Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lessons Learned from Composting Experiences

Jack and I have composted the fallen leaves at our house since we moved here about 5 years ago. When we first started composting our leaves, I read a lot about the "rules" of composting. The rules say that you need a 30:1 ratio of "browns" (leaves and other high-carbon materials) to "greens" (grass, garden waste, and other high-nitrogen materials). If you have just leaves and grass, a pile composed of 2 parts leaves to 1 part grass clippings is ideal. But when, like us,  you have a mix of vegetable scraps and coffee grounds as your sources of nitrogen, calculating the correct ratio becomes too challenging. What are the consequences of getting the ratio wrong? Too much nitrogen and the pile can get too hot and become smelly (or so, I've read. We've never had this experience.) Too little and the pile won't heat up and is slow to decompose. We never had enough greens to reach the suggested carbon to nitrogen ratio so in the past we used bagged ammonium nitrate (34-0-0) fertilizer to make up for the lack of nitrogen. 

Other composting rules say that the pile must be kept moist, but not too wet, and that you must turn the pile to maintain good oxygen level while it is in the hot composting phase. Also, the materials in the pile (in particular, leaves) should be shredded or chopped to make the particles small, but not so small that airflow is inhibited. I never realized that composting was so complicated!! 

The first year we composted, we tried to do everything just right. We calculated carbon-to-nitrogen ratios (or tried to). We chopped and shredded. We moistened and turned. And we made compost, but it took a full year. 

At the other extreme in composting practices are those folks who don't observe composting rules; they just pile stuff up and wait. Over the years, our technique has moved more toward this end of the continuum. Experience has taught us that small particle size is important if we want our fall leaves to be usable compost by the next year. Jack now runs over the leaves 3-4 times with the lawnmower before we transfer them to the compost pile.  Moisture has proven to be important, too, and we water the leaves down as we build the pile so that the pile gets wet throughout. We stopped using chemical fertilizer as a nitrogen source (just our coffee grounds and vegetable and fruit waste), and it hasn't seemed to make a lot of difference in the heat of the pile. In fact, this thermometer is in a pile that was built with nothing but leaves and a few vegetable discards, and the temperature in the pile was 130 degrees.

So we've given up on obsessing about our compost pile and it seems to be doing just fine. These days, there are too many other important environmental (and other) issues to be concerned about!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Rhyme and Reason-February 2017

In  keeping with the spirit of St. Valentine's Day last week, this month's featured poem is one of the few romantic poems by Robert Frost.

The Rose Family

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple's a rose,
And the pear is and so's
The plum, I suppose
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose,
You, of course, are a rose-
But were always a rose.

What Frost alludes to is the scientific classification of plants, namely Taxonomy, which classifies all plants from the most inclusive group to the least. This modern system was created in the 18th century by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. The order used today (from most inclusive is least) is as follows: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. Linnaeus used binomial nomenclature (i.e. two names) to identify a specific plant, a species. So, for instance, rosa moschata is the taxonomic name species name for what is commonly known as the Musk Rose, a deciduous shrub. 
Now, in going  from the specific (species) to the more inclusive (family) in the taxonomic table you find that along with the rose, apples and pears and plums are all members of the family Rosaceae, a large Family of plants that includes the fruit trees in the poem as well as many other plants. If we were to go from the Family to the Genus of the fruits mentioned we would find that they are all separated from the rose at that level. And that the fruits are all separated from each other as well at the Genus level.
A fair question at this point would be, why the heck does this matter to me as a gardener? Well, most of the time, it doesn't make a bit of difference. However, if you had a rose that contracted rose rosette virus the recommendation for replacing that rose is not to use any plant in the Family rosaceae in that location. For instance, you wouldn't want to replace a rose rosette virus victim with Spirea, a plant also in the Rosaceae family.
While there may not be a lot of need to know the  Family of plants, there is definitely value in knowing the taxonomic species name. Whenever I give a presentation on plants I always use the species name along with the common name. After a recent garden presentation, a fellow Master Gardener asked me about the difference between snowdrops and snowflakes, two common names for winter/spring flowering bulbs. Snowdrops are of the specie Galanthus and snowflakes are Leucojum. The former grows about six inches tall and blooms in mid winter while the latter is 12-15 inchers tall and blooms in late winter, early Spring. In confusing the two, you could put a six inch  plant in an a poor location because you thought it would be a 12-15 inch. So don't think that the taxonomic name is "snooty"; it just makes sure we are all on the same page, or more specifically, the same plant.
All of this leads me to the plant I want to talk about for February: Helleborus orientalis, Lenten Roses. Lenten Roses are not in the Rosaceae family they are in the Ranunculaceae family, nevertheless I'm a huge fan of this plant. Hellebores are shade plants that grow 12-15 inches tall and bloom this time of year. The common name comes from the fact that its bloom time usually coincides with the Christian Lenten season. One of my goals as a gardener is to have something blooming in every month and Hellebores bloom when not a lot of other plants are blooming. Hellebores also are a year round plant, their only requirement is to cut off the old foliage prior to bloom. But wait there's more, Hellebores are also vole resistant, unlike Hostas. I no longer plant hostas because it pains me to find them destroyed by this little sightless rodent.  With spring planting season fast approaching this is definitely a plant to consider for your 2017-2018 shade garden.
And to close on the rose subject remember:
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet"
Juliet Capulet Act 2 Scene 2 in Wm. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Grow a Little Fruit Tree

Grow a Little Fruit Tree is the name of a book by Ann Ralph which has intrigued me for some three years.  It was published about the same time that we purchased our current house and I began dreaming about a new garden.  I was obsessed with the idea of a potager and designed something as close as I could get for the front of the house.

But that's the subject of a future post...back to fruit trees.  One of the elements of a potager is fruit trees.  Peaches are my favorite fruit, for eating and for cooking.  My father moved here last year from a little farm in Arkansas where he had a fruit orchard.  To help him feel at home, we planted six fruit trees in his backyard in High Point Terrace last spring.  I had told him about the Little Fruit Tree (LFT) technique, but he's 87 years old and told me that he trusted his way and didn't want to experiment. I understand.  However, one of his six trees was a little misformed - the runt, if you will - and he "graciously" designated it as my tree and told me that I could do what I wanted with it.  So I used the LFT method on it and it has performed as well as his "normal" trees, which have been fantastic.

We bought Daddy's trees from Willis Orchard Company in Cartersville, GA and were so pleased that I went back to them for mine.  I did some research and decided on one each of Redskin, Elberta, and Belle of Georgia.  These are all self pollinators and they have successive maturation dates.  I ordered 4-5' bareroot trees for spring delivery.  Imagine my surprise when I was notified that they would arrive last week!  It's not spring in my mind, but the fruit trees are budding and Willis said that if they delayed shipment until mid-March, they couldn't guarantee success.

So on they came.  We weren't able to plant them until last Sunday at which time I was down with a bad cold, so Daddy and Walter came to my rescue.  The lead photo shows them working on the second tree - that's Walter digging and Daddy supervising!

Now for the Little Fruit Tree part.  The LTF theory is that standard size trees are hardier than dwarf varieties.  Unfortunately, standard size trees very quickly grow past the ability of the average home gardener to prune them effectively.  So LTF uses an aggressive pruning schedule to keep the trees 5-6 feet tall, which most amateurs can handle without a ladder.  Let me give you an example.

Here is my Redskin peach tree before the initial LTF pruning:

Nice, right?

Here it is after the hard heading cut recommended by LTF:

I know you're gasping.  The tree is now about 24" high.  The idea is that the buds below the cut and above the graft will produce new branches which will eventually be pruned into a new scaffolding for the tree.

I'll keep you updated on this experiment.  And if you pay attention to the photo background, you'll get a little tease of the potager design!  The before and after of the other two trees:

Elberta - before
Elberta - after
Belle of Georgia - before
Belle of Georgia - after

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Mother's Orchid

Last year I bought my mother an orchid for Mother's Day. It was a very good-looking specimen, flush with buds and healthy green leaves. Some of the buds had already opened, and the bloom was an unusual color that I've never seen before (and can't name).  I took the plant to mama's nursing home and set it on the chest where she could see it when she was in bed. 

It was a good choice for a nursing home plant because the staff didn't need to take care of it. I watered it when I visited and if I forgot, no problem: orchids are very forgiving of being underwatered. It bloomed for several months and mama got a lot of enjoyment from it, although she never claimed it as her own. When I visited her, she would say, "Look, your orchid is still blooming!"

When it stopped blooming in late summer, I took it home with me for its rest period. I clipped back the bloom stalks to a node. This kind of pruning had resulted in a quick (although light) rebloom for me in the past. My intention was to take it back to the nursing home when new buds developed.

But the buds were slow to appear, and my mother died in October.  As winter approached, the orchid began to develop buds, and one day last week, the first flower appeared. 

Seeing this orchid bloom is bittersweet. It makes me miss my mother. I think about how she would enjoy seeing these blooms, and how, just last year, this same plant gave her pleasure. These blooms also remind me that we leave something of our own lives in every life we touch, even the life of a plant.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Anthurium for Valentine's Day

If your poinsettias are like mine, by early February they are
dropping bracts and beginning to look pitiful.  Like most flower lovers, I am ready to move on to the next flower in the seasonal line-up, namely, the fragrant and beautiful red roses associated with Valentine's Day.  In the language of flowers, red roses signify love, and it is no surprise that for many centuries they have dominated a holiday associated with romance.
Whether ordered online or purchased in the local grocery or florist, a variety of fragrant rose bouquets are available to delight a sweetheart, mother, or other special someone.  In 2016 we spent $1.9 billion on flowers for Valentine’s Day, no doubt mainly roses.  But not always.  I recall wiring hydrangea or tulip plants and mixed bouquets to my mother over the years.  

If you would like something more lasting than cut roses, however, and something less common than a potted hydrangea or tulip, let me suggest Anthurium.  People who have lived in Hawaii are probably familiar with it. This plant was suggested to me as a Valentine’s floral substitute by a friend. The name was unfamiliar to me, but not the description. Since that discussion, I have learned a lot about this genus and even ordered one from Rachel’s Flowers and Gifts so that I could study it up close and personal!  

It is the beautiful heart-shaped flowers and leaves that make Anthurium so fitting for this special holiday.  What I am calling the flowers bears closer scrutiny, however.  The actual flowers of Anthurium are not the red (or other colored) heart-shaped structures on stems rising from the pot; instead, the flowers are contained in dense spirals on the spadix, which is often elongated into a spike shape.  Beneath the spadix is the spathe, a type of bract we are familiar with from the "blooms" of poinsettias.  The spathe can extend out flat or in a curve or even rise backward like a hood.  All postures are evident on my specimen.  


The genus name comes from the Greek words anthos meaning a flower and oura meaning a tail referring to the tail-like spadix.  In its native zone 11 or 12, fruits develop from the flowers on the spadix—juicy berries usually containing two seeds.  Even without the “flowers,” the plant is attractive with its dark green foliage, which florists frequently use in floral displays.  Anthurium is in the Araceae or Arum Family, and is classified in a genus of herbs.  My potted specimen is terrestrial, but some often grow as epiphytes on other plants. Because Anthurium is tropical,  actually native to Columbia and Ecuador, in our zone 7, it is definitely a houseplant and unlikely to have fruits although supposedly long-lived.

The Missouri Botanical Garden has many specimens, and many hybrids come out of Hawaii.  Like other plants in the Araceae family, this one contains calcium oxalate crystals and is toxic.   Among its common names are flamingo lily, laceleaf and painter’s palette, but I have also heard it referred to as little boy plant. 😊  more info

I have been taking my Anthurium from room to room with me as I contemplate its features, and I have to admit that while it has its charms,  it doesn’t live up to roses, certainly not in aroma, but I am still happy I made it my Valentine’s plant this year.  I will see if I can keep it alive for a while by locating it in a sunny window, keeping it warm and humid, and watering it every day or two.  The real success of that will be if my plant puts forth new "blooms" and eventually gets big enough to divide.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Coloring In A Blank Space

I'm relatively new to Tennessee, having moved here just two years ago.  I was raised on a farm in eastern Arkansas, so planting and gardening is in my blood.  I've gardened ever since I purchased my first home in 1972, but it's been just recently that I have joined the Memphis Area Master Gardeners, a really great group of gardeners who can answer all your questions.  I am proud to be part of this organization.

That being said, my gardening project for this year is going to be adding landscape to a home that I purchased last fall.  The existing landscape consists of lots of red knockout roses, pink muhly grass and some reblooming azaleas which look pretty sad right now.  The first order of business for me is to prune what I have.  Late January and early February are the optimal times to prune roses.  An old gardener friend of mine once told me that she always pruned her beautiful roses on Valentine's Day.  She said that she always thought of roses on that day, so it always reminded her to prune.  The muhly grass is also ready to be pruned before the new shoots start popping out.  The same goes for the few sprouts of liriope that are growing in my flower beds.  

My blank space is my backyard.  A new flower bed is definitely called for in the back yard which mostly gets 100% sunshine.  My favorite flower is the daylily, Hemerocallis, which will take up most of the space in this new bed.  The word Hemerocallis is derived from two Greek words meaning "beauty" and "day," referring to the fact that each flower lasts only one day. To make up for this, there are many flower buds on each daylily flower stalk, and many stalks in each clump of plants, so, the flowering period of a clump is usually several weeks long. Many cultivars have more than one flowering period.  I brought several small specimens with me in pots when I moved, but they are beginning to sprout new foliage now and it's time that they get in the ground.  

The daylily is sometimes referred to as the perfect perennial.  Here are a few reasons why.  It is:
  • Available in a rainbow of colors and a variety of shapes and sizes.
  • Able to survive with very little care in a wide range of climates.
  • Suitable for all types of landscapes.
  • Drought tolerant when necessary, with relatively few pest and disease problems in most gardens.
  • Adaptable to various soil and light conditions.
  • Known to bloom from late spring until autumn.
So now I'd better wind this up and get my gardening tools out.  I'll keep you updated next time on how things go.  Here are a few pictures of daylilies that I have had in the past.  See you next time!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Spring Pruning: Too Early?

The warm weather this week makes me want to get in the garden. It would certainly be nice to get a jump on some of the spring gardening tasks because rainy spring weather often delays critical tasks. A walk around the garden revealed that some of our plants think that spring has arrived already. The roses have new growth and the daffodils have fat buds that are nearly ready to open.

I like to cut our rose bushes back in early spring because they tend to grow quite large in a single season.  All our roses bloom on new growth so I don't worry about losing blooms (although hard pruning can delay the bloom a bit). But the rule of thumb is to prune roses when the forsythia is blooming, and I have not seen any in bloom yet. So I knew it was a bit early, but since new growth has already started, I didn't see the harm in pruning now. But to confirm, I called the Memphis Botanic Garden and spoke to Rick Pudwell. He confirmed my suspicion that it was a bit early for pruning. He said that freezing weather could make the plant die back below the pruning cut. So I mostly pruned out dead wood, except for one bush that was really overgrown. I pruned this one back a bit, but saved the severe pruning for next month.

One of our early spring tasks every year is to cut back the liriope and evergreen ferns to remove the old, raggedy foliage before the new growth starts. Some people cut their liriope and ornamental grasses to the ground in the fall, but I enjoy the foliage (both the green of the lirope and the brown of the grasses) during the winter. So we usually wait to cut our foliage until the new growth just begins to emerge. Wait too long and it is difficult to cut the old growth without cutting the new sprouts. Cut it back early enough (before new growth begins) and you can use hedge clippers or a string trimmer and make a quick job of it. 

So, even though our evergreen ferns still looked pretty good,  I decided to take advantage of the warm temperatures to begin cutting back some of the worst-looking foliage on our autumn and holly ferns. While doing this, I was very surprised to see that the holly fern had already begun to produce new fiddleheads. This sight motivated me to cut back not only all our evergreen ferns but the liriope as well. Although I did not see any new growth on the autumn ferns or the liriope, with this continued mild weather I wouldn't be surprised to see new growth any day now. We seem to be on track for an early spring, regardless of Punxsutawney Phil's prediction of 6 more weeks of winter.