Garden Notes

Forsythia and flowering quince
Four months early, forsythia and flowering quince blossom indoors. Photos by Susan Safford

The gardener in January

By Abigail Higgins - January 4, 2007

Another year and already, another full moon. At dusk it floats above reddened meadows of little bluestem, whose color deepens in the low afternoon light. Best wishes to all for the coming year and for the realization of your gardening, and other, resolutions.

Tool care and orderliness are high on my resolution list. With the help of kind clients who donated their Edgartown garage, at long last we have ample storage for our implements and equipment in the building, which my husband turned into a barn and shop here in Christiantown.

My son thrust a large, weighty, unwrapped cardboard carton at me on Christmas morning, mumbling something apologetic about having been unable to gift-wrap it. The contents, some blacksmithing: hefty iron racks, fabricated by him, for wall-mounted storage of rakes, shovels, and other long-handled implements. There is no way the lack of gift-wrapping could detract from such an excellent gift.

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of a good tool storage system. One of the paramount benefits is that it alerts us to what is missing, a chronic problem for me in my multi-tasking existence. I rush out to the garden to do a little morning weeding or cultivating before leaving for the day, then try to do a little before dark while dinner is on the stove; or, on the job, my cell phone rings and I drop what I am working on there to think about something entirely different elsewhere. The result of all the "disconnects" is tools left lying around with absolutely no recollection on my part. But an orderly arrangement for tool storage can help to inventory and offset such lapses, with the visible clue that something is missing.

Tool rack
Custom-made racks provide plenty of storage space for a variety of garden implements.

Tool maintenance is simplified as well. With everything hanging there I can check for sharpening, re-tape the colored tapes I use to ID my tools, and perform handle maintenance. If implements are all in a jumble, something will be overlooked, not to mention the horrendous amount of waste space created by jumbled piles. Thank you, kind clients and clever husband and son.

When I take down the tree and pack away the ornaments, it is for me a pensive occasion for reflection. Contemplating what will have to have occurred during the transit of the coming year, before these treasured small bits of family history reappear, overwhelms me with nostalgia and concern for the future. What gains and losses, especially the losses, does the coming year hold?

Trees to the beach

One idea that always helps is the idea of recycling the dried-out, faded ex-tree. Make an occasion of it and honor the tree. I favor taking the tree to the beach for erosion control when it is time for it to leave the house. The beaches of the south shore generally suffer wind and water erosion most egregiously, but there are plenty of locations along all Island beaches that could use a faded ex-Christmas tree for dune building. Please check first - not all Island beaches are currently accepting recycled trees.

Alternately, the branches of the ex-tree can be cut off with loppers and used to cover beds, especially those containing more recently planted things. Although this winter may not see any serious cold, the alternate freezing and thawing of even a mild winter may damage or lift plants. The protection and shade cast by evergreen branches evens out the soil's warming and cooling and retards the heaving caused by frost.

Speaking of cutting branches off with loppers: just now many flowering shrubs are right on the verge of blooming. If you are unfamiliar with forcing, this is the year to try it. The branches of a red flowering quince (Chaenomeles) I was given many years ago by Susan Silva are fat with buds; getting them to open and bloom is a cinch. Backlit by the low winter light, they glow entrancingly.

The more water, the better

Many other flowering shrubs are good candidates for forcing, including pussy willow, Forsythia, apple and crabapple, and flowering cherry and plum. How can you tell which are the branches with the flower buds? The flower buds are usually fatter and plumper than the leaf buds, and are often lower down on the branch, usually not near the tip. Make cuts on an angle, to expose as much of the cut portion to the water as possible. Smash lightly the cut ends with a hammer or make slicing cuts up into the ends with pruners, again to encourage as much water uptake as possible.

Plunge the mashed branches up to their necks in plenty of water and place the container somewhere cool like the cellar in subdued light, for a couple of weeks (some need a period of cold dormancy). Remember to check the water level and change it if it becomes funky. Bring them out into the light when buds show signs of opening.

Catalogues and press releases

The parade of 2007 catalogues and press releases started well before the holidays, but I am only now just taking a more focused look at them. White Flower Farm reliably produces a catalogue guaranteed to chase away winter blahs, with many introductions and plant combination ideas. A few plants of interest gleaned from it include the following:

Helianthus salicifolius 'Table Mountain.' A shorter form of the native willow-leaved sunflower, it is self-supporting and its blooms, yellow dark-centered daisies, last from August through September.

'Mara des Bois' strawberry is an ever-bearing heirloom strawberry similar to the small fraise des bois, suitable for growing in strawberry jars, hanging baskets, and home gardens. From the catalogue description (it has runners), it sounds as if the fruit is juicier and more strawberry-like than the fraise des bois, which produces no runners.

Zinnia 'Zowie! Yellow Flame,' despite its awkward name, looks as if it will be a great addition to the annual or cutting garden, and I hope to grow some. Its brilliant yellow-tipped ray-petals start off magenta pink then turn to scarlet rose, surrounding a red and yellow cone. An All-America Selection Winner, it should make plenty of good cutting stems.

Mukdenia rossii 'Crimson Fans' is another catalogue character I look forward to meeting, and planting. Mukdenia is a fellow member of the Saxifragaceae along with Heuchera and Tiarella. M. rossii 'Crimson Fans' is similarly valuable as a specimen plant or groundcover in partial shade in evenly moist, well-drained soil. The large toothed leaves of this variety emerge bronzy green, turn all green, and then take on red tones that become gold in fall.