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Winter Blooms: GBBD, January 2018

January 15, 2018
Pink cyclamen1January in Maine is a cold, white season. But the potted cyclamen plants I bought in December are providing warmth, color, and a winter flower fix. Both plants have been blooming profusely for over a month now, and I never get tired of the way their petals are set alight by sun streaming through my living room window.
streaked cyclamen2 pink cyclamen 2018-2

hyacinth buds januarySince flowers in the garden are still at least two months away (the first crocuses bloomed last year on March 30), it is good that I have promises of more indoor blooms to come. The two hyacinth  bulbs that I bought last winter when I was desperate for color and fragrance and then never got around to doing anything with after they finished blooming have put up new growth and flower buds. They look like they will bloom in the next two weeks.

amaryllis bud 2018Each year, I wait with baited breath to see which of my dozen or so potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs will make flowers. This week, I noticed a flower stalk coming up on this one. This is the first time it will bloom since I repotted all the bulbs three years ago, and I don’t know which variety it is. I thought it might be ‘Apple Blossom’ when I chose this celadon-colored pot for it. In a few weeks, I will know whether that guess was correct.

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see other winter blooms from the northern hemisphere and some summer blooms from the southern hemisphere.

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A New Year in the New Front Garden

December 31, 2017

Cover 2018This is the ninth consecutive year that I have created a gift calendar for family and friends, and the 2018 Jean’s Garden calendar is one of my favorites. As always, each month features a photograph taken by me in my own garden. Once again this year, I had the calendars printed at Lulu.com, a vendor with better than average photo reproduction.

In this year’s calendar, the images are predominantly of my new front garden, which is featured in February, March, June, July, August, September and October. I have been working on the front garden since 2015, when the addition on the front of my house was completed. The garden areas that were planted in 2015 were looking particularly lush and mature by 2017.  (The walkway to the patio, flanked by the porch border and the patio border and featured both on the cover of this year’s calendar and on the page for the month of June, provides an example of this mature look.)

Here are the images I used for each month of this year’s calendar:

January 2018 February 2018

January

February

March 2018 April 2018

March

April

May 2018 June 2018

May

June

July 2018 August 2018

July

August

September 2018 October 2018

September

October

November 2018 Decmber 2018

November

December

Anyone who would like their own personal copy of the Jean’s Garden calendar will find them available to the public for purchase from Lulu.com.

Happy New Year to all my gardening friends!

Rethinking Invasive Plants

December 27, 2017

Beyond the War on Invasive SpeciesFor several years, I have been concerned about the issue of invasive plants, and particularly about the challenge this poses for gardeners. (See, for example, Invasive Plants: What’s a Gardener To Do and Invasive Plants.)When I talk about invasive plants, I am not talking about “garden thugs,” plants that run riot in your garden. I am talking about non-native plants that escape from gardens, naturalize in the wild, and harm native ecosystems by out-competing native plants. In other words, invasive plants are not defined by how they behave in your garden, but by how they behave when they get out of your garden.

Most invasive plants were introduced into local environments intentionally, often by gardeners. For this reason, invasive plant programs try to prevent the introduction and propagation of problem plants through public education and through legal prohibition on the sale and propagation of the most problematic invasives. Invasive plant initiatives typically also go beyond prevention by trying to restore ecosystems  that have already been invaded and harmed by aggressive exotic plants.

This is a widely shared understanding of invasive plants, and it underlay my recent efforts to get my local Conservation Commission involved in an invasive plant project. But then I read Tao Orion’s Beyond the War on Invasive Species (Chelsea Green Publishing 2015), which challenged everything I thought I knew about invasive plants. Orion is a permaculture designer whose training is in agroecology and sustainable agriculture. She makes a very persuasive case for rethinking our approach to invasive species, and the key tenet of her argument is that invasive species are not a cause of damage to native ecosystems, but a symptom or effect of that damage. For exotic plants to take hold and naturalize in an ecosystem, she argues, there must be an available ecosystem niche, and the existence of that vacant niche is a sign of disruption in the native ecosystem.

But Orion does not stop at this fundamental challenge to current thinking about invasive species. She goes further by challenging the assumption that invasive plants contribute little or nothing to ecosystem services. For example, she notes that many invasive plants obtain an ecological advantage from being able to photosynthesize more than do native plant. Since atmospheric CO2 is a key ingredient in the process of photosynthesis, these invasive plants may be mitigating the effects of rising CO2 levels by removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sinking it in the ground.

Orion lives and works in the western United States, and many of her examples are from western ecosystems. One powerful case study is her analysis of salt cedar (Tamarisk), widely considered an invasive scourge in western riparian ecosystems where it is seen as outcompeting native willows and cottonwoods that are key to those ecosystems. She argues that salt cedar spreads aggressively where willows and cottonwoods are already in decline. And why are they in decline? Because of dams and other flood control measures that disrupt the cycle of periodic flooding on which willows and cottonwoods depend. What’s more, in river systems where river waters have been diverted for agricultural irrigation and are subject to increasing salinization because of agricultural fertilizer runoff, salt cedar plants perform the ecosystem service  of  “absorb[ing] salty water through their roots, acumulat[ing] salt within their tissues, and transpir[ing] freshwater through their leaves. Transpiration releases moisture into the atmosphere, and little by little, the salty water that other plants’ roots come in contact with is rendered less salty.” (p. 72)

Is Orion arguing that we should stop worrying about invasive species? Not at all. The presence of invasive plants is a sign of  trouble in an ecosystem. But she is arguing that, in order to understand both the effects of invasive plants and their control, we must “think like an ecosystem.” Simply killing off all the invasive plants, by whatever means necessary, will not restore the native ecosystem to its previous state. We must understand the disruption that created an ecological niche for the invasive plant, and we must also understand that ecosystems are always in the process of transition and the role of particular invasive plants in the processes of ecosystem succession. Orion is particularly concerned about the widespread use of herbicides in invasive plant eradication, and she provides a compelling analysis (chapter 1) of the harm done by so-called “inert” ingredients in popular herbicides.

In the last chapters of her book, Tao Orion considers the implications of her analysis for projects to control invasive species and restore native ecosystems.

One of the reasons we’ve been so misguided in our approach to managing invasive species is because managing them effectively requires something far more challenging and more powerful than the business-as-usual approach of aggressive, extensive annihilation of “offending” plants and animals. Effective management requires that before anything else – before we develop a plan or reach for the herbicide – we have to first teach ourselves to think differently…. [I]f we are to embrace the true meaning of ecological restoration as repairing degraded ecosystems, then we must move beyond short-term and short-sighted invasive species eradication measures and begin the necessary process of engaging the critical task of restoration on all fronts, from our homes and neighborhoods, to farms, forests, and the economic systems that support them – as well as restoring our own way of thinking. (p. 165)

And just as I was feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of this charge, I turned to Orion’s final chapter, which provided a step-by-step practical guide to putting these principles into action.

Beyond the War on Invasive Species has challenged me in ways that are both disquieting and exhilarating.  Not since Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home have I read a book that so powerfully changed my thinking about the complex ecosystems around me and my relationship to them.

Holiday Blooms: GBBD, December 2017

December 15, 2017

red Christmas cactus Winter has arrived in my part of the world, where the morning low temperature today was –10F. Out in the garden, all is white and frozen. In this holiday season, I depend on indoor houseplants for holiday blooms.

I have two holiday cactus (Schlumbergera) plants in bloom. The one that began blooming at Thanksgiving is almost done, with a few unopened buds and one pale lavender blossom. The smaller red one, received as a gift from a friend last Christmas, began blooming two weeks ago and is still going strong. The flamboyance of its layered red and white flowers always makes me smile.

lavender cactus bloom red and white cactus bloom

Streaked pink cyclamenFor the past two decades, I have depended on my cyclamen plants for flowers at the holidays and throughout the winter. But last year all of them were infected with mites and had to be thrown out. Two weeks ago, I stopped at  local farm that was selling flowering poinsettia and cyclamen plants for the holidays along with their Christmas trees and wreaths, and I picked out two new cyclamen. One is a hot pink similar to one of my old plants. The other has flowers streaked in pale pink and white. I love them both and hope to enjoy them for many years to come.

hot pink cyclamen flower streaked cyclamen flowers

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to find out what other bloggers have blooming during this holiday season.

Just In Time for the Holidays

November 27, 2017

Thanksgiving cactus 2017At this season of the year, the garden has gone into dormancy, and I am impatient for indoor blooms to replace those outdoors. Just in time, one of my holiday cactus (Schlumbergera) plants, the one that I think of as a “Thanksgiving cactus,” opened its first flower on Thanksgiving day. Other flowers have followed, and I expect the plant to be in glorious full bloom soon. I particularly enjoy the variety of its flowers, which range in color from lavender to salmon.

In my bedroom, another holiday cactus, this one with red flowers, looks as though its first flowers will open later this week, just in time for the arrival of December.

I have brought half of my amaryllis bulbs out of their period of darkness in the basement, but they always struggle to make flowers in my cool house.

Cyclamen are much better suited to the indoor temperatures of a Maine house in winter. Yesterday, I noticed that a local farm is selling these for the holiday season. I will stop there later this week and buy two or three plants in different colors to replace the ones that got infected with mites and were discarded last year.

Let the season of indoor blooms begin!

Snow Flowers and Holiday Blooms: GBBD, November 2017

November 15, 2017

First snow 2017After months of record warmth, our weather in Maine seems to have shifted from September to December, bypassing October and November altogether. The first snow fell earlier this week, with more forecast for tomorrow.

In the garden, snowy caps on seed heads, like these on echinacea and sedum along the Lavender Walk, evoke flowers.

echinacea snow flowers sedum snow flowers
But, amazingly, there are still some real flowers in my garden. These deep blue blooms on lavender ‘Hidcote’ provide a shot of color in a landscape of muted tones. lavender blooms in snow

It is time to turn to indoor blooms for my winter flower fix. Normally, I would have cyclamen blooming at this time of year, but all my cyclamen plants were infested with mites last year and had to be thrown out. I will begin to replace them this year.

Meanwhile, I am waiting for the holiday cactus (Schlumbergera) to begin blooming for the holidays. The pink one (on the left below) has big fat buds that will bloom for Thanksgiving next week. The red one looks like it will begin to bloom soon afterward.

pink cactus buds red cactus buds

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is a monthly garden party hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see the blooms others are enjoying this month (including the bounty from our friends in the southern hemisphere, where it is spring).

Favorite Garden Books: Understanding Perennials

November 1, 2017

Understanding Perennials: A New Look at an Old FavoriteLast May, when I began the first of two courses with William (Bill) Cullina, the President and CEO of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, the student sitting next to me in class had a copy of his book Understanding Perennials: A New Look at an Old Favorite (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) with her and noted that many of the images he was showing as part of his lecture were in the book. I already had Understanding Perennials on my “wish list” at the public library; that night when I got home, I put a hold on it and picked it up within the week. By the time I had finished the first chapter, I had gone online to buy my own  copy; by the time I had read half of it, it had become one of my top five favorite garden books.

Cullina sets the scene in Understanding Perennials by positing the world of plants as an alien culture and gardeners as “immigrants to the kingdom of plants.” Some gardeners are like tourists who never make much of an effort to learn the language or culture of the place they are visiting, “developing a rude sort of horticultural sign language that depends heavily on conjecture and leaves more than a fair share of casualties….” Others are more like permanent residents who are trying to assimilate, “learning some of the basic customs and phrases from gardening books and university night classes.”   Only a rare few truly immerse themselves in the alien culture, becoming as fluent as native speakers and really understanding plants. (pp. 4-5) Cullina seems to believe that most of his readers will be in the second group, and his goal is to help us move closer to true immersion in the culture of the plant kingdom. The problem, as he sees it, is that we are usually trying to learn about this kingdom and its culture from other immigrants, but the best teachers are the natives (plants themselves). He is convinced that the best tool for learning from plants is science, but that many would-be students are thwarted by the arcane language and densely complex prose of science. This book is intended to be a kind of cultural broker.

What I have aimed for is a work that translates the language and culture of plants and the language of science into words and concepts we can understand, and to do it with as much clarity, poetry, and purpose as I can muster.”  (p. 9)

Understanding Perennials does not shy away from the language of science; after all, Cullina’s mission is to make us more comfortable with a scientific understanding of plants. But he tries to use scientific terminology in ways that will not alienate a lay reader. Key terms are collected in a four-page glossary at the end of the book. In the main text, they are always set in a context of language and images familiar to a gardener. Cullina makes horticultural science personal by tying it to his own experiences in his own garden and in the greenhouse at Garden in the Woods (where he was in charge of plant propagation before he came to Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens) and to his own experiments with plants. The book  is chock-full of full-color photographs, and these images also make the lay gardener feel at home. But these are not just pretty pictures of pretty flowers in attractive settings. A series of images on page 35, for example, documents an experiment in which Cullina deprived a heart-leafed aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) of water and recorded what happened to the roots and the above-ground plant as it dried out – a powerful lesson about how drought damages a plant and why it may not recover immediately when it rains. In another example of science made accessible, an infrared photo of a potentilla flower on page 111 shows us the color patterns that a bee can see but that human eyes cannot.

Cullina also makes horticultural science accessible by tying it to personal experience and family life. A discussion of aphids, for example, includes the following;

Aphids are primarily after the protein in the phlom [sic], so most of the sugars are processed and secreted out their rear in the form of honeydew – as euphemistic a word for excrement as you are likely to hear. The next time I change the twins’ diapers, I’m going to call it “collectin’ the honeydew.’’

The structure of Understanding Perennials takes us from a chapter that introduces and defines perennials, differentiating them from annuals in growth and reproductive cycles, through a series of four chapters (on roots, leaves, stems, and flowers and seeds) that examine the anatomy and physiology of perennials, to chapters about gardening with perennials (on pests and diseases, botanical names, garden design, using cultivation methods that understand how plants interact with their environments, and methods of propagation). This is indeed an “owner’s manual” for perennials, and it is a book that no gardener who seriously wants to understand perennials should be without.