Annual is Not a Bad Word

Change for the changing seasons always brings an antsy-ness to this gardener, and autumn is one of the big ones.  An avalanche of pumpkin spice covers nearly everything and so many people are just done with the summer garden and all its weather-worn tiredness and spent seediness.  I’m with you.  I keep eyeing the mess and think I might just be better off wacking it all down and calling it a year.  It’s been months since the garden had that clean and controlled look when plants were bristling with anticipation, and I miss that, but still won’t give in just yet.  Obviously laziness plays a part, but others with more enthusiasm might want to hold off as well.  The waning garden has a purpose, and between the full seedheads providing food for birds, and the dried stalks protecting next year’s buds, there’s still something of interest out there.  Frost and snow sit more attractively on waving stalks than on dull mulch, and honestly as far as cleanup goes it’s easier to crunch dried stalks in March than it is to wrestle with sloppy, soggy, heavy messes in October.

But it looks dull.  and messy.  and like you gave up… Unless you planned for it of course, and planted something that carries on until the pumpkin spice gets shoved over by cranberries, and a more relaxed season begins.   For me annuals do the trick.

abelmoschus manihot

Abelmoschus manihot, an okra relative, soaked up the rain and humidity this summer and has never done better.  These first flowers in late August were just the start of the show.

Ok I said it.  I plant annuals.  Yes, they’re more work, but the right annuals can pretty much take care of themselves, and they don’t have to be the same dull mat of color all year that even the bees get bored with.  By their nature these plants just want to grow up and seize the day, filling as much space as possible with growth and flowers until whenever.  They don’t care about next year, just flowering and seeding.

abelmoschus manihot seedpod

The fuzzy okra-like seedpods on the abelmoschatus (aka sunset hibiscus) are cool as well.  Sure beats looking at spotty, diseased iris foliage (which is actually hidden behind the planting).

Late season annuals are my favorites.  Something like the sunset hibiscus (Abelmoschatus manihot) comes up strong in the heat and humidity and quickly becomes a 4-6 foot presence if it gets enough water and warmth.  Just as the perennial garden hits a late summer slump, the sunset hibiscus becomes a star, distracting you from the tired foliage of the June bloomers.  This plant was also one of the stars of the book Annuals for Connoisseurs, by Wayne Winterrrowd… which by the way is a fantastic bargain at under $5 used…

coleus in a border

Coleus, zinnias, salvia and Abelmoschatus in the front border

Ok, enough of me trying to sound intelligent and write coherently in what could be a useful post.  Here are some other annual plantings from around the garden which are distracting me from all the gloomy skies and ever shortening days of really late summer.  Coleus feature strongly.  Nearly all come from a handful of cuttings I stuck in a glass of water and kept on the windowsill all winter.  They look terribly pale and leggy by March but that’s when I pot them up and start growing them on under lights in the basement.  By May I have dozens to fill in around the garden.

annual flower bed

There were even enough leftovers this spring to branch out next door and fill in my neighbor’s mulch bed.  Coleus, cannas, and a nice little single marigold I call “stole a seed head while visiting Kimberley last summer”.

I guess technically a lot of what I’m calling annuals can actually be grown as perennials in warmer climates, so I don’t want to upset anyone who lives and dies by those definitions, but in my garden these plants identify as annuals so I’m going to respect that.

potted caladiums

The dogwood may be giving up and putting on some autumn color, but the potted caladiums are holding on a little longer until nighttime temperatures consistently drop below 60F.  That’s when their sadly limp selves get thrown pot and all into a warm, dry corner of the furnace room and sit there dry and dormant until next year.

A real annual which has come up well this year is Browallia americana.  In well watered spots of bare earth, close to where it grew last year, I keep an eye out for seedlings.  All that’s required is take care and not pull them out as weeds, and by late summer the reward is a 1-2 foot bush speckled with flowers a little bit towards the amethyst side of blue.

browillia americana

Browallia americana with just a few tasteful selected marigolds.

A sort-of annual for me which sometimes returns from the roots is the borderline weedy Datura metel (aka moonflower).  In good fertile soil it makes a large shrub which in the evening sports pure white, upward facing trumpet flowers.  Some people call them angel trumpets, but that’s incorrect.  Angels trumpet come from on high with downward facing blooms and are a different group of flowers (Brugmansia).  These flowers always come from below and Devil’s trumpet is more accurate.  You would think the more heavenly version would be more innocent, but both are extremely poisonous and there are deaths from this plant each year.  I remember my mother evicting them from the garden one summer when she found out.  I know she told us all how poisonous they were but still I was disappointed to lose them from the garden.  I’m surprised she hasn’t questioned my parenting skills since seeing it in bloom here, but I guess there are always plenty of other questionable goings on which take precedence.

datura metel

Devil’s trumpet (Datura metel) announcing an unwelcome arrival in the vegetable garden.

But there I go babbling again.  As long as we’re in the vegetable garden, let me celebrate the pumpkins which have come on strong now that the sunflower thicket has died off from some likely disease.  All this took were a handful of seeds ripped from the heart of last year’s halloween decorations.

pumpkin patch

Now that the sunflowers have died off it looks like the backup plan of pumpkins and glass gem corn might just work out.  I love pumpkins and gourds, maybe that’s all I’ll grow next year.

The deck plantings are almost all just annual plantings which aim for all season interest.  A drip irrigation system on a timer, a handful of slow release fertilizer, and this becomes one of my least-labor intensive parts of the garden… once it’s planted and set up of course…

prince tut papyrus

The ‘Prince Tut’ water garden is ok.  Goldfish have hopefully made a meal of any mosquitos, but a lack of fertilizer has left the papyrus healthy but a little yellowish in my opinion.

I tried for more foliage color this year but still ended up with a few curious flowers here and there.  The firecracker plant (cuphea) was a Proven Winners thing that I’ve heard good things about, and here it is three months later still looking good.

cuphea firecracker plant

Cuphea (firecracker plant) and some purple leaved oxalis.  Both have been nonstop color and trouble-free from the day they were planted.  

My popcorn plant (Senna… Cassia…  corymbosa)?  Still awesome 🙂  I was even able to get a few seeds to set, although it did seem to interfere with the flowering for a few weeks.

cassia popcorn plant

The yellow popcorn plant, coleus, purple fountain grass (pennesutum), oleander, and a bunch of other non-hardy stuff.

I’ve had that pink oleander for a few years now and was sure I killed it in the garage last winter.  It eventually managed to come back, but the sparse branches were just calling out for a vine to cover them up.  Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata) to the rescue!

black eyed susan vine thunbergia

Black eyed Susan vine on the oleander.  I would agree with the label “cringe-worthy color combo”, so don’t go thinking I have some undiagnosed color blindness that you need to tiptoe around…

The containers at the back end of the deck have officially taken over.  The yellow coleus is my one new one for this year, the rest of the mess were just little overwintered sprigs and roots which I put out in May.

deck plantings coleus

The coleus really should have been pinched back a few more times.  They’re bushy enough, but even I can see they’re just a little too big.

Oh yeah.  The tropical garden.  Almost all just annual plantings, and almost all only just a little past peak now 🙂

elephant ears and canna

I didn’t think elephant ears could reach six feet tall but between nonstop rain and a good mulch of grass clippings they and the cannas do seem happy.  

So thankfully the garden is still filled with a few exciting things other than the new snowdrops I’ve been planting… oops, there I go mentioning snowdrops again…

Hope your weekend is filled with plenty of more interesting things to do rather than hauling off the tired remains of last summer.  If it is, next summer suck it up, plant some decent annuals, and enjoy the slow crumbling of summer into winter which others fondly refer to as autumn.  “Friends don’t let friends plant annuals” is only a guideline, I’m sure it refers to flats of wax begonias in one or two insipid colors and not to the range of much more exciting late season things that you have to remember next year.  I’ll try to remind you  😉

Idle hands and the devil

Two more snow days for the kids, another below zero (-18C) forecast, and one sunny day.  I was fine with the first two but the sunny day set off my spring fever.  Of course with snow everywhere and no other gardening options to be had I ordered more seeds.  I had to.  There’s nothing else to do and even the winter garden has me bored.

cyclamen coum in pots

Under lights the cyclamen coum are still going strong. I love the large flowers on the white with their blackberry noses, I wish a few of the others had blooms as large.

Who knows what I’ll do with all the new seeds.  They’re surplus from the N. American Rock Garden Society’s seed exchange so at 20 packets for $5 they’re what I consider practically free.  Even better when you consider the non-profit nature of NARGS, in that case 40 packets at $10 makes more sense, and when you add on the 20 packets from the American Primula Society which just arrived last week well then you might get a sense of the trouble I’m in.  I already have enough seeds stratifying in the cold to fill my beds once over, so I’m not sure where these will go.

growing seedlings under lights

The second growlight in a warmer part of the garage is in business now. A few cane begonias have been watered and potted up and two pots of plain old onion seedlings are on their way.

I still have to deal with the Annie’s Annuals catalog sitting in the kitchen.  I have it in my head that I need an eucalyptus tree for the deck this summer plus a few non-hardy yucca and some succulents.  I’m afraid that if I don’t get some snowdrops blooming soon I may yet stumble into that mess.  -I would add some delphiniums too even though each year they’re crushed by winds just as they reach their majestic peak…..  but some plants are worth a little heartbreak.

rooting coleus cuttings

Happy birthday to me. A returned gift and $40 credit at Lowes meant a new shoplight for a new spot. This one went in a warm corner of the basement and is perfect for giving new life to the sad little overwintered cuttings which have been sitting in a water filled coffee cup since October.

I should be responsible.  I already spent way too much money on snowdrops and ordered way too many irresponsible tropical bulbs from Brent and Becky’s.  Odd choice considering how much I complained about digging them up last fall.

overwintering succulents and tropicals

Overwintering succulents and tropicals fill the far corner of the barely-heated workshop/winter garden area. Dry and cool keeps them mostly dormant until warmer weather returns.

I hope an end is in sight.  Next week shows five days straight with daytime highs above the freezing point and one day when there’s even the possibility nighttime lows stay just above 32F.  Come to think of it I better start some lettuce and broccoli seedlings, in a few weeks they’ll be perfect to go out into that cold frame I never built.

oleander flower bud

A sign of promise, a flower cluster forming on the overwintering  oleander.   I think it formed last fall and hopefully will grow and develop as soon as the pot gets some water and goes outside.

So I’ll keep my fingers crossed…. if only to keep them from clicking on an ‘order now’ tab since I was looking at geraniums (pelargoniums) this afternoon and thinking a few scented and heirloom ones would be a good idea.   I need a first crocus or snowdrop bloom to get me out of this and back to my senses!  (we all know how reliable snowdrop blooms are for bringing a person back to their senses).  I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂

The Winter Garden 2014/15

My winter garden is having a good season so far.  Usually I don’t bother setting things up until around New Year’s but this season the shop lights went on in October for some special cuttings, and things have been humming along since.  The hardy cyclamen coum which I keep potted up are just starting to put on a show, and now that I’ve dispatched Mr. Mouse the blooms can open in peace.

winter garden under lights

The “Winter Garden” with cyclamen coum in bloom. I love the flowers alongside the bright variegated leaves of the plectranthus (probably ‘Troy’s Gold’).

For those of you who might not be as up to date with my garden as you’d like 🙂 here are a few statistics on the tiny little patch of plants which serves as my winter garden.  Basically it’s a four tube fluorescent shop light set up in an unheated workshop just off the back of the cool (never freezing) garage.  The bulbs are a generic T-8 type, usually in the ‘daylight’ or ‘natural light’ category but it really just depends on what I grab the day I’m shopping for lights.  That’s it.  Not quite a citrus filled orangerie or a warm, sunny conservatory, but it does the trick on a dark January evening.  I’m considering buying a few more and lining the side of the room with them in order to grow something bigger and fragrant.  A little goldfish pool back there wouldn’t bother me much either, might as well put a fountain in while I’m at it.

hardy cyclamen growing indoors under lights

Another two or so weeks and the cyclamen should really put on a nice show.

Last year I had a bunch of snowdrops and some early spring blooming perennial purchases from Far Reaches Farm.  They were awesome but this year I spent my winter treat money a few months too early and had to improvise, so on a warm December afternoon I went out and dug up a clump of almost completely frozen primula vulgaris for forcing.

forcing primrose

They needed dividing anyway, which eventually I did…. after letting them thaw out and sit in the dark for a week or so (not a recommended of course, but you know how things can get away from you during the holidays!)

A month later and they’re starting to wake up.  They probably won’t have as long a bloom season as some of the newer hybrid types, but I love their soft yellow color and big clumps of blooms.

primula vulgaris forced

One of the primula divisions coming along.  Fingers crossed for a good show!  (please ignore the dying coleus next to it.  Cold weather, overwatering and coleus are not a good mix)

I have a new favorite celebration.  As any Northern hemisphere gardener will know, the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year and the point beyond which days lengthen and the march into spring begins.  But gardeners also know we don’t rush out in January and start planting.  It takes a while for the sun to catch up, shake off winter, and get things going again.  According to the ever interesting blog at MacGardens, the turning point for this is the January 21st celebration of ‘post-solstice’.  One month after winter solstice and the sun is starting to turn the tide of winter, bringing soil temperatures back from their lowest point (happening somewhere around Jan 21st) back up into the civilized range.  Speaking of civilized, check out MacGardens for a special treat of cool plants, exotic alpines, and just plain old interesting gardening.

cyclamen coum potted

I’m always trying to get out of the ‘average’ category of photography. Here’s one of my favorite cyclamen coum which I attempted to set up for a nice portrait.

Until post-solstice kicks in and we can again search for signs of life outdoors I’ll stick to the indoor garden.  With more snow on the way tonight I think that’s the best plan.  Here’s another plant making me happy sheltering from the storm under lights, it’s a variegated ice plant (dorotheanthus bellidiformis, probably ‘mezoo trailing red’).  Not to ‘out’ my slacker gardening, but the cuttings might have been hastily thrown on a workbench back in November when the first hard frost hit.  They sat there unplanted for at least a month until I got around to potting them up and don’t seem to have minded at all.  Surviving rootless on a table for over a month ranks well on my plant-o-meter.

dorotheanthus bellidiformis 'mezoo trailing red'

Variegated ice plant finally living the good life with soil and water (and plenty of roots- I checked)

A few snowdrops weren’t stolen out of their pots or had their heads nibbled off by the late Mr. Mouse, so February should be off to a good, post-solstice, start.  In either case I’m just happy that there’s already a bit of light on the horizon when I pull into work, and a rosy glow to the sky when I walk out!

Trudging through Winter

I really can’t say I dislike winter.  I have a few objections but overall it’s autumn I dislike, with its end of the season, everything dying, days so short, vibe.  So if it’s excuses I’m looking for to explain my blogging absence, the only one I can find is that I have nothing to say.  Snow and cold are here and nothing much has changed since November.

Fortunately others haven’t been so idle.  I’ve been enjoying the posts from both milder and colder climates and since I’m starting to feel a little guilty about not contributing, I guess I should do a little catch-up.  Don’t worry, this won’t take long!

lop eared house bunny

Meet ‘Bun-Bun’ the newest member of our household.

Our little lop bunny with the oh so original name of ‘Bun-Bun’ has been sharing the kitchen since November.  He’s messy, hungry, bouncy and just about the cutest thing in our house.  BunBun was supposed to live in a hutch on the back porch but softer hearts prevailed and he’s been indoors since joining us.

Garden-wise, the annual trip to Longwood Gardens went off (almost) without a hitch this year and we enjoyed the always beautiful indoor and outdoor gardens.

winter conservatory at longwood gardens

I can’t even begin to imagine having a winter garden like this at my doorstep. Coffee here in the morning and then off to work in the greenhouses!

The kids still enjoy the trip in spite of other play options and the long drive, so I’ll drag them with me for as long as I can.  During this trip the boy got it in his head to use my phone and photograph everything.  Who ever suspected a phone could hold so many pictures?

the kids at Longwood Gardens

Inside the conservatory at Longwood Gardens. This year’s theme was birds, and there were plenty of feather inspired displays.

We got there around three in the afternoon to see the gardens during the day and then stayed for the lights at night.  The crowds weren’t as bad as in previous years but it was still packed, and I think unless we can get there on an ‘off’ day next year we might skip.

Longwood gardens decorated for Christmas greenhouses at night

Inside the conservatories of Longwood Gardens at night. Sparkly and magical, just perfect for the holidays.

After dark we toured the gardens again and then walked through the greenhouses one more time.  Inside the greenhouses there’s a children’s garden which involves several kid friendly fountains and tunnels and hidey-holes which they love playing around in.  Unfortunately this is also where the girl wandered off and got a little confused as to where the play area was, so after a little frantic looking around we ended the day with a teary reunion.

outdoor Christmas lights at Longwood

Just a part of the outdoor Christmas light display at Longwood Gardens.

Back at home the only signs of gardening are the bookmarked seed catalogs on the kitchen table and the crowded shop lights out in the garage.  This year’s indoor garden is an odd mix of overwintering tropical cuttings and winter blooming hardy perennials.

houseplants growing under the shop light

Out in the garage cuttings are still doing well under the shoplights. This begonia is actually happy enough to throw out a few blooms, while some creeping houseplant is making a play at smothering a potful of cyclamen seedlings.

Normally the “winter garden” under the shoplights is reserved for a few cyclamen and forced snowdrops, but this year the tropicals are still out there sharing spare.  The plan was to set up a spot indoors for another shoplight setup and move the warm weather plants in there for the winter, but as usual things are slow in coming together.

pelargoniums, cyclamen, and snowdrops growing indoors under lights

A slightly non-traditional indoor garden jammed full of scented geraniums, houseplant cuttings, hardy cyclamen coum, and a few potted snowdrops.

It’s this little garden under fluorescent shoplights which will keep me going while the snow flies outside.  It’s maybe 6 square feet of grow space, and won’t be nearly enough when seed starting begins, but right now while the cyclamen coum come into bloom it reminds me that things won’t be frozen forever.

Happy new year!

What is this!?

This could be a problem.  I’m obsessing about my little cuttings rooting under the shoplight in the garage.  They’re the goodies I snipped from Michael Bowell’s garden in early October, and as the outside garden dies back and bores me the indoor garden takes over.  This is supposed to be my “winter garden”, not my “overwintering cuttings garden”.

overwintering cuttings under shoplight

I fired up the indoor garden early this year to give the cuttings a good chance at surviving. Don’t they look promising?

Maybe Santa will bring me another shoplight.

The cuttings went into a tiny bit of rooting powder, a loose sandy potting soil, and then sat on the cozy warm heating mat which I got last winter.  They seem to like it, I just have to figure out when I can remove the mat.  The spotted begonia leaf and the yellow elephant ear are favorites.  The elephant ear was just a tiny root nub which had a little bud on it, I hope by next year it’s a couple feet tall!

Oh the optimism of a new season 🙂

Hunkering Down

Last weekend was the finale of the fall color.  By the end of this week most of the leaves will be down and the doors will be open for winter to make its arrival.fall color in Pennsylvania

I’m not rushing it out but I think I have to call a time for the 2013 growing season.  It’s lost its joie de vivre and from now on until snow flies it’s all downhill.  So far so good though.  I’ve been remarkably organized this fall and had most of the tropical were safely under cover a few days before the first frost.  This year I’m putting some under lights, maybe it will help them look a little less pathetic come March.overwintering tropicals under lights

The rest will sit out winter in the back of our semi-heated garage.  No watering, little light, but it should be enough to bring them through the winter.  When I get the motivation I’ll move them back away from the door…. just like I’ll move all the other crap that tends to accumulate and fill the spot where my car should be.overwintering tropicals

Weekend plans include digging up dahlia and canna roots and finishing winter cleanup.  So far it hasn’t felt like much work and maybe my early start and the late frost date worked in my favor, but usually things happen at a different pace.  My usual method is wait until I’m in bed, see a freezing weather report, grab a flashlight, and then stumble through the dark in my pajamas, flashlight in mouth and a load of cold wet plants in my arms.  Good times, good times.

The freeze-dash makes you grateful for hardy “tropicals” such as musa basjoo.  This one is going on winter #3 here by the porch.  I think the protection of the house helps bring it through the winter, although a little extra protection would probably give it a much stronger head start in the spring.musa basjooNow that the summer garden is packed away and additional rain has finally made for good planting soil I’m thinking about bulbs.  I bet I could hit a few clearance sales and add a couple more bulbs cheaply before the ground freezes.  I bet I’d be real proud of myself come May…..  I just have to remember the time change has me leaving for work and returning home in the dark, and that doesn’t make for good bulb planting.  Oh well.  I already know how this is going to turn out 😉

Movin’ on up

The calendar and weather are beginning to agree, and both are now saying autumn is here.  While daytime highs flirted with the 80 degree mark it was easy enough to ignore first frost preparations, but cold and rain finally came through and it’s time to face the inevitable.  To get things moving I collected all the cacti and succulent pots and staged them close enough to the back door to make things near at hand in the event of some late night freeze emergency. cacti and succulents on the deckhidden frogMoving them around might give stray bugs and frogs a chance to find better winter quarters.  It’s always a nice surprise to grab a pot rim and find a nice squishy frog instead of gravel.  Apparently I was much more disturbed by the incident than this little guy.

Where all of these pots are going is still anyone’s guess, but I suspect most will go into the heated garage to sit out the winter on some dimly lit shelf away from any direct blasts of freezing weather.  As long as the soil stays dry enough they should settle down into some kind of dormancy that will take them through to spring.  Only the tall purplish euphorbia and pinkish pencil plant will stay in the brighter, warmer house (and get a few drinks of water throughout the winter).preparing tabletop succulents for winterThe summer vacation did them well, and many have come close to doubling in size since I put them out in April.  Cacti and succulents always seem so slow growing, but then all of a sudden you have a 5 pound cactus sitting on your windowsill and realize once again ‘slow and steady’ won the race.potted succulentstabletop planting of succulentsA favorite new addition is this clump of ‘living stones’ or lithops.  The name pretty much says it all and I can’t believe everyone doesn’t love these little guys…. little dull pieces of liver, boring stones…. who would say such nonsense!  They bloom too, and if you want to start a new obsession, check out this lithops post at the anxious gardener.  I hope winter care really is as easy as just a windowsill with no water -because I can do that.

This collection grows each year not just from the tiny pots I pick up here and there, but also from the little gifted bits and cuttings that any fellow gardener is almost always willing to pass on.  Tiny leaves and pieces dropped into a open spot quickly become new specimens.succulent cuttings

In the above pot there’s a barely noticeable scrap of cactus pad at the lower right of the pot.  If it grows I’ll call it Disney magic, in honor of it coming back to life from a shoe trampled bit on the side of a frontierland path…. and so the collection multiplies….

This was a good summer for blooms.  Agaves put on their first ever show and the blooms were a hit with the hummers.potted agave bloomThis one sent out several blooms.potted succulents floweringAnd this no-name cactus from my aunt in Maine blooms and multiplies year in and out.  Just about every family member has a couple of these 🙂cactus on deck

Sure the in and outs of cactus growing are more work than planting a daylily, but my succulents and cactus collection still isn’t out of control.  Aside from taking them in for winter they’re as close to no-maintenance as one can get for a tabletop or deck planting… I pretty much rely on rain to keep them going.  Maybe  when I run out of old fishtank gravel I’ll have to look for a new collection limit but until that happens I think it’s my duty to see how far this can go.

Now if only everything else was as easy to winterize!