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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.


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.

On March 19, I had the honor of being one of the judges for the District IIB Flower Show “All Creatures Great and Small” held at the MSU Pavilion during the Lansing Home and Garden Show. I knew many of the Michigan judges and it was pleasant to reacquaint over a wonderful lunch provided by the district. I was on the ‘orange’ panel consisting of three judges. We spent a lot of time discussing the merits of every exhibit we judged. It was a well-planned, beautiful, and interesting show.

DIIB Flower Show view

DIIB Flower Show

District IIB Flower Show another view

A second overall view of the flower show.

Now March in Michigan isn’t a great horticultural month, but the twenty clubs in the district came through with many branches, houseplants, bulbs, and dish gardens. You can see many of the exhibits in the above photos. The

Dish Garden filled with fairies and a dragon.

Dish Garden filled with fairies and a dragon.

District IIB has many fine floral designers, so the show’s design division was exceptional. I’ve chosen a photo of the table design I liked best even though it earned a red ribbon (tells a lot about the overall quality of designs!). This wasn’t a class I judged, and I certainly respect the judges’ decision. Yet, choosing your own winner in each class is part of the fun of a flower show for viewers.

Table exhibit

Table design from “Mother Nature’s Tea” class

The last division of educational and craft exhibits was also excellent. Educational designs are to teach the public about Michigan Garden Club goals, environmental concerns, etc.

Educational exhibits

Two educational exhibits from show.

This craft design was in the “Bird Brain” class.
Craft Design

“Bird Brain” craft design

While five hours round trip driving time to get to the show wasn’t much fun, the weather cooperated and the trip was worth the journey. Luckily, Lansing and surrounding communities have a much easier drive.

My daughter gave me this amaryllis a year ago at Christmas. My sister enjoyed the blooms since I was sick and couldn’t get to her house where our family Christmas is held. So once I received the bulb I grew it in the vegetable garden, pulled it out in the middle of October and put it in a cool spot to rest. I pulled it out in January and here is the bloom in March. Thank you, Karen! This is the first of four blooms on the stem, so I have some more flowers to enjoy. The red flowers seem to be sparkled with glitter. It is gorgeous!

Once the blooms have faded, I’ll cut them off at the base of the bloom. The stem holds chlorophyll so will give the bulb some extra nutrition.

Red Amaryllis

Red Amaryllis Bloom

After a very long, bleak winter, this fiery bloom lightens my spirit. I’m going to replant it this spring once the frost date is past. After ten days on the porch for the leaves to acclimate to stronger light, I will take it out of the pot and grow it directly in the soil. Because it will already have a strong leaf system in place this year, the bulb should grow even larger. I plan to see it is better fertilized and watered this summer, too. If I want to try and have it bloom at Christmas, I’ll have to repot it and put it into its rest period by mid August. It needs to be kept for about eight to ten weeks in a dry and cool state of relative darkness. September really works better to start the rest period, and October after the first frost seems to be best. I’ll have to wait and see how well it has grown by August and decide then. I don’t mind seeing the bloom in March. The U.S. National Arboretum says this process can be repeated indefinitely. I’ve had amaryllis before, but after a few years they didn’t grow well; however, this could have been me not giving them enough attention.

One thing I’ve noticed about shopping on the web — more sellers find you. Since the beginning of December I’ve been receiving two or three seed or plant catalogs a week, many from companies I’ve never heard of.The plant photos and descriptions are all so enticing.

The coming season's catalog offerings.

The coming season’s catalog offerings.

How can a gardener choose between all the varieties of lettuce available? What about all those beans! It’s dizzying. I keep a list of all the vegetable seed types I buy, not that it does much good. By the end of the season when I should be recording a review on each seed, I’m too busy canning, freezing, or drying. Last year I grew kohlrabi for the first time. Family likes it as well as potatoes as a side.

This winter has been so very busy and my cold has drug me down, so I haven’t perused those catalogs as much as I’d like, but I’ll have my orders in by the end of February. the thought of getting into the garden again helps me get through these sub-zero temperatures we’ve been having.

My remaining Clivia miniata's  2011 blooms.

My remaining Clivia miniata 2011 blooms.

Browsing a White Flower Farm catalog fifteen years ago I saw a plant I wanted: Clivia miniata, or more commonly called either the kaffir or natal lily. The plant’s photograph showed a cluster of eight or more bright orange flowers in an umbel. It was impressive. It was expensive. I asked for it for a Christmas present, but that just didn’t happen. The next year when the fall catalog arrived, I again mentioned how much I wanted one, but decided not to leave it to chance. I bought one for thirty dollars, and then forgot about my order.

Coming home from work one day I found a box on my porch from White Flower Farm. Remembering my order, I rushed inside and pulled out the plant. It wasn’t blooming and a bunch of strappy dark green leaves weren’t very inspiring. Still, the catalog had claimed it would be a five-year-old plant of blooming size. I just needed to wait for the flowers. Wonderful!

Next day coming home from work, I found another box from the nursery on the porch. Puzzled, I took it indoors and opened it and pulled out two Clivia plants. Unknown to me, some guilty un-gifter had ordered the previous unfulfilled Christmas wish by two. I had eighty dollars worth of Clivia (cheaper when two are purchased); in other words, an embarrassment of riches.

At the time I laughed, but now know they were worth the price. Mine grew and bloomed, and continued to grow larger and bloom more magnificently every year. Unlike some blooming plants, their care was easy. Clivia come from South Africa, growing in damp winter forests. Because our winter is their summer, they bloom in late winter or early spring here, seemingly keeping their own timetable.

It’s hard to kill a Clivia. The plants survive overwatering, they survive under watering. They enjoy the summer outdoors in a shady location, and when fall frosts arrive, I put mine indoors in a cool, dark corner. The dark, cold, and a bit of drought bring them into bloom. Usually in late January green flower heads begin to emerge from within the leaves to slowly develop into their orange glory and then last several weeks. They love their roots crowded in their pot and I only transplant mine when the roots literally break the pot — even plastic ones. I fertilize them beginning in August and continue until I bring them indoors. After they bloom they sometimes develop seeds, particularly if a budding botanist child pollinates them. I have raised some from seed and they take five years to reach blooming size. I’m now down to one plant, but it will need dividing and repotting this coming spring. I’ve given away two of the originals and two that I grew, but I won’t be giving more away any time soon as I need to build up my collection. I gave away one for the promise of a yellow cultivar. The trade unhappily never happened.

One other thing I forgot to mention. Every so often Clivia will bloom again in August. How great is that?

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One bright spot for January doldrums is exploring catalogs for spring plant and seed selections. My favorites are Bluestone Perennials, High country Gardens, Park Seeds, Thompson & Morgan, and White Flower Farm. There are many more good seed companies sending out catalogs, but I’ve had great luck with my purchases from these companies.

Bluestone Perennials in Madison, Ohio, offers a wide selection not only of perennials but species and cultivars of their perennial selections along with herbs, grasses and shrubs. Whenever I’m looking for a particular plant, Bluestone Perennials usually has it for a very reasonable price.

I love High Country Garden, which is a nursery in New Mexico specializing in plants for the West. While I generally try to purchase plants from nurseries closer to my growing zone and climate, High Country specializes in drought tolerant plants and groundcovers, many of which are well known perennials hardy in my area. (I avoid those plants with the cowboy hat designation — they usually prefer an alkaline soil.) Since their specialties are my gardening goals, and my sandy soil if fast enough draining for even desert plants, I buy from High Country.

Catalogs -- garden thoughts in January

Park Seeds is another great nursery. The have myriad plants and seeds for both the flower garden and vegetable garden. The also have wonderful new introductions. I also get their newsletter. Just look at these SunPatiens®. They promise “that even if you live in a hot climate, SunPatiens® will grow in full sun! The perfect solution for gardens that wind through both sunny and shady spots, it blooms from spring through summer and into fall, with big 2- to 3-inch flowers on bushy, well-branched plants. There’s no other Impatiens like it in the world!” Parks also carries Stevia, an herb that replaces sugar. I’ve decided to try it this year.

I’ve purchases plants from White Flower Farm in Connecticut for… hmmm… at least twenty years. I do have to be careful about hardiness, as the plants I select are inevitably for zone 5 or 6. WFF has always stood behind its plants. The one time I had a shrub die, they replaced it. I appreciated that, and the replacement grew just the way I imagined it would. Their catalog is in a class of its own, the pictures way too enticing and the commentary often quirky and entertaining.

Most of these nurseries have web pages. How great is that! I can look and explore all year-round. They usually have web specials and often opportunities to receive a newsletter via email, just to keep you up to date.

Every time there is going to be something to see in the sky, Northern Lights, Blue Moons, and other special events, our sky is overcast. Last night was no different. Lake effect snows blotted out blue moon. (Sigh.) Just a glimpse would have been nice.

Instead, I stayed warm inside and wrote down some goals for 2010. I’d like to expand my thyme garden, try more xeric plants, grow some new plants from seed, and try growing lettuce under lights. My blue and white shade garden needs something — it’s a very hard spot to grow anything. I’d like to get my telescope set up correctly so I could take photos. I also have writing and art goals. My only resolution is to try and be more understanding of others and less judgmental. Good luck. Some people need some judgment. Oops! Did I already break a resolution?

There are few sights more welcome in Northern Homes at this time of year than a plant blooming its ever-loving heart out.

Christmas Cactus are selling at this time of year, but these store denizens are puny plants compared to the specimens gardeners have lovingly kept for years. Those might have hundreds of blossoms. Schlumbergera hybrids are considered Christmas Cactus, or Thanksgiving Cactus. Usually they bloom in late November through December. Hybridizers aren’t crazy, they have been breeding these plants for decades now, and have achieved some remarkable results. Which is one reason to look over the store plants — they often have some of the newer hybrids.

It is important to remember that while called cactus, these are epiphytic plants (like orchid cactus) that grow in tropical rainforests. They need well-draining soil as the pockets of debris they grow in do not retain moisture. Their roots are adapted to grab moisture quickly. If the roots are kept wet, they develop rot. On the other hand, they need watering more frequently than true cactus.

Schlumbergera can be a problem to bring back into bloom. I take mine out in summer and keep them in a shady location. They are left outdoors until the temperature is steadily below 45 degrees. This almost guarantees bloom, for the two methods of bringing them into bloom are short day (more hours of darkness than light) treatment, or cold treatment. Here they get both naturally, and are often showing flower buds when I bring them in. In St. Charles, Missouri, it wasn’t always that easy. Isn’t it great to consider with all the snow and cold with which we have to put up, there is a rainforest plant perfect for our Northern windows?

Christmas cactus (or Thanksgiving or Easter cactus) are favorite houseplants and have been for a very long time. I remember my grandmother growing a red one like the one in the photo. While living in Colorado I had a gorgeous white specimen that my sister had given me. Unfortunately, the stems had turned woody with age and were breaking. Having to make another long distance move, I gave it away. Now I have one of the newer yellow varieties, the red one pictured, a miniature pink and another variety of red that might be a hybrid Epiphyllum.

To bring them into bloom in warmer climates than I live in now, I used to stop watering them in late August and begin again in November. Now I just delay bringing them in from their outdoor vacation until the weather is consistently under 55 degrees Fahrenheit, bringing them in overnight when frost is predicted. Usually they already have buds showing when I finally bring them in. So that’s how you bring them to bloom: cool temperatures, less water, and long, dark nights.

Zygocastus are tropical plants from Central and South America, living like orchids in the organic debris caught in pockets formed by tree branches. Like orchids, they need fast draining soil, no sitting in water and a soil rich in humus. When not withholding water to force bloom or resting the plant after bloom, the soil should be kept moist (not soaking).

I still want to replace that white specimen.



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