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I haven’t done much gardening this season, mostly weeding but still much remains to do. It’s been too hot and I have a lot of work to do. Excuses, excuses, I know, but I did spend a week dog sitting my son’s family’s new Corgi pup in June. While there I got to revisit my cactus named ‘Killer,’ a barrel cactus.

I was given the baby cactus in 1981 when we moved from our condo in Lansing to our first family house. He was about 2″ in diameter. Last summer I finally couldn’t haul Killer in and out of the house for his summer sojourn. He weighed in at least forty pounds in his container. He was too heavy for me to carry and his spines are very sharp and long. So, as requested and promised, I let my son take Killer to his home in Traverse City. My granddaughter looks after him in the winter.

Killer in 2019

I thought Chris’s request amazing as Killer received his name for the injury my son suffered years ago. Killer was, as usual, summering on our front porch in Harvester, Missouri. One day Chris and a neighbor boy were exchanging quips and barbs when his opponent got too smart. Chris jumped over Killer to go after his friend, but he was barefoot. Killer, of course, did not take direct action, but Chris in his hurry didn’t jump high enough to miss the Killer’s needles. His actions stuck one or two barbs between his toes. They went deep in. I ended up taking Chris to the emergency room to have them removed. He nearly broke my hand squeezing it as the doctor inserted a pain-relief needle between his toes. I don’t know what lesson he learned from the accident, but it must have been a good one because he treasures Killer.

Phlox divaricata blooming in spring

Groundcover plants do just what they claim–they spread out and cover large chunks of bare ground. For many years ground covers were used in erosion control. Besides helping stabilize banks, groundcovers can help reduce weeds and help define the edges of gardens and walkways. They are often a more attractive alternative to mulch. Some grow only a few inches high, others grow up to 12 inches or more.

In the flowerbed, they tended to take over all available space. Some invasive groundcovers like creeping myrtle and goutweed fell out of favor because they escaped and invaded our wild areas depriving local species of habitat. Even now gardeners need to be careful to use non-invasive species and keep some in very controlled spaces.

That said, there are fine groundcovers that speed up our northern area flowering season. These low-growing perennials can define a flowerbed and soften the hard edges of patios, decks and retaining walls. The most important aspect in selecting a groundcover is not the flower, but the leaves. While the flowers will help bridge the season between the spring-flowering bulbs and the summer blooming plants, the leaves create the groundcover’s interest throughout the growing season.

One of my favorites is Phlox subulata, called moss phlox. A sun-loving plant, it grows about eight inches tall and in May is a solid carpet of color. They come in soft pink, startlingly bright magenta, white and a very soft blue. Moss phlox slowly creeps over very large areas. It is easily divided into more plants. During the rest of the summer, this phlox has bright green needle-like foliage that stays attractive during the whole season. For a shady area, you might try Phlox divaricata or wild sweet William. They are taller and the lavender-blue flowers are fewer and much looser, but they are beautiful in the woodland garden.

Another sun-loving spring-blooming plant is Iberis sempervirens or candytuft. Candytufts bloom in frothy white blossoms at the same time as the moss phlox. Its foliage is darker greens with small, round to oval-shaped leaves that remain attractive all summer. The plants grow between six and nine inches tall.

If you want yellow flowers you might try Alyssum montanum, or Aurinia saxatile also called basket of gold. These mat-forming perennials have grayish foliage and many small four-petaled flowers. Mine bloomed at the same time as my Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Blue’ and looked lovely next to each other.

Many good, low-growing Dianthus species and cultivars are available, so it is impossible to list them. You will need to check the plant’s label for hardiness zone and height. Selections from the alpine pinks, maiden pinks, cheddar pinks will do very well. All are mat-forming with pink, red, or white flowers.

Iris cristata, or crested iris, grows to a height of four to six inches and while not growing as thick as the above groundcovers, will boom very early in partial shade areas. These also like a moister location. Look for other dwarf iris. They come in many colors, will work as well and their spike-shaped foliage adds textural interest.

There are many other groundcover plants. Some are much taller, some are grown for foliage only, and some are meant to grow only in tough locations. All of the selections mentioned start the season off with a burst of color and then their foliage adds an attractive carpet for summer’s flowers.

improperly pruned forsythia

Improperly pruned forsythia

Pruning is the one garden activity that often separates mundane plants from exquisite ones, and the one skill many gardeners do not understand and often overdo.  Mangling an overgrown plant can create an unsightly shrub or tree for a year or more or cut out the year’s flowering effect. There are many methods and reasons for pruning.  Hedges are cut for a specific shape. Fruit trees are pruned to open the structure of the tree and to produce stronger branches.

Pruning is simply cutting branches back or off to create a better-shaped plant or to encourage more fruit or flowers.  Branches may be cut off completely to direct growth of the tree or shrub, to encourage fuller plants, to open the interior of a plant for more airflow, or to create more attractive branching patterns. Practically speaking, it is probably best to buy a book on pruning to learn why certain shrubs and trees are pruned in specific ways, particularly if you want to grow grapes, or fruit trees, or create a special shaped shrub.

A few general rules govern most basic home pruning. Summer blooming shrubs should be pruned in early spring as most flower on new wood. Pruning in the fall encourages unwanted growth that hasn’t time to harden off for winter. Do not prune spring-flowering shrubs in the spring. Doing so cuts away the emerging buds before the plant flowers. Prune after they finish blooming. Do not prune maples, birch and walnuts in the spring as they bleed sap if pruned too early. Pine trees are pruned when the spring growth appears by simply snipping the new growth, or candle, back by half.

The important part is to know where to make a cut.  For cutting off a branch it is just above the collar at the base of the branch, or at the slight swelling where the branch emerges from another branch. Leaving the collar allows natural growth to heal the cut.  When you only want to cut back a branch, it is important to cut just above a bud at a 45-degree in a direction away from the bud.  This lets rainwater drain away from the bud. Since new growth emerges from the bud, too much wood left above the bud will die and might allow disease or insects to enter the plant.prune above bud

Dead or diseased wood and twigs can be cut out at any time of year. Diseased parts should be cut out well below the diseased area.  With branches that rub or cross each other interfering with growth, one branch should be cut out. Branches that grow into the shrub or tree should be cut out.  Twigs that grow straight up on fruit tree branches are called water shoots, and twigs that grow up from the base of the tree are suckers. These should be cut out.

An amazing assortment of pruning equipment is available from stores or online, from hand pruners to power shears and saws. You don’t need every piece, but for safety, you have to know how to use them and keep them clean. Dirty equipment can spread disease from plant to plant.  In some cases where plants are susceptible to diseases like fire blight, disinfecting cutting blades after each cut is recommend.

Pruning isn’t that hard, and once you know the why and how. It can become one of the pleasurable tasks of gardening.

I love seeing leaf buds as they are about to burst from branches. Often they emerge in colors that identify a plant, like the yellow-gold of willows. For me buds symbolize the promise of life and timeless renewal, and the introduction of a new gardening season.

We all enjoy the shade of leaves above streets in summer, and the sound of wind rustling through a canopy of leaves, but you might not find leaves an exciting topic for many reasons. For the most part, they are green, although they come in different shades and tints. Many leaves’ shapes come in an uninspired oval, varying only in size. Leaves seem to be more concerned with function than aesthetics; a plain green leaf produces more food than a fancy-shaped variegated one. Leaves can cause work, too. Some leaves, as in lawns, need labor to make them attractive. Others need raking every autumn.

Yet to me, leaves are so much more.

Every leaf is a complicated chemical laboratory and manufacturing site, and the only one known to be capable of taking water, air, and sunlight to make food. We all live off this wonderful ability because we either eat leaves or animals that eat leaves.

They perform another service. Leaves change carbon dioxide into oxygen and water, helping humidify the air we breathe. Matter of fact, all the breathable free oxygen in our atmosphere comes from leaves. And while they perform this miraculous service, they help clean the air of pollutants.

Inside these little chemical factories, sugar, their main food product, can be changed into starches, protein, oil, and alcohol for consumption or sometimes for fuel. They also produce chemicals that heal us. Many drugs are still based on organic formulas found in leaves.

Some of these chemicals are poisonous, capable of killing rather than feeding or healing. A few poisonings by a plant are famous, like Socrates, whose politics forced him to swallow poison hemlock. Instead of using these leaf chemicals to eliminate our fellow man, we now use them as weapons against bacterial agents and insects.

Besides all these attributes, leaves can talk to the gardener, telling them of a plant’s needs before it is too late and the plant dies. If I read the message, I know when your plant needs water, and when there is too much or not enough sun for their liking. If they mature smallish in size with yellow or reddish veins, they are telling me their soil needs an application of nitrogen, a common complaint. If leaves mature twisted and misshapen, the soil might lack zinc, an unusual occurrence. If I know the language, leaves can tell me when they need phosphorus, potassium, calcium, boron, manganese, sulfur or iron. There are garden books that tell everyone how to understand leaf talk.

In our area, where we enjoy leaves that are deciduous, lasting only for the season, they have one more wondrous trick, they tell time. When swelling along the edges of bare winter branches they calculate spring. A full overhead glory of green tells of summer, and the changing of colors says autumn has arrived. When they have all fallen, except for the dried brown leaves showing an oak tree’s stubbornness, I know to turn on the furnace. So watch the leaves and enjoy the gardening season.

A news release from MGC website says “Piet Oudolf is coming to Detroit. Belle Isle is the perfect point of connection for residents and visitors—to the park’s amenities, the city, water and the region’s greenways. This is why Piet Oudolf has selected the land surrounding the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon for his newest public garden—in the cultural heart of Belle Isle, adjacent to the historic Conservatory, Aquarium and Remick Band Shell. The Garden Club of Michigan an affiliate of Michigan Garden Clubs of Michigan and National Garden Club spearheaded the effort to encourage Piet Oudolf to create his next garden in Detroit. In his own words, he announced, “I am coming to Detroit to make a garden… This is the most natural location for one of my public gardens.’”

Michigan Garden Clubs, Inc. donated to the development of this new public garden at Belle Isle, a state park operated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resouces, by one of the world’s premier landscape designers, Piet Oudolf. The none aligned with MGC, Inc, The Garden Club of Michigan, has been instrumental in attracting Oudolf to Detroit and Belle Isle. The Oudolf Garden, an all-volunteer group under the Belle Isle Conservancy, says an approximately two-acre garden will be installed at the cost of $3 to 4 million dollars. Planting will begin in August and September of 2019. The organization seeks donations to pay for the garden. You can donate via PayPal online at http://www.oudolfgardendetroit.org/donate or you can mail a check made out to BIC/Oudolf Garden Detroit and mail it to Oudolf Garden Detroit c/o BIC at 300 River Place Drive, Suite 2800, Detroit, MI 48207.

Other gardens designed by Piet Oudolf (from Wikipedia)

  • Singer Laren Sculpture Garden at The Singer Laren Museum and Concert Hall in Laren, Netherlands, 2018
  • Vlinderhof Public Garden at the Máxima Park in Leidsche Rijn, Netherlands, 2014
  • London branch of Hauser & Wirth, a Swiss contemporary and modern art  gallery of Zurich, Switzerland in 2013
  • Serpentine Gallery, interior garden in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Central London, England, 2011 with Peter Zumthor

    High Line Park, New York

  • High Line a 1.45-mile-long (2.33 km) elevated linear park, greenway and rail trail created on a former New York Central Railroad spur on the west side of Manhattan in New York City in 2006
  • At the Toronto Botanical Garden, the Entry Garden Walk in Toronto, Canada in 2006
  • Trentham Estate in Trentham, Stoke-On-Trent, 2004. Trentham Gardens are formal Italianate gardens, part of an English landscape park. The gardens are set within a large area of woodland which currently cover 300 acres. The gardens were designed as a serpentine park by Capability Brown from 1758, overlying an earlier formal design attributed to Charles Bridgeman. Trentham Gardens are now principally known for the surviving formal gardens laid out in the 1840s by Sir Charles Barry, which have recently been restored. In 2012 the Trentham Estate was selected as the site of a Royal Diamond Jubilee wood, and a new woodland of 200,000 native oak trees will be planted on the Estate. Successful garden designers Tom Stuart-Smith, Piet Oudolf, and Nigel Dunnett have collaborated together on the garden redesign.
  • Battery Park in New York City, 2003
  • Lurie Garden in the Millennium Park in Chicago, 2003 with Kathryn Gustafson
  • Scampston’s refurbished Walled Garden at Scampston Hall in England, 2002-2003
  • ABN Amro Bank, Netherlands, 2000
  • Hoogland in Netherlands, 2001
  • Millennium Garden at Pensthorpe Nature Reserve in Norfolk, England
  • Country Cork Garden, Republic of Ireland
  • Parts of Kurpark Bad Driburg, Germany
  • Municipal park of Enköping, Sweden.

To have such a designer of such repute is sure to make Belle Isle and even greater Michigan attraction.

BUZZBy author Thor Hanson
From publisher Basic Books
ISBN-10: 0465052614
ISBN-13: 978-0465052615
Publish date: July, 2018

BUZZ is more than a title because a ‘buzz’ of interest kept me reading. The information on the evolution of bees from wasps, changing from carnivores to vegetarians during the age of dinosaurs, was fascinating, as was learning how long man has been harvesting and treasuring honey. It shows cave paintings of this activity! As a gardener, I also found the number of bee species astounding and their effects on how flowers developed through the millennia interesting. Only recently I learned Michigan has over 300 variety of bees, but had no idea on how many species there are in the world. All the information Mr. Hanson gives on the many types of bees in BUZZ is thought-provoking, and goes far beyond the scope of honey bees and their decline.

BUZZ is a well written personal narrative telling of the author’s own interest and journey of discovery on the topic of bees. Author Thor Hanson writes in easy to understand language rather than in the jargon of science, but he provides quick definitions when words of a scientific nature are used and gives supporting evidence on his information from many experts in the field. BUZZ also holds a message that humans need to become more aware of their relationship to the creatures and plants that surround us and makes living possible.

Even people, who do not think of themselves as ‘vegetable gardeners’ grow tomatoes because almost everyone loves that great ‘homegrown’ taste of vine-ripened tomatoes.

Besides growing tomatoes in the traditional vegetable bed, they have been grown in containers, hanging baskets, stuck in their own forty-pound bag of soil, and raised in herb and flower gardens.

The tomato is a charming fruit declared a vegetable by the Supreme Court in 1893, and one that inspires passions among many gardeners, sending them on an unending quest for the best-tasting tomato, the earliest ripening or the biggest fruit or largest yield. Many growers helped develop the many variations found in the tomato varieties now available. Hybridizers developed tomatoes for their sweet flavor, meaty texture, yellow color, pear shaped, or type of usage.

Its history is just as bewildering. Early European explorers in South American took the tomato plant to Europe sometime before 1544. It was considered poisonous because of its relation to deadly nightshade, which as its name suggests, is a lethal poison. The tomato earned the name Pomme d’Amour, or Love Apple, which gives an interesting insight into personal relationships of the sixteenth century. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes, nightshade and jimsonweed all come from the Solanaceae family. We now know to eat the tomato raw only when fully ripened or to cook the green tomato, which breaks down the alkaloids that make it poisonous.

A warm-season crop, tomatoes grow best in temperatures between seventy and seventy-five degrees and won’t grow well until those conditions are reached. A touch of frost quickly kills them, so plant them after danger of frost is past. Garden centers sell many mechanical devices such as crop caps and ‘walls-of-water’ to protect plants set out earlier in the season. The best sites have rich soil that is slightly acidic with at least six hours of sun a day. Black plastic or straw or other mulch put around the soil helps keep the soil warm in cool weather. Tomatoes need watering once a week and the soil fertilized several times during summer. There are manuals and books galore on growing tomatoes that give more in-depth information than presented here.

Due to the diseases which tomatoes are susceptible to, it is best if you do not grow tomatoes in the same spot every year but rotate where they are grown for a series of four years. For the same reason, you should never smoke around tomatoes, or handle them after handling cigarettes.

For the hunter of exotic of heirloom varieties, tomatoes are easy to grow from seed and are available from many catalogue and retail sources. When shopping for seeds or plants, look for short-seasoned tomatoes (quick ripening) for areas in colder zones, and select hybrids with the most disease resistance. The plant label should give you this information.

During the growing season you might have to protect your ripening tomatoes from local wildlife as many enjoy tomatoes as much as we do.  Also, if you see huge green caterpillars known as the Tomato Hornworm which has yellow spots and horns and is the larva of the Five-Spotted Hawkmoth, pull them off and destroy them in soapy water. Or get someone to do it for you.

Photo of tomato hornworm

Tomato Hornworm by Amanda Hill, and given to public domain.

Crocus

Crocus speciosus

This past five days have returned to somewhat normal April weather, still below the average temperatures for April, but at least not at freezing or below and no ice and snow. Rainstorm due this afternoon, but then April showers bring May flowers, right? I still expect more snow, but hope these expectations are unfulfilled. Looks like I have lots of garden clean-up to do.

Snowdrops – Galanthus nivalis

 

image of geranium

Scented geranium in early spring

My houseplants help keep me sane during the winter months. From the end of September to the beginning of May, you can expect cold weather in my location in Michigan. Which of course means snow, lots of it. I’m not a snow enthusiast and don’t ski. I expect to stay inside from November to mid-March, but a snow storm has hit here even in June. One blooming plant I bring indoors to plant out when it is safe is scented geranium or Pelargonium. I keep each one in a fairly large pot goes into a large planter outdoors and is easy to bring in before the first frost.

Most places treat pelargoniums like annual plants: plant them after the threat of frost has passed and enjoy them until the first fall frost. Yet they are perennial plants in their native habitat, so I treat my Pelargoniums  like an ordinary house plant during the winter and often, just when I need to see signs of springs, this plant delivers with blooms. Once the spring weather evens out, I place them in a shady place outside for ten days, and then move them to a sunny spot. They keep growing and blooming.

I do a lot of recycling, not only saving items from trash dumps by taking them to recycle centers, but also by inventing new uses for items that can no longer fulfill their original purpose.

We had six bags of concrete that were accidentally left outside. It rained; hard. The cement hardened inside the bags. What a waste of money and concrete. The  bags set next to the garage for months before I had an idea. I pulled off the paper covering and planted the concrete in a path of my garden as stepping stones. I was sure it was a horrible idea and the concrete would just crumble into small pieces. None of the forms broke up. They’ve been in the ground for at least seven years. A couple have cracked, but they stayed usable.

images of cement bags now stepping stones.

recycled stepping stones

Plants have grown around them, and now moss is encroaching into cracks and crevices. Each step, while vaguely oval, has surface markings from the original bag container that marks each a little differently, and they’ve begun to take on a patina of stone. Will they last forever? Probably not, but most likely longer than me.

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