What shall I do in January?

Although reading of gardens is closely akin to working in them, this is not such a book... In this book the attempt is made to answer the commonest inquiries in the briefest language so that the reader may get his answer and go back to his garden work.
- Alfred C. Hottes, April 1930 -

I enjoy combing the shelves in used book stores for gardening books. I found this little gem in Amherst, MA this past spring. It's an illustrated guide book of over 1,000 questions compiled by Alfred C. Hottes and answered using the "experiences of many lifetimes" of authors, nurserymen, and experienced gardeners. I've been mulling over the calendar section for January ("What shall I do in January?"). Divided into four areas, it tells you what you should do in the library/living room, the home orchard, the small greenhouse and in the garden. Here are a couple snippets:

In the Library or Living Room
  • Read, mark and inwardly digest the catalogs. They are written for you and published at great cost. Treat them as literature and preserve them for future reference.

In the Home Orchard

  • Prune out cankers from apples and pears, and black knot on plums

In the Small Greenhouse

  • Seeds of pansies, English daisies, forget-me-nots, Vinca rosea and snapdragons may be sown for bedding.

  • Start taking cuttings of geraniums, coleus and other bedding plants.

  • Disbud the carnations and roses.

  • Propagate the Lorraine type of begonia with leaf cuttings.

In the Garden

  • Shake the snow from shrub or evergreen branches which are bent to the ground.

  • Save the coal ashes to mix with the heavy soil of your garden.

  • Build a birdhouse.

And I'll add one more item to the "In the Garden" list before I get outside to deal with this morning's weather detail:

  • Shovel out the cold frame.


Catching Up

Attempts to catch up with life around the house, overlooked for two weeks with the road trip and a busy work schedule upon return, have been fitful at best.

We've had a couple of cold days with bold sunshine. The Narcissus 'Tete-a-Tete' appreciates the warmth coming in the south windows.

And the hydroponic tulips on trial here have come out of the refrigerator to sit on the window sills.

But it was with trepidation I opened the cold frame that had been sealed shut in a blanket, tarp and 8" of icy snow for fifteen days. I expected freeze-dried remains but was greeted instead with a brave calendula blossom.

The Aeonium extended lanky bud stems ready to burst.

And the thyme looked fresh as spring.

The secret to their survival? Two 40-watt long life appliance light bulbs my husband mounted to the back of the cold frame. With temperatures plummeting over night to low single digits and worse, in the cold frame it remains in the upper 20s/low 30s. And once that sun rises and heats things up inside it can get to 80 degrees in the afternoon. I can then prop the lid open slightly with a scrap of lumber to allow some air to circulate.

Back inside, plants and bulbs aren't the only things enjoying the south facing windows. We all spend our days in the family room during the winter with the sunshine. It's my favorite room. The girls were raised in this room, all those long winters growing up. And it's the one room in this drafty old Victorian, with it's tall original wavy glass windows and high ceiling, that gives off the comfort and warmth of a soft old flannel shirt when it's filled up with plants in the fall to join us for winter. It adjoins to the kitchen with an extra wide open door frame. Food, sunshine, family, cats, plants. Truly the heart of our home.


Cyrtanthus mackenii (Ifafa Lily)

I purchased this little beauty in 2003 from Logee's Greenhouses in Danielson, CT and mid-winter it never fails to prove its worth. It's a plant you can easily forget about as it sits quietly in its pot with nondescript grass-like foliage. A self-maintaining bulb that you take for granted and feel a bit guilty for the neglect you've cast on it for months when it suddenly bursts into a glory of dainty, sweet-scented tubular blossoms during the bleakest time of year.

The name Cyrtanthus refers to the curved flower tube and is derived from the Greek kyrtos meaning curved and anthos meaning flower. This species is named after Scotsman Mark McKen, a horticulturalist who became the first curator at the Durban Botanic Gardens in 1851 in South Africa. The Durban Botanic Gardens website refers to him colorfully as fiery, hard drinking, and rough and ready. Called "the professor", McKen was one of South Africa's classic plant hunters. Many of the indigenous plants at the botanic gardens still carry his name in their scientific plant names.

In addition to its ease of care, propagation is simple. Offsets are easily separated from the mother bulbs and its seeds germinate pretty quickly. I usually scatter them around the base of the bulbs and let them spring up freely from where they land.

I love this lily. It is a plant that demands nothing, makes for easy sharing with friends and family by popping a few offsets into a pot, and provides such satisfaction this time of year with its blooms. What a gift to the New England gardener's winter soul.


Florida Road Trip

Woke up in my own bed, for the first time in over a week, to falling snow this morning that made our road trip seem all but a dream. I find it hard to take the time to write when traveling on short trips. But I did better this trip and I'm thankful for the cryptic notes I took when time allowed. And the pictures taken to accompany the notes.

  • On our way south we felt the sun blazing in the windshield all the way. By the time we reached Florida it was 78 degrees. Reports from home included tales of temperatures heading below zero for the week.

  • The campground was full of unfamiliar plants and trees, a subtropical forest and our home for the week. California Fan Palms enveloped us like a jungle making the sites private. Carolina wrens and squirrels rustled the undergrowth. Southern Magnolia fruits littered the ground like pinecones. And the ground was coarse and sandy. On our first night we went to bed to a moon so bright we didn't need flashlights.

  • Two young raccoons drifted into our campsite with a proprietary air making themselves very familiar with our belongings. One afternoon we came back to tracks of wet paw prints across our air mattresses. They were determined to find food no matter how carefully we hid it from them. The park attendant told us about their mother falling out of a tree a couple weeks ago and breaking her neck. He said he knew of another mother with babies, loaded her in a cage and transported her up this way where the orphans were. She took to them with no problem and treated them like her own. Went right over to a berry bush and started showing them how to look for berries.

  • One night coming into camp we were greeted by "Teddy" the resident Florida black bear. Someone left a bag of garbage that he’d helped himself to. Gorgeous 500 pounds of mounded black fur hulked away from the dumpster as we stopped the car and shone the high beams on him. We were so spooked as he headed slowly into the woods toward our campsite we turned on the only radio station we’d been able to locate earlier in the day, country western, rolled down the windows and turned up the volume. Drove at 15 mph the rest of the way to the campsite blasting the music to let him know we were back. But we couldn't get up the nerve to get out of the car so kept driving until we saw the park attendant out on his cart making rounds. He assured us Teddy wouldn't bother us and went off to find him. Later he came to our campsite from trying to find Teddy. We had just heard raccoon chatter and scolding across the road to the north and figured Teddy had encountered the raccoon. The attendant said Teddy was more likely to be harmed by the raccoon rather than the other way around. He asked if we had wood and suggested we start a fire. Teddy would stay clear if he knew we were around. We bought a stack of wood off the back of his cart and started a great fire even with damp paper and intermittent showers going on.

  • We also heard from our friendly park attendant that a photographer for National Geographic comes three times a week to take pictures. Arrives around 7:00 am loaded with camera and gear and makes his way around the campground. He took pictures of the mist rising off the spring first thing in the morning following a particularly cold night. But the raccoons are his favorite.

The house seems quiet after coyotes yipping and raccoons quarreling in the palms at night. Life on the road's been great but those flannel sheets sure felt good last night.


Road Trip

Life's been circumvented by an impromptu road trip to Florida with my daughters. Not so bad at all. Missed out on 8 inches of snow last Saturday and temperatures that are headed down to the single digits tonight.

Camping in a wonderful forest, wonderful even in the rain in 45-50 degree weather at night. We'll be having our own cold snap though. Friday night will be in the upper 20s! A taste of home.

In the meantime I'm enjoying the hibiscus that are blooming, the roses, the palms, the resident black bear who is less of a threat than the domesticated raccoons.

Life on the road is good. More to follow when time allows.


January 1, 2009 Garden Bloggers' Muse Day Tribute

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
- Arthur O'Shaughnessy

The new year greeted me with crystals and ice.

And gave me time to reflect on the year ahead. The time to build my list of new year's resolutions. A list involving music and dreams, sea-breakers and streams.

O'Shaughnessey's second stanza of Ode states, in essence, that art of any form can build up great cities, the power of a dream can conquer a kingdom, and a new song can replace an old or entrenched art form.

So, in 2009 I resolve to make lots of music, dream millions of dreams, wander miles of lone sea-breakers, sit by an endless number of desolate streams and watch with anticipation the great movers and shakers of 2009 who will shape the course of history in the year ahead.

Welcome new year.