Saturday, December 27, 2008

Christmas Seeds

Merry Christmas everyone! I wracked my brain again this year for a gift that would be personal, home-made, easy to mail, and have as little negative impact on the environment as possible. For a while I thought, “no, not my seeds”, because I wanted to hoard them all for my own garden. But then I realized that my desire to keep them made them a more meaningful gift. May they grace your yard with many beautiful flowers!

As for the planting instructions. . . I still don’t have all that much experience with plants, so take my suggestions with a grain of salt.

These plants are all native to North America. In the wild, they produce seeds in the Autumn. Those seeds drop on the ground, and the ones that aren’t eaten by the wildlife wait until conditions are favorable, which is usually in the Spring after some good soaking rainfalls.

If you prefer, you can plant your seeds simply by scattering them on the ground and waiting for those favorable conditions. However, the wildlife may eat some of the seeds, and favorable conditions may not occur for a few years. Also, young plants may be killed off by drought or out-competed by established plants.

To get more reliable germination, start with a patch of ground about three feet by three feet in a sunny location that has been cleared of weeds, preferably during an above-freezing day the winter, so that the seeds will have a chance to freeze and thaw a few times. Sprinkle the seeds and then stir up the top layer of soil to mix them in a bit. When warm weather arrives, keep the patch watered so that it stays at least as wet as a wrung-out sponge.

Most of these flowers are native as far south as Texas, so they should do all right without the freeze-thaw cycle. But they might do best in a partially shaded location.
Once established, these plants shouldn’t require any watering or other maintenance from you. And if you leave the spent flowers in place, the plants will reseed themselves for you.

So, what’s in this seed mix?

Evening Primrose:

This biennial will form ground-hugging rosettes of leaves the first year, and bloom the second year after it is planted – though one of mine broke with tradition and gave me flowers on its first year. The flowers form on a stalk that is up to six feet high. Every evening it will open a few yellow flowers, which are spent by the following evening. As the flowers die, tough seed-pods take their place. The seeds in those pods are a favorite of goldfinches during the winter. I collected these seeds from a nearby vacant lot.

Blue Toadflax:

This isn’t flower that you would typically see in a garden, because the blooms are teeny tiny. The plant is an annual or biennial that grows close to the ground, and puts up a thin stalk topped with little purple blossoms. Where colonies of these grow, the effect looks like a purple haze over the grass. These seeds were collected from our front yard. I’ll have to post some photos of this one when I get home from Virginia.

Blackeyed Susan:

These are the standard yellow and black cone-flower seen in many gardens. Sorry, I don’t yet have a photo of these!

Common Milkweed:

This plant has an undeserved bad reputation, probably because some nitwit decided to give it the name of “weed”. When this annual flowers, it has a fascinating sphere of pink blooms. But even better is when monarch butterfly caterpillars make a home on it. I couldn’t collect seeds from the milkweed in our yard because the monarch caterpillars ate too much of the plants, so these seeds came from milkweed growing down the street.
By the way, if you have monarch caterpillars, you can feed them milkweed in a terrarium and watch them turn into butterflies.


These are a standard garden perennial with umbrella-shaped groups of leaves and spikes of purple flowers standing two feet high. When left to go to seed, they form colonies. The young plants that sprout around the feet of the established plants are easy to transplant. You probably won’t see any flowers until the second year, but once established they are showy and reliable.

Obedient Plant:

This flower is called “obedient” because when the flower stalk is bent, it will retain the bent shape. The plant itself is actually a bit unruly, but it’s worth it for the three-foot tall spikes of white flowers.

If you wish to collect seeds from your flowers, simply wait until the seed-pods are mostly brown and dry. Then cut off the entire stalk and place it in a paper bag. When the pods have dried completely, give the bag a shake to dislodge as many seeds as possible, and then collect the seeds from the bottom of the bag.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Home for Christmas

Chris, Gabe, and I are visiting my parents in Virginia for Christmas. This is my parents' beautiful house and yard.

It's a treat for me to be here, because I grew up in this house, and this is where I did some of my first gardening.

I planted this wisteria about fifteen years ago. Knowing nothing about the growth habits of Japanese wisteria at the time, I am surprised that it hasn't eaten the house. My mother has to do battle with it every year, and the dratted thing has never bloomed.

When we planted these evergreens, they were as tall as me.

This butterfly bush used to be short enough for me to jump over.

I planted this creeping mint in the front walkway hoping that it would spread to fill in all the cracks. It took ten years to do so.

I hope I can come back during the summer sometime to see this beautiful yard in bloom.

I'll have to rotate these photos later. Oops!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Organic Farming on Reuters

This reuters article is a bit old and a bit short, but interesting. The title is "Organic farming yields as good or better: study."

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More Snow!

This morning I awoke to falling snow. Here is the view from the front door:

The back yard:

Here is my tiny pond.

Really, it’s just a puddle, but it’s next to a nice rock.

There is no ice on the water today. It is just cold enough for the snow to linger a while before it melts.

Monday, December 1, 2008


We got our first snow of the season yesterday. Pictures soon. . .

Okay, here are the pictures!

There wasn't very much snow. . .

I had to go shopping while the snow was coming down. This was the view from the store's parking lot.

New England has some amazing wetlands. What surprises me is how little people seem to notice them.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Cold Morning

Ice crystals on the front door.

White Dutch clover.




Winter Landscapes

This is an estuary of the Charles River. Our yard backs up to the protected land surrounding this waterway. These photos were taken a few blocks away, where a road crosses the stream.

The view to the north:

The view to the south:

Winterberries hang over the water here and there.

The water is trying to escape its banks right now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ilex verticillata, Winterberry

This native plant is at the height of its beauty now. Winterberry is a deciduous holly that prefers marshy wood edges. The berries appear on the female plants around September or October.

In October, the leaves turn yellow and speckled.

The leaves have now dropped off, leaving behind the berries. This photo is of a small winterberry growing in my yard. It doesn’t have many berries. Elsewhere, in wild patches along the roads, dense thickets of winterberry are now blazing red against the bleak woods.

The berries will last until midwinter, and are an important food source for various bird species. It appears that other creatures eat them, as well, judging by the poo that was recently left in my yard. By the size of the dropping, I would guess it was either a raccoon or an opossum that made the deposit, but I am left wondering how such a heavy rodent could have climbed a slender winterberry.

The berries aren’t edible for humans, sadly.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I thought I might continue to dig today, but the ground is hard, and the air is bitterly cold.

Just last week I saw frogs swimming in our tiny pond.

Without leaves, the back yard seems wide open.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lycopodium Obscurum, or Not a Pine

These are not pine saplings. They are an ancient type of organism called clubmoss. Before trees ruled the land, clubmosses were the towering giants. Imagine one of these with a trunk four feet in diameter, standing as tall as an office building.

Common names for this humble survivor are “ground fir”, “tree clubmoss”, and “princess pine”. Its spores are the original photographer’s flash powder. Now, it is hard to find because it has been a popular winter decoration.

Princess pine is supposedly hard to transplant, but these seem to be doing well more than a month since Marna dug them for me. She scooped out a good chunk of their native soil when she dug them, and I planted them in the bed of perpetually-moist bog muck along my wooded path. So far that seem to like their new home.

[Update] As of May 2010, these guys are looking pitiful. I expect them to die eventually. Dang it. That will teach me to try the "big shovel full of dirt" method. Some plants (and plant-like organisms) need to be left where they grew.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Getting Colder

We wake up to frost and ice some mornings now.

We’re due to get our first snow flurries soon.

The strawberries have been tucked in for the winter.

Along the base of the front bed, I planted crocuses, creeping thyme, and wild violets.

To my surprise, the alyssum is still blooming, and the Swiss chard is still growing. And the saffron crocuses are coming along nicely.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


At my friend Marna’s recommendation, I picked up a book called “Gaia’s Garden, a Guide to Home Scale Permaculture”, by . And wow! I’m already a garden junkie, but this book had me wanting to run straight outside to move plants around.

Permaculture is a philosophy of agricultural land-use that calls for combining plants, animals, and structures in such a way as to maximize the number of uses for the land while increasing its self-sufficiency and minimizing maintenance by focusing on the use of perennial plants. It is a new word for a rather old idea. Consider, for example, the old woodland management practices of northern Europe. An acre of managed woods would contain a mixture of whole trees, grown for timber, and deciduous trees lopped off near the ground to encourage growth of new shoots, which were then harvested yearly for kindling and basket-making. The understory contained small fruiting trees such as nut and berry bushes, and other plants which fed foraging animals, which were in turn hunted.

In other words, a permaculture garden is almost more of an engineered forage space than traditional garden.

Without knowing it, I was already experimenting with permaculture this year.

This is what the raspberry bed looked like in October. It ranges from two to four feet wide. There are thirty raspberry bushes and twenty-five strawberry plants (which were purchased as collections from Nourse Farms) crammed together into the narrow space. Marigolds and some volunteer butter-and-eggs were used as ground cover and decoration between the raspberry bushes while they were getting established.

Here is what the space looked like back in April, with the raspberries just planted. Before we had built it up into this raised bed, it was a shallow strip of dirt that would be baked dry each day and could hardly support a few marigolds, even if heavily watered.

Now it only occasionally needs water, because the soil is deep, and the leaves keep it shaded. It won't need applications of bark mulch dumped on it every year, because the plants themselves are the groundcover. And there is only minimal weeding to do, now that the plants are established enough to out-compete the weeds.

As long as the birds and the neighborhood kids don’t eat all of the berries, they are welcome to share, because this isn’t just for us – it’s for the wildlife and the community, too. And if this year’s unexpectedly early raspberries are any indication, we are going to have far more berries than we can eat.

But back to permaculture. Central to this approach to growing food is the idea of plant “guilds”, or groups of plants which can be grown together for their mutual benefit. My raspberry guild is rather simplistic compared to what is suggested in Hemenway’s book, but it’s a start, and so far it seems effective. Another example of a guild would be a fruit tree that provides shade to assorted berry bushes, between which were edible mulch-producing plants such as rhubarb, nitrogen-fixing ground cover such as clover, a deep-rooting flower such as lupine to help break up clay-heavy soil, and bulbs to look pretty in the Spring. (I would like to plant such a guild in the front yard eventually.)

Because the suburban landscape is so new, and the variety of available plants is so different, modern permaculture is in its infancy. There is a lot of experimentation to be done before it will be known which plant combinations work best in suburban lots in North America.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Back to Work

I regret that I haven’t had the time to post here more of late. With the new baby, I have been too wonderfully busy to think much about photography or plants. The beautiful Autumn colors came and went, and I’m grateful that I got out and took those last photos when I did, because the leaves fell down promptly afterward. We have already had a few nights that left ice on the top of our trusty bucket, but the days still occasionally bounce back up to Summery sunshine.

October is never a good month for me. This year was extra tough, because I was facing the end of maternity leave. I was nervous about putting Gabe in daycare, and anxious about resuming my job. But both went better than I could have hoped for. So for the past three weeks I have been deliriously happy and very busy. I have only ventured out to the garden on the weekends.

The witchhazel flowers were the final hurrah in the garden last year, but this year the alyssums outlasted them. And in addition to that, the saffron crocus bulbs I planted are just now growing. Will they flower this absurdly late in the season? I have trouble believing it, but supposedly they will. I’ll be sure to get photos if they do!

I have been slowly working on next year’s project: bamboo! In front of the house I am digging a hole the size of a hot tub. I bought a roll of plastic root barrier to keep the bamboo contained. In the Spring I’ll have some good soil delivered to fill the hole, and then I’ll be planting a 25-foot variety of bamboo that will eventually provide us with sturdy poles for the tomatoes. This variety of bamboo also produces tasty edible shoots. It isn’t native, but the native bamboo turns out to be not so suited to our needs.

Hopefully this weekend I’ll have some time for photos!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Stonybrook Wildlife Sanctuary

The Autumn colors of New England are at their peak now, and the intensity of the colors is phenomenal. I took Gabe out to view the foliage at Stonybrook "Farm", which isn’t a farm at all.

Every photo I took turned out looking like a post-card!

I am always a little sad this time of year. The plants are no longer growing, and the days are shorter. While I know that once it snows, I will be happy again, the thought of facing the cold and the dark again makes me melancholy.

But there is something to look forward to at Stonybrook: otters! I was told they are easiest to spot early on winter mornings.

On this trip, we saw a swan.