" 'I grow old, I grow old,' the garden says. It is nearly October. The bean leaves grow paler, now lime, now yellow, now leprous, dissolving before my eyes. The pods curl and do not grow, turn limp and blacken. The potato vines wither and the tubers huddle underground in their rough weather-proof jackets, waiting to be dug. The last tomatoes ripen and split on the vine; it takes days for them to turn fully now, and a few of the green ones are beginning to fall off."
- Robert Finch
|Monarch on tithonia|
It may almost be October but it feels more like almost August here. How I would like a nice summer thunderstorm right now. We haven’t had anything but a few sprinkles since the beginning of the month and like many of you, we are sweltering in 90 degree+ temperatures with high humidity. My garden is definitely looking old and crunchy, coated with white dust swirling off the limestone road. When I water the beds along the house the dust turns to a white slime on the plants.
The trees are losing their leaves but we aren’t seeing much color. You need cool nights for that. The trees just look sad, dirty and limp. I feel sorry for them. We really need some soaking rain before they go into dormancy.
The annuals are still blooming, but even they are looking a bit old. The landscape roses put out a flush of new blooms. We are still picking tomatoes and peppers. I’m ready to clear the vegetable garden out but it’s just been too hot to work out there. One of our pumpkins rotted on the vine and I’m worried about the rest.
My houseplants are still outside. Some of them are really liking the heat. I will start bringing them inside this week if we get cooler weather as predicted. It still doesn’t look like frost is coming any time soon though.
Schools around here are giving kids days off because of the heat. Our schools aren’t built for hot weather. There’s no air conditioning and few windows that open. It’s the first time I can remember kids getting days off in the fall for heat. Weather forecasters are saying a warm September generally predicts a warm winter. That’s fine but I could use some cooler fall temperatures about now to get me in the mood to prepare for winter.
The hummingbirds are gone and most of the robins. The turkey vultures are still here. I’ve been seeing more monarchs this week than I have seen in several years, which may be one good thing to come from hot fall weather.
Once again an article is circulating in social media about a toddler dying from eating a houseplant called dumb cane or Dieffenbachia. The article goes on to breathlessly state that a bite of dumb cane can kill a child in a minute and an adult in minutes. The supposed author claims her own child died from the plant. That didn’t happen. This article is hogwash, a ridiculous made up story for clickbait. Here’s part of the false story, I’ll talk about Dienffenbachia a bit later.
“Please read this carefully. My son died because he put a piece of leaf in his mouth and tongue and these swelled to suffocate. This plant is very common in many homes and offices. It is deadly poisonous and dangerous, to the point of killing a child in 1 minute and an adult in 15 minutes. If you touch it by chance you should never bring your fingers to your eyes, as this could cause permanent blindness. Warn your friends and family.”
At a time when many people are bringing plants indoors this kind of scaremongering alarms many people who then moan that they have to get rid of their plants, just in case. So how poisonous are houseplants and should you worry about having plants in the house with kids and pets? The answer is that you should be much more worried about other things you bring into your house. Research of official statistics reveals very, very few accidental deaths are caused by plants normally in the home. In fact I could find only one death attributed to a houseplant in recent statistics (last 20 years). That was a child dying in the hospital 17 days after eating philodendron.
Things that are much more dangerous to children and pets than houseplants in your home are: (from 2015 poison control records, ranked from top cause down )-Cosmetics/Personal Care Products, Cleaning Substances (Household), Analgesics, Foreign Bodies/Toys/Miscellaneous ,Topical Preparations, Vitamins, Antihistamines, Pesticides, Dietary Supplements/Herbals/Homeopathic medicines. All of these things cause more poisoning incidences than plants.
Let’s discuss what constitutes plant poisoning when it comes to those lists of plants toxic to children and pets. Many places publish extensive lists and it seems like every plant imaginable is on them. But these lists commonly don’t distinguish between plants that might give someone a mild stomachache or diarrhea and those that could be deadly. Many also don’t tell you if its skin contact with a plant that causes problems like rash or blisters or if you have to eat the plant to have problems. If you eliminate plants which cause mild stomach problems or rashes the list of poisonous plants is greatly reduced, and even fewer of those plants are common houseplants.
I also need to mention that animals and people may have different reactions to the same plant. What might not be poisonous to a child may kill a pet. And some types of animals may be more sensitive than others to the same plant. However I find the lists of poisonous plants offered by the humane society and other places to be as misleading as those lists for humans, including plants that might cause a pet to vomit for example, but not seriously harm them. Good lists of toxic plants will state the problem the plant causes, or divide the plants into mild, moderate or severe toxicity classes.
Don’t fall for lists that use scare tactics, if you have a question about a plants toxicity consult an expert medical or veterinary medical source, a .gov or .edu site or poison control site. Look for sites/articles that provide references to scientific sources. Use up to date resources because the information on many plants has changed drastically over the years.
Many plants get put on poisonous plant lists because they do contain toxic chemicals. However in many cases it would take a huge amount of that plant to cause death. Neither a child nor a pet is likely to eat 6 of the same type of houseplant in one setting. And many plants that are toxic have such an awful taste or cause immediate pain in the mouth which would make the eater promptly reject them. Others cause immediate vomiting. I’m not listing plants that cause minor problems or that take large quantities to cause serious problems.
What houseplants to avoid
So which houseplants could cause serious problems in children or pets? If you have toddlers or pets I would avoid these plants in the house, unless they can be kept out of the child or pets reach: Amaryllis, Brugmansia, coleus (pets), daffodils and narcissus- primarily pets, (even the water in cut flower vases of these plants can be harmful), Easter lilies and other true lilies often given as gift plants, and vase water from cut lily flowers (very toxic to cats), English ivy (Hedera helix) mild toxicity to humans, worse for pets, hyacinths (bulbs, pets), Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum) toxic to pets, birds, and the slightly sweet berries are attractive to kids and enough may be eaten to be a problem, philodendron- (this is oxalate poisoning, which is generally mild, but 1 child’s death and several cat deaths on record suggest it should be considered differently), and sago palm (Cycas revoluta) which is particularly harmful to dogs.
The case for the toxicity of Dieffenbachia is a little complicated. It has oxalate crystals that cause pain in the mouth and numbness of the tongue that make speech difficult. This effect goes away when water or milk is given and there’s usually no lasting harm. Theoretically there could be swelling of the tongue or throat that would impede breathing but there are no documented cases of death or serious illness from ingesting dieffenbachia in humans. Poison control centers do get many calls about the plant. (The plant used to be used to punish children and slaves by making them chew a leaf.) However there is one documented case of fatal poisoning in a dog; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14513888
Eye problems from touching dieffenbachia are also generally minor. Many cases of eye irritation have been reported but most were resolved by flushing the eyes with water.
Arrowhead plants (Syngonium podophyllum), caladium, Calla lily, Colocasia esculenta (elephant ears) Swiss-cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa), peace lily (Spathiphyllum), pothos, and zz plant , (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) have the same oxalate crystals as dieffenbachia and cause basically the same symptoms. Eating too much of these plants would be a big problem but because the irritation and burning starts immediately eating too much rarely happens. You can decide whether your child or pet would be the rare specimen who keeps eating.
For some reason spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) are often listed as poisonous. No reliable reference lists them as toxic. However there’s intriguing evidence that spider plants have chemical properties similar to catnip and cats may get “addicted” to eating them. Some cats don’t touch them however. If your cat is constantly eating your spider plant you may want to remove it. Spider plants may cause vomiting in dogs and cats just like eating grass does.
Poinsettia plants are also only mildly toxic and no children or pets have died from eating them. Holly berries are more poisonous and should not be brought into homes with children and pets.
Because plants are sometimes used as houseplants when normally not considered to be such and because new plants are always coming on the market this list may not include all really toxic plants. Plants from florists and those used as gift plants, or cut plant material used for decorating may also have really toxic properties. Be sure to research before adding new plants to the house if you have kids and pets.
The 2015 poison control center records (latest records available) indicate that a 4 year old child died from eating cinnamon powder. You may want to lock up your spices. Two teenagers and an adult committed suicide by eating yew seeds (separate cases). A 69 year old woman died after making a tea from leaves collected in her garden and drinking it. Those are the plant poisoning cases.
Nicotine is especially dangerous around children. According to the CDC one cigarette butt consumed can kill a small child. The liquid nicotine for the new smokeless cigarettes, which is often flavored, is of special concern to poison control experts. A small amount could be deadly. Also poison control centers are seeing an uptick in child and pet poisonings from essential oils. Please keep those locked up and don’t consume them.
There’s no reason to avoid most houseplants because you have children or pets. While your plants could be destroyed there’s little chance that a child or pet will be harmed by them. Your home probably contains things far more dangerous to a child or pets than plants. Before you throw out the plants throw out your cosmetics, cleaning products and medications. Houseplants are much more beneficial than harmful and every household should have some.
Here are some reference sites for this article.
New England aster
New England Aster, (Aster novae-angliae), spreads it’s pretty purple flowers along sunny roadsides and in fields in late summer and fall. It often grows in the same areas as Goldenrod, producing a stunning color combination gardeners often imitate. In fact, cultivars of both plants are available for gardeners to use for gorgeous fall color.
|New England aster|
New England asters are perennial plants that die to the ground each winter. The stems are stiff and hairy and feel sticky to the touch. The long dark green leaves seem to clasp the stems at their base. The plants grow to 5 or more feet in ideal conditions but generally range from 2-3 feet high.
New England Asters have clusters of small purple daisy-like flowers with yellow centers. They start blooming in late August and continue until a hard frost. The flowers range from 1-2 inches wide depending on growing conditions and individual plant characteristics. There’s a wide variation in color too. If you are choosing to dig some plants up (with permission) from the wild take the time to examine the growing shape, bloom size and color and pick the best specimens. It would be best to mark these plants some way and remove them for transplanting the following spring.
New England Asters prefer sunny, moist areas. Deer don’t bother them and they have few insect or disease problems. They may be floppy in gardens where they are fertilized and watered and will benefit from staking or growing them among sturdier plants, like goldenrod.
New England Asters are excellent plants for native plant gardens and even for more conventional gardens to bring late fall color. They also make good cut flowers.
Is your pot burning?
Maybe it’s because it’s been hot and dry over a good deal of the country lately but the stories of flower pots erupting into flames have begun circulating on social media again. So can flower pots or rather the potting medium in them catch fire? The answer is yes it’s possible but it doesn’t happen spontaneously. There has to be something else involved and that’s usually a cigarette butt.
What is called potting soil is actually not soil at all but a mixture of peat, ground bark, vermiculite or perlite, coir, or other things. All of these things are flammable if dry. But the point at which they would burst into flames spontaneously is an extremely high temperature- 500 degrees F or more. A flower pot sitting in the sun never reaches that temperature, even on our hottest days. And since decomposition (sometimes attributed as a cause) ceases at really high temperatures and doesn’t happen in bone dry potting mixture it isn’t a factor either.
There have been numerous articles in legitimate newspapers around the country and world about burning flower pots starting house fires so we know it happens. But those pots had to have some help igniting and almost always it’s a cigarette butt that was thrown in a pot. Add some dead dry plant material and it’s a fire waiting to happen.
Flower pot fires generally happen in dry spells in early spring, winter and fall when the plant material is dead and the pots aren’t being watered. Someone comes along and tosses a cigarette butt in the pot, dry leaves or other debris in the pot begins burning and the burning plant material ignites the dry potting medium for an even more spectacular show. Sometimes fires are also deliberately started by bored kids or vandals.
You don’t need to worry that potting medium in the home in a sunny window will ignite, even if you let it get bone dry. (That is unless someone in the home is a smoker who snuffs out butts in the pot or your kids play with lighters.) Pots on decks and porches won’t ignite either, unless someone helps them.
To see how a pot might go up in flames I took an old dry pot with a dead plant, (yes I have them) and since I don’t smoke, I used a lighter to try and start a fire. Even when I added some dry oak leaves to the pot the fire would only burn for a few seconds and then go out. Had I left a butt smoldering in the pot it may have been different. But I think flower pot fires are probably rare events.
For safety’s sake
I would avoid mulching containers near buildings with things like wood chips and shredded bark as these would be more flammable than potting medium. Don’t allow paper trash to accumulate in pots, some people think planters are trash cans as well as ash trays. It’s a good idea to clean out containers and pots when the plant material in them has died and store them.
Even if no one in your household is a smoker pots sitting outside on decks and porches with dry plant material, leaves and so on could be a fire risk in dry weather. A deliveryman, repairman, mailman or visitor might toss a butt in the pot. Kids may start a fire as a prank. If the pot ignites close to the house it could start a house fire. In one case I read about the dry pots were next to propane tanks for a grill. That caused some rather spectacular explosions.
If you can’t or don’t want to remove the planting medium from large pots (after removing dead plant material) close to the house or other buildings add a layer of sand or gravel to the top of the pots a couple of inches thick. This is a good idea for large containers in public places that you may care for. You can remove it before planting in the containers again. It won’t harm dormant plants left in the pots. You can also cover the containers; most smokers won’t toss a butt on something they recognize as flammable.
Flower pot fires are rare, and they don’t happen from spontaneous combustion, inside or out. Gardeners using some common sense don’t have to worry about their pots burning the house down.
Japanese forest grass- Hakone grass (Hakonechloa macra)
If you like ornamental grasses but thought you couldn’t grow them in your shady garden Japanese forest grass may be just the plant for you. This lovely arching grass is native to Japans cool Hakone mountain area and will grow in partial or even full shade. It’s hardy in planting zones 5-9 but probably does best in zones 5-6 where summers tend to be a bit cooler. In zones 7 and above it will need to be in shadier locations. Hakone grass provides interesting texture in shade gardens that tend to feature broad leaved plants.
Hakone grass has narrow leaves that arch. It’s a deciduous perennial, dying to the ground each winter. Plants grow to about 18 inches high and wide. It has rhizomous roots that slowly spread and create larger clumps. The species has medium green leaves. The most common variety sold is probably ‘Aureola’ which has a golden stripe highlighting blade edges. ‘All Gold’ is a variety which has almost totally golden leaves. In deep shade it becomes more chartreuse. ‘Albo-striata’ is hard to find but it’s a forest grass with white variegation. ‘Red Wind’ is a variety that takes on a reddish cast in fall and ‘Nicolas’ is similar but with a more purplish fall color.
Hakone grass does flower but like most grass flowers they are not that showy and are generally hidden among the grass blades. You could collect the seeds but Hakone grass is slow growing from seed and new plants are better obtained by dividing large plants in early spring.
Hakone grass will grow in partial or full shade but tends to scorch in full sun. In zones 5-6 partial or light shade brings out the best color and growth while in warmer zones the plant requires more shade and moisture to do well. They prefer loose well drained soil that is kept evenly moist. Fertilizer probably isn’t needed, but a grass fertilizer might give poorly growing plants a boost. Make sure plants are regularly watered while they are getting established.
Hakone grass will grow in the root zone of black walnut trees and is said to be deer resistant. Rabbits will eat it however. Insect or disease problems are rare. In the late fall or early spring before new growth starts the previous year’s leaves should be cut back to the ground. Some varieties have interesting fall color but most just turn straw brown. In zones 5-6, winter mulch is helpful, especially in exposed areas. I have found leaving the foliage alone until late spring allows the plant to provide its own mulch.
Hakone grass can also be used to provide texture and interest in large containers. They can be used to line paths or woven among plants like hosta, heuchera, astilbe and ferns. They can be used as a clumping ground cover beneath trees. The golden colored varieties looked nice mixed with purple foliaged plants like heuchera or Japanese maples. If you have a shady patch lighten it up with some Hakone grass.
Bringing in tomatoes to ripen
Someday soon there’s going to be a frost and that will be the end of the tomato season. But there is a way you can extend your enjoyment of fresh garden tomatoes after cold weather hits. Tomatoes are a fruit that will continue to ripen after picking if they have matured enough. These tomatoes won’t taste quite as good as the ones ripened on the vine but they will be better than most you buy at the store.
Tomatoes will stop ripening outside after a hard frost and turn to mush after a freeze. When you know one of those events is near it’s time to salvage as many tomatoes as you can. Pick all tomatoes that have even the slightest sign of ripening. This may be indicated by a lightening in color and a slight softening. Even full sized, hard green tomatoes will often ripen inside. Pick those tomatoes.
Be careful handling the fruits as bruising may cause rotting instead of ripening. Don’t bring in insect damaged fruit or fruit with bottom rot or severe cracking. Bring the fruits inside to a warm place, never refrigerate them. Some people swear by lining the green tomatoes up on a sunny window sill with a little space between each. Others wrap each tomato in a piece of tissue or newspaper and store in a dark place. Tomatoes will ripen either way.
I wrap the greenest tomatoes to store and set the ones closest to being ripe on the window sill to finish ripening. Periodically I check the wrapped tomatoes for signs of ripening and move some to the window sill. There have been times when I have had tomatoes all the way up to Christmas with this method.
Gardeners should inspect stored tomatoes at least once a week and remove any that are rotting. And of course you could always eat the tomatoes green- as in fried green tomatoes or green tomato salsa or pie.
Green Tomato Pie
If you don’t want to store your green tomatoes and let them ripen when frost threatens, you could turn them into pie. This recipe makes one pie, which tastes a lot like apple pie.
3 cups chopped hard green tomatoes
¾ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons vinegar
3 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup chopped raisins
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 double pie crust
Line a pie pan with the bottom crust. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Place the green tomatoes in a pan and add just enough water to barely cover them.
Bring the tomatoes just to a boil. Turn off heat and drain off water through a colander or strainer.
Put the tomatoes and all the other ingredients, except top crust, and toss to mix well.
Put the tomato mixture into the pie pan and add the top crust, crimping the top edge together. Poke the top crust with a fork in several places.
Bake about 40 minutes, until the crust is golden brown.
"For summer there, bear in mind, is a loitering gossip, that only begins to talk of leaving when September rises to go."
- George Washington Cable
“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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