23 March 2009

Maximum Maggie

The star of the yard in spring is Maggie, the Star Magonlia. This is not just any star magnolia, but a "Dr. Merrill" (Magnolia x loebneri). Maggie is big, husky, muscular, and not like most normal star magnolias.

As an inexperienced beginner gardener over 15 years ago, the desire for a star magnolia resulted in a pick from a garden catalog photo. Normal star magnolias in town look delicate, usually growing into a tall shrub of several trunks, like a lilac. This one turned out differently. It grew about 20-30 feet tall (6 m to 9 m) into a full blown tree.

But big can be good. The blossoms are larger than a normal star magnolia. They result in more sweet magnolia scent perfuming the neighborhood. Last year, the tree was covered in blossoms. This year, they are less numerous, but with no cold damage, why?

Maggie's deciduous leaves are large and thick (the brute), providing a solid shade canopy over anything below. Very little grows under it due to the lack of light as well as to its thick root system, often running along the top of the ground. In the fall, the leaves turn a luminous golden yellow, and then fall to smother anything below it, along with those nasty seed pods.

Some small white snow azaleas were planted below it, but one has since died. Now, as the tree really matures, the search is on to find plants that can be fill in below it. The loosestrife [6.26.2008] planted below has done well for the past two years. Since grass no longer grows beneath, vinca minor ground cover will be transplanted there from another part of the yard to take its place. Vinca grows in dry shade. After researching online for this post, I find that this ground cover is a non-native invasive plant. It is a slow dancer in my yard, though.

For The Record:
  • Medium heavy soil
  • Full sun
  • No fertilizer, surface mulched once a year

Garden Calendar:
  • Blooming: Star magnolia
  • Seedlings progress: broccoli, peppers, onions germinated
      Broccoli germination, 10 days
      Peppers germination, 18 days
      Onions germination, 9 days

14 March 2009

Growing Pot

What type of growing pot do we use to start seedlings indoors? Some vessels may be more appropriate than others. In past years, I scoured the basement to find something to use as starter pots, and usually ended up with something less than ideal. Consider the possibilities and my experience.

Clay Pots
I use few of these because they tend to dry out. This is a concern since I leave the house during the day for work, and cannot leave seedlings in clay pots outdoors to harden off before planting. They will always require watering around mid- day. However, clay pots are reusable. Peppers were planted in these, but are not yet sprouted.

Peat Pots
I have tried these a few times in the past, and never liked them. They sound like a great idea, but they can be on the expensive side and not work as they were intended. They dry out fast, too, needing constant watering. One year tomatoes were started in them and planted directly into the ground. The tomatoes were very slow growing, compared to those transplanted into bare earth. The peat pots did not disintegrate well into the soil as was expected. The roots seemed constricted and had trouble growing through the solid peat.

Plastic Yogurt Cups
With holes punched in the bottom, these wide-top cups are used every year and, work great. They are a perfect size, and we get some additional use from the plastic before it makes its way to the recycle bin. Since no one thinks of saving them throughout the winter, you end up eating a lot of yogurt just to get the cups in spring. Peppers were recently planted in these cups.

Plastic Seedling Flats
The 4 or 6 compartment black plastic cell inserts made for seedlings work well. However, the big box stores along with the gardening centers here only sell the prepackaged bundle consisting of cell inserts, clear plastic cover, and plastic flat watering tray. I only want and need the cell inserts, but unfortunately we are forced to purchase everything in the bundle. The cell inserts can be purchased online for pennies, but shipping costs kill the deal. Check out Home Harvest: 8 cells inserts cost $7.92; shipping costs $7.75.

Egg Carton
These were tried one year and found to be too small. Soil also kept moving around from cell to cell. Seedlings were difficult to extract without damaging them.

Paper Cups
Paper Dixie cups are my favorite. Tall shapes can be found to allow for root growth. They are paper and biodegradable. They can easily be broken apart without plant damage at transplanting time. They are cheap. The wax coating prevents drying out. Labeling with marker is difficult on the wax coating, though. Broccoli is sprouting in these in only five days.

Milk Carton
My mom would cut off tops of milk cartons and had good luck starting seeds in the bottoms. Again, as with yogurt cups, one needs to save them.

Garden Calendar:
  • Blooming: White forsythia
  • Seedlings progress: broccoli

10 March 2009

White Forsythia

Warm weather with temperatures in the 70's (low 20's C) last weekend (after a Monday snowstorm) has begun to bring out the white forsythia (Abeliophyllum distichum) blooms. These four shrubs were some of the first plants selected and planted in my garden, after reading the enticing descriptions from Wayside Gardens, who no longer offers the shrubs.

The White Forsythia plant has a few desirable characteristics that make it worthy in the garden. First, the shrub blooms at crocus and witch hazel time, and before the common yellow variety. It comes out at the end of February to beginning of March around here - which is very early.

Once the plant gets going, the blossoms' strong scent that resembles lilacs or ginger can easily be detected from anywhere in the yard. Being planted near the front sidewalk, the perfume from these sweeties are noticed by the neighbors. A few stems of blossoms can perfume an entire room when brought indoors.

Before anyone rushes to buy, consider the characteristics that Wayside Gardens never told us about. First, because they bloom so early, unexpected cold weather can destroy the flowers before they ever come out. About once every five years, warm weather will coax the blossoms to start, then cold weather below 20 degrees (-7 C) kills all of them. Second, don't let the catalog photos fool you - the blossoms are quite small and fragile. They are about 1/8 to 1/4 inch (6 mm), a much smaller size than the yellow forsythia, each only slightly larger than a single lilac blossom. Third, when brought into the house as cut flowers, they last for only about two days and their scent can turn bad after this time.

After blooming, new growth forms sparse clumps of intertwined branches that cannot be controlled. Shaping the shrub is impossible. After a few years, I cut the plant down and it vigorously grows back with long single arching branches. The photo from this year shows the shrub 2-feet (60 cm) in height. Come springtime, these appear rather graceful. A tangled overgrown mess in other years does not.

Finally, the flowers are not pure white, but tend to pink. In fact, some branches will appear light pink, while others on the same plant will appear white. A confused plant.

For The Record:
  • Medium heavy soil
  • Full sun
  • No fertilizer, soil is mulched and shaded
  • Cut back every three years or so

Garden Calendar:
  • Blooming: White forsythia, snow crocus
  • Seed started: Peppers, broccoli, red onions (probably a bit late)