Archive | January 2015

James Dean and shrubs and trees that bloom in winter.

When I teach my students how to identify and use landscape plants (HORT 3030), I occasionally mention the comedian Rodney Dangerfield. When I introduce them to fall-flowering plants, I tell them that these plants don’t get any respect. This Rodney Dangerfield metaphor epitomizes a collection of plants that are often overlooked in the nursery or garden center bySpring fever-stricken folks. “You’re doomed without blooms” is the credo of plant merchandisers. These delectable fall-bloomers with flowers that may be fragrant and inconspicuous–holly tea olive, Fortune’s osmanthus, fragrant tea olive–or bodacious and aromatic like Japanese fatsia, remain unnoticed in the garden center. They’re upstaged by sumptuous flowers of a multitude of spring-blooming shrubs and trees that include azaleas, dogwoods, and deutzias.

Fall-blooming shrubs and trees don’t get any respect. What about plants that bloom in the winter? Despite the everpresent danger of losing their flowers to freezing temperatures, these stalwart plants bloom with attitude. These James Dean plants (yes, I know I further alienate myself from younger generations) display a devil-may-care attitude with gorgeous—sometimes even fragrant—flowers.

From fall through winter I enjoy the semidouble pink flowers of autumn-flowering cherry (Prunus subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’).  Expect the largest floral display in early spring before the leaves emerge.

In late January and February I imbibe the spicy sweet-smelling blooms of Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume). This tree was one of the late J .C. Raultson’s favorite trees. Over 300 named cultivars offer single or double flowers in white through shades of pink to red.

The most famous winter-blooming trees are the many cultivars of Japanese camellias. Rightfully they’ve earned the nickname of “winter rose.” While only a few cultivars are endowed with fragrance, we appreciate them for their eye-candy blooms:  beautifully sculpted flowers that defy the imagination.

Chimonanthus praecox

Fragrant wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) in bloom.

A species in bloom right now is wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). Avoid gazing at its gaunt leafless constitution and admire the attractive thimble-sized pale yellow flowers with purple centers. The fragrance has been described as lemony and spicy. To me, the flowers smell like lemon-scented furniture polish.

Witchhazels offer an entertaining floral display in winter:  their spiderlike flowers are comprised of four straplike petals that look like strands of confetti which have exploded from the bud.  Among the best choices for the garden are the hybrids between the Asian species (Hamamaelis  x intermedia).  These produce the showiest flowers and become multistemmed shrubs ranging from 6 to 15 feet high.  My favorites among the two dozen cultivars include ‘Arnold Promise’, ‘Jelena’, ‘Primavera’; and ‘Ruby Glow’.

Finally, I’m looking forward to seeing and smelling the extremely fragrant creamy-yellow flowers of paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). After it blooms in midwinter, bold, tropical-looking leaves emerge in the Spring from this uncommon deciduous shrub.

I am a big fan of winter-flowering shrubs and trees that can only be appreciated in the dead of winter and on their own terms. They provide me with a brief escape to my happy place away from the short, cold days of winter.

Bob Polomski (c) 2015


Save some “green” this year

Even before the Global Recession, I learned to become a frugal gardener.  Here are a few money-saving tips that will help you garden inexpensively:

Grow your own plants from seeds, divisions or cuttings. Share or trade open-pollinated heirloom plants with friends and acquaintances. Layering is a simple, foolproof way of propagating these “pass-along” plants.

Create seed-starting “pots” from foam coffee cups, paper cups, cottage cheese tubs, yogurt containers, margarine containers, and cut-off milk cartons by poking holes in the bottom for drainage. The clam shells with clear lids at salad bars make ready-to-use mini-greenhouses for seed-starting or rooting cuttings.

When shopping for perennials, look for potted plants that contain several divisions or offsets that can be easily teased apart at planting. For the price of one pot, you can acquire several plants.

Mulch your plantings.  A shallow, 2- to 4-inch layer of organic mulch conserves moisture, suppresses weeds, and supplies nutrients as it decomposes. Covering bare soil with mulch reduces erosion.  Fallen leaves make an attractive fine-textured mulch when they’re shredded with a lawn mower or leaf shredder.

Harvest rainwater to irrigate your landscape and garden this spring and summer. Attractive rain barrels, clay urns with spigots at the bottom, or makeshift pickle barrels make excellent vessels for capturing and using rainwater.

Compost. Recycle organic yard trimmings and kitchen wastes and return them back into the landscape or vegetable garden as a soil conditioner or mulch.

These are just a few economical “green” techniques that will save you some “green” this upcoming gardening season.

Bob Polomski (C) 2015

My New Year’s Resolution: conduct a seed inventory

In January and February I carry out one of my New Year’s resolutions:  I take inventory of my seed collection.  First, I gather up all of the seeds that I’ve squirreled away in a variety of places like the refrigerator crisper, the pockets of jackets and sport coats, and dresser drawers.  Then, over several evenings and weekends, I decide what to save, trade, or toss out.  Strengthening my resolve is the constant flow of seed catalogs into my mail box which boast about vegetable and flower varieties that are “bigger,” “brighter,” and “better.”  I just have to make the room.

To help me decide what stays and what goes into the compost heap, I ask myself several questions:

  • How old is the seed? Seeds remains viable or are capable of germinating over a certain period of time.  Here are the ballpark ages of several vegetable seeds that when stored under cool, dry conditions should be expected to produce a good stand of healthy seedlings:

1 year or less:  Onions, Parsley, Parsnips, and Salsify

2 years:  Corn, Okra, and Peppers

3 years:  Beans, Cowpeas (Southern peas), and Peas

4 years:  Beets, Fennel, Mustard, Pumpkins, Rutabagas, Squash, Swiss chard, Tomatoes, Turnips, and Watermelons

5 years:  Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collards, Eggplant, Muskmelons, Radishes, and Spinach.

•  Is the seed viable?  Perform a simple germination test.  Count out at least 20 seeds and space them out on two or three layers of moistened paper towels.  Roll the towels up carefully to keep the seeds separate and place the roll in a plastic bag.  Check the seeds in 2 or 3 days and every day thereafter for about a week or so to see if any germinated.  If few seeds germinate, you may want to discard the seed and buy fresh seed for the upcoming gardening season.

•  Is the seed the actual variety you wanted to save? If the vegetables are self-pollinated like beans, peas, lettuce, and nonhybrid tomatoes, expect to have true-to-type varieties.  However, expect surprises when planting the seeds from insect- or wind-pollinated varieties.  Cross-pollination will occur between different varieties of insect-pollinated vegetables such as cucumber, melon, squash, or pumpkin.  The same goes for wind-pollinated beets, sweet corn, spinach, and Swiss chard.  You may want to discard these seeds.

•  Was the seed collected from a hybrid?  Hybrid or F1hybrid seed is the offspring of a cross made between two parent varieties.  If you preferred the original hybrid, discard these seeds.  The offspring from an F1 hybrid will be a mixture of plant types, most of which will be inferior to the original parent.

•  Do you have any seeds or varieties that a fellow gardener would be willing to swap for?   In the eyes of some gardeners, a “Mickey Mantle” or “Joe DiMaggio” could take the form of a Sweet Baby Blue corn or a Super Italian Paste tomato.  Perhaps you can save these seeds and trade them for something else.

When I answer these questions, I find that very few seeds ever get composted.  Probably because I always ask myself one final question:  “Are you really sure that you can’t find any room for this little packet of seeds?”  The answer is always, “But of course.”  My wife has eight dresser drawers with plenty of room!

Bob Polomski (c) 2015