Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wildflower Wednesday - Dutchman's Breeches

Last weekend K, my new granddaughter, and I visited Mom and her Garden Buddy. We got to enjoy their beautiful woods, wonderful company, introduce them to their 10-week-old great-granddaughter, and attend a wild foods and medicinal plants seminar.

While there, several wildflowers in Mom's woods called to me. Among them was Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria,) an old-fashioned bleeding hearts relative. Dutchman's breeches is a native plant I've long admired in the woods and occasionally in cultivated shade gardens. There is a large colony of them blooming at the foot of Mom's driveway. Since they were in such plentiful supply, I dug a few to add to our shade garden.

According to Wikipedia, this delicate, pretty spring ephemeral was a medicinal plant used by Native Americans and early settlers for syphilis, skin conditions and as a blood purifier. Now, it's considered toxic, containing alkaloids that may have detrimental effects on the brain and heart. The seeds of Dutchman's breeches are spread by ants, in a process called myrmecochory.

Mobot says Dutchman's breeches typically occurs on forest floors, rocky woods, slopes, ledges, valleys, ravines and along streams, that it prefers rich, moist, humusy soils in part shade, and is intolerant of wet soils in winter. While our shade garden soil is rich, humusy, and well-draining, it's also dry in summer thanks to its tangle of maple roots. These plants tend to go dormant earlier in dry soil than in moist. Since I've seen this plant naturalize in other dry shade gardens, I'm hopeful it will be happy here.

Gratuitous shot of Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis,) another wildflower in our garden. These were either trampled by critters or blown down by wind. Wilting, I cut these blooms to come indoors where they quickly recovered and are now gracing our kitchen window.

To see more spring wildflowers, please visit Gail at Clay and Limestone, host of Wildflower Wednesday on the fourth Wednesday of each month.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April Bloom Day

Cornelian cherry dogwoods, scilla, and daffodils were blooming April 15, 2009. With our warm April temperatures, this year they've already passed, except for the little passalong dafs that moved here from K's garden last weekend. (I'm amazed they haven't wilted yet in our unseasonable warmth.)

The calendar says April, but our temperatures feel more like June. Monday's high temperature was in the low 70's. It was in the 80's yesterday, and today our high is forecast to be in the 80's again (before it drops into the more-seasonable 50's when a cold front passes through on Friday.) I hope the front brings rain - we can use it after a fairly dry March and early April, especially with the warm temperatures.

The gardening season in the Chicago area is definitely underway. Happy Bloom Day everyone, and thank you Carol at May Dreams Gardens for dreaming up Bloom Day!

What's blooming in your garden?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Project

In honor of Earth Day on April 22nd, Jan at Thanks for Today invited garden bloggers to write a post sharing what we do in our yards and gardens in the name of sustainability. For more information please visit Jan's post Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Project.

Early in childhood, I had a life-changing experience as my family raised a baby robin one spring. I won't retell the story since I've done it here, and it still hurts to think about. In short, our little Robbie was killed by the pesticides the landlord was spraying (unknown to us,) in his vegetable garden. We'd thought the fenced garden was a safe place for Robbie to hone his instinct for worm, grub and slug hunting. Robbie's death began to shape my environmental consciousness at an age when most kids didn't know what pesticides were.

Four years later when our parents bought our first house, we children were involved in the planning, work and pleasure of tending our large vegetable garden. My environmental values continued to be shaped by our parents' organic gardening practices. At ten years old I pored over Mom's copies of Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening magazines, becoming ever more aware of environmental issues, and learning easy, inexpensive, earth-friendly practices for our home and garden. Mom was always frugal, and never bought into the avid consumerism that characterized life for many of us Baby Boomers growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. It turns out many of the skills, practices, and values she raised us with also happen to be environmentally friendly.

If I wrote about everything I do to honor those values, this would be a book. So I'll focus on just a few easy, cheap, or free garden-related strategies I practice.

Compost. I have a small bin, and a pile. We're fortunate to have the space for this. Another way to compost that doesn't require a bin or pile, and doesn't cost a cent, is to dig a small hole in the garden and bury kitchen scraps or garden debris as needed. This method of composting is clean, odor-free, doesn't attract bugs or rodents, and it's the quickest way I've found to turn crushed eggs, coffee grounds, vegetable peelings and other kitchen scraps into free, nutrient-rich organic matter that improves soil, enhances the health, beauty, and productivity of a garden, and reduces or eliminates the need for fertilizer.

Autumn leaves are used here instead of being bagged and sent to the municipal composting facility. I think it's great that many cities, suburbs, and small towns are now requiring yard waste to be separated from the trash stream and sent to these large composting facilities instead of to landfills. There are issues with these industrial-sized facilities though. I prefer to compost and recycle as much as possible of our yard waste, including leaves, right here. They're left where they fall in the garden. Leaves falling on the lawn are mulched and bagged with the mower, and spread in areas like the wayback yard, around hedges, and in the swale, where they reduce weeds, decompose quickly, improve soil, and reduce the mud George tracks into the house after it rains. Leaves make an excellent layer in raised beds, and a good mulch for vegetable gardens where they improve the soil, reduce watering, and prevent weeds.

I always had a vegetable garden before living here. Our yard is wooded and there's not much sun. I missed veggie gardening. In fall, 2008 I 'stole' a patch of lawn in a part-sun (about 5 hours a day) side yard, and built a raised veggie bed. Thick layers of wet newspaper were put down first to kill the grass - no digging, no spraying - cheaper, easier, and better for the soil. Over the newspaper went alternating layers of leaves, compost, and grass clippings, left over the winter to decompose into rich, crumbly soil full of worms, healthy soil bacteria, and high in organic matter. By spring last year it was ready for planting. Having grown veggies in less-than-full sun before, I knew it could be done. Our little bed was so healthy and productive, and our homegrown, organic veggies so delicious, I remembered what I'd been missing.

This spring to increase our veggie space, another bed was added in the other side yard. Growing our own vegetables is as local as it gets. No petrochemicals will ever touch the soil I worked so hard to build. No gasoline or diesel fuel is used to transport our garden veggies. And our veggie bed is a haven for all sorts of pollinators. Most of our veggies are heirloom, open-pollinated varieties. We're saving seeds for future years, a practice that's not only economical, it's also environmentally-friendly.
Native and native-friendly plants. As I've become more aware of the plight of bees, more native plants are finding their way into our garden. Not only is this environmentally friendly, growing native plants from seeds is a frugal alternative to pricey nursery exotics, which are often shipped long distances from growers, and unfortunately, often grown using less-than-environmentally-friendly methods. One might assume plant growers would be among the 'greenest' of industries, but sadly this is not the case in most instances. For me, growing plants from seeds is such a joy. I like knowing exactly what went into growing them.

Native shrubs continue finding homes in our garden, providing privacy and beauty for us, and food for birds, beneficial insects, and other wildlife.

These are just a few ideas for sustainability in the garden. For many more ideas, be sure to visit Jan for links to lots of great posts with lots more excellent, Earth-friendly hints that can easily be incorporated into everyday life - everything from saving energy in the home, environmentally-friendly alternatives to chemical cleaning solutions, to water conserving gardening tips and other earth-friendly gardening practices. If helping the environment isn't enough motivation, most of the ideas are not only environmentally-friendly, they're also money-savers. In these days of economic uncertainty, anything we can do to lighten the load on our wallets while lightening the load on the planet is worth checking out.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Seed Grow Project

I'm participating in the Seed Grow Project, sponsored by Renee's Garden. We're growing this fiery nasturtium from seed and blogging about it. For more information on the project and links to participants' posts, visit the GROW project.

I've never grown nasturtiums. I had been thinking trellis, now I'm thinking spiller. Maybe both? What do you think? A few may show up in the veggie garden, mingling with peas and cucumbers.

Seeds in the mail! That's always a thrill, even more so when they're free seeds. In the envelope with the nasturtiums, Renee included a bonus packet of cosmos. Last fall our two largest silver maples were limbed up and back from the roof of the house. The garden will receive more sun this year. It will be fun to experiment with cosmos in the sunniest spots.

We've had a warmer-than-average late March and early April. That means our heat hasn't been going on as much as usual this time of year, and the basement is a mite cool for starting seeds. Pepper seeds started almost three weeks ago were languishing unsprouted. Last March was chillier, the heat was running more and the basement was warm. Last March, peppers sprouted within days.

Peppers, and many other seeds, require warm temperatures for sprouting. I don't have a heat mat. The warm top of the fridge can be a frugal alternative. Here's a spot to experiment with . . .

Instantly, (almost,) they sprouted.

I'm growing Nasturtium "Spitfire" for the GROW project. Thanks to Renee's Garden for the seeds.