An Upbeat Closing

I don’t know about you all, but I have a great urge to tidy up my garden this time of year. Partly it’s because doing so leaves one less thing to do in spring and partly because, as Charles Dudley Warner wrote in My Summer in the Garden in 1889, “the closing scenes need not be funereal.” All this tidying up is usually quite enjoyable.
Pulling creeping charlie
Moist soil – and not too, too many weeds – make weeding fun. Creeping Charlie (also know as gill-over-the-ground) has sneaked into some flower beds. Its creeping stems are not yet well-rooted so one tug with a gloved hand and a bunch of escaping stems slithers back from its travels forward from beneath and among flower plants and shrubs. What remains are occasional tufts of grassy plants, especially crabgrass, easily wrenched out of the ground or coaxed out with my Hori-Hori garden knife.

This tidying is intimate work: me, the soil, weeds, and garden plants at close range. While I’m down there on hands and knees, I’ll also cut back some old stalks of perennial flowers. When everything is cleaned up, I’m going to spread a blanket of chipped wood (free, a “waste” product from arborists) over all bare ground.

The one thing not to do this time of year, as far as tidying up, is pruning. Better to prune after the coldest part of winter is over and closer to when plants can heal wounds.

A Real Crocus, Now

A few weeks ago, I, along with anyone visiting my garden, was wowed by autumn crocuses then in bloom. As I pointed out, they weren’t not true crocuses (they were Colchicum species), they just acted like crocuses – on steroids. Then, a couple of weeks later, I noticed that my true autumn crocuses (that is, the ones that are true Crocus species) were in bloom.
autumn crocus
And I did really have to stop and notice them after that most flamboyant show of fake autumn crocuses. These true crocuses (crocii?) are dainty plants, just like spring crocuses, and their colors are subdued: some are pale violet and some are white. In contrast to the fake autumn crocuses, which multiplied like gangbusters, the real autumn crocuses look about dense as when I planted them. Both kinds of crocuses wait until spring to show their leaves.

It’s fortunate that the part of my garden that’s home to autumn crocuses, real and fake — the mulched area beneath the dwarf apple trees — is free of weeds. Otherwise, the real autumn crocuses, being so dainty and lacking a supporting role of leaves, would be swallowed up, visually or for real.

Weed? Perhaps.

Back to weeds . . . I’m trying to see the positive side of all that creeping Charlie I’ve been pulling. Bits of it that have insinuated themselves in amongst the bases of stems of woody shrubs, especially thorny ones like the Frau Dagmar Hastrup rose, are not that much fun to weed out. So what’s good about creeping Charlie?
creeping charlie
For one thing, with shiny, round leaves of a deep, forest green color, it’s not a bad looking weed. The flowers are an attractive, purple color although neither big nor prominent enough to make a statement. The otherwise excellent reference book Weeds of the Northeast (Cornell University Press) erroneously states that “the foliage emits a strong mint-like odor when bruised.” That would be nice except that I’ve never noticed that odor and didn’t even when I just ran outside to crush some leaves check up on this statement.

Creeping Charlie grows well in sun or shade, so well that when I worked in agricultural research for Cornell University, I considered the plant as a possible groundcover to replace the relatively sterile herbicide strips in apple orchards. It grows as such beneath my dwarf pear trees.

Creeping Charlie beneath trees

Creeping Charlie beneath my pear trees

The plant could even be a somewhat ornamental groundcover, making up for any lack of great beauty with its capability to rapid fill in an area and grow only a couple of inches high. You couldn’t ask much more from a plant – except to keep out of some of my flower beds.


Cleanup Time Re-Starts in Veggie Garden

Warmer weather, even if it’s not all that warm, makes me feel like spring is just around the corner. The ground — in my vegetable beds, at least — isn’t even frozen, no doubt because water doesn’t linger long in the well-drained soil and because the dark-colored compost blanket I laid down in autumn sucks up the sun’s warmth.

So yesterday seemed like a perfect time to continue the garden cleanup that screeched to a halt when frigid weather struck, and some snow fell, a couple of months ago. Old cabbage heads that never quite ripened were laying on the ground like ratty, pale green tennis balls (with stalks attached). The four-foot-high stalk of one Brussels sprouts plant, stripped in autumn of its sprouts, stood sentry like a decrepit soldier in the same bed.Kale in winter

Of course, kale also still stood, except for those that flopped to the ground under their own weight. The latter were mostly the variety Tuscan (Lanciata). The Dwarf Blue Scotch plants, which I think taste better, stood more upright and compact, helped along, I’ll admit, with some bamboo stakes pushed into the ground next to them back in summer. I dug up the Tuscan kale plants and stripped yellowed and flaccid leaves from the Dwarf Blue Scotch plants. My guess is that by April they’ll be unfolding new, tasty leaves.

Stepping over to another bed, I twisted or coaxed out, with the help of my Hori-Hori knife, stumps from harvested lettuce and Chinese cabbage. A row of arugula in that bed showed enough life to awaken in spring with fresh, new leaves. I left it.

All this cleanup gets a jump on spring and removes debris that might harbor insect or disease pests that could infest or infect this season’s plants. The debris went into my garden cart and thence to the compost pile. The winter pile doesn’t heat up, so I’ll give the bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, and earthworms two years to get their jobs done, killing off any “bad guys.”

Cursed Voles!

Stepping over to the remains of the endive bed that I planted towards the end of last summer and began harvesting in October — what havoc has been wreaked!

The bed had been covered with a tunnel of clear plastic and row cover to provide extra warmth to the plants in cold weather. Extra warmth also to some furry creatures, it seems.

Taking off the cover, I saw a bed riddled with tunnels along with the scattered remains of unharvested endive plants. This has happened in the past; something about endive seems particularly attractive to the furry creatures (and to me), which I assume are voles, which are mouse-like creatures.Endive with mouse damage

My garden must be vole heaven. The cat rarely hops the garden fence to hunt because she has to cross the DMZ zone to get to the garden, and she’s scared of our dog, Sammy. The compost-enriched soil has plenty of earthworm for good eating, as well as all the tasty, organic produce. So far, though, the voles have been satisfied with just the endive.

Short of planting the cat in the garden, which Sammy can’t enter, my plan is to do extensive trapping. One web site recommendation for a small garden is for twelve traps baited with oatmeal and peanut butter, or with apple.

As consolation, vole populations are said to decline after 3 to 5 years. It’s almost time, although the declined population might still be too many for me. And all is not bad with voles; they help stir the soil to distribute nutrients.

Pre-Season Warmup

While in the garden, I also did some pre-season weeding. Creeping Charlie, which enjoys cool weather, is always sneaking in here and there once I turn my attention away from the garden.

All this garden cleaning and straightening up isn’t all for practicality. It makes the view of the garden each morning from my second floor bedroom window prettier.


Worst Weed, Sugar Maple, and Lithops

Last week’s highlighting of quackgrass as this year’s worst weed was a passion judgement; the quackgrass seemed frighteningly abundant. But now that I’ve gotten the upper hand on it, I realize that quackgrass is lurking in the wings every year, ready to creep into any overlooked edge of the garden. So let’s glance down at two newbies vying for the worst-weed title this year: purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) and its cousin, henbit (L. amplexicaule).
Purple deadnettle or henbit, both with creeping stems, rounded leaves, and purplish flowers, could easily be mistaken for creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederaceae), a weed that’s been slinking around my place for years. Purple deadnettle’s upper leaves are purplish and more triangular than its cousin’s. 
Creeping Charlie is enjoyable to rip out of the ground. If you grab the stems just right and before they have rooted too strongly, you end up with a large mass of spreading stems in your fist. Not so for purple deadnettle or henbit. They don’t really creep along the ground; they grow just high enough to flop down without rooting where they touch down. But grab their stem and they break off, leaving the roots and lower pieces of stem intact and ready to start growing again. 
Creeping Charlie
Creeping Charlie seems mostly to creep into garden areas at the edges. Purple deadnettle and henbit spread very effectively by seeds, so clumps of the plants appear suddenly in the middle of the garden. They’re also sly in sprouting very late in the season, after everything has been harvested and cleaned up, at a time when I feel that the garden no longer needs my undivided attention.
As long as we’re on weeds, I’m getting reports of another weed, one that’s not in my garden but is turning up in hordes in some other gardens. The weed: maple. Yes, “maple,” as in maple trees, albeit 2 inch high maple trees — for now, at least. 
These seedlings are probably, and hopefully, sugar maples (Acer saccharum). Another possibility is Norway maple (A. platinoides), generally disdained for creating shade too dense to allow grass or anything else to grow, for encroaching on and crowding out sugar maples, and for having ho-hum or downright unpleasant autumn leaf color. 
Yet another possibility is striped maple (A. pennsylvanicum), so-called for the prominent white stripes on its greenish bark. The seedlings are unlikely to be those of either Norway or striped maple unless some trees of either are nearby.
So what’s wrong with some sugar maple seedlings? Nothing, unless you don’t want maple trees there. The seedlings could be carefully transplanted to a more agreeable location. Or you could take a hoe, and hoe-hoe them out.
With all the activity outdoors, it’s easy to overlook what might be happening, plantwise, indoors. Take, for instance, what looked like two stones sitting pressed together in a small flowerpot at one of my sunny windows. Those two stones have separated and another set of “stones” is pushing up through the widening cleft.
The plant is one of the appropriately called “living stones,” a translation of the genus name Lithops, which the plants are also called. The stone-like appearance of these plants — they also are gray in color — disguise them in their natural stony habitats in South Africa. Their cover is blown once a year when the plants flower.
The last time my plants flowered was in December. For now, it looks like the cleft will yield only more “stones.”