Grit Blogs > A Lakeside View

Winter Gardening

By Cindy Murphy

Tags: Gardening, Master Gardeners, Monarch butterflies, cannas, Cindy Murphy,

 CindyMurphyBlog.jpgMy work at the nursery is over mid-November, and my own gardens cleaned out later that month; I don’t do much garden planning until spring, don’t have a greenhouse, and have a charcoal-colored thumb when it comes to indoor plants. But despite winter’s duration, there’s still plenty of gardening to do!  It’s just “gardening” of a different sort.   

I read articles about gardening, in GRIT, of course, and in garden books; the book I’m currently reading, “The Shape of a Year” by Jean Hersey, is filled with eloquent prose about nature and gardens that is to be savored; this is not a book I’ll be breezing through. I keep up my nurseryman’s certification by attending classes and seminars; there’s a good one coming up next week presented by Michigan State University’s Horticultural Department. Titled “Confronting the Old Wives Tales of Plant Health Care,” it’s a discussion about insect and disease problems; I’ll fill you in on any juicy details in a later blog. Sometimes I write about gardening.    

One of the garden articles I wrote this winter was for our county’s Master Gardener newsletter. The topic was cannas, how they grow (from swollen rhizomes many people mistakenly call “bulbs” or “tubers”), what do they do other than growing there, looking pretty, (the rhizomes are edible, rich in starch, and are grown as an agricultural crop in some countries), and what you do with them in fall, (the rhizomes must be dug – it’s like digging potatoes - and properly stored; they’re a zone 7-10 plant and won’t survive our Michigan winters if left in the ground). When I dug mine this fall, the dozen or so I planted in late May, by early October turned into nearly three 20-gallon bins of rhizomes – way more cannas than I need. I decided to have a drawing and give a couple bags full of them away.   

 Cannas and Good Reading   

I’ve been a Master Gardener for over 10 years, but my work schedule and family commitments don’t often allow me the opportunity to attend the organized events. From time to time I’ll recognize a Master Gardener shopping at the nursery where I work, and there’s the year-end banquet each fall. For the most part, though, I have little chance to talk at length with my fellow Master Gardeners, and was looking forward to visiting with the cannas drawing winners, Janice and Jill, at the coffee shop in town where we’d meet for them to pick up the cannas.   

The morning I was to meet Janice, she called to let me know she’d be about 15 minutes late. Perfect, I thought, I was running late too. She got caught behind a slow driver; my reason for being late was typical – I had to shuffle my morning schedule because my teenage daughter was late. When I rushed into the coffee shop to find Janice already waiting, she assured me it doesn’t end after the teenage years; not even after you pack them up and ship them off to college. (Thanks, Janice! I thought I’d be in the clear after next year!) 

Janice has been a Master Gardener since 2004. I met her probably five years ago, when she came to the nursery to pick up some donated hydrangeas for the Wine and Harvest Festival, where the Master Gardeners have a booth selling plants to raise money for upcoming projects. It’s become a yearly visit, usually with her husband sitting patiently in his truck after he’s loaded the plants, while Janice and I yik-yak on for, what must seem to him, hours.     

Our conversation soon turned to Monarch butterflies; you cannot talk to Janice without asking her how the Monarchs are doing. Playing an instrumental role in the county’s Monarch Waystation, Janice has tireless commitment, boundless energy, and is always willing to share her knowledge and concern for these beautiful creatures. We’re both excited that she and volunteers are taking their show on the road and will be giving a presentation at the nursery late this summer.   

We discussed the effects this mild winter is having on the Monarchs across the country, the local farmers here, and on our own gardens; of our opposition to the unnecessary and overuse of pesticides; about hydrangea varieties; and of the benefits of dandelions. The time flew, and before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye.     

It was just a few days later I was back at the coffee shop with Jill, a Master Gardener since 2006, and her lovely daughter, who’d recently graduated college with an Art History degree. Mentions of the cost of raising children and seeing them off to college, about the huge amounts of food they consume, the cost of Laundromats vs. doing laundry at Mom’s, and how difficult it is to start a career after college when employers are all looking for someone with experience, all reaffirmed Janice’s assertion that with children, it never ends. (Thanks, ladies!) 

We talked about the challenges of vegetable gardening in sandy soil; while I just deal with it by adding compost and limiting myself to growing things that are adaptable to sandy soil, Jill has moved to raised beds and loves them. She’s got black walnuts to cope with too, and gardening in raised beds eliminated the juglone poisoned soil problem. The raised beds do nothing to eliminate the issue of squirrels and the nuisance created by their habit of leaving the walnuts and husks everywhere - we’ve both got that problem. Surrounded by woods, Jill also has to deal with rabbits, chipmunks, deer, and plenty of mosquitoes. 

Gardening can be quite a challenge at times – even when you’re not the gardener. Jill works at a garden center about 45 minutes inland, and we commiserated over those black-thumbed customers who commit planticide on a regular basis because they don’t quite understand that plants need water. As it did with Janice, the time passed quickly. They left with a bag of cannas; I left with the pleasure of meeting them. 

So while a blanket of snow (thin as it is) covers the ground, I still get an enjoyable healthy dose of gardening in winter. What kind of “winter gardening” have you been up to? 


cindy murphy
2/19/2012 2:17:14 PM

Sure thing, Michelle. I'll get it to you as soon as I get a chance.

michelle house
2/18/2012 5:11:36 AM

Cindy, I would love some ideas for plants. :) I would love some color in my front yard. Being over 4,000 feet above sea level, and with an average of 40-50 percenct humidity, severely limits the colorful plants I can plant. Please, send me an e-mail with a list.

cindy murphy
2/17/2012 5:13:30 PM

Hi, Lori. What a great idea to plant the tender bulbs in pots and just bring the whole thing inside inside of digging them up in fall. I'll have to (try to) remember that. I had some of the cannas in pots last year, but emptied them when I dug the cannas that were in the garden. It'd be so much easier to bring the whole thing inside, (harder to store though - the pots were huge). The Gerbera daisy sounds beautiful - I've never had much luck with Gerbers myself; the plants always grow fine, but they rarely flower after the first flush. Not hot enough here? Too hot? I've never really figured it out, and after trying them a couple of years, I just gave up. Such a pretty flower though!

cindy murphy
2/17/2012 4:58:39 PM

Our ravine is like that Mary. We've had more rain than snow this winter, and some areas of it are saturated to the point that there's standing water already - which usually happens after the snow-melt and spring rains. The ground usually stays mucky for quite a long time, though. Hubs and I always think we'd like a vegetable garden down there - it's the largest sunniest spot on our property - in fact we were just talking about it the other day. We'd never be able to used the walk-behind tiller though, without getting stuck, and even if we did raised beds, we'd sink to our knees just getting to them until the time it dries up down there about mid-June or early July. Thanks for stopping in, and have a great weekend.

cindy murphy
2/17/2012 4:48:30 PM

I love growing herbs, Michelle. I can't say that I use a whole lot of them in cooking. A lot of the time when I fixing dinner, I think 'darn it' I could have gone outside and snipped this or that - but by the time I think it, dinner is already done. My goal this year could be to remember to snip them BEFORE starting dinner. I really think they're pretty though (sage, winter savory, and chives are in nearly all my gardens - not just the herb garden), and they smell wonderful. I share your challenge of gardening in dry shade; most of my yard is dry shade. If you want a list of plants that worked well for me, just let me know. I've tried a ton of different plants that are suited for those conditions, and have some definite favorites - most of which seem indestructible.

cindy murphy
2/17/2012 4:37:47 PM

I remember seeing pictures of that hard, cracked ground, Chris. Devastatingly horrible! Hopefully the recent rains in your area will continue throughout the summer this year. I think it's great you're planting for birds and butterflies - cool beans! A lot of the plants in my garden are there strictly for the purpose of attracting birds and butterflies - specifically Monarchs, but all kinds come to visit. I just love watching the birds, and Shannon's become quite the avid butterfly photographer. Not to mention the other benefits that come from having them around - the birds take care of a lot of insect pests, and butterflies are great pollinators. Just make sure you have a seat nearby so you don't miss the show! Oh, and one more thing - teenage girls keep EVERYBODY waiting.

cindy murphy
2/17/2012 4:21:34 PM

Dave, it sounds as if you've certainly been busy. Of course, I wouldn't expect anything less, coming from you! I hope the seed starting station works well for you - I remember last year, it seemed you had some minor setbacks starting seeds indoors. Hopefully it'll work so well this year that by fall you'll have plenty of canned veggies to store for winter - that gives you all summer to get that food storage area done; you'd better get busy! Just kidding - it sounds as if you've got more than enough going on at both properties! And I'm with you about spring cleaning - I would much rather be outside doing something there when the weather turns warm, than be stuck in the house cleaning. I've been doing some winter cleaning myself....though it seems to be a never-ending year-long 4-season task ! Enjoy your weekend!

lori dunn
2/17/2012 4:17:35 PM

Last fall I brought all my pots from the front porch into the basement. I got the idea 2 years ago to plant bulbs that can't over winter here into pots so I wouldn't need to dig them up in the fall, I could just put the pots away. Well, I set them in front of my basement window, and they've all been growing! So now every time I go down there to put wood on the fire, I water plants if they need it. They should have a great head start when it's time to put them back outside. I have Glads, elephant ears, and some pond plants. I also had a pot of daffies that I forgot to plant the bulbs out. They are up a good twelve inches and will probably soon flower. Yet another pot had a Gerbera daisy Ashten had gotten me for mother's day. I thought it was dead, but took the pot in anyway. It started shooting greens again and is doing beautifully well. I was very happy about that because they are the most beautiful peachy pink shade. These were all a nice surprise for this lagging time of winter!

mary carton
2/17/2012 4:58:54 AM

My tiller has been on my tractor for months. We've had a lot of rain the last couple of months, to the point that the 0.24 inches we had yesterday is standing on top of the ground, it's just soaked and not absorbing any more. When I retire, maybe I can do the Master Gardner program. They way it's scheduled, I can't get off those days.

michelle house
2/17/2012 3:33:53 AM

Hi Cindy. Congrats on being a Master Gardner. :) My goal is to have an herb garden this year, nothing fancy, or big, just a few containers, and hopefully they will grow. :D And, maybe get some flowers to grow in the front yard, lol, drought loving shade loving flowers, that is gonna me a challenge.

chris davis
2/17/2012 2:39:56 AM

We had a terrible drought and are still far behind rainfall requirements but the past couple of months have been generous, especially compared to the previous fifteen. I mentioned the drought to explain why I did virtually no gardening last year. It was useless – no rains, searing oppressive heat, the ground baked nearly rock hard, and prices for water were astronomical. The recent rains have convinced me that it’s time to do something, but it’s still too soon for a full blown garden. Cold tomato plants shut down and don’t grow as quickly as you would hope so they need to be brought in at night if the temperatures get too low – and I just don’t have time for that right now. So, I’m going to turn over some of my space to other efforts this year and that means bird and butterfly friendly flowers and plants. It’s interesting you mentioned the Monarch – it’s my personal favorite. I have an unused area in the back of my house that would be great for milkweed so that’s going to be one of the gardening projects this year. I’m going to create a Monarch way station. We’re not in the main migration route, but we get a few and I’d like them to feel welcome. As always, I enjoyed reading your post. One more thing, I thought teenage girls only made boyfriends wait. They do that to moms too?

nebraska dave
2/17/2012 12:46:53 AM

Cindy, I've thought about going through the rigors of becoming a certified Master Gardener but just don't seem to have the time. Imagine that. I've been working on the food storage area. Yes, I'm still working on completing the food storage area. Only one more piece of ceiling drywall to hang, then construction of the wall with the door can begin. Because of the newly acquired land cleanup during the warm winter days, I expect I won't get it completed this year either. I'm getting closer though. The seed starting station has been completed and awaits the time to start the seeds. I have a lot of work to do out at Terra Nova Gardens. As soon as the weather breaks, fence building will begin. Only warm weather crops will planted there this year. The real time was spent on spring cleaning this week because when spring arrives I never have any time to clean. I guess it would be called winter cleaning. I've just about completed the deep cleaning the kitchen which is the hardest to keep clean. The entry to the house is always a mess in the winter because of wet boots and snow covered clothes. The challenge will be to clean it and keep it clean. Ah, well, that will be next week. Right now I need a cup of coffee and to recline for a nap before going to bed. :0) Have a great day visiting fellow Master Gardeners.