Garden

Rooting

A couple of weeks ago, I engaged in yet another epic struggle with tree roots.

A perennial bed that was root-free when first planted (about twelve years ago) had been showing signs of decline for several years. Plants were smaller and obviously struggling, especially the hostas. Turns out hostas don’t compete well in rooty situations; strange, considering at least some species are native to woodlands. Not woodlands of Norway maples, I suppose.

I’m pretty philosophical about the older beds in the back garden. After all, they are close to five large trees, three of them maples (1 red, 2 Norway), whose roots interlace in a network throughout that 50 by 50 foot space. Goodbye, vegetable patch. Tough plants only. But this newer bed, situated in a narrow strip of land between my house and my neighbours’, was, I thought, far enough from any tree to remain root-free. The drip-line (canopy edge) of the closest maple was safely distant, and tree roots don’t extend beyond the drip-line. Or do they?

Yes, they do. Roots roam far and wide, as it turns out. Once I discovered creeping rootiness in that new bed, I started reading up on how tree roots grow. There was surprisingly little written for home gardeners, even those who are familiar with Latin plant names. I found a lot of scientific papers written by researchers in the fields of forestry or agriculture. Their focus was narrow and their terminology over my head.

Finally, I found this — relatively comprehensible and relevant to my situation. Also discouraging. The drip-line idea is one of the fallacies. Au contraire, “it is not uncommon to find trees with root systems having an area with a diameter one, two or more times the height of the tree.”

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This isn’t how it works! (Image from Pixabay)

Trees send out long, questing roots that keep on growing as long as there’s a reward in the form of water or nutrients, as in a fed and watered perennial bed. The roots run along horizontally, sending up vertical subsidiary roots ending in fine mats of feeding roots. Those are the ones that make that typical ripping sound when a spade is thrust into the soil.

So I tried a strategic strike. I dug up a clump of purple monkshoods (Aconitum napellus) and a few young hellebores at the end of the bed closest to the tree I suspected to be responsible for the root. Then I excavated down two feet and indeed found not one, not two, but three roots a couple of inches apart, each of them about two inches in diameter. Using a nifty little saw (actually intended for cutting wallboard) and a hatchet, I removed sections of these roots, one to three feet in length. Then I dumped in some compost and replanted the aconites and other plants. Thanks to cool and rainy weather, they recovered nicely.
I hope this will give the perennials in the beleaguered bed a chance, if only for a season or two. I don’t relish the thought of a full-bore rebuilding of the entire bed in the grand manner. This rather limited effort was enough for an aging gardener.
October 20, 2011

Hostas, autumn of 2012.

Wordless

The thing about both gardening and writing is that when doing them, one isn’t doing other things, like blogging.

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A happy spring combination — perennial candytuft (Iberis sempervirens), flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and pasque flower or meadow anemone (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Potential Plants

Reasons gardeners grow plants from seed:

  • They need a lot of plants at once
  • They can’t afford to buy plants
  • They’re purists
  • They’re snobs
  • They can’t help collecting seeds and finally decide to do something with them
  • All or some of the above.

After 35 years of gardening, I have a lot of seeds — packets bought for ambitious projects years ago, tail-ends of vegetable and herb seeds from before my veggie patch became the ex-veggie patch, and assorted envelopes containing seeds gathered from my garden or from road- and trail-sides. Most of them are neatly filed away in a three boxes, one labelled “Perennials,” another “Annuals and Herbs,” and the third “Vegetables.”

It’s funny — there are plants I take pains to prevent from seeding (Lychnis coronaria), and others I cajole and pray over, hoping they will produce even a few seeds (Meconopsis, of course, but not M. cambrica — that one is in the deadhead a.s.a.p. category). Then there are those with rare or atypical colours — pink, cream-coloured, and tawny California poppies, for example. I can’t resist saving their seeds. Maybe this colour won’t ever appear again, I think; better get ’em while they’re here. So I end up with half a dozen envelopes — California poppies, 2010, 2011, 2013, etc.

Eventually, the obvious becomes inescapable — there’s no point in collecting seeds for their own sake. Each seed is a potential plant, but that potential will not be realized inside the seed packet. Soil, water, warmth, time, and luck are necessary before that tomato, delphinium, or poppy grows and blooms in the garden.

Unlike wine in the cellar, seeds do not improve with age. There’s no point in hoarding them. Yes, there’s that story about 3,000-year-old viable seeds from Egyptian tombs, but they’re the exception. Most seeds retain viability for only a few years — perhaps five years at most. Tomatoes appear to be an exception; I successfully grew plants from seeds almost 20 years old. Seeds of the Himalayan blue poppies (Meconopsis), on the other hand, must be sown the winter following harvest. A year later is too late.

I’ve grown hundreds, if not thousands of plants from seed. Back when I had a lot of bare earth to cover, I set up a plant factory in my basement — fluorescent lights, a heating cable, lots of suitable containers, and bags of sterile seed-starting soil mix. I made “paper pots” using a clever wooden device called a Potmaker to roll and fold newspaper into pot-like shapes two inches in diameter and about four inches tall. Packed together in a wooden or plastic flat, these “pots” lasted long enough to nurture annual seedlings until they were ready for life in the garden, at which point pot and all could be planted. Much cheaper than peat pots, and a “green” option as well.

Growing some plants from seed is dead easy; others are long-term projects often doomed to failure. Some seeds need exposure to freezing temperatures to induce germination. Others (Romneya coulteri, the California tree poppy, for example) germinate best after fires — not easy to do at home. Then there’s double dormancy, which may require two years before a sprout is seen. Many gardeners give up before that happens, or simply forget what’s supposed to happen in that pot and repurpose it. Working with challenging seeds requires dedication, labels, record-keeping, and space, as well as a good supply of patience.

The emergence of sprouts is always a thrill, no matter how long it takes, and especially if it takes a long time. A few years ago, I managed to sprout four seeds of Lilium columbianum, a native yellow lily. As I recall it, the sprouts emerged the second spring after planting. They went dormant for the summer, at which point I thought they had died, but last spring two tiny plants appeared. (I guess the other two decided to stay permanently dormant). One of the two survivors was cut down by slugs (probably a single slug, actually, because the plant was less than an inch tall). The other persisted for a couple more months, then vanished. Dead or dormant? Imagine what a thrill it was to see a lily-like sprout emerge last week, and a second one today! If I manage to foil the slugs, it’s possible I’ll actually have two plants taller than one inch by summertime, and who knows — maybe in a couple of years I’ll see at least one of them bloom. And if it produces seeds, I can do the whole process again — if I’m up to the effort.

As for all the old seeds I have stashed away in envelopes, pill bottles and other containers, the best thing would be to sort through them and get rid of any that are more than five years old. They don’t have a future, except as sad mementos of plants that have vanished, or that never progressed beyond the seed stage.

As a last-ditch effort in some cases, I could do germination tests — spread a sample of seeds between layers of dampened paper towels and see if anything happens. Unlike other unwanted items, disposal of old seeds is easy — mix them up and cast them to the winds. If any of them manage to sprout, I’ll consider it a gift from the garden gods.

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Tomato seedlings

A Slow Spring

Calendar spring has arrived, but the real thing is still peeking around the curtain, trying to decide when to make its appearance. We’ve gone from cold to cool, but haven’t arrived at warm.

And that’s fine with me. No, really! I’ve always found spring to be an anxiety-producing season. So much to do and not enough time in which to do it, never mind savour and observe. Weeds to weed, plants to plant, seeds to seed. And grass to mow.

Last spring — my first as a job-free (i.e., retired) person — came on fast and hot. Right from the start, I felt I had missed the garden bus with no hope of catching up. The weirdness of  leaving my years-long work routines, combined with hot (30 C, 86 F) days in May threw me off balance. I found myself shelving ambitious plans for the garden and improvising.

This year is different. I’ve worked through most of my Things to Prune list and made good progress on the Plants to Move one. I’ve seeded half a dozen perennials (inside) and of course the tomatoes. Most of them are starting to sprout. Tomatoes aside, it’s been years since I bothered growing new plants from seed.

Finding literally hundreds of hellebore seedlings around one of my mature plants, I potted up a few dozen. Hellebores do quite well here, so my plan is to make them more of a feature in a couple of beds, replacing plants that are struggling. The parent plant is a rather dark, smoky purple; it will be interesting to see what colours its offspring produce.

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These cool, often cloudy days are perfect for doing strenuous stuff in the garden, such as digging up perennials and moving them to new, supposedly better spots. Preparing the new spots, of course, usually involves cutting and removing part of the network of tree roots that lurks just below the surface.

I also have a lot of compost to distribute — shovel into wheelbarrow, shovel out over the ground. (When I think about it, compost is an awful lot of work — rake up the leaves and stuff, pile it up, poke it and turn it, and finally shovel as above, probably returning much of the material — in a decomposed state, of course — pretty much to where it started from. Nature probably laughs at gardeners).

In between all these efforts, it’s good to wander around and see what the plants are up to. That, after all, is the reward.

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Euphorbia myrsinites

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Iris unguicularis

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Arum italicum

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Tool Review: Pole Pruner

I’ve been doing a lot of pruning around the place lately, and had a substantial brush pile for pickup on our recent Compost Day.

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Most of the pruning and trimming was done either with feet on ground or from an 8-foot-tall stepladder. Not, unfortunately, one of those elegant three-legged numbers used by professionals, but an orange fiberglass and aluminum one intended for the handy homeowner. In most places it worked well, and is just light enough that I can lug it around and position it properly.

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My cutting tools — secateurs, loppers and scimitar-shaped pruning saw — also worked as expected. Near the end of the job, I tackled a relatively small but (when fully leafed out) shade-creating branch of the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima). I had an idea I could remove it by deploying the pole pruner. Most of the time, this tool stands unused in a corner of the shed. Once more I have been reminded why.

In theory, it’s a marvellous thing — a 5-and-a-half-foot-long telescoping pole that may be extended to 10 or so feet, with both a clipper and a saw blade at the end. The clipper is operated by pulling on a long cord (wrapped around the pole when not in use, as in the photo) that works a spring-loaded device attached to a blade-and-hook arrangement similar to that found on loppers. The gardener may stand on the ground (or, if desperate and daring, on a ladder) and cut otherwise unreachable branches. In theory.

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Slick, eh? Except the damned thing is virtually unusable, especially when fully extended. For one thing, it’s fairly heavy, with the cutting equipment on the end accounting for a good portion of that weight. It’s hard to finagle the hook over a branch at the correct angle and then hold the tool with one hand while pulling the cord with the other. The cord is long and hard to manage. The cutter can’t easily cut branches thicker than half an inch in diameter. That leaves the saw blade, which is about 9 inches long, but it’s impossible to saw a branch that’s bobbing up and down and can’t be held steady because it’s out of reach. Thus the saw is usable only to cut branches fairly close to a trunk or thick branch.

My pole pruner gets a one-star rating — or, if you prefer, a multi-#*%! rating.

To anyone who has been contemplating a pole pruner as a solution for pruning out of reach vegetation, I would say — don’t. At least not a heavy two-tools-in-one thing like mine. I think I’ve seen pruning saw blades attached to long wooden poles, which are probably a lot lighter. The limitations I’ve already noted would still apply, though. All in all, I would recommend a good ladder, and if that won’t do the trick, note the real problem branches and hire a professional to deal with them.

Holly Hell

I have at least three sizable English hollies (Ilex aquifolium) on my modest patch of land. Maybe more than three; they may be multi-trunked or actually two or three plants growing close together. A next door neighbour who moved away some years ago told me his place was surrounded by a holly hedge at one time. Knowing how birds spread the seeds around, I’m betting my plants are descended from that hedge.

Many people really like holly. Gardeners in cold-winter areas bemoan not being able to grow it and wish they could. Having lived and worked with these plants, I’m not so sure.

“Worked with” means pruned them, handled the prunings, raked up their dead leaves or encountered them while weeding or planting.

Hollies can become small trees — if by “small” you mean 25 feet tall and 10 to 12 feet wide. They have a habit of branching low on their trunks, and unless one makes a point of crawling under and removing the lowest branches, they get up to all kinds of mischief. I have found thin, whippy branches 6 to 8 feet long hanging down and rooting where they touch the soil. Left to themselves, they would become new holly bushes, thickening the thicket, so to speak.

Hollies are, of course, broadleaf evergreens, so a large plant casts considerable year-round shade. Other plants growing near the hollies are susceptible to being shaded out of existence or engulfed by ever-expanding holly foliage. Unless the gardener has space for such expansion, and wants a tall, impenetrable hedge, it’s necessary to prune and trim every couple of years to keep the plants within bounds. The good news is that hollies can endure severe pruning, so a gardener doesn’t have to fret about doing it wrong. Lop away!

And now the bad news — holly leaves are intensely prickly. Each leaf has several spines along its margin. Even fallen leaves are a menace to the leaf-raking gardener wearing thin gloves or no gloves at all. Burrowing into a holly thicket or crawling under low branches to cut out any with rooting ambitions is an exercise in masochism, as is gathering up and lugging the cut branches. I have little pink prickle marks all over my hands and wrists — and I was wearing gloves!

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Skeletonized holly leaf, with spines intact!

Despite all this, hollies are undeniably attractive, in a dark, prickly way. The red berries borne on the female plants add a festive zing (and, of course, birds love ’em and distribute the seeds far and wide). A gardener without a holly bush who wants one should probably acquire a named variety rather than go with the species, which tends to be overly vigorous. Many cultivars are available, offering a range of sizes, colours (including variegated) and degrees of hardiness.

A large holly can support climbers such as clematis, whose blooms — especially the lighter colours — look good against the dark foliage. One of my hollies hosts a Clematis armandii, which looks wonderful when in full bloom. Of course this complicates the pruning business considerably, so a clematis that can be cut down every spring, such  as one of the Viticella types, would be a better choice.

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Clematis armandii and holly

 

 

 

Campion Cull

I have often mentioned the rose campion, Lychnis coronaria. It’s one of the easiest of garden perennials, practically a weed, in fact. It resists drought, tolerates shade, comes in white or what I call “magenta” (a dark purplish red, anyway), and seeds mightily.

That, of course, is why my place has more than enough of this plant. In the first flush of summer bloom, the white form is visually dominant in the back garden.

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Multiple clumps of white-flowered campion

The thing is, I find it impossible to yank out or dig up a plant that looks healthy, especially if it’s in full bloom. L. coronaria manages to look too good to kill most of the time, especially if deadheaded. This extends the bloom season and delays the onset of seediness. By July or August, deadheading 3 dozen or more plants gets to be a pain, especially those that are hard to get at. I resort to cutting the flowering stalks down or removing them altogether. That minimizes seed production, but does not eliminate it. Which is why I have so many plants.

This winter has been relatively tough, and one effect of that is that the campion plants look distinctly shabby.

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Noticing this, I seized the opportunity and a digging tool, and did a bit of a cull. Of course, there was no way to tell which plants were white-flowering and which were magenta, but I concentrated on spots I recalled as having way too many of the white form.

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Results of the massacre — a pile of pulled up campion plants.

At its best, the white-flowered form is as cool and elegant as many difficult perennials.

July 2, 2012

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Euphorbia.

 

After the massacre, I started feeling some regret at the number of plants I had removed. Looking around, though, there is no shortage of Lychnis coronaria in this garden. And if I feel there is, all I have to do is let a single plant produce seed and scatter it around. Repopulation is guaranteed.