A Gardening Year

The adventures and misadventures of an heirloom gardener

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Green Thumb Sunday

Working in the Floriculture greenhouse transplanting coleus yesterday inspired my post for today. I grew coleus for the first time this year. It was by accident. When the seedlings for my Adopt-A-Plot bed failed this year, I brought plants from my own gardens but my plot was still too sparse. The Head Hatter took pity on me and took me "shopping" in the greenhouse. She helped me choose from the extras that were there, among them some coleus. The coleus was quite leggy from being in pots too long so before planting them, she snipped the tops off of them. She gave me some of the cuttings to take home.

I've never been a big fan of coleus. Growing something because it has "pretty leaves" has always seemed silly to me but my motto is that I will try anything once and I did have the perfect spot for it. I even had a little fun "creating" a little garden for it and documenting the process for posterity. Here's a closer look at the cuttings after I planted them in a container on July 4:

The picture at the top of the post was taken on September 8, two months later. Other than watering it, I did absolutely nothing for it and it became a monster!

Since all of the coleus at Rutgers Gardens are named varieties, I consulted with our Plant Pro for the name of this one. He noted that coleus "sports" regularly. He says the one I grew probably started out as Compact Red (the dark red with a lighter border) then morphed into Trailing Rose. Here's his take on coleus:

Welcome to the world of coleus. From the Victorian times there has been an incredible resurgence in gardeners interest in this genera. In fact it is a plant that sports regularly so it is hard to keep them all straight. Many times there are multiple names for the exact same plant. One of my suppliers took cuttings from me and then simply renamed the variety to put their twist on the plant. It is hard enough to keep clear without this action.

Coleus is a fabulous genera which I have been selling and pushing to my customers for years. I'm glad it has finally caught on. Welcome to my world.

He included some helpful links:

Coleus Finder

Glasshouse Works

The Flower Company

I'm sold on coleus! I can't wait to try different varieties next year. Keep an eye on that container. It's going to get a lot more colorful.

Gardeners, Plant and Nature lovers can join in every Sunday, visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Transplanting Coleus

A large storm has been pounding New Jersey all day today. Driving rain and gusting winds have made working outside impossible so the intrepid Rutgers Gardens Volunteers spent the afternoon indoors at the Floriculture Greenhouses at the School of Environmental & Biological Sciences formerly known as Cook College. Our mission today was to repot coleus cuttings from the gardens.

First, we assembled our materials. Here are a few of the cuttings we were working with:

Next were the pots, trays and potting soil we needed.

The potting soil comes in those huge bales you see in the background. It has to be broken up so there are no lumps and then slightly moistened to make it easier to work with.

Here, the Head Hatter demonstrates the correct method for filling the pots. Yes, there IS a right way and a wrong way!

We work in an assembly line, with one or two people processing the soil and filling the pots which are placed in trays and then passed on to the one or two people who are doing the actual transplanting from the four-packs to the pots.

Each cutting is meticulously labelled with the variety and the date it was planted.

The Head Hatter demonstrates proper planting technique:

Anyone not occupied with processing soil or planting in pots acts as a runner, bringing soil out and potted plants back to the greenhouse space rented from the college. Renting space in their greenhouse is cheaper than heating the greenhouse at Rutgers Gardens.

Here are the results of our labors:

We chatted while we worked so the time passed very quickly. We are already discussing the design and plants for the Display Gardens for next year. Stay tuned for next year's theme and my plans for my own plot!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Garden Bloggers' Book Club inspires a rant

I finally have my copy of "The Essential Earthman", the November selection for the Garden Bloggers' Book Club. You wouldn't believe what I had to go through to get it. I don't think I've ever really ranted about anything before on this blog but this experience was so egregious, I just have to get it off my chest.

Begin Rant Here

I prefer to own books rather than borrow them from the library. At one point, I had over 1,000 volumes. Then I moved to my current house and unbeknownst to me, the basement floods. I lost almost all of my books before I even had a chance to unpack them. I've been slowly rebuilding my collection ever since.

Mostly I read history and 18th and 19th century novels. My gardening section is woefully small. Buying and reading books for the Garden Bloggers' Book Club seemed like a great idea. Normally, I order from Amazon.com when I know exactly what I want, but to save shipping charges, I decided to visit my local Borders store. They have everything, right? If not, I can always order it through them and do some browsing while I'm there, right?

My first clue that this was going to be a less than optimal undertaking was that at first, I was completely unable to find the gardening section. When I did finally locate it, it was tiny and filled with books written by celebrities, how-to books, "weekend" garden books, "two hour" garden books and other horticultural impossibilities. Nothing by or about Henry Mitchell or anything else I might be even remotely interested in reading.

Undaunted, I proceeded to the Information Desk. The Do-It-Yourself computer was out of order. My heart sunk at the sight of the clerk there who was obviously younger than my own child. I handed him a piece of paper with the author and title written on it and he proceeded to look it up on his computer. He stared at the screen for a long time.

Any parent of teenagers knows that look. It's the "I have no idea what I am looking at, but I would rather die than admit it" look. Obviously thinking that due to my advanced age I knew nothing about computers and would believe anything he told me, he said that not only was was the book not part of their inventory, he wasn't able to find it at all. It didn't exist. I took a deep breath, thanked the young man for his trouble and left.

It took me a week to calm down. After which I visited another Borders store. I didn't even bother looking for the gardening section. I headed straight for the computer and looked up "The Essential Earthman". I understood immediately what was puzzling the clerk. The screen displayed about a dozen versions of the book, all but one labelled "out of print". A single one was labelled "order". Another extremely young clerk asked if I needed help just as I was muttering to myself "I can't believe that this book is out of print". She said "Too bad!" and walked away. I placed my order on the computer, collared the impertinent clerk and demanded to see a manager. Who was not any more helpful. She didn't care that her clerk was rude and refused to help me. She was unable to answer any of questions about the listing on the computer. Her attitude appeared to be that since I had successfully placed my order, I shouldn't waste any more of their time. I took another deep breath, thanked them both for their trouble and left.

I received an email yesterday that my book was in and I picked it up today.

I have some words of advice for Borders: If you are going to drive all of the local bookstores out of business, then hire their employees. At the very least, hire people who know and care about books. You missed a sale. In fact you missed two sales. I don't like leaving a bookstore empty-handed. If I had been waited on by someone who was willing to take some time and "talk books" with me, not only would I have ordered the book I was looking for, I would also have purchased at least one additional volume. Ditto, when I picked up my order. If, instead of wasting time looking for my order because the cashier didn't know the alphabet and then trying to figure out a cash register he was obviously never trained to run, he had "talked books" with me, I would have purchased yet another book.

Now about your inventory. I understand that to lure people into your stores, you have to stock all the latest trash on the bestseller lists. But once you have people reading, you must offer them something more substantial. Classics, books that withstood the test of time. Books that make people think. Books that will make readers want to delve more deeply into a subject and therefore buy and read more books.

Until then, I'm buying my books from Amazon.com.

End rant

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Entry Garden Disaster

As you may recall, in June I was very excited to be creating my first new garden in almost a decade. It was supposed to be an "Entry Garden". It was supposed to make a statement along the lines of: "Welcome to my house, I'm a gardener, can you tell?". I dug out a large crescent from my driveway, along my walk, to my doorstep. I inserted a rosebush, a few perennials I had collected from other gardens and whole lot of annual seeds. It wasn't terribly impressive when I finished:

But I wasn't concerned. The rosebush was going to grow and spread, the perennials were going to get huge and all those seeds were going to sprout and practically crowd everything else out. I knew it would take a while. After a month it still didn't look like much:

I spread the seedlings out so they would have plenty of room to grow, but after six weeks, the effect was definitely low-impact:

The two month mark looked a bit more hopeful:

Three months went by. September 1. Definitely underwhelming.

Even the asters blooming two weeks later was no help:

My garden was a dud! In full view of the entire neighborhood, no less. No hiding this disaster in the backyard. Oh, I know what you're thinking. "It's shady, you dumbass". Only early in the morning. I take my camera with me when I dump my coffee grounds in the composter after breakfast. I make a tour of my gardens and take pictures. My front yard gets sun all afternoon. If you'll bear with me, you'll see what it looks like in the afternoon.

This is my week to take time off from work to plant all my bulbs. I'm also enlarging all my beds. All of the annuals except the bachelor buttons and marigolds were ripped out, the bed enlarged and almost 100 bulbs were planted. Snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, tulips and lilies. Also my Phlomis tuberosa and a Grosso lavender from my herb bed at Davidson Mill Pond Park. The Provence lavender didn't make it. It got shaded out. I'll just order one in the spring. I also have my eye on a white lavender. I'll also be adding poppies in the spring. This is what it looks like right now:

It's kind of weedy. I'm leaving it that way to help hold the soil. It sits on a slope. The ends are squared off temporarily. In the spring, I will finish extending it around the sidewalk (top of the picture) and then dig out a circle at the bottom for a rosebush.

I'm leaning towards Terese Bugnet. I want a rose that blooms all summer. I know Kasmira has been please with hers. I would welcome her comments on this rose and if she thinks it could be trained as a pillar rose.

Now I just have to wait for spring. In the meantime, I have to somehow keep the squirrels from digging up all my bulbs. I'm sure my neighbors are quite relieved that they no longer have to look at my scraggly excuse for a garden. Or are they horrified that it is getting bigger?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Green Thumb Sunday

For my inaugural Green Thumb Sunday post, I'm posting a picture of my Seashells Cosmos.

I love cosmos. I grew five different varieties this year. This is the second year I have grown Seashells. Last year, it didn't do well, so this year I tried it in a different bed where it has done fabulously. It is a nineteenth century heirloom variety. I'm letting it go to seed to see if it will come true next year. This photo, by the way, was taken today. Despite the chilly weather we've been having, it is still going strong.

Gardeners, Plant and Nature lovers can join in every Sunday, visit As the Garden Grows for more information.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Straw Hats Go on a Mushroom Walk

Rutgers Gardens sponsored a"Mushroom Walk" for their volunteers today. The Straw Hat Society, which is interested in all things botanical, eagerly joined the group on a perfect fall day.

Helyar Woods, where part of the walk was to take place, was just beginning to show its autumn colors.

The weather was cold and windy so we had to forsake our signature headgear and use our hoods instead. Can you spot the Hatters in the picture below?

Here's a hint: A was wearing blue and the Head Hatter was in red. Unintentionally completing the patriotic theme, yours truly (behind the camera) was wearing white!

The walk started in the Display Gardens where we were introduced to Stinkhorn Mushrooms.

I'm not quite sure what happened to the color in that picture, but the mushroom looked and smelled like cooked seafood. Moving on to the Rhododendron and Azalea Garden, we saw Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms at the base of a tree.

Moving further into that garden, we encountered a larger (and smellier!) type of Stinkhorn mushroom. The size and shape elicited much merriment and quite a few off-color jokes.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a ruler with me nor did I know any of the men in our group well enough to ask one of them to provide proper scale.

We saw quite a few colorful mushrooms. My favorite was the Turkey Tail mushroom, so-called because its shape and coloring strongly resembles the tail of a turkey.

Much prettier than the white ones that you usually see, don't you think?

We also learned that they can grow in a spiral pattern around the dead wood:

There's even a yellow kind!

We moved on through the Native Plant Garden where we saw a beautiful clump of River Birch.

Isn't the bark fabulous? I just love this little bridge:

That's the only reason I'm including this picture. Just because I like it. It has nothing to do with mushrooms. We continued on to Helyar Woods where we found another colorful mushroom:

We learned that mushrooms have various textures. This one was leathery:

This one crumbles at the slightest touch:

In fact, that is one of its identifying characteristics. Here's one that is so fragile that it is translucent:

Size is no indicator of toxicity. This enormous mushroom is quite benign.

But this cute little one is poisonous!

Perhaps the most interesting mushroom we encountered didn't look like a mushroom at all. It is like a jelly and is similar to one used on Chinese soups.

It has no flavor. It is used strictly to provide texture to the soup.

Pretty soon we were seeing mushrooms everywhere we looked.

The most important thing we learned about mushrooms is the critical role they play in the forest ecology. Fungi breaks down the dead wood, bark and leaves, returning them to the soil. Without them, we would be buried in dead plant material.

Here is a good example:

The mushrooms have done such a good job decomposing this branch that ferns have already begun to take root and grow.

So, the next time you stroll through the woods, take a closer look (and a closer sniff!). You may be surprised at what you find.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mystery Plant

Have you ever ordered so many seeds/bulbs/tubers/plants that you forgot what you ordered? I just did. The lilies that I had ordered arrived yesterday. I put them in the basement with all the other bulbs that have been arriving for weeks. There, I thought, now I have everything and just in time. I'm taking next week off from work to get everything planted/transplanted.

Then UPS dropped another box on my doorstep today. I didn't have a clue what it was. There were two plants inside. The New England aster I remember ordering and something called "Phlomis tuberosa". I wracked my brain. I checked my spreadsheet (incomplete, I admit). Nothing. I resorted to an old memory trick. Think about something completely different. Your brain continues working on the problem.

I went back to washing windows. I've been winterizing my house. Today's chore was cleaning and installing the storm windows on my doors and windows. And then it hit me. AKA Jerusalem Sage. I had seen it in a catalog and fallen in love with it.

That's the picture from the catalog. Isn't it gorgeous? Just perfect for my new entry garden which was a total bust this year. I'm hoping with the addition of this, some lilies, some iris, some poppies and a couple more lavender, it will look better next year.

Now, if I could only remember where I wanted to plant the Guinea Hen Flowers. . . .

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Fall Foliage Festival

Yesterday was the final large event put on by Rutgers Gardens for the year. It was their annual Fall Foliage Festival. It's a great way to wind up the season. There are still flowers in the Display Gardens, the trees are just beginning to turn color and the air is crisp and cool. Perhaps a little too cool for my liking although we were very fortunate to escape the snow that has blanketed the midwest. Instead, we've been getting light frosts in scattered areas throughout the state. The daytime temps hover in the 50's (10's C), not bad if you are outside for short periods or moving around but chilly if you are standing at a display, especially if you are in the shade.

Last year, I helped with the set-up but didn't work the actual event because I had made other plans for the day. This year, I worked both days. I must be getting old. I'm exhausted and everything hurts.

Friday, I put on lots of layers and headed over to help set up for Saturday. It was definitely cold, but I was doing hard physical labor unloading plants from trucks and trailers and moving them around the field where they were to be displayed. I don't mean cute little pots of pansies and mums, although there a few of those. No, I was manhandling trees and shrubs. You know, like the ones they move around on carts at the garden centers? We carried them. After several hours of that, I was glad when the Head Hatter showed up and asked for help making potpourri.

That was something else I had done last hear. The potpourri is made from flowers that are grown in the Display Gardens and then dried in a shed. Maybe I should submit a photo of the shed to Melissa's Garden Shed Hall of Fame. Here's a picture of it that I took in June when I was taking photos to use in the newsletter I created for the Open House in July.

I used a photo taken from a different angle for the newsletter. I should also get some pictures of the interior with all of the flowers hung from the ceiling to dry. We wanted to make the potpourri outside since it puts a lot of dust and pollen in the air but it was too cold and windy so we worked inside with the side door open. Once we had filled our box, I called it quits for the day. I needed to get home to update Garden Voices and then I had plans to go out for the evening.

The following morning I was up with the sun. While the blueberry muffins were baking in the oven, I packed up my crockpot, ladle and potato soup that I had made ahead of time and then donned lots of layers again. The Log Cabin, a historic structure at Rutgers Gardens was reserved for use by the volunteers. It has a kitchen where we set up a buffet of goodies and coffee and tea to help keep warm and, best of all, real bathrooms.

Since I had never worked the event before and had no preference as to where I wanted to work, the original plan was to use me as a floater, filling in for people who needed to take breaks and giving me an opportunity to get to know the various jobs. It was frigid when I arrived. My first post was at the Unpaid Holding Area where people could leave their plants (trees/shrubs) so they didn't have to carry them around as they shopped. When they were finished shopping, we wrote up their order for the cashiers, they paid and upon presentation of a receipt marked "Paid" we moved their plants to the Paid Holding Area while they walked back to the parking area to get their cars and bring them along the fenceline to pick up their purchases.

The only reason I am telling you all this is despite the fact that I was tired and sore from lifting and carrying plants for hours the day before, the holding areas were the only areas in full sun all day. I planted myself there and lifted and carried plants for hours again rather than circulating around the other displays which were set up in the shade and so cold that the people working them wore hats and gloves to keep warm. Selfish of me, I know, but warmth beats out sore muscles any day!

Like the Open House, there was lots to see and do. There was a winery that offered winetasting (I'm told the pomegranate wine was delicious), a farmer's market with fresh produce, a beekeeper selling honey and giving demonstrations. For the kids there was a costume contest, face painting and pumpkin painting, a corn maize and "strawhenge". There were tables of bulbs. There were fresh flowers (a florist gave a demonstration on creating a holiday centerpiece), dried flowers and potpourri. There were even caramel apples. And, of course, the wonderful plants that people come from miles around to buy. I was sorely tempted by some variegated Japanese iris but didn't give in to temptation. I planted a lot of Japanese iris this spring and have German bearded iris, English iris and miniature iris to plant this fall.

At the end of the day, we cleaned up and then retired to the Log Cabin where a fire had been lit to warm us while we had dinner. As usual, I had a great time working this event. If it is this much fun to work there, I'm sure it's also great fun for visitors. You should definitely put this one on your calendar for next year!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Master Gardener Fall Conference

Ever since I joined the Master Gardener program, I have heard people rave about the state-wide conferences. Constantly. They are supposed to be wonderful. Everyone looks forward to them. I have to admit to a healthy dose of skepticism. Come on. Conference. Run by a bunch of busybodies terribly impressed with their own importance. Bad coffee. Speakers droning on and on about topics no one really cares about.

My motto is that I will try anything once. So, I rousted myself out of bed at an impossibly early hour this morning and headed off to Cook College. My first hint that this was going to be a much more pleasant than anticipated experience was at the Registration Check-In Desk. I was actually given a choice of color for the folder with all the hand-outs. I let the nice lady at the desk choose since I'm not good at decision-making when I'm not properly caffeinated. After locating my fellow Middlesex County Master Gardeners (17 of us! 2 tables!), I made a beeline for the coffee which was neither better nor worse than the usual institutional stuff.

I can't put it off any longer. I have to say it. I was wrong. I had a great time. I had a lot of fun with my fellow Master Gardeners. I didn't see a single busybody. The speakers were great. I'm already looking forward to next year.

The first speaker of the morning was the Director of Rutgers Gardens. His topic was "DesignThoughts for Residential Gardens". Slide after slide of impossibly beautiful landscaping. No, it didn't make me want to go home and rip up my yard for two reasons: one, I'm not creative at all and couldn't come up with a nice design if my life depended on it and two, I can't stick to a plan because I change my mind from year to year, season to season, month to month. One of his ideas totally blew my mind. Everyone designs their entry gardens to welcome guests to the front door. His idea is that you should also design it so that it is just as interesting going the other way. Guests should have a great view both coming and going. Have you ever thought of that? I certainly haven't. I will now.

The next speaker was my favorite. The President of the Master Gardener Association of New Jersey gave her "Murder in the Garden" talk. Truly. She teaches nursing and is interested in the pharmacology of poisonous plants. She discussed several mystery novels and the plausibility of the poison used in each plot. Okay, it was actually a lot more interesting than that just sounded. She is a very funny lady. And she grows the plants she discussed. She made two points. The first was that it is almost impossible to get the dosage right when using poisons from botanicals. The second is that unlike in books and movies, the intended victims don't immediately drop dead. It could several days and in the end only make them violently ill rather than dead.

After lunch, there was a choice of four lectures. "Preservation in the Pinelands" didn't interest me at all. Face it. It's a lost cause. This is New Jersey. What doesn't get destroyed by condos will only get paved over. "Rain Gardens" is a topic that was just covered in my classes. "Maximizing Media Access and Development to Promote Master Gardener Objectives". The title alone put me to sleep.

That left "Themed Herb Gardens". The speaker was the woman who coordinates the Master Gardener classes in my county and is in charge of the herb gardens at Davidson Mill Pond Park. I was eager to hear how she comes up with her themes. She is incredibly creative. You can go here for a list of the themes we used this year for our herb beds which were prominently featured in her talk. This was the first time she has given it so her slides were mainly of this year's herb gardens. Most enjoyable for me was the beginning of her lecture which was a brief overview of the history of gardening from Roman times to the present.

After she finished, she invited a Master Gardener from Mercer County to the podium. She was part of a group from her county who tend traditional herb gardens. Over the summer, they had toured our non-traditional herb beds and were very interested with the concept. They came up with the idea of getting all the Master Gardeners in the state who tend herb gardens together to exchange ideas, plants, seeds and maybe put on joint events. I don't think I have nearly enough to do with two jobs, the Master Gardener Steering Committee and volunteering at Rutgers Gardens so I signed up with their new herb group also!

All this and the conference still managed to end on time at 2:30 PM. Amazing!