Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Iroquois Historical Society's 12th Annual Garden Walk

Saturday morning I turned my well-traveled Honda south, toward the land of Gilman and Danforth.  I was off to the Iroquois Historical Society’s 12th Annual Garden Walk.  Cobbled brick streets lent a historical feel to these quaint towns and their gardeners capped that sense with natural beauty and hometown friendliness. 

I’ll bet more than one visitor to Jo Blanck’s garden found themselves whistling Dixie.  A charming Old Glory bunting weaved in and out of her fence and porch railing.  Red verbena, petunias, and geraniums continued the patriotic tone throughout the yard, which surrounds her childhood home.  The significance of family was reflected in the landscape, from her granddaughter’s hand-painted rain barrels, to the personalized bricks Jo casts herself for each family member.  The beds are pristinely outlined with Border Magic, a concrete edging that was dyed, poured and stamped on site. 

Next door, under the canopy of shade trees, resides Peggy Tammen’s symphony of groundcovers.  Undaunted by the deep shade, she swathed her gardens in Lamium, Sweet Woodruff, English Ivy, Vinca, Hosta and Snow-on-the-Mountain.  Alongside the house, reveling in the glory of a sunbeam, a vibrant climbing rose shot a spark of color into the shade.  Peggy chocked her sunny driveway bed full of catmint, coreopsis, columbine, daisy, daylily and zebra grass.   

Patty Krones ‘comes out to play’ each morning in the garden her mother started over 25 years before.  Her property boasts a mature Saucer Magnolia, Japanese Maple and Redbud, each of them a showpiece in their own right.  The perimeter of the yard is packed with more species, both tender and hardy, than this humble reporter could hope to grow.  With a 50-year-old lemon tree and a 7’ tall butterfly bush, I began to suspect that Patty was dipping her gardening gloves in fairy dust.  Her interactive garden display included a demonstration on forming charming leaf-imprinted concrete sculptures.  Husband Steve fashioned several trellises and one enchanting archway from recycled hog-pen panels.  So inspired was I, that I’ve added “Stalk hog farm recycle bins” to my summer to-do list. 

As I pulled up to Pat Robert’s inviting front yard, giant Alliums reached through the front white pickets to welcome me.  The tidy brick walk led to a magazine-worthy front porch, loaded with cozy seating and cool drinks for sun-weary garden-walk travelers.  A trek to the far side of the house rewarded my inquisitive mind.  There, Pat cultivated a retreat of botanical bounty.  A cobblestone patio is tucked in the space between house and fence, and is ensconced by a robust garden of bleeding heart, Japanese anemone, coralbells, hydrangea, Japanese maple, and astilbe.  Bird feeders and baths draw the attention of musical, winged entertainment. 

By this point, I was behind schedule.  I’d spent so much time meandering through the first four gardens that I began to feel the tick-tock of my watch weighing on me.  I swung by the Inside-Out shop before leaving Gilman.  The gracious shopkeeper offered me a sample of light and refreshing white Sangria, which calmed the clamor of the clock in my head.  With glass in hand, I stepped out of their charming store, onto the beautifully cultivated back patio.  The surroundings were drenched in whimsical container plantings, lush ferns and clematis: a serene setting for quiet conversation with friends. 

Up the road to Danforth, I headed for the backyard sanctuary of Iroquois West principal, Vicki Killus.  Vicki was relaxing in her gazebo when I stepped into the backyard; a well-earned rest for any Garden Walk exhibitor.  Closer to the house, a mass of daylilies and blooming Knockout Roses enclosed her patio, Vicki’s morning retreat.  This hard-working educator installed the walkways that extend throughout her backyard, and lead to the gazebo and waterfall garden, where clematis, daylilies and ornamental grasses abound.

Next door, neighbor and co-worker Tammy Dieken gardens with husband Brad.  He keeps the grass golf-course-worthy, and Tammy gets every square foot of enjoyment out of it…literally, in her bare feet.  Her garden has evolved with her family: space that was once littered with Tonka trucks is now spilling over with monarda, phlox, lamb’s ear, blue fescue, and coneflower.  Brad transformed the boys’ fort into a picnic platform and created a large potting shed for his favorite gardener.  Tammy’s farm girl background is reflected in her container garden: galvanized buckets spilling over with all manner of annual abundance. 

St. John’s Lutheran Church was my last stop in the city limits.  It’s simple and clean landscaping was highlighted with large pots near the entrances, loaded with brightly colored annuals.  Magnolia, hosta and lilies surrounded the building. 

I put a little ‘gravel in my travel’ on the rural trek to the Shule Farm.  Here, LaRee and Terry Shule built a new house on the old family homestead.  In the process of renovating the property, LaRee captured precious family history and transformed it into landscaping grandeur.  A calming waterfall empties into a large fishpond, which sits in the foundation of her parent’s original home.  At the water’s edge are bricks from her parent’s home and flagstone from their former barn.  Daylily, coneflower and ornamental grass grow en masse around its perimeter.   The Shule beds are filled with unique antiques, many of them family heirlooms.  A giant windmill head set in a field of coneflower was my favorite, but LaRee’s impeccable taste and creativity made it a challenge to settle for just one.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

C.S.I. Irwin

Rooting out Criminals in the Vegetable Patch

Despite my faithful effort in the weeding and watering departments, our vegetable garden looks sad. Plants are being haphazardly pruned overnight.  Leaves are sheared off.  Tomatoes are topped.  The shoemaker’s elves must be throwing bonsai parties in the garden each night.  Too bad there is nothing make-believe about this damage.

Zapped Zucchini

Suspect number one: rabbits.  My handsome fence-builder shot into action on Mother's Day and constructed a wire fence to keep those long-eared veggie snitchers out. 

The damage continued. 

Bullied Broccoli
Picked-on Peppers
Time for a pitty party.  I’m a procrastinator, after all, and it’s hard for people like me <sniff sniff>  to work extensively without reward.   This was so unfair <insert whining tones>.   I was doing everything right this year.  I'd even planted marigolds between the tomatoes.  Their happy yellow blooms were the first to go. 

Now, hold on just one blessed minute.  The first to go?  What on earth?  Marigolds (in the form of Pyrethrum) are the active ingredient in a handful of insecticides.  What creature in its right mind would eat a marigold?  I pulled out my trusty Ortho Home Gardener’s Problem Solver and searched for Tagetes (Marigold’s latin nomer).  Lo and behold, there were two bugs listed that would eat that insecticidal plant.  Since this clearly wasn’t the work of spider mites, the culprit had to be a cutworm. 

Cutworms are the beavers of the insect world.  Envision a caterpillar with big buck teeth, chomping down every plant in your garden.  In reality, they don’t have big white bicuspids, but that mental imagery helps me identify their damage: buzz-sawn vegetables.  The cutworm is a fleshy caterpillar, about 2” long, which spends its days hiding in the top 2 inches of your soil.  Then, when you’ve retired for the night - when you’ve kicked off your boots and settled down in your Lazy-Boy with the latest edition of the Daily Journal - out they come.  Slinking up and down stems, lopping off a limb here, and a leaf there.   

What this lousy worm didn’t realize is that he just picked a fight with the Terminator.  I’m the girl wielding a Rambo knife.  The procrastinator righteously indignant over her ineffectual effort.  The glutton who lives for every bite of fresh garden salsa she can squeeze out of the season.  He has foolishly tread into enemy territory. 

My fruitless effort: one massacred marigold,
upturned soil and empty bug jar.
Armed with bitterness and a trowel, I set out one night on a seek and destroy mission.  The plan: to dig up the top 2” depth of my entire garden, locate every cutworm, and eradicate their species from the face of the planet (beginning, obviously, with my vegetable patch).  Twenty minutes later, I’d have been glad to find one.  Not a single cutworm had risen to the challenge.  Cutworms were proving to be more clever than anticipated.   Time to up my game.  I would return later - much later - under the cover of darkness.

I’m not excessively scared of the dark (aside from the increased possibility of tripping and falling to my death), but the setting of the sun introduces a new challenge that lurks in our vicinity: Mephitis mephitis, commonly known as the striped skunk.  They’re not as populace as rabbits, but a run-in with one is certainly more potent.  After tucking my children in bed, I faced my stinky fears and plunged into the night. 

Fifty-two brave steps later, I was safely locked into my wire-fenced vegetable garden.  I turned the flashlight toward the recently damaged peppers and marigolds.  Clever or not, those cutworms had to eat.  No amount of camouflage or cleverness could save them from me now.  With the intensity of a surgeon, I examined each plant.  Up and down the stems, under the leaves, around the perimeter of the plants.   Nothing.  Not a one.  What was I doing wrong? 

As I gathered my thoughts, the beam of my light rested on a broccoli stem.  A sliver of copper colored material caught my attention.  A closer inspection revealed four earwigs enjoying an extended one-course meal on the thick leaves.  The broccoli foliage looked as if it’d been perforated by a mad hole-puncher.  Could earwigs have done all the damage to my garden?  I turned to the source of ultimate knowledge: Google. 

Within minutes, my hunch was confirmed and I was in the kitchen mixing up a concoction of sweet stickiness to trap the pincher-bottomed bugs.  One more trip back into the night and the skunk-infested countryside, and three little pots of revenge were set.  Eight hours later, dawn revealed my success: 110 earwigs floating in sticky goo.  The next night I set out one sticky trap and three damp, rolled newspapers (another recommended organic trap).  108 earwigs in the goo and 0 in the papers.  I'll be setting out traps until they come back empty.  Case closed. 

My apologies to the rabbits and the cutworm.  You're off my hit list.  For now. 

Mini-Terminator in the making,
mixing up Earwig traps.

The earwig trap was composed of equal parts corn syrup, vegetable oil and soy sauce, mixed in little margarine tubs and buried up to the soil level for easy bug access.  It also effectively caught 12 spiders, 1 beetle, 2 moths, and countless ants.  Something to keep in mind for other buggy dilemmas.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Planting Pickets

White picket fences.  Quaint, quintessential Americana.  Perhaps for this reason, my heart lodged on the concept of having one wrap around our yard.  So, Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome constructed one for me (don’t worry, folks, I’m married to him).  Little did I know, that white picket fences are for the birds.  Literally.  What I thought we were building was a stylish boundary for my dog and a structure for vining plants.  What we actually built was a roost for cardinals, chickadees and mourning doves.  They made themselves right at home, and a comfortable bird poops.  A lot.  And so my lovely fence is perpetually in need of paint.  White fences that are longer than 100’ require a full-time painting crew.  By the time you’ve worked your magic on one end, the bird world has defaced the other.  It’s certain the pickets would look better if I removed the bird feeder, but believe it or not, we'd miss those little poopers.

Inspired by Tom Sawyer, I included "Paint the Fence" in a challenge I issue to the kids each summer.  There are yummy AND fun prizes, so I figured it would be a win/win situation for everyone involved.  The few attempts that were made resulted in several spottily painted pickets and extra brushes for me to clean (#46723 on my list of fun things to do).  Mark Twain made this seem so much simpler.

One solution for a splotchy fence is to apply some horticultural camouflage to it.  Some girls have a shoe fetish.  I have a vine fetish, and it comes in handy with my bird doo-doo dilemma.  Their twiny, tropical nature transfixes my mind.  At Sunrise Nursery this spring, I fought the urge to clear out the inventory in their vine aisle.  Currently, our fence is enveloped in Sweet Autumn Clematis, Pink Lemonade Honeysuckle, an unidentified Climbing Rose and Green beans.  But I’ve got plans for expansion.  Here’s a few on my wish list:

Akebia foliage
Five-Leaf Akebia (Akebia quinata) is a home-run vine.  I love the lacy visual texture of the compound leaves but the piece de resistance are the burgundy-lilac flowers, which hang in clusters with dramatically reflexed petals, emitting a fragrance of…..Hersheys.  Mmmm.  Chocolate flowers?  Don’t mind if I do.  As if that wasn’t enough to sell this climber, the seed pods contain a sweet, edible pulp that tastes like tapioca pudding.  I have yet to sample the pulp personally, but I am a fan of tapioca.  I made an entire batch disappear in the process of writing last week’s column.  So yes, I will have an Akebia.  It’s just a matter of time.  

Arctic Beauty Kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta) is the perfect compliment to my lackadaisical painting.  The leaves are tipped in white and pink, giving the impression they’ve been dipped in a bucket of paint.  So if I do paint, no one will notice if I get some on the leaves.  And if I procrastinate painting, it will look as if I at least tried recently, since the leaves are freshly decorated.  But this plant has more to offer than colorful foliage.  Dr. Skirvin, one of my favorite Illini professors, introduced me to the fruit of the Hardy Kiwi vine.  No peeling fuzzy skin off of these: just pop ‘em in your mouth.  Delicious!  The plants do require a male and female plant to produce fruit, so I’ll be sure to get both when the requisite garden space opens up. 

Clematis beauty
I feel a bit sheepish about putting Clematis on my list.  What self-respecting Illinois horticulturist does not already have Clematis in their garden?  This one.  I'm not talking about the Sweet autumn Clematis which is already rambling prolifically here, but the ever popular, large-flowering type.  The big dilemma is which variety to plant first.  Jackmanii is overused, but seeing it in bloom melts away all my objections.  Who cares if every Tom, Dick and Harry has one?  I want one too!  Those luscious blooms transplant my mind to a distant tropical island (complete with a fruity drink and the aforementioned fence-builder).  Whatever hybrid I choose, I plan on interplanting it with another species of vine.  Clematis are slow starters: with the exception of Sweet Autumn, they need several years to develop a 'presence'.  Additionally, they're a one season performer and they like their roots shaded and their blooms in the sun.  Interplanting would answer all of those issues very nicely. 

These are just the top three of my vine wish list.  Climbing Hydrangea, Passionflower, Dutchman’s Pipe Vine, Trumpet Creeper and Wisteria are all in my gardening future.  Hopefully, Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome is taking notes for his 2013 Mother's Day shopping list.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Asparagus Aplenty

My stovetop has been covered by a steady precipitation of salt, pepper and parmesan for the past month.  I’ve wiped it down, believe me, but the mess just keeps coming back.  The forecast for tomorrow: another seasoning snowstorm.  The offending sloppy sprinkler is yours truly and I have two problems:  
1.  I can't seem to sprinkle seasonings in a tidy pattern (I'm a messy painter, too.)
2.  I've developed a taste for fried asparagus. 

I have memories of creamed asparagus on toast as a child, but until recently, my adult culinary skills were pretty limited in that department.  So I ate it raw.  Until this year.  I bought myself a garlic press and now I’m cooking EVERYTHING with olive oil and garlic.  Asparagus, as it turns out, tastes pretty great fried with garlic and sloppily sprinkled with salt, pepper and parmesan.   

Compounding my kitchen cleaning conundrum is the fact that I live next door to the King and Queen of Asparagus.  If you're acquainted with Dan and Denise Lowe, then you've probably eaten their asparagus.  By day, Dan's a diesel mechanic, but he moonlights as an asparagusologist (word of my own creation).  And this is one serious hobby: Dan planted 2000 Jersey Knight plants in a field north of Irwin.  He’s been eating ditchweed since he was a wee rabble rouser, picking it along the roadsides.  Back then, he just boiled his wild treasure.  But these days he eats it (courtesy of Denise) grilled, fried, baked, steamed, in soups, omelets and casseroles.  His favorite recipe is asparagus fried in butter with diced ham and cheese.  His very supportive sweetie has picked 350 gallons of asparagus this year.  Seventy gallons have been put up in their freezer and the rest has been given away (hence my messy stovetop). 

Dan and Denise's field started out as nine trenches, 250 feet long and 10" deep.  The asparagus starts were planted in the trenches and as they grew, Dan buried them, bit by bit, until they reached the top of the trench.  Then he mounded soil over the plants.  At that point, the waiting began: the Lowes allowed the field to grow unhindered for three years before they began harvesting.  This practice enhances the size of the root ball and encourages the development of lateral growing points.  A mature, well-maintained plant can grow to the size of a bushel basket.

Dan’s field of asparagus is NOT politically correct.  No girls allowed.  Well, no girl asparagus plants, anyway.  Reason being that introducing both male and female plants opens the door for baby asparagus plants everywhere.  By limiting the selection, he keeps nice, clean rows.  Easier for picking and maintaining.  Speaking of maintaining, asparagus has an unusual requirement.  It needs salt, which explains why it grows so well in ditches.  Right around the last snowfall of the year (or in a snow sparse year: March) Dan covers his asparagus bed with water softener salt.  It should be covered enough to appear as if there has been a light snowfall.  

When your ditchweed is prime for picking, follow these guidelines:
1.  Cut the stalk below the soil.  It will regenerate more quickly.
2.  Don’t cut anything less than 4 inches tall or thinner than the diameter of a pencil.
3.  Don’t wait too long to cut it.  Asparagus gets tough in a hurry.  Dan and Denise pick twice a day in the peak of the season. 
4.  Pick until the middle of June.  Then it’s time to let it go to seed.  This allows the plant to build up sugar reserves for next year’s crop.

Yes, yes, I know it’s the second week of June.  I haven’t given you much time to cover your stovetop with salt, pepper and parmesan.  But there's still enough asparagus around to get you started and then you'll be all revved up for zucchini season.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Slather on the Sweetness

Fresh jam doesn't last long in our kitchen
I made two batches of strawberry freezer jam this week.  To say that I made them is stretching the truth a bit, since it was actually my saintly mother who picked, cleaned and trimmed all the berries and washed the jars and lids.  I’m spoiled, I know.  I’ll probably make two more batches before strawberry season draws to a close, but I’ll give my mom a break and do those myself.  If you’re content with Smucker’s take on strawberry jam, then you really should - scratch that - you absolutely MUST find a patch and craft your own jam.  There’s nothing simpler.  You’ll walk away from the experience shaking your head, because it boggles the mind how something so simple can produce something so marvelous. 

No patch, you say?  I too, am a strawberry nomad.  Have been one for all of my adult life.  One of these days I’m going to sink some strawberry plants into the ground, but until that day, I wander hither, thither and yon in search of available berries.  For the last 5 years, I’ve trekked out east of town, down a crunchy gravel road off Route 17, to Mary’s Berries. 

Here you’ll find row upon row of juicy red gems.  If you’ve ever picked strawberries in a patch, you’ll be familiar with the where-do-I-put-my-feet-without-stepping-on-berries dilemma.  This inevitably leads to an invisible game of Twister, as you reach for that elusive berry with your right hand whilst tottering on your right foot and your left hand with the fourth appendage balancing upward into the wind.  Mary’s tidy rows eliminate this graceful goofiness. 

Mary and Nick
Mary planted her first berries back in 1993.  She and husband Nick had been renting out their extra acreage to local farmers when Mary decided it was time for a change of scenery.  Out went the corn and beans and in came strawberries.  What could induce someone to start on this berry growing venture?  Mary likes working outside and eating Strawberry Pie (ask her for the recipe).  As one of three girls growing up on a farm, she was her dad’s right-hand-girl.  To this day she enjoys pulling weeds and as a former P.E. teacher, she’s got the get-up-and-go to stay ahead of them. 

This year was a tough one, due to the frost that I caused (again, my apologies to everyone).  Mary saved her berries by irrigating them through the freezing temps.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but it works.  The practice is based on the latent heat of fusion.  When water freezes, it releases heat.  Eighty calories of heat per gram of water, to be exact.  This small release of heat will keep the strawberry near 32 degrees as long as the water is actively freezing, even as the temperature surrounding the plant drops below freezing.  Mary said her thermometer dipped down to 19 degrees this spring.  Once one begins irrigating through a freeze there can be no stopping until temps rise above freezing.  This form of frost protection has been used in the horticultural industry for over 60 years.     

Picking strawberries is a drafted event in our family.  The kids are recruited – willing or unwilling – like little berry picking soldiers.  I, myself, was a reluctant picker in my youth and it comes as no surprise to me that some of my kids don’t leap with joy on picking day.  They certainly come by this attitude honestly.  My son, Ryan, works industriously in the rows for approximately 10 minutes.  For 15 minutes after that, he is heavily invested in exploring and inspecting bugs, toads and mutated double strawberries.  After that, the whining begins.  My goal is an hour and mathematically that leaves me with 35 minutes of “How much longer?”  Thank goodness Mary has pre-picked berries.  I wonder if she would wash my jars and lids.  I’ll have to call and ask.  Just kidding, Mary!  But Mary’s Berries can be reached at (815) 472-6015. 

Freezer jam-making is the simplest thing in the world.  Mush up some berries and sugar, boil a box of Sure-Jell in water (directions are on the box), mix it all together and pour it into some clean jars.  Simple as that.  Slather your fresh, sweet deliciousness on a slice of warm homemade bread and you’ll understand why I wrote this article.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Our Catalpa is Growing Up

Our windblown Catalpa has finally bloomed.  
I love how the emerging blooms look like popped kernels of popcorn.  
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