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There’s been a lot of coverage recently about the new USDA Hardiness Map. According to the map, I now live in zone 6, while I was previously classed as zone 5.

In some ways, this is really great news for what I can grown here. In other ways, it’s no big honkin deal.

A lot of the sites I’m reading a really overstating the significance of this. The map is based on retrospective data. It might be saying that your land is warmer now than it was 20 years ago when the map was last released. It’s also possible that it’s saying it’s been the same temperature all along, but they did a bad job collecting data 20 years ago, and got the numbers a little wrong for you. What it is absolutely not saying that it is warmer now than it was last year, because last year is when they were collecting the darn data.

So, for instance, if your rosemary died and your peaches didn’t set last year, they won’t do better this year, just because now a chart has a different number on it. (well, they probably will do better THIS year, because we’ve had crazy weather, but not long term)

If, however, you tried to push something that was on the borderline in the past, and have been getting lucky so far, there’s a good chance your luck will hold. a.k.a: maybe you didn’t do as good of a job finding a microclimate as you thought – it’s just warmer than you realized everywhere.

Some people are saying that this data even has repercussions for first and last frost dates. Which is tangentially maybe a little bit true, in that if the climate did change, it is likely both the minimum winter temperature and the dates at which it starts getting cold changed. However, the zone map only measures one of these things, and trying to interpolate the other off of it is just a bad idea. Zone is a terrible way to estimate first and last frost dates.

An awesome way to estimate first and last frost dates is http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/freezefrost/freezefrost.pdf It has data on first and last observed frost dates for specific towns over a 30 year interval, with great stuff like which date has a 95%, 50% and 5% probability or reaching a certain temperature by. Mmmmm, delicious data. There are a lot of towns used for measuring points, so you are very likely to find somewhere quite close to you to get dates from. It is data from the 80s, but I still think it’s a more reliable source than what zone you are, particularly since with something like a frost date you can watch the weather when you get within a few days and  judge for yourself whether it’s currently snowing. These dates were never a contract, and will vary more year to year than they have changed on average over a few decades.

Pluuuus, at least in my part of central ohio, I think winter survival has more to do with wetness from the poorly drained clay and damage from freeze thaw cycles without good snow cover than it does with absolute low temperatures.

Not that I’m not excited to officially be classified as zone 6, (for one thing, it gives me extra hope for my Magnolia Sieboldii). I just have to keep reminding myself that this doesn’t mean that the temperature fairy has made any changes to my actual garden (recently, at least). I resolve to be more adventurous in choosing trees and shrubs rated for warmer climates than I was before, but I also resolve to not expect anything already in my garden to start behaving any differently.

Normally I’m all about the latin names for plants, but in this case, I think it actually makes it less specific.

Blackberry Lilies *used* to be Belamcanda chinensis, and Candy Lilies are sometimes referred to as Pardancanda norrisii, or Pardancanda chinensis, but really, Candy lilies are a hybrid between Blackberry Lilies and Iris dichotoma, so despite the fact that they will grow essentially true from seed, they aren’t really a species, and so don’t deserve their own latin name. PLUS, Blackberry lilies were recently reclassified as Iris domestica, making Candy lilies officially Iris x norrisii, but most places haven’t made these update yet, so if you go searching for them you’ll come up empty except for a few taxonomy nerds. Therefore common names it is.

Anyway, they’re interesting plants. Leaves like iris, spotted blooms shaped a bit like a daylily, though you can see the iris relationship there too. The ‘blackberry’ in the name comes from the seeds, which are big and round and glossy and look rather like blackberries.They bloom around the same time dayliles do as well, but to my eye are rather more exotic looking – I particularly like how the spent flowers twist up into spirals.

I heard about them a few years ago, but they were hard to find, particularly in my price range, so I took a gamble growing them from seed. There wasn’t a lot of guidance on how this process was supposed to go at the time, so I thought it would be useful to make what I’ve learned available.

Growing outdoors:

I normally have poor luck direct seeding things, but these have worked pretty well. The flowering stems fall down in late fall, so at that point they can be cut off and scattered wherever you want to establish more plants. You don’t seem to need to cover them, despite the relatively large size, and I’ve never seen anything eating them. The seeds will sprout sporadically through the spring and summer, and will be big enough to flower the following year. The leaves look like tiny iris leaves and are quite substantial, so they are easy to see and you don’t have to worry too much about weeding them out accidentally despite the prolonged germination period.

Growing indoors:

One of the sources I got my original seeds from noted that the seeds did not last well and should be kept in the refrigerator until planted. I don’t know how true that is, but I did follow that advice. If you’re growing from your own seeds, you could also just leave them out on the plant until you’re ready. In any case, this isn’t the same as needing stratification. They should germinate fine without a chilling period, it’s just that they will theoretically dry out quickly if kept in warmer conditions.

The seeds themselves have a shiny outer coating which gives them the name ‘blackberry’. That coating is actually like a  brittle balloon containing the real seed, which is coated in dirty mossy looking stuff. You don’t need to remove the shiny coating, but don’t worry if it cracks either, it doesn’t indicate your seed has gone bad. I got similar germination from cracked and uncracked seeds.

The initial steps in growing from seed are very familiar and simple. Place the seeds in seed starting mix and water well. They don’t seem to care if they are buried or exposed on the surface, though I prefer the later as you can see germination that much sooner. They also don’t seem to have a temperature preference, though a warm location can be helpful as I’ll explain.

The big trick I’ve learned is to let the planting medium dry out again immediately. Don’t re-water until it is seriously completely dried out to an extent that would kill any other seedling. THEN soak them and let the cycle begin again. It seems the seeds germinate in response to these wet-dry cycles. Weird, but in my experience true. The reason bottom heat is useful is that it helps the soil dry out faster, so you can get more cycles in quickly.

My germination rates haven’t been bad (around 30%), but they take a long time, and are very irregular. I imagine I could have coaxed a few more seeds into sprouting, but by then it was springtime and I had enough and just planted what I had outside and dumped the rest rather than sit and fuss over flats of unsprouted seeds while spring was going on. I’m not kidding about slow and irregular. I would say one seed every week or so starting about a month after sowing. You want to start these three months or so before your last expected frost. Be Patient. They will sprout.

The seedlings themselves are slow growing, but pretty robust. I normally pull out the sprouted ones to a different tray to keep them more consistently moist, but they won’t die even if they do dry out completely along with the unsprouted seeds. They also aren’t particularly susceptible to mold or damping off or getting leggy or any of the other common seedling ailments. I don’t think I’ve lost a single seedling of these once it’s sprouted, which is pretty impressive given how attentive to these things I usually am (how do you think I figured out they needed to dry out in order to sprout? It wasn’t careful research and controlled trials, I’ll tell you that). Anyway, it takes at least a month to get from the first leaf to a size that you could conceivably plant outside. They grow slowly and hold well in pots, so err on the side of earlier when deciding when to sow. Assuming they aren’t too tiny and late when you transplant them, there’s a good chance of blooms the first year, though fewer and later than on older plants.

So, this is all terribly unscientific, but that’s what I’ve learned. They sprout on wet – dry cycles, and try your patience like nothing else, but ultimately are pretty simple and hard to kill assuming you can wait for them to do things at their own pace.

There was a post over at Greensparrow Gardens recently with a picture of iris reticulata and the like in a vase. I’ve had a bit of a conflicted relationship with my own early iris, so I’m inspired by the idea of using them as cutting flowers.

It may just be a siting issue, but I find dwarf  iris a bit underwhelming in the garden. Small, subtle, and apt to blend in with the mulch. As cutting flowers, that would be solved, plus I would get a chance to experience their reputed fragrance.

Now that my initial batch has survived their first year, I plan to get more to try in different spots as well, as they do have some very nice qualities, assuming I could see them better. They are up with the earliest crocus, but unlike crocus, the iris remain open even on cold cloudy days, which at that time of year, tends to be most days. Of course, that means they are vulnerable to rain and don’t last as long as the crocus, but the total open days probably end up about the same.

There was a post over at Growing with Plants a few days ago mentioning blackberry lilies that got me thinking about our local flora. I, too, lusted after the strangely exotic lilies for some time before acquiring seeds and planting some of my own. When they finally bloomed late in their second year, I realized there was a grove of them by a rural mailbox which I passed (at 60 mph) every day on my commute. So much for rarity.

Matt mentions:

In 1910, you would have found this plant common in gardens, but when was the last time you ever saw it in a garden?

Apparently, for me, last summer.

The area I live isn’t far from civilization, but it is still distinctly rural, lots of farms and farm families that still live on their grand parents’ land and remnants of little towns centered around now defunct schools and post offices that had mail delivered every other day from the train depot in the ‘city’ that is now less than a 10 minute drive away. There are a few houses like ours that sold their adjoining frontage to developers along they way, but for the most part, the area has the same population density it did100 years ago – it’s just a much more mobile population now.  And, it has some unique plants.

We, for instance, have a gigantic white lilac. Now, that really isn’t that rare of a plant, but generally, lilacs are purple. Except, not here. On my little drive into work in the spring, the white lilacs out number the purple ones. There are a lot of very similar daffodils as well. Of course, how much variation is there in daffodils? But there seem to be two predominant types here, a white small cup style that looks like a poeticus, but blooms much earlier, and another with a white outside and slightly flattened pale yellow cup. There are very few standard yellow daffodils, and the ‘local’ ones tend to be in enormous clumps in the middle of someone’s lawn rather than strategically placed in a bed. I get the impression they’ve been there a while.

I find this fascinating. One day, someone buys a lilac, or a few bulbs – something frivolous (and apparently her favorite color was white). And shares it with her neighbors five miles down the road. And it spreads. And people forget about it, but it’s still there. And it lives. And you get this strange, incidental, inherited continuity across the township. Somehow this is much more charming to me than all the McMansion developers planting the same junipers, sedum and maple tree in every yard.

There’s also rather a lot of trumpet creeper growing up the utility poles here to just be chance. I know our several other of our shrubs – like the forsythia and the mock orange – are old as well, but I haven’t seen them around other houses as much. Plus, forsythia isn’t a terribly distinctive thing, and it’s still popular and readily available – it’s harder to tell whether any given bush is a vintage pass-along, or a new acquisition from wal-mart.

I wonder how long those blackberry lilies have been growing by that mailbox. I wonder if the gardener even knows what they are, or just calls them ‘aunt sally flowers’ or a silly invented name.

One of these days I need to get up the nerve to knock on someone’s door and ask them for a division of those daffodils.

Strangely, more on the north east side of the door than the north west, but they are indeed returning.

I *almost* ordered a bunch more hyacinths this fall, but held off with the thought that they might not actually hang on through the whole year to bloom a second time.

But it looks like they mostly have, and that there will be flowers as well as leaves, and that some of them are even multiplying, which I consider a phenomenal success for something other than a daffodil planted in clay-muck soil on the north side of the house.

Next year, there will be many more. Hyacinths are such silly looking flowers. They make me giggly and happy in a nonsensical way. I plan on making my front yard look like an easter basket with them. It will be fabulous.

I’m also thinking white crocus would look good between them.

Spring.

The Fresh Dirt blog had another post on using toilet paper rolls and newspaper for seed starting. I started writing a monster comment on my experiences with them over there, but decided it made better sense to clutter up my own page.

I used both these methods my first year of seed starting, and still use toilet tubes for plants I want to get started with a long taproot (like tomatoes), but they really aren’t a good all-purpose solution.

For doing large quantities of seedlings, tubes have some significant drawbacks. For one, it is hard to fill the tubes – the potting mix gets in the holes between them and they fall over and spill out the bottom.

Spilling actually isn’t a problem once they’re started since the damp dirt sticks together, and eventually the roots hold it all in anyway, but boy is it a pain with the dry mix. You can’t move the tubes once they’re filled, so you knock them over doing the ones next to them, and you can’t clean all that wasted potting soil out from between them. The more loose soil around the bottoms of the tubes, the more the roots will grow together and the more the bottoms of the tubes will disintegrate (more on that later).

Toilet roll pots are also hard to handle once the plants start to get bigger. The bottom starts to decay pretty quickly, plus a top heavy plant and an already tall and narrow pot leads to trouble. They start to tilt and eventually fall over, and picking them back up causes the paper to rip and they fall apart. A lot of this can be overcome by putting them in a high-sided container where there isn’t room for them to fall over, or by taping them together in groups. However, if you want to transplant some of them before the others? Good luck. (also, the roots will grow into neighboring pots, but that’s never been a big deal for me – I just rip them apart. They seem to deal). Inevitably by the time things are going out in the garden all my toilet roll pots are propped against the edges of the flats and leaning over forlornly.

So, yeah, I do still use toilet paper rolls for things with long or particularly fragile roots, (they have really nice dimensions apart from the tipping over thing – it’s hard to find anything else that’s as good a shape for tomatoes. Really people, why are commercial pots always so short?). However I do most of my ‘serious’ seed starting in re-used black plastic nursery pots, as they are more durable. I did actually purchase some plastic flats, both for the convenient bottom trays and clear covers and because I don’t buy a lot of potted plants, so I didn’t have enough for all the seed-starting I wanted to do. I imagine someone who buys annuals regularly already has plenty on hand.

So, in summary, I would recommend toilet tubes for someone doing a few special plants, but not necessarily for a whole veggie garden’s worth. If you do use them, it helps to put them in a container with high, straight sides to help with the toppling.

Newspaper pots I didn’t think were worth the effort at all – they take time to make in any quantity, and are even more incredibly fragile than the toilet tubes once wet.

I should point out that I did do a few things differently from the video they showed, though I don’t think they change my opinion. For one, I never made bottoms for the toilet rolls. I also never made them square. I can see how the square-ness would help with filling them some, but there would still be holes in between. Obviously the bottom helps with filling, but it also makes the pot shorter, and one of the big advantages of this type of pot is the size & shape. Finally, In making paper pots with bottoms, I found sometimes the soil would get caught on the folded-in paper and not fill all the way to the bottom (particularly a problem with tall, narrow pots like these). This caused problems because then the pots didn’t wick water correctly, resulting in untimely seedling death. Finally, it appears that the bottom is making the pot even *more* tippy. Not something these pots need.

Last night, we purchased and assembled a wheelbarrow. Tonight, we will use it to pick up the miscellaneous sticks in the backyard, so that Thursday, we can mow the lawn. Because, the lawnmower arrives on Thursday.

For context, please note that our neighbor first mowed his lawn two and a half weeks ago. We were beginning to feel a mite guilty about things.

Really though,  gardening has been all that’s gotten done since the well incident. Putting in vegetable beds, trees, iris beds. And there’s still much to do, starting with the lawn, but the vegetables will be picking up speed as it gets warmer, and I’ve discovered a treasure trove of garlic mustard that needs dealing with (grumble grumble)

So, M wants applesauce. Particularly, his grandmother’s applesauce, made from specifically from yellow transparent apples that cannot be bought in stores. So apple trees. I research trees that cross-pollinate effectively, and finally get off my butt and order them last Monday. This Monday they arrive. (I will save my opinions about their dubious practice of shipping plants over a weekend for later – I supposed with bare root items it’s not as much of a big deal as with tender green things). At least they’re here.

Now, this is hearsay from M who went out to the house this morning, but apparently, the order was not quite as expected. We do have the three apples we explicitly ordered for optimum cross pollination and utility. We do have the raspberries. We also have a grand total of eight trees. He seemed a little shell-shocked, but I gathered ‘two cherries –  cortland – lodi – another kind of mcintosh’.
They *did* have a ‘free tree of our choice with any order’ special going. I would have preferred the ‘free oriental lilies’ they were running earlier, but that’s my own lazy fault. Anyway, I figured one extra tree we could probably fit in.
Five extra trees though. That’s a bit of a different. We do not need six apple trees. I feel like a bit of a jerk tossing them out, but, well, we really weren’t planning on setting up as fruit farmers. We just wanted some applesauce.
Anybody want an apple tree?

So, there we were, diligently (attempting to) insulate the basement. then M notices some damp and mold sprouts in a previously bone-dry place. (I do not understand our basement drainage. It is incredibly to-the-dust hasn’t seen moisture in ages dry. There isn’t even a sump pump. I find it incredible)

So we pop out to open the vent near that area, and examine possible causes – like the nearby downspout. After running and digging about the yard trying to find where the downspout goes we run the hose down it and decide that wherever it goes, it isn’t clogged, and the problem is more likely that we had an *incredible* amount of rain recently, so probably won’t be reoccurring. (later note: we think it may actually go to the cistern – which we will need to check for an overflow)

Having run about in the unusually dry and warm weather, the notion arises to clean the junk out of the well-pit. In goes M, a shovel, and a bucket. And here’s where the fun really begins. About one bucket of trash down, M slips in the cramped muddy pit, and bumps the well pump. At which point, the rusted top cracks off, and begins spurting water everywhere. So I run to the basement and flip the breaker labeled ‘well-pump’ . . . to no effect. So we flip the main breaker to solve the immediate problem, and call the plumber to order a new well-pump asap.

So, now we need to solve the electrical problem too. M puts the main back on, and flips random breakers until the well goes back off. Apparently, it’s on an unlabeled 15 amp breaker (the breaker it was labeled as on was 40 amps, which seems more reasonable). Better call the electrician and get him to fix what he messed up.

But wait! there’s more! In flipping though the breakers, M gets a little zap. Forgot to dry his hands completely after the foray into the well-pit? Well . . . open up the panel and check. No…it appears there is water dripping into the breaker box from *inside* the main service line. Let’s make that call to the electrician a little more heated now, what do you say?

So, in the space of a day, we have no water, *and* no electric. Which, coincidentally, makes mixing mortar and applying it to the un-windowed basement, well, difficult. So we went home and watched the Kansas-Davidson game.

New plans for the week are finding a sink, and doing the bathroom demo (since it’s not functional anyway), and continuing to try to find someone to tell us what to do with the floors.

I’ve purchased a shelf. I’ve purchased dirt. I’ve purchased seeds. I’ve been saving toilet rolls for months now. This weekend is ‘7 weeks before last frost’. Now I gotta jump.

I’m a little concerned – the good nursery nearby hadn’t gotten their shipment of pea inoculant. Though at least the lady knew what I was talking about and didn’t think I was asking for some crazy voo-doo thing. (which I feel I might be – I’d never heard of pea inoculant before this winter). So I’m torn – wait to plant them until it comes in? Plant them now and try to sprinkle it on top/in the hole later? I’m not sure that driving around to the other nurseries in town would be productive – they don’t seem the types to have serious vegetable supplies, more miracle-gro and ornamentals.

I still need to get lights, but I figure things probably won’t sprout in the first week. I’ll probably also have to get a new extension cord to run up the stairs for them, since I think we’ve cut all the power to the upstairs for safety reasons. I’m also still debating whether to get a heating pad, just for peppers and tomatoes.  But they’re so expensive! Maybe next year.

Which means I should probably finalize my plans and dig the veggie beds to put out the peas and lettuce by weekend after next at the latest. It’s starting to worry me that gardening season is coming up and we still aren’t in the house – so many things will be a lot harder not being ‘on-site’. I wonder how much I can really pull off.