Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Off to the Amaryllis Races

It's really easy to understand why amaryllis are so wildly popular. They grow quickly once awakened from dormancy, have flowers that are the epitome of spectacular, are practically maintenance-free (can be grown in water or soil) and are just plain fun to watch! I heard people are even having amaryllis races - they all pot them the same day, then keep track of whose grows fastest, tallest, or has the most flowers. But they're so-oo-o-o easy even a tot could grow them.

Big bulbs!
My first memory of amaryllis was shopping with Mom at the florist for an azalea. I saw a box on the counter full of the biggest bulbs I had ever seen. The picture promised an amazing plant full of huge red trumpet-like flowers. I was hooked and coughed up $ 5.15 of my own money. I was so taken by the idea of this big, not-so-pretty bulb throwing up a flower spike like the picture that I would have paid double that. Remember, this was 1959 and that was weeks (plural) of allowance.

I potted the bulb upon arriving home and a few weeks later bada-boom, bada-bing, the payoff came as promised. It grew jack-in-the-beanstalk fast producing not one, but two spikes of dinner plate dahlia-sized flowers that blew me away. Too cool. I felt up to any horticultural challenge after that.

The hybridizers are having fun!
In the ensuing decades hybridizers have been busybusybusy with amazing results. The color range has been dramatically increased. Varieties now have contrasting star-burst patterns in the center. There are also doubles that resemble florists' roses, as well as dwarf cultivars with more delicate flowers.

There are plenty of articles on growing them successfully, so I'd like to share a few tidbits you may not find elsewhere.

1) They may or may not bloom for Christmas. If they've been grown in the southern hemisphere they'll have fulfilled their full dormant period and should be ready to start growing as soon as you pot them. If they've been grown in the northern hemisphere they may need more "rest" before the show begins - so be patient. They'll brighten winter days in January and February just as well.

2) Water thoroughly when you first pot them. Don't water again until you see buds or leaves emerging from the neck of the bulb. That may be weeks if the bulb is still dormant. That's okay. If the bulb isn't ready to grow, don't force it by watering. That may lead to a rotten bulb. It'll grow when it's good and ready.

3) If you're trying to save the bulb to rebloom for next year, feed heavily throughout the spring and summer. It takes a lot of stored energy to produce those enormous blooms. I read once that for every four leaves the plant produces you should expect one flower spike the following season.

4) I'm loathe to mention this as is seems horticulturally perverse, but for those that have suffered tall amaryllis, they can be given a 4-6% alcohol solution (absolutely no more). This will stunt them and keep them more compact. Flowers will be full size, but the stems will be shorter. You'll need to Google that formula. I won't dispense moonshine concoctions for innocent amaryllis.

If I was a parent or grandparent with young children trying to interest them in the natural world an amaryllis race seems a perfectly fun place to start. Gentlemen, ladies, start your plants.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Year in the Life of a Fraser Fir

I was fortunate recently to have the opportunity to chat with a new friend, Fletcher, the Fraser fir. We talked long distance. He shared highlights of life on the Christmas tree farm before coming to Chalet. There's a lot happening down on the farm!

Where I grew up in Virginia
Where do you come from, Fletcher?
Thanks for asking, Tony. My great-grandparents originally came from Mt. Rogers, the highest point in Virginia. I've kinda lost track, but I'm at least the 8th generation of Fraser fir coming from those cool mountains. I started out as a tiny seed from the cone of my parent tree. Did you know we Fraser firs may have cones when we're young, but have to be at least 15 years old to produce seeds? 

How did you spend your early years?
Well, the first 5 years of my life were spent at an evergreen nursery along with thousands of other seedlings. We got everything we needed there, like sunlight, fertilizer and water to grow big and strong. Like all brothers and sisters we were similar, but different. After growing 5 years, we're still shorter than a newborn baby. Can you imagine that?

Baby Pictures - 6 months, 3 years and 5 years old
How did you get to the Christmas tree farm?
This really nice couple, Farmer Bob and Farmer Sue, chose me and lots of my brother and sisters as "liners", which is just another word for baby trees. They planted us at their beautiful farm in Virginia in specially prepared soil in rows 5 feet apart- kind of like corn, but with the rows farther apart. There were over 1700 of us per acre. That's a lot of trees, but we didn't feel crowded!

Tell us about life on the farm.
Life is good. We grow for 2 years in the field before we get our first haircut, which my farm parents call pruning. When we grow 2' tall we start getting pruned every year in the middle of August to stay full and pretty, the way folks like us. My farm parents and helpers use machetes (long, sharp knives) like an action hero to trim our branch tips. It takes 5-10 minutes and doesn't hurt at all!

Then, on our 7th birthday we get even more attention. We don't get cake, but starting in late March Bob, Sue and many helpers pull the young cones off all of us trees. That way our energy is used to produce more branches, not wasted on un-needed cones. They do this plucking by hand so it's lots of hard work. It tickles, but Farmer says this makes us much fuller.

Growing Up - 8-10 years old
What about feeding?
Our farm parents never let us get hungry. We're fed a tasty (at least to us) fertilizer the end of April to keep us dark green. During the year we get showered 2-3 times with special foliar (that means our needles) fertilizers that have things like calcium and iron to keep us growing strong, just like boys and girls.

Are there weeds in your in your field?
Fortunately, Farmer knows how to deal with those pesky plants. The weeds are mowed so they don't steal all the food from the soil. Weeds don't share well, they can be bullies. So, it's really nice in the fields because Bob and Sue plant white clover between the rows. They tell us clover takes nitrogen from the air and puts it in the soil for us to use. I love nitrogen - yum! And the bees use the clover to make the most delicious honey. I personally don't eat honey, but I hear humans love it.

So, what happens when you, your brothers, sisters and cousins are ready to be Christmas trees?
About mid-November our farm parents harvest us (a little like a corn farmer) one or two days before shipping us to Chalet. We're cut, brought down the mountain and stood up in a pine forest. Our trunks are touching the ground and we actually take up water before we're wrapped up for the ride. We're really fresh. And boy, do we enjoy the truck ride!

Christmas Tree Graduation
Fletcher, you're 7-8' tall. I don't mean to be impolite, but how old are you now?
Hmm, let's see. 5 years in the evergreen nursery, then growing in the fresh air and sunshine at the farm for 7-8 years. That should be about 12, maybe 13 years old. Wow, I guess that makes me a teenager!

You're right, Fletcher, it does. Thanks for sharing the details about your life as a Christmas tree. I know one day soon you'll play a big role in making a family's holiday very special! 


Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Garden Clock is Ticking....

"The days dwindle down to a precious few" is so true for the October garden. As temperatures drop and you face the reality of rain becoming snow, the urgency to complete fall garden tasks becomes almost manic.

You've probably already made the decision whether to cut your perennials now or let them stand as snowy winter sentinels. You've ripped the tired annuals out by their fuzzy little roots. What else could there possibly be to do? Want a few reminders?

1) Don't let fall pass without planting bulbs. The soil temps are finally cool enough to put all the spring flowering beauties in. Who said, 'Spring is disappointing without at least a hundred bulbs in your garden?' Probably a Dutch bulb salesman, but true nonetheless. Applying a balanced fertilizer over established bulb plantings now will pay big bloomin' dividends next spring.

2) Spring flowering bulbs and garlic are planted at the same time- NOW! Cultivate the bed thoroughly, plant 4-6" apart with the clove tips 2-3"below the soil surface. Water as needed, mulch with an insulating layer of straw. You'll be harvesting your own garlic next summer. Baba ganoush, anyone?

3)  Don't forget that second application of lawn fertilizer around Halloween or later. Cold soil temperatures don't matter. Organic or synthetic, your call. Just don't omit this last pass over your turf.

4) Houseplants been outside for the summer? Round 'em up and get them inside before they freeze. Check carefully for varmint infestations, respond accordingly. If you find livestock consider the use of Systemic Insecticide granules. Even then I like to quarantine "vacationers" in an otherwise plant-less room for at least 3 weeks before moving them into the general houseplant population.

5) Treat those acid-loving blueberries, rhodies, azaleas, etc. to a sulfur application applied directly to the soil. If you apply it to mulch the organic matter binds it and the acidifying reaction doesn't occur.

6) Apply several inches of leaf mulch, compost or dehydrated manure to annual, vegetable and perennial beds. Rain and snow, freezing and thawing will break it down and you'll notice positive differences in your plants' performance next growing season.

7) If you're going to overwinter summer bulbs, corms and tubers you'd best be thinking about the harvest. Dig dahlias, begonias, cannas, glads and elephant ears as the first frost blackens the foliage and "cure". Make sure the they're firm and skins are dry, with no surface moisture before storing. Investigate each species particular packing peculiarities. Forgive the Peter Piper picked alliteration.

8) Going to try and keep hardy trees and shrubs outdoors in pots over the winter? Be sure to use the largest container possible, 18" in all dimensions, even larger is better for survival. Do water throughout the winter. Spray evergreen foliage with Wilt-Pruf to reduce dehydration. Expect them to be "annuals" and then it's a wonderful bonus if they prove to be winter hardy.    

9)  When to put the roses to bed for the winter? Apply the 8-10" beaver dam mounds of leaf mulch or compost when the leaves are brown and hanging limp, the soil surface is frozen solid or they've been exposed to 3 or more nights of 20 degree F.

10) Use evergreen branches (buy the bundles or cut from your used Christmas tree) for mulching perennials and to protect unshaded beds of English and pachysandra from winter burn. That's textbook re-purposing.

Tick, tick, tick....    

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