Smartweed

SMARTWEED: BE GRATEFUL IT’S PRETTY

 

Pink smartweed and white fall asters share the October sun, at the edge of a parking lot, with a yellow butterfly. Native asters make great carefree garden plants for a sunny location where their tall status (3′ or more) can be accommodated (See issue 27). Smartweed (polygonum) on the other hand, is horrible.

Smartweed, with the folk name “smartass”, has a behavior problem. Taken out of context, the stuff is attractive but then so are house mice and Canadian geese. However, it’s hard to be grateful for the inch of guano that the no-longer-endangered Canadian geese leave in their wake. In turn, smartweed’s not so charming when you’ve pulled it up for the fifth time this month.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers (even they’re watching the stuff), “There are approximately 96 taxa of Polygonum in the United States, 29 of which are not native or their native range is problematical. ” Translated into English, this means that the problem has 96 variations, foreign and domestic. Further translated, 96 kinds means there’s some for everyone, regardless of growing zone; and it means that there are annuals, perennials, short ones (under 6″); tall ones (over 6′), pale ones, white ones, greenish ones, pink ones, spotted ones, underwater ones, and who knows what else. Smartweed is said to prefer damper sites and at least half-day sun but I find it everywhere except in the driest places. The USA Army notes that “dense colonies [of the water variety of smartweed] can impede water flow in irrigation ditches … and restrict recreational activities along shoreline areas.” That bad.

Smartweed is in the buckwheat family. Buckwheat itself is believed to have originated in China long, long ago. Unlike grains such as oats and wheat, buckwheats are not part of the grass family; they’re on their own. Buckwheat makes delicious pancakes, and the bees turn the pollen into prized honey. However, as the smartweeds go, there’s an Asian variety that’s used like cilantro, but our 96 varieties generally aren’t safe to for human consumption. Many birds, including endangered water fowl, insects, and mammals do enjoy a frequent smartweed snack. You’ll note that, in the above picture, the butterfly has chosen the smartweed over the normally delectable asters. Humans, including Europeans and Native Americans, do use the highly acidic smartweeds for internal and external medicine. In Mexico, it’s said that soaking in a smartweed bath relieves rheumatism.

Smartweed blooms from June to November, which gives it plenty of time to make lots of seeds for the birds and water to disperse. The stem joints have a knotted appearance that can lead to name confusion because smartweed’s cousin called “Japanese Knotweed” (Polygonum cuspidatum) is a menace of in its own right.

I don’t know how you get rid of the stuff. I’m not sure you can. Control might be more achievable. Like anything else, the more you pull it up and prevent it from going to seed, the better off you are. Ironically, an agro-conference on the use of “Round-Up Ready” crops (i.e immune to broadleaf herbicides) noted that repeated use of Round-Up increased the smartweed population. To me, anything that discourages use of chemicals, particularly on food that I eat, is good, so perhaps there’s a silver lining after all.

Ailanthus

AILANTHUS AND SUMAC

 

You came across a tree with long palm-like tropical leaves. What is it? In New England, it is mostly likely to be ailanthus, sumac, walnut or ash. Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima), the Tree of Heaven, Asia, and Brooklyn is often considered by naturalists and homeowners alike to be a menace to society with little redeeming value for wildlife. In contrast, smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and staghorn sumac (Rhus tyhina) are great native Americans, as useful to humans as to our smaller residents. The black walnut (Juglans nigra), another great American, is cultivated in the wild by squirrels who adore these tall, graceful hardwoods, perhaps even more than humans do. The ailanthus is from the Quassia family of tropical plants, the sumacs are cashew family, and the black walnut comes from the walnut family which includes hickories and pecans. Our wonderful native ash trees are olive family members so can be distinguished from the others by the oppositely arranged branches and leaf stalks.

The ailanthus, sumacs, ashes, and black walnut come from totally different families and backgrounds, but can you tell them apart? All have long, palm-like compound leaves but there are major differences in flower, fruit, bark, bud, and leaf shape. This article covers the ailanthus and the sumacs. The black walnut is the subject of Issue 149 (January 30, 2005). Some of the ash trees are pictured in Issue 138 (November 14, 2004)

AILANTHUS: Graceful, tropical-looking ailanthus is the tree that grows in Brooklyn, and just about everywhere else (including Africa and Australia). It is as much a part of the urban landscape as the Norway rat, the cockroach, and the feral cat. Ailanthus was featured in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” where this arboreal immigrant’s determination to survive and flourish despite all odds gave inspiration to immigrants of the human species. In Brooklyn, I once saw a ghostly ailanthus sapling growing out of the dirt floor in a lightless sub-basement. Ailanthus saplings waving from roof gutters and fire escapes are common inner-city sights.

As a long-time Brooklyn resident, I have a unreasonable fondness for my old neighbor, the “Tree of Heaven”, as it is known in its native China. In China, the mature trees are valued as ornamentals; and the tree is used for lumber, firewood, medicine, and silkworm farming. (The wood, by the way, is similar to ash in look and quality, and actually is quite useful.) Conversely, in Virginia, where it threatens new forests, ailanthus is known, appropriately, I think, as “stink-tree”.

Unfortunately, like many back-alley denizens, ailanthus is “armed and dangerous”. Ailanthus uses its wind- and water-borne winged seeds (“samaras”) to spread into surrounding neighborhoods. Once it gets established, it spreads into a grove by means of underground shoots. Ailanthus is a proven alleopath; it uses chemical warfare to control its turf. The chemicals it makes can ward off at least 70 other species that could compete with it for space.

Ailanthus, however, can not tolerate deep shade, so despite its chemical armaments, it can’t compete under the thick forest canopy. Instead, ailanthus tends to grow in the sub/urban environment where few trees can compete with ailanthus for ability to withstand urban pollution. Ailanthus can also out-compete native trees when the forest canopy has been disturbed by logging or fire, and it can gain a foot-hold at the forest’s edge by out-competing and poisoning other “pioneer” and edge-of-forest plants. According to the US Forest Service, in China, ailanthus only grows “in a densely populated area of China where no wild lands are left.” Chilling thought.

Ailanthus was first imported into North America, they say, in the 1700’s, and was widely planted in cities (on purpose!) because it was pollution-hardy. Today, ailanthus is found in this hemisphere, in Zones 4 to 8, from Argentina to Canada. In the USA, it is found everywhere except the really cold places such as Alaska, Idaho, the Dakotas, and Minnesota. Ailanthus is useful for ground stabilization in pollution-prone industrial sites but I doubt anyone has to take the time to plant it.

Ailanthus is a fast, fast growing tree that lives only 25 to 50 years but it can get very large – 60 to 100 feet–in that time. While the individual trees aren’t that long lived for trees, the ailanthus groves can sustain themselves for hundreds of years.

Most American wildlife hasn’t much use for the foreign-born ailanthus. Even white tail deer and grey squirrels aren’t partial to it. A couple of bugs of Asian origin, such as Japanese beetles, munch on it (and presumably provide some value to the ecology when the bugs are then munched in turn by birds and small animals). Honeybees (a European import themselves), though, do relish the pollen which makes quality honey after it has been aged.

Ailanthus is weedy and aggressive; it should be controlled for the sake of the environment. In particular, the female plants which send out the seeds should be kept cut to the ground. Further, the trees are not desirable around human dwellings. Larger trees can be a winter/wind hazard and the water-seeking roots have been known to interfere with sewer lines and wells. The roots are also said to give water an unpleasant taste. The males flowers have a strong odor often considered disagreeable (hence the name “stink-tree”). Ailanthus sap can cause dermatitis and the tree is a 9 out of 10 on the bad-for-allergies scale.

Maples

SHADES OF MAPLE: DEATH BY NORWAY

 

A Norway maple has three effective ways of destroying your lawn: dense summer shade, a smothering blanket of fall leaves, and a choking network of surface roots. There are mosses that will survive this onslaught, so treasure them. The prolific Norway seedlings also wreck havoc in the yard and surrounding garden.

No one doubts that Norway maples are beautiful: delicate lime-green flowers in spring, handsome leaves in summer, butter yellow, or sometimes red or orange in fall, graceful branches and trunks for the winter. The Norway maples hold their leaves longer in the fall than our native maples, providing late-season yellow accents for bare tree branches and winter evergreens. (FYI: Order of leaf turning: sugars, reds, Norway, silvers, then Japanese)

Norway maples aren’t so bad in Norway because it’s too cold for them in most of the country but they have become one of the most widespread trees in Europe, as well as being a major pest in North America. Since the way we nurture our lawns in the USA tends to be worse for the environment than Norways are for our lawns (see Issue 60), Norways wouldn’t be so bad except for their winged seeds (called “samaras”) that float off into our woodlands and wreck havoc there. What kills your lawn is also doing in our treasured woodland wildflowers.

Norways were introduced to North America in the late 1700’s. George Washington is said to have bought two from a Philadelphia importer. They became widespread around World War II when many were planted to replace elms stricken by the Dutch Elm disease. It seemed like a good idea at the time because Norways are one of the faster growing hardwoods that do well as street trees (handle pollution, live a long time, have strong branches). The problems didn’t show up until decades later when the mature trees and their grown-up, escaped decedents proved themselves to be lawn and forest killers.

So many, many Norway maples were planted along streets and in yards. Years later, the average home owner sees the trees gracing the neighbor’s yard and thinks: “nice tree, but why don’t they take better care of their lawn? They should put lime on the moss and re-seed under the tree.” The same person goes hiking in the woods, and wonders about the lack of wildflowers. The Norway maple’s culpability only becomes clear once it’s been pointed out.

Recently, a reader wondered why garden and landscaping professionals continue to recommend environmentally-unsafe plants like Norway maples. Equally intriguing is: why do homeowners buy them? Of course, every person acts for his or her own complicated set of reasons. But there are some identifiable trends. In this area, I suspect ignorance is a big one.

Plant nurseries and landscapers are no different than other retailers: their first concern is to make a living; not save the planet. They stock what they think people will buy. And they have to consider price. Fast growing, hardy plants are easiest to mass produce, cheapest to sell, and have the fewest returns and complaints. However, if they’re aliens, they also have the best chance of overwhelming the more delicate local flora.

The plant retailers know that most homeowners aren’t expert horticulturists and are more comfortable in choosing already familiar plants. Just think of the overuse of Impatiens. Since baby trees are relatively expensive long-term investments, people are even more likely to want to stick to the “tried and true”. So, popularity begets popularity, regardless of actual wisdom. This tends most pronounced with trees because the problems often don’t show up for 20 to 50 years. Sort of like smoking.

What we need to do is to demonstrate to our local retailers ever chance we get that we want sustainable agriculture and are willing to pay for it. That means buying the organic, local-grown produce in the store and farmers’ market, and planting non-invasive, low-chemical and water using, wildlife-nurturing plants in the garden.

So how do you tell the Norways from our lovely native sugar, red and silver maples? This is tougher than you’d think because maples interbreed and “cross-dress”. For example, red maples are supposed to have red stems but sometimes so do Norways, sugars and sycamore maples. See Issue 134 (coming October 17, 2004).

Conifers

ODE TO THE WHITE PINE WEEVIL

 

When we talk about preserving biodiversity by preserving our native plants, part of the reason is so that our native insects with specialized diets will have something to eat. This statement may puzzle the gardener who thinks that bites out of the roses are a bad thing. After all, who needs bugs? Yeah, some of the “bugs” pollinate the flowers so that we have fruits and vegetables, some till the soil, some make the honey, some spin the silk, and some break dead things down into their original components for re-use, but…well, who cares about the rest of them?

Our small creepy-crawlies actually come from several families. There are the eight-legged spiders and mites, the six-legged the insects, the zero-legged worms, the centipedes and millipedes with too many legs to count, the armor-plated pill-bugs (related to shrimp), and a whole host of microscopic guys. For our purposes, they are all “bugs”, even if to a biologist “bug” means just one kind of “insect” and “spiders” aren’t “insects”…

The white pine weevil (Pissodes strobe) seems as good a candidate as any to start The Monday Garden native bug-appreciation day movement. Chances are you’ll be much more likely to see this critter’s work than the critter, which may be a good thing seeing that the bug is an ugly as an orc. You can tell all weevils by their long, downward curving snouts, good for poking holes in plant tissue. The white pine weevils are small beetle-types with splotchy, hard shells and the characteristic long snouts. Their children are pasty white legless grubs. Yuk.

However, this little bug’s whole job is to go around topping out our native eastern white pine trees. According to the Ohio State University Extension these little guys “prefer” eastern white pine and various spruces, but, it is said, that in a pinch they’ll also attack about 20 other pines, including, on rare occasion, a Douglas-fir or two. In other parts of the country, due to a difference in diet, the white pine weevil is called “Sitka spruce weevil” and “Engelmann spruce weevil”.

What the white pine weevil does, as a larva and adult, is feed on the new soft leaders at the top of the tree. They seldom kill a tree but can significantly change its shape.

Left to their own devices, eastern white pines grow tall and straight. When they loose their top leader, due to while pine weevils, utility companies, severe weather or other cause, they usually develop the soft, wind-swept shapes with which the trees grace many a New England sky-line.

If you look around the Northeast, here and there, you’ll see a white pine grown to adulthood tall and straight, but most have developed multiple leaders and wonderful individualized shapes. There’s no way to say for sure that a particular pine got its shape from a weevil rather than other cause but the weevils do a lot of the work.

Interesting, sources pretty much agree that the only white pines likely to be killed by weevils are the under 4-footers growing in full sun, particularly if a bit over-watered (that means in a tree farm, tree nursery or front yard, rather than in natural part-shade understory conditions).

Equally interesting, they say that if the weevil population is in balance, usually only one weevil per tree will lay her eggs in the holes she makes right under the white pine’s top bud cluster. In this case, most of the grubby larva will get smothered by the white pine’s thick, plentiful resin, provided for exactly this purpose, and the tree’s leader is likely to survive even if gets a bit (artistically) bent.

If there are too many adult weevils, multiple females will compete for egg-laying space on the same tree. If simultaneously attacked by several weevil broods, the tree is sure to loss its terminal (top) leader and possibly also the next rung down, which will change is its shape and stunt its growth, making it ugly for a year or two while it sheds the dead top and makes new leaders. (If this happened to your tree, prune out the dead parts.)

The weevil population is kept in balance naturally through the white pine’s own defenses, predators, weather conditions, and the like. The weevil population will increase in monocultures (one-kind-of-plant places) of its chosen food plant, especially if any of the trees are unhealthy. The weevil population will also increase when the predators have been killed off by chemicals, unusual weather conditions, destruction of habitat or some other ecological disturbance.

Tree nurseries, of course, hate white pine weevils, because the nurseries are trying to sell “prefect” little trees, grown quickly, packed together in full sun, and the weevils are actually taking a bite out of the cashier register’s contents. The lumber folk don’t like the weevils either because a severely bent tree is worthless for lumber.

Once white pines were dominant in northeast forests but they lost significant population due to lumbering over the past 200 years. So to the extent that the white pine weevil prevents the trees from being cut down by their worse predator, lumbering humans, this is so bad? While the weevils make life difficult for the (non-organic?) tree farmers (according to the growers’ way of thinking), for the rest of us, though, the white pine weevil is one of nature’s great pruners, toiling hard to beautify the roadsides and hilltops. Who knew?

Catalpa

CATALPA: GREAT AMERICAN and INVADER?

The northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) is a beautiful, tropical-looking North American native shade tree with a mysterious past. At one time, its range was confined to part of the Mississippi Valley but sources are admittedly fuzzy about which part. Likewise, the name is definitely Native American in origin but there’s a big disagreement over which tribal language is the source.

RANGE AND FAMILY: Today, the northern catalpa (Bignonia family) is found through out the U.S.A. and southern Canada, as well as in other countries where it has been imported as a combat-ready urban tree. Also found in temperate urban areas are the northern catalpa’s southern Appalachian kin, the southern catalpa (Catalpa bignioides), and its Asian kin – particularly the clearly invasive empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa). Those of you from the southwest might know the southwestern native cousin, desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). Many gardeners are familiar with the lovely orange-flowered native trumpet vine, which is the family’s signature member. The Chinese catalpa (Catalpa ovata) is also sold for landscaping.

INVADER OR RETURNING ALUMNI? Some say that outside of its native range, the northern catalpa is an invader. My home state of Connecticut has labeled the northern catalpa as having “demonstrated invasive tendencies”, which is a no-no of the third degree. (The first degree has been reserved for the worst of the worst, like ailanthus). Being “invasive” means that the plant doesn’t come from the area, can escape cultivation and survive on its own, can spread widely, and can out-compete local native plants.

There is no question that the northern catalpa does not stay where it is planted. My own Hoyt Street Alley hosts numerous northern catalpa specimens both large and small. The northern catalpa’s spread, however, is limited by its natural fussiness as to location – it likes rich, moist, slightly acid soil and just a touch of shade. In other words, it is an edge-of-forest tree that won’t survive in deep forest, and which does well in the open meadow and lawn only with plenty of water, as in the Alley.

But is an invader? How come the northern catalpa is built to withstand the -30F temperatures in Montreal, if its original range was only in the southern Mississippi Valley? The black locust may be similarly situated. Many say the black locust an invader in the Northeast, but geologists have found that black locust was here before the Ice Age. So, the black locust is only reclaiming its original territory. Is the same true of the catalpa? Oddly, it is hard to come by popular-level research publications on the catalpa. The northern catalpa has even been neglected by the U.S. Forest Service, whose web site is normally the source of much good information.

Does it play nicely with others? To me, this is the more important question. Regardless of whether the northern catalpa has a pre-Ice Age “green card” permitting it to be outside of the Mississippi Valley, does it add or detract from bio-diversity? Again, popular-level research is hard to come by. Anecdotally, in my area, I have not observed it taking over. It is weedy in that it makes lots of seedling-babies.. However, I don’t see pure stands of catalpa where it has crowded out the competition. (I wish that could say the same for certain others such as the ailanthus and Norway maples). In Hoyt Street Alley, the northern catalpa shares space with a variety of trees including the box elder and Norway maples, American elm, eastern cottonwood, red oak, shaggy bark hickory, American sycamore, chokecherry, white mulberry, ailanthus, and native crab apple. The catalpa saplings are hardier than those of most of the other trees (as hardy as the ailanthus in fact), but even the big catalpa trees are being smothered in places by that dreaded invader porcelain vine.

Allelopathic: There is authority that both the southern and northern catalpas are “allelopaths”, in that they emit chemicals from their roots that prevent other plants’ seeds from germinating. The work done on the southern catalpa indicates that the allelopathic properties only become a problem when the tree is allowed to grow in large, pure stands.

Rudbeckia

Save the Seeds: Rudbeckia and Wild Asters

To celebrating this first week of autumn, in my Mother’s garden, the deep-yellow flowers of the hybrid form of our native Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) are ripening into dark chocolate seed heads. Interlaced with the Rudbeckia are the newly-opened white flowers of one of our wonderful native fall asters.

While it’s good to clean up in the fall, the pictured plants and all others with edible seeds should be left until early Spring. As you know, our small seed-eating songbirds, whose bushes and meadows have become condos and malls, desperately need winter food from our gardens. Leave the seeds, and you’re rewarded with the winter beauty of the seed stalks and pods graced by wrens, finches, warblers, and sparrows (against the snow if you’re far enough North). Consider this: the birds feasting on my mother’s Rudbeckia seeds last winter left behind a thoughtful hostess gift: the aster’s seeds.

By the way, I recommend the hybrid Rudbeckia over the native version. The hybrid is more compact and resistant to powdery mildew, and has a longer blooming season. As to the native asters, they’re prefect as is. If you find them a bit tall, pinch them back during June and July. Both plants are drought tolerant, sun worshipers; many asters also do well in part-shade. Both plants are rated zones 4 to 8 but “In My Garden” readers in zone 9 (California, Louisiana, and Florida) and zone 3 (Ontario) are probably also familiar with these garden treats. Let me know.

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And the readers said…

[Sorry about the late picture last Sunday. Sue]

There’s no picture!! But I think I know what flower you are talking about and yes it is quite pretty. Thank you for the email…I was hoping for a picture lol. Talk to you later. Kim (ONT)

I do enjoy starting the week with your emails! Judi (CO)

Can you send the pictures too? thanks for sending the emails. Linda (FL)

So beautiful!!!!!! Carmen (FL)

I love the photos of your garden. What steps on the computer do I have to go through to use one of the photos as a screen saver? Nancy Anne (CT)

I believe this is great, I mean “In my garden”.. Saludos Julia (CT)

thanks for the second sending == I thought my computer was acting up not loading the picture! Always look forward to these pretties. Gregg (NY)

BTW Diane’s beautiful Louisiana garden has pretty much survived both hurricanes.–Sue

Native Vines

GREAT AMERICANS: AUTUMN VINES

 

Autumn officially came this past week. Here’s a catbrier turning red on a fence in Stamford’s Scalzi Park to prove it.

When we think of native perennial vines that look great in autumn, native bittersweet (endangered) and woodbine (ubiquitous) tend to come to mind first. And then there’s the mixed blessing of poison ivy. But there are several other wonderful native vines that look great in fall, including catbrier, and climbing boneset, and groundnut.Catbriers, also known as greenbriers, are members of lily family. The most common of the North American species is the round-leafed Smilax rotundifolia, pictured above. Southern and Asian cousins include the sarsaparillas (or zarzaparrillas), well-known medicinal herbs. Catbriers have spines, small green flowers in spring, curling tendrils for climbing, and woody stems. The glossy leaves are semi-evergreen. Humans tend to consider catbriers a nuisance but the young shoots, leaves and tendrils are edible (prepare like asparagus). Birds find the black berries delicious and like the dense catbrier thickets for nesting. White tailed deer are reported to enjoy the leaves.

Climbing boneset, also known as climbing hempweed (miikania scandens), is a vine in the sunflower/aster/daisy family, is a relative of the famous and fabulous Joe Pye Weed and (non-climbing) boneset. Like catbrier, it can get out of hand when happy and it stands up to the invasive foreign competition (Indian bittersweet , English ivy, rosa multiflora and porcelain vine , for example). It’s found throughout North America in sunny, damp places; I find it climbing over the railing along Stamford’s Mill River walk, usually covered with pollen-loving insects. Here it’s mixed with another native vine, the large-leafed moonseed.

Ground nut (apois americana) (pea or legume family), a relative of the peanut from the eastern half of North America, was extensively used by Native Americans for food. The cooked tubers are reported to be high in starch and protein; the pea-type seedpods are also edible. It’s a good example of why we need to save all the weeds. For the past 200 or 300 years, it has been considered a bit of a nuisance and has been overlooked as a food crop. However, it’s now being re-investigated because it’s easy to grow and yields both roots and seed pods of high food value. The flowers are pretty too.

Here it is fighting for dominance on a guardrail along Stamford’s Mill River. Its other names include potato bean and Indian potato. Further reading at “Plants for a Future”

Garden calendar: Stop fertilizing t houseplants except tropicals in active growth. Outdoors, put in your ice pansies (see issue 33)

Moss

Winter Moss Mice

This moss is so insignificant when dormant that it’s functionally invisible. But add winter rain and get brilliant green cushions, sometimes called “moss mice”. This piece, in a retaining wall near my high-rise, does resemble a creature of sorts. It’s an appealing notion that the thousands of moss clumps adorning stone walls, pavement cracks, and roof gutters are actually lurking hoards of veggie mice.

During a winter rain, moss is suddenly everywhere. It’s on the tree trunks and town monuments; it’s covering the soil in my balcony pots, and transforming barren lawn into miniature wonderlands. Picking a single moss photo to share proved impossible, so you get two. Here’s a ground cover moss, shot at sunset just before Christmas in a local park:

Researching this article, I found out that there are 15,000 moss species, 12,000 of them present in the Americas.

Bryologists (that’s what you call people who can tell the 15,000 mosses apart) believe moss to be the second plant to evolve, between algae and ferns. Moss is so primitive that it lacks a vascular system to transport nutrients and has no roots. Instead it anchors itself with sticky-ended filaments, like a mussel shell, and absorbs nutrients directly through cell walls. See www.wmuma.com

Being very Zen, moss is beautifully serene unless you actively try to cultivate it. None of the 15,000 mosses do winter indoors, and, outdoors, moss doesn’t like change. Each variety is a niche-player that has had 400 million years to specialize by light, temperature, moisture, soil acidity, water minerals, etc. Moving grown moss, then, is only for the expert and the lucky. Further, the moss gurus all admit that a large, uninterrupted sweep of moss, while breathe-taking, results in disharmony with your squirrels, dedicated moss diggers. It also annoys the neighbors because it’s stoop-labor intensive, tempting one to resort to a (gasp!) leaf blower. Lastly, stealing moss from wild areas wrecks your karma; moss takes a long time to grow and is a vital part of the eco-system.

So, as far as I can see, the best way to bring moss in your life is to encourage small patches of pre-existing moss outdoors. Select spots you can keep moist, with sun and wind protection. With rocks and ferns is nice. Firmly pat down an inch or two of peat (for acidity and moisture retention) mixed with sand (for drainage and easy weeding). Keep damp and free of weeds, mulch, and litter. (This is work, so just do little spots). Air-borne moss spores will come. Alternately, crumpled-up bits of local moss can be pressed into the soil. Your new moss should be noticeable in 6 months and impressive in 2 years. Keep up the weeding and press the squirrel divots back down. Where moss grows in your lawn naturally, without all this effort, treasure it and lay off the killer chemicals.

To grow moss on pots, rocks, driftwood, brick windowsills, and other porous, rough surfaces, blend moss fragments with yogurt, thin with water, and paint on. Shade from full sun. Mist daily until the moss takes (a few weeks). Put rocks and empty pots in a shallow water pan.

Store-bought moss is a great winter mulch for outdoor pots but goes dormant when the spring bulbs flower. Try drying it out completely, as soon as it starts to turn. Then store it in an open bag in a well-ventilated area until late fall.

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And here’s what readers said:

______Wow – this is great; I love your commentary and I love the picture of the “moss creature”. Kal (NY)

I have posted your article on my web site. http://wmuma.com/moss/byothers/wintermossmice.html Thanks again. Walter (ONT)

I do indeed enjoy your Monday morning page. I always learn something. My garden is fine … have just collected my last roses and cut back my 50 or so bushes. … I will probably have buckets of flowers within a month … until end of November. What a deal. Lars (CA)

And now I know the technical reasons why a rolling stone gathers no “moss”. Thanks for the very interesting article. Jack (CT).

These are some great shots. 🙂 Jordan (CT)

I enjoyed your Monday morning moss piece. Thanks. In those instances in which I have transplanted moss (to and from spots in my garden or to a bonsai container), I have used a knife to take a thin slice of native soil with the moss. The moss generally acclimates itself very well…. Margarethe (NY)

I love the moss message. Funny, I was just admiring my moss this afternoon. It really comes into its own in winter …. Liz (CT)

This is my single most favorite article you’ve written and photos you’ve shown. How could I not have known that you, too, are a moss lover. I like lichen a lot, too. Treasure is exactly what I do for the moss that graces my rear lawn. Barbara (NY)

Milkweed

GREAT AMERICANS: THE MONARCHS’ MILKWEED

How about contributing to the monarch butterfly survival fund? It’s easy: plant a milkweed today.

To grow our native milkweeds, you need at least half-day sun. Also, many varieties prefer their roots a bit damp. What’s in it for you? Dramatic flowers, interesting foliage, great seedpods, and nectar-seeking butterflies. If you’re really lucky, you’ll also be delighted by holes in the leaves and ragged edges, the sure-fire sign of baby monarchs. Look for fat caterpillars resembling tiny, horned tigers.

The first plant probably came from a wind-borne seed but in the garden, it spreads by underground runners. I half-heartedly tried to pull it up once or twice but it wanted to stay, so I’ve been leaving it alone. No bugs yet but perhaps we’ll get lucky this year. Design-wise, I think the height, shape, and foliage make it a useful contrast plant.

The curious thing about milkweed is not that monarchs are crazy about it and won’t eat anything else; it’s that practically no one else can stand it.

So, if someone’s munching on your milkweed, you can be pretty certain that you’ve hit the monarch jackpot. HOwever, according to The Monday Gardenreader, and awesome prairie planter and photographer, M.J. Hatfield, you might also get milkweed tussock moth larvae and milkweed bugs, (pop-up pictures courtesy of MJ Hatfield) which strangely enough have also adopted a striking orange and black color scheme – may be the food does it?

Other animals, regardless of species, think milkweed tastes awful and get sick from eating it. It is life threatening in large quantities but tastes so bad that you have to be starving to eat that much of it. Native Americans did eat the young asparagus-like shoots but had to boil them twice to get out the bad juices. Technically, the bad juices are said to be cardiac-active steroids (whatever they are). In many parts of the Americas, milkweeds are (very carefully) used for medicinal purposes.

Monarchs, as you’ve probably read, also taste bad. In fact, so bad that once a bird has tried one, it will shun the species for life. And as you’ve probably also read, viceroy butterflies look like monarchs to fool birds into thinking that they taste bad too. Viceroys, though, get the best of both worlds: defense against birds and something tastier to eat. The monarchs, of course, get the bad taste by storing the yukky cardiac-active steroids in their bodies.

It is said that there are about 200 native milkweeds, about 100 of them from North America, and countless garden hybrids. Most milkweed nectar will attract humming birds as well as butterflies. Around where I live, we have several native varieties. The most common three are the North American “common” milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) which is often seen as a gardener’s hybrid, and the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate). We also have two nasty invader milkweed vines: pale swallowwort (Cynanchum rossicum a/k/a Vincetoxicum rossicum) and black swallowwort (Cynanchum louiseae a/k/a Cynanchum nigrum, Vincetoxicum nigrum).

If you want to foster baby monarchs (a very good thing, indeed), note that monarchs only like some milkweeds. Web sites on butterflies tend to recommend the common milkweed and the swamp milkweed, both perennial North American natives. If you really want to roll out the red carpet, monarchs’ all-time favorites are reported to be certain tropical milkweed hybrids which you’d have to grow as annuals.


Picture: Common milkweed pod, bursting with seeds. The Mill River at Scalzi Park Fall 2004

The fluffy milkweed seeds are good for stuffing things like pillows and floatation devices. The seedpods, which are silky inside like seashells, look wonderful in the garden and in dried arrangements. The milkweed stems contain fiber which can be used like hemp or flax.

Shade Gardening

FALL IN THE SHADE GARDEN

 

So many garden look great in spring, then enthusiasm wanes and the color’s gone. No need. I hope that this picture inspires you to extend your perennial garden’s range into fall.

This is my mother’s part-shade backyard garden in Stamford, CT. The eye-catching star is a white windflower (anemone) from White Flower Farms. You’ll also see ice pansies in deep red, plus every available shade of purple and blue.

While perennials are the best garden investment, a couple of flats of pansies (bi-annuals), to me, are a must. (See Issue 33). This batch came from the local supermarket.

The yellowing foliage and gold seed scapes are courtesy of the hosta clan. At the red in the lower right is one of my mother’s new (and very satisfactory) low-bush blue berries (Issue 56), that we planted last spring. In the rear are Leatherwood ferns, bog rosemarys, more hosta, assorted ground covers, and earlier-flowering perennials.

The area to the left of the pillar in the rear, now know as “Kal’s Garden”, used to be pachysandra, a/k/a the aluminum siding of home gardening. Last spring my friend Kal, with support from her husband Roger (who made us a great Indian lunch), helped me double-dig the patch to expand the garden strip designed for year-round close-up viewing from indoors and from the walk-way.

Between the blueberry and the astilbes (not pictured) is a collection shade ground covers, melded into a thick patchwork quilt.

The components are the yellow of hybrid creeping jenny, the purple of tri-color-variegated ajuga, and the green of ornamental strawberries. If you look carefully, you’ll also see a few brown oak leaves.

These spreading perennials look this good early spring to late fall and often hold their leaves and color all winter in a sheltered spot. Once established, all three ground covers are hardy, care-free, and choke out most of the weeds. While the contrasting foliage is more than enough to satisfy the eye, the strawberries bloom fuchsia from early spring to early fall; the ajuga chimes in by late spring; and the whole mess is under-planted with a collection of miniature spring bulbs that bloom March to June. This mix, which I first saw in a NYC churchyard, stands up to light foot traffic and can be very useful where the grass won’t grow under shade trees.

©Susan W. Sweeney 2003

What the readers said about last week’s FALL IN THE GARDEN and other things:

I’m so proud of my fall anemones — they proved to be very photogenic. Liz (CT)

If they [the shade ground covers] really choke out the weeds, I want some! Barbara (NY)

This and the fall leaves are an inspiration. Just yesterday we drove up state for the foliage. Lin (NY)

I took your advice, and fell in the garden. Instead of the color waning, the color waxed on the bruises, bringing an array of autumn color to my left thigh…. maybe I’m not falling right? I really need to know, because I have my movement class at Yale to consider. … Marc (CT) [you’re imaging a hard surface (ouch! no wonder the bruises); instead, dive into bottomless piles of crisp oak leaves …]