Saturday, February 27, 2010

Milk-Jug Army

As of mid-February the milk-jug army is up to 18 jugs. They contain seeds of:

rosa rugosa
mixed columbine
New England aster?
staghorn sumac
?? Mystery seeds!
marsh violets (collected from a sunny, moist location)
violets (from the ones in Gabe's Garden)
blue toadflax
black-eyed Susan
obedient plant
prairie blazing star
scarlet sage
false blue indigo AND anise hyssop
blanket flower
leopard's balm
lemon horsemint

I have to admit, I'm starting quite a lot of these not because I want the plant, but because I want to be a better gardener. Many of the seeds are two years old anyway, and I really have waited absurdly late to get these going, so I doubt I'll have great results. But then again, last year I didn't think I would have great results, either, and I ended up with thousands of seedlings.

This technique is called winter sowing. It's a way of starting seeds the way nature intended: exposed to sun and rain, and frozen and thawed repeatedly. But protected in the containers, the seeds and seedlings run less of a risk of drying out and perishing at a delicate stage, or being eaten by birds, etc. It's a particularly effective technique for native plants, many of which need a full winter's exposure in order to germinate. Some seeds require two full winters (such as Indian cucumber root), but I lack the patience for those.

I use plastic milk jugs, which I have cut around the middle and punched drain holes in the bottom. Last year, I used regular garden dirt, which worked quite well, except that it also contained weed seeds. That was messy, so this year, I tried straight seed-starting mix in some, and potting soil topped with seed-starting mix in others. If I were properly scientific, I would have done comparisons, starting the same type of seed in two jugs with different mixtures, but I had a toddler to chase, so that didn't happen.

Anyway, I just fill the jugs with the soil, give the dirt a good soak, and then sprinkle the seeds on top like poppy seeds on a bagel. Then the top gets taped back on, and the jugs are neglected until I need seedlings. Which might be in September.

In the Veggie Garden. . .

Ooh, how embarrassing. . .

When there was a good snow cover on the ground, it made sense just to chuck the compost waste over the fence. Out of laziness, and a dislike of mud, I continued doing that after the repeated snow-melts. Now it looks like a garbage dump out there. And my neighbors can see this from their back windows! I am mortified.

Like an airplane restroom, the compost ball is occupied most of the time, and is a pain to roll. But more than that, when using a compost pile as a way to reduce what you send to a landfill, then you need two piles: one accumulating, and one cooking. So we need a container to house the pile that is accumulating.

On the bright side, I came across the idea of cutting boards like Lincoln-logs to make an easy-assemble easy-disassemble container. Now I just need to get it built.

But enough about garbage. Take a look at what has been waiting in the veggie garden under the snow!

Carrot. 'Nuff said.

If this chard survives the winter I MUST collect the seeds!

Garlic! Hooray for garlic!

Catching up. . .

Some quick photos from the little snowfall on the 17th:

This last snow melted away in a hurry. A couple of snow sprinkles and glop days struck since then, but it's been melt, melt, melt each time. Today we got lots of snow, but it was a Virginia snowfall: nothing stuck.

It really has been a mild winter this year. We haven't had a nor-easter this year. Usually the snowplow pile out front is taller than Chris. This year, it has stayed at about knee-height.

These melts are such a tease. I need a blanket of snow to keep my gardening addiction dormant.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Plant shopping, done.

I decided that this season's projects will be a mulched path to the veggetable garden, an extension of the "island" flower bed that is out in the middle of the yard, and work on the bed on the right front of the house. Excavated topsoil from the path will go to the other two locations. The island area will be desert-themed. The front bed will be regraded a bit to prevent water from seeping into the garage, the foundation for the rain barrel will be redone properly, foundation shrubs will be added, and the front of the bed will be prettied up and made to match Gabe's Garden on one end.

From Tripple Brook Farm, I have purchased the following:
1 Apios americana (groundnut)
1 Opuntia compressa (common prickly pear)
1 Empetrum nigrum 'Compass harbor' (black crowberry)
1 Armeria maritima (sea pink)
1 Gaultheria procumbens (wintergreen, a.k.a. teaberry, a.k.a checkerberry)
1 Epigaea repens (Mayflower, a.k.a. trailing arbutus).
This is my first time purchasing from this nursery. The plants are pricey, but they have some native plants that I have never seen before. The crowberry, for instance, is a near-native (arctic, actually) ground cover that produces edible berries. I saw it, and was instantly afflicted with plant lust. And groundnut I have lusted after for a couple of years now. A friend gave me some tubers last summer, but they had been soaking in her sink in preperation for dinner, and I think that treatment did them in.

From Musser Forrests:
5 Myrica pensylvanica 'Bayview' (northern bayberry)
2 Picea abies nidiformis (bird's nest spruce)
2 Pinus mugo pumilio (mugho pine)
1 Sempervivum (hens and chicks)
Musser Forrests is the source of the bare-root serviceberry bushes I bought last Spring, among other things. I was quite impressed with their quality and prices.

Twice now I have purchased seeds from It must be a tiny operation, because there is no online ordering, and because when I e-mail for clarification, it's just "John" who answers. I think his is a one-man operation, and for no logical reason I find this deeply appealing. This is the first time I am ordering potted plants from him.
2 Sedum ternatum (woodland stonecrop)
2 Amorpha Canescens (lead plants)
1 Talinum calycinum (flame flower, a.k.a. rock pink)
1 Opuntia humifusa (prickly pear cactus)

Then of course there were the plants I bought from Kelly Nurseries, a rather mainstream catalogue company that I haven't bought from before. I was sucked in by their amazing deals on blazing star and phlox.
40 Liatris spicata (dense blazing star)
24 Phlox subulata (creeping phlox)
2 Diospyros virginiana (American persimmon)
2 Asimina Triloba (paw paw)

The grand total was about $180. Not too shabby, considering I've spent more on hobbies I've cared less about.

Sorry, this is such a boring post. It's more for my records than anything else.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Asexual Reproduction is Nifty

After learning a bit about plants that have successfully survived for long periods of time with little or no sexual reproduction among the species, this caught my attention: an all-female species of lizard.

"Although asexual reproduction might seem like a bore—and one that can have questionable genetic outcomes unless done right—it has its benefits, too, Baumann notes. 'You're greatly increasing the chances of populating a new habitat if it only takes one individual,' he says. . ."

I say this in my best Spock voice: fascinating!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Don't give up on them.

Reading through some blogs today of fellow native plant enthusiasts, and I was struck again something: bloggers writing disparagingly about their neighbors. So-and-so's chem-lawn, so-and-so's invasive plants that are creeping over the fence, etc. However, if you are using your blog to complain about your neighbors, then you can't also use the blog to get them on your side. Even if you do eventually talk them into seeing gardening the same way that you do, you can't ever show them your blog. You have given up on them, and that's a terrible commentary on the state of your relationship with your community.

As an alternative, try looking at what your neighbors are doing right. Lead by example, and have patience.

Well, it isn't last year's army of 30 milk-jugs, but it's better than nothing. My winter-sown seeds, from left to right:

rosa rugosa
mixed columbine
New England aster (or some other purple aster, collected from a playground thicket)
staghorn sumac
scarlet sage
marsh violets (collected from a sunny, moist location)
violets (from the ones in Gabe's Garden)

To my dismay, rosa rugosa isn't native, so I'm not sure what I'll do with them if they grow. But I was on the fence about those thorns anyway.

The staghorn sumac isn't something I intend to plant in the yard. I'm just starting it for fun. Maybe I'll grow one in a pot. Bonsai, perhaps?

Groundcovers in February

We are under a nice blanket of snow again, here in Massachusetts, but for a distressing couple of weeks the ground was largely bare. I am firmly against having a naked ground in the winter; it makes the nights bleakly dark, and exposes the ground to deep, hard freezes, which is tough on the plants.

But I took the opportunity to peek in on my various ground covers,to see what is still looking pretty at such an ugly time of year for gardens.

The cinquefoil is still surprisingly green!

And so is the bearberry. This plant seems to be doing well with a partial cover of leaves on top, which I tossed over it in the hopes of protecting it from cold and deer, which ate it last spring. (They were so hungry at the time that they were demolishing everything.)

Once the bearberry is better established, I'll leave it uncovered in the winter so it can be appreciated when everything else is so dead-looking.

This past spring I transplanted a couple of its running branches to other areas in the yard. One went to a very dry, sunny area; the other went to a moist shady area choked with weeds. Both were thriving as of last autumn.

I really hope this plant survives the winter. It's box huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera, a rare native with a background that makes the plant geek in me squeal with glee. It is, quite possibly, the second oldest self-cloning plant in the world. The oldest colony is possibly as old as 13,000 years old.

Want to know what the oldest cloned plant is? That would be a single colony of something called King's Lomatia, or Lomatia tasmanica, which clocks in at an estimated mind-blowing 135,000 years old. To put that in perspective, King's lomatia is old enough to be compared to its own fossil record.

Alas, there is only one colony - a single replicated plant - of King's lomatia left, so it will never be able to have happy plant sex with another member of its species. Box huckleberry is also self-sterile, and individual colonies are so far apart that sexual reproduction rarely happens. This information makes me want to acquire some box huckleberry from a different colony, so this poor sex-starved plant can get it on.

Rumor has it that box huckleberry colonies can be up to a mile across; but at a spread rate of six inches a year, I don't have to worry about being the epicenter of a mile-wide colony during my lifetime. Slow growth aside, who wouldn't want this groundcover in their garden: in the middle of the winter, it's flaming red! It also produces edible, if reportedly tasteless, berries.

Oh look, it put up a new shoot already! You can see it, there in the front.

My two box huckleberries came from the Garden in the Woods, and were planted in the front garden this past summer. Box huckleberry is likely quite hard to find at nurseries. This is one that you would want to buy only from a reputable nursery, to be sure that it wasn't dug from the wild.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010


How embarassing: my old home of Virginia has been getting pounded with foot-plus snowstorms, while up here in the true frozen north, after looking at weeks of bare ground, we panicked at an incoming storm which turned out to be mostly fizzle.

The snow, what little of it there was, turned my grasses into comical slumpy lumps. Hopefully with a few more seasons of growth they'll have enough mass to look elegant in the winter.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I am moved.

A guy wants to build a giant clock inside of a mountain. It sounds absurd but it isn't. He wants to make it a pilgrimage site. The clock will run for 10,000 years and will serve to remind people to live for the long-term. His organization is called The Long Now, and he, Stewart Brand, is the founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, which is where environmentalists and hippies went for their information before the Internet.

Stewart Brand has since done an about-face on several issues that environmentalists frequently don't like: nuclear energy, slums, GM foods, and Geo-engineering, and he has written a book on these things called Whole Earth Discipline. I need to read this. He gave a lecture on some of the subject matter at TED Talks - which, by the way, is a most amazing collection of free, intelligent, and inspirational lectures.

Someday I will make the pilgrimage to that clock!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tofu Versus Beef, and Tactics versus Strategy

I have heard some people counter ethical eating with "oh yeah? Tofu has a carbon footprint, too!" Of course it does. But please, supply some numbers.

The estimated carbon footprint of a pound of tofu: between .81 and .86 pounds of greenhouse gasses. The estimated carbon footprint of factory-farmed beef: 15 pounds.

Read more here.

Not that I'm going to become a vegetarian any time soon. My tactics are to eat more locally, more organically, and less meat, while my strategy is to cause as little harm to the planet as possible while still enjoying the experience of acquiring and eating food. As it should be, if the tactics don't support the strategy, I change them.

Canada Bans Weed-and-Feed

Canada has imposed a nation-wide ban on combination fertilizer-pesticide chemical combinations for lawns.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Berries, gone.

I was wondering who ate the jack-in-the-pulpit berries last October. They're poisonous to most mammals, I think. But according to Triple Brook Farm, "the fruits are eaten by birds including wild turkey and wood thrush."

Increasing Biodiversity

From several sources now I have heard people argue that bringing in new species of plant to an area must be a good thing because it increases biodiversity. To that, I propose an experiment. In a large enclosure, put deer, squirrels, groundhogs, mice, coyote, and whatever other North American fauna you like. Provide ample plants for the herbivores to eat. Now sit back and watch. There should be something akin to balance here. Hooray.

Now add tigers.

Hooray, the biodovirsity has increased! Or it has, at least, until the tigers get hungry.

Monday, February 1, 2010

I failed my saving throw against plants.

That's Dungeons and Dragons speak for "my money leaped out of my pocket." In other words, for the dozenth time this winter, I opened a random plant catalogue, but this time I just couldn't say no. 40 prairie blazing stars for $3.49? Really? Did they accidentally print an extra zero? 12 creeping phlox for the same price? I'm afraid some American persimmon and paw paw trees snuck into my cart as well before I was able to flee the website. Kelly Nurseries, I shake my fist at you for tempting me so!