Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Change in the Weather

Monday was windy and I found this Baltimore Oriole nest on the ground under a Buckeye tree. I was pleased to find it because in the late Spring was sitting under the tree with my friend Bob and he asked: "What was that bird." Oblivious as I often am, I replied, "What bird?" I'd missed it, Bob explained that a bright orange bird had just flown into the branches right above us. We both looked up into the tree, and didn't see anything. I told him I was pretty sure it must have been a Baltimore Oriole as I'd seen nests in this tree in other years.

Orioles like the edges of woodlands, they don't particularly like to nest around houses as some birds do. Because of that latter bit, I've always been a bit surprised to see that particular tree used. It's close to the barn and the bright yard light. In spite of their proximity, I don't often see the Orioles, especially the male. People who feed birds often attract them with an orange nailed to a tree. While the fee primarily on insects they enjoy nectar and fruit too. Along with oranges, grape jelly is a favorite. One of these days maybe I'll learn to look for birds better. It certainly looks like an engaging hobby. Knowing the bird songs surely is an advantage, especially for shy birds like Baltimore Orioles.

The nest is fascinating, woven with some precision to make a secure basket which can swing in the wind. I notice in the bottom there is a lining of white fur. It looks like it's fur from my white cat Alex, but it probably is bunny fur, stolen from nests rabbits make for their own young. For such a bird of such industriousness, it's remarkable my sightings are so rare.

Tonight they are predicting a mild frost. The roadside asters are quite lovely this year. Their flowers will persist all but a very hard frost, but many of my remaining annual flowers will call it a season after the first frost. I have two flowers growing in the garden that are just setting flowers ready to bloom. One is some cultivar of Chrysanthemum that I don't know the name. I took a rooted cutting of it from my father's childhood home in New Hampshire in 2002 while visiting to lay my mother's ashes in the ground. My Aunt Ruth said they'd been growing by the house for a very long time and bloomed very late. They do indeed bloom late, with very dark red petals. I love all the hardy mums available in the late summer and early fall at the stores, I'm particularly partial to yellow pompons, but I've never been successful in over-wintering them. The rooted cutting I haphazardly stuck in the ground has increased mightily and provides new plant material to stick into bare places around the garden in the Spring. It seems to tolerate neglect and competition. Not a great plant, especially in comparisons with its coddled cousins sold at the stores, but the late blooms are always appreciated.

Hardy Mums are always listed as hardy in Zone 5 and often Zone 4. Maybe it's the hard clay soil that does them in here, or the fact that I don't mulch them. Better gardeners than me don't seem to be able to get fall planted mums to over winter here. The secret is to select the right cultivar and grow them out in the spring for autumn flowering. This page at the University of Minnesota's Web site has a list of hardy cultivars. Finding them in the spring isn't easy, I've rarely seen them in stores. They can be ordered by catalog, but I've not bothered to do so. I did try growing them from seed one year. The plants never grew to much size and didn't over-winter. It's worth trying again; neglecting plants takes it toll and it's remarkable what a difference a little loving kindness at approximately the right time will do.

Mentioning seed of course opens up the question of the species name. Chrysanthemums are one of the oldest plants in cultivation and there are over a hundred species. The number of cultivars of hardy mums are too many to mention, in a wide range of flower colors and habit. Perennial expert Allan Armitage says the fall-blooming mums are complex hybrids with C. indicum and C. morifolium parents to thousands of cultivars available today. So Thompson and Morgan offers F1 Hybrid 'Charm Early Fashion' under Chrysanthemum indicum. These are the so-called Cushion Mums which grow less than 20 inches tall and are a round "cushion" of bloom. T&M also offers a F1 Hybrid x koreanum 'Fanfare Improved'. These are probably derrived from hybrids developed by American breeder Alexander Cummings in the late 1930's involving crosses with C. coreanum (koreanum). These are the Decoratives, taller than Cushions and not quite so globular in form.

Among plant taxonomists are lumpers and splitters. It's worth knowing that a genus called Leucanthemum of about 70 flowering plants was split from the genus Chrysanthemum. Several of these, especially the popular Shasta Daisy and shungiku or garland chrysanthemum are still often called and listed Chrysanthemum. One of the pleasures for me in my trusty Herbaceous Perennial Plants: A Treatise on their Identification, Culture and Garden Attributes is that Armitage isn't pompous about plant names. He tends towards being a lumper not a splitter too, mostly I suspect because plant catalogs also stick to older classifications for the most part. I have the older edition of the book, but I notice that one review of the new edition takes a star off for misspellings. Anyhow, if you're looking for hardy mums from seed they aren't Lucanthemum or various annual Chrysanthemums. The most dependable way to get hardy mums which will over winter in your garden, at least around Western Pennsylvania, is to plant a rooted cutting from someone who actually has a hardy cultivar growing in their garden in the Spring.

There is one Chrysanthemum species very worthwhile planted from seed, and actually it makes three plants starting to bloom now. That's Chrysanthemum parthenium or Feverfew. The Wikipedia article lists it as Tanacetum parthenium, which is almost certainly correct. It's almost always listed in seed catalogs as Chrysanthemum parthenium and apparently another synonym is Pyrethrum parthenium. All the different names just go to show that even the experts have a hard time soritng all the daisies out. I enjoy Feverfew most in the late Spring, but the plant really blooms through the summer. In fact blooming itself out. Some plants bloom from new growth in the fall. There are two forms a tight double flowered form and the single form. I grow the single form in the main and it seems more likely than the double to put out fall bloom. They are quite useful picked flowers for late bouquets and a venerable herb. They are somewhat short-lived perennials, but self seed nicely around the garden. Many gardeners encourage this by saving the fine seed and broadcasting the seed throughout their beds in the very early spring.

The other flower which is about to bloom is a late blooming perennial sunflower Helianthus maximiliani commonly called Maximilian Sunflower. It's a native American prairie plant. According to the USGS:
This sunflower was discovered by the wealthy German nobleman-scientist Prinz Maximilian von Wied-Neuwied who, accompanied by the talented Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, in 1832-1834 collected invaluable biological and anthropological material along the Upper Missouri River.
It grows so tall and blooms so late that for many years I wasn't sure of its use in the garden. I gave a few young plants to mys sister who lives in South Carolina. Apparently those plants have formed a nice colony, and they begin blooming about a month in advance of mine. She always mentions them to me, and that appreciation made me appreciate the Maxmillian Sunflower more. Now I want to spread it about more generously in the garden. The foliage is nice in the back of a border, and the bloom is prolific.

Another nice thing about the Maxmillian Sunflower is it's a late source of food for birds. I don't feed the birds in feeders, but I do plant for them and never mind the untidiness of brown stalks in the winter. There is a disheveled charm to the autumn garden. I wish the cold would stay at bay. Ah well, the seasons change and autumn begets winter.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Wherin the Incompetent Gardener Discovers Tussy Mussies

Part of the idea of this blog was a place to put some earlier garden writing of mine. I thought it would be easy having a stock of older writing to publish along with new posts. What I've found is the earlier writing isn't very good, or at least needs editing. I'm so lazy. So I've just copied this post as is. Small bouquets are one of my joys this time of year. In the picture the flowers look bigger than they actually are. The idea is a bouquet a child might pick, with short stems, something to hold in a little hand.

The Incompetent Gardener Discovers Tussy Mussies

August 29, 2005

For some time I have thought it would be nice if people wore flowers more often; taking my advice only so far as to wear an occasional rosebud in my jacket lapel. Occasionally, because it's not so often in the summer I have occasion to wear a sports jacket. However today walking in the garden I paid attention to the wealth of floral material that would be nice to wear if only I could find a good way of wearing them. The solution I came up with is simple and effective.

On my dressing table I found a metal button from an old uniform. The embossing on the button is SFD and I haven't a clue what that stands for, but am happy to have a reason for making a story. Using a 24 inch length of Dacron fishing line folded in half, I threaded the two open ends through the tang of the button, securing the button by passing these ends through the loop made by the threads at the other end of the button tang. What I ended up with was a metal button in the middle and a right and left thread, a perfect arrangement to make the button in the middle spin to a cool effect. On each of these open ends I tied red beads.

Then into the garden I went. One of the first flowers that caught my eye were the blooms on my hens and chicks growing in the wall. The flowers on the succulent don't quite seem the ones I'd expect: small daisies that bloom along a flower stem. Most of the flowers have passed leaving the blossoms brown and gone to seed. I noticed one stem which still had a few open lowers at the top and pulled it out from the roots. Then I sought out a nice brown catnip bud. And snagged a sprig of Sweat Autumn Clematis. I love the strong smell of Calamint and snagged a little sprig of it. And taken with the beauty of the tiny pink flowers looked for some Catmint with their pretty blue but tiny flowers. The bouquet taking shape in my hand was pretty and smelled wonderful.

Soon I was looking all around my garden for suitable material for these diminutive bouquets. The number of choices astounded me. I liked the dark purple Viburnum fruit with the cream pearl Snowball bush fruit which looked splendid with the dark black seed cases of Baptisa. The dark browns of a spent Monarda blossom have a fur-like quality and the dark colors throughout the bouquet make for a dignified display to wear.

Once I had collected my bunch, I wrapped the two beaded ends of my button and string around the floral material, securing them by passing through the loop in the threads at the button and then drawing the bouquet tight. I'm wearing a polo shirt with four buttons. I threaded the beaded end of my string though the second button hole and pulled so the metal button met the button hole. Then I buttoned the shirt button and the one above it. Then I simply looped the strings over the third button making the beads dangle in bouquet. The whole arrangement was secure and yet simple to take off. What's important to visualize is that the bouquet is facing down relative to the way that it would be displayed in a vase. And as I sit at my desk as I write the bouquet is resting that way in my pencil cup.

There's a long tradition of making floral bouquets to wear. It seems the herbs that I choose made the bouquets resemble most the tussy mussies worn by Victorian women tied by a ribbon to the top of their gloved hand which they raised to their nose to mask the putrid urban odors that would offend their sensibilities. Wearing tussy mussies seems something that gentlemen and ladies of today would enjoy. Indeed that's preferred because it opens lines of communicating with the language of flowers. That there exist plenty of information regarding meanings attached to particular plants and flowers seems to allow for creating stories about any of the material you choose; that is of course if you are there to tell. Picking flowers is fun in itself, but there's particular pleasure in giving them. How nice to exchange. I look forward to making tussy mussies for myself and others. Wearing them could become a fad and then a custom, because I think we'd all agree that it would be nice to see people wearing flowers more often.

Saving Seeds

I'm utterly incompetent in blogging here. Really a blog is a good form of garden diary, but I'm afraid either on paper or in bytes a diary is of little use unless it's used.

Right now my garden is over grown with annual weeds. But I do like to clean it up a little this time of year, particularly at the edges. The weeds don't come back very strongly so some semblance of order can be achieved. Most of all the garden is so lovely in September. Now there's a riot of Black-Eyed Susan's and hardly any flower is so nice in a mass of bloom.

I hardly clean up very throughly, indeed mostly I let things go until the Spring. That provides cover for insects and animals. Ack! Speaking of varmints, I noticed a ground hog has dug a burrow in my vegetable garden. I'm none too happy about that. I don't have the heart to actually do much about the ground hogs, you know like killing them. But I probably will try something to see if I can encourage this one to go dig a burrow elsewhere. I've heard a bit of barbed wire wrapped around a stick placed in the hole will get them to leave. Speaking of ground hogs, they love plastic, to carpet their living quarters. I went into the barn yesterday and noticed a roll of plastic pulled the whole length of the room with one end frayed. A woodchuck must have tried to steal it for his den.

Anyhow with my half-hearted efforts to tidy up my garden beds, I've been collecting some seed for next year. Not surprisingly I concentrate on seeds which are easy to collect and also easy to direct sow.

Perhaps the easiest flower seed of all to collect is the orange Cosmos Cosmos sulphureus (that picture is a bit misleading as the common types are 18-36 inches tall). The seeds are in a sort of star shape and easily gathered in the hand. Because they are so easy to collect, the seed packets are cheap to buy. There's a nice mix containing a range of yellows and a few reds called 'Bright Lights'. I've also grown selections that are all red. Both are lovely, but I've been growing from collected seed for so many years that all my blossoms are generic orange. They are so worthwhile growing because they come into bloom quickly from sowing, as far as I can tell the ground needs little preparation, and they bloom all summer long. They are great in combination with daisy's and Zinnia, a wonderful "filler" plant.

The picture is of Calendula officinalis or pot marigold. That particular flower is yellow, but most of the ones growing around here are orange. There are some terrific selections with quite beautiful flowers, which will come true to seed. But again, in my lazy way I've collected seeds for many years (because these are as easy to collect as orange cosmos seeds) and the ones I grow are a pretty ordinary sort. Calendula like rather cooler weather, so it's good to get them in early for nice stout plants. Like Cosmos they bloom over a long period, even into the fall.

I love Larkspur. Larkspur is closely related to Delphinium; there are an awful lot of species, and the catalogs seem to fudge on the names. Given the close relation to Delphinium, the seeds are probably poisonous, so don't eat them! The sort that I grow are Blue Cloud from a packet I bought from Cook's Garden at least a dozen years ago. Cook's doesn't name the species. Select names it Consolida regalis, which is probably correct, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it listed as Consolida ajacis, or as Consolida ambigua, or even Delphinium. Names can be so tricky at times, so the thing to look for is 'Blue Cloud'. Really any flower from a packet marked "Larkspur" is bound to be pretty, but 'Blue Cloud' is especially worth growing. Mostly these self-seed in place, but I collect seed to spread around. The seed definately likes to germinate on cold ground, so the old adage is to sow "when the Red-winged Blackbird returns" early March around these parts. The small round seeds fall out of a tube like container, so is easy to collect.

Nasturtium seed is also easy to collect. Right now these seeds are still a bit green, so I let them sit out on a sheet of paper for a few weeks until they are dry enough to pack up. I love Nasturtiums, they are pretty and the flowers are so tasty. Every year I wonder why I don't plant more of them, especially along with the vegetables in the garden. I collect the seeds to plant out next year. Another thing to be done with Nasturtium seed is to make Poor Man's Capers, that is to pickle them.

It's not hard to collect seeds. Some seeds involve a process of winnowing, meaning to blow away the chaff, but even that's not so hard. Of course I concentrate on the easy ones because I'm so lazy. But even I'll take a little more effort for flowers I want more of or are unusual. I've been eying some lovely orange milk weed along the road near my house. I grow it here, but I think that roadside plant may be particularly well adapted to this place. Later when autumn is just beginning, and if I think of it, I'll collect some seeds from that plant. It's quite worth giving seed collecting a try. packets of seeds are much more expensive than they used to be and it's nice to have an abundant supply of seeds in the Spring.

For most seeds I pack them in handmade envelopes. I cut sheets of paper with printing on one side into quarters for notepaper anyway. That quarter sheet size works nicely for many seeds. I simply fold the bottom corner up about midway, then fold the right flap over and then the left. I've then got a tube or envelope to be filled with a small quantity of seed. Then I fold the open end down and tuck the point in a slot where the flaps were folded over making a little squarish pack. It's easy to label, which of course you'll want to do as it will save much time in the spring when you're planning and planting. As summer matures, it's a pleasure to notice the seed bearing parts of plants and to collect a few seeds along the way.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Something I've been meaning to post at that blog was that we had three nights of hard frosts around May 20th.

The picture posted is from a few years back, but gives a flavor of the late spring garden; and you might notice the Iris. When we first moved to the property my mother dug up a couple of over-grown clumps of Iris that were in the tangle of growth here. I live in an old farmhouse that had been occupied by three brothers and a sister, none of whom ever married. The last of the brothers lived long enough for the once tidy farm to become ramshackled and then the property was owned for ten or more years by absentee owners. All that was enough time for old flower gardens to become buried in native cover. The Iris my mother uncovered increased, at times it seemed the better part of valor would have been just to throw some of the rhizomes away, but there was always a bare spot to plant them.

Last winter was a hard one with an especially cold January. Warmer Spring days were slow to begin; one begun it's been an especially beautiful Spring because there was a rain deficit. May Day was splendid and May proceeded with bright warm days. In fact the freezes occurred because of radiant cooling on three of the clearest days imaginable.

Alas, the freezes happened just as the Iris buds were to unfurl. The limp stems were the first things I noticed. After the last night of frost I walked around taking inventory of the toll. The cherries on my little tree were made brown raisins, the tips of the fiddlehead ferns which had danced so elegantly in the woods were brown, my little seed bed of marigolds I'd been watering so carefully were black and dead. There are several mulberry trees I've never known not to bear fruit, stripped of their leaves, and the black walnut trees too. Many of the lily tops were touched and the Hosta leaves burned. As I walked along I could see there was a lot more damage than I thought there would be.

Late frosts are not that uncommon in Western Pennsylvania. The tradition is not to set out annuals until the Memorial Day weekend for that reason. Not everyone in the area even had frosts, we've got just enough altitude to make the difference. And the frosts had more of an impact because of the warm weather we'd had in late April and May. When the warm weather comes in the Spring it seems the cold is left behind. I suppose I wanted to post about the frosts as a reminder that late frosts are possible. That seems hardly worth writing about. In thinking about more significant lessons from the freeze, I thought of resilience.

There's lots of talk about getting "the economy moving again." People make the connection between a booming economy and energy resources. But we are so accustomed to cheap energy, that the prospects of energy shortages aren't often allowed to intrude upon our thinking. When it comes to climate change, again there's a strange disconnect; as if we're terrified of allowing any thoughts about energy use. This sort of denial doesn't seem very healthy to me. But practically I fall into the same trap. Take my garden: mowing occupies a lot of my time in the Spring making it an especially busy time. Mowing takes gasoline.

I have thought to make my garden less dependent on mowing. Permaculture is truly an idea for the ages. But figuring out the transition from here to there is the hard work, and the puzzle I haven't yet solved.

A couple of weeks have past since the frosts. The mulberry and walnut trees have new leaves and the succession of blooms continues. Rosa multiflora roses were once encouraged for wildlife around here, but the plant proved too willing and is now considered an exotic pest. The vicious thorns don't endear the plant to me, but right now everywhere along the way I smell the rose fragrance and see the tumble of white blossoms, almost redeeming them. Really the loveliness around is too much to catalog. So no cherries for me this year, but all is not lost. Natural ecosystems have resilience. Even my attempts at creating a garden from trial and error, have made a garden with the capacity to withstand shocks like late season frosts, or particularly hot and dry summers.

I wonder if our economic systems are similarly resilient? I fear they're not. Indeed, the deliberate denial of discussion of energy issues is troubling; it suggests we the only thing to do is to hope things keep keeping-on the way they've been. The work of Rob Hopkins and the Transition Town movement is a bright spot of realism. People in communities can come together to address the prospects of energy desent realistically and with optimism.

Recently The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience was published in the US. It's been available in the UK a little longer and is being translated into many languages. A free edit version is also available online at the wonderful Appropedia site.

Chapter three, Why rebuilding resilience is as important as cutting carbon emissions is worthwhile reading--it's short. Three features of resilient ecosystems are identified: *Diversity *Modularity *Tightness of Feedbacks.

Plodding away in my own incompetent gardening style, I really get diversity. I can't count the number of plants I've managed to kill, or the many crop failures. Perhaps not the most efficient way to learn, but it's taken that to find plantings that work and are useful. Three's plenty more diversity to explore!

Modularity refers to the way the components of the system are linked such that the parts of the system can self organize in the event of a shock. There are lots of ways this can play out in a garden. One simple example is in the flower beds is the presence of self-seeding annuals like Shirley poppies, feverfew, chamomile, larkspur, etc. that take up the slack if other flowers fail.

Tightness of feedback has many implications. One of them is that "permaculture" can't be just pulled out of a box and planted in the ground. It takes years to establish plantings, not to mention the time it takes for a gardener to learn.

The freezes this May made me think about resiliency, and encouraged me to redouble to my efforts to make my garden greener and less dependent on fossil fuels. I'm afraid I'm just muddling through. Still even small steps in a better direction make a difference.

How are you fostering resiliency where you live?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


At the end of the last post, "Bob's herb Garden" I asked what I was forgetting. Bob wondered about the three raspberry plants he took. Raspberry leaves are often used in herbal teas and for certain medicinal purposes, so qualify as herbs even if I wasn't thinking so.

The whole business of plant names really seems besides the point until you want to document them in one way or another. I've lost track of the names of lots varieties of plants,for example the names of some of my roses. These names are a little different from scientific names; they are names of varieties.

In seed catalogs often the term "hybrid" comes up. There are two somewhat different meanings of this usage. The first is a cross between two pure-bred lines. Explaining this stuff can get a bit complicated, so mine is a simplified explantion. One reason some flower and vegetable seed are hybrid crosses is because the off spring grown from the seed often displays "hybrid vigor." The most common sort of hybrid of this sort offered are F1 hybrids, standing for "Filial 1," meaning first offspring. If these are grown out and left to flower and seed, plants grown from that seed will not generally come true to type. This sort of seed is more expensive because of the labor of pollinating the crosses--often by hand. But the improved characteristics and vigor are often considered worth the cost. Another sort of "hybrid" offered results from a process of selection. Someone notices a particularly good plant of some sort. This plant is left to flower and seed and the resulting seed is planted with particular plants from that crop having the desirable characteristics selected and grown out and the seed collected. This process is continued long enough so that the plants grown from the seed grow "true to type" meaning that the plants all have the characteristics the original plant was selected for.

Raspberries are in the genus Rubus which is in the rose family (Rosaeceae). Blackberries are also in the genus Rubus but raspberries and blackberries are in different sub-species. There are several species of raspberries, but all together the raspberry species are less complicated genetically than the many species of blackberries. Taxonomists are the people who identify the plants and give them their names. Among taxonomists there are "lumpers" and "splitters;" that is taxonomists who tend to lump related plants in a genus together in a few species, and those who invent new species. The lumpers put common cultivated raspberries together as Rubus idaeus which is the species name for European and Asian raspberries. Splitters hold that the native raspberry of North America is a separate species Rubus strigosus. I lean more to the lumpers in the Rubus idaeus and Rubus strigosus taxonomy debate. But the particular cultivar Bob has was developed in Nova Scotia where the Rubus strigous name is preferred.

Alas, the scientific name isn't really what's important for raspberries, but rather the cultivar name. "Cultivar" has roughly the same meaning as the second sort of hybrid mentioned above: the plants which were selected over time for their characteristics. But in the case of raspberries most of the propagating wasn't done by sowing seeds but division of the actual plants.

The name of the culitvar of raspberry Bob got is "K81-6." What a lousy name! But the cultivar name is important for finding out about the characteristics of the plant. Here's a great page about different raspberry cultivars.

The essential information to know is "K81-6" fruits in late summer on second year old canes. The roots of the raspberry are perennial. From the roots straight canes grow up and these rarely flower. In the second year side growth will emerge from these canes and it's on this side growth where flowers and fruits will emerge. I pruned the canes that Bob took. The task for the plants this year will be to send up the first year canes. So the sad fact is no raspberry fruits on Bob's plants this year. But plenty of fruit next year.

There are some cultivars of raspberries called ever-bearing. These cultivars set fruit in both the early summer and in the fall. What this means is the plant sets fruit on first year canes as well as second year canes. Once raspberry canes fruit, those canes die, or display little vigor. So cutting out the old canes is one of the chores in growing raspberries.

Commercial growers of raspberries usually grow several cultivars to have a long season of production. Generally commercial growers cut the ever-bearing cultivars down to about six inches in the late fall. They do this so the late crop of these cultivars will have a bigger yield. Obviously if the "K81-6" canes were treated like that there would never be any raspberries! Home growers of ever-bearing raspberries often enjoy having both fruiting seasons, so they let their canes over winter. The only problem with this is that pruning is harder when the canes are in leaf. It is good practice to prune the canes which are finished fruiting to keep the perennial roots vigorous and the planting in bounds.

Many home growers have ever-bearing cultivars growing in their gardens. One thing for sure is gardeners are an opinionated lot. Bob will almost certainly get advice about growing raspberries. Much of this advice is sure to be good. But it's essential to understand that the advice to cut the raspberries down in the fall is NOT something he should do with his.

Photo credit: Juhanson from Wikimedia Commons. Photo name "Rubus idaeus." Wikipedia link.

Bob's Herb Garden

Weeds thrive in most of my garden beds and in most there is a steady march of encroaching grasses. I'm neither proud nor embarrassed about this, just the fact. One of the things about gardening among weeds is that many wonderful flower garden plants simply cannot survive the competition for long.

It's pretty common for people to become quite acquisitive when they first start gardening, but plants are expensive to purchase, so the ardor cools when expensive plants fail to take hold. Most of my garden beds have less than ideal soil and I'm no good at watering. I've killed a lot of plants in my day. So I like tough plants and many herbs fit that description.

Bob's a friend of mine. He bought a new house a few years back. The first summer he was there he did some nice plantings on his city lot. The platings were somewhat formal. I still think that the bigger part of Bob's aesthetic really is toward the formal, but over the last couple of seasons his planting style seems looser. I chalk this up to the sister of acquisitive, known to those beginning a garden, inquisitive. It's awfully interesting to plug a plant in the garden and see what happens.

A bit of advice proffered to beginning gardeners is to eschew "gift" plants from other gardeners. The rationale is that if a gardener has enough of some plant to give away, it's probably a rampant grower you'll regret introducing into the garden. The other side of that coin is when flowers bloom from plants given to you by friends, it seems like you're receiving a bouquet just from them. Really, I think it's quite possible to get very fine plants from the gardens of friends. The problem is in the timing. You've just got to be in the right place at the right time. Spring and autumn are the best times and especially in the spring there's just too much going on and the connections frequently aren't made.

I was very pleased that this past weekend Bob was around and expressed interest in some plants from the garden. In addition to all my weedy plants there are some gems in the garden, just not in great abundance. I had told Bob earlier to come out and get some plants, and without thinking about it too much, probably had the more refined plants in mind. Bob surprised me by asking about herb plants.

The good thing is that Bob has been in my garden in every season. He's got at least some idea about how big and weedy some of the plants are. While his back yard is not huge it's got some very nice hardscape. There is a well built stone wall bisecting the space and defining an area around a patio and grassy sitting area. I can imagine larger and vigorous plants in the area on the other side of the wall. Even still, I was a bit leery about some of the plants we dug for him to take home. My suspicion is that after a year or so many of them will be yanked out. Nevertheless it should be fun to watch them grow and there are so many wonderful herbs to grow these gift plants may be the beginning of a discovery of the wonderful world of herbs.

I'm not sure I remember all of the plants Bob got, but while it's fresh in my mind I thought I'd list them with their common names and scientific names. Scientific names seem to put people off. I know that one problem I have is proper pronunciation. The form for scientific names is the genus first then the species. Related genera are placed into families. The trouble with common names is many plants have multiple common names and many different plants are called the same common name. So the scientific names are useful. Knowing the generic name is useful, but not the whole ball game as species in the same genus can be quite unlike each other except in some formal way. The formal ways plants are alike is interesting and useful, so eventually the scientific names and families of plants become important to gardeners. Still what people really want to know are the common names of things.

We started out gathering plants by my little house. There's a colony of Hens and Chickens in the wall. I've got them growing in walls all over and all of them started with a very few I purchased long ago. Over the years I just pull a few of the "chickens" from the mother plant and stick them in a wall. I think Bob took a few. Hens and Chickens are also called Houseleeks the scientific name is Sempervivum. I'm not sure of the species I have, they're of the most common sort, so I suspect they are Sempervivum tectorum. Whatever they are I hope they grow for Bob. There are so many interesting species and cultivars that Sempervivum can be fun to collect and grow.

From there we walked down to the garden by the drainage easement. The ground in that portion is very hard clay. One plant that grows reliably even competing against the invasive grasses is Apple Mint, Mentha suaveolens. Actually I think I got a selection that's supposed to be Pineapple mint. Plants in the Mentha genus tend to cross with other mints easily, so the best characteristics don't come true to seed. The results are quite variable. Mints are easy to grow in this climate--too easy for many gardens. The upside of the variablity in the genus is people have selected plants with excellent characteristics, but you get those from cuttings or bits of rooted stem from those particular plants. My Pineapple mint isn't the best of the breed, but a nice plant nonetheless.

Crossing the bridge into the back garden area there's a boarder planting in very stony ground. I've got some Junipers and evergreens started and eventually I want to get more. For now I've got some very willing plants growing and Bob chose two that are almost invasive: Tansy and Mugwort. I gave Bob two little Mugwort plants. I suspect after a summer of growing those and seeing how big and fast they grow they'll will be the first to be yanked out of his garden. Mugwort is Artemesia vulgaris. The undersides of the leaves are whitish so the shrub is pretty in a way. Bob wanted Artemesia absinthium, which I have grown well in years past. It seems to require good drainage, and that's why I don't have it anymore. Mugwort isn't so easily discouraged. Tansy is Tanacetum vulgare. That plant is invasive. I warned Bob and gave him only a single plant. I know he likes the look and smell of it, but I predict that eventually it will be banished from his garden too.

We walked up to the little frog pond. Here we collected Meadowsweet and Lady's Mantel, both garden worthy plants. Meadowsweet is a name shared by several different plants, and it's a plant with numerous common names. What Bob got is Filipendula ulmaria. This is a very venerable herb, from which Felix Hoffman derived Asprin. The graceful, fragrant white flowers begin blooming about the same time as my Peonies so I sometimes include them in Peony bouquets. Lady's Mantel is Alchemilla molis. I like the name Alchemilla, it reminds me of alchemy. Herbs all have wonderful stories attached to them. Water beads on the leaves and alchemists apparently would collect this water for use in potions. The leaves are very beautiful, as are the flowers. The color of the flowers is often described as "acid green." I think the color is much like the color of a type of old fashioned glassware which is generally referred to as "Vaseline" so that's how I describe the color. In any case, flowers next to Alchemilla look brighter and better. I pointed out to Bob that some very fine-leaved Sedum growing in and along the wall all came from a little pinch I took from our mutual friend David's garden and he took a bit of that too.

I pointed out all the Cat Mint, Nepeta mussinii growing along the walls and under the rose bushes, but I don't think we actually collected any. I also pointed out Catnip, and managed not to give him a plant of that either. I did give him a small clump of a Nepeta species grown from a packet of seeds from Thompson and Morgan they call 'Blue Infinity' and list as Nepeta transcaucascia. T&M hasn't verified the name, and I've never seen Nepeta transcausascia listed anywhere else, but it's a nice easy plant about 40 inches tall.

Along the way to the area pictured to get some Valerian we stopped to dug up a clump of Marshmallow, Althea offcinalis. "Offcinalis" is a sign that the plant in question was used as a medicinal herb. The story goes that the root of the plant was used instead of corn starch to make the original marshmallow confection. The Wikipedia article debunks that, pointing out that marshmallows are a modern confection. But the root is sometimes used to flavor halva, an ancient confection. I like the looks of the plant; it's probably too tall and coarse for most backyard gardens. The same could be said of Valerian, Valeriana offcinalis, but I really love Valerian. Near where the Valerian grows I spied some Great Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica and gave Bob a couple of plants. Of course we dug some Valerian and enjoyed their smelly roots.

While crouching in that area I spied some Agrimony, but there was also another plant coming up which I was confused about. I grow most of the herbs I do because they are so willing, not for making potions. Obviously if one were to plan on ingesting any plant material, it pays to know what you're doing. Many plants are poisonous, and while many herbs probably don't do what people have long thought, many others do in fact have real medicinal effects; and importantly counter indications and side effects. I was confused about identification because I was more or less operating from a mental map of what I planted where, and wasn't remembering. It turns out the mystery plant was Meadowsweet. It's seems incredible not to recognize a plant I'd just dug minutes before. Plants look similar and there are many plants it could have been. I guess the moral of the story is to have multiple ways of identifying plants to make sure to harvest what you intend.

The Agrimony in that section of garden was started from seed labeled Agrimony eupatorium. In my confusion I walked closer to the woods to a spot where Agrimony grows. I'm not sure whether the plants closer to the woods are seeded in from my planting or from around here. Perhaps my most used horticultural reference book is Roger Tory Peterson's Wildflowers: Northeastern/North-central North America. Peterson notes:
There are 7 similar species in our area, accurately identified only by technical characters.
So even if I trust the seed I grew was correctly labeled--I do--I am not up to the task of identifying the Agrimony species growing outside my garden bed.

There were several other herbs growing in that section among them Lungwort, Pulmonaria officinalis. I love that plant for the early flowers and the mottled foliage. I'm not sure Bob was impressed, but I think he took a little clump of it. At the time I probably was going on and on about the variety of late spring blue flowers. Among my favorites are Common Blue Violets which litter the ground in that section of the garden. But it's still early spring and many of the plants are still small giving little hint of the displays soon to come. At this point, I think Bob was ready just to go, but there was one more plant I wanted him to have.

I like Mountain Mints very much and am surprised they are not grown more widely as I've not discovered any downside to them. The species I dug up is Pycanthemum pilosum. Elsewhere in the garden I grow Narrow-Leaved Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium which I think is splendid mixed in around ornamental grasses. Both are native plants, but I've never come across them in the wild.

Roger Tory Peterson was a brilliant artist and a master of visual representation of information. One of the very useful aspects of his book "Wildflowers" is a system of icons to indicate families of plants. So let me see if I can put these plants into their respective families. Hens and Chickens and Sedum are in the Crassulaceae family. The mints are in the large family Lamiaceae which was once called Labiatae. The older name refers to the apparent "lips" on the flowers. A square stem is a good hint the plant may be in the mint family. Mugwort and Tansy are in Compositae, which I call the daisy family, but thinking of Mugwort flowers that descriptor may confuse. Marshmallow is in the Malvaceae family. Valerian is in Valerianaceae, the Valerian family. Agrimony, Lady's Mantle and Meadowsweet are in the Rosaceae family. Lungwort is in Boraginaceae. I call that family the Borage family, but perhaps better is to call it the Forget-Me-Not family as Peterson does. Lobelia is in Campanulacea family which inconveniently is divided into two sub-families: Bluebell sub-family Campanuloideae and Lobelia sub-family Lobeliodeae. Am I forgetting any?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hand Tools

I haven't quite gotten the hang of blogging. For one thing links in posts make a big difference in comparison to other sorts of writing. Back in 2002 and then for a while I posted some writing online as The Incompetent Gardener. I always liked that writing, which I did in word processing software and then copied into the blank the site provided. I didn't know how to insert links, and am not certain the site even allowed me to. One of the thoughts for this blog was to repost those pieces and perhaps embedding links when appropriate. Blogging of course can be many things, but for me there is a certain timeliness associated with it. That's made my plan to post older writing harder than I thought.

Then there's the way I write. I always seem to lead with some off-topic story. I'm not sure why, except that I like stories. Recently over at my Bazungu Bucks blog I've gotten into a rut with a stream of posts, because I'm trying to work out some thoughts. Whether anyone finds them interesting is unlikely, yet in my own mind I'm sort of plodding along in that groove and probably will continue until I find a way out. But meantime I've been busy in the garden, leaving me tired and too lazy to write. Since there was a lull in my writing along my rut, I thought I'd post something about my gardening there. A friend suggested I repost it here. That's a good suggestion, but sort of brings up the problem I'm having reposting my older work here.

That post is called Dirt. I didn't think too much when writing, just wrote about what I've been doing lately. Instead of reposting it here I thought to write about that some more. Actually, since I've been using hand tools a lot lately, I thought about an old Incompetent Gardener essay on hand tools and insert links. Drat, that's not so easy, so I'll just write.

The screen capture is from the beginning of a really good video I watched recently from the BBC 2 program This Natural World. It's a film by wildlife filmmaker Rebecca Hosking called A Farm for the Future. Hosking has gone back to her family farm and wants to make a go of it. But she's also keenly aware that modern agriculture is "dripping in oil" which is a somewhat inconvenient truth so to speak. So the film explores the question of what's the alternative. It's a beautifully made film and fifty minutes worth spending to watch.

Hosking is a very attractive person and she interviews some really interesting folks in her film. Among them her "dear old" neighbor Pearl. I was delighted with this part of the film because along with recent video of Pearl where old photographs. Photographs of farming with horses, carts and hand tools. Pearl is so lovely and how pretty as a young woman. In the days on her farm they had two horses to pull a cart. Hosking then points out that some modern tractors have as much as 400 horsepower.

Wielding a tool in the old shed, Pearl asks Rebecca if she knows what it is. She then explains and Hoskings remarks how heavy the tool is. To which Pearl responds: "We'll we weren't mice you know."

I do use some power tools, but most of my gardening is done using hand tools. Much can be done with them. As with any tool, quality matters. In my old essay on hand tools I picked four tools as my most used: the Union Razorback nursery trowel, the Ames solid shank 27” garden spade, Bahco 9 inch by-pass pruners, and Wells Lamont steer hide driver gloves.

For some reason the A. M. Leonard site seemed a bit funky tonight. But I can attest that it's a great place to buy tools. I was using their Amazon Storefront for the links above and some of the items didn't show up in that data base, Leonards has them all. It's hard to find the top quality tools in local retail stores, but they really are worth the extra money and effort to by them. They work so much better and last so much longer.

Even still, I manage to break tools. The Ames spade really is my favorite, but I break the wooden handles. I used to be able to get replacement handles locally, I probably can still at the local non-chain hardware store; but currently I'm without that spade. I broke so many handles that I bought an all steel nursery spade from Leonards. The darn thing is heavy, but is the tool for trying to lift shrubs and dig in stony ground, and other uses I put a spade too. Still for most purposes the Ames spade is stronger than what you'll find in your local store and a joy to use. I also have an English forged spade--the handle also broken--and I prefer the Ames spade to it.

Recently the Emerald Ash Borer was discovered not far from my home. It's a native of Asia, but seems to have made a home here in the USA since 2002, killing Ash trees in many states. That's sad for many reasons. The tallest tree on our property is an Ash, Fraxinus pennsylvanica. So far I haven't noticed an infestation, but a rue the day when I do. But another problem is that wooden tool handles are generally made of Ash and there are restrictions on the transport of the timber now. I better hurry up and buy replacement handles for my spades while I can still get them. Leonards wants $22 for them now, last I bought them they were under $6.

It snowed today, actually it snowed a little yesterday too. Yesterday I continued my transplanting chores, but my hands got too cold. For transplanting I was using my space and my union trowel, and a Hori Hori knife--a really strong knife that has a serrated edge along one side which is great for sawing through tough ornamental grass roots among other things. Not wanting to get so cold today I set about clearing the bramble along our long driveway.

Not surprisingly the land in Pennsylvania wants to be sylvan, or forest. Bramble is a sort of nurse crop that allows trees to reclaim abandoned land. Oh yes and the stuff is thorny! Mostly the bramble is blackberry and raspberry canes. When I tell people I cut them they wonder why, aren't the berries delicious? I've noticed very few raspberries and even fewer blackberries on these canes. They grow up into an impenetrable mass especially after a few years. Impressive really, the old canes fall but remain stout enough to provide a sort of canopy for lower plants to grow under. As the old canes breakdown they make a nice duff and makes the soil alive. But I want to keep the driveway clear. I didn't cut the bramble last year, and maybe not the year before, so it was encroaching on the drive.

The blackberry and raspberry bramble is complicated by a wild rose from Asia called Rosa multiflora. My thinking about non-native plants is a post for another day, my views are more moderate than some on the subject. Nonetheless the state of Pennsylvania lists Rosa multiflora as a "noxious weed" and there's some truth to that. Clearing along the drive with power tools would require a tractor with a brush cutter with hydraulics so the cutter could be angled to cut the bank. I don't have a tractor set up like that, but it would make quick work of it. So I have to use hand tools, and the primary tool I use are the Bahco by-pass pruners. The Bahco pruners are strong and that's why I swear by them.

Just using my trusty steer hide gloves and my pruners in only a single afternoon was able to clear over halfway along the drive. Using a weed wacker with a brush blade is dangerous work, especially along a bank, but the main problem is the thorny canes coming back at you as you cut. The more deliberate action of cutting with hand tools is almost as fast and very much safer.

There is a tendency to imagine that power tools are necessary and desirable. The more I garden the less I turn to power tools as a first resort. I still use power tools, and find a chain saw very useful for cutting large woody limbs for example. But for small limbs I use a hand saw. Again a good quality hand saw makes a big difference. One reason that people don't reach for hand tools more often surely has to do with the poor quality of tools most available. There is so much that can be done with hand tools. Hand tools provide an easy pace for the work and their quite operation allows a person to take in the bird songs and other ambient noise around.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Magic Spots

It's lame to post old essays from long ago. One reason to do so is that I am tying to get me in the swing of posting about gardening. Another reason is that it's an easy way to get the formatting of the text in a more easily transferable format. Right now all I have are the posts recovered from a Topica list which doesn't appear to be visible to the public, but somehow is still on the servers there. Try as I might I can't get the line breaks right. Posting them here allows me to get the text into a form I can work with. In addition it allows me to put in hyperlinks which I didn't know how to do at the time.

It's January and it's cold in Western Pennsylvania. Around six I carried a bit of firewood to my house and noticed the fading sunset. The days are getting longer, but as my grandmother would say: "The days get longer but the cold grows stronger."

The photo is a tree that came crashing down last winter. A few days before Christmas a Blue Spruce was blown down in strong winds. I thought of the picture because of the magic spots I remember most, they've on grand fallen trees. I distinctly remember as a small boy exploring I discovered a tall Tulip Poplar that had fallen down a small hill, such that as I walked out on it I was high above the ground below. I rather shudder about the idea of being unsupervised at such a young age. On the other hand that tree was one of my great discoveries of my life. It was not just the tree, but the decision to explore in it that was so revealing to me. Surely had I been supervised, I would have been told to stay out of it.

I can think of a couple of other occasions being on a fallen tree which were transcendent. Perhaps you too have memories of finding magic spots in nature?


August 12, 2001

The Incompetent gardener was once an incompetent teacher, and I worked for a time at an environmental learning center. Groups of mostly third though fifth graders would come through for multi-day engagements. So they got to spend the night in a camp-like setting. One of the stock lessons that we did was called Magic Spots. The kids were led into the woods and told that they could have a minute or two to find a spot to sit alone to be still and quiet for a while.

Of all the activities, this was the one that caused the most controversy with parents. Some were convinced that the whole exercise was a “New Age” plot to proselytize young pagans. Most educators have little concern for proselytizing. Groups of education majors came to the center for practical experiences in teaching. In explaining the activity, never once did I hear a critique from a religious perspective. But the activity was generally met with skepticism following two types. First was about the objective. Education majors are primed to think in terms of measurable objectives. This is considered an “immersion” activity and the objective here is a skill: observation. This still didn’t satisfy many new teachers. They asked:
“What exactly are they observing? How will we know if they saw it?”
The second area of skepticism was about what is euphemistically known as “classroom management”.
“So the kids are going to sit quietly in the rain for twenty minutes - right?”
But I saw hundreds of kids trooped into the woods and they loved this activity more than all the others.

The treks into the woods were neatly choreographed so that the groups entered at various trailheads; it seemed to each group that they were the only ones in the woods—on a good day. The leaders would take the kids to a predestinated area, stop with them to read something short and inspiring then let them choose a spot nearby. Much of being a teacher is simply keeping track of kids, so the leader would have to find a spot where she could keep an eye out for the kids and then wait. Twenty minutes can seem like an interminable amount of time in a slushy drizzle. But, while the kids might be boisterous on their way into the woods, they were almost always silent on the walk out. In the cafeteria at lunch, the podium and mike was opened for some of the children to tell about their experiences. The kids clamored to tell their stories, and they gushed with enthusiasm. The magic of Magic Spots was still lost on many of the teachers, but it was obvious to everyone that the kids really gained from it.

As any teacher knows, children are first-rate observers; it’s just that their attentions are so varied. And trooping one’s charges through the woods it was often difficult to keep them from testing the projectile characteristics of different objects, from turning every stone, and from felling dead trees. Somehow these same kids could sit still and absorb the world around them better than I could with much practice. They saw skeletal leaves, birds, squirrels, and brightly colored fungi. They created poetry about the spot. Because I was located near them, I saw many of the same things that would so move them:
Goodness, there’s a pileated woodpecker. Here’s a hickory nut there must be a hickory near by. Ah! A fine patch of wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens.
But in naming the world around me, I was never enchanted so much by the sights and sounds, colors and moods, textures and smells, as they were.

There was plenty of mumbo-jumbo in the curriculum and the purpose was theatrical more than anything. So perhaps it is not so surprising that these Magic Spots were controversial. It is not uncommon to think of places as having a life and history. We speak of holy ground, sacred space, and of hauntings. Asking the children to find a “special” place and telling them that they’ll know it when it feels right certainly contributes to their enchantment. But it also overlaps with our adult constructs of place and morality. It was our ancestor, Cain the gardener--apparently an incompetent one at that because the Lord didn’t look favorably on his offering--who slew his shepherd brother Abel. The Lord confronted Cain asking:
What have you done? Listen to the sound of your brother’s blood, crying out to me from the ground.
And from that story on comes a sense that it’s probably not good news when the ground is doing the talking. Dowsers are still often employed to find spots for a well, but this harmless occupation is suspect for other than merely scientific reasons; it all seems a little too witchy.

Still after a school term of sitting quietly in the woods daily with children, I resolved that I should continue to practice Magic Spots. I haven’t really applied myself. I suppose I have thought about special spots around the property and considered making certain spots commemorative and memorable too. The closest thing to magical spot on our property is a stone outcropping. The kids have always located it when they come to visit, even though they have to plod through a bit of bramble to claim it. I can look out my window sometimes to see our cat surveying the hunting prospects while sitting on it, and I’ve used it for sunbathing. The sense of enchantment that can come from a Magic Spot, though, has generally happened without a thought of where I sat and certainly without deliberately fashioning the place.

The other evening I was sitting on the lawn and happened to observe the silhouette of a tall Ash, Fraxinus americana, on the edge of the property. It is probably the tallest tree on the property; the first limb of the straight-as-an-arrow trunk is over twenty feet above the ground. Rather too close to it is a mature Boxelder, Acer negundo. The wood of the Boxelder, or as it is sometimes and more informatively known, Ash-leaved Maple, is soft and not particularly useful. Its shallow root system prevents anything from growing beneath it and the tree regularly sheds dead branches. But it is a huge tree whose mammoth trunk bifurcates only about five feet from the ground, so I've envisioned building a tree fort in it some day. On that evening it was the Ash that caught my attention. Before I could fully register the thought, a fearsome face appeared through the blank spaces of the black leaves. Then as quickly as it appeared the face in the tree soften and seemed rather cartoonish.

I gazed in amusement and wonder at the tree for time before the outline silhouette became visible to me again. It was beautiful. On subsequent evenings I’ve gone out to look for the face. The next night all I could see was the cartoon face. But on the evening after that I waited for the moon to rise and at first saw the cartoon face. And I thought that it was the upturned mouth that made it appear friendly. Suddenly again the monster face appeared and it was the mouth that looked so frightening, like the square mouth of a lion with sharp incisor teeth. It didn’t really startle me, after all the face is just a play of light between the leaves of the tree and my imagination. Soon the more friendly face returned. The tree still surprises me because I’m never quite sure what face I’ll see.

I’m glad that I look at the tree at night and see its face. It is the subtle confusion between it and me that’s so enchanting and magic. It’s fun and informative to learn the names of the plants in the garden, to study their habits, their uses, and their attractiveness to man and beast. But one can become a little too possessive in these activities. The world around us has things to say that we never dreamed of until hearing them. The kids in their magic spots watched and listened and the distinction between outside and inside was not so clearly made. They were enchanted by it.


Magic Spots is an activity outlined with many others in: Van Matre, Steve, Sunship Earth: An Acclimatization Program for Outdoor Learning

One the best books on tree identification is also one of the least
expensive: Harlow, William M., Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada. New York, Dover 1957. Searching on Amazon and not finding it made me suspect the book was out of print. Of course Dover had republished it as the original was first published in the early 1940's.

Dover Publications is a treasure. The Wikipedia entry tells the story of Hayward and Blanche Cirkers and their Dover Publications. I'm delighted that the Courier Corporation is continues the brand. Nonetheless my first instinct thinking the book was out of print was to go to ABE (Advanced Book Exchange) and plug in William H. Harlow into the database. Sometimes I'm amazed by the high prices out-of-print books command. But most of the time they are very cheap, and that's the case with Harlow's books. If you are interested in knowing more about trees, an old textbook by the distinguished dendrologist Harlow might become one of your prized possessions.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Seed Catalogs

Early New Years day 22 year-old Oscar Grant was shot to death by a BART police officer while restrained in their custody. Video of the event was taken by a passenger on a BART train at the station stop and uploaded to YouTube among other places. In response there were protests in Oakland later that week. When I signed into Flickr photos from the protest were featured. Among those who uploaded pictures was The Inadvertent Gardener. I think that's a swell name and probably gets to the serendipity aspect of gardening that I was going for with The Incompetent Gardener. Today via Beth's Blog I discovered that The Inadvertent Gardener blogs! She's way more together than I am, so I can't begrudge her the name. In fact, the smart reader will hurry over there to that place now. That is unless of course for some reason you haven't received any seed catalogs in the mail and want to read a warmed over piece I wrote about them in 2001.


November 6, 2001

In autumn the realization that winter is coming always creeps up on me. One would think that having years of experience the fact of winter would be easily remembered, but a part of me holds out for the hope that perhaps it may not come this year. Still by the end of October the early sunsets and chilly evenings remind me that this will be another year with four seasons. Every sunny autumn day is like stealing a little summer and becomes all the more precious. As I'm going through this old post right now it's about two degrees F outside with a bitter wind.

Just before Halloween my copy of the Thompson & Morgan seed catalog arrived in the mail. Every year I spend many hours pouring over seed offerings and have many favorite catalogs. One of my favorites is Thompson & Morgan; one of the best things about the catalog is that it arrives early. They have a very wide selection and provide beautiful color photographs of most of the flowers. I order seeds from many different companies and have a fondness for them all. So I’m reluctant to single out Thompson & Morgan as my favorite company. Nevertheless, if your mailbox isn’t stuffed with seed catalogs and you plan to send for one, Thompson & Morgan is a good choice because it is such a good plant reference and has so many offerings.

Park Seed is another very good catalog and for many of the same reasons: wide selection, good cultural information, and photographs. Parks has a very inexpensive shipping charge too, which makes it easy to order just a packet or two of seeds.

Seeds are relatively inexpensive in comparison to plants, but it is still possible to spend quite a lot on seeds. I do indeed compare prices by looking at the price and also the quantity. Generally a packet of seeds will provide plenty of plants for the home gardener, but packets for some hybrids and special seeds hold very small quantities. Sometimes seeds are sold by weight and other times by the number of

Johnny’s Selected Seeds provides information of the number of seeds per a given quantities for many of the plants they sell, but figuring it out for packets is usually an academic question for flowers. Nichols Garden Nursery sells many of their seeds by weight and their packets are generous. Many of the same varieties will be found in the different catalogs, but the all the catalogs have developed a niche for themselves. Cooks Garden Seeds developed a devoted following by offering a huge selection of lettuce varieties. Renee's Garden have made their name by selling vegetable and flowers particularly well suited to backyard gardeners.

There’s faith and then there’s confidence. Seed catalogs are only exciting if one is anticipating planting seeds, and for many that seems a daunting prospect. I’ve planted many a seed packet without actually growing the plants to maturity, sometimes not even getting the seeds to germinate. Nevertheless I’ve grown so many plants from seed that I have a degree of confidence about growing plants this way. But seeds are
such a miracle that that faith is remembered in planting them.

My mother has a hard time with plant names and once remarked, “I can’t seem to remember their names unless I’ve raised them as babies.” She’s right that growing seedlings usually does mean that one is more familiar and connected to the plants. There’s nothing wrong with planting a garden from plants purchased in pots. Still there’s much to be gained in starting some of your own, and it’s not so hard.

Seed catalogs generally offer quite a bit of cultural information about the seeds and the plants they’ll become. Gleaning this information sometimes requires interpreting the code that the company provides. It is worth delving into these codes as the information improves the odds for success. Thompson & Morgan’s system for providing cultural information is well presented with a symbols and abbreviations. These
are presented in a fold out page on the back cover for easy reference. With a little practice the symbols are committed to memory making little need to refer to it.

They classify plants according to type, e.g. annual, perennial, biennial, etc.; provide the number of days from sowing to germination and the temperature range for best results; the amount of sun the plant prefers; and give a guide to both the ease of germination and the ease of after care. This is their “Green Fingers Guide” and it is helpful as they offer some demanding plants. Also they have symbols denoting special notes, e.g. that a plant is poisonous, or has edible flowers; makes a good pot or is well suited for baskets. One of my favorite symbols is for perennials that flower the first year from seed. Generally perennials take at least a year from sowing to flower, but there are happy exceptions and it’s nice to know about them.

Variety, and quality are good reasons for buying seeds by mail; you’ll simply not be able purchase some any other way. Most of the mail order seed companies do extensive trailing of the seeds they sell as well as plant development. Thompson & Morgan is a British company, but have had North American offices for a long time. Their cultural information is well documented for American gardeners. Parks trials are done in the U.S., as are most of the other catalogs listed, so their offerings have proven themselves for American gardens. Most of the companies also do lab testing to assure that their seeds have good germination rates and provide extra seed when they fall below the norm. Seed companies generally offer good service, fair prices, and superior seeds.

The seed catalogs that arrive mostly before Christmas provide me with pleasant interludes of “arm chair” gardening. The seeds themselves provide many hours of enjoyment. As a freshman in college I responded to an ad from Parks for a packet of cactus seeds. I was anticipating getting on their mailing list, but a catalog never came. The seeds did, however, and it was fascinating to have respectable looking cactuses by the end of the term. I mention this to suggest that even if one isn’t ready to commit to planting a garden’s worth of seedlings, growing a packet or two on a windowsill is easy and enjoyable. Even grass seed will provide an interesting indoor plant and nothing could be easier! Certainly too there are many seeds that will thrive by direct sowing. Requesting a seed catalog and ordering a few packets is an enriching gardening experience. Do so if your not already an avid fan of seed

The post on seed catalogs I'd write today, if I weren't so lazy, wouldn't quite be the same. The picture shows six of my favorite catalogs as of now. The choice to concentrate on Thompson & Morgan is a bit odd, but there is a certain logic to it. The catalog remains an excellent guide for people just beginning to try to start from seeds. Seeds are quite a lot more expensive than they were in 2001, and I'm more reluctant now than I was to put up the money. Pinetree Garden Seeds offers some of the best values on seeds for the home gardener. I absolutely love J. L. Hudson Seedsman and if I could only have one catalog that would be the one I'd want. Jung Seeds and Plants is very good. While the post concentrates on seeds, one of the recommendations I'll make about Jung is they have always (almost) sent plants correctly marked. As far as seeds got they are the place to get the latest introductions. Seeds of Change is an especially good catalog if you're interested in organic seed.