Garden Daybook 1/9/14

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The cold, short days,  the silent nights, the snow, the frozen ground, the lack of exercise,  and most of all, the total lack of contact with the soil and plants in my gardens are all contributing to something akin to depression. Homesickness might be a different way to describe my emotional being this January. I often find myself staring out the kitchen window, praying for spring. I miss the joy I feel when I  walk through my gardens and smell everything green and growing. I miss touching the plants.  Heck . . . I even miss weeding!

I have felt this sadness before and I know what I need to do. A visit to a botanical garden/conservatory would help but that is out of the question – at least for a while. Instead, I pile seed catalogs on the ottoman in front of the sofa. I bring down my collection of picture notebooks from the upstairs study and stack them on the chair next to the sofa. I make a pot of tea with honey and lemon and cuddle up with Gabby, ZuZu, and Gracie Mae and daydream about  past and future gardens.

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Garden daydreaming inspires me. This winter my dreaming is focused on a more thoughtful approach to mixing annuals, herbs, and vegetables in every bed. I love the fullness of the mixed beds plus the flowers attract pollinators.  I want to be more specific about what goes where and to mix colors and textures so the garden has a more cohesive look – I call it contained chaos. To that end, I am working on a list of annuals I have grown to love. What follows is a collection of pictures, from past gardens, of ten of my favorite old-fashioned annuals.  My wish is that you look at these ‘Grandma Garden’ flowers with new eyes and, I hope, resurrect some of them in your gardens. Come dream with me …..

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Look at those faces! I swear, if they wanted to, they could sing a song, take a bow, and throw kisses. I am overly fond of the Viola family. I have grown the tiny Viola ‘Johnny Jump Ups’ or ‘Heartsease’ for years because they manage to survive by reseeding in the the poorest conditions . . like  in our gravel driveway.  I like to tuck the small plants between pavers and along pathways. I start my violas from seed right in the garden and allow them to reseed year after year.

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I cannot imagine a late spring garden without Lathyrus latifolia or Sweet Peas. I sow seed in paper pots in our unheated hoophouse in March and put them into the garden in late April. I can have vases of Sweet Peas on our breakfast table in June = 12 weeks. The smell from Sweet Peas is unlike anything else you can grow, so if you want to get a whiff you HAVE to grow your own. Get a nose full while these beauties bloom because they won’t be back until next year.

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Papavar somniferum or Poppies are another fleeting garden beauty. Start Poppies in early spring by scattering the seed and lightly pressing it into the soil. Don’t cover the seed because it germinates best with some light. The seeds will germinate when the soil warms up. Once you get those first poppies growing  they will reseed year after year.  Poppies bloom for one to three days then drop their petals and paint the ground with their gorgeous colors.  The beautiful seed pods, if left to mature, will drop seeds for next year’s plants. You can also harvest the seed, when the pods are dry and mature, by shaking them in a paper bag. The seeds will drop out of the pods and into the bottom of the bag. Store the harvested seed in a small envelope inside of a tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator. Cold and dry storage will keep seeds viable for years.

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bowl of poppy pods

Hollyhocks are biennials, meaning they have a two year life cycle. The plants grow leaves the first year then hunker down for the winter. They begin to grow the following spring and flower, make seed,  and die.  I will admit that every so often plants will sprout a third year, especially if I cut them back after flowering. I love the old-fashioned single flowers and grow only those varieties. My Mother calls Hollyhocks ‘Alley Flowers’ because they grew  in the alley behind her childhood home.

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Ipomoea alba (alba means white) or Moonflower may not be the easiest seed to germinate but once they start sending out vines they are unstoppable. The seed has a very hard coat so I soak the seeds overnight and plant them the following morning. I plant my Moonflowers where they can scramble along a low stone wall. They need room for their up to 20 foot vines! The flowers resemble huge, white morning glories. The unopened buds are garden art – as you can see in the second picture. The white flowers glow as the light diminishes in the evening and the flowers spread their heavenly scent through the garden. Gorgeous!  Moonflowers are about as ‘Grandma Garden’ as you can get!

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Tithonia rotundifolia or Mexican Sunflower is a tender annual I start inside every spring, usually in mid- April. I transplant the seedlings into the garden in early June. I always grow ‘Torch” because it is the tallest variety at 4-5 feet with a corresponding spread. Other smaller varieties are ‘Sundance’ at 3-4 feet and Fiesta del Sol at 2-3 feet. When I have a choice I usually choose bigger plant varieties because my garden is large and very open. I want  a plant with presence!
Butterflies are very fond of Tithonia blooms and will spend hot summer afternoons fluttering through the plants.  By the way, if you grow these pretty ‘sunflowers’ pay close attention to the colors on the flower petals – above they are orange, below they are golden, yellow. Gently run your fingers up the stem to the bloom to feel the velvety green. Beautiful!

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I love the vertical look of Amaranth in the garden. I have grown many different Amaranths over the years – including Amaranthus hypochondriacus, Amaranthus caudatus or ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ – both the red and golden green, and Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus tricolor or ‘Joseph’s Coat’. This year I am growing the 8 foot! tall A. hypochondriacus  ‘Chinese Giant Orange Amaranthus’ from Select Seed. I am going to mix it with Sunflowers and Tithonia along the corn bed. By the way – – the Select Seed catalog is a gold mine of ‘Grandma Garden’ seeds and plants. I have lost the name of the Amaranthus in this picture but it is an example of how beautiful the plants can be – here it is mixed with Cannas in a cutting garden I grew several years ago. FYI!! Beware Amaranthus can drop thousands of TINY seeds that have the ability to germinate the following season. I simply till them under or mow them off if they manage to find their way into the yard. By the way – young Amaranthus leaves are edible as are the tiny black seeds.

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Another old-fashioned vine that seems to scare some gardeners (I personally LOVE it) is the Morning Glory. I never have had it reseed and find that it draws tons of pollinators to the garden. Morning Glory seed looks just like Moonflower seed (both are from the Ipomoea family)  and because of its hard coat, must be presoaked before planting. I plant my Morning Glories where the vines can scramble along pathways or climb up sunflowers, homemade stick tepees,  or arbors.  I always grow a classic blue variety and then mix in a few other colors. Here I paired a blue morning glory with blue Lobelia and also used it to cover the arbor in my herb garden.

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A lesser known annual ‘Emilia’ or ‘Flora’s Paintbrush’ comes in orange, scarlet, or golden yellow.  Emilia looks best if planted in groups in a wild garden – perfect for a meadow garden where it can reseed itself.  I direct seed Emilia in mid-May and expect bloom by early July. I like to use the tassel-like flowers (another common name is ‘Tasselflower’), with their 2-3 foot stems,  in vases with zinnias and dill.

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I also like to summer houseplants in my herb garden. Be very aware of the sun/shade factor if you decide to do this or you can easily burn plants accustomed to indoor light. Move the plants outside to shade for several days and then, little by little, sun lovers can be moved to brighter quarters. I summer Hen and Chicks in a big pot, Sweet Bay, Rosemary, Christmas Cactus, Sansevieria, String of Hearts,  Aloe Vera, and Fig in my herb garden.

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Well . . . there you have it . . . ten old fashioned annuals/biennials to weave into your garden. I have a much longer list of course: Sunflowers, Zinnias, Cleome, Marigolds, Cosmos, Snapdragons, Four-O-Clocks, Nasturtiums, and on and on . . .  My thought was to encourage you to think  beyond typical bedding plant choices. A wonderful thing about old fashioned flowers is that most of them are open pollinated and you can harvest their seed – that means years and years of  flowers with leftovers to share. Get thee to a garden center and peruse the seed racks! You might discover a  memory flower from your past or find a new favorite. Don’t let these dark days get you down – keep gardening!

Hey from the snowy farm,
Fran           The Country Cousin

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