Sunday, February 24, 2008

Gardening Podcasts

One of the greatest inventions of the last 10 years must be the portable mp3 player. I spend most of my waking hours at home and at school with an ipod strapped to my waist (more than once, I’ve had colleagues and parents come up and ask, “How’s that insulin pump working for you?”). As I music teacher I have found it an invaluable classroom resource for playing audio and video files, and at home I entertain myself with it while driving, exercising, cleaning, and gardening. Its major appeal for me is the ready availability of audio and video podcasts from all over the world on any subject one might possibly imagine, and a number of these apply to the art and science of gardening.

As might be imagined, these podcasts vary widely in the quality of information being distributed, not to mention the level of production value and professionalism. Some are basically audio/video blogs posted by people like myself. These are usually pretty enjoyable, even if the information isn’t particularly scholarly; it’s like having a neighbor (albeit one who lives in a totally different climate zone) discuss his garden with you as you work on your own. These tend to come and go as the podcasters’ interests wax and wane, and, like blogs, the frequency with which they appear in my itunes playlist is sporadic, due to the vagaries of individual life schedules.

Another category of gardening podcast is the radio call in show, usually carried by a local PBS radio station and manned by a resident extension educator or horticulture professor. I find many of these enjoyable, but some are much more listenable than others for a number of reasons. First of all, though it’s obvious that most of the presenters of these programs are extremely knowledgeable, some are much more talented as broadcasters than others. Felder Rushing’s “Gestalt Gardener”, out of Mississippi Public Broadcasting, is one of the most entertaining listens available, whether or not one is interested in gardening (my roommate will listen to this gardening podcast, but not others.) A retired professor of horticulture and author of several solid (as well as slightly irreverent) gardening books, he aims to entertain, debunk myths, and encourage outright rebellion as he encourages gardening for the pure fun of it. Granted, the show’s sometimes light on hard information, and callers tend to get short shrift when it comes to getting a definite answer (which underscores the fact that there really ARE very few absolutes involved in gardening), but it’s always darned entertaining, and Rushing’s folksy delivery makes anything he says seem completely credible. He’s the Garrison Keillor of southern gardening.

Another favorite of mine originates in a tiny, low-power radio station at UC Davis; the signal is sometimes pitifully weak, and I have to turn my car radio volume all the way up to hear it, but I never miss an episode. Hosted by Don Shor and Lois Richter, the Davis Garden Show is packed with great information, some of which is applicable 3000 miles away, some not. Don’s wealth of knowledge is staggering, and he has an easy wit and delivery style which makes him very listenable. Lois is no gardening slouch, herself; though perhaps without as much formal gardening education or professional experience as her partner, she holds her own in discussions on most topics. She also has one of the most pleasant speaking voices on the radio anywhere. I haven’t seen a picture of her, but she sounds amazingly like Jamie Lee Curtis. I would credit this to the existence of a California accent, except that Lois hails originally from Michigan. There are very few callers, and this affords more time for Don and Lois to discuss timely topics in depth; the one regular caller, an obviously erudite, educated, and obsessive gardener (it takes one to know one), brings frequently arcane subjects into the mix and offers (sometimes unintentional) comic relief.

Speaking of voices, another podcast I enjoy is “Wiggly Wigglers”, produced by the eponymous British company which promotes and provides materials for worm composting (hence the name) and organic gardening. While most of the info applies mainly to farmers in the UK, I would listen to Heather Goering read the phonebook. She also has the best laugh since the woman who sang the role of Madame Thenardier on the cast album of Les Mis. Ditto for “Talkback Gardening” and “Highlights from the Garden Weekend”, a pair of Australian broadcasts. The accents and syntax alone are worth a weekly listen, although Australians in general do seem to punctuate every sentence uttered by another speaker with “yes...yes...yes...”

I’m a huge fan of Ken Druse’s writing and photography, and for over a year now I’ve really enjoyed the garden podcast which he hosts with Vicki Johnson from his home in New Jersey. I’m hoping that their recent preoccupation with politics and environmental concerns is just a way to tread water until the gardening season begins again in earnest. While I’m totally in favor of “green living”, to use the PC term, I’d rather hear gardeners of this magnitude talk about gardening. (Note - it's April now, and they're gardening again!)

There are some podcasts, which, sad to say, just don’t appeal to me. Jane Nugent’s garden show from Pittsburgh dispenses solid information, and the host is obviously knowledgeable, but is also obviously reading most of her copy, throwing in “my goodness” at least once in each paragraph in an effort to make her delivery sound extemporaneous. Jane seems like a very nice lady, but one who could benefit from the calming effect of a good, stiff drink. This, coupled with the generally poor audio quality of the podcast, makes it a tough listen for me. Ditto for Ralph Snodsmith’s “Garden Hotline” out of NYC; Mr. Snodsmith’s got voluminous background knowledge and experience, but his delivery is a bit too pat for me, he gets hung up on his own pet issues (I think a great drinking game could be formulated by requiring each player to take a swig every time Ralph says “emerald ash borer” on the air), and his treatment of callers is sometimes a bit brusque and dismissive. Not that I blame him on this last point – they’re generally asking pretty trivial questions. It must get tedious to explain how to rebloom an Amaryllis or Poinsettia for the hundredth time in a year. Not surprisingly, both of these big-city based podcasts tend to host a preponderance of urban callers whose gardening opportunities are limited to one sunny window.

An interesting paradox I’ve discovered from listening to garden podcasts of the call-in ilk is that many of the callers are not computer literate; when you think about it, if they were, they could find the answers to their questions in great detail and with copious illustrations on the internet. Anyone tech-savvy enough to be listening to a podcast on an ipod is probably familiar with using a search engine, and therefore not likely to benefit much from the questions of those whose information gathering skills are limited to dialing an 800 number, so the quality of the podcast has to depend more on the host’s background and delivery style than on their responses to frequently inane questions. Felder Rushing, for instance, almost never gives callers useful answers to their questions over the air (although he does answer emails in depth, from what I understand), but I tune in week after week for the entertainment value.

Speaking of pure entertainment value, you can’t beat the “Gardening Australia” video podcast. Gorgeous gardens full of plants I’ve barely (or never) heard of are beautifully photographed at the height of the season, which happens to occur when our gardening year hits rock bottom, and it’s all presented with humor and a plethora of solid information (and again with those Aussie accents!) I let out an audible squeal of glee last week when the first episode began to download, after several weeks of hiatus.

It’s obvious that the information age has changed all aspects of life in amazing ways, and the gardening hobby is no different. I’m glad to have so many entertainment options which make some pretty onerous tasks more bearable, and I’d secretly love to produce my own podcast one day. For now, however, I’m enjoying listening; it’s like gardening with friends who don’t expect thoughtful responses, borrow your tools, or want refreshments when they visit.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hellebore Heaven

Hellebore Heaven

The best thing about February, other than my father’s having been born on Valentine’s Day, is that the hundreds of Helleborus species and hybrids in my collection come into bloom. If I had to name a favorite plant and flower, it would be one of these. I started growing and hybridizing them about 15 years ago, before many of the spectacular new varieties were available in the United States, scrounging plants and exchanging seeds from all over the world. I still have some of my original plants, and I probably should get rid of them, because they pale in comparison to some of my more recent acquisitions and many of my newer seedlings, and are probably hampering my efforts to improve certain strains by crossbreeding with them. Culling is the toughest part of plant breeding – I have an incredibly difficult time with consigning any healthy plant to the compost – but it’s also necessary when interbreeding can occur as readily as it does among the Hellebores. I promise myself that I’ll label some of the “dogs” (which are still beautiful, each in its own way) and donate them to plant sales this spring. Because it takes about 3 years to grow the plants from seed to bloom, I have tons of seedlings in cold frames this winter, in pots from 3 inches to 4 gallons, all waiting to be evaluated. Every year I tell myself not to save and plant seeds – there isn’t room – but every year I grow another couple of hundred. The new ones (planted last June) are just now breaking ground as the weather begins to open up. There’s so much information on varieties and growing techniques available online (and in the great recent book on the subject by Judith Knott Tyler and C. Colston Burrell) that I won’t try to reproduce any of that here. I have, however, learned a couple of interesting facts about growing hellebores in southeastern Virginia.

Hellebores will flower in the shade, but I find they grow and bloom much better with at least half a day of sun (preferably in the morning). The caulescent Hellebores (argutifolius, foetidus, lividus, and their hybrids) prefer as much sun as they can get. The healthiest of my H. x hybridus (descended from the clump-forming species) grow at the feet of rose bushes where they are exposed to full sun for about 9 months of the year, but shaded during the hottest part of the summer by the roses themselves and the Salvia guaranitica which runs rampant throughout the bed as well. H. niger, the “Christmas Rose”, usually doesn’t bloom here for Christmas, but for the last two years it’s arrived around New Year’s Day. These seem to do better here in large containers than in the ground (I heavily amend the soil to counteract the natural acidity of our heavy clay), and my favorite plant (supposedly) descends from a famous strain called “Potter’s Wheel”. Its blooms can reach five inches in diameter, and very often a second crop is produced in May or June. The only disappointment for me regarding this species is the difficulty I have in germinating and growing on the seed; my few plants produce large amounts, but it germinates poorly, and the resulting seedlings are usually so weak that they don’t survive our hot, humid summers. (Note added April 20, 2008: This year, for the first time, I have hundreds of healthy H. niger seedlings ready to transplant - a good lesson in persistence!)

Because of serious drainage issues (there isn’t much here), I’m growing many of my best plants in pots. Hellebores have done well for me in half barrels and large clay pots; I have been using fiberglass planters for larger plants as well, but I’ve found that these require lots of perforation to allow for enough drainage, and that the soil used in them needs to be highly amended. This year I’m experimenting with planting in “grow bags”, flexible containers sewn from heavy duty landscape fabric which hold anywhere from five to ten gallons of soil. They aren’t all that attractive, but my plan is to group them together and disguise the fabric with pine straw; their flexibility should allow them to be butted up together to simulate a raised bed. I discovered these when visiting a nursery in DC which was using them to hold containerized tree peonies (another member, along with Helleborus and Clematis, of the Ranunculus tribe.) The bags drain really well, even when filled with pure potting soil, but so far I’ve found only one source which will sell to retail customers, and their service hasn’t been great. I’m growing about 50 plants in bags this year, and I’m hoping this simplifies the container growing process. Even with thoughtful placement, careful watering, and the liberal use of perlite and granite grit as soil additives, two or three plants will develop crown rot every August when the air gets hot, humid, and still. It’s easy to spot, even from a distance – the usually glossy leaves take on a decidedly matte finish as the roots and stems decay, becoming unable to send any water or nourishment to the plant’s extremities. Usually death occurs within a matter of days, but sometimes I manage to salvage part of a plant by employing triage methods – washing all the soil from the roots, cutting away all of the rotten roots and rhizome, soaking the remainder in a fungicide, and repotting in fresh potting mix. I got lucky in this way with one of my few double varieties (these are much rarer and hard to get than the singles) last summer, and it has a few blooms now.

The success of tissue culture is a recent development in the world of hellebore breeding, and has already resulted in thousands of identical plants flooding the market through mass retail outlets. Part of the appeal of Hellebores for me has always been their elusiveness; you had to buy them in bloom to know exactly what you were getting, and still we have to travel great distances to visit growers of quality plants. Next Saturday I’m hoping to visit what I think of as “Hellebore Heaven” – Pine Knot Farms (run by Judith Knott Tyler, who co-wrote the aforementioned “bible” of Hellebores) in Clarksville, VA. They hold their “Hellebore Festival” for only two weekends late each winter, and it is a spectacular place to visit; acres and acres of woodlands filled with blooming plants in the dead of winter, not to mention hundreds of their hybrids for sale in full bloom in the nursery area.
Even Pine Knot has begun offering plants produced by tissue culture, including this gorgeous semi-double H. niger variety called “Double Fantasy”. I’m glad such rare plants are becoming widely available, and this may, in the end, help to cure my obsession with this genus. Once plants identical to those in my garden begin showing up at Walmart and Trader Joe’s, I suspect they’ll cease to hold the same cachet for me as in the past. I got over growing Phalaenopsis and Cattleya orchids for that reason (aided and abetted by a nasty scale infestation which claimed most of my collection). For now, however, I’m glad I have these spectacular plants to lure me into the garden on the very rare occasion when I’m home in February during daylight hours.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Winter Protection and Pyrrhic Victories

I'm all about experimentation in the garden, which, I suppose, is why mine looks so much like a mad scientist's laboratory most of the time. I go to crazy lengths to provide winter protection for marginally hardy plants at both ends of the hardiness continuum for zone 7b, and sometimes it crosses my mind to do a cost/benefit analysis of all of the effort, silliness, and downright ugliness these projects produce. One such example is Arbutus unedo 'Compacta', the vegetative portions of which are apparently quite hardy and happy to grow in our front yard, directly across from the entrance to the house. Its main attraction is the fact that it produces trusses of fragrant, urn-shaped blossoms simultaneously with ripening fruits which resemble nothing so much as bright red Crunch Berries, and it does all of this during the holiday season. That is, unless the ripening fruit is knocked off by a hard December freeze, the opening blooms (on which the following year's fruits depend) are k-o'd by same, or it's too blasted cold for any potential pollinator to venture out as the flowers are being produced. That's why mine is festooned with Christmas lights through mid-April and covered in a shroud of spun-bonded row cover throughout the worst of the winter weather. I have to admit that it presents a strange view, both to visitors and to us as we gaze out the front door. Is it worth it? Absolutely, considering it's the only one I've ever seen growing in the area, and the fact that Crunch Berries are among my favorite fruits (if only these tasted like the real thing!) I even dutifully untie the fabric cover on warm mornings, just in case a bee or two might venture out into the sunshine in search of a meal.

There are numerous other plants requiring winter life support of one sort or another, for insurance, if nothing else. Of the dozen or so “hardy” palms in the garden, I mulch the bases of a few, such as Chamaerops humilis; in past years this one has lost its outer leaves during cold snaps, only to replace them during the warm season. Most of the Sabal and Trachycarpus species fall into this category as well (except T. fortunei – I figure it’s widely available in case of disaster, and I draw the line at protecting something that grows with no care at every Mexican eatery in town!), but I do afford T. latisectus and T. nanus the extra protection of surrounding them with “Walls-o-Water” (sold mainly for the purpose of getting a jump on the tomato season), mainly because I have no replacements for them coming along in the greenhouse. These stand out in the winter landscape like sore thumbs, but my collecting mania allows me to reframe the offensive little teepees as garden art, to a degree. I can’t say the same for the neighbors, the letter carrier, or even my mother, but that’s another story.

All of the Cannas, Hedychiums, and Musella lasiocarpa get as many leaves piled over their crowns as I can rescue from the neighbors’ curbs on the night before garbage day, as does Musa basjoo. Musa velutina is protected by a bottomless barrel (also “liberated” on a Sunday evening collecting trip) turned upside down over an inverted tomato cage which is filled with leaves. This assembly looked a little strange, so I topped it off with a gazing ball ($1.37 at Walmart during an after-holiday sale – it’s really a ginormous, tacky plastic Christmas ball); the resulting product looks even stranger, but I have hopes that the ornamental pink bananas produced next fall will make the whole exercise worthwhile.

All of this is a lot of trouble, not to mention hideous, in its own way, but at least there’s a payoff during the warm season. The things I consider failures fall into two categories – things that die anyway (too numerous to mention), and things that survive, but aren’t worth the effort due to ill-timed bloom, etc. These are, of course, among the most disappointing. Lots of tuberous gesneriads are proving fairly hardy here in Tidewater; many of the Sinningias have been resoundingly successful, as have some Achimenes, and Eucodonias, along with such oddballs as Tremacron aurantiaca and Titanotrichum oldhammii. I had high hopes for Seemannia sylvatica (this one's blooming in the greenhouse); it wintered over (albeit during a mild winter, and under mulch), and developed a gorgeous clump of foot-high foliage with red stems. On about December 15 I noticed that it was loaded with flower buds; these promptly froze to death about a week later. My theory is that some plants from near the equator are programmed to bloom during shorter days than we have in the summer, so they make vegetative growth during our growing season, but wait until it’s too late to bloom. Sometimes, even in the garden, one wins the battle, but loses the war. Luckily, Gloxinia nematanthodes, more prostrate than the Seemannia, but otherwise pretty similar in bloom, seems perfectly hardy, producing dozens of small tubers and blooming in the ground and in containers from midsummer to frost.

Then there are the things which would be perfectly hardy through the winter, if only they could survive the warmth and humidity of July and August in coastal Virginia. I love tree peonies, but I struggle all summer to keep them free of mildew and fungus. Despite my best efforts, lots of branches are lost to dieback every year. Some hardy orchids are heartbreaking in this climate as well; Cypripediums try to break dormancy during our first week of warm weather, only to be threatened by frost the next day. They sleep under a deep mulch of pine needles all winter; sometimes we mulch to keep things from freezing, sometimes in order to keep things frozen. This is true even for Bletillas, the most nearly foolproof of the temperate orchids; dozens of bloom stems were frozen solid during a mid-April snowstorm (which was, ironically, our ONLY snowfall in 2007). One of my resolutions for this spring is to resist pulling back the mulch too soon this year, but this week we had two days with highs in the upper 70's; with weather as mercurial (pun intended) as that, judgement calls become difficult indeed.

I know there are gardeners much more accomplished than I who would tell me to give up on things that require coddling to survive in any given climate. This is one of the recurring themes espoused by garden guru and iconoclast Felder Rushing on his eminently entertaining podcast, “The Gestalt Gardener”, and if I were giving advice to most gardeners, I’d say the same. For me, however, the joy of gardening has been in experimenting and pushing the envelope. If it’s growing all over town, I don’t want it (okay, that’s what I say now, but wait until July when I’m looking for space to shoehorn in just one more daylily...) What can I say? Giving in to an obsession can be a lot cheaper than psychotherapy (until you factor in the cost of Cypripediums and tree peonies...)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Putting It Into Words


Where to begin? I suppose there's no better way than to jump in with both feet and talk about what's blooming right now in what I loosely term my "garden". This is one of my hundreds of seed-grown Hellebores, an H. xhybridus which would probably be classed as "apricot". It's blooming right now in my Newport News, VA yard, which is designated zone 7b on both the USDA and heat zone maps; in reality we've drifted squarely into zone 8 for the past several years. This has lulled me into complacency where many plant choices are concerned (although I've been gardening long enough to remember plunges into the single digits and winters where gigantic camellias died completely to the ground), and it frustrates me in terms of growing things which would like a more consistent cold dormancy than I can provide here. So I employ the "shotgun" technique of gardening - I figure if I grow enough things, something will be successful at any given time of the year.

I've been gardening for as long as I can remember, having been encouraged and taught first by grandparents on both sides, then having read about (and attempted to grow) everything on which I could get my perpetually grubby hands. After some 40 years, I have a vast arsenal of experience and "book learning" in the field, but no credentials whatsoever. My training is in the field of music education, and I have two jobs which (1) fill and fulfill much of my time, (2) finance my gardening addiction, and (3) constantly get in the way of my gardening time. Such is life. At any rate, gardening is my therapy, my addiction, and my goal for retirement, if ever that becomes a possibility.

I've read a lot about garden design, and although I can truly appreciate all of the theories and rules laid down over the years, I don't have the luxury of being able to follow many of these tenets right now. I garden on about 1/4 acre, and since my greatest joy in gardening comes from collecting, breeding, and propagating, I've had to choose those activities over creating a beautiful landscape. I'm sure this will come back to haunt us when and if we ever try to sell the house, but I can't worry about that right now. I do a lot of modular gardening, so lots of things are kept mobile in anticipation of our impending lottery win and subsequent purchase of land out in the country. I have a small, homemade greenhouse in which I winter over tropicals and subtropicals (it's more "ark" than conservatory), an even smaller alpine house for things that need to be kept just above freezing, and several cold frames scattered throughout the garden. In short, my "garden" is a mess, but extremely interesting (at least to me.) This is one of the tropical Calanthes, "Baron Schroeder" currently blooming in the greenhouse.

My horticultural interests tend to wander as the seasons change, which is why I've never been able to settle on any one family in which to specialize. Orchids, particularly the hardier ones (although at one time I had over 300 Cattleya hybrids), are a particular interest; as we speak I have untold numbers of home-hybridized Bletilla seedlings in various stages of growth under lights in the garage (I'm anticipating a visit from local drug enforcement authorities at any time.) The aforemementioned Hellebores occupy an enormous amount of my time, potting soil budget, and garden space, as do hardy(ish) palms, aroids, gesneriads, amaryllids (I have a large collection of Crinums, Clivia, Zephyranthes, Habranthus, Rhodophiala, etc., both in pots and in the landscape), and Sarracenias (this obsession started with a visit to the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew in 1996). And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Speaking of icebergs, some of my favorite plants are not supposed to grow here at all, including Tree peonies and cypripediums. That hasn't stopped me from trying, and I've had many successes; this Cyp. kentuckiense is one that I grew from a flasked seedling received more than ten years ago. There are lots of techniques I employ to keep these plants cold in the winter, some of which are pretty similar to those used to keep "temperennials" warm.

My goal for this blog is to attempt to bring some organization out of the chaos which is my garden (and my life), as well as to somehow present a sampling of the gardening possibilities in an area which lies "between zones".
I'll try to be less scattered in future postings, and I welcome input from others who may have suggestions or questions that could benefit us all in enjoying this hobby-turned-neurosis.