Monday, November 28, 2011


The first of December officially begins the Holiday season and the Queen of all bulbs, the exquisite Amaryllis, is traditionally a guest at many celebrations. A very easy bulb to ‘force’, plan to include at least one this year.

As serious exploration began in the 16th and 17th centuries, botanical specimens were among the most coveted acquisitions brought home. Consequently even today there remains controversy over exactly who discovered the Amaryllis and from which continent it originated. Some say it was Africa while others claim it is from South America. Regardless of origin, this exquisite flower had an immediate cult following and the legend which explained her deep scarlet color became widely circulated.

As with so many of our flowers, Amaryllis has both Greek and Roman lore attached to her and the poets Theocritus (3rd century BC) and Virgil (70 BC) both wrote she was a shy nymph of great resolve. Amaryllis fell in love with a popular shepherd reputed to be as handsome as Apollo and as strong as Hercules; he was a rock star of the day and unimpressed by her attentions. Hoping to quell her embarrassing adoration, he gave her the impossible task of finding him a flower that never before existed. Amaryllis consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was instructed to walk to his home and pierce her heart with a golden arrow, allowing her blood to flow. For thirty nights she did so and from her blood sprang the flower with crimson petals.

Napoleon’s Josephine commissioned a painting of an Amaryllis, English Poet Laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson included her in a poem, and Thomas Jefferson mentioned one in his diary in 1811... quite illustrious mention for a flower!

Plan on Forcing One
These precious bulbs, once available to only the wealthy elite, are now easily affordable and readily available at every nursery. Colors include the traditional red, white, deep pink, orange, and shades of salmon, pink, and rose.

Choose a deep, snug container to support the foliage and hug your bulb. Allow for three inches below the bulb for the roots and fill it half way with potting medium. Gently press the bulb into it leaving the neck exposed. Water the bulb lightly and give it a shot of gin to prevent foliage wilt. Keep the medium moist but not soaked and expect your bulb to begin flowering within three weeks. Happy Holidays!

December 17, 2011... Mine flowered!

I accidentally planted different bulbs in the same wooden bowl... apparently the lovely white grows with a much longer stem.

*While at Lowe’s over the weekend, I could not resist releasing the poor Amaryllis who had sprouted and whose foliage was crumpled within the box... as I opened their boxes I could sense a collective sigh of relief as they looked beyond their cardboard confines.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Forcing Bulbs for the Holidays

Ready to bloom!

The days seem to be passing rather quickly and with the arrival of Thanksgiving, the winter festivities have begun so now is the time to ‘force’ some bulbs for Christmas. For those unfamiliar with the process, ‘forcing’ is the method by which a bulb is planted and compelled to grow and bloom out of season by exposure to the warm temperature indoors. This process brings the bulbs into bloom long before they would bloom outdoors thus allowing us the pleasure of their company during the winter months.

Since their ancestors came from warm areas of the Mediterranean the darling Paperwhite Narcissus requires no cold to bloom and may easily forced. Taking only three to four weeks to flower, they will bloom faithfully providing both fragrance and cheer for the holidays. So easy is the growth of these bulbs that anchoring material may include gravel, pebbles, colored glass stones, or moss as acceptable mediums. Any sort of shallow growth container whether pottery, glass, or clay will work as well.

First select large, top-grade, flawless bulbs which are free of sooty mold then choose a favorite container that will be lovely as a centerpiece or focal point. Perhaps select a glass bowl for the added pleasure of watching the roots as they begin to grow and slowly twine about the stones. Grandmother’s shallow crystal bowl filled with red, white, and green glass stones is lovely at Christmas but more a more rustic selection might include a pottery bowl with polished rocks or pea gravel. If a large container is chosen, more bulbs will be needed and the display will entirely riotous… often more is better!

In Grandmother's cut glass bowl~

Fill the bottom of the container with whatever you have chosen to anchor your bulbs making a bed about two to three inches deep. Gently press the bulbs halfway down the bulb mass, wriggling and carefully nestling them until they stand firmly on their own. Try to space the bulbs about two inches apart, remembering to place several in the center as well. After arranging your bulbs, fill the container with enough water to cover your anchoring material, moistening the bulbs approximately half way up. Keep this water level, adding a little each day if necessary and your bulbs will begin to flower in three to four weeks. Remember to give the bowl a shot of gin as the first flower buds appear. The gin will slightly stunt the foliage and force it to stand ‘at attention’ thus preventing the wilt so prevalent with forced Narcissus. (My friend Linda Vater, who presents a gardening segment on Channel 4 Thursday afternoon, uses 1 part Vodka to 7 parts water.)

As the roots grow, the reed-like foliage will first appear and suddenly many tiny blooms arrive, slowly swelling, then opening over the course of several days. The marvelous sweet smelling flowers will last several weeks before it is time to discard them. Sadly, the temperature-trickery used to force early bloom has confused and destroyed the bulb’s internal clock... they have given their ’all’ this season. After the display is over leave them in a cool place and plant them outside in the early spring. Often they will recover and bloom on schedule in a year or so.

Last years bulbs will bloom again~

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why Foliage Turns in Autumn

With the overnight freeze several weeks ago it seemed destiny had planned to deny us the annual foliage show this year. After the horrid summer, we truly needed something that returns each year without fail and as though through a collective wish our native trees began their color change. As the clocks were turned back suddenly shades of gold were seen shimmering in the breezes... the native hardwoods, who are naturalized and hardy, have not disappointed us. Trees lose their leaves to give additional sunlight for warmth during the cold winter months and Nature has provided us with a stunning visual as a parting gift.

Although the following explanation will be a vast over simplification, it may provide insight into the foliage change. During the spring and summer the trees use their leaves to collect air and water utilizing a process called photosynthesis to turn it into food. Photosynthesis means ‘putting together with light’ so as the days shorten and daylight diminishes, the gathering process ends. The leaf is no longer necessary to the tree and begins its fall transformation. Suddenly the hillsides become a dramatic autumn palette that provides breathtaking color for a brief moment in time.

The chemicals chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the leaf cells throughout the growing season with chlorophyll making leaves the bright green color associated with the photosynthesis process. As darkness increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production eventually stops and inevitably all the chlorophyll disappears. With the loss of chlorophyll, the carotids become visible and provide the leaves with lovely yellow colors. Lastly the anthocyanins may arrive and take center stage, ushering in the vibrant reds we associate with Autumn.

Because carotenoids are always present in leaves the amber, yellow and gold colors remain fairly constant from year to year, even during drought. However conditions must be ideal for the fickle anthocyanins who are glucose (sugar) and singularly responsible for the brilliant hues of purple, crimson, and scarlet. To be spectacular the tree requires warm sunny days and cool crisp evenings to slow the closing of the leaf veins and trap an excess of sugar produced at this time. Due to our erratic weather of late, the reds this year will probably be lackluster at best.

However the shade and foliage show are not all the leaves have to offer… their parting gift is perhaps the most important. The leaves drift from the trees and collect below to continue their work by slowly decomposing. Over time they add nutrients to create a dark rich soil which nourishes fledgling saplings as they grow to become forest giants like their parents. It is indeed a miraculous cycle of life!

Gophers and Moles

Although this subject has been broached before, it bears repeating about now. Almost overnight it seems the semi-dormant gophers and moles have become incredibly active. Since they are a problem of fairly vast proportion to the gardener, a brief description of their physical appearance and habits might be helpful. They are rodents and require strong measures to eliminate and exterminate them.

Gophers live in long, complex tunnels below the ground. They dig with their powerful front feet and their sharp teeth. Their bodies are well suited to their lifestyle below ground as they have poor eyesight and move slowly. Most of their lives are spent digging and patrolling their tunnels to protect their territory from other gophers. Their tails are hairless and tactile; it is an organ of touch which can “feel” as the gopher backs up in his hole. Their food choices include the gardener’s favorites…vegetables, buds, grass, nuts, roots and bulbs. They can totally decimate a lovely garden in very few days. In fact once I watched as a stalk of Asparagus was slowly pulled below, one jerk at a time until it disappeared. A gopher’s home is recognized by the large mound of earth above it. It is said their nest is usually about a foot below ground and lined with leaves, although digging like a mad woman has never revealed anything of the like.

The mole is a fast, tireless digger whose body is shaped for burrowing. With its narrow pointed nose, its wedge shaped head, and its large forelegs, it is a virtual digging machine. The forepaws, especially designed to scoop the earth, are hinged sideways on the mole’s body and equipped with large broad nails to act as a shovel. They are almost blind and although they have no external ears, their hearing is excellent. Their diet consists mainly of insects and worms, rather than plants, and their tunnels are dug so their food falls into them and are easily collected by the foraging marauder. If one sees a new tunnel being dug, it is possible to ‘catch’ it with the door open and flood it with a hose. The almost-drowned, gasping mole will emerge where it may be smashed with a shovel, thus eliminating one. However, like mice… there is never just one.

This is a 2007 picture... Michael has been at this awhile, with little success

*An odd bit of history is that that moleskin was once quite popular for coats, gloves and hats. It is warm, soft, thick and lightweight; gray fur was preferred, but brown and black were also used. In my opinion collecting enough for a coat would be a mammoth chore.

Now with an understanding of the habits of the two, methods for extermination must be examined. For the gardener, dropping bits of poison into gopher mounds is ineffective as it seems to be the equivalent of giving them a vitamin tonic. And the old wives tale about dropping Juicy Fruit gum into a mound and it will destroy the digestive system is totally false. The “bomb” one may obtain from Tractor Supply to drop into holes (in spite of being extremely fun to use) is ineffective as well. Flooding gopher mounds with a hose makes an unsightly mess and often the water will completely destroy a flower bed by imploding the underground burrows leaving deep crevices in its wake. Trapping is time consuming and a full time job that never seems to work. Waiting for the emerging gopher with a gun in hand is ultimately a waste of time for it seems they ‘sense’ danger and never appear.

The easiest and most efficient way to eliminate these pests is to purchase a marvelous invention which attaches to the exhaust pipe of your car and then to a simple garden hose. When the engine is running you can fill the burrows, tunnels, or holes with highly toxic, extremely fatal carbon monoxide exhaust. Available at Ace and True Value Hardware stores for only $16.95, it works! This handy device is guaranteed to provide hours of Fall fun for any gardener!!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Houdon... find of a lifetime

September 21, 2008

As most of you know I am an avid yard/garage sale person. It is the quest, the deal, the ‘rush’ from getting something that is amazing and a total surprise. The jackpot has always eluded us… until yesterday.

We got started late and didn't really think there was anything we wanted or needed but compulsive people do things by rote so off we went at a little past ten. Besides the nonstop parade of pink plastic baby toys and clothing that should have been sent to the trash bin, there was depressingly little at the first eight sales we attended. Then as we rounded a corner, we spotted a nice home with a well-dressed elderly lady conducting a sale. She was downsizing she explained and getting rid of everything she no longer needed. Michael had made a bee line for something I couldn't see that was tucked behind a chair.

He asked, "Would you take less for your statue".
"No", she replied, "I really don't care if I sell her or not. I've always been so fond of her. I got her about 50 years ago... in an antique shop in New York City. I like her so much and I wouldn't sell her if she was not too large for our new home. I think she is worth $50.00".
"Okay, he said, "I'll take her and I promise to give her a good home".

I noted his hand was shaking as he opened his billfold and when I glanced at the statue I almost dropped my teeth... she was gorgeous! He picked her up like she was a child and almost ran to the car, as if the lady would change her mind. He looked at me and mouthed, "Come on, come on“, gesturing frantically.
*It should be noted that I had asked the garage sale gods to send us something fantastic just before we rounded the corner and I thank them from the bottom of my heart!

Michael has always had a thing for statues; as a young boy of about 8 he stole a bust of Shakespeare, several large Angels and St. Michael creating a sort of shrine to them in the woods. He had used his little red wagon to haul them. When someone found the grotto, there were questions about the theft, but no one discovered who had taken them and they were simply returned to the library and churches where they resided. So you see for Michael to have 'found' the statue was thrilling... it was a once in a lifetime gift to himself.

I turned from the front seat to inspect her and noted she was signed and numbered... a good sign. I further noted the lovely detail and her face was exquisite. I called my friend Maria who is a conservator in Dallas, and she was speechless... 'A Houdon, you got a Houdon for $50! Unbelievable!' 

Background: Houdon (1741-1838) A French neoclassical sculptor who was very popular during his lifetime doing busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other important dignitaries of the day. However I do not think our Houdon is from this time frame... the Louvre commissioned 500 statues in about 1850 and I think she is one of those. Her number is 406.

Her official title is 'Chilly Lady' however after looking at her lovely face, I do not feel she is a 'lady', but rather a young girl of about twelve to fourteen years old. And if you are 'chilly', you cover your body, not your face. Therefore, I have concluded she was snatched into some gilded coach, stripped, used, and tossed aside where she covered her head in shame, hoping not to be recognized. In busy Paris of the 1780's this was possibly a not an unusual sight, however something about this young girl moved Houdon enough to immortalize her... 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Insta Freeze and Other Odd Occurrences

*Along with another earthquake on Monday evening, we had numerous tornadoes and seven inches of rain... just waiting for the hoards of Locusts!

It has been quite a year with weather taking center stage by breaking all records. We have had the coldest winter, the most snowfall, the largest hail, the highest wind speed, an F5 tornado, the hottest summer and the strongest quake!

The last winter surprised everyone with its duration and chilling velocity. Only twice in state history had temperatures dipped so low for so long. The ensuing snowfall broke state records and was followed by the baseball-sized spring hail. The May 5th tornado was immediately followed by the worst drought in history, with high summer-like temperatures that have prevailed until last week. Oklahoma and Texas have gained the dubious honor of experiencing the worst drought in American history.

Julia among the leaves!

Last Thursday in the wee hours of the morning, the first deep freeze pattered in marking the end to the growing season. It was remarkable because of the overnight devastation, which sunrise showcased in a most unusual manner. As the sunshine reached the still-green foliage of the soft wood trees, it instantly began to wilt, appearing a deep transparent green before beginning to fall in tandem. This year we were denied the seasonal leaf-change of many trees; the high temperatures kept the leaves green and failed to send the internal signal for change. Then sudden freeze hastened the process of leaf discard overnight.

Vast numbers of Black Walnuts... more than ever before.

The Black Walnuts and Acorns could be heard plopping to the ground in alarming numbers, which made a walk the equivalent of an obstacle course as they zinged to the earth. (The tale of Chicken Little came to mind… ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling.’) By Friday, it was over and the garden and forest floor were littered with an alarming number of nuts. Folklore states that nuts in abundance are a sign of a bad winter… and then we had the quakes. The first quake stopped the Grandfather clock at 2:16 and the following day, the 5.7 rattled the dishes and could be felt in adjacent states.

For the gardener, the extreme cold did substantial damage to the insect populations and many bugs simply did not make an appearance this year. Then the heat made a mark on the tent worm population and seems to have halted their march. I noted they do not survive in temperatures over ninety five degrees and if their tent is tossed to the ground they thrash about in agony for a few seconds before expiring. The blister bugs never arrived in large numbers and even the grasshopper populations were down a bit. Unfortunately, the frogs also had a bad time… Mr. Phineas Frog, who has lived under the back porch since he was a youngster, had not been out to play much until the rain last week.

*Congratulations to all of us who have so far survived 2011... we managed a marvelous feat indeed!