Monday, October 30, 2006

Surviving or Thriving?

On TV, last night, an actor gave someone a cactus, claiming "You only have to water it three times a year." Hmmmm... I thought to myself. Maybe that's why cactus house plants don't grow so well.

Meet Uncle Henry - 12 feet tall, still going strong. The joke around here is that when he reaches the ceiling we'll move once again. I can't bear to part with him. As a young pup, Henry was growing 1 foot per year. Last winter, we trimmed 40 pounds off him and he's still 'overweight.'

Cactus can survive without water but they won't thrive. This one gets a drink every week and fertilizer every season. (A diluted 10-10-10 fertilizer every 3 months is perfect.) Spring for good quality cactus potting soil and some varieties will reward you with a flower or two.

This is an African Milk Tree (Euphorbia trigona). Some folks claim he's not a true cactus because of his leaves. (Experts assure me he is.)

Want an indoor tree? Buy one of these. They grow like crazy, with minimal care, in a sunny window.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Of Habits and Habitats... and Amy

Purely by accident, I became an experimenter in the garden. I bought a flowering plant at the local nursery because it had a sign claiming it attracted butterflies. I brazenly plopped down 4 bucks. While I was planting it, a butterfly landed on my arm. Now, if that's not a sign, I don't know what is.

Next up, a Honeysuckle. It quickly became a big monster of a vine, loaded with sweet nectar. Calliope Hummingbirds thought they'd died and gone to heaven.

And, so, I made it a habit... building a garden that brought a different type of beauty into my world. Each summer, I worked on a habitat for butterflies, tiny hummingbirds, finches and pretty much anything else that came to call.

Only this year, I fell short. Obligations took me far from home and I didn't really do much for my wild friends. And, that's where Amy comes in. There's a beauty to nature that's hard to define. Mostly because it's shrouded with mystery. How do butterflies find my garden? How do Hummingbirds know I've planted a picnic? I haven't exactly alerted the media to my efforts. In fact, I've told no one and, yet somehow they know and so did Amy.

Because she marched in my door with a gift of a flowering plant known in my world as the beacon for hummingbirds!

Arizona's Hardy Fuchsia
is the toughest fuchsia ever born. Known for their dainty ways, no one really expects much out of a Fuchsia, but this one can handle cold, drought and an entourage of Hummingbirds. I can't hardly wait 'til my little buddies show up next spring, wondering what's on the menu.

* Any friend kind enough to track down a Zauschneria arizonica (Hardy Fuchsia) USDA zones 5-9 is a friend for life. Pamper her, abuse the plant. It loves the rough conditions of the Southwest.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

High Altitude Bread Baking

Winter thunder rumbles across the meadow, with snow and sleet not far behind. Such is life in the mountains, where seasons change overnight, with little warning. And, they'll change back again, tomorrow.

So, I’m keeping busy baking bread. If you think high altitude gardening is a challenge, try baking a yeast bread from scratch. Dry, thin air wreaks havoc on traditional recipes and Betty Crocker is not much help. Her high altitude recipes say ‘over 3,000 feet.’ I live above 7,000 feet so, with most recipes, I'm winging it.

I’ve learned...
  • Rapid rise yeast is the proverbial recipe for failure. Breads rise faster at high altitudes. I have better luck with an instant active yeast, using less than the recipe calls for.
  • A little extra water helps if the dough is too dry.
Baking bread is a science experiment in the mountains. Start with small (1 tablespoon of water, as example) changes and use your best judgement when modifying recipes. And, don't worry... even the failures taste great!

Seems silly, to me, to pay $3.50 for a loaf of artisan bread when the ingredients cost about 50 cents.

Here's a yummy French Bread Recipe to try the next time you're snowed in.
Rising time: approximately 1 hour. 350 degree oven, bake for 30 minutes.

1 1/4 cups warm water
(add more water, by tablespoons, until bread dough is moist)

1 packet active dry yeast
(less 25%, if you're at high altitudes of 5,000 feet or more.)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon shortening, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 1/2 cups flour

* Brush loaf with beaten egg for a crispier crust.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Live and Learn

It didn't take long. Maybe an hour or two. By the time it was over, I learned I'd used the wrong mulch, ordered from the wrong bulb company, purchased a garden ornament from the wrong country, even the tile project was suddenly all wrong.

Here I sit, polarized, wondering what to do. Finish what I started? Or, quit while I'm ahead?

Mostly I wonder what it is about me that gives others the impression I have a single digit IQ. It's as if people can't help themselves. They take one look at my blonde hair and hand me mountains and mountains of advice. The problem is... it generally stops me dead in my tracks. It's hard to move forward when you lose confidence in yourself.

I'm beginning to suspect that too much advice is worse than none at all. At least when I didn't know any better, I was making steady progress. Take last summer, for instance, when I decided to paint my house myself. People went off their rocker over that idea. I was so exasperated, I put the project on hold 'til the commotion settled down. And, guess what. My house is still not painted.

Maybe the difference between me and other people is that I don't really mind making mistakes. If nothing else, they're good for a chuckle. Plus, not everything turns out badly. When I'm successful, by my own doing, I feel fantastic. When I'm successful because I followed directions, I don't feel nearly so elated. Maybe that should hold true for lots of things - especially gardening. It's just a plant, after all. If it dies, by another one! Chances are, it wasn't your fault anyway.

* Take this Azalea, for instance. I planted it before I learned they don't grow here. It needs TLC but it's doing just fine. Sometimes it's fun to ignore the experts and learn new tricks all on your own.

The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.
— John Powell

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Any Way the Wind Blows

Late fall breezes put me on a collision course with haphazard balloon trips. This one bounced off the side of my house and landed in the yard.

Bailey (pup) and I have been wandering the foothills, enjoying the rustle of autumn and dreading the coming of winter. Summer went too fast. I'm not ready for hats and mittens.

And, neither is my garden. It's going out with a bang. In spite of freezing temperatures, 3 tough old gals are digging in their heels and pretending it's still summer. White Phlox (David,) Pink Evening Primrose, and Purple Salvia shake off the night's hard frost and bloom in the morning sun.

But, I can't ignore things any longer. It's time for my garden to get ready for winter. Tender perennials will be up to their eyeballs in mulch by the end of the day. I'll even break down and mow the lawn properly, cutting it short and removing the grass clippings. It will keep growing, in spite of the cold. Heavy snows can rot grass clippings if they're not removed.

On busy days, I believe whole-heartedly that you should do what you must, not all that you can. Perennials with woody stems do better if you leave them alone until spring. Their tall stems help snow drift around the plant, creating a warm blanket during cold winters. Save yourself some hard work. Leave Catmint, Iris, Gaillardia, Salvias, Lavender, Russian Sage, and Coreopsis alone until early spring.

PS: Hands off the Lilacs. They started growing next year's buds months ago, when you weren't looking. Prune them after they bloom, next spring.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


I was a bad girl, when I first moved to Utah. Mostly because I was a city slicker and I didn't know any better. Enamoured with all the pretty wildflowers, I would sometimes pick 'em on hikes in the mountains. That's a no-no. (In fact, I think it's against the law but don't turn me in - I've mended my evil ways.)

Now that I'm slightly smarter, I realize that every time wildflowers are picked we hurt their chances of flourishing in their native environment.

So, I'm hot for wildflowers and I want to plant them in the ugly half of my backyard. But, where do the nurseries get their wildflower seeds? If they're harvesting them from open lands, aren't they just as bad, or worse, than me?

I had a devil of a time finding a company that seemed trustworthy. Wildflower Farm was the only one that clearly stated their wildflowers were nursery grown, not gathered from the wild.

  • If you order bulk seed, supplement it with quick-growing plants that will bloom first year. (I added lots of poppies to my bulk mixture because they'll bloom first summer.)
  • Plant in late autumn and let nature take it's course. Remove as many weeds as you can from the garden area. Rake to loosen soil. Sprinkle seeds evenly right before a rain.

* There may be other reputable companies. If you've had good luck with some, please let me know.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Dis-Obedient Plant

After the first hard frost, spiders sneak into the house, looking for a warm place to stay. It's this time of year when ski bums start crawling out of the woodwork, too.

Sorry to hear your Mom died. Hey, I bought a new car and I'm coming to visit for New Years!

Good grief... That was the note I received from my ex-boyfriend. On my birthday, no less. I sometimes wonder how such cold, crappy people infiltrate my life, though I know I must somehow be to blame.

Plants remind me of people and the Obedient Plant is a lot like him. Tall and charming, with snowy white flowers... and such mean-spirited behavior he'll suck the life right out of you.

This plant is so disobedient it was recently banned from sale in Utah. It's invasive, a voracious feeder that depletes soil nutrients all too quickly. If that’s not reason enough to dump this fellow, he also bullies the nice guys flowering nearby.

Now is a good time to dig up the Obedient Plant's underground rhizomes (aka big fat roots) or they'll choke neighboring perennials, come spring.

Awhile back, a popular bumper sticker bemoaned the bleeding obvious: Mean People Suck. No argument there, just curiosity. How to deal with them? Having been raised by wolves, I'm never quite sure.

* The Obedient Plant got it's name because when you bend the flower stalk, it will stay that way. 'Miss Manners' is one cultivar that tends to behave. USDA zones 4-8. Divide every 3 years.

** Try substituting White Veronica for the Obedient Plant. Veronica is not as showy but you’ll learn to love it’s low-maintenance ways.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Spooky Gulch

Home from a desert camping trip, spirits high, in spite of a drenching rain that sent us scurrying out of these wild lands before muddy roads became impassable. I tried my luck at wiggling through this 12-inch-wide slot canyon, until claustrophobic feelings, or perhaps my love of French Fries, sent me back to wider paths.

I'm in awe of desert flowers. At their will to live in spite of deadly heat and months of drought. When it does rain, they practically drown in the flash flooding.

I nurture my native plants, they bloom, but not so well. Ah ha! I think to myself, as we punch it into 4-wheel drive and maneuver through the mud... Perhaps I'm killing them with kindness.

* Graham's Penstemon (above) is in current legislation to be added to the endangered wildflower list. Fall in love with the desert, but tread lightly. And, please don't pick the flowers.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Witch Hazel

A cold wind whips along the avenue, scattering dead leaves and stirring up trouble. Dark clouds drift across a pale moon. And, all that once bloomed is done for the season. Or, is it?

A bit of odd magic is brewing... from one strange creature, just getting started.

Witch Hazel is a peculiar shrub, flowering in the dead of winter. It begins with brilliant autumn foliage during late fall. Come January, crooked, twisted branches burst forth with spidery, yellow blooms.

A good spell was cast upon this odd fellow, back in the Middle Ages. Witch Hazel limbs are used to divine - to find underground water - where conventional technology cannot.

While it can't be explained, other than to acknowledge that it's true,* diviners find water with amazing accuracy, where random drilling has little success.

Witch's Brew: Tannins and volatile oils in Witch Hazel make an effective natural astringent for treating eczema.

American Witch Hazel provides lively color in the dead of winter, when nothing normal should be blooming. Plant it in a shady spot, keeping in mind that any self-respecting shade trees will have given up the ghost when this bewitched little bush hits its stride. Hardy to USDA zone 3.

* Journal of Scientific Exploration, Stanford University, March 1995. Researchers observed two thousand divining cases prior to well-digging. The success rate of diviners in Sri Lankha was 96 percent. They predicted water depth with "amazing accuracy." Nearly all cases occurred on lands where random drilling for water had little to no success.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hot Under the Collar

I was poking around the Community Center kitchen, last night, in search of disposable cups. They were showing that movie, An Inconvenient Truth.* Here I am, looking for another way to pollute the environment.

This movie is great, though I have a big gripe. You walk out of there feeling too small to make a difference. And, that's really too bad. Because nothing stops people from trying faster than that feeling of hopelessness. I'm doing a couple simple things, quite by accident, that are good for the environment. Maybe you can, too.

I buy fresh food.
Mostly I do that because I worked in the food industry for many years and I know what goes into that crap. Frozen food requires 10 times more energy to produce and it's not a very healthy choice.

I buy organic, including wine, whenever I can afford it.
Organic gets a bad rap because people don't understand. They think of it as some silly hippy thing. It's not. Organic soils capture and store carbon dioxide at much higher levels than soils of conventional farms.

Try this on for size: if Iowa would grow their corn organically, we’d remove 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Want to make a difference? America worships the Almighty Dollar. When you buy fresh, over frozen, you impact profits in a big, big way. Food companies will change, in hopes of hanging onto your money.

You've got more power than you think. Okay, I'll get down off my soap box, now.

* The movie, Inconvenient Truth (Al Gore,) should be required viewing every April 22nd (Earth Day.) Explores the impacts of global warming.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Odd Bulbs

Okay, I'll admit it. I watch the Sci-Fi Channel. I read News of the Weird. And, I think Jon Stewart does a better job of covering today's top stories than Katie Couric ever could.

My tastes may not match yours but, if you've got $77 dollars* and an open mind, I can turn your garden into a head-turning, jaw-dropping, talk of the town, spring blooming extravaganza.

There's a big, wide world of bulbs out there.
And, I ain't talkin' tulips.

Allium schubertii: (Above) 16-inch tall, spider-like blooms, put on a stunning fireworks show.

Camassia: (Above) Weeks and weeks of brilliant blue stars on 36-inch stems.

Arum Italicum: (Above) Bright orange, seedy things.
(I know nothing about this flower but I ordered it anyway.)

Gladiator Allium: (Above) My all-time favorite!
Sturdy, 4-5 feet tall stems support stunning 6-inch purple flower globes!

Monsella Tulip: (Above) Fragrant, feathery flowers, posing as peonies.

Grecian Windflowers: (Above) Tough as nails itty bitty (2 inch) daisies create a spring carpet of cheery color.

Glory of the Snow: (Above) Brilliant Lily-like blooms peek out through melting snowdrifts. Multiple flowers, naturalizes beautifully.

Replete Daffodils - masquerading as magnificent tulips.

* This is my spring bulb order. Total with shipping was $77.00, for 81 bulbs. Unusual flowers is a great reason to experiment with bulbs. Ranking a close second is how darn cheap they are, in comparison to purchasing the pre-grown perennials.

* All fall planted/spring blooming bulbs, zones 5-9 (or colder,) deer and rodent resistant. Most full sun.

* If you're an odd ball, experiment with odd bulbs. But DON'T buy them from Dutch Gardens. They take 3-4 weeks to mail your bulbs because they outsource leftovers, or lower quality bulbs, from a variety of off-price dealers.

Friday, October 06, 2006

White Weddings

My neighbor is getting married tomorrow. It's a pretty big deal. People are scurrying around the yard, setting up tables, chairs, a stage for the band... all in the pouring rain.

Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor. It never rains in this high plains desert. Why now?

It's the first marriage, for both of them, though each are in their 40's. Gary vowed he wouldn't get married unless he met someone truly right for him. Kelly was acting on the same promise, 2,000 miles away.

There are 98 million singles in America and 5,000 internet dating services working to change all that. These two met, by chance, when she was returning a DVD and he was on vacation in her hometown. Go figure.

I got to help with the flowers! White, white, and more white: Orchids, Gardenias, Callas, Plumeria and perky little Daisies for the outside tables.

Contrary to current belief, white for weddings symbolizes purity of heart and the innocence of childhood. Yellow symbolizes hope and happiness. (For all you non-commital singles out there, yellow also symbolizes cowardice. :-)

I can't think of better colors for my favorite eternal optimists.

Here's hoping they play that Etta James song, 'At Last,' when he gets to kiss the bride.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Layered Look: Spring Bulbs

A condo dweller wrote in, wishing she had a yard in which to plant a drift of tulips. A yard is fun, but...

You can make a colorful splash with one spectacular planter on your balcony.

A 20-inch deep pot can hold 3-4 layers of bulbs. Each layer should bloom at a different time.

Container Planting: Layers of Bulbs
  1. Bottom of planter: thin layer of rocks or gravel
  2. Add soil, then first bulb layer: Daffodils
  3. Cover bulbs with soil, add second layer: Early Blooming Tulips
  4. Cover bulbs with soil, add third layer: Hyacinths
  5. Cover with a good bit of soil.
* Press a few Crocus or Grape Hyacinth into top layer of soil. These bulbs, the size of a quarter, put on quite a colorful show.

  • Snip foliage away, if you notice the next stage of bloomers is being shaded by the first.
  • Northerners: bubble wrap on the inside of the pots makes great insulation.
  • Get creative on bulb choices. Anything goes!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Yellow Crookneck Squash

Summer and winter squash are on the market all year long.

So, what's the difference?

Maybe it's like using the term, horsepower, when talking about cars. These days, nobody has a clue what that really means...

Impress your friends by explaining that winter squash got it's name, centuries ago, because these gourds have thick, hard rinds, storing well over a long winter.

Yellow Crookneck is a summer squash. These dainty, little swans have bumpy, edible skins with a sweet, nutty flavor. Add it to recipes when you get bored with Zucchini.

And, don't fall for those Zucchini tricks! If your neighbor tries to pawn off a two-foot Zucchini on you, toss it in the compost pile. Yellow Crookneck, Zucchini and other Summer Squashes taste best when harvested small, around 6 inches long.

Fabulous side dish for an autumn meal:
  • Slice crookneck squash lengthwise
  • Brush with olive oil
  • Roast with onions and red, sweet peppers
Click here for another yummy squash recipe.

* And, they're good for you, too! High in antioxidants, vitamin C and beta-carotene.

* Save some seeds. These little swans are open-pollinated, meaning they should grow in your garden, next summer.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Gracie's Lemon Heads

Tips from a pro! 5-year-old Gracie knows a thing or two about sunflowers. The best planting tool is attached to the palm of your hand.

Scatter seeds on top of loose garden soil. Push them into the dirt with your index finger or thumb. It's more than fun. It's a precise way to measure seed planting depth.*

Sunflowers, tall as trees, often hang their heads, weighed down by heavy blooms. But, that's not the case with the Lemon Queens. These tall, skinny gals have lightweight flowers. They hold their heads high, when other varieties begin to droop.

Gorgeous, lemon yellow sunflowers are available from Gurney's.

* Native birds give this sunflower a big thumbs up.
** Commercial growers recommend planting sunflower seeds 1 inch deep, spaced 1.5 feet apart.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Quaking Aspens: Autumn Care

Aspen Grove in Autumn, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

Most of what I know about Quaking Aspens came from parenting a teenager. That's when I mastered the art of choosing my battles and searching for common ground.

Aspens are rebellious, too. They sucker and rapidly reproduce. And, if you didn't want that to happen, you shouldn't have planted an Aspen in the first place.

Teenagers are happiest hanging out in a big group and the same goes for Aspens. You can fight it, to no avail. Or, work this to your advantage. Plant Aspens where they can create a small, shady grove. Eliminate all but a few choice saplings, each year. Aspens are fast-growing but short-lived. By staggering the age of the new, young saplings you're assured of healthy shade trees for as long as you own your property.

Aspen Reflections, Deer Valley, Utah

Avoid watering and fertilization in early fall. This stimulates plant activity at a time when trees should be slowing down and toughening up their wood for the coming winter.

Give trees a good soaking in late October,after leaves have fallen, before ground freezes.

Should you grow Aspens in your yard? Only if you have room to let them spread. I love the fact that one little Aspen tree can create a whole forest.* In my yard, I've lured the Aspens to send out long suckers to another area, where they are establishing a new grove of shade trees, naturally.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
— Albert Camus

* Family Affair: Pando is a clonal colony of Quaking Aspen in Utah - a single living organism, with one underground root system that is considered to be the oldest known living being in existence, 80,000 years. Pando covers 107 acres, with 47,000 trunks, which continually die and renew with young Aspens, via the suckering root.

** Populus tremuloides - Quaking (or Trembling) Aspen is a popular tree in high altitudes. Golden yellow leaves in Autumn rattle on the branches, hence the nickname 'Trembling.'

These photos are not of Pando.