Saturday, September 30, 2006

Holms and the case of the dead apple tree

DD One
Every spring I get a raft of phone calls asking about dead plants. No, people aren’t asking to buy them, they just want to know why something looks dead when it looked so great in the fall. While I’m not Sherlock Holms, or even Miss Marple, it often boils down to one thing. Fall water, or a lack thereof.

When I ask if the plant went into winter with good, moist soil, I usually get a long pause followed by, “What do you mean by that?”

This time of year it seems like it’s always wet outside. Fog, mist, cool evening temperatures causing heavy morning dew, quite a few clouds; these all give us the impression that we are experiencing moisture. Remember, we are above ground and we feel cool and damp, but the life of a woody plant is all about what’s happening underground.

Two weeks ago I was digging (chipping would be a more apt description) on a steep hillside in an attempt to create what I hoped to be a really amazing staircase of rock and aggregate. The hillside is primarily hard packed shale and concrete-like mud. Just inches below the surface it was so dry and hard that I needed a pounding bar just to loosen the surface. (Remember – everyone has been complaining about how wet our weather has been!) For several days I chipped away at the ground with my bar and scooped out the freed bits with my hands. Not a lot of fun! Making no progress, and having tons more productive things to do, I walked away from the never-to-be-finished-much-less-started staircase and stayed away for a week. In the mean time it rained - long, hard, healthy rain! I rallied myself for another attack this week and to my shear joy I was rearranging dirt on the hill like a giant gopher! One long rain made all the difference! The soil was soaked down at least two feet, and a thrill to work in. Yes, I know; being bent over nasty ground on a hillside too steep to perch on, pitching dirt, is not a thrill for everyone, but I was in heaven!

As you guessed, or at least I hope you have, all of this is to illustrate a point. Moisture matters! In this case it loosened the ground and made my job easier, but in the case of roots, it can literally mean life or death. While we are in a frenzy changing tires, putting on snow blades and getting ready for winter, our plants are quietly doing the same. They need to be at their healthiest right now; plump cells full of stored energy with fleshy, thick roots, not emaciated drought shriveled ones. The trouble is it’s all happening underground. They don’t show the outward signs of drought as they do in the heat of the summer, and it’s not likely they’ll holler at us, “Hey! We need water over here!” They just keep quiet, look stoic and die in the spring.

Trees and shrubs in the apple (Malus) and prune (Prunus) familes are quintessential for this. These include eating apples, rose-tree-of-china, and nanking cherry. They often begin to get nice leaf and flower buds then suddenly shrivel. Soon the wood begins to dry and dark spots appear on the bark. The once puffy buds are now dried and the branch tips are crispy. The fact is, their roots are too damaged from winter freeze and they can not feed themselves. Once all stored energy is gone, they go kaput!

A number of evergreens such as Norway and Colorado spruce and many juniper are especially susceptible. Surprisingly, even our native birches are not safe. Their particularly wide platter roots can suffer fall drought with ease. They leaf out in the spring, after which it is common to see the tops of the trees looking dead. Looking around our forest with this in mind says a lot about our past several summers without the need to have experienced the weather first hand.

So! You’re not quite through watering yet. I’m not talking about daily watering, just keeping the ground nice and moist until it is frozen. And don’t forget your friends that are planted under eves or other obstructions. This may require some awareness on your part and perhaps a hose hook up once in a while, but just think - you won’t have to wonder why your orchard looks like a graveyard next spring.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Inside the World of Carnivorous Plants or How Audrey 2 Ate the Gardener

DD Two

Audrey 2 ready to eat!

Gardeners who know me know I love really BIG plants. But, those are found in my garden and not in my workshop. I just spent the last month breeding a man-eating plant and nurturing it with anxiety, blood, sweat and tears! And she . . . Audrey 2 . . . really ‘eats’ actors. Audrey 2 is the carnivorous plant character from the play Little Shop of Horrors. Remember the movie with Rick Moranis as the dweebish Seymour who discovers the exotic plant that winds up eating his boss, his girlfriend Audrey, and Steve Martin’s wonderfully sadistic dentist character? That’s the plant! Instead of getting my nursery stock put away for winter and enjoying the last of my garden’s bloom, I’ve been living inside a giant theater prop cum carnivorous plant. The last time I did this I had to build a 25-foot tree with a 12-foot root base for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Hmmm. I think I’d rather be outside weeding on my knees than on my knees bleeding on chicken wire in the studio. Maybe theater plant props are all carnivorous. I know they eat the artists who build them. But, I digress . . .

Carnivorous plants don’t come from outer space and they’re not just found on stage or in exotic and tropical environments. We have some carnivores and semi-carnivorous botanical species living in the backyards and wilds of Alaska. A carnivorous plant has to attract, kill, absorb, and digest its prey. The semi-carnivores might rely on fertilization from the droppings of bugs eating smaller insect specimens caught on sticky plant surfaces or the compost created when those trapped insects are broken down by bacterial action.

Capsella bursa-pastori - Shepherd's Purse (Photo: Dr. Barry Rice)

A common weed in your yard, Capsella bursa-pastori, commonly known as Shepherd’s Purse, is listed as a semi-carnivore. This widespread European mustard has seeds which release an adhesive compound when moistened. This traps small aquatic animals whose demise and composted remains appear to help fertilize the germinating seeds. Wow! Maybe this will work for mosquito larvae in our ponds. Shepherd’s Purse, notes Dr. Barry Rice, Director of Conservation International Carnivorous Plant Society, while”striking, it is not clear if this really means the plant is carnivorous. There are a few problems with this hypothesis---in particular, this plant does not grow in particularly wet areas, so why should its seed have a carnivorous technique that it cannot exploit? It is more probable that the seed's mucous has other valuable properties we have not yet figured out.” I’m still going to throw some in the pond next spring to see if it has an effect on the mosquito population. Of course, that might have a negative effect on the other species that rely on them for food. Oh, well . . . we can always cook the greens up for stir-fry.

Imagine my surprise while cruising around Dr. Rice’s website finding a photo that looks just like Audrey 2! A member of the Butterwort family, the winter buds of Pinguicula macroceras are perfect stage props. In the original play Audrey 2 is thought to be a cross between a Butterwort and a Venus Flytrap. There is a very pretty Butterwort in Southeast Alaska, Pinguicula vulgaris that looks nothing like you’d imagine as a carnivorous plant. If you go to Matt Goff’s website and look at his Sitka Plant Photos under Lentibulariaceae, you’ll see a lovely image of a Bog Violet or Common Butterwort. The Hairy Butterwort, P. villosa, can also be found in Alaska’s wilderness.
Pinguica macrocera - winter bud stage (Photo: Dr. Barry Rice)

Speaking of Venus Fly Traps, have you seen the latest crop in our local stores? Did you know you can find Fly Traps that are red, pink, or almost dark wine colored? A trip to, will take you to Cook’s Carnivorous Plants (they have a great animation introduction!) where you can purchase such aptly named varieties as ‘Red Dragon’, ‘Red Piranha’, ‘Big Mouth’, and ‘Fang’. Who knew they came in so many colors and sizes? If you’re tempted to buy one go online at Dr. Rice’s site for thorough instructions on how to keep these exotics alive or look for his new book “The Complete Grower’s Guide to Carnivorous Plants” just released this month by Timber Press.

Thanks to the folks at the Spenard Builder's Supply, Keenan & Deborah Retherford and Peter Ann at The Fence Emporium, Robin Wessel at Off Her Rocker, and neighbors Ahna and Chan Simonds for keeping me in glue, sanity, and digging out raspberries that were taking over the planet and my garden! And hats off the puppeteer Bowen Gillings for going along with this project! I just hope his back survives the run.

. . . . Now, I can get back to building my sculpture of a giant stylized calendula seed!

Little Shop of Horrors is playing September 21 through October 28 - Thurs Fri, & Sat. 7 pm at Mad Myrna's in Anchorage 530 E. 5th Ave, 276-9762 or

Little Shop of Horrors director Christian Heppinstall surrounded by 'the street goils' Crystal (Charlotte Kopp), Chiffon (Shelly Wozniak), and Ronnette (Sarah Alvarez). Photo sans chewing gum!

To see more photos of Audrey 2 go to or to read Donna Freedman's article in the Anchorage Daily News about the building of the Audrey II go to For other photos of Brooke's previous theater props and costume design go to and click on the 'Productions' link and go to 'Androcles and the Lion', 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow'.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Wiches wilt, wicked whiteness - what's next?

DD One

By this time of year, most of us have smelled something strange in our gardens or woods. What is that stinky, mushroomy scent in the air? Never smelt it? Count yourself lucky indeed! It’s another one of those garden nemeses, ranked right up there with Moose for difficulty to control. Powdery Mildew, the ‘Witches Wilt’ of the Middle Ages, is one of the oldest recorded plant diseases. And with a name like Witches Wilt, need I say more?

Like moose, powdery mildew is always ready to attack, is rarely seen approaching and is always harmful if allowed to wallow in your garden. And they are both equally impossible to chase out once they’ve entered the gate!

Powdery Mildew is a common name for a small group of closely related mildews that manifest themselves in a similar manner. The primary sign that these microscopic beasts have invaded your territory are grayish white, powdery blotches on leaves, stems and buds. If left unchecked, the growth will soon devour its victim. Once a plant is infected, leaves can turn yellow and drop prematurely. Young growth is especially susceptible with twisting and deforming, sometimes before the mildew appears. Flower buds may also develop abnormally or not open. Even before the plant is swallowed up in white, stinky yuck, it can look like it was abducted by aliens and used for some horrific experiment. Worse yet, it can leave you feeling desperate to know what in the world (or other-world) has hit your beloveds.

Powdery Mildew on Rose Leaves

Without introducing too many dull and sleepy details, it is important to know this tiny enemy. First, realize that the spores are carried by air currants so they cannot be kept out of your garden. Once settled onto your plants they lie in wait for the perfect day to pull out their fangs and spring to life! The optimum germination temperatures for these mildews are between 68 to 77 degrees F with optimum relative humidity above 40%. It is a popular belief that water on the leaves encourages germination, however dry leaves under ideal conditions are just as susceptible. Low light also seems to favor powdery mildew development. From the time of infection to the sign of symptoms takes about a week or a little longer, and by this time the secondary spore production is well underway, reproducing every 48 to 72 hours since the initial infection! What all this means is that once you’ve sniffed out the problem or noticed that your once-favorite rose is in deep trouble, the stuff could be anywhere!

While I will be the first to tell you that it can sometimes be a pain to keep up with this miniscule life sucking force, it is not impossible.

Sulfur is a traditional combatant with two major positives: it’s cheap and effective. Furthermore, it’s been used effectively to control Powdery Mildew throughout the world for nearly 150 years, with no development of resistance, however, fungus are nasty and sometimes so is the cure. There are many sulfur containing fungicides on the market but the solution has to be at lease 33% sulfur to be effective. Because sulfur acts largely through vapor, its activity is temperature-sensitive and does not work too well if the temperature is below 65 degrees F. That limits some of our application times right there! It is also somewhat phytotoxic (in other words, it is toxic to foliage and will defoliate your plants) at temperatures above 85F. In spite of these limitations, I have been nuking these mildews with sulfur for years. If you’ve ever had a disgusting infestation reducing your favorite perennial to a lump of dried up trash, losing a few (or a lot) of leaves along the way is an acceptable liability.

Potassium bicarbonate works in a similar fashion, with similar limitations, but must be present in the fungicide at least 85%. There’s a bit more information on both of these weapons online at

A more drastic (or is it?) approach would be to yank the plant out by the root, put it in a plastic bag and throw it out, but perhaps a gentler, though less thorough approach would make you happy. If so, try mixing up the following and attack with a spray bottle.

2 ½ T. light olive oil
1 gallon water
A few drops of liquid soap
6 t. baking soda

Most importantly – think wicked whiteness and beware! It’s out there and waiting to pay you a personal visit!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Gardening, and a reflection on life and death

DD One
A particularly difficult summer of loss has me contemplating the roll of gardening in the grieving process. As some of you readers know, this spring started with the loss of my giant dog and best pal to wabblers syndrome (see first blog post). My father lost his battle with esophageal cancer two weeks ago. It was a particularly rough go that has had us in upheaval for well over a year. This painting of him was done in May of this year, just as he began his final journey. He was 78 years old.

My sister's husband fights on the losing end of a rare, non-treatable form of skin cancer. The extended family has had several losses and the entire clan has been thrown into what seems like a permanent time of grieving. All the while the gardens continue to grow and the blooms continue to ebb and flow. Fall colors are showing the reminder of another season coming to a close. There is no way to make certain predictions about gardens or grief. Just when you think you've got everything under control tears tumble down, and out back the weeds are invading the rock garden! Darn! Here we go again!

Grief counselors suggest a number of tools to help you through a difficult time of loss. Things like journaling , eating well, exercising, getting rest, reading and learning, seeking solace, practicing comforting rituals, letting out your emotions, and nurturing something. Now if that's not a description of gardening, what is?

Garden journaling is a great process of recording, creation and just plain distraction. You don't have to be scientific to make a garden journal, just say what you want, record your planting, harvesting, likes, dislikes and feelings. If your thoughts spill over into grief, all the better. Read up on your favorite flower and draw pictures to convey your emotions. It may be time to bring new plants to your garden or read some of those gardening books gathering dust after the summer. While feeling especially low it is good to put your gray matter to work and concentrate on something new.

What about solace? The company of plants never passes judgment on a teary, grieving gardener. If anything, I believe that your garden would lift you in its arms and comfort you if it had opposable thumbs (as well as a few other anatomical alterations). I've had some of my best crying sessions while watering. As for comforting rituals, while I'm not much of a weeder, I have friends who love to weed and find great solace in its rhythm and repetition not to mention a feeling of elation when done.

We tend to think of ourselves as the keepers of the garden, but I think the opposite is often true, our gardens keep us. They hold us upright when we are off kilter, they knock sense into us when we are whacked out and they heal us when we are sad. Whether it be the ritual of weeding, the solace in being alone with your thoughts, or the love extended in nurturing the earth, I know of no other place I'd rather be when I am down than outdoors. For many a non-gardener walking or roaming about in the woods has the same healing effect. It's often difficult to show our true emotions to others and sometimes even more difficult to work out our troubles with the added burden of conversation, but quiet time in the garden offers a host of therapeutic needs without outside confusion. I think the salt of our tears even benefits the soil - perhaps a little added potassium?

Time in the garden fills our lungs with fresh air, clears our minds and almost always ends up with inspiration. Inspiration to write a note to someone in need, to re-design a corner of the garden that's always been a bit strange, to dig through all those old photographs on the shelves in the office, to call a friend, to plant a tree for a loved one, or just to order more tulips!

The Victorians obsessive craze for reinventing our language in flowers has long fascinated me and brought me solace. I walk in my garden when overcome and after an initial outburst of anguish I find myself saying out loud the meanings of the plants that surround me. It is a therapeutic thing and brings smiles, tears and contemplation, but it has a healing affect. The wormwood by the pond speaks of healing and the honeysuckle of thoughts of bonded affection. There is strength and protection in the juniper and the feverfew. The borage tells me to have courage while the chamomile speaks of patience. The sweet basil and for-get-me-not tell me that all love is not lost. The iris at the pond's edge tell me to have hope and faith, the burnet reminds me to keep a cheerful heart while the forsythia demands of me thoughts toward the future and anticipation of things to come.

It occurs to me that I am very fortunate to be a gardener. Embracing our emotions and our gardens can open us to many wondrous things. Though following their paths will change our lives forever, they both offer us opportunities for full and incredible futures. If you've never planted anything and are sad, start now. Your happiness, or perhaps your life, may depend on it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Think Spring - Think Color - Think Tulips!

DD One

The humble tulip is not humble. The first drawn tulip on record is a calligraphy character on an Italian bible dated 1100 AD. Since the 16th century tulips have been bred in England. The Dutch started cornering the commercial market in the 17th century. And no wonder! Though under used here, tulips are the kings of spring beauty. There is nothing more glorious than a carpet of red against a background of melting snow and tuffs of green.

Tulips are really quite simple to grow, but have gained a stigma as hard to deal with. I think it’s because they are often planted in poor drainage, too deep or too close to the surface, or non-hardy varieties are planted. There are currently 15 classifications of tulips – from short to tall, wild to tame and hardy to fussy. I prefer to think of them in two categories – those that are hardy perennials, and those that are not. It makes things a whole lot easier.

Hardy tulips that grow well here include some of the oldest varieties – Darwins, Darwin Hybrids, Cottage and Triumphs. All of these are early bloomers, flowering throughout mid to late May. Colors range from bright red, to true yellow to a variety of pinks and pastels. For success it is essential to think ‘drainage’ – then think ‘drainage’ again, plan drainage and talk drainage. Wet, undrained soil is a killer for these bulbs. Use common sense and follow a check list. Is the under layer of your garden clay, rock, or some other impervious surface? If so, your bulbs will not be happy, but a raised bed may be your answer. Is the soil wet all the time? Is it always dry (also not good)? A decent, well drained soil with 1/3 sand added is ideal.

Running a close second for cause of failure is your best friend, Rover. Dogs love to dig up bulbs! They are delighted when you are thoughtful enough to spend hours on your hands and knees hiding little treasures for them to dig up, especially if you use the usual recommended dose of bone meal as you plant. “Hummm, something to dig that smells yummy – thanks Mom!”

This is not a warning that is to be taken lightly. A couple of years ago, five of us spent most of a day in a clients landscape putting in thousands of bulbs only to have a friendly, lovely creature follow us around digging them out - with us following her around putting them back in! Alas! After our departure they were all hers and the digging continued. In the end only a couple dozen bulbs emerged in spring, having managed to outwit the little darling. Please plan for this if you have four legged family members.

Planting tulips about five inches deep is perfect. This gives them winter protection, space to grow and allows for their tendency to ‘float’ nearer to the surface through winter freezes and thaws. If planted too shallow, this ‘floating’ will freeze out the bulbs or produce weak root structures and plants that do not stand up or develop well.

What about all those exotic looking tulips that grace the covers of magazines and are common in florist’s coolers? The bulk of these are in that second category I mentioned earlier, non-hardy plants that grow well in pots. This is really great news for us! Potted tulips are among the loveliest of deck d├ęcor for spring. Varieties suitable for containers include Lily Flowered, Fringed, Parrot, Peony Flowered, Water Lily Tulips, and the hard to find Greigii. These tulip groupings run from frilly to flared, green striped to mottled, double and triple petalled to single, undulating leaves to grass like ones. Planted in groupings of color, shape or texture, they are true head turners.

To have successful potted tulips, buy bulbs now and store unplanted in sand at forty to forty five degrees until April. On April first, pull them out and plant in pots with good drainage using well drained soil. Keep moist and very cool. Growing forced (potted) bulbs in warm conditions will produce tall, nasty looking foliage of poor color. It also makes funky flowers that bloom through very quickly. I like to put them outside in a cold frame outdoors. This method makes a strong plant that blooms in mid to late May.