Monday, July 21, 2014

Bring the Bard to Your Yard

In a world where we are most often reflected in baseline demographics, gardening becomes a rare opportunity to express personal interests and creativity. Perhaps all that is wanted is a touch of inspiration. For that, what better source than Shakespeare? The bard’s works overflow with flowers and botanical allusions, with magical moonlit glades, and with gardens as both settings and metaphors.

Shakespeare’s lines have inspired composers, graphic artists, and garden designers for centuries. Today, Shakespeare Gardens appear across the globe, and in many forms, from the extensive 57,000 square foot garden at Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park in Montgomery, Alabama, to the more modest and secluded Elizabethan Garden on the east side of the Folger Shakespeare Library behind the U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress.

A central element shared by all these gardens — and perhaps by yours as well — is a keen interest in the plants and plantings cited by the bard. Many of the plants are rich in cultural significance: from the plucking of the true white or blood red roses by the Plantagenet and
Somerset forces in Henry VI - Part 1, to poor Ophelia’s weedy trophies: the bitter nettles and "dead men’s fingers" of Hamlet. Start your Shakespearean garden by identifying plants mentioned in the plays and sonnets, and then research how and why they were selected. Books and websites abound with herbal lore, plant and garden history, and so forth. You will soon find that most all of the bard’s "plant selections" have played important roles in medicine, history, religion, and literature.

Put Ophelia’s rosemary ("that’s for remembrance") in your garden and you are planting an herb valued by Egyptian priests, the classical physicians Dioscorides and Galen, monastic herbalists, and modern sous chefs. Each plant is endowed with centuries of meaning; let inspiration spring from Shakespeare and it will continue to flow into your garden.

To begin, select a basic design. For example, you could follow the lead of the Folger Library and create an Elizabethan knot garden: a formal arrangement, usually rectangular, with a bust of Shakespeare, a sundial, birdbath, or other sculptural component, surrounded by a interwoven pattern (a knot) of rosemary and lavender, with Johnny-jump-ups and other violet species, iris, saffron crocus, and chamomile filling the spaces between the knotted rosemary and lavender array. For a king’s ransom, you might also include a low boxwood border.

Alternately, you could develop a Shakespearean herb garden, using some of the herbs already mentioned, as well as calendula, rue, fennel, hyssop, lemon balm, parsley, mint (in pots), savory, marjoram and much more. Or you might prefer a sunny flower garden, perhaps designed as an old-fashioned rose garden, or simply incorporating bard-related plants into an existing border.

Favorite roses from Shakespeare’s period include Damask and Gallica (French) or "apothecary’s rose," and Musk and Eglantine (Sweetbriar) roses. Flowers include columbine, poppies, dianthus (clove pink or gillyflower), nasturtium, daffodils, calendula (pot marigold), and primula species, such as English Primrose and cowslips, which are often found throughout the works of Shakespeare.

For the truly inspired and literary-minded, you might want to develop a dedicated garden spot: perhaps "Titania’s Bower" from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Add a simple trellis, cover it with non-invasive honeysuckle (woodbine), some musk roses and other fairy plantings, and you’re ready to sit, read, and ponder with Puck over the meaning of life and love.

You might also consider a bitter-sweet "Ophelia’s Garden," focusing more on her bouquet of rosemary, pansies, fennel, and daisies (IV,v), than the crow-flowers and nettles of her fantastic, watery garland (V,vii). Though for good measure — and silver color — you could add Hamlet’s wormwood (artemesia).

For more of a kitchen garden, you might borrow from Perdita’s saucy lines at the shepherd’s cottage in The Winter’s Tale (IV,iv). The first several hundred lines are a pastoral shopping list, again reflecting some of the most common plants listed above. To add special meaning to your planting, you might even consider adding unique plant labels or homemade signs quoting from Perdita: for example, "Marigold [calendula], that goes to bed wi’ the sun/And with him rises weeping," "Rosemary and rue; these keep/Seeming and savour all the winter long," and so on. Such signage can make your garden a poem itself, or transform a school, church, or public garden into an inspired educational experience.

In reflecting on your Shakespeare Garden, before selecting plants and garden motifs, remember that the experience will not only enrich your landscape and your appreciation of it, but will also, hopefully, introduce you to a larger cultural milieu. You should derive as much pleasure in thumbing through and reading the plays and poetry, as in actually planting the garden and enjoying its color, fragrance, and flavor. Understanding the plants in their literary context will help you better understand the civilization which created the literature itself. And suddenly, the Muses permitting, you will discover that your garden has become a doorway to a larger, older world.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Shakespeare’s Plants

The following reflects plants cited in the Bard’s writings provided as either common or botanic names; (spp) indicates numerous species within a genus.

Aster (spp)
Basket of Gold
Climbing Hydrangea
Crocus (spp)
Curled Mallow
Dianthus (spp)
English primrose
Euphorbia (spp)
False Blue Indigo
Fritillaria (spp)
Fulvous Daylily
Ilex (spp)
Iris (spp)
Meadow Buttercup
Mint (Mentha spp)
Narcissus (spp)
Oriental Poppy
Rose (Rosa spp)
Sage (Salvia spp)
Viola (spp)
Wood Fern
Yew (Taxus spp)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sage Advice for Your Garden

Few plants have commanded such a central role in human history as common garden sage. First revered for its medicinal properties in antiquity, this unassuming member of the mint family was held sacred to the Greek and Roman gods, traded by the Dutch for tea from China, and has been revered by herbalists for millennia, from Dioscorides and Galen to your local GNC outlet.

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) is, however, but one member of the substantial genus Salvia, which actually takes its botanical name from the Latin salvus for “well” or “sound” (also salvere “to be in good health”), echoing its earliest association with curative and life-extending abilities.

Today, thanks to plant hunters and hybridizers, there are roughly 900 species of salvia found worldwide. And while few of them can genuinely promise immortality – or favor with the gods – there are probably a dozen or so which can liven up your garden, spice up your kitchen, and generally provide a healthy bit of habitat for butterflies and hummingbirds.

Limiting your choices is the hard part. My friend, garden writer and herb guru Kathy Fisher, once noted that of the 900 or so species of salvia, about 899 are worth growing. And why not? Consider a flower palette ranging from lipstick red and magenta to salmon, pink, white, and luscious blues which mirror the sky and deepen to violet and inky-blackish. The foliage on varied species can be lime or dark green, creamy white, or a mixture of pinks, purple, white, and green.

And while you might think that common sage is important enough for its culinary and medicinal applications (now a valued antioxidant), there are outstanding varieties which combine flavor and aroma with pure artistry. Golden garden sage (S. officinalis ‘Icterina’) features a swirling variegated pattern of golden yellow and green; purple sage has matte purple leaves which age to a soft green color; ‘Berggarten’ sage has very large silvery-gray fuzzy leaves; and ‘Tricolor’ sage with gray-green foliage splotched with pale pink, purple, or cream.

Most culinary sages feature lilac-blue flowers, some with dark purple sepals, save for ‘Albiflora,’ a real show-off with pure white flowers. Best of all, the scent and flavor of sage bestirs delicious memories of Thanksgiving, family, turkey and stuffing – although the herb is well-suited and renowned for use in tea, or with pork, soups, sausage, duck, cheese, various egg dishes, and savory breads. Remember that fresh leaves are appreciably stronger in flavor than dried, and that harvesting in the early morning provides the highest level of essential oils. For drying purpose, harvest in spring before flower stalks appear.

All of the officinalis sages are tolerant of heat and humidity, especially ‘Berggarten,’ and most should survive all but the harshest winters. True garden sage is the hardiest of the lot, but all will become leggy after several years and are best replaced at that time.

In the wider world of salvia, you will find species suitable as ground covers and edging plants, hanging baskets, and even annual shrubs or hedges. As most ornamental salvias come to us from Mexico and South America, they are too tender to survive the winter, and can either be treated as annuals, or they can be planted in containers and moved to an indoor location prior to frost.

Personally, I do not have the space to overwinter my favorite salvia, blue anise sage (S. guaranitica), a cobalt blue hummingbird magnet, which becomes a five feet bush by midsummer, but as salvias propagate easily from tip cuttings, I simply snip off three or four shoots in the fall, root them in water or a sterile medium, and care for these offspring through the winter care until they return to the garden.

Among some of other deservedly popular varieties are grape-scented sage (S. melissodora), whose pale blue blossoms exude an almost intense grape soda-like perfume aroma, unique in a genus where most flowers have a negligible scent.

‘Cleveland’ sage is heralded as the most fragrant variety of all sages. While most sages release their aroma after brushing against the foliage, “Cleveland’ readily wafts its scent with the slightest of breezes. Buckeyes beware! The plant was actually discovered in California, not Ohio, and was named after the nineteenth century plant collector, Daniel Cleveland, who first spotted the silvery-grey foliage on an expedition.

Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is one of the most popular salvias owing to the fresh-cut pineapple scent released whenever its leaves are bruised. It also sports brilliant -- and edible -- red flowers, appearing in late summer through fall. Pineapple sage is also one of the last great hummingbird plants to bloom in late autumn, and provides the balance of vital nectar needed by migrating ruby-throated hummers as they head south. Scarlet pineapple sage has larger, deeper colored blooms, and the cultivar 'Frieda Dixon' has pink flowers.

Autumn sage (S. gregii) provides an abundance of drought-tolerant cultivars with non-stop and profuse blooming habits. Easily found examples are Maraschino’ (like the cherry) with scarlet flowers; ‘Wild Watermelon’ in fuchsia; aptly named ‘Plum Wine’ and ‘Raspberry Royale’; ‘Moonlight’ with pale yellow blooms, and ‘Desert Blaze’ which contrasts fire engine red flowers against creamy-white and green variegated foliage.

From ancient Greek physicians to a solitary planter on your patio, there’s a world of salvias just waiting to enhance your life and gardening enjoyment. Now that’s sage advice!

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sunlight Will Set Your Soil Straight

Everybody knows that sunlight makes plants grow. But did you know that solar energy can help you “grow” healthier soil? If not, welcome to the solar-powered world of soil solarization!

Solarization is a safe, non-chemical, and effective method for controlling the host of pests and diseases which might be lurking in your garden soil -- harmful bacteria, fungi, and nematodes, as well as insect eggs, root-gnawing larvae, and weed seeds.

Of course, most of your landscape gets along just fine without special intervention, but for vegetable gardeners and folks with specialized garden beds, such as dahlia collections or an annual cutting garden, going solar can help prevent problems, while enhancing any site’s horticultural performance.

Solarization is a creative spin on the greenhouse effect, which uses simple plastic sheeting and the sun’s radiant energy to help sanitize the top six to eight inches of garden soil. And although the process does require setting aside a garden area for about two months during the summer, it is far safer and less expensive than using toxic soil pesticides or other fumigation methods.

Experienced gardeners know that they should rotate their vegetable crops each year and select disease-resistant varieties to control soil-borne diseases. However, this is not always a practical option for some gardeners with limited space, and after a while, any soil used and planted repeatedly with similar crops will be still be infested with damaging populations of the most persistent pathogens, like verticillium and fusarium wilt, as well as parasitic nematodes, along with other weed and pest problems.

By using solarization to dramatically elevate soil temperatures up to 140 degrees for a period of weeks, you can essentially bake those problems away. Moreover, solarized soil is rapidly re-colonized by beneficial bacteria and fungi, such as those which help fix nitrogen in the soil, while yet other beneficial microorganisms will fill the void to help fight off pathogens in the future. In short, your soil will be healthier and better able to enhance plant growth and crop yields.

To begin, select a garden bed or planting area at least 30 to 36-inches wide, which is normally the most practical width for planting. Smaller strips probably will not generate or retain enough heat to be effective.

Remove all visible vegetation and other plant debris, and then cultivate the soil to a depth of six inches or more. It is generally preferable to use a rototiller to break up any clumps and provide a smooth, friable medium. Keeping the texture of the soil smooth is essential to prevent the formation of air pockets which will interfere with heat generation and conduction. Also, carefully rake over the surface of the planting area to ensure that it is completely free of stones or other coarse materials which might tear or puncture the plastic sheeting.

During cultivation, be sure to add any desired organic amendments such as compost, or any fertilizer or lime, which might have been called for by a soil test. If you are planning to use soaker hoses or drip irrigation, you should put those elements in place now. Please note that after solarization, you do not want to till or disturb the soil, as that will only expose buried weed seeds. Finish by digging a trench approximately six to eight inches deep and wide around the perimeter of your garden bed.

Next, water the planting area thoroughly. Use a sprinkler or soaker hose system and let it soak the prepared soil for at least several hours, penetrating almost to a depth of one foot. Every square inch of soil must be moistened for adequate heat generation.

Afterwards, cover the area with a clear plastic sheet made from UV-stabilized or resistant polyethylene or PVC. Untreated plastic film will degrade in sunlight, and neither black nor opaque plastic will generate sufficient heat.

Selecting the proper thickness of plastic tarp is important. While very thin film (.5-1 mil) is less expensive, it tends to rip very easily, and would only be suitable for one use. Thicker plastic (4-6 mil) is tougher and lasts longer, but does not allow as much more sunlight to pass through. Instead, try to find a medium sheet (1-3 mils), and stretch the plastic tight and smooth across the planting surface.

In addition, for increased effectiveness, consider using a double-layer of plastic with an insulating air space between the layers. You can easily separate the two layers using empty aluminum cans. The extra layer can increase soil temperatures by another six degrees, while also retaining more heat on overcast days and at night.

After getting your plastic firmly in place and tucked down into your trench, backfill with soil to bury the ends of the sheet – and just wait for the sun to do the rest. If your solarized bed is in an especially windy location, you might want to place some bricks or rocks on top of the trenched area as an additional anchor.

For the most part, solarization should be undertaken anytime during the hottest, brightest months, from June through August. It can be done earlier or later, but additional time under wraps would be required, up to three months. Traditional summertime treatment requires four to six weeks, and as much as eight, if the skies were particularly cloudy, or if you have been plagued with stubborn, noxious weeds for years.

After solarizing, carefully remove and store the plastic for another use in a subsequent year. You garden bed is now ready for planting. If you do not plan to plant for several months, with a cool weather crop, for example, be sure to cover the bed with a weed-free mulch.
Lastly, remember that solarization only eliminates or reduces pest organisms and weed seed from the top several inches of soil. Do not disturb your sanitized soil any more than is necessary to slip in your new plants.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bringing Toads to Your Abode

This year, to combat an onslaught of creepy, crawling critters, many homeowners will spend a small fortune on toxic chemicals, pheromone lures, and even propane-powered mosquito traps. Interestingly, there’s a simple solution that’s just a short hop (and croak) away.

In the world of natural pest control, one of the brightest players is the humble toad. Toads have a phenomenal appetite for insects and other invertebrates that go squish in the night, especially undesirable and rapacious creatures such as slugs, gypsy moths, and tent caterpillars.

In fact, up to 90 percent of a toad’s diet includes the most common garden pests, such as earwigs, sowbugs (a.k.a. woodlice), millipedes, crickets and a wide assortment of beetles, and otherwise helpful predators like spiders and centipedes. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report actually estimated that one adult toad may consume 10,000 pest insects in a 90-day period.

Admittedly, with the possible exception of Mr. Toad of Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic, The Wind in the Willows, toads fail to gain the respect and appreciation afforded to Kermit the Frog and his amphibious kin – including those strangely popular beer spokes-frogs (mascots).

Fables bring us fair maidens kissing frogs and freeing princes from evil spells; the Japanese consider frogs good luck; the French consider them good eating. But toads are simply shunned for fear of transmitting warts. Something needs to be done about this irrational Bufonophobia (toads belong to the genus Bufo).

There are two species of toads in our area, the most common being the American Toad (Bufo americanus), and Fowler’s Toad (Bufo fowleri). Should you find yourself strolling through a natural area from spring to mid-summer and hear a good deal of melodious trilling, you’re probably listening to the call of the American toad. They actually have a lot to sing about. During the peak reproductive season, from March through July, female toads are briskly busy in shallow pools laying ropy strings and coils containing up to 6,000 individual eggs. Soon after, those eggs will hatch producing ravenous hoards of tadpoles or pollywogs, which will devour mosquito larvae until they emerge onto land as adults.

While not all of the thousands of offspring from thousands of ponds will survive, the numbers of toads moving about our region is truly astonishing. With such a boffo population of bufo available, it is relatively easy to encourage one or more toads to take up residence in your backyard, where they will immediately add your most troublesome pests to their cuisine.

To create your own toad habitat, often called toad abodes, you need only locate a damp location on your property. Sometimes a shady area in the yard, perhaps a natural depression which remains somewhat soggy most of the time, will provide the perfect setting for your toad hall. Alternatively, areas near a downspout or next to the dripping drain from an air conditioning unit will provide a suitably moist environment.

Your toad abode itself allows for plenty of creativity, especially if undertaking this project with children. Personally, I like to recycle old or damaged terracotta pots into habitats. Often, larger clay pots (nine inches or more in diameter) left outdoors during the winter will crack in half. By simply turning each half on its side and slightly burying it in the soil to provide stability, you can create two separate abodes.

Other cracked or chipped pots can be transformed by creating a two-inch high “entrance” at the top edge of the pot. Simply score a semicircular section in the top of the pot and gently tap it out with a hammer. Invert the pot, and toad hall is ready! Children can help with amphibian aesthetics by decorating the finished pot or potshard with colorful non-toxic paints: perhaps depicting windows, flowers, helpful ladybugs, dancing toads, or other fanciful critters.

Be sure to line the inside of the toad abode with a few handfuls of leaf litter or leaf mold from your compost pile. Toads can hunker down under this cool organic blanket during the hottest days of summer, coming out to feast at night.

For bufophiles willing to invest in upscale – or kitschy -- toad housing, there are numerous on-line sources for wooden, terracotta, and plastic resin toad abodes. Some represent toadstools with columned entryways, ruled over by a toad king and queen, while others represent colorful cottages or barns. One of the most expensive actually looks like an inverted clay flowerpot, of all things!

These toad abode options are primarily fair weather affairs, suitable for spring through fall. To encourage larger resident toad populations, you might want to consider developing a winter palace. Because toads hibernate during the winter, they will need a safe environment in which to snooze away until the world warms up and food becomes available.

A toad hibernaculum can be created using clay drainage tile or even standard plastic drain pipe (four-inch diameter). Starting with one 12 to 14 inch section of pipe or tile, dig a shallow hole in your sheltered, damp garden site and bury the pipe on a 30 degree angle, so that only five inches at the top side of the pipe are exposed. The entryway should be about two to three inches high. Fill the bottom half of the winter residence with sand, and fill the rest with leaf mold. The toad will use this habitat like any other abode during three seasons, and will climb down deeper under leaves and sand to sleep through the winter.

You can also cover the surface of the hibernaculum with compost during the winter to provide additional insulation against extremely cold temperatures. Clear the surface by March to allow both toad and abode to warm up in the early spring sun.

One final note: toads, like many of the most beneficial inhabitants of our yards and gardens, are sensitive to pesticides and other synthetic chemicals. Your chances of attracting toads to a property featuring only lawn area, or which is treated with lawn and garden chemicals, are extremely low. If you want to encourage natural pest controls, you will need to abandon the toxic alternatives. The GreenMan thanks you - and Mr. Toad thanks you.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Communications Volunteer Sought

The Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council seeks a qualified and creative volunteer to coordinate communications and outreach efforts. The successful candidate will work to educate people about the benefits of conservation landscaping and to strengthen the public’s understanding of environmental stewardship. As a member of our program staff, this position helps to create partnerships and initiatives that enhance the engagement of citizens and businesses in the Bay restoration effort.

For more details, visit:   Position Announcement: Communication Intern