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The perennial wild violet is sometimes unwanted when it spreads rampantly through lawns and garden beds, but its domesticated relatives are cold hardy plants perfect for local gardens. Edible, you can use the flowers and leaves of violets as a garnish or as an ingredient in salads, cold soups, gelatins, jams, or almost any desert. For entertainment you can serve up an accompanying story about violets.

Johnny Jump Up

Johnny Jump Up

This comes to mind as I dig the unwanted weeds out of the cracks between my brick walkway; all except the Johnny Jump-Ups. They’ve been given permission to grow wherever and however they want.

long spurred violet - native wildflower

Long Spurred Violet

Annual pansies and perennial violets come from the same genus, Viola. They have been grown for food and medicine for centuries and in that time, the plants have accumulated a volume of myth and folklore. Pansies bloom longer in a northern garden than they do in areas with hot long summers, occasionally lasting long into the summer. Gardeners have hybridized violas extensively to produce the wonderful array of flowers now available.

These low growing plants come in many colors and color combinations. In northern areas most bloom in April and May, but some like Viola tricolor, or Johnny-jump-up, bloom all summer long. The small flowered types make great ground covers. The large flowered plants are great in containers or for a splash of color in the garden. Most like moist growing sites, but will thrive in ordinary garden soil.

Downy Yellow Violet

The perennial violet is often called the sweet violet, although there are many species of perennial violets. Our native species are the marsh blue violet, the Labrador violet and the bird’s-foot violet, all found in Eastern North America. Violets readily hybridize making identification in the wild difficult. Most perennial violets sold in garden markets are hybrids. Some look more like pansies than the traditional ‘sweet violet.’

Sweet violets are Viola odorata, a European species with a history that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. Zeus turned his mistress Io into a cow to hide her from his wife, Hera, and gave Io violets to eat when she found grass unpalatable. They were also the favorite flower of Napoleon who became known as ‘Corporal Violet.’ His empress, Josephine, wore violets at their wedding to honor him. After his defeat and exile in 1814, Napoleon claimed he would return with the violets in the spring. When he returned to France in March of 1915, the violets were indeed in bloom. This may be why violets are the birth flower for March. Legend says before Napoleon’s final exile he visited his dear, but divorced, Josephine’s grave. He picked a few of the violets growing there and placed them in a locket he wore until his death.

There are superstitions tied to sweet violets, too. To give a gift of violets is to offer the recipient good luck, and wearing a garland of violets prevents dizziness. However, if violets bloom in the fall, epidemics will come within the year. I hope this lore doesn’t apply to the violas and pansies sold blooming in most nurseries during September.

Pick the blossoms of Johnny Jump Ups and add them to your dinner salad tonight.

Book coverAn Organic Guide to Growing Vegetables, Berries, and Herbs in Cold Climates

By By John Whitman
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN 978-0-8166-9839-4
February 2017|
Gardening

FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is a marvelous book. It is a large and comprehensive volume for growing edible food plants only, but discusses edible flower garden plants and other unusual and unexpected edible plants. This book is for gardening in cold areas like mine, and as a long-time gardener, I know this can be difficult.

Part I is devoted to the basics of gardening and growing crops organically. It explains a variety of approaches from growing in containers to creating many types of land gardens. Soil and compost is explained along with how to water and fertilize. Directions for plant seeds is provided, but it also includes other methods of propagation. It explains how to grow crops and how to weed and harvest them. The information goes further to include culinary terms, food storage, and even gives reasons why some people love or hate a particular vegetable. All the tools and products necessary for gardening are listed along with safety tips. Great photos and many easy-to-understand charts supplement the text.

One thing among many I learned was that pH means potential hydrogen. I’ve known what a pH reading was and how it applies to plants, but not what the acronym meant. It’s not only the solid information but also the good advice provided, such as the myth the gardener controls their garden, and many ways exist to achieve a bountiful harvest. Author John Whitman encourages gardeners to use whatever method works best for them.

The most wonderful part of FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is Part II– an extensive listing of all the vegetables, berries and herbs that can be grown in the food garden. Many I have grown, but even more I haven’t. From asparagus to zucchini, every crop is described. The information includes when and where to plant, the plant’s nutritional facts, the varieties available, how to grow it, problems and pests that can occur, and how to harvest and store the crop.

While FRESH FROM THE GARDEN is invaluable for gardeners in cold areas, defined in the book as anywhere the temperature can dip below -20 degrees Fahrenheit, the basic information is relevant anywhere. The extensive list and discussion of crop foods makes this garden book one every gardener will seek out repeatedly, not only when choosing plants to grow for the upcoming season, but also whenever problems or questions occur during growing or harvesting of those crops. For beginning gardeners or experienced gardeners, FRESH FROM THE GARDEN offers effective gardening know-how.

Brillian Green coverBy Stefano Mancuso and Alessandra Viola
Island Press
ISBN 13: 978-1-61091-603-5
ISBN 10: 1-61091-603-4
March 2015
Botany or Molecular Biology
Translated from Italian version Verde Brillante: Sensibilita e intelligenza del mondo vegetale, 2013 Giunti Editore S.p.A. Firenze-Milano

The revelations of this book begin with the basic differences between plants and animals, and how humans have been led to believe plants are purely vegetative with no ‘intelligent’ qualities. They talk about  how science disproves all those human assumptions and about plant supremacy. Everyone seems to know plants can live without animals, but not even humans can live without plants. They (plants) also reign on Earth as 97% of all life is plant, and the remaining 3% is animal, including humans.

Mancuso and Viola describe how plants organize their ‘bodies’ on an equivalent basis for all parts rather than the specialization of specific organ systems like animals. This provides plants the chance to recuperate even after losing up to 95% of their body. The authors explain how plants have all the senses of humans but use different methods. Plus they have many more sense. Humans, it seems, must change their thinking to see the truth of how smart plants really are. Plants hear, see, speak, feel, and smell but in different capacities using energy waves and operating at the molecular level. They seem to be great molecular manipulators. They also covered how plants communicate, both within body using three different systems, and outside the body by producing different scents. They provided some striking examples of how adept plants, who remain in situ, are at contacting other plants and animals.

orchid photo Ophrys apifera

Photo taken by Bernard Dupont, Creative Commons.

Plants as well as communicating with animals can manipulate them. For instance think about this example from the book: “Ususally, when we speak of mimesis we think of animals such as chameleons or walkingsticks. But their considerable mimetic abilities are as nothing compared to what an orchid like Ophrys apifera can do …Its flowers are able to mimic perfectly the shape of the female of certain nonsocial hymneoptera [wasp] …And that isn’t all: besides the female insect’s shape [and color], the orchid imitates the consistency of its tissues, its surface (including the fuzz on its body), and of course also its scent, secreting pheromones identical to the ones produced by females ready to mate” (page 113).

This was only one example, there are more. Some plants can call predator friends in the air or underground to attack their own predators. The question eventually becomes do humans manipulate plants with selective propagation and gene manipulation for their own purposes, or have plants been partners in this endeavor all this time? And don’t tell me it’s all evolution, because that same evolution brought us to where we are today.

110 Plants to Feed the BeesI discovered this book on Net Galley and opened it out of curiosity. Bees and their populations are a huge environmental issue right now. I think I’ve mentioned in my last post and in other posts, the volume of honeybees in my area has declined drastically in the last few years. Hopefully this book will help gardeners become aware of plants to draw bees and maybe as gardeners we can provide a welcoming and safe environment for these extremely important insects.

100 Plants to FEED THE BEES: Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive – The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
Publication date: December 2016
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC
ISBN-10: 1612-12701-0
ISBN-13: 978-1612-12701-9

While this book is a handbook of plants insects need, it is an important book for every gardener. The book begins with a very interesting short version of the multi-million year history of how plants and insects evolved into essential partnerships. For those who have ignored environmental problems, bees have been disappearing, and bees and humans also have an essential partnership. The DNR claims bees pollinate approximately roughly 75% of the vegetables, fruits, and nuts we eat. Personally, I love those plant products and want to keep bees around to do what they do best. Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed a distinct decline in the number of honeybees visiting my plants.

100 PLANTS TO FEED THE BEES offers an extensive list of plants whose flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees, and not only honey bees but native bees and other pollinators such as moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Each plant section contains a photo of the plant, the plant’s botanical name, and some basic information on the plant, plus a map of where it grows. Interesting information and sometimes warnings about the plant are also included. An example of a warning is mustard, which is considered a noxious weed in some locations, and illegal to grow.

Included in the 100 plants are native wildflowers and non-native or introduced wildflowers (weeds), garden plants, herbs, trees and shrubs, and even pasture plants. I was glad to see many of the plants I’ve recognized growing in my area, and my garden holds many other recommended selections. I was surprised to see Tilia Americana or the common basswood tree, until I remembered standing under my trees when in bloom and hearing myriad bees busy in the tree’s unseen upper stories. I appreciated the list of insects each plant attracts far beyond bees, too. I looked over an online version of the book, and then pre-order a volume. I recommend all gardeners purchase a copy of 100 PLANTS TO FEED THE BEES, and a big thanks to Xerces Society authors Eric Lee-Mäder, Jarrod Fowler, Jillian Vento, and Jennifer Hopwood for this work.

Aloe vera is a very common houseplant, found on most kitchen sinks because of its healing properties. I bought mine many years ago as a rather spindly young plant suffering from over-watering and lack of good light. It has developed into a sturdy plant with lots of little pup plants sprouting from its base that I replanted into separate containers every few years.

I once took them to a plant sale, but no one wanted any.  How could that be? Did everyone already have one, or did they not know how valuable this plant was?

Photo Aloe vera

Known and used for its healing properties, it is an easy topical ointment for small burns, cuts, and scrapes. It is a simple matter to snip off a leaf, slit it lengthwise, and rub the gooey gel inside the leaves over the wound. What does this gel contain? The University of Maryland Medical Center posts that “Although aloe is 99 percent water, aloe gel also contains substances known as glycoproteins and polysaccharides. Glycoproteins speed the healing process by stopping pain and inflammation while polysaccharides stimulate skin growth and repair. These substances may also stimulate the immune system.”

Over-the-counter skin and hair preparations also flaunt Aloe as an ingredient that reduces wrinkles and helps tame dry hair. On the Internet you can find Aloe vera drinks, the creators making many health claims for their product. Unfortunately, the consumer seldom knows how much Aloe the product contains. It might be as little as a drop or two, and consuming Aloe vera can create problems. But how effective is it, or are the claims just hype? So far the research has been inconclusive on many of the claims made for Aloe vera except as a topical ointment for skin irritation where there is evidence it helps skin injuries heal. Some people are allergic to the gel and in those cases it might cause more harm than cure. However, research continues on its affects to alleviate type 2 diabetes and certain liver diseases.

Most Aloe species come from Africa, but since prehistoric times, its reputation for healing has made it an important crop, spreading it throughout the Mid-East where it received its commonly known name, which is also its botanical name. Aloe is derived from an Arabic word for bitter, while vera is Latin for truth.

Commercially grown in Texas, Florida, and Mexico, it is not surprising that much of the research is done at Texas A&M University. While Aloe are succulent plants and have sharp points along the edges of old leaves which makes them look somewhat like cactus, they plants is in the lily family. Many sources claim Aloe has been associated with healing for over 4,000 years, although I don’t know who kept those records!

The FDA does not regulate labeling on Aloe vera products as it is considered a food, although I don’t suggest sautéing Aloe leaves for dinner. It is like sipping bitter mucilage glue. The health drinks have many other ingredients to tame and conceal the Aloe’s bad taste.

There is also a chemical product called aloin derived from the green part of the leaf. It has historically been used as a laxative, but now is used mostly for animals, as its side effects can be very unpleasant cramping.

Beyond its use as a burn and skin ointment, and when not constantly plucked for medicinal applications, Aloe vera develops into an attractive plant with an interesting leaf structure. It is an undemanding plant, liking bright light and well-drained soil. If the leaves turn reddish it probably needs fertilizing; yellow leaves indicate too much water. Its gray-green leaves can grow to eighteen inches in length, producing a very impressive plant. The leaf spines also become more exaggerated with age, and while not as sharp or potentially dangerous as cactus spines, they can catch on cloth and cause small scratches. That’s okay. Just cut off a lower leaf and spread the gel over the injury.

Last year in May (2015) Dr. John P. Holdren, who advises President Obama on science and technology, announced new steps to increase the population of insects that help pollinate our food crops. According to Holdren in his release “Announcing New Steps to Promote Pollinator Health,” these insects have helped  add “more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops.” The article announced three goals:

  1. Reduce honey bee colony losses to economically sustainable levels;
  2. Increase monarch butterfly numbers to protect the annual migration; and
  3. Restore or enhance millions of acres of land for pollinators through combined public and private action.

So while our chemical companies have been developing poisons to kill predatory insects, there is a possibility they have also decimated insects important to our well being, and now with a population topping 7 billion people on Earth, we need all the help we can get to feed them all. There are other contributing causes to pollinator decline, and one is we have changed the landscape so it doesn’t provide what they need to survive. These, of course, our suppositions on my part since I haven’t followed all of the research.

However, when my package came from Burpee with my seed purchases, included was a free packet of Pollinators  Seed Mix. It included cornflowers, flax, cosmos, poppy, larkspur, zinnias, and sunflowers. Because I have been concerned about the decline in honeybees—I have witnessed it in my garden—I decided to plant them, giving a 4×4′ vegetable bed over to the seeds. Of all the disasters in my vegetable garden this year, the pollinators shined in success. Yes; I saw many insects on the flowers, including honeybees. But a Monarch also visited. To help these butterflies I also let the wild milkweed grow, although I’ve noticed they really like my butterflyweed (another species of milkweed) better.

pollinators

Why bring this up? To let you know these seed packets are available for sale now in various plant combinations, including herbal. I took this photo last Thursday, so you can see the plants are still blooming. I’ve used some for bouquets for indoors, too (not a lot, I left most for the insects!) Please grow some. Lets keep the honeybees and Monarch butterflies around.

Oops! Posted and then added more. Here are Holdren’s sites for more information on the new policy copied from the site:

  • Read the National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health HERE
  • Read the Pollinator Research Action Plan HERE
  • Read Pollinator-Friendly Best Management Practices for Federal Lands HERE
  • Access Appendices to the National Strategy HERE

Gardening is always an adventure and an investigation into the plant world and nature. This year’s vegetable garden has been very different and not very successful. In a word, the cause is DEER, and my garden is not the only one attacked this year. I’ve spoken with several other gardeners whose crops have been decimated by deer. It could be the increase in corn fields around us, which provide also provide food.

Last week we repaired some fencing and put up more fence posts. Yet, this year the grapes have been very successful and weighed down sections of the fence. No matter what Bill and I did, the deer jumped the fence at some point in the perimeter and dined at leisure in the garden beds. The results are the tomatoes have well-cropped tops, and are developing tomatoes on the bottom branches.

Pumpkin blossomYesterday, the deer again jumped the fence and this time ate all the ripening grapes. ALL the grapes of an abundant crop off three vines. So much for making homemade wine. Deer also like Jerusalem artichokes,  horseradish, Swiss chard, beans, and sunflowers. All gone. However, the yellow crookneck squash are huge and abundant as are the pumpkins. On the back deck Bill finally put the lettuce containers on the small table and the raccoons he insists on feeding haven’t been able to get into them.

My flower gardens have done well except for the fact I haven’t kept them as well weeded as they needed to be. Four years after planting the seeds, the white Liatris Florestan White, or Blazing Star, finally bloomed, including one hidden one that I thought had died. I love raising plants from seed and I thought this one a lost cause, and here the plants finally deliver flowers! Deer did eat many of the daylily blooms, but I had daylilies blooming from the end of June to the end of August.  With my vegetable seeds from both Burpee’s and Park’s, I received free packets of ‘pollinators.’ They are blooming in the vegetable garden now and are beautiful.

I also read about using banana peels on plants for fertilizer and implemented the trial. It worked on the tomatoes (although this effort was largely a lost cause) and on the few roses I have. Just wrap the banana peel around the base of the stem. Recycling and fertilizing in one step–how convenient!

While the vegetable garden has been disappointing, it has been an interesting season of gardening. Since I’ve been very busy indoors working on creating an  online course for my classes, painting the walls, woodwork, floors (I truly have a painted house), and writing, most of my gardening has been a few sessions of weeding and much looking. Now I look forward to a fruitful fall hunting season for some hunter, and next spring, new fencing, and another table for the back deck, it should be a good gardening season.

After my post about Gardeners and God Complex, I’ve reaped some bad karma for my presumption.

First, all the seeds I planted when the soil first became workable died or were eaten by birds or insects.

Second, a drought has followed the cold spell that followed the warm spell that let me plant early.

Third, the peas came up but languish in the heat.

Fourth, deer jumped the fence and ate all the new pepper plants I had grown from seeds and just planted, along with the leaves of the Jerusalem artichoke, the asparagus (although we had a great harvest of asparagus), and the parsley that has gone wild in the garden. The deer did not touch the eggplants or tomatoes. Bought and planted more peppers, two of which have disappeared.

Fifth, within a day of  the cucumber seedlings breaking ground, they disappeared, as happened to the beets, parsnips and turnips. And something is eating the young squash plants. Moles? Birds? Insects? Grasshoppers?

Sixth, I planted a bed with beans, but now see I’d planted it with sunflowers too. It will be war of the world all over again.

Seventh, a special someone (not giving away names!) wanting to be helpful tilled the walkways between the beds so my feet sink into loose sandy soil whenever I walk the garden.

So, grrr, I didn’t take into consideration all the things not necessarily under my control. I’m hoping its not too late to plant more crops. What else can happen?

Two good aspects: the grapes seem to have abundant fruit developing for the first time. (I really need to learn how to prune those vines, and I’m sure the Baltimore Oriole nesting nearby will enjoy them as they did the Juneberries!)  Yet the rhubarb is doing tremendous and the ancient apple trees have fruit developing.

Here it is, six weeks later, and some seedlings have s-l-o-w-l-y begun to sprout. The spinach has been up about a week and a half and is only now putting out second leaves. This past week some carrot and kohlrabi sprouts began to show.  At least this give me some hope for the seeds remaining underground—they might spout yet. So okay, up here in north central western Michigan, you can plant as soon as the ground can be worked, but the results, like the weather, might be mixed.Six wees to sprout? Really? Kale, a very cold tolerant plant has shown no signs of germination, neither have the beets, radishes, or Swiss chard. It might work out better for me to plant some of these in late August and grow them through the fall, and just wait until about now to put other seeds in the ground. On the other hand, the annual seeds of camomile and parsley are all over the garden! They have literally turned wild and are competing with the Veronica peregrina, in other words they’ve joined the weed community. I don’t really want to pull any of them out. Perhaps the veronica would make a good ground cover on the walkways between the growing boxes? Gardening is an adventure and an experiment!

My daffodils. scilla siberica, and hyacinth  are all blooming, and in the wild, so are the Amelanchier trees, so I can state spring is well underway here. Doesn’t mean we won’t have more snow! However, the blueberry plants from White Flower Farm arrived last Friday and I planted them Sunday. Hope they survive.

Well, I’ve checked the planted bed. Nothing has popped out of the soil. While the soil remains workable, the weather has not. My location has been hit by several snow storms and very cold temperatures. I know when seedlings wither, they are gone quickly and probably invisible on my soil. So have some sprouted and died, or has nothing come up? Will the seeds remain viable until the weather goes from freezing to cold? Is it just the unexpected swings between seasonable and unseasonable weather this spring?  I expect to know if I have to buy more seeds in another week or so. Perhaps the ‘workable soil’ soil timeline is different in Northern Michigan than in Southern Michigan or further south. Certainly an experiment, but at least I’ll know  one way or another.

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