Friday, October 30, 2009

Unsuspecting Color

Images of the Ornamental pear tree Pyrus calleryana "Chanticleer"

We often think of maple trees for their beautiful fall colors, but, this ornamental pear stands right up there with the best.

An ornamental fruit tree does not produce actual pears even though it has flowers in the spring. It does produce a very small hard bitter "fruit" which the birds eat.

This five year old tree was a gift from my church in memory of my father. It is from the old "Lafayette Nursery."

The shallow-rooted tree is tolerant of a wide range of soils and this one was planted in what was formally a very compacted gravel driveway. Not the best of conditions although it has never shown any signs of not being perfectly happy.

It is a narrow and tailored tree with multiple leaders, tight branching and needs little pruning. It can measure 25-35 ft by 16-25 ft. It's a fast grower and prefers full sun. For the urban yard, it shows good resistance to pollution and fire blight. For the smaller yard, it doesn't form a shade canopy.

The shiny dark green leaves turn orange/gold or red/purple in the fall. It turns late in the fall and looses it's leaves after most other trees are bare.

I've also planted white Dutch iris and a low growing Japanese blood grass below the tree. I did this right after it was planted so there was no damage to the shallow roots. I, also, keep it mulched.
This tree is considered a three season show - spring: flowers - summer: emerald green leaves - fall: bright colored leaves.

In case you enlarge the fall picture - the tiny blur marks are raindrops. NORAD just announced this area is sixteen plus inches over average rainfall for the year. I'm surprised it's only sixteen. It's fast turning the beautiful corn, soybeans and other fall crops into a huge loss. For those without insurance coverage, it must be frightening times. With those who have insurance, it will only partially help and then only after much proof is submitted. Definitely prayer time in this part of the Bible belt.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tough Little Bird

Image of a White Breasted Nuthatch with a sunflower seed in his beak.

I've been trying to get a photo of this little guy for weeks but he's been too fast and jerky. He flies in for a seed and, most often, immediately flies out.

Nuthatches Sitta carolinensis have a short tail and are about 5 3/4 inches long, have black caps, blue/gray upper over an all-white face and breast. The extent of the rust on it's bottom is variable. Typically they have a large head with little visible neck.

This one has a longer, thinner (but very strong) bill indicating it is more similar to the western Nuthatches. Their song and call are both loud and nasal sounding more insistent than musical.

The Nuthatch will climb up, down and around tree trunks and branches searching for insects or hiding seeds/nuts. Able to hang upside down, they are often confused as a Woodpecker. They have short legs, long toes, and very strong claws.

Nuthatches are commonly found in leafy trees - maples, hickory, basswoods, oaks and conifers. They prefer mature woods and woodland edges. They nest year round in holes and crevices of old trees. They will sometimes smash bugs all around the opening to repel squirrels from taking their nest. The tree cavity is a small cup lined with soft material (usually the hole is made by others).

This Nuthatch typically likes insects, nuts and large meaty seeds found at feeders. They get their name from jamming nuts into tree bark and hatchet them into pieces with their sharp beak. Feeders with sunflowers, peanuts and suet usually will entice them if they are in your area. The choice of eating insect pests (tent caterpillars, flies, grasshoppers, aphids, and others) make it a very beneficial bird.

In the winter Nuthatches flock with finches, chickadees and titmice. They are usually in pairs and mate for life. They stay over a good portion of the United States year round. It is difficult to tell the male from the female as they look very much the same - as do juveniles. Both parents feed the fledglings.

The Nuthatch, in the wild, lives from 2-3.5 years although can be as long as ten. Hawks, owls, squirrels, and woodpeckers are the natural enemies. The House Wren will try to destroy their eggs. Nuthatches will make use of man made winter-time roosts constructed for small birds. They will also nest in man made boxes if placed and constructed correctly.

A Nuthatch is a fun addition to your winter bird feeder - always lively - it never seems to get a case of the "winter blues."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Burn Baby Burn

Images: Euonymus alatus -aka- Burning Bush -aka- Winged Euonymus (Celastracceae Staff-Tree Family) Whew, that's a whole lot of names for this stunning red bush. A native of Northeastern Asia and Central China.

The Burning Bush is an average looking bush most of the year. It's form is rather loose, slow maturing to 4-5 ft. tall and wide for some varieties and 12-15 ft. tall and wide for others.

It prefers moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil in full sun. It is very adaptable to full shade, poor and compacted soil, various soil pHs, heat, drought, periodic shearing, and pollution. In the less ideal places, it will grow less vigorous and the fall color is a mixture of pink-red and faded yellow. Some years, according to the weather, they may not be as showy in the fall.

They should not be planted where they need to be pruned as this will eliminate the fall color. It is rated for Zone 4.

Some nurseries consider varieties of the Burning Bush invasive because it can escape to wooded areas by the seeds being carried by birds. Mine have not.

The tiny spring flowers are usually not noticed but birds do like the resulting berries. The leaves are clear emerald green in the summer.

In the summer, the form, lack of showy flowers make it average. But, and here is a huge BUT, in the fall it outstrips all other bushes and most trees for it's shouting red colored leaves.

Since mine turned red, I can't let a day go by without making sure I look at the beautiful red color. Today, when going into Galva, I saw a home with the entire back fence row of the property lined with Burning Bushes. It was stunning!

This week is definitely the week to take notice of yards with Burning Bushes - I'm betting you hadn't even given these bushes a second glance up until now.

When buying bushes for your yard, think about adding a Burning Bush. Plant as a fence row or an addition to your other beds. I don't really care for them as a lone or specimen plant because they don't hold their own most of the year. They are a bit like a spring flowering lilac bush in that regard. When they are doing "their thing" they are the most important bush in your yard.

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” Albert Camus (French author, philosopher, and journalist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Relying on the Reds


Acer rubrum "Franksred" - a Japanese Red Maple.

The second picture is as this beauty was just beginning to turn about a week ago. Today it is almost totally red as shown in the first picture.

This native North American maple is six years old and will grow to 45-55 ft. It can grow 8 to 15 inches a year and because of our abundance of rain this year, it has been enjoying a very large growth spurt.

It is upright with an oval top. The leaves are a glossy green which turn to orange/red in the fall. It is the first tree to color up in the fall and the most brilliant.

Hardy to Zone 4B. It is resistant to storm breakage. It takes regular watering the first few years until established. Then you can just sit back and enjoy the show.


Squirrels and birds like the seeds.

Most maples are pretty in the fall: Red Sunset and Autumn Blaze both turn orange/red. The Norway Maple Acer platanoides Crimson King has maroon leaves all summer and then turns a maroon yellow in the fall. Even the native North American Acer saccharin Marsh Sugar Maple turns yellow/gold in the autumn.

Maples need room and sunshine. Most don't like compacted soil or heavy pollution. They have few disease or pest problems. Some are prone to storm damage - check the labels when buying or situating near structures. Make sure your tree is rated for Zone 5 or colder.

The 80 ft. Sugar Maples also produces maple syrup and hard maples are often used for floors and ball bats. The leaves of maples are numerous. Unless the quantity is forming a mat of several inches over turf grass, either let the wind blow them under flowers, bushes and trees for insulation this winter or mulch with your mower.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Alternatives to Chemicals

Image: One brand product for vinegar used as a weed control solution.

Disclaimer: I have not used this brand and I'm not advocating it's use, purchase, or vouching for it's safety. Sorry, needed to be said.

"Ontario introduced very strict controls on pesticides this past April. In essence, gardeners in this province can no longer use any pesticide product for cosmetic purposes i.e. controlling or killing insects, diseases, fungi or weeds in an ornamental garden setting. This is reflected at the garden centres and hardware stores, where shelves once brimming with chemical control products now contain a mere shadow of what they once did. The Ontario bans also extend to the use of these products by municipalities, botanical gardens, golf courses and everything other than farm, nursery or greenhouse use." (Taken from

The Ontario controls are sure to inspire comments on both sides of the issue. Since the controls are already in place in Ontario, residents are trying to figure out how to destroy weeds & insects and still stay within the law. It appears some who administer this new law are coming down on a very strict interpretation that even prohibits "anything" that kills weeds, including natural and homemade concoctions. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Vinegar is a natural weed killer with some effectiveness. The Perennials company ran a contest for ideas on how to use vinegar and how effective it was at killing weeds. Check out the site for those results. But, one idea is worth restating here: Natural and homemade remedies can have negative personal and environmental health consequences, also.

It only takes some slight investigation to realize the consequences of the homemade remedies (for garden, health, foods, and beauty products) must be investigated and understood before they are used. It is primarily an unregulated industry.

Those that dislike government control (IE: regulated), often prefer the alternative products. Those that want to positively influence the environment, may be led to try alternative products. Gardeners with allergies and especially respiratory problems may try these. The reasons are numerous and mostly with good intentions.

According to what I've read, strong (20% solution) vinegar vapors can cause nose bleeds when used without a mask. Most of us are aware the vapors from bleach can be dangerous but what about something as simple as salt. Yes, salt may kill weeds but may also soak into the soil and then root systems of nearby trees.

Another warning: natural products in different forms may have different levels of toxicity. The portion of the plant that is used may determine if it is poison or not. The process used to cook, distill, or administer may also affect strength. Even where a plant comes from or the soil it's grown in may be a factor in toxicity. Not all old home remedies are safe to use.

I have several very old herbal and home remedy books. Lots of fun to read. As an example, one concoction is used to treat a certain disease. What it actually does is paralyze the nerves. Used too strong, on youngsters, or weak systems, and it will kill. You have to be very careful.

Lest you think I'm writing this because I'm not an advocate of alternatives to chemicals, no that's not the point. Sometimes people tend to jump into alternative anything with both feet without realizing most alternatives also have good and bad. Plus, marketing/advertisements seldom tell the risks or if they do, they're in fine print.

If you are searching for solutions, investigate ALL the information first and then make intelligent decisions BEFORE using - for your health and for the health of your garden and the environment. Another warning: Information about " health and environmentally friendly" products found on the web are not necessarily factual. Use research from reputable sources along with reading other claims to come to your own conclusions. It could be a matter of life or death.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pumpkin Patch

My little granddaughter with a decorative pumpkin she is sure belongs to her.
A commercial pumpkin farm in rural Illinois. The crop is ready for harvesting and will be trucked to the canning factory.
The pumpkin is a fruit of the plant Cucurbita pepo. It forms on a trailing vine with heart-shaped leaves. The Greek word for "large melon" is "pepon."
Both the fruit's flesh and the seeds are valuable because of the nutrient content. 

Pumpkin Nutrition Facts(1 cup cooked, boiled, drained, without salt): Calories 49, Protein 2 grams, Carbohydrate 12 grams, Dietary Fiber 3 grams, Calcium 37 mg, Iron 1.4 mg, Magnesium 22 mg, Potassium 564 mg, Zinc 1 mg, Selenium .50 mg, Vitamin C 12 mg, Niacin 1 mg, Folate 21 mcg, Vitamin A 2650 IU, Vitamin E 3 mg.

High in beta-carotene, they are a favorite among vegetarians. Thought to reduce the risks of cancer, heart disease and some forms of aging. Figure one pound of raw, untrimmed pumpkin for each cup finished pumpkin puree.

Plant in full sun, well drained soil that is high in organic matter. They need plentiful and consistent moisture until fruits begin to fill out. This year was a perfect year for squash and pumpkins. They need lots of room to grow.

Direct seed into hills that are from 4-8 ft. apart after all danger of frost. Or, use transplants for an earlier start since you want them to mature before the first frost. Mulch plants to retain moisture, suppress weeds and discourage squash vine borers. Black plastic mulch speeds the growth process.

Harvest pumpkins before hard frosts, leaving one inch of stem. Cure in the sun for the longest storage then store in a cool, dark, dry place. I usually put a thick layer of newspapers under them on a dry basement shelf.

At the end of the season, remove all vines to reduce the chance of mildew next year.

Categories are: Miniature, Naked Seed, Cushaw, White Painting, Jumbo, Processing, Rouge Vif d-Etampes, and the Standard Oranges (small, intermediate, large.)

Native Americans dried strips of pumpkin and wove them into mats. They also roasted long strips of pumpkin on the open fire and ate them. The origin of pumpkin pie occurred when the colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey. The pumpkin was then baked in hot ashes.

The practice of making jack-o-lanterns originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack."

Some facts from the University of Illinois:
  • 496 million pounds of pumpkins were produced in Illinois in 2008. Illinois is in the top 4 in pumpkin production.
  • Around 90 to 95% of the processed pumpkins in the United States are grown in Illinois.
  • Pumpkin flowers are edible.
  • Pumpkins originated in Central America.
  • In early colonial times, pumpkins were used as an ingredient for the crust of pies, not the filling.
  • The largest pumpkin ever grown weighed 1,140 pounds.
  • Pumpkins are 90 percent water.
  • Bees are the primary pollinating insect for pumpkins. Insect sprays can kill bees.
  • Snapping the stems from the vines results in many broken or missing "handles." Pumpkins without stems usually do not keep well.
  • Wear gloves when harvesting fruit because many varieties have sharp prickles on their stems.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

How Do You Spell "Enthusiast"

I firmly believe the human race invented "clubs" because we have this intrinsic desire to be with like-minded people.
We need to be able to talk on and on about our own obsession and receive, in return, more of the same.

It is never as obvious as it is when visiting with another garden enthusiast. Gardeners are one of the most happy and welcoming groups and want to include instead of setting exclusive barriers.

A stranger that even hints of a gardening interest is immediately embraced (often literally) by a hard line gardener.

Gardeners are generous to a fault. The chance to share information, a seed, a cutting, a whole plant and we are happy people. If we are the beneficiary of said same, our gift receiving quota for the year is satisfactorily met.

Tell us there is no Santa Claus and I'm sure we can point to any number of instances when we have been given (as in free) some wonderful garden bounty that has continued to thrive and give us pleasure.

Mention a certain plant and you will receive many different variations of how to care, how to eradicate, propagate, pick, pull, plant, or pluck.

As an example, there is the wonderful garden information BLOG, Dave's Garden, which has grown into a world-wide discussion of all things garden. Today it has over 478,537 members and this past week 20,911 of them NEEDED to discuss something about gardening.

I've even heard the term "obsessive-compulsive" used around some of us gardeners. When used (usually by a non-gardening enthusiast) we tend to smile, look off in a distance, and mutter "yeah babe." We would probably high five but tend to not use large expansive moves in case we forget we have a shovel or other sharp instrument in our hand.

As with all club types, we are just sure we know something special about our own particular obsession and the world would be better off if they felt the same. In the gardeners’ case, we may feel the need to share with non-enthusiasts in the vain effort to convert. Surely, if they just knew what they were missing they would embrace it as we do! Oh, yes, I've seen many a non-enthusiast run at the first opportunity (often when we finally take a breath while expounding upon something like the benefit of the Danaus plexippus caterpillar.)

A friend is never as special as someone who shares our own idiosyncrasies and obsessions. I'm just sure if you've read this to the end, you may have the latent tendencies of a full blown garden enthusiast or are already so embroiled in this topic you are currently shouting "I'm with ya girl; gardeners RULE!"

I do appreciate gardening enthusiasts - be they from over the world, specific to the United States, only the Midwest, or simply my little corner of the world.

They bring a comforting moment in this world where things aren't always sunny. They take us to what might be on the 'morrow when today might be difficult. They bless us with beauty and positive observations when we are daily bombarded with negative and ugly. They help to improve this earth in the face of so many tearing it apart.

“Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”- Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Yes, gardeners, our little corner of obsessive is generally for the good of mankind. I guess if we must use that human desire for being with like-minded enthusiasts, gardening and its many diverse topics is a pretty good place to settle our muddy boots.

Here Comes the Bride

Growing flowers to use at a wedding is a fun way to help keep expenses down. It does take pre-planning and cooperation between the bride and gardener.

Not all wedding seasons will have an ample supply of flowers but there are always things you can garner from outside and then add a few store bought flowers and accessories.

A few choices are tulips, daffodils, violets, pussy willow branches, Lily of the Valley, iris, peonies, lilac and forsythia branches. Spring flowers often require planting bulbs in the previous fall to get the desired colors and bloom times.

Choices here can be perennials and annuals. Asian lilies, roses, hydrangea, daisies, yarrow, ornamental grass leaves, cosmos, ivy, sunflowers and hosta leaves.

Early Autumn:
Cone flower, liatris, Oriental lilies, zinnia, hosta flowers, coreopsis and asters.
Late Autumn:
Sedum, leaves, ornamental grass seed heads, mums, wheat, and hard-type berry bushes.

Pine cones, evergreen branches, grape vines, holly and bittersweet.
If you have the opportunity, experiment the year before. Flowers have definite personalities once they're picked. An unhappy bride walks down the aisle with drooping flowers.
Realize weather conditions can effect the bloom times.

Fragile flowers will need those little florist water containers if used in carried bouquets. Speaking of fragile, some flowers don't remain fresh looking when picked no matter what you do to them. Others, loose petals at a steady rate once picked.

Flowers in vases are easier to manage for the non-professional. Wrapping mayonnaise jars in material and ribbons in the wedding colors is inexpensive and beautiful. Fall containers and accessories are plentiful with pumpkins, gourds and dried flowers. Pressing leaves or coating in wax is an easy process that can be accomplished early in the planning.

Bought poinsettias and other typically Christmas season flowers can be bought potted for much less than a bouquet. Poinsettias cut well or entire pots can be surrounded by evergreens for table decorations.

Whether all or a portion of the wedding flowers are from the garden, it will save the wedding party money while still providing fresh arrangements.

The list is almost endless and the bride can find her colors in any season.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

You Want Color?

Image: Rhus typhina "Laciniata" or Staghorn Sumac.

This Sumac is always reliable for beautiful Autumn color. This Sumac is a native perennial Northern Illinois bush and described as "tough as nails." It is drought tolerant preferring full to partial sun and dry, loam, clay-loam or rocky soil. Pest resistant and friendly to wildlife. It is hardy to Zone 4.

The Leaflets are finely cut giving it a textured feathery look. It can grow to twenty foot high and spreads laterally by vigorous suckering, forming dense multi-stemmed thickets.

It is an impressive shrub but needs space to spread or it will be a constant battle to contain. Mowing over the new shoots with a lawn mower keeps it in check but give it an inch and it will take a mile. It can also be pruned.

The common name, Staghorn Sumac, refers to the antler-like curve of the stems as well as the reddish brown velvety fuzz covering the younger stems. This is especially fun for children to touch and is similar to the pubescence of the velvet-covered new horns on stags.
Flower clusters appear in June and by midsummer they resemble six inch long lopsided cones. In the fall, leaves blaze intensely in fiery shades of orange, red and gold.

Short-tongued bees, wasps, and flies visit the flowers for nectar or pollen. Various insects and their larvae feed on the Sumacs and caterpillars of many species of moths feed on the foliage. The Red Banded Hairstreak and Spring/Summer Azure Butterflies feed on Sumacs. Game birds and songbirds feed on the fruits in the fall and winter. Rabbit and deer will eat on them during the winter. The ecological value of Sumacs to wildlife is fairly high.

“I am rich today with autumn’s gold,
All that my covetous hands can hold…
Oh, who could find a dearth of bliss
With autumn glory such as this!”

- Gladys Harp, poet

Friday, October 9, 2009

Trick or Treat!

Trick or Treat - Smell my feet - Give me something good to eat!

This isn't so much a poisonous plant article as a book review.

"Wicked Plants" by Amy Stewart is recommended reading by the gardening world and those that enjoy a good entertaining book. The full name of the book is "Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities" or "Wicked Plants - A Book of Botanical Atrocities".

It's based on facts about poisonous plants, but, Ms. Stewart takes it to the historical level when she tells stories of just how poisonous plants have been used and abused throughout history.

Although reading these "historic" stories makes one feel superior that we modern folks are much too advanced to allow ourselves to be fooled or poisoned by the little plants she mentions, are we really so advanced? That's a whole political and human study question that you may ponder but I'm of the group that the more we change the more we stay the same. Ms. Stewart's personal gardening practices may be different from your own but her writing and humor are worth the read.

This book informs, entertains, and is just a bit scary!

Picture of the book cover taken from the following web site:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

She's a Beauty!

Images: Purple Beauty Berry Bush Callicarpa dichotoma "Early Amethyst". One has flower buds and the other was taken of the berries this week.
I seldom see this little bush in yards and often wonder why it isn't used more. It's such a "beauty"!

"Early Amethyst" is a very heavy-fruiting, early maturing variety with the typical lilac-purple berries. Mine is a small bush - perhaps two foot high and three foot wide at seven years. It is a deciduous shrub from the Verbenaceae family.

It has drooping slender stems with very small pink blooms in the spring. Most people grow this bush for the berries. I've never seen a berry this color on any other bush. The birds like the berries and they are all gone before winter is over. The leaves turn a bright chartreuse in the fall. Both berries and leaves glow in the autumn sun.

This bush should be planted in rich well drained soil in full sun for best performance. It is drought tolerant. I cut mine down to nearly ground level in early spring because it only blooms and sets berries on new growth. It is very late to leaf out. In the beginning, I always thought I had lost it to winter kill but then it would start sprouting.

Never dig up (for dead) a bush until at least an entire year has elapsed with no sign of rebirth. A bad performing plant (bush) may just be an owner who doesn't understand what the plant needs. This plant will be a non performer if it's not cut down in the spring.
It is listed for up to Zone 5a and mine is in a rather protected area (south side of the house, wind protection from fence and other larger plants.) It is suggested you need more than one for maximum berry production, but, mine does perfectly well with just the one (unless I have a neighbor with one which I doubt.)

This bush is beautiful as a specimen but would also make a beautiful mass display in front of other large bushes, trees or it's own individual bed. It doesn't look good if larger plants and flowers are planted beside it and disappears completely if anything bigger is planted in front. This is because the branches droop downward in a cascade fashion. It needs to be planted where it can be viewed on a regular basis up close because the plant and berries are not large.
It is not a typically expensive plant. It's best to buy it from a producer who has grown it in our Zone 5 rather than risk a southern grown bush that won't be as hardy.

Locate and treat this bush as it was meant to be located and treated and it will be one of the "beauty bushes" in your garden!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Do You Know the Signs?

Do you know what this emblem (sign) means when it's affixed to the back of a vehicle or machinery?

It's a warning that the equipment is going less than 25 mph.

More importantly it is telling you how to proceed:

When traveling behind a vehicle that has this sign, reduce your speed, be very cautious, stay well back, and be patient.

Very soon our rural roads and highways will be full of farm machinery setting about the task of harvesting crops. This is not something we only see this time of the year, but, it increases dramatically in the fall.

How often have we seen someone come speeding up behind a slow moving vehicle, whip around madly or tailgate closely, and otherwise act the dangerous driver? Occasionally, they get angry and threatening.

The law aside, it is very dangerous to everyone and falls within the "totally clueless" category of driving.

The orange and red triangle is a signal for all drivers to slow down and be cautious. When you see one, reduce your speed and stay well back. Why?

  • Farm machinery often must make wide turns, taking both lanes to accomplish the move.
  • If it is a horse-drawn, the horse may be startled when a motor vehicle approaches and passes.
  • Some vehicles are longer and wider and turn at places that are not well marked such as field entrances.
  • Not only are these vehicles difficult to pass, but often they do not travel very far along the road before turning.
  • Turns can be quick and unexpected making passing dangerous.
  • They often take up the better portion of the road because getting in a ditch can cause the top heavy equipment to tip.
  • Tailgating puts your vehicle in a blind spot.
  • Because of the many things that must go into operating the machinery, the driver may not be aware you are behind them - you must be aware for you both.
Lest we forget, our farming community are our gardening soul mates - just on a much larger scale. Where we may garden only for pure enjoyment, they also do it as their means of support.

Join me in respecting the farmers as they go about harvest this year - drive carefully in the presence of slow moving equipment. Relax those few moments or miles as they maneuver from one field to the next. Take the time to count your blessing that our neighbors are part of the bigger picture of "feeding the world."

“No race can prosper until it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Booker T. Washington, American author, educator (born 4/5/1856)

Friday, October 2, 2009

October Fireworks

Images: Yesterday's picture is Maiden Grass "Huron Sunrise". On this page is the extremely tall Big Bluestem "Vitman" (a native American prairie grass), the short but very red Japanese Blood Grass "Red Baron", and the interesting striped leaf Zebra Grass.

Some grasses bloom or have seed heads earlier in the year. This pictured group is at their prettiest in fall and winter. The fall blooming are my favorites.

When shopping for ornamental grasses, it's important to consider several things:

  1. When do they have seed/flower heads?
  2. What time of the year is the color the most showy?
  3. Do they need to be cut down and what time of year?
  4. Do they flop over in the fall and winter?
  5. How do they spread - are they invasive?
  6. Will they need to be burned off?
  7. How tall are they at different times of the year?
  8. Dry or moist soil?
  9. Sun to shade or in between?
  10. How much work do I want to do to maintain the grass at its optimum level?
Let's walk through some helpful hints in each of the ten.

  1. Summer seed heads accent the perennial garden as if it was another flowering plant. Fall and winter seed heads will add dimension to otherwise stark beds.

  2. In the spring there is very little outstanding color as all grasses push up. In summer, the color will be pretty much the color you see when you buy the plant. In the fall, the colors may stay the same or could change to bright fall shades. Variations in color (such as the Zebra Grass) add interest the entire growing season.

  3. Most ornamental grasses need to be cut down in early spring. This allows the texture and seed heads to be at their showiest during winter. It also hold leaves and snow which insulates the roots. Some larger grass blades turn very sharp when dry and could be a hazard in high traffic areas.

  4. If they flop, make sure they are not planted where they will cover other valuable perennials, sidewalks, drives and heavy traffic areas.

  5. Most ornamental grasses spread, some are highly invasive (Blue Dune Grass), others multiply at a very slow rate. Make sure you know this characteristic before you plant. The larger grasses are very difficult to divide and transplant so make sure you have them in a permanent place the first time.

  6. Native prairie grasses were originally burned off by natural fires. This allowed the killing of unwanted plants, split seed heads and renewed the earth to better service the grass. Most of us don't live in areas where this will be practicable. If an ornamental grass must be burned, make sure you can plant it where this is a possibility.

  7. The Big Bluestem will be over 8 ft. tall in the fall and winter. It isn't something that you'd want in front of a window or constantly smacking against the house in winter winds. You also don't want a grass that will hide other flowering plants.

  8. Any grass that was a prairie grass will do great in our soil. There are certain grasses that do well along side ponds and rivers, others on dry hillsides. True Pompus Grass does not do well in our Zone 5 even if it advertised hardy.

  9. Most ornamental grasses need full sun to be their most hardy. A few are for partial sun and only one in mostly shade. Most of our prairies were full sun.

  10. Ornamental grasses really take little work if (IF) they are planted in optimal spots. If you must constantly trim, divide, and stake then you have planted in the wrong spot. The worst job is cutting them down in the spring. On grasses like the Big Bluestem it takes heavy sharp branch cutters and long thick gloves. Smaller plants may be cut down with a weed eater, lawn mower or shears.

A word of warning, bamboo is not an ornamental grass, it's highly invasive and almost impossible to kill or contain.

The seed heads or flowers make beautiful fall bouquets and decorations. Mice find them a taste treat. If you battle mice, you might want to discard prior to Christmas decorating.

Ornamental grasses are one of the "bones" of any good garden (large or small).

There are annual ornamental grasses that make nice fillers in your gardens and pots. They are not cheap and you may want to try over-wintering in the basement or other area that doesn't freeze. Success rate is not excellent but then again, you may succeed and save yourself some money.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Good News vs. Bad News

It's raining steady on this part of the "Hill". Predictions are the same all day and on and off through Saturday.

The Good News:

Autumn rains insure established plants (perennials, trees, bushes) are not stressed going into the harshness of winter.

  • Any new plants need this even more.

  • You will not have to use water supplies to accomplish this protection.

  • Rain washes things off and makes plants, walks, etc. fresh and clean.
  • We continue to replenish the low water table from the last few years of drought.
The Bad News:
  • Field crops in this area do not need rain. Corn and soybeans, in particular, need to complete the process of drying before they are picked.

  • Crops picked without adequate drying usually require expensive bin drying.

  • Mildew and mold are already a problem on both yard, garden and field crops.
  • Many area residents have had their homes flooded this summer because of ground saturation and slow run off during heavy rains.
There's really nothing we can do about today's rains except use it as a great excuse to NOT work in the yard. Although I didn't get that luxury today, it would have been a perfect day to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and read a good book - perhaps a gardening book.
I read this little hint the other day and although I haven't tried it, I thought it worth passing along. This is for gardeners bothered by neighborhood or stay cats using your beds as their litter box.

Peel your oranges or chop the peel up after juicing. Drop the peeling in areas where the cats have been digging. The smell is suppose to be offensive to cats. It doesn't harm any animals and it biodegrades over time.

Do not use hot pepper spray on the soil or mulch. This not only burns the cat's feet but it burns their insides when they try to clean it off their paws. This is simply a way to torture animals because they don't figure out what is causing the pain.