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

Ladybug-a-Palooza

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.  





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