Monday, April 30, 2012

Natural Fertilizer and Rustic Decor

Henny Penny wants to nest in the wheelbarrow! She has good taste!

With the blessed rains the garden seems to have recovered from the drought making this quite possibly the most magnificent spring in memory. The recent thunderstorms have washed the countryside clean and at last the dust has disappeared. And an unusual oddity has occurred this year… the leaves on everything from the trees to the flowers are incredibly large and dense with many doubling in size. In seeking an answer to this puzzle the difference this year seems to be the amount of lightning our storms have produced.

The air we breathe is composed of 78% nitrogen and approximately 20% oxygen. Nitrogen is an essential element plants need to produce chlorophyll (the green) which in turn aids in the process of photosynthesis. Without becoming too scientific, photosynthesis, which means “putting together with light”, is the process of taking water from the ground through roots and carbon dioxide from the air and mixing them together with the addition of sunlight to create glucose, which is food for foliage development and overall growth. Nitrogen, the main ingredient in fertilizers, is not in a usable form for most plants unless it is altered by lightning.

The intense heat and electric charges produced by lightning cause the nitrogen molecules in the air to cling to the oxygen molecules and from this marriage comes nitrogen oxides. The nitrogen oxides will be collected by the rain drops or fall independently bringing a form of nitrogen that can now be used by the plants. With the lightning the plants have received a supercharged dose of available nitrogen, causing them to become brighter, healthier, and greener. We are indeed fortunate to have thunderstorms this spring.

There is a trend in gardening circles that includes a whimsical and nostalgic recycling of old farm items…. the more worn and rusted the better. It is officially ‘shabby chic’ for the garden and everything from wash tubs, discarded wheelbarrows, metal milk containers, minnow buckets, watering cans and weathered lawn chairs are set about the garden to display a dazzling array of sparkling plants.

A visual composition usually contains an uneven number of items… from three to five. The contrast of the old married to the new is a striking celebration of sorts for by reclaiming items our grandparents long ago cast off we are connecting to our heritage in a special way. Many city dwellers must go to shops and purchase such items, those with a rural background need only go to an old barn and dig around to find such a treasure. Happy hunting!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Earth Day and Arbor Day

All of us who garden are acutely aware of our environment. As we dig in the soil, we connect with the magical realm of Mother Earth, the results of our work are the rewards bestowed upon us. This April, we celebrate efforts made by others to conserve our precious planet.

National Arbor Day is celebrated each year on April 22nd, the birthday of its founder Sterling J. Morris, the publisher of a Nebraska newspaper. The plains of Nebraska were bare and almost treeless when he began community efforts to replant trees and by 1885 Arbor Day was declared a state holiday which is now embraced by all states. Latin for tree is Arbor and each year the Arbor Foundation gives away thousands of trees.

And there is a wonderful pleasure in watching a tiny seedling grow until it becomes a magnificent tree. Many Native American tribes planted a tree with the birth of a child and watched as both the tree and child matured. We adopted that custom when our children were little and it is truly wonderful to see the height and breadth of the trees we planted on the first birthdays of our now grown children.

We have Rachael Carson to thank for bringing to light the hazards of chemical toxicity. As a marine biologist she noted the unprecedented loss of plant and animal life and her research concluded it was the result of chemical poisonings. Following WWII America had embarked upon a path of chemical use when the effects of it had not yet been explored. DDT, which killed all insects good or bad, was at first considered a miracle. With it the mosquito became a thing of the past as neighborhoods full of children were regularly fogged. Finally banned in 1972 and considered one of the most hazardous chemical carcinogens ever created, one wonders what people were thinking.

Ms. Carson lived only a few years past publication of her monumental work ‘Silent Spring’, written fifty years ago, but her legacy of research alerted a grateful nation. The title alone was an ominous prediction of a world without the buzzing of bees, the song of birds, the croaking of frogs, the splash of fish.

Following her was Senator Gaylord Nelson, who first initiated the concept of ‘Earth Day’. By the early 1960’s America’s love affair with chemicals had begun to take a terrible toll as the environmental degradation became clearly evident so in 1962 Senator Nelson presented his concerns to President Kennedy. In spite of conclusive evidence the environment would not be on the political agenda for almost a decade and it arrived on the political stage through grassroots efforts by college students. Held on April 20, 1970 the first Earth Day was the impetus for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency later that year. The mission of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment. Last weekend Earth Day was celebrated by over 500 million people in 175 countries. Short of planting a tree, we should at least hug one!

Perhaps a bad plan?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Fairy Rings

Suddenly, almost overnight, fairy rings have begun to appear on lawns and golf courses. They are a naturally occurring phenomenon of fungus growth that is seeking food underground and consist of a large circle of either dead or dark green grass, sometimes with toadstools. They are more prevalent following a dry year, which is exactly what we experienced in 2011.

Obviously before science, mankind arrived at bizarre superstitious explanations for everything that was out of the ordinary, and Fairy Rings were no exception. Occupying a prominent place in European folklore, they were also called elf or pixie circles and were said to be the location of gateways into elfin kingdoms where fairie folk gathered to celebrate spring. The ring will disappear without trace within five days, but it was said if an observer waits for an elf to return to the ring, one may capture it.

In German tradition, fairy rings were believed to be the gathering place of witches on Walpurgis Night and the fact that St. Walpurgis was a deeply religious nun who brought Christianity to the Germans seems have no bearing on the fact her night is called ‘witch’s night’. Traditionally on April 30th, witches would gather to dance all night leaving the ring behind to mark their celebration. In the region of what is now Central Europe, folklore believed that fairy rings dealt with magical flying dragons; when a dragon had created such a circle, only toadstools would be able to grow there for seven years.

According to European folklore entering one was extremely bad luck as they were guarded by huge toads who could place a curse upon mortals. One could soon lose sight in one of their eyes while young girls touching dew inside a fairy ring would develop skin problems. There were warnings against children entering the ring as fairies could kidnap them or follow them home and wait until the child was sleeping before slipping a changeling into their place. *A changeling was the child of a fairy, elf, or toad and no one spoke of what happened to the human child who disappeared. Maurice Sendak addresses this in his award winning book Dear Mili.

Science today advises all above is utter nonsense and that the dark green is simply the presence of additional nitrogen. And some fungi may also produce chemicals which act as hormones which affect plant growth, causing the rapid luxuriant growth. Regardless... I think children should avoid Fairy Rings at all cost.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Plant Your Easter Lily in the Garden

Thousands of Easter lilies symbolizing the Resurrection were part of Sunday’s celebrations and most will be relegated to the rubbish bin, discarded as useless. However since the flowering lily springs from a bulb these lilies may be easily integrated into the garden and provide beauty for many years to come.

Lilies usually bloom in summer but were ‘forced’ to bloom early for Easter so do not expect any more flowering until next year… the bulb needs to rest. *Forcing is a process to make the bulbs bloom prematurely; they believe it is the ‘right time’ to bloom months ahead of their natural schedule.

The lily enjoys sun on her head but a coolness about her feet, so pick a sunny place in the garden and tuck the bulb amongst other guests or put several stones at the base. Also driving winds or extreme heat may adversely affect the lily so pick a site with some afternoon shelter and dappled shade.

As you pull your lily from the pot, you may notice the extreme root growth that has occurred from being in greenhouse conditions. If the roots are tightly bound in a circular pattern, the lily was grown in too small a pot and is ‘root bound’. The roots must be loosened and spread out to allow the poor thing to grow without strangling itself. Gently loosen the roots and it will not harm the bulb if some break or are cut a bit.

Roots must be loosened

Dig a hole that is twice the width of the root ball and five or six inches deeper. Work some potting soil into it and then plant your lily, spreading the newly loosened roots down and out. Often there will be three bulbs in a standard Easter lily pot so carefully divide them and plan on planting them six or seven inches apart. Fill the hole with soil, and water while working your hands in the mush. Jiggle and wiggle the plant while looking for air bubbles to surface and when no more appear, there are no hidden pockets to cause rot. Once the water level has receded, lightly water once again and add a bit of soil if it seems to have sunken at all.

Cut off the wilting flowers, but wait to cut back the foliage until it appears yellow; the foliage will nourish the bulb and help store energy for flowers next year. The unforced flowers will appear on time... in the early summer when the lily normally blooms. Your lily will live for many years, reminding you of the joyous occasion when it was introduced as a guest at an Easter gathering.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


The Tulips are blooming! The joyful tulip will arrive at the garden party with the first blush of Spring, promising the garden season has indeed arrived. Tulip bulbs are readily available and easily affordable nowadays, but history proves that was not always the case.

The Tulip originated in Asia Minor where the Ottomans developed cultivars which concentrated on long, thin, wispy flowers of different colors. This lovely flower was first brought to the Vienna Court in the 1500's and presented to the King as a gift from exploration.

As the majestic Tulip began her travels around Europe, she was greeted with wild excitement in every nation. Originally, only members of the royal family were allowed access to certain bulbs; lower classes were forbidden to possess them. Naturally, the result was a deep desire akin to lust to own a Tulip bulb. Fierce competition, intrigue, and smuggling of the bulbs emerged, resulting in a rage referred to as "Tulipomania". By 1634-1637, the situation had become so intense that the governments of both England and Holland were forced to pass legislation to regulate trade in the tulip market.

At the height of the mania, interest was so widespread that individuals invested in tulip bulbs as they now invest in stocks of oil or other ventures. Many fortunes and vast land holdings were lost over Tulip bulbs; one shipping magnate gave a fleet of ten ships for 10 bulbs! By the mid 1700's the bulbs were still expensive, but available to an elite public willing to pay the price for them. The Ambassador from Holland proudly presented 7 bulbs to Martha Washington following her request and they were planted in a place of honor in her original gardens at Mt. Vernon.

Descendants of the Dutch bulbs will not mature properly or flower a second year without a cold winter so expect to plant each year in warmer zones. However since time and science have provided an affordable array of spectacular colors and form, Tulips are still a magnificent addition to the garden. Choose Common or frilly, parrot or scented; all are worth the effort to plant… if only for one season.

The tulip is perfect as a cutting flower for spring arrangements.

I cut everything one year with the threat of a late freeze... I gave flowers to everyone I knew!