Saturday, December 22, 2007

December greenhouse report

I just slogged through the rain and mud to the greenhouse to see how its occupants are getting along. Here's the update:

  • Citrus trees -- all doing fine. The big ones are going through their third winter in my greenhouse, so I have no reason to expect any problems. The little ones I started from cuttings this summer are also doing well, so I should have some Meyer Improved lemons and Bearss limes to trade or sell at my church's annual plant sale this year.
  • Snapdragons -- I dug some up a couple months ago to put in the greenhouse, hoping I'd be able to winter them over. So far, so good. Two or three died right away, but the rest are doing quite well. They even seem to have grown a little despite the cold.
  • Impatiens -- RIP. I dug them up at the same time as the snapdragons, and they started looking pitiful before Thanksgiving. They're all dead now. It looks like they just turned to mush. Maybe I'll winter some over inside next year.
  • Petunias -- I have a big pot of them in the greenhouse, and so far they're doing fine. I was able to winter over quite a few of them the last two years, so they should be OK.
  • Brugmansias -- I lost my huge one last winter (no idea why), but the two I still have seem to be doing fine. They require more water than the other plants in the greenhouse, so I have to remember to give them a drink once a week or so, even during the coldest months.
  • Cannas - doing just fine as usual

I also winter over some really tender stuff in the house: a cymbidium orchid, three begonias, and several pineapples.

That's about all the garden news from here. It's cold, wet, and muddy, so I don't spend much time outside these days.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Make Like a Tree and Leaf!

As you guys know, I'm pretty new both to gardening and to blogging about gardening. So, a couple of weeks ago, I confessed to Janet that I just couldn't think of anything to write about, now that it was winter and I wasn't really DOING any actual gardening. I ended my message to her with a joke about how the only thing I could think about saying on the blog now that fall and winter had arrived was "I HATE LEAVES!"

Janet, being the genius that she is (Hi, Janet! I think you're a genius!), quickly wrote back, not only sending me a lengthy list of topics I might be able to write about, but also to say I was thinking about leaves all the wrong way. They aren't a nuisance you have to rake up and take away -- they're MULCH waiting to happen!

"Wait," I thought to myself, "I could be using the bazillions of leaves covering my entire backyard as mulch? Instead of bagging them up and paying the city to cart them away? Why didn't anybody tell me this LAST year??" And yes, I know all you gardening geniuses are now rolling your eyes and snorting, but I'm a rookie, remember? A NOOB! Cut me some slack, already!

Now, before I get started, I want to make it clear that when I say I have bazillions of leaves in my backyard, I am NOT exaggerating. I'm not describing your usual sprinkling here and there of dainty little pear tree leaves (though, we have those too, of course). What I'm talking about, folks, is the debris from two ENORMOUS big-leaf maples that sit in the far left corner of our backyard. These are trees so tall you can't even see the tops of them, and in the summer, they are covered head to toe with leaves that are about the size of dinner plates.

Every fall, they drop those leaves on the left side of our yard, and before you even notice the weather has started to change, the leaves are already knee-deep. Seriously! I'm not making this up! Last year, we only managed to rake up about 2/3rds of them before winter rolled in (once it starts raining, it's a lot harder for me to deal with leaves both physically and mentally). Just 2/3rds of the leaves from two trees filled nineteen yard debris bags. NINETEEN! Is it just me, or is that not TOTALLY NUTS.

But when Janet said the magic word, "mulch," I suddenly found myself awash in hope. We've only gotten about half our leaves up so far this year -- we've just been too busy (and I've also had some back problems lately that have made lifting wet leaves a lot more challenging). But really, the worst thing about dealing with the leaves isn't the raking -- it's the BAGGING. And now Janet's got me thinking. What if I didn't have to do all that bagging? What if I could just load up a wheelbarrow with leaves and then dump them on my garden beds? What if that was not just easier, but also BETTER? How does this leaf-mulch thing WORK?
Time to hit The Google.

A quick search of "leaves as mulch" turned up a veritable ton of information. As it turns out, so many gardeners use leaves as mulch that leaves are often referred to as "gardener's gold." Gardener's gold! And I've just been bagging them up and sending them to the city compost heap! Man, I'm a MORON!

Not only are leaves a great source of protection and nutrients for plants, but they are extremely easy to mulch, as well. If you don't already have them knee-deep in your yard by the time you begin, you can easily shred leaves for mulch by running your lawn mower over them and collecting them in the grass bag. If you have more than your mower can handle, you can also rent shredders at many nurseries and tool shops (this is what we'll likely be doing, though I also think if we went out early and often next fall with our mulching mower, we might be able to keep the piles from getting too big for us to handle).

Once your leaves are chopped up, you can spread them right on your garden beds and plants as-is (not too thick, please, or else you'll choke your poor babies!). I read that gardeners in the Pacific Northwest in particular often find they can extend their winter vegetables through the entire season if they put a layer of warmth-storing mulched leaves around their plants. Wow! Keep in mind, though, that decomposing leaves are likely to rob your soil of some of its nitrogen. So, if you use leaves as mulch like this, you will want to fertilize your soil in early spring with a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer to try to reestablish a good balance of nutrients in your dirt.

Composting your leaves is even better for your yard, though most sites I read suggest letting them cook for at least two years before using them. It sounds like it's worth the wait, though -- apparently leaf mold turns into a fungus-rich compost that can retain 3-5 times its weight in water, making it even better than peat moss when it comes to keeping your plants moist. Sweet! You need a lot of leaves to make just a little compost, but if you've got the quantity and the patience, it sounds like an even better way to go. I've been interested in trying composting ever since we bought our house a couple of years ago, as we have a really great out-of-the-way spot for a heap or bin. Now that I know it might make it even easier to deal with our leaves each year, I think it's definitely time to start looking into how to get started. So, keep an eye out for a blog post on composting, coming soon!

In the meantime, it looks like the sun might come out up here in Seattle this Saturday, and it hasn't rained since The Flood of Ought-Seven last Monday, so I might attempt a little mowing and mulching tomorrow. We'll see how it goes!

Got any tips on using leaves as mulch, or favorite "get started with composting" web sites to suggest? Hit the comments, y'all! Your resident newbie (um, that would be me) needs all the guidance she can get!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

For color in winter, try orchids

Though it's technically fall, winter weather has descended upon Portland. We had our first big storm over the weekend, with high winds and enough rain to cause considerable flooding. And it's been cold, dark, and dreary for several weeks. When daytime highs don't break 50, it's winter, regardless of what the calendar says. With the dark days and no more pretty fall leaves, I appreciate any spots of color I can find. Aside from the beautyberry and one camellia, there's nothing but green and brown in the yard, but my kitchen windowsill is starting to look like a tropical paradise. There's nothing like orchids to brighten up a Northwest winter.

I don't know what species this one is. I got it on sale after it had finished blooming, and the tag was missing.

Oncidium Mtssa Royal Robe 'Jerry's Pick'

Cymbidium, variety unknown. I forgot to bring it in from the unheated greenhouse before the cold weather started, so it developed some brown spots on the blooms. Normally it's pure yellow.
Yellow cymbidium with some ugly brown spots

I don't claim to be an expert on growing orchids, but the common ones do well for me--better than most houseplants, in fact. I have a couple oncidiums, a phalaenopsis or two, and my treasured cymbidium. All bloom at least once per year, even though I usually forget to fertilize them and sometimes forget to water them regularly. I have all but the cymbidium in an east window above my kitchen sink, so they get bright morning sun and lots of humidity from the sink and dishwasher. The cymbidium lives in front of a south window during the cold months and outside in part sun the rest of the year. I've tried orchids in my office, which gets great light, but they don't do well. I don't think there's enough humidity for them there.

The one problem with orchids? They're expensive (like that $99 cymbidium I mentioned in my last post). But there are ways to get them for less than the going rate:

  • Buy them after they've bloomed. You don't get instant gratification, but you'll pay 1/2 to 2/3 the regular price. I got my cymbidium from Home Depot for $15 when its original price was $30.
  • Try a home and garden show. I got some of my at Portland's annual Yard, Garden and Patio show from an orchid grower based in Hawaii. They were a little smaller than the ones you typically see at the florist's, and they weren't blooming. But they were about $7 -- not bad.
  • Try eBay. I just looked and found some good deals. If only I had a bigger windowsill...

So, if you have a sunny kitchen windowsill, get yourself some orchids. They'll brighten your winter days and impress your friends.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Zen and the Art of Flood

I had been planning to write a post here about the use of leaves as compost for your garden beds, but I realized today that this blog is called "Rainy Day Gardening," and since it's the rainiest day Seattle's had in as long as I can remember and I was just out in the yard with a shovel doing some emergency "gardening," I figured I'd take this opportunity to unload a little misery on you guys instead. Next time I post, I'll be all "educational" about it. Today, I just want to whine.

As anyone who lives in the Pacific Northwest knows, we are in the midst of the worst rain storm the area has seen in years. Know how I know this storm is the worst one we've seen in years? Because when we woke up this morning, I discovered we had magically become the owners of riverfront property during the night. We weren't the owners of riverfront property YESTERDAY. However, we sure are today! I'm sure you catch my drift on this one.

As charming as riverfront property may sound to some, the downside of it is that our garage is at the bottom of our hilly driveway, and if there's one law rivers tend to obey consistently, it's the law of gravity. I suppose I should feel lucky, as the intersection only four houses down from us is closed due to four FEET of standing water (we've only had more like four inches in our driveway), and the golf course across the street is now quite literally a LAKE. However, it's hard to feel lucky, even knowing things could be so much worse, because in only 90 minutes this morning, we mopped and shop-vac'd over 30 gallons of water out of our garage. We couldn't get the water up faster than it was flowing in, and about two hours ago had to declare the flood the victor and surrender.

The morning started with Denial, as I cheerfully piled up sand bags and leftover (unopened) bags of garden soil to try to block access to the garage. I grabbed a shovel and started digging trenches in the front yard along the driveway to try to give the water pooling on the concrete better access to the more-absorbent dirt (see? This post IS relevant: grass + shovels + rain = rainy day gardening!). Then I pushed up my (wet) sleeves, grabbed the mop, and started work on the garage floor. As I emptied my third bucket, I thought I must surely be about done. That's fifteen gallons of water I'd mopped up right there, after all -- how much more could there be?

But then I looked more closely and realized with horror what was truly happening -- the water wasn't just seeping slowly into the garage like it has in past storms -- it was actually FLOWING. I could actually SEE the water moving along the floor of the garage, like a little current was forming. I started to feel a tinge of panic and ran to go wake up my husband for an extra set of hands. The two of us began frantically sucking up water with the shop-vac and mopping, but it only took thirty (futile) minutes of that for Denial to turn to Extreme Panic (me) and Anger (husband). And then the freaking out and cussing began.

I'm happy to report, however, that we've now moved quite smoothly into the Acceptance phase. As soon as I started whistling the theme to Mickey Mouse's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, we realized the situation was pretty much out of our control. We put down the mops and started to empty the garage of all its boxes, stacking them neatly into the dining room as we made Noah's ark jokes ("How long is a cubit, again?") and talked about plans for lunch. And now, as I write this, I'm working hard at letting go of the stress. I strive to simply become one with the flood. The flood does not hate me. The flood is not out to get me. The flood is at the mercy of gravity, just like everybody else. The flood will do what floods do. And then it will be on its way.


Hope you guys are all staying warm and dry, wherever you are today! Please feel free to use the comments section to vent, rant, complain, whine, or just update us on the weather in your area. I'm off to check the garage -- if you've got a Buddha handy, give its belly a lucky rub for me!

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Dear Santa

Oregonian garden columnist Kym Pokorny just posted her Christmas list in her blog, and she gave me some great ideas. I'll post my list here; maybe it'll inspire someone else or help someone's hapless spouse (like, oh, I dunno, *my husband*) figure out what to get his/her garden-obsessed better half ("Are you paying attention, dear?").

In no particular order:

  • Gift certificates! This is the perfect no-brainer present for any gardener in your life. The best? Gift certificates for nurseries that have unusual or expensive stuff that we gardeners often won't buy for ourselves. If you're in the Portland area, try Portland Nursery, Cornell Farm, Buffalo Gardens, Hughes Water Gardens, Cistus Nursery, Al's Garden Center, or one of the many small specialty places around town.
  • A cymbidium orchid. We grew them outside when I was growing up in California, and they got *huge*. I can't leave them out in Portland year-round, but they're really hardy, surviving nearly-freezing temperatures and blooming a couple times per year despite my benign neglect. The downside? They're *expensive*. I fell in love with a huge purple-y one at Al's last week, but it was $99! Hubby asked me a couple times how to spell "cymbidium" after that, so I'm hopeful that one will show up under the Christmas tree this year.
  • A truckload of manure. Other women like to get jewelry for Christmas; I prefer horse poop. It's more useful. Ever try to fertilize your vegetable garden with diamonds? Doesn't work too well, and it costs a fortune (even more than those fancy schmancy bagged organic fertilizers, a/k/a the most expensive poop on earth). So the way to my heart is through a horse's (or chicken's or cow's) intestinal tract.
  • Interesting garden art. My garden has lots of plants (technically known as "weeds") but not much art. I'd especially like an old-fashioned sundial. It would look lovely nestled between the bindweed and horsetail in my front garden.
  • A support system for my tomatoes. The big, rangy indeterminate tomatoes I grow tip tomato cages over by about mid-July. I'd love a sturdy, well-built support system to keep them off the ground and easy to harvest.
  • An obelisk to house one of the many clematis I've been coveting these last few years.
  • Have a tree service remove the ginormous poplar that is shading my greenhouse and two of my vegetable beds. Two years ago I could grow morning glories on the trellis by my greenhouse. Now it's too shady. I like trees, but I'd prefer that they stayed out of the ionosphere.
  • A day of garden help. I could really use some extra hands and a strong back out there.

I could probably think of a dozen more things I want, but that'll do for now. I wonder if Santa can haul manure on his sleigh...