Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Taken With Turtlehead

It was a little scrap of a plant which no one wanted that May evening.  The dust had just cleared, literally, at the end of the Master Gardener Plant Swap, a night when all sorts of containers, trays, milk jugs and beer flats come into the Extension office loaded with a huge variety of plants.  The crazy spreaders are there, such as gooseneck loosestrife and obedient plant, as well as the vigorous self-sowers such as perilla and flowering tobacco.   Amongst the thugs, however, there were some gems like Margaret’s Japanese maples and Frank’s choice hostas.  The big thrill is getting some neat plants for free.

I certainly could understand why the plant in question was left abandoned - the three leaves in a blob of dirt in a paper cup were not attractive – but if the label, stating simply Chelone, was true, this was a superior native deserving a good garden home.

At my place, small, ailing or experimental plants live in containers next to the greenhouse in the convalescent zone.  They are watered daily with a dilute solution of fertilizer and given their choice of sun or shade.  This VIP treatment produces great results, and when large enough to compete in the real garden, the healthy patients are transplanted. 

The mystery Chelone took to this treatment immediately, and soon produced several stems covered with dark, healthy leaves.  I became convinced its tag was correct – it was a turtlehead, but which species?  Gardening books claim there are three native to the eastern US.  Chelone glabra has white flowers, which are sometimes flushed with pink.  C. lyonii has pink flowers and wider leaves with coarser teeth on the edge, and has the biggest native range.  C. obliqua is similar, too, but has a shorter petiole (the stem that connects the leaf blade to the main stem) and lives in wetlands.  Since mine has bloomed, I am pretty sure I’ve got C. lyonii.

All of the turtleheads like dampish soil, part shade to sun, and grow two and four feet in height.  Given a site to its liking, a turtlehead plant can grow into a large clump in three to four years.  It is beset by few problems, other than occasional powdery mildew, and can be pinched in spring to create a bushier plant. 

Even though it is a native, turtlehead is suitable not just for a woodland or streamside garden, but also perfectly fine in a perennial garden featuring some of the fanciest European and Asian hybrids.  Interestingly, plant breeders seem to have ignored this genus, as there are few cultivated varieties for sale.

The unique structure of the turtlehead’s flower makes it, well, a turtlehead.  The blossoms are produced on terminal spikes, are about 1 inch in length, and do quite resemble a reptilian head.   Late bloom time is also a big asset.  My plant started flowering in late August, and is in full show now in mid-September.       

If you can’t find an orphan, I’d recommend investing money in a turtlehead.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Rensselaer County Master Gardener Chipmunk Photo Gallery


Photo by Barbara Nuffer

Photo by Betsy Kauffman

Photo by Sharon Mann

Photo by Donna Reickert

Photo by Marthanne Linacre

Photo by Pat Thorne

Photo by Pat Thorne

Photo by Pat Thorne

Chipmunks Drive Me Nuts

Photo:  Donna Reickert
It’s easy to dislike most garden pests, including spittlebugs (ick!), slime mold (yuck!) and jumping worms (ew!) The rub comes when the pest is cute, and not much is cuter than a chipmunk. A chipmunk or two can add animal color to a garden – they screech, I jump, and I swear they laugh – but my tolerance decreases as their population increases. Yet who but a real jerk could hate a chipmunk?

So that’s the rub. But I do have some facts on my side. Chipmunks invaded my large planters and uprooted the transplants repeatedly, killing a couple of coleus at $6.95 each. After my sweet corn germinated, the chipmunks pulled up each seedling and ate the withering seed and expanding roots. I blamed the deer for sampling the tomatoes, but that turned out to be the chipmunks. I wouldn’t mind sharing, but why do they have to take a bite out of each ripe tomato, then leave the remains to rot, and sample the green ones, too? They’re taking their cheeky behavior a bit too far.

2020 first gave us a lot of nuts (I’m referring to the type from trees) and then an abundance of chipmunks.  Wildlife biologists tell us that two to four chipmunks normally inhabit each acre, but the number can sometimes climb as high as ten.  Each has a home range of about half an acre, and defends a perimeter around its burrow of about 50 feet.  The burrows can extend through the earth for up to 30 feet, and are not marked by piles of soil, since chipmunks cleverly carry the dirt away in their cheek pouches, concealing the construction.  A chipmunk mom can give birth to two batches of babies per year, each containing two to five baby ‘munks.

Photo:  Pat Thorne
If you’ve endured their damage, you might dream of a chipmunk-free garden, but that is probably unrealistic. Authorities recommend against having a continuous planting of trees, shrubs and groundcovers from wooded areas to around homes, and say to remove rock walls, deep mulch and wood piles, since these are great hiding places. A plant-free, gravel area should surround the house. While all this sounds great in theory, it isn’t easy to put into practice, and I don’t want to live in a parking lot. So, I’m learning (and re-learning) to tolerate chipmunks, and I’ll even chuckle at their antics when they aren’t eating the irrigation lines or landscape lighting.

Repellents do a so-so job with chipmunks, so that leaves exclusion and traps.  Hardware cloth enclosures can protect special plants and chicken wire cages are useful for bulbs.  Snap rat traps baited with peanut butter, nutmeats, raisins or corn are a lethal option; set them in a box with open ends to protect pets and children.  Box, bucket and multiple catch traps, which leave the chipmunks alive, are also effective.  But be aware that it is not legal in New York State to release chipmunks in a park, forest or other area without the landowner’s permission and proper permits.       

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Spices Of Life

If my head hurts, I go to the medicine cabinet.  When dinner is bland, I look at the spice rack. Using deodorant and cologne helps make me socially acceptable.  None of these actions require any knowledge of horticulture, but a few generations ago, none were possible without knowing how to grow, preserve and use plants, or at least having some servants to do it for you.  But thanks to modern manufacturing, all I need to do now is visit a store, and home cures have largely gone the way of sword fighting, butter churning and hoop rolling…or have they?


Not entirely, perhaps.  A few Master Gardeners are beguiled by herbal legends and lore, find modern ways to use herbs, and are turned on by the plants themselves.  This group takes good care of the herb display at the Demonstration Garden, located at the Robert C. Parker School in North Greenbush.  Four raised beds in a formal design hold a variety of plants prized for their usefulness, all surrounded by a picket fence.  In a “normal” summer, one of our evening herb programs would have the Master Gardeners showing off their lavender cookie recipes, experimenting with eyewashes and dry shampoos, and concocting refreshing elixirs.  But not this summer, of course. 

Nevertheless, our little garden is a good showcase of herbs that a creative modern person might use as well as a few plants which are as obsolete as flatirons.  Considering the former, a sprig of easily grown spearmint (Mentha spicata) in your iced tea is still refreshing, even if the tea comes from a store-bought powder.  Sage (Salvia officinalis) and thyme (Thymus vulgaris) are similarly easy and simple to use, too, in meat dishes and breads.  And many gardeners don’t consider it summer without basil (Ocimum basilicum), made into pesto or as part of that ultimate August cuisine, a homegrown tomato sandwich.

But we’ve got wormwood and marshmallow, too.  Before appearing as a character in C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters,” wormwood (Artemesia absinthium) was used to make absinthe, beer and vermouth, as an ingredient in various liniments, and for de-worming farm animals.  A sprawling, three foot tall plant with gray-green foliage, its concentrated oils can be extremely poisonous.  Given wormwood’s rather strong and not-unpleasant scent, it was used as a strewing herb in churches and other public places to make those without deodorant less socially unacceptable. 

A paste made from the roots of marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) was used in cough syrups, since it soothed the throat, and also yielded the first, totally organic, marshmallows.  Imagine the work those kids from yesteryear had to endure, digging, drying and processing a bunch of roots just to make s’mores! 

The recognition that many “wild” plants as well as ornamentals once had widely known herbal properties is as obscure as homemade marshmallows.  The pesky lawn plantain (Plantago major) soothed nettle stings and wounds, while shrubby, invasive barberry (Berberis vulgaris) cured jaundice. 

Would I remain socially acceptable by trading my “Old Spice” for a mixture of lavender, peppermint, tarragon and anise?    

Friday, August 14, 2020

Green In The City

Sometimes it is easy to overlook the beauty that’s right in our own backyard.  That was one of the ideas behind the “Tour of Troy Gardens” that our Master Gardeners took themselves on this past Wednesday.  Since many of us don’t want to travel too far during this Pandemic, it made sense to stay close to home and visit two of the sites Master Gardener volunteers spend hundreds of hours making beautiful in the Collar City each season.

Donning masks, toting hand sanitizer and checking boxes on health forms, we met at the 9/11 Memorial Park in Lansingburgh, standing six feet apart.  Owned by the City of Troy, the focus of the park is a dark marble and steel monument dedicated to the tragedy of that September day in 2001.  It’s a beautiful spot for a pocket park, adjacent to the Hudson River and just north of the 112th Street Bridge, but not that long ago it wasn’t so pretty.  Derelict house trailers stood here, and after their removal it was a rather ugly empty lot.  The monument was dedicated in 2011, and Master Gardeners have been involved with beautifying the park for the last nine years.  Knockout roses surround the monument, and daylilies line the walkways.  A mixed border perennial garden featuring a wide variety of plants, including redbuds, hydrangeas, coneflowers and ornamental grasses forms the north border.  While it is a very lovely garden today, the site still isn’t without challenges.  The steep riverbank makes weeding a death-defying task, since plants of all kinds easily take root on the slope and shoot skyward, threatening to block the view.  The soil occasionally yields peculiar trash, while less than upright park visitors and dogs leave their own calling cards.  The Master Gardeners have learned to take this all with a shrug and a chuckle.  Local companies have donated fencing and landscaping supplies, and the Master Gardeners receive support from the City via grant funds, trash collection and lawn mowing, making the maintenance of this urban gem a community effort.

Our second stop was Leslie’s Garden, located just south of Washington Park on Adams Street.

  The garden is owned by TAP, Inc., a local non-profit, and was named in honor of Leslie Adler, an ardent supporter of Troy whose efforts led to numerous State-sponsored community grants for neighborhood improvement.  Chico Christopher, a long-time Master Gardener and TAP employee, was the garden’s caretaker, but after his passing in 2017 additional Master Gardeners joined with TAP Board members and staff, as well as the Riverside Neighborhood Association, to keep the garden growing.  Today, Leslie’s Garden features a variety of perennials and small trees surrounding two open spaces with benches, which encourages small gatherings and neighbor interaction.  In high summer, a huge circle of colorful zinnas becomes an eyecatcher.  The garden is adjacent to the School Ten Apartments, owned by TAP, that are income-eligible homes in a former Troy public school.  It’s a wonderful harmony of plants and people cooperating to create a special place.    

Monday, August 10, 2020

Oh Deer, Finally Here

After 24 years, my gardening honeymoon is over.  While I’m nowhere near throwing in the trowel, I’m sorry to say that the deer have truly arrived.  While living with deer is standard practice for many gardeners in the Hudson Valley, I certainly have enjoyed my almost quarter-century gardening largely without them.

I must admit feeling rather smug in the past.  I figured that the busy road in front of the house, and the wooded cliff behind, were discouraging to deer.  While our neighborhood on the edge of suburbia is very green, most folks surrounding me are not gardeners, so there is little of unusual horticultural (and culinary) interest to attract the hungry horde, other than my place.  So while I certainly sympathized with my green-thumb chums who face deer damage daily, I also counted my blessings and thanked my lucky stars.

Gradually, though, things have changed.  A few winters ago, the deer ate the bottom four feet of my arborvitae hedge, which runs between our side yard and the house next door.  I didn’t notice this until one day when I could see Mr. Moore’s Pontiac much better than before.  After that, a few leaves might disappear here, a flower or two vanish there, but it was no big deal.  Then last winter, our giant backyard oak dropped an Armageddon of acorns.  The deer visited nightly, making deep hoof prints in the snow covering my hosta garden and the one good patch of lawn we had, turning it all into a minefield of mud.  Word among the herd must have gone out that this was the dining place to be.  Now this summer, the hostas have lost their leaves, the tomatoes their fruit, and I my patience. 

Deterring browsing by deer offers two primary options:  repellants and fencing.  For now, I’ve

gathered the stray bits of fencing from the shed and cordoned off some of the surviving hostas and all of the dahlias.  I’ve also invested in a jug of deer repellent.  I say “invested” since it cost almost as much as my first car, all for some putrescent eggs, thyme, garlic and soap.  And wow, does it stink, the kind of stench that stays in your mind’s nose for days.  But after deploying the smelly solution, we had the first night without a loss from the tomato patch, so I am pleased.

I’m also pondering a fence.  Deer can jump almost eight feet high with ease, as well as shove under or shoulder through a wimpy fence, so any construction needs to be well-planned and sturdy.  Black plastic mesh comes in various sizes and is a popular option.  I need about a 300 foot length to enclose most of the backyard, and at eight feet high, with 21 posts and two gates, this system would cost about $2,000, self-installed.  While I could buy a lot of tomatoes and hostas for that amount, this looks like the price I must pay to remain a gardener.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Tickled By Ornamental Grasses

There’s nothing like a summer drought to make my already grand appreciation of ornamental grasses grow, since most tolerate lack of rain and plenty of heat without missing a beat.  Beyond toughness, they’ve got other virtues in spades, coming in a range of colors, textures, forms and heights.  Most are totally pest free, can tolerate poor soils and demand little care.  What else can we ask for in a perennial plant?

Native switchgrasses (Panicums) grow four to five feet tall and have airy, fine textured seedheads.  Red foliaged ones include ‘Rehbraun’ and ‘Warrior’ while bluish foliage types include ‘Dallas Blues’ and ‘Prairie Sky.’  Blue fescues (Festuca species) make cute, spiny-looking clumps growing to about 12 inches, perfect for the front of a hot, dry border.  Mine, in fact, refuse to grow in the garden soil but have moved into the gravel driveway, where they actually don’t mind getting run over occasionally in exchange for the sharp drainage.  And Indian grass (Sorgastrum nutans) is a tough native with surprisingly large, yellow flowers that appear as summer starts to slip toward fall.

Some of the most attractive and popular ornamental grasses belong to the genus Miscanthus sinensis and hail from Japan.  Miscanthus ‘Strictus,’ a.k.a. porcupine grass, has bright yellow bands on its green foliage and creates a great clump seven or more feet tall.  A white and green haystack describes ‘Variegatus,’ a favorite of Victorian gardeners, while ‘Morning Light,’ growing to about five feet tall, has very thin, wistful white and gray-green leaves.  It may in fact be the prettiest grass of all.  The straight species or “wild” type of Miscanthus has rightfully earned a bad reputation for self-sowing and becoming and exotic weed, so it is important to avoid planting it. 

Three grasses are particularly noteworthy for their display of tall stems, flowers and leaves.  Karl Forster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) grows a low grassy skirt, then shoots narrow vertical beige flower stalks three feet in the air.  Tall purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) makes a similar short skirt, then pops delicate flower stems in every direction, looking rather like a firework, up to eight feet high.  It looks best with a wall, fence or evergreens as a backdrop, or positioned to catch the setting sun.   

Three more favorites are not grasses at all, but sedges, which in most ways look grass-like.  
Carex ‘Blue Zinger’ is only the greenest of blues at best, but is a very tough groundcover that will thrive in shade, even under a walnut tree.  Flashier is ‘Ice Dance,’ which has green foliage edged in pure white and grows to about 18 inches.  It also forms a weed-impenetrable mat.  Fanciest is Carex siderosticha ‘Variegata,’ with fat, pointy leaves edged in white and an elegant character.  It is somewhat less drought tolerant than the others but equally weed suppressive.  A friend recently gave me a plant of Carex ‘Banana Boat,’ with jaunty yellow foliage, which is guaranteed to make an ornamental grass lover like me go ape.