Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Oh Dear, Oh Deer!

While on one of his morning walks, Jim counted eight deer in the field behind our woods garden.  Early last summer, we spooked a fawn not 20 feet from our back gate. Neighbors tell me they have watched deer cross the road (first looking both ways), just east of our back fence. And while we were gone a couple of days last October, the confounded woods rats wandered into the garden while in rut and totally destroyed a beautiful little Japanese maple, snacking on a couple of oak leaf hydrangeas and hostas on the way. Shortly after that, in broad daylight, there was a big buck just behind the workshop.
All that was left of the pretty Japanese maple. It's still alive and may leaf out again this year, but it will take a long time to look pretty again.
I do love watching deer. They are beautiful, graceful, magnificent animals, and I never see them without catching my breath. I don’t like to think about killing them, even though I know deer harvesting is necessary for conservation of the deer as well as of the forests.
But I do not love them in my garden. They don’t know that, though, thinking my lovely hostas and hydrangeas quite tasty, much preferred over all that lespedeza and tender native stuff growing there Out Beyond where they bed down in a wild cherry grove just outside the gate. A strip of woods runs along the north side of I-44 from South Main to Range line in Joplin, a half-mile wide in places, less than a block away from our property. It supports a large herd of deer, with, of course, no hunting inside city limits, so there is no control here, except for those which meet their ends on the interstate.

Though many plants are reported as deer resistant, hungry deer will try just about anything, at least once, except daffodils. My precious hostas are salad for them; a deer or two can totally level a hosta bed overnight. We have tried just about every defense against their gluttonous ways, short of electric fences and a Rottweiler. There was limited success with commercial rabbit and deer repellents, but those are expensive, and most have to be reapplied when it rains.  We made wire cages like cloches to put over our best plants; while that does work, it isn’t the best look for the garden. We have tried hanging bars of soap, human hair, garlic, wind chimes, and lots of human presence. They learn to ignore all of them, as well as things that make motion out there and are supposed to scare them. We’ve mixed up noxious homemade sprays with lots of unsavory, smelly stuff like eggs, dish soap, garlic and hot peppers, but that only lasts until it rains; then they are in there again as soon as we turn our backs, probably snickering as they lunch on the hydrangeas.
The trick, I am told, is to change their habitual trails in spring and then again in late fall. I learned from a PBS program that deer do not see well at all during the day, only shapes and movement, but have excellent night vision. Their sense of smell is 80 times that of a dog, so they rely mostly on scent to find those tasty bits, and to avoid things that really offend them; which is why human scent and other strong smelling things sometimes work. Then I read that a commercial daylily and hosta grower tried using a tiny dab of Vicks Vaporub on her daylily buds, with great success. Apparently the strong scents of eucalyptus and camphor are intolerable to them, and it doesn’t wash off with rain. It does have to be reapplied once a month as it eventually loses the smell. Sure sounded too easy, right?

But I tried it, smearing the stuff on bamboo stakes around the garden; on gate posts and fences, on rag strips hung from Japanese maples, dogwoods and apple tree. It appears to have worked. We did not have deer in the woods all last summer, except for twice when I forgot to refresh it; when they destroyed the Japanese maple, and when that big buck checked it out.
This past winter brought them out of the woods, however, apparently looking for food. We found tracks in the snow in our backyard as close as 10’ from the deck, up and down the streets, in our neighbors’ yards, everywhere. But not one single track in our woods garden where I had used Vicks. We even saw them hanging around outside the fence.

These spring evenings they have been seen milling around in the yard of an empty lot next door, five of them. A new jar of Vicks is definitely in order to halt their trespassing ways early as the hostas start to grow; in fact starting this week, and a maybe a quart of Repels-All to boot.
It might even work on the heuchera-munching groundhog that has moved in under my studio; but groundhogs hate black pepper, so we will just sprinkle that over her favorite plant foods. She also likes violets, but she can have all those she wants.

Even so, my Mama didn’t raise a foolish child.  I still don’t trust the Vicks remedy completely. I’ll keep wire cloches around many hostas and a 2x4 wire cage around our evergreen dogwood. I should have caged that Japanese maple!


 "Around here, however, we don't look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious...and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
― Walt Disney Company

Speaking of Gardens by Sandra Parrill   The Joplin Globe, April 19, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

How Does Your Garden Grow?

What a winter we’ve had in the Ozarks, zone 5 cold in our newly designated zone 7. Some plants that survived the past ten winters with no problem may have had a hard time of it this year. Chilly March weather kept us from working in the garden to do our normal spring clean-up and we’re still way behind in April with more cold windy days, so we haven’t yet fully assessed damage. It appears minimal, so far, except for branches broken in the last ice storm.

Most perennials and wildflowers seem to have thrived through the winter, possibly because we had a good snow cover that protected them when temps dropped to below zero; giving them plenty of slow soaking moisture as it melted. A few have heaved themselves partly out of the ground, and need to be replanted or their exposed roots covered with soil. Patches of native hepaticas, trilliums, Dutchman’s breeches and other woods denizens are thicker than ever. Hostas are vigorously thrusting through a thick layer of leaves we haven’t yet touched, except to pick off the dead leaf “caps” that they pushed up as they emerged.  
Hosta Montana Aureomarginata
We’ve cut back last year’s ratty hellebore leaves to let the flowers show off. Two year old seedlings that are now big enough to bloom are showing amazing color variations from their parents. I’m really excited about a whole new group of babies that have come up between double-flowered “Golden Lotus” and single “Painted Strain”. If they have cross-pollinated, we might see some really interesting flowers in a couple of years.  
Some plants we weren’t sure would make it have surprised us; the Pink Dawn viburnum that started to bloom in January with its sweet scent put itself on hold when that “polar vortex” hit; now the flowers have reopened, making us exclaim “what IS that smell?” when we go outdoors. Nandina domesticas look pretty sad, but being a Southern plant, they are only semi-evergreen here anyway. They will probably leaf out again so I’ll hold off with the pruners until I actually see dead wood.
Mahonias have lost their flowers; the fall-set buds dry and crumbling, disappointing the many bees that usually visit in early spring. We won’t know about pruning blue and pink hydrangeas until they leaf out, as most of them bloom on new wood, but white Annabelles and oak leafs are fine. The tree peonies I’ve been holding my breath over are finally budding out this week.
We have resisted planting loropetalums, cold hardy camelias or any of the other borderline zones 7-8 plants that have been available in regional big box garden centers for the past few years, so we don’t know how any of them fared. Not well, I am thinking, though the US National Arboretum states the camelias are hardy to zone 6b. A friend who planted some tells me she lost all of hers. Missouri Botanical Gardens Plant Finder says loropetalum will take temperatures into the lower teens with root mulch protection. I am curious to know if any at all survived last winter’s test.

Time will tell about crape myrtles, butterfly bushes and vitex. They don’t leaf out until May, so I’m not going to prune any of them until we see what died back. We cut back one crape myrtle a few years ago after a hard winter; as it turned out none of them were damaged and it wasn’t necessary. It’s not a mistake we plan to repeat. “Crape murder”, the practice of cutting them back to ugly stubs in spring, is not a crime I care to commit.
I am a bit worried about our zone 7 Himalayan evergreen dogwood, cornus capitata. It wasn’t evergreen this year, but the branches still seem supple and green. It will extend dogwood blooming season into May, provided it lives after surviving drought, browsing deer, and now deep cold.

Japanese maples are all leafing out and look just fine; just a few dead twigs.  Winter-burned boxwoods, hollies and euonymous should be clipped back to new growth, maybe even replaced if they are too badly damaged. 
It’s a good year for our tulip magnolia. Hard freezes get the blooms about three out of five years, but we got to enjoy it for once. The petals are falling now, turning the ground and deck into a pretty pink and white carpet.

Azaleas are questionable. Some of them look iffy, having lost nearly all their leaves, but azaleas are tough. A few we planted down in the woods were only labeled hardy to 10 degrees. They may be done for, but I’ll wait and see before I pull them out. Old ones on the north side of the house are undamaged.
Some roses suffered the winter badly and must be severely pruned. We don’t grow hybrid teas, but I have seen them in other gardens with a lot of dead, black canes. Those should be cut back into live, green wood with outward facing buds. Our hardy Knock-Outs are fine. We prune ours back hard; they seem to grow and bloom better if cut back to about a foot above the ground.

A friend tells us this was the coldest winter on record in 12 years.  It certainly seems the longest; it came early, partied hard and stayed late, wearing out its welcome a month or so ago.  We should have learned the lesson it taught about zone pushing, but gardeners never do, at least for long. We’ll soon forget and be back at our old adventurous gambling ways, trying out new plants regardless of hardiness ratings. As plantsman Tony Avent was quoted saying, “I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself, at least three times.” We always have great expectations for a wonderful Spring.

As the garden grows so does the gardener.
- Popular saying
Speaking of Gardens:  by Sandy Parrill  The Joplin Globe, April 12, 2014

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Host of Daffodils

Daffodils are blooming in fragrant sweeping waves around the house and down the hill, lighting our woods with a blaze of gold, white and orange, thousands of them; every shape, variety and size from big golden yellow King Alfred, huge frosty white Mt. Hood, pink trumpeted Mrs. Backhouse, fancy doubles and split coronas, to dainty multifloras, miniatures and tiny three-inch tall Hawera. They normally flower in succession starting with February Gold in late January, to orange-centered Poeticus in early May, but winter lasted so long that early varieties were delayed and are blooming along with their on-time midseason cousins. Late season bloomers still hold tight to their buds. Smaller bulbs, ferns  and wildflowers weave a magic carpet at their feet.
 Most of these daffodils are the offspring of a hundred or so bulbs planted in the woods long before we made an actual garden there; when it was still a wild tangle of honeysuckle, euonymous, poison ivy and gooseberry bushes. Bulbs were dropped in holes poked in rocky ground with a heavy pointed bar, and covered with a handful of topsoil. They thrived undisturbed for years, multiplying into huge masses, piling on top of each other so thickly that they stuck out of the ground. As the garden was expanded, some of those clumps were divided, many of them yielding up to a hundred or more bulbs of all sizes. (I’m not exaggerating, I counted!) We replanted them all, scattering bulbs everywhere under trees, singly at first; finally resorting to dropping four or five tiny immature bulbs in the same hole when we ran out of patience. We did this for several years, a clump or two at a time, sticking them in the ground until we were tired and our backs were sore; finally giving away bags and buckets full of them until our friends started avoiding us for fear of being gifted with another load of bulbs.
 Many old clumps still need dug, but these days I mostly just pull off the top ones that are above ground to replant. This year I’m thinking they can go under a newly planted row of oak leaf hydrangeas at the end of our property. Daffodil bulbs are toxic, so deer and other critters won’t eat them. I have read that they might serve as a repellent.

 I don’t store harvested daffodil bulbs to plant in fall; when they are dug in June they go straight back into the ground. No fertilizer has ever been applied except what nature gives them. 
 All those young daffodil bulbs have finally matured into flowering size, and they are putting on an exceptional show. Last spring when they were growing, plentiful rains and cool temperatures helped them develop an abundance of buds for this year.
But I have a love-hate relationship with these bulbs that make such a wonderful spring display. I am so thrilled to see them bloom, but then, when their party is over and the flowers are gone, those long strappy leaves keep on growing into big floppy masses that fall all over everything else that is coming up. They need that foliage to grow and provide food for the next year’s buds, however, so they have to be allowed to mature and turn yellow. When gardeners complain that their daffodils don’t bloom very well, it is usually because they are mowed down or cut off right after the flowers are done.
To keep them from smothering and killing their neighbors, tomato cages cut in half or foot-high rings of fence wire are put around the bigger clumps for support until the leaves ripen. I like to do that when they first come up, before they get big and unwieldy. This year bad weather prevented me from getting out there early so not a one is propped up yet. It will have to be done soon, before the leaves start to stretch.
 Virginia bluebells have colonized among the daffodils, just starting to bloom this week; another plant which must be allowed to grow and ripen after it flowers, but they are not a problem, disappearing in only about three weeks after the flowers are gone. Woodland phlox will be following soon to add more blue. Bloodroot, trilliums, anemones, Dutchman’s breeches, hepaticas and wood hyacinths are in full flower; wild ginger and crested irises are up and Mayapples are unfurling leafy umbrellas.

 A few years ago I began planting a “stream” of blue grape hyacinths to wander down the slope through the woods, inspired by Keukenhoff Gardens in Holland. My little rivulet is not quite so spectacular as the one pictured there, but I keep adding more bulbs each year, digging them from paths and other places where they have spread underfoot. Grape hyacinths transplant easily, even when in full bloom. I’ve scattered their seeds at the end, so maybe one year soon I too will have a bright river of blue, flowing through the dogwoods, past the giant Solomon’s seal, under the pines and into a “pool” at the bottom of the woods.

You’ll have to excuse me now, the sun is shining and I must see if the apple tree is budding, trailing arbutus is going to bloom, poke around to see what hostas are coming up, and look at all those daffodils some more. It’s spring!

“Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle …
a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb opening to the light, a bud straining to unfurl.
And the anticipation nurtures our dream” -Barbara Winkler

The Joplin Globe "Speaking of Gardens" column by Sandy Parrill, April 5, 2014