Archive for December, 2008

The gardening itch

The following is from Linn County Master Gardener, Claire Smith:

 

     OH!  I had an itch I couldn’t scratch the other day.  And, it occurred two days in a row! The weather was so beautiful!  I wanted so badly to scratch in the snow and dirt to just take a tiny little peek into the flower beds.  I don’t really know what I expected to find.  But I was so curious.  I strolled around the yard. It was like the second day of my latest diet:  can I resist the urge?!   I did resist though not wanting to disrupt the protection the melting mulch provides.  But, then, lo and behold!  A seed catalog arrived in my mail box.  Now how do the seed companies know when to provide a positive reinforcement that spring is just around the corner!

     January is a perfect time of the year to plan gardens.  Measurements will help determine the number of plants needed.  Check the Iowa State University Extension Service web site for gardening information.    Share photos at your favorite garden center.  Ask lots and lots of questions.  Gardeners are nearly always willing to offer advice and knowledge.    One of the most difficult decisions for me in purchasing new plants is color combinations that will provide attractive contrasts.   I relate to a statement, “nature doesn’t create bad color combinations, we do” in an Iowa State Horticulture and Home Pest News publication entitled “Color for Winter Landscapes throughout the Year”.  The article promotes color and interest in conifers but I found it intriguing in the combinations of colors suggested. 

     An absolute must have for a source for color combinations is the 2009 Iowa State University Extension Service calendar available for $6.00 at the Linn County Office in Marion (or mailed to you for $8.00).  Each month features dramatic photos in a different color for each month with lists of annuals, perennials and woody plant selections in the color of the month. The final two pages share a wealth of design information.  And, the back cover provides numerous Horticulture publications and resource contacts.  It is one of the most informative calendars around. 

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Environmental New Year

   Prairiewoods is starting a monthly Environmental Lunch Group open to anyone who has a passion about environmental issues or the curiosity to learn more.

   Presentations will be facilitated while participants eat lunch.

   A different topic will be presented each month. Lunch is served at noon. The presentation begins at 12:15, with discussion ending by 1 p.m. The first three lunches are:

   Friday, Jan. 9 – The real truth about eating locally

   Thursday, Feb. 12 – Green alternative household cleaners

   Tuesday, March 17 – The hazards of plastic and green solutions.

Preregistration is required for a lunch count by 5 p.m. the day before the event. Fee is $8 for lunch, or bring your own lunch at no cost.

   Prairiewoods is at 120 E. Boyson Rd., Hiawatha, Iowa. To contact Prairiewoods, call Mary Ellen Dunford at (319) 395-6700.

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Mistletoe mythology

The following is from Linn County Master Gardener, Claire Smith:

 

I’m sitting here gazing out the window again.  It’s cold.  It’s dreary.  The big round hay bales are adorned in caps of frozen snow.  The cardinal in my Lilac Bush must have flown the coop for better living conditions. Now and then an occasional squirrel scurries across the yard searching for buried treasures.  Flocks of wild turkeys dotted the hillside along East Post Road and Hwy 100 yesterday.  We followed three young deer trotting down the middle of our road acting as if the right of way was theirs.  I suppose it was easier than struggling in the deep snow.  They stopped in a neighbor’s drive and glared as if we were imposing on their life style.  We wondered how many critters are wintering in homes along our road abandoned due to the flood.

            Relatives from Texas are in Iowa for the Holidays. We’ll enjoy a dinner with them and the weather will undoubtedly be a topic of conversation. My brother stopped yesterday with holiday cheer.  We travel to rural Bertram for another meal with fine food, fun gifts, and mega-jocularity.  97 year old Great Grandma will join us for a brunch.  Grandson Charlie got a reply, postmarked from the North Pole (!) from his letter to Santa.  Granddaughter Catie is convinced she has been a model child all year, but is waffling a bit on the Santa Claus thing.

 ‘Tis the Holiday Season. Hopefully everyone can find something, albeit small, to be thankful for.

 Many of us continue to be abundantly blessed.  Others are not so lucky. My Holiday wish to you is that you enjoy this Season for whatever reason you choose, but please, please make a note to yourself, that like wildlife that strives to survive this frigid weather, many many friends, acquaintances and folks you’ve never met will need your help going forward as they struggle to regain a balance in their lives.  Remember them as we embark on another New Year.

            On a lighter note:  any idea why we call Nature “Mother” and Winter “Old Man”?  Did you know Mistletoe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?  Its berries are poisonous; it has no roots so leaches from the tree to which it’s attached and in mythology was said to be a sign of submission when sighted during times of war!

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Flood plants

    During the Depression, Julie Gladfelder’s father always found something beautiful for his wife to look at, whether it was something he traded for, or found in the timbers. “It was so there would be something encouraging,” Gladfelder said. “It was such a bleak time.”

    Gladfelder, of Cedar Rapids, knows that Iowa flood victims are going through their own bleak times.

    She and Sheri Mealhouse of Cedar Rapids decided to offer something encouraging for those flood victims. The two started a program called Neighbor to Neighbor Sharing Plants.

    So far, they have given away nearly 180 houseplants to flood victims. The two will expand to offer free perennials to flood victims in the spring.

    Gladfelder said about 20 people have contributed houseplants, including jade, spider plants, African violets and more.  The two welcome donations, especially when outdoor plants will be needed next spring.

   More on their efforts will be published in The Gazette.

   If you’d like to donate or know a flood victim who would like a plant, leave a message below or send an email to me at: cindy.hadish@gazcomm.com

 

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Attracting birds and other wintertime tips

The following Q&A is from Iowa State University Extension’s garden experts:

I recently purchased a Norfolk Island pine.  How do I care for it? 

 

The Norfolk Island pine is a popular houseplant. During the holiday season, many individuals turn their plants into living Christmas trees by decorating them with miniature lights, ribbons and ornaments. The Norfolk Island pine thrives indoors when given good, consistent care. Place the Norfolk Island pine in a brightly lit location near an east, west or south window. Rotate the plant weekly to prevent the plant from growing toward the light and becoming lopsided. 

 

Thoroughly water the Norfolk Island pine when the soil surface becomes dry to the touch. Discard the excess water, which drains out the bottom of the pot. From spring to early fall, fertilize the plant with a dilute fertilizer solution every 2 to 4 weeks. A temperature of 55 to 70  degrees F is suitable for the Norfolk Island pine. Winter is often a difficult time because of low relative humidity levels in most homes. Raise the humidity level around the Norfolk Island pine with a humidifier or place the plant on a pebble tray. Low relative humidity levels, insufficient light, or infrequent watering may induce browning of branch tips and lead to the loss of the lower branches. 

 

Which trees and shrubs provide food for birds during the winter months? 

 

When attempting to attract birds to the landscape, trees and shrubs that provide food during the winter months are extremely important as natural foods are most limited at this time of year. Trees that provide food for birds in winter include hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), hawthorn (Crataegus species), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and crabapple (Malus species). Shrubs that provide food for birds include red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), sumac (Rhus species), roses (native species and Rosa rugosa), snowberry (Symphoricarpos species), nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) and American cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum). 

 

Can I dispose of my wood ashes in the garden? 

 

Wood ashes contain small amounts of several plant nutrients. The nutrient content of wood ashes depends on the type of wood burned, the thoroughness of its burning, and other factors.  Generally, wood ashes contain 5 to 7 percent potash, 1 percent phosphate, and small amounts of other elements. However, the largest component of wood ashes is calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is a liming material. Liming materials raise the soil pH. 

 

The soil pH is important because it affects the availability of essential nutrients. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14. Any pH below 7.0 is acidic and any pH above 7.0 is alkaline. A pH of 7.0 is neutral. Most vegetables and perennials grow best in slightly acidic soils with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Plants may not perform as well in soils with a pH above 7.0 because of the reduced availability of some essential nutrients. 

 

Avoid applying wood ashes to garden areas with a pH above 7.0. Applying wood ashes to alkaline soils may raise the soil pH and reduce the availability of some plant nutrients. An application of 10 to 20 pounds of wood ashes per 1,000 square feet should be safe if the soil pH is below 7.0. If the soil pH in your garden is unknown, conduct a soil test to determine the pH of your soil before applying wood ashes to flower or vegetable gardens. 

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Frightful weather?

The following is from Linn County Master Gardener, Claire Smith:

           

It’s a debatable issue:  is the weather outside really frightful today?  Or, is it all in your perspective?  I was out and about this morning but arrived home in time to sit here at my computer plunking away for this week’s blog and watch the beautiful huge flakes of snow wafting to the ground. There’s just something mesmerizing about an Iowa snowfall.   Right now, right outside a kitchen window, a Cardinal is perched in a lilac bush sheltered in a blanket of white. What a sight!

            Speaking of birds, what will you do with your live tree after the Holidays?   How about, after removing the ornaments (especially the tinsel) propping the tree in your perennial garden?  It will add winter interest as well as shelter for birds that enjoy feeding on the seeds of coneflower, rudbeckia and liatris.  Or use it as mulch by pruning the branches and covering perennial and bulb gardens.  I’ll bet your neighbors would volunteer to let you take their trees, too. 

            Have you observed what wildlife visits your garden?  Their antics can be quite entertaining.  Note which plants helped bring them into the landscape. 

            Brush snow off shrubs and evergreens as the heavy wet stuff will cause breakage and damage. Prune only broken/damaged branches now.  

            Most importantly, investigate environmentally friendly methods of removing snow and ice from sidewalks and driveways.  Calcium Chloride is more expensive, but it is easier on your plants. Watch for new plant-friendly products entering the market. 

            And, if you haven’t found the perfect gift for a gardener friend, think about a journal, plant labels, hand pruners, flower scissors, a harvest basket (my second favorite choice), a gift certificate to a favorite garden center, or (my first choice!), a load of well seasoned manure, delivered. Yes! You read correctly!  It will be an inexpensive gift and certain to bring smiles to everyone’s faces. 

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Ghost of Christmas Past

Deb Engmark, head gardener at the historic Brucemore mansion in Cedar Rapids, wrote the following about decorations of Christmases past:

 

The Christmas tree, the holly wreath, the sprig of mistletoe, and the Christmas bells were the four most “distinctive Christmas decorations” noted in a December 1907 issue of The Garden Magazine.  Stumbling upon this publication the day after the staff and volunteers completed holiday decorating at Brucemore allowed for some interesting comparisons between the times.

Balsam was recommended as the best variety of tree when decorating for Christmas and the best way to adorn it was not to overload it.  Pyramidal trees with short lustrous green needles striped with silver underneath were also popular in 1907 because they “give the impression of a recent light frost.” The month-long holiday season at Brucemore makes these natural, heavy-shedding, historic trees impractical for the mansion, and the temptation to over-adorn is irresistible in such a grand home.  I am not sure any of the staff has the ability to practice the “less is more theory” during the holiday season.

Holly was referred to as the most important decorative Christmas material, the most desirable was English holly with as many berries as possible. The most distinctive way of using holly was in the form of wreaths; the best wreaths were those faced with berries on both sides, “so that when they were hung in the window they would give pleasure to those passing by as well as the family indoors.”

As for the beloved holiday mistletoe tradition, in 1907 it was thought that “because it is not pretty in itself, one sprig of mistletoe is enough for most people.” This is a statement as true today as it was over 100 years ago.

The final “distinctive Christmas decoration” of 1907, the Christmas bells, are absent from the décor of 2008.  The traditional sleigh bells that we appreciate for their own magical sound were not the bells that the magazine referenced. In 1907, “Those big red bells of tissue paper that fold up like a stocking have now become almost a national institution.”  Who knew?

            Families in 1907 were concerned with their holiday budgets much like families in 2008.  According to the article, “The cheapest way to decorate is to collect native material, especially branches of evergreens.”  However, they urge the reader, “not to take any evergreens that do not belong to you without the owner’s approval. It is a gross violation of the Christmas spirit to cut down cultivated conifers on other people’s grounds.” 

            I encourage you to look to nature when decorating this holiday season.  Go forth and use your imagination and homegrown ornaments.  If you are questioned about your holiday aesthetic, cite deep American cultural traditions.  This method allows for creativity until the seed and plant catalogs start to arrive.  I too urge you to remember the Christmas spirit when collecting your greenery.

From the Big house at Brucemore may all comfort and cheer be yours this holiday season! 

 

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Eco-debate: real vs. fake

  Throw another log in the annual debate about which is better for the environment: an artificial tree or a real Christmas tree. Living Christmas trees are also an option in Iowa.

   Linn County Master Gardener Gene Frye has some experience in that arena. Frye’s wife was given a potted 2-foot-tall white spruce one year that they used for their Christmas tree.

   After the season, Frye kept the potted tree in his basement, keeping it semi-watered. Once the weather warms, the trees can be kept outdoors in their pots. More watering is necessary when they are outdoors.

   Frye said the tree was used for Christmas for a couple years until he planted it outside. Now the spruce is about 30 feet tall.

   If you want to keep the tree in its pot from year to year, Frye suggested bringing it indoors for the winter. Because conifers don’t go completely dormant, they could dehydrate if left outdoors in a small pot with frozen soil.

   Frye advocated finding a large spot to plant the tree when you are ready to transplant it. Early spring is the best time to transplant conifers in Iowa. For fall planting, late August through September is the best time to transplant conifers.

 

   Find more on the real vs. fake Christmas tree debate, as well as eco-friendly holiday tips in the Sunday, Dec. 14 issue of The Gazette.

 

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Poisoned Fruit

Following is an excerpt of a new report by Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food.

The Poisoned Fruit of American Trade Policy

Produce Imports Overwhelm American Farmers and Consumers

Americans are consuming more imported fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen and canned produce, and fruit juice than ever before.  An examination of U.S. consumption of produce that is commonly eaten as well as grown in America found that over the past 15 years Americans’ consumption of imported fresh fruits and vegetables doubled, but border inspection has not kept pace with rising imports, and less than one percent of the imported produce is inspected by the federal government. 

 

Food & Water Watch studied fifty common fruit and vegetable products like fresh apples, frozen broccoli, fresh tomatoes, orange juice and frozen potatoes and found that:

Imports made up one out of ten fresh fruits and one out of nine fresh vegetables Americans ate in 1993 (10.1 and 11.7 percent, respectively) but by 2007 the import consumption share doubled to more than one out of five fresh fruits and fresh vegetables (22.3 percent of fresh fruit and 23.9 percent of fresh vegetables). 

The share of imported processed (canned or frozen) produce tripled, from 5.2 percent of frozen packages or cans in 1993 to 15.9 percent in 2007. 

The share of imported fruit juice (orange, apple and grape) grew by 61 percent, from about a third of American consumption (30.8 percent) in 1993 to about half of consumption (49.5 percent) in 2007. 

On average, each American consumed 20 pounds of imported fresh fruit, 31 pounds of imported fresh vegetables and 24 pounds of imported processed produce and drank three gallons of imported juice in 2007.

Imports of fresh fruits (except bananas), fresh vegetables and processed produce essentially tripled, rising from 10 billion pounds in 1990 to 30 billion pounds in 2007.

Imported produce was more than three times more likely to contain the illness-causing bacteria Salmonella and Shigella than domestic produce, according to the latest FDA survey of imported and domestic produce.

Imported fruit is four times more likely to have illegal levels of pesticides and imported vegetables are twice as likely to have illegal levels of pesticide residues as domestic fruits and vegetables.

The hidden dangers on imported fruits and vegetables can enter U.S. supermarkets because the FDA inspects only the tiniest fraction of imported produce. Less than one percent of imported fresh produce shipments were inspected at the border in recent years.

To see the full report, go to: www.foodandwaterwatch.org/food/imports/the-poisoned-fruit-of-american-trade-policy

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Grandma’s plants

     The following is from Linn County Master Gardener, Claire Smith:

 

     Did you get Grandma’s Christmas list?  I’ll bet she says she doesn’t want anything:  she has too much stuff already.  What do you do?  How about a winter blooming window sill plant!

     There are some really neat little fellows out there.

·         African Violet:    has soft thick leaves and beautiful petite blooms.  Enjoys temperatures around 70’ with good air circulation.  Likes about 16 hrs. of daylight and 8 hrs. of darkness each day to produce blooms.  Hmmmmm sounds just like my Mom, warmer temps. and a good night’s sleep!

·         Shamrock:  resembles a large clover. Can have green leaves but can also be tricolored or deep purple.  Desires cooler temperatures, around 65’ and lots of bright light.  Grandma will be lucky to receive this one.

·         Spider Plant:  enjoys bright light and temperatures around 65’.  Mine profusely  grows long slender leaves with tiny white flowers in a sunny Northwest window.   Pebbles and water in a saucer under the plant offers humidity, keep the roots away from the water though.

·         Cyclamen:  heart shaped leaves and papery soft petals blooming in winter.  Wants well drained soil, really cool temperatures, i.e. 55’ and indirect light.  Great for an area without a lot of windows.  

    If Grandma would prefer a larger plant try:

·         Peace Lily:  not for the faint of heart, this plant has the capacity to become huge. Use it to fill an empty corner.  One of the first plants I ever had, I can attest that the Peace Lily will survive well in almost any condition.  Prefers bright, filtered, or natural light.  Has abundance of glossy, green foliage and regularly produces dramatic white blossoms.  Enjoys any comfortable room temperature.  Soil should be kept evenly moist.

·         Norfolk Island Pine:   Grandma gets a small live Holiday tree with this one.  Let the grandkids have fun decorating with lightweight ornaments.  Thrives with consistent care.  Needs brightly lit window.  Rotate weekly as it will grow toward the light.  Water thoroughly when soil becomes dry to touch. Discard excess water from saucer.  Likes humidity:  place on a pebble tray.  Likes temperatures 55-70’. 

    Complete your choice with a colorful bow and a handmade card and Grandma’s gift will be indeed special! 

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