Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday winter wonderland

The sun is low in the sky and the popple trees cast long shadows over the "courtyard." With the temperatures dropping, it's nice to have a thick blanket of snow.

The snow has ended, the cold is settling in (it's 11 degrees as I write this) and the sun is revealing a world of shadows, texture, pattern and contrast. All told, we got somewhere around 2 feet of snow in the Christmas storm that began Christmas Eve Day and ended the day after Christmas.

On Christmas Eve Day, you could still see the junipers in the front bed.

This was taken about noon and the short junipers were still showing green through the snow.

By the same time Christmas Day, they were covered.

This was taken through the window; the blotches are from the wind-driven rain. Trust me, there really are junipers under the snow in the center of this photo.

We seemed to have a little of everything Christmas Day: snow, wind, rain, freezing rain. We spent much of the afternoon trying to get a head start on digging out.

The silly dog found it hard to navigate except where snow had been cleared.  

Part of digging out means raking the drifts off the roof and checking vents.

Fortunately, there was plenty of warning about the storm. So we were prepared.
The bird feeders were filled. And we had lots of birds even in the thick of snow and wind.

Goldfinches were among the most frequent visitors.

The wreath was finished and hung days earlier.

I like simple wreaths that don't scream Christmas so I can leave them up through January or longer. This is a balsam base in which I tucked a bundle of Russian cypress and black-tip wheat.

Jars of homemade jam were decorated and ready for gift-giving. A few will have to be given out later.

The spoons were a great find at IKEA. I made the tags.

The yule log was decorated and ready to illuminate our Christmas Eve dinner: rack of lamb with mustard glaze and potato and parsnip gratin (with vegetables from the garden, of course). Brian even dug through the snow to snip some fresh thyme.

Joe gave us the birch yule log years ago. This Christmas I nestled it in a bed of balsam, Russian cypress and black-tip wheat.

We treated ourselves to a really good Cabernet Sauvignon purchased years ago and held for a holiday such as this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Marking the winter solstice

We marked the shortest day of the year (yesterday) with a fire in the back yard. Looking forward to the days getting longer again.

More about the solstice from National Geographic.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The great black walnut experiment is under way

Walnuts with their husks (hulls) are at top. They're about the size of a tennis ball. The hulled walnuts are at bottom.

I obviously have a lot to learn about black walnuts. For example, take this passage from the Minnesota State Extension Service: "Take care when hulling or shelling walnuts. The practice of driving over nuts with an automobile can be a dangerous one. Nuts and broken shells may be thrown into the air by the tires, possibly causing bodily injury or property damage."

Huh? Driving over walnuts with a car?!

Apparently, this is a fairly routine procedure for hulling if a quick google search is any indication of how prevalent the practice is. Walnuts deserve a lot more respect than I realized.

Nut trees have always seemed a little mysterious to me. Trees grown for fruit or shade were a part of my childhood, but nuts -- when we had them -- always came in a bag or a can from the grocery.

So I was excited when a package containing black walnut seeds arrived in the mail in October. Chrissy sent us black walnuts harvested in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. And it was a revelation to me that black walnuts had a husk that had to be removed. The husk can be used in making dye and there are lots of warnings to use heavy rubber gloves when handling them or risk stained hands for a long time.

Lucky for us, Chrissy sent us both hulled and unhulled nuts so we didn't have to back the Honda over the nuts and risk "bodily injury."

Checking for damage to the seed. The two floating at left were discarded.

But we did need to check the hulled nuts for insect damage or other injury before planting. That meant plunging them into a bucket of water. Floaters were no good and needed to be tossed (but not in the compost; walnuts contain juglone which can kill or stunt other plants). Those that sank were viable and good for planting.

The good seeds were planted in soilless mix in one-gallon nursery pots.

That gave us 14 nuts to pot and place in the cold frame. Walnuts need stratification (cold treatment) to germinate; we're going the natural route and just leaving them outside all winter.

Even though its nuts have good flavor, black walnut (Juglans nigra) is grown more for its lumber than for its nuts; English walnut (Juglans regia) is the one that's grown for commercial nut production because it's easier to harvest and crack.
The walnuts went into their pots Nov. 4. I'll report back in the spring.

The seeds were covered with a couple of inches of soilless mix, tagged and placed in the cold frame. Information from the Extension Service suggests we can expect maybe half to germinate. (These pots since have been covered with snow.) 

Details on growing and harvesting black walnut can be found here and here and here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Favorite plant of the day: Hydrangea 'Tardiva'

Frost glitters on 'Tardiva'.
As I was cruising the garden last Monday for the Seventh Day Project (see gallery at top right), I was reminded of how much I like Hydrangea paniculata 'Tardiva'. It's at its showiest in late August/early September when it's in bloom, but I also like it when the blossoms are dried and brown like they are now. The lacy flowers are the color of weak tea and look so fragile that one wonders how they could possibly still be held on the shrub.

This is 'Tardiva' in early September. Notice the flush of pale pink.

This plant has stood the test of time here having been planted a number of years ago. We bought it in a five-gallon pot from Edelweiss Nursery and it has thrived on the north side of the house; it's now 5 feet high, give or take a few inches. The deer have occasionally browsed on it, but because flowers occur on new growth that's not a huge problem. A late winter pruning is recommended anyway.

Fine Gardening has more about the care of 'Tardiva' here.

'Tardiva' catches some afternoon sun in its location on the north side of the house. The flowers glow against the dark conifers; it's underplanted with lingonberry and Johnson's blue geranium. (The geranium probably should be moved now that the hydrangea has grown.)

In December, the stems of 'Tardiva' create a pattern against the house.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Wheat, revisited

 I can only wish I was talented enough (and had the patience) to create a woven-wheat wreath like this.

Apparently, I'm not the only one with a fondness for wheat and how it can be used to create art as well as bread. Thanks to a reader (see Thankful for Wheat post below) for suggesting I check out The examples are lovely and the care tips helpful (use a soft brush for dusting and a misting of water to preserve) as I look around the house for a place to hang this woven-wheat wreath. I bought it a lifetime ago on a trip from Illinois to the West Coast with a stopover in Nebraska. At the time I thought I paid too much; now I think it was a huge bargain. I know it was made by a Nebraska artisan, but for the life of me I don't know where I put the tag with her name.

I'll never be able to do anything this fine or detailed, but I still hope to use some of my wheat in Christmas decorations -- I am capable of bundling stems and tying with a ribbon. Meanwhile, this baby will get a brushing and a spritzing and a place of honor -- just as soon as I figure out where.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Winter rises

Winter is asserting itself at sillydoggarden. It turned cold this week -- not unreasonably so but after a mild November these days with highs in the teens are a little hard to get used to. And there is the snow. It's not much but even a thin layer of white is a dramatic change from the quiet buffs and browns and greens of the past few weeks.

Fortunately, we were mostly ready.

The last of the parsnips (a variety called 'Gladiator') were harvested from the vegetable garden earlier this week and taken to the stream for a quick wash to remove the big chunks of soil. Our vegetable gardening season opened with a parsnip harvest and ended with a parsnip harvest. The circle is complete.

Brian finished caging the trees and shrubs that are especially susceptible to winter browsing. The yard is dotted with these contraptions of wire fencing and bamboo.

The 'Skyrocket' junipers at the herb garden entrance are wrapped in burlap to guard against sunscald.

This bird feeder will need to be filled almost daily. (We go through lots of sunflower seeds.)

Fresh snow means it's easy to see who's been out and about overnight.

And the sillydog seizes the day, savoring the flavor of winter.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Festival of the trees

We love trees at sillydoggarden. The trees in the foreground (this side of the road) were all planted by us. This photo was taken in early October. 

Trees have been on my mind lately -- especially black walnut (more about that in a post to come) and the conifers screening the road. So I was happy to find this link to a blog carnival devoted to all things arboreal. Posts about witch hazel and larch especially caught my eye.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thankful for wheat

A few stems of black-tip wheat.

Wheat was never an option in the home garden when I was growing up. Wheat was a field crop, something farmers planted by the acre and harvested with huge noisy machines. Those amber waves of grain were pretty, but they were destined to be bread and, as everyone knew, food crops and ornamental crops just didn't mingle.

Funny how these boundaries, like so many others, are history.

This Thanksgiving, among the many things -- big and small -- that I'm grateful for, I'm glad that Brian had the good sense to plant black-tip wheat (Triticum durum) this year. We got the seed from Territorial Seed Company and it germinated quickly in a sunny spot between the garage and the side door. The green shoots quickly grew into buff-colored spikes that took on an ethereal glow in the late afternoon sun. The black in the awls didn't quite rise to expectations but it was still satisfying.

Sunshine lights up the wheat at left and right in early September.

Satisfying outside in the sun and now satisfying inside on the table. The wheat dries beautifully and is a natural for autumn/Thanksgiving decor. You can go minimal with just a few stems in a vase or lush with a bunch tied together with a ribbon. And, now that Thanksgiving is over, some of the wheat can go to a friend for use in a Hanukkah play and some can be recycled for use in Christmas decorations. No boundaries.

Bundle a bunch of stems together for a lush effect.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Golden children of autumn

The larch tree was in glorious form a few weeks ago. Today its soft, golden needles are gone.

Witch hazel begins blooming in October when most other shrubs and perennials are done or nearly done.
As autumns go, this one is more muted than others. Oh sure, there has been some color but it was shortlived, cutting out long before it should have. Blame it on the sodden, gray, cold October -- the foliage seemed to give up early, calling it quits before the reds, yellows and bronzes were fully developed and dropping quickly into swaths of brown leaf litter. Still, there were a couple of bright spots -- the larch, or tamarack, and the witch hazel. Both are worthy choices in the northern landscape.

Our best representative of the native American larch (Larix laricina) has settled in nicely at the end of the driveway. It's a good companion for the trio of black spruce, also native here. Both species like it boggy and are happy in the low area where they were planted. Larch is a crazy conifer, bearing cones but also shedding its soft needles in fall like a deciduous tree. Because this one is sited next to the spruce, its bright gold contrasts sharply with the green of the spruce. It punctuates the season like a giant exclamation point. It! Is! Autumn! Enjoy!

Witch hazel is another one of the kinda crazy relatives in the plant kingdom. Native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, starts blooming in October when much of the rest of the garden is easing into dormancy. The threadlike petals look like miniature party streamers. You have to look closely, not only are the flowers small, they start blooming when the shrub still has leaves, making them somewhat difficult to see if you're not paying attention. Witch hazel has attractive leaves, attractive bark and attractive form. And it has history, having been used by American Indians for hundreds of years to treat cuts and bruises as well as colds and coughs.

Medicinal plant expert Steven Foster says the shrub was a favorite "witching stick" of dowsers searching for water in colonial America. It has nothing to do with witches but comes from the old English word for pliable branches "wych".  I've never used witch hazel although I have seen it recommended for use as an astringent or to soothe insect bites.

Even in autumns when color runs rampant across the landscape, larch and witch hazel are notable for their contributions. And in a fall like this one they're appreciated even more.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Seventh Day November up for viewing

Grouse such as this one have visited several times recently to feed on the crab apples. This grouse visited Nov. 8, missing the Seventh Day Project by one day. You can view the Seventh Day Project: November in the column at top right. (The cage around the tree is to protect it from browsing deer.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Gardening with Bette

Sillydoggarden is about as far removed from urban gardening as you can get. But we believe wholeheartedly in greening city spaces so we wanted to pass along this charity fundraising auction for the New York Restoration Project, a nonprofit founded by Bette Midler. (Thanks, Tracy and Alex, for your work with the project.)

If I only had a few extra thousand dollars lying around I might be inclined to bid on lunch with Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner or meeting Melissa Etheridge. Browse the site and dream about what you would bid on -- and let me know.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Season opener ... and closer

It may look like they're confused, but these crocus are blooming right on schedule in November.

It was just six months ago that I was trumpeting the arrival of spring's first crocus. Now, in November, I'm all agog over its fall-blooming cousins. Symmetry in the garden, whether through time or space, is a pleasing concept and the little crocus supplies it in a big way. How many other plants can herald the start of gardening season and announce its end as well?

To my eye, crocus are among the most graceful of flowers. They show up in spring when most of the rest of the world is still brown. And they show up in autumn, when much of the world is turning brown again. It's a perfect fit on either end of the seasonal spectrum. Most of us are so conditioned to crocus as a spring flower that seeing its familiar form in the fall is enough to turn heads. The first time I saw fall-blooming crocus was in Washington state. I was driving down a street in a tiny town near Fort Lewis when I saw a line of purple shooting up through fallen autumn leaves that were piling up against an iron fence. I had to stop the car and look -- such is the power of surprise in garden design.

I planted a few fall-blooming crocus some years back in a thicket of lingonberry and in a patch of low-growing, creeping veronica ('Waterperry blue'). They're beautiful, but really, I should have planted at least 20 times as many. Like many small bulbs, they show best when planted in large numbers.

This fall, I planted about 75 fall-blooming crocus -- some by the stairs to the deck in a bed of pussytoes and some by the reflecting pool. (I've nicknamed those by the pool as "doe crocus.") I thought I was planting purple Crocus speciosus, but now, after examining the blooms for several days, I'm wondering if the supplier mixed up the order and sent 'albus' instead. I'm not seeing any purple, and what I am seeing seems to fit the catalog description: "A pure white form of C. speciosus with pointed segments and a yellow throat." It's not a major issue -- they're still lovely and I'll simply order more of the purple fall-bloomers next year.

I planted some in the pussytoes by the deck stairs where they'll get plenty of sun and a chance to dry out in the summer.

A purple crocus pokes its head out of a patch of lingonberry. (The bronze-red plant is a hardy geranium seedling.)

A delicate close to the season.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween snack

Brined pumpkin seeds -- delicious!

We don't normally get many (if any) trick-or-treaters out here in the boonies, but I always carve at least one pumpkin. Have to. Have to have the seeds. Have to have the seeds to roast them. Must have roasted pumpkin seeds. Some years I carve pumpkins that we've grown; this year we didn't grow pumpkins so I carved a couple brought home from the grocery store.

This year, for the first time, I tried brining the pumpkin seeds. I found the tip at apartment therapy. First, clean the seeds and place them in a saucepan. Then, for each cup of seeds, add two cups of water and 2 tablespoons of salt. Add a touch of olive oil. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 10 minutes.

After simmering, drain and toss with more olive oil and some spices if you like. I added a little sea salt and a generous sprinkling of curry powder. Mix and spread the seeds on a cookie sheet. Bake at 400 F. for about 25 minutes, checking and stirring the seeds periodically.

I also did a standard seed roasting to compare. (Mix cleaned seeds with olive oil, sea salt and hot curry powder. Roast at 300 F. for about 40 minutes.) The difference was subtle, but I think the brined seeds had a little more depth. And they weren't any harder to prepare.

These guys gave up their seeds for me.

Short respite from the gloom

It felt good to soak up some blue sky for a little while this afternoon.

We had a sliver of blue sky this afternoon, a rarity this soggy October. So there was opportunity for a little playtime outside with the silly dog. But playtime makes him thirsty and with all of the water garden tubs emptied for the winter, he made do with the weedy ditch on the north side of the front yard. It's actually one of his favorite places to get a drink; he likes to lie down in it and lap up the water.

Find the dog in the tall grass.

Later in the day, there was another burst of rain and one of the best rainbows I've seen in years -- the photo doesn't do it justice. It happened so fast -- within a minute the sun was behind a cl
oud again.

The rainbow was gone almost as quickly as it appeared.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Watch 'Botany'

What would you do for a plant you love? In the fall, the Rose Garden in Duluth becomes a series of trenches as the roses are tipped and buried for the winter. Sort of looks like gravediggers gone crazy, doesn't it?

Program note for plant geeks: "The Botany of Desire" airs at 7 tonight on PBS. Based on the book by Michael Pollan, the public broadcasters describe it this way: "The human-plant relationship is explored via the stories of the apple, the tulip, marijuana and the potato. Included: how the apple came to be sweet; "tulip mania" in the Netherlands circa the 1630s, when tulips were traded for large sums of money; the history and physiology of marijuana; the genetically modified (and no longer available) New Leaf potato, which featured a microorganism that repelled potato beetles. Michael Pollan ("The Botany of Desire") hosts. Frances McDormand narrates.'' Find a preview here.

The relationships between people and plants are always fascinating. Take, for example, the Rose Garden in Duluth. Every fall, volunteers dig trenches (Minnesota Tip Method) for protecting the roses too delicate to take northern winters. And every spring, volunteers uncover them and set them out for another season. When you love something that much, the work involved is worth it. But does this mean the roses really are the ones in control? Hmmm.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bye-bye 'African Moon'

It's not yet Halloween, but next year's seed catalogs already are arriving.

'African Moon' boasts a cheery flower. But is it an Osteospermum or Dimorphotheca?

The first of the seed catalogs for 2010 arrived in the mail this week. I'm still trying to tie up all the loose ends from 2009. Blame some of it on our wet, dreary October, but I still have containers to empty, dahlias to dig for overwintering and seed trays to wash. 2010 seems like a long way off. But on a gloomy afternoon, I'll take the bait and flip through the pages of the Thompson & Morgan catalog. After all, that red cosmos ('Rubenza') on the cover is plenty attractive.

On the sale pages for discontinued seed is one of my favorite annuals from this past summer: Osteospermum 'African Moon.' Say it ain't so! The plant isn't perfect, but it's just as garden-worthy as many other annuals. The foliage can be a little floppy, but the flower is a nice white with yellow-apricot edges. It bloomed its head off, and I think if I had been diligent about deadheading I could have gotten even more out of it.

The poor plant has suffered from some ambiguous marketing. T&M sells the seed as Osteospermum pluvialis and in the catalog refers to Dimorphotheca as a synonym for Osteospermum. But says that Dimorphotheca and Osteospermum are not the same. Stokes Seeds lists them as separate genera. This sort of disconnect makes it hard for home gardeners to know exactly what they're getting. What we thought was Osteospermum seems to more accurately be Dimorphotheca.

Naming issues aside, we may have to order some seed
s earlier than planned or seek out other sources to keep our 'African Moon' shining.

One cool thing about 'African Moon' is that its flowers close in the evening or on overcast days. The undersides of the petals are pretty in their own right.

That's 'African Moon' at top left and Osteospermum 'Asti White' on the right. There seems to be no confusion about 'Asti White's' Osteospermum roots.

A low-growing phlox borders a bright patch of 'African Moon.' 'African Moon's' foliage appeared disappointingly limp in 2008 so this year I planted them closer together and they seemed to appreciate the tighter quarters.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Easy fruit-fly trap

A little wine for the flies.

Fruit flies seem to follow when the garden harvest gets moved indoors. Here's a tip we learned from a friend who is a former restaurateur: Pour a little wine in a jar or glass, cover it with plastic wrap and poke a tiny hole or two in the plastic. The fruit flies are attracted to the wine, fly in and can't escape. Whatever produce you have on the kitchen counter is safe.