A Merry Gardener Horticulture for daily living Sun, 15 May 2005 13:02:08 -0500 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/rss.xml Volcano Mulch https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_13294/ Mon, 09 Apr 2018 13:36:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_13294/ The tension is building in the hearts and minds of gardeners as the wet and cold weather continues to delay most outdoor garden activities. Before the weather breaks and releases the surge of pent up garden energy, I want to get on my soapbox for a moment to attempt to turn the tide against one of the worst practices landscaping that I continue to see everywhere I look.

Well-meaning homeowners and landscapers seem to understand that mulching around trees is a good idea, but have no concept of what proper mulching looks like.

Exhibit A: Volcano Mulch

What is wrong with this picture? This is a classic example of volcano mulch; the trunk of the tree erupts from the center of a tall, sloping mound. Mulch applied in this fashion spells death for the tree. How can a little pile of mulch kill a tree, you ask?

Mulch, as you likely know, is great at retaining moisture. Imagine now, what happens when mulch is applied directly in contact with the bark of the tree. The mulch holds moisture against the bark, which causes the bark to begin to rot. Left in this condition, the rot will eventually go through the outer layer of the bark into the cambium layer, the vascular tissue of the tree. Rotting through the cambium cuts off the flow of water from the roots and kills the tree. Beyond the potential for rot damage, mulching up against the tree trunk also invites insects and rodents like voles and mice to burrow in around your tree and start chewing on the bark.

Needless to say, volcano mulching is a harmful practice.

Now that I have elaborated on this improper mulching technique, I will give you some pointers for how to mulch around your trees properly.

1) Leave a two-inch gap between the trunk of the tree and your ring of mulch.

2) Apply the mulch 2-4 inches deep. You will likely need to make your application up to two inches deeper than your target depth to allow for settling. In other words, applying 4-6 inches of mulch will result in a stable 2-4 inch layer after the mulch has settled.

3) Make your ring as wide as possible/practical. Ideally, you would mulch all the way out to the dripline of the tree.

Proper mulching makes a tremendous difference for maintaining a healthy tree. Changing the soil environment around your tree from turf to mulch mimics the natural environment of the forest floor. Adding mulch reduces the competition from turf grass for water and nutrients, and helps to keep the soil moist in between watering or rain events. The mulch will also serve as a slow-release fertilizer. As soil microbes gradually decompose the mulch, they release nutrients into the soil. All of this adds up to great benefits for the health of the tree.

Lenten Rose https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_13177/ Mon, 12 Feb 2018 12:21:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_13177/ This February, the ice and chill have me dreaming of spring. I have buried my desk beneath a foot high stack of seed catalogs and scribbled garden plans on sticky notes. I can officially say that plant fever has set in. In this unique month, when Valentine's Day coincides with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, I cannot think of a more apropos time to highlight one of the earliest harbingers of spring: Hellebore (Helleborus spp.), otherwise known as Lenten Rose.

Pendulous, cup shaped hellebore blooms emerge in late February to March, sporting a variety of colors. White, pink, red, green, yellow, and purple hues paint the sepals of hellebore flowers, featuring a showy calyx rather than petals. These charming blooms seem to embody the first stirrings of the earth from winter slumber.

Older hellebore cultivars typically have nodding blooms, coyly directing their faces to the ground. Modern hellebore enthusiasts and breeders have developed a great diversity in blooms through hybridization. Cultivars can now be found with upward and downward facings, solid and spotting patterns, as well as cupped and open shapes.

Breeders primarily propagate hellebore by seed. Seedlings require two or three seasons of growth before they bloom. Plants also have to be hand selected for flower color because they do not breed true to color without controlled pollination.

Gardeners can also propagate their favorite hellebore cultivars by dividing established plants in late summer or fall. Volunteer seedlings will have diverse coloring, but gardeners can increase the likelihood of obtaining seedlings similar to the parent plant by keeping cultivars with different flower colors isolated from one another.

Hellebores grow as evergreen perennials with a clump-forming habit, typically reaching twelve to fifteen inches tall. While native to sunny sites in Europe with alkaline soils, hellebores are outstanding performers in the woodland garden setting. These durable plants tolerate drought, shade, and neglect, but truly thrive in moist, well-drained soils rich in organic matter, and in sites with light to medium shade. Avoid wet sites, as hellebores are sensitive to poor drainage.

Gardeners have long cherished hellebore, although initially for its medicinal use. Hellebore contains toxic alkaloid compounds that historically were used as a purgative and a poison. Today, these toxins make hellebore an excellent choice for gardeners seeking a "deer resistant" option for their gardens. The roots, stems, and leaves are all toxic to humans.

Despite its long history of cultivation and coveted status as a favorite perennial among plant enthusiasts, hellebore remains widely unknown by the public. The bloom season of hellebore is so early that their show is finished before the average consumer visits a garden center in the spring, and big box retailers rarely stock hellebore.

Reputable online or mail-order nurseries such as Plant Delights Nursery or Bluestone Perennials are great sources for unique or rare garden plants like hellebore. (You can also check Dave's Garden Watchdog list to find other nurseries with solid reputations).

Rather than celebrating with roses out of season, consider buying yourself or your sweetie a Lenten Rose instead. This early-blooming perennial is sure to bring joy to the dreary end of winter today and for years to come.

Photo credit: Missouri Botanical Garden, pictured Helleborus 'Walhelivor'

Meet Me Under the Mistletoe https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_13021/ Fri, 01 Dec 2017 14:27:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_13021/ Many plants enter our homes for the holidays as we deck the halls with holly boughs and adorn an evergreen tree. Perhaps one of the most interesting botanical holiday traditions, though, is kissing under the mistletoe.

Mistletoe has long been a part of human folklore and tradition. In Europe, the Druids and other ancient peoples believed that mistletoe possessed supernatural powers because it remained green in winter when the trees lost their leaves. Because of this, the Druids used mistletoe for sacred rituals during the winter solstice.

Today we recognize mistletoe as a sprig of greenery with spoon-shaped leaves and white berries, tied up with ribbon during holiday festivities. Washington Irving wrote about the kissing tradition in 1820 in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent: "The mistletoe is still hung up in farm-houses and kitchens at Christmas, and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked the privilege ceases."

Outside of its use as holiday decor, the existence of mistletoe is rarely considered. In nature, it grows not on the ground, but high in the branches of trees. One species of mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is native to southern Illinois.

The scientific name Phoradendron translates to "thief of the tree." This name is apt, as mistletoe is a hemiparasitic plant that steals water and nutrients from the tree that it lives on. Because mistletoe depends upon a host for survival, it requires a specialized dispersal mechanism that delivers seeds to tree branches.

Mistletoe berries, while toxic to humans, are a prized food source for birds. However, simply being eaten by a bird and excreted in midair, only to fall to the ground, would not do. Instead, mistletoe seeds have a sticky coating that causes them to cling to bird feathers and feet after being passed. The bird must land and scrape these sticky seeds off onto another surface like a twig, thus delivering them to their desired destination with great frequency.

Named for its seed, the word "mistletoe" is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words that meant dung and twig. It is both ironic and beautiful that a parasitic plant called "dung on a twig" can be a symbol of love and vitality. I hope this brief botanical history lesson gives you a new appreciation for mistletoe this season.

Jack-O-Lantern https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12948/ Tue, 31 Oct 2017 15:00:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12948/ Happy Halloween everyone!

Today's blog tells the story of why we carve pumpkins at Halloween.

This tradition stems from an Irish myth about a man named Stingy Jack. In the legend, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks at the end of the night. So Jack convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay for the drinks. Once Jack had the Devil inside the coin, he placed the coin in his pocket next to a silver cross, preventing the Devil from changing back to his original form. After keeping him trapped for a while, Jack freed the Devil under the condition that he would not claim Jack's soul when he died.

When Jack died, God would not let him into heaven because of his unsavory tricks. The Devil kept his promise and did not allow Jack to enter hell either. He sent Jack away into the dark night with a single coal for light. Jack placed his coal in a carved turnip and began roaming the earth for the rest of eternity. The Irish referred to his ghost as Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O'Lantern.

People in Ireland and across the British Isles began to make their own versions of Jack's lantern by carving turnips with scary faces to frighten away Stingy Jack and other roaming spirits. When immigrants from the region came to America, they brought this tradition with them, and soon found that pumpkins were even better than turnips for making jack-o-lanterns.

After World War II, the baby boom and the end of sugar rationing caused a huge surge in trick-or-treating activities. As a result, the demand for jack-o-lanterns soared. Plant breeders responded by developing pumpkins specialized for carving. Smooth orange pumpkins with sturdy handles were released, bearing names like Spooktacular, Happy Jack, and Jack-O-Lantern.

While scary faces are still popular, pumpkin carving today has become a limitless creative outlet. Everything from cats to movie characters can be found glowing on someone's front porch. Enjoy the unique and artful pumpkins in your neighborhood this evening!

For more fun facts about pumpkin history, how to grow pumpkins, and even pumpkin recipes, visit http://extension.illinois.edu/pumpkins/default.cfm

Pumpkin Time https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12947/ Mon, 30 Oct 2017 16:49:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12947/ The joy and festivity of autumn holds a special place in my heart. Judging by the decorative displays on front porches everywhere I go, and the flood of seasonal social media hashtags [#fallfavorites #pumpkinspice #pumpkintime], I believe that I am not alone.

The central player in all things fall is the pumpkin, so to celebrate the spirit of the season, today's blog post will focus on some fun pumpkin facts.

Illinois is the number one pumpkin-producing state in the U.S., beating out the other top fifteen states by growing 2-4 times as many acres of pumpkins. In 2016, 17,400 acres of pumpkins were harvested in Illinois, producing a crop worth $52.4 million.

Pumpkins are part of the plant family Cucurbitaceae, along with squash, cucumbers, melons, and gourds. There are a few species of pumpkins that we grow today for various purposes, including Cucurbita maxima, Cucurbita moschata, and Curcurbita pepo. The botanical name Cucurbita pepo literally means squash melon—not exactly creative, but certainly accurate. What's interesting is that acorn squash, zucchini, yellow squash, and some pumpkins are all varieties of the same species, C. pepo.

Pumpkins are native to the Americas, and are one of the oldest crops in the western hemisphere. Archeologists have identified cucurbit seeds in 12,000-year-old mastodon dung, suggesting that these and other prehistoric megafauna played an important role in the lifecycle of wild pumpkin ancestors. A recent study of archeological and modern DNA samples from wild and domesticated Cucurbita species suggests that humans may have domesticated cucurbits six different times in six different places.

However it happened, pumpkins became an important crop for food and fun. Pumpkin is a nutritious vegetable packed with beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkin over open fire, slow-cooked them for stews, and dried thin slices to preserve for longer storage. Records from the European colonists indicate that they were quick to incorporate pumpkin into their diet. One of the most amusing colonial records is a quirky poem from the 1630s.

Stead of pottage and puddings and custards and pies
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies,
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon,
If it were not for pumpkins we should be undoon.

If Barley be wanting to make into Malt,
We must be contented and think it no Fault
For we can make liquor to sweeten our Lips
Of Pumpkins and Parsnips and Walnut-Tree Chips.

Sorry to the hipsters. Pumpkin beer was cool in the 17th century.

Tune in tomorrow for more pumpkin fun, Halloween edition.

Holes and Frass; Garden Guests https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12809/ Tue, 22 Aug 2017 09:57:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12809/ One morning in mid-July I found a surprise in my herb garden. My lovely borage (see my post on borage) had been turned into lunch by some hungry lepidopteran larvae (caterpillars)]]> Edible Ornamental, Uncommon Herb – Borage https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12709/ Thu, 06 Jul 2017 16:51:00 +0000 https://web.extension.illinois.edu/fjprw/eb411/entry_12709/ Giant, bright blue eyes in a child have the power to strike me still. The astounding, azure blue star of a borage flower catch me and hold me fast. Few flowers produce such a remarkable and moving color as that of the clear-sky blue borage blossom.

Borage is an herb unknown to many. It is an annual, growing 2-3 feet tall with a basal rosette architecture. The leaves are rough and covered in fine hairs, while long hairs densely coat the stems. From the center of the plant, numerous flower stalks emerge. Star-shaped blue flowers nod on bowing stems tinted with red. The stunning flowers and textured leaves would be enough to make borage a valuable ornamental plant—beyond looks, borage also makes itself useful as an edible herb.

The young, tender leaves and flowers have a flavor similar to cucumber. Use borage fresh in salads, dips, and soups. The flowers also make a pretty garnish for drinks and desserts. Freezing the flowers inside of ice cubes can add a delicate touch and light cucumber flavor to iced beverages.

Borage can be grown readily from seed. Sow seeds directly in the garden after the danger of frost has passed; for a head start on the season start seeds indoors four weeks before the average frost-free date. Sowing new plants every four weeks will provide a continuous supply of foliage for harvest throughout the summer. Space plants 12-15 inches apart in an area that receives full sun.

The hairs on the leaves and stems of borage can be irritating to some people's skin, so take care when harvesting. Select tender leaves to harvest, avoiding the larger, older leaves. Cut leaves and flowers from the plant with a sharp knife or pruning shears. Rinse and pat dry before use.

Borage is such a stunning and useful plant. It certainly deserves more attention from gardeners and cooks alike!

For more information about borage and other herbs, visit http://extension.illinois.edu/herbs/borage.cfm