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.