Summer in the Black Hills
Summer in the garden! Any time spent in the garden is wonderful...early morning with the waking birds, the summer sun's warmth coaxing inviting aromas from the tomato plants, the soothing shade of colorful summer sunsets... it is all splendid.
All of the Digs columns (below) have appeared previously in a slightly edited form in the Rapid City Journal.
One of the joys of journalism is the discovery of what let’s call ‘the other story’ in an article. This other story should encourage curiosity and/or connect the information to previous knowledge. I recently read three articles that fit that definition – two in the Rapid City Journal and one in a recent National Geographic magazine.
The Sunday, August 26 Journal cites a farmer in North Dakota who planted a pollinator plot with a special seed mix provided by Pheasants Forever and other entities to attract bees and other insects, birds and butterflies. The landowner, Bill Wagner, is pleased with the increasing amounts of wild flowers appearing in the plot as well as the abundance of bees and insects. But here is the other story: Wagner states, “It’s great to do something like this…but you’ve got to be able to tolerate a little mess.”
Rachel Bush, Pheasants Forever coordinator stated, “…some seeds do better than others, and with some, it may take a couple of years to establish and bloom.”
The other story: it takes several season and patience to see mixed plant varieties mature, bloom and reseed and become part of the ecosystem. A little relaxed clutter can be a benefit. Mess and patience – the other stories.
We recall the excitement over xeriscaping and planting and managing low water use plants. An August 11 issue of the Journal published an article, “Many drought-resistant plants also draw pollinators.’ The headline and the first two paragraphs are an effective segue into the familiar topics of being water-wise and incorporating plants that do well in dry or droughty sites.
The other story is a powerful paragraph about how gardeners’ choices can help or harm pollinators. James Cane, entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture/ARS Insect Pollinating Research Unit at Utah State University warns about the over-enthusiastic and ill-advised use of cloth or plastic weed barriers. “Don’t unroll the whole package and then poke holes in it – at least if you want bees and worms. It packs down and eliminated habitat for the ground-nesting bees that compromise about 85% of the wild bee populations in the East.”
Our gardens this year were host to many ground-nesting bees. We knew where the holes were and were careful not to disturb them. The other story: being water-wise, understanding and practicing xeriscaping and realizing that weed barrier has no place in a healthy garden are good basic garden practices. Attaching xeriscaping to creating pollinator friendly gardens is good advice and good marketing.
The third article in the August National Geographic has a marvelous title in tiny type, “a genteel disquisition on love and lust in the animal kingdom.” The article discusses, briefly, the hundreds of millions of trees killed by the by emerald ash borers since 2002 in America. The problem is extreme; the insects must be trapped and killed. The plan? Create a come-hither fake battery-powered female insect and hope that an eager male, propelled by procreation, will show interest, initiate contact and receive a 4,000-volt death-delivering end to romance. In addition to the battery-powered female, a dead female and one created by a 3-D printer were also used as lures. The males approached all equally. The other story: desperate times call for desperate responses. Battery-powered death delivering fake females? What next?
Gertrude Stein, 20th century American literary figure, art collector and member of the “Lost Generation” of artists in Paris, France is probably best known for her ridiculous statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Artist or not, she’s wrong. At the horticultural exhibits at the Central State Fair this week I learned just how different roses can be.
Roses have a long history. Romans grew them for the petals to fling about at feasts; Marie Antoinette had a lovely rose garden at Le Petit Trianon. Sources state that traces of rose have been found in 40 million year old fossil beds in Colorado.
One answer to “What rose is that?” is found in information from the Berkeley Horticultural Nursery. They list 17 broad divisions. The British Association of Rose Breeders lists 30 classes. It seems that every organized rose group has authored a list of rose classes. Thus the answer to “What rose is that?” depends generally on whom you ask.
I can claim no rose credentials but I have some favorites – any of the old Rugosa roses - because they are hardy, disease resistant, fragrant and generally seem to suit our area. These are short to medium own-root shrubby roses. The blooms appear in a bouquet cluster at the end of the stems.
Another, the super-hardy, super-adaptable old Harison’s Yellow rose blooms on arching canes in the early summer. ‘Rose rustlers’ often salvage suckers of this rose from old and abandoned rural home sites, churches and schools.
There is a highly fragrant, cabbage-type pink rose that also produces arching canes and suckers that is the object of rose rustlers. Ours is nameless and was acquired originally from an old Homestake lumber camp.
The small to medium size shrub own-root roses with rugosa or floribunda parentage have small to medium size blooms, tolerate careful pruning and will often rebloom all summer. Many of these are wonderfully fragrant and all are delightful as cut flowers.
A man who was instrumental in discovering and bringing new plants to the western world was E. H. Wilson who was sent, in the late 1800s, first by the famous English nursery, Veitch and Sons, and later by the Arnold Arboretum in Boston to collect plants. Wilson did this by becoming one of the first to explore the area of western China. In doing so that area became known as ‘The Mother of Gardens.”
In addition to his plant-collecting skills, he was also a man of determination and curiosity – all necessary skills when prowling unknown areas with native guides and guards on trails that barely deserve the name. My favorite story describes an event in 1907 on a narrow trail hacked into a sheer wall above a raging river. A small rock fall occurred causing him to hit the ground, breaking a leg in two places. Fashioning a splint with the legs of his camera tripod, he discovered a mule train approaching. Courageous and creative, he lay parallel to the cliff in the middle of the trail as the mules stepped carefully around him. The load of plant material that he was packing out were the first bulbs ever collected of the Regal Lily.
Chief among the anticipated tasks of approaching autumn is determining how to feed the garden soil and ready it for winter. It should be obvious that the soil in the family plot cannot produce healthy crops year after year without the health of the soil itself being grown by the careful, regular, abundant addition of organic materials.
I remember a long-ago conversation I had with Bill Keck, former Horticulture Educator with SDSU Cooperative Extension about the difference between organic material, unrotted plant and animal parts, and organic matter, well rotted material that had lost its original form. It is this organic matter, always referred to as OM that is vital to the productive ability of the soil.
The importance of soils rich in OM was highlighted in Monday’s Rapid City Journal noting that the Cronin Farms along the Oahe Reservoir in central South Dakota were the recipient of the 2016 Leopold Conservation Award.
I am not practicing hyperbole when I admit that understanding the importance of organic matter in the soil changed my worldview and my life, just as it has, I suspect, the owners and manager of Cronin Farms.
Soil scientists estimate that 100 years ago the OM in our native prairie soils was 3-4%. Now it is 1% and that is a problem. It is worn out and starving. And as the Leopold Conservation award recipients and a growing number of gardeners understand, that soil nutrient loss can be reversed.
The solution requires some elementary school arithmetic.
To understand OM in the garden we will create the following example: we have a plot of soil 10’ x 10’ with a (tested) level of 1% OM. We want to raise that level to 3%. We remove and weigh (Hypothetically…don’t worry) the top foot of soil. The weight of one cubic foot is roughly 40# and we have 1200 cubic feet for a total of 48,000#.
We have determined that 1% or 48 pounds of that soil weight is OM and we want to raise the OM level to 3% or (3 x 48pounds = 144pounds of OM or humus).
To obtain 144# of OM we will use wet grass because 15# of wet grass will provide1# of OM. We will need (15 x 144) 2,160 pounds of wet grass.
Well, massive piles of wet stinking grass not going to appear in a garden near any of us anytime soon. What this example illustrates is the massive amount of organic material (grass, hay, general house and garden compostable material) that is necessary to biodegrade to sweet-smelling, nutrient-rich, vital humus for the soil.
There are lots of good summary statements, said over the years by gardeners far smarter than I. “Return to the soil (in organic material) a equal amount to what you have removed (in crops).” “Feed the soil and it will feed you.” “There is no waste in Nature.”The take-away concept from this is that home gardeners can forsake piles of wet grass and simply keep their soil covered, year round with mulch, and/or home-made compost. In late September broadcast annual seeds in the garden that will germinate quickly, develop roots and then be killed by a hard frost – leaving them to be consumed by the soil over the winter.
I have been gathering larkspur, nigella, rose campion, cosmos and marigold seeds for a project in a new garden area. A power line is buried (shallowly) across a five foot square corner of the garden that needs to be kept accessible for future possible access – a situation very like the “hell strips” between the street and the sidewalk in city neighborhoods.
Since digging and putting structures in that area (large pots or raised beds or perennials) are not good ideas, I will mix my stash of seeds with half a cup or so of granulated sugar (to act as meltable, soil-friendly filler) and broadcast the seeds next spring into the area, lightly cultivated with added compost, and let the area go wild. Because I can identify the seedlings, it should be easy to do some early spring weeding or thinning if needed. From then on the wild garden is on its own, reseeding freely in that same area. I know that it will attract insects, butterflies and birds to the garden as well as be a cutting garden.
The “fling the seed and let it grow” garden is a super smart, old-fashioned idea that many should practice. Fellow gardener Jerry Wright sent me a photo of a his flower garden, comprised of seeds from ‘expired’ seed packets that he mixed and broadcast onto an area that he had prepared with gentle cultivation and compost.
Switching seasons but keeping the idea of broadcasting seeds, here is a tip for persons wanting to bump up the nutrients left in the soil at the end of the summer growing season. Because we know that it is beneficial to have actively growing roots in the soil as long as possible, an inexpensive and clever way to achieve that is to scout the seed racks for sales. Check your own stash of seeds or purchase a handful or so of varieties that may or may not achieve maturity by the first frost. It doesn’t matter because what you want is actively growing plant material that will die in the frost and be left to add nutrients to the soil over the winter.
Look for any radish variety, chard, kale, spinach, marigolds, peas, beans, beets, bachelor buttons and any variety of lettuce. Read the backs of the seed packets to determine the days to germination and select seeds that should germinate in two weeks or less. Forget tidy rows. Broadcast the seeds heavily. If the autumn is slow and warm you may get young greens for a salad. Remember: if you feed the soil it will feed you.
Added thoughts: if the day has been hot and heated a hose spread in the garden, let the (hot) water run from the hose before you put it on plants.
Remember that grass growing right to the trunk of a tree is in competition with the tree for nutrients…and the grass always wins. Consider making a circular area around the trunk that would extend out to the drip line of the tree. Kill the grass in that area by smothering it with sections of water-saturated newspaper or saturated cardboard (stove, washer, dryer material) and then adding woodchips from the recycling facility at the landfill. Any foolish bit of grass that appears can be handled by pulling or careful application of spray. That simple maneuver will tilt the nutritional contest in the tree’s favor. Mulched areas around trees are becoming more common around town. It is the smart thing to do.
It’s midsummer, emotionally if not numerically. Our garden, like many others has slowed down a bit from the heat. The colors of spring - the white, yellow, orange and occasional blue of the spring bulbs raised spirits as they peeked through the patches of snow and pine needles. Following quickly were the mounds of perennial alyssum and the insects that arrived to feast on them. The several varieties of peonies bloomed, were admired and faded. Then the iris bloomed in a salute to every shade of every color perceived by man. The blasted blister beetles outfoxed me again. Despite my compulsive checking, they arrived stealthily and speedily stripped the lovely clematis Tangutica.
Now we wait for the late bloomers and the ripening of berries and changing colors of autumn.
But wait! Don’t rush to autumn. It’s only mid July. What’s going on now?
The primary activity for many gardeners is Frustrate the Deer. I have found plants that I grow outside the fences and netting that the deer do not bother. Here is the list: any of the aromatic perennial mints. I have chocolate mint, lemon mint, spearmint and English mint. The deer ignore them totally. If mint is watched, it is easy to control.
Perennial salvia, known as Meadow Sage (in white, pink or blue), is loved by bees and butterflies and deer ignore it. Cut the plant back to a tidy mound after it blooms.
Lamium, known as Dead Nettle, blooms sweetly in the spring. The leaves are colorful and variegated and create lasting interest in the garden.
Asclepius tuberosa, known as Butterfly weed, blooms late in the season with bright orange flowers, a great attractant to the butterflies. This variety of milkweed is very well behaved. Mine are barely 12” tall and may self seed only one or two plants in a season.
Iris are ignored by deer. I would recommend looking for the miniature iris or the iris cristata or for varieties that are less than 12” tall. They tend to handle spring snows well because the flower stems just barely rise above the leaves.
Walker’s Low catmint is a lovely back of the border plant. Trim it back to a tidy mound after blooming. It will self seed sparingly.
Silvery, fuzzy Lamb’s Ears is a great plant because it is almost indestructible. It is easy to keep tidy by pulling or cutting to remove old stems. The flower stalk with tiny blue flowers attracts bees and butterflies. I let my plants bloom and then cut the entire plant back to new growth.
Finally, fill in the garden with hens and chicks and some of the hardier varieties of sedum. The silver gray foliage and the toxic milky sap of Euphorbia myrsintes keep the deer at a distance. This plant reseeds with abandon and needs to be pruned way back to new growth. Gardeners are advised to wear gloves and goggles to protect skin from the toxic sap when working with this plant.
The choice of deer proof plants is not lengthy, but these plants have proved their worth in our gardens.
Flower shows are a major part of late summer. The Hill City Evergreen Garden Club sponsoring “Recycle, Reuse, Repurpose” on Saturday, July 23. Entries are taken from 8:00 to 10:00. The public is welcome to view the exhibits, the presentations and demonstrations, enjoy refreshments and participate in a raffle of garden items.The flower show is open to ALL gardeners, it is free and good, old-fashioned mid-summer fun. There is detailed information on www.blackhillsgarden.com.
In late June or early July each year, the garden seems to rest while I turn to the necessary tasks of dead-heading, mulching and watering. This calm is an illusion however. The birds, bees and butterflies put on a grand show.
A multi-generational family of crows are nesting closer to the house this year, giving us a chance to watch their exceptional parenting skills. The nestlings fill the morning air with raucous and demanding calls for food. Mid-morning, we watch as the young are taken to the edge of the meadow to play. Usually a juvenile stays nearby to watch as the young birds play, hop from branch to branch and take short flights.
There is also a pair of blue jays nesting near the house. Blue jays, crows and magpies are in the same genus, Corvus, and family Corvidae. We have all three but the behaviors of the jays and crows delight us most.
While the crows seem to be caring and watchful parents, it is the blue jays that protect their turf and air space by noisy, aggressive harassment. One early morning there was great noise in the trees that edge the meadow. Sure enough a crow was being pursued by a very agile and adept blue jay. The crow sought refuge on the top of a pine. The jay performed a series of swooping, presumably intimidating “fly-bys”. The crow was immobile when the jay performed a great swoop and then halted, mid-air, and hovered, helicopter-like and menacing, mere inches from the crow.
Many persons have commented on the abundance of bumblebees this summer. Ours are especially active on the shallow-rooted annual larkspur, which reseeds wildly, blooms prolifically and beautifully at this time when the garden “rests” briefly. The bees are large and heavy and give the appearance of bee bungee jumping as their weight pulls the flower stalk over. They work the flowers diligently using their chemotactile receptors on their antennae and mouthparts to test taste the pollen to find the amino and fatty acids that meet their nutritional needs.
In another area of the garden we have a community of ground nesting bees, easily identified by the burrow or nest entrance about the size of one’s thumb. We are delighted to host them and are careful not to disturb the soil near them. Roughly 70% of all bee varieties nest underground. They are generally gentle bees and important pollinators.
Often seen near the bungee jumping bumblebees are the lovely Tiger Swallowtail butterflies that are also drawn to the larkspurs.
It does not take long for me to realize that while the spring burst of “eye-candy” bulbs is past, the garden – from activity of and in the soil to the plants to the flying insects – is active and thriving. I know that my single contribution to this vigor is my tendency to let the snapdragons, annual larkspur and love-in-a-mist reseed and wander at will through the gardens to host the bees and butterflies. When these creatures move into the next phase of their life cycle, the flowering plants are also ready to be pulled or deadheaded.From conscientious crow parents to turf-guarding blue jays to bungee jumping bumblebees to construction engineer ground dwelling bees, the early summer garden is surely neither dull nor quiet. Be still and watch.
Bats and Bees in the Garden. According to an on-line weather site the hottest June 11 on record in Rapid City was a mere 102 degrees in 1953. We registered an anti-social 108 degrees at our house that day at noon. As the day ‘cooled’ I emerged from my cocoon of iced tea to see if there was life (left) in the garden.
My spirits lifted immediately when I saw what looked like wild rice spread over a small area on the driveway just outside the garage door. “Bruce (Wayne) is back! LeRoy, come see!” We gazed with joy at the evidence that not only was Bruce (or his kin) back for the summer but the droppings assured us the bat was eating well. He was in residence somewhere in the soffits or the window trim on the logs.
Our experience with bats has been both benign and beneficial. We have never had them cause a problem. They are summer guests, eat insects and poop.
Years ago my understanding of bat behavior was limited to their insect diet, the fact that a mated female could save sperm from a male and release it to meet the egg when she choose (within 145 days) and that they spent most of their life hanging upside down. I was as relieved as presumably the bats are to learn that when Nature calls, the bats right themselves, do the deed, then return to their previous posture.
My after-killing-heat garden survey harvested another delight. As I inspected a particularly lovely snapdragon, a previously unseen pollen-covered bumblebee emerged from the bloom. “Silly bee,” I thought warmly. The garden is filled with bumblebees this year and we have enjoyed watching their rhythmic sonication or buzz pollination, as they seem to dance around in the bloom to get the pollen.
The leaf cutter bees have also been active. Ours seem to be working on the leaves of a wonderful old pink centifolia brambly rose. The edges of the leaves look as if someone had had a manic moment with a paper punch. The leaf cutter bees are native bees that emerge as highly efficient early pollinators. They use the leaf bits to prepare food for the eggs in their nesting cavities. The eggs will hatch; the larva will eat the leaves, pupate over the winter then emerge, grown, in the next spring.
There is an abundance of material on the Internet giving instructions to make habitat that supports the native bees in our yards. These can range from cleverly and attractively fashioned ‘insect hotels’ to bundles of bamboo pieces tied together to welcoming holes drilled in old wood. We have several simple bee habitat structures in our garden and it is fun to watch them wake up and emerge for a day’s work.The best bee book I have found is Bees in Your Backyard, A Guide to North America’s Bees by Wilson and Carrill. It is an excellent scientific, photographic and general information source about bees. If your garden hosts myriad bees and you want them to stay and be productive participants in garden activities, this is a book worth having.
Learning to live with summer weeds. Canadian taxonomist, Richard Dickinson and Canadian photographer, France Royer teamed up to deliver The Weeds of North America, all 797 pages of which was published by The University of Chicago Press in 2014. It is the best illustrated, most informative, most useful book of its type that I have found.
There are 23 pages of plant identification keys, discussions of plant structures and species descriptions. Each weed family discussed is indicated by a differently color coded section making the information easy to find and use.
I have never thought that I could get the best of the weeds. They outnumber us and will thwart whatever chemical or tool we think might hasten their demise. In our gardens, those that contain soil that we “made” with compost are relatively weed free. Weeding those beds is defined as strolling through the garden and pulling the errant weed.
However, the beds that were made primarily with fill dirt carry a seed load of weeds that want to live forever. Weeding in those beds is defined as crawling on hands and knees, armed with various grubbing knives and profane thoughts.
Reading this book has taught me two things: many of our worst weeds were introduced purposefully (dandelion as a green vegetable) or accidently like wild chervil (cow parsley) included in wildflower seed mix. Far more impressive is the blatant determination of some of the worst weeds to conquer the world by massive seed production.
For example, a common pigweed can produce up to 15,000 seeds. Purslane, a member of the Portulaca family and a pig weed look-alike, can not only produce up to 242, 500 seeds per plant, it has a tap root 3 or more inches long, can root from the stem nodes and carries enough nutritional reserve to ripen the seeds in an uprooted plant.
Field bindweed, one of the creeping Jenny clan, can produce up to 800 kg. (1, 637 pounds) of seed per acre, which can remain viable in the soil for 50 years. A root fragment less than an inch long can create as many as 25 shoots in four months (the summer).
The common dandelion, which gardeners love to hate and agro-chemical companies regard as a source of guaranteed income, can produce up to 23, 400 seeds and has a taproot that can extend 2.5 m or roughly 8 feet.
Annual sow thistle appears predictably in gardens. A healthy plant can produce 26,000 seeds.
“What can I do?” is a reasonable question. Some answers are found by identifying and learning the life cycles of the weeds in your garden. Avoid buying or using junk soil or fill dirt, which probably either has a large weed seed load or is the poor soil in which weeds flourish. Keep your soil well mulched because most weed seeds need light to germinate and can be removed easily from an organic mulch. Plant smartly by using low, spreading plants near taller plants to keep the soil covered or shaded. Weed smartly by removing plants when they are young. Avoid leaving bits of the weeds in the soil. Many will re-root. Know that commercial weed barrier of any description is a waste of money and instead focus on improving the health of the soil. Weeds do not flourish in highly organic soil.
Summer Update. The Central States Fair begins today, and inside the Horticulture Building visitors can admire the displays of fruits, flowers and vegetables grown by locals as well as floral arrangements.
Those displays will be removed on Aug. 19 to make room for the Horticulture Speaker Series, which begins at 2 p.m. on Aug. 20 with a lecture by Tammy and Mel Glover on preparing and eating unusual vegetables.
Other speakers include Connie Hobbs, who will talk at 3 p.m. about Black Hills wildflowers; Brenda Pates will discuss composting at 4 p.m.; and Suzanne Karl will give a lecture at 5 p.m. on her daylilies. The talk will be followed by a daylily swap.
On Friday, the lectures begin at 1:30 p.m. with Ask a Master Gardener. Come with your questions, or bring plants or insects that you'd like the experts to identify. I’ll speak at 2 p.m. about vermicomposting, or composting with worms. Those interested in building a backyard greenhouse should attend the talk at 3 p.m. by Brad Morgan and Jerry Treinan. Beth Anne Ferley will discuss recycling and the use of landfill compost at 4 p.m. followed by Betty Wagner, who will give a lecture on African Violets at 5 p.m. Master Gardeners will be available for questions at 6 p.m.
Some yards have been ravaged repeatedly by hail this summer, but our garden has been under assault by every kind of thistle known to grow in western South Dakota as well as a vigorous version of knotweed. Add to the gross insults of those two plants, this year the blister beetles absolutely destroyed what was a magnificent clematis tangutica that flowed in golden loveliness at the back of the garden.
I cut the devastated clematis back to the ground and am prepared to take issue with anyone (including myself) who dares to suggest that there is one tiny thing beneficial about blister beetles. I don’t care that they lay their eggs in the soil and that the young creep about to find grasshopper egg pods to feed on. Big deal. The blasted beetles gnaw the columbine, pasque and clematis to death. Next year, I'll kill the beetles with Sevin powder and negotiate with the grasshoppers.
If that has been discouraging, success this year for us has been our experience with the grafted tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and melons. Although they are more expensive than seed started plants, I do appreciate the disease resistant rootstock and the abundance of fruits. For small gardens, decks or other small areas, I recommend investigating the grafted plants for their vigor, disease resistance and dependable harvest.
Horse's legacy can be found in our garden. On July 14 we had our horse, Buckwheat, humanely euthanized. He had outlived his teeth and his vision. We made the call and set the time.
Buckwheat, otherwise healthy and happy, hadn’t a clue. That morning, he hot-hoofed it through an open pasture gate to enjoy the tender grass on the drain field. When I appeared to lead him back to the pasture, he seemed thrilled with his "escape," one of his favorite tricks.
Arriving at the equine clinic, he whinnied an obvious “Come hither!” to a mare and colt that were being loaded into a trailer. We laughed then and cried later as we said goodbye.
He was 28 years and six months old and had been part of our lives for over 18 years. Over time I have heard stories of heroic horses, kind horses, seriously stupid horses and dangerous horses. And I have spoken with people who sell horses for slaughter, shoot them at 18 years or so, or spoil them to the point of threatening the horse’s health.
But the horse lore that tugs at my heart are the tales of kind, patient, wise, trusting, gentle horses that create the horse-human bond that makes books like “King of the Wind”, “Black Beauty”, “Seabiscuit”, “Beautiful Jim Key” and “War Horse” treasures.
We had that bond with Buckwheat. I had had him only a few months when the awful March blizzard struck in 1996. We had not built the barn, and I knew he would be killed by the storm. I did what any new horse owner whose husband was gone would do. I backed the truck and car out of the garage, caught the horse and tied him to the upright in the garage that supports the back half of the house. Then reality hit. What had I done?
Responding reasonably to the situation, I made a large pot of tea, set up a lawn chair in the garage and read to Buckwheat while the ice melted from his coat. I thought if I sounded calm and confident as I read to him, both he and I would be fine.
I had an adrenalin moment when I realized that the battery back-up fire alarm was just above his head and I imagined in horror newspaper headlines: “Fire Alarm Spooks Horse, Destroys Black Hawk Home.”
We survived the storm; the house was secure; a barn was built and Buckwheat and I had “that bond.”
I thought about that a lot as I wept for the loss of this fine horse. Am I being foolish, I wondered? Aren’t there more important things in the world? Then I found this soothing observation from the correspondence of Charles Darwin (English polymath) in 1843: “Strong affections have always appeared to me the most noble part of a man's character and the absence of them an irreparable failure; you ought to console yourself with thinking that your grief is the necessary price for having been born with such feelings.”
And Oh! The garden! Buckwheat’s manure literally built the gardens. We miss him greatly, but as LeRoy observed, “We are surrounded by Essence of Buckwheat.”
Sunshine is good news. Most of us can now put away our water safety vests, swim fins, goggles and other gear that until recently seemed more appropriate for gardening than a day at the lake.
And with the sun comes a truly fun event to attend. The Hill City Flower Show will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on July 25 in the Boys & Girls Club on Railroad Avenue in Hills City. The show is free.
Everyone — adults, teens and small children — are encouraged to enter their flowers in the exhibits. The categories are traditional — annuals, perennials, wild flowers, arrangements, table setting and the children’s division.
Acknowledging the unpredictability of our weather, the guidelines have been loosened. For example, if you cannot provide the required three identical and perfect stems, then provide three in as perfect a condition as possible. Each entry is discussed in an open judging setting and is judged on its own merit.
There will be refreshments in garden gazebo with seating among the floral displays and a plant share. The plant share and refreshments are offered at no cost, but donations are accepted.
This year a special attraction for the children is a display of seeds that will be matched with photographs to answer the question, “What will I be when I grow up?” Master Gardeners will discuss the value of insect hotels in sheltering beneficial bugs, and will have a drawing to give away a "hotel." Additionally, there will be raw materials for folks to make their own insect shelters.
Jeff Schlukebier will share information about the Hill City Community Garden, Todd Gregson will discus his new venture into hydroponic gardening and Sheila Grieme will talk about garden crafts. Visitors to the flower show are encouraged to admire the exhibits, vote for their favorite and chat with the gardening experts.
More information including a detailed listing of the categories can be found at blackhillsgarden.com.
Another reason to love the sunshine is that it may slow down the incidence of aster yellows, a particularly puzzling plant disease that is prevalent in cool, wet weather (sound familiar?). The chronic, systemic disease causes erratic growth and occasionally color changes in the flowers. Most of our commonly grown summer annuals are susceptible to aster yellows. Affected perennials might survive but would contribute to the spread of the disease.
Aster yellows is caused by a bacteria-like phytoplasma, memorable because it has no cell wall, cannot yet be cultured or controlled in labs and imparts great fertility and vigor to the insect that carries it — the leaf hopper. The insects arrive in our area courtesy of the warm southern spring winds.
I will usually find one or two infected plants yearly. If you come across any, pull and destroy them immediately.
Summer gardening. If asked, many gardeners would describe the ‘seasons’ that define gardening in the Black Hills as: spring stimulation by catalog; planting then replanting; encountering insects and plant disease; pummeling by hail; the miracle of harvest; and fall stimulation by catalog , all creating a list of predictable events in the summer garden that most of us expect and respond to in varying ways with varying degrees of elegance.
I take my definition of ‘elegance’ from the use of the word in the 1500s where it described harmoniousness – in harmony with a person, a situation or the environment. We would now say “in sync.”
The 4th of July with all its celebrations of food, fireworks and family, also marks the beginning of rapid growth in the gardens. Plants need to be thinned, cut back, weeded, pruned, watered and fed. It is easy to rejoice and coo over young plants as we do over small children and animals. Sadly, it is also easy to turn away from the mid-summer tasks of maintaining the garden, the seemingly endless and often joyless repetition of cultivating, dragging water hoses, checking for the arrival of flea, squash, potato or blister beetles and other sometimes muddy, often sweaty tasks. It’s hard to feel elegant unless we think broadly of being in harmony with the needful maintenance of the garden. Maintenance…harmony…loving care…elegance.
Years ago I read of a wealthy benefactor of a national museum who left a hefty endowment for the maintenance of the gardens. No named-for-the-family lily ponds. No stunning statues. No vast eye-candy plantings. Rather the gift of this enlightened and generous individual supported the need for care of equipment, replacement of plants, and salaries of trained gardeners to maintain and perpetuate the gardens for the pleasure of all.
As our gardens recover from the saturations of heavy spring rains, the need for maintenance will be obvious. Maintenance is not a pejorative four-letter word. It is a needful part of the process. For many of us it is an absolutely exhilarating time when shouts of “We have our first tomato!” or “The beans are beginning to bloom!” or “The dahlias are in bud!” or simply “Come see this!” fill the air. We will miss all of this excitement if we are not routinely in the gardens, close up and quiet enough to become a silent part of the garden and allow the birds to resume singing and the butterflies take flight and the ladybugs appear from beneath the leaves.
Maintenance is finding our place in the garden, caring for the garden but not imposing stifling control on it. Maintenance is alertness to change in the garden, it is action based on observation and education. Maintenance is understanding our plants…how they should look and knowing what to do when there are problems.
It has been years since I studied Latin, but let’s ponder this from Pliny the Elder: Majores fertilissium in agro oculum domini esse dixerunt. “Our fathers used to say that the master’s eye was the best fertilizer.”
Be in the garden. Be still. Observe. Learn. Care. Maintain.
Autumnal Equinox. So what if the first day of autumn, astrologically speaking is September 21? In this season of almost daily monsoonal torrents, cucurbits covered with virtual pelts of mold, gray rather than blue skies and weeds that rival Jack’s beanstalk, we struggle on to the harvest. Does it matter that meteorologically speaking, the first day of autumn was September 1?
I’d say, “Not really,” and join the phenologists who cannily determine seasonal change by the behavior of plants and animals. Our sybaritic cat called the season by shifting from active predator of voles to the stationary comfort of my bed pillows. It’s autumn, for sure. The cat said so.
As days cool, many gardeners are wringing their hands over fruit-loaded tomato vines with none or few ripe tomatoes. I am at a loss to explain that because I have an embarrassment of ripe tomato riches, pounds and pounds of them. Quirky summer? Possibly. This year I purchased grafted tomatoes for the whiskey barrels. I hoped they would live up to their advertising –great vigor, prolific fruit and disease resistance.
How did they do? Planted around the first of June, almost all had blossoms and many had small fruit. We were eating ripe tomatoes by the first of July, but not from the grafted tomatoes, rather from the old deck standby, the marvelous ‘Patio’ tomato, whose fruits are the size of a tennis ball, weigh about a quarter of a pound, and are great for salads and sandwiches.
The grafted plants quickly overtook ‘Patio’ in production and if I had not used the Texas tomato cages (available online) we would have had a mess of sprawling, propped and tied tomato vines. I was diligent about pruning out extra foliage but at times I seemed to be growing a true tomato jungle.
Prolific fruit? I have never had so many tomatoes, but I think some of the success is due to summer temperatures. It is generally acknowledged that tomatoes thrive between 65 and 85 degrees and we surely had a lot of that.
Indications of disease? I think our plants had their share of dried, crumpled lower leaves and the occasional black spots on leaves. But realizing that we had no blossom end rot or other condition to disfigure the fruit, and that affected leaves, when they occurred, were mainly near the base of the plant, I choose to underreact and remove and bag the affected leaves for disposal, assure the plants they were fine and carry on.
For the hobby gardener, the individual with little space for gardening, the persons who pine for pancake-sized slices of ‘Early Girl’ or ‘Brandywine’ or ‘Beefsteak’ on their BLTs, I firmly believe grafted tomatoes are the best choice. I grew one plant per whiskey barrel. They need excellent, strong cages, compost-rich soil and assiduous attention to removing extra foliage and pruning.
More and more grafted tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are available and the price is going down a bit. Their increasing availability seems an example of a technique developed for commercial growers that is making an easy and welcome transition to home gardening.
A summer of challenges for gardeners. What a week. The Central States Fair is approaching its last weekend and although the plant exhibits have been removed there are free garden-related talks each afternoon in the Horticulture building. (See www.blackhillsgarden.com for the topics and presenters.)
Seemingly constant summer rain, meanwhile, has kept lawns and meadows green and ripening vegetables and truckloads of sweet corn hint at the winding down of gardening 2014.
Echoing the words of virtually every gardener I know, “It’s been a strange year.” Almost non-stop rain and thunderstorms have made fungus welcome for many of the cucurbits.
Newly seeded gardens were washed out only to be planted again and again. Experienced gardeners are bewildered by ankle high corn and non-bearing tomato plants. First-time gardeners are ecstatic with their first harvests of beans, radishes, etc.
Many gardeners are reporting vines heavy with tomatoes that won’t ripen. I am not certain of the cause, but as we move closer and closer to cooling days, my best advice is to cut back the tomato stalks just below the last newly fertilized tomato.
To find this place start at the top of a stalk and find the closed tomato bud, below that an open bud, below that a pollinated and fertilized bloom (already starting to form the fruit) and possibly below that young tomatoes that can’t possibly grow and ripen before the weather cools. Cut just above a leaf stem. This action will encourage the plant to shift from producing tomatoes to ripening the large green fruits already on the plant.
Remember that tomatoes that have begun to blush will still redden off the vine and on the kitchen counter. Redden but not grow. If all else fails, find some recipes that utilize green tomatoes.
I had the pleasure recently of talking about using composting red worms to a group of students from Kids Inc . in the new education facility at the Rapid City landfill. I am always pleased that young people are so quick to comprehend not only the good work that worms do to help compost our food waste but also that it is vital that we all learn to see waste as a resource.
Just because an individual or a group has no personal use for, say, eggshells, it is instructive to see that the worms or even the family compost bin or pile can over time and by the action of temperature or bacteria or other natural means change the eggshells to another form of resource.
Autumn brings a new selection of vegetables to the Omaha Street Farmers Market. Stop in at the Master Gardeners tent on Saturday mornings to get free recipes that use fresh fall veggies and take some time to talk with us about your garden. We always are learning and encouraged both from your questions and your experience.
Books inspire gardeners. Here’s a test: ask any householder about their “landscape” and I will bet you get a list of flowering plants and possibly some small shrubs and a particularly lovely tree or two. Speaking broadly, almost since the time humans established permanent dwellings, plants have been seen as decoration. That’s it. Eye candy.
Area gardeners who attended one of the early Spring Fever presentations will remember the truly stirring comments of Doug Tallamy, Ph.D. whose book, Bringing Nature Home should be on everyone’s bookshelf. He suggested that the traditional definition of landscape needed to be broadened to describe an organic, vibrant, vigorous ecological, living whole. We do this, he said, by understanding and supporting all the life systems in our environments. Thus we are encouraged to understand and accept, for example, the important place of myriad insects to feed the birds and native plants to draw those insects. The great truth is the realization that we cannot garden selectively…everything in our landscape has a place and is connected for the health of the whole. Easy to say; hard for some of us to do.
Timber Press has just released a new book by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, The Living Landscape. Let me state, without hyperbole, this is the best gardening book I have ever read. Darke is a landscape consultant who combines art, photography, ecology and stewardship of living landscapes with years of experience as Curator of Plants at Longwood Gardens. He has partnered with Tallamy who brings passion and experience in many areas of ecology and whose research, according to the author notes, “…is to better understand the many ways insects interact with plants and how such interactions determine the diversity of animal communities.” There it all is: the crucial connection of insects, plants and diversity of animal communities in our gardens.
Although Darke’s photographs are stunningly beautiful, this is not JUST a coffee table book. The Living Landscape describes landscape “layers” and their functions as horticulture, as botany, as ecology, as biology, as a challenge for educated stewardship. Chapters titled “The Community of Living Organisms: Why Interrelationships Matter More Than Numbers” and “The Ecological Functions of Gardens: What Landscapes Do” including “Applying Layers to the Home Garden” are bookended by discussion of the various layers – tree canopies, herbaceous plants, wet edges (stream and pond sides), the dynamic edge which we here in the Hills would call the forest interface, meadows and grasslands and layers of time and community and more.
The authors have included comprehensive lists of selected plants for all areas, including 13 pages of plants for the Midwest and mountain states. The book delivers solid scientific information based on the vast experiences of the authors. Photographs are both instructive and encouraging.This is a book I have been waiting for. It broadens our definition of garden. It empowers the gardener with new vision, understanding and vocabulary and places him smack in the center of the ecological dynamic to ponder the question: as gardeners do we only decorate or do we also understand and support the living layers of our gardens?
Midsummer weeds and events. I feel that time slows in the garden the last week of July and the first of August. Few of the dearly desired vegetables and fruits are ripe yet. Some late-arriving blister beetles have gnawed a few leaves but care for the garden seems manageable. That is until I take a serious look at the weeds. Yowza! What a year for weeds!
I have a high level of tolerance for the random weed and frankly, have learned a lot from co-gardening them. I know what species prefer moist shade, which flourish in dry shade, which thrive in organic soil and which occur in lean, gritty soil. And then… there is creeping jenny, also known (politely and correctly) as either hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium) or field bindweed (Convolvulus avrensis). These belong to the morning glory family. I have always enjoyed having red and blue morning glories hanging over some fence but I remember reading in the past that morning glory vines were planted to cover outhouses, so perhaps the morning glory family has not been deeply loved by all.
We know the pernicious nature of these bindweeds…roots travel for miles as deeply as 30 feet, seed seems viable for eons, plants seem impossibile to destroy, and they cause chaos in fields and gardens. But (reader alert) the form and presentation of hedge bindweed is wonderfully beautiful in its early growth. I first saw it as a magnificent mound or pillow of large, lance-shaped leaves, dense, brilliantly green and beautiful. It is, however, a weed to be reckoned with …beautiful or not.
(Just for fun, access Kansas State Historical publications and search for circular 23 on the Eradication of Bindweed.)
Another family of weeds contains one I find very lovely. In the Plantain family, the Plantago lanceolata (or Buckhorn) is very sweet. What I love are the tiny, tiny white flowers that bloom like a coronet of nano-stars at the top of each scape. (Scape = leafless peduncle rising from the ground or from basal whorl of leaves. Think: dandelion.) The Buckhorn doesn’t do much harm in except to grow in tight, ground-covering wads. Rabbits like it and so did ancient Romans who used it for a variety of aliments. I think the Buckhorn gets a bad rap because some persons confuse it with woolly plantain and blackseed plantain, which are seriously ugly plants and have no value except to indicate that the soil they prefer is usually deteriorated, alkaline or saline.
On a brighter and weed-free note, tomorrow the Hill City Evergreen Garden Club is holding their annual flower show in the Boys and Girls Club in Hill City. The event is a traditional good time event. The Admission is free and all persons, young and old are encouraged to check the categories and chose the best and brightest flowers from your garden to enter. (All the information is on www.blackhillsgarden.com). The theme this year is America the Beautiful.
And, of course, remember to pick up a fair book (at the Fair office) for Central States Fair in Rapid City in late August and plan your horticultural entries now.
Area Master Gardeners share their knowledge. One of the many garden writers I admire and read is Fran Sorin, who describes herself as an ecological landscape design specialist, deep ecologist, interfaith minister and soul tender, in addition to being an author and garden speaker.
Into a Wet, Wet Summer. The summer solstice, June 21, ushered in what must be called “the 2014 Black Hills monsoon season.” Many of us gardeners feel that we must choose between going into the garden equipped with swim fins and a snorkel or else consider raising rice this year. Not that I am complaining – paradise for me is walking through pastures of almost waist high grass – a gift of the rain.
But this cool, wet weather can create a welcoming environment for a variety (roughly 5,000) of plant rust diseases. These are fungal, rust-red bumps that can appear, disfigure and occasionally kill a wide variety of garden plants and trees.
Because the rusts are obligate parasites (they depend on a living host plant) they can negatively impact plant health and reduce plant vigor. Usually simply removing affected leaves, reducing overhead watering and irrigating the plants by soaker hose are simple ways to control the rust. In extreme situations, one must confirm exactly what the rust is and possibly resort to chemicals. Bag the affected plant material and burn safely or dispose of but do not add to the compost pile.
The Royal Horticultural Society (England) has an excellent discussion of the life span of this fungal affliction on roses. “The first formed spores (spring spores) infect young stems, causing distortion and the production of bright orange pustules. These in turn infect the leaves to produce dusty orange spores (summer spores), which are spread by wind and initiate further infections. In late summer, the pustules producing summer spores switch over to produce the dark, tough resting spores. These spores survive the winter often adhering to stems or trellises. And then the infection starts over again in spring.”
If plant rusts are an unwelcome gift of cool, wet springs, surely the flamboyant behavior of the columbines this year has been a treat for the eyes and the pollinators. Many years ago I carefully added ten or so columbines to our pine-shaded garden. To my delight I had underestimated the fecundity of these happy plants. They invaded the garden in the manner of conquering Mongol hordes.
The garden is awash in several named varieties of columbine and even more products of rampant cross-pollination. I suppose this could be a problem but for me it is not so. Here’s why: the plants are making lovely mounded foliage just as the early spring bulbs are about to finish and disappear. Since columbines live 3-4 years at best, when they bloom out – about now – I remove the largest plants. (I do this with a tool with a shovel handle and grip and a digging face that looks like an asparagus or dandelion digger on steroids). This allows me to assess how many of the younger plants I want to leave to mature in place for the next 2-3 years.
Columbines that I leave in place are cut way back – sometimes only the cluster of bloom stems are removed to leave the foliage; sometimes I cut it totally to the ground because the foliage will regrow. If I am fond of a particular bloom I leave it to reseed.
And now, hopefully, a bit more sunshine. Let’s hope.
Perennial Plants offer Year-Round Ground Cover. Saddened, I studied my tomato plants, which looked like a preschool art project with pipe cleaners.
I was not happy, and surely the plants were not — stuck, as they were, in cold, saturated soil under generally gloomy skies.
“Well, rats,” I thought and passed a quick look over the equally unlovely beds of collapsed and drying bulb leaves.
Then, to my delight, I saw sweet, compact mounds (think: half a basketball) of ground-cover geraniums I bought at an end-of-season sale two years ago. Rising above the mound of leaves were zillions (I’m certain) of 4-inch stalks, each carrying a sublime light pink flower. The plants were healthy. They were vigorous. They were floriferous. They were happy in the cold, the wet and the gloom.
These cultivars, found variously as Geranium x cantabrigiense or as Cambridge geraniums, are smaller and more compact than the old, familiar “Johnson’s Blue” and similar perennial geraniums. They require little or no late-summer shearing. They creep along establishing satellite plants by rhizomes, which makes it easy either to control the mother plant or to lift and transplant babies
I am very fond of living ground covers and am always glad to find another one that meets the congenial criteria for a perennial garden living mulch — low-growing, shallow-rooted and flowering.
I use the viola odorata “Queen Charlotte,” which stays green almost year round and blooms spring and fall; I use a wide variety of shallow-rooted sedum, several of which not only bloom, but also change color with the seasons. I am delighted to add these little geraniums to the mix.
I noticed last winter that some of the ground-cover geranium foliage stayed green and some turned a lovely rich rust well into the winter. It all greened up very early in the spring, as do the violets.
I have Geranium cantabrigiense “Karmina,” which is pink; “St. Ola,” a white; and “Biokovo,” a white splashed with pink.
I admit there is the appearance of a certain happy chaos in a perennial garden with living mulch or ground cover. I would offer that there is also vigorous health in both the soil and the various plants. Each plant brings nutritional potential to the soil, and, in growing, removes specific nutrients. It is different for each plant. Hence the soil dynamic is active and vigorous. Additionally having ground cover, especially that which blooms, brings beneficial insects to the garden that pollinate plants, feed on each other and are food for birds.
Another benefit that living ground covers bring is that their dense growth seriously discourages wind-blown weed seeds from getting established in the garden. When you add the advantages of living mulch ground cover, it looks like this: Soil moisture and temperatures are stabilized, there is season bloom or interesting foliage, a beneficial insect environment is established, wind-blown weeds are discouraged, and the health and vigor of the soil (and the plants) are supported.
Look for the Geranium cantabrigiense and other of the new, very short (4- to 6-inch) ground-cover geraniums. They are pleasing, hardy, easy-care plants.