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

Native witch hazel shrubs bloom in the fall

By the time mid-November in Michigan rolls around you’d think that we’ve seen the last of blooming plants until spring, that’s what I though anyway. Once again, I forgot all about our witch hazel bush that started blooming a week or so before Thanksgiving.

Witch hazel is a native plant in our area. Back when I was a kid I used to see them along the edge of the woods near our house and wonder; are those spidery-looking yellow things on that bush really flowers?

Like many other plants, witch hazel flowers are pollinated by insects, despite the fact that November is not the biggest month for insects in Michigan. With this warm November we’ve been having, there has to be a lot more insects around to pollinate the flowers. Maybe that will result in a larger than average crop of witch hazel seeds.

They're not gaudy or even very showy but witch hazel flowers are still a nice surprise in the fall.
They’re not gaudy or even very showy but witch hazel flowers are still a nice surprise in the fall.

Although pollination happens this time of the year, the seeds don’t start to grow until spring. They are produced in easy-to-see, green, capsule-like structures that form where the flowers were. Later in the summer as the capsules turn brown and ripen, the seeds are explosively ejected up to 30 feet away. I’ve never had a chance to see this in person but might one of these days since our shrub is right next to the deck.

Witch hazels grow very slowly, the one in our yard is about eight feet tall and has been there for almost 15 years. That can be an advantage in smaller yards since they rarely get too big for a space and  out-grow their welcome.  They can get up to 20 feet tall but I’ve never seen one taller than around 12 feet in our neck of the woods.

Plant nurseries and garden centers sell potted witch hazel. But be aware that they often offer the imported Japanese witch hazel or Chinese witch hazel, both of which bloom in late winter rather than in the fall.

Bob

 

Lupine seed pods in the house

I was a startled the other day as I was putting on my coat getting ready to go outside. It was quiet in the house and I was the only one home. All of a sudden I heard a snap and the clickey-clack sound of what sounded like small beads landing on the table and front entry tile floor. At first I thought maybe the cat had discovered something and was playing. I often blame the cat for things but to be honest, he very rarely is at fault.  I looked up thinking a part the ceiling lamp had disintegrated or one of the lights failed however, everything was intact.

It took a few minutes of investigating but I found out what caused the mysterious sound. Scattered around on the floor and furniture I found a whole slew of seeds that I quickly realized were lupine seeds.  Earlier this fall we collected some lupine seed pods from a roadside near us hoping to re-establish a Lupine perennis population on our property.  When we got home, we put the pods in a bowl on the table in the front entry and just forgot all about them.

Plants have many ways of spreading their seeds. For example, squirrels bury acorns, maple trees have those little helicopters thingys and milkweed uses silky parashoots that are carried by the wind. Other seeds stick to animals or pass through the digestive systems of birds and are dropped far away from the parent plant.

Here's a few lupine seeds that I found scattered around the house.
Here’s a few lupine seeds that I found scattered around the house. They are explosively thrown from the fuzzy pods when they’re ripe.

Lupine seed pods explode when they mature, throwing seeds several feet in all directions. Botanists call this spontaneous phenomenon dehiscence.  You may have seen this with other plants such as impatiens or sorrels. In this case, inside the house, it was very surprising.

I made a mental note to make sure I told my wife about it but, through the course of a busy day, I forgot about it. Later that evening when were binge watching Blue Bloods, all of a sudden we heard a snap! and the clicking sound of seeds bouncing off of the walls. Another seed pod exploded ricocheting seeds all over the place. It was then I remembered what it was I meant to tell her.

The mystery sound was solved and the cat was once again vindicated.

Bob

The amazing salvia flower

You can find some really amazing things in the garden if you know where to look. For example, look closely at a salvia flower and you will see something unique.

Like most flowers, salvia produces nectar to lure pollinators such as wild bees, honeybees and others. And as usual the pollinators end up carrying pollen it picked up from the first flower to the next flower it visits thereby pollinating the second flower and others after that. Usually nectar collection is pretty straight forward, the bee simply visits the flower and sucks out the nectar and moves on to the next flower.

In the case of salvia however, something marvelous happens. The flower has a tiny structure that blocks access to the nectar. Instead if simply inserting its tongue and sucking out the nectar, the pollinator has to physically push itself deeper into the flower past the blockage in order to get to the nectar. That tiny gate that is hindering the bee is connected to the flower’s stamens by way of a pivot point like a see-saw. At the other end of the see-saw are a pair of stamens. At the very end of each stamens is a pollen sac.

When the pollinator pushes against the blocking structure, it causes the stamens to pivot downward. As the stamen moves down and touches the pollinator’s back, pollen is released from the pollen sacs onto the insect. The pollen sticks to that spot on the insect and once it is done gathering nectar, it moves on to other salvia flowers carrying the pollen with it.

To see the stamens move, use a pencil to mimic the pushing action of a bee inside the flower.

All salvias have this astonishing mechanism in their flowers. Different species of salvia have slightly different lengths,sizes and shape of stamens. Some scientists believe that the different lengths of stamen by species minimizes hybridization ie. the pollination of two different species with one another. One type of salvia may deposit its pollen toward the rear of the insect while another may deposit at the front thereby reducing the mixing of pollen.

We’re nearing the end of the growing season but there are still some salvias blooming.

Bob