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

 

 

Almost no-till potatoes

This year I’ve decided to try a minor experiment with my potatoes. I guess you might call it a kind of no-till planting.

There are a couple of reasons I thought it might work well. First, the spot where they’re going was recently an area where some of my older chickens were penned in. I purposely kept them confined to a relatively small area to help clear it from weeds. They did a great job eliminating all of the existing weeds and keeping new ones from getting a foothold. Chickens enjoy grazing on fresh green plants and those wild greens provide plenty of vitamins.

Even though they are small, chickens can disturb a lot of soil in a short period of time. That makes them destructive if they get loose into a flower garden or other valuable spot and start scratching. Believe me, I had plenty of experience shooing chickens out of  flower gardens. It’s that relentless scratching that makes them such good helpers in the garden before planting time.

The area where my no-till potatoes are going there were no visible weeds. Under the surface however, there were thousands of recently germinated seedlings ready to pop up into the sunlight. Instead of using my rototiller, I used my sharpened swan hoe to skim along top half inch or so. I was able to cut off the weed seedlings before they had a chance to get started.

The theory is that while roto-tilling will destroy young weeds, at the same time it also drags up new seeds to the soil surface where they will germinate and grow. Shallow hoeing will kill weeds but not drag up new seeds. That Sounds like a good idea but there are plenty of dormant weed seeds waiting to take the place of their lost cousins. But over time, if done consistently, you can eventually reduce the number of viable seeds.

Back to my potato patch.

The second reason why I feel my quasi-no-till will work is because the soil is a sandy loam that really doesn’t need tilling to provide a good seed bed. If it was a finer textured soil with more clay content, I would probably not plant them without tilling.

Instead of using a trowel or shovel to dig the planing holes, I got out my two-handled post hole digger. That way I was able stand straight up to do the digging and I got a great upper body workout to boot.

The holes are plus or minus a foot apart with the rows around 28 inches apart.  At that planting density, the potato plants should eventually grow together enough to shade the soil surface keeping it cool and shading out weed seedlings.

I made sure the rows were straight and the holes evenly spaced.

I know I’ll have to keep up with my hoeing through the season, “no-till” doesn’t mean “no-work”. I’ve seen many inexperienced gardeners learn that the hard way. Real no-till involves the use of herbicides to control weeds but I’ve never used herbicides in my vegetable garden and plan to keep it that way.

While hoeing will be my main method of weed control, I’ll mulch what I can.

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

Dogbane in prairie area


When I was aroud ten years old, back when all kids were free-range, I spotted spotted a plant during my wanderings that impressed me so much that I’m intrigued by it to this day. I didn’t know what it was called at the time. It wasn’t until later, when I was in college, that I found out it was called dogbane.

What caught my eye way back then, were the long, thin seed pods. They were hanging from the plant in two’s, connected to each other at the top. What looked weird to me was the fact they weren’t  attached like two green beans. They appeared to be one pod that grew into two parts, separating at the top. I’d never seen anything like that before in my young life.

Distinctive dogbane seed pods.

I’m not sure if dogbane was ever that hard to find but I have noticed however, in the past twenty years, more and more dogbane growing all over our area. That’s probably due to more people leaving space for wild plants to grow for butteries, pollinators and other wildlife

A few years back someone brought me a part of the plant that they had collected asking what the plant was. Recognizing it immediately, I said without hesitating “that’s dogbane”. They looked at me like I was BS-ing them, like I made the name up. I could tell they didn’t believe me when they took their plant and just walked away. The next day they told me they had done research on their own and discovered that indeed the was a plant called dogbane and that yes, their plant really was dogbane.

There’s a spot on my property that I cultivated as a vegetable garden for a few years. I decided it wasn’t a good garden spot so I let it go back wild. Lots of different plants moved in including a single dogbane. That one plant has since expanded into a fairly dense stand. Right now the stand is turning a beautiful gold color.

On farms, dogbane can develop into a fairly serious weed. Since it reproduces by seed and by underground rhizomes is can form stands that out-compete field crops. In most cases farmers keep it under control by herbicides or crop rotation.

Bob

 

 

 

 

 

Lambsquarters a wild edible bonus from the garden

One of my lushest weeds in the garden right now is lambsquarters. The pure stands coming up in my beds make it look like I purposely planted them there as a crop.

lambsquartersI didn’t plant them but I sure am using them as if I did. Lambsquarters are the most nutritious plant that grows in the garden. It makes the “super-food” kale look like junk food by comparison. Well maybe not junk food, but it is much more dense in most minerals and vitamins on a gram per gram basis than kale. A serving of lambsquarters has more minerals, by far, than a serving of kale. But to be fair, kale has more vitamin C than lambsquarters.

If you like the textures and tastes of a wide variety of salad greens, you’ll enjoy lambsquarters. It sort of reminds me of chard but it has its own texture and taste profile.

Raw lambsquarters has a small amount of oxalic acid but so does kale, spinach, all berries and many other foods including chocolate.

This morning for breakfast I made myself a frittata with lambsquarters and feta cheese. The blueish green leaves turned a bright green after a few seconds of steaming. When added to my deep-yellow, free-range eggs it made an appetizing color combination. The feta cheese added a tasty balance to the earthy flavor of the lambsquarters. It’s my favorite breakfast ingredient this time of year, right behind bacon, sausage and hash browns.

I’ve written about lambsquarters before and will probably will do so again but that is because such a gift from the garden shouldn’t be over-looked just because it is a weed.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security though. It is still a weed, a very aggressive weed that’s easy to control when it’s small but can quickly get out of hand if you let it. In a couple of weeks you’ll be wishing you didn’t save that patch to use as a salad green.  Get rid of it as it appears and don’t worry, more will sprout up through the season.

Bob

 

 

Pruning milkweeds

I saw my first Monarch butterfly several days ago. I know they were here much earlier because I found a caterpillar on my milkweed plants. That means there had to be a female butterfly around before that.

It takes around four days for a Monarch egg to hatch. The caterpillar stage lasts around a week and a half to two weeks. Since my caterpillar was almost fully grown, the female Monarch that laid his eggs arrived nearly two weeks ago. How did she sneak into the yard without me seeing her?

This monarch caterpillar has by now formed a chrysalis.

Most of my milkweed plants are on the verge of blooming. The plants are maturing and the leaves and stems are beginning to stiffen and get tougher in order to hold up the flowers and seed pods. Although female Monarchs will lay eggs on any milkweed, they prefer the more tender leaves toward the top of the plant.

A gardener I know suggested that I cut back my some of my milkweed plants to stimulate new growth and leaves. Theoretically, those new leaves would make my plants more attractive to the butteries than others in the area. I just snipped off the plant just above the existing leaves. That caused some milkweed sap to ooze out of the cut. That sap is poisonous and irritating so make sure you don’t in your eye.

Cutting the milkweed just above the leaves allows secondary leaf buds to sprout and grow.

This is the first time I’ve tried this with milkweeds. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Bob

Giant ragweed

Earlier this week I spotted a stand of giant ragweed growing next to a parking lot. That brought back memories from long ago when I had a small farm and was growing corn and soybeans. Back then there were a lot of those types of small farms around.

I was a young guy and was excited about my first crop of field corn. It was only 40 acres worth of corn, quite small even back then. I took the first truck load to the local grain elevator. The owner took one look at it and said he would not buy my corn. He told me it was contaminated with a small amount of giant ragweed seeds. He said he had only seen them once before in his entire career — lucky me.

The problem with giant ragweed seed is that although it is shaped differently, it is about the same size and weight as a kernel of corn. The seed cleaning equipment at that time could not remove ragweed seed from corn.

Nowadays, giant ragweed is all over the place. You can spot it in fields and in ditches along the roadways and competing with farm crops like corn and soybeans. It’s become a major problem on many farms.

Not only is it a major weed on farms but in certain areas, it is also a major contributor to the amount of ragweed pollen in the air. A single plant can produce ten million pollen grains a day or about one billion during its lifetime. Compare that to a another plant which produces large amounts of pollen, the corn plant which sheds two to twenty-five  million pollen grains its entire life.

Giant ragweed is not as common as its cousin the common ragweed. Because the population of common ragweed is much higher than giant ragweed, most of the pollen in the air is of the common ragweed variety.

Ragweed buds will eventually grow into seeds.
Ragweed buds will eventually grow into seeds.

Giant ragweed is native to north america. It usually doesn’t show up in an area unless the soil has been disturbed for some reason, like tilling a field, or in this case, building a parking lot.

Fortunately, the grain dealer eventually took pity on me and bought my grain. Regulations allow a shipment of corn to contain a tiny percentage of weed seeds, not enough make a difference in the final product. So much corn was coming in during that harvest season that when my minuscule crop was mixed in to the rest, it virtually disappeared into the tons and tons of corn from other farms.

Bob

 

Different approach to controlling field bindweed

I came across an old publication about dealing with weeds in farm and garden situations. The author discussed why weeds grow where they do and how we can use that knowledge to reduce weeds naturally without the use of herbicides. Needless to say, that is a large and complex topic, too big to go into detail here.

One item that did jump out at me was a unique way of killing field bindweed.

Field bindweed is one of the most tenacious weeds we have in the garden. If you have ever had a bindweed infestation in your garden, you know what I’m talking about. It grows from a net work of underground roots that will grow several feet deep and have a lifetime of twenty years or more. I’ve blogged about this weed in the past.

Even after being cut back all season, this field bindweed still managed to push its way through mulch.
Even after being cut back all season, this field bindweed still managed to push its way through mulch.

Other than using chemical herbicides, the traditional way of controlling bindweed is to starve the root system by cutting back the tops whenever you see them. That may mean as often as every few days or so, especially early in the season. By cutting back the tops, you remove the leaves stopping all photosynthesis. That forces the plant to use stored energy as it sends up new shoots. Eventually, the plant runs out of energy and dies. That process may take a few years.

The author of the weed publication offers a different take on bindweed. He mentions, almost in passing, that dahlia roots secrete a substance that kills field bindweed. I’ve been trying to think back to all of the hundreds or even thousands of dahlias I’ve grown in the past and can’t seem to recall ever seeing bindweed growing with dahlias. I’m not growing dahlias this year and have not grown them for several years.

You would still need to control other weeds in your dahlia area.
You would still need to control other weeds in your dahlia area.

If the dahlia vs bindweed theory is true, that gives gardeners a new ally against this noxious weed. It would mean taking a piece of ground out of normal production and growing dahlias there for a season, which would not be all that bad of a thing I suppose.

Growing enough dahlias to cover a large area presents a whole new set of challenges. That is a topic for another time.

Bob

Moth mullein welcome in the garden

There’s some new unexpected members to our garden family of plants this year. It is a group of moth mullein plants.

I’m not really sure how they got there. I figure they most likely hitched a ride as seed in soil from some other plants that I transplanted from someone else’s garden a couple of years ago.

Since moth mullein is a biennial, it takes two years to bloom. The first year for all biennials is a nondescript growing stage which is why I hadn’t noticed the mulein until now. If I was a more tidy gardener, I probably would have pulled them out last year thinking they were some kind of weed seedlings.

Moth mullein is a non-native species so, many people consider them actual weeds. Originally they were brought to this continent as a decorative flower and useful herb — it has some insecticidal properties.

Moth mullein in bloom.
Moth mullein in bloom.

While it may be an immigrant to this country, moth mullein seem to have very little impact on the native ecosystems of our area. They really can’t compete with well-established native plants. However, each plant produces thousands of seeds a year and tilling the soil tends to stimulate their germination. In the garden they may eventually wear out their welcome. In some states they are classified as noxious weeds but not here.

American goldfinches feed on the tiny moth mullein seeds. I saw a pair of goldfinches checking out my plants today. The seeds are not ready yet, so they decided to leave before I could get a photo of them. The seeds are pretty small, about one millimeter long, and can sprout even after laying for a hundred years.

I’m not too worried about the mullein taking over my garden just yet. They are behaving themselves in a very dry flower bed and are only a couple of feet tall. In your garden, if it has fertile soil and is well watered, they might grow twice that size.

Moth mullein is a perfect candidate for an English cottage garden where plants are expected to reseed themselves year after year.

Seeds are available through mail order seed catalogs and online sellers. Of course you can always collect some from the wild since they are not endangered nor invasive in Michigan.

Bob

Watch out for poison ivy when collecting leaves

The fall color season is nearing its peak. It’s a beautiful time of the year to be outside watching the leaves turn a little bit each day.

Collecting those leaves is a lot of fun too whether you use them for decorating or for helping your kids make that time honored school project, a leaf collection.

Many people use leaves they’ve collected from fall color tours or from their own backyard to decorate their homes.

Once you collect leaves and bring them indoors, they’ll easily hold their vibrant colors until Thanksgiving.

Be careful though not to bring a health risk into your home.  Poison ivy could be lurking among your hand-collected decorating materials.

Poison ivy vines are often found growing up tree trunks and even on sides of buildings. In the fall, it produces one of our most brilliantly colored leaves. It’s bright-red autumn leaves are very attractive and would make wonderful indoor decorations except for one thing — they are still poisonous!

This poison ivy is just starting to turn color.
This poison ivy is just starting to turn color.

Every year I hear of someone “catching poison ivy” in the late fall even though they claim they have never been anywhere near the stuff. Many times their poor dog or cat is blamed for coming into contact with poison ivy and bringing it in on their fur when, in fact, it is the owner’s leaf decorations that are to blame.

To avoid bringing in poison ivy, learn how to identify it. The old saying “leaflets three, let it be” holds true even in the fall. Before picking up an unidentified leaf, take a few seconds to look for nearby vines climbing up trees or walls.

Virginia creeper, on the other hand, looks similar to poison ivy but it has five leaflets instead of three. Virginia creeper is harmless.

Be wary if that bright red leaf is not something you can easily identify before you add it to your table’s centerpiece.

Bob