What side of the debate were you on this fall?

While much of the country is focused on the mid-term elections, two opposing camps of gardeners are lining up this fall.  Each side has compelling reasons why they are right and the other side is wrong. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.

One side is more, you might say, traditional in their approach to preparing perennial beds for winter. Those gardeners remove all of this year’s dead plant material from the garden and dispose of it by composting or other means. They claim that removing dead material now, in the fall, creates a clean slate for new growth in the spring. Tender new growth will less likely be damaged than if you try to remove last year’s growth when the plant is actively growing in the spring.

Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.
Some gardeners prefer to clear the debris from their garden in the fall.

The other group says, “We care about birds”. They leave all of their plant growth untouched in the fall. All of that tangled up mass of plant stems provides valuable cover for wild song birds that over-winter. This group feels they have a responsibility to the wider ecological community when gardening. Many perennials produce seeds each fall. Leaving those old flower stalks up, they say, provides an addition food source for birds.

Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.
Some gardeners prefer to leave garden debris alone until spring.

Leaving the garden alone in the fall has some other, less tangible benefits. All of that debris tends to collect and hold snow in place providing a natural insulating blanket. The protective snow cover can reduce the chance of freeze damage or frost heaving in some years. Not only that, the stalks provide an attractive visual element to the winter landscape as well, claims the leave-it-be group.

Gardeners on the other side counter those arguments claiming by the time they start clearing their gardens, the birds have already eaten virtually all of the seeds. Their small plot of flowers would not provide any really usable cover for birds either, they say. And who wants to look at a messy garden area all winter anyway? Not only that, spring is busy enough without having to do all the work you should have done last fall.

So every fall die-hard gardeners endlessly debate the merits of their position. I’m not really sure how often one breaks ranks and joins the other side, probably not very often.

Bob

 

 

 

 

Saving a zinnia heirloom variety

This gardening season, I adopted another unique heirloom seed to try to save from extinction.  Currently, I’m saving four dry bean varieties that are not available commercially plus my own heirloom variety of tomato.

Now I’m adding the first flower to my growing collection of heirlooms, a variety of zinnia. It was given to me by a gardener who I lost contact with. She never said what the variety name was; only that she had been saving them for many years. I believe she is no longer able to garden so it’s now up to me to keep the strain going.

This variety has all pink flowers and is not a mix of colors. It probably started out that way a long time ago.

The blossoms were about 4 inches across.
The blossoms were about 4 inches across.
I like to wait until the flowers are well dried before harvesting the seeds.
I like to wait until the flowers are well dried before harvesting the seeds.

The plants eventually grew to nearly four feet tall despite the fact that I sowed the seeds very thickly. I didn’t know what the germination rate would be but as it turned out, just about every seed germinated. I transplanted a lot of them into new rows. I eventually gave up on trying spacing them out since there were so many plants that I ran out of room. The remaining ones grew up to form a dense stand, almost like a hedge.

Seeds are produced at both ray flowers (edge)and disk flowers (center)
Seeds are produced at both ray flowers (edge) and disk flowers (center)
Once dried, the seeds easily separate from the petals.
Once dried, the seeds easily separate from the petals.

Like other zinnias, they responded well to cutting, the more I cut, the more flowers grew to take their place.

I plan to keep the strain going and eventually give away seeds to other gardeners.

Bob

Turtle head flowers for your fall garden

During an afternoon walk while visiting our daughter Robin, we came across a grouping of Chelone, more commonly known as turtleheads. We found them growing in the 606, an elevated park planted by the city’s talented landscapers.

You don’t need much imagination to see why they are called turtle heads; their flowers really resemble a turtle’s head, especially when they open their jaws!

These fascinating plants provide additional color to the autumn flower garden palette all the way until frost.

While Chelone are native to a large part of the United States, just a few small, local populations are found in the wild in Michigan. They prefer sunny, moist areas but can grow well in just about any fertile garden soil.

Chelone plants are available from many plant nurseries.

Bob

Quilt gardens tour in Elkhart Indiana

We recently visited the Quilt Gardens, a really fun ongoing garden tour in the Elkhart Indiana region.

Volunteer gardeners from that area installed more than a million plants in eighteen gardens. Flowers and colorful foliage plants are arranged to reproduce quilt patterns on a large scale.

A geometric quilt pattern reproduced with flowers.
Another quilt garden.
Quilt garden next to a building.
Ornamental peppers provided color in this quilt garden.

In addition to the gardens, twenty one large quilt pattern murals adorn assorted buildings along the tour.

This large quilt pattern mural dresses up this otherwise plain wall.
Quilt makers will recognize the quilt patterns.

The Quilt Gardens are open to the public now until October 1 and are free of charge. For downloadable maps and guides visit their website.

Unless you’re short on time, we suggest you plan on taking at least two days to enjoy the gardens and other attractions along the way.

Bob and Judy

Milkweeds can become a nuisance

In this day and age pretty much everyone knows about the relationship between monarch butterflies and milkweed plants. It wasn’t always that way.

Before modern chemical weed killers, farmers had limited ways of dealing with weeds. Depending on the weather conditions, a farmer might have to go over a field two or three times with a horse drawn cultivator. Later, cultivators were mounted on tractors but the process stayed the same. An efficient farmer could do a pretty job of controlling most of the annual weeds, perennial weeds were harder especially if they became established in a field. The only thing to do was to send the family out to the fields with hoes to try to keep the weeds at a minimum.

Milkweeds were one of those perennial weeds that farmers were constantly battling. When the first herbicides were developed, farmers no longer had to spend so much time and energy constantly going over their fields. Perennial weeds like milkweed still were a problem however and farmers hated them. I remember when I was young seeing a beautiful field of some sort of crop — I don’t remember what crop it was — that was completely free of weeds except for a colony of milkweeds that you could see from over a hundred yards away.

Nowadays modern herbicides are very efficient at controlling all types of weeds so we never see milkweeds in farm fields anymore. They’re limited to fence rows, ditches and other out of the way places. The number of milkweeds for monarch butterflies to lay their eggs on and for their caterpillars to eat has been drastically reduced. Now, farming organizations that used to join in the battle against milkweeds now pass out seeds and encourage people to re-establish them.

Milkweeds still have the potential to get out of control and become a nuisance. Once they become establish they will spread by way of underground roots. Those roots are very tough and strong and are able to push themselves into surrounding areas and compete with other plants. In one spot in my yard, I started out with a single milkweed plant next to my garage a few years ago. That has now turned into a colony of plants that is over 40 feet long. One of these days I’ll have to do something with them before they really get out of hand.

The nearest milkweed stalk is over three feet away from this shoot pushing up through the concrete expansion joint.
The nearest milkweed stalk is over three feet away from this shoot pushing up through the concrete expansion joint.

Another patch is beginning to encroach into the vegetable garden. They’re pushing their way up through seams in the plastic mulch I have laid out.

I don’t mind my milkweeds being a bit unruly, it’s fun , at least for now, to see those plants thrive in the yard. It reminds me that it won’t be long before the monarchs are back.

Bob

 

 

Divide perennials in early spring

The best time of year to divide perennial flowers is early spring just as their new shoots begin to peek up through the soil. That time is right now.

Gardeners have different reasons why they might want to divide their perennials. Maybe the plant is getting too old or too big for the space they’ve been growing in. Another gardener may want to  build up the number of plants they have to expand their planting. Still another may want to give away hard-to-find plants to friends.

From a practical point of view, dividing perennials is most often done because the plants age and their flower displays start to wane. As a perennial plant grows, it adds new growth to the outer portion of the clump of plants. This works fine for the gardener up to a point. Eventually the clump expands so much with new growth that the center of the clump will turn woody and non-productive.  That’s when dividing needs to be done to revive the plant.

It’s the new growth area of a plant clump that you want to save. You do this by removing the new growth from the old, replanting it and discarding the old portion.

Start by using a garden fork to loosen the soil all the way around the plant before you do any actual digging. Then use a garden spade to cut the clump into pieces small enough to handle, usually in thirds or quarters. If you cut too small of a piece, the new plant may not be able to compete very easy with the other existing plants and you’ll spend extra time nursing it through the season.

Some fine-rooted perennials like dianthus can be separated just using your hands. For tougher plants you’ll need help from a spade or garden fork. One trick I use is to take two garden forks placed back to back into the root area. Then push against the handles to lever the clump apart.

Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.
Two garden forks placed back to back can be used to wedge apart stubborn roots.

Lift up the cut part of the plant you want to move and clean off all dead leaves and any broken or damaged plant parts. By the way, this would be an excellent time to add compost, fertilizer or any other soil amendments to the area before you set the plants.

For fastest plant recovery, plant the clump right away in your newly prepared spot. Set the plant at the same level it was originally growing and water it in well, don’t skimp on this first watering. Take any left over clumps and pot them up to give away to friends and family. You don’t have to be too picky about potting them if the recipient is going to plant them soon.

Spring dividing is mostly for summer-flowering perennials like asters or sedum.  Those that bloom in the spring, like peonies or columbine are best divided in the fall.

Bob

Force branches into budding in your home

We still have plenty of winter left to go until spring arrives. In the meantime you can bring a little bit of spring early into your home by forcing shrub and tree branches into budding out of season.

The shrub everyone thinks of first is pussy willows with their irresistible silver, fuzzy buds. There are others that you can force into budding but you have to start now if you want results before spring. Some species of woody plants, such as forsythia, may take only a couple weeks to bloom while other plants may take a month or more.

Fruit trees like apple, cherry and pear can produce showy flowers. Others like maple tree branches are more subtle with their separate male and female flowers.

Magnolia buds will swell as they open and show some color even if they don’t open completely.

Aspen and other poplar trees will often send out a pendulous spray of flowers that remind you of warm days ahead. Many other species will reward you with green leaves that have their own charm when viewed up close. Indoors, some leaves even have a faint spring-like fragrance that is lost in the great outdoors during their normal budding season.

Forcing branches is a great excuse to use your special flower vase that has been sitting empty or that rustic flower container. It’s fun to experiment with forcing different types of trees and shrubs. Here’s a list to help you get started: for flowers try forsythia, dogwood, pear, cherry, plum, quince, apple, crab apple, currants, maple and willow. For leaves: beech, poplar and roses.

It’s important to start early because of the time it takes for the branches to respond to being brought inside where it’s warm. Make sure to use sharp pruning shears to make nice clean cuts with no ragged edges. Change the water in your container from time to time to keep it fresh and free from algae.

Use your artistic eye to arrange your branches in an attractive way since you’ll be looking at them for a few weeks without anything noticeable happening. Keep in mind the buds are very fragile once they start opening and can easily be broken off if you’re not careful.

Bob

Use warm temperatures during January thaw to control insects with water

 

During many winters we have a January thaw. We had a very welcomed warm spell last week and it looks like there will be another warm-up this week too, even though it may not be quite as warm this time around.

I always like to take advantage of those warm mid-winter days to freshen up my house plants and others that I have growing  inside.

Three of my citrus trees, which are about six feet tall including the pot, share space in a southern window in my woodworking area. That means their leaves are often covered in fine sawdust depending on the project I’m working on. I recently finished a project that required quite a bit of sanding which developed a lot of sawdust that settled on the citrus tree leaves.

Last week’s thaw gave me the opportunity to haul out my two wheel hand-truck and wheel out the heavy potted trees out to the driveway. I didn’t need to hose off the plants because of the drenching rain that came later in the day. That rain was all that was needed to get them clean. Since then however, I’ve generated more saw dust and they’re all dusty again.

The good news is that temperatures are predicted to be near 50 degrees F during the next couple of days. That’ll be the the perfect time to wheel them back out and rinse them off again, only this time I’ll have to drag out the hose. Some of my larger house plants are going to get a good outdoor rinsing too.

I rinse my citrus trees every year we have a January thaw. My trees are 17 years old.

This mid-winter rinsing not only washes off dust but even more importantly, it removes many of the small insect and other pests found on indoor plants such as spider mites, mealy bugs and scale. The population of  those types of pests can build up to a damaging level inside a warm, dry winter environment like we have in many Michigan homes this time of year. Rinsing with water knocks back the insect population to a tolerable level.

Mature citrus tree leaves are tough and can handle strong streams of water. Other plants though have more tender leaves which can be bruised by a too vigorous spray from an exuberant gardener — I know, I’ve done it.

If you plan to do a mid-winter rinsing, I suggest you start with a fine spray and increase the pressure if needed.  You’ll have to use your best judgement as you go along. I use a three-hole nozzle that puts out a very fine, yet strong stream of water that knocks off just about everything without damaging leaves. Be sure to spray the under-side of the leaves. That’s where the biggest concentration of pests will be hiding.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New research on potential organic insecticide

While it’s popular to bash seemingly frivolous tax payer funded scientific research, I think most people would agree that a vast majority of research is worth while.

There is some really interesting research happening over at the US Department of Agriculture that may have the potential to spill over into the organic gardening area. A naturally occurring chemical called methyl bromide may turn out to be a safe, effective, natural insecticide suitable for organic growing.

If methyl bromide sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because you’ve probably seen it on a list of food ingredients on the package of one of your favorite foods or beverages. It’s often listed under one of many different names such as methylbenzoate, benzoic acid, methyl ester and others.

Methyl benzoate is found naturally in the flower aromas of daffodils, tuberoses, kalachoe, snapdragons, petunias, and many others. These flowers produce methyl benzoate as part of their fragrance to attract bees and other insects. This substance contributes to the flavor of bananas, cherries, cloves, allspice, mustard, coffee, black tea, dill, kiwi and other plant foods. It’s used in the food industry for its nutty, cherry-like flavor and fruity, flowery scent.

As it turns out, this chemical, when isolated or as part of a formulation, can repel or even kill many insect pests. Plus it leaves no long term residue that can build up on food or in the environment. All of this is still in the early stage of research, but if it turns out that a methyl benzoate formulation is effective, it probably won’t take long for it to gain governmental approval.

Many insect pests are developing resistance to current pesticides this may help to fill the void left by insecticides that are no longer effective. Also, organic insecticides are not always good at killing certain types of pests. If it works, methyl benzoate will be a valuable addition to the organic insecticide arsenal.

As a side note, methyl bromide is scent drug sniffing dogs are looking for. Methyl benzoate is produced when cocaine is exposed to the moisture in the air.

Bob

Remember to collect Christmas wreath materials in season next year

It’s a lot of fun seeing all of the different kinds of Christmas decoration folks have put together out of natural materials.  Wreaths have evolved way past just a simple circle of evergreen boughs with a red ribbon tied to it, although you still see plenty of those.

As gardeners we have the opportunity to grow or gather together the raw materials for unique Christmas decorations. For example around here at pruning time, we save our grapevine trimmings and roll them up into circles, that’s a common one many people do. But other materials can be used as well. Many flowers, shrubs , stalks even weeds have interesting features that can be quite decorative. Who remembers making Christmas items in elementary school out of milkweed seedpods?

Some materials, such as hydrangea stems,are easier to bend and form when they are fresh.
Some materials, such as hydrangea stems, are easier to bend and form when they are fresh.

You only have to use your imagination a little to come up with something that is really neat and one-of-a-kind. If you’re not the creative type, you can always glean ideas from Pinterest.

Right now, while you’re thinking of it, make a note in your phone’s calendar app to remind yourself next spring and summer to look for raw materials for your 2018 Christmas. Maybe you’ll even come up with something cool enough to post on Pinterst yourself.

Bob