Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pencil to Graph Paper

I finally managed to get outside with a measuring tape and see how many plants I'm eventually going to need to fill out the garden.   Now, there is a good chance it will be a few years before every spot in the garden is full up on blooms, but it hasn't stopped me from planning it to within an inch of its life.  In my head, that is.

I got out the graph paper this morning and drew a big square, with a big circle in the middle of it.  My backyard.  Then I proceeded to draw tons of little mini circles all over the place.   Then I balled it up.  It was an unintelligible mess of scribbles and circles which represented nothing that gave me a better understanding of how to arrange the garden.  It was unintelligible the second time too.    And then it occurred to me.  For maybe the first time I can think of, at least recently, my natural inclination to plot everything out wasn't working.    And whats more,  I don't think it is going to work for me.   Even if I do manage to get something resembling a snazzy garden plan onto graph paper, I highly doubt that my garden will resemble that in the slightest.     After all, the reason to put brainwaves to paper in the first place is so you can cement whats roving around inside and visualize it so that you can see if it works or not.   I can't tell anything more on paper than I can in my head!    This means, dear reader, you get no garden plan to peruse.  Instead you get this:
"Best garden plan yet"

So despite what nearly every book I keep reading is telling me, I am not going to really plan my garden beyond a sense of color, size and the need to put shade plants in the shade.   I am not going to take advantage of the opportunity for planning that an empty garden space brings with it.   I have a short list of plants that I would really like to have.   The rest is just going to have to happen.  Seat of the dirty garden pants.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Come on Spring!

I was thinking a lot about Spring today, as the last warm day for a little while is on my doorstep.  Is there anybody out there who isn't ready for Spring? Okay, besides the southern-hemispherians?
"I'm Ready"

Then I was musing (totally off topic again)... what really makes spring come anyhow?  What makes Spring spring?   Why won't it get here already?!!! Some of you from Pennsylvania will tell me it has to do with a groundhog, and some who remember 6th grade reasonably well will say it has to do with our rotation around the sun.  And there are those who might add Spring happens because the days get longer, allowing the sun to heat us up a little more.   All of these are sort of correct (well, maybe not the Phil thing), but then again, not exactly.   The Earth could rotate until it spun off its axis and it wouldn't change the temperature without one key ingredient.  The days wouldn't get longer or shorter save for this ingredient either.   And despite popular myth it is NOT correct that the seasons change because we are closer to the sun.

It is, of course, the tilt of the earth.  The fact that we spin on our own axis cocked sideways in comparison to our orbit around the sun (the "orbital plane" in Scientific American speak) is what creates the seasons.  Without that tilt, everyone would have a temperature and daylight very similar to everyone else, making room for differences in altitude and weather patterns.  How crazy and random is that when you think about it?  And think about what it would mean if we shifted our tilt? Talk about climate change, and melting polar icecaps!    Some more food for thought, the tilt is changing!  It varies every 41,000 years or so by about 2.5 degrees.

Okay, getting off track here in my thinking out loud.   Here's a picture to illustrate from Wikipedia:
"The North Is Getting Shafted"

So, the orbital tilt.. exactly what does it change that causes these seasons?   First, as is probably obvious, the tilt causes one side, either north or south, to have significantly less sunlight then the other side as we rotate daily along the equator.  When it comes to the poles, we are talking TOTALLY less light.  More light, means more sun baked radiation, which means more warmth (and more skin cancer).    The other major contributing factor though is the obliquity of the sun to the spot you are standing.  On the 'far side' (i.e. winter), the larger angle of obliquity (less directness) translates also into less radiation for the light we do get.  That's why summer sun seems stronger than winter sun, and Florida sun seems hotter than Maine sun.  Because it is. This is also why there is ice at the poles even in Summer.  The sun is always oblique to a large degree at the poles.

Well, I'm glad I got that all cleared up :).   I could go on about solar altitude and radiation lag.. but this is already nerdy enough, and way totally off topic again.

And really this is all to say, of course:  Hurry up Earth, I'm sick to death of the dark side!  Give it back to Australia and Argentina already.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Well, not only is the sun shining, the temps moderate, but Blotanical is back!  All is going right with this weekend.

The soil amending process is continuing.  I've taken the time to actually dig down 6-8 inches into the garden, pulling out roots, and more roots of plants I don't have (this is a mystery to me where these are coming from!), old bricks, pieces of plastic, cigarette butts, a tennis ball, some wire, and a heck of a lot of pieces of cement.    Oh, and I found a lot of pecans from 3 yards over, which the neighborhood squirrels have placed every 6 inches square throughout the garden.

The mystery of why my soil drains so incredibly fast in such a flood prone area and looks decidedly whitish is becoming clear.  At some point I think my garden had been cemented over, and then jackhammered (for the most part) out.  The amount of cement pieces from nailhead sized through small dinner plate size just can't be explained any other way.    My dirt, I have a feeling, has a large dose of cement in it.  I'm thinking this can't be too good.  That said, I have a feeling I will never have trouble, EVER, with standing water.

Here's a little before and after soil work.   Doesn't it look a bit more ready to plant and grow some great stuff, 250 pounds of compost manure, and 2 bags of topsoil later?  I planted only a very few things in October when I moved in, and all of them, save for a very frozen Mandevilla, seems to be coming back just fine.  Some of the little 'tufts' are beebalm, agapanthas, sedum, and a straggly butterfly bush, who none-the-less looks a lot better than he did about 3 weeks ago.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Light Of Day: Novice Garden Planning

With a few exceptions, I have the enviable (or non enviable?) task of starting a garden from scratch, and it is going to start in just a few days really, as the last frost date here slowly creeps toward me.   

Garden planning and space design is something I've been thinking about since October.   I want it all, but I can't have it all.  I am limited by sun and by space.  I will never be able to create the wonderous corridors and pathways that my Mom's gardens have, because with a square fenced in space with stone patio already set, the design of the space as far as hardscape is pretty inescapable.    I also have my neighbors monolithic garage extending through the south side of my backyard. Yes, the worst exposure I know.  Where was the infamous Charleston Board of Architectural Review when this thing got built?   This has a bifold effect on a third of my garden space in the back: I have shade, and I had a very large brown featureless wall to contend with, i.e. hide, in that shade.
"The Great Brown Way"

The lighting factor is a tricky one, at least in my back yard.  My front raised bed, which faces ENE gets morning sun and afternoon shade.  Pretty simple.  The back yard though, due to the southern exposure having this 2.5 story garage on it, blocks the entire garden of direct sunlight during the deepest days of winter (Dec and Jan), as the low trajectory of the sun never clears the garage. The come Feb, March, and November the fence opposite my neighbors property goes from no direct sun, to partial sun, to full sun (or vice versa) in short order as the trajectory of the sun rises, and the days lengthen dramatically through those months.   By April, basically through early October, I BELIEVE (having never seen it myself), at least half of the garden is going to be full sun.  Or maybe only a quarter.  Maybe 3 quarters.    And you see, whatever is in the sun is going to be in that southern full sun which renders many a full sun plant actually part shade.  Whatever doesn't make it over the shadow cast by the garage is going to be in the full shade. Its like a razor edge.

Shade is something I've been thinking about too.   Exactly how much shade is my shade?  Even in the deepest of shade underneath the shadow of the garage and the palm tree, was it really deep shade?  The sun being so bright, and the reflective light off of my house and the white fences it doesn't seem very ferns and moss shady back there.

So what does all this mean?  I have a feeling, the same as anything else, it will have to be trial and error.  Not just for what looks good together and against the steep 'walls' that frame my garden (which is a whole other blog post) but also what kind of sun I'm really going to be dealing with.   My likely very expensive plan, unless one of my new blog friends can think of something else, is to have a full sun section against the one fence line, a large section of partial sun plants where I'm not sure the sun will extend to (and just hope that if they do end up in mostly sun they don't scorch to death), and then I don't know what type of shade plants by the garage but hopefully they are both narrow and tall!  I also cringe at the fact that such a small garden space might have to have two different looks to it, given the fact that there is no way to visually separate the two halves due to the existing design and small size.  I am very aware of visual continuity in spaces, be they indoor or out, and I am very much hoping to create a well designed 'room' out of my back garden.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

An Olympic Flower

Around Charleston, April 2009:

This little guy was shining uniquely and all on his own, head and shoulders above everyone else in this garden.    This garden bed, located on Isle of Palms, a barrier island in Charleston county, is ripped out and redone at least once a season.  It is located outside the walls of one of the Isle of Palms compounds, as I like to think of them.  10 br second homes, with seemingly nobody ever in them except for gardeners and the maids.    This particular bed is located outside a house that has two lions guarding the gates.

Despite the fact that I think its such a waste of flowers, every time I walk by it, I do anticipate seeing something beautiful and different, and it never disappoints! Now if only I could walk by when the gardener is ripping these things out!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Poo+Crappy Soil=Crappy Soil With Some Poo On It

The future weather forecast, though certainly not seasonal (grumble grumble), doesn't call for a deluge of rain, 40 mph winds, or snow (first time in 20 years) so it is time to put some money where my mouth has been recently complaining: crappy soil.

How do I know it's crappy soil?  Well truth be told, I don't KNOW exactly... I merely rather strongly guess.  It can rain 5 inches in 5 hours and within 24 hours the soil looks like its in cahoots with tumbleweeds.  There is also the disturbing fact that the soil just doesn't look like soil.  And finally there's the possibility that it could have spent the greater part of 5 years covered by magnolia leaves.  It bears mention that there weren't even weeds growing back there.  What would you think?

Well, I'm sure we're both right, however, we must be scientific about all this here at Chez Children of the Corm, so its time to bring out: (dum dum dah dummmm) THE VIALS OF TRUTH.  Apparently, if there's one thing I like spending money on, its gadgets and chemistry kits that will tell me what else I need to spend money on.

I followed the directions, something I am really good at doing.  It's too bad gardening isn't like cooking, where 95x out of 100 if you follow the directions you come up with something good.  Or at least edible...some wilted up dead husk with bugs all over it generally does not show up in the pan.

But, I digress.  It was time to know for sure, so I gathered my dirt, did my little chemistry magic and voila, all the secrets of my crappy soil were sort of revealed, in that 1991 home pregnancy test kit kind-of way.   I'm pretty sure I know what colors those were, however, it would have been easier if the test tube had just called me up on my cellphone and told me "Yes, your soil is crappy."

Here are the results.  The good news: my PH is pretty close to neutral.  The bad news: the soil has absolutely no appreciable level of Nitrogen or Phosphorous.  It does have some Potassium, however the test kits variation between low, medium, and high are not discernible to the naked eye so I'm not exactly sure how much potassium.  It is definitely more than very low or none though.

So, with those facts confirming my suspicions I went directly to big box store and bought my first soil amendment: cow poo.   When cow poo is put in a bag and allowed to sit for enough time it, of course, is then known as manure compost, a marketing term which is working dandy for me.   I have never lifted as heavy or unwieldy an item as a bag of manure compost after a month of rain.  Holy cow.

Now, 200 pounds of cow poo is still out there waiting in the car since yesterday, and its time to get amending.  I wonder how many years of this will have to go on before I can say, "I have loamy, nutrient rich soil?" 

And on an aside, I have to ask, where is Blotanical? This is also highly disturbing.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Photo Travel Journal

I travelled a bit this year, and here are a few of the colorful, lively, planty shots. Hope you enjoy!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Japanese Holly Fern

As I cleared all the tons of leaves from my back garden, and fought with roots emanating from where? I did delight in having found a low growing very tropical looking plant that seemed to be thriving.   No bugs, no brown burned up spots, no rotting looking, no keeled over in a sun laden death knell.   I had a lot of them too - 7 distinct frond bottoms (I'm sure there's a word for these I don't know but thats what I'm calling them).  They are about 8 inches tall to maybe a foot and half.  But the combined seven of them are about 8 feet wide by 3 or 4 feet deep.  Thats a lot of ferns.

A quick look through my favorite gardening book of all times (so far) Easy Gardens For The South, by Cotton, Crawford and Pleasant, and I had identified it at a Japanese Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum).    From everything I read in my books and on the internet these plants like shade and moisture.   I'm here to tell you they are growing in 8b (humid all the time, with an occasional freeze) in crappy non nutrient rich soil, which holds absolutely no water and they get a few hours of blazing sun between about 12-2, and they are thriving.  So my gut feeling is that this is one of those plants that can be grown outside of its 'recommended values'.

Because these things looked so insanely healthy, and they were pretty, and because they were better looking and fuller than most pictures I saw on the internet of them, I had the dilemma of what to do with these.  Given that my gardening space isn't endless, having 30 sq feet of holly fern just doesn't make sense.    So I had to get rid of a few, and I decided about 2 weeks ago that I would give the butterfly bush (aka 2 straggly sticks and a dream from my moms garden) I had moved in October a better shot at life.  I dug up the 2 closest to the bush, and boy oh boy was it a job.

They were all closely planted together, and though they don't have large roots, they have many many many deep roots.    I'm sure I cut half of their roots off in the process, and some of the roots of the neighbor plants too.    But, I took the two of them and threw them in some medium sized pots with a little potting soil and hoped for the best.   Sure, the pots were way too small, but I wasn't about to give away one of my prized monster pots that would have been appropriate.    It worked!

This has been in this smaller pot for 2 weeks now and is looking just as healthy as he did in the ground. First transplanting mission accomplished.   And maybe of interest to any of you that live a little farther north than me, the plants in the pots survived several below freezing nights and didn't even sniff.   The well established ones I inherited made it through 13 days, nearly all in the hard freeze area without a brown leaf to be seen.   I bet these would probably make it in at least zones 7 as an evergreen.  I believe at some point they get more deciduous in nature in zone 7, but even if it loses its leaves it comes back.

Here's my new clump, looking a little smaller.  They are none the worse for wear either:


Japanese Holly Fern (Cyrtomium falcatum)
USDA Hardiness Zone 7-10
Pests: Rare
Water: Medium (whatever, mine seem fine in drought, flood)
Soil: Fertile well drained (again, my soil is far from fertile)
Light: Shade, morning sun okay (mine is in part shade)
Growth: Slow
Propagation: Division
Fertilization: Medium (has been fine for 5+ years here with no fertilization)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Green Beats Peacock

Entry #2 in the Around Charleston section, from Drayton Hall, late April 2009.

"Eh Randy, little bit too green over here for my liking, eh?"

"Yeah, its washing me out something fierce.  This time of year is sooo trying, I mean just look at my tailfeathers!  Bob,  you big stud-fowl (snicker), wanna plume out, make sure nobody forgets we're here?"

"No way man, attracts wayyyy too many chicks dude.    Betty Loo from next plantation over is STILL in my coop this morning.   I've really gotta lay off that fermented corn feed stash by the way...getting to be more trouble than its worth.  She is soo brown and gray all over, I can't believe I didn't notice!"

"Graingoggles, my man."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Little Peat Pots

As is probably obvious by now, I haven't grown a lot of things from seed in my life.   I did have quite a cute herb garden hanging in from the windowsill of one of my kitchen windows in NYC, but thats about the extent of it.

This year, in my gardening RIGHT NOW wishing fervor, I decided to start some seeds in the small upstairs room which is blindingly bright with its south and west exposures.    I chose a lot of seeds which are late spring bloomers in most of the country, primarily because those can be tough here, so I hear, and need to get out as early as possible.   The >80 degrees heat and humidity hit around May, and the sun at that point can melt lead.  Okay, so maybe it can't, but plants don't like it. There was a 90 degree day here this past October after I moved in, and my Wandering Jew looked almost as bad as when I accidently froze it to death this January.  Oops.  I forgot him. Now he's very dead.  I feel bad about it.

This seed extravaganza took place about 2 weeks ago, as the first plant date is the 2nd week of March around here (little jig of joy for living in the South), and I wanted these little plants ready to leave the nest by then.

I read the directions.  I did what I was supposed to.  Some seeds needed light, they got light. Some seeds needed dark, they got cardboard covers.

So here's the result after about 17 days.   Look hard... What is wrong in this picture?

Well, actually there are two things wrong.   First, the 4 o'clock seeds aren't coming up.   These are home grown from my Mom's garden so I'm suspecting its not the seeds, its me.  They just keep sitting there, looking like little grenades half buried in the soil.

But the big wrong thing?  You see how every other plant in the tray is between .5 inches and 2 inches tall, like one would expect after 2 weeks?  Now you see those Nastursiums that are 6 inches tall?  What the heck?  They would have many more leaves too if my cat would stop eating them.   4-6 weeks my (behind!)*  What am I going to do with these things?  They can't go out now!

*(paraphrased for public audiences)

Friday, February 5, 2010

All About El Nino / The Weather Rant

Not completely garden related but sort of, right?   The weather is my number one obsession of which I have absolutely no control over.   I love the weather, I hate the weather, and for the past 8 months or so I've been asking myself "What the heck is up with this weather?!"

Since this past summer Charleston and other areas has had extreme weather, seemingly all of the time.  This summer we went 3 months without a inch of rain.  This is in a time period where we usually have strong afternoon thunderstorms, and rain totals are typical 6-7 inches a month, or more.  The temperatures went up in May into the 90s, a full month before they should, and stayed there unfailingly until Oct 1.   It was brutal: for humans, plants, dogs, cats you name it.

Then this December came and according to my rain meter, we got 17 inches of rain.  This in a month where we normally get 2.  January, we got 8 inches (also vs 2), and so far in the new month of February we have had an inch with a storm brewing in the sky as we speak.  The city of Charleston has been flooded nearly every third day.    The temperatures here have been on average 10 degrees below normal (as of today this area should regularly be seeing highs in the  low 60s, but nope), and in January the southern sea-board saw 13 straight days of freezing temperatures, most of which were below 26 here.  Again normally we see about 1 day a year that is considered a hard freeze...and maybe a few more right around 32.

What the heck!?  Is this global warming and I can expect insane weather for the rest of my life?  Say nay to tropical plants forever?

Fear not, it isn't.  Or maybe it is, but it is mostly the effects of a strong El Nino weather system.   In a lot of the USA it isn't that noticeable until winter, then smack: i.e.  Virginia has had 3 major snowstorms as of today, and a few minor ones.... they sometimes go years without a dusting of snow.

So what is El Nino, and how is it affecting us so drastically?   I find this part amazing: El Nino is a slight changing of the temperature of the water in the South Pacific.  Thats it.    Looking back at the ocean temperatures from the last major El Nino (97-98) you can see what I mean here. That white stuff shouldn't be there:

That 4 degree (on average) rise in temperatures off the coast of Indonesia is thought to affect weather worldwide.   Its basically like a zillion bathtubs all with hot water in them steaming up all the air out there in the ocean.  The steamy air needs someplace to go - so it comes here. Okay, technically it comes to Peru first, which is how it got its name.   This current El Nino was considered official in July 09, and they usually last about 12 months.   And here is NOAAs predicted weather patterns as of October 09:

Hmmm.  Despite my suspicion that all weather people are just paid models waving their hands in front of a blue screen, maybe they do know what they are talking about after all.

So everyone, in general we can blame El Nino, the little son of Mother Nature for all this weather craziness.     But don't be too hard on him, he was also, after all, responsible for the fact that the Eastern coastline didn't see a single hurricane all season long.   And for that, I guess I can take a few more inches of rain, and keep my begonias in a few more weeks.

Crap...its raining.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Unlikely Garden

Charleston, though an 'urban' environment since the mid 1600s, is replete with greenery, from the live oaks which form canopies over its streets to the glimpses through tall wrought iron garden gates of hidden sanctuaries. I have never been so bold as I am here trying to see over the hedges to the garden I know is just beyond!

So here is entry #1 in the Around Charleston inspiration section:

If ya gotta be dead, this isn't a bad place to do it.