Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.

Posts by Eric Liskey

There is a food blog, themediterraneandish.com, produced by a friend of mine who is really into, well, Mediterranean cooking. It was my good fortune one day to be a taster for a new recipe of hers. It was a particular breed of lamb (Merino) and it was outstanding!  But what caught my eye were the colorful vegetables. Notice the carrots and beets in the photo. It reminded me of the philosophy of Matthew Benson, who operates Stone Gate Farm in New York. His attitude can roughly be stated as:  If you’re going to grow something anyway, you might as well choose the pretty varieties. It is amazing how much more enjoyable a meal can be when it’s colorful—a visual feast as well as a gastronomic one. As you’re ordering your vegetable seeds this spring, choose unusual looking varieties. Almost any imaginable vegetable comes in a range of colors. Eggplant, beans, peppers, tomatoes, beets, carrots, squash and on and on. Browse websites of reneesgarden.com, rareseeds.com, seedsavers.org, and other vendors of heirloom seed.  You will be surprised and delighted!

One of the most well-worn garden topics is “putting a garden to bed” before winter. I think it’s written about a lot because there isn’t much else to talk about (garden-wise) in November. Gardens are going dormant, you’ve planted your bulbs by now (or you SHOULD have!), and fall plants are fading out. Not much to do now except tidy up, wrap any tree trunks that need it, and go inside for few months.
That makes it sound quite simple. But that’s not to say it’s easy. If you have a sizable garden, it’s no small task to cut off all the spend growth  and dispose of the debris. I thought I’d discovered the best solution a few years ago. Lay the clippings out on the lawn and go over them with a mower, two or three times if necessary. Then rake up the shredded plant material and drop it in the compost bin.
As a way to dispose a lot of material quickly, it’s fantastic. But it created an issue that I think is worth pointing out. If, like me, you “cold compost” (i.e. you don’t work to get the compost hot), seeds in the compost may remain viable. So next year, when you spread all that wonderful compost over your beds, you’re creating (potentially) a weed nightmare. There are several plants that I can’t seem to stomp out. Rose of Sharon, coneflower, Rudbeckia, aster, and Datura, among others.
I now take care to discard most of the seed heads in some other way (like sending them to municipal composter, where they methodically process compost so it adequately heats up. Something to think about.

The longer I garden, the more fall landscapes appeal to me. True, it’s a bittersweet time, because it signals the onset of winter, and a long stretch spent mostly indoors. But the look of fall is something special and quite different from spring gardens. In fall, there’s an edge of wildness and urgency as plants complete their seasonal growth cycle and send up tall flower stalks, leaves start to turn and drop, and insects frantically harvest nectar and pollen as they store up for winter. Fall has a color palette, and so does spring. The latter tends to be heavy on pinks and blues, while the former specializes in purples and yellows, with lots of rustic brown and orange thrown in. There are many exceptions of course, but these are the colors that predominate and help give each season its unique look.

Here’s a scene from one of my garden borders today. It’s got lots of asters, sedum, goldenrod, burning bush, a Calamagrostis grass, and a Russian sage. Asters are dominant, and they’re one of my favorite fall perennials. They can be invasive if you don’t deadhead promptly after bloom. But it’s kind of fun to see them pop up in unexpected places. Many kinds keep a low profile all season, staying almost invisible in a mixed border until late summer, when the green mounds suddenly explode with blooming stems.

Asters are a big group and it’s hard to recommend one as better than the others. But I have discovered a gem the last few years:  heath aster. This (below) is one from my garden right now. It’s a native, and I’m pretty sure it originally showed up as a weed. It has since spread via seed and I’m discovering that it is one of the most impactful fall bloomers I have. The wild form is, well, wild-looking. It’s not pedigreed hybrid. But the blooms are extremely showy en masse, and I have seen no stronger lure for pollinators.  The plant is so inconspicuous most of the year  you’d never know it was there. But then it erupts in white clouds of bloom in fall, with glorious results.

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.

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.)

A crocus peeks through an April 14 snow.

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