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.