Last Trip to the Tree Store

June 26th, 2015

For Father’s Day I took the family to the tree store here, probably for the last time, since we’re moving next month. In Chattanooga, where we are moving, I’m sure there are nurseries with a large variety of stock, but I haven’t found them yet, and I didn’t want to risk moving there and not having access to a few key trees I definitely wanted in my landscape, so, I bought them now.

The first I absolutely had to have is pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s Sunburst.’ I’ve blogged about this tree several times before, it is one of my favorites. It is a lodgepole pine that grows slowly and that has candles (the new spring growth) of bright banana yellow, constrasting with the green mature needles. I also, just generally, like the overall growth habit of lodgepole pines vs. something like the eastern white pine. I knew I could buy this tree online, but it’d be a small sample not very tall at all, if I wanted one big enough to make a statement I would have to find it from a nursery, and the ones I called in Chattanooga had never heard of it.

Cedrus deodara 'Karl Fuchs' and Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst'

Cedrus deodara ‘Karl Fuchs’ and Pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’

The second is cedrus deodara ‘Karl Fuchs’ which is this nice stately true cedar tree. Cedrus atlantica is sold all over the south, often in weeping form, and they’re beautiful and I want one of those. But cedrus deodara grows upright and straight with sparse very architectural sort of limbs, almost like a work of sculpture. Unlike most evergreens it never really “fills in” with needles, the branches are wide spaces without a lot of secondary or tertiary branches that the shape of the growth of the tree is very evident and able to be appreciated (though, maybe you have to be a tree nerd to do so). I had again called places and they didn’t have it, but the new house I’m building will have a circular drive right in the front, and as a center piece of that circular garden I’ve known for awhile I wanted this tree. It will be quite striking when it fills in, and I plan to put multiple colored shrubs (red and golden barberries) around the base of it, so it will be a little multicolor circular garden featuring yellow, red, and blue foliage (but no green!)

Then I also wanted metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Gold Rush’ also known as dawn redwood, or dinosaur tree. Once thought to be extinct, a few were found growing in a valley in China not that long ago. Gold Rush is a cultivar with bright golden foliage. Similar to bald cypress these trees get really complex and beautiful trunks, one of my favorite features. Overall I am very partial to deciduous conifers like this (conifer trees that lose their needles each winter), bald cypress, larch, etc. I guess I just like short needle conifers as they all tend to have short feathery needles. Again I phoned and emailed nurseries, it looks like the species metasequoia are available, but not ‘gold rush’ and I wanted ‘gold rush’ so I bought two. ‘Gold rush’ does not grow as large as the species variety, but that bright golden foliage that doesn’t fade in the sun is hard to beat. People love large trees with bright foliage in the fall, this one gets it all growing season long.

Two Metasequoia 'Gold Rush'

Two Metasequoia ‘Gold Rush’

I also came home with two trees I did not expect to buy. The first is a standard form hinoki cypress. I don’t know why, but hinoki cypress always appeals to me more than other chamaecyparis or related arborvitaes, the orientation or twist of the foliage I think. In anycase, I saw a very very nice topiary hinoki cypress that I think had to have been grafted, where they got this big old tree, and grafted tufts of dwarf hinoki on it, then cut off the rest, it was gorgeous, but pricey and I was running out of room regardless. I also saw a very nice “top and flop” double graft with the upright dwarf hinoki grafted on top and a weeping gold variety of chamaecyparis or something similar grafted below. This again I did not buy, running short on room. I did settle on a cheaper and smaller standard form hinoki cypress just an impulse buy.

Finally I picked up Abies koreana ‘Kahout’s Icebreaker.’ This is a very new plant discovered as a sport in a nursery in Germany and is only a handful of years old. It was also the American Conifer Society conifer of the year in 2014. So it is a Korean Fir, dwarf, slow growing, that has these sort of curled in needles, the needles are green on top, but typical growth habit has the needles turned in so only their silver blue undersides are shown, in little curled tips like, I just keep thinking of rabbit feet. In my picture you can see the old green lower growth from the host plant (it is a graft) left on to feed it, that I can prune off now. It was small, and inexpensive, my daughter named it “Elsa.”

Abies koreana 'Kahouts Icebreaker'

Abies koreana ‘Kahouts Icebreaker’

We completely filled the truck on the way home, and though I wish I could have bought more (it is a huge nursery, the biggest in the midwest I’m told, and I’d love to just be able to say “one of everything please”), I wouldn’t have had any room.

How to Divide Ornamental Grass

June 6th, 2015

Step 43 of my preparation to move to another state was digging and dividing my ornamental grass today. But even if I weren’t moving it was past time to do this.

Miscanthus, the sort of grass I have (miscanthus sinesis ‘Morning Light’) also called maiden grass, grows from a rhizome and as it gets older it gets spreading out, with the older rhizome stopping to produce, and you get this sort of doughnut shape or bald spot. Irises, another rhizome plant, will do this same thing. Plant a single iris in a large area and eventually you get this circle with a barren area in the middle.

Miscanthus ornamental grass with a dead center, in need of division.

Miscanthus ornamental grass with a dead center, in need of division.

This thing was wicked hard to dig and cut into. Miscanthus rhizomes are hard, basically wood, so it was like cutting into wood with my shovel. It did not go well. But eventually I got a big clump of it dug. The rest I left there, it’ll fill back in with time.

Miscanthus Clump

Miscanthus Clump

So now I had this big clump and I had to cut it into smaller more manageable clumps. The shovel wasn’t happening, I got out my new axe. I would highly, highly recommend the axe. Also for the first top of getting that clump out of the ground. Of course, a full size sharp axe, be careful with that. Put the clump on the ground, stand back from it, and chop down, letting the axe head go into the soil. Never swing an axe in such a way that you could miss, or swing all the way through something, and hit your legs or feet. That would be bad.

Divided Miscanthus Clumps

Divided Miscanthus Clumps

I chopped the clump up into 4 inch or so pieces to put into 6 inch pots. A few bigger chunks I tossed into bigger pots I had. Normally I would probably want all bigger pots, but this is the size I bought a whole case of for moving plants. I ended up getting about 8 divisions, discarding the inner barren parts of the clump. This is a pretty good haul, potted up and growing miscanthus like this will be at least $10, probably more like $25 at the garden center. So I just saved myself at least $80 on the plant cost of my future garden, and considering I’m going for a fraction of an acre to 20 acres, I will have a lot of plants to purchase.

Divided Miscanthus Potted Up

Divided Miscanthus Potted Up

Use Impatiens to Brighten up Shady Spots

May 31st, 2015

I just did a search on my blog for impatiens, I found 0 results, I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned this plant in a post before.

It is my firm belief that every ornamental gardener (and even vegetable gardeners – to attract pollinators) should plant both perennials and annuals. I love perennials because you plant them once and you’re done, they do well in droughts because they have stronger roots, and over time you can even get free plants as they multiply. But in general perennials only flower for a short period of time.

A nice tropical annual on the other hand can flower, and flower, and flower, from your frost free date in the Spring (assuming you bought starter plants or started your own seed indoors), until the first frost in the fall. Mixing annuals in with your perennials allows you to provide constant pops of color, constant bee food, even when nothing else might be in flower. They’re great really. I also love them in containers, since perennials in containers will eventually become root bound.

A large urn-style container in the shadier part of my yard bubbling with vivid impatiens.

A large urn-style container in the shadier part of my yard bubbling with vivid impatiens.

Of course, perennials have their place too, because lets face it, gardening with only annuals would get quite expensive if you have to buy a garden’s worth of plants each and every year. Of course you’ll save a ton of money if you can start them from seed, but it does require some infrastructure, a greenhouse or a well setup, large, south facing window. One day when I get my greenhouse (next summer, yippee) I’ll probably do that, but for now, I’m out there buying flats like everyone else.

I do prefer to buy flats of the smallest, cheapest, annuals, not bigger plants all done up in premade baskets or anything, I don’t find value there.

Moving on, impatiens, I love them, they’re so neon bright it is amazing for a plant that doesn’t like the sun. They’re like little jewels glistening in the shade, really bright pops of color. Off the top of my head I cannot think of any other shade plant that flowers like that, not one. Something like a coleus can get bright foliage, but not like this. Hydrangeas and Rhododendrons do okay with some shade, and get big showy blooms, but not this vibrant.

So I’m moving this summer so I’ve greatly paired back the functional aspect of my gardening, fewer herbs, fewer vegetables, because I won’t be around to harvest them anyway. However I am increasing my annual flower planting to make sure there is always bright and beautiful flowers whenever a realtor might show the house. So I went to the big box store and bought a tray of impatiens, a mix of colors. There are more upright varieties, premium varieties, but like I said above, I like the cheap ones. Then I, with the help of my kids, planted them in some large planters in the heavily shaded part of my backyard. This was just a few weeks ago, and already they’ve filled in, and resemble large bubbling cauldrons of color.

Brilliantly bright impatiens.

Brilliantly bright impatiens.

Generally I think each annual has a place. Petunias or marigolds love full sun, and being planted directly in the soil (I know, I know, you’ll find petunias planted in containers all the time, especially hanging baskets, but you will be watering them twice a day), so they have enough to drink. Begonias are my go to (and more or less the only thing I will consider) for small containers or hanging baskets in full sun, because they are highly drought tolerant. You basically never have to add supplemental water to a begonia basket so long as no roof is obstructing natural rainfall and you’re not in an arid climate. Impatiens are for shade, and they also do fairly well in shaded containers or baskets. I do not think they are as drought tolerant as begonias, but being in the shade there is certainly less need for water overall. They’ll also let you know when they’re thirsty by wilting, and pop back pretty quickly when quenched.

Bottom line, impatiens are a star in the shady garden, or in urns or planters on shady porches and decks (if there is a roof over them though, you must remember to water). If you’ve never planted them before, you really don’t know what you’re missing.

How to Divide Daylilies and Other Perennials

May 21st, 2015

My move gets ever closer, less than 2 months now and I say goodbye to the garden I’ve built over the last 12 years and… well… its traumatic. But one thing is for sure, I don’t want to have to buy a lot of these plants again. So I’ve been busy taking divisions and otherwise potting up my favorites to take with me to my new place. Especially daylilies, I have a huge daylily collection, and some very expensive ones (the most I’ve ever paid for a daylily was $200, I’m not kidding…). I definitely want these plants to come with me.

Meanwhile, I happened to notice one of the videos I did awhile back has over a million views on Youtube, seriously, a million views. I hadn’t been doing many videos over the years, thinking they didn’t get many views so why bother, but I guess I was wrong, so now I’m inspired to do more videos, hence, today’s blog post about dividing daylilies is in video form, enjoy.

Since apparently its a thing, I’m going to try to do more videos going forward into the future.

Mantis Tiller Review: Making Quick Work of My Garden

April 19th, 2015

So I’m sure we’ve all seen these commercials. The Mantis tiller, plowing through soil, I never bought into it. My only memory of using a tiller was when young, at my parents, a big tiller, twice as big as the mantis easy, and it’d have trouble breaking through the soil. Plus in the commercials it always looked like potting mix, it seemed so staged. So sure, I thought, of course the tiller would plow through light potting mix, I bet it wouldn’t do anything on actual garden soil.

Then the nice people at Mantis offered me a free tiller (best part about being a garden blogger: the free swag. Second best part? Potential tax writeoffs). Of course I accepted, because free, but I really didn’t think I’d get much use out of it, because I was skeptical. I did ask for a 4 cycle one because I don’t like having to mix 2-cycle gas. Most often they are sold as 2 cycle ones.

My garden raised bed as it is found in Spring, old plants, a few weeds, leaves, etc.

My garden raised bed as it is found in Spring, old plants, a few weeds, leaves, etc.

We finally had some nice weather and I decided to give it a try today. Assembly took about 30 minutes and was straight forward, but you need your own tools, it doesn’t come with the wrenches you would need. It took me awhile to get it started and I got a little frustrated, the pull cord on the engine is a bit short, and rather than giving in long pulls, you need to hit it with a few short rapid pulls to get it going.

But once it was going, wow, it completely powered through my raised beds. Admittedly these are raised beds, so they are not compacted by foot traffic, however they are many years old the dirt wasn’t fresh by any means. Hand turning with a pitch fork, my prior MO, would take 30-40 minutes at least to do a good job, and it wasn’t nearly as complete a job as the Mantis just did, and the Mantis did it in about 5 minutes. No joke. This thing is strong enough for heavy garden soil. It might not tear up sod, but garden soil it does just fine. Just be careful near fences, at one point it caught my little fence (stupid groundhogs) and that wasn’t a good thing, it got all tangled up.

My garden bed after less than 5 minutes of action with my new Mantis tiller.

My garden bed after less than 5 minutes of action with my new Mantis tiller.

Tilling is a little controversial in gardening circles. It can destroy the tilth of the soil, it can bring old weed seeds to the surface where they can annoy you to death, some claim it can make a hard layer underneath (this I care less about, plant roots tend to stick to the top 12 inches of soil). In general this is all true, and certainly it makes sense to let the soil lie in many beds, but I just don’t feel that is true for vegetable gardens.

Vegetables need loose soil to grow their best, obviously any root vegetable does best in light and airy soils, a compacted hard soil will give you smaller and deformed potatoes, beets, and carrots. But even other plants benefit from having looser soil to push their roots through, the plants will grow bigger, faster, and getting big fast is the quintessential goal of a vegetable garden.

Tilling also has one good benefit, mixing amendments in the soil. For instance I had all this old waste from the prior growing season, random fallen leaves, and things like that, I also tossed on a few buckets of compost. The tiller blended it all in nice and clean. All in a few minutes work. It almost seems wasteful, this machine for this small amount of space, but soon, very soon, I will have my epic Martha Stewart sized vegetable garden, then I will get more use out of it.

The bottom line is the Mantis went all over my raised beds, as deep as a foot down, with ease, blending the soil in minutes. It was great, I can definitely recommend it.

First Flower of Spring 2015

April 3rd, 2015

On March 31st I noticed the first bloom of the Spring, a crocus as always, same spot as last year. The first bloom last year was also March 31st.

First Bloom of 2015

First Bloom of 2015

Here is my Michigan Misery Index over time:

2009: March 15th
2010: March 16th
2011: March 15th
2012: March 10th
2013: Forgot
2014: March 31st
2015: March 31st

Winters have been getting both colder and longer lately. 2014 was just horrible. 2015 had a warmer early part of the winter, but the cold lasted so long and dragged out well into Spring, we had snow falling less than a week ago still. I enjoy recording these dates, it lets me see patterns in my garden over time. I think perhaps I should start recording dates for other events, such as trees blooming.

This is the last time I’m going to be doing this for Michigan though, we move to Tennessee this summer. My flowers will come up in February or something, how nice will that be?

Squish This, Not That: Confusion over Bugs

January 3rd, 2015

Sometimes a little bit of knowledge is a bad thing. I’ve talked, multiple times, to novice gardeners, hobbyists (and, lets face it, I’m a hobbyist too, I don’t have a degree in horticulture, I am not a professional landscape architect, but I’m a garden blogger, gardening is serious business to me), laypeople, or just people who simply don’t know much more about gardening than what the tag on the pot at Home Depot tells them. A common theme I’ve noticed is the misidentification of bugs, specifically in regard to two pests.

Japanese Beetles and Lady Bugs

I thought everyone know what a lady bug was, I mean, they’re represented in cartoons, tv, media, clothing, art, various other cultural representations, and yet still I’ve had multiple people tell me, convincingly, that a lady bug is a Japanese beetle. They think, perhaps, that if they see a lady bug of a slightly different hue, or with a different spot pattern, it must be this Japanese beetle they’ve heard about, this nefarious invader. I don’t know why they have this confusion, but it is rather alarming, considering lady bugs, or lady beetles, or ladybirds, (the insect has a variety of regional names) are generally beneficial insects that eat things like aphids, and you have people killing them mistakenly thinking they are Japanese beetles. Stop the insanity!

Lady Bugs Full Life Cycle

This is the full life cycle of the Lady Bug, pay attention to the scary looking larval stages, those aren’t little monsters, if you see them in your garden do not squish them.

An actual Japanese Beetle. Notice the coppery wings and the iridescent green thorax. Big and slow and invasive, they should be killed when seen.

An actual Japanese Beetle. Notice the coppery wings and the iridescent green thorax. Big and slow and invasive, they should be killed when seen.

What is an actual Japanese beetle? It is much larger, about the size of a nickle, or a man’s thumbnail, they’re slow, ponderous, they eat plant leaves, not insects, leaving skeletonized leaves, and they’re iridescent (shiny, metallic like) green & copper colored. When you positively see one they’re rather obvious and you’ll never make the mistake of misidentifying them again. They have a variety of control methods, and as they’re slow are easily hand caught/squished. They were first discovered in New Jersey in 1916 and have been detected in 30+ states, though have not fully penetrated the western US.

Box Elder Bugs and Stink Bugs

This confusion is perhaps more forgivable. Box Elder Bugs are native bugs that feed off of boxelder, maple, and ash trees. Anything in the acer family. They’re red and black (same coloring as most lady bugs, and people also often sometimes think these are Japanese beetles), and while they feed on the trees, not on insects, they usually don’t cause permanent harm and aren’t considered an agricultural pest. They can however be annoying, they like homes, they like the warmth seeping out of the walls, they can find their way indoors, and they do have an odor when squished, but they’re not really harmful or invasive.

If you see these, squish them, they're invasive destructive pests.

If you see these, squish them, they’re invasive destructive pests.

Adult and juvenile box elder bugs. They may be annoying, but aren't that harmful.

Adult and juvenile box elder bugs. They may be annoying, but aren’t that harmful.

So people hear on the news about an invasive stinkbug that is a huge agricultural pest and think “aha that must be this thing.” It isn’t. The invasive pest stinkbug is the brown marmorated stinkbug. This bug is a serious agricultural pest, and like the Japanese beetle is somewhat slow and easy to catch & squish (though, it can be smelly). If you see one of these bugs, please kill it, it isn’t native here, it is destructive to our environment.

Why the confusion

I think a lot of the confusion results in the invasive nature of these pests. For instance, the brown marmorated stinkbug has only shown up in my garden in south central Michigan this past summer in any large numbers. Previously I had only ever seen a handful (outside of gardening magazines or TV shows). They were first found as recently in 1998 in Pennsylvania areas and have been slowly spreading west and have heavily colonized the DC/NYC east coast areas. So people in the rest of the country hear about the bug long before they ever seen one and so potentially misidentify it. These little suckers are really clingy, they have strong legs and I’ve seen them ride on cars without falling off, which may be aiding in their spread.

I cannot stress enough how important it is that you kill any of these bugs that you see, both Japanese beetles and brown marmorated stinkbugs are horribly invasive pests that are destructive to our native environment. Both are slow enough to be hand killed, Japanese beetles also have very effective pheromone based traps you can buy. I do not know of an effective commercial trap for stinkbugs. But, just make sure you’re killing the right bugs, and spread the knowledge around, public education about these insects is important. And, please, if you catch them in your house, don’t “release them into the wild.” Don’t be that person, they’re a nonnative invasive species, you’re not helping nature when you do that, you’re hurting it.

Frugal Gardening: Starting Perennials from Seed

December 14th, 2014

I think everyone loves a nice mass planting. Mixed plantings look nice too, but it is hard to beat the statement of a mass planting. A whole bed of lilies, a whole bed of hostas, a whole bed of daylilies, or cone flowers, or rudbeckias, or phlox, or whatever. Maybe not all the same exactly hybrid, but all the same species.

But man, sometimes, gardening can be expensive. Even if you were buying them for $1 each (unlikely) or $5 each (more likely) you’re looking at spending hundreds of dollars to pull it off.

Hosta Seedlings

However, if you have patience and a little equipment (or a nice south facing window) you can get those plants for a lot less.


Most perennials you buy are hybrids, which means they are a specific plant that has been cloned to be reproduced. So every Stella de’oro daylily looks like every other one, they have the same genetic code. When you introduce sexual reproduction (with bees & seeds) you get different plants. So if you saved a bunch of seeds from Stella de’oro many would look the same, but many would also look different. So the first thing you need to remember when saving perennial seeds is that they will not grow the same as their parents. That is okay though, with hostas a bunch of different leaf shapes, sizes, and colors are desirable in a mass planting, and so long as you aren’t a collector most flowers like lilies or daylilies are the same.

Selecting & Prepping Seeds

Different seeds have different requirements for germination. Generally you should wait to harvest the seeds until the plant is ready to give them up. That means the seedpod is brown and starting to crack open on its own. Harvest and sort the seeds, separating them from the pod and any other plant remnants. Generally you may need to dry them out a little more, so don’t store them in an airtight container, a brown bag is fine or an open jar.

Now you’ll have a little bit of research to do. Some plants need what is called stratification, or a cold and or wet period, to germinate. They get this naturally by sitting on wet ground during winter, but you will need to mimic this indoors. So if you’re growing a seed that requires this (like daylilies) you can put them in an old butter container or something in some water in the fridge for 6-8 weeks. At the end of this time often you’ll see the seed outer coat start to split open, and that means it is time to plant.

With other plants that do not need stratification, such as hostas, you can skip that step.

Regardless if you needed cold storage or not, the next step is heat, plants tend to germinate in the Spring when the soil warms up, and it is that warming of the soil that does it. So get a plastic seed starting tray, I like ones with 72 cells, and you’ll need a lid for it. Plant your seeds and again you’ll need to do some research as to planting depth, but generally a quarter to a half an inch is appropriate for most perennials. Then water with warm water and put the lid on. You can also spring for a seedling heat mat to put under the tray if you want, or otherwise keep it somewhere warm like near a radiator.

You also need to do a little research and see if the plant you are trying to grow needs light to germinate, in which case you really hardly plant the seed it all, but put it on top of the dirt and just sprinkle a little potting mix on top. If the seed does require light to germinate you should put it in a south facing window, or if not you should put it beneath a grow light setup. And that is the one cost you’ll incur that isn’t so cheap if you don’t have a south facing window (I don’t currently, blech). With your grow lights you need to place it as close to the plants as possible, and then raise it up as the plants grow. Remember that, people usually don’t and just stick it something like a foot above the plants which is too far (until the plants are 10 inches tall anyways).

Somewhere between one and three weeks your seed should germinate, and I really recommend planting 3 or 4 seeds per cell because not every seed will germinate and you can always cull the excess ones.

After Germination

The best time to start this process is in winter, so after germination it is likely too cold to plant outside still. So you’ll need to put them in that south facing window and or under your grow light. Take the lid off the tray now as you can let the humidity escape the soil since germination is over, however you will now need to water the tray regularly (and gently).

Hosta Seedlings Closeup

I also highly recommend putting a fan near the plants to provide them with wind, an oscillating fan is best but any fan will do. Plants grown in still air develop weak spindly stems and do not do well when finally placed outdoors.

If you’re growing under lights continue to adjust the lights upward as the plant grows taller and wait for the weather to warm up.

The Fruits of Your Labor

Once the weather warms up to a safe level you can bring the plants outdoors, however they’re unlikely to be ready for it. You need to harden them up by putting them outside during the day, and taking them in at night, for as long as 2 weeks, also starting them in the shade and only gradually introducing them to full sunlight. Even if they were in a window before. Plants grown indoors usually can’t take 8 hours of full sun at first after being indoors all their lives.

Once they’re fully adapted to the outdoors you can plant them in a permanent spot, but now you must wait. Perennials grown from seed take a long time to develop. If you cut a division off a daylily to make a new plant you’ll get a flower than year or the following year. A daylily grown from seed may flower in year 2 if you’re lucky, but perhaps not until year 3. Other plants like hostas are the same. If you save seeds from a big beautiful hosta with massive leaves, the seeds are going to be different from the parent but still likely will be a large leaved hosta – but it will take 5, 6, 7 years for the hosta to mature to be that size.

So you need patience, but on the other hand, this is a cheap and easy way to get a ton of plants.

I’m moving next summer and in my new place I’ve going to have exponentially more garden room than I do currently, but I’m loathe to think of all the work and spending it will take to plant all those spaces. So I’m preparing now. My current project is seed starting hostas, and the pictures in this post are from that. They won’t be named hybrids, but they’ll eventually be nice big hostas and will look good in a mass planting I’m hoping to have on the shaded side of the house. I’ve previously done this with daylilies though by now I have so many daylilies I can take divisions from I don’t feel a need to use their seeds (also I find hostas harder to divide by divisions than daylilies).

You can of course also do this with annuals, not just perennials, however annuals are so much more expensive in the end (having to be grown from seed every year, not just once) I don’t really think they belong in a post about frugality. Perennials are always the frugal choice.

Perennial seeds aren’t something you can usually buy at the garden center or grocery store like annual seeds. If you can’t save your own from your plants in your existing garden, try a gardening friend or ebay. Lots of people sell perennial seeds from their garden on ebay.

Growing a Bee Friendly Garden

November 27th, 2014

In the inland empire of California is a vast stretch of hundreds of square miles of almond trees. Every spring 1.6 million beehives, 60% of the managed beehives in the country, are trucked to California to pollinate these almond trees. It is the largest pollination event on earth, and is responsible for 80% of the entire planet’s almond production. But why? Why must the bees be trucked in? For the time that the almond trees are in bloom that area is a cornucopia of bee delight. But what happens when the almond trees are not in bloom? It is essentially a desert for bees. Monocultures are not natural and while bees can fly over a mile from their hive for food, hundreds of square miles is too large of a distance, and if almond trees are the only things planted, then what is there to sustain the bees for the majority of the year when the trees are not in bloom?

Hives on pallets trucked to an almond farm.

Hives on pallets trucked to an almond farm.

There are other problems with this practice, such as by trucking a majority of all our commercial bees to one spot for a giant pollen party we facilitate the spread of disease, but this also serves as my introduction into how to grow a bee friendly garden. I’m providing you a real world example of what might seem to be bee paradise as an example of what not to do.

Feed the Bees

Many animals figure out how to survive when food is scarce. Some will pack on the pounds while food is plentiful, and then live off those reserves when food is scarce, others will store or hoard food in burrows or caches like a squirrel. Bees do a bit of both, storing the honey for when there is nothing in bloom, such as winter. However, bees need a full Spring, Summer, and Fall to put away the honey they need for a winter. A two week almond bloom is not going to generate enough to sustain them the rest of the year.

Bees need flowers as early as possible in Spring, crocuses are a great choice.

Bees need flowers as early as possible in Spring, crocuses are a great choice.

So the single most important thing you can do to make sure you have a bee friendly garden is to make sure there is something in bloom in your garden as close to year round as your climate can manage. This means you should absolutely positively plant the earliest spring flower you can find, which is likely going to be a crocus or a snowdrop, and also plant the latest fall flower you can think of, such as an aster or a mum. Those are all perennials but it’d also be helpful to plant annuals by starting them indoors and putting them outside as soon as they can take it, blooms at the ready, and leaving them out, blooming in full force, until the frost finally kills them.

There are also plants you probably don’t even think of as being flowering plants, such as maple trees, that can add to the bee’s diet. In general you just have to remember that within a mile of a hive bees more or less need something in bloom constantly straight on through from Spring to Fall.

Colony Collapse Disorder

You may have heard of this, colony collapse disorder, or CCD, before. Essentially, in recent years, for some reason, bee hives are dying and people do not know why. The science behind it is a little fuzzy or nonexistant, allowing people to attribute it to anything and everything under the sun. People who dislike pesticides say pesticides are causing it. People who dislike technology say it is cell phone and WIFI signals causing it. People who dislike genetic engineering say (stupidly) things like genetically engineered corn (which is wind pollinated natch) is causing it. One of the more interesting theories I’ve heard is that loss of bee habitat and or loss of wildflowers have caused it. If you think about it, a field of wheat or corn provides little sustenance to bees, and how much of the surface of the earth that may have once been a meadow filled with wildflowers is now wheat or corn? This doesn’t entirely make sense though because I’m sure apiaries (that is, bee keepers) don’t keep their hives in the middle of corn fields. And this wouldn’t explain why a bee hive, presumably kept surrounded by flowers, would collapse. However, what is indisputable is that bee populations are dropping and you can help prevent that by planting more flowers and doing other things discussed in this article.

Other Bee Friendly Steps

In addition to planting flowers that stretch their bloom periods for the full growing season, you also want to try to make mass plantings of such. Bees can’t find or can justify the energy to find a single crocus blooming, but a vast swath of crocuses will be worth the trip. So try to plant a square yard of each of the plants you choose to provide for bees, ideally close together so the bees don’t have to go very far to find the next bloom.

A bee out foraging for pollen and nectar, notice the pollen stored on his leg.

A bee out foraging for pollen and nectar, notice the pollen stored on his leg.

You should also try to limit the spraying of insecticides, obviously, since bees are insects. You can still spray but you shouldn’t spray while the bees are active, which generally means only spray later in the afternoon and try not to spray flowers or plants that are actively flowering.

Bees also like a drink of water, water features can help attract bees (and other wildlife). If you can’t put in a pond or fountain, a simple bird bath can help.

Also don’t hate on weeds so much, and considering naturalizing your lawn with something like white clover, which bees love, which benefits lawns and lawn-owners in many ways. See the link for more information on that.

You can also of course get your own beehive. Beekeeping is not that expensive to start with, if you can build your own hive the other equipment could be had for around $100, and that single hive could give you as much as 50 pounds of honey. But if you’re not ready for that step, simply providing habitat for all the neighborhood bees will be helpful.

What about all those stingers

Bees, and honeybees in particular, are not really aggressive, they just want to be left alone, and they will leave you alone. Obviously people with a diagnosed allergy to bee stings need to be extra careful but for most of us just don’t both them and they won’t bother you. You can not plant bee favorites right by walkways or sitting areas, but otherwise special attention isn’t really necessary.

Other Bee-nifits

World of Bees

You don’t need to merely make a bee friendly garden out of the kindness of your heart, you can do it for entirely selfish reasons. If you grow any sort of food crop that is bee pollinated, the bees you attract should increase your yields. I get questions all the time from gardeners growing squash of some sort saying the female blossoms just die off and never develop – which means they weren’t pollinated, which means you need more bees. And certainly if you have an apple tree (which everyone should have) you’d rather see it crammed with apples rather than sparsely covered.

Bees and their cousins also tend to keep undesirable insects at bay, the more beneficial insects you have, the less bad insects you usually have. Plus you get to enjoy all the same flowers as bees do.

Which flowers are best?

There are numerous lists of bee friendly flowers out there, and more or less, any flower is a good flower for bees. Some are more suited for different types of bees though because of the flower shape or depth. In addition to the aforementioned crocuses, snowdrops, white clover, mums, and asters, I want to give a mention to silver dollar plants, which also bloom very early in the Spring, and of course all the other bulbs.

In addition though, here are some plants which I have noticed honeybees specifically loving in my own garden: sedum (all types, but especially upright ones blooming in late summer/fall). privet (known for a hedge but has lilac like blossoms), boston ivy (yes, it flowers, and the bees love it), scabiosa, butterfly bush (butterflies and bees generally like the same things), coneflowers, and roses (but more open ones without so many petals that the flower internals are hard to see). Generally if it is fragrant, it is a good bet, and if it has open easily accessible pollen, it is a good bet.

Then all the flowering trees are also good ideas, as I said above, bees like a cluster of flowers so they can just hop from bloom to bloom, and what provides that more than a whole tree covered in blooms. So any of the edible or ornamental flowering trees (especially considering they flower in Spring when so little else is in bloom) are a good idea to plant.

Otherwise I’ll assume you, or your neighborhood, already has flowers available for the bees during the long days of Summer, so don’t put too much thought into what to plant in those months. Try to focus though on specifically providing some sort of flowering plant in Spring and Fall as those are the months when food might otherwise be scarce for our friends, the bees.

Growing William Shakespeare’s Garden

October 16th, 2014

So there was a guy, you may have heard of him, William Shakespeare, he was sort of a big deal. He was of course an English writer and his works have been popular for almost 500 years, that is some staying power. I actually like his stuff, I’ve read Shakespeare for pleasure, I’m that sort of nerd. Some people though, they take their devotion to the Bard to the next level.

For instance, the annoying invasive English starling was introduced to North America by some fools who wanted to bring every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works to our newer continent. So, in 1890 some hundred starlings were released in New York’s Central Park, now there are some 200 million of them from sea to shining sea. These same people are also responsible for the house sparrows that are everywhere now.

I do not recommend an homage to Shakespeare in the form of fauna, but flora is certainly fine. It is actually a thing to create a Shakespeare Garden.

English Gardens

There are two quintessential English gardening styles. There is the formal English garden, and the English cottage garden, either I think would be appropriate for a Shakespeare garden, though I personally feel the formal style is more suited.

Cottage Style Garden by Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Cottage Style Garden by Royal Shakespeare Theatre

An English cottage garden grew out of functional needs of small landowners in rural England, land was always strictly apportioned and commoners did not have much, so they had to make due with what they had. So the look of the cottage garden is one of very dense almost haphazard planting, a wide variety of plants but not many plantings of any single one plant. These gardens were planted for function so mostly would contain herbs and edibles and flowers mixed in to bring in pollinators or to aid in honey production. But it is all mixed together. At my current house my garden style is largely that of a cottage garden, and I’ve blogged before about things like edible ornamentals, those are all very at home in a cottage garden. Cottage gardens are also often enclosed by stone, bricks, sometimes a low fence, and they tend to make use of arbors and trellises.

A formal English garden is practically the opposite, this is for when acreage is no problem. These gardens are known for their orderly symmetrical hedgerows, precisely pruned topiaries, and geometric designs. Often they are divided into rooms or sections and contain small ponds, statuary, and other things. You can technically make a small formal garden, you can even have both formal and informal gardens on your property (I intend to do that at my next house) but it isn’t the sort of garden you can tuck into a corner between the porch and the house, nor does it lend itself stylistically to most houses.

Formal Garden Style

Formal Garden Style

Another way to think of them is that cottage gardens often have curves. Curving pathways, curving borders, not much order, not even numbers of plants, no rows of anything. Formal gardens have more straight lines, straight paths, square borders and beds. The exception is perfect circles, you will still find them sometimes within a formal garden, and you could have curved topiaries or hedges in a celtic style design or something in a formal garden, but still usually in a square or rectangular bed.

Shakespeare Gardens

You could turn either of these styles of gardens into a Shakespeare garden. So what would make them a Shakespeare garden? The simplest way is to plant plants that have been mentioned in Shakespeare’s works. The next step if you wanted to put a little more work in would be that, instead of simple plant labels, you could include quotes from the plays mentioning the plant as a label. For instance, by a rose, you could have a little wooden sign saying “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Bust of William Shakespeare

Bust of William Shakespeare

Moving up the next step would be including statuary, using a bust of William Shakespeare himself. Then also bronzes or bronze plaques with the quotes rather than wood, although those all are more typical in a formal style of garden.

A Rose By Any Other Name

A Rose by Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet - William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

– William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

Why are roses popular? Really, why are roses popular? Have you ever thought why some things are popular and some things are not? Roses are sweet smelling, but so are lilacs and lilies. Roses have thorns, they have numerous pest and disease problems, why are they so popular, especially among the English speaking people? Could it be because of Shakespeare? In earlier medieval times lilies were as popular than roses (and if I’m being honest, I prefer them today, not so many pest and disease problems, also no dangerous thorns), but then roses took over? Could it be the Shakespeare effect? Roses are mentioned more often than any other flower in his works, and here we have a literary collection that has been consistently popular for nearly half a millennium. Going back hundreds of years ornamental gardening was strictly a pursuit for the literate classes, so it is certainly possible that some of the most popular literature of the era could have influence on gardening. Much in the way we have little babies named Khaleesi wandering around, media influences our behavior and tastes. I don’t see why we couldn’t lay the responsibility for the popularity of roses at William Shakespeare’s feet.

Visiting a Shakespeare Garden

As I said above, Shakespeare Gardens are definitely a thing, I’m not making this up. You can even visit one, or many. You may have visited one before, this little place you may have heard of, Central Park in New York City, has a Shakespeare Garden. There are in fact at least two in the greater NYC area, two in Connecticut, a nice one in Cleveland, a couple in Illinois, one at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, of course the most famous one in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon, and even one in my future home of Chattanooga (well, maybe there will be two there one day, hint hint), and lots more all over. If you were thinking about combining your literary and botanical pleasures, you could visit one of these sites, or visit just for fun without taking notes.

Potential Planting Possibilities

The list of plants mentioned by Shakespeare is long, you probably already grow many of these, if you wanted to pursue this form of garden design, here it is:

aconitum (monkshood), almond, aloe, apple, (also crab, pippin), apricot, ash, aspen, bachelor’s button, balm, balsam and balsamum, barley, bay, bean, bilberry, birch, blackberries and brambles, box, brier, broom, bulrush, burdock, burnet, cabbage, camomile, carnation, carraway, carrot, cedar, cherry, chestnut, clove, clover (or honey-stalks), cockle, coloquintida, columbine, cork, corn, cowslip, crow-flower, crown imperial, cuckoo-flower (buttercup), currant, cypress, daffodil, daisy, darnel, date, dewberry, dock, dogberry, ebony, eglantine, elder, elm, fennel, fern, fig, filbert, flag, flax, flower-de-luce (iris), fumitor, furze, garlic, gillyvor (carnation), ginger, gooseberry, goss or gorse, gourd, grace (rue), grape, grass, harebell, harlock (burdock), hawthorn, hazel, heath (ling), hebanon (possibly yew), hemlock, hemp, herb of grace (rue), holly, holy thistle, honeysuckle, hyssop, insane root (mythological), ivy, kecksies (hemlock), knot-grass, lady-smock, lark’s heels (larkspurs), laurel, lavender, leek, lemon, lettuce, lily, lime, ling, locust, long purple (probably orchis morio, o. mascula), love-in-idleness (pansy), mace, mallows, mandragora, mandrake (mythological), marigold (calendula or pot marigold), marjoram, marybud (marigold), mast, medlar, mint, mistletoe, moss, mulberry, mushroom, musk rose, mustard, myrtle, narcissus, nettle, nutmeg, oak, oats, olive, onion, orange, osier (willow), oxlip, palm tree, pansy, parsley, pea, peach, pear, peony, pepper, pig-nuts, pine, pink, plane tree, plantain, plum, pomegranate, poppy, potato, primrose, pumpion (probably gourd), quince, radish, reed, rhubarb, rice, rose, rosemary, rue, rush, rye, saffron (C. sativus), samphire, savory, sedge, senna, speargrass, stover (grass), strawberry, sugar, sycamore, thistle, thorn, thyme, toadstool, turnip, vetch, vine, violet, walnut, wheat, willow, woodbine (honeysuckle), wormwood, yew.

Source: The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare, by Henry N. Ellacombe. W. Satchell and Company, London, 1884.

Big list huh? Shakespeare was really into plants. If you wanted to find the exact quote for the plants this site has a william shakespeare works search that’ll fulfill your needs.

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