Monday, July 26, 2010

Daylily Phase

The daylily phase of the garden started in full-force when Gaby, a frequent (and it's all relative, folks) Cats and Catts commenter and noted Hemerocallis pusher, moved to the East Coast.  The good news was that her husband had an amazing job to look forward to, and they both had a path of happiness stretching before them.  The other bit of good news, from my perspective, was Gaby's need to unload a number of daylilies and irises before the big move.

The prospect of a fresh set of plants in the garden was exciting and it gave the place a new focus.  There was a reason that the pink daylily that we planted years ago was one the few survivors.  Daylilies are, indeed, the perfect perennial.  

I could leave the soil alone and they would thrive, but the new additions inspired me to improve the garden in a number of ways.  First, I got rid of that succulent and threw it the corner of our fence to die.  Now, the plant's healthier and bigger than ever.  Just like my hollyhocks, singling them out for death only put a bounce in their step.  I also renewed my vigilance against weeds and took greater care to improve the dirt.  I added a (very unscientific) home-made mix of potting soil, peat moss, vermiculite, perlite, Back to Nature cotton burr compost, and mulch.  A little garden work in October, November, February, and March paid huge dividends this year.  I found weeds easier to control and no one could argue with the brilliant flower show.

Like orchids, daylilies offer multiple layers of pleasure.  One thing I especially like about them is the way they quickly change the "portrait" of the garden every eight hours or so.  For instance, prominently displayed reds in the morning might fade back by early evening to allow a mass of orange daylilies to spread out. The garden becomes a slow-moving fireworks show.  There's also something meditative about removing the spent blooms.  Finally, the social world of daylilies is almost (almost) as crazy and obsessive as the orchid world, and the history of daylily hybridizing is equally fascinating.  As Gaby explained early on in my daylily education, the American Hemerocallis Society hosts a daylily database full of cultivar names that stretch back in time.  Unlike orchids, daylily breeding and hybridizing is pretty easy.  You don't need agar, a sterile box, and the patience of a turtle to appreciate your own creations. 

This has me thinking.  What would be my ideal daylily?  What's the perfect perfect perennial?  I love whites and creams (remember, at Cats and Cattswe're big fans of Brassavolas and porcelain-colored Paphs.).  Maybe it should have diamond-dusting and a reddish edge -- something subtle.  I'll get Riley working on it.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mixed Perennials

The butterfly garden, in some ways, contained the seeds of its own self-destruction.  We had a few plants that performed well year after year, and they weren't necessarily Monarch-oriented: the daylilies, an unknown succulent (over-used in local landscaping), purple cone flower, and cat mint.  While they took up ever-increasing space in the garden, the milkweeds and butterfly bushes struggled to survive.

The second phase of the garden could also be called the "state of nature" phase or the "Darwinian struggle for survival" phase.  I take solace in tip #139 in Pamela Wolfe's 200 Tips for Growing Flowers in the Midwest: "Don't be discouraged when a plant you've had for years suddenly and for no apparent reason dies."  Over time, the process of natural selection and/or the vicissitudes of Kansas weather thinned out our butterfly bushes and swamp milkweed plants.  The aforementioned plants also required an enormous amount of water and attention, which made the indignity of their death that much worse.

I relaxed my outdoor gardening efforts during the garden's Mixed Perennial Phase.  Weeds proliferated.  The soil deteriorated.  Darwinian processes continued unchallenged.  I thought "what do people successfully grow around here?"  The answer --- blaring like klieg lights -- was Rudbeckia, or black-eyed-susans.  They command attention, are super tough, and capture some of the aesthetic qualities I love about Coreopsis.  My first experience with the Rudbeckia genus was a complete disaster.  I tried to sow the seeds directly in the soil but nothing happened.  

The next year, I started a number of seedlings inside and tried to bring them along in pots, outside, until they were ready to transplant.  They didn't really perform until late in the season, after the tree above them dropped its leaves and allowed long days of full September sun. Then, they grew quickly, stretched out, and occupied a huge part of garden.  It was a great way to go into November.

The disadvantage of planting local perennials is that you see the same plants in your neighbor's garden across the way.  The garden threatened to devolve into a local four-plant show if I continued on the mixed perennial path, and one of them -- the bee-magnet succulent -- was starting to bore me.  

I entertained further thought about the fate of that 16'x6' space.  I was looking for a plant that had a full-range of unique and dramatic flowers.  But it can't be a water-hog.  It needs to tolerate the blistering Kansas heat.  It needs to come back year after year, stronger for having made it through another Midwest winter.

I was looking for the perfect perennial.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Butterfly Phase

For its first few years, the garden had multiple milkweed species and other plants to attract butterflies (this is why we were planting dill next to coreopsis).  The only non-butterfly plants we purchased were two pink daylilies (and that was Trixie's idea, the genius of which I didn't appreciate at the time).  We quickly concentrated our efforts on Monarchs, bought more milkweed, and moved some of the non-Monarch plants in other parts of the yard (except the daylilies).  Soon, we were tagging hundreds of butterflies as part of the Monarch Watch Program.  

You might ask, why make invidious distinctions among butterflies?  What's so special about Monarchs?  Well, Monarchs have a migration pattern that's longer in time and distance than any other type of butterfly.  They also do things that a significant number of other pollinators do, so understanding Monarchs is the key to understanding the health and environment for pollinators in general. Our food security depends on ecosystems that have healthy pollinator populations, so understanding Monarchs is important for broad conservation efforts.  Like orchids being an apex plants, one can make a similar argument for Monarchs as apex bugs.

The Vision Statement of Monarch Watch is:
"In recognition of the rapid loss of habitats and resources needed by monarch butterflies in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, our vision is the preservation of the monarch migration will require stewardship by the governments and private citizens of all three countries. We all must work together to create, conserve, and protect monarch habitats. Sustaining monarch habitats will have the effect of protecting vital pollinators and other wildlife."

Butterfly gardening the Monarch Watch way also offers several unique delights.  The emergence of a butterfly from its chrysalis is an incomparable sight.  Finding baby Monarch caterpillars on the undersides of plants is definitely more exciting than it sounds.  We were thrilled to learn that four of our butterflies made it to Rosario, Mexico -- over 1,300 miles from us -- and were picked up by Monarch Watch employees.  Three of them were picked up on the same day by three separate tag collectors.

But it's a lot of work.  The garden needs to be full of plants from the genus Asclepias (milkweed) in order to attract the proper number of Monarchs.  In addition to several big plants in the main garden, we grew dozens of smaller milkweed plants from seed in order to feed the caterpillars we housed each summer.  We discovered that Monarchs especially loved Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed.  They didn't as care much for butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), despite its enticing name.  The Monarch butterflies are attracted by the tiny clusters of milkweed flowers, while Monarch caterpillars eat and live on the milkweed leaves.  Every year of the Butterfly Phase, aphids found the swamp milkweed by late September and made a disgusting mess of things.  

Our operation might have been sustainable if the cats weren't so lazy.  After cleaning up after the cats day in and day out, the thought of cleaning up after forty caterpillars sharing an outdoor tent in the August sun became less and less appealing.  It's all the cats' fault.  We've always had a place for the Monarchs in our garden, though.  You can usually find Monarchs on our orange butterfly milkweed in September.  It's not the Monarchs' favorite, but the aphids avoid it, so we've kept it in the mix.         

Friday, July 23, 2010

First Gardens

Amy Stewart's From the Ground Up, a memoir about her first garden, was on my summer reading list, but I don't think I'm going to get to it.  I don't know the precise mathematical equation, but my ability to finish gardening memoirs is closely tied to the number of hours I spend in my actual garden.  There's something perverse about reading about someone else's garden when there are weeds to pull in your own.  Maybe I'll save the book for January.

But simply having the book on my shelf made me think about my own first garden.  I know some people argue for a more expansive definition of "garden," but when I think of our garden I think of the 16' x 6' bordered box of earth that I've been working the last several years.  I don't necessarily count the full-sun tomato-growing space I've used a few times, the hosta spot, the designated catnip spot, or the daylilies on the side of house.

We still have hollyhock, purple catmint, and the pink daylilies from the original garden.  The daylilies are now a centerpiece.  I recently moved the catmint to make room for more daylilies.  After the first summer, I tossed the hollyhock in the back of the house to make room for more milkweed.  It flourished.     

The garden Trixie and I set up has gone through three overlapping phases: The Butterfly Phase, the Mixed Perennial Phase, and the (current) Daylily Phase.  I'll share thoughts and photos for each phase during the next few days. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The First One's Free

James Dodson recalls meeting Philadelphia Flower Show competitor Jeanne Francis, who uses the screening test her son employs in his alcoholism recovery job to convince Dodson he suffers from horticultural addiction (Beautiful Madness pgs. 49-51).  Denizens of the flower world frequently use addiction metaphors to describe their hobby, and so do their enablers.  The supposed ethos of sharing in the gardening world is just a sneaky smokescreen for being a seed slinger or plant pusher.

A friend gave me a dozen daylily and iris cuttings last summer and, at the time, it seemed like a purely altruistic act.  Now, I realize that this was an elaborate ruse to get me hooked on the H. -- and it worked.  

So, with these four (pictured above), I'm making room for more daylilies, paying it flower forward, and trying to recruit another addict.  We bought two of the unknown pink variety in 2003 and both have multiplied into big clusters.  I decided to pass on one group much like the sample that drug dealers in After School Specials give to kids in order to grow their client base.  And daylilies (Hemerocallis) are the perfect gateway drug to a horticultural habit.      

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Grower's Tour and Picnic, an Enabler's Point of View

by Trixie
Today I was lucky enough to attend the Orchid Society of Greater Kansas City Grower’s tour and picnic. I saw several incredible growing operations, and I can easily envision where this obsession is taking our family. I talked with a lot of “Enablers,” the spouses of orchid growers. The sense my fellow “Enablers” gave me was that given the number of ridiculously expensive hobbies a person could have, growing gorgeous flowers at home is a pretty awesome hobby for a spouse to have. I readily concur.

I really liked meeting the fine folks from his orchid club Bdo has been talking about. They have a lot of fun talking about growing situations, lighting, watering, and hybridizing orchids. It is always fun to listen to people talking about their passions! I learned quite a bit today. And I had some amazing pickled watermelon, which was out of this world!

But my favorite part of the day was this flower. I am told is called Phalaenopsis equestris. It was at the first grower’s house, and it caused a strong reaction in me. First, the man reminded me of my late father, who would absolutely love that his favorite son-in-law had gotten involved with growing orchids, and that I was enabling his obsession. Second, the petals were in ring- three dark little purple flowers, ringed by three lighter purple flowers. Different than any orchid my husband had shown me before! They looked like they would just fly apart. The grower’s hand, which looked like it had dug in dirt for many years, held the delicate blooms without a care for how paper-like they appeared to me. Bdo often tells me that the orchids are much hardier than they appear, and part of their charm is their deceptive delicacy.

When I got home and looked closely at the photo, I was taken by how strong orchids really are. They can take a lot of abuse, and still be beautiful. And this one is definitely going to get into “our” collection! I am glad I went on my first orchid outing, and I love that I felt like my father was a part of it, too!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Frog Friday! Double Rainbow Tribute Edition

Stop!  Spoiler Alert! There's a little viral video homework needed in order to appreciate fully this particular Frog Friday.  You first must join the millions of people who have seen the Crazy Double Rainbow Guy video (and you need to see the whole thing).  Then, you should treat yourself to the original Double Rainbow song.

All caught up?  Well, the Cats and Catts house has decided to join the Double Rainbow meme, Frog Friday style.  Our contribution is a montage of our fire-bellied toads Bob, Carol, Ted, Alice (not featured), and Horst having lunch. 

It’s set to my four favorite versions of the Double Rainbow song (originally performed by the sensational YouTube quartet schmoyoho).These versions include Pro2theXreeM’s haunting piano work, Details1 and his straight-ahead, heartfelt guitar/vocal version, Jeannette84xx’s  wonderful piano/vocal number, and Thecolourofinfinity’s up-tempo dance remix.  These videos (listed below) have brought the Cats and Catts family immense happiness in the last few days.  Here, we need to give credit to Paul Vasquez (aka “Yosemite Bear,” aka “Double Rainbow Guy”) who captured his raw emotions and shared them with the world. 

Changing the subject, you might wonder why are the crickets are white.  I dust the crickets with vitamin powder every week or so and it makes them chalky white.  It also makes them stand out nicely against the background.  I’m still working on getting a nice clear shot of the feeding process, but I hope the carnage and rainbows make up for the lack of film quality.  Thanks for watching!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Decoy Cat Nip

We've discussed the split between cats and catts integrationists and cats and catts separatists: some allow their kitties to roam free among the orchids and others go to extreme measures to prevent feline botanical harassment.

My middle-ground approach involves the strategic placement of Nepeta cataria to lure the cats away.  I haven't had any major problems with the cats so far. Griffin has a sixth sense about when the Brassavola are vulnerable, and Riley's been known attack them, too, but we've avoided major disasters.  Like James Dodson planting hostas to lure deer away from his better hostas, I reason that we need to cover the orchid room in these decoy plants.

I started them for strategic purposes, but now I genuinely love the plant.  Its growth habit nicely fills in my office window, and it has an unique minty fragrance and cute flowers.  We have two containers of Nepeta cataria and a 3x3' patch in the yard which seems to attract an entire Navy of mosquitoes (making me question its alleged bug repellent properties).

Do the cats appreciate all of this work?  Griffin is the only one that truly gets excited about the fresh catnip.  She's spent hours in its thrall, rolling in it, chewing the leaves, endlessly rubbing her cheeks on the side of the planter, and (of course) drooling.  Sabine has shown interest in the plants we've dried and she's loved spending her summer days under the plant's tendrils, looking at the frogs from her window-side cat bed.  It's a hard knock life for Bean.  Lan Lan is a huge fan of the Cosmic Catnip Banana.  Riley?  Like other treats, Riley shows no interest whatsoever.

Maybe I'm growing the catnip just for Griffin?  That's okay.  As I've typed this post, she's watched over me purring.  It could be the picture of catnip on the computer screen that's making her happy.  Or maybe she's buttering me up so I'll give her treats.  It just might work.


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Flower Show Car Crash

I arrived at the Topeka Daylily Show to a light display of flashing police cars and EMS vehicles.  I thought to myself, "This flower show is going OFF!"  Maybe the continued controversy over spider form daylilies was leading to fisticuffs?  I'm so glad I had my camera ready.  

Surprisingly, the incident had nothing to do with competitive flower shows.  An elderly woman drove into the Hallmark store during the Fairlawn Plaza sidewalk sale.  You can read the full story in the local paper.  No one was injured, which was incredibly fortunate because the sidewalk was pulsing with dog owners, ice cream eaters, and bargain hunters.  One eyewitness recalled, "The old lady was sitting in her car and looking forward as if she were still driving on the road.  When someone opened the door to get her out she had a complete blank look on her face and even a slight smile."  Another said, "This lady was clueless as to what was going on.  Even when she hit the wall her tires kept spinning and she was looking around with a completely puzzled, and surprisingly calm face."  I arrived as the driver was talking to police.  I took a few photos and walked across the way to the flower show.

'Pardon Me' won Best in Show. 'Missouri Moon' (pictured here) won Best of Class for Doubles/Polymerous. For me, 'Jealous Jake,' 'Sears Tower,' and 'Take My Hand' were also standouts.  Here, I should note that I know practically nothing about daylilies, especially showing them for competition.  

That could change.  I brought home nine cuttings ('Cheddar Cheese,' 'Beautiful Edgings,' 'Ruffled Dude,' 'Siloam David Kirchoff,' and two red giveaways) and an application for the Topeka Daylily Club.  Trixie looked a little rattled, like I'm cheating on the orchids, but I explained that all of my purchases for the day amounted to less than what a paid for a tiny  Phrag. kovachii hybrid in February and that the annual dues for the Daylily Club are only $5 (a fifth of dues for the Orchid Society).  "And, you know, I have to admit that the daylily people are kind of cool."  "As cool as the orchid people?"  Trixie asked.  "Please! Don't be ridiculous..."       

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Walter Off, James Dodson, and the Hottest Thing in Horticulture

I'm about seventy pages into James Dodson's Beautiful Madness: One Man's Journey Through Other People's Gardens and I'm loving it.  It explores some of the same themes as Pollan's Second Nature, but from a very different perspective.  Dodson is primarily known for his golf books, comes out as a Republican by page twenty-five, and opens his book with a conversation about snakes.  So, I'm a little surprised that I'm enjoying it so much, but he has an undeniably engaging writing style.

Also, in contrast to Michael Pollan, Dodson shows Orchidaceae some love.  Beautiful Madness has a wonderful discussion of the crazy Philadelphia Flower Show where Dodson hangs out with a few of the important competitors during the set-up and show.  He talked to Walter Off, of Waldor Orchids, who told him "You should really try growing orchids.  They're the hottest thing in horticulture." Then Off told the familiar tale:
"The demand has never been higher, because once people buy one they immediately want to buy another... Pretty soon their kitchen window is full of orchids, followed by every windowsill in the house.  Then the basement fills up and pretty soon they're building their own greenhouse.  Orchids are that addictive" (pg. 46-47)
Dodson worked his orchid knowledge into the conversation, referencing the sexual meaning of orchids to Colonial Americans.  His contribution was sort of what I expected, given the self-consciously masculine tone of the writing up to that point (which I probably should've expected from a sports writer and a subtitle reading One Man's Journey...).  But, again, he showed the orchids a ton of respect and he demonstrated an ear for the orchid world as deft as Susan Orleans or Eric Hansen.  Dodson mentioned he had learned some things having "just finished reading a book about America's current love affair with orchids" (pg. 45).  So, was it Hansen's Orchid Fever or that other book?  Either way, the comment makes me think we're about five years overdue for the Next Big Popular Orchid Book.  Are you listening Michael Pollan?                      

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Fourth of July!

Lan Lan and the rest of the Cats and Catts family wish you a Happy Fourth of July!