I saw this in my lawn today. It’s a slime mold, which is not something you see very often, although it’s more common than most realize. These are some of the most fascinating, bizarre living things in existence. They move around, albeit slowly, like the Blob (of the old movie) and they look like the Blob too. What are they doing? Well, not much. Just cruising around, digesting organic matter (i.e. decomposing grass and the like). They only appear when it’s moist, such as after a rain. Often, they appear at night, when it’s dewy and humid, but shrivel away in the bright warmth of the day. They are disgusting-looking, without a doubt, and have rightfully earned the colorful nickname “dog vomit fungus”. Even so, it’s one of the fun little surprises that nature sometimes offers up.
Everyone’s heard about the unusually rough winter we had in the Midwest this year. I lost several plants that were marginally hardy here in Zone 5, which had survived for a number of previous winters, but gave up the ghost this time around. Something especially interesting happened with my redbuds. I had four kinds: generic, Forest Pansy, Burgundy Hearts and The Rising Sun (shown here). The Rising Sun (my fav!) and the generic redbud grew out this spring unscathed. Forest Pansy and Burgundy Hearts—well established specimens—were killed. This illustrates the natural variability within plant species, and why the variety and source matters. When you’re growing a plant near its hardiness limit, it doesn’t take too severe of a winter to push it over the edge.
There are two lessons here: first, do your homework and choose varieties known to be relatively winter hardy. Sometimes these exist, sometime not, but it’s worth checking, especially for high value plants like trees. The grower of The Rising Sun, Green Leaf Nursery, told me that they believed it was slightly hardier than the average redbud. Sure enough, it lived where others died. (Japanese maple is another example of a species that varies a lot in hardiness.)
Second, the geographical origin of the tree’s genetics, known as its “provenance”, matters. A flowering dogwood growing in the forests of Missouri will most likely have better cold tolerance than one growing naturally in, say, Florida. Each is adapted to its environment, and a colder environment means that trees from there will be better adapted to cold. Thoughtful growers act on this by seeking plant and seed sources from northern areas, when possible, and conscientious garden retailers try to stock plants from such growers. On the other hand, many retailers stock trees and shrubs grown in warmer regions. You can tell because they’re selling leafed-out specimens when the native landscape is still bare, a dead giveaway that the plant just arrived on a truck from, perhaps, hundreds of miles south.
If a plant is rated for one or more Zones colder than yours, this probably doesn’t matter. But if a plant is rated only to your Zone, it may pay to be choosy.
By Abbey Barrow
After a long, sometimes treacherous, winter, the first signs of spring are beginning to emerge. The temperature is slowly climbing, parks and outdoor hotspots are packed, and the first buds are blooming on our trees and in our gardens. But one of the most welcome signs of spring is that of the songbirds are chirping in the trees. Their melodies make for early morning greetings and a reminder that the full-fledged beauty of spring is right around the corner.
Just in time, The US Postal Service is celebrating the sounds of spring with their collection of songbird postage stamps. Featuring a wide array of 10 different birds from across the nation (including the Mountain Bluebird, Baltimore Oriole, and American Goldfinch), the collection is sure to add a little dose of joy to the mail. The beautiful songbird images, created by illustrator Robert Giusti, feature each bird perched upon a branch accented with buds, leaves, and flowers.
But the timing of the stamp collection also correlates with a dangerous time in the life of a bird as several of the species featured on the stamps will be migrating within the next couple weeks. Besides marking mail with a beautiful songbird to raise awareness of the migration trials, there are other ways to help out our avian friends during this challenging season.
In fact, the American Bird Conservancy has released a list of migration season dangers and suggestions for how we can help the birds in our areas thrive. These include everything from making sure cats are inside, to applying treatments to prevent birds from hitting your windows when they’re travelling. The ABC even suggests ways you can foster a bird’s habitat with a backyard native plant garden. This area will supply a native insect population for the birds to eat, helping the area’s species to thrive. But perhaps the best way to help the birds is one of the simplest: watch them. Take note of their patterns and develop an appreciation for just how amazing these creatures are. To purchase the Songbird Collection of Stamps, head to Usps.com/stamps or US Post Offices nationwide
For more information on spring migration, see the rest of the American Bird Conservancy’s tips here (http://www.abcbirds.org/newsandreports/releases/140320.html)
Spring in the Midwest is a tempestuous time. The weather patterns are at their most active as warm and cold battle for dominance. Here in Iowa, we had mid 80s on Saturday. This morning, we woke up to snow. Ughhh.
Spring snow usually won’t hurt cool-season plants: bulbs, pansies, spring veggies like broccoli, onions and brussels sprouts. They’ll take a good bit of freezing weather with little or no damage. (Brussels sprouts are incredibly cold tolerant, I discovered this spring. I planted some in the ground just before we got a 23 degree night a couple of weeks ago. They took a hit, but didn’t die and they’re coming back.)
Unfortunately, stores sell warm-season annuals sooner than they should, and unwitting customers buy and plant them too soon, only to see them die in a late frost. Know your last frost date. You can find it here. Plant summer annuals and veggies about 2-3 weeks after the average last frost date. Cool-season annuals and veggies, perhaps 2-3 weeks before the average last frost date. (Unless you live in Zone 9 or 10, where cool season plants can live all winter.)
Who could possibly be drilling at this hour of the morning? I thought as I tossed and turned in the early spring morning darkness a few days ago. Just as I’d drift back off to sleep, the incessant hammering would start up again. For someone to be jackhammering at this hour, it must be an emergency! Not until I gave in to the fact that I wouldn’t get back to sleep, I pulled on my jeans and leashed my two good dogs to attend to our early morning ablutions in the front yard. There, astride the roof vent atop my two-story bungalow, was a Northern Flicker—handsome black-scalloped plumage and bright red chevron at the nape of the neck—methodically drumming away for all the world to hear. I should have known. After all, the Northern Flicker’s wicka-wicka-wicka calls from high up the contorted branched of the Bur Oaks that dominate my turn-of-the-century neighborhood have been the soundtrack to my evening dog walks as of late. The House Finches are singing their sweet twittering song, the striking male Northern Cardinals’ are defending their turf with their constant metallic chips, and the red-breasted American Robins are whistling their melodic cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up. And, right on schedule, the majestic Turkey Vultures have returned from their winter vacations from as far away as South America, their distinctive two-toned white and black undersides and pinkish red unfeathered heads visible as they glide the thermals and fill the evening sky. Groups of vultures spiral upward to gain altitude in groups called “kettles” and last night—to my rapture-loving delight—I counted more then 60 soaring with their V-shaped wings making swooping, wobbly circles above me. The sensation was literally vertigo-inducing. My snowdrops are finally blooming, my witch hazel is showing promise, and spring has officially arrived in Iowa.
Bible gardening—cultivating plant species (or their close relatives) that are mentioned in the bible—is a fairly common garden theme. Also fairly common are books about plants of the bible. But I just received a review copy of an actual bible for gardeners: God’s Word for Gardeners Bible, edited by Shelley Cramm. It’s the first one like it that I’ve seen (there could be others in print, for all I know, but try Googling “gardener’s bible” and you’ll see why I gave up the search!). It’s no textbook, although it does contain a lot of interesting horticultural knowledge about plants and their cultivation. Rather, it’s the full bible, liberally supplemented with spiritual and personal reflections, garden quotes and anecdotes from various sources, and historical background that helps bring context to biblical plant references. For those who think of gardening as a spiritual exercise, it’s definitely worth a look. As a bonus, it’s nicely printed and bound, too, with a beautiful cover shot. Amazon shows a release date of March 25. It’s $25.98 for the hardcover.