Monday, May 19, 2008

Spring Planting And A Beehive Update

This was a big weekend for me. I got my Spring planting done!

About a month ago I did all the weeding. But the weather here south of Chicago has been so erratic—hot, cold, colder, hot, cold, colder—that I’ve been afraid to put seeds in the ground. Then, over the last few weeks my garden plots became completely overgrown with weeds again. Saturday I had to do the weeding all over again to get ready for Sunday planting.

That’s a thing about gardening: No matter how simple you try to keep things, it will always be more work than you anticipated.

That’s why I try to keep things radically simple.

If you don’t keep things radically simple at the start, then by the middle of Summer you will be exhausted and fed up with gardening. You’ll find yourself making excuses to not do gardening work and soon enough your garden will get away from you and weeds will take over.

I keep things radically simple in two ways.

First, I divide all my gardening areas into small plots, about three feet by two feet. These little areas are easy to take care of. No matter how tired or distracted I may be, I can almost always muster up the energy to work on one or two of the little plots. Over time, one small plot at a time, it’s easy to take care of a full garden.

Second, I only work with plants that are hardy and forgiving and rewarding. I generally plant zinnias for color and marigolds for borders. Both flowers come in many different varieties. Zinnias are very colorful and bloom for a reasonably long period. Marigolds come in fewer colors, but once they bloom they generally bloom for many weeks. And both flowers put up with extremes in weather, weeding and watering.

I do, however, keep one or two of my small plots open for special flowers that I select each Spring.

This year, in addition to my normal zinnias and marigolds, I’ll have one plot of moss roses in my back yard and two plots of daisies and cosmos along the side of my house.

Moss roses are my favorite flower. They’re wildly colorful—not just different colors but intriguingly intense colors—and they’re small so they add a tremendous amount of color to a small space. But I’ve had mixed results with moss roses. The seeds are very small and must be sown right on the surface. The seedlings are small and fragile. I don’t like starting plants indoors. I plant everything right at the site so the seeds and seedlings have to put up with rain, wind, squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. Over the years, I’ve had maybe two good seasons of moss roses where they’ve brightened up my backyard, but I’ve also had four or five seasons where nothing has germinated or the seedlings got eaten or just couldn’t take the conditions. I’m giving them another shot this year just because the colors are so beautiful.

Alongside my house I’m trying two plots with a line of cosmos in the background and a line of daisies in the foreground. (I couldn’t find a Wiki page for either one.) I’ve never grown cosmos before so I have no idea if they’re easy or hard. They look pretty, though, on the seed packets. I’ve had mixed luck with daisies. I’ve only tried to grow daisies once or twice and I’ve never gotten a complete plot to germinate. When I have gotten daisies to grow, I’ve had trouble with plants that get all spindly and don’t support their own weight.

I don’t like troublesome plants.

Zinnias and marigolds practically take care of themselves.

But it’s fun to experiment now and then and, with such small plots, even if a full line of plants doesn’t grow, one or two still look nice by themselves.

That’s another thing about gardening: You make bets with Fate. Will the weather be reasonable? Will the seeds germinate? Will the seedlings survive? Will I have the energy and focus to the weeding, watering, thinning and more weeding and watering throughout the year? Will the plants standup to the conditions?

Working with small plots and hardy, familiar plants means that even if things don’t go exactly as planned in one or two plots, there always will be a chance the other plots will turn out okay.

I generally do okay. I’ve been doing small gardens for many, many years.

Last year I wrote that I was thinking of converting all my small plots to container gardening. But I’m such a slacker I never got around to buying the containers or soil. So this year I have containers in only two of my plots—one will be orange marigolds, the other will be multi-color zinnias.

Gardening is a lot of work, but it’s kind of peaceful work. And if you keep things radically simple—I mean, radically simple!—you can spread out the work and do it a little at a time.

If things work out this year, maybe I’ll post some sketches of my flowers.


Beehive Update

This week has a very cool astronomical event coming up.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday Mars will pass in front of the Beehive cluster of stars in the constellation of Cancer.

Last Wednesday I mentioned that I checked out that area of sky to familiarize myself with the current look of Mars. But I got so caught up in the pumpkin orange of Mars that I forgot to check out what the Beehive looks like under light polluted urban skies.

Last week Thursday or Friday we had clear skies and I checked out the Beehive.

It’s beautiful!

The Beehive cluster is even more beautiful than I remembered it. And it’s even more beautiful than the Hyades cluster in Taurus.

Later this week—maybe tomorrow—I’ll do a post all about the Beehive and open clusters in general.

But for now I want to urge everybody with any kind of a telescope—even a small, 60mm scope like mine—to try to plan to observe the western sky this Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Mars is spectacularly pumpkin orange and the Beehive cluster looks like a thick handful of blue-white diamonds bunched up on black velvet.

The combination should be extraordinary.

Use Mars as a key. In light polluted urban skies, all the stars of Cancer are invisible. My 10x50 binoculars show Gamma and Delta Cancri, but the Beehive itself—almost directly between them—is all but invisible. It appears in my binoculars as just a smudge, and I suspect that’s just because I know it’s there.

But through my telescope at 36x the Beehive is amazing!

Open clusters and double stars are probably the only celestial sights that look almost as good through small telescopes as they do in photographs. And the Beehive may actually be more beautiful through a small scope than a photograph because you can move around a little and see the full size of the thing in real life.

Great stuff!

Later this week I’ll talk more about the Beehive and one of the most amazing double stars I’ve ever seen, Iota Cancri, just a few degrees above the Beehive.

Here’s a time-lapse photo of the Beehive I found on the net (click on it to go to its original site). Through a scope, of course, there is no blue haze around the stars. But the cluster really does kind of look like this in general. It’s very beautiful!

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