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.

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!

Garden Green

I visited the garden this morning to check that everything was OK before the heat wave hits. Not looking forward to that. It’s going to be “a real stinkroo” as my friend Martha puts it. In any case, I found lots of green.

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The next round of broccoli is coming along nestled in blue green leaves.

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Plenty of little green lanterns on the tomatillo plant. I see enchilada sauce and jars of salsa in our future.

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Many bell peppers. Big, green and solid!

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And look at all the Poblanos! I grew two this year because last year’s made such a poor showing. Now both are laden with their dark green fruit.

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And tomatoes! Green tomatoes! These are Amish Paste, I think.

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Lots of little, green cherry tomatoes, too.

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Even green striped tomatoes. Green on green…

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And this big green dude. Yup. Green. More green…

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Uh, huh. Yeah, we saw green Amish Paste already…

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Enough, already! I want a ripe tomato! Last year I was at least getting a hint of color weeks earlier. What gives? In 2014 I was picking cherry tomatoes on July 10.

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Ah! Finally. The lone tomato showing any color. It’s an Opalka, a paste variety and it has many, many green compatriots hanging on the vines. They’d better ripen soon. I’m getting a little tired of green. Open-mouthed smile

First Digging

I did my first real digging in the garden for the season. I’d like to say it was a big session of planting or even working in compost, but it was some less glamorous maintenance. The garden committee, during the annual checking of the corner posts decided to also start policing path encroachments again (there had been some hub-bub last season around that topic.) So it was that my pathside edge where I had sunk boards to slow weed encroachment was torn out and tossed into the plot. The previous gardeners had apparently expanded the garden a bit and I just continued on the tradition.

Garden Edge 2016

It only took about an hour of digging and fiddling around to get the boards reinstalled in compliance with the rules—or so I hope. The bare soil along the path now will be seeded with Dutch white clover for the pollinators. I even found some concrete pavers I used to make a welcoming entrance to the plot. Of course, I also restrung that green rope to make it clear that the welcoming entrance is purely visual. It was nice to get into the soil. It’s perfectly moist and friable right now. The veggies are going to love it. I would rather have been working with them, but this was a good warm-up to the season, which has been slow this year. I was reminded once again that the muscles I use to dig are different from the ones I use to lay around and read all winter.

Hello, Spring. Goodbye, Bees.

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Today was the first time we’ve gone up to our community garden plot this spring. There are a few signs of green besides the occasional weed, including those healthy looking chives. I’ve dropped by a few times over the winter, but today we actually did a little bit of work, mostly clearing away last year’s asparagus stems. We found shoots!

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Out of all the plants, I think this might have been the only female and I’m wondering if there’s a correlation between it’s sex and that it’s the first one out of the ground. More likely it’s just the best-protected plant.

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These scallions that I left in last fall are going to be ready to harvest soon. I need to make a note to grow them over the winter again. They’ve done well.

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In another Allium area we found the garlic looking great. I did a quick scan of the anal-retentive grid I planted them on and it looks like every bulb I put in survived and has emerged.

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This Allium, which I thought might be Korean chives, has come back strong. I am curious to really identify it, if possible, now that I’m reading Around the World in 80 Plants.  There are so many edible Alliums! It sounds like even experts have a difficult time telling some of them apart. Which reminds me, back in the perennial garden at home my ramps, a.k.a. Allium tricoccum are up. I hope this year I can get some seed from them.

Ramps

I need to find an unobtrusive way to mark where they are planted so I don’t accidentally dig them up during this summer’s planned garden update. Maybe a circle of stones.

Hellebore 1

Elsewhere in the perennial garden the hellebores are stealing the show. After yesterday’s on again/off again snow and sunshine—seriously, it was a weird day— I got out to look around and admire a few blooms.

Hellebore 2

Hellebore 3

Hellebore 4

Hellebore 5

Niger

This clump of Helleborus niger var. macranthus is starting to look a little beaten-up. No surprise since it’s been blooming for about a month and has been snowed and sleeted on several times.

Birdhouse

The H. niger is under the cherry tree where I replaced the trashed cigar box birdhouse (thanks for nothing, squirrels!) with this one I scavenged from my late father’s shed last fall. There is already some nesting material hanging out of the backyard wren house so I thought I’d better get this one out.

Which brings me to the other animal housing update…

Bee Blocks

Here are the deserted blocks that, until last weekend supported my beehives. A couple summers ago I discovered the hard way that I’ve developed an allergy to honey bee venom. (The emergency room just over the hill here is very nice.) Since then, I just haven’t felt comfortable around the hives without being fully suited up. Consequently, maintenance of the garden has suffered. I recently made the hard decision to give up the bees and turned them over, along with all my equipment to my beekeeping partner to liquidate. Helen, the last hive I had has survived through two winters so he’s going to attempt to make some splits. They should be rather desirable on the local market. I’m going to miss watching the annual cycle of the hive and caring for the honey bees. They’re fascinating creatures I’ll always appreciate. In their place I’ll be caring to the extent I do to the native bees and other pollinators around my home gardens and in our community garden plot by providing food plants and housing opportunities for them.

Scilla

The food, of course, includes my nemesis, the dreaded Scilla. I’ve given up trying eradicate it from the back garden and hope just to keep it from invading the front. It’s still a noxious, alien weed in my eyes, but knowing it provides food for so many kinds of bees has changed my opinion of it, but only grudgingly.