March 23, 2012

Plant of the month: Magnolia stellata

I’m breaking some rules here. But it’s OK because the rules are rather informal, and they’re rules I set for myself. I’d planned to highlight only plants from my own garden in these monthly “plant of the month” posts. Instead, I’m focusing this time on a tree I wish I had a place for: Magnolia stellata.

I’ve always had a thing for Magnolias of all species—they signify sweet transitions for me. Perhaps it’s because they were in glorious full bloom on the perfect May day I graduated from college. Is that possible? Yes, I remember it very clearly. Are they blooming early this year? Apparently. The Morton Arboretum lists the normal bloom time for M. stellata in the Chicago area (about 80 miles south of here) as mid-April. That’s another rule I’m breaking: posting about a plant that normally doesn’t bloom here in this month.

I’m also pretty sure the species blooming on my graduation day was a saucer or tulip type Magnolia—possibly M. soulangiana or M. sargentiana—both of which peak a little later in the season (although they’re starting to bloom here now, too). It was south of here, though—at the Iowa state capitol building. M. stellata is a star Magnolia.

Magnolias, which are among the most ancient groups of flowering plants, include a multitude of species worldwide. But I couldn’t pin down the actual number. I must have checked about 20 sources, and the number of Magnolia species ranged from 80 to 240. Unfortunately, many of them are endangered, which is a shame because they’re awe-inspiring.

M. stellata broke bud here last Sunday, and rains and winds since then have caused some petal drop. But not before I had a chance to capture the magic of the transition.

I’m taking a short break from blogging for a week. Not because I don’t want to do it, but because it’s good to take breaks from all tasks—even those we enjoy. I’ll be practicing some photography skills, and hopefully I’ll have some fun shots to share on the other side. “See” you in April!

March 20, 2012

‘The most unusual weather event’

The only “season” I haven’t experienced in the past 2 ½ weeks is autumn. As I write this “Lessons Learned” wrap-up of the past winter, I feel like it has all been part of a strange dream.

Most of the winter was mild and light on snow.

Then on March 2, we had one of the biggest, prettiest snowstorms of the season (normal March weather), followed by a short stretch of drizzly, cold, windy yuck (normal early April weather). Next up was about two days of mild, perfect sunny weather (normal May weather).

And then summer hit with a blast of hot air. Madison sweated through five record-breaking highs in a row (and today is another record-breaker at 81 degrees). Kids were running through sprinklers on Sunday! And it wasn’t even spring yet!

I can’t even come up with words to describe this phenomenon. Jonathon Martin, chairman of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UW-Madison, said it best: “This is to me the most unusual weather event I've witnessed in my lifetime.”

The parkas are off, the shorts are on, and everything is blooming all of a sudden and very early. And we’re just now starting the official season of spring. Wow!

So, to accompany our Lessons Learned, I’m posting photos I haven’t shared until now from the beautiful blizzard of March 2, along with photos of blooms that followed just two weeks later.

Lessons Learned from fellow bloggers:

1. Karin at Southern Meadows posts a combined “Seasonal Celebrations” and Lessons Learned post. She starts out describing and sharing photos of upcoming festivals in her community. She follows with excellent lessons learned about structural elements in her northeast Georgia garden, and about the unpredictability of the past winter.

2. Donna at Garden Walk, Garden Talk offers a thorough lesson in tree bark. She includes great shots of Sycamore, Tamarack, and Oak trees, among others, along with information on how to identify trees by their bark. Her post is a virtual “walk in the park,” complete with history and data about each tree species.

3. Lyn at The Amateur Weeder gardens “down under” in New South Wales, Australia. Her summer weather was rainier than usual, and she admits one can’t assume the weather will be normal in any season. A grouping of Coleus plants surprised her, thriving in the hot, wet conditions. She shares excellent shots of her garden, along with plans for next year.

4. Donna at Gardens Eye View has launched her wonderful “Seasonal Celebrations” meme as a partner to “Lessons Learned. Donna shares several practical lessons that all gardeners can follow. Among them—capture shots when you can (before the critters eat your Crocuses) and plant more native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs for birds in winter.

5. TS at Casa Mariposa steps back in time and shares a December post about the previous growing season. These words of wisdom can be applied to any garden in any season: “The problem with mistakes is that we become so used to seeing them, we simply stop seeing them at all. They blend like leaves into the landscape until we only see the completed scene, not the individual leaf.”

6. Sheila at Green Place takes us on a walk through the woods near Chapel Hill, N.C. She’s fortunate to live in a place where spring ephemerals commonly make an appearance in February. Trout Lily, Hepatica, and Windflower brighten the path along the tree-lined creeks. Sheila reminds us to look closely at the ground for new life as we hike, and to take more walks in the woods.

7. Holley at Roses and Other Gardening Joys shares a secret. A garden magazine photographer once told her that every garden he ever photographed had weeds—every one! Holley admits to skimping on mulch, which means there’s always a lot of weeding to do in her Texas garden in late winter. But she finds joy in the weeding because it’s an excuse to get outside when the weather is pleasant.

8. Michelle at The Sage Butterfly offers the most comprehensive lesson on voles that I have ever read. She includes a picture of a cute vole and even lists the benefits of voles (I admit, it was hard for me to appreciate this part). Her post offers a very helpful list of vole deterrents, many of which I use and others I plan to try (for example, Rosemary, vitamin D3, and castor oil).

9. MO at Gardening Not Landscaping takes us along for a dinner with the Milwaukee Rosarian Society. The theme: Roses as herbs. On the menu, among other tasty treats: Rose Pavlova with fresh fruit and Rose hip mixed herbal tea. MO shares her notes about the event, including information about various Rose species and international destinations to visit for viewing Roses in their glory.

10. Diana at Elephant’s Eye also combined a “Seasonal Celebrations” post with her “Lessons Learned.” She learned that, because of the extreme heat in her Porterville, South Africa, garden, succulents are a better choice than shade plants—even under trees, because those trees and their leaves get hot when highs stretch beyond 100 degrees! She also admits to letting some of her garden beds become overgrown. It’s much easier to trim them a bit each season than to wait five years for a bigger project.

11. Christine at The Gardening Blog, also located in South Africa, lists eight practical lessons she plans to incorporate in her garden next year. I found myself nodding in agreement with each one. It’s hard to imagine from her photos that her garden is anything but gorgeous, but she assures us that she needs more flowers, wider spaces between plants, and blooms that attract beneficial insects.

All these gardeners put me to shame with their lessons this season. I didn’t want to look back at winter, and my lessons were rather blasé. I’d encourage anyone who wants good advice about gardening to check out these bloggers’ excellent posts. Thanks to all who participated!

But I must say, the verse I used at the start of my “Lessons Learned” post on March 1 was rather clairvoyant for the end of this strange winter in the Midwest:

'First a howling blizzard woke us,
Then the rain came down to soak us,
And now before the eye can focus—

~Lija Rogers

March 17, 2012

Book review: flower talk

If you discovered one of your favorite plants was associated with a negative emotion, would you avoid planting it or presenting it in a bouquet to a friend? If you knew that certain flowers convey particular meanings, would this make a difference in the flowers you use in floral arrangements?

Whether you answered “yes” or “no” to these questions, you’ll probably enjoy the book “The Language of Flowers,” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, published by Random House. I’m linking this book review to Holley’s garden book review meme at Roses and Other Gardening Joys.

My book club read this book, and we all enjoyed it, which doesn’t happen very often. The main character, Victoria, has a lot of personal and emotional problems, but she’s a talented floral designer. She becomes a successful businesswoman by creating floral arrangements using the language of flowers to meet clients’ unique needs.

During Victorian times, the language of flowers was a critical tool in determining the appropriate plants and blooms to use when displaying and presenting floral arrangements. For example, Amaranth signified immortality; Witch Hazel, a spell; and Magnolia, dignity. The character Victoria consults with brides, lovelorn individuals, and other clients to provide the perfect  blooms to convey specific meanings.

While I enjoyed the fictional story in the book, I decided the language of flowers will not rule my selection of plants for my garden or my floral arrangements. For example, Mock Orange, which means “counterfeit” is a lovely trailing bough, perfect for the edges of a graceful bouquet.

Hydrangea means “dispassion,” yet it’s a lovely, lush bloom whether displayed fresh or dried.

And Redbud means “betrayal,” yet it’s one of the most glorious native blooming trees in my garden.

While it’s fun to know the Victorian meanings of flowers, I will still include Sunflowers (“false riches”) in late summer and autumn arrangements.

Read “The Language of Flowers” for the good story and great descriptions of plants and floral arrangements. It even includes a dictionary of flower meanings. But the premise of choosing or rejecting plants based on their meanings…well, there are just too many favorite plants with “negative” meanings for me to reject them based on Victorian definitions.

With that said, I’ve always favored Victorian-style décor, especially in the powder room—where I tend to decorate with flowers in vases, pretty soaps, and ribbon trim. With this post, I’m debuting a new “page” on PlantPostings which will be all about products I recommend. Some might be sponsored, some will not. All will have some connection to plants or gardening.

The first entry is a non-sponsored review of some exceptionally designed, high-quality towels. Read more…

March 14, 2012

Springtime on steroids

I tried a little experiment documenting the effects of record high temperatures on emerging bulbs and perennials.



I captured several plants before work this morning at about 8 a.m., and the same plants at about 5:30 p.m. Some of the differences are subtle, and occurred because of daylight shifts as well as mild weather, but it’s fun to see changes in Hellebores, Hyacinths, and Crocuses.






The mild weather is bringing the blooms out early. Last year, the Crocuses didn’t bloom until April 9. This year, March 14 was the magic date.

I thought for sure the Daffodils would be blooming when I got home from work. It won’t take long now—they’re about ready to burst. And the forecast is showing mild weather for the next two weeks.



Other plants, including Pachysandras and Lilacs, are pregnant with buds.

The changes will come fast now. I’d be thrilled, except this weather is so unusual I’m worried about what it will mean for our summer ahead. For now, I’m happy to shed the coats and scarves and turn off the furnace.

I’m submitting this post to Carol’s Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day. Head on over and see what’s blooming in gardens around the world.

And it’s not too late to participate in the Lessons Learned and Seasonal Celebrations memes. We’ll be posting the wrap-ups on March 20!

March 11, 2012

First blooms out of the earthy dusk

Galanthus 'S. Arnott'

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,

Helleborus Orientalis

Flaming like the wild Roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

~ "Prairie Spring," by Willa Cather

March 06, 2012

Seasonal celebrations: oh my!

In every family, there are holidays celebrated with the larger society, and holidays and traditions unique to our smaller family units. March and April are chock full of shared holidays—St. Patrick’s Day, Palm Sunday, Easter.

But these two months also contain nine out of the 23 birthdays in our family (my husband’s and my parents, our siblings, and their families). That’s 39% of the birthdays in just two months! By the time May rolls around—a month when we have no birthdays—we’re ready for a break!

The celebrations of the next few weeks include the Shamrocks, Easter baskets, bunnies, and eggs common to the season. But our group also consumes a ton of cake, ice cream, wrapping paper, and birthday candles!

In among all these celebrations, we have to have some flowers!

Whether they’re part of an Easter centerpiece or a birthday bouquet, flowers are an integral part of this season. It’s a great opportunity for me to get creative with colors, textures, and whimsical elements.

And if I have flowers left over, there’s always another holiday or birthday to celebrate the next week!

(I’m joining in Donna’s new Seasonal Celebrations meme with this post. Please visit her blog, Gardens Eye View, for more information about her great new meme. And scroll down to link in to Garden Lessons Learned.)