Tomorrow is National Poinsettia Day. While it may not rank up there with other major holidays of the season, this observance of a plant closely associated with the Christmas holidays is worth noting. If you think of bright red bracts at the mention of this winter bloomer, you’re a traditionalist. There’s nothing wrong with that; almost 3/4 of poinsettia buyers prefer that color. But poinsettias are available in many more colors, now, from pink to white, creamy yellow, deep plum, and marbled and frosted bicolors.
Say you live in Zone 5 and experience cold winters. Shouldn’t affect your red oak, right? I mean, that’s a species that is cold tolerant down to Zone 3! But if it’s in a container, the otherwise-hardy tree is automatically more at risk in winter. That goes for shrubs and perennials, too, which need insulation for their roots. Fortunately, there are several solutions.
A little blizzard is rolling through Meredith headquarters (and much of the rest of the Midwest) as I write this; we’ve been blanketed with a good snowfall (it looked like about 18 inches as I shoveled this morning), there are strong 40-mph winds, and we have single-digit temperatures.
One consequence of this is it’s probably increasing my heating bill this month. Happily, though, I know some landscaping tricks that help save me money on my heating/cooling bills.
One is to plant a windbreak. While not a new concept (farmers have been doing it forever), an evergreen barrier on the north or east side of your property has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of heat that cold winter winds pull from your home.
If you don’t have the space for a windbreak, consider a berm. It can create a pocket of insulating air space around your home’s foundation. Plant on it and you’ve also created a little extra privacy in your landscape.
How much can it save you? Many experts say 5 to 25 percent, depending on a number of factors. Couple that with the fact that attractive landscaping adds to your home’s value, and it seems like a pretty good deal, eh?
We had our first legitimate snow last night. My kids were excited beyond belief. I have to admit, I was happy to see it too. I grew up in California and snow was something you traveled to see. A tourist attraction, you might say. When I first arrived in the Midwest, my neighbors thought it was a little creepy that I was outside taking pictures of my own yard. But they know I was a West Coaster, so they tolerated me. Snow isn’t quite as novel now, but I still enjoy it. Yes, it’s work to clear off the sidewalk. But I don’t mind so much, especially now that I have a snow blower. Tomorrow, they’re calling for near blizzard conditions. Seriously. Bring it on, I say! I have a blower!
Blowers aren’t cheap, but this was some of the best money I ever spent. Shoveling is seriously hard work, for those of you who aren’t acquainted with what it’s like to scoop 8 inches of wet white stuff for an hour. With a machine to do the work, now snow is fun again.
I was pleased to find the engine fired right up this morning. I hadn’t even tried it ahead of time to make sure it worked, which was dumb. But I got away with it. This time. I was confident, though, because I do one thing every year that seems to be the ticket to long engine life for mowers and blowers: before putting one away for the off season, let it run out of gas. That way, old gas can’t form nasty deposits in the carburetor while it sits. When you’re ready to run it again, just add fresh gas, and it should start right back up.
Changing the oil helps an engine last too, I understand. But after hearing my neighbor, “Wilson”, brag about how his old mower went 9 years without an oil change, I had to wonder. His old mower was a piece of junk. He used a vice grip to hold the busted handle together while he mowed. For two years. I guess an engine doesn’t have to last forever. Just long enough for other things to start breaking first. Just to be on the safe side, I think I’ll stick with the oil changes. Considering how much a blower costs. And how much my back hurts after shoveling.
My houseplants are well-watered and my good dogs are fed and walked, so I toss another log on the fire and pick up a book from the pile beside my bed to bolster my spirits from the plummeting temperatures outside. The book I grab just so happens to be Hal Borland’s Sundial of the Seasons (1964, Lippincott). This satisfying book contains 365 of Borland’s outdoor essays from The New York Times, one for each day of the year; and because Borland prefers the natural year to the calendar year, he begins with the vernal equinox, when “April whispers from the hilltop, even as March goes whistling down the valley,” and ends with the passing of “the long nights when the moon rides high over a cold and brittle white-world.” Borland was the Verlyn Klinenborg of his day, writing from his farm in Connecticut’s lower Berkshire Hills (plus, he’s the author of a book I loved as a young adult, The Dog Who Came to Stay). I’ve been reading each day’s essay from Sundial of the Seasons since I picked up the book, so I thought I’d share an eloquent entry from this week, for the first day of December: ”December is a blizzard in Wyoming and a gale on the Lakes and the Berkshires frosted like a plate of cupcakes. It’s fir trees going to the cities by the truckload, and red ribbon by the mile and tinsel everywhere. It’s so many days until You-Know-When. It’s the Winter solstice and the shortest day, and it’s a snow shovel and galoshes and a muffler round the neck. It’s 30 below in Medicine Hat. December is the hungry owl and the fugitive rabbit. the woodchuck abed and the crow all alone in the pasture. It’s soup in the kettle and a log in the fireplace and long wool socks. It’s a wind at the door and a whisper in the air and a hush on the evening when the carols are sung.” I feel warmer already.
This was moving week for Zach, our fantail goldfish. He summers in the water garden next to the front porch, but when cold weather hits, he moves to a half whiskey barrel in the greenhouse. If the pond were deep enough, he could stay outdoors all winter. However, local zoning restrictions require 6-foot-tall fencing around water features deeper than 18 inches–not exactly attractive in the front yard. So, every year we rescue Zach from the pond in fall, and transfer him to his winter haven.
That means bailing water out of the pond to catch him. Usually we wait until icicles dangle from the waterfall and a sheet of ice covers the pond. This year we took advantage of last 60 degree F day to empty the pond. With temps in the teens this morning, we’re glad we did. It’s a lot more pleasant splashing through 60-degree water than slush! As you can see in the photo at left, we usually have algae build-up to clean out, too. That scrub down will wait until spring.
We plan to try new technology next year to cut down on algal growth. The folks at Smartpond recently gave a presentation to the Meredith garden editors about new products that they have developed. One incorporates a UV light (which kills algae) with a water garden pump. We’ll give it a try next season and report back results on this blog.