The Impatient Gardener: March 2012

22 March 2012

Orange you wanting to put Tangerine Tango in your garden?

Cue the collective groan. Who can pass up a good "orange" pun?

It's just my way of telling you to make sure to catch my guest post at The Design Confidential about how to incorporate the Color of the Year (Tangerine Tango, but for purposes of gardening we're calling it orange) into your garden.

In it I lay out a little bit of color theory on how to make orange work (or figure out why it might not be working the way you're currently using it) and include a list of orange plants you might want to put in your garden this year.

Check it out and let me know what you think either here or there. How do you do orange in your garden?

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21 March 2012

Why do plant sellers work against themselves?

Most gardeners I know go to the nursery even when they aren't looking for plants. They often buy things with no idea of where they are going to put them, just knowing that they NEED that plant.

But people who don't consider themselves gardeners who buy plants to pretty up their landscape don't buy things they don't need. They buy the plants they need to make their landscape look decent and that's it. If those plants die, they often either write it off as "Nothing grows there" or, worse, "I have a brown thumb and kill everything I try to grow." But in many cases the people who sold them those plants are working against them. They go to a big box store where the person watering the plants doesn't know a hydrangea from a holly, or receive advice about what to plant from a person anxious to sell a more expensive plant, without regard to the environment the homeowner intends to plant it in.

The cynic in me thinks that in at least some of these cases the plant seller is thinking about their bottom line, not their customer. I imagine that some could think, "I'll sell them this expensive plant and when it dies I'll sell them something else. I'll get their money twice."

I suppose that's not really the way most plant sellers think. I suspect the ones who steer their customers in the wrong direction are not so much conniving as they are lazy. Either way, what they are doing is bad for the gardening business in general.

And that's why I got really mad the other morning when I was flipping channels on my iPad (I love that I can watch cable on my iPad at home) and spotted flowers and stopped at QVC. They were selling a Stars & Stripes hydrangea set. It's three macrophylla (mophead) hydrangeas and who would deny that those plants sitting in front of them are gorgeous?

But what irritates me is that they lead you to believe that they are going to look like that in your garden. In fact they are going to look BETTER than that in your garden. Do you see that plant he's holding? That's the size they ship you. It's in a 4-inch pot! The information says that they reach "maturity" in three years, but I'll bet a good number don't make it through the first season. That size of shrub takes a lot of tending to grow.

Then it gets into zone information. They are supposed to be hardy to zone 4, and yes, they are root hardy, but as anyone in more northern zones knows, you might get a beautiful plant full of green leaves but few if any blooms. That's because these bloom on old wood, meaning they set their buds in fall, and in many zones, most of those buds freeze. So here is QVC, which a lot of people believe only offers the best quality products, calling these hydrangeas reblooming. And they might be. In zone 7 or 8.

Of course there is a guarantee. And if you read that guarantee it says they'll send you the same plant again if you call them within a certain amount of time. But you're not getting your money back if it's after their usual 30-day money-back guarantee window.

QVC, I suppose, doesn't give a rip. They aren't really looking for people to do their entire landscape in their plants. And more experienced gardeners wouldn't fall for it. Between knowing about macrophylla hydrangeas and seeing those 4-inch pots (not to mention knowing what it takes to keep a blue hydrangea blue in all but the most acidic soils) and preferring to buy from local nurseries (or maybe checking out Cottage Farms on the Garden Watchdog), they would stay far away (although even veteran gardeners can get sucked in when they see beautiful blooms), but lesson experienced gardeners don't know that, and think, "Wow, three hydrangeas for $26! I've seen just one plant for that. What a deal." And they are doomed to almost certain failure. But odds are they don't blame QVC for that. They blame themselves and get discouraged and vow to never spend money on plants again.

And that's bad for everyone.

Although I feel like it's probably the big box stores and QVCs  of this world who are most to blame, I'm not letting smaller nurseries and independent garden centers off the hook, because they play into this too. Every time I go to a nursery I find plants that are labeled a zone lower than other sources tell us they are hardy in. And I've been to one IGC that routinely sells plants hardy to zone 6 (we're in zone 5) and only tells you when you question it that they will require "very good drainage but then they should be fine."

Zone pushing does no one any favors. People who do well with plants become gardeners. And gardeners buy plants whether they need them or not. Non-gardeners shouldn't be tricked into buying something that won't work for them. They need to be helped by knowledgeable people, and told how to make their plants thrive, not shoved out the door after handing over their credit card.

Successful gardeners = successful nurseries.

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16 March 2012

A touch of the tropics

Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with a ton of vacation pictures (especially since I took very few), but for the one day it wasn't raining I saw some amazing plants, and on the days it was raining (all the others) I saw some amazing wet plants.

A few highlights:

Remember my stick in a pot? Yeah … this is what that was supposed to be. And those flowers before are the payoff. I almost sprung for another one (rooted this time), but then I read that you really can't grow them indoors and have any kind of success without grow lights. Better left to vacations, I guess.


This was on the road to Hana, so basically the rainforest.

This lovely carpet of moss covered every stone bridge.

Getting there was a bit of an issue though. There were record rains for several days and on the morning we were supposed to drive to Hana (on the east coast of Maui) the road was closed for quite some time due to mud slides. The devastation along the road was amazing, and put an end to our hopes of doing some hiking along the way. We didn't realize just how bad the situation was until we came to this area in the road, where bulldozers were still clearing mud. The sides of the road in this area are supposed to be relatively flat.

Ferns grew along all the sides of the cliffs.




This was a path at one of the places we stayed and I love it. The grass was this great cushion that softened these rocks just perfectly. This one is definitely going on my Great Garden Paths board on Pinterest.


The last day the sun came out and we went to the Alli Kula Lavendar Farm. It is definitely on my list of the top 10 most beautiful places I've seen. Several of the paths were washed out and the plants sustained a lot of damage but it was still gorgeous. It is set on the side of the mountain in an area of the island that only gets between 16 and 20 inches of rain a year. It's at about 6,000 feet of elevation and the view was spectacular.


The lavender wasn't blooming yet, but the proteas were. This huge flowers (probably a foot across when they are open) can be found as cut flowers on occasion in our neck the woods but you pay about $15 a stem for them. They were selling them at Alli Kula for $3 a stem. And they were so amazing you get two pictures of them!






In the course of 24 hours we experienced the lush beauty of the rainforest, the dry sun of the beach (and the bathtub-warm waters of the Pacific), the Mediterrean-like climate of the side of the mountain, and the moonscape-like view at the top of the island, where we did a short hike (in thin air) to the top and I showed off my bad vacation hair. Ironically, at 50 degrees up there, it was colder than it was back home in Wisconsin.

Despite the weather we had a wonderful time, and it was even better when we came home and it was spring! OK, so I guess that was a ton. Sorry! I hope at least they weren't boring.


08 March 2012


Even though it's been a mild winter in Wisconsin, it's nice to get out of the gray scene for while. So we did!

Here are some of the colors I've been looking at this week.

Much prettier than Wisconsin right now, even if it was 60 degrees at home yesterday. We're in Maui on what is our first non-working vacation lasting longer than one weekend ever (and ever in this case covers 16 years). One of us is doing much better at the nonworking part than the other but the weather hasn't been great so generally Mr. Much More Patient has only been e-mailing when it's raining.

Anyway, I didn't bring a real camera but I'm trying to snap pics of every interesting plant I see. We are seeing a ton of whales but there's no way I'll get good pictures of them with the iPhone. That's OK, some photos are best taken with the mind and displayed in the album of your memory. I hope to fill that album up by the end of the weekend.

07 March 2012

A dutiful desk gets a new life

Today I'll show you one more project related to the office spruce up. It's not the last thing that needs to be done in the room but I've come to a fairly natural stopping point and anything else I decide to do in there after this is just gravy.

If you've been following along with this project, you'll recall that keeping the whole effort on a shoestring budget was important to being able to do it at all and this project certainly speaks to that.



The cabinets were certainly the ugliest beast in this room but the desk was no looker either and it looked even worse once I got the cabinets freshened up with some paint. The desk was another laminate wonder, but I really liked how it functioned. I like desks with a privacy panel (I rarely wear skirts but I'm not very good at sitting in a ladylike manner all day) and you don't find those much anymore. Also, buying a new desk, even a relatively affordable one, would have been a budget buster. So you know what I did next. Yep. Spray paint. I'm getting predictable.

Painting it outside was not an option given that it was the middle of winter so I had to get a bit creative, and in this that meant getting down and dirty in the basement of the building where my office is. I created my own little (temporary) paint booth by putting a tarp on the floor and taping plastic sheeting (thin and cheap) from the ceiling then sealing it to the tarp.

I actually took the desk apart to make it easier to move and paint. I didnt go crazy with the sanding, just a good once over with 120-grit to rough up the smooth plastic laminate. As usual, I gave it a good scrub with Dirtex and dried it thoroughly. Since I was changing out the hardware, I also filled the holes with wood putty.

This photo confirms my suspicion: Tyvek suits are not figure flattering for the under-5'3" set.

Then, in an attempt not to poison or paint myself, I donned a full Tyvek painter's suit, booties, plastic gloves and a respirator. Using my patented trusty Super Thin Coat method, I primed each piece of the desk with two coats of Zinsser Cover Stain primer spray paint. After those dried (about an hour) I covered it with semigloss Rustoleum spray paint. I don't know how many costs I did, but I used three cans and probably could have used a fourth.

I let everything dry overnight and the very carefully put it all back together in my office. I knew the paint wouldn't be fully cured and I didn't want to scratch it.

I figured the paint would do well on the sides and drawers, but I had no such expectations for a top that would see a lot of wear given that it's used daily. We took off the laminate top (it was held on by a handful of screws) and replaced it with a butcher block desktop I had picked up along with the countertops on our relationship-challenging trip to Ikea. (Sidenote: Did you see the episode of "30 Rock" where Liz and her boyfriend go to Ikea and everyone warns them not to? Hysterical.) I stained and Waterloxed the top the same way I did the counters (with almost all the same problems) and then attached it to the desk with the screws we saved from the old top. Then I drilled new holes for the hardware and attached the same handles I used on the cabinets.

I've been thrilled with the results. So far the desk, both the painted parts and the wood top, has proven to be vey durable, sustaining chair bumps, spilled water and random stapler incidents with aplomb. I think the desk top was about $60 and the hardware was another $12 or so. Add in the spray paint and sandpaper, and I got a whole new looking desk for less than $100.

I also sprung for a new solar shade. After all the improvements to the room I couldn't bear to rehang the ill-fitting blinds.

The desk wasn't the only thing that got the spray paint treatment in the office. Read more about that here and about my favorite thing--the fabric bulletin board backsplash--here.

Note: This is the first post I've ever composed entirely on my iPad. That means I couldn't color correct the photos like I normally do and I don't even know how this will appear. I apologize if it's a big mess.

01 March 2012

Early signs of spring? I'll take it!

I know that the whole world can't get enough of talking about the mild winter that most of the United States has been experiencing, to the point that some people are getting a little cranky about it, but I know a good bandwagon when I see one and you know I'm on it!

In all seriousness, I've absolutely loved this incredibly mild winter. I may feel differently about it come summer when we get a feel for what kind of impact this will have on our gardens (I don't think plants that don't care to be wet are going to fair well) and the water levels in the Great Lakes which are already a serious environmental problem (and one that makes life much more difficult for sailors who have a hard time getting boats to the dock because the water isn't deep enough). I could believe how many signs of spring I found walking around the yard over the weekend.

I know late February isn't an unheard of time for some signs of spring to start popping up in some places. But here in southeastern Wisconsin (newly minted Zone 5b), it is unheard of. February is full-on winter here. Heck, so is March most years.

Exhibit A: This photo taken March 25, 2011



But take a look at what I found in the yard this weekend:


That's not a daffodil popping up a good 3 or 4 inches out of the ground; it's an allium. That is early.


Just a few feet away from the allium, one of the clematis actually has leaves popping up. They are not happy and I don't expect those leaves will do well as they are sure to sustain some serious freezing (I might be happy about the weather, but I'm also a realist). This one (either 'Mrs. N. Thompson' or 'Westerplatte'; they grow up the same trellis so there's no way to know which is which until they bloom) is probably being a bit bold because it grows in a very warm microclimate: the small garden alongside the south side of the house that borders the patio.


The vernal witch hazel is blooming. I wish I had saved the information on this one as I don't know what cultivar it is. The flowers are very pretty but very, very small. I'm wondering if they will get bigger as the plant matures.


The climbing rose 'William Baffin' has some pretty good buds on it already.


This isn't really anything related to the weather, but I'm so happy I left my Juncus 'Blue Mohawk' grasses standing. These were new from Proven Winners last year and even though they are hardy to zone 5 they seemed to be marketed mostly as annuals. I planted three in the ground and one in a pot which I'm overwintering in the garage and decided to let them all be. They are still as green as they ever were (maybe a touch less blue) and they are really quite stunning in the rather stark winter landscape.