Archive | March 2018

Victorian Clock Garden


Floral Clock, Queen Victorian Gardens, Melbourne, Australia

Before modern distractions, everyone who lived with flowers recognized that some of them opened or closed at about the same time each day. Linnaeus, the father of modern plant classification, was one of the first to publish a list arranging common flowering plants in an order that could be used as a clock. After all, sundials do not work on cloudy days, and mechanical timepieces were expensive in the eighteenth century.

Floral clocks work in any weather because the photo-sensitive plants that reflect day length actually take their clues from the length of the night, not the day. But no one understood this until much later, and Linnaeus’s list happened to include some day-neutral plants, such as dandelions, which couldn’t care less about punctuality and which change their schedule throughout their blooming season. Most of Linnaeus’s timekeepers are weeds, but his interest was in getting people to work on time, not in having them admire the clock. Whether you want bindweed, thistle, and hawkweed (5, 7, and 8 a.m. in Uppsala, Sweden, where Linnaeus lived) in your garden is up to you.

The summer sun rises earlier and sets later the farther north you are, and flowers open and close earlier, too. Unfortunately for the Victorian-era gardeners who were using his plant lists, Linnaeus lived farther north than all of Britain, the United States, and most of Europe. Consequently, floral clocks rarely produced useful results. Many Victorians ended up including sundials, simply arranging their plants according to whether they opened in the morning or afternoon. Perhaps if Linnaeus had lived in Geneva with the rest of the clockmakers, his list might have been more useful.


Counting Sunny Hours

Cherub584A sundial makes a charming garden accent and, like a birdbath, actually serves a purpose beyond mere ornamentation. But whether it is a common horizontal type (meant to be mounted on a pedestal) or the less common perpendicular form (for wall mounting), a sundial must be placed with care.

  • It seems obvious, but make sure the spot gets unobstructed sun all day.
  • The sundial will be a focal point no matter where you put it, so put it where a focal point makes sense — in the (wide) intersection of two paths, for instance, or at the end of a long axis.
  • The mounting spot must be level, and it must be accessible; if you put the sundial in the middle of a flower bed, nobody will be able to read it.
  • Don’t forget about daylight savings time when you set it up. The sundial should tell the true (sun) time, even though it’s likely to be used mostly in the summer.
  • To avoid mistakes, place the sundial provisionally, without affixing it to the spot, and check it every few hours for a couple of days.
  • Just in case you’re fond of crossword puzzles, the part that casts the shadow is called the gnomon.

Basement Nursery

In an effort to improve seedling production in the spring, you might consider moving your seedlings from a sunny window (that may or may not be sunny every day) to an area where you can install fluorescent lights. Moving seedlings into an environment where the light can be controlled, and the day and night temperatures won’t fluctuate wildly, cries out for a heated basement. Even the sunniest windows rarely offer more than a few hours of really bright light each day, and that doesn’t count the losses because of cloudy days or a light covering of dust or dirt on the window glass.

dbe19db223bbfa992e50b92fe1b12023--a-frame-plant-standsBut even with the fluorescent lights on for 18 hours, seedlings don’t really get enough light. While a fluorescent light looks bright to us, it is a poor substitute to a seedling expecting to bask in the sun. To provide enough light, use two 4-foot-long, two-bulb shop fixtures (available at any hardware store), suspended just 2 to 6 inches above the seedlings.

Special grow lights aren’t magic. Often, there is just a blue coating on the inside of the tube. The overall amount of light is reduced, and the seedlings think they have sunglasses on. A mix of warm white and cool white tubes will give the right kind of light, and more of it.

A small fan is needed nearby to move the air, helping to prevent fungus diseases and to flex those little seedling stems, enabling them to grow stronger and thicker (just like going to the gym). But don’t get carried away trying to make little Arnold Schwarzenpeppers.

Most seedlings like it comfy — temperatures in the 60s and room to grow. If they are too crowded, or if that furnace is overheating them, they will become stretched and spindly. Perhaps they are trying to grow up quickly and get away!

Buy your seeds early while there are lots of choices, but don’t start them too early. Look on each package for the right timing, and mark your calendar.

Earlier posts on seed starting: