Tuesday, November 29, 2016

November 29, 2016, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

 © Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.

Hi Gardeners
The Garden at Suncrest, Lapeer Mi.

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.

Katsura.  Photo credit Wikimedia commons

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.

Choosing varieties

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.

Culinary thyme

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.

Growing Thyme

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.

Some varieties

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.

A warning

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.

Copper Pennies

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.

You’ll need;
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

Kim Willis
 “He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero

And So On….

Do you have plants or seeds you would like to swap or share?  Post them here by emailing me. You can also ask me to post garden related events. Kimwillis151@gmail.com

Find Michigan garden events/classes here:

An interesting Plant Id page you can join on Facebook

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

Newsletter/blog information
If you would like to pass along a notice about an educational event or a volunteer opportunity please send me an email before Tuesday of each week and I will print it. Also if you have a comment or opinion you’d like to share, send it to me or you can comment directly on the blog. Please state that you want to have the item published in my weekly note if you email me. You must give your full name and what you say must be polite and not attack any individual. I am very open to ideas and opinions that don’t match mine but I do reserve the right to publish what I want.
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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

November 22, 2016, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

 © Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.

Hi Gardeners

Turkey Time
Winter appears to be here, brrr.   I still see green grass here and there but no more flowers are blooming outside.  We had temps in the 20’s at night and about an inch of snow over the last few days.  A small warm up is coming but garden season is over here.  I still have a few lawn chairs to put away but basically I am ready for winter.

My garden focus has turned to inside gardening.  I am working to control an aphid outbreak that is affecting my hibiscus primarily.  They are still blooming however.  I am amazed that the two canna plants I brought inside to the porch are still nice looking and even growing.  The tuberous begonias are dying back however, soon they’ll be just corms in a pot and dormant.  One coleus I brought inside is doing great; the other was dying so I cut off the tips to start cuttings and discarded the plant.  I am also rooting cuttings from a cane begonia that isn’t doing well inside.

I am seeing all these beautiful pictures of Thanksgiving cacti in bloom.  My Christmas cacti are setting buds but it will be Christmas or later before they bloom.  I may have messed up their bloom cycle by adding more artificial lights this year for the other plants.  My husband has been good natured about all the lights I have going but complained to me this week that the lights in one window in the living room were coming on at 4:30 am.  I have them on timers and sure enough I checked and it had been bumped and was coming on very early.  I am wondering if the aphid problem has something to do with the light cycle being messed up. (See the article on do plants need sleep? below.)

I am getting garden catalogs for the 2017 season already.  Such temptations.  But I do love to read the catalogs, and see what’s new. I will also be revising and adding to the list of links to plant catalogs and on line garden stores. (Page on right side of blog.)  If you have the name of a great garden store/nursery please send it to me so I can include that information.

My hose to the barn is frozen, at least in the morning and I have to carry buckets of water to the barn, which I hate.  In afternoons where it gets above freezing I go out and fill a couple 5 gallon buckets out there.  I have the hose suspended on fence posts so it warms up in the sun.  I am culling the older hens and some ducks tomorrow so there is less to feed and water.  People are coming to get the birds, I spent part of today out in the cold chasing the ducks around, trying to get them penned up.  I succeeded but next year the ducks are being sold when they are still little ducklings.

We didn’t raise turkeys this year for Thanksgiving but I still have a pair of pet turkeys.  It’s too late for you to raise turkeys this year but if you are interested in how to do it I have an article on the right side of this blog on the page titled “chickens, ducks, turkeys”.  

There are a few small changes to the formatting of the blog I’d like to mention.  Garden events for Michigan will no longer be posted here but you can find them on the Lapeer Gardening Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/118847598146598/

There will also be links there for various greenhouses and nature centers which hold classes in Michigan.  It will be a pinned post at the top of the Facebook page. Garden events that are national or international in scope will still be listed.

Take a moment to check out the pages listed to the right of this blog post.  There are articles from older posts and from other places that I have written for posted there in alphabetical order that will make it easier to find older articles if you want to read them again.  Just click on the title.  I am still adding titles as I have time so keep checking for more good reading.

Feeding the birds

I feed the birds all year but for some people late fall is the time to start feeding the birds.  I am seeing some of the winter birds at my feeder now, junco’s, tree sparrows, and rose breasted grosbeaks.  I feed two main things, small oil type sunflower seeds and suet cakes.  I used to also feed thistle (nyger) seed, but the price of it has become too much for me- and I find most birds are just as happy with sunflower seed.  The goldfinches, which turn dull but do stay for winter, love sunflower as well as thistle seed.

I have inside birds and I save the seed I empty from their dishes and share this waste with my chickens.  There is lots of good seed that the spoiled indoor birds leave in that waste that chickens love.  This year I have set up a tray feeder where I can share some of this finer seed with the wild birds.

Mixed bird seed can be quite cheap but a lot of what goes in cheap mixes is not really liked by birds and they push a lot of it out of the feeder onto the ground for the mice and rabbits. Squirrels also empty feeders out looking for the sunflowers in the mix. Wild bird feeds containing cracked corn, milo, wheat, buckwheat and some other grains are cheap but not really a great attractor for wild birds, except maybe pigeons and house sparrows. 

Feeds with corn in them also attract deer to your feeder at night.  You do not want deer, mice and rabbits attracted to your yard if you are a gardener. I suggest avoiding wild bird feeds with these grains in them.  A mix with some millet and hulled oats, but a large percentage of safflower and sunflower is ok, but plain oil sunflowers, the small black ones, will attract just as many birds.  Yes, mice like these seeds but there is less wasted on the ground for them to find.  I have little trouble with squirrels eating them, but chipmunks have been a problem from time to time.

Some mixes also advertise that they have dried fruit or vegetables in them but these attract people more than birds.  They are expensive and they tend to get moldy more frequently than plain seed.  There is really no advantage to buying and feeding them. 

Peanuts and peanut pieces are liked by some birds but attract squirrels and they mold quickly in wet weather and moldy peanuts can be deadly. I would put them out separately from other seed and in small quantities.

Suet cakes will attract the woodpeckers, nuthatches and a few other birds.  Starlings also like suet but if the suet is in a cage suspended by a chain they have a harder time eating it.  If the suet isn’t in a suspended cage raccoons may steal the whole cake.

Save yourself some money and attract just as many birds with less waste by feeding just oil type sunflower seed and suet. 

The science of watering houseplants

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

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

Plants may need less water in the winter when temperatures are cooler, the light is less and plants slow down their growth.  When warm weather arrives and the light is strong and growth vigorous they will need additional water.   Plants in plastic or metal pots usually need less water than those in porous clay or ceramic pots.

Symptoms of watering problems

The symptoms of over watering and under watering are often the same – wilting.  Wilting can happen because the soil is dry and the top parts of the plant don’t get enough water.  Or it can mean that the soil in the pot is saturated with water, the plants roots have rotted, and the top of the plant isn’t getting any water through those rotted roots. Feel the soil to see if it feels dry.  Don’t just touch the top- push your finger in the soil about an inch- or more for deep pots.

When a plant looks wilted you should immediately feel the planting soil to see if it feels dry.  Don’t let the plant wilt on a regular basis just so you know when it needs water.  Some plants recover pretty well each time but it takes its toll on the plants health and disease and insect resistance will be reduced.  If you touch the soil and it feels very wet, then the pot needs draining and drying, not more water, even if the plant is wilted.

Signs that the plant is suffering from dry soil other than wilting include yellowing and dropping leaves, dry leaf tips and poor flowering. On the other hand if you notice a swampy smell from your flower pots you are probably keeping them too wet. Yellowing and dying leaves can also be a sign of too much water.

If you don’t trust your sense of touch to let you know if a plant needs water, there are many inexpensive tools on the market that will tell you if the soil is too dry.  And remember that each species of plant has a different requirement for water.  Some like to dry out between watering or even prefer to remain on the dry side. 

The type of water

If a plant needs water use room temperature water.  Rain water and distilled water are best for house plants but city water, well water, or plain bottled water can be used. Both softened city water and most well water have “salts” in them that can build up in the planting soil.  (More about that in a minute.)

It used to be true that letting chlorinated city water sit for 24 hours would let the chlorine dissipate into the air. Now many cities use a type of chlorine that does not do that. Some plants are sensitive to chemicals like fluoride which are added to city water supplies.   You can install filters to remove chlorine and fluoride on a tap or buy bottled water for your plants.  Most houseplants will do alright with the treated water if you leach the pots occasionally. 

Recent studies have shown that for some reason, several popular brands of bottled drinking water are very acidic.  For some plants this could be a problem.  You may want to buy some simple pH test strips to test the bottled water you want to use.  A pH value of 7 is neutral and good for most plants.  Below a value of 7 the water is acidic and above it alkaline.  Some plants like acidic conditions and for them a pH value of 5.5 to 7 would be ok.  For most plants a pH of 6.5 would be ok but avoid lower values.  Water would be too alkaline for some plants at a value of 8 or higher.

Pots are important

The type of pot that you use for houseplants is crucial to their health.  It must have good drainage.  Do not use a pot without drainage holes even if you add gravel or broken pot pieces to the bottom.  After a while soil washes between the pieces and the small reservoir you created is lost.  If you have a pretty pot without drain holes that you want to use, find a slightly smaller pot with good drainage that will fit inside the pretty pot. Then put your plant into the smaller pot. 

It’s good to put some small things like small rocks, bottle caps, even rubber washers on the inside of the outer pots bottom so the inner pots bottom does not fit too snuggly.  You’ll need to be able to pull up the inner pot so you can empty water from the outer pot if needed. A pot that sits tightly may not drain well also.

Pots should neither be too small or large for the plant.  Large pots are hard to water correctly, the water moves down out of the reach of the plants roots or the top layer remains dry and the bottom is saturated and damaging plant roots. Don’t put small plants in huge pots, thinking they will eventually grow into them. Pots that are too small and are filled with roots will need watering much more often than people realize and it may be impossible to keep them watered as often as they need it.  These plants will need to be re-potted.

Clay pots dry out faster than plastic or metal pots.  For some plants that can be a good thing. Check plants in clay pots more frequently to see if they need water.

Self-watering pots have become popular for houseplants but they don’t always work well.  You do have to remember to fill the water reservoir and this often gets forgotten because people aren’t in the habit of checking the plants as they are when they hand water them.  I think these pots should only be used if you regularly have to be gone for long periods and no one can water the plants. And they still have limitations, for many plants even a month would be too long for the plant to remain watered. They are also not good for plants that need to dry out between watering.

Plants that need to dry out between watering, especially in winter, include geraniums, succulents, cacti, sansevieria, lithops, peperomia, poinsettia, pomegranate, euphorbia, crassula, kalanchoe,and potted roses.  These may require and tolerate more water in summer. Don’t let them wilt or shrivel, that’s too dry.

Some plants require moist soil at all times.  Boston ferns are one example. Dracaena, Erica, most ferns, gardenia, gloxinia, jasmines, philodendron, plectranthus, selaginella, solanum, and peace lily are others.  Remember moist doesn’t mean water logged.  The pots must drain well.

Most houseplants fall somewhere in between.  The top of the soil can dry a bit but the whole pot shouldn’t dry out. When flowering or in warm dry conditions plants require more water.  In cool damp conditions, or when dormant or partially dormant plants require less water. Plants near a heating vent in winter will dry out very quickly and should be checked often. Your eyes and a finger should be the judge of when plants need water.


Applying the water

When a plant is allowed to get very dry, the planting medium may shrink away from the sides of the pot.  This creates a small gap between the soil and the pot and when you water the water goes right through the gap without soaking the soil.  If you notice water pouring out the drainage holes as soon as you pour water on the plant that is usually what is happening.  To fix this place the pot in a larger container of water and let it soak or put it in the tub and let water drip on it for a couple of hours.  The soil should saturate and expand.  Make sure the pot drains well after a couple of hours.  Then try not to let the pot get that dry again.
Sometimes a crust forms on top of the potting medium and water doesn’t sink in well. Use something like a fork to break up the crust.  You may want to re-pot the plant with a better potting soil.

When watering the plant from above don’t just pour it on top of leaves.  Some plants have leaves that will deflect the water away from the planting medium – right on to your floor.  Part the leaves and try to get your water on the surface of the planting medium. Some plants do not like water in the center of foliage clumps and it will cause rotting.  The sansevierias are in this group, especially the “birds nest” types.

Some plants have leaves that will spot if you get water on them.  These are generally plants with fuzzy or hairy leaves, such as African Violets.  This doesn’t kill the plant as some believe, but it can make them less attractive. Water these plants carefully at the soil surface or put water in a saucer, set the pot in it and let the plant absorb it.  Remove the pot after an hour or two and dump the saucer. 

Some specialized plants such as some bromeliads need to be watered by pouring water into the cup or vase like depressions formed by leaves in the center of the plant.  Air plants like tilliandsias are not planted in potting medium and they need to be briefly dipped in water or heavily misted instead of watered.

Reducing salt build up

Both hard and soft water have chemical salts that get into the potting soil when we water plants.  Fertilizers also contain chemical salts.  Outdoors excess salts usually move through the soil and out of the range of plant roots, but in a pot they have nowhere to go.  They end up burning the plants roots and stunting its growth or even killing it.  Often a whitish-yellow crusty build up on top of the soil or even on the outside of the pot will be noticed.
Signs of excess salt damage include stunted growth, sometimes reddish or yellow discoloration of foliage, dry, browned leaf tips and loss of lower leaves and wilting from burned root tips. 

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

Every few months pots watered with soft city water or hard well water should be leached.  The pot needs to be placed in tub or sink with drainage and flooded with water continuously for a couple hours.  Let the water run slowly through the pot so soil doesn’t get washed away too. In some cases of heavy salt build up it may be better to repot the plant with fresh potting soil.  In the case of very large pots you may want to do this when you move the plants outside in the spring, if you don’t leave them outside  at least it makes the job easier.


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

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

Do plants need sleep?

We all know that if animals don’t sleep for long periods of time they become disorientated, hallucinate and then die.  Different animals have different needs for sleep but all animals need to sleep to be healthy. While we sleep our bodies do different things than when we are awake. We seem to be resting but actually there are a lot of crucial processes going on.  So what about the plant kingdom?  Do plants sleep?  How much “nighttime” do plants need?

Well plants don’t sleep in the sense that animals do but in darkness they do enter a period of different cellular activity than when they are in light.  As we know when plants are exposed to light they photosynthesize, that is they create simple sugars from sunlight, water, and CO2. This process happens in little green “factories” (called chloroplasts) in some surface plant cells.  In the process of creating food for the entire planet oxygen is released as a by–product, which is quite lucky for us.

At night the process of photosynthesis ends and the plants go through the process of respiration. (All living things and all living cells must go through this process.)  In plant respiration the simple sugars made by photosynthesis are broken down to repair and grow plant cells and tissues and to create reproductive parts like flowers and seeds.  A by-product of this process is CO2.  So you would think that a period of darkness – let’s call it sleep- would be crucial to plants. And in general it is.

Evening primrose in the evening.
However respiration can and does occur in light too, especially if there is no period of darkness. But respiration in most plants is most efficient when photosynthesis has ended for the day. This is the time when the plant can put energy into growing new tissues, repairing cell damage, and eliminating waste products.  

Plant families vary widely in how much darkness they need to be healthy. Some plants grow naturally in areas where there is little light, some grow where there is little dark time and others grow in areas with various degrees of light and darkness which change through the year. So if we want to have healthy plants we need to understand their requirements for dark periods or rest (or sleep).

In plants that are cultivated for food, or medicine we often know a lot about their needs for darkness.  We know how to manipulate the length of darkness so we can get them to flower and fruit when we need them. We also know a lot about certain ornamental plants like mums, poinsettias and Christmas cacti.  But in other plants we need to look at the dark-light cycles in their native environment to get an idea of what they need.

Plants have photoreceptor proteins in some cells that prompt the plant to begin or end certain plant processes depending on how much light the photoreceptors receive.  In long day plants a lengthening of daylight or days longer than 12 hours tell the plant that they should complete the reproductive process, make flowers and grow fruit and seeds or produce things like bulbs.  Short day plants work on the opposite time table, they need longer nights to start producing flowers and fruit.  Shorter daylight periods also tells some plants that winter dormancy is near and that they need to get rid of leaves, and store food in the root systems.  Day neutral plants don’t need a difference between the hours of dark and light to produce flowers and fruit.  But they may still need some darkness to remain healthy.

Plant producers have learned how to manipulate dark and light periods to get garden plants in bloom for when consumers want them.  Poinsettias at Christmas, mums for the florist trade at all times of the year, perennial plants that normally bloom in late summer in bloom for spring sales at nurseries are examples.

Most plants will be healthier and will flower and fruit for us much better if we give them the period of darkness that species prefers.  Some species need that “sleep” period much more than others and will not function well for long without it. The tomato and its relatives are an example of a plant that really prefers a set period of darkness, and if not given it, will soon decline and die. Tomatoes decline rapidly if there is less than 6 hours of darkness in a 24 hour period.  When they are seedlings this is not as important, but as the plants near maturity they will not be able to set flowers and fruit and keep up with replacing leaves and other tissues without a night rest and will eventually die from stress.

Lettuce however is often grown in continuous light.  We don’t want it to flower anyway, unless we are growing it for seeds.  Marihuana growers often use continuous light to get stocky, bushy plants.  Vegetative growth can actually be speeded up by continuous light and in plants that we are going to harvest before they age very much some respond quite well ( at least for our purposes) to continuous light.  But when we want plants to last for several years or produce flowers and fruit we need to give them some dark time in a 24 hour period.

Some tropical houseplants that are mostly grown for foliage seem to survive very well for years in continuous light such as in 24 hour office environments. But when growing plants in the home it’s probably better to make sure they get at least 6 hours of darkness.  If they are flowering plants you need to do some research to see if they need increasing or decreasing light/dark periods to flower. Some will also need a certain number of daylight hours to flower whether or not there is a slow increase or decrease in the light or dark periods.  Most day neutral flowering plants actually prefer a 12-16 hour light period and a 12-8 hour dark period.

If plants need bright light conditions that you are unable to provide inside longer hours of lower light may compensate in some species.  Seedlings can be grown under continuous light to get them growing more rapidly without harm. Once they well established though, regular periods of darkness should begin.  Night lights and other dim lights in homes only rarely affect a plant.

Outside plants can suffer “sleep deprivation” too, thanks to our habit of lighting up the night with powerful halogen or sodium lights.  Studies have found that trees under high intensity street/yard lamps lose their leaves more slowly in fall than trees which have darker nights.  This signifies they are delaying “hardening off” or preparing for winter, because they have not received the proper decrease in daylight that signals dormancy.  It can result in increased winter damage to the trees and cause some stress on the trees. Stressed trees are more likely to suffer from drought, disease and insects.

Sweet autumn clematis at night

In your garden these powerful lights can cause delayed or absent bloom in plants like mums or cause plants to bloom early and lose the blooms to freezing. It can effect hardening off and make plants less likely to survive winter.  Smaller, dimmer lights like solar lights along paths seem to have much less effect.  But gardeners should avoid planting perennials under high intensity lights. Annuals may do alright depending on the species.  A compromise for safety would be to have lights that come on when motion is detected or that are on timers so some darkness can be preserved.

So the short answer to do plants need sleep? Plants don’t sleep in the way animals do but they do, in most cases, need a period of darkness to optimize some plant functions for plant health.  Plant species vary in their need for darkness but to keep your plants healthy in the long term it’s best to give them some period of darkness.

Sage, a wise plant for gardeners

Its Thanksgiving time and one of the flavors I associate with Thanksgiving dinner is sage.  A turkey seasoned with sage and stuffed with sage dressing was part of the holiday traditions of my youth.  I still use sage when cooking turkey, usually basting it with melted butter with dried sage blended in.  I find sage also goes well with pork dishes. 

Sage is one of the most ancient medicinal and culinary herbs known, sacred to the Romans, and revered by the Chinese. Sage was said to cure almost anything that ailed you, improve your brain function and bring you immortality. A wise person is often called a sage.  You can grow this miracle herb in your garden so that you are never without it.

Sage has silver-green, oval shaped leaves with a rough texture and square stems. There are some varieties of culinary sage that have purple or golden leaves or variegated leaves.  When crushed the smell of sage is distinctive. Sage is a short lived perennial in most areas, becoming a semi-woody plant about 3 feet high.  

There are many plants in the salvia family to which culinary sage belongs, but the plant gardeners want for cooking and most medicinal uses is Salvia officinallis.  ‘Bergarten’, ‘Holt’s Mammoth’, ‘Extrakta’ and ‘White Dalmation’ are all good culinary sages of this species. 

Tri-color sage has variegated leaves of purple, pink and white.  Purple sage has purplish- green leaves. These two are hardy to zone 6.  There is a Gold sage whose leaves are solid gold and a Golden sage, whose leaves have gold edges.  The gold sages are not hardy below zone 7 but may be over wintered in a cool, sunny room.  The colored sages don’t have flavor as strong as the silver-green sages, but can be used in cooking. 

Sage flowering
Be careful that when purchasing sage you intend to use for cooking that you are not getting a purely ornamental variety, such as Pineapple sage or Honey Melon sage.  These are grown for their flowers and scented leaves but have little medicinal or cooking value. 

Growing sage

You can start sage from seeds; sow the seed about 8 weeks before your last frost indoors in flats or pots.  Transplant outside after danger of frost and space about 18 inches apart.

If you are looking for sages with colored or variegated leaves you will probably have to buy plants.  Sage will also start from tip cuttings. 

In northern gardens culinary sage may bloom in late spring and again when we have long, warm falls.  When it blooms you may see pinkish- purple blooms on long spikes.  Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love the flowers of sage.  Cut the flowers off as they fade so the plant does not put energy into producing seeds. 

Sage needs full sun and well-drained soil to do well.  Most culinary varieties are hardy to zone 5, but check hardiness before purchasing.  In zone 5, some winter protection is advised, especially if the sage plant is in an exposed area.  In the spring, trim off any winter killed branches and lightly fertilize.  After 4 or 5 years you will probably need to replace your sage plant.

Culinary and medicinal uses of sage

Dried sage is often used as a rub for meats.  In earlier days this helped preserve the meat as well as flavor it.   Sage leaves can be fried in butter and used as a sauce for gnocchi or pasta.  Sage is used as a seasoning in sausage and in stuffing mixes for poultry or pork. 

Although sage had a lot of medicinal uses in earlier times, it is seldom used in herbal medicine today.  Like many herbs, sage is high in antioxidants, flavonoids and other beneficial compounds.  Research has shown that sage is indeed helpful to the brain, improving memory in some studies.  Its anti-bacterial properties have led to research using sage to improve the shelf life of cooking oils.  Sage tea is sometimes used to treat colds and bronchial infections and to lower fevers.  Sage tea is also used as a gargle for sore throat and to ease indigestion.

A sage tea that is cooled is used as a rinse for gray hair, darkening it while conditioning it.  Sage is also used to scent soap and perfumes.  Sage used to be a common ingredient in tooth powder, used to heal bleeding gums.  Sage is sometimes burned in religious ceremonies.

Harvesting and drying sage

Sage is a very strong herb and if you are not used to it, start with a small amount, especially when using dried sage. Harvest sage leaves at any time until about six weeks before you expect a hard freeze.   This will give the plant time to harden off any shoots it produced in response to your last harvest.

You can harvest fresh young leaves or small sprigs of sage to lay on meats such as chicken, veal and pork while it cooks.  Fresh sage has a slightly different taste than dried sage, lighter, with a lemony zing. Sage loses the citrus undertone when dried and other flavors in it become more prominent. 

You can dry sage by harvesting fresh stems with leaves and hanging them in a warm, dark place, or in a dehydrator, microwave or oven.  Make sure the sage is completely dried, it may take longer than thin leaved herbs, before storing, or it may mold and taste musty.  Store completely dried leaves in a clean glass container in a cool place.  Sage leaves can also be frozen in water and will taste more like fresh sage when used than dried sage.

Easy pumpkin bread

Here’s a nice quick bread recipe for a cold winter day.  Warm the house as well as your belly when you make it.  You only need a small amount of canned or cooked pumpkin for this recipe so if you have to open a jar or can for it, freeze the rest of the pumpkin for another use.

This recipe makes one loaf or a 9 x9 inch pan.

You’ll need:
2 cups self-rising flour, (not all purpose flour)
1 cup of heavy cream (don’t sub milk, the fat is needed)
½ cup sugar
¾ cup canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling)
1 egg lightly beaten
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice mix
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Mix the flour, sugar and spice together in a large bowl.

Add the egg, pumpkin and cream and stir until well blended.  It makes a thick batter.

Stir in nuts.

Pour into a greased pan.  Bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes or until golden brown and a knife inserted comes out clean.  Cool before slicing.

I hope everyone has a great Thanksgiving and finds something to be grateful for.

Kim Willis
 “He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero

And So On….
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