Monday, December 21, 2009

Allium Allegiance

Onion, leek, chive, and garlic are all important members of the edible allium family characterized by their pungent odor and taste.  While being useful additions to most vegetable and herb gardens, many allium are used in the ornamental garden.  The ornamental part of the clever allium grows from a bulb, (the part we eat, think of the onion) is actually a modified stem and underground food storage device.  Easy to plant, often as a bulb to plant in the autumn, and care for, ornamental onion doesn't have many soil requirements, only that it is well drained.  A perfect plant for the water-conscious gardener (as all gardeners should be), place in a dry, sunny, and hot location.  Many varieties, including the Allium glaucum scenescence (pictured below), work well in difficult areas around pavement where temperatures can soar, and in gravelly low fertility soil.  No need to fertilize this tough plant. 

The large pom-pom like alliums are very dramatic in the garden.  Blooming later than many other bulbs, but before many perennials, allium fill a niche for the ever-blooming perennial border. 

The drumstick allium (allium sphaerocephalon), like all alliums, is popular with butterflies and other pollinators.  A. sphaerocephalon will naturalize nicely in the back of the border.

Planted en masse as above, ornamental onions
provide a stunning display, but can also be used
more conservatively to add texture, contrast       and architecture to the border.        


I love the little Allium glaucum senescence with  it's lavender colored pom poms and silvery foliage.
This plant makes a great low hedge in a sunny dry location. Try in combination with other perennials and annuals. Winter interest?  Covered.  The dried seed heads stand up well in snow and rain and provide bird forage.

Some of the native alliums will naturalize and get a bit out of control in the garden.  Reserve for areas where this is okay, as to not frustrate the gardener.    

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Indian Pipe

This extremely cool plant was found at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Monotropa uniflora, also known as the Ghost Plant, Indian Pipe, or Corpse Plant is a herbaceous perennial plant, native to temperate regions of Asia, North America and northern South America. It is quite rare, does not contain chlorophyll, therefore does not photosynthesize.  It obtains it's nutrients from a relationship with mycorrhizal fungus which forms a network with tree roots.  It grows in very dark environments, such as in the understory of dense trees and forests where the soil is not disturbed.  Don't try to transplant, since it has such a complex relationship with mycorrhizal fungus, it is very difficult to propagate.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lilacs blooming in September! | Updraft | Minnesota Public Radio

Lilacs blooming in September! | Updraft | Minnesota Public Radio

A comment from Gabby:

From the Stillwater Gazette October 22, 1870: "We received from Mrs. Geo S. Abbott who lives a few miles from the city, a twig of beautiful lilacs in full bloom, being entirely a second growth. This has been the most remarkable season ever known in this climate in this respect. We have lettuce growing in our garden, green and luxuriant, of a spontaneous second growth. We have seen several fields of wheat, where the scattered seed from the harvest, deceived by what seemed to be the gently call of Spring putting on the rankest foliage of green, is in total disregard of the eternal fitness of things"

You now have permission!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Blooming Now! (Yes, in Minnesota in November)

Hamamelis virginiana or Common Witch Hazel is blooming now.  Blooming in October and November, this large shrub or small understory tree is a Minnesota native.  An excellent specimen tree for a smaller yard, Hamamelis virginiana does well in full sun or shade.  A relatively slow grower, Witch Hazel has a picturesque horizontal branching habit with a smooth gray bark and gorgeous yellow fall color.  And if that is not enough, in the fall when the leaves have dropped, it bursts with small, yellow, ribbon-like blooms.

Hamamelis virginiana has long been a favorite by European horticulturists.  In the 17th century, this plant was growing in botanical collections in London.  Known for it's medicinal value, extracts of the leaves, twigs and bark are used as a topical astringent.  The horizontal branching pattern of the twigs, made it popular for use as a "divining rod" to locate underground water sources.

Pollinated by gnats and bees, the late flowering period makes this plant attractive to pollinators, since it's some of the only nectar and pollen action the insects will have at this time of year.

Witch hazel prefers a soil rich in organic matter such as leaf humus.  Add this excellent shrub to your landscape a specimen or en masse.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


I like to use only natural product in my container plantings.  Plastic and styrofoam are not only unnatural looking, but wind up forever in the landfills and in our waters.

Fan Tail Willow, Flame Willow, Rosehips

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Firefly in My Garden

See where at intervals the firefly's spark
Glimmers, and melts into the fragrant dark;
Gilds a leaf's edge one happy instant, then
Leaves darkness all a mystery again! 
Thomas Bailey Aldrich    ( 1895)

Of the millions of insect species, none has captured the world’s imagination like the firefly.   When young, I often saw them in fields, near woods or streams, when dusk was nearing darkness, a burst of light, then another and another, appearing and reappearing, bright for a moment then gone like a falling star. 
Found throughout the world, sometimes in immense numbers, in fascinating displays, they exhibit marvelous behavior.  Here is a scene from a firefly hunt in New South Wales in Australia:
Down into the grasses on the bank, and there, in the delicate moment before the last light goes, were fireflies, gliding out over the water, in low arcs like the sweep of the grasses. On down the river, and on and on, were fireflies, lines of them wavering out from this bank and the other and back again, sketching their uncertain tracks of light down close to the surface of the water, hidden from outside by the grasses. In the last moment of light, with the darkness creeping up from the water and the moving plumes of grass still faintly outlined, there, far as the river stretched – an infinite number of little lines in two long rows on either side, quiet, unearthly. 1
In Southeast Asia and in the Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee,  some species exhibit flash synchrony  - they light up in synchronized fashion.  An observer says:
These bugs "start up" in mid June at 10 p.m. nightly. They exhibit 6 seconds of total darkness; then in perfect synchrony, thousands light up 6 rapid times in a 3 second period before all going dark for 6 more seconds. . . .It is beautiful 2

An observer from Thailand writes:

Thousands of fireflies fill the branches of trees along the Mae Klong River here, flashing on and off in unison - relentless and silent, two times a second, deep into the night. 

Nobody knows why. 3 
The firefly has found its way into literature and poetry. One person compiled a list  of literary references to fireflies totalling 47 books, 11 magazine articles and 1 play. 4
  Go to and put in “Fireflies in children’s literature” and you will get a long list of books,  written to delight, inform and inspire children.   
The firefly  is not a fly, but a beetle, of the Order Coleoptera.  Its off-and-on bioluminescence is from the substance Luciferin on its abdomen, used by males and females in flash patterns to attract the opposite sex.  Its larvae, the glowworm,  produces light to warn predators that glowworms are not good eating.   The adult feeds on nectar and pollen; the predacious larvae dines on earthworms, snails and slugs, detecting the slime trail of the snail and slug and following it to the prey.
Sadly, fireflies are disappearing everywhere; the meadows, fields, ponds and creek edges where it once thrived are being destroyed by development, its ancient mating rituals disrupted by lights from developments:
Preecha Jiabyu used to take tourists on a rowboat to see the banks of the Mae Klong River aglow with thousands of fireflies.
These days, all he sees are the fluorescent lights of hotels, restaurants and highway 
“The firefly populations have dropped 70 percent in the past three years”, said Preecha . . . . It’ sad.  They were a symbol of our city” 5 
In July, 2008, a symposium in Thailand on “Diversity and Conservation of Fireflies” drew more than 100 entomologists and biologists who agreed that fireflies are a "canary in the coal mine", their decline could signal bigger problems ahead in the world ecosystem. 6
Surely we cannot afford to lose the firefly.  It “lights the way”  to an understanding  of the need to save all creatures.  We must not lose its beauty or its symbolism nor deny them to our children or our children’s children.  What can ordinary gardeners, do?  A blogger in Chicago provides an answer.   Her “habitat gardening” resulted in an annual increase in the firefly population in her yard;  
First I have eliminated much lawn. Large areas of the garden have spaces of soil between the plantings which is covered only with decaying organic matter.
Wood piles and stumps are placed here and there to decompose. Abundant leaf mold and much compost is incorporated into shrub and woodland edge type planting areas. Most dormant plants are left intact for the winter and cut back only in spring.

We do not use any pesticides,herbicides or chemical fertilizers.
Most areas are dug once to prepare for planting then left undisturbed.

Mulches, low ground covers, shrubby areas creating shaded ground, lush overall greenery and a small pond increase the moisture and humidity levels. 7

 A good formula for all gardeners.   



Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bluebirds in the City

A flock of eight migrating Eastern bluebirds stopped over at my place this fall and stayed for about a month.  Unlike similar stays from various in-laws, the bluebirds were most welcome. Like the in-laws, the birds were apparently lured by decent food. While the in-laws finished up second helpings of goulash*, the birds dined on Cornus racemosa (Grey Dogwood) berries.  When the berries were devoured, they ate mealworms that I put out for them and when these were gone, the bluebirds left, presumably to fly south. 

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the habitat of Eastern Bluebirds is in meadows and areas surrounded by trees and plantings that have nesting holes.  They are sighted along open areas, fields, roads, and golf courses.  My city home is in an older neighborhood consisting of smaller homes and ramblers on small lots with mature trees.  Across the street from my home is a lake with many birds including loons, herons, and egrets, but for the most part, my neighborhood does not match the description given by Cornell.  

Because I am a professional gardener, my garden can be described as 'untidy' (think cobbler's children who have no shoes).  The merits of the 'untidy garden' is discussed in the previous blog.  I don't use pesticides or herbicides, and let plants re-seed freely.  In the course of my 13 years in this house, I have planted heavily with native shrubs, trees, and perennials.  I have many visiting pollinators, both insects and birds. 

I assume that the bluebirds, on their way south, found a place to feed and rest before the continuation of their long migratory flight.  I feel fortunate to have had these beautiful birds in my back yard, but am disturbed by the relentless appetite of development that devours meadows and other habitat areas for bluebirds and countless other species and makes it necessary for them to search for food in such foreign places.

As a gardener, it is my obligation to design areas that are not only visually beautiful, but to retain and create habitat and food sources for wildlife.  My garden and landscape clients want their landscapes to be attractive to birds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects, but it is also important to them for the gardens to have a neat and tidy appearance.  Is it possible to have both?  YES!  How to make your 'untidy' garden appear 'tidy' will be the subject of a following blog.  Stay Tuned. 

*  All in-law stories are completely fictional (mostly).

Thursday, October 8, 2009



Behold! yon bordering fence of sallow-trees
Is fraught with flowers; the flowers are fraught with bees:
The busy bees, with a soft murmuring strain,
Invite to gentle sleep the labouring swain.

from Tityrus and Meliboeus, by Virgil

Dr. Ken Thompson, senior researcher at Sheffield University in England, says flat out that untidy gardens make the best habitat for wildlife, basing this on a study of biodiversity in town and city gardens in England.  They “offer a vital refuge for animals and plants - provided that those responsible for their upeep are not too fastidious as gardeners”.   “Britain’s 16 million gardens are a haven for hundreds of species of animals and plants that would find it impossible to survive on intensively farmed land”. [1]
  To create an untidy garden he suggests we:
*Plant large shrubs and let them grow big. Shrubs and trees produce more vegetation where wildlife can live and eat.
*Allow at least some flowers to turn to seed and the lawn to grow tall. Don't be in a hurry to clear up fallen leaves.
*Create a pond for insects, frogs and toads. Think before stocking it with fish which will eat insect eggs and larvae.
*Don't illuminate your garden at night with bright lights. This will disturb many nocturnal creatures, such as moths.
*Create a compost heap – they are miniature nature reserves in themselves. Compost also enriches the soil.

America seems addicted to the too tidy garden and its companion, the American lawnscape,  its green carpeted lawn mowed, trimmed, watered within an inch of its life, doused with pesticides, secure against any intrusion of nature, until it has the look and all the wild natural charm of a pool table.  Valerie Blaine, columnist for the Daily Herald, calls  the American lawn “an ecologically unstable, chemically dependent monoculture of alien plants . . .  in which only one plant species grows, at the expense of anything and everything else.” 
 It's made of nonnative species ill-suited to our climate's precipitation. It's dependent on artificial precipitation - meaning that it must be watered regularly to stay alive. It's dependent on herbicides to keep any and every other species of plants from encroaching on the troops of turf grass. It's addicted to pesticides to keep viruses, fungi, and bacteria at bay. It's got to have fertilizers to ensure the greenest of greens.
. . . . There must be nary a weed, nor a blade out of place, nor a renegade weed. And one must not allow the grass to grow tall enough to flower. Flowers - a plant's way of reproducing sexually - are anathema to the lawn. [2]
Carol Rubin, a Canadian, was moved to take action when it was proposed to spray 2-4-D over her water supply and on an area adjacent to a salmon spawning stream.  She wrote a book entitled How to Get Your Lawn off Grass, or,  
 how we can conserve water and prevent its contamination by taking up our water-sucking turf grass lawns (and ornamental, exotic, garden plants) and replacing them with gorgeous native ground covers, flowers, shrubs, trees and grasses that need no fertilizers, chemical controls for pests, mowing, and after establishment, no water. [3]

Hear now the voice of Robert Frost, America’s pastoral poet, who wrote of nature with deep reverence.[4]
  In Rose Pogonias, he tells of a small. lovely spot of nature, 
A saturated meadow
Sun-shaped and jewel-small
A circle scarcely wider
Than the trees around were tall
Where winds were quite excluded
And the air was stifling sweet
With the breath of many flowers
A temple of the heat.
and his prayer that it might be permitted to survive.
We raised a simple prayer
Before we left the spot,
That in the general mowing
That place might be forgot;
Or if not all so favored,
Obtain such grace of hours,
That none should mow the grass there
While so confused with flowers.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

It's Not Candy Corn!!!

CHICKEN OF THE WOODS or Laetiporus sulphureus

Found Sept 20th in Shoreview, MN at the base of an oak tree in a lawn.

Thursday, September 24, 2009



Wee hoverin’, fleein’ ferlie fello’,
Wi’ yer stripes o’ black and yello’
Yer ever sae bonnie, so ye ur,
Like a spring lamb - only smaller and withoot the fur,
But see if ye ever sting me oan the bum again,
Ah’m gonnae jump on yer heid so Ah um.

Stuart McLean (From No’ Rabbie Burns)

             I have a question for all you linguists out there:  is there any connection between the word “bumble”, meaning  to blunder, and the word “bumblebee”?  I have not found any; yet it seems that the reputation of the poor bumblebee has been tarnished by the mythology that it  is a bungler.  There is of course the famous and spurious accusation that the bumblebee is without the aerodynamic ability to fly and so he mysteriously bumbles along:  

Imperfect by design
Ungainly sporadic jerks define gawky movements
Flawed in nearly every way
A veritable outcast 
Among hive-minded conformity[1]

Yet “blissfully ignorant of the overwhelming odds”, the bumblebee flies on. 

         I hasten to the defense of this small, bright and busy creature that has found its way into our poetry, literature, art and music.  She is most remarkable.  I say “she” for a reason - the females raise the young, do the work and defend the colony, while  the males do no work, and, should they win the lottery, they get to mate with a virgin queen.  (an arrangement considered by some to be on all counts better than we humans have).  

         We need the bumblebee.  Our best-known pollinator, the honey bee, is plagued with disease and collapse of its colonies.  The bumblebee is a formidable pollinator.  It can fly at 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and has  been known to fly at 32 degrees, temperatures lower than those at which the honey bee can fly.  They have longer tongues than honey bees and can pollinate flowers with long, narrow corollas, such as clover, of which bumblebees are the best pollinator.   Their hairy bodies can easily pick up and transfer pollen.  Perhaps most significantly, they can vibrate their flight muscles to create the extraordinary wing beat of around 200 beats per second.  They can uncouple the flight muscles from the wings and use the vibration to warm their bodies and for keeping brood warm, and, of great importance, to perform “buzz pollination”.  

         The anther, the pollen-bearing organ, of the modern tomato blossom is so shaped that the pollen is not easily released without outside help, being only able to release pollen when vibrated at about 400 hz.  The bumblebee seizes the anther  and vibrates its flight muscles, releasing pollen grains that otherwise would have remained in the anther.  As a result, bumblebees are raised commercially to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes.  Now, nearly every European tomato owes its existence to the bumblebee.  They are also the chief pollinators of red clover, alfalfa, field beans, peas, runner beans, tomatoes, and, in some areas, cotton, raspberries, apple, plum blossom, oilseed rape, sunflowers, strawberries, currants and brambles.

         Bumblebee populations are in serious decline in Minnesota and elsewhere.  In future blogs, we will give you some suggestions on how we can help them.[2] 


[1] From The Bumblebee by Sarah K. Jenison, MI.  See

Friday, September 11, 2009

Blooming in a Garden Now-You bet your Aster!

Aster macrophyllus, commonly called Big-leafed aster, or Large-leafed aster, is blooming now in Minnesota.  A native perennial to Minnesota and other parts of the US, this plant is very attractive to pollinators.  It is extremely easy to grow, re-seeds like crazy and will form a groundcover in a lawn.  Leave areas of your lawn un-mowed for a fantastic late-summer display.  Pollinators such as honeybees and bumblebees find this plant attractive, and birds love the seedheads and will visit a patch of Aster macrophyllus all winter long.

I was delighted to find that after I planted 6 plugs of Aster macrophyllus, it re-seeded all over my lawn grass, and I was able to stop mowing in difficult areas and let the Aster take over.  I do mow it in the spring.  This is a useful plant for difficult dry woodland situations, since it does well in some shade. Pair it with various goldenrods for a stunning display.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Visiting our Childhood Voice

In the silence he has heard
Talking bee and ladybird
And the butterfly has flown
O’er him as he lay alone.[1]

          Wherever we look these days animal and plant species are in decline, and the world is waking up to this and becoming alarmed as it should, and it proceeds, always with a calculator in hand, to explain with numbers the value of a species and to prove its decline: 80% of plants are pollinated; 1 of every 3 bites of food comes to us through animal pollinators; monarch butterfly populations have dropped 38%, and so it goes on, and species by species the great diversity of living things slowly decays before our eyes.  The figures are persuasive, but something is amiss, the magic is gone, and one has a vague feeling of discontent in trying to capture the beautiful world of nature with numbers, for the agents of pollination are not numbers, they are our fellow creatures that we have known since we were children, and when we think of them in this way, we see the reality that pesticides are death,  the decline of birds and butterflies is the illness of a dear friend, and their extinction unthinkable.   Our approach to conservation must be more than calculations and science; it must be an affair of the heart.  
            In Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, part of which is quoted above, a little girl finds a toy soldier and buries it, and it lies there through season after season, seeing all but telling nothing: 
He has seen the starry hours
And the springing of the flowers;
And the fairy things that pass
In the forests of the grass.
And yet, 
Not a word will he disclose, 
Not a word of all he knows.

            We who look upon the world of nature and see it in such sad decline, we who know so much yet cannot speak of what we see except in numbers, are we like the dumb soldier unable to say what is in our hearts?  I do not belittle the scientists for they and their numbers are essential soldiers in this battle, nor do I doubt their passion, for I have met them.    Bees, butterflies, bats and birds, all have found their way into our poetry, our music, our art; yet when we speak of them in their time of extremity, we seem afraid to give voice to our sentiment, and we try to prove our case in a removed and dispassionate way with formulae. Something else is needed, another voice, perhaps an ancient one that we can find only if we revisit our childhood, perhaps in the verses of Stevenson writing of nature seen through the eyes of the child awakening in the morning:
There my garden grows again
Green and rosy painted,
As at eve behind the pane
From my eyes it fainted.
Just as it was shut away,
Toy-like, in the even,
Here I see it glow with day
Under glowing heaven
Every path and every plot
Every bush of roses,
Every blue forget-me-not
Where the dew reposes.[2]


[1] The Dumb Soldier, from A Child's Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson
[2] ) Night and Day, from A Child's Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson 

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Planting for Pollinators

The United States is experiencing a severe decline in populations of pollinators, the insects and birds that carry pollen from one plant to another enabling them to reproduce and provide us with an abundance of  foods and plants. This is an environmental issue that is seldom mentioned in newspapers or on television. The value of pollinators is incalculable. The commercial value of the products pollinated by just one pollinator, the honey bee, is said to be $14 billion per year in America, but the real value of pollinators cannot be measured in dollars, for they are essential to the great abundance and diversity of plants that we use, consume and admire, the loss of which would be an unspeakable tragedy.  The good news is, there is something we can do to increase pollinator populations that is both simple and pleasurable: namely to include in our gardens a diversity of plants that produce pollen and nectar, plants that are beautiful as well as useful.
Consider the honeybee, one of our most important pollinator. In 2006 reports appeared in the United States and Europe of large honeybee losses ranging from 50 to 90% of the worker bees in the hive, losses so large that the condition became known as “Colony Collapse Disorder”.  The symptoms were unusual: most of the adult bees had left the hive; there were no dead bees;  there were no signs of predation; brood cells remained capped.  Investigators first looked to known bee predators and pathogens as the possible cause of the disorder such as Varroa mites,Nosema apis and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, yet so far a single specific cause has not been found, and many believe that several factors may be involved, an important one of which is poor nutrition, that is, a dearth in the quantity and diversity of blossoms from which bees can obtain pollen and nectar. This scarcity of blossom is due to changes in land use, to the conversion of rural land to monocultures such as corn and soy beans and city land to lawns and golf courses, and to the mowing and chemical treatment of areas alongside roads and highways, making all such areas sterile deserts to honeybees.

Other pollinators are also at risk.  According to the National Academy of Science, wild pollinator populations in the United States are trending downwards.  Populations of butterflies, moths, ants, bats and hummingbirds, have been significantly reduced;   the survival of dozens of wild bee species is in peril; in Minnesota, monarch butterfly populations are down 38%.  Informed persons assert that, as in the case of the honeybee, poor nutrition is a critical factor.  
Our task, though large, is not unpleasant, requiring us as it does to include in our gardens plants that are pleasing to the eye in a variety of colors and shapes.  An article by David Sperling of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Department contains suggestions by the Xerces Society on how to plant to attract pollinators:
Plant a diversity of plants that flower all season; different species of pollinators are active in different times during the period May through October.
Use local native plants; they are four times more likely to attract bees and butterflies than exotics.
Choose several colors of flower of different heights;  native bees are particularly attracted to blue, purple, violet, white and yellow blossoms.
Include flowers of different shapes;  bees have different sizes, body shapes and tongue lengths and choose different shaped flowers.
Plant flowers in large clumps;  clusters of flowers attract more pollinators than individual blossoms.
The following plant genera are good sources of nectar and pollen, and are native to Minnesota:

Aster (Aster)                                    
Milkweed (Asclepias
Beardtongue (Penstemon) 
Beebalm (Monarda)
Blazing star (Liatris) 
Cup plant (Silphium)
Wild indigo (Baptisia)
Fireweed (Chamerion) 
Goldenrod (Solidago) 
Giant hyssop (Agastache) 
Ironweed (Vernonia)

Joe pye weed (Eupatorium) 
Leadplant (Amorpha) 
Lobelia (Lobelia)
 Lupine (Lupinus) 
 Zizia (Golden Alexander)     
          Let some of the following herbs go to flower in your garden to provide for pollinators:

Rosemary (Rosmarinus)
Borage (Borago) 
Catnip (Nepeta) 
Cosmos (Cosmos) 
Lavender (Lavandula)
Oregano (Origanum)
Russian sage (Perovskia) 
Spearmint (Mentha)Squill (Scilla) 
Basil (Ocimum)

 The Xerces Society is an international non-profit organization that advocates for invertebrates and their habitats.  One of its core programs focuses on native pollinators.  See