Saturday, September 6, 2008

If you look closely you can see rivulets! Intense rain

Of all the "Wedding Movies", Monsoon Wedding is far and away my favorite. It's colorful, interesting, well plotted (subplots included), the cast is attractive and competent. I may have to watch it today to celebrate the arrival of the rain from Tropical Storm Hannah. After having plenty of rain through most of the summer, we hit a sort of a snag over the last month and a half. Temperatures in the Washington area in August were above average, as they have been fairly consistently for the last year and a half. Rainfall was infrequent; Reagan National Airport received approximately 2.25" less than would have been expected. Added to this were a number of recent days when the wind was high and the humidity was low, and shallowly rooted plants including many perennials, and plants that had not yet established root systems were showing significant stress.

Today's rain will be nice, we have almost 2" at noon, but it won't be a monsoon....still, to those of us who's jobs it is to establish and maintain plants and gardens, it does come as a welcome relief. Summer, which just ended meteorologically, has been broken. There will be hot days and there may be the need to water, but the urgency is gone. Thank you Hannah.

Friday, September 5, 2008

It's time for fall geophytes

Presuming Hannah (the Tropical Storm) comes through for us we could get significant rain. They say up to 7". Aside from making watering easier for the next few weeks if not the rest of the season, even 3" of rain would be enough to get the fall bulbs started and even, absent future rain, to bring them into bloom. Colchicum, Crocus spp., Sternbergia, Cyclamen...I'm probably missing a few, but they're fun bulbs. They are unusual in that you can plant them now, just before they bloom. This is because they stored up energy and formed buds last winter/spring and have been dormant all summer. Since it is a drought dormancy they can go right into the ground now and flower in the next month.

I planted 6 Colchicum, two varieties three each, at the Library last week. I'll dig some clumps of Crocus speciosus from the Adelphi garden, divide them, and move some to the Library when they appear; that ought to be later this week. We have accumulated some different varieties over the years and it would be doing the clumps a favor to divide them. Though I don't remember having ever transplanting Autumn Crocus before flowering, I have done it with the spring flowering types with no ill effects. I am sure this will work out. I'll move some Sternbergia too. Maybe the Friends of the Beltsville Library will buy some Cyclamen. I'm sure they will. Once planted, the bulbs will steadily multiply over the years and produce new propagules for moving into new spaces.

Over the years I have done designs for Schools, Churches, Orginizations and have always enjoyed it. The people involved are always gardeners, always enthusiastic, and almost always display a level of patience that is less common in homeowners or business owners. A good garden takes time to develop. You have to site the plants in such a way that when they reach maturity they are not crowding themselves, the hardscape, or the people who visit the garden. Even though these gardens are always managed by committee, as a "client" they seem always to be quite receptive to these requirements.

Planting these, less common, geophytes in such a conspicuous public space will, I hope, suggest them as options for visitor's their own gardens. Fall bulbs are one of the easiest, most exciting, least utilized groups of plants in the garden. Though sometimes cyclamen are eaten, as a general rule once you plant these guys all you have to do is....well nothing.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The best tools punish us as they break up horrible soil: Max prefers the mattock to the digging bar

If you are a gardener in the Washington area, or if you have had occasion to dig a hole even, then you know how awful most of our soil is. Now this isn't universally true; there are places with great soil; you are luckly if your garden is one of these places, but the odds are against you. I remember working at a Nursery and seeing happy young couples, beginning gardeners, headed out with carloads of plants never suspecting that their soil was like concrete. I tried not to imagine what they felt when they put their foot down on the shovel that first time and not only did it not plunge into the ground, it barely made an impression on the surface. I picture them looking nervously back at dozens of plants and wondering..... Wow. Not good. At this point the choices include hiring someone else to do the digging, which could be expensive but has obvious advantages. Explosives, not very practical. Or retooling.

Two tools work well to penetrate exposed subsoil or baked clay: a cutter mattock and a digging bar. As the years pass and your gardening improves the soil you may find that a spade will be an adequate tool for digging a hole, but likely not from the outset. A cutter mattock is a pick-like tool that has two flat blades, one end like an adze, the other set crosswise so that it can function as an axe. You swing it like a pick. A digging bar is a heavy iron bar about 1" in diameter and ~6' long with a chisel point at the end that penetrates the ground and a small disc at the top to protect your palm. It is a heavy brutal tool and it can beat you up. You use it by raising it vertically and bringing it down with force (the weight of the tool itself provides a good bit of force). It penetrates the soil nicely and exercises your arms even more.

As years go by, the addition of compost or other organic matter combined with repeated surface cultivation will make your soil better. Trust me it really will. Add organic matter at every opportunity. In the meantime, take solace in the knowledge that clay soil, for all its disadvantages, does hold water well, and also grabs minerals that might percolate through a sandy soil keeping them in position for your plants when they are needed.

Doug Hill seems like such a nice guy; why do I want to scream at him?

Don't meteorologists know we need rain sometimes?Are we, the gardeners, the only people who notice when it doesn't rain!?! Again we are suffering from an extreme deficit of precipitation and yet we have to listen to the meteorologists on the local news cheerfully assuring us that we don't have to worry about those clouds out there because they aren't going to produce any rain. And the weekend will be sunny and dry. As if that were a good thing when our gardens are wilting two days after we water them! I bet it bothers farmers more than it does me. But maybe they're more used to adversity than gardeners.

I suspect that we are at a place where professionals pretty much all live in condos with maintenance crews or have irrigation for their landscapes, so the absence of rain, if they even notice it, just isn't anything that resonates with them. When we do finally hit official "drought" conditions they are so all over it that you get sick of hearing about it. Roofs are good and walls, heating is good and insulation. Don't get me wrong, I love air conditioning. I remember not having it growing up, uncomfortably awake in the middle of the night longing for for a breeze or a thunderstorm to cool things off. I don't know why there weren't more murders. But is it good to be so divorced from nature that we don't notice farms, parks, and gardens drying up? I guess that will make us better able to adapt to life on generations long space voyages, or in sterile abiotic living quarters on hostile worlds. And eventually our agriculture will be all hydropinics and chemical synthesis. But for now....

George Washington filmed part of Jurassic Park here....I swear

Wherever you go in the tropics, at least in my limited experience, eastern hemisphere, western hemisphere, whatever, some part of Jurassic Park was filmed there. I love all plants, but must admit that I had always though of the Ti Plant, Cordyline terminalis, as too much; cheap, gaudy, tasteless. No one's right all the time. Snobbishness is probably not a good impetus to accurate judgement. Anyway, along the Road to Hana, a spectacular drive along the coast of Maui, is a wonderful garden, called presumptuously?, The Garden of Eden, where part of Jurassic Park was filmed. I'm sure. Damn, I'm doing it again. Cordylines everywhere. Beautiful plants everywhere, interspersed with views down forested valleys to the Ocean. I changed my mind about Ti Plants. They work in this garden.

At some point after this experience, I availed myself of a nice 10" 10 $ pot from Home Depot. It (now a 14" pot) lives in a bathroom window in the winter and outside in the summer. Every year I break off a few of the taller shoots and stick them back into the pot where they root almost immediately. It adds to the tropical ambiance of the back deck surrounded by gingers, passifloras, and Gordon the giant Ponytail Palm. Its easy, functional, and I have grown quite fond of it.

Something goes on with the foliage of these plants as the plant ages. Leaves on the young plants are usually flat with a dull surface. As the stems age, the leaves get larger, glossier, and darker with more interesting variegation and recurved edged. I haven't seen reference to this anywhere but I haven't spent too much time looking. If you do look a little online you will learn that there are dozens of cultivars with different forms of variegation. While most of these are available in more tropical areas, I have seen the odd block of unusual plants in Garden Centers locally.