A Winter’s Tale (or, Adapt or Perish)

The story of the last plant I grew inside my residence for more than a short time (until last year, that is) began the year this country celebrated the Bicentennial. For you younger readers, that was 1976, while I was a senior at Penn State. A pint-sized Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) cheerfully inhabited the sole window in the basement apartment I shared with four other guys, none of whom looked at plants in the passionate way I did and still do. After graduation, the slow-growing pine kept me company as I worked at my first job as Senior Gardener at Woodlawn Plantation in northern Virginia from 1977 to May of 1978, throughout the summer of 1978 that I spent living with my brother and sister-in-law while working for the City of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and then during my time in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Soon after we received our fast-track Masters degree in December 1979, the pine and I drove to my parents’ house in Pittsburgh, where I would await the beginning of my position as curatorial intern at the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. However, the pine didn’t enjoy the trip to Pittsburgh much, because I had neglected to cover it as it rode shotgun in my little white Chevy Vega. The sun shone brightly during that trip, and while I might have considered the sun’s brilliance as a positive omen for my future, the pine got sunburned so badly that much of its rich green foliage turned dead brown only a few days after I carefully placed it in my parents’ house. The End.

 

While the side-lesson of this tale is to advise you to cover plants lightly when you transport them in your sunny vehicle for more than a short time, that’s not the main story line here. I want to pass along a few other bits of recently acquired horticultural advice, drawn from a five-month experiment in overwintering plants in my house. You see, I began growing container-grown showplants in someone else’s greenhouse in the late 80’s. The first greenhouses were at Ken Selody’s Atlock Farm in Somerset, New Jersey. My plants and I enjoyed that arrangement until the summer of 2012, when we relocated to Wisconsin. While employed as a horticulture instructor at Lakeshore Technical College until the summer of 2018, I was fortunately allowed to quarter my plants in the LTC greenhouse. During all of those years I almost never had plants in my house; my cats would have devoured them, given that they perked up when I brought broccoli and other green vegetables into the house, waiting for bits to fall on the kitchen floor to be scarfed up. Also, I was spoiled by those greenhouses and the high-quality plants their abundant light and warmth could provide. So when I decided to leave my teaching position, I knew I would need to make some big decisions regarding my plant collection. Long story short, my container-grown plants now follow a program of six months inside my house and six months in my little backyard greenhouse. Beginning this routine marked a return to growing plants inside my residence after practicing almost 30 years of greenhouse culture, and this blog will take you to this subject from time to time. You’ve figured out by now that I no longer have cats – the last one shuffled off this mortal coil more than a year ago.

 

After spending a few light-filled months last year in my newly constructed polycarbonate-glazed kit greenhouse, all of my treasures were relocated near the windows in five rooms of my house. The ones that I decided (hoped?) could handle the coldest air temperatures and the lowest light were nestled all snug in their beds (tables, actually) for a long winter’s nap in my front room.

 

Two rather large specimens of Fatsia japonica and a standard (tree-form) Pelargonium ‘Mabel Grey’, a lemon-scented geranium that I grew and trained from a cutting, occupy much of the southwest corner of my front room. They have required regular watering throughout winter, expressing their thirst by wilting ever so slightly. Of course their tight quarters (their containers, that is) mean that there’s very little potting mix left in their root-filled pots to hold any water in reserve, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they need to drink routinely. While the geranium will be moved into a larger but still manageable pot in a few weeks, those big fatsias have reached their weight and pot-size limits and so will be planted out in the front yard when conditions permit. Being cold tolerant, that should be in July. No, no, I kid about the climate and weather here in Sheboygan by the Lake: they will be outdoors before the end of April. Maybe.

 

Most of what you see here represents my Agave collection. In spite of the fact that they seem to like to stab me (those spines might as well be hypodermic needles), I wouldn’t be without them. They remind me of sculpted flowers, they grow slowly but steadily, and boy howdy do they make excellent showplants. More to follow about that on these pages. In the meantime, I can tell you that they have remained happy in the cold (usually low 40’s) air and essentially low light of the front room, and most of them have received little to NO water since October. Yes, that’s a Norfolk Island pine in the back, given to me by a former colleague and apparently happy in the relatively dark northwest corner, well out of any damaging sun’s rays. It has been watered sparingly but regularly during its winter vacation.

I Show Plants

I like competition. It’s a big part of me, and I embrace it, especially through participation in flower shows. It all began in 1972, when I made a half-dozen entries in the Pittsburgh Iris and Daylily Show. Although none of those stems of irises excitedly cut from my parents’ garden won a blue ribbon, they all won ribbons of other colors, and that set the hook. Since then I’ve entered daylily shows, daffodil shows, fall harvest shows, cactus and succulent shows, shows at the Sheboygan County (Wisconsin) Fair, Garden Club of America shows . . . and the granddaddy of them all, the Philadelphia Flower Show. On this site I’ll be sharing stories and pictures from the Big Show and other shows I enter or choose to visit for my own enjoyment.

Let’s begin with two of my entries made during Flower Power, the 2019 Philadelphia Flower Show held on March 1 – 10 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in the heart of Philadelphia. I hadn’t entered the Show since 2012 (I moved to Wisconsin that summer; much more to follow on that on this site). The Siren’s call beckoned me, so I packed up six plants in my car and drove back East. Long story short, those six plants were entered into the horticultural competition on the third and last judging day, and two of them were awarded rosettes, the major awards that allure me and many other competitors at the Show. Although neither plant won the blue ribbon in its competitive class, specialty judging panels representing the Philadelphia Cactus and Succulent Society and the Delaware Valley Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society decided my plants merited special recognition. Curiously, both awards went to two strikingly different examples of Deuterocohnia brevifolia, a member of the Bromeliaceae, or the bromeliad family, which also includes pineapples and Spanish moss among its big clan.

I noticed the rosette placed by my smaller Deuterocohnia first, soon after I finished my seventh judging stint at the Show. Although the general judging panel had awarded it second place, the Rock Garden panel liked its “inspirational presentation” and so recognized it with one of their cheery blue and white rosettes. It cheered me because just before then I had discovered that my big Deuterocohnia had placed second in its class, and no brown and orange rosette was parked next to it. Bummer. However, early the next morning I discovered that the big one had won a rosette as well, given by the society to which I had belonged for more than a few years. Those rosettes represent one of the many high points of my 39th Philadelphia Flower Show.

 

 

For three years this Deuterocohnia brevifolia has lived in a small pocket of fast-draining medium in a lightweight, porous volcanic rock. Starting from a small cluster of rosettes – not the same kind of rosette as the awards that seduce me, but they do share the same basic arrangement of leaves or ruffly parts on the “badge” – separated from the original plant bought at the Chicago Flower Show in 2015, the leafy mass reached the edges of the planting pocket last fall and so achieved show-worthy status.

 

This giant has seen its fair share of flower shows – and has fetched some very pleasing awards for its grower – since making its debut at the Philadelphia Flower Show in the early 2000’s. Also grown from a small plant like its rock-inhabiting counterpart, the Big Green Mound now spills over the rim of the rather shallow 12” pot it has called home for about ten years. Over the years it has collected some colorful nicknames, including the Green Pincushion, Muffin Top, the Green Footstool, and Miss Muffett’s Tuffet.

So there you have it – entry #1 on this website. Please visit the other pages on this site, and please check in every now and then for more information and musings on showplants, Much to Do About Seeds, my little Wisconsin garden, and other sights and sites along the garden path.

Prairie Bleak Blechh

Countdown

COUNTDOWN

Prairie Bleak BlechhYesterday was the first full day of spring here in Wisconsin, and the bleak blechh of winter lingers on . . . but not forever. Most summers I’ve seen since moving from New Jersey to Sheboygan (in the middle of summer 2012) have been glorious, offering the warm days, cool nights, and comfortable humidity of those Lake Michigan resort towns in which temporary residents spend their vacations. I get to live year-round in a lakeside community that celebrates summer horticulture in various ways, and for me this year the biggest event on the local gardening calendar is the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk (SAGW). First observed in 1997, the annual SAGW invites visitors to enjoy private and public gardens for the benefit of local institutions, which this year include the Ellwood H. May Environmental Park and Bookworm Gardens.

I admit that from my first SAGW experience in 2013, I fancied offering my little garden for the tour. However, it wasn’t until last spring that I felt my little patch of real estate might reasonably attract and host hundreds of garden visitors. My time as instructor at Lakeshore Technical College was drawing to an end, and I was pondering ways to fill what would become a bunch of spare time. Also, my little warm-weather greenhouse in the backyard was looking ever more likely to be built, and other possible landscape improvements kept being added to my wish list. So after handing over my $10.00 for my Walk ticket (a bargain) at the first garden on last July’s tour, I added my name to the sheet titled “Would you like to have your garden considered for a future Walk?” Soon after, I heard from the committee, and before I knew it, my garden was confirmed for the 2019 Sheboygan Area Garden Walk.

I’ve been eagerly counting down the months since then (friends and relatives will attest to this), and Saturday, July 13 now beckons at less than four months away. I have PLENTY to do between now and The Day, and I’ll be including stories and pictures of my adventures sporadically but dependably on this site. So even though the blechh of March persists in Sheboygan, the glory of high summer waits in the wings. Stay tuned!

 

If all goes according to plan and the dream, participants of the Sheboygan Area Garden Walk will (I hope!) enjoy a view similar to this one from July 2018. Much more is in the works.prairie before blechh, greenhouse