Thursday, August 21, 2014

Vertical Amazement

Big Bluestem "Vitman"
Even the smallest gardens can use a little vertical amazement.  Vertical in the form of ornamental grass.

Perennial ornamental grass in Zone 5 (where we live in Illinois) hasn’t had too many new varieties because many can’t take our freezing ground temperatures.  Most of the hardy ones are native to this area.

I have several varieties and I love how they look and perform:
Blue Festuca "Elijah Blue"
Small clumps:
Blue Festuca “Elijah Blue” – 9x10 inches in a soft blue clump.
Japanese Blood Grass “Red Baron” – 18 inches green with deep red stripes and tips.
Tiger Grass – 18 inches – likes to spread.
Blue Dune Grass

Medium clumps:
Little Bluestem “Blaze” – 3 ft. and turns red in the fall.
Little Bluestem “The Blues” – 3 ft. with blue leaves.
Flame Grass “Purpurascens” – 3 ft. with red/orange fall color.
Maiden Grass “Huron Sunrise” – 4 ft. with red seed heads in fall.

Large clumps:
Big Bluestem “Vitman” – 8 ft or more with large seed heads in the fall.
Zebra Grass “Strietus” – 8 ft. – stripes
Japanese Blood Grass "Red Baron"

Crazy Invasive:
Blue Dune Grass – 3 ft. light blue straps – underground runners.  Beautiful and impossible to keep in bounds.  I don’t recommend planting.
Bamboo – Technically not a grass but some people use as grass.  Do not plant or you will regret it to the point of it growing into your house, into your bedroom and overtaking the mattress and eventually covering your spouse who you won’t be able to find and people will suspect foul play.  I’m telling you this because I care.
Zebra Grass

May or may not survive the winter:
 Japanese forest grass “Aureola” – 2 ft. – lime and green strip leaves
Northern Sea Oats – 3 ft. – some consider invasive.
Corkscrew Rush “Spiralis” – 2 ft.  Green leaves that twist.
Giant Reed Grass – 12 ft. – looks like a corn stalk.  Can be invasive under perfect conditions.

The choices are expanding as annual ornamental grass has been embraced for potting.  The sizes, colors, patterns and fall seed heads are just some of the fun attributes.  There are tiny examples for fairy gardens and tall upright for limited space.   Since some are up to 3 ft. tall and wide, they can be interplanted with your perennials. 

Maiden Grass "Huron Sunrise"
Need a backdrop for a beautiful flowering perennial?  Have a bare spot?  Want to draw the eye along a certain path?  Need privacy?  Annual grasses can fill the order.  They come in a variety of prices starting at about $10.  I’ve had pretty good luck over wintering annual grass in my basement. 

Annual grasses can be divided easily.  Perennial grasses take some pretty serious muscle or a backhoe to divide some of the large clumps.  If you don’t want the perennial grass to spread, make sure you either don’t buy any that even hints at “invasive” or plant in pots and treat as an annual.

Annual dwarf "King Tut" grass

Cut the seed head off in the fall for bouquets or leave for bird feed.  Leaving the grasses stand over winter insures a safe and warmer hiding place for several varieties of birds. 

Perennial or annual grass is a great thing to share because it invigorates the clump to have part of the roots dug out.  And in the “yes, it was an odd winter and I’m still finding crazy things” category:  I had three clumps of native “Big Bluestem Vitman”.  One clump almost totally died, one is only about four foot tall and the third doubled in diameter and is over eighteen foot tall.  Now that’s vertical amazement!   
Big Bluestem rockin' fall.
Zebra Grass

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Bee in Your Bonnet

This little guy has so much pollen on his back legs,
he looks like he has gold chaps.

People are finally sitting up and taking notice of the decline in bees and what affects it has upon produce.  I sometimes think it has been ignored because the ramifications are so enormous and dire it’s hard to get your thoughts around them.  How can one little honeybee and its wild bee cousins be responsible for the majority of our food supply?

Little black bee loving Bachelor Buttons
We can play the blame game but that won’t save one bee or keep one hive alive unless everyone takes an interest in saving these little fuzz balls.  What can the aver homeowner do?

Pollen gathering from a zinnia.
Supping the sticky sweet off 
the petals of an Oriental Lily.
Do not use chemical pesticides unless you are threatened with total crop failure.  A crop needed to sustain your family or as your income.  Home gardeners have the advantage of being able to care for their plot of land with natural methods or pesticides applied in a manner, time of day or on a specific area that will least come in contact with bees.

Don’t apply pesticides to the flowers of plants – only the areas where the insects are destroying.

Pick off insects that are damaging your plants.  Usually early morning before they warm up is the best time.  Drop them in a bucket or dishwashing soapy water or into a zip-lock baggie.

More pollen gathering from a daylily
Study insecticide labels and understand what will be killed before you spread it willy nilly over beneficial insects.  Spraying everything in your yard with insecticide is the true meaning of “overkill.”

Tolerate some damage.

Learn what plants naturally deter insects and plant them with your vegetables.

Buy plants bred to resist insects and disease.

Try natural insecticides or protection first.

Keep your beds clean of debris since it can be a great place for damaging insects to overwinter.

Bees need a water source.
If you would like a “live demo”, plant squash, pumpkins or gourds and see how the bloom last one day and if a bee has not pollinated it during that short bloom time, it will not produce a vegetable.  One flower, open just one day and must have at least one bee to have one vegetable.  Notice the number of blooms that don’t get pollinated.

Keep some areas of your yard mulch free.  Some bees dig nests in the soil.

Teach your children to respect bees.  Most will never sting you if you let them go about their work of gathering pollen, building their nests and flying their specific paths.

Ask your local bee keepers to give a talk to your club or school.  Support them by buying their locally gathered honey.  It really is the elixir of the gods!

Use town plots, abandoned lots and roadsides to grow bee friendly sustainable crops.

Bumble bees are pollenizers, too.
If you have some extra space or even if you have extra acres, plant alfalfa, clover or other plants appealing to both bees and livestock.  Any farm person of my era remembers pastures of both alfalfa and clover because we all had animals that grazed all summer.  We rotated the animals into fields to let them graze it down so far and moved them on to another field in time to let it come back.  With the decline in animal breeding, those pastures have all but gone away.

Native plant Liatris is a bee magnet
In your back yard gardens and flowerbeds, plant flowers bees love.  Choose a variety of flowers that bloom from early spring to frost.  Not just ornamental flowers, but, flowering bushes and trees.  Lean towards native plants because they thrive in this environment and they’ve been benefiting bees for centuries.

Study which plants are needed for what functions in a bee’s life; some may need specific plants for nesting as well as for pollen gathering.

Heritage Farms bee hives - photo from HF.

The USDA has a program for dairy farmers and ranchers in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas to fund a $3 million project to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other specified plants.  The bill will include incentives for building fences, installing water tanks and efforts to help move their animals so the land doesn’t get worn down.  Whether you are a proponent of government farm subsidies or not, at least they have woke up to the need to strengthen our bee populations.

Commercial honeybees pollinate an estimated $25 billion worth of produce each year.  That doesn’t count the wild honeybees or it’s pollinating cousins.  If the population continues to die, it really could change the destiny of mankind.

If you would ljke more information, the University of Illinois, Purdue University and Michigan State University’s Department of Entomology will have additional facts and advice.  Most will have designs for increasing pollinator friendly yards.

No need to have a bee in your bonnet – just friendly yards or fields will do perfectly.

By clicking on the first picture, it will allow you to have larger views in a form to page through them.  Bees really are worth a closeup shot.