Sunday, March 29, 2009

Spring is for the Birds

This week was a roller coaster of activity.After an early spring here, Winter made a icy come back. I went deep into the woods where a huge Bur Oak stands on the highest point of the farm. Before my mother died,she always said she wanted her ashes placed under a tree that would feed wild life and be of some good to the Earth. When she did finally pass on, I felt compelled to honor her wishes,so the most magical tree ,on the highest point became her final resting place. At first I wasn't sure what to do, I had the ashes...which are surprisingly heavy-pulverized bone,really bone meal. Then it came to me... I'd use her remains as bulb food and kill two birds with one stone-(no pun intended-well a little.) I made a lasso out of some twine and encircled the massive 200+ year old tree. Scoring a perfect circle in the ground gave me the exact template needed for a myriad of spring bulbs as well as a late summer display of Lycoris Squamigera, what we call Naked Ladies here in the Midwest. There is something so beautiful about emerging from the wooded path and seeing this special tribute to an amazing woman. This time of year is all about Iris Reticulata, different Muscari, miniature Daffodils-including some antique Narcissus Poeticus bulbs rescued from an abandoned farm stead. Marie was a code breaker during WW Two as well as an accomplished poet, and she had a fetish for spring ephemerals. Add to this antique Woodstock Hyacinths,Scillas,Crocus and several other varieties of bulbs that settled in their new home with the nutritious food my mother's ashes provided. Her favorite color combination was bright pink and apple green. The August show of Lycoris in a perfect ring would have pleased her to no end. I took this picture before the snow and Ice came this weekend,the bulbs will be fine-maybe they'll last that much longer! This week also brought several new members to the farm family. Four downy Americana chicks came home to join the flock...eventually. Those older hens would kill the sweet chicks if I tried to introduce them now, they get to be babied for several months before that can happen. I also went to a bird fair and found a wonderful pair of Red Factor Canaries, the cock is tomato soup orange (thor) and the hen is called a red-bronze (Coco) yes- as in Chanel. I'll eventually have them at my store Bergamot and Ivy, in a great bee hive flight cage. For right now-their getting acquainted with each other. The cock must serenade the hen and feed her special treats before she will accept him. some other winged friends came back this last week-every year I have a family of Eastern Phoebes build their nest on a light fixture hanging in the clockwork they've already refreshed the nest with green mosses. To me, the Phoebes , Orchard Orioles and Ruby throats -coming in about fifteen more days- are the true harbingers of Spring.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Crisp Whites for Spring

I love all colors...yes all of them, but I must say, the myriad of whites is always refreshing and pure. In a spectral sense, white light is all the colors...what we see in daylight. White pigment can have the essence of any color as well. You hear of warm whites, cool whites...dirty whites. All we're really talking about is dilution,right? I think that as long as we stay in a certain family of white, we are on a good path. The trick is to see what color is really lurking in the white. A cool white looks dead and gray mixed with a golden yellow, but a warm white glows when mixed with the same shade. When planting a garden area with a group of whites, it's important to keep the pallet in the same family. Whites will be pink, blue or yellow-just like primary colors...other shades are muddy and useless to a pleasing effect. The lure of the "moon garden" has captured the gardening world forever, these plants act like a beacon to the moon light, and the wonderful addition of fragrance to most white flowers is a real bonus as well. a great many white flowered plants do seem to have extraordinary fragrance. This is primarily to attract night flying insects for pollination. Moths see a white blossom like a small moon, and the scent is often a mimic hormone to the insect as well. We must remember that the sole purpose of flowers is not for our selfish pleasure, but solely for's all about sex, baby.

Spun Gold

Every day brings a fresh bounty of golds this time of year. The common forsythia is ablaze with chromatic color. All my well- healed East coast friends hate it...."how suburban"- I could not disagree more. After months of grayness and cold, the brilliant sprays of blossoms give me a lift I could not find another way,seeing a hillside dripping with it could be anything BUT suburban, grace personified. Late March also brings with it other succulent yellows and golds.Winter Aconite is on it's way out, but the true buried treasure of the Daffodils and other Narcissus are making me happy I spent the time to plant, every Fall. I am not cheap...but I am frugal. I'll spend stupid money on a few select bulbs from my favorite sources, but most bulbs I plant were on sale. I'm not embarrassed by this, I think it's chic to be money wise. I go to all the box stores, K-Marts, Mom and Pop hardware stores...anyone who would sell Fall planted bulbs- and stake out the territory. I have my wish list of desired varieties that need to be purchased on the sly. "Tahiti", "Cheerfulness","Petitfore","Geranium" were all on the list last fall. After I see the first sale sign go up, I methodically search the bins for the still plump bulbs. Most Fall planted bulbs can be planted until the ground freezes hard. Here in my zone 5 garden,that can be after Christmas. The later you plant those bulbs, the later they will bloom the following spring. Subsequent Springs will return them to their natural flowering time. Some years this can be a fortuitous event,blending bouquets with varieties that only a dutch master would put together. So many of those 17Th century paintings were total fantasies...the flowers often bloomed at wildly different times,but they made us believe. I then back track to the different locations and "clean up". What do I do with my booty? I usually plant them in naturalized drifts in the lower meadow, and along wooded paths for unparalleled beauty in the woods. Narcissus are not a native plant,rather a European interloper like myself. In the countryside, where I live, there are just too many wild creatures to eat Tulips, but everyone seems to leave the daffodils alone-thank God. Another early harbinger is the lovely Cornelian Cherry-it's golden-green branches carry you upwards to the sky, where you can appreciate it's beauty against a bright Spring blue. Layers of the different yellows and golds give a warm dimension the the spring garden that nothing else could. I say screw the Dow, invest in gold!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Pansy For Your Thoughts...

I'm not a huge annual fan, those plants that bloom their heart out and then die at the end of the season. However,some annuals will always be in my garden, and Pansies are at the top of the list. Pansy comes from the French word for thought, pansee. When you look into the velvet bloom, you can easily see why our forefathers (and fore-mothers) saw a connection to our own human faces and thus thoughts as well. Pansies are hybrid Violas,technically Viola X wittrokiana,and come in every color of the rainbow. If protected in the garden they can behave like a short lived perennial, but most people treat them as annuals and star over every year. I was at a seed shop, and was engrossed with the Cole crops set out for spring planting(cabbages and kales), when my nose caught the sweet violet scent so characteristic of Pansies. Sure enough, around the corner, on a cart bursting with color were Spring Pansies ready to come home with me. I don't start my own from seed, I'd rather work with things that can't be found easily at the local nurseries. I methodically go through each variety, always checking for strength of scent,most important. Usually, I pick one special variety to enjoy en mass-this year I chose two. The first selection of the season was "Dynamite Wine Flash", everyone in my Wine Group should like that! Beautiful burgundy reds with a brass gold face and lots of personality. It's a standard Pansy, large enough to pick a tiny bouquet for the house. The other choice, not my usual, is a mixed variety called "penny Lane Mix". I don't go for mixed flowers usually,they seem jumbled and rag-tag. These smaller Jonny jump-up type of violas come in a fantastic pallet of colors and faces, and yes, they have a light sweet fragrance. In my very mid-west garden, they will be replaced by the end of June, but I'll be enjoying them to the fullest until then. Interestingly,Pansies became the symbol of free thought in the late 1890's through the 1920's in Europe as well as North America. To wear a pansy on your lapel showed your support to the Free Thinkers from Prague to New york, a badge of honor to the movement. Although it's early here in Kansas to put out bedding plants (annuals), Pansies can take the cold, so jump right in!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Spring Burn

One of the more exciting clean up projects is a controlled burn. Burning gets rid of woody plants,
(like honey locust) and helps some native wildflowers sprout and grow. The first thing that needs to be done is getting a burn permit. Every state has laws regarding controlled burning, then every county has their own set of rules. In Kansas, all you need to do is call the county fire dispatch and ask for the permit,and agree to their rules, which is no tires, finish before dark, and be prepared....have water available. Most areas have burn classes that really help get you ready for a successful season. The coal black ground is beautiful and cleansed, even ticks are reduced by a good burn. Always make sure all flame is out before leaving the site. After a few days, the hardier grasses will start to sprout with a velvet vengeance, its so green, it makes you want to burn more!!(I intend to..) I always cut a path around the area, making sure that it's not too large, it can easily get out of hand, so smaller areas are better to start with. After the path is cut, I water that path so that I won't have the flame leave that specific area. Never use an excellerant to burn, if it's ready to burn, you won't need to. It's best to let the flame burn itself out, starting from different sides means it will hit an already charred area, and not get out of bounds. Every state has laws regarding this, get informed before you start. If you have woody plants that you want to save, you must remove the dry grass from around the plant, and then soak that area before you start. will kill most woody material, at least above ground. When I was little I loved to burn with my dad, the smell brings a smile to my face! Burn with someone you love, I say!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Trip Abroad

When I was seventeen, I went to England, Wales and Ireland with my parents. We spent three weeks traveling that spring, a trip I'll not soon forget. While driving through Ireland (we're Irish), on the way to a country inn, we were broadsided. I remember the car spinning around, as if in slow motion-thinking "I'm a thousand miles from home, and my parents are dead..". They did not die that day, but it was a bad wreck. The other car was bloody and totaled, but they were alive. I'll never forget that surreal experience, of time in slow motion. The last week of the trip was spent in and around London. The highlight of the trip was the incredible Kew gardens. I had read and studied the famed grounds, but this was my first visit.I was in plant junkie heaven, a huge smile plastered on my face, I'm sure.I can not express how amazing this place is for me, the holy plant grail. I methodically went through the collection, not wanting to miss a thing. After the first day, my parents went about their business, of museums and meetings-I went back for the next two days in complete bliss. By far the most superb sections were the Rock Gardens and the adjoining Alpine collection. I felt like I had stepped into a fairyland of colors shapes and plant forms. I spent the entire day there, talking with one of the curators of the collection. He told me that the Alpines were the most specialized of Kew's collections, and I sure believed him! He was gracious enough to take me behind the scenes to see more rarefied plants in their collection. To this day, I have vivid memories of that place of dreams even, of the benches covered with the most amazing life forms-all in small Lilliputian pots, double lined with granite and feldspar chips. The air was fresh and buoyant, not the heavy humidity you feel in some greenhouses. We went to Port Marion in Wales, spending the last weekend, hiking around the grounds and discovering hidden niches and shell covered grottoes on the hillside over looking the "bay"(inlet?). The grounds had wonderful urns filled with specimen fuchsias, obviously over wintered in some hidden glasshouse on the grounds. At one time in my twenties, I had amassed a collection of twenty five or thirty varieties that I displayed in a great glassed in porch in a pre-war building in Kansas City(MO).Now Fuchsias and heat don't get on well, you cannot forget to water or you have dead plants, and fast! Fuchsias are great plants to train-standards, fans,pyramids etc.The more care and feeding, the better they look.If you grow fuchsias, the hummingbirds will thank you...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Busy bee week

After a long night of storms and a deluge of nutrient rich rain,spring has awoken.Snow Drops are spreading their ethereal fragrance to the winds, enticing the early bees.My Lycoris seedlings are sprouting in the greenhouse, as are the outdoor collection.I have some hybrids starting as well as the pure species. All the Lycoris are truly magical, not to overuse that word. When you least expect something out of this world, they appear. After the verdant spring foliage that will confuse the novice with Narcissus, these special Asian bulbs will quietly disappear under ground for the duration of the summer. No trace of their former location is left for the observer to see. Then,starting in early August,the different varieties begin their magic show. Out of the ground chartreuse spears pierce the ground over night. Sometimes it will be after a good rain, but not until they're ready for the show. Usually it begins with the old fashioned favorite, the Naked Lady-Lycoris Squamigera, a natural hybrid from Japan .The stunning plant puts forth an eruption of stems that rise to about 30 inches from the ground. The buds are a dark mauve color, heavily overlaid with an intense blue. When the umbel of buds opens, the five petaled lilaform bloom is a clear blush pink, with a wash of rare true blue, until the second or third day, when the blossom finishes pure, fragrant pink. These and other Lycoris make marvelous cut flowers for the house. There are great species and hybrids out there. Some are yellow-gold, some are blush white,others are cerise red. Telos Rare bulbs and Plant Delights nursery's are places to look at when building a collection of these special bulbs. This week was all about bees! On Wednesday, I prepared my bee yard for wild flower seeds. The area was burned and cleared of debris. Then, the entire area was raked over no more than one inch deep, then I prepared the seed mix. Most of the seed was purchased from Wildseed farms in Texas. To this specialized regional mix, I added many more rare seeds that I had grown and collected on my own. I mixed the half a pound of seed to about seven gallons of builders sand, then carefully hand cast the mix over the area. Proper seed application requires the the seed be rolled into the surface of the soil. I don't have a roller, so I used the opportunity to do a walking meditation, and shuffle the seeds to their proper place on the surface of the ground, not under it. After this morning's rain, Life is beginning again in the bee yard. Friday and Saturday Was the
bi-State (Kansas and Missouri) beekeepers meeting and lecture series. Great information and nice people. I have my two bee hives all built and ready to go...I need bees! The newly made hives smell GREAT-pine and honeycomb,who knew it smelled so good. So, week after next is the beginners beekeeping series, and I can't Wait! My package bees ( a queen and young colony) will arrive mid April. I've "rescued" some feral bees after my brother and I had accidentally cut down a bee tree, and tried to gather the hive for the winter. Unfortunately, That small swarm didn't survive the winter, but I had gotten the interest to try in earnest. There is so much to do right now, the days start speeding by, towards summer.

Monday, March 2, 2009

a snowshoeing we go

This week,I was visiting the beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park. Chad and I had a blast snowshoeing in the park,the lower elevations were sunny and dry.
We had great wildlife sightings,a large herd of Elk cows grazing on meadow grasses one day and a small group of bulls the next day at a lower elevation,basking in the sun. The mountain Bluebirds had made their appearance,checking out possible nest sites. At the higher elevations the weather got much colder,and we snowshoed up to Emerald lake. The wind was incredible where the terrain opened up to the frozen lake. We were lucky to find a snow cave at the summit to have lunch in. Getting out of the blasting wind inside the cave,we felt almost toasty(not quite). Drinking some hot broth and getting something to eat gave us the little break we needed. The air was crisp and laced with the resinous scent of Pine and Fir. We got ten or eleven miles in,one day we were there until dusk. At the lower elevations I had a chance to explore the plant communities just coming out of deep sleep. The snow will most likely make another appearance,and the plants know this and keep the peace a few more months. I spent summer vacations hiking in Colorado,exploring the vast plant and animals that abound there. That smell of pine takes me back long ago to sunny memories with my family. We would always stop at an ancient lodge called the Bald Pate Inn. I think they have one of the world's largest key collections...but why we would stop there was for the hummingbirds. Generations of the tiny birds would return like clock work to the timber veranda. I would stare for what seemed like hours at the frenzied throng. If a hummingbird is born at a certain location, it will return to that same place,for the rest of it's life(as long as there is a steady food source). So,with the dozens of feeders kept full,there are a lot a birds in one place. Most hummingbirds you see are Ruby Throated hummingbirds,Rufus hummingbirds are also seen-they seem more aggressive to me. I would dream about the experience for many nights after. I started to plant hummingbird nectar plants in my family's garden, having the most success with garden Phlox and Four O'clock, both old fashioned favorites. I did put out feeders,but the tiny birds prefer natural food when available. When I bought my first house, I planted many more enticing plants for the hoped for throng. I didn't have much luck enticing a regular group of birds until I planted the very southern Cyprus Vine or Cardinal Creeper Vine. All hummingbirds love this plant...if you plant it, eventually they will come! Now at Hiddenfield Farm, I have about a dozen birds that make their home there. I keep three feeders full, as well as plant a huge assortment of hummingbird plants for them as well. If you plan on trying to attract these flying marvels with a feeder,make sure you thoroughly clean the feeders once a week with hot vinegar water and a brush. Do not use soap or bleach-it leaves a residue that will poison the birds. there is no need to purchase commercial food for the feeders. A four to one ratio of water to sugar is perfect for them. You can mix with tepid water to help dissolve the sugar. You would think that honey would be perfect for nectar, but it is unsafe for them to eat. Always remove the feeders several weeks before the first expected frost to encourage the birds to start their annual migration. Contrary to popular myth, hummingbirds don't 'hitch' a ride on the backs of migrating water fowl, they fly singly at low elevations to their winter range. In the spring, I anticipate the small birds return. The males always make their appearance first,followed by the moss green females after about a week. I love to watch them seek out their favorite haunts to perch and preen after such a long journey. In my zone five garden, I put their feeders out by April first, in anticipation of their return. Although I know they nest close to the house, I've never found their well hidden nests of spider web and moss,someday when I'm least expecting it ,I will.