Posts by Eric Liskey

Eric Liskey

Ewwww!!!!!

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.

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Eric Liskey

How Hardy?

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.


Eric Liskey

Is that snow!?

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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Eric Liskey

Spirit in the Garden

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.

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Eric Liskey

A sunny afternoon

Here’s a Cooper’s hawk, which I photographed today from out the back door of my house. It wasn’t eating anything that I could see, just warming itself next to a south-facing wall, apparently. I see hawks in the back yard once in a while, as well as the evidence they leave behind in the form of body parts from the feeder birds the devour. Pretty cool to see nature in the suburbs like this. I suppose it’s back around because the robins and other birds seem to have showed up this week in large numbers. Despite the rotten weather and snow, spring is trying to break through!

Cooper’s hawk sunning itself.

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Eric Liskey

Farewell to the ash trees

Many in the Eastern U.S. are all too familiar with the ermerald ash borer (EAB), a small beetle with a big penchant for killing ash trees. It’s an invasive pest, thought to have hitched a ride on packing crates from Asia. It’s only been here about a dozen years, and already has spread to numerous states, wiping out virtually every ash tree as it moves through an area. Forestry officials rank it with Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight, such is its destructiveness.
How far will it spread, and how fast? And what should you do about it? The answers to the first questions aren’t clear, but probably, I’m told, it will eventually spread through nearly all of the U.S. east of the Rockies.
Given that, I suggest avoiding ash trees altogether. There are just too many other nice trees to choose from, so there’s no point planting something that might be dead in 10-20 years. That seems like a long time, but a nice tree is just getting started at 20 years! What a shame to have to start over!
The second thing I recommend is to plant young trees in your yard to replace existing ash trees. You don’t need to remove the ash tree if it’s still healthy, just get another young tree started, so that when the near-inevitable happens, you’ve already got a decent-size tree in place. Ash is one of the most widely planted shade trees in America, so this applies to many, many homeowners.
There are no truly good treatment options for EAB. There are a few chemicals that provide a reasonable degree of control, but they’re expensive and need to be applied every year, forever. One might choose to invest in a high value tree this way, but generally speaking, why fight it?
Most importantly, looking ahead, plant something besides an ash tree. Learn more at emeraldashborer.info.

Emerald Ash Borer. Photo from emeraldashborer.info, a great source of additional information about this pest.

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