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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