A Confusion of Mums

 


How hardy are the chrysanthemums sold at nurseries, garden centers, and grocery stores in the fall? What is a Dendranthema mum? Are any of the mums used for a fall display going to survive if planted in the ground afterward? The answers are “somewhat”, “no one really knows”, and “maybe”. Welcome to the wonderful world of chrysanthemums, a flowering plant second in popularity only to the rose, and just as susceptible to hybridization and the fickleness that is often a byproduct of botanical experimentation.

 


If a gardener is concerned at all about procuring a truly hardy, perennial mum when out shopping, he or she might be better off disregarding most of the confusing nomenclature and instead following the rough rule of thumb that the more daisy-like the chrysanthemum flower, the hardier the plant. All those pom-pom and button flowered cultivars have been created by plant hybridizers who were motivated by producing what they presumed to be the showiest flowers, in profusion and in a wide range of colors. As in anything else in life, there are trade-offs, and in the case of hybridized chrysanthemums, generally known as florists’ mums, the trade-off for an abundance of puffed up flowers in nearly every color was a weakened plant that many buyers treat as a tender annual.


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A mass of Korean chrysanthemums in bloom in October 2014 at the Conservatory Garden of New York City’s Central Park. Photo by Flickr user David McSpadden.


Here is a plant that has a short season of bloom, typically lasting only a month, which is not bad for a perennial, but is terrible for an annual. What makes most annuals a good value for gardeners is their tendency to bloom continuously for three or more months. Plant them in a particular spot in the garden and they will fill it with color for a season. Some annuals reseed themselves, making them yet a better value. Perennials typically flower a month or two in the year, but since gardeners don’t have to buy new ones each year, they are a good long term value. Many perennials also increase themselves by various means, such as underground runners in the case of truly hardy chrysanthemums.

The florists’ mums that take over stores in the fall are a marketer’s dream plant. Firstly, they demonstrate very well the axiom that “the flower sells the plant” because they have flowers to spare when the plants are at their relatively brief peak period of bloom. Secondly, their fickle requirements for success when planted out among the other perennials in a garden ensures they are only nominally perennials and are in practice annuals, and that translates to turnover for sellers, a yearly marketing bonanza as buyers get new plants each year. Lastly, the genetic pliability of chrysanthemums rewards the efforts of plant hybridizers to produce new and unusual cultivars year after year, driving novelty in the market and the higher profits accruing to patented plants.
Chrysanthemum zawadskii1
Chrysanthemum zawadskii in Osaka, Japan. Photo by KENPEI. These are also known as Korean chrysanthemums. The confusion of names makes plant selection difficult for people, but honey bees have no difficulty choosing to visit the flat, open flowers of these truly perennial chrysanthemums, which they prefer over the often tight quarters of the flowers on florists’ mums.

For gardeners who can’t resist picking up a few florists’ mums in the fall, the good news is that they can plant them out and get more than one brief season of bloom from them if they educate themselves about the plant’s requirements and take great care with them the first winter at least. Many gardeners may decide coddling florists’ mums is not worth the trouble, and for them the most pleasing mum in their gardens will be the truly perennial chrysanthemum, and it goes by many names, most often Dendranthema. There is a confusing history to that genus name, a name which for much of the late twentieth century actually applied to all chrysanthemums. Or most of them. It’s hard to tell. Probably it’s best not to bother about it too much. The truly perennial mums can be hard to find in plant nurseries and shops, and much easier to find in old cottage gardens. They’re the waist high mounds of plants covered in masses of daisy-like flowers that honey bees love visiting.
— Izzy

 

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Made in the Shade

 

For the home gardener or professional landscaper who absolutely must work in the sun on a hot day, there are no satisfactory ways to temporarily create sizable shaded areas. Beach umbrellas offer only a small circle of shade, can become dangerous projectiles in the wind, and at any rate are configured for people to sit under, not stand upright under, to gain their protection.

 

A portable canopy, such as may be found at a farmer’s market or a flea market, where it shades a seller’s wares, as well as the seller and any buyer, offers a sizable area of shade but is not as portable as one would like if the need arises to pick it up and move it several times during an afternoon of garden work. Four-legged canopies are also unsuitable on uneven ground, where they are likely to tip even without encouragement from a breeze. Preventing tipping requires the use of sandbags or other weights, and after a few repetitions setting up a so-called portable canopy becomes a real chore.

Guarda-chuvas em Cerveira
Umbrellas overhang a street in Vila Nova de Cerveira, Portugal, as part of an arts festival in August 2013. The original display of umbrellas in this way was in the Portuguese city of Águeda in 2011. Photo by Joseolgon.

Those are two of the more portable, easier to set up options. Other methods of creating shade, such as deploying sail shades, are hardly portable at all. The Labor Day weekend is the traditional end of summer in the United States, yet there is still plenty of hot weather in store for September and even into October. Working in a sunny garden would be more pleasant with the assistance of a device that is easily workable, portable, and gives a sizable amount of shade. What follows are guidelines for the inventor or inventors of such a sorely needed garden companion.

1) In order to be useful, the device should shade an area no less than 100 square feet, and still fold up compactly enough to fit in a small kit bag. It should weigh less than 20 pounds.

2) The device should remain stable on uneven ground and in the wind, though obviously within reason in both cases, and it should do so without the use of heavy weights.

3) One reasonably fit person should be able to erect the device or fold it up within a minute, and it should be easy for that person to move the device from one location to the next, also within a minute.

4) The shading material should be shade cloth with a density ranging from 60 to 80 percent, which allows cooling breezes through, is lighter than a more tightly woven fabric, and remains more stable in the wind.

5) The supports should be strong, light, and corrosion resistant. Use of spikes to anchor the device is inadvisable since shallowly penetrating spikes can be unreliable, and deeply penetrating ones negate portability.

6) Ideally it should cost less than $100, and definitely no more than $200, even though it should be able to take some rough treatment and last a decade or more.

Is that too much to ask? Certainly it may be too late to have the new Shade Giver ready this year, but surely by next year, when summer heat starts seeping in by April or May, some enterprising person will have created a prototype that could become the new Gardener’s Friend. Perhaps instead of a sail it will resemble one of the shells of the Sydney Opera House. Whatever the design of the device, it should bring sweet relief to those who must labor under the hot sun and still not hurt their backs or pocketbooks. In these warming times, asking for the protection provided by shade has become a necessary request.


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The Saga Siglar, a replica of a Viking ship, sails near Australia’s Sydney Opera House in September 1985. Photo by Islandmen.

— Izzy

 

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Under the Fig Tree

 

Figs are ripening now all across the southern United States, and by September the figs in the northern half of the country will ripen. If a gardener has 20 to 30 square feet to spare outside, preferably in a sunny spot protected from cold winter winds, then planting a fig tree would be a productive use of that space. For the gardener who doesn’t have enough outdoor space, then planting a dwarf fig tree in a pot and setting it by a sunny window is a great way to get plenty of fruits (technically a fig is not a fruit, but a fleshy stem with multiple ingrown flowers), and without a great deal of fuss over pests, diseases, and special requirements.

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A squirrel nibbling a fig in the Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar state, India. Photo by Flickr user Anandajoti.

 

A self-pollinating dwarf fig variety does not require a tiny wasp to pollinate it, unlike varieties such as Smyrna figs. Contrary to common belief, most figs commercially available these days, either as fresh or dried fruits in grocery stores, or as plants for sale to home gardeners, are self-pollinating varieties and therefore it is unlikely consumers will eat a tiny, imprisoned wasp in a fig. Even if they did, there’s no harm in it, and anyway the enzymes produced by the ripening fig will have dissolved the wasp by the time the fig is ready for consumption. That delicate crunchiness inside any ripe fig generally comes from the seeds, and rarely from an insect exoskeleton.

In growing figs outdoors, southern gardeners have a big advantage over northern gardeners because they have to do relatively little to protect their trees from winter cold. Wrapping the branches in burlap and perhaps adding a layer of mulch around the roots are all that is required in the South. There will be some branch die back even so in an average winter, but usually nothing like the major losses incurred by fig trees in the North unless gardeners lay the trees down in trenches and pile mulch and wind protection on top of them.


For a 2017 album, Blakey Morton performed Scott Joplin’s 1908 song “Fig Leaf Rag”.

 

Once a fig tree has established a vigorous root system over the course of five to ten years it can withstand die back of the entire above ground portion and still bounce back in the spring with enough new growth to produce fruit later in the summer. But the difficulty in the North is that without sufficient winter protection the roots themselves may die, and of course that is the end of the tree. Italian immigrants to the northeastern part of the country deemed the extra work worthwhile for the sweet figs they could pluck off their own trees at the end of summer, and they introduced the practice of laying the trees down in winter when they first started arriving in this country in the late nineteenth century. The people of this country, almost all descendants of immigrants themselves, can surely appreciate the sweet taste of the fig along with its rich lore and its association with other immigrants and their generous sharing of knowledge; and since a fig is much more in cultures around the world than a simple fruit, perhaps the people of this country of immigrants can even find enlightenment under the fig tree, wherever it grows.
— Izzy

 

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Weed Is the Word

 

There are many respectable plants bearing the word “weed” in their common name, such as Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium spp.), and Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Some are easily available at garden centers, some are available only by mail order, while still others will show up in the garden on their own. All demonstrate a propensity for spreading easily if conditions are right, and that is perhaps the reason for the designation “weed” in their common names. Latin names typically are not prejudiced against these less formal plants that straddle both the garden and the wilds.

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Monarch butterfly on a Butterfly Weed at Cape May National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey. Photo by Laura Perlick for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

 

Some gardeners do not look beyond the word “weed” in a name before they reach for their hoe or a chemical plant killer. They are not independent thinkers, but ones who are locked into a binary view of the natural world, viewing everything as either good or bad. Try to explain to them that the inclusion of “weed” in a plant’s name can be merely a case of poor public relations. It’s worthwhile to get overly judgmental gardeners to stay their hand regarding these plants because they are often beneficial to butterflies, birds, and other wildlife, more so than a highly hybridized rose bush.

Other weeds, of course, do not have the word included in their name but have acquired it as a general type by reputation. For those weeds, gardeners and farmers have less tolerance and are apt to destroy them whenever encountered, though even those exist on a sliding scale. People are divided into several camps about Dandelions (Taraxacum spp.), for example, while they nearly universally abhor Palmer’s Pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) and Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium berlandieri). Even those last two plants offer the feature of edibility, making them attractive on however limited a basis to at least some people and animals.

One important group of plants has acquired the name “weed”, and they are in the genus Cannabis, also known as Marijuana. Growers and users of the plant have called it “weed” and many other names besides for reasons of its outlaw, rebel status, as well as its diverse nature in checking off boxes from good to bad. Marijuana plants can spread readily on their own; mismanaged large scale cultivation, as opposed to the former practice of clandestinely maintaining relatively small plots, can have a negative impact on the environment; and for people the plant can range in usefulness from good to bad depending on the inclinations and prejudices of the person beholding it.



Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman performs “Surfin’ Bird”, a hit song for The Trashmen in 1963, in the 1987 movie Back to the Beach, with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.

 

The word “weed” embraces many meanings, and means different things to different people depending on their tolerance level. To hear “weed” in a plant’s name and automatically seek to eradicate it from the garden is arbitrary and foolish. Better to take a more nuanced approach regarding the plants that don’t threaten to choke out every other plant in a garden plot. Some can be seen as friendlier than others regardless of being handicapped with a bad name. As for that other kind of “weed”, the kind some folks like to smoke, legally it’s gaining more widespread favor despite its outlaw name.
— Izzy

 

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Sour Grapes

 

Legal judgments in lawsuits against the makers of Roundup herbicide continue accumulating in the plaintiffs’ favor, with the latest one entailing an award of $2.05 billion to a married couple who alleged that they each contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) from years of using the herbicide in their home garden. As in many lawsuits, high dollar amounts are likely to come down a great deal in the final settlement, and most of the money will end up in the hands of lawyers, not the plaintiffs.

 

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup and similar generic herbicides, and it is glyphosate which the plaintiffs in thousands of lawsuits around the country are alleging is linked to their cancer. Meanwhile, glyphosate continues to be readily available without label warnings to home gardeners as well as professional landscapers and farmers since the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not ruled it is a carcinogen. European environmental and health organizations have ruled glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, differing from their American counterparts because they reviewed independent scientific studies instead of regulatory studies, many of them funded by agribusiness.

Wilted thistle
Welted thistle (Carduus crispus) possesses some fine qualities, including pretty flowers as seen here, but most people consider it a weed. Photo by dae jeung kim.

While United States government agencies continue to tilt the scales in favor of agribusiness, the courts appear to have no such bias. Consumers in that case have little recourse other than to seek compensation through the courts for their pain and suffering, which they allege were caused by the makers of Roundup (first Monsanto, and currently Bayer) and other purveyors of glyphosate herbicides. Consumers who are still healthy and use herbicides might want to exercise caution by looking for other options, though the only way they would know that is through their own research or by word of mouth, since there continue to be no cautionary statements about the risk of cancer on the label of glyphosate products the way there are for instance on cigarette packs.

Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket
Bottles of vinegar at a supermarket. Safer to use than horticultural vinegar, this more easily available common household vinegar may be a better option for casual users who do not require a heavy duty herbicide. Photo by Ms angie gray.

 

A safer herbicide option is vinegar. Ancient cultures derived vinegar from soured grape wine, but since it can be made from anything that produces ethanol, today most of it is sourced from corn, a cheap source. Unlike glyphosate, which migrates to the roots of affected plants, vinegar only burns the tops, meaning gardeners will have to reapply it when the weed sprouts new growth. Also unlike glyphosate, vinegar does not damage soil fertility with long term use. Damage to soil fertility is another effect of glyphosate that the manufacturers dispute even though some scientific researchers have upheld the observations of the effect by attentive farmers and gardeners.

Gardeners will be disappointed in the weak effect of using the vinegar commonly sold in grocery or home improvement stores, and that is because it is only a 5 to 7 percent solution of acetic acid in water meant for pickling food or cleaning surfaces, not killing weeds. For home gardeners, the most effective vinegar for killing weeds that is appropriately labeled as such, with accompanying safety warnings, is 20 to 30 percent acetic acid. Probably by reason of the low popularity of strong vinegar and the danger for casual users in believing it is relatively harmless, it appears to be available online only, not in stores. Vinegar that strong, while still mostly water, is potently acrid stuff which can burn a user’s mucous membranes, eyes, and skin, and may corrode hard surfaces and harm any small animals, such as toads, living in a garden. Test a small area first if there’s a chance overspray could affect something like bricks in a walkway. The best that can be said is it’s a good thing weeds are outside in the open air. Spraying strong vinegar in the garden may be unpleasant for the applicator and those in the vicinity and should be done with caution, but unlike using glyphosate, there’s less risk of serious damage to the gardener and the garden.
— Izzy

 

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The Most Desirable Undesirable

 

It’s May and the sweet, citrusy smell of honeysuckle blossoms fills the air. For many people around the country the honeysuckle smells are emanating from invasive Asian and European species that have come to dominate the native honeysuckles in the landscape in the past century and more. The honeysuckle genus, Lonicera, encompasses more than 180 species from around the world, of which about 20 are native to North America. The primary reason any of this matters to American gardeners is how the invasive species, once a welcome addition to the landscape, will overwhelm other plants given even a little leeway.

 

Besides the bush honeysuckles which dominate the understory in woodlands and arch their branches into the space of neighbors in the garden, there are the twining vines of the Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), which make their way into absolutely everything, whether along the ground or into the canopies of trees, robbing their hosts of sunlight, water, and nutrients. Once the blooms are done, red or purple berries follow, which birds love to eat, making sure the plants spread everywhere the birds go. Honeysuckle bushes and vines can also readily spread by layering, which is to say that parts of them touching soil develop roots, creating a leapfrog effect of new plants. Cut one section down to the ground, and likely as not another new plant has already started a few feet away.

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A ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sips nectar from a North American trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Photo by jeffreyw.

There are a number of other aggressive plants which have less to recommend them than the honeysuckles. English ivy (Hedera helix), for instance, offers no sweet fragrance or much in the way of bird food. Misguided people encourage it to grow on buildings, when what they would be better off planting is Boston ivy (Parthenicissus tricuspidata), a better behaved climber which won’t invade the mortar on brick structures, corroding it and pulling it out. Wild grape (Vitis spp.) has only found cultivated use in contributing genetic material to vineyard varieties. No one plants wild grape itself. It is mostly found in woodlands and has no ornamental value, though of course that is in the eye of the beholder.

 

2016-05-29 17 05 34 Honeysuckle blooming along Franklin Farm Road in the Franklin Farm section of Oak Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia
Japanese honeysuckle blooming along Franklin Farm Road in the Franklin Farm section of Oak Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Famartin. The blooms turn from white when they first open to yellow as they age.

Japanese honeysuckle and the bush honeysuckles are here to stay – there’s no eradicating such successful invaders who are popular with the native fauna, if not flora – and coping with them therefore becomes a state of mind as much as physical labor. Step outside in May and inhale the intoxicating scent of their flowers and observe butterflies and hummingbirds helping themselves to the nectar, and in summer take your ease in the shade or indoors while the berries form, knowing birds are noting their ripening until fall when they will descend on the plants and devour the berries, spreading new plants far and wide. It’s too hot and bothersome in summer to get after the honeysuckle with implements of destruction, but in winter when it’s cool and memories of their pleasant attributes are far away, get after those suckers and yank ’em out root and branch. Don’t worry – you’ll likely never get rid of them altogether, and come spring there will be a new birth of honeysuckle and with it a wonderfully sweet scent in the May air.
— Izzy

 

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Good Odds

 

Gardeners may have heard it’s best to use odd numbers of similar plants in groupings and wondered why odd numbers are supposed to be more aesthetically pleasing than even numbers. Perhaps some authoritative figure in garden design plucked that rule out of the air and everyone has followed it blindly ever since. The rule doesn’t apply in situations where pairs work best, such as one columnar arbor vitae on each side of an entrance. A gardener would have to be daft to try to force another arbor vitae in there somewhere in order to obey the odd number rule, disrupting the natural harmony of pairs at entrances, gates, and arbors, where the architectural feature itself presents a third, central element.
Plumeria (Frangipani) flowers
Plumeria (frangipani) flowers in Don Tao, Si Phan Don, Laos. Photo by Basile Morin. Humans and other animals often present paired symmetries of even numbers, while plants more often than not have odd numbers of parts, as in the five petals of these frangipani flowers.

No one seems to know for sure why odd numbers in plant groupings are more pleasing, at least in an informal garden. Informality could be the key, since some people find the formality of even numbered groupings pleasing, but that appreciation doesn’t appear to come naturally to our brains, which look for a central focus in a grouping, something that presents itself naturally in odd numbered groupings. More than seven plants in a grouping starts to lose coherence and people can only vaguely get an idea of the center, rather than zeroing in on a central plant.

In a 2008 appearance on Sesame Street, Feist sings her song “1234” with help from groups of Muppets. Four is of course an even number, but you may note as you enjoy the music whether the presence of Feist herself changes the dynamic from even to odd groupings, dissimilar as she is to a Muppet. There’s certainly nothing stiff or formal about the presentation.

Experiment with different numbered groupings of similar shrubs, perennials, or annuals, and you will most likely find that without thinking about it you find odd numbers more pleasing and natural if you prefer a less formal garden, and even numbers naturally create a more formal feeling. These are arrangements nature appears to have adopted, like golden section proportions and Fibonacci spirals. The patterns most prevalent in nature seem to bypass our reason and appeal directly to our core because it’s what we are immersed in from birth, and that still begs the question of why nature prefers some patterns over others. Efficiency? Possibly that’s a part of it. Beyond that is a mystery, like the appeal of music. Many observable patterns are essentially visual representations of music, and we enjoy them because we typically enjoy harmony. When gardening, it helps to listen as well as look.
— Izzy

 

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Daffodilly March

 

In most of the country, daffodils (genus Narcissus) bloom in March and are among the first signs of spring. Some places might have blooms as early as February, and others not until April. In all places, the leaves pop up from the ground while freezing weather is still frequent, and inexperienced gardeners and curious onlookers worry that the plants have come up too early and will suffer damage from the cold. Not to worry. The daffodils have been through it all before and will be fine. Any damage they do incur from late winter weather usually comes from being bent down to the ground or snapped by the weight of a late snow or ice storm.

 

Deer, rabbits, and squirrels do not eat daffodil bulbs, foliage, or flowers since they are toxic. The plants spread by jumping from place to place by seed dispersal as well as increasing into clumps formed by daughter bulbs dividing from their parent bulbs, rather like offspring who have matured and set up housekeeping next door. Not all daffodils are noticeably fragrant, and as often happens with flowers it is the older, original varieties that are most fragrant, because plant hybridizers sometimes lose that aspect in pursuit of other traits such as size or color. Trade-offs.

Narcissus poeticus
Narcissus poeticus. Photo by Jean-Jacques MILAN.

Despite a substantial list of pests, fungi, and viruses that can adversely affect daffodils, in practice they should not gravely concern the gardener since the daffodils seem to cope well on their own. The worst condition affecting daffodils, particularly their bulbs, comes from poor drainage or excessive water, particularly in winter. Hardly anyone likes cold, wet feet, and daffodils are no exception. On account of the wet winter in most of the eastern half of the United States, daffodil displays may be subdued this March.

In the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago, a long winter finally turns to spring, heralded by a field of daffodils.

About the only thing an American gardener can say against daffodils is that they are not native to North America or to any part of the Western Hemisphere. Daffodils originate from southern Europe and northern Africa. That daffodils are not native here is an academic complaint, however, since the genie can hardly be stuffed back in the bottle at this point. Most of the people living now in the Western Hemisphere do not belong here, either, and it’s possible to argue they have done far more damage to the native habitat than anything innocent daffodils could have done. On the contrary, daffodils perform a great service everywhere because their trouble free disposition, loosening of hard soils, and cheerful announcement of spring give a greater portion to the gardener and non-gardener alike than they require in return.
— Izzy

 

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Pick the Right Tools

 

People who don’t do hard physical labor regularly are quite taken with tools that make it appear the person wielding them is really doing a lot, such as pickaxes and sledgehammers. Using those tools will indeed wear out even the fittest person over the course of a day, which is why the professional laborer who has to get up the next morning and work again all day uses those tools sparingly given the option, and will resort to other tools that may take longer to do a job but will save wear on tear on the user’s body.

 

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A pickaxe works best at breaking up hard ground. Photo by cogdogblog.

A pickaxe is good for breaking up dry, rocky ground, but not as good for working on normal soil as a mattock. A pickaxe is a better tool overall for a miner than it is for a gardener. Swinging it certainly does make it look like the laborer is going at the job full bore, however, and ultimately that may be what it takes to satisfy the homeowner who is paying the laborer to make work look chain gang hard. Sledgehammers are more directly up that same alley, since they have limited uses in everyday gardening, but are great for breaking rocks in a sweaty, back-breaking setting. Maybe that’s what some people are paying to see.

Another tool amateurs feel compelled to use themselves and are gratified to see professionals use on their behalf are powered shears. About the only shrub that can tolerate shearing long term is privet; everything else will turn into stiffly twigged shells of foliage needing frequent shearing to look presentable, and that only at a passing glance. Any closer examination will reveal a shrub with nothing going on inside but the dead, moldering pile-up of sticks and leaves from past shearing.

 

It’s better to cut back shrubs with hand pruners, even though a hedgerow will take longer to do than with powered shears. The time will be made up in longer intervals between cuttings, and the shrubs will be healthier. It’s fussy work and it doesn’t make a lot of noise and commotion like the powered shears do, and that upsets some people who like the roar of machinery as much as the sweat of unnecessarily hard physical labor in order to convince themselves that work is being accomplished.

FARM WORKERS SHOULDER TOOLS AT END OF DAY NEAR RIPLEY, IN THE FERTILE PALO VERDE VALLEY OF THE LOWER COLORADO RIVER... - NARA - 547716
Farm workers shoulder their tools at the end of the day near Ripley, in the Palo Verde Valley of the lower Colorado River in California in May 1972. Environmental Protection Agency photo by Charles O’Rear.

A few good shovels, hand pruners and saws, maybe loppers, powered or manual shears for cutting back perennials only instead of cutting back shrubs, and various rakes as well as a strong digging bar are about all a gardener needs on a daily basis. It’s nice to have the other tools, mattocks and hoes especially, but a gardener interested in saving himself or herself for another day will seldom find use for a pickaxe or a sledgehammer. There are often other ways of accomplishing the tasks those tools might do, though they won’t look as dramatically labor intensive.

Take the Money and Run, a 1969 film directed by Woody Allen and in which he plays a hapless criminal, who in this scene has been sentenced to work on a chain gang.

The last thing a professional or amateur gardener might want to consider is rain gear, and that too ends up being a personal choice outside of what bossy people might think best for others. Ponchos are cooler to wear in summer than raincoats and permit greater freedom of movement, while raincoats are more effective at keeping the gardener dry. A raincoat would be the best choice in cool weather, and might even suit in summer if the gardener parts with several more dollars for a raincoat made with breathable fabric. Otherwise, a cheap raincoat will repel rain on the outside at the cost of getting wet on the inside from the wearer’s sweat, particularly in the case of someone who is active, like a gardener. Perhaps the most welcome option on a rainy day is a third one, which is the opportunity it affords to drop tools and go indoors to relax and muse about working some other day.
— Izzy

 

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Timing Is Nearly Everything

 

Early autumn used to be the best time to sow seeds of cool weather grasses in most of the country, and early spring was the best time to sow seeds of warm weather grasses, primarily in the South. There were local variations on what kind of grass seed to sow where, and as always with gardening, rules of thumb were not carved in granite. Since the timing of early autumn and early spring vary around the country, it might be simpler to consider the Mid-Atlantic states as an example, where early autumn sowing was best between September 1 and October 15, and early spring sowing was best between March 1 and April 15.

 

In the twentieth century, much of the Mid-Atlantic region was in the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) hardiness zones 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. The southern part of the region was also in the transition zone for cool weather and warm weather grasses. Gardeners and landscapers typically planted both types of grass and sowed grass seed of both types in spring or fall as they preferred, though most found the greatest success with cool weather grass seed sown in the fall. That has all changed noticeably over the past 30 years and it is well past time for prudent gardeners and landscapers to adjust to the new climate.

F. W. Bolgiano, seedsmen have won confidence for ten years (16186099958)
F.W. Bolgiano, a grass seed company based in Washington, D.C., in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region, recommended in their 1899 brochure sowing a blend of seed types in spring and autumn, though without specific details on the seeds or the timing. Photo scan from the digitized illustrations collection of the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

The USDA adjusted its hardiness zone map in 2012, moving all of them north from where they were in the 1990 map. The Mid-Atlantic is now covered by zones 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8. Gardeners being students of nature, they didn’t really need the USDA to tell them what was happening with their plants and how things had changed. Still, it can be hard to set aside old habits tied to the calendar, such as sowing and planting times. Adjusting to changes in the types of plants that will do well in a particular area is also difficult and can take some getting used to, but people must adjust or they will see their time and efforts wasted on planting the wrong plant in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than doing the opposite as good practices have always dictated.

Farmers know this because their livelihood depends on it. Professional landscapers are beginning to understand it as well, though in many cases they perform their work on behalf of well-to-do clients who don’t necessarily care about taking a loss on forcing a favored plant to survive. The landscapers themselves need to operate at a profit, but their clients may not mind throwing good money after bad in keeping a zone 5 plant alive in what has become a zone 6 environment. Home gardeners typically don’t have such resources, and often have better sense. For years they sowed seed of tall fescue, a cool weather grass well suited to Mid-Atlantic growing conditions, and they had success sowing it between September 1 and October 15.

Lawn Maintenance Sign At RHS Wisley Garden Surrey UK
Sign at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Wisley Garden in the county of Surrey, south of London, England. Photo by Si Griffiths.

But not anymore. Now it is best to wait at least two weeks. Now the season lasts from September 15 to October 31. There may even be little harm in sowing grass seed right up to Thanksgiving in the southern portion of the Mid-Atlantic region. It could also be time to reconsider whether to keep up a cool weather grass lawn at all. Perhaps it’s better to plant Zoysia grass, or to let the bermuda grass take over, which it has been trying to do for decades now anyway, creeping into everything, especially in the heat of high summer, when the tall fescue faints in the hot weather without extra water to sustain it. Maybe now the favored time for sowing grass seed should be the early, early spring, from February 15 to March 31, and maybe that grass seed should be of warm weather grasses. Gardeners in the North who have friends and relatives in the South will have to ask those gardeners to pass along their rules of thumb for tending new plants in these new times.
— Izzy

 

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