Hens and Chicks- you can grow that!


IMG_0556My wonderful mother in law introduced me to Hens and Chicks-official name is semper vivem, which means live forever, and they do live forever. It is a succulent plant, with fleshy leaves that grow in a low rosette. The only thing that will kill these things is too much water- I love them for their ground covering ability. I can plug them into mulch and they will spread- each little rosette will grow offsets all around it. That is how it got its common name, someone saw the big plant as a mother hen, with baby chicks underneath. You can break off every offset baby plant, stick the stem into the ground, and it will take root and grow. I have covered a lot of ground with hens and chicks.
I struggle with hanging baskets. I love the way they look, but I never remember to water them. Enter the Hens and Chicks! A week ago, I pried up a clump of them, and plopped them into a coir lined basket I had planted last year (with something that died, because I had forgotten to water it…) The offsets will dangle over the side, and the big green rosettes are just at eye level on my patio.
If you do not have an obliging mother-in-law, (and, believe me, I am not in any way suggesting that you choose a spouse based on the gardening abilities and generosity of his or her mom, but, think about it, how else should you decide? Kindness? Attractiveness? Sense of humor? Bah!) then by all means buy some sempervivems at your local garden center and let them spread. They don’t take much foot traffic, but they look great on the edges of things, near paths, or in the corner of a bed, by a gate, where the sprinkler doesn’t reach.
Hens and Chicks! You can grow that! Viva sempervivem!

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Quality time with q-tips and a bottle of alcohol


See, they just look like part of the leaf, but they are under there, sucking the juices from the plant, and excreting honeydew, which sounds great, but is really disgusting. Photo- Royal Horticultural Society

See, they just look like part of the leaf, but they are under there, sucking the juices from the plant, and excreting honeydew, which sounds great, but is really disgusting. Photo- Royal Horticultural Society

My son noticed a resurgence of scale insects on one of the citrus trees that spend the winter in his room.
Back in early February I had noticed a lot of leaves on the floor, and sticky leaves, so I showed Will the insects on the veins and stems, and showed him how to scrape them off. He checked them out with a magnifying glass, which I never had before. I just thought of them as a pest, where he saw them as “specimens”. We thoroughly inspected both citrus trees, (one is lemon, one is lime, but I wasn’t sure which was which- the tags got lost) and only one was infested- the other is closer to the window, so maybe the additional sun helps?
I figured the bugs would come back- not enough sun, not enough humidity, scraping them off with my thumbnail wouldn’t take care of them permanently. Sure enough, Will noticed more dead leaves on his floor, got out the flashlight and started scraping. I got out the big guns.
I heaved the plant up to the kitchen sink- thanks to Kate for the help; she’s strong enough to help me carry these massive plants now. Both trees are as old as she is, in 14 inch diameter pots. I rubbed down the stems and leaves with rubbing alcohol, then sprayed the whole thing down with the sink sprayer. Yeah, it made exactly the mess you would think it would.
We harvested the 4 fruits- I couldn’t remember if this particular citrus was lemon or lime. “Well, I think they’re limes, because, you know, of the way they look…” Kate says. I think about it for a minute. “Oh, you mean no nipples!” At this point, my husband turned around and left the room. When I removed the leaf litter from the soil, I found the tag that confirmed she was right: Dwarf Persian Lime.IMG_0539
Ordinarily, I am big on leaf litter, whether it is in potted plants, or in the ground- it helps retain moisture and releases nutrients as it breaks down. In this case, though, the reason there was so much litter on the top of the potting soil was because bugs were sucking out sap. If there were eggs, or more bugs living in the dead leaves, I don’t want them creeping up the tree again, so I tossed it, and added some coir I had sitting around to the top of the pot.
Bugs being bugs, I predict the scale will come back. However, as soon as it is warm at night, the citrus goes outside, and there are predators around, and rain. I haven’t had a problem with scale when the lemon and lime trees are outside. C’mon, Spring!

Die! Larvae, Die!


I know everybody is tired of people complaining about the cold- it is February, it’s supposed to be cold. So, I am going to turn it around, as I sit at my desk, gazing out the window at…hey, what is that squirrel eating? Avocado pit? Stupid squirrel, get out of the compost pile!

Where were we? Ah, yes, gazing out the window at the frosty back yard, I am both gleeful, and hopeful.

Gleeful, knowing that here on the flat it is -2 Fahrenheit, but up in the mountains, it is colder. Maybe cold enough in the woods to freeze the pine beetle larvae that are eating up our trees. Maybe it will be cold enough, long enough, to destroy a large percentage of the larvae, and we can get our woods back.

I say our woods, knowing that foresters and naturalists and others who take the long view see that pine trees falling to pine beetles doesn’t kill the forest, it just changes the forest. I’d like to be one of those people who take the long view, but I can’t. I love the woods, and I hate to see the trees go brown and topple over.

Pine beetles have always been here, but typically young trees can survive the attacks, and bitter cold kills many of the larvae, so there has been a balance in the past. Recently, winters haven’t been cold enough for long enough to kill them. So the forest changes.

Now the new larval threat is Emerald Ash Borer- they haven’t always been here- they came over from their native China around ten years ago, and are spreading. Native ash trees have no resistance. Signs of the insects have been found in Boulder County, (Boulder! Dang hippies!) and they are under quarantine. No products made from ash trees are supposed to leave the county, no mulch, no firewood, no nursery trees. Knowing that we are right next door, though, and that beetles don’t respect county lines, makes me wonder if they are soon to be discovered here in Larimer county.

They attack…well, not attack really. I mean the bugs are just living their lives, right, having sex, making babies, but it feels like an attack. So, the adult female ash borer lays her eggs in bark crevices of branches of ash trees. The larvae develop in the space between the bark and the wood, the cambium. The thin green layer of cambium is where sap flows, where water and nutrients flow out to the leaves from the soil. If enough larvae develop and destroy the cambium, that branch dies. If enough branches die, the tree dies.

The long view of the forester or the naturalist is hard here, too. Even harder, actually, because as much as I love the woods, I don’t live there. I have 2 big ash trees in my yard, and there are many more in my neighborhood. Losing these big old shade trees would will break my heart. Sigh. They will die eventually.

The city of Minneapolis has set up a system of proactively chopping down ash trees, and replacing them with different varieties of trees. Yep, chopping down trees that are fine, because in a few years they won’t be fine.

How does this connect to the weather? (Remember, 600 words ago I started out by saying I wouldn’t complain about the cold?) My hope is that the trees that are currently infected will be so cold during this cold snap that the overwintering larvae, curled up in their little serpentine tunnels under the bark, will freeze and die. Mwahahahahaha. Die, little larvae! Die!

For more info, and some alarming photos, check out http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/will-we-kiss-our-ash-goodbye/

First, we ditch the swingset…


IMG_0530There are about 8 inches of snow out my back window right now, and it is still coming down. Fortunately, I dumped the compost bucket before the storm started, so I don’t have to wade through it for a couple more days. I’ll go out for groceries, later, but mostly, this is a day for looking out the window and daydreaming. About peaches.
I have been reading “The Holistic Orchard” by Michael Phillips- I keep dipping into it, then re-reading, then thinking about how to blog it, and about how to apply it in real life. It is a lot to think about. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in having fruit trees.
I already have a couple of apples- an ancient tree of unknown variety, and a dwarf golden delicious. My hope is that with pruning advice from this book, I can get the ancient tree under control, and get some delicious, golden apples from the other.
I am also interested in adding peaches to the menagerie, in the corner of the yard that has been the home to our swing set. The swing set is set into the ground with concrete, which was thrilling when the kids were little, they could swing breathtakingly high, without tipping the whole thing over.  Cousins would cry. Little brothers would cry, too, come to think of it.  Nobody really got hurt, though.  BIMG_0529eing rooted into the ground made it really hard to mow around, and in the last couple of summers, wasps have made their nests in the tubes, which is thrilling and breathtaking in its own right.

So, the first big step to putting peaches there will be to get rid of the swingset- not today, though. It’s snowing.

This is not optimal!


Yeah, I can see why you would say that it was not optimal to have a tree right there.

Yeah, I can see why you would say that it was not optimal to have a tree right there.

Our friend Grif and I were touring the perimeter in the dark cold of the winter solstice, mostly checking to see if his theory that the previous owners had covered up a brick façade with vinyl siding was correct. Hey, it was the 70’s- people did crazy things. We went around to the south side of the house, and Grif said “Whose canoe?”
“Oh, it’s ours. We don’t take it out very much, and usually it is tipped over on its side by the side of the house.“ It had fallen over, and filled with snow and ice.
Grif was shining the flashlight on the tree growing out of the foundation. He wasn’t really listening to me. “This is not optimal.” He said. “Did you all know you have a tree growing out of your foundation?”
“Umm, yeah.”
“You really have to get this out of there.”
“Yeah, I know, we chop it down every year, but it keeps coming back from the roots.” Although, now that I think about it, did we chop it down this year? Because, it is like up to the peak of the roof, and we may not have taken it down last summer. I don’t go over to the side yard very much, and when I do, I think, yeah, I should probably take out that tree that is growing in the foundation of the house, but then I do something else instead. Like drink tea. Or read the paper. Or eat potato chips.
I don’t love the Sisyphean task of cutting it down, only to have it grow back from dormant buds. Or maybe it is more like a herculean task, where the tree is like the hydra, where you cut off the head and two more grow back. Now, how did Hercules solve that one? Flaming swords, I think, and help from his cousin. That is probably the one tool I haven’t considered.
So, how does one get a tree out of a foundation? Here’s the plan:
Step 1:chop it down before it leafs out. Plants store carbohydrates in their root systems in the fall so they have energy to grow again in spring. If I chop it back to ground level now, the energy from the underground carbs will be directed into dormant buds on what is left of the trunk. Every time I go to that side of the house, I can cut off any green leaves that sprout, and eventually, the energy stores will be depleted, and the tree will die.
Step two: with a sharp spade, dig around the tree on the sides that are accessible, and cut off as much of the root mass as I can reach.
Step 3: poison and shade I don’t like the official poisons that are sold to us as weed killer. It is partly that I am cheap. However, there are things that are not poisonous to me that may prevent the tree from coming back. Salt. Vinegar. Wood chips. MMMMMM…. Salt and vinegar chips.
Wait, focus- we need to get the non-optimal tree out of the foundation. Trying it this weekend. I’ll keep you posted.

Is it Spring yet?


Melt, snow! Sigh...

Melt, snow! Sigh…

There’s this guy I work with, who starting with the very first day of school, will ask: Is it Summer yet?

It makes me wonder about his career choice- if he is so miserable working at a school, maybe he should try something else? Maybe he would be just as miserable elsewhere, some people are like that.

I try not to be like that, carpe diem, and be here now and all that, but since the solstice, and the days getting incrementally longer, I keep thinking about plans for spring.

We are going to get rid of the old swing set that people never swing on anymore, and for years I had thought about having a little seating area back there-but now I think plants instead.  A peach tree, or two. I have been reading up on “holistic orchards”  which advocate the middle road of preventive care, rather than chemical sprays at one extreme, or laissez faire at the other. (Guess which extreme I am at?) I wonder if the preventative maintenance would get me more fruit for a little more work?

On sunny afternoons this winter I’ll go out and putter- mostly just sweeping leaves off the patio and looking up at the trees. I also do a lot of staring out the window by my desk.

Garden design is hard work.

 

Why did I put my compost pile so far away?


That black bin...way over there...that's the compost bin.

That black bin…way over there…that’s the compost bin.

It has been really flipping cold. Pardon my language. I keep my orange peels and coffee grounds in a big plastic cup on the back of the sink. If I have to put on boots and a scarf and assorted warm woolies to dump that cup, it just isn’t going to happen that often. The next time the temperature gets above 50, I’ll move the bin closer to the house. Like, right by the back door.

 

Rematch!


For two years now, Kate has been lording it over her brother that she came in first in the gingerbread house building contest, kids division,, and he lost.  Now, technically, he came in second, and she won, because there were only two entries in their division.

I am one of those modern parents who thinks it was great that they even entered, and used their creativity and all that. I would give out ribbons and trophies to everybody!

Last year, we were sick for the contest- I actually had made dough, figuring we could roll it out, but that just didn’t happen. It has been in the freezer for a year- I figure since we don’t eat the houses (mmmm! stale gingerbread!) it doesn’t really matter that the dough is old.

So, this year, we are healthy, and ready to go.  The houses have to be at the library at 9:30 Saturday morning.

Image My design is a cabin on a glass candy lake, with an ice-fishing hole.

Kate wants to have a Valentine Post Office, with heart shaped windows made of hard candy.

Will (previously known as “the boy” but it seems reasonable to refer to him by his name now,) is making a gingerbread Jurassic Park…with dismembered gingerbread people who have been ripped apart by the gingerbread T-Rex.

In order to prevent tears on Friday, we have been doing a little bit of mixing and baking and building every night this week. There still may be tears on Friday. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Rosemary- You can grow that!


At the farmer’s market last spring, I was chatting with this charming German woman who sells pastries (wait, is that offensive? like saying “nice smelling eighth grader” implies that most of them stink? am I saying that I don’t expect Germans to be charming? Maybe she’s Austrian?)Anyway, I had bought a rosemary plant at another stall, and she mentioned she had seen a lemon rosemary cookie recipe, and wouldn’t it be great to have lots of rosemary for recipes like that.

The hardiest rosemary I have heard of is a variety called Arp, and it is hardy to zone 6.  We are technically zone 5, which means we get colder in the winter than it can survive. I say technically, because the zones are changing, with global weirding and all. Zones are determined by the coldest expected temperatures in the winter, and for several years, we have not reached those coldest temps.

I have a two pronged approach to growing my rosemary over the winter, so I have enough for those lemon rosemary cookies (you knew it had to be about the cookies, right?) The first prong was to plant the rosemary in a raised bed right by the house which has a frame over it. The bed is sheltered from the wind, and easy to water, but free draining. If the weather gets really bitter, I can put a plastic cover over the frame. Since rosemary is a Mediterranean plant, it wants soil that drains well, cool temperatures in the winter, but not super cold.  We have just started a cold snap, with the radio weather people predicting lows “well below zero” for tonight. I put a plastic milk jug hat over the plant before it started snowing.

are you okay in there, lil buddy?

are you okay in there, lil buddy?

In case that plan doesn’t work, and I wind up with a skeleton of a plant in the spring, I have also taken cuttings and rooted them on the kitchen window sill.  They are alive now, although I am not sure how they will take the lack of sun as December stretches into January, February, March and April…

Squeee! they are like tiny little evergreens...

Squeee! they are like tiny little evergreens…

Most windowsill herb kits don’t work well, because most windowsills don’t get enough light.  You may see rosemary plants cut into topiaries this time of year, as indoor herbal christmas trees. I would say, if you buy one, cut into it, and make cookies and roast and stuff with it- having fewer leaves will make it more likely to survive the winter in the house. And let me know how the cookies come out.

You can grow that is the fantastic idea of C.L. Fornari, who urges garden bloggers to recommend what to grow to people on the 4th of every month.

 

Saffron- you can grow that. No, really!


Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world- the stigmas of the autumn crocus flower must be picked by hand, and each blossom has only three tiny strands. $1500 per pound was the quote I found on the internet, and the story said that often the spice is adulterated with the flavorless anthers of the flower- only the red strands have the classic flavor used in paella, and ummm… yeah, pretty much paella…
Confession, I planted saffron crocus several years ago, and then I dutifully harvested some, and then it sat in an envelope in my cabinet for a while. I think when I ordered the bulbs, I was like “Most expensive spice in the world? Challenge accepted.” (Actually, I probably bought the bulbs before the “Challenge accepted” meme started, and now here I am, using the meme well after its expiration date.)

Autumn crocus

Autumn crocus

I do have to say, it is very easy to grow, just like a regular crocus, plant the bulbs in fall- the biggest difference is that it sends up leaves in the spring, but only flowers in the fall. Then pick out the stigmas, place in an envelope, and forget about…oh, I mean, make paella.
Anybody have a good paella recipe?

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