Tuesday, February 14, 2017

February 14, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Hi Gardeners

Its 44 degrees and sunny as I write this, the second mostly sunny day in a row, which is a great mood lifter.  When Gizzy and I took our walk yesterday I noticed tiny green buds on the honeysuckles.  Ground Ivy and chickweed are beginning to grow and the early bulbs are sprouting.  Last year at this time we were experiencing lows of the -15 range and highs below 20 degrees.  In 2015 it was -10 on Valentine’s Day.  However I had snowdrops blooming on the 24th of February last year so I’m getting excited that I may see them soon this year.  The day after I saw the snowdrops bloom last year we had 11 inches of snow. I hope that’s not coming this year.

Inside the hibiscus are all putting on lots of buds.  My Christmas cacti are still blooming; they’ve had a long bloom period this year.  The fuchsias are still blooming.  Kalanchoes are beginning to bloom. The tuberous begonias I saved in pots on the porch are starting to sprout again.

I kept saying last fall that I wasn’t adding any more flower or vegetable beds this year, but here I am, out walking in the balmy winter sun and dreaming about what changes the garden needs.  I do need a new raised veggie bed, maybe a narrow one along the fence for greens, that area is shaded late in the day.  And I see a need to expand the front bed along the walkway a bit, just a bit you know, because there are some plants I want that I don’t have room for.   And if I move the log border back around the pine tree in the center of the yard I’ll have room for one more flowering shrub on the edge of that.  Spring fever is real folks; it messes with your mind.

Hey – I just got a catalog from Gilbert Wild and they have a clearance sale on daylily varieties they are discontinuing, number one size clumps of very nice older varieties for only $2.50 each.  http://www.gilberthwild.com/products.asp?dept=33
On line I saw they also had some iris varieties on clearance. I’m not getting anything for mentioning this, just looked like a good deal.

Lots of catalogs have special sales through the end of this month.  If you are going to order plants now is the time to do it.  I spent part of the week looking at on line catalogs again this week while adding them to my garden catalog page to the right of the blog.  I have got to stop doing that as I get too many ideas about what plants I must have.

Great Backyard Bird Count

Fill those birdfeeders it’s the Great Backyard Bird Count February 17th -20thTake part in some citizen science and observe the birds in your yard for a short time in your yard on one of these days. It’s quite easy and you can look at data coming in from all over the world as people count birds.  This is a joint research project by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.  You simply look at and count birds for a short time and then enter your counts on a form on line.

Don’t worry if you aren’t sure exactly what kind of bird you are looking at.  There’s a way to record birds you aren’t sure of.  There are also photos of birds, Id tips, bird sound recordings and other things on the site.  You can look at maps from last year and see what birds were recorded around you.  You don’t have to have a bird feeder, you can take a walk or slow drive and count birds too.

Knowing what bird species are showing up where and numbers of certain birds helps researchers track declining populations of birds and how birds are responding to climate change.  You can create an account and track your own bird sightings from year to year or just count birds one time.  I’ve been doing this for several years and it’s fascinating to see what birds others in my area and around the state are counting.

The US, UK and India are major contributors to the count but people all over the world participate.  Why not join them this weekend? Here’s the link

Flowers for Valentine’s Day?

According to statistics about 35% of us are going to buy flowers as a gift this Valentine’s day and in the process spend about 2 billion dollars.  The great majority of those flowers will be red roses, 110 million of them.  Roses of another color are in second place, then mixed bouquets and plants.

California produces about 60% of the roses sold in floral shops throughout the year but red roses for Valentine’s Day come mainly from South America, particularly Columbia.  About 70% of all florist cut flowers are now produced in Columbia for the US market.  The businesses in Columbia got their start when the US eliminated import fees in 1991 on cut flowers from Columbia. This was done  to encourage investment in flower farming instead of growing coca to produce cocaine.

In the Bogota Savannah and the Rionegro Valley of Columbia near the Andes Mountains the days are long and warm, the nights cool but frost free, and the soil fertile.  Most flower crops are grown in greenhouses or hoop houses, but some are field grown.  All kinds of flowers are grown from roses to mums to supply the florist markets.  The farming of flowers provides work for thousands of people, especially women. 

There’s a lot of hard work from grafting to weeding to harvesting and packing flowers for shipment on the 300 some flower producing farms in Columbia. Wages are low by our standards but people appreciate work in a field other than an illegal one. Child labor and pesticide use/exposure were big problems at one time but Columbia has worked to reduce both.  In fact most flower farms are now modern facilities, many have day care programs for workers children, and they sponsor many educational and charitable programs.

Columbia celebrates its incredible diversity of native botanical species as well as all the non-native species it grows with many botanical gardens and parks throughout the country. Jose Celestino Mutis botanical gardens in Bogota, near the major flower farming region is both a marvelous public botanical garden and a botanical research center.

The weeks prior to Valentine’s Day are frantic in Columbia.  In the week before the holiday about 24 large jets each holding up to 50 tons of flowers will take off for the US. All of those flowers have to be cut, inspected, and packed in a very short time span. Most of the planes are bound for Miami, Florida where the flowers are inspected by customs then sent to distributors.  The flowers must be kept chilled the entire journey from farm to florist. 

In the language of flowers red roses signify passionate love.  Three red roses are said to mean “I love you”, 11 roses to say “I complete the love”, meaning you are the 12th in a dozen-( that sounds silly to me) and 3 dozen red roses means “I have given you my heart”.  Since red roses probably cost more at Valentine’s Day than they do the rest of the year, the number of red roses you get may just reflect what the giver can afford.

Can you grow your own chocolate?

With today being Valentine’s Day many people are thinking about chocolate.  It’s considered to be one of the top Valentine’s Day gifts after roses of course.  But if you love plants you might be asking – can I grow my own chocolate?  The answer is you can probably grow a chocolate (Cacao) tree with a little care, but unless you are living in a tropical growing zone you probably won’t be able to produce anywhere near the amount of cacao seeds it would take to make a single candy bar.

Cacao, or cocoa (Theobroma cacao subsp. cacao and. T. cacao subsp. Sphaerocarpum) is native to Central and northern South America but is now grown in several other countries near the equator. Africa probably grows the  most commercial cocoa now, but even Hawaii produces a small crop.  Please don’t confuse coca from which we get the drug cocaine, with cocoa or cacao.  They are distinctly different plants.

Cacao plant - Logee's picture
Cacao is farmed, but more than 70% of the commercial crop is still produced by small farmers in a semi-wild state.  It’s a tricky crop to grow because it needs very specific conditions.  It needs warmth and humidity, light shade, especially when young, protection from strong winds, the right soil conditions and to get the flowers fertilized it needs certain small insects to visit the flowers.  Then of course there is a tricky harvest and fermenting process before the beans can be used to make chocolate.

People in southern Florida have grown cacao plants outside in sheltered areas but outside of southern Florida and Hawaii, most American gardeners will need to grow their cocao plants indoors most of the year.  This can be done, but it’s a bit of a challenge.   

Cacao plants can be purchased from several tropical plant suppliers.  Logee’s is one.  (Find a link to Logee’s and other tropical plant sellers on the garden catalog page to the right of the blog.)The plants will be small when you purchase them, but in nature cacao is a small tree about 25 feet high with an extensive taproot.  Trees don’t produce flowers and seed pods until they are several years old and about 4 feet tall.  The cacao plant does make a handsome houseplant but if you want to see flowers and fruit pods you’ll have to let it become a pretty large plant with a deep, large pot.

Cacao description and habits

The cacao plant has glossy oval leaves that can get 4 inches wide by 24 inches long.  New leaves are reddish, and they gradually become bright green.  The leaves are able to move and adjust their angle of attachment to the stem in relation to the amount of sun they are receiving.  This is accomplished by a swollen area at the leaf base called a pulvinus.  It is normal for the plant to shed its lower leaves as it grows.

When cacao gets about 4 feet high, with a stem about 1 ½ inches in diameter and several branches, it may bloom.  Cacao has an unusual bloom habit in that the flowers pop out of a spongy bark layer on the main stem and older branches.  This is called cauliflorous flowering.  The plant usually has numerous flowers and produces them all through the year.  The flowers are small, pink or white, with 5 petals. 

Cacao flowers have both male and female organs but most cacao plants are not self-fertile.  They need the pollen from another plant to fertilize the female stigma.  This complicates growing cacao inside, because generally you will need two plants to get fruit.  There is one variety of cacao that is self-fertile called ‘Amelonado’.  You could ask the company you get your plant from if it is that variety.

Cacao flowers have to be hand fertilized when inside.  Tiny insects fertilize plants outside.  When fertilized the flowers turn into either red or green fleshy pods with grooves in them.  When ripe the pods turn yellow or orange yellow. Inside a ripe pod will be 20-60 pink to red seeds (they turn brown when dried) and a creamy, gelatin like pulp which is sweet and quite edible, although it does not taste like chocolate.

Cacao often produces more pods than the tree can support.  It does some self-thinning by letting certain pods shrivel, turn black and fall off, but farmers often thin the crop so the trees are not stressed.  It’s unlikely a home indoor gardener will have this problem.

Growing cacao

You could start cacao from seed but the seed needs to be planted soon after the pods ripen for good germination.  Its unlikely most gardeners would have access to those seeds.  Nurseries start plants from seeds or cuttings. You’ll probably want to start with a small potted plant. The plant will generally be a single stem for the first 2-3 years and then begin to branch at the top.

While they grow in the shade of larger trees in nature cacao plants grown inside need bright light.  In the winter this could be a south window but by March they should be moved away from the window a foot or so or moved to an east window until November.  You can also use grow lights, about 12 hours of light is good.  If you move the plants outside for summer do not put them in full sun.  You should try to find them a spot under a tree where they get filtered light or on a roofed porch or deck or the north side of a building.

Cacao should be kept above 50 degrees and in a humid environment.  Do not put plants outside for a summer vacation, which they love, until the weather is warm and settled and bring them in early in the fall.  Plants should be kept out of windy areas outside or drafts inside.  Increase humidity indoors to about 60 % or higher if you can.  Misting in the morning helps, humidity trays or a humidifier may be needed.  A warm, humid greenhouse would be ideal, but some of us don’t have that.

When you get your potted cacao tree let it adjust to the environment for a few weeks before transplanting it.  Transplant the tree into a larger pot when it has grown a few inches.  Move the plants up to larger pots every 6 months or so instead of planting a tiny plant in a very large pot.  Be very careful not to break or damage the large main taproot when transplanting.

Cacao needs a loose but well drained soil that is able to maintain a consistent moisture level.  Use a good soilless mixture, not garden soil in the pots.  Many home gardeners use an African Violet potting mix.  Preferred soil pH is slightly acidic, 6.5. 

When your cacao plant is as large as your home can handle stop transplanting it and you can prune some growth off the top to keep the plant from touching the ceiling.

Cacao needs to fertilized for good growth and possible fruit set.  Indoor gardeners can use an African Violet fertilizer or other blooming plant fertilizer that has some magnesium in it.  This can be a granular slow release fertilizer mixed into the soil or one you mix with water.  Dilute the water soluble fertilizer to half the recommended dosage on the label and use it each time you water.

Keep cacao plants moist, but never water logged.  Water until the water runs into the saucer underneath the plant and then dump the saucer.  Every six months leach the soil by sitting the plant in a tub or sink and letting water run slowly on the pot and out the bottom for about an hour.

Inside cacao sometimes gets whitefly or mealy bug like other plants and should be treated for them the same way.  It is normal for cacao to drop its lower leaves and most growers in the home environment will experience the browning of leaf edges during the winter die to low humidity.

If you get flowers, lucky you.  If you want to try for pods you can remove the male anthers from one flower and rub them on the stigma of another flower.  If you have the ‘Amelonado’ variety this could work.  If not you’ll need the anthers from another plants flowers.  If you have a greenhouse or tropical conservatory near you, ask if they have cacao in flower that you could trade anthers with.

If you get pods after that you will probably not have enough seeds to make chocolate with so I won’t cover the harvesting/fermenting process.  However you could taste the sweet pulp inside for a unique experience and maybe use the seeds to start new plants. Never pull off the pods, it damages the flowering area, use a knife and cut them off.

If you like a challenge and houseplants that are different, cacao may be for you.  If you are a person in a tropical planting zone you could contact your local county Extension office for directions on planting cacao in the ground.

Anthuriums- Boy Flowers

While some people give red roses as a Valentines flower some are a bit more mischievous and give anthuriums instead.  Anthuriums are also known as Boy Flowers because the “flower” of the plant has a resemblance to male anatomy.  Other common names for the anthurium include Flamingo flower and Tail flower.  Anthuriums may be found as potted plants around Valentine’s Day (and at other times) or the flowers may be found in distinctive floral arrangements.  In the language of flowers the anthurium flower is said to mean hospitality. Huh?
Anthutium or boy flower
Photo credit wikipedia

There are more than 130 species of anthuriums but few are found in cultivation.  Two species of anthuriums; Flamingo Flower (Anthurium scherzianum) and Painter's Palette (Anthurium andreanum) and some hybrids of these are sold as flowering houseplants.   Some species of anthuriums are also used as foliage plants in the homes and greenhouses of collectors who can afford the pricy and finicky plants.  Florida and the Netherlands produce most of the flowering potted anthuriums. 

Hawaii produces great quantities of cut anthuriums for the florist trade, varieties with large flowers and strong stems.  In Hawaii some gardeners also grow various species of anthuriums outside.  Hawaii greenhouses and nurseries also produce many of the foliage species of anthuriums that collectors covet. 

Boy Flower anatomy

The anthurium “flower” is actually a modified leaf, or bract.  In most species it is an elongated heart or hood shape and is colored red or orange in color. This bract is called a spathe.  Species of cultivated anthuriums have now been developed that have pink, yellow, purple, white and variegated spathes but red is still the most popular.   The spathe is thick with a waxy, shiny look that looks almost artificial.
At the base of the spathe a long spike called a spadix pokes upward.   The spadix is closely packed with the tiny true flowers of the anthurium.  These flowers have both male and female parts.  Spadix flowers are usually yellow or white.   Each flower will eventually turn into a fleshy berry with two seeds inside.

Anthurium foliage is also attractive.  The leaves are heart shaped, deep green and shiny in the species kept as flowering houseplants.  But some rarer anthuriums have velvety leaves, or broader leaves marked with beautiful vein patterns.  Most of the foliage anthuriums are difficult to grow in normal household conditions and require a greenhouse and dedicated gardener.

Growing conditions

Most anthuriums come from tropical areas of Central and South America.  They are often epiphytes or “air” plants in nature although some species grow in the ground.  Most species are sprawling or vine-like.  The anthuriums cultivated as houseplants are grown in a coarse, well drained media in pots. 

If kept in good light, warm, lightly fertilized and watered correctly anthuriums will actually bloom for long periods or if in perfect conditions almost continuously.  They can be a bit tricky as a houseplant and are not for those indoor gardeners who practice benign neglect.

The suggested medium for anthuriums in cultivation is equal parts of peat, perlite and shredded bark.  A potting mix for orchids will work.    (In Hawaii anthuriums are sometimes grown in macadamia nut hulls. ) Plants should be kept slightly root bound, which means the pot should not be much bigger than the root system.  When you buy a potted anthurium it will probably not need re-potting for a year or two.

Anthuriums need bright but indirect light.  They will flourish in an east window or a few inches from south or west windows.  Strong direct sun will burn the leaves.  They must be kept above 65 degrees F. for good flowering but below 90 degrees F.  Keep them out of drafts.   Plants need to be kept above 45 degrees F. to survive.

Humidity is essential to flowering and good looking foliage in anthuriums.  If you don’t use a humidifier in the home the anthurium pot should probably be set over a tray of water and misted frequently.  But while they like humidity they absolutely cannot stand over watering.  They should be watered well and then allowed to dry out just slightly but not to the point of wilting, before watering again.  Brown ends on the foliage and flower spathe mean the humidity is too low or that you are over or under watering.

Anthuriums require light but continuous fertilization to bloom.  Slow release fertilizer is usually incorporated into commercial potting mixes that plants are potted in for sale and so you probably won’t need to fertilize for a month after purchase.  After that you can use a fertilizer with a low nitrogen ratio such as 7-9-5 either in a slow release granular form or as a liquid at every other watering.  Many growers suggest a flowering houseplant fertilizer mixed at half strength.

The Flamingo Flower or Painter’s Palette anthriums get about 2 foot high and wide at maturity.  These species or similar hybrids are relatively easy to find in places that sell potted house plants.  Make sure they are well protected from the cold as you transport them home.  Other species of anthuriums can be found in specialty stores and catalogs but can be very expensive.  

Anthurium plant parts are poisonous and handling the plants may also give some people a rash.

For the gardener in your life a Valentine’s Day gift of a Boy Flower may make the day special.  And if you opt instead for a floral arrangement featuring anthurium flowers you are giving a special gift that can last for weeks.

Question of the week- Which is better, seed tapes or pelleted seed?

Rob from Michigan

Seed tapes and pelleted seed are both made to make planting small seeds easier.  Seed tapes have small seeds like carrot seed spread along a paper strip which you simply lay in a furrow. The seeds are usually pressed between two pieces of material.  Pelleted seeds are seeds enclosed in a small ball of clay-like material, which makes them larger and easier to handle and space in a row.  Both tapes and pellets can be organic and they are almost always more expensive than plain seeds.

I have planted both pelleted seed and seed tapes.  My preference is for the pelleted seed.  Seed tapes have the disadvantage of a whole row being dislodged if a cat or chicken, for example, starts digging in one part of the garden.  They also seem to wick away water from around the seeds if the paper part is exposed to air.  Since most seeds on tapes are small seeds they aren’t covered very deeply with soil and it’s easy for them to dry out.

The pelleting material tends to keep the seed moist, especially if the row is well watered after planting.  And if a cat or chicken digs up one spot the rest of the row usually isn’t disturbed. 

Either of these methods simplifies planting and keeps you from having to thin out the plants as much.  After placing the tapes or pelleted seeds in the furrow make sure to water them well, before covering the seeds.  Then water again, unless the soil is really wet.

Happy Valentine’s Day, eat some chocolate it’s good for you

Kim Willis
 “He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero

© Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.

And So On….
Do you have plants or seeds you would like to swap or share?  Post them here by emailing me. You can also ask me to post garden related events. Kimwillis151@gmail.com

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If you would like to pass along a notice about an educational event or a volunteer opportunity please send me an email before Tuesday of each week and I will print it. Also if you have a comment or opinion you’d like to share, send it to me or you can comment directly on the blog. Please state that you want to have the item published in my weekly note if you email me. You must give your full name and what you say must be polite and not attack any individual. I am very open to ideas and opinions that don’t match mine but I do reserve the right to publish what I want. Contact me at KimWillis151@gmail.com

I write this because I love to share with other gardeners some of the things I come across in my research each week. It keeps me engaged with people and horticulture. It’s a hobby, basically. I hope you enjoy it. If you are on my mailing list and at any time you don’t wish to receive these emails just let me know. If you know anyone who would like to receive a notification by email when a new blog is published have them send their email address to me.  KimWillis151@gmail.com

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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

February 7, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Hi Gardeners

When I went out to the barn this evening to feed I first gave everyone clean water then went to distribute feed and pick up late eggs.  As I came back into the main part of the barn I saw something big and white drinking out of the cats bowl and for a moment I thought Gizzy had somehow got out of the house and followed me into the barn.  But no, a second glance revealed it was a huge, very fat and fluffy possum. 

I asked him why he wasn’t afraid of me and he just continued to drink.  When he finished he gave me a look then disappeared under the old work bench.  This morning I had heard something making a snoring noise and looked around but couldn’t decide what cat or chicken was making the noise.  Now I think it was probably the possum, because I have heard them snoring before.  When we used to have hay for the big animals possums frequently burrowed into it to sleep and I would hear them snoring before I ran into them- usually.

I am pretty lenient about possums in the barn.  They are good ratters and mousers, although I have cats for that now.  But besides sharing the cat food they don’t seem to do much other harm.  The chickens treat them like cats, which means they boss them around.  When winter is over they generally disappear and sleep outside somewhere.

It has been an absolutely dreary day here.  Temperatures were in the mid 30’s and it’s rained steadily all day.  The storm warning on my barometer has been flashing all day but so far we have escaped any real storms.  The temperature is actually rising tonight  so hopefully there won’t be any icing later.

I am so longing for garden weather.  My mailbox is filled with garden catalogs and I have been researching garden sites on line to add to my catalog page.  I’m seeing a lot of plants I’d really like to have, but my budget is smaller than my wish list.  Fifty years ago garden catalogs had to be mailed to consumers and because that’s expensive, there were fewer garden “catalogs” and companies than there are now.  Now with the internet there’s been an explosion of places offering seeds and plants.  What you can find is amazing.

I’ve added 20 some links to the garden catalog page on the right side of this blog this week and I have another list to check out and add next week so if you need a dose of plant shopping or are looking for something check out the page.

February Almanac

The names for the full moon in February, (February 10th), reflect the bleakness associated with the month.  It is called the Full Snow moon, Hunger moon and Bone moon among other things. The moon perigee was yesterday and the apogee is the 18th.

By the 29th there are 11 hours and 13 min of daylight as we rapidly gain on spring equinox. In January we only gained 48 minutes of light in 31 days.  In February we gain 69 minutes in 28 days. Go sun go!

February is National Adopt a Rescued Rabbit Month, American Heart Month, Marijuana Awareness Month, National Bird Feeding Month, National Cherry Month, National Grapefruit Month, and National Bake for Your Family Month.

The 2nd is Candlemas day as well as Groundhog Day.  It is the half way point through winter and also the beginning of housecleaning for spring. The 5th is National Pancake Day. The 12th is Lincolns Birthday, Darwin Day and also Plum Pudding day.  The 14th is Valentine’s Day as well as National Condom day, and for those who don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day, it’s also National Library Day. The 15th is Susan B. Anthony’s Birthday and Presidents Day is the 20th.  Tortilla Chip day is the 24th, National Pistachio day is the 27th.  National Public Sleeping Day is the 28th, have fun with that. This year the 28th is also the start of Mardi Gras.  

The February birth flower is the violet, which symbolizes faithfulness, humility and chastity.  African violets are being featured in many stores in February and make a good gift for a gardener.  The February birthstone is the Amethyst.

Common violet

Growing Asparagus

Asparagus is one of the foods you either like or dislike.  If you like asparagus you might wonder if you could grow it in your garden.  The answer is probably, it depends on your climate, your patience level and whether you have room in the garden for a permanent resident.  Asparagus is native to Europe, North Africa and west Asia.  It has naturalized, or gone wild, in many places in America.

The plant has been cultivated and/or gathered in some places since at least 7000 B.C.  It didn’t become a common edible or garden plant in Europe though, until the 1500’s. Currently the world’s largest producer of asparagus is China.  In the US California, Michigan and Washington State produce the most asparagus.  Mexico produces and exports a lot of asparagus too, another crop you may miss in a trade war.

Asparagus is a perennial plant and you‘ll have it in the garden for a long time.  You’ll need patience because you won’t get a crop the first year you plant asparagus and only a small crop the second year.  You will also need some patience and dedication for removing weeds year after year.  Climate is important too.  Asparagus does well in planting zones 3-7.  They may grow in warmer zones but when they do not get enough cold to make them go into a dormant state they are easily killed in a winter cold snap.  They also don’t make a strong spring crop if they haven’t been in winter dormancy.

Mature asparagus plants are feathery or ferny looking, medium green plants.  There are separate male and female plants. They produce small white flowers in summer and red berries in fall if they are female plants.  Berry production takes energy so female plants don’t produce as many spears in the spring.  Male plants can be produced by division and many nurseries will sell only male crowns (divisions or small plants).

Varieties of Asparagus

‘Jersey Supreme’ and its male only cousin ‘Jersey Knight’ are commonly offered varieties.  ‘Millennium’ is a new, productive mostly male variety. ‘Martha Washington’ is an old and favorite variety.

‘Purple Passion’ and ‘Pacific Purple’ have purple spears that turn green when cooked. Purple varieties of asparagus are said to be sweeter than regular asparagus.

Planting asparagus

Choose the site for your asparagus bed carefully.  It will need to be undisturbed for many years. Asparagus beds will produce well for 15-20 years.  Asparagus does well in well drained, loose fertile soil with a pH of about 7 (neutral).  In the north beds should be in full sun, in the south partial shade or light shade will work.  Remember you will have a harvest period of about 6 weeks in a mature bed but the rest of the year the crop will become a bushy mass of ferny looking leaves about 3-4 feet high.
Asparagus plants

I highly recommend you prepare a bed for asparagus the fall before you intend to plant the crop.  Add organic matter and composted manure to the bed site and till it in.  Try to get as much grass and weeds out of the site as possible.  How big of a bed you prepare depends on how well you like asparagus.  A bed 2 feet by 20 feet will probably be fine for a family of 2-3 once the bed is mature, if you are moderate asparagus eaters.  The bed will slowly enlarge if you allow it to, so you may have more plants a few years down the road.

You can start asparagus from seeds but I highly recommend you start your patch from “crowns”, which are small dormant plants.  You’ll gain a year on the harvest and you can purchase male plants, which are more productive than females.  Crowns look like a bud on top of some long brown roots.  They are usually sold in packages of 25. That’s enough to start that 20 foot bed mentioned above. 

Here’s how to plant the crowns.  Plant them right around the time of your last frost in the spring.  In a well prepared bed of loose soil make a furrow down the center of it about 8 inches deep.  In the center of the furrow form a mound about 4 inches high.  Think of a ‘w’ where the center point is lower than the sides.

Set the plant on the center mound, bud up, and splay the roots to both sides of the mound. Space plants about a foot apart.  Then gently fill in the whole trench.  The top of the bud portion should only be 2-3 inches below the soil level.  Water the bed to settle the soil.

To start asparagus from seed sow the seeds in individual cells about 14 weeks before your expected last frost. They need warmth, about 75-80 degrees to germinate well.  Grow seedlings in strong light, a few inches beneath grow lights.  Transplant the seedlings to the garden after the last frost, planting them in a trench similar to that of the crowns as described above.

Keep the new asparagus patch well-watered the first year to get it established.  Do not cut the fronds down – let them die naturally in winter. (You can remove them when they are completely brown after a hard frost.) Each year as the ground thaws in the spring apply a slow release general purpose, vegetable garden fertilizer around the plants as the label directs.  Adding compost to the bed in fall is also a good idea.

Many people are growing asparagus in high tunnels and hoops now to produce earlier crops.  Early asparagus could be a money maker in farmers markets.

Problems of asparagus

The biggest problem people have with an asparagus bed, (and you can ask any horticulturist who deals with the public what question he or she most often gets about asparagus), is keeping weeds out of the bed.  You must start early and be vigilant with weeds the entire year.  Use some good mulch such as shredded leaves, chopped straw, or shredded bark around the plants to help smother weeds. 

Once an asparagus patch gets overgrown with grass and weeds it’s almost impossible to get it clean again.  Asparagus competing with grass and weeds won’t give you as big a harvest and is more prone to disease and insects.  It also looks like a mess. Therefore keep the weeds out! 

You will undoubtedly be told at one point or another that you can use salt around the asparagus and it will kill the weeds without affecting the asparagus plants.  That’s not true.  Asparagus is somewhat salt resistant.  The first year you try adding salt to the bed it may seem like it works to some degree, but weeds will be back the next year, maybe more tolerant to salt themselves.  You will probably treat with salt again and then you will start having problems.  Salt only moves through soil out of the range of plant roots slowly, especially in clay soils.  Eventually it starts affecting the growth of the asparagus plants and it’s ruining the soil for many other plants should you decide to rip out the asparagus patch.  Don’t use salt to kill weeds in asparagus patches.

There are no really safe herbicides, (chemicals), that will remove weeds and grass from an asparagus patch.  Hand weeding and mulch are your answers.   If the patch gets really overgrown you should consider starting over in a new area.  You can dig your current patch up in the fall after it goes dormant, separate crowns from weed roots and plant over in a clean spot.  Or you can buy new crowns and kill the old patch by constant mowing or using a herbicide.

Other problems that asparagus patches may have are asparagus beetles and rust.  Asparagus beetles eat the fronds and weaken the plants.  Since they appear after harvest you can spray with a pesticide.  Or you can hand pick the little buggers, or just hope the plants survive.  Rust is a fungal disease. It doesn’t generally kill but weakens plants.  There are rust resistant varieties you can buy. You can use a preventative fungicide on plants if you generally have problems with rust.  Thin out the patch to increase airflow, good airflow helps prevent fungal disease.

Harvesting asparagus

You eat the stems of asparagus in early spring as they emerge before they unfold their leaves.  If you cut and eat all of the “spears”, as the stems are called, the plants will be greatly weakened or may die.  They need the leaves to provide food for the root system.  New plants generally have only one spear emerge and if you cut that it is very energy intensive for them to replace that.  They may not be able to recover.

So here’s part of that patience you need to grow asparagus.  The first spring when you plant crowns or seedlings you should not cut and eat the spears.  In the second year after planting crowns you may cut about a third of the spears that appear one time.  Do not cut the spears of seedling planted asparagus the second year.  In the third year you can take more spears from the crown planted crop, about half, and for 2-3 weeks and in the seedling planted crop about a third of the crowns one time.  In the fourth and following years you can get a normal harvest for crown planted beds and a half harvest for seedling beds that year, full harvest after the next year.

A normal mature bed harvest means cutting spears for about 6 weeks in the spring, and you can cut most of the spears you need.  To harvest asparagus let the spears get 6-8 inches long and about the size of a pencil, then snap or cut off the spears at ground level or slightly below. After 6 weeks you should stop cutting and let the spears mature into leaves. 

Asparagus spears have the best flavor if cooked right after harvest.  If you need to store them place a little water in a pan, bowl or jar and stand the spears upright, tip up, in it.  You may have to tie them in a bundle.  Refrigerate. Asparagus can be canned, pickled, or frozen to preserve the harvest.

Asparagus is considered to be a healthy food, low in calories, rich in vitamins and minerals and fiber.  It is a diuretic however and when that urine leaves the body it has a very distinctive strong odor. This can happen 15 minutes after consuming the plant.  Interestingly while most people produce the smell after eating asparagus, some people can’t distinguish the odor.  In 2010 this was found to be caused by a genetic variation in olfactory genes.

Getting an early start with a cold frame

If you are anxious to get growing in the spring or you live in a short growing season area, you may want to take advantage of a cold frame.  My grandfather always started his garden in a cold frame, even tomato plants.  It’s an old art that modern gardeners should learn to use.

Cold frames are a box with a clear top and sometimes clear sides.  Snug in their protected world plants get the advantage of natural light without drafts and frost.  Cold frames are used to start seedlings or to harden off, (acclimate), plants that were started inside.  In the fall they can also be used to grow a crop of greens before severe weather sets in.

A gardener can simply construct a wooden box with a glass or Plexiglas lid or a lid covered with heavy clear plastic film.  Ideally the lid of the box should slope, the lower side facing south or to your sunniest area so plants receive the maximum light.  It’s good to place boxes on the south side of a building or solid fence to add a layer of protection.

The box should be at least eighteen inches deep on the lowest side to allow plants to grow.  The walls should be thick or well insulated.  Hay/straw bales can provide insulation and can even be the walls.  You can add a floor to your box or simply have them sit on the ground.  In previous times a scoop of fresh cow manure was often added to the bottom of the coldframe.  Plants were in pots or flats above it.  The manure decomposing added heat.

Purchased cold frames may be made of wood or plastic.  They often have hinged lids that are connected to a device that opens the lid when a certain temperature is reached.  They may also have heat cables on the floor and fans to circulate air. 

Set the cold frame up several days before you sow seeds or set plants in it.  It should receive full sun all day.  If you are not using heat cables on the bottom you may want to cover the ground with black plastic.

Some people add soil and plant directly in the box but plants transplant better if started in pots.  Square pots use less space.  Don’t start seeds or plants in a cold frame too early.  The weather should be ready for them to be planted in the garden when they outgrow the frame and night temperatures should not fall much below freezing.  Planting in a cold frame can usually begin six weeks before your last expected frost.

The most important thing to remember about coldframes is that even though it is in the upper thirties outside on a sunny day, it will be much warmer inside the box with the lid closed.  If temperatures get too hot (above 90 degrees) the plants will die just as quickly as if they got too cold.  On sunny days the lid must be raised at least a little.  A device that will raise the lid when the temperature gets to a certain point inside and lower it when it drops can be purchased in garden supply stores.

If you do not use a thermostatically controlled opener you must be diligent in raising and lowering the lid depending on weather conditions.  Check the forecast each day before you leave for work.  If extremely cold weather threatens the whole cold frame can be covered with a blanket.

Cold frames allow gardeners a way to start plants early without having sunny window sills or greenhouse.  If the top is left off for a few days before plants are removed you won’t have to worry about hardening off seedlings before planting.   It’s an old method that still has value for gardeners.

Oh those deer- how should we deal with them?

A reader wrote to me after my article 2 weeks ago where I mentioned deer  in the article I wrote about dealing with red squirrels and other pests.  She wanted to know if I considered it a good idea to neuter deer so they couldn’t reproduce instead of killing them.  There have been several news articles about deer being “spayed” in Ann Arbor, Michigan because of protests over killing them.  And I recently read an article from experts in biology/ecology detailing the damage
deer are doing to the environment.  So let’s talk about deer this week.

Here’s why I and most biologists don’t think neutering deer is a good plan.  When the goal is to lower deer populations because of damage they are doing and for public safety, neutering just doesn’t do the trick.  After neutering you still have the same number of deer, minus a few who die from the stress of the procedure.  And since all of the deer are rarely captured to be neutered, the population still grows.  You have not solved the problem.

The most common neutering procedure now is an ovariectomy where the ovaries are removed through a small incision.  The deer have to be darted with tranquilizers, followed to where they drop, carried to the surgery area, operated on by a vet, tagged, carried to a safe recovery area, and given an antidote to the anesthesia.  This all takes time, about 2 hours per doe, and several humans to accomplish.  It’s very expensive, about $1,200.00 per doe, (female deer) and takes a lot of weeks or months to get the job done.

If a deer has her ovaries removed after 150 days of pregnancy, which can happen in late winter, she will still have her fawn(s).  Also some studies found that a few supposedly neutered deer still had fawns in subsequent years.  In a few cases where an autopsy was performed on such does they found a remnant of ovary had remained or in one case an ovary appeared to have regenerated.  Tubal litigation has even more failures.

It seems like over time the deer population would decrease when does were neutered, but follow up studies prove that usually isn’t the case.  The few does that aren’t neutered give birth and unless the procedure is done every year the young does born from them will give birth the following year and so on. Deer also move in from outside the “treated” area.  In five years the deer population is usually higher than it was when the neutering was done, although it may grow more slowly than it did before.

As of now, castrating male deer (bucks) is considered useless, unless the deer are confined and every buck can be done.  One buck can breed a whole lot of does.  Bucks are attracted from miles away when females are in heat.  Also most chemical birth control methods have failed to control deer populations and are impractical to administer.  An injected contraceptive for does is being trialed.  It still involves capturing and sedating deer and doesn’t seem to be quite as effective as removing ovaries.

The best way to cut down a deer population is by removing deer.  Since there are very few places that want deer relocated to them and the stress and handling causes large mortality rates in instances where it is tried, deer generally aren’t captured and relocated.  So hunting, either with paid sharpshooters or by volunteers is the preferred method of cutting deer populations.  The hunting should focus on does, although bucks can also be removed.

This seems cruel to a lot of people and people worry about safety when guns are used in populated areas.  The safety issue can be addressed by using archery hunters, or by capturing deer in traps and then shooting them.  Paid professionals also are recommended.  Usually they shoot from overhead stands so the bullet trajectory is downward.  They are also more likely to get a clean kill shot than volunteers.  Paid professionals generally cost less than paying for neutering.

Deer can provide valuable protein to poor populations and deer meat is probably healthier for all of us than factory farmed meat.  When deer are removed by shooting them the meat should be processed and given to soup kitchens, food distribution programs, animal shelters or even zoos. 

The cruelty issue might be lessened if people started thinking less about deer as cute bambi and more like large, long legged rats, with serious impacts on the environment and human health and safety.  And deer overpopulation affects the lives of numerous other, less adorable but still important species. Let’s talk about that.

First rid yourself of the idea that deer are to be pitied because we moved into their territory and now they are forced to share our backyards with us.  There are at least 3 times as many deer here now, some sources say up to 5 times as many, as there were before European colonization.  In fact it’s only in the last 100 years or so that deer populations have bulged out of control.  And it’s because living with us is much, much better for deer than living without us.

When I was young we went camping “up north” and drove along dirt roads in the evening to get a glimpse, we hoped, of deer.  As much as I roamed the wilder spots of my neighborhood as a child, (which included the railroad right of ways, abandoned farms at the edge of the city and city parks), I never saw deer. Then in my 20’s I occasionally saw deer at the edge of the city when I drove to work. By the time I left the city in my early 40’s deer were common sights in the city.  Everyone had a deer story- many about deer damaging their gardens or hitting a deer with their car.

Almost every city or suburbs in the United States now has a deer population, including Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Cleveland and many, many more. On many college campuses, business grounds, public parks and nature areas deer have become a major problem.  And by the way, the deer just aren’t a problem here in the USA.  Canada, England and many other European countries also have major deer problems.

Why deer populations have zoomed

People provide the perfect environment for deer, especially suburb environments.  There are woodsy pockets for hiding and lots of edge habitat for grazing, which is our lawns and gardens.  When the deer eat all the tulips and roses and arborvitaes we plant new ones for them.  We even put out purchased food for them. And we discourage natural predators and don’t allow hunting of the bambi’s both because of safety concerns and misguided concern for them.

Deer are certainly not endangered species and over the centuries they have adapted to living close to man very well.  In heavily deer populated areas they may graze in plain sight during the day and seem uninterested or concerned about human presence.  And as videos shown on social media can attest, they even give birth in people’s back yards.  We also see videos where deer have entered homes and stores, sometimes by crashing through windows.

Why deer need to be controlled

In my state of Michigan there were 47,007 car-deer collisions reported in 2015, (the incidence of unreported collisions is probably close to the same figure) and 11 human deaths, plus 57 severe injuries and 130 million dollars of property damage.  That damage figure is from collisions to vehicles only.

It’s estimated that car-deer collisions cause more than 200 human deaths across the US each year and 4 billion dollars’ worth of property damage from collisions.  Almost every state in the country has a problem with car-deer collisions. West Virginia, Montana, Pennsylvania, Iowa and South Dakota are the top 5 states for deer – car collisions.

Deer don’t just collide with cars either.  Many airports have problems with deer on the runways and numerous collisions have occurred resulting in billions of dollars in damage.  One ruined jet alone costs millions of dollars.

Deer can cause disease in humans by carrying ticks into our environments.  Tick carried diseases include Lyme disease and Anaplasmosis (Anaplasma phagocytophilum), Ehrlichiosis (E. chaffeensis and E. ewingii), Babesiosis (Babesia microti), and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (Rickettsia rickettsii). The blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), commonly known as a "deer tick” is the most common tick deer carry, but they also host other tick species. Having deer on your property means having ticks at some point or another.

Deer also carry Bovine tuberculosis and Chronic Wasting disease, diseases which can decimate livestock farms and that are occasionally passed to humans.  Deer also carry rabies, which can be passed to pets, livestock or humans.

Agricultural damage by deer eating crops from grain to vegetables and fruit causes millions of dollars’ worth of damage every year.  States in the northeast and Midwest have the most damage but every state records some crop damage.  And the damage deer cause to commercial and residential landscaping, public parks, gardens and arboretums is well known.

Environmental damage by deer is a serious concern

But the most serious damage deer do is to the environment.  Deer destroy many endangered plants and contribute to the decline of other species of animals. Many biologists and environmentalists believe that deer have contributed as much, if not more, to the loss of species and degradation of ecosystems as climate change or pollution.  

When the deer population is too high for the environment deer destroy the plants that are considered understory plants and plants that are succession species- trees and shrubs that grow slowly in the shade of the first forest species and that will eventually replace them.  Meadow and edge species are also grazed to extinction.  Even wetlands are raided by deer. 

Some wild species that are greatly affected by deer browsing in my area are trilliums, trout lilies, ginseng, gentians, maples, blueberries, dogwood, white pine and cedar.  In a study done in 1998-1999 at Kensington-Metropark systems in Michigan to evaluate deer damage to the park system after unusually high deer populations for several years, researchers found that 69 species of plants had vanished from the park that had been recorded there previously.

At many parks experimental fencing of forested areas can show the impact of deer.  Inside the fence saplings, shrubs, ferns and wildflowers are abundant.  Outside the fence the ground area is nearly bare, covered by briars or invasive plants not favored by deer.  Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden, Michigan has such a demonstration area.  Many other parks also have them.

With the loss of understory and edge species of plants there is also the loss of songbirds that nest and feed on them.  Reptile, amphibian and insect species that utilize the understory and edge environments disappear.  Deer eat most of the mast- nuts and acorns- produced in the environment which prevents regeneration of tree species and also robs other animals of food, so small mammals and their predators also leave. So diversity, which is vital to any ecological system, disappears when there are too many deer.

Deer often help invasive species like garlic mustard and barberry gain an advantage in an environment.  Often new species aren’t immediately accepted as food or they already have some advantage by being poisonous or prickly.  So the deer eat the native species and leave the invasive ones to spread over the area.

In their never ending quest for food deer also remove vegetation around streams and rivers, and trample banks, leading to erosion and the polluting and silting of water.  This causes the loss of aquatic species.

Deer resistant plants for gardens

Be aware that when deer are starving they will eat anything.  It also seems that in some areas deer eat certain types of plants and in others they don’t eat those plants.  But below is a list of plants deer generally leave alone.

Alliums, astilbe, barberries, barrenwort, bee balm, birch, blanket flower, bleeding heart, buckeyes, Catmint (Nepeta), caryopteris, Chives, daffodils, Dutch iris, cinquefoil, columbine, dead nettle, false indigo, ferns, forsythia, fritillaries, garlic, globe thistle, grape hyacinths, hellebore, hollies (evergreen ones), hollyhock, honey locust, hyacinths, Lavender, lungwort, junipers, lilacs, lupine, meadowsweet, mints, monkshood, mugwort, onions, Oregano, ornamental grasses, peony, primrose, purple coneflower, Rosemary Russian sage, Siberian bugloss, speedwell, spruce, squill, sunflower, and yarrow.  Some spireas, and some viburnums are resistant as are some older roses with very prickly stems such as Harrisons Yellow. 

Deer consider tulips, hosta, tea roses, blueberries, euonymus and arborvitaes (cedar) as candy.  Deer will also eat yews, although they are poisonous to other animals.

Deer deterrents

There are some chemical deer repellents on the market and some of them have been found to be fairly effective.  However they may also be unattractive or unpleasant in ornamental gardens and can’t be applied to food plants.  Things like Irish Spring soap, human hair, and dryer sheets have only limited success in keeping deer away.  Peeing on the garden or using animal pee to mark the garden is also basically useless.

A fence is the best deer deterrent.  It needs to be high (5-8 feet) and strong and preferably reinforced with electric wire. A large dog patrolling inside is also a good defense.  Deer netting can be used in some places.  It’s lightweight and black netting can almost disappear from view at a few feet away.  It too, is best when used with electric wire.  A single strand of electric wire at the top of the fence is usually enough, if fences are 4 feet or more high.

Once deer are trained to electric fence it’s quite effective.  Even a few strands of electric fence can provide good protection.  One wire should be about 5 feet from the ground, one at about 3 feet and one a foot above the ground.  A timer can be put on electric fence so that it’s only on at dusk, overnight and early am, the times when deer are most likely to be feeding.

To train deer for electric fence cut many strips of aluminum foil about 6 inches long and grab a jar of peanut butter.  Turn off the power to the fence.  Fold strips of foil over the electric wire every 3-4 feet and smear the bottom with peanut butter. Turn on the fence.  Deer like peanut butter and when they lick it, they’ll get a shock and one shock is normally enough to make them afraid of the wire.  As anyone knows who has been shocked by an electric wire the avoidance factor lasts a long time.

Most people don’t want to eliminate all deer, we just want to control the population so that deer don’t damage property and lives and can exist in harmony with other species.  Because deer are considered to be graceful and pretty doesn’t mean that they should take preference in survival over other species, both of plants and less appealing animals.  Deer populations are our responsibility to control, since we are the species that has allowed them to become so numerous.


Caramel Lava Cake

The chocolate lava cake that many of you know is wonderfully rich and very dark, especially if you use 100 % cacao cocoa powder as I do.  My husband doesn’t like dark chocolate so I decided to revise the lava cake recipe with his favorite flavor, caramel.  It turned out wonderful – maybe better than the chocolate lava cake - so I decided to share the recipe.

This recipe is easy to make and the scrumptious creamy caramel sauce will make your tongue sing.  (Next time I try it I may add thinly sliced apples to the batter.)  This is not a recipe for the calorie conscious. 

1 cup flour
¾ cup white sugar
2 tablespoons of butter, melted
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup packed brown sugar
1- 3.4 oz. instant caramel pudding mix  (Note: if you can’t find caramel pudding mix use butterscotch or vanilla pudding mix- the taste will be a bit different but still good.)
2 ½ cups half and half milk or whole milk


Preheat oven to 350 degrees

In an ungreased 8 x 8 pan place the flour, salt, baking powder, and white sugar, stir to mix ingredients.

Add the melted butter, vanilla and ¾ cup of the half and half milk.  Blend together well.  You should have a thick batter.  If needed, you can add a little bit more of the milk. Smooth the batter out evenly in the pan. 

Sprinkle the brown sugar evenly over the batter.

Sprinkle the pudding mix over the brown sugar and batter evenly.

Heat the rest of the milk in a small pan until it is steaming, don’t boil it. Stir to prevent scorching.   (I use a bowl and put the milk in the microwave).

Pour the steaming milk over the batter in the pan slowly.  DO NOT STIR.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes.  It is done when the top is partially cake like and lightly browned, and the sides look firm or cake like.  The center part of the cake remains sauce-like and soft. 

Let the cake sit 5 minutes or so to cool before serving.  This thickens the caramel sauce. 

You won’t need ice cream or frosting with this cake.  Just scoop it out and enjoy.  It will make 4 large servings.

This week’s garden question:  When do I start seeds indoors for garden transplants?
Asked by Donna from Indiana

Note: feel free to ask me a garden question by emailing me at kimwillis151@gmail.co  I’ll try to answer some here each week. It helps to give me your state and growing zone.  Only your first name and state will be in the newsletter.

I am going to assume you mean seeds for vegetable gardens or annual  flowers.  There’s a long involved answer depending on what seeds you want to start and the short answer I’ll give here.  Most garden seeds need to be planted 6-10 weeks before your last frost date or before that type of pant can be planted in the garden.  (Look at the seed packet or in a catalog description to see what’s recommended.)

For example if your average last frost date is May 1, and you wanted to plant tomatoes I’d start them about March 1.  If you have a heated greenhouse and want larger transplants you could start February 1.  Don’t start seeds too early; (it’s a top beginner mistake), if you don’t have a heated greenhouse.  Grow lights help, but the longer plants are in small pots inside the house the less healthy they become.  In heated greenhouses and in appropriate sized pots plants can be started earlier and grown inside longer.

Tomatoes need to be transplanted outside after the last frost.  But if you wanted to start pansies from seed, for planting outside and ready to bloom  up to a month before the last frost, you should start them in January, if your outside target date is sometime in April.

There are some plants that take a long time to reach blooming size and which you want to be blooming when they go outside.  Your seed packet can help guide you but impatiens, begonias and petunias are some I can think of off the top of my head.  You’ll want to start them earlier because they are slow growing.  But if you don’t have a greenhouse it can be tricky to grow them inside the house for so long.

Another thing worth mentioning is that some plants don’t like being transplanted and they should be planted closer to your expected time to plant them outside.  Melons, squash, and cucumbers for example, should only be small seedlings, with 2 or 3 sets of true leaves when transplanted. This lessens transplant shock. Therefore you would want to start them about a month before you want to plant them outside.

And finally, some plants don’t do well started inside at all.  Most root vegetables should be started where they are going to grow.  Corn, peas and beans could be started inside a few weeks before planting in the garden, but for most garden zones you’ll find planting the seeds directly in the ground will give you similar results with less trouble.

For more information about starting seeds see the page listed to the right of the blog called Seeds.

Stay warm and dry, only 41 days to spring!

Kim Willis
 “He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero

© Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.

And So On….
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