Tuesday, June 27, 2017

June 27, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Hi Gardeners
Calla lilies
I am so mad right now.  My daylilies, Asiatic and oriental lilies are just starting to bloom.  I walked out to the bed farthest from the house to get some pictures and found that last night the deer had eaten all the buds and flowers off the daylilies and some of the smaller Asiatic lilies.  It’s time to kill some deer!  They haven’t bothered those up by the house- yet.  I took down my twinkling solar lights after the tulips were done; I guess maybe I need to put them back up.

It’s not like the deer don’t have anything to eat right now.  Everything is lush from all the rain we’ve been having.  My flowers were just dessert I guess.  They left the buds on the tall trumpet lilies; I hope they don’t notice them.  I thought lilies were supposed to be poisonous- I hope they were poisonous.

Well besides the lilies the beebalm and buddleia are beginning to bloom.  My pot of rain lilies is blooming. Echinacea and helenium are blooming and the clematis are going strong.  The roses are blooming still too.  The groundcover sedums and hens and chicks are blooming.  The fields are covered with ox eye daisies and by the large pond a wild sweet pea is blooming all over with deep pink flowers this year.

We got the first ripe tomato out of the garden yesterday, with more soon to follow.  It’s an Early Girl from my cheater plant, the extra-large plant I buy every year to have early tomatoes.  We will actually have tomatoes while the lettuce is still good this year.  I usually have some by the 4th of July but we are a bit early this year.  This one was cut in wedges, smeared in salad dressing and wrapped with bacon. (We seldom eat bread).  It was deep red, juicy and delicious.

My mulberry tree has been full of birds and the birds here are going through 2 suet cakes a day at my feeders.  All the babies are coming to the feeder and the parents feed them suet.  The sunflower seeds are going fast too.  It gets expensive feeding them this time of year but I enjoy seeing all the different kinds of birds that come for the food.

I had another animal problem today.  My fault.  We had a litter of baby kittens in the barn under the chicken nest boxes.  A duck had decided to share the space with them and laid a pile of eggs under there too.   The kittens were starting to explore and I thought I would put a little dry cat food under there for them to find.  That was a bad move.  I came out this morning to find the duck eggs had been raided and eaten by a coon.  I quickly checked for the kittens and they were still there, unharmed it seems. 

I think the coon smelled the cat food and went looking for it.  I shouldn’t have put any near there. I’m not too upset over the duck eggs; they weren’t sitting tight on them yet.   Mama cat decided not to take any chances however and moved her kittens up by the deck, in the tall daylilies there.  (They can’t get under the deck.)  Now I have kittens toddling across the deck that I have to worry about stepping on. One keeps trying to follow me. Gizzy was way too interested in them too.  He gets along well with some cats but I’m worried he’ll be too rough on the baby kittens. They are toy sized.  I’ll have to watch him carefully.  Hopefully momma cat will move them along somewhere else soon.
Baby downy woodpecker getting fed suet

Next week the 4th of July holiday falls on Tuesday and I won’t be putting out a newsletter.  Look for one July 11th.

Mulberry trees

I personally don’t find mulberry fruit very appealing, it’s pretty bland.  But the birds and a lot of different animals consider mulberries as candy.  If you enjoy bird watching, plant a mulberry tree; just make sure it’s a good ways from your clothesline or where you park your car.  And some people enjoy the fruit themselves.

The red mulberry Morus rubra is native to Eastern North America from Canada south to the gulf.  It was once very common and widespread but is now listed as endangered in Canada, Connecticut and Massachusetts and threatened in Michigan and Vermont.  If you like attracting butterflies the red mulberry is the host or larval plant for the Mourning Cloak butterfly.

White mulberry

The white mulberry Morus alba is native to China and was brought to North America in an attempt to start a silk industry because silk worms feed on the leaves.  It has escaped cultivation and has naturalized in many places.  Some areas consider it an invasive plant.  There are, however cultivars of white mulberry such as ‘Pendula’ that are used as landscape plants.

Both mulberries are smaller trees growing to about 35-40 feet high at maturity.  They prefer full sun conditions in good loamy soil but will grow in partial shade.  Red mulberry is more tolerant of shade and often found in the wild in the partial shade of larger trees.  In the wild both are often found along streams and on the edges of woodlands, white mulberry is more common in open sunny fields. White mulberry has been used for erosion control.  Trees have rounded crowns, with abundant branching and branches close to the ground.  Branching is alternate.

Both mulberries have oval leaves to lobed leaves, lobed leaves usually are on younger branches.  Red mulberries leaves are rough feeling to the touch and dull green, while white mulberries are smoother and have a glossy surface.  Red mulberries have a hairy back surface and a finely serrated edge.  White mulberry leaves have deeper serrations on the edge and are larger than red mulberry leaves. The bark of red mulberry trees is flat scales of red brown, often young trees have a reddish sheen when wet.  White mulberry bark has raised ridges with a yellow- tan inner bark showing between the ridges.

The flowers of both mulberries are inconspicuous long catkin like clusters of greenish white and are wind pollinated.  Here’s the confusing part.  Some references list both species as being dioecious, having male and female flowers on separate trees.  Others list both species as having separate male and female flowers on the same tree.  Some references state the trees can be either type of flowering.  The pollen of mulberries is very allergenic so if you have allergies you may not want a tree nearby.

Personally I have never seen a mulberry without fruit, which would indicate it’s a male tree.  All the mulberries I have known always have fruit in season, which means they were all female and I never saw the male, or they have both male and female flowers.  I know my current tree has both sexes of flowers.  It’s a white mulberry.

Anyway in both red and white mulberries the flowers turn into long blackberry like fruit in early summer.  Despite its name most white mulberry trees fruit ripens to deep red or purple.  Red mulberry fruit ripens to purple- black.  A few white mulberry trees have white or pink fruit when ripe.  The fruit is sweet and perfectly edible.  Beware it can stain hands and things the berries land on, as can the poop from birds eating the berries.

Identification of mulberries can be tricky as the two species can hybridize although no one knows how common this is.  There are other species of mulberry that are sometimes brought in as cultivated plants.

You can start mulberries from seed quite easily, although they need a period of cold stratification.  Mulberry cuttings also root easily.  Most gardeners will want to start with a small tree, which will grow rapidly and fruit in just a few years.  Some nurseries sell mulberry trees, usually white mulberry cultivars.

Mulberries have few pests or diseases.  They only need fertilization in the poorest soils and are moderately drought tolerant once established.  While they will grow in partial shade fruiting is best in full sun.

Uses of mulberry

The fruits of mulberry have been used for centuries in jams and jellies and to make wine.  They can be eaten fresh too.  They can be turned into pies and cobblers.  To collect the fruit people often put something under the tree like a sheet and then shake the tree.  Birds adore the fruit and animals like squirrels, raccoons, opossums also like them.  Box turtles will eat the fallen fruit.

Mulberry syrup was often used to hide the flavors of medicines.  Mulberries were used in both Native American and Chinese medicine.  Fruits were used to cure constipation and other digestive problems, for urinary tract problems, in the treatment of fatigue and weakness, and for blood sugar control among other things.  Mulberry juice was used to treat baldness and graying hair.

The inner bark of red mulberries was separated into fibers that were woven into clothing by Native Americans.  Shoots were woven into baskets.  Mulberry wood makes good fence posts and the wood is used to smoke meat and give it a sweet pleasant taste.

The shoots, leaves and unripe fruit of mulberries is mildly toxic and may result in severe digestive upsets if eaten.

Talking about ticks

Black legged or deer tick
Ticks have been in the news a bit lately; it seems like tick populations are up in many states.  There are also some rare tick borne diseases that are popping up more frequently.  In a well maintained yard and garden gardeners aren’t very likely to experience ticks.  However if you garden near woody, brushy areas or unmown fields, are clearing land or like to walk in wilder areas you may have a dreaded tick encounter.

There is at least one species of ticks in every US state. Ticks won’t however, be in every area of a state. While every tick doesn’t carry disease some tick bites can infect you with some very serious or deadly diseases.  Lyme disease is the disease people hear about the most and probably the most common disease ticks carry.  Lyme disease can have serious long term effects on people.  But there are many more serious diseases ticks carry.

Most tick borne diseases have no cure, supportive care is needed to prevent complications.  Tick diseases commonly begin with flu like symptoms and fever and progress to affect various organs.  Encephalitis and arthritic pain are common in many of the diseases.  Some cause anemia or cardiac problems.  Rashes of various forms, including the famous bulls eye rash of Lyme disease, are associated with many tick borne diseases. Deaths can occur with many tick diseases. 

Tick borne diseases can be hard to diagnose, especially if the sick person doesn’t know they were bitten by a tick.  Because a lot of tick diseases require the tick to feed for a while on a human to transmit the disease, many people do know when they get a potentially bad tick bite.  If you find a tick that is engorged, full of your blood, on you, it’s a good idea to keep the tick and have it identified.  If you get any flu like symptoms or a rash shortly after the encounter notify your doctor you were bitten by a tick. 

To save the tick for identification, which requires an experienced, trained person, put them in a jar of alcohol after removing them (see below) or freeze them in a plastic bag.  Call your local health department or your County Extension office to find out where to take or send a tick for identification. Tell them if you were traveling when you acquired the tick and where.  Identifying the tick and knowing the area the tick came from can help narrow down what diseases the tick may be carrying.

Here are some of the diseases ticks cause in the US and the species of ticks that transmit them.  Not all species of ticks and or all of these diseases are found in every state.  Some state will have several species of ticks.  The brown dog tick is found in every state.

Anaplasmosis, blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus)
Babesiosis- blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis)
Borrelia mayonii blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis)
Borrelia miyamotoi- blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis)
Colorado tick fever -Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni).
Ehrlichiosis- lone star tick (Ambylomma americanum)
Heartland virus infection- lone star tick (Ambylomma americanum)
Lyme disease blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus).  30,000 cases a year. 
Powassan disease blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and the groundhog tick (Ixodes cookei).
Rickettsia parkeri rickettsiosis - Gulf Coast tick (Amblyomma maculatum).
Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni), and the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sangunineus).
STARI (Southern tick-associated rash illness) the lone star tick (Ambylomma americanum).
Tickborne relapsing fever (TBRF)
Tularemia- dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), the wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni), and the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum).
364D rickettsiosis (Rickettsia phillipi, proposed) the Pacific Coast tick (Dermacentor occidentalis). This is a new disease that has been found in California.

The lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum also causes an unusual allergic reaction to red meat.  After people have been bitten by this tick they may have a severe allergic reaction when they eat red meat.

Removing a tick

The CDC recommends removing ticks as soon as possible, the longer a tick stays on you the more likely it will transmit a disease.  They also recommend that you do not use Vaseline, nail polish or similar products to smother them or use a lighter or fire on the tick. Smothering takes too long and fire is too dangerous.

Do not yank the tick out quickly, if you break it in two and leave the head imbedded it can cause an infection.  Use a pair of tweezers and grab the ticks head as close to the skin as you can.  Pull up with a slow steady movement.  You can buy a special tick removal tool that looks like a little spoon with a notch in it.  If you frequently have to remove ticks you may want one. After removing a tick clean the area with alcohol or soap and water.

If you do break off a tick head in your skin flush the area with alcohol and then use some antibiotic cream.  Dispose of pulled ticks in a cup of alcohol, a jar with a tight lid or flush them down the toilet. 

The tick life cycle and habits

Ticks have 4 life stages, egg, larvae, nymph and adult. Larval ticks are very small and only have 6 legs.  Nymph ticks have 8 legs and look like small adult ticks.  Adult ticks are the largest and are able to mate and produce eggs. Eggs are generally laid on the ground by female ticks in the thousands. 

After hatching ticks require blood meals at every stage of life.  Some ticks will feed on the same species of animal throughout their life stages; others require different species of animals at different stages.  Ticks can feed on any warm blooded creature including birds and they also feed on reptiles and amphibians in some species, but they have their preferred species. Humans aren’t a preferred tick food but they readily accept us to feed on in the adult and in some species, nymph stages.
Life stages of the Lone Star Tick
Photo from the CDC

Ticks don’t jump like fleas and they don’t fly.  What they do is climb up on grass or weeds and hold out their first pair of legs to grasp any animal passing by.  They sense movement, animal body heat or breath, vibrations and other things depending on the tick species in order to find their preferred host species. When they haven’t eaten in a while ticks can be very small and hard to see, especially in the larval stage.  They are the size of a period in this article.

When it finds a body to feed on ticks may attach quickly in some species, or they may crawl on the host looking for a good spot.  They seem to like hairy spots with thin skin.  It can take 10 minutes to 2 hours for a tick to firmly attach itself and begin feeding.  The tick inserts a feeding tube into the victim’s skin and then produces a glue-like substance to keep it there.  Some ticks also have barbs on the tube. The front of the tick head will seem to be buried in the skin when it’s attached.  The salvia of the tick is injected into the wound and this has an anesthetic in it which keeps the host from feeling the tick feeding.

Ticks can feed for several hours or even days.  As they fill with blood they get larger and easier to see.  Some adult engorged ticks will be as big as a penny.  When full they drop off, maybe lay some eggs, digest their meal and then look for another one.  The longer a tick stays on you feeding the more likely you will be infected with a disease so it’s important to remove them as soon as possible.

Treating the yard and garden

A product that kills ticks is called an acaricide.  There are several on the market. Read and follow the label directions carefully and only use them if you know ticks are on your property.  Many of these products are harmful to birds and aquatic animals and can harm beneficial insects too.  They should only be used near human habitation.  A professional pest control company often uses high pressure sprayers that penetrate debris and weeds for better coverage.

Many people recommend getting guinea hens (a type of poultry) because they like to eat ticks.  They do eat ticks but won’t get them all.  Guineas roaming in brushy areas where ticks are found are also food for other animals.  They are also very noisy and your neighbors may prefer the ticks.  Chickens and ducks will also eat ticks when they find them, but be aware that ticks can also feed on birds too.  Poultry alone is rarely sufficient to completely control ticks.

Opossums and ticks

You may have read on the internet that opossums help kill ticks.  This is true to some extent.  Opossums groom themselves like cats and eat ticks that attach to them; scientists estimate they may eat 5,000 ticks a week in heavily infested areas.  They don’t hunt for ticks, but it may be a good idea to let them live around your property if they aren’t bothering anything else so they can act as a tick magnet.

But just like guinea hens don’t count on a possum population to totally control ticks.  And there may be other reasons that discouraging possums would be wise.  Horse owners know opossums can transmit diseases to horses so they often eliminate them from barns.

Keep deer and mice away

Feeding the deer is a good way to bring ticks on your property.  Deer are excellent transporters of ticks.  Anywhere deer congregate should be avoided and walking on narrow trails deer make through fields is also a good way to get ticks.

Mice are the hosts for some types of ticks in their early life stages.  Clean up any areas that attract and hide mice and try to eliminate them from your home and yard. You can buy tubes filled with treated nesting material for mice.  It doesn’t kill the mice but when they carry the nesting material away and sleep in it the ticks are killed. One such product is Damminix Tick Tubes.

Treat dogs/ pets with flea products that also repel and or kill ticks

Dogs can get many of the same diseases from ticks that people do.  And dogs are the frequent way ticks are brought inside or to the yard after they have been exploring in the woods and fields.  Check your dog after every field trip.  If you live in tick infested areas use one of the many products that kill and repel ticks on your dogs from early spring through fall.  If your dog gets sick after being fed on by ticks see a vet.
Dog Tick
Wikimedia commons
Other pets can get ticks too.  Don’t use dog tick repellents on other animals like cats because many are toxic to other species. Check with a vet before applying tick products to any animal. Cats usually groom them off themselves.  Pet tortoises have been known to pick up ticks.  Rabbits also get them.

Horses on pasture often get ticks and can get several diseases from them. Some fly repellents also repel ticks.  Remove ticks found on horses like you would for a human.  Check with a vet if horses seem ill after being bitten by ticks.

Keeping ticks off you

Use a repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 on your exposed skin.  If you expect to run into ticks do not take risks with home and “organic” remedies.  These products also protect you from mosquitoes and biting flies.

You can also treat clothing and things like camping gear, with a product containing 0.5% permethrin.  Don’t use this on your skin.   These products remain through several washings.  You can also buy pre-treated clothing and some of those items will repel ticks for a long time. Permethrin must be applied to clothing 48 hours before it’s worn and allowed to dry.  Using permethrin on shoes and other clothing reduces your chances of getting ticks by about 70% according to research.

Try to stay on mowed/cleared paths, in the middle of them preferably,  and out of deep grass and brush.  Around the home keep the lawn short and brush and weeds cleared away.  Pick up any litter or rubbish that can hide mice and or ticks. Make a 3 feet barrier of wood chips or gravel between wooded or brushy areas and the lawn or garden.

Wear long pants, socks and shoes when working or walking in areas where ticks may be. Tuck pants into socks or boots.  If you are bending down pulling weeds or other chores wear long sleeves with a wrist band.

When coming in from working or walking in tick prone areas immediately inspect all your skin surfaces, including body cracks and crevices and your scalp.  Ticks tend to climb upward and like warm hairy places on the body best. Check your scalp. You may need to use a mirror.  Strip and take a shower with hot water if you can.  Inspect anything you carried inside like a jacket or backpack for ticks too.  And check your dog if it’s been out there with you.

Throw your clothes in the washer and wash them with HOT water.  If you have one of the machines that doesn’t let the water get very hot you’ll need to dry clothes on high heat for 60 minutes or more.  If you can’t wash the clothing put it in the dryer for 60 minutes on high heat. 

Remember most gardeners won’t have to worry about ticks in regularly tended gardens.  And don’t panic if you do get a tick bite.  Most people will not get a disease from the bite.  But if ticks are common in your area it’s best to protect yourself and be on the look-out for them.

Keep kitchen and bath products out of the garden

It simply amazes me what gets passed around as garden tips.  Every imaginable food, beverage, spice, and cleaning product seems to have found some miraculous use in the garden.  Even human medicines are being side tracked to the garden.  Most of these folk remedies are harmless but useless.  Some however can harm plants or even people and pets.  The remedies are often touted as organic or safe although some are neither.  

Often these garden remedies are generated because someone has misread and/or misapplied some research published on a promising new product using something similar to a product found in the home.  For example there are tips floating around now that cornmeal, the kind you bake with, can kill weeds.  This came from studies using corn gluten meal, a different product made from corn you won’t find on grocery shelves.  Some studies found that corn gluten meal will suppress the germination of some weed seeds.  There is at least one commercial product on the market featuring corn gluten meal but the remedy has never really taken hold among professional growers or farmers because it isn’t that effective and there are many drawbacks to its use.

People reading the research came to the wrong conclusion that sprinkling cornmeal in the garden would suppress or even kill weeds.  It doesn’t.  What cornmeal does is mold and attract mice and other animals.  There is currently some debate among researchers as to whether corn gluten meal is actually an effective weed suppressor anyway.  It seems to be ineffective in some areas.  The corn gluten meal has a high nitrogen content, which makes things grow well, but it may not be so great for the environment when excess nitrogen leaches into the water supply and forms nitrates.  Here are some links that give both sides of the corn gluten debate.

Remember corn gluten meal is different from the cornmeal found in your kitchen.  Don’t use cornmeal in the garden.

Let’s talk about some other household things used in the garden

Epsom salt- this is probably one of the most misused products in the garden ever.  It is recommended freely and often as a remedy for killing bugs, weeds, fungus infections, plant diseases, as a fertilizer, to make fruit or vegetables taste different, to make flowers prettier and more abundant, to reduce transplant shock and to make the sun come out on a rainy day.  It doesn’t do any of these things, despite all the testimonials.  Every research study has found it useless.  Epsom salt is simply magnesium and sulfur.  The only thing it could do is correct a magnesium deficiency in the soil, which is rare in the home garden.

Epsom salt is not harmless either.  If too much magnesium builds up in the soil it can alter how other nutrients in the soil can be used by plants.  Other nutrient deficiencies may occur with its use.  Some plants are sensitive to it being used on leaves and will suffer damage.

Vinegar is probably the second most recommended useless product for the garden.  It’s purported use as a weed killer comes from some research using a very strong commercial concentration of vinegar, not the kind that comes from the grocery store.   Mixing edible vinegar with baking soda, dish soap, Epsom salt, beer or other things doesn’t make it any more effective.  Straight vinegar applied to the foliage of some plants may kill the foliage, but won’t kill the roots.  Kitchen vinegar won’t harm some weeds. Vinegar won’t cure plant fungal infections like powdery mildew, fungal infections can’t be cured, only prevented.

Commercial strength vinegar if you can find it, is difficult and dangerous to work with, it can cause severe burns and eye damage.  Any type of vinegar may harm plants you don’t want harmed if it splashes on them.  And that means you can’t use vinegar to kill bugs on plants, not only will that not work but it will harm the plants.

Cinnamon is another useless home remedy.  While cinnamon does have some anti-microbial properties sprinkling it on plants or the soil will not do anything.  It won’t kill insects or cure fungal problems or keep deer away.

Coffee and coffee grounds are both fairly harmless but also pretty much useless as a remedy for anything.  Coffee isn’t a balanced fertilizer although it may contribute some nitrogen. Coffee doesn’t kill insects.  Coffee grounds add some organic matter to soil. They don’t even budge the soil pH (make it more acidic) in any significant way.  The only thing pouring coffee on plants does is give them some water.

Sugar of any kind is not needed by plants, they make their own.  It does not help plant growth.  What it does is attract ants and other insects and animals.

Eggs and eggshells have very limited uses in the garden.  Eggshells can be added to compost or the garden without harm.  But they don’t release calcium very quickly, it takes years for shells to release calcium in any appreciable amount, therefore they won’t cure a calcium deficiency.  Crushed egg shells also do not deter slugs.  Videos have been made with slugs crawling right over them without harm.  Whole eggs take years to decompose.  They are a magnet for animals, like coons and opossums, which can damage your plants digging them up.

Using a spray of raw eggs on plants to deter deer and rabbit damage is only mildly effective and it smells terrible.  Do not use a raw egg spray on edible plants, you may get salmonella or other food borne diseases.

Dish soap is full of chemicals.  It should not be considered an organic product. Just check the label.  Insecticidal soap sold for garden use is vastly different from dish soap, which is actually a detergent.  Insecticidal soap is made with fatty acids which don’t harm plants. While dish soap is harmless to you, it harms plants by stripping them of the waxes and fats which protect plant leaves.  Stripping the protective coating on plant leaves makes them more susceptible to diseases and insects.  Detergents don’t kill all insects and the product must contact the insect for it to work.  Eating leaves with a residue won’t kill insects. Dish soap doesn’t cure fungal infections or any other plant disease.  Adding other things to dish soap doesn’t make it any better.

Dish soap sprayed on plant leaves may also react with sunlight to burn the leaves.  Some plants are quite sensitive to even small amounts and may be severely damaged or killed.  The only good use for dish soap in the garden is to put some in water and knock or pick insects off plants and throw them into it.

Baking soda is another useless remedy in the garden, regardless of what it’s mixed with.  It doesn’t kill fungal diseases, or insects.

Beer has only minor benefit to gardens.  Beer can be used to trap slugs but that’s the extent of its usefulness in the garden.  It isn’t fertilizer; it doesn’t keep bugs, including mosquitoes, away.  In fact it may attract mosquitoes and other insects.  It isn’t a tonic for plants nor can it cure any plant disease.

Mouthwash, cheap, blue, or otherwise is mostly alcohol.  It might kill insects if it contacted them but won’t kill them as a residue on plants. It doesn’t keep mosquitoes away. It doesn’t cure fungal disease.  It can harm plants by stripping off protective oils and waxes from leaves and may burn the leaves when alcohol sprayed leaves are subjected to sunlight.

Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) is produced by plants as a defense against insects.  But crushing an aspirin and mixing it with something and spraying your plants doesn’t kill insects.  It doesn’t cure plant diseases either.  In humans it doesn’t cure anything either, it just eases pain and inflammation. Does it help plant pain? Who knows.  But weed (marijuana) growers will tell you it will kill your plants if sprayed on them.

The miraculous effects some people have by applying some of the above folk remedies can be attributed to a placebo effect, or giving the plant more water in a mixed solution or just chance.  And folk remedies aren’t cheaper if they do no good, they are wasted money. 

Zinnias- Summer Sizzle From South of the Border

Are you growing zinnias in your garden? You may have seen zinnias growing in your mother or grandmothers garden.   Zinnias fell out of favor for a while with home gardeners but they are back with a vengeance.  The new and improved varieties are carefree and excellent for beginning gardeners and children.  

Zinnias are excellent as bedding plants for masses of color, in the back of mixed borders for late summer color and for cutting flowers.   Some of the newer, compact varieties look nice in containers and provide continuous color in hot spots. Zinnias make excellent cut flowers; the more you cut the more they bloom. 

Zinnias are annual plants, meaning that they complete their life cycle in one year.  Native to Mexico, zinnias are not frost hardy, but they will grow anywhere where they have a few frost-free months. Zinnia leaves are dark green, with a long pointed oval shape and feel rough to the touch. 

Zinnia flowers come in every color and color combination imaginable except blue. The flowers range in size from 1 inch across to 6 inches across.   Zinnias can have single daisy-like blooms or very double, full pom-pom shaped blooms.  Some zinnia varieties also have flower petals shaped like narrow quills. 

Growing Zinnias

Zinnias are one of the easiest flowers to grow from seed.  The seed can be sown in the garden after all danger of frost or started indoors for earlier flowers.  If grown indoors don’t start the plants too early.  Zinnias suffer a little from transplanting and small plants recover faster.   Start the seeds indoors in a warm area about 3 weeks before your last frost.  Zinnia seed will germinate in less than a week in the right conditions.  Or plant zinnia seed outside after the last frost, when the soil is warm.  Cover the seed lightly with fine soil or compost and keep moist.   Thin seedlings or transplant your indoor seedlings to stand about 6 inches apart for small varieties and 8-10 inches apart for tall types.  

Zinnia seedlings are often available in nurseries for sale.  Ones that have started to bloom or have gotten tall and spindly in a small cell pack should be avoided.  Zinnias bloom in 6-10 weeks from seed.

Zinnias require full sun.  They thrive in hot areas as long as they get enough moisture.   They like good rich soil and appreciate a slow release fertilizer in the spring when they are planted and a booster shot of fertilizer in mid to late simmer.    Zinnias need to be watered if there is less than an inch of rain each week, or sooner if they appear to be wilting.  They will reward you with hundreds of colorful flowers for just a little care.

If you are growing some of the older, heirloom varieties of zinnias, a little pinching back in early summer will make them bushier and produce side branches with more flowers.  Many new varieties already have a good branching habit.   You can cut zinnias without a worry for bouquets as this just encourages the plant to bloom more.  Be careful to cut blooms though, not pull at the plant to remove flowers as this may damage the root system.   Deadheading, removing the old flowers before they set seed will keep the blooms coming. 

In late summer you may want to let some zinnias go to seed.  The seeds are easy to collect and store for next year.  Wait until they are fully dry on the plant then clean out the old petals and other junk and store at room temperature.  Use clean dry jars for storage or heavy duty plastic bags.  In mild areas zinnias often re-seed in the garden. You may not get exactly the same flowers as the zinnias this year but they will be colorful and who knows, you may discover something unique.

Zinnias worst problem in the garden used to be powdery mildew, which they are very prone to getting in humid areas.  Modern varieties are very resistant to powdery mildew.   Powdery mildew makes a white powder on the leaves, which then dry up and die.  Plants usually keep trying to produce flowers but much of their energy is used replacing foliage and the dead foliage looks awful.  

Water zinnias early in the day so the foliage dries before night, and try to water at the base of the plant.  Make sure the plants are not too crowded.  Remove all of the dead foliage after a frost and take it away from the garden. If you want to grow some of the beautiful older varieties of zinnias you will probably need to protect them with a flower fungicide, beginning in early summer.

Some Varieties

For low masses of color in borders and beds try the ‘Magellan’ series, which is available as a mix or several individual colors. They have 4-5 inch double flowers on foot high plants.  ‘Dreamland’ series are similar but shorter.  ‘Aztec Sunset’ has 2 inch flowers of mahogany red and bronze on compact plants.   ‘Profusion’ series of zinnia has single, daisy like flowers on compact plants. 

“Zowie’ has 3-5 inch flowers on 3-4 foot stems.  They begin magenta pink and yellow, but change to flame red and yellow as they age.  ‘Big Red’ is big- a 3 foot or taller plant smothered in scarlet red 6 inch flowers.   ‘Envy’ has unusual lime green 2 inch flowers on 3 foot plants.   ‘Candy Stripe’ is an older variety with white double flowers, variegated with streaks of pink and red.  ‘Oklahoma’ series has small 1-2 inch flowers, on 2 foot plants, excellent for cut flowers.  ‘Giant Cactus’ is an old variety with large, 4-5 inch flowers that have narrow petals giving the blooms a fluffy look.  ‘State Fair’ is one of the oldest varieties still on the market.  It has large double flowers in assorted colors.

I’m growing zinnias this year- how about you?

How to make strawberry jam without added sugar

You can make strawberry jam that is without added sugar, but because the sugar in regular jam is what makes it thicken, you need to add a thickener called pectin to get the jam to “jell”.  While this jam is without added sugar it does have some natural sugar from the fruit itself.  And this strawberry jam has fewer calories than regular jam, but is not calorie free.  Each tablespoon of jam will have less than 10 calories.

Jam made with artificial sweeteners needs to be frozen or refrigerated for storage.  The long cooking required to can jam for shelf storage would make the sweetener taste bitter.  This recipe calls for liquid artificial sweetener, available at most grocery stores.  The pectin called for can also be found in grocery stores- they usually have a small canning section near the baking or seasoning products.

Strawberry jam made with artificial sweeteners isn’t the pretty red of jam made with sugar.  To make it more appealing some people opt to add red food coloring, although you can leave it out without harming the recipe.

You’ll need 3 half pint containers with covers that can be frozen or refrigerated safely for this recipe.  They don’t need to be sterilized but should be clean and dry. Freeze the jam if it will take you more than 2 weeks to use it and just thaw one container at a time.  Keep thawed jam in the refrigerator.


        1 quart of strawberries, washed with caps ( green top) removed.
        3 teaspoons of liquid artificial sweetener- do not use powders.
        1 package of powdered fruit pectin
        1 tablespoon of lemon juice
        red food coloring if desired

Crush the strawberries with a large spoon in a medium saucepan.  Add the rest of the ingredients.  Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly.  When boiling begins, time cooking for 1 minute, stirring all the time, then turn off heat.  Continue to stir until you notice mixture thickening, about 2 minutes.  Pour into your containers and freeze or refrigerate.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July

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

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

And So On….
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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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

June 20, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Hi Gardeners

It’s a beautiful day here, defying the forecast which said we would have a showery cloudy day.  Seventy degrees and sunny, that’s my kind of day.  We have had in the last 4 days just shy of 3 inches of rain.  So we really don’t need more, although it’s forecast for almost every day this week.

I was at a gathering of great gardeners last night and we had a booming thunderstorm and heavy rain to talk over.  Luckily we had a roof over us.   It was the 35th anniversary of the Lapeer Horticultural Society.  It was great to see so many of you gardeners again.  I wanted to take pictures of the nice garden at the Garden at Suncrest, but was only able to get a few pictures between rain showers.  If you have a chance to join a garden group near you, do it.  It’s fun to talk to other gardeners in person.

In my garden the hydrangeas are beginning to bloom.  Harebells, helanthemum, evening primrose, and common daylily are some things joining the roses and clematis in bloom.  Annuals are starting to fill in and look nice.  The calla lily in my ornamental pond is blooming.

The fireflies are flying now.  I remember as a kid we never had fireflies up here in the north.  We had to go down south to visit relatives to see them and collect them in jars. Whether they just took a while to spread north (maybe in jars hidden in the back seats of cars?) or it’s a sign of climate change I don’t know.

Potato beetles are now out and about. They are small, long beetles with yellow stripes.  You can protect your potatoes with spun row covers if you get it on before the beetles arrive.  Handpick beetles or use a pesticide otherwise.  Potato beetles will also attack eggplants. 

My strawberries are ripening and the blackberries are in bloom.  When I was a child my siblings and I would go to the fields along the railroad tracks and pick wild strawberries by the bucket and my mom would spend a lot of time hulling them and making shortcakes out of bisquick.  It was a special treat if we had ice cream or whipped cream to go with them.

I have my own strawberry patch now but I must admit I am not keeping it up well and the bed is full of grass.  I think I will rip it all out and renovate it when they quit blooming.  I may move the plants to a raised bed closer to the house I think.

The mulberry tree at the back of my garden is ripening its fruit and it’s literally covered in birds much of the day.  You don’t want to have clothes on a line when the mulberries are ripe.  The trees are messy when they drop fruit but I let one stay because the birds love them so.  It’s the only time I see many cedar waxwings.  You hear them twittering before you see them.  They talk constantly as they eat.

The yellow flower blooming all along the roadsides and in fields is yellow rocket.  It’s a biannual and dies after setting seed.  The little lavender daisy like flower with the yellow centers that’s blooming everywhere is Daisy Fleabane.   The fields around here are also filled with Ox Eye daisies.  Field corn and soybeans are coming up and many farmers are cutting hay for the first time.
Cedar Waxwings in mulberry.

Summer solstice

Tomorrow is the summer solstice, the official beginning of summer.  In a society where people spend more time indoors than out the solstice may have become insignificant to many but the day has been noted and celebrated since the earliest communities of man.   In the more northern countries the celebrations are more marked, probably because the sun is so welcome and vital in these climates and because at summer solstice in the far north the sun never seems to set.  

Different cultures celebrate summer solstice in different ways.  Solstice festivities almost always include fire, with bonfires a requisite of most celebrations.  Oak wood is commonly used in solstice bonfires for luck and magic. People jump over the fires for luck and make talismans of the ashes.  The ashes of solstice fires are spread on crops to bring a good harvest.  However the astrological sign Cancer, a water sign, begins at the time of solstice so water also figures into many solstice festivities.  In ancient cultures burning wheels were often rolled into water or bark boats filled with flowers and herbs were set on fire and floated down rivers.

Wreaths of flowers and herbs are included in many solstice celebrations.  The wreaths are worn on the head and hung on doors and are said to bring good luck.  Rue, fennel, roses, rosemary, foxglove, lemon verbena, calendula, mallow, elderberry, St. John's Wort, vervain and trefoil are plants associated with these wreaths and summer solstice.   Often the flowers or wreaths were left outside to gather the dew on the night of the solstice.  Washing your face with the dew collected on the night of the solstice was supposed to make you beautiful and delay aging. 

The Romans dedicated the month that the summer solstice occurs in (the month we call June) to honoring the goddess Juno, patroness of marriage and fertility in women.  The goddess of the hearth, Vesta was also honored.  Common traditions include a couple jumping over a bonfire to make it known they were committed to each other and other rituals of fertility and marriage.  (Interestingly a woman’s fertility is also highest at this time.) Conception in June results in a baby born in March, which in earlier times was a good month to give birth.  Food supplies would be more plentiful as the baby began to require more milk, the weather more moderate, and the wife would be recovered enough to help with spring planting.  Even today June is the month most favored for marriage.

Native Americans of the plains tribes held the Sun Dance near the summer solstice.  This was a time of dancing around bonfires, prayer, fasting and tests of strength, depending on the tribe.  In some tribes young men were put through grueling rituals to enter manhood at this time.

Midsummer’s eve is often confused with the summer solstice but is not the same.  It generally occurs a few days later than the solstice, on June 23 or 24.  It is supposed to mark the birth of John the Baptist, who is supposed to have been born six months before Jesus and is a product of Christianity adopting and adapting pagan celebrations.  But there is a great mixture of fairy visits and other magic associated with Midsummers eve in folklore also. The point where the sun is farthest (yes farthest) from the earth, the aphelion, occurs on July 3 at 3 am.

You can start your own summer solstice tradition to celebrate the beginning of summer.  Think sunbathing, swimming and a great bonfire at night, or attend one of Michigan’s celebrations.  Kaleva, Michigan, population about 500, in Manistee County (near Interlochen), holds a solstice celebration in a county park featuring Swedish pancakes and strawberry shortcake as well as a bonfire that many tourists attend. 

Tips on taking advantage of plant clearance sales

It’s the time of year when many stores, nurseries and greenhouses are trying to clear out plants left over from spring sales.  You can get some great bargains this time of the year and I am fond of perusing the sales myself.  But don’t get carried away by low prices and buy plants that you don’t have the right conditions for or that are beyond saving.

Annual plants left in small cell packs that are overly lanky, yellowed or half dead looking should just be passed by.  They are too stressed to ever do well and you’ll spend time and money on them better spent elsewhere.  Annuals that are still compact and in good shape may be worth buying if you have a spot for them.  Annuals in 4 inch or larger pots that still look good are worth buying.  Check plants over carefully for diseases and pests as stressed plants in poor conditions are more likely to get diseases or pests.

Vegetable plants on clearance should be carefully checked for signs of disease and pests too. You don’t want to bring that home now as your garden begins to produce.  Like flower plants if vegetables are in small cell packs and quite tall, yellowed and lanky they aren’t worth buying because they will rarely make productive plants.  Plants like tomatoes in large pots that still look healthy are fine to buy, but if you intend to transplant them into the garden you’ll need to be able to water them frequently because hot weather and lots of top growth will make it harder for them to re-establish themselves.

Perennial ornamental plants that are in pots can actually be planted all summer if they are kept watered as they get established.  If perennials look healthy, a clearance price is a good deal.  That’s if you have the right conditions in your garden for them.  Many perennials on sale will have already bloomed, which makes them less likely to sell at full price.  They won’t bloom again this year but can be well worth waiting for, if the price is right.

Don’t buy any bareroot, packaged trees or shrubs that are still left sitting in stores, especially if you see no green on them.  They aren’t still dormant, they’re dead.  Potted trees or shrubs without any growth showing are also dead.  You’ll have to make a judgement call on buying potted trees and shrubs that look half dead, with wilted or dead areas.  Some may recover with good care.  But the price should be low to reflect the uncertainty.

The biggest problem I have with clearance sales is seeing a good deal and wanting to buy the plant even if I don’t need it or don’t really have a place to put it.  Sometimes you are just going to do it, but try and convince yourself that isn’t really in your best interests.  Will power, save your money and space for something you really, really want.  When you don’t have a sunny spot for a sun loving plant buying one and then watching it slowly die just doesn’t make sense.  Or if you have to put an addition on the house just to fit all those tropical plants inside this winter it may not be a wise move either.

I don’t recommend dumpster diving for plants.  Sometimes the plants were ordered destroyed by state inspectors, because a disease or pest was found.  State agricultural inspectors randomly inspect stores or inspect when they suspect or know of a problem occurring.  When I ran garden stores this sometimes happened.  I had our condemned plants compacted, and people didn’t get a chance to rescue them. Some stores don’t do this; they simply toss them in dumpsters. You don’t know why the plants were discarded.  If you rescue them and take them home you could bring a serious disease or pest into your garden and worse into everyone else’s garden or even into farm fields.

Happiness with hosta

When modern gardeners plant hostas it’s not about the flowers, although hosta flowers can be spectacular. Fifty years ago hostas were called Plantain Lilies or Funkia, and they were grown for their late summer flowers. Today, while hostas are the most popular perennial sold in the world, most buyers are not looking for flowers. Hostas are grown for their wonderful range of foliage color, shape and texture, and for their ability to glamorize those shady spots in the garden. Hostas are easy to grow and thrive across the United States, from zone 3-8.

Hostas are good plants to combine with spring flowering bulbs under deciduous trees.  When the bulbs finish blooming the trees will leaf out and shade the hostas, which will cover the dying bulb foliage.  Hostas also mix well with ferns, astilbe, heuchera, goatsbeard, tiarella, and woodland wildflowers.

Hostas are native to China, Japan and Korea and have been cultivated in those countries for thousands of years.

Growing Hosta

While hostas are known as shade plants, they will not do well if the location is very dark, such as under evergreens with low branches. Dry shade is not a good location. Hostas do best in moist soil rich in organic matter, in light shade or dappled shade. Many hosta varieties can take some sun if they are kept moist, especially in northern zones.  Sunny dry areas are not suitable for hostas.  They also do not do well in sunny areas where heat is reflected off a wall or pavement.

Spring is the best time to plant hostas. Gardeners should start with plants, you can find them as dormant roots or as potted plants.  If the hosta is potted wait until after the last frost in your area to transplant it into the garden.  Dormant root clumps can be planted outside a few weeks before the last frost is expected. Plant the hosta crown just at soil level. Keep the soil moist around hostas but don’t plant them where they will sit in waterlogged soil as they will rot.

Hostas can be grown by seed and sometimes seedlings come up in the garden if the seed pods were left on the plant.  But they don’t come true to variety by seed so most hostas are propagated by dividing clumps or by tissue culture.  Some gardeners enjoy collecting hosta seed and planting it just to see what form and color they get.

Hostas are slow to emerge in the spring so be sure to mark where you plant them so you won’t disturb the clumps when planting or working in the garden. As hostas begin to emerge, you can work a slow release fertilizer, or a few inches of quality compost, into the soil around them. This is helpful in areas where the hostas compete with tree roots. Hostas in deep, rich soil may do well without any fertilizer. Be patient with hostas. Hostas may take several years of growth in a location before the adult form and color of the variety is evident. 

Hostas flower in mid to late summer. When hosta finish flowering, the old flower and its long stem should be removed. This concentrates the hosta energy to the foliage and not to producing seeds. However leaving the seedpods or just a few of them doesn’t hurt the plants. Some hosta varieties do not form seed pods as they are sterile hybrids

Remove dead or yellowed leaves from hosta during the growing season and after they are killed by frost in the fall. In zones 5 and above it is helpful to provide a layer of mulch to hosta crowns after the ground freezes. Straw, pine needles, oak leaves or other mulch that doesn’t matt down is best.

Hostas have few disease or pest problems when grown in the right location. If the edges of hosta leaves turn brown and crisp, the plant is probably in too much sun or it is too dry.

Slugs are a major problem of hostas in some areas. Slugs feed at night and eat holes in the leaves. If you have slug problems you should remove all mulch and debris around the hostas. Remove the leaves on each hosta where the leaf blade touches the ground. This allows the soil surface to dry and removes hiding places for slugs. You can also try mulching with sharp, small gravel such as baby chick grit or use diatomaceous earth around the hosta plants. There are slug poisons on the market but be very careful using them around children and pets. Hosta varieties with thick, wrinkled leaves are said to be less appealing to slugs.

The easiest way to propagate hostas is through division- dividing a mature plant into several smaller ones.   Hosta rarely grow from cuttings, although a piece of the plant with a bit of the basal area of the crown may grow under ideal conditions.  But hostas can be grown from seed; it’s the way many new varieties are produced.  And many hosta are now reproduced through tissue culture.

Choosing varieties of hosta

There are literally thousands of hosta varieties on the market. When new varieties come on the market they are usually quite expensive. If you see a hosta that you like but can’t afford, look around, chances are that there is an older variety that is very similar and much less expensive.

Hostas range in color from almost white to golden green to deep green, from light blue gray to deep blue-green, and with leaf variegations combining those colors. There are some hostas with red or purplish stems. Hostas flower color ranges from white to shades of lavender and blue. The shape of hosta leaves range from small and almost round, to heart shaped, oval, long and strap like, ruffled, wrinkled and smooth. The size of hosta varies from plants that mature at only a few inches high to those that become 3’ or 4’ high.

The name of the hosta variety is not as important as it having growing characteristics that suit your garden space. A mixture of leaf texture, color and plant size is usually best if the area is to be planted only in hostas. If other plants are in the garden you must consider whether the hosta you select will be hidden under them or crowd them out, and whether the foliage color and texture complements what is already planted there.  If you are going to plant hostas where they will be in sun for some part of the day, look for varieties that are marked sun tolerant.  White or mostly white hosta do not do well in full sun, while many sun tolerant hosta are lime green or yellow. 

There are too many varieties to list when it comes to hosta colors and leaf shapes and most people choose by selecting the ones that attract their eye in the garden shop.  Just make sure to check the tag for size and other considerations to make sure that variety is a good fit for your garden.  Buying assorted, unnamed mixtures of hostas that many places offer can be a good way to get a lot of hosta inexpensively, if you are not concerned with knowing variety names.

Growing hostas for their flowers

Hosta flowers come in two color varieties white and shades of lavender. Some hostas also have fragrant flowers.  Flowers can take several forms also, from trumpet shaped to bell like, and are produced in clusters on a stem called a scape, above the crown.  Like their foliage some hosta varieties have flowers that are large and on tall scapes or stems, and others have smaller, shorter flowers.  Hosta begin blooming in June in zone 5 and continue through August, with each variety having a different bloom time.  Mature plants with many crowns produce the best flower show.  Hosta plantaginea varieties and hybrids with them usually have fragrant flowers.  Hosta flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds by the way.

Here are some hostas known for their pretty flowers.  'Fragrant Bouquet', has white, fragrant, flowers and has spawned many color sports, ‘Fragrant Dream’ with white flowers, 'Guacamole', fragrant, pale lavender flowers, are two. 'Regal Splendor'  has 5 feet high spikes of lavender flowers. 'So Sweet' is a small hosta with white, fragrant flowers. ‘Raspberry Sundae’ has red flower stalks and buds, flowers open lavender. ‘Honey Pie’ is a gold foliaged hosta with lavender, fragrant flowers.  ‘Aphrodite’ has large, double pure white, deeply fragrant flowers on 2 foot stems.  ‘Venus’ is similar with single white trumpet shaped flowers. ‘Diamonds are Forever’  has purple striped flowers. ‘Grape Fizz’ has fragrant purple flowers.  Hosta 'Purple Lady Finger' has narrow purple flowers that don’t open up. Hosta 'Strawberry Yogurt' has pretty purple flowers on reddish scapes.  Hosta 'Tickle Me Pink' has red scapes and fuchsia buds and bracts that open to reveal reddish purple flowers.

Hosta Venus

I have a hosta that was given to me and I was told it was the variety ‘Lemon-Lime’, which is known for the number of flowers it produces.  The true ‘Lemon–Lime’ has a mound of flat, narrow, chartreuse leaves with loads of 18" scapes of bell-shaped, purple-striped flowers.   Mine must be a sport or mutation of the variety since the leaves of mine are lime green with a lemon yellow edge.  But it is loaded with purple flowers in mid-summer.  Another named sport is Hosta 'Twist of Lime'  which is quite compact – 4-5 inches tall - with narrow chartreuse yellow foliage edged in green and deep violet flowers in late spring.  

Hosta breeders are working to improve the flower show of various species of hosta, creating varieties with pretty foliage and pretty, fragrant flowers.  I think we will soon see hostas with red-purple or pinkish flowers on the market.  I like to choose hostas that have both pretty foliage and nice flowers but it’s sometimes hard to find information about the flowers when looking at the descriptions in plant catalogs.  I am hoping that will change as more people become interested in hosta for their flowers.

My version of hosta Lemon Lime

Starting hostas from seed

If you have a garden full of beautiful hostas or even one spectacular plant you may be wondering if you could reproduce that plant from seed.  Many hostas cross breed easily and if you let them form seeds, you can grow a variety of new plants and maybe find something special among them.  You can even hand pollinate flowers to experiment with producing new plants.

Different types of hosta flower at different times so even in a mixed group of hosta some plants won’t be able to cross.  But even if all the hosta plants nearby are the same variety the plants grown from seed they produce will probably not look exactly like the parent plants. 

Bees and hummingbirds may pollinate the plants.  You can also distribute pollen from one plant to another with a small paint brush if you want to cross certain plants.  Pollen is the yellow dust like substance found inside a hosta flower.  Rub your clean paint brush on it then take the brush to the plant you want to be the female parent and brush the pollen on the stigma.  The stigma is usually in the center of the flower.  It looks like a fleshy stem with a flat, sticky top. 

After pollinating a flower you should tie a tag on the flower stem with the name of the plants you crossed written on it.  If you want to be really professional you will also cover the pollinated flower with a small paper bag for a few days so bees can’t add pollen from other hosta.

There are complicated genetic rules about what type of plants can produce what kind of babies.  Crossing green hosta and green variegated hosta usually produce 100% green plants. Cross two variegated varieties for the  best chance of variegated babies.  If the seed pod produced by the cross is streaked, the chances of seedlings producing variegated foliage is higher.

Crosses of blue and gold hosta with green hosta or each other may produce a small percentage of blue or gold plants. Crossing white variegated hosta may produce hosta with all white leaves, which may die shortly, as they can’t produce food.  The white hosta seen on the market usually darken to pale green in summer, so that some chlorophyll is producing food.  There are more genetic “secrets” you can learn if you look up hosta breeding.

Collecting hosta seed

Wait until the seed pods are dark brown and dry.  This is usually about a month after blooming. Don’t wait too long or the pods will split and the tiny seeds will scatter. Collect the pods and shake them in a bag to split the pods and release the seed. When the pods are almost dry you can cut off the flower stem and put it in a brown paper bag to finish drying and to collect any spilled seeds.  Label each bag with the names of the plants you crossed or at least the name of the plant you took them from.

Be ready to plant the seeds soon after they are collected.  Hosta seed has a lower germination rate than most plants and fresh seed germinates better than stored seed.

(Although germination will be lower you can also save the seeds for later planting.  Let them thoroughly dry then put them in a tightly sealed container in a cool place.   You can start seeds inside over the winter under lights, then transplant outside in the spring.)

Starting hosta seed

You can sprinkle hosta seed in a prepared bed directly in the ground in a protected spot.   Or you can use only sterile seed starting medium in clean pots or flats to start the seed.  Moisten the medium and fill the containers.  Sprinkle the tiny hosta seeds over the moist medium and press lightly into the soil.  You can spread the seed thickly because of the low germination rate.   Mist the medium and seeds and cover flats and pots with a plastic bag or top.

Hostas germinate best with warm soil and cool air conditions, rather like fall conditions.  Placing flats on the warm ground in a semi-shady spot outside can work as well as sitting the containers on a seed starting heat matt in a cool room. 

The trick is to get the plants up and growing before winter weather and then getting them to over winter successfully.  If the plants have a good set of leaves started and are in the ground or can be planted outside before a hard frost to develop a good root system in the ground, they can be covered with mulch and will probably over winter well. 

If the plants aren’t very developed before a hard frost it may be better to keep them in containers and over winter them somewhere just above freezing, such as an unheated garage or porch.  They’ll need at least some light and careful watering so they don’t get too wet or dry out.  Don’t try to grow them on a window sill in a warm room although a cool greenhouse can work.  Plant them outside again when the hosta in the garden have a few leaves emerged.

All new hosta varieties have to come from somewhere so if at first you don’t succeed keep plugging away.  Discard the plants you don’t like or give them to friends.   It can be a fun hobby that may pay off big if you produce something unusual.

Other uses for hosta

I’ll mention it here although it seems ridiculous to me, hosta are edible.  If you get too many simply eat them like salad or cooked like spinach.  They taste “green.”   If you eat too many leaves you will damage the health of your plants.  There are many other more suitable plants for salad use, but some people just like to eat everything.  Maybe their edible qualities will convince a spouse to let you buy some.

Hosta leaves can be added to bouquets or used as decoration.
Almost every garden has a spot for hostas and these reliable plants are loved around the world.  Don’t hesitate to plant some in your garden.

Let’s talk about sex

Look at all the beautiful flowers, swaying in the breeze.  The plush, vivid colors and intoxicating scents are begging sex servants to visit them, vibrating, stroking, licking and penetrating their sex organs to assure continuity of the species.  Yep, flowers are sexy.  In the season of optimal plant sex it’s time for gardeners to review their knowledge of sexual reproduction in plants.

Nature developed flowers to allow immobile living things to be able to mate and share genetic material.  Most flowers that are showy and/or fragrant are meant to attract pollinators, which are little sex servants to help plants mate. Flowers are the sex organs of plants.  Since plants can’t move to the mate of their dreams they use flowers to attract helpers, or to distribute their male genetic material in the wind or water.

Flowers use rewards to lure insects and other animals to them.  The rewards can be real like nectar or pollen, or illusionary. Some flowers are tricksters, using their shape to fool an insect into thinking it’s another insect, or producing pheromones to make an insect think a mate is near.  Some plants use heat, like the skunk cabbage, to lure insects into a warm flower for protection in colder weather.  Some collect water in their flowers for thirsty animals to drink. 

Some flowers can use just about any species of animal to pollinate them.  Others can only be pollinated by one family of animals like bees or butterflies and some by only one specific species within that family, such as a certain type of moth.   Each species of orchid can only be pollinated by one species of insect, one particular moth or bee for example.

Pollinators are not always insects.  Small animals, birds and bats can be pollinators.  Elephants pollinate some plants in their environments which collect water in large flower “basins”, with pollen floating on top.   And humans can pollinate flowers deliberately using a brush or other means or accidentally when you stick your nose in one flower and then another. 

Sexing flowers

To sex a flower you can just look inside it.  The sex organs are generally in the middle and are prominent if you know what you are looking for.  Some flowers have only one type of sex organs, male or female.  Some flowers have both male and female parts.  In a plant that has flowers with both sex organs in each flower, the plant is hermaphroditic.  

A plant that has separate male and female flowers on the same plant is called monoecious.   If a plant has only flowers of one sex, either male or female, it is called dioecious.  The flowers of dioecious and monoecious plants are incomplete flowers.  A flower is called a complete flower if it has male and female parts, sepals and petals.  Whew, but we aren’t done yet.

The male sexual organ of a plant is called the stamen.  It is made up of anthers, thick cushiony rod shaped areas where pollen is produced and filaments, which are the little “stems” that attach the anthers to the flower base.  Each flower can have one stamen, many stamens or no stamens.  A flower with only male parts is called staminate. 

Pollen is found on the stamens. Pollen is composed of “packets” of male genetic material combined in many cases with things that attract pollinators. It is similar to the sperm of animal species. Each species of plant has pollen grains with their own distinctive shape. The identification of pollen may be part of forensic evidence. 
Lily with sexual parts marked
Pollen is commonly yellow but may be many different colors.  Wind pollinated plants have small, light pollen grains so they can float on the breeze.  It’s that pollen that most often causes allergies.  Insect pollinated plants have heavier pollen that is enriched with fats and proteins to better attract insects who want to eat it.  The pollen sticks to feet and backs of insects or beaks of birds and is carried from plant to plant.

A plant often produces nectar, a sweet sticky substance, to attract pollinators to flowers.  Some flowers have glands which produce nectar at their base. Nectar glands are sometimes found in leaf joints or along stems too.  When pollinators visit plants looking for nectar they collect pollen grains on their feet or backs and then carry it to the next plants they visit.  It’s an interesting fact that most bees, like honey bees, tend to feed on one type of flower the whole day.  This is nature’s way of preventing pollen from being wasted by it being transferred to a plant of another species that it can’t reproduce with.

The female sexual organ of a plant is called the pistil.  It consists of the ovary, which is attached to the base of the flower and is filled with one or many eggs, the style which is a stem of varying lengths between the ovary and the organ at the end of the style, called the stigma. 

The stigma is where pollen, containing sperm cells, is deposited.  It is analogous to the vagina of animals or cloacae of birds.  In some flowers the stigma is large and showy, often a vivid color contrasting with the petal color.  It may have several lobes or sections.  In other flowers the stigma is barely visible at the end of the style. A flower may have one or many pistils or no pistils if it is a male flower. A flower with all female parts is called pistillate. 

Plants which have flowers of only one sex need a plant of the opposite sex near them to reproduce.  Only female flowers or flowers with both male and female parts can produce fruit and seeds.

Tropical hibiscus- the stamens are yellow, pistils red.

Sexual frustration

Even when a flower has both sexual organs inside it, they may not be able to self-fertilize.  Sometimes the pollen and egg cells mature at different times in the same flower.  Sometimes the sexual parts are arranged within the flower so they are unlikely to fertilize each other.  And other times the plant produces a hormone that prevents fertilization by a plant with too similar genetic material.

When pollen from an apple flower lands on a receptive stigma, the stigma may not allow it to complete the fertilization process. (We don’t know quite how the plant stigma “reads” the pollen genetics.)  If the pollen is genetically similar to that of the plant that produced the stigma it is rejected.  So a McIntosh apple cannot breed with itself or another McIntosh apple but might breed with a Red Delicious apple.  That’s why you must have 2 different varieties of apples fairly close by to get fruit. 

Nature made flowers so that plants could share genetic material between plants, which insures genetic diversity and allows for changes over time through natural selection.  But some flowers are able to self-fertilize if they have both sexual organs or if the plant has both sexes of flowers.  The plant prefers to use this as a last resort, when unfamiliar pollen isn’t available.

Other flower parts

The colorful petals of a flower are part of the sex organ, meant to lure insects by their color.  Sometimes they have markings on them that direct insects to their reward of nectar or pollen, and the flowers sex organs.  While eating, the insect or other animal picks up pollen and deposits pollen from other plants.

Look at the “cats face” on a pansy for example.  All of the little dark lines are pointing towards the center of the flower where it is hoped the insect will travel, picking up pollen and depositing some from another plant.  Many flowers have a bull’s eye pattern on them that gets darker closer to the source of nectar or pollen.

Insects learn to recognize patterns on petals that direct them to food quickly.  It saves time for everyone.  Sometimes petals are marked with ultraviolet patterns that the human eye doesn’t see but some insects see very well.

Petals also protect the sex organs of the flower before they mature.  Some close around the sex parts in bad weather or at night.  Some petals may restrict the type of pollinator that gets near the sex organs, if a plant prefers one pollinator over another.  The sex organs and nectar or pollen may be at the end of a petal “tube” that only certain insects fit in or have a tongue long enough to reach down.

Sepals are the generally green leaf-like parts on the base of the flower.  They protect flower buds and help hold up or support a flower.  They protect the ovary at the base of the flower with immature seeds inside.  In some species of flowers the sepals have evolved to look exactly like petals.  Lilies and tulips have sepals that look like petals. 
Notice the markings on this viola that direct a pollinator to the prize.

How flowers mate

When male flower organs are mature and ready to mate their pollen becomes fluffy, sticky, and easily detached from the anther.  It may change color, from greenish to bright yellow or from pink to dark red for example.  It’s ready to be picked up by a visiting insect or other animal.

Pollinators visiting flowers may accidentally pick up pollen on their bodies or deliberately collect it for food like bees do.  Plants have many methods for ensuring that pollen leaves with a pollinator.  Some trap insects inside them for a while.  Some make them run a gauntlet of anthers to reach their reward.  Some anthers are spring loaded and strike the back of an insect that lands on a stigma.  Some flowers even intoxicate insects so that they buzz around crazily and lounge around in a flower for a while.

Some flowers dangle their male parts in the wind or drop their pollen into water so it can make its way to a female plant.  Usually these flowers are not showy; many people fail to recognize them as flowers.  Consider the corn plant.  On the top of the plant is the tassle, a group of all male corn flowers who dangle their sex organs downward toward the female corn flowers, which are the “silks” at the end of each ear, (also not very flower-like). Their hope is that the wind will shake pollen down on the female flower or carry it to another corn plants female flower.

When a female sex organ on a flower is mature and ready to accept mating the stigma becomes covered with a clear sticky fluid, the better to grab and hold pollen grains.  Sometimes the stigma swells or changes color also.

If all goes well something carrying pollen from another plant of the same species will land on a stigma open for business.  Mating in a plant is called pollination. It’s when the mature pollen from a flower lands on a receptive stigma of another flower.  Some flowers produce pollen or remain receptive to pollen for only a few hours, others will carry on for many days.

Just like every animal mating does not produce offspring every pollination event does not produce seeds.  It’s only when the genetic material from sperm cells in the pollen unite with egg cells in the ovary of a flower that fertilization happens and possibly a new seed will form.

A flower sex worker

Making babies

Each grain of pollen contains 3 cells.  One cell is responsible for boring a tube from the top of the stigma where the pollen grain lands through the style down to the egg inside the ovary of the flower.  One cell carries the genetic material, similar to an animal sperm cell, which forms the embryonic plant when it unites with the egg.  The other cell will make the food supply around the embryo, which we call a seed.

Each type of plant has a threshold at which it will allow a fertilized egg to turn into a seed with its enclosed embryonic plant.  In a plant with a single seed in the ovary one sperm cell uniting with an egg will probably set seed making in motion.  In an ovary with many egg cells a certain number of eggs may need to be fertilized before the plant will begin forming a fruit around them and seed completion is allowed.

Making a fruit around a seed or group of seeds is energy intensive for a plant.  Fruits protect seeds and act as dispersal mechanisms in many cases.  But if a certain number of seeds aren’t fertilized within the ovary the plant decides the energy expenditure isn’t worth it and aborts the fruit and immature seeds.  

In a watermelon, for example, about 100 seeds will need to be fertilized in a flowers ovary for a watermelon fruit to form and the seeds mature.  That means at least 100 grains of pollen had to fall on that watermelon flowers receptive stigma.  See how important our pollinators are?

(Note: We have bred watermelon varieties and other types of fruit to need less pollination or no pollination to make fruit producing “seedless” watermelon/fruit.  There are actually immature seeds, technically unfertilized eggs, in such fruits.)

Some plants have even fussier pollination/fertilization requirements.  An apple flower has a stigma divided into 5 lobes or sections.  Two grains of pollen need to fall on each lobe and successful fertilization occur before an apple begins forming.  Slice open an apple and you can see the 5 sections of the ovary divided by thick membranes with 2 or more seeds in each section.

With all the complications involved in plant sex it’s a miracle that we get the abundance of fruits and seeds that plants produce.  When you are out walking in the garden admire the flowers not only for their beauty, but for the extremely complex organs of reproduction that they are.   

Poppy sex organs

Traditional strawberry jam

A candy or jelly thermometer, found in most stores, is advised for jam making.  Don’t double jam recipes, the flavor is better if jam is made in small batches because it doesn’t need to cook as long.

First clean and sterilize 8 half pint glass canning jars and new lids.  Place the jars into a large kettle of boiling water, making sure they are filled and covered with water and boil for ten minutes. Drop lids in just before the time is up.  Turn off the water but leave jars covered with the hot water until ready to use.  You can also use a dishwasher to sterilize jars if it has a sterilize cycle.  Keep jars in dishwasher until ready to use.

Clean and slice about 16 cups or 4 quarts of fresh berries.  Measure out 8 cups of berries after slicing and place in a large saucepan with 6 cups of white sugar.  You must use this ratio to get a good “gel.”

Crush the strawberries with a potato masher or large spoon until you get lots of juice and stir until most of the sugar is dissolved.  Bring the mixture to a boil slowly, stirring constantly.  Then turn the heat to a medium setting and cook the mixture about 35 minutes, stirring frequently to keep it from sticking to the pan.  Check the mixture often with the candy/jelly thermometer - or leave it in the pan attached to the pan rim with a clip.   Turn off the heat when the temperature reaches 220ºF.

If you don’t have a thermometer cook until the jam is thick and shiny.  Jam gets thicker as it cools.  You can check for the right consistency by placing a spoonful in a freezer and testing in 5 minutes.   If it is as thick as store jam it’s done.  You can turn off the heat under the jam while you are testing.  Bring the pot back just to a boil before filling jars if it’s thick enough.

Don’t overcook jam, it will get grainy and may taste like burnt sugar.  Jam that is too thin can be cooked a bit longer but overcooked jam can’t be fixed.

When the jam is the right consistency/ temperature pour it hot into your sterilized jars.  (Drain out water first).  Fill to 1/4 inch from the jar rim, wipe the rim of the jar and then add the lids, first the flat piece, seal side down, then the screw band.  Tighten screw bands.

Place the jars in a water bath canner.  A water bath canner is a large pot that will hold all the jars with about 2 inches of water over the top of them. This can be the pot you sterilized the jars in.   A rack that holds the jars is advised- it keeps them from knocking together or turning over.   These are found with canning supplies.

The water should be brought to a boil, and then timed for exactly ten minutes. Turn off the heat, lift the jars out with tongs and place on a dishcloth set on a table or counter.  Don’t handle the jars until you hear a ping, or see a depression in the center of the lid, meaning the jar has sealed. 

Label the jars with the contents and a date.  Then store in a dark place where temperatures remain above freezing.

You can avoid all the canning hassle by pouring your jam into freezer containers and freezing it.  It must be stored in the freezer until used.  Thaw before use. All opened jam should be stored in the refrigerator, including canned jam.

Remember to collect that dew tomorrow morning so you can wash your face and delay aging.

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

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

And So On….
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