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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 gardener, 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 shape, 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 it 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 degree 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.

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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.

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.

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.

Kale

Kale

Spring is going to start early this year. Already the normal 12″ of snow covering my garden this month is gone, the snowdrops are blooming with many honey bees hovering over them. Since most garden books say as soon as the soil can be worked, the cold crops can be planted, I’m going to try it. Just watch, a week or two from now a heavy snow storm will dump on the sprouting seeds. I’ll discover what happens to those baby plants then. I’m ever a pessimistic optimist.

So what are cold crops? Mostly leaf or root crops started from seed that actually prefer growing in colder temperatures. They vary in hardiness, but most will survive frost, and some of them even snow. What makes them great are they are typically short season, too, meaning they’ll be on the table quicker. Many ‘cole’ crops are cold hardy, but cole refers to crops from the Brassica genus or mustard family, vegetables like broccoli, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, cabbage, or cauliflower. While these are cold crops, many other vegetables are similarly cold hardy.

Most root crops such as carrots and onions (basic cooking foods) parsnips (mashed like potatoes only sweeter), turnips and rutabaga (essential for pasties), beets (borscht and pickled beets, yumm), and leeks (leek and potato soup) prefer cool temperatures. Some leafy vegetables like arugula, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, maché (a old leaf crop in France relatively new to the states), and parsley (combine all for marvelous salads, plus spinach and Swiss chard make good cooked greens) favor cool weather. I’ve seen parsley still fresh and ready to use growing up from snow. It is also biennial, meaning it harvests for two years, but it has also reseeded itself in my garden. Peas, which are grown for their fruit, produce best in cooler temperatures.

Some of these leafy crops like spinach, lettuce, and Swiss chard (I’m not fond of kale or collards) will be ready for the table by the end of April. If the summer is relatively cool, they’ll keep sending up new leaves even after several harvestings. The root crops will take longer to develop, but will be ready to harvest when tomatoes and pepper plants are only becoming safe to put in the ground (May 15th to 30th depending on your last frost zone).

Two more good things about cold crops are that they can be planted again in mid-August to the end of September providing a late season crop, but most seed companies have seed sales in the fall, so you get the seeds cheaper. One more good aspect of this is those cheaper seeds will be just as viable for the spring growing seed. I’ve grown fall season carrots, which are very cold, even freezing, hardy, and while I can’t get into the snow covered garden to harvest them, I have dug them from the ground in the early spring.

Achillea millefolium, Sneezeweed, Yarrow

Achillea millefolium, Sneezeweed, Yarrow in the wild.

Yarrow, one of the common weeds found along our roadsides from mid to late summer, is also the ancestor of many favorite plants in today’s gardens. Even with many species, yarrows are easily identified by the unique pine-pepper scent of all plant parts, their tiny typically white or yellow flowers that come in either flat or convex clusters called corymbs, and their fern-like leaves.

achillea 2

Achillea ‘Moonshine’

Botanically, the weed yarrow is Achillea millefolium, but is known by many common names: Milfoil, Bloodwort, Stanchgrass, Thousandleaf, Nosebleed, Old Mans Pepper, Carpenter’s Weed, Staunchweed, Dog Daisy, Goose Tongue, Sweet Nuns, and Knight’s Balm, and Woundwort. Some of the names come from the plant’s appearance; ‘Milfoil’ and ‘millefolium’ means a thousand leaves, referring to the plants finely dissected leaves. Most of the other names refer to its reputed ability to stop hemorrhage.

Edwin Spencer in his book All About Weeds wrote that “this plant is about as worthless as any that grows.” This is a rather harsh review, but it is true that this naturalized European-native is very invasive and a strong grower.

Some stories say yarrow received the name Achillea because the Greek hero Achilles of Trojan War fame who taught his fellow soldiers to use the herb’s leaves to stop bleeding battle wounds. From that time right up to our country’s Civil War, yarrow was used in battlefield medicine. Throughout history there are many reports on the medical uses of yarrow, from European physicians to the Chinese, Shaker, and Native American herbalists. Some uses seem contradictory, as it was recommended to stuff the nose with yarrow leaves to both cure and cause a nosebleed. Long ago it was long thought that by inducing a nosebleed, you cured a headache.

Pink Achillea x 'Summer Berries'

Achillea ‘Summer Berries’

Modern archeologists have even found yarrow pollen in Neanderthal burial caves indicating man has used this plant for the last 60,000 years. Besides medicine, it has been used for amulets to protect from everything from blindness to robbers, or used as astringent and cleansing lotions, and even yellow dyes. It has also been used in black magic and prophecy. I Ching, the Chinese method of prediction used 50 dried stalks of yarrow in the casting. A European belief held that if you wanted to dream of your future love to sleep on a flannel pillow filled with yarrow.

Of the eighty or so species of yarrow, only four are used as garden plants. Achillea filipendulina ‘Moonshine’ is sold in nurseries everywhere. Its soft-yellow corymbs mix with nearly every other color found in the garden. It has attractive gray-green leaves, loves sun and is drought tolerant, qualities that make it a popular plant. A. ‘Coronation Gold’ and A.’Gold Plate’ are two other well-know cultivars from this genus.

The Achillea millefolium species has come a long way as a garden plant. The original white or cream cultivars now come in pink, red, and orange. They share the drought tolerance of A. f. ‘Moonshine,’ but early colored varieties had a weedy, invasive habit and foliage that tended to get ratty-looking, which made them less desirable plants. However, within the last two decades breeders have crossed the millefolium with other Achillea genus, developing many new cultivars. The size of the corym has increased, the plants are better mannered, less raggedy; the drought resistance remains, and the colors are a wonderful range of soft pink to gingery orange. Check with your nursery for varieties they stock. Others can be found in mail-order catalogs. They are wonderful additions for any garden and a must for dry locations and water-restricted areas.

Cattails

Cattails or scientifically speaking, Typha latifolia

Ohh-Oh, this botany class is a lot of work, even for someone just auditing the class. I’m planning on using My Mile of Country Road page (now pages) as my project, so it is undergoing changes, the inclusion of more scientific language. I’m planning on adding more information, too, and include photos of trees, berried fall shrubs, ferns, maybe even some mosses. Wish me luck.

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebell


One of the most beautiful May blooming flowers is Mertensia virginica or Viginia Bluebells. The pink buds elongate into clear blue tubular flowers that hang amid oversize ovate to round shaped leaves. The leaves often grow to fist size or larger. They are a wildflower native to this area, but according to DNR a threatened species since a 1999 survey.

Luckily, because they are so lovely, many nurseries carry Virginia Bluebells, so gardeners can purchase plants. Besides blue, a white and a pink variety are known. According to many horticulturists, the plants are a necessary addition for every garden. After growing them, I agree, but they can need maintenance.

They are part of the Boraginaceae, a plant family known for its glaucous, or hairy, leaves and stems. However, Virginia Bluebells are hairless. Their wide, fragile leaves show they are shade-loving plants. A few hours of early morning light or late afternoon light is fine, or just filtered shade.

Mertensia also need moist, humus, slightly acid soil. If they like their location, they readily spread and reseed themselves, gradually forming a colony of plants. Once in place, leave them alone as they do not like transplanting. They spread and seed readily, and most likely to right where you don’t particularly want them. The first time I planted them, they died in the middle of the summer. I thought I would have to replace them, but like daffodils, Virginia Bluebells are ephemeral and disappear before summer is over. If you watch, after the foliage yellows but just before the plant dies, you will find little seedpods. Spread the seeds in a spot you would like them to grow.

To prevent digging them up after they die back you need to mark where they grew in your garden. To cover the empty space left by their early departure, grow them near plants that will fill the space as they grow, like Hosta or ferns. Annuals can also be interplant among the bluebells while they are growing.

Here is what I find interesting about Virginia Bluebells. I could not find one single legend, piece of lore or historical anecdote about them, not even the name Native Americans had for them. They are not used for food, medicine, or dye, and are not poisonous. Although I found one reference the Cherokee might have used them in herbal medicine, I found no corroborative accounts. So here is a plant loved and grown solely for its fleeting beauty.

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