Garden Diary - December 2004

Here we are nearly midway through December (the 12th, to be precise.) So far it has been rain interspersed with misty drizzle, overcast skies, and - for the time of year - reasonably moderate conditions. A look back over the last ten years in my garden journal shows low temperatures generally clustered around mid to high 20s and 30s Fahrenheit, and one miserable night back in 1995 when the thermometer plummeted to 9.5 Fahrenheit. Mud and open ground is preferable to snow, ice, and stone-frozen soil so I think I'll keep any muttered complaints soto voce.

Autumn Leaf Clean-Up and Lawn Care

The weather means that fallen leaves are sodden mats that clump together, heavy to haul away. Last week I had someone here with a backpack blower, clearing the front and back lawn of autumn's largess. The heavy-duty machine made my hand-held blower look like a child's toy. Moreover, it easily chased the leaves into large windrows for disposal. I used a tarp to collect them from the front lawn's heap - for two hours I raked leaves onto the tarp, dragged them a little way up the path to the Forest Deck and off into the woods where I dumped them into a heap of their own.

Once finished, I applied a bag and a half of pelletized dolmitic limestone to the front lawn, which is 2,244 sq. feet. For comparison, an acre is 43,560 sq. feet. As I finished, it began to rain in some ernest, excellent timing since the leaves were cleared away and the lime applied. Lime is not a fertilizer. It raises the pH, making the soil (naturally quite acid here at BelleWood Gardens) less sour. Some plants, such as rhododendrons, azaleas, pieris, leucothoe, flowering dogwood, pachysandra, heaths and heathers, prefer an acid soil. Others, such as turf grass, do better with pH closer to 7, which is the neutral rating between acid and alkaline. Nutrients are less available to grass when conditions are acid. Grass quickly greens up when lime unlocks the iron and it becomes more available.

The Banana in Winter

The venerated Japanese haiku poet Basho took his name from the dry and tattered leaves of Musa basjoo. One of his most famous poems reads as follows:

Basho nowaki shite
Tarai ni ame o
Kiku yo kana

A banana plant in the autumn gale -
I listen to the dripping of rain
Into a basin at night.

My large red-spot banana has long since been moved indoors for the winter. The two largest culms were divided and potted up. One is in front of the French doors in the great room while the other is under the skylights in my bedroom. That leaves the hardy Japanese fiber banana, Musa basjoo, that stays in the ground year-round. It is planted close to the house under my study's windows. Some slight warmth seeping through the basement, I reasoned when it was first planted, could only be helpful. I have had it for several years now, and it has been a pleasure and a delight, with huge tropical leaves in summer. In winter it is covered with an upside-down garbage can, usually filled with oak leaves. Last winter was nearly its death knell, not from exceptional cold but from ravenous voles. When spring arrived and I uncovered things, to my dismay I discovered that the voles had eaten every last bit of the yellow-flowered alstromeria that had grown in the same area for three years or more. They'd eaten every scrap of the purple leaved Canna flaccida 'Purpurea' that was actually somewhat rampant. And worst of all, they'd gnawed away the the heavy corms of my banana and its pups. Enough remained that two sturdy culms survived, but they were not as lush and extravagantly tropical as previously. Though the cool, generally overcast summer might also have had a role to play. It could have been dug and wintered, dormant, in the garage. It could have been potted, to contest for space with the red-spot bananas. Stubborn, I wanted it to remain outdoors, in the ground throughout the winter. I loosened the soil around it large culm, the dry and twisted leaves clattering as I brushed against them. Then I dug some Bulb Saver into the soil. I've bad this can of mothball-smelling "stuff" for the longest while. The directions advise to dust the bulbs with the powder, plant, and then dust some more on the surface after backfilling the holes. What can I say except it sounds promising for protecting a banana plant against voles. This year I filled the garbage cans with pine needles, and then upended one over each of the two culms. A wooden stake driven through the handle protects the bulky cans from blowing over. Come spring, I'll find out how well this all worked.

Digging a Drainage Channel

Perched up on a hill as BelleWood Garden is, water is always an issue. It runs downhill, you see, and in winter that means it freezes where I don't want it to do so. This is especially true where it runs off the slope above the upper parking area and angles across the head of the driveway towards the gazebo, leaving a broad band of ice just as I reach the curve at the top. It is not thick ice, and if there is any sun it separates from the asphalt. I can then peel it loose and send chunks of ice skittering over the edge. But more water flows, freezes, and the next morning I'm back where I started, with hazardous ice.

We've talked about digging a channel across the slope, to intercept water as it drains off the land. And now we have. Not that December is an ideal month for this sort of thing, but things happen as they will.

Frank, who came with his backpack blower to clean up the leaves on the lawn, has a lovely bright orange Kubota backhoe with the cutest 12-inch wide bucket on the other end. He came on Monday (together with a whirl of snowflakes and a chilly wind) to dig a ditch near the toe of the slope. That portion is relatively shallow but deepends to almost 5 feet where it cuts through the bank of the intermittent drainage ditch that leads to a culvert under the driveway.

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