Changes.

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Just updated the Black Flowers page to include the beautiful Iris chrysographes; I bought the plant last year and the blooms first opened today.

I also added a picture to the Rose page; all the roses are blooming at once (for the second time ever) and I actually got a picture of it this time. Speaking of roses, I  got another one a week ago, a beautiful purple miniature called ‘Diamond Eyes’. No picture yet though.

I splurged last Saturday and bought a pond tub – a purpose-made one, as opposed to an ordinary tub or undrained large container. It got delivered on Tuesday. I’ll admit it was a bit of an impulse buy, but I don’t regret it at all. It’s 51 x 31 x 18 inches, which is deeper than many prefabricated ponds available, and that’s always been one of the main things holding me back from getting one: most of them just aren’t very deep. In fact, I would have liked it to be even deeper, say 6 inches or more.

Good thing I was revamping the container garden anyway, because that’s the only spot left with enough space to hold the pond where it would get enough sun. I’m not burying it, for a few reasons. First, my soil is just too. damn. hard. and. too. damn. stony. to excavate something that size and then deal with the spoil. Second, the entire property is on a slope, so I’d have to get fancy with the levelling (this is actually a minor consideration). Third, although I would love to have an in-ground pond that might even possibly attract a frog or toad or two (I love amphibians, and not just for their wildlife value; I really think they’re ridiculously cute and yes I know I’m weird), the local raccoons would make an absolute wreck of it and everything in it.

So I piled up some stone (and I have a lot of stones in my soil), levelled it off, and sat the pond on top of it. The elevation, plus the height of the tub itself, should make things harder for the nasty little bastards to mess things up. While they could easily jump up, even raccoons would have a hard time balancing on the lip of the tub while digging around inside it, without falling in (which they might decide to do anyway…). As long as I don’t put anything around it, they won’t having anything to sit up on.

Also, having it a few inches off the ground should make it a little easier on the old back. Not getting any younger here. In winter I can drain it and turn it upside down. It will be interesting to see if water evaporates slower or faster from one large container than a bunch of smaller ones. It would be nice to run a little fountain in it, but it’s too far from a power outlet.

It does, however, mean I need to rethink my original idea for what to do with the container garden. And now we need some rain. Last good rain we had was over two weeks ago, and the rain barrels are nearly empty. And therefore, so is the pond.

Anyway. Yay! Pond!

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No rest for the wicked.

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Why does it feel as if I have so much to do this spring? I didn’t buy and start that many plants, did I?

…oh wait, I did. Right.

I think I’m about two-thirds done with the planting out and potting up. Space is tight this spring. Really tight. I’m revamping part of the container garden, so things have to be done in stages…when actually everything needs to be done yesterday. After my whole life gardening, it’s still a surprise when suddenly everything seems to grow overnight.

Soon I’ll need to cage around the strawberry patch to keep the rabbits and squirrels (hate them all) and birds (like them a lot, but I’d still rather eat the strawberries myself) out. I also had dreams of planting all the brassicas in one spot and fleecing the whole thing over to keep out the accursed demonspawn cabbage white (Pieris rapae) butterflies, but it doesn’t look as if that’s going to happen.

We’ve had a nice, wet spring, and I mean it when I say I’m glad of it. But, and I should have seen this coming, it already means that the roses are starting to show black spot. Not only that, but the rose sawflies (Arge sp.) are out in force. I swear, they get worse every year.

And to top things off, I just got a mandevilla (Mandevilla cv.) dumped on me. It’s actually a rather nice one, but I wish my bloody relatives wouldn’t assume that just because I’m a mad, obsessed gardener, I’m happy to have any old rubbish in my garden.

I wish this whole post didn’t look so negative, because it’s actually been a really great spring in the garden. It just feels that it’s been too busy to enjoy it.

Babblings and ramblings.

That should be the title of most of my posts…

Well, the North American Native Plant Society’s plant sale at the Markham Civic Centre last Saturday was disappointing to say the least. From what I was told, the powers that be (either the Markham Civic Centre or the City of Markham, I’m not clear which) were quite obstructive this year by refusing to provide enough tables, refusing to allow ample setup times, and being unaccommodating in general. The NANPS had to drastically cut back on their offerings this year as a result. I didn’t find even half of the things I was looking for. This was my eighth year in a row going to that sale, so it’s been at that venue for at least that long, and probably more. So much for loyalty from civic officials. Typical.

Anyway, the spring frost date for my area is past now, so I’ve started planting out the hardy plants and hardening off some of the tender ones. The lettuce and arugula seedlings are well on their way now, so it’ll be time to prick them out soon; the onions and peas are well sprouted, and the carrots are just beginning to show.

My beloved next-door neighbours who are downsizing to a smaller house this year were throwing out a large stoneware jar (large as in over two feet tall and nearly as wide), so I raffed it. I almost couldn’t believe it, because I’ve rather envied it for a long time, and I also couldn’t believe that they were getting rid of it instead of taking it with them – they’ll still have a garden at their new house, and it belonged to his parents, after all. Possibly the fact that it had a crack had something to do with it, but a bit of silicone caulking and I now have a new tub pond.

I have to say, this spring has been a really good one in the garden. There’s been lots of rain and although it’s been a bit cool, it hasn’t been cold enough to set anything back. I’ve had a good display of tulips this year too – especially since the accursed rabbits haven’t bitten the flowers off this time. I think we need more hawks around here. And owls. I love owls.

All set for spring.

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April showers bring May flowers! Or something like that. The last couple years we had Aprils that were relatively dry, but this year we’re finally getting a more typically wet April. I know it sounds odd to “normal” people (i.e. non-gardeners/ non-farmers) to want rain, but spring rains really are a crucial source of groundwater for plants, even well into summer. And climate change isn’t going to improve matters, at least not in these parts where even in the past ten years, summers have become noticeably drier (and possibly hotter).

Anyway, today I planted the onion sets. The peas I planted last week are probably germinating as I type. The lettuce and arugula have already started to sprout. I really need to sow the carrots soon. The brassica (‘Melissa’ Savoy cabbage and ‘Di Sicilia Violetta’ purple cauliflower), tomato (‘San Marzano’, ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Hahms Gelbe Topftomate’) and lemon cucumber seedlings are well on their way. In fact, I ran out of room under the grow lights, so I started hardening off the brassica seedlings today – they tolerate cool temperatures better.

The bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) started blooming last week, as did the spicebush (Lindera benzoin). I’ve had the spicebush for three years now, and this is the first time it flowered…possibly because during its first winter here, the accursed demonspawn rabbits chewed it down. So this spring I’ve learned something new about it, which is that it produces masses of tiny yellow flowers first thing in spring, before it produces leaves, and that those flowers have a very pleasant, refreshing fragrance.

Everything else is going apace – the wood poppies (Stylophorum diphyllum) are just starting to bloom, and the yellow tulips will open within a week or two. The honeysuckle (Lonicerum tataricum), which I pruned three weeks ago, is well-leafed out and now starting to produce flower buds. The roses are unwrapped, unmounded and pruned, the hardy gladiolus (Gladiolus palustris) is finally sprouting, the camassias (Camassia quamash) are up, all the irises are well on their way, and I’m nearly done with spring garden cleanup. Right now the only worry is that I don’t see any sign of my Fritillaria persica showing yet.

I know it’s a month until our spring last-chance-of frost date, but right now everything looks set to be glorious.

…I’m not generally an optimistic person, so I’ve probably just jinxed myself.

Tea, anyone?

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Yay! My tea plants (Camellia sinensis) got here today. I originally ordered one, but the guy said he could fit two more similar-sized plants in the same box for the same shipping cost. Twist my arm, I got two (plus another plant for a friend).

These are the ‘Sochi’ variety, which is apparently one of the hardiest tea varieties. They still wouldn’t survive outside here without some serious winter protection, but at least it gives me some leeway when it comes to bringing them inside in autumn.

Because I really need more large houseplants in winter.

Of course, I know it won’t let me stop buying tea to drink (I’m addicted to tea), but growing tea is something I’ve always wanted to try. I’ve tried growing plants from seed several times, but never been able to get past the seedling stage.  I’ve read they don’t do so well as houseplants, but you never know until you try. I imagine the reasons are light and humidity, but my tropicals come through winter just fine in a south-facing bay window and with some humidifying tricks.

Other than that I think the trickiest part for me is the soil. As a species of camellia, I imagine they’d need rich, friable, and acidic soil…right now I’ve got them potted in a mixture of topsoil, vermiculite and worm compost, with a dusting of sulphur. Peat moss is the standard soil acidifier, but I personally don’t think it gets harvested sustainably, so I try not to use it. I know the aluminum sulphate people use on hydrangeas damages rhododendrons and azaleas, so I’ll avoid that. Need to think about this.

Spring is in the air.

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Well, the days have begun to warm up, so maybe we’ll have a decent spring this year. It would be slightly early, but not remarkably so. The American robins (Turdus migratorius) are out in force, along with the ubiquitous sparrows (Spizella spp.) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus).

My black hellebore (Helleborus ‘Winter Dreams Black’), which was overwintering in the garage, began flowering weeks ago. It’s glorious now. The tulips are sprouting and it will soon be time to start end-of-winter pruning on the honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) and the roses. And the neighbour’s wisteria.

Speaking of pruning, we’ve had a run of mild sunny days, so yesterday I root pruned the bonsai (argh, why are bonsai pots so expensive?). I also potted up one dahlia (‘Karma Chocolate’) crown that had just started to bud out, but left it in the garage, hoping that the lower temperature would slow it down a bit. Now I have to hope the shock won’t kill it…

And today I was wandering through the gardening section of my local predatory department store (the only one left around here now that all the other chains have come and gone). I wasn’t looking FOR anything, mind you, just looking, because I’m a compulsive gardener. They had sticky strips for catching indoor flying houseplant pests – specifically, fungus gnats, aphids, thrips, and whitefly. I don’t have a terrible problem with fungus gnats, haven’t had indoor aphids in a long time, and I’ve never had thrips at all, but the jasmines (Jasminum sambac) always get whitefly in late winter no matter what I do to them.

The butterworts (Pinguicula agnata) do a reasonable job catching whitefly – they’re often covered in whitefly, and I mean that in a good way. But they never catch all, so I decided to try these sticky strips (made in Sweden). They actually work – in just a couple hours they were already catching things. Interestingly, they might not be based on a pheromonal attractant – the box only mentions the bright yellow colour as the attractant. Experimentation might be in order.

Soon be time to start seeds. Leaf out.

Ginger snaps

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I dug up the ginger (Zingiber officinale) today. Edible ginger, not the ornamental sort. It wouldn’t survive winter around here in the ground (it is a tropical plant, after all), so I grow it in a large pot. When the weather starts turning cold (around the middle of October), I bring it in and stop watering it and that sends it into dormancy. Then I just leave it in the pot – that preserves it just as well as, if not better than, any other way, until I’m ready to use or replant it.

People often call it “ginger root”, but of course we don’t use the roots – what we use is actually the rhizome, a creeping underground stem.

I wasn’t desperate for ginger this year, so I never needed to harvest it. However, now is the time I need to think about replanting it for this year. It usually takes up to six weeks to break dormancy, and possibly up to six more weeks for it to actually sprout and grow strongly. If I start that process soon, it should be ready just in time for June, when the weather is reliably warm enough here that ginger can be left outside. I got my original piece years ago from the grocery – I highly doubt that it was organically grown, and I’ve heard that such things are often treated to prevent sprouting. In that case, it might take even longer to grow.

For a starter piece, choose a section that’s firm and has a few small bumps – these are the buds from which new growth will sprout. I like to leave it in a sealed transparent container in a warm place until the buds start turning green (breaking dormancy), then plant it. In the ground it should be planted about four inches deep; in a pot you can get away with planting it two inches deep. Once planted, water well and don’t water again until green leaves appear (or unless the soil dries out completely).

I’m always amazed by how much of a return ginger gives. The piece I planted last year was only a 2-inch section, if that; the piece I dug up measured just about 11 inches – more if you count the bit growing off the side. The rhizome has a strong linear tendency, so as it often does, this piece started distorting the pot when the ends hit the sides. I only use cheap flexible plastic pots for ginger now – I’ve actually had pots crack in the past because of the pressure the growing rhizome exerts. Same thing with ginger’s cousin turmeric (Curcuma longa).

Common sense would therefore suggest growing it in a trough, but it’s not necessarily that simple. As you can see in the picture, the roots need a fair bit of room to grow, so it would need to be a deep trough. Also, if growth is very good, side buds can strike off in their own directions…and hit the sides of the trough. I wouldn’t use a trough unless I can get a big one…which would be a bitch to lift and bring indoors in autumn. Sigh.

It would be nice, though. Leaving the plant undisturbed for a couple seasons could very well result in flowers. Z. officinale flowers aren’t all that spectacular, but it would be nice to do it at least once.

Back to the roots: they were very succulent and fleshy, even though the soil was bone dry. Of course, that’s why I can get away with growing ginger at all – they naturally have a dormancy response to drought. From certain angles, the whole thing looks like some sort of huge spider or centipede or something. The round cracked areas are the scars left from where the leaves grew (the view is from the top).

Ginger

Ginger

Growing ginger is pretty simple if it gets enough sun and warmth. It also likes good, fertile, friable soil and lots of water. If you can give it these things, you just have to sit back and watch it break the pot.

Why, plants, why?

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They do it to me every year. Containerised (potted) plants that I bring into the garage or the basement in late autumn/early winter for overwintering…start sprouting in February. That is, now.

Sigh. It’s still too cold to realistically put them outside and there’s no space left in the house where they’d get enough light to thrive. So every year I invariably end up with a front hall full of leggy plants.

I say it’s too cold, but right now it’s practically tropical for February in these parts. Despite forecasts of a more “normal” winter a few months ago, this winter has been another mild one for the books. There were a few colder spells, but overall it’s been mild. The temperature is forecast to drop again in several days, but still to above-average temperatures for the end of February.

So right now the ‘Black Star’ calla lily (Zantedeschia ‘Black Star’) is sprouting, as are one of the lotuses (Nelumbo cv.) and a water lily (Nymphaea cv.)…all things that need lots of sun, and in the case of the water lily, a pain in the arse to keep alive indoors. It’s a good thing I checked them, which I only did because I expect this to happen (and hope it doesn’t). That’s what I get for listening to long-term weather forecasts – if I’d overwintered them in the garage (not the calla lily), they’d probably have stayed dormant longer, but I wasn’t sure they’d survive the colder temperatures that were predicted. At least the dahlia tubers and other calla lily tubers (wrapped up in newspaper) haven’t started sprouting too. Yet.

Also, the hellebore ‘Winter Dreams Black’ started sprouting with a vengeance, but hellebores like cold weather, so I put that outside. Hopefully that will slow it down, but at least I know it will survive. You might be wondering why on earth I’m growing a hellebore in a pot – well, the shady spots in my garden that hellebores prefer not only have completely unsuitable soil (hard clay), but are not places I could easily enjoy the flowers at the end of winter/beginning of spring, when hellebores bloom.

You love your plants, you look after them, you do your best for them – and this is how they repay you. By growing.

Winter grays

…and not one of the fifty shades everyone was talking about.

It has now been three weeks in a row that we haven’t seen the sun here. According to the weather forecast, this isn’t going to change soon. I think the longest I can remember an overcast stretch here is two weeks, so three (with at least another on the way) is getting a bit dull (no pun intended). In late January I’d expect the days to just begin to lengthen, but in these conditions it’s hard to tell.

The garden has also put me on a new path, or rather, reintroduced me to an old one. After fighting with the hardpan clay under my property for years, I finally had a lightbulb moment last summer: make it work for me rather than against me. I played around with ceramics a lot as a child, and the clay under my backyard is actually pretty pure. I have more free time in winter (no garden), so I’ve been processing clay to make it workable. Hopefully when the weather warms up and I can be messy outside, I can build a few things for the garden, then take them somewhere to be fired. My very own terracotta pots and saucers, how nice that would be.

(Most potters will tell you that working with clay is quite therapeutic, but I suspect most modern potters don’t have to break their backs to dig it out of the ground, then thump it around either dry or in water so they can sieve the larger particles out by hand…)

I need to make friends with someone who has a stone grinder that I can use on all the shale in my garden as well. Shale is just compressed clay, and usually fairly soft as stone goes, so it would be wonderful to get rid of all the shale piled up in various corners that way. I could be wrong about this, but I seem to remember reading that a lot of clay used in the ceramics industry these days comes from pulverised shale.

Anyway, most of the clay I have is gray. As above, so below?

Winter houseplants 16: a few common diseases and Conclusion

Following from the previous post.

A few common houseplant diseases include:

Powdery mildew: this appears as a thin layer of powdery white fuzz on the leaves and stems, which later dry up and go brown. It likes to attack new leaves, which then grow distorted. Unusually for a fungus, this one actually takes hold when the conditions are warm and dry, but then spreads when things get more humid or moist.

Botrytis/grey mould: this looks just like the latter name says: a light, slightly fluffy mass of grey filaments growing on the surfaces of leaves, flowers, and stems. In addition to poor air circulation, it’s also encouraged by overfeeding and overwatering the plant.

Sooty mould: another one that’s what it says on the tin. It looks like patches, or a dusting, of tiny black specks. Unlike the others, this one doesn’t really affect the plant directly. In fact, it’s a symptom of something else: one of the pests I mentioned in the previous posts. Aphids, scale insects, and mealybugs suck sap from the plants and excrete a thick, sugary liquid called honeydew. This rains down on the plant parts below and creates a shiny, sticky buildup; this is what the sooty mould is growing and feeding on. Treat to get rid of the pests, then wipe off the sooty mould and honeydew with a damp cloth. Leaving it will only encourage more, and when it gets too thick it will inhibit photosynthesis. If the plant doesn’t have those pests, check the plants around it.

These three are among the most common and most cosmopolitan houseplant diseases. Individual plant species may be affected by their own particular ones; for example black spot on roses (which has happened on roses I’ve brought inside).

For people starting seedlings indoors, another fungal condition often rears its ugly head, called damping off. This is when a seedling suddenly develops a “soggy” weak spot on its stem, droops, and dies. There’s nothing you can do about it except prevent it by using clean materials, good air circulation, and perhaps a light sprinkling of sulphur or cinnamon.

Finally, I’ll talk about bacterial leaf spot, especially common on orchids. These look like little sunken chocolatey brown dots on the leaves that expand into larger spots or streaks, often with yellow haloes. I find spraying with hydrogen peroxide (from the pharmacy) helps greatly, but if it gets bad, then prune and burn.

I think that’s it for this series of posts. If it seems that I’ve repeated myself sometimes, well, I did. I’ll excuse that, however, by emphasising that any living thing is affected by the components of its environment as a whole, not as unrelated factors working in isolation. Moisture, soil, humidity, the container – these things all work in tandem to affect the plant’s health directly, and indirectly by influencing the plant’s resistance (or susceptibility) to disease and pests. Only light works independently of those factors, but it too is affected by (and affects) the plant’s surroundings.