Thursday, May 27, 2010


The weather has been schizophrenic of late. It’s been hot, then cold and rainy, windy then dry and hot again. It is always such a treat to experience the entire spectrum of weather conditions available in Western Oklahoma regardless of the season.

The lilies are in full bloom everywhere. The varieties available now are truly spectacular and come in ranges of color and form that far exceed the traditional white Easter lily of your Grandmother’s garden. Hybridization has given us a memorable gift with the improvements. The lily is of the largest and most important plant families, dating back as far as botanical recordings. Of the 2,000 species, there are 12 which are native to North America. The Meadow Lily, the Southern Red Lily, the Leopard Lily, the Wood Lily, and Sierra Lily all grow within the bounds of our nation in shaded woodland settings. The trumpet-shaped blooms made up of six parts, are held upright on sturdy stems. The roots of the lily spread from the central bulb and form new bulbs, making them a perfect naturalized species if allowed enough room to travel.

The Chinese and Japanese lilies have spectacular form and scent and bring elegance to the early summer garden. The flowers come in a full spectrum of color and shape, some with nodding heads, some upright, and others with the lovely turkscap form of recurving leaves. Among these jewels are the Stargazer, Amber Gold, Black Magic and the lovely L. martagon with its back-curved pinkish blooms. Lilies make lovely cut flowers in an arrangement and will fill the room with their spicy aroma.

The plants which we call water Lilies are not of the lily family at all, but are of a genus unto themselves. They too are in full bloom in water gardens everywhere. They project a serene classic beauty with their deep green and glossy plate like foliage and ethereal blossoms floating on the water. Their leaves provide shelter for fish and help reduce the spread of algae in the pond. Watching and waiting for the blooms of water lilies to open is always exciting and thrilling for the gardener who has cultivated these lovely plants.

Friday, May 21, 2010

My Gardening Days...

I wrote this last year... but some things never change~

Sometimes it becomes too ridiculous and this is how my gardening days seem to go lately… I can't find anything in the yard anymore. I spend all my time looking for lost tools. I'll prune something then drop the pruners while I carry off debris, planning to return momentarily.

I see something else on the way back to the pruners and become distracted from the pruning job. A large clump of grasses or weeds lurking amongst the flowers catch my eye. I enthusiastically weed a bit then I begin to look for the rake to rake the weeds and grass I've pulled before they can rebound and reroot.

As I am looking for the rake, I see a lily with a heavy head that needs to be staked. I remember a stake is on the spent Iris so I go to the top bed and begin looking for it among the poppies. I finally locate it return to the Lily, stake the plant and note with satisfaction her head is upright.

Then I remember, as I see the wilting weeds, I am looking for the rake. I finally find it in some obscure place then rake the weeds into a pile. I need my gloves to pick up the pile so I go to the garden table to get them. Naturally they are not there.

I remember I took them to the house so they would not get rain soaked so I go to get them and finally find them under a packet of seeds on the ledge of the porch. Bingo… gloves on I now pick up the weeds. As I am carrying them off I see a six pack of wilting Petunias that desperately need to be put in the ground. First water them but where's my watering can? Then I need my trowel. Hmmm? I find the can, fill it and water the Petunias which immediately perk up.

I am still looking for one of my three trowels and finally find one in the herbs where I was digging grass days ago. I plant the Petunias then notice something that needs to be pruned.

I can't remember where I left the pruners, it's getting hot, I've missed lunch, I'm beginning to sweat and need a drink of water. I've gone full circle. No wonder I'm tired at night. Now if only I could get an uninterrupted night's sleep... But that's impossible too... the Moon keeps calling to me!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Hail and Invasive Species

The weather seems a bit unusual of late. Since the beginning of the year we seem to have had less sunshine than recent memory can recall. It is odd indeed for Oklahoma to have day after day of sun-obliterating cloud cover. Not to mention the storm that arrived with such velocity late Sunday afternoon. Suddenly the trees began to dance as a cold wind rushed from the North, dropping the temperature fifteen degrees within minutes. Thunder could be heard rumbling in the distance as the sky darkened and the pace quickened. The storm seemed to race, and the rain was replaced by hail; from pea to plum sized, it pelted the gardens, bruising the plants and shredding leaves! We are extremely fortunate to have missed the softball sized hail that pounded most of our neighbors to the East and the news contained a squiggle about poor Nashville receiving hail the size of grapefruit last Saturday.

Gardening fads come and go with the popularity of plants and this years lovely garden or foundation plant may become, over time, an ecological nightmare. As is the case of Purple Loosestrife, which was an exceedingly popular choice for every landscape of the 1980’s. Still sold today in many states, including ours, the plant produces showy magenta-colored flower spikes for much of the season. Unfortunately, it has a nasty habit of overpowering it’s neighbors, taking much more that it is allowed. It is the Loosestrife’s habit of producing 30 to 50 stems from a single rootstock that has been the cause of the current problems. Escaping from the garden setting, it has been guilty of overtaking pastures and woodlands where it chokes and eliminates the competition while providing no substantial benefit to livestock.

The same is true of the wildly popular Butterfly Bush. Often sold through magazines in the 1980’s, it was unknown at the time this native of China would escape cultivation. It has traveled to roadsides, bar ditches, and pastures, invading natural areas, competing with native vegetation. It does attract butterflies, but cannot be used for butterfly reproduction and unfortunately competes with native plants that do. The bush produces large quantities of seed, up to 3 million per plant, which are dispersed by wind or water. The seeds can remain dormant in the soil for years until conditions become favorable to germinate.

The hideous Musk Thistle has arrived in our pastures as well. Oddly, this thistle has adorned the national emblem of Scotland since the reign of Alexander III (1249-1286)and was used on silver coins issued by James III in 1470. Legend has stated that Norse invaders stepped on them and the thorns pierced their leather foot wear. The invaders cried out in pain, thus alerting the sleeping Scotsmen and assuring them a battle win. As can be seen in the photograph, the base of this dreadful plant is sturdy and incredibly thorny, topped by a pretty pink blossom that is lethal in her production of seeds. A single flower head may produce 1,200 seeds and a single plant up to 120,000 seeds, which are wind dispersed. The seeds may remain viable in the soil for over ten years, making it a difficult plant to control.

Invasive Species web sites list many of the plant species we are to avoid, and they are certainly worth visiting before purchasing an addition to the garden. Some of the plants listed were quite surprising.

*Photo credit J.N. Stuart

Friday, May 14, 2010

Apple Trees and Cedar-Apple Rust

For all of those who are planning an orchard, there are a few facts about apple trees, junipers, and cedars which are odd, interesting and important to review before the purchase. The combination of any of the aforementioned may result in the formation of Cedar-Apple rust, which is a most interesting fungus. It is necessary for the rust to have both the apple and the cedar to complete its life-cycle so purchase of resistant apples is paramount considering the numbers of cedars infecting our environment.

In these warm days of early spring, the galls associated with the rust appear on infected Cedar trees following a rain. The galls are golf ball size, bright orange, and any kind of moisture will cause the formation of tendrils which secrete a gooey gelatinous substance that actually drips from the tree. Our patio Cedar was infected after we planted several Jonathan and Golden Delicious apples trees in the orchard, both of which are highly susceptible to the fungus. As the galls grew on the Cedars and began to drip, the children often complained of being 'slimed'. The slime secreted is actually a fungal spore which can travel up to two miles on the wind looking for a susceptible apple or crab apple host.

Upon arrival on the apple cultivar, the spore settle in and the apple becomes infected. The first sign of infection is the formation of small yellow spots which appear rather suddenly in the uppermost branches of the apple tree shortly after flowering. The spots begin to enlarge and turn a vivid orange making the condition easy to identify. In late summer, small tube-like structures appear on the underside of the leaves spores from these tubes are relaesed into the wind and settle on susceptible cedars or junipers thus completing the cycle. Oftentimes as the disease progresses, the apple trees lose almost all of their leaves making their appearance quite pitiful.

Fortunately, there are new disease resistant varieties of apples which are readily available. Redfree, Liberty, William's Pride, and Freedom are extremely disease resistant and provide ample fruit. Additionally, they show resistance to powdery mildew, apple scab, and fire blight. Crabapples which are resistant include Indian Summer, Prairie Fire, White Angel, Adams, David, and Donald Wyman which are excellent choices. Avoid planting Vangard, Hopa and Radiant as they are very likely to become sickly and succumb to the disease considering the number of Cedars in our environment. Whenever you choose a tree it is wise to check for the latest varieties which are disease resistant. Your local Extension office has a list of the latest, healthiest, and most productive varieties available for your zone.

*Photo credit Cornell Research

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Queen Has Arrived...

The Queen of Flowers, the majestic Peony, has begun her spectacular arrival at the garden party. The immense blooms can be seen in almost every older garden and are coveted above most other flowers. Breathtaking for the shear size of the deeply lobed flowers and deep green foliage, Peonies make lovely and long lasting arrangements which fill the air with their sweet lemony scent.

The Peony is deeply deserving of the historical praise it has received. Originating in China, it has been celebrated for hundreds of years, adorning Chinese drawings, pottery, and embroidery. The Chinese Peony comes to the garden in hues of pink, pale yellow and purest white, often edged with a hint of rouge on the inner petals.

As with most of our flora, the Peony has Greek folklore attached to the origin of the name. The peony is named after Paeon, a student of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing. As in most mythology, the gods were often prone to exaggerated human emotions and so Asclepius became jealous of his student’s talents. It was written that Zeus saved Paeon from Asclepius’ wrath by turning him into a flower; he became the Peony where he could live by remaining unseen. However the family name of “Paeoniacae’ was first used in horticultural circles in 1830 when Friedrich Rudolphi named it.

It is impossible to assure blooms on these favorites unless the temperature of the winter months gets low enough for the plant to go into full dormancy. They can not be grown in the Deep South and yet flourish in New England with amazing success and few problems. Although dividing them is often recommended, they will thrive if left untouched for many, many years.

On many Peonies there are often a few blossoms which shrivel and dry when they are about the size of a pencil eraser. This condition may be caused by a number of factors: a lack of fertilizer, a late freeze as the buds are forming, nematodes on the root, or botrylis blight disease. The easiest solutions are often the cure so begin with weekly applications of fertilizer as the first leaves appear. Continue until the blooms begin to open. If this does not assure a healthy plant, then you can assume it is a more serious condition. Next line of defense would be treatment of the blight disease which can be controlled by an application of Bordeaux solution. A combination of lime, copper and water, it is an old remedy and may be found at reputable nurseries. If the plant remains ill after these efforts, it is probably infested with nematodes. They are an extremely offensive and invasive species of roundworm invisible to the naked eye living in the roots and soil. If they are the problem, the plant must be discarded before the infected plant passes the disease to her neighbors.

A healthy Peony, planted in full sun, lightly fertilized, will last for 40 years or more, making them one of the most desirable and elite of all perennials. When planting a new one, prepare for a three to five year wait for full established blooming... it is worth every minute of it!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Successful Weeding

The chilly weather which arrived last week did not diminish the lavish feel of the marvelous moments in the garden. It has been spectacular with cool mornings and warm afternoons, both of which have made it perfect for the gardener. It has been the sort of spring weather which made one rush outside to smell the newness of the season and watch the leaves unfurl in an amazing time-lapse type moment.

It is truly time to address the weeds, which seem to be crashing the garden party like a drunken, raucous crowd. To the novice gardener, weeding is simply the removal of unsolicited and untidy plant material which invades the garden uninvited, overpowering and bullying the true guests. All gardens must be weeded however there are many theories on how to achieve success without repeat effort. Chemicals aside, informed personal effort is the only answer.

There are the die-hard pioneers who believe that hoeing is the only answer and that hoeing is manly. (It is!) Hoeing is primarily used in the vegetable patch to remove weeds in a crowded space; the hoe can get in and about the vegetables easily without harming them. There is an art to properly using a hoe, which must be sharpened and oiled before use each spring. The hoe, like a good knife, is a balanced tool and this balance allows the gardener to literally drop the weight of it on the intruder without much physical effort. A gentle rhythm is used and is almost like a dance…slowly lift-drop, lift-drop. It is quite effective if done properly. Experts at hoeing are often amused by those who use a frantic chopping-action, which is a waste of energy and also employs the human back to do the job of an expertly maneuvered hoe.

For the flower garden, hand removal is the only logical answer. Experts agree that to truly remove weeds it is necessary to trace the stem of the weed below the ground to the base of origin, follow the outlying roots with the finger tips, then remove all of it in a slow steady pulling motion, root and all in its entirety. This will insure permanent removal of the culprit. It is difficult to feel the root system wearing gloves so many gardeners of the past chose to weed gloveless. However since the gardener's staple, Mercurochrome, has been permanently removed from the market for the mercury it contained, curing the splits on a green thumb is not as easy now. I once gave gardening friends a gift of rubber finger cots, the kind used by court clerks and librarians to turn pages. Fitted over the thumb and forefinger, they prevented finger damage while weeding and allowed for extraordinary mobility.

Weeding can be an almost Zen-like activity, calming, unrushed, and quieting. When the soil is moist and the weather not too hot or steamy, it can be a perfect way to spend an afternoon. The rewards of successful weeding are a stack of wilting weeds, lovely garden and the satisfying feeling of a job well done.

Remember to weed on a day when the interlopers you are pulling rapidly wilt. If wilting does not occur almost immediately, the venture will not be as successful as weeding on a 'barren' day. On days when wilting does not occur for fifteen to twenty minutes, feel free to successfully transplant!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Garden As Exercise

As a hobby, gardening ranks among the most popular activities with an astonishing 94%of Americans claiming it. The fact it burns calories and works muscles makes it a perfect low impact workout. As more and more Americans rush to the gym seeking health through exercise, the gardener simply needs to step outside the back door. Weeding or cultivating can burn 200 calories an hour, while hauling rocks can burn as many as 600. Turning compost is essentially the equivalent of lifting weights. Pushing the mower is the outdoor treadmill and raking is the gardener's rowing machine. Our exercise machines are trowels, rakes, shovels, clippers, and wheelbarrows; our running track is the garden. And when compared to the sweaty filth accumulating in a modern gym, dirt seems miraculously clean.

Not only will gardening build strength, but it uses literally all of the major muscle groups. It brings cardiovascular benefits and several studies have suggested that gardening could reduce insulin resistance, a condition that may lead to metabolic syndrome or diabetes, both of which increase the risk of heart disease. Only 30 minutes a day in the garden will lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels and will prevent or slow osteoporosis.

As with all exercise, it is important to begin slowly and it does seem, rather appropriately, chores in the garden seem to increase in intensity as the season progresses. In a study of heart attack risk assessment using 21,000 male Harvard alumni, it was reported that sedentary individuals had a 100 times greater chance of suffering a heart attack during strenuous activity than individuals who exercise moderately several times a week. The active men, whose chance of a heart attack increased only 2.4 times during strenuous activity, listed gardening as their major form of exercise.

Everyone from small children to senior citizens may enjoy puttering in the garden so it is a perfect family activity. It is claimed that the sensory pleasure of scented and colorful flowers reduces stress. The psychological benefits are valuable as well. Not only does one have the joy of producing fresh and healthful produce for the table, but the sense of accomplishment is quite fulfilling in itself. At the end of the day sit quietly and listen to the relaxing sound of a trickle of water in a pond, the magic of wind chimes in an evening breeze, and relax with the serene feeling of a deed well accomplished. The garden is the best kept health secret on the planet.