Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Roll the Credits

Funny how Frost causes all my foliage to melt.  My yard looks as though it has weathered nuclear fallout.  It’s time to roll the credits.

I’ll be honest.  I welcomed the frost.  Although the idea of moving south to the Land of Mild Winters and Long Growing Seasons appeals to the idealist in me, the realist faces the music:  I haven’t even got the stamina for Zone 5's demands.  August is about my limit, so you can imagine what my garden looks like by the time November rolls around.  Frankly, Old Man Winter will do me a favor: he'll weed my garden free of charge.

The credits are rolling on this column as well.  As winter’s icy grip seeps into Kankakee county, my gardening inspirations are going dormant.  The wily weeds, the bothersome bugs, the persnickety plants: they're all bedding down for a long winter’s nap.  And as a wise man once said, "When in Rome....".  Really, as a mother to three rambunctious kids, hibernation is just naturally appealing.  It doesn't take much to convince me to take a rest (especially with flannel sheets cozying up the deal).  The time has come to give my aching Zone 5 fingers a break from the keyboard, but I’ll rev up the writing once again come spring, as my muses arise from their slumber.  I bid you adieu and wish you a Happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas, a Joyous New Year and a Romantic Valentine's.  Hopefully St. Patrick's Day will find us all well rested.  On that note, I leave you with my 2011 garden awards recognition, also known as:

The Golden Glove Awards
(Not to be confused with any related Boxing awards)

The Tough Nut Award goes to our John Deere push mower.  It's been mistreated by the mechanically-challenged (me).  It's waded through excessively moist, excessively long grass.  It's wrangled with creeping Charlie and driven over doggie doodles.  It's been rammed into the picket fence repeatedly.  After all this, it still runs.  A machine like that deserves more than an honorable mention.  It deserves a 6 month vacation.

The Bad Guys We Love to Hate Award goes to the ridiculously rampant grass that attacked every one of my beds.  You may have declared victory this year, but I'll be on my toes and armed with hoes come spring.  

The Miracle Grow Award goes to my entire herb garden.  By my back door lies a patch of soil littered with huge buried chunks of concrete (after many attempts, I can tell you, removal is not recommended).  In this inhospitable, shallow sprinkling of dirt, Thyme, Oregano, Basil, Lemon Balm and Lavendar have taken hold (without any help from Miracle Gro!).

The Horticultural Camouflage Award goes to the vibrant display of Vinca and Alyssum by my front steps.  It did an admirable job of dressing up the continuing porch renovation.  Who knew camo came in pink and purple?

The Lewis and Clark Award goes to my son, Tyler.  Judging by the size of the gorge he dug in my back garden, I am forced to deduce he was trying to reach China.  In the future, Junior Explorers will be required to get work permits from their garden-Mama.    

The Delayed Gratification Award goes to my Hellebore.  I'm pretty short on self control.  When I spend money, I want to see results now (as opposed to 6 months later), so this was a very determined purchase.  When the first petals peek out of the snow this March, I will be jumping for joy in my flannel pajamas.

The Going Down in Flames Award goes to my Serviceberry tree.  Fall color simmered through the leaves like a Caribbean sunset.  After delighting in a full show of spring flowers and summer berries, I was amazed to see it had saved the best for last.

What Golden Gloves would you hand out in YOUR garden?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prolific Plants

Boy meets girl.  Since the beginning of time, this story has fueled lyrics in every language, marketed clothing trends, sparked a war or two, and made Disney an empire.  It’s a tale of attraction and commitment and it’s a story we never tire of hearing.  Plants, too, have an insatiable appetite for romance.

Flowers, in all their glory, are simply looking for a date.  The nectar, the petals, the fragrance, they’re not for us.  No, the real catch is a matchmaker (also known as a pollinator).  Plants, being rooted in the ground as they are, find it difficult to get out into the dating scene.  They must rely on birds and insects to make their love connections.  A flutter here, a wiggle there, bada bing, bada boom: pollen meets stigma.  Before you know it, there's a baby (fruit) on the way.  Everytime you slice a tomato, slurp a watermelon or crunch on an apple, remember: a little romance made this deliciousness possible. 

And while romance blossoms all over the garden, plants don't rely solely upon love connections for re-creation.  In fact, plants are like the gymnasts of the reproductive world.  They would win the Reproductive Olympics, if there were such a thing.  Consider one superstar: Hemerocallis a.k.a. Daylilies.  In addition to their romance-based seedheads, Daylilies spontaneously generate divisions (new plants developing at the root level) and proliferations (new plants developing on the flower scapes).   

These are examples of asexual propagation.  I can boil those eight syllables down to one:  “clone”.  There are several benefits of asexual propagation.  It removes the dependence upon pollinators, and allows the plant to spread autonomously.  Gardeners benefit from these reproductive gymnastics as well.  We can increase the supply of a particular variety quickly and precisely.  How do you think Stella d'Oro daylilies came to be everywhere?  Asexual propagation.  I think of these plants as little 'narcissists', with no room in their life for love (or genetic recombination).  

Daylilies aren’t alone.  Strawberries send runners out to form new plants.  Tomatoes root along the stems to create new life.  Tulips develop ‘bulblets’ at their base.  Members of the mint family, with their rampant spread, could be the poster children for asexual propagation. 

As if the plant’s innate programming to clone weren’t enough, people have gotten in on the act.  We snip off bits of root and stem, dip them in rooting hormone and grow a new plant.  Not many creatures have this level of reproductive ability.  Worms and starfish can compete in the Reproductive Olympics, but Plants take the gold every time.  

Technological advances now allow us to dice a Hosta into 100 pieces and develop 100 plants through a process called tissue culture.  It’s not the kind of thing one does in garden gloves.  Lab coats and sterility are required, which seems counter-cultural to the dirt-under-our-fingernails gardening psyche.  I tried my hand at it in college and decided it wasn’t for me.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that someone likes to do it, because I enjoy the benefits of horticultural mass-production (large supply = low prices = happiness).  It's just that lab coats don't appeal to the romantic in me.   

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dueling Hummingbirds

After posting about the birdseed battleground outside my window,
I stumbled upon this post from a gardener near St. Louis.
Check out his up close and personal video of the dueling hummingbirds.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Seed's Pocket of Power

Birdseed Boxing Ring
Right outside our dining room window sits a bird feeder.  When I placed it out there, I envisioned serene moments watching nature's beauty.  As it turns out, it’s a bit more like watching Ultimate Fight Club.  Songbirds are surprisingly violent.  Don’t let their pretty colors fool you, it’s nothing more than war paint.  My dining room observations have revealed that even meek sparrows have a mean streak when the feeder is full.  I can’t imagine getting so worked up about seeds.  Having crunched down on my fair share of unpopped popcorn kernels, I can attest to the fact that seed-eating is no picnic.  My teeth can’t take much of that abuse.  Obviously these birds have never tried a Twix bar.  If one must fight to the death over food, it really ought to be oozing with caramel and covered in chocolate. 

In reality, though, when true hunger is an issue, we could teach birds a thing or two about violence.  And believe it or not, much of the fighting would be over seeds.  The human population easily consumes more seed than birds and I'm not just talking about sunflower-seed-spitting baseball players, or granola-baking vegans.  Worldwide, seed comprises two-thirds of the human diet.  Even hulking, red-blooded Americans who live on cheeseburgers, pizza and beer (and only use fiber as a punchline) are hardcore seed eaters.  The secret is in seed's pocket of power.     

Last week I compared seeds to suitcases packed for the trip to germination.  Personally, I never pack for a journey without tucking in some ‘goodies’.  Chips, apples, string cheese, Twix bars, you know, the essentials.  As it turns out, seeds pack a goody bag of their own.  Within each seed lies more than just an embryo.  Tucked in alongside it is a pocket of starchy, nutrient-rich material called endosperm. Like a horticultural Five Hour Energy shot, it provides potent power for the embryo.  Without it, there would be no 'juice' to fuel germination.  After sprouting, roots and leaves will provide a food source, but until then, endosperm is essential.  As it turns out, it's our favorite part of the seed. 

Consider one seed’s example: we remove the seed coat (bran) and the embryo (germ) and then process wheat’s endosperm into white flour.  (Grinding the germ and the bran in with it creates whole wheat flour.)  Just think, without endosperm, there would be no Panera Bread!  I shudder to think of it.  If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, consider a world without Uncle Ben, Orville Redenbacher, Almond Joy or Budweiser.  Yes, indeed, all of those rely on endosperm in the form of rice, popcorn, coconut and barley.

With the holidays approaching, I'm already anticipating plates piled high with pure deliciousness.  Without seeds, what would my plate have on it?  Cookies, breads and rolls would be out of the picture, with their flour-based recipes.  Pumpkin pie?  Kiss that crust good-bye.  You might not miss those lumps in your gravy, but without cornstarch (a.k.a. endosperm) you wouldn't have any gravy.  The Atkins Plan might approve, but the holidays would lose some tantalizing luster with this seedless, low-carb diet.  Endosperm might not be covered in chocolate and oozing with caramel, but I guess the birds were right.  Its something worth fighting for.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Seeds of Love

I got a little love note the other day.  Now that I’m an old married lady, sentimental sonnets are a thing of the past.  Love notes take on an altogether different form than they did in my younger, flirtatious days.  In fact, this one is from my Grandma, who celebrates her 91st birthday today (Happy Birthday Grandma!).  In a simple white envelope, she sent me a long-distance hug in the form of Hollyhock seeds.

Some people (myself included) tend to associate Fall with things like football, leaf-raking, apple picking and pumpkin carving.  For some reason, seed collecting hasn’t enjoyed commercial popularity.  I think I know why.  These are free plants, people!  Starting them yourself costs a fraction of buying them from nurseries.  Who’s going to pay Faith Hill to don gardening gloves and sing about Sunday Night seed- collecting?  Burpee and Jung certainly aren’t.     

Seeds are like genies in a bottle.  Huge potential packed into the protective shell of an itty-bitty suitcase.  Some, such as Walnut, are formidable fortresses, repelling attempts at germination until the environment has met their demanding requirements.  Others offer little protection, like Dandelion’s light and airy example, but are affixed with gossamer feathers to float them along on the slightest breeze.  This enables them to spread their reign to the farthest ends of the earth (or just the neighbor’s patch of Kentucky Blue).  Still yet, there are some like lettuce: so miniscule and numerous that counting them could result in eyestrain.  They bank on their sheer numbers and a bit of a seed coat to guarantee the success of the next generation.  Whatever the shape, encased within lies a spark of life, just waiting to erupt.  Now, I’ve had enough seed-starting failures to know that fanning that spark of life into the full blown flame of growth is a challenge.  But being a part of the magic of Creation is irresistible.

Here’s what you need to know 
to become a seed collecting afficiondo:  
Cosmos in flower.  

1.  Sleep in.  Harvesting in the afternoon cuts down on moisture.  Wet seed is difficult to release from the seed head, tends to clump together once it’s out, and will eventually rot if not properly dried.  So go ahead, hit the snooze button.  

2.  Go postal.  No expensive equipment necessary: just plain white envelopes.  Shake the seed head directly into the envelope, and label immediately.  I like to pre-label mine, as the envelopes can be a bit bumpy to write on once the seeds are inside.  Because even a small amount of moisture will destroy viable seeds over the storage season, it would be wise to lay them out to dry for a day or two in your humidity-challenged home.  Afterwards, seal them up in their envelopes for the winter. 

Cosmos Seed Head
3.  If seeds dressed up for Halloween, they’d be vampires.  They like to be stored in a dark, cool, dry location.  Coffins are not necessary, as refrigerators and garages are considerably more accessible and will do the job nicely.  Place the envelopes in an old cookie tin to keep out light and to guard against bugs and rodents.  I’m not suggesting you have a rodent issue in your refrigerator, but there may be a few stalking your garage.  There’s definitely a few squeakers in mine.  

4.  Get your diploma.  Research your seed and find out what it needs.  Most 'suitcases' are programmed to prevent germination until certain conditions have been met.  Some need to be scarified, or scratched up a bit, to help the seed coat wear down and absorb water (a light brush with sandpaper does nicely).  Others need to be stratified - layered in a cold, moist environment.  This helps break down the seed coat and can easily be accomplished with a few wet paper towels in the fridge.  Each seed has its own secret combination that must be unlocked.

This article is dedicated to my Grandma, 
Helen Giffin, on her 91st Birthday.

I do not remember a visit to Grandma's when there weren't violets on the table.  Much of the year, they were silk, but whenever possible, freshly picked.  I do not remember a summer that wasn't chock full of walnut-shelling, cherry-pitting, apple-saucing goodness.  I do not remember a phone call in which she did not worry about the strawberry growers in Florida, the corn harvest at home, or the pumpkin supply worldwide.  I do not remember a conversation that didn't contain either: "What's blooming?" or "What's cooking?".  She has been a farmwife for 72 years, and continues to invest her lifetime of experience in the family.  I love you Grandma.  Happy Birthday! 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Yesterday, I gave the window on my back door a much-needed cleaning.  As I stepped back to admire the sparkle, an ominous buzzing overhead drew my attention.  A small congregation of ladybugs was milling about on my ceiling, eyeing the desirable piece of real estate I just wiped down.  Which means that in 48 hours, my fresh Windex job will be covered in ladybug poop.  Not being a full-blown entomologist, I’m not exactly sure that’s what the little black specks are, but I’m drawing some reasonable conclusions.  Yes, folks, it’s ladybug (technically, Asian Ladybeetle) season.  Once John Deere and International Harvester are done working the local bean field over, ladybugs will come a-looking for greener pastures.  Much like the Midwestern senior population, which heads to the sunny shores of the Gulf, Asian Ladybeetles are looking for a warmer climate to overwinter.  And they’ve found it here, courtesy of my furnace and insulation.  I wonder if they talk about Irwin like we talk about Puerto Vallarta.  If so, that’d almost be cool. 

Asian Ladybeetle eyeing my sparkly window.
Some ladybugs have good manners.  Some do not.  Asian ladybeetles fall into the latter of the two groups.  They are not the sweet little blips of rosy pink polka-dots we commonly refer to as ‘ladybugs’.  Asian ladybeetles are larger, generally orange in color and invasive.  Whereas the rosy ladybugs seem content to overwinter in my herb garden (they just love my lemon balm) Asian Ladybeetles barge into my home with nary an invitation.  To add to their congeniality, they bite.  The good news is they don’t eat your food, your wood or your clothes, like some household invaders.  The bad news is, they nibble on us.  Now, we’re not talking about a bee sting or a mosquito bite here.  This is a small ‘nip’ from the beetle, with no venom involved.  But even a little nibble is one too many for me.  I’ll pass, thanks!  In spite of all their bad behavior, they are considered beneficial insects.  They feast on aphids (they can consume 5,000 in their lifetime), and their ravenous appetite for these minute little leaf-eaters got them a first-class boat ride to the United States of America.  Yup.  We did this to ourselves. 

Ladybugs are attracted to warm, light-colored surfaces.  They find cracks and crevices and waltz through them like Fred Astaire.  Hmmmm.  I’m beginning to realize why my white, west-facing, soybean-surrounded, hundred-year-old farmhouse is a beacon for them.  If our abundant cracks and crevices weren’t obvious enough, my three kids leave the front door gaping at intervals throughout the day.  No wonder they flock to us.  We might as well hang up a “Welcome Ladybeetles” sign. 

Once the beetles are in, you will want them out.  You need to know a few things about ladybug removal before you ever attempt it. 

1.  Prepare yourself for disappointment.  For every beetle you remove, two will take its place.  As the mother of a third grader, I smell some fun word problems brewing: Billy removed 25 Asian Ladybeetles from his living room.  How many Ladybeetles does Billy have now?  Billy will have 50 by the end of the day.  Go ahead, test me on this.  It’s true.  

2.  You should never, ever smoosh a ladybug.  The resulting odor is enough to discourage this violence, but the mix of goo and broken-up bug parts is very difficult to remove and just as annoying as the living ladybugs, if not more so.  Flyswatters are for flies.  Dyson, Hoover and Eureka are for ladybugs. 

3.  There are sprays and traps formulated to exile Asian ladybeetles.  Although designed for indoor use, the traps are repulsively large and I’m guessing they will not blend in with your d├ęcor.  But if you have an adolescent boy that likes to put things together, it could be a good project for them.  Several DIY links are available at http://www.walterreeves.com/insects-and-animals/lady-beetle-ladybug-traps.  If you decide to spray, be sure to check the chemical’s safety.  Ladybeetles may be annoying, but poisoning yourself would be more so. 

4.  Consider some preventative suggestions:  Paint your house a darker color.  Fill in all the cracks and crevices (and lower your energy bills!).  Plant trees on the south and west side of your home, thereby lowering the desirability of your home to beetles.  While each of these is a functional suggestion, they require an inordinate amount of time and money, and none of these preventatives are guaranteed to eliminate the problem completely. 

5.  If you should find yourself with a container of exiled ladybugs, environmentalists recommend that you dump them outside, where they will survive and continue being beneficial.  (If you end up dumping them in the garbage can, rest assured, you’re not alone.)  One environmentalist recommended storing them in a moist sack in the refrigerator until spring returns, and THEN releasing them into the great outdoors.  I’m sorry, but that is going a bit TOO far.  No bug is going to take up precious space where a jar of salsa could be sitting. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Branches of Peace

Max was my first love.  He was tall and strong, the only tree of climbable size on our property.  I loved to scramble up into his limbs and hide in the shade there.  From my perch I could escape from the world and think deep 11-year-old thoughts.  Later, I realized that Max was a Silver Maple; a tree with little to recommend itself: weak wood, entangling surface roots and the lack of any attractive fall color.  But Max was more than the sum of his deficiencies.  He was my childhood refuge.

Twenty-some years later, the only scrambling I do is towards my IMac, to see what I might have missed since I last sat in front of it (usually a space of about 15 minutes).  I love technology.  I'm not smart enough for 80% of it, but it is addictive.  That's the problem.  I’m glued to it; in a bad way.  Gone are the days of finding introspective solitude in Max's shade.  Now I spend my free time living vicariously through other people’s experiences.  Vicarious is a far cry, a recorded substitute, for the real thing.  I’ve forgotten the sustenance I once found, sitting quietly in a tree, reflecting on my own life.

Bill Sullivan is a design professor at the University of Illinois, and aside from instructing me and countless others in his scrupulous design theory, he conducts research on the effect nature has on society.  His studies are conducted throughout the concrete jungles of Chicago’s public housing development.  In one study, Nice to Meet You, his premise is that trees build a neighborhood.  His research reveals that communities with more trees fostered friendlier neighbors.  In another study, Green Streets, Not Mean Streets, he reports dropping crime rates in direct relation to increasing greenspace.  Trees produce more than oxygen, they enrich the very air we breathe with peace.  

In fact, the Bible is loaded with references to trees.  God used their root systems, their strength, their provision of fruit to teach us about His will.  Although David makes no mention of trees in Psalm 46:10, it is quite possibly my favorite tree verse.  Be still and know that I am God.  Trees embody many facets of biblical wisdom.  They persevere through storms of adversity.  They soak up the sustenance God provides and ask for little more.  They work daily to turn sunlight, minerals and water into sugar, so they can grow more.  Their response to painful pruning?  Growth in a healthy, new direction.  In the Fall, they surrender to the coming cold with flaming displays of gratefulness for a summer of provision.  Trees show us how to live through all the seasons of our lives. 

Standing tall outside my sister’s home is a towering Norway maple.  “May” as she has affectionately been tagged, is as much a part of their home as the front door.  She fills up the view from the sunroom, and every Fall, a slow-motion fireworks display dances through her foliage.  Six children are growing in that home and playing Maple Tree Tag beneath her canopy.  Unbeknownst to them, May is adding a depth to their childhood that can’t be reproduced technologically.  

One of the most touching tales of a tree's nature is found in The Giving Tree.  “Once there was a tree" it begins, "and she loved a little boy.”  The story that unfolds sweetly reveals the generosity of trees and personifies the Golden Rule.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  When I take the time to slow down and soak up a bit of nature, God gives me glimpses of His love.  Don't let this autumn slip away without dedicating some time outside.  You may find more on the breeze than you expected.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Powdery Mildew, My Constant Companion

Mushrooms are the darlings of the fungal family.  With relatives like black spot and athlete’s foot, it doesn’t take much to garner praise.  But it’s mushroom’s evil cousin – Powdery Mildew – that takes all the fun out of fungus for me.

Judging by the look of my garden, you’d never guess the depth of my dislike for Powdery Mildew.  It’s everywhere I turn, like an unwanted suitor that can’t take the hint.  I’ve toyed with the idea of declaring the area a theme garden, entitled “Zone de Mycete”, which is French for “Field of Fungus” (everything sounds better in French).  Better yet, I’ll claim the mess as a scientific experiment.  That’s one benefit of having a degree: mistakes/disasters can always be chalked up as research.

It starts with an innocent dusting of white powder on leaves.  In this frosty haze, millions of spores cluster, disrupting photosynthesis.  The spores grow root-like structures, known as haustoria, which feed on the plant’s epidermal layer.  Before you know it, those dusty-looking leaves will be turning yellow.  Then you’ll have dried and brown leaves, and disfigured shoots and flowers.  Attractive, right? 

Amongst the white spores, you’ll find a smattering of black dots.  These are the overwintering fungal bodies, and they are your assurance that Powdery Mildew will return next year, unless you get cracking on some control.  Prevention is the first and best step with mildew, so why don’t you grab the hot dogs and marshmallows and build a Powdery Mildew bonfire?  Composting infected plant material is a big no-no, unless you want your own fungal theme garden.  So rake it up and burn it, or suffer the consequences.

Powdery Mildew doesn’t infect every plant, but there is a good supply of susceptible hosts.  I don’t know if I was subconsciously trying to create a fungal habitat, but I certainly did plant a good number of carriers on the north side of my home.  The first victim was Lilac (Syringa).  Beebalm (Monarda) and Honeysuckle (Lonicera) were the next to go, and Honeysuckle has by far had the worst of it.  Research assures us that Powdery Mildew isn’t fatal, but there are some fates worse than death.

Powdery Mildew on Honeysuckle

Catalpa and Columbine (Aquilegia) joined the party this year, and unless I quit procrastinating, I’m sure more will join in the fun.   Hybridizers are developing resistant strains, so consider that when making plant selections.  I’m aware of a number of resistant cultivars for Phlox and Roses, both of which are highly attractive to fungi. 

Powdery Mildew on Columbine
Powdery mildew lurks in shady spots with poor air circulation.  True to its nature, the epicenter is on the north side of my home.  There, the shade gives fungus a foothold.  However, I can hardly believe that there is poor air circulation there.  We live at the north end of a proposed wind farm and there are few spots on our property not affected by gusty farm breezes.  Apparently, I have a very determined case of PM.  Lucky me. 

When I think of fungus, I think ‘moist and damp’, but Powdery Mildew thrives in a dry environment.  In fact, a daily spray of water from your garden hose will keep it at bay.  Another preventative is a weekly baking soda spray (1 tablespoon each of baking soda, vegetable oil and dishwashing liquid mixed in one gallon of water).  Spray the concoction in the morning, preferably on an overcast day.  A fresh batch must be made each week….no saving the leftovers.  This treatment will prevent mildew from forming and spreading, but will not kill existing colonies.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thankful Thursday

Lilac blooms awaiting Spring

He makes all things 
in His time.  

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Halloween Harvest

September has yet to sign off, but thanks to our local retailers, we’ve been immersed in Trick-or-Treat paraphernalia for at least a month.  Halloween is a cautionary holiday.  Do carry a flashlight.  Don’t eat unwrapped candy.  Do travel in groups.  One essential warning flies below the radar: Beware the cheap chocolate.  This devilish combination of cost-saving calories has spooked my self-control for many an October.

Chocolate is one of my three favorite foods.  I have oh-so-many favorite foods, but topping the list are “The BIG Three”: chocolate, fresh blueberries and homemade salsa. 

Every July, the kids and I make our annual trek to pick blueberries.  It’s usually Africa-hot and my little workers lose their enthusiasm within the first twenty minutes.  Last year, we managed to pluck 15 pounds before we succumbed to retreat.  My plans for a mega-pick this summer were thwarted by my conflicted calendar, crazy crowds and a thirsty 10-year-old who lacked his mother’s dedication.  We slumped away with seven paltry pounds. 

My salsa harvest was sadder still.  The Candy onions I planted were swallowed up by a grass invasion.  They may still be in there....somewhere….but I doubt it.  My tomatoes gave a tragic performance.  Lots of green tomatoes equal very little salsa.  My red peppers are still thinking about turning red.  One is blushing now, but of course, the essential summer heat has packed its bags and headed south.  The cilantro would’ve done beautifully, had I actually sown the seeds.  The seed packet is still sitting on my counter.  I had delayed planting the quick-sprouting cilantro so that it wouldn’t bolt before the other ingredients were ready for harvest.  Would’ve been a good plan if my postponement hadn't degraded into procrastination.  My jalapenos did beautifully.  I could kiss them if they weren’t so spicy.  Unfortunately, I have no other use for them besides homemade salsa.  We Uftrings are a mild bunch, I’m afraid. 

So as another Halloween approaches, I brace myself for temptation.  The desire to overcompensate in the chocolate aisle for a harvest of disappointments is a strong one.  If you happen upon me there, contemplating the sheer deliciousness of a reduced-price bag of Rolos, feel free to distract me. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Woolly Wonders

Last week, Lauren and I teetered on our two-wheelers and pedaled our way to the creek.  On the handlebars, I balanced a plastic cup o’ tadpoles, treasures we had loved and fed and observed for all of 4 days.  This is a habit of ours, providing temporary refuge to wild wayfarers whilst we watch them.  We ought to hang up a sign, “Creature Comfort Bed n’ Breakfast”.  In this case, five tadpoles checked in and only 4 were checking out.  Perhaps I ought to scratch "Comfort" from the sign.  When we discovered the unfortunate demise, we knew it was time to release them. 

And so it was that we found ourselves riding slowly down the road, listening to the rustling cornstalks and making our way to the small creek that meanders nearby.  When you ride a bike with a small child, the purpose is rarely the destination.  A ride that would’ve taken me 5 minutes – tops – on my own, found us only halfway after 15 minutes.  We were delayed by a migration.  Woolly Bear caterpillars, bellies full of soybean and weed leaves, were crossing the road, drawn to the tall cornstalks on the other side. 

I believe God had little girls in mind when He created caterpillars.  They’re mostly lacking the ‘creepy’ and ‘dangerous’ factors that draw the bravado of boys.  Scooting along with their fuzzy fur coats, they look like macaroni-shaped teddy bears.  The fact that they sprout into colorful, winged fairies that flutter about our flowers is only icing on the cake.  So I wasn't too surprised when our tadpole release morphed into a caterpillar ‘rescue’. 

Woolly bears came into their own line of infamy back in 1948.  It was then that Dr. C. H. Curran began to make connections between the coats of the striped woolly bear and the weather.  He surmised that the length of the brown segment of the caterpillar was a precursor to the forthcoming winter.  Longer segments, meant a milder winter.  Scientifically, this is about as accurate as Groundhogs Day, but it’s fun to collect them and see what Mr. Woolly Bear’s prediction is.   In our case, the woolly bears had no stripe at all.  This dire prediction lead me to contemplate the purchase of a snow-blower.  Further inquiry, however, revealed that we had a naturally stripe-less strain, known as the Yellow Woolly Bear.  So, the snow-blower money is safely tucked away, and we will rely - once again - on our trusty, economical snow shovels.  

At this time of year, woolly bears are seeking shelter from the approaching winter.  If you find a few, you can provide it for them.  Simply give them fresh green grass daily and several large twigs in a ventilated container.  After a bit, your caterpillars will go to sleep.  They will not form a cocoon until spring, so please don’t give up when it seems they’ve died.  Place your container in a protected cold location, such as a garage or covered porch.  In the spring, they will awaken and after eating some fresh grass, they’ll begin to spin silky cocoons.  After a week or so, a Tiger Moth will emerge.  

"Where do bugs go in winter?" is a commonly asked question, and this is a great opportunity for kids - young and old - to see overwintering bugs in action.  It may not be as thrilling as spying on a hibernating skunk or bear, but it illustrates the same concept, with a bit less risk.  

Emerald Ash Borer

Horticulturally, it's as if the theme from Jaws has been playing in the background for months previous, but the day so many dreaded has come:  Emerald Ash Borer has arrived.  What does this mean for us?  Well, for starters, I'd really enjoy the Ashes this October.  Their spectacular fall color may be a thing of the past in years to come.

The tiny metallic beetles that hail the demise of the Ash family start munching at the top of the tree and work their way down, making their presence initially difficult to detect.  Once a tree is infected, death is guaranteed.  According to the Illinois Department of Ag, chemical treatments can help prolong the infected tree's life, but eventually it will go.  Cities north of Kankakee county have been fighting the EAB for several years, with no success.  This year, Joliet will remove 700 infected trees.

Big Ten fans are highly competitive in the sports realm, but horticulturally, they're teaming up to attack the Emerald Ash Borer together.  The research team is working on several avenues of dealing with these pests.  Parasitic Oobius wasps, which attack EABs, offer a possible solution.  Another light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel potential is the development of a resistant strain of Ash.

Beetles spread primarily through the transportation of firewood.  Once relocated, they emerge in mid-May through June.  Identifying EAB can be challenging.  Signs of infestation include increased woodpecker activity (they feed on the beetles), canopy dieback, splitting bark and sprouting from trunk and roots.  

1.  Burn all standing firewood before May.

2.  Apply Bayer's soil drench in May.  Trees treated for 2 years have a fighting chance.  Start now!  I recommend watching Bayer's informative video.  However, it is important to note that an infected tree will not be saved by the drench.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Casa Mariposa: Reality Break

Need a blast of reality and humor? Tammy won't fail to bring a smile to your face.

Casa Mariposa: Reality Break: I don't know about you, but I've had enough reality for one week. Between the fires in Texas and the floods here in Virginia, there doesn't ...

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From Dirt to Dinner - Kids in the Garden

Getting kids into dirt is no trick at all.  It’s certainly easier than getting them into their pajamas.  No cajoling or stern looks required.  Accomplishing something productive and educational while they’re there requires a bit of strategy.

A challenge of this complexity requires a plan of attack.  Whilst perusing the displays at my beloved Limestone Library, I found the perfect resource for just such a situation.  Playing on children's love for all things dirty and yummy, Grow It Cook It, by DK Publishing, instills the value of vegetation without so much as one boring lecture.  If you’ve ever picked up a DK book, you know that their signature strength is amazing photography.  They utilize it in this gardening-cookbook hybrid to entrance both mom and munchkin alike.  From page one, the kids are in charge – from seed to supper.  

The book opens with a creative primer on plants.  Birds and bees, pollination and seeds, protection and disease: all the plant basics are demonstrated through pictures or dynamic illustrations.  Tucked amongst them are enough creative tips and trivia to help even a hardened old horticulturist find their inner child.  
Their creative repurposing of containers will have your kids running around the house, looking for anything fun that could hold dirt. 

Fifteen crops are featured, including fruits, vegetables, greens and herbs.  Each one's life cycle is explained simply, from planting, to growing, then harvesting and finally devouring!  Dazzling photography and terrific tips detail each step.

The harvest culminates in the recipe page.  Ingredients are labeled by icon, and each recipe is geared with a child's appetite for imagination in mind.  The menu boasts (among other things) a giant beanstalk stirfry, miniature pumpkin pies, a rainbow salad with home-made star-shaped croutons and blueberry cheesecake cups.  Kids will be too busy stuffing their faces to realize that they've just engaged in an educational activity.  And what exactly have they learned?  Just a little bit about patience, perspiration and pay-off.  

It is certainly too late to begin any of the projects this season, but Christmas is just coming into view.  Truth be told, my kids would groan at the sight of a gardening book tucked beneath the tree.  They can't yet see past the glitter of Lego and Polly Pocket.  So, consider Grow It Cook It my recommendation for creative mom and teacher gifts this year.  At an affordable $10-$12, the price is right.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Red Pepper Challenge

I’m not a fan of green peppers.  It’s not that I won’t eat them.  Give me some Hidden Valley Ranch, and I’ll munch on a few.  Toss a few in my chili and I'll happily slurp away.  But green peppers don't hold a candle to reds.  As red peppers mature and ripen, sugars accumulate, culminating in a sweeter crunch than any green could ever aspire to.  Not only do they taste better, reds actually ARE better for you.  Along with the sugars, Vitamin C content increases substantially throughout the ripening process, doubling, in some cases.  Red's sweet healthfulness leaves ‘other’ peppers green with envy. 

Growing them, however, has been no picnic for me.  Reds require a long season to ripen into their sweet nature.  I have tried, for several years, to bring to maturity a shiny red pepper.  When we first moved to Irwin, we had no garden.  A generous neighbor offered to share their garden space.  I planted my red pepper promise and tended to it all summer long.  As August meandered along, I patiently waited for the first hint of red.  One afternoon, there was a knock-knock on my door.  The neighbor’s son greeted me with three not-yet-red green peppers in his hands.  He had thoughtfully picked them for me, assuming that they were fully-grown.  His well-intentioned hospitality brought a tear to my eye.

Fast forward, through a series of red pepper failures, to this year.  I planted in a new location, hoping the sun, the soil, whatever cotton-picking magical ingredient necessary would be there, in that spot.  A month ago, I inspected the progress and noticed that the peppers were growing misshapen, smooshed between stems.  Thinking I could free them up by separating the stems a bit, I proceeded to snap off half of my plant.  Imagine my delight.  In the spirit of the red pepper challenge, I have chosen to think upon that incident as ‘selective pruning’.  Maybe it’ll be the secret to my success. 

Last week, I walked into Walmart and was assaulted by a sight both repulsive and ravishing.  A huge bin sat in the produce section, overflowing with bushels and bushels of glossy red peppers.  Shoppers wandered past as though this bin was nothing of note (much the way I react to a bin-full of muskmelons).  But I noticed, and was overcome by shame and covetousness.  Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, a chorus rang out.  “Look how easy this is” sang a choir of invisible farmers.  “We grew so many that we’re putting them on sale!”  As if the radiance and abundance of the harvest weren’t insult enough, they were being flaunted at the low, low price of $1.44!  Sheesh.  Should a red pepper ever actually appear in my garden, I wouldn’t consider selling it for less than $35.  

Is it too early to plan for next year?  Not at the rate I’m growing.  So I’m planning out my red pepper strategy in September.  Next spring, I’ll be on the look-out for some early-maturing Reds, such as ‘Gypsy’, ‘Lipstick’ or ‘Ace’.  The average Red takes 100 days to mature.  These short-seasoned Reds can accomplish it in 65-70.  I may declare victory yet.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Off with their Heads!

It’s 7 a.m. on a steamy July morning.  Dragging myself out of my ’76 Caprice Classic, I join a crew of sleepy teenagers congregating in the work shed, stamping their time cards and slathering on sunscreen.  We trudge through the wet grass toward a mist-laden field like a silent army: a horticultural special forces unit, if you will.  Faded blooms break off as I move along the row, gathering them.  Five minutes into the task, my hands are red, orange and purple, dyed with the stain of a beautiful yesterday.  It’s daylily season at Hornbaker Gardens.

If you’re unfamiliar with daylilies (Hemerocallis sp.), you don’t have to wander far to find them.  Their hardy nature has launched them into every landscaper’s repertoire.  Mainstays, like 'Stella d’Oro' and 'Happy Returns', are planted with such regularity that we ought to nominate them to be the new State Flower.  They are, simply put, lily-flowers popping out of grassy foliage. 

Daylilies are billed as low-maintenance perennials, and they can be.  If you ignore them, they’ll grow and bloom in spite of you.  But a wee bit of effort – and believe me it is a cathartic experience for deadheader and daylily alike – will reap results worthy of the expenditure. 

The concept behind deadheading is more than just removing that which is unsightly.  It's about building the plant.  At the base of each blossom lies an ovary.  Once the flower fades, the ovary begins to grow and form a seed pod.  On a daylily, seed pods do two things well: they look unattractive and they suck resources from the plant.  So the simple act of snapping dead blooms off nips this waste in the bud….literally.  Next year’s crop will get a boost of resources from the extra nutrients stored in the tubers (roots).  Translation: more blooms and larger plants next year.

Isn’t that what we all want?  But more than just the promise of a better year to come, we have a better day to enjoy.  Deadheading is like making one’s bed.  Will it be undone again in the morning?  Of course, but it sets the tone for the day, and fills the garden with beauty.  So get out there and trudge through the misty morn.  You'll be glad you did.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Dear John Letter to a Clematis

Dear Clem,

It seems like just yesterday when I caught my first glimpse of your bloom.  So billowy and romantic, like a cloud of white butterflies, engulfing the arbor with beauty.  You had me at hello. Who else blooms like that in autumn?  What other clematis could compare to your abundance?  None.  I knew I had to make you mine.   

And so, the wait began; the years of pining and planning.  I don't regret those years, Clem.  They made me who I am today.  You were worth the wait.  The day finally came, and I brought you home.  The bed was dug, the fence built, the arbor painted.  I had it all planned out: how you would climb the strings and swallow my arbor up in blossoms, sunning yourself each summer, teasing me with the promise of a bower of beauty come fall.  And it was all so good in the beginning.  I bragged about you and sang your praises to any visitors willing to stroll the garden.  I even took pictures of you with my family.

But you've strayed, Clem.  You haven't remained true to the commitment we once shared.  I caught you behind the air-conditioner, climbing up the side of the house.  Mingling with cable lines, going where you ought not.  Why would you go there, Clem?  It's shady there, not the kind of neighborhood for a clean-cut vine such as yourself.  I thought you wanted sun.  I gave you all the sun you could ask for.  But it wasn't enough.  I'll always love you, Clem, but this just isn't working anymore.



Do you have any love/hate relationships in your garden?  I confess, I don't have the heart to rip Clem (Sweet Autumn Clematis - Clematis ternifolia) out completely, but every fall I'm in the doghouse with my husband for this Vine Gone Wrong, as it strings up our cable lines.  I have to drag out the big ladder and rip and destroy its clamp on the wires.  So why not just make a clean break?  I don't know.  I think it's the promise of those ridiculous blooms in fall.  Like a box of Junior Mints: I know they're no good for me, but I just can't help myself.  Take care that you don't get caught up in Sweet Autumn Clematis' irresistible snare.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Growing Together

I buy lettuce seed every year.  I plant it.  I water it.  I get excited as it germinates and grows.  And then I bite into my first leaf.  Ugh.  Blasted bitter Buttercrunch!  I’m all for homegrown goodness, but I’ve never produced a leaf lettuce that tasted better (or even equalled) that of Mr. Grocer’s.  The other day, I was whining about my bitterness (pun intended), when my friend Rhonda suggested rinsing the leaves and storing them in the fridge for a day or two.  “When you pull it out, the bitterness will be gone”.  WOW.  Zip!  Just like that, problem solved.

That’s why gardeners need each other.  Our collective efforts are more effective than our solitary attempts.  Together, we grow better. 

I’d love to join a garden club.  I just haven’t got the time.  I’m up to my elbows in kids, dirty dishes, dog slobber and work.   Being a mama is like that.  My time is not my own.  Someday, maybe, but not today.  And I love it.  Wouldn’t trade it for the world.  But I do miss the camaraderie of growing (and commiserating about) plants alongside my fellow man. 

The garden forums on the internet are bustling with people encouraging one another onward, against drought, disease and discouragement.  Gardeners are, by nature, encouragers.  If they weren’t, they would find a different hobby.  Pessimists need not apply.  One of the groups I follow has a global membership.  Yesterday I visited with an Australian gardener.  North is her sunniest direction, and with the seasons in reverse, her early bulbs are just getting underway.  Fascinating!  The internet has grown a global garden club.

But what about our neighbors: the people with whom we share gardening weather, bugs, nurseries, and conditions?  Could we use the web to knit us together as well?  To cultivate a community of growers into a garden of encouragement?  We need a place to gather together, regardless of schedules.  And that is the mission statement of KankakeeGardener.com: a hub for LOCAL gardening activities, pictures, presentations, and giveaways.  A place to grow together. 

So drop in.  Leave a note about what's shakin' in your yard.  Find out what the local horticulture industry is saying, doing and growing.  Together, we can plant a few seeds of community and see what blooms.  Go to KankakeeGardener.com and join the conversation.
See you there!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dog Proofing Your Yard

Shortly after our dog moved in, the cat moved out.  The relentless chasing and barking, slobbering and sniffing was just too much for her.  My kind-hearted neighbors took our little feline refugee under their wings.  I believe if my garden could’ve uprooted itself and moved next door, it would have.  But plants are mere captives, helpless to remove themselves from the path of slobbering hounds.  For those of you festering in a Fido-Flower fiasco of your own, I offer the following:

How to Dog Proof your Yard:

1.  Do not get a dog.  It seems so obvious, I know, but the urge will come, and you best be prepared for it.  

2.  Put nothing intrinsically valuable in your yard.  If the backyard is the dog's territory, uproot all desirable plant material, and fill in the property with 8” of pine shavings. 

As a puppy-loving planter, I flunked steps number one and two.  
What remains of this list is my experience with 'coping mechanisms'.  

3.  Consider your yard as Monet would.  Squinting your eyes for the 'impressionist' effect helps those dead grass spots blend in better.  If you're looking for a longer lasting solution, water thoroughly over the 'spot' immediately after Fido's pit stop.  This will help wash the excess nitrogen away.  Nitrogen, of course, is good for plants in controlled amounts, but an excessive amount will burn vegetation.  If you don't believe me, drop a handful of fertilizer in one spot in your yard.  We use fertilizer spreaders for a reason.

4.  Tomato cages aren't just for tomatoes.  My perennial bed butts up against our fence line.  This is Oscar's war path: where he paces, chases and defends his territory from all things exterior.  He has shredded more plants defending me from the threat of my neighbor's mower than I care to count.  I got wise this year and employed tomato cages as protection from my protector.  My Carolina Lupines thanked me with a beautiful show of yellow blooms.  It was the first year they made it.  

5.  Put away the pond liner you bought.  Fill in the hole you dug.  Don't even think about it.  Ponds + Dogs = muddy destruction.

6.  Presoaking doesn't pay.  Two years ago, I thought I'd get a jump on germination by soaking my green bean seeds overnight.  This actually reduced germination by 92%, since my dog dug up and ate all but 1 of my pre-soaked beans.  Apparently, he has a fondness for legumes.  I can only assume that he needed some nitrogen fixed in his system.  

Are canines and cultivation mutually exclusive?  They don't have to be.  But the leash-toting weed-puller has to be extra patient and proactive.  

Wonder Dog with Sweet Autumn Clematis stuck in his collar.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Practical joke - gardener style - played on my friend Renee,
by her neighbors.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Divorcing my Daylilies

When you buy a home, you inherit the yard as well, whether you want to or not.  What was passed down to me was a foundation planting that consisted of Rosy Glow Barberry and Wild Daylilies.  They alternated, like an unfortunate game of leap-frog, all the way around the perimeter of my house.   If you are unfamiliar with either of these selections, let me make some introductions. 

Rosy Glow Barberry is a thorny shrub with burgundy foliage.  Its color, accented with random pink striations, is coveted amongst landscaping plants.  But they're not really 'the plant' for a 3-foot-deep foundation bed.  Rosy Glow needs room to sprawl a bit and requires facer plants to cover it's leggy base.  The plant's prickles are formidable, as noted by it's name "Barb-berry", which reminds me of barb-wire, another element I'd rather not have in my front landscape. 

Wild Daylilies are not to be confused with Hybridized Daylilies.  They are, of course, closely related.  But the hybrids, with their rainbow of colors, have genteel manners and the wilds have none a’tall.  My goodness, I’m jaded.  The truth is, there is a place for wild daylilies.  Their tiger-orange flowers are lovely and I enjoy seeing them along rural roadsides and at the edge of ponds, but they are altogether too aggressive for a manicured landscape, which is what I desperately want my yard to be. 

One long year of hand-to-hand combat, and several pairs of leather gloves later, the Barberry battle was over.  The Daylilies, however, were more tenacious.  I've lost count of exactly when I started my Daylily Removal Efforts, but I'd say I finally got the upperhand around the 5-year-mark.  I thought victory was in sight then.

I was wrong.

Two Daylilies evaded my spade of death.  No biggie, right?  What’s two after the hundreds I had conquered?  Believe me, fellow garden warriors, these last two have challenged – nay - MOCKED my removal attempts.  The first is located inside my spirea.  It’s so far inside the spirea, that I’ve considered marketing a new species: SpireaLily. 

The other is situated ‘just so’ directly under my fence pickets, with its roots lodged in the foundation of my porch and (as if that were not enough), taking shelter beneath my Panicle Hydrangea.  It’s a horticultural triple-threat.  I suppose I could paint some Round-Up on the leaves, but that just seethes with “Poor Sport”, doesn’t it?  Over time, a worthy adversary can sometimes morph into a friend.  What would Wile E. Coyote be without the Roadrunner?  Where would Sylvester be without Tweety?  Tom without Jerry?  Unthinkable.  And so it is to be, for the daylilies and me.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Catalpa Catastrophe

Several years ago, we received a Catalpa tree from a horticultural friend.  To call it a ‘tree’ at the time might’ve seemed like a stretch.  It was a liner.  A liner is an itty-bitty start of a plant.  Liners are typically distributed to nurseries where they are ‘grown on’ and then sold after a year or two.  My eldest son adopted it. 

At the time, he was 5 years old and moved the tree whenever the wind blew.  Well, maybe not quite that much, but it had a number of different 'homes' before he finally settled on a spot outside our dining room window.  He comes by the Moving-Things-Around disorder honestly.  His mother has a raging case, and her garden suffers the consequences every year.  I usually get the strongest urge to move plants when they are in full bloom (bad timing) and typically, it’s the hottest week of the year (terrible timing).  It’s like an itch - a terrible Poison Ivy itch - that must be scratched.  This year it was Monarda (Beebalm).  I relocated some boxwood this spring and the resulting hole was practically begging for some beebalm.  Self control is such a pain.  I did, however, manage to exercise restraint.  

But I digress.  Back to the tree: at maturity, Catalpas are lovely.  In adolescence, they’re awkward at best.  And after growing this one, I consider it a miracle that any survive to adulthood.  The problem with Catalpas is a frightfully un-winning combination of extreme new growth and extreme leaf size.  Long lengths of weak green wood are required to support the weight of REALLY large leaves.  Yes, I know, leaves don’t WEIGH much, but when the wind starts whipping, it’s like trying to fly 52 kites in the middle of a wind tunnel.  That’s a tall order for woody growth, let alone new growth.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when our Catalpa snapped in half last summer.  No kidding.  All the new growth – over 50% of the tree – was sheered off.  A summer storm blew through at night and we awoke to find our tree, stripped down to nothing, save a spindly little trunk.  Four years of growing had come down to this.  There were tears.  I shed a few, some for the tree and some for the boy.

As I typically procrastinate in all facets of my life, I put off the removal of our now defunct Catalpa.  Imagine my surprise when new growth started shooting out from the previously naked trunk.  When I say shooting, I mean, loitering nearby could cost you an eye.  Before winter closed in, the tree had put on 3’ of new growth.  This spring, we lost several more good-sized branches.  The resulting new growth is already approaching 4’. 

Interestingly enough, my beloved U of I tree selector (normally, a wonderful resource) denotes Catalpa as tolerant of wind.  Hmmm.  This tree is inherently aerodynamically challenged.  I would not recommend it as a candidate for The Wind Tolerant Club.  But I would recommend giving your kids some ownership in the garden.  True, their landscaping plans might not match yours, but you'll harvest the benefits for generations to come.  Even with nature's hard knocks, it's been a positive experience for one of my little growers.

Wordless Wednesday

One of the contestants in Grandma's Japanese Beetle Pickin' Contest.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Wordless Wednesday

Gladiolas and Green Beans mingling at Perry Farm Park.

My Favorite Things

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. 
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens. 

Everything sounds better when Julie Andrews sings it.  Sadly, she is not here to sing about my favorite things, so I’ll have to make do with the written word.  I’ve already sung a love song about my soil knife, so I won’t include it here.  But these are a few more of my favorite things…     

I’m notorious for being a bit messy.  Gardening is no exception.  When I weed, I toss the evicted invaders over my shoulder with vim and vigor.  But cleaning them up?  Eh…..not so much.  Our wheelbarrow is tall and bulky.  The effort it takes to toss my weeds in as I go slows my momentum (and believe me, any momentum I can achieve is a precious commodity).  Then along came my bucket.  It cost me $1 at the end of the season in the Target clearance aisle.  It’s plastic, lightweight and flexible.  Easy to reach into.  Tough enough to be dragged along behind a weeding mama.  Carries easily.  Hauls an armload of water, soil, mulch or weeds adequately.  I give it 5 stars.  Sadly, I’ve loved it a little too hard and now there’s a hole in my bucket.   But I think I can squeeze the cost of a replacement into our budget.

Tools ought to match the scale of the project.  Backhoes for the back-breaking jobs, and trowels for tiny ones.  Is it possible to dig a 1 gallon hole with a shovel or a trowel?  Absolutely.  Is it ideal?  I think not.  The perennial spade is scaled perfectly for working in and around perennials.  With it, I can dig out a chunk of catmint without disturbing the surrounding flora.  It is my go-to spade when gardening.    

My husband doesn’t like to spend money.  Is there an allergy for that sort of thing?  That would explain a lot.  So I was understandably bewildered when he came home from the hardware store with a set of gardening tools.  The yellow and red colors on the tools and packaging made me think he’d purchased a children's set.  Boy, was I wrong!  He gets an A+ from his horticultural honey for this selection.  The WOLF-Garten multi-tool set comes with 1 long and 2 short handles for three interchangeable tool heads.  The first attachment is a Push-Pull Weeder.  Related to a hoe, this tool obliterates weedy-takeovers with a simple push and pull.  Beds that once overwhelmed me were stripped of trespassers in minutes.  The secret to its effectiveness is the horizontal bar that runs under the roots, dislodging them.  The second tool is called a Small Sweep.  Removing dead foliage and debris from my perennials beds is a breeze, thanks to this sweet baby rake (not to be confused with a similar sounding barbecue sauce).  It maneuvers in and around tight spaces without damaging the surrounding plantings.  The last attachment is a cultivator head.  Can't say I've used it much, but I'm certain there's wonderment within, since it comes from such an innovative company.  Within minutes of finding their website, I had begun transcribing my 2011 Christmas wishlist.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Don't Tread on Me

Like a biological Berlin Wall, grass has laid siege to a citizenship of zucchini, tomatoes, onions and broccoli in my garden.  I can’t say this is the first year this has happened.  Blame it on my procrastination.  Blame it on poor planning.  I’m guilty of both.  But let me tell you a little secret about Extreme Weeds.  They’re good camouflage.  I live in the midst of a highly productive rabbit community, and my vegetables bear no damage.  You see, I am quite sure that Peter Cottontail has no idea of the vegetables that lie beyond The Wall.    So what if I have to play hide-n-seek to find my ripe tomatoes?  Mr. McGregor should’ve let his weeds grow.

This year will be an exception.  Bit by bit, down it must go.  Why would I tear down the camouflage that has served me so well all these years?  What could jolt me out of my weed-induced stupor?   Pituophis catenifer.  Commonly known as Bull Snake.  Two large specimens were recently found cavorting in the vicinity of my veggies, and I feel much differently about playing hide-n-seek with them. 

So bon voyage to my camouflage/procrastination.  The grass must go. 

As I weed, I work around another prickly persona in my garden.  No slithering scales here.  In fact, I planted this one.  Cucurbita pepo.  Commonly known as Zucchini.  If you’ve ever grown any member of the vining Cucurbit family (Pumpkin, Watermelon, Cucumber etc.), you’ve probably experienced firsthand the painful irritation that occurs from handling them.  Every inch of the stems and leaves is covered in a sharp stubble.  The horticultural terminology for this phenomenon is pubescence, coming from the root word puberty.  But this is no peach fuzz we’re talking about.  This is a full-on 5 o’clock shadow.  A good proportion of plants bear hair of some form.  Some are named for it, as is Lamb's Ear (Stachys byzantina).  Its namesake softness comes from an abundance of downy pubescence.

The hair serves a purpose.  Leaves are covered in tiny holes called stomates.  The plant transpires through these, but they are also a portal for moisture loss.  Pubescence provides a bit of aerodynamic cover for these stomates, reducing dehydration.  Additionally, they help shade sensitive leaf tissue from the glaring sun.  Take a walk around your garden and discover the world of hairy leaves.  But keep your eyes peeled...there may be some unexpected discoveries lurking there.

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