Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

November 2009

You’ve heard of the proverbial kid who, when asked if he knew where milk comes from, said: “Of course. It comes from the store!”

Do you ever wonder where some plants come from? Or, more accurately, where they came from?  Many, though certainly not all, of the plants we commonly grow in landscapes are native to the Old World. When Europeans settled the New World, they brought these plants with them. Maybe that’s why so many Americans go through their lives never having seen the original native types—they’re native to  somewhere else! (And I may be one of the geeky minority that actually spends time wondering about it, but that’s another issue.)

On a recent jaunt up an Italian hillside, I came across this. (If  you’re thinking Better Homes and Gardens pays its editors to travel Europe,  think again! This was just a personal vacation.) Most of you will have no trouble recognizing it. Cylamen, growing wild. It was very common in the area, and quite lovely. Not as big as the florist types you see in shops, but just as colorful. It’s fun to see plants in their native environment, unhybridized, uncivilized. And I think it helps people make the connection between what grows in their gardens and nature. Gardens are just collections of pieces of nature, pulled together in a pleasing way. Tamed, but nature nonetheless. It’s good to remember. It gives you new perspective on what’s growing outside your door.

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Floating row cover protected this Provencal mesclun mix from earlier snows and frosts.

Floating row cover protected this Provencal mesclun mix from earlier snows and frosts.

You can have fresh greens from the garden on the table for Thanksgiving dinner, even in central Iowa where the average first frost date arrives in early October. This year my yard was blanketed in snow on the 10th of October. Tender veggies such as the tomatoes and peppers turned to mush after that blast of cold. But other hardier crops continue to thrive despite sub-freezing weather.

I’ve been enjoying salads of chard and mesclun mix (a blend of lettuces and Asian greens) for the last several weeks, and expect to serve some up with the turkey and dressing at Thanksgiving when my family is visiting. I planted the mesclun mix in August, and covered it with floating row cover soon after it emerged, partly to protect it from marauding rabbits, and partly to prevent damage from frost.

Leaves of Bull's Blood beet add wonderful color to salads.

Leaves of Bull's Blood beet add wonderful color to salads.

I’ll add some Bull’s Blood beet greens to the salad to liven up the blend. I grow this beet almost exclusively for its brilliant red/maroon leaves, which are mild and tasty, especially during the cool weather of fall and spring.

BroccoliFresh broccoli is also on the menu. After I harvest the primary head, I let the side shoot sprout. They’ll continue to produce until temperatures dip into the low 20s F. These smaller heads easily fit into the vegetable steamer without needing to be chopped up. Flavor improves with the cool weather. And best yet, there’s no need to worry about closely examining the tight clusters for hidden worms! I prefer to get my Thanksgiving dinner protein source from turkey rather than cabbage loopers.


Reliving my childhood through an old nursery rhyme? Hardly. I’m just summing up last weekend’s hike through the beautiful Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids, Iowa, which has its share of hickory trees and burdock.

I’m a big fan of the former, and unlike burdock, it seems to be in short supply around these parts. Not surprising, as hickories are never sold at nurseries. Fortunately, the 5,000-acre Conservancy has its fair share of these outstanding hardwood giants. Here’s one I snapped while on my hike.

A beautiful shagbark hickory tree in Coon Rapids, Iowa.

A beautiful Shagbark hickory tree in Coon Rapids, Iowa.

Hickory trees have a reputation of being slow growers. Yes and no. The first few years, the seedlings put all their strength into growing roots as a natural defense against foraging critters. If tops are snipped, strong roots have the stamina to send up new shoots repeatedly. Seedlings only grow a few inches annually until they’re about 5 years old, at which time they start growing at a fairly normal rate for hardwoods—12 to 15 inches a year.

Shagbark and Shellbark hickory are favored by most because of their attractive shedding bark and tasty nuts. But Bitternut hickory grows the fastest, so if you don’t care about edible nuts, try that one instead. All hickory trees have nice yellow fall color.

Hickories are easy to start from seed. Throw the nuts in a bucket of water for 24 hours. Discard floaters and let the others air dry before placing in a sealed plastic bag of slightly moist peat moss. Store the bag in the refrigerator crisper for 4 to 5 months. Check on the nuts occasionally. If you find mold, wipe it off and dip the nuts in a 10-percent bleach solution; let them air dry, then put them in a clean bag filled with new peat moss.

Come spring, wrap each nut loosely with chicken wire before planting to discourage squirrels and chipmunks. Fence seedlings to protect against rabbits and deer. Mulch with shredded leaves and keep watered. Soon enough you’ll have an outstanding landscape tree that virtually no one else in your neighborhood has.

One caveat: because adult trees drop nuts, keep hickory trees away from the house and driveway. They’re better suited for a back corner, where you can enjoy the fall color while watching squirrels play catch with the crop.

Another view of the majestic Shagbark hickory.

Another view of the majestic Shagbark hickory.



terracotta

Putting away my terra cotta pots is my final chore of the season. Terra cotta is my material of choice when it comes to the containers that grace my garden and front porch. I love the natural look of terra cotta (Italian for “baked earth”) and have amassed quite a collection of cool clay containers over the years. But like all crockery, terra cotta breaks when dropped and often cracks or flakes when exposed to repeated freeze-that cycles in the winter. So I keep mine stacked in a lopsided shed attached to the rear of my nearly hundred-year-old house.  Every year at this time I empty my spent containers in the compost bin, I make sure to remove all the loose debris and dirt from the pots. I spray them down with the hose and scrub them clean with a stiff brush before carting them to the shed. Cleaning your pots from year to year prevents passing fungi, bacteria, or viruses. And because clay is porous, salts in fertilizers pass through the pots walls and accumulate on the outside. That’s what that hard white crust is. Clean it off with a baking soda paste and a soft brush. Nothing looks nicer than stacks and stacks of clean terra cotta pots waiting for warmer weather.


While there’s  still a bit blooming in my garden (for example, ‘Rozanne’ geranium, ‘Luscious Citrus Blend‘ lantana, and ‘Little Mischief’ shrub rose), my attention has pretty much turned to my indoor garden.

I have some of the usual suspects (ficus and moth orchids, for example), but I also grow some less traditional choices, including a white double impatiens (shown here), a few fun plectranthus, and of course my favorite passionflowers.

Why bother with so many houseplants? Besides the fact that I’m a gardening fanatic, I know they also help my health. A number of scientific studies have revealed that simply having plants around can reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and help improve concentration.

Plants are good for my physical health in other ways, too. NASA experiments have shown that plants are able to remove nasty pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene from the air.

And my indoor plants release moisture into the air as a part of their breathing process — this increases the relative humidity in the rooms where I keep my plants. Spending time in these rooms is like a mini vacation from the desert-dry air coming out of my home’s furnace.

Really when it all comes down to it, though, I’m a plant lover. Do you have houseplants? If so, share your reasons with me by commenting below!


I vacationed in Tuscany recently, and between all the art museums, shops and great restaurants, it’s surprising that what I’ll probably remember best was a visit with a local blacksmith named Carlo.

His family has worked out of this same shop for more than 200 years, and Carlo claims that the furnace fire has not gone out once in all that time. (I believe it, and I’ll explain why, below.) Carlo is the real thing — he really does this for a living. He’s not some historical re-enactor. He mainly makes garden tools, kitchen knives and other implements. I bought a spade (sans handle) for 10 Euros. Not bad.

Carlo and his hammer: Last of his kind.

Carlo and his hammer: Last of his kind.

Now, it’s not like a blacksmith is THAT amazing. We’ve all seen them before, at least in re-enactments. But his shop is one of the most ingenious setups I’ve ever seen. You see, before this was a “blacksmithery”, it was a mill, powered by water. More than 200 years ago, one of Carlo’s ancestors figured out how to turn it into a blacksmith workshop. See the giant hammer and anvil in the photo? It’s powered by water. The furnace? It’s stoked by a constant flow of air —powered by water (and no moving parts, so it never stops blowing, which is why the fire’s never gone out). Lights, when he needs them, are run off a generator. He even has an arc welder—yes, powered by water. (I think that’s a more recent addition!) I can’ t describe how it all works in this short space, but it was utterly brilliant engineering, all created before electricity and internal combustion engines. Our guide told us that, as far as anyone knew, this technology was  unique to this one little valley in Tuscany. There used to be several blacksmiths with similar shops in the area. Today, only this one remains. We like to think we’re smarter today  than we used to be.  Seeing this reminded me that’s not so.

Carlo is the last in the family line of blacksmiths. He’ s considered a local treasure, and once he’s gone (not to be morbid, but he’s 76 years old) there are plans to preserve the work shop. But it’s sad that he has no child to carry on—his son has vision problems that prevent it). It was a privilege to meet him, and touch this connection to another time.


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