More Plants on the Way

 

My cats Ed and Chester get to go outdoors once a day, on their leash. This is a huge excitement for them, and both guys run around the kitchen begging, until I’m finished with lunch and coffee, and the time comes. They’re a classic pair of brothers, Chester big and easy-going, Ed small and full of mighty schemes—so Ed gets his treat first, since Chester can wait and he can’t.

The worms are waking up now, and the moles in the garden have been rooting just under the leaves. Even a human can watch their tracks and hear them rustle.

The other day Ed pawed at one until he managed to extract it, and pick it up in his mouth for a second. Then he dropped it, and we both saw an amazing thing. The mole leaped off the ground to escape, went gliding down an incline (using loose skin to soar like a squirrel, I have to assume), for a distance of 15 feet or more. As soon as it hit the ground, it burrowed in. Ed spent a good while trying to recover his prey where last seen, but the fun ended with being picked up and put indoors, as always.

The first picture above shows my heucheras, started in the fall from seed, now full-size plants. I couldn’t guess anything about their progress, because the whole idea was an experiment. The best gauge of when hardy perennials (whose foliage can take temperatures below freezing on occasional nights) can be planted, is when their counterparts in the garden have put up strong growth. These new heucheras can go in the ground in April.

Another group that have got too large are the verbascums, from seed I collected from Southern Charm, a pretty peachy variety. They took off right away, while most perennials take a few weeks to germinate. But my garden verbascums have a good rosette already, so my new ones will soon be hardened off enough to plant.

The second photo shows the leggy impatiens and coleus, also alternanthera, from a winter spent on shelves by the patio door. I chopped them this week, to make two flats of new ones out of rooted cuttings. 

The third photo shows some charming spotted trilliums, five out of six of which I’ve found, sprouted from bulbs I planted last fall.

 

 

Little Finds

 

Above are some volunteers, seeded from garden fixtures, or annuals I grew last year. 

The petunia sprouted up in one of the pots I brought in from the patio. It stayed small for a long time, by the drafty patio door, and even struggled when I took it up to a windowsill and overwatered it. I wasn’t sure yet what plant it was. Finally, it got to be time for seed-starting, and putting up the lights and shelves. Once the petunia was warm and pampered, it took off. I usually buy petunia seeds in watercolor patterns, that have the pretty veins. This one looks true-to-type.

In the lower half of the second picture, you can see an impatien that seeded itself, and had picked up genes from both the red and pink ones. It’s producing a Rembrandt tulip effect, with marbleized streaks of color, so that each flower is different. But the overall effect is a coral.

The third picture is of hellebore seedlings. Seemingly, every seed that dropped last year germinated. I have hundreds of them, and literally removed more than a hundred to start in pots. I don’t know what I’ll do with them all, but I can see lining paths with them. The deer don’t bother them, and they bloom in winter, so a little hellebore hedge ought to be a good idea.

 

 

The Time Is Now

Photo of springtime flowers in circular planters
Photo of emerging crocus

 

A few cheerful pictures from my old garden. I’d forgotten how nicely the trout lilies (Erythronium) spread themselves. I haven’t grown them for years.

And that is my theme today. As I said in an earlier post, I had two trees cut down, a dead ash and a Bradford pear. I have space now to add new trees, and I’ve ordered several shrubs, mostly native to the midwestern U.S. Here are the ones I’m adding: Red-twig Dogwood, Blue lacecap Hydrangea, Smooth Sumac, Elderberry, Nannyberry (viburnum), Clethra, Blueberry, Aralia, Ilicium, a climbing rose called Fruity Petals, and an arborvitae called Tater Tot.

Of trees, I’m planting two apples. I had an apple tree in my old garden. I didn’t spray, so the apples were scabby and coddled (bored by the larvae of the coddling moth), and attacked by apple maggots. But they were usable, if peeled and cut free of brown spots. I put bags of apple chunks away in the freezer, to make pies and cobblers with.

The tree was a Golden Delicious. The flavor of home grown apples is always above comparison to store bought, although store bought have improved a lot in the 21st century. Golden Delicious used to be sold at the grocery, but I feel like I haven’t seen them for years. Anyway, 2022 is a fine year to plant those things that require waiting for. If you’ve been wanting fruit trees, or blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, grapevines, whatever, it won’t help to put off planting them. You’ll only wait that many more years for a harvest.

Also, slow-starting perennials with worthwhile flowers, like peonies, or plants that naturalize and look beautiful in swaths, like Virginia Bluebells, will only get to their high point if you give them a start. Also, and most imperative, your habitat project, if you’ve been planning one.

Our world has had tough times, and the future is uncertain. In the garden at least, it’s time to get the ball rolling, so you can be pleased with yourself in two or three years, and in the meantime look forward happily.

 

Arty Fun for My Garden

 

Creative container projects are found all over the internet, and it’s great to recycle what you can. If you want big effects without huge expenses, try decorating with paint. In this case, I bought the 5 gallon pots above from a garden supplier on Amazon, and the price for five of them was around $30. You’ve seen, I’m sure, how large ceramic pots can cost upwards of $30 for a single one. The treatment I’ve given these, to get the marbleized look, is simple. Use a sanding sponge to prep the surface, and add a base coat of outdoor paint. A dark color gives good depth when you add white on top. Using outdoor craft paints, add a second base layer after the first is dry, and dab on accent colors. The real trick is in the Magic Eraser, a Mr. Clean product. If you buff the paint while damp with the Magic Eraser (paint damp, eraser dry), it blends the paint into these marble patterns, and removes any appearance of brushstrokes.

 

Here’s another paint project with very cheap materials. These are collected sticks, wired to bamboo stakes (for fixing them in the ground), and painted from some of the half and quarter bottles I’ve accumulated from various projects. The trellis is really optional, I just happened to have it there and wanted to jazz it up a little. But you can teepee the sticks easily. The purpose is to give a colorful and quirky support for flowering vines. I’m going to try Cobaea this year.

Last fall, I got curious about the flower stalks on my heucheras. I’d never heard of starting these from seeds, but I Googled, and “they” said it could be done. The seeds were in a bowl by the back door glass, and stayed tiny for months. Last week I put up my first round of seed flats under lights for the indoor growing season, so I repotted my small heucheras and carried them up to the lights. They’ve been getting sizable and all seem to be a basic type, with round leaves that come out red and turn bronzy. Great for edging a shady border. 

Meanwhile, it is a good time in zone 6b to start perennials. For three reasons: Because they can be slow to germinate, because they can be slower growing to size than annuals, and because if they get overlarge for indoors by April, they can be hardened off and kept outdoors, even planted in the garden, being frost hardy.

 

I’ve written about my Bradford pear, its stinky flowers, and its being fed on by the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker. I had an ash tree snag, as well, the tree killed by the Emerald Ash Borer, that arrived some years ago in Southeastern Ohio and has done a lot of harm in the forest. I got them both cut down last week. I was going to have the pear’s weird branches, that threatened to tear the trunk in half, cut off, but the tree cutter suggested removing it. And the truth is, I don’t know of a good reason not to remove a Bradford pear. Some states are even offering bounties and free replacement trees for the disposal of them. 

Like other invasives, they’re bad because they spread aggressively in nature. Birds eat the fruits, and eliminate the seeds, and the thorny callery pear (the underlying species of the Bradford variety) takes over roadsides and woodland edges.

(You can see, by the way, from the state of the snow, how much animal traffic I get in my yard.)

 

A Pretty Bloom and Some Seed-Starting Info

Photo of blue penstemon-like flower of strobilanthes

 

Strobilanthes dyeriana, the Persian Shield plant common in garden centers in the summer, is native to Myanmar. Some species of Strobilanthes are grown for their flowers, but Persian Shield is used for foliage. One of mine, that I brought to overwinter indoors, has put up dozens of flowerheads. Now some of the blooms are open, and as the photos show, they come out a pretty blue-purple, and with a shape like a penstemon flower, about an inch in length. (The two aren’t related; Strobilanthes is in the Acanthus family, and penstemon is in the plantain family.) 

 

I saw an article last year, in the New York Times where, discussing the collecting and sowing of wildflower seeds, a native plant expert said the Butterfly Weed, Asclepius tuberosa, is difficult to start. I’ve actually had good success with it, so I thought I’d share my method and observations.

I collect a couple of pods, which as you can see gives more than enough seed. I put them in an open container in my garage. When they split naturally, which takes some months, the seeds will puff out from the expanding floss. The floss, once the pods have opened on their own timetable, pulls loose from the seed easily. That makes sense. The seed wants to root itself somewhere, not be carried by the wind forever.

My intuition is that the cold of being in the garage in winter, while it probably matters, is less key to germination than letting the pod reach the stage of splitting, and planting seeds that need no tugging to remove the floss. I sow them like most others, upstairs in my cat-proof room with the lights and shelves, just tucked under the surface of the medium, and I get several new plants going that way.

The Birds Need Us

I’ve seen it said, in more than one article over the years, that backyard feeders aren’t needed, that the birds can fend for themselves and find enough food foraging in nature. In our current state of habitat loss and climate change, I think we should be rejecting towards any argument based on “everything is fine” for our struggling species, someplace else. That formula for avoiding habitat action has been around for decades.

The naturalist Edwin Way Teale, in Autumn Across America, wrote about the decline of the sea otter, which at the time (1950s) was making a comeback. Sea otters had been hunted to near extinction for the fur trade. As Teale recounts, the trade maintained that somewhere on planet Earth must be other populations of sea otters; that if they finished off the Pacific Northwest population, an abundance of other otters would be discovered to make up for it.

The Ivory-billed woodpecker was steadfastly stripped of its habitat. As recently as 2005 sightings were being claimed, that haven’t yet panned out to a certified rediscovery of the species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service in 2021 ruled the Ivory-billed extinct. This loss, also, came about on the strength of believing no single instance of habitat destruction had to be decisive. Somewhere there would be habitat; somewhere, then, magic belief could continue to place unseen remnants of endangered birds’ populations.

Now, we have a patchwork of wild areas, often widely separated by highways, farm fields, towns, industrial sites. Birds expend a lot of energy when they have to fly miles to find food. Not knowing where food might be, they can lose the gamble, and damage their health going too far without a resting place of insects and seeds, water and shelter, to restore themselves.

Insects are in steep decline, due to pesticides. Without insects, breeding birds can’t feed their young, and insectivorous birds can’t feed at all. New weather patterns, and more severe weather, which we are all aware are happening right now, stress wildlife. Heavy winds and rains stop birds and small mammals from foraging. More rain washes more pesticide residue into watersheds, and kills more wetland-dwelling insects, which reduces the numbers of birds.

We need to make our yards oases. My feeding station above is the most popular, though I have others. I give suet, a substitute source for insect fat, and a nut and fruit blend. Birds like shelter close by; they prefer that sense of safety. If you have an evergreen, like my rhododendron, set up a feeding station almost among the leaves, and the birds will be grateful. And do, unless you know for a certainty there’s plenty of food out there, feed them year-round.

The Value of Gardening

 

If you’re a gardener, you probably know:

Echinacea/Coneflower, Dianthus/Carnation, Salvia/Sage, Digitalis/Foxglove…

In short, you have a mental database of botanical Latin and common name combinations. You can probably, given only a Latin name, identify a plant’s characteristics: tomentosa (hairy), lutea (yellow), glaucous (covered in a bluish “bloom”, as the skin of a blueberry), etc. You know dozens of tools and their uses, and each one’s superiorities for particular jobs. You know the components of healthy soil, and what various additives do to improve bad soil. You know seasonal harvest and flowering times; you know “winter interest” plants, such as red-twigged dogwood. You know design rules, as employing the color wheel, and using odd numbers. You know plant diseases and infestations, and the debating points about how to deal with them. (I am in the leave it alone, and get rid of the plant if necessary, camp.) You know how to start seeds, make cuttings, which plants divide well and which don’t. You can probably solve problems calling for the construction of fences, drainage channels, even small storage buildings. And you know a lot about habitat, what you need to add, of native plants and features, to make homes for wildlife. You can identify several bird species, and routinely consult references to be sure of new visitors. (And you have an entire sub-database of where to look up things you don’t know.) You know reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. You keep up with what’s coming out in the new planting season, in perennials, shrubs, and annuals. 

Of course, gardening involves physical workouts and being outdoors in the fresh air. As we get older, we think about ways to stay healthy and retain our brainpower. Aside from the push to save the planet, that has inspired so many new gardeners, there is this all-around “staying in the game” that gardening provides.  Which makes us better Earth citizens, and better agers.

 

 

This is not a dead log, but a mini-habitat, with its own population of fauna. It has lichen, moss, mushrooms. It probably has insects, in the crevices of the bark, and certainly bacteria everywhere.

That’s why nurse logs (and junior nurse logs) are important in creating a replication of the natural forest environment, as nearly as we can in our yards.

 

 

From last summer. This is poison ivy. Some tiny bug has turned the leaves into these crumply pimpled things, demonstrating that all residents of an ecosystem use and are used, and even nuisance plants and animals belong.

 

 

I bought this succulent at Walmart, and I don’t know what it is. But it started dropping leaves, and each leaf had roots coming out. (See the not-very-focused photo below.) Wherever the plant is native to, it must rely on this alternative reproduction, either when it reaches a level of maturity, or when it feels stressed. 

 

Late Season Sights

My front-yard azalea seems much happier since I started raking out from under it in the fall. It used to be a brown mess, eaten to pieces by azalea lace bugs. Now there’s not too much damage, though spots where the leaves have been eaten still show. I’ve never seen an azalea produce this much fall color.  

This is the outer wall of my garage. I’ve got several things in the nursery, all cuttings, divisions, or dug-up volunteers. With the exception of the foxgloves, in the square pots, right, that seeded themselves. (If you have a perennial that’s reliable for self-sowing, you can place a pot underneath, topped with potting soil, and the new starts will arrive.) I dug up a couple of good columbines, and divided my goatsbeard. I also have a buttonbush, some Russian sage, Baptisia australis, and some actual mountain laurel cuttings. They should root themselves over winter, enjoying this spot where the warmth from the garage keeps them above a hard freeze. It’s my theory (probably not mine alone) that plants evolved to go dormant in the winter and wake in the spring need weather cues and shouldn’t be wintered indoors. The windowbox in front is just there to provide insulation. 

Some plants, in late fall/early winter, go into a growth phase. The upper photo shows the primroses, putting on lots of new leaves. The lower photo shows a hellebore that seeded itself from the parent plant. Fingers crossed that it will bloom in ’22 and I’ll see what kind of flowers it has. They can only be different from the parent if they’ve reverted in some way, though the parent is a fancy hybrid. But I only have one hellebore, so only someone’s else’s could have provided new genes.

A Few Things

The first photo shows this year’s deer. My yard, as a territory, usually has a semi-resident female and offspring, but a male deer, who I call Derek, has been growing antlers and browsing at the bird feeder through the summer. He had little velvet spikes, that turned into double points, and are now cleaned of velvet, while he’s grown much larger, and turned from fawn-color to grey for the winter.

In the second photo, a few more bulbs. Bluestone Perennials was having a 50% off sale, so I picked up some allium, Ornithogalum, Dutch Iris, and daffodils, and made combos of them in these yogurt tubs. In the deer photo, you can see the path edges, where I’m planning to have bulbs all the way along, though buying them one year at a time. 

Finally, this bread pudding turned out really tasty, so I’ll tell the story and share what’s in it. The “shortages” meant I could only find a half gallon jug of half-and-half, which I only buy for coffee. It usually lasts well in quart sizes, but this jug must have been the worse for shipping, because it went bad after a couple of days. Then I had almost 8 cups of product to use for some purpose. I baked two cakes to freeze and still had half the jug left. I looked up bread pudding recipes, and none were quite big enough. But the whole purpose of bread pudding is to use up things you would otherwise throw away, so recipes are only guidelines. I didn’t have bread, but I had lemon and spice cakes. This pudding has 4 cups of half-and-half, simmered and mixed with a tablespoon each of sugar and cornstarch (mix these two together to avoid the cornstarch clumping). It has about six loaf-style slices of lemon cake, and the equivalent of four slices of spice cake. The milk is mixed with two eggs, stirred; and everything is topped with pecans.