Conservation Service spring tree sale underway

January 28th, 2016

Every year, for as long as I can remember, the Monroe County Soil Conservation District has hosted a spring tree sale. Nowadays the soil part of their name is gone and are now known as the Conservation District because they are involved in so much more than controlling soil erosion.

Order soon, some things sell out early.

Order soon, some things sell out early.

Nearly every county in Michigan has its own Conservation District and just about every district holds some kind of plant sale. The plant selections may vary slightly from district to district but they all offer plants used for conserving soil, protecting waterways and encouraging wildlife.

You don’t have to be a local resident to make a purchase so if the county district is sold out of something, a neighboring county may have it in stock.

At these sales you can order conifers like spruce, pine and fir. Common deciduous trees like oaks, maples and cherry are available as well as the lesser known hackberry, persimmon and others.

Each district decides for itself which plants to sell but often  you’ll find shrubs such as American plum, elderberry, cranberry, currents, hazelnuts and other varieties.

Native grasses and perennials are offered by some districts. At those sales you can buy big or little bluestem, indian grass, switchgrass and milkweeds.

Tree sales are a major source of funds that go toward conservation projects in the local districts. To find any Conservation District in Michigan, click on this link. Do it soon because plants often sell out early.

Bob

Fall planted plants are off to a good start this year

January 28th, 2016

Now that normal winter weather is here, it’s easy to forget about the mild fall and early winter we had. That mild autumn and early-winter will probably turn out to be a real bonus for gardeners especially for those who did any kind of fall planting.

The roots of most fall planted plants continue to grow as long as the soil is not deeply frozen. A long, moderate fall and early winter like the one we had this past season, was ideal for fall root growth. That means the plants are now well established and will be raring to go this spring.

Garlic is one crop that is normally planted in the fall. I’m going to predict that this year your garlic crop will be better than normal. We should see larger than normal bulbs with larger and more cloves per bulb at harvest time. That’s assuming all other factors such as weed control, fertilizer and soil moisture are the same as usual.

Our tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and crocus should produce great flowers this spring too.

The same hold true for trees and shrubs. Any woody plants planted this past fall should be in great shape to make excellent growth in the spring. Anyone who planted fruit trees this fall will have effectively  gained nearly an entire growing season — as far as root growth goes.

If we have one of those springs where we quickly jump from winter right into hot weather (which sometimes happen around here) those fall planted tress will be able to shrug off the stress. On the other hand, spring planted trees under hot, dry conditions will not fare as well.

Keep in mind that spring is still the best time of the year to plant tree and shrubs. This year however,  el nino helped us out by allowing a moderate fall and early winter.

The US Department of Agriculture has developed digital tools that farmers can use to track developments like those of el nino and others, allowing farmers to make better planting, harvesting, storage and marketing decisions. As gardeners we can piggy back on that research and apply it in our own little corner of the world.

I plan to make a note in my garden journal to keep an eye for the next developing el nino and plan accordingly.

Bob

Bitter pit on apples in storage

December 17th, 2015

One of our gardening goals is to grow as much as we can for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, I bet you do that too. Even if we end up with only enough servings for just Thanksgiving dinner, I call it a successful harvest.

Judy needed to come up with a dessert for Thanksgiving this year so she decided on homemade-from-scratch, gluten-free apple cobbler. Of course you need apples for apple cobbler so I went to my storage bin for the apples.

They were not the pristine apples I usually have, these were covered in small, unsightly spots. I’ve seen those symptoms before in years past. They had  “cork spot” sometimes called “bitter pit”.

To me, cork spot is a more accurate description than bitter pit. For one thing, apples don’t have a pit, they have an apple core. The other reason is because of the corky appearance and texture of the affected area. On the other hand, the spots do have a bitter taste, so “bitter pit” works too.

Some scientists separate bitter pit and cork spot into two different disorders with the difference being the timing when the spots show up. If they show up before harvest, it is cork spot. If it develops in storage they call it bitter pit. Either way it is not caused by any disease organism or insect.

Even though the disorder may not show up until Thanksgiving time, it has its beginning way back during the growing season when the apple was still on the tree. As the apple grows, there is some competition for water between the developing fruit and the growing leaves. That water competition may cause a calcium imbalance which weakens the cell wall in the fruit leaving it open for the symptoms to develop.

The corky textured spots occur just under the skin.

The corky textured spots occur just under the skin.

Pruning, of course, has a big effect on the number of leaves on a tree. So the proportion of apples to leaves can be different from year to year.

Rain or lack of it determines the amount of soil moisture available and that can change almost weekly during the growing season. So it is a complex set of events that contribute to the problem which is why you may not see it every year in your home grown apples.

Improper storage will often lead to bitter pit. In my case, I’m guessing it was because I did’t get the apples into storage quickly enough. That can cause the spots to show up before you have a chance to use the apples.

I had a few different varieties of apples in storage and some apples had spots and others didn’t — some varieties are more prone to bitter pit than others.

The corky texture of the spots made it much harder to peel the apples. Also, I ended up with smaller pieces because I had to cut away the affected area to get rid of the bitter taste.

Judy’s apple cobbler turned out great and was a big hit at the dinner, you couldn’t even tell it was gluten free!

I spared everyone from the convoluted story about the apples and their bitter pit spots.

Bob

Great tasting brussels sprouts for Christmas dinner thanks to El Nino

December 17th, 2015

I had someone ask me a while back when she should pick her brussels sprouts. Most experienced gardeners will tell you that Brussels sprouts are best after a hard freeze, and that is certainly true.

Cool temperatures help the sprouts develop a complex flavor with more sweet notes and less bitterness.

We’ve had a hard freeze several weeks ago — the one that put an end to the gardening season. That was probably enough to start improving the flavor.

Brussels sprouts can tolerate fairly cold temperatures. Many years, I’ve been able to leave the plants out in the garden at least until Thanksgiving and during strong El Nino years, until Christmas. Since a strong El Nino has developed, it looks like we will have one of those seasons where brussels sprouts can be left out in the garden until New Year!

This is important if you want to get the absolute best tasting brussels sprouts possible. Brussels sprouts start losing their flavor just three days after picking. On the other hand, the flavor keeps improving as long as the sprouts stay on the plant. So you can see the advantage of leaving the sprouts on the plants until you are ready to cook them.

There are millions of people who will never eat brussels sprouts because they were forced to eat them when they were a child. They wonder why they were ever invented in the first place.

At one time, brussels sprouts were always picked by hand and those old commercial varieties tasted halfway decent. Then in the 1970’s and 80’s machines were engineered to harvest the sprouts. That meant physical changes had to be made to the brussels sprout plant itself in order to accommodate machine harvesting. In the rush to breed machine harvest-able plants, the cost came down drastically but the flavor was lost in the process. They became strong-flavored and bitter.

Things have changed in the past 20 years or so. Big improvements have been made by plant breeders to improve the taste of brussels sprouts, they’ve gained back the flavor that was lost during the early years of mechanization. It may be time to re-try brussels sprouts if you haven’t tasted them since you became an adult and now make your own food decisions.

This past season was cool enough to enhance brussels sprout growth. Ours grew nearly four feet tall.

This past season was cool enough to enhance brussels sprout growth. Ours grew nearly four feet tall.

Pick brussels sprouts by snapping them off the plant with a twist. Remove the outer layer of leaves. Some gardeners dig up the whole plant and save the sprouts on the stalk to pick off later.

The best way to cook brussels sprouts is to steam them until they are tender enough to be pierced by a fork, about 7-14 minutes. Some people cut a small “x” in the bottom of each stem to help them cook more evenly. Overcooked sprouts turn mushy and loose flavor and nutrients.

I plan to leave my plants in the garden as long as possible this season. And if very cold weather ever arrives, I’ll pick the remaining sprouts, blanch them and store them in the freezer.

Bob

 

Help monarch butterflies by encouraging milkweeds

November 5th, 2015

It wasn’t your imagination, there really were more Monarch butterflies this fall and it wasn’t just because we were looking for them anymore than usual. The folks at Monarch Watch have evidence that the monarch migration is shaping up to be somewhat larger this year than last.

As more gardeners and homeowners become aware of the importance of milkweeds and start encouraging the plants instead of eradicating them, the monarch butterfly population should rise in proportion.

One statistic I saw was that there are 113 million gardeners in the USA. Now just think for a minute if each gardener added only one or two milkweed plants in their yards how many more places there would be for monarchs to grow and develop.

In a few growing seasons, a single milkweed plant can quickly turn into a sizable local population.  Like so many other “weeds” milkweeds produce a lot of seeds. In my yard I counted about 80 seeds in just one milkweed pod. That small plant had seven or eight  pods growing on it. That’s around 500 seeds per milkweed plant. In more fertile locations, a milkweed plant can produce 20 pods that contain over 400 seeds in each pod!

Milkweed seeds grow in rows inside the pod.

Milkweed seeds grow in rows inside the pod.

Collecting and planting seeds is the best option for propagating milkweed. Just keep in mind that milkweed seeds require a cold treatment  — called stratification — before they will germinate. In the wild this occurs naturally each winter as temperatures drop below freezing. The easiest way to provide the cold treatment is to plant them directly into the soil in the fall and let nature provide the stratification.

Milkweed plants are perennials, meaning once they establish themselves, they will continue to come up year after year. Mature plants have roots that grow horizontally underground. They will send up a new shoot at intervals that grow into a new milkweed plant. So you can see how quickly milkweeds can get out of hand if you’re not careful.

I’ve had milkweeds pop up in my garden from roots sent out by plants many feet away. They can be very  persistent since a piece of root as small as an inch long can grow into a new plant.

Milkweed pods are just starting to open in southern Michigan. If you want to collect seeds, now’s the time to do it. Otherwise, soon the seeds will be gone with the wind.

Let the milkweed seeds fly or you can remove the silks and store the seeds in your refrigerator crisper until spring.

Let the milkweed seeds fly or you can remove the silks and store the seeds in your refrigerator crisper until spring.

As an extra bonus, you can spray paint your empty pods with gold paint and use them in craft projects just like we used to do in elementary school.

Bob

Protect backyard chickens from migrating hawks

October 15th, 2015

Urban chickens are not making as much news as they were a few years ago but plenty of people still keep chickens in their backyard. Chickens, in a lot of cases, have become just another part of the garden.

Right now the fall wild bird migration is in full swing. It is not just song birds and waterfowl that fly south for the winter, hawks and other predatory birds are making their way south too. On some days, thousands of hawks will fly over certain areas during the migration.

That is causing big problems for some chicken owners, including me.

Last week while I was crouched down in the driveway working on my car, something compelled me to turn around. What I saw was a large hawk getting ready to latch onto one of my chickens.

I have about 75 hens in my flock and usually they are quite vigilant in spotting predators. At least one or two hens out of the 75 will spot a hawk and warn the others even if the hawk is quite a distance away. Even the blue jays will screech out a warning call to the rest of the birds in the area when they spot a predator.

This time however, a hawk was able to silently swoop down without anyone noticing.  I’ve observed that hawks don’t usually bother my hens when there are people close by. The hawk didn’t see me until I stood up and turned around. I surprised it enough that it took off without a chicken and landed in a tree about a hundred yards away. By that time all 75 hens were making quite a ruckus.

That hawk never did come back to try again. I’m sure it looked for another meal as it continued flying south.

This hen wasn't paying attention and almost got nabbed by a hawk.

This hen wasn’t paying attention and almost got nabbed by a hawk.

Don’t think that just because you are in a populated area that your hens are safe from hawks. I live in a rural area but have heard reports of chickens being attacked by hawks in suburban and even urban areas this fall.

Free range chickens are the most vulnerable because they often wander far away from cover that could protect them from attack. The best thing to do is keep your hens locked in a pen or chicken run covered with protective netting until the migration is over.

Keep in mind that hawks are protected by law. It is illegal to capture or kill them without a special permit.

Bob

Plant oats as a garden cover crop

September 24th, 2015

It’s not your imagination, the growing season is winding down early this year. The excessive rain and cooler than normal temperatures in our area have combined to make it a challenging season for many garden plants especially the warm weather crops like tomatoes or peppers.

Farmers are noticing it too. Many field crops never fully recovered from poor start of the season and are showing signs of maturing early. As a result there may be a reduction in yields as well.

Certain beds in my garden are already kaput. But there is a silver lining in that. It gives me a chance to plant a green manure crop, which I don’t often get to do.

The terms green manure and cover crop are basically synonymous. Green manure is a crop that will be turned over into the soil while still growing, a cover crop may or may not be turned into the soil right away.

These types of crops are great for recovering soil nutrients from the soil and holding them until next year’s planting season. Some soil nutrients such as nitrogen are easily washed down into the soil profile by fall rains or melting snow putting them out of reach of most garden plants. Much of that valuable garden nutrients that you worked so hard to build up could be lost.

Multiply the nutrients over hundreds of acres and you can see why farmers use cover crops to save money and protect the environment at the same time. Nutrients that stay in the field will not get washed into steams and rivers where they end up being a source of water pollution.

In other words, green manures effectively “mop up” nutrients and hold them in place until they are needed next year.

In a garden situation, the biomass that a green manure crop adds to the soil may be more valuable than the nutrients they conserve. You really can’t have too much organic material in garden soil.

A cover crop also provides a better habitat for soil microbes to flourish as opposed to bare soil.

Planting cover crops is a fairly advanced technique for home gardeners even though it is very effective for both vegetable and flower gardens.

If this is your first time planting cover crops, consider oats, yes the same plant that is harvested and used for making your breakfast cereal. They make a very effective cover crop.

This time of the years we are looking for a plant that will make quick growth and oats fit the bill. Even though they grow quickly, they should be planted very soon.

The other big advantage that oats have is that they will die over winter leaving a mulch on the soil surface that can be tilled in next spring. That also eliminates the possibility that they may become a weed in your garden. I’ve had winter wheat come up in the spring — seeds from straw mulch — and before I knew it they became a problem. Have you ever tried to pull up a well established clump of wheat? They’re pretty tough plants.

Planting oats is much like planting grass seed except the seed is much larger.

 

Oats ready for planting. Note that they still have their outer covering, the hull surrounding the seed

Oats ready for planting. Note that they still have their outer covering, the hull, surrounding the seed

Sow oats at a rate of two or three pounds per 1000 square feet about an inch deep. Farmers use an implement called a seed drill to plant oats. The easiest method for a gardener is to broadcast the seed by hand, then till very shallowly with a tiller. Finish off by lightly pressing the area down so the seeds make good contact with the soil.

Farm supply stores sell oat seed however you may have to go online to buy small quantities.

Bob

Flowers on elephant ears — colocasia

September 24th, 2015

I’ve been growing Elephant ears — Colocasia esculenta — for many years. Over that period of time I’ve rarely had them bloom. They just don’t set flowers very often.

Normally when plants blossom, it means they are all set to produce seeds. Colocasia, however has been cultivated for so long, that it no longer is able to produce seeds and relies on people to reproduce. In tropical regions, people plant the underground corms like we would plant a flower bulb here in Michigan.

Colocasia is a dramatic addition to the landscape with it’s huge leaves that easily grow to three feet long in Michigan. In it’s native area in the tropics the leaves can measure six feet in length.

People in the tropics don’t grow them for their landscape, instead they eat them. There, colocasia is called taro and is a major food crop where it is used like we use potatoes here. Millions of tons of taro are harvested each year.

One winter, many years ago, I had a recent immigrant from the south Pacific visit the greenhouse where I was growing dozens of colocasia in pots getting them ready for planting out into the landscape. She recognized them immediately and asked me if I was growing them for harvest. I told her they were for planing out in the landscape as a decorative plant. She laughed and thought that was quite funny!

 

The flower bud on my colocasia is ready to open.

The flower bud on my colocasia is ready to open.

My blooming colocasia was one that I stored in my semi-heated garage over winter. I kept it in its pot and let the soil dry out. I watered it once in a while.

The plant went dormant and was exposed to some cool temperatures for extended periods of time but it never got much colder than the lower 40’s. The only light it got was low, indirect sunlight from a small garage window.

I have a theory that stressing the plant somehow triggered a flowering mechanism. The other colocasia I had bloom was about 12 years ago and that plant was stored over winter much the same way.

I’d be interested to hear if any readers have had similar experiences with their colocasia.

Bob

Medicinal garden growing at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor

September 10th, 2015

Not long ago growing culinary herbs in a home garden was regarded as an eccentric thing to do and only the most adventuresome gardeners grew medicinal herbs. Things have changed and more gardeners than ever are growing herbs of all kinds.

Seeds for medicinal herbs are readily available in catalogs and online stores making it easy to get started with medicinal herbs.

There are plenty of books and online resources available for anyone interested in growing medicinal herbs but nothing can replace seeing it first hand.

For a wonderful introduction to the world of medicinal herbs visit the Medicinal Garden at University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The folks at Matthaei have collaborated with the U of M College of Pharmacy to develop this garden. There you can see many different medicinal plants growing.

Over forty percent of medicines are derived from plants.

Over forty percent of medicines are derived from plants.

The garden is not organized by genus and species as botanists like to do but rather by human body systems: respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and more.  Other areas of the garden are devoted to disorders such as diabetes, infectious diseases, cancer, etc.

Matthaei Botanical Gardens is located near Ann Arbor at 1800 North Dixboro Road, a half mile or so south of Plymouth Road. They’re open daily from 10 am to 8 pm during the summer season.

Bob

 

Mud dauber wasps are busy

September 3rd, 2015

This week while going through some items in a storage shed, I came across a beautiful dried ball of mud inside an antique trunk. It was the nest of a wasp known as a mud dauber.

When we think of wasp nests, usually the first thing that comes to mind is the papery nest of the paper wasp or the football-shaped nest of hornets. Mud daubers build their nests out of mud. There is plenty of mud for the wasps this summer because of the regular rains we’ve been having.

Mud daubers are not social insects like paper wasps and the others. Instead, they spend their lives as single, solitary insects. They do everything by themselves including, building a nest, laying eggs and collecting food for their young.

There are many different species of mud daubers in Michigan, this one is called the “black and yellow mud dauber”.

The adults look similar to the more common social wasps but are larger and have exaggerated features like the thread-like connection between their abdomen and thorax.

The female mud dauber builds the nest by collecting mud along the edge of puddles. Using her mouth parts, she rolls the mud into a ball then lifts it into the air and carries it to the nesting site. There she adds the mud to her nest, building rooms or cells for her young. Each cell is big enough for one young mud dauber.

The entrance to the nest is sealed shut. She must be out working collecting mud or food for her young.

Here she is, busy plastering new mud on her nest.

IMG_3026

The entrance to the nest is open, she must be nearby.

 

While the female is away from the nest gathering mud or foraging for food, she temporarily closes the entrance to her nest to keep predators away from her young. During that time, the daubers are in the larval stage of their life cycle.

The female also packs away food for the developing larvae by placing insects or spiders into each cell so the larva has enough food in its cell to carry it through its growing stage. Some types of mud daubers only prey on spiders while others prefer caterpillars or other insects.

The entrance to the nest is closed shut. Mama mud dauber must be out collecting more mud or insects for her young.

The entrance to the nest is closed shut. Mama mud dauber must be out collecting more mud or insects for her young.

The prey is only for the young though. The adults feed on nectar, honeydew from aphids or other sugary liquids. Sometimes you can spot them sipping sugar water from hummingbird feeders.

Unlike other wasps and hornets, mud daubers don’t defend their nests. They are not aggressive and rarely sting. Although if you try hard enough you can sometimes provoke one into stinging you.

According to one university website, some species “sing” while building their nest! Mine didn’t seem to be in a singing mood when I found her.

They are generally considered beneficial insects because they eat other insects. You could argue that the spider-eaters are not very beneficial because spiders eat insects too — that is unless you hate spiders.

Most of the time we don’t notice the daubers until they build a nest somewhere where we don’t want it. Some people destroy the nest as soon as they find them.

There seems to be a small industry built around exterminating mud daubers and getting rid of their nests. I prefer to let leave them alone and let them go about their business.

I’ve noticed other smaller species of mud dauber wasp around too. They are not shy and can be very annoying as they buzz around looking for small holes to use for building their nests.

Bob