Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Thinking about insects & the ecosystem

A bit chilly today and the clouds moved in this afternoon; we are anticipating thunderstorms tomorrow. The gardens are changing daily with the varying warmth, sunshine and rain. The latest fragrant bloomers are the lilac bushes, they are looking & smelling wonderful! There are also blooms on the dwarf Fothergill bush. I am hoping the honeybee populations will start exiting their hives to catch these plants at their peak bloom.

The spring chores are really coming together and getting done this season. Our third rain barrel was completed Easter Sunday and partially filled with the intermittent sprinkles on Monday. All the roses are finally pruned and I managed to fill four trash barrels with the thorny trimmings. My community has a free yard waste pick up this Friday, so I've been busy mincing up my pile of rose prunings to get them out of the yard. The healthy looking pruned roses are also starting to fill out nicely with their new leaves.
Fothergilla major "Mt. Airy"

Indoors, I started a tray each of Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) seeds and Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). The Monarch Butterfly populations have been decreasing dramatically (90%) due to habitat destruction as well as herbicide elimination of milkweed plants in agricultural fields. Mayor Slay of Saint Louis has announced his program, "Milkweed for Monarchs," in conjunction with the St. Louis Zoo, Missouri Botanical Garden, Forest Park Forever and the Missouri Dept. of Conservation, to plant milkweed at 50 police & fire stations, as well as other public gardens and encourage 200 residential gardeners to plant milkweed also. I figure I can do my part one county over and try to get a patch of milkweed growing too. Monarchs lay their eggs specifically on the milkweed plant, so it is crucial that there are some in their migratory ecosystem.

I also started a few dozen pots with seeds of Lamb's ears (Stachys lanata), catnip (Nepeta cataria), and some Black Hungarian peppers (Capsicum annuum). As you can tell my seed order from the Seed Savers Exchange has arrived and I was hot to get some baby plants started. I'm thinking the lamb's ears will be a nice gray plant, (see post  to add to the garden. This winter killed the Dusty Miller and most of the Silver Brocade. I saved one small sprouting piece of the Silver Brocade in a peat pot hoping to transplant it to a better location in the garden.

I recently attended a meeting of the Three Rivers Beekeepers in hopes of getting more information on bee favored garden plants. Bees in my area love the mint family plants, as well as lavenders and oregano. I also learned that given their short tongue many of the butterfly or hummingbird plants hold nectar too deep for the bees to reach. Bees are also more attracted to large clump plantings of the same nectar plant rather than individual or scattered plantings. Interesting to find out bees are more like Costco shoppers when in comes to sourcing nectar. I will be changing up the spring planting/garden plan to incorporate these new ideas.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday & Forget-me-nots

Our Easter weather was perfect, sunny and warm, with the high temperature peaking at 81F/27C. The family enjoyed a homemade waffle breakfast together and then I sat on the porch with my morning cuppa contemplating the day and listening to birdsong. Today is the final day of a weeks worth of vacation and I think I will take it easy. I have certainly crossed many chores off the to-do list, as well as enjoyed several fun outings. It will be disheartening to jump right back into my night shift schedule, but hey, it's a paycheck and there is more vacation time to come...

I mentioned my Brunnera plants the last few posts and wow! are they doing well. The little "forget-me-not" blue flowers are a cheerful spot of color in the early Spring garden. I have two types of Brunnera, each have the same blue flower but the heart shaped leaves on one are green and the "Jack Frost" variety has silver variegated leaves. Brunnera are perennial, need partial shade and well-rotted humus-y soil. They tend to grow into a one foot clump about eight inches tall with the flowers forming on spikier stems. I give them a dose of fish emulsion after they stop blooming as they are heavy feeders with significant long lasting foliage.

The "Jack Frost" brunnera resides in my shady woodland garden with hostas, solomon seals, astilbe, bishops cap, trilliam and wild ginger. It gets a bit of sun around the corner of the house and is heavily mulched with leaves and wood chips over winter. This plant has survived three seasons in this location with minimal care. I purchased this Brunnera in a gallon pot at my local greenhouse which tends to carry a terrific selection of some less common garden plants. Brunnera are a bit pricey at about ten dollars or so, but given its charming culture & durability, it is definitely worth the cost.

The Brunnera macrophylla blue is planted near a large rotting stump of a silver maple. It gets morning sun and afternoon shade. I purchased this plant about two years ago and since it is in a more exposed location I was concerned the winter polar- vortex-cold had killed it. Its leaves died back completely to the ground up until this mid-week. I had placed a large rock at the base of this plant and perhaps that gave the roots some protection because it looks marvelous. It seems to have popped out of the ground and bloomed!

We all enjoyed a quiet day in our neighborhood. With everyone grown up I didn't have to hide any eggs or fill baskets with chocolate. Although I did pass out some Schogetten (German) chocolate bars which are tasty individually pieced treats. The dogs, Emma & Wendy got an evening walk and are happily styling in their Spring "bluebirds of happiness" scarf-wear. Have a blessed Easter everyone!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tidying up

Simply an energizing day! The perfect temperature at 75F/23C, sunshine and a light breeze. Found myself drawn outside while sipping the morning teacup & wandering around the yard, finally, sitting with Wendy dog on the back porch steps just soaking in the sunshiny warmth.

I washed a couple of loads of laundry and today was the first clothesline day of the year. I enjoy having my clean clothes smell like sunshine after a few hours outside. I'm happily using the clothesline rather than the dryer, it definitely saves on the electric bill. Wendy dog has been lounging about the patio moving from sun to shade patio stones when she gets too hot. The shady clothesline area was the perfect doggie hangout for a while.

The leaf clutter was raked off the gardens in the front yard yesterday and although it is early in the season, I think a lot of perennials died over this cold winter. Four of the Buddleia bushes have no signs of life yet, but I will wait a week or so before I decide their fate. Happily, my Brunnera plants are up and blooming and the bleeding heart is getting ready to bloom out as well. I finished pruning back the last of the Knockout roses today. All the rose bushes had significant winter kill and needed canes cut back about one foot.

We also camouflaged the rain barrel #2 in the front yard with pre-wired bamboo screening from Home Depot. I don't mind looking at the blue plastic of the rain barrel but the neighbors might not find it as attractive as I do. The natural bamboo is an instant conceal rather than waiting for squash vines to grow, and it hitches together easily with my new favorite attachment device, zip ties. Tomorrow rain barrel #3 goes up at the edge of the front driveway complete with its own bamboo jacket. Rain is expected on Monday, it will fill the new barrel & hopefully inspire languishing perennial roots to send up shoots. Fingers crossed...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bay laurel

Happily, no snow accumulated Monday, we only had flurries. After sunset though, the temperatures became seriously chilly and we needed to turn on the heat in the house again. Today we topped out at 58F/14C with lots of sunshine and a stiff breeze. All the emerging plants in the garden did well and the asparagus bed is still putting up new spikes. The few asparagus spears I picked before the freeze warning were delicious.

As I previously posted, I am death to houseplants, so as I appraise the condition of the hardy plants moving up from their winter sanctuary in the basement; I thought it would be interesting to blog about my three-year-winter-survivor-champion, a bay laurel tree, also known as sweet bay or Laurus nobilis. This plant started as a one foot tree, gifted for Mother's Day a few years ago, so I could enjoy plucking my own bay leaves for homemade spaghetti sauces.

This herb is really a tender perennial shrub in the United States north of the Mason/Dixon line. Generally grown in a pot, it achieves a three to six foot maximum height and it must be sheltered indoors during the winter. In it's native Mediterranean range though, a bay laurel grows into a 50-60 ft tree. In our Missouri locale it thrives in a large clay pot, kept evenly moist and in a sunny spot. Emerging from my basement, all of last years leaves have completely dried in situ, but tender new branches and leaves are beginning to sprout.

Bay laurel appears throughout ancient Greek & Roman history as a crowning wreath of honor for kings, heroes on the battlefield, Olympic champions and scholarly men, for example, a poet laureate. Back in the time of Cicero (106-43 B.C.), wedding cakes were baked on a bed of bay leaves with one leaf hidden inside the cake. To find the lucky bay leaf in the cake is a predecessor to universally known phrase, "finding a needle in a haystack." (Miloradovich, M. The Home Garden Book of Herbs and Spices. Doubleday & Company: New York, 1952. p 64.)  Mythological references occur as well; the nymph, Daphne pursued by Apollo was saved from certain ravishing by her timely transformation into a bay laurel tree. I do love this kind of trivia...

Anyway, I am planning to re-pot this bay a bit later in the spring and will incorporate its potted self into a new herb garden. The current idea is a raised, layered, circular herb garden which will be accessible on all sides and accommodate different soil needs in the individual layers. It looks good on paper but the engineering might be challenging. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Wacky weather

Midwest weather continues to be all over the map... The second 55 gallon rain barrel went up last Sunday (April 6th) and with a couple days of typical April rain, is now completely full! Then we reveled in the 80F/26C temperatures this weekend; today, we have snow flurries with a freeze warning... I picked up a bale of straw at the local farm store to protect the baby spikes of asparagus from freezing. I snapped off all the edible sized spears then added a thick layer of straw, I will hope for the best by insulating the rootstock in this raised bed.

We hauled, all the sad looking potted plants placed outside for a shot of real sunshine, back into the house. A long winter in the basement under artificial lighting doesn't do more than keep them alive. Truly, only the hardy survive, since I am death on houseplants. Mostly I forget to water them, since they are out of sight, they are out of mind; my two year old rosemary was this year's casualty.

I was involved in a seamstress marathon this weekend, shortening the eight layers of tulle on my daughter's prom gown. Consequently, my plan to rake the gardens of their accumulated leaf clutter didn't happen. This turned out to be very fortuitous garden karma! My yard & gardens aren't currently as tidy as I'd like, but the plants are protected from tonight's freezing conditions. Oh, and daughter was absolutely gorgeous in her daffodil yellow gown; she looks like a breath of Spring!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sunshine & bikes

Today was lovely!!! A little chilly 57F/13C, with a breeze but in sunny sheltered areas it was very pleasant. The yard is really starting to bloom! I saw my first honeybees of the year in the front yard, crawling in and out of daffodils and star magnolia blooms.

Son Jim and I headed downtown to our local bike shop to pick up a couple of bikes we had left to get the tubes & tires replaced. One bike was a single speed "cruiser" style bike with fat whitewall tires (which are hard to find) and the other, a standard 10-speed. I really enjoy riding the "cruiser," but my youngest daughter usually claims this bike and I settle for another 10-speed using only three gears. Jim and Val each have a standard 10-speed bikes and we all have logged some mileage on our local bike route, the Katy Trail.

The Katy Trail is the longest rails-to-trails bike route in the U.S. Here's the link   and be sure to check out the terrific photos of this wonderful trail. Since my knee injury last Fall, I'm thinking I will be logging some fun trail miles as I work to strengthen my legs. There's nothing quite like a beautiful nature ride near the river. My son has ridden from St. Charles to Rocheport, about 180 miles, so he is the Trail King in the family.

Anyway, on the side street return home with those two bikes in the back of my son's 1986 Ford truck, a man flagged us down. This guy rehabs bikes to donate to the Boys & Girls Club Bike Giveaway and he had two serviceable bikes he didn't think any "kids of today," would want. He wondered if we would like to take them off his hands, since we already had bikes in the back? I've learned to take any gift offered, it's a good karma thing.... Guess what?! He gives us two "cruisers" in great condition, just flat tires. I am thrilled with our gift. I spent most of the afternoon cleaning & inflating tires on all the bikes, including our two new ones. In the photo, the gift bikes are the pink one with silver fenders and the turquoise bike with the cute handlebar basket. I did a few test laps around the block to check out the new bikes and they are a great ride! Meant to be...

Friday, April 4, 2014

First tornado warning of Spring

The rain started about 4AM Wednesday morning continuing through Thursday night and into the wee hours of Friday. We got a whooping 5inches/13cm of rain over that time frame as well as lots of house shaking  thunder & lightening. This storm system generated our first tornado warning of the year with a couple tornadoes touching down locally in the St. Louis area. Fortunately, there were no fatalities and limited property damage. The warning sirens did not go off in my town, but we did a practice home drill to reacquaint ourselves how to expediently go down to the basement with the pets. After 15 years here in Missouri it is no less scary anticipating a tornado than to see the sky turn green, hail fall and have to seek shelter fast.

My youngest likes to ease some of her fears by putting her current favorite things from her room into basement storage for tornado season. I support her in this and have decided the basement is probably the safest place for those all important post-disaster papers, you know, insurance policies & phone numbers, as well as other pertinent valuable information. See my previous post on disaster preparedness from last Spring:

Between storm fronts, I got to the the store and bought more batteries. At the start of the storm I had replaced all the weak flashlight batteries and completely used up the upstairs supply, and yes, we do have batteries in the basement for emergencies. Certainly here in the Midwest folks should consider making flashlight battery replacement a bi-annual habit, much like replacing the smoke alarm batteries at Daylight Saving Time changes. We have about 12 flashlights handy upstairs; everyone has one by their bed for emergencies and reading, one in the kitchen, at the backdoor, in each car and at the basement stairs. Really, these days they are cheap, have long lasting LED bulbs and nothing is more reassuring when the power goes out than a handy bit of light, besides cell phones make really crappy flashlights!

Well, the rain barrel is full and the bulbs are bloomin'. Hopefully, the sun will come out soon and the saucer magnolia buds will pop. I love the energy and excitement of Spring!