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!

Little Mouses’ Ears?


Every year when I am thinking about my last frost date (which averages April 25) I don’t look at the calendar: I look at the oak trees.

There’s an old saying that when the oak leaves are the size of little mouse’s ears, it’s safe to plant.

You may think that this sounds like an old wives’ tale. Call it what you want. I think it’s a farmer’s saying. And in the years before sophisticated technology and weather satellites, what did the farmers use? Phenology–the study of signs in nature.

Internet searches yield lots of different ways to use this for planting guidelines. There are all sorts of regional planting guidelines cued to the flowering of various local trees and shrubs–search for “farming guides and phenology.” To make it local, add your state or region.

As for me, I am not sure where I first heard the “little mouses’ ears” advice. But I have plenty of oaks and I watch them carefully. And, so far, the advice has been great–no frost after the oaks leaf out.

But of course, by the look of these oaks, I won’t be planting anything tender anytime soon!

More Garden Myths

It was a tweet a week or so ago that started me thinking about this topic. And it was a tweet promoting another book about how and why plants do the things they do.

The book is How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do by Linda Chalker-Scott (and for those of you curious about the tweet you can find it here.)

Some of the stuff is a little bit esoteric for me, even in a tweet–stuff about why Messenger, some sort of plant something (don’t ask me, I don’t use it) doesn’t really work because it can’t penetrate the plant cell walls. That sort of reminds me of all the beauty creams and the ridiculously expensive ingredients they put in them and then Consumer Reports comes along and says we shouldn’t be wasting our money on x or y anyway because it can’t penetrate the skin.

But I do know Chalker-Scott from her blog–The Garden Professors–which Jeff Gilman also writes for.  And there’s some seriously good information on that blog. Sometimes it’s pretty technical–like the discussion of Messenger. And sometimes it’s utterly fascinating, like the discussion of xeric plants, and why they really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (see the tweet for the full discussion!)

Recently there was a great discussion of moss (which you know from my review of the moss book that I adore).

But the thing that caught my interest in the little tweet about 4 gardening myths is something that I again almost always talk about when I lecture: just because you see a plant with drooping leaves, it doesn’t mean it needs water. It could mean any number of things at all. It could just be a temporary loss of moisture (transpiration–think hydrangea in the mid-day sun that recovers as soon as the sun passes). It could be a vascular problem with the plant. It could be a root issue. And you’ll never know unless you at least investigate by touching the soil.

We gardeners are so squeamish. I don’t know where that comes from. Nothing will happen to you if you touch the soil or even stick your hands into it–provided you wash up properly later, of course! When I lecture, I always hold up my hand and say, “What is it? We don’t want to ruin our manicures?”

It gets a laugh but without actually putting a hand–or a finger–to the soil–you won’t know if the soil is wet, dry, or somewhere in between. And without knowing that, you shouldn’t just pour more water onto or into a plant. That’s just asking for trouble.

Garden Myths

Let’s talk a little about garden “myths” or misconceptions. I always wind up addressing at least one of these when I lecture, no matter what the topic. It’s stuff we all grew up with and a lot of it is hard to shake.

Several new books have recently come out on just this topic because these myths are so pervasive. A University of Minnesota professor, Jeff Gillman, has been writing a series called The Truth About… for the last several years. He’s got books about Garden Remedies, Organic Garden Remedies, and Gardening Advice–all written from a scientific rather than a folksy sort of background. Despite that, they are very readable and very eye-opening, particularly the one about organic remedies.

A Massachusetts garden writer and speaker, C.L. Fornari, has also recently come out with a book called Coffee for Roses and 70 Other Misleading Myths about Backyard Gardening. The book claims it will save the backyard gardener a lot of time and work by debunking the urban myths that have been passed down–and most of which have now been found to be just plain wrong.

Fornari says word of mouth is great when you are looking for garden products but in the case of gardening advice, in a lot of instances it’s just plain wrong! She’s absolutely right about this–I don’t know how many of you remember the home-made concoctions from the 70s that we were advised to spray on our plants and our lawns.

Many folks still do use home-made remedies for things. That’s one of the things I talk about in most of my lectures. There’s a reason there are so many remedies at the garden center and it’s not just to enrich the owners. Oil, soap and hot peppers may make a perfectly fine insect repellent but it may also do damage to sensitive plants. “Soap”–because it’s not true soap but actually detergent–has the ability to strip plant leaves of their protective coatings. Then the oil gets into the pores (technically called stoma) and clogs them and all sorts of bad things start to happen. You may wind up damaging the plant worse than the insect you are trying to repel.

So it never hurts to be aware of some of these “myths” and the way they can affect the garden. I’ll talk about some more in weeks to come.

Fall Myths About Leaves

I was reading another blog the other day (I won’t post a link to it because my purpose it not to embarrass other people) and I came upon this piece of gardening “advice” about fall leaves: it went something like “don’t leave “thick” layers of leaves in the garden because you’ll kill things.”

To a very limited extent, that’s true. You don’t want to leave a thick layer of leaves on your lawn for fear of smothering your grass.

But when was the last time you saw anything in nature “killed” but a thick layer of leaves? Who’s out there in the woods chopping up the leaves, making sure that the layers don’t get too “thick” so that the understory plants don’t get killed?

To be sure, if you have a heavy layer of leaves in the garden, and you have heavy wet clay soil (like mine) and you don’t do something about that in the early spring (like get them off the crowns of the emerging perennials) you might invite disease.

But on the pathways or other “fallow” areas, they’re just fine. They won’t harm a thing. They can over-winter on your plants without a problem. I used to use them to mulch my roses (when I still had roses that were so much trouble that I needed to mulch them. I no longer have such fussy things anymore!). In that case, I would pile leaves up to a foot deep around the roses. Needless to say, I wasn’t “killing” anything.

How long have I been doing this? At least 20 years or so. But you don’t need to take it from me. Take a walk in the woods after all the leaves have fallen. You’ll see what I mean.

Rosemary (for Remembrance?)

blooming rosemary topiary

The title of my post comes from Shakespeare–Hamlet specifically. I certainly won’t get all literary on you, but if you recall your high school English class, it was Ophelia, the daughter of Laertes, who many thought Hamlet would marry after he came back from University. He comes home, finds his father dead, sees his father’s ghost, who tells him he was murdered, and everything goes amok from there. I think I’ve heard that 9 folks wind up dead before the play is over, one of them being Ophelia.

As she descends into madness, she sort of wanders in and out through a scene, spouting off the lines, “There’s rosemary–that’s for remembrance….” Hence the title of this post.

Interestingly enough (and I promised I wouldn’t get much into this herbs and health stuff) there are some studies that seem to show it does enhance memory–but that’s not really the point of this post. For me, rosemary (rosemarinus officinalis) is an herb for meats, veggies, stews and even just for lovely container plantings.

Rosemary is definitely one of those Mediterranean herbs I talked about–it likes it hot and dry–so no shade for this plant. For me, it is not hardy, although there are allegedly some hardy cultivars that will grow this far north. Since I can over-winter the non-hardy cultivars on my sun porch, I don’t worry too much about trying to find a protected spot for an allegedly hardy cultivar (in my wet clay, it probably wouldn’t survive anyway since the wet spring would most likely kill it).

The above photo is of a rosemary topiary that I made and have grown for several years. It’s obviously very happy because it’s in bloom and has been since January.

When I cook, I use this other rosemary, a golden version that I also over-winter–I probably have for at least 3 winters. It’s in that mixed planter with the thyme that I posted about a week or so ago.

golden rosemary

Rosemary is good on almost everything–it’s just up to you to decide what you like it with. It’s great with chicken, it’s delicious in pot roast, it’s good on some heartier fish dishes, it wonderful on vegetables, especially roasted winter root vegetables–there’s very little it doesn’t taste good on.

A little goes a long way because it is a strongly flavored herb, though, so if you are buying a plant and it isn’t going to be hardy for you, don’t necessarily invest in a large one until you’re sure you like it on “everything” as I put it.

I just chop the little leaves (that look almost like pine needles) finely and use them in whatever dish I’m making.

I find I do use rosemary more in winter dishes–which seems odd since it isn’t a plant that would be naturally hardy for me–but I’m sure it would pair nicely with summer dishes as well. It’s just with so many other herbs around in the summer, my rosemary takes a back seat to my basil, for example, until that hits the compost heap!

PSA–Poinsettias Are NOT Poisonous

This is the time of year that you start seeing chestnuts in the markets–and you start hearing that old chestnut: “I can’t buy poinsettias because they’re poisonous and I can’t have a poisonous plant in my house because of my kids/dogs/cats.”

While it is admirable to want to keep children and pets safe, chances are the speaker already has poisonous plants in the home and isn’t aware of it–so many house plants are toxic even at small doses.

Worse yet, landscape plants are highly toxic and some of the most common like rhododendrons, azalea, yew and holly (we’ll get back to that in a minute) are highly toxic even in minute amounts.  But no one thinks to tell homeowners with children and dogs not to plant those or to keep the children and pets away from those–except perhaps at this time of year.

But back to the poinsettia.  I don’t quite know how this myth got started except for the fact that poinsettias are members of the euphorbia family and that family has irritating sap.  So if you are allergic to the sap–or chew enough leaves–there can be some irritation of the mouth or some contact dermatitis on your skin.

I can tell you I have the most sensitive skin known to humankind–I’m getting rashy from the residue of other people’s detergent left behind in the washers and dryers at the laundromat (because my washer has been out of commission for a record 36 days as of this writing!)–and the sap has never bothered me–so it must be like poison ivy–you have to have a lot of exposure to it to be irritated or something.

But please–don’t take my word for the “poinsettias are not poisonous” idea.  Read more about it here from Snopes, the urban legends reference pages.  They also have some great reference material from leading university agricultural departments there as well.

As for other holiday plants to avoid, however, if you have children and pets, you will want to avoid the aforementioned holly.  All parts are highly poisonous and the berries are particularly attractive to them.

While we’re on song titles, avoid the ivy that goes with the holly as well.  It too can be toxic.

And not to be a drag, but don’t hang any mistletoe–at least not the real kind. Its berries can be fatal if swallowed.  I’ve found some lovely glass ornaments that I’ve subbed in for the real, and even a cut paper variety.  They also make some realistic looking silk ones. Don’t take a chance on the real stuff–it’s not worth it.

So deck the halls with poinsettia all you like–just avoid some of the more  innocuous other toxic holiday plants!

Halloween Ideas for a Spooky Garden

I’ll be the first to tell you that I am not a fan of Halloween.  I’m all for the idea of giving candy to kids–but I do think it should be done in a safe, controlled environment, and that is not exactly where I live.  I live on a dark, winding street, with no street lights to speak of and no sidewalks–very dangerous for trick-or-treaters.

And the other thing that creeps me out a bit in this day and age is the whole concept: what other day of the year would you open your door to a stranger in a mask?  Not a terribly good idea unless it is a 5-year-old.

Be that as it may, should you want to add some spooky sounding shrubs to the garden, the nice folks at Proven Winners have come up with this list to help you. They actually admit that the shrubs sound more like names for Halloween costumes but let’s face it–how many cat’s claw and devils walking sticks do we really want in the garden anyway?

Again, all of these are Proven Winners plants, already available or soon to be available.  And you can tell I’m not much a fan of Halloween–on that whole list, I’m only growing Black Lace Elderberry, and only because it was a test plant provided to me by Proven Winners!

Happy Columbus Day*

Happy Columbus Day (and Happy Thanksgiving to our neighbors in Canada!).  With this post, I’m going to change up the schedule a bit.  For over 500 posts, I’ve posted more or less 6 days a week for almost 2 years.  As we come into autumn and the gardening season winds down, I think I’ll post on a Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule (unless something strikes my fancy).  We’ll see how that goes for a while.  If I decide that I like it, that may become the norm.  Otherwise, I may ramp it back up in the spring.

As I talked about on Saturday, I do try to garden as much in harmony with the earth and with the spirit of our native ancestors as possible.  This includes keeping all chemicals out of the garden (although I haven’t quite got complete control over my husband, the Spoiler,  in that area–he isn’t as chemical and pesticide free as I am) and as I discussed generally trying to let nature care for itself–as I often say about the leaves, “Why do you think they’re called leaves?  It’s so you can leave them in the garden to mulch!”

So with that in mind, I recognize that not all places and not everyone recognizes this day as a holiday.  Two states Hawaii and South Dakota, do not celebrate it as a holiday, and parts of Oklahoma do not as well–and I thank Wikipedia for confirming and elaborating on the information I already knew.

But this is not a political blog–there’s too much of that on TV–so if there’s nice weather where you are, get out and enjoy the garden!  Or take a page from our neighbors to the north and give thanks for something–get in practice for our own Thanksgiving which is just a few short weeks away!

Autumnal Equinox

Did you think that Fall–or Autumn, if you prefer–begins today at 5:05 EDT?  Well, it does and it doesn’t.  It all depends on who you consult and what you are using as the measure.

For meteorologists, Autumn began September 1.  Meteorological Fall consists of September, October and November.  Meteorological Winter begins December 1 and Meteorological Spring begins on March 1.  You see how this works.  The theory behind these seasons is that the months that they contain have the most “typical” weather for those seasons.  There might be a lot of debate about that lately, but that’s the theory.

As for the Equinox, weren’t we taught in school that this was the day when the day and night were of equal length?  Well, as it turns out, that’s just a simplistic explanation for what really goes on too.  Actually, that isn’t what happens at all.  This article from Wikipedia sums it up nicely and has some decent graphics as well.

Still September, and its equinox, is a cause for celebration as this article from last Sunday’s New York Times points out.  Its writer and I apparently were having some of the same thoughts, even though I drafted this post on September 15 (hard to know when he drafted his).

Even the old saying that the summer solstice is the longest day of the year or the winter solstice is the shortest isn’t exactly true for most folks.  I know in my part of the world, after the winter solstice, the sunset time gets later and later but the sunrise time still continues to get later as well until well into early January–something I find thoroughly depressing.  It’s not until I see the sky starting to lighten earlier in the morning that I feel that winter is really beginning to loosen its grip (and even then, nature may have other ideas!)

So the whole idea of when the seasons begin and end is actually a very fluid concept both in actuality and in practicality.  As for me, I’m hoping for a long, mild fall to ease us into winter.  I haven’t even bothered to consult the Old Farmer’s Almanac about the winter.  I don’t want to know.  When I see where the squirrels build their nests, I’ll know what to expect.  They were right on last year!