Winter Gardening

Gardening, plants

Usually, early January is when I get the impulse to start growing things. How do you decide what to grow? For some it might be the exclusivity of growing something rare. For others, it might be the dream of self-reliance by growing most of what they eat. Or, it may simply be the challenge of getting things to germinate that do not germinate easily. For me, it is whatever has caught my attention this time, but usually there is influence from the realm of “grow it to eat it” or “grow it for the native ecosystem”.

And, occasionally I get distracted by shiny things like a cat after an orb of light reflecting from a piece of glass. For instance, I recently sowed the all too common Nasturtium because, well, they’re pretty. But subconsciously, I may have decided to sow them because they “grow before your eyes”. What else would be as fun to watch unfurl in green splendor in the middle of winter? The best part is that when the round peppery leaves start to stretch out of control, I get a snack. You might think that there are better things to munch on, but I have seen this plant used in “serious” restaurants as both garnish and salad ingredient.

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This year, the “grow it to eat it” influence seems to be at the forefront of my plant obsessed brain. After I completed the greenhouse in November, I got to work on planning a vegetable garden. Throughout the winter, I have been driving T-posts in and building raised beds (and a garden gate made from PVC pipe). But that wasn’t enough, so I grew sprouts in a mason jar and microgreens under LED lights. Both the sprouts and microgreens were a success, despite some aphids that showed up unannounced. Later, I found a ladybug in my daughter’s room and then I unleased it on the aphids, which seems to have declined in numbers drastically since then.

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Recently, I had a bout of the “grow it for the native ecosystem” syndrome. I raided the fridge for any remaining native plant seeds. I was determined to sow any 3-year old seed reserves because some species may no longer be viable after a few years. I grabbed Paw Paw (Asimina triloba), Gray Birch (Betula populifolia), Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Late Purple Aster (Symphyotrichum patens), and Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). I sowed these seeds in plastic trays inside the greenhouse under another mini-greenhouse to experiment with giving the plants a jump start on the season. When it warms up enough I will move the tray out into the main greenhouse.

What will I do with these plants? Care for them for a little while, plant some where I can, and hopefully give most away to friends and family. The recipients of these plants might be curious about them because these species aren’t typically sold in commercial nurseries, though species like Paw Paw are quickly gaining popularity. The plight of the honey bee and the monarch butterfly seems to have been heard loud and clear. Maybe most are ready to hear about what it means to garden with native plants.

Inheriting a Garden

Art, Gardening, plants

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As luck would have it, the former owner of our new home is a dirt digging, hose wielding, wheel-barrow commanding, gardener! A good fellow, for those reasons. As a result, the garden beds are already made, layers of mulch are already decaying, and a newly inherited compost bin awaits! But there is also a big disadvantage – you inherit plants you’re not crazy about (and disposing of them, if no one else wants them, is a drag). Imagine being surrounded by an army of Miscanthus ornamental grasses when you subscribe to ideas from books like “Bringing Nature Home” by Doug Tallamy.

I should point out that, without an 8-foot fence, the plant palate here is limited thanks to a cute, but extremely over-abundant, 3-foot tall, plant-eating-machine called…white-tailed deer. Surely, you too have nightmares about this creature, as you recall getting out of bed, peering out the window, and shrieking wildly in despair at the sight of what remains of your precious flower garden. For this reason, I completely understand why the entire property is decorated with Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Butterfly Bush (Buddleja spp.), Japanese Spirea (Spiraea japoniza), and Miscanthus grasses. These plants are easy to find in commercial nurseries and they are the last resort for deer.

But, I’m not a purist either when it comes to natives. I’m a sucker for blooming Crocus, Daffodils, and Tulips when most other plants are still dormant. There are few things more comforting and inspiring than the sights of Star Magnolia (Magnolia stellate) and other ornamental magnolia blooming in early spring. Among all the inherited ornamentals, I found a new mysterious plant I knew nothing about. Its speckled and contorted branches turned and twisted in odd and interesting ways. I could not resist investigating further.

The more I looked, the more familiar the plant became. I noticed catkins, which were very similar to catkins found on the Betula (birch) genus. The leaves now started to look familiar too; much like that of American Hazelnut (Corylus Americana) but larger and rounder. Finally, I was convinced that it was some sort of Hazelnut hybrid. Turns out; it is a Hazelnut cultivar commonly referred to as Contorted Filbert, Corkscrew Hazel, or Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick.

The plant’s Latin name is Corylus avellana and it is originally from Europe and western Asia, but according to online sources, the contorted variety was derived from a shrub found in the UK and named after a famous entertainer from Scotland. I do not mind this shrub at all and I am enjoying the winter interest it offers with its weird twisting branches. Soon we will find out if this shrub will produce Hazelnuts, but I will be surprised if it does. I am realizing that sometimes to gain a certain aesthetic appeal, a cultivar is a necessity that I can learn to embrace if most of the plants in my yard bring value to wildlife (especially native insects) in the form of food and reproduction.

The Thing About Planting Trees

Outdoor Adventure, plants

Climbing Trees

I often get excited about the idea of planting trees near my home. Trees that will grow to become old, gnarled giants – beautiful sentient beings that amaze us. Then, a selfish reminder sets in. I will not be around to witness the transformation; my lignin endowed friends and I live on different timescales.

But wait. I can still plant things and watch them grow to large proportions in my lifetime! Trees, such as water loving willow species grow rapidly and reach mature size in just 15 years. Shrubs likes Red Osier Dogwood can grow to their maximum size in just a few years. Better yet – tall native perennials like Joe-Pye weed can grow a foot taller than me by its 2nd year of growth.

Still, how many of us have watched a little green Shagbark Hickory sapling spring 120 feet upward and put on fierce slabs of gnarled bark, pointing every which way? How many of us have planted American Sycamore and hung around long enough to see its smooth gray bark become a rugged mass, adorned with white, brown, and gray-green flakes? In the winter, the Sycamore takes on a ghostly form, as monster’s white tentacles reach out over icy water.

Finally, I come full circle and realize that my initial excitement is valid. Shortsighted are gardeners who plants trees for themselves only. Who am I to prevent air and water purification, food and shelter for living organisms, and many other gifts offered by trees? Plant trees I will – and if the exotic bug doesn’t get them, maybe my grandchildren will have a magical place to swing and climb

Partridge Berry (Mitchella repens)

hiking, Outdoor Adventure, plants

Mitchella repens (Partridge berry). This is an often overlooked, wonderful evergreen ground cover for shade/part shade in the garden. It is fairly common in the deciduous forest understory. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any with the red berries still intact (which I hear are edible). This plant is somewhat slow growing and it eventually forms a dense carpet. When in bloom, the little white flowers are structured so that they prevent self-fertilization, thus promoting genetic diversity! And, it is the only plant in its genus in North America.

Native Plant Wedding Bouquet

Art, watercolor

This painting was created for my cousin as a wedding gift. Plants included in this bouquet are all native to northeastern North America. This piece is somewhat imaginative because plants, such as flowering dogwood bloom in early spring, in contrast with our native hibiscus, which bloom closer to August. Therefore, this particular arrangement of fresh flowers may not be possible in practice, but it is way cool as a work of art 🙂  

Plants included in this bouquet:

-Swamp Rose Mallow / Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos)
-Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
-Sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis)
-Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)