What’s Blooming: Arb Edition

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Things are — not surprisingly — slow to come up and bloom this year. My neighbor’s crocus is in bloom and the crocus bulbs I planted last fall have foliage but no blooms yet. My Siberian squill is also blooming, … Continue reading

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Signs of Spring

Siberian squill ready to bloom

Siberian squill ready to bloom

Sunday’s gorgeous weather had me outside at last, flinging caution to the wind and raking a few spots in the lawn, cleaning out some of the beds I can reach from the sidewalk and looking for signs of life.

The Siberian squill, which have long been one of the plants I measure spring by, are just one day away from blooming and the miniature cabbage heads of sedum can be spotted under the leaf-mulch. I’ve been looking for them, but there’s no sign yet of the Iris reticulata that is usually the first plant blooming in my yard. Perhaps it is a victim of the long winter. It may still appear yet. Last year, it was April 22 when I first spotted them. They’ve bloomed as early as March 25 in the past.

With the forecast calling for decent temperatures and occasional rain this week, we could see a burst of bloom by next weekend. Here’s hoping!

 

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Repel Rabbits with Plants

Another nice thing about marigolds is they stay blooming well into the fall.

Another nice thing about marigolds is they stay blooming well into the fall.

I’ve had a mess of garden troubles with critters, most of which are of the burrowing variety. But over the past couple of years, my number one garden enemy has been the rabbit. Or rather, rabbits, since I seem to have an endless supply of them eating vegetables, pulling up bean plants and doing lots of unauthorized shrub pruning.

Last year, I put a low fence around my main vegetable area and that certainly slowed them down. But my goal this year is to make peace with the bunnies even more, and a couple of recent garden talks I’ve attended have given me some new ideas. This past weekend, I combined a trip to the Chicago Flower and Garden with a visit to my daughter who lives in the city. Shawna Coronado, noted blogger, author and urban gardener, gave a talk on planting sustainable containers, but also offered a bunch of tips on front yard garden design, composting and growing vegetables in shade.

According to Shawna, you can repel rabbits with plants by growing spicy globe basil combined with marigolds. She particularly recommends ‘Taishon’ marigolds. Both plants have a strong scent and make lists of “rabbit resistant” plants. Will the two together provide extra protection? Generally bunnies don’t care for stinky stuff, so it makes sense that combining two smells might be extra effective.  I’m not sure, but I plan to try the combination this summer.

I already plant parsley for caterpillars/butterflies, so why not a few more plants for the bunnies.

I already plant parsley for caterpillars/butterflies, so why not a few more plants for the bunnies.

Earlier this winter, I reviewed The Wildlife Friendly Vegetable Gardener, a helpful book by Tammi Hartung, who is a big advocate of “decoy plants.” These are plants pests like that you plant somewhere you don’t care about. For bunnies, that means ample parsley planted away from the vegetable garden.

For more ideas on making peace with rabbits, check out the article by Samantha Johnson from the latest issue of Northern Gardener.

Posted in Critters, Fruits and Vegetables, Gardening Know-How | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Going to Garden School

Gardeners check out the silent auction items at the 2013 Rice County Horticulture Day.

Gardeners check out the silent auction items at the 2013 Rice County Horticulture Day.

Hort Days. Spring Flings. Garden Gatherings. Garden Fever. Whatever you call them, the assortment of garden schools being sponsored by Master Gardener groups, horticulture societies and garden clubs this time of year is huge. Only weather and mileage keep me from going to one every weekend. Here are a few favorites to consider, both near the Twin Cities and beyond.

I have to start with the local one here in Northfield, sponsored by the Rice County Master Gardeners. This year’s hort day will include three great speakers. The opening speaker is Eric Johnson, a designer, garden writer and columnist for Northern Gardener magazine, who will teach participants how to create garden art that is handmade, beautiful and not too expensive in his talk on DIY Garden Art. He’ll be followed by Dakota County Master Gardener Shari Mayer, a longtime herb enthusiast, who will talk about growing and preserving herbs. After lunch in the St. Olaf cafeteria, participants will hear from Karl Foord, a University of Minnesota Extension Educator on the role of bees in the pollination of fruit as well as threats to bee populations and what gardeners can do to help bees. The event costs $30, which includes lunch, a continental breakfast, handouts and a free sample of honey from local beekeeper Mike Feist. It will be held at Buntrock Commons on the campus of St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Bees and gardening for pollinators are on the agenda at several horticulture days this year.

Bees and gardening for pollinators are on the agenda at several horticulture days this year.

Last year, I also attended the Carver-Scott Master Gardeners Garden Fever event and thought it was fantastic. This year, the event will be Saturday, March 8, at Oak Ridge Hotel and Conference Center in Chaska. One of the keynoters is Emily Tepe, vegetable gardener and author, who recently wrote about onions for Northern Gardener, and Douglas Mensing, an ecologist. The theme is sustainable gardening. Some of the best parts of this hort day are the presentations by master gardeners from Carver-Scott counties. Here’s my favorite title for a presentation this year: “Help! My Garden is Having a Midlife Crisis.” I know the feeling. If you register by Friday, the event is $40. After that the price goes up to $45.

Another popular garden school is the East Metro/Washington County Master Gardeners Spring Fling, which will also be held March 8. Speakers include Debbie Lonnee of Bailey Nurseries on new plants, noted nurseryman Steve Kelley on shade gardening, Eric Johnson on vegetable gardening and author Kelly Norris on iris, among others. The $35 fee includes the seminars and lunch catered by Tinucci’s. The event will be held at Woodbury High School.

There are so many more garden schools around the state — I’ve heard great things about the programs in Grand Forks, Stearns County, West Otter Tail County and many others. A complete list of schools is available on the MSHS website. Find one near you!

 

 

 

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Beauty in the Vegetable Garden

During these last cold days of winter (hope, hope, hope!), I’ve been taking refuge in the garden photos I took last summer. Among the images are many from vegetable gardens that are truly beautiful spaces as well as nourishing.

mixed lettuce bowlMy vegetable garden usually has the shabby chic look (or maybe just shabby), but I’ve found that lettuces planted in pots or window boxes can be very attractive, especially those with rose-tipped, ruffly foliage. But a couple of the gardens I visited last summer took vegetable gardening beauty well beyond that.

vertical cabbageThe vegetable garden at Squire House Gardens in Afton, for example, was lush, colorful and full of texture on the warm August afternoon when I stopped by. Planting green and purple cabbages together created a round contrast. Big ripe peppers hung from plants, like green ornaments, ready for plucking. A tall trellis covered in green beans created a produce wall at the back of the garden. The gardeners included a water feature and garden art, too, which encourage visitors to linger. Even the asparagus plants, long past their picking prime, added soft texture with their mature fronds.

Amy archwayEarlier in the summer, I visited the garden of Amy Andrychowicz, proprietor at the Get Busy Gardening blog. You can read all about Amy’s garden in the March/April issue of Northern Gardener, which will be out in about two weeks, but suffice it to say, she has a way with vegetables. The big arch covered with squash is like a grand entry to the garden, and she mixes annuals, such as nasturtiums among the vegetables to add color and encourage pollination. It’s a lovely garden and I was delighted to be able to write about it for Northern Gardener.

For more photos of vegetable garden prettiness, see the gallery below. What will you be planting in your vegetable garden this year?

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Book Review: Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

Beatrix potter bookWhen my children were young, an older relative gave us a petite set of books by the children’s author Beatrix Potter. With their warm water-color illustrations and sweetly droll humor, the books soon became a favorite of mine. I think the girls liked them, too. So I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Marta McDowell’s Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life: The Plants and Places that Inspired the Classic Children’s Tales (Timber Press, 2013).

Potter’s books are filled with illustrations and stories that gardeners can appreciate, from Peter Rabbit’s forays into Mr. McGregor’s garden (the longer I garden, the more I side with Mr. McGregor) to silly Jemima Puddleduck picking onions and sage for a dinner at which she is to be the guest of honor — and the main course — to country mouse Timmy Willy, who falls asleep in a peapod before he is shipped off to the city in a basket of garden produce. Potter loved nature and the country life and her stories and illustrations show it.

McDowell’s book is really three books in one, and each has its own merits. The first part is a biography of Potter, a shy and lonely girl, who took refuge in keeping rabbits and drawing plants and animals. She was a skilled botanical illustrator (mushrooms were a particular specialty) but achieved recognition when The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1901. Her parents were the demanding Victorian type, and disapproved of her writing as well as her romance and engagement to her publisher, Frederick Warne. Sadly, Warne died in 1905 from leukemia.  Grieving and seeking independence, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District of western England. There, she continued to produce books (23 in all) and garden. At 47, she married a local attorney and began to buy more property in the area. She published her last book in 1922, and spent the final 25 years of her life as a farmer and conservation activist in the Lake District.

The biography section of the book is entertaining, marked by vibrant prose and an abundance of  drawings and photographs. You get a genuine sense of how Potter’s books reflected her interest in nature and her life as a gardener.

The second section takes a reader through the year in Potter’s garden, from the dark winter to the blooming primroses in June to fall and the harvest season. It’s evocative and well-illustrated and gives a full picture of English country life. Through letters and other material, McDowell shows Potter dealing with many of the problems familiar to all gardeners — invasive plants, poor weather, more ideas and work than time. The last section is a short introduction to visiting Potter’s gardens and farms and the Lake District. Potter left most of her property to the National Trust, so there is a lot to see, if you are able to get to this somewhat out-of-the-way part of England. The book is rounded out with resources and suggestions for further reading as well as plant lists, including lists of all the plants that appear in each of her books as well as those she cultivated.

For Potter fans or lovers of English country life that is not of the Downton Abbey variety, this gardener’s biography is a great read. I will be donating the review copy of the beautiful book to the MSHS Library, a great resource for gardeners in Minnesota.

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Book Review: The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener

wildlife friendlyI will never develop the equanimity that Tammi Hartung has towards rodents, rabbits and raccoons, but I admire her dedication to working with nature, respecting natural cycles and accommodating creatures that will pretty much take what they want anyway. And, her new book on vegetable and wildlife gardening has me thinking about new strategies for keeping the critters — and the gardener — happy. If you enjoy wildlife and you enjoy the fruits of your vegetable garden, it’s well worth reading.

The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener: How to Grow Food in Harmony with Nature (Storey Publishing, 2014) offers gardeners a philosophy toward wildlife and a variety of methods for giving creatures what they want while still growing enough food for yourself. Hartung, a medical herbalist and organic grower from Colorado, encourages gardeners to begin with careful observation of wildlife and their interaction with your garden. Sit with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine some day and watch what’s happening in your yard. That squirrel you see running about may be burying an acorn, not attacking your green beans, she says. Knowing which creatures frequent your yard, how they interact with each other and what their needs are will help gardeners determine whether action is really needed to curtail their activities.

She gives the example of the tomato hornworm — a creature I’m very familiar with. Large, green and spiky, they look nasty. And, tomato hornworms can indeed defoliate a tomato plant in short order, Hartung says. But their lifecycle is short — 20 days for the caterpillar stage — and the sphinx moths that they morph into are masterful pollinators, as well as stunning garden visitors. Tomato hornworms also are food for parasitic wasps, which may handle hornworm removal for you. So, your better approach might be to tolerate and appreciate rather than destroy. Or, do as one gardener does and plant one tomato just for the hornworms. When hornworms are present, move them over to the designated plant and they will leave the rest of your plants alone, she says.

Hartung’s suggestions of decoy plants to keep critters at bay are particularly useful. Rabbits are my main garden “helpers.” Last year, I added fencing around a vegetable area to get them to back off, but this year I will supplement that with ample plantings of parsley outside of the fence (which they sometimes managed to get into) as well as calendulas to lure aphids from plants I enjoy. Sunflowers will be added to my wild area to bring even more birds into the garden.

If you want to attract wildlife to your garden, this book offers plenty of concrete suggestions, including ways to create habitat for birds, frogs and other creatures, add water features, use hedgerows to provide nesting sites and perennial food sources. Some of her suggestions will be familiar to those already practicing wildlife-friendly gardening, but Hartung fleshes out many suggestions with details on plants and placement. The book also includes plant lists and garden designs for bee-friendly landscapes among others.

One of the highlights of the book are the illustrations by Holly Ward Bimba, which are whimsical and as friendly as the gardens Hartung advocates.

 

 

Posted in A Gardener's Reading, Bird gardens, Critters | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Beauty of Late Fall

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We’ve had such a late fall this year that even though it is almost Halloween, we seem to have finally hit peak color where I live, just south of Minneapolis and St. Paul. While walking downtown today, I couldn’t help … Continue reading

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The Benefits of Outdoor Time — Plant Division

The research is pretty conclusive that spending time outdoors is good for people. The fresh air, the sunlight, the chance to connect with our natural surroundings are all good for physical and mental health. But time outdoors is good for plants, too, as my mother demonstrated this summer.

For a couple of years, she’s had a succulent dish that we put together. She was inspired by one of the articles in Northern Gardener. The dish has struggled a bit, partly because the plants in it had different watering needs. This summer, she decided to move the dish out to her back patio. The patio faces south, is somewhat protected from wind by the house and a privacy fence, and, of course, is open to natural rain.

Here’s what the succulent dish looked like a couple of weeks ago just before she moved it back into the house.

succulent dish 2013

 

 

Here’s the before shot: (You can see she lost a few plants, but the survivors are huge now.)

succulent before

 

I had a similar experience a few years ago when I put a hoya plant outdoors for the summer. The plant, which had never bloomed before, suddenly was spouting cool, waxy blooms. Interestingly, once it started blooming, it now blooms every year, near the end of the summer. I still put the plant outdoors and it is very happy.

In a recent article on herbs, Nancy Leasman calls these plants “commuters” because they travel in and out of the house. Do you have any commuter plants?

 

 

 

 

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Bees, Apples and My Bumper Crop

apple basket

Ready for saucing and pie!

For the first time in 13 years, I have a bumper crop of useable Haralson apples off the tree in my yard. I credit it to good luck, the University of Minnesota and lots of bees. Here’s the story.

I’ve had two apple trees in my yard for 13 years (the Haralson and a Connell Red) and I’ve barely harvested a fruit from them in all that time. I’ve never wanted to go through the bother and risk associated with spraying apples and haven’t had the get-up-and-go to put little bags around each apple I wanted to harvest.  I like the look of apple trees and I’d resigned myself to finding a few decent apples and giving the rest up to the maggots and the worms.

An Unintended Consequence

haralson tree

The tree is loaded with fruit this year.

I’ve read a bit more about apples in the last year or so, and last fall I decided to at least get serious about sanitation around my trees. I picked up as many of the crappy apples that fell in autumn as I could in an effort to reduce pests, which tend to overwinter in the soil.

Last year and again this spring, I also participated in a University of Minnesota research project to track the arrival of the spotted wing drosophila in Minnesota. The project involves setting out traps — a plastic jar baited with apple cider vinegar and a sticky paper — to catch the bugs. This year, I set the trap in the Haralson tree.

About midway through the summer, I noticed a lot more apples — and I mean, a LOT more apples on the Haralson tree. (The other tree looked like it always did.) Later in the summer, I noticed that not only were there a lot more apples, but many of them (not all, of course, but enough) looked good. No signs of maggot damage or worm holes.

Oddly, the good-looking apples concerned me more than the lousy looking ones. (It’s all a game of expectations.) Were they safe to eat??? I hadn’t sprayed and I hadn’t bagged and I hadn’t even put out the traps that are recommended for apple growing in Minnesota.

After consulting a variety of web sources that basically said, if there are no visible signs of damage, they are OK to eat, I decided I needed a human to confirm that. I had some pots to return to Knecht’s Nursery in town from three shrubs I’d planted recently, so while there I asked Heidi about the apple situation. She confirmed that yes, bad apples would be showing their badness by this time of year, so anything that looked OK was OK.

My Traps are SO Attractive

apples looking good

They are not perfect, but lots of decent apples here.

She also offered an interesting hypothesis about why I have so many apples. Heidi’s theory is that the apple cider vinegar traps I had in the tree this spring not only attracted the spotted wing drosophila bugs, they also attracted bees. “You probably finally got good pollination on the tree,” she said. With good pollination came the bigger crop — plenty for the worms and plenty left over for me.

This past weekend was the first of what I expect will be a few weekends of canning applesauce, making apple butter and baking apple pies. Next year, I plan to try the same system. I’ll be cleaning up the area around my tree extra thoroughly this fall, then setting out an apple cider trap next year. We’ll see then if this was a fluke or simple way to get more, better apples.

How was your apple crop this year?

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