Year of the wasp.

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Gosh, where has the summer gone? Spring was so chilly and dreary that I spent the first half of summer in spring mode, and now it seems we’ll have an early autumn. Already the nights are dropping to 10º Celcius (that’s 50º F to you Americans), and that’s unusual for early September around here.

This makes the hot-weather crops dubious now. The peppers have only recently started to set fruit, the figs didn’t form fruit at all, and now I’m worried that the melons won’t have time and conditions to ripen properly. There’s the old trick of ripening them with a ripe banana or apple, but the flavour never develops as fully or evenly as it does in the sun. And ripening melons nicely can be tricky even when conditions are right.

Let’s see, what else…well, the ‘Black Krim’ tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) have been ripening recently, but for some reason haven’t been turning black. The dwarf yellow cherry tomatoes ‘Hahms Gelbe Topftomate’ (love the cultigen name) have done pretty well too, but the plum tomatoes are a complete disaster. It’s partly my fault: the soil there is exhausted (and was never great to begin with). Recently I’ve been putting all my compost into other endeavours, such as refurbishing the strawberry bed last year, and in the large tubs. There’s also a problem with the neighbour’s trees sending roots into the vegetable plots.  Can’t really blame them; after all, it’s natural for roots to seek out water and nutrients. But of course it means they take all that goodness away from the vegetables, and make digging even more difficult.

I think next year I’ll move the large containers and potted fruit trees into that space and grow all my veg in tubs. Those neighbours are moving out soon, so you never know…the new people might decide to remove some of the trees. It would be really nice if they got rid of that godawful buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica).

On the topic of compost…oh gods below, the wasps. I never really noticed it, because there are always are few wasps around, but looking back I now realise that everything I did in the garden this year was accompanied by wasps of the yellow jacket sort (Vespula sp., most likely). The problem only became evident when I tried getting compost from one of the two bins. Turns out they’d made a nest in it. Yes, I got stung. That’s how I found out they were there. It’s never a pleasant experience.

So now there’s a Catch-22 situation. I can’t get rid of the wasps without removing the compost. I can’t remove the compost without getting rid of the wasps (at least, not without getting stung to death). I really don’t want to use insecticides because that would contaminate the compost, and since the nest is somewhere inside the compost there’s no guarantee it would work properly. If I could even get close enough to apply it.

As of now, the bin is open at both the top and bottom. Currently, what’s happening is that every so often I sneak up and take out one forkful or shovelful of compost, then run like hell. I’ve tried two traps; the standard bait of sugar water isn’t working at all. The other bait, which is pheromone based, isn’t working well either. The instructions say that it’s best in spring or early summer, which is when they’re looking to establish nests, but I thought it would be worth a shot.

Possibly the safest thing to do (other than getting a hazmat suit?) is to continue emptying the bin one shovel at a time (slow slow process) and leave the bin open for winter. Yellow jacket nests usually die out over winter anyway. On the other hand, it would be most satisfying to get rid of the buggers before that. This has really set me back; the proximity of the nest also makes it unsafe to work with the other compost bin or the muck heap. It would also set me back next year, because this autumn’s waste forms the basis of next spring’s first compost. Leaving the bin empty over winter would mean starting from scratch just when the compost is most needed.

I never minded the wasps before – they are important predators of other pests – but now I’m officially downgrading their status to that of pest themselves.

Another month, another season.

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Well, we’re well into summer and it’s still a very busy year. In most years, summer comes as a slight lull in gardening activity, but I’m afraid this summer is as busy as spring was. We had an unusually long, chilly, and wet spring and that held everything back by at least two weeks. As soon as the weather warmed up to something like normal, everything took off…including the weeds. I’m only now catching up with the weeding, the deadheading, and the pruning. The compost heap and bins have never been so full. Annual sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) and couch grass (Elymus repens) are especially bad this year.

Of course, all this is on top of the usual gardening tasks and life in general.

To make matters even more hectic, the back walkout needs repairs. The guy I contacted to do it got held back by the weather (as we all were), so what was supposed to be finished by the end of June, won’t be started until mid-next week (hopefully). Therefore, for over two weeks now, all the furniture (and more importantly, the potted plants) that normally live on that porch have been scattered around the place. In other words, getting in the way.

Anyway, it’s not all doom and gloom. Now that I’ve cleared out a major area at the front (of crappy landscaper foundation planting and this year’s thistle crop), I can finally look forward to planting that space up. I think planting up a new flowerbed is exciting for any gardener, especially those of us who use mostly perennials and don’t often have the opportunity to start from scratch. It’s a hot, sunny, rather dry area (the house faces southwest), and I’ve already got a couple roses and some irises for that spot (roses and irises already in that area love it). I’ll underplant the roses with some native wildflowers: long-leaved bluets (Houstonia longifolia) and wild lupins (Lupinus perennis). I’ve had all those for several weeks now, and they’re probably a little fed up of being in their pots. I haven’t had huge success with lupins in the past, but maybe third time lucky.

I need to clone myself.

Spring blues

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Oops, I did it again, I forgot about this blog, for over a month…

I’m not a Britney fan. It won’t catch on.

Anyway, this has been a particularly cool, wet spring so far. “April showers bring May flowers” is an annoyingly common expression around here, but this year the heavy rainfall is still going on, and it’s almost June. Of course, in a couple months I’ll be complaining about the hot dry weather. The rain’s also kept me from a couple of gardenscaping projects that I really need to get a move on with.

Aside from skirting the mythical flood, the cool temperatures have held most plants back, with some interesting results. For example, this is the first time all my tulips have bloomed at once; the early-mid varieties got held back to coincide with the later ones. Cool-weather crops, such as radishes and arugula, are still huddling in their pots. I haven’t even sown the carrots and peas yet, yet it’s time to plant out the tomatoes, only some of which are hardened off.

The Clematis occidentalis (can’t remember the common name) doesn’t seem to have made it through winter; up to a couple weeks ago I could fool myself that it was just late, like everything else, but now I think have to face that it isn’t coming back.

However, I did have a pleasant surprise to compensate, if that’s what one wants to call it. Three years ago I ordered two bare-root trumpet gentians (Gentiana acaulis). Not sure at the time where to plant them, I potted them up, then a year later planted one out under a spruce tree whose crown I had just lifted. I kept the other in its pot just for insurance. The planted one seemed to do okay there, and last week it flowered! I was surprised, because doing okay is not the same as thriving, but it seems to like it there. The soil is all wrong, but I suppose the spruce needles and half afternoon sun are to its liking.

So I planted out the second specimen next to it. There is a crested gentian (Gentiana septemfida) close by as well, which I had moved from another bed where it was getting crowded out.

I had been cautioned a long time ago that trumpet gentians can be easy to grow, but hard to get to flower, plus it seems that Gentiana acaulis is one of those plants (a whole group of plants, actually) that gets confused and messed around a lot in the horticultural world. Some time ago I got my grubby paws on a book about gentians* that explains both situations somewhat, but it was originally published in 1986, so who knows what’s happened since then.

Anyway:

Gentiana acaulis

Gentiana acaulis

The picture doesn’t really do justice to the colour; the blue is so intense it makes you want to blink. Which is why I ordered the plants in the first place. That little clump of green is all there is of the plant. I really hope it spreads more in the future (along with the second plant) and covers the place in eye-watering blue.

*Creatively titled Gentians. It’s actually half of a book, translated from German: Enziane und Glockenblumen** by Fritz Köhlen.

**Gentians and Bellflowers. I love that word Glockenblumen; I could probably go around annoying people by saying it all day.

Spring!

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Good heavens, I think I forgot all about this blog for six months. It’s not been a good year for me so far: not only did I hurt my hand just after Christmas, but I spent February and March sick (first the cold, then bronchitis). I can blame the screwy winter weather we had, but only partially. I unfortunately lost a few houseplants while I was sick in bed.

Anyway, now the spring weather has started and my lungs have seemingly cleared up, I’ve finally been able to get outside and start the year’s gardening. Some cleanup’s been done, the bonsai have been root-pruned (with the help of a “student”), I’ve begun the process of moving the potted plants outside from the garage, and the rainbarrels have…not really been set up yet.

Right now one barrel is in place, but last summer two of the rainbarrels developed cracks. I really have no idea why. One crack formed on the side of the barrel that was facing the sun…and the other developed on the side facing away from the sun. Over winter I found that regular silicone sealant didn’t cut it (I didn’t think it would, but you always try the simplest fix first, right?).

A couple days ago I applied resin-impregnated rigid-setting fibreglass patches to the outsides of the barrels, and then applied aquarium-grade silicone to the cracks on the inside. I hope the fibreglass patches will be able to hold back the pressure of the water pushing against the cracks, because if not, I’m not sure what else I can try, other than putting in liners. The sealant takes 48 hours to cure completely, so tomorrow I’ll put the barrels in place and wait for rain (which at this time of the year won’t take long).

What else? The one rainbarrel did get full a few days ago, so I sent most of that water to the tub pond. The last barrel is still in the garage, holding a little of last year’s rainwater that I need for the carnivorous plants and aquarium. The honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) is pruned back and the tulips are sprouting well. Some seeds have been started indoors, but I really need to get a move on and sow the others outside.

I suppose the only really noteworthy thing, plant-wise, at the moment, is that back in February, the pineapple plant finally flowered! I started that plant four years ago, using the top cut off from a store-bought pineapple. In good conditions it should only take two years or so to flower, but let’s face it, here in the cold white North we only have half a growing season (from a tropical plant’s point of view). I have to admit that I often wondered if it would ever flower at all.

The picture below is a month old, and it was taken roughly a month after I first noticed the bud (sick, remember, and not really a camera enthusiast). Right now the actual flowers have poked out of the nascent pineapple, and when that’s done the real growth begins. What impressed me the most is how much the thing looked like a pineapple from the start.

Pineapple 2019 03 06 (1 month)

 

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.

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.