Book Notes

From Orchids and Weeds to Succulents

By Debra Knapke

So often you hear books are a thing of the past, but there is no sign of that in my home. Winter – quiescent garden, staying indoors, wearing soft sweaters –  sparks the need to settle into a good book while holding a cup of tea.

Books are not only for the gathering of information. They open a window into someone else’s life and passion. I find that I am drawn to those books that not only tell me about a subject, but also introduce me to or reacquaint me with a friend who happens to be the author.

What I am reading, perusing and enjoying this week:

Orchid Modern: Living and Designing with the World’s Most Elegant Houseplants by Marc Hachadourian offers a broad, yet concise overview of the addictive world of orchids. Beginner to intermediate orchid enthusiasts will find what they need to grow and create an orchid collection. The orchid calendar is the best synopsis I have seen for what needs to happen when with your orchids. The Orchid Projects chapter was a pleasant surprise. It made me think about what I could create with my orchids and the materials I have on hand. Soon I will have an orchid kokedama – the Japanese art of growing plants in moss covered balls – in my living room. Finally, there is a short encyclopedia of species and hybrids that are available and tend to be easier to grow which is followed by a resource list.

I have been growing orchids since 1980. Can’t call myself an expert – there are about 25,000 orchid species and countless hybrids and cultivars, but I’ve grown a few hundred of these beautiful plants. If someone asked me for a book recommendation on orchids, this book is in the top three for accessibility, attractiveness and personality.

Wild about Weeds: Garden Design with Rebel Plants by Jack Wallington proposes a different way to look at the plants that some consider to be weeds or too aggressive to allow into the well-mannered garden. Wallington’s explanation of  why plants can become weeds is on target. Plants that have been transplanted to new places may not have the competition that keeps them in check, and then there is that great garden soil that the gardener has worked so hard to improve. Wallington stresses that what may be weedy in one location can be invasive in another, so check local noxious weed and invasive plant lists before you bring a potential problem into your garden. Most of the book is taken up with plant descriptions and where each species works best within a design framework: sunny gardens, dry and poor soils; shade, containers and more.

Overall this is an attractive book and it does make you consider that one person’s weed may be another person’s favorite plant. I have grown many of the plants listed, but there is one that I could never recommend to anyone, anywhere. (There is always one, isn’t there?). Even with all of the cautions in the book, giant hogweed – Heracleum mantegazzianum – should be avoided. It’s not worth finding out that you are indeed sensitive to the furanocoumarins contained in the plant.

Succulents: choosing, growing and caring for cactuses and other succulents by John Bagnasco and Bob Reidmuller. Succulents have been hot for years and their allure shows no sign of diminishing. When I first started caring for these architectural plants, most references were primarily monographs on different genera or books with mostly black and white pictures – we are very spoiled with the access we now have to good pictures. The introduction covers the usual cultural information – liberally salted with beautiful pictures – that we have been trained to expect in our plant books. I did find a cool tip for watering: check out page 83 for a low-tech hack for determining soil moisture.

The plant encyclopedia portion covers a wide variety of succulents and the plant information is concise for growing inside, and occasionally, for outside. John Bagnasco lives in San Diego and can grow many of these succulents outside. Please ignore the note of envy you may have picked up there. My only small complaint is that one of my favorite genera – Gasteria – was left out. But I’m sure that the authors had a tough time trying to decide what to leave out of the book.

Now I need to stop writing and continue reading in preparation for my next post of winter reading.

A selection of succulents in my greenhouse from one of my favorite garden destinations — Groovy Plants Ranch.

Garden Resolution Fail

“Bonsai” Brussel Sprouts

New Year’s garden goals already at risk

By Michael Leach

This year I resolve to give up vegetable gardening.

Too often I’ve been victimized by foolish, optimistic voices (usually the loudest and most persistent is in my head). But no more. 

This chorus promises that growing your own food is rewarding. You can: try varieties unavailable at the supermarket, harvest at peak flavor, save money, share with friends, take pride in doing it yourself, and preserve the surplus to savor summer in bleak January.  

While I have had success in one and sometimes all these areas, it’s only because the plants grew to harvest stage. Hardly a given. 

Misconceptions about the ease of productivity are fueled in part by our quest to become more proficient gardeners. We turn to books, fact sheets, websites and articles. As with other how-to manuals and user guides, the ideal world of the information rarely matches the messy reality of withering foliage and moldy spots. “What caused this?” we cry, but to no avail. 

That’s because gardening sources usually divide various aspects of our delightful addiction into specific sections: Water, Light, Temperature, Weeds, Pests, Pruning, and so forth. Such broad topics are further divided into specific issues, topped with bold-type subheads: Prune for More Bloom, Fertilizing Containers, … . Peppered throughout are bits of jargon such as bones, texture and evenly moist.

We learn about a host of insect, animal, bacterial, fungicidal and even alien pests in tidy, bulleted lists under subheads in smaller bold type.

It’s as if all these things are independent agents acting alone.

Nature behaves differently. Nature conspires against us with diverse enemies acting in concert, not neatly defined issues treated rationally in a book or article. How else to explain those withering leaves and moldy spots when you followed the bulleted how-to list to a T?

I have ignored this conspiracy theory for the last time.

On August 20, 2019, I tallied a range of woes and a couple successes:

No leaves on the sweet potatoes; tomatoes eaten off, one plant pushed over; fresh sowings of basil, kale, cosmos failed to sprout due to heat and drought.

Garlic, a runaway success, unlike 2018 when monsoons rains dissolved most heads, leaving barely enough “seed” for a new crop.

Brussels sprouts have lacy foliage due to countless generations of cabbage worms.

The asparagus died out.

Turnip greens riddled with flea beetle holes and leathery due to scorching weather. 

The last straw — the groundhog ate off the zinnias, leaving nearly leafless stumps. 

Unlike Scarlett O’Hara, who confronted a similar scene of dismal ruin, I headed to the farmers market for fresh, local produce and hoped for better things to come.

That’s because Ohio gardening sources say cooler and moister weather usually returns in September. It didn’t turn cooler and moister for weeks. The parched brussels sprouts became bonsais, complete with miniature cabbage heads.

Remarkably leaves emerged for the second (or third?) time on the sweet potatoes, sufficient to produce a few fist-sized tubers. Some were pocked by a combo of subhead issues concerning pests and soil.  

Two of the scraggly tomato plants (worthy of Charlie Brown’s garden) were imbued with survival instincts rivaling cockroaches. These managed to produce a handful of cherry tomatoes before frost. Scant inspiration for planting toms again. 

Cooler-moister arrived just in time to induce planting of the choicest garlic cloves for harvest next summer, and jump-start the turnips into lush, spot-free top growth. By then frost had forced the flea beetles to scurry for winter digs.

Floating Row Covers and Turnip Greens

Come mid-February, when days grow longer, the leaves should resume growth, assuming my paltry efforts to protect with floating row cover shields them from harsh winds and rapid temperature swings. (I don’t think rollercoaster temperatures are found under any chapter subheads, but it’s a fact of Midwest gardening life.)

Some will argue that turnip greens and garlic make me a vegetable gardener in 2020, thus breaking my resolution. Technically though, these were planted in 2019, well ahead of the resolution-making season. 

OK! I’m waffling as usual. Tomatoes have been grown by my family for generations. Can I halt such a tradition for a silly snit on a blazing August afternoon?

Maybe not.

Suggestions anyone?

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