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E-Garden Almanac: March 2009

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

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!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

We in thought will join your throng!

The most pleasant aspects of this interim period between winter and spring come in the form of everyday things. Longer days, sunshine that seems brighter, sunsets that seem more vivid, and air that, though begrudgingly, becomes warmer.

But pleasant introductions aside, Iowa seems to be following the trend of milder climates so far: spring sags behind the normal clock. Friends in the Pacific Northwest continue to get snow (as do we!) and tell me that instead of hellebores and reticulated irises in bloom, like normal, the snowdrops have just begun. Only a seer could offer a far-sighted guess as to what the next few weeks will hold. But I suppose the reassuring comfort is that something profound will definitely happen.

I recently came across a poem, albeit in the form of a song, that I'd like to share excerpts from. By William Wordsworth (what a killer name for a poet), the nine-stanza ode called "Intimations of Immortality" contain in them a number of springly themes. The poem itself is deeply philosophical and if you'd like to wade through it all click here.

What I'm taken with:

Then sing, ye birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
And let the young lambs bound
As to the tabor's sound!
We in thought will join your throng,
Ye that pipe and ye that play,
Ye that through your hearts to-day
Feel the gladness of the May!
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

The idea strikes me as a resounding affirmation of what I've long held true, that gardeners are vernal people. But our soulful cultivation of the earth is hardly ephemeral. Even in the depths of a bitterly cold and icy winter, we feel stirring inside the gladness of the May. So today when I was sweeping off my deck, watching robins and finches graze unabashedly on a few remaining crabapples, I felt joy in the smallest of ways. It was a chilly 29 degrees today and the only green I saw was the crushed end of a Mountain Dew bottle in the last snow bank of the season. Still, those birds flew about unbothered even taking a few dips in a muddy puddle in the driveway. Though Wordsworth is right, nothing can bring back the hours of joy in the garden amongst green things, that shouldn't prevent us from joining the throng in thought at least.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Thanks to Fort Dodge!

My thanks to the 120+ gardeners that turned out on a cold, wet day yesterday for my lecture at the Fort Dodge Area Gardeners' Spring Seminar. What a great group of energetic and spirited folks! You inspired me with your smiles, ideas, and thoughts of spring.

Thanks also to Hans Madsen at the Fort Dodge Messenger for writing this article about the event. I really believe that the more people see and hear about gardening, the more it will become a habit of our society instead of just a hobby.

Best wishes to this fine group of green thumbs on future conferences and endeavors!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Nashvillian Adventures

Long fed up with winter in the Midwest, I took leave a few weeks back for Nashville, TN and the PLANT Winter Seminar featuring plantsman extraordinaire Dan Hinkley. I could effuse about how wonderful the weather was, the company, Dan's lecture, my hosts, and all the food, but I'd rather like to inspire your winter weary minds with a few shots of what will surely come in the next few weeks.

Hellebores might as well be called queens of the winter garden, royal as they are this time of year in colors black to white. I've become quite a hellebore snob lately, as has my friend and Nashville-based garden designer Troy Marden. Check out what he just wrote about our favorite winter perennials on his blog. Here are a few favorites taken at Bill Hewitt's nursery where my friend Marty (pictured above) works.

Another cool find at Hewitt's was this new mondo grass from Bluebird Nursery called 'Sparkler' (Ophiopogon japonicus 'Sparkler' PPAF). Look at those rad blue berries! Wow! Definitely need to put my hands on some of these this spring. Harlan Hamernick does it again!

The PLANT seminar was held at the Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Art Museum. Troy and I skipped lunch and traipsed around the property checking out things like Chimonanthus praecox and Edgeworthia chrysantha (pictured below), plants I'd only read and dreamed about but had never seen. Winter gardens in the Midwest, as many of you know, consist of lots of snow and the remaining seed heads that peak through. Oh and conifers too. That's about it. In Zone 7, a winter garden actually contains blooming plants!

My visit was made ever better by my stay with dear friends Leann and Jay Barron, who also grow a fabulous winter garden. Even in spite of heavy rainfall on the Thursday night of my stay, the garden looked fetching. Hellebores cropped up on the south side of the house. A lovely Spiraea 'Ogon' (pictured below) flowered off the porch. And perhaps best of all, though surely regarded as commonplace by those who can grow them, were the bountiful clusters of red berries hanging from Nandina (pictured below).

On a final non-plant note, if you're ever around Nashville and looking for some great southern cuisine, you should definitely check in on the Loveless Cafe at the Loveless Motel. Fabulous, fattening, and filling southern foods await including fried chicken, country ham, and their world-famous biscuits (pictured below) courtesy of the biscuit queen Carol Fay. Even if you can't make it to the restaurant in-person, you can order their delicious food products online (see link above).