Archive for February, 2008

A sustainable village in the heart of Cedar Rapids

An update on the progress of the Oakhill Jackson and Wellington Heights residents’ community vegetable gardens will be among the topics discussed at a community forum scheduled for 6-8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 18, at the Jane Boyd Community Center, 943 14th Ave. SE, in Cedar Rapids.

Lynette Richards and Kathy McCarthy will also provide a report on the local healthy food access alliance project operating as a joint effort between the Oakhill Jackson Neighborhood, Metro High School students and Kalona Organics.

Other topics at the meeting include discussion of plans for a sustainable urban community in the heart of Cedar Rapids. The meeting is open to the public.

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“More winter than we need”

    This post is from Linn County Master Gardener Claire Smith:

     Is there consolation in that the big snow storm of ’93 was in April when it is supposed to be spring and at least this blizzard is in February during the official winter season?  While I enjoy winter most years, I agree with Mr. Wilson’s observation in Dennis the Menace recently, “There seems to be more winter than we need this year.”  The Plugger comment adjacent says it all: A plugger lifts his winter blues with thoughts of spring green as he opens his mail box and remarks, “Hot Dog!  The new seed catalog is here!” 

   An article in Sunday’s (Feb. 3) Gazette provided seed catalog suggestions.  Following is an article written by Master Gardener; Thea Cole entitled “Planning My Cutting Garden.”  Thea has some excellent suggestions for seed catalogs, too.   Thea says, Spring is just around the corner; soon, I’ll walk in my blooming garden and gets my hands in the warm black soil.  This is truly a bit of heaven.   I am engrossed with planning my annual cutting garden, building on past accomplishments and undaunted by past failures.  The barren winter garden provides the canvas for this new artistic endeavor.  The future August garden will only slightly resemble my anticipated garden. 

  Holiday activities required stacking the new garden catalogs and magazines until the house was stripped of its decorations.  From mid-January to mid-February I delve into their pages to discover what will again challenge my gardening skills.  My favorite catalogs include: Vermont Bean Seed Co., Select Seeds, The Cook’s Garden, Jung Quality Seeds, Park Seed, Shepherd’s Garden Seeds, Nichols Garden Nursery, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  Further enlightment was gleaned from the pages of Taunton’s Fine Gardening, White Flower Farm’s The Gardener, and August Home’s Garden Gate.

   My plant list is near completion.  Agrostemma, cosmos, Verbena bonarienses, Cleome, larkspur, and Nicotiana sylvestris are some repeat stars that create height and movement.  The zinnias, salvias, ageratum, asters, poppies and heliotrope provide contrasting texture and color interest. The new plants to my annual garden include Cynoglossum amabile, Armeria pseudameria, Layia elegans, Lupine hartweggii and Celosia “Hi Z”.  

  Within a few weeks the seeds will have germinated and the process of transplanting them to flats will proceed.  My basement will fill with seedlings that require months of care.  Many will never make it out of the basement and into the real growing world.  Some will be lost at planting time, because Iowa weather is either too cold, too wet or too dry.  After planting, a contest for dominance will ensue between the plants and the weeds until the first frost.   I am determined to do a better job deadheading and cutting back my annuals this summer.  I have neglected this task in the past to the detriment of their vigor.  I use grass shears for overall shearing, hand pruners to cut the tough stems, flower scissors to trim the weak stems and my fingers to hastily pinch off the spent blooms.   Passers by are always welcome to share in the celebration of my accomplishments and in the frustration of my failures.  Visions of blissful moments in my new cutting garden persuade me to remain a devoted gardener. 

   If starting seedlings isn’t your bag, visit your favorite garden center and purchase started pots. Plus, it’s an opportunity to see the plants in real life.  And, don’t be daunted by Latin names.  Call the Horticulture Hotline at 319-447-0647 or, again, visit your garden center.  Either will be happy to define and describe the plant.

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Red hot Valentine’s Day

Roses of any color are great, but if you want to convey certain feelings on Valentine’s Day – this Thursday – or any day, following are the meanings that each of the colors symbolize:

Red: Love, passion

Yellow: Joy, friendship

Pink: Happiness, gratitude

Orange: Admiration, desire

White: Innocence, purity

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Magical Brucemore

The gardens at Brucemore, Iowa’s only National Trust Historic Site, are one of  the most magical places to visit in Cedar Rapids. Now you can be a part of that experience.

Gardeners of all skill levels are invited to join the Brucemore gardening team. Brucemore gardeners Deb Engmark and David Morton will lead a volunteer orientation on Monday, March 3 at 5:30 p.m. in the new greenhouse on the Brucemore estate, 2160 Linden Dr.

Deb said it’s been years since Brucemore has had  gardening volunteers and she and David are willing to teach.  Reservations are encouraged. Call (319) 362-7375 or e-mail Deb at  

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Another so-called brilliant idea to sell green space

thumbnail1.jpgI see city councilman Kris Gulick wants Cedar Rapids to consider selling property it owns outside the city limits. And he has eyes on a place of refuge not only for gardeners, but for a rare abundance of wildlife that is getting crowded into ever-shrinking parcels of land.

What possible value could those 90 or so acres have next to Squaw Creek Park if they aren’t part of the 18-hole golf course? It’s only prairie grass, planted next to garden plots where city dwellers like me can lease space that we don’t have at home. Along with a summers-long supply of fresh vegetables for our families, a sense of community and friendships have grown.

To Gulick and others, what better place to smack down a new housing development. To me, it’s where my sons and other city kids have a chance to connect with nature. The  prairie grasses are home to quail, ground squirrels and numerous other critters.  I’ve seen dozens of our state bird, the goldfinch, descend on the sunflowers my sons grow at the city leased gardens –  birds that, for some reason, no longer come to our backyard in Cedar Rapids. 

I have shadowy “Bigfoot-style” video footage of a tiny gray fox that crept near the gardens on two  occasions and shot pictures of an unusual snake that I wanted my naturalist sister to identify.

I saw a whole field lit up with lightning bugs that rivaled the best fireworks display that the Cedar Rapids Freedom Fest has ever paid for and an early evening that I like to remember as the night of the dragonflies.

Nearby, in some scrub trees that are obviously worthless to the city, I watched a brilliant deep blue bird fly back and forth that my grandmother helped me identify as an indigo bunting, one that even she has rarely seen in her 90-plus years of bird watching. If you’ve never seen one, you’ve missed one of Iowa’s most stunning birds. If the acres next to the park become another development, our chances of seeing another indigo bunting become about as rare as hitting a hole-in-one. 

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Catalog virus

Dedicated gardeners know there’s only one thing to do with a new foot of snow on the ground. Dig out… the catalogs!

With my Bonus corn seed found, thanks to Marlene, I still have a few more seed varieties to order, and an almost endless pile of catalogs to plow through. Once you’re marked as a gardener, supply companies have a way of making your name go viral, so every year, I receive more and more catalogs. Like gardening itself, it can become overly consuming.

Sometimes I give in to the tempting offerings displayed in gorgeous, colorful photos, and order from an unknown company. This year, I’ll try to stick with the old standbys. I’ve had good luck with Jung’s, of Randolph, Wis., over the years. What about you? Any favorites out there, or little-known seed companies or nurseries that shouldn’t be overlooked?

P.S. A huge Thank You to my neighbor, who, without being asked, dug out my driveway yesterday. What an angel!!

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Bambi’s getting hungry

                This post is from Linn County Master Gardener Claire Smith:


   Their soft and silky fur resembles sable.  Their eyes are large and soft.  They leap as gracefully as ballerinas across the fence heading toward open water in the Cedar.  Nine of them crossed the pasture just now.  It’s likely a mixture of fawns—anterless bucks and young and mature does.  What a splendid image they present with the snow glistening in the sun this morning.  That’s easy for me to say now:  my opinion will change this summer when the zero scaping in my road ditch has nubbins for hostas because those deer chose to stop for a tasty snack.  Try as we might to curtail it, the increasing deer population continues to invade our rural and urban landscapes.

   Master Gardener, Darrell Hennessey, has this to say in answer to a recent Master Gardener Horticulture line (319-447-0647) question:  “The deer seem unusually hungry this year.  How can I keep them from eating my shrubbery?”

   Few gardening problems occur more regularly and result in more frustration than damage to plants and landscape from browsing, hungry deer.  Our efforts to contain the deer population within bounds are insufficient to insure an adequate food supply without Bambi regularly invading rural and urban lawns and landscapes.

   Some plants are less inviting to deer than others.  However, when deer are sufficiently hungry, they won’t hesitate to forage from barberry, buckthorn, red cedar, Russian olive, honeysuckle and balsam fir.  There’s not likely a lot one can do with existing damage; trim up the wound and try to avoid further injury.

   There are a number of repellents that meet with varying degrees of success:  these range from putrescence of egg solids (Big Game Repellent and Deer Away), ammonium soap of fatty acids (Hinder), bone tar oil (Magic Circle Deer Repellent) and thiram fungicide to the use of aromatic soap bars (with the wrapper left in place), human hair, blood meal, tankage from animal rendering.  The reference  cited below notes that Deer Away lasts twice as long as other repellents because rain and snow do not wash it off.

   Everyone seems to agree that the only really reliable solution to excluding deer remains the construction of an eight foot tall fence.  For most of us, this is usually impractical and construction of a temporary barrier using snow fence around high value plants might suffice since deer usually avoid small, penned-in areas.

   Reference:   http://www.extension,

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New Brucemore workshop

Know how to prepare your garden for spring by attending Brucemore’s new Prudent Pruning Workshop.  Brucemore gardeners Deb Engmark and David Morton offer a 90 minute program devoted to demystifying the when, how, and why of pruning your garden.    The workshop takes place February 26 at 6:30 p.m. in Brucemore’s visitor center. Admission is $10 per person and $7 for Brucemore members. Space is limited. Call (319) 362-7375 for reservations.   Brucemore is Iowa’s only National Trust Historic Site and is located at 2160 Linden Drive SE, Cedar Rapids.

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Lightning bugs eat WHAT??

Who doesn’t like lightning bugs, the quintessential sign of summer? Of all that I learned at Saturday’s Winter Gardening Fair, my favorite tidbit is another reason to love this beneficial beetle. The next time my kids ask what lightning bugs eat, I’ll know, thanks to entomologist Donald Lewis, whose session, “The Good, the Bad and the Buggly,” was one of three workshops I attended at the gardening fair.

Here’s more of what Lewis, from Iowa State University’s extension, had to say.

On earwigs:

It’s a myth that earwigs crawl into a sleeping person’s ears to lay its eggs and they don’t burrow into your brain (whew!) Their name comes from a habit they had in the damp castles of Europe of crawling into the white wigs of the castle’s inhabitants and then wandering into the wig-wearer’s ears. Of more relevance to our time,  earwigs, identifiable by pincers on their tailend, are both beneficial, as they feed on decaying matter, and a pest, as they also nibble on foliage.

White grubs and Japanese beetles:

White grubs are the larval stage of various types of June bugs. Most of those in Iowa are the “masked chafer,” and more and more, the dreaded (editor’s note) Japanese beetle. The grubs live in lawns and chew the roots off grass. Secondary damage is done when raccoons and skunks scavenge for this “land shrimp” and tear the turf to get at the grubs. Moles, by the way, don’t indicate that your lawn has grubs. Their favorite meal is earthworms. There are various chemicals to rid lawns of grubs and to spray on the adult beetles, but just getting rid of the grubs won’t eradicate problems with the adults, because even if your lawn is grub-free, adult beetles – Japanese beetles, at least – can come from far away to dine on your roses, raspberry bushes and 350 other types of plants. Hand-picking the adults works best when done early in the season, as their chewing releases a scent to other Japanese beetles of where to find their next meal. Lewis said what you do with them after you pick them off is your choice: hammer, etc. Mine is to knock them into a container of soapy water. If you use plain water, they can swim around for several days and be none the worse off for your trouble.


 Aha! This is where the lightning bugs come in. Placing copper strips or pennies in your hosta – a favorite target of Iowa’s gray garden slugs – hasn’t been proven to prevent the slugs’ damage. But lightning bugs, in their larval stage, prey on slugs. Lightning bugs also eat other insect larvae and snails. What a beneficial beetle!

There was so much more I learned at the gardening fair. From Linn County Master Gardener Lu Barron – you might know her as one of our Linn County Supervisors – I found out why my peonies might not be blooming. Too much shade, too much competition from other plants, buds nipped by a late frost or too much nitrogen fertilizer are among the possible reasons. I also learned the best way to plant peonies – with eyes 1 to 2 inches below the soil line.

All of the presenters undoubtedly put quite a bit of preparation into their sessions, but I don’t know of anyone who had more work to do than Master Gardener Nancy Sutherland, who labeled and bundled dozens and dozens of tiny dried flowers so each of the attendees at her “Everlastings” workshop could leave with a whole box to take home and examine. Sutherland and other Master Gardeners can be found at the Lowe Park demonstration gardens in Marion, as soon as the weather warms.

Finally, what a great presentation by keynote speaker, Melinda Myers! Some of my previous posts (including excerpts from my interview with Melinda, if you want to hear her for yourself) address her topic of attracting butterflies and birds to your garden.  But I think my favorite quote from her speech was about how to get children interested in gardening. “Even if you don’t enjoy them, bugs get kids in the garden,” she said. “And the creepier the bugs are, sometimes, the better.”  

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A Day at the Fair

The Linn County Master Gardeners’ Winter Gardening Fair today started off with a snowy drive, but it was great fun to meet some of the 600 or so people who attended the event at Kirkwood Community College.

I’ll be sharing some of what I learned and I hope you will, too, by adding your comments.  In the meantime, to see some of the photos from Saturday’s Winter Gardening Fair, click here:

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