Friday, March 31, 2006

What I Think of Norway Spruce

I grew up in the land of evergreen trees; deciduous trees were almost a rarity. The conifers were such an ever present backdrop that I neglected to notice them. I took it for granted that the hills were always a sea of green. This is in sharp contrast to my new home, where winter brings naked trees and brown vistas. The dark conifers planted around homes stand out from the leafless wilds. In a place where the land looks dead for five months of the year, winter interest is all the rage.

The spotlight on evergreens has caused me to cast a critical eye on the plants I’ve always ignored. By and large, the evergreens planted around homes and in parks are terribly ugly. Some of the eyesores can be attributed to botched (or no) pruning, but others are just ungraceful plants. One of the worst offenders is the Norway Spruce.

The Norway Spruce is planted for its fast growth and screening properties. Its thickly interlaced branches provide a wind and sight barrier. I’ve also been told that they provide valuable wildlife habitat. We have two of these beauties planted in our front yard, and more along the sides.

For all its virtues (and our aged trees magnificent height), I can’t help but find fault with the tree’s ragged appearance. The spruce looks as if it were suffering, with its drooping, tattered branches. It behaves in an almost petulant manner, flinging branches, needles, and cones in fits of fury. It creates such dense shade and has such vigorous, shallow roots, that little can survive beneath it. It’s an ugly tree, casting an ugly, barren shadow over the landscape.

The situation is made even worse by poor siting and a lack of pruning. I’ve seen entire houses consumed by these monsters, planted only 10 feet away from the residence. Whole front lawns are made impassable by the reaching, sagging limbs. I’m tempted to carry a pruning saw in my car and make stealthy stops to liberate homes from the tree’s deathly embrace.

Mike and I have done some aggressive pruning of our own two trees, both to improve the view and light and to allow traffic on the sidewalk and street. However, as unattractive as I may find them, the trees will not be cut down. Their imposing presence creates a privacy we treasure in our front yard. I’m learning to garden between the snake-like roots with plants that can tolerate root competition. The grass simply doesn’t have a chance and is being replaced with woodland plants.

While I wouldn’t kill our Norway Spruce, you couldn’t pay me enough to plant a new one in my yard. There are far too many lovely trees, even conifers, that I would prefer to the beasts. Magnolia, dogwood, redbud, laburnum, hemlock, pine (especially Jeffrey pine), yellowwood, and the endless varieties of Prunus top my list of trees. Spare me the ugly trees.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Of Mice and Moles

My neighbors and I are afflicted with moles. I didn’t really mind them until this year. The occasional mole hill is unsightly and treading on their tunnels can make one seasick, but my focus was on the flowerbeds, not the lawn. Eventually, though, they discovered the nicely tilled soil of my gardens and earned my eternal wrath. As they burrow beneath my perennials in search of worms and grubs, they disturb the roots’ contact with the soil and cause the plants to gasp for water and nutrients. I’ve declared war on the buggers.

Now that we have FIVE cats, I thought that my kitties would take care of the problem. They are quite the little hunters. I actually had one neighbor thank me for bringing Cleo into the area because he noticed a significant decline in the mole activity in his lawn. (I think they just moved to my yard, instead.) Mr. Tibbs and Zoro spend hours with their arms inside mole holes or patiently watching the earth heave as one of the rodents burrows just beneath the soil. They’ve brought me two moles this year, along with assorted voles, mice and shrews. Noticing that they had brought me both a mommy and a daddy mole, I thought my mole problem was licked. (Impressed that I can accurately sex a mole? Let me tell you, it isn’t hard. I can only suppose that it is because their blind that their sexual organs are so very obvious.)

I don’t know if mommy mole managed to have a litter already, if the kitties’ offerings were from another yard, or if we are hosting multiple mole families, but the mole presence remains. I’ve considered the many other methods of mole control, from folkloric (juicy fruit gum) to chemical (gassing the tunnels) to mechanical (traps), but none are effective AND foolproof. I did happen upon a method only recommended for those with a strong stomach: the pitchfork/shovel method. This involves patrolling the yard with a pitchfork or shovel, watching for the telltale heaving of the soil. Once a digging mole is located, you thrust the weapon into the earth and, depending on your tool, impale the bugger or cut him in half. Barbaric, yes, but primitively satisfying.

Yesterday I had consumed enough Captain Morgan’s to give the technique a whirl. I was moving containers around on the deck when I spotted Mr. Tibbs carefully watching the earth move nearby. I ran to the garage and grabbed a shovel. Upon returning to the backyard, I crept up beside Mr. Tibbs. (The creeping was entirely unnecessary. The mole didn’t seem to sense any danger.) I’m not sure if it was squeamishness or just a cruel wish to watch the mole slowly die, but I decided to stab my shovel in the earth just behind the heaving and expose the rodent for Mr. Tibbs to finish off. The blade bit easily into the freshly disturbed earth and I flung the dirt aside. Lo and behold, I exposed an enormous gray mole. Neither Mr. Tibbs nor I were quick enough to get him before he dove into another tunnel and escaped. Although I kept watch, I saw no mole sign for the rest of the evening.

I’ve discovered a newfound bloodlust. I’m not normally a violent person, but I am sincerely looking forward to my next hunting expedition. Mr. Tibbs or Zoro will be my pointers, but they won’t get to make the kill. Next time, I plan on hitting the center of movement with my shovel blade and claiming the glory for myself. The moles will fear me!

For more information on mole control, Tom Clothier’s page on moles contains some of the most comprehensive advice I’ve seen on the internet.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Seedlings in Danger

My winter sown containers have been segregated. Those with sprouts now sit along the railing and those without surround the ghetto cold frame. This allows me to keep track of how many containers have germinated. The segregation will come in handy tonight, when I move the twenty or so growing containers into the garage to weather the coming storm.

After a few days of very spring-like weather, winter had returned. We will have snow tonight and tomorrow. The nighttime temperatures will dip below freezing every night this week. Tuesday night will only be a chilly 18 degrees! I will not have my seedlings frozen into brown mush a second time. The garage should stay at or above freezing.

I agonized over the decision to move the seedlings into the garage. I have so thoroughly bought into the premise of winter sowing and the hardy seedlings it is supposed to produce that I am loathe to let doubt sway me. However, my faith was seriously shaken by my early lupine’s death. I am also reluctant to spend my few precious minutes at home doing something onerous like carrying containers around the house. (Between two jobs and rehearsals, I am only home and awake for about 2 hours a day. I spend most of that time feeding, bathing, and dressing myself. The remaining minutes are devoted to tidying the house.) Thankfully, Mike has agreed to help me move the seedlings to safety.

Hopefully, the move saves, not kills the sprouts. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that mission Save Our Seedlings is a success.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

March Green

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. After the earlier disaster, I’ve been faithfully searching for a bit o’ green in my wintersown containers. I was delighted to find a number of new perennial sprouts and even a few annuals:

Johnny Jump Up
Dame’s Rocket
Yarrow (Cerise Queen)
Sheep’s Bit
English Daisy (yes, some survived the February Deep Freeze!)
Perennial Candytuft
Lupine (Band of Noble)
Dianthus (Siberian Blues)
Sweet Alyssum
Zinnia (Lilliput)

Additionally, I have six mystery containers of seedlings. Evidently, a smooth plastic soda bottle doesn't provide an ideal marking surface for a Sharpie pen. The writing has completely disappeared. Judging from the seeds, I suspect that two of the containers are either catnip or catmint. (The seeds are oblong and black with white tips.) The other four containers are enigmas. After the sprouts have grown a few true leaves, I hope to match them to the seedlings in a labeled container. Next time, I’m labeling craft sticks and inserting them INSIDE the containers.

They may not be four leaf clovers, but the sight of wee green seedlings thrills me all the same. I think I’ll celebrate with a green beer!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Ever Tidy Garden

When discussing spring bulbs or daylilies, I’ve noticed a recurring question: “What companion plants will camouflage post-bloom leaves?” Unless you’re prepared to replace your daffodils each fall, the fading leaves must remain until they’ve gathered the energy needed for next year’s bloom. After withering away, a bare spot is left where cheerful beacons of spring once stood. Daylily leaves, while very fresh looking in the spring, are tatty by the season’s end. Without fabulous flowers to distract the eye, the plants can look messy.

The landscape designers at Friendship Park in Cincinnati have done an admirable job of providing season-long interest while concealing plants past their prime. This is especially true along the flag walk, at the park’s entrance. In the spring, daffodils line the walk. By summer, the daylilies planted behind the bulbs are in full glory and the ripening daffodil foliage is concealed. Finally, in the fall, the ornamental grass has grown tall enough to distract from, if not completely cover, the spent daylily foliage. (In the above picture, you can see the blooming daffodils, and behind them the emerging daylilies and then last year's grass remains.)

The daylily/daffodil pairing has been suggested before, but adding the grass for a third season of interest is a novel idea. It isn’t exactly “cottagey,” but I’m impressed enough with the effect to consider ornamental grasses in my own beds. Or maybe I’ll just live with the ratty leaves. I wouldn’t want my garden to be too perfect.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Knobby-Kneed Teepee

The trees cringe when they see me wielding the loppers and handsaw. They’ve been ruthlessly hacked back, limbed up or even cut down to make way for my gardening activities. Between the yews, Norway spruce, honeysuckle trees, and sweet gum, I’ve accumulated a very large pile of trimmings. I intended to burn it all in the fireplace this winter, but my enthusiasm for gathering, cutting and splitting firewood didn’t last long. Instead, we’re left with an embarrassing tangle of branches along the side of the house. If we had a chipper, I’d be in mulch heaven. Instead, I have the task of cutting the branches into 4 foot lengths, stuffing them in yard waste bags, and setting them on the curb for the city to recycle (compost).

It doesn’t all go to waste. I use the smaller branches as the “brown” in my own compost. I’ve saved a large stack of 3-foot long branches to use as plant stakes and hotdog/marshmallow sticks. My most creative reuse of the tree trimmings is the twiggy teepee I built in the front yard. I envisioned a rustic obelisk, but ended up with a somewhat drunken-looking cone that neighbor Tim christened the “Blair Witch Project.” It looks awkward now, but I think it will stop scaring the neighborhood children when it is dripping with sweet peas. (And maybe I’ll stop hearing those eerie noises at night.)

I’ve got plenty of branches left. Any other ideas on what I can do with them? (Besides craft stick figures to hang from the trees.)

Monday, March 13, 2006

Our Library

Our books are out of control. Mike and I have the trappings of two college degrees each, rampant hobbies, and a juris doctorate in progress. We bought three, slim, but tall, bookcases in Japan to house our library, but it outgrew the shelving. We began stacking books on the floor. I spread my collection out among the den, living room, and bedroom while Mike kept a veritable reading library in the bathroom. My ideal solution was a wall of built-in bookshelves in our den, complete with a window seat. It would (hopefully) house all of our books in one location and be an investment in the house to boot.

In the true do-it-yourself spirit, I was planning on developing my carpentry skills to the point where I could build the bookshelves myself. However, at my current pace (only one major project completed), I wouldn’t be ready to attempt such an undertaking until 2015. Instead, we used our income tax refund and some nice men from Vision Home Enterprises to build the bookshelves nine years sooner. Here are the before and after pics:

Although I don’t yet have a photo of the filled shelves, you can trust me when I say that ALL of our tomes fit, with room to spare! I could double my gardening book collection before feeling bad about hogging the space.

The bookshelves have inspired me to edit the décor in the rest of the room make it a more inviting place. I rearranged some of the existing furniture to make the room seem bigger. The very ugly Homedics massage chair and the cat tree have been exiled to the basement. Two reclining, chenille, wingback chairs will be delivered later this month. Gold paint chips are currently auditioning for a spot on the wall. (The gold paint will also be applied in the hallway, to replace the pumpkin puke.) By April, we should have a cozy library in which to spend days too rainy to garden. And to think, it all started with the problem of too many books…

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Lengthening of the Day

One of my greatest joys in the summer is going straight from work to the garden. I arrive home, shed my business clothes, don my grubbies, and head out the door. Behind me, I hear calls of “What’s for dinner?” to which I reply “Grill me a hotdog!” I have no time for cooking and even less for eating. Daylight’s a-wasting!

Daylight is key to evening gardening. In the winter, the darkness is as much as an obstacle as the cold. As spring approaches, though, the days are slowly lengthening. Today, sunset is at 6:39 p.m. and civil twilight (during which enough light remains to carry on most outdoor activities) ends at 7:06. I could be getting in an hour of gardening each evening!

Alas, I’m still confined to weekend warrior sessions because I’m in rehearsals for Fiddler on the Roof most evenings. As I drive to the theater, I covetously watch the sunlight fade away. As much as I enjoy performing, I’ll be thrilled when we open and my weeknights are mostly free again. On March 27th, I’ve got a date with the dirt. Sunset will be at 6:57 and twilight lasts until 7:24!

Check your sunset and twilight times here.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Perils of Winter Sowing

I’ve been humbled again. The sprightly seedlings I crowed over in January are now brown and mushy.

The Bellis perennis container is probably a complete loss. Mike dumped the entire package of seed in the milk jug and it looks as if they all sprouted, only to be knocked down by February’s arctic air. I’m not heartbroken; after reading more about English daisies, I wasn’t so sure I wanted them after all. I only bought the seeds because they were marked down at Big Lots last summer.

The lupine containers only had about 25% germination in January. Those early sprouts are dead, but I’m hoping the remaining seed are viable. I’ve done successive sowings of lupine, so the containers I sowed in February did not experience the warm temperatures and early germination. I should be assured of having lupine plants this spring.

The sweet william also germinated in late January to greet a frosty death. I need to check my records to see if I did a later sowing or if I should put out another container. Because sweet william is a biennial, I saved plenty of seed for next year (or later this year).

Some of you may be nodding your heads and thinking “I told you so.” You were right to be skeptical of January seedlings. I had faith though, in the winter sowing premise that Mother Nature knows best. I naively believed the seedlings would not hatch before the time is right. I grieve for their little deaths, but chalk it up as a lesson learned: don’t put all your eggs in one basket (or all your seeds in one container). My process of sowing the same type of seed over a couple of months turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Our winters are unpredictable and successive sowings ensure that at least some of the containers succeed.

I begin sowing the annual seeds this weekend. Please don’t die, little guys!