Archive | January 2018

The Hosta that Started it All

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Some people collect figurines; others acquire cars, stamps, coins, dolls or vinyl records. It always starts with one, right? Before you know it, your hobby becomes an obsession.

I have over 100 hosta varieties in my yard today. Yes, it’s time for an intervention. Some of my hostas are highly sought after by hosta enthusiast friends of mine: War Paint, Ice Age Trail, Fried Green Tomatoes, Rainbow’s End, Brother Stefan and many others. Others are not as impressive. Among them is the first hosta plant I acquired with the purchase of our first home more than 23 years ago.


Hosta ‘Warpaint’

Back in the early days of my marriage I didn’t even know what a hosta was, and to be honest, they didn’t seem very impressive to me. “It’s just a bunch of leaves,” I thought. Our first home as a young couple didn’t have much in the way of gardens, but the previous owner did make some attempts in the small strip of soil that bordered the outside of our home. Nestled between a concrete walkway and the fieldstone foundation were tiger lilies, spiderwort, coneflowers, creeping phlox and a smattering of annual poppies that seemed to find their place in the cracks of our sidewalk. The big lanky leaves of that mystery hosta didn’t seem to compare with those delicate blooms. To describe that hosta, I would say, “It’s green.”

With the old home came old trees that towered fifty feet or more into the sky and cast shadows over much of the rest of the property. As my interest in gardening grew, and the sunny spots surrounding my house were filled, I realized my only option was to venture into the shadows and plant shade-loving plants. Back in the day, the only shade perennials available were hostas, so I started looking for those that offered more than the plain old green kind I had. I added ‘Drinking Gourd’ with its blue corrugated leaves, and the massive ‘Elegans,’ later acquiring the stunning variegated ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Paul’s Glory.’ Hostas began to grow on me, both literally and figuratively, and before I knew it, I had more than 50 varieties. For years, I didn’t know what variety of hosta that first one was, but later learned it was called ‘Ventricosa,’ one of the few hostas that will come true from seed.


Hosta ‘Abiqua Drinking Gourd’

Our first home was over 100 years old and was purchased as a fixer-upper. It lived up to the challenge with its warped floors, outdated kitchen and knob and tube wiring. Like many young, eager couples, my husband and I had a dream of fixing it up in a couple years and selling it for a huge profit so we could purchase the home we really wanted. Needless, to say, it was fifteen years before we finally put it on the market. In that time, many hostas were acquired and many memories made, both joyful and incredibly painful. There was the joyous time with family, the bonding of friendships, the connection between neighbors, and way too many stories about being awoken by the flutter of bat wings in the middle of the night than I care to tell.

And then there are memories of those whose footsteps would never again be heard creaking atop the old maple wood floors, like that of my dad who spent countless hours helping paint the old cedar shake siding, my father-in-law defeating everyone at cribbage after a Thanksgiving meal, and my husband’s mom laughing at a family gathering. That house held so much joy… and so much grief as I recall sitting in numb silence at the kitchen counter after hanging up the phone, hearing of their passing, one by one, to that great garden in the sky. I still hold a place in my heart for that house, despite the toil, expense and even painful memories that it brings back. Now we’re making more memories in a different home, but I still have a piece of that first hosta placed prominently in one of my shade gardens. It’s one of the few original items remaining from that home. Each time I pass by, I’m reminded of the history it holds, the memories it conjures up, and the love that it has witnessed through the years.


What’s really happening to all of the Honeybees?

by Kevin Jarek, UWEX Crops, Soils, & Horticultural Agent and OCMGA Advisor

Note: this article appeared in the summer 2007 edition of our newsletter. Honeybees continue to be in the news as evidenced by links at the end of this article.

Well, unless you live under a rock, it would have been nearly impossible to avoid hearing some of the numerous theories (and I use this word strongly) as to why we are seeing a sharp decline in the honeybee population across the United States.

GettyImages-518638797-5730da445f9b58c34cad340cHowever, in the event that you are one of those individuals who have not found themselves in the right place at the right time when these stories have aired on T.V., appeared in the newspaper, or showed up on your favorite website or magazine, the long and short of it is quite simple. We have lost an alarming number of honeybees over the past year and it has fueled a great deal of speculation, much of which has ended up in print with little merit to follow. Those involved in the industry have been very vocal about a condition that has become known as Colony Collapse Disorder. If I ever had one piece of advice for every person who has already made their mind up that agriculture is to blame, or the cell phone industry is responsible, or that the 4 horsemen are about to pay a visit and that this is the foreshadowing of something larger than any of us are able to comprehend I would simply say slow down.

Since I do not consider myself an expert in this area of horticulture (or many others for that matter), I did some investigating and found some quite interesting info that any sleuth would be proud of. First, we have been seeing a decline in the honeybee population for the last 25 years, not just this year, so those who are saying this is an unusual trend, strike one. While no one in the industry is happy about it, the bottom line is that this trend exists and has existed for quite some time. Next, as some of you may remember a few years back, the Varroa mite hammered the honeybee population to the point of 80% loss in some parts of the country. While the mite would eventually be brought under control by a naturally occurring pathogen combined with help from the use of miticide inside the hives, this threat was never completely eliminated. From there, you don’t have to be a meteorologist to tell me what we have been on the brink of every summer since 2004, D-R- _- _G-H-T (do you need to buy a vowel?) These dry conditions have meant that the queens have quit producing the next generation of workers early each year, as conditions have been unbearably hot and dry across much of the U.S. At the same time that fewer young have been available to replace older bees, the older bees have had a much higher than average mortality between seasons, so the population drain has been exponentially higher.

Dadant, is a nationally recognized business that has been around for 140 years and has been supply- ing beekeepers with supplies from New York to California, and from Florida to Wisconsin (they have a branch store in Watertown) and I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with the senior editor of their professional publication and he basically said that what we have experienced is the perfect storm with many of the items I have previously mentioned. Phil Pellitteri [sidebar: Phil Pellitteri is an entomologist, a Distinguished Faculty Associate Emeritus and he recently retired as head of the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab] agreed with much of the information as well. What it comes down to is that we cannot change the weather; droughts are not a friend to the honeybee. The Varroa mites were in larger force the last few years and have been serving as a vector for the spread of disease from one bee to the next. Urbanization has reduced the amount of wild plants that bees benefit from – especially in our rural areas where land use has run amuck. In agriculture, in order to produce a cheap plentiful food supply, we have reduced the number of goldenrod, smartweeds, and other plants that bees prefer, but we control because they reduce crop yields.

A few large beekeepers lost larger than expected numbers and enlisted the help of the media to get the story out, but in the process those with their own agenda starting spinning stories about cell phones (which may be a factor, but all parties I talked to agreed it is not the reason why this has been happening). The miticides inside the hive to keep the mites out are like aspirin, 2 are great for a headache, but 20 will elicit a much less desirable response. Beekeepers have not done a good job of cleaning this product out from year to year and it has reached toxic levels in some hives. Last, but not least, it is the migratory bees that have experienced the biggest problems. The reason for this is that all parties agreed that these bees are being overworked and are being worked silly by being transplanted from an almond grove in California to citrus crops in Florida all in short periods of time with little time allowed for adjustment – do you suppose that could be a factor? There are several small growers who have been unaffected by all of the problems previously mentioned. For that reason, it would not be a complete stretch to think that like all of us with our e-mail, faxes, pagers, and cell phones that keep us “wired” these bees have been “wired” to the point that they have reached their limits. One must wonder, are we next?


Thousands of honey bees killed in Sioux City vandalism

Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Destruction May Have Doomed the World’s …

Study examines insecticide’s effects on honey bees

Houseplant Survival Guide

by Diana Alfuth, horticulture educator for Pierce and St. Croix counties UW-Extension

Houseplants-GettyImages-72195187-59d3a98b519de20012d7af62January and February are probably your houseplants’ worst months. While we northern Wisconsinites dream of a winter vacation in warm, sunny places, your houseplants can only sit and wait for better conditions to come to them. Winter’s short days, low light levels, and dry air are hard on houseplants. And, by now your plants’ leaves may have accumulated dust and your windows may be in need of washing. Dirty windows block even more light.

To help your plants make it through their worst winter months, inspect and treat plants for any insects, such as mealybugs, scale, or aphids that may have appeared. Clean off any accumulated dust by wiping each individual leaf with a damp cloth or giving them a shower. Small plants can be washed in the kitchen sink with a sink sprayer. Large plants can go in your shower. I recommend covering the soil surface with aluminum foil to prevent the potting mix from splashing out or getting waterlogged.

Next, wash your windows inside and out. Even though it’s cold outside, when the sun hits the window you can wash the outside without your cleaning solution freezing.

If your plants are looking stressed with sparse or light-colored foliage, try adding supplemental light. Even a table lamp with a fluorescent bulb above the plant can add extra light to get your plant through winter in better shape.

Normally, you do not want to fertilize houseplants from October through January because with low light levels, plants will not be growing. Fertilizers can build up in the soil and damage roots, or they can force plants into spindly, weak growth. But by the end of February, with the days getting longer and the sun getting higher and stronger, pinch back leggy growth and give your plants their first fertilizer of the year to help them put on new, vigorous growth.

Soil Sense

by Diana Alfuth, horticulture educator for Pierce and St. Croix counties UW-Extension

Sure, your yard and garden soil is frozen and covered with snow — out of sight, out of mind. But now is the BEST time to plan your garden, and that includes planning for great soil!

How long has it been since you’ve had a professional soil test done? Never? You should do a soil test every four to five years, and it’s a small investment for a great, productive garden. While you can purchase soil-testing kits at garden centers, some of them have questionable reliability. It’s better to send a soil sample into a reputable lab to be sure you are getting accurate results. Your local UW-Extension office can help with information on how to collect and submit a soil sample.

soil_test_richmond_lawn_careWithout an accurate soil test, it’s impossible to know what your soil needs! Soil test results will tell you how much phosphorus and potassium — two of the main plant nutrients — are in your soil. If you have adequate amounts, there is no reason to spend money on these fertilizers.

Perhaps the most important thing your soil test tells you is the pH. The pH matters because if it is too high or too low for the plants you are trying to grow, they are not able to take up the nutrients they need. You can have nutrient deficiencies or toxicity if your pH is out of whack. Most garden plants are happy with a pH somewhere between 6.2 and 7.5, but some, such as blueberries, prefer a pH below 5.0. Plants, such as pin oak or white pine, will have yellow foliage caused by an iron deficiency if the pH is too alkaline, even if there’s plenty of iron in the soil.soil-Tesing-e1436464562358

A soil test from the UW soil lab will tell you not only your pH, phosphorous, and potassium levels, but exactly  how much of what to add to get your soil where it needs to be to grow the plants you want to grow. Plan now to do a soil test as soon as the ground thaws in spring.


by Sharon Morrisey, consumer horticulture agent in Milwaukee county

Phenology is a branch of science that studies the relationships between natural events and weather, especially temperature, rather that specific calendar dates. For gardeners, these events may be plant emergence, budding, flowering, or fruiting. Keeping records of these events on your own property can tell you each year how near normal the season’s overall progress is.

By observing the relationship between discrete phenological events and the season, seemingly unrelated events can be correlated. Through years of record keeping, seasonal development of certain common, recognizable indicator plants has been correlated with the development of common insect pests and can be used to determine when outbreaks of these pests are likely to occur. Insects are particularly well suited to predictions based on phenology because, as cold-blooded animals, their growth and development is directly correlated with weather conditions, particularly temperature. The four major indicator plants used are saucer magnolia, common lilac, chicory, and Canada thistle.

January is a great time to select a few seasonal events or plant developmental milestones to begin tracking your property. It may not further climate change science, but it may help you feel a deeper connection to the world around you.