A Winter Day in the Greenhouse

14dec_treelights_cr_smChristmas mail has made it clear to me I am a very bad blogger. “We miss your blog.” “No updates on your blog.” “So sorry you’ve stopped blogging.” OK. Truth is, I haven’t stopped blogging. I just haven’t done it lately. (And I’ve blogged at least as often as I hear from my Christmas correspondents.)

It seemed after a while that the farm things must be getting a little boring to you, dear readers. After all, every year the same plants grow, or don’t. The animal procreate, or don’t. The rain falls, or sometimes doesn’t, and we complain either way.

All right: Here is what I am doing today: I am trimming up the over-wintering geraniums in the greenhouse.

The greenhouse turns out to have been useful for a number of things. Last fall (a year ago), I moved a number of my zonal geraniums into the greenhouse to hold them over. I usually start them from seed in the spring, but I thought I’d see how they did inside. I remember my mother wintering hers over in the garage with little light and hardly any water, so I thought the glassed-in beds would be good for this. It was:

15jan04_geraniums_sm They got a little out of hand. And I didn’t, actually, get them planted out into the garden in the spring. So we have had a forest of happy geraniums in the greenhouse, though there was room for other things until summer advanced and we noticed they had fairly taken over the world.

It was nice in there in the spring and summer with the blooms, the scent of geraniums, and the everlasting nosegay. In April we had a bottle lamb from the sheep flock, one whose mother did her best but died when the lamb was a bare 3 weeks old. So Folly, as we called her since she was born on April 1, moved into the greenhouse where it was more convenient for us to meet her feeding schedule.

14apr_greenhousefolly1_cr_smShe enjoyed the geraniums, too. Folly has since then returned to being a sheep and lives with the other ewes.

In summer we had another blessed event, one we would have avoided if we could’ve. But when you live in the country, Providence brings you cats, and it happened that She brought us both a feral tom and a sweet, fertile queen at the same time. In a longer story than I will tell here, Gollum the tom, is no longer with us. But he left a little bit of himself behind. That’s Gollum’s Precious and her 4 grey-striped kittens.

14jul_kittens1_cr_sm We found a good home for 2 of them, and 2 have stayed with us. For a short time, while their mother was recovering from her female surgery, they all  took up residence in the greenhouse, which had been vacated by Folly, and where they learned essential gardening skills.


So the greenhouse has been successful for animal husbandry as well as botanical experiments. But really, really, those geraniums need to be taken in hand. Hard as it is to whack something so thriving, if we intend any use of the greenhouse in the spring, we have to do it. So here I am today, whacking:

15jan04_geraniums3_smThe mask is for the clouds (clouds!) of old pollen falling from the dried blooms.


There are benefits to this exercise: I’ll recover planting space, the geraniums will be, I hope, in splendid condition for planting out in the spring when they will have put on new growth to their now compact limbs, and: I find things! (I knew that trowel was in there someplace!)


It’s raining outside, and I could complain about that, but this is nice way to spend a winter afternoon in the garden. I once had a university professor who said, in regard to plants, “You have to hurt them to make them thrive. Cut them back!”

Published in: on January 4, 2015 at 4:12 pm  Comments (7)  

Woods Walking on a Snowy Afternoon

A snow day off from work calls for a walk in the woods. I took two today, one in the early morning, just after feeding the animals, when I could look back at a moment of clear sky in the west.


And one in the afternoon when, though a certain gloom had fallen over the woods and the snow was just beginning to assert itself, I couldn’t stay inside. Like a little kid on a day out of school, I put on my boots and hat and headed out again.


I found I wasn’t the only one walking in the woods. The beginning of a snowfall, before it’s deep enough to hide the evidence, offers all kinds of clues to who shares the woods.

Here, in the morning light, are the tracks of a rabbit heading into the brush.


And nearby, the skittery  footprints of some little rodent making her way across the path.


Bird feet, two by two, hopping, hopping:


I have to admit, some of us leave less elegant notes on our passing:


But now, sound the doom music, the rumbling kettle drums, the minor chord of danger nearby…

A coyote makes his way uphill through the snow. See the marks of his toenails ahead of the pads. Imagine him moving along the trail he knows so well, sniffing the air…


His tracks run in a straight line, trotting through the woods except for evidence of a moment when he paused… To whiff the scent of prey just missed? To scratch?


Here, a crossroads: rabbit and coyote. Which passed first? The coyote follows the cleared track. The rabbit keeps to the brush except for a half dozen hops to the other side.


just like the bird who crossed here:


The bird has the advantage of flight if caught in the open. It seems that, on this occasion, the two shared ground but not time.

Oh, and back home again, we have Brer Cat, who had emerged from his briar brush to inquire whether meal service had arrived.


It had.


Published in: on February 7, 2014 at 3:52 pm  Comments (7)  

Gone in a Gust

13oct_fallcolor_smUsually, it is a gentle slide through September to the chills of October. A bit of briskness in the mornings, an evening when you want the warmth of sweater sleeves, the scent of leaves decaying at the margins of the driveway, and you become aware the season is drifting away from summer into autumn. But this year, on the very day of the Equinox, as if a switch were thrown, September slammed the door on late summer and flung itself into early fall. A friend sent a note saying the first windstorm left two trees down across their driveway. Smoke hangs over the woods and pastures as woodcutters begin to burn their slash piles. Mud lies in the track through the woods.

But, true to the nature of the season, we are just now in a span of gorgeous autumn days with early chill and afternoon sun, and I have to say, as much as I love September, I might love October more. The harvest festivals that come now are a notation in the seasonal round, marking this as the time of plenty when the summer crops are in storage and the autumn ones are about to fill our baskets and barrels. As I write this, a pan on the stove is simmering with pears in wine, and the scent of cloves is drifting through the house. I’ve just dug and brought in most of the geraniums from the garden. We haven’t had anything but a touch of frost yet, but a real one isn’t far away. I’m digging some things out, and putting others in: some roses I started from cuttings last spring, some Berberis I rescued from the “dead and dying” bin at one of the nurseries and that seem to have recovered from their trauma, some tulips for next year’s bloom.

It’s been a helluva year for Chanterelles in the woods. We’ve put them up in the freezer (sautéd in butter with some garlic, then frozen in 1-cup portions for future convenience) (Is it sautéd or sautéed, in English? Or sauté-ed? ). We’ve dried them, for use in stews. We’ve used them fresh in omelets, spaghettis, on toast, with rice, in a scramble, on pork chops, with chicken, with a rabbit… We’ve given them away up and down the road, and in town. It is the Year of the Chanterelle around here. The bag, of course, is the point of it all, but it’s the looking-for that is the very best, that thrashing and clambering into the woods, falling over logs and sliding down banks, the eye peeled for that flash of gold in the duff. 


Gold has always led men and women into folly, and chanterelling in the woods is no less wild and unseemly in its way than the quest for yellow metal in the hills.

Just writing of it, just writing, starts the bell ringing in my chest, and I grab up my bag and head again into the firs and maples and salal.


I’m back now, and settled down.  I found a few to put in the sack.


Other harvests: we have late apples now and pears, potatoes curing on a rack, still some eggplants in the garden, green tomatoes now giving permission to take them for green tomato gravy, red cabbages hoping (I suppose) to become our traditional autumn red cabbage dish (vinegar, molasses, brown sugar, apples, onions, smoked pork of some variety, bit of salt, coarsely shredded red cabbage, and let it cook until it is good).

Did I mention apples? Sometimes we share.


A thread of geese has just skeined overhead, gabbling and arguing as they go.

You ought to see the load of berries on the hawthorns in the forest.


There is the other thing that makes October a fine month. It’s a month when the veil begins to thin between this world and another one, the one that makes our hair stand up a little on a dark night. By the end of the month, we will be looking over our shoulders when we go into the woods because, it seems… didn’t I just feel something there, behind me?



Maybe it isn’t too early for my hair to shift a little.

OK, now. Just one more image of my most recent pass-time. I can’t help it. It’s gold.


Published in: on October 13, 2013 at 6:59 pm  Comments (10)  


 13sep_autumn1_smIt’s the Autumnal Equinox here in the northern hemisphere. I cannot tell you how how gladly I welcome the arrival of September when that too-hot sun of August takes a step back and some early rains dampen the woods. The hoses in the garden can rest now. Suddenly the world fills with scents of an old kind again: over-ripe berries in the brambles, apples on the stem, fungus underfoot in the duff. Fairy rings appear where they had not been.


Deep in our woods, where the very old stumps rest and seem to hold


a knowledge they wait to share (One day, they say, one day, you’ll see what I meant by that.), the much-awaited Chanterelle mushrooms have emerged:


Spiders sling their end-of-season webs across the trails. Wooly bears hurry from one side of the road to the other (Broad brown band? Narrow? What will the winter be?). Hornets prepare, in their magnificent chewed paper houses (Papier Mâché: chewed paper), for the arrival of cold weather.


We shared the picking of plums with them. You probably never saw two such fools as we, stealing from the tree and picking up drops while hornets contested ownership of the fruit. But, despite their insistence that all these plums belonged to them, we filled our buckets without incident. Maybe they were too drunken on the nectar to really bother about us.

We’ve picked blackberries (What good ice cream they make!).


We’ve made the first two pressings of apple cider (Gravenstein, Hewes crabs, Golden Delicious, and Spartan), and are storing them in the freezer for a season-end press of the Liberty apples. The final blend will include the mellow early Gravensteins and Golden Delicious, the fulsome mid-season Spartans,  the ping! of the crabs and the snap! of the fall Liberties. Here’s a portrait of some of the tart-sweet crab apples before crushing. It always seems a shame to crush them.


This year we had the most magnificent Harvest Moon only a couple of days before the equinox, rising just after sundown, hanging low and large in the growing darkness.


It’s not the end of summer. It’s the beginning of autumn.

Published in: Uncategorized on September 22, 2013 at 4:03 pm  Comments (2)  

In Which We Update Many Unrelated Things

This post is a miscellany. And how time does fly! I promised to be more diligent here, and haven’t lived up to my word.

Blowin' in the wind

Hay is just in. We admire the loft and barn floor full of bales, but in the run-up to the job, frankly, I always feel a little nauseated. Every time, it’s a juggling act for the date as you watch for weather and wait for the call from the baling man. And then begins my major sustained physical effort of the year. It is to be expected that when the call comes, the weather will be hot. It had better be, since the hay would spoil in the field if it weren’t good haying weather, but the tax on the aging body is increased by some predictable ratio of effort to temperature.

There are pleasures in haying: the world smells wonderful. The scene is beautiful with either flowing windrows of raked grass or beaded lines of finished bales strewn across the fields. The afternoon or morning sun casts patterns of shadow over the landscape. The sound of field machinery is on the air, intermittent as tractors run over a hill and out of range, and then back again, or a baler stops for adjustment, or the crew just stops, for water or lunch. Hawks balance on the wing over shorn fields, looking for that now-exposed rodent who only yesterday sheltered in the stems. Crows stalk back and forth across the acres, picking at whatever can be found in the newly revealed world of cuttings. Haying time is beautiful.


Haying time is filled with challenges, too. Last year our clutch failed as we labored uphill in the evening with our trailer load of bales. This year, we suffered a flat tire on the trailer when it was loaded with two tons of hay. This year we found the trailer wiring ripped apart in crossing a field, and made repairs before hitting the road for home. This year the pulley belt on the hay elevator required loving attention before it consented to drive the chain and raise the bales. This year we mired the pick-up in the mud where a spring rises in the pasture, and spent 45 minutes or so digging it out and shoving boards beneath the wheels. It seems it’s the normal thing in farm work, to lose time to trips for parts or tools, to break-downs, and repairs. The halt to the music of work and progress is always anticipated, though unknown until its moment.

But we got it in. It’s like appreciating a pantry full of jars of peaches, when we look at the barn loft full of sweet-smelling, square-baled grass. And I admit to some self admiration when I reflect: One more year. I can still do it.

This year, last spring, we rolled out the old potato barrel from storage. I’m not sure why we put it away. It’s given us loads of potatoes in the past. Here it is on planting day, back in April:

The potato barrel

This is a food-grade barrel. You don’t want to do this with a chemical barrel, so shop well. Sometimes you can get such things from bakeries or food-preparation companies, or restaurants. Or you can find them at container re-sale outfits.

We put in a good bed of rotting hay and manure from the sheep pens. See the worm? Earthworms are good news!


… and then a layer of seed potatoes:

Seed spuds going in

to be lovingly covered with more good compost. “Compost” of course is the polite word for rotted barnyard manures and bedding, as well as household scraps and garden waste. If you don’t have a ready source of sheep bedding and rabbit pellets, you can make excellent compost from your kitchen. As the potato plants grow, we add more bedding material, carefully arranging it among the emerging stems and leaves, as if we were heaping soil along the rows in a conventional potato bed. We keep doing that until the barrel is heavy with soils and growing plants. I like to use small, whole potatoes with several eyes for seed instead of cutting up larger ones. It saves having to treat the cut surfaces against rots and infections. The skins of the little potatoes do a good job all by themselves. And, since you buy seed potatoes by weight, it’s my theory that you get more eyes (sprouts) for the weight this way.

In time, the growing potatoes push themselves out through the holes in the barrel, and set flowers…


and eventually, when the plants die back, we will tip the barrel over and retrieve our potatoes. We’re not quite there yet. Here is the barrel last week:


It seems to be doing well. Anybody with space for a 55-gallon barrel can grow a long row of potatoes this way.

Look who stopped by for a look-see while I was out feeding one morning:


We each stood still and looked at the other for quite a while. Then the little cottontail decided that if she couldn’t see me, I couldn’t see her, either.


Last fall I put in bulbs of the beautiful Angelique tulips. I had quite a drift of them years ago when we lived in Portland. Last fall I saw some in the bulbs bins and suddenly remembered how much I had enjoyed them. Seems I am not alone. Look at this stunning pale green spider making a home in the bloom. We chased each other around and around a few times before I could get a good photo; the spider must have been wondering what that lumbering giant had in mind with its one eye flashing a red light every now and then.


By now, of course, in July, the tulips have passed on. The seed pod of the Angelique is beautiful all on its own, though:


One of the hens has gone broody. All she wants to do is sit on the nest. So I’ve marked the eggs she’s collecting and will let her have her little family if she wishes. You can see these are not all the eggs of one hen. As the offspring of tulip seeds, these chicks will be a mix of the characteristics of their parents. The likely father of this brood is a Maran rooster. In the nest I see Maran eggs, Americana eggs, and Barred Plymouth Rock eggs. Chickens are without prejudice. She will accept any chick that emerges as her own.  How much easier to let her bring them up than to raise a batch of chicks under lights in the attic, move them out to the barn when they grow too big and stinky for indoors, and then grow them to a suitable age and finally let them loose with the rest of the flock. After all, chickens know how to raise chicks!


July is seeping into August now. It’s dry here, and hot. I remember when summers lasted forever, and the hot days were of no real bother. I remember when the chief concern of summer was skinned knees. Just now I look down at the scab on a shin I barked against a gate yesterday, and I think, very little changes as the seasons unroll in order. Very little changes, but it’s all new again every time.


Published in: on July 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm  Comments (4)  

Things To Be Done in Autumn

Good readers: Ahead of this post, let me say I am not very happy with the new WordPress image handling routine, and it’s been a struggle to get these into the post and oriented properly and not all skewed in aspect. If, when you load the page, the images on your monitor are tiny, tiny and stretched out, it seems that if you refresh the screen (F5 on a PC), they sort themselves and appear properly. I think if you click on the individual images, they will appear as well, but that seems like a bother and takes them out of context. Maybe everything will look good to you and you won’t have to do anything at all.

And so, we begin:

It’s Christmas tree time in these hills. The sky has been a-buzz with the sound of helicopters transporting cut trees to trucks, and the roads are heavy with the trucks moving trees to their destinations.


It starts in early October when the trees are going overseas, and continues into November, for the domestic market. Instantly after Thanksgiving dinner is off the tables, every open corner space becomes a Christmas tree lot.

In the orchard, it’s the best time. If there is any sound better than the snap! of an apple stem twisted from its branch on a fall day, then it’s the sound of the apple dropping into the bucket. The air smells like apples and leaves on the ground. My fingers are cold and damp, and the skins of the apples squeak when I handle them.


This little tree of Liberties filled 3 wheelbarrows. It never seems to take a year off. They’re tart and firm, and they make a wonderful cider.

While I pick, the ewes are ever-hopeful, ever-watchful. They have a pretty good idea treats are likely to come over the fence in their direction.


And they’re not the only ones hoping to share in the apple crop. I haven’t caught them at it, but here is the evidence of Visitors in the orchard:

.12nov_cidering5_smI’m thinking it’s the little brown rabbit I see hopping for cover when I pass through to feed the the llamas. I really can’t say I mind. Who can begrudge a little rabbit her taste of apple in the fall? But back to work … Here’s the last load on its way through the gate (see them there, down the path, in the wheelbarrow) …


… to sorting before washing …


… then loading into the crusher …

12nov_cidering2 … and the crushed result …12nov_cidering_crush_cr_sm

… ready for pressing: 12nov_cidering8_cr_sm

and then, oh! joy!

12nov_cidering7_sm Nothing sweeter!

That’s cidering. We freeze it now and have the freshest-tasting varietal cider all year.

Fall is spider time in the woods and field. 12nov_woodsspider_sm It’s a good time to get a faceful of web as you pass. But they’re beautiful on their houses of silk. This one,


clinging to grass and apples, is so pregnant she looks about to burst. I set her aside to safety. Spiders are beneficial in the landscape. Still and all, I like them out there, not inside with me.

Fall is time to divide dahlias in the garden. Here’s a nice hand, the offspring of the one, roundish one you can see beneath them. Dahlias can be a little expensive to buy in quantity. With patience, you can start with a single tuber and finish the season with… let’s see… more. I’ll plant them out again next spring.


Speaking of plant propagation, does anyone remember the rosemary cuttings I set last fall, in  in post Make More Plants? They were tiny little sticks with a couple of leaves on top. Here they are now, ready to go into the garden:


Of two dozen cuttings, I got 23 to strike. I don’t know what I did wrong on the other one.

Aside from that, it’s time to make holiday wreaths again. Here is my pile of stuff, ready for the genius of the season to arrive. They’ll look better in a week or so.


For a review of my wreath-making routine, here is an older post on the subject: Wreathery.

I always do enjoy this time of year when there’s not much to do. They say.

Published in: on December 2, 2012 at 4:13 pm  Comments (2)  

(Waves hand) Yes! I’m Here!

It has been made clear to me that I am a very bad blogger lately. Someone pointed out it was January when I last posted. Someone else actually asked me whether I am still alive!

I appreciate the concern. I am not yet pushing up late summer stubble.

In the meantime, spring has come and gone. Summer has come and is just now used up. Indeed, the faint signs of a change of season are here: mist in the mornings, fruit on the trees. Partly, you see, the things that happen on a farm and in the woods each season are pretty much the same things that happened the last round. I imagined everyone might have been tired of hearing about them. But when people begin asking if I’m still quick, it’s a good time to check in even if it means repeating myself.

You’ll be inquiring about the house project. It is so very, very close to completion.We received a nice write-up in the  PGE Customer News e-letter: Green dream farmhouse: 8 ideas. Many, many names of men and women who have worked on the house are inscribed onto the roof beam in the attic.

Everyone who has worked on the house has signed the roof beam in the attic.

When I look back at the lay-out of our early design work, I’m impressed at how much the house looks like our first vision of it. Here, for instance, is the SketchUp drawing of the kitchen as we imagined it then.

Kitchen plan

And here is much the same view, with workman mess still in the way (but you can get the idea):

Join us for breakfast at the kitchen counter!

We look with joy at the possibility we’ll be able to use the greenhouse this year. The construction scaffold came down a couple of weeks ago, the painters finished working inside it last week, the final windows are to be installed next week, the 10-foot  Big Ass Fan  is installed and running,

No kidding, it’s called a Big Ass Fan

and the soil is ready to be raked into place. This first time we will be experimenting. First plants in: basil. Let’s see how long we can extend its season. I will be starting some seeds here this weekend, I think: lettuces, cilantro, miner’s lettuce. I’d like to try some late-started broccoli and cauliflower, and Swiss chard. We’ll move some tender perennials inside for over-wintering. We’re hoping it can be a real season stretcher and that we’ll be eating vegetables from it long after the outdoor garden has given up. Besides that, this greenhouse will warm the house in winter. We have no conventional furnace.

Out in the garden, I’ve made some progress. The landscaping is still pitiful, showing all the signs of construction and wreckage. When winter comes it will be discouraging again, but by summer’s end this year, parts of it almost looked like a garden.

The terraces: a beginning

The blocks of stone you see in the photo above will become steps from the first terrace to the next. A great many things are held in pots this year: the herb garden, the dahlias, shrubs that need siting and perennial starts from seed or cuttings. It’s all a process, and I  imagine the garden will never be finished, and every year I will feel despair as to its progress and condition.

The cat over there in the walkway is not dead. She just has an odd sense of what a pillow should be.

Pillow time

It’s seed-taking time already. These marigolds are ready to have seeds plucked out for next spring’s sowing. They’re the tiny Signet type that bloom in clouds of deep and bright oranges: easy to start from seed, a favorite of the springtime flush of slugs here. Though losses to slugs were heavy early on, the plants rallied when drier weather came, and now are throwing themselves into reproductive efforts.

Signet marigold seed heads

This one, below, is Nicotiana. I’m relying on them to self-sow. Oh…, well, maybe I’ll collect a few, too.

In the woods the owls are hooting their autumn signal system from tree to tree. In the night you can hear them, one nearby, hoo-hoo! and then, farther into the dark, hoo-hoo, hoo in answer. Add your own hoo to the conversation and they fall indignantly silent for a few minutes. They’re shedding themselves now, too, of soft gray feathers left in the grass.


It’s a sign, we’re coming ’round to the changing time of year again. It’s the time of year when, if you want to give yourself a case of the creepies, you walk into the woods at dusk. And listen.

Published in: on September 22, 2012 at 9:50 am  Comments (9)  

Dark and Light

A  month or so ago, amongst other winter observances, we hurrah-ed the Solstice as if the sun were about to give us balmy days and springtime. Astronomical markers and conditions on the ground are not necessarily the same thing. We are pressing through the dark months here, the weeks of shortened daylight, the days of chill wind and rain, and ice. Solstice is the beginning of winter, and the edges of winter overlap both autumn and spring.

Here, a roadside apple tree on a frozen morning is so seasonally decorated, we think how it must have come to someone to hang colored balls on a tree for midwinter. The next good wind storm will dash them to the ground, but on this morning, they’re beautiful; abandoned and beautiful.

Our farm (where we would never leave apples on the tree into January, no matter how cheerful they be!) seems to sleep for now. Nothing much to do,

but huddle in a stump. The gardengoyle looks philosophical. It may be a long wait for spring.

But stop! There are signs of life in the woods and garden. Like tiny fires under the snow, Cotoneaster berries glow. They’re not really berries, but tiny pomes, like the apples by the road in fact. The birds seem to need to be quite hungry to take them. I suppose they prefer the fruits we would like to enjoy as well.

Fairy rings of tiny branching fungi have appeared in the tree lot. There will be dancing there in the moonlight, but you don’t want to see it. It never comes to any good when people go spying on fairies in the night.

Here in the woods I spy tracks leading off into the scrub. They might, I think, have been faun tracks. We are, after all, in the season of deepest mystery in the forest. Yes, I am pretty sure those are faun tracks. I’ve never seen the faun, or the fairies, but I’m certain they are out there. Who else could be walking through the snow with feet like that? I shudder to think of taking my barefoot toes into the frozen woods.

As a matter of fact, though I wear my wooly handmade winter socks as I sit here typing, I do not need to run barefoot after fauns to have the cold in my feet. My feet are always cold in winter.

With that thought, I will take myself upstairs now, where I have a secret going on in the attic. Here in the laboratory, under clinical light tubes, in plastic incubators…

the promise of spring.

We welcome you to this new year, little seedlings.

You, too, my readers.

Published in: on January 22, 2012 at 8:05 pm  Comments (6)  

Make More Plants

The simplest truth is, plant stuff wants to grow. Given the least helping hand, most plants will be happy to oblige in making more of themselves.

It’s late summer, and it’s a good time for propagation. Seeds are dropping out of pods all over the place, and can be collected as easily as placing a hand beneath and catching the outfall.  A labelled envelope helps , but otherwise, seed collecting is the simplest, cheapest means of satisfying the urge to “have some of that.”

Of course, not every plant reproduces itself faithfully through seed, and for some plants, growth from seed is a long, slow process. For many plants, propagation by rooted cuttings is a splendid choice. You’ll need to do a little reading to determine whether the holdings you want to increase are suitable for rooting, and what time of year is best for a given plant. But here is how I spent my morning today:

This is a fine, healthy rosemary bush from which I’m taking a cutting. I’d like to create a low hedge of Rosemarinus to help soften the high earth berm between our house and the road. A two year-old rosemary plant in the earth will attain a couple of feet in diameter. It’s evergreen, it blooms in summer, it smells wonderful, and it pleases bees. But it’s slow to cultivate by seed. Fortunately, rosemary is not difficult to root from cuttings. Some years ago, when I lived in town, a  neighbor handed me some rosemary cuttings over the fence, and, as I was busy just them, I stuck them in the ground for later attention. And then I forgot about them. By spring I had two robust little plants going gangbusters. Because this time I’m hoping my work will result in a goodly number of plants, I’ll be a little more careful.

Tools and supplies I need:

Sharp, clean snippers; rooting hormone; protective gloves; clean pots, and planting medium. That’s it.

Sharp snippers: I want a clean edge to the cut, without mashing and ripping cells.

Clean snippers: I do not want to introduce pathogens into my little nursery. These tiny plants will be working hard enough to make up for the trauma they’re about to experience.

Protective gloves: this year I read the label on the rooting hormone. I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t done this before. I guess I thought it was just ground-up willow branches or something. Well, now, let me say this: there are ingredients in there, and they call for serious action if you transfer it to your skin, to clothing, or (shudder) to your inner parts. Anything that says “Call a poison control center for for treatment advice, and continue rinsing,” has my respect. Disposable gloves are cheap. Get some.

This is a softwood cutting. It’s tender and flexible, being the summer’s new growth from older branches. I’m not limited to softwood cuttings for propagation, but they’re easy to prepare and they respond quickly to the plant’s urge to grow on.

Below, Ive stripped all but the topmost leaves from the cutting. The little wounds where I pulled the leaves off result in places where the plant will try to repair itself. Those nodes will be underground, so the repair will be root formation. Also, I don’t need the plant trying to put energy into leaves, so by removing most of them, I direct its efforts into the thing I want: new roots.

Wearing my blue nitrile gloves I dip the cut end of the little plant in the rooting hormone and tap off the extra.

I use my finger as a dibble to make a hole in the soil, insert the cutting, and tamp it in. Isn’t “dibble” a good word? It means  a small hand tool used to make holes in the ground for plants, seeds, or bulbs, and comes from late Middle English debylle… OK. No more. I get it. But it is an excellent word. Here’s the little cutting in its new home.

And I give them all a good sip of Mother’s own favorite beverage: deep well water.

Just one other thing: as much as I believe these children will remain individuals in my mind, I do know I will soon forget when I set them into pots and even, sometimes, exactly who they are. Labels are a good detail.

Rosemary cuttings take between 30 and 60 days to to strike and result in about 75% successes. If by chance I don’t get all I need, I’ll try again in the spring.

Most references will tell you to keep the young plants under a plastic dome while they root up. I have learned that cuttings taken in summer will cook pretty quickly under a dome in the sun, and will be susceptible to mold if kept in the shade under a dome. I have best luck this time of year with cuttings placed in pots large enough to hold soil moisture for at least a day, and I water them regularly. For springtime propagation, domes provide some protection from the elements. This is a matter of preference. If I had time to open the domes regularly and watch for bad growths, I might use them in summer, too. But propagation is mostly science with a little bit of art in it. You work out what works.

There are many good references on propagation. An easily available one with detailed techniques and a list of plants agreeable to propagation from cuttings, and the best time of year for taking them, is Geoff Bryant’s Plant Propagation A to Z: Growing Plants for Free. I do like the idea of getting plants for free.

(“Free” is an interesting word, too: O.E. freo “free, exempt from, not in bondage,” also “noble; joyful,” from P.Gmc. *frijaz (cf. O.Fris. fri, O.S., O.H.G. vri, Ger. frei, Du. vrij, Goth. freis “free”), from PIE *prijos “dear, beloved,” from base *pri- “to love” (cf. Skt. priyah “own, dear, beloved,” priyate “loves;” O.C.S. prijati “to help,” prijatelji “friend;” Welsh rhydd “free”).)

Yes. That sums it up.

Go make some cuttings.

Published in: on September 3, 2011 at 4:01 pm  Comments (6)  

Names, Names

Ah, spring has slipped by in a wash of showers, and summer has come. Local weather always seems like it must be universal. Here in the Northwest, we’ve had a long, dank spring and a summer with little hint of sun and warmth. I bend my mind take in the reports of punishing heat and misery in the 30 states under official heat advisory. It’s been a poor summer for picnics and camping out, but an excellent one for planting a garden.

Spring planting is always problematic. Under spring rains, the soil is saturated and heavy; where you dig, you slice into goop; where you plant, the goop closes around the little roots wanting to push into soil. “Just mud ’em in,” my aunt used to say, and she went ahead and planted in the wettest conditions. But she didn’t live on clay loam like we do. Here, when you set a plant into mud, you entomb it.

But we’ve had summer rains this year, and they’re of a different character than the spring ones. They are soft, vagrant, gentle on the ground. They drain easily. A rain in the morning might cede to sun in the afternoon, and you can go ahead and weed it or dig it without penalty. Mercy knows, I have enough weedy dirt to contend with this year, what with recently excavated cavities and newly piled-up berms.

Last weekend I went plant shopping on the rainy Saturday, expecting to set things into the garden on the improved Sunday. It turned out Saturday’s rains were  intermittent, and Sunday’s rains were constant, but never mind. I spent the rainy day reading about plants rather than planting them. I researched a few of the things I’d bought (I know, this is supposed to happen before buying, but it seldom does).

I embrace botanical names. Botanical names simplify things most of the time. Sometimes not, as when botanists disagree or make changes and the rest of us haven’t been informed yet. You might notice, for instance, that when you look for “Montbretia,” you find it always listed as “Crocosmia (Montbretia),” and it takes someone more interested in taxonomy than I to know why. But for the most part, if you want a certain class of plant, it’s good to know its binomial. Going from there, if you want a specific one, you attach its variety name. For instance, Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ is quite different from Crocosmia ‘Emily McKenzie.’

Just as a note of possibly very minor interest, one of the few things I know that I can specifically place in a classroom is how to write Latin classifications. I recall exactly sitting in a university biology class when the convention of Genus species notation was conferred upon us. Write them in italics. If you have no italics, transcribe them with an underscore. Capitalize the Genus name. Write the species name in lower case. With plants, a variety name may follow, in conventional type, and enclosed in single quotation marks. Ever since, I have followed these rules with something like obsessive compulsion. I know the spirit of Professor Wirtz will haunt me otherwise.

But — no, even greater than that: BUT! Large letters and an exclamation point! (Another teacher, earlier, once impressed upon me that exclamation points are only to be used in case of earthquake or sudden transcendental knowledge.) But, BUT, I must say, the common names of plants give so much joy in the garden.

For instance, knowing that the name of the genus Dianthus, which contains pinks and carnations and Sweet Williams, derives from the Greek words dios for god and anthos for flower is, well, it’s interesting. But knowing that the common name “Pink” for these flowers, describing their pinked or jagged edges, may have given rise to our color word pink, now that makes me smile. It gives depth to the history of this little flower that has happily bloomed in gardens for centuries. In the Middle English of Chaucer, pingen, or pinken meant  “to push,” or to “prick” (I’m losing track of how to apply my italics and underscores and quotes here…). I imagine medieval sweethearts passing between them a posy of sweet-smelling pinks.

Which… that posy, you might want to know, is a variant from the word poesy, a line of verse or poetry inscribed on the inside of a finger ring. It’s first use meaning a flower or a bouquet dates from the 1570’s. That little bouquet, that posy, carried a poetic symbolism that spoke to the hearts of dear ones. By Victorian times, the symbolism of blooms was formalized into a Language of Flowers by which deeply personal allusion was passed from one lover to another. Carnations, “Clove Pinks,” might be delivered with any of these messages implicit in the posy: if white, endearment; if red, an aching heart; if pink, timeless love; if yellow…then, ” hit the road, Jack.”

Here is Dianthus ‘Raspberry Surprise.’ ‘Raspberry Surprise’ is a kind of Pink known as “Cheddar Pinks.” Why? They’re called for the area near a village named Cheddar in Somerset, England, where, one supposes, they have grown.

And we have tiny Maiden Pinks, so named because of their shy maidenly habit of closing their bloom in the evening. Here they are, awake and smiling upward:

See what fun?

The name carnation, by the way, has an uncertain history… Ah, well. You can see where this leads.

Now, to return to my bringing home of plants, among them are a couple of gallon-sized Bergenia, a large-leafed pink-flowering perennial that I think of as a grandmother’s garden kind of plant. They bloomed out of control in my grandmother’s back garden. At one time I wouldn’t have considered them for my own garden, but it may be a sign of advancing years that I now have some of my own. Bergenia is commonly called Elephant’s Ears, Heart Leaf (both for its large, evergreen leaves), and: Pigsqueak.

Pigsqueak! That’s a name that demands a second look! As it turns out, Pigsqueak is named for a most adorable characteristic of its great, flat leaves. When you rub them firmly between two fingers, they oink like a litter of pigs.

Try it. It’s true.

How can a garden not love a plant with such a name?

Now, looking over here to the next bed, we have Agastache, whose etymology traces to the Greek…


Yes, I do understand. You need to go hang out the wash, though you would much rather hear more. Well, then.

Come back soon, will you?

Published in: Uncategorized on July 22, 2011 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

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