December 30, 2010

New year, new friends

A plant enjoyed alone is lovely. A lovely plant shared with a friend creates a pleasant memory. A pleasant memory of a plant-loving friend is priceless.

I’m sure someone has said this or something like it in the past. But I just recorded it in the words I’ve been thinking about all day. When I started this blog, I didn’t realize how much joy it would bring. Not just from the blogging, but also through interaction with fellow gardeners.

As I look ahead to 2011, I do so with hopeful anticipation. And a good portion of it is due to the new plant-loving, pleasant, lovely friends I’ve made through garden blogging. I’ve always known that gardeners are generous people. But I had no idea how many great people I’d meet through Blotanical and Good Garden Ideas and through reading and commenting on fellow bloggers’ posts.

It’s interesting, actually, how most of our blogs are not about people at all, but about our garden successes, failures, and tips and tricks. But it’s the sharing of these that makes the gardening and the blogging so very rewarding.

My wish for all gardening friends, near and far, is that you have a satisfying, successful 2011, full of lovely, pleasant gardening moments and priceless memories with plant-loving friends. Happy New Year!

December 27, 2010

Signs of life

I looked out my back window at
10:29 a.m. CST this morning and saw a dramatic play of low winter sun pouring through the Oak trees, over the hill, and into the white landscape of the back garden. (Believe it or not, this is a color photo, but my landscape is very black and white these days.)

Confession: I still had my robe and slippers on, which prevented my running outside to take this shot—so this is through the window. I took this picture with my camera phone. These are excuses, but honestly if I would have taken the time to go grab the better camera and get dressed, the shot would have been gone. At
10:31 a.m., I took a second shot and the light wasn’t nearly as dramatic. Just a little realization that we have to grab the moments while we have them.

Later in the day, I decided to break out the snowshoes and look for signs of life. There aren’t many of the plant variety. But with our recent “mild” December weather, the animals are a little more active than they were a couple weeks ago. I saw a squirrel scampering across the lot yesterday. And animal prints crisscross the white landscape and meander among the trees and branches.

The current top layer of snow is the white powdery variety, so the prints aren’t as distinct as they would be in heavier snow. But it’s fun to guess which animals created these prints.


Any ideas?

Various birds



Messy human

Garden blogging is a healthy activity. It’s getting me out into the fresh air and it’s fueling my creative muse. What to write about next?

December 23, 2010

White Christmas memories

“Our snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards...

“Always on Christmas night there was music...Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept."

Excerpts from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by Dylan Thomas

Merry Christmas!

December 19, 2010

Dressed up for the holidays

We’ve had a bit of a warm-up in southern Wisconsin. Cold is relative, I guess. After suffering through days of bitter single-digit cold with below-zero wind chills, the high was a balmy 20°F today, with sunshine and next to no wind. It was warm enough for me to venture out with my camera for a quick jaunt around the garden. It was actually refreshing!

I thought I’d capture some shots of “festive” plants with red berries and seeds that really pop against the white snow.

Common Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), for example, sports particularly bright berries that are a popular food source for birds.

Cotoneaster (C. horizontalis) looks cozy, tucked under a canopy of fluffy snow. These branches are great additions to floral arrangements—particularly if you can catch them with green leaves intact and before they’re buried by snowdrifts.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) is another great addition to floral arrangements. It’s a striking companion to sprigs of Pine and Spruce, White Carnations, Pine cones and Red Twig Dogwood.

These are just a few examples of plants that provide nonstop beauty—even in the depths of winter.

December 16, 2010

They sleep, then creep, then leap

I’ve been in survival mode for the past few days. With highs in the single digits above zero Fahrenheit, the idea of venturing out into the garden has been the last thing on my mind. So I’m living vicariously through fellow bloggers' posts, and thoughts of warmer days.

Every year about this time, I seriously wonder why I live in this northern climate. Of course, the reason is that most of my family and friends are here. So every year, I muddle through, curse the cold and treacherous commutes, and live for those glorious days in late spring when zone 5 Midwestern gardens are among the most impressive in the world.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about garden sayings that help us remember little tips about plant care. Here are some of my favorites:

  • The first year they sleep, the second year they creep, and the third year they leap (referring to ground cover perennials).
  • Pinch mums until the fourth of July.
  • Grow a large plant in a small pot.
  • God made rainy [and snowy and cold] days so gardeners could get their housework done.
  • Tickle the earth with a hoe, it will laugh a harvest.

I also ran across some excellent gardening quotes at Northern Gardening. Can you think of other garden sayings and quotes that help you cope with inclement weather and remember little wisdoms about plant care? Please share.

December 12, 2010

Color, texture, and growth patterns

I’ve decided to devote this blog to plants that overwinter in the zone 5 climate—perennials, bulbs, trees, and shrubs. But as a slight departure, I’d like to share a photo I recently snapped for a Good Garden Ideas story about holiday botanical garden displays.

Neither Poinsettia nor Amaryllis can overwinter in my climate. Poinsettias are native to Mexico and Central America, and Amaryllis plants are native to South Africa. Both are tropical plants. But the rich and complimentary colors, textures, and growth patterns of these two plants was a good reminder to me to think about these characteristics when planning future plantings in my garden.

The veined, soft white, carpet-like texture of the white Poinsettias provides a lovely base for the spiking, dramatic Amaryillis. The colors, textures, and growth patterns of both plants are beautiful on their own, but especially striking when planted together.

Actually, this is somewhat similar to the effect of Lycoris, in my garden, rising up in late August out of a carpet of Hostas.

December 07, 2010

Snowbound ground cover

Well, I wasn’t completely honest about Pachysandra in my last post. You see, when the Pachysandra is covered with snow, like it is now, it’s hard to tell that it “looks great all year.”

I guess if you dig under the snow it’s still green, but I doubt I’ll actually see the Pachysandra again until a January or February thaw.

This is what our main garden bed, including Pachysandra, looks like in early summer:

The Pachysandra doesn't take center stage, but it does provide a warm carpet for other perennials growing with it. In our garden, that includes Ferns, Hostas, Bleeding Heart, and a host of other more showy perennials.

I’ve heard that Pachysandra can be invasive. But we haven’t had that problem. We simply mow around it and it stays contained within its boundaries.

December 04, 2010

Plant of the month: Pachysandra

I take Pachysandra (P. terminalis) for granted. It’s such an easy-care ground cover in my very shady garden. And because it’s so reliable, it deserves to be the plant of the month for December.

Pachysandra is an evergreen plant in the Boxwood family that grows to about six to 12 inches. The waxy leaves look great all year, even in northern climates. It grows in zones four to nine, according to Numerous sources report that it struggles if it gets too much sun, which explains why it’s thriving in my garden.

In the fall, short spikes of light green flower buds form and hold their shape all winter. They bloom in spring and create a dense carpet of small, white fluffy flowers atop bright, deep green leaves.

Honestly, I neglect Pachysandra in my garden. So many other plants require pampering and prodding and special treatment. Pachysandra obviously likes zone 5, shade, and Oak mulch. An added bonus: It’s rabbit- and deer-resistant.

November 29, 2010

Late autumn glory

In my quest to capture better shots of the Star Magnolia buds, I happened across this spectacular plant:

Ornamental Kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala) is in its glory now. I’ve never grown it myself, but I’ve always been impressed with how it survives here through November, and often through December. Some gardeners in the Deep South report that it stays colorful all winter. I am envious!

The Wisconsin Master Gardener Program reports that all “ornamental” Kales and Cabbages are really Kale. The plants don’t have much color until the temperatures plummet. The bright pigments really begin to show with frost and cold weatherproducing spectacular, vivid colors below 50°F.

Once acclimated, Ornamental Kales can survive temperatures as low as 5°F. Since I haven’t grown them myself, I can’t offer much advice about how to plant and nurture Ornamental Kales. But I do know they look lovely interplanted with Pansies, Snapdragons, Mums, ornamental grasses, and other annuals and perennials that thrive in cooler weather. I really must plant some Kale next September to brighten the autumn and early winter landscape.

Meanwhile, that Star Magnolia is another spectacular specimen I’ve never tended myself, but I absolutely adore it when it blossoms in springtime. I did manage to get a few decent close-ups of those incredible fuzzy buds:

November 27, 2010

Hoary frost

For some reason, the term “hoary frost” is sticking in my mind today. It’s that beautiful white, hairy frost that coats and clings to branches, leaves, and buds early in the morning before the sun has a chance to melt it. Several sources explain that hoary frost (or hoar frost or hoarfrost) forms when the air is humid and warmer than the ground temperature.

It’s a beautiful sight—although not something I’m planning to capture in a photo because I’d rather be in a warm house looking out at it. But you never know, I might get bold.

Here’s a great explanation and photos of hoary frost:

I’ve also been thinking about that Star Magnolia tree and its plump, furry buds. I went back this morning to try to capture a shot. I snapped this mediocre photo and ran back to the car because I was cold and in great need of some coffee:

I think I’ll go back tomorrow and try to get some better shots. Maybe one of these days I’ll even capture a shot of the hairy Magnolia buds coated in hoary frost.

“…Seed-time and harvest, heat and hoary frost. Shall hold their course, till fire purge all things new.” - John Milton, Paradise Lost

November 21, 2010

The science of dormancy

It happened one day last week…I could feel the snow approaching. Anyone who lives or has lived in a northern climate knows what I’m talking about. It’s hard to describe without too much detail, but the feeling made me want to curl up in a warm blanket and hibernate for a few months.

The plants are doing the same thing. But some of them look ready to bloom:

The other day, my husband called my attention to bloated buds on a Star Magnolia tree that looked ready to burst. (I didn’t have a camera with me, and we were in a hurry so I didn’t take a shot with my camera phone. Note to self…)

Anyway, he was concerned that they would bloom before the winter. I must admit it made me pause, too, though I know that many plants carry fertile, dormant buds through the winter. I just couldn’t explain how or why they do it.

So I did a little research and found a very detailed explanation from the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

Here are few interesting facts:
  • Buds are dormant embryos packed into a protective outer scale. The period of winter dormancy lasts several months, and most native northern plants don’t break dormancy during a fleeting January thaw. Tricky!
  • A hormone called abscisic acid, found in both seeds and buds, switches off all metabolic activity in the bud. In spring, this hormone becomes increasingly dilute, losing its inhibitor capacity, so the buds and seeds burst open.
  • Here in the north, with short growing seasons, this “head start” system enables woody plants to grow rapidly in the spring and to complete their annual growth cycle before the next winter.
  • Most dormant flower buds have air pockets between the many layers of embryonic flower tissue—a layering system that provides protective insulation. This is similar to what skiers and other winter sports enthusiasts do to keep warm—dressing in many layers to trap air.
  • Depending on the type of plant, flower buds may be separate from leaf buds and open at a different time, or the flower and leaves may be combined in a single bud and open together.

Back to the Star Magnolia: This spectacular plant has an extra winterizing strategy. The fuzz on its ample buds traps air that helps insulate the flower buds from the cold.

The buds of all these plants look so vulnerable, especially when I think about the subzero weather that’s just around the corner. But they’ve survived for years after repeated blasts of extreme cold and terrible blizzards. They’re definitely hardier than I am.

November 18, 2010

Wisconsin native plants

It’s dark when I wake up and dark when I get home from work now. So I can only imagine what the garden looks like. That’s probably better because it looks pretty bland about now. As much as I tire of snow by February (and into March and April, sometimes), I must admit some bright white snow would perk up the landscape a bit.

I’m planning to take a quick walk in the woods this weekend. Maybe I’ll find some surprises under the leaves. Even the woods, though, at this time of year show few signs of plant life.

The wooded section of our lot is the wildest section. A line of hostas marks the border between the more organized and maintained gardens and the wild part of the property. We don’t cultivate the wooded section. So, for the most part, the woods are home to native plants (except for some pesky invasive nonnatives that we have to pull out and destroy each year).

I’ve just begun to catalog the native plants in the woods. But two I know will grace the forest floor in spring are Wood Violets (Viola sororia), the Wisconsin state flower:  

and White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum):

Both are Wisconsin native plants.

The USDA considers the Violet a noxious weed. I guess I would consider Violets weeds if they took over my tended gardens. But in the woods in springtime, in their native habitat, they’re lovely.

November 13, 2010

More about Peonies

If you’re like me, plants elicit memories of people and places. Some plants conjure recent memories; and others take us back to the beginning.

I remember Peonies from early trips to my aunts’ and grandmothers’ houses. They were pleasant memories, so maybe that’s part of the reason I like Peonies so much.

While they aren’t native to the Americas, Peonies have been a part of the North American landscape since Thomas Jefferson’s time. He wrote about them when documenting his gardens at Monticello, Va.

The one thing I didn’t like about Peonies was the ants. I can remember them crawling all over the flower buds and stems of the plants in those gardens of my childhood memories. Who can blame the ants when Peonies’ sweet nectar is so irresistible?

As a young adult, I thought bringing Peonies into the house was an absolute mistake. No one wants an ant infestation.

But then a friend mentioned a couple of techniques for removing the ants before bringing them inside:

  • After cutting, turn Peonies upside-down and shake carefully, but gingerly, for about 30 seconds; and
  • Submerge the bloom heads in a bucket of lukewarm water for about 10 minutes, and then gently shake off the water before arranging the flowers.

The combination of those two techniques really does seem to take care of the ants.

Peonies can live for 75 years or more, according to “Care-Free Plants.” I hope to always have Peonies in my garden.

November 11, 2010

Beautiful bugs

I don’t seem to have much luck photographing people, particularly people in motion. But I’ve had a little more success with bugs on plants. Some of the best plant photos I’ve been lucky enough to capture include insects as focal points.

They aren’t studio garden shots, and I didn’t shake off the crud and the bugs. They’re real photos of real plants in a backyard garden.

Bugs are a sign of a healthy garden (see Good Garden Ideas’ recent article about organic gardening). Of course, there are plenty of pesky, damaging insects (more on that topic later), but for the most part naturally occurring bugs are good for gardens.

Since most of the photos weren’t planned (I didn’t go into the garden planning to get great shots of insects on plants), I’m not sure I can give advice on how to do it. Mostly, it was just good luck…and also being patient, and willing to capture plants as they are—crud, bugs, and all.

November 07, 2010

Plant of the month: Peony

I'm a lazy autumn gardener. A lot of gardening experts recommend leaving dead, dried stems and foliage on some plants for "winter interest." When I first heard about this "technique" a few years back, it became my formal explanation (excuse) for following the practice. In all honesty, I simply lacked enthusiasm for bothering to cut them back. This autumn laziness stands in stark contrast to my generally boundless energy in mid to late spring, when I spend as much time as I can in the garden.

But there's one plant I always cut back in autumn--Peonies (Paeonia lactiflora). I just cut mine back today. The reason: Peonies are susceptible to wilt, a fungal disease, so it's important to cut off all the old growth and burn it or discard it. I've heard and read various opinions on how far back to cut the stems. Some experts recommend leaving a few inches above the ground; others say to prune to below the soil level. I usually leave about one to two inches of stem above ground. I leave cages around the stems, and pack lightly with Oak leaves. My theory is that this provides a structure of warmth under the mounds of snow that cover the plants from December through March.

Generally, I envy people who live in warm climates--they're comfortable and they can garden all year. But then I think about the plants I would miss out on if I lived further south, and that's a bit of a consolation. Some plants need a period of cool to cold winter dormancy in order to produce flowers and overall persist as perennial plants. Peonies are in that category.

I've had mixed luck with Peonies. Some years, the plants are overflowing with huge, fragrant blossoms. Other years, the flower heads are less plentiful. This last spring was one of the latter, in my garden at least. I think part of the reason was that we had a very mild, early spring. Peonies need plenty of sunlight to bloom. They usually bloom around here within two weeks before and after Memorial Day. This year, the Oak and other deciduous trees were leafed out early and shaded the Peonies in my garden a little too much. I still had blooms, just not as many.

I have two varieties of Peonies here. One was here when we arrived 11 years ago, the other I planted four years ago. The garden center labels are long gone, but I believe the cultivars are 'Sarah Bernhardt':

And 'Kelway's Gorgeous':

Peonies are a personal favorite, for so many reasons--they're beautiful, fragrant, impressively large flowers, and they're excellent additions to floral arrangements. As I prepare the plants for their winter nap, I'm remembering the color, bounty, and fragrance that will fill this space in late May and early June.

November 04, 2010

Past peak

After a busy work day, I walked around the corner of the house and saw this:

A Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) with oblique light filtering through it is one of the most amazing sites in any autumn garden. The colors are breathtaking! Most of the annuals are dead or dying, and the perennials are going dormant. Deciduous leaves are fading from their peak.

But this year, like every year, there’s a transition time—from early October through mid-November—between colorful, mild autumn and blustery, snowy winter when nature throws us colorful surprises. The burnt rust red of the lingering Oak leaves and the variegated shifting colors of the Hydrangea macrophylla take my breath away.

Before the truly bitter winter weather sets in:
  • Take a walk around your yard or at the park. Focus on the surprises: Notice the lingering Lamium (Lamium maculatum) stubbornly hanging on in a crack between the blacktop driveway and the lawn, or the heirloom Rose bush with maturing rose hips.
  • Notice how some plants seem to burst alive when the temperatures plummet. Mums (Chrysanthemum) that wilted in warmer weather perk up with brilliant bright tints during crisp, cool days. Note how the hues of Ornamental Cabbage and Kale (Brassica oleracea) intensify after the first hard frosts.
  • Gaze out a picture window and take an informal inventory of the scene. Chances are, you’ll see a colorful plant or two still surviving that you didn’t expect.
  • Move in close to a vibrant plant. Notice the richness of the color and the blending of various hues. It’s easy to see how our ancestors found colors for cloth dye.
  • Brave the chill at daybreak or near dusk. Oblique light can cast especially dramatic tints on plants and flowers.
Don’t miss out on the bounty! Take in the chromatic show before winter sets in. Even past the peak of autumn leaves’ last hurrah, nature still surprises us with dramatic flushes of color.

November 02, 2010

Keeping dreams alive

It's early November. I'm missing my garden. From April through September, I spend parts of most evenings outside--checking on plants, enjoying the fresh air, taking in the beauty. This time of year in this northern climate, it's too dark and too cold to spend much time outside when I get home from work. So it's time to dream. That's why I really like the message on this blog: May Dreams Gardens. The author's tagline describes exactly how I feel right now: "All year I dream of the days of May when the sun is warm, the sky is blue, the grass is green, and the garden is all new again!"

Most years at this time I would turn inward about now--toward holiday preparations, crochet projects, and books--and stop thinking about my garden until late January, when I would start planning the spring plantings. This year, this blog will help me to keep the gardening dreams alive even during the dark months.

October 30, 2010

Plant of the month: Lamium

My goal with this blog is to highlight one or two plants per month, and to add at least one blog entry per week.

I’m starting with a plant I can’t kill. Not that I’m trying or anything. It’s just that Lamium (L. maculatum and L. album), or dead nettle, is such an easy-care ground cover and it seems to thrive nine months out of the year. I’m not even sure it goes dormant during the winter. I’ve seen it growing under the snow. And right now, at the end of October here in zone 5, the Lamium is still green and growing while other plants have definitely started their winter naps.

Lamium can be invasive, but it’s one of those ground covers that is pretty easy to control with just a little effort. You might have to uproot it when it starts to spread a bit, but it lifts easily from the soil.

Lamium is an excellent ground cover for an area of transition from sun to shade. In my garden, it’s growing in a spot that’s hard to mow—along the sides of a path from my patio out to the larger part of the yard.

The genus Lamium contains approximately 50 species, according to the Chicago Botanic Garden. I have two or three growing in my garden; they make a nice tapestry with their variegated leaves and purple, pink, and white flowers. They tend to bloom from early spring to first frost.

In the fall, I leave a light blanket of Oak leaves as winter mulch for the Lamium. In springtime, it’s one of the first plants to bloom after snowmelt. I simply rake off the leaves and marvel at the colorful show.

October 27, 2010

My plants' habitat

A few thoughts about the garden I'm currently nurturing. We're located in Zone 5a, according to the USDA Hardiness Zone Map. Our habitat, though, seems firmly planted in Zone 5. We're a few blocks east of Lake Waubesa and at the foot of a glacial drumlin--both of which temper the climate a bit.

The lot is pie-shaped--about 1/4 acre, lined in the back by a small Oak forest. The Oak trees provide shade in summer, and because they lose their leaves, they allow the southern sun to warm the house in winter. Here's a view of the backyard in early summer:

As you can see, most of the lot is shady during the growing season, which limits the types of plants that will grow here. But I've been amazed at the variety of shade-loving plants that thrive in this spot. I've even been able to cheat a little in spots with dappled sunlight--nurturing plants that generally grow better in the sun. I have a very small sunny garden on the west side of the house. That's where I grow vegetables and a few sun-loving perennials. It's kind of overgrown in this picture, but you get the idea:

I inherited this beautiful oasis. Most of the perennials were planted by the previous owners, although I've added a few here and there. And I hope my tending has helped to at least maintain it. Every year this place looks different. Plants come and go. The dominance of ground covers and volunteer plants shifts. It's actually a pretty magical place.

October 25, 2010

All things botanical

I love plants. Scratch that. I'm fascinated by plants--by their rich variety of colors, forms, growth name it. I procrastinated starting a blog because I figured there are so many more talented writers, photographers, and gardeners than myself. Then I read the initial post from this blog: ivebeenreadinglately.

I decided to take the plunge. My credentials: not impressive. In my spare time, I'm simply a backyard gardener with a membership in the local botanical society. I never tire of studying and nurturing plants.

I'm particularly fascinated by perennials that survive and thrive in northern climates. How do they do that? How do they suffer the brutal, 30-below temperatures under piles of snow, and then greet us in springtime with their cheerful, colorful if to say, "Happy to see you again! Welcome back to gardening season!"

Welcome to my blog! I look forward to sharing our mutual enthusiasm for the botanical wonders all around us.