Tuesday, April 16, 2019

April 16, 2019

Hi Gardeners

Yesterday I woke up to a light covering of snow, but the sun was out, and it quickly melted.  The rest of the day was sunny and mild. The willows, maples and poplars are starting to bloom, and the trees showed a haze of yellow and red against the deep blue sky.
Today its cool and rainy.  The whole week is supposed to be the same, rain predicted every day.  I sure hope April showers mean May flowers.  Flowers are starting to bloom outside.  Besides crocus, I now have iris reticulata, and the earliest daffodils blooming.  Trout lilies and early tulips have buds.  Forsythia is showing a bit of color in the buds.

The lilacs are showing green and the amur honeysuckle has small leaves.  The barberry also is leafing out. Ground ivy is blooming, but I haven’t seen dandelions yet.

Sometime this week I will get to the nursery to get some pansies.  I love pansies and I always have a hard time choosing which varieties and colors to buy.  This is one plant that can be planted outside now in colder zones for a bit of color in porch pots. Even snow won’t hurt them.  Later when it gets hot the blooming fades.  But if you cut them back you can usually get them to bloom again in the fall when it cools off.  In the spring they go into pots here, when it’s time to plant the summer annuals I remove the pansies and plant them in the ground somewhere.

Mary Helen, my pretty cannabis plant, got repotted this week into a huge pot.  Normally I would not have put a small plant into this big of a pot but my cannabis advisors tell me this is the way its done. She has a LED grow light suspended just above her.  It’s not 600 watts like I was told to use, just a 250 watt equivalent.

The first two days I noticed Mary Helen had moved her leaves nearly vertical, which to me means a plant is getting too much light.  They adjust their leaves so that less leaf surface is exposed to light.  I lifted the grow light a few inches and her leaves resumed a more natural horizontal incline.  I am glad I didn’t use a 600 watt bulb. She looks happy and is putting out new leaves. 

The biggest problem I am having with Mary Helen is that she smells. I can smell the skunky smell in the next room.  I don’t remember the pot plants I had in college having that strong a smell. I don’t know how people can stand having a whole room full of them.  I am assured the smell is normal and good by pot experts.

Mary Helen will be moved outside as soon as its warm enough.  Some of my pot experts are trying to talk me out of that.  She will be hardened off properly, see the article about that below.  And she will have a cage to protect her from animals. Maybe some netting for insects. The experts tell me she will get too hot.  I said she will get equally hot inside, since we don’t have air conditioning.  That sparked an appeal for me to install air conditioning.  No, Mary Helen will need to adjust.  She is an experiment, if I get any harvest, I will be happy.

I am thinking there may be some good money in producing cuttings or seeds of cannabis in states where it’s legal.  Twelve legal plants could produce a lot of seeds, which are selling for 3/$26 up to 3/$130. And you still might get some product for personal use. Something to think about.

I’ve got some lengthy articles here this week.  When I start to write about a topic, I feel I need to explain it fully.  I know this world today is all about videos and short quick info bites.  But that just isn’t me.  So if you are interested in one of the topics I wrote about I hope you will take time to read it and that I explained the topic well.

A garden tip

I was thumbing through one of those expensive garden supply catalogs and noticed what looked like a laundry tub for sale as a raised planter.  It was over $200.  I saw single laundry tubs on legs at Home Depot for $30.  They have all kinds and sizes at a range of prices.  These would make great, deep raised planting beds.  You could plant a nice big tomato plant in one and let it hang over the sides, keeping it trimmed off the ground.  We did that once with an old freezer on it’s back but they don’t look as nice and are hard to move when full.

Laundry tubs could be found at even better prices at resale shops or yard sales.  You might even find them discarded by the road.  They do have a drain hole, but I would add a few extra drainage holes with a drill.  They could easily be painted, and the height adjusted by shortening the legs if needed.

The tubs without legs are also sold.  These might make a raised container bed if set on blocks.  But the same thing could also be done with stock tanks, which you can buy at places like Tractor Supply.  You can find these used at farm sales too. Stock tanks also make good brooders for baby chicks.

The health benefits of purple corn

Ancient farmers had many varieties of corn with colorful kernels.  Some of those varieties persist today and researchers at the University of Illinois used one old strain, Apache Red to create several new varieties with deeply pigmented kernels.  The colors come from anthocyanins and are concentrated in the pericarp or outer “skin” of a corn kernel.

Researchers know that anthocyanins have many health benefits and they removed these anthocyanins from the corn kernels with water pressure and then freeze dried the extracts.  The extracts were then used in research. 

The corn extracts reduced inflammation and fat deposits in cells and decreased insulin resistance.  In animals the extracts helped prevent obesity and diabetes.  Because corn is easy to grow and store and the process of extracting the anthocyanins much easier than extracting them from other plants, scientists are excited about the prospects of this new corn to aid human health.

In the process of experimenting with the pericarps filled with anthocyanins researchers found they also make great safe food dyes and could replace many dyes that are thought to be harmful to health. Corn is a remarkably useful plant in so many ways. 

If you have the space why not grow some corn this year?  There are colorful varieties that also make good sweet corn and the reds and purples will give you those healthy anthocyanins.  You may want to try grinding your own cornmeal.  Or just grow some of the colorful ears for decoration.

More reading

Hardening off plants

Every spring many gardeners, even some experienced ones, are going to kill or harm some of their plants.  What will they do?  They will move them outside without giving them time to adapt gradually to outside conditions, called hardening them off.  It may be houseplants, it may be seedlings you started under lights inside, it may even be plants you purchased at the greenhouse, but it was plants that weren’t ready to be shoved outside without some extra care.

There are several things that can harm plants when they are first taken outside.  One is cold, but the sun and the wind on a beautiful warm day in spring can prove equally harmful.  The shock of changing from sheltered conditions inside to the real world outside can damage or kill most plants. That’s why any move outside is done carefully and gradually. The process is called hardening off and it’s essential for healthy plants.


Most gardeners know enough not to put plants out when it’s too cold, but sometimes when they see greenhouses selling them, they assume it’s time to put them outside.  Don’t assume, greenhouses don’t mind selling you new plants after a frost kills the first ones you bought.  Know your average last frost date and keep an eye on the weather forecast when purchasing plants in early spring or deciding when to move seedlings or houseplants outside.

Most annuals and houseplants are killed by frost, a freeze is deadly even to some new perennials that haven’t been hardened off.  A frost can occur even above the freezing point when nights are clear and calm and temperatures dip below about 36 degrees.  Even after frost normally doesn’t occur in your area an odd weather pattern can bring a surprise frost in late spring. Gardeners should pay attention to weather forecasts.

When you can’t resist buying that gorgeous hanging basket of begonias or those nice tomato plants early in your growing season, make sure you have a place to move them into when frost threatens.  You can use a garage or shed or even your car but if frost is predicted move tender plants to a protected spot. If you are moving seedlings outside in flats or pots, they too, should be moved inside if frost threatens.  I leave mine on a cart so that I can simply pull it into the barn. (Don’t leave plants in the car after the sun comes up, they may get too hot.)

If you have planted in the ground or large containers and frost threatens you can cover the plants with paper or cloth, not plastic as it can harm plants. If the leaves are touching the plastic during the frost the cold comes right through or if the morning sun warms things up too much before you can get out there and uncover them the plants will cook.  Covering plants when a hard freeze is coming won’t protect them.

Having a small unheated greenhouse is wonderful in the spring.  You can purchase plants early when the selection is good and hold them inside the greenhouse until the weather is settled.  Or you can move seedlings from a heated place to the unheated but protected space.

Most houseplants are tropical and shouldn’t be moved outside until temperatures stay above 40 degrees at night.  A few warm days can be deceptive.  If you are like me it’s a major job moving plants out for the summer and you don’t want to do it more than once.  Wait until the weather is quite warm and settled before giving those houseplants a summer vacation.

If a perennial is winter hardy in your area, it’s ok to plant it as soon as the soil can be worked when its dormant.  But if the plant is in a pot and well leafed out when you get it, and similar plants in the ground outside aren’t leafed out yet, then wait before planting it outside until conditions are warmer.  Putting the leafed-out plant outside too soon may kill the young growth that hasn’t hardened off.  This will stunt the plants growth or may even kill it.

You can put the plant outside in a sheltered place- sun is ok after a day or two of acclimation if that plant likes sun- and move it inside if a frost or freeze is expected. When similar plants in the ground already have leafed out then your potted perennial can be planted.  If all danger of frost has passed it can also be planted.

The sun and wind

Even if the temperature isn’t going to be a problem, moving plants outside into full sunlight and the wind from an indoor location can harm them. Even you might burn if you spent a whole day outside in the sun early in spring before building up a little tan. The sun outside heats the plants leaf surfaces quickly, unlike most indoor lights.  Heat and the stronger light both affect the plants.

Plants change the type of leaves they have to suit the light conditions. Some drop leaves and replace them, others make the leaves thicker, add more chloroplasts, or change the angle at which leaves are presented to the sun. This change takes a few days to a few weeks depending on the plant.

It doesn’t matter if the plants were in very bright conditions inside, like under grow lights or in a southern window.  Even plants known to like full sun, like cacti and some succulents, and those tomatoes and peppers may burn if moved directly into sunlight from inside. Seedlings are very vulnerable. 

Even if plants spent the summer outside the previous year, if they have been inside all winter, they need an adjustment period or hardening off, this year too.

Plants that sunburn may get reddened areas, or yellow or white areas especially at the top of the plant.  They may look bleached out or like they are blistered. These areas may then turn brown and crisp or they may remain soft and rot.  Leaves may wilt. The wind, even if it’s a light breeze, contributes to problems by quickly drying out plants. Sunburn and wind drying can happen in just a few hours.

Plants may not die from sunburn, but they will be delayed in growth and production as they work to repair the damage.  It can take most of the season just to repair that early damage. They may never look as nice.  And some plants will die, some after just a few hours in the direct sun.

So how do you harden off plants?  Put the plants outside in a shaded location protected from the wind for a few days before gradually moving them into full sun or their preferred lighting, and the wind. Start with an hour or so of full sun and mild breezes, then move them back into shade.  Lengthen the time by a couple hours each day. When they are in sun for 6-8 hours a day they can be planted in the sun.  (This is for plants that like full sun.   Shade loving plants should never be put into full sun.)

If you don’t have a shady area make one with a beach umbrella, a tarp, or putting them under a table. Choosing to move plants outside during rainy or cloudy weather is also a good idea. A cloudy, rainy, mild spell is the perfect time to buy plants, and move plants outside.

Make sure to keep plants moist while hardening them off.  Pots and flats will dry out much more quickly outside than inside.  Having them near a water source is a good idea.

I like to cover my tomatoes the first few days with brown paper

What about plants that came from a greenhouse?  Some of those plants may also suffer, especially from drying out. When I buy annuals and vegetable plants from the greenhouse, I don’t plant them the first day.  I put them in light shade (if they are sun lovers) or shade (if they are shade plants) and keep them well watered for a day or two. That’s usually enough adaptation time for greenhouse plants. 

If you are going to store the plants for any longer time before planting, put them in a shady protected spot first for a day or two, then move them into partial or filtered sun if they are sun loving plants. Plants in small pots and cell packs dry out quickly. Don’t forget to water them frequently.  This could be several times a day if it’s warm.

If you do decide to plant on a sunny day in full sun, you should protect the plants (shelter in place?).  When my grandfather planted tomatoes outside, he made little hats out of newspaper for them.  These were left on for three days.  It worked for him.  You can also use paper, (paper lunch bags work well), row cover, shade cloth, old thin sheets, or other things to cover newly planted plants. You don’t want things that hold too much heat, tear the corners off bags and lift row/bed covers up off plants so air can circulate, or you will cook the plants.

Some houseplants that like that southern window inside may not be able to stand full sun outside, even after hardening off.  My Norfolk pines are in a southern window with grow lights as supplements in the winter.  When they go outside, they go under the high shade of some cedar trees for the summer and they thrive. 

Aloes, cacti and many other sun lovers still need an adaptation period.  Some succulents like Christmas cacti are not found in full sun in the wild, and don’t appreciate it at your house either. A rule of thumb for houseplants is shade first – for at least a week, then partial shade for another.  Then a great many of them still need partial shade or dappled shade or even full shade for the summer outside.  Know what light conditions your plant species prefers in its native environment.

It may seem like a lot of time and work to harden off plants.  Some people don’t do it and for some plants in some instances that may work. But taking just a little time and effort to let the plants adjust to new conditions makes them healthier and happier.

Amending your soil pH to grow blueberries

Blueberries are a very healthy food and they taste good too.  It’s no wonder that many gardeners want to grow them.  But growing blueberries isn’t easy for many gardeners, not because they aren’t good gardeners but because they don’t have the acidic soil conditions blueberries need.  While many states do have areas with acidic soil, you’ll probably find your garden has neutral or even alkaline soil pH.

There are other plants, such as rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias that also require acidic soil.  Many gardeners have the mistaken idea that they can add some soil amendments and quickly change alkaline soil to acidic to grow these plants but amending soil pH isn’t that simple.

Soil is composed of minerals from dissolved and crushed rocks, and of organic matter, air and water.  The types of rocks that formed the soil in an area added different minerals to the soil.  Hydrogen gets into soil from those rocks, from the breakdown of organic matter and from chemical reactions in plant root systems.  In soil, the hydrogen ions are in the water that fills the pores between soil particles.  The more Hydrogen ions in the soil the more alkaline it is.  

How acidic or alkaline the water in soil is determines what kinds of mineral elements get dissolved and become available to plants or get bound up in complex reactions and become unavailable.  The term pH stands for the potential or percentage of Hydrogen ions in a solution.  (The correct way to write this term is lower case p, upper case H.)  A pH scale is a way to rate how acidic or alkaline soil is.  It ranges from 0-14.  Seven is considered neutral. Above 7 is alkaline and below 7 is acidic.

Soil pH increases or decreases by ten times for each point on the pH scale.  A pH of 6 is ten times more acidic than 7 and a pH of 5 is ten times that or one hundred times more acidic than a pH of seven.  So, if you are trying to lower a soil pH of 7 to a pH of 5 for acidic soil loving plants you are trying to make it 100 times less alkaline.  You may guess from this that lowering soil pH might not be easy and your guess would be right.

Most plants grow best at pH levels of 6.5 to 7.5. That is where most beneficial minerals become available to them.  The pH level in soil also affects the microbes and micro-organisms that break down organic matter that adds nutrients to soil. 

A few plants have evolved to survive in soil pH levels slightly higher or lower than that 6.5 -7 range. Plants that prefer acidic soil like blueberries, function best when minerals like iron are easily obtained from soil. Iron is dissolved in the acidic water of low pH soils and is essential to plant health.  Above a 6.5 pH iron is not easily available to plants as it is bound to other soil compounds. 

The plants that grow in neutral or alkaline soil evolved chemical reactions in the root system and associations with microorganisms that help them obtain iron bound in the soil. Blueberries and other acidic soil plants don’t have the adaptations that other plants have evolved to take that iron (and a few other minerals) from the soil. 

Some new research has found that planting turf grasses around blueberries and keeping them mowed may help blueberries exist in more alkaline soil.  That’s because the grass plants have the ability to take iron from the soil and the blueberries can “steal” some of that iron from the grass roots.  The grass roots also encourage the soil microorganisms that can release iron in the soil to colonize.

Lowering soil pH to plant blueberries – and other acidic soil lovers

Depending on the type of soil, what you are going to use to lower the Ph and how much you need to lower the pH it can take a year to 3 years to substantially lower soil ph.  It’s hard to adjust soil pH when plants are already in the soil, so don’t plant your blueberries until you have achieved the right soil pH.  

If you want to plant blueberries in alkaline soil you needed to start preparing that soil two years before you plant. You cannot just add peat and a sprinkle of acidic fertilizer to the planting hole and hope to get good results, even though you’ll see this advice offered by many who don’t know anything about soil science.   

The first step is to get a soil test to see what the actual soil pH is.  You can get your soil tested at almost any County Extension office in the United States.  Many garden and farm service stores also offer the service.  They will tell you how they want you to collect and submit the specimen.  These places will generally give you recommendations when you get the results for fertilizing or changing the soil pH.

There are small kits that have you mix water and soil and test the pH but these are not very reliable.  If you are a person who likes to do it yourself, you can purchase a small meter that has probes that go into moist soil and reads the pH.  The more expensive ones used by professional growers are pretty accurate.

While compost, manure, pine bark and peat may lower the pH a tiny bit, generally after years of applying healthy quantities of these products to the soil, you really need something like sulfur, aluminum sulfate or ferrous sulfate to substantially lower soil pH. 

Some researchers believe aluminum sulfate may harm blueberries if it needs to be used in large quantities. So, sulfur, which is cheaper and easier to obtain than ferrous sulfate, is probably the best acidifier for home gardeners.  The amount to use is tricky and depends on a number of factors.  The soil texture will affect the amount needed, with clay soils needing more acidifier than sandy ones.  The starting pH is also a big factor.

Here’s a quick, rough reference for the amount of sulfur to use per 10 sg. feet for a soil with loam texture to lower pH to 5, which is good for blueberries. 

Current pH 8 use 6/10 pound
Current pH 7.5 use 5/10 lb
Current pH 7 use 4/10 lb
Current pH 6.5 use 3/10 lb
Current pH 6 use 2/10 lb

If you use ferrous sulfate increase the amount times 6. If your soil is really sandy reduce the amount of sulfur or ferrous sulfate by 1/3 and if its heavy clay increase it by 1/2.  You add the sulfur in spring or summer and work it into the soil. Try to work it in to the top 12 inches of soil. You cannot add more than 2 pounds of sulfur or 5 pounds of ferrous sulfate per 100 square feet in one application.  You will need to divide the amount needed and add applications 3 months apart.  Some acidifier products will have directions on the package to follow.

Using sphagnum peat to lower pH

While adding sphagnum peat to a planting hole won’t work well, if you have money and time it can be used to lower pH over a larger area. You need sphagnum peat, not the ground peat sold cheaply in bags in garden centers.  This method is expensive and lots of work.

Spread the peat 3 inches deep over the soil surface and work it into the top 8-12 inches of native soil. The area you add sphagnum peat to should be at least 5 square surface feet per blueberry plant. Let it rest a month and soil test for pH.  You may need to add more peat or an acidifier product.  Let it rest and test.  You may need to repeat several more times.  Soil pH does not change quickly.

When the pH is correct then dig planting holes. The gardener’s golden rule of thumb for planting anything is to refill the hole with the soil taken out of it, and not to add things to the hole.  When the peat has been thoroughly mixed into the area the plants will be planted in, it is unlikely to cause the problems it would cause if you simply added it to planting holes.

If you add things like peat to the hole, which holds water, you will create a bathtub of water in clay soil to rot plant roots.  In sandy soil the peat will hold water and the plant roots will stay in the area with the peat, until all the water is gone.  The roots won’t be able to support the top growth well then and the plant will become stunted or may die.  You want plant roots to spread out into the native soil immediately after planting, going deep and far to find water and support the plant.

Container and raised bed planting

If you have alkaline soil it may be easier to plant blueberries in deep raised beds or in containers.  It is cheaper to make an acidic planting medium in these and you can often plant the same year.  Raised beds and containers should be at least 12 inches deep, 18 would be better, and they must drain well. Compact and dwarf blueberries need 2-3 square feet of surface area, normal sixed blueberries need about 5 square feet of surface area.

A mixture of equal amounts of compost, sphagnum peat, sand and shredded bark can be used. Add some acidic fertilizer per label directions for containers. Thoroughly mix the ingredients and test the pH level. Add more peat or an acidifier if it’s still too high.  When the level is good you can plant.  You’ll need to test the pH each year because rain and irrigation water may change the pH and use either acidifiers to lower pH or if it’s below 4.5 use lime to raise it a bit.

Mulching blueberry plants is always good, but mulch won’t contribute much to lowering soil pH, no matter what you use.  Anything just added to the surface will not lower soil pH very much.

After reading this you may decide blueberries are too much work and expense unless you have naturally acidic soil.  There’s nothing wrong and a lot to commend, if you decide to buy your blueberries from someone who actually has the right soil for growing them. 

There are many fruits that will grow in neutral or slightly alkaline soil such as raspberries and blackberries.  You may want to try honeyberries which have a similar tasting fruit to blueberries, and which ripen about the same time as strawberries ripen.  They are not as fussy about soil pH.

What’s that coming up?

It’s that time of year when many things are popping up in the garden and gardeners are wondering if it’s a garden plant or a weed and if it’s a garden plant just what is it?  They may not remember planting something or the garden is new to them, so they don’t know what is coming up.

I highly recommend taking pictures of your garden at several times during the season so you can refer to the pictures to see if you can determine what’s sprouting.  Using labels in the garden can also help.

Even if you don’t see something similar in a photo or find a label, don’t be too quick to pull out plants that you don’t immediately recognize.    Seedlings and new foliage may look different form older plants. You may destroy something you would have enjoyed, or maybe even something you paid good money for.

If you identify something you think you didn’t plant and wonder how it got planted, there can be many explanations. Some plants come up from seed dropped last year, blown in, or seed carried by birds and animals. (The old adage of a squirrel planting it could be true if it’s a nut tree or a type of bulb squirrels like to eat, but true squirrel plantings are rare.) Seeds, bulbs or root pieces may have been in the root balls of something you did plant or in soil or compost you added.  And I can attest gardeners do forget about things they planted.  

As you gain experience in gardening, you’ll soon get a sense for what is probably a weed coming up or something you’ll want to keep. You may recognize seedlings of plants that reseed every year.  But even experienced gardeners sometimes make mistakes.

And don’t get too worried yet if you are expecting to see certain plants and they aren’t there.  Some plants are slow to emerge in spring, and micro climates in your yard may delay your plants emergence (or flowering) even if the neighbors has emerged.

I took some pictures of various plants coming up in my garden in zone 5.  In other planting zones plants may be at different stages.  I certainly can’t post pictures of every plant, but you can look at these and see if you can now identify plants you were wondering about.   I’ll try to post more emerging plants in a week or two.
Comfrey is in front with wrinkled leaves.  Garlic chives has flat leaves that
smell like onion.  Chives has round. leaves and also has an onion smell



Star of Bethlehem  (Ornithogalum umbellatum)
It looks like a clump of grass or chives. Some leaves will have a white band in the center.

Fritillaria look somewhat like lilies sprouting but earlier in spring.
These tiny iris often have a white stripe on the leave and may look like crocus
without close inspection.
Peony sprouts are usually red 

Trout lily leaves may remind you of tulips but notice the reddish mottling.
Dames Rocket has pointed somewhat hairy leaves. It is a weed t some, flower to others.
Bee balm or monarda has a pleasant lemon mint scent when crushed.

Corydalis has fan shaped, ferny looking blue-green leaves 

Catnip has a distinctive smell when leaves are crushed.

Lambs quarters, sheep sorrel  (Chenopodium album) usually comes up thickly
and the leaves may have a red tinge in the center.  It's a weed to some, edible plant to others.
I'll have more plant id pictures next week.

Be the reason someone is inspired to garden

Kim Willis
All parts of this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without permission.

And So On….

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I write this because I love to share with other gardeners some of the things I come across in my research each week (or things I want to talk about). 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 or anyone you know 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

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

April 9, 2019

April 9, 2019

Hi Gardeners

We’ve had a few days of beautiful spring weather, with sunny days and temps near 70.  It’s partly sunny and in the fifties today, a bit windy but not too bad.  Of course, as many of you are aware- or if you aren’t, I hope I am making you aware- we are going to get some winter like weather across the country, starting tomorrow.  Some places in the south may get severe storms and tornadoes. 

I do feel sorry for those whose fruit trees and magnolias are blooming, because snow and freezing weather may harm these.  Don’t worry about the early spring blooming bulbs, like crocus.  Most of these won’t be harmed even if snow covered.  Things like tulips could be crushed by heavy snow.  There’s just not much you can do- unless you can cover clumps of tulips with something like a bucket.  Don’t cover them with plastic or cloth, which will just be weighed down by snow and make things worse.

Here at my place the crocus have joined the winter aconite in bloom.  The white snow crocus by the house bloom first, followed by the early lavender crocus and proceeding to the large flowered crocus in various spots that are just starting to bloom. I see buds on the earliest types of daffodils.  The tulips, alliums, hyacinths and fritillaria are well above the ground.

As I look at the tree line, I notice the slightest flush of yellow and red, signs the buds are swelling.  Pussy willows by the pond have fuzzy catkins. The amur honeysuckle already has tiny green leaves. The winter wheat in the farm fields across the road is well sprouted and being grazed nightly by a herd of 9 deer. I feel sorry for the farmer whose field is being nibbled, but I’m glad the deer have something to divert them from my gardens.

I have been cleaning out beds and transplanting things.  Cool wet weather is a great time for moving plants.  I moved two landscape roses and some daylilies. It’s also a good time for fertilizing.  I used an entire 20 pound bag of general purpose fertilizer on my flower beds. I get a soil test about every 3 years, but I know my property very well, having gardened here for 25 years, so I pretty much know what’s needed.  There are no hard surfaces for the fertilizer to run off and I’m careful how I spread it.  I know my plants do very well with my regular spring fertilization, it’s a one time a year fertilization, just as plants get growing and that’s it for the perennials. 

And yes, I do use a “chemical” fertilizer, a granular slow release type.  I don’t mind organic but I know the plants don’t care either way so I get what I can find at a good price.  My flower beds also get organic matter from the leaves and other mulches I use, and the soil is rich and healthy for the most part.

So, what’s happening inside?  My amaryllis is still blooming, putting out flower after flower.  An ivy geranium I have in a window in the front room is blooming like crazy.  The hibiscus are starting to bloom again. 

I am going to have to move some plants around though, to make room for my newest addition, a beautiful cannabis plant.  (It’s legal here now.)  I need to get Mary Helen, as I’ve named her, under a good strong grow light.  I don’t usually name plants but this one is special.  As much as I know about plants the care and feeding of a modern pot plant is very involved.  When I was younger you threw some seeds in a pot and put the pot on a sunny windowsill on the back side of the house so fewer people could see it. Or the seeds came up on their own by the porch step where you sat and smoked it.

But cannabis growing is very technical now.  So many weeks in this size pot, with this much light, the so many weeks in the next sized pot with this much light and so on.  Plus, different fertilizer formulas for different growth stages and managing heat and humidity- it’s a lot of work it seems.  But I will soldier on.  And, oh that smell!

Ant control myths

It’s spring and someone wants an organic solution for getting rid of ants.  As sure as sunrise someone else will recommend sprinkling cornmeal- or grits- where the ants are to get rid of them.  Somehow the idea that ants eat cornmeal or grits then bloat and explode got started and it’s hard to make that false idea die.  There’s no evidence that ants ever die from eating cornmeal or grits.  And the biology of the ant’s digestive system makes that explosion pretty much impossible.

Ants don’t digest solid foods they may gather, like pollen grains, pieces of dead caterpillars, leaves and so on.  The solid bits go into a special pouch area and get carried back to the nest where they are fed to the ant larvae, which do digest solids.  The larvae then regurgitate a liquid which is shared through the colony of both worker ants and larvae.  There’s no gas build up since they have the ability to regurgitate.  Researchers have fed cornmeal and other substances to ant colonies with no problems. 

The nonsense of cornmeal killing ants probably got started because cornmeal is often used in ant pesticides as an attractant.  A poison is liquefied then added to cornmeal which absorbs it.  When you sprinkle cornmeal around in the garden you aren’t killing pests, you are attracting them.  You’ll get ants as well as mice and squirrels and other critters.  And cornmeal can also mold and look and smell nasty.  When you hear someone recommending using cornmeal to make ants explode just laugh.

Boric acid and jelly, it’s the second most common “home remedy” for ants circulated in social media and among gardeners.  And yes, boric acid kills ants, it’s one of the most common ingredients in commercial ant control products and get this- it’s a registered pesticide!  So, it’s not a myth that boric acid kills ants but it’s neither natural nor safe, that’s the myth. When you use boric acid, whether you buy commercial products or mix up some concoction you read about, you are applying a chemical pesticide, not a “natural” product.  And

Despite all the claims boric acid is not harmless to children and pets. Boric acid powder can be inhaled, and chronic exposure will cause problems. Getting powder in the eyes will cause severe damage. But the most common way to be poisoned by boric acid is by consuming it.  Normally pets and children would not eat enough boric acid to make them terribly ill but when someone mixes it with jelly, honey or maple syrup they may consume enough to become seriously ill or die.

Boric acid is not harmless to plants either.  Boric acid products on plant foliage will dry it out and cause leaf death.  Too much boric acid in the soil causes plant death.  This can happen when boric acid products are leached into the soil by rain or irrigation.

So, the bottom line is boric acid is a pesticide and can cause poisoning like all other chemical pesticides.  If you mix up concoctions with it, they must be placed in containers that pets and children cannot get into.  Boric acid doesn’t just kill ants. Sweet mixes should not be openly spread around in the environment where they can kill bees, helpful insects, and wildlife.  If you use a powdered mix pets should not be able to walk through it, as they can be poisoned by licking their paws.

Ants and peonies

Spring is also the time when another ant myth pops up. When people look at peonies and peony buds, they often notice ants on them. Some people swear the peonies need ants and others think ants harm peonies.   But the truth is ants are neither bad for peonies nor good for them. 

Peonies have many nectar glands, they occur in the flower’s reproductive parts, starting when the buds enlarge and lasting at least to the green seed pod stage.  Ants enjoy this nectar.  But peonies don’t need ants to eat the nectar.  Ants don’t help the buds open by eating “sticky” nectar off and they don’t generally pollinate the peony flower either.  Ants do defend a food source to some extent and may keep things like caterpillars from eating the flowers.  But this is a minor benefit in most cases.

Peonies without ants will open their flowers just fine.  And the ants don’t harm the flowers so there’s no need to control them. There’s plenty of nectar for everyone.  Using pesticides in this case, even organic ones, is not good environmental stewardship. 

Ants don’t show up on every peony plant.  Some varieties seem to attract more ants than others, and what’s available in your area for ant food may determine whether you have ants on your peony flowers or not.  If you object to ants being on flowers you are cutting for a bouquet you can shake the flowers or dip them slowly into cold water upside down to remove ants.

Every year these ant myths pop up again and again.  Do your part by not spreading these myths and encouraging other gardeners to become educated about ants and how to control them.

Summer bulbs to try

Do you associate planting bulbs with fall?  If that’s the case, you may be missing out on some wonderful flowers that are grown from bulbs planted in spring and that bloom in summer and fall.  I like interesting and different plants and some of the spring planted bulbs provide plenty of interest.  Spring planted bulbs many gardeners are familiar with are dahlias, glads, and cannas but there are many more bulbs gardeners should get to know.  (Some of these have tubers, corms or rhizomes botanically but are generally lumped together with bulbs.) Let’s explore some of those lesser known spring planted bulbs, tubers, rhizomes and corms.
calla lilies
Calla lilies -Zantedeschia aethiopica  are great summer bulbs.  You may be familiar with the small plants sold in nurseries with a wide assortment of colors, including one that’s nearly black.  The foliage ranges from narrow sword shaped leaves to broader oval shaped leaves.  Some varieties have leaves spotted with white.  But there are callas you can buy that make huge plants, covered in large impressive flowers.  The common original species can grow 3 feet high and wide with huge white flowers. ‘Green Goddess’ has white flowers that shade to green near the tip  and a  frilled edge.  These plants can get 5 feet high.  

Callas prefer full sun in the north and light to partial shade in the south.  These plants are not hardy below zone 8.  They are very frost tender and should not be put outside until after the last frost.  You can start them inside a month earlier.  Callas can be used as pond plants, with the pots sitting in shallow water.  Keep about half of the pot above the water line.  You can treat them as annuals or store the bulbs over the winter.  If you intend to store the bulbs cut off any seed pods that start to develop on the plants after blooming.

Bat flower

Bat flowers, (Tacca chantrieri, black and Tacca integrifolia, white) can both be grown from a tuber planted in spring. These plants have flowers that some say look like a flying bat with long dangling whiskers.  Actually the bat wings are flower bracts and the small purple flowers are below them.   While you might pay more than $20 for a small started plant in houseplant catalogs, you’ll pay much less if you buy these from bulb catalogs.  Put them in pots on the patio for summer interest and you can bring them inside and use them as houseplants in the winter.  

Bat flowers are not hardy and must not be put outside before all frost danger has passed and brought inside well before frost in fall.  They need shade outside and bright indirect light inside.  They must be kept moist and like humid areas.  They can start blooming when they have two leaves.  They will bloom at intervals, eight or more times a year.


Crocosemia  masonorum. have gently arched, tall wands of scarlet, yellow or orange flowers that can brighten up garden beds or star in pots. There are a number of named varieties.  Hummingbirds are attracted to them.  The leaves look like glad leaves. 

Crocosemia are hardy to zone 6 and the crocosemia  corms can be dug up in fall and stored like glad corms in colder zones.  You can also plant them in pots and move the whole pot inside for storage.  They multiply quickly.  These plants like full sun and moist conditions.  I set pots of them in back of my decorative pond.
Acidanthera (Acidanthera murielae) or peacock orchids are another plant with glad like leaves and the gently nodding star shaped, white flowers are marked with a red blotch in the center. The flowers have a sweet, light fragrance and make good cut flowers.  Plant these thickly in a pot or garden bed for the best show.  They have a long period of late summer bloom.  The corms are inexpensive and in planting zone 6 and below you could just treat them like annuals, planting new corms each year.  (In zone 7 they are marginally hardy and hardy in zones higher than 7.) 

You can dig the corms in the fall like glad corms and store them.  Or do like I do and plant them in large pots, moving the pots inside during the winter, where they will go dormant.  Each year the corms multiply and soon you can divide the corms into two pots.  Acidanthera are slow to emerge from dormancy in spring so don’t discard them thinking they are dead.
rain lilies
Rain lilies - Zephyranthes spp.  are winter hardy in zone 7 and higher but northern gardeners can plant the bulbs in pots and bring them inside for winter.  These plants have grass like leaves and after a rain or a good soaking they quickly produce small perky flowers in pink, yellow or white.  There are many named varieties.  Plant them in full sun.  They need to dry out between watering to promote bloom.  Rain lilies multiply quickly.

I have mine in a large pot that sits outside in the summer and is brought inside to a cool area for winter.  I get several flushes of flowers after they come inside in the fall, then they go dormant for the coldest part of winter.  Sometimes they die to the ground, in other winters the leaves stay green.  Then when the days lengthen in spring, I get flowers before the plants go back outside after the last frost.
Double flowered tuberose

Tuberose (Polianthes tuberosa) have a wonderful scent.  Pot up some of these and put them on the patio or near a place you sit in summer. The flowers are in clusters on a long stem and come in the traditional white as well as a variety of colors.  Bulbs have gotten rather expensive for small bulbs in the last few years so you may want to put a few in with other plants.  Butterflies are attracted to the scent of tuberose.   They like full sun.

Tuberose is only hardy in zone 8.  You can dig up the bulbs and save them overwinter like glad corms or move a pot with dormant bulbs inside to store through winter.

Starfish Iris- Ferraria crispa, this isn’t a true iris, but it blooms about the same time as bearded iris.   The leaves are iris like too.  You could plant it in the ground, but they show up better in pots, as an unusual conversation piece.  The 6 petals of the flower have gold edges that are frilled, the petals are white and spotted with maroon or mauve. They do resemble a starfish in many ways.   Some of the plants have flowers with a pleasant vanilla scent but some plants have flowers with a foul odor.

Starfish iris is only hardy to about zone 8.  It needs full sun and well drained soil.  After it blooms it goes dormant as summer heats up.  Keep the dormant corms in the pot on the dry side through summer and remember to bring the pot inside in fall for winter storage.

Ground orchids - (Bletilla striata) - are a rhizome planted in spring that can be hardy to zone 6.  They bloom in late spring to early summer and the blooms look like small orchids in shades of pink, white, purple and lavender.   The leaves are sword shaped, with a papery texture and a crease.  The plants are only 18 inches high so make sure to plant them where you can see them and appreciate them.

Hardy ground orchids should be planted in partial shade, in rich loamy soil.   It takes a year or two for them to establish and become showy but it’s worth the wait.  They slowly increase over time eventually becoming a mass of showy small flowers in spring.


Lycoris- spider lilies, naked ladies or surprise lilies.  These lilies have numerous names that mostly reflect their blooming habit.  The bloom stalks appear as if by magic from the ground in mid to late summer, long after the long strap like leaves which appeared in spring have faded and died.  There are species and hybrids that flower in red, yellow, pink and white.  The flowers are in clusters at the top of stalks about 2 feet tall.  They have long stamens protruding from the flowers that give them the spider lily moniker.

Hardiness ratings for lycoris vary.  I have seen them blooming by the roadside here in zone 5, completely hardy, left over from old home sites.  Yet I have been unable to get some colors to be winter hardy and some are rated only to zone 7.  In zones 6 and lower I suggest planting lycoris in tubs and bringing the tubs inside to a cool place to over winter.   Lycoris prefer full sun but may bloom in partial shade.  They multiply, especially in the ground and become large clumps.
Crinum 'Eleanor'

Crinum lilies are related to the amaryllis, with similar looking flowers.  However, many species are hardy, at least to zone 6.  Make sure to check the hardiness rating of any bulbs you buy.  Bulbs are generally planted in spring.  It’s been my experience that some bulbs will not bloom the year you plant them.  Crinums once established in the proper planting zones are extremely long lived, surviving for generations.   Unlike amaryllis the leaves stay green throughout the growing season.  Flower colors are shades of red, pink and white, with at least one red striped variety.

Crinum lilies like full sun and moist soil, although they can survive periods of dryness. They are good plants for rain gardens.   If you live in a zone where they aren’t hardy, like me, you can grow them in large pots, which you move inside to a cool bright place in winter.  My plant stays green all winter.  Some of these gorgeous flowers are even fragrant.  Plants get up to 5 feet tall, depending on variety so plan accordingly.

coral drops

Coral Drops- (Bessera elegans) are related to the onions and their narrow round leaves will remind you of the alliums or a clump of chives.  The plants are only about 10 inches tall, but the flower spikes will rise to about 18 inches. The buds are showy coral red drops dangling from the flower spikes and probably the reason for the common name.  When they open the dainty, ‘flying” flowers have 6 red orange petals, each with a stripe down the center.  In some flowers the stripe is white, in others a darker red than the petals. The center of the flower is lighter in color, almost white. There are 6 very long anthers, they remind me of birds legs sticking out of the flower.  The one female part, the pistil in the center of the flower, is deep purple.

Coral drops aren’t hardy except in zones 8 and higher. Plant 6-8 corms in a 10” pot about 3 inches deep in a well-draining potting mixture.  You’ll get lots of summer flowers if they are kept moist and in full sun.  Move the pots inside for winter storage.  The leaves will die, and the corms go dormant.  You can also dig the corms and store them like glads.

I’m sure I have forgotten some of the unusual bulbs, corms and rhizomes that one plants in spring for summer flowers.  And some catalogs sell oriental, tiger and species lilies for spring planting, although I think they should be planted in fall.  I ‘ve included some more reading links to longer articles on some of the plants below.

Are lawns bad for the environment?

Lawns aren’t necessarily bad, its what we put on them and what species we use for a lawn that makes the difference between a lawn that’s good for the environment and one that’s not.  You may have heard the term 60 mile an hour lawn and 20 mile an hour lawn.  That means what kind of lawn looks good when you go by it at that speed.  But what looks good is also subjective to the viewers interpretation.

My lawn is what lawn professionals would call a 60 mile an hour lawn and that looks just fine to me.  When you drive by, you’ll see mown, green space between my flower beds.  If you look at my lawn up close, you’ll see dandelions, violets, ground ivy, purslane, clover, chickweed, other “weeds” and several types of grass.  It’s a lawn that birds, subject to the whims of my cats, hunt on for bugs and worms.  Chickens scratch on it and occasionally make dust paths. Rabbits graze on it in the evenings and yes even the deer come by to nibble, until I see them and chase them off.  Moles leave tunnels and mounds.   Bees and butterflies of various sorts buzz back and forth between flowers in the grass.   Frogs hop in front of me as I walk through it and a snake or two is sometimes seen.  It’s living space, full of diversity.

My lawn is dotted with trees and shrubs.  There are beds of flowers here and there. (I actually have less lawn every year because I expand those beds of flowers.)  The edges of my lawn fade into messier, wilder meadow and then brush and woods.  It’s what is called edge habitat, one of the types of habitat that favor a wide diversity of plant and animal species.   There are even brush piles in that wilder space.

I don’t use chemicals on my lawn, or even fertilizer.   It’s mown so that its about 3 ½ inches long, long enough that the weeds in the lawn can bloom between mowing.  I don’t roll out the mole mounds, they eventually smooth themselves out.  Once in a great while I may water the front lawn strips if it gets very, very dry but the rest is left to nature.   I don’t collect grass clippings they are mulched back into the lawn.  I don’t rake leaves in the fall, they get chopped up by the mower.

My lawn can be walked on, even driven on occasionally.  It’s also a firebreak. It’s full and thick.   But it’s short enough that mosquitoes and ticks don’t find it friendly.  After all, you don’t have to provide habitat for everything.  And if I lived in the suburbs my lawn probably wouldn’t earn me a ticket from the blight ordinance officer, although crabby neighbors might complain about the dandelions. 

There are people that would not think my type of lawn qualifies as lawn.  The lawn they like is stripped of anything but one species of grass, for a great deal of the country that species is Kentucky bluegrass, which despite the name isn’t a native grass.  They weed and feed and water and mow and spray for bugs.  Moles are trapped and gassed.  Bird feeders are banned because seed hulls might litter the grass carpet or horrors, sprout a sunflower in the middle of the grass.  Their lawn is not filled with a diversity of species and isn’t very helpful to the environment.  It is a firebreak and it does catch some rainwater and release some oxygen.  It will keep mosquitoes and ticks down.  So, it’s not entirely useless, but foot for foot, my type of lawn is much better for the environment.  It’s a lawn I don’t have to begrudge spending time on, and I don’t feel guilty about having.

If you want a lawn that’s good for the environment, you need to see dandelions and violets as wildflowers dotted in the lawn.  They are food sources for the pollinators.  Clover is the food that keeps the bunnies from eating other things.  Ground ivy smells good when you mow it and covers bare spots.  Mole tunnels are annoying, but moles are part of the food chain, and no, they do not eat plant roots.  Usually they are worse in spring and late fall and by summer mowing will have collapsed most of the tunnels.

If you keep the lawn area mowed, you really don’t need to spray for mosquitoes and ticks. You are never going to rid your property of either if they are anywhere nearby.  Grubs may infest your lawn roots, but in a “natural” lawn you’ll find they do little damage. Those starlings people love to hate will be busy hunting for those grubs, along with other birds and animals like skunks, toads, and shrews.   Your pets and kids can safely play on the lawn if you aren’t spraying it.  Instead of spending money on sprays and fertilizers spend it on flowers or trees and shrubs. 

Limit your lawn space to areas right around your home which helps prevent pollution from gasoline mowers.  How much mown space to leave depends of your wildfire risk.  But most people don’t need to mow acres of property, 100 feet around the home is plenty.  To keep brush down, if that’s a goal, you just need to mow those larger spaces twice a year. Even if you like wildflowers in a meadow type setting a twice-yearly mowing won’t harm most of them.

You don’t need to feel guilty about having a lawn if you have a 60 mile an hour lawn.  You’ll probably help the environment more than harm it if you leave the fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides off it and allow nature to plant what she wants in it.  Wildlife will appreciate this kind of lawn and species diversity will flourish, even if you don’t limit plants to native types.  It’s all a matter of seeing the lawn differently, not as an outdoor carpet, but as edge habitat.

More reading

Don’t ask for an easier life, ask to be a stronger person

Kim Willis
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I write this because I love to share with other gardeners some of the things I come across in my research each week (or things I want to talk about). 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 or anyone you know 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