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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.


Purple Coneflower

In 1980 I traveled down Highway 54 in Missouri. Wild purple coneflowers lined the roadside in waves of pink flowers that resembled shooting stars headed for the heavens. The long pink petals fell back from the orange seed head in wavy rays. The beautiful flowers seemed to float above the tall roadside grass. At the time I wondered why it was call purple rather than pink coneflower, but that’s just one of its mysteries.

Ten years later they were gone. The coneflower, or Echinacea, had become a ‘cure’ for weak immune systems and AIDS had become a prevalent disease. Coneflowers roots became a valuable commodity. A friend told me it took one year to empty the roadside of coneflowers. Diggers waited until the plants bloomed, then dug them wherever they spotted the flowers, filling trucks with plants taken from public property. At that time Missouri had no law against digging roadside wildflowers.

Coneflowers are vestige plants of the prairies that once stretched across America. They have a long history as medical plants. Native Americans used the roots of this wildflower for everything from snakebite to cleansing rites for ceremonial rituals. European settlers soon used the coneflower as a blood purifier to cure a wide variety of ailments such as unidentified infections and ailments.

As garden plants, the mid-to-late summer flowers of Purple Coneflower punctuate the border with large, vivid blossoms on three-foot stems. The orange cones contrast with the pink petals in an unusual color harmony among flowers. As prairie plants, coneflowers thrive where many plants fail. Coneflowers grow from zone 4 to zone 8 with equal ease. They withstand drought, love hot sunny sites, and don’t need regular applications of fertilizer.

They are easily grown from seed, but the plants take two years to reach flowering size. Most garden centers carry pot-grown plants, usually already in flower. Transplanting doesn’t seem to bother them anymore than the type of soil in which they are planted. Known as ‘clay busters,’ coneflowers grow in clay as well as sandy soils like mine.

Hybridizers produced a cultivar ‘Magnus’ with petals that extended nearly straight out from the cone rather than drooping, making the flower appear more daisy-like. Since ‘Magus,’ the hybridizers have gone wild with new cultivars in amazing colors like the orange petals of ‘Tiki Torch,’ the green, stubby petals of ‘Green Envy,’ and the yellow petals of ‘Sunrise,’ plus they have produced some blossom configurations that look like a mum flower on top of the regular coneflower like the cerise red ‘Razzmatazz,’ and the green ‘Coconut Lime.’

The foliage has never been as attractive as the flowers. The large leaves have serrated edges and are coated with fine hairs. They look coarse and can be attacked by mildew making them even more unattractive. If mildew is a problem in your area, try growing some of the mildew resistant cultivars available.

This is a great plant for any garden and although blooms throughout the summer sparkles especially in late summer and fall.

Big Bluestem along 3 Mile Road

Big Bluestem along 3 Mile Road

I suspect that many drivers traveling Michigan’s roads this autumn are more attracted by the color of the changing leaves than the weeds along the roadside. Recognition of those ‘weeds,’ however, can change that viewpoint.

For most of the spring and summer, a grass is just a grass, a clump of green blades, mostly needing mowing. Come late August, however, something amazing happens. The native grasses Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem bloom and embellish many of Michigan’s roadsides with their burnished glory. It may look like dead brown grass to many, but a closer study shows an amazing array of color from the yellow to yellow-orange flames of basal grass leaves to the ripening splendor of the slender reddish, glowing amber or pink stalks.

Once, I too thought of these grasses as weeds, and then I learned a little more about these two native grasses. Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) once covered the prairies from the Ohio River to the foothills of the Rockies. It was the predominant prairie grass covering much of the Mid-West. By late summer the seed stalks often rose to seven feet, or in some locals, even ten feet (those in my fields grow to six feet!). The name came from the lavender-gray seed heads, the slender finger-like shapes of which gives Big Blue another common name, Turkeyfoot.  Red splotches stain the stems, so as the wind whips them, the red and green on the stems seem to blur into blue-gray. For our early settlers, it must have looked like another ocean when late summer winds propelled the tall grasses, which often reached up to 12′, into waves of motion that formed the grass sea. Sometimes I imagine the vast herds of buffalo and antelope living on land covered by this grass or traveling in a wagon where the grass along the trail towers over me. It must have been a remarkable sight.

Big Bluestem Crowned by Maple in October

Now Big Bluestem is known for its superior qualities as forage for cattle, horses, and, to
the hunter’s joy, the Michigan white-tail deer. However, as the settler’s plowed under the prairie grasses in the Mid West and Western states, something else happened: they destroyed roots of the prairie grasses
including the Big Bluestem. Their very deep roots were often deeper than the grass’s
height and had held the soil in place for centuries. When drought hit the prairie, the roots that had acted like anchors for soil and moisture during periodic droughts were gone, and the corn and grain crops planted in place of the grasses, couldn’t hold the soil. The topsoil blew away in great black winds sometimes blowing as far away as New York. This drought resulted in the Dust Bowl, affecting hundreds of thousands of acres of land. John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, depicts the sorrow inflicted from this ecological calamity. (See Ken Burn’s THE DUST BOWL preview.)

Rolla, Kansas, Dust Storm 1935 From the U.S. National Archives, NAID 195691

Rolla, Kansas, Dust Storm 1935 From the U.S. National Archives, NAID 195691

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), often grows next to Big Bluestem along the roadside. Even from the car, the difference can be seen. Little Bluestem is shorter than Big Bluestem, usually reaching only three feet in height. While this grass’s leaves are highly prized for their blue-green summer color, in fall they turn pinkish-tan to brilliant orange with fluffy white seeds running up the stem-like tufts of a hair. This feature gives the grass its other common name of Beard Grass. Little Bluestem lacks the great stature of Big Bluestem, but it has a fragile beauty to distinguish it. The frosted pink or pronounced reddish-tan stalks of Little Bluestem dress an autumn field in rare beauty.

Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem

Another of the predominate prairie grasses, Little Bluestem also exists in greatly reduced circumstances, although the pink-red-orange fall coloring has piqued the interest of landscapers and horticulturists which has established it as a ‘garden plant.’ A few plants have even received cultivar names for certain superior qualities, usually summer or autumn color, and are now available in nurseries. For ranchers and farmers, though, like Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem has great
nutritional value for livestock. Maybe they both can make a comeback.

Now that I know and can identify Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem, I look for them in the fall. Like the red-orange of the sugar maple in autumn, they have become an important indicator of the season. The maple adorns the sky, the bluegrasses gild the ground. It is most unfortunate that so many counties and townships mow them down at the peak of their glory.

A Michigan Autumn with Little Bluestem

A Michigan Autumn with Little Bluestem

All this week will look like this.

It’s hard for me to be cheerful when everyday looks like this! However, it isn’t snowing, so perhaps maybe I should be happy about that, and believe me, I am! The prediction is for a mild winter as far as snow, but very cold temperatures. That I am not happy about. (Sometimes I feel like I can never be glad about anything.) My garden is zone 5B sliding to 4A at times, which means many of my perennials survive here because they have the insulation of a deep layer of snow. The snow protects them from the harshest of sub-zero temperatures.

Mid to late summer my poppies die back. After a spectacular spectacle of color, they wither and brown until I’m tired of seeing their ugly stalks and cut them to the ground. Any stalks with seed pods are carefully cut, the pods emptied out over a dish, and the empty pods saved for dried flower arrangements. The pods are not very pretty unless spray painted, but have very interesting shapes. The seeds from Papaver oriental (perennial) are saved for more plants, those from Papaver somniferum (annual) are saved for use on baked goods, plus a few a hopefully spread around the garden for next year’s poppies.

Since the plants are quite large, they leave gaping holes in the garden’s symmetry. Luckily other plants can be grown close to them to fill the space, but there are still a few weeks of transition where the view isn’t so pleasing. In September the dormant roots send up new leaves that form small mounds until hit by several really hard frosts. Their green is welcome at this time of year, and a good sign that the poppies will bloom next summer.


Poppy leaves in fall


Veronica pectinata

Wednesday when I left the house, frost remained on the ground and plants. One plant remained green and apparently unaffected by the cold even with frost coating its leaves. This attractive 2″ tall ground cover is Veronica pectinata, or Blue Woolly Speedwell, a native of the East Balkans in Turkey. I bought it from High Country Gardens three years ago in my search for xeric plants for my garden. My ultimate goal is to have the major portion of my garden water self-sufficient, and this veronica has become a huge asset. In spring it is covered with small blue flowers, and look at how long it retains its beautiful green color! I bought three plants as a trial to see how well they survived under 30″ or more of snow each winter, and planted them in a sunny location. Needless to say in my sand pile, they receive the well-drained soil they prefer. All three are hale and healthy and each has spread very well in its allotted place. Another big plus: deer and rabbits won’t eat them.

if you haven’t already, now is the time to walk through the weeds. All types of seed pods are showing their stuff. Yes, they are usually dark brown, tan and otherwise unappealing, but look at their interesting shapes and forms. You can work them into a floral design as is, or spray paint them to the color you desire.

I cut these seed pods from my Asclepias tuberosa, or common butterfly weed. While stripping the withered leaves off the stems, I scattered the seeds in my field, so that some might eventually take seed there. Don’t the pods look like little bunny ears? Hmmm… flower show next July with Peter Rabbit theme… perhaps these are just the ‘flowers’ needed.


Seed pods from Asclepias tuberosa.

Asclepias tuberosa are one of my favorite perennials. While not much to look at during the spring and early summer, they come into their own in July or August with brilliant orange or chrome yellow umbels, and then these wonderful seed pods appear in October and November. They are a native plant, drought tolerant and hardy in my zone 4 garden. A relative of milkweed, they have the same milky sap that identifies the genus. My plants were grown from seed, but they are available from certain nurseries, but don’t try to collect them from the wild. They are tap root plants and seldom survive transplantation.


Butterfly Weed in the wild

This year the colors just haven’t seemed as brilliant as expected. Many trees have sported a gorgeous chrome yellow, but very few had the vivid orange and red I’ve come to expect. Here is my maple two years ago, which only turned yellow this year; very disappointing.

Sugar Maple in late October

Sugar Maple in late October

Some of the views along the road I walk display lovely autumn scenes, which certainly lift the spirits although they warn of a another rugged winter approaching.
Autumn Fields

Autumn Fields



I have a blueberry hedge along my brick walk. Their spot is not an ideal location as it is high and sandy. Although blueberries like fast draining soil, they like it moist and acidic. Mine have stayed low in the five years they’ve been planted, and usually produce a few handfuls of fruits in late July which my granddaughter Lizzy likes to eat when she visits. I know they will never produce lots of fruit, but I enjoy their brilliant red fall color so much it makes up the the less than stellar fruiting.

Blueberry in October

Blueberry in October

I love the colors of autumn, but I hate to see the end of the outdoor gardening season. I’ve moved many plants this summer. (Whenever I put their roots in a hole, I explain they shouldn’t put them down too deep, they might move.) Most of them seem to be prospering, although I moved one coneflower just before a three week drought began. It will probably survive. All this moving makes me look forward to next summer, to see if I placed each plant in just the right spot.

Most of my plants bloomed up to three weeks late this year. My Phlox ‘David’ didn’t bloom until the second week of September. Even my ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum colored late. However, the Canadian geese are flocking, and I’ve been told that is a sure sign of an early and hard winter. Ugh. I’m thinking I better get use to it, but how do the geese know?

Part of my heart garden in September -- Sedum 'Autumn Joy.'

Part of my heart garden in September -- Sedum 'Autumn Joy.'



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