Where The Green Ferns Grow

80829thumbThe list of what ferns will not do is more noteworthy than the list of what they will do. They do not bloom with colorful or fragrant flowers. The do not produce fruit. Very few turn color in autumn, and their color is generally nothing to brag about. Most ferns will not maintain their appeal through drought, or if neglected too long. Nor will they tolerate heat and wind, especially in full sun exposure.

Yet ferns are still popular for what they ‘will’ do. They provide remarkably distinctive and stylish foliage. They survive in spots that are too shady or perhaps too damp for other plants. Ferns will be quite happy in pots or planters, and some are happy to grow as houseplants. Ferns somehow avoid getting eaten by deer. If a fern gets tasted by a deer who does not know better, it will survive.

All ferns are perennial. Most are evergreen. Their foliage arches upward and outward from the terminal buds of stout rhizomes. Some ferns develop dense foliar rosettes. A few develop trunks by growing vertically instead of horizontally, and dispersing roots downward through their own decomposing fibrous rhizomes. Many ferns will get quite broad. Many are quite delicate and diminutive.

Ferns may not require too much maintenance, but the little bit of maintenance they require is somewhat important to keep them looking tidy. Old foliage should be pruned away as it is replaced by new foliage. This may be as simple as pruning away all old foliage just after new foliage develops early in spring. For some ferns, small batches of old foliage might get removed through the year.

The foliage of ferns is comprised of leaves known as ‘fronds’. With few exceptions, the fronds of ferns are intricately lobed or divided into smaller leaflets known as ‘pinnae’. (‘Pinna’ is singular for pinnae.) These pinnae are arranged on opposite sides of fibrous leafstalks known as ‘rachi’. (‘Rachis’ is singular for rachi.) Rachi are quite fibrous and tough, so should be cut close to the ground with pruning shears when they get groomed, rather than plucked.


How Shade Is Made

70816thumbMany of our trees live at our homes longer than we do. Some of our trees were there before we got there. Some of the trees we plant will be there for whomever comes along after we are gone. Trees very often evolve into something very different from what they were intended to be. Nonetheless, since they are the most significant features of our gardens, trees must be selected carefully.

The recommendation that shade trees near the home should be deciduous is cliché but accurate. It makes sense that the trees that provide cooling shade in summer will also allow warmth and light through while bare in the winter. Evergreen trees are better for obscuring undesirable views around the perimeter of the garden, where they will not shade the home too much through winter.

The problem is that many modern gardens are too small for such diversity. Modern homes are so close to each other that evergreen trees are more important for obscuring views. Consequently, evergreen trees that provide privacy between homes and gardens might also function as shade trees. Limited space also means that trees affect neighboring homes and gardens significantly.

This is why so many of the small trees (that are known almost disdainfully by some arborists as ‘microtrees’) are so popular. Japanese maple, flowering cherry and smoke tree that were once popular for atriums and small enclosed gardens are now popular shade trees. Realistically though, some modern backyards are not much bigger than what was once considered to be an atrium.

Small evergreen trees or large shrubbery, like Australian willow, mayten, photinia and the larger pittosporums, work nicely by providing both privacy and shade for small areas. Contrary to popular belief though, evergreens are generally messier than deciduous trees. They drop small amounts of foliage throughout the year instead of dropping most or all of their foliage within a limited season. Flowers or fruit add another dimension of mess, even for deciduous trees like crape myrtle, flowering crabapple and saucer magnolia.

Seasons Are Constantly In Flux

80822thumbGardening requires planning. There is always planning. The vegetables that are getting harvested now are developing mostly on plants that were put out in the garden early last spring. Some of those plants were grown from seed sown even earlier, late last winter. Now that it is more than halfway through summer, it is time to plan for cool season vegetable and annuals for next autumn.

There is still no need to rush cool season vegetables and flowering annuals that will be purchased as small plants in six packs or four inch pots. They are only beginning to become available in nurseries, and get planted a bit later. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale are popularly purchased as small plants because not very many are needed, and they are reasonably inexpensive.

However, if varieties of these vegetables that are not expected to be available in nurseries are desired, they must be purchased as seed. If space allows, they can be sown directly into the garden early in September. Otherwise, they can be sown now into flats, six packs or small pots to grow into small plants that will be ready when warm season plants relinquish their space later in autumn.

Root vegetables like beets, turnips and carrots should not be grown or purchased in flats or pots. They get disfigured by transplant. Therefore, they should be sown directly into the garden through September. Carrots should perhaps be delayed until halfway through September. Turnip greens and leafy lettuces should be sown directly as well just because they get distressed from transplant.

Almost all cool season vegetable plants can be grown in phases, or several small groups planted every two week or so, in order to prolong harvest. Those planted first develop and are ready for harvest first. By the time they are depleted, the next phase should be ready. However, because most cool season vegetables develop somewhat slowly, and individual plants within each group develop at variable rates, planting only one early phase, and one late phase, perhaps with another phase in between, might prolong harvest more than adequately.

Division Is Equal To Multiplication

70809thumbMathematically, division is the opposite of multiplication. Horticulturally, they are the same. Digging and splitting overgrown perennials to propagate them is known as ‘division’ because it divides many rooted stems or rhizomes of one plant into many new plants. Division is a form of propagation; and propagation is commonly known as multiplication. So, we divide plants to multiply them.

Autumn is generally the best time for panting. It is after most of the warmest and driest weather, and just before the cool and rainy weather that keeps newly planted plants from getting too dry. It seems obvious that autumn would also be the best time for division. However, a few perennials that are dormant or mostly dormant by the middle of summer can be divided now for an early start.

Bearded iris may not look dormant with their leaves still green, but they are about as dormant now as they will get. If divided now and allowed to slowly disperse roots through the remainder of summer, they can prioritize the production of new foliage when they come out of dormancy in autumn, like they would do naturally. Like many perennials in mild climates, they grow through winter.

Once dug, the plump rhizomes need to be separated from the old shriveled rhizomes that they grew from. For most, the best segments of rhizome are between the leafy tips and the stalks of the flowers that bloomed earlier this year, although it may not be easy to see where floral stalks were attached. The older sections of rhizome behind the flower stems are probably shriveled already.

The freshly divided segments of rhizome should then be groomed of deteriorating old leaves. Remaining green leaves can be cut in half to remove drying tips. Rhizomes then get replanted just below the surface, with the perpendicular fans of foliage standing upright. The main difficulty with dividing iris now is that they will need to be watered until the rain starts late in autumn. Bergenia, lily-of-the-Nile and a variety of perennials with big rhizomes get divided in a similar manner.

Think Outside The Nursery Pot

80815thumbA dressed turkey that is packaged for retail sale in a supermarket is not ready to be eaten right away. If frozen, it must be thawed slowly. It must then be unwrapped; and little bag of giblets must be removed from inside, before the turkey gets stuffed and finally cooked. Although the inexperienced sometimes cook a turkey with a giblet bag still inside, doing so is not the correct procedure.

Plants that are purchased in retail nurseries are similarly packaged in such a manner that facilitates transportation from production nurseries to retail nurseries, and from retail nurseries to home gardens. Their roots are contained in vinyl cans. Larger trees might be boxed. Occasionally, balled and burlapped plants are available. Most trees and vines, and some tall perennials are staked.

Vinyl cans, which are also known as nursery pots, are designed for growing nursery stock in, and containing the stock as it is transported. That is all they are designed for. They are not meant to be used as planters in home gardens. Most young and actively growing plants that tolerate them in production nurseries really do not want to be confined to vinyl cans any longer than necessary.

Even if plants that are brought home from a nursery are to be grown in pots, they should be planted into more appealing pots that are designed for the comfort of the plants within, and not just left in the nursery pots that they were grown in. Clay pots and wooden planters are comfortably porous and better insulated than thin black vinyl that gets dangerously hot if directly exposed to sunlight.

Alternatively, nursery pots can be shaded and obscured within slightly larger pots, within groups of other pots, or by settling them into shallow shrubbery or deep ground covers temporarily. Plants that are big enough to provide their own shade are likely too big for their nursery pots. Invasive plants like mint are often grown in nursery pots that are buried almost to the rim in the ground, although mint eventually escapes through drainage holes. It is good to know the limitations of what nursery pots are useful for.

Easements Really Should Be Easier

70802thumbLike Michael Jackson said, “You got an easement on down the road.”. . . or something like that. In older neighborhoods, that is where the utility easements are usually located. These are zones for utility poles that suspend electrical, telephone and television cables. When electricity first became available, that was the easiest place to put the cables, and the practice continued for decades.

Utility easements in middle aged neighborhoods are usually at the rear boundaries of back yards. They were put there to get out of the way of shade trees in front yards, particularly street trees. Where there are alleys in back, easements are on one side of the alley or the other. The same applies to narrow streets with easements. More modern neighborhoods have subterranean utilities.

Those of us who must contend with easements know how difficult they can be. Trees that encroach too closely to the high voltage cables on top of the poles must be pruned for clearance, even if such pruning disfigures or kills them. Lower cables for telephone and cable television sometimes get tangled with vines or big shrubbery because clearance from vegetation is not such a priority.

Utility providers have access to easements to maintain their systems. So do the tree services that have the grim task of pruning encroaching vegetation for clearance from high voltage cables. They do what they must to maintain reliable service; which is unfortunately not always compatible with what we want for our trees. Clearance pruning is too often unsightly, but it is very necessary.

The only way to avoid unsightly and disfiguring clearance pruning to to only plant trees that will not encroach into high voltage cables. Of course, in small gardens with big easements, the choices of trees that stay proportionate to available space are very limited. Except for Mediterranean fan palm or palms that stay very short, palms should never be planted below utility cables. They grow only upward, and can not be pruned around cables, so must be removed when they get too close.

Cacti Are Notorious For Nonconformity

80808thumbAlmost everyone thinks of cacti as tough plants that live out in the hottest and driest parts of the deserts, where few other plants can survive. They are the sorts of plants that we threaten to plant out in the most inhospitable or neglected parts of the garden. We never actually do so, just because we do not appreciate cacti any more than weeds. They are fine over in the neighbor’s garden.

Whether we like them or not, cacti really deserve more respect than that. Even if they do not fit our style of landscape, they are striking and distinctive features within the landscapes that they are adapted to. Except for a few euphorbs that look sort of like cacti, there are no substitutes for their form and, of course, their texture! The uniquely specialized physiology of cacti is extraordinary.

Cacti really are built for the desert. In a climate where heat and arid air desiccates foliage, cacti do without. Photosynthesis is done in the green skin of the distended stems. Furrows in the stems of some cacti increase surface area for photosynthesis, but still expose far less surface area to the weather than individual leaves would. The succulent flesh of the distended stems stores water.

The foliage is not totally lacking. It is merely modified into sharp spines or irritating glochids with which cacti protect their succulent flesh from animals. Spines of the old man cactus are elongated into coarse hair that diffuses the intensity of the sunlight that might otherwise scorch the green skin below. Bigger thorns that extend beyond the spines within each tuft are actually modified stems.

Cacti certainly put significant effort into surviving desert climates; but surprisingly, most cacti do not even live in deserts, and many live in tropical rainforests of South and Central America! Some have weirdly pendulous stem structure, and some are epiphytic, so they hang from limbs of larger trees. In regions where most insect and animal activity is at night, cacti bloom nocturnally, with big luminescent and fragrant flowers that appeal to moths, bats and their associates.

Enjoy The Fruits Of Summer

70726thumbIs a prune really just a dried plum? No! A plum is really a prune. In fact, all ‘stone fruit’ are of the same prune genus known as Prunus. This means that apricot, cherry, peach, nectarine, prune, plum and even almond are all related. So are all their weird and trendy hybrids, such as aprium, pluots, plumcots and so on. (Almonds are the pits or ‘stones’ of dry leathery fruits that fall away as hulls.)

The main difference between prunes and plums is that prunes contain enough sugar to inhibit mold while they dry, . . . if they dry efficiently enough. Plums are juicier and contain less sugar, so are more likely to mold before they dry. If dried in a dehydrator, plums get squishy, and are likely to develop an odd flavor. Most prunes are European. Most popular plums are of Japanese descent.

The wrinkly and leathery fruit that most of us know as prunes are actually ‘dried’ prunes. Fresh prunes can be eaten just like plums, but are firmer, and have milder flavor. They are better for juicing, canning (whole, while firm) and cooking, although plums make better jam. Plums have richer flavor for eating fresh. Because they are so soft, they do not juice as well, but make nice plum nectar.

Apricots are not quite as easy to dry as prunes are. They must either be dried quickly in a dehydrator of some sort, or sulfured; and sulfuring is probably too much work for most of us. Most of the apriums, pluots, plumcots and other weird apricot hybrids that have become so trendy in the past many years are too soft for drying or canning. Like plums, peaches and nectarines, fresh is best.

Fruit that ripens evenly throughout the tree is best for canning, freezing, drying or any technique that takes large volumes of fruit at once. Uneven ripening is better for fruit eaten fresh. It allows later fruit to continue ripening while the earliest fruit is being consumed. The problem is that the best stone fruits ripen very evenly, all at the same time. If not shared with neighbors, some is sure to rot.

If some of the fruit ripens later than the rest, it will be inside the shadiest part of the canopy. The most exposed fruit on the exterior of the canopy ripens first, and for most types of fruit, has the best flavor. After all fruit is harvested from a tree, any remaining bad fruit should be removed from the tree, and from the ground around the tree. Diseases proliferate, and later overwinter in rotting fruit.

Summer Weather Can Scorch Foliage

80801thumbSevere summer weather is something that we think that we do not need to contend with. It only rarely gets as unbearably hot here as it does elsewhere, and when it does, it usually gets breezy by evening, and somewhat cooler overnight. Aridity, or the lack of humidity, is another advantage, at least for us. The plants in our gardens are affected by warm weather very differently than we are.

Plants will tolerate significantly more warmth than we will, but only in conjunction with humidity. In our climate, we get one or the other, but not often both. In fact, humid warmth is so rare here, that when it happens, it causes spontaneous limb failure in trees that are not accustomed to it. Spontaneous limb failure occurs as vascular activity accelerated by warmth increases foliar weight, but humidity inhibits evapotranspiration (evaporation of moisture from foliar surfaces) that would decrease the weight.

The aridity and breezes that make warmth more comfortable for us accelerate evapotranspiration, which increases the need for moisture. Plants that lack adequate moisture wilt, and the foliage of some can get dehydrated or scorched. Wilted plants recover if watered soon enough. Dehydrated foliage is crispy and can not recover. Severe dehydration kills buds, stems and entire plants.

Scorch is quite different from dehydration. It happens as overly exposed foliage literally gets cooked by sunlight. It is similar to sun scald on formerly shaded bark that gets cooked by sunlight after being exposed by pruning or other means of removal of adjacent vegetation. Scorch is more likely on inner foliage that had been recently exposed by pruning, or foliage near reflective surfaces.

Foliage can not recover from scorch. Damage is permanent, and should not even be pruned away. Just like foliage damaged by frost, outer foliage damaged by scorch shelters the inner foliage. Removal of damaged foliage exposes foliage behind it to subsequent damage. Besides, scorch typically damages only parts of individual leaves, so that undamaged parts continue to function.

Flowers Are Only The Beginning

70719thumbFlowers have a bigger and better agenda than coloring our gardens and homes. They bloom to get pollinated. Their color and fragrance are designed merely to attract pollinators. Less vain but more abundant blooms take advantage of the wind to disperse their pollen. Once pollinated, flowers fade and deteriorate as resources get diverted to the production of seed and fruit to contain it.

Some flowers are on a tight schedule. They bloom in a single brief season. Others have a bloom season that last significantly longer than the individual flowers do. They might bloom continually for a few months, replacing fading older flowers with new flowers; or they might bloom in phases, with each phase blooming simultaneously, and then getting replaced with a subsequent phase.

Fruit trees and many fruiting vegetable plants bloom once annually, and then produce fruit. Tomato, summer squash and bean plants bloom and produce fruit continually. Tomato fruits are best if allowed to ripen on the vine. Beans and summer squash like zucchini are better if harvested while young and tender. Also, the plants are more productive if regularly deprived of premature fruit.

The priority of these plants is to produce seed. Production of seed requires significant resources. Plants that are busy producing seed within maturing beans and zucchini do not put much effort into producing subsequent bloom and fruit. However, if deprived of maturing seed and fruit, these sorts of plants are compelled to divert resources into new bloom, and seed and fruit production.

The same applies to many flowering plants, particularly perennials and flowering annuals. ‘Deadheading’ is the removal of deteriorating flowers to promote continued bloom. It is not practical for plants with profuse small flower, such as sweet alyssum and lobelia. Nor is it necessary for some sterile or nearly sterile plants that do not produce much seed anyway, like busy Lizzy (impatiens).

French marigold, petunia, zinnia, floss flower and cockscomb all bloom better if deadheaded. Rhododendrons do not benefit directly from deadheading, but look better without old floral trusses. Conversely, the potentially picturesque dead flowers of sea holly might be left intact.