Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is it here? - Geldi Mi?

Is what here? Spring of course, what else could a gardener be waiting for, the return of the snails? (As if they ever went anywhere...)

Of course I'm quite aware that many who might be reading this live in places like Minnesota, so for them, even the question is absurd. I did my time too; I grew up in Iowa and remember the agony on my North Carolina-born mother's face when my grandmother in Charlotte would call around this time, and with mock surprise in her voice, say (Imagine a thick old-style southern accent here) "Oh, there's still snow on the ground there? Here the jonquils are in bloom, and the camellia's almost through, and the tulips are comin' up..." Later it would be the ripening figs (what my mom would do for a ripe fig in Iowa!).

But it's payback time (karma is so fickle, isn't it?) because I live in a mild zone now, so y'all can go eat your hearts out. My tulips are up, and yours aren't!

Well...actually they are up but they won't bloom this year because they've divided.

But my first snowdrops did bloom this year. The funny thing is, I have no idea where they came from. There are lots of wild ones around, including one that's endemic to the Istanbul area. I suspect mine may have come in with some primroses I brought from Belgrade forest last year. Wherever they came from, they're doing well and I hope they'll multiply.

The first calendula is also in bloom; there will be many more of those. An odd and somewhat useless fact: Here, they call calendulas "nergis," which means "narcissus." I don't know why; perhaps it's because they're both yellow (usually) and both come up in early spring, and someone got confused, and it stuck...? Some garden snobs might think of it as "pedestrian," but I love it for its timing if nothing else. I'm also going to try and get the local wild one going in the wilder areas of the garden.

Another old standby, and a plant that I've grown infinitely more appreciative of since coming here is Geranium macrorrhizum.

The Bulgarians know it as "zdravets," and use it in a variety of ways that are supposed to be very, very good for you. One website provides this bit of herbal knowledge:
Zdravets essential oil has antiseptic, antispasmodic, anti-allergic, astringent and capillary strengthening qualities. It lowers the blood pressure in hypertension sufferers, due to its flavonoid content. It can also lower the level of blood sugar in diabetics. In addition, zdravets oil can relieve menopause symptoms, stimulate the blood vessels and relieve insomnia and fatigue. Used on the skin, zdravets oil is helpful against itching, skin lesions, furuncles and hemorrhoids.
I'll remember that if I ever find myself with a furuncle. I probably wouldn't joke about it if I knew what a furuncle was; I certainly know better than to joke about hemerrhoids. Personally I find the smell a bit off-putting, not as bad as "Stinking Robert" (G. robertianum) but close. My newfound appreciation of it has nothing to do with its health-giving properties, but with its sheer hardiness. The plant that spawned the one in the picture is growing in an incredibly crowded pot, where it's undoubtedly thrived for years and years. Each year it produces a profusion of bloom, and though I doubt there's much of anything resembling soil left in that pot, it hardly flags even in the hottest of weather. To list it as one of the first flowers of spring is almost misleading, because the truth is that it never quite stopped! It does produce a full flush of bloom when the weather warms a bit, but from fall until the weather really gets hot, it always throws out a few flowers here and there. I really should get myself some of the other varieties of it.

Besides finding out what did or did not survive the winter, spring is also when you get an idea of how far your invasive species have progressed! Here we have white yarrow (Achillea millefolium) happily sending up new sprouts a couple of feet from where it was originally planted. Honestly I don't know why I chose the white one, but I did and it's here to stay. Unless, of course, it is outcompeted by Verbena bonariensis, a plant of which is coming up at the right. V. bonariensis is a funny thing, it can be rampant but never has been for me; in my Seattle garden I never even managed to get it to grow even though some friends were tearing it, and their hair, out in handfuls trying to contain it. Here I get four or five seedlings a year; I can deal with that.

I also got some surprises this year. Right at the entrance of the upper garden is a clump of Iris foetidissima, a plant I've always loved for its brilliant red seeds in the fall. In Seattle it used to always seed around, but though the plant here was an old one, i never found a seedling. I suspect that's because the area around it was never cleared; this spring a poke around the base revealed lots of seedlings coming up. My friend Ayfer gets first dibs, the rest are up for grabs!

Another pleasant surprise was that the "Matucana" sweet peas I grew last year managed to ripen and scatter some seed before I was able to collect it, and they came up in the fall. I was a bit worried that they might get zapped in the cold snap, but they've obviously come through it just fine. This prompted me to go ahead and sow some more out there in the same area. If you want a really, REALLY fragrant sweet pea, this one to grow; it's purportedly the closest to the wild species which grows in Sicily. I grew it together with "Cupani," a lighter bicolor pink, which was also incredibly fragrant, a few of these brought in the house produced enough scent to be noticeable all the way across the living room. This year I'm trying several more; sweet peas are another plant that I never had much luck with in Seattle but grow well here.

The final "eat your heart out" picture is this - the first flowering stalk of the freesias that came two years ago from the garden of my friend Peggy in Berkely, CA. They were a perfect "gardenwarming" present. In California (and I suspect, here as well) they can get to be a bit weedy, but there could be worse weeds. Especially if you're one of those poor souls who live in Minnesota. (On the other hand, you get to grow brilliant rhubarb, and great peonies.) Now in Turkey they believe in the nazar, or evil eye, which means that coveting something is believed to be injurious to the object of the covetousness. I used to think it was silly. Then I watched a beautiful stand of Kalanchoe growing in a shop, which I'd stand and admire every time I'd go by it, become decimated by fungus. Obviously it was all my fault. ;) So by encouraging all this eating out of hearts, I might easily provoke a case of nazar, and come out one morning to find all of my freesias cut down by snails, or my snowdrops dug up by cats and replaced by...well, you know what cats leave you when they get to digging! It will be y'all's fault as well if I do!

I Am the Groundhog

I finally got a good day of gardening in today! Since my last post, I've been leading a groundhog-like existence, vegetating in the house, trying to get back in shape musically and making (and eating) lots of kimchi. Which is better than sitting around eating cheesecake in the long run, but still the steadily greening view below kept reminding me that there was a lot to do before I could start planting!

And we still have March to get through... March is fickle; in Turkish there's a saying about March:

Kapıdan baktıran, kazma kürek yaktıran ay
The month that has you looking out the door, and burning your picks and shovels.

...the jist being that the warm weather encourages you to go out, but it could just as easily be wintery cold that has you burning whatever is left because your winter fuel has run out! And since you never know what's coming, it's best not to look out on the weed-filled expanse and say "I'll do it tomorrow..."

The snow was not the last of the things keeping me out of the garden. It was followed by several weeks of non-freezing but consistently wet weather -- I think three days was the most we had without rain at any given point. I did take advantage of that three-day spell to get the worst of the weeds out of the vegetable garden, and as the soil was marginally workable, I managed to get half of my cover crop of fava beans planted. I'd wanted to do that as soon as I got back from Seattle in November but well, it was late November, and winter had kicked in. Now I have a dense growth of favas an inch high covering half the garden. I'll leave a couple rows to fruit as I love fresh fava beans, but the rest will get dug into the soil that will support this year's expanse of squash, tatsoi, garlic chives, rainbow chard, amaranth and sunflowers. Oh, and big Korean radishes!

Today was devoted to other pursuits - I weeded my neighbors' garden. Now before you think "what a good neighbor, I wish he lived next to my garden," I should note that I weeded only very selectively, and with a clear ulterior motive.

I mentioned in a very old post that the yard had a plethora of borage in it. There's so much that it forms carpets in some areas, as in the photo above. And my neighbors are very much fair-weather gardeners; they won't be out tilling the soil till the warmth of April, which gives lots of weeds a glorious opportunity to reseed themselves abundantly, and grow big before they're hacked out.

They also tend to overfertilize. While this makes for astounding growth of their tomato plants, it also means that the weeds turn into a veritable forest. They can keep the mallow, the Arum (the arrowhead leaved clumps in the front), the dock, the poison hemlock, the mystery weed that smells so bad that even goats won't eat it, the chickweed and veronica, but the borage is mine! There was enough borage growing there, multi-branched with stems over an inch wide, to make several piles three feet high. And since the rain and mud had foiled my cover cropping plans, what better way to have a nice layer of green manure than to import it from 30 feet away?

Of course, growing a cover crop serves a dual purpose - not only does it provide organic matter and friability when dug into the soil, it also shades out weeds and makes it more difficult for them to grow. Since I missed the boat on that, I decided not to dig the borage in right away, but to spread it all over the non-planted side of the garden and let it break down, all the while covering the weeds. I'd already gone through and dug out all the buttercups and arum I could. I also pulled lamium (dead nettle) I could before it has a chance to set seed. It's all over the lower garden but there's relatively little of it in the middle section, and I'd like to keep it that way. It produces millions of seeds that lay dormant in the soil for years, just waiting for their chance in the sun. And when they get their chance, they come up in a dense green carpet that you can turn under repeatedly, only to watch it renew itself as ever more seeds are exposed to the sun. It's an effective evolutionary strategy used by plants that can't normally compete well with neighboring plants. When they are suddenly exposed to the sun it normally means disturbed soil and therefore the elimination of their immediate competition. This is the reason that plowed fields in Europe throw up a dense carpet of brilliant red poppies in the spring.

I'm not sure if borage concentrates potassium in its roots like its relative comfrey, but it certianly provides the bulk if its happy. Another plus is that it's an annual, where with comfrey you have to be careful or you'll turn your garden into a comfrey long as you yank the borage (and even large plants are very easy to yank) before it sets seed you won't have an invasion the coming year.

But fortunately borage is also a beautiful plant, so I let it grow to its heart's content in the non-cultivated/cultivable parts of the garden, where it delights with its sky-blue flowers each spring. I also left several developing plants in the neighbors' garden so that I can raid it again next year....