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, December 31, 2006

A Gardener's Resolutions

'Tis the season to make resolutions. I know, I know – what’s the point. You’ll only lose the list, they’ll be forgotten by tomorrow, who cares anyway. I care. Besides, I’m not talking about losing weight or getting organized. I’m talking about what really matters – keeping up with my garden. So here are this gardener's resolutions for 2007. I'd love to hear yours.

Do more with dahlias.
Plant a tree and shrub border, include Callicarpa and a Stewartia.
Turn my “mailbox” garden into a xeriscape.
Buy plant labels and use them.
Use sunblock religiously.
Replace the Daphne Carol Mackie I lost.
Plant more hellebores and colchicums.
Design new rose beds.
Paint the garden fence.
Start vegetable seeds on time.
Weed out old seed catalogs and garden books.
Keep up with my blog.
Repot my orchids.
Stop and smell the roses. The lilies too.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Deck the Halls -- With Plants

If you're like me, you're decking the halls with plants for the Christmas season. Red and green are the traditional colors of the yuletide and plants from poinsettias to Christmas cactus not only suit the motif but liven up the festivites. Plants are gifts that keep giving. They deserve some TLC. Here are some guidelines to keep them happy beyond the holidays.

Pamper Poinsettias
This holiday classic needs bright light, with a minimum of three to four hours of direct sun every day. Keep it in a room with daytime temperatures ranging from 68 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit; a night temperature of about 55 helps the plant retain its color. Don’t let it dry out, but don’t saturate it either. Water when the soil surface feels dry. By the way, if the pot is wrapped in foil, remove it or punch a hole in the bottom so excess water doesn’t accumulate. Enjoy your poinsettia for as long as you can, then do what most gardeners, myself included, do. Say goodbye to the holiday season and let the plant enrich the compost pile.

However, if you want to take a chance on making your poinsettia merry and bright for next Christmas, here’s what you have to do:

In late spring, when there’s no possibility of frost, move the plant outside. Trim to shape it, then place it in indirect sun until it gets used to being outdoors. After a few weeks, it’s ok to move the poinsettia to a sunny spot. Once a month, feed it an all purpose 20-20-20 fertilizer, mixing a half teaspoon to one gallon of water. Cut back the stems again in early July so the plant stays full and bushy. Bring it inside around Labor Day.
This is when things get tricky. From the first day of fall through Thanksgiving, put the plant in complete darkness for 14 hours every night. And I mean complete darkness. Not in a room with a night light or one where the full moon shines through sheer curtains. Put it in a closet or in a box that doesn’t have cut-out hand holds. But there’s no need to be obsessive and put it in a box in a closet, because every day you’ll have to pull the poinsettia out of the dark on schedule and place it in bright natural light for 10 hours. This regimen is what forces the green brachts – the botanical term for the colorful “petals” that are actually modified leaves – to turn red. The real flowers are the yellow berry-like centers. During this time, water and fertilize as usual.

On Thanksgiving, let the poinsettia out of the closet – just make sure it gets six hours of direct sun every day. Contrary to popular belief, poinsettias are not poisonous to humans or animals. The sap can irritate your skin, however, so wear gloves when you’re pruning.

Enjoy Amaryllis
These easy-to-grow bulbs with their big stunning flowers on tall sturdy stems deserve a place under the tree as gifts and on the table as decorations. And you don’t have to kiss them goodbye when the flowers fade. Amaryllis are happiest with three to four hours of direct sun a day so an east-or-west-facing window is the perfect spot. Like poinsettias, they like temperatures of about 75 degrees in the day and around 55 degrees at night. Make sure the soil dries out between watering – as with most bulbs, an Amaryllis may rot if it sits in too much water. During the winter, feed it a diluted solution of all purpose fertilizer once a month. In spring and summer, fertilize every two weeks or so. And you should move the potted bulbs outside in summer as long as you give it a lightly shaded spot. In late August, curtail watering, then stop altogether until the foliage dies back. Remove the bulb from the soil and store it in a cool, dry place where it can rest until mid to late October. Then repot it in light, well-draining potting soil. Watering is like an alarm clock going off. As soon as you start, the bulb wakes and is on its blooming way.

Coddle Christmas Cactus
If you take care of your Christmas cactus it can live for decades and reward you with countless flowers. Place it in a north-facing or east-facing window away from cold drafts and heat. Water when the soil feels dry and feed it every two weeks with half-strength balanced fertilizer after the flowers fade. But real success depends on how you treat it during the plant’s downtime. A touch of cold helps the plant to flower, so make sure it’s outdoors from early fall to just before frost. It needs to be kept dry, unfertilized and at a temperature of about 55 degrees to set buds. Once buds appear, night temperatures of 60 to 70 degrees and day temperatures of 70 degrees or higher are fine. When the plant is flowering, temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees will keep it going.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

The Twelve Days of Christmas

As it turns out, I won't be able to sing "The 12 Days of Christmas" at the Long Island Horticultural Society meeting on Sunday. Instead, I'll be watching my step-daughter receive her master's degree. I think her straight A's are extra impressive because she's only 52 years old. Anyway, I hope you attend the get-together at Planting Fields Arboretum and have a great time. The meeting starts at 1 p.m. and includes two lectures. The sing-a-long starts around 3 p.m. I'll be there in spirit.

And to get you ready here are my lyrics -- as tweaked by the society:

On the Twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me

Twelve baskets hanging

Eleven edgers edging

Ten chimes a-chiming

Nine sprinklers sprinkling

Eight rakes a-raking

Seven mowers mowing

Six weeders weeding

Five compost heaps

Four yards of mulch

Three sharp shears

Two bags of bulbs

And a poinsettia in a pear tree.

How Menorahs Took Root

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah and if you'd like to know about the connection between the menorah and the garden, here's my recent Newsday column on the subject.

Happy Hanukkah.

"You shall make a lampstand of pure gold ... Six branches shall issue from its sides ... On one branch there shall be ... cups shaped like almond-blossoms, each with calyx and petals ... for all six branches."
- Exodus 25:31-33

In a conventional sense, neither my husband nor I is religious, but we both believe in the golden rule and growing things. We're both gardeners. I'm Protestant by birth, my husband is Jewish. And we both cling to the traditions of our childhoods.
At Christmas, we sing carols and decorate a tree, but we put a bow on the top, and a dreidel or two add to the ornaments. At Hanukkah, we say the prayers and take turns lighting the menorah and give each other funny presents. I make Hanukkah bags for my grown stepchildren, and it is a family joke that everybody always gets dental floss and a toothbrush from Irene. It's true. What's wrong with dental hygiene?

Anyway, with my being related to Hanukkah through marriage and with my husband and I being practicing gardeners, I was beguiled by a passing mention in one of my horticulture books that menorahs may have been modeled on one of my favorite plants -- the salvia. I love salvias and my husband. And the holidays are almost here. It was pure serendipity but I wanted to know more about the salvia-Hanukkah connection.

I Googled. I read. I researched. I got sidetracked by Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish," or at least by a brief addendum to his description of Hanukkah. "I have it on indisputable authority," he wrote, "that in Scarsdale during a school celebration of Christmas, one of the children sang the carol as: 'God rest ye, Jerry Mandelbaum.'" Obviously, Jerry Mandelbaum had nothing to do with the affinity between salvias and menorahs but Aileen Novick of Jericho did. I found Aileen, a former national director of Hadassah, in a letter she wrote 10 years ago to The New York Times that commented on an article about salvias.

In the letter, Aileen told about the relationship between the flower and the candelabrum and said research to this end had been done by the late Professor Ephraim Hareuveni of Israel and his son, Nogah, who established what is now a 625-acre reserve called Neot Kedumim, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where biblical flora and fauna flourish in their native habitats.

"In Exodus all the terms used in the description of the menorah are botanical," Aileen explained when I called her. "This gave impetus to the notion that maybe there was something growing at the time that provided inspiration for the menorah. Ephraim Hareuveni found the salvia growing wild on Mount Moriah, where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed. He projected that this is what the biblical menorah was based on -- the straight central stalk and branches on either side that curve up with a cup like a menorah. The resemblance is uncanny."

Mazel tov. I had found the right trail and it led straight to Neot Kedumim, where almond trees and olive groves abound and where cyclamens grow and several varieties of salvia bloom between March and May, between the holidays of Purim and Shavuot. It was around Shavuot that the holy Torah was given to the Jewish people as they journeyed to freedom.

But language barriers and telephone problems thwarted my quest. Finally, I was referred back to the United States -- to Paula Tobenfeld of Potomac, Md., an East Rockaway native who is president of the American Friends of Neot Kedumim. She told me she is not much of a gardener but I think she is one in spirit.

More than 40 varieties of salvia grow in Israel and several thrive at the reserve. The ones that most resemble the menorah are Salvia dominica, Salvia hierosolymitana Boiss and Salvia palaestina Bentham. "If you see a picture of any of these three, you will be struck at how much it looks like a menorah. Each has a central stem and opposing side branches -- some have three on each side, some four."

Hanukkah, "The Festival of Lights," marks the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after Judah Maccabee and his brave guerrillas defeated the Syrian invaders. And the miracle of the oil in the lamp that was only supposed to last for a single day but instead gave light for eight days. That is why the Hanukkah menorah has eight branches. Actually, Paula explained, it is called a Hanukkiah. "The Hanukkiah is a representation of a menorah."

In those days, the candleholders were filled with olive oil. Neot Kedumim is a themed preserve where a wedding trail in the dale of the Song of Songs is bordered with Hawthorne apples and pomegranates and tulips and narcissi. Where date palms rise in the Valley of Jericho and where salvia, the "moriah plant," grows on the Hill of the Menorah amid olive groves.

"When the wind blows in an olive grove, the silvery underside of the foliage flips over like in a wave," Paula said. "The effect is that of the trees giving off their own light. Now you have the fragrance of the salvia plant and the light of the olive tree. Whenever there is mention in the Torah of incense being burned in the Temple, there is also a mention of light. Light and fragrance, they are mentioned together in the Torah. These things don't escape our sages."

They don't. And when we light the menorah later this week and the candles flicker in their cups and blaze up like salvias bursting into bloom, I will think of the Moriah plants and the olive trees and the miracle of the light that lasted for eight days.

Write to Irene Virag at 1019 Fort Salonga Rd., Suite 10, #302, Northport, NY 11768
or email

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Paris Hilton Poinsettias?

Today is National Poinsettia Day. I wonder what Joel Roberts Poinsett would make of what’s happened to the tall, weedy red shrub he spotted growing wild in Taxco, Mexico in December of 1828. I remember being in Taxco more than a few years ago and all I saw were jewelry shops.

Never mind that Poinsett was a skilled politician and the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Never mind that he would go on to be a secretary of war and a founder of a museum that would become the Smithsonian Institution. Poinsett was an amateur horticulturist, so he did what any gardener would do – he stopped to snip a cutting. He sent it to his plantation in South Carolina and a year later the fiery plant was a blazing success at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s exposition. The rest, as they say, is history.

Poinsett died on Dec. 12, 1951 and Congress later decided to honor him and the plant he discovered with their very own day.

A lot has happened to poinsettias since then. But I’m not talking about all the work hybridizers have been doing – concocting dozens of shades of red or introducing pink and white and lemon and apricot and marbled cultivars. Or creating variegated foliage and tweaking the shape of the leaves and making bigger bracts – that’s what the colorful “petals” are called – and ruffled bracts and crinkled bracts. Forget all that.

Today, I’m talking about the gussied-up poinsettia impersonators I saw at Hicks Nurseries here on Long Island. Poinsettias with bracts of blue and purple and orange and yellow – and even weirdly mottled ones. Poinsettias that shine and shimmer with silver and gold and pink glitter. Poinsettias that have been dyed and sprayed and shined like a Las Vegas showgirl. There’s even one that’s been dolled up with iridescent pink glitter. Walt Dworkin in the Hicks greenhouse department nicknamed it the Paris Hilton Poinsettia. Guess what? Customers snapped it up like paparazzi going after the real Paris Hilton, who – come to think of it – is no slouch herself when it comes to glam and glitter.

I should mention that the spray-on dyes and glue are specially formulated by Fred C. Gloeckner, a commercial horticultural supplier in upstate New York, so the plants can still breathe. How thoughtful.

So give yourself – or someone you love – a poinsettia today. As for me, I’m sticking with red. Hey, I don’t wear makeup – why should my poinsettias?

Let me know what you think of the floral floozies that seem to be this season’s rage.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Irresistible Amaryllis

I don’t know about you but I love amaryllis. Don’t worry if you didn’t pot one up to bloom for Christmas. You can plant them anytime. I usually stagger my planting every couple of weeks through January so I have waves of flowers to brighten dreary winter days. One year, I had so many flowers I made bouquets when the blooms got too heavy and the stems flopped over. It was like having an indoor cutting garden. And they lasted a long time in the vase – about two weeks.

These days there are so many varieties of amaryllis, which technically speaking is a cousin of the true amaryllis, a South African native named Amaryllis belladonna. What we know and love as amaryllis is actually a plant called Hippeastrum, pronounced hip-ee-ay-strum. But what’s in a name?

This year, I’m giving bare amaryllis bulbs as holiday hostess gifts and stocking stuffers. And I’m expanding my repertoire with miniature Gracilis varieties like Papillio and double-flowered ones like Blossom Peacock and trumpet types that look like little Easter lilies. I especially like Pink Floyd. And I’m having a real thing with the new Cybister amaryllis. Talk about exotic. These South American hybrids have long spidery petals and come in luscious colors. My favorites are dark coral star-shaped La Paz with green and white highlights (pictured at left) and greenish white Emerald with red streaks.

My friend Sally Ferguson with the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center tells me I don’t even have to bother with staggered plantings. That’s because not all amaryllis varieties flower within the same timeframe – they each have their own natural bloom time. It’s just that their schedules aren’t as precise as say tulips or daffodils. So if you know that some varieties will flower in four to six weeks while others won’t do their thing for as many as 12 weeks, you can plant them all at one time and sit back and wait for the show.

Here, courtesy of Sally, are bloom times of the more predictable varieties.

Early-Season Varieties take 5 to 8 weeks to bloom
*Single-flowered: Orange Sovereign, Lucky Strike, Apple Blossom, Minerva, Roma, Vera, Mount Blanc
*Double-flowered: Lady Jane, Mary Lou, Aphrodite, Pasadena
*Miniature Gracillis varieties: Donau, Scarlet Baby, Giraffe, Amoretta, Pamela

Mid-Season Varieties take 7 to 10 weeks to bloom
*Single-flowered: Red Lion, Lemon Lime, Liberty, Royal Velvet, Hercules, Wonderland, Picotee
*Double-flowered: Double Record, Unique, Blossom Peacock, White Peacock
*Cybister varieties: Emerald, Ruby Meyer
*Miniature Gracilis varieties: Papillio
*Trumpet varieties: Pink Floyd

Late-Season Varieties take 9 to 12 weeks to bloom
*Single-flowered: Las Vegas, Clown, Piquant, Toronto, Vlammenspel, Happy Memory, Charisma
*Double-flowered: Promise, Dancing Queen, Flaming Peacock, Andes
*Cybister varieties: La Paz, Chico
*Trumpet varieties: Amputo, Misty

Down&Dirty with Amaryllis
Plant amaryllis in a pot just barely bigger than the bulb itself. Fill with soil to the bulb’s “shoulders,” where the bulb tapers inward, leaving the upper shoulders and neck exposed. If you’re planting more than one amaryllis in the same pot, choose a broad container and place bulbs shoulder to shoulder.

Water well, then sparingly until growth is underway. Place the pot in bright light and when the stem shows, keep the soil moist but not soggy. When flowers open, move the pot out of direct sunlight and away from heaters. Like poinsettias, they like temperatures of about 75 degrees in the day and around 55 degrees at night. Feed monthly with balanced liquid fertilizer.

And you don’t have to kiss them goodbye when the flowers fade. Cut down the stalk and enjoy amaryllis as a foliage houseplant. In the summer, move the potted bulbs to a lightly shaded spot outside. Fertilize every two weeks or so. In late August, curtail watering, then stop altogether until the foliage dies back. Remove the bulb from the soil and store it in a cool, dry place where it can rest until mid to late October. Then repot it in light, well-draining potting soil. Watering is like an alarm clock going off. As soon as you start, the bulb wakes and is on its blooming way again.