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Houseplants Come In All Shapes and Sizes

Abutilon

One of my first houseplants, this abutilon bloomed in January in 2009. It does not live in my Greenfield house.

Houseplants have never been a big part of my life. When I moved to a big old house on Grinnell Street with my five children in 1971 I had never grown houseplants. I had hardly grown any plants at all. However you may remember that in 1971 organic gardening and the value of gardening was all the rage. I was ready to join the crowd.

The house had a large sunny living room. I had not brought a lot of living room furniture with me to this wonderful house, but I had brought dreams of beautiful plants. Of which I knew nothing, but I was ready to learn.

Do you remember those hippie days when hanging plants were supported by macramé plant holders at every other window? I hung an airy delicate asparagus fern, and a more sturdy Swedish ivy plant (Plectranthus) in front of my big sunny windows, Below them was a makeshift table covered with a Christmas cactus, an aloe, a peace lily (Spathiphyllum), and a prayer plant (Maranta). I even had a small rubber plant sitting on the floor, but I don’t remember how I ever acquired such an unusual (to me) plant. We called this area The Jungle.

I did have a tiny vegetable garden outside those big windows, and began my life as a gardener. However, we took a step back when we all moved from Greenfield, to a brief year in Maine. We had chickens and pigs and a vegetable garden there, but no houseplants. Then it was on to five years in New York City. No gardening at all. Not even a hanging asparagus plant.

When we moved to Heath we quickly set up a too-large vegetable garden. There was very little time for flowers or house plants. I soon learned there is always time and space for flowers, indeed they are needed, but aside from a Christmas cactus and an abutilon, there were no good spaces in our house for a houseplant jungle.

Life in Greenfield in a small house gave us a small yard sufficient for an ornamental garden with blooming shrubs, perennials and annuals. But that small house does not have satisfactory windows for blooming houseplants. In the contest between furniture or plants, I am afraid furniture won.

Recently I hung a cheerful hanging asparagus fern at the sunny window in my so-called office. I also have two non-blooming Christmas cactus, a begonia, and an aloe, but if I had my druthers and beautiful big windows and windowsills I would welcome many more houseplants.

I’d choose striped spider plants, sometimes called airplane plant. The plant in its pot will grow be between one to two feet, but the cascade of stems with baby plants will be two or three feet long. NASA has done tests and says this is one of the best air cleansing plants around as is the Peace Lily (Spathephyllum). The succulent Aloe vera also cleanses the air and is useful if you get a sunburn or scrape on your skin. I always have an aloe in the house.

Sticks on fire, Euphorbia tirucalli, is a plant I have always admired. The green version is called pencil cactus which gives you an idea of its shape. The hybrid red-orange color of the sticks is very dramatic. This cactus needs sun for the fiery color to develop.

I have always like the shrimp plant (Justicia brandegeana). It  has little white blossoms and bracts that resemble pink shrimp – if you just use your imagination. To insure blooming this plant needs medium to bright light. It will grow between one to three feet. Careful watering is important.

Christmas cactus

Edward’s Christmas cactus is more lush than any I have ever grown

There are many more plants on my wish list and a visit to my friend Edward Maeder’s house is always inspiring. His house has a large sunny front room filled with plants in the winter. Dozens of plants are cuddling through the cold season in that room, including a giant wine-colored begonia, many un-named (to me) hanging plants, and a large fragrant lemon geranium to name only a very few. There is even a 7 foot rubber tree!

Sago pine

Two stages of the Sago Pine

In the living room is a Christmas cactus with more blooms than I have every seen on one plant. He also has several small tropical sago ferns by the window. They are small now but will continue growing outside in good weather. The varieties of houseplants Maeder has is stunning.

If you are considering adding houseplants there are things to keep in mind. You will need suitably sized pots with good drainage. Ever larger pots will be needed for repotting. They are necessary because roots will grow and become potbound.

Potting soil needs to be chosen carefully. Does the plant need fast draining soil? Will a basic potting mix be sufficient? Do plants like African violets or succulents need a specific mix?

Careful watering is essential. Try to have a watering schedule appropriate to the nature of the plant.

Potted plants need to be fertilized from time to time. Sometimes this is a seasonal task. Sometimes a plant will look a bit peaked, suggesting it is time for a pick-me-up.

Needless to say, plants need grooming. They need a shower bath from time to time. Drooping leaves and dead flowers need to be removed. They need to be checked for mealy bugs and aphids.

Do you have houseplants? I’d love to hear about them.

Between the Rows  January 18, 2020

Winter Reading Suggestions From the Files


Bringing Nature Home book

Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy.

Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy

One of the best books in my collection is Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press $27.95). Dr. Tallamy, a professor and chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, explains the importance of native plants in even in a small suburban garden.

In an area that is as open and wooded as ours we may not be aware that there is more to the need for natives than concern about invasive species that upset an ecosystem.  Native plants need to be available for native insects to eat so native birds can eat them.  We all want those birds!  According to Tallamy a balanced ecosystem needs more insects. It is when the balance of the system is disrupted that problems arise.

The subject is a big one, but the book is a page turner. Tallamy engagingly speaks out of his professional knowledge and his experiences in his own backyard.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

We all know that Abraham Lincoln grew up motherless from the age of nine, but I certainly never knew that it was white snakeroot (Eupatoreum rugosum) that killed his mother in1818. Nancy Hanks, her aunt, uncle and several other residents of Little Pigeon Creek in Indiana all succumbed to milk sickness. While people were able to connect the illness and deaths to the milk they drank, they did not understand that the milk was deadly because of the snakeroot that the cows ate.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

White snakeroot, whose flowers somewhat resemble Queen Anne’s Lace, can still be found throughout North America. Because tremetol, the toxic element remains active even when dry, it is dangerous in hayfields and pastures to this day.

Stewart has many other stories about familiar poisonous plants like aconite, curare, one of the several arrow poisons, nightshade, opium poppies, and poison hemlock. Even with these plants she has found weird and amazing histories like the fact that Nazi scientists “found aconite useful as an ingredient for poisoned bullets,”

In our own region there was a great panic just a few years ago about giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) that resembles a giant Queen Anne’s Lace plant. Giant hogweed is a member of a phototoxic plant family, whose sap becomes poisonous when exposed to sunlight. Damage from the sap will blister painfully and look like a severe burn.

She also catalogs many plants that are not as familiar like khat (Catha edulis), a shrub that grows in Ethiopia and Kenya. In the United States it is categorized as a Schedule 1 narcotic, as is marijuana. According to Stewart “Khat played a small but pivotal role in the 1993 battle of Mogadishu in which two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Gun-toting Somalian men stuffed khat leaves into their cheeks and raced around Mogadishu with a jittery high that lasted until late into the night.”

Girl Waits With Gun

Girl Waits With Gun – Just for fun about the intrepid Constance Kopp and her sisters. Lots is true!

The information is useful, and fascinating, but Stewart has a way with words. This is no dry manual of 221 toxic plants. Her method is to wander through history, myth, legend and literature as well as science as she describes what is known of these plants.

Wicked Plants is a small and handsome volume with a poison green cover and browning pages that look as if it had resided on a witch’s shelf for the past century or two. The beautiful copperplate etchings are by Briony Morrow-Cribbs who lives in Brattleboro. Stewart points out that Briony is also the name of a wicked plant that can cause vomiting, dizziness and even respiratory failure.

Not too many plants in Girl Waits with Gun, or any of the other books in the series – except when the ‘girls’ go to war. Amy Stewart is a great researcher!

Feeding the Birds and the Native Plant Trust

Native Plant News

Native Plant News from the Native Plant Trust

I love watching the birds in my garden. Which is not to say that I know them by name or type. When I look at the birds outside my window I see big birds and little birds. I see blue jays and robins, just about the only birds I can identify. I can also identify hummingbirds because the only hummingbird I am likely to see is the ruby throated hummingbird. I can hear the woodpeckers. I enjoy having all these birds in my garden.      Even so, I do not provide bird feeders, not even during the winter. I am not ready to battle the many squirrels that live in my garden. I did make a try. I bought a Plexiglas feeder that would stick to my window. This is the way I thought I could finally see the shapes of beaks and the feather markings clearly enough to name a bird, with the help of a guide book.

And what happened? We stuck the feeder to the window, added lovely black oil sunflower seed and sat by the window to see who would come.

A squirrel came and within minutes it had managed to get from the feeding platform to inside the seed space. That was the beginning and end of our bird feeder experiment.

I do provide plants that will go to seed and will feed the birds. Some of the plants that attract and feed the birds in my garden are very familiar.

The list of seed bearing flowers begins with dandelions in the spring and goes through the summer and fall with cosmos, zinnias, black-eyed susans, asters, coreopsis, blanket flowers, sunflowers, sedums and many others. All of these flowers will also make the bees happy. Bees come to these flowers to sip the nectar and collect the pollen. They leave the seeds to the birds.

In addition to flowers that produce seeds for the birds, I also plant berries. I have elderberries and winterberries. I can tell you those elderberries disappear really fast in the summer. I have two tall American cranberry viburnums; they only look like cranberries but the birds still enjoy them.  I also grow raspberries. Oddly, birds are not very interested in raspberries. Blueberries are another story.

Since I have two river birches, a willow, a huge Norway spruce and neighboring maple and oak trees, I know there are many insects that live in those trees. Birds eat lots of insects, especially in the spring when they need to feed their hatchlings. Entomology Professor Doug Tallamy said “Insects are extraordinarily high in protein: They have up to twice as much protein, pound for pound, as does beef.” That seems amazing, but it explains how birds survive even though they expend so much energy flying.

Even though I do provide for the birds, even a little birdbath that I clean and fill throughout good weather, I have felt a bit guilty in the winter because I don’t put out bird feeders. Then, the other day I received my Native Plant News from the Native Plant Trust with an article on Feeding Birds: An Eco-Gardener’s Approach by Christopher Leahy. He worked at Massachusetts Audubon for 45 years and knows his birds. He said that guilt was not necessary and neither were the birdfeeders. He did acknowledge that having a bird feeder will attract birds, and will provide pleasure to those who like watching the birds.

Leahy went on to say that feeding the birds, and creating a whole industry, did not exist before the 1930s. “Birds are extraordinarily well-adapted for finding the kind of food they require and are vastly better equipped than our species for living outdoors in abominable weather, due to the highly effective insulation system called plumage and an exquisitely sensitive metabolism.”

He suggested getting familiar with 50 of the birds most likely to visit your garden. Then become familiar with their favorite foods and nesting sites. He also suggested that we should encourage the presence of insects and such things as spiders, centipedes and creatures of leaf litter. Don’t use pesticides and don’t let the garden get too tidy.

As you will have noticed I have not mentioned the New England Wildflower Society. That is what I called this organization for many years. However the organization had four names before it chose Native Plant Trust, a name very true to Society for the Protection of Native Plants chosen by its founders in 1900.

The Native Plant Trust’s website provides wonderful information about native plants. Its Go Botany project makes it possible for gardeners, or people who just like hiking through wild areas, to identify and learn about unfamiliar plants.

There are also tip sheets on available plants sold by the Native Plant Trust as well caring for various kinds of plants. There are also workshops and seminars during the year.

I am a happy member but I was surprised and delighted to learn that the Trust has other native plant sanctuaries in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, in addition to Massachusetts’s Garden in the Woods in Framingham. I am ready to do some travelling this summer.

For more information about the Native Plant Trust check out their comprehensive website www.nativeplanttrust.org. ###

Between the Rows   January 11, 2020

January 2020 Snow, Floods and Parsley

Snow

The View of Snow from the office window

On the first day of January 2020 there is a view of foot or more of snow all around the house Frigid.

River Birches

River Birches look beautiful in the snow.

Snow covering the low conifers in front of the house

Snow followed by flood

Snow followed by flood

Temperatures slowly rose to 60 degrees. Snow melting and leaving a flood on the north side of the garden all the way  to  the house.

Snow in front of the house on January 12, 2020

There is still a little snow in front of  the house because this is a very shady area. But even here  the warm temperatures melted much of the snow.

Parsley

1-12-20 Parsley

Winter returns  1-16-20

The weather has been so mild that this southern area where I have herbs growing has protected the parsley. The fallen leaves helped.   On January 15, the sun keeps shining, temperatures in the 40’s, but over night winter returned.

Trees and Bees and More

Central Park NYC

Trees and bees provide beauty at New York’s Central Park which was designed to provide pleasure for city dwellers – and the bees

It seems like the whole town of Greenfield has been making New Year’s Resolutions to work energetically with trees and plants to make this a more beautiful and more environmentally sensitive town.

The Greenfield Tree Committee has been at work since it was founded in 1998 by Carolyn MacLellan. In 2002 Greenfield was designated as a “Tree City” by the Arbor Day Foundation, a distinction renewed every year since.

Nancy Hazard has been involved with the Tree Committee for years. She told me they received a new grant from the US Forest Service last year that is giving the town 800 new trees. Already 210 have been planted. Two hundred more will be planted each year in 2020 and 2021.

Hazard was part of the Town’s plan to turn the land at the end of Miles Street into a Park. The Energy Park was born with planting schemes that would concentrate on native plants.

Trees including sycamore, river birches, a sycamore, sassafras, maples, redbuds and hawthorns with beautiful red berries in fall and winter have been in place for many years. Over the past few years the Energy Park has been undergoing renovations, soil enrichments and replantings.

John Bottomley, Nancy Hazard, Mary Chicoine

John Bottomley, Nancy Hazard, Mary Chicoine

Hazard told me that she had an Aha! Moment. She suddenly realized that trees provided many services to the environment in addition to shade, reducing heat and controlling rain water runoff. Trees provide food and nesting places for birds, food for insects, food for caterpillars, and even pollen and nectar for the bees. This year Hazard, Mary Chicoine and John Bottomley, all of the Greenfield Tree Committee. planted two tulip poplars and a disease resistant elm which certainly provide those services.

I had not realized before that trees require pollination as well as the flowers in our gardens. The species that rely on insects (mostly bees, wasps, flies, beetles, butterflies, and moths), birds, and bats, tend to have fragrant or showy flowers.

I was surprised to learn that Massachusetts is the third most densely populated state, but it is the 8th most forested state with 62% forest cover. All those trees sequester carbon. They are an important weapon in fighting global warming. I am grateful to those around the state, and especially in our rural area who have maintained woodland and street ‘forests.’

Trees are one way to care for our environment, but flowers are another way. Volunteers for the Energy Park have worked for years to keep the park filled with native plants. Some are early spring ephemerals like blue cohosh, bloodroot, jack in the pulpit, trillium and others. As the season progresses there are more and larger flowers like turtlehead, coreopsis, bee balm, black-eyed susan, cardinal flower and joe pye weed. All of these native flowers, and many others, provide pollen and nectar for the bees, food for caterpillars. Plant labels made by Wisty Rorabacher  are very helpful.

Brookie sculpture

Susan Worgaftik and Brookie

Happily there are other gardens in town that support our important creatures. Susan Worgaftik works with volunteers at the small River Works Park. Pollinator friendly flowers dance right under the Brookie sculpture on Deerfield Street. The park is surrounded by trees busy sequestering carbon.

Nancee Bershof and Tom Sullivan worked with volunteers and designed a beautiful and functional meadow garden on Pleasant Street in front of the John Zon Community Center. For two years now the garden has bloomed with tiarella and lady’s mantle in the spring and with all manner of bigger native plants like liatris, bee balm, yarrow, culver’s root, amsonia, jacob’s ladder, butterfly milkweed,  as well as joe pye weed and asters in the fall. This is not a comprehensive list. Be sure to visit this wonderful teaching garden, and follow the path through it. Identification labels make it easy to learn about the plants.

Behind the John Zon Community Center is a long rain garden filled with plants that tolerate being wet, as well as benefitting the birds and the bees.

In addition the Community Garden, next to the rain garden, will have new gardeners this spring. Last year a tool shed was installed, complete with tools from the old shed.  Rabbi Andrea Cohen- Kiener, Dorothea Sotirios and the Working Group of gardeners kept the project moving. Soil amendments were added to the poor soil. This past summer the soil improvement work continued. Rye was planted and cut down before it went to seed. Clover, vetch, peas, oats, and sorghum were also added. Visiting chickens and ducks spent a couple of months living on that space and added their own soil enrichments.

A new project has begun on Fiske Street. Amy McMahon of Mesa Verde and Claire Chang of the Solar shop are supporting Wisty Rorabacher and Sadie Miller in replanting the weedy bank at the edge of the parking lot. With the help of The DPW a plan to rebuild the retaining wall is now in place. I’m keeping my eye on this new project. You can be sure the bees and birds, butterflies and bats will all be considered.

This New Year I will be looking for more ways to make my garden useful to the environment. Maybe you will too. ###

Between the Rows   January 4, 2020

Emily Dickinson and Cherry Ingram – Different Passions

Emily Dickinson (1830-1883) and Collingwood Cherry Ingram (1880-1981) were both gardeners, but lived at different times with very different gardens. Two new books, Emily Dickinson’s Gardening Life by Marta McDowell(Timber Press $24.95) and Sakura Obsession: The Incredible Story of The Planthunter Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms by Naoko Abe (Knopf  $27.95) take us into different worlds.

We who live so close to Emily Dickinson’s home may be familiar with Dickinson’s poetry which included plants and flowers, but we may not know very much about her Amherst gardens. In a revision of an earlier book McDowell shares the history of the Homestead where Dickinson spent most of her life with her parents and sister Lavinia, as well as The Evergreens next door where her brother Austin, his wife Susan and their children lived.

Having set the scene she lays out the seasons of the year in Dickinson’s garden. I used to imagine the pale waiflike Emily wandering and whispering in the halls of her home – except when she was writing poems at the desk by her bedroom window. McDowell paints a very different picture. Her young Emily wandered in the woods with the huge dog, Carlo, her father gave her. As often as not she and Carlo came home muddy, but carrying wildflowers that she pressed and put in her own herbarium.

Through the seasons, McDowell includes Emily’s poems, photographs of herbarium  pages and delicate drawings and paintings of flowers by Orra White Hitchcock and others. We get a view of Emily not only through her poetry, but through her letters. Happily some letters have been found and collected providing more insights into her thoughts and view of the world.

Many of the poems describing the seasons of the year are included from the spring pansy: “I’m the little Heart’s Ease!/I don’t care for pouting skies!/If the buttery delay/Can I, therefore, stay away?” and continuing until winter when “There is a certain Slant of light,/Winter Afternoons – / That oppresses like the Heft/of Cathedral tunes.”

The book ends with the Visiting a Poet’s Garden chapter. It includes brief information about those who lived in the house after the Dickinsons, and the restoration of the house, which now would look very familiar to all the Dickinsons. There is also an informative list of all of Emily’s plants. Notes about each plant accompany information about the herbarium and poems listed for each flower.

The book is an absolute treasure trove. I can’t wait for spring and another visit to the Dickinson Homestead. It has been a while since I was there last. Thank you Marta McDowell!

 

Emily Dickinson was very much a homebody. British Collingwood Ingram was devoted to cherry trees and travelled to Japan, visiting cherry tree groves around ancient temples. He often requested scions of the various sakura (as the tree was named in Japan) and sent them to his own gardens in England.

By the time he visited Japan little attention was being paid to the sakura trees. There was general confusion about the names of the varieties and little realization that the diversity of the trees was declining. Fortunately, after WWI Ingram studied Japanese trees, especially the sakura and became expert. In 1926 he travelled to Japan and became involved with the Cherry Association , meeting many Japanese experts. He met Seisaku Funatsu, a member of the Association who had noticed the decline of the Sakura, caused in part by pollution from factories and motor cars. Other Japanese sakura experts also recognized the problem and worked with Ingram.

One of the trees that was rescued and became popular is the wild cherry, now known as the Sargent cherry tree which is now popular in the US.

Ingram began sending scions back to his English garden and had them grafted onto his own cherry rootstocks. This worked very well. Two of the cherries in his garden were already extinct in Japan. He continued his determination to learn all he could, and collect as many varieties as possible, bringing them back to his own garden so that he could return them to Japan.

Author Naoko Abe also provides brief descriptions in the shift in the culture of the Japanese. Japan made efforts to catch up with the west, desired to abolish the class system and send all children to school, but it was not easily done. Abe does not ignore the move toward militarization and the Second World War.

The history of Ingram and his sakura did not end with his death. The current Duke of Gloucester is a Patron of the Japan Society and has arranged to plant 6500 of three Japanese sakura varieties in the United Kingdom’s parks, gardens and schools to celebrate Japan’s relationship with the UK. This is a legacy from the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-2020.

Both books share the fascinating stories of two very different people, both of whom have made a mark on our world today.

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Still time to buy a floral calendar for 2020 with beauty and information from the UMass Extension Service. Go to www.umassgardencalendar.org. Cost is $14.

Between the Rows  December 21, 2019

 

 

First Day of 2020 – View from the Office

January 1, 2020 First day of the year

Here we are on the first day of 2020. What will the year bring? You can’t tell from the photo of the backyard garden because it is early and the sun  isn’t there yet. The three inches of sleet, snow and ice came falling over the past  couple of days, but now the sun is beginning to shine and at 10:30 am the temperature  is 45 degrees. This is a good way to start the new year.

river birch trees

River Birch Trees

The first clump of river birches was planted in 2015. The second clump planted in 2017 is dawdling but it is coming along.

The front of our house

I don’t usually show a photo of the front of our house, but I wanted a full record of the beginning of this new decade. You can’t tell very well, but the English holly on the right is loaded with red holly berries, while the low evergreens are covered with snow.

We are sure this will be a year of change and promise.  Happy New Year!