Wolf Moon conditions may prove benficial

"The New Year now begun, as the Days began to lengthen, so the Cold began to strengthen." [1631 E. Pellham God's Power 27] --Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs — File photo by Susan Safford

For whatever reasons, folkloric or scientific, the period around full moon — this Saturday’s is the Wolf Moon — is associated with colder temperatures. Some of us hope for deep, windless cold, when pond ice might form. (It might freeze out a few plant diseases and pests, too.)

Gardeners need to expand powers of observation and insight into the ‘habits’ of their plants. The general warming trends have led to the planting of formerly tender plants unknown in these parts a few short years ago. For our plants and gardens, a program of mulching and careful siting is the best course, because some of us hope to try the previously un-growable.

When the weather causes wide temperature fluctuations for living plants to endure, anti-desiccants reduce transpiration, and the insulation of mulch may make the difference between their survival and loss. The benefits of mulch are not only keeping root runs warm but also keeping them cold!

Choosing protected sites has advantages as well as disadvantages. Some warm microclimates may encourage plants to progress irreversibly out of dormancy yet be unable to offer protection under truly bitter or nighttime conditions. Another location might precisely focus a warming shaft of winter sunlight onto a tree trunk that leads to sunscald and frost cracking. In both instances shading to interfere with solar gain may be helpful, and might be accomplished by light-colored bark wrap, temporary burlap shelters, or layers of evergreen branches.

Follow-Up on Agaves

I wrote about marginally hardy agaves in my previous column. Organic mulch would be out of the question for them — would spell doom, as the agaves and associated succulent plants need perfect drainage and no adhering moisture. Pebbles/gravel might supply a smidgen of warmth and dryness.

I received feedback from an experienced Island agave grower, who supplied the following link to a list of cold hardy species for those interested: http://coldhardycactus.com/Pages/Agave.htm He doubted the ability of the variegated agave I had mentioned to survive Island winters planted in the ground, even with shelter. Give other species — A. havardiana; A. neomexicana; A. parryi; and A. utahensis, var. utahensis — a try; they have generally done well when sited carefully and given bone-dry drainage conditions.

On the subject of bone-dry drainage, I belatedly realized that the Lewisia, one of the Fleuroselect gold medal winners mentioned in that column, is a perfect tie-in to plants that would partner with agaves. The rock garden Lewisias are all spectacular in flower, whether first-year-from-seed bloomer ‘Elise,’ or the older varieties. They grow rosettes of fleshy leaves that abhor any hint of moisture in their vicinity.

Scarce Fruits

Our hollies and skimmias were assaulted by voracious flocks of winter robins two weeks ago, and now not one berry remains, except on the wreaths by the doors. Yesterday we watched a speckled thrush delicately stripping the kitchen door wreath of its berries, one by one.

The berried trees had a good crop this year, but it seems early for them to be stripped bare, especially since we have not had any serious cold yet. I try to hold off before filling feeders, to support local birds already here. Once bird feeding has started, it is critical to continue. The easy food creates dependency.

Moss in Lawns

I received a question about moss in lawns where the moss growth is recent, the properties having had grass for some time previously. While some might welcome the appearance of moss in their gardens, either because it represents an appealing garden style, or because you cannot get much lower than moss — the ultimate no-grow, no-mow ground covering — others prefer grass, no ifs, buts, or moss. There are lots of possible explanations; a soil test would be the best arbiter. http://soiltest.umass.edu/

Trees may be shading the area more than in the past when the lawn was established, the shade selecting for naturally present moss spores. The grass may have been established in a thin layer of topsoil spread from the building site and has now used up the original organic matter, leading to a more impoverished soil more favorable to moss. Maybe the soil of the area in question has reverted to a more acidic condition due to acidic rainfall or after initial applications of ground limestone.

In general, a very thin layer of compost or leaf mold raked out over the lawn should produce some beneficial changes, however the piece of ground is to be used; bagged compost products are fine. To open tight soil without changing the pH, apply powdered gypsum. To sweeten sour soil, apply ground limestone.

An entertaining read

“Be joyful although you’ve considered all the facts”—Wendell Berry

Among Christmas gift books, I am enjoying Janisse Ray’s “The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food” (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 217 ppg, 2012). All you non-revolutionaries out there — please, do not be put off by the R word. This is great writing and an entertaining read: part memoir, part seed savers’ manual/botany lesson, and part good storytelling, even for non-gardeners.

I am more than three quarters through but beginning to slow the reading pace to extend the pleasure. I return to Ray’s preface (the moment at which she’d hooked me): a broken oil pipe spewing into the Gulf of Mexico as she returns home from the funeral service of a friend’s son. “I feel around me a cavernous hopelessness. But I do not feel hopeless.

“Many systems that we collectively have been living amid and on which we rely appear to be failing. The easiest thing to do is to give up. But so much needs to be done; every mind and body is crucial for putting new systems in place. We need positive contributions. We don’t need people to drop out.

“On the way home from the service I was listening to bluegrass when I heard this question: What will you be building when you are called away?”