Monday, May 11, 2015

Perennial P.I.T.A.

The first gardening mistake I made when we moved to rural Vermont 17 years ago was thinking that perennials are something you plant once and enjoy forever.

Ohhhhhh no. Oh-ho-ho-no.

Well, in some cases it’s true—we’ve got peonies, for example, that came with the place and must be decades old—but the very fact that perennials stay in the ground makes them subject to seemingly endless variables, all exacerbated by the seemingly endless microclimates that characterize the region in general and our yard in particular.

I knew going in that some perennials, such as gladioli, are sensitive and must be brought indoors for the winter then reestablished in the spring. So I skipped those. I also knew that some perennials, such as most everything in the mint family, are invasive and must be either contained or planted where they can run amok. So I avoided those, too.

Then went on to plant my favorite species, since our well-established perennials represented a previous homeowner’s taste. Pretty much everything I put in failed within 1-3 years, while the established plants flourished. Huh?

I can divide or transplant the established perennials with shocking brutality and they just keep going like Energizer Bunnies, but my carefully selected, carefully tended new perennials just don’t last. Heck, I’m the only person I’ve ever met who can’t keep daffodils!

Even after I got smart and started planting only Zone 3–hardy specimens (learned from cataloguing everything established and finding that to be the common denominator), I still lose the new ones. Or else they shrink back in number to a few feeble survivors that keep returning enough to keep giving me false hope.

The experience has taught me a lot about the dominance of microclimates over zone maps, the difference between reproductive techniques, and perennial vs. diennial growth patterns. It also clarified the definition of “partial sunlight.” The thing that surprises me year after year, however, is the fact that some perennials move.

It’s a creepy thought that nags at me during the winter. While the land is frozen for months, somewhere below my feet there are tendrils reaching out, or seeds that fell over the summer, which will result in plants emerging somewhere other than where I put them. Thus I’ve had grape hyacinths and glory-of-the-snows pop up in the middle of the lawn. Thus I’ve had a crocus appear even though I never planted one. Thus the horseradish emerged in the woods 30 yards away from its calculated placement, the phlox choked out a complete garden, the lupines stepped sideways two feet, and the bee balm took over the compost pile.

These plants behave, in fact, like certain weeds. Heck, perennials are weeds, if you consider this definition: “What we call a weed is in fact merely a plant growing where we do not want it” (E. J. Salisbury, The Living Garden, 1935). In my yard, some perennials are invasive weeds—like the nightmare phlox, along with lilacs, anything in the rose family, and lily of the valley, which to me is as pernicious as grass. I have come to hate grass, which grows like a metastisizing cancer where you do not want it and refuses to grow where you do.

What this all adds up to is a three-part lesson: (1) Do thorough homework before you plant perennials. (2) Be prepared to monitor them closely and manage them regularly. (3) Make sure you put clumpers in the garden and movers somewhere they can spread.

Else you’ll discover that perennials are actually annuals, because you’ll be reinventing your yard and garden every year!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Broken record

Reporting on the local climate makes one sound like a broken record. Same phrase over and over: “It’s different every year.”

But I have to keep saying that, because it’s true.

This winter was different from each preceding winter, and spring is coming in with its own flavor, too.

The winter of 2014–15 was a whopper for many areas, and broke numerous records. Here it was just a normal Vermont winter, with the old-timers saying it was more like the ones back when than recent years. The only record we came close to was Coldest February (ranked #3 according to those who keep track).

Yes, there have been snowier winters, colder ones, longer ones, icier ones, drier ones. What stood out this year was the mix and match (as reported in my February entry, “A big winter”). In contrast, it’s ending benignly, easing into spring with a gentle thaw. While the weather improvement on a daily basis is frustratingly slow, it allows the snow to melt gradually so that flooding is either absent or mild, and dirt roads are slimy instead of axle-deep mires, and ice-out is a rising rush instead of a torrent that causes ice dams.

People keep saying, “When is spring going to get here?” By my observations, it’s already arrived. Spring isn’t so much when the grass turns green and flowers bloom, but when the environment changes from hard to soft, and the birds start returning and hibernating critters emerge. The migratory birds are right on time, starting with the song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, and robins. Coons, skunks, and squirrels are out foraging, and no doubt the bears will make an appearance shortly. So will the daffodils and crocuses.

I’ve noticed from my informal recordkeeping that the songbirds and bulbs appear reliably within a two-week window. This year they’re on the late side because the snowpack has been slow to shrink. As soon as that noticeably began, however, in came the migrants, and now the morning is filled with twittering and singing instead of frigid silence. In our first 48 hours above freezing, we lost almost half the snow cover and gained multiple species.

So even though every year is different, the season cycle is comfortingly the same. Global climate change is showing trends that we’ve noticed over thirty years, but as long as the planet remains driven by sunlight and tilted at the same angle, we can count on what goes around coming around again.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Winter garden

I’ve lost track of how many years it’s been since I’ve been growing red bell peppers and tomatoes in my living room. At least a decade now.

This practice arose from three things: (1) a very short growing season, (2) learning that peppers and tomatoes are perennials in tropical climes, and (3) having a south-facing living room wall that’s all windows.

So one spring, when I bought transplants for the garden, I kept one tomato and two peppers inside and planted them in big pots. They have provided produce year-round ever since.

I also tried dragging one of my EarthBox containers inside at an early frost, just when the red bell peppers were ripening for harvest. (Kitty helped.) They produced into December.

For the year-rounders, all I give them is water and occasional refreshing of soil. The plants have always been brittle, since they don’t grow against wind and rain, and each year they give more leaves and fewer, smaller fruit. I cut them back every few months, and they crank up again.

Finally I killed one from too much sun and/or too little water and/or cutting back too severely. So I replaced it the next spring, and on it goes. The longest-lived one has been about seven years. All would go indefinitely if I treated them better.

So this season, I upgraded my ritual to include twice-a-month feedings. Too soon to tell what that will lead to. I’m looking forward to spring, when I can replace the tomato with a bush variety that will not take off across the living room and up the walls.

Even with sparse output, you can’t beat having fresh tomatoes and peppers when it’s ten below!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A big winter

Here in Vermont, in our peculiar dip between the northern and southern ranges of the Green Mountains, where the Taconic Hills peter out, we define winter as the non-growing season when it’s probable to have snow on the ground. This can last three to seven months, averaging four to five.

Some years we have a cold winter. Others, a dry one. A snowy one. An icy one. A wet one. Pick your dominant characteristic.

This year we’re having a big one: big snow, big cold, big ice, big wind. It started in November and looks likely to run into April. Most everyone is going nutty, because when we have the big snow—great for skiers and snowmobilers—it’s often too bitter to go outside. When temps moderate, it’s too icy to do anything requiring traction. When it’s cold enough, long enough, to make good lake ice, there’s a solid mass of snow atop it. The mix and match get out of sync, leaving the effect of just...plain...yuck.

It’s been a big winter, too, for other areas. Our region may be renown for the season, but this year other areas are getting the worst of it. Our two feet of snow has been three—four—five—somewhere else. In the worst ice storm, we lost power for three days while others suffered for a week. When we’ve gotten winds that ripped covers off woodpiles and shattered plastic storm windows, others have had roofs ripped off or tidal surges that destroyed their coastlines.

If you’ve got to have winter, it pays to be rural. We get to see the beauty. Sensual, unbroken white across the countryside, turned surreally blue under moonlight on the rare clear night, during which we can also see the Milky Way and constellations. And wildlife keeps reminding us that the season is marching on. Chickadees, for instance, have been making their “spring” call since December. A few weeks ago, the ravens began their courtship dances. This month the owls start theirs: invisible in the dusk and dark, but louder and louder with their monkey-like whooping and cackling. Then, because there’s no competition from artificial lighting, we can see the extra minutes of light added to every day.

This serves, of course, to make us chafe against the unrelenting weather. But at least we have assurance that it will end, which always seems to come sooner than we expect.