April 27, 2009

Succulent Love

In a garden or greenhouse, on a windowsill or between patio pavers, succulents hold an irresistible attraction. They draw us to them, stop us in our tracks, detain us in spellbound, contemplative fascination of their strange beauty. The secret of succulent seduction lies in their droll physical forms. More than any other plant type, their wildly diverse and numerous varieties assume singular forms that embody drama and sculptural silhouettes, humor and mysterious textures, delicate color and bizarre, other-worldly skins. Succulents radiate an ambience of sand dune warmth, they conjure shimmery images of armadillos, burros, salt flats, palm trees. Even their name is alluring, sexy – the soft sibilant beginning, the sultry depths of the long vowel center, the certainty of the consonant closing.

Although associated instantly in the imagination with the hot and arid environs of the desert, many succulents are cold-hardy and will prosper in Michigan gardens. Hardy succulents are extremely tough characters, well-suited to the strong weather and seasons of the northern Great Lakes region. They revel in annual hard frosts and dormant months as part of their natural cycle. They can shrug off prolonged drought and high heat, doing dandy in temperatures that range into the high 90s. Cold-hardy varieties can ignore downward spirals of the thermometer to depths of -30 fahrenheit, growing as far north as into the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Succulents have no need of water beyond that brought by rain, dew and snow. If anything, they dislike sitting in puddly soil that does not dry out. This makes them ideal plants for the sandy, rocky, quick-draining soil of northwestern Michigan, as well as sturdy, happy occupants of gravel beds, rock gardens and living wreaths. They will cheerfully burgeon in containers with half or less the watering desired by any other plants, and respond to days and weeks of unmitigated sunshine by stretching out in sunbather pleasure. Most are also completely impervious to grazing wildlife, predatory pests, insects and diseases.

The longevity and self-propagating ability of succulents is impressive. Their season lasts from early summer through first nipping of frost. Sempervivums (commonly known as hens and chicks) very name means live forever, and the lovely, symmetrical rosettes of leaves generously pop out offsets (the chicks) to expand and carry on the family ad infinitum into the future. To divide and reproduce any succulent, from a prickly pear to a jade plant to sedums, the entire process involves simply cutting or pinching off a leaf or branch, sticking it in soil, watering it in, stepping back and watching it grow. So tenacious are these plants, if a leaf falls or gets accidentally knocked to the earth, it often will put down root and start growing without any external help whatsoever.

Sempervivums come in over 100 different varietal types, with a spectrum of luscious colors from coolest twilight grey-green to mahogany red. The cobweb species hens and chicks spins a silky web of threads across the rosette heads, giving it a gossamer and tempting veil that beckons touch. The unique texture of succulent skin, whether it be the waxy smoothness of a jade leaf, the sharp thorns of cactus, or the hairy tendrils of a Missouri pincushion, make it a wonderful tactile as well as visual sensation.

Sedum hardy succulents, in addition to the purple emperor and other familiar upright, 2-to-3 foot tall versions, can be found in dwarf, spreading, ground-cover styles. Red carpet sedum is a spreader with dark rose to burgundy leaves that keep their color all year long; John Creech has tight, overlapping mint green leaves that form ground-hugging mats with an abundance of pink flowers. Or check out the dragon blood and fuldaglut spurium sedums, or the lavender Vera Jameson sedum, all great ground-covers.

Believe it or not, prickly pear cactus can grow in Michigan gardens, provided one chooses a hardy species such as the purple-fruited, porcupine, or cliff pricky pear, all of which have naturalized into southern Canada. The spineless hedgehog, claret cut and mountain ball are other cacti suitable for cold climate gardens. Opuntias, variegated yuccas with their sedge-like leaf blades, and hardy agaves are succulent genus members who can handle all four seasons without breaking a sweat or catching chillblanes. To learn more about north country succulents, a fine and thorough book is “Hardy Succulents: Tough Plants for Every Climate,” by Gwen Kelaidis, from Storey Publishing. Or visit a nice website at www.cactiguide.com, or tour a mail-order succulent nursery at www.simplysucculents.com

There is an old country tradition of grandparents giving sempervivum chicks to their grandchildren, to carry on new plant generations with the new family generations. The tradition may have arisen because hens and chicks were fairly common to many country households, or because growing-on the chicks is so easy it really can be done by a young child. However it began, hardy succulents make relaxed, low-maintenance, witty and hilarious, theatrical and entertaining extended family members both indoors and out, in a clay pot or broadcast across the yard.

April 20, 2009

Garden Groundswell

Now you're cooking with grease!, as my grandma used to say when something or someone got on the right track. On several recent days, the thermometer crested the 60-degree mark that is the demarcation line between winter's coattails and spring's hello handshake. The daffodills, jonquills, primroses, tulips, hyacinths, snowdrops and a few of the windflowers are halfway up out of the ground, a handful already opening blooms in the warm afternoon sunshine. True, a temperature backslide and snow flurries are forecast for April's second half, but the setback will be fleeting, the seesaw ride of springtime in northern Michigan has begun in earnest.

Thus far the only sowing has been a ring of sweet pea seeds, around the base of a metal tripod sculpture well-suited to their climbing propensities. They are the only plant on this year's roster that can be, and actually does best if planted a month or so before the night (and occasional day) frosts cease. Each pea seed was nicked with a nail clipper to open a breach in the hard shell, then they were left on a water-soaked paper towel for 24 hours for pre-planting moisturizing, then sown in fresh-laid composted cow manure, the par excellence substance in which to plant everything and anything. Next planting date will be the rudbeckia and verbena bonariensis seeds on April 30, flowers that want no more, no less than planting just a couple weeks before likely last frost. April 30 because that's the next day when the moon, stars and planets are in favorable conjunction for sowing flower seeds (see below "Moonlight Becomes Your Garden," a February 13, 2009 post, for more on astronomy and planting).

Gardening time functions mysteriously, much like Internet time or home carpentry time – whatever length of time one estimates will be spent on any given foray into the garden generally, reliably will end up taking two or three times longer. Look closely and there are always more tasks to be taken in hand in a garden, one more patch of weeds to clear, dry spots to water, birdbaths to fill, branches to prune. Thus, when setting out with the single, crisply defined goal of sweet pea seeding, a couple hours later found, also, the edging along the backyard ornamental grasses bed refreshed with new, fallen, woodlot-scavenged birch logs; a dozen or so wild, volunteer sprouts of cornflower (chicory) plants pulled (weed, wildflower, call it what you will, it will colonize the whole yard in short order if left unchecked); several handfuls of composted cow manure laid at the base of each rosebush and peony to start their seasons with a big dollop of high-nutrient dirt; and a couple garlic cloves plugged into the soil beneath each rosebush to fend off opportunistic deer and also boost flowering, both of which garlic does masterfully.

And in honesty, probably a good spell of the time on this garden venture, as on every one taken, was spent in simple, idle stillness and close observation. Just walking around my small village lot and pausing to examine and admire the minutiae of its colors, scents and textures gives me an inordinate amount of happiness. Pinching a lavender stalk or sage leaf to release their inimitable, earthy and heartwarming perfumes brings gladness and calmness. Feeling the loamy softness of compost sift through my hands induces purposefulness, reassurance, connectedness to the natural world. Staring at the whorls and wrinkles of birch or red oak bark, or the indigo of an opening primrose, or the innumerable variations of the color green in the score of plants putting out leaves – just being and seeing in the garden could occupy me completely contentedly for hours, and never fails to imbue me with feelings of great well-being. In the garden, active or lollygagging, all becomes right with the world, every time.

Also generating feelings of well-being and rightness is the unprecedented groundswell of gardening and environmental activism rolling across America this spring. The presidential family in the White House aren't the only ones digging up a lawn to plant a vegetable garden, there are more home gardens, community gardens, small holdings, and pots filled with tomato plants and herbs on patios and balconies than for decades past. Burpee and other seed companies report an increase of fruit and vegetable seed sales of a whopping 30% this spring over previous years. Natural, sustainable, organic gardening and farming methods and products are to be found in every garden store and even big box nursery, for the first time given shelf space equal to that of noxious, big chemical company, artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. There is a national and governmental commitment to pursuit of environmentally sound land and forest preservation and alternative energy development on a scale that has not been evident since the founding of the conservation movements and the national parkland set-asides during the early 1900s.

The raised national environmental consciousness has been brought about by the perfect storm of a crashing economy, a revulsion for dependence upon dirty petroleum products from foreign countries that largely wish America ill, and fear for the future of a planet weakened and struggling under the violent storms and rising temperatures of global pollution. Out of this miasma of bad acting and vile values of recent decades is emerging a determination to right our ways, restore health to our food and to the way we conduct our lives, and to take better care of the irreplaceable earth. Following the knowledge laid down by Alice Waters, J. I. Rodale, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Frederick Law Olmstead, Theodore Roosevelt and other pioneers of conservation, organic agriculture and natural foods, America is turning into a nation of green gardeners, tree planters, ecological preservationists. This springtime rebirth and regeneration stretching from coast to coast feels marvelous, and you can bet your garden galoshes that's exactly how it feels to the earth, as rakes and hoes get busy scratching her continental back.

April 13, 2009

Garden Healing

Having written of the perils of toxins in common garden plants a couple weeks ago, it's only fair and balanced to take another meander down the garden path, this time to highlight garden healers and promoters of good health. Gardening in and of itself confers benefits in vim, vigor and fitness of mind and body to the practitioner, but beyond those gains it also contains plant genuses which actively heal, soothe and remedy specific afflictions. Let's consider just a few of the most efficacious.

Garlic literally leaps to mind ahead of all comers in the plant world pharmacopoeia. Research has demonstrated that it helps prevent the occurrence of cancers in the body. Eaten raw and daily, it purges and cleanses the lungs (this one's for you, dear smokers). It will also ameliorate and forestall the recurrence of chronic cold sores, fever blisters, impetigo, hemorrhoids and chronic rashes, as well as battle acne into submission and enhance skin tone. It's able to settle upset stomachs and fend off Monteczuma's revenge (or diarrhea if you're outside Mexico), through it's very able anti-bacterial properties. A couple cloves a day of fresh garlic chopped fine, swallowed like a pill before eating, and washed down with a slug of milk to help mask any odor kickback, will accomplish all these curative feats. This homeopathic remedy is also probably the easiest in creation to be homegrown, as just pushing whole garlic cloves a couple inches down into good soil or compost in a sunny spot will yield new green shoots in about two weeks. When the leaves begin to brown and fall over, the garlic cloves are ripe for harvest.

Peppermint or spearmint, another plant genus that is only too eager to flourish in the garden, also puts a fast halt to stomach upsets, and the stomach-muscle spasms and other symptoms of norovirus infection. A tisane or tea of any type of mint leaves works better, in this regard, than drugstore pharmaceuticals. Mint is such an exuberant grower that it will spread throughout and take over a garden, given half a chance, so it is best planted in an enclosed or isolated location, or in containers where it can sprawl generously about to its heart's content.

The scarlet berries of hawthorn trees, adored by birds and adorning northerly landscapes throughout wintertime, were used in olden days to treat heart palpitations. Recent studies in England have shown this herbal treatment to be based upon provable results, as hawthorne berries yield significant benefits for people with chronic heart failure. They work in a manner similar to digitalis in cases of congestive heart failure, and hawthorne berries can redress high blood pressure, as well. High in antioxidants like their better-known cousin, the blueberry, hawthorne berries can boost resistance to development of dementia and aging of skin.

Lavender not only smells terrific and makes a very long-lasting dried flower, it's got remarkable soothing and calming powers. For centuries, sachets of dried lavender have been tucked under pillow shams to aid people with falling asleep. Lavender oil massaged into sore muscles will relieve pain, and rubbed on the skin over a headache it will reduce spasms and bring headache moderation or cessation. Clinical trials have found lavender oil effective in curing earache, and lavender scent successful in reducing feelings of agitation in patients with dementia or Alzheimer's. The English herbalist William Culpepper summed up lavender's talents accurately as “beneficent for all the grief and pains of the head.”

Primrose flowers are not only welcome pastel harbingers of the return of blooming season, but also are useful in alleviating common headaches and, like lavender, exert a quieting influence. For a healthful tonic or nervous system stimulant for lagging spirits, on the other hand, steep a teaspoonful of the dried bark of dogwood in a cup of boiling water for half an hour, and drink half a cupful daily. Comfrey root, prepared and drunk daily in the same manner, hot or cold, takes away nasal congestion and catarrh.

The elder tree was held in such high healing regard in times past as to be known colloquially as “the village pharmacy.” The flowers, berries, bark, roots and leaves all found medicinal uses, and hedgecutters would refuse to cut it down because of its renowned powers of medicinal good. Elderflower tea has been shown to deactivate viruses, and shorten the duration and strength of influenza.

Figwort leaves, another garden friend much esteemed in herbal folklore, stimulates skin cells that speed and promote the healing of wounds when used as a poultice or dressing. Rosehips made into a poultice will diminish the pain of arthritis and aching joints. This would come as no surprise to ancestral herbal healers, who traditionally rubbed rosehips onto painful joints of the hips, hands and knees. Rosehips offer an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect which assuages inflammatory conditions and thus results in elimination of pain.

The great advantage of most herbal and plant medicaments is that they have no nasty, undesirable side effects, as do so many chemically manufactured drugs. They are also free and readily at hand in many gardens, so obtaining and putting them to use will not impoverish the sufferer nor line the deep, already well-stocked pockets of pharmaceutical companies. The foregoing is but a tiny sampling of the many, many plant-world natural remedies for maladies of mind and body. A great starting point to pursue knowledge of nature's medicine chest can be accessed at the British National Institute of Medical Herbalists website, www.nimh.org.uk. As herbalist Joseph Meyer posits, “why use chemical drugs when nature in her wisdom has provided, in her great vegetable laboratories of the fields and forest, attenuation for the ills of mankind?” There now, don't you feel better already?