Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Catalpa Catastrophe

Several years ago, we received a Catalpa tree from a horticultural friend.  To call it a ‘tree’ at the time might’ve seemed like a stretch.  It was a liner.  A liner is an itty-bitty start of a plant.  Liners are typically distributed to nurseries where they are ‘grown on’ and then sold after a year or two.  My eldest son adopted it. 

At the time, he was 5 years old and moved the tree whenever the wind blew.  Well, maybe not quite that much, but it had a number of different 'homes' before he finally settled on a spot outside our dining room window.  He comes by the Moving-Things-Around disorder honestly.  His mother has a raging case, and her garden suffers the consequences every year.  I usually get the strongest urge to move plants when they are in full bloom (bad timing) and typically, it’s the hottest week of the year (terrible timing).  It’s like an itch - a terrible Poison Ivy itch - that must be scratched.  This year it was Monarda (Beebalm).  I relocated some boxwood this spring and the resulting hole was practically begging for some beebalm.  Self control is such a pain.  I did, however, manage to exercise restraint.  

But I digress.  Back to the tree: at maturity, Catalpas are lovely.  In adolescence, they’re awkward at best.  And after growing this one, I consider it a miracle that any survive to adulthood.  The problem with Catalpas is a frightfully un-winning combination of extreme new growth and extreme leaf size.  Long lengths of weak green wood are required to support the weight of REALLY large leaves.  Yes, I know, leaves don’t WEIGH much, but when the wind starts whipping, it’s like trying to fly 52 kites in the middle of a wind tunnel.  That’s a tall order for woody growth, let alone new growth.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when our Catalpa snapped in half last summer.  No kidding.  All the new growth – over 50% of the tree – was sheered off.  A summer storm blew through at night and we awoke to find our tree, stripped down to nothing, save a spindly little trunk.  Four years of growing had come down to this.  There were tears.  I shed a few, some for the tree and some for the boy.

As I typically procrastinate in all facets of my life, I put off the removal of our now defunct Catalpa.  Imagine my surprise when new growth started shooting out from the previously naked trunk.  When I say shooting, I mean, loitering nearby could cost you an eye.  Before winter closed in, the tree had put on 3’ of new growth.  This spring, we lost several more good-sized branches.  The resulting new growth is already approaching 4’. 

Interestingly enough, my beloved U of I tree selector (normally, a wonderful resource) denotes Catalpa as tolerant of wind.  Hmmm.  This tree is inherently aerodynamically challenged.  I would not recommend it as a candidate for The Wind Tolerant Club.  But I would recommend giving your kids some ownership in the garden.  True, their landscaping plans might not match yours, but you'll harvest the benefits for generations to come.  Even with nature's hard knocks, it's been a positive experience for one of my little growers.

Wordless Wednesday

One of the contestants in Grandma's Japanese Beetle Pickin' Contest.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Gladiolas and Green Beans mingling at Perry Farm Park.

My Favorite Things

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. 
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. 

Everything sounds better when Julie Andrews sings it.  Sadly, she is not here to sing about my favorite things, so I’ll have to make do with the written word.  I’ve already sung a love song about my soil knife, so I won’t include it here.  But these are a few more of my favorite things…     

I’m notorious for being a bit messy.  Gardening is no exception.  When I weed, I toss the evicted invaders over my shoulder with vim and vigor.  But cleaning them up?  Eh…..not so much.  Our wheelbarrow is tall and bulky.  The effort it takes to toss my weeds in as I go slows my momentum (and believe me, any momentum I can achieve is a precious commodity).  Then along came my bucket.  It cost me $1 at the end of the season in the Target clearance aisle.  It’s plastic, lightweight and flexible.  Easy to reach into.  Tough enough to be dragged along behind a weeding mama.  Carries easily.  Hauls an armload of water, soil, mulch or weeds adequately.  I give it 5 stars.  Sadly, I’ve loved it a little too hard and now there’s a hole in my bucket.   But I think I can squeeze the cost of a replacement into our budget.

Tools ought to match the scale of the project.  Backhoes for the back-breaking jobs, and trowels for tiny ones.  Is it possible to dig a 1 gallon hole with a shovel or a trowel?  Absolutely.  Is it ideal?  I think not.  The perennial spade is scaled perfectly for working in and around perennials.  With it, I can dig out a chunk of catmint without disturbing the surrounding flora.  It is my go-to spade when gardening.    

My husband doesn’t like to spend money.  Is there an allergy for that sort of thing?  That would explain a lot.  So I was understandably bewildered when he came home from the hardware store with a set of gardening tools.  The yellow and red colors on the tools and packaging made me think he’d purchased a children's set.  Boy, was I wrong!  He gets an A+ from his horticultural honey for this selection.  The WOLF-Garten multi-tool set comes with 1 long and 2 short handles for three interchangeable tool heads.  The first attachment is a Push-Pull Weeder.  Related to a hoe, this tool obliterates weedy-takeovers with a simple push and pull.  Beds that once overwhelmed me were stripped of trespassers in minutes.  The secret to its effectiveness is the horizontal bar that runs under the roots, dislodging them.  The second tool is called a Small Sweep.  Removing dead foliage and debris from my perennials beds is a breeze, thanks to this sweet baby rake (not to be confused with a similar sounding barbecue sauce).  It maneuvers in and around tight spaces without damaging the surrounding plantings.  The last attachment is a cultivator head.  Can't say I've used it much, but I'm certain there's wonderment within, since it comes from such an innovative company.  Within minutes of finding their website, I had begun transcribing my 2011 Christmas wishlist.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Don't Tread on Me

Like a biological Berlin Wall, grass has laid siege to a citizenship of zucchini, tomatoes, onions and broccoli in my garden.  I can’t say this is the first year this has happened.  Blame it on my procrastination.  Blame it on poor planning.  I’m guilty of both.  But let me tell you a little secret about Extreme Weeds.  They’re good camouflage.  I live in the midst of a highly productive rabbit community, and my vegetables bear no damage.  You see, I am quite sure that Peter Cottontail has no idea of the vegetables that lie beyond The Wall.    So what if I have to play hide-n-seek to find my ripe tomatoes?  Mr. McGregor should’ve let his weeds grow.

This year will be an exception.  Bit by bit, down it must go.  Why would I tear down the camouflage that has served me so well all these years?  What could jolt me out of my weed-induced stupor?   Pituophis catenifer.  Commonly known as Bull Snake.  Two large specimens were recently found cavorting in the vicinity of my veggies, and I feel much differently about playing hide-n-seek with them. 

So bon voyage to my camouflage/procrastination.  The grass must go. 

As I weed, I work around another prickly persona in my garden.  No slithering scales here.  In fact, I planted this one.  Cucurbita pepo.  Commonly known as Zucchini.  If you’ve ever grown any member of the vining Cucurbit family (Pumpkin, Watermelon, Cucumber etc.), you’ve probably experienced firsthand the painful irritation that occurs from handling them.  Every inch of the stems and leaves is covered in a sharp stubble.  The horticultural terminology for this phenomenon is pubescence, coming from the root word puberty.  But this is no peach fuzz we’re talking about.  This is a full-on 5 o’clock shadow.  A good proportion of plants bear hair of some form.  Some are named for it, as is Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina).  Its namesake softness comes from an abundance of downy pubescence.

The hair serves a purpose.  Leaves are covered in tiny holes called stomates.  The plant transpires through these, but they are also a portal for moisture loss.  Pubescence provides a bit of aerodynamic cover for these stomates, reducing dehydration.  Additionally, they help shade sensitive leaf tissue from the glaring sun.  Take a walk around your garden and discover the world of hairy leaves.  But keep your eyes peeled...there may be some unexpected discoveries lurking there.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

A Mulching Saga

Friday morning, we headed into town to acquire some black gold.  For the Beverly Hillbillies, that’s oil.  For a weed-laden maiden such as myself, it’s mulch.

Someone could write a mulch encyclopedia with all the options out there.  I prefer shredded hardwood bark.  It isn’t the only acceptable option, but it’s my favorite.  It’s widely available, environmentally friendly, reasonably priced, beautiful and it smells good (to me). 

I would not recommend wood chips or shredded pallets or any form of chopped up ‘wood’.  There is a big difference between wood and bark.  In nature, bark acts as armor for the tree’s wooden center.  It is God’s design for the protection of the tree.  Bark, with its rough texture and unappealing substances, deters the horde of bugs that want to get at the woody deliciousness inside.   How do you think those critters feel when you chop up the woody deliciousness and spread it all over your yard?  Mmmmmmm.  The same way I feel at Dairy Queen.  To add insult to injury, the chips biodegrade too rapidly, pulling nitrogen from your soil and money from your wallet.  The only thing worse than wood chips in your yard is painted wood chips.  The chips will biodegrade.  The paint will not. 

This year’s previous weeding efforts unraveled themselves when I failed to cover the freshly-liberated soil with mulch.  Without this organic forcefield, I was no more than a hamster on a wheel; running myself to exhaustion and getting nowhere in particular.  I plucked and pulled, and one week later, the garden looked as if I'd abandoned it years ago.  The weeds thanked me kindly for exposing more delicious dirt and returned to their dominion-making efforts. 

But now I was armed and ready for battle.  As the man of the house lowered the tailgate to begin the Mulch Homecoming Festivities, he asked me where the wheelbarrow was.  Immediately, I knew.  Immediately, unfortunately, was a half hour too late.  15 miles north of our home, sitting upside down on a pile of peat moss, lay the loaned-out necessity.  Distributing a yard-and-a-half of mulch without a wheelbarrow is not practical.  It’s like trying to slurp a giant milkshake through a coffee stirrer.  The effort is going to result in a nasty headache.  Blast my swiss-cheese memory.  And thank goodness for well-stocked neighbors. 

Now, armed with my truckload of mulch and a neighborly wheelbarrow, I set to weeding once more.  Thirty-six hours later, the redemption of my garden was complete.  (For legal accuracy, ‘complete’ does not include the vegetable garden.) 

Presently, I’m sitting out on my porch, penning this entry and sniffing the sweet smells of success.  In this case, success smells like mulch and freshly brewed coffee.   I believe I enjoy basking in the glow of my weedless garden as much as I would enjoy basking on a beach in Brazil.  There’s something divine about creating your own paradise.  
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