Friday, October 30, 2015

The Garden Shed of Doom

It may be Halloween, but I don't believe there are any ghosts or goblins lurking about in my garden, although a person might possibly be startled by Gneville. He's only a garden gnome, although in the dark I suppose he could be mistaken for a goblin, or one of the other malevolent denizens of the underworld, but then he doesn't have an evil grin. It's more of a silly smirk, making him about as scary as Barney the Dinosaur in a field of daisies.

As for ghosts, plenty of slugs and earwigs have met their end in my garden, in most cases rather suddenly. I suppose if they had souls and were inclined to do a little haunting, they'd be back to settle the score, but after a good frost, I've never seen a live one, let alone an apparition.

There are, however, plenty of folk who've believed all along that slugs are creatures from the dark side, and would rather think they don't exist in this world. So often, I hear complaints from daytime gardeners of holes appearing mysteriously in the leaves of plants, whole leaves missing, even complete vegetable gardens disappearing overnight. Trails of ectoplasm criss-cross flowerbeds supporting their belief that it must be some ghostly monster.

I've never been a believer in ghosts or monsters from the other side — common, or garden, but it's easy enough to be spooked in a garden after dark. There are always creepy things happening during the night — strange sounds, slitherings, clinging spider webs, and of course, raspberry canes that grope and grasp and won't let go. But these things don't frighten me.

I will admit, however, to being startled one night by a pair of eyes glaring at me from the back corner of the shed — probably just a cat or a rabbit I said to myself as I pitched the trowel and slammed the door shut behind me. For months, I avoided the shed after dark.

If you have reason to go into a garden shed at night, cough loudly, rattle the handle, and then kick the door before entering — and carry a your biggest hoe. And keep an eye on garden gnomes. Don't let the silly smirks fool you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Three Alarm Fire

As usual, fall has been a blaze of colour with three-alarm fires everywhere. The hottest, brightest flames on show were most likely Euonymus alatus, appropriately named the burning bush. There's a grouping of them near the train station in Waterloo that were amazingly bright.
I have a Euonymus alatus in my garden. It is not ablaze. The best it has ever done is smoulder like a wet campfire on a May 24 weekend. It's one of the first shrubs I planted in my garden and it's been somewhat disappointing.
In the early days, old alatus flared up occasionally, but over the years it's never achieved the same fiery luminosity of others in my neighbourhood. Even now, after a brilliant fall, most of the leaves are a dull green, and the ones that have changed colour only look as though someone spilled cheap red wine on them. In fact, I should take a closer look as we did have a birthday party around here last week, but I didn't think the wine was that bad. No, my burning bush has been a disappointment. Dull, dull, dull.
Despite being a failure in my garden as the self-actualizing arsonist of the plant world, it has fulfilled other roles reasonably well, providing a pleasant green backdrop to summer flowering plants, while maintaining balance with other shrubs and trees nearby.
But it mainly filled a gap, and a gap filler is not what I need when I'm running out of space for new plants. This is why I've been slowly coming around to the realization that the burning bush has to go. I can't blame it for the lack of colour change. Fifteen years ago it was in sunshine, but now the shrubs and trees in that corner of the garden dwarf it, and consequently it's in almost full shade, which I suspect is one reason why it doesn't burn brightly, although I've seen others that do well without full sun.
My mind is almost made up. It has to go. I just have to bring myself to do it. There's no denying that Euonymus alatus is a good, easy to grow, trouble-free shrub. So trouble free and easy to grow, in fact, that it's become an invasive pest in milder US states like Connecticut or Virginia. Don't let this deter you from planting your own if you have a bright place for one. Around here, the winters are cold enough that it stays firmly put.
It grows well in most conditions and tolerates different soils, but isn't crazy about wet conditions. It can handle being in shade, albeit with subdued fall colour, and pests are rarely a problem. A natural vase-shape makes it an attractive specimen plant, yet it can also be grown and pruned as a hedge. Other names for the burning bush are winged euonymus, winged wahoo, or winged spindle-tree. 
Take a closer look at the next one you see and you'll understand why. The small, corky, wing-like protrusions along the stems become obvious after the leaves have fallen, making it an interesting plant for the winter garden. Darn, now I'm wavering again. (Update -- the burning bush went, hence the Barberry added).

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lotsa leaves -- indoors and out.

Leaves are falling in abundance, and not just outdoors. Chances are they’re clogging up the vacuum cleaner in the living room, too. When plants arrive indoors after returning from summer vacation on the deck, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they begin to shed a few leaves.

As days get shorter and light levels fall, it’s a signal to plants to slow down, even stop growing for the winter. Outdoors it happens slowly, but when a plant that spent the summer outdoors is suddenly dragged indoors where light levels are considerably lower, the plant is thinking winter, already? What happened to fall?

Between the shock and the panic it shuts down, stops growing and the leaves begin to fall. Leaves that weren’t healthy in the first place soon turn yellow and drop off. After a week or two the plant adjusts and rests awhile until late winter when it will begin to produce new growth.

Sometimes the plant owner panics as well, immediately reaching for the fertilizer in the mistaken belief the plant is starving to death, except force feeding a plant has the opposite effect. Instead of producing healthy leaves, guess what — they turn yellow. Fertilize only when there is active growth.

Yellowing leaves may be due to disease — bacterial, viral, fungal — and without a thorough examination by a Doctor House houseplant doctor, it can be hard to determine the cause. More than likely, if the plant was reasonably healthy outdoors, it’s less likely disease is the cause. More likely insect pests have hitched a ride indoors.

If left outdoors, most insects quickly succumb to frost, but when transported indoors they think they’re wintering in Florida, and since there’s usually a bit more action happening on a winter vacation, it only takes one pair of amorous bugs to begin producing offspring and soon enough they’re swarming over the plant, sucking the green life out of the leaves.

It’s not always obvious there are bugs on the plant as (a), they are frequently green, making them hard to see, or (b), they’re too small, making them hard to see, or (c) they’re green and small . . .

The usual suspects are aphids or spider mites — or both. The aphids tend to cluster around the stems and at the tips of new growth, if there is any. They are easy to see when clustered together, but by then they’ve already been reproducing like crazy, and worse still, aphids don’t need a mate to start a family.

The other pest, almost invisible to any one over fifty, is the spider mite. They love warm, dry homes, so conditions are perfect for them to start a new family. They can be found mainly on the underside of leaves and look like tiny reddish specks. Here’s where a magnifying glass helps considerably. Look closely and you’ll see that these tiny specks are moving about. They’re not true spiders; in fact, a real spider might keep them in check, but if one also happened to hitch a ride indoors, chances are it was flattened on sight by a half-crazed arachnophobe.

 When bringing plants in for the winter, it’s essential to check thoroughly for hitch hikers. Even then, they can be missed, so give the plants a good soaking with a 40-parts water to one-part soap solution. Best place to do this is outside or in the sink for small plants, otherwise into the shower with them. Spray every part of the plant — over and under stems, leaves, branches and even the soil surface.

After about fifteen minutes, rinse off the soap. Repeat a week later to be sure you got all the beasts. Oh, and if you have other plants indoors, quarantine the newcomers or you’ll be needing the garden rake indoors.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Gnomes United

Okay, hands up. Who owns a garden gnome? Confess, now. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’ll confess. I have one. I call him Darth Spader, not that his name reflects any ambition to take up a shovel and help out. He prefers instead to hang out unobtrusively behind a shrub.

Gnomes have seen their popularity rise in recent years thanks largely to the Hobbit movies, but I don’t believe this has had any effect on the status of garden gnomes. Polls show they are somewhat less popular than stray cats in a garden, even though they cause far fewer problems. 

Some find garden gnomes cute while others find them repulsive. Why, the Royal Horticultural Society considers coloured figures of all kinds, whether gnomes, fairies or similar creatures, unacceptable at any shows. And the little folk have always been persona non grata at the venerable old Chelsea Flower Show.

I’m showing support for the garden gnome because it is Oktoberfest, and garden gnomes do have a strong Teutonic background. The origin of gnomes hasn’t been as thoroughly researched as that of humans, but it does appear that the first clay garden gnome (der Gartenzwerg) was made in Graeferoda, Thuringia, Germany in the 1800's. While a first recorded appearance of a garden gnome in England was around 1840 at the estate of Sir Charles Isham, the 10th Baronet of Lamport Hall.

Not only are gnomes part of the landscape in Germany, for a while they were all the rage in Paris and became something of a status symbol in French gardens. Back in 2000, the chic Parc de Bagatelle in Paris displayed 2000 of the little guys throughout the world famous gardens, the very same gardens that a decade earlier displayed sculptures by Henry Moore.

Parisians flocked to the park to see the gnomes, and all was well until The Garden Gnome Liberation Front struck. After stealing 20 of the gnomes during a nighttime raid, the group issued a statement claiming responsibility and threatening to strike again unless the exhibit was closed and the remaining gnomes released. 

The communiqué further stated that the garden gnomes should not be ridiculed and should be released into their natural habitat (funny, I’d have thought that since they were garden gnomes, they were already in their natural habitat).

Unfortunately, gnome thieves are not only active in France. There have been many other instances of them going missing from gardens around the world, sometimes kidnapped with demands made for considerable ransom money. Even here in Waterloo gnome abductions have occurred.

I don’t know the details of the case, or whether the perpetrators were apprehended. I only happened to learn of it when I stopped by the annual police auction at the Waterloo detachment one Saturday morning a year or two back. The usual racks of bicycles were up for sale, along with household articles that had been lost or recovered, but over in the doorway of the police station, I discovered a group of garden gnomes. They were huddled together out of the wind, some of them ceramic, others concrete or plastic. Most were brightly coloured while a couple looked as though they’d been living rough. I assumed they were recovered after being stolen as a prank. A prank maybe, but heartbreaking to the owner.

For a moment, I felt an overwhelming urge to stick around and purchase the lot and take them home to share the garden with Darth, but I resisted. I really didn’t have room for them, and I somehow felt that Darth might not appreciate such a large invasion, solitary character that he is, so I left them to their fate, hoping they’d be adopted by a kindhearted gardener.

Whether you’re a fan of garden gnomes or not (George Harrison welcomed them into his garden and also included them on an album cover), they’re certainly controversial characters, and if they bring the good luck that they’re reputed to, then I’d say every garden needs one.

I should add that these are not real garden gnomes I’m referring to here. Besides sneaking into prestigious garden shows, genuine ones particularly love to attend Oktoberfest, all dressed up in their nifty gnome lederhosen. If you happen to discover one sleeping it off under the shrubbery in your back yard this week, ignore him. He’ll probably wander off after he wakes up. But if you can persuade him to rake leaves first, go right ahead.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Orange Globes Again

It’s hard to avoid those large, orange globes — you know what I mean. What do they call them — pumpkins? Yes, it’s that time of year and they’re sprouting everywhere, even crowding out election signs. They’re also a big news story — that is the big ones are. It seems there’s a record broken every fall for size and weight.

Besides the challenges of transportation to the weighing arena, there’s clearly a lot more involved in competitive pumpkin growing than just scattering a few seeds in the garden. I have grown pumpkins on occasion, and it was exciting the time I had one climb into a tomato cage. When it bulked up it absorbed the whole cage and became a goofy Halloween display all on its own, a performance artist pumpkin tottering on its three spiky legs with wires growing through its head — sort of a man in the iron mask look.

Yet I'm not competitive enough to dive into record breaking attempts, and besides, I really don’t have the room. My suburban lot isn't large enough to grow something the size of a garden shed, although it does sound almost like a practical idea. Plant it in spring, stop feeding when it reaches the appropriate size, scoop out the inside, then cut in the doors and windows and voila —  an orange garden shed. Not large enough? — I could grow a fresh one each year.

Durability might be an issue though, given how regular pumpkins tend to implode over time if left too long on the porch. I imagine a shed sized one could become its own compost pile overnight, then there’s an awful mess to clean up. I think I’ll stick with regular sized pumpkins — or even miniatures ones. Why not? Down sizing happened with pet dogs. If they get any smaller, we’ll be keeping them in bird cages.

As it happens, I did grow miniature pumpkins this year and I’m pleased with the results. They’re not really pumpkins, but they sure look like pumpkins. They’re just as orange, just as creased, and what’s more, my one plant produced dozens. They’re actually a plant in the nightshade family — same as potatoes and tomatoes. In fact, they've been called mock tomato. They’re also called Ornamental Eggplant, pumpkin bush, and my favourite, pumpkin on a stick. Solanum Integrifolium is the botanical name and it’s native to South East Asia.

It’s cooked there in stir fry dishes, but I'm not planning to eat mine without a little more research, but I am happy to grow it as an interesting ornamental plant. It was easy to grow and could have reached over a meter high if I’d given it a sunnier spot. I bought it as a plant in spring, although it can be grown from seed. I thought it looked interesting and stuck it in an out of the way corner in part shade then forgot about it until I saw golf ball sized pumpkins growing. 

Despite a lack of attention, my plant managed to produce a few dozen fruit. They’ll look perfect in a fall display basket — one with gourds and stuff. Not my thing, really. I think I’ll carve them as Barbie sized ghouls — or Barbie sized garden sheds.