Friday, July 31, 2020

Finally Wintergreen Flowers

These are the first Wintergreen flowers that we have ever seen.  It is not uncommon for us to find the bright red berries that remain on the plant as snow melts but flowers have proven to be elusive.  A factor in never before having seen them is the timing of the flowering.  With so much to be done at this time of year, one simply is drawn away from this lowly ground cover.  As we discovered today flowers remain attached to the plant for merely moments.

When these two blossoms were discovered, one had been pulled free of the plant and was on the ground directly under the plant.  To get a closer look the flower cup was wiggled away from the plant and placed inverted on the moss.  Old eyes did not see the load of yellow pollen at the base of the blossom cup.  The photograph clearly displayed the pollen.  Based on our experience with Arbutus flowers where we saw bees pull the flowers apart to gain exit from their pollen gathering activity we suspect that is how this flower ended up on the ground.

Wintergreen has been a puzzle for us for decades.  A stem growing just below the surface sends up a stalk that sports a few leaves with limited roots underground.  Somehow nutrients travel through the buried stem from distance growth having a larger root system.  Attempts to transplant Wintergreen usually end in failure.  We have read about a method that is supposed to provide transplants that will grow.  The buried stem is exposed on both sides of the plant.  Two cuts are made one on either side of the leaf growth with the location marked.  A year or two later the severed plant might have grown more roots capable of supporting the plant.  If it is still green and growing, transplantation might be successful.

The two stems in the photo were moved the day that they were unearthed.  Both remain green and growing but they do not look like much considering the years that have passed since they were moved.  They have yet to produce flowers or new leaf growth.  Apparently there is some secret to moving this plant that remains unknown to us.

The plants shown in this photo are wild plants that have been given no interference by the hand of man.  Wintergreen is frequently described as a ground cover but in this instance a great deal of forest floor is visible with the Wintergreen growth sparse at best.  We would love to have a more traditional ground cover growth habit but this seems to be the best that can be found here.  Notice that there are no blossoms on any of these plants.  The flowering plant is closer to the river while these plants are on much higher ground.  We will check back looking for flowers.  We do find the red berries here so these plants must flower at least some years.

It may have been the Little House On The Prairie books that contained a description of a gathering of  women to quilt that included sampling Wintergreen wine.  That sounds delicious and the description in the book described the imbibers cheery mood.   I have never seen a wild occurrence of this plant that would have supplied enough leaves to make wine.  I can only imagine what the forest at that time must have looked like in its largely undisturbed natural state.

Our woods contained an impressive number of Wintergreen plants when we first walked this land but they are presently under attack from another native plant.  Canada Mayflower is relentless in its slow march across our woodland.  It is an attractive plant with white flowers contrasted by dark green glossy leaves but the final outcome is certain.  Only it will remain.  For the moment we have a few Wintergreen plants growing under our watchful eyes but their fate is already determined as is mine.  Nothing lasts forever.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Who Planted These?

This  stand of red Monarda  is a very recent discovery.  We have two patches growing in planting beds but these were hidden in chest high weeds near our electric pole.  Bee balm spreads from new stems growing in contact with the ground and root runners just out of sight.  There is a lack of agreement here if seeds actually develop.  Many plants have two methods of providing for the next generation so I will need to look for seeds when these plants are cut back

When we moved here to live twenty-one years ago, there was no soil suitable for plants.  Stones of various sizes were more prevalent  than soil.  Our electric line is buried for a considerable distance from our pole to the house.  We filled the necessary trench using hand tools and it is likely that stones were not part of the fill.   Several days after the discovery of these stunning red flowers, Becky remembered moving some of our plants from our former Unadilla home to the site of our future home.  Only the Bee balm survived decades of neglect.

In John Burroughs' writings he touched on this native plant as an easier source of red for the garden than Cardinal flower.  His attempts to find Cardinal flower growing in the wild were seldom successful.  Keeping it alive in a garden is no simple task in our area.  We have been wrestling with Cardinal flower for years and have managed to keep this treasure alive while the Monarda survives here both in the garden and totally on its own.  It is easy to have huge plantings of these red flowers.  They also bloom earlier than Cardinal flower.

The major drawback to Bee balm is the powdery mildew that covers every surface on the plants after they flower.  It is ugly beyond description and we cut the plants back to the ground in a futile attempt to control this growth.  No one has cut back these long forgotten plants.  Their present appearance is beautiful.  We will check back to see if the powdery mildew  grows on these wild plants.

The other major attraction of these bright red flowers is their popularity with both humming birds and Clearwing moths.  We can only watch the humming birds from a distance while the Clearwings fly close to us and are not at all bothered by our close presence.  The other name for these creatures is Humming bird moth as their method of flying is easily mistaken for the look alike birds.

Our garden Monardas are just out of view so this picture really has no place in this post.   I suppose we could offer red Bee balm plants to anyone that can describe the location of the fifth deer in this photo.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Deer Damage

About sixty days ago our Jack-In-The Pulpits opened flowers.  That was no small feat.  Our harsh and repeated freezes and frosts somehow spared these plants.  They timed their above ground growth appearance really well.  We were rather surprised to see them at all since the frolicking deer had last year broken off all of the visible plant parts.  Mature plants and young made an impressive but unexpected return this year.

Today three seed clusters looked vibrant in the low sun.  Once again their presence was a surprise since the deer damaged the plants once again.  The dried remains of a broken plant are supported by a stone in the background.  If the deer allow these seed clusters to continue to grow, the bright green seeds will turn a brilliant red.

We also have these plants growing in the shade garden near the house.  Our crop of fawns enjoyed a romp there that included pulling the plants out of the ground and chewing on the bulbs.  Some semblance of order was restored so now we wait to see if any of these plants will return next year.  If mature seeds appear, one of the clusters will be timely cut and placed where their grandparents grew.  These plants grow naturally in our woods so we have access to planting stock if it is needed.

How this picture came to be taken so close to the ground deserves mention.  Bending over while trying to focus a camera would most certainly have resulted in a fall.  With other plants close by a wide safe path in did not exist.  A nearby somewhat flat stone was selected to serve as a seat.  Most of the move down was controlled but the last bit was a free fall.  I told Becky that she might have to bring me my lunch.  That proved unnecessary as a return to a standing position was achieved.  My move up was totally awkward bur unassisted.  No plants were crushed and no bruises formed.  Clearly my judgement was less than solid but the picture that resulted is simply great.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Our Wilderness

A little more than twenty-six years ago, we took the next step toward our life in retirement with the purchase of the last piece of what had been a colonial farm.  This land was unsuitable for productive farming as the last glacier to shape this ground left it heavily filled with stone.  We call this the High Meadow as it is the highest ground that we own.  Steep slopes drop down to three other flat meadows that lie at different elevations on the south side and a dead ice sink forms the hole to the east.

The bedrock ridge in the background is not ours but we sought and gained permission to hike there.  We did set foot on the highest ground in the photo when we were younger.  This area consists of several square miles of mostly forested ground that is crossed by only one road and it is not open in the winter.  Local legend places mountain lions and wolves here and there has been a recent sighting of a moose close by. 

When we purchased this land it had not been farmed for many years.  Several horses spent their summers here confined only by a perimeter fence.  Their free range kept plant growth in check.  We have witnessed the return of trees, bushes and Goldenrod that now limit our movement.  I mow trails and two of the meadows but this one had gotten out of control.  A reliable friend restored order here with his bush hog.  The Milkweed will regrow in time to support the last generation of Monarch caterpillars for this season so all is well here.

This field is north of the high meadow.  The high row of pine trees are in both pictures.  When we first came here this steep slope was largely treeless and quite frankly looked horrible from where we planned to build our house.  We did place a bench at the end of what would become our garden and each day's work ended with time spent sitting on that bench.  One day a coyote had crossed the High Meadow and started down the steep slope.  When it saw us a quick retreat took it back up the hill and out of sight.  Crawling toward us on its belly, its head appeared and it gave us a long look.  Its wilderness home had been invaded by people.

These young turkeys are enjoying a dust bath in the bare ground recently exposed in order to finish the stone path and planting bed directly in front of our home.  Two mature hens are raising their broods spending a great deal of time where I mow.  On occasion the dust baths dislodge garden plants but the turkeys presence here is a real plus for us.

This curved stone wall is just one of many projects that remain unfinished.  The sloped ends provide easy access for several different wild animals.  Our resident fox is sometimes seen surveying its home from the high point of the wall.  Recently we saw one of the mother turkeys encourage the young to follow her up the wall.  There she showed her babies how to flap their wings and they quickly understood the lesson.  When mother turkey flew to the ground each of the young followed her.  Imagine, we got to witness a mother teaching her young how to fly.

The turkeys are not the only ones to see our lawn and woods as a safe place to raise their young.  Presently two does and three fawns spend a great deal of time within sight of our house.  The posts and wire fencing keep the deer away from many of our crops but much vegetation figures in their meal plan.  Mom and the twins are all within sight as they stroll across our garden.  After the picture was snapped, forceful verbal encouragement to leave resulted in their long slow looks at us followed by an annoyed walk away.  They seem to understand that we pose no actual threat to them but their time in the garden is limited.  How could a wilderness lifestyle not include nature's creatures? 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A Blue-eyed Crow And Spotted Fawns

It is such a pleasure to spend time in the shade garden on a hot day.  I saw several crows fly out of the garden as I approached.  They made a very noisy departure.  Ed arrived shortly after I did.  One bird remained in the garden.  We decided to stay, mind our own business, and ignore the bird.  Ed did well with that.  He chose a spot to weed on the other side of the garden.  I did that too but I faced where the bird was so I could watch it.  It was obvious to me that for whatever reason the bird could not fly.  When I took a break and sat on the bench to drink some water I took a picture of the crow.  We try to stick to a let the wildlife be wildlife policy here.  I tried but  just had to get a closer look.  

The bird turned out to be a baby crow.   It had a short tail,  blue eyes and  prominent mouth markings.  Right after I took the picture, the crow hopped  to get away from me and bumped into a cage over where Ed was working.  To get away from Ed the bird hopped into a patch of nettles and across some bags of leaves. Once out in the short grass the bird hopped some and walked some.  Once the bird was out in the open, the crows in the pines made all kinds of  unusual  sounds.  The baby crow seemed to change direction in response.   When the baby reached the gravel lane one large black crow flew into a big pine tree across the road from us.  That baby bird hopped and walked straight down the lane, but when it got to the road it stopped.   I didn't stop think about it.  I purposely frightened that baby bird into making a fast trip across the road.  Given the proper motivation he could hop pretty fast.  We were all happy when the baby bird disappeared beneath the tree where Mom was waiting!

After making our home here in  close proximity to the deer population for more than 20 years, we really have to work at it to get  them to keep their distance.  They are somewhat afraid of Ed, but usually pay no attention to me.  Don't get me wrong.   I love watching them from the living room window.  This year we have a doe with twins and another with one a rather small baby who never seems to be far away from the garden.  They are comfortable to nurse while we are watching and regularly bring the fawns to romp, play and practice running very fast on the short grass. The doe with a single fawn seems to leave it close to us for safekeeping. A couple of weeks ago Ed snapped its picture over by his garden shed.  This time the fawn was hidden among  weeds right in the garden.  I did not even see the animal until I was just a few feet away.  Older now the fawn got up and ran away.  All this is wonderful fun but we are experiencing drought conditions.  Deer eating my favorite plants, even pretty little fawns, does not make me happy.

Imagine my horror when I discovered that I forgot to replace the cage on the lettuce bed  after I had picked lettuce in the morning.  Little deer footprints were everywhere. We replaced the cage and Ed watered.  Locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen is seldom effective  At least one lettuce plant is still unmolested.  It is that spot of red just behind my shadow's  shoulder.  It came up by itself from last year's seed.  It's a lucky thing that Ed did not transplant it into the bed with the others.  What our lettuce and the garden needs now is rain.  Maybe those spotted fawns are not all that cute.

Monday, July 6, 2020


Rain has not visited our gardens in quite some time.  What water that we have brought to the plants was delivered in a hand held watering can.  Needless to say only a select few  were watered this way.  Neither plant featured here saw any of this water.  Different plants have different methods of surviving a drought.  Our shade providing Sumac trees drop some leaf filled stems every day.  Just how the tree selects who must fall is unknown but every morning new dropped leaves litter the ground.  There is not enough moisture to provide for all so some must go.

This Rose campion flower may define the color called magenta.  The white center is easily seen but the dark colored veins remained unnoticed here until seen in this picture.  Our original source for this plant is lost in memory.  It seems to have always been with us but now survives here strictly on its own.

A striking feature of Rose campion is the color of its foliage.  Some combination of the words grey, white or green are frequently used in written descriptions about this plant.  The combinations of color are stunning and are reason enough to keep this plant.  It chooses where to grow here and seems to prefer the edges of our stone filled paths.  Initially six inch deep trenches were filled with the stone bits sifted out of what would become garden beds.  We planned on the stone paths remaining weed free but that did not happen.  Rain washed rich garden soil into the paths and plant debris rotted down into a black colored compost because of contact with the stones.  Perhaps our richest soil can be found in the area between the planting beds and the paths.  If a plant prefers poorer soil, it can easily grow more toward the center of the path.

Rose campion usually survives our zone 4 winters perhaps because of the extra warmth captured and held by the nearby stones.  With no effort on our part, this plant appears in several different locations.  As can be seen this plant is having a banner year despite the lack of rainfall.

Believe it or not these flowers are descended from Black-eyed Susan seeds that were chemically treated to add to the plain yellow flower color.  Ours were a gift from Elle and she told us that reddish brown colors would fade in time and that new seeds would then be needed.  That was perhaps two decades ago and the stunning colors live on.  Some of these plants do produce solid yellow blossoms but we cut those flowers to prevent them from setting seed.  Our patches continue to appear year after year so some of the plants may be self seeded while others may be perennial.  New plants also appear along the edge of the stone paths.  These are easily moved to areas that need a color boost.

One year many plants displayed solid yellow petals that were lightly marked with brown.  Each petal held two parallel brown rectangles near the center disc.  Every petal in each flower held the pairs of exactly the same sized brown rectangles.  Needless to say the symmetrical order appealed to the math teacher in me.  Sadly this color sport soon disappeared and has yet to return.  The pictured plants remain constant giving us no need to buy new seeds.  These plants may represent the greatest plant gift ever given to us. Thank you Elle.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Common Treasure

Not one to be driven by standard practice, we on occasion walk a less traveled path.  Some of our garden plants are nothing more than common roadside weeds.  Milkweed is just such a plant.  It was never purchased and we cannot recall intentionally planting it.  It occurs widely in our various gardens and is difficult to remove.  Its deeply placed horizontal root might require power equipment in order to completely dig it out.  It is a tough plant and we intentionally mow large patches of it so that the resulting new shoots and leaves will be available for the butterfly caterpillars that desperately need it to survive in the fall.

Some years Milkweed flowers opened at the same time as the end of the school year.  The appearance of this overpowering scent marked the beginning of yet another summer vacation.  One does not have to get close to the plants to savor the amazingly sweet fragrance but it always draws me close.  After all of these years, I still stop to enjoy the scent while placing my nose in close proximity to feeding bees.  Their mood has always been tranquil while they gather this delicious pollen.  Some find this behavior of me intentionally getting close to bees slightly disturbing.

Our fields also hold many of these plants.  The famed Monarch Butterflies feed on various different flowers but lay their eggs only on milkweed plants.  The difference in flower color is worth noting.  Why that happens remains an unanswered question but I still marvel at it.  This lighter colored blossom clearly shows the unusual complexity of each flowers structure.  The darker petals fall away from the sexual parts making the pollinator's access easy.

We have yet to see the first Monarch Butterfly this year.  That they survive at all with their unusual migratory habit is a wonder.  Still, we will be relieved when they finally make their appearance here.  Some years their numbers are small but they have so far always returned.  Milkweed leaves await their return but for that butterfly any flower will do.

Two days after this post was written, a Monarch butterfly was seen flying in close proximity to a Milkweed blossom.  Becky had twice seen Monarchs earlier but then she is more observant than me.  All is right with the natural world as life continues to provide for the next generation.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Lemon Verbena Cuttings

Lemon Verbena has been with us for many years.  It is perhaps the most aromatic plant grown in gardens.  Becky uses finely chopped fresh leaves in fruit salads instead of sugar.  Add the leaves and allow time for the flavors to meld.  The taste of these salads is delicious beyond description.  Sharing with gardening friends made the plant impossible to find in local nurseries as a result of its new found fame.  We now rely on cuttings to keep this tender perennial in our garden.

Grown in climate zone 8 or higher, this plant will reach a height of six feet and display beautiful flowers.  Here in zone four each plant is limited to two seasons of growth before reaching its ultimate destination of the compost pile.  As amazing as it may sound, the scent of this plant will announce its presence when several year old compost containing it is screened in preparation for adding it to the garden.  These four plants spent the winter on a basement window sill and will be allowed to enjoy the rest of their time time in the sunny garden.  With this year's heat we may have a chance of flowers.

These two cuttings were taken much later than usual.  Falling behind is what we now do.  Heel cuttings are taken when new growth appears early in the growing year.  That bit of bark cut from the branch anchors the cutting in place and is the location of new root growth.  When roots appear in numbers and put on some growth, these new plants will be singly placed in one gallon pots and set out in the garden.  When cooler weather approaches the pots will be pulled from the ground and moved into the basement.  The important thing these new plants do is provide fresh cuttings in the spring.  During their second year they will also provide leaves for fruit salads.

This is our system for rooting cuttings.  Old plastic juice bottles with their bottoms cut off provide a moist environment for the leaves.  After some time has passed, the cap will be removed to allow limited air circulation.  Then the bottle will be removed.  If the timing is right, the cutting will continue holding its leaves upright.  If they droop a spray bath will be followed by a return of the bottle.

Lemon verbena is the most sensitive plant with regard to disturbance of its roots that we have ever encountered.  Early on we tried to dig up plants to take inside for the winter.  Total leaf droop followed.  It persisted for days and on occasion proved fatal.  If the plant did recover it held only a few leaves and sometimes did not last until spring.  Keeping the plants potted solved that problem.  These plants are widely available using mail order.  They are well worth the effort of keeping them in the garden this far out of their native climate.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Way Too Much Gravity

It was yesterday at about 11;30 AM.  The weather was was sunny and calm. Not a leaf rustled in the stillness.  When the loud cracking sounds reached my ears, my first thought was of fireworks. It was not one big bang, but a whole series of  loud noises like the finale at the end of a fireworks show.  I have to admit I was angry at the thought since the sound was so close to the garden and the house.  When I looked toward the source of the sound I actually saw what seemed to me to be a gaping hole where there used to be a continuous line of tree tops.  I used to think that trees were permanent features of the landscape.  Living here has taught me that change can be slow, but it can also happen in the blink of an eye.

Today Ed risked life and limb to get pictures of the Red Maple tree that was responsible for all that noise.  The tree is large, perhaps several feet in diameter, and is growing on a steep incline.  Climbing that steep slope presented challenges for someone who is losing his sense of balance.  For some reason Red Maples send out branches perpendicular to the trunk.  When that branch reaches sunlight it turns and grows vertically toward the sky.  How can a huge unsupported mass like that exist for years?

Clearly there was way too much gravity pulling on the branches and leaves of the tree and 11:30 yesterday was the tree's breaking point.

A closer view of the broken branch shows the source of all that noise.  Every crack, every split and splinter of the wood as the tree branch fell to the ground made itself loudly heard.  It would be interesting to count the rings to see how long the tree has been holding that branch in the air like that but lumber jacking on that steep hill is not in our plans.  I am really happy that the main trunk of the tree seems undamaged.  So to answer that old question about a falling tree making a sound  I would have to say indeed it does and it sounds just like the fourth of July!