Vegetable garden plans for 2019: onions

Onions (Allium cepa)
Patterson yellow storage onions from 2018 harvest August 17, 2018

For the first time, in planning my 2019 vegetable garden, I did not order field-grown onion plants from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I’m growing onions exclusively from seeds this year. Onion plants were easier but cost more. Each bunch of 50-60 plants costs $16.79. They arrive by mail the end of March. Pop them into prepared beds, and you’ve got an instant onion garden–although it does take them a few weeks to establish roots and start to grow. So, will I congratulate myself on saving money this year with $4.35 seed packets, or will I end up feeling penny-wise but pound-foolish. If my onion crop from seed fails, I will be buying onions all summer and fall instead of pulling luscious yellow and red onions from my vegetable garden for salads, salsa, sausages with peppers and onions, and other dishes. No store-bought onion is as good as one pulled that day from the garden, or even stored for a short time. Gardening is a gamble.

Last year, the daily harvest on July 12 included green frying peppers and a few yellow Havasu peppers, along with Red Wing onions, Patterson yellow onions, and a few little Red Marble cipollini onions, as seen in the top photo above. Sautéing peppers and onions, as seen in the photo at bottom above, happens pretty regularly during the summer months, producing some for eating right away, and some for freezing. Today is a wintry February day, and we will be enjoying sausage sandwiches with peppers and onions from the freezer for lunch.

Salsa ingredients from daily harvest August 12, 2018

Salsa from the freezer is another daily staple during these winter months. It is good on tacos, burritos, chips, or just about anything else. Garden ingredients for salsa can be seen above–Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes, fresh garden garlic, cilantro, red-ripe peppers–frying peppers, cayennes, and pepperoncinis–with a few yellow Havasus, Patterson yellow onions, and a lime. All ingredients except the lime are from my vegetable garden. Many of the garden onions went into salsa last summer. Of course, many were used in salads and daily summer cooking. A few dozen were stored in the basement in brown paper bags, but they were used up before the end of the year.

Yellow summer squash, green cayenne peppers, and a Patterson yellow onion July 21, 2018

Yellow squash casserole with peppers, onions, and lots of oregano–maybe some tomatoes and feta cheese too, is a favorite summer dish.

Well, enough dreaming about what was last summer. My challenge this year of 2019 is to grow enough onions from seed to match or surpass last summer’s bounty. My seed choices are simple. Five in all. A yellow–New York Early, to replace Patterson. A red–Redwing. A sweet onion–Yellow Spanish Sweet Onion from Seeds of Change. A red cipollini–Red Marble, and a white cipollini–Gold Coin. Cipollini onions are small and flat. All seed varieties but one were purchased from Johnny’s.

According to Johnny’s catalog, onions seeds can be started indoors in late February to mid-March. I am planting long-day onion seeds. At a latitude of around 41°N here in northern New Jersey, these onions could be direct seeded into the garden in April or early May. I’ve never had much luck with that, so I will try transplanting this year. I like to use a seed-starting mix like Johnny’s 512 mix, a blend of peat mosses, compost, and perlite. Of course, I have to pay shipping charges for that. Espoma seed-starting mix is good as well, and it’s available from my local nursery. Both are organic.

Space is one problem with starting vegetables and flowers indoors. The onions will commandeer our round oak table until they sprout and can be placed under grow lights or out into cold frames. Weather will have some say in this, but as Eliot Coleman points out, day length is always dependable. With days getting longer–10 hours and 55 minutes as of today, February 20–and the sun getting stronger, cold frames may be an option for the tender onion plants until it’s time to transplant into the garden in April.

Onion seed planted indoors February 20, 2019

I’m worried if temps are warm enough indoors for germination without heat pads. Johnny’s has a germination guide for onions, starting at about 50°F. and peaking at 86°F. Our indoor temp is pretty steady at 68°F. That should be good enough. I have heat pads, which are essential for starting peppers and tomatoes indoors, but they are difficult to set up on this table.

Plastic domes on flats until seeds sprout February 20, 2019

Again following directions in Johnny’s catalog, I sowed 5 seeds per cell in the flats seen above. New York Early yellow onions–24 cells. Redwing red onions–18 cells. Yellow Spanish Sweet Onion–18 cells. Red Marble cipollini–6 cells. Gold Coin cipollini–6 cells. The flats can be watered from the bottom. Clear plastic domes cover the tops. Thin to 3 plants per cell, which can then be transplanted out without disturbing the roots. In well-prepared beds with loose, friable soil, 3 onion plants can push themselves apart and grow to a nice size.

That’s it for the moment. When the onions sprout, I will remove the clear plastic domes and make sure they are adequately watered. I hope to update this post to show the progress of this onion crop, so check back if you are interested.

Young onion plants in garden on May 29, 2018

Ugly weeds of summer: prostrate knotweed

Prostrate knotweed (Polygonum aviculare)

Prostrate knotweed growing along a path June 12, 2015

Prostrate knotweed is a summer annual that grows in hard, compacted soil near footpaths and gate entrances. It emerges early for a summer annual, more than a month before crabgrass, a fellow summer ugly, makes its appearance. New sprouts of prostrate knotweed will continue to emerge throughout the spring and early summer.

Prostrate knotweed emerging among ornamental rocks June 5, 2018

Cotyledons, the seed leaves or first leaves, are very narrow and grass-like. Leaves are alternate, elliptic to lanceolate in shape, and tend to be dull blue-green, although they are more green than blue when young, as in these photos. All descriptions are from Weeds of the Northeast.

Pulled prostrate knotweed showing slender branching stems, and nodes, called ocrea, surrounding stems at base of leaves June 12, 2015

Prostrate knotweed soon develops many slender branches with whitish-brown sheaths, called ocrea, surrounding stems at the base of leaves. Small pinkish-white flowers with sepals but no petals will appear in axils of leaves later in the summer, followed by achenes, or fruits, with seeds inside. Although dead wire-like stems may persist through winter, prostrate knotweed is largely an annual that reproduces by seed.

Pulled prostrate knotweed showing fibrous roots with thin taproot June 5, 2018

Prostrate knotweed is considered a superior indicator weed of compacted soil. Its common names include door-weed, mat-grass, or way-grass, suggesting that it is common to areas with heavy foot traffic. In his book Weeds: in Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, Richard Mabey points out that the role of such weeds is to fill the empty spaces left by environmental degradation. They are first succession plants, stabilizing the soil, restricting water loss, and providing shelter, thus creating a more hospitable environment for a succession of plants to come.

From the gardener’s perspective, ameliorating the soil herself might make for a speedier succession of more desirable plants. But if the footpath is a necessary pathway, maybe she should just not worry about it. One homeowner summed up her pragmatic response to prostrate knotweed last summer by remarking, Well, anyway, they’re green. Just leave ’em be.

It may have occurred to some readers that we could use a herbicide, like RoundUp. First off, it’s the case that, once established, prostrate knotweed is difficult to remove with herbicides, according to the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at University of Michigan website. Secondly, I don’t use herbicides by choice, green weeds being preferable to the ecological harms and health hazards of glyphosate or whatever. It’s also the case that broad-spectrum herbicides will kill clover, and that is totally unacceptable to me.

Prostrate knotweed sprayed with vinegar June 10, 2015

A few years ago, I tried spraying prostrate knotweed with vinegar. Vinegar can be used in areas where there are no desirable plants, such as along a compacted footpath. The vinegar experiment seemed to work for awhile, but soon new grass-like cotyledon leaves could be seen re-emerging, as in the photo above.

Last summer, a member of our family, who was convalescing from serious illness, decided to eradicate prostrate knotweed along the footpath by pulling it out. In between throwing balls for our dogs and enjoying the spring sunshine, he pulled prostrate knotweed, dropping it into handy yard-waste trash cans stationed strategically around the area. He filled many trash cans full of prostrate knotweed and sent them curbside for municipal pickup. His fingers soon became proficient in finding the little knot just below the soil line and pulling up the entire plant with taproot intact. He started noticing prostrate knotweed wherever he went. Alongside the road at a summer cottage. In the pastures of a local sheep farm. A friend had to remind him, in a good-humored sort of way, to look up and watch the sheep they were herding with their dogs, and not look down at weeds.

Prostrate knotweed emerging in grassy area June 13, 2018

Pulling prostrate knotweed was tedious work when the knotweed was small, as can be imagined by contemplating pulling knotweed like that in the photo above. Reward time came when more mature plants grew large and spread out, as seen in the photos below. Pulling one of them yields a huge biomass of green stuff and results in a big empty space devoid of weeds. We had more rain than usual last summer, so on most days the taproots could be pulled out easily without breaking off.

The best part of this prostrate knotweed eradication project was getting the weeder out into the spring sunshine for extended periods of time, which may have aided his convalescence, but it’s also true that it worked to get rid of the weeds. By the middle of July there were no emerging prostrate knotweed to be found. And all the mature plants had been pulled. Eliot Coleman advises that the most effective weeding is done early while weeds are small. And before they go to seed. Will the prostrate knotweed be back this spring. Well, probably, since there may be residual seeds in the soil. But not many plants went to seed last summer, so at least there may be fewer this year. We’ll see what happens.

Prostrate knotweed in a drainage ditch with a more upright growth habit July 13, 2015

Fruit-eating birds: American robins, northern mockingbirds, and gray catbirds

9 American robins on 2 winterberry shrubs December 22, 2018

What the above photo lacks in quality is hopefully made up for in quantity–of robins, that is. After looking at it for a long time, I make out 9 American robins on 2 distinct winterberries. The winterberry shrub in the foreground with purplish berries is a Sparkleberry (Ilex serrata x. I. verticillata), a cross between a Japanese and a native winterberry. The winterberry shrub in the background with bright red berries is a native Winter Red (Ilex verticillata). See the 2017 post, Robins ate the winterberries, for more information on the winterberry shrubs. The robins were part of a small flock of 20 or so who came early for their yearly feast of winterberries in my garden.

Immature American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

By going back and reading previous robin posts, I find that I first observed robins eating winterberry fruits in 2015, and then every year thereafter. They’ve come for the winterberries on dates ranging from December 28 to March 20. The common denominator for their yearly visits seems to be warm weather more than anything. Robins form small flocks in winter and migrate in order to find food. While some robins make a complete migration to southern states and to Central America, other robins make shorter random migrations in search of food. Some don’t migrate at all if the weather is mild enough and the local food supply is adequate.

Male American robin on Winter Red winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

According to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, male American robins sport a black head and tail, while females have gray heads and a duller chest. Juveniles are similar to females but have a speckled chest.

American robins on Winter Red winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

In March 2015, a particularly cold and icy month, I fed winterberry and crabapple fruits to a lonely old robin who sat around under the Sparkleberry winterberry shrub looking hungry. At the time, I naively marveled that robins ate fruits and berries, never having noticed them doing so before. See the post A robin experiment for details. Back then, the Sparkleberry shrub was new to my garden. Its young branches were too limber to support the robin’s weight. I didn’t have crabapple trees then, so I brought crabapple fruits from a nearly park to feed the robin. This experience convinced me that adding fruit-bearing native shrubs and trees to my garden would be a good thing for both me and the birds.

Male American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 22, 2018

In the spring of 2016, after much research, I bought and planted 2 small crabapple trees. See the post Golden Raindrops crabapple trees for details. They bore small yellow fruits for the first time this year. The fruits soon disappeared. I suspect robins but don’t have proof of that. The small trees have grown to the point of providing some screening for our deck. They are fast growers for sure. Below is a photo of May crabapple blossoms.

During the spring and summer, robins are also partial to the fruits of a serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) in my garden. I’m calling it A. arborea, or Downy serviceberry, because that is the only serviceberry listed in the American Horticultural Society’s A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants with red-purple fruit. All the others listed have blue-black fruit. When I see the serviceberry branches bouncing about on a windless day, I know the robins are busy harvesting the fruits.

The photos below are of robins in the vicinity of the same serviceberry tree in June 2018, checking out the edibility of the fruits, I presume. June is mating season, so robins no longer travel in flocks and become territorial. I have not found a robin’s nest, which is just as well because our dogs would undoubtedly kill the baby robins during the time that they leave the nest but before they can fly.

My greatest success with fruits for the birds has always been the blueberry bushes, which have been in my garden for many years. I planted them as food for myself, but now I’m content to share the blueberry fruits with robins, northern mockingbirds, and gray catbirds.

Blueberries June 8, 2018. Not ripe yet.

There are 6 highbush blueberry bushes in my garden. I bought them from Johnny’s Selected Seeds ten years ago. There are 2 early-producing Patriot bushes, 2 mid-season Northland bushes, and 2 late Jersey bushes. I see in Johnny’s 2019 catalog that the same 3 varieties are still available. Blueberries are acid-loving plants, so a dressing of bone meal or peat moss is not amiss. I’ve taken to spreading used coffee grounds under the acid-loving plants in my garden. They seem to like it.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), seen above, came for the blueberries in June and serenaded us from high on utility poles and rooftops early every morning during blueberry season. We graciously considered him an alarm clock and welcomed the ecstatic, manic string of bird calls pouring down upon us at sunrise. As if we had a choice in the matter. The mimicked songs were familiar to me from hearing local birdsongs, but I’m not very proficient at identifying birds by their songs and calls. Mockingbirds love blueberries. I know that for sure.

A gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), as seen above, has come for the blueberries for several years now. I don’t know if it’s the same one each year or not. The first photo above is not good, but it does give a hint of the catbird’s chestnut highlights, particularly under the long tail. All the fruit-eating birds are no doubt supporting a mate and offspring at this time of year. I think of the area as my garden. Being territorial, they would probably contest that description. Their garden.

According to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, grey catbirds are secretive birds with a call that sounds like a cat mewing, and so their name. Just like the robins in the serviceberry tree, they give away their presence on a still day by bouncing the blueberry branches around as they harvest the ripe fruits.

Gray catbird among blueberry bushes and milkweed on July 10, 2018

The photo above perhaps best shows off the grey catbird’s main features. Again according to Birds of New Jersey Field Guide, it is slate gray with a black crown, long, thin black bill, and long tail with a chestnut-colored patch underneath. Male, female, or juvenile–all the same. Now that I am accustomed to watching for the gray catbird each year, I cherish its presence far more than I miss the blueberries it harvests from my garden. His garden.

American robin eating blueberries July 4, 2018

Above is a robin on July Fourth, celebrating the day by enjoying some ripe blueberries. The blueberries tend to ripen over time, not only from varietal differences, but also on the same bush. If I get out early enough in the morning, I can usually pick a cupful of blueberries for my breakfast. Of course, I eat twice that amount in a hand-to-mouth manner, which is the best way. After that, the fruit-eating birds will show up, and the ripe berries will be gone until more have time to ripen.

But now it’s January, and we have just endured our first polar vortex of the winter with temps in the teens or below and wind chill at minus degrees. On one of the coldest mornings, 3 robins came and perched momentarily in the bare crabapple trees and winterberry shrubs. I saw them out the window. Before I could even think to get my camera, they were gone. So much for the theory that robins come for the winterberries during warm spells. I can only hope these robins found food and shelter during that dangerously cold weather.

The wind it doth blow, and we shall have snow.
And what will the robin do then, poor thing?

American goldfinch: common bird with unique characteristics

American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis).

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Three American goldfinches on chicory July 23, 2018

Do you see 3 birds in the photo above? A darker-colored female American goldfinch to the far left isn’t easy to spot. A yellow male goldfinch is center left. I suspect that I saw only this bird as I snapped the photo. One male goldfinch to the far right is half out of the picture. Obviously, I hadn’t noticed its presence. Below is a closer view of the female and male. The female on the left is still hard to see.

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A female and male American goldfinch on chicory July 23, 2018.

Female American goldfinches are rusty brown to dull olive gold in color, depending on the season. They do not sport a black patch on the forehead as do breeding males. One reason American goldfinches are unique is that they go through 2 molts every year, whereas other members of their family have only 1 molt. In the fall molt, male goldfinches exchange their flashy yellow for an appearance more like that of the females. In the spring molt, males turn yellow and females more olive gold. Juveniles resemble the females.

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Juvenile American goldfinch on chicory July 23, 2018

I think the goldfinch in the photo above is a juvenile because of its appealing youthful appearance. The photo was taken in late July. American goldfinches are late nesters, from late June to early August in most areas, probably because they are almost exclusively seedeaters, which is another of their unique characteristics. Breeding later in the summer assures that there will be adequate seed to nurture their young. Incubation takes 12-14 days. The young leave the nest 11-17 days after hatching. So it’s possible that a fledgling might be sampling chicory seeds all by himself by July 23. More likely he is just getting used to life beyond the nest. Seeds are regurgitated by the parents into the mouths of young birds, making the seeds more palatable. Young goldfinches are still fed by their parents for 3 weeks or more after they leave the nest.

2 American goldfinches on chicory July 23, 2018

Nests are cup-shaped, built by the female, made from plant fibers, lined with plant down, and secured to supporting branches using spider silk. Thistle down for lining nests is often mentioned, as is thistle seed as food for goldfinches. I’ve been trying to eradicate bull thistles from my garden, so few of them reach the flowering stage when down would be available, but milkweed in my wildflower patch was producing its down in July. Perhaps the female used that. I did not find a nest, which is reportedly all of 3″ across and 2″-4.5″ high. Goldfinches often build nests in deciduous shrubs or conifers. Forsythia bushes and small pine trees are close by the wildflower patch, so this may have created a desirable environment for starting a goldfinch family.

American goldfinch on chicory August 23, 2018

The photos above give some idea of the wildflowers in my July garden. Chicory (Cichorium intybus), bee balm (Monarda), and purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) are visible. I have not seen goldfinches on the bee balm, but they surely enjoy the seeds of chicory and purple coneflowers. Coneflowers supply seeds through late summer. Sunflower seeds are also available later in the season.

Male American goldfinch on purple coneflowers August 10, 2018
Male American goldfinch on sunflower August 10, 2018

Asters are often mentioned as a source of food for goldfinches. There are asters in my fall garden, but I have not seen goldfinches feeding on them. It’s true that goldfinches are much less obvious after molting in the fall. They are probably still with me. I just don’t notice them as much. They join small flocks after breeding season and may migrate far enough south to find food. A few stay the winter in New Jersey, according to Birds of New Jersey field guide. American goldfinches are the state bird of New Jersey, as well as Iowa and Washington State. I guess that’s another reason they are unique.

American goldfinch with wings crossed in front July 23, 2018. I don’t have an explanation.

I stopped using bird feeders this spring after finding a house finch with eye disease caused by a bacterial parasite Mycoplasma gallisepticum. All finches are susceptible to this disease, which probably spreads through contact with other finches either at feeders or on the ground under feeders. Care should be taken to clean feeders thoroughly and rake ground beneath feeders. After seeing the pathetic little house finch trying to navigate to find food and water, I couldn’t trust myself to keep the area free from disease, so I took the feeders down.

House finch with eye disease at feeder April 12, 2018

For more information on the house finch eye disease, go to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site and look up house finches.

I miss seeing many of the feeders birds. Chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers in particular. I called them the jet set of my feeder birds. This winter, I know I will miss watching the dark-eyed juncos under the feeders. Actually, the jet-setters are still around. I hear the tufted titmice in particular from time to time, but they are harder to spot and to photograph without the feeders to draw them in.

There are feeder birds I don’t miss so much. Not because they are not all interesting in their own ways, but because there get to be too many of them at the feeders. House sparrows, house finches, starlings, grackles, mourning doves, pigeons, and the like. They are still around as well, just in more manageable numbers.

One good argument for maintaining backyard feeders is that suburban feeders help feeder birds meet the challenges of urbanization, agribusiness, and climate change. One good argument against feeders is that they are really for our own narcissistic enjoyment of seeing and photographing birds. There’s truth in both sides. After seeing that poor little house finch with eye disease, I didn’t find much pleasure in the feeders. I am trying each year to add more native shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses to my small suburban garden. Perhaps in that way I can still help the birds and enjoy their presence without causing harm.

Male American goldfinch on purple cornflowers August 16, 2018

But that was a digression. Coming back to the topic of this post, American goldfinches are common birds with some unique characteristics. They molt twice a year with males changing colors dramatically. They breed later than most songbirds. They are seedeaters almost exclusively, making them one of the bird world’s strictest vegetarians. According to the American Breeding Bird Survey, American goldfinches are numerous, although their population declined somewhat between 1966 and 2014. Whenever I hear a statistic like that, I think of passenger pigeons. But with a global breeding population of 42 million, according to Partners in Flight, I won’t worry too much yet. If I continue to privilege native plant species with lots of seeds in my garden, perhaps American goldfinches will come back to the wildflower patch for future breeding seasons. If they do, I will write a post about them.

Male American goldfinch on chicory July 23, 2018

Weed early and often: creeping buttercup

Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens).

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Creeping buttercup on May 8, 2018

When creeping buttercups first appeared in my garden, I was inclined to think positively about them. After all, they seemed preferable to pachysandra, which I detest, as a ground cover. I thought they might be hardy geraniums until the yellow flowers appeared. Geraniums have pink flowers. When the stolons, or runners, first became apparent, I wondered if they might be a kind of wild strawberry. Beware of having kind thoughts about cute little weeds in your garden. They will likely grow up to be ugly monsters.

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Creeping buttercups along fence on May 7, 2018

Here is a photo of creeping buttercups in the wildflower corner on May 7, 2018. They are growing along a metal fence, under a lilac bush, around day lilies, and among strawberry plants.

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Creeping buttercups among blue violets on May 7, 2018

They grow readily among blue violets, or any other plant for that matter, as can be seen in the photo above. The King County (Washington State) website wastes no time in describing the negative impacts of creeping buttercups. First and foremost, 1 plant can spread over a 40-square-foot area in a year’s time due to its stolons.

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First root on stolon of uprooted creeping buttercup on May 18, 2018

I devoted over a week of gardening time in early May 2018 to eradicating creeping buttercups from the wildflower corner and, to a lesser extent, from various other sites in my garden. In summer of 2017, I didn’t have much time for weeding, but I did notice the stolons on the creeping buttercups for the first time and got really concerned about their rapid spread. They weren’t creeping. They were bounding. Bounding buttercups.

My solution last summer was to mow them where I could without destroying desirable plants. That was ineffective because they quickly regrow from nutrients stored in corms, or short swollen stems at ground level, as can be seen in the photo below.

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Short, swollen stems of creeping buttercups on May 7, 2018

Creeping buttercups can overwinter as rosettes or die back to ground level. In early spring, before the blooms and stolons appear, they are probably best identified by the swollen stems radiating out from a center rosette. The leaves alone can be deceiving to an untrained botanical eye, looking somewhat like hardy geranium leaves, or like mugwort, or even like parsley. According to the King County website, pale patches on the leaves, as can be seen in the photo above, distinguish creeping buttercups from hardy geraniums.

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Creeping buttercup leaflet at left. Mugwort leaf at right. Although this photo happens to show a difference in size, size is not a reliable factor in identification.

Creeping buttercups are really nothing like mugwort, except in early spring when the untrained eye focuses on individual basal leaves or leaflets instead of the whole plant. I write from personal experience. Whereas the mugwort leaf at right above is a single leaf, the creeping buttercup leaflet at left is part of a compound leaf, as can be seen below. The most distinguishing features, as the season progresses, is that mugwort spreads by rhizomes underground, while creeping buttercups spread by stolons aboveground.

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Compound leaf of creeping buttercup with 3 toothed leaflets, each leaflet with its own stalk

Above is a compound creeping buttercup basal leaf on a long petiole, or stalk, divided into 3 lobed leaflets, each with its own stalk. I have to get used to thinking of that whole structure as 1 compound leaf with 3 leaflets.

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Compound parsley leaf

Above is a parsley leaf, which is also a compound leaf with 3 lobed leaflets. Often, a gardener identifies plants simply because they are in the right place. Right where she planted them, or right where they were last year.

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Creeping buttercup blossom on long grooved petiole, or stalk, on May 8, 2018

The glossy blossoms for which buttercups are named first appeared in my garden this summer on May 8, 2018. The blossoms grow singly on long grooved petioles, or stalks, as can be seen in the photo above. The 5 petals are highly reflective which, among other things, make them difficult to photograph.

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Creeping buttercup bloom reflecting the sun on May 17, 2018

According to a recent study from the University of Groningen measuring light spectra, buttercup petals have a unique anatomy that’s found in butterflies and some bird wings, but is not known in plants other than the buttercups. A layer of air just below a thin one-cell-thick epidermis that contains the yellow pigment causes light to be reflected on both sides of the epidermis, resulting in a white sheen that seems glossy. The study suggests 2 reasons for this unique feature of buttercup blooms. First is that it attracts insect pollinators. Second is that, since buttercups are heliotropic, meaning that the bloom always moves to face the sun, the satellite-dish shape of the buttercup bloom and the glossy aspect of its petals aid in collecting solar energy, which may warm its reproductive organs and hasten the ripening of pollen, fertilization, and seed development. It also must seem nice and cozy to those insect pollinators.

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Buttercup blooms are heliotropic. That is, they follow the sun. The glossy petals collect solar energy, which may enhance fertilization.

According to the Wildflowers & Weeds website, buttercups are a primitive group of plants that have retained most of their ancestral characteristics over time. They are considered simple from an evolutionary standpoint because all their parts are independently attached. Petals, sepals, stamens, and pistils of simple plants are all of an indefinite number and separate from one another. I can’t see this in the photos taken this summer. I’ll try to pay more attention to this fascinating aspect of creeping buttercups next summer. I’m pretty sure they will be back.

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Blossom of uprooted creeping buttercup on May 9, 2018

According to legend, farmers gave the buttercup its name when cows eating buttercups produced the sweetest milk and richest cream. But this can’t be true because buttercups are toxic to livestock, and cows generally avoid them. But you know how legends never die. Holding a buttercup under the chin and seeing a yellow reflection on the skin supposedly indicates a liking for butter. So the legendary associations of buttercups with dairy products seem to persist.

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Creeping buttercups on May 15, 2018

Creeping buttercups are not unattractive, as the sun-dappled photo above suggests. Wildflower or weed. The gardener has to decide. Due to their stoloniferous habit, they are a weed to me. I should add a note here, however, that not all buttercups have stolons, only creeping buttercups (R. repens). Weeds of the Northeast, my goto weed book, also describes bulbous buttercups (R. bulbosus) and tall buttercups (R. acris). Both have the unique buttercup blooms without the stolons. I might consider those to be wildflowers and nurture them if they ever show up in my garden.

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Indian mock-strawberry on May 8, 2018

Early in the week of my creeping buttercup eradication project, I focused on any small yellow flower. But I soon discovered that many plants with yellow flowers looked more like wild strawberries, as can be seen above. Weeds of the Northeast identifies these yellow-flowered plants as Indian mock-strawberries. Wild strawberries have white blossoms. The dainty yellow flowers are quite different from the glossy yellow flowers of creeping buttercups. I quickly became accustomed to identifying which was which in a glance, helping me feel a little more in control of my eradication project.

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Photo on September 1, 2018, of area of wildflower corner where creeping buttercups were manually eradicated in May 2018 and area covered with wood chips

When I finished digging out creeping buttercups from the wildflower corner, I covered the area with wood chips and started searching the remainder of my garden for smaller infestations of creeping buttercups, reminding myself that a single plant can cover a 40-foot-square area in a single summer. Creeping buttercups spread by seed as well as stolons. Seeds are dispersed by birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and boots, as well as wind and water. Seeds remain viable in soil for many years. Once a single plant is established in a new area, stolons provide the means for covering an ever-larger area. In the fall and winter, stolons often fall off, leaving each new daughter plant with the potential of future seed dispersal and multiplication by stolons the following year. What an amazing survival strategy.

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Blooming creeping buttercup among many other plants, mostly weeds.

My eradication project turned from drudgery to adventure as I started searching for single creeping buttercup plants throughout my garden. If they were blooming, I simply had to distinguish them from the yellow blooms of Indian mock-strawberries. Always with a sharp-pointed trowel in hand, I could quickly but carefully dig out the plant–roots and stolons and all–dispose of it in a nearby yard-waste trash can–we have lots of those–and continue my search. This was a good time to put Mrs. Magnus Olson’s dictum to work. As I have mentioned in other posts, in a 1971 letter to Organic Gardening magazine, Mrs. Olson claims that she achieved a weed-free garden by always pulling 10 weeds whenever she stooped to pull 1. As can be seen in the photo above, finding 10 weeds to pull or dig out is not difficult.

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Compound leaves of creeping buttercup in among sweet woodruff, Indian mock-strawberries, and irises on May 21, 2018. The 5 visible compound leaves are radiating from just 1 center.

If the creeping buttercups weren’t in bloom, it was necessary to detect the compound leaves in among other plants, as can be seen above.

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Corm, or swollen stems, of creeping buttercup, hiding out in sweet woodruff patch on May 21, 2018

Here is a closer view of the corm, or swollen stalks, at the center of the creeping buttercup in the sweet woodruff patch.

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Uprooted creeping buttercup plant discovered in sweet woodruff patch on May 21, 2018

Above is a photo of the uprooted creeping buttercup. Notice the stolons already producing the leaves and roots of daughter plants.

On September 2, 2018, after writing the above description of creeping buttercups in the sweet woodruff patch in May of this year, I wandered out to see if all was well with the sweet woodruff. Look below at what I found.

The creeping buttercups were back in the very same spot where I pulled them out last May. Perhaps I broke off a daughter plant and left it behind back then, or perhaps these are from seed. In the photo at right of the uprooted plants, it’s hard to tell which is the daughter plant. They look fragile enough now, but just remember that 1 plant can cover a 40-foot-square area in a season. That fact is burned into my brain it seems.

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Stolon of creeping buttercup uprooted on July 10, 2018

Above is perhaps the longest stolon I managed to uproot. This was on July 10, 2018. Creeping buttercup stolons can be short and thick between nodes, or they can be long and spindly, as above. It seems to depend on environmental conditions, and perhaps the time of the season.

Throughout this summer, in which I was blessed with lots of time to spend in my garden, I found creeping buttercups in a front corner, in the old apple tree area, in the serendipity corner, and, of course, in the wildflower corner where the eradication project got started.

On September 1, 2018, I checked back in the wood-chip covered area where I had hoped that eradication was complete. But no. As can be seen above, creeping buttercups were peeking from under the fence and trying to hide among some Indian mock-strawberries.

Eliot Coleman recommends getting rid of weeds when they are small, definitely a good idea because it’s easier to get rid of weeds when they are small. But what’s good in theory doesn’t always work so well in practice. Weeds have a way of growing while the gardener is busy doing other things. I started a weed hierarchy a few years ago. I rated weeds from 1 to 10. A weed in the 1 category was a non-issue so far as pulling it was concerned. More like a wildflower. A weed in the 10 category had to be pulled or dug up the minute it was spotted. Anything else I was doing had to be dropped and the weed had to be pulled. Mugwort and Japanese knotweed were and are 10s for sure. So now, creeping buttercup is my new 10 weed. When I see it, I pull it or dig it, no matter what. Doing so perhaps saves me a big eradication project the next season, so it’s worth doing. See the post Weeds for more information on my weed hierarchy.

Weed early and often. Especially the ugly weeds. This is Labor Day weekend. The end of summer. It’s when weeds are at their ugliest. Sometimes I just wish for a big early freeze.  But as the days get cooler–soon, I hope–the growing slows down, and the weeds don’t seem so ominous and oppressive. I remind myself that weeding at its worst is still better than herbicides.

Reading and writing about creeping buttercups got me feeling a little attached to them. I guess I would miss them next spring if I were to eradicate them completely. So I will hope for a manageable few glossy blooms next spring and remember weeding early and often is one important aspect of fine gardening. The alternative is a week-long eradication project, which is not fine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Larval food plants for great spangled fritillary and common buckeye butterflies

A great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) and a common buckeye (Junonia coenia) were seen in my garden in the fall of 2017. September 22 for the great spangled fritillary. October 19 for the common buckeye.

 

October 19 was also a day when clusters of painted ladies and monarchs graced my garden. It was a special butterfly day for sure. Please see the posts Ladies’ day out in my garden and Home-grown monarchs and milkweed for details on painted ladies and monarchs. Butterflies in my garden send me searching for information about their life cycles and larval food plants, always in the hope of welcoming more butterflies each year by providing for their particular needs. NABA North Jersey Butterfly Club website is a handy source of regional butterfly information.

 

The above photos of a great spangled fritillary are from September 22, 2017. In 2016, I have photos of great spangled fritillaries on September 14 and September 20. Please see the post Great spangled fritillary: new butterfly in garden for 2016 photos. From above, the forewing of the great spangled fritillary has a row of black spots on orange below irregular bands of black, as seen in photo at left above. According to the U.S. Forest Service website, the word fritillus means chessboard, and that’s a little what the forewings look like. From below, the hindwing has shiny silvery spots on brown-orange separated by a wide cream-colored band, as seen at right above. Females are larger and darker than males. They tend to fly later into the summer to lay eggs. So this is probably a female. It is feeding on verbena, an excellent wildflower for late summer and fall nectar. As can be seen, this butterfly has a chunk of forewing missing, but doesn’t seem to be bothered by the absence.

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Great spangled fritillary on verbena September 22, 2017

Great spangled fritillaries are common and widespread in this region of New Jersey. Because they produce only one brood yearly, reproductive success depends on many elements of their life cycle being in sync. Let’s start in early summer, when male great spangled fritillaries emerge, usually several days before the females. When females emerge, the butterflies mate, and the males die. Females continue on in reproductive diapause until late summer when they break diapause to lay eggs in wood chips and leaf litter near violets (viola), their larval food plant.

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New growth of blue violets amidst wood chips and leaf litter April 18, 2018

Eggs hatch within 2 to 3 weeks, and the first-instar caterpillars soon go into winter diapause, hiding out in the wood chips and leaf litter around violets. Messy gardening is beneficial for these caterpillars, so remember to keep the fallen leaves around violets as much as possible.

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New growth of blue violets amidst wood chips and leaf litter April 18, 2018

Caterpillars become active in spring when the violets, their larval food source, start to grow. They molt 6 times instead of the usual 5 times for butterflies. After all this growing, the caterpillars pupate, forming chrysalises attached by silken thread to nearby rocks or branches. I wish I had photos of all these steps. Maybe this summer.

And we are back to early summer, when the adult flying males and females emerge to start the cycle over again. With all this in mind, I need to nurture violets, maintaining wood chips and leaf litter around them. I’m thinking that I need to transplant some violets to out-of-the-way corners where leaves tend to collect in fall, taking the violets to the leaf litter instead of the other way around. It’s fun to make small tweaks like that in garden plans, and then watch for results.

I need also to keep my camera handy on a daily basis to hopefully record more butterfly activity in my garden this year. Recording actual dates for the different stages of the above life cycle will tell me much more about great spangled fritillary activity in my garden, and will help me to observe differences from year to year.

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Common buckeye on verbena October 19, 2017

Common buckeye butterflies (Junonia coenia), one of which visited my garden on October 19, 2017, are not resident to this area of New Jersey. They are migrants. However, NABA-North Jersey website reports that common buckeyes are increasingly regular visitors to north Jersey. I had never seen one before. From above, each brown forewing has a large eyespot with a white band nearly surrounding it, as well as 2 orange bars on each wing. Each brown hindwing has 2 eyespots with an broad orange submarginal band. I did not get a photo of the wings from below. Common buckeyes produce multiple generations each year. They overwinter as adults, but not in northern New Jersey. They are resident across the southern U.S. and much of Mexico, expanding their range northward in the spring and making a return migration south in the late summer and fall.

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Common buckeye on verbena October 19, 2017

The Missouri Department of Conservation calls common buckeye butterflies found in Missouri a breeding summer resident. I assume that may be the case with common buckeyes in northern New Jersey as well. So thinking about their larval food plants may not be amiss if I would like to see more of them in my garden, which I do.

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Broadleaf plantain July 6, 2015

One of several larval food plants for the common buckeye is the common or broadleaf plantain (Plantago major), as seen above in my garden on July 6, 2015. Oh, wait, I identified broadleaf plantains as weeds 4 years ago and have been pulling them out ever since. I don’t want to reintroduce broadleaf plantains, even for the sake of common buckeye butterflies. There are many broadleaf plantains in the park across the street. I’ll just have to hope the visiting common buckeyes find them there.

Another larval food plant for common buckeyes is slender false foxglove (Agalinia tenuifolia), which is native to this area. I found seeds on Prairie Moon Nursery website and will try planting them this spring. That’s a start at least.

So, I have plans for 2 new butterflies.

The great spangled fritillary is resident to this area and uses violets as larval food plants. They sound easy to plan for, but they have only one brood per year, which might limit their abundance in a small area like my garden.

The common buckeye is a migrant for which larval food plants are not currently found in my garden. But they breed continuously wherever they are in their migration. They must have at least one brood per year in northern New Jersey. But why would they choose my garden except perhaps for nectaring. Nothing is easy when it comes to planning for butterflies. But they are worth it.

 

If I have any luck at all in attracting butterflies this summer, whether great spangled fritillaries or common buckeyes or other butterflies, and if I have the good fortune to be in my garden with my camera at the same time that they are, maybe even to discover and photograph eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalises in addition to flying adult butterflies, then I will be happy, and I will write a post about it.

 

 

 

Pepper plans for 2018

Pepper plans for 2018.

I am dreaming of red ripe peppers in my 2018 vegetable garden. To find photos of red ripe peppers in past summers, I had to go back to the summer of 2015. Please see the post Red ripe peppers and colorful salsa for a look at some lovely red ripe jalopeña and cayenne peppers in 2015. Now here I am in March 2018, getting ready for our 4th nor’easter of the month, and dreaming about red ripe peppers.

As can be seen in the photos above, red ripe peppers were scarce to nonexistent in my 2017 vegetable garden. Habaneros turned orange, as they should. Havasus remained their pale yellow immature color–still good but none turned orange or red, as they should. The bells, cayennes, and frying peppers all stayed green, green, and green, with none turning red ripe, as they should. This may have been caused by weather conditions, or by poor gardening techniques on my part. I don’t know, but I must try to do better this summer and understand the reason why or why not.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, from which I buy the majority of my seeds, recommends a 4-year rotation for peppers. Good grief. I have trouble achieving a 3-year rotation for most vegetables. This year going forward, I have determined to try a non-rotation of tomatoes. Please see the post Strategizing the 2018 tomato crop for details. Peppers and tomatoes are both nightshades (Solanaceae), which must be considered in planning a crop rotation. My vegetable garden is not big enough to incorporate both tomato and pepper needs. I’ve tried growing peppers outside the fenced-in vegetable garden in grow bags with some success. This year, I have some new ideas about peppers in grow bags that I want to explore.

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Vegetable garden during March 2018 nor’easter March 13, 2018

First, I plan to fence off a narrow strip of wildflowers at the near side of the vegetable garden, as can be imagined perhaps in the above snowy March photo. Before the recent snowstorm, I set up the small bamboo poles seen above, planning to dig a trench 4′ out from the near vegetable garden fence, to put in fencing stakes and wire fencing, to fill the trench with gravel, and to then plant peppers in grow bags among the existing wildflowers. Our family now includes 3 dogs, so more fencing is needed to curtail their exuberance somewhat. Life is good.

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Wildflower strip with blossoms beginning to fade August 12, 2017

I plan to cut X-shaped openings in the bottoms of the grow bags to let moisture and earthworms in without harming the integrity of the bags. Last summer, I decided that I needed to irrigate the wildflowers to keep them blooming into the fall when the butterflies are still looking for nectar. With water becoming increasingly expensive, it seems extravagant to irrigate wildflowers, but if I’m watering peppers at the same time, I can better rationalize irrigating wildflowers. The peppers will still require some top watering, but with the bottoms open to the ground below, some moisture from rain and irrigation can come into the bags.

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El Jefe jalapeña plant in grow bag September 20, 2016

I also plan to fill the bottom half of the grow bags with soil I dig from the trench. Then add garden soil and compost to the top. This year, I once again have ewe poo, composted sheep manure from a local sheep farm, incorporated into my compost. I’m hoping for better, more balanced, soil and therefore better peppers.

This all may seem rather tedious, but part of the fun of gardening is getting to the point of tweaking gardening methods and judging the results. This blog has helped me to keep a record of successes and failures over 3 years now.

Soil fertility is a big concern. I want the best soil for the least expense. As an organic grower, I depend on crop rotation, green manures, compost, and rock minerals to achieve and maintain soil fertility. Eliot Coleman cautions in The New Organic Grower that feeding the plant is the agribusiness way, while feeding the soil is the organic way. Last summer I spent too much money on fish emulsion fertilizers, such as Neptune’s Harvest, watering the fertilizer in around the roots of tomatoes and peppers twice a month. Then I realized that as good as fish emulsions may be, I was nevertheless feeding the plant, not the soil. As a result, the plants last summer were too large and spindly, while the fruits, although numerous, were small and often misshapen. As can be seen in the photos above, both plants and fruits just didn’t look healthy.

I read several books on soil fertility this winter, but only got more confused. So, first this spring, I plan to do soil tests, starting with the soil I’m digging from the trench in the wildflower strip. It seems to me this soil best represents my vegetable garden soil before I started adding compost and organic fertilizers, so perhaps that’s a good place to start. A square one, so to speak. Once I understand the makeup of my garden soil, I will better know what needs to be added, how much, and how often. As soon as this March snow melts and the ground thaws, I will proceed with this first soil test and go from there.

Here is a rundown of the pepper seeds I purchased from Johnny’s for the 2018 vegetable garden.

SWEET BELLS

Intruder F1. Seen above from 2017 garden. Large, blocky fruits with thick walls. 62 days to green; 72 to red ripe.

Sweet Sunrise F1. No photo available. Blocky to slightly elongated fruits. Flavor is fruity and sweet. 65 days to green; 85 to yellow ripe.

CORNO DI TOROS (bull’s horn)

Carmen F1 frying pepper. Seen above from 2017 garden. Best tasting sweet Italian frying pepper. Sweet flavor for salads and roasting. Tapered fruits averaging 6″ long and 2 1/2″ wide. 60 days to green; 80 days to red ripe.

SANTA FE (Guero Chiles)

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Havasu peppers September 27, 2017

Havasu F1. Seen above from 2017 garden. Thick-walled peppers, changing from pale yellow to orange to red. 60 days to pale yellow. 80 days to red ripe.

HOT PEPPERS

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El Jefe jalapeños September 27, 2017

El Jefe F1 jalapeños. Seen above from 2017 garden. The boss. A great name for a jalapeño. Best combination of earliness and yield for jalapeños. 67 days to green. 90 days to red ripe.

Baron F1 ancho/poblanos. No photo available. Very large 2-lobed fruits. 65 days to green. 85 days to red ripe.

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Helios habaneros September 27, 2017

Helios F1 habaneros. Seen above from 2017 garden. Extra early and very hot. 67 days to green. 87 day to orange ripe.

Cheyenne F1 cayenne chiles (Johnny’s renamed them Arapaho in this year’s catalog). No photo available.  Attractive, wrinkled fruits averaging 8″ to 9″ with medium-thick walls. 65 days to green. 85 days to red ripe.

Pepperoncini peppers from John Scheeper’s Kitchen Garden Seeds. These are a mystery to me. Lidia casually mentions pepperoncini flakes on her TV cooking show, as if we all should know what they are. I’ve come to think they are a variety of pepper, like San Marzano is a variety of tomato. I saw pepperoncini pepper seeds advertised recently in a seed catalog, and the accompanying image looked a lot like habaneros. So, it’s a mystery to me. I have leftover seeds from last year. I will plant them for another year, and hope to be enlightened.

As can be seen from the above descriptions, it takes from 10 to 23 days longer to go from green to red ripe or yellow/orange ripe. Much depends on the season. In addition to providing the best soil fertility I know how to, I will do everything in my power to give them the longest growing season possible.

Just so we all remember what I’m dreaming about, above are images of the red ripe pepper harvest from September 2015. Peppers to dream about on a cold snowy March 2018 day.

 

 

Robins, and holly–and starlings, oh golly

The harbingers of spring.

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American robin in magnolia tree February 9, 2018

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) stopped by on February 9, 2018. Perhaps he was a loner. Perhaps he is a member of the small flock of robins I saw recently in the park across the street. He sat in the magnolia tree above a Sparkleberry winterberry shrub and chirped. His dark black head identifies him as a male. Female robins have lighter grey heads.

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American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 10, 2018

By the next day, February 10, 2018, the robin, which I’m assuming was the same one, decided to taste a winterberry fruit, and he was joined in the tasting by a male northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis).

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Northern cardinal on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 10, 2018

This cardinal is definitely a male since female cardinals are brown. I’ve been hearing his che-e-er, che-e-er, che-e-er since the middle of February. As I watched the two birds vie for position on the small winterberry shrub, I wondered if they were congenial, or if they were fighting for territory. A little later, I saw them flying together. Or perhaps the cardinal was chasing the robin. It was impossible to tell.

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Winter Red winterberry shrub December 21, 2017

Winterberries are deciduous hollies. I have 4 winterberry shrubs in my garden. 2 female and 2 male. Above is an image of the Winter Red winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a female, on December 21, 2017–before the robins stripped it bare. Well, I hope it was the robins.

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Bare Winter Red winterberry shrub February 28, 2018

In 2016, the Winter Red fruits were eaten by a small flock of robins on December 28. See the post Robins ate the winterberries for details. I didn’t get photos of their feast this time, but I would guess the Winter Red fruits disappeared at about the same time this winter. The above photo of the Winter Red shrub was taken on February 28, 2018. It had been bare for some time before I took the photo.

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Sparkleberry winterberry shrub December 21, 2017

The other female winterberry shrub is a Sparkleberry (Ilex serrata x. I. verticillata), a cross between a Japanese winterberry and a North American winterberry. I have always been annoyed that the nursery I bought it from tagged it as an Ilex verticillata, never mentioning that it was a cross with a Japanese holly. At first, I thought the birds didn’t like the Sparkleberry fruits, but now I think it’s just that the fruits become edible at a different time of year than the Winter Red fruits. I try to buy native plants, not because I have ideological notions about plants. I don’t. I buy them because the birds and insects in my garden seem to prefer them, or at least it seems so to me. I’ve read Douglas A. Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, which has influenced my opinion on these matters. By February 10, when the robin and the cardinal showed up to eat winterberries, this Sparkleberry was their only winterberry option since the Winter Red was stripped bare in December. And the story doesn’t end there.

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American robin on Sparkleberry winterberry shrub February 13, 2018

On February 13, the robin was back, again assuming he’s the same one. He wasn’t eating much, just sitting around. Maybe the fruits weren’t ripened yet quite to his liking.

 

 

On February 17, 2018, a small flock of robins, probably from the park across the street, came for the Sparkleberry winterberry fruits. I guess the fruits were finally ripened just right because the robins were eating them energetically. Unfortunately, a flock of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), as seen in the bottom photo above, came not more than 5 minutes after the robins and stripped the shrub bare. What a nuisance starlings are. I didn’t get photos of the robins as a flock. I would guess perhaps 30 robins, and about that many starlings. It was a free for all with the starlings winning most of the fruits I fear.

 

 

European starlings are pests for sure, but they are interesting. Please see the post European starling for some background on starlings. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, when European starlings grow fresh plumage in the fall, the feathers are brown with white tips. By summer, their feathers are a dark iridescent brown. Starlings don’t molt. Their feathers simply wear away and the white tips disappear. It’s called wear molt. Also, their beaks are brown in winter but turn to yellow as mating season approaches. Starlings mimic the songs of many other birds, including robins. Also, they are a nuisance, as I’ve mentioned before.

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Sparkleberry winterberry shrub stripped bare February 26, 2018

The above photo, taken on February 26, shows the Sparkleberry winterberry shrub stripped bare. Winterberry shrubs pretty much disappear into the winter landscape once their fruits are gone.

The male winterberries don’t produce fruit but are a necessity if you want berries on the females. Jim Dandy winterberry, an early male, was recommended by the local nursery mentioned earlier for female Sparkleberry winterberries. I have since discovered that they were wrong again. According to online sources, a late male, such as Southern Gentleman, is recommended for Sparkleberry winterberries. I am so annoyed at that nursery. Never buy any plant, other than maybe annuals, without doing your own research. Go and shop around. Then go home and do research. Then go back and buy–maybe. The RareFind Nursery catalog recommends a Southern Gentleman male for the Winter Red female, so that’s the male I bought for the Winter Red. Since the Southern Gentleman made its appearance in my garden as a successful pollinator for the Winter Red, the Sparkleberry has produced more fruits without a doubt.

 

 

The Southern Gentleman, seen in photo at left above, is small but mighty, evidently, serving as pollinator for both the Winter Red and Sparkleberry females. The Jim Dandy, seen at right, has nothing in my garden to pollinate. Guess I need to find him a female mate this spring. At any rate, the Jim Dandy is a nice-sized, attractive shrub even without berries or a mate. Gardening is difficult.

A few years ago, we spent a lot of time and effort researching evergreen hollies. Because of my preference for native species, I soon found that the American hollies (Ilex opaca) were much to my liking. Their native range includes most U.S. states on the Atlantic coast, ranging north as far as Massachusetts, where the Pilgrims took note of them in 1620, and also including the U.S. Southeast west to Texas.

But American hollies aren’t easy to find in nurseries. A different local nursery from the one mentioned above had some 6′ to 8′ American hollies, but the nursery wasn’t sure of the cultivar name, which was not encouraging. Then there was the expense, not only of more mature trees costing over $200 apiece, but also the delivery and planting expenses involved with larger trees. Also, it’s true that more mature trees take a long time to become established in their new environment after transplanting. They can sit around for a couple of years before starting to show growth again.

So, after much more thought and research, we opted for small potted American hollies, knowing we would have a long wait to see the holly trees we dreamed of in the garden. But it’s fun to watch them grow. At least I think so.

We bought 6 American hollies from RareFind Nursery. We picked them up ourselves to save shipping charges. Our visit turned out to be a most pleasant experience, exploring their extensive grounds and visiting with the knowledgeable and helpful staff. We came home with 3 female Dan Fentons; 2 female Old Heavy Berries; and 1 Jersey Knight as a male pollinator.

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American hollies from left to right: Dan Fenton, Old Heavy Berry, and Jersey Knight–with some crabapple twigs interspersed in foreground February 7, 2018

There are New Jersey stories about these American hollies. In the 1930s, the Holly Society of America started a holly collection at the site of the Rutgers Gardens. They hoped to cross American hollies with English hollies (Ilex aquifolium) to produce attractive cuts for the east coast Christmas holly market. The crosses turned out to be sterile and produced none of the attractive fruits needed for the Christmas market. Enter Dr. Elwin Orton, Rutgers University professor, who became legendary as a plant breeder of hollies and dogwoods. Under Orton’s guidance, the project evolved into an American holly breeding program, subsequently producing many new cultivars, including the 3 American hollies that we selected and brought home.

 

 

The Rutgers Gardens holly collection is certainly worth a visit, if only to see what stately specimens little hollies might grow up to be, given enough time and good fortune. The photos above were taken on August 27, 2015, during a visit to Rutgers Gardens.

 

 

We brought home and planted 3 Dan Fentons, 2 up front and 1 in back. The Dan Fenton in the middle photo above is not thriving, perhaps because it is in partial shade, or perhaps because it is in a poor drainage area. Several online sources recommend mulching hollies with used coffee grounds. After reading about this, I purchased a second compost bucket for the kitchen counter and starting separating coffee grounds from the rest of the compostable scraps. Since coffee grounds are acidic and hollies love acid, it seems like a good plan to use the coffee grounds for this dedicated purpose. Anyway, the vegetable garden doesn’t need acid in its compost.

According to RareFind Nursery, Dan Fentons have dark green leaves, showy red berries, and a pyramidal form, growing to 30′ over time. Dan Fentons are female hollies. There’s a Jersey story about that as well. According to an article on the Cumberland County, New Jersey web site, Dr. Orton, who bred the cultivar, named it for Daniel Fenton, a Rutgers University graduate and World War II veteran, who was a co-founder of the Holly Society of America. After the war, Fenton came home to Millville, New Jersey, hoping to regain his teaching position at the local high school teaching agriculture and science. While waiting for an opening at the school, he got a job at the Silica Sand Company in Millville, whose president, Clarence Wolf, was in the habit of sending native holly boughs to his customers nation-wide as holiday gifts. After hiring Fenton, Wolf put him in charge of the holly farm that he had developed on site. In time, Fenton became known as Mr. Holly, and Millville became known as the Holly City, through Fenton’s efforts to preserve and propagate the native hollies. Fenton is credited with planting more than 4,000 holly trees in Cumberland County.

 

 

Our second selection, Old Heavy Berry, doesn’t has such a memorable story, but you have to admit that’s a good name. Old Heavy Berry. I’m a pushover for good names. When I heard that name, I was sold on the spot. It is also a cultivar developed by Orton at Rutgers, reported to grow 40′ tall. The Old Heavy Berry we planted up front, as seen in the photo at left above, is tall and slender; the one in back, seen in the photo at right, is wide without an upward inclination as yet. We will see what happens with that.

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American holly Jersey Knight February 28, 2018

Finally, we chose 1 Jersey Knight as a male pollinator. According to the Missouri Botanical Gardens web site, Jersey Knight grows to 7′ or 8′ tall in its first 10 years, but may grow to 30′ tall over time. In another Jersey story, this web site reports that Jersey Knight was discovered at the New Jersey home of Judge Thomas Brown in 1945 and was introduced and registered by Dr. Elwin Orton in 1965.

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Crocuses blooming on February 28, 2018

To bring this lengthy post full circle, I had planned to end with a photo of crocuses blooming on February 28, 2018, as yet another harbinger of spring. Alas, on March 7, 2018, a nor’easter dumped 16″ of snow on our area, burying crocuses and any other signs of spring in its wake. Please see the post Nor’easter of March 2018 for details.

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Small American hollies completely buried in snow March 8, 2018

The little American holly trees were buried beneath the snow. Are their branches just bent under the weight of the snow, or are they broken off. We didn’t know the answer to that on the morning of March 8, 2018, when the above photo was taken.

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American hollies after being dug out from under the snow March 8, 2018

Fortunately, they all survived. After we used our gloved hands to dig the snow away, the hollies proved just how limber they are by resuming their normal upright habit with nary a broken limb. Above is a distance shot of the 4 American hollies up front. The 2 in back were intact as well.

Robins and crocuses may be harbingers of spring, but they aren’t guarantees. Now I am impatient for the snow to melt. Spring will come. In the meantime, I must remember to cherish winter things–like holly. Seasons are good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nor’easter of March 2018

Nor’easter of March 2018.

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Nor’easter dumped 16″ of snow on garden March 7, 2018

Actually, we’ve had 2 March nor’easters. The second one, on March 7, hit this area hard with around 16″ of heavy snow, but no wind, thank heaven. We didn’t lose power. Much to be thankful about. Today, March 8, the temp is above 40°F. The heavy snow should be off the tree branches shortly, and we will see exactly what lasting damage happened in the garden.

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Pear tree uprooted in nor’easter March 7, 2018

Some damage is already apparent. The old pear tree was uprooted. Like the old apple tree a few years ago, it just sank to the ground, managing to miss the fence, the benches under it, the picnic table, and a river birch. I will miss its blossoms this spring and its perfect shade this summer.

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Pear tree uprooted by nor’easter March 7, 2018. And Daisy, who will miss eating fallen ripe pears this summer

Daisy, our Labrador retriever, will miss the fallen pears, which she dearly loves to eat. The birds, bees, wasps, and various critters will miss them as well.

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Pear tree uprooted in nor’easter March 7, 2018

Now we get to clean up the debris and think about how to replace it.

 

I’m worried about the hemlocks. One is leaning precariously over the shed and garage. These hemlocks have suffered from hemlock wooly adelgid the past 2 years. I don’t know the extent to which they have been weakened by this. Even if they bounce back once the snow melts off of them, will they be so resilient the next time. Good question for the tree guy.

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Dwarf river birch buried in snow from nor’easter March 7, 2018

Under mounds of snow are 2 tangled dwarf river birch trees that previously had nicely rounded shapes. It’s hard to tell what the structural damage to them is. We’ll know when the snow falls off. The redbud at the far left looks all right.

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White pine covered with snow from nor’easter March 7, 2018

The white pines always look in dire straits after a snowstorm. But they are so limber that they almost always pop back the minute the snow is off them. Branches of a Japanese maple are hanging over the young white pine in the photo above. They could cause big damage to the pine if they fell. I’m not fond of the Japanese maple. I am counting of the white pine as a screen between our windows and the neighbor’s windows. I think it’s time for some severe pruning of the maple.

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Small American hollies are nothing but mounds under snow from nor’easter March 7, 2018

The American hollies are still little trees and are totally buried. Are their branches cracked or just bent over. We will know in good time.

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Magnolia covered in snow from nor’easter March 7, 2018

The magnolia lost one dead branch that needed to be pruned anyway. Mother Nature took care of that for us. Otherwise, the snow-covered bare branches of the old tree look beautiful against a blue sky–even with the power lines in the background.

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Crabapple tree after nor’easter March 7, 2018

I’m delighted that the young crabapples stood up so straight and tall in the snow from the nor’easter.

The bird feeders and bird bath are covered with snow. A chickadee greeted me this morning with dee-dee-dee-dee. It seemed to be demanding some action to remedy this situation as soon as possible. The mourning doves and juncos were busy under the feeders, although I don’t think they were finding much to eat.

A few days ago, I took out the table and chairs from the shed and returned them to their rightful place in the wildflower corner. Then I took some photos of crocuses, the harbingers of spring. Looks like my excitement about spring was a little premature.

I took the snow pictures in this post around 8 am this morning, March 8, 2018. It’s almost 3 pm now. Most of the heavy snow has fallen off the trees, and I should be better able to determine what the nor’easter wrought in my garden. I’ll hope for the best.

 

 

Strategizing the 2018 tomato crop

It’s time to dream about nutrient-dense, old-time sweet-tart, juicy tomatoes in my 2018 vegetable garden.

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Ramapo tomatoes September 11, 2017

Garden tomatoes in 2017 were a disappointment. They all tasted good, but the vines were spindly, and the fruits were sparse. In 2016 I froze more than 20 large Mason jars of tomato juice and sauce. See the post A short history of the 2016 tomato crop for details. In 2017, I had enough spare tomatoes for 2 jars of sauce. That hurts.

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Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes as part of the daily harvest on September 27, 2017.

Thanks to Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes, I have enough delicious homemade salsa in the freezer, but nothing else tomato-wise. It’s time for a new plan. My strategizing for 2018 includes ideas about crop rotation, soil fertility, and tomato varieties.

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Vegetable garden on February 9, 2018

I’ve followed a 3-year crop rotation for several years in the vegetable garden. As can be seen under the ice and snow in the photo above, taken on February 9, 2018, my vegetable garden largely consists of 3 rows of raised beds separated by walkways. Each year, I planted tomatoes in a different row, fitting the other vegetables into rotations in the  2 remaining rows. This strategy had its drawbacks. The middle row is only 18″ wide. Indeterminate tomato plants in the middle row sprawled into the walkways, making access difficult. The row to the left in the photo above is closest to the raspberry bushes. I think this is detrimental to tomatoes, although I haven’t found any expert opinions to back up this premise.

The row on the right in the photo above seems to produce the happiest tomato plants. It was from this row that I got the 20 large jars of tomato juice/sauce. If only I could just forget rotation for the tomatoes and plant them year after year in the righthand row. Maybe I can.

For several years, we have noticed a large garden in our community with tomatoes in the same place year after year. How do they do that, we wondered. Then, on rereading some of my favorite garden texts,  I found these endorsements for a non-rotational tomato plan. First, Louise Riotte, in Carrots Love Tomatoes, offers the following tidbit that pleases me no end:

Unlike most other vegetables, tomatoes prefer to grow in the same place year after year.

So unless you have disease problems, Riotte recommends planting tomatoes in the same place, plus using compost or decomposed manure to prepare beds, then mulching them, watering them from below and deeply, and never using tobacco products around them. Most of Riotte’s advice is standard procedure for organic growers. Planting in the same place is unusual and welcome news to me.

Then, I noticed the following paragraph about tomato rotation in Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, which evidently had not registered with me in previous readings of this book. Coleman writes:

In some cases, no rotation at all is recommended. Many old-time growers insist that tomatoes do best if planted every year in the same spot. They even recommend fertilizing them with compost made from the decayed remains of their predecessors. I once grew tomatoes that way for eight years in a greenhouse. In truth, they were excellent, and they got better every year. I do not grow field tomatoes that way now and cannot really defend my decision except to say that it is more convenient when they are part of the rotation. It could be that I am just uncomfortable about breaking the rules I have found to work so well with other crops. It could also be that I am unnecessarily limiting my options. I suggest that you try growing tomatoes (or any crop, for that matter) without rotation. Nothing is as stifling to success in agriculture as inflexible adherence to someone else’s rules. . . .

Well now, that is certainly encouragement to experiment with tomato rotation from 2 farmers I admire most. In truth, 2018 won’t really be an experiment since the righthand row of raised beds hasn’t been used for tomatoes since 2016. The experiment will truly begin in 2019. Also, giving up the rotation is only for the tomatoes. As I wrote in the post, A new garden plan for Fortex green pole beans, I think crop rotation is useful for keeping pole beans healthy. I’ve also had good results with rotating alliums such as garlic and onions into different rows each year. So, I talking about tomatoes only–at least for now.

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Ugly tomato plants with sparse fruits were the rule for most of the 2017 season.

My next tomato concern is soil fertility. It’s not that I didn’t fertilizer in 2017. I did. But maybe not wisely. I need to know what the soil needs to raise nutrient-dense tomatoes, and when it needs it. Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog recommends abundant soil phosphorus for early high yields. Too much nitrogen will result in too much foliage at the expense of fruit, as well as in soft fruits with susceptibility to rot. Abundant soil calcium and an even supply of soil moisture will prevent blossom end rot. Watering in transplants with a high-phosphate fertilizer solution is recommended by Johnny’s as well.

In 2017, I used Neptune’s Harvest fish fertilizer 2-4-1 twice a month through the tomato season. I watered it into the soil around the tomato plants. No only was this expensive, it didn’t give the results I hoped for. Obviously, fish fertilizer is good stuff. I just didn’t use it effectively. During soil preparation in May of 2017, I added rock phosphate and limestone to the compost, but I was missing composted manure. Unfortunately, my local source of composted sheep manure with bedding straw, affectionately known locally as ewe-poo, had mechanical problems with their composting equipment and shut down production for awhile. Looking back on the difference between 2016 and 2017 vegetable harvests, I wonder if that might have been the biggest problem in 2017. I’m happy to say that my compost for this spring has 4 40-lb. bags of ewe-poo incorporated into it. I’m also planning to do soil tests this spring, so I will have a better idea of what the soil needs rather than adding stuff helter-skelter. In The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient-Dense Food, Steve Solomon warns that balancing nutrients in the soil is as important as supplying an abundance of them. He supplies rather daunting worksheets for figuring out what is lacking and why. The first step is a soil test, so that’s my starting point this spring.

Finally, I’m rethinking tomato varieties, hoping to choose the best for my needs and reduce the number of varieties to better concentrate on the needs of those few I have.

 

 

First, I’m sticking with Ramapo F1 hybrid for slicing tomatoes and adding Moreton F1 hybrid in hopes of an earlier slicer. I’m not proud of the vines pictured above, but the Ramapo fruits were good. I think they can be better. Both Ramapo and Moreton are Jersey Tomatoes that the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) at Rutgers has reintroduced in recent years. They were the tomatoes of choice for New Jersey canneries as well as gardeners in the 1960s and ’70s. They have a memorable sweet-tart taste that got lost when the canneries chose firmer varieties that shipped better and had a longer shelf life. I remember that wonderful taste from back then. Whenever we visited out-of-state friends, we were always asked to bring along some tomatoes from New Jersey farmers’ markets. I just didn’t realize what I was missing until I started reading about the Ramapo tomato, and more recently, the Moreton, which is an old-time variety that produces earlier in the season. Both are F1 hybrids, but are often found listed with heirlooms because of their taste, their semi-determinant growth habit, and their illustrious history. I ordered seeds for both from Rutgers. Much more information is available at the Rediscovering the Jersey Tomato website.

In addition to the Jersey Tomatoes, I chose an heirloom slicer, Cherokee Purple, from Johnny’s. Missing from my slicer lineup for the first time in many years is Celebrity F1, a nostalgic choice in past years because my mother always grew Celebrities. Nothing wrong with them, just an issue of garden space mostly.

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Spindly plum tomato vines October 10, 2017

Plum tomatoes are a necessity. Whatever variety I tried in 2017 is lost to history. I can’t find any record of it. It was not memorable, to say the least. Spindly vines and sparse fruits account for the dearth of tomato sauce in my freezer this winter. For 2018, I decided to go back to Amish Paste from Johnny’s. In September 2015, I wrote a post, Plum tomato mash-up about Amish Paste and Speckled Roman plums cross-pollinating. This bothered me at the time. Now I look at the photos of those luscious lovely plum tomatoes and wonder why I was so upset about a little cross-pollination. Amish Paste is an heirloom from which I’m hoping for many jars of tomato juice and sauce for the freezer next winter, as well as good eating all summer.

 

 

Finally, my tomato lineup would be incomplete without Matt’s wild cherry tomatoes from Johnny’s. I worry sometimes that Johnny’s will discontinue them. The catalog blurb warns that they don’t produce so well as modern varieties and that the fruits are soft. However, the flavor is superb. Yes, it is. As for the production issue, I can only say it hasn’t been a problem for me. Every day during tomato season, there’s more cherry tomatoes to be picked, almost more than can be used. As for the soft fruits, it’s true that Matt’s wild cherries won’t sit around unused on the counter for days on end. They are best eaten the day they are picked. But they also don’t have to be cut in half to be edible in salads or on pasta. They burst open almost on their own, either in your mouth as you savor a salad, or as they are gently heated in olive oil for a pasta dish. Their softness is a large measure of their appeal.

So, that’s my tomato strategy for 2018. My decision is made regarding non-rotation of tomatoes. I will try it. My choice of varieties has been made and seeds have been bought. That’s done. Now what’s left is the big challenge. Learning the best way to provide soil fertility that will produce nutrient-dense, juicy, tasty tomatoes. Lots of them. That begins with a soil test this spring.