Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring isn't here yet

Red sky at night
Sailor's delight

Maybe that old rhyme is true on the high seas but not on the prairies of northern Illinois. Friday evening the sky was a deep crimson but instead of foretelling a pleasant day ahead it turned out to be a portent of snow. Saturday morning was leaden and by afternoon gusty winds blew in freezing rain. Temperatures dropped and the rain turned to snow.

Our local weather-prophets-of-doom had predicted nine inches. Happily it turned out to be much less.

Plants know how fickle nature can be.

These daylilies don't mind a little snow, nor do these bulbs recently risen from their winter beds.

This loan oak leaf escaped being buried under the snow and skittered and twirled with the wind gusts.

The viburnum fruit still clings stubbornly providing a bright spot of color through these drab winter days.

One tiny ice cycle

Already predictions of more snow Thursday. Winter isn't through here on the prairies.

As irritating as we find these late snows, it is nothing compared to the battle raging farther west in North Dakota and Minnesota. My heart goes out to those folks fighting to save their homes and towns. Hats off to all the volunteers traveling from all over the country to help. Everyone wishes you luck.

The Flood

At once the rain in torrents fell-
Heaven's windows all were open-
Like fiend escaped the bounds of hell,
Rushed on - the spell was broken.

Like chaff before a mighty wind
Down went each cottage dwelling,
Respecting none, the waves swept on,
Grim death before - a sea behind
Still high and higher swelling.

Day had dawned at last, oh, direful scene,
Night's fading folds uncover-
As dawns the day, far, far away,
Where late were valleys robed in green,
Dark waves are sweeping over..

~ Scott Cummins

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More garden folklore

Gardeners have always planted extra seed because they know some will not sprout. Poems or songs were tools to teach children how to grow seeds and how to count.

One for the cutworm
One for the crow
One to rot and one to grow.

Plant squash in May they run away.
Plant squash in June there will be plenty soon.

Plant pumpkins on the first of June,
You will have pumpkins soon.

Plant cucumbers on the sixth of July,
You will have cucumbers wet or dry.

Predicting the weather in rhyme helped them remember

Rainbow in the morning, farmer take warning
Rainbow at night, fisherman's delight.

A pale moon doth rain,
A red moon doth blow

If a redbird calls pretty, pretty, pretty,
The weather will be pretty.

(Photo courtesy of NASA)

Planting by the phase of the moon is a practice that is centuries old.
Many farmers and gardeners feel it is very important to work in harmony with the moon. Scientists actually studied these ancient methods and came up with some interesting ideas. During the dark phases of the moon, plants orient themselves toward their roots. With the sap rushing downward, it is said to be a favorable time for planting root crops and for transplanting. During the light phases of the moon, sap is said to flow upward, filling stems and leaves and favoring the planting of crops that mature above the ground.Another theory is that the gravitational pull of the moon raises ground-water the same way it does tidewater. If this is true, it suggests how the moon might pull soluble nutrients upward toward the roots of a plant and stimulate growth.

The next full moon is April 9, commonly called the Pink Moon named for the grass pink or wild ground phlox which is one of the earliest widespread flowers of the spring. Other names are the Full Sprouting Grass Moon, the Egg Moon, and -- among coastal tribes -- the Full Fish Moon, because this is when the shad came upstream to spawn. This is also the Paschal Full Moon; the first full Moon of the spring season. The first Sunday following the Paschal Moon is Easter Sunday which is observed on April 12 this year.

New moon March 26
First Quarter April 2
Full Moon April 9
Last Quarter April 17
New Moon April 24

Sow seeds during the waxing moon.
Plant root vegetables (carrots, onions, potatoes) during the third quarter of the waning moon.
Plant vegetables that grow above ground (tomatoes, lettuce, squash) two nights before the new moon or in the first quarter of the new moon.
Transplant on the waning moon.
Put down manure at the dark of the moon in March

If you can find a pregnant woman to plant your garden, everything will thrive.

A very important piece of advise if you find yourself in a drought (Folklore from Adam County IL an oral history)

"My husband went blackberrying day before yesterday and found a tick, and he said, 'We need a rain.' If you find a woodtick, stick a pin through it and stick it on the side of a wall or tree and it will rain in twenty-four hours. So he stuck a pin through it and stuck it on a maple tree, and we had a pour-down of rain before twenty-four hours."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Gardening to return to a healthier life

America is facing crisis on several fronts. Our economy is spiraling downward with no bottom in sight. Many people have lost their jobs or are fearful they will. We're all cutting back financially and saving for the bad news we expect is coming.

And if there wasn't already enough stress in our lives, in the last few years there have been numerous outbreaks of illness and sometimes deaths resulting from the unsafe growing and handling of commercial foods. Add to this the likelihood of poison residue on vegetables and in the water and soil. No wonder many of us are left doubting our country's food supply.

The perfect time for the nations First Lady to reintroduce an idea that was popular during other times of crisis in this country. Growing our own vegetables and fruits. Victory Gardens.

In 1943 Eleanor Roosevelt encouraged a return to the “victory gardens” that had become popular during the first world war when the country faced food shortages. Mrs Roosevelt planted a garden at the White House and some 20-million Americans followed her lead, By the end of the war individual gardens grew 40% of the nation’s vegetables. After the war in 1946 people abruptly stopped planting and the commercial growing of vegetables exploded.

Now we have Mrs Obama suggesting we go back to home gardens to save money and to live healthier lives. We have the president of Burpee Seed telling us a $70 investment in seed will reap a $600 reward in produce. I hope this idea is taking root in the minds of a lot of Americans. The message is clear, we can learn to garden, we can eat better and we can eat safer. I also hope the White House gardening staff sets a great example for us all by using safe organic methods of growing food.

I'm not sure what the First Lady and her friends are doing in the photo above. It looks like they are raking thatch but that can't be right. Mrs. O, you need gloves and better boots. You'll have blisters tonight. Do you suppose the fellows in white coats are from the White House Kitchens? Well, whatever they're doing, they look like they're having a good time. I plan to follow Mrs Obama's lead and plant more produce in my garden this year.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Linum and some old folklore about gardening

Tuesday's 75-degree temperature broke records in northern Illinois. What a fabulous early spring day! I was able to spend a little time outside in the late afternoon. Pulling back leaf mulch on the sunny side of my stone wall I found daffodil bulbs already emerging. Also did some surveying for two spots to move a couple heirloom Gallica roses that aren't happy in their old location. Not looking forward to moving these.

I'm really enjoying doing the research on new additions to my garden this spring. This has become my year for experimenting with new plants. I ordered a package of Linum perenne or blue flax shown below from Swallowtail Seeds. Here is what I learned mostly from Tracy DiSabato-Aust's (aka the Queen of Deadheading;) and author of The Well Tended Perennial Garden.

(Texas A & M photo)

Three gardeners have highly recommended linum to me going so far as to say it's one of their favorites. Saphyr is 12-20 inches tall and blooms for several weeks in late spring/early summer then again in September. It is tolerant of heat and drought so it should be a good fit in my garden. It will probably be a short lived perennial but a good reseeder. I like an informal, cottagy style garden so this will be perfect adding a dash of cool blue here and there without adding a lot of bulk.

Tracy says cut cut back by about half in May to create bushier, studier plants. After bloom sheer off half to two thirds. Keep watered as they reestablish new foliage.

If you've grown linum, please let me know the pros and cons you found with it.

It looks like my plans to grow Tithonia Fiesta Del Sol may not work out. TC informs me that the Japanese beetles love the blooms and leaves. I'll try one or two but no point in feeding the darn beetles.

(Swallowtail Seeds Photo)

On to a completely unrelated topic. My Harbin and Cowden ancestors came from Ireland and Scotland and settled in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas. Most settlers brought with them some ideas about farming and growing things that today we consider somewhat odd. I can understand their desperate desire for crops to grow well, after all their very lives depended on it. What I can't understand is what made them think these particular methods of witchcraft and tough love might work.

According to Appalachian folklore here are some remedies for common garden problems. (By the way, these were not passed to me from my family but are just folk lore I researched. If all else fails in your garden, try them;)


Eat sugar before planting fruit trees to make the fruit sweeter.

Apples with red spots inside means that the tree's root grew into the body of a murdered person. (This one creeps me out.)

Drive a rusty nail on the north side of the fruit tree for better yields.

The number of seeds in an apple will be your lucky number.

Whip a poor yielding tree and it will bear better the next year. (This one is pretty creepy too.)


Don't thank a person who gives you seeds or roots, or the plants will never grow. (I heard this from my Grandmother. )

Plant potatoes at night so the eyes don't see light.

Planting peppers when you are mad makes the peppers grow hotter.

For a good crop of watermelons, crawl to the patch backwards on the first day of May.

Since Good Friday is the only day when the devil has no power, plant as much as possible on that day. When planting on other days, plant two seeds for the devil and one for yourself.

Avoiding Bad Luck

To turn away negative forces of human, spectral or animal nature, toss nine broom straws, one at a time, on a hearth fire at sunset. ( I wonder if this would get rid of squirrels, moles, rabbits or bad neighbors;)

Dried basil hung over the doorways, windows, & fireplaces will keep unwelcome visitors (human or spirits) from entering. Rue or Purslane planted near the house discourages unwelcome visitors.

Placing a fern or ivy on the porch will protect against bad luck.

Geranium petals will protect you from lighting strikes and snakebites.

Geraniums on the southwest edge of your land can also provide protection against storms.

And last but not least, if you refuse to heed the weatherman and garden during thunderstorms, carry pieces of wood from a lightening-struck tree to protect yourself.

All kidding aside, I've met a few modern day rose growers that practice a similar blend of witchcraft and high tech chemistry. But that's a story for another blog.

Have a great weekend.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mexican Sunflowers, non stop bloom and a butterfly magnet

Another annual I'm excited about trying this year.

(Fiesta del Sol from Park Seeds)

The Mexican sunflower or Tithonia is a plant I've tried to grow for years with limited success. It isn't really a difficult plant needing very little water, average soil, and thriving in heat and humidity. In my garden I always grew the tall 4-6 foot variety Torch. Just as the plant began its spectacular bloom display a summer thunderstorm would blow in and snap the brittle stems in a dozen places. The rest of the summer I'd be left with misshapen, stubby plants that continued bloom but lost stems in every wind.

This year I' m hopeful again. There are a couple smaller varieties on the market that are under 3-feet in height. Fiesta Del Sol the AAS award winning dwarf vaieity produces heavily from mid summer till frost on 28-inch plants. There aren't many flowers Monarch butterflies love more than Tithonia. If that isn't reason enough to try it, deer and insects do not like it, and it isn't bothered by disease. One of those rare win-win situations in the garden world.

I wish my garden had an area sheltered from high winds. Tithonia Torch would make an impressive spectical grouped. I had tried to grow it in a group of three as a screen but the entire group ended up a lopsided mess of broken branches.

It was easy to find seeds locally for both the dwarf and the taller vaireties. I'm really looking forward to trying Fiesta Del Sol. Tithonia doesn't tolerate frost and isn't fond of cool springs. It thrives in full sun and hot summers.

Happy St. Patrick's Day to everyone. May you each find that rainbow that leads you to a pot of gold.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A book review of A Year on Lady Bug Farm

For the past four days I've been sick in bed feeling very sorry for myself. About the only thing I did manage to do was read. Today I'm much better, back at work and hoping to visit my favorite blogs. I've missed you all.

A Year on Lady Bug Farm was a light hearted ( and light weight) novel with a subject I'm very familiar with. Purchasing, renovating and living in a hundred year old farm house.

The first 50-pages were slow going but after that the book was very entertaining. Below is a quote from the back cover of the book.

Their husbands were gone, their families were grown, and the future stretched out before them like an unfulfilled promise... Tired of always dreaming and never doing, Cici, Lindsay, and Bridget make a life-altering decision. Uprooting themselves from their comfortable lives in the suburbs, the three friends buy a run-down mansion, nestled in the picturesque Shenandoah Valley. They christen their new home "Ladybug Farm," hoping that the name will bring them luck. As the friends take on a home improvement challenge of epic proportions, they encounter disaster after disaster, from renegade sheep and garden thieves to a seemingly ghostly inhabitant. Over the course of a year, overwhelming obstacles make the three women question their decision, but they ultimately learn that sometimes the best things can happen when everything goes wrong...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A birdseed garden

Last year a bumper crop of sunflowers sprouted from seed I hadn't sown. Mostly they came from the black oil or striped sunflower seeds the birds dropped or scattered the previous winter. I enjoyed the blooms so much, I decided to add some different shapes and colors this spring.

Nothing could be easier than sunflowers as proven by the outstanding plants the birds grew. Really, if birds can grow sunflowers, anyone can. I remember a few years ago sunflowers were growing in the soybean fields around me (again courtesy of the birds). It was quite a site, this sea of beans with the occasional sunflower sticking up several feet taller;) The farmer who leased that field wasn't as aggressive with herbicides as the current one.

Sunflowers are somewhat drought tolerant which appeals to me. It's pretty much a plant 'em and forget 'em style. Sometimes the very tall ones lean to the point they need staking but the shorter ones stand up pretty well on their own. Sunflowers are tender annuals so they won't tolerate cold weather. I wait until the soil warms and there is no chance of frost before planting them outside. (The birds haven't read that rule and their sunflowers grow anyway;)

The bees love sunflowers, unless you get one of the pollen free hybrids. Later in the summer the goldfinches perch on the dried blooms trying to find the first ripe seeds.

This spring I'm sure the birds will plant another garden of sunflower. I'll leave most of them to grow and bloom. I hope they like these new hybrids I have chosen.

I chose a mix of seeds like this (from Park Seeds - Van Gogh Mix). Blooms are singles and doubles from 5 to 10 inches in across. These plants are all around 5-feet tall so they will give height to the garden.

These Jewel Toned red, gold and bronze are from Parks Seed also. The plants are 6 to 10 feet tall so stake them well or they may fall.

If you haven't a good spot for the tall ones, Parks Solar Babies Mix is only one to two feet tall.

With any of these sunflowers , succession-plant every two weeks to enjoy blooms over a long period.

A note for anyone interested in wild birds. Monday afternoon I found a Goldfinch sitting on the lane into my farm. It appeared to be stunned altho I don't know why or how. It allowed me to pick it up and only struggled weakly as I held it.

I carried it home and put it into an old bird cage with plenty of food and water. It remained huddled on the cage floor for about 3 hours never moving. I didn't expect it to survive the night but thought at least it would be warm (outside temperature in the teens).

It relaxed a little as time passed and finally put its head under a wing and seemed to be sleeping. The following morning it was quiet but alive. That afternoon it was more active.

I'm hopeful it will recover but now I have a problem. It is illegal for me to have this bird. In fact I was breaking the law by even picking it up. I hope to find a licensed rehabber to keep it for a while. It's impossible for me to diagnose it, it may not be able to fly or have some injury. I think setting it free would be a mistake.

If anyone else has had a similar experience, please let me know your solution.