Sunday, October 31, 2010

Let's Elect Some Annuals

        Who can think about anything besides the coming election? I can't wait to see how many greedy congressmen lose their jobs.  I suppose the current crop of congressmen is no worse than previous incumbents but because I have a subscription to  the Wall Street Journal, I read about the latest political horrors every day.
         I wrote a column back in 1990 at election time reporting that Congress had just raised the legislative budget 16%, which included $33 million to pay for the previous year's franked mail.  I looked up the word "frank" and found "a pigsty, also the fattening of animals."  Perfect!  Franked mail could certainly be classified as pork!
        Politics hasn't much to do with gardening, but I'll see if I can weave a few flowers  into this column.  What comes to mind are all the new faces that I'm  hoping will appear in  the House and Senate come January.  I guess these freshmen could be compared to annuals, plunked down in a well-established bed of perennials.
        A flower bed full of perennials usually doesn't guarantee a riot of color all summer.  To have constant bloom, it needs annuals, the same way Congress needs new representatives.  Adding little mounds of white allysum, clusters of snapdragons or a sprawl of petunias to the front of a border promises blossoms from June through September, and with global warming, right through October. 
        These tender seedlings need help before being installed among the established perennials.   They must struggle in their race for space. Like freshmen congressment, newly planted annuals can be totally intimidated by the plants that have been soaking up the garden's perks for years.  If their roots have been cramped in a nursery container all spring, those roots need to be loosened and spread before planting.
        Most garden books refer to annuals as bedding plants.  I wasn't sure why so I looked up "bedding" in Webster's.  Obviously annuals are not bed clothes or material for animals to sleep on.  How about "something that forms a foundation or bottom layer"  since they're usually planted at the front of a flower bed.
       There is a huge selection of annuals to choose from as far as color and size, but I'm ashamed to say the ones I listed above are the ones this unimaginative gardener usually chooses.  White petunias planted at the front of a border show up through rain and fog and even as night falls in the garden.  They bloom all summer long if they're dead-headed frequently.
        Pansies don't last that long, even when dead-headed, but their little faces are so appealing I always grow a few in the Abitta garden.  Dusty Miller, that small gray plant with lacy leaves that makes a nice contrast to other annuals, doesn't require dead-heading as it doesn't set seeds.
        Oh, dear, my comparison of annuals and newly installed congressmen doesn't work very well with dead-heading.  I'd hate to see those freshmen ostracized if they were producing sparkling new legislation.  What an unattractive term "dead-heading" is!  But  it really is an important garden chore.  All plants have one big aim in life - to produce seeds.  If we bother to remove the spent flowers on our annuals before they manage this feat, the plants will continue to  flower, determined to succeed in producing the next generation.
        "Do as I say, not as I do," a motto my husband said often.  The petunias in my photo were never dead-headed, but despite that fact they are still blooming.  Their stems, lined with seeds,  extend for close to a foot in all directions.  Of course this has been a crazy summer when every sort of vegetation has had enormous growth, not just petunias.  Did you grow cleomes this year?  Also known as spider plant, these are one of the few tall annuals.  Mine reached six feet by August, but then fell over, probably for lack of water. 
        I just pulled a book off my library shelf I didn't know I owned, "All about Annuals."  It must include well over 200 plants. You would certainly have learned more about new and unusual annuals if I'd found it sooner.    I usually try to include a few helpful garden hints or fresh ideas in my columns, but I had too much fun playing with my election metaphores.
                                                      DONT FORGET TO VOTE!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

End of Summer Thoughts

I’ve just been going through my Website’s Archives to see what columns I’ve already written about Autumn -  fall chores, Jack Frost, turning leaves, October’s flowers,  and a half dozen other appropriate subjects. I seem to have covered every aspect of what gardeners go through at this time of year.  Since I’ve been writing garden columns since 1982, I suppose that isn’t too surprising, but it does present a problem – what new and different feature of October can I write about that won’t be a repeat of an old column?
            As I reread some of those earlier columns, however, I found that I hardly remembered most of them, so why should you?  And since a gardener’s summer varies from year to year depending on the weather, I’m going to stop worrying and give you a review of Locust Hill’s  2010 vegetable garden.
            Talk about weather!  Global warming certainly turned New England into one hot summer, and every sort of vegetation grew fast and furiously, didn’t it?  Having ripe tomatoes in mid-July was a delicious treat. And no tomato blight to ruin the harvest. That warm weather turned everything in my vegetable garden to speed demons, which was both good and bad.  The peas climbed up the fence and toppled over to start down the other side. I’d much rather have had them put their energy into the peas. They had hardly any flavor at all.
The same sort of problem was caused by my string beans.  I planted a row of bush beans right between a row of onions and a row of radishes as I usually do.  A few weeks after they appeared they stopped sitting up and began looking around for their poles, at least that’s what it looked like. Did I buy pole beans instead of bush beans?? No, the packet of seeds had “BUSH BEANS” in large letters.  Stupid seed company!
I did not want pole beans shading my radishes and onions.  But what’s a gardener to do?  I gave each plant a pole to climb. I also gave each plant a demonstration of how to wind itself around the pole and climb. Not one plant took my advice. In a week they were sprawled over the ground and smothering my radishes. Obviously they were bush beans gone wild with the heat. They produced an adequate crop of beans, just a bit muddy from lying in the dirt.  Fortunately they left my onion row alone. As for the radishes, I planted another row in a safer spot.
The rest of my vegetables behaved normally.  As usual the zucchinis got as big as Goldie, the goldfish I wrote about in my last dozen cantaloupes column, before I could harvest them. I had two-foot long cucumbers, a crop of about a dozen canteloupe that were quite tasteless, three planting of delicious lettuce, and a row of zinnias that were really spectacular
Here it is almost the 10th of October and still no frost.  I guess that’s another affect of global warming. I suspect it will be well worth covering tender crops for that first frost because it will probably be followed by many weeks of warm weather.  Predicting when or whether a frost will hit is tricky even for the weather man.  He probably uses the dew point to help him. The whys and wherefores of the evening dews and damps and that thing called a dew point can be pretty confusing, but very helpful in predicting frost. Dew is the result of water condensation.  As air cools it is able to hold less and less water vapor.  When it can hold no more, the water vapor condenses forming dew, and the temperature at that exact moment is the dew point.
When dew forms it releases energy and that energy keeps the temperature near the ground at the same level as the dew point.  Therefore if the dew point is hovering in the low 30s, prepare for frost.  If the humidity is high, so is the dew point. A night of dry air, no wind and clear skies indicates a low dew point and you'd be wise to cover all the tender vegetables with blankets or buckets.