Sunday, February 23, 2014

Garden Legacy

Finally! With just a few warm days, crocus blooms are popping open in a rush to greet the returning sun. Green spears of wild woodlings pepper thawed ground, a few tiny violet leaves are just beginning to unfold and hellebore buds are blushing deep pink under leaves that have gotten scraggily from the unaccustomed harsh winter. There is a feeling of delicious anticipation in the woods gardens as I venture out to soak up some sun and explore what’s coming up, hoping there have not been too many losses.

It’s too early to begin much of any spring clean-up. I’m sure ol’ Winter still has a few more icy chest-beatings to show off before it admits defeat. It’s hard to keep my hands off, but I know I have to satisfy myself with picking up fallen branches and clearing paths again, piling raked-up leaves on beds where winter winds have scoured them bare; to keep hostas from coming up too soon as the sun warms the earth.  A pond-cleaning can be done, and the rock garden needs attention. Sedums and sempervivums can withstand a lot of cold so it‘s safe to uncover them. 

Fat buds are swelling already on the lilacs. I am always surprised to see them so early, but they are hardy and strong, undaunted by even this past winter. I do worry about the fates of some plants I consider to be “delicate”, as the cold was so deep and so long, but this garden is a survivor.   

It is not a young garden. Begun in the middle of the last century, it was the love-labor of a woman who surrounded her one-room frame house with flowers, dreams of English gardens shining in her eyes. I know this because I have read the same books in the library that she must have, recognizing combinations of plants that she recreated from those pages in her own garden. There are still epimediums, euphorbias, tiger lilies, lily of the valley, hardy geraniums, sweeps of grape hyacinths, scores of pale blue, grape-soda scented irises and a glory of daffodils and daylilies, all going strong after more than 60 years. She planted a red dogwood, white lilacs, redbuds, a magnolia soulangeana, and a tulip poplar that now towers to nearly a hundred feet. A knotty, gnarled old smoke tree that must have been young a half-century ago now always looks as if it’s on its last year; but miraculously it springs into leaf and bloom each spring, to our continual amazement.


Euphorbia with hardy geraniums 

Hundreds of surprise lilies have been transplanted everywhere from a small group that were growing in a fence corner, hidden under a wild tangle of autumn clematis. A wisteria once clamored to the top of a long-dead oak; we thought it was gone along with its host, but it shot up from the roots and scrambled up and over our stone wall. It took almost 15 years to bloom again.

Surprises continue to appear; two years ago after digging up a corner by the wall to plant a holly tree, hollyhocks sprung up, apparently from seed that had lain fallow in the ground until they were brought to the surface and germinated. A neighbor who has lived here all her life told me hollyhocks always used to grow there and she could see them from her house blooming above the top of the wall.


Tiger lilies


A vegetable garden and an orchard grew where the woods are today. The last of the old apple trees fell in a storm three years after we moved here, but its legacy lived on; for years morel mushrooms grew from the decaying roots.

The lady was a lover of rocks like me. She built the rock house we now live in, studding the walls with seashells and interesting stones. While digging up a neglected corner last year, I uncovered dozens of mineral eggs, calcite crystals, fossils (and a whole jar-full of marbles) tossed around the roots of another deceased oak. The stone wall bordering the south side of the yard is embedded with more shells, bits of jewelry, doll dishes and sundry other curious items. A broken birdbath encrusted with shells was found buried in a flower bed, and is now pieced together around the base of a pot.

I would have enjoyed knowing her. I often wonder what she thinks of her garden now. I miss her, this lady I never had a chance to meet but feel I know so well. We live with her in small ways, every day, for her personality is stamped upon this house and garden as surely as is our own. I’m sure her soul still lives on here. I sometimes imagine I see her, wandering the gardens she loved in her housedress and old gray cardigan. I feel her looking over my shoulder as I plant even more daffodils in the fall and laughing at me as I swear at the long canes of the antique rose that she planted, when the vicious thorns get tangled in my clothes and hair as I try in vain to keep it trimmed back from taking over the entire front yard. I’d rip it out but it has sent its canes high into a redbud tree and is a glorious sight in the spring with clusters of deep pink flowers cascading down over the blue irises that are there by her hand. I think she always knew it would be that way.
She would have been a good friend.

"Gardening is a way of showing that you believe in tomorrow."--Author unknown

 Sandy Parrill "Speaking of Gardens" The Joplin Globe, February 23, 2014

Monday, February 17, 2014

Compost--it's Not Complicated!

Composting isn’t complicated. There are shelves of books, articles galore in every garden magazine out there, and a million or so Web sites to tell you how. But taking the subject down to its basic core, it’s just a matter of piling up organic stuff and letting it rot. Mother Nature does it all the time, breaking down natural debris, feeding the soil as it decays.
By composting in your own yard, you are taking advantage of the free stuff Nature gives you to build your soil so your plants can grow to their full potential, plus keeping a lot of stuff out of the landfills.
A compost pile isn’t the most attractive thing to have in a garden so choose a level area that is out of the way but accessible to a wheelbarrow and a spading fork, with a little space to work it. Behind a garage or garden shed would be a good location. Ideally, it should be located away from trees as tree roots tend to grow up into that nice, nutrient-rich compost. You won’t want to have to dig them out when it’s time to put your finished compost on the garden, but if you have no choice, a double layer of landscape fabric or even old carpet laid nap side down on the ground underneath will help slow down invading roots.

Spring is a good time to start, when you are cleaning up flower beds, raking leaves left from fall, and mowing lawns.

You need at least two piles, or bins. Start by filling one with a thick layer of leaves, a layer of green stuff, and a couple shovels of topsoil or composted manure as an activator to get the decomposition process kick-started (or buy a bag of compost starter from your local garden center); then layers of grass, organic waste from your kitchen, more leaves, etc. When the bin is full, start flipping it over into the second bin with a spading fork, beginning with a layer of leaves; adding more organic waste and garden debris and covering that up from the first bin, and so on. Repeat until that one is full, then reverse the process. After you flip the contents of the two bins thoroughly three or four times, you should have some pretty good compost.

Bins can be built of a variety of materials. We have three, two 4' x 4' wire ones, and a double one made with four 4' x 8’ hog panels, but we have an acre of trees that shed leaves and a lot of garden debris. The average gardener might not need one that big. You don’t really even need a bin, a pile will do; but a bin keeps things contained and neater. Two three-sided (open on the front) bins can be constructed with fence posts and 2”x 4” fence wire, 3’ high; pallets on edge in the same configuration, snow fencing, picket fence; or if you are handy with tools, you can get as fancy as you like with boards and chicken wire. Two 3’x 3’ bins side by side is a good size to start with.

One of the easiest and most efficient ways is to stack two layers of straw bales on edge in three-sided bin form, with the front open for easy access. When the bales start to rot after a season, simply break them up, put them in the compost, and build a new set of bins with fresh bales. An interesting side to the straw bale bins is that you can plant in the top bales, as in straw bale gardening; grow some cucumbers, tomatoes or pumpkins in there. The ideal spot for this type of compost bin would be in the middle of your vegetable garden.
So what can you put in your compost? Most anything organic. For successful composting you need four things: carbon, nitrogen, moisture, and air. Brown stuff like fallen leaves, corn stalks, newspaper, shredded paper, paper towels and napkins is carbon. Green stuff like lawn clippings, garden debris, any kind of vegetable waste from the kitchen is nitrogen; also hair, human or animal, eggshells, chicken or rabbit manure, coffee grounds. About one part nitrogen to two parts carbon is a good ratio. Wood ashes are also good, providing potash, but don’t overdo it. Too much of that is not a good thing. Rain is usually enough moisture; if not, soak it down once in a while but don’t keep it wet. Air is mixed in when you turn it.

We keep a covered pail in the kitchen for vegetable scraps and anything compostable, emptying it into the pile once a day in the summer, every two or three days in the winter. Leftover coffee, juices, tea, water drained from cooking all go in there making a soupy mix. Top it off with plenty of water, which makes it easier to dump and also adds moisture to the compost. Always cover kitchen scraps with a shovelful or two from the other bin, plus dry grass, leaves, or garden debris.
What not to put in there: anything plastic or metal. It’s irritating to have to pick junk out of your finished compost. No meat scraps and bones; they encourage animal scavengers. No used kitty litter, grass or weeds that have been treated with weed killers, or used diapers—they won’t break down. No seedy weeds; weed seeds will live through the composting process and be spread around when the compost is used. No diseased garden debris, same reason. Tree branches take too long to break down.

A working compost pile should feel warm, almost hot inside, even in winter. It may even steam. You are going to see pill bugs, earthworms and other insects in there, as well as spiders and beetles looking for a good meal. Don’t freak out, that’s a good thing. They are the workers, breaking down raw materials and turning them into useable compost.
Depending on how often the compost is turned, it could be ready in 6 or 8 weeks; longer over the winter. It’s finished when it looks mostly like soil.  Sift it using a plant flat or plastic crate over a wheelbarrow, tossing uncomposted stuff back into the bottom of the bin. Save a couple of shovels full to restart the next batch.

Here’s more info from the U. of Illinois Extension, including problem solving: and plenty on building bins and composting from the U. of Missouri Extension:

Do your garden a favor and give composting a try.

"Unless you are in a race or something, there are only two “rules” for successful composting: Stop throwing all that stuff away, and pile it up somewhere.”
                                       ~Felder Rushing

 "Speaking of Gardens " column, published in The Joplin Globe, February 16, 2014

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Will Spring Ever Come, Poppy Seed and a Garden Show

The crocus that hasn't been. January 27, 2013

 Spring usually starts coming in slow fireworks in the Ozarks by this time of year with the first early snow crocus in the last week of January, but it seems like this winter has gone on forever, with nary a sign of blooming anything. Or maybe it just feels that way after being spoiled by the mild winters of the past few years. I find myself wandering aimlessly in the garden, looking for any signs that the “song of the turtledove might soon be heard in the land”, but the ground is still frozen, and according to the weather forecast, it looks like it might be that way for a while. We need any moisture we can get, so I’m not complaining about the snow.
A few early dandelions are blooming, and weeds though they are, at this time of the year, they are drops of sunshine that make me smile on gloomy days.

Who says I’m a weed? I’m so pretty!

To quote Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; “It's spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you've got it, you want - oh, you don't quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!”

That’s it. Spring fever. I’ve got garden catalogs scattered over the house, with lists of seeds and plants that I simply cannot do without. Garden web sites are bookmarked with “shopping carts” full of would-be orders parked and waiting for me to make up my mind. I always over-order, so there is a basket of seeds left over from last year that wants sorting to see what I really “need”.

A small jar of poppy seeds saved from last summer to sow after a February snow, will be scattered this week where I want them to grow. The seeds are tiny and should be mixed with a little sand so they don’t all land in one spot when they are broadcast. These are Papaver somniferum, annual poppies with big fluffy, silky flowers, single and double in a myriad of luscious colors; but tangerine and mauve are all that are left here so last fall I ordered a few new varieties to introduce. My son-in-law brought me seeds for black ones from California and also shared some other colors from his own garden.

Tangerine red poppy

The original ones that my seed came from are undoubtedly the old-fashioned “breadseed” or opium poppies, which have been growing in America’s cottage gardens for many generations; “passed along” from one gardener to another, indispensably useful in both medicine and cooking to the early settlers. The new cultivars are a peony-flowered cross but the true type can still be found in many garden catalogs.

They grow best for me in gravely soil, and are happily at home along the gravel walk that circles the south side of the deck, in the accidental flower bed that grows there, in company with the Queen Anne's lace, black-eyed Susans and larkspur that have also planted themselves there. Growing them from seed is the best option as they have a tap root and resent being transplanted, although it can be done carefully with very young seedlings. They bloom in late May, and in June, the stems are cut when the pods mature, but before they pop open and disburse their seed. Then they are hung upside-down on the lattice that encloses the side of the deck, so the seeds get “planted” right there where I want them to grow. They won’t germinate until the next spring, but I believe in going by Mother Nature's schedule, and She plants them in mid-summer.  Some seed is saved for late winter planting or to share. The empty pods are later kept for dried arrangements and fall wreaths.
Note: As poppy seeds need light to germinate, they should just be scattered on the ground and not covered with soil.

Shirley, California and other interesting poppies are annuals that grow easily in most sunny gardens. They are on my garden lists too, but I missed the spring window this year to order and get them in time for planting here, so it will have to be for fall.  
Oriental poppies are perennials that can be purchased as plants. Put them where they won’t be disturbed as they don’t care for transplanting either and are likely to turn their toes up and die if they are moved.  A big clump of them has grown by the front gate as long as this garden has existed, so they are very long-lived indeed. They haven’t reseeded much; in 50 years time there are only three more plants even though I always try to make sure the seeds don't just get flung to the winds. Maybe the birds are getting them.

 Bright red corn poppies, the "remembrance" poppy, Papaver rhoeas L, or Flanders poppies as they were called because they were growing in the battlefields during World War I, were immortalized in the poem “In Flanders’ Fields” by John McCrae, and have become the symbol of Memorial Day veterans. They are also annuals. I have never been able to get them started with much success here, but I recently read that seeds should be planted in the fall, and in early spring the ground should be disturbed; then they will germinate and grow. If I can find some seeds I’ll try with them this month anyway, or I’ve got them on my list for fall—planning ahead already! Got it in my garden journal!

 Speaking of planning ahead, the annual Lawn and Garden Show next weekend (February 14-16) in Springfield (MO.) at the fairgrounds is on our calendar, weather permitting. It’s one of our favorite things to do in February, a breath of spring in late winter and full of inspiration for the garden.



Display at the Lawn and Garden show, 2013

 Educational seminars presented by the Master Gardeners of Greene County will be going on all weekend, packed full of information and how-to’s; and there are wonderful vendor displays, herbs, unusual succulents, the latest tools, whimsical garden ornaments to buy, and much more information and products to make your outdoor living space the best ever.
The Greater Ozarks Hosta Society, of which we are members, will have a booth full of fresh spring hostas, and the sight of hostas in full glorious growth is a miracle in midwinter. Next to them will be the Springfield Botanic Garden, Friends of the Garden and Master Gardener's booth, where we get to visit with old friends and make some new ones.
We always look for the Missouri Conservation Dept.  booth where they will be giving away free seedling trees.  
Ticket cost is minimal and worth every cent. Can you tell I’m excited? It’s what I’m getting for Valentine’s Day!
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
                ----Major John McCrae

Always remember.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Gardening in Straw Bales? What a great idea!

Nothing quite beats the taste of fresh, homegrown vegetables that I can just step out the door to pick, and go straight to the pot while the warmth of the sun is still in them. I quit years ago trying to grow veggies here because all I was doing was feeding the local wildlife, but I may try once more, keeping the deer at bay with repellents and hoping the descendants of the groundhogs that we trapped out a couple of years ago don’t move back in or the raccoons claim it for their own.

I am intrigued by straw bale gardens, and since my only true sunny spot is within the root zone of a huge black walnut, I think I can grow my veggies above the ground where they won’t be poisoned by the juglone in the walnut roots that is anathema to most vegetables, and at the same time maybe control the critter invasion. We already grow tomatoes and peppers in pots, but I would like to have radishes and lettuce in spring, and especially kale, spinach and chard for smoothies and salads. Maybe even a few early peas, green beans and potatoes, but those are my choices; apparently you can grow most any vegetable and some flowers this way.

I have a space at the end of my small fenced herb garden, about 10’ x 15’, where now there is only a patch of multiplier, or winter onions. I have those in another spot also so I won’t miss that patch, and I think I can get 4 or 5 straw bales in there. I’ll get my bales in February from a local garden center, so they can sit there until planting time and “condition”, or compost slightly, which takes approximately 2-4 weeks, depending on rainfall. If you are lucky, you might get some old bales in the spring from a farmer or garden center that have been sitting outside all winter, and are already partly “pre-conditioned” for you.

The idea is to plant the seeds or plants directly in the tops of the bales. Some sources like to open up holes in the tops of the bales and put some potting soil in there, others prefer to plant directly into the composted straw, where they grow like, well, weeds! The straw holds moisture, and as the insides of the bales decay, they provide a rich growing medium for your plants.

A spot that gets at least 6 hours of sun a day is needed to grow veggies. Since you aren’t digging in the ground, straw bales can be placed anywhere, one or many, even on a patio or driveway. Arrange them in rows with cut sides up, the strings or baling wire on their sides; on landscape fabric if making a garden on a lawn area to keep grass and weeds from growing up into them.

Two weeks before you are ready to plant, wet and fertilize the bales for 10 days to start composting the inner straw. For the first 6 days, put 3 cups of organic fertilizer on each bale every other day, watering the bales thoroughly. Every other day, water the bales. For the next three days, put 1 ½ cups of organic fertilizer on each bale and water. On the tenth day, put down 3 cups mixed with phosphorous and potassium (bone meal 50-50 with wood ashes is great) and water in. If you stick your finger in a bale, it should feel hot and moist. Keep moist until ready to plant.

When planting seedlings, use a trowel to separate the straw into holes and add some potting soil to cover any exposed roots. If planting seeds, cover the bale with an inch or so of soil and sow directly into this seedbed. The roots will grow down into the bale.

While you are at it, stick some herbs or annual flowers into the sides of the bale to make it pretty. I think I'll try some strawberries in the sides of mine.

A soaker hose can be laid across the tops of the bales for easy watering. A trellis can be rigged with t-posts and wire to support tomatoes, pole beans, or peas. We may use short posts and a wire to support a row cover to keep cabbage moths from laying eggs on the kale and to prevent rabbits and robins from eating the young plants. I’m going to repurpose some old sheer window curtains but you can buy floating row covers at a garden center. Nylon window screening works well too. They’ll need to be held down with boards, bricks or something to keep them from blowing off.

An internet search on “straw bale gardening” will net lots of information, or there is an excellent book, Straw Bale Gardening, by Joel Karsten. It can probably be found at a local bookstore. If not, they can order it for you or you could find it on Amazon.

Experiment with us. We’ll learn it together!
Joplin Globe column, Speaking of Gardens: February 2, 2014