Saturday, December 13, 2014

November Notes

Mulch clematis vines with rotted manure.

Check rose climbers for insecure ties.

Rake gardens clear of all debris. 

Prepare beds for next spring by tilling the soil lightly.  

You may still find a few interesting offerings for sale this time of year. 

To boost your inventory of house plants look for oxalis.  O. rengnelii sprouts from underground corms.  White flowers grow in clouds several times during the year, accompanied by green, clover-shaped leaves.  When they become leggy, cut them down to soil level, and they will start all over again.


If you have been storing amaryllis, keep an eye on them.  As soon as they send up new shoots bring them back into the light.  They should be blooming by late December.

The clocks have been turned back, and the weather is grey and finally cold.  Squirrels are racing around collecting all the nuts and berries they can find to store away for the months ahead.  They have made a mess in the Rhinebeck garden, shaking black walnuts from the trees, selecting the nuts for storage and leaving the rest behind.

Raking is the major November work here and, although I advocate  leaving the task until all the leaves have fallen, we have too many to handle.  Raking is ongoing throughout the fall. 

Rake all garden beds clear of debris.  Any leaves the winds haven’t carried away are tucked around the acid-loving plants.  Cut back all perennials to four inches above the ground, leaving anything that’s still green.  Don’t forget to mulch the perennial beds with an inch or more of compost.  After the holidays, use evergreen boughs to weight down the compost and keep the soil from heaving. 

The main danger to flower borders is the alternate freezing and thawing of the ground during winter.  If the winter is mild this may occur many times during the season.  Some times the soil movement is so strong it will break the roots of the plant and push it out of the soil.  We’ve certainly found this true with fall panting

Alternate freezing and thawing does not happen in areas where there is a guaranteed blanket of snow all winter.  But in more temperate areas you can prevent this heaving by mulching heavily.  Almost any mulch will do -– straw, salt hay, evergreen boughs, compost or buck wheat hulls are all fine.  It’s best to wait until the ground freezes before mulching, so this task may stretch into December. 

If you have a vegetable garden, work the soil lightly with a tiller to get a head start on spring planting.

Paperwhite Narcissus

I’m already dreading the winter, and so have potted up the first bowls of paperwhite narcissus to see me through.  I’ve experimented with forcing tulips, but the cold treatment required for success is too fussy for me.  A spectacular failure in which I stocked a spare refrigerator with a winter’s worth of potted tulips produced nothing more than a refrigerator full of frozen bulbs.

Amaryllis are worth the effort of keeping them over from year to year if you have the space for it.  If you are a first-time buyer, now is the time to start.  Buy them from a florist, a nursery or a catalog.   Enjoy their bloom.  After they have finished blooming remove the flower stalk and fertilize monthly with Miracle-Gro or another water-soluble fertilizer.  By mid-summer, cut back on your watering schedule by one-half.  Once the foliage yellows, cut the leaves back to an inch above the bulb and store in a dark cool location for about six weeks.  Then bring them into a sunny window and start all over again.

Amaryllis 'Minerva'

If you are keeping orchids from year to year, feed them with orchid food once a month if not more often.  Southern filtered light is best, and give them relatively little water.  Ventilation is critical.

By the end of November you should have potted up your bulbs, completed putting the garden to bed for the winter, turned off all outdoor water faucets, coiled your hoses and brought them indoors.  Make sure your garden equipment and tools are clean; you can oil them over the winter.  When everything is cut down, put away, tidied up, mulched, wrapped and swept clean you can review your gardening year from a comfortable chair indoors and plan for spring.

Monday, October 13, 2014

October Calendar, Plus My Mistakes of the Season

The Calendar
Week 1

As of October 1, we have been six weeks without significant rainfall.  You can ignore established trees and shrubs, but give a weekly soaking to any planted this year.  Keep it up until the first hard frost.

You can plant most trees in the fall, except the ones you can’t -  Magnolia, Dogwood and Birches.

Don’t miss the luminous white Japanese anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’, now gleaming in dark corners.

Japanese Anemome 'Honorine Jobert'

Week 2

Mulch newly planted trees and shrubs with several inches of leaves, but hold off doing the same to perennials until there have been a few good frosts.

Make drawings of all beds, marking changes. Mark the principal deciduous plants before it gets too cold, and before the smaller flowering plants disappear for the season.  Rhodia graph-paper pads are good for this.

Week 3

Start to cut perennials down, but mark their locations on your plan.  Then you may contemplate your spring purchases all winter, but indoors where it’s warm.  

This is the last call to order lilies for November planting.  If you are going to continue with indoor bulbs, order amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus now.

Amaryllis in Winter

Week 4

Tie up roses.  Don’t cut back canes now, but do remove weak shoots and dead wood.

Continue planting bulbs. 

Order enough mulching compost, even if you have to have it delivered.

My Mistakes of the Season

Fall is the best time of year to assess your garden design, and to face up to mistakes and poor decisions.  The weather is warm enough to take notes without having to take your gloves off, and the memories of successes and failures are still fresh.  If a new plant has not performed to your expectations, give it another year or two to take hold.  A poor freshman performance should not be a death sentence.  I, however, find it difficult to follow this advice, wavering between a plant that just needs a little more time and one that never should have been acquired in the first place. 

Phlox 'Bright Eyes'

This year I experimented with phlox, and was wildly unsuccesful.  I ordered from a respectable nursery, believing that if I followed instructions faithfully I would be spared the curse of mildew.  The only varieties to perform even reasonably well were the old-fashioned ‘Bright Eyes’ and the faithful ‘Davidii.’  I am not giving the weakest ones a second chance and dug them out this week,  sparing only a few for another day.

The conventional wisdom is that if you water well and give phlox the best environment possible they will conquer mildew.  But watering well is not the same as watering often.  I am a fan of a deep weekly watering only, but learned late in the season from a minor footnote that phlox are shallow-rooted, explaining the need for frequent watering.

Phlox 'Davidii'

Watering Requirements
At the beginning of the season, make sure your hoses are long enough to reach everything that needs watering.  It’s efficient to keep plants with similar watering needs together, but I ignored this believing I could keep up with the challenge.  This summer, as though the phlox were not enough to worry about, I added Ligularia.

         It is a bold, brilliant yellow, shade-loving plant best suited to a woodland garden.  I wanted to see the effectiveness of color at a distance, but all I saw was drooping foliage, suffering from lack of water. 
Ligularia 'The Rocket'

A lone climbing hygrangea, moved from another garden and planted even further beyond the current hose configuration, is struggling and may not survive on its own. Late in the season I fell in love with a purple-leaved hibiscus and set it in a too-dry corner where it sulked.  Unable to keep up with its watering needs, it too must go.

Bed Preparation:
New beds should be properly and beautifully prepared, but I did not pay enough attention to this in the border shared with my neighbor.  It is not a fatal mistake, but the solution is back-breaking: Lift all plants, do what you should have done in the first place, and re-plant.

Natural Disasters
            Bad decisions do not fare well when disaster occurs.  Infatuated with larger-leaved hostas, I  grouped as many specimen as I could find in an harmonious fashion, only to have them shredded in a hailstorm.  I’ll cut them back when frost comes and next year I’ll match them up with plants less susceptible to hail – ferns, astilble, etc.  Again, a useful time to have a paper plan for notes.

Hosta with Companions

Planting Bulbs
         If you are undertaking a significant bulb-planting this fall, look back to The Sunday Gardener’s archive for October 2011.  You will find more than you wish to know or actually execute.  But do it; there is no more welcome site come Spring.

Daffodils in Spring

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Where are the Chrysanthemums?

Every year about this time I mourn the absence of old-fashioned garden chrysanthemums.   At one moment in time chrysanthemums as they had been disappeared, to be replaced by a ubiquitous sea of puffy yellow, russet and mauve supermarket mums.  Precisely alike, totally lacking in character, they pop up everywhere.  At three for $15 or thereabouts, you will see them at every house, on every scrap of lawn, or flanking every driveway… a limitless supply of uniformity.

Supermarket Chrysanthemums

Admittedly, the large and varied chrysanthemum family of spiders, quill and spoons are pretty labor-intensive, appealing to only the most dedicated gardeners.  Once installed in your perennial bed, chrysanthemums cannot be left alone and be expected to flourish from year to year.  Each spring they must be dug and divided, the center of the plant discarded along with the old root system, and the vigorous side shoots and their roots retained and replanted. 

You’ll wind up with a small plant, but it will shoot up at a healthy rate during the long growing season.  When the first shoots reach three to four inches, usually by May, the main stem is established well enough to start shaping the plant.  Pinch back the main stem to two or three leaves.  Each subsequent leaf stem gets pinched back to two good leaves.  This continues with each “break” (the new growth) until mid-July when pinching stops.

Single Mum

You must provide support by stout stakes, as the constant pinching produces big flowers heads.  You must also remember to side-dress monthly, as they are heavy feeders. 

Why do all this?  The flower heads are unparalleled in their beauty, and arrive at a time when virtually everything else in the garden is over.  The family is large, and the characteristics of the individual flowers vary widely.  Chrysanthemum flowers are composed of many individual rays or florets, and there are significant differences within the family. 

Spider Mum

The spider mums are distinguished by long, tubular rays, some of which grow longer than the rest and appear to be reaching out to catch you in their web.  Sometimes the tips are twisted or hooked, increasing the spider-like appearance. 

The single and semi-double mums are the ones you might still  find for sale in local nurseries at reasonable prices.  The spoons are similar to the semi-doubles, except that the individual tips of the rays are spoon-shaped.  They have an open center, but their cousins the quills do not; their florets are straight and tubular, with open ends.
Quill Mum

The giant “football” mums look like cheerleaders’ pompoms.  Technically, they are called irregular incurves.  The centers are fully closed, the florets curve inward, and the bottom edge has a slightly skirted effect.

Football Mum

Chrysanthemums are not easy to finds these days.  The 1970 catalog of White Flower Farms Nursery in Litchfield, Connecticut sold twenty decorative mums, three pompoms, three spiders and five spoons. In 2014, none.  The big perennial catalogs no longer supply chrysanthemums, but you can find sources and a useful handbook on the National Chrysanthemum Society’s website

Chrysanthemums have a distinguished history.  The Chinese and Japanese have been growing them for over 3,000 years and you can see representations of mums in their textiles, screens and ceramics.  Visiting Buddhist monks brought the chrysanthemum from China to Japan, and the Japanese were enchanted with this flower, which they saw as a symbol of the sun.  It was so beloved of the early Emperors that the single chrysanthemum became the Emperor’s personal symbol, and he ruled from the chrysanthemum throne.  Chrysanthemum Day in Japan is still a significant festival event.
Japanese Textile

Although widely popular in the United States, in most of Europe chrysanthemums are funeral flowers.  In Italy, they are so closely associated with death that they are never used in a festive or celebratory context.  

In recent years, dahlias seem to have replaced chrysanthemums as the big, bold, showy fall addition to the garden.  They require a somewhat elaborate procedure if you wish to keep them from year to year.   To carry them through the winter, you have to let the first frost blacken the foliage.  Then dig them up, leaving two inches of stem.  Discard the damaged tubers, wash the good ones and put them in the sun to dry, turning them occasionally.  Each tuber, when thoroughly dry, then goes in its own plastic bag.  It’s closed tightly and stored in a cool, dark basement until spring.

A Selection Of Dahlias

I have not been successful at this, and I discard dahlias after the last frost and start with new tubers in the spring.  If you can’t find a good source for chrysanthemums try dahlias, but they are a poor substitute.  Having travelled infrequently enough to have my dreams intact, I believe that in some small corner of England there are still gardeners preparing their prize-winning chrysanthemums for the coming Fair.

Monday, September 1, 2014

September Notes

        September is the last month to enjoy the garden.  Annuals and asters have taken center stage.  Roses and some perennials are in the midst of their second bloom.   It’s almost the end of the picnic season.  Mosquitos are replaced by bumblebees, and picnics become an exercise in evasion. 
Cosmos and Cleome

The color combinations so carefully planned for spring and summer are now giving way to the overall anticipation of autumn, when the trees turn russet, gold and brown.  Even the deep reds and purples which seemed harsh in spring look fine in September.

Enjoy the particular clarity of the September light.  You can ignore a certain disorder in the garden, unacceptable in spring, but the norm in September. Untidiness is forgivable in September, because by next month the ferocious pace of bulb planting will be underway, and once that is complete the garden must be put to bed.  But for the time being enjoy September; it can be the most restful month in the garden, or the best month for some hard work.  It’s your call.

Week One
This is a good time to shop, as the end-of-year sales at nurseries will be in full swing.  While nurseries can easily hold over larger trees and shrubs until next spring, to carry smaller materials over the winter becomes costly.

City gardens are perfect for small bulbs.  Try the smaller members of the daffodil family, the cyclamineus and jonquillas.  Don’t forget snowdrops, crocus spring and fall, and colchicums.

Each year at this time I wish I had a Clematis paniculata, the autumn-blooming cascade of starry white flowers covering everything in sight.
Sweet autumn clematis

September is a good time to order clematis, for they are rarely shipped after mid-October.  If you plant clematis in the fall, they will get off to a robust spring start and you will surely have blooms next summer.  If planted next spring, you are likely to get only foliage.

Week Two
Most perennials will welcome division now, but some definitely will not. These include phlox, Shasta daisies, and Siberian and Japanese iris.  Don’t even try.

The Japanese anemone is the queen of the fall garden.  Starting from a clump of basal leaves it will grow to three feet bearing several weeks of white or pink silver-dollar size flowers. 

Other September bloomers are False Dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana), Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia trilobum), Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonsis), a low-growing blue shrub better treated as a perennial, Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), and Rubeckia ‘Henry Eiler' (R. subtomentosa). 
Rudbeckia 'Henry Eiler'

If rainfall is adequate, little watering will be needed from now on.  The exception is new plantings and of course roof gardens which will need watering right up to hard frost.

Bring in pots of amaryllis that have been summering indoors.

Week Three
Trim long stems of perennial vines and tie up or train as you like.

Cut back iris foliage to three inches

Don’t let phlox go to seed or they will self sow, reverting to their original magenta and the new seedlings will crowd out your carefully cultivated varieties. 

Week Four
Last call to bring the house plants indoors.

Pull out vegetable plants when all the crops have been gathered and plant a winter cover crop.  Winter rye or small grains are good in our region.

Fertilize lawns and sow seeds in thin or worn areas.

You can still plant perennials, but they will have to be protected against the winter’s alternate freezing and thawing.  More on that in November.

Start cutting back perennials.  You can compost all but the leaves and stems of the peonies.  These you must discard or burn.

This is the best time to plant daffodils, although almost everyone waits at least until October, and often drag their feet into November.  Start early, and give yourself a gift for 2015.
Next Spring's Daffodils

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Public/Private Gardens

 A few weeks ago I visited a community garden on 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.  It had been lovingly tended for a number of years by two women, Margaret Doyle and Julia Gabriel, who would garden two or three times a week.  In 2011 Julia died of a stroke and Margaret has since spent a good part of each summer away.   The garden was renamed the Julia Gabriel Community Garden in her memory, but is now largely neglected and ignored.  On the day of my visit, the garden was unlocked and empty, while across the street at St. John the Divine visitors were enjoying a bit of sun.  There is nothing to encourage the visitor to cross the street and sit in Julia’s shade.  No color catches the eye.  The garden is dry and dusty.  Its two devoted gardeners have moved on and there are no heirs.

Julia Gabriel Community Garden

This is not a singular problem.  A 2012 article in the New York Times by Michael Tortorello called attention to the dwindling supply of volunteer gardeners, despite an increase of interest in food gardens.  Neighborhood demographics are changing, gentrification may produce more or less interest, and the first generation of community gardeners is dying out.  This varies across the city, for reasons not well understood.

In some cities, and in all European countries, allotments are more prevalent than community gardens. In contrast to a community garden, an allotment is a small plot of land made available to an individual or a family.  Large plots of land owned by a municipality or another entity are divided up into smaller parcels that are then assigned. There is usually an association overseeing the operation to which gardeners apply for a plot, pay a small fee, and adhere to the rules of the association.  How the plot is used is in the hands of the gardener, but must be reserved for only personal use. 

A community garden, on the other hand, is a single plot of varying size gardened collectively by a group people.  Although the gardens are seen as engines of community engagement, they are owned by a municipality and governed by the municipality’s terms of access and management.
Southwest Corridor Park

Boston is the rare city combining community gardens, parks and allotments in a single stretch -- the Southwest Corridor Park, a narrow, 90 acre ribbon of public open space.  A proposed highway project was successfully blocked by community resistance, rail lines buried underground, and in its place a five-mile stretch of tot lots, playgrounds, flower beds, open green spaces, athletic courts and 150 community gardens and allotments was established.

Many South Enders came from gardening and farming cultures in other countries.  Moving along the corridor you will find Italian plots with fig trees, French potagers alongside Asian gardeners growing vegetables vertically on posts climbing to spread horizontally along overhead lattice.

Boston also has allotments carried over from World War II, the Richard Parker Memorial Victory Gardens.  The once-abandoned gardens are now divided into 450 individual plots, used as the gardener chooses. Individual allotments are fenced and gated, but the larger area is open and anyone can stroll down the pathways at any time of day and peer over the fences.  The Parker Gardens are on publicly owned land and the city supplies only water; everything else is provided by the gardeners and their association.
A Parker Garden's Plot

In New York City, Roosevelt Island works on an allotment system, managed by the Garden Club.  The design gives each gardener 210 square feet, laid out in trapezoidal patterns so that no two gardens are alike.  You sign up, get on a waiting list, and hope for the best.  No one seems to give them up, and you usually have to wait until someone moves or dies. 
A Roosevelt Island Pathway

One gardener is a dedicated pond-builder.  One of the earliest gardeners, he has made extensive use of the debris from the various excavations and construction sites on the Island.  Large slabs of stone from the wreckage of the insane asylum and concrete sections of old foundations –- all carried by hand-drawn cart -- have been transformed into garden sculptures and stockpiled for bleacher-like seats at his ponds. 

The Roosevelt Island gardens are as distinctive as the gardeners who inhabit the space.  Some are meticulous, some are untidy, others are wild.  Some are devoted to vegetable crops, while some are just places to sit and enjoy other people’s gardens.

A Roosevelt Island Plot

The Garden Club provides a clubhouse of sorts in a storage shed.  Community rakes, shovels and hoes are stored in bins available to all.  A limited number of lockers allow gardeners to keep tools close by.  Twice a year the Club brings in soil and provides wheelbarrows for transporting.

In both the Boston and Roosevelt Island examples, city engagement is minimal. Could a version of these large-scale community garden projects, individually rather than bureaucratically driven, engage the general public in maintaining neighborhood parks?  Does the accessibility of the larger area, and the knowledge that these plots are available to all, perhaps encourage individuals more than the collective approach of the community gardens with their own built-in local politics?

What is it that gives these gardens so much more vitality than the average neighborhood park?  Are they affected by the demographics of the neighborhood?  By the cultural values of the times?  Should there be a Jeffersonian principal of home ownership applied to apartment dwellers and renters?  Here is your plot, use it as you wish?  If volunteers in public parks only get to do what is assigned to them, what would happen if that paradigm changed?  Anarchy or a robust landscape?

All the above is only the barest outline of what is actually happening on the ground.  In the coming weeks Emily Walker, Outreach Coordinator for New Yorkers for Parks, will be a guest contributor writing about what it takes to make a successful community garden, and the subtle shift towards allotments in schoolyards and individual plots in public housing.