Friday, December 3, 2010

All the leaves are down...

Photo by Rachel Shaw
I admit fall is not my favorite season, mainly because of what follows all too soon. But it has its charms on  lovely mild days when the light is just right and the leaves have a golden glow. 

Raking leaves used to be one of the things I enjoyed about fall, and still do, though I’m doing a lot less of it. More and more people are making the case for not raking, or raking minimally, or composting raked leaves rather than bagging them. They make the case that leaves make a nice mulch, and and are a source of nutrients. After all, that lovely humus in the woods builds up naturally; it doesn’t come out of a plastic bag! 

So last year I raked only our small patch of grass, and left the beds pretty much alone. This year I’ve heard another good reason to let the leaves remain: they are protection for overwintering insects, including caterpillars. OK! Good enough for me. 

I do keep an eye out to make sure there aren’t too many maple leaves mounded around individual plants, as they have a tendency to form a dense wet mat. And I probably should have thought sooner to scoop up the leaves off the little patch of erstwhile lawn that I'm trying to convert to moss. I'll keep sweeping leaves off the flagstone front path, so it won't get slippery with leaves when it rains.  Otherwise, no raking.

And here’s a link to a beautiful blog on leaving the leaves, as well as on different styles of gardening:

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Certified Wildlife Habitat

Photo by Rachel Shaw
 This summer I decided to look into getting my yard certified as wildlife-friendly through the National Wildlife Federation. I'd seen the occasional "Certified Wildlife Habitat" yard sign, and thought it was pretty cool. Plus, the entire City of Rockville, MD, where I live, is trying to get certified, so I thought I'd do my part.

Photo by Rachel Shaw
Certification, it turns out, is not that hard. It is a self-certification process, relying on you to honestly report whether you meet certain criteria. These include such things as providing sources of food, water, cover, etc.;  there are various ways you can meet these criteria. There is a $20 fee for certification, and a $30 fee if you want the standard yard sign. To me it was well worth it, just for the value of being able to say, yes, this is important to me; I want my yard to be a haven for wildlife.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

a white loblia

My blue lobelia, Lobelia siphilicata, has always seemed a rather raggedy plant compared to the Lobelia cardinalis, or cardinal flower, which the hummingbirds love. By mid-summer the blue lobelia looks a bit dried up and not terribly attractive. Perhaps, I thought, it's less robust than the cardinal flower, which seems to handle drought pretty well for a water-loving plant.

While the cardinal flower happily seeds itself in throughout the yard, the blue lobelia has not reproduced at all...until this year. I was actually on the verge of pulling it out, when I discovered a flock of low growing, flowering new lobelias around the mother plant. Not only were they quite pretty, they also included some white flowers as well as the usual blue.

I realized that what I seeing must be the result of a mutation. Now I'm fascinated. What will happen next year? Will I have more white plants? And is the much shorter height also a mutation? I don't recall that in its first year of flowering the parent plant was short like these. For now, the blue lobelia stays!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bottle gentian and bees

The bottle gentian, Gentiana clausa, is a fall-blooming plant; the deep blue flowers provide a welcome splash of color as the summer-blooming plants die back  Also known as closed gentian, the mature flower looks like it is about to open but never does.

I wondered how such a flower was pollinated, and read that it is done by bumblebees, the only pollinators strong enough to force open the flowers. So I started watching. I had assumed that the bees would force the flower open from the top. But from what I observed, the bees clasp the bottom of the flower, facing downward to get pollen from the base. Fascinating!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Last Monarchs of the season?

I was excited to see Monarch caterpillars chewing on the leaves of my newest milkweed, Aesclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed.  I have several other swamp milkweed plants, which have seeded themselves in from one I bought at a garden center several years back. But those other plants are cultivars of Aesclepias incarnata, probably 'Ice ballet.' The flower of this cultivar is white, whereas my new plant is the straight species, with pink flowers. There is always the question with cultivars of native plants as to whether wildlife, especially insects, will be be able to feed on  them. I'm for the true natives when possible, and perhaps the caterpillars felt the same!

Several days later, I saw a lovely chrysalis hanging from one of my tomato cage supports. The  Monarch chrysalis, with its beautiful jade color and delicate threading of gold near the top always makes me think of stunning piece of jewelry.  In the photo you can actually just make out a bit of the colors of the caterpillar from inside the chrysalis!

Not too many days later there was just a papery empty shell left. Hopefully there's one more lovely Monarch flittering about, or perhaps heading down to Mexico. Here's a neat link with some information about the Monarch lifecycle plus video of one emerging.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ruby at Rest

OK, I finally got a hummingbird picture where the bird is at least visible. Next goal - Ruby in motion. I talked to someone recently who is an international birdwatcher and photographs all the birds he sees. He explained that to capture a hummingbird in motion, try using the sports setting on a digital camera.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tomatoes, tomatoes

The tomato harvest is coming in nicely. Patience is probably the key; they do seem to stay at the hard green stage for quite awhile, but once they start ripening it is pretty steady. We've been having lots of good salad, sometimes using lettuce that we've grown indoors on our Sunstation.

For eating fresh, the Brandywine is still my pick for the best flavor. The yellow pears are tasty and are low in acid. Brown berries are an excellent cherry tomato. The Cherokee purple are a bit of a disappointment, not terribly productive, especially after one of the main stems broke.

An interesting new one for us is a patio tomato with the uninspired name "Patio hybrid" from Totally Tomatoes seed company. The tomatoes felt so firm that we wondered if they were ripe, even when bright red. However, they sliced well, without the hard white core that the heirlooms are inclined to, and proved quite ripe and nice for sandwiches.

Last week we decided to try making tomato sauce.This was so much easier than I had imagined: dip the tomatoes in boiling water for 20 seconds, and then put them in a bowl of ice water. The skins really do slide right off! Our recipe was simple: garlic, onions, fresh oregano and basil, and our secret ingredient: ground buffalo meat. I don't know if it was the buffalo that did it, but the sauce was fabulous! A later batch made with ground beef was not remarkable, though other factors such as cooking time and the amount of fresh herbs added may have been in play.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The garden at mid-summer

It's been a very hot and dry summer here in Maryland, but a few replenishing rains recently have helped. The front garden, a mix of native and non-native, is doing well. Now that my rain barrel is full again, I can give the plants supplemental water without guilt.

The big stories of the moment - hummingbirds and tomatoes. On Sunday as we were getting out of the car I saw that the cardinal flowers in the front garden were starting to bloom, and I wondered when the hummingbirds would show up.  No sooner did I have the thought than two appeared, one hovering over the cardinal flowers, the other perusing the purple blossoms of the chaste tree. Last year I had a female virtually living in the yard for much of the summer -- I wonder if she is one of the two? So now, the quest for a really good photo of a hummingbird begins anew.

The tomatoes have puzzled me for awhile. All have had clusters of green tomatoes for weeks, and none seemed to be ripening, although now the Brown Berry, the Yellow Pear, and the Costaluto Genovese have begun. But the Brandywines and other large tomatoes remain resolutely green. I googled "tomatoes not ripening" and came up with 3 pieces of advice: 1) be patient, 2) cut back on water, and 3) fertilize. It had never occurred to me that it would be possible to water a potted tomato too much, and I'm still not sure about this, but I am cutting back just a bit. I sure want those big green softballs to fulfill their delicious potential.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Driveway Garden, Year 2

This is my second year of growing tomatoes and other vegetables in pots. So far, this is looking like a banner year. Last year's results were not all that impressive, though the attempt to grow cantaloupe and watermelon in large pots was fun and seemed promising at first.

This year, I've limited myself to the more traditional tomatoes and peppers, along with an okra and plans for a cucumber. The tomatoes look healthier and more productive than last year, and there are probably several reasons why. 

First, I started out with better transplants. Last year the plants I started from seed were pretty lanky by the time they got into the big pots. I let them sit outside in part shade, hardening off in small pots, while I got around to buying the large pots and preparing the soil mix. This year's plants got out sooner, and had sturdier stems to start with.

Second, I've been better about removing the suckers - the new leaves that start to grow between the main stem and a branch. Suckers left to grow turn into stems, which means more energy diverted from the growing plant. I try to get them when they are tiny, so as not to damage the plant. Last year I did some more vigorous pruning of larger stems, which my plants may not have appreciated.

Third, I mixed some fertilizer in with my soil mix, which was a blend of potting soil and compost. I'm not always so great about making sure my vegetable crops get some fertilizer.

Finally, I've been careful about giving them a good watering every day. It's been essential, as we've had many days with temps in the 90s.

All my plants have healthy looking tomatoes, though none have ripened yet. I'm growing mostly heirlooms: Cherokee Purple, Brandwine, Yellow Pear Cherry, Brown Berry, Amish Paste, Costaluto Genovese. I'm also growing a couple of hybrids: Micro Tom (a truly tiny plant with tiny tomatoes), and another patio variety called Container Choice Hybrid. Peppers are Poblano, Mohawk (supposed to be an orange bell pepper), Rainbow (also bell), and Salsa Mix (we'll see what that is.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A jaunt to Maryland's Eastern Shore

From the DC area it's only a couple of hours to the little town of St. Michaels, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. John and I headed over on a weekday, to avoid traffic on the Bay Bridge. We needed a mini vacation, and I thought a short trip to someplace on the water would be nice. St. Michaels is a pretty little town, and quiet on a Thursday. We enjoyed wandering around the town, and spent a peaceful half hour in sunny, nearly empty restaurant on nearby Tilghman Island, overlooking a little fishing harbor. Here I learned from John what a skipjack is - a fishing boat with one far forward mast, unique to the Chesapeake Bay.

I also wanted to visit Environmental Concern, a non-profit native plant nursery specializing in wetland plants of the Chesapeake region. They are housed in St. Michaels, and our trip was planned around their twice-yearly native plant sale and open house. Turned out we were a day too early for the open house, but we were kindly allowed to wander around the campus, after promising we wouldn't actually go in the greenhouses. We enjoyed hanging out at the freshwater and saltwater marshes.

We kept an eye out especially for turtles, one of my favorite animals. We didn't spot any in the freshwater marsh, but found quite an impressive specimen on the grass nearby!

Our visit the next day to Adkins Arboretum was  an unexpected bonus - I knew about this native plant arboretum, but hadn't realized it was only a half hour or so from St. Michaels. What a delight! The marshes near the nature center were teeming with sounds and sights - bullfrogs, snapping turtles, dragonflies, redwing blackbirds.

The meadow  path was thick with common milkweed, and we saw many zebra swallowtails feeding on their nectar. There are several miles of trails, through meadows and woodlands, and we're looking forward to returning for more exploration.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

More bees

It did indeed prove too late for the bee tubes I set out. I brought them inside so they'll be fresh for next year. I'll plan to set them out early next spring - March, I guess.

In  the meantime I've turned into a bee watcher. I don't see many butterflies in my yard, but I have lots of bees!  When my Penstemon digitalis started blooming I began to notice that there were always bumblebees hovering over the white tube-like flowers. I began watching more closely, and saw bees disappearing into the flowers, emerging a few seconds later to fly on to the next flower. It became a sight that delighted me: the glove-like fit between the flower and the bee, the idea that each is benefiting from the bee's visit.

Of course, I wanted to get the perfect picture, of a bee just about to enter a flower. This proved to be about as challenging as my attempt last summer to get a really good hummingbird picture. After many tries I've gotten a few that I like, but the quest continues.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Helping out the bees

I've been hearing a lot about solitary bees lately. Unlike honeybees, they're natives, they don't make honey, and seldom, if ever, sting. The females make nests in twigs, reeds, holes in wood, or tunnels in the ground. They'll lay an egg, put some food in with it, seal it off in its own compartment, lay another egg, and so on. The new bees emerge the following spring.

I'm for doing everything we can to help pollinators. So when I read about setting out tubes for the bees to use as nests, I decided to try it. (Paula Shrewsbury's description and photos in the Maryland Cooperative Extension Weekly Integrated Pest Management report really got me going; see p. 6.)  Here's what John and I came up with.

I ordered the tubes online (basically they're just straws made of heavy paper.) The instructions are to place the tubes off the ground and protect them from rain. John made a nice sheltered holder for the tubes out of a plastic container, and nailed it to the side of our shed. I tied up two sets of straws with cord, and we snugged them tightly into the container.

There are plenty of places that sell the bee tubes, as well as more substantial nesting materials such as wood "houses" with holes drilled in them. Some people just drill holes of different sizes in a piece of firewood. Overall, the tubes seemed quick and simple. (Well, simple now that John has the structure in place!)

The only thing is, I think we're a little late for this season; it sounds like the egg-laying is usually in March and April. But we just put out our setup out a couple of days ago, so we'll see. Meanwhile, I've got a lot to learn about bees. A source that looks interesting: the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A sneak attack: lesser celandine

I was happy last year to see the early blooming, cheerful marsh marigold, Caltha palustris, coming up in my garden. I remembered it with pleasure from my years living and hiking in Michigan, where it was one of the earliest wildflowers to appear in the woods, along with skunk cabbage. My new plant was next to a stepping stone, which must have kept the ground moist enough for the marigold.

Except it wasn't marsh marigold, it turns out, but a look-alike invasive known as lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria. I got the bad news via a short article in the Washington Post. I then googled lesser celandine, and came upon a great article that helped confirm what I now suspected:  

In addition to photos, the article lists some ways to distinguish the two plants. I dug up a bit of my plant, and sure enough, it had underground tubers, characteristic of lesser celandine.

The name celandine also applies to another cheerful yellow flowered plant, celandine poppy, Stylophorum diphyllum. Some of my master gardener friends suggest referring to it by its other common name, wood poppy, to avoid confusing it with the invader. Celandine poppy, though native, is considered by some to be somewhat invasive. It has been well-behaved for me, and I have it mixed in with the lovely native Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Native groundcovers for the Mid-Atlantic

I've been trying various groundcovers, mostly those native to the mid-Atlantic region, for different parts of my yard. One of the tough spots is on a slope under a large silver maple. It gets some eastern sun in the morning, but is mostly dry shade. The Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) I planted a couple of years ago is doing well and starting to spread. It is a pretty little grass-like plant that grows about six inches tall.

Last year I added Sedum ternatum, also native around here, and it has come through the winter well.

At the native plant sale at the National Arboretum, I picked up some Pachysandra procumbens after one of the vendors told me her sister had good success growing it under a large tree. I believe it is native a little further south than where I live in Maryland, but it will sure beat the non-native pachysandra, which I have plenty of in other parts of the yard. It's still dormant right now, so I'll have to see how it does.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lahr Symposium on native plants

The annual Lahr Symposium on native plants was held this past Saturday at the National Arboretum in Washington DC. I've gone for the last couple of years, and for more years than that to the native plant sale that accompanies it. It's a great event, and it's held at a great time of year - when spring is just getting underway. I always look forward to seeing the massive cherries in bloom at the Arboretum. Yes, I know they're not native, but aren't they magnificent?

This year two of the speakers, Darell Morrison and Bill Cullina, spoke about aspects of designing with native plants. Morrison, a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, talked about some of the large-scale projects he has designed using natives. Cullina talked about different botanical features of plants such as color, form, leaf variegation etc. can be used to advantage in the garden.

The third speaker, Kim Winter, talked about attracting wildlife to the garden. It was particularly interesting to me that she mentioned solitary bees. I had just recently read a short article about using small cardboard tubes as nesting cavities for these bees, and so it was already on my mind. She gave a link to a website I'll be exploring:

I also got to go on a guided wildflower walk at the Arboretum's newly renovated Fern Hill wildflower garden. It was a chilly but sunny day, and many things were just starting to poke out of the ground, while a few things were already blooming, including Dutchman's breeches, trillium (the red one, I think commonly known as wake-robin), and one of my favorite shrubs, spicebush (Lindera benzoin) which has little yellow flowers and emits a spicy smell when the bark is scratched. Wish I had a place in the yard for one of these guys!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tree Repair

We followed advice from the arborist and bolted the fig tree's torn limb back onto the main trunk. It required my handy husband drilling a hole through the limb and the trunk, and then fastening the bolts on while I held the limb up as tight as I could against the trunk. It looks pretty good! My only question is, as the trunk grows, do you need to remove the bolt, or do you just let the trunk grow around it? Perhaps it's just like a human having a piece of metal holding a knee or shoulder together.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More snowstorm damage

As the snow has melted off, more of the damage to trees and shrubs has been revealed. A large branch on my fig tree was ripped nearly off, and now I can see that the wound is pretty deep into the main stem. We've called an arborist to see if the tree can be saved.

And there's the arborvitae. I didn't know that they are often multi-stemmed - the one I learned in my woody plants class had a single stem. At any rate, the multiple stems all sagged in different directions under the weight of the snow - something not so dramatically evident till the snow was mostly gone.

The upside to this destruction is that I have more and more excuses to go shopping for native plants as replacements!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Big snow - the aftermath

We are still living with mountains of snow, albeit no longer the beautiful white fluffy stuff, but dirty old snow. As it slowly melts, damage to trees and shrubs continues to be revealed. My fig tree took a hit; one large branch is broken though still attached to the main trunk. We may have the tree service prune the limb off neatly when they come for other cleanup.

I'm happy that some of my less loved shrubs may be damaged after resting under heavy snow and ice for some time. I'm hoping that storm damage will make it easier to kill these non-natives off: nandina, privet, burning bush. The nandina was encased in ice for awhile that dripped from large icycles. That seems to have melted, and I'm afraid it looks surprisingly perky under the snow. One can only hope it may be weakened, at least, and a little easier to take out.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Way too much winter

 Our front walk - before shoveling
We don't live in the Midwest, but it suddenly looks like it. A couple of feet of snow very effectively shut down the Metro DC area, starting Friday when the federal government closed early in anticipation of this mammoth storm. Today is Monday and everyone is still digging out, with more snow expected tomorrow night. It's nice to be forced to slow down -- watch some movies, sleep in, enjoy watching the snow pile up, and figure you're not going anywhere for awhile.

It's been pretty fun, except for the discovery on Saturday afternoon that three trees bordering our driveway had come down. One is resting on a powerline, one on the tail end of our car, and one along our neighbor's walkway. Amazingly, the powerline was not brought down, and we think the car may be undamaged. The neighbors were able to move the tree on their walk enough so they can get in and out of their door. So we're just waiting for the power company to move the tree off the line; then we can get a tree company to clear away the other two  trees. The trees, I've found out, are Leyland Cypress, and they have a bad reputation for growing very fast, being shallow rooted, and coming down in storms. Indeed!

One way to "green" your driveway


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

From seed to seedlings

Since my last post many of the seeds have become seedlings. On the tiny side: the rosemary and lavender. On the towering side (relatively speaking) the okra, now about 5 inches tall. And most amazing, each of the dwarf pea plants has a single white flower bud. What do they think they're doing?! Are they going to produce pea pods that are bigger than the plants themselves?


Jan. 17 - Okra (foreground), Cilantro  (back left), Basil (back right)

Jan. 28 - Okra; Peas

Sunday, January 10, 2010

John and Rachel's funky seed starting process

We have experimented with many methods, and various soilless mixes and seed starting mixes, in our adventures with seed starting. Now we are using what are called "Park Starts" from Park Seed Company. They are little plugs of sponge-like material. They are designed to go in a tray holding 60 of these starts. That assumes you'd like a rather large quantity of something, or several somethings, like lettuce or other greens, to set outdoors. But we've found that Park Starts work very well for starting almost any seed, and John has engineered a method for starting small quantities of seed using these plugs and the plastic containers which are used for Chinese takeout. He punches 4 holes in the plastic lid, and the plugs rest in these holes.  They are very easy to transplant into a 4 inch or larger pot later on. A plastic cup can sit on top as a humidity dome and is removed when seeds germinate.

On January 7 I started several sets of seeds using Park Starts. I put 2-3 seeds per Park Start into the little hole in the center of each plug. The only exception was the peas; with such large seeds, I only put one seed per plug.We give each plug one teaspoon of water to start with, and check daily. You want the plugs barely moist, but not too wet.

Already the peas are starting to unfold as seedlings - amazing. The others seeds: peppers, rosemary, cilantro, lavender, dwarf okra, will take varying amounts of time to germinate. I have started all of these seeds indoors before, using a bit more traditional methods, with the exception of rosemary, which I believe can take quite a long time to germinate. We'll see.

John started basil seeds on January 3, and the little seedlings have already got their seed leaves. In a few days he will choose the strongest seedling and carefully snip the stems of any other seedlings sharing the same plug.
Basil has turned out to be an amazing indoor plant; John harvests it regularly from his tabletop growlight system at work.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The last rose of winter, and the seeds of spring

Winter came hard and fast, with 21 inches of snow in the DC area right before Christmas. It had been fairly mild up until then, and this rose had managed to unfold. Then, kaboom.

My potted blueberry plant ended up with quite a load of snow!

Indoors, there are still many pots and plant trays that need to be washed, and we've only managed to transplant a couple of peppers and eggplants into bigger pots. But the holidays are past; no more excuses. Time to get busy.

We need to get some seeds going, as we're planning to have a booth at the DC Home and Garden Show in March. We'll want to have plants in various stages of growth in order to display how our system works. If I were starting these for outdoor transplanting, I'd wait a bit. For most plants, especially warm weather crops like tomatoes and peppers, starting from seed this early would mean enormously overgrown plants by the time the weather is warm. But for indoor growing, anytime is a good time to plant seeds. So I'm starting okra, peas, lavender, peppers, rosemary. With the next post, I'll show exactly how we do it.