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E-Garden Almanac

E-Garden Almanac

The E-Garden Almanac is the push-button, real human journal of Kelly D. Norris. All errors, grammatic grievances, and opinions are that of the author. Kelly is a freelance writer and Master Gardener from southwest Iowa. His passion and obsession with horticulture, plants, and gardening embodies nearly every function of his life. The E-Garden Almanac serves as the web extension of his columns, articles, and lectures.
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Location: Iowa

Monday, June 01, 2009

Plant Driven: Southwest Iowa & Virginia Iris

Nine days and counting before the Ozarks trip...

So I just couldn't help but satisfy the itch to check out some native plants by tromping about my local haunts over the weekend. Of particular interest this time of year in nearby swamps and wet prairie remnants is Iowa's only native iris--the Virginia iris (Iris virginica). I've collected a number of forms over the years; a handful of the best are still under evaluation including a few petite forms that totter in around 20" tall.
My quick foray on Sunday night turned up some neat forms and even a few tetraploids (I'm guessing). Ploidy level (the number of sets of chromsomes an organism has for you non-geeky readers) can be difficult to gauge in plants without a little microscopic examination. But a few tell-tale signs include larger flowers, foliage, and increased nectary production (ie-smells more)--all things I discovered on my trek. Check out the flower size relative to my hand!

Now look at the flower size from a "typical" population (dad's hand used for comparison).

What's the big deal about tetraploidy? It equates to double the genetic information! That means bigger flowers with more space to display color, heftier plants with coarser texture, and more opportunities to shake up the genetic sandbag. That's a plant breeder talking! Even though I don't have a serious breeding interest in them, I think that a great many more forms and varieties should be available to the gardening public. Stay tuned!

But the Virginia irises weren't the only plants catching my eye. It just so happens that early June marks the peak bloom season of the prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), a sorely underappreciated phlox with remarkable tolerances to the host of diseases that plague so many of the traditional varieties. Low-growing and with medium-textured foliage (not as coarse as P. paniculata or as fine as P. subulata), prairie phlox boasts charming clusters of firey pink blooms that can literally stop traffic. It's easy to grow too and goes great with dwarf irises, heucheras, and shorter ornamental grasses (like Molinia, Festuca, and Sporobolus). If those grasses sound enticing, stay tuned for more about them this summer! :)
My traveling companion for the evening was Dee Rankin, neighbor, dear friend, and biology teacher at a local high school. We stopped by an oak savannah cemetery that we've kept an eye on for nearly seven or eight years. In that time we've watched a stand of Michigan's lily (Lilium michiganense, a previously profiled, awesomelatudinous plant that you should ALL be growing) struggle to find its niche in a limited environment. In the wild, Michigan's lily prefers a marginal habitat between open grasslands and shade. Get the shade too dense and they won't bloom. But put them in the wide open and they'll cower to the ground. Though they sound finicky, they really are just particular and in the garden seem best suited in part shade (I've grown a handsome clump now for at least six seasons). All this aside, Dee and I were elated to discover the most seedlings we've ever seen, probably 20 or 30 scattered in a number of directions from the "original clump". A few will bloom this year but most look to be second or third year plants, which will really start to put on a show in their fourth year. How exciting to watch the pendulum of nature swing to and fro.


Friday, May 29, 2009

Catching up: plant profiles, irises, etc.

So I'm playing catch up tonight. As I've noted countless times in the history of this blog, the gardening season fills me with all sorts of ideas to write about. I just lack the time (and the ambition some nights) to set fingers to keys and share them. I'll give you my best this summer, simply because too many things warrant sharing. The garden is insistent!

I've got several plants that you should hear about in the next few weeks (remember my Ozarks trip soon too!) All are rock star performers for the Midwest and qualify as "zone-worthy" by any account. In fact so much so that I've talked Iowa Gardening into letting me yammer on about them in print starting next year in a new column called.....ZoneWorthy! A trial run appeared in the Spring 2009 issue. But with only four issues a year, I'd need about 16 lifetimes to scratch the surface on the cool stuff worth talking about. So that's where the blog comes in! ;)

Irises. While feeling the gladness of May each year, I'm totally immersed in irises. Check out Rainbow Iris Farm if you haven't already. Also watch for me on Twitter (absolute, up-to-the-minute notices from the farm, garden, and my frazzled mind on most days of the week). But even if you don't tweet or follow twitter, you can check out Rainbow Iris Farm's Twitpic feed 24-7 at this link. It's a fast, free, and easily accessed way to check out photos of what's in bloom at the farm and in the garden. I'll post pics throughout the season, even after the irises have long stopped. It'll be like a roll call of fun plants in the garden all summer!

And last but not least....tell your friends about the E-Garden Almanac! I enjoy hearing from readers (either in person or via email) though I still feel slightly embarrassed considering the array of "raw and unedited" material that fills these pages. But let's just consider this little forum a chat between gardeners (one sane=you and one a little overzealous=me).

Weeding is Therapy

Despite the grudge I hold against vicious weeds like dandelions and white clover, I don't mind the occasional therapy borne of happily plucking off their tops and tossing them to the wind.

Mind you it's a chore and often one I don't have time for in the first place. But the older I've gotten, the more I've come to respect the wisdom of weeding as a sort of humble activity that thoughtful minds take up as an occupation of time. When I weed, I think. I think about the plants that surround me, like the spiderworts which have happily colonized a corner of the rock garden. As I untangle chickweed from my pink-flowering prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha), I dream of what its blossoms will look like in maiden glory in my garden in just a few weeks. As I move on down the limestone wall near a raucous mound of catchflies (Silene), I think beyond the summer through the fall and into next spring, planning for a garden I don't even know yet. Gardens (weeds and all) are immutable life forms, growing and blooming with a rhythm of the season. The perception of that rhythm qualifies any of us to tend earthly space.

So despite the bucket of fluffy dandelions seed heads and three- and four-parted clover leaves sitting in the yard, my time spent weeding equates to much needed mental therapy, that escape that only happens amid flowers and bees. And when I need a little thinking time again, I'm sure a few weeds will be waiting for me.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Shooting Stars: Not the Galactic Kind

I never was big on watching the skies as a kid. Sure I stayed up and froze my butt off one December morning around 4:00 AM as I watched the Leonids trek across the sky (actually burning up in the atmosphere on their wayward traverse of the universe), but that was for extra credit.

But I've always been fascinated with shooting stars, just not the galactic kind. Members of the Primulaceae, the primrose family, the 14 species of the genus Dodecatheon qualify as some of the coolest damn plants alive. Seriously, who can beat petite, pendulous, pointy flowers with colorfully vibrant and reflexed petals? Plus they aren't so small that you need a magnifying glass.

I'm up to six or seven species with a few cultivars thrown in the mix for fun. They're perfect (absolutely perfect) companions for miniature dwarf and standard dwarf bearded irises. They bloom together and light up that garden with an ephemeral energy not possessed by anything else in the rock garden. The cultivar pictured above is a hybrid of unknown origins called 'Aphrodite'. Discovered in the Netherlands in 1990, its flowers are larger than most clones of any of the species in the trade. Let's put it this way--hybrid shooting stars don't happen every day!

Even with so few species in the genus, most haven't been grown in gardens or evaluated horticulturally. Names like D. frigidum (Latin for "damn cold" referring to its native home of Alaska and Siberia) and D. conjugans (Latin for....let's not even go there) top my list, though in southwest Iowa I doubt I can keep them all happy. All plants won't do well in all places, you know. But just because I can't grow all the shooting stars doesn't mean I'll stop reaching for them.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

News from the Garden: the loosestrife wars

It seems like I blog less when it's gardening season, ironic (or maybe not) for a gardening blog. But boy do I have news to share today. The garden is thoroughly alive and in a place or two, at war. Yes, that's right--at war.

I suppose the loosestrife wars began long before I ever had the notion to start amassing my favorite Lysimachia. I know what some of you are thinking, "oh that silly boy, he's gone and planted those weedy loosestrifes and now they run amuck." Au contraire! In fact the loosestrife are on my side.

The loosestrife wars began with the installation of Saponaria officinalis, the common bouncing bet found naturalized in road ditches from Bedford to Philadelphia. It was purely innocent. A young, bright-eyed gardener took pity on the semi-double pink blossoms that attracted sphinx moths and hummingbirds and lifted them from their rocky homes along the road. Up to the garden he came, toting a shovel full to plant inside the cement square frame of a long-gone outhouse in the backyard. That was 1997.

Since that idiotic lapse of conscience and morality, the cement square has fallen apart, another bed built around it, and the bouncing bet happily overrunning everything in sight. It forms a mat of perilous darkness over the ground, snuffing out weed seeds and anything else keen to germinate in its midst. Why I didn't completely remove it when I constructed that new bed, I'll never know. It's royal looking in mid-July, don't get me wrong. Butterflies, sphinx moths, bees, and hummingbirds adore me. Then it goes to seed--jet black beds spurned from hell itself.

So rather than continue the futile resistance, I elicited the help of my friends in the genus Lysimachia. Calling on their fortune, I planted the following: L. atropurpurea 'Beaujolais' and L. ciliata 'Firecracker'. One of each and neither far from the edge of the soapwort. They'll establish, sleep a bit, creep more, and then leap with fervor into the soapwort's domain (at least I hope). Let the battle begin. This is what you call a duel to the death.

What will I do with the situation should the loosestrife conquer? Move onto the less than obedient plants, Physostegia virginiana.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Twitter in the tulips!

Join Rainbow Iris Farm on Twitter! You can add us with handle @rainbowirisfarm. We'll keep you posted with updates to the website, new things in bloom at the farm, and other quick little tidbits to keep your iris appetite whet. Should be fun!

Vernal Moments

After a sunny, warm weekend with highs near 65, April showers lowered temperatures to well below normal today. The thermometer settled near a chilly 41, with dampness and breeze making it feel colder yet. But on the advance of spring, which assuredly continues in the face of such seasonal shortcomings, I have this to offer:
Don't you always find spring the most paradoxical of times? I lust for the growing season but by the same mind ponder the ruinous state of my yard. Limbs and debris scattered here and there. The spot where my dogs lounged all winter. The crusty, brown remains of my Chamaecyparis. All of this adds up to foulness in my head despite the joyous throng of Corydalis solida that sings in redness near a coincidentally red fence. Even the sunny faces of my favorite daffodil 'Mary Gay Lirette' don't contrast enough with the abundant mud which sullies my optimism.

Yet this very feeling of unrest and dismay defines the moment of the season. It's in this bleak and thankfully fleeting window of time that I learn the most about my garden--what's hardy and what's not, or what's well-sited and what isn't. In slogging through water-clogged soils and pulling back leafy layers, I admire these august ephemerals for the tick of time they last. Though on grey and cloudy days, like today, my mood grows dim, tomorrow something else tiny but not trivial will open until successionally an ode to growing things is born. Piece by piece in spite of those elements of days that make me weary, my love for the garden will grow exponentially.

Here are a few from the vernal tribe that keep my hopes aflame:

From top to bottom: (Narcissus 'Mary Gay Lirette', Muscari latifolium, Corydalis solida, Helleborus Mellow Yellow Strain)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Plant Driven: Central Iowa

I think it goes without saying that I'm plant driven. Some would say driven to the point of madness, but then they really don't know many plantsmen then do they?

As alluded to in my last post, I'm going to start blogging about my plant hunting experiences. At my core (root, haha horticultural pun), I'm a plant explorer and a plantsman. In search of new plants to thrive in American gardens, I along with my fellow hortiholics Josh Schultes and Elizabeth Childs will embark upon a number of little expeditions this growing season including a June trip to the Ozarks. I want to use these opportunities to extol the virtues of native plants. Maybe you already grow some that we'll see. Maybe not. At any rate my goal is to expose you to the joys of wandering wild lands and the bounteous rewards that our native lands hold for gardens.

The first such installment of Plant Drive happened this past weekend during a spell of fabulous early spring weather here in Central Iowa. About a week ago I caught word of blooming Trillium nivale (pronounced ni-valley), the snow trillium, at a nearby wildlife preserve. Sojourn our cadre did on Saturday and Sunday in search of this and other bijou ephemerals, the harbingers of spring.

We spent Saturday hiking around without much success. Several hepaticas (Hepatica nobilis, formerly H. acutiloba) were budded and showing off some fabulous foliar variegation, but alas no blossoms. We stumbled upon an expansive outcrop of ferns including maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), walking fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum), and bluntlobe woodsia (Woodsia obtusa). We'll revisit this site nestled among the cliff faces and sandstone outcrops this summer. We did find a few evergreen specimens of maidenhair fern, something fairly unusual as far as ferns in this part of the world go.

Sunday yield the most rewards. We found extensive swaths of snow trillium, perky little hepaticas popping out from the leaf litter, and even some of the first claytonias (Claytonia virginica).

The ephemerals get a bad rap it seems from high-browed muckety mucks who pompously proclaim that greenlings that small have no place in gardens--they'll be overlooked. Who's doing the overlooking I wonder? The flowers of spring offer gardeners more gladness than their size might suggest. Indeed that gladness was our motivation.

Check out a geeky little video from our adventure:


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Something to be said about first...

In much of Zone 4/5 you'll be pressed to find many things in bloom on March 15 (beware the ides of March!) Maybe some hellebores in sheltered or southern locales or some snowdrops too. But the first woody plant to come into bloom across much of the region is vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis). I've always been fond of this ephemeral, which often blooms through cold snaps and snows abiding by its evolutionary programming.

Vernal witchhazel is native to the Ozarks of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, a relict of the last glacial advance which left a number of species stranded on top of a rising plateau. Many believe the species formerly occupied a much broader range but succumbed to a changing climate.

My mention of this early garden darling doesn't come unplanned though. This summer I'm taking the E-Garden Almanac on the road to the Ozarks with fellow plant nerds Josh and Elizabeth on a five-day horticultural exploration. We're in search of shrubs like vernal witchhazel (which we'll collect scionwood of), Indian cherry (Rhamnus caroliniana) and deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum). Vines are also on the docket including yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea) and climbing milkweed (Matelea decipiens). But the star finds of the trip will hopefully be new horticultural accessions of Missouri orange coneflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis), Bush's skullcap (Scutellaria bushii), downy skullcap (Scutellaria incana), and redring milkweed (Ascelpias variegata). The Ozarks are a botanical wonderland uncharted for horticultural potential. We'll post daily journal entries and video blog posts (via YouTube) of our progress, adventures, finds, and general silliness. Plant nerds know how to have fun!

Stay tuned for other summer explorations in the garden and the wild beyond!