Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Just Add Water

Back, way back, back into time, there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon with Marvin the Martian. At one point he needed reinforcements in his battle with the Bunny, and he turned to a bottle labeled "Instant Martians." Below, the simple instructions: Just add water.

After over a week of extremely sunny, warm and dry weather in my part of New Jersey - so dry at one point the humidity was the same as what you would normally see in the Arizona desert - we had a major rainstorm. This has been the pattern the last few years thanks to climate change-induced warming. The El Nino on the west coast managed to spawn what the weather gurus calls an Omega Block, which moved to the east coast and just sat there.

But then, finally, it moved, allowing the rain to come in Friday night.

I came outside Saturday morning to discover my dogwood tree, which last year only produced a couple of flowers, completely covered in blossoms. Friday morning the buds seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. Until that day it would get hot, they'd start to expand and then the temperature would drop and everything would stop.

It was the same with the azaleas, the lilacs and many of my other plants. Until it rained.

Just add water.

Dogwood flowers (Margo D. Beller)
Suddenly, the bare trees were covered in leaves and flowers; the dogwood, lilac and azaleas bloomed or are about to bloom, the drooping perennial geranium stood up happy and the hostas and hellebore doubled in size. Not only was there columbine growing where I planted it, there was columbine growing where I didn't expect it. I am leaving it alone. When I collect the seeds later this year I'll spread them to more areas in the garden.

It is amazing what a deep, drenching rain will do.

However, I have several concerns. The last few years we've gone long stretches with no rain only to be doused with several weeks of rain in one day. My other concern is with suburban sprawl. There are constant battles with people who want to tear up farms and put up housing, which stresses land and water, adding to traffic and town costs.
Columbine between the paving stones (Margo D. Beller)
In northern New Jersey, to protect the important watersheds, the state passed the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act in 2004 to keep development under control. Some people in the area are OK with protecting the environment but there are always others upset they now can't sell their increasingly valuable land to the highest bidder, split for (already overdeveloped) Florida and leave the mess behind for the rest of us to absorb.

 As James Brown once sang, I got mine, don't worry about his.

I try to use as little water as possible. Most of my plants are perennials and can take dryness. But my neighbors have already started with their lawn sprinklers. Lawns are sacrosanct in the suburbs, and not mowing them every week whether they need it or not and watering them every day even when rain is forecast is like a religion to many people. Those of us who THINK are looked at like pariahs. (My neighbors appear to be more concerned about their grass, based on the money they waste on lawn services, than the nondescript shrubs they put in front of their houses. Flowers are just too much work, especially in Deer Country.)

Luckily, it isn't too hot yet. While my daffodils and other early flowers are now done, the irises are getting ready to rise. And the forecasters say more rain is expected later in the week. It is, after all, only April, where the showers bring May flowers.

Just add water and amazing things happen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Return to Life and My Stand Against the Disposable Society

Every spring, when the worst of the cold is over and the snow has finally melted, I am amazed at what survives in my garden and saddened by what does not.

Despite neglect or doing something wrong out of ignorance, the perennials come back and I am both humbled and thankful.

The same is true for house plants. When I accept a house plant as a gift from a friend or rescue a plant someone has cruelly ripped from a planter and then thrown on the sidewalk - the bulk of my house plants are one or the other - I have to think long and hard about where to put it so it can get the most (or the least) amount of light. I have to hope the plant doesn't mind being watered only once a week or that in winter there will be a lot of dry heat and not a lot of moisture.

One of those plants is an orchid I thought I had killed because I uprooted it when it didn't have to be uprooted, cut back what I later realized was a lot of its root system and then fed it at the wrong time. Somehow that plant has survived, and this year is the second straight it will flower.

Last week, I wrote about the mistreatment of my peppers and my cannas. The cannas saddened me in particular because I knew better. I knew that if you took a tropical plant and put it on a porch where it can get down to the single digits overnight, it is not going to be happy. What I didn't realize was putting a plastic sheet or two and a blanket over the pot would keep in moisture on a plant that was supposed to be allowed to dry out.

I moved the pots indoors, into a sunny part of the one room where I can place all my house plants, and hoped for the best.

Two of the five pieces of growing canna, April 2016 (Margo D. Beller)
Well, when I wrote about them last week I thought they were dead. And then one evening I looked into one of the pots and saw two signs of life! Two little bits of green poking out of the pot, which was solidly packed with roots and corms. A few days later, I pulled the pots onto a tarp on my enclosed porch and started poking around -- which meant dumping the solid clump from the pot, using a saw to cut into it and then a spade to pull the sections apart.

I found five growing pieces of canna. I had planned to divide what was in the pot this spring anyway and so filled the pot with soil and put in the five pieces so they would have plenty of room to stretch out and grow. Cannas can get pretty big and after a few years they grow into each other to create a solid mass.

I looked very carefully at what I turned out of the other pot but saw nothing growing.

Now, it is always possible there will be growth in what I'm composting. My keeping it in the deep freeze might've put the plant into a deeper hybernation than I realized. If that is the case, when I put it all in the compost pile I won't be surprised if I see a mass of large, green canna leaves growing, which I can then either pull up and plant elsewhere or leave alone, a kind of zombie canna graveyard.

Why do I mention all this?

First, because I am relieved I am not a plant killer.  Second, because once again, Nature will take care of itself if Man (or me) doesn't mess around with it.

Most times people buy plants, keep them for a while and then throw them in the trash. This is a waste of your money, the plant grower's time and the compostable material in the plant.

When I take care of my plants, when I keep them going far beyond what the label says (and that includes "annuals" I've kept going for years), I am taking my stand against being part of a disposable society that doesn't think twice about putting in the garbage furniture, bicycles, plants or other things that can be donated to others for repair and resale or gifting.

My front room is full of life, and it is another thing that gives me a reason to live.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Owning Up to My Mistakes (Garden Division)

When something goes wrong, I'm the first to admit it/The first to admit it, and the last one to know
-- Paul Simon, "Something So Right"

Throughout my career I have always owned up to my mistakes. If through arrogance or misunderstanding I cause an error, I admit it.

That is why in this post I am going to own up to a couple of major garden mistakes that have resulted in the death of all but two plants. That is also why I am not going to show any pictures. I don't see anything interesting in showing a pot of dead plant.

There garden fatalities involve two types of plants that need warmth to survive: canna and pepper.

I'll start with the pepper.

For years I've ignored conventional wisdom that says you grow your pepper plants, you harvest the peppers and when winter comes you pull up the plant, put it in compost and either start new seeds or buy a seedling the next year.

I have always grown peppers in pots. I have not cared to endure the rigors of digging and fencing a vegetable garden, although I always envy those neighbors with the time, energy and strength to do so. Putting a plant in a pot and putting that pot behind deer netting is much easier, plus I can keep it in the sunny front of my house and it looks like just another plant to those neighbors who are anal about "keeping up appearances."

When winter has come, I have brought those pepper pots indoors and put them in my sunny front room. The plants usually do better the next year when I put them back out front. One year I was foolish enough to bring in five different types of peppers. No more. I play God. If it is a plant whose peppers I enjoyed, it will get saved.

This past winter I had inside one plant I was hoping to keep going for the third year and another I had grown from seed.

Unfortunately, last year I bought a basil from a grocery store and either the plant itself or the weather conditions created a major whitefly infestation. The flies themselves are annoying but when they are busy sucking on the leaves and laying eggs they create a "honeydew" that will eventually kill the host's leaves and thus the plant.

As I dealt with the basil, the flies took flight and infested the tomato I had growing. As I later found out, they also were all over the two peppers I had in the house.

During the worst of the winter the flies were either dead or dormant. However, as the days turned warmer and longer, the flies made themselves known all over the plants (which were still producing small peppers). When they started flying to my other house plants, I knew it was time to act.

I put garbage bags over the peppers and got them outside and behind the netting. I took out the plants where flies were going - they like the underside of big, soft leaves - and made sure to inspect and clean out the plants before bringing them indoors. I sprayed the peppers and left them in what at the time was a pretty warm day.

Unfortunately, the weather turned windy and cold and despite my best efforts at protection, the older one died. Peppers need overnight temperatures of at least 50 degrees to survive. They weren't getting them. So I put the pots on the enclosed back porch, where there was sunlight for about 6 hours in the morning, composted the dead plant and left the other one - until yesterday, when I saw the forecast called for daytime and evening temperatures way below 50 degrees.

So that plant is in the kitchen, where the natural light is dim and defuse but at least the plant is warm. The flies are dead and gone but the few leaves I didn't rip off look terrible, and I don't know if this plant will survive until, say, May. So I have three seeds of this type of pepper (I save seeds for this reason) in a pot on the sunny window sill as a hedge.

And now the canna.

Cannas are tropical plants grown more for their foliage than their flowers, which tend to show up in spikes during the hottest, most humid part of the summer. When I was first given them by a now-former friend, she told me that after frost killed the foliage to dig the plants up and wrap them in newspaper and put them in a cool, dry place.  I did that and lost about half of them.

The next year I put the cannas in a big pot. They did almost too well -- soon they were so crowded together I had to divide them. Now I had two big pots. I would give them away or compost them. Composting them created what I called "zombie" cannas - they were growing in the compost pile. So I would dig them out and put them in the ground and just leave them there over the winter. They would die, but I would still have my pots because I would bring them into my sunny front room and put them in a corner out of the sun. Inevitably, they'd start growing anyway.

Well, this year I didn't want them taking up space in the sunny front room. I had no room in my overjunked garage and my small basement is quite warm because of the furnace. So to my shame, I put them in the warmest part of my enclosed porch and covered them with plastic sheets and then a blanket. This was the absolute worst thing I could've done.

First, the temperature on the porch, even in the warm area against the kitchen where I put the pots, got down to the teens at one point. Second, the plastic sheets kept in the moisture rather than letting the plants dry out, as they would've done wrapped in newspaper. By the time I pulled them into the house and put them in the sun in the front room, they were dead. I have watered them to see if there is life but there has been nothing. By the end of the week, they'll be composted.

Ironically, I did one other wrong thing that has kept one canna alive. This was a zombie I pulled out of the compost at the end of last summer, potted and then brought into the house and kept going over the winter. It got no "rest" in its pot, which is the reason why you dig them up and let them dry out in the first place. It seems to be growing just fine.

No one is every going to confuse me with a master gardener. But I do learn from my mistakes -- once I realize them.