Sunday, March 27, 2011

Potting Up Japanese Maples

Acer Palmatum 'Butterfly' Spring Color
I love the Garden Professors’ web site.  Their blog does a great job at dispelling gardening myths which seem to be more prevalent than in any other endeavor that I have encountered.  They use science to tell us when we are wrong and more often than not, this science has relieved me of the burden of doing something I didn’t really want to do in the first place (like making compost tea).

A recent post there has me all atwitter though.  They looked at the age old question: does size really matter?  Um, that’s container size, in this case.  As described in the post, “potting up” is the practice of growing plants in a small container and then moving it to larger containers as the plant grows.  This is a basic and widely-accepted gardening practice that I secretly believe gardeners love to pretend to hate. 

The professor’s thorough review of the vast amounts of published research conducted over the last few decades reveals that almost universally plants do better when grown immediately in the larger container.  The science says that the larger container allows for improved root development over the smaller containers.  That seems obvious enough even for those of us who aren’t scientifically inclined.  The author also pointed out that although it may appear that plants in the larger container grow slower than plants in the smaller container, the better root development in the larger container will allow the plant to catch up to and eventually surpass the growth of the plant in the smaller container.  Fair enough.  I can buy into that.  

But based on the “evidence” that I have personally collected as well as the evidence I unabashedly accepted as gospel from the proprietor of Davidsans’ Maples, I believe that Japanese maples are the exception to the rule.  We can’t explain the science of it, of course, but the theory we share is that Japanese maples grown in containers like to have their roots touching something.  I think it probably also more to do with the fact that most people find it easier to provide the right amount of water when a small tree is in a small pot, and when a medium tree is in a medium pot, and a large tree is in a gigantic, manly-sized pot.    

To illustrate my point, let me share my empirical experience with you.  In the spring of 2009 I purchased an Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’ off of eBay.  I paid about $10 for it and what I got was a 10” twig.  Two years later I still have a twig.  I blame myself for two things: first for buying a tree off of eBay and secondly for putting it in a 12” pot where it did nothing but languish.  I “potted it down” last fall and when I did I wasn’t impressed with the root development at all.  In that regard, my experience differs with the evidence that says root development is encouraged by a bigger pot. 

Acer Palmatum 'Butterfly'
So far this spring my ‘Butterfly’ seems to be doing better than ever and, I dare say, I have seen actual growth already.  [Tongue-in Cheek] If that’s not irrefutable proof that Japanese maples are the exception to the rule, I don’t know what is. [End Tongue-in-Cheek]  

Friday, March 25, 2011

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Flame Wars.  I am a veteran of a few internet flame wars and I’m none too proud of some of the tactics I’ve taken.  My "IRL personality" is decidedly non-confrontational so it would probably surprise my friends to read some of the things I have written in the heat of the moment [pun intended].  It is the relative anonymity of the internet, I believe, that emboldens people with the conviction that they can say anything they want to other anonymous people on the internet.  I am guilty of this so this is by no means meant to be a holier-than-thou post.  

I often wonder if others are entertained by these type-written tiffs?  I can see the appeal, to a point, but far too often they cross a line and it becomes a glorified “I know you are, but what am I?” kind of argument or it simply devolves into petty name calling.  It’s why I don’t wear my xBox head set while playing Call of Duty.  The trash talking isn’t fun to me.  Probably because I’m the one getting shot up all the time . . . but also because it’s just a constant barrage of negativity.  I imagine that people who go to a forum or blog to read something would rather get something useful out of their experience than wade through a volley of character assasinations.

When I first found the forums at I was amazed at the near total lack of flame wars.  That’s not to say there was never any disagreement or arguments over there because there were some pretty epic falling outs -- especially when the company was sold to Internet Brands and they ousted Dave.  But for the most part you could respond to a discussion or pose a question and expect to receive polite and helpful responses.  I’m generalizing here, but the online gardening world has always been a more genteel arena.  So I was surprised to find myself knee deep in an unexpected dispute with a fellow poster following Trey Pitsenberger’s blog the other day. 

After a good night’s sleep though I am happy to say that cooler heads have prevailed and for the first time in my life, I have accepted an apology from someone I don't even know and given an apology for my part in one of these wars.  Also, for the first time in my life, I can understand how others have felt a new sense of respect for their opponent.  In a span of less than 24 hours I went from thinking this guy was a grumpy old codger to now understanding that he’s just a passionate gardener that likes to shoot from the hip sometimes.  I can deal with that.  I can identify with that, in fact.   

My take away: given the right conditions, a little patience, and a healthy dose of cool water, gardens aren’t the only things that grow out of scorched earth.     

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My "Local" Garden Center is Just a Google Search Away

Apparently March is the month when convention centers around the U.S. fill up with flowers,
Image Courtesy of Renjith Krishnan
creative landscape vignettes, and vendors selling everything from azaleas to zinnias. Or not. If my online sources are correct, these shows have experienced a noticeable decline not only in public attendance but also in participation from garden vendors. Instead of finding products such as apple trees or zucchini seedlings, attendees at these “flower” shows are finding leaf-guard gutters, concentrated cleaning supplies, sharp kitchen knives, and remodeling services. In other words, there is nothing that a gardener would want to buy at a flower show.

People seem genuinely concerned about the diminishing allure of these garden shows and they acknowledge that the allure is fading for both vendors and gardeners. You would have to assume that the flower show planners are feeling the pinch too.

I have read several blog entries about this topic recently and the question that keeps coming up is “what should we do to improve the shows?” I was particularly interested in how Trey Pitsenberger, aka The Blogging Nurseryman, approached this topic as I think that his awareness of the changes and challenges facing small business owners is second to none in the nursery trade.  He writes quite a bit about how his peers in the industry need to recognize the importance of social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook if they want to stay relevant.  A few days ago, he wrote a blog post called “Adapt or Die” and one of the ideas presented in the post was that flower show promoters and vendors need to do a better job at catering to the interests of younger gardeners who are more interested in things like composting and environmental benefits than they are in the aesthetics of plants.

The post generated an interesting discussion that included responses from some of California’s gardening heavyweights such as Farmer Fred and Annie of Annie’s Annuals fame. I won’t bother to rehash their comments as you can read them at the bottom of Trey's post. But a common theme presented by some of the responders is that Generation X and Y kids lack integrity, are ignorant of gardening, are“media whores”, and are the laziest generation ever. We were painted by some as disingenuous blowhards who say we want to save the planet but we can barely be bothered to separate the aluminum cans from our trash.

I felt like a small fish swimming with the sharks, but I felt compelled to respond. I wanted to respond partly because I was offended by the broad strokes of these comments and I think that this kind of attitude towards younger “customers” doesn’t create much of an incentive for Gen X and Y gardeners to establish a business relationship with people that have such a low opinion of them. But I also wanted to share why I don’t go to flower shows. Here is what I wrote:

I don’t own a small business and I don’t work in this field. I don’t attend flower shows either. But I wanted to respond anyway.

I am a Generation X customer who is passionate about gardening and that includes growing some of my own food, composting, general landscaping, and collecting cultivars that intrigue me.

In spite of my passion, I can’t convince myself to put up with the hassle of fighting traffic and paying to park, wandering around a fluorescently-lit convention center for a few hours only to leave empty handed and disspirited because I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to buy or could afford.

My flower show is the Internet. On the Internet I can learn about plants, I can stop and pause to think about how those plants might fit into my plan, and I can choose just the plants I want. And the blogging/discussion forum communities fulfill a lot of my desire to rub elbows with like-minded individuals so I don’t even feel as much need to go and physically rub elbows with other gardeners.

I’m not opposed to going to a flower show, but what’s the draw compared to what I can experience online?
I was thrilled when Trey responded enthusiastically to my post saying that I had summarized the challenge and opportunity facing flower shows or any business looking to attract Gen X and Y customers.

I was then blown away the next day when he wrote an entire blog post about my comment. I am encouraged that someone is listening to potential customers and really thinking about the message rather than just digging in their heels and bemoaning the fact that they don’t understand the young whippersnappers of the world. He also did a nice job synthesizing my thoughts when he read between the lines and concluded that although I spend a lot of time researching and buying things online, I am not opposed to going to the independent garden centers if I know they exist and if they have given me a compelling reason to check them out.

At the risk of making this post way too long, I just wanted to add that I think Trey nailed it. I went to Google one day and typed in “sun tolerant Japanese maples” and I found Lakes Nursery out in Newcastle. Although they don’t sell online, they do have a great site with relevant information and they seem like passionate business owners. A few weeks after I found them on the internet I was at their park-like nursery loading up my truck with Japanese maples. After getting my trees in their resting spots, I wrote the nursery a 5-star review on where over 2 million unique visitors stop by each month because that's what people of my generation like to do.

One of the many splendid views at Lakes Nursery
We might not appear to be the ideal customer base for baby boomer business owners but if they want our money and continued patronage for the next several decades, it wouldn’t hurt to meet us halfway – even if that meeting point happens to be in cyberspace.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rusty Iron Arbors

Today must be day 16 in what is starting to feel like the modern version of the 40-day flood. It's rained for so long that when we had a brief respite around lunch time yesterday (Tuesday in the picture above) I took advantage of it and mowed my lawn so I could stop obsessing about when I might get another chance to get out there.

In spite of the rain, it has been warm enough that things are happening in the garden even without my input. Those vegetable seeds I planted are doing their thing even without me hovering over them worriedly wondering if they would sprout and if I needed to do something to make it happen.

In the absence of actual gardening I've been spending a little time just taking pictures and marveling at the gorgeousness of spring. It's amazing to watch a little nub on a stick burst out of its shell and become a full fledged leaf or flower in the span of just a few days.

When I walked around in the yard today it was just starting to rain again. The sky was dark gray, the air was cold, the plants were alive. But what struck me was the non-living beauty of my rusty iron arbors.

I bought these a few weeks apart from each other at Green Acres here in Sacramento. They were reasonably priced (in the $100 range) and I love the way they look in the yard. I think they provide a rustic, shabby-chic kind of feeling to this part of the garden.

Thanks to a new book by popular garden writers Rebecca Sweet and Susan Morrison that was recently published, vertical gardening is the big trend in the gardening blogosphere these days. This month it is even the focus of the Garden Designer's Roundtable. My little plot of earth often feels too small for my garden schemes. These arbors represent my rebellion against the reality of restricted horizontal space.

I love that on these two arbors I have a place to grow a second 'Iceberg' climbing rose,

a white bower vine and a white 'Shiro-kapitan' wisteria, which is not long for this world and a topic of an upcoming post.

Can you see that blue sky behind the twining vines of the wisteria? I'm so thankful that I have photographic evidence that I didn't just dream up the existence of such a thing!

It's going to be gross out for another week and the gardener in me is feeling disgruntled. But these arbors provided me with a good reminder that even in times of dreariness there are things in life to appreciate.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How's it Growing?

I was pretty excited to get my plants from Annie's Annuals planted and for the most part they are doing great. Except for the Double Innocence Delphinium which was evidently a delicacy for the snails in the yard:

'Double Innocence' eaten faster than a Double Stuffed Oreo

Speaking of delicacies, beer is one of my favorite yummy treats so I shared a bowl of Pyramid's Apricot Ale with the critters in the yard and in just over a day I was rewarded with this lovely bowl full of escargot:


This may surprise you, but I chose not to sample my score and elected to dump it in the trash bin with the week's bucket of dog poop. I haven't decided which was more repulsive.