Wednesday, February 28, 2007

primula sieboldii

More pictures of Primula sieboldii from last spring.
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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Buy Me #2... Primula Sieboldii

Primula sieboldii is often called "the beginner's primrose"; it is one of the very hardiest, most adaptable of all of the garden primulas. It is native to Eastern Asia; Korea, Manchuria, Siberia and Japan... in Japan it is a very popular pot plant, called Sakurasoo (also spelled here "Sakurasoh"), which apparently just means Japanese primrose. Many subtle varieties are available there, often at breathtaking prices. Quite a few varities can also be obtained in this country, at modest, to borderline breathtaking prices... the inexpensive ones are just fine. Sieboldii would prefer a moist, peaty soil, but does just fine in rather loose ordinary garden soil. It has been reported to tolerate very low winter temperatures in Alaska, and tolerates our hot, humid summers here in Iowa. In late summer here, it goes dormant, which accounts for its heat tolerance. It's foliage breaks dormancy rather late in the spring, so it doesn't get damaged by late freezes, and it usually blooms here around mid-April. I absolutely adore it's very crisp, scalloped, foliage, which always looks good because of its mentioned lateness in breaking dormancy. The flowers are white to pink to bluish-pink, somewhat reminscent of snowflakes, and often with contrasting colors on the front and back of the petals; i.e., pink on the front, white on the back. Some of the selected clones have very fimbriated petals, so the snowflake appearance is even more prominent. If you want to try one primrose, and you're not sure you can grow them, try sieboldii: if you succeed, try some of the other hardy types... if you can't grow sieboldii, you can't grow primroses.
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Monday, February 26, 2007

Buy Me!

Enough of wintermania; I just realized I posted two almost identical entries complaining about winter... I am becoming my uncle Bob. He's been gone for quite a few years, but I primarily remember him for two things; he liked gizzard sandwiches, and he ALWAYS complained about the weather. It could be a glorious, kite-flying spring day, and he'd think it was too windy.
Instead, let me sell you some spring plants... plants that I just don't think you can live another year without having in your garden. For example: Primula juliana... the original species (Primula juliae) is from the Caucasus Mountains (which is a mountain range that unsuspecting Liz is going to get hauled off to some day, to see the wildflowers). In commerce, most of the plants offered are usually hybrids of juliae, rather than the true original species, so are called julianas (the best known being the Wanda series), but they are all wonderful; small, hardy, early-blooming, and covered with darling flowers, often to the point that you can hardly see the foliage. I probably have fifty varieties of these, all in all, and yet every spring when they are blooming I think I should add a couple more; easy to do when a mature plant can fit under a tea cup when in bloom. Trust me... you will be a better, happier person if you purchase this plant for your garden this spring.
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A Winter Too Long

This is a winter that has outstayed its welcome... with temperatures predicted to be well below normal for at least the next week, and with more snow to fall on Thursday, I and the resident critters are fed up. The deer are standing around dejectedly in the backyard, their ribs starting to show, and the robins are moping about, having given up all hope of having a juicy worm for lunch. Usually the chickadees and tufted titmice have begun their spring calling by now, but today it's just quiet out there. I swear I saw a robin looking at an airline schedule.
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Saturday, February 24, 2007


It's early spring in the midwest; a strong low pressure area has come growling out of the southwest, thundering towards the Great Lakes. We're having an ice storm now, with the power going on and off, with limbs crashing to the ground every time the wind tosses the treetops back and forth... and the storm is just winding up; the clouds overhead are racing clear across the sky in a few seconds, with six to twelve inches of snow expected tonight on top of the ice. Earlier, the robins were hopping about in the back yard, but they are nowhere to be seen now... as I look out the window, pieces of ice from the trees are flying by the window horizontally. The only ones enjoying this are the meteorolgists on television; they are pink cheeked and smiling, on center stage for the weekend. In their bright polyester jackets they look like the robins that this morning were scooting around our yard. Scrolling across the bottom of the t.v. screen is news of weather related cancellation after cancellation: plays, sporting events, meetings, classes... all kaput; they go on for hours. This winter is too long by far.
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Friday, February 23, 2007

The Gardener's Helpmate

Man does not live by gardening alone; to me, my partner in life and love pales the most beautiful flower in the garden by comparison. I am the analytical, scientific left brain; she is the artistic, people-oriented right brain. In social settings, I tend to fade into the background a bit, but everyone remembers Liz; I retired four years ago, so I now do a lot of household things that she used to take care of; yet most of the service people I deal with still, after four years, get a blank look on their faces until I mention I'm Liz's husband... "Oh, Liz!" But, I've gotten used to it, and don't mind much, being identified just as Liz's husband... though it did bother me a little when it happened at MY family reunion.
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Thursday, February 22, 2007

An Eye To Fall

I was out in the garden with my camera yesterday, looking at the early spring garden with an eye to fall. Why was I thinking of crisp October days when we are still shuffling around in the snow on the doostep, waiting for spring to answer the door? Well, it's about bulbs... specifically small bulbs like crocuses that like early spring sunshine, then a nice, well-drained spot to snooze away the hot summer in peace. When the snow cover is just starting to melt is the perfect time to look for such spots: south-facing, with early warm sun and snow melt, close to a shrub or tree, where it will later be too dry and shady for most perennials to be happy... these are therefore little "holes" in the garden, perfect to fill with small bulbs this fall, if you can remember where they are; so I walk around the garden snapping pictures, and then I can find them this fall. By yesterday afternoon, much of the snow cover had melted, but I'm set: later I'll check the soil in these areas, and maybe add a little compost and sand for good drainage. Stop back next spring and see the results. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


The foot of wet, heavy snow that blankets our garden is melting... glacially. Temperatures are predicted to rise above 50 degrees today, but snow still lays everywhere except for small, south-facing spots, where a few plants are emerging from the deep freeze that we call an Iowa winter. Sadie the cat went out this morning with me to see what was happening; she tried semi-successfully to walk on edging timbers and rockwork that is now sticking out of the snow, but a certain part of her anatomy is a little too large to perform this trick. Last spring, Brigitta Stewart of Arrowhead Alpines sent me a couple of miniature daffodils as a gift (she reads this blog from time to time). I was quite concerned when one of them, Narcissus fernandesii, put out all its new foliage in November; bulbs that put out fall foliage are a very mixed bag here when it comes to winter survivability, and usually at best look a little ratty in the spring; at worst, they rot. I was therefore very happy to see this little narcissus species out from under the snow, and with its foliage looking pretty good... I will say, that if it's possible for a plant to look a little stunned, that's how it looked; whether because it found it had made it through the winter, or that it found itself growing in the middle of Iowa instead of its native Spain and Portugal, I'm not sure. I thought I might speak a little Spanish to it to make it feel at home, but my Spanish is very limited: asking it where the bathroom is, or whether the beer is cold, probably would not do much for it. About all I know about this little daffodil otherwise, is that it has small, very intensely yellow flowers, with a strong jonquil smell. It is shown last spring in it's original pot in the lowest picture (it is the one at the bottom). So, bienvenido, poquito daffodil... mi jardin es su jardin ahora!Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Spring Redux

After having snowdrops blooming in January, we entered a wasteland of seemingly unending cold and ice, with the temperature not rising above freezing for three weeks. Now, the sun has returned, warmer and higher in the sky, and the garden is re-emerging; large rocks are just showing their noses above the snowline in most parts of the garden, but in a few select spots that are on protected south-facing slopes, clumps of Galanthus elwesii, the early snowdrop, have miraculously shed their blanket of snow and raised their noses to the sun. It is like a second spring, and hopefully will be the real thing this time. But weather in Iowa is fickle at best, and March often sees our worst blizzards; the worst March snowstorm I remember was in my boyhood and saw snow so deep that people tied red cloth to their car radio aerials so that they could see each other coming at intersections. So, I will enjoy this February thaw... but I'll not put away the snow shovels. Posted by Picasa

Monday, February 19, 2007

Winter And The Glass Half Full...

I've always been a glass half-full, rather than half-empty kind of fellow, a trait I suspect was inherited from my Mother, as cheerful and placid a soul as there ever was, under all circumstances; she always looked on the bright side of every occasion... I thought of this today; the first day that the temperature has risen above freezing for three weeks, with warmer temperatures forecast: we keep our spare sodas in a closet in the garage, and with these frigid temperatures we've been having, one can just go out and grab a soda out of the closet, and it is cold enough to drink. Today, when I went out there for a Pepsi, for a moment I had a pang of regret, thinking that I'd now have to take the trouble to keep the refrigerator stocked if I wanted a cold drink... then I laughed at the thought. I took my soda with me out to the garden for a walk (we actually call soda, "pop" here in the upper Midwest, but I don't want to confuse readers from other parts of the country). This was my first walk around in a couple of weeks and the snow made walking about the paths slow work, but everything looked surprisingly good. I was particularly concerned about the lepidote and elepidote rhododendrons, which in cold, snowy winters can get bad leaf burn, but they looked fine, with little leaf damage, and fat buds. The sun felt delightful on my face, the woodpeckers were all tap-tapping cheerfully on the trees, and then I heard a sound I've been listening for: the call of the Carolina wren. These little birds are known to die off here at the northern end of their territory in severe winters, and I've been concerned that I'd not seen or heard them since the frigid air descended on us. The bright, ringing call of - teakettle-teakettle - was being broadcast up and down the ravines as if the last three weeks of record-setting cold weather was nothing: the Carolina wren and I have a completely full glass today. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Jack Frost... And Other Idle Thoughts

It is said that the eskimos have eighteen different words for snow. We may not approach that, but Iowans are no pikers when it comes to describing snow, frost, and ice. I mention this, because I was talking on the phone with my sister, who is visiting my brother down south, and she complained that it was cold down there too, and they had a crackling frost. Now I realized that is a descriptive term for frost that I'd not heard for a few years; I imagine it came from our Mother, who was a regular walking compendium of folk terminology. A crackling frost is when you get a heavy frost on bare ground, so that everything crackles when you walk on it. I knew that my sister was just complaining about the frost to irritate me, as it was 8 degrees here, with a foot of snow and ice on the ground... I did get even with her, as I asked her if she'd been keeping an eye on the stock market while she was on vacation (she hadn't). My brother talked her into selling most of her John Deere stock a few months ago at 85; it's been going straight up since the day she sold it, and last Wednesday they released their earnings report, and the stock shot up another ten dollars a share, and is now 113. I suspect it may stay a little frosty at my brother's place for several days.
This certainly has been a winter for snow and ice though; so far it has been the coldest February here in the midwest, in seventy years. The cold is finally going to break up, with temperatures next week rising to forty degrees, so hopefully we begin the slow turn to spring. When my sister mentioned crackling frost, I started thinking about Jack Frost, and realized that young'uns really probably have little appreciation of the old poem by Gabriel Setoun:

For, creeping softly underneath
The door when all the lights are out,
Jack Frost takes every breath you breathe,
And knows the things you dream about.
He paints them on the window-pane
In fairy lines with frozen steam.
And when you wake, you see again
The lovely things you saw in dream.

When I was young, our family was not exactly what you would call flush, and we three kids slept on an unheated sun porch with leaky windows, and in the winter you could see your breath in the morning. The windows would all ice up with fantastic examples of Jack Frost's handiwork. With modern double paned windows, children no longer have the delight of pressing their nose or fingers to the windows to see little spots of ice crystals melt (personally I would have traded the experience for a little more heat in the room). Posted by Picasa

Friday, February 09, 2007

Robin Bluebreast

The majesty of the natural world is quite mind boggling, and one gets the impression that it is a thing of clocklike precision and perfection... but then there are the robins. They seem to have made a slight miscalculation this year; the robins came north during our unseasonably warm January, which had been the third warmest since records have been kept, and they are now stuck in the middle of what is so far the third coldest February in recorded weather history. It's not just here in our little corner of the woods that this has happened; everyone in Iowa is shaking their head about these birds, and I read reports from the eastern part of the country wondering about the same phenomenon. They mope about in flocks, not quite knowing what to do, looking at each other for someone to blame for being here. Fruit and berries in the woods are getting hard to find, and with temperatures below zero every night, I worry about their survival... robin redbreast may become robin bluebreast. Yesterday I was out by the ravine that runs next to our house, and there was a single robin, looking about disconsolately at the snow, trying to keep his feathers ruffled to stay warm, with a wind chill of close to twenty below. I went into the house and rummaged around in the pantry, and came up with a bag of dried cranberries, which I took out and sprinkled on the brick walkway. I didn't have high hopes the robin would come out of the ravine and find the berries, but I was hardly back in the house when he had fluttered down and was hopping along the walk, pecking up the sweet fruit.
The robin didn't quite get all of the cranberries, though; our little white and tabby cat has quite an unusual palate (she keeps the house free of boxelder bugs by eating them all), and later when I looked back outside she was out there, nonchalantly ambling down the walk, eating the berries that were left. Between the deer, the birds, and all of our other wild and domestic critters, it's no wonder our food bill is so high!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

It's Either A Weed Or Itsnot.

This floppy plant with pretty flowers popped up last summer in one of my perennial beds; it's a tradescantia... probably T. ohiensis, the common spiderwort, because of its bluish-green, narrow leaves. However, I'm not sure if it's truly a wild tradescantia, or a cultivated variety that rode into the garden with something else; the flowers are a little more light, lilac purple than what we usually see in the wild plants. There are several spiderworts found growing in Iowa, and there are at least fifty species altogether, ranging from southern Canada to Argentina. When I was a boy, we delighted in these plants, finding them growing frequently in disturbed spots of sunny, rough grass. We called them snot weeds, and always broke off a stem to see the sticky, mucinous sap that gave them their name. In the garden, the flowers are individually pretty, but the plants are infernally floppy, so I've never thought they are much of a border plant. For sentimental reasons, I've spared this plant... whether it's a weed or itsnot.Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


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Lycoris... Plants I Mean To Grow

For the gardener, winter is a time for planning; or perhaps it's dreaming... many winters have come and gone, and I'm still "planning" on trying to grow a variety of lycoris bulbs. I've certainly had Lycoris squamigera for a long time; it's been moved through several gardens, and the original bulb came from my Mother's garden. She had grown this variety for about thirty years when I took an offset, and I've grown it for another twenty. In my earlier gardening years, I had the impression that squamigera was the only hardy lycoris (of course, I was then gardening in a true zone 4). It seems though that there is some hope, now that I'm in zone 5, that I could grow other types. Lycoris, natives of east Asian highlands, are known for blooming on naked stalks either before or after the foliage... the varieties with spring foliage are the ones that have a chance here; the lycoris that bloom in the fall and then put up their foliage, which persists through the winter would seem to be lost causes for colder climates, though albiflorus, with fall arising foliage, I know is hardy in St. Louis (admittedly a world away from us in terms of soil temperatures in winter). Other fall foliage types include aurea, straminea, houdyshelii, and the bright red hurricane lily of the south, radiata. This leaves quite a number of spring foliage types to consider: sprengeri, the blue-tipped lycoris would seem the best bet... it has smaller, blue-washed flowers, and zone 5 hardiness is claimed. Lycoris sanguinea has orange flowers and is rated as hardy as zone 5. A number of Lycoris are rated as zone 6: longituba with white flowers, chinensis with spidery yellowish flowers that bloom earlier than squamigera, and incarnata with peppermint-striped flowers. There are several mailorder nurseries with good selections of lycoris: Plant Delights Nursery, Asiatica, and Bulbmeister come to mind, with the latter having quite a large variety. These are not small plants when in foliage, but with proper placement, I should be able to squeeze in at least one: the winter planning goes on!Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Basket Case

As the snow continues to swirl down, blown into drifts, and into every nook and cranny by the unremitting, subzero north wind, I'm getting, shall we say...edgy? Sitting inside, staring out the window at the snow sailing by, a bag of Cheetos in one hand and a Pepsi in the other, is getting to me (and my waistline). I am an outdoor person in an indoor season. Normally I'm outdoors almost as much during the winter as during the summer: trimming and hauling brush, repairing fences, and the like. Maybe I'm just getting soft, but the last couple of weeks have pretty much driven me inside. I do need to get out and buy a couple bags of chips, though. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, February 04, 2007

No Room For Pessimists

On a day when the temperature may not struggle above zero, when it is to get to minus nineteen tonight, gardeners may be forgiven for wondering what possible reason they have for living in the upper midwest. I guess there is a certain grim beauty here even at times like this; last night, with temperatures so cold that the wooden back steps creaked and squealed when you stepped on them, under a bright full moon the barred owls were having a cackling hootfest in the tall oak trees. The moonlight reflected off the frozen pond, and filtered into the dark ravines, where the rabbits listen warily to the owls calling. Hardly a night for a dreamy stroll in the garden, but we will endure; spring will come, the birds will sing again, and daffodils will wave in the warm breezes above beds of blue squills. There is no room in gardening in the midwest for pessimists. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Darwin's Buckets

Coryanthes is a Central and South American genus of orchids, containing quite a number of species, called the bucket orchids. These complex flowers are a marvel of ingenuity, engineered by... well, you decide. The flowers consist of two wing-like sepals, as seen on the right, and the bucket, on the left. An aromatic wax is produced by the orchid between the sepals, and male bees in the tribe Euglossini (orchid bees) seek this wax; they scrape it off and place it in special pouches on their hind legs... the scent then attracts female bees, and so each species of bee seeks a particular species of coryanthes which has the particular scent that attracts only that species of female bee. Now the complicated part starts... the landing area is slippery, so the bees can easily lose their grip and fall into the bucket part of the flower. The coryanthes constantly drips a watery fluid into the bucket (excess is drained off through the side spout so that the bucket doesn't fill to the brim and allow the bee to escape). There are also down- facing hairs lining the bucket to further prevent the bee from climbing out; there is only one way for the bee to get out...the flower has provided a little step on one side of the bucket, which the bee can climb, and it directs him to a tunnel that leads out of the flower. As the bee wriggles through this tunnel, pollen sacs clamp down on the bee's back, he is held for a short period until the glue dries, then he is released to fly away. If he flies to another flower, and happens to fall in the bucket again, as he crawls out through the second tunnel, the pollen sacs on his back become adherent to the stigma, and the flower is fertilized. So only one species of bee seeks an aromatic wax occurring on only one species of orchid, which attracts only the female bee of his species; he falls in a bucket half-full of water and the flower provides him with a step that leads him into an escape hatch, and then glues pollen sacs to his back; the bee then falls in a second flower's bucket and on his way out the pollen sacs are removed to fertilize the flower. Darwin studied coryanthes extensively, and was quite comfortable that it all fit nicely into his theory of evolution; it may well be that the human mind is just boggled by inconceivable periods of time and chance, but I have always had a problem assigning such cleverness to chance. Even a mind as profound as Einstein's had to say "God doesn't play dice". I do not know whether my mind lacks comprehension of the scale of time and chance involved in evolution, or my soul lacks an element of unquestioning faith; either way, the natural world is marvelous beyond mankind's grasp. I have only contempt for those who are destroying this fragile construct, for their own gain.Posted by Picasa

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Empty Canvas... And The Paints

"So what?" you say; a picture of a snow-covered, brush-choked, nondescript little slope. Well, to me it's a precious commodity; an area in our wooded garden that is a south sloping hillside in full sun... or it will be such if I clear a ton of brush off the slope and clean out the poison ivy growing all over it... and somehow move a six foot deer fence to safely incorporate this irregular slope into the garden. This sunny spot is the parting gift of a huge elm tree that died of Dutch elm disease, and I intend to make use of this gift... someday soon. I am gradually developing this area of the garden, and hope to make this slope an early spring bulb garden. This winter I've been looking at pictures of crocuses and small bulbous irises that are already blooming in milder climates... what colors! I just need an area with full sun in order to grow them myself. I can see it now; I have the empty canvas... I just need the paints.Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 01, 2007

We're All Connected

The deer around here are a friendly, if somewhat nosy bunch... it's not uncommon to be working outside, feel like you're being watched, turn around and there are a pair of big, brown eyes looking at you. I confess to naming some of them... there has been the infamous Whome (who answers to that name) and Snoopy. I don't normally feed them (that is a complicated ecological quagmire), but the last couple of weeks I've been leaving them just a little corn to help get some of them through the winter... the last time we had a winter like this, they got so malnourished that they started losing their hair in big patches, and by the time spring came, the survivors looked like they were wearing overcoats three sizes too big, they had lost so much weight; it was just too painful to watch. Of course to thank me, they'll probably chew off a couple of arborvitaes. Posted by Picasa

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