Monday, August 23, 2010

Late Bloomers and Collecting Seeds

The sun has assumed the brilliance seen in early spring and fall, signaling that summer is almost over and the cool days are soon approaching. As the garden is winding down for the season note the plants that are performing valiantly and plan to include them next year. Fortunately some save their show for the end of the season, indicating perhaps the best has been saved for last. The colors of the late bloomers seem deeper and more vibrant… as though the stressful conditions of the August heat has given them an extra boost. The annuals that appear their best now include the lovely Morning Glory and the cheerful Zinnias. The Crepe Myrtles must be included for they are providing an excellent show now.

The magnificent Morning Glories seen climbing a pole, tumbling over a trellis, or creeping along a fence are reaching their zenith now. Ever popular, the traditional blue has been joined by a vast array of colors and now include a new stripped cream and burgundy. They require full sun, are extremely drought tolerant and from now until frost will provide glorious beauty.

The Zinnia is another annual which is quite prolific in harsh conditions. A member of the Aster family of plants originating in Mexico they come in single, double, cactus, dahlia, ruffles, or pompon and their joyous colors certainly remind of a fiesta. They are easy to grow from seed, attract butterflies, require little care and will freely bloom until frost.

For several weeks it has been delightful to see the Crepe Myrtle giving her full show of fuchsia, crimson or white flowers. Originating in China, the Crepe Myrtle was first introduced to the South in 1747 where it thrived in their moderate winters. Then in 1950, the cold hardy Japanese Crepe Myrtle arrived, placing the tree on the national agenda. With lovely bark coloration, resistance to powdery mildew, and even a dwarf variety available, it is suitable guest in every garden. If spent blossoms are clipped, the Crape Myrtle will continue blooming until frost.

The seeds of your annuals are ready for collection now. The parent plants will have sent forth acclimated seeds which will allow for better performance than those you may purchase next spring. Following collection, allow them to thoroughly dry before sealing them in zip lock plastic bags. Label and include a slip of paper in the bag with information about color, height, heat tolerance, and where in the garden they performed well. By Spring you will have forgotten the details your notes will provide.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Field Crickets

*Photo: An Asian Market selling Cricket Cages~

The lovely song of the field cricket is heralded this month and its melodic symphony can be heard each evening. Fall is the time for cricket mating and the male, who is the only voice of the cricket, is singing to potential sweethearts. Although the female can not sing, she can hear the song through her ears which are located on her front legs just below her knees.

A shy and reclusive little insect, the cricket rarely makes a public evening appearance until the urgency of mating begins. Following fertilization cricket eggs are deposited in the soil in the autumn soon after the rains begin. They will rest there until time to hatch in the spring; once they are born baby crickets hide during the day. They emerge to eat in the evenings and enjoy grasses, pieces of grain, wool and their favorite snack... book bindings. Apparently the darling cricket will sing, mate, then come inside to eat a good pair of wool pants and a book or two before its life cycle ends.

In China singing crickets are kept as pets in special cages and it is believed they bring a household good fortune... prized specimens fetch amazing prices. In fact the cricket culture in China dates back to the Tang Dynasty from 500 BC to 618 AD. It was during this time the crickets first became respected for their powerful ability to “sing” and a cult formed to capture and cage them. Naturally the obsession escalated and in the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1278 AD the sport “cricket fighting” became popular.

The sport became so popular that China actually produced a Cricket Minister, Jia Shi-Dao who reigned from 1213 to 1275 before being deposed for irresponsibility. Then from 1427 to 1464, a Cricket Emperor, Ming Xuan-Zhong ruled in favor of cricket fighting, making his palace a major tribute to this important insect. Racketeering, gambling, and even suicides were reported over Chinese cricket mania.

Luckily, the Asian fabric of choice is silk...not wool!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Passion Flowers and Vines

As the month of August reaches full fruition, gardeners everywhere are either enjoying or awaiting the blooms on their Passion Vines. With over 400 species from which to choose, this genus is prized for its extraordinary and showy flowers. The flowers are characterized by an intricate center which contains both sexes, making it unusually complete unto itself. In other words, it does not require pollination from a separate plant to reproduce.

The Passion Vine is a member of the family of Passiflorales of which herbs, trees, as well as the vines are all members. The papaya is the most famous fruit, appearing on a tree which resembles a palm. A cousin of the Passion Vine, the Mapop, grows in wild abandon all over the south. Climbing over fences, trees and stone walls, this sweet vine produces a fragrant flower only the size of a small chrysanthemum.

The plant was first discovered in Latin America by Catholic priests in the 1500's. They named the plant for the suffering and death of Jesus for they felt parts of the flowers symbolized the Passion. The five petals and five petal-like sepals represented the ten apostles who remained faithful to Jesus. The circle of hair-like rays raised above the petals was said to resemble the crown of thorns. An avid gardener once had a different explanation and told his reason for its name. He confessed to watching the vine each day, waiting and waiting... and wanting a flower in a way he usually reserves for wanting a woman...with a passion.

*The vine will grow to astounding proportions in several seasons. It must be mulched to over winter properly unless located in semi-tropical locales.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Late Blooming and Drought Tolerant

The late season garden presents challenges that differ greatly from the garden of early spring and summer. Since August usually includes high temperatures and little rain, one must plan for these typically dreadful conditions and include and array of sun loving, drought tolerant, late season perennials.

‘Drought tolerant’ sounds excellent now, and few plants tolerate dry conditions as well as the more than 300 species of the Sedum genus which is a native to regions in the northern hemisphere. Among the most hardy and durable plants the Sedum, or Stonecrop, is easy to grow, requires little care, and will endure where other plants will perish. The name ‘Stonecrop’ was actually given for their habit of living almost anywhere including mounds of stone, piles of gravel, or even tucked into chinks in a rock wall. Their plump fleshy leaves are their secret to survival as they store water for the plant to use during extremely dry spells.

Sedums come in all sizes, from mat-forming ground covers to stands of flower clusters that top 30 inch stems. Among the most popular is the Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ whose flower buds have just begun to open as the heat dome arrived. As the first frost arrives and the rest of the garden has collapsed, the dried Sedum blooms will remain a visual interest if left intact.

Needing only well drained soil and full sunlight, the Sedum is not susceptible to pests who are repelled by the stout leaves preferring more tender foliage, however butterflies and bees are abundant about the blooms. Easy to propagate, simply break a leaf or stem from the Mother plant, shove it into a hole the size of an index finger, tamp the soil, lightly water for a week, and it will start a new plant.

Another interesting addition to the drought garden is Sempervivum Tectorum, commonly known as Hen and Chicks which were first recorded by Theophraste, a Greek botanist, during the 4th century BC. Grown under identical conditions as the Sedums, this fascinating little plant is a mat-forming succulent that produces clusters of rosettes. The parent rosettes are the ‘hens’ and the smaller rosettes that spring from them are the ‘chicks‘. Children find the plant’s habit of producing ‘chicks’ extremely interesting, making it a wonderful way to lure them to the garden.

Both Sempervivum and Sedum are considered ‘Old World Treasures’ and are associated with mythology. The Romans called them ‘Beard of Jupiter’ and planted them on roofs to guard against lightning; the name of Sempervivum tectorum is taken from the Latin tectum, meaning roof . This myth spread throughout Europe to Ireland and in Scandinavian countries both plants were called Thor’s Helper’ where they were believed to drive off demons and guard homes if planted on roofs. According to folk wisdom, one may hang sedum on a wall in midsummer to ward off lightning strikes and it may also be used to foretell the outcome of affairs of the heart. Both are reputed to have medicinal benefits and to boost energy, however today they are best used as ornamentals.

As the heat continues, these plants may indeed be considered treasures!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Dog Days of Summer

It is impossible to watch the wilting garden without wincing as the arrival of the ‘heat dome’ is extremely depressing for all who enjoy the outdoors. The heat dome is part of a summer weather pattern wherein a large high-pressure system… essentially a huge mound of stagnant hot air… arrives to park itself over at least one region of the country and the South Central region is the most popular for it. This hot air keeps out the rain and allows for a slow broil underneath it. However before science informed us of this cause, heat domes were called the ‘Dog Day’s of Summer’ and caused by a group of stars.

Notoriously sultry and unbearable, the name of these days occurring in the Northern hemisphere originates from the star Canis Major or Sirus, the big dog. During late July through August, Sirus is in conjunction with the sun, meaning they both rise at the same time in the sky. This led to the ancient belief that the miserable heat this time of year was caused by the star's effect upon the sun, making it hotter thus the 20 days before and after the conjunction are called 'dog days'. Regardless of the fact that the heat arrives now from the tilt of the earth rather than the presence of Sirus, some 50 million miles from earth, the long held belief the star is responsible is still maintained in many cultures.

It is easily imagined that the stars were a major influence on mankind before the night sky was obscured by artificial lighting and smog. Images from the pattern of the stars were drawn by 'connecting the dots' and each culture saw a different pattern emerge from such connections. From the Asians, Native Americans, Europeans, Persians, and so forth, each society created mystical explanations for the changing patterns in the heavens and the ensuing weather conditions. The star-pictures mapped in the night sky by our European ancestors are now known as Constellations.

Ancient people believed the dog days to be an evil time so accordingly, a brown dog was sacrificed to appease the rage of Sirus. According to the famous Greek Phiny (AD 23-79) there was an increased risk of attack by rabid dogs at this time so he suggested feeding them large quantities of chicken droppings as a preventative measure. By 1729 in the British publication The Husbandman's Practice, survival was intent upon mans ability to 'take heed of feeding violently'. This handy guide warns, 'The heat of the Sun is so violent that men's bodies sweat at midnight as at midday' and any illness may be worsened 'yea, very near death'. By 1813 in Brady's Calvis Calendaruim, it was said to be a time 'when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, ‘causing to man burning fevers and hysterics‘. My grandmother maintained a cut will not properly heal in these days and that babies were vulnerable to a colic-like condition called ’summer complaint’.

Today Sirus appears several weeks later than in ancient times as the stars and constellations have shifted in relation to the Sun. Regardless of the cause of the heat, most certainly one must admit a feeling akin to 'hysteria' while dragging hoses this time of year!