Thursday, April 28, 2016

Til Death Do Us Part: The Tulip Tragedies

In the garden as in life, some relationships come with an expiration date. This harsh reality rarely comes without signs, those small warnings that tell you your favorite plant is either a spineless wimp unsuited to life outside a greenhouse or simply not the choice find you imagined it to be. Either way, you can always start over.


For the past several years I have successfully killed my tulips. Not the ones in the ground, mind you. Those are just fine. But the poor suckers stuffed in a pot every fall are doomed to a slow mushy death caused by soggy potting soil. Like many relationships, the beginning was glorious. Old, cheap soil was filled with bulbs, they grew and blossomed and all was well. There was no confusion, frustration, or disappointment: just happy bulbs and bright flowers. A huge pot of bright blooms greeted me before work and I felt smug in my success.

But the soil loved by the tulips was loathed by my summer annuals and I spent too many afternoons in the heat and humidity lugging a hose around trying to keep everything moist. It was time for an upgrade to premium, moisture retentive soil. But the soil that kept my annuals happy caused my tulips to rot.


I was really hoping I'd be able to design, build, engineer or at least quote my favorite Martian astronaut by yelling from my patio steps, "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this!" but, alas, the problem  was solved in less than five minutes. Sigh....

Problem: Moisture-retentive potting soil used to help keep summer annuals moist caused the tulips to rot.

Solution: Amend the soil with rocks to improve drainage.

Problem: My soil is now full of rocks

Solution: Create a basket out of cheap, flexible screening that will allow water to flow through the rocks while also allowing me to easily lift and remove the rocks/soil.



I removed about half the soil and lined the pot with super cheapo screening mesh.


I added rocks, soil, and some bulb fertilizer.


I threw in some bargain basement bulbs, covered them with soil, and waited for a pot full of glorious tulips to greet me in the morning before work. 


A few rotted, a few were too lazy to bloom, and a few were just fine. But true to my nature, I refuse to give up. Identify problem - solve problem - move forward. It is simply how I am wired. I'll try again next year with more rocks, less soil, and high quality early blooming bulbs.

Clematis 'Fair Rosamond'

Or maybe I'll just throw in the trowel and say 'To hell with all those damn tulips! Who needs fussy bulbs when there are clematis!'


Or I might not.....

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Going With the Flow: No Missed Opportunities to Misbehave

I wish I could tell you that every decision made in my garden is the result of science, propriety, and pure reason but it just ain't so. Sometimes the pull of my heart is stronger than the push from my brain and I abandon logic for love. I suppose this is the part of the post where I tell you that I'm working to amend my goofy ways, but nope. That just ain't so, either.

Folly, thy name is Scout.

Last year I extended my rain garden for the umpteenth time. I should have extended it another foot to the pipe where my sump pump deposits water pumped from the foundation into a soggy swale but I didn't. That would have made life too hard for my dog. Instead, I stopped the riverbed about a foot away so when he moved in a straight line from the patio to the grass to his favorite spot near the dog run, he wouldn't have to step on any rocks. At this point in the post you may be thinking, "Sweet Baby Ray, this woman is nuts", but I mostly disagree.  Blinded by diabetes, Scout navigates my garden and house by surface texture and became disoriented when he encountered any rocks.



Late May 2015

But with my sump pump struggling, it was time to take action. After accidentally wandering into the river bed several times over the past year and not experiencing either instant death or hippo attack, Scout now quickly heads for the grass instead of panicking. Knowing I won't have to drop everything to rescue a terrified, blind dog made the decision easier. But the idea that my basement might flood because my sump pump had backed up made the decision unavoidable. It was time to start digging. 

I soon realized, however, that this was more than just an opportunity to extend my riverbed. After a boring winter of being mostly well behaved, it was high time to horrify the neighbors. Would I break out my showgirl dress, erect a mini model of the red windmill at the Moulin Rouge and pump all the water into my neighbors yard? I might.


I don't think that windmill is going to work...

Should I dress up in my pirate costume, pour a tankard of something tasty, and just ignore the mess? I could.


Just for the record, that damn parrot did no digging at all. 

Or maybe I should just put on my boots like a normal person and start digging. 


So I did.

But what I found was surprising. After excavating the drainage pipe, I soon discovered the more I dug, the more water appeared.


To determine whether I had a groundwater issue or a full pump, I dug a deep hole and stuffed a bucket under the pipe. If the hole filled with water before the bucket overflowed, I had either a spring or a seep. Twenty minutes into my experiment, the bucket was only half full but the hole was almost overflowing. Even though the water wasn't flowing but simply seeping out the ground, I had more water than a twelve inch extension could handle.


I created a four foot wide main canal and dug a diversion channel to send the water into the deeper parts of the riverbed and away from the drainage pipe.


Extended by over thirteen feet, the riverbed now connects both sides of my garden. I graded the top of the new extension so the water flows towards the main channel and into the the rain garden.


I filled the riverbed with cheap drainage rocks and pond stone. I created an island of soil so I could add more plants.


I broke a chipped urn in half and placed it at the mouth of the riverbed to look as if the entire rain garden had flowed from its depths. I'm sure to fool the masses with this clever ploy.


I added logs to the widest part of the riverbed because it seemed too rocky, a direct result of having been filled with rocks. Red lobelia cardinalis is planted amongst the logs. Golden eyed grass, dwarf pennisetum 'Burgundy Bunny', golden acorus, and iris have been added to soften the riverbed. I chose plants that would bend rather than break if mauled by four squirrel chasing dogs.


A large flagstone is used as a stepping stone and a piece of the urn covers the ugly drainage pipe. 


As for Scout, he has, yet again, safely made the river crossing to the green lawn beyond and all is well. This is the part of the post where you might want to clap and cheer, so go ahead. It will give your neighbors something to talk about. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Creative Catharsis: The Rock Project

Before you read any further, please understand that blind acceptance is not a trait I posses. Expecting me to accept an idea without providing rational justification is simply a guarantee I won't accept it at all. I surveyed a group of close friends and family to confirm this bit of self-awareness and the response was unanimous. That's where the story begins.


Someone once told me they admired my ability to break a problem into pieces and solve it point by point with directness and efficiency. But what parades as a blessing can also disguise a bane, sending my head into a cyclonic spin of possibilities, potential outcomes, and hazy conclusions. Every perspective must be heard and analyzed to find a central truth, dissonance coursing like water over rocks, cutting grooves where answers settle. But not all dilemmas are so transparent.


Last summer when a close friend discovered she had cancer around the same time my son was deploying to Iraq, I took the medical diagnosis and military orders at face value. I was too familiar with both to debate their validity, knowing these were problems I could not solve. I simply had to deal with them.

But when true answers about an issue important to me were replaced with crapspackle and horsefeathers, leaving me only with questions, there was no peace. The steady hum of my mental machinery became a constant roar, grinding out insight and deduction like Sherlock Holmes on a sugar high. When my attempts at silencing the internal chatter that ceaselessly analyzed the absurd explanations I'd been given hadn't brought relief or resolution, I knew I needed Plan B. 


Plan B included loud music, 
a bottle of wine, and a pile of rocks.

C stood in my kitchen, a tiny powerhouse of love and support, her face bright with anticipation. One single and the other married, we share the details of every bad date and boring Friday night. As turbulent as 2015 was for me, it wasn't any easier for her so we opened the wine and railed against scoundrels, jerks, and asshats. We cursed the insanity of war and the inability of science to cure every disease. We discussed the intricacies of the human heart and the importance of knowing your own self-worth. Life is too short, I've decided, not to live it with arms wide open even if the results aren't always what you expect. 


Equipped with permanent markers and 30 pounds of black and white decorative rocks, we exorcised twelve months of frustration borne from unsolvable problems by writing out every emotion and phrase that came to mind. We were not polite or restrained but let loose every brutally honest adjective, noun, or verb. When the English language hadn't provided the words we needed, we made them up. Yelling each word as we threw the rocks in a bucket, they landed with a satisfying smack, visceral reminders of what needed to go. It didn't cure the cancer or bring my son home, but it brought the ache from the silence, pride, and apathy we'd both encountered to a raucous halt.


To keep the mood light, we told every stupid joke and sassy story we knew and laughed til tears ran in rivulets down our cheeks and sent us running for the bathroom. We butchered the lyrics to every Adele song, blasted our favorite tunes, and wrote til we ran out of rocks.

"But when the pain cuts you deep
and the night keeps you from sleeping
Just look and you will see
a pile of rocks will be your remedy.

Adele 'Remedy - Revised'

But for every negative emotion that poured forth, came the rocks that reminded us of how wonderful our lives truly are. Tossed in the riverbed, the white rocks bounced into empty gaps, colorful reminders of all that is good.


We poured the black rocks into the bottom of an empty container on my patio and filled it with potting soil, covering the surface with seeds. With every seed scattered I could feel my deeply analytical brain sink into silence, a quiet sigh the sweet release of letting go. 

Sometimes the only path to peace is realizing the issue you've been analyzing is really just bullshit and like all manure is best buried so it can create something beautiful. Carrying it around doesn't accomplish anything and no matter how many different perspectives you employ, it's still just a pile of crap.



Seeds sown this winter sprouted as soon as the soil began to warm. Easy to grow linaria prefers cool weather and will be replaced with summer annuals once they've finished blooming. They'll be in flower by the end of the month.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Not Quite the Ocean

When you are a teacher, you wait all year for spring break.


I wish I could jet off to some 
fabulously warm, exotic locale
but that just isn't in the budget so here I am.


Spring bulbs get all the attention but I love the solid reliability of pulmonaria.

But that's ok. I love quiet days alone at home where the only person I have to deal with is myself. Music plays and I just putter: inside, outside, upstairs, down. Even when I say I'm doing nothing, I'm always doing something. But sometimes what I really love is silence and to lose myself in a project. I slip inside myself, shut out the world, and just create.



To brighten a dark spot on my front porch, I made another mosaic pot and added a handmade copper birdhouse purchased from Etsy.

How to Make a Mosaic Pot

Step 1:
Buy a pot. I've only done this twice and have used thick ceramic or fiberglass pots each time.




Step 2:
Dilute some cheapo wood glue with enough water to make it easy to spread and paint the pot with the glue. Let it dry.



Step 3:
Mix concrete with enough water to make it spreadable and spread it on the pot. It needs to be a bit thick. I used a cheap pointy tiling trowel to make it appear that I actually knew what I was doing. 



Step 4:
Stick stuff in the concrete. Let it dry and you're done. You don't need to grout anything. Even calling this a mosaic is a stretch but describing it as a "cheap concrete covered pot with stuff stuck in it" is a bit wordy. I organized all my glass pieces before I began but a "What the heck! Let's just stick stuff in concrete" approach works well, too.



My art studio doubles as the front porch.


I stuck flat backed glass pieces randomly into the concrete and
 made it up as I went.


I like how bubbly it is. It reminds me of the ocean.


I love the warmth of copper and have many copper art pieces through out the garden. This birdhouse is functional as well as decorative.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Apocalypse Gardening: The Seedling Update

For the past several years I've been growing my own annuals from seed to guarantee the plants I add to the garden are organically grown and pesticide-free. But I've suddenly realized that everything I need to know about starting seeds I've learned from watching my favorite zombie apocalypse show, The Walking Dead.

1. Only the strong survive. 

While some plants are inherently tougher than others, giving them the conditions they need to develop strong roots and a sturdy stem will create more resilient plants. Babying them will just create weak plants.


My favorite character, Michonne, is tough but tender.
 If she was a plant, she wouldn't be a shrinking violet!



These are seedlings started in January and February. Thanks to recent record setting temperatures, they spent the day outside. 



Beautiful variegated foliage on my 'Frosted Flames Mix' snapdragons.

On warm, breezy days I put the seedlings outside  in a sheltered spot for a few hours to toughen up and soak up the sun. A gentle breeze helps them develop stronger, thicker stems. Keeping them moist will prevent their tender leaves from drying out. If it's too windy, I put them in my cheapo plastic greenhouse. I start this process well before they're ready to begin hardening off.


2. There will be casualties. 

Every seedling isn't going to make it. I pull the ones that are growing weird or crowding out stronger plants and add the newly departed to the worm bin. 




Cuphea like to be a bit dry but it took a while to learn just how dry is too dry so this little guy has a few battle scars.

The cuphea seedlings kept leaning and grew tall and skinny despite being close to the grow lights. I pulled them all and kept the shortest, stockiest plant who is a very happy camper.


As long as you can run faster than a zombie can walk, 
you might be ok. But don't count on it!

3. No excuses and no whining. 

I like my plants the way I like my people:  honest, reliable, easy going, and direct. My plants need to be able to buckle down and grow. No divas allowed! If my basic set up can't make them happy, I feed them to the worms. 




Dahlia 'White Figaro' has the highest germination rate so far.

Seed grown dahlias are very easy to grow. I sowed mine in big pots this year since they quickly become root bound in my drink cups. I'll thin them to three plants per pot.

The woods are full of zombies? Why, yes, I'd love to go for a walk.

4. Organization is vital.

I can remember conversations I had years ago but can't remember if I've eaten breakfast, which is absurd. If I don't write down what I've learned from one year to the next, I might forget and make the same mistake twice. I don't like drama in the seed box so everything is organized by sowing month and then added to a few alphabetical, color coded charts. You can check it out at my So Seedy 2016 page.

How thoughtful of them to label this for us!

5. Grow what makes you happy.

If the plant makes you happy, grow it, grow it, grow it! I direct sowed six different types of rudbeckia for that very reason. I like how open rudbeckia are. What you see is what you get.


I love these Denver Daisies (Rudbeckia hirta 'Denver Daisies') so much, I'm growing them again.

The survivors prefer fresh tomatoes over brains.

6. Be willing to experiment.

A mistake is only a mistake if you haven't learned anything. Plants don't speak English and you're not a mind reader so don't beat yourself up if something dies. Trial and error is a huge part of learning how to grow plants from seed. But grow extras in case your gardening style is a bit apocalyptic.

Let's see if this works....



Grow, seeds! Grow!

I've read gomphrena (globe amaranth) germinates best in the dark and have always covered their seed cups with newspaper. But I've also had them self-sow in my garden and read they germinate best when exposed to light. This year I scattered the seeds on the surface, covered the cups with plastic baggies and never turned the heat mat off. The purple gomphrena germinated in three days!

7. A little love goes a long way!

Every living thing needs to be loved and nurtured. Understanding your plants' needs will give you happier plants, which will make you a happier gardener. 




Centranthus 'Snow Cloud' seedlings

Centranthus needs loose, fast draining soil but watering from above creates soil compaction. To keep my plants happy I water from below and sowed them in extra light soil.


True love is hugging someone who hasn't showered in over two years.