May Gloom and Deer Management

We seem to get this spell each May, around mid-month, just when it looks like the weather will hold and the gardening can really start. Nights in the thirties, daytimes in the fifties! Lots of rain. Rain, I don’t complain about, but I do like some warmth. Also, it seems like every time I’ve gone around and sprayed Liquid Fence, another squall arrives with the worst timing. Ten or eleven at night, so it’s too late to go back and do the spraying over. A couple of days ago I lost the tops of a few lilies…but, I have that stand of three in a vulnerable location, and I’ve violated one of my own rules: Anything you want, plant a lot of. The plus of lilies, aside from beauty and fragrance, is that they’ll bloom the same season you plant them, and the cheap bags of bulbs at Walmart perform just fine (a dollar a bulb, with maybe one or two duds).

Above, the other sort of damage the deer are good at. I think as they make their way in the dark, they go by smell more than sight, since I often find the logs and small branches I use to border paths knocked out of place. And beds with new plantings walked over, the seedlings flattened and torn.

Meanwhile, with the oaks, all my beds are full of acorns, so the squirrels are constantly digging.

One of the ideas people get, which sounds surface-plausible, is that feeding wildlife attracts more wildlife. Environmentally conscious gardeners want wildlife, of course. But whether you do or don’t make habitat, your patch of land would normally support a certain amount of life, from fungus to barn owls. Animals, even insects, are territorial, so providing habitat suitable for deer or foxes…or snakes, or yellowjackets…can’t lead to an endless chain of new creatures, burgeoning into unmanageable numbers.

The deer have a problem to solve: they want to eat. Your yard is part of the territory the local family group forages, and did (ancestrally) before your house was built, the trees were cut down, the grass was mowed, etc. You have a problem to solve: you want the deer to leave your nice things alone. It should be clear that trying to drive the deer away, or block them off, solves your problem but not theirs. Still wanting to eat, they keep seeking to do it. Which is why I mow paths around areas in my yard I leave natural, making food lots and shelter for the deer. You can see from my postings that I have a lot of good garden, despite that fact that my yard isn’t just crossed by deer—the deer live a part of their lives here. They shelter and feed here; the mothers leave their babies in my beds while they go off to browse alone. 

This one I call the well bed. I’ve got Japanese painted ferns, Astilbe, Rodgersia, and Black Gamecock Louisiana Iris, so far. And rampant peppermint. When I moved here, I kept noticing how the water after a heavy rain would pool up in an almost perfect circle right here. I suspected a filled-in well from old times, when these outskirts of town that became subdivisions, had farms. I figured an old well wasn’t necessarily safe for walking over, with the water still filtering down, shifting the substrata. The whole back area of my yard seems to have an underlying spring, which as I’ve mentioned, creates a microclimate. The soil retains a lot of moisture, but the plants seem to love it. I attribute that to a huge amount of earthworm activity, keeping the soil aerated, nutritious, and not boggy. Water continues to pool in the well bed and drain off slowly.

 

A couple of years ago I noticed some delicate little leaves, a very tiny plant altogether, but one that began, after the second year of modest growth, to resemble a fern. This year, it’s put up a genuine leaf. I’ve never seen a fern grow in the garden from a spore. On a related note, I was watching an episode of the British show Gardener’s World, and they were showcasing tree ferns. Tree ferns, with a nice Jurassic look to them, can be grown from root segments, so the selling of them appears sustainable. Looking online, I found some sellers offering spores. Well, if an Ohio fern takes three years to form its first identifiable leaf, I think it’s advisable not to wait for a tree fern to grown from a spore.  

Extravagant ruffly glamor. A purple Bearded Iris that turns out to have impressive depths, with its veins and burgundy centers.

I wanted to share the most beautiful columbine. It created itself, coming up from a plainer one’s seed, and has blue semi-double center petals with what looks like white picotee edging; contrasting purple spurs. But this shot may be a little too macro. Who would have guessed columbine petals had that sheared mink effect?

A nicely crafted bird’s nest that fell from the pear tree. As clean as it is, it must have blown out or gotten knocked down by some creature, without having been used. A lot of visible care taken, with the outer large, and inner small, woven grasses.

Here’s my problem to solve, for next bulb-ordering season. I’m not the only one with Lonely Alliums…a lot of the showplace gardens in the videos have them too. They bloom when the daffodils are finished, when the perennials haven’t started, and the annuals can’t yet be set out. So what sort of complementary color and form will reliably mingle with them, and bloom at the same time? I’ll have to do some research.

Things to Notice in the Garden

Photo of backyard flower bed

Above, one of my backyard beds, taken April 26. This area so far (so far, because I have a path/bed configuration that goes all the way to the edge of another bed near the neighbor’s fence, but I’m only uncovering the soil for cultivation a stretch at a time) measures roughly 5 feet by 20 feet. Take away the bulbs, soon to be finished, and there are around twenty-five perennials. As you can see, that amount fills the bed sparsely. Whereas, if you went to a garden center and bought 25 plants, at an average price of $9 each, you’d pay $225, with the bed not nearly filled. To get the lush look, even for small beds in yards of ordinary size, you need hundreds of plants.

These are some of the flats I’m hardening off, plants I started from seed, and others from cuttings. And I’ve divided one or two of the mail order plants and local purchases. Seed starting, cuttings, and division (chopping the plant in two, or pulling it apart stalk by stalk, depending on the type it is) are three ways of increasing your store. The fourth is found plants, seedlings scattered near the parent, or gifts from nature. Most of what birds drop into your garden won’t be desirable, but now and again, as with my mountain laurel from last year, a real boon arrives. I counted close to five hundred plants that I’ve amassed for the post-frost-free time, when the garden gets started. And even though that makes for hours of (fun) labor, it isn’t, given the number of beds to fill, that many plants. 

Photo of used up daffodil bulbs to replant

Last year I wanted to dig up some of the non-blooming daffodils (very old ones that came with the house) and free space in the bed where their leaves took up so much. I tried digging and found they were worked down extra deep, almost a foot for some of them. This year I went after them anyway, while I still don’t like disturbing the bed that much. Some bunches of leaves tore away with the bulbs still in the depths, but I harvested several. As you can see, they’re puny, so the lack of flowers isn’t surprising. I’m finding places to tuck them in, at a shallower level, naturalizing them to a degree without committing a lot of lawn to bulbs…though I might well consider that with my fall bulb orders. 

Photo of copper leaved heuchera

I bought three cheap heucheras last year: the variety called Palace Purple. Heucheras can be $20 to $30 and upwards, for the really gorgeous leaf patterns. It was a compromise—to get foliage color into my shade beds at a bargain price. But interestingly, one of the two I have near each other has copper leaves, apparently having a different genetic tendency than it was meant to. Which I count good luck, since it gives me two heucheras in that bed with individual coloring. 

Photo of columbine seedling

Note the seed leaves of this beginning columbine are being eaten, almost from germination, by very tiny leaf miners. I never do anything about the leaf miners, since columbines seem completely adjusted to them. But it’s a good tip to lift any seedlings you’d like to have grow into full-sized plants, and give them a place of their own. In my experience the majority of seedlings at the feet of the parent plant will disappear, and only the ones you give special attention to will thrive.

Photo of hellebore plants

Last year I planted hellebore seedlings that were a few years old, but small. This year they’re taking off, becoming dominant in their corner. Which means about three of the daylilies pictured among them will have to be relocated.

Photo of garlic cloves in tea strainer for deer deterrence

These tea strainers are cheap to buy, so I thought of trying them with garlic cloves, near my lilies, since the deer are continually coveting the flowerheads. Another tip: The foliage of the lily pictured is wan and yellowish, between green veins. Spring this year has been extra warm, so plants have put up a lot of top-growth before the soil temperatures have risen. Some are having trouble, as many do, drawing nutrients from cold, soggy earth. The plant may not need feeding or treatment, just patience until June, when the problem may have solved itself.

 

Circle of Life 😊

I was enjoying a mockingbird at my suet feeder all day on Friday. Saturday, I took my cat Ed out on his harness for that most important morning mole hunt. I saw something at the back of the yard, and after putting Ed inside for the day, went to look. It was the large field of feathers, as shown in the photo below.

They were plain grey and tan, without notable spots that would identify them as a mourning dove’s, and I didn’t see the mockingbird Saturday. So I thought I’d lost him to a hawk. Today (Sunday) I saw the nest above in my sweetgum tree, even though the nest appears constructed with pear branches. Last year the Cooper’s hawks built an abortive nest in the pear. This year they seem to have made a better choice of location, but their preference of leaf type is interesting. Probably it’s because the sweetgum isn’t fully leafed out yet, or because its sap is too aromatic for their taste.

Today, the, or a, mockingbird was at the suet feeder, meaning either a new one has taken over the territory already, the old one is fine after all, the female got taken instead of the male, or the feathers belong to a different bird altogether.

 

Here are all the feathers. This type of display tells you the predator was likely a hawk. A cat carries its prey off to a secret place to eat, and isn’t likely to sit pulling feathers while vulnerable (so the cat feels) to having its prey stolen. But to a hawk, taking off with a bird fully-feathered would be like trying to run carrying an open umbrella.

 

Several of last year’s nicotiana, nominally annuals, have come back from the roots this year. As famous gardeners Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd advised, it’s worthwhile pushing your zones. You don’t know what you may get away with growing. Southeastern Ohio not only straddles zones six and seven these days, but has the sort of hilly woodland environment that provides microclimates readily. Where there are tree roots, where water runs underground, where shrubs and grasses make shelters, where even small humps and bumps alter air currents, hardy annuals and hot-zone perennials can last late into fall and even return in spring.

 

The last of the three types of tulips I planted last fall: Apricot Beauty, Dordogne, and this one, Salmon Impression. This one is really on fire, with lots of richness in its orange-shading-to-salmon coloration. And I’ve done well with tulips overall, despite the deer, after taking a few precautions.

Some April 2021 Garden Sights

Photo of coleus starts for the garden

This year’s Coleus cuttings, taking on good mature shape and color. One of the secrets of coleus is that as the plants grow larger, their leaves develop new variations in pattern, so you may get dramatic veining, or something like the third from left, top row, which without the camera flash has an almost purple border with spiky red and magenta centers, surrounding a pale yellow. I also have two pretty freckled plants, one that mixes an almost true red with burgundy, and one lime-yellow and magenta. When you clone off the tops, you get bigger and better specimens, though they won’t produce the same plant from seed.

 

Photo closeup of Dordogne tulips

An inside view of the Dordogne tulip, one of the prettiest. It combines well with Apricot Beauty, which is shorter and smaller, but not as exaggeratedly as the camera implies.

 

Photo of Apricot Beauty tulip

Apricot Beauty’s hue and luminescence (and also a few speckles of deer repellent).

 

Photo of seedling hellebores under parent plant

These little waxy-leaved plants are baby hellebores that have seeded themselves below the parent plant. I harvested out three last year and it looks like I’ll have to find room for some others.

 

Photo closeup of a dandelion flower

What there is to see in a dandelion flower enlarged.

 

Photo of plastic repurposed as picnic dishes

 

I’m always looking for ways to repurpose all the free plastic stuff we get from packaging. It seems a little silly to buy picnic or party dishes, and then dump dishes we could harvest from our groceries, into the recycle bin. A lot of recycled plastic won’t be reused, due to lack of facilities, lack of demand, lack of profits. And recycling centers vary in the types of plastic they can pass on to companies willing to take them.

The potato chips are in a dome top from a store-bought cake. The other goodies are in trays that chicken comes packaged in. No problem, because these can go in the dishwasher; soap and hot water make them fine for general use.

The chicken trays are actually studier, a little nicer for size and balance, than picnic plates, and the sides are higher. You could easily help yourself to twice as many hot wings as shown above. And if you need drink cups, you can hang onto ones from fast food lunches—soon you’ll collect a complete service for any number of BBQ guests.

Plastic silverware doesn’t seem necessary…the point of picnic dishes is that they’re safe to jog around in the trunk of a car, unbreakable. So your own silverware from home should do.

 

A Weird Discovery

I’ve put up pictures of my Callery Pear (also Bradford Pear) before, that blooms so prettily in the spring. From reading up on the species, I was aware it isn’t well-regarded, but the articles I’d seen talk about its brittleness. The Morton Arboretum says the Callery Pear is being considered for the invasive species list.  Well, a week or so ago we had a windstorm, and a lot of little budding twigs from my tree were blown off onto the lawn. Thinking of perfumy relatives of the pear, apple and cherry blossoms, I decided to bring a sprig indoors to open its flowers in a glass of water. 

I went upstairs, where the sprig was unfolding, and noticed a rotting smell, but at first I thought it was due to hawks or owls taking apart their prey on the roof. I came up a while later and the smell was ten times worse. That’s when I realized the Callery Pear is one of those plants that wants to be pollinated by flies. Of all I’ve read about this species, I’ve never seen that mentioned. I do think we’re having an unusually ripe year for the Stink Pear, because it truly is corpse-scenting my whole backyard, a thing I’ve never noticed before. And it does, you will note when you pay attention, attract flies.

It makes me think of a sitcom gag, a disastrous dinner party, or wedding reception scenario, the naïve hostess bringing out vases of pear blossoms to decorate the room…

Meanwhile, I think if these trees weren’t problematic in other ways, rebranding them as the Corpse Pear would probably appeal to the younger generation of gardeners.

 

Here is the strange frond of a Christmas fern. Very delicate and pretty (and scent-free), with the translucent stuff it’s wrapped in. 

Garden Prep Work

Photo of azalea roots from layered branches

A chore worth doing, is to cut low-hanging branches off your shrubs. When branches are scraping ground, you have a hard time raking out debris; and when you rake under your shrubs, your garden’s appearance is improved—but also, pests and funguses are reduced. You may find some branches that are under piles of leaves have produced roots. This is the principle behind layering, the name for propagating shrubs by deliberately burying their branches. Above are two azalea starts. The parent plant gets assaulted by mites every year, although it comes back in the spring and blooms.

Planting in shade will sometimes ward off pests that thrive in bright sun, so I’ll find out if these do better in my back yard under trees. I noticed this phenomenon with a green beetle that used to devour my sunny phlox, but never bothered the shady ones.

Photo of grow lights setup for starting garden seeds

Here is my seed-starting arrangement. Gardeners who grow their own plants tend to hang onto their lights forever, but we’re living in a good era for upgrading. LEDs are better than fluorescent tubes, and don’t create the same disposal issues because they last so long—these I’ve bought this year, at the photo’s right, are linkable, so I can use fewer plugs in my surge protectors. They draw 45 watts, times six (plus the old ones) still well below a household outlet’s capacity. I use daylight, though I’ve seen advice to mix daylight with warm bulbs for the full spectrum. I don’t, and my seedlings all do fine. The coleus and impatiens, seen on the left, are cuttings from plants I brought indoors last fall. These two species root so easily that even stripping the leaves from the stem isn’t necessary. They will sit wilted for a week and then their leaves will plump up again.

I use peat pellets to start my plants, because the peat is resistant to fungus, so the seedlings do better achieving their second set of leaves without damping off (a fungal disease). But the following year, I have to dig up the remains from my annuals. (Perennials just grow through the netting and carry on.) This year, since I’ve been improving my front border with a double-height edge of blocks, it’s occurred to me these old pellets would work well stuck in gaps and spaces, where the netting will prevent water from carrying away garden soil, a good use for last year’s leavings.

Photo of cobblestones placed on furnace filter

An idea I have about what to do with an old furnace filter. The wire mesh holds the cobblestones in place, and the cardboard should decompose into the soil. The problematic item is the fiberglass filter. Landscape fabric is a polypropylene, so its decomposition into the environment has some impact, although it’s considered outdoor-safe. Fiberglass is substantially a plastic product, too, and is used for pool and pond filters.

The alternative to finding a use for old furnace filters is to add them to landfills. This arrangement could be covered with sand, pebbles, or mulch, and the filter would block weeds, while its decomposition ought to be well contained. Let me know if you have more information.

 

A last idea for reusing plastic. The above is a large cat treat cannister. I buy lettuce for sandwiches, not salads, so I need it to last a few weeks. Transferring lettuce from the store packaging to this upright configuration, then adding paper towels top and bottom, really helps my greens last a long time. 

First Flowers

Photo of Winter Aconite
Photo of hellebore flower
Photo of hellebore flower
Photo of dwarf spruce
Photo of daffodils
Photo of crocus under netting

 

First in the lineup, cute Winter Aconites, little bulbs that I’ve never tried before, but last fall I added them to my order. Then, two interior views of hellebore flowers. You can see that they have a ring inside of what look like tiny pitcher plants. My variety is a beaut, but tends to nod, so the only way to really see the flowers is to turn them faceup. It has also grown three feet in diameter, and being evergreen, is effectively a shrub. Third, evidence that something has sprayed on my dwarf spruce. If those twigs are really dead, I’ll trim them off, but I hold out the possibility they’ll grow new needles. Fourth, daffodils, another variety that wants to nod. And finally, a little species crocus under the deer netting. Crocuses have been popping up randomly in my lawn, so maybe they are seeding themselves.

 

Snowdrops

Photo of snowdrop bloom
Photo of ice on tree
Photo of raked-off flower bed

 

Our weather was icy and snowy for a week or two; then, this Wednesday (2/24), the temperature got close to 70F. The forecast, going ahead, calls for 40s and 50s well into March. If nothing changes, that means we’re still having a warm winter, with only a handful of nights in the single digits, and no daytimes with the high in the teens.

For gardeners, the holiday (or celebratory) season is approaching: Time to Start the Seeds. But it needs holding off until the end of March, since the bigger the seedlings get, the more room we run out of indoors. Plus, the tenderest annuals aren’t safe planted out until late May. Last May, we had a nasty mid-month cold snap. I subsist meanwhile on YouTube gardening videos, and plant catalogs, of which there are fewer than there used to be.

This year, I’m trying a bunch of things that I’ve never found seeds for in the past. Pelargoniums, Hens and Chicks, Begonia, Sarracenia (pitcher plant) and Ginseng. Then, all my usual favorites. I’ll blog later on about the success or failure of the odd ones. As seen above, I tried snowdrops this year for the first time, and they’ve come up to bloom in February, as advertised. The second picture shows some of the magical sparkle of the ice storm in bright sunshine, but the camera couldn’t showcase the effect altogether.

The third picture shows a chore that needs doing as soon as the bulbs nose up, and perennials put up their first leaves; if, like me, you let nature shelter your beds with tons of free mulch. Even though we might have more winter weather, frigid temps at night, and snowstorms (looking less likely, though), it’s important to get the leaves raked down to a nice thin layer. Once they begin to decompose, they will stick tight to each other and make a mat that keeps off light, water, and air, so most leaves need collecting and composting in late February/early March. But your perennials and hardy bulbs are adapted to cold, so they will get on with the business of growing, once you’ve exposed them to the open air. 

 

Family Support for Writers

This is a small blog, and I don’t get a lot of commentary, but in this post I’m going to invite readers to answer some questions. You can take them rhetorically, if you like, and answer them to yourself.

You have started a business. We’ll say a bakery, that, COVID times in mind, has a web-based storefront and does home deliveries. A relative tells you she needs a birthday cake for a party: “And you can just send it to my house on Saturday. Get it there before two o’clock.”

She thinks you would do this for her, for free.

Or you’re an accountant, the tax season begun, and people in your circle keep calling you with “just one quick question”. They don’t think your answering counts as a billable service.

In either case, you, the business owner, probably feel that freebies take time and resources, and it’s not reasonable to expect that being someone’s sister or best friend entitles you to them.

Writing a book, of course, takes hundreds of hours. You may self-publish, and be forced to bear that onus of “not a real writer”. If people will buy your books, they give you two gifts: a dollar or two in royalties, and an uptick in stats. Better stats mean more eyes to see that your book is out there, among the millions on Amazon.

So, writers, do you find that people you know think it’s your job to give books away? Do you find members of your family to be very supportive, or to act as though your career isn’t one, legitimately? If you have family or friends who own businesses, do any of them expect your patronage, without patronizing you in return? If you sell on Amazon, do you know of anyone who boycotts Amazon, and won’t buy your stuff even to be helpful to you? Would this person accept your book if you bought it yourself, then, and made a gift of it? And being honest, would people you know treat you differently if you were “somebody”? Would you treat people differently, if their work were acclaimed, or had the attention of a famous person?

In the world of consumer choices, dogmatic quid pro quos are not realistic. People are going through rough times and doing their best, these days, but you can’t buy all the makeup and vitamins they’re selling, donate to all the causes, get rooked for family loyalty’s sake by what might even be a Ponzi scheme, just to be helpful. If you have ten books for sale at ten dollars each, it’s fair for others to balk at the expense of collecting the set. But what are your thoughts on double standards (you owe me, I don’t owe you) or just a general level of enthusiasm lower towards yours, than you would (at least like to think) yours would be towards their attempt to make a living?