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Life Lessons from the Garden: From a Chore to a Delight

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

I grudgingly picked up the rake and began in the corner of my yard, which seemed the size of a small nation at the time. It was overwhelming. Spring had arrived, and the yard was strewn with litter, leaves and pine cones. But I pressed on, determined to conquer my yard. As I inched along I noticed a chickadee in a tree about twenty feet away. He’d swoop down to grab a single sunflower seed from my bird feeder and fly back up to his familiar branch. He’d sit and crack it against the bark to open it, eat the nut, and fly back down. This went on for quite some time, and as I continued to rake, I got closer and closer to my new-found companion. The chickadee didn’t seem to mind that I was now only a couple feet away. He flew down once again, right in front of me, and snatched a seed. I stood there for a moment, admiring his bravery. Curious, I leaned my rake against the feeder and reached inside to grab a handful of seeds. Raising my hand to the sky, I thought, “It sure would be cool if he…” Just then, the little chickadee flew down and landed on my finger. It felt like a whisper and I almost winced at the touch of his tiny feet. He gave a scolding chirp, grabbed a single seed and flew back to his perch. I stood there motionless for a moment with my hand outstretched. But inside my heart leapt with excitement and disbelief.

In an instant, the tedious chore of raking my lawn became a delight. I didn’t have a very willing attitude when I first started raking my lawn. But I obediently did it, despite my reluctance. And I was rewarded with an unexpected treasure. I think that’s true in life too. There are many things I know I “should” do, but I always find an excuse to put it off. Maybe there are areas in your own life where you are reluctant and unwilling because the sacrifice of time, money or effort seems overwhelming. But as is true with working in the garden, a great, and often, unexpected reward awaits you. Honestly, I can’t wait to experience the joy of raking my lawn this spring. But I would not have that willing attitude, had I not… grudgingly picked up the rake and began in the corner of my yard, which seemed the size of a small nation at the time ..

Tammy is a regular contributor to Garden Snips

 

Rhubarb Season is here

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tom Wentzel

UntitledThis is my first rhubarb harvest this year. There was one more, but I ate it. We all have bunches of recipes for using rhubarb so I won’t go there.

Chinese records from 2700 BC record its medicinal use. Marco Polo documented its use, but I’m not sure if he introduced it to Europe. A while ago, I visited Old World Wisconsin. In one of the Germany heritage houses there was a string of, what I thought, were chicken bones. It was dried rhubarb! Many of the historical uses that I have read seem to be medicinal, rather that culinary.

My first picking didn’t have that lip puckering sourness of later season harvests. The sourness is due to the pH (acidity) which is in the range of 3.1 – 3.2. For reference, fresh lemon juice has a pH of about 2. Adding sugar doesn’t “neutralize” the acidity, it simply covers it up.

Rhubarb leaves have a reputation as being toxic. This is due to the relatively high concentration of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid’s primary effects can be stomach irritation and kidney problems. Ten pounds of leaves would be required to deliver a lethal dose. Kitchen pot cleaners such as Bar Keepers Friend and ZUD use oxalic acid as the primary active ingredient.

Uses for Rhubarb leaves:

  • Use them as a mulch.
  • They can be composted in limited quantities.
  • GREAT for leaf castings
  • I have seen recipes for rhubarb leaf concoctions as insecticides and repellents. These have been anecdotal, their effectiveness has not been verified.

I will break my promise not to talk recipes. Here’s mine: Peel, then eat.

Old-fashioned but never out of style: Peonies

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

Whenever I see peonies in bloom, I think of my Grandpa. In his garden, he had the most beautiful deep red peonies and, in my garden, I now have two huge, healthy plants that are glorious each year. I’ve also added pink and yellow peonies to my garden and I’m so thrilled that this lovely bloomer continues to be popular.

Common name: Peony

Botanical name: Paeonia; there are more than 30 species, including P. officinalis, P. lactiflora, and P. mollis, and many hubrids and cultivars

Height: up to about 3 feet tall, 3 feet wide

Hardiness: Zones 3-8

Bloom time: Mid- to late spring, into early summer

Conditions: Plant peonies in well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. The pointed eyes (where shoots emerge) should only be about 2 inches below soil level, with the eyes facing up.

Best features: Peonies are among the easiest perennial plants to grow. They are long-lived, are not much bothered by pests, and tolerate drought. Established peonies can be relied upon to produce dozens of flowers every spring. There are thousands of hybrids and many different flower types, but semidouble and double peonies are the classic blooms. The flowers can be pale or bright pink, magenta, deep red, pure white, rich coral, soft yellow, or bicolored. A good selection of early-, mid-, and late-blooming varieties will provide flowers for six weeks. Flowers can be cut on stems up to 24 inches long. Peony foliage is pretty, too, and the plants are a substantial presence in any garden.

Peonies coming up in the spring

Peonies are easy to share: Propagate plants by division. Dig them up in fall, and divide the crown carefully with a sharp knife; each division should have at least one eye, preferably more. You should be able to separate an established plant into at least three divisions. A divided plant will be more vigorous than one that you simply dig and move without dividing.

Be sure to fertilize with aged compost or manure. Peonies are particularly sensitive to fresh

manure — it will severely damage the plant. Peonies like slightly alkaline soil conditions.

I can’t recommend strongly enough these old-fashioned plants for your garden. The blooms are lovely, with a marvelous aroma, and the foliage is beautiful. The plants require almost no care — and don’t knock those ants off the blooms! As explained in a previous post, those little warriors are helping the plant!

Hummingbirds in Spring

by OCMGA Master Gardener Holly Boettcher

The arrival of hummingbirds in spring is one of the most anticipated pleasures of the garden! I don’t know about you, but I go out of my way to be ready for these little gems. There is nothing more disappointing than to see them begging at your window for a clean feeder with fresh nectar, but you weren’t prepared. My grandmother always said they arrive on, or near May 15th (and depart around September 15th.) Of course there are some who show up earlier each year, as well as the stragglers in late fall. I often hear people comment how they wish they were able to attract and keep the hummingbirds coming to their feeders all season long, so here are some of my tips.

Feeders:

This is the perfect time of year to inspect your feeders from the previous year. There is nothing more important than starting with a clean feeder. Use ¼ C bleach to 1 gallon of water and soak them at least once a month. Be sure to use a brush to get any leftover mold or residue. Rinse, rinse, rinse with hot tap water when done. I’ve found a dishwasher safe feeder from Dr JB’s Clean Feeder that is easy to keep clean. Another helpful tip is to have an extra set of feeders. One that is clean and ready, and the other hanging outside for them.

Fresh Nectar: NEVER use red food coloring. Studies have shown red dye can sicken the little beauties. They will find your feeder without the red coloring.   I like to make my own nectar and you can make a double or triple batch which can be stored in a glass jar, and ready to use in your refrigerator. Start with 1 C boiling or very hot tap water, ¼ C sugar. Mix well and cool before pouring into your sparkling clean feeder.

Frequency: It is so important to change your nectar every several days and especially in hot weather when the nectar spoils quickly. If you don’t have time to keep up, then it may be best that you don’t start feeding at all. Nectar that is not changed every couple days can develop mold and fungus which can cause hummingbirds to get sick. If your nectar is cloudy, it is SPOILED!

Additional Attractions: If you have a shady area to hang a Fushia, this will help attract Hummingbirds. They also love plants like Honeysuckle, Bee Balm, Red Hot Poker, Beardtongue, & Sage, to name a few, and of course these are all common names.

I hope you make time to get ready to welcome the Hummingbirds this spring. And remember to keep the feeders clean, the nectar fresh, and above all be PATIENT. Enjoy the show!

 

Holly is a regular contributor to Appleton Monthly magazine

Tender Bulbs from the Tropics

The plants known as summer bulbs are like spring bulbs in that they use a wide assortment of true bulbs, corms, rhizomes, and tubers for energy storage. But unlike spring bulbs, they are not frost hardy. Gardeners in temperate zones must plant them each spring and — if they don’t want to keep buying new ones — must also dig them up in fall and store them over the winter.

Glorious bed of gladioli

Although this didn’t bother the Victorians, who were big summer-bulb fans, over time these tender beauties gradually fell out of fashion. Fortunately, fashion is ever changing, and summer bulbs are again a hot item, with new introductions constantly entering the market.

The big four — which never really went away — are cannas, dahlias, gladiolus, and tuberous begonias, but they are just the start of a list that also includes acidanthera, sometimes called the peacock orchid (Gladiolus callianthus), which has tubular white flowers with a deep purple throat; the Mexican shell flower or tiger flower

Agapanthus

(Tigridia pavonia), whose iris-shaped, spotted flowers come in many

bright hues; the Peruvian daffodil or ismene (Hymenocallis narcissiflora), which has fragrant white or yellow daffodil-like blooms; and agapanthus, which has lush clusters of narrow leaves and starry clumps of blue or white flowers.

Want more? How about the bright yellow, orange, and orange-red wands of Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora and its several close relatives; the tall, fragrant, white-flowered Galtonia candicans, sometimes called summer hyacinth; and perhaps most fragrant of all, the tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa).

All these and more are easy to plant, easy to love, and readily available, but to be sure of the widest selection, consult specialty catalogs as well as your local garden center.

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

Seed Starting

Seeds are amazing. These small packages contain everything needed to make a whole plant, and many also contain tiny sensors to tell them if the time is ripe for germination. Among those sensors is phytochrome, a pigment that is sensitive to certain wavelengths of red light.

Who cares? You will if you sow these seeds and cover them with soil. Seeds that need light, and often they are smaller seeds, will not germinate if they are buried too deeply. When a seed is struck by sunlight (or light from a regular incandescent bulb), the phytochrome changes. If the seed has warmth, moisture, and oxygen, the change in the phytochrome breaks the seed’s dormancy and allows germination. If the environment is not to the seed’s liking, the phytochrome slowly changes back and the seed waits for another blast of light when conditions are better.

Among seeds that need light to germinate are ageratum, California poppy, gaillardia, coleus, columbine, love-in-a-mist, snapdragon, Shasta daisy, strawflower, sweet alyssum, and sweet rocket. You can’t tell by looking, so following seed-package instructions is always a good idea.

Scarifying

Seeds vary in the texture and thickness of their seed coat, which affects how fast water can penetrate. The presence of water in turn allows germination.

Some plants, among them flowers like morning glory, lupine, and moonflowers, have rather thick seed coats. To get them going, suppliers often recommend that they be scarified — nicked, scraped, or chipped — to create tiny breaks in the seed coat. With these cracks, moisture can penetrate easily and the plant will spring to life more quickly.

What happens if there’s no human around to do this job? Nature has methods, but they take longer. Thick seed coats are eventually worn away by soil fungi, bacteria, the elements, or a trip through the digestive system of a bird or other animal.

Temperature

Good seed germination depends on more than adequate light and moisture. It’s also affected by soil temperature.

Different plants have different needs in the temperature department, but almost all of them will do okay at 70º to 75ºF.

Because cold tap water can lower the temperature considerably, use tepid. And don’t forget that temperatures warm enough to keep the soil in the 70s will probably make the air above the soil too warm for the seedlings when they do come up. The solution? Either supply bottom heat only, using a gardener’s heat mat or heating cable, or put the flats on top of the fridge until about half of the seeds have sprouted and then move them to the windowsill.

Seed Storage

Chances are good you will have leftover seeds when you’re done planting annuals. Not all of them are worth saving; asters and larkspurs, for instance have very short storage lives. But most will be perfectly usable next year if they are stored dry, cool, and dark.

Date each packet and reseal it with tape. Put the packets in a glass jar with a screw cap, or in a thick-plastic freezer-storage bag. Put the jar or bag in a cool place or in the freezer (away from the coils if it a self-defrosting model). When you’re ready to use the frozen seeds, remove the packets from the jar or bag and spread them out flat before letting them thaw, so they don’t get wet from condensation.

A few seeds will die, no matter how carefully they are stored, so plant saved seed a little more thickly to allow for the reduced germination rate.

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

Exotic Alliums

by Master Gardener Tammy Borden

The vase sat on my desk holding a few hosta leaves and only a single flower. But as coworkers passed by, each one couldn’’t help but comment. ““What is that? I’’ve never seen one of those before. It’’s gorgeous,”” one person exclaimed. Another stopped in their tracks. ““Is that a flower? It’’s huge! It looks like something from outer space!””

The single flower stood out on its own and didn’’t need an entire bouquet to make a statement. Why? The flower head measured nearly a foot wide and resembled a floral fireworks display.

It was an Allium. Not just any Allium, but a Christophii Star of Persia. As oohs and ahs continued, I heard someone say, ““Oh, I could never grow something that exotic. I can’’t grow anything.”” I asked if they had tulips or daffodils in their yard and they said, ““Yes, that’’s about the only thing I can grow because I don’’t have to do anything with those. They just come up every year on their own.”” ““Well then,”” I said. ““You have the qualifications for growing Alliums.”” When I began explaining that a package of five bulbs that produced the beautiful stems of starlike florets were purchased for under $10 from a local home improvement store and planted last fall, they found it hard to believe.

Not only are they beautiful in a bouquet, but they make a bold statement in the garden. When in full bloom, Alliums are always the first flowers to get noticed by guests who visit. Even after they have bloomed and their color fades, the dried flower heads still add interest and texture. It is nearly fall, yet I still have the dried heads of several varieties of Allium dotted throughout my landscape, even though some bloomed as early as May.

Like tulips, the strap-like foliage of Alliums pushes through the cold earth early in spring. Unlike tulips, however, deer and other critters will shy away! Most are hardy to zone 3 or 4, but check individual varieties to be sure. When planting Alliums in your garden, try to position them behind low growing plants or garden sculptures because the foliage fades quickly once the flowers bloom. Once the foliage has turned completely brown you can remove it, but allow green foliage to remain so it can provide nutrients for next year’’s bloom.

When planting Allium, follow the same routine you would with other spring flowering bulbs. In fall, select a site that will receive full to part sun. Dig your hole three times the dimension of the bulb. Note: bulbs can vary from as small as an acorn to as large as a baseball. The package should also give an indication of planting depth. Add some organic matter to the hole, and if you choose, you may also add some bulb fertilizer. Like other bulbs, Alliums don’’t like wet feet, so provide good drainage. Plant the bulb pointy side up, cover with dirt, water, and wait until spring!

Most Alliums will tower to three feet or more, so they add beautiful vertical interest to your garden. Plant in groups of 3 or more. With the larger varieties, a group of only three bulbs properly placed can stop traffic. The flower heads are actually made up of hundreds of tiny star-like flowers that when clustered together, form a stunning display. They are considered an ornamental onion, related to garlic and chives. There are nearly 400 hundred varieties of Allium to choose from, each with different flower forms, color, size and bloom time. Here are the top five favorites from my garden, which are readily available:

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Star of Persia

Allium christophii ‘‘Star of Persia’’

The huge wispy volleyball-sized flower heads stand atop 2’’ stems. Silvery purple flowers. Blooms in mid to late May.

Allium sphaerocephalon ‘‘Drumstick’’ Intensely deep purple 11⁄2”” compact flowers atop thin, sturdy 30”” stems. Blooms late June to early July. Inexpensive and makes a great display. Beautiful in bouquets.

Allium aflatunense ‘‘Purple Sensation’’

Deep rosy purple blooms the size of a softball. Sturdy 30-36”” stems. This is among the only Alliums I recommend dead-heading because of its tendency to reseed itself, producing hundreds of seedlings next spring that generally do not develop into viable plants. One of the earliest to bloom.

Allium ‘‘Globemaster’’

Large, densely packed florets form a silvery purple flower head 8-10”” across. Many consider this the best of all Alliums for its impressive display. Stands 30-36”” tall. Highly sought after and a little more expensive than those noted above, but worth a spot in your garden.

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Mount Everest

Allium ‘‘Mount Everest’’

White 4”” flowers top 3-4’’ stems and bloom in late May and early June. The white blooms contrast beautifully with other purple varieties.