Tuesday, December 10, 2019

December 10, 2019 a time to rest

It’s a cold and blustery day here, with a little snow flying in the wind. I did take a quick walk outside to check on things.  I dislike the way my gardens look this time of year, heck, I dislike the way the whole state looks this time of year. Not enough snow to be pretty, just browns and blacks and grays. It’s the dying time of the year. Just 11 days until the natural year ends though, and we will start climbing toward spring.

The deer have become bold, walking right up the path close to the barn to nibble on a lilac. At least most of my plants can no longer be harmed that much by them. I guess the hunters didn’t do a good job this year. No, I do not think deer make it look Christmassy. Santa can take all of them.

Inside the plants have slowed their blooming a bit. Even with lights they sense it’s the resting time of the year. I still have hibiscus and holiday cacti in bloom. The gerbera daisy quit blooming and I am wondering if it’s just resting or if it’s nearing the end of its life span. The leaves still look good. The pomegranate, diplodenia, and fuchsia are resting. There are still a few penta blooms and a sporadic bloom or two on the lemon tree.  And of course, the geraniums continue to bloom.

I decorated my 5 feet tall Norfolk pine as a substitute Christmas tree. No sense having two evergreens in the house. I used tiny gold balls and red velvet bows and some tiny red and gold tinsel. I have a little light set ran by batteries which I put on the tree but haven’t bothered to turn on yet. I’m still looking for something cute and light to use as a tree topper, maybe I’ll decide on something before Christmas, maybe not.

Sometimes I wish I lived where I could garden all year around, but then there is a benefit to a season of rest.  Time for planning and dreaming, building up anticipation for the best garden I’ll ever have this year. And spring would never be such a happy time if there was no winter.

Seventy-one new species discovered in 2019

We are still, after thousands of years, discovering new plants and animals on our world. Many times, these species are identified dozens of years after they were collected and stored in a museum somewhere.  DNA sequencing has led to some discoveries, identifying animals and plants that may look like another species. But some new species were identified simply because it was just the first time a specimen in the backlog was studied.

There were 17 new fish species, 15 geckos, eight flowering plants, six sea slugs, five arachnids, four eels, three ants, three skinks, two skates, two wasps, two mosses, two corals, and two lizards identified as new species this year.

Trembleya altoparaisensis 
When researchers identify new species, they often try to find the species still living in the wild where the specimen was collected. Frank Almeda, Curator of Botany at the California Academy of Sciences, tried to find a white-flowered plant named Trembleya altoparaisensis that was identified this year. The identification of this species was based on several specimens collected over 100 years ago by the famous 19th-century botanist Auguste Francois Marie Glaziou. 

 After that many years you can understand that the plant’s habitat may have changed, and it had.  Ricardo Pacifico, a PhD student working with Almeda was able to find a living specimen of Trembleya altoparaisensis in the canyons of Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park in Brazil, miles from the spot the original specimen was collected.  Another student found another of the new species of plants identified this year, Gravesia serratifolia in a National park in Madagascar. Living specimens of Justicia alanae, a new species of flowering plant from Mexico, were also found this year.
Gravesia serratifolia

I haven’t found any information about whether the other 5 new species of flowering plants have known living specimens. (Many of the fish and reptile species discovered have living members of the species).  No common names were given for the new plant species. But one thing is certain, many of the new species discovered are endangered and must be protected.

It should be important to study the new plant species to see if there are medicinal or other uses of the plant, although this is unlikely.  Generally, plants that have medicinal and other uses have been known and used for centuries, although you never know.

None of the plants seems like a likely candidate for ornamental use, although their rare and endangered status might preclude that anyway.  Gravesia serratifolia is a shrubby plant found in high altitude rain forest conditions, with moderately pretty flowers. Currently about a thousand living specimens are known. It’s possible if seeds or cuttings from the plant could be obtained that a new flowering shrub for warmer areas might be developed from it.

I do believe that with the rapid pace of extinctions in the last few decades, we should speed up the identification and classification of all the specimens collected many years ago and stored in dusty museum rooms. It’s a sad thing to identify something and find it’s no longer living on earth.
Justicia alanae

Safety concerns with holiday plants and plant products

While we often think of gift plants and plant-based decorations as a source of plant poisoning around the holidays we need to consider a few other plants and products from them, that might poison children and pets during the hectic holiday season. The poison control hotline reports a big increase in calls concerning cannabis, and plants like kratom and “magic mushrooms, but common holiday plants used for decorations and gifts also contribute to hotline calls.

With the legalization of cannabis in many states, cannabis products are becoming more widespread and people are getting more relaxed about storing the products. Cannabis edibles ( brownies, cookies, candies, smoothies and so on) can be a major problem with children and pets and even with inexperienced or uninformed adults. Dried whole cannabis buds or leaves outside of edibles, are seldom eaten in large quantity and don’t pose the same risk.

Despite some tabloid news stories and the usual guff spread around the internet, no deaths can be directly related to cannabis overdose according to medical and scientific sources. Even in small children no deaths can be directly attributed to cannabis overdose.  However, that does not mean that ingesting them is harmless for small children and pets. It is extremely important to keep children and pets from eating cannabis edibles, which can be very tempting.

There has been some evidence that cannabis overdose may exacerbate existing, undiagnosed heart problems in children when large doses are consumed. Overdose might also require hospitalization to monitor breathing and keep the child safe from hallucinatory effects. And a child would not understand what is happening to him or her and may become very scared.

Pets may also require hospitalization after consuming edibles and could harm themselves when under the influence of cannabis.  And people who did not know they were consuming cannabis edibles and inexperienced users of cannabis edibles can have a very scary experience if they overdose, even though they will not die or be permanently harmed. They may even go to an emergency room with symptoms. They could drive under the influence, especially since the effects of edible cannabis products don’t present right away.

Therefore, if you have edible cannabis products around be very, very, careful to store them in a way that children and pets can’t get to them, at any time of the year. Make sure that adults who consume them know what they are consuming and that inexperienced users start with small amounts. Since the effects of edible cannabis don’t begin right away, inexperienced people often consume more than they should.

Two other plant products used to get “high”, kratom and “magic mushrooms”, can cause death. These products are also illegal in most places. They should never be around children or pets. If they are consumed by them the children or pets should receive immediate medical attention.

Plant decorations

Plants have been brought into the home to decorate it around the winter solstice for hundreds of years.  They have become part of the tradition and lore of the holidays and the practice persists even today. But not all holiday plants are safe for children and pets and knowing which ones are poisonous is important for a happy holiday.

The poinsettia has long been listed as a poisonous plant, but as toxic plants go, it’s probably not that harmful.  Yes, if someone ate a lot of poinsettia there could be serious consequences, but that scenario is unlikely. The sticky white sap of the poinsettia is unpleasant tasting enough that even the naughtiest dog probably wouldn’t eat enough to get more than a stomachache. It would take eating several large plants to be lethal to a pet or child.

Mistletoe on the other hand is extremely poisonous and just a few of the berries dropped on the floor and eaten by a pet or child could cause death. All parts of the plant are toxic, dried or fresh. Mistletoe is a plant that does not belong in homes where children and pets are present.

Holly is often used in decorating for the holidays, but all parts of the plant are poisonous.  The leathery leaves would be unlikely to be eaten but the bright red berries that some holly has would be attractive to children and pets. 

Another very poisonous plant that is sold around the holidays as a potted plant is the Jerusalem Cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum). The plant is a compact bush-like house plant with glossy green leaves and bright orange-red berries. All parts of this plant are poisonous.

In fact, around the holidays many plants with red or orange berries are sold.  Some of these are new to the trade and little is known about their toxicity - whether they are poisonous or harmless. It’s a good idea to place any of these attractive plants out of the reach of children and pets. Always keep a plant label with a plant so if any part is ingested you can tell poison control what it is.

Amaryllis bulbs are often sold around the holidays either in bloom or as kits that you add water to and watch it grow. They have long strap-like leaves which appear after the bloom stalk.  The amaryllis bloom is trumpet shaped; there may be one or several blooms on each tall stalk. It comes in red, white, pink and other pastel shades. All parts of the plant are poisonous.
Another bulb often given as a gift is the narcissus or daffodil bulb. The common one sold is called paper white narcissus. They are often set in gravel and water to grow roots and bloom. They have flat, grass like leaves, and the typical daffodil flower of a “cup” surrounded by a ring of petals.  They are white or yellow and have a strong fragrance.  All parts of the plant are quite poisonous as is the water surrounding the bulb, or if the blooms are cut and put in a vase of water, that water is also toxic.  Narcissus and daffodils should never be put where children or pets might taste them or drink the water they are in.

Yews are not used as often as some evergreens for holiday decorating, but they are sometimes used in floral arrangements and unsuspecting homeowners may bring branches inside for decorating. They have soft, flat dark green needles and are often sheared into hedges around a home. The yew is an extremely toxic plant with only a bite of the plant causing death to a pet. It sometimes has fleshy red berries with a hard seed inside that attract children and pets.  The soft part of the berry is harmless, but a few swallowed seeds can be deadly. A mouthful of the plant can kill a grown cow.  It is not a plant that should be brought into the home.

Sweet Annie or other kinds of wormwood (artemisia) are often used in wreaths and other dried arrangements. While unlikely to be eaten in quantity, these plants are also poisonous, and munching should be discouraged. Since wreaths, dried arrangements and fresh floral arrangements can have all sorts of exotic plants tucked in them and might be sprayed with chemicals, it’s a good idea to keep them out of the reach of children and pets.

Are probiotics for plants and soil useful?

You may have heard of people taking probiotics for various reasons and people giving probiotics to pets.  My vet prescribed a very expensive probiotic for my elderly dog when she was having digestive difficulties.  (I didn’t think it did much good, but a tiny bit of cannabis in vanilla ice cream perked her appetite right back up.)  But what about probiotics for plants or your soil?

On the market right now are a number of usually expensive products sold as plant “probiotic supplements”. There are miraculous claims attached to these products. They are said to make plants grow faster, live longer, produce more, make the soil better, cure plant disease and kill plant pests. Don’t waste your money on them.

Probiotic simply means good biological creatures. These can be bacteria, viruses, yeasts or fungi. Probiotics that are useful to plants can come in two basic types, those that work in the soil or on the surface of the plant to provide benefits or those that must be inside plant tissues to be of benefit.  While there are some species of organisms that might be beneficial to plants in general, many other beneficial probiotic species are narrowly targeted to one species, one area of the plant, one type of soil, one set of environmental conditions and so on.

It is these narrowly defined probiotics that are probably going to be the miracle plant fertilizers and pesticides in the future. Once we learn to identify and grow these organisms in quantity, how to keep them alive in storage, and know exactly how and when to apply them we’ll finally have good biological control for plant problems.

There is lots of research being done on these probiotic organisms and indeed, we know they are vital to life here on earth. Our research has probably identified only a small portion of the organisms that exist. There are good and scientifically proven “probiotic” products being used in human medicine and even in agriculture. The problem is that the vast majority of products on the market aren’t scientifically tested and approved, they are hocus pocus, magical potions that don’t do much but take your hard earned money.

Every month we hear about some new research involving probiotics. The University of California Berkley just released a study about the benefits of probiotics for tomatoes, a very specific probiotic mixture applied in a precise manner to tomatoes made them more robust and produce better.  It took years of research to develop the mixture and so far, it is too complex and expensive to replicate and sell to consumers. That is the reason this research is being done, however, to develop commercial products that might one day replace fertilizers and pesticides.  But that day isn’t here yet.   

This valid and important research is one reason hucksters are better able to sell people the dust in a cannister “probiotic” mixtures so readily. People are hearing and reading about the research being done, but not quite understanding how that research applies to home garden conditions. It sounds good, and if someone mumbles a bit of scientific jargon in a cute video or prints it on the bag, viola, the claims must be true, right?

There’s no regulations or inspection of these products being done. So, when you buy a probiotic product there’s no way you can even know what you got isn’t just the dust from someone’s vacuum cleaner bag. No one is forcing the sellers to prove the claims they put on the boxes and bags are true. All these sellers have their own theories and ideas, most of them not proven by any rigorous trials or research.

Probiotics must be alive to do any good.  And keeping tiny biological organisms alive in suspended animation while they wait for you to buy them or take them off the shelf in the shed and use them, is a very tricky process.  Then there is the collection or growing and identification of those organisms, which is also very difficult. It takes a lot of skill and good equipment to positively identify good organisms and ensure no bad organisms are present in the mixture.

This is also why those recipes for home made probiotic products, the fermented seaweed, compost tea, manure coffee, banana peel water, and other inventive little concoctions also don’t work. You never know what you are growing if anything at all. These recipes can even be harmful to you and your plants, when instead of helpful organisms you brew up a batch of E.coli or salmonella, which is very possible.

There are a few biological products on the market which have been proven to be effective and which if you store and use correctly, will be helpful.  These include Bt products for mosquito control and those targeted to other specific insects, milky spore disease for grubs (sometimes works) and products that inoculate pea and bean seeds with nitrogen fixing bacteria.

Anything that is sold as a general garden or soil conditioner, a miracle product for this plant or that, or that boasts it works on everything, that makes claims that it is a fertilizer, plus it kills diseases and pests, is just voodoo dust. When you put these products on your soil or plants, if there is anything alive there at all, it probably won’t be harmful, but it won’t be helpful either. You could burn a few $20 dollar bills (or ferment them) and use the dust on your soil with the same results.

If you are tempted by claims of scientific evidence, clever upbeat videos, and user testimonials (often fake) ask your local Extension office if the product is science based, reliable and worth buying. (Note; Don’t ask a Master Gardener, ask someone with an actual science degree, an Extension educator. Master Gardeners vary tremendously in how well they are trained and how educated they are.)

Instead of buying probiotics for plants buy some wood mulch, fertilizer if the soil needs it, compost or more plants. Compost and wood mulch are full of probiotics. Also, if you want to encourage good organisms in the soil don’t rototill it or disturb it more than necessary for planting. Every time you rototill you disturb the soil microorganisms, which grow in specific layers of soil. Rototilling stirs them into environments they can’t exist in and the remaining organisms in any layer have to slowly build up their population again. Just add your mulch and compost to the surface and let nature work.

Probiotics show promise for future solutions to our gardening problems, but the promise has not yet materialized for the average gardener.  In short most probiotic plant products currently sold for gardens are not helpful and your money is best spent elsewhere.

More reading

“From December to March, there are for many of us three gardens —
the garden outdoors,
the garden of pots and bowls in the house,
and the garden of the mind’s eye.”

— Katherine S. White, from Onward and Upward in the Garden

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

And So On….

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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

December 3, 2019 dreary days and dreams

Hi gardeners

It’s another gloomy day in Michigan. Michigan is one of the cloudiest states in winter because we are surrounded by the Great Lakes. Cold air moving over warmer water makes clouds. I can take the cold when it’s sunny, but I hate all the gloom. December and January are the worse, it seems like every day is dreary.

We didn’t get the worse of the storm that passed through and for that I am grateful. I prepared for an ice storm but the glazing we got was light and didn’t do much damage. Ice does so much damage to the trees, especially the white pines around here. 

There’s certainly nothing blooming outside right now, even the pansies have given up. Inside I have plenty of blooms and birds singing so it makes it a bit better. Create your own sunny day, that’s the best plan.

It’s the time of year that gardeners start dreaming about next years garden. Everyone does things online now but if you haven’t experienced the joys of garden catalogs in your hands on a cold winter day you should try some. The catalogs are already filling my mailbox and I’m “making my lists and checking them twice”. 

Some nurseries don’t put out print catalogs anymore, but many still do and will send them if you request them. Some catalogs are valuable resources for information on care and selection of plants.  On the right of this blog there’s a list of pages and there’s one for a huge list of garden catalogs.  I am going to be checking this page in the next couple weeks to add to it and remove any links that aren’t valid.  If you know of a catalog or online site I haven’t listed let me know- kimwillis151@gmail.com

Keep your trees from being stolen

You may have heard that there is a shortage of fresh Christmas trees in some areas. If you have nice landscape evergreens you may want to keep a close eye on them. Every year people have beautiful trees stolen from their property and this year it could get worse. Even city trees get stolen.

Nothing looks worse than an evergreen with it’s top cut off or an ugly tree stump left in the lawn.  A larger evergreen is a valuable part of your landscaping and costs money and time to replace. Trees close to the road are targeted more often, but I have heard stories where people drove off the road with a car or snowmobile or walked some distance to cut trees. And sometimes it’s not a single tree, but several trees that get taken at the same time.

Mark your property with no trespassing signs for a start. That helps if you catch someone and want to prosecute.  Then you may want to add signs to nice evergreens saying; “Warning, this tree has been sprayed with a toxic substance” or similar wording.  Buy some of those “pee” scents sold in sporting goods stores for hunting, mix with water and spray the tree. They wash off in a few weeks.

I have heard of people mixing eggs with water, letting it rot and spraying trees. If the tree is in a more isolated area you can even spray paint an X on two sides to destroy its looks for a Christmas tree. That too washes off in time but may not be the best solution for trees you look at every day. I know one guy whose trees are mainly for wildlife who just cuts random branches out of the tree to make them undesirable.

Trail and other cameras can help you find a thief but if they aren’t being monitored the tree may be cut down anyway. Motion detector alarms could be used if they can be heard inside the house.  In some cases, you may be able to chain the tree to a post or fence until after the holidays.

If you look at your trees and can see a nice Christmas tree or trees there, it pays to monitor your property closely before the holidays. Let your neighbors know that if they see someone on your property looking at trees, they should notify you. Make it as hard as possible for people to get on your property unnoticed as you can. Your trees will thank you.

These would make good Christmas trees  

What are the best evergreen species for Christmas trees?

Best is subjective of course, and usually best means the type of tree you have always had through the years. But if you haven’t had a fresh cut tree before you may want some tips. The most common Christmas tree species sold are balsam, fraiser and concolor firs, douglas fir, scotch pine, blue spruce, white spruce and white pine. Different species may be popular in different areas of the country and easier to find than others. 

This year a shortage of all Christmas trees is reported, but firs seem to be the species with the worst shortage.  If you like firs get yours early. The firs all smell nice, the very essence of Christmas, but have a more open shape and don’t take heavy ornaments that well. The needles aren’t scratchy but drop fairly quickly inside.

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.  They are often the least expensive tree.

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.

An important tip in choosing fresh trees is to examine the trunk to make sure the bottom of the trunk is straight and not too large for your tree stand.  Shake a tree you are looking at lightly to see how many needles it loses. They will all lose some, but if a great many needles fall you may want to skip that one.

A fresh tree should not spend more than 10 days inside so if you buy early store it outside in a cool, shady place. If it’s above freezing it’s a good idea to stand the tree in a bucket of water.  Make sure the deer and pets can’t get to it.

Thinking about Christmas presents for gardeners?

It’s that time of year when we are desperately racking our brains for the perfect gift for someone in our life.  If that someone likes plants we often think of gardening gifts.  Here’s some ideas.

Gift baskets

Gift baskets are always a good choice for the gardener in your life, if you know a bit about gardening yourself and can make wise choices.  Start with a nice reusable basket, maybe a “trug” to carry veggies. A nice flowerpot, a garden cart, or even a wheelbarrow can also be containers.

Add things like tools, decorative plant tags, a garden apron, garden clogs, hats, t-shirts, garden gloves, windchimes, kneeling pads, and garden books to your basket. Grow lights and seed starting equipment could be added.  Mugs with garden sayings, water bottles, even bug spray and poison ivy soap can be added.  A big bag of expensive potting mix might help fill those larger “baskets”. 

If you buy quality seeds and not left-over seeds or seeds that come from China, you could add seeds.  I would skip live plants but a gift certificate to a store or catalog is a great addition.

A garden gift basket for kids is a good way to get a child interested in gardening.  Use child size gloves and tools and maybe some children’s garden books in the basket.  In this case some good seeds, small pots and some potting medium might be a great addition.

Spinners and solar lights

Wind spinners are still a big craze in gardens.  If you are going to give one as a gift, make sure it’s a quality one and that it fits the size of the recipient’s garden. It’s a good idea to see if the gardener already has wind spinners because you can definitely have too many.

Solar lights have come a long way and there are some beautiful solar sculptures out there. Try not to buy a cheap plastic or resin thing, but a nice metal or glass sculpture with lighted elements.  Strands of tiny solar lights shaped like lanterns, dragonflies and other whimsical objects make good gifts. Some gardeners may appreciate solar stakes to light garden paths.

Hydroponic set ups and grow lights

Hydroponic systems (growing plants in water) are very popular and range from small countertop units to huge units in tents of their own. If someone you know is going to be growing their own legal marihuana you may want to gift them with one of the larger set ups. But if the gardener you are thinking of just wants to grow some herbs inside, a countertop unit may work well.

Do be advised that there are limits to the small units. Despite advertising hype, you can’t grow all the veggies or herbs your family wants to eat in a single unit, unless your family hates herbs and vegetables. And these units must include a grow light if they are to be successful. Shop carefully, pay attention to things like light wattages, and dimensions of the units. Prices vary widely and you get what you pay for certainly pertains here.

Even if they aren’t growing marihuana grow lights make things much easier for indoor gardeners. If someone you know has a garden hobby that has outgrown the window space they have available, grow lights are a great gift. Grow lights are much safer and use less electricity than they did a few years ago. They are less expensive too. You can use them for plants growing in soil as well as water and for starting seeds they are almost necessary.

Humorous gifts

I usually don’t recommend garden art as gifts unless you know the gardeners taste very well. Plastic and resin figurines, fake steppingstones and cutesy signs aren’t everyone’s favorite additions to the garden.  Many gardeners are gifted with them and don’t quite know what to do with them.  But humorous elements that don’t cost a lot can be appreciated and may find a place somewhere in the garden.

And sometimes you may just want to give a gift that sparks a laugh. That’s the case with these little finger attachments I am showing you here.  Supposedly they have a practical application, but I wouldn’t be able to gift them with a straight face.  Humorous gifts may not be that practical, but they can be fun.

You are supposed to slip these "tools" over a finger.  Imagine
giving them as a garden gift. LOL

Gifts I don’t recommend

Seed kits are everywhere online and most of them are worthless. They often contain seeds of plants that are very difficult to grow from seed, seed that is old and seed that is of dubious quality. Many of these kits come from China.  They promise herb gardens, wildflower gardens, complete vegetable gardens and so on. The premise and promise are ridiculous.

These kits are garbage and very overpriced for what they contain. You could put together your own seed kit with quality seeds for less. It’s tempting to buy them when you can’t think of anything else but try hard to avoid the temptation. A gift certificate to a seed catalog would be a far better gift.  

Plant of the month gifts don’t usually work out as planned and I have known few people who were satisfied with them. The plants are often not what was promised, not shipped because of weather, small and weak for the price or damaged in shipping.  They are often quite expensive, and you could buy all the plants listed at the same size cheaper somewhere close to home with better results. It seems like a good idea, but it doesn’t translate from idea to reality well.
This is a stupid idea, you won't grow good berries from this and for the $23 plus it costs depending on seller .
you could buy plants. 

Second Nature- a Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan

Book review

You may have read Pollan’s Botany of Desire or the Omnivores Dilemma and if you liked those you will probably like Second Nature.  In fact, this book was Michael Pollan’s first book, published nearly 30 years ago.  Although I had read many of Pollan’s books this one escaped me until recently. I am so glad I didn’t let the 30 years ago thing keep me from reading it. Even though things change over time, the way people think about gardening seems to remain constant.

This is not a how to garden book, rather it’s a book about the philosophy of gardening. It explores ideas about gardening, set in the background of the author working on his first real gardens on an abandoned New England farm. If you ever debated what a weed is or how much you should interfere with nature, you’ll understand Pollan very well.

Pollan tells about how his grandfather gardened and how his father didn’t.  Indeed, after a complaint from neighbors about his unmowed lawn, Pollan’s father mowed his initials in the lawn and left it. Pollan’s grandfather, a relatively well to do man, had a huge vegetable garden and delighted in giving away baskets of produce.  He also had an immaculate lawn and extensive rose garden.

I wonder if the desire to garden skips a generation sometimes, as this is my own experience, and I have been heard the stories about grandparents instilling a love of gardening in people many times.  Both sets of my grandparents were avid gardeners, but my parents weren’t into gardening.  My mother dabbled a bit in gardening as she got older and my father grew a few tomato plants after his father quit growing them, but I learned about gardening from my grandparents.

When Pollan finally has a place of his own and has to tame the wilderness, so to speak, he gets all kinds of advice, which he ruminates on.  I thought the native plants thing was a pretty recent fad, but it seems it had reared its head even thirty years ago, although it maybe wasn’t such a cultish thing as it is now. Pollan struggles with his grandfather’s style of gardening and the back to nature style of gardening until he finds his own style of gardening.  I think many readers will relate to that struggle.

The book is divided into seasons, a good way to go about ordering a garden book because how and what we think about and do in the garden is generally seasonal for most of us. In winter Pollans thoughts are on planning his next garden, as are most gardeners.  He talks about seed catalogs, and most older gardeners will recognize the names of the catalogs he talks about. Even now, in the age of online stores many of those catalogs still exist. 

Pollan speaks of White Flower Farm and Wayside Farm as being the top tier of catalogs, catalogs for discriminating gardeners not afraid to spend money.  White Flower Farm is for the snooty New England gardeners who adhere to the English way of gardening, with a certain distain for newer hybrids.  Wayside is the somewhat more flamboyant but still aristocratic southern gardeners wish book.

Gurneys and certain other catalogs Pollen classified as middle class catalogs, are ones that tend to empathize the new and “improved, the biggest, the sweetest and so on, and which specialize in bargains and deals. Then there are the “hippy” 70’s style catalogs such as Vermont Bean and Pinetree, which specialize in open pollinated, organic, and heritage type plants. And then there are the specialty catalogs such as Cooks Garden, which feature exotic, foreign vegetables for gastronomic pleasure.  

Pollan notes that there is much information and advice given in these seed and nursery catalogs and that they are inspiration for many of the gardens we make. Sitting in winter pouring over those garden catalogs before we all became internet shoppers was as much an education for gardeners as any classes they could take.  I do wish more new gardeners would spend time with the “book in hand” catalogs and not looking at internet ads and flashy online catalogs.

Spring, summer and fall sections of the book all have interesting and somewhat humorous garden musings too. I identified strongly with much of what Pollan writes about gardening. If you read the book, I am sure you’ll find much to agree with and chuckle over too. You can buy Second Nature on Amazon and in many bookstores.

December Almanac
This month’s full moon is called the Full Cold, Oak Moon or Long Nights moon and it occurs on December 12th. The moon will be high in the sky and cast a lot of shadows. If snow is on the ground and the skies clear it will be a very bright night. Moon perigee is the 18th and moon apogee is the 4th. 
On Tuesday December 10th Venus will pass Saturn. Just after sunset look toward the southwest and you’ll see a very bright Venus (if the clouds allow) and a pretty bright Saturn very close together. You won’t actually see them pass each other.
There are two meteor displays that may be visible in December.  On the 14th, at 2 am there is the peak of the best regular meteor event, the Geminids meteor shower. The nearly full moon will be a problem to seeing the meteors this year, but some will be visible. Some meteors may be visible from the Geminids from the 4th through the 17th. But on the peak day around 120 meteors or shooting stars may be seen per hour. The best viewing is after midnight, to about 2 am. Look toward the northwest.
On December 22nd – 23rd will be the peak of a lesser meteor shower, the Ursids meteor shower, which typically produces about 20 meteors per hour at its peak. The night of the 22nd with a crescent moon, should provide excellent viewing from midnight to dawn. This will be especially nice if you are having a solstice bonfire.
Sunday, December 22, 2017 is the winter solstice. It marks the longest night of the year, the end of the celestial year and the beginning of winter.  On winter solstice 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.)

You’ll notice that the earliest sunset and the shortest day are not the same.  The earliest sunset occurs December 5th 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.
December’s traditional birthstone is turquoise. If cold December gave you birth, The month of snow and ice and mirth, Place on your hand a Turquoise blue, Success will bless whate'er you do. – old folk saying.  However, since it is the month of buying, modern jewelers want you to have lots of choices and they added zircon and tanzanite to the birthstone list
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 as a flower choice.  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 the 12th is Poinsettia day, Gingerbread house day and National cocoa day, National Bake Cookies day is the 18th ( or roast a suckling pig, your choice) , Look for Evergreens day is on 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 Year’s Eve.
December is National Bingo month, National AIDS awareness month, National Buckwheat month and Universal Human Rights month.

Buttermilk bread

Winter is the time for baking and I just made some buttermilk bread the other day. When you make bread, you get the house warm and full of good smells and then you get to eat hot bread with butter. It doesn’t get much better on a gloomy day. This buttermilk bread is simple but has a soft cakelike texture and tastes wonderful. The recipe makes two medium loaves.

3½ cups unbleached flour plus maybe a ½ cup more for dusting the bread board
1½ cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons butter, you may need a bit more if you butter the bread top before baking
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 package of fast rising yeast (2 tablespoons)
Dried Rosemary (optional)


Preheat your oven at 200 degrees F for 5-10 minutes, then shut it off, leaving the door closed.

Warm a ½ cup of buttermilk and a pinch of sugar in a small bowl until it feels barely warm. Make sure it doesn’t get too warm, if it’s too hot the yeast will die. Sprinkle the yeast on the warm milk and set it aside for 5-10 minutes.  After that time, the mixture should look a little foamy.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large bowl and stir in the sugar and salt. Add the rest of the buttermilk and blend well.

Add the yeast mixture to the bowl and stir gently.

Next add the flour a cup at a time, stirring well after each addition. As the dough gets stiffer you may need to dust your hands with flour and work the flour into dough with your hands.

Turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead for 5 minutes or until you get a nice elastic feeling, slightly shiny dough. 

Melt the rest of the butter and lightly coat a large bowl with it. Save unused butter. Place the dough in the bowl, turn it over once, and cover it lightly with a paper towel.

Put the bowl in the oven you warmed, leaving it turned off. The oven shouldn’t feel too warm, you want it around 100 degrees. Let the dough rise for 1-2 hours, until it doubles in size.

Take the dough out of the bowl and put it on your floured surface again.  Punch it down and knead it lightly for a couple minutes. Divide the dough into two even portions.

Lightly butter two bread pans. Form your dough into two loaves and put them in the pans.  Turn dough over once in pan to butter the top. Cover with paper towels and let the dough sit for 45 minutes to an hour, until it has doubled in size.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brush the tops of the loaves with melted butter and sprinkle on some dried rosemary if you like. Put the bread in the oven and bake about 35 minutes, or until it is lightly browned and pulling away from the sides of the pan.

Turn hot bread out on a plate or rack. Let it cool 10 minutes before trying to cut it.  (You should wait because it cuts better if it cools a bit, but chances are good you’ll be dying to taste it and cut it immediately.)

Wrap bread tightly after it cools to store it.  It freezes well.

How did it get so late so soon? Its night before its afternoon. December is here before its June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?
-Dr. Seuss-

Kim Willis
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