The Plasticine Era

Don’t bother searching the title.  It’s not the first time this blog has contained made up words and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it’s just I’ve been thinking about plastic lately since it seems to be the material of the day.  It started with some comment I read, that all the plastic humankind has ever made is still in existence.  I know of course that’s not true since I can personally vouch for having thrown a plastic cup or two into a campfire somewhere along the line, but the main idea is that plastic doesn’t break down anytime soon.  My compost pile will attest to that fact.  I throw nearly every scrap of yard waste onto it and as the organic materials break down into a deliciously rich soil amendment I’m left with a constant peppering of plastic trash bits picked up by the mower or left behind by the kids.

garden plastic

I keep a (plastic of course) bucket back there to hold all the plastic scraps I pick out of the finished compost.  I’m always amazed by how quickly it fills.

I never catch all the trash and much of it gets dug into the soil with the compost.  I’m pretty sure that in a couple million years future archeologists will be able to identify this era of time based on the layer of plastic remains which we’re laying down each year…  assuming we make it that far of course.

So in addition to keeping some weak kind of transparency to my gardening budget this year I’m also going to try and reduce the amount of plastic I use.  I’d aim for recycling too but I’m just not convinced that’s a good solution, so the goal is just less of it.  Maybe I can start with the awful plastic based fleece and clingy ‘performance’ fabrics that just breed static and just don’t breath (as opposed to cotton of course).  Better late than never since people have been onto this movement for years, but I guess everyone makes their changes according to their own timetable.  …Now about that budget.

I love tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata). I should take better care of the ones I already have, but I’m sure a few new ones wouldn’t hurt either.

I’m going to confess to a few plant purchases and I’m actually going to count them this time.  For the record I recently celebrated a birthday and in all honesty I should be counting these as birthday presents to myself (and not apply them against the gardening budget) but a few comments have questioned the accuracy of my accounting and have implied that I play it a little too fast and easy with the numbers.  So just to keep things on the up and up I’ll admit to a $68 phlox purchase from Perennial Pleasures in Vermont and a $65 order of cold hardy cactus from The Cactus Man out in Colorado.

hardy cactus

Hardy opuntia seedlings in the rock garden last week before the latest snow.  Brutally spiny and unforgiving, kind of dull in the winter, and painfully torturous to weed around… obviously I need more.

Seriously this really shouldn’t count against the budget.  I don’t need any new phlox and I kind of hate the nasty little cactus I already have, but there they are, new plants pointed to and clicked on and now destined for this little patch of suburbia.  Of course I’m excited 🙂

$68 for six must-have new (and heirloom) phlox
$65 for several super spiny, wildly colored, completely exotic hardy cacti

$288 total so far for the 2018 gardening year

Happy Post-Solstice

A few years ago I was introduced to an excellent new holiday.  Maybe holiday is a bit strong but January’s a pretty dull month and coming off of a three day warming spell has me optimistic that winter might not go on forever… even if it does feel that way most of the time.

I first heard about ‘Post-Solstice’ over at the always inspiring macgardens.org, and it’s described as that unofficial point where the earth has tilted back towards the sun just enough to start warming this hemisphere back up again.  It takes a while to get things moving on this big old planet of ours, and although December 21st was the shortest day with the least amount of solar warmth hitting the Northern half, it’s not until one month later around January 21st that we start turning the tide back to warmer days.  To help with the celebrations this year there was a special treat.  The first snowdrop is up, popping out just hours after the rain melted the last snow and ice away from this spot.

winter snowdrop

A surprise in our January thaw, the first of this winter’s snowdrops.  Galanthus ‘Three Ships’ in case you’re wondering.

A lone snowdrop doesn’t make spring, and I’m sure I’ll be out there covering it up during the next arctic blast, but for now it sure does give a little bit of hope.  There are other sprouts as well but I’ll only bore you with one more photo.

winter snowdrop

More snowdrops showing signs of life.  I wish I could say the same for the winter-burned hellebore foliage but I’ve long given up on worrying about things like that. 

It’s nice to see things as anxious as I am to start the new gardening year.  We have already added just over thirty minutes of daylight to each day and that goes higher with every sunset and before we know it the whole adventure will start anew!

Enjoy your weekend 🙂

The Winter Garden 2017

Once again the new normal in winters is proving itself to be completely abnormal.  Instead of celebrating the depths of winter last week with a warm blanket and a seed catalog I found myself outside in the sun clearing dried stems from around snowdrop sprouts and spreading mulch and compost on top of the earliest spring flower beds.  I loved it for a few days, but to see snow and freezing temperatures in the week ahead was much more reassuring, if only to keep the flowers asleep until safer weather returns.  It is winter gardening season after all, and the 2017 winter garden has been up and running since the holidays.

the winter garden

Life under the lights.

The cool (but rarely freezing) workshop which adjoins the back of the garage is home to my often celebrated winter garden.  A collection of overwintering bulbs and potted plants survive the cold in this dimly lit room, and each winter they are joined by a table top full of forced bulbs, early seedlings, and whatever else I can’t leave to freeze outside.  I’ve upped the number of fluorescent light fixtures to three this year and am feeling rich with all the extra growing space!

the winter garden

A closeup of the different foliage types filling the table.  Snowdrops and cyclamen dominate, the cyclamen are only just starting to put out their midwinter flower show.

Interest in the winter garden rises and falls opposite the outdoor temperatures.  Colder weather means more tinkering indoors, warmer weather results in general neglect.  This week I bucked the trend though, and brought in a tray of primula seedlings before the approaching snow and ice locked them up in their protective mulch pile.

forced perennials

With just a little cleanup I’m optimistic these primroses will look great.  Hopefully blooms will show up in just a couple weeks under the lights.

Three plants have become standards for my winter garden.  Snowdrops are the first.  They’re an addiction so I can’t really reason out why I must grow them here when they’re just as successful (and nearly at the same stage) as under lights… but I do.  Cyclamen and primrose are a different story.  Their bright colors and their overall happiness in this cold back room really cheer up a gloomy winter evening and make this my new favorite place for sorting seeds and planning the new season’s garden.

indoor garden

Each year the winter garden room gains a little more street credit.  Maybe someday I can be surrounded by aged terra cotta and antique garden décor, with a few rustic signs which say ‘garden’ or something similar….  Maybe.  Either that or a beer tap.

As I hide out in my man cave it gives me the necessary time to fully enjoy the snowdrops and other goodies which are coming along under lights.  The bulk Galanthus elwesii which I bought as dried bulbs and potted up for forcing have given me a few nice surprises, but I will spare you from most of those photos.  Here’s one though which I will put in, it’s a particularly tall one growing alongside a peculiar climbing asparagus which I grew from seed last winter.  Asparagus asparagoides is a noxious weed in several tropical areas outside its native African range, but here under growlights in Pennsylvania I think we’re safe.  To be honest there’s nothing really special about it, except that it’s super special… if you know what I mean.

snowdrops and asparagus

Snowdrops and the climbing Asparagus asparagoides.  I don’t think the asparagus would be hardy outdoors, which is probably a good thing.

Ok one more snowdrop.

forced snowdrop

A particularly nice snowdrop with average markings but a second scape (extra flowering stem) coming up, and a third flower coming up off of a side shoot.  A snowdrop which puts out three flowers is a good thing in my opinion.

Until the cyclamen get into full bloom and the primroses burst into flower I’ll just give an update on the hyacinths I potted up just before Christmas.  They’re starting to sprout and I’ve moved them onto the coldest windowsill of the workshop for some light.  Once the flower stems start to come a little more I’ll move them under the grow lights as well.  The fragrance of hyacinths will be a nice addition to the winter garden.

forced hyacinth

The poorly insulated, dirty glass of the shop windows is as close to a coldframe as I’ll get this year.  The bulbs don’t seem to mind though and the cool temperatures keep the flowers from opening up too fast (before they’ve sprouted up out of the bulb).

So that’s where the winter garden is this year.  I planted onion seeds yesterday and in my mind the primroses already look as if they’ve grown a bit since coming inside.  It’s exciting but also dangerous to start so early on that tricky road to spring fever, but maybe the next four days of below freezing weather will help.  I’ll just need to ignore the fifth day when the high is predicted at 50F (10C)… a temperature too high for February and one which is sure to bring on the first outdoor snowdrops.

Winter Interest? I guess….

Just like nearly all the rest of the Northern hemisphere we here in NE Pennsylvania are dipping into another cold spell.  As far as cold spells go it’s not anything too intimidating, since we’ve only dipped into the single digits one night, but it is cold enough to make you reconsider running out to the mailbox without a coat on and it encourages you to think of the garden from more of a spectator point of view.  Even from the comfortable side of a windowpane winter interest is still slim pickings around here, but now that a few years have passed things are starting to turn a corner.

paperbark maple winter

A low winter sun catches the russet peels of paperbark maple (Acer griseum).  I may have it in a spot far too close to the house, but at least it’s finally starting to grow well.

Winter interest here does not include early snowdrops or hellebores nor the occasionally exotic winter blooming shrub, winter interest here is a desperate flash of green holding out against the winter, or a fresh blush of colorful bark or bright conifer needles brightened by the weak winter sun.  I guess if pressed I’d include dried seed stems and stalks, but honestly unless they’re frosted in ice or topped with snow they really just remind me of all the cleanup yet to be done before spring.

winter panicum dallas blues

Ok I guess I do like the golden(?) winter tint on the dried stalks of Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’.  While other grasses take on a faded dead beige, these seem to hold on to a much richer color which shows up even better when surrounded by snow.

In the meantime, before the rush of spring hits, there’s still plenty of time to sit back and consider the winter garden.  Snow helps.  There’s really nothing to do out there when snow hits other than watch the comings and goings at the bird feeder, but until we get a couple inches down there’s always a restlessness every time the sun comes out and things look like they’re just waiting.

box hedge winter

The smallest bit of winter structure.  A boxwood hedge which has finally grown in enough to look intentional.  It may not say good design the way I just have it randomly in the yard, but I do love my little hedges and always try to get it just a little more level and a tiny bit straighter.

If cropped perfectly and shot from just the right angle… and if the light just happens to work out, you can halfway believe that my garden has something worth seeing once the flowers have died and the leaves fallen.

winter interest garden

A lawn still holding on to green (which has faded significantly from the last arctic dip), a few little bluestems and dried hydrangeas, a blue spruce… it all looks somewhat interesting right now.

Maybe in a few years I’ll be able to offer something more constructive in the way of winter gardening advice, but for now I’m just glad I can wander through without snowshoes.

magnolia grandiflora seedlings

Future winter interest may be just what these Magnolia grandiflora seedlings will offer… assuming they prove hardy.  Last winter was a protected outdoor test for several dozen, this winter will be an open garden test for the remaining three.

More snow will come of course, and when it does things will officially enter the indoor “puttering” stage of seed sowing and houseplants, but for a few more days I’ll brave the cold and look for even the tiniest sprouting buds of hope.  My anxious side wants to find them everywhere, my cautious side wants them to wait another two months.

galanthus merlin

Here’s a new snowdrop which didn’t get the NE Pa memo on winter storm watches.  Here’s some news for you ‘Merlin’, there will be more blasts of cold, and you shouldn’t be out so early.

So in the mean time we will deal with the ice storms, shovel out from the snow storms, and bundle up for the cold spells.

ice storm

A nice glazing of ice kept the kids home last week.  No good for sledding but they were fine with the day off 🙂

All this talk of braving the weather has been made a whole lot easier with a look at the ten day forecast.  The fluffy snow and single digits from yesterday will warm up and melt rapidly in temperatures that don’t even dip below freezing in the foreseeable future.  This wouldn’t be the first January thaw to ever hit us but considering the ground is barely frozen under the snow, I don’t hold out much hope for convincing bulbs to stay dormant.  February may be ugly if too many things decide to give growing a go, but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

Setting the Table

The holiday season has been off to an early start this year.  Under pressure from the children the decorations went up the afternoon of Thanksgiving and within 48 hours the house went from reasonably autumnal to yuletide overload.  I love it of course and even if it means we’ve finally all fallen victim to the day after Thanksgiving holiday commercialism, at least we’ll go down with a smile.  With that in mind, might as well fire the holiday candle full flame and head down to Longwood Gardens for an early peek at the holiday display.

This wouldn’t be our first visit to the gardens during the holidays, we’ve been down before and to be honest I was a little nervous about the crowds on this trip.  The last two visits managed to hit on some of their busiest days and with admission tickets sold out for Friday’s opening day I was holding my breath to see how Sunday would work out.  I should have relaxed, it worked out great.  We arrived around 3pm and were able to just fit into the main parking lot, showed our tickets at the gate, and then walked right in with plenty of smiles and not a single delay.

Longwood Christmas

The exhibition hall with this year’s focal point, a huge ivy and poinsettia tree highlighted with dozens and dozens of white moth (Phalaenopsis) orchids.

I usually have a plan of what’s to be done and seen, but now that the kids are older they’re far more determined to do and see what they want.  There was a much faster pace as we rushed through the displays and barely noticed much more exciting things such as orchid displays, bonsai trees and carnivorous plants.  There was also this odd fascination with organ recitals and Christmas carols, of which we were required to sit (and sing) through two full showings.  This enthusiasm must not have gone unnoticed since by the end of the second session our organist, Rudy Lucente, invited the girl up to give her a close-up of the organ mechanics.  What a thrill that was for our budding musician.

Longwood Christmas

Rudy Lucente at the organ.

So the visit took on a different tone.  I did get to explore the gardens for a bit before the sun set but the visit was more about enjoying the season than it was about examining every new plant.

Longwood Christmas

I sometimes forget there are ‘other’ parts of the conservatory which are devoted to music and grand entertaining. 

Once we had a bite to eat and the sun went down it was time to re-explore with all the lights on.

Longwood Christmas

A Longwood Christmas inside the conservatory.  I was particularly impressed with the huge hanging chrysanthemum balls.  Someday I hope to get down here for that show as well, I’d love to see the greenhouses decked out in fancy autumn mums.

For all the visits we’ve had this might be the first where we’ve sat through the fountain display.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that since the water, lights, and music were more impressive than I thought they could be…. did I mention I’m more of a plants person?

Longwood Christmas

I guess the DuPonts were onto something when they spent millions on building fountains and then inviting friends to view them. 

The decorated grounds are the highlight of the night though.  I’d show more pictures but we really just spent our time wandering, sipping a warm drink, and enjoying the fact this was our first above the freezing mark visit.

Longwood Christmas

A Longwood Christmas on the grounds.  Music, snacks, beverages, bonfires, and a beautiful night.

What seemed like pushing the season turned out to be perfect.  The two weeks since have flown by and I know this trip wouldn’t have fit in between other visits and snowy weather.  Better to get it in while you can.

Give >their website< a visit even if you can’t make it yourself.  I’ve left out so much and their photography is exceptional.  You can also easily see if things are crowded and if tickets are selling out.

All the best as we begin to wrap up the year!

The Winter Garden 2016

An actual greenhouse would be awesome.  To spend the winter nights out in the humid warmth… or even sweater-cool, as long as you can smell that healthy dampness of growing plants, would be a fantastic break from the dry static of central heating.  Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon I’ve got to make do somehow and to that end I have my little winter garden.  It’s two shop lights hung over a table in the small workshop behind the garage.  That’s the reality, but the magic is much more, and of course as with everything else I try to do there’s a story involved.

galanthus in containers

The first of the Cyclamen coum (a nice seedling flowering for the first time), a snowdrop dug from the garden (Galanthus elwesii), and the frilled leaves of a scented geranium are filling the space beneath the lights this year.

Santa brought the kids electric scooters this year, and that has nothing to do with winter gardens but they needed a spot cleared in the garage near an outlet for charging.  Space is tight in the garage so obviously I needed to clean the attached furnace room first.  A day later the furnace room was cleaned and I had room in there for a few bikes, but the cannas and dahlia roots in the furnace room needed a cooler spot.  They had to go into the workshop which had now become remarkably full and as a result also needed tidying up.  A day later with the workshop cleaned and the bulbs stashed away I made the observation that the workbench was really unacceptable as far as winter gardens go.  A few years before we bought this house a pipe burst in the workshop, all was soaked, and the pressboard workbench soaked, sagged, and warped.  It was time to replace the top so off to the DIY store for lumber and hardware.  A day later and the old top was off and a new one had been crafted, more than doubling the tabletop and practically calling for another light to be added, so of course another light was added.

potted amaryllis

Merry Christmas to me.  A ridiculous clearance sale on amaryllis bulbs left me with eight new ones and the repaired workbench is the perfect place to pot them up.  Don’t even ask me how hard it is to find terracotta pots during the holiday season….

So one more day for the stain and polyurethane to dry and then finally I was able to bring in a few things for under the lights.  Just in time since the Cyclamen coum were beginning to flower and I was tired of dragging them in and out of the garage with every frigid weather forecast.

growing bulbs under lights

Twice the growing space of years past and already nearly full.  Overwintering cuttings share space with cyclamen and various too-special-to-be-outside seedlings under the growlights.

I should have tackled this job on a pleasant summer weekend, but at that time the lawnchair was so much more inviting.  Had I been ready to go at the start of the season (or had I built that coldframe I wanted) then maybe these seedling pots of tulips and allium wouldn’t have started to sprout in the garage, and maybe I wouldn’t be the only person in NE Pennsylvania growing species tulips indoors under growlights in January….

bulbs from seed

Hellebore and cyclamen seedlings growing in the winter garden.  The small wisps in the other pots are tulips, allium, and a single fritillaria  seedling.  The economics of spending years nursing along seedlings which are available cheaply (100 blooming sized bulbs for $14 last time I checked) is something else we shouldn’t look at too closely.

To wrap up my ‘How I spent my Christmas vacation’ essay I’ll just add that on the last day I moved an air compressor and rabbit hutch onto a shelf and was able to plug in the scooters.  Don’t ask me how I didn’t see that a week earlier.

pale moonlight eranthis

After two rainy days of 55F (13C) weather the soil has thawed and the first winter aconites have broken the surface. I think they’re perfect and they should be fine even if winter does decide to come this year.

Now I’m all set.  Even though I spotted the first winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) breaking out of the earth this weekend I think winter will still make an attempt at cold before the robins can come home.  Today in between rain showers I put up the bird feeder, braced the pole against tipping out of the mucky quagmire of lawn it sits in, and drug a flat of primula seedlings into the workshop.  Now when the cold hits, repotting a flat of young primrose should be just the diversion for a dark winter evening.

Goodnight Cyclamen

There’s royalty in some plants, and I’m pretty sure cyclamen carry these bloodlines.  Obviously (to me at least) the queen of the family is the tender greenhouse cyclamen (from the c. persicum line), with her bright fancy flowers and her holiday appropriate bright colors, but the other members of the family all deserve equally elite titles.  Lets start with the king who lives in my garden and goes by the name of Cyclamen hederifolium.  His crowning glory is the diversity of exotic patterns and varied shapes which his winter-hardy foliage takes on.

hardy cyclamen hederifolium foliage

A kaleidoscope of hardy Cyclamen hederifolium foliage.

The round corms of this plant sit dormant underground for most of the summer until about August when the first flowers start coming up to dapple the shaded bed where they grow.  The pink or white flowers are nice enough, but as soon as they fade the ground begins to grow a covering of the beautiful cyclamen leaves.  They love the cool temperatures of autumn and as the rest of the garden drops its leaves the cyclamen bed takes on its winter silver and green foliage blanket.

cyclamen hederifolium narrow silver foliage

Leaf shapes for the king vary from wide to narrow, rounded to more of an ivy (Hedera) leaf shape.  Here’s a nice narrow leaved silver form.

The leaves will stay for the winter, and with a good snow cover look as fresh as ever when the snow retreats.  It’s only in late spring that the leaves die back and the plant goes dormant again, and because of this it’s a plant I think is perfect for filling in those dark, boring mulch beds under deciduous trees who’s shade is too dark for anything else.

hardy cyclamen hederifolium foliage

hardy cyclamen hederifolium foliage

If the king likes the spot he’ll form a nice colony as seedlings fill in.  Any winter-vacant spot is fair game for a clump of C. hederifolium seedlings, and I’m beginning to see them come up in all sorts of spaces, even the lawn.

hardy cyclamen hederifolium silver foliage

The tiny leaves at the center of the clumps are new seedlings from last year’s flowering.  Even on the smallest seedling leaf the foliage patterns begin to show off.

I’d like to give different parts of the garden over to some of the more unique foliage patterns and see what shows up.  In the far back of the yard I have this white blooming, green and silver leafed form.

hardy cyclamen hederifolium foliage

This Cyclamen hederifolium has a brighter green color when compared to its relatives.  It’s always nice to have something a little different.

Another form which could be really interesting (and I think already is really interesting) is this purple tinted foliage form.  When fall temperatures drop, a purple wash bleeds through the foliage and the plant takes on an entirely new look.  I’ve only got a few weakly colored examples, but some I’ve seen have a bright pink and purple color which looks great.

cyclamen hederifolium purple tinted foliage

Pink highlights on Cyclamen hederifolium foliage.

The bold C. hederifolium dominates the shade right now, but other hardy cyclamen also carry on the family name throughout the garden.  Princess coum will grow in the same beds as the king, but in the long run is crowded out be his overbearing ways.  Her waterlily shaped foliage is less intricate than the king’s but still shows off the silver marbling of the family and as is befitting of a princess she is covered with jewel like blooms as soon as the snow melts.

hardy cyclamen coum

Hardy cyclamen coum, a princess of the cyclamen family.

For the past two years as snowpocalypse has hit the east coast the delicate princess coum lost all her leaves and nearly all blooms, but has always bounced right back.  King hederifolium suffered a bit but mearly shrugged it off during the summer, but there’s a third family member in my garden who didn’t skip a beat.  Prince (or maybe Duke, I’m kind of losing my way here) purpurascens seems to be the hardiest of the bunch.  I’ve seen Cyclamen purpurascens listed as less hardy than the other two, but in my experience he’s never been bothered by low temperatures (although we usually have some snow cover) and although he’s the slowest of the bunch (even seeds take over a year to mature) C. purpurascens is reliable.  He doesn’t even lose his leaves in the summer.

hardy cyclamen purpurascens foliage

A sloppy planting of hardy Cyclamen purpurascens.  The leaves are similar to C. coum, yet slightly sturdier and have more of a veinier marbling.

This morning marks the last day of Christmas vacation and the first day in which temperatures have dropped low enough to freeze the top crust of soil.  Neither of these are something I look forward to but you get what you get, and even if that means a low of 8F (-13C) tomorrow nothing short of an early retirement and move down south will change things.  So today I say goodnight to my outdoor cyclamen as they slip under the blanket of their winter sleep.

The royal family will carry on though, and if you want a bigger and more diverse intro give Jon Lonsdale’s Edgewood Gardens a visit.  Besides growing and showing many of the other, less hardy members of the royal family, most of the plants are available for sale and I’m certain you won’t find a better selection elsewhere on the East coast.