Monday, March 30, 2009

Break Out the Silk Stockings

Images:  after an ice and snow storm

According to my garden diary, March and April ice & snow storms are not uncommon. The snow, by itself, doesn't do all that much damage. Sometimes it can be a nice blanket for emerging plants.

Unfortunately, this March 28-29 storm was proceeded by a lot of freezing rain. After freezing on branches, the wet snow had a ledge to keep those big fat flakes from sliding off.

Fortunately, as soon as the sun rose on the 29th, temperatures began to rise and melt both ice and snow. This kept the damage and electric outages to a minimum.

This little storm reminded me it's a good idea to do some pre-ice storm planning for specific species:

Because of their broad needle/leaf size (even during the winter), evergreens are particularly susceptible to ice or heavy snow damage.

Do not beat, shake, or try to remove ice or very wet snow from pines. This will inflict more damage. GENTLY shaking soft snow from branches will not hurt the pine.

Arborvitae most often have more than one leader trunk. Under heavy weight, they will bend outward. If they are in this position for a few days, they will not straighten and may damage the tree beyond repair.

Prevention is the only way to make sure arborvitaes are not permanently damaged. Use old pantyhose, reach inside the plants (placing one in the middle and one a few feet from the top) and tie all the leaders together. Do not force together but simple let the stocking gently and firmly touch each trunk. Tie securely. Check these stockings each fall to make sure they aren't too tight or to replace.

Neutral colored stockings do not show. They do not hold moisture against the bark. Used correctly, they do not rub a raw place on the bark. It is re purposing another used item.

Pantyhose are also a good way to brace new trees. Bracing allows them to grow a strong and straight trunk. It keeps the winter storms from whipping them.

Place a sturdy pole (metal fence posts work well and can be easily removed) three feet from the new tree. I recommend three (one at 12 o'clock, one at 4 and another at 8.) Securely tie one end of the pantyhose to the post, then loop the hose around the trunk twice, bring the end back to the post and tie. The three pantyhose should be tight enough that the tree stands gently straight. The hose should not be so tight it puts stress on the trunk. The hose should not be loose enough to allow rubbing or allow the tree to sway.

Not all new trees need staking. You are trying to prevent the entire tree from swaying in the wind to the extent it pulls the trunk away from the soil. Some trees can be whipped so hard, they break the root system.

Do not leave this stocking/brace system on the tree longer than two years. The root system may be damaged if a pole is removed after several years. A trunk that grows around a pole will have it's integrity compromised in addition to looking deformed.

Tree trunks need a certain of amount of movement to enable the cells to become strong and hard. I've even heard some gardeners say they regularly shake new tree trunks. I recommend staking new trees if they are soft and thin. Others may be staked as insurance. Using pantyhose to accomplish this task is easy and cheap.

Now let's hope this is the last ice/snow storm of the year!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie

Pots with annuals including parsley

…yellow polka dot garden scenie. Yes, I know that’s really bad prose to introduce planting a vegetable/herb garden among your perennials and other landscaping.

Many folks are new to vegetable gardening or don’t have the space, energy, or time for a big plot. That doesn’t mean you can’t have home grown fresh vegetables and herbs.

Many vegetables and herbs blend well with existing plants. Using dwarfs and bush varieties, adding a trellis, and pulling them when they’ve finished producing help this process. A reminder: Vegetables and herbs usually need full sun.

Leafy vegetables and herbs, as edging to existing beds, look good and are easy to harvest. Check out the height at maturity when picking a variety. A few suggestions: lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, arugula, mizuna, spinach, mustard, parsley, & rosemary.

Because of height, plant a little farther back: bush tomatoes, collards, basil, dill, peppers, brussel sprouts, horseradish & broccoli.

Climbers needing a trellis or sturdy bush: green beans, peas, small gourds & cucumbers.

Most nurseries offer plant sets in packs of one to six. Plant sets have a jump on the growing season. I’ve found locally many varieties of tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cucumbers, & peppers.

Seeds are often difficult to start when direct planted into an established bed because of lack of digging space, depth of mulch and lack of sun on the soil.

Planting in pots & hanging planters is another opportunity if you only have a “Speedo” sized space or only desire a few vegetable and herb plants.

Choose only species that require the same environmental needs as the existing plants. Planting tomatoes next to cactus insures one of them won’t thrive.

An advantage of “spot” vegetable/herb gardening is you can walk out the door and inspect, nourish, and harvest easily.

Whether you snuggle many varieties and species among your itsy bitsy teenie weenie landscaping space or start with just one bush tomato plant, it will enhance your summer eating experience.

Note: The deadline for ordering from The Henry County Soil & Water Conservation District’s “2009 Spring Tree Sale” is March 30, 2009. Contact 309-937-5263 (Ext 3) for information, restrictions and an order form.


Rural fields after ice storm

The preservation of fresh food harks back to our very earliest civilizations.

Although I freeze some foods like corn and fresh berries, I enjoy the process of canning. I don’t do it because it’s cheaper than buying from stores. Labor alone makes it expensive. Factor in the cost of gas or electricity to cook and heat water, the equipment and fresh produce and you have an expensive operation.

But, you just can’t beat the taste of home canned fresh produce in the middle of winter. If homegrown, I know the produce was clean, pesticide free, and picked at just the right time. I’ve cooked it without taking out the nutrients and without adding artificial ingredients.

It’s pretty easy to get started canning your own produce. Stop by the local hardware or farm store and they will have water bath canners, pressure cookers, jars, and traditional needed equipment. Before you start, I recommend the “Ball Blue Book of Preserving.”

If you’re fortunate, you will have an older relative that has quit canning and will donate their equipment to you. Test out used equipment to make sure there are no pin holes in the pans, chips on the lips of the jars and always buy new lids.

The reason I am talking about canning this early in the year is because now is the time to decide what you will plant in your gardens for canning later in the summer. If you’ve never canned, start small with tomatoes. The advantage of starting with tomatoes is they ripen a few at a time and you can do small batches.

From a small garden, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, and onions can make any number of varieties of canned salsa, tomato juice, soup stock, whole tomatoes, and more.

Most vegetables or fruits can be pickled. A garden with cucumbers, peppers, onions, squash, green beans, and okra will allow you to have simple table vegetables and the opportunity to pickle.

Add a few herbs to your flower garden and you can increase the flavor of canned goods. Parsley, mustard, rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano are a few among many choices.

If you are thinking of planting trees and bushes, consider planting some that fruit. Apples, pears, and plums are good canned. Most fruit and berries make excellent jellies, jams, syrup and preserves.

Preserving food can be done in many ways such as the boiling-water canner, steam pressure cooker, dehydration, freezing, or vacuum packaging. The key is to start with quality fresh ripe produce. Then, follow the instructions meticulously.

Come the cold evenings when nothing but a bowl of homemade chili will warm your insides, go down to the cellar and start with a quart of your own canned tomato chili stock. Yumlicious!

A Stitch in Time

Rudbeckia "Golden Glow"

The 1700’s proverb, “A stitch in time, saves nine.” certainly applies to today’s topic.

The following will allow water to move slowly and directly to the root system of a plant. It applies to setting out annuals and to larger perennials, shrubs and trees.

For all projects:
When setting out a plant, dig the hole twice as deep and wide as the root ball or soil clump. Then dig another six inches deeper than the correct planting depth.

Amend the replacement soil. Insert plant in hole. When finished filling in around the plant, the bottom most exposed portion of the stem or trunk will be six inches below ground level. Do not plant the stem or trunk in the soil deeper than recommended.

Three options to make watering more efficient:

1. Build a 3 inch dam of soil around the outside of the 6 inch indentation. The top of the dam will be a total of 9 inches from the bottom of the soil in the pit. Pat the soil on the dam down tightly. Gently water the dam and let dry to harden. Lay newspaper over the dam and again gently water to adhere. Insert about 3 inches of mulch into the pit and over the dam. Leave mulch an inch from the stem/trunk. OR:
2. Cut 5 inch high rings from an old 20-gallon metal or plastic barrel. Wearing gloves, push the ring slightly in the ground (with about a quarter turn). Mulch as in #1. OR:
3. Cut a length of lawn edging, vinyl siding, flashing or any solid material that bends. Make a circle to fit the outside edge of hole. Attach the two ends by metal clips. Gently push into ground as in #2. Mulch as in #1.


  • The “well” around your plants catches water from the hose and rain to accomplish:
  • Drains slowly onto the roots.
  • New plants do not compete with weeds for moisture and nutrients.
  • Allows more protection from mower or weed eater damage.
  • It looks tidy.
  • If you fertilize, it is directed to the roots.
  • The mulch won’t scatter as easily.
  • It is cheap to accomplish. It will conserve water

As gardeners, we dream that our every effort will be beneficial, wise and cost efficient. Doing this prep work at the time of planting (A stitch in time) will save the gardener hours of work in the coming months and years (Saves Nine). This old saying stands the test of time.

In the Zone

Clematis "Jackman's Purple" and
Honeysuckle "Dropmore Scarlet"

The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone for this area of Illinois is listed as Zone 5a. Zone 5a has an annual minimum air temperature of -15 to -20 for a plant to survive. In the US, Zone 1 is the coldest and Zone 11 the most hot. Wind chill (a human skin gauge) is not a factor although blowing wind may harm plants.

Virtually all commercially sold plants have a Hardiness Zone rating. The University of Illinois has extensive data on the hardiness of specific plants that you can trust.

You may check the tags included with most plants. I caution that relying only on the tags or catalog descriptions can be trusting your dollars to what might be an over zealous marketing campaign.

The AHS has developed a Heat Zone map and we are in HZ 5. Today, I’m only talking about the Hardiness Zone because of the extensive cold weather we have experienced this winter.

Experience is often the best (and most expensive) teacher for a gardener to find exactly what survives in your yard. It is often different among various places in your yard.

Many of us may loose some of our Zone 5a plants this year. It did help that we had a pretty good snow cover which acts like an insulating blanket. If ever there was a year when we all should have winter mulched, this would be that winter.

Those of us who live in the country, our yards more exposed, will eventually loose some Zone 5 plants. Some factors that may cause loss:

  • Inaccurate zone labeling by seller.
  • Temperatures below minus 20 degrees for an extended time.
  • Little or no snow cover or mulch.
  • High sustained winds on cold days and nights.
  • Not sufficient moisture OR poor drainage in the soil prior to sustained freezing.
  • Too much applied nitrogen.
  • The plant is not surrounded by other plants, fences, or protection.
  • The plant was grafted.

I’ve lost enough “experiments” that I seldom buy perennials for warmer than a Zone 4. It is hard to give up on Zone 5, because every zone colder means less choices.

There is a host of information available that will help gardeners make the right Zone decisions. Web sites:
U of I Extension Service:
Dave’s Garden plant listings:

I don’t have enough space this week to talk about other winter damage such as breakage by heavy snow & ice, sunscald, ring shake, root death, cambial death, winter drying, rodent & deer, salt, frost cracks, and the “Oh MY GOSH Honey, I just backed over your prized pine!”

We’ll just focus on hardiness Zones while reading those beautifully illustrated garden catalogs. We’ve got time enough for cryin’ when the spring winds come.

Except Me and Thee

Clover flowers

My family used an old Pennsylvania Dutch phrase, “Everyone is going to the dogs except me and thee and I’m beginning to wonder about thee.” Although meant humorously, it can typify how we can become so judgmental of others that we begin to think we’re the only one that’s right.

Gardeners need to enjoy the differences in tastes, level of effort, or plans. Developing the ability to stand back and appreciate another’s differences, without the desire to copy, is usually an acquired ability. One we are born with but loose someplace in growing up and must again develop.

It’s the decision to take joy in observing a garden that (by our standards) is too organized or too chaotic. A garden with weeds in the wrong places or where wildflowers are forbidden. It’s taking joy in the creative mess in our neighbor’s yard or their minimalist Zen space. It’s enjoying the yard ornament that reminds us of a recently spilled dumpster or puzzles us with an unknown modern interpretation.

Let’s adapt what Janet Kilburn Phillips tells us: “There are no gardening mistakes, only experiments.”

I’ve seen the most enthusiastic gardener open their yard to a tour only to overhear harsh criticism: “There’s grass in their iris!”, “They don‘t have talent; they hired it done!” “Can you believe they put that there?!” “They could have at least hid that during the tour!” You get the picture.

Next summer when we go on that garden tour or walk by a neighbor’s yard, take a moment to realize that no matter what a gardener had in mind, it involved their heart. Hearts are just too precious to be broken by a harsh word.

Teresa Watkins in Gardening With Soul said, “Every garden is unique with a multitude of choices in soils, plants and themes. Finding your garden theme is as easy as seeing what brings a smile to your face.”

Me and thee can make a difference by encouraging and complimenting our fellow gardeners. It’ll bring a smile to everyone’s face!

(Call 309-853-1533 if you would like to reserve a spot on the March 10, 2009 bus trip to the Chicago Flower Show. Sponsored by the Henry-Stark Extension Master Gardeners.)

Victory Gardening

"Montmorency" Standard Tart Cherry Tree

I found a pamphlet titled “Instructions for Victory Gardens.” Produced as a working manual by the Illinois State Council of Defense during the 1940s.

Although the era did not have the benefit of new technology for gardening, there isn’t one single item that doesn’t pertain to gardening today.

I had to smile when I got to the title of the last chapter: “Waste Not: Want Not!” I heard that phrase so many times when I was growing up but somehow, along the years, that ideal has been mostly discarded. Shall we revisit?

Abundant garden produce takes time and work. In this wonderfully fertile land, the appreciation and desire to “waste not - want not” is needed. 

Let’s explore some of the Victory Garden hints for gardening:

  • Soil: Amend the garden areas before you plant. Amend means add nutrients or texture as your particular soil requires.
  • Compost: That whole kitchen scraps, yard waste, and manure thing.
  • Seeds & plants: Seed are cheaper. Whichever you choose, think about what your family will eat, if it will grow in your soil, and try something new each year.
  • Pick a spot: Either an area devoted to produce or tuck into the flower beds.
  • Care: Plant only what you can care for, harvest and preserve. Read to understand what your crops need.
  • Time: Take a walk through your garden daily to check for moisture needs. This will allow you to spy insects and diseases and eliminate before they take hold. 
  • Ecology: Don’t use powerful insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers without understanding what you are doing to the environment. Sometimes simple is best.
  • Produce: Use it, preserve it, and share it.

“Waste not: Want not” gardening simply means we should consider what we are doing to our earth for future generations. It means if you can produce your own supply of food, you should. It means if you do produce it, you don’t let it rot or go to seed. It means you plant enough to last you through until the next crop. It means you share your bounty with others less fortunate.

“The lesson I have thoroughly learnt, and wish to pass on to others, is to know the enduring happiness that the love of a garden gives.” Gertrude Jekyll. This famous garden designer, writer and artist knew the “happiness benefit” of waste not: want not!

Serving Hard Times


One of the first things to be eliminated during hard economic times is the extras. New plants for the garden may fall within those things eliminated.

Rather than be sad or mad, be innovative!

Winter is the perfect time to make a plan to divide your perennials. Plan a “plant sharing party” for April or May. It takes little extra work.

Arrange the place - your yard, the park, church basement or other free place.

State the plan up front:

  1. Take only the same number of plants that you contribute (one for one).
  2. Perennial for perennial
  3. Annual for annual
  4. Vegetable/fruit producing for same
  5. Seeds for seeds
  6. Tree or bush for tree or bush
  7. Size for equal size
  8. Offer no guarantees for survival (It’s free to take or not)
  9. All plants must be in transportable containers
  10. No money changes hands
  11. Extras may be planted in the city’s public beds

You may have three people participate or three-hundred. It’s a great way to feel good about disposing of extra or unwanted plants. It will help others enjoy the plants you love. It’s a fun day with like-minded gardeners.

If you are buying from nurseries and retailers, you can still participate by buying an extra plant and sharing (especially annuals).

I think of the times I’ve heard a gardener friend talk about “cleaning out a bed of something unwanted.” Instead of throwing away, donate and share.

Economic hard times needn’t be the end of good times, just a change in what we consider a good time. Sharing our own bounty with others is a sure way to have a good time.

I have found the plants I’ve received from other gardeners are the most hardy and most enjoyed. Something about the touch of a friend giving it vigor and longevity. “He who is born with a silver spoon in his mouth is generally considered a fortunate person, but his good fortune is small compared to that of the happy mortal who enters this world with a passion for flowers in his soul.” Celia Thaxter.

Deck the Halls


Numerous meanings were attributed to plant life before we began to understand their components. Pagan superstitions persisted into the twentieth century. Some still remain as part of Christmas traditions.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Your branches green delight us.” “Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum, Wie grün sind deine Blätter!” Written in 1823 by Ernst Anschutz.

Tannenbaum is a fir tree. Christmas trees and other evergreens were symbolic of long life and hope and associated with seasonal celebrations since ancient times. Long before the Christmas tree, people believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness.

In 16th-century Germany, fir trees were decorated, both indoors and out, with apples that depicted the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Martin Luther first adorned trees with light. While coming home one December evening, the beauty of the stars shining through the branches of a fir inspired him to recreate the effect by placing candles on the branches of a small fir tree inside his home. (Do not light real candles on your tree today!)

The Christmas tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, from his native Germany. Brought to America by the Pennsylvania Germans, the Christmas tree was being used here by the late 19th century.

“The best Christmas trees come very close to exceeding nature." ~ Andy Rooney.

Here are some suggestions for creating your own best “all natural trees.”

A natural tree is either cut fresh or with a root ball for planting. For those that worry about cutting trees, make your choice from tree farms that has a proven cut-to-plant ratio of one harvested to one or more planted. Tree farms are run by farmers. It’s a crop.

For tree care & environmental disposal hints see:

Decorate with some of the following:

  1. Strings of popcorn & cranberries
  2. Pinecones & nuts tied with recycled ribbons, twine or raffia
  3. Paper chains from recycled colored paper
  4. Dried flowers, wheat clusters, feathers, & seed pods
  5. Starfish & sand dollars
  6. Holly
  7. Painted egg shells
  8. Cookie ornaments
  9. Parts of old Christmas cards & pictures of family.
  10. Things you have on hand such as stuffed animals
  11. Candy canes, orange pomander balls, & apples.

As soon as the tree starts to dry, it should be removed from the home. A natural tree and eatable decorations can benefit wildlife after it’s placed outside.

No matter if you “deck your halls” with an aluminum tree and flashing lights or an all natural tree, may you be blessed this Christmas season.

Fine Feathered Friends

Blue Jay after ice storm

Sometimes I watch those tough little birds, who make their winter home among my yard and trees, and wonder at their resilience. Although they were made with natural defenses, it still has to be a tough existence for our fine feathered friends.

One of the joys of my winter yard is a bird feeder placed outside the computer room window. Today I’ll talk about bird food and what has worked for me.

I use shelled sunflower seeds in bulk (cheaper) and store in large plastic tubs. In the winter, it attracts finches, cardinals, jays, woodpeckers, sparrows, black-capped chickadees, doves, and grosbeaks. Some eat from the feeder and others from the seeds that drop to the ground.

I don’t buy mixed bird feed because the birds pick out the sunflower seeds and the rest falls to the ground to make a mess or sprout.

I seldom buy thistle seed because it’s expensive.

Unless it’s a really long harsh snow/ice covered winter and spring, I don’t feed except close to the house where I can enjoy their presence.

Leave seed heads on plants, berries on bushes, hips on roses, and plenty of natural food by not totally cleaning the yard in the fall and by planting with winter food in mind.

The squirrels do not visit my feeders until the walnuts, field corn & other natural food becomes scarce. I then feed them at a sturdy feeder at the back of the yard which keeps them from wandering close to the bird feeders (most of the time.) I feed them cracked corn, peanuts, popped corn or old bread.

When it gets really cold, I make suet. In the microwave, melt lard, and peanut butter. Add whatever I have at the time: oats, nuts, seeds, dried or fresh fruit, & corn meal. Line sandwich shaped refrigerator containers with plastic wrap, pour in the mix and refrigerate. I make several and keep in the freezer in plastic bags. Unwrap, put in your suet feeder and hang where the dogs can’t reach.

Birds can pretty much take care of themselves and have survived millions of years without feeders. If we’re honest with ourselves, the point of feeders is our enjoyment. But when the weather gets really nasty, a little help for our fine feathered friends can be our thanks to them for making our lives a little richer by their beauty and song.

“If you want to feel rich, just count all the things you have that money can't buy.” That person certainly must have had a bird feeder by her window.

In Defense of Average

Common Hollyhock

Plant hybridizers are always busy keeping up with the wants and ideals of gardeners.

Some people always want what is currently unavailable or ever more spectacular.

Most of us want beauty in addition to the benefits for disease/insect resistance, and increased production. The end result of some hybridizing results in altering hardiness & budding seasons. Much hybridizing is done for the sake of food stuffs but that’s another topic.

Have you ever noticed where the butterflies are the most prolific? It’s in the roadsides or on native flowers. Those flowers are so average, we have a tendency to take them for granted or not want them in our gardens.

There’s some other news regarding some new garden plants. Some have been hybridized where they only have the beauty. They no longer have the ability, or timing, or scent at the moment our insects need those things. Having these plants as accents may not harm anything. Having a yard full, in exclusion of the average, may take its toll on the environment.

When you take away a plant’s specific draw for a specific insect, bird or bat, you are also altering another part of nature. If the pollinator can no longer smell the needed scent, see the needed color, find the nectar at the exact time needed, there’s a problem. If the host plant for the different stages of insects is no longer available, there’s a problem.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to have a new beautiful plant in your yard. What I am saying is you must have some average if you want to be a part of earth’s continuing health.

We hear about the effects of diminished rain forests and think “that’s not my problem in the Midwest.” But nature is a fragile balance even in Henry County, Illinois.

What I suggest is simple. Make sure some of the “bones” of your garden are native perennials. Let a few local “weeds” grow in between the hybridized displays.

The not so beautiful child often grows into our favorite. Why? Because a well rounded average has so much more to love.

Divide and Conquer

"Pink Horizon" Bearded Iris

Rudyard Kipling said, “Flowers are not made by singing Oh, how beautiful, and sitting in the shade.”

The Iris has a long and involved history that goes back about 7,000 years. It’s the stuff of legends, gods, queens, and martyrs.

The Iris played an important roll in Greece, Egypt, France, Spain, Arabia, England, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, Asia and was eventually brought to the “Colonies.”

It’s been of importance for medicine, perfumery, water purification, art, religion, and flavoring.

You can still see it’s fleur-de-lis emblem on the flags of France, New Orleans, Quebec, the Boy Scouts, and Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.

Alas, good gardener, with this kind of provenience don’t you think it’s time to get out of the shade and divide those iris?

The German bearded is the most popular in our area. You divide German bearded iris when:

1. It’s been 3-5 years
2. Blooming is sparse
3. To move to other locations
4. Sharing with others

Japanese, Louisiana, Siberian and some smaller species require different methods.

The steps for dividing this perennial herb:

 Divide on a cloudy day so the roots (rhizome) won’t dry.

 If possible, dig up the entire clump. This is the hard part because big clumps are very heavy & stuck together. A garden spade or fork & a healthy teenager work well.

 Use a sharp knife to separate an iris clump; each division should have at least one growing point (or fan of leaves) & a few inches of healthy rhizome with feeder roots.

 Throw away any diseased parts & the old middle of the clump. Do not compost.

 Trim foliage to a fan shape; cutting it back to a height of 5 inches.

 Dig a hole large enough to hold the division’s root system. The location should have good drainage. Form a mound of soil in the center of the hole; spread the roots evenly over the mound.

 Add soil until the rhizome is ONLY one inch below the surface (planting too deep will kill). Water. Mulch with compost or shredded bark to deter weeds & for winter protection.

Next spring you will have an example of that symbol Joan of Arch carried when she led French troops to victory over the English. Sit in the shade and exclaim “Oh, how beautiful!”

BIG Gardeners

Rainbow in the East touching Galva IL

While driving home one beautiful fall day, there were many farmers working the fields. Soybeans were being combined, hay cut and some farmers had started on their corn.

The corn beside our home is over eight foot tall and beautiful. What a Blessing to live in an area of the U.S.A. where our farm communities feed the world. These farmers produce safe healthy products with such expertise and energy it is often taken for granted.

No longer “simple” farming, these farm families must buy, operate and maintain equipment that most of the world doesn’t even know exists.

Choices of what to plant, how to plant and when to harvest is a science.

The kinds of breeds, feed, healthcare and markets that the earlier generations could not fathom.

Specialty and local farms must compete with corporate enterprises and imports.

Yet today, our farm families are still feeding the world in spite of the increasingly high cost of virtually everything they need to keep the business productive. As former President John F. Kennedy put so well, “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.”

We take these farm families for granted yet they may be entering another period of financial struggle. In spite of hard work and the intelligence of a Rhodes Scholar, farming is a difficult profession to make a good living and to support a family. As another former President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

What can we do for our neighbors?
Ÿ Buy your 4-H livestock locally.
Ÿ Buy your meat from local producers.
Ÿ Frequent groceries that sell “Made in the USA” .
Ÿ Stop at that roadside stand selling their own produce.
Ÿ Shop regularly from the family selling eggs.
Ÿ Tell the farm family you appreciate what they do for you, the community and the world.
Ÿ Watch for signs of stress from the struggle to stay in business and if you perceive problems, offer your help or help them find help.

Our farm families are not some distant entity, they’re our friends and neighbors. Most gardeners have less than an acre to work or finance. If it fails, we try again but mere beauty in a yard isn’t the same reasonability the farmer must bear. Failure on their part may mean not providing for their family, loss of the family place, future decisions they may not want and we would not want for them.

You may not be able to toss a bale of hay for your neighbor but simple understanding and thanks goes a long way. Working the land is a noble profession and I quote Statesman Daniel Webster, “When tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization.” They’re the BIG gardeners.

Have a safe harvest neighbors!

Tool Maintenance From the Kitchen

Happy husband and back porch
builder, taking a break.

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” (Victor Hugo 1852) applies to gardening.

I was raised by a father who was VERY particular about tool maintenance. I learned from him but now use kitchen and found products. For non power driven tools:

First: Make repairs. Tighten, sand, and replace parts where needed.

Small hand tools:
1. Put hand tools (without wood parts) through a dishwasher cycle; an easy way to sterilize & clean. Disinfect wood tools by hand cleaning as below #1.
2. Rub off rust on metal parts with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser or #100 steel wool.
3. Sharpen dull blades with a wet stone. Use patience in bringing the blade gently in the same direction, same angle, time after time.
4. Put drops of olive oil on the entire unit. Let it roll into the gears, bolts, rivets, springs, blades, and handles. Massage over all parts, making sure it gets into all internal working components. (This is good for the garden weary skin on your hands.) Let it sit a day on a paper towel. Wipe off excess with a soft rag; leave a coating.
5. Store in a moisture free environment.

Large hand tools:
1. Mix a bucket of disinfectant & water. Soak working parts half an hour, rinse & dry.
2. Rub off rust as above.
3. Sharpen blades as above.
4. Whether the handles are wood, plastic or fiberglass, take a good grade liquid furniture oil and generously rub the surface. Make sure it flows into any rivets or other indentions. Gently rub off excess oil with a soft cloth.
5. Work a coat of olive oil onto the metal parts as above. If an extremely large tool, coat metal parts with WD40.
6. Put new kitty litter in an empty bucket(s). Empty your next batch (or several) of used motor oil into the bucket. Push shovels into the mix and store this way.
7. Hang large tools. Touching cement or soil causes corrosion.

“The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.” - Confucius. I would say, “The same holds true for gardeners.”

My Favorite Things

Spirea Bush "Judy's Pink"

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…” as the Rodgers and Hammerstein My Favorite Things song goes.

Some of my favorite garden web sites: Free weekly newsletter - $18 a year for full access Flower legends All about birds Illinois wildflowers & weeds Butterflies & moths of N. America Bug/insect identification & information Plant information University of Illinois Extension site

On-line sites:
Basic caution: Everything on the web is not necessarily true or ethical. Never exchange financial information unless you are SURE it is a reputable site.

Dave’s Garden has comprehensive reviews by it’s members of garden sites.

Nothing is more frustrating than ordering what you hope is a beautiful plant and it arrives the size of a baby cricket and half dead. Only use proven sources.

On the other hand, you can find those unusual hard-to-locate items.

Do your homework before ordering on line, including the hardiness zone, the shipping fees, replacement policies and guarantees.

Once in awhile, I’ll take a chance on an e-Bay plant sale. First time, order small in case it doesn’t live up to expectations.

If it sounds too good to be true - it probably is…

Buy Local:
I buy most of my large items, annuals and common perennials locally. I like to buy local where size and cost equals long term survival.

Some local nurseries provide a guarantee if they deliver and plant or landscape your purchases. If you aren’t able to do your own work, your unsure of how to plant, or you are spending large amounts, it may be worth the additional charge for labor.

You know the merchant, they know you, if they care enough to have good quality and service, you should care enough to help them stay in business. Their success is your success.

“When the dog bites, When the bee stings, When I'm feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, And then I don't feel so bad.”

Shade Gardening

Hosta bordering the right of a brick walk under
walnut trees.
There are many variables that must be considered in addition to the classification of “grows well in shade.” Variables such as moisture, depth of shade, competition from roots, and soil composition to name a few.

A few hints for shade gardens:

Grasses: Ornamental grass seldom grows well in shade. Currently, I’m trying Japanese forest grass “Aureola” billed for woodland garden shade.

Ground covers that grow in the shade are likely to be invasive. (More on invasive in another article.) Make sure you love it, it won’t interfere with other more precious plants, and the seeds won’t carry to where you don’t want another batch.

Vinca and Ivy can‘t be easily contained or killed. Lily of the Valley, dead nettle “Red Nancy”, and archangel “Variegatum” are less a challenge.

Perennials: Comfrey is extremely hardy but comes up everywhere. Virginia Creeper will climb up and over anything .

Well behaved shade perennials: Ajuga , Virginia Bluebells, Chameleon Plant, hosta, Jack-in-the Pulpit, Leopard plant “The Rocket”, Loosestrife “Alexander”, violets, sweet woodruff, and ferns.

Perennials for partial shade: Amsonia “Blue Star”, columbine, some cranesbills, and Dame’s Rocket.

Annuals for partial shade are many. They’re generally in brighter colors than shade perennials. They include: Impatiens, coleus, viola, old fashioned climbing petunias, pansy, and sweet alyssum.

Bulbs: If your shade is from deciduous trees, it’s a great opportunity to plant spring flowering bulbs. Plant other perennials that will fill in around them to let the leaves die naturally.

Other ideas: A bare space may host wood mulch, a small water feature, bird feeder, garden ornament, bench, a little collection of shells or a few pretty field rocks.

The trick with shade garden spaces is to enjoy and understand the beauty of the subtle and subdued. As Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.”

Going Green

Rugosa Rubra Shrub Rose with bee

“Going Green” is the current buzz phrase.

There are things you can do to go green that make sense and others that only make money for the seller. When a green idea is marketed, research instead of letting emotion or guilt drive your decision. Some ideas sound good but if you know “the rest of the story”, they don’t make environmental sense.

How do we take all the past, present and future ideas and garden responsibly? Give some of these a try:

No-till vegetable gardening:

1. Till once every few years when you want to mix in animal fertilizer.

2. Use paper from your shredder as garden mulch.

3. Shredding newspaper with soy ink gums up the machine. Tear it in strips or lay down several thicknesses of full sheets and top with a few clods of soil. Immediately wet all the paper completely and it will form a great mulch to keep out weeds, let water through and cool the soil. And, it decomposes.

4. Don’t use slick paper because it isn’t porous.

The jury is still out on if there are negative side effects on food stuffs from composting colored paper or colored ink.


1. Composting doesn’t have to be highly expensive, labor intensive, or ugly.

2. Throw all non-animal kitchen garbage in the compost pile.

3. Buy coffee filters made from recycled paper and compost both.

I don’t turn the compost, take the temperature, buy worms or layer but I am composting.

The trick with going green, is to start where YOU can start. Don’t fall for the marketing hype that you must buy expensive and do everything perfect to be helping the environment.

Unless you have “your people” do everything to go totally green or it becomes your passion, you will only guilt yourself into never starting because you won‘t think a little is enough.

Start by taking baby steps - little “green” baby steps.

Water - Water Everywhere

Storm coming in from the West
My yard is almost tropically lush this year. It’s tempting to run out and buy more of what’s doing great this year. Then I remember last year’s drought conditions. This year’s stars were last year’s strugglers. To have a beautiful garden year after year, you must diversify your plant material.

One year I toured a hosta garden that was serene and ordered. The next year slugs nearly wiped out all the hostas. In the fall, I count on phlox to give one last flowering color burst. I’m betting this year most will be covered with mildew. The point being, if you have a passion for only one thing, chances are you will experience an attack that could eliminate your entire garden. Same for bushes and trees.

Unless you have the paid staff the size of a botanical garden, unlimited financial resources and a private phone line to Mother Nature, your garden will have a different set of successes and failures each year.

For wet conditions, here are some suggestions:

* Construct a rock lined dry river bed to pull water away from things that are sitting in continual mud. Most of the time, it will be dry. In excessive rain, it will draw the moisture away from those plants.
* Use rain barrels to collect water for those areas that will need extra water.
* Red Twig Dogwood, hosta, Japanese and Siberian iris, bald cypress, ferns, violets, blue and black berries, sweet peas, roses, and lavender do well in moist conditions. Few non bog plants do well sitting in water continually.
* Inspect your garden daily and stop problems in the beginning.
* Encourage and nurture good insects, bats, birds and healthy plant life.

Most of all, enjoy the success of this year’s gardening circumstances. Keep the basement door open for the next tornado warning. Keep your sense of humor and perspective. As the old saying goes, “God made rainy days, so gardeners could get their other chores done.”

Choosing Plant Markers

Image: "Lilting Belle" Daylily  DooHickey Plant Marker

If you have large collections of specific plants such as daylily, hosta, and iris, you may want to label each plant. Some reasons include identification during non-bloom times, ability to divide a specific variety, prevents buying duplicates, or because you are “an organized kind of person.”

Finding enduring plant markers is a gardening challenge.

*If you only mark your garden annuals, simple inexpensive markers are best. Using a stick with the empty seed packet impaled is the cheapest.

*A carpenter’s wooden shim is perfect for neatness, cost, and a couple of years endurance.  You can use a wood burning etcher or permanent ink marker for the words. Wooden markers can be composted.

For long lasting markers, the selection is determined by cost, aesthetics, if you have children or dogs, and how long you hope they will endure the elements. Here are a few of the many possibilities:

*Plastic: “T” markers last one year for me. My dogs step on them and they become brittle over winter.

*The markers made from cut mini blind slats shed the wording over winter or get lost in the clean up.

*Wood: These biodegrade too quickly vs. the work to mark a large collection.

*Metal: Zinc & copper labels on metal wire supports have a higher cost, usually last a long time, but can be bent and torn by children and pets.

*My latest try is “DoHickey” labels that hang on my homemade wire stakes.

*Professional: High grade professional markers can be custom ordered from the vendors who supply botanical gardens. They have metal frames and engraved plastic labels. They look uniform, have a long life and may be the most expensive of the marker options.

*Home-made: Fill small clay pots with cement, insert a metal stick twice the height (let dry), turned upside down and mark with the paint.

*Smooth rocks painted with names and varnished. Small cement forms (like small home-made stepping stones) with the names either written in the soft cement or use glass beads to spell out the names.

*Paint plant names on old china saucers, china/super glue on a metal rod and insert in the ground.

*Other hints:
Use pencil on zinc markers.
Indent on copper.
Livestock ear marker ink and paint pens last several years.
Plastic labels from label makers can be stuck to metal markers.
A mail order company makes customized peel and stick labels for metal markers or get your own PC program.
Support local artists doing metalworking, red ware, outsider art and other talents for individualized or personalized markers.

Fit Your Style:
You can get as expensive, showy, or as time consuming as your current gardening style and budget dictates. Gardening, in all phases, should feed your body and soul and not become a burdensome duty.

If you can look with joy at a field of wild mustard or must bend to smell the fragrance of red clover, then perhaps your life has no need for plant markers.

Marking plants or not is part of a gardening style - find yours and love it for all it's worth.