Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Dark Side of Gardening

I felt something.  A terrible suspicion entered my mind, so I went upstairs, took off my shirt, and looked in the mirror.  Sure enough, there it was, crawling across my stomach.  Trying not to scream and alarm the children, I grabbed it and ran half-naked through the house to the bathroom.  (Sorry to any neighbors who might have been glancing at our windows at the time.)  I threw it down the sink and poured water down the drain for about 10 minutes, as there was no way I wanted that sucker to come back up.

There it is, folks, the dark side of gardening or being outside in general, especially if you live in my neck of the woods.  It is a very tiny but extremely scary foe:


If you thought I was going to stop and take a picture of the tick on me, you thought wrong.
Here is a pic from Wikipedia.
The next day I went out to the garden again.  This time I was prepared, having sprayed myself liberally with Eau de Deet.  I was working in my vegetable garden picking bok choy when I happened to look down and spotted movement.  There was another one, its little red and black body standing out in stark contrast as it crawled along my cream-colored shirt.

Yes, I look this good while screaming.
Apparently it did not get the memo that it was supposed to keep away from anything with Deet.  A pesticide developed for use by the Army for jungle warfare after World War II, one that I try to avoid putting on my own children, is apparently just not good enough for my backyard ticks.  Either that or I have extra dumb ones.

And yes, now I have become rather scared of my own backyard.

The scariness of ticks is not the actual tick or even the way the little insect turns vampire and sucks blood into its increasingly bloated body (ew).  It's more because of all the diseases it could be carrying.   In the Northeast, sources say 50% or even up to 75% of the adult deer tick females (the only deer ticks that suck blood) could carry Lyme disease.  Almost everyone you meet up here has some horror story of someone they know with Lymes that has had serious health complications - even including death.

"Lyme Disease Risk Map" by The Center for Disease Control and Prevention 
That's scary stuff.

And that's not even counting the other tick-borne diseases that are also rearing their ugly heads up here: Rocky Mountain Fever, Powassan Virus, Borrelia miyamotoi disease, babesiosis, and several other unpronounceable ones.

So, what's a girl to do?  I garden extensively, and my exercise of choice is hiking through the woods.  I don't want to give up my favorite activities.  (That would be letting the tiny terrorists win!) So far my plan of action has involved more Deet, tucking my pants into my socks within my gardening boots (better look like a dork than the other option, right?), and spend a good amount of time stripping in front of a mirror each time after I go outside.  So far, so good (knocking on lots of wood).

photo source
So now you know what I am afraid of this Halloween.  (I can't even imagine what would happen if some kid wore a giant tick costume and came trick-or-treating to my door.)  As always, happy gardening after reading this post - and good luck out there.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Jump School

All right, birds, listen up!  We are here to learn about seed extraction techniques for the Large Annual Sunflower.  
This is a little tricky, but I promise you, it is well worth it.

There are two main techniques for this here Sunflower.  First up is the Pivot Technique:

Step to the edge of your Sunflower.
Grasp the flower firmly with your talons and then pivot, upside down. 
Clamp down on the seed aaandd pull!

See, nothing to it!  Now you try.

Come on, don't be shy!

Pivot, pivot... 

No, no, don't lose your footing!

Okay, we might need more work on that one.

Alrighty, on to the second Technique!
This Jump and Grab approach for seed extraction is quite simple:

Jump up, using your wings to give lift, and grab the seed.
Then land on the Sunflower head or drop lightly back to the ground.

See?  Quite simple!
Now you do it.

Yes, good jumping.
Get that seed...

Now either grab on or drop...
No, no, no, what are you doing?!

Oh, dear.

This is going to be a long class, isn't it?

p.s. This week's guest blogger over at is yours truly!  You can check out my post on my Hellstrip Garden on their site.   And as always, happy gardening!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Pastel Flowers in the Fall Garden

When I think of fall colors, what comes to mind is yellows and oranges, golds and russets. But the color theme of my front garden is pinks, purples, and blues, and even in fall, some of these pastel colors are still persevering against the changing backdrop of autumn leaves.

There are so many great blooming annuals that continue into fall.  In my garden, I have a lot of purple and white flowering alyssum which flowered throughout the summer and are still going.  My favorite annual, however, is the easy-care, self-seeding Cosmos.  They start blooming in mid summer and just don't stop.

Also still blooming in the garden are my 'Miss Molly' Butterfly Bushes.  I'm so excited about these plants because I grew them from cuttings last year, and I now have nine little Butterfly Bushes going strong.  'Miss Molly' is supposed to be a noninvasive cultivar, and I just love the color.

'Miss Molly' Butterfly Bush
Of course, fall also means the bloom season of perennial Asters, and they come in a marvelous array of pastel colors.  In addition, they are a very important source of nectar for bees and one of their favorites.  You can hear humming coming from my Asters several feet away due to all the bees enjoying them.

Bumblebee on Aster laevis 'Bluebird'
Daisies are my favorite flower, and in my garden, they are a must-have.  Most daisies bloom earlier in the summer, but thankfully there is also one for fall: Montauk Daisies.

Asters and Montauk Daisies
One doesn't usually think of Crocus in fall, either, but Fall Crocus are simply lovely.  I always forget about them until their blue little blooms pop up all of a sudden.  One of the most well-known Fall Crocus is Crocus sativus, or the Saffron Crocus.  The spice saffron is actually the dried stigma of the Saffron Crocus.  Each flower only produces three stigmas, and they must be harvested carefully by hand.  (Now you know why it is so expensive for such a little amount.)

Fall Crocus
Last but certainly not least in my garden are the 'Sheffield' Mums.  If I had to pick one, this would be my favorite pastel flower for the fall.

They are a little different from the common pincushion mums we usually see around this time of year.  Sheffield mums are much more graceful and airy looking, and their blooms are such a subtle color, varying from salmon-pink to pink to near-white.

Just perfect for a pastel garden in fall.

To find out what else is blooming in other people's gardens around the world, visit Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day over at May Dreams Gardens blog.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Fabulous Fall-blooming Willowleaf Sunflower

'At the other extreme from [the common annual sunflower] is the graceful sunflower (Helianthus orgyalis), worth growing for its foliage alone.  It has narrow, drooping leaves, grows ten feet high, and has small, pale-yellow flowers scattered along spikes sometimes four feet long...
Buy this plant this year.  You will never regret it.'
~Thomas McAdam
'The Best Tall Perennials', The Garden Magazine, Volume I, 1905

Europeans discovered this North American perennial during explorations of the Arkansas Territory in the early 1800's.  They coined it the 'Graceful Sunflower' and gave it the botanical name Helianthus orgyalis, which is translated loosely as 'man-sized sunflower'.  ('Orgyalis' is derived from a classical Greek distance measurement 'orgya', in which you stretch out your arms as far as you can and measure from fingertip to fingertip.  Historically, this means around 6 feet or as tall as a man.) 

Helianthus salicifolia in front of the veggie garden
Somewhere along the way, the name got changed to Helianthus salicifolia ('salicifolia' meaning 'willow-leaved'), and the common name is now, aptly, the 'Willowleaf Sunflower'.  Under any name, it is a beautiful plant, strikingly tall, with lovely and graceful narrow leaves.

I have it planted in the front corner of my vegetable garden, as I just can't help but try to pretty up what is normally a more utilitarian type of space.  I love how throughout the summer it keeps growing taller and taller and taller - and then in fall, when most of the rest of the garden is winding down, it explodes into masses of bright yellow flowers.

It is a beautiful sight, and, of course, the wildlife notice and enjoy it as well.

Syrphid fly
The blooms attract bees and other pollinators, and Goldfinches love the seeds produced afterwards.

flight of the bumblebee
The Willowleaf Sunflower was described in one old text as being 'hardy as the common dandelion'.  It tolerates a wide variety of soils (mine is in hard clay) and, like many plants native to the prairie, it is drought tolerant once established.  Last year mine pretty much fended for itself and did fine, though it only grew to about 4 feet tall.  This year my plant benefited from a leak from my drip irrigation for my veggie garden, and it definitely enjoyed the extra water, growing to 6 feet and full of blooms.

As tolerant as it is of different growing conditions, the Willowleaf Sunflower is happiest in full sun and well-drained soil.  In partial shade, the plant will tend to be more open and leggy, with fewer flowers, and will be more likely to flop.  Mine is in a corner that gets some morning shade, and, yep, after a hard rain, part of it flops. 

Interestingly, the part that gets the most shade does the most flopping.
It's not an easy plant to stake gracefully, so to keep it from flopping, some gardeners will pinch it back in early summer, resulting in a shorter, more compact plant (though if height is not wanted, there are now several cultivars that are supposed to stay short, such as 'First Light', 'Table Mountain', and 'Low Down').  Design-wise, the arching branches of the Willowleaf Sunflower are a nice complement to a mixed grass border, even if some of the stems flop.  Or if put in the back of the border, as is often done due to its height, the shorter plants in front would help support it.  The famed gardener Gertrude Jekyll used to plant Willowleaf Sunflower in the back of her border, and then, after her shorter plants in front were done blooming for the summer, she would pin the Sunflower stalks down over them.  This would cause the plant to shoot up flower stalks all along the stem, creating a blanket of yellow blooms in the garden for fall.  

The Willowleaf Sunflower spreads by creeping rhizomes to create a colony.  It is good to divide it every 3 or 4 years to maintain vigor or if one needs to control its spread, as it can sometimes spread quickly when happy in its native range.  It is also easily propagated by division.  

Hardiness: zones 4-9
Sun: Full Sun
Height: 6-10 feet
Width: 3 feet
Bloom time: late summer through fall
Soil type: any (tolerates clay!)
Native to central North America
Deer and Rabbit resistant

It is such a striking plant either in a border or as a specimen.  Just like Mr. Thomas McAdams opined over 100 years ago, I certainly don't regret getting this beautiful plant!

Anyone else ever grown it?

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