Six on Saturday

Join the Propagator and his bumper crop of gardeners for another Six on Saturday.

1. Botany for Gardeners. I am working my way through this book. So far, it has evoked fond memories of high school biology textbook illustrations. Fewer practical lessons for the gardener have been derived, I’m afraid. But I do feel suitably elevated by exposure to theory.

Photo from

2. Mulches. Over the course of my admittedly relatively brief career as a gardener, I have experimented with many a mulch. Straw, bark dust, wood chips, cardboard, ground and unground leaves. “What have I gleaned from these not very scientific trials?” you may or may not ask. I like wood chips for those small (and ever-shrinking) areas in which I prefer that nothing grows, such as paths. Bark dust brings back memories that I prefer not to revisit and is thus shunned unless donated to the cause by an insensitive, but well-meaning soul. Dyed bark dusts are doubly shunned, regardless of intentions of would be donors. I feel that I may safely pass over synthetic mulches of all kinds as unmentionable. Leaving us with straw and leaves. Spoiled straw may be acquired at a deep discount from the local agricultural coop and is therefore tempting. I admit that I find it aesthetically acceptable, even pleasing. Despite warnings re: herbicides, I have detected no deleterious effects on the plants that I am trying to grow, while I have observed excellent weed suppression. I recognize that straw is usually thought suitable only for the homely kitchen garden, but I ask whether this is the product of careful consideration or purblind prejudice. Whole leaves are accessible once a year in great abundance, presumably untainted by herbicides, and have the added recommendation of serving as nature’s mulch – at least in forested areas. Two concerns present themselves: are the unchopped leaves smothering whatever is underneath? And something once read and vaguely understood about the distinction between soils in which the fungal element predominates vs those in which the bacterial reign supreme. So, chopped leaves are a ready remedy to the one concern. As regards the other, I appeal to my learned and largely imaginary audience, “Are leaves contraindicated as a mulch for plants that thrive in soils where bacteria are dominant?”

3. Seed and Scion Exchange. It was everything that I dared not hope for, and more. Hosted by a nonprofit based in Illinois Valley, situated on a remote farm dotted with the requisite handbuilt-from-scrap-materials outbuildings, frequented by the vaguely pagan, possibly somewhat ill-informed, sprouted grain bread-breaking denizens of my dreams. Vegetable seeds were in abundance. Ornamentals somewhat less well represented, but the selection delightfully unpredictable. Starts were given away by a lovely, older, long-haired couple who reported that the poppies had been grown from seeds harvested from the man’s parents’ garden. The scions were largely, if not entirely, from countless heirloom varieties of apple, the root stock also available for grafting. Having neither the skill nor the space to undertake this project, I confined myself to the roots and shoots of sundry herbs on offer – comfry, marsh mallow, borage. I left feeling more hopeful than I have in some time, after the added delight of identifying a local plant with a remarkably agave-like appearance and slightly contorted leaves, previously glimpsed on a remote hike and thus left respectfully untouched, growing freely in the parking lot across the street from the farm. I shall return.

4. The first buds of Ceanothus “Blue Jeans.” The leaves are rather yellower than I would like. Brief research suggests that no supplemental feed or water are required or desired by this plant and that full sun is required for it to maintain its form. Have I perhaps overwatered or overfed? The yellowing suggests stress, though the flower buds appear prolific. Any ideas?

5. Analogies. How do you use analogies and contrasts in color, form, size, leaf shape in your planting schemes? The below analogy (bulb fennel and Cape Restio) was unintentional. Redundant and detracting from the striking impression that would otherwise be created by either plant’s feathery and lime green foliage? Or does it suggest the emergence of a rhythm, the possibility of a commentary on convergent evolution or the deepseated kinship of all things? I haven’t decided. I am hoping that the maturation of plants situated between the two will provide a foil that will render their similarities pleasing, even intriguing.

6. Ornamental asparagus (above) continues to struggle in its new situation. Evidently stressed (dead and discolored foliage) and with no evidence of new growth. Any ideas what I am doing wrong? Kniphofia (below) also seems unhappy. The orange to green gradient and crispy tips suggest a failure to thrive. The soil is well draining, the plant situated in full sun. Am I over or underwatering? All suggestions are welcome.

15 thoughts on “Six on Saturday

  1. Gosh! I haven’t read a Botany book like that in ages! I wonder if I can remember all that physiology and terminology? The mulch I use is mainly hard wood (so termites are not attracted) chip for paths, and then sugarcane mulch around and in between the plants. The other thing I do is throw all prunings in a pile (as long as the twigs are not too thick and mow them up into the grass catcher of the mower, and use this for layering in the compost, or to spread sparingly in the garden. You could try spraying a seaweed fertilizer on your plants as they go into spring and see if that helps them cope.

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    • I like the idea of using chopped twigs from the garden as a mulch. I don’t have a mower, but am seriously tempted to purchase an electric chipper/shredder as it breaks my heart to donate perfectly serviceable organic matter to the city landscape compost bin. I will take your recommendation regarding seeweed fertilizer under advisement. Is it purchased in liquid form or as soluble powder? Is it a foliar feed? Thank you for the help.

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      • That is a good philosophy about not letting any serviceable organic matter leave the property! We try our best to retain most of ours. The seaweed fertiliser can be applied as a foliage spray to the plants. The one we buy is liquid, but still needs dilution. Some of the nurseries here recommend using it after transplanting seedlings to reduce stress in the seedlings.

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  2. I have read at least some of Botany for Gardeners! I quite like it, possibly for the same reasons as yourself – it feels quite edifying to know some of these things, even if they’re not really that much use!

    I’m can’t offer much help with the plant trouble shooting, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t have thought it was a case of over feeding with the ceanothus though. Sometimes stressed plants put out more flowers, to account for any impending doom (although I’m sure it’s not that severe)!

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  3. In general, when the plants look healthy but are yellow in color, it’s often a chlorosis problem and so in your case it comes from the soil maybe? A problem of absorption of certain minerals: you may have to look that way. Regarding mulch, I often use flax straw which is very effective to also fight against snails and slugs because they don’t like to go there

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  4. Where I have seen wild asparagus growing in the Mediterranean area this is what they look like in the spring. To get lovely new growth, I would suggest cutting off all existing foliage and giving the whole plant a good drenching of water…….

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  5. I’ve also got Capon’s book. I didn’t find it the most engaging read, to put it mildly, but yes it did bring back memories of school biology lessons. I love your description of the people at the seed and scion exchange, especially ‘vaguely pagan’, I think we can all picture it in our minds. Re mulch, like you I am keen to get hold of a shredder to transform twiggy matter in mulch, but I’ve also used cocoa mulch, a by-product of the cocoa industry, which works well as a weed suppressant, has a nice dark colour against which most plants look good, and emits the lovely, rich smell of chocolate! Sorry I can’t help with the ailing plants, other than to echo Hairbells and Maples – I tend to give a feed to sick plants to see if that picks them up.

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  6. I have a heavy duty shredder. I got mine on Craigslist for $100 and wouldn’t be without it. In the fall I shred leaves to use as mulch. In spring I shred prunings. Ramial wood chips (from new spring growth) are incredibly beneficial in building soil health and structure. Older chips are used for paths and wooded areas. Nothing is wasted if I can help it! I’m interested to see whether my bought in compost actually improves the soil or not this year.

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  7. Hi Erin, I wish I understood your soil better to know what if any problem you have with those plants. I’m very much from the wait and see school of gardening. I’ve often rushed in and misdiagnosed a problem and made it worse with the wrong solution. I’m looking forward to seeing the ceaonothus flower. It can’t be that unhappy with such a healthy fat bud.

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    • Yes, I think wait and see may be the best advice when the causes are unclear, as in this case. I am keeping an eye on my other ceaonothuses to see if they show similar signs of stress or if they’re confined to this individual, which may help with the differential diagnosis.


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