richard Reynolds, an enterprising and community-spirited young English fellow, launched the present-day guerrilla gardening movement by laying claim to a lifeless, ugly traffic island in London and setting about to put it to productive, pretty use by filling it with flowers, shrubs and trees. At www.guerrillagardening.org, Mr. Reynolds lays out the premise of the movement as a “war against neglect and scarcity of public space to grow things, beautiful, tasty or both.” In photographs and words, he and the legions of guerrilla gardeners who have followed his lead document their efforts to make their locales more beautiful and useful through the reclaiming of unutilized public spaces for cultivation.

Guerrilla gardening, under various monikers, has a long and storied history. In 1649, Englishmen Gerrard Winstanley and William Everard founded the Diggers agrarian revolutionary society of unemployed laborers and peasants on the principle that common land and wasteland should be available to the poor for the raising and sharing of communal crops. Johnny Appleseed practiced a similar, if more solitary, agrarian socialism by starting orchards wherever he rambled on U.S. public land. Community gardens established in schoolyards and vacant lots, with or without official “permission,” have been a regular phenomenon in countries near and far during eras of economic hardship and food shortage. In the 1960s, the Diggers of San Francisco pursued their agenda of free food and public services, in part, by creating gardens and distributing free food in public parks. Following the horrendous tragedy of September 11, 2001, a number of New York City firehouses found themselves the recipients of volunteer garden groups who brought vitality and cheer to their doorsteps with planters, windowboxes, sidewalk flower beds.

The genius of guerrilla gardening is that anyone, child to elder, poor or rich, can practice it. It comprises an egalitarian opportunity to transform a dour, oppressive, arid spot into a place of cheer and fecundity. For little outlay beyond a bit of cogitation, physical endeavor and a few dollars, a packet of seeds can be coaxed into seedlings to be transplanted into a sidewalk or street verge. Small shrubs and seedling trees can be dug up from land that is slated for the bulldozers of approaching building development and given a new home in a traffic roundabout or other wasted city plot. Grafts and divisions of plants from one's own garden can be the basis of a new flower bed at a health clinic, jailhouse, retirement home, public housing estate.

Many city gas stations, corner shops and convenience stores have easements, foundations and sometimes even planters available and containing nothing more than dirt and weeds, when who knows? Perhaps the store owners might chip in the odd ten-spot or two to a willing worker offering to sow the brilliance and hopefulness of sedums, virburnums, cranesbill geranium, lily-of-the-valley, phlox. Sunflowers, sage and thymes, coneflowers, daisies, ivies, grapevines, honeysuckle, cottoneaster, there's a well-nigh infinite list of the perennially-flowering plants and shrubs that are tough and scrappy enough, once on their legs, to survive and flourish for years with minimal or no maintenance beyond what nature provides.

The wizardry of guerrilla gardening is that it inspires and rewards all. The gardener, and every passerby who happens upon a guerrilla garden, every community member who receives a basket of runner beans or a zuccinni, reap alike moments of grace, pleasure and bounty where previously they encountered only the empty drear. That's an insurgent warfare everyone can get behind, swapping the cruelty of swords for the goodness of ploughshares.

January 10, 2009

A Catalogue Against the Cold

The first 2009 plant catalogue,* from Bluestone Perennials, arrived in the mail, a most welcome sight in these deep winter days with its jaunty cover photo of a fling of apricot helenium flowers. It seemed worth spending maybe a quick half-hour browse, just to see what plants might jump up from the page as potentials for next spring (because spring will return in just a few months, even though it feels so very far away and unlikely with the garden hibernating beneath several feet of snow).

Two or three hours later, having read the tantalizing catalogue from cover to cover, a selection of a very restrained half-dozen specimens were flagged as definite must-haves for the garden. Already fairly flush with spring and early summer flowering plants, the garden still yearns for more summer into autumn bloomers. This consideration, along with seeking newcomers to introduce fresh personalities to the garden, and also to offer bloom time that lasts for more than just a week, guided the specimen choices.

Rudbeckias produce daisy and sparkler-style flowers from summer until frost knocks them down. Black-Eyed Susans are a common rudbeckia. Their color scheme ranges from butter yellow to sherry red, and some types – Henry Eiler, and maxima, and prairie sun – reach from three to even five feet in height. These gangly rudbeckias could really fill out and punctuate the back of a border during autumn's low-flowering stint. Prairie sun, labeled a “gold medal winner,” won a place on the order list for its limey green center surrounded by petals shading from soft tangerine to pale yellow at their tips. The catalogue promises rudbeckias are robust, self-seeding and can last for many years. What more could be asked?

Next on the list of desirables comes a Max Vogel anemone, with a flower that resembles a double-petalled cosmo, and colors a cotton-candy pink around a hot-orange center. This one also flowers continuously late summer through the fall, and grows two-to-three feet tall. When a plant is tall, bushy and full-flowered enough to be seen and enjoyed from across the yard or through the windows from indoors, it really broadens the garden vista and charms.

Another perennial that will stand up tall for itself with a two-foot, columnar flower stalk is the cherry blossom delphinium. The creamy pink flower got this one on the list, it's just what the blue and white delphiniums in the border under the front window need to nicely enlarge their color scheme. I'm a sucker for the pretty, frilly delphinium, even though it takes a little extra watering to keep it going in dry summers. Delphiniums love the sun but really don't like to get parched. If the flower stalk is cut back close to the ground when the bloom is finished, it will re-flower very reliably, though usually with a smaller flower head.

In the smaller, edging category, a catananche (love plant) caerulea teal blue and a feathery white look like winners. Late June through August flowering, these grow to about a foot and a half, are reported to have “many flowers above interesting silver-green foliage,” and have a flower similar in appearance to a bachelor button, pointy dense petals with a contrasting-color center. These girls like sun and well-drained soil, so they could really take to the front edge of the sunny, sandy garden, raising smiles to passersby on the sidewalk.

A surprising, fairly unusual find in the catalogue were special-species chrysanthemums, such as spoon, quilled, and football mums, which previously have been come across only in specialty mum catalogues. Mums are the queens of autumn tints and show in the garden, long-lasting and pretty hardy if they are mulched in cold-climate winters. If the foliage is pinched back up until the first of July, and no later, mums create lots of flower buds. The football mum flowerhead spreads round and wide, with inward-curving petals, in a big sphere more like a giant softball than a pigskin oval. Here are the colors offered in the football mums – amber, coral, French vanilla, russet, buff pink and light bronze. I mean, how could anyone resist trying some of these Reubenesque beauties?

Last but not least, the pinky-winky, perpetual-flowering hydrangea is darn near irresistible. The shrub can reach six feet in height, the twelve-inch, cone-shaped flowers stand upright and segue from white to pink to dusky rose, and can be cut and hung to dry for arrangements that will last until the next year's blooms appear. Hydrangeas also like regular watering in droughty spells, but doesn't summer-long flowering make it worth a little extra hose time?

All the above entries except the delphiniums will be brand new characters on the scene. At present, the standard, well-known cottage-garden plants such as hollyhock, poppy, daisy, lupine, peony, rose and so forth, are already well-represented in the garden. Now I'm looking to incorporate adventure and new names, species that may give innovation and diversity, that can be tried out to see if they will like and thrive in this northwest Michigan location, and perhaps enlarge the collection of favorites and strong performers.

Catalogues are excellent for searching out such new, untried plants. They also make useful reference tomes, to be consulted for photos and behavioral traits when one comes upon the name of an intriguing, heretofore unknown plant. With information from a catalogue, the gardener can seek out wanted specimens at local nurseries, or request that they be ordered by the neighborhood garden center. The catalogue arms us with our preferred marching orders for the surely coming next spring, even if we choose to employ the information only to shop locally for plants we can see, touch and thereby verify their strength, appearance and good health. In a snowbound Michigan January, plant and seed catalogues make for a full afternoon's enlightening, exciting reading.

*( Yep, thank you, Mr. Busybody Spellcheck, I do realize that “catalogue” isn't spelled this way any longer. However, it's still spelled this way by the gardener, as it looks better with all its letters intact, and I do not cotton to the new, efficiency-inspired practice of lopping off perfectly good letters from the words in which they've always resided. Nope, that's not my favourite thing.)

January 2, 2009

Why Garden?

When will there be good news? In Michigan especially and in the whole of our beleaguered country, such hard times and daily bad, sad tidings beset us, it is difficult to find any arena of our socio-political-ecological world where good news and promise hold sway. Periods of hard times and turbulent change have often, in the past, spurred a focus on embracing the outdoors and nature. The Arts and Crafts Movement plant- and animal-based designs followed the Industrial Revolution, the national park system began in response to the Great Depression, big and bold preserved, cultivated city landscapes like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Central Park in Manhattan were born to counterpose the early 20th Century boom in urban building.

The private gardener is similarly motivated. Planting a garden lets us get personally, intimately, actively engaged in opposing the degradation and destruction of nature. Instead of plundering, paving and killing the earth, gardening tills the earth, opens and feeds the soil, reinvigorates growth and productivity. It nurtures and provisions the natural world, rather than endangering it. In the garden we can give back to the earth instead of taking away from it. We sow toward a tomorrow that will be more plentiful rather than more impoverished.

To work and care for a garden brings the gardener into direct touch with and awareness of nature, the weather, the seasons. It transports us out of the busy, distressing, artificial milieus of work, commerce and politics, and into a clean, tranquil, straightforward engagement with the sun and the rain, seeds and soil beneath our hands. A garden can carry us back to long, innocent hours of childhood spent contemplating the spread of tree branches against the sky, the shape and portent of clouds, the marvel of scent and color in a flower bed, the play of squirrels on a green, the earnest industry of birds creating a nest, one strand at a time.

A storybook world that perhaps never existed in actual childhood can be fashioned in a garden. Rose-covered arbors, hollyhocks and hummingbirds flocking a wall, swings and benches to daydream upon, herbs to perfume the air, posies to sniff and gather, all the seductive features of fairy tales and imagined wild kingdoms can be made to come true.

In the garden the individual can exercise control over what will be. There are no bosses giving orders, there's no government deciding how money and resources will be spent, no corporations strip-mining and clearcutting, no tankers spilling oil, no gunfire and bombs wreaking havoc. Only the gardener and nature, in consort, are in charge of including or disposing, pursuing a course or changing it, what is allowed and what prohibited, the means and ends that guide action. Here is a venue where the single person can pursue whatever beliefs and dreams are chosen, and never have to bend or cower to others.

A garden grants every person, equally, the ability to engender beauty. No innate talent is necessary to forge a work of art from a plot of ground, anyone willing to employ elbow grease can be an artist in the garden. An empty canvas of topsoil can be made radiant with poems of flowers and arias of leafy branches. With a garden, anyone can increase the extant loveliness upon the earth.

Gardening strengthens the body, repaying in physical health every iota of effort put into it. It challenges the mind, stimulates learning, and imparts new founts knowledge. It teases out worry and sadness, hopelessness and defeat from the spirit, letting satisfaction and happiness mount as holes are dug, weeds pulled, leaves raked. The garden turns attention from the self to the care and tending of the great outdoors.

Gardens bring good news. This is why we garden, because even when hailstorms shower damage on the apple tree or unkind insects make a meal of the roses, the garden beckons with its bewitching glamor and serene crannies, it galvanizes the gardener with its ongoing need for attention and application. The garden brings good news by unfailingly rewarding honest, simple endeavor with a better world outside our doors.