Ornamental and edible gardening adventures.

The Gardener's December Calendar

A lot of the gardening responsibilities move indoors this month for gardeners in the Northeast, and it's a relatively quiet month for me, so I am forgoing the hierarchy I usually sort garden chores into.

Most of my outdoor responsibilities include keeping bird feeders full with black oil sunflower seed and suet, as well as unfrozen water. To achieve the latter, a few years ago I acquired a heated birdbath, and all I need to do is periodically change the water and clean it out a bit. (To clean, I use either a soap pad like Brillo or a damp paper towel, depending on how dirty the birdbath is.)

I periodically check on my dahlias that I keep in storage in a cold hallway in my house. (I do not have a basement or attached garage or porch to store them in.) I keep them in a cardboard box - nothing fancy.  Here's more info on how I store them.

There's still time to scatter milkweed seeds in the garden. Or you can try to start them indoors, as outlined here.

As the month closes, my focus switches to planning for next year's garden. I try to take notes of things that did and did not work in the garden this year, as well as review photos of what the garden looked like. It's also time to acquire seeds for pansies and violas, which can be started indoors next month.

What's on your to-do list this month?

Floral Friday: Dec. 9

There has been so much to do in the garden this past week, and I've been blessed that the ground had not yet frozen in my Zone 6b garden! I managed to plant all the remaining spring bulbs that I ordered this year (300 of the 1,225 bulbs), just within the last week. (Before you clutch your chest from the shock, I bought all my bulbs with wholesale pricing.) 

When I ordered I was confident that I had a place to put all those bulbs, especially the tiny ones like snowdrops and crocus. But sure enough, I was outside Sunday pacing around the front garden, trying to figure out where I could tuck in a few more bulbs. 

... To be fair, I only placed 1,205 in the ground. I kept 20 daffodils to try and force to bloom indoors. (Because that makes a difference, right?)

"El Nino" tulips waiting to be planted.

I now treat tulips like annuals, and in the case I planted them in one of my grow beds.
I'm hoping for a punch of color, and I think these orange tulips will do the trick. After
they bloom, I am going to try to dig them up and store them during the summer. 

I forgot how hard it is to rip out portions of the lawn and plant bulbs
- or maybe it's just because I've done that so much this fall!

Daffodils before they are tucked in for winter. 

And sure enough, right after I planted the last bulbs on Sunday, we had light snowfall Monday morning, and temperatures have hovered around the 30 degree mark during the day for the rest of the week. Today I'm sipping my coffee and feeling totally relieved that the bulbs are all tucked away, and in my head I have the spring countdown beginning (101 days left as of today).

This tree has grown so much since I planted it three years ago. Hoping it completely
covers my neighbor's fence in a few more years.

The top of the tree. This year the pop up greenhouse and patio furniture are stored
in front of this tree, but I plan to change that for next year so I can decorate it and
enjoy the view. 

Echinacea in the snow, which I leave up for the birds.

Front walkway.

Hellebore leaves in the snow. I can't wait for these to bloom again!

More hellebores from the back garden.

Beauty bush berries, which are pretty but eventually will be gobbled up by hungry birds.

What is happening in your garden this week?

Floral Friday: Nov. 11

I've been able to extend the season of bloom in my fall garden, even with the occasional morning frosts. This is the first year that it's been so late in the fall and I've had so many different things blooming (or showing off). 

Ornamental grass with the colorful leaves of the pear tree behind it. 

I love this combo of nasturtium and blue pots.

'Purple Haze' mum putting on its final show.

These two are in my driveway.

This is Leonotis leonurus, an annual in my zone but blooms in fall. 
One of my newer mums - not yet planted. 

'Global Warming mum - Purple Mist.' This is a huge plant!

'Global Warming mum - October Moon' This plant takes up a big spot in my front border for it's
late season fall show. 

The neighbor's Japanese maple leaves after the rain.

This Proven Winner calibrachoa 'Tropical Sunrise' is still blooming, despite the cold nights and some frost.

This Proven Winner Supertunia 'Vista Fuschia' is still blooming like crazy. (What frost?)

Neighbor's tree, a.k.a one of the main sources of my leaves.

Frost on the Joe pye weed seeds heads.

A daring rose still blooming, despite the frost. 

The Hollywood Hibiscus have been brought in for the winter, and are temporarily set up in the kitchen.

What's blooming in your garden (or home) this week?

The Gardener's November Calendar ~ 2016

  • Garden "Clean-up:" There's been a lot of talk through social media over the last few weeks about leaving portions of your garden wild this fall. Which means skipping the manicured garden look. I find that as each year goes by, I tend to leave more of the garden intact, but I just have to clean up the leaves that gather by my back door. (It's amazing how many can gather there in an afternoon.) Things I will do for the garden include piling leaves into raised beds to help improve the soil over the winter. Or cutting back some of the mangy-looking perennials, but leaving the hollow stems on top of my compost pile or along the back fence for insects to hibernate in. I'll leave my echinacea seed heads up to feed the birds. To read more about reasons to leave gardens somewhat intact over the winter, read this story, which features an awesome photo of a hidden bee, too. 
  • Sow milkweed. If you plan to sow milkweed seeds outdoors for plants next spring, now is the time to scatter those seeds so they can receive the stratification they need over the winter. For more milkweed growing tips, read more here.
  • Harvest dahlias. I don't have a basement to store my dahlias, and my garage is detached and gets too cold to store them successfully over the winter. Last year, after the frost killed the plants, I dug up my tubers, let the dry dirt fall off, and then stored them in a cardboard box by my front door for the entire winter. I had a 95% success rate of the tubers growing again this year. Periodically, over the winter, I would check to see if the tubers were shriveling up, and if they were, I'd mist them with a little water. It probably helps that we don't use our front entrance often (see the part about leaves gathering by my back door, above). 
  • Harvest caladiums, glads and cannas, too.
  • If you haven't yet done so, plant garlic. Cause if you are busy like I am, you haven't planted it yet, even though it should have ideally went in the ground a few weeks ago. For a quick refresher, click here
  • One final haircut. Give the lawn one final mow, and mow over the leaves. By doing this, they will decompose on top of the lawn, providing nutrients to the soil.
  • Bulbs! Finish planting them! Cause I know the discount rack is too good to pass up at this point! As long as the ground isn't frozen, plant plant plant!

  • Labeling. I'm hoping to order my first set of Plants Map engraved tags in the coming weeks, so I can label some perennials before I lose track of them over the winter. On the list to label? My growing hellebore collection, my lady's slipper, my winged false aster (which has been growing slowly from the seed I started last year), as well as the spot I grew milkweed this year.

  • Plant an amaryllis. Now is the time to start staggering bulbs for blooms this holiday. I've experimented in the past with this bulb, and my mom used to grow them, but I've been advised by many of my gardening friends to really embrace this flowering plant this winter. I'm planning to start with one ... but I have a feeling this may change!

I garden in Zone 6b of Central Connecticut.

Garden center staffers raise, release hundreds of monarchs

A monarch raised from an egg collected in St. John's garden in central Connecticut.
Some of the monarch chrysalises in Natureworks' care, taken
in late summer during a visit to the store.
NORTHFORD, Conn.  Fifteen butterfly enthusiasts surrounded the wooden rack where monarch butterflies were in the process of emerging from their chrysalises. Some butterflies were already stretching their wings under the warmth of the spotlights.

Diane St. John, the the official butterfly whisperer and retail manager at Natureworks, stood in front of the monarchs, describing the tagging process. The butterflies tagged at the store will hopefully succeed in completing the long fall migration to Mexico.

St. John explained how the tags "track what the butterflies are doing," and described the gentle process that is involved to the attendees: "Take a breath, be organized  read the directions 20 times  and do it," she said, smiling.

Earlier this year the staff had ordered 300 identification tags from Monarch Watch  thinking that would be more than enough  and quickly learned that the monarchs really preferred their organic gardens and official Monarch Waystation. The staff at Natureworks began raising monarchs in July, but only tagged the last generation of monarchs, which coincides with September in Connecticut.

"We figured 300 tags would be plenty so that is how many we ordered, but the eggs kept coming! We used the 300 tags and have kept raising [them] and are now well over 650 raised and released in 2016!" she said. This is the second year the store has tagged monarchs for Monarch Watch.

"In addition to the 650 we raised, we gave about 10 schools monarch eggs to raise in classrooms too. I would say on average, we gave 20 eggs, which would add up to another 200 we have not counted in our total. The classes each needed access to chemical-free milkweed in order to receive eggs and a real passion for wanting to care for the eggs, too."

The success in raising monarch butterflies can be attributed to the diligence of all Natureworks staffers in identifying monarch eggs and caterpillars on the milkweed growing in the demonstration garden at the store. By bringing the eggs and caterpillars indoors, the staff ensured that the caterpillars collected would have the best odds of surviving. (When left outdoors, the survival rate is lower, for reasons such as predatory insects.)

The monarch butterfly has experienced a population decline in recent years, due to pesticides, a decline in milkweed and logging of their overwintering grounds in Mexico. According to the World Wildlife Fund Mexico, monarch numbers increased from 42 million to 150 million last year. However, the numbers are still well below the 22-year average and the five year target of 225 million monarchs set by the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Read more here.)

Grow it and they will come
"Once I learned how to recognize the eggs and chew marks on the leaves, finding the monarchs to raise was easy. It became hard to not find them this year," she said.

The success of an abundant monarch population depended on Natureworks providing the two things monarchs need most. "Lots of larval food plants (the plants the butterflies lay eggs on and the caterpillars eat) and no spraying of garden plants," St. John said. "An organic yard is essential, and having a neighborhood of organic yards is ideal. A safe habitat that provides food is the perfect combination."

During the prime monarch season, (end of July through September), the staff would find 30 eggs easily, St. John said. "At home I took 80 or so eggs off my plants in two days." To keep track of the growing numbers, Natureworks began documenting when eggs were brought into the store to raise. "My coworker Amber [Robinson] loved to go hunting for eggs, and at a few times in the summer we could not possibly care for more and would stop ourselves from looking. Any babies or eggs brought in on milkweed we intended to feed to the indoor caterpillars we would keep inside, too. It took a team of us to care for so many being raised. All of them needed fresh milkweed and clean cages, twice a day."

A determined caterpillar
One monarch caterpillar can be credited with St. John's exploration of the monarch world, which made her realize the connection between organic land care and planting the right plants to attract monarchs.

"I planted one Asclepias tuberosa at home years ago and saw my first caterpillar eating the leaves later that summer. I found chrysalises on our swingset, which is 30’ away from any asclepias in the yard and learned how the caterpillar had to travel all the way there, through the lawn  which had now been transitioned to an organic lawn."

And it wasn't just monarch caterpillars that peaked her interest. St. John said she began bringing inside black swallowtail caterpillars that she found munching on the bronze fennel while at work at Natureworks and raising them on the cash register counter.

"Customers would ask what it would turn into because they had those 'destructive' caterpillars in their own gardens on their parsley and dill  and were destroying them," she said. "When they would see the photo of the beautiful butterfly the caterpillar would become, they stopped destroying them and also became enthralled by watching the life cycles."

The knowledge continued to spread. St. John connected with a customer who gave her advice on raising the swallowtails, and soon St. John joined the ranks of presenting to the public black swallowtail butterfly information. "Seeing the look of wonder on my own kids' faces and the kids who come to the garden center made it easy to want to raise more and begin talking and teaching about the lifecycle and what the butterflies need to survive," she said.
During a recent lecture, Diane St. John explains the different types of
milkweed gardeners can grow.

"I really wanted to raise monarchs but could not find any caterpillars. I ordered them from Monarch Watch one fall, but many did not survive and I decided, if I want them to come to me naturally, I needed to plant more of what they needed to survive, which was any type of Asclepias." When a milkweed plant appeared in her Connecticut garden, she allowed it to become more established and let it spread over the next few years. She also began to grow other varieties of Asclepias and soon, the monarchs found her. 

At the same time, the host plant for the monarchs also began to find a foothold at the demonstration gardens at Natureworks. "We allowed the common milkweed to weave its way through the display gardens more than it had been allowed to in the past."


Providing milkweed for monarchs

[Continued from Garden center staffers raise, release hundreds of monarchs]

To encourage Natureworks customers to also create monarch butterfly habitats, the store recently welcomed customers to attend an informational workshop on growing milkweed from seed. "If you plant it, they will come!" she said.

For milkweed seeds to be viable, they need to be harvested after the milkweed pod has opened on its own.

The key to growing viable milkweed  any type  is to use seeds from milkweed pods that have popped open on their own. St. John warned to not use seeds from green pods because they are not yet ready. (If you are worried about the seeds spreading before you are ready to plant, St. John advised putting a rubber band around the seed pod to keep it closed until you are ready to harvest it.)

One way to grow milkweed is to place the pod outside in late fall, so that the seeds will be exposed to moist stratification. (Basically this is when the seed is cold, then wet, then dries out. This process continues throughout the winter, causing the seed to "wake up" and germinate.) It could take two winters for milkweed to grow this way.

Wherever you decide to plant the milkweed seeds outside, St. John recommends marking the area so baby plants are not accidentally weeded out next spring.

Another way to start the seeds outside is to plant the seeds in trays in late November and December and place them in a protected area, specifically away from cold northwesterly winter winds. (An area next to the shed is one possible area.) Let the leaves land on top of it, as any other overwintering plant would experience. "When it warms again, say April, move the tray to where there's more sun," said St. John.

To start any milkweed seed indoors (end of January/beginning of February in the northeast), you'll need a paper towel and a plastic bag. Moisten the paper towel so it is damp (not soaked) and place your seeds on top. St. John said to roll up the paper towel and place it inside the plastic bag and then keep it refrigerated for 45 to 60 days. After 45 to 60 days have passed, take the plastic bag out of the fridge and plant them in seed containers (St. John recommended cow pots for ease of transport) with seed-starting soil. Some of the seeds may have begun to germinate already. Mix some kelp in, since it helps seeds germinate, according to St. John. And if you want to germinate the seeds even faster, she recommends using a heat mat. (St. John's stratified seeds germinated within five days with a heat mat.) Keep the seedlings indoors until the last frost has passed.

Yet another method of growing milkweed involves the annual variety. However, for those who live in the southern United States, St. John said to chop it down and let it regrow so it doesn't carry over bacteria into the next growing season. (The bacteria can lead to problems for the monarchs.)

"Annual milkweed is good for people who want to do this but only have a deck," she said. 

To make new plants from annual milkweed (before the frost gets it), cut underneath the leaf nodes. But be careful to not get the sap in your eyes. (This applies to all milkweed.) "It will be a hospital trip – you won't be able to see within two to three hours," she said as she cut pieces to root. (It is also important to not let children touch the milkweed sap, if they want to help with the process.) To seal the milkweed cuttings, wash the ends under running water until the sap stops coming out.

Remove any leaves that would be submerged in water, and place the cuttings in water to root. St. John advised to change the water every few days and keep it in a bright area. "After a month you'll start to see little roots," she said.

St. John will also be speaking about nurturing monarchs at the upcoming Northeast Organic Farming Association's (NOFA) conference on Dec. 9.

To learn more, St. John recommends reading "How to Raise Monarch Butterflies" by Carol Pasternak.

The Gardener's October Calendar ~ 2016

Here we go! The season has definitely flown by, and now it's time to clean up after the party!

  • It's time to plant garlic! For instructions, click here. Usually I try to get mine in the ground (in Connecticut) beginning Columbus Day weekend or a little thereafter. This gives the garlic time to start growing before winter arrives. This year when I plant my garlic I also plan to feed it with organic fertilizer and mulch it with straw. My friend did that and her garlic turned out to be enormous! Of course, starting with good quality garlic is key. Do not use the garlic sold in grocery stores. (That is usually sprayed to prevent sprouting.) There are lots of good places to buy garlic. Locally I am lucky to have an organic nursery which sells it, but I have also ordered from High Mowing Organic Seeds and Hudson Valley Seed Library in the past and had success.
  • Have you harvested your Kieffer pears? The stem is the key to the ripened fruit! Click here to learn more!
  • Start planting spring-blooming bulbs now. Use photographs you took in the spring to figure out which areas of the garden need early color. (You did take photos, right?) Not sure what to order? View my bulb picks for 2017 here, or get inspired from the Still Growing podcasts I participated in. (We narrowed our choices down to 47!)
  • Clean up portions of the garden that you won't be leaving to wildlife over the winter. What stays? Echinacea - for birds, mostly! What goes? I cut down bee balm and feverfew. I trim back irises and daylilies - one so they look neater and two so there's less of a temptation for the iris borer to be attracted to and eat my irises. Fall-blooming anemones can be cut back, too, unless you want them to spread by seed. For more ideas, read this story I wrote for the blog that features tips from a master gardener.
  • Keep an eye on the weather - mainly the overnight temperatures. It's time to find spots for all of the plants you plan to bring inside for the winter. For me, that includes tropicals, like hibiscus, orchids and crotons, as well as cuttings of coleus and geraniums that I want to make into new plants for next year. 

A purple/pink Global Warming mum.

  • Keep planting! Add fall-blooming asters and perennial mums to the garden. (NOT the hot-house ones! They won't survive the winter!) You can even add grasses, too. I really like the Global Warming mums because they bloom so much later than everything else - sometimes as late as Halloween! (Which makes waiting around all season for them to bloom worth it.)
  • Add pumpkins to your landscape decorating. You can make a hot pepper mix to spray on pumpkins to keep the squirrels from nibbling on them. (That's usually what I have to do to keep them looking nice.) It washes off with rain though, so you might need to reapply multiple times. Here's a link that shares some possible combinations you can use.

  • Curl up with a good book to tide you over on the upcoming cold nights. Need some ideas for what to read? Check out the gardening books I've read and reviewed
  • Have a fire pit? We are now in the perfect time of year to use it at night. But make sure your property isn't too dry - and don't light a fire when it's windy. Fire pits should be at least 10 feet away from any buildings, and make sure you have water nearby - before you light the fire - that will be used to put it out. Make sure any dried leaves are removed from around the fire pit to prevent stray embers from catching ablaze. And keep the fire small. I usually leave the ashes and burned wood in the fire pit for several days before I remove it. Here are some ways the (cooled) ashes can be used in your garden.
What are you doing in your garden this month? I'd love to hear in the comments below!

Take time to enjoy gardening's healing qualities

Dahlias, zinnias, and pink anemones - combined with
blackberry lily seed pods - make pretty fall bouquets.
On Sunday morning, I was surprised to see a female hummingbird visit my potted plants, because I had thought hummingbirds were long gone by now. I decided to hang my feeder back up to help any other migrants that may be traveling through.

When I entered the back garden, the blue jay and wren were both waiting for me, checking their empty feeder (which I had not filled this summer). It's as if they also know the season is changing, and that the food should be there.

Autumn appeared suddenly, bringing with it longer shadows, crisp cool mornings, and the advent of fall foliage. This is an especially busy time for me, because I volunteer on weekends, in addition to going to grad school and work during the week.

I'm still trying to figure out how to find a larger chunk of free time that can be spent in the garden. Long gone are the summer nights where the sun set close to 9 p.m. - leaving so much time for catch up work in the garden. Now the sun sets around 6:30 p.m. and by 7 p.m., the darkness makes it feel so much later than it really is.

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I'm frustrated when life gets too busy for gardening.

If you are a subscriber to this blog, you may have noticed that my Floral Friday posts have been going up out of order since August - also known as the time my life became very busy. I have the photos from the garden, but it's been difficult to find the time to sit down and go through them and upload them here. So instead they arrive by piecemeal.

Floral Friday always has been a way of documenting what happens in the garden, but now it makes me sad to review the photos of the past two months. It makes me think of how much time I lost outside. My relationship with the garden is distant at the moment, but I know I will be welcomed back once life calms down a bit. Returning to nature is a way to recenter oneself in life. Considering this, is it any surprise that gardens can heal?

A 2012 article published on the Scientific American website cites past studies of "how three to five minutes spent looking at views dominated by trees, flowers or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety, and pain and induce relaxation." Maybe that's why nature-oriented people - like myself - use garden scenes as desktop wallpaper on work computer stations. (My current choice is a lavender-covered field.)

The article goes on to include a checklist of what qualities must exist to makes a garden "healing." While it is intended for the implementation of a healing garden at a hospital or care facility, many of the suggestions listed are elements that gardeners seem to include naturally in their gardens often subconsciously, such as engaging multiple senses ("gardens that can be seen, touched, smelled and listened to").

Other research concluded that just being in contact with soil – technically with Mycobacterium vaccae – has been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which is attributed to elevating one's mood and decreasing anxiety.  Maybe that's why, in the middle of winter, that I turn my kitchen table into seed-starting headquarters, where I spend endless hours scooping soil into empty seed trays to start my late-winter ritual. 

Even though finding time for gardening has been difficult, the moments I can steal away to be in the garden or simply talk about gardening have been rewarding. I was so lucky to have been interviewed in August by Jennifer Ebeling of the "Still Growing" podcast, and was asked to return for her first annual Bulb Party which was recorded right after Labor Day. I've been planning my spring garden in bits and pieces this month, and I have taken time to go outside to cut flowers to bring inside to enjoy.

So, while I must return to writing papers and studying for exams, I think it's important to take a small slice of the day out and enjoy the garden. If you can't get outside, due to darkness for example, it can be time spent indoors tending houseplants. Or you could go outside and sit in a garden chair. Just 10 minutes walking about the garden can reground you. But in this time, set ground rules, such as "don't fret about the weeds." In fact, if an area is especially weedy, visit another portion of the garden. Find a spot where you like to sit and close your eyes. Breathe in the air, scented with the changing leaves. Listen to the wind's breeze or whisper. Touch the grass beneath you.

In my case with the hummingbird, if I hadn't gone outside I would have missed seeing her entirely. And even though the encounter only lasted about two minutes, seeing her at my flowers really brightened my day and made me stop and enjoy the moment. And isn't that what gardening is really supposed to be about?

Bulb Crazy!

What happens when you are asked to spend two evenings flipping through bulb magazines and - at the same time - able to ask the company representative what he or she thinks about your choices?

Why, you say "Yes!" of course!

In early September, I was asked to participate in the First Annual Spring Bulb Party for the Still Growing Podcast. Jennifer Ebeling, the host, organized the event which included Julie Thompson-Adolf from Garden Delights, and Susan Vollenweider from The History Chicks Podcast and a Columnist at the Kansas City Star.

Featured in the first podcast is Tim Schipper of Colorblends and in the second podcast is Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms of Van Engelen and John Scheepers. In the past I have ordered from both companies because I have had great success growing their bulbs, so I knew that I could trust their advice when I asked for tips for growing spring bulbs in my New England garden.

Throughout the party, not only did we enjoy each other's company, but we all learned so much from the company's guests. You'll hear in both podcasts different reasons why spring bulbs don't do well in two spots in my garden (Hint: it was along the driveway and in a bed of hostas), along with suggestions to defy those nasty voles that live out in my garden. And that's just two specific areas concerning me. You'll hear Julie's, Susan's and Jen's bulb choices, too - which reflect all our different personalities. Throughout the episodes we all begin to align ourselves with Team Daffodil or Team Tulip - you'll have to listen to find out why.

As for my garden, I have started a new Pinterest board that keeps track of what I've ordered so far for spring planting. (You can see what I'm dreaming of color-wise this spring. Don't be surprised - I'm going for bright, bold color!) Half of my order is in, and I hope to place the remainder either tonight or tomorrow - before my choices sell out!

The podcasts are embedded below for you to listen to. 

I'd love to know what you are planning on planting for spring! Are you Team Tulip or Team Daffodil? Let me know in the comments below!


Floral Friday: Sept. 16

Every year I tend to sow my zinnia seeds too late for a summer show. But I usually get my act together around July, which ensures blooming flowers now. This week, the dahlias (mainly Cafe au Lait), zinnias and asters are joining forces to bring color to the front garden.

What's blooming in your garden this week?

Floral Friday: Sept. 9

We just past the Labor Day hurdle, which means autumn is only a few weeks away. This year I'm seeing a lot more monarch butterflies than in past years, such as this lovely male butterfly I photographed in the garden this week.  

Here are some highlights from my front garden this week:

Monarch close-up.

Zinnias blooming in front of black-eye Susans.

Monarch on Joe pye weed.

Monarch on butterfly weed.

Anemones in front of the birdbath.

Lespedeza beginning to bloom. 
What's blooming in your garden now?
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