Plants for butterflies

It’s been a long time coming, but more and gardeners are finally becoming interested in growing butterfly gardens. Eleven years ago, almost to the day,  I posted a blog trying to encourage folks grow more plants that attract and sustain butterflies. I figure it’s time to revisit that subject again.

Seed catalogs are arriving everyday in the mail now, both in my email inbox and in my outside mailbox. Almost all of them offer seeds for butterfly attracting plants.

This blog is about plants that have flowers that the adult butterflies readily come to for nectar. An even more ambitious butterfly garden is one that includes plants that the larvae of butterflies need to eat, but that will have to be another blog.

Butterflies are looking for flowers that have lots of nectar and a good landing platform for them to cling to. They also prefer small tubular flowers that are especially adapted to the butterflies’ proboscis, their specially shaped tongue that works like a straw. These tubular flowers cannot be too long or the butterfly cannot reach all the way down to the nectar which is usually at the base of the petals.

There are so many plants from to choose from that it can get frustrating. To help you get started , here’s a of list of the more common plants, in no particular order, that attract butterflies:

Thyme; Valerian; Heliotrope; Asclepias incarnata (common name-Red Swallowwort); PhloxAllysum;Verbena, all the different kinds of verbena are good — Verbena bonariensis is very easy to grow here in Michigan; Thistle; Scabiosa; Columbine; Chrysanthemum; Herbs, many of them have good nectar flowers; Milkweed, attracts at least 17 different kinds of butterflies; Queen Anne’s Lace; Liatris, common name Gayfeather; Gaillardia; Butterfly Bush (of course); Echinacea purpurea, common name Purple Coneflower; Violets; Lilac; Yarrow; Rudbeckia hirta, common name Black Eyed Susan; Monarda, common name Bee Balm; Lupine; Marigold; Daisy; and Lavender.

Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.
Zinnias flowers are attractive to butterflies, plus they keep blooming the entire growing season.

Other things you will want to consider when you plant your garden is: 1) have a sunny site that is sheltered from the wind, butterflies get tossed around by a breeze fairly easily 2) provide a place for them to “puddle”. Have you ever noticed butterflies hanging around mud puddles? They are slurping up much needed dissolved minerals, sort of like a food supplement, that are not found in nectar. A shallow container of water containing sand and rocks allows butteries to land and puddle. Actually, even just a simple mud puddle is fine, just replenish it as it gets dry.

Bob

 

 

Going through my seeds

This is the time of year I drag out all of my old seeds from last year and years before that. I always like to take inventory to see what I’ve got on hand before I order anything. We’re in the middle of winter and not all of the seed catalogs have arrived yet.

You would think that after all these years I would have come up with a better system for keeping track of my seeds since I have dozens of different varieties. You know maybe a spreadsheet, color-coded vials, a numbering system things like that, but I don’t.

Some of my current seed collection.
Some of my current seed collection.

Seeds don’t last forever. In rare cases however, seeds can germinate after decades or even centuries. One famous example is a Judean date palm seed that germinated and grew after 2000 years. Seeds that we use in the home garden typically last just a few years unless special steps are taken to preserve them. If they’re in an unopened, original envelop, they’ll have a better chance of remaining viable for longer periods of time. That’s the principle behind the survival seed kits that are sold on line.

Seeds that are kept dry and in a cool place fare better than those that are exposed to moisture or heat. Located above the Arctic Circle on a remote island, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault takes seed saving to the extreme and is able to store seeds from around the world for expended periods of time. Home gardeners on the other hand, can only do so much. Most of the time we seal up our seeds the best we can and keep try to them away from temperature extremes.

Here’s a chart I put together a while back that you can refer to when deciding whether or not to keep a particular type of seed. I’ve only included the more commonly planted food crops. This assumes that seeds are kept under typical conditions found in a home. Clip it out and save with your seeds.

SEED VIABILITY CHART

 

Five years Four years Three years Two years One year
Broccoli Beets Beans Chives Onion*
Brussels Sprouts Squash, winter Leek Corn Parsley*
Cabbage Squash, summer Lima beans Okra Parsnip*
Cauliflower Swiss chard Peas Pepper Peanut*
Celery Tomato Soybean (Edamame) Popcorn† † may lose viability after one year * may retain viability for two years
Cucumber
Eggplant
Kale
Lettuce
Muskmelon
Pumpkin
Radish
Rutabaga
Spinach
Turnip
Watermelon

Many people believe that the larger the seed is the longer it will stay viable. Looking at the chart you can see that seed size is not a factor. Compare corn which are large seeds with celery seeds that are quite small. Corn can be stored only for two years before it loses viability while celery lasts five years.

Bob

Selecting squash, pumpkin and gourd seeds

Under good storage conditions, winter squash and pumpkins can stay edible well into winter. I have a spot in my garage that stays cool, around 50 degrees, through the winter and that is right around the ideal storage temperature for squash. Air circulation is also important and there is plenty of air movement in that spot too. So we have been eating squash on and off for the past couple of months.

One thing I have noticed is that flavor can vary from squash to squash of the same variety. Sometimes there can be quite a large difference in quality. You can buy seeds of the same variety from two different seed sellers and even though the squash looks the same, the flavors may be close but not the same. I think that explains some of the difference in opinion people have when discussing which variety they prefer. I’ve noticed this inconsistency in other vegetables too, especially with certain heirloom tomato varieties.

What I like to do is save squash seed from the best tasting squash and discard seeds from those that are bland or off-flavor. That way year after year I gradually improve my squash. Since the seeds are well preserved inside the fruit until it’s ready to cook, seed saving for me is an ongoing thing until the squash run out. You can end up with a lot of squash or pumpkin seeds in a hurry since each one can have dozens or even hundreds of seeds as anyone who carved a pumpkin knows.

Squash and Pumpkins
I have three different kinds of winter squash. I keep pumpkins to feed to my chickens in the winter.

The way I go about it is that I never toss out the seeds until dinner is over and I’ve had a chance to sample my squash. I mentally rate it and if it is better than the last one I had, I keep the seeds and get rid of the ones from the previous meal. By the time I eat my last serving of squash, I’ll have the seeds from the best tasting one from the garden. The rest of the seeds go to the chickens. I know it seems like a lot of fussing around but hey, it’s what I do.

Gourds are filled with seeds and have very little flesh. These are seeds from a single gourd.
Gourds are filled with seeds and have very little flesh. These are seeds from a single gourd.

This is a relatively simplistic way to select for a single genetic trait. Professional plant breeders select for other things such as disease resistance, high yields, ease of storage and other traits. In the home garden, flavor is a good one to select for.

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

A simple germination test for your old seeds

After taking inventory of our seeds last week, we had to decide which seeds we were going to keep and which we needed to throw out. Each year we write the date on the seed containers, that gives us a starting point.

Some seed packs slipped through our system though and had no date on them, just the variety name. Others were getting to be a few years old meaning they were approaching the out side limits of their shelf life.  As seeds get older, their ability to germinate begins to decline. In many cases they still can be used even though they are past their prime. This week we are running germination tests on several types of seeds to see if they are something we would be able to use in the garden.

A simple germination test is easy to do and gives you a pretty good idea if it’s worth keeping a pack of seeds. To do the test,  pick ten seeds at random of one type of plant that we want to test, for example ten tomato seeds or ten onion seeds. Next take a moistened piece of paper towel. Place the seeds on the paper towel  on half of the sheet and fold the sheet over to cover the seeds. The seeds and moist paper towel go in a zip-loc bag and are sealed up. Then put the bag in a warm place to help speed up germination, we use our plant warming mat.

Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.
Seedlings are very fragile at this stage.

Check the seeds every day to see if any are sprouting. If you have the original packet, it usually tells how long it takes for germination. But when you use a warming mat with moist conditions inside the plastic bag, seeds usually sprout much quicker.

The number of sprouted seeds gives you the germination percentage. For example, if eight of the ten seeds sprout, you have an 80% germination rate.

The big surprise for us was an unmarked envelop of ‘Chadwick Cherry’ tomato seeds we found with the rest of our seeds. I don’t know where that envelop came from , maybe someone gave us some seeds a few years ago. We were expecting an low germination percentage but nine out of ten germinated. That was an excellent outcome and we’ll be growing those in the garden this season.  On the other hand, a group of onions we were looking at only had one seed sprout, we’ll toss those into the compost. Too bad because it was a pretty big packet of seeds.

Even if your seeds have a low germination percentage you can still use them, just plant extra seeds to make up the difference. For example if only half of your seeds germinate,  plant double the amount.

It’s true that you can buy fresh seeds of common varieties very cheaply. However, in our case we save quite a few heirloom and open-pollinated seeds that are not available anywhere else.Plus we don’t like to waste anything if it is still usable.

Bob

Taking inventory of seeds

Seed catalogs have been showing up in our mailbox since before the beginning of the new year. Most of the catalogs that we regularly order from have arrived. We’re still getting a few duplicates and reminders from impatient seed sellers and some catalogs from new outfits.

I’d rather go to mailbox and see what catalog came that day than check my email and go to an online link. I realize that seed companies are so big nowadays that it’s hard for them to list everything they offer in their paper catalogs. Printed catalogs seem to get me more enthused than virtual catalogs, but that may be a generational thing.

Before finalizing our seed orders, we first like to take an inventory of what we have in storage. It’s very easy to get carried away looking through the catalogs and order things we already have on hand. And since there’s nothing much happening gardening wise right now but we’re still itching to do something, taking inventory seems to help fill that gardening urge we have right now. Maybe that’s where the expression “bean counters” came from.

Judy and I spent some time going through our pile of seed packets left over from last year. Some were not even opened, we either ran out of room or time and they never got planted. Most of the packets are partially used and contain seeds that are still viable and can planted in the garden this year. We always make sure the leftover seeds go into an air-tight container right away after we’re done planting.

Part of our seeds list
Part of our seeds list

While we were at it, we took the time to reduce the sheer volume of seeds that we had squirreled away. It wasn’t long ago that I had two large storage tubs of seeds that had accumulated from various people, places and projects — I’m talking about fifteen or twenty pounds of seeds in each tub.  Fortunately it doesn’t get that far out of hand anymore now that I’m culling seeds every winter.

We also have a sizable collection of heirloom seeds that were passed down to use through the years. Most of those are not available anywhere, we are part of a small handful of people keeping those varieties going. Those seeds are included in our inventory as well. We’re slowly building up the number of  those rare heirloom seeds we have. The word “rare” is often used as a marketing ploy to get folks to buy things but in this case these seeds truly are rare.

We may not be able to get into the garden yet but physically handling seeds and seed packets is a satisfying, temporary antidote to the mid-winter gardening lull.

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

Problem with geese eating cover crop seeds

One of the best things you can do for your garden is to plant winter rye; the same crop that farmers grow for flour that eventually gets made into rye bread. Last year at this time I wrote a couple of posts about how to sow rye. You can scroll back and find those posts if you’d like to read about it.

This year I planted my rye about ten days later than usual — big mistake. Not only was it late for planting, it turned out to be the middle of the Canada goose migration.

I carefully prepared the soil by removing weeds and debris. Then I mowed the finer textured plant material that was left. Next, I roto-tilled to make a nice seed bed.Broadcasting the rye with a seed/fertilizer spreader works good, which is what I did. Since my original plan was not to rake in the seed, I doubled the recommended seeding rate. With that all of that done I was sure the garden was all set for a long winter’s nap.

A couple of geese had discovered all of that rye seed laying on top of the ground in my garden and decided to help themselves to a free meal. It wasn’t long before other migrating geese looked down and saw what was happening in my garden. It turned out to be a free-for-all once they landed.To a goose, the seed must look like an easy meal.To a goose, the seed must look like an easy meal.

By the time I checked my garden a couple of days later, it was all over. Not a seed could I find, the garden looked like it had been used as a feed lot. Goose tracks covered every square inch. They ate all 100 pounds of my rye seed in one day.

I re-seeded again the next day only this time I raked in the seed and surrounded the garden with wooded stakes with twine strung between then. The twine is about a foot off of the ground and has some plastic ribbon tied to it. That seems to be enough to deter them.

Canada Geese are strong, graceful flyers and are at home on the water. But on land, they’re at a disadvantage. They can waddle to move short distances but can’t run very fast or negotiate obstacles very well. Being on land makes them more vulnerable to predators than when they’re in the water or flying. That twine is just enough to to make them nervous about getting tangled up so they stay out of the garden. A few strands of twine criss-crossed inside the garden reinforces the effect.

We have has a mild late-fall so my rye had enough time to germinate and get established. If not I have learned a valuable lesson about putting off planting my cover crop.

Bob

 

Accidentally saving radish seeds

Our garden is big enough for things to go unnoticed plus I’m not as tidy a gardener as I should be.

This week I found a radish that had gone to seed. Somehow, one radish managed to escape being harvested with the rest of the crop. It continued to grow, flower and produce seed pods right under my nose. Apparently, it got left behind when I was pulling radishes this spring.

If it is left to grow past the eating stage, a radish plant will  eventually send up a flower stalk. The  resulting flowers are then pollinated by insects. Seed pods that superficially resemble peas or beans arise from the pollinated flowers.

It takes nearly the entire growing season for radishes to produce seeds. This one’s pods were already dry and contained mature seeds.

The seeds are a bit smaller than typical radish seeds.
The seeds are a bit smaller than typical radish seeds.

Pollen from one variety of radish often will be carried by insects to a different plant and can easily cross-pollinate another variety of radish. Radishes don’t care if they are pollinated by one variety or another. The seeds resulting from the random cross may or may not produce a desirable eating radish when planted next year.

Since the one in my garden was the only one I found, the seeds should be OK — unless the pollinators brought in unknown pollen in from somewhere else. Professional seed growers separate their different radish varieties by a half mile or more.

Anyway, I’m keeping a few seeds to try out next season.

Bob

Going through garden seeds

We’ve managed to save up a pretty large collection of seeds over the past several years.

There are two large, covered containers in our garage that contain over twenty pounds of assorted vegetable and flower seeds. Most of them are long expired. The oldest are between five and ten years old. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re no longer usable. Even some of the oldest may still be viable, that all depends on what species they are. I just need to take the time to organize them.

Now's a good time to sort through our garden seeds.
Now’s a good time to sort through our garden seeds.

I plan to go through and separate the out-dated, non-poisonous ones like sweet corn, peas and melons and feed them to the chickens. The rest I’ll toss into the compost pile. I did that once about five years ago, now it’s time to do it again.

Also we have a number of current seeds, those that we’ve either purchased or saved from our own plants. They date back only a year or two or three. We keep them in glass jars in the fridge. They stay in the planting rotation from year to year. We’ll plant most of those this year.

We don’t have a detailed list of what is in those jars, that’s what Judy is doing this week. Once she gets the list done and compares it to our garden plans, we’ll place our seeds orders.

Bob