Medicinal garden growing at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor

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.



Grow mushrooms at home in your fridge

There’s a new product out on the market that make’s you want to say:  “Why didn’t I think of that!”

The scientists at a bio-tech company called Genetic Dynamics, have come up with an easy way to grow mushrooms from seed at home.

Head researcher, Dr. Fred Kim, said: “Nearly everyone I know already has some kind of fungus growing in their refrigerator. Our research team  decided to take advantage of that fact”.

Using a combination of conventional plant breeding and cutting edge DNA technology, the scientists created a mushroom that will grow under conditions found in a typical refrigerator.

The new variety called ‘Shrooms’ uses any leftover food as a substrate to grow on. Dr. Kim noted: “The older and more forgotten the leftovers are, the better the mushrooms grow”.

Here are the Shrooms I grew on what I think is leftover mashed potatoes.
Here are the Shrooms I grew on what I think is leftover mashed potatoes.

Walter Tupper, the Executive Chef at Top O’ the Cave Restaurant in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan, uses them almost exclusively in dishes calling for mushrooms. “They have a taste reminiscent of baby portabellas. We obtain ours from a local grower.” he says.

I was able to get a hold of a packet of seeds to try out. I have to admit they are very easy to grow and tasty too!

To order seeds visit the Genetic Dynamics website.





Damaged Apple Buds

I checked my apple trees  to see if there were any apples left after that freeze we had a couple of weeks ago. There are only a handful of small apples that looked like they could grow on to maturity.

Over 99 percent of the buds were frosted and subsequently fell off the tree. I found a few buds that were still hanging on but, once I touched them with my finger, they fell to the ground.

Apple buds
The tiny apple on top will probably grow into a mature fruit. The small bud below was killed by the frost and has already separated from the tree.

There are other small, growing fruits left on the tree but many of them are deformed. In those cases, the cold temperature killed only part of the bud. They will grow to maturity but will still be gnarled when they reach full size.

We have only a few trees — can you imagine having acres of trees and having to depend on them for your livelihood? That’s the position that fruit growers in Michigan are finding themselves in this year.

The question now is, do I continue to spray? I probably will spray a few times, just to help keep insects and foliage diseases in check.


Finally Found in the Backyard

I attended the program Scott Kunst owner of Old House Gardens presented last week at the Toledo Botanical Garden.  He sprinkled his informative talk with humor and personal anecdotes. It was well worth the time spent.

During one part of his talk on backyard garden architecture ,  Scott mentioned the fact that there was one original chicken coop left in the city of  Ann Arbor.  He showed a slide of  the structure that was located in  someone’s backyard  on the Old West Side.  Off-handed he mentioned that there was also one original outhouse left in Ann Arbor.   As soon as Scott  said that, I turned to Otto sitting next to me and related a story to him about an experience Judy and I had about 15 years ago.

At that time Judy was designing and maintaining gardens for folks in the area.  One of her clients had a house in the Old West Side neighborhood.  Harold was his name I think.

Harold was in the middle  of re-planting part of his backyard.   He asked Judy to move a lilac bush that was in an unusual spot in the yard.  She agreed and asked me to help with the heavy digging.  We carefully dug out a good sized root-ball and lifted the plant out to be moved.

While digging the last few shovelfuls of dirt out of the hole, I found a marble…then another and another until I had found five marbles.

What we were digging in was the location of a long-forgotten outhouse!  I surmise that when indoor plumbing was installed, the owners tore down their outhouse and planted that lilac over the pit.  This was a very common practice at that time.

I’m guessing the marbles we found decades later must have been lost by a boy who had the marbles in his pocket when he went to occupy the outhouse!  Did he know where he lost them? Probably not.

A boy’s marbles are a precious possession in any era, it was even  more so if  a thing like this happened, say, during the Great Depression. I’m sure he was devastated when the marbles never turned up

Maybe his sister decided to exact revenge on him for teasing her so much. We’ll never know for sure.

The “night soil” had long been turned into rich humus by soil organisms. The lilac roots had penetrated the old pit and the plant was fertilized for I don’t know how many decades before we arrived to move it.

I kept those marbles all this time and never really had a chance to show them to anyone until now.

E-e-e-w-e!! I can't believe he's holding them in his bare hand!!

Those are the actual marbles dug up that afternoon.


Desert Botanical Garden

In southern Arizona, the cities of  Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale encircle an area of the Sonoran Desert known as Papago Park.  Within the Park , surrounded by red sandstone geological formations, is the Desert Botanical Garden.

I visited the Garden last week and was delighted by the setting of the 50 acre garden.  It’s collection includes over 20,000 plants, 139 of them being rare, endangered or threatened desert plant species from around the world.  For someone who was born and raised in the Great Lakes area, such as myself,  the desert landscape is quite a contrast.

View from the Desert Botanical Garden
A red sandstone butte in the distance

One of the things that caught my eye was the large number of different agave and aloe plants that were planted along the walkways. I did not have time to study all of the sometimes subtle characteristics of each specie.

Part of the desert plant collection
Walkways and handrails make it east to get around

Speaking of walkways, all of the major walkways are paved and are easy to negotiate.  There’s also plenty of architectural features as well as artistic sculptures  to keep  non-botanists from getting their eyes glazed over from the desert landscape.

Structures in the Desert Garden
Arched Structures and sculpture add visual interest

The arched structures have an assortment of desert plants that you can view close up, ranging from the relatively common Saguaro and Prickly Pear Cactus…

Plants under the Arched Structures
The arched structures provide a feeling of enclosed space.

…to the more exotic looking Creeping Devil Cactus…

Creeping Devil
They look like they're about to come after you!

…and Cristata Cactus:

Cristata Cactus
The shy Cristata Cactus huddle together

You can enter the Desert Botanical Garden for free if you are a member of The U of M Matthaei Botanical Gardens in Ann Arbor, otherwise adult entry fee was $15 per adult when I visited Arizona last week.


Dragonflies, Jewelry and Politics

A couple of weeks ago I had an early morning visitor to the garden. Actually I believe he stayed over night until I found him in the morning.

He reminded me that gardening can have many pleasent surprises.  Sometimes, things come  your way unexpectedly.

It was still pretty chilly out, the sun wasn’t very high in the sky, so he was still resting on one of the potted Mums we are growing.

I knew he would be leaving as soon as he could so, I hurried in to the garden shed to grab my camera.

The visitor was a dragonfly covered with so many droplets of dew that he looked like he was encrusted with jewels.

I know I’m not the only person to be delighted by this sight. The American Society of Jewelry Historians has a brooch in their collection made of gold, platinum, demantoid, ruby and diamond. It was made by Emmanuel Gattle & Company way back in 1900. I’m sure the designer was inspired by a dragonfly he saw.

Dragonfly brooch

I imagine him being given an assignment by his boss to come up with an idea for a new piece of jewelry. He was probably unable to sleep all night and got up before breakfast to take a walk in the garden. He looked over and saw… well, we know the result of what he saw.

Recent international politics have been influenced by dew covered dragonflies and other insects.

Former US Secretary of State and Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright owns at least seven dragonfly brooches  that she has worn  during diplomatic visits to  foreign countries.

Here she is wearing a brooch in the shape of a bee during talks with Yasser Arafat…who knows where she wore the Dragonfly!

Madeleine Albright Brooch

These unexpected sights in the garden can really get you thinking of things. I better stop this “stream of consciousness” right here.

Madeleine Albright’s book Read My Pins became available in book stores just last week.


Presidential Mishap in Rose Garden

The economy and auto maker bail-outs have dominated the news so much that some of the stories that would normally be reported don’t get much coverage.

We have heard so much in the past about the White House Rose Garden, but are you aware that other plants are grown in the Rose Garden as well?  The White House gardeners have almost unlimited resources when it comes to plants and other gardening related items.  Many exotic species can be found growing there.

Several days ago, one of the more unusual plants caused the President Obama to have a some-what embarrassing moment.  Apparently he had a minor altercation with one of the Giant Venus Fly-trap plants growing in the Rose Garden. He suffered some minor scratches but shook it off in a good natured manner.

You can read the entire account by clicking here.

The last time I visited the White House I managed to snap a photo of one of these remarkable plants:

Venus Flytrap

I’ll try to keep up with other newsworthy Presidential plant related articles in the future and share them with you on this site.


Asparagus Witch’s Broom

Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000 may be the most famous witch’s broom in the world, but we gardeners have our own witch’s broom to be concerned about.  

A couple of days ago I noticed an unusual growth developing on our asparagus plants. It looked like a tuft of new green ferny leaves growing randomly on  the stems. Due to its distinctive shape, I knew immediately that it was Asparagus Witch’s Broom.


Asparagus Witch's Broom

Witch’s Broom is a generic term used by plant pathologists to describe  growth of this type.  It can occure on plants ranging anywhere from potatoes to trees and have many different causes depending on the plant affected.

In the case of Asparagus, the feeding of a small insect called the Asparagus Aphid causes this abnormality.  If left unchecked, your Asparagus yields can be dramatically reduced. 

Many garden insecticides will kill this pest.  Organic gardeners can use rotenone and/or pyrethrum to help control these aphids.

Only the first several plants in one row of our Asparagus show signs of Witch’s Broom so now would be a good time to “nip this problem in the bud” before it gets out of hand.

No playing “Quidditch” with this stuff.



Colors of Summer

The garden of annuals that I take care of at work is looking very good right now.  Its peak blooming season is July and August.  It will have color in it even as late as early October if we don’t get an early frost. 

Though with nighttime temperatures in August in the low 50’s , I wouldn’t be surprised if we had temperatures in the low 40’s in September and frost before October this year.  Be ready to cover your tomatoes!

The flowering annuals are all in good shape.  I haven’t noticed much downy mildew this season, which is usually a big problem for this garden.  And the Zinnias are only now starting to get a little browning of the bottom leaves.  That’s a disease called  Alternaria Leaf Spot.                 .

I am vey pleasantly surprised that the 12 ” tall reddish orange Cosmos called ‘Cosmic Red’ are blooming very heavily.  We’ve deadheaded them three times this summer.  So, they take a lot of work but each plant has 30 blossoms on it and looks quite stunning. 

Cosmos "Cosmic Red"


Next to it is the tall blue Ageratum ‘Blue Bouquet”.  The colors do well together, plus I like to use some blue in all  my gardens.


Next to it is a short 10-12″ bushy Zinnia called Zinnia ‘Profusion Apricot”.  It’s full of 1 1/2 – 2 inch single daisy-like blooms of various shades of apricot.  Just a little deadheading keeps the zinnia profusion series blooming well into the fall.  The description in the catalogs says it doesn’t need deadheading at all but I do a little just to freshen it up.

Zinnia "Profusion"

A King Fisher just “chuttered” overhead.  He flew so close and turned his head to look at me so that you would think that he was trying to figure out what a human was doing in that garden so early!


On the other side of this bed in front of  me is a new marigold( to me anyway).  It’s called ‘Fireball’.  It is 18″ tall, orangey yellow with a little bicolor shading it it.  It’s done very well and is full of blooms.  Marigolds are another flower that don’t need deadheading but we do  a little.  I probably planted it 12″ apart so it’s nice and thick. 

Marigold "Fireball"

That’s all for now.  I’ll tell you about some more annuals  in my next blog. 

Bye now, Judy






Onion Harvest

If your onion stalks are starting to look a little yelllow and are begining to fall over, it means they are just about ready to harvest. Once they get to that stage, they’re done growing.

Our white slicing onions are doing just that:

White Onion

To prepare our onions for harvest, we will knock over any stalks that haven’t fallen over yet on their own and let them dry a bit in the garden.

After lifting them from the garden, we partially dry them in an airy place out of the sun for a couple of weeks.  This drying process is called “curing”.  It helps the onion form that familiar onion skin which seals the inner part of the bulb and keeps it from damage.

After curing, we cut off the dried stalk (leaving a couple of inches) and store them in a cool, dark place until we are ready to use them. 

Not all onion varieties will be ready to harvest at the same time.  Take for example our red onions, which are still green and standing up tall. They are a couple of weeks or more away from harvest:

Red Onions 

If you store your onions, plan on using the ones with the thickest stalk first as they don’t keep as well as the thinner stalked bulbs. 

Also remember that some varieties will keep in storage longer than others.  We always plant the “Copra” variety of onion for long term storage. It is a yellow cooking onion which is very pungent when eaten raw.  When cooked, the Copra takes on a wonderful sweet flavor. 

The rest of our onions were selected for their taste, color or shape.