Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy New Year!!!

As we sink in to the post-holiday, winter doldrums, I'd thought I'd post a nice picture representing warmer days. This 'Highlight' zinnia (Zinnia hybrida 'Highlight') has a wonderful glow (like a Highlighter pen) and gives continuous bloom thru the summer. Zinnias aside, our Holiday Lights Show is almost over and unfortunately didn't get the attendance we had hoped for or needed. The weather certainly did not cooperate and we had to cancel three of the eighteen nights due to poor weather conditions. We'll start taking down the show next Monday but will leave some of the lights up around our visitors center for various rentals that have requested them. Kudos to a great group of staff and volunteers that set this event up, ran it well and ultimately, will take it down and pack it away over the next 2 months.

I'll get back to the daily blog on Jan. 5th but all gardeners should keep their sanity by reading gardening books and catalogs. Consider growing heirloom vegetables next year! Some great catalogs to acquire include Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Territorial Seed Company and of course, get involved with the Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA). I think we should all commit to sharing our gardening passion with a child. Let them plant seeds, grow vegetables, tend the garden, etc. Let's try to drag some of these kids outside in to the light!!! Nice shot below of a monarch on a surefire butterfly attracting annual; Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundifolia).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Farmers Almanac Was Right!

My daughter and her friend Hunter from the neighborhood have been enjoying the snow but it's affected our lights show in many ways. Attendance has been down from past years as a result of snow (travel conditions) as well as subzero temperatures for three of the nights. The deer are getting hungry too and are starting early on our conifers. We've kept the paths clear but the snow is starting to pile up. I think this is a "normal" winter as opposed to those wimpy winters that we've had in the past. Unfortunately, we only have 7 days of the lights show left and really need more attendees. It's snowing as I type actually!!! Snow cover is a nice "garden blanket" although it can also harbor little critters that like to nibble under the snowline during tough winters. No use complaining, we'll get thru it and spring will be even more welcome. The Farmers Almanac predicted lots of snow (which isn't a bad bet anyway!) and here it is! A neat feature of our lights show is that the Janesville Area Herb Society has a booth with all sorts of neat and affordable gifts; all herb related. The image below is of the seed pods of the "hairy balls" plant (Gomphocarpus) that I've shown in some summer postings. This milkweed species gets over 6' tall and has these neat structures that dry well. They used them in wreaths and other crafts as well. Their hot pepper jelly is also delightful. What a neat and creative group. We're happy to have them involved here at the gardens as they also maintain our herb garden.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter Activities

The lights show ran well last night but the 2 degrees F didn't bring in a lot of people. As people complain about winter, I'm reminded of the quote "To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring". I'm not sure that everyone agrees with that during a tough winter!!! This is the first year we've had the lights show run throughout the week. The bulk of our attendance is on the weekends so I'm not sure how worthwhile this will be while school is in session and people have other weeknight activities. Regardless, more bad weather looming for tonite with freezing rain followed by 8-10" of snow. Ugh. The picture above is from part of our reference library. Winter is a great time to research plants and gardening ideas/techniques. There are some wonderful references out there and many libraries have extensive gardening sections. Consider doing some reading this winter and there is no doubt that the beautiful pictures can keep you sane until spring. As you go thru gardening catalogs, you might see some things you'd like to order. As always, see if there is a local source but if mail order needs to be accomplished, there are some concerns. See the article below on 'Armchair Gardening' for some things to consider.

Although the frigid temperatures have kept most of us inside these past couple of weeks, gardening opportunities abound. It is a great time to look at the garden from your window and decide on spaces for future evergreens and ornamental grasses. As the temperatures allow more outside activity, pruning of many trees and shrubs can be accomplished during the winter (dormant) season. Creativity has no limitations as you daydream about your garden and some of the stimuli for your planning will involve the annual deluge of plant and seed catalogs in the mail.

Garden catalogs arrive by the dozens over the winter months and tempt you with the new and unusual as well as the time-tested favorites. Trees, shrubs, vines, bulbs, perennials, annuals, water plants, garden equipment, etc. can all be ordered over the phone and frequently the internet. Wonderful pictures and alluring descriptions whet your appetite for spring and cause you to start marking your favorites with post-it-notes. Before long you may realize that you desire more plants than your landscape can accomodate and the bill for these plants has added up quickly.

Mail order catalogs have the advantage of advertising their products to you in winter although it is important to note that many of the same items will be available locally in the spring (without the delivery charge). Mail ordering can be an exciting and convenient way of acquiring desirable seeds and plants. However, there are both advantages and disadvantages when ordering plants and seeds through the mail.

One advantage of mail ordering is securing/reserving plant materials early in the year before the “rush” of spring. If you are looking for a specific seed variety, mail order sources may be a good start as you can obtain them before supply dwindles in the spring. Seeds can be obtained early for starting at home or saving until they can be sown. Ordering plants early through the mail assures availability but also allows you access to an enormous palette of plant material from around the country. There are mail order sources in every state and around the world (although shipping restrictions from overseas sources may be prohibitive). The convenience of ordering plants and seeds from home and having them delivered to your door is quite apparent. You can select delivery times and essentially “shop from home” for the garden.

Remember that opening a package of mail order plants is an adventure. The time between when you order an item and when it arrives at your door can involve many complications. This is the primary disadvantage over the more interactive process of hand-selecting and purchasing plants from a nursery, garden center or other source. Other individuals are involved the physical selection and processing of your selected plants. Plant costs can be quite high, particularly for those plants that are new on the market. Seeds typically ship well, however, plants that arrive in a box can be subject to many stresses during packing, delivery and unpacking. There are some basic rules of thumb to consider when purchasing mail-order plants and seeds.

Do more research on the individual plants that you are interested in because pictures in catalogs typically display the ideal specimen of a certain plant (and may be photo-enhanced).
*Examine pricing intensely and review delivery costs as well. There are frequently price breaks for quantities and early ordering.
* Determine if there is a customer guarantee for plant materials and if so, what are the terms of that guarantee?
* Decide if you will accept substitutions for your order. There is almost always a way of specifying whether you will accept substitutions or not. If you want something specific, make sure and decline substitutions or you will never be sure of what you will end up with.
* Always verify what you have ordered by requesting a verbal or written confirmation (preferably written). Confirm the total bill as well. Orders with code numbers and varying plant names can get confusing so it is important to confirm the details of your order.
* Determine how you will be charged/billed for the plant materials so you are not surprised. Understand all fees at the time of ordering. Most companies will send a bill with the plant material or after plants have been received. However, some companies will bill you at the time of ordering.
* Be aware where these plants are grown. Understand that some of these plant species, while hardy in the area, have been grown in warmer climates and may have problems adjusting to both our winters and our summers. Research on your part prior to planting will maximize the success of your new plants and seeds.
* Most plants are shipped based on appropriate planting times for the region, however, you may wish to request specific shipping dates if it helps accommodate your schedule.
* Remember that larger items such as small trees may not travel well although state-of-the-art packing systems and quick delivery have minimized problems with larger plant shipping and delivery.
* The most important thing to do with a new delivery of plants or seeds is to unpack them immediately upon arrival. Inventory the contents based on the packing slip and your original order. Packing materials vary but with few exceptions, plants do not respond well to being packaged for long periods of time. Read instructions on how to acclimate your plant to light and moisture prior to planting. If there is any damage to plant materials or they look unhealthy (or dead), call the nursery immediately.

Understanding both the advantages and disadvantages of mail-ordering plants and seeds will help you make educated decisions on what you will obtain. Reputable mail-order nurseries have expanded the plant palette for gardeners and understandably, winter is their prime advertising time. Rotary Gardens orders from over sixty mail order nurseries located in over twenty-five states and some foreign countries. We obtain seed from all over the world. The sheer diversity of plants and seeds available through the mail is mind numbing but don’t forget to support the local economy and patronize local sources for a wonderful range of plant materials as well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More Snow and Cold

I don't have any recent images to put on today's post but just imagine snow and that's what's happening right now. Our lights show had a great start on Saturday with a good turnout. However, Sunday was rainy and last night was FRIGID cold. Our overall attendance numbers aren't real high yet but the bulk of our "traffic" occurs closer to Christmas. In past years, we've added some dates between Christmas and New Years, to include New Year's eve. This has worked well as many visitors are from out of town and we like to turn on the lights as often as we can for a potential crowd. Immediately after New Years, we start taking down, sorting and putting away the show. My posts will be sporadic until after New Years as I'll be using up vacation time and my schedule is dependent on the lights show and snow removal. I'll be ordering seeds right after New Years day and look forward to figuring out our "schemes" for next year. Scary image below that will keep kids from every gardening again. I'm not sure where I took this but the humor would be lost on younger children as they enter years of therapy. Enjoy those gardening catalogs by the fire!!!!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Lights Show Begins!

The lights show will officially open to the public tomorrow night. The shot above is from the 2007 train display although it looks very similar this year. The outside lights show is neat although the trains certainly get their share of attention. The WI Garden Railway Society sets up, runs and takes down this set-up every year. Different members bring their own trains on the nights that they work. Some kids have to be dragged away kicking and screaming from this set-up. As always, the weather will be a huge factor that affects the show but obviously attendance as well. It was a ghost town around here today with just Dr. Gredler coming in to stain benches. I'm continuing to go thru seed catalogs and am planning next years designs and plantings.
Just about everyone is familiar with CHIA pets and I just saw an add for CHIA herb gardens that seemed to be very little maintenance to grow and maintain. I was a bit concerned with how easy it all seemed. Herbs grown indoors over the winter have challenges of not so much heat, but adequate light and humidity. Attached below is an article I wrote years ago about windowsill herb gardens.

Aside from some of our final garden chores this warm November, the impending winter months will bring us inside soon. We will then appreciate our houseplants and become “armchair gardeners” with colorful catalogs and thoughts of a distant spring. Consider growing herbs in your home to provide ingredients that add fresh flavor to your meals and wonderful aromas. With adequate light, warm temperatures, judicious watering and occasional fertilizing, you can have “herbal success” in your home as you observe a snowy landscape right outside your windows.

Tender herbs will not survive our Wisconsin winters and perennial herbs are dormant (and unavailable) until early June. There are many kits available that promote windowsill herb gardening. Pots, soil, seeds and directions are typically provided. Whether you choose a kit or customize your own growing arrangements, many herbs can be considered candidates for interior efforts. Some of the more common herbs include basils, coriander, chives, mints, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley and lemon balm. You may start these from seed or perhaps dig up a portion from your garden to continue growth inside. Herbs such as rosemary can be brought in every winter and replanted out in the garden when the weather warms up again.

The location selected for growing these herbs is the most important factor related to their growing success. These herbs will need 4-6 hours of light each day and should not be placed in an area with cool drafts. Also avoid locations near a heating event but provide gentle air circulation if possible. A sunny windowsill can be a prime location if the other requirements are met. Consider artificial lighting if your plants are becoming “leggy”. These lighting systems should be placed close to the plants so they remain compact and don’t stretch for the light. Adjust artificial lighting heights as the plants continue to grow. Interestingly enough, the concentration of the oils that provide herbs with their distinctive flavor and/or scent is partially dependent upon the amount of sunlight the plants receive. Again, it’s location, location and location.

For potting soil, use what is termed a “soil-less”mix. This material, composed of peat moss and other additives, provides a loose structured soil that drains well and promotes vigorous root growth. Herbs need adequate drainage, particularly in this interior situation (in the garden too!). Over-watering will create “soggy feet” and will result in dead herbs. Water the soil only when it feels completely dry or you see the very first signs of the plant wilting. Fertilize lightly every other week and obviously avoid pesticides when possible. Whiteflies, aphids, scale, spider mites, etc. will visit your herbs as they do other houseplants. Consider an organic alternative when combating these critters.

Rotate plants occasionally and make a point to observe your plants daily if possible. Snip and use the plants often to encourage fresh new growth and a compact stature. However, never remove more than a third of the foliage at one time as over-harvesting may stress that particular herb. Some herbs such as coriander may require re-seeding as they are utilized but basils, parsley and many other herbs will regenerate quickly as they are harvested. More research regarding the growing requirements, harvesting and uses of windowsill herbs may be warranted.

Consider the merit of fresh herbs in your winter recipes, perhaps a nice garnish or even scented leaves for potpourris and realize that herb gardening can be a twelve months of the year hobby (and a healthy winter addiction!).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No Meltdown Please!

We're focusing on snow removal today although the bottom layer (as expected) is solid ice. We only received 4-5" of light stuff so it will be easy to throw that around. The big concern now is a weekend "meltdown" with temperatures in the upper 30s. Slushy snow is as bad as rain for our lights, many of which are on GFI outlets that will "pop out" if there is excess moisture or dampness along the lines and/or connections. Oh well, there is only so much we can do. Unfortunately, the stress of this event takes up 25% of my year (from set-up to takedown). We've never had perfect conditions (25 degrees, 2" of fresh fluff, "the perfect winter wonderland") for this event but most visitors will come closer to Christmas anyway. December can be such a goofy weather month! Nice shot above of some of our eggplants from 2007. I'm going thru catalogs now with a focus on heirloom vegetables (mainly tomatoes and peppers). As you go thru your catalogs, why not try growing some veggies at home next year? Vegetables don't have to be in there own relegated garden but can be mixed in our borders, grown in containers or otherwise "shoe-horned in" to openings in our landscapes. Nice shot of 'Holiday Cheer' hot pepper (Capsicum annuum) below. See continued text below picture.
For some indoor color and fragrance, consider "forcing" paperwhites (Narcissus) in the home. Many garden centers carry kits and/or the bulbs which are easy to grow indoors for that little touch of spring. See my article below for more information.
As the winter landscape establishes itself outside, we look to our indoor plants for color and a connection to nature. We’ve already planted our spring-blooming bulbs outside in the garden and as we wait for their announcement of spring, why not try to “force” some bulbs inside the home. Forcing bulbs such as hyacinths and tulips requires a chilling period but there are a select few bulbs that do not require a period of chilling and are among the easiest to grow in the home. Among the most popular forcing bulbs of this nature are paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta) which are tender members of the daffodil family. These bulbs, known for their scent, produce small blooms that appear in clusters. It is important to note that the scent of paperwhites is musky and not universally enjoyed. Some popular varieties of paperwhites include the common ‘Ziva’, ‘Chinese Sacred Lily’, ‘Grand Soleil D’Or’ and ‘Constantinople’, all of which have subtle differences in coloration and scent. Paperwhites can typically be purchased at local garden centers and by mail-order.

Paperwhites can be forced to bloom in 4-6 weeks from planting and their musky fragrance can be a welcome addition to our homes. Easy to start, the staggered planting of paperwhites in multiple containers can provide delicate indoor blooms from Thanksgiving until late March. The best way to start paperwhites is by planting them in either clean gravel, rocks or marbles. The bulb itself contains all of the energy that it needs to bloom. It is important to note that paperwhites are not hardy to our climate (USDA Hardiness Zones 8-11) and forced paperwhites use all of their energy to bloom and will not revive in our gardens. These bulbs should be composted when they are done blooming.

Ideally use 3-4” deep pots with no drainage holes to start your paperwhites. Don’t use lightweight containers as paperwhite displays can become quite top-heavy and require a solid container for lower support. A 6” diameter container will typically accommodate three paperwhite bulbs. Fill your containers with 2” of gravel or marbles, then place in as many bulbs as you can per container without the bulbs touching. Gently press the bulbs into the gravel (pointed side up) and then add more gravel around the sides of the bulbs so that the top half (or “nose”) of the paperwhites are above the final gravel level. Add water until it is just below the bases of the bulbs, not touching! Maintain this water level. Paperwhites can be planted in potting soil in a similar manner but in this case, make sure there are drainage holes in the container. Remember that staggering your paperwhite planting in two week intervals will prolong your display time further into the winter.

Once the bulbs are potted up and watered, move the container into the coolest dark place in your home for two weeks. This will promote root growth because initial warm temperatures will stimulate quick stem growth, thereby creating a top-heavy plant with poor rooting. After two weeks of the “cool and dark treatment”, gently wiggle the bulbs to see if they feel “rooted” in the gravel. If so, the next step is to move them into a sunny location at room temperature. Rotate the container 180 degrees every day to keep your paperwhites from leaning too heavily in one direction. Add water as needed throughout this entire process keeping in mind that the water level should never actually touch the bulbs.

When the flower buds begin to swell on these plants, lightly tie a wide ribbon halfway up the stems to help keep the plant upright. This ribbon could be a colorful bow or other material. Once the paperwhites begin to bloom, move them to cooler locations that receive more indirect light. Temperatures around 65 degrees F will keep them blooming longer (usually 2-3 weeks).

If you are interested in including color and fragrance into your home this winter, paperwhites are an affordable, easy way to do it. Sometimes offered in a kit that includes all necessary materials, paperwhites are also great holiday gifts and an easy planting project to do with children. Daffodils in winter are easily within your reach!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Furious Flurries

The weather turned sour last night with freezing drizzle coming down most of the evening. The roads were slushy this morning but now we've had flurries for a couple hours with 3" of accumulation. If we didn't have a lights show, I wouldn't get so worked up about winter weather. We'll clear the paths tomorrow and hopefully the lights show will have time to "dry out" before this Saturday evening. The picture above shows some of our indoor activities this time of year. We have many custom cedar and teak benches around the gardens that are brought in every winter for cleaning, light sanding and restaining/sealing. We're really trying to extend the longevity of these benches and we have a loyal band of winter volunteers that comes in to work inside on projects like this as needed. We'll also be producing more carpentry items. Our talented carpenters have built items not only for the grounds (all the benches in the picture above were custom made by our volunteers) but also as sale items to bring in revenue. We've sold the vining obelisks in the past and they've also made some neat potting benches as well (see picture to the right). Considering the donated professional labor on these items isn't a factor, we can make a nice profit on these affordably priced items. All proceeds benefit the continued operation and improvent of Rotary Gardens. Nice winter shot below from a couple years ago (taken by Ed Lyon). Our winter landscape is nice here although we don't keep all the paths clear of snow, only the primary paths.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Welcome Weather?

We haven't minded the snow too much this year but we now have some freezing drizzle coming down. Our concern is regarding moisture and how it adversely affects our Holiday Lights Show. Oh well, we'll wait it out but it looks like a nasty system is coming in that will dump snow on top of the freezing rain. Ugh! Light day today with the Grumpies working inside on resealing/staining benches and working on various carpentry projects. Larry continues to fine tune the lights show but left early to beat the potentially hazardous roads that are getting worse by the minute. Marv, Marianne, Janice and Terry all stopped in and we've all decided that it's finally winter despite the official start of winter in 13 days! Look at the little hint of color below of the golden juniper (Juniperus chinensis 'Saybrook Gold') peeping out! I'm really sinking my teeth in to the "ever-arriving" seed catalogs and remembered an article (see below) that I wrote about catalogs years ago. These catalogs offer plenty of "eye candy" but what is appropriate and applicable in our gardens is what we need to determine from these pubications.
It’s amazing how early the holiday season is promoted each year. There are continuing efforts by vendors to market and display their product and promote new features or options for the consumer. The same efforts are made by seed companies as catalogs start to arrive in the mail now for plants that you will not be growing until next spring. These catalogs, most of which contain wonderful photographs and other information, are a welcome break from winter and give the hint of promise for a lush garden next year.

Although a wide range of seeds are offered at local garden centers in early spring, seed catalogs offer a wider range of options that will include many new, interesting or otherwise “hard-to-find” vegetable and flower varieties. Colorful pictures and engaging descriptions will seek to promote your use and enjoyment of a wide range of options. These catalogs will also typically offer gardening tools, accessories, books, etc. Considering these seed catalogs will broaden the range of plants available for your garden and early ordering will maximize availability of some of the rarer varieties. However, there are some things to consider when utilizing these catalogs.

Seed catalogs will be variable with what information they provide regarding their product. Some initial information to consider (besides price) includes the package size and variety description. The package size should indicate a measured seed quantity or a volume that corresponds to a rough estimate of seed quantity. Know how many seeds you need and how many you are ordering to minimize surplus seed and related storage issues. The variety description may include information on flower color, plant vigor, size, germination information and other tips. It is important to note that the photos that promote a variety are professional quality and portray a perfect, thriving plant. Also consider that when a variety is promoted as “new”, it may not be new “in cultivation” but simply new to that catalog. The term “new” does not necessarily mean “exclusive” either.

If you make the decision to order from seed catalogs, it will be important to understand the germination information for your selections. Essentially, this involves becoming familiar with whatever steps you need to follow with your seeds to achieve growing success. Various seeds require various techniques for germination and subsequent care. Knowing what to expect from your plant as well as what your plant expects from you is vital.

Place your orders as early as possible. Early orders may receive a discount or will at least secure varieties that are in limited supply. It always a good idea to consider substitutions as well in case availability becomes an issue. Many seed suppliers will ask for substitutions or provide the service of picking out something very similar to a choice that may be sold out. Try to visualize your exact needs for seeds as it is easy to “over do” it and purchase more seeds than you could hope to grow. Rotary Gardens grows over 800 varieties of annuals each year and orders seeds from over 40 seed catalogs from around the world.

Friday, December 5, 2008

One Man Crew

With Larry off today, I've had a lot of time to myself today. I've been alternating between seed orders and preparing for presentations. I have an interesting one on vines that I've gotten in to preparing. I have thousands of digital images and while they are fairly well organized, the trick is picking out good pictures that will work for the presentation. As I take more pictures, the task of "presentation preparation" becomes more arduous but not any less fun. Maury, Bill, Hal and Dr. Gredler all stopped in briefly but otherwise, I've been self-motivated. Larry will turn on the lights tomorrow night and we don't have much concern at this point regarding how well it will stay on.

I see that garden centers are carrying poinsettias already and the assortment of available varieties is amazing. Included below is an article I wrote on poinsettias and their care.

It’s difficult not to notice a poinsettia during December. They are commonly used for decoration in businesses and perhaps in your home with shades of red, white, pink, combined colors and now a multitude of exciting (albeit non-traditional) “color enhancements”. Poinsettias, the best-selling flowering plant in the United States, have become synonymous with the holiday season. There are well over 100 varieties of this classic plant with the bulk of the world’s crop produced annually in California. Over 60 million of these plants are sold every year with a large portion of these being discarded after the New Year. With proper care, the colorful impact of poinsettias can be prolonged and enjoyed. With very special attention, poinsettias can be maintained and encouraged to repeat their holiday “color contribution” the following December.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are native to southern Mexico and parts of Central America. In their native habitat, these plants are large shrubs reaching heights of ten feet. The Aztecs used the sap of this plant to control fevers and the leaves were used to create a purplish-red dye. Note that the sap of this plant may cause an allergic skin reaction for select individuals, particularly those with a latex allergy. Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. Embassador to Mexico, introduced this plant to the United States in 1825 and the plant was later named for him. Incidentally, Mr. Poinsett was also responsible for establishing the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

There are some facts to consider in regards to this popular plant. The showy colored parts of the plants that most people call flowers are in fact modified leaves (or bracts). The flowers are actually the small, yellow-green centers between the colorful bracts. Poinsettias are termed a photoperiodic plant meaning that buds are set and flowers produced as the autumn nights lengthen. The timing to produce blooms for the holiday season can be difficult outside the controlled environment of a greenhouse where moisture and lighting can be very precise. Poinsettias have long been considered a poisonous plant but extensive research has found this to be a myth. However, ingestion of the plant by humans and animals is obviously not recommended.

Once poinsettias are purchased in December, they typically look the most attractive for 2-4 weeks. This duration of color impact (and your enjoyment) can be extended significantly with proper care although most poinsettias are composted or tossed out after the holidays. Following some simple procedures will maximize the health and appearance of your poinsettia and you may consider adding to the ranks of your other houseplants.

Place the plant in a window where it receives bright, but indirect light. Be sure the plant doesn’t touch any cold window panes. Keep the plant at 65-70 degrees F during the day and if possible, a cooler spot at night (55-60 degrees F) but never below 50 degrees F. Keep the plant away from both warm and cold drafts from radiators, air registers, doors and windows. After the plant is done blooming, consider a light fertilizer application every month (never while blooming!).

In regards to watering, first remove any foil or other wrapping that affects surplus water flowing thru the base of the container. Any poinsettia container should have drainage holes. Examine the soil daily and water when the top surface is dry to the touch. Let surplus water run out and discard any additional water that collects in the saucer. Mist leaves occasionally for increased humidity as needed. The key to watering success with poinsettias is to avoid moisture extremes; not too dry or not too wet.

To say that it is a challenge to maintain a poinsettia with the intent of display the following holiday season would be an understatement. However, it can be done although the extensive details can’t be covered in the content of this article. Understand that this process will include repotting, fertilizer applications and replicating complete darkness to incite flowering and coloration of the bracts. For more details on how to maintain your poinsettia thru the year with the intent of “recreating” that classic, colorful look, refer to the following websites or visit your local library.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

More Snow

Another snowy day today. It's been a nice light snow for most of the morning although it may pile up to between 3-7" by tonite. We'll worry about snow removal throughout the lights show tomorrow. Snow is good, rain is bad. We'll take the white stuff. Small crew today. Little Jerry and Janice stopped in to do some odd jobs while Del, Dick H., Dr. Gredler and Maury all popped by as well. Del is still working on making reindeer cutouts for the holiday show. I've enjoyed going thru seed catalogs the past couple of days (see below). We probably order seeds from over 50 vendors and like to have all our orders in by early January. The catalogs are rolling in daily. Essentially, our planning for next year starts immediately. In upcoming blogs, I'll recommend some of my favorite seed sources and mail order resources. I always like to emphasize the importance of patronizing your local garden centers first before ordering from other (non-local) vendors. Garden centers are selling amaryllis bulbs and kits this time of year. What a great gift for the young gardener or those that like interior color as our landscapes become more drab! At the bottom of this blog is an article I wrote on amaryllis a couple of years ago. My younger daughter still talks about the ones she's started in the past!
Although winter colors can be striking in the garden, the muted tones of browns, greens and a hopeful dusting of white tends to make us focus on our indoor plants for color as we long for spring. A great gift for adults and children alike are amaryllis. This easy-to-grow bulb can be grown indoors (forced) for a dramatic show of color in the dreary winter months. Garden centers and retailers typically sell individual amaryllis bulbs and amaryllis “kits” that have everything you need to get started.

The amaryllis originated in the Andes Mountains of Chile and Peru although there is a South African counterpart to this bulb. Most amaryllis offered for retail are Dutch or African hybrids selected for flower size, color and ease of forcing. Lily-shaped flowers are borne on a tall stem between 18 and 36 inches. Flower colors include white, lavender, crimson, scarlet, rose, pink, salmon and many bi-colored combinations. Each bulb may only produce one flower cluster of two to four blooms although individual blossoms can reach up to 8 inches in diameter.

Newly purchased bulbs should be kept in a cool, dry location with air circulation until they can be planted. Plant an individual amaryllis bulb in a heavy pot with drainage holes that is twice the height of the bulb (typically 6-8” in depth). The pot should also be just a few inches wider than the width of the bulb as amaryllis roots love to be root bound. Amaryllis kits will include proper containers and soil for planting. Use a sterile, lightweight planting mix that contains peat moss or other organic material. Incorporate a slow-release fertilizer into this mix. Plant the bulb, pointed end up, with one-third of the bulb above the final soil line. Press soil firmly around the sides and water thoroughly with lukewarm water. Avoid pouring water over the top of the bulb. Water the sides of the pot or apply water to a saucer at the base of the pot so water can be drawn upwards by the soil. Water sparingly until the first shoots appear. Keep the soil moist but not too damp. Then place the amaryllis in a sunny windowsill in a cool location (55-65 degrees F). Staggering the planting of multiple bulbs every two weeks from September thru February will allow for continuous color until May as some bulbs peak while others wane.

The amaryllis bulb will send up leaves and a flower stalk very quickly and blooms will appear within six to eight weeks of planting. As the flower bud forms, start applying a light liquid fertilizer every ten days or so until the amaryllis blooms. At this point, you may need to stake the flower stalk, as the amaryllis becomes “top heavy”. Be careful that your stake does not pierce the amaryllis bulb. As the flowers emerge, place the amaryllis in an area with indirect sunlight to prolong the bloom time. A blooming amaryllis does not need direct sunlight or even a bright room. At this point, adequate watering is very crucial. Remove spend blossoms as they fade. This prevents seed formation, which diverts food from the bulb itself.

Many people consider these a seasonal plant and compost them when they are done blooming. However, following certain procedures may allow you to keep these bulbs and promote future flowering. This can be a frustrating endeavor as reblooming is not always assured due to so many cultural factors and it may take years to achieve another colorful show.

If you want to experiment with “reblooming” your amaryllis, cut the spent flower stalk down to 2” and wait for the leaves to yellow and die back. Water and fertilize as you would a houseplant until the leaves have died back. This can take many months. Cut and remove leaves once they have turned brown. Place near a sunny window at about 55 degrees F. At this point, your amaryllis needs a period of cool, dry dormancy. Withhold water for two months until you see new growth emerging. Carefully re-pot the bulb and repeat the steps above. You may need to use a larger pot if your bulb has increased in size significantly.

Amaryllis is named after a shepherdess in Greek mythology. Amaryllis means “sparkling” in Greek and you will certainly understand this meaning when these plants light up the inside of your home with color and relieve the winter doldrums. Consider amaryllis as a holiday gift for gardeners, children or others that will appreciate the simple joy of nurturing a plant.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Truly A Winter Wonderland

There was a light, damp snowfall most of yesterday that ended up including about 4" of fluff over some slush. The trees in the garden looked beautiful this morning. The conifer to the left is the Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii 'Carlson's Red Cone') that looked picturesque this morning with arching branches. The holiday lights show is up and we tested it on November 25th and had very few problems. The lights will be turned on as part of our "Taste of Chocolate" event on December 6th with the official public opening on December 13th. The challenge now is to keep the paths (extensive) clear of snow and ice while periodically testing the lights to make sure everything is going ok. Maury and Dick P. replaced some breakers today and we have some "fine tuning" to finish before this weekend.

The grounds staff, with the exception of Larry and Jerry, finished up last Wednesday. Special thanks to the continued efforts and quality work of Marv, Marianne, Terry and Janice. I'm sure we'll see them periodically thru the winter but not "officially" until April. We have an awesome team of both volunteers and paid staff but I can't say enough about the contributions and sacrifices of the small ground staff (a veritable "skeleton crew"). Little Jerry finishes up in two weeks. We stretch him out a bit to work on more pruning with Larry. The Grumpies worked on carpentry items for the most part today and Dick H. plowed out our parking lot (thank goodness).

When the stress of setting up the light show is done, I can then settle in and start going thru seed catalogs and begin to figure out our plans for next year. I'm often asked what I do in winter and aside from the lights show, I figure out what we're going to do next year, put together seed orders, facilitate our specialty growing operations with greenhouses and prepare for winter presentations. I usually have about 20 talks in February thru April and try to plan them well in advance so I don't have to put anything together last minute. These talks, frequently to audiences outside of the area, are also a great opportunity to encourage new visitors to come visit. Horticultural education is part of our mission and we're willing to go "on the road" to "spread the word". The shot below is a bit dark but note the colorful fruit display of the 'Winter King' hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King').

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Day of Testing

This St. John's wort (Hypericum calycinum 'Brigadoon') was a real eyecatcher today with it's golden/orange coloration and thanks to a late leaf drop, this subshrub (root hardy hopefully) really glows in our woodland walk. We planted 50 of these and I hope they continue to mature and offer great color (golden thru the summer). They are hardy to zone 5 and do prefer full sun but we'll see how they do. Speaking of do (as in doo-doo), the deer are starting to forage in the gardens and we're now erecting posts and will protect their favorite munchies this winter (arborvitae and small pines). See picture below for one of many of their "calling cards". Ugh.

I finished running cords for the Holiday Lights Show and we "fired up" the entire thing today. We had some minor although not unexpected problems. We'll be troubleshooting over the next couple of weeks and will pray for no rain during this event. Marv, Terry, Marianne and I worked on the lights all day while Larry bounced between projects as usual. Rick and Tony finished removing buckthorn and started remulching our arboretum. They'll finish up on Friday and we sure appreciate their help. Jerry worked on pruning and debris collection and Jumbo Jim brought in the RECAPPERS to help pound posts for deer protection. Other volunteers included Del, Vern, Dr. Gredler, Bill and of course the lovely Kay who continues to be our "go to gal" out in the gardens. Below is another nice sedge. The blue sedge (Carex flacca 'Blue Zinger') has a wonderful blue coloration and is listed as a nice color improvement over the straight species. I've known this species to be a moderate spreader although descriptions for this variety say "more clump forming"... I'm not sure what that means but we'll see how they fill out and grow in the future with the thought that we may have to remove them if they get too vigorous. As a side note, I wont be blogging for a couple days as my wife is having surgery and I'll be away from the gardens and computer.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

That "End of the Tunnel" Light Was Just Found

Above is a shot of the front of our visitors center last December for the lights show. I did almost finish running cords today and should be able to finish tomorrow morning. The final work on the show includes testing everything and trying to troubleshoot the problems. I'm almost out of extension cords and we had to buy another 2,000 feet of cords last week! Jerry, Bill and Urban worked on pruning and debris clean-up. Larry bounced between projects while Tony and Rick cleared more buckthorn and are working on a couple projects to finish off their last week. Del and Maury worked inside on painting "deer cutouts" for the event and Janice has begun researching some of our heirloom vegetable collections for next year. She and Barb also worked on processing more lights.

Nice image of the Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha) to the right. Aside from the great winter interest from this 30" tall grass, it tolerates part shade and has wonderful flower plumes by mid-summer. This grass is not real easy to find but I've found fewer that are low maintenance. You also may get a nice orangey fall color as well if you're lucky. I like all Calamagrostis species and varieties. Nice willow relection in the pond below.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A Brief Winter Wonderland

It was brisk today and we had a "mini-blizzard" between 1 pm and 2 pm. It's blue skies and sunny right now at 3 pm.
Nice shot of a weeping spruce (Picea abies 'Pendula') to the left with a heavy crop of cones. I sure like interesting forms of conifers as they become the "eye candy" in our winter landscapes.

Marv, Terry, Marianne, Larry and I worked on the lights all day. We are on track to be done this Wednesday. We did turn on the power today and as usual, have some "bugs" to work out. Jerry worked on pruning more shrubs and small trees while Bill and some Grumpies worked on collecting debris. Rick and Tony did a nice job cleaning up our east parking lot and worked on clearing European buckthorn (both lost blood in their battles with this foe). Most Grumpy work will now shift inside to bench resealing and miscellaneous carpentry. See below for my article on the value of conifers in the landscape.
The landscape is now becoming starker as winter digs in and snow starts to accumulate. Our gardens are biding their time until active growth can resume with warmer soil temperatures and spring rains. Now is a great time to enjoy conifers in the garden or locate those spots that can use a structural element, focal point and/or a “splash” of color. Conifers are considered the “bones” of the garden and should be in place before other elements are added. They are the perfect “foil” for perennials and annuals during the summer and they take center stage during the winter months.

Conifers are usually evergreen trees and shrubs where the leaves are in the form of needles. The larch (or tamarack) is an example of a deciduous conifer that loses its needles in fall. We are all familiar with pines, junipers, spruces and yews as they are commonly found throughout our neighborhoods and parks. Conifer means “cone bearer” and the contribution of these trees and shrubs to the winter landscape in terms of structure is quite apparent.

Conifers have been planted around the foundations of many homes as they visually “anchor” the home to the surrounding yard. However, a very narrow palette of conifers has traditionally been used for this purpose and lack of maintenance has created many overgrown situations where these plants are more of a nuisance than an asset. Understanding the growth and maintenance requirements of individual conifers as well as their mature size, will help in the selection of appropriate varieties.

Conifers are also used around the yard and when placed appropriately, can form an effective wind screen, blocking winter winds and snow from hitting the home directly (thereby reducing winter heating costs). Conifers come in all shapes and sizes and typically a different form can be found of a desirable shrub or tree. For instance, the white pine, which can attain a mammoth size, does not lend itself to the smaller home landscape. However, it can be found in varieties that include dwarf, upright, weeping, golden, etc. Interesting forms of conifers will give you four seasons of interest and can become an important visual element in the landscape. Research the availability of conifer varieties to help in your selection process. Variability, availability and affordability has all improved as the smaller home landscape is considered and conifers proportional to that landscape become more readily available. Conifers are also wonderful for wildlife habitat, providing shelter and in some cases, a reliable food source in the scarce winter months. As a general rule of thumb, native conifers are preferred by our native wildlife.

Most conifers come in shades of green, but other colors exist and when combined in the landscape, this color becomes important in the “year-round” composition of the home landscape. It is important to note that green is a wonderful winter foil for ornamental grasses and other garden elements. The dark green silhouette of a conifer in winter can be quite striking, particularly when accentuated with a dusting of snow. However, colors such as gold, yellow, blue, white, silver and maroon can all be found in the winter landscape provided by conifers. These colors will come into the forefront of the winter landscape and can also be important in the summer composition. Consider all assets of the plant prior to purchase and installation. Visualize the contribution of these conifers year-round but don’t forget their winter value with form, texture and color.

Take winter walks around the neighborhood as well as area botanic gardens to locate some wonderful evergreens that are “stealing the show” right now. Create or enhance your fourth season of interest by planning now for the addition of conifers to your landscape.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Good Work Day

Above is a nice shot I took today of the variegated Japanese sedge (Carex oshimensis 'Evergold') that we have planted throughout our fern & moss garden for color and texture. This sedge is hardy to zone 5 but seems to make it thru our winters fine with adequate snow cover (not a problem in recent winters!). Below is another clumping sedge called brome-like sedge (Carex bromoides) that we planted years ago and I've really liked it's low maintenance and textural contribution in part shade. This sedge is native to a wide range of the United States (including WI) and Canada.
This morning was our last work day of the year. Marianne and Janice lead a crew of about 10 volunteers out in the gardens. The task was putting lights on all the white pine trees that we cut on Monday, set up on stakes and will use as temporary decorations. The weather was brisk and windy but at least not rainy. Thanks to the ladies for their help and thanks to Luis, Terri, Kay, Maggie, Lynn, Steve, Jody, Marcus, Chris and a young fellow from UW-Whitewater. Larry also was out putting up lights and I ran more cords. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

It wont be long before holiday trees go up in our homes. The debate about the pros and cons of "real" versus "fake" will continue in perpetuity. There is another option; the use of a live tree. This involves bringing in a live tree for a couple of days and then planting it outside after the holidays. There are some tricks to accomplishing this task but there are some garden center and nurseries that will sell containerized or balled & burlapped conifers for this use. See the article I wrote below regarding this option. At the bottom is a recent picture of the blue wood sedge (Carex laxiculmis 'Bunny Blue') that while marginally hardy, has overwintered here and looks great.

This December, it is estimated that over 33 million real Christmas trees and 60 million artificial trees will be decorated in the United States. After the holidays, these trees are either boxed up or dragged to the curb line for disposal. Why not take your Christmas tree out into the yard and plant it? Your investment then goes into the landscape and the sentimental value is there for years of enjoyment.
Live Christmas trees are evergreens that are still in containers or have their roots balled and burlapped. More garden centers and nurseries are starting to offer these live trees in December although they are traditionally more expensive than cut Christmas trees at that time. Typical varieties include Scotch pine, white pine, blue spruce and Douglas fir, although many other species may be available. Brought into the home for a brief time to be decorated and enjoyed, they are then planted out in the landscape. These live trees can be successfully established in the landscape by following some simple rules of thumb.
If you are serious about utilizing a live Christmas tree and have located a nursery that offers them, get out into the yard and dig the hole now before the ground is frozen. Remember that these trees will get quite large so place them accordingly. The north side of the home is ideal for a large evergreen as it acts as a windbreak in the winter and doesn’t cast unwanted shade at that time. The size of the hole should be roughly the depth of the root ball or container and three to five times the width. Ask the nursery for rough dimensions of their root balls or containers or measure yours if you have already obtained a tree. Keep the soil that you dug out of the hole from freezing by keeping it in wheelbarrows in the garage or covering it with mulch outside. Cover the planting hole with plywood or line it with straw to avoid any accidents.
When looking for live Christmas trees, select one with a nice shape and a good-sized root ball or container. Make sure that you select a tree that you like and can visualize as a component of your present and future landscaping. Survival guarantees are typically not offered for these trees due to the intricacies of proper planting procedures at that time of year. Remember that these trees will be very heavy when you take into account the weight of the damp soil around the roots. After selecting a tree and getting it home, you must keep the tree dormant but also keep the roots from freezing. Typically an unheated garage or shed is sufficient for this acclimation period which should typically be at least two days. Keep the roots watered at this time.
There is a very narrow window for utilizing a live Christmas tree in the home as indoor temperatures will start to bring the tree out of dormancy and encourage growth. This translates into severe winter damage when planted outside. These trees must remain dormant and should only be inside for 3-5 days. Ideally, bring the tree in on Christmas Eve day, decorate it and then plant it on Christmas day after removing decorations. Never keep the tree inside for more than a week as its chance of survival when planted outside will decrease significantly. While inside, keep the root ball in a pan or tub with water. Putting ice cubes around the base of the roots will help keep the roots cool while providing water. Check water daily. Keep the tree away from heat sources such as fireplaces, vents, registers and direct sun. Try to locate the tree in the coolest part of the room. The needles can be sprayed with an antidessicant spray to help prevent premature needle loss. If you use lights on the tree, use “cool lights” as some lights will emit unwanted heat around this dormant tree.
After Christmas, remove decorations and take the tree back to an unheated garage or shed for two days of acclimation before planting. Bringing the tree directly outdoors could result in damage from severe temperature extremes. Plant the tree on a mild winter day, making sure to remove ropes, nails, containers or other material from the root area. Make sure to plant the tree an inch or two higher than grade because of settling and then backfill with the original soil. Stake the tree if necessary. Water with warm water and don’t add any fertilizer at this time. Mulch the area around the base of the roots with 12” of woodchips or other mulch to keep the soil from freezing too quickly. Keep watered until the ground is frozen. In spring, decrease mulch depth to 4” and continue to keep watered as needed.
It seems like a lot of work to locate, obtain, maintain and establish a live Christmas tree. It is. However, imagine the year 2040 when your progeny is playing around a 40 foot tall pine tree in the back yard and you can say, “Ah…that Christmas of 2008…I remember when….”

Friday, November 14, 2008

Our Last Mild Friday?

The weather was awesome today. We had some clouds but also periods of sunshine and the temperatures were in the mid 40s; quite comfortable for a mid-Nov. in Wisconsin. Above is just one of many locations out in the gardens where our "network of power" is utilized for the Holiday Lights Show. It's interesting that when our lights show started 12 years ago, power was plentiful but labor to put up the show was scarce. Now we have the reverse. We have really "cranked" on putting this show up. We started in mid-October and the grounds staff (particularly Marv, Marianne, Terry, Larry and I) have been setting things up outside. We have many "rebar displays" like those to the left. These all have rope lighting and represent flowers, creatures and other thematic elements. These were all designed and created by a talented volunteer from nearby Brodhead, WI. We're fortunate to have Janice and Jerry continuing to garden for the most part as that is still quite important. Now we're always worried about power problems (particularly during wet weather). We hope that it's cold enough for snow as rain is the bane of our event. We should have the show up by next Wed. and tested the following week.

Janice and Kristine continued to work on cutting back perennials and raking leaves. Janice asked me to mention in this blog that she raked ALL DAY (although she also weeded and took extra long breaks). Marianne, Terry, Marv and I worked on the lights show although Marianne spent some time weeding the new iris beds as well. Rick and Tony worked on leveling rocks along our paths and were clearing European buckthorn from around the perimeter of our Horticulture Center. Dr. Gredler did some mowing and accomplished two milestones today; his 200th trip to the dump with debris and his 800th volunteer hour for the year. He's one of our best.

As many of our ornamental grasses go dormant and transform in to ambers and browns, our sedges (Carex sp.) will still maintain color throughout the winter (if visible). Many sedges are "semi-evergreen" and while dormant, still show color until new growth emerges in spring from the basal foliage (which overwinters). The plantain-leaf sedge (Carex plantaginea) to the right looked great today with its wide ribbon-like foliage. Found in moist woodlands from Canada to Alabama, this native (not to WI) sedge has a lot of merit in my mind. We have planted throughout our dappled shade areas. It is a hardy (to zone 4) clumping sedge and we will continue to utilize its merits and that of other clumping sedges. Avoid "running" sedges!!!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Rain Held Off!

The image above is explained below. With a threat of rain later today, we were blessed with warm temperatures and some sunlight of all things. It's clouding up at 2 pm now but I think we'll escape with a full day of work under our belts. The Grumpies had a great day although work out in the garden is becoming more sparse. They hauled decorations over to the visitors center and did myriad tasks around the horticulture center. The carpenters will be busy thru the winter and there are some nice indoor projects starting to materialize. Marianne volunteered today and worked on the lights show all day (as did I). Larry helped put up lights and ran many extension cords. Jerry and Janice did some gardening and Rick and Tony bounced between various projects. Dr. Gredler did some of our last mowing and we're starting to prepare for winter by stockpiling salt and getting snowblowers ready.

The picture above is of produce that we grew back in 2007 at the gardens. We had an heirloom collection of tomatoes, garden peppers and eggplants. This collection was maintained by Master Gardeners and the bulk of the produce was donated to area food banks. Gardening with heirlooms and growing your own food continues to become increasingly popular each year. For next year (our 20th anniversary incidentally), we'll be displaying 100 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 25 varieties of heirloom bell peppers, 25 varieties of hot peppers, 25 varieties of basil and 25 varieties of heirloom beans and/or peas. We will offer most of these varieties as plants during our spring plant sale in May. This is our fourth year of growing vegetables and visitor interest continues to increase. Master Gardeners will play a major role in maintaining and promoting this collection and I'm relying heavily on Janice and Kristine this winter. The fun part will be picking the varieties as the seed catalogs arrive.

I've decided as the weather gets more sour, I wont try to keep up with daily photos (unless relevant) but will toss some nice images (see below) to carry over some color until spring. For those that read this blog, don't hesitate to make any comments or post questions. The intent of this blog is to not only catalog what is going on at the gardens but also to entice potential new visitors so pass along the link and let's get more supporters.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Nice shot of the Russian cypress (Microbiota decussata) above. This plant can tolerate part shade and will get 12" tall and continue to spread. Originally touted for shade, it prefers some sunlight and requires perfect drainage. Our best specimens are in tough soils, part shade and perfect drainage. It will die quickly in damp areas. This time of year, it also turns a nice bronzy/plum color.

It fluctuated between a light drizzle, heavy drizzle, steady rain and mist today. It never really didn't rain and it never was a downpour. For those of us that went outside (Marv, Terry, Rick, Tony and Jerry), we were all saturated pretty quickly. I managed to run cords most of the day while Marv and Terry set up displays and decorated with lights. Rick and Tony hauled debris, graveled a path and did various odds and ends. Jerry continues to prune and cut back shrubs. Larry went home sick and Marianne was the smart one and stayed inside to work on repairing lights and prepping displays. We're making lots of progress although we still have gardening to accomplish. Rick and Tony will finish next week with the remainder of the garden staff departing the week following (and returning in April 2009).

See below for one of many ways to kill a tree. I can't imagine the roots are pretty happy under all of that asphalt. Consider mulching your tree with 3-4" of woodchips or shredded bark this fall. Taper the mulch away from the base of the tree and understand you'll have to add (topdress) this mulch layer with 1" of fresh stuff every year. Studies have shown that properly mulched trees grow significantly faster than their counterparts growing directly out of turf (competition). Winter is a good time to examine your trees and shrubs for architectural pruning and shaping although know your plant as many prefer to be pruned after flowering (lilacs, etc.).

Consider the value of ornamental berries in the landscape as you examine your landscape. Ornamental berries can offer colorful interest and may also have significant wildlife value. See the article below.

As you enjoy wonderful foods during the cold holiday months of November, December and January, look out in your landscape and realize that wildlife is also looking for food; and perhaps having some difficulty. Many birds and mammals will forage for food through the coldest months of the year. The severity of the winter coupled with limited food supplies can be the difference between life and death for our neighborhood wildlife. Wildlife-friendly gardens should provide food for wildlife through the toughest winter months. While bird feeders, bird houses, nesting boxes and heated bird baths are all helpful, try planting native trees and shrubs that have persistent berries. These food sources will become vital to wildlife in our coldest months.

Landscapes that are friendly to wildlife will contain elements that provide good nesting sites, winter shelter, places to hide from predators and natural food supplies that last throughout the year. Trees and shrubs with winter fruit are those whose fruits remain attached to the plants long after they become ripe in the fall. Many of these berries are not palatable until they have frozen and thawed many times. The National Wildlife Federation has dubbed these plants the “spinach plants” for wildlife. This indicates that while they may be the last food selected by wildlife due to this “transformation of palatability”, their nutrient value at a tough time is vital. It is important to note that some birds never eat seeds and these berries become very important for many resident bird species in late winter and early spring. Small mammals will also utilize these berries as well as available nuts from trees such as oaks, hickories, buckeyes, chestnuts, butternuts, walnuts and hazels. Long-lasting berries can be the life saver for wildlife during tough winters.

There are many plants native to North America that will provide winter berries for our wildlife and also be ornamental throughout the year. Utilize native plants whenever possible if your goal is to attract wildlife. It is interesting to note that native plants will attract forty times more wildlife than non-native plants. Something interesting to note is that while some non-native trees and shrubs do provide berries for wildlife, they are horribly invasive as the seeds are distributed throughout our native ecosystems. Some examples include European Buckthorn, Japanese Barberry, Tatarian Honeysuckle and Russian Olive to name a few. See the accompanying chart for twenty-five great native plants for persistent winter berries. When incorporating these trees and shrubs into your landscape, strive for a variety of plant heights and plant densities. Berries should be provided at all levels and can be done so by utilizing both trees and shrubs. Diverse plantings will be more attractive to a broader range of wildlife.

As you enjoy the winter landscape, notice plants around your neighborhood and parks that are providing berries for wildlife. These fruits can also be quite ornamental and improved varieties of these native species, while still providing wildlife benefits, can easily be incorporated into both formal and informal landscapes. Contact the National Wildlife Federation (1-800-822-9919) for more information on wildlife-friendly landscaping. Including native trees and shrubs that provide essential winter berries will help wildlife through our Wisconsin winters.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Walking In A "Pseudo" Winter Wonderland....

Today was quite cool but the precipitation held off until after lunch. We had a productive morning and continued working outside as it's becoming "crunch time" for finalizing this Holiday Lights Show. The drizzle was mostly rain with hints of snow and sleet. The picture above is of the purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea 'Skyracer') that we have throughout the gardens (November photo). It has a nice orange-yellow fall color although it does not stand up to snow and ice and will not be of any winter interest. The plumes you see are from a grass further behind these three specimens. It's usually flattened by early December. However, this is a nice tall grass that has the bulk of it's foliage below 3' tall and then sends up wispy flower stalks to 7' tall (total). This grass is termed a "transparent" grass as you can still see thru it (there is actually another variety of this grass called 'Transparent'!). We use it as a barrier but not a screen. It is nice in combination with other perennials as well (see below-look behind purple coneflower!). See the picture at the bottom for an idea of ornamental grasses used successfully in the landscape.
The moisture didn't stop Marv & Marianne (volunteering) from helping with the lights show while Janice worked with Heidi and Barb out in the garden as we finish the last of our bulb planting and clean-up. Larry and I worked on cords while Rick and Tony cleaned up debris and helped with show set-up as well. Bill and Dr. Gredler were also around to help in the gardens. I small, damp crew but we accomplished a lot on what I thought would be a "rain/snow out"! The ground isn't frozen yet so head out and get some discounted bulbs this weekend and get them in the ground. A nice way to incorporate multiple types of bulbs in the same hole is called "bulb lasagne". This is a great way to segway color, particularly in a small space. See the article below for some ideas.
This article refers not to a recipe with an “edible result” but a gardening technique that will result in a “feast for the eyes” next spring. This planting approach, also called bulb layering, will maximize the spring color impact of your bulb plantings by allowing you to fill your planting hole with multiple varieties of bulbs.

With cooler temperatures affecting our waning gardens, fall tasks will include leaf collection, mulching and ideally, bulb planting as well. October is the time to start planting spring blooming bulbs in the soil. Bulbs can be safely planted as long as you can still work the soil. Garden Centers abound right now with many bulb choices for your spring garden, whether it’s daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, ornamental onions (Allium) or some other hardy and/or rare selection.

While the results of your labor will be appreciated 5-7 months from now, why not consider a “bulb sandwiching” system that combines different types of bulbs and makes the most out of a small garden space? It’s useful and effective to plant bulbs in tandem with other bulbs and perennials to create sequential color and exciting combinations. Smaller gardens will benefit greatly from this approach.

When considering a space for bulb planting, envision your planting hole as a space to accommodate three levels of bulbs that may bloom together or have a staggered appeal. Dig wide holes 12” down and incorporate some coarse sand, compost and a sprinkle of Milorganite fertilizer in to a layer of loose soil at the bottom of this hole. Then plant larger bulbs such as daffodils, large alliums or camassia in this lower level with the bottoms of the bulbs resting at roughly 9” depth. Add loose soil until just over the tips of those bulbs, then “nestle” in bulbs such as tulips and hyacinths at 5-6” planting depth with again, the installation of another covering of loose soil. The remaining 3” of your hole can be filled with smaller bulbs such as Siberian squill, grape hyacinth, snowdrops, crocus or other smaller bulbs that can be planted 2-3” under the soil level. Fill the hole and sprinkle Milorganite on top as a light fertilizer and rodent deterrent (“anti-digging”). It is vital that the filled hole is watered well but also has excellent drainage.

This “bulb lasagne”, with all its layers, will showcase a wide range of plants in a small space. Deeper planted bulbs will find their way to the surface around the other bulbs planted around them. Depending on your bulb selection, you should see reliable spring colors as your planting hole explodes with a wide range of wonderful spring plants. Bulb layering can also be done with just two levels. Consider the bloom times of your selections and consider a staggered approach. Perhaps your planting hole shows wonderful snowdrops in April, followed by early tulips in May and a final transition to ornamental onions (Allium) in early June. Or perhaps your planting approach seeks to combine plants with the same bloom times.

A final touch to your bulb lasagne could be a perennial plant above the bulbs, installed at ground level. Overplanting the space with an appropriate perennial will allow that perennial to dominate the space (as it fills in) after you have already enjoyed color from your bulb layering approach. This space could have been wasted in terms of color if you were simply waiting until late May for the perennial to fill out. Incorporate color early and often by utilizing the wide gamut of spring blooming bulbs that are available to you as you read this article. Consider following the easy recipe for the delectable Bulb Lasagne!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Tree Cutting Expedition

This morning was our 10th Annual Tree Cutting Expedition. A local tree farm donates close to 200 trees every year for our Holiday Lights Show. We get a caravan of trucks, trailers and volunteers and head 40 minutes or so to the tree farm. As Larry cuts them, we load them up, secure them, drive them back and place them out in the gardens. The intent is to stake them up temporarily as small evergreens (6-9' tall) that we then put lights on. Having hundreds of these out thru the gardens is a nice touch and they are easier to decorate with lights than the taller trees. We have a good portion of our lights show up already and I'm immersed in the arduous task of running power out to everything. It was a productive day and while the group above (Rollie, Andy, Dick H., Kurt, Rick, Tony, Larry, Dick P., Bob A., Bob T., Ron, Dick K., Jim, Vern, Terry) was a great team, Marv, Marianne, Jerry, Urban, Dr. Gredler and Gene hung back to work on gardening and more lights show related tasks. It was chilly but the sun shone most of the day.
To the left is a nice specimen of the weeping Alaskan cedar (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis 'Pendula') near our gazebo garden. This specimen is a real eye catcher and looks good every day of the year. There is a nice variety of this same species called 'Green Arrow' that is very, very narrow but with the same droopy look. The variety 'Van den Aker' is supposedly the most narrow and is certainly a focal point in the garden. We have a golden version of this species as well although the variety name eludes me right now.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Touch Of Winter Has Arrived!

As I type at 1pm today, it's sleeting outside with the occasional snowflake blowing by the window. The day started sunny and cool but we were able to accomplish lots of lights work outside (Terry, Marv and myself). Dr. Gredler mowed/shredded leaves and both Tony and Rick kept busy hauling debris all day. Marianne and Janice worked on organizing our remaining lights, decorated obelisks and began much needed repairs on our growing pile of lights strands that have "issues". The image above is of the native little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) that gets a nice reddish-maroon fall color. Ornamental grasses really have major impact in the landscape this time of year as they provide color, texture and visual interest. Examine your winter landscape where ornamental grasses, left up over the winter, can be effective as screens or simply to be enjoyed. There are many options for hardy, perennial grasses. However, consider the use of native grasses as they are quite adaptable in our climate and are favored by our native wildlife as a food source. At the bottom of this blog is an article on native ornamental grasses I wrote last year. Below is another little bluestem although this is the variety 'The Blues' which has a more intense, sky-blue coloration in summer and seems to have superior fall color as well.
The view of our November landscapes encompasses the transition from the fading blooms of late summer and vivid fall colors to a landscape of faded greens, tans and browns. While color may lack in our gardens this time of year, texture and form come to the forefront. Ornamental grasses in the garden, while contributing as role players through the growing season, become very important in anchoring our compositions, providing visual interest and perhaps helping our native wildlife as well. There are many hardy, ornamental grasses to choose from but why not consider some tried and true native grasses that will accent and improve your landscape?

Much of central North America was originally covered with tallgrass prairie. This important ecosystem fostered many important plant and animal species. However, most of the original tallgrass prairie (90%) has been lost to agriculture and other land uses. Fortunately, the prairie contains many wonderful grasses that are now making a “comeback” in our gardens. Many of these native species have had special cultivars selected and propagated for improved ornamental attributes. Keeping in mind that these native grasses are very adaptable in our climates, tolerant of our soil types and will attract 40 times more wildlife (primarily birds) than non-native ornamental grasses, perhaps they are worthy of our consideration in the back yard.

All of the grasses listed below prefer full sun conditions but will take a wide range of soils. Leave these grasses in the garden for winter interest and cut them back to 3-4” by early April before new growth resumes with the warming of the soil. Mulching around the grasses will help minimize weed competition and retain moisture. In time, these grasses may require division; a process of digging up the grass and separating out the most vigorous sections for replanting or relocation. Research these grasses prior to purchasing them and view your winter garden for gaps that can be addressed with these exciting, long-lived, native perennials.

Our big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) is a robust native grass that forms a sturdy 6’ tall clump and may have some reddish tint to the leaves in autumn. Look for the varieties ‘Silver Sunrise’ and ‘Pawnee’ for improved fall color. Another tall prairie native is Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). This 5-7’ tall clumping grass has a rough texture and upright, arching form. Fall color is typically a yellow or gold. The Indian grass varieties ‘Sioux Blue’, ‘Indian Steel’ and ‘Bluebird’ are noted for their metallic blue foliage and strong, bold, upright appearance.

Another medium to large native grass is switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). This grass has experienced lots of selection and breeding, particularly in Europe. Dozens of varieties exist and are being developed for size and fall color. Switchgrass can take a little shade and you may see some reseeding in damp soils. Heights can be quite variable with some varieties in the 3-4’ range and some in the 6-7’ range. Try the shorter varieties of ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ for a nice red fall color. Taller varieties such as ‘Dallas Blues’, ‘Heavy Metal’ and ‘Prairie Sky’ are known for their bluish leaves and airy seedheads. The popular variety ‘Northwind’ was selected by Roy Diblick of Northwind Perennial Farm near Lake Geneva, WI.

If you have a location for a smaller grass, consider the use of the wispy prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). This grass will achieve a height of 24” and is very transparent in appearance. The texture carries thru the winter as does the yellow, dormant coloration. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is another alternative with a mature height of 3-4’. This narrow, upright grass naturally has a blue green coloration and will get a reddish hue in fall. Consider the varieties ‘The Blues’, ‘Blaze’ and ‘Cimmaron’ for a very blue summer color with more intense fall coloration. This upright grass can be used in masses or as single specimens along a border.

Ornamental grasses, while not new to horticulture, are becoming ever more important in our “four seasons” gardens. Hardy grasses from around the world can be used in your Wisconsin back yard to create screening, accent a view, combine with other plantings or draw the eye thru the barren winter landscape. With a wide range of physical and ornamental attributes, there may be a native option for your consideration.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Last Best Day Of The Year?!

The Bloodgood Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood') is normally a deep maroon during the summer and is quite showy from May thru September. As fall progresses, the fall color becomes increasingly scarlet and really glows with sunlight pouring thru. Japanese maples, while winter hardy here, can be a bit touchy and do benefit from a protected location that minimizes winter winds. The shot above was taken in our Japanese garden today.

We had three volunteers (Shelly, J.C. and Linda) working in our woodland walk garden today. Marianne tidied up, planted bulbs and worked on lights. Marv and Terry decorated with lights all day and put up some displays. Dr. Gredler and Bill spread straw over a large, newly seeded area and Jerry continued pruning and hauling debris. Rick and Tony worked on composting and lights work. We had LP Tree Service (Janesville) come today and help put up some holiday lights in our taller trees. We sure appreciate their help! I ran some cords but mainly bounced around to check on everyone. Great day!

Nice fall color on the smooth witherod viburnum (Viburnum nudum 'Winterthur') to the left. Native to lowlands out East (Connecticut) and down thru Florida and Louisiana, this viburnum has fragrant white flower clusters in spring, summer berries and this wonderful fall color on bold, glossy leaves. This hardy variety only gets 6' tall or so and is a nice specimen in the right place. The straight species (Viburnum nudum) can get 12' tall so this variety is a nice compromise in terms of scale. The hybrid maple to the right was all green three days ago and exploded with this orangey-red color. This is one of those hybrid maple crosses between the Shantung maple (Acer truncatum) and Norway maple (Acer platanoides). The description from J. Frank Schmidt Nursery below is a great description of this wonderful maple. Note the medium size! The picture at the bottom is the nice yellow fall color of the Norway maples this year (better color than most years!).

Pacific Sunset® Maple (Acer truncatum x A. platanoides 'Warrenred' P.P. No. 7433) is a hybrid of Acer truncatum and Acer platanoides that combines the best characteristics of the parents in a medium sized shade tree. Dark glossy leaves, drought resistance, orange to red fall color and a smaller ultimate size are inherited from Shantung Maple (Acer truncatum). The Norway parent (Acer platanoides) contributes faster growth, caliper development at an early age, larger leaves and adaptability to varied growing conditions. Its fine textured branch structure evolves to a rounded crown and a mature height of about 30 feet and a spread of about 25 feet. Hardiness is USDA Zone 4b.