Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December 12, 2017 Kim’s Weekly Garden Blog

Hi Gardeners
Woody nightshade berries
 It’s a blustery bitter cold day here, 18 degrees.  We have only about two inches of snow on the ground, but the wind chill is horrendous.  Gizzy wanted his usual walk and we went to the mailbox a little bit ago.  He loves the snow and rolls and slides through it and runs in big circles around me.  I filled one of the bird feeders while we were out there and then persuaded Gizzy it was time to go back inside.

I know that much of the eastern and middle part of the country has cold weather and places in the south are getting snow that haven’t seen it in years.  Expect the colder, snowier weather pattern to persist through the first half of January.  After that the National Weather Service is fairly confident that the Jetstream is going to shift back north, and the rest of winter will be milder than normal.  It gives us some hope anyway.

The birds are swarming the feeders. The wind is so strong they can barely stay on them.  When I was outside I heard chickadee’s calling all around me. Our most abundant birds are the purple house finches, chickadees, junco’s and goldfinches.  We have a lot of cardinals and blue jays and several types of woodpeckers around too.  I hope everyone is keeping their feeders full.

I’m not much of a winter person.  I can admit the snow looks pretty sometimes but I don’t want to be out in it.  But it’s the gray and dark days that I dislike the most.  That’s why my house is filled with bright lights and blooming plants.  The smell of something good baking is also part of winter.

Have you gotten any 2018 garden catalogs yet?  I have been getting them for a couple of weeks.  I shop a lot on line but I do love to sit and look at print garden catalogs.  If you like garden catalogs you can request catalogs from many companies.  Most are free. There’s a huge list of plant and plant supply companies to the right of this blog.  Click on: http://gardeninggrannysgardenpages.blogspot.com/p/have-youreceived-any-garden-catalogs-in.html

Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate it.



Want to be a farmer?

Even if you don’t want to farm this webinar series by Michigan State University may have some topics that would interest you.  If you are thinking about doing some farming it should be right up your ally.  Anyone in the US can probably benefit from the webinars. 

The series of 15 webinars begin January 17th at 7 pm with the topic of seed starting and transplant production.  They’ll be held each Wednesday at the same time but if you can’t participate at that time you can look at a recorded session.  The live sessions include a chance to ask questions of the expert teaching the webinar.  There are several topics the average gardener may find interesting.

You’ll need a high speed internet connection to take the webinars. Each webinar costs $5 and there’s a half off discount if you pay for all the webinars.  If you have never participated in a webinar the link below will explain things and give you a description of some of the other classes.


Gift suggestions for Gardeners

I can’t think of anyone easier to buy a gift for than a gardener.  The number one thing you can get them is a gift certificate to their favorite garden store or catalog.  If you need a list of catalogs look to the right of this blog where I have assembled a page with links to hundreds of catalogs.  Or look around the house- what garden catalogs are lying around?  And a gift certificate for a load of compost, manure or woodchips is also appreciated by many gardeners.

Buying actual plants can be a tricky situation unless you too are a gardener and know the gardener you are buying well.  If they have expressed the hope or desire for a certain plant and you can find it then that’s probably a good choice.  But if you don’t know what plants a gardener likes or has the right conditions for, it’s probably better to go the gift certificate route.  And remember live plants have to be properly cared for while you are waiting to give them to a gardener.


There are literally hundreds of gardening gadgets and tools out there for sale.  Every gardener appreciates quality garden tools like hand pruners, folding pruning saws, quality shovels and spades, hoses, wheel barrows, carts and so on.  You may want to check the garden shed before you buy though to see what the gardener already has. 

Gardening clothes and shoes are also good gifts.  A nice garden hat, some garden clogs, a heavy-duty garden apron, and good gardening gloves come to mind.  Your gardener may like a novelty shirt, a poncho or muck boots.

Some gardeners are also readers, and there are many wonderful garden books out there.  I have reviewed some books any gardener would love, and you’ll find a page for those to the right of the blog also.  A subscription to a garden magazine is also a wonderful gift.  Click on
https://gardeninggrannysgardenpages.blogspot.com/p/book-reviews-and-recommendat.html


A gardener with houseplants may appreciate a beautiful or unusual pot, plant shelves or racks or macramé hangers for plants.  They may also appreciate grow lights- see the article in this blog for ideas on that topic. Some gardeners may be thrilled with a big bag of a professional potting medium.

Garden décor is another spot where you may need to know the gardeners taste.  If you know they collect gnomes or fanciful frogs, then go for it.  Otherwise proceed with care.  Not everyone wants a statue of the virgin Mary or a purple gazing ball.

Things like weather stations, wind or rain gauges, wind vanes, bird feeders, bird houses, bird baths, and fountains can also be good gifts.  Solar lights of various types are also an option.



Grow lights- should you use them?

I have a small house, with limited window space and a fondness for large tropical plants.  If I didn’t use grow lights some of my plants would either suffer greatly through a cloudy Michigan winter or I wouldn’t be able to have as many in my collection.  To be clear this article is going to discuss grow lights for people keeping houseplants, a few herbs and tropical potted plants and not the kind of grow lights needed for marihuana production or intensive hydroponic food gardens.  The popularity of those two crops however, have led to huge advances in the type of grow lights available to the public.

So, should you use grow lights?  I highly recommend them if your sunny window space won’t accommodate all your plants, if you keep large blooming plants and if you have no sunny window where you want to have plants.  In northern states with cloudy skies and short winter days grow lights may even be needed for plants in windows or in a sunroom.  The newer LED and CFL grow lights use a lot less energy than the old bulbs and are less likely to cause a fire.
I use a CFL grow light on my unheated porch for
extra light.

Even 20 years ago plant grow lights were limited to incandescent lights or those long tube fluorescents.  Today we have a number of options.  Incandescent grow lights are still available but I wouldn’t choose them because they are expensive to operate and give off lots of heat.  The long tube fluorescent growlights are harder to find now and the fixtures that hold them aren’t usually attractive and may not fit the space where you have plants growing.  They are still good however, for seed starting on shelf type units.

The compact fluorescent or “curly” grow light bulbs will screw into existing sockets or low-cost shop light fixtures.  They are cost efficient, long lasting and give off little heat.  I have used two types Sunblaster CFL and Agrobright FLC.  Both of these give off a natural looking light and plants do very well under them.  I have also found that if you are providing light for plants kept primarily for foliage, like many houseplants, that you can use a regular CFL bulb that’s labeled “daylight” with good results.

There are various types of LED grow lights now on the market.  These are also very economical to run and give off little heat.  The LED lights generally mix red and blue bulbs in a single unit and the light they give off is a strange purple shade.  The plants love it however and these bulbs work well for blooming plants like my hibiscus.  I have a foot square LED grow light that’s very lightweight and lights an area about 6 feet square when suspended about 6 feet from the floor.  I also have a flood light type screw in LED that lights a smaller area (Tao Tronics LED).  There are some that look like the old incandescent bulbs.

Halogen and high pressure sodium grow lights are also available.  I don’t recommend these for homes where ornamental plants are being grown. These lights are a bit more expensive to buy and run and give off heat.

You’ll probably want CFL or LED bulbs that are rated as equivalent to 100 or 150 watt incandescent bulbs.  How much space the light will cover depends on how high the light is mounted and the type of bulb among other things.  Grow lights of any kind should be suspended about a foot above the plants for best results.  The higher the light is suspended the larger an area it will light but the strength of the light and how well the plants do under it diminishes the farther the plants are from the light. 

If the plants seem to be lit up by the light in a darkened room and the lights aren’t too far overhead, you are probably good to go.  By the way – the lights do best suspended over the plants and not shining on them from the side.   I use two lights in some of my windows that have lots of plants.  The lights are about 3 feet from the windows. The plants get both natural and supplemental light.  Plants that require the most light get center positions and those that require less get side positions.

Some good hardware and general purpose stores carry LED and CFL grow lights.  There’s a much wider selection available on line on sites like Amazon and EBay.  Garden supply stores, particularly those that cater to hydroponic or marihuana growers will sell the lights.  The lights are a bit more expensive than regular CFL and LED bulbs but with careful comparison shopping you can get some types for less than $10.  Make sure you check what type of fixture the bulbs require.  Some grow light bulbs require specialized fixtures.  I prefer ones that can use normal household fixtures.

I use closet bar brackets to suspend a pole to hang the lights on in some places and in others I use a lightweight chain hanging from a hook in the ceiling.  I also have shop light fixtures that will clamp on a shelf.  You can take the inexpensive shop light fixtures with an aluminum reflector “shade” and paint the outside of that reflector to match your décor.

Some people have floor lamps or desk lamps they can use a grow light bulb in. The LED bulbs are sometimes enclosed in a fixture you just plug in. Any fixture you do choose should be UFL rated for safety.  Be very careful with cheap imported fixtures to check that they have a UFL tag.  Most CFL and LED lights are low wattage and can be safely used in most fixtures.  But do check the maximum wattage rating on any fixture you use, that information is usually on the fixture somewhere, and don’t use bulbs with a higher wattage than the fixture is rated for.

LED and CFL bulbs are usually safer than the older incandescent bulbs when it comes to starting fires because they don’t give off much heat to combust anything near them.  But do be careful not to splash water on them, which might cause them to arch or explode.  Also make sure that they are securely suspended so that they don’t fall and break and that they are where people or pets don’t accidently knock them off.  Dispose of them as the manufacturer recommends.

CFL and LED lights can last for several years.  But plant enthusiasts have found that after about a year of operation these bulbs become less efficient and give off less light.  If you are only using the bulbs for the 6 some months of winter you’ll probably get 2 seasons of decent light but after that I recommend replacing the bulbs.
 
In this window I use a LED light and a CFL
I strongly recommend getting some inexpensive timers for your grow lights.  This keeps you from forgetting to turn on the lights or having the lights running longer than they need to be on. I set my timers to give the plants about 12 hours of light.  You can adjust the time the lights come on and off to accommodate your schedule. Don’t leave the lights on continuously. Plants do need a period of darkness to do well.

Grow light bulbs allow people like me, who have more plants than window space, to expand their hobby.  They allow people to grow plants in dark offices and even basements.  I enjoy the brightly lit windows full of plants on a dreary dark winter day.  I use a grow light bulb over the desk where I write because I like the light it gives off (and it allows me to have plants nearby).  Neighbors may find the red looking light in my bedroom window ( from an LED) a little odd – but who cares?

Are Banana peels safe for plants?

Years ago the only recommendation one frequently heard about bananas in the garden was to bury banana peels by roses.  (This was supposedly done for the potassium in the peels.)   Now however there are recommendations everywhere about banana peels- bury them in flower pots, lay them on soil around plants, throw them on top of staghorn ferns, soak them in water and use the water on plants and so on.   But is there any benefit to this and is it even safe?

Banana peels have both potassium and phosphorus, but little or no nitrogen.  When broken down by decomposition a small amount of potassium and phosphorus will be released into the soil for plant use.  The decomp process uses nitrogen though and since banana peels don’t supply it they may cause a temporary nitrogen loss.  You’ll probably need to add some source of nitrogen to the banana peels for them to decompose well and not rob the plants they are supposed to help.

(If you haven’t tested your soil or potting medium then you don’t know whether it’s deficient in any nutrient.  Adding it anyways isn’t helpful, excessive amounts of a nutrient can be harmful to a plant also.

In the garden a few banana peels in the soil around plants do little harm.  They won’t do much for the potassium and phosphorus needs of the plant unless you are using an awful lot of them, but they will provide some organic matter.  The truth is most types of food waste, potato peels, apple cores, left over salad and so on, would do basically the same thing.  Burying some kale next to your roses would be as good as banana peels.  The question is do you want to make compost directly in the garden or in a compost pile?

Using banana peels in houseplant pots won’t do them any major harm nutrient wise- nor will it be of much help.  What banana peels will do is attract flies and maybe mice and smell like rotting fruit.  Soaking the peels in water and using it on plants is useless, not enough potassium and phosphorus will be leached out of the skins to do anything and you are creating a nasty breeding ground for bacterial and fungal organisms.

But wait – here’s the danger in banana peels

But before you say it looks like it’s harmless and I like to recycle there’s one more thing you need to know about banana peels.  Bananas are one of the most heavily pesticide treated crops in the world.  A lot of those bananas we eat are grown in countries which have far less stringent rules on pesticides than the United States and European countries.  Most of the 20 some pesticides that can be used on bananas wind up on the heavy skin of the banana.  There’s a link below to a list of pesticides found on bananas and the dangers they pose.


Organic bananas are hard to find and expensive.  Commercial bananas are genetically inbred and diseases and pests of all kinds find them easy to exploit, hence the heavy pesticide use.  It’s very hard to produce organic bananas and since very little of the pesticides used on bananas penetrate the skin to the edible flesh, there’s little economic reason to avoid pesticides.  Most countries test the edible portion of the banana for pesticide residue and most banana shipments pass the test.  That’s good for humans eating bananas but not so good if you are going to take those heavily contaminated peels and use them in the garden.

A lot of the pesticide residue is on the very surface of the banana skin and could be washed off but some does penetrate and bind with the peel.  When you add banana peels to the garden you are adding a toxic chemical bomb.  No studies have been done to see what pesticides on banana skins are taken up by plants they are buried by but there’s plenty of science that suggests that some of those chemicals could be absorbed.  We don’t know if the chemicals taken up could harm pollinators, pets or even people.

Soaking banana skins in water is probably not only creating a nasty microbial slurry but a toxic chemical one also.  It’s probably not a good practice to use such water on your houseplants.  What if a pet or child drank some of that water?

The amount of pesticides found on banana skins might not have any significance as far as toxicity unless you used a ton of them on crops.  We don’t really know.  And they may not harm ornamentals like roses.  But if you have an organic garden and avoid pesticide and chemical use then banana peels probably shouldn’t be in your garden.   

More serious problems could develop if you throw unpeeled bananas in your smoothie as some media sites suggest, or make tea from dried banana skins, another idea thrown out there by some herbalists.  If you eat a banana my recommendation is; wash it first, then peel it and throw away the peel.

Folk remedies are not always effective or safe. Some of the products may simply be useless in the garden but harmless.  Others may not be so harmless.  Many of these products are not the “natural solution” people think they are, they are actually loaded with synthetic chemicals that may work differently in the garden than when they are used as they are supposed to be used.

If you think your plants need potassium why not use a good fertilizer on them, a product designed for plants and actually tested for safety? 

Here’s some more links on banana peels you may find interesting.


How to determine if you have dangerous trees in the landscape

Every year thousands of trees are toppled by weather across the country.  Some of them kill people and falling trees cause millions of dollars in damage each year.  In some cases the forces of nature overcome perfectly healthy trees and little can be done about that.  But in many cases trees that are toppled by weather are less than healthy, although sometimes that can be difficult to determine, and unhealthy trees are far more likely to fall than other trees.  When these trees have the potential to fall on homes, roads, utility lines, and other personal property, they should be considered dangerous trees. 

Winter can be a good time to identify dangerous trees because you can see the structure of the tree.  But observance in spring and summer may also be necessary to determine if a tree is dangerous. This article will give you some tips on identifying dangerous trees in the landscape and suggestions on how to prevent those trees from causing loss of life and property. 

Species of trees more likely to have problems

Some species of trees have more problems with poor structure or tend to grow in odd ways and are more prone to breaking or falling in a storm than other species.  When you are planting trees near homes and roads these trees should be avoided.  When these trees are already well established near homes and roads you should take care to keep them trimmed and healthy if you don’t want to remove them.  Trees that are more likely to suffer wind damage because of poor structures are willows, box elders, poplars, European mountain ash, hackberry, red maple, silver maple and little leaf linden.

If you have a lot of winter storms with heavy ice and snow then any tree that is evergreen will be susceptible to breaking, but pines often have the worse problems.  Trees that stand alone are more likely to have problems than trees within a group because they bear the brunt of any wind.

Proper pruning to keep large limbs from hanging over homes and roads and to keep the tree balanced will help.  Watering and fertilizing these trees and treating them promptly for disease and insect problems can help too.  But you should always be aware that certain trees are more prone to storm damage than others.  If these trees are also hollow or have very poor structure they should be removed.

The black willow in the photo is a good example of poor structure, with multiple trunks, narrow crotches, and crossing branches.



Dead and dying trees

It goes without saying that trees that are dead or trees that are mostly dead could be hazardous. Drought, insects, disease, injury can all cause tree decline and death. Trees that don’t leaf out when others of their kind do or trees with bark peeling off leaving bare wood are usually dead or dying.  Trees that have few leaves or yellowing wilted leaves are usually slowly dying.  Trees with thin, sparse growth are probably unhealthy. The Emerald Ash Borer has left a lot of dead ash trees in Michigan and many other Midwest states. Where the insect has arrived are often hundreds of dead ash trees in the landscape.

Many people leave these dead and dying trees because they hope they will revive or because they just don’t want to deal with the problem.  In some areas if a dead or dying tree is near a road or sidewalk it will be tagged by government officials and removed or you will be told to remove it.  Power companies may remove some dead or dying trees near their lines.   If you want to save the tree and there are still some green leaves or there is any doubt in your mind about the condition of the tree, consult with a tree expert to see if there is anything that can be done. 

Dead trees can stand for a long time but eventually they will fall.  If they are going to fall on a home, power line or road its best to have them removed before they fall.  Sometimes half of a tree will die, and the rest remain healthy.  If the dead parts can’t be trimmed out easily the whole tree should be removed.  In some species of trees the roots will send up new shoots after the tree’s upper part dies, but these rarely make a good replacement and should be removed.

You may have heard that leaving some dead trees is good for nature.  If the dead trees are in a location where they won’t hurt anything when they fall and you don’t mind how they look, then leaving a dead tree can be helpful to wildlife.  Many birds and other animals nest in dead trees.  Dead trees have insects feeding on the wood that many animals feed on too.

Trees with poor structure

There are trees that are doomed from a young age because they grow in an unstable manner.  This can be caused by improper planting, damage when the tree is young, disease, bad pruning or just because it’s the typical growth pattern of the species.  (See the list of trees that often have problems under the species heading.)

Trees that form a deep V close to the ground, or have double trunks are very susceptible to wind damage.  Water gets in the base of the V and rot starts there.  When trees are young they should be pruned to one trunk, removing one arm of a V if need be.  Even when they are larger an experienced tree care company may be able to improve the shape and stability of these trees.

Large branches that meet the trunk with a V instead of an L shape (right angle) are also likely to break in wind or under heavy snow or ice loads.  These should be trimmed away from roofs or power lines.  Trim the branches back to the trunk, don’t just shorten them.  Shortened branches just tend to put out a cluster of smaller branches near the cut, which puts more of a strain on the branch.

Sometimes trees grow with most of the large branches on one side or they lean to one direction.  This can come from wind bending a young tree, particularly evergreens, improper pruning, a tree growing toward a sunny area, crowding by other trees or many other causes.  Unbalanced trees, especially if the heavier area is away from the prevailing wind direction, are dangerous.   A tree can generally be carefully pruned, often through several seasons to restore its balance and make it safer.   Never remove more than a third of the tree’s growth at one time, and it’s better to let an expert shape these trees, especially if they are large.

The photo shows a good right angle attachment of a branch to the trunk.



Trees with girdling roots or damaged roots

Sometimes a tree strangles itself by wrapping roots around the trunk just below the soil level.  Some species of trees are more prone to this than others and it is more common in urban areas where the tree roots may be restricted ether from spreading out or going deeper.  Root strangled trees slowly die and the trunk is very susceptible to breakage at about soil level.  If a tree is growing poorly, with a thin canopy and no disease or insect damage is present, it’s a good idea to carefully dig down close to the trunk and check to see if roots are wrapped around it.  In some cases circling roots can be trimmed to restore tree health.

Root circling often starts when a tree is planted improperly.  Plant trees so that the top horizontal root is just below soil level.  Never wrap roots around a hole when planting a tree. If you can’t spread them out trim them off. Roots that hit hard, compacted soil, bedrock or a high water table are also more prone to circling around in the narrow layer of good soil.  These trees quickly become a hazard even if the roots don’t strangle the tree because the tree is not able to anchor itself properly.  Maples and poplars are more susceptible to root circling than other trees.

Don’t however, fill a hole you dug for a tree with things like compost or topsoil, even if you think the native soil is poor.  This actually encourages roots to stay close to the original hole instead of branching out to anchor the tree.  It also encourages roots to circle in the hole, which will eventually kill the tree.  Adding peat to a hole dug in heavy clay soil may also create a bathtub effect, with roots remaining too wet.

Look at the root ball of trees before planting to make sure roots haven’t already created a circling pattern.  Everything should be removed from a root ball, burlap, peat pots, cages and so on, before planting.  Not only do these things restrict the quick establishment of a healthy root system but they prevent you from seeing what is going on with the root system.  Some nurseries and landscapers still haven’t accepted this practice but numerous studies have shown that it’s the best way to get a tree established and growing correctly.

Girdling roots

Many professionals actually gently wash away the soil from around tree roots before planting the tree so they can examine them.  Circling roots are trimmed back to before the curve and badly matted roots are trimmed or gently teased apart.  You can also see the top horizontal roots this way and these show you how deep to plant the tree- they should be just below the soil surface after planting.

Roots can also be damaged when construction cuts through them when sidewalks, foundations, utility lines, sewer pipes and other items are put in.   If a tree loses a good part of its “anchor” it is more likely to fall.  If a tree is planted where its roots are restricted, such as in a median strip, or in a container it may develop more “top” than its roots can support. 

In floods even well rooted, healthy trees may be pulled out of the saturated ground.  There is little that can be done in this case but clean up.  When a smaller tree just topples over, pulling up a big area of roots and soil on one side, it can sometimes be righted, staked and be saved, if the damage is corrected immediately.  Larger trees usually have a lot of root breakage and are not able to be saved.  
These are lichens, and they do not harm trees.
                            

Hollow trees

A tree can be hollow and still look healthy because the living parts of the tree are just below the bark.  This living tissue, called the cambium, has the tubes that distribute food and water throughout the tree.  Each year the old cambium layer dies and a new one replaces it.  The interior part of the tree, the “wood”, is basically there for support and is formed by the old cambium layers.  When you look at a slice of a tree trunk and count the rings you are counting old cambium layers.

When the wood inside a tree rots and falls apart the tree is very vulnerable to being toppled by wind.   Some hollow trees will persist for many, many years and then fall in a storm that didn’t seem that powerful.  Many things can cause a tree to rot and become hollow.  Anything that damages the protective bark layer can let disease and decay into the tree interior.  This can be improperly trimmed branches, damage to the trunk from tying a dog or clothesline to it or hitting it with the mower, lightning strikes, or birds boring into it.  Decay can start where a narrow crotch forms a V and collects water. 

You can often see holes going into the tree, such as the hole in the photo, and examining them may tell you how much of the tree is hollow.  A good sign that a tree is hollow or is beginning to rot is the presence of shelf fungi on the outside of the tree.  These are large, brown or black hard growths that protrude out from the trunk, (like a shelf) not the lacy green or gray lichens that often cover trees.  Lichens are harmless to trees.  Shelf fungi are the fruiting bodies of the fungus that is inside the tree breaking it down.

Hole in tree 

A small hollow area of the tree is usually no cause for alarm.  But if the entire interior of the tree, or a large part of it, is gone it is probably not safe.   Measure the outside diameter of the tree.  Now measure how much good wood is left on the tree interior. You may be able to measure a hollow by looking through a hole and inserting a ruler.  Or you may need to drill a small hole to see how far in you go before you hit the hollow.  If there is less than 1.5 inches of good wood left for every 3 inches of outside diameter of the tree, the tree is unsafe. There is really no way to make a hollow tree safe.

Removing a tree before it falls can save you property damage or even save your life.  Make it a practice to examine your trees frequently.


Tourtiere – French Canadian Meat pies

Meat pies are one of those items that have popularity in many parts of the world and each family who enjoys meat pies and makes their own may have a slightly different recipe.  My family is of French Canadian ancestry and meat pies have always been part of our Christmas breakfast.  First my paternal grandmother made them, then my father and now I make them, along with some of my sisters, to carry on the tradition.

Typically, French Canadian Catholics ate meat pie after midnight mass.  In our family that was moved to later, on Christmas morning.  My mom always needed to have fruit salad for Christmas morning too.  Our meat pies were spicy with black pepper and liberally doused with ketchup- which is also a common topping in Canada.

You can vary the spices in your meat pie, I have seen old recipes use thyme, rosemary, bay, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, as well as pepper and garlic.  Onions are a part of most meat pies.  Our meat pies always had potato in them- my grandfather also liked turnip in them when he had some.  But in earlier times it was said that only those poor enough not to have much meat added potatoes.  

I use ground beef and some spicy sausage in my meat pies, but others add venison, ground pork, veal or lamb.  About 3 pounds of meat will make two standard pies.  Feel free to experiment with meats and spices to make your own family recipe.

Ingredients

2 pounds of lean ground beef
1 pound of spicy (hot) ground sausage
6 cups of frozen Potatoes O’Brian (potatoes with onions and peppers)
  Or 4 cups of finely diced potatoes and 2 cups of finely diced onion
½ teaspoon black pepper (or to taste)
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon seasoned salt (or to taste)

pie dough for 2 double crust pies
1 tablespoon butter, melted

Put bottom crust in each pie pan.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large skillet, fry beef and sausage with spices until lightly browned.  Drain off any grease.

Add potatoes O’Brian. (No need to thaw)

Cook, stirring often to keep meat and potatoes from scorching or sticking until the potatoes are soft.  Drain off any remaining grease.

Mash the meat and potato mixture with a potato masher or spoon so that the mixture is uniform, with no large pieces of meat or potatoes remaining.  (Taste the mixture to see if more spices are needed and adjust to your taste.)

Fill pie crusts with hot meat mixture and top with the upper crust.  Put a few slits in the top crust and brush with melted butter.

Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Serve warm with ketchup.  (Some people like a beef gravy instead.)

Note: pies can be made ahead, cooled, wrapped tightly and frozen.  Defrost and heat thoroughly in oven before serving.

Hot cocoa and warm cinnamon rolls, now that’s what winter’s good for!
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….

Find Michigan garden events/classes here:
(This is the Lapeer County Gardeners facebook page)
An interesting Plant Id page you can join on Facebook

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

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Monday, December 4, 2017

December 5, 2017 Kim’s Weekly Garden Blog

Hi Gardeners

Chive flowers
After some very mild weather our weather is due to slide into colder winter temperatures tonight.  By the end of the week our highs are predicted to be below freezing.  In fact, a great deal of the eastern half of the country is going to get very cold.  December 1 is the beginning of meteorological winter, so this shouldn’t be a surprise.

It was nice this weekend though and I was feeling well enough to take a stroll around the yard.  Almost everything is brown and dried up except the grass, but I was struck by how vibrant green and vigorous the Arum italicum is.  This plant produces new leaves in the fall, glossy green arrow shaped leaves sometime mottled with white.

In mild winters the Arum will stay green all winter, although here they are usually brown after being covered with snow.  The leaves go dormant in the summer and here the plants are pretty well buried in ferns and hosta in summer.  But after the hosta and ferns have drooped and died the arum shines on.

Besides the arum I notice snapdragons are coming up from seed shed this summer.  I think they will survive the winter and bring me early flowers next year.  The older snapdragons are still green too.

I rescued a tiny Venus Fly Trap from the clearance rack at the grocery store.  After I got it home I had second thoughts. What was I thinking? Now I must go around the house looking for a fly or something for it to eat.  I see a little spider above my desk right now- maybe I should catch it to feed the flytrap.  The little plant may go to live with a grandchild or probably a great grandchild who enjoys catching bugs.  I have a lot of things to feed around here and I don’t need to add plants to the list.

I have many houseplants in bloom right now.  The bouvardia, fuchsia, Christmas cactus, streptocarpus, and hibiscus are all blooming.  If you want a beautiful, abundantly blooming hibiscus try the variety ‘Kona’.  This double pink beauty blooms frequently and is a vigorous grower.  

Do you have your bird feeders full?  It’s time to get out that suet and sunflower seed.  That’s really all you need to attract a wide variety of birds.  If you can afford thistle seed add that too.  Most cheap birdseed mixes are full of things birds only reluctantly eat if nothing else is available.  Things like cracked corn, milo, wheat, oats, even millet are generally just wasted and help attract animals like mice, rats and squirrels.  Those critters will eat sunflower seed too, but the birds beat them to it most of the time.

You are getting this newsletter a day early.  I have some family business to take care of on Tuesday.
 
Hibiscus 'Kona'
December Almanac

This month’s full moon is called the Full Cold or Long Nights moon and it occurred on December 3rd.  This was the final supermoon of the year.  There are two meteor displays that may be visible in December.  On the 13th and 14th there is the peak of the best regular meteor event, the Geminids meteor shower. Some meteors may be visible from the 4th through the 17th.  But on the peak days around 120 meteors or shooting stars may be seen per hour.  The best viewing is after midnight.  On December 21st – 23rd will be the peak of a lesser meteor shower, the Ursids meteor shower, which typically produces about 10 meteors per hour at its peak. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2017 is the winter solstice. It marks the longest night of the year and the beginning of winter.  At this time the sun is at its farthest point in the southern sky and lowest point on the horizon.  (For an interesting site that will show you where the sun and moon are in the sky at the exact time you access the site go to this site and choose your closest city) http://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/usa/

You’ll notice that the earliest sunset and the shortest day are not the same.  The earliest sunset occurs December 5th (today) when the sun sets at 5 pm (in the Flint, MI. area).  And the sun will set at that time until December 14th – when it gains a minute. It’s the time of sunrise that makes the difference in day length.  On the solstice the sun rises at 8:03 am and sets at 5:03pm in the Flint, Mi. area.  Your area may have slightly different sunrise and sunset times.

Many people including myself consider the Winter Solstice to be the end of the old year. The sun turns or changes direction.  Now the days will be getting longer, if only by seconds at first. Re-birth, renewal, the conquering of death, the return of the sun is symbolized in the solstice. It’s a time for celebration as it was for our early ancestors.  Christmas is celebrated near the solstice because people already celebrated re-birth and promise at this time and early Christians frequently borrowed old rituals. 

The time around the solstice, the 21st-24th, is when the ancients believed that man’s mind was most open to spiritual enlightenment and positive life changes. It was a time of meditation and reflection. You were supposed to wish for self- improvement, knowledge, healing of spiritual wounds and the ability to meet personal goals.  It was not a time to wish for material things and if gifts were given it was to the very poor or the gifts were symbolic in nature.  Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone spent three days in meditation and reflection before the great orgy of material things that Christmas has become?

Burn some oak wood at midnight and make a wish for what you desire as you look into the fire.  Take some time to reflect on what you could have done better last year and decide your path for the new year.

December’s birthstone is turquoise. The December birth flower is oddly enough the narcissus.  This may be because it was associated with death, (its poisonous) by the ancient Romans and Greeks but now it is often used as a symbol of hope.  We are entering the time of the death of the old year but still, it seems odd.  In flower “language” narcissus is said to mean “you are the only one” or alternatively faithfulness, respect and modesty.

Recently holly has been favored to replace narcissus as the December birth flower and to me seems more appropriate.  Holly is a symbol of domestic happiness in flower language. Orchids are also listed as the December flower in some places.

Things to celebrate in December besides the solstice and Christmas include National Mutt day the 2nd ,  Pearl Harbor Day- the 7th  and Poinsettia day on the 12th, also on the 12th its Gingerbread house day and National cocoa day, National Bake Cookies day, the 18th , Look for Evergreens day the 19th   Besides being Christmas Eve the 24th is National Chocolate day and National Egg Nog day. December 31st is World Peace Meditation Day as well as New Years eve.

December is National Bingo month, National AIDS awareness month, National Buckwheat month and Universal Human Rights month.


How to water houseplants

Everyone loves homes and offices filled with the restful, cheerful green of houseplants.  But some people just can’t seem to keep houseplants thriving in the home or office and a great deal of the problems can be traced to improper watering. Learning to water your houseplants correctly can turn brown thumbs into green ones.

First- don’t water on a schedule.  Don’t say that every Wednesday you will water the plants.  You might schedule a day to check the plants to see if they need water but don’t just automatically go around and water each pot.  Some plants won’t need water on the same day each week, and some may need it more often to remain healthy. 

The need for water can vary tremendously from house to house and week to week.  On a gray, gloomy winter day when the house is cool plants may need less water.  Or they may need more water if the furnace has been running constantly and the outside humidity is low.  They may need more water in a week when its been sunny and cold- since sun dries out pots and the furnace dries out the air.  They may need less water if its been warmer but very humid.

Plants may need less water in the winter when plants slow down their growth.  When warm weather arrives, and the light is strong and growth vigorous they will need additional water.  Plants in plastic or metal pots usually need less water than those in porous clay or ceramic pots. A single isolated plant dries out more quickly than plants in large groups.

Kalanchoe synsepala 'Gremlin' is a plant that likes to
dry out between watering.

Symptoms of watering problems

The symptoms of over watering and under watering are often the same – wilting.  Wilting can happen because the soil is dry and the top parts of the plant don’t get enough water.  Or it can mean that the soil in the pot is saturated with water, the plants roots have rotted, and the top of the plant isn’t getting any water through those rotted roots.   When a plant looks wilted you should immediately feel the planting soil to see if it feels dry. Don’t just touch the top- push your finger in the soil about an inch- or more for deep pots. If you touch the soil and it feels very wet, then the pot needs draining and drying, not more water, even if the plant is wilted.

Experienced plant owners can often look at a plant and know when it needs water.  I can look at my lemon tree and if I see the slightest roll of the leaves, exposing the lighter underside, I check to see if it needs water. Some plants wilt dramatically, collapsing in a heap, but others are more subtle.  Don’t let the plant wilt on a regular basis just so you know when it needs water. Some plants recover pretty well each time but it takes a toll on the plants health and disease and insect resistance will be reduced. 

Signs that the plant is suffering from dry soil other than wilting include yellowing and dropping leaves, dry leaf tips and poor flowering.  The soil may look hard and crusty and be drawn away from the sides of the pot. This creates a small gap between the soil and the pot and when you water the water goes right through the pot without soaking the soil.  If you notice water pouring out the drainage holes as soon as you pour water on the plant that is usually what is happening. 

To fix this super dry condition place the pot in a larger container of water and let it soak or put it in the tub and let water drip on it for a couple of hours.  The soil should saturate and expand.  Make sure the pot drains well after a couple of hours.  Then try not to let the pot get that dry again.

If you notice a swampy smell from your flower pots you are probably keeping them too wet.  As mentioned before the signs of over watering, or too wet soil are often the same as those plants which are too dry.  Plants wilt, turn yellow, brown or black and leaves and flowers fall off.

If you suspect overwatering immediately check to see if the pot can drain.  Dump the saucer if it has water in it.  Sometimes that’s all that’s needed- just don’t water the pot again until it feels dry. If the pot is extremely wet slide the rootball out of the pot unto a piece of newspaper in the sink or in a bucket and let it air dry for a day. Then re-pot it in fresh, only moderately moist potting medium.  People often swing too far the other way after over watering and let the pot dry out too much, make sure to water when the potting medium feels dry to the touch.

If you don’t trust your sense of touch to let you know if a plant needs water, there are many inexpensive tools on the market that will tell you if the soil is too dry.  And remember that each species of plant has a different requirement for water.  Some like to dry out between watering or even prefer to remain on the dry side.  And there are plants who won’t do well unless the potting medium is always moist.  You need to do your homework to see what your plant prefers.

If a plant needs water use room temperature water.  Rain water and distilled water are best for house plants but either city water or well water can be used.  Both softened city water and well water have “salts” in them that can build up in the planting soil.   More about that in a minute.   A few plant species are sensitive to chlorine and fluoride added to city water.  For those plants you should use rain water or distilled water.

The type of pot that you use for houseplants is crucial to their health.  It must have good drainage.  Do not use a pot without drainage holes even if you add gravel or broken pot pieces to the bottom. What this does is create what is known as a “perched” water level.  Water builds up in the spaces around your gravel and it doesn’t have much chance to evaporate.  A saturated soil layer develops just above the gravel.  And soon your plant roots are rotting.

Pots with reservoirs, those known as self-watering pots, are a little better but they also come with problems.  The soil is generally separated from direct contact with water, a wicking system is used to draw water out of the reservoir.  You don’t get the perched water table effect.  But people often can’t tell when the reservoir needs water or they count on the water lasting longer than it does.

If you have a pretty pot without drain holes that you want to use find a slightly smaller pot with good drainage that will fit inside the pretty pot. Then put your plant into the smaller pot. You’ll have to remember to empty the outer pot soon after you water the inner pot. You can’t just let the water sit there.  Or you can make it simple and drill holes in the pot without drainage.

Pots should neither be too small or large for the plant.  Large pots are hard to water correctly, the water moves down out of the reach of the plants roots or the top layer remains dry and the bottom is saturated and damaging plant roots.  Pots that are too small and are filled with roots will need watering much more often than people realize and may be impossible to keep them watered as often as they need it.  They will need to be re-potted.

Reducing salt build up

Both hard and soft water have chemical salts that get into the potting soil when we water plants.  Fertilizers also contain chemical salts.  Outdoors excess salts usually move through the soil and out of the range of plant roots, but in a pot they have nowhere to go.  They end up burning the plants roots and stunting its growth or even killing it.  Often a whitish- yellow crusty build up on top of the soil or even on the outside of the pot will be noticed.

Signs of excess salt damage include stunted growth, sometimes reddish or yellow discoloration of foliage, dry, browned leaf tips and loss of lower leaves and wilting from burned root tips. 

To keep salts from building up use distilled water or rainwater to water plants if possible.  If not water the plants and then empty the saucers that collect the excess water after an hour or so.  Salt that is washed through the pot when you water won’t then be absorbed back into the pot as the soil dries out again.  This is usually not enough to totally stop salt build up, especially if you regularly fertilize your houseplants. 

Every few months pots watered with soft city water or hard well water should be leached.  The pot needs to be placed in tub or sink with drainage and flooded with water continuously for a couple hours.  Let the water run slowly through the pot so soil doesn’t get washed away too.  In some cases of heavy salt build up it may be better to repot the plant with fresh potting soil.

Limit caretakers

In cases where more than one person is interested in the indoor plants it is a good idea to agree to let one person be responsible for watering plants in the home or office.  At the least everyone should care for the plants in their personal space and let one person water the plants in common spaces.  Too many people watering isn’t always great for the plants and one regular caretaker gets a better feel for when a plant needs water.

Properly watering your houseplants along with choosing the right plants for the conditions will result in beautiful lush plants you will be proud to display.

 Choosing a real Christmas tree

Fewer people choose real trees for Christmas anymore and there are good reasons both for using a real tree and using a fake one.  But if you choose to get a real tree don’t feel guilty about a tree being sacrificed.  Most Christmas trees sold were grown for that purpose and are a crop like corn or tomatoes.  Even if you choose a tree from a National Forest or private land the chances are good that removing the tree will not adversely affect the environment.

Early December is not too early to cut or pick a Christmas tree if you can store it outside or somewhere cool.  Most trees sold in stores or corner lots are cut down by now.  Cutting or choosing your tree early not only gives you a better selection but may keep you from picking the tree in worse winter weather.
 
Last year we needed to cull some red  pines so this scrawny
tree became our Christmas tree.
A real tree can be recycled and returns nutrients to the soil.  It doesn’t require fossil fuel to make it, as artificial trees do.  The problem with getting a real tree is that many people have never had one and don’t know what species to choose or what to look for in a good Christmas tree.  Here’s a few tips that may help you choose the right tree.

The most common evergreen tree species sold for Christmas trees are Balsam, Fraiser and Concolor firs, Douglas Fir, Scotch Pine, Blue Spruce, White spruce and White pine.  Some species are more common in some states than others.

The firs all smell nice but have a more open shape and don’t take heavy ornaments that well.  The needles aren’t scratchy but drop fairly quickly inside.  Don’t put these up early.

Scotch pines are dense and pleasing in shape, hold heavy ornaments and smell pretty good.  They are prickly but hold their needles a long time inside.

A Scotch pine Christmas tree from my childhood.

Blue spruce and other spruces have good shapes, are dense and strong but their smell is not pleasant. They are also scratchy when decorating.  Most spruce hold their needles a long time.  They are generally more expensive than other trees.

White pines that have been pruned for a denser shape make pretty good Christmas trees but are more open than pines or spruce and don’t take heavy ornaments well. They smell nice, but not strongly.  They retain needles well and are said to be the least allergenic of the Christmas tree species.

Look for a full, symmetrical tree at a Christmas tree farm or sales stand.  Forest trees are not pruned into shape the way trees on commercial Christmas tree farms are pruned so trees you have to choose from in a National forest or on unmanaged private property won’t be as symmetrical or full. 

Bring a tape measure! Measure the tree to make sure you can get it through your doors, that it will stand upright in your room and won’t take more space than you have for it.  If you are at a commercial tree farm you may have to pay for the tree by the foot so take that in consideration also.

Look at the tree trunk to make sure it’s straight and not oddly shaped.  A tree may appear to be straight but the trunk may have an odd angle that will make inserting it in a stand and keeping it upright hard.  Make sure the diameter of the trunk will fit your stand.

If you are cutting the tree leave a long “stem” on the tree because you need to do a second cut across the stump before you put it in the stand.  This makes sure the tree can take up water.  And make your cut as straight across the trunk as possible.

After the tree is cut give it a few quick bounces on the ground to dislodge loose needles.  You may want to check for bird nests.  Some people think they are lucky and leave them in the tree.  But bird nests may contain pests like lice or even mice and probably should be removed. 

The easiest way to carry the tree back to the car is to wrap it in a tarp.  Some tree sellers will wrap the tree in netting.  This protects the tree and makes it easier to handle.  If the tree is to ride home on top of the car it should be wrapped in a tarp or blanket and the bottom of the tree should point to the front of the car.  Secure it tightly with ropes or bungee cords.

Once you have the tree home store it outside in a cool, shady place in a bucket of water until you are ready to put it up inside.  You’ll want it where dogs and cats can’t “anoint” it for you or where deer or other animals could nibble it.  Trees store well outside in cool weather for several weeks. Live trees should not go up inside the house until 7-10 days before Christmas and should be removed within a few days after Christmas.  Have a great holiday!

Growing chives, inside and outside

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are one of the easiest herbs or vegetables to grow outside and they are also one of the herbs that will do well growing on a windowsill indoors.  Both the green round leaves and the flowers of chives are edible and the plants can be woven into the flower beds where the flowers will provide attractive spring blooms. Not only are the flowers pretty but they also attract bees and butterflies with their nectar.

Chives are perennial members of the onion family and native to China, Eastern Europe and North America.  They have naturalized in many other temperate areas of the world.  Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are related but have distinct differences.
 
Chives in the garden
Chives have round, hollow leaves that when broken have that distinctive oniony smell.  When they begin growing in spring they can be mistaken for clumps of grass.  You just need to examine and smell a leaf to make the right identification.   Garlic chives smell similar, but their leaves are flat and not hollow. 

Chives grows best in the cooler times of the year such as spring and fall but remains green and growing throughout summer, and in milder areas may stay green all winter.  It can be continually harvested during growing season as long as no more than half the plant is removed at a time. 

The flowers of chives are a rosy purple. The 6 petaled tubes flare to a star shape, and grow in clusters of 10-30 flowers in a rounded ball.  The flowers are at the end of “scapes”, stiff stems that hold them above the foliage.  The flowers have a nectar that is quite attractive to bees and some butterflies. Chives flowers in late spring to early summer.  The flowers turn into 3 sectioned seed pods filled with tiny black seeds.  Chive flowers can be dried for dried flower arrangements.

Chives prefers full sun outside but will survive in partial shade.  It will grow in any well drained soil.  Gardeners will generally start with plants although chives are fairly easy to grow from seeds.  Be aware that chives often spread rapidly both by increasing the clump diameter and by seed. Once a gardener has chives in the garden they rarely are without them.

To start chives from seed simply sprinkle the seeds on moist planting medium and press them lightly into the soil.  The tiny seedlings look like a blade of grass.  Let them get several leaves before transplanting into the garden or into a windowsill pot.

Outside chives are moderately drought tolerant and will only need to be watered when it’s really dry.  Watering in the summer heat will keep them tender and tasty though.  If you frequently clip the leaves to use in cooking the chives plant will appreciate some slow release fertilizer once a month.

The root system of chives forms small bulbs just like other members of the onion family.  You can divide a clump of chives in the spring leaving 2-3 bulbs per new plant.  Even if you don’t want more plants your clump of chives should be divided every 3 years to keep it vigorous.  If you don’t use the flowers in cooking clip them off as they start to fade so they don’t put energy into producing seeds- unless you want seeds.

If you are growing chives on the windowsill inside pick the sunniest window you have, preferably a south or west window.   Chives will also do well under a grow light.  Make sure the pot the chives are in drains well and let the pot dry out slightly between watering.  Chives grown inside rarely flower but will provide you with tasty greens.  If you clip them frequently they will need fertilization about once a month.

Both inside and outside chives rarely suffer from insects or disease problems.
 
chives sprouting
Using chives

Chives have been used in cooking for thousands of years.  You simply cut off a few leaves ands mince them into tiny pieces.  I like chives in scrambled eggs, in cheese dishes, in salads, and even in breads and biscuits.  Chives blended with cream cheese is a favorite dip of many people.  They are also used to flavor meats.

Chive flowers make a pretty, edible garnish for salads and other foods.  Both the leaves and flowers can be dried and stored or frozen and stored.  Dried chives have less flavor than fresh but are still good.  Frozen chives seem to lose little flavor and are my favorite way to preserve them.

Chives are rich in calcium, iron, vitamin A and C.  Medicinally they are used as a mild diuretic and have antiseptic properties.  Chives help stimulate the appetite and some studies have shown that all members of the onion family may have a beneficial connection to preventing gastric and intestinal cancers.

Chives were used in earlier times to treat depression and at least one study found that chives improved dopamine functioning in animals.  Dopamine is a brain chemical linked to mood.  If you are feeling sad munch on some chives.

Gardeners often claim a border of chive plants helps repel Japanese beetles although no studies have been done to test this idea.

If you can have only one herb type plant, chives should probably be your choice.  They are easy to grow and have a pleasant mild flavor most people like.  Chives also have pretty flowers and attract pollinators.  What’s not to like?

Cheese and herb holiday scones

These herb and onion scones will go well with almost any meal.  Make several batches as your contribution to a holiday buffet.  I find rosemary the perfect herb to use with chives for these scones but you can use other herbs such as thyme or sage.  The red pepper and green chives add a touch of holiday color.  If you don’t have buttermilk add 1 tablespoon melted butter to a ½ cup of cream for almost the same taste.

 Ingredients
2 cups flour
1 egg lightly beaten
1 egg white lightly beaten
½ cup buttermilk
½ cup finely grated cheddar cheese (or your choice of cheese)
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons of finely diced green chives
¼ cup finely diced red sweet pepper
1 tablespoon water
¼ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
12 sprigs of fresh rosemary

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or spray lightly with cooking spray.

Mix together flour, baking powder and soda, pepper, salt.

In another bowl mix together the buttermilk, whole egg, cheese, red pepper and onions.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the egg-milk mixture.  Mix together just until ingredients are blended and moist.

Turn dough out onto floured surface.  Knead lightly, folding dough over several times.  Dough should look smooth when kneaded enough.

Divide dough in half.  Roll each half into a circle about 5 inches across.  Cut each circle into 6 wedges.

Place wedges 1 inch apart on the baking sheet.

Mix together the remaining egg white with the water.  Brush the tops of each wedge then add a sprig of rosemary to the top of each.  Brush with egg white mixture again, coating the rosemary. 

Bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown.  Serve warm.


Warm buttered scones, now that’s a winter treat.
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….

Find Michigan garden events/classes here:
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An interesting Plant Id page you can join on Facebook

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