f Morning Rose Prayer Gardens: 12/01/2011 - 01/01/2012

Friday, December 30, 2011

Christmas Plants, Growing Them On, 12/29 Column

This column that appeared in The Jackson Citizen Patriot Newspaper and on MLive.com was to have been run with pictures. Because of another delightful story that ran the same day, mine was significantly cut down to fit in a column and a lot of the growing information was lost. So, here I have given you the full version. Enjoy!

     Houseplants are popular at Christmas. They bring interest to our counters and tables, adding color to our seasonally decorated homes. There are several plants traditionally given during the Christmas season. Knowing how to care for these living gifts can be a challenge. Following are the five most popular plants purchased during the holidays and information on how to care for them.
     Poinsettia:  This is the most frequently purchased plant for Christmas. It ranges from tones of red to white. The colored leafy bracts, which we think of as flowers, can be smooth, deeply lobed or tightly crinkled as with ‘Winter Rose’. 
     This plant is touchy to extremes in moisture, temperature and drafts. To keep it looking good takes some skill. It likes a lot of sun, so if it is next to a window rotate the plant daily to allow light on all leaf surfaces. Keep it in a warm room of 70-75 degrees, away from heat vents and cool drafts. Water when soil is dry. Too much water and a chill cause the leaves and bracts to drop. By late winter this plant wants to take a rest and its leaves will begin to fade. Lay it on its side in a cool dark basement. In May, prune it to about 4”, water well and plant in the garden.
     Extensive research, including studies by Ohio State University, has shown that the poinsettia is quite safe and not toxic to animals or children; if consumed it will cause digestive expulsion.
     Christmas Cactus: First of all, this is not a true cactus and requires regular watering. It is one of my favorite house plants.
     When grown in greenhouses they are regulated to bloom for December sales. In my home they bloom twice a year; in early November and again if not pinched back in late winter. To set buds, these plants like it cool, around 60-65 degrees. Once buds are formed keep them at about 70 degrees and away from heat vents.
     Grow in bright indirect sunlight, rotating plant by one quarter each time you water. Keep soil evenly moist but not soggy while blooming. When done flowering, water sparingly and cut back at a leaf node to encourage new branching (and more buds!). When new growth appears in the spring, use fertilizer every other watering.
     Norfolk Pine: This plant is often decorated like a living Christmas tree. Easy to care for, it can grow quite large.
     It likes it cool, around 62-68 degrees. Grow in bright indirect light, but never in full sun. It does best about 4’ from a bright South facing window. Place closer to windows with sheers or awnings. Rotate by a quarter turn each time you water with a standard fertilizer. Allow soil to dry almost completely between watering but mist the needles with cool water 2-3 times a week if your house has low humidity.
     Rosemary: A common household herb during Jesus’ life, it was used to repel insects and would have been placed under the straw of the manger.
     Grow rosemary in a clay pot to allow the soil to dry completely between watering, place in bright full sun with good air movement but away from cold drafts and heat vents. Fertilize once a month with diluted solution.
     Cyclamen: This plant is commercially forced to bloom at specific times of the year. Outdoors in mild climates it has a dormant period and then comes to life flowering in late winter to early spring.
     Grow your plant in bright indirect sunlight, rotate by ¼ turn each time you water. Water at the side of the pot when soil feels dry to touch, keeping the crown dry. Mist 2-3 times a week or place on gravel in a tray partially filled with water.     
     Snip off old flowering stalks near crown. Eventually the plant will start to decline, needing a dormant period. Place it in cool dark basement until spring and plant in the garden when soil temperature is above 50 degrees.
     Bulbs that usually come as a gift kit are the Amaryllis and Paperwhite Narcissus. Following the packaging instructions will bring beautiful flowers in mid-winter.

Monday, December 26, 2011

C. S. Lewis Quote

He dwells, all of Him, within the seed of the smallest flower and is not cramped: deep heaven is inside Him who is inside the seed...

Friday, December 23, 2011

Composting Misconceptions Column 12/8/11

                I must admit that when it came to composting, I was a reluctant participant for many years. In several gardening circles I would hear others talk about their compost piles like a special pet; feeding it greens, keeping it warm and never adding junk food to its microbial digestion. My eyes would glaze over as temperatures and techniques were debated.
There were several misconceptions I had to resolve before I could really embrace this activity.
Composting is complicate. Those who are into composting are, well, into it. They have read articles and books gleaning information. Good for them. You really don’t need to worry about all that. Pile whatever composting materials you have and it will decompose. Adding water now and then and turning it over will speed the process. If you tend to forget about your pile, as I often do, nature will still run its course.
The yard is too small for compost pile. Think of it this way; if you have a large yard your compost pile is usually larger; with a small yard the pile will be smaller in proportion. If you have a garden apartment or condo, use a 36 gal. black plastic garbage can with tight fitting lid. Drill ½ inch holes around sides and bottom for air movement. To ‘stir’ the compost, lay the container on its side, with lid secured, and roll it around.
Compost piles stink and attract rodents. Most people have this misconception. Compost piles do not attract rodents or have a bad odor unless the wrong stuff is added. The rule here is no animal products: meats/bones, oils, dairy, poo. Do not add sugary materials either. Add only vegetative materials from the kitchen or yard. Healthy compost smells like spring soil.
Compost piles are ugly. Location is everything. Placing it in the middle of the yard or driveway will certainly create an eyesore. Locate it in an out of the way place where it will receive sunlight. You can hide the pile by using fence panels to surround it, or, again, black garbage cans. There are commercial composting containers and bins available on the market ranging from $60 to over $1000 for free-standing tumblers.
Composting costs too much money.  Sure, you can spend a lot on a compost thermometer, tumbler or fancy fencing but there is no need.  To get started make a walled bin from whatever you have lying around—wooden skids, chicken wire and metal posts, even doubled black garbage bags filled and set in the sun work perfectly fine.
I don’t have the time to compost. This was a favorite myth of mine. I believed I was far too busy attending to my and others’ gardens to focus on creating the healthy compost pile that gardeners bragged about. Once my compost pile was started I discovered it took about 30 minutes a month to maintain.
That’s all there is to it. For more information on the perfect pile, contact the County Extension Office or go to the library.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gifts for the Gardener: Tools 12/1/11 Column

     Gardeners, like most people who work with their hands, appreciate good, reliable tools. Some of my friends show me a tool their grandfather used, and others share with me something new that works like a charm.
     I am one who likes to try the new stuff that comes to the market. I look for products that will ease my gardening tasks. Here are a few that might interest you:
     Not too long ago the St. Francis Garden Society was given a gift of several collapsible 40-gallon containers, sometimes called Spring Buckets or Kangaroo Containers. We have used them almost daily and have had several people stop and ask where to buy them. The collapsible buckets have a circling spring enclosed in a sleeve sewn to the UV resistant tarpaulin. The hard plastic bottom that has drain holes holds the container in place as it is filled with debris. When collapsed it is 3 inches thick and can be hung by the large nylon handles sewn to the sides.
     Containers are popular. However, moving them for winter storage can be a challenge, especially when they are large and heavy. The glazed ceramic containers are difficult to move because it is hard to get a grip on their slippery surface. Lifting these pots is a two-person job and can be made safer by using a Potlifter Strap. This simple and ingenious device is an adjustable nylon strap that fits around the circumference of a container and is designed with handles for gripping.
     I’m not sure there is a more practical tool than the bulb planter that can be attached to a drill. I remember my first attempt at power-drilling holes for bulbs. I noticed the paint stirrer attached to my grandfather’s hand drill and thought it would work in the gardens for making holes. The concept was good even if the paint stirrer didn’t function well as an auger.
     Several years later the proper tool came to market. Bulb augers can be long enough to stand while drilling, or shorter and more easily controlled. There is also a device called a Bulb Bopper that is a tube instead of a spiral auger. If you have physical challenges planting bulbs, or have a lot of bulbs to put in, this tool is essential to your gardening hardware.

Protecting Trees and Shrubs 11/10/11 Column

     Now that it is early November I find myself preparing to nestle in for the winter. My gardening frenzy shifts to calmer activities, such as writing and cooking, and I gratefully look forward to time for reading garden magazines set aside throughout the summer months.
     There are a few more tasks that need attending to before winter enfolds the gardens.
     For shrubs exposed to winter winds and prone to its desiccating effects on their leaves, such as rhododendrons and dwarf Alberta spruce, protect them with a burlap barrier. Place the barrier 4 to 6 inches away from the plant’s limbs on the south, southwest and windward sides. If a plant in a previous winter has shown injury on all sides, surround it with a barrier and leave the top open for air and light penetration. Never fill the space between the plant and the burlap with leaves. The burlap also protects plants from deer browsing.
Photo by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp of Hoosier Gardener
Another way to protect evergreens is to prop pine boughs or Christmas tree greens against or over them. This helps catch more snow for natural protection and offers additional protection from wind and sun.
     Young trees and those with a thin bark are often damaged by sun scald. Sun scald is characterized by a long sunken or cracked area of bark found on the south or southwest side of the trunk. On a cold winter’s day the sun can warm the bark to the point where it becomes active. When the sun is blocked, bark temperatures drop rapidly, killing the active tissue. Sun scald can be prevented by wrapping the trunk in late autumn with white plastic tree guards or commercial tree wrap. This also protects the trunk from deer rubs when the bucks grow antlers. Be sure to remove wrappings in late spring.
     Protect the lower trunk portion of young trees from mice and rabbits. Use mesh hardware cloth rolled and fastened into a tube around the base of the trunk, leaving about a half-inch space and buried about two inches into the soil. Be careful not to damage the tree’s roots. I often cut a notch into the wire as wide as the root so the mesh tube will set deep enough into the ground.
     Mulch is great as a weed barrier and it helps retain moisture. It also protects plant roots from freeze-thaw damage. This damage is caused by the sun warming the soil surface and ‘waking-up’ the root system. Like sun scald, when temperatures drop suddenly the activated tissue is killed. Pile on extra leaves at the base of shrubs and trees to keep soil at an even temperature. For newly planted plants, the mulch will also help protect against heaving from freezing soil.

For the Birds 10/28/11 Column

     Feeding the birds during the winter is an activity a lot of people delight in. Through the years, I’ve picked up several feeder tips on how to attend to the needs of birds and deter marauding squirrels. Here are just a few.

Artwork by Charlie Harper
      Large bird feeders are a convenience because you don’t have to fill them as often as the smaller ones. One issue with their size is that the seeds don’t always flow out to the edges where the birds can reach. A trick I picked up years ago uses a clear disposable 5-ounce cup (or a 7-ounce cup cut in half around the circumference). Before filling the feeder, turn the cup upside-down and center it in the bottom. Add seed, initially holding the cup in place, until feeder is filled. The seed will slide away from the plastic cup and toward the edges of the feeder.
     Filling a finch feeder with thistle seeds can be a bit messy, especially if you use a mesh sock feeder. Here is a way to make that task easier by repurposing a watering can that leaks. Remove the rose head on the spout; it might twist off or you might need to cut it off. Then, add seed and pour it out the spout into the sock feeder.
     Peanut butter-coated pine cones covered in seeds is a favorite winter food of many birds. Creating these feeders often has been a messy and time-consuming activity until I read this tip that makes the project less of a challenge. Select cones that will easily fit into the wide mouth of a peanut butter jar. Tie a string around the top of the cone. Remove the label from the jar of peanut butter and with a permanent marker write “birds” on the jar and lid. Place the jar in a pan of boiling water until peanut butter is melted. Using a microwave will often melt and warp the plastic jar; for this method place peanut butter into a glass bowl and then microwave. When the peanut butter is melted, swirl the cone into the peanut butter until coated, and then roll it in a bowl of bird seed. Set the cone on wax paper to harden. I usually cut the wax paper to fit around each cone and use it to wrap the one for storage.
     We’ve all experienced the challenges of squirrels at our bird feeders. If you use a pole feeder, buying a baffle for it can be costly. Repurpose a metal Slinky instead. Secure one end of the Slinky to the bottom of an empty bird feeder around the flange that attaches to the pole. When you reattach the feeder the Slinky will slide down the pole. The moving wire of the Slinky confuses squirrels and keeps them from climbing up to the feeder.
     The squirrels also like to devour suet blocks and can consume a small block in two days. To prevent this, purchase a large suet feeder with a mesh space about an inch in size. Center and attach a smaller suet feeder with suet inside the larger one. The birds and woodpeckers can still reach inside to feed but the larger “cage” keeps the squirrels at bay.