Fall gardening.

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Gardening in autumn is a little depressing – it’s all about closing things down, after all. Disassembly, as it were, and looking forward to 4 or 5 months of cold and/or snow, around here. This year I’ve discovered a new reason to be depressed – looking at all the things I intended to do over the year, but didn’t have the time or energy for.

Depressing aside, it’s a busy time because it’s transitional. Sometimes there’s not much to do, but then suddenly it’s a mad rush. Logistically, I consider it a bit of a nightmare, because everything in containers (and I have a lot of those) needs to be stored eventually, but all at different times. And of course space is not unlimited, so organisation is important – not just for now, but for spring as well when different things break dormancy at different times. A (non-gardening) friend of mine observed it was like moving house twice a year.

One thing I finally did finish was getting rid of the junipers and pushing them through the woodchipper, so there’s a nice layer of very prickly mulch in the shrubbery now. The stumps have been pulled up, but I haven’t decided quite what to do about them yet. Otherwise, task-wise there’s nothing unusual going on; it’s all pretty typical stuff. The main highlight will be to saw a piece of outdoor plyboard (which I have yet to obtain) into a cover for the tub pond; last year’s arrangement of a few boards and a tarp was not satisfactory.

Of course, looking after all the tender plants indoors over winter presents its own set of challenges joys to look forward to.

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End of summer.

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It’s been an odd year in the garden, but it seems that I say that about every year. This August was the wettest I can remember, especially considering the drought pocket I live in. Aside from that, the long, cold spring basically held everything back by a couple weeks, and that seemed to propagate (no pun intended) throughout the year season. I found it most apparent in the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), which were also late in showing up this year. However, once they did turn up, there were more of them this year than any before. Every year I bring some caterpillars inside to raise, and again, this year I’ve released more than ever.

Some projects are in progress, and others are waiting. I’m afraid that real life intruded into the garden more than I usually allow it to, this year. There are/were three juniper bushes (Juniperus sp.) at the front of the house, a result of past decades when foundation planting was the de rigueur style of gardening. I have never had it satisfactorily explained to me why it’s called “foundation” planting, considering that it consists of a flat lawn and a few green blobs planted too close to the house and each other. A narrow flowerbed or two might have been included by the adventurous.

I don’t have a high opinion of foundation planting, by the way. And even by its own standards, the landscapers who did this house’s were inept, uncaring, or both.

Anyway, the junipers have been a needle in my side for a few years now, having grown too big for their own boots (which I admit is partly my own fault), so two of them are now stumps and scattered branches, and I can’t wait to get started on the third. I’ll leave the space empty until next spring, then decide what to put in. It’s an ideal spot for roses and bearded irises, but I like the idea of a little mock orange (Philadelphus cv.) there, perhaps in a large container that I can drag under shelter for winter. On the other hand, it would also be a good place for a cold frame.

The other part of the garden that needs revamping is the strawberry bed. The plants are over four years old now and past their productivity peak, and the soil seems to be very tired. So I’ve propagated a new set of plants from runners (which were also late this year) and when I have a moment, I will remove everything from the bed, dig in as much compost as I can scrape up, and then plant and mulch the new plants. Hopefully this will all be done by the end of September. However, a warm fall is predicted for us, so I should have some leeway.

I never got around to building the cage for the strawberry bed, so instead I’ll lay some pavers around the bed to provide an even surface, then build the cage next year. I hope.

There’s a lot more I could ramble on about, but this is all I have the patience for right now. Onward and upward.

Shades of milkweed.

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So…a long time ago, I planted the first swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata) in my garden. They had a lot going for them: native, hardy, lovely fragrance, monarch (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar host, pollinator magnet. In my view, which most don’t share, the only strike against them is the flower colour, because I’m unfond of pink. I got those plants at a native plant sale in the region.

The next year I was wandering through one of the local big box nurseries and was surprised to find them for sale there. Surprised, because native wildflowers are seldom offered in/by big commercial nurseries, especially in their wild, unaltered forms (which I generally prefer). Close examination of the label didn’t show anything sketchy; the picture was of a pink bloom, and there was no cultivar name mentioned. It even had the Latin name as well as the common. So I got a couple and planted them.

Then the big name nursery plants bloomed white, which I was pleased about at first, but puzzled; after all, the label showed pink. Disappointment followed disappointment, because the inflorescences were small, the blooms were practically scentless, and pollinators completely ignored them in favour of the wild forms growing a couple feet away. The only wildlife interested in them were the oleander aphids (Aphis nerii).

Turned out the plants were most likely a cultivar known as ‘Ice Ballet’, and mislabelled somewhere along the way. Oddly enough, a lot of descriptions of ‘Ice Ballet’ say they are fragrant. I didn’t keep them; they were on the compost heap before the summer was over (I do drastic things when disappointed). And I learned a valuable lesson about blindly trusting labels.

Why this trip down memory lane? Well, every year I let a few volunteer seedlings grow; partly out of laziness, partly to preserve them in case the parents die, and partly out of curiosity to see how they perform in various parts of the garden. One swamp milkweed seedling from last year is now blooming white. It’s not as strongly scented as the original, but still more scented than those ‘Ice Ballet’ plants were.

I personally feel it’s a spontaneous mutation, although I suppose it’s just possible some ‘Ice Ballet’ genetic material did get carried over by a confused pollinator and preserved over the years. I have had odd things happen with the milkweeds before, such as a hybrid between Asclepias incarnata and A. tuberosa (butterfly milkweed). That particular example looked just like the A. incarnata parent in all ways, except the colour of the flowers was the exact same orange of A. tuberosa. That one was a surprise.

To confuse matters a bit more, there is another milkweed commonly known (among other things) as white swamp milkweed: A. perennis, although it isn’t found around here.

I haven’t decided what to do with this one. Too bad it wasn’t a darker mutation; now that would have been something.

Basil.

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Huh. I never knew how ridiculously easy it is to propagate basil (Ocimum basilicum) from cuttings, just plopped in a jar of water. Live and learn. If I play this right, I might never need to buy basil again.

It’s funny what you can learn by accident.

Grief and glory.

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Actually, a prominent Canadian gardener named Ed Lawrence did write a gardening help book called Gardening Grief and Glory. It consists of answering specific questions he’d received over the years, so it’s highly specific, but if you have any of those problems, it’s also extremely helpful.

Where was I? Oh, right…more grief than glory, really. Can’t have one without the other, in gardening.

I’ll start with the grief. The two wild black raspberry bushes (Rubus occidentalis) finally got black raspberry orange rust (Arthuriomyces peckianus), a fungus that goes systemic and eventually kills the plant. It was really a matter of time; when one plants black or purple raspberries, especially the wild species, one does so in the certain knowledge that eventually this fungus will show up (in this part of the world, anyway). They’ve had a good innings; the two bushes have been around for eight years, so combined with the fact that they were free gifts from the local birds, I probably can’t complain.

Still, it’s disappointing. The berries were small but very plentiful and have a good flavour, and until now were trouble-free. I’ve made desserts, jam, and even wine vinegar from them in the past. Unfortunately, I can’t replant the same species in the same place, and at this point I don’t have anywhere else in the garden to establish a couple more plants. I could replace with red raspberries, which don’t get that particular disease…but are susceptible to diseases of their own.

Anyway, those are considerations for later. This year the harvest is as good as ever, so I’ll wait until the fruiting is done, then cut down, dig up, and burn my two old friends. I suppose it wouldn’t be a bad idea to leave the space fallow for the rest of the season, then fill in the gap next year.

The glory, while glorious, is fleeting: the Michigan lilies (Lilium michiganense) have finally bloomed. I’ve waited seven years for this; that’s right, seven actual years. I knew that when I got them, but then you spend six years wondering if it will ever really happen, or worrying that they might die first because you haven’t put them in the right spot or something. I have two clumps: one in the ground, and one in a pot as a sort of insurance. The one in the ground produced just one flower, while the entire potted clump flowered at once.

It’s a little odd that I have these; they’re the only type of true lily I have. I really don’t like lilies, especially the so-called Asiatic and Oriental hybrids and trumpet lilies, which are probably the most common ones in gardens. I think they look rather blowsy and overbearing, I really dislike the smell, and the plants look like weeds when not in bloom.

Michigan lilies are much more delicate and unscented; they also happen to be one of the few orange flowers I have. Despite the common and Latin names, they’re also native to this area. I haven’t decided if they were worth a seven year wait, but they are lovely. I also seem to remember that they were a little more expensive than the other forbs when I got them.

I haven’t noticed what, if any, insects are attracted to them, though, because the weather just turned so flaming hot and humid that I’ve not been inclined to navel-gaze as much in the garden. I know there’s no size perspective in the pictures below, but each flower is only about three inches across. Of course, if the petals spread out fully instead of reflexing, they’d be bigger.

And you know what links the glory to the grief? The clump of lilies growing in the ground is right next to the black raspberries. Funny old world, sometimes.

Casualties and disappointments.

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Well, now we are in late spring, I have to face facts and admit to myself that certain plants didn’t make it through winter. The black snakeroot (Actaea racemosa, formerly Cimicifuga racemosa) is gone, and none of the laburnum saplings (Laburnum anagyroides) have resprouted either. The snakeroot is a disappointment because it was a poor little leftover plant I rescued from the native plant “section” (really just a shelf stuck in a back corner) from one of the big name nurseries here. It was summer, and it was in pretty poor condition, going for half price at $1.50. Seriously, it was so bad that when I got it home, I looked at it again and thought, “Did I really spend a buck fifty on this?”

However, I planted it and nursed it back to life; it never thrived as such, but every year it did a little better for about five years. Until now.

The laburnums are disappointing because, well, I really really like them. Not just for their own sake, but I’ve always been a bit of a Tolkien nerd, and one of his two magic trees (Laurelin) was apparently inspired by the laburnum. I might still have a few of the seeds around, and if so I’ll try again.

The twinflowers (Linnaea borealis) I planted last year haven’t survived either, but that’s not such a surprise. Similarly, the wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). This represents my last try with wintergreen – they just don’t like it here. The soil is probably just too clay for them. And it was always a pipe dream with the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis x lingholm ‘Sheldonii’); I know the local climate is wrong for them, but the flowers made it worth trying. Three times.

Another long pointless post.

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I think I’ve finally put my finger on what the Iris ‘Hello Darkness’ smells like. It reminds me of an old brand of baby powder. I think the name of it was Ammens.

Spring progresses. Despite the cold and dismal start to it, I’ve learned that having a late spring means you get to see combinations of things that don’t usually bloom together. Some things are performing spectacularly: the honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is blooming like mad as usual, but for longer than usual. Other things are disappointing: all the hellebores (Helleborus cvs.) are growing healthily, but none bloomed at all. And of course the roses are late as well. None of the laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides) saplings have leafed out yet. I think at least some of them are alive, but it’s worrying; they were kept under shelter for winter and they weren’t this late last year.

On the other hand, the dwarf pomegranate (Punicum granatum var. nana), which also took its sweet time to resprout, has done so. I got another one just in case, so now I have two. At least now I know it is possible to overwinter them in dormancy in the (unheated) garage, so I won’t have to worry about finding space in the house for them.

Both the edible quinces (Cydonia oblonga) I potted last autumn (bought them bare-root) have flowered, which was a big surprise. They’re only a couple feet high, if that, so they must be older than I thought. I’m unsure about letting them set fruit; my head says I shouldn’t, but now that they’ve flowered, I really really want quinces from my own trees. Perhaps I’ll let them each bear one fruit. Decisions. Shoutout to TreeEater Nursery in British Columbia for some great stuff.

I never got around to sowing peas (Pisum sativum), so I don’t think I shall bother any more. It’s not absolutely too late to sow them, but I would rather get on with things and use the space for something else.

With other vegetables, this seems to be the year of the allium. The garlic (Allium sativum) is looking marvelous, and the onions (Allium cepa) are doing well so far. I decided to try growing leeks (Allium ampeloprasum cv.) this year too; so far I have a lot of seedlings and I really have no idea where to plant them. The walking/Egyptian onions (Allium x proliferum) are the best I’ve seen them – I’ve had trouble overwintering them before in milder winters, so dunno what happened there. And I got a clump of perennial bunching onions from my aunt, which I also am scratching my head to find a permanent place for.

I’m not sure what sort of “bunching onions” they are (a typical hazard of getting things from other people’s gardens, especially people who don’t bother with scientific names), but right now I’m leaning toward scallions, Allium fistulosum. Hm…I have chives (Allium schoenoprasum) and garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) too, so all I need to round out the collection is some shallots, and maybe some wild garlic.

I had really wanted to get a mock orange ‘Miniature Snowflake’ (Philadelphus ‘Miniature Snowflake’), but the nursery I went to had three different types of Philadelphus and at least one of them was definitely mislabelled. Since they weren’t in bloom at the time, I couldn’t be sure if ALL of them were mislabelled, so I ended up not getting one. Sigh. I’d be breaking the rules with this one, because it is non-native, nonedible, and perennial, but ever since I smelled one, it’s stuck with me. (Roses don’t count for the purposes of this rule.)

Finally, all the seedlings are hardened off now except the ‘Black Prince’ snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus ‘Black Prince’). Turns out I didn’t need to save seed and sow indoors after all; I had no idea the seeds were hardy around here, and there’s quite a crop of volunteer seedlings coming up on their own. I’ll pot up the ones I started and give them away. It’s an heirloom variety, so it should come true from seed.

Spring chores.

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I think I’ve actually caught up with my gardening tasks for the time being. It feels…weird.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do; I’ve already begun the hardening off/acclimatisation process for seedlings and indoor plants, and there’s always weeding. But all the specific jobs are done. The pond is cased in and refilled, the trellis wires for the hops and grape vines are redone, the patio fountain is cleaned out (properly, I mean), and the compost is turned.

Then again, it might be speaking too soon. Last Friday (May 4th) there was a severe windstorm throughout the region; many trees got blown over and shingles got torn off a lot of roofs. The week before that there was another windstorm, and that one blew down a lot of fences. (If for some reason you’ve been following my ramblings for a while, you’ve seen me complaining about the wind getting stronger over the past six-ish years.)

Fortunately, neither windstorm affected me, the house, or the garden. However, two friends lost parts of their fences, and one of them then lost a lovely blue spruce (Picea pungens) that she and her late husband planted fifty years ago. One person’s misfortune is another’s gain, and now I’ve got a stack of old fence boards and several large chunks of spruce trunk.

The fence boards are treated lumber, so I don’t want too much contact with them, or to let them leach into the soil. I think I’ll make staging out of those (basically, plant benches). The tree trunk will be used for pedestals and flowerpot stands (in fact, a couple pieces are already in use as such), and maybe I’ll slice up one or two to make stepping “stones”. I’d considered hollowing one out to make a trough or planter, but now I think that’s more work than it’s worth.

Other than that, spring is late, but progressing. The roses are finally budding out; I think all of them are alive, but they all need major pruning (next task for when they’ve sprouted a bit more). The bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) has come and gone, the tulips are about to open, and the moss phlox (Phlox subulata) is getting ready to bloom.

Is it spring yet?

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Been a month since the last post, so this one will probably ramble on a bit.

Not that there’s all that much to say, but I do ramble…a bit.

Anyway, the most immediate major project is done. My pond is basically just a big rectangular tub, and for various reasons I have it as a raised pond rather than in the ground. Last year I noticed the weight of the water was causing the sides of the tub to bulge, so I decided to make a case (essentially a huge bottomless crate) for it. This would support the sides, provide some insulation from temperature fluctuations in summer and cold in winter, and hopefully extend the lifespan of it in general. I guess the wooden box looks a little nicer than black plastic, but that sort of thing doesn’t bother me much. However, I was really pleased with how it went last year, so it’s worth putting the effort into making it better.

This meant reworking the stone and pebble base (don’t want a wooden box sitting directly on the soil), levelling, and fiddling about a bit lot, but it’s done now. As an added experiment, I used bricks to line and partition one side of the tub (about halfway high), which I filled with mud. The sides of the partition will serve as a shelf for smaller plants, and into the mud I will plant sweetflag (Acorus americanus). The stuff grows like a weed, and I am interested to see if it will survive once the pond is drained and covered for winter. Theoretically it should; containerised plants need to be rated at least two zones hardier to survive winter, and sweetflag meets that criterion. I think I’ll try it with northern blue flag (Iris versicolor) as well.

The next big construction project will be a cage to cover the strawberry patch. I’m being more ambitious with this one, because making it as a single construct would make it rather difficult to lift and manoeuvre about. The plan is to make it in two sections with hinges across the middle, so I can lift one section and let it rest over the other. I’ll make it out of 2×4’s so it’s really sturdy, and use half-inch hardware cloth to screen it – I don’t know for sure if chipmunks eat strawberries, but I do know they can pass through chickenwire. Hopefully I can get at least a decade of use out of it without the hassle of bird netting (which the squirrels chew right through).

Other than that, the usual tasks of this time of year are underway. The tomato and cauliflower seedlings are mostly pricked out, and it will be time to sow peas, radishes, lettuce and arugula soon, and fork over the vegetable plots. Most of the plants that were overwintering in the garage have been moved outside by now. The dahlias and calla lilies in the basement are showing their noses, and it will be time to start the re-acclimatisation process for other tender plants soon.

I also got most of the spring garden cleanup done today. I left a few things untouched, because I will dig them up over the next few days, pot them up, and donate them. Having the old growth still on them will let me know what they are (and where to find them).

Only other thing that comes to mind right now, is the little ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) plant I got a few weeks ago on a visit to a herbal nursery. A few friends and I make a trip of it each year, but by this point I don’t need a lot. Anyway, they had ginkgo plants that were still only a few inches tall, so I got one to try turning it into a bonsai.

…I foresee yet another construction project to house my growing collection of home-grown bonsai…

Finally!

When most people think about temperature forecasts around here at this time of year, they tend to be more interested in the highs. Me, I’m more interested in the lows. Warm (relatively) temperatures are nice, but it’s the cold that’s more likely to kill plants.

Anyway, the forecasted lows are finally such that I felt tentatively comfortable with placing some of the potted plants (overwintered in the [unheated] garage) outside today. The more cold hardy things started sprouting in the darkness weeks ago. For the forbs, it’s actually the roots you need to worry about dying in the cold, because a pot does not offer insulation the way the ground does. Top growth can be replaced; dead root crown = dead plant.

Very soon it will be time to root prune the bonsai, and then it’s time to start seeds indoors.