Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Blooms

I hope everyone has had an enjoyable holiday season -- my parents and my husband's mother joined the four of us for Christmas as usual this year, and we all enjoyed the company, food and Christmas spirit. Part of the magic for me is the holiday decorations, particularly the horticultural ones: a Christmas tree, cut flowers and various potted plants and bulbs. Here are a few scenes:

First, the Christmas miracle of this year: the highly unusual outdoor foliage that is still green through December, plus, incredibly, even a few flowers, blooming the day after Christmas! The oddly warm temperatures we've been enjoying all during December have allowed these freak occurances:

A viola flower that is still hanging on.

This orange mum sent up a new flower this week.
A snapdragon on the protected east side of my house

I know those aren't particularly impressive or beautiful flowers in themselves, but the fact they have occurred is highly unusual and worth documenting. I don't have any spring flowers blooming yet, unlike a few people around here whose hellebores or snowdrops are already flowering (the Lenten Rose usually doesn't bloom here until March or April), but these leftover autumn flowers are good enough for me.

But the flowers that I have been enjoying inside are even nicer, since I don't need to venture out into the cold, damp, sunless weather of this month:

Some seasonal house plants in my east kitchen window, including a poinsettia, holly and ivy, a Christmas cactus and a cute little potted European cypress tree at far right. The Norfolk Island pine in the center was upstairs in my plant corner, but I brought it down here and decorated it with very light ornaments.

From the other end of the same display, where the potted paperwhites and white amaryllis can be seen
behind the holly and the Anthurium plant, which isn't a traditional Christmas plant but looks right
 at home with its red and green colors.  

A cut-flower arrangement on the bar, next to two "frosty fern" plants (Selaginella).
An all-white and green arrangement.
Sometimes my favorite arrangements are those made with
the short stems left over from the larger arrangements. I
made this little bouquet for our downstairs bathroom
with leftover blooms and a little snowman stake that
came in one of the Selaginella plants.

Anyway, I have enjoyed these many plants during the Christmas season and during our warm spell, which seems to be ending, judging from the ice storm with horizontal winds that is currently raging outside right now. Brrr! A good day to stay inside and slowly clean up after the holidays.

I hope you are recovering from all the Christmas excitement as we get ready to ring in the New Year. Here's to a happy, healthy and lushly growing 2016!

Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Across the Pond Garden to the gazebo, on a frosty morning.

I woke up earlier than usual on Friday morning, and this was the scene: heavy frost and the low light of a sunrise only a few weeks before the winter solstice. It wasn't terribly cold or windy, so I was able to get a few shots of the frost before the sun made it disappear half an hour later. Here are a few scenes:

The Herb Garden.

Frost-rimed rose leaves (Merriam-Webster: Rime, 12-century, from the ME rim, OE hrīm, after Old Norse hrīm, meaning frost -- aren't etymologies fascinating?) 

Basket-of-gold (Aurinia saxatilis) already has gray, fuzzy leaves, made even more so by the frost.

A grassy area that I let grow this year. It reminds me of waves on an ocean.

A low, near-solstice sunrise that soon ended this otherworldly scene.

I've been continuing to think about the project I discussed in my last post, enclosing my front porch to make a sunroom, and I discovered this interesting site maintained by the University of Oregon Solar Radiation Monitoring Laboratory, which has a very useful solar path chart calculator. You only need to enter your ZIP code (or latitude and longitude if not in the US) and time zone and it will make a very nice chart showing you the angle of the sun throughout the day at various dates of the year. (It shows six months of the the year, and the other six months are exactly the same, except the inner months are July-November.)

My solar angle chart. The sunrise in the last photo is about 120° from north, according to this chart.

We've been having what I like to think of as "English" winter weather: overcast, damp and not too cold, most days around 40°F. I hope we get our usual clear, sunny cold days back soon, as I'm missing the sunshine inside the house.

And I hope you are enjoying mild, sunny days in your own gardens as we approach the winter solstice and the Christmas holiday. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, November 23, 2015

Winter Sunroom Dreams

The Yellow Garden, bottom left, under its new white covering.

We got our first snow this past weekend, and it was a significant amount, followed by bitterly cold overnight temperatures barely above 0°F (-17°C).

Winter Is Here. I don't care what the astronomical and meteorological definitions of "winter" are; when it's 0° and six inches of snow is covering the ground, it's winter.

The beginning of winter can be cozy, especially if you don't have to go outside. Since I stay home with my children, during the coldest periods I sometimes don't have to go outside more than once or twice a week, which is just fine with me -- I have a large library with a wood-burning stove to spend cozy evenings reading in.

This is pretty cozy....

However, by the end of January, after the excitement of the holidays is over, I'm ready for spring: for warm sunny days, green grass, growing plants, flowering bulbs and being able to begin work outside on my planned garden improvements for the year.

But winter still looms ahead at that point for another two months (or more, in a bad year), which can be depressing. I've tried coping by heading south to Texas or Florida for five days in warmth and sun, which is heavenly, but the return trip is always a dreadful shock -- it was -5°F when we got off the plane from Orlando two years ago. Shudder....

This past February in the always-temperate rose- and palm-filled courtyard at the very old Menger Hotel in downtown San Antonio, one of our favorite places to go to get away from Iowa winters.

Last month, my family and I visited Council Bluffs, Iowa and we crossed the river to the larger city of Omaha, Nebraska to visit the zoo, the Jocelyn Art Museum and -- of course -- the Omaha Botanical Center. While the rose garden was lovely and several other areas were very enjoyable, my absolute favorite part of the garden was the Temperate House in the new Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory.

The impressive 5,300-square-foot Temperate House at the Marjorie K. Daugherty Conservatory in Omaha, filled with plants that are not quite hardy enough to survive in the Midwest, like live oaks, azaleas and many marginally hardy shrubs. 

And I also love to visit the Missouri Botanical Garden's Shoenberg Temperate House, especially the Moorish walled garden area filled with perfumed plants and lovely flowers. We visit St. Louis at least twice a year, and I always want to sit inside and enjoy the beauty and warmth in that conservatory, especially on our spring visits.

The Moorish walled garden section of the Schoenberg Temperate House at the MOBOT in St. Louis truly is a paradise, as paradise has been imagined for a thousand years. If I won $100 million in the lottery (unlikely, since I don't actually play the lottery), this is what I would splurge on, complete with knowledgeable gardeners to take care of it for me....  

Spending time in all these indoor gardens makes me long for my own modest sun-filled room in which plants will grow. Like many gardeners in winter, I dream of having a sunroom attached to my house, in which I could grow a few of the plants that won't grow outside in my climate, in which I could sit in sunshine during winter surrounded by green plants and fragrant flowers.

I've been reading numerous glorious books about conservatories (mostly from England -- sadly, those glazed roofs just aren't practical in our Midwest climate), sunrooms (more popular in America), growing plants indoors (Tovah Martin's books are great), and even a memoir of a woman who goes through a mid-life crisis and builds a conservatory onto her home (the interwoven history of growing plants indoors is doubly fascinating to someone interested in garden history like me).

This is beautiful, but just not practical for Midwestern dwellers, unless
you have piles of money to burn in order to heat and cool it.
 Seriously, just shovel the dollar bills into the furnace for fuel....

Practically speaking, where could a Midwesterner like me have a sun-filled, plant-filled room in my house?
  • For years I've considered having a sunroom built onto my kitchen, on the east side of my house, but such a room would only receive sunlight in the mornings (which would be great in hot summers, but not so great in winters, which is when I would want to use the room most.
  • Then I considered finishing our attic as a bedroom/sunroom with a south-facing dormer and east-facing skylights. I think it would cost less than having to build an addition with a new foundation, plus there would be plenty of light. But there are some headroom issues in our attic which would require bumping out the roofline, which is expensive. Plus we'd be less likely to walk up two flights of stairs to use the room (not to mention having to carry large pots down those stairs in summer and back up in autumn).
  • However, in the last few weeks, it has occurred to me that we might enclose our front porch to make a sunroom. I've always rejected this suggestion, because I thought it would look inappropriate, but upon reflection, I'm not sure it would necessarily have to ruin the look of our house.

I like our front porch, which we had rebuilt in 2011 when we were having the library added onto our house. It was a screened porch when we bought the house, the screens were ugly, and we never used it because the screens trapped dirt and cobwebs. We discovered that nearly the whole structure was rotten (as old house porches often are) when we had the screens removed, so we had it entirely rebuilt, except for the roof and ceiling. This has greatly improved the curb appeal of our house, in my opinion.

But we don't actually use that part of our porch under the roof very much, choosing instead to sit on the uncovered part of our porch in the sunshine most of the time.

It looks pretty and appropriately old-fashioned in summer, but we only occasionally use the covered part of our porch.

And it's even less useful during the other half of the year. This was the scene Saturday -- I guess it's time to take in the porch cushions and put away the last couple of wicker chairs....

I do have some concerns about enclosing our porch to make a sunroom:
  • As I mentioned, I don't want to ruin the architectural style of our 1924 Arts & Crafts house. However, I think if we used decorative Craftsman-style windows, especially on the front, it might look OK.
My clumsy Photoshop cut-&-paste attempt doesn't actually look as bad as
I thought it would. Perhaps it could look all right with Craftsman-style
windows. What do you think?
  • Also, I'm worried that the resulting sunroom might often be too cold, due to all the windows and the wood porch floor without a full foundation directly under it. However, an electric radiant heat mat under the floor (in addition to running a duct or two from our forced air heater), a thick layer of sealed spray insulation underneath, blown insulation in the ceiling, and the more energy-efficient double-pane windows that are available these days, might make it comfortable during the daylight hours that I would be most likely to use the room, especially on sunny days (and many plants don't mind cooler nighttime temperatures). I'm going to discuss it with my heating contractor and see what he thinks.

Enclosing the porch does have some advantages over my other ideas for making a sunroom in my house:
  • It would have a long expanse of south-facing windows, together with east and west windows too, so it would get sun all day.
  • It probably wouldn't need skylights, since the angle of the sun in winter is so low that it would come in through the south windows, and in summer the overhanging eaves would block the sun and make the room cooler (the plants would probably all be moved outside or to other rooms during the summer months). 
  • It would probably cost about half as much as constructing an addition to the house, since it already has a foundation and a roof, and the porch was solidly rebuilt only a few years ago.

Here's a photo from when the porch was still enclosed with crudely-constructed screens. (The tree beyond the porch is no longer there to shade the room.) This might make a very nice, plant-filled sunroom to escape from winters in.

And look at all that sun! The snow has already completely melted off of our porch, after less than 48 hours. This might be a great place for plants and winter-weary people....

If we do decide to make a sunroom, it probably wouldn't be this coming year, since we're not quite finished paying off the home equity loan on the library addition from 2011 (which was a much more expensive project than this would be).

In the meantime, this winter I'm trying out the idea to see if sitting in a sunny spot surrounded by green plants makes the winter easier. I made a plant-filled sitting area in front of the south-facing windows in my upstairs bedroom. A few trips to Lowe's to buy sale plants, plus a few purchases of matching pots and potting soil, and voila -- I have my Winter Garden:

This is pretty cozy too on sunny days -- Tigger always finds the best spots.
We'll see if this helps banish the winter blahs.
The view from my comfy chair (all plants must be on a table or stand, so Tigger doesn't
munch them). I found the orchids on sale at Lowe's, and they're so lovely! Note the "blue sky"
that I can enjoy even on the grayest days (part of my attempt in early 2014 to combat
the winter blahs). Maybe this will be enough for me and I won't even need a dedicated 

I'm curious how other gardeners use indoor house plants to make winter more bearable. Do you have a sunroom or even a real conservatory in your house? Or a sunny corner like mine, or plants all over your house filling every room?  I'd love to hear about your winter gardens, in the comments or in a post.

Hope your transition to winter is going well as snow arrives. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Winding Down

The new shape of my North Border, with extraneous plants and weeds removed. The curvy front area will be my new Summer Border, and the back part that currently holds perennials will be the all-evergreen Winter Border after I move things around next spring. The vividly green patch of grass on the left end is newly planted this fall, as I'm making the border shorter and that end was too shady. 

Things are winding down here in my gardens and I've been taking care of the final tasks of the year before winter comes:
  • I got the last of the 1,200 bulbs planted
  • My husband and I put away most of our garden furniture and statuary
  • I carried the large potted plants down to the basement, where they will spend the winter under lights
  • We've been mulching some of the tree and shrub beds

A larger task over the past few weeks has been to work in the North Border, which I am planning to completely redesign next Spring (see above photo). I have cut back the perennials, pulled out the many weeds and tree saplings that have grown up over the summer, and removed all annuals and any perennials that I don't want to move next spring. Plus I made a list of what perennials are planted there, so I can think about where to move them while planning over winter. All this will make my job easier in spring, when moving things to the new Summer Border and other locations.

I potted up a few bulbs in another attempt at forcing them over winter.
My attempt last winter was a total, utter failure, as I'll relate in another
(very embarrassing) post sometime....

Thankfully, there is little raking of leaves to be done in our gardens -- one of the good things about living on a windy hill in the country is that most of the leaves just blow away into the fields. (The rarity of powdery mildew and other fungal diseases is another benefit.) I'll rake the few remaining leaves out of my flower beds in the spring.

The Yellow Garden still shows some gold hues even in November, and the North Island, behind it, is newly mulched.  

There are just a few final flowers still blooming in mid-November. We've had a number of light frosts, but nothing below 26°F or so. The tender annuals are long gone and the roses seem to be done for the year, although there are still a few last hardy flowers:

Don't these snapdragons look as lush as in late spring?
What a great flower, and a great value in the garden.
They seed around in many spots for free, and they
bloom almost non-stop from May until late November.
AND they're one of the best cutting flowers too!

Near the snapdragons are these last yellow petunias,
which are still blooming in their protected spot next
to the house.
These mums have been in flower since September in these window boxes.
Violas are so cute!
This Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) thinks it's spring again!

This gold lamium still has all its colorful leaves, and is
even starting to set flowers again. Doesn't it know
that winter is nearly here?

My Pacific Giant delphiniums are aiming for a third round
of flowering this year. We'll see if they have time to
open their flowers before this weekend's predicted hard freeze
does them in....

I bought these stocks (Matthiola) in April. When the summer got hot, I put them under the edge of my porch roof,
 so that they only get morning sun. I cut them back in summer and they bloomed again by September and are still going. They are so fragrant that they are one of my favorite flowers, one that I have on my porch every year. I'm thinking about trying to overwinter them indoors -- has anyone had any luck doing so? Will they continue to bloom inside my house, or in my basement under lights? (The spiky foliage is from freesia bulbs that I planted but that disappointingly never flowered.)

Anyway, it's good to have most of the fall work taken care of, now that a hard freeze is coming (down to 15°F, they predict). We've had a pretty warm November thus far, so I really can't complain. Time to move on to inside projects and cozy wood stove fires.

Best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving with family and friends to gardeners here in the US, and for an enjoyable Stir-up Sunday to my UK friends -- thanks for reading! -Beth

Monday, November 2, 2015

Corn Harvest

The view from my back upstairs windows in September: Golden corn as far as the eye could see.

Yesterday and today, the look of my property changed drastically, as it often does at this time of year: you know it's late autumn in Iowa when the corn has been harvested. Here are a few shots of Before and After scenes:

By a few days ago, the corn was looking pretty dry,

I always enjoy how the tall corn forms a sort of curtain around the edges of our property. It feels kind of protective and makes our yard seem more private and secluded for a few months.
This morning, the farmer who rents the fields was out working with someone to help him. The farmer "drives" the combine, at left, which harvests the corn (in a route mapped out by GPS for maximum efficiency -- the farmer doesn't even actually have to steer the combine himself; it's all done high-tech by computers and satellites), and his assistant drives a tractor with an attached bin. The combine stores up the harvested corn in its own bin until it gets full, upon which the tractor drives alongside the combine as it empties the corn into the tractor bin, all the while still harvesting more corn as the two vehicles drive along together.

The tractor with attached bin then drives to a large semi trailer sitting near the road (not pictured), empties the bin into that, and returns to receive more corn from the combine, which is still harvesting elsewhere in the field . Here's the tractor driving back for more corn after emptying the bin (it looks a lot like my son's cute toy John Deere tractor from this distance...). It's a very efficient process -- it used to take a farmer weeks to harvest 100 acres of corn. Now this is the smallest field this farmer plants, and he usually leaves it to harvest last of all, as it only takes a day and a half, almost an afterthought.
A closeup of the harvested field. The stubs of the corn stalks will make this field no good for sledding this winter, much to my kids' annoyance. The bean years (alternating with corn years) are much smoother and better for winter play.

No privacy curtain around the gazebo any more. However, the view is better now and stretches for miles across Grant Wood scenes.

I guess we're pretty close to winter now. Sometimes it snows a bit before the farmer gets around to harvesting this field, but we've enjoyed warm weather this fall, so there hasn't been any danger of heavy snow, which could ruin his crop.

Anyway, our property has undergone its yearly autumn transformation, one of the last steps before winter. I hope you're enjoying your own annual transitions from autumn to winter in your gardens too. Thanks for reading! -Beth

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mr. Frost has visited my gardens

One of my last summer bouquets. The snapdragons are
still blooming, but the zinnias are done.

Friday night the temperatures dropped to 26 degrees by morning, and the many zinnias, cosmos, nasturtiums and four o'clocks in our gardens were cut down. My husband and I tried to cover one of our tomato plants, but apparently 26 degrees was too much for them, even covered with ill-fitting sheets.

Thankfully, I had enough advance notice to gather quite a few ripe and almost-ripe tomatoes to bring inside, and picked half a dozen flower bouquets to prolong the summer flowers. (I also compelled my children to pluck the leaves off of several basil plants so that I could freeze the ground-up leaves in olive oil for making pesto in winter.)

I'm not going to show any scenes of destroyed plants -- I only want to remember the lovely scenes from a few days ago. Here are a few of them:

These flowers are still blooming near the house, as it didn't get cold enough to damage the petunias, which are slightly more cold-tolerant than zinnias and other warmer-blooded plants. The 'Golden Celebration' David Austen roses smell lovely.

Alas, these stripey four o'clocks were quite sensitive. I saved seeds from them though, in the
hope that I will be able to grow some more with these stripey characteristics. (If not,
I like the solid colored ones just fine.)

The impatiens are done, but the clematis in my White Garden is still OK.

The salvia 'Victoria Blue' are still going strong, although these moonflowers, which I had completely forgotten I planted and discovered finally blooming only the other day, have succumbed. It was nice to see them for a few days anyway....

My husband planted these mums and nasturtiums, and I think they looked very nice together. It looks like you could almost warm your hands near them.

Just above the mums, some of the red cedars in our garage windbreak are absolutely covered with blue colored berries.

A scene from the Kitchen Garden, where I was harvesting tomatoes before the freeze. The nasturtiums were totally laid low by the frost.

A final autumn scene from the Kitchen Garden, with the chickens in the background. The remnants of sweet corn make a fall-like backdrop for the marigolds in the potato bed.

Of course it's sad when the flowers die off in autumn, although the frost could have been much worse (and in fact, could have been the thick snow that Kathy at Cold Climate Gardening had this weekend -- apparently my garden is in a zone slightly too warm to even be considered a "cold climate" by these extra-hardy gardeners, which surprised me). 

We still have many flowers and the next week or so is supposed to be relatively mild and warm. I feel fortunate that we still have our petunias and snapdragons still, as those are some of my favorites, but when they go, I'll be able to clear the beds and plant the bulbs I have bought: tulips, hyacinths and daffodils, which will be cheerful in springtime.

And I'm looking forward to being done with gardening for the year, as I have other projects that I want to work on this winter: I will continue to work on my Iowa garden history book, read more gardening books, focus on my kids' home school lessons, and get ready for the holidays. Also, I'm looking forward to planning my new Winter Border and Summer Border and thinking of ways to improve some other areas of my gardens. I have a full plate, and will be glad when I don't have to spend time mowing or gardening -- for a while at least; by January 15th, I will be incredibly impatient for spring to come, no doubt.

I hope you are enjoying a warm autumn and will experience a gentle transition to a cozy winter in your own gardens. Thanks for reading! -Beth