Irene Virag's Garden Party

I'm Irene Virag -- a writer, a gardener, a cancer survivor. I think ideas are like plants. They need nurturing to grow. And gardeners share both. So welcome to my blog. It’s all about what’s happening in my garden and beyond.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Autumn Riffs

The weather was crazy this gardening season but all’s forgiven now. The world is sharp and crisp and nice things are happening.

I looked out my kitchen window the other day and spotted the red-tailed hawk I blogged about recently when I fumbled with my camera and tried in vain to snap his picture as he perched on a garden arbor. This time he was swooping around the backyard. I could only hope he was treating himself to some of the mice and voles that use my place as a co-op. I’ve gone up in cherry-pickers to watch red-tailed hawks in their nests but they’re at their most majestic in flight.

Yesterday, I spotted a praying mantis on a mound of chrysanthemums in the garden and this time the camera was at hand. In fact, she posed for me – she looked right at me in the sunshine and her eyes were like green spotlights. If the hawk seemed like a he, I had no trouble anthropomorphizing the mantis as a female. I kind of like the way the female mantis puts the male of her species in his place. Nobody dares try any of that weaker sex baloney when it comes to praying mantises.

By the way, the chrysanthemums speak up for autumn just the way they’re supposed to. They replaced the Italian white sunflowers in two of my beds that were done in by tropical storm Ernesto. They’re pink and creamy white and they look like giant ice-cream cones. It bugs me when elitists sneer at chrysanthemums – please don’t call them mums – as too common and put them down the way they put down impatiens. That’s nonsense. In the garden, there’s room for all kinds of flowers.

As the earth cools, flower colors intensify. That’s especially true for my morning glories. They keep getting bigger and bluer. They’re living poems.

Not that I’m outside all the time. It is getting colder and I’ve just had the wood stove cleaned to make ready for those days when I curl up by the fire with a crisp apple – we have an orchard nearby – and a good book. I wanted to tell you about two new books for garden and nature lovers.

One is the American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Perennials, edited by Graham Rice, a Brit who spends much of his time in the colonies. He and his wife, garden photographer judywhite, have a place in Pennsylvania, where Graham nurtures woodland plants and watches a black bear that invades his yard. Unlike a lot of encyclopedias, it’s written in understandable English instead of botanical-speak and doesn’t have a glossary because it doesn’t need one. And the photos are excellent and none of them are of the postage-stamp variety that often appear in garden encyclopedias.

The other book is a tribute to the protected places of North Carolina’s Piedmont Land Conservancy. Published by the conservancy and appropriately titled “Forever These Lands,” it features photographs by Virginia Weiler, a friend of mine. The land comes gently alive in pictures of trees mirrored in the streams they border, of hills in the russet-light of autumn, of farms and fields, and of plants and people and woodland creatures.

In the meantime, here’s to autumn.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Bulb Basics

Bulbs are little miracles. You put a small non-descript brown thing in a hole in the ground, cover it with dirt and wait for spring. And lo and behold, you're almost never disappointed. It's an act of faith, a trust in nature. And now is the time to get it all in motion.

If you can dig a hole, you can plant a bulb. That said, there are a few basics to keep in mind.

Inspect bulbs before planting. Give a good squeeze to make sure they're firm. Don't worry if there are small nicks or loose or missing tunics, which is what the bulb's papery covering is called. But dump any that are deeply scarred, mushy or moldy.

Take mail-order bulbs out of the box or crate and store them in a dry, well-ventilated area. But remember, you can't tell a yellow tulip from a pink double by looking at the bulb, so don't take them out of their labeled mesh bags until planting day.

Plant after the first frost but before the ground freezes. November is prime time. Once bulbs make roots, they shouldn't freeze.

Choose a well-drained site. Soggy soil can cause bulbs to develop fungal diseases and rot so avoid areas where puddles collect. And remember, daffodils need about 6 to 8 hours of sun even after the flowers fade. The foliage uses sunlight to replenish the bulb for the following spring. So plant in sunny beds and at the edges of woodlands. And don’t cut, tie or bend the foliage after the flowers peter out – let leaves yellow and flop over before removing them.

Plant large bulbs like tulips and daffodils eight inches deep and small bulbs like crocuses and grape hyacinths five inches deep. You don't need a ruler. My friend Sally Ferguson, director of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, offers this handy helper: Use your own hand as a measuring tool. Generally speaking it's about 7 to 8 inches from your wrist to the tip of your middle finger, and about 5-and-a-half inches from the crook at the base of your thumb to the tip of your index finger. The length of the last joint of the thumb should be between 1 to 2 inches. I measured my hand -- Sally's rule of thumb works.

Plant the pointy side of the bulb up. If there's any doubt, plant the bulb on its side.

Plant in bunches or drifts -- don't plant in rows. Try combining daffodils with daylilies; the emerging Hemerocallis foliage will hide the bulb’s withering leaves and carry your garden into summer.

Top-dress with an organic bulb fertilizer or a slow-release formula after planting. Don’t put fertilizer in the planting hole – it could burn emerging roots. And don’t use bone meal – it attracts rodents and dogs and does nothing for the bulb.

Water after planting but don't mulch until the ground freezes. Once the big chill arrives, cover the bulb beds with a layer of pine needles or well-chopped pine bark or boughs from your Christmas tree.

There's still time to buy or order bulbs. Here are some of my favorite sources:

Van Bourgondien: 800-622-9997
Brent and Becky's Bulbs: 877-661-2852
Old House Gardens: 734-995-1486
White Flower Farm: 800-503-9624

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Think Pink

Ten years ago, I fought a wild seed that invaded my body. My garden was a source of solace throughout my struggle. As a breast cancer survivor, I thought I'd tell you about a chance to help fight the disease that is every woman's fear and, in a small way, help your garden at the same time.

During October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Smith & Hawken is offering a pink Haws watering can, with part of the proceeds going to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. The enamel watering can has removable brass roses and costs $50.

Brown leather gardening gloves with reinforced fingertips and a pink ribbon embroidered on the wristband costs $29. A pink tool apron with four pockets and an adjustable belt strap costs $20.

I figure that when it comes to fighting breast cancer, every little bit helps. And while I'm talking about breast cancer, if you or someone you know needs good advice, the place to contact is the Adelphi New York Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline and Support Program.