Tuesday, September 26, 2017

September 26, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

" '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

Hi Gardeners

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.   

Poisonous Houseplants

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.

Didn't burn

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

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

Find Michigan garden events/classes here:
(This is the Lapeer County Gardeners facebook page)
An interesting Plant Id page you can join on Facebook

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

Newsletter/blog information

If you would like to pass along a notice about an educational event or a volunteer opportunity please send me an email before Tuesday of each week and I will print it. Also if you have a comment or opinion you’d like to share, send it to me or you can comment directly on the blog. Please state that you want to have the item published in my weekly note if you email me. You must give your full name and what you say must be polite and not attack any individual. I am very open to ideas and opinions that don’t match mine but I do reserve the right to publish what I want. Contact me at KimWillis151@gmail.com

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, September 19, 2017

September 19, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Akebia - it's delicious
"Leaves fall,
the days grow cold.
The Goddess pulls her mantle of Earth around Her
as You, O Great Sun God, sail toward the West
to the land of eternal enchantment,
wrapped in the coolness of night.

Fruits ripen,
seeds drip,
the hours of day and night are balanced."
-   Mabon Sabbat and Lore

Hi Gardeners

Sadly, it’s almost here, the fall equinox, the beginning of autumn.  It’s Friday September 22, when the days and nights will both be close to 12 hours long.  After that the days get shorter more quickly and the sun slides lower on the southern horizon.  It’s a cool and kind of misty day here today but we are actually supposed to get some much above normal heat by Friday, with temperatures in the mid 80’s.

We badly need some rain here.  It’s very dry and my plants are covered with white dust from our limestone gravel road.  Everything looks kind of old and droopy.  I have been watering and watering and I am ready for some fall rains.  The forecast looks dry though, unless one of those hurricanes out there throw some rain far enough west to help us.

Last week I said there was nothing left for first bloom in the garden except my cup and saucer vine but I forgot about the colchicum, the fall crocus, which popped into bloom this week.  The flowers are pretty and much larger than spring crocus but they still kind of get lost in all the mature vegetation in my beds.  I also forgot about the tuberose, which are in a pot, and also began to bloom this week. 

I have a Lycoris radiata, red spider lily, which is sending up shoots finally.  It’s in a pot too, because it isn’t quite hardy here. With the warm weather coming it just might have time to bloom.  And that cup and saucer vine opened one flower today.

I think the hummers have begun to leave for the south.  I’m only seeing one, rather than 6-8 at a time and the feeders aren’t emptying out in a day anymore.  Suet consumption has dropped a lot too; I guess there are lots of things for birds to eat right now.

I have been watching the small leopard frogs that invaded my little water feature this spring.  There are at least 6 of them and they sure gave grown over the summer.  They started out little tiny things, now some of them are 3 inches long.  I hope they grew big on mosquitoes.

The Farmers and Old Farmers Almanacs came out last week.  I enjoy reading the almanacs but I don’t believe their weather predictions are very accurate.  I keep track of the weather, daily precip., and minimum –maximum temps and have done so for 5 years at least.   Last winter when bored one day, I compared my weather stats to my collection of old almanacs and found that they were not even near being accurate.

The almanacs both claim they have secret formulas to predict the weather but they have to have those predictions at least 18 months in advance for the almanacs to be published on time and there’s just no way predictions that far out can be accurate.  Indeed several research projects that compared weather from across the US to both almanacs predictions found them to be right only about 50% of the time, which is about the same as a random guess.  I check the official NOAA weather forecast each day- and it often changes from day to day.

Here’s how to predict your own weather, with results just as accurate as the Almanacs.  Take out a coin; decide which side of the coin will stand for rainy or snowier than normal weather and which for drier than normal.  Assign one side of the coin for colder than normal temps and one for warmer than normal.  Get out a 2018 calendar.  For each month flip the coin for once for the precipitation and once for the temperature and mark your results on the calendar.

Then you’ll need to look up the average temperatures and precip totals for your area for each month also.  The national weather service has that information.  (They also make long range predictions but warn they aren’t too accurate)  Put your averages on the calendar next to your predictions from flipping a coin. Now you can just wait and observe the weather as it happens and compare your predictions from coin flipping.  Chances are you will be as accurate as either of the Almanacs. (You might want to keep this formula locked up in a safe or metal box like the Almanacs say they keep theirs).


Eating akebia

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I had Akebia, (chocolate vine), fruit on the vine and was hoping that they would ripen before frost.  Well I lucked out.  I was walking by the garden this weekend and saw that the fruit had ripened to a lovely lavender color and was beginning to split.   I picked it and brought it inside- after getting some nice pictures of it. 

The fruits are shaped somewhat like small bananas.  They split along the bottom seam to reveal a roll of white jelly like stuff, with clumps of small white threads sticking out all over. It certainly does not look terribly appetizing, I posted a picture on Facebook and most people thought it looked like a large grub or someone said a sea urchin.

I worked up the nerve to taste it – and made my husband taste it.  Surprisingly it was very good, sweet with a flavor hard to describe, maybe melon mixed with passionfruit.  The texture was jelly like.   It did not taste like chocolate, although I had already read that it didn’t. It’s the smell of the flowers that it gets the common name from- although I didn’t think they smelled like chocolate either.

Akebia harvest
The biggest problem with it was the seeds; the jelly is loaded with small black, hard seeds, about the size of a BB. The only way I could find to eat it was to try and pick out the seeds with a fork or swallow a bit and spit out seeds.  I looked up “how to eat Akebia” but all I found was information that it was a delicacy in Korea and other SE Asian countries and expensive to buy.

I suppose one could push the jelly through a colander, which was what I eventually did to separate out the seeds to save.  I used warm water to rinse off the remaining jelly and then I spread the seeds out on a paper towel to dry on the window sill.

As soon as I set the seeds on the window sill a yellow jacket wasp appeared out of nowhere- yes in the house- and he picked up a seed and began climbing up the window screen with it.  It was too heavy for him to fly with. Evidently there was a gap somewhere along the window frame because he got above my head and disappeared with the seed.

Later in the evening after the house was quiet I heard noises in the kitchen and went to look.  I caught a glimpse of a mouse scurrying away – and saw he had eaten some seeds or carried them away.  (A trap was set for the mouse; in our old house mice aren’t uncommon.  Maybe Akebia seeds would be good bait.)

In nature it seems Akebia seeds are carried away by ants and other insects and taken to their burrows where they eat off the jelly and effectively plant the seed. The seeds must have a very compelling scent as they seem irresistible to critters. I have saved some seeds for sharing and planting.

The rind of the akebia fruit was thick, like the rind of a melon and was so pretty, the lavender outside and shiny white inside, that I tried to save and dry the rind but that didn’t work well so they went to the compost pile. 
Akebia showing seeds

I got 6 fruits this year and according to other gardeners who grow the vine I was lucky as in northern areas they often don’t set fruit.  It will be interesting to see if it fruits next year and equally interesting to see if I can get some of these seeds I saved to sprout.  (By the way there's an article about growing Akebia to the right of this blog.)

Praying Mantis- Are they good for the garden?

You often see egg cases of praying mantis for sale in garden catalogs and some gardeners believe that the little creatures are the answer for problem insects in the garden.  But are praying mantises really beneficial for the garden?  Most entomologists would tell you their presence in the garden is neutral- the benefits are erased by the costs. 

Praying mantis, probably Chinese
Praying Mantis should really be called preying mantis, because they do far more preying than praying.  These odd looking creatures are the source of folklore around the world and are even kept as pets.  There are several native species of mantis, the most common being the Carolina Mantis, (Stagmomantis carolina) which is found throughout most of the eastern half of the US and even south into Mexico.  The European mantis (Mantis religiosa), and the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), were introduced into North America with the hope they would clear out garden and crop pests.  Both of these species are fairly common across most of the US and all species are called by the common name Praying Mantis.

A mantis has a large head shaped like a triangle with a distinct “snout”.  There are two large prominent compound eyes and 3 small simple eyes most people don’t notice.  The head also has 2 antenna.  Most mantis species have a flexible neck and can rotate their heads almost 180 degrees.

Mantis have 2 large forelegs, with spikes and a claw at the end that allow them to firmly grasp their prey.  They also have 2 other sets of legs close together in the middle section of their body.  (Like most insects there are 3 segments to the body.)  Mantis have long bodies that are slimmer in males and in both sexes end in 2 cerci, tail like appendages many people think of as “pinchers”. Females usually are larger with plumper abdomens.  The Carolina Mantis can be 3-4 inches long.   

All of the common mantis species mentioned have 2 sets of wings, an outer tough, colored set and an inner, thin almost clear set.   Once adult, mantises don’t do a lot of flying, especially the heavy females. Mantis colors range from brown to green and tend to match the surroundings so they blend in and are camouflaged from their prey and things that might prey on them.

The Carolina mantis can be brown or green.  The wings of the male reach to the end of the body, while those of the female end about ¾ of the way down the body.  The females of this species are very large and plump when mature.  The European mantis is usually green, with distinctive black spots on the underside of the first body segment (chest), some of which may have a white center.  The Chinese mantis is usually slimmer and smaller than the other two.  It can be either brown or green but has a light green stripe running along the edge of the outer wings.  It can be difficult to tell the species apart, especially when they are young.

Praying mantis are predators, eating all kinds of insects and even small frogs, toads, lizards and the occasional small bird, like hummingbirds.  Usually they lay in wait for their prey, moving with remarkable speed when the victim is close enough to grab. Sometimes however they stalk their prey, moving slowly and carefully until they are close enough to grab it.  They usually begin munching the head of the victim first.  They have strong mandibles (jaws) to crush insect shells. 

Praying mantis can bite a human if provoked, but it’s not poisonous, is only a tiny prick and won’t happen if you leave them alone.  You cannot catch diseases from a mantis and they will not attack you.  The old wives tale that mantis can spit into your eyes and blind you is just that, an old wives tale.  While mantis may produce some brown discharge from the mouth when scared, they don’t spit and the discharge won’t harm you.

Because they do not specialize in any type of insect praying mantis also eat many beneficial insects including bees and butterflies which is why most experts consider their status neutral for pest control.  For every pest insect they consume they probably consume a helpful insect too.  They also eat each other so you usually won’t find many mantises in the same area.  When people buy egg cases to hatch out in the garden, many mantises may hatch and then turn on each other, leaving only a few in the garden.

Praying mantises are also eaten by other things, birds, frogs, and small mammals. When attacked they often stand up their back legs, spread their wings and wave their front legs in an effort to look larger and intimidate their enemy.

Praying mantises live about 1 year, one season in colder areas of the country.  Mating season is in late summer- early fall.  Yes, female mantises may eat the smaller males when they mate.  But it’s not as common in nature as the stories would suggest.  In captivity cannibalism during mating is about 90% but researchers found that in nature the odds of a male being eaten during any single mating are only about 25%.  However since males generally mate with several females their odds of escaping death during the mating season are probably low.

After mating females lay eggs that stick to objects like twigs, posts, and garden ornaments.  They then produce a brown foamy substance that covers the eggs and quickly hardens into a protective case.  (I think it looks like the foam stuff you spray into cracks that expands and hardens to seal them.)  In cold climates the eggs don’t hatch until warm weather in the spring. Egg cases are called ootheca.  You can collect and move them to the garden and they will be fine.

Eggs hatch into mantis nymphs, wingless but looking like small versions of the adults, and then rapidly become winged adults.  Praying Mantises usually don’t fly far from where they hatched.  But because they consider each other food, only a few mantises will survive from any egg case you place in the garden. 

Praying mantises are fascinating to observe in the garden but in reality they probably won’t do much to control insect pests since only a few will be able to co-exist in the garden.  If you see one around your hummingbird feeder I would remove it to another part of the garden.  I have heard bee keepers complain that they sometimes hang around hives to eat bees.  Buying several egg cases for the garden is probably wasted effort but it can be fun for children to watch the insects hatch and catch their prey.

Toad lilies (Tricyrtis species)

If you are looking for something different for a shady spot why not try some toad lilies? These interesting plants with their dainty, exotic, orchid like blooms in late summer add color to the shade when few other shade plants are blooming. They are perennial plants and relatively easy to grow.  They are also deer resistant but rabbits are said to eat them.
Toad lilies
No one knows how Tricyrtis got the common name toad lily.  It might be because it likes to grow in shady damp areas where toads might be found.  Or it could be because of the splotched and spotted flowers although they look nothing like the spots on toads.  Despite the name toad lilies are charming. They are relatively new to the modern garden scene- probably first seen in garden stores in the early 1990’s.

Toad lilies are native to Eastern Asia, China and Japan and into the Himalayans.  There is a great deal of confusion still in the market place as to the proper labeling of the different species, some 20-22 of them- and the many hybrids coming on the scene don’t help matters. Toad lilies are members of the lily family (well, most agree on that). 

Tricyrtis likes cool, moist areas and does best in zones 5-7 (some species hardy to zone 4). It can be grown in warmer zones if it is in a very shaded location and kept consistently moist.  In the north partly shaded or lightly shaded areas are ideal.

Tricyrtis sends up 1-3 foot stems from rhizomes just under the ground. The oval leaves of Tricyrtis clasp the stem and partially surround it.  Some species have leaves only on one side of the stem; others look fuller, with leaves on both sides of the stem. The leaves are dark green in most species but there are now many cultivated varieties of toad lilies with variegated leaves.  In some species the stems are slightly hairy.

Tricyrtis blooms in late summer and early fall and the blooms appear at the end of the stems. The flowers of toad lilies are quite interesting and most face upward so you can admire their beauty more closely. (Some Tricyrtis species also have dangling bell shaped flowers.)  Despite the attempts of many catalogs to make them appear larger, the flowers are only an inch to 2 inches long. There are six long narrow petals.  (Actually like most members of the lily family there are actually 3 petals and 3 sepals which look like petals.)

The toad lily flower stamens are fused together in a cone in the center of the flower and three feathery pistils, or female parts are prominent in the center, these are often forked or lobed at the ends and dotted with color like the petals.  Some flowers are solid colors in white, lavender, yellow or pink but most toad lilies are known for their speckled and spotted flowers.

An interesting new development links the spotting and blotching in some varieties of toad lilies to a virus similar to Mosaic Bean virus.   The University of Minnesota did some tests on blotched and spotted toad lilies and found the virus.  The infected plants seem to grow normally otherwise and more work needs to be done to see how the virus affects the various species.

What Tricyrtis needs

Toad lilies need a shady moist area to do their best.  They prefer a rich, organic soil. They are plants that need several years to fulfill their best potential.  They normally bloom the first year but often on only one stem.  They may need several years to spread and form a nice vigorous clump to make an impact.  Heights vary from compact varieties about 8 inches tall to species ranging about 2 feet tall.

Toad lilies must have consistent moisture or the leaves dry on the edges and look ratty.  Too much sun will also cause the drying.  They benefit from the addition of compost and a good slow release fertilizer in the spring and again in mid-summer.  They are best planted in the spring.

The plants can be propagated from cuttings, seeds or dividing the rhizomes. Dividing takes some care, as a new growth bud must be on each division of the crown.  Tricrytis seeds germinate easily if they are given a cold, moist treatment for several weeks before planting.  Most gardeners will want to buy their toad lilies as bare rhizomes or as potted plants. The plants spread slowly in the garden and are not considered to be invasive.

Remember the flowers are small, and to be seen and appreciated, toad lilies need to be close to the front of the bed or along a woodland path. They are charming in naturalized settings.

Choosing Varieties

There are new hybrids, varieties and species being offered each year as the plants become more popular.  Here are some named selections.

‘Togen’ is one of the oldest varieties on the market.  It has white petals with lavender edges. ‘Taipai Silk’ has purple flowers with white edges.  ‘Sinonome’ has white flowers with purple specks and the leaves are on both sides of the stem, and the plant is compact.

‘Empress’ has the largest flowers of the Toad Lilies, they are white dotted with purple. ‘Raspberry Mousse’ is a solid wine red.  ‘White Towers’ has solid white flopwers.

‘Golden Leopard’ is a shimmering yellow with brown spots. ‘Moonlight Treasure’ has rounded, variegated leaves and large golden yellow flowers. ‘Lightning Strike’ has tall arching stems of golden foliage with green markings and light lavender flowers.  ‘Imperial Banner’ is a sport of ‘Empress.  It has the same flowers but the leaves have a broad white streak down the middle and are slightly wavy.  ‘Gilt Edge’ has leaves outlined in gold. ‘Lunar Landing’ is a hybrid toad lily with silvery, velvet like leaves, each bordered in dark green, reddish stems and purple flowers.

Caution: All parts of the Tricyrtis plant are poisonous.

Heath Aster, Symphyotrichum ericoides

For those of you who like native plants or those who need a little color in the late fall garden the heath aster may be a good choice.  The heath aster produces a froth of tiny white daisy like flowers that lend an airy elegance to informal beds in fall. 

Heath aster
Heath asters are suitable for planting zones 5-8, are a hardy perennial plant and drought tolerant.  They will grow in full sun or partial shade and will grow in most types of soil.  They are common along roadsides and in abandoned fields but you can also buy plants from native plant nurseries or start them from seed.  Heath asters survive fires well and are one of the native prairie plants that may benefit from periodic burning.

Heath asters have one or more stems with narrow, long leaves about 3 inches long and a ¼ wide at the base, and leaves get smaller and narrower farther up the stem.  Near the top of the stalk the leaves may have a short spine at the tip. As the stalks grow the lower leaves are shed. Leaves are arranged alternately.  Stems are hairy near the top and become brown and woody with age.  The plant stems branch by the end of summer, forming an open bush shape about 2 feet tall.  Plants die back to the ground each winter.

In late summer and until frost heath asters produce abundant clusters of tiny white flowers about a ½ inch across.  There are about 8-20 white ray flowers and a cluster of yellow disk flowers in the center, a typical “daisy” flower. As the flowers age the disk turns reddish.  The back of the flower is surrounded with rows of narrow blunt tipped bracts which may curl back away from the flower.  The flowers have no scent.

Heath aster flowers produce flat brown seeds, each with a tiny bit of fluff to help move them to new locations.  Plants can be started by sowing seeds where you want them to grow in fall or early spring.  They need a period of cold stratification to germinate.

Heath asters have rhizomous root systems and can be aggressive spreaders when they like the location.  I pull all but a few plants from selected areas of my garden beds in early spring.  If you let them multiply too much the bed will become a matted mass of aster plants.  You can divide the rhizomes and share plants if you like.

The flowers of heath aster are popular with bees, flies, beetles, and butterflies.  The tiny flowers make good cut flowers and can be dried for arrangements also.  Some plants have thick, short clusters of flowers, forming more of a wand shape and others have looser clusters.

The plants are the larval hosts for the silver checkerspot butterfly and several moths.  The plants may be eaten when young by deer and rabbits or livestock but are avoided as they get older.  Hay is considered unusable if it has too much heath aster mixed in it.

Native Americans used the heath aster as an aromatic herb in sweat lodges.   It was used to revive people who had fainted or who were unconscious.  From what I can gather a smoldering piece is held close to the patient for this purpose.  

Zucchini Bread

So what is summer or fall without some zucchini bread?  If you grow zucchini you almost always too much zucchini and personally I think this is the absolute best way to eat zucchini.  You can vary the spices in this recipe to suit your personal taste.  This makes one large loaf.

If you don’t have time to bake some zucchini bread this fall you can freeze shredded zucchini to use later.  To freeze zucchini shred it with a shredder or food processor.  Blanch the shreds in boiling water in a colander until they turn clear. Pack your shreds in freezer bags or containers and set them in ice water.  When they cool move the containers to the freezer.


2 cups shredded zucchini (thawed and drained if frozen)
1 cup crushed pineapple
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
3 eggs
3 cups flour
2 ¼ cups sugar
¼ cup chopped pecans
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon nutmeg

In a food processor place the eggs, oil, vanilla and sugar and blend until smooth.  (You can also use a bowl and hand mixer.)

Blend in salt, baking powder and baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Add the flour 1 cup at a time, blending well after each addition.

Add the zucchini, pineapple, pecans and coconut and blend just until well mixed.

Pour into a greased large loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour.  Insert a toothpick to see if it comes out clean.  Cool before slicing.


When the turkey vultures leave fall is truly here

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.

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