Saturday, March 15, 2008

They're Not Ephemeral - They Just Walk Funny

Things seem to move very rapidly these days, both in life and in the garden. I think that’s a function of getting older. My favorite music professor used to say that getting older was like heading for a stop sign without slowing down; the sensation is one of moving faster and faster as the sign approaches. Some plants are designed to function this way, as well. They pack all of their growth, flowering, and seed production into the short season between the time of year when the days begin to warm and lengthen and the days in which available light and water begin to be absorbed by the demands of deciduous trees returning to active growth. These are collectively known as spring ephemerals, and they include some of my favorite plants.

Bulbs, of course, are the best examples of plants exhibiting this kind of growth cycle. Known more properly as geophytes, each of these plants has developed some technique for storing moisture and energy underground against the time when these commodities will be scarce. Great examples are Galanthus, the snowdrops, which are just finishing their bloom period here, and the spring flowering crocus, always a nice surprise when they show up around the yard. During the last very busy week I’ve run past hundreds of stunning daffodils as I’ve left for work and arrived home; they are some of the most amazing plants to grow, and the variety is staggering. I plant another couple of dozen every fall, even though it doesn’t seem that there’s one more inch of ground to be colonized. They interplant beautifully with later perennials (daylilies being their classic accomplice), which help to hide the foliage which many seem to find so objectionable (I’ve never understood this – why can’t we learn to enjoy and appreciate all stages of plant growth, including senescence? People need to realize that the "unsightly" foliage is the very source of next year's bloom, but they just don't seem to get it.) We have Narcissus in bloom for at least two months due to overlapping bloom periods. More notorious spring foliage is produced by Lycoris, daffodil (and, therefore, amaryllis) relatives which die down in the heat of summer, then produce their blooms between August and October, hence the nickname “Surprise Lilies” (aka “Naked Ladies” – more sensational, to be sure). I could go on and on about this family alone, and maybe sometime I will. There’s hardly a day during any season when one of the Amaryllids is not in bloom in this garden, and they are completely resistant to damage by rodents (and, I understand, deer).

Other ephemerals include Hepaticas, tiny, jewel-like ranunculids which poke their noses out and bloom off and on beginning in January, Sanguinaria, known as bloodroot, and another favorite genus, Trillium. These are really more appropriately grown in colder regions, but I’ve had good success with several species, especially when growing them in large containers along with other plants which don’t want any additional watering during the summer months. Trilliums make great companion plants for tree peonies, sharing the same basic growth period and enjoying a summer rest when the peonies are moved outside the range of the sprinkler to protect them from overwatering. Some of my favorites are T. underwoodii, in bud right now, its beautifully mottled leaves having been in evidence for more than a month, T. erectum album, producing gorgeous creamy flowers on sturdy stems, and happy enough to have produced a swarm of seedlings around its base, and a particularly good form of T. cuneatum (I think – this complex is so confusing that it’s hard to know exactly what species it might be). T. simile, T. grandiflora, and several others provide nice little surprises when they make their annual spring appearance. I love the book by Fred and Roberta Case, a labor of love by folks who live in a place where Trilliums are actually intended to grow. It’s an amazing work, and an endless source of information.

There are a couple of things I’ve learned about growing anything that experiences a dormant period, whatever the time of year. Labels are important. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve planted something right on top of a dormant bulb or rhizome; there’s nothing more sickening than the sound of a shovel slicing through a daffodil, especially if it’s one for which I paid more than $5 each (there are a few of these, I admit). Poking around in the soil with fingers before plants break ground in spring can also lead to big trouble (and lots of expletives). I have to tell myself that if a plant is dead, it’s already dead, and no amount of tactile reassurance will change this; if it’s going to grow, it’ll do so when it’s ready, and not before. Sometimes this works, sometimes not – I managed to pull one growth completely off of a dormant lady slipper last spring as I “investigated”. If it wasn’t deceased when I started prying, it was by the time I finished. Most importantly, when geophytes are dormant, they want to stay dormant – too much water during this time can be fatal, although some types (many daffodils and leucojum, for instance) can handle being interplanted with things that do receive summer watering.

In very broad terms, lots of things are ephemeral, and that’s one of the things I enjoy most about gardening. This quality is what provides seasonality and rhythm in the year for me. Hydrangeas and Gardenias always lift my spirits because they start to bloom as the school year begins to wind down. Conversely, from a veteran teacher’s perspective, at least, Sedum "Autumn Joy" has got to be saddled with the most oxymoronic cultivar name of all time. The spring ephemerals, though, are the most welcome, because they’re all about rebirth, anticipation, and hope. This is the point of any religious activity, which, in my book, definitely includes gardening.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bathing with Orchids

I’ve been gardening for at least 35 years now in some fashion, and I’m still learning as I go. If asked to name the most difficult aspect of the pursuit, I would put watering at the top of the list. It sounds like such a simple thing, but there are so many variables involved that one nearly has to develop a “sixth sense” over time in order to avoid what I believe is the number one recipe for gardening disaster, especially when growing in containers – overwatering.

I think I was lucky to begin growing epiphytic orchids at an early age, since there’s no better illustration of the way that plant roots function in (or even out of) a pot. Epiphytes in nature grow perched on tree branches, rocks, and even fences; included are plants from many families, notably orchids and bromeliads. Most of them are tropical in origin, although some (Spanish moss, for instance) do range into zone 7 on occasion. Their roots are designed to absorb water as it rushes across them, so they tend (and even this varies according to variety) to resent any potting medium which holds moisture against the root system for any length of time. These plants respond best to very high levels of ambient humidity, and would prefer to be inundated daily, as long as the roots can shed the water within a couple of hours at most. Some of mine are mounted on cork slabs or sticks of wood, with the roots totally exposed, and some are merely attached to wire hangers, with their roots dangling freely into the air.

The most extreme example in my collection is Angraecum sesquipedale, a monopodial (meaning it grows somewhat vertically from a single main stem) orchid from Madagascar which, many years ago, burst out of the clay pot in which it was growing. The pencil-thick roots now extend a good 3 feet below the ruins of the pot, and it produces 5 or six enormous, fragrant flowers at this time every year. It’s famous because Charles Darwin, on seeing the 18” (hence the Latin specific name), nectar bearing extension on the rear of each bloom, hypothesized that there must exist a nocturnal (this because the flowers are fragrant only at night) insect (it turned out to be a moth) which possessed a proboscis long enough for the orchid to have evolved in partnership with it as a potential pollinator. Mine is famous, in my house, at least, for being the only one of several hundreds of plants with which I shower on a daily basis while it’s in bloom. This is necessary for two reasons: my housemate loathes the sweet, but overpowering fragrance emanating from the blooms after sundown, so that it’s moved into the shower stall of my bathroom every evening before dinner; and dousing them is the best way to saturate those rope-like roots inside the house. Seeing me naked does not seem to have traumatized the plant yet, but I’m really glad it can’t talk, just the same.

At any rate, it has occurred to me in the last few years that almost all plants are epiphytic to some degree, in that the roots have a need for oxygen. Translation: it’s all about drainage. Realizing this has helped me to improve the growing conditions in our heavy clay soil as well as in the numerous containers I tend. I hoard perlite, oyster shells, and granite chicken grit for ramping up the drainage in potting mixes. The chicken grit I sometimes haul all the way home from our visits to western Pennsylvania, since it’s hard to locate here; ironically, it’s shipped there from North Carolina. I’ve also learned to add lots of extra drainage holes to pots, and not just on the bottom. Holes in the bottoms of pots are great, as long as the soil under them allows the water exiting said holes to run out, but if they’re sitting on clay, as many of mine are, holes drilled on the sides of the pots, near the bottom, are much more valuable. I tried covering these holes with landscape cloth, in order to save potting soil (a large percentage of the household budget goes in that direction), but even this caused pots to retain too much water for many plants. I’ve decided that even though some potting mix may eventually be lost to erosion, most of it will still end up on our property in some form.

I tried putting some scraps of plastic lattice under my stock hellebores, which are grown in four gallon plastic nursery pots, last summer, and found that this greatly improved drainage and aeration, thus resulting in many fewer plants being lost to “summer blight”.
As mentioned in a previous post, I’m experimenting this year with permeable fabric planting bags for hellebores and peonies, plants which require outstanding drainage to survive the summers here. I’m also installing water barrels to allow for the additional water I expect these containers will require, since moisture will hopefully evaporate from the entire outer surface of the container.

I was excited for a while about the availability of (very convincing, visually) fiberglass and foam half-barrel planters, and I now own dozens of them in various sizes. Unfortunately, they haven’t proven to be the perfect vessel in which to create mobile gardens. Although fiberglass will not break apart when it freezes, as does terra cotta, or rot away over time, as do half barrels, it just doesn’t “breathe” the way that clay or wood do. Some things do fine in these containers, especially after a major attack with the power drill on the sides last spring to create extra drain holes, but others are not faring as well. I’m in the process of hunting down real half barrels again, and pretty unsuccessfully, too, I have to admit. I’ve even discovered that their eventual deterioration may prove to be an asset over time. Deciduous azaleas are not at all fond of the clay in our yard, but they’ve done well for several years in half barrels. By the time the container rots away, the azalea has formed its own root ball which sits high and dry above the surrounding ground level (rampant Vinca major basically hides and shades the root ball). These plants appear perfectly happy to be growing in their own little “hummocks”, with only the base in contact with the actual native soil. This is high planting in the extreme, but it seems to work pretty well for anything susceptible to Phytophthera and other diseases, including Daphne, Gordonia, and Camellia.

A large percentage of my garden is growing now in identical 4 gallon black plastic nursery pots, which allows me to make the most of my small garden in that these can be rotated in and out of view as they come into bloom or growth. They're either nested in larger clay, fiberglass, or plastic planters (since all of the nursery pots match, they can be lifted in and out without disturbing the other plants in the larger containers), or concealed by the surrounding vegetation (out-of-control vinca, euphorbia cyparissias, and, yes, honeysuckle) or mulch. I'm still working out exactly what can be partnered in these containers - last year's major discovery was that South African bulbs (such as Eucomis and Galtonia) coexist well with tuberous gesneriads (Achimenes, Eucodonia, and Seemannia, for example), in that they both want moisture and light in the summer, but dry, cool winter storage. By grouping plants with similar cultural needs together, I don't spend hours every spring repotting each container. Seed grown Formosa lilies will share pot space this summer with red okra, which will cover the "bare knees" of the lilies and provide color and foliar contrast (not to mention ingredients for jambalaya). Dozens of pots containing daylilies and narcissus are coming into bloom in every odd corner of the yard right now; this is an idea I borrowed from the New York Botanical Garden, which has an enormous walk bordered by a combined planting of these two genera. Camellias can spend several years in these nursery pots, and it's a good thing, since I love to grow them from seeds and cuttings, and have amassed a huge collection over the years. One day, when I inherit a plantation, I can plant a camellia maze like the one at Magnolia Gardens outside Charleston. I wish I could say that I have (or take) the time to change out these pots as often as I'd like, but it's still easier than repotting gigantic containers three times a year.

So why do I grow all of these plants in containers anyway? Other than the aforementioned soil and drainage issues, there’s a nagging little voice in the back of my head that still wants to live on a much larger piece of land. I doubt it’ll ever happen, but if it ever does, I want to be able to take as much of my garden along with me as possible. After all, how could I even think of parting with a bathing partner of 15 years?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Circle of Life

Early March seems the appropriate time to discuss the growing of plants from seed, but it’s an activity that I enjoy (too much for my own good) all through the year. Watching plants germinate, especially after having sown their seeds many months before, is one of the most amazing events I can imagine, and it’s a relatively cheap thrill. In my garage right now are about a dozen fluorescent shop lights mounted on shelves left behind by our home’s previous owners, and they afford me the space and opportunity to garden throughout the darkest part of the year.

This facet of my gardening obsession began when I was a child. Every winter I would lie on the floor in my grandparent’s den and pore over the seed catalogs Granddad would get in the mail. One of my earliest memories of using math was in filling out his annual order to Burpee for tomato seeds – always Better Boy, and in later years, Celebrity. About a month later (the mail moved more slowly in those days), we’d repair to his furnace room out back and start the precious seeds in peat pots next to the small windows. About every other weekend we’d visit, and I was always amazed by the progress the little plants would make. In those days, I wouldn’t even consider eating a raw tomato (that attitude has changed dramatically, but, sadly, too late for Granddaddy to know about it); it was all about growing the plants for me. I still grow a few tomatoes from seed these days, but just a few grape varieties which are draped over the outside of the greenhouse during the summer to provide shade and drip clusters of fruit (most of which never make it into the kitchen) through the open vents. There are, however, thousands of other seedlings which pop up throughout the year in the garage garden, in my coldframes, and in various and sundry “recycled” containers tucked in corners throughout the property. I never know exactly where they’ll end up, since there’s no possible way to grow all of them to maturity on our tiny lot, but that doesn’t seem to deter me at all. In February and March I’m inundated by Hellebores; the only secret to germinating these is that the seed needs to be fresh when planted (usually May or June in these parts) and kept evenly moist for the next several months. They are a true “set it and forget it” project that never fails to produce amazing results. From seed to bloom may take 3 or 4 years, and often the results are disappointing (I’m not as careful as I should be in my hybridization, since they bloom at one of the busiest times in my work schedule), but a few from each batch are always worth keeping, and none is completely unattractive. Cyclamen, likewise, are a long-term project, since the seed ripens in June and waits until late fall to germinate, but they are totally rewarding to grow from seed, if one has the patience and can provide perfect drainage for the young plants as they grow.

Even more amazing are the genera which produce seed no bigger than dust – a tiny pinch of seeds or spores is more than enough to produce all the gesneriads and ferns that anyone could ever need, and then some. The seedlings are nearly invisible on germination (some, such as Ramonda myconi, are still nearly invisible 3 years later!), but soon form a film of green “moss” across the surface of the pot. Eventually leaves begin to differentiate, and the painstaking process of pricking them out and thinning must be undertaken to allow room for growth. This is tedious, and usually takes place on a dark winter night on the kitchen table, sometimes with the use of a magnifier. Bifocals are not a big help in this process, either. One must also be blessed with a patient partner to pull this off (plastic drop cloths can also go a long way toward preventing family strife.) Still, persistence yields results – all of these Coniogramme japonica (an evergreen fern I’m trialing for hardiness here) resulted from a tiny pinch of spores produced two summers ago. In the last year I’ve begun growing Bletilla orchids from the seeds which are produced by the many species and hybrids I've collected. I’d grown terrestrial and epiphytic orchids for over 30 years, but had never attempted seed culture, since most orchids have to be sown under sterile lab conditions on an agar-based medium, then grown on in flasks until they’re big enough to face the world. Having nothing to lose is a great motivator, though, and I tried sowing the seed from these beautiful, hardy-ish terrestrials just as I do gesneriads – the minute particles are tossed with very fine sand to aid in their distribution on the soil surface in a plastic container filled halfway with a combo of milled sphagnum moss and vermiculite, then spritzed with a mild fungicide solution and covered with a clear lid. Incredibly, hundreds have now germinated, and the first batch began blooming recently in the cool greenhouse. It’s been fun to create my own complex hybrids from these garden-worthy orchids, and I’m greedily hunting for space in the garden to allow some of these the room to grow and bloom.

Members of the Amaryllis tribe are another of my pet projects, and they are so ridiculously easy from seed (as long as they’re planted immediately upon ripening) that this year I’m considering planting out hundreds of assorted habranthus, cooperanthes, and zephyranthes (collectively known as rain lilies) in what we loosely call the lawn. I just can’t bring myself to discard the glossy black seeds that develop about 2 weeks after each bloom in the summer and fall, and as a result I have hundreds of pots bursting at the seams with tiny, crowded bulbs of every species (not to mention the hybrids produced by the bees). Crinums form enormous, rubbery seeds, some of which are the size of ping pong balls. They often begin to germinate before being detached from the scapes, and are great fun to grow with children, although it could be years before blooms are produced. Rhodophiala and Cyrtanthus are prolific (and fun to hybridize) as well, and I plan to test lots of these for hardiness this year as well. That’s one definite perk related to growing from seed – with lots of spare plants, I can afford to experiment. Another thing I love about growing from seed is the interaction with other gardeners on a global basis. I have Arisaema flavum and sikokianum just popping up from seed which arrived from Italy last month, and Heironymiella (an obscure Amaryllid for which I can find almost no cultural information) which traveled from Argentina in an envelope. The aforementioned Ramonda seed came from Wales, where they probably would rather have spent their lives, out of our sweltering summer heat. In an age where international shipping of live plant material has become increasingly difficult due to CITES and import regulations, seeds are still pretty easy to exchange. For someone whose travel opportunities are limited, this aspect of the gardening hobby helps to partially satisfy feelings of horticultural wanderlust.

Some seeds may never germinate. I’m still waiting on pots of Franklinia which have spent over a year tucked away in a shady corner, maintained in fairly consistent humidity within their zip-lock bag “ark”; I will admit that my hope for these is waning, since I recently read that isolated specimens (which mine is, for now) may fail to produce fertile seeds. I’ve learned, though, not to discard pots of seeds too quickly; tree peonies take two years to show themselves above ground, but they do eventually appear. So far I’m still waiting for blooms from blossoms pollinated nearly 9 years ago, but I consider this therapeutic; patience is not one of my virtues, and for this type of gardening, developing it is a necessity.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve decided that true wisdom may be based on the ability to see the cycles of nature, life, and human behavior with the perspective which can only be gained by living for a while. Growing plants from seed (especially those which are the product of one’s own garden) offers a window on this process, and a template for discerning the larger, more esoteric sequences of events which shape our lives, our nations, and even our planet. Pretty lofty stuff, and all from a handful of “dust”.