The Winter Weekend Garden Warrior

As Garden Professors, we are very careful regarding product endorsements. Actually, much energy is spent trying to bring to light weird/crappy/useless/money-wasting gardening products.

But when we feel strongly about the usefulness, quality, and utility of a product, it is our duty to pass that information along as well.

I didn’t mean to be a walking advertisement last weekend.

We were in the final throes of getting our garden cut back; Joel was laughing that I “needed another set of hands” when I came around the corner.  “Not with my fabulous Firehose Work Pants from Duluth Trading Company, I don’t!”  Thus the inspiration for this post.

All products noted are, variously: warm, waterproof, full of pockets, sharp, indestructible, dependable, and/or delicious.

The Strawberry, And What Do You Do For An Encore?


Once upon a time, a long time ago (around 1714), a spy, posing as a merchant, was dispatched from France to Chile to investigate the defenses which the Spanish had installed there.  While there, he also had the opportunity to see some truly amazing plants, but he was most impressed by the strawberries.  Strawberries of one sort or another are native throughout most of the world, but most are just little bitty things.  They may taste good, but you’ve got to get quite a few of them together to make a decent snack.  These were mega-bruisers.  Five or six could fill a small plate.  The name of this spy was Amedee Frezier (which is a variation of the word for strawberry).

Anyway, being a top-notch spy, he managed to get his hands on six strawberry plants and make away with them back to France.  Sacrificing fresh water needed by both himself and his shipmates to ensure that the plants made it safely across the ocean, he finally arrived in France with his precious cargo, no doubt very proud of himself.

There was only one problem.  These strawberries never produced much fruit.  Still, the plants were pretty enough, so they were kept at various botanical gardens across Europe and propagated using the runners which they naturally produce.  But the scientific community never could figure out how to make them produce fruit on a regular basis.

Enter Antoine Duchesne, a great scientist of the 18th century.  Duchesne figured out that the problem that the Chilean strawberries were having was that they were female.  Sure, they had fruit when Frezier saw them, but when he brought them to Europe they were never placed near male strawberry plants to provide pollen.  So Frezier mated the Chilean strawberries with male strawberries native to Europe and Bang!  There were the big beautiful strawberries that Frezier had seen in Chile.  And in 1764 he presented a bowl of them to King Louis XV.  Duchesne was seventeen at the time.  I wonder, was the rest of his life a letdown?

Possum 1, Garden Professor 0

It was a dark and stormy Wednesday night.

Joel opened the porch door and whispered “you’ve got to come see this.” He’d taken the dogs out for their 9:00 p.m. constitutional, and there was apparently some excitement under the old apple tree.

“There’s a possum, and I think she’s playing dead.”

I grabbed the flashlight and hustled out.  Got around the corner to the tree, and sure enough, there was a rather large blob of silver and white mammal.

But as I got closer, my heart sank.

She was curled up, head askew, front leg sticking out at an odd angle.  Lips (?) pulled back , teeth and gums bared in a terrible grimace, tongue hanging out the side.  I shined the flashlight right into her eyes. No movement, no pupil dilation.  Being from a farm in Georgia, I claim the most possum and raccoon experience. Thus, my verdict. Deader than a doornail. Which made me sad.

“Aargh. Thanks. Now I’m upset.  Guess she got hit by a car and made it this far before expiring.  Could you put her out at the end of the garden? The soil’s pretty soft there.”

Joel apologized and went to get the shovel.  I scuffed back inside to finish the dishes, feeling awful for the little critter.  Thanks to our impenetrable hen stockade, we live in pretty good harmony with our country cousins, and hate to see harm come to them.

Ten minutes later, Joel was back at the door, shovel in hand.

“Um, I think it was faking.”

“No way. That possum was graveyard dead.”

“Well…it seemed to be o.k. enough to be sitting up and eating an apple.”

We hiked back out to the tree – no possum to be found.  My wildlife cred was blown.

“Looks like she was playing possum” I offered, helpfully.

Joel muttered “But I just dug a three-foot-deep hole.”

Aphids Marching

Was out enjoying the last of the SW Virginia fall color from our deck, the day before we got our dose of Sandy…the wind was picking up and the barometer and temperature were dropping

Twenty-four hours later, we had an inch of snow and 40 mph winds. No more fall color.
Looked down at the railing and the ENTIRE length of it – 45′ – had aphids streaming back and forth.  They were absolutely pouring off a Clematis terniflora vine (the same species that attracted all the blister beetles this summer – what a prize) that had clambered up over the deck. It was like two lanes of traffic, going in each direction, and at a (relatively) high rate of speed.  I’ve never seen aphids move so fast. But to where??

I believe it’s time to re-stain the deck.

We also had the interesting phenomenon of congregating swarms of lady beetles (the Asian species – Harmonia axyridis) a couple of weeks ago. The south side of the house and my Jeep were covered.  At least there’s an upside to that infestation – I’ve noticed lots of larvae around.

As you know, lady beetle larvae are very effective predators of aphids, and were out in full force amongst the aphids…I counted 30. But they couldn’t make a dent in the thousands of aphids streaming along the rail. Upon closer inspection, they were actually trying to avoid the aphids.  They had obviously had their fill and could barely move. I swear they looked nauseous.

“No thanks, we’re full.”
So – any thoughts on why the aphids were so active?

Wandering in the Woods

This past week a friend of mine, Carol Reese, an Extension Specialist at the University of Tennessee (and one of my favorite speakers), told me that she’d like to post a little something about natives.  I said sure, no problem, just send it along.  And she did.  But before posting it sometime next week, I thought I’d post another article that she sent along — one that isn’t quite so sciency and which will let you get to know Carol before you hear what she has to say about natives.

As a side note — Carol was bitten by a copperhead in the foot this past year — had to be given 10 units of anti-venom.  From what she’s told me she has recovered to almost 100%.

Wandering in the Woods

by Carol Reese

Every morning at dawn, my dog Junebug jumps on the bed and approaches my sleeping form.  My eyes slit open to see her just inches away, staring intently at my face. The instant we meet eyes, she bounds happily off the bed and runs around the bedroom, loudly rousting the rest of the dogs, who thump their tails, stretch, yawn, and come to the edge of the bed to see if Junebug is telling the truth about me being awake.  I’m allowed one quick cup of microwave coffee, though the flapping of the dog door drives me crazy as they run in and out staring at me impatiently.  Why they won’t go on without me isn’t fully understood, but for some reason, they want their slow two footed friend to go, too.
I live on an old farm, and though it’s not mine, I feel as though I’m kin to this land.  I am, I guess, since, if I were to fall and molder into this ground, my flesh would be recycled into the plants and the animals that feed on them.  That thought makes me comfortable most anywhere, but here, there’s more to make me feel at home. Old farms like this have a lingering sense of long-gone eras and of the people who lived here before.  The old Ford Jubilee tractor still sits in an outbuilding, looking identical to the one on the farm in Mississippi where I was raised.  Predating that, is a large horse collar hanging in the old barn. The kinfolks tell me it was worn by a Percheron, used for pulling logs from the woods.  I imagine the old days, the big horse comfortable in the rolling green pasture, woods for shade, and a lake for drinking.
The dogs and I are drenched by dew these spring mornings. The woodland phlox are almost finished blooming along the edge of the woods, and the bearded tongue (Penstemon) is just beginning to peak. Wild azaleas and dogwood were blooming earlier, but now it’s the bell-like clusters of the tree huckleberry, the tallest member of the blueberry family.  The many native ferns are hitting their glory days, and along a sunny creek bank, I come across American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) and a native clematis (Clematis crispa) This clematis will have wiry blue hanging blooms with four pointed petals that curl back like a rolled up hat brim.  Further, in a sunny field, I find oxeye daisies and coreopsis.  Though the milkweed and butterfly weed is not blooming yet, I see two monarchs cartwheel among them.  Looks like butterfly hanky panky to me, and I will look
here later in the summer for the bold striped monarch caterpillars that feed on those species.. 
Grinch, my little schnauzer mix, suddenly arches high up off the ground and comes down with both front paws in perfect diving form.  Dirt sprays as she digs ferociously at the ground where a mole made the earth bulge.  Nearby, I notice several clumps of foliage that were covered with little light pink striped flowers earlier this spring.  It’s Claytonia virginica, or spring beauty. With a sharp stick, I pry up the tuber beneath the foliage.  It’s one of the wild foods that I find pretty good, either raw or cooked, tasting to me like a cross between water chestnut and boiled peanut. (My brother says they taste like dirt to him!) The dogs assume I must know something they don’t, like the whereabouts of the mole, so they jostle up next to me, ears pricked. A couple of them are willing to help me dig, but don’t take offense when I refuse the offer. I get a pocket full
and we ramble on to more important business. There’s a blue grosbeak nest I’m keeping free of cow bird eggs.
The dogs’ tails sink with disappointment when I turn back, except for the old ones, who have taken to plodding along behind me instead of ranging as they did in years past.  One day I’ll have to bury them and let their bodies enrich the meadows they so enjoyed exploring.  Another day in the future, some other person will walk this farm and rediscover the pleasures in these fields. It’s a kind of immortality, isn’t it?


One solution to invasive species – assisted succession

For a couple of weeks now we’ve had some animated discussions on introduced plants (invasive or otherwise) and native species.  One of our commenters wondered whether many introduced invasives (those that take advantage of disturbed conditions) would eventually become controlled through succession (which in our part of the country means land dominated by trees and shrubs). And yes, if native species can get a foothold in an infested site, invasive species become less dominant.

To illustrate, I’ll take you on a virtual trip in our neighborhood’s pocket wetland.  In 2000, this tiny triangle was dominated by reed canary grass (RCG) and had been for years; a few blackberries, cattails and nightshade were the only other obvious species.

The triangle in 2000 looking west….

…and east

The city would mow the grass every so often, along with trees that my neighbors had futilely planted.  We decided to take this on as a class project (this was when I was on faculty at University of Washington).

When we began to clear out the vegetation, we were stunned to realize that there was a creek running through what seemed to be a flat chunk of land.

We cleared out as much RCG as possible and mulched the entire area (note that many restoration ecologists recommend taking out soil to a depth of 18″ to remove all the stolons).  We knew the grass would come back, but our task was to jump start the system and get some native plants started.  We installed a single Douglas fir and a single western hemlock (these are large trees at maturity), along with live stakes of native willow, dogwood and snowberry.  We planted a few Oregon grape and other smaller shrubs.

Live stakes planted through coir cloth (used to temporarily hold mulch in place).

The 2001 installation, looking east.  The Douglas fir is next to the group, and the hemlock is in the foreground.

Over the next few years the RCG came back with a vengeance.  We held occasional work parties to keep the grass at bay, but after I took a new position at WSU I no longer had the student work force that allowed me to keep this area partially controlled.  It became a one-family project, and not one that we had a lot of time for.

2003 work party dredging out the creek. You can’t see the natives we installed in 2001, but they’re in there.

Fortunately, nature took over for us.  The willows we had planted grew like weeds, creating a canopy under which RCG doesn’t do so well.

The Douglas fir and hemlock got established, as did the snowberry and one Oregon grape.  For the most part, we were able to weed whack the RCG on the very steep slopes and keep the flatter areas covered with wood chips.

Restoration site in 2009, looking west…

…and east.

Eight year old Douglas fir…

…western hemlock…

…and snowberry.

Will the RCG ever be completely gone?  I doubt it; the seedbank must be incredible, and there are many other RCG colonies upstream. But it no longer dominates the landscape: it’s become assimilated.  And that’s really the point: nature adapts.

[As an aside: I really don’t like the term “restoration.” We’re not taking landscapes back to some pristine original as the term implies.  “Assisted succession” more accurately and realistically describes this process.]

Upside: he won’t have to mow for a while…

This is old news by now  – I’m surprised Jeff hasn’t pounced!!

Minnesota man accidentally kills entire lawn with herbicide

Sadly, the dead lawn ruined the plans for a charitable fund-raiser, also.

Lots of eye-rolling and sassy comments out there (from "duh" to "d’oh!") berating the guy
for not reading the label. Actually, my first reaction, too (RTFM, as
my Lt. Col. father would say.)

But it’s not so easy sometimes. I was trying to make out the fine print on the
silly peel-off, accordion-fold label on some Spinosad the other day and
it was impossible.  Finally gave up and looked up the application info on the interwebs. Not sure if that was the issue, but tiny, tiny print is a huge pet peeve of mine, so I’m comfy laying a bit of blame there.  

There is, however, readable print on the front label – the words "non-selective" and "glyphosate" and "grasses"  are large enough for even a blind squirrel like me to read. And I don’t know what on earth to think about the garden center employees who "helped" the poor guy.

(Another option: don’t get so worked up over weeds, says she with the
turf-like substance consisting entirely of anything but grass. But hey,
it’s green.)

Of Football and Forests

 Howdy all – I’ve been on vacation and then inundated by all that accumulates whilst on said holiday. Here’s a whopper of a belated post. What follows is an account of events you may find interesting (or amusing, or frustrating).

Here’s a portion of a recent press release from the media office at Virginia Tech, regarding our making the "Green Honor Roll."

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 25, 2012 – For the third consecutive year, Virginia Tech ranks among the most environmentally responsible colleges in the United States and Canada, according to the Princeton Review, receiving the highest possible score given by the organization.

The Princeton Review’s Guide to 322 Green Colleges: 2012 Edition, released April 17, profiles institutions of higher education that demonstrate a notable commitment to sustainability in their academic offerings, campus infrastructure, activities, and career preparation. The Princeton Review, in collaboration with the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, evaluates colleges and universities and assigns a numerical score on a scale of 60 to 99. 

Virginia Tech received a score of 99, earning the distinction as one of 16 colleges to be named to the Princeton Review’s 2012 Green Rating Honor Roll

“Virginia Tech continues to be totally committed to campus sustainability," said Denny Cochrane, Virginia Tech’s sustainability program manager. "Our inclusion on the Green Rating Honor Roll shows how wide spread the commitment is among out students, faculty, staff, alumni, and university leadership."


The story of “Stadium Woods” is interesting and complex.  Virginia Tech Athletics announced the construction of an indoor practice facility for football on part of an 11-acre wooded site, behind Lane Stadium and abutting the current practice field (hence “stadium woods”).  The campus Landscape Architect brought it up at a meeting with the campus Arboretum Committee, who were not thrilled. Virginia Tech has followed a plan of very concentrated/intense land use to keep everything within walking/running distance for the students, and this was one of the few wooded areas left.

The committee proposed an alternative site a few hundred yards away, with the new facility replacing some tennis courts and a roller-hockey rink. 

This suggestion was not met with great enthusiasm by the Athletics department.

Two possible sites for indoor practice facility, adjacent to practice field where 200-300 year old trees are, or along Washington Street on top of some tennis courts (also possibly 200 years old).

At that point, an immense hoo-ha began that would stretch over a year.  I’m going to leave out the ensuing committee/administrator/athletics blow-by-blow, but in a nutshell, some of the Forestry faculty determined this was not just “woods” but a rare stand of old-growth forest, and the Athletics folks were insistent “this is absolutely the best place for the facility!”   Football is huge at Virginia Tech, thus anything described as giving an edge in recruiting gets maximum priority.  In the event of a thunderstorm, having the student-athletes run an additional 150 yards from the practice field to the alternative indoor facility location was just not acceptable. Other issues included digging up a ton of infrastructure (steam lines, electric, etc.) that runs along the road, plus the height of the proposed building does not conform to the campus Master Plan (since it’s for football, it has to be be tall enough to kick a field goal in. We really do need a lot of practice at that.) Guesstimates are around $1million increase to account for the infrastructure issue (added to the $15 million estimate for construction).

A community group “Save Stadium Woods” was formed, complete with a (very nice) website and a letter-writing campaign to the local newspaper. There were petitions, resolutions from everybody and their mother, and more.  The local coverage was intense plus there was a letter to the editor in nearly every newspaper issue for the past three months. CNN even covered the story, which was great, as no campus shootings were involved for the first time in a
while.  One of the 300+ year old white oaks was named “Stephen Colbert” in an effort to raise awareness (?!?).  

An ad-hoc committee of university administrators, both Athletics and non-, plus interested parties from both the faculty and the community was charged by the President to come up with a solution. 

And of course, a third-party consultant was brought in, because we apparently don’t have enough smart people here on campus.

Yes, quite the head-scratcher… place the building and site footprint on top of 3 acres of steeply-sloped, old-growth forest? Or remove some aging and underused tennis courts, which could be relocated to the intramural athletics area on the fringe of campus. Yet Athletics continued to argue, and University administration was silent.

The committee weighed in a week ago, coming to the logical conclusion of protecting the woods and utilizing the tennis court site.  I guess the weirdest part of this is that something so no-brainer-ish was allowed to drag on and on, giving our beloved Virginia Tech and so-called “Green University” (complete with TreeCampus USA designation) a black eye. 

Taking gardens to a new level

I spent the last few days in New Jersey, with a quick day trip into NYC.  It was a perfect East Coast winter day – sunny and cold – while back home in Seattle it rained.  So it was with real joy that I hoofed it through some of the city’s greenspaces, ending up at The High Line.

I won’t go into detail about the site’s history and development of this city landscape, because the link will do that much better and with more authority than I can.  But briefly, the High Line was the elevated freight train line used in the industrial district.  After it was decommissioned, it was developed into a public greenspace.  And an important note – it is entirely funded through private money.  Its future won’t be affected by city budget cuts.

I was enchanted by the landscaping: it looks like an abandoned trainyard that’s being taken over by a re-emerging forest.  Rather than being centered in a planting space, most of the trees and shrubs pop up right next to a rail or crossbeam; dead grasses remain in place, and you can see crocus and other spring flowers poking through.  It’s obviously a designed space, but it’s not unnatural.

There are benches everywhere – some big enough for two people to sunbathe.  There’s an outdoor movie projector across from a white-painted wall for showing movies in the summer; bleachers are built against the opposite wall.  It’s an interesting, inviting, and unique landscape, allowing you see the city from a completely different perspective.