Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bees: Les liaisons dangereuses

Let me start off by saying that I am extremely allergic to bees.  Like emergency room visit, full body hives, childhood marked off by weekly desensitizing shots, and Epi-Pen kind of allergic. So gardening brings along with it a certain amount of danger. I take great care to avoid all Hymenoptera--bees, wasps, and yellow jackets alike--and to not put any body part into a place where it is likely to be stung.

But sometimes bees make hives in the last place that you'd imagine. Over the years, we've had plenty of nests snuggled in behind shutters or angled into the corners of window jambs. That's where I expect to see their light brown papery houses and, during the summer, I keep an ear out to pinpoint their buzzing along the favored south side of the house. But where I don't anticipate a bee's nest is inside a pot of living plants.

Anyway, about a month ago, I had quickly dug up a clump of over-wintering sedums into order to plant several Coreopsis verticillata "Zagreb."  Rather than transplant the sedums into their summertime pot right then, I simply tossed them into the container, doused them with water, and figured that they'd hang on just fine until I had a chance to do a proper re-planting.  Yesterday, I was finally ready to compose my summertime succulent table centerpiece.

As I was lifting loose bunches of sedum from their temporary resting place, I grabbed a most peculiar plant from underneath the soil. At first, I thought that it was a downwards-growing spore sac or some crazy mixed-up version of hen-and-chicks, but as soon as I saw bees swarming, my own crazy mixed-up neurons began to fire in the most precise survivalist way, and I realized that I was holding a bee's nest.

I dropped the nest and stepped away so my non-allergic husband could take charge.  Oh, yeah, there was a little hootin' and hollerin' involved. The hive fell to pieces; the brown paper walls and base shook loose from a neat little comb. Smoke from a small fire kept the bees away while the situation was assessed. In the end, we bagged up and discarded the comb. I am sympathic to the plight of honeybees, but a live comb was going to interfere with my future plans . . . like having a future . . .  and I didn't like the idea of tossing the comb where some other possibly allergic soul could stumble into an accidental encounter.  Meantime, a lone bee kept returning to the scene of the crime, buzzing low, and speeding away. Something poignant in his search . . . but, sentimentality aside, he was probably just flying on hard-wired autopilot.

Finally, the pot of succulents was assembled: hen and chicks Sempervivum sp., Sedum x "Vera Jameson," Sedum spurium "John Creech," and Sedum rupestre. Bees are welcome to visit. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Garden goalroll, 2012

For several years, I have run a garden goalroll. This is my place to scribble horticultural marginalia and to post reminders about what needs doing when. Or to record what I still haven't done.  


Move potted amaryllis bulbs outdoors and feed regularly with liquid fertilizer.

Edge garden beds.

Continue to prune into shape front foundation plantings and yews along side property line.

Scratch 1 1/4 cups of RoseTone around the roots of "New Dawn" climbing rose now monthly through the summer; be sure to stop feeding by August 15 in order to prevent developing new growth that will not have time to harden off before fall temperatures drop. Done June 2.

After flowering, shear Amsonia hubrichtii by 1/3 of its height to promote better form. Done June 10.

When it is 3 feet tall, cut Joe pye weed "Gateway" back to half its height to encourage dense growth. Done June 2. 

Stake dahlias when the tubers are planted and again and again as they grow. Stop dahlias by pinching stem back to four pairs of leaves. Ongoing.

Pinch back shasta daisies to 6".

And stake, stake, stake!


Yes, it's dreadfully hot and humid, but pour yourself a tall glass of iced tea and get out there in the early morning cool to prune the "New Dawn" climbing rose.  Cut it back hard.

Late August/Early September

Separate Siberian irises to left of kitchen door and along left side of back bed (Eric the Red).

Columbus Day

Add more miniature daffodils and 100-250 allium "Ostrowkianum" to beds by side of front walk and at least 50 more wood hyacinths "Dainty Maid" to old back bed. 

Order 12 or more hyacinth bulbs, at least 25 paperwhite narcissus bulbs, and 2 amaryllis bulbs for indoor forcing.

Dig in bone meal around peonies.

Lightly feed evergreens along front of house with Holly-Tone.

Move potted amaryllis bulbs indoors and chill in refrigerator.

Veterans Day

While daytime temperatures are still above 40 degrees, spray an anti-transpirant, like Wilt-Pruf or Wilt Stop, on "Sky Needle" hollies to prevent winter kill.

Top-dress beds with composted cow manure.


Winter-sow larkspur seeds.

Late December

Start planning plant purchases for 2013.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Suficiente Hyacinthoides hispanica

Last fall, I planted 50 bulbs of  Hyacinthoides hispanica "Dainty Maid" in a partly shady garden bed along the side property line.  My idea was to use these Spanish hyacinths as replacements for a scatter of rabbit-ravaged tulips.  

Come May, the Spanish hyacinths are in bloom. They do supply a modest flecking of pink between a couple of ripening peonies and a blue-budding Amsonia hubrichtii.  Nothing spectacular, nothing as bells and whistles show-stopping as a spring stand of Darwin tulips--just an adequate bit of color.  Suficiente

And that's quite okay.  By this time of year, I'm not so visually starved that I crave the big bright gulps of color offered by garish purple, orange, and red tulips and acid-yellow daffodils.  My palette is now able to appreciate a more delicate and frothy confection.  Sufficient is just fine.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Topping dahlias

Last year, my dahlias grew so tall that I had to stand on tip-toe to reach the blooms at the top of the plants.  Varieties that were advertised as five footers stretched to seven feet or more.  Staking quickly degenerated into an ugly wrestling match in which my poles, twine, and personal dignity suffered humiliating defeats. By the end of the summer, the plants were listing to the side like a row of inebriated red, orange, and burgundy bedecked party-goers.

So this year I wanted to make sure that I was careful to top the dahlias.  Bloomin' mad dahlia aficionados do this in order to produce the largest flowers;  I was topping in order to produce a smaller plant. The topped plant directs its energy into the lateral stems, ideally resulting in a fuller, more easily maintained plant.  Here's all you do.

First, make sure the the plant has three or four pairs of true leaves.  Take care not to include in your count the cotyledon leaves--the smaller leaves near the ground. (To keep the plant clean from foliage-bourne diseases, you can remove those cotyledon leaves anyway when the plant is about a foot high.)

Next, reach in between the pair of leaves and, using your fingernails, pinch out the stalk. Be careful not to crush, pinch, or damage any little leaves that are growing to either side of the stalk. Those guys are going to grow up to become laterals.

Cruel to be kind: it may hurt now to take away that delicious green growth but not as much as dahlia wrangling later. Next on the agenda: replacing the current light weight stakes with the heavy duty models. I'm betting on blooms by early July.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Spring woods

Readers may remember that I wrote earlier this year about the growing enthusiasm for the preservation of a piece of parkland across the street from my house.  These woods had been threatened by an ill-conceived plan, roundly defeated at town meeting, for their development.  One of the several benefits from that attention was an Earth Day clean-up.  While I was enjoying some welcome mother-daughter time in Phoenix on the day of the event, my husband contributed hours removing invasive plants, construction debris, and general trash from the woods. Every one's efforts energized the neighborhood and received some good local press.

Since I missed the fun, last week I went to check out the results.  Spring in these New England woods is cool, green, and fresh. Pockets of different plant species are nestled in the dips and slopes of the land. There are colonies of native wildflowers, such as trout lily, jack-in-pulpit, and Solomon's seal.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum ssp.)
Also on view were patches of invasive plants which, lovely as they might be in bloom, were busy displacing native species.  These lilies of valley, for example, were battling with a spread of Solomon's seal for space.

Black jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens), which was introduced as an Asian ornamental in 1866, is able to grow anywhere--in sun or shade, in wet or dry conditions, in acid or alkaline soils, in polluted or salty air. Its ability to form a thick understory, pushing out native species, renders black jetbead a threat in Massachusetts.  And its white spring flowers look so very innocent!

And, of course, there was the ubiquitous garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).  I've read that you can eat this plant--it was after all introduced into this country as a culinary herb in the 1860's--which would make the occasional human consumer its only predator.  

I realized that there will be lots more work to be done.  Before I headed home, I loaded up my pockets with discarded chip wrappers and soda bottles and pulled up an armload of invasive plants.  Every bit helps, I hope.