Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Windflowers are blooming in our workplace arboretum. They have spread over the years through the spotty grass beneath the trees and have become a carpet of clear blue and white, reflecting a spring sky through winter-bare limbs.

The Grecian windflower, Anemone blanda, is one of those small flowers with a big personality. It is at once bold and demure, naturalizing almost aggressively but heliophilic to the extreme. It remains tightly closed at night and on cloudy days, resulting in vast washes of closed buds stubbornly waiting for the spring sunshine.

But when the sun appears...what a show. From a distance the colors are jewel bright and glow in the shafts of sunlight. Individually each daisy-like flower sits atop a slender stem, trembling like an aspen leaf in the breeze. Collectively this trembling gives the illusion of shimmering water.

Despite folklore to the contrary, the flowers in our small anemone sea are not short-lived. This is an especially welcome characteristic in early spring, when the vagaries of March weather may not yield a sunny day in a period of weeks.

I don't know who planted many of the flowers and trees in the arboretum. The windflowers are no exception. If I did I would send a picture, just to show how far the original planting has naturalized. And I would say thank you for that special gift that gardeners sometimes give, a small investment that compounds for years.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Vernal Equinox

[Latin vernalis, from vernus, from ver, spring.]

[Middle English, from Old French equinoxe, from Medieval Latin aequinoxium, from Latin aequinoctium : aequi-, equi- + nox, noct-, night; see nekw-t- in Indo-European roots.]

Today marks the vernal equinox. The sun crosses the celestial equator, continuing north until the summer solstice. From now until June 21 the daylight will be greater than the darkness. Seeds will sprout, leaves will emerge, weather will stabilize and we’ll all marvel anew at the miracle of seasonality.

Or so I thought until stepping out this morning to a leaden sky, cold sharp wind and snow flurries. Here in the southern reaches of the PNW the first day of spring is usually, well, …springlike. So this morning’s decidedly wintry slap created a brief moment of cognitive dissonance. I know it really is spring by astronomical reckoning. My garden is showing sure signs as well. I planted early crops yesterday in my usual springtime manner. Stores, in a burst of optimism, are bringing out patio furniture. And here I am, reaching for my down jacket.

I don’t mind too much, though. The march toward balmy breezes is inexorable. The peas are up. The almond trees are in bloom. The frozen tomato sauce supply is dwindling. Whatever the weather says the seasonal dance proceeds on schedule.

A technical note. The side column now has a link to my new garden photo gallery and a section showing random books from my garden booklist. Thanks to Kathy at Cold Climate Gardening for this post introducing me to Library Thing.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


It seemed like a good idea at the time. A small window of mild weather appeared in early February after weeks of rain, snow, ice, fog, sleet, and rain rain rain. What gardener could resist the temptation to plant peas?

The appropriate pea planting marker in this corner of the PNW is President’s Day, but weather trumps the calendar and I knew the dry period would only last a couple of days. I decided to hedge my bets this year by trying something new. I presprouted the seeds by soaking for a few hours then layering in damp paper towels for a couple of days until most seed had germinated. My hope was to forestall the inevitable low germination that occurs in cold wet spring weather.

This is how I found myself in the deserted community garden planting my sprouted seeds under a rapidly darkening sky. A strong cold wind was bringing an even colder storm. But presprouted seeds wouldn't wait for better conditions. The temperature dipped into the teens that night. Dry icy snow fell the next night. Cold high pressure followed. Night temperatures remained 10 to 15 degrees colder than normal. The only consolation was a short string of sunny days. My feeble hope was that the slowly strengthening rays would warm the soil enough to sustain some residual heat through the night.

Waiting for sprouts to emerge was the only option. And wait. And wait.

I finally abandoned my vision of a bumper crop of peas, enough to eat my fill and freeze the rest for a small burst of spring in the next winter. The peas had surely rotted in the cold waterlogged soil.

But now, 30+ days after planting, the peas have started to emerge, showing not the slightest weakness from the ordeal. The germination is less than 100% but high enough to entertain images of tender shell peas, sugar snaps in salads and snow peas braised with golden raisins. Let the 2006 gardening exravaganza begin!

(My new community garden plot allows for planting more peas this year.The 2006 selections are Coral and Northfield shell peas, Sugarsnap, and Dwarf Grey Sugar, an heirloom snow pea).

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Nightshade's Tale

It was inevitable that my fascination with heirloom tomatoes would spawn an equal devotion to the mysterious Capsicum: the juicy sweet, the searing hot, and all manner of in betweens.

Before the 2005 garden I had never had a lot of luck growing peppers. But last year’s crop was successful enough to produce plenty to freeze, dry, and make custom chili paste (wonderful!!). This success also introduced me to what all the fuss is about. The flavor complexities, beautiful shapes and colors, and fascinating histories draw the unwary gardener in to the chilihead world. Once exposed to this cult-like group of enthusiasts there’s no turning back.

Witness my current level of involvement:

Last year’s pepper germination rate was somewhat unsatisfactory. I knew that some peppers are finicky when it comes to germination but when I had 0% germination for one variety I decided that this year I would try something new. After reading this thread over at the Gardenweb pepper forum I settled on a method.I placed seeds for each variety in half a coffee filter folded in quarters. These were layered between paper towels and placed on a tray, sprayed with water and slipped into a plastic bag. This bag now sits in a covered flat on a heat mat set to 80 degrees. (Can you say overkill?)

As soon as the seeds germinate they will be transferred to soilless mix in 128 cell plug trays to grow big enough to transplant into 4” pots.

This babying requires a bit more work than planting tomato seeds. (These were seeded directly into plug trays and I expect to see near to 100% germination.) I’m sure that such effort was probably not necessary for many of this year’s varieties but if it helps along the germination of some of the more recalcitrant seeds then it will have been worth it.

Here is a list of 2006 pepper varieties.