Make Your Summer Exotic

Variegated lemon tree–with lemons

I am famous for saying that Connecticut doesn’t have seasons–just Winter and July. So needless to say, when “July” arrives–or whatever passes for warm weather here–I am very anxious to make the most of it! I suspect that’s why I grow all manner of tropical plants that really have no business growing here in Connecticut.

Of course, I grow lemons so that when winter really gets bad (as in this past winter, which was so icy that I had to park at a neighbor’s at the bottom of the hill and hike up my lawn!) I can say that I will just make lemonade!

Olive tree

And something else that I grow, which is a very fun and undemanding plant is a little olive tree. I am probably stunting its growth horribly by keeping it in this tiny pot, but as you can see, it even fruited for me last year!

Here’s a great infographic all about olive trees if you would like to know more from the folks at Trees.com

Croton

I also love these croton plants–nothing exotic for most people, but here in the frozen north, their color is like a tropical party, especially when they are inside in the winter and the snow is falling behind them outside!

Flowering maple (and croton)

Even this flowering maple (abutilon) which I over-wintered for the first time last winter is really colorful with its drooping yellow bells. A warning to those of you who don’t like “messy” plants, however–this one drops leaves and flowers quite a bit. Some people don’t want to put up with that!

So these are just a few common–but “fun”–choices to liven up your summer. Try one–or all of them!

Let’s Get Tropical!

Herbs and evergreens

According to our meteorologists, it’s going to be in the 70s or perhaps even 80 this week here in the frozen north! That’s the point where I start thinking “tropical plants,” and what will I grow outside this year and “can I really bring my house plants (aka tropical plants) outside for the season?

Those are really a bunch of different questions of course, with several different answers. So let’s start with the most important one: what do tropical plants need to live outdoors in a climate where they might not normally do so (in other words, when is it safe to bring your house plants–or plants you purchase from a greenhouse–outside) and how do you do it?

Generally what you want to keep your eye on are the night-time temperatures. The lowest night-time temperature that a tropical plant will generally tolerate for any period of time is 50 degrees. Yes, certain plants–some annuals, for example, and citrus, and some plants that might be grown as outdoor trees or shrubs in other parts of the world (bay, rosemary, and olive are some that I have that come to mind immediately) can tolerate temperatures lower than 50)–but as a general rule, I try to keep to the 50 degree temperature rule so that everything pretty easy to remember.

Next, you will need to transition whatever plants you are bringing out from the inside to the outside. If you are familiar with hardening off seedlings, think of it like that. Or, as I tell the Spoiler, we certainly cannot go stand in the sun, after a winter indoors, all day without any sunscreen and just think that everything is going to be fine. Why do you think I can just plunk the plants outside in the sun like that?

An easy way to transition the plants is to set them outside in the shade of a large tree, if you are lucky enough to have one. I generally set all the house plants out under trees for a couple of days, and then gradually move them into the sun (for those that like sun).

Those that like shade, I generally leave under the shade of a large dogwood. That works pretty well. They might get a little early morning sun, but generally the tree provides dappled shade all day for them.

Honestly, it’s harder for me to find sunny spots for the plants than shady spots–but even outdoor shade is brighter than indoor light for the plants so I don’t feel too sad for them coming outside.

And for those of you that say “aren’t you worried about bringing in bugs when you bring the plants back in?” let me ask you about your homes. I am not sure about you, but I always have spiders and a few creepy crawlies around inside–so no, I am not worried about bringing bugs inside! The bugs are already inside! I just give the plants a nice wash off with a hose and that’s that!

On Friday I will talk more about specific tropical plants.

A Slightly Different Take on Companion Planting

I read an interesting article in PopSci (the online version of Popular Science) about “pest repelling plants.”

The article had different plants for each region of the country, and while it promised that many of the plants were perennial, I found that those recommended for the “North,” were not. I also found that those recommended for other regions (the Midwest, for example) would work equally well in my garden, and some of those were perennial.

The basic premise of the article was that certain plants attract insects and will therefore keep those insects from other plants. I am not sure that I call that “pest-repelling,” but hey, whatever works.

They did mention marigolds as repelling nematodes and garlic for repelling rodents. I am not sure about the garlic, never having grown it. I do grow the catnip they recommend and while I cannot be sure about the mosquito and fruit fly (?) (do I even care about that outside? And why?), I can tell you that catnip has worked as a wonderful Japanese beetle repellant for me in a bed of roses. In fact, since I have planted catnip, I have no more Japanese beetles in my yard at all. Coincidence or cause and effect–I am not sure but I will take it!

Another of the plants they recommend (for the West) is nasturtiums. They say that they attract beneficial wasps and repel squash borers and whitefly. I suppose that their effects could be entirely different in different parts of the country but for me I have always found that they are aphid magnets. I have never particularly liked this effect, but if you have plants that always have aphids, you could try nasturtiums as a trap crop, I suppose. I like to grow them to eat, and I don’t enjoy eating aphids!

In any event, the article is fascinating and a great example of “working smarter, not harder” in the garden. I am always a fan of that, as I am a fan of gardening without pesticides. Definitely check it out! You might find some ideas that work for you.

The Stress Less Lawn

The less than perfect lawn

We used to call this the “Freedom Lawn”–as in “free” from pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. But these days, that almost sounds like a political statement, so in the interest of maintaining political neutrality, I am renaming it the “stress-less lawn.”

What am I really talking about? A lawn that doesn’t look like a perfectly manicured golf course or estate lawn–because let’s face it, those lawns are ridiculously difficult to maintain. Most of us do not live in climates–or have the soil–to have acres of lush rolling green grass. That sort of monoculture is problematic at best.

Why? Well, first, it is a monoculture, and any sort of monoculture requires that everything look the same. Since soil (and subsoil) varies over your property, it’s difficult to maintain grass well.

Then there are those pesky trees! You know those lovely things that you planted for shade? Well, darn it, now they’re shading out your grass! And their roots are competing with the grass’ roots! The nerve!

And if you have island flower beds, it gets even worse–so you see my point. You really have to struggle to get all that grass to grow under conditions that are not the same, even on your own property.

Or, you could just let whatever grows there, flourish. It will be different in every season. Right now in my yard, I have some lovely white and purple (and a few solid purple) violets.

Violets

Then there are these sweet ferns that come up here and there. They’re not terribly bothered even when their tops get mowed down every couple of weeks. They just come back again. If I need a fern for the garden, I’ll transplant one.

Fern in the lawn

Around the edges–and even in some low spots in the middle–I have some moss. This stays low enough that it never gets mowed down–the mower just goes right over it.

Moss

And while it’s a little early for clover, I have that to look forward to–as well as a sweet, low-growing St. John’s wort that blooms with a pretty yellow flower.

Speaking of yellow flowers, I do have some dandelions, which are very welcome to the bees. I generally do not weed them out until after the first flowering. They are very cheery after a long winter.

And that is how you grow a “stress less” lawn. We don’t irrigate at all and of course, being completely organic, we don’t use any of the “cides:” pest, herb or fung at all, ever. A little hand weeding and some mowing is about the extent of the “hard” work.

Our pollinators are happy–and we have more free time as well!

Little Mouse’s Ears

Oak leaves and flowers

What are you looking at? (And why do I keep having to ask that question at the beginning of my posts? It’s unnerving, even to me!)

This is an oak tree twig, with some tiny leaves and even some flowers, if you know what they look like. They’re not even showy–they’re like birch flowers–long strings of unremarkable chartreuse florets. And like birch flowers, they put out a remarkable amount of pollen too. So if you are sneezing, there’s probably a birch or oak tree nearby.

Every year I do a post like this because while Professor Doug Tallamy loves oaks because they feed so many pollinators, I love oaks because they herald the last frost. Once the oak leaves are the size of “little mouse’s ears” (and you can see that these leaves are significantly larger than that!), you have had your last frost!

I am not quite sure when I first heard this old-time farmer’s saying but it’s been decades now since I have been paying attention to it and the oak leaf saying has never failed me.

Now, am I going to go out and plant tomatoes and basil because the oaks have leafed out? Of course not! But when the TV forecasters are saying “cover your plants, there might be a frost tonight, ” I just look to the oaks. If they have leafed out, I don’t worry about a thing. I know that whatever is out there isn’t going to be harmed by frost because at least at my house there won’t be any frost.

The wonderful thing about these so-called farmer’s sayings is that they were developed for a reason. Long before we had “science” to tell us when to plant, we had to look to signs in nature. And in a sense, we are still doing that–it’s called phenology, which is the study of seasonal natural phenomena.

You may have heard of it a lot more in relation to climate studies–they are studying when trees are leafing out–if they are leafing out earlier, whether pollen and allergy seasons are lasting longer, how migration is being affected–things like that.

But before we had to worry so much, well, we still had to worry, because our forebears still didn’t want to plant too early and lose their precious crops. And that’s how the “oak leaves the size of little mouse’s ears” sayings–and others like them–came about.

So if you are in a cooler climate like mine, find an oak near your property to monitor and you’ll never wonder about your last frost date again. You’ll always know for sure by the timing of that oak’s leaves. Try it for yourself!

Not All Weeds Are Ugly

Purple deadnettle, or lamium

Believe it or not, there is a National Weed Appreciation Day–but of course, that’s for a different kind of “weed,” the kind that is gaining legalization in many states and for many different purposes–medicinal, recreational, etc. That’s not the kind of “weeds” that I am talking about here.

Nope, I am talking about ordinary lawn weeds here. I know that most people find them horribly objectional, but I find some of them really pretty. This one, commonly known as purple deadnettle, is actually a “weedy” form of the lamium that we grow in our gardens. If you look closely, you can see the same sort of heart-shaped leaves and little rosette flowers.

This is a mint family plant, which you can tell by the square stems, so that tells you that if this plant is happy where it is growing, it does have the potential to spread and cover some area. There’s a hillside that’s pretty much all purple deadnettle this time of year. I see it on my drive home from work. I think it’s lovely–and I expect the homeowner–who can’t grow anything on it because of its steepness–is probably grateful that something is growing there.

Apparently this plant–and its close relative, henbit–is also edible and a forager’s delight. This blog tells you more about that and how to distinguish henbit and purple deadnettle from other things growing in the early spring. If I were out foraging, I would not be so worried about misidentification as I would be about whether the area had been treated with pesticides–that’s a huge concern in my neighborhood where it seems every house but mine sports one of those yellow “pesticide applied” signs for 9 months of the year. Sigh. Some of them have those signs for 12 months because they treat for indoor insects as well. But I digress. Still it’s very important to know that the area where you are foraging is clean and not contaminated.

As for me, I will just delight in looking at–and not eating–the lovely weeds!

Ants are Your Friends

Who plants like this?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking to a great group of women in the Shippan Garden Club about “Lazy Gardening.” One of my statements was that ants are your friends, so long as they are outdoors.

This is generally a tough sell because no one seems to adore or admire ants as much as I do. But since I have such heavy clay soil, any insect that will help me aerate that ( for free!) is definitely welcome.

And that photo of the bulbs in the juniper, above? We can most likely thank our ants. Ants are wonderful at moving our minor bulbs around. So if you are wondering how those crocus or grape hyacinths got all over your lawn, thank my buddies, the ants.

Finally, I do understand that no one–including me—wants them in the house. I have found a great organic product for that (which I buy–I am not compensated in any way for this recommendation).

Earthkind ant repellent

These little sachets, which are inert ingredients and essential oils, last for 30 days. Sometimes just finding their trails and wiping them away with soapy water works. But occasionally I can’t tell where they are coming from or I can’t get to the source. In that case, these repellents are just perfect.

So try not to bother your ants out of doors now that you know that they will multiply your spring bulbs and aerate your soil. And should they seek refuge indoors, here’s an easy way to change their minds.