Monday, October 25, 2010

Keeping at Bay

The first frost of the season "came-a-visiting" here at Blooming Hill this past Friday night so the weekend turned into the "big dig." In other words, I spent much of my time digging out and potting up or making cuttings of  what is left of my favorite plants in the garden beds to store and tend in the greenhouse.'s now getting a little crowded in there and I've still not moved the biggest of the pots yet.  However, that day is coming very soon.  It's not that I've decided to play chicken with the weather, using the beautiful standards as pawns in the game of "Who can outlast the next big chill."  It is just that the next week or so will bring warm days and nights again, and even the most easy going of plants get a little "touchy" and can turn into plant divas when it comes to having plenty of space and fresh air to breath.  If I'm not careful and time things just right, fungus and powdery mildew could get the upper hand in the greenhouse even before the really cold weather has set in.  So I continue to straddle that fine line of decision-making as to when to pull in the rest of the big potted plant standards.

While digging and cutting away in the garden this past Saturday, I got to thinking about this past August, just before Kevin left for school, and  how the three of us spent a Sunday afternoon trans-potting two huge bay (laurus nobilis) standards from big pots into much bigger pots in order to keep them happy and healthy and to have plenty of time to adjust and grow new roots while still outside enjoying the late summer weather.

These two standards are over six feet tall--my pride and joys--shhhh! Don't tell the lavender plants!  I remember, seven years ago when I started these as cuttings along with at least a dozen other bay cuttings and got lucky with about half of them eventually deciding to take root and send up new leaf shoots just like tiny white surrender flags.  Bay is one of those persnickety, woody, herbaceous plants that decides if, when and how they are going to grow and it's on their time table--no one else--thank you very much!  In the years since, I've cut and grown several more bay standards all with varying degrees of not so much success, but I do manage to eek out one to three cuttings a year and have sold them along the way when they have reached the height of about two feet.  Some grow quickly while others grow slowly through the years, keeping me guessing all of the way.

I have two other bay standards I started from cuttings that are about ten years old and also stand in pots placed in the lavender knot garden.  Although they are full and perfectly lollipop shaped, they reach only about 3 feet in height.  Hence, my reasoning that bays decide for themselves how they will live their lives while in the captivity of a garden--go figure!  Each bay seems to have it's own personality and all I can do is just go with their flow.  So far, this strange relationship I have with these lovely little specimen trees seems to work and keeps them happy.  In the twelve or so years of growing and standardizing everything from scented geraniums to rosemary's,  growing a bay standard is, by far, a fancy little challenge in and of itself.

So, that is why we spent an afternoon at what began as a careful trans-potting of the two six-foot beauties that led to an all out tug of war between the old pots and Peter, who threw his back out in the process, which then led to Kevin joining in the battle of wills.  The process was not at all how it should have gone--gently pull from the bay from it's pot and then even more gently and with great care shave an inch or so off of the root ball with a very sharp knife to encourage new root growth before gently placing it in its new pot.  Yet, over two months later, the bays have moved on to their new and larger bases, looking no worse the wear.  However, the same can probably not be said of Peter who still walks a bit crooked and groans every morning since that fateful August Sunday afternoon.  We then made the decision to trans-pot the other large standards this coming spring in order to mentally prepare for that ordeal.

None the less, my home-grown bay standards are the "apples of my eye" and have "most favored nation (plant) status" in my gardens.  So, as in years past, I continue the annual fall tradition of making bay cuttings along with annual lavender, rosemary and myrtle cuttings.  And, with a lot of coaxing and babying along the way, a few seem to make it through their greenhouse winter, thrive and grow into lovely standards.  I have found over the years and through a lot of experimentation that the experts are right--use three percent rooting compound, nothing stronger, and scrape the cutting's stems gently with your fingernail, nothing sharper to encourage roots, tent your cuttings with some kind of plastic to create a mini greenhouse for these babies and then, above all, be patient. I have found, unlike rosemary's, myrtles and lavenders, it can take up to a year to get a bay cutting to root itself.  Yet, when it finally takes hold, the tiny bay cuttings actually will grow, and let me repeat myself here, in their own time and on their own terms.

Few things dress up a summer patio or garden path better than a clipped bay standard posing straight and proud in a pretty pot. They love full Sun and are fairly drought tolerant  and, as we all know, Bay is used in cooking meats, fish, and used in in sauces and condiments where it's pungent, sweet aroma really comes through. Bay is native to southeast Asia and can grow there up to sixty feet.  Oh, what I would give to have a bay, planted in my yard, that size.  Even in the southern United States, bay can grow to be as high as thirty feet.

In plant legend and lore, bay has always been held in high regard, especially by the Greeks who dedicated it to Apollo.  Deemed  a symbol of triumph and "the tree of heroes," bay's leaves were once used to crown the victorious athletes of the Olympic games.  Those noble (nobilis) athletes had literally won their laurels (laurus).  So, I ask myself, it is truly worth continuing the journey of growing bays rather than just go and buy a few of them from the local nursery?  Is it truly worth all of the time and angst and energy just to try to get a persnickety bay plant to grow on my terms?!?  I think so and, I will continue attempting to tame every persnickety bay I start as each one will continue to train me in the process.

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