Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!

I'll forget the same old boring recap of 2009 and run happily into the 2010 gardening year.

The eternal optimist, I can envision beds of beautiful flowers, vines twining perfectly up the side of the shed, bushes the exact size for the spot, apples without a spot, and the garden full of bright red tomatoes from summer to frost.

Aw, yes, winter dreaming is a good time for the gardener.

If you have a moment, it's a good time to sort out what worked and what didn't. Don't be harsh on yourself, you are always at the mercy of "mother nature."

Sort your gardening pictures and save the best for the records or journal (either on paper or computer.)

It's a good time to bring the garden journal up-to-date with notes on plant performance. Once I retired, I finally made the time to document and journal my plants. It's been fun and informative.

I admit I tend to "over organize"; it's my thing and I enjoy organizing. I keep both paper and computer documentation. There are times when it's handy to take a paper copy about a certain plant with me to the garden or nursery.

The computer documentation is an excellent place to store pictures. It's cheaper than developing my many photos of a beautiful plant today, tomorrow and often. It's easy to use, to store, and to access. It enables posting pictures to my garden blog, to a friend, or to enter a contest.

I have a PC program to document each plant. It has a place for the common & Latin name, the date, place and cost of purchase, a place for the picture and all the information regarding the plant. I then record where it's planted. On the back of each is a sheet for recording the yearly data (bloom times, problems, notes to myself about moving, and etc.)

It's interesting to watch the growth of trees and other perennials plants. Did I really get the Canadian hemlock ten years ago and could it have grown six feet?

If you plant lots and often, it can help you realize the mortality rate of certain nurseries' products. Does one have a certain trend for surviving where another seems not worth the money because of overall loss?

Have you planted a certain perennial for the last three years? You have loved it each year when you walked through the nursery in the spring not realizing you thought that three years in a row and still don't have a surviving specimen. This allows you to save money and as importantly, it allows you to analyze if this plant is simply wrong for your growing circumstances.

Another great winter past time is sitting with a cup of hot chocolate and reading a new plant catalog. Chocolate and garden pictures, it's a good thing!

Check out your local public library for garden books.

Garden journaling can start with a simple notebook or can be as involved as a PC program that includes a garden template for diagramming your beds and plants.

The bottom line for winter gardening is to enjoy yourself at a time when no muscle or worry is needed. Maybe the most valuable thing about a winter garden is the chance to ponder without the guilt that something needs to be plucked.

"Little flower, but if I could understand, what you are, root and all in all, I should know what God and man is." Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Every nineteen years, a full moon appears on New Year's Eve. Plus, when there are two full moons in a month - the second is called a "Blue Moon." Tonight is THE night for these two events. The moon is going to be very bright at exactly twelve midnight. As you are celebrating the beginning of 2010, take a look - it should be a beauty.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I subscribe to the free weather tickler (the one at the bottom of this Blog) and also the WQAD weather notification on my Facebook page. Yes, I'm a weather junkie.
In addition, I have a weather system that reads the current weather and records the historical data for rainfall, wind, temperature, barometric pressure and notifies of changes coming. We have severe weather alert boxes and old fashioned rain gauges. Weather junkies moves into weather crazies!
There are certainly residents of the Midwest who hate cold weather, snow, ice and wind. Many become snow birds and a lot more just complain.
I'm one of those who enjoy the change of seasons and am thrilled (now that I'm retired and don't drive in it) when we have a big snow. Besides the obvious fun the teens are having in the field next to the house (pictured), the cold and snow is beneficial and sometimes necessary for some of our plants.
One example is the spring bulbs we northerners love. They need a period of rest during the winter to produce flowers in the spring. If not done by nature, they must be dug and kept in a refrigerator.
Cold weather (often freezing) enhances the flavor of some garden vegetables such as those in the broccoli family.
Winter snows are like an insulating blanket over our perennials. They help keep the wind and other damaging winter weather from having adverse effects on the plants. Cold wind is a major culprit for winter kill. It sucks the moisture out of the plants.
This is one reason I leave much of my dried foliage on the beds all winter - it traps the snow around the plants. A cheap mulch for sure.
The snow also provides additional protection for critters and birds. We have several brush heaps in our woods, purposely put there to provide shelter and nesting. Without the dogs, it could get out-of-hand with raccoons and other pesky critters but the brush piles are inhabited by nature's little curious beings. During a particularly cold and wet winter, the brush with it's covering of snow, is like a little igloo.
I suppose one of the most delightful benefits of a frozen snow covered garden is it gives the gardener rest and a time to ponder. Pondering is a lost art and I'm sure we need a global movement to bring it back. I was reminded of this yesterday while we were sitting at a local farmer coffee shop. Farmers are the world's best pondering experts.
I must go now - I have some serious pondering to accomplish this snowy day!
"A garden is half made when it is well planned. The best gardener is the one who does the most gardening by the winter fire." Liberty Hyde Bailey

Monday, December 28, 2009

Waves of Monarchs

Image of a Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus.

Several years ago I looked up into my big old walnut tree and noticed the leaves looked particularly odd. It appeared they had turned a rust color.

When I got close, I realized the branches and leaves were covered with hundreds of Monarch butterflies. It was late summer and late in the afternoon. I was witnessing a portion of the southern migration of Monarchs.

Every summer, the last generation of eastern Monarchs migrate south to spend winter in the eastern Micheocan Mountains near Mexico City, Mexico. The first generations die after about 8 weeks (their life cycle.) This last generation will last about 9 months. The life cycle is egg, caterpillar (larvae), chrysalis (pupa) and the adult butterfly.

The scene in the tree was a picture I could not adequately capture with my camera. From a distance it simply looks like dark rust leaves. Up close and the magnitude of the numbers aren't captured.

Today, I found a web site that you might enjoy next fall:

This is the Annenberg Media Foundation's Journey North - Fall 2009 Monarch Butterfly Migration: Overnight Roost sightings. They are already setting up for 2010 migration sitings.

Included in this site are other migrations and educational tools for teachers. It features a global study of wildlife migration and seasonal changes.

If you enjoy the Monarch butterfly and would like to encourage them in your garden, plant milkweed. The Monarch (larvae) caterpillar ONLY eats milkweed (their host plant.)

The adult butterfly eats an all liquid diet of flower nectar, water and liquids from mushy fruit (slices of ripe banana, orange, or watermelon.) Think of their mouth parts as a straw sipping liquid.

The particular type of milkweed must be one that is high in a certain toxin that make the emerging butterfly poisonous to predators. The Monarch's coloring is a warning to predators that they are indeed toxic.

The false milkweed, Cynanchum swallow-wart, actually fools the butterfly into thinking it's a host but the larvae will not develop. Do not plant this.

Plant nectar flowers such as butterfly weed and purple coneflowers and plant in masses. Butterflies are near sighted and are more easily attracted if the flowers are very obvious and brightly colored.

Some other tidbits:

  • All butterflies are cold blooded insects and enjoy having flat rocks in the sun to warm themselves.
  • They will also want a moist spot. A saucer filled with wet sand or mud will attract many kinds of butterflies.
  • You can not use insecticides or herbicides - they are deadly to both the larvae and the butterfly.
  • Milkweed is not always liked by some because some varieties can be invasive. Asclepias syriaca is the common one you see on our roadsides and spreads by rhizomes. It is a Monarch favorite but not necessarily an agricultural favorite. Plant where it can be contained.
  • Some milkweed prefer moist conditions - do your research first.
  • The Monarch is one of the longest migrating creatures on earth.
  • 70% of the population in Mexico was killed in 1991 as a result of freezing weather.
  • The Monarch is the Illinois State Butterfly.
  • The Monarch is not a pest and causes no agricultural damage.

As we are sitting inside these snowy days, planning or improving your butterfly garden should include some of the Monarch's needs. And maybe, just maybe, your yard will be an evening hotel for those migrating Monarchs.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

First Day of Winter - Burrrrr

December 21, 2009 is the first day of winter and also the shortest day of the year (as far as daylight goes.) The Winter Solstice will officially begin at 12:47 pm. Although there are other factors in different parts of the world, in the Northern Hemisphere, we think of winter in terms of "COLD"!

Have you noticed an increased number of birds at your feeders this past week? By continuously having their favorite foods, they will learn to count on your feeder. If you only put food in it periodically, you may never have the variety of birds that make winter bird watching so much fun.

You should begin to see Grosbeaks joining the blue jays, cardinals, nuthatches, various finches and sparrows. As soon as their food reserves begin to dwindle, the woodpeckers will frequent the feeders more. It's time to put out my homemade suet cakes.

I keep a large feeder at the back by the woods full of corn for the squirrels to help them want to stay away from my sunflower seeds. It mostly works. The squirrels are mating now through February - as if we don't have enough. Our dogs usually keep the number thinned but this year we have seven living in our woods.

Both birds and critters will be looking for handouts as long as we have snow cover.

As a side note: Be sure to provide a dry shelter, warmth, food and fresh water for your pets this winter. Please don't torture them by neglect.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Heirloom vs. Elderly

Pictures of Heirloom roses: Bucks Blue Skies and Bucks Queen Bee.

I've decided instead of seniors being called "elderly", the name should be "heirloom." I'm just sure that has a less negative connotation!
Think about it: We treat heirloom plants as if they were very valuable and in danger of disappearing. We have clubs, catalogs, websites, and university programs all designed to honor and preserve. Not so much old folks - although I'll drop the grumble and go on with the article.
Since a few ago when I wrote about heirloom plants, I have received some catalogs from companies that specialize in mostly heirlooms. I thought I'd share their names in case you'd like to browse their pages this winter. I've purchased from them all and had good products and customer service.
"Heirloom Roses" Some facts: in addition to a full array of different roses, they carry roses that are hardy in our zone. Both of the two pictured from my garden came from this vendor. Beautiful catalog and they have their own BLOG.
"Heirloom Seeds" Some facts: they have an on-line newsletter and many hard-to-find seeds.
"Brushwoods Nursery" Some facts: they carry both heirloom and newer plants - mostly vines. They have a big selection of clematis.
"Old House Gardens" Some facts: they feature heirloom bulbs. Their newsletter has an amazing amount of information regarding heirloom plants, old gardens, and history.
There are many more heirloom related sites, I just haven't bought from them so can't give you the value of their information and products. Feel free to share sites, catalogs or vendors you have used.
Now, about this elderly vs. heirloom debate - I vote heirloom!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trahlyta la la la la la

It's almost Christmas, what am I doing in "Daylily Madness" again??? It happens that the 2009 American Hemerocallis Society cultivar award winners are announced and featured in The Daylily Journal - Winter 2009 edition!
The pictured daylily from my garden, Hemerocallis "Trahlyta" won the Lenington All-American Award. The Lenington Award is given to to a single cultivar annually which is recognized to be the best performer over a wide geographic area. (Trahyta had previously won an Award of Merit in 2004 and Honorable Mention in 2001.)
Best performer of a wide geographic area always means good news for those of us who garden in Zone 5 or colder. It guarantees the daylily is no "wimp" in our cold winters and hot damp summers and will also survive drought.
Introduced by the late Frank Childs in 1982, it became a resident of my garden in October of 2008.
This is one of those daylilies that no picture can do it justice. It may become my favorite as the plant matures.
Here are the qualities of Trahlyta (other than the happy Christmas carol kind of name):
6 1/2 inch silver/gray lavender soft violet/purple with a dark ruby/purple eyezone and yellow/green throat. It is a single bloom with slightly ruffled edges. At maturity, it stands on a 30 inch stalk and blooms early to mid season. It is said to rebloom but probably won't in our area. It is a Dormant variety and very fragrant. It divides and spreads and is a Diploid.
The reason for the many variations of colors describing the blooms is because it can look different in different weather, times of the day, light, and maturity. All looks are beautiful but let me describe what the camera can't capture.
The petals remind me of gun metal but more lavender/purple and totally dusted with pearlizing. It is so different from other colors of daylilies (or other perennials) it stops you in your tracks when in bloom. Each day it offers up a big beautiful flower that you swear can not get any better - until tomorrow. I often pick it just to observe the beauty and fragrance all day long in the house.
It doesn't have a downside for me. It doesn't spot in the rain, is sturdy enough to withstand storms, the changes in color are not a negative or lessening of beauty, and it doesn't clash with most other colors. I would advise putting it where it can be the center of attention. Mine is surrounded by light lavender and dark colors. It takes time to produce the 30 inch stalks and should be planted near the front of your beds.
For it's age (almost 30 years), it remains a favorite of daylily gardeners everywhere. It would make a very nice Christmas present for someone who has Daylily Madness!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gifts for the Magi

Few holidays, Christian or other, have more symbols involving plant life than Christmas.
The three wise men, as recorded in Matthew 2:11, presented gifts to the baby Jesus of gold and frankincense, and myrrh. This story was set to music in 1857 by John H. Hopkins in "We Three Kings of Orient Are."
Did you ever wonder exactly what a gift of myrrh and frankincense would look like?
Myrrh is a small, spiny shrub or trees of knotted branches and native to Yemen, Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, Jordan, and India (the Indian plant is considered inferior.)
A member of the "Burseracae" plant family, the brown-red clumps of resin are naturally found in the cracks of the tree. High quality myrrh resin is dark and clear. The scent of raw myrrh resin and oil is sharp, pleasant and somewhat bitter. Unlike other resins, myrrh expands and blooms when burned instead of melting or liquefying.
Uses are as scent in incense, wine, perfume, toiletries and often used when performing church sacraments. Up to the 15th century, it was used by Jews as an embalming ointment. It has been documented as far back as 3,000 BC. As in ancient times, myrrh is still used as an antiseptic.
In the Roman and Greek mythical story, "Ovid's Metamorphoses", Myrrh was the mother of Adonis and she was the origin of the tree.
During biblical times, myrrh "Commiphora myrrha" was literately worth its weight in gold and five times more valuable than Frankincense. The use and symbolism of myrrh is written about in both the old and new testaments of the Bible. It is currently used in Chinese and Saudi Arabia for medicine.
Frankincense "Boswellia carteri" was also considered more valuable than gold. It typically grows in the same regions and has biblical references. As with all herbals, it was a valuable commodity on the ancient trading circuits. It was a known fragrance for mourning the dead.
From the same botanical family as Myrrh, Oman, Yemen and Somalia produce internationally traded frankincense and myrrh.
The aloe gum resin of frankincense is obtained from a small tree/shrub with pink or white flowers. It burns a white fragrant smoke and was used to carry prayers to heaven.
Farming Frankincense has similarities to maple syrup harvesting. The difference is this product use does not go into foodstuff but into medicines and fragrances. Growing either shrub/tree outside its native areas has not been very successful. If you want either, you will need to contact an import spice retailer.
Gourmet incense & essential oil retailers, spice stores, and homeopathic solutions outlets are all available to the shopper. Unlike gold, it is considerably cheaper if you want to purchase for the gardener who has simply everything. One source listed a one pound bag of a mixture of frankincense and myrrh incense resin for about $18. As of 11-30-09, an ounce of gold was selling at $1,175 an ounce. As with all natural resources, the "value" is determined by the desire to own.
As you hear those old familiar Christmas carols or smell the fragrance of myrrh or frankincense during religious ceremonies, you can now identify two more plants that have become so important they are the subject of religious law, scriptural stories, ancient myths, and herbal remedies.
"Frankincense to offer have I, Incense owns a Deity nigh. . . Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom . . ."
-"We Three Kings of Orient Are" by John H. Hopkins

Monday, December 14, 2009

Feliz Navidad!

The poinsettia is almost as much a part of Christmas decorating as the tree.
Like the tree, it can be bought in both real and artificial forms. Save year after year or get the "WOW" factor of a live plant.
I've bought from big box stores and from local dealers and found the biggest differences are size and color.
Seldom does a big box store have the huge plants nor the new colors. If you want an all red and maybe a few variations for smaller and cheaper decorating, big box is your best buy.
If you want a statement, visit a local nursery or garden center. The cost can be reasonable or "are you kidding me" expensive. I most often buy from our local "Prairie Country Gardens" and her plants are large, healthy and reasonably priced. I've coveted the spectacular ones at Green View Nursery (outside Chillicothe) but so far have regulated myself to looking, not buying.
Each year the leaf colors (yes, it's not a flower but colored leaves you see at the top of the plant) are expanded to new selections. Pinks, corals, orange, pale green and marbles compliment the white/cream and red we have enjoyed for years.
Ohio State University did a study that showed the poinsettia plant is not poisonous. Their report said a 50 lb child would have to eat over 500 leaf brackets to have even a mild stomach ache. I've never seen a child voluntarily eat spinach let alone 500 leaves of anything else. The milky sap may cause skin irritation to those allergic to latex.
Euphorbia pulcherrima was introduced to the US in 1828 from Mexico. It grows wild on the entire Pacific coast of Mexico. The Aztecs used it for a purple red die. It's a ten foot plant whose wild form doesn't resemble our hybrid ones.
Some facts: 90% of all poinsettias are bought in the US for an average of $220 million dollars spent on these beauties yearly. 80% are bought by women, 80% by people over 40 yrs. of age, 74% buy red, 8% white and 6% pink. is the site of the first and until recently the only breeder in the United States. They had the patient on what we know as the table poinsettia. They have history and home care instructions plus some really beautiful pictures.
They also have instructions on how to plant outside and get it to re bloom. I've never accomplished a re bloom (probably my lack of desire to follow the exact instructions). I have had success planting outside in late spring and having a beautiful (all green) bush type plant until frost killed the plant.
Enjoy your own poinsettia or simply enjoy the ones you can see in shops and displays. They are a visual Christmas joy.
Feliz Navidad!
(Happy Christmas)

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Holly and the Ivy

I've had two evergreen holly bushes for years: Hex x meserveae "Blue Princess" and Hex Mesdob "China Boy".

Although they are not with out their particular needs, they are beautiful landscaping plants and valued for Christmas decorations.

You must have both a male and female plant if you want the female to produce berries. Both of the above will grow slowly to perhaps 10 ft and be approximately 8 ft wide. They grow in full sun or partial shade.

Their evergreen shiny bright green leaves, small white flowers and red berries make them a year-round landscaping accent.

Both of the above have good winter hardiness BUT they are sensitive to cold winter winds. They need protection of some sort or the exposed branches will die. The plant will not die but it can make a bush unsightly due to odd trimming necessary to get all the dead out each spring. I use mulch; others may use a windbreak of tarps, burlap, or other. Don't completely cover the plant or it may get cooked on a sunny winter day.

It has a deep and extensive root system. It can be left "natural" or pruned in shapes. They can be as little as 6 inches or as a holly tree that grows to 70 ft. Most, but not all, are evergreen.

Hollies all prefer acidic well drained soil (much like wooded areas.)

  • The ancient Celts and Britons believed the holly was imbued with special spirits and that it was sacred. Sprigs were cut and brought indoors to remind these ancients the evergreen plant kept the spirits alive.
  • The Romans thought it brought them out of winter and protected them from evil spirits that came down the chimney.
  • Early Christians associated the holly with Christ's "crown of thorns" and the red berries with His blood.
  • It was believed to be the wood used in the Crucifixion cross because all other trees refused to be cut when touched by the ax.
  • It is often tucked behind pictures of Christ on the 12th night celebration as a Passion symbol. It is in most pictures of saints.
  • One legend states the holly plant grew leaves in winter on the night of Christ's birth to hide Him from Herod's men. It is now evergreen as a token of Christ's gratitude.
  • In astrology, people born in June are known as "Holly People."
The holly has 400 species and can be grown in fifty of our states and all continents except Australia and Antarctica. The first Pilgrims' records mention holly (1620).

It's the state tree of Delaware and the white wood is used in the most finely carved chess pieces.

Holly has been used for many herbal applications (most discontinued): a tea made from the leaves reduces fever and relieves arthritis. The berries are toxic and can cause serious vomiting.

Eighteen different birds eat the berries, including thrushes, goldfinches, blackbirds, bobwhites, morning doves, cedar waxwings and turkeys. Because it is so dense, songbirds find it a desirable nesting place. White tail deer find it "yummy". It doesn't self seed readily nor is it harmful to livestock.
Tuck a few branches of holly into your holiday decorations and bring a new tradition to your home. "Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown."

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Santa Baby

If a gardener is on your Christmas list, here are a few ideas that could make you their very favorite “Santa Baby.”

The Produce Gardener:
Seed starting kits, grow lights, & seeds. Plant markers, mulch, and tools such as hoes, rakes, and seeders. A basket of grapefruit, oranges, pineapples, or other non-local selections. Pruners, loppers, baskets, or shears. Gift certificate at local nursery.

The Flower Gardener:
Pots in colors to match their outside d├ęcor. Gift certificate at a local nursery, mail order catalog or on-line. Plant markers, garden journals, computer gardening program, trellis, bench, potting soil, mulch, or leather rose gloves.

The Lawn Manicurist or Landscaper:
New mower blades. Power tools. Soil testing kit. Gift certificate at a mower tune-up shop. I qualify this one by saying not everyone likes these: Statues, gazebo, stepping stones, gazing globe, and other decorative items.

The Indoor Gardener:
Window pots filled with herbs. An Amaryllis bulb and pot. A wreath of live greenery. Spring bulbs to force. Live plants: orchid, ivy, violet, Christmas cactus, poinsettia, or a small live Christmas tree. A grow light. Kitchen composter.

The Bird & Nature Watcher:
Bird, bee, or bat houses. Bird or squirrel feeders. Bird seed or suet. Bird books (I particularly like the National Geographic “Field Guide to N. American Birds” and the “National Audubon Society Field Guide’s to birds, mushrooms, reptiles, insects & spiders, butterflies, wildflowers and fossils.) Field glasses and journal.

Appeals to All Gardeners:
A gift that doesn’t require the exchange of money: An IOU or personal gift certificate to help mow, till, pull weeds, lift heavy things, plant or fetch things. This is an excellent gift anytime.
A good digital camera and memory chip. An external drive for storing pictures without taking up your computer’s hard drive.

Solar lights. Lawn furniture. Live cut flowers in a vase. Composter. A heavy duty water hose. Lightweight tool box. Kneeling bench or pad. Heavy duty garden gloves. Hand cream, sunscreen, and sun hat.

There are books on every topic any gardener might find interesting. A subscription to a newsletter or magazine specializing in the gardener’s favorite topic.

Boots (clogs, short or wellies), bib overhauls, shovels, hoes, pruners, heavy-duty scissors, wheelbarrow, and lawn cart.

Weather instruments: Thermometers, wind & pressure gauges, rain gauges, rain barrels or urns, watering can, and hose guides.

If you aren’t sure what your gardener wants or what brand or quality they prefer, a gift certificate is a wise and appreciated choice. Don’t buy a gift certificate if you don’t know the store (either local or on-line) because if they go out of business prior to using, there is usually little recourse. Buy a small Christmas stocking and tuck the gift certificate inside.

“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.” Roy L. Smith