Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

April 2010

Flats of bedding plants for sale in Haarlem Tomorrow marks the opening day for the 2010 season of the Des Moines Farmers Market. This Saturday morning gathering of 200 plus vendors has become an event that attracts 10,000 to 15,000 people weekly, eager to purchase fresh-picked produce, buy beautiful flowers, and snarf fresh-baked goodies. It’s a party atmosphere where you’re almost certain to run into other people you know. It’s even a tourist attraction! My sister-in-law and one of her friends are visiting this weekend from two hours away so that they can join in the festivities.

This early in the season asparagus will be at peak production, along with salad greens such as lettuce and spinach. Visitors will also be sure to find lots of annual flowers for sale as hanging baskets or bedding plants. (Need to know how many plants to buy to fill your flower bed? Try our handy bedding plant estimator that will make the calculations for you.)

Do you have a farmers market in your town? They have nearly universal appeal. The shot at left is from the Market Square (Grote Markt) in Haarlem, Netherlands. I recently stayed just a few blocks from the market, and was able to see the beautiful flowers that vendors had for sale. Here are a couple more shots of the blooms to buy. And even though I don’t speak Dutch, I was able to figure out the translation for boeket! These bouquets of gerberas, mums, freesias, and hypericum were selling for just under 5 Euros (about $6.50 at current exchange rates)—a great example of the wonderful bargains you can find at farmers markets.

Last autumn I planted some spring-bulb combinations that I thought would be stunning. But because of our relatively weird spring weather, the bulbs didn’t bloom together. (Hopefully next year!)

But that’s a great lesson: You can’t always count on flowers to give you the show you want. Happily, though, you can rely on foliage.

Look for plants with great leaves to give your yard spring-to-fall beauty. Coral bells are among the finest foliage plants. Thanks to plant breeders, you can get coral bells in shades of chartreuse, coral, peach, tan, purple, and even nearly black.

Try them together or add more interest by mixing in other types of leaf textures. For example, a purple coral bells like Dolce Blackcurrant would look amazing with Japanese painted fern, brunnera, and Burgundy Glow ajuga. And best of all, they’ll look as great in early spring together as they do in early fall.

Okay, that wasn’t really the line. It’s actually “Sometimes people just die,” from a scene in Groundhog Day (one of Bill Murray’s finer works, IMHO). But trees can seem like that too. When trees die suddenly and without obvious cause, it’s almost always from a disease. Sometimes other pests (like borers) can do it, but usually the decline takes a couple or more years. And sometimes some severe environmental factor is at play — prolonged drought, flooding, or construction damage, for example. But you usually have no trouble seeing what happened. A fungal disease that infects a tree’s vascular system, however, can kill a seemingly healthy, happy specimen overnight. It seems as if it comes out of nowhere and unless you do a little investigating and know what you’re looking for, the cause can remain quite mysterious.

My dead wisteria

My dead wisteria

And here is the latest victim in my yard. It was my cherished wisteria standard and it refused to emerge from dormancy this year. It’s been there 6 or 7 years, growing vigorously, apparently unaffected by our Iowa winters. Early this spring, I noticed the buds seemed dried out. Never a good sign. And sure enough, here it is, a bunch of sticks when it should be budding out. What a heartbreaker.

Why did it die? Don’t know.  It had some trunk wounds, and I have found that such wounds, combined with the very wet weather we’ve had in the Midwest the last few years has been a deadly combination for a few of my trees. Maybe that’s what it was. Regardless,  I’ve got a tree to replace. There are lots of lessons here, all of which can be summed up as “Treat your trees nicely.” Don’t run into them with the lawnmower, make sure they aren’t standing in water, prune in winter not summer. We often take trees for granted, assuming that the nails we pound into them, the bark we strip off them, the roots we sever, won’t harm them. It’s not always so.  Sometimes they die.

100413501Yesterday between rain showers I took my good dogs on a walk to a nearby park to check on the status of the bluebird boxes I helped install a couple of years ago. At least one pair of bluebirds has already taken up residence and laid a trio of pale blue eggs. Another box had a beautiful nest inside carefully composed of green mosses for the base and topped with a soft blanket of animal hair. Not sure whose construction materials I was admiring. Also removed more than a handful of twiggy wren nests left over in the boxes from last season. The American Bird Conservancy has identified 10 other ways you can aid or protect declining bird populations:

1.  Keep your cat indoors. This is best for your cat as well as the birds as indoor cats live an average of three to seven times longer. Even well-fed cats kill birds, and bells on cats don’t effectively warn birds of cat strikes.

2.  Prevent birds from hitting your windows by using a variety of treatments on the glass in your home. Visit abcbirds.org for more.

3.  Eliminate pesticides from your yard—even those pesticides that are not directly toxic to birds can pollute waterways and reduce insects that birds rely on for food.

4.  Create backyard habitat. If you have a larger yard, create a diverse landscape by planting native plants and grasses that attract native birds. You will be rewarded by their beauty and song, and you’ll have fewer insect pests as a result.

5.  Donate old bird watching equipment such as binoculars or spotting scopes to your local bird watching group, who can get them to schools of biologists in other countries who may not have the resources they need.

6.  Reduce your carbon footprint. Use a hand-pushed or electric lawnmower, carpool, use low-energy light bulbs and Energy Star appliances. Contact your energy supplier and ask them about purchasing your energy from renewable sources.

7.  Buy organic food and drink shade-grown coffee. Increasing the market for produce grown without the use of pesticides, which can be toxic to birds, will reduce the use of these hazardous chemicals. Shade coffee plantations maintain large trees that provide essential habitat for wintering songbirds.

8.  Keep feeders and bird baths clean to avoid disease and to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.

9.  Support bird-friendly legislation. Example: HR 4797, a proposed bill that provides for bird-friendly federal buildings.

10. Join a bird conservation group to learn more about birds and to support important conservation work.

I just returned from a press trip to the Netherlands, courtesy of the International Flower Bulb Center. Thanks to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, my stay in Europe was nearly extended indefinitely. However, after five days in Holland, I continued on to Barcelona–just before the volcano shut down air travel. This proved to be a fortuitous choice of locations for getting a return flight to the U.S.

Colorful spring landscape

I saw lots of outstanding color from traditional plantings such as these sweeping monochrome beds of tulips paired with flowering cherry trees at Keukenhof Gardens. This theme park of flowers annually dazzles millions of visitors during its display of springtime splendor from late March through late May. The cool temperatures (daytime highs in the 50s F and nighttime lows in the 30s and 40s) during this time in the Netherlands keep the colors vivid for weeks on end. But even with the favorable climate, no spring bulb blooms will last for the entire show. So organizers plant late bloomers in the same beds with early bloomers to take over when the first flowers begin to fade.

One of the trends I saw in the Dutch gardens was interplanting different types of bulbs that bloom at the same time. The photo at right shows a gorgeous combination of crocus ‘Remembrance’ with ‘Heart’s Delight’ kaufmanniana tulip (also sometimes called the waterlily tulip for the shape of its flowers). Who wouldn’t love this burst of color in their own yard?

Another evident trend is combining and interplanting bulbs with later-blooming perennials. Rather than creating a mass of color, this technique evokes a cottage garden look, with splashes of color and texture intertwined in a informal display. The example mixed border at right uses glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa), daffodils (Narcissus), and checkered lilies (Fritillaria meleagris) planted among heuchera, bleeding heart, ferns, and hellebores.

Yet another trend I observed was widespread use of spring bulbs in containers gardens. This is the perfect way for those with limited space to enjoy these spring beauties. By raising the flowers above ground level, they’re easier to see up close. As the bulbs’ blooms fade, replant the pot with colorful summer annuals. The container pictured includes deep purple Triumph tulips, checkered lily, and golden sedge (Carex).

I may not be returning to the Netherlands anytime soon, but I plan to recreate the spirit of those gardens by planting more bulbs in my own garden, using some of the ideas I picked up in Europe.

The new Love: Pansies in a Basket postage stamp was dedicated today at  the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City. Featuring a white woven basket brimming with purple pansies and the word “Love,” the Postal Service’s 2010 44-cent love stamp design is a detail from a Hallmark card (also based in Kansas City) that was first issued as a Mother’s Day card in 1939. “The very name of the flower—pansy—comes from the French word ‘pensée,’ which means thought,” says Stephen Kearny, senior vice president for Customer Relations. “This museum serves as a place of remembrance, and it is fitting that we should gather here to celebrate the issuance of a stamp with the image of flowers that have long been recognized as symbols of remembrance.” Just wanted to give you a heads-up to visit to your local post office to buy them before they disappear.

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