Monday, February 29, 2016

Finding Hidden Treasures (aka Hellebore Seedlings)

Jack made good use of the beautiful weekend weather to cut back the liriope foliage. Our usual gardening practice is to cut back the old, winter-damaged foliage just before the new spring foliage emerges on the liriope and evergreen ferns. Some people use a strim-trimmer or other power tool to do this, but Jack likes the neater look that using a hand pruner gives. 

Trimming by hand put Jack up close and personal with several hellebores planted a few years ago, and he discovered hellebore seedlings, the first that our hellebores have produced. I was so happy because I think that growing hellebores from seed is so much fun.  Here's a picture of Jack's discovery.

Here is a look at the mother hellebore. You usually find the seedlings protected underneath the parent foliage. I parted the old foliage to take this shot. It goes without saying that I'm not among those that cuts back the old foliage when it first begins to look tattered from winter damage. I like to leave the old leaves, at least until spring when they begin to die back, because I think the leaves might be still be supplying nutrition to the plant. Now I have another reason: they protect those babies.

So far, the hellebore above is the only one we have that has produced babies, and, unfortunately, it is a rather plain-looking one. But I'm really hoping for babies from this one. 

and this one. . . . 

So I'll be letting the blooms remain on these plants this spring far beyond the time when they are still attractive. 

Both of these are one-of-a-kind hellebores in our garden and are seedling-grown, passed along from either my mother-in-law's garden or my sister's garden. I got seedlings from both gardens a few years ago and don't remember whose seedlings I planted in what areas. Growing hellebores from seedlings is easy and it is so much fun to see what you get. (Neither my mother-in-law nor my sister has a hellebore like these).

If there seems to be interest, I'll talk more on the topic of growing hellebores from seeds in a future post. Leave a comment if you are interested.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Blooming in the February Garden

It's hard to believe that February is almost over and March is just around the corner. Most of us are happy to think that spring is on the horizon. Our gardens are mostly brown and lifeless, and we are inside drinking hot tea and looking at our seed and plant catalogs. I suppose there is a reason that this time of year is called the "dead of winter." 

Still, there are plants to be enjoyed in the garden in February. Here are a few pictures of plants blooming today in Jack's and my garden.

Edgeworthia chrysantha still putting on a show...

Hellebores of various kinds....

A "mini" daffodil....

Caroline Jessamine peeking through the pergola above the porch....

Last fall's pansies still providing color....

And finally, homestead verbena that has misjudged the arrival of spring.... 

Maybe I'll re-think that "dead of winter" thing.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Thoughts on Food and Nutrition

Recently I've been researching nutrition (human, not plant), and I've run across many discussions about the benefits of organic foods. I always considered the primary benefit to be the absence of pesticide residue on organically-grown fruit and vegetables, and, in the case of meat, the absence of preventive antibiotics and growth hormones. The nutrition research made me realize the important link between the nutritional status of the plants/animals we eat and the amount of nutrition they provide us. For instance, it should be no surprise that chickens that have access to a variety of plants and bugs to feed upon produce nutritionally richer eggs, and grass-fed beef is nutritionally different from corn-fed beef.

The nutritional impact of organic vegetables may be a little less obvious. That there may be health risks associated with pesticides is fairly obvious. What is not so obvious is the potential impact of non-organic fertilizers on the health of the soil and how this affects the health of the plant growing there. Many farmers routinely add "the big three" (Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) to the soil and while these may (or may not) have an immediate beneficial impact in terms of crop yield, it does make a person wonder about the long-term effects on the health of the soil and the bacteria that live there. Plants depend on these bacteria, just as we depend on the bacteria that live in and on our bodies. 

In my research into human nutrition, I read that some scientists estimate that bacteria outnumber human cells in our body by a factor of 10 and their genes outnumber human genes in our body by 1000 times. Humans depend on these bacteria, called the human biome, for our survival. Not only do they assist in the digestion of our food, but they make certain vitamins for us that our bodies need but are unable to make. And they are critical to our immunity system. In other words, humans and the trillions of bacteria that inhabit their bodies enjoy a symbiotic relationship: we depend on each other for our survival.

Now back to soil bacteria . . . . While I knew there were bacteria and other microorganisms in the soil, I never thought much about the effect of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on them. Studying human nutrition and our reliance on bacteria has made me more aware and appreciative of the soil biome.  Similar to human reliance on bacteria, plants depend on soil bacteria for their survival. Gardeners (at least this one!) are sometimes guilty of adding fertilizers without any evidence that it is needed and no thought for the impact on micro-organisms that live in the soil.

Decisions about food are extremely complicated and my reading on human nutrition has yielded more questions than answers. Although there seems to be more scientifically reliable evidence regarding plant nutrition, we have a lot to learn there as well. What I came away with as a gardener is to be more aware that what we do can have negative impacts on soil health. In the future, I'm going to be slower about reaching for the Miracle Gro or Osmocote or Turf Builder and not use these products out of habit or just because it is typical to fertilize plants in the spring. I'm also going to be more aware that a "balanced" fertilizer (for example, 15-15-15) is not usually a good thing because soils are usually not deficient in all three (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). I'm going to rely more on compost and organic mulches to maintain soil health and fertility and when I think there may be a deficiency, I am going to rely more on a soil test to answer the question. (Click here for a link to soil testing information and forms.) Will I ever use pesticides or chemical fertilizer again?  Yes, but I will consider other, more natural alternatives first, and make an effort to use only the amount of chemicals necessary to solve the problem.

For those of you who might be interested, more information on the human biome can be found here and the soil biome here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Spring Gardening Events

I know it is not yet the middle of February, but if you are like me, you are already thinking about spring and the many fun things that happen in the gardening world in spring: plant sales, garden tours, seminars, and expo's. I'm on a number of gardening mailing lists and as the announcements about spring events come in, I add them to my calendar. I probably won't be able to attend them all, but I really hate it when I learn about an event after the fact. So, I'm going to mention these events as I learn of them. You might want to put them on your calendars as well.

The Tipton County Master Gardeners are having their spring expo on Saturday April 2 at Brighton High School. I've attended this event in past years and it has been worth the drive. (Brighton is about 20 minutes or so north of Millington.) This year, their theme is "pollinators", a subject that is (or should be) of interest to all gardeners. In addition to offering free soil testing this year, they have the usual things you find at such Master Gardener events: vendors, plant sales, educational sessions, and of course Master Gardeners are there to answer questions. One of their speakers this year is Carol Reese, who never fails to deliver a lot of information in a very entertaining way. And did I mention FREE soil testing? 

Click this link for more information on this event.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Nature Deficit Disorder

Awhile ago, I was searching for a book club that met in the daytime, and I stumbled across one mentioned on the Shelby Farms website. According to the website, the next book to be discussed was Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. I emailed the organizer that I was interested and checked the book out of the library. Pretty soon, the organizer emailed me that the book club was on hiatus but since I already had the book, I began to read it.

This book is about the fact that, for the most part, children growing up today do not get the natural contact with nature that previous generations did. The author calls this "nature deficit disorder."  He proposes that there are many benefits to children (and adults) from being outside, apart from the general physical benefits of additional exercise and the mental benefits of play. One study he mentioned compared preschool children who played on typical flat playgrounds with children who played in a more natural area among trees, rocks and uneven ground. This study reported that over a year's time, the children who played in a more natural area tested higher for motor fitness, especially in balance and agility. This makes complete sense to me, but it is not something I would have thought about on my own.

The parts of the book that were especially compelling to me talked about the effects of the "restorative environment." Most of us who are gardeners and other lovers of nature know right away what this means. I find that being in the garden among my favorite plants lifts me up in a way that nothing else does. And I think "restorative environment" goes beyond the idea that sitting on a bench in a pretty garden is soothing. I think that digging in the soil to plant a seed, cutting back spent foliage, spreading good compost to feed the soil, and, yes, even pulling up weeds all create a restorative environment. (But I might be hard pressed to convince Jack on that last one!)

Several weeks ago, I blogged about taking a hike with my older grandson and how he was transformed by being outside. My younger grandson, even in very cold weather, loves to make his way to the backyard after school, where he jumps on the trampoline. Occasionally, I'll look out to see him lying on his back and looking up at the sky or watching some bird in the tree. It seems that children sense they have a need to connect with the larger community of Life, even though, if left to their own devices they will often heed the siren's call of the television or latest video game.

In this busy, high-tech world, helping the children in our lives maintain a connection with nature seems to get harder and harder. But let's keep trying.