© Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.
What a night we had. The winds howled like a banshee all night. Rain pelted the windows. Things were bumping the house, I could hear the wind chimes frantically ringing, the lights were flickering and our cocker Barack was trying to convince me this was a very, very bad storm. I ran buckets of water in case the power went out and went to bed hoping there wouldn’t be too much damage. The gales of November, the closest thing to a hurricane Michigan gets, were here.
This morning the sun was shining, which it hadn’t done in a few days, and which instantly makes things better. The winds were calmer and the temperatures were in the 50’s. Clean up began, I put the flag back up after untangling it from the bushes it blew into, picked up the lawn chairs and set the trash cans back upright. Some branches had to be taken to the brush pile. I also took the opportunity to string some more solar Christmas lights. By the time I came inside the winds had picked up again and the skies were becoming overcast. Even though it was in the upper 50’s it felt cold.
It’s supposed to rain again tonight and for the next two days as the temperatures slowly fall back to normal. Next week maybe snow showers. But that’s winter in Michigan. November really hasn’t been that bad, I hope the rest of the winter is just as easy. I know in some places a rough winter is already setting in so we are lucky.
The mild weather has beebalm seedlings coming up. Some of the roses are still green. I see the tips of spring bulbs peeking up too. Two years ago I planted some Arum italicum in the fall and they never poked their heads up until this fall, when they woke up for some reason and grew lustily. They are very green and healthy looking now, while everything around them is brown and wilted. Maybe next year they will bloom.
Preparing Roses for winter
I used to grow tea roses, back many, many years ago when I lived in the city and in a zone warmer than where I live now. I always had the newest varieties and I spent a lot of time fussing over them. I guess it was in tribute to my grandfather, who loved growing roses and spent a lot of time and money on them. Now I choose hardier roses which don’t require as much care. Modern breeding has made the selection of hardy roses which are also beautiful and easy to care for much more varied and easy to find.
Most shrub roses that are grown on their own roots will survive winter without any special attention. They may die back to the ground but return in full glory in the spring. However they may get an earlier start on blooming in early summer if they have at least some winter protection. Tea roses and other grafted roses are another thing entirely, they need some winter protection in cold winter areas. That generally means growing zones 7 and lower.
In August you should have stopped fertilizing and dead-heading. Leaving flowers on the plant to produce hips will help the plant stop blooming and prepare/ harden it off for winter. Clean up all fallen leaves and flower petals around the plants so the debris doesn’t harbor disease and pests for next year.
Wait until the ground freezes before covering or mulching roses, unless a sudden severe cold snap, (temps in the teens), is predicted. The roses should drop their leaves before you protect them. Some roses, particularly in protected spots, will hang on to their leaves for a long time and you’ll need to protect them anyway if very cold weather is predicted.
You can buy Styrofoam rose cones or you can devise your own protection. A large tomato cage set around the rose and filled with mulch will work, as will stakes and a ring of burlap. Use shredded leaves, whole oak leaves, straw, or pine needles as mulch.
Some people simply mound soil around the plants. Don’t take the soil from around the plants roots though, or you may damage them. I have dumped the contents of pots that once held annuals around the bottom of roses. Compost will work if it’s thoroughly decomposed.
When using mulch or soil you want to at least cover the rose to a few inches above the graft union. The graft union is a bulge on the lower part of the main stem. You can go higher on the canes but what you are basically wanting to do is insulate the stem above the graft so that some stem/ leaf buds of the grafted portion will be preserved. It’s fine to bury side branches in mulch.
If you have a tender climbing rose you may want to carefully remove it from its trellis and lay it on the ground, and then cover the canes with mulch or soil. (Some hardy climbing roses will do just fine when left up.) The same is true for “tree” roses, especially in zones 6 and lower. These can be turned on their side after the leaves have fallen and either buried in a trench or covered with a thick mound of mulch. You may want to cover the mulch with wire, netting, or burlap to hold it in place. Never cover roses with plastic or other things that don’t provide ventilation.
Don’t cut roses back too far in the fall, even root hardy ones, trim them just enough so that they fit under your cones or other protection. Winter kill starts at the tip of a branch and works its way down. Dead areas will protect tissue further down the stem/branch. If you have trimmed them back too closely there may not be any surviving tissue. Pruning to control height or shape is best left until spring when you can see how much of the rose survived the winter.
Remove the protection gradually in the spring and be ready to cover quickly if cold weather returns. Make sure to spread out soil or compost if it’s mounded around plants. But don’t leave the protection on too long. If the plant is leafing out or temps are in the 70’s for more than a day or two it’s time to uncover.
Plant “brains” and swarm behavior
I like studying about the behavior and attributes of plants that confirms my belief that they are more than a life form a step above rocks. It is my belief that in the coming years we will discover even more amazing things plants are quietly doing all around us. In fact some researchers are already finding out some of those amazing things as we slowly begin to understand the differences between life as a plant or as an animal. And these findings may challenge the thinking that animal life is more advanced and more successful than plant life.
When one writes about plant behavior, physiology, and intelligence it’s hard not to use terms associated with animals, as that’s what we, an animal, can relate to. This can get you laughed at by some in the scientific community, and there are many educated people out there who still resist the idea that plants have senses and intelligence. So to be clear, plants do not have a brain in the sense that animals have a brain, that single organ which translates the animal’s interaction with the environment into nerve impulses that control activities from breathing to running and which coordinate responses to solving problems or intelligent thought.
Instead plants have something different. The root cap. This is a thin covering, generally white, on the tip of every plant root. Once thought to protect the root as it pushes through the soil we now know that root caps have other functions. Root caps fire off tiny electrical impulses in response to the environment and these electrical impulses are very similar to the impulses animal neurons use to transmit information from the animals interaction with the environment to the brain.
An animal has one brain that every firing of a neuron has to pass through to translate into an action or thought. But a plant has no central location that translates those neurons. A small seedling can have hundreds of root tips, all working independently; a huge old tree can have millions. Right away one can see an advantage to the plants system. When an animal’s brain is damaged, even in one tiny spot, parts or all of the animal’s body will shut down. And in animals these connections in the brain can rarely repair themselves or be repaired. A plant can function very well when hundreds of root caps are lost- and even when all root caps are gone, as when we take a cutting to start a new plant. And the plant has the ability to quickly repair or build new root caps.
So what do plant root caps firing off electrical impulses tell the plant? A lot, we know quite a few things now but will undoubtedly discover many more things root caps do in the future. They evaluate water in the soil, analyze hundreds of minerals, gasses, and chemicals in the soil, pick up vibrations and electromagnetic fields, find gravitational directions, interact with and analyze mycorrhizae and fungi to see if they are friends or foes, determine the genetic relationship of other plants roots in the soil and communicate with other plants to name a few things we know root caps do.
So how does each of these root caps firing off their own little impulses tell the plant how to act on the information? How do they coordinate the information? Researchers now believe plants use “swarm behavior” although swarm behavior isn’t completely understood even in the animal kingdom. You have probably seen videos of huge flocks of birds swirling in the sky in complex patterns, or you have read about how bees and ants use swarm behavior to coordinate activities like controlling the environment in the hive or attacking an enemy. We are still learning how this swarm behavior works, but it can effectively coordinate individuals into something that resembles one entity. Plant root caps are thought to use the same system.
Once root cap activity is coordinated how does the plant receive and use the information in other parts of the plant? In animals structures called nerves carry information to the brain and back to the animal part that needs to do something. Plants can pass information from cell to cell through the cell wall or they can use the plants plumbing structure, the xylem and phloem tubes, to pass electrical impulses through the fluid inside. In some way we don’t yet understand, the root caps “know” which message system to use and what plant parts to send the message to.
So, for example, when the plant root caps sense that they cannot draw any more water out of the soil they use swarm behavior to coordinate a message to quickly send through the plants plumbing system, because time is important here. The plants leaves and stems must close some or all of their stoma, little pores that release water vapor and gasses so that water is preserved. If they do not do that in the proper relationship to the heat and dry air the plant is experiencing versus it’s need to photosynthesize and make food, (which requires open stoma), the plant will be damaged or die.
This is a very simplified explanation of how root caps correlate information from the environment and use it to solve problems. Science is just beginning to understand how plants “think” and solve problems and it’s hard for us to understand because our evolutionary path is so different from that of plants. Much more information is waiting out there for those who think outside the box to discover. But life on this planet consists of 97 % plants in all of their various forms. Plants, not animals are the most successful life form on this planet and animal life cannot survive without them. If an alien life form came to this planet who do you think they would say controlled the planet?
Here’s some additional reading you may want to do if this topic interests you.
Brilliant Green – Mancuso and Viola, 2013
The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World, M. Pollan, 2001
What a Plant Knows, Chamovitz, 2012
Swarming Behavior in the Plant Roots, M.Ciszak et al. PLoS ONE 7, no.1, 2012,
Swarm Intelligence in Plant Roots, Baluska, Lev-Yadun and Mancuso Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25 (2010)
Plants: Adaptive Behavior, Root Brains and Minimal Cognition, Garzon and Keijzer, Adaptive Behavior 19, 2011
Katsura- The Caramel Tree
You don’t get caramels from it, but some think the wonderful Katsura tree smells like caramel or cotton candy when it loses its leaves in the fall. Besides being wonderful to smell in the fall, the Katsura sports a lovely blend of orange, raspberry and apricot colored leaves. The Katsura is no slouch in other seasons either. In the spring Katsura has reddish-purple new growth, in summer heart-shaped blue-green leaves, and in winter the gray, slightly exfoliating bark lends winter interest. This lovely shade tree is hardy throughout most of the United States and deserves to be planted more frequently.
The Katsura is native to Japan and eastern Asia, and is widely used as a landscape tree in those areas. The Latin name, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, refers to the leaves, which look like one of our native trees, the Redbud. Katsura leaves are blue-green, lighter below, and heart shaped. In the spring, the leaves emerge tinged with purple or red, and some trees hold a trace of color in their leaves throughout the summer. Katsura blooms in early spring, the flowers are not showy, and they are produced on separate male and female plants. On the female Katsura, the flowers turn into clusters of small pods, which open and release winged seeds in the fall. The pods and the seeds are not very noticeable and do not make a mess.
The shape of the Katsura tree is variable. Some are multi-stemmed with broad, flat crowns and others are single stemmed and more pyramidal in shape. There are also a few weeping varieties of Katsura. The trunks of young Katsura trees are thin barked, this becomes thicker, furrowed, and lightly peeling as the tree ages. Katsura trees have a distinct root flare and some roots are developed right at the surface of the soil, and can get quite large with time. These roots lend an architectural appeal to the Katsura form.
Katsura trees can mature to 40 feet or more. There is another species, Cercidiphyllum magnificum, even less seen outside of Japan, that is smaller in height but has larger leaves.
Growing Katsura trees
Katsura trees are hardy from zone 4-8. In the north they should be in full sun. In the south they will grow in light shade also. Katsura trees like moist, fertile, loamy soil. Katsura does well where the water table is high. They tolerate a wide range of soil PH.
The roots are shallow and the tree must be kept well-watered, especially when getting established. The biggest problem with the Katsura tree is they are a little tricky to establish. Once they settle in a place to their liking however, they grow rapidly.
Smaller trees transplant the best, and they should be planted when dormant in the early spring. Keep them well watered. If the Katsura experiences drought conditions it will lose its leaves. Usually the leaves will be replaced when water is again available, but if this happens frequently, you will probably lose the tree.
The thin bark of young Katsura trees are prone to sunscald and splitting in the winter. Protect young trees with tree wrap or shade on the south and west side during the winter. Tree tubes may help small Katsura’s establish easier.
Since the Katsura has roots close to the surface, deep mulch should be avoided. You can plant under the tree if care is taken not to cut too many roots. Before planting Katsura, remember that the tree may form surface roots and these might make mowing difficult.
After the first year an application of 10-10-10 or other tree fertilizer in early spring may help get the Katsura tree off to a good start. Katsura trees have few insect pests or disease problems and rarely require pruning.
The caramel, cotton candy, or brown sugar smell, [depending on your nose], comes in the fall, when the Katsura tree is losing it’s leaves. Most people find it quite pleasant. It is strongest in warm, sunny weather and can perfume the whole yard.
|Katsura. Credit Wikimedia commons|
Two weeping forms exist in Katsura. ‘Pendulum’ is upright, with a strong trunk and weeping branches. It is also sold as ‘Morioka Weeping’. Another type has no central trunk- it is more like a weeping bush, ‘Tidal Wave’ is one variety name of this type.
‘Heronswood Globe’ is a compact, rounded variety, seldom over 20’ high, that is good for small yards. Several varieties of Katsura exist which address fall leaf color. Most Katsura have variable fall color, with each tree having a somewhat different blend. ‘Strawberry’ Katsura has pink-red fall color and touches of pink in the spring leaf color. ‘Raspberry’ Katsura has wine-red fall color.
Katsura makes an excellent shade or specimen tree. Once established, Katsura is a no-muss, no-fuss tree with great structure for the landscape. It is also a good choice as a street tree, where it could possibly be a good replacement for ash trees dying from Emerald Ash Borer.
Thyme - Tiny but Terrific
It’s tiny, but thyme can pack a powerful punch in your garden. Thyme was used in the preservation of Egyptian mummies and you may still use thyme in your morning grooming ritual. Thyme is also a delicious cooking herb, and a fragrant, hardy garden ornamental. Take the time to add thyme to your garden and you may add time to your life.
There are many species and varieties of thyme known to gardeners. It makes a pretty ground cover, and many tantalizing scents are available that are released when stepped on or brushed against. Some varieties have pretty flowers, which add to the appeal. Thyme is also a great herb for cooking.
Thyme has tiny, oval leaves, slightly rolled under, that are dark green on top and lighter on the bottom. [Unless the leaves are from one of the variegated varieties, when they may be golden, or marked with yellow or cream.] Most thymes are ground hugging plants, from just a few inches high to about a foot high, depending on variety. In spring or summer thyme may be covered in small flowers in a variety of colors. Different chemical compounds found in different varieties of thyme, account for the range of scents and flavors. The color of thyme flowers ranges from lavender to pale pink to bright carmine red.
In the kitchen thyme is best when used fresh. The leaves are chopped and used in Cajun and Creole dishes, French cuisine, for flavoring cheese, liquors, vinegars, and in sausage.
It’s used in seafood chowders, poultry stuffing, pate, and in bean dishes. The citrus thymes can be used wherever citrus flavor is needed. Thyme is also used in salads and as a garnish.
Dried thyme flowers are said to repel insects from stored clothing. Thyme was burned as incense and flowers are used in sachets and perfumes. Medicinally thyme tea is used for respiratory problems and sore throats. Thyme and honey are used in cough syrups.
Researchers also know a lot about thyme. Thyme contains several powerful chemicals, including thymol, which you may see listed in the ingredients on your mouthwash bottle. Thyme contains powerful anti-microbial compounds and anti-oxidants. Along with basil, researchers are studying thyme as a natural food preservative. Thyme is a good source of iron, manganese, calcium and dietary fiber. Thyme is being studied as an aid to slow the process of aging, to improve levels of good fats in the bloodstream, and protect brain function.
Thyme is native to southern Europe, the Mediterranean and southern Asia. Most types of thyme are hardy to zone 5, a few are hardy to zone 4, but always check the zone hardiness of any variety you buy. Gardeners usually purchase plants of thyme but thyme can be started from seed. Only the most common varieties of thyme will be available as seed. Seed should be sown inside about 8 weeks before the last frost. The best germination takes place at 70 degrees. Thyme can also be propagated from cuttings or from division.
Thyme can be grown in partial shade as long as the soil is well drained, but will be stronger and hardier in full sun. Thyme enjoys growing among rocks and stepping stones, basking in their accumulated warmth. Thyme will quickly rot in wet areas; it prefers sandy, gravely soil, although it will grow in most well drained soils.
In the garden thyme is a wonderful ground cover, lovely between pavers and along paths. It can be used in containers to drape gracefully over the edges or to edge a perennial bed. Although many types of thyme will stand some walking on, heavy traffic will eventually kill the plants. You are supposed to step on the ends of stems that have crept over paving stones to release the wonderful scent, not trample on the plants.
Thyme can also be grown in a pot on a sunny windowsill or on the patio.
Fertilizer is seldom needed, although a slow release, general garden fertilizer, such as 5-10-10, applied in early spring may increase flowering. In the north, thyme should be covered with an inch or so of mulch after the ground has frozen. Thyme flowers are greatly loved by bees, and if someone is allergic to bees in the family, thyme should not be planted where that person may step or brush against it and disturb the bees.
Two culinary thymes that have long been known to gardeners are English thyme and French thyme. Both are Thymus vulgaris and differ only slightly. English thyme has larger leaves and is a larger plant; the flavor is stronger than French thyme, which has a sweeter taste. French thyme has smaller, grayer leaves than English thyme on a more compact plant. You can also choose lemon thyme Thymus x citriodorus.
Other wild species of thyme have given us many flavors of thyme. Lemon Thyme, Lemon Carpet Thyme, Highland Cream Lemon thyme, Lime thyme, Orange Spice thyme are some of the thymes that lend a citrus tone to your cooking. There are also Nutmeg thyme, Coconut thyme, Caraway thyme, and Mint thyme. There are thymes that smell like lavender and rose. Wooly thyme has gray, wooly leaves and is generally used as an ornamental. Other ornamentals include Silver Needle and Minus.
Cooking with thyme
The best tasting thyme will be snipped from the garden or a pot on the window sill just before use. Select young tender shoots and snip them off plants with a small pair of scissors.
In a store chose bundles of fresh thyme that still look green and firm. You can store purchased fresh thyme by putting the ends of thyme cuttings in a glass of water, (like a bouquet), and storing it in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Whether you cut it from the garden or buy it, wash the thyme stems under cold running water and pick off any yellowed leaves just before you use it. Then place the leafy stems on a clean chopping board and dice them into bits with a sharp knife. Remove any large, woody pieces of stem and discard. A tablespoon of chopped fresh herb is generally equivalent to a 1/2 teaspoon of dried, ground herb.
The longer fresh thyme cooks the milder the flavor will get.
Some suggestions for using fresh thyme
Add a 1/4 cup of fresh diced thyme to 1/2 cup of olive oil or softened butter. Rub on chicken or pork before grilling or roasting.
Mix 1/2 teaspoon fresh diced thyme with 3 to 4 large eggs for scrambled eggs or an omelet.
Combine 1 teaspoon of fresh chopped thyme with a 1/2 cup of coarse sea salt and let sit 15 minutes. Rub the salt mixture on any meat before grilling or roasting.
Blend 1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme and 1/2 teaspoon chopped rosemary. Brush the top of bread dough with melted butter, then sprinkle on the herb mix and bake.
Using dried thyme
Dried thyme can be found in most spice racks at a grocery store. Measure out the amount of dried thyme called for in a recipe carefully and add it to the dish being prepared before cooking. Use thyme in small amounts until you are sure you like the flavor. To start use 1/4 teaspoon dried or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme to 1 pound of meat or every 2 cups of sauce or soup.
Add 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme to homemade spaghetti sauce.
Combine 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, and a 1/2 teaspoon each of marjoram, rosemary, sage and a bay leaf in a small square of cheesecloth and tie it with a bit of string to make a herb packet. Float this packet in homemade chicken soup as it cooks for flavor.
Mix 1/2 tsp. dried thyme, 1/2 tsp lemon pepper, 1/2 tsp sea salt, 1/2 tsp. lemon zest with 1/2 cup of soft butter or margarine. Spread on salmon steaks before grilling or broiling.
Check the expiration dates on dried spices and purchase only small amounts. Use opened spices within one year. Keeping tightly sealed dry herbs and spices in the refrigerator or freezer keeps the flavor strong.
While culinary uses of thyme are safe, thyme essential oil should never be taken internally and used only in a diluted form on the skin. Preparations of thyme used medicinally should start in small doses and be used in moderation. Over dosage can result in dizziness, vomiting, and heart and respiratory problems.
Here’s a recipe to use up some canned carrots or some fresh carrots you have dug before the ground freezes. If you use fresh carrots peel, slice and boil them until they are just starting to soften and drain. Round slices are best for this recipe.
This recipe is best made a day before you want it and stored in the refrigerator to let the flavors marinate the carrots.
1 cup tomato sauce
½ cup olive oil
¾ cup beer (or use water if you have no beer)
¾ cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon prepared brown mustard
1 tablespoon Worchester sauce
½ cup finely chopped onion
½ cup finely chopped red or green pepper
2 cups sliced canned carrots
In a large pan combine the tomato sauce, oil, beer, sugar, mustard and Worchester sauce. Bring the pot to a boil, stirring constantly until the sugar is melted.
Put the vegetables in a bowl and pour the hot mix over them. Stir to combine ingredients.
Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours. Most people serve the dish cold but I have known people to heat it.
Keep an open mind and a generous heart
“He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero
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. It keeps me engaged with people and horticulture. It’s a hobby, basically. I hope you enjoy it. If you are on my mailing list and at any time you don’t wish to receive these emails just let me know. If you know anyone who would like to receive a notification by email when a new blog is published have them send their email address to me. KimWillis151@gmail.com