Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New foliage, at this time of year...

I've been worrying about this Leucothoe fontanesiana, throwing up this beautiful new foliage at such an iffy time of year (this picture's from the week after Thanksgiving) . The cultivar is 'Scarletta,' but this is the first year I've seen this dramatic color in the new leaves. Laurie bought this plant for its graceful, drooping shape and glossy evergreen leaves. When I told her I thought it would cook in her west-facing front boxes, she gave it to me (thank you, Laurie). I was right that it hates hot afternoons; when our mighty oak came down, I had to move it to a shadier, morning-sun spot. It's spreading and trailing slightly over our stone wall. And the foliage is holding up to the beginnings of wintry weather... so far.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

New question: seedheads

Mary's wondering what to do with her Black Eyed Susans:
I love the seed heads, like black q-tips as I look out onto the garden through the winter...must I remove these, 'cuz I sure don't want to. Since I don't remove, is this making for less than FABULOUS flowers? I also think they just need to be thinnned by ripping out some here and there and planting down the street in a wasteland? Yes?
Deadheading during the bloom season may make the plant bloom (even) longer. Cutting off the last of the flowers before seeds form may make it more vigorous next year - it takes plant energy to make seeds. But at this point, they're dormant.

Reasons you might want to remove them: to stop them from seeding in all over the place; for neatness; to do some work now that you don't feel like doing in spring. But you don't want to - for the reason that you want to look at them (this is an even better reason than "don't feel like it," and that's legimate, too).

You can rip some out and throw them in your wasteland down the street - we call that dividing, and it will make your planting more vigorous. Spring or fall would be best, but as you may recall, I took my black-eyed-susans out of your garden in July and left them in my hot car before planting them. They still bloomed till Thanksgiving that same year.

In nature, the only seedhead removal that happens is whatever the birds eat, plus whatever dries up and blows away between now and spring. I hope this makes you feel better about doing nothing - often a fine choice.

p.s. I think it's fine to post questions in comments. I'm pulling them into a new post to answer, for folks who don't read down to the last drop in the land of comments.

Monday, December 03, 2007

What could be more wonderful than an email entitled ‘Propagation question’? Mary asks,

Can we propagate Jack-in-the-Pulpit with the red seeds we have? John is most curious, I'm just hoping for more through some method not involving human intervention.

The answer is: Yes, you can, and be careful with those red berries (the white seeds are inside). Like many fruits, they contain an enzyme to inhibit germination (no point germinating inside the fruit, or inside of an animal or bird who eats the fruit - plants are clever). But Arisaema berries also contain calcium oxalate crystals, which really burn. So wear latex or rubber gloves to clean the seed from the pulp. You can sow outside now or in spring. You'd probably get a lower germination rate than you would if you sow indoors with coddling, but I assume coddling is the sort of human intervention you want to avoid. If you're sowing indoors, soaking them for a day or two might speed germination.

They are slow from seed - the first year you get one leaf (and not the typical leaf). The second year, expect typical foliage, but no bloom. If all goes well, you'll have flowers the next year, but probably no berries (male flowers only). But they will get there. You can also divide them - your patch is pretty established. Divide in fall rather than disturb 'em in spring. I divided by accident, when I dumped out a pot I thought had nothing in it, and found the dormant corm and its little offsets.

The Connecticut Botanical Society has beautiful photos, including one showing off the berries.

More questions, please!

Our anniversary

This would have been a good occasion to learn how to use my camera's timer. But no time! We were off to our fabulous lunch date. Truth is, we go out to dinner pretty often, on our own and socially. Super-premium lunch dates... how often do those come along? We thought of it spontaneously (and simultaneously) this morning, and of course we went to our old friend, the Union Square Cafe. And there we ate some of our favorite things on the menu, and some new wonderful things on the menu, and it was glorious.

The romantic lunch date is just one gem I've learned from Robert in 11 great years of marriage. The collected wisdom could fill a book (if I title it "How Not To Eat Like My Husband," it's a sure self-help bestseller). Back to garden and plant topics tomorrow... and remember, invite your beloved to an exceptionally wonderful lunch, soon.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

You think you don’t care about seedheads, I’ll bet. You like flowers, and maybe fragrance, and certainly fall color. (Yes, you’re nodding, you love fall color! Very good.) Here’s Vernonia noveboracensis, many weeks after finishing its long, late bloom. Nice, yes?

I’m not in a hurry to cut this back – it’s still tall and stately, and I haven’t had a lot of seeding in from this plant in my front garden. (I think this is because the seed wants to fly away on the wind, and if it flies more than a few feet it will hit the sidewalk.) So when you read in garden books that you must cut everything back, please remember – it’s a matter of when you prefer your work, and which consequences you’re avoiding. (More on this in spring, when I no doubt will regret at least a few of the chores I’m leaving undone this fall.)

And speaking of other ways to be beautiful at this time of year, would anyone care to hazard a guess what this is? It's a bit of a trick question (that's a hint, and an apology). There will be prizes.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Still-glorious autumn

Oh, sure, you’re tired of me telling you about all the wondrous plants with those end-of-season virtues you don’t care about. Well, how’s your garden, this week after Thanksgiving? True, my Amelanchier foliage display is done, and the Fothergilla gave up all but a few last glowing leaves in Monday’s rain.

But see the plant formerly known as Aster cordifolius,* the one you think too dull for your garden? Still blooming. Don’t those pale blue stars make a spectacular contrast with the wine-red blueberry foliage, and the divine gold of Clethra alnifolia? The Clethra that was so deliciously fragrant for weeks in later summer (note seedheads)?

*Taxonomy alert: they renamed all the North American asters. This is done for good scientific reasons. Not because using the word Aster for both common and scientific names makes life too easy for regular folks. The asters (from Greek, meaning star, via Latin) were a happy oasis in a plant world full of lilies that aren’t lilies, violets that aren’t violets, palms that aren’t palms. Luckily, it’s easy and fun to learn scientific names! And the more names you learn, the more names you can learn. Repeat after me, Tyrannosaurus rex! I knew you could do it. Now try: Symphyotrichum cordifolium. (“Commonly” pronounced blōō wŏŏd ās'tər.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mad about saffron

Our friend Hassan gave us this beautiful Iranian saffron when he visited back in – oh, it was so long ago. We recently cooked with it for the first time (because we thought we’d misplaced it, but it was in the spice rack all along). Now we’re torn between using it every meal and hoarding it so it lasts forever. It’s painfully expensive – it takes 75,000 crocus blooms to make a pound of the spice*, and harvest involves plucking three stigmas from each of those blooms by hand. Don’t reach for your calculator – I know you only use about an ounce of saffron a year, so I have done the math for you. You’d only need 4687.5 blooms! And a certain amount of back-breaking labor to plant all those bulbs.

Let’s grow it anyway. Crocus sativus is beautiful, blooms in fall, produces something delicious – a no-brainer Sara-plant, for sure. It has known uses in treating depression, preventing cancer, enhancing mental function, and lowering high cholesterol. I missed my chance to plant them this fall, but have already marked my 2008 calendar to make sure I order some for early fall planting. Those who know me well are permitted a little gasp about the advance planning, but no snickering.

Do not confuse with Colchicum, a.k.a meadow saffron or autumn crocus, also called naked ladies. I know that sounds exciting, but it's quite poisonous (though still a useful plant - a derivative is still used to treat gout, in synthetic form). Another great fall-blooming bulb. Make a note in your 2008 calendar, maybe?

Brent and Becky's Bulbs is one good source: this image is theirs, and shows how much fun we'll have harvesting each delicate stigma from a 4-6" plant.

Bring kneepads or beer, help with planting or harvesting, share recipes. I'm thinking 100 bulbs. Don't plant a dozen of these - a dozen bulbs this size, even in a tiny urban garden, is just a hiccup.

*Perhaps true, but like "72,000 ladybugs to a gallon," it sounds like a fake-science way of saying sooooooo many.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

November in my heart

Amelanchier - at least kicking into its full fall glory. It's my dream tree (so I planted three of them). Its June berries aren't just "edible" - they make it all the way to "delicious" (eaten out of hand, in pies, as jam - best ever was the sorbet I made with my friend Ellen). As she says, few trees give as much. The berries attract birds if you don't finish them all yourself. The little white-star blooms in April lift the heart in the nick of time. And this fall color felt a little late this year - but worth waiting for, yes? The trip from green through gold to flame and crimson is the glory of my garden, and fall is my garden's glory season.

I've made my garden so autumn-glorious to fight the feeling of decline that comes with darkening days. This year the glory feels more like loss. On November 2, we lost our heart-dog, Emmett. He was the sweet center of our home and our days.

Our friend Kath took a last picture of him:

His illness was very brief. We miss him.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

spring wonders, on the way

Did you ever wonder what must have been growing in our Brooklyn backyards long, long before Brooklyn was divided up into backyards?

The trees that once shaded our little squares of garden are long gone, but many plants that once graced the forest floor can thrive in the shade of the buildings that have sprung up in their place. In early spring, these ephemeral wonders bloom before the trees leaf out, photosynthesize like mad, and then often go dormant till the following year.

One of the first to bloom in Sanguinaria canadensis, our native Bloodroot. Its native range is huge, covering the whole eastern U.S. It's fascinating and extraordinary and wonderful, and not at all hard to grow (and people encountering Bloodroot for the first time always ask, "what's that?").

Its spring arrival is a wonderful drama:

There's a double form available, which is stunningly beautiful, but there's something magic about the water-lily flowers of the straight species, floating above the leaves, which continue to expand toto soak up all the sun they can once the short-lived blooms are spent. The double flowers last longer, but spread more slowly - they're sterile.

The trout-lilies come a little later - and have lots of names, including fawn-lily, glacier lily, and dog-tooth violet (which makes some sense for the European species, which is pinky-purple - all species of a dog-tooth under