Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reliability at Ground Level

DD One -

If you think of ground covers as carpets for the floor of your garden, you may begin to look at them in a different light. Just like floor coverings in our own homes, each area of the garden has a different use – so choose each ground cover carefully.

For those areas of the garden that are dark, shady, boring and hard to grow in, try one of the many lamiums. These hardy perennials come in an assortment of leaf color from white/green variegated to lime green. They are often used as an annual in hanging pots or containers because of their ability to droop over an edge. These plants are dreadfully under-used as ground covers. I have a fabulous patch of Lamium maculatum in my garden that is all shades of variegated from white to dark green to maroonish/purple, and that’s just the leaf color! The patch collectively blooms pink to purple to white! I didn’t even plant this lovely colony, but it made its way there and settled in, for which I am eternally grateful. It lights up the shady side of the path and looks too fabulous in the fall with golden birch leaves sprinkled on top (see photo above). This is not a ground cover to be walked on and never wants to dry out, but it makes up for these shortcomings in beauty and steadfastness.

If you want aroma, reliability, usefulness, mow-ability and beauty, all rolled up in one, Mentha arrensis (Wild Montana Mint), is hard to beat. Yes, it does provide all these things, and makes a great mint slushy as well! People’s eye brows go sky-high when I recommend it, but it really is a great plant. It’s not as invasive as most members of its family (at least not up here in the North Land) and it tastes SOOO good! It grows up to 12 inches in the sun, and a bit taller in the shade (it can grow in both). It grows without much water, or in moist soil. It doesn’t particularly care what type of soil it is given, responding to conditions by adjusting its size. Tea made from this wonderful little plant tastes like it’s had honey added to it – there is no bitter taste and it can hardly be made too strong. Mentha arrensis can even be kept short by mowing!

Recipe for Mint Slushy

1 large handful of Wild MInt (Mentha arrensis)
2 cups cold water
1/4 cup raw sugar dissolved in 1 cup warm water
2 cups ice cubes

Mix all ingrediants into a blender at high speed until it is the consistancy of a smoothy. Serve with a sprig of mint on top - preferably in a small glasss shaped like a flower pot!

A combination of slow growing ground covers can serve an all together difference purpose and provide a different look. For example: try combining Moss Campion (Silene acaulis) with its glossy green mat and bright pink flowers with the fuzy gray/green carpet and soft purple blooms of Wooly Thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus). These two plants have a similar growth rate, share a love of sun and good drainage and form mats at ground level. Twining together over rough terrain, they are indeed a handsome coupling. They are perfect to plant along a rock pathway, on stone steps or on a rocky hillside. Throw in some Veronica prostrate ‘Aztec Gold’ with its golden/lime foliage and you’ll think you’ve died and gone to horticultural heaven. Really, you will! The wonderful blue blossoms on the Veronica are just a ‘way-too-fun’ extra!

The best thing about a reliable ground cover is that it’s reliable! You never have to worry about that part of the garden again! If chosen carefully, to suit your needs, a ground cover should do just what its name indicates – cover the ground! It should also look beautiful, make you smile and perhaps, with luck, you can make a pot of tea from it as well.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Freeing the North American Lawn Slave

DD One

I think the official color for May ought to be taupe. You know, that almost brown, sort of dusty ‘blandscape’ overlaid with chilly gray overcast skies. This isn’t exactly the sort of weather and tone that makes me want to even think about gardening. But, you can already hear the low buzz of the early prowling lawn mowers and the dull whining of from folks complaining about their neighbor’s lawn care; a sure sign of spring. The North American lawn could be one of the most successful behavioral controls ever invented. Think about it. Lawns and turf take up over 30 million acres of land making it the fifth largest crop in North America. There are approximately 38 million lawn mowers dragging North American slaves behind them all summer long. Maybe it’s time to think about freeing our selves and our property from the insidious and destructive institution of sod!

Think about it. Between 1996 and 2004 more than 663,000 of us were treated for lawn mower related injuries in hospital emergency rooms. That’s about 2 out of every 1000 injuries in the ER! Many of those injured are under the age of fifteen or over the age of 60. But, the lawn mower itself isn’t as dangerous as the lawn owner. Americans apply pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides to their lawns at about four times the rate as applied to agricultural crops. According to the US National Cancer Institute the incidence of childhood leukemia is approximately 6 ½ times greater among families using lawn pesticides than for those who do not.
Fertilizers and lime are applied religiously by homeowners who rarely, if ever, have their soils tested to see if they are even necessary. Many of the chemicals applied to our gardens and lawns find their way into our water supply. A 1990 EPA survey found that 12 of 32 untested pesticides and herbicides made it to their water testing sites. We spill nearly 15 million gallons of gasoline a year while filling these slave masters. Yale forest ecologist, F. Herbert Bormann estimates that we burn about 580 million gallons of gas mowing the lawn annually while polluting the air in one hour as much as driving our cars 350 miles!

Think about it. In the American west approximately 60 % of urban fresh water is used to irrigate our lawns. It takes a lot of energy to maintain water quality, run the wells, pumps, an the water stations just to keep junior in the shower for an hour, let alone to water the lawn! And we’re doing all of this why? Because we’ve bought into the idea that a green lawn and lots of it keeps nature at bay, is an important asset in a neighborhood, and our neighbors expect us to toe the line. In fact, in some places it’s the law that you only have lawn in your front yard. Maybe lawns are just too dangerous and expensive to consider as an asset anymore. You can’t eat your lawn, it’s hard on the environment, and takes a lot of money and work to maintain. So, if you wanted to work hard on your yard wouldn’t you want to work at something with more bang for your buck?

Why not cover some of that lawn with some raised beds filled with exotic herbs and vegetables? You could learn how to grow and cook your own delicious meals. You don’t need lots of lawn for a great garden party, but, you do need good food. Replace that blandscape with flowering kale, colorful varieties of loose leafed lettuces, golden zucchini, rainbow colored chard, lemon thyme, sweet marjoram, and lots of nasturtiums. Wouldn’t you rather spend time with your spouse sitting on the bed doing a little weeding and discussing some exciting new recipes you both want to try? Take a cooking class and renew your relationship with your garden and your former lawn slave!

Try using the lawn as an accent to borders of perennials and shrubs and you’ll have a ready source of material for floral arrangements that will make you the envy of your friends. Children will have more fun hiding around large planted beds than pushing the lawn mower. Pets can be compatible with plantings if you don’t stress out over every little accident. Gardens should be relaxing and enjoyed, not as places to shackle ourselves to expectations of others. That’s what lawns are for. Think about it!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Contemplating A Late Spring

DD One
About now we’re thinking that a mini-ice-age has set in and we’ll never see summer again! Well, I suppose that could happen, after all, my Mother remembers the May of 1955 when the leaves didn’t open until after Memorial Day weekend! Let’s hope it’s not our turn for more of that! In the mean time it is cold out there, the wind is nasty and persistent and there’s not much popping out of the ground. So what’s a gardener to do?

Why not take advantage of what has been forced upon us and see what the really hardy stuff is out in the garden? What has popped out of the snow? Has anything set bud yet? Is anything in bloom? (not likely) It’s really great, if you think about it. If you’ve been afraid to walk through your garden, put on a warm coat and head out there now. You may be surprised and delighted at what you find. Here’s what I found today.

The champion in the ‘three inches above the soil’ category is the garden primrose, Primula auricula. It even has some little buds! At an even tie are Native Alaskan Chives, Allium schoenoprasum sibericum. They’re up three inches, budded for bloom and taste great to boot. Coming in a close second would have to be Lewisia tweedyi. This fabulous little plant comes out of the snow pretty much as it went in. Perfect, small rosettes of reddish-green succulent leaves are doing their best to cheer up the scenery. Along side this, of course, is Berginia cordifolia. Considered semi-evergreen here, it usually thaws out a deep reddish maroon. A wonderful, rich color in any garden when surrounded by so much brown and gray! Both of these early birds will bloom soon. And then there’s Draba siberica. This flat, ground mustard is a delicate, light green mat bursting with buds. It will be a carpet of yellow within a day or two and will have rushed to first place on my list. While it is a bit untidy when not in bloom, it is irreplaceable for early garden color. Bright and cheerful, it will hold bloom for three weeks if the weather is cool. Flat sedums such as Dragon’s Blood and Variegated are lovely right now, with fleshy leaves and bright red stems. What little troopers!

Runners up, should not be
shunned. Various Delphiniums are 2 to 3 inches out, with their green leafs looking like little fisted hands emerging from the soil. Native Iris, both standard and dwarf (Iris setosa and I. setosa nana) are cutting through their frozen homes like thick grass, forming bud heads as they come. Another wild Alaskan favorite of mine, Antennaria microphylla (pink pussy toes), is living up to its ‘favorite’ category by melting out of the ice in full, soft gray color. Its simi-fuzzy leaves and flat, matting form make it look like a silver carpet on the brown ground. It even feels good to walk bare-foot on, if you’re brave enough to take your shoes off and give it a go!

In the shrub and tree division, the Prunus virginiana wins hands down. This wonderfully hardy tree, known commonly as a Canadian Red, can’t be beat for early leafing. While we are surrounded by native trees too afraid to let out their greenery, this imported ornamental just plunges ahead without trepidation. No cold wind or freezing nightime temperatures are going to stop it from enjoying spring! It has leaves and flower buds that grow daily. It’s neighbor, the Northwood Maple – Acre rubrum ‘Northwood’ - positively delighted me with blooms this year! Arn't they beautiful?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Picky Plants Make Perfect Gardens

DD One

We have lost the idea of joint residency as we segregate in huge homes, gate off our communities and work at jobs that are increasingly specialized. We like to categorize, cube and divide. It is natural to bring this concept into our gardens as well, but I’d rather think of the garden as a place where we can bring back into practice the art of harmony.

This time of year we are all reading plant labels and now have a list of plants for the perfect garden. But your desired lovelies come from such varying cultures, will they ever get along? Fear not! With a little technique, many plants of opposite needs can be very happy living together.

The ideal garden would have a number of mini-environments and is not all that difficult to create. Once done, it should fill the needs of a diverse group of plants. A verbal illustration of such a garden built on a site with full sun, might look something like this.

Aligned each corner of the garden with a compass direction. Shade is created by building a garden wall on the SE and SW sides of the garden and by planting an Amur Maple (Acer ginnala) in the southern most corner. A little wet ditch runs inside the wall as it follows the garden perimeter. The mound on which the tree is planted is made of very lean soil and grit. The wall, tree, mound and ditch will provide moist shade, dry shade and wet shade. Voila! Bob’s your uncle and you can now plant your Touch-me-nots!

A fence could replace the wall, a large, shade loving shrub such as a Kesselring Dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Kesselring’), could replace the tree and so forth. You get the idea.

A benched pergola anchoring the northern corner of the garden, serves as an entrance, a place for your Arctic Kiwi vines to flourish, a welcome resting place and a little filtered sun. Flank it on both sides by a hedge that runs to meet the garden wall in both directions. William Baffin Roses would work well for this. They will thrive in the heat, especially with the little ditch feeding them a constant supply of moisture. You have now completed the outline of the garden and have created filtered sun by the pergola, full sun in the garden center, wet partial sun/light shade along the rose hedge as morning and evening sun rotates, and moist sun along the inside of the ditch. A low, raised area somewhere in center of the garden made of lean soil will supply you with the one, remaining growing condition you lack; dry, hot sun. How hard was that? You’ve now got it all and can happily go bonkers planting a diverse and interesting haven.

A couple of things to remember before you get too crazy. The little ditch will need a liner, fairly deep down - around twelve inches - to keep the moisture in the general area you intend it to be. The dry areas work best if bordered by wet areas or well drained walk ways to collect the moisture that will naturally drain through the gritty, lean soil during times of precipitation. The overall amount of sun or shade in you garden is up to you. In following this plan, for example, the larger the garden area, the more full sun you would have within its center. And finally, while it is rare to see a wind warning on a plant label, it is helpful to know your wind direction as well as your compassing.

Planning and planting a diverse, mixed garden is a tremendously rewarding experience and can readily expand the horticultural gray matter. Up here the leaves aren’t even out yet! I’d say there’s still plenty of time to plot and scheme while we ponder that perfect plot.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Cottonwood Beauty!

Posted by PicasaDD One

This Cottonwood stands straight and proud in the River Park near Palmer. I watched this Coral Mushroom form over a number of weeks in the fall of last year while on walks with Rosemary and Basil.

Such simple beauty.