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Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

December 2009

The Creatures Were Stirring

Winter Scenes 008Winter Scenes 002All was quiet inside the McKeon house as we slumbered through the predawn hours of Christmas day. While reindeer danced through our dreams, white-tail deer partied the night away in our backyard. We awoke to, not the sound of hooves on the roof, but to the sight of tracks in freshly fallen snow. And to our wondering surprise, four does were lingering in the garden—a flower border planted last summer for birds and butterflies, not grazers.

We had no eyewitness accounts of rabbits, but dozens of telltale hopper trails were all the evidence we needed to prove that a family of cottontails was spending the holiday sleeping off their midnight meal in the cozy warren of our brush pile.

In the wild, deer and rabbits survive cold winters by nibbling on the tender branches from the previous year’s growing season. Called browsing, this method of search-and-devour is Mother Nature’s way of providing food for her flock and pruning crowded vegetation. For gardeners, however, losing plants to hungry critters can be a lot harder on the pocketbook than window shopping, the more common definition of browsing. If left unprotected, young trees and shrubs can be nibbled to nubbins in no time.

I’m all for creating backyard wildlife habitats. Selfishly, though, I like to protect my landscaping investments. The secret to a landscape that caters to both people and wildlife is to reach a respectful balance. I figure if I can successfully keep deer and rabbits from dining on new plantings for the first few years, the trees and shrubs will grow big and strong enough to tolerate a chewed-off branch here and there.

Many gardeners use barriers, such as cages made of stakes and chicken wire, to keep winter browsers at bay. This method is very effective, especially if you have just a few specimens to protect. For large numbers of trees and shrubs, a good alternative is one of the natural wildlife deterrents, such as Liquid Fence and Messina Wildlife Products. These manufacturers offer formulations for just about every critter. The trick is to apply them regularly (every 30 days) when temperatures are above the freezing mark.

What Earth-kind methods do you use to protect your plants from wildlife damage? We would love to hear from you!


Add Color in Winter

wgoldenmugoIf you live in a cold, snowy climate like I do and long for a splash of color in your landscape, try interesting conifers.

Most gardeners are familiar with blue spruce, which shows off lovely silvery-blue needles all year long. Its cool hue is a wonderful subtle accent to the landscape.

Look around and you can find varieties that show off other shades, as well. For example, the golden mugo pine shown here offers rich green needles in spring, summer, and fall; in winter they turn a bright shade of gold. There’s another full-size pine, ‘Taylor’s Gold’, that does the same thing. You can find gold versions of many others, as well — from junipers to false cedars.

It’s easy to add an evergreen or two to your yard for year round beauty.

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Another Use for Dandelions

That golden bane of perfect green lawns may soon earn a place of prominence in the horticultural world. Sure, there are gardeners who occasionally harvest dandelion greens for salads or make batches of homemade dandelion wine, but the plant remains an all-too-common weed despised by most suburban homeowners.

dandelionThat may all change if researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany have any say. They’ve discovered how to make lemonade out of lemons, if you will, by harvesting dandelion latex (that white sticky stuff in dandelion stems) to make rubber. The idea isn’t new. During World War II, the Allies experimented with all sorts of alternatives to latex from rubber trees because plantations in Southeast Asia had fallen under control of the Japanese. But dandelion rubber never took off, partly because dandelion latex polymerizes (sets up) when it hits the air. The German researchers have been able to turn off the enzymes that cause polymerization, and in the process, increase dandelion latex yields by 500 percent. Time magazine called it one of the 50 best inventions of 2009.

Healthy rubber trees still produce a lot more latex than a dandelion plant, but a serious fungus is threatening to wipe out commercial rubber production from trees. The disease has already eliminated widespread rubber tree cultivation in South America, and is threatening to do so in Southeast Asia.

Rubber from natural latex is important in making car tires elastic enough to inflate. If latex from rubber trees becomes unavailable, that from dandelions may take its place. Another bonus of dandelion latex–it appears to be less allergenic than latex from rubber trees.

So, next spring if your neighbors complain about the crop of dandelions in your front yard, just let them know that you’re on the cutting edge of technology, and have started your very own dandelion latex plantation.

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Holiday Decor Idea

Looking for an easy way to give your yard an elegant holiday feel? Instead of going crazy with lights, inflatable figures, and some of the other holiday-landscape bling that’s so popular these days, try echoing nature.

One of my favorite holiday elements is snow…so look for ways to create the sense of snowflakes. For example, hang a few wire balls (such as the one shown here) from your trees. Or, make your own versions by cutting and painting snowflake-shape pieces of plastic from milk cartons, old CDs, or other objects.

While it’s not a new idea, you can also do a lot with branches and berries. For example, the bold color of red-twig dogwood really stands out against snow. And there are lots of trees and shrubs with beautiful berries. The fruits do double duty: They look good on their own and may also attract colorful birds.


Griswold would approve

This seems to be the year that a major shift is happening in Christmas decor. It’s the year that LED Christmas lights came of age. You see them everywhere this year — their appearance is strikingly different than incandescent lights so they’re hard to miss. Take a look down some well-lit street in your neighborhood this week and you’ll see. The jewel-like colors of LED lights are nothing at all like the old types. They’re “cooler”, more richly colored. They really jump out.

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One thing I REALLY like about LED lights: They use so little power, you  can string many together. (Remember how incandescent lights can only have up to 3 strands in series?) That means a lot fewer extension cords laying all over the place. It’s safer, and much less hassle to put them up. In addition, they last much longer than incandescent bulbs.

Back to the lower power consumption: That’s a good thing, of course, but have no illusions this is a money saving strategy. They will never pay for themselves. Not at this year’s prices anyway. I expect the cost to come down soon. But this year, it was a little shocking to pay $7-$8 per strand, when I’ve been used to picking up a string of lights for next to nothing.

I saw on some website that a string of icicle lights consumes around 40 watts of power. That compares to about 2.5 watts for a string of LED lights. Big difference. I figured out that replacing my five strings of icicle lights on my house with LED lights will save me — drumroll please — $3.89.  That’s per month. And it cost me $50 to buy the new ones. Well, at least I’m trendy!


Garden Collectibles

My passion for all things gardening extends well beyond the confines of my garden beds. It fills every nook and cranny of my Arts and Crafts bungalow. It crowds my mantel and lines my porch steps. It fills my bookshelves and decorates my walls. I am, after all, an inveterate collector. And I collect all kinds of cool garden-related stuff, like old hand tools and watering cans, out-of-print garden books, terra cotta pots, vintage garden prints and postcards, black-and-white snapshots of strangers posing with plants, wrought iron garden figurines, even old seed packets and, of course, garden magazines.oldpostcard

Which is why I’m excited about some of Country Garden’s upcoming garden collectibles stories for 2010. In our Early Spring issue (on sale January 12th) we explore floral frogs, in the Spring issue (on sale March 9th), we tackle Bybee Pottery from Kentucky, and in the Summer issue (on sale May 18th) we showcase one of my personal favorite collectibles, Roseville Pottery. We even paired each of the featured floral patterns with the corresponding cut flower. For the Fall issue (on sale in August), we’re trying to decide between antique seed boxes or purple bottles. Which would you rather see featured?

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Here are a handful of glazed garden-related tiles that I’ve recently started collecting. I’m thinking of working them into the backsplash of my upcoming kitchen remodeling. The ones above came from a trip I took to Spain years ago. I found them in a little shop in the Prado Gardens in Madrid. And, if I remember correctly at least two of the tiles below came from Left Bank Antiques in Anacortes, Washington. What garden collectibles catch your eye?

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