Friday, March 25, 2016

Almost as Prolific as Poinsettias

I’ve not heard any mention of Lilium longiflorum this week. No signs in stores, not a comment around the water cooler, although the advent of bottled water has curtailed most daily conversations in the workplace. No wonder everyone is on Facebook. Stop drinking alone, I say. Talk to people.

I digress. Lilium longiflorum is everywhere, but no one calls it that, and rightly so or it might not sell as well as it does. Besides, speaking in botanical terms does tend to disperse groups rather quickly.

Lilium longiflorum is the Easter lily and it’s everywhere. The plant became associated with Easter a little over a hundred years ago after a Ms. Thomas Sargent visited Bermuda

Apparently she loved the plants so much she stuffed a few bulbs into her luggage before returning to her home in Philadelphia. You could do that then, before border controls, drug enforcement agencies, and homeland security complicated travel.

After a local nurseryman forced the bulbs into bloom in time for Easter, the idea of a plant symbolizing Christ's Resurrection took off. If you’re wondering what Ms. Sargent was doing in Bermuda, and if she was regularly smuggling other items back to the US, I’ve no idea — but I do know why she found lilies growing there.

The plant is native to southern Japan and was living happily on the Ryukyu islands until plant hunter Carl Peter Thunberg sent a few to England in 1819 where it became popular. From there it made its way to Bermuda where the climate suited the plant perfectly — and the British too, no doubt. They began growing the plant as a cash crop and everyone was happy until 1898 when a sneaky virus wiped out bulb production. Japan stepped in, since it was their plant originally, and took over the industry until World War II messed up the market and everything else in the world.

At that point, anyone growing the plants for fun in North America quickly realized they’d been handed an opportunity when the price of bulbs skyrocketed. Bulb growing became centered in an area on the California-Oregon border that today accounts for about 95% of bulb production. They are shipped out to commercial greenhouses across Canada and the US. Because Easter is not a fixed date, these growers must carefully juggle growing conditions to ensure the plants are in bloom for Easter.

And that’s how the Easter lily arrived at your grocery store. All you have to do is care for it for a week or two, and here’s how.

Easter lilies prefer moderately cool temperatures, so place where daytime temperatures are fifteen to eighteen degrees Celsius with slightly cooler night temperatures. They dislike drafts and won’t put up with excess heat or dry air from heating ducts.

They thrive best near a window in bright, indirect natural daylight — not direct sunlight. Water well when the soil surface feels dry, but avoid drenching. If the pot is still wrapped in decorative foil, rip it off as otherwise the plant’s roots are standing in water all the time.

As the flowers mature, remove the yellow anthers before the pollen starts to shed. This prolongs flower life and prevents the pollen from staining the white flowers.

The bulbs can be planted outdoors in spring and grown on; however, they aren’t reliably hardy in this area, but if you want to chance it, plant it about eight to ten centimetres deep in a sheltered, sunny, well-drained corner of your garden and mulch well to keep the soil cool. Mulch even more in fall for winter protection. Happy Easter and long live Lilium longiflorum.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Springing Up and Down

Finally, I am able to see my garden again. Most of the snow left last weekend, revealing a very grubby garden. I cleaned up the patio, tidied the shed a little — just enough to be able to get past the doorway. I even did a little pruning when I tentatively approached my climbing rose, snips in hand. We don’t get along. A snip here and there at a couple of wayward canes and I was soon reminded that full combat gear is essential. Sure, it looks lovely in full bloom, but winter reveals a bad tempered monster fully intent on crushing the arbor.

It’s the Jekyll and Hyde of my garden. I have to cut out old, woody branches, plus dead or damaged ones. I try to remove all the weak, stringy shoots, if I can get at them, and I must shorten the healthy ones that are trying to snag my neighbour’s gazebo. The trick is to bend a few healthy canes horizontally to encourage more blooms.

It’s all worthwhile in the end, but it’s rarely a painless process when every thorn is out for blood. They’re only wannabe thorns as technically they’re prickles — outgrowths of the stem surface rather than true thorns. Call em what you like, they’re still nasty, but I’ll forget that come June when the arbor is a mass of pink blooms.

I have other shrubs that need attention and are far less trouble, but I couldn’t get near them until the snow melted. Most shrubs and trees are best pruned while dormant, especially deciduous ones, and right now they’re about to wake up. A little pruning after leaves sprout won’t cause harm, it’s just easier to see what needs trimming — dead, diseased, and wayward branches. They should be cut out, and if the shrub needs shaping at all, now is the time to do it unless it’s a spring flowering shrub.

Here’s the standard reminder: Do not prune spring flowering shrubs until after they’ve finished blooming or you’ll be removing flower buds and it won’t bloom at all.

It’s easy now to check online for pruning requirements of specific plants, but it’s essential to know the species or variety. For instance, I often hear of problems with hydrangeas not blooming. Sometimes it’s due to environmental conditions, but it might just be because someone with a sharp pair of snips and misplaced enthusiasm has lopped off the flower buds.

Mop head, lacecap, and oakleaf species all bloom on old wood, that is, stems that have been on the plant since the previous summer, so prune immediately after blooming (if neccessary), but no later than the end of July. Paniculata and Annabelle types set flower buds on new growth and can be pruned in fall, winter, or early spring. The so called endless blooming varieties can be pruned almost anytime.

A similar situation exists for clematis. Again, some bloom on old wood, some on new, and some on both old and new, which means there are three different pruning methods. It’s usually noted on the tag, but if that’s long gone, to correctly identify the type, simply observe how and when the flowers appear. 

Fortunately, pruning at the wrong time won’t kill clematis, not when it’s well established. If it’s an out of control, straggly mess and doesn’t flower at all well, it may be worthwhile to have a fresh start by cutting it back severely. This may result in fewer flowers this year but it will recover.

The bottom line for any pruning is 1. Know the plant. 2. Only prune if necessary. 3. Be absolutely sure because you can’t glue branches back on the tree.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Put Down That Chainsaw

It’s almost spring, and despite the overwhelming urge in gardeners to get out there and do something, anything, the garden will either be snow covered, frozen, or muddy. This does dampen the excitement a tad, but just being able to walk around the backyard is a pleasure.

If I can actually see the ground, I find enjoyment cleaning up the detritus of winter, wondering why junk mail and flyers were so efficiently delivered to all points of the garden. The sign should have at least stopped them at the mailbox — I thought it was politely written.

Spring joy aside, fun in the garden is limited. As an aside here, I’m calling it fun instead of work as that word is so inappropriate. It’s a word that puts people off finding the pleasure in gardening. Meanwhile, I plan to tidy the shed. It’s a make fun project where I prepare the shed for my annual springtime recluttering.

All the pots and trays that I tossed in there during planting last season can now go for recycling, something I should have done a year ago. I’ll likely discover broken pots, and tools without handles that have been on the repair list far too long. I'll probably leave them on the must fix list for just a little while longer. Yes, it’s going to be fun.

Something I should do is sharpen all my pruning tools. I don’t have many as I find a pair of manicure scissors and a chainsaw take care of most pruning requirements. I’m joking, of course, despite the awareness that there is a school of thought that believes a chainsaw alone is sufficient, and the bigger the better.

Chainsaws aside, this is a good time of year to do a little pruning while everything is still dormant, and I do have a few things that need attention. I’m cautious, however, when offering pruning advice to others. Too much snipping and hacking is as bad as pruning nothing until there’s a threat to cut off utilities because the meters can’t be read.

First rule of pruning is, if a tree requires ladders and chainsaws to lop off branches, unless you’ve at least auditioned for Cirque Du Soleil, I highly recommend hiring a professional.

If a tree needs branches removed, don’t cut flush with the main trunk; cut just at the outer edge of the branch collar to allow for healing. If the branch is of any size, make an undercut first to prevent it from stripping the bark back to the trunk as it breaks. Some trees tend to bleed sap heavily in spring. There’s not much that can be done to prevent it, and it is harmless.

Painting with sealants or fashioning tourniquets around limbs isn’t recommended (unless it’s your own limb, chainsaw wielders). If the sap looks unsightly, prune later when it will be hidden by foliage. Evergreens such as spruce and pine are unlikely to need much pruning.

Unless trees are obscuring vision, I don’t like to see the lower branches of evergreens removed. It’s unnatural and the tree can suffer when the sun dries out the soil below. If you must, add mulch to compensate for the lack of shade.

As for shrub pruning, don’t prune ones that flower in spring until after they’ve bloomed or there’ll be no blooms at all. The exception might be if there’s a need to take in hand something that dreams of being a privacy screen for an aircraft hanger. Otherwise, prune only where necessary to remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches, including branches that rub against others.

That should keep us having fun for at least an hour or two. If the wind picks up, I may have more junk mail to attend to.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Start em Early!

If you wait until young people are teenagers and then introduce them to gardening by telling them to go mow the lawn, it will hardly endear them to the pastime. But, when you start early by planting seeds with a child, you’ll be planting a seed in their head. When the seed in the soil sprouts and begins to grow, the magic of this amazing process will never be forgotten. 

This is important, this understanding of how the natural world works. We’ve heard how too many city children can make no connection between milk and a cow, and I dare say there as many who haven’t a clue where the lettuce on a Big Mac comes from — it grows in dirt? — Oh yuck.

Okay, it may have been grown hydroponically, but my point is, we now have a generation that has had little contact with the natural world. There’s practically nothing that can’t now be done online in a virtual world, including gardening. Sure, there are no dirty hands, but a computer program will never replicate the joy in the face of a child seeing their very own seeds sprout — or maybe it will. Maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe it’s too late, but it will be a loss, so start seeds with a child today and give them a gift they’ll never forget, something they may need someday.

It’s easy enough; young plant growers need seeds, a container, and soil. Other essentials are warmth, light, food and water, and a few minutes of attention each day.

Small children (and plenty of adults) need instant gratification; therefore fast germinating seeds are essential for the first time grower. Fast germinating flower seeds include Centaurea (bachelor buttons) 5 to 7 days, Cosmos 7 to 10 days, and Zinnia 5 to 7 days. A favourite of mine is Four-o’clocks (Mirabilis). It’s ideal for small children because the seeds are large and easy to handle. Soak them overnight and they’ll sprout surprisingly quickly.

For a container, almost anything that will hold soil will do providing there’s a hole in the bottom for drainage. Mini greenhouses for starting seeds are available, including whole kits, but using stuff from around the house is fun. The container should be deep enough to hold 50 – 75mm of soil. Too shallow and the soil will dry out quickly. Clear plastic food containers are great because you’ll be able to see the roots growing as well as the plant. Use a second one as a cover and your mini greenhouse is complete.

Fill with a light, good quality potting soil, not garden soil as it may contain weed seeds and unwelcome bugs. Moisten the soil before planting, and then after you’ve planted the seeds, cover them lightly with more potting soil, but not too deep. Too much and the seed won’t have enough stored food to make it to the surface.

Some seeds need light to germinate, while others prefer darkness. This information is usually on the seed packet, but regardless; don’t plunk the container down on a window sill in full sun right away. It will get far to hot and broil everything. The soil has to stay moist but not wet.

When the seeds have sprouted, remove the cover and move to a sunny location beside a window, but avoid a window that faces full south as it may be to hot for the seedlings. If they grow leggy and lean towards the window, it means they need more light. It’s essential to check at least once a day to ensure the soil hasn’t dried out, but don’t over water. It’s best to water from the bottom if possible as a permanently moist soil surface can result in fungal problems.

Most important, seedlings are like babies and need extra care, but as they grow into kids, then teenagers, they become tougher, tough enough to rake and hoe, to plant and harvest, to pull weeds — and mow lawns. Start them early for future success.