Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Yes, I know it's not till Thursday but tomorrow I'm volunteering all day and Thursday I'll be spending the day with about 17 of The Husband's relatives. I've never been to one of The Husband's family's Thanksgivings before. It will either be a blast or a nightmare. I'm stocking up on chocolate just in case.

While I like most Thanksgiving traditions (food, getting together with friends and family, food, taking one last deep breath before the horror of the full brunt of the Christmas marketing season, food) one I do not like is the one where the host or hostess has everyone go around the table and say one thing for which they are grateful. These usually come across as either forced or saccharine and I'm sitting there thinking "oh, darn, I was going to say that, now what should I say? Blank, Blank, my mind is blank, surely there is something!" So this year, just in case, I'm ready with something no one else will say.

I am thankful for photosynthesis!

Yes, that's right, I'm a highly educated science geek and I'm not afraid to use it!

6 H2O + 6 CO2 + light = C6H12O6 + 6 O2

(For the non-scientists in the audience that means that plants take water (H2O), Carbon dioxide (CO2), and light and convert them into sugar (C6H12O6) and Oxygen (O2). Without this biochemistry we would not have anything to eat nor would we be able to breathe. I like eating and breathing so I'm thankful).

I'm ready. Just ask.

Of course The Husband's family includes two biochemists, a biophysical chemist, a neuroscientist, a physical chemist, a medicinal chemist, and several doctors so I just might get trumped. Hmm. Better come up with a backup plan...

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pot Party

Today is cold (well, for me) and overcast up here in New England and it's a good day to do some indoor gardening. So I threw my plants a pot party.

I grow several herbs in the house during the winter so that we have fresh herbs to cook with year round. The culinary sage has outgrown it's pot (it must like the window) and has been needing water basically every other day so I decided it needed a bigger home.

This is my basement potting area. I have a nice, big concrete sink. I want to get a board cut to go over one side of the sink so I can pot right there but for now I'm just using this old chair (and an old litter box to help contain the spilled soil. Not that I'm messy. Of course not.).

Here's the sage, a bit overgrown for it's pot. I'm growing the herbs in plastic since they started outside this fall and will go back outside early and plastic pots handle cold weather better (clay pots are more likely to crack).

And here it is after repotting, being inspected by Jasper, Quality Control Dog. Can I eat it? Can I roll in it? If not, I'm not interested.

While I was down there I potted up another Amaryllis bulb. I've been doing these at approximately 2 week intervals.

In goes a section of window screen. I don't like to put "drainage" rocks or pot shards in the bottoms of pots since I'm hoping the water will drain out the drainage holes (hence the name). I bought a few feet of window screen from the local hardware store and have been cutting it up for use in clay pots. It keeps the soil from washing out the big holes you get in clay pots. I don't bother in plastic since the holes there are usually much smaller.

This is my hand made Amaryllis support ring. I've take a single plant support and used pliers to make a bend in the bottom. Amaryllis are notoriously floppy bloomers and I haven't found a good solution so I'm trying this in conjunction with heavy clay pots (so they hopefully won't fall over). I'll let you know if it works.

Here is the (almost) completed product. I still need to cover those roots with soil but you can see the support. I put it in BEFORE adding soil so that the bent part is resting on the bottom of the pot.

Then I moved upstairs. I have a spider plant in a hanging basket. Actually I have several, these are one of my favorite house plants - they're easy to care for and they clean the air. This one is kind of heavy so I didn't want to hang it.

So I brought this pot upstairs and decided that it would look perfect, very contemporary with the square pot and the strong lines of the plant. I've usually grown grasses (outside) in this pot. We'll see how it look inside.

This is my repotting supervisor, Pigeon. Falling asleep on the job. Or more likely wondering what I'm doing waking him up during his mid-afternoon nap.

Hmm.. Yep. I think that will look just fine.

The problem with repotting upstairs is that I'm not so neat. I'll have to go sweep that up as soon as I'm done blogging so The Husband doesn't come home and roll his eyes at the mess. I didn't want to carry this pot full of soil up two flights of stairs to get it from the basement to its permanent location.

I have one more plant to pot but I'm trying to identify it first. I stopped at Kane's today to pick up a cyclamen for The Husband's Aunt who is hosting Thanksgiving dinner (plants are great all occasion gifts) and found this in the houseplant section.

The woman behind the counter called it "Lavender Lace." I Googled. There are several "Lavender Lace" plants, the closest is a Cuphea but this plant only has 5 petals and Cuphea have 6. I'm not sure what it is. Any suggestions are welcome. Otherwise it goes where I have space. Hmmm... Where DO I have space for another houseplant? Uh-oh.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Biologist-Gardener Commutes (or would that be Migrates?)

Once a week I go into Boston to volunteer at the New England Aquarium. This week I walked out my door to find a heavy frost. It lined the intricate details of complex petals like curly parsley

And it even lined the fur like texture of the leaves of this Coreopsis

And it enhanced the color of my Mother's Day Azalea

And this Blue Something Holly

And look how cute this Labrador Violet looks, all snuggled into a bed of leaves.

I immediately wanted to go back inside, grab my camera and photograph the frost. I didn't (these pictures were taken the following day) because I had a train to catch. Careful planning and good fortune helped us find a house about a half mile from the nearest train station. My husband commutes to his job on the train, I commute to my volunteer work and into Boston for museums, dinning and all the city has to offer. We even sold our second car and now only have a hybrid Civic (which really does get gas mileage in the mid to upper 40s). By doing this we're significantly reducing air pollution, our carbon footprint and the countries dependence on foreign oil. Yea us.

So I walk past other gardens and notice that one neighbor still has a daisy blooming but most have cut their gardens back for the winter. I don't cut my garden back in the fall - I wait till spring. There are a few plants that survive the winter better if they aren't cut back (like Salvias, Buddleias, Caryopteris). I have all these. So rather than try to remember what to cut and what not to cut I just procrastinate. Besides it makes my garden look more interesting all winter and provides food (seeds) and shelter for native wildlife.

I need to learn to identify all the berry producing plants up here. There seem to be a lot of unfamiliar plants with unfamiliar berries on my way to the train. I hope the birds like them. Bill Hinton recently did a post on how Cedar Waxwings get the color tips to their feathers from the berries they eat and how many of them are started to have orange tipped leaves instead of yellow tipped leaves due to the changing diet as gardeners change their plantings. Think about that next time you're deciding on a new bush.

When I board the train I try to board toward the back so I can get a window seat on the West side of the train. This is the side that has the best views. Because while I may take a book and I actually do read some, I also look out the window. I observe the tides, the changing plant life, and the changing bird populations.

Lots of the trip the view is of the back of commercial buildings, abandoned warehouses, and cheap housing but interspersed between signs of humanity are a few wetlands, salt marshes and rivers. I see Gulls, Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks everywhere but there is one place where most, sometimes all, of the Great Blue Herons occur. I can see dozens in this one spot while a few miles down the track, in what looks to my eye as the same type of habitat, there will be none. I wonder what the difference is and if I would be able to spot it if I was on foot instead of in a moving train.

The Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets occur just a little bit away from the Great Blue Herons but they seem to have moved out for the winter. I'll miss them. I wonder why they prefer a different area than the Great Blue Herons. Is it because of the size difference? Or maybe different feeding styles or prey items?

There is one Mute Swan family en route. While this species is native to Northern Europe it is not naturally occurring here. Are these swans that inadvertently ended up on this side of the Atlantic and found things to their liking? Or are the descendants of escaped (or released) captive birds? The Mute Swan is a real problem to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem (see USGS page here) but up here in Massachusetts I've only seen a few. The pair along the train track managed to raise one cygnet this year. I watched it get bigger and bigger and finally, just recently, start to turn from the juvenile grey color into a white adult.

I know I'm a biologist because one of my favorite birds to spot are the Cormorants. These fish eating waterbirds smell bad in the hand (fish eating animals generally do smell bad), have sharp beaks at the end of long necks that they are very good at catching you just above your leather gloves (can you tell I've handled more than a few?), but I like them anyway. I like the way they spread their wings to catch the warmth of the sun. I like watching them dive for fish. I like their scrappy attitude in the hand.

Once I get into North Station in Boston my nature watching is almost over. Sure I can watch the changing season in the changes in the street trees (and the street weeds, talk about scrappy!) but I do have to watch for cars on my walk to the Aquarium so I don't spot many birds. One of the birds I do see plenty of are the Rock Pigeons. Here's another good sign of a biologist - I like Rock Pigeons. How can you not admire a species that was once limited to rocky habitat in Southern Europe, Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East (it's hard to determine exactly where since they have long been domesticated by humans) and is now found pretty much everywhere that people are found (except Antarctica and I wouldn't be surprised to find them living in the buildings there. I expect them to become one of the first feral species in space once we start colonizing the moon or Mars). Instead of acting like a wild bird that takes off at the sight of humans Rock Pigeons will just saunter out of the path of pedestrians. I've seen them deep inside university buildings, just walking the hallways, looking for food scraps. I've seen them in subway stations deep underground. They seem to be able to live, no, make that thrive, off the littlest crumb of human food waste. How can you not admire their great skills at surviving right alongside humans in this world when so many species are being pushed into extinction by humans?

This is what a biologist thinks about during her commute. I never claimed to be normal.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Fall Bounty

Today was one of those beautiful fall days when the sun is shining, the temperature is just perfectly cool and there are plenty of things that need to be done in the garden. Well, the list of garden chores gave me an excuse to be outside for a good part of the day and feel like I was being productive.

I started by putting together my new leaf composter set (from Gardener's Supply). It's relatively simple, but annoying, to put together. I hope it lasts so I don't have to move it anytime soon. And that we don't have to move again.

This three bin set up is designated for leaves only. I hope to produce a nice leaf mold to use as mulch next year. Of course I don't rake leaves so I had to get them off a neighbor who was just planning to drag hers off into the woods. I'll shred them using a string trimmer, water them well and then I'll have plenty of room to add more. Assuming there is another nice day I can spend in the garden before the snow flies.

I said I don't rake leaves. This is my lawn before.

This is my lawn after. After I ran over it with the mulching mower turning the leaves into organic matter and soil amendment in a few short minutes. Much easier and faster than raking.

For Garden Bloggers Bloom Day I posted pictures that I took on Friday. I took the pictures on Friday because I knew the remnants of TS Ida were headed our way for the weekend. Sure enough Ida dropped over 2 1/2 inches on our house (check out the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow web site and you can pull up maps of various states to see rainfall at individual volunteers' houses). About half of GBBD flowers are gone now. Done in by the wind and the rain. But there is still plenty to look at and photograph and I managed to slip in a little camera time just before the sun set.

The end of summer brings a bounty of seeds ranging from the wanted

like this Asclepias tuberosa

to the I could use a few more of these self seeding but next year I won't leave any seed head on my Liatris Kobold

to the unwanted but I'm still impressed it can grow in this very shaded spot with poor, shallow soil where even the moss doesn't grow Dandelion.

Lastly the seeds of this Panicum virgatum (Switchgrass). This is a nice clumping native grass. I bought two varieties of it this year and was able to get at least 5 clumps from the overgrown pots.

After re-reading this posting I realize the theme isn't just fall bounty but also the continuing cycle of nature. From the end of the leaves and the flowers of this year will come the plants of next year. Trite, yes, but also true and a bit cheerful to remember as we enter the short days of winter that are coming all too soon and will last all too long.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day

It's that day again. The day that Carol from May Dreams Garden has designated as Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. Like many Northern Gardeners I had to work to come up with flower photos for this month. Many of these blooms are the last blooms on the plant. I also threw in some foliage and berry pictures to round things out. Next month? Pansies and houseplants maybe. If you want good winter flower shots you'll need to check out the Texas Garden Bloggers (such as From my Corner of Katy, and Digging and East Side Patch, there are a lot of Garden Bloggers in Texas), Texas is just entering their big garden season. I'm so jealous.

Scabiosa Butterfly Blue. Now that I think about it this plant will probably be blooming next month unless it's covered in snow. Back in North Carolina this plant blooms all year round so even though it was short lived (~ 3 years) I kept buying more

Salvia elegans (pineapple sage) - one of the last blooms left after the last frost

Penstemon Mystica

Panises by the Door. This is a tight spot with only a little dirt but the pansies fit well and cheer the area up nicely

Physiocarpis (Ninebark) Copertina

Hydrangea previoushomeownerii - this plant is going to be pulled out next year. It is wayyyyy too close to the house and it only produced TWO flowers this year.

Ilex Blue Something flowers (and Blogger insists on posting it sideways, sorry)

Ilex Blue Something Berries - No, it's not really called Blue Something but it is in the group that includes Blue Girl and Blue Princess and others and, since it came with the house, I'm not sure which one it really is

Gaura Whirling Butterflies - this one has a nice long bloom period

Coreopsis Heaven's Gate

Azalea Mother's Day and Parsley

Aster (Symphotrichium) oblongifolis October Skies

Abelia X Silver Anniversary

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Last week we had a good hard frost that did some serious damage to my potted Salvia elegans (pineapple sage). A sign that the gardening season is nearly over.

Today I went outside to bring in the pot for the winter. I thought that maybe I could keep the roots alive in the basement, or perhaps take cuttings for next year.

But then I saw them. Bees. About a dozen of them feeding off the few remaining flowers. There's not much out there for them to eat right now even on warm days (like today) when their body temperature rises and tells them to be active.

So I thought, what the heck. I can procrastinate a little longer and buy a new Salvia elegans next year. Who needs it more? Me, to save a few dollars, or the bees who can use a few extra calories before the cold really settles in and they go into hibernation until spring, a few calories that may make the difference between surviving the winter or not. I think the bees are worth it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Money doesn't grow on trees... but mulch does!

Ah, fall. The time of year when the trees provide free mulch.

Many homeowners look at the fallen leaves as something to "deal with." They bag it and let the city pick it up and cart it away.

Others dump their leaves in the nearest wooded area or abandoned lot.

In some areas people burn leaves (no photos, thank goodness none of my neighbors up here have been doing this - it's not only wasteful but it's also very polluting).

But the smart gardener knows that leaves are a great source of nutrients. My husband has already run the lawn mower once to shred leaves on the lawn - this allows them to break down quickly without covering the grass and provide free, organic fertilizer for the lawn. I'm leaving the leaves in the garden where they are caught among the plants.

In fact I'm hoping to steal some leaves from neighbors who don't want them so that I can put a good layer down on all my planting beds. Then I'll cover them with a nice layer of shredded wood mulch to hold them in place and next year they'll compost into the ground to feed my shrubs and perennials.

If you've got the room you can build simple compost bins to hold fall's bounty and convert it into gardening gold. Or you can do the easy man's compost. Fill black plastic bags with leaves. Add a shovel of dirt and some water and punch a few holes in the bags. Then set them somewhere you won't notice them for a year or two and you'll have slow grown compost. When I had an acre of mostly wooded land I was able to do this. The problem I had was with tree roots growing into the bags to get at the nutrients.

Whatever you do just remember that those leaves that annoy the non-gardener are free mulch, compost or organic fertilizer for the smart gardener. Maybe money does grow on trees.

Monday, November 2, 2009


The season is changing. There are fewer garden chores and fewer nice days to garden out side. It's time to transition over to indoor gardening. Setting off the indoor season with a bang this past weekend was the Massachusetts Orchid Society Annual Show and Sale "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." They really did go with the Halloween theme.

Phalenopsis gardenstorii (not bought at the sale but it makes a nice picture)

I went on Friday after my volunteer shift and did something unforgivable. I forgot to take my camera. Unfortunately the show location was about an hour and a half from my house so I didn't run home to get it. You'll just have to make do with photos of my new orchids.

Oncidium Tsiku Margurite

I was very impressed with the show. There were some spectacular plants on view. There were the expected Catallyas (those frilly, showy orchids used in corsages), Phalenopsis (the "moth orchid" that's for sale in grocery stores, garden centers and big box retailers all over the place and is so easy and rewarding to grow) but there were also some varieties I had never even heard of or seen before.

Masdevillia Angel Tang (The Husband very cleverly pointed out that the 2" pots fit nicely in some of my hand made pottery mugs. That's another interest I have that has resulted in too many - too many pottery crawls, too many interesting potters, too many mugs!)

The group of plants known as orchids appear quite diverse. Despite the obvious differences they share a common flower structure. Yes, really. It has to do with number of petals, sepals, pistils and so forth. If you're really into botany you know this already. If you aren't you probably aren't interested in the details so I'll skip them (and then my ignorance of the subject won't be exposed).

Anacheillum cochleatum (I think the name has recently been changed so if you know it as something else that's why. Darn those taxonomists!)

Did you know that there are native orchids all over the United States? Many of them are terrestrial, often seasonal, and almost always overlooked by lay persons. One of my favorites is the crane fly orchid is native to much of the Eastern United States. In the winter it sends up a single leaf, purple on one side, green (sometimes marked with purple) on the other. When conditions are favorable you'll see whole areas of these leaves sticking up. In the spring the leaf dies back and nothing happens until July or August when the flower stalk rises from the leaf litter. I think it's a seriously cool plant. Colorful leaves in winter, delicate flowers in summer and taking off the spring and fall. Not exactly what most people expect from a plant.

Tipularia discolor, the Crane Fly Orchid

I couldn't leave the show without buying some orchids for my house. I don't have enough house plants to get through the long, indoor winters. Yet. So I'm trying my hand at some new (to me) varieties of orchids. Should give me something to fuss over during the indoor gardening season.

Paphiopedilum Night Fire X Macabre Pie