Monday, April 26, 2010

An Alaska garden in April

Pick your favorite subtitle: “Like a Phoenix From the Ashes”, “Jewels in the Snow”, or my personal favorite, “Is That All?”  With so many bloggers showing (off) their spring blooms, I am eager to share just what is happening a far northern garden.  For all you smart aleck types out there: yes, this will be brief.

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I have gotten into trouble before jumping the gun, usually planting annuals out too early, but this spring I think I may truly have tidied up just a bit too soon.  I hold myself blameless (a good idea for my long term garden mental health): I’ve had nothing whatever to do in the garden since November 4th, so apparently, obviously, unmistakably, plainly, and clearly, I’m desperate (and have a handy Thesaurus).

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A soft drizzling rain kept me company for a quick bed cleanup.  Just to help the crocus breathe, I rationalized to myself.  First thing first.  I found the wheelbarrow loafing in the side yard (see above) and was heartened to discover it wasn’t frozen to the ground.  Step two: find Felcos and pruning saw.  Step three (after trying Felcos and saying some un-ladylike things about their performance): lubricating pruners.  Step four: slip in snow on way to prune.  Final step: the really fun and satisfying part, giving severe haircuts to anything above ground that catches my eye.  One wheelbarrow-full of clippings later, the big reveal.  OK, the only reveal.  Everything else is still under snow or a sticky, silty, sodden mess. 

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I made the same newbie mistake I do every year and went full throttle: two hours later I took a short break to assess just how many dead leaves and twigs were in my hair.  Answer: a few, but no spiders, hurrah!  I am unsettled to discover I have a twinge in my lower back, but the sight of some blooms, green things, and brown dirt more than compensates for the pain.  For now.

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Among the joyous discoveries, the Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ lives and may (steady on, Christine) bloom.  I have never seen a Mag growing in Alaska…so yes, a coup for me, but I’ll try not to let it go to my head.  The Fothergilla ‘Mt. Airy’ lives, as does the Acer maximowiczianum.  Crocus are blooming like mad in purple, white, and yellow.  The ones not nestled in snow, that is.

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The disappointments must lead out with the Bergenia.  I have extensive plantings and many are a brown, sodden mess.  Others are cheerful green (see below) or burgundy, which I much prefer to the dead look.  Honestly, who kills off Bergenia?  I guess that can be my claim to garden fame, kind of like the cook that burns water, “Psst, she kills Bergenia!” 

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I can’t end with a complaint because I worked in the yard today.  A real privilege after a long winter.  Perhaps northern gardeners should have a parade day to celebrate the start of work in the garden again.  (I’ll be the one in the pink coat with bits of twigs and leaves in my hair.)  We can even throw goodies into the crowds of spectators (my vote is for handing out back pain meds).  Now I just have to come up with a theme song and name for this parade.  It’s too late (and I’m too tired, as evidenced by all the parentheses in this post) to come up with anything clever (or even stupid) tonight.  If you have any ideas, do let us know….   

What’s your claim to garden fame?

Monday, April 19, 2010

I’ve been benched!

The worst thing that can happen to an athlete is to be sent to the bench.  Hmmm, upon reflection, perhaps there are worse things (see any article about Tiger Woods).  But “sit on the bench” is certainly not the direction a team player wants to hear from the coach. It can mean you aren’t up to snuff and someone else could do a better job.  Or you are tired and need a break.  Or even that you have a bad attitude and are being reprimanded.  Maybe this explains my reluctance to park myself on one in the garden.  Shades of high school athletics-past surfacing to haunt me.  “But coach, just give me another chance….”

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When I’m on a roll in the garden, getting things done left and right, the sun beating down, and a headache looming (see picture above), my eyes do sometimes furtively dart to the bench nearest me.  “No” I think, “I can keep going.”  Sporting allusions aside, I don’t know why I’m so averse to taking a seat on those benches.  It’s not as if they are rickety, splinter laden, or uncomfortable.  Part of an outdoor dining set, they are quite fetching and the best Mother’s Day gift I have ever received.  When I was in the market for outdoor furniture, I snootily announced that nothing but teak would do.  That meant doing without, as finding teak for sale in Alaska is like finding a Tasmanian wolf: people think they’ve seen it, but it hasn’t been scientifically proven in fifty years.  I struck furniture gold with an ad from the classifieds for a used set.  One trip with the truck, trailer attached, made all my furniture dreams come true: not just one, but three benches and four chairs to lounge about in.  If only.  

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Maybe I watch too much nature-related TV.  I am reminded of lions eyeing the dusty multitudes in the wildebeest throng from the shelter of the tall grasses.   Then an individual with a weakness to cut from the herd and attack is spotted.  I don’t need to tell you what happens next.    [Random design aside: I do favor backing benches and chairs up to tall plantings.  Like lions, I favor grasses, but shrubbery works for me, too.  I find plantings over three feet the most satisfying to nestle a bench next to, and plantings under two feet prone to induce a fight-or-flight response at the least sound.]  Sitting on my bench is like a giant psychological concession to the garden lions.  I am in a weakened state, take me down.  And so the benches and chairs are well placed and inviting, but only ever fleetingly glanced at.  The lions are watching.  So is coach.

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My empty chair, above, keeping the (compulsory) blue tarp and kids company, circa 2008.

Any lonely benches or chairs in your garden?    

Check out some other bench stories at Gardening Gone Wild.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Snow White and the Seven Dwarf Evergreens

Snow White was a bit of a dope, wasn't she?  Depending on who is doing the telling, she accepted not one, but three different poisoned items from a stranger.  The dwarves bailed her out for the first two bonehead mistakes, but the third time, when she ate a poisoned apple, they couldn't figure out how to help her.  So they did what any normal persons would have and encased her in glass in the forest.  This story has a classic moral: be on good terms with your stepmother.  And never, ever be better looking.

Snow White might not have been the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to her stepmother, but the dwarves had the wicked queen's number.  They warned S.W. not to talk to strangers because they knew the queen had it out for her.  They couldn't be with her all the time to protect her from her own stupidity; they had day jobs in a mine.  [You will recall their unassailable financial advice, from the classic Disney movie: "It ain't no trick to get rich quick when you dig, dig, dig with a shovel or a pick, in a mine.  We dig up diamonds by the score, a thousand rubies, sometimes more...."]  Between grubbing up jewels and doing triage with a comatose S.W. on a fairly regular basis, they must have been busy.

Even though these seven chaps were eminently useful, it's a small miracle (no pun intended) they turned out as well as they did.  What kind of cruel parents name their kids Dopey, Lazy, Sleazy, Bashful, etc.?  That's just asking for a host of psychological issues to manifest themselves.  At first glance, Doc lucked out in the naming lottery, but perhaps Doc is short for docket, dockyard, or document.  But all in all, they seemed to lead a charmed life: a private cottage in the forest with buckets of gems and a princess for a housekeeper.

Now to segue gracefully from useful persons of reduced stature with oddish names, to useful evergreens of similar build with oddish names.  [For exhaustive pictures on the subject, look elsewhere, namely Conifers: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, volumes 1 and 2 by D.M. van Gelderen and J.R.P. van Hoey Smith.  For a cursory glance or completely superficial gloss, you've come to the right place.]  Some dwarf evergreens have really catchy or evocative names.  Chamaecyparis lawsoniana 'Wissel's Saguaro',  Pinus banksiana 'Uncle Fogy', or Picea sitchensis 'Papoose.'  Also Picea pungens 'Porcupine'.  Others seem to have lost out on the plant naming lottery just like Dopey and Sneezy: Pinus mugo 'Big Tuna', Pinus contorta 'Inverewe', and Pinus sylvestris 'Skogbygdi'.  Quite a range, isn't there?  

Certain breeders (I won't name names) seem to have run out of creative steam and gone for "apt" instead.  Witness Picea glauca 'Tiny', Picea abies 'Midget', Picea abies 'Dumpy', Cedrus deodara 'Pygmy', Juniperus communis 'Miniature' and Pinus sylvestris 'Scrubby.'  Just makes you want to dash out and locate these little gems, doesn't it?  Thankfully, more than the mere pedestrian are in evidence.  Plenty of magical or mythical creatures are included: Picea glauca 'Elf', Picea x mariorika 'Gnom', Picea glauca 'Pixie', and Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Leprechaun' and 'Golden Fairy.'  Disney seems to have a small market share in the category with Picea abies 'Cinderella' and Abies koreana 'Pinocchio.'  And apparently Doc got into the plant breeding business, for we have Tsuga canadensis 'Doc's Choice.'  I feel I also must mention Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Alaska,' even though it resembles the offspring of lichen and dryer lint.

Why would I want one of those dreadful things, you may ask.  Good question.  (First let's get some technical nonsense out of the way, courtesy of the British Conifer Society: "dwarf" means a growth rate of 1-6 inches a year and a height (after ten years) of 1-6 feet.) How about some texture, color, shape, and winter interest in your garden?  Don't take my word for it.  No less an authority than Adrian Bloom, plantsman and horticulturist of worldwide repute, has written Gardening With Conifers for you doubters.  He makes a convincing argument that dwarf conifers are indispensable in rock gardens, troughs, containers, and wildlife gardens.  Those are a just few reasons to plant botanical friends of Snow White.  Their smaller size merits them a place in today's smaller lot sizes, as well.

Picea glauca 'Fat Albert' with a cone.  This evergreen is actually in the "semi-dwarf" category of growth.

The dwarf of choice, or at least, of circumstance, in my yard is Picea 'Fat Albert.'  I have had no less than three comments about how I've planted it too close to the house.  "Those things'll top thirty feet!" said one sage garden tourist.  I must have taken my Paxil that day because I managed to stop gritting my teeth long enough to mention it was a semi-dwarf that would mature at about fifteen feet.  I expect the root restrictions (it's in a raised bed surrounded by timbers) and competition from copious neighbors will curb it a bit, too.  I would love to add another dwarf to the mix, but finding them here is a bit of a challenge.  We are, generally speaking, a bit behind the times up here when it comes to bantam evergreens.  Not much is available selection-wise at our local nurseries.  (I would love for some enterprising Alaskan nursery to make me eat crow on this.)  For some pictures of a lovely nursery in a warmer clime (and some neat propagation and field shots) that specializes in dwarf conifers, try here. Their mail order/internet site is here.

Alas, I have just remembered I do have a larger dwarf population that just one, in the guise of three cheerful specimens of Picea abies 'Ohlendorfii', pictured below, with Calamagrostis brachytricha in autumn.  But that is (really) all the dwarf evergreens I have.  Honest.  Just like Snow White, I could use a little help now and again from a few diminutive chaps around the garden.  On my wish list of useful dwarves (or is it dwarfs?): Picea glauca 'Rainbow's End' and 'Acrocona Pusch'.  You?

Have any small-statured evergreens?  Or perhaps treasured memories of Snow White that I have sullied with my bit of fluff? 

Monday, April 5, 2010

Five ways to know it's spring in Alaska

This is the post I had to pull after a mere four hours on my blog a couple of weeks ago because we had a blizzard and a post on spring seemed a little optimistic.  Barring any (more) unforeseen blizzards, I think it might be spring.  This list was compiled after thirty-plus years experience in Alaskan springs.  It only sounds bitter.

1. The snow is brown.  Or almost gone in some years (Al Gore be darned, our springs haven't been any hotter/drier that I can tell).  All that road sand applied to the snow and ice during the winter is just lying there, on top of the snow, waiting to be covered by emerging greenery.

2. The cars are filthy.  What's the point of washing the car if it's going to get dirty driving out of the car wash parking lot?  Puddles, puddles, everywhere.  You will run out of windshield wiping fluid...twice.

                                   Moose dookie at the base of a Mountain Ash tree (Sorbus sp.).

          Love notes from Fido.

3. It smells like doggie/moose doo.  Going for a springtime walk is like an exercise in dodging land mines.  Stride, stride, leap, stride stride, hop....  I think all dog owners that don't clean up after Fido should be rounded up and forced to scoop for an hour along roadways as penance for tainting our water supply and creeks.  The moose scat?  Well, what can you do? (The LFG hubby is all for an urban hunt.)

Yes, that blue bit of litter is a tarp.  We Alaskans love our tarps.  The LFG hubby wanted to stop the car, dash out and snatch it.  Alas, we were going about 70 mph at the time.  It might still be there if anyone's interested (Palmer Hay Flats State Game Refuge).

4. Litter previously covered by snow is revealed in all its glory.  Thank goodness for the annual clean-up day.  I find at least one-dollar bill every year.  Once I found twenty dollars.  More usually I find cans, bottles, boxes, plastic bags, broken lumber, and in one area of town I found, within a forty foot radius: a car stereo, pornographic magazine, drug needle, and (ugh) a used prophylactic.  A dandy haul that would make a splendid real estate brochure for the neighborhood.
5. The sun is shining.  (I have no picture.  I have been thwarted by nature: a cloudy day.  Again.)  And plans for fishing, camping, hiking, biking, swimming, boating, gardening, etc. are being made.  Some daylight facts: When a place goes from 5.5 hours of daylight on January 1st to more than 13 hours by April 1st, that will put a smile on anyone's face.  Well, anyone that hasn't stepped in dog doo.... 

Any Alaskans out there (or springtime visitors) want to submit a number six?

How do you know it's spring in your area?


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