Saturday, January 21, 2012


Did you get a poinsettia for Christmas?  I’ve never liked these Christmas flowers, at least not when they’re in a pot.  Seeing them in their natural environment is something else.  When Hank and I spent a vacation in Hawaii many years ago, I found myself gaping and gasping at the 10-foot high bushes sparkling with fire red blooms, despite  growing in nothing but black crusty lava.

We saw equally impressive poinsettias in Thailand, their blossoms (really bracts that surround the tiny flowers) thick and unruffled.  Comparing such magnificent displays to the pots for sale in supermarkets at Christmas time is as pathetic as pitting Yours Truly against Serena Williams on the tennis court.

Euphorbia (to commemorate Euphorbus, physician to Juba, king of Mauritania) pulcherrima (meaning very beautiful) is the botanical name for the poinsettia.  There are more than 600 other species in the Euphorbia family, their common denominator the milky white sap they contain.  This sap is poisonous and can blister the skin.

Dr. Joel Poinsett, the U.S. minister to Mexico back in the early 1800s, brought the first cuttings of the plant home to South Carolina.  For the next 130 years Americans enjoyed potted poinsettias at Christmas time, but they were very different from the plants we know today.  These early varieties needed the help of a skilled gardener to get them to last beyond New Year’s Day.

Even with plenty of TLC they quickly lost their foliage when they blossomed so they looked like skinny naked ladies in flowered hats. It wasn’t until 1963 that a marvelous mutation appeared, a poinsettia able to hang on to its leaves for months. Plant breeders imparted this genetic characteristic into other poinsettias, so nowadays we expect these decorative Christmas plants to look well all winter.

Poinsettias like to be in a spot that is free from drafts and gets sunlight for at least half the day.  They like cool nights (50 to 60 degrees) and warm days (70s). If you provide the above, you should have blossoms for months. provided you don’t give them anything nice to eat and allow their soil to dry out completely between waterings,

You must observe such a strict routine to get a poinsettia to set new buds for a second year of bloom that it is hardly worth doing, so I’m not going to describe it. If you really want to try it, look it up in a good garden book. 

The beautiful poinsettia with soft pink flowers  in my photograph belongs to my neighbor Jill, whose plants I water when she is away.  I’m glad to see it still happily blooming, since I definitely over-watered it. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Garden Resolutions for 2012

A belated Happy New Year, Faithful Readers.  Winter is here.  There may not be snow such as we had in that photo I took back in October,  but there sure is lots of cold, down in the teens most days. Time to curl up by the fire with that pile of seed catalogs.

Have you decided which New Year’s resolutions you will try to keep in 2012? I read an article somewhere claiming that most folks break their resolutions before the New Year is a month old.  I fit right into that category, but this column is about gardening resolutions so, as my husband was fond of saying, “Do as I say, not as I do!”  Garden resolutions are a snap compared to deciding to give up chocolate or gin or whatever your favorite indulgence is.

The first suggestion I have is about all those seed catalogs.  "Don’t let your eyes get bigger than your stomach."  That expression is best applied to food, so let's say "Don't let your dreams become bigger than your garden.  It’s very easy to get carried away by your enthusiasm when you’re ordering. You can daydream about next summer’s garden, but when you’re finally ready to fill in the order blank, keep it to a manageable size.

It’s easy to forget the aches and pains and weeds of summer, as you study Burpee’s glossy pages and Park’s perfect pictures. If you’re young and fit and have plenty of time to garden you can indulge, but if, like me, you feel as if your joints need a shot of WD40 each morning, it’s wise to limit your choices.  The photo below of ten buckets of weeds is just to remind you of the weed problem we all faced last summer.

Try to include at least one new item in your order.  So often we gardeners slip into a rut, sticking to the tried and true we’ve always grown, so this year put a little adventure into your order. Try something different.  Have you ever grown parsnips? This lowly vegetable tastes totally different when harvested straight from the garden instead of from the supermarket.  Compare it to a bored overfed tiger behind bars at the zoo as opposed to the hungry beast rippling through the jungles of India.

Parsnips are a winter vegetable, their roots full of carbohydrates which like Brussell sprouts, don’t convert to sugar until cold weather, so you need to mulch the row in the fall and pull a few after there’s been a good frost or two, then harvest the rest in early spring before their tops begin to grow.

It’s taking me hours to decide what plants I want this year as I’m trying to follow Mrs. Eddison’s suggestion, replacing some undesirable perennials with easy-care shrubs. I’d like to get one or two hydrangeas, but being unfamiliar with all the new varieties I’m having trouble. Fine Gardening magazine had a wonderful article on these shrubs and I planned to use one of their photographs for today's column, but I couldn't find my copy.  The one below is from a book by Michael Dirr on nothing but hydrangeas.

I  can easily eliminate the hydrangeas that are too tall  or have lavender, purple or blue flowers, or bloom so tightly packed they look like tennis balls  but there must be 20 varieties with lacy panicles in soft pink or white. 

Bloom time also offers many choices - late spring to early fall, midsummer to late fall, and everything in between.  If any of you have recommendations, do send my an email.  If I ever make up my mind about  these hydrangeas, I still need to face choosing some hostas and some ornamental grasses for the perennial border.  And you know how many species of these plants there are.   

Oh  dear, I guess I only have time for one more Garden Resolution, but it's a one shot job and a very practical one.  Buy a can of orange spray paint and paint all your trowel handles bright orange so you can find them when they’ve been left out in the garden.

I own at least six trowels and yet I sometimes can't lay my hands on even one. Possibly you're the type of gardener who carefully puts away her tools, but I'm always leaving my trowels behind as I jump from one garden project to another.

Wait until there’s been a snowstorm, then go out and dig your trowels into the snow so you can spray their handles easily. And while you're at it,  you could spray other tools you use. Next summer you’ll be delighted to spot them quickly, even if you’ve dumped a trowel in the compost pile along with a pile of weeds by mistake.

These resolutions are pretty easy to accomplish.  You’ll notice that I didn’t suggest you resolve to weed the vegetable garden every three days from June until October or dead-head the flower bed every day.  I’ll end with one important resolution that we all should follow.  Enjoy your garden every day you’re in it, no matter what hoops Mother Nature makes you jump through.   Happy New Year!