Now this is the way to start seeds. Around mid-February, grab a glass of wine and a book. Lay the seed atop some potting soil and spritz. Sit down to read, and sip, and by the time you reach the third chapter – voila, the seed has germinated.
That is a bit of an exaggeration, local seed-starting legend Charlene Schneider acknowledges, as she describes how she starts hibiscus seeds. But when you see how the seeds become trees by summer, the overstatement of their quickness can’t be too far off.
I wrote that about master gardener Charlene Schneider in August 2013, when Charlene’s Mahogany Splendor hibiscus plants, trimmed into small-tree standards, played ring-around-the-rosy in beds outside the Extension Center.
I’ve been looking back at the funny and flower-power-packed advice that Charlene gave over the years ever since the sad news last week that she had died, not long after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Her death came as a shock to her master-gardener friends, and many non-master-gardeners will remember fondly her “confessions of a seedaholic” and other garden talks given over the years at various venues.
Charlene is an obsessive-compulsive gardener who shuns housework from May to September, packs her cellphone on her hip and wonders why she does her hair in the morning only to waste her good looks on the flowers.
But she measures out her obsession over the year. She starts her first seeds in October. She applies patience and perseverance in caring for them and doesn’t turn her back on them when it becomes inconvenient. When they’ve become nice big plants, she puts them in the garden.
I wrote that 10 years earlier, in 2003, probably the first time I wrote about Charlene. One of the things she was known for was being fearless in pruning. She pinched plants from the start, removing the first series of flowers so the plants would bloom later and better.
Over the years, I’d call Charlene if I needed garden advice – or comfort. This is from May 2005, when I was faced with a slew of unknown seedlings:
I start to agonize what to pull and what to leave. One friend has already informed me that millions of seedlings I have waged war against the past two years are marigolds.
Once again, Charlene hastened to reassure me. She also has this problem. This year, Wave petunias are reappearing, and verbena bonariensis, which she doesn’t even remember growing last year.
If you suspect that a seedling could be a plant you like, leave it for now and see how it develops, Charlene advises.
“Weeds bloom a lot sooner, “ she said, the sooner to be disposed of.
“If I pull it and I never miss it, then what the hell, “ she said.
When she first applied to be a master gardener, back in 2000, “she showed me pictures of her yard, and and you say, ‘Wow, can she really do this?’ and her neighbors said, ‘Yes, she does,’ ” said Bob Neier, the extension agent who brought her on board. “But she then transfered her enthusiasm to others by saying you can grow your own things from seed, or here’s some of the latest varieties. And she didn’t just accept the plants that were easy to find ... If she could buy it locally she would, and if she couldn’t, she’d order seeds online and start them herself. She was a fabulous gardener, a fabulous teacher.”
She went on to tend not only a large fabulous yard full of ornamentals at home but also headed up the grounds committee for the Extension Center, and her impact there led to a request for her help at the county courthouse, where she marshaled a group of master gardeners – and her handy husband, Bob – to transform the landscape there.
I remember one particularly beautiful planting at the Extension Center, in 2012. It exemplifies her knowledge and attention to detail.
The signs at the building’s entrances are frothing with a foam of white vinca. I heard some master gardeners marveling at the size and health of this vinca.
I called Charlene. She said the vinca are Titan Pure White, a recommendation from Ron Marcum of Dutch’s Greenhouse. These are supposed to be the largest-flowered vinca.
“I said, ‘They may be the largest-flowered vinca, but are they large vinca?’ “ Charlene said she asked Ron. “He said, ‘Oh yeah.’”
And indeed they are. They have grown out and up about 16 to 18 inches, Charlene said. Not only that, they get watered — get ready for this — only once a week.
“Now that’s how drought-tolerant vinca are, “ Charlene said.
She said they are planted in a mix of older compost and potting mix along with some Back to Nature chicken manure, a little slow-release nitrogen and “not enough” SoilMoist water-holding granules, because vinca is susceptible to rot. Charlene also uses granular fertilizer during the season.
“I’m just amazed every time I see the darn things, “ Charlene said of the white vinca. They have surpassed anything she thought they would do, she said.
When a county facilities employee saw the Extension grounds, he wondered whether the same couldn’t be done at the county courthouse. He was directed to Charlene, who marshaled a group of master gardeners, along with her handy husband, Bob, to transform the landscape there, all of the work being volunteer, just as it is at the Extension.
Charlene had been scheduled to give her seedaholic talk at a lunchtime lecture Feb. 11 at Botanica. Master gardener Dalene Stevens will give it instead.
Back to those Mahogany Splendor hibiscus that she grew from seed to trees two years ago:
Some pruning continues on the hibiscuses through the summer. The master gardeners are sure not to let the hibiscus tops get too heavy, because that could cause them to get ripped by the wind.
The plants will last into the fall a while, hardy down to about 40 degrees, Charlene says. I asked if it was hard to let them go, since they grow to small-tree proportions. Charlene says no, because they’re so darn easy to grow.
Such is not the case with us and Charlene.