Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lavender Confessions

It recently occurred to me that I should probably come with a warning label. People and plants would all have the option of either running away screaming or at least feeling more informed about whatever madness and shenanigans I have planned. But it's too late for the lavender. They weren't given any warning at all.

While I may be successful at growing plants that don't need my help, my true talent lies in torturing lavender. It's one of my least favorite skills, along with the tendency to end up in the wrong state on road trips, or buy the same book twice and then forget to read it.

In December I decided to sow 334 lavender seeds. Spending all day with twelve year olds and several hours at night grading is a proven recipe for teacher insanity. Sowing 334 seeds seemed less insane. But of course, in true Tammy-style, I couldn't just grab a pot of soil and throw in some seeds. That was way too easy. I had to create an experiment to determine if a piece of growing advice I'd read online was true or not.

Step One:

Read questionable advice and decide to take it a step further. Because why be questionable when you can be completely batshitcrazy? Advice says to take lavender seeds, stratify them by soaking in a tablespoon of water and refrigerate for a month.

Step Two:

Buy three types of lavender (l. augustifolia English Tall 'Vera', l. augustifolia 'Hidcote Dwarf', and lavendula stoechas 'Purple Ribbon'), and and a grocery bag full of little cups. Place 16 seeds in one tablespoon of water in each cup for each type of lavender. Repeat the process with a second group of cups. Label all the cups, feeling very organized and scientific.

Lavandula stoechas 'Purple Ribbon' is also known as Spanish or French lavender, but I'm not sure if the Spanish or French are aware of this. This cup was in the fridge for six weeks. 

Step Three:

Decide to discover the perfect time span for stratifying seeds by breaking experiment down into three time periods: six weeks, three weeks, and 10 days. Put half the cups outside during the worst winter in years and the other half in the fridge. Look proudly upon all 18 cups of seeds and feel smugly satisfied. Keep three seed packs at room temperature to use as a control group. Make a chart to document data and write reminders on the calender. Sleep soundly knowing you are about to unlock the mystery of growing lavender.

Lavender seeds in the fire pit waiting to spend the winter freezing and thawing. I do not recommend this stratification method, but love the irony of this photo.

Step Four:

After brutally freezing my seeds, it was finally time to plant them. Did I mention lavender seeds are microscopically small and need to be planted with tweezers? Of course not. I've already blocked that from my memory. I numbered each compartment on the seed trays and then labeled each grow light greenhouse.

I should never be left unsupervised.

Step Five:

Run down stairs like a five year old on Christmas every day to see if anything is growing. Wait for the basement to look like this:

instead of this:

The germination rates of English Tall 'Vera' and 'Hidcote Dwarf' were about 5%, most of which were so wretched I pulled them. My best 'Vera' seedling came from a seed I dropped that sprouted out the side of a coir pot.

By the time the grand experiment was over, I was the proud owner of a single 'Vera' seedling, a teensy 'Hidcote Dwarf' seedling, and half a tray of Spanish lavender. Even the control group, which spent the winter in a box at room temperature grew. 

The lone lavendula augustifolia survivors. 
'Vera' is on the left and 'Hidcote Dwarf' is on the right.

I transplanted the seedlings into little plastic cups and keep them in these baskets to make it easier to take them outside during the day.

I have 17 tiny Spanish lavender seedlings. The pathetic 'Hidcote Dwarf' is in the back. Since the Spanish lavender seeds are immune to subzero temperatures, I may try hot lava next. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Big Cups of Happy: A Seedling Success Story

Sometimes things just work out. When I discovered last summer that nursery plants were packed with pesticides, I decided to grow all my own annuals and only plant perennials in the fall after the systemic pesticides they'd been given the previous spring were no longer active.

But as confident as I am in my gardening abilities, I was frustrated and slightly worried I wouldn't be able to grow the plants I really wanted. Some of my favorites, such as trailing lantana and 'Blue Daze' evoluvus are only grown from cuttings and seed isn't available. So to resolve this I did what I always do: I created a plan, convinced myself it would work, and jumped right in. My reward is plastic cups plump with seedlings to help fill my garden.

Plants Under Grow Lights:

I've already transplanted my ammi majus 'White Lace' and 'Graceland' to extra large 32 oz cups to give the tap roots plenty of room. These have huge root systems! The other plants are jealous. I just consider it botanical motivation.

The leaves of ammi majus remind me of Golden Alexanders' (zizia aptera) while ammi visnaga foliage looks like fennel. Both support beneficial insects and have beautiful white flowers. 

 All my plants are still under grow lights but on warm days I take them outside to help harden them off. Some of my plants have already been transferred to larger pots from their original 16 oz plastic cups.

Annual Scarlet Flax is so easy to grow. It's even sending out new growth at the base. However, I found its letter to management requesting  warmer weather and a different paper umbrella in its drinks a bit snarky.

Gomphrena is one of my favorite summer annuals. I had a self-sown seedling surprise me one year so I gave germinating it a try. This is 'Mixed Colors' which grows to about 2 ft tall and has purple, pink, white, and orange ball shaped flowers.  Sweet basil seeds from High Mowing Seeds picked up at a Dave Matthews Band concert last summer are growing in one of the pots as is a single phacelia sprout.

 Gomphrena, also known as globe amaranth, needs darkness to germinate so I covered the cups with newspaper until sprouts appeared.

The cerinthe 'Pride of Gibraltar' plants are huge! I bought the seeds on impulse and had no idea what to expect. They've been very easy to grow.

Pictured from top left are 'Mixed Colors' gomphrena, 'Pride of Gibralter' cerinthe, ammi (the flowers on both a.majus and a.visnaga look the same), and annual scarlet flax.

Smokey bronze fennel and 'Mortgage Lifter' tomatoes will keep me as well as the pollinators well fed.

So whatever happened to all the plants I wintersowed?

They grew, too!!

Instead of wintersowing in small containers or milk jugs, I used empty containers and tented them with thin plastic propped up by bamboo stakes and held tight with bungee cords. After a wind storm caused the stakes to pierce the plastic, I topped them with ping pong balls. It was highly effective and allowed me the amazing opportunity to buy 144 ping pong balls for $9. I have now a gross of balls, a statement that makes my husband nervous.

Black Eyed Susans, Malva 'Zebrina' (French hollyhocks), linaria 'Fairy Boquet'

NEWS FLASH: Two local nurseries, Merrifield's Garden Center and The Farm at Broad Run are now selling annuals, herbs, and vegetables that have been grown without any pesticides! Hooray!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Kitty Armor and Other Shrubbish

Have you ever had a funny conversation about gardening that you just couldn't explain to a non-gardener? I've given up trying to explain garden humor. Non-gardeners smile and nod before quickly walking away, leaving me laughing to myself. Or they stare at me while saying to each other, "Yeah, we don 't get it, either." But I mentally file these verbal tidbits away, anyway, saving them for a goofy story only gardeners can appreciate.

The radio crackles in the Shrubmaster's hand as he walks from tree to tree, his voice soft and deep. "Blah blah blah talk talk talk. Yes, kitty armor." I turn towards him, watching his face for clues. He stands, serious and professional, his eyes scanning the clump of trees behind me.  "Blah blah blah talk talk talk. I'll have the guys bring the kitty armor to the front." Bewildered at never heaving heard of a shrub with the incredible name of Kitty Armor, I needed more info.

Me:                  Kitty Armor?
Shrubmaster:    Yes, kitayama
Me:                  Who names a shrub kitty armor?
Shrubmaster:     It's Japanese
Me:                   Kitty Armor isn't Japanese. Why would cats need armor?
Shrubmaster:     (Silently looks at me like I'm a total idiot)
Me:                   How do you spell it?
Shrubmaster:     (Very slowly...) K-i-t-a-y-a-m-a
Me:                   Oh, I thought you said Kitty Armor.
Shrubmaster:     I did. Cryptomeria 'Kitayama'.

Kitty armor keeps kitty safe.


Chucking my garden clogs at the door, I slip through the kitchen and head for the bathroom. A layer of soil and compost coats my skin and my sweaty shirt clings to my back. I run the water for my shower and begin to undress, clumps of black compost falling from my bra and scattering onto the tile floor. My husband looks at me and then the floor. "What the heck is that?" he asks. "Compost!" I respond. "I'm hoping it will help my boobs grow."  

Oh Thelma! I've learned a new secret for growing bigger melons!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Welcome to Cheeksylvania!

I once had a neighbor who gardened in a pink dress, its waist cinched and skirt flowing as she carefully tended her small plot. I found her attire both horrifying and fascinating and could not fathom ironing a dress just to wear gardening. This memory pops to the surface as I dig through my dresser for my favorite pair of work shorts. The loose, quick drying fabric and deep pockets wick away sweat and help me keep track of my pruners. I slip them on and secure the built-in belt as tightly as I can. I throw on a faded pink t-shirt, dog chewed baseball hat and head out the door. If my former neighbor could see me, she would close the blinds.

Kneeling in the garden, I lean and bend and when no one is looking, wipe my sweaty face with the bottom of my shirt. In and out of my pocket slide the pruners, the belt of my shorts loosening with every drop of their heavy blades. Too big for my frame, my shorts begin to dip and I'm vaguely aware my underwear is showing. I tug at the waist, half-heartedly tighten the belt, and continue to weed.

Lost in thought, I methodically pull weeds and errant trumpet creeper shoots. The still heat has begun to cool and the sweat along my back is beginning to dry. A slight breeze drifts across my lower spine and around to my stomach and I smile gratefully. I continue to lean forward, ripping the rampaging stems of the trumpet creeper from my agastache and feel the pruners brush against my lower thigh, the pockets almost touching the ground.

The slam of the fence gate and teen chatter fill the silence. Suddenly, I hear my daughter shriek and gasp.

"OH MY GAWD!!! Mom, I can see your butt! Those stupid shorts are falling down again!"

The rolling hills of Upper Asster, Cheeksylvania are on full display and I bolt upright, grabbing my shorts as I burst out laughing. I quickly tighten the belt and call out, "Sorry, hon! My shorts are too big. At least now my butt's not sweaty."

I fumble with the shorts but cannot stop laughing. Hiking shorts off the clearance rack: $20. Flashing your daughter while gardening: Priceless!!

This post first appeared during the summer of 2011. I've reposted it for April Fool's Day.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Containment Corollary

I have a secret: I'm outrageously jealous of the rabbits living under my neighbors house. They have no deadlines, alarm clocks, or bureaucratic nutjobs to deal with. They spend their days eating, sleeping, and having sex. There are no bad hair days, wrinkles, or calories to worry about. They are always cute and I can't stand it.

But as envious as I am of their lustful, snack-filled lifestyle, my garden has become their favorite buffet. As they fuel up for round after round of naked bunny funtime, more and more of my plants begin to disappear. Last summer dwarf heliopsis, most of my asters, dalea, sedum, beans, annual vines, etc were all devoured. They need to start eating my neighbors landscaping instead of my garden. So while the bunnies are locked in their latest orgasmic frenzy creating hordes of babies to further decimate my garden, I'm battening the hatches and waiting for their Bacchanalian festivities to end. What the rabbits don't know is I've created a bunny blockade.

What people see

What female rabbits see

Knowing bunny proof plants exist as stalwarts of garden mythology only, I had to take a more drastic approach. Since my four well-rested dogs hadn't done much to reduce the local bunny population, I needed to figure out a way to keep the rabbits out of my garden so they could focus on eating everyone else's plants instead. To do this, I enclosed my entire garden in green plastic coated wire fencing and created barricades for my fence gates. 

I used whatever green plastic coated wire netting was available from my
 local hardware store.

Since eastern cottontail rabbits aren't known for their jumping abilities, I only used fencing that was 2 feet high.

I used cable zip ties to attach the fencing to the black wire pet fencing that already lines my wooden fence. I started with the little zip ties but they drove me crazy and I soon switched to much longer black ties. I used landscape staples to secure the fencing into the ground. 

Most of the fencing was attached from my neighbors side of the fence since I had too many woody plants in the way. My wonderful neighbors decided I was crazy a long time ago and don't mind the rabbits. They may change their mind when they have no plants left.

I rolled the fencing a bit at the bottom to help prevent the rabbits from digging underneath.

I used square dowels to reduce the space between my gate slats so the rabbits can't squeeze through the openings. It's possible they'll dig under the gate, but I'm hoping they're not that motivated.

 This was a really easy project!

I used a cheap piece of decorative molding to block the bottom of the fence. The pea gravel isn't part of the bunny blockade. This area stays wet after it rains and the gravel helps with drainage.

Even though I've fenced in the back garden, there's still plenty for the rabbits to eat along the front and sides of the house. Note to self: Encourage neighbors to plant lettuce. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Rose Rescue Plan

Last year was not a good year for roses in my garden. How bad was it? Apocalyptic, catastrophic, and all the other dramatic synonyms for 'horrible' you can dig out of a thesaurus. A cool, soaking wet spring soon turned my roses into festering cesspools of black spot fungus and I was helpless to stop the onslaught.

The Black Plague or Black Spot Fungus? 

Here's how it all went down: As soon as I realized what was happening, I identified the culprits, ripped them out, scraped away the mulch from under my heavily infected Graham Thomas rose, remulched, and hoped I had solved the problem. What had I accomplished? A big pile of nothing! Nada. Zilch. By the end of the summer my roses had very few leaves left and stood out like skeletons in an anatomy class. It was depressing, to say the least.

Here are the black spot fungus myths that fueled my actions:

  • MYTH: A hard, cold winter will kill black spot fungal spores 
    • REALITY: Unless you live in either the Arctic circle or the Sahara desert, if you have any moisture/humidity in the spring or summer, you will have blackspot. The spores overwinter in the soil and mulch.
  • MYTH: Roses in a healthy garden won't get black spot. 
    • REALITY: Healthy roses will bounce back faster than weak ones and may be able to resist the spores longer, but that's it.

  • MYTH: Roses marked 'disease resistant' are immune to disease. 
    • REALITY: I so wish this was true! It just means that it takes them longer to become infected.
  • MYTH: Just because you didn't have black spot last year, doesn't mean you won't have it this year. 
    • REALITY: Black spot fungus is a soil borne pathogen that occurs naturally in humid climates. It is impossible to remove from the soil. The fungal spores spread when they splash from the soil onto the leaves and canes.

From left to right are 'Westerland', a small 'Jude the Obscure' (David Austin) that's really hard to see, and a 'Night Owl' rose in August.

Once I realized the black spot was spreading, I continued to unleash every weapon in my arsenal. Unfortunately, I wasn't as well stocked as I thought I was. I tried homemade anti-fungal sprays, commercial sprays, and misapplied a fungicide. I pulled off every leaf only to have the new leaves quickly develop more spots. I picked up as many leaves as possible from the mulch but nothing worked. Instead of being proactive, I stuck in a reactive loop going nowhere. So I just gave up.

Westerland and Night Owl roses in May

Graham Thomas (David Austin) in May

But I never really give up. I was just pulling back until I could figure out a better battle plan. I decided to let my roses put out as many new leaves as they could, knowing they needed them to photosynthesize. I continued to pick up all the dropped leaves from the garden and started researching. Convinced my own lack of knowledge had contributed to the disaster, I had to become smarter than my enemy. 

Here's My Plan:

November 2013 - I removed as much mulch as possible from around my roses and picked up every rose leaf out of the garden but probably missed a few. I remulched and also applied Organocide Systemic Fungicide as a drench around my roses. I'm hoping this helped reduce the pathogen load in my roses and the surrounding soil. 

This was the only systemic fungicide I could find that didn't also contain a pesticide. The name, however, does give me the creeps and makes me a bit protective of my kidneys and liver.

Mid-February 2014 - I pruned my roses, cutting off as many infected canes as I could. Several roses were reduced in size by about 75%. Cutting my roses back that severely was upsetting but necessary. Fungal spores overwinter on the canes as well as in the soil and mulch. The canes on the 'Night Owl' and 'Westerland' roses were covered in fungal lesions and were cut more severely than the rest. I cleaned my pruners after every cut with Lysol wipes.

My Night Owl canes were so covered with lesions, they looked like they had smallpox. I'd grown this rose for 6 years before having this problem. In 2012 I moved it to a much sunnier spot but didn't realize it wasn't as moist as its previous location. I think the stress of moving to a drier spot decreased its ability to fight off the fungus. I now have a thick soaker hose at its base and keep it very well watered. This entire cane was removed.

Mid-February 2014 - I applied Lime Sulfur spray to my dormant rose canes. Even though this is organic, the solution is highly caustic and I wore long sleeves,  gloves and safety goggles. I also sprayed the surrounding mulch and grass.

April 2014 - Once my roses begin putting out new growth, I will apply another fungicide drench. This will be my last application for the season. Overuse of fungicides kills the beneficial microbes and fungi needed for healthy soil. About a week after the fungicide has been applied, I will amended the soil with compost and an organic fertilizer. I don't use a rose fertilizer since my dogs will dig up the rose to eat the bone/bloodmeal they contain. I make my own fertilizer with homemade worm compost, ground alfalfa meal, bat guano, greensand, kelp, and dried ground up banana peels. I will also start spraying my roses weekly with the organic preventative fungicide sprays Serenade and Actinovate. I don't think spraying is a hassle, especially since it just takes a few minutes and I'm always out in the garden, anyway.

  • When spraying any fungicides, make sure you also spray the bottom of the leaf. That's where the spores usually land first. 

Here's what I won't do:

I do not use any Bayer or Bonide Rose Care products. I will pull every rose out of my garden before I apply these. 

Both of these products contain the pesticide imidicloprid, a neonicontinoid class pesticide responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees. Most fungicides contain imidicloprid or similar pesticides because a fungus is considered a pest. Chlorothalonil is another pesticide that is widely included in commercial fungicides, especially those by Ortho.

So, have I eliminated black spot for good? Doubtful, but I'm hoping to have knocked it back to the point that dealing with it can be classified as a minor scuffle instead of a war. I'll post updates this spring and summer to document the outcome.

My Sceptre d'Isle rose was isolated from the other roses by a patio and had been drastically pruned the previous fall when it was transplanted to a sunnier spot. It didn't develop black spot until late fall.