Perennial Plant Transition

Over the last year I’ve experienced a subtle shift in interests and activities that has led to me blogging less and getting out and enjoying nature more. I still garden as much as ever, but just haven’t felt the need to share so many updates here. My organic kitchen garden is what it is and I still get produce and enjoyment from it in equal measures, but except for a couple of new-to-me crops I’m growing this year, there isn’t much to report. Instead I may be sharing more of my nature explorations, some of which I’m hoping will happen in my own urban perennial garden at an increasing rate.

When I discovered iNaturalist last year I had already been photographing the interesting flora, fauna, and fungi I’d encounter in my explorations. Having a place to share my finds, obtain or confirm identifications, and learn more about the organisms I encounter motivated me to spend even more time out looking around. As I began finding more and more flowering plants in shady habitats I started thinking about how I could incorporate them into the shady urban gardens around our home.

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Over the nearly thirty years I’ve been dragging the gardens back from the neglected wasteland they used to be I relied heavily on ferns and hostas to fill space and create some interesting contrasts in texture and color. At one point I had nearly ninety varieties of hosta, most of which are still going strong. Patches and specimens of native and exotic woodland plants, especially spring ephemerals round out the plantings and mostly provide flowers only early in the season. While they do attract pollinators, especially bumble bees, during their blooming period, hostas don’t produce a lot of flowers for the space they occupy. Since I’ve declared the garden a pollinator habitat I’ve been paying more attention to which plants bees and other insects are visiting in the woodlands and savannas in our area. The removal of some trees in a neighbor’s yard have opened up the canopy more so I’ve started experimenting with adding more floriferous and taller natives.

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I started slowly, first purchasing a single plant of a cultivar of Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium cv.) which did poorly at first because we were out of town when it really could have used some watering. Then I started seeing more about nursery plants being treated with neonicotinoid pesticides which, by design are harmful to insects. While the different interested parties go back and forth over the level of threat they pose in this application, I decided just growing my own plants from seed was probably the safest approach. I’ve had a full semester course in plant propagation and years of experience propagating my own plants by various methods, including from seed.

poke milkweed

The first species I wanted to try was Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) which I encountered dangling its clawlike flowers in the woods of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve where I often walk. I purchased seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery and sowed them shallowly in a single pot that I left outside over the winter to simulate natural conditions.

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I think nearly every seed germinated this spring and after they’d grown a few true leaves I transplanted them into individual pots. To keep them safe from the squirrels who sometimes dig in my plant pots I kept them inside the propagation cage I built from recovered deck wood. As they’ve grown and I’ve started pots of other species, I realized I was going to run out of squirrel-proof room so this weekend I took up another construction project.

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For years an unused trellis(?) has been laying behind the compost bins. It’s a simple frame of 2x2s with a layer of chicken wire that I realized would be a good size for another propagation box.

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I put together a wooden frame with a slatted bottom and hinged the trellis to the top for a lid to keep squirrels out but let the sun and rain in. I did find chipmunks can get through chicken wire but they rarely do and don’t do as much damage as the squirrels. It’s only 9” deep but that’s sufficient to get plants started and then they can be moved to the taller cage if they need to grow on more before transplanting.

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One of the next plants I would like to grow is Early Figwort (Scrofularia lanceolata) as it produces a lot of nectar for the size of its flowers. The specimen above was growing in an open prairie, but I’ve seen it in shadier edge conditions and believe it could thrive in my garden.

My list of seeds to obtain for this garden transition has been growing and I’ll be spending some time this summer deciding which species to focus on next. My goal is to have a long season of bloom with no interruption in nectar sources for the pollinators I’m fortunate to have visiting the small oasis I hope I’m creating for them.

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Do you consider pollinators when you select plants for your garden? I would appreciate hearing about your successes in the comments below, especially with native plants that grow in partial shade to shade.

Leaving Leaves

Yesterday I finally got around to the yard leaf cleanup. I’d been putting it off until the majority of leaves had fallen. Having oak trees around means that’s comparatively late and with a vernal witchhazel that holds its leaves all winter it also means I’m not going to get everything. But no worries! The leaves aren’t really  going anywhere anyway.

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Years ago it occurred to me that I was wasting a LOT of time raking leaves and either putting them on the curb for the city to pick up or shredding them into the compost bins. For the free organic matter I wasn’t sending away I was putting time and effort into speeding up a process that would happen eventually on its own. So I stopped. I only clear them off the paved surfaces and the very small lawn in the back yard. There is no lawn in front. Over winter some of this free, natural, organic mulch tends to shift around and leave bare spots so I like to pack one of the compost bins with dry oak leaves to replenish those areas in spring.

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Because my gardens are all in varying degrees of shade I’ve relied quite a bit on hostas to fill up space. Until I stopped raking I had problems with slugs chewing on the leaves. Conventional wisdom is that getting rid of that organic matter discourages slugs. When I started leaving the leaves the slug damage stopped. I can’t be certain why, but I suspect it’s either that they had more to eat at safe, moist, ground level and left the hostas alone or that this healthier habitat for invertebrates encouraged slug predators that are keeping them in check. In any case, my hostas look great all season.

Habitat Signs

Not only are my plants healthier now, this lazy approach to gardening has helped make it possible to certify the yard as a wildlife habitat and to provide resources for pollinators as well.

Recently I’ve been coming across articles encouraging leaving fallen leaves for wildlife like these from The Xerces Society, The National Wildlife Federation and Habitat Network. How do you handle your autumn leaves? I encourage you to do some reading and, if you’re able, consider leaving them in place. Wildlife and your back will thank you.

Naked Gardening

October is here and we’re turning our attention to scary orange things! Actually, this story goes all the way back to last year. At Halloween I like to save some seeds from the pumpkins I carve for the occasion. Like so many other people, I wash and roast them and then sit around peeling and eating them. As I did so one chilly autumn evening, I contemplated the pepitas one buys for Mexican cooking. They don’t have that hard, flavorless shell my pumpkin seeds have that need to be cracked and peeled before consuming. I occurred to me there must be some trick to doing them in volume economically. A machine maybe? I did a little searching on the Internet and discovered something even better: naked pumpkin seeds! Well, more properly, hulless pumpkin seeds. These are varieties that have bred away the hard seed coat to where it’s just a thin, soft membrane. I don’t know that these are what are grown make the pepitas at the store, but they sounded like such a good idea. Unfortunately, pumpkins are space-consuming crop to grow so I filed away this tidbit for when we have a bigger garden.

Then, as luck would have it, one of the bloggers I follow did a post about a hulless pumpkin aptly named ‘Lady Godiva.’ The author of My Food and Flowers is a Taiwanese gardener living in Canada who, apparently, grows absolutely everything in the world. When wrote about ‘Lady Godiva’ and I mentioned I wanted to grow this kind of pumpkin some day she kindly sent me some seeds.

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I started them indoors in April and then set one out when the ground was nice and warm in the beds I had designated for squash and cucumbers. The vine grew pretty long, but I was able to weave it in and around other plants to accommodate it. By early September I had one nice pumpkin that was ready to pick.

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The dark seeds were easy to see through their thin, transparent shells.

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It was practically no work at all to rake the seeds out of the stringy flesh with my fingers. They came out nice and clean and only needed a rinse before roasting. There was about half a cup of seeds in this one pumpkin. I didn’t want to spend this precious bounty in a sauce where the flavor might not be as well appreciated so I opted for roasting them as a snack. I spread them out on a cookie sheet, sprinkled on some salt and left them in the oven until they started making popping noises. They’re delicious! Given how easy they are to grow and harvest, I would definitely plant these again in sufficient numbers for real cooking once we have the space.

Onions

Today is so nice out I decided the onions and garlic had cured long enough so I hauled them all outside to clean up and trim before putting them in winter storage.

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I planted fewer than I did last year and, fortunately, wasn’t plagued with another round of that fungus that attacked them. What I don’t get is why there is such a disparity of size among them.

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Granted, they start out as different sized plants from the garden center, but not this different! They all went in the same bed and at the same time so I can’t blame soil or water differences. The sizes were all mixed up in the bed. Maybe next year I’ll try fertilizing them, or fertilizing some and not others and see if that makes a difference. In the meantime, it’s kind of nice to be able to select just as much onion as I need for a recipe and not have to put leftover bits in the refrigerator.

Tea and Not Tea

I drink tea. Brewing a pot is the first thing I do most days and enjoying it while I catch up on my reading is a morning ritual I’m loath to give up. I made the switch from coffee a number of years ago, and while I still enjoy the occasional cup of joe, it’s tea I more often turn to when the situation calls for a stimulating hot beverage. We’re lucky to have a great tea purveyor in town who operated a lounge where I would go and write on my days off. It closed to the dismay of many, but they have re-emerged in another location as a tea bar so I can restock easily whenever my supply of favorite leaves gets low. Having such easy access to great tea and the good advice of a knowledgeable vendor let me become a tea snob. Specifically, if it wasn’t the leaves of Camellia sinensis, it wasn’t tea. And, to be fair, that’s strictly accurate. True tea only comes from this one shrub and any of the so-called teas that don’t contain it are more properly called tisanes. (See how I get!)

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I was a little leery, then, when a couple of our very best friends gifted us with a tin of “herbal tea” last year. They volunteer at the Enfield Shaker Museum where the gift shop sells blends of herbs from the gardens of the historic village. I put the tin on the shelf with the real tea and didn’t give it much thought until one chilly winter afternoon. I wanted something hot but thought it was a little late in the day for caffeine. I brewed a pot, poured a cup, and immediately changed my opinion of tisanes. It was delicious! Our supply was gone in  a few short weeks. I made a note of the ingredients and made sure they were included in the herb patch on this year’s garden plan. Some mints I was already growing but I bought another, labeled peppermint to make sure I had the right one. Lemon balm I had grown unrestrained before so I knew I had to keep it in a buried pot. Lemon verbena was a new one to me but we managed to find a plant at the nursery.

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All have grown well and I’ve made two harvests of their fragrant leaves. I dried and crushed the first batch and it made a nice little jar full but I’m stocking up with more to get me through the year.

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This whole adventure has loosened up my attitude about what I brew now. I’ve even started experimenting with adding dehydrated orange peel to my tea. Turns out it’s great with black tea, not so much with the whites. In any case, I know I’ve just scratched the surface of what I can grow for brewing tisanes and tea blends. Maybe this winter I’ll do some more reading and tasting and what I learn will be reflected in 2017’s herb bed. What do you brew? Please share any suggestions in the comments!