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.

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New Resident

This morning I went to the garden, did a little maintenance, harvested some salad greens and spinach, and snapped some images with the intention of doing a little garden post here. Then we went on a long afternoon of hiking at the county’s newest forest. I’ve got a gazillion images from that hike to process and I’m too pooped to write much anyway, so here’s a short video of a bee moving into a hole in the log I drilled and put out only yesterday. I’ll take a shot at ID once I’ve worked a little more through my backlog.

 

A New Way to Stake Tomatoes?

I made the title a question because I don’t actually know if this is the original, brilliant, ingenious method I’d like to think it is. In any case, I was thinking about the different ways gardeners keep their tomatoes up off the ground. I found out early on that the little cages are just worthless. I quickly moved on to using individual stakes for each plant, pruning to one or two vines (at least at first) and tying them to the stake. It’s a bit laborious. I was considering moving to training vines up twine to save on the number of stakes I’d have to install but I’d still have to have a support structure that was even sturdier for the twine. Then I had something of a brainstorm. What if I gave each plant it’s own stake and twine? The whole step of knotting and cutting the support ties could be eliminated!

Top of Post

I started with one of the wider stakes I have that was ripped from an old piece of cedar decking. I drilled a hole at the top…

Bottom of Post

…and one at the bottom. I looped a length of heavy, non-stretching cord—clothesline, I think in this case—through the holes and tied snugly to lay flat against each side of the stake.

Starting to Train

When my test subjects were tall enough to start training I just pruned as usual and started to loop them around the cord. At first it was a bit random looking because the plants had leaned away from the stakes and I didn’t want to snap them by forcing them too far. With a cord on each side of the stake I can train two vines from one plant separately.

Totally Twisted

Now that they’re taller and I’ve made a few more turns making sure to hook the leaves around the cord. It looks like it’s actually going to work! I wish I’d done more than a few stakes, now. Not all my wooden stakes are wide enough to drill like this and still maintain their strength, but I think I could rig up something similar on them as well as the steel stakes I have. If this method continues to work, I might well be growing all my plants this way next year. It takes considerably less time to train up the plants.

Seed Starting for the Poorly Prepared

I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since I shared any of my fascinating goings-on here. Believe me, I haven’t been just sitting around–much, at least. March is the month when I seem to emerge from the winter inertia along with the plants and critters outdoors.

American Flag Leek

Seed starting actually commenced weeks ago with the onions, shallots and leeks. Here are the American Flag leeks waving their seed coats up toward the shop lights. Today they got their first haircut.

In the time since the leeks and their ilk were sown I started a few other things as well. Then last weekend I got started on my favorites, the tomatoes and peppers. In the past my system was to sow a couple of seeds together in a tall, 2” pot. I have tons of these around from back when I grew Paphiopedilum orchids. If both of the seeds germinated I would just snip off the weaker one. If neither germinated I’d have wasted the space that barren pot was taking. This year I decided to sow multiple seeds in 4” pots and since they shouldn’t be in there too long and need a lot of root room, I cut the pots shorter for easy access. Or, at least I started doing that after I realized what a pain it is to get to seedlings in a pot as tall as they are. (See left-hand pot of leeks above.)

Early Jalapeno

Anyway, after potting up a few kinds of peppers as seen above, I realized I didn’t have nearly enough pots. Either I hid them very well from myself or I purged a little too aggressively last fall. As I was contemplating driving out to the garden center yet again, I was hit with a brainstorm…

Paper Pot

Paper pots! I quickly rolled and folded up a bunch and I was back in business.

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See how meticulously I placed the seeds in the potting mix? I also labeled the tags with the number planted in each pot.

Paper Pots in Use

Once the plants have reached the size where they can be transplanted I’ll move them up to individual 4” pots. Those will be plastic pots because they will be more durable for moving around under the lights and transporting out to the garden when they are ready. I’ll have plenty of time to get out to the garden center before then. I’d better start making a list.

Reclaimed Wood Projects

Last year the co-conspirator and I did some major refurbishing of our deck to fix a design flaw that has bugged me for twenty years. In the process, we ended up replacing most of the decking boards. The old boards were still mostly in decent condition except for rotten ends. Except for that and the old screw holes, we had a good pile of acceptable wood that we had once paid a decent amount of money for. I decided to salvage what I could for a few little projects to enhance our outdoor living space on the deck.

Boards Ripped Boards

Since someone won’t let me have a table saw I used a guide on our circular saw to rip the deck boards into 1” and 2” strips. I used a CAD program to design the different pieces so I knew ahead of time that everything would line up and work the way I intended. The boards are an even inch thick so dimensioning the different components was simple. To make thicker boards for table legs I glued together two boards with waterproof carpenter’s glue.

Plant Bench

The first project was a pair of narrow tables to hold the different potted herbs and ornamental plants I like to grow each year. The taller one is shown here with a pot stand.  The other one is six inches shorter so the plants are displayed better. As you can see growing a banana tree has attracted apes but they’re not much of a problem…yet.

Pot Stand

I followed those up with a couple of low pot stands. The second one I did (not pictured) I just used a single 1”x2” for the legs instead of doubling them up and they seem sturdy enough.

Potting Table

After years of making do with a board over the wheelbarrow for potting things up I made a work table at a comfortable height to stand next to the compost bins. The large pots and tubs fit under it. I need to get something under the legs so they don’t start rotting away.

Plant Cage Plant Cage 2

The last project I’ve made so far was the most complicated. Every year I fight a battle with the squirrels and chipmunks to keep them from digging up the pots of tubers and seeds I’m starting and from ripping out my vegetable plants when I bring them out for hardening off. I constructed a cage of the salvaged cedar and chicken wire to protect up to four flats of pots. The whole thing is two feet high and the door is held shut with hook-and-eye closures. I’ve placed it up on cinder blocks in the garden work area. I think I’ll get a couple more blocks so it’s higher.

There is still a decent amount of wood left. The only other project I’d like to attempt is a planter box with a very tall trellis. There is a large space  on the back of the house right where we have our deck chairs. I dream of get morning glory and moonflower vines growing there next year.

Have you ever built something new from old materials? I’d like to hear about your projects if you have. They may give me some ideas of what to do with the wood I have left!

Another Accommodation and Another Native Bee

In case you were wondering, I did put a new roof on the birdhouse I found with the bumblebee nest remnants inside. I used some of the abundant pieces of cedar left over from last summer’s deck renovation. I cleaned out the old mouse and bee nest material  installed the new roof similarly to the original, though this is thicker wood. Inside I made a sort of hollow nest using some wool.

Bumblehouse1

Stalking around the garden the best place I could find where I could easily keep an eye on it turned out to be a bed in the angle of the house and deck. I nestled it onto the ground and heaped up some leaves around it leaving the opening visible and inviting. Here I can check it as I come and go and, with any luck, notice if a bee goes in or out.

Bumblehouse2

When I placed it, which was actually a few weeks ago I had hoped that the nearby crocus would help entice a bumblebee to move in. It was only this weekend, however, when I spotted my first queen bumblebee of the season. She was visiting the Scilla that blanket the garden and that so many bees are going ga-ga over.

Native Bee

Speaking of which, I managed to snap a picture of another native bee resting on the back of a Helleborus bloom.  So many bees! Spring is truly, finally here.

Make Your Own Plant Ties

I often laugh at the plant ties that are sold in gardening catalogs. Did you have any idea I was so cruel? Well, it’s true. I laugh because I make own and with just a little effort have more than enough to get me through a season. Since I prune and stake my tomatoes, I go through a lot of plant ties each year. Since I’m cheap, whenever I can make something myself or repurpose something I already have on hand. To make your own plant ties all you need  is a t-shirt that’s destined for the rag bin and a pair of scissors. (Edited to add:) I use 100% cotton shirts so I don’t have to worry about getting every piece during fall cleanup and the ones I miss can go right in the compost.

Jan 2014 Shirt to Ties

Start by laying the shirt flat and cutting through both layers straight across under the arms.

Jan 2014 Shirt to Ties 2

Fold one side of the resulting tube over to about an inch from the other side. The piece has been rotated in this view. See the hem on the right? Now cut 1” strips from the bottom edge up and just through the edge you’ve folded up but not all the way across. If your shirt is really thin you can cut the strips wider for stronger ties.

Jan 2014 Shirt to Ties 3

Here’s more of a close-up. Sorry it’s hard to see the edges with white on white.

Jan 2014 Shirt to Ties 4

Continue cutting the strips all the way down to the hem, which I leave on. Why work more than I have to?

Now comes the tricky clever part.

Jan 2014 Shirt to Ties 5

On the leftmost edge cut an angled cut through only one layer of cloth from the top of your first vertical cut out through the edge of the tube. Then cut through only one layer from the second vertical cut in front to the first cut in back. Repeat these cuts all along the rest of the vertical cuts. When you get to the end you’ll be cutting in from the outside edge of the hem to open the last loop.

Jan 2014 Shirt to Ties 6

Ta daaaaaah! You now have a continuous strip of material. Roll it into the ball and it’s ready to go to the garden.  There. Now you’ve got a little task you can do while you’re waiting for spring.

Since you’ve stuck with reading this all the way to the end, here’s a bonus tip: When I would tie up plants I used to cut off a length of the material first. Invariably it was either too long or too short. Now I keep the ball in a bag or bucket I take to wherever I’m tying up whatever. I just pull out the end of the strip, tie what I’m tying and then cut it.  I know. It’s not rocket science, but when I realized how much more efficient it was I was pretty proud of myself.

What common household items have you found uses for in your kitchen garden?