Tuesday, November 28, 2017

November 28, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Hi Gardeners

It’s a wonderfully mild day here for late November, 65 degrees and partly sunny with a strong southern breeze.  That will change soon of course, this time of year the weather changes dramatically from day to day and a cold front is predicted late tomorrow.  For those of you in the eastern half of the country be aware that the national weather service long range forecast is predicting a polar vortex air flow in the first week of December although where it will be exactly and how strong it will be, is still unknown.  But many of us could get some real winter weather soon.

There’s not much to say about the garden.  Everything is pretty much gone.  I have let the chickens have free roaming rights through the front gardens as there’s not much they can hurt now.  I have the solar lights strung around the evergreens to deter the deer.  I am removing the squishy pumpkin and gourd decorations from the deck to the compost pile.  The grass is still green though.

Inside I still have a lot in bloom.  Nothing makes a dreary winter day nicer than a window lit by bright sun lamps and full of flowering plants.  You should try it.

I’m supposed to get my new computer today.  I hope by next week it will all be set up and things will be running smoothly again. 

What I’m learning -again- about healthy eating

I am learning a new way to eat again. A couple of years ago my husband and I decided that we would follow a low carb diet and it suited us fine, we both lost weight on it and I was doing well controlling my blood sugar on it.  But during my recent hospitalization my blood was tested for almost everything and according to the hematologist I am deficient in B12, folate and iron. (I was already taking supplements for potassium and magnesium because those were low.) That surprised me because our low carb diet is heavy on protein from meat, which is a source of both B12 and iron. 

But as the doctor explained, people over 60 often lose the ability to absorb some vitamins efficiently and my diabetes medicines also contributed to the loss of some vitamins.  Our diet also included dark leafy greens and vegetables and fruits, sources of folate, but it obviously wasn’t enough.

It's always better to eat foods that supply all your nutrients instead of taking supplements if you can. I am supposed to eat less dark leafy greens and things like broccoli because they promote blood clotting.  I found out that 2 eggs a day, if I was processing folate normally, would only account for about 15% of normal folate requirements.  If I ate 6 ounces of liver everyday I might meet my folate requirements and maybe my iron requirements but that isn’t going to happen since I can’t stand liver.

So how are people like me supposed to get all their nutrients from their diet?   In 1998 the US government recognized that many people were not getting enough folic acid and B12 in a normal diet, especially since the trend is away from eating lots of meat and eggs. And then there are people like me. The USDA required grain products, such as flour, cornmeal, bread, cereal, pasta and rice be fortified with these nutrients. Iron is also added to many fortified foods.  In the US deficiencies of folate and B12 are now rare, unless you are like me and don’t eat carbs and have nutrient processing problems.  (Labels don’t always mention folate and B12 levels but if the product uses enriched flour, cornmeal or rice, it’s there).

It’s much easier for me to add some fortified food products in carb form than to try and devise a low carb diet high in the nutrients I am deficient in. I’ll be back to eating carbs- I am still trying for whole grain products but they have to be fortified. And for a while at least I’ll be on supplements. People may knock the USDA and moan about what’s in our country’s food supply, but we still have one of the safest and best food supply systems in the world.

Clematis seed heads

Should you start cuttings in water?

The answer to the question above is maybe.  There are many plants, especially many tropical plants we use as houseplants, that can be easily rooted in water.  But is this the best way to start new plants?  If you intend to keep the new plant you start in water for most of it’s life and it’s a plant that will root in water go for it.  There are many plants that can live in water indefinitely. Some people have collections of pretty bottles, each with a plant in them.

If, however, you want to move the new plant you are starting into a pot with potting medium eventually, you may want to re-consider starting it in water.  When roots are growing in water they are more delicate, “crisper” and more easily broken or damaged than roots grown in soil.  They haven’t had to push through soil to seek water and nutrients.  Plants that prefer to have a symbiotic relationship with fungi in the soil won’t be able to develop that fungi collaboration growing in water.

Many plants root easily in water but then suffer and decline when moved to soil or potting medium.  Many people try to add soil to the water cuttings are growing in gradually, thinking the plant roots will adjust to it.  However this doesn’t do much good and may even set the plant back or kill it.  A little soil in the water isn’t harmful, it’s when the soil added to the cutting container becomes like saturated, over watered pots in the house or garden that problems occur.  The plant can’t use its water roots effectively to absorb oxygen anymore and the soil is too saturated for oxygen to be present in the pore spaces of the soil.

Some plants manage to persevere and as many gardeners will tell you, they overcome the difficulties of adjusting from growing in water to growing in soil.  But if you intend for a plant to grow in a pot with potting medium or in the garden it’s better to start cuttings directly in potting medium of some type.  And if you did start a cutting in water and want to transplant it to a pot don’t add soil gradually to the water, simply pot the rooted cutting in moist but not saturated soil and hope for the best.

Plants that root easily in water often root quickly in soil or potting medium also if cared for properly.  It’s easier to just plunk those broken pieces of plant into water (and it’s a good way to keep cuttings alive until you have time to pot them), but rooting cuttings in potting medium is generally better for the plant.

Here’s how to optimize your success in rooting “soft” cuttings.  First begin with plants that will grow from cuttings.  There is probably a way to grow most plants from cuttings but some plants require extensive care and time to root from cuttings and they certainly won’t grow if a piece is plopped in water.  Take hosta for example.  They rarely start from cuttings, rather they are divided at the root system or started from tissue culture.  Many plants with a “crown” (leaves growing from a central point near the ground), type of growth pattern, don’t grow well from cuttings.  This incudes plants like daylilies, hosta, Chinese evergeen (Aglaonema), alocasia, amaryllis, anthriums, Cast iron plant (Aspidistra), ferns, prayer plant (Maranta tricolor) and palms.

Other plants with a single woody or semi-woody trunk might start from a cutting off that trunk but it would probably destroy the look of the plant. In houseplants I’m thinking of plants like dracaena and some ficus, such as rubber plants.  If these plants get too lanky the top is often cut off and rooted, although that procedure is tricky.

Some woody and semi-woody garden plants and some woody houseplants can be started from branch cuttings or tip cuttings.  This generally requires researching what time of year is best to take the cutting and what rooting procedures to follow.  Roses and many landscape plants can be started from cuttings.  For landscape type plants consult a reference or experienced nursery for rooting procedures.

The best plants to start from simple soft tissue cuttings include many plants with a vining habit, or those with multiple fleshy stems.  Sedums and succulents usually start well from soft cuttings.  Plants that produce pups, small plants at the base, (like aloe) or aerial plantlets (think spider plants) can be started easily from those plant parts.  Some will even root in water.

Most plants need at least 2 nodes on a cutting to start a new plant.  Nodes are points on a plant stem where there are cells that can start new plant parts.  They are where leaves grow out of the stem and may be seen as scars or raised areas on a stem.  You need one node to form the new plant’s roots and one to form the above ground parts, so each cutting must have at least 2 nodes.  You can have more than 1 node above the potting medium and more than 1 in the medium but don’t make cuttings too large.  Cuttings with 4-5 nodes usually root the fastest and easiest.

There are some plants that can form adventitious roots from plant parts other than nodes. That’s why rex begonias and African violets may be started from a single leaf and no nodes.  I’ll discuss them another time.

Some plants root better if the cutting is kept orientated in the direction the plant was growing, that is the nodes closest to the bottom of the original plant should be inserted into the potting medium or water.  To remind yourself which way is up cut the stem cutting on an angle for the bottom- or down, and straight across for the top or up.  Do not cut into the node though, or damage it. 

Trim cuttings so that there’s a little bit of stem left above the top node, as a kind of handle, and trim on an angle as close as possible to the bottom node without damaging the node. Remove all leaves that will be below the water or in the potting medium.   If there are many large leaves on the part of the cutting that will be above ground, remove some of them or cut them in half.  Remove all flowers or buds on a cutting.  This makes it easier for new roots to support the plant.  Here’s a tip- succulents root better if the bottom node dries out a bit and forms a callus.  Let the cutting sit in a warm dry place for a day or two before planting it.  Succulent cuttings will often still root a week or more after being removed from the plant.

Should you use rooting hormone on cuttings?  Many plants don’t really need it but if you have a rare or unusual plant, or something that balks at rooting from a cutting, you may want to use it.  You can buy it in many garden stores or on line.  Cinnamon is not a rooting hormone, nor will it aid rooting success.  Aspirin and other home concocted formulas are also useless.  If you don’t use rooting hormone, don’t use anything else on cuttings.

When you have a cutting from a plant ready to go you can plop it in water or take the more professional way and place it in a potting medium.  You can start numerous cuttings in one pot or use separate containers. They must have good drainage.  For the best results use a well-draining potting medium, not garden soil or compost. Moisten the soil before filling the containers.  Use something like a spoon handle or pencil to make a hole for the cutting, don’t push it into the soil.  Try to handle the cutting by that top little handle so you don’t damage the nodes.

After inserting at least one node into the potting medium push the soil back around the cutting.   Place the container in a plastic bag unless you are trying to root sedums or succulents.  Place the container in good light, but not direct sunlight.  If too much moisture builds up on the inside of the bag, open it and let it dry out a bit.  Keep the potting medium moist but not soggy.

Not all cuttings will root and begin growing, no matter what you do. That’s the nature of the game.  But as you gain experience you’ll have better success at getting plants to root.  You won’t need to put them in water to grow healthy vigorous plants unless you want to keep them in water.

Jade Plants

I have more Jade plants than I need, and that’s because this plant is incredibly easy to start from a cutting.  Every time I move a larger plant the stems snap and I stick the piece in a pot of soil and soon I have another plant.  Jade plants, (Crassula ovata), also called Dollar or Money Plants, are in the stonecrop family, which also has many hardy species.  Jade plants, which are native to South Africa, are usually kept as houseplants, although in plant hardiness zones 10 and above they can be planted outside.

Young jade plant
Jade plants are readily available on the market and are one of the easier houseplants to grow. There are some closely related species of crassula that can also be purchased from greenhouses on occasion and these are cared for in a similar manner. Jade plants are long lived – they can live for at least fifty years in good conditions.

Jade plants are succulents with thick, shiny, rounded dark green leaves arranged opposite each other on thick stems which, with age, become woody looking.  In many Jade plants the leaves are edged in red.  In the variety ‘Hummels Sunset’ the leaves are orange and yellow with a touch of red.  In the variety ‘Tricolor’ the leaves are marked with cream and pink.

In the home Jade plants can grow to 3’ tall and wide.  In a greenhouse or heated sunroom they may grow even larger.  There are some cultivars that don’t develop a strong main stem and tend to sprawl or weep.

In the right conditions Jade plants will bloom in late winter- early spring.  The blooms are clusters of tiny, star shaped pinkish flowers with a darker center.

Jade plant care

As a succulent Jade plants need to be planted in a well-drained planting medium.  Use a cactus mix or mix 1part clean sand with 2 parts of a good houseplant potting medium.  All pots must have good drainage.

Jade plants tend to have shallow root systems and often become top heavy.  The plant may need to be staked so that it doesn’t topple and pull itself out of the pot.  Heavy clay pots may help anchor the Jade plant and keep the pot from tipping over. If the plant does topple over simply replace it in the pot and firm the soil back around the roots.  You can also prune the Jade plant with pruning shears to help balance the plant.

The leaves and stems of Jade plants are brittle and break easily.  They need to be placed in locations where they don’t get bumped or handled often.   Also make sure the Jade plant is not in a draft or directly above heating or air conditioning vents. 

Jade plants prefer full sun such as a south or west window indoors but do fairly well in bright indirect light.  They can be moved outside after all danger of frost has passed but place them in the shade first and gradually move them into more sun.  I have found that full sun is often too much for them outside and will result in scorched leaves.  Morning or evening light or filtered sun is probably best. Turn the pot every time you water so the plant doesn’t lean toward the light.

Let the Jade plant dry out between watering, but don’t let the leaves shrivel.  When you water, add water until it drains from the pot bottom.  Be sure to empty saucers under the plants after watering.  Over watered Jade plants will shrivel just like a dry Jade as the root system rots so make sure to feel the surface before watering.  In the winter Jade plants will need less water.  Outside in the summer make sure to check frequently so that the plants don’t get too dry.

To promote blooming fertilize with a houseplant fertilizer for blooming plants once a week in late winter through spring.  Jade plants are more likely to bloom when they are in full sun conditions in warm, moderately humid rooms.  Gently wipe the leaves of Jade plants from time to time to remove dust. Do not use leaf shine products or home shine concoctions on them.

Jade plants occasionally get mealy bugs, small white fluffy looking clusters at leaf joints, or scale- brown bumps on the leaves or stems. These can be wiped off with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol or you can use a systemic pesticide labeled for houseplants.  Do not use insecticidal soap or dish soap concoctions on Jade plants as it will damage or kill the plants.

Propagating Jade plants

Jade plants are usually started from cuttings and the plant will look just like its parent.  Jades are easy to start from cuttings and a single leaf can start a new plant.  If leaves break off the plant or you need to prune it to keep it from toppling over, the removed pieces can be used to start new plants.  Some jades will actually start growing clusters of tiny roots at some nodes along the stem while the stem is attached to the plant.  This may happen at a bend in the stem or if a stem is touching soil.  These pieces can be removed and will root easily.
Crassula 'Hobbit"

If you don’t have a piece broken off the plant remove a side stem with two or more sets of leaves just below the second leaf section.  Or remove a single leaf to start a new plant.  A large stem section of the plant that has broken off may be divided into several cuttings. Jade plants are one of the few plants that will root pretty easily even if a large section with many nodes is used, so you don’t need to cut up the piece if you don’t want to.

If you are cutting up a larger stem keep the orientation the same as the parent plant by making the bottom cut (point closest to the main stem or soil level) on a slant just below a leaf node. (Nodes are where leaves attach to the stem.) Remove the leaves at the bottom node. This goes into the potting medium to form the roots. The top cut should go straight across the stem just above a leaf node.  Let the cutting sit on a counter for 2 days to make a callus at the cut.  This encourages rooting.

Use an appropriate sized pot for the cutting size filled with moistened cactus mixture or a vermiculite and potting soil mixture.  Large, older stems you are attempting to root should have larger pots.  Make a small indentation in the soil mix and either insert the base of a leaf or remove the lower set of leaves from your stem cutting and insert the stem in the potting medium to just below the old leaf site (node).  Larger stems should have at least 2 nodes inserted into the potting mix. Firm the soil around the cutting.  You may need to stake the cutting to keep it from falling out of the pot.

Do not enclose the cutting in plastic or glass.  Let the soil dry slightly between watering.  When you see new leaves on the Jade plant it means it has rooted.  You can share the plant with a friend or fill another window spot.

A Jade plant is a beautiful, classy addition to the home or office yet it’s easy to care for.  Like all houseplants it makes a room more inviting and calming.  Every room needs a plant and a Jade plant is an excellent choice for sunny rooms.

Protecting trees for winter

Before another winter hits it’s time to check your trees and shrubs and protect them from winter winds and hungry animals.  Here are some tips to help your woody ornamentals make it safely through winter.

First if you haven’t had much rain this fall in your area and the soil seems dry, it’s a good idea to deeply water trees and shrubs before the ground freezes.  Trees and shrubs that go into winter dormancy with good reserves of water are more likely to survive the winter with minimal damage.   Lay a hose near the tree and let it slowly run for a few hours. Or place large garbage bags or large buckets full of water with a few small holes near the bottom that allows water to seep out near them.  After the ground freezes plants can no longer absorb water.

Broad leaved evergreen plants like rhododendrons especially suffer because the broad leaf surfaces still evaporate off moisture on sunny winter days.  If we have a brief thaw in winter it’s helpful to pour a bucket of lukewarm water around the base of broadleaved evergreens, especially if the leaves have rolled up.

If broad leaved evergreen plants are exposed to wind they may winter burn.  It helps to wrap a shield of burlap around these exposed trees and shrubs.  The proper way is to put some stakes in the ground a few inches away from the branch ends and then wrap the burlap around the stakes.  The burlap should extend a few inches above the top of the plant, but the top should be left open.  Even young evergreens with needle-like leaves can benefit from a wind break if they are in an exposed area.

Don’t wrap trees and shrubs like a mummy and don’t use plastic around plants to shield them.  It creates a greenhouse effect in the sun, warming the plant and causing condensation which quickly freezes when the sun goes down.  Landscape fabric can be used in place of burlap.

Products are sold in garden shops to spray on trees and shrubs which slow the loss of water from leaves.  They may need to be re-applied in mid-winter for best results.

Newly planted evergreens may not have re-grown enough of a root system to keep the tree from pulling out of the ground when strong winter winds blow. It’s a good idea to stake evergreens in exposed areas if they were planted this fall.   Ideally the stakes should be installed when the tree is planted and should be on three sides of the tree.  Where the wire touches the tree it should be covered in plastic, foam, or old pieces of garden hose slid over the wire. This is so wind moving the wire doesn’t cut the tree trunk.   Tighten the wires enough that the tree doesn’t move much.  Remove the stakes and wires in late spring.

In the winter animals like rabbits and voles often feed on the bark of thin barked young trees like apples and maples.  If they chew the bark off around the whole stem the stem will die above the girdled area.  This damage often goes unnoticed until spring when the owner notices the trees aren’t leafing out or that they leaf out and then quickly die.
Girdling by rabbits or voles

To protect trees and shrubs from animals eating the bark in winter you need to enclose the trunks in a cage of small mesh wire.  The wire should go right to the ground and extend 3 feet or more from the ground.  Snow often allows rabbits to nibble high on the trees.  Plastic spiral tree wrap doesn’t always stop hungry animals, use wire to be safe.  Keep the wire a few inches away from the trunk.

If the snow gets deep it can be helpful to shovel a circle around prized woody plants even with wire mesh protection.  Voles, a relative of field mice, often burrow under deep snow to nibble tree trunks.  They dislike crossing a bare area where owls and hawks can pick them off.  Lowering the snow around the tree, especially if it drifted against the tree, can keep rabbits from reaching over the top of your wire protection to damage the tree or shrub.

Deer can also be a problem when snow is deep and food is hard to find.  They can reach quite high to nibble off the ends of branches and can mow some shrubs right to the ground.   You’ll need higher fence to protect trees from deer or use electric fence.  There are products that you can spray on trees that repel deer but they often aren’t effective in the deep of winter when deer are very hungry.  To help protect trees from winter damage don’t feed the deer near your home and discourage them from hanging around your property.

Another problem that can occur on any tree with thin bark that has a side exposed to the southern or western winter sun is frost crack.  On sunny days the trunk absorbs the suns heat and expands then cools quickly and contracts after sun-down.  This causes the trunk to crack vertically, which in the spring can leak sap and may attract insects, which in turn can carry diseases.  White spiral tree wrap can be used to reflect the sun or the trunks can even be painted with white latex paint.

Adding a thick mulch of wood chips or even leaves around trees and shrubs after the ground is frozen can keep them from being heaved out of the ground when soil freezes and thaws.  Try to keep the mulch from touching the trunk of the tree or shrub and make sure your wire cage extends under the mulch.  Critters can burrow through the mulch to reach the trunk.

We often forget about the larger plants in our environment when preparing for winter. Taking some time in the fall to prepare your trees and shrubs for winter can make the difference between survival and death.

Do I need to heat the chicken coop to get eggs this winter?

Yes, this isn’t gardening but hey, lots of gardeners have chickens and after all I wrote a book on chicken keeping so here’s some information you might be interested in.

If you have production type hens, those bred for egg laying, such as Isa Browns, Shaver Blacks, Leghorns, Cherry Eggers and others, they do not need heat in the average winter in order to keep laying.   Some other breeds of hens, the dual purpose and fancy breeds have varying degrees of winter egg laying success but it rarely has to do with how cold it is.

What the hens do need is a dry place out of the wind that has enough room, minimum 2 square feet per bird, to move around inside.  Hens don’t like being outside in winter weather and outside runs and pens won’t be used a lot.   And that inside space has to be well lighted for 14 hours a day.  Light is much more crucial to winter egg laying success than heat.  

Using an inexpensive timer to turn the lights on at 5 am and off around 7 pm on a regular schedule is a wise investment.  A nightlight left on all night is fine but there should be a distinct difference in the lighting of the coop from day period to night.  If your schedule puts you in the chicken coop later than 7 pm or earlier than 5 am you can adjust the light to suit you as long as 14 hours of continuous bright light is used.

Don’t count on natural daylight to light the coop in northern winters, which are notoriously dark and gloomy, for even part of the day.  Use either incandescent bulbs, which do give off some heat, or the screw in fluorescents (CFL) and leave them on for 14 hours.

Another important factor in keeping hens laying through the winter is to make sure they have enough water.  Warm water brought to the coop twice or more times a day will work as will a heated water dish that keeps water from freezing. You can buy heated water dishes at feed stores.

Older hens are more inclined to slow down laying in winter regardless of the breed.  This is normal and not related to the cold.  When the weather gets below zero for a few days all hens may slow down egg laying but should resume when the weather warms up.

Corn and other carb rich grains do not make the chickens warmer as some people who don’t understand biology believe. Neither does added fat, such as various oils that are often recommended. If anything, it takes more energy – and hence produces more heat – to burn additional protein.  But changing the ration isn’t necessary. Keep them on their laying feed except for occasional treats of green leafy vegetables.  If you start feeding a lot of supplemental stuff you will get their diet off balance and that will affect laying.  You may need to feed a little more than you do in the summer as the hens need more food in the winter for maintaining body weight.

If you do decide to warm the coop don’t warm it above 40 degrees and watch for moisture and ammonia build up.  Those things harm the chickens more than the cold.  Good ventilation is a must, although the chickens should not be exposed to strong drafts at floor or roost level.  One heat lamp over a part of the roost area may be enough to keep the hens comfortable.

Be very, very careful in using heat lamps or other sources of heat in your chicken coop.  Many disastrous fires are started by these items in barns and coops.  Use heaters rated for dusty areas, make sure heat lamps are firmly tethered so they can’t fall and that they aren’t where water can be splashed on them.  Keep heat sources away from combustible items like straw and wood shavings.   If you are using a propane, kerosene or gas heater you must have good ventilation, so carbon dioxide doesn’t build up and kill your birds.

Keep the floor of the coop dry and make sure the hens can perch up off the ground.  If you can, provide a box of sand for winter dust baths.  A pumpkin, head of cabbage or lettuce, or large squash will provide a treat and help with boredom.   Your hens should continue to provide you with eggs throughout the winter with good care and no added heat.  For more information on keeping chickens laying please see this book Raising Chickens for Dummies, which has all the latest chicken information.

Cranberry bread

Want a way to use up some left over cranberry sauce?  The USDA says cranberry sauce or jelly will keep in the refrigerator about 2 weeks after your Thanksgiving feast.  If you have some lurking in the frig now’s the time to use it up. This recipe works best with cranberry sauce- chunks of cranberry – rather than cranberry jelly.  It makes one loaf.


2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 egg, well beaten
3 tablespoons melted butter or oil
1 ½ cups cranberry sauce
½ cup chopped walnuts or pecans
1 tablespoon grated orange rind
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Mix together the flour, sugar, orange rind, salt, baking powder and soda.

Add the egg, butter, and cranberry sauce and stir just until all ingredients are moist and blended.

Fold in nuts.

Grease the bottom of a loaf pan and pour the batter in it.

Bake at 350 degrees about an hour.  The top should be golden and sides will be pulled away from the pan.  A toothpick inserted should come out clean.

Cool 10 minutes before cutting.

I hope the weather is beautiful for you today and you had time to enjoy it.

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….

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

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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

Thursday, November 23, 2017

November 21, 2017, Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

Hi Gardeners

Have a great Thanksgiving like this turkey
You may be wondering why I didn’t post my usual weekly blog on the 14th and why this blog is late.  It’s a combination of two things, me almost dying and my computer actually dying.  I suffered a pulmonary embolism and spent a few days in the hospital.  I am doing much better, but I came home to find that without me my computer had withered and died.  I am writing this on an old laptop, so it isn’t as long as usual and there may be fewer pictures than normal. 

I think of myself as a person who plans for emergencies so it was a bit disconcerting to find that when a trip to the ER turned into a hospital stay I wasn’t as prepared as I thought. I was out of chicken feed and my houseplants were due to be watered. My husband is in a wheelchair, there are things he can’t do, and I don’t like leaving him alone a long time.  With the help of our sons’ things managed to get accomplished but it taught me a lesson.  Always have an extra bag of chicken feed on hand and leave directions on houseplant care somewhere, (along with device passwords, directions for feeding the pets and chickens and leaving the husband with some cash money to send with people on errands).

Luckily the outside work has dwindled to almost nothing this time of year.  We have had a lot of cold weather and there is nothing left blooming in the garden. There’s hardly anything with leaves left in the garden.  However some of the roses and the snapdragons are still green.  I was able to get some nice fresh sage picked today for my turkey on Thanksgiving.  Fresh sage has a slightly different taste than dried sage, a slightly citrus note.  I’ll chop it and add it to the chicken broth I baste the turkey with.

Inside I still have many things in bloom, hibiscus, fuchsia, Christmas cacti, the bidens basket and several streptocarpus. Everything survived a few extra days without water. While waiting for a prescription I found a color of Christmas cactus I didn’t have so I treated myself to a new plant.  There’s barely room to squeeze anything else into this house but I managed.

Hopefully my regular computer will be repaired or replaced soon and my blogs will once again be posted on Tuesdays.  I hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday and finds much to give thanks for.  I know I am feeling very thankful. 

Growing herbs on the window sill

If you are a cook you know that the best tasting herbs are fresh ones, plucked right from the plant just before using.  But if you live in a spot where herbs aren’t available in the garden during the winter your source of fresh herbs is limited to what you can purchase in a store- and those herbs are never the same as fresh picked.  The good news is that some herbs can be grown indoors during the winter either on a sunny window sill or under grow light.

Not every herb is a candidate for indoor growing and the conditions in your home will also limit what you can grow.  If you have a cool (45-60ºF) but very sunny spot you will have success with more types of herbs.  All common herbs need good strong light so if you don’t have a south facing window (and it doesn’t have to be a kitchen window) you may need to supplement your light with a grow light.  A few herbs may grow well on a west facing window sill.

Some herbs are perennials and they can be grown in pots that are set outside in the summer and returned to the house in the fall each year.  Most perennial herbs do best in that cooler, sunnier environment mentioned above.  They will rest during the winter for a few months but can still furnish you with fresh herbs for cooking.  A sunny unheated porch or sunroom or an unused room where the heat is turned down are excellent places for most perennial herbs.

If you don’t have a sunny window sill you can use a grow light to keep your herbs healthy.  It will need to be about 18 inches above the top of your herbs.  Temperature is still important; some herbs need cool winter temperatures, others like warmer temperatures that are similar to the ones we are comfortable in.

Herb varieties for indoors

Chives are one of the easiest herbs to grow on a window sill.  They can do well on a south or west facing window sill.  Chives can be started from seed in late summer for indoor use or you can dig a clump from the garden in fall and pot it.  Chives are sometimes sold in pots in the produce section of stores too.  You can put chives outside in the summer in the pot or plant it in the ground as it is a perennial and it can survive winter outside in most areas of the country.  Chives grow best in cool conditions but will do all right in warmer rooms.

Don’t over water chives inside; let them dry a bit between watering.  In March you can fertilize the pot of chives lightly to promote flowering.  You can snip the chive leaves off for cooking at any time but try to remove less than a third of the plant at a time.  Chive’s purple flowers are also edible.

Mustard and watercress are herbs that are sometimes grown to sprinkle on salads and other dishes for a tangy zip of taste.  Mustard and watercress are grown from seeds. The seeds can be mixed together or sown separately.  You harvest these plants while they are young and tender so you need to make several sowings each winter.  Simply fill shallow trays with a good potting medium that has been well moistened, sprinkle on the seeds and press down lightly so they have contact with the soil.  Cover the tray with a plastic bag and place it in a warm spot until the plants sprout.  After the seeds sprout remove the bag and put the trays in a sunny window or under grow lights.

Mustard and watercress prefer cooler, sunny areas.  Keep them moist but not sitting in water.  Trim or pinch off leaves when the plants have several sets of them.  You can also pull the whole plant and trim off the roots before using.  Start a new batch of seeds about 2 weeks after the first one sprouted so you will have a continuous supply.  Discard the first batch as the new one gets ready to harvest.  These plants do not do well indoors when they get larger and can’t be transplanted outside with good results.

Rosemary is a delightful evergreen, perennial herb. In planting zones 6 and higher it is hardy outside in the garden through the winter.  In some mild dry winter climates you could harvest it from the garden all winter.  However, for those gardeners who live in zone 5 and lower and those who have snowy wet winters you will need to pot a plant and bring it inside for the winter.  Rosemary is often sold around Christmas in pots sheared to look like a small evergreen tree.

Rosemary needs a cool, sunny place to do well indoors.  Let it dry out between watering.  You can place the pots outside in the summer and keep your plant for many years.  It will often bloom indoors in late spring or even in the fall just after you bring it in.  Repot the plant each spring before you put it in the garden, give a light dose of fertilizer and watch it get bigger each year.

Snip or pinch off young leave tips from your rosemary and never remove more than a few sprigs at a time.  Rosemary is used to flavor meat dishes, soups and stews and sprinkled on bread dough before baking.

Thyme is another perennial herb that can be grown in a pot in a cool, sunny area inside for winter harvests and placed back in the garden each spring.   Make sure to get a culinary type of thyme, there are dozens of ornamental varieties.  Let it dry between watering and keep it trimmed fairly short inside.  Harvest young leaves or whole tender shoots.  Thyme is used on meats and in soups and stews.

Bay and lemon verbena are tender perennials that form shrubs or small trees in warm climates.  In planting zones 8 and lower, they need to be potted and placed outside only after the danger of frost has passed.  These two make pretty houseplants and prefer warmer sunny rooms.  Leaves are plucked off and used as needed.

Basil is sometimes grown inside. However, it is somewhat finicky and prone to disease.  It is started from seed.   It likes warm, sunny conditions and should be kept evenly moist. 

Parsley also does better outside but may do fairly well in a cool, sunny place inside.  It is slow to germinate so start seeds in late summer in pots for indoor use.  Discard these plants in the spring.

Sage and oregano have been grown in the house but don’t always do well.   They need a cool but sunny spot and to dry out between watering.  Make sure to get culinary (cooking) types of sage or oregano.  Start with small seedling plants in the fall.  You can transplant these into the garden in the spring but start with new young plants every fall for indoor use as younger plants adjust better to indoor conditions.

Mints of various flavors will grow satisfactorily in the house.  As with sage and oregano start with young potted plants each fall.  They can be grown in hanging baskets.  Cool, sunny conditions are best and keep them pruned or pinched back to prevent them from getting straggly.  Let them dry between watering.  They can be transplanted to the garden in the spring.

If you have other herbs that you favor in cooking you can always try to grow them inside.  Even if they survive only part of the winter you will have extended your fresh herb availability.  Some medicinal herbs, such as catnip and chamomile can also be grown inside but results vary as many of these prefer a cold winter rest.

Japanese Maples

Japanese maples are popular with gardeners and will make an interesting addition to any partly or lightly shaded garden.  They dislike full sun situations, but some varieties can take the sun if kept moist. Japanese maples are grown for their lovely leaf colors, shape and interesting bark.   These versatile trees can be also be grown in containers, or as bonsai plants.
Japanese maple
Japanese maples, Acer palmatum, come from Japan, from the temperate mountainous regions of the country, where they have been cultivated for hundreds of years.  A few sub-species also come from China and Korea.

The Japanese took the genetically diverse Japanese maple and turned it into hundreds of different forms.   While some older cultivars have disappeared from the market new cultivars are always being introduced.   Japanese maples are excellent plants for collectors with deep pockets, as there are nearly 1000 varieties available.  The average gardener can find a number of good varieties at reasonable prices, but some are still a bit expensive.


There is much variation in Japanese maple species and varieties.  Most are small trees or shrubs in form.  There are weeping varieties, upright forms, dome shaped forms, multi-trunk and single trunk forms. The leaves are generally lobed, many have lobes that are deeply or completely divided except at the base.  The lobes can also be divided until the leaf takes on a lacy, fern like appearance.  Japanese Maples lose their leaves in the winter.

Color of the leaves is also extremely variable.  Gardeners seem to prefer red and purple shades, but there are golden, cream, and variegated leaves as well as all shades of green.  Some have leaves that take on a different color each season.  Trunk color also varies from brown, to red to golden or green.  

Japanese maples have typical maple seed pods although the size and color can vary here too.  It’s called a samara, two winged seeds joined at one end, like an upside-down v.

The names of cultivars are often confused in the nursery or garden store and if you are looking for a particular type of Japanese maple it’s always wise to see it when it is leafed out, so you know what you are getting.

Finding the right place

Japanese Maples come from moderate climate zones.  Most varieties will not do well in zone 4 or lower or in zone 8 and above.  They dislike extreme winter temperatures but need at least several weeks of temperature below 45 degrees to do well.  If they do not get a dormant season they will decline after a few years.  Always check the zone rating before buying and be careful with new varieties just coming on the market whose hardiness may not be known.

Most Japanese maples should be planted in light shade, or dappled shade.   They are under-story trees in their native habitat.  Some Japanese maple varieties tolerate more sun if they can be kept evenly moist.  They do well under deciduous trees that allow filtered light to reach the Japanese maple or on the north sides of buildings.

Japanese maples prefer deep, loose soil rich in organic matter.  They have relatively weak root systems and suffer in compacted soil or heavy clay.    They also need to be kept moist, so sandy soil is not the best location.  They do not grow well where the soil is always wet however.

Planting and care

Proper planting is one of the best ways to keep a Japanese maple thriving. Plant Japanese maples in the spring or in the fall about six weeks before the ground freezes.  Avoid planting in the heat of summer.  Always remove anything around the tree roots such as burlap, peat pots, cages, strings and wires before planting. Check the root system by gently washing away any soil covering the roots and look for circling roots.  Circling roots should be trimmed at the point where they begin to curve.  Loosen and spread out the roots if they form a tangled mass.

Find the top lateral (or sideways growing) root.  The tree should be planted so that this root is just a couple inches below the soil surface.  Trees that are left in burlap balls have often had this root buried deeply and if you leave soil and burlap on the root system you won’t plant the tree at a good depth.  Trees need a root flare, a widened area, at their above ground base to develop trunk strength and grow properly. 

Do not use fertilizer in the planting hole or amend the soil you back fill the hole with.  Always refill a hole with the soil taken out of it, no matter how terrible you think your soil is.  Research has shown this is the best way to achieve quick root establishment and get a tree off to a good start.  Don’t let salespeople talk you into a bag of peat or topsoil to add to the hole.  After planting, you can work some compost and a small amount of slow release fertilizer into the soil around the tree if you wish.

Japanese maples should be mulched with organic matter, bark chips work well, after planting.  Don’t mound the mulch up like a volcano and keep it from touching the tree trunk. The trunks should be protected with tree wrap or a wire screen.  A trunk that will receive the south or west sun on it in winter should be protected with white tree wrap or shaded in some other manner to prevent frost cracking.

Keep the tree well-watered as it establishes the root system. If planted in the fall you may want to consider burlap, a tree tube or another type of protective screen for the first winter to keep it from drying out in the winter wind.

Each spring, fertilize Japanese maples with a slow release fertilizer.  Japanese maples, like other maples, may suffer from iron or manganese deficiencies.  The symptoms are pale or yellowing leaves, sometimes with darker veins.  Don’t confuse this with color variations of some Japanese maple selections. Have the soil tested and apply remedial nutrients if needed.

Keep the tree mulched and the trunk protected from animal and weed wacker/mower damage.  Japanese maples often leaf out very early in the spring and these leaves are susceptible to frost damage.  If the tree is small you can cover it with a protective sheet when frost threatens.  Most frost nipped leaves will drop off but a healthy tree will replace the leaves.

Keep Japanese maples well-watered until the ground freezes.  The edges of the leaves may brown and curl in hot, dry weather even if the tree is well watered.  This is called leaf scorch. It’s more likely to happen with some varieties than others and with trees in more sun.  As the tree establishes itself this should become less frequent.  If it doesn’t you may need to move the tree.

Aphids can become a problem with young Japanese maples.  A strong rinsing of plain water or an application of insecticidal soap (not a dish soap concoction!) may help.  You may also need to apply an insecticide that’s lists control of aphids on its label.

Pruning Japanese Maples

Japanese maples vary by cultivar as to the rate of growth and the ultimate size the tree will obtain.  However, they do grow, so plan for a larger tree when planting them.  Most grow to about 20 feet high and wide at maturity. They are easily pruned to the shape you desire.  The Japanese way to prune is to thin out the canopy so the structure of the branches can be seen.  The way you want the tree to look will determine how you want to prune it.

Prune Japanese maples in late winter, just before the buds begin to swell.   Prune a little each year; never remove more than twenty percent of the tree.  In general, remove dead branches and branches that obstruct vision or protrude into paths and then work on shaping.  Prune branches that cross each other and rub and ones that grow inward.  Examine the tree carefully and take off what think will give you the height and shape you desire.

Cut the branches just above a bud or back to the branch collar against the trunk.  Use sharp, clean pruning shears or a saw.  If your Japanese maple must be cut during the growing season you may want to treat large cut surfaces with an antimicrobial pruning sealer, especially if it is a rare and expensive variety. Normally it isn’t recommended to seal pruning wounds, but in this case it may be helpful.

A healthy Japanese maple is an asset to most garden settings but don’t try to force a tree into an unsuitable environment.  Do your homework and carefully select a variety of Japanese maple that best suits your zone and growing conditions.  Once established the tree could live for hundreds of years and bring joy to many generations. 

Decorating with live plants for the holidays

Combine your love of gardening with holiday decorating by using live potted plants as part of the decorations.  You can use nice potted plants that you have around the house or use holiday decorating as an excuse to buy more exotic house plants.   Potted plants also make great office decorations and gifts. 

Many stores feature gift plants such as mums, poinsettias and Christmas cacti around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, but these aren’t the only plants that can be used as decorations.  With a little imagination a beautiful plant can become the center focus of holiday decorating and remain after the holidays to lift the spirits all through winter.

Almost any green plant can be made festive by adding a brightly colored pot, a bow or even tiny decorations.  For Thanksgiving you’ll want to decorate with harvest colors but after Thanksgiving the same plant can be re-decorated with Christmas colors, and the palette of colors used at Christmas has expanded in recent years from red and green to many other color combinations.

Common houseplants like Boston ivy, palms, ribbon plant, ferns, philodendron, spider plants, Norfolk Island pine and jade plants make excellent decorations in pretty pots with ribbons.   Pots of the herb rosemary make excellent holiday plants, fragrant when brushed.  Sometimes you can find them sheared into a Christmas tree shape. 

A less common plant called Frosty Fern is available only near the holidays.  This lovely plant looks like the tips of its fronds are frosted white.  Frosty Fern, Selaginiela Krausianna Variegatus is a club moss, a fern relative.  It tolerates the low light decorative plants are often subjected to and looks lovely in a red pot.  Rabbits Foot fern is also a good decorating choice.
Frosty fern

Other great choices for exotic potted plant decorations include blooming orchids, gardenias, tropical hibiscus, and potted citrus or pomegranate trees.  Miniature roses can often be found in stores.  These tiny roses can bloom all winter in a sunny window.

Check any store that sells houseplants for an endless variety that could become holiday decorations or gifts.  The nursery that sold you plants in the summer may sell houseplants and exotic tropicals in winter.

 For Thanksgiving some artificial pumpkins or even small real gourds could be added to the pot.  You can hollow out a small pumpkin and insert a plant in its pot.  A large wicker basket with several green plants inserted then surrounded by mixed nuts in the shell, or bittersweet sprays, or artificial leaves in bright colors would be pretty.

For Christmas add artificial birds, or put tiny elves in the pot. Spray a few twisted branches with fake snow and insert in the pot. Try setting the potted plant in a bowl that’s larger than the pot and filling the bowl with glass Christmas ornaments.  Insert a smaller pot into a clear glass vase or jar and totally surround the pot with tiny glass ornaments or even beads in your color scheme.   Plastic confetti, tinsel, or plastic ribbon shreds could also fill the clear container.  There is glittery plastic snow that you scatter on Christmas displays that could fill a container or even dust the top of a pot.

A clever party favor would be to glue a small wood square on the bottom of large glass Christmas balls to make them sit upright. Then remove the top of the ball which is usually a piece of metal held in place with tiny spring wires.  Fill the ball with water and insert starter plants such as a small spider plant, which will grow in water for a while.

Wrap pots in colored foil and tie with a bow.  Or use gift bags with the plant peeking out the top.  Plants will need to be watered so if the item you wrap the plant in could be damaged by water, put the pot in a plastic bag or waterproof container first.

Take good care of your green decoration and it will survive the holiday.  Try to place the decoration in good light or keep it only a few days in poor light situations.  Water the pots when they are dry.  Keep them out of cold drafts.  Keep brown leaves pulled off and browned tips of leaves trimmed off.

Don’t use lights or heavy ornaments on green plants.   Keep them away from candles and fireplaces or anything that gives off excessive heat.   Don’t use spray on flocking or “snow” on live plants.  When the holidays are over remove fancy coverings and place the plant where it gets the proper lighting for its type.

Forget the difficult to save poinsettias and use plants meant to survive in the house for holiday decorating.  You’ll love the results.

Weiner schnitzel

Americans tend to think of Weiner as having to do with hot dogs but Weiner in German means ‘from Vienna’ or Viennese and the dish is a lightly battered and fried veal cutlet. If you don’t eat veal you can make this recipe with a pork cutlet or regular beef.  In fact, Weiner schnitzel is much like chicken fried steak.  

Pounding the meat is important to the recipe, you want a flat thin piece of meat.  The pounding helps tenderize the meat too.  Lay a piece of waxed paper over the meat and pound it with a wooden mallet or rolling pin.  Try not to make holes in the meat.

If you are tired of turkey leftovers Weiner schnitzel will give up something different to break up the holiday week.  It’s a comfort food prepared at home for many but also served in the finest restaurants.  This recipe will make about 4 servings. 


2 eggs
½ cup flour
¼ teaspoon white pepper (black pepper is also fine)
¼ teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
4 veal cutlets, pounded to 1/4" thickness
Frying oil 

Put the eggs in a bowl and beat them until fluffy.

Mix the flour and spices together in another bowl.

Put the bread crumbs in another bowl.  You now have three bowls of coatings.

Using a fork or tongs dip a piece of meat into the flour.  Flip it to coat both sides.

Now dip the coated meat into the egg mixture, turning to coat both sides.

Next dip the coated meat into the bread crumbs, flip to coat the other side.

Repeat these steps with the other pieces of meat.

Heat about a ½ inch of cooking oil in a large frying pan to 350F.  You need enough oil to float the meat pieces, they shouldn’t sit on the pan bottom.

With a spatula carefully lower the meat pieces into the hot oil. Watch for grease spatters.  Leave room between the meat pieces, don’t crowd them in the pan.

Fry the meat about 3 minutes until it looks golden brown, then flip the pieces gently and fry 3 more minutes.

Place the cutlets on a plate with a layer of paper towels to absorb grease for a few minutes then serve warm.

Wiener schnitzel is usually served with gravy over it.  A good side dish is German potato salad or mashed potatoes.

Have a wonderful holiday everyone.

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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