Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Dirt under my nails

By Julie Johnston, Ledger photographer | Mar 15, 2012 
This may be titled dirt under my nails, but my nails are too short for dirt to get under them. I cannot garden with gloves on my hands, so, in summer, my hands never look REALLY clean. The cracks and crevices are blackened from the earth. This used to embarrass me, but I have long since outgrown that waste of emotion. Dirty hands from honest labor are nothing about which to be embarrassed. Of course I wash, even scrub, them, but sometimes the stain is there to stay until it wears off.

As hobbies go, gardening is one of the least expensive as far as dollars spent. The rewards go far beyond the momentary satisfaction of many hobbies. There is something primal about digging in the soil that takes us back to our ancestral roots, when they had to be hunters and gatherers to survive. The gatherers became gardeners, though I doubt they called themselves gardeners. Besides, what other hobby can, not only feed your soul, it can also feed your belly? As I was growing up, everyone I knew had a garden. If you didn’t have a garden, you probably didn’t eat unless you were rich enough to buy everything at the store. I didn’t know any rich people.

You have heard the saying, “You can take the boy off the farm but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” That goes for girls too. As the granddaughter, daughter and wife of farmers, I feel very connected to the soil. It would be difficult for me to live in an apartment where I could not get out and get my hands dirty planting something. I firmly believe that, because we have taken so many off the farm and herded them into cities where they can find jobs, this is why we are seeing a great resurgence of hobby farmers, wannabes and urban gardeners. They may be generations removed from their agricultural roots but the desire for dirt under their nails is still there. They may say this resurgence is because of a desire for fresher, locally grown food, but we gardeners know the truth.

In addition to the garden we had fruit trees and a strawberry bed. We children didn’t dare say we were bored or we got busy pretty quickly picking produce of one kind or another OR pulling weeds. The weed pulling was a nice source of income for a small child, and we learned arithmetic (or is it numbers or math these days?) to boot. The reward for pulling 100 weeds was a penny. Yes, a penny per hundred weeds! Of course, in those days a nickel would buy a bottle of pop and 2 cents would buy a comic book (my money usually went for the comics). We learned our numbers and earned some cash, Mom got her garden cleaned up as well as some time to herself and I had dirt under my fingernails all summer. This was the only job I did at home for which I got paid. Everything else you did because you were part of the family and you just did your share. I suspect my mom hated pulling weeds!

We had a great screened-in porch, which was shaded, and we got lovely breezes to cool us as we worked at either snapping beans, shelling peas, pitting cherries or peeling apples. Frequently, Grandma Hawley would come to help. She lived in town then and I now realize she just needed an excuse to get back to the farm and do necessary garden work. She did have a garden in town, but it was small. Besides, we all know that work is more fun when it is shared. I never felt like I was working when there was gardening to be done, whether it was pulling weeds, planting or harvesting.

If you haven’t gotten dirt under your fingernails lately, perhaps it is time to become a gardener. There are ways to do this without acres of space. Container gardening can be done on an apartment balcony or patio. A terrarium only takes as much space as a fish bowl and still lets you play in the dirt. These ideas are columns for another day, perhaps by another Master Gardener or MG intern.
Meanwhile, for the next few months, don’t be surprised at the grime on my hands, which would be dirt under my fingernails if my nails were longer.

Julie Johnston is photographer for The Fairfield Ledger.


Choose a day lily for carefree beauty
By GERRI LYON, Master Gardener intern | Mar 15, 2012
If you are starting a new perennial garden, consider the many varieties of easy to grow day lilies in your plan. They are trouble free and can grow undisturbed for many years.

The botanical name Hemerocallis is derived from a Greek word meaning “beautiful for a day.” Individual flowers last only a single day, with new buds opening daily. Stalks bear flowers for several weeks.

My first memory of lilies is the “ditch lily or tiger lily.” Have you ever noticed the bright orange flower along roadsides or at an old farmstead? Obviously, a hardy survivor after years of abandon! This is simply more proof of day lilies being easy to grow. The modern hybrid varieties are vastly improved and have more shapes and colors available. Some varieties are ruffled, others have double layers of petals. Still others have spidery looking blossoms, some are large and some are small giving the grower many choices in addition to color.

Day lily foliage in itself, adds a visual effect in your garden for the entire growing season. Bright green strap-like leaves arch from the crown of the plant and form a graceful mound.

Flower stalks grow from the crown and can grow from 1 foot to 6 feet. The stalks branch at the top where the showy flowers open for one day. That’s a sad fact for me. Only one day, when they are so perfect and beautiful. But, keep in mind, flowering does last for several weeks!

Plantings should be made in full sun or partial shade. Loamy soil is ideal, but they can adapt to a variety of soil types. Good drainage is important. Fertilizer should be used sparingly unless you are planting in poor soil types. Use a 0-20-20 or 5-20-20; 1 or 2 tablespoons can be applied around plants in early spring.

Ideally, planting and transplanting, should be done in the late summer. Prepare your new garden area, working soil 1 foot deep. If dividing plants from an existing bed, dig clumps, remove soil from root area, then use a knife or spade to divide into sections. Be sure each section has several crowns — the spot where foliage and roots meet. Cut back foliage tops to 8- to 10 inches. This is a good time to share your favorites with family and friends or perhaps a community project
Place the crowns about 1 inch deep, spreading out roots into the soil. Gently firm the soil and water thoroughly. Plantings should be spaced 1-2 feet apart. Water the newly planted day lilies regularly, to ensure good root growth.

A day lily can grow for five to seven years with little maintenance. There are many choices for early-, mid- and late-season blooming. You can’t go wrong using a day lily. The rewards are an endless wave of color and texture in your landscaping.

I mentioned little maintenance. Because of their heavy blooming nature, dead heading or removing spent blossoms is desirable to keep plants looking fresh and healthy. I don’t mind this duty; it’s another chance to admire and enjoy the beauty of mid-June mornings! To continue enjoying the mounded foliage of your plants, remove the stalks when they start to dry and turn brown.

Gerri Lyon is a Master Gardener intern.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Dear Iris - Thinking About Gardening

Time to start thinking about the garden

By JULIE WETRICH, Master Gardener | Mar 08, 2012

As I write this article, the temperature is close to 40! I’m getting Spring Fever in February! Along with Spring Fever comes thoughts of the garden and when it is the right time to start planting.

Being familiar with the average dates of the last frost and the first frost in your area is a key indicator of when to plant your plants. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gives about a month’s range of dates for frost. Of course this varies from year to year — it all depends on the weather!

Typically the last frost in southeast Iowa occurs in late April. Central Iowa begins to thaw a week later, and northern Iowa a week after that.

Vegetable planting time is not an exact science! Folk vision says to “plant when the leaves of the lilac bushes are as big as a mouse’s ear” according to the Iowa Garden Website. I haven’t measured a mouse’s ear lately but I think you get the idea!

I’m sure many of you have already started some of your vegetable seeds indoors. Starting the seeds indoors while it is still winter gives the plants a head start on growing. You can cut the lids off egg cartons, punch a small hole in each cell and fill with potting soil. Put two seeds per cell and a small amount of water. It is easy to pop the plants out when it comes time to transplant them into the garden!

February is a good time to start tomato seeds indoors. This allows the seed to grow into a sturdy plant that can handle the shock of transplanting. Tomato seeds sown outdoors may or may not germinate or grow as strong. Use a 2-liter soda bottle to grow tomato plants (or any other vegetable/flower). Cut the bottle in half, discard the cap, fill with potting soil and plant your seeds or seedlings in the top half. Then set the top half in the bottom half. Any excess water will drip through the opening into the bottom half of the bottle. This is a great way to recycle and save money!

Plant cold-weather vegetables like lettuce, radishes, carrots, peas and onions directly in the garden as soon as the ground is workable, usually late March or early April. These vegetables can withstand a little bit of frost and need to be finished producing by the time summer’s heat comes around. Planting vegetables too late in the season also puts them in a vulnerable position, risking the chance of frost before the fruits ripen. It’s all in the timing!

April is a busy month for gardeners planting seeds. Turnips, radishes, beets, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage can all be planted directly in the soil about the middle of April. By doing this you can avoid premature development in soil temperatures of less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

The soil needs to be completely warm for other vegetables including corn, beans, potatoes and okra. This usually occurs in May. When planting vegetables like peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, you will want to wait until late May in southeast Iowa, when there is no chance of a freeze. These vegetables need the long, hot summer to produce.

“If you’ve never experienced the joy of accomplishing more than you can imagine, plant a garden.”
— Robert Brault

Julie Wetrich, a Master Gardener, states sources for this article include ehow.com and Birds and Blooms magazine.

Monday, March 5, 2012


Hellebore ‘wonderful’ addition to shady areas
By Kathy Tollenaere, Master Gardener | Mar 01, 2012
The Helleborus is a plant for the shade.

Do you have a shady spot in need of four-season (almost completely) green foliage and long-lived, interesting blossoms? You are invited to explore the diverse genus Helleborus, of which there are approximately 15 species.

Most varieties grow into sturdy, perennial “clumps” ranging from 12 to 24 inches tall, depending upon the strain and/or variety. They are tolerant of heat and humidity, can withstand periods of drought, if situated in moisture-retentive, well-drained soil, and can even thrive in clay. Good news: The plant is deer and disease resistant.

The Helleborus is a plant for the shade. It grows well in conditions ranging from part sun to full shade. One special requirement is that the plants would like to receive fresh compost each year, which supplies necessary nutrients. You will enjoy its interesting, dark green foliage. In fact, the leaves remain green throughout much of the winter. Generally, in late winter or very early spring, one should cut off the old leaves, making way for the new growth. Otherwise, the leaves provide shelter for the plant during periods of winter snow.

In my opinion, the most wonderful attraction of this plant is its flowers. They bloom very early in the spring and stay fresh for months in the garden and weeks in a vase. Bloom color can range greatly, resulting in cream, green, pink, maroon, and yellow flowers, many of which are speckled. The bloom size is approximately 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Most flowers face slightly downward, and there are a few new varieties that bear double blossoms.

As is the case with many perennials, getting the plants established might offer a challenge. However, so far in my garden areas, I’ve had only to contend with the loss of one plant, and that was shortly after it was set in the ground. I planted several more varieties a year ago, so once spring arrives, I’ll see how I’ve fared with these new garden additions.

Perhaps you’d like to know about plant propagation. You can gather and sow seeds, and you might find that the plant has done it for you when tiny “baby” plants appear next to the parent plant. Tiny seedlings give you the chance to relocate plants in other spots in your yard or garden, and to share with gardening friends! You might take note that not always will the blossoms of plants grown from seed mimic those of the parent plants.

Although I’ve not done this, I have read that a plant can be divided. Care must be taken that a large root is maintained for each separate portion. This method would result in multiple plants of the same variety.
If you have shady spots that could use something different and interesting, I’d recommend your looking into these beautiful, hardy, low maintenance, disease- and pest-free perennials!

Kathy Tollenaere is a Master Gardener.