Apr 3, 2010

Garden Firsts

Today is one of many firsts for me. I planted my first Tropaeolum majus (nasturtium or Indian cress) seeds in the garden near my home on West 148 Street. A week ago I had haphazardly scattered the same seeds in the soil without heeding the instructions that the seeds should be nicked with a knife or file or soaked overnight before sowing. Almost as quickly as they fell on the soil I realized my error and spent considerable time collecting the speckled, almost -pea-sized seeds. Today however, I was less hasty. I carefully rubbed each seed on the coarse side of a pedicure file and managed to soak them for four hours. I loosened the soil and added some humus potting mix before placing each seed eight inches apart in rows of three. I then lightly covered the seeds with more potting mix and watered the soil. Like any good parent, I now wait anxiously for signs that the seeds are sprouting. I planted two types of nasturtiums, one with mixed flowers of pale yellow, gold, orange, vermilion and deep red on stems due to grow up to six feet. The other patch should have deep red flowers on short blue-green mounds of leaves.

I love nasturtiums. They are handsome and cheerful plants and the edible flowers are spicy and full of flavor. Who wouldn't want to grow beautiful blossoms that one can simply pluck and have a tasty snack while gardening. I think I also like nasturtiums because they remind me of water lilies.

I grew up in a little town on the tropical island of Trinidad. At age eleven until I was nineteen I traveled twenty-six miles each way to and from high school. The roads were bumpy and winding and the trip usually lasted 2 hours or more. For the first two years I traveled with the Sookram family who lived across from our house. Three of the four girls attended the same high school in San Fernando and I was privileged to join them, sitting in the back seat and being nudged from side to side each time I fell asleep and my head brushed the girls' shoulder.When the youngest Sookram graduated I took the bus. It was usually very crowded and I almost always stood on the bus for the entire trip. I remember my surprise one morning at sighting a patch of bright pink in a grassy area about fifty feet from the main road, five or six miles from my house. Every morning after that I was sure to stand facing the right side of the bus so I could catch a glimpse of whatever created the splash of color. Over time I discovered that the pink were the flowers of large water lilies that opened each morning and closed each evening, showing only the slightest bit of color through their protective sepals as I approached my home. I cherished the existence of these lilies for many years, if only for fleeting second at a time. On my last trip to Trinidad over a year ago, I was saddened to find that a building was being constructed on the site.

There began by fascination with water plants including lotus, water jasmines, papyrus, horsetails, grasses, bamboo and all types of plants that thrive in and around water. I'm also partial to plants with leaves that hold water well and are exceptionally striking when wet like those of the Colocasia (elephant-ears) family and Alchemilla mollis.

Another first: I planted a purple Clematis 'H.F. Young' and hollyhocks, Alcea rugosa. I do not know why I hesitated about planting Clematis before this year. Clematis is a vine so a trellis must be provided unless they are planted near a fence or some supportive structure. Today I simply made a rough tepee out of three five-foot pieces of bamboo that were used to stake the tall white dahlia that grew to tremendous heights last summer. (Alas those dahlia tubers, along with all my tuberous begonia and caladium tubers perished for lack of proper storage during the winter). This Purple beauty will leave spiral seed-heads after the blossoms are spent that will be very interesting throughout the fall. The bamboo structure may also look interesting when the garden is much barer in winter.

Yet another first: I planted poppies (Papaver). OK, today was not really my first time planting poppies but it was the first time planting poppies this year. How is that? Last year I planted some opium poppies seeds from the garden of my good friend and renowned gardener, Jeffery Farrell. Unfortunately, the garden maintenance crew believe in mulching to avoid weeding and covered up all my seedlings. Poppies do not like to be transplanted or disturbed. I managed to coax one sickly plant to flower and it produced about five papery thin pink blossoms, three of which were plucked, seed-head and all, by one of the many co-inhabitants of this structure called the Washington or any on the myriad of neighbors who have access to the garden. Today I carefully planted the rescued poppy seeds and many seeds of Papaver oriental, all red, orange, white and pink. I also planted Zinnia seeds. Last year I planted orange zinnia plants that were already in flower. The seeds will produce similar single petaled flowers in a range of red and orange.

These seeds and roots are new additions to the longer of two very long beds I plant and maintain at the gated garden attached to the building in which I live. I am privileged to have this place to experiment with shrubs, perennials, bulbs, tubers and annuals while creating an oasis for birds, butterflies and bees. Last year I spotted a cardinal here. This year I hope to attract hummingbirds and a host of butterflies. My son, Julian, was delighted to see butterflies on the Scilla siberica today. Unfortunately, he is afraid of bees. Oh well... My older boy, Orion, rarely notices or comments on changes in the garden. He is content to ride his bike or skateboard and goof around with his brother.

Growing plants from seed is new to me. Of course we've all done some bean or seed planting as part of a science class at some time or the other. Many of us may have even planted sunflower seeds that sprouted into towering plants but until now I have always been too impatient to consider the task seriously. I've always wanted to cover any bare patches of soil in a garden bed with an instantly showy, mostly temporary fix, like annuals. Last year I planted hordes of Salvia splendens, Senecio cineraria, Zinnia elegans, Nicotiana alata and Lantana camara for instant cover and show. Growing from seed requires patience, organization and coordination of various flowering plants to work with plants from seed at the various stages of their growth. It also requires some knowledge of early weed identification to distinguish your new seedlings from the many garden crashers. I anticipate my tiny poppy and zinnia seeds will develop into masses of foliage at the same time the leaves of narcissus and tulips begin to look ragged. Also, my (shorter) nasturtiums will grow into much fuller plants (because they were started from seed in their final home) than any container-bought plants and hide the leaves of the grape hyacinths at the front of the border. Later this week I will tackle starting Ricinus communis (castor bean) plants from seed. I also plan on starting from seed two types of tomatoes (cherry and plum) and Verbena bonariensis. These will begin their lives in seed-starting cells on my window sill before relocating to the garden.

I'm very excited about planting from seed. Can you tell? If this venture proves successful I may save much money and have many more plants that if I were to buy plants in pots like I did last spring and summer. I may even have enough to share. Keep your fingers crossed and let's wait and see how my seeds grow.


Russ, a recently added member, has been keeping the paths weed-free and tidy. The black swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on bronze ...