Tuesday, March 28, 2017

March 28, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Hi Gardeners

Hibiscus 'Kona'
Today in Michigan its overcast and in the low 50’s, but that’s not bad considering the weather some  of you are having, all those terrible spring storms going on across the country.  All the pretty flowers ruined by hail and wind, it’s sad.  We have had some good soaking rains in the last few days and mild thunderstorms but nothing severe.

My crocus and winter aconite are blooming and today on my walk with Gizzy I noticed that the Purple Deadnettle is starting to bloom.  (It’s a weed in lawns.) 
Hensbit is a very similar plant and it too blooms early.  Along with the crocus, winter aconite and soon dandelions, these plants provide the earliest food for the bees.  Don’t pull them all, leave some for the bees.

The robins and wrens are back here now and along with the spring peepers and tree frogs are singing a mighty chorus.  I do love to hear the little wrens sing early in the spring.  There’s one that nests in a little bird house in the front yard each year. Later on I’ll probably be annoyed with him as he repeats the same few notes over and over all day long. 

The starlings that have nested in the same place for the last 5 years are back, or some of their kids are taking over the spot.  They are busy with nest building in the soffit of the barn, where a piece of shingle flops down and protects their hole.  The cats can get on the barn roof and get close, but they are not able to reach into the nest.  They must pick off some of the fledglings, although I see them feeding some of their babies at the suet feeder each year.

I know some people dislike starlings but I don’t.  They eat thousands of insects every year from the lawn and garden.  Unlike cowbirds they don’t lay their eggs in other bird’s nests and are very good parents.  Starlings are highly intelligent and can be taught to talk.  They are cheerful birds with a not unpleasant little song and are actually pretty when seen up close.  People keep them for pets and I have been tempted every year to raid their nest for a baby to hand raise.   

Starlings can be annoying to some people in the late summer and fall when they tend to congregate in large flocks and make a lot of noise.  They do eat grain when they can.  They also like fruit, but don’t bother that as much as some other birds like robins.  I don’t think there are as many of them as there used to be, but I haven’t checked that statistic.  Anyway, I am fond of the one pair that nests here each year.

I’ll be putting the hummingbird feeders back up this weekend. The hummers may not be back for a week or two longer but the bees enjoy the nectar. The jelly feeder for the orioles will also go up soon.  How time flies, it seems like I was just draining the feeders and putting them away.

Inside the house I have a beautiful double flowered pink hibiscus in bloom along with my red hibiscus. The amaryllis is still blooming and the fuchsia’s. The Christmas cacti have been blooming since December on and off.  I don’t know if it’s the grow lights or what but I have never had them stay in bloom so long. On the porch the geraniums are starting to step up their bloom and I see buds forming on the miniature rose I bring inside each winter.  

Since this weekend starts the beginning of April, I’ll be starting lots of seeds.  I have quite a few packets here to get growing.  Every time I pass the seed rack at the store I find something new to buy.  I am pleased to have found some “Pumpkins on a Stick”.  They are actually an eggplant that has tiny fruits on long purple stalks. The fruits turn bright orange when ripe and resemble little pumpkins.  You can dry the fruits for cute fall decorations.

Purple deadnettle

Recycling for seed starting

Around the beginning of the year I turn into a hoarder.  (Well I’m kind of a hoarder all year round but it peaks in spring.)  Every cardboard tube, every suitable sized cardboard container, every deli and bakery package, every plastic tray, every clean plastic bag, gets tucked away in a cupboard. I’ll also be rummaging through my reserve of plastic pots and flats saved from last year’s plant purchases.  I’ll use these things in early April as I start the seeds for the garden.  Why spend money on peat pots, plastic flats and pots if you can spend it on seeds instead?

Recycling for frugal seed starters

I use the cardboard tubes from paper towels, toilet paper and the like by cutting them into several lengths, depending on what seeds I am starting.  These are stood in a plastic tray and filled with seed starting soil.  I cut smaller cardboard boxes down into “pot” size and use the remaining thin cardboard to make paper pots by cutting and folding.  See how to do this by clicking on the Seeds page on the right of the blog and scrolling down to How to Make Paper Pots.

Paper and cardboard pots are biodegradable.  You can plant them right in the ground. They’ll get soggy through the growing period but I find they hold together long enough to get the seedlings planted outside.  Use thin cardboard, heavy card stock paper or several layers of thinner paper.  You need a sturdy tray under them to make them easy to move and keep soil from falling out the bottoms.  In a pinch a plastic cup, the plastic lid from a jar, or a plastic water bottle cut in half, can become a tray.

Plastic tubs like margarine dishes, cottage cheese cartons, milk cartons cut in half, even those yogurt containers, can be washed in hot soapy water, have drainage holes melted in the bottom with a hot fork and used for planting.  If you work in an office that goes through a lot of Styrofoam coffee cups you can retrieve them from the trash, wash them in hot soapy water, poke a hole in the bottom and use those for seed starting.  (Yeah, people might think you’re strange, but it’s for starting new plants, so who cares.)

Until the seedlings have a couple sets of leaves I usually keep the containers I start them in covered by or inserted in plastic bags.  Some deli/bakery containers may have their own clear plastic tops.  These make nice mini-greenhouses. (By the way these tops make excellent saucers for pots too.)  When you recycle plastic bags for seed starting wash them out with hot soapy water before using.  I keep my eye out for bargain deals on plastic bags too, throughout the year.

Recycled items should be washed, with the exception of paper and cardboard.  Cardboard and paper should be used with certain precautions. Those with food residue shouldn’t be used to avoid mold problems.  A rolled oats container for example, can be shaken out well and generally used without a problem.  But a cardboard pizza box with grease stains and melted cheese should be discarded.  

While I save plastic flats, pots and some cell packs when I buy plants I usually don’t use the flats for seed starting because I need flexibility in regards to size, so I can fit things on window sills, or under lights until it’s time to move them outside to my improvised, unheated green house. If you recycle things plants have grown in previously wash them with hot soapy water before use.

One thing you should not re-cycle is seed starting soil.  Use new, clean seed starting medium or sterile soil for each batch of plants.  Other things not to recycle include egg shells, they don’t decompose quick enough and aren’t big enough for seedling growth, ice cream cones- they dissolve into a sticky mess and attract animals, and anything that held pesticides or other toxic products.

Making paper pots

Making human organs from spinach

We owe our lives to plants.  Without plants animals probably wouldn’t exist.  And now plants are once again proving to be very useful in saving our lives.  We know how to transplant a healthy organ like a heart into someone who needs a new one.  But there are never enough healthy organs for transplanting and many people die each year waiting for one. 

We can now clone heart tissue cells and using 3D printers we can make blocks of heart tissue.  But there is a problem keeping this tissue alive.  Normal heart tissue is dense and is filled with tiny blood vessels which oxygenate and “feed” it.  So far 3D printing can’t produce those tiny vessels.

Researchers have come up with a novel way to keep heart tissue alive though, using a spinach leaf.  First they “wash” away most of the leaf’s cellular tissue with a detergent solution.  This leaves behind a framework of plant vascular structure, composed of cellulose.  Cellulose is readily accepted by the human body.  On this leaf skeleton the researchers can layer human heart cells, using the plants vessels to transport oxygen and nutrients to the tissue.

Researchers used micro beads the size of human red blood cells to test whether they would pass through the plant vessels and they do quite well.  They seed the walls of the plant vessels with cells that line human blood vessels and grow similar tissue along the cellulose structure.  They have been able to produce beating heart tissue on the framework of a spinach leaf.  This opens up a whole realm of possibilities.

The research now extends to other plants and other human organs or tissues they can help produce.  For example the hollow stems of Jewelweed are being tested to make arterial grafts.  One day we may be able to clone your organ cells into a new, healthy organ for you, with little chance of your body rejecting it thanks to the help of plants.  Isn’t science- and plants wonderful?

To read more about this;
Crossing kingdoms: Using decellularized plants as perfusable tissue engineering scaffolds. Biomaterials, 2017; 125: 13 DOI: 10.1016/j.biomaterials.2017.02.011
ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 22 March 2017. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170322152753.htm

Preventing Oak wilt, a deadly tree disease

As gardeners get outside and begin spring clean-up it’s important to remember not to do any pruning on oak trees at this time.  Across the Eastern US oaks are dying from Oak Wilt, (Ceratocystis fagacearum), a fungal disease.  This deadly disease is easily transmitted between oaks in spring and early summer through pruning or storm damage. Oak Wilt disease is in most eastern states and west to Texas. There is the potential for the disease to spread further west since experiments have shown all species of oaks are susceptible.  Oak Wilt only infects oak trees.

There is some debate whether Oak Wilt is a native disease or an invasive disease.  It was first identified here in 1944, with most experts believing it was present at least 20-30 years before this.  However no one has found the disease in oaks in another country.  It may be that the disease mutated from a less deadly and unnoticed fungal disease of oaks right here in the US.

Oak Wilt on Pin Oak
Photo credit Pat A Mistretta US Forest Service

Oak wilt is carried from tree to tree by tiny beetles called Picnic Beetles or Oak Bark Beetles.  They are attracted to fresh sap, which flows from wounds caused by pruning or storm damage and also to a smell given off by fungal mats under the bark of infected dead trees. The beetles often go between healthy damaged trees and infected dead trees with fungal mats, which spreads the disease. The time the beetles are most active and the time fungal mats are most likely coincides, and that is late spring through mid-summer.

Oak Wilt disease is also passed from tree to tree by root contact when oak trees are close together.  Many oaks of the same species growing close together will have roots grafted together and the fungal disease easily passes from tree to tree.  Trees as far as 100 feet apart may be connected by the roots.  Different species of oaks, such as a pin oak and a bur oak are much less likely to have connected roots.

Oak Wilt is a deadly disease for Oaks.  Red Oak species die quickly, usually in one season, even large, century old trees.  White Oak species also get the disease but they may last several years before dying.  (White Oak species include; white oak, Swamp oak, Bur oak, Chinkapin, and have rounded leaf tips, red oak species include; Northern Red oak, Black Oak, Scarlet Oak, Pin Oak, and have pointed leaf tips.) Live oaks, which have oval blade shaped leaves, also get the disease.

Symptoms of Oak wilt disease are different between white and red oaks.  In red oaks the trees begin wilting from the top down very quickly after infection, usually all branches are affected.  Leaves turn a bronzy brown at the tips but may remain green in a small area at the leaf base.  Red oak species that are infected quickly shed their leaves.  If you inspect a branch where the leaves have fallen off you may find a gray-black stain just under the branch bark.

In white oak species the disease usually begins in one or two branches at the top of the tree, and slowly progresses.  Some trees will last 2-3 years, with more of the tree dying each year.  The leaves from infected branches have a similar appearance as those of red oaks.
After the oak tree dies, in cool wet weather fungal pads can form on the trunk just under the bark.  As they grow the bark splits and may fall off.  This allows insects to find the fungal pad, which puts out an attractant scent.  If you remove the bark over the raised areas you will see a blackened raised area with a gray white coating, which are fruiting fungi bodies.

What to do

There are other diseases that infect oaks that have similar symptoms so you may want to have an expert diagnose your ailing tree before removing it or treating other oaks.  Try contacting your county Extension office or a reputable tree care company.

Once an oak gets Oak Wilt disease it can’t be cured.  You can try and prevent the disease from infecting other nearby oaks in several ways.  There are chemical treatments that will keep a tree from getting the disease but they are expensive and should be done by an experienced person.  They need to be repeated every 2 years.  This is usually done for one or two special trees in the landscape.  They should be started as soon as one has a tree in the landscape or neighborhood diagnosed with Oak Wilt.

If one tree in an area is infected and other similar species are nearby trenching needs to be done to break connection between the root systems.  The trench needs to be 5 feet deep, although it only needs to be a couple inches wide.  It’s usually done at the dripline of the infected/dead tree, and its good practice to then put trenches between remaining healthy oaks too.   There are machines called vibration trenchers which do a good job but the equipment must be able to get to the trees and one usually needs to hire someone to do it. If an infected oak isn’t completely dead it shouldn’t be removed before trenching is done between trees as the fungus will tend to migrate quickly to healthy trees when it’s cut.

Trenching can be disruptive to a home landscape and may involve getting neighbors to cooperate.  It is sometimes impossible to cut the contact between roots that may occur beneath cement or in densely wooded areas.  Treating healthy trees is then the only option.  All trees may not have grafted roots together so there is some hope.

Between April and July you should never prune oak trees, even if all seem healthy in an area. Since rare infections can happen after July I would hold off on any pruning that you can until the tree is dormant in late fall.  If a tree must be pruned for some reason or is damaged in a storm use tree paint on the cut surface or lacking that use a latex paint.  Most tree wounds do not need pruning paint but oaks are an exception unless dormant.  If you can’t reach storm damaged areas and want to make sure the tree stays healthy you may want to get chemical preventatives started immediately.

Once a tree is dead from Oak Wilt it should be immediately cut down.  The stump should be painted with latex paint or tree paint if it’s not pulled from the ground.  Chip up as much of the removed oak as possible, the chips are fine to use in the landscape.  Larger pieces of trunk should be debarked, cut, split and dried thoroughly.  Do not leave large pieces of trunk lying around, these may develop fungal pads and attract insects which spread the disease.  Don’t move oak firewood off the property.  It’s fine to burn it.  

Oaks could be turned into lumber and kiln dried if there is a mill nearby but this must be done right after cutting the tree down and one should check with your local state and local authorities to see if there are any regulations preventing this.

Prevention is best when it comes to Oak Wilt disease.  Don’t prune oak trees when trees aren’t dormant.  Don’t bring oak wood from other places to your property.  Be a good citizen and don’t take your oak wood off your property.  Watch for symptoms of Oak Wilt and protect nearby oak trees immediately.

Here’s a pamphlet you can read on Oak Wilt from the USDA

Growing beets

My grandfather always grew beets and I can remember the variety, 'Detroit Dark Red'. That variety is still available and still good.  Beets are grown for their tasty greens and tasty roots.  They are an early crop that can be planted when it’s still cool and harvested in as early as 6-8 weeks. Beets are closely related to chard.

Most beet roots are red but there are yellow and white rooted varieties too. Many beet roots are rounded ball shapes, but others have flattened spheres or even cylindrical roots like carrots.  Each root has several broad oval leaves on top.  The leaves may have red stems and streaks, especially in red rooted varieties. There are varieties with leaves that are completely red when young.  Young leaves are excellent in salads and some people grow beets just for the leaves.

'Detroit Dark Red' is still a good beet.  Other good red beets are 'Early Wonder Tall Top', 'Lutz Green Leaf', 'Red Ace', and 'Merlin'.  Gold root beets include 'Bolder' and 'Touchstone'.  White root beets include 'Avalanche' and 'Albino'.  Long tapered beet roots include 'Cylindra', a favorite for canning and 'McGregor’s Favorite'. 'Chiogga' is a beet with alternating red and white bands when cut.  'Bulls Blood' is often used for greens production.


Beets are almost always grown from seed directly planted in the ground.  The wrinkly looking things that come from the seed packet are actually seed pods containing several seeds.  You can buy pelleted beet seeds which make them easier to handle and space.

Plant your beets in a sunny place, 4 weeks before the last expected frost, or when the soil temperature has reached 45 degrees. They aren’t fussy about soil but of course most root vegetables do best in loose, loamy soil. Soil pH should be 6-7.  Beets are considered moderate in fertilizer needs.  If your soil is low in fertility work in some general purpose vegetable fertilizer before planting. Prepare soil by loosening it about 8 inches deep and removing large rocks.

Make a trench about a ½ inch deep, place seeds along it an inch apart, and cover the row with soil.  Rows should be 15-18 inches apart. Beets need consistent moisture to germinate so if it is dry keep the rows sprinkled.  Expect seeds to germinate in 5-14 days depending on weather.  Since each “seed” you planted is actually a pod you’ll probably get several plants at each planting location. Once they have 2-3 leaves thin beets to one per 3 inches.  Those thinned beets are good in salad.  Some people transplant the tiny thinned seedlings but that’s a lot of work.

Problems beets might have are flea beetles, leaf miners and leaf hoppers.  These don’t harm the roots but might make the leaves less appealing.  You can cover the beets with light weight spun row cover if you typically have problems with these insects. 

Beets sometimes get scabby looking areas on the roots.  These are brown rough areas.  It’s the same disease that affects potatoes.  Scab is more likely in high pH soil and in soils that a lot of manure has been put on.  Scab looks bad but it can simply be peeled/cut off and the beets are fine to eat.

Harvest and storage

You can harvest beets anytime they are big enough for your taste.  However it’s best not to let beets get too large as they tend to become woody and tough when large.  If left too long beets will send up a flower stalk and put their energy into producing seeds.  Most beet harvest should be done by mid-summer.

If you want both beet greens and beet roots go easy on pulling the leaves.  Only harvest one or two leaves per plant.  You may want to plant a variety that puts more energy into leaves and only has a small root.

To store beets for a short time wash them, trim off the tops and store in the refrigerator.  Most people can excess beets, although they can be cooked and frozen, the texture wouldn’t be great. You could freeze beets turned into juice.  Red beets have juice that can stain so remember that when handling them.  The juice can be used as a dye.

Beets are high in potassium, magnesium and Vitamin C.  They also provide some iron and Vitamin B6. They are also high in fiber.  As they are easy to grow and can provide two different crops, leaves and roots, they are an excellent addition to the food garden.


In most of the temperate areas of the world, the golden flowers of forsythia signify that spring is here. This cheerful, yellow spring flowering shrub is native to Europe and Eastern Asia but it’s hardy to zone 4 and is easy to grow. Forsythia is used in foundation plantings, as specimen plants, in perennial borders and as hedges. The smaller varieties blend well in larger perennial beds.  Forsythia blooms are edible and are sometimes used in spring salads. 
Credit Wikipedia

Forsythia is one of those rare plants that are most often referred to by the Latin name, (Forsythia sp.).  There are many species of Forsythia, but two species Forsythia suspensa and F. viridissima and their hybrids account for most garden specimens.  Many cultivars are on the markets which have been developed from sports or mutations.

The yellow, four petal flowers of forsythia open before the plant leafs out in the spring. Flowers turn into a long, two chambered seed capsule with a short beak, maturing in late summer.  Forsythia has narrow, dark green leaves with a lighter underside, and a serrated edge.  There are also variegated and golden leaved varieties. 

In most areas forsythia is a robust grower and spreads rapidly by suckering.  Forsythia looks best when allowed to develop its natural, gently arching shape, but can be pruned into a hedge.

Some varieties

Lynwood Gold’ and ‘Spectabilis’ are two of the oldest varieties of forsythia.  Both are large shrubs, up to 6 foot tall, with arching stems of golden flowers.  ‘Karl Sax’ has large, deep golden flowers with a bushier, more horizontal growth habit.   ‘Northern Sun’ is a variety developed in Canada whose buds are hardy to zone 4 or less. For smaller, more compact forsythias try ‘Golden Peep’, which grows to about 3’ and has a rounded growth habit, or ‘Goldilocks’ only about 30 inches high with blooms that cover the stems totally.  ‘Gold Tide’ has light lemon yellow flowers and is a groundcover about 2 ’ high.   Another dwarf variety is ‘Citrus Swizzle’, which is not only small, 1’ high by 3’ wide, but has leaves edged in yellow as well as golden flowers.  ‘Fiesta’ is a bit larger, with leaves variegated with deep yellow.  ‘Goldleaf’ has golden flowers and leaves. ‘Golden Times’ is a true gem.   It has golden yellow flowers on a moderately sized plant, but it also has leaves that open in shades of red and pink which mature to purple and in fall change to a glowing purple-pink.

Planting and caring for forsythia

Forsythia is purchased as a plant.  It transplants best in the spring but can also be planted in the fall   Forsythia will grow in any garden soil from zone 4-8 as long as it is well drained.   In zone 4 forsythia buds are sometimes killed by winter cold, but the plant will not be harmed.  For the best flowers, forsythia should be planted in full sun, but it will tolerate part shade. The plant grows quickly and has few pests and diseases. 

Deer love forsythia, and if the branch ends are nibbled in the winter you will not have flowers.  You may want to protect your plants with netting or fencing.  Forsythia seldom needs to be fertilized and only needs to be watered during periods of extreme drought.

If pruning is needed, prune forsythia immediately after flowering.  Thin out some of the older growth and trim the plant back to the size you prefer. If the plant is overgrown and you need to drastically reduce the size, you can prune it at any time quite severely and the plant will generally recover.  However, you will lose much of the flowers for the next year.  Shearing forsythia as a hedge will also remove some of next year’s flowers as hedges need to be trimmed several times.  Most varieties set flower buds far down the stems so some flowers may remain even when the plant is sheared.

Forsythia roots easily from cuttings taken in early spring just after flowering.   Branches brought into the house as floral arrangements sometimes even root in the water. Forsythia can also be propagated by burying a lower branch in soil and weighing it down, leaving the tip of the branch exposed.   After a few months the plant should have developed roots along the buried portion, and can be severed from the parent plant and transplanted.  Suckers that come up around the plant can also be dug up and transplanted.

Forsythia stems can be forced for early spring blooms inside.   Just choose branches that have lots of plump flower buds and bring them inside and place in water.  You should have flowers in just a short time.

Herbal uses of forsythia

Forsythia has been used in Chinese medicine and folk medicine for a long time. Traditional uses include treatments for bronchitis, sore throat, fever, inflammation, skin infections, acne, and gonorrhea. It is the seed capsule or fruit that is most often used for medicine, collected while green usually.  The seeds can be pressed to make oil.  Sometimes the seeds are steeped into a tea.  A decoction of the flowers is used to wash the face for acne and skin conditions.  As stated earlier the flowers are edible and are sometimes used in salads.

Modern medical studies found that forsythia has mild antibiotic/anti-inflammatory properties.  One herbal mixture with forsythia included has been used intravenously in some bronchial conditions with limited success. Forsythia has blood thinning properties and should not be used by persons taking other blood thinners.

Forsythia concoctions should not be used during pregnancy as forsythia is known to cause bleeding and uterine contractions.  Studies in mice indicate forsythia may cause chromosomal abnormalities.

Sour cream and craisin pie

If you don’t have much frozen fruit left in the refrigerator and are craving a pie this recipe may be just the thing.  This recipe is a slightly updated version of old fashioned raisin pie.  Instead of raisins I like to use dried cranberries, (craisins), or dried cherries if I can find them cheap enough. You can use raisins though, if that’s what you have in the house.

This recipe is a creamy, sweet treat that isn’t too hard to make.  It’s a great early spring dessert.  It needs to be chilled before serving so make it 4 or more hours before you intend to serve it.

Filling ingredients

16 oz. carton (2 cups) sour cream
1 ½ cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 cup craisins (dried cranberries)
3 tablespoons flour
You will also need one 9 inch pie crust pre-baked.


3 egg whites
½ teaspoon cream of tarter
¾ cup sugar


Put the filling ingredients in a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens and is beginning to bubble.  Remove from heat and keep warm.

Now for the meringue put the egg whites and cream of tartar in a large bowl and beat at high speed until soft peaks form.  Drizzle the sugar in by the tablespoon, beating at high speed, 3-4 minutes until stiff, glossy peaks form.

Place the warm filling in the baked pie crust.  Spread the meringue evenly over the filling.   Bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees until the meringue is lightly browned. 

Cool on the counter on a wire rack for an hour.  Then cover and chill for at least 3 hours before serving.  

Flowers don't worry about how they're going to bloom. They just open up and turn toward the light and that makes them beautiful. ~Jim Carrey

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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An interesting Plant Id page you can join on Facebook

Here’s a seed/plant sharing group you can join on Facebook

Newsletter/blog information

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, March 21, 2017

March 21, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Hi Gardeners

It’s so beautiful here today, a sunny spring day.  I remember as a grade school child going out to recess on a day like this, going to the far end of the playground and knowing one of my favorite routes to nature and freedom (the railroad tracks), was only a half block away.  I was always too chicken to sneak away but my whole day was spent longing for school to be over so I could be outside.

Yesterday spring began – hooray!  We have had some winter like weather in the last week so I hope nature respects the calendar and keeps spring in the forecast.  (Unfortunately it’s supposed to get cold again tomorrow, for a day or two.)  The birds are singing like crazy and yesterday and today I even heard frogs.  The turkey vultures are back so that’s a good sign too.

Inside I have a beautiful amaryllis in bloom and the hibiscus is blooming again too.  I picked my first lemon ever from my own tree.  It’s very small but it tastes very lemony.  One more little lemon is left.  Hopefully if I put the tree back outside for summer so its blooms can get pollinated I’ll get more lemons next year.

Outside the winter aconite and the early crocus are blooming.  Some snowdrops are still blooming. The black willow is blooming and buds are swelling on the red maple, redbud, forsythia and other things.  Lilacs are showing green leaf tips.  The honeysuckles that are already leafing out had some damage to the leaves from the cold last week but I am sure they will recover.

I made a summer bulb order last week.  I want to try some of the minor bulbs I haven’t tried before.  Most aren’t hardy here so they will be planted in pots to overwinter inside.  And I ordered some new dahlias of course.  I also ordered some unusual plants, ever hear of Omphaloides?

Yesterday was the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.  Equinox is supposed to mean that the days and nights are equal in length but that isn’t exactly true.  If you count twilight and dawn as day, there are about 13 hours of light, here in Michigan.  The sun is moving from its low, southern inclination to higher in the sky and to the north.  It’s half the distance it will travel upward in the sky at the spring equinox.  If you go outside today you can see exact east and west by looking at where the sun is positioned.  Like the ancient people maybe you can mark this spot, or find a landmark that lines up with it.

The ancient peoples were very aware of the equinoxes.  The Egyptian sphinx points directly to the sun at the spring equinox.  The equinox signifies renewal in the northern hemisphere, a time when everything is awaking from dormancy.  In ancient history the spring equinox symbolized the dividing line between the dark and light times of the year.  Almost every culture has a deity that is resurrected from the dead at this time of the year.  

The Christian celebration of Easter occurs on the first Sunday after the full moon after the equinox (although current historical dating would place Christ’s crucifixion as sometime in late April/early May.) This year Easter is quite late, April 16th.  The March full moon was the 12th, before the equinox and Aprils full moon is the 11th

Around the time of the equinox there is often interruption in services that are beamed off stationary satellites.  That’s because the orbit of these satellites means that the sun will block them from Earth at some point during the day.  As the sun moves higher in the sky this ceases, until the autumn equinox, when the sun is again in the right alignment. 
My tiny lemon

That smell, oh that smell

If you are of a certain age you may remember a song by Lynyrd Skynyrd called Oooh that smell.  When I step outside and smell the spring air, that earthy, sweet smell so associated with spring, that song plays in my mind. (Of course Lynyrd was not referring to the smell of soil.   If you want to listen  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4j7ggZqbiU)  It’s just a catchy song, someone needs to rewrite it for gardeners.

That smell of spring comes from the earth, the smell of actinobacteria in soil waking up and getting to work. The word “Petrichor” was coined by the Greeks and refers to the smell of rain falling on soil.  I think this word would also apply to the smell of soil in the spring, (mostly because I can’t find any other big word to use.)

Researchers say this smell of soil seems to invoke pleasant memories in humans; we breathe deep and savor it, especially when we haven’t smelled it in a while.  Actinobacteria called Streptomyces release an organic compound called geosmin into the soil. When moisture falls on dry soil or is percolated out of soil by the sun on bare soil in early spring, small bubbles form on the surface of the soil. These bubbles release gases into the air containing organic compounds, including that of geosmin, which are what we smell.

Crocus and spring soil

Different soils release slightly different smells. Most people don’t differentiate the smells but some people have a keen nose for soil and can determine different types of soil from their smell.  When plant growth has begun oils from plants contribute to the smell of soil too.  That’s why the smell of rain on soil later in summer is different from wet soil in spring.

Researchers have noted that smelling soil, getting down close to it and handling it, can relive depression and lift the spirits.  Our ancient souls recognize from which we came, a marriage of bacteria and earth.  The Latin word humus means soil and it’s no mistake that the word human is so close to it.  We come from the earth and will return to it.  Get outside and smell the soil.

Its wildfire season

If you are one of the gardeners that uses burning as a clean-up tool, if you burn off the old ornamental grasses, the ditch sides, the piles of branches and debris from winter storms and so on, be very careful.  It may not seem like it but spring weather and landscape conditions can make some areas ripe for fire.  Already there have been some devastating wildfires in the southwest.  While rural areas and small towns surrounding by natural areas are often hardest hit, suburban areas can also be damaged by grass and brush fires. 

Some conditions in the spring that make wildfires more likely include lots of dead grasses, leaves and scattered storm debris coupled with warm days with low humidity and possibly spring thunderstorms.  Even though the landscape is starting to green up there’s a lot of “leftovers” that haven’t broken down.  Windy conditions common in spring help spread fires once they begin.

If you are in a rural community you may be familiar with “red flag” conditions.  When a red flag is flown outside a municipal building, usually a fire department or town hall, burning is prohibited.  Many communities also have permanent rules against burning.

If you decide that you are going to use fire to do some clean up make sure you plan to be present the whole time the fire is burning.  Have some way to control flames that get out of hand.  A shovel, fire extinguisher, buckets of water or a hose, or in some cases large equipment like a tractor with a blade on the front should be nearby.  Don’t start a fire on a windy day and avoid warm, dry days with very low humidity.  If you do some burning make sure the fire is completely out before you leave the area. 

In rural areas you can be charged for a fire run even if your fire isn’t out of control.  If someone sees fire, is concerned and calls the fire department and they respond, you could get a large bill.  You may want to notify neighbors and the local fire department if you are going to be doing large scale burning. 

If you live in a fire prone area get your winter debris cleaned up and in a compost pile.  Wet that down if it’s been dry. Be on the alert for fires and summon help to get them out before they get out of control.

Cheerios seed give away

Going the rounds on line this week is a controversy over “wildflower” seeds being giving away by the manufacturers of Cheerios.  The mascot for the brand is a bee and they are using that to promote saving bees and hence the seed giveaway.  You would think –wow free seeds – how can that be bad?  But some people will complain about anything. (Before you get too excited General Mills has announced the seeds are all gone.)

The first complaint of course, was that some of the flowers in the mix, such as Forget-me nots, were invasive. The second common complaint was that the seed mix wasn’t tailored for each recipient’s distinct locality. The company that provided the seeds should know better they complained. 

Some people debated just how good the flowers in the mix were for bees, and whether we should promote non-native honey bee survival over native bees. Then there were those who criticized General Mills (Cheerios) because they use grain products that are GMO’s and sprayed with Monsanto products, so why are they “pretending” to be environmentally friendly?  Yep, all that controversy over free seeds.

The mix contained Chinese Forget-Me-Not, Siberian Wallflower, California Poppy, Orange Coneflower, China Purple Aster, Lance Leaved Coreopsis, Blue Flax, Baby Blue Eyes, Globe Gilia, Indian Blanket, Tidy–tips, Plains Coreopsis, Tall White Sweet Alyssum, Lavender Hyssop, Fleabane Daisy. New England Aster, Bergamot. As you can see some of these plants are native to North America, some are not.  They were chosen because they provide nectar or pollen or both for bees.  Packets contained 100 seeds; I have no idea what the percentages of each type of seed were.

Gardens are full of plants that aren’t native and bees don’t, for the most part, care about whether a plant is native or not.  The argument that the flowers from the seeds will not help native bees is tenuous at best. There are a few specialist bees, but it’s more important to some plants to have a certain native pollinator than for most bee species to have a certain plant.  Could the bees forsake the plants that need them for these “invaders”?  Possibly but more plants bees can feed on mean more bees so it probably equals out.

Bee on oregano

Will these plants attract non- native bees like honey bees which will out compete native bees?  Once again, invasive plants are rarely the cause of another native plant disappearing.  So if native “specialist” bees are disappearing it’s because conditions in the environment have changed.  Some species of both animals and plants adapt. And it doesn’t mean that if you don’t plant those seeds that native bees will stick around.  Bees of various types usually manage to co-exist quite well.  And if there are flowers that non-native species prefer over native ones, that leaves the native flowers for the specialist bees.

To the complaint that the seeds contained some non-native species I say so what?  These are tiny packages and if they get planted most people will plant them in a little tiny patch in their yard.  If you managed to score a packet of the seeds, plant them on your own property. Then don’t worry about them being invasive.  None of the listed plants are dangerous (but don’t eat them).  Some are annuals, so they won’t be back the second year unless they self-seed.  If you are really worried about them spreading cut the flowers off when they start to fade so they don’t make seed. 

The Forget-me-nots seem to be getting the brunt of the non-native plant hater’s complaints.  These have been grown in gardens for a long, long, time.  My grandmother had them, I’ve grown them.  They were often given as free seed packets in catalog orders.  There are actually two types of plants called Forget –me –nots, Myosotis sylvatica and Cynoglossum amabile, the seed probably in the mixBoth have small, usually blue flowers.  Myosotis is perennial or biannual, Cynoglossum is an annual with sticky seeds. Both attract bees.  Both are often listed as wildflowers.  Both are non-native plants.

These small plants, if they escape, may occupy space that a native plant once occupied, but that doesn’t mean they overpowered the native species.  More than likely the native plants which were once there are no longer there because the environment/habitat has changed.  A replacement plant that is pretty and feeds the bees seems to be a fair deal.

As far as the seeds not being selected for the region, come on, they’re free.  Most of the plants I see listed are very adaptable.  What isn’t adaptable probably won’t grow.  And once again – just because they aren’t native to the region doesn’t mean they don’t have value to the bees.

Many native wildflowers can be tricky to grow from seed, and may take years to bloom.  Many of these are expensive and scarce.  If you want them fine, but don’t expect them in a free packet of seed. I don’t think those who want to specialize in native regional plants regardless of their appeal to humans should criticize those who want something pretty that will also help the bees.  Each to their own.

The truth is that a great many of those tiny packets of seed won’t get planted at all and of those that do, most won’t be planted correctly and actually germinate and grow.  A small percentage of the 1.5 billion seeds that were given out will actually become plants and only a small fraction of those will become “invasive”.

By the way, to start packets of seed like this, packets of mixed wildflowers and so on, you can’t just sprinkle them on the ground.  You need to work up the soil, get weeds and grass out of it, plant the seeds in bare ground with loosened soil and keep them watered until they are up and growing well.

The idea that General Mills shouldn’t offer free seeds because they use GMO plants or plants sprayed with pesticides in their food products is just silly.  If anything we should expect them to offer more free seeds or plants.  General Mills does fund some honeybee research, which is also good.  Why are we criticizing them for trying to do some good for the environment?  We should be thanking them and urging them to do more.

One more little thing being mentioned in all the articles is that General Mills is removing the honeybee mascot from their packages because honeybees are disappearing.  People often mistake the concern over honeybee problems the honeybee keepers are having with domestic hives with the decline of native pollinators.  Honeybees are not endangered. People may be having trouble keeping them in hives but as far as numbers go, they are not endangered. 

Don’t get me wrong, we need honeybees to pollinate some of our food crops, and it is important to try and halt the various diseases and pests or chemical actions that are harming them.  Some (but not all) native bee species are endangered and many populations are declining.  It is important that we also understand what these bees need and how they are affected by things that also affect the honeybee, because they are essential in the environment.  But planting wildflowers is more likely to help than harm native bees, as well as honeybees, even if those flowers aren’t native species.

Here is the original site- but I don’t think there are any seeds left.

Roundup lawsuit controversy

The “is Round Up- (glyphosate) safe” debate is also stirred up again because of a lawsuit working its way through the courts.  In the lawsuit the plaintiff is arguing that Monsanto doctored some of the research on to make it seem glyphosate is safer than it is.  They allege among other things, that people wrote “ghost papers” and just paid researchers to sign them.  They are also alleging that some of the supposedly inert ingredients added to formulations of various products can make glyphosate more harmful than the chemical alone.  That the product causes cancer is one health risk claimed.

I am reading the court documents and trying to decipher if any of this will change my mind on glyphosate.  You can read them at https://usrtk.org/pesticides/mdl-monsanto-glyphosate-cancer-case-key-documents-analysis/  and make up your own mind.  Please keep an open, inquiring mind.  The case is being brought by an environmental group who is openly against Monsanto, the company that developed glyphosate but on the other hand, that doesn’t mean some of the case doesn’t have merit.

This is an interesting debate.  I don’t use the product, because I think it’s unnecessary in most cases, but I do believe, like many professionals that glyphosate is fairly safe as pesticides go.  But also, unlike some professionals, I don’t believe the matter is completely settled.

I am most interested in the idea that when certain things are added to glyphosate, like “stickers and spreaders” that they may change how the chemical interacts with animal bodies.  One ingredient, for example, was found to make the product more fat soluble and therefore it would also penetrate human skin better than plain glyphosate.  I have read research that found different conclusions when plain pure glyphosate was tested against a product made with glyphosate bought off the shelf.  The products on the shelf have additives.

Documents uncovered in the lawsuit also talk about how these additives and maybe even glyphosate itself may interact with things in the environment and produce by-products like nitrates that would not occur in the lab.  It’s conceivable that Monsanto can be right when it claims glyphosate is fairly harmless and yet not truthful when it claims a product like Round Up is harmless.

Some experts are dismissing the lawsuit because it’s brought by environmental activist groups and because they feel that there has been enough research on the product to assure everyone its safe.  They argue that even if research papers were ghost written and people paid to sign them that peer review would have caught any glaring inconsistencies or falsified information. That could be true.  And it’s well known that Monsanto is everybody’s boogerman when it comes to pesticides and chemicals.  For some reason people love to hate Monsanto and there seems to be some bias to many peoples opinion of their products and actions.

What bothers me a bit though is that most of the research done on glyphosate was done decades ago.  I am not so certain it was falsified research but I’m wondering if the formula for many products using glyphosate hasn’t changed greatly in the last decade, which could alter the toxicity of the products.  There are different formulas for products sold in different countries and for commercial/agriculture use and for home use.

Have all these different current formulas been tested under natural environmental conditions?  There’s no quick answer.  My take is Round-Up and other products using glyphosate (other companies now make glyphosate products) should not be considered safer than other pesticides but rather used in a careful, cautious manner only when absolutely necessary knowing that it may carry some risk.  That’s the best way to use any pesticide actually.  All pesticides carry risk, and that also pertains to the “natural” concoctions people whip up at home. 


Calendula is a plant I almost always have in the garden.  It’s considered to be both an herb and an ornamental.  It’s a great cool weather plant, both for spring and fall.  It’s too bad that many modern gardeners seem to forget this beautiful annual plant.

Calendula is an ancient garden plant, grown throughout Europe and was commonly known as the marigold or Pot Marigold. It was used as a medicinal plant and as an ornamental. Then the other type of marigold was discovered in the New World, Tagetes, the bedding plant that Americans commonly refer to as the marigold.  It was confusing to have two common garden plants with the same name, so now we use the name marigold for the species Tagetes and calendula for the wonderful, but almost forgotten, plant formally known as the marigold.

Calendula grows to about 18 inches high and branches freely.  Leaves are long ovals wider at the end, with a prominent vein down the center and gray-green to medium green.   

Calendula flowers seem to glow or shine, in clear shades of vivid orange and yellow, and they are wonderful in flower arrangements.  The flower is daisy-like and 2-4 inches in size. For a long time calendulas were always a solid color, usually orange or yellow, but recently plant breeders have introduced varieties with blends of colors and some softer pastel colors. Calendula flowers open in the day and close at night or in bad weather.

Good ornamental varieties of calendula are ‘Citrus Smoothies‘, very double flowers in pastel blends of apricot and lemon with a light outer edge, ‘Orange Porcupine’, which has a quilled look to the bright orange petals, ‘Geisha Girl‘, which is a another deep orange with a very full look, almost like a small mum, and ‘Neon‘, a deep orange edged in burgundy. 

The ‘Flashback’ strain has maroon on the back of each flower petal and the front of the petal is a contrasting color, including peachy pinks.  The ‘Pacific Giant’ strain has been around a long time and is a blend of many shades of yellow and orange.  It has some resistance to heat. There are other improved varieties of calendula and new varieties are coming on the market every year.

Growing calendula

Calendula is extremely easy to grow.  The seeds are usually planted where they are to grow, but they can be started inside. Outside, plant seeds 2-3 weeks before the average last frost in your area.  If planting inside, start them about six weeks before your expected last frost. Cover the seeds lightly and keep them moist. They bloom quickly from seed, often as soon as six weeks after planting. You can sometimes find calendula plants in nurseries in the spring for immediate color, and sowing seed in early July in the garden will give you beautiful fall flowers as well.

Calendula prefers full sun and average soil moisture. They will grow in almost any soil as long as it’s well drained.  Little or no fertilizer is needed. They prefer cool weather and tend to sulk or die in hot humid weather.  Sometimes plants that quit blooming in the heat resume blooming in cool weather. 

Calendulas also need to have the flowers picked off as they fade, or they will quit blooming.  They are an annual plant, but they will re-seed freely in the garden, and you will get new plants each year if you let some go to seed.  You can also save seed to sow in early spring.

Uses of calendula

Calendula flowers are edible and can be added to salads for a colorful touch.  The petals of calendula have long been used to impart a golden color to soups, egg dishes, rice, cheese and even butter. Calendula flowers are fed to chickens to make egg yolks a deeper yellow and to give the skins of broilers a golden color.  (If you use calendula flowers in food make sure they have not been sprayed with any pesticides.)

Calendula can be used as a tea for stomach upset by steeping 5 teaspoons of fresh flower petals in hot water.  If this mixture is allowed to cool it makes an excellent mouthwash, especially for sore and bleeding gums, because of its antiseptic properties. Crushing a calendula flower on an insect sting will ease the pain.  Calendula is used in soothing salves, foot baths, and facial care products.  If you want the variety used for most commercial herbal preparations look for ‘Erfurter Orange‘.

Chocolate Cherry Crockpot Cobbler

Did you know your crockpot can make dessert too?  Try this easy delicious dessert.  It’s a warm, delicious ending to a meal or eat it as a snack.  I like a chocolate cake with this but you can also use a cherry cake mix, or white or yellow.  You can also use other fruits for different cobblers.

You won’t need an entire cake mix for this so close up the plastic bag the mix comes in tightly and freeze the left over mix for another use.  Or you can double the recipe and use a 6 quart slow cooker.

A 3 quart or 6 quart slow cooker can be used; the larger cooker will actually take less time to cook.  You can spray the inside of your cooker with pan spray to help with clean up or use a crockpot liner.  I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of this.


16 oz. can (2 cups) cherry pie filling
1 ¾ cup chocolate cake mix
1 egg
3 tablespoons cream
½ teaspoon cinnamon (optional)


Grease sides of crockpot, use pan spray or liner for easy clean up.

Put the cherry filling in the crockpot and turn it on high.

Mix together cake mix, egg, cream and cinnamon.  The mix will look crumbly.

Wait 30 minutes and spoon the cake mixture over the cherries in the crockpot.  (Cherry mixture should be hot.)

Turn the heat down to low and cook for about 3 hours- it is done when a toothpick inserted in the cake topping comes out clean.  In some crockpots it will take longer, in some less time.

Serve warm with a dollop of whipped cream.

Get outside and smell the soil

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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