Tag Archives: garden

OMG GMOs no. 1

Many of us have strong reactions to the word GMO and I would wager that many of those people do not understand why they feel so strongly about them or, even more fundamentally, what a GMO even is.

I felt that I understood what a GMO was and because I thought I knew what they were, I believed I had a choice to avoid them. However, my husband and I were recently at the Home Depot and I decided to get some last minute broccoli seeds. My husband was immediately drawn to these bright green packages that clearly stated non-GMO.  I wandered away from those packages because it was not clear whether they were Hybrids and they were not organic.  When I  went to the other side of the seed display and saw the organic offerings of a large seed company, I noticed that there were no non-GMO claims on the label. Nonetheless, I felt confident that home garden seeds had not been breached by genetic modification and that my husband was confusing hybrids, or traditional plant breeding, with genetic modification.  I insisted that I was not at risk of getting GMO seeds even if it did not say so on the label and I was pretty sure that organic meant that it was not GMO.  But a tiny part of me wasn’t exactly sure.  I was making a lot of assumptions and I hate not being right, so I thought I would explore.  And it turns out that this is going to be a 2 or 3-parter… because the background part got really long.  I hope you come back for more!

In order to delve into this question on the non-GMO-ness of garden vegetable seeds, let’s first take a step back and figure out what GMO means. GMO stands for gentically modified organism. You so totally knew that, I know. But just in case you wanted to read this to your seven year old, I am going ultra basic here. The scientific field in which this happens is called recombinant technology or biotechnology. Other terms are Genetic Engineering and BioEngineering.  These are all terms that should make you perk up and pay attention. In general, in relation to plants, the genetically modified (GM) industry explains that biotechnology is the creation of plants with traits that you cannot develop from traditional plant breeding.  The non-GM people tend to agree with that. They tend to believe that traditional or conventional plant breeding ascribes to the laws of nature.

But this is the part that I find confusing and the line that I do not think is entirely clear.  It is also the part that I think weakens the non-GMO argument.   The problem, you see, is that anti-GMOers keep wanting to argue that traditional plant breeding creates plants in a natural way or that plant-breeding is a gentle science, allowing plants to live their lives and just waiting to see what might happen. Certainly, it can work that way.   This article I came across describes organic plant breeding and shows that this type of plant selection can be very gentle.  It can also take years and years.  It soon becomes clear why plant breeders might not have enough patience to just wait and see what happens. More than that, plant breeders want or need to create new plants.  Historically, breeding might have happened the in the field where we might have been after plants that performed well under stressful conditions such as longer periods without rain, periods with too much rain, too hot, to cold, etc.  These were conditions that would have occurred naturally and the plants that survived those conditions would be selected either intentionally or because it was the only thing growing.  But breeders have not stopped at natural conditions to cause stress. They have subjected plants to gamma rays, x-rays, thermal neutrons (whatever those are), and radiation–all to induce mutations.  For an eye-popping list, click here.   There’s a lot of fruit on that list.

Beyond just mutating genes, breeders also develop new plants by crossing between existing plants.  And, again, non-GMOers tend to argue that breeding creates plants that obey the laws of nature and that plant breeding is really just establishing an environment that encourages or speeds up natural crosses between varieties or species. But that is not accurate.  Plant breeding is not necessarily gentle and plant breeders cross plants that would never naturally cross. Plant breeders, in fact, breed hybrids between plant genera as well as plant species.  Because Biology class was probably a long, long time ago, this is how life breaks down:

Now, plant breeding can be gentle, such as the pollen of one variety of tomato getting brushed on the lady parts of another variety.  These tomatoes are in the same species and this cross might happen naturally with bees busily buzzing around.  But that is not what breeding is limited to. Breeders create new plants by crossing between species all the time. Think plums and apricots (pluots)-both species in the genus prunus.  Scientists seem to support that this can happen naturally–or, at least that it is fairly easy to do.  However, breeders don’t stop there. Crosses in the plant world between genera are referred to as wide crosses, and plant breeders do this with some regularity as well. After a relatively short search, I found several examples of wide crosses and even discovered an easy way to identify intergeneric crosses. (See this article.)  The author of that article explains that “[f]or plants from different genera to successfully cross, they must share the same chromosome number and enough similarity in their DNA sequence to match up in enough places to create a viable seed. Intergeneric hybrids … are relatively rare in the plant kingdom as a whole. I know of no examples where they occurred without the helping hand of man.”

This article, which I will admit is so technical it made my eyes cross, demonstrates that crossing genera is not exactly natural. The wide cross made here required that embryos from the two plants were dissected and then plated on HLH medium–I’m not really sure what that is, but it certainly was something that helped recombine the embryos since without help that embryo would not have survived to form a seedling.  This article explained that it can take a lot of effort to make an embryo viable.  This type of crossing–really, any type of crossing–is, in some form, recombinant.  In an enthusiastic defense of conventional plant breeding and its differences from genetic engineering (GE) this author argues that, “while wide crosses, as breeders perform them, do not occur in nature, they represent only a slight stretching of the boundaries of what can occur in nature. In a sense wide crosses represent a stretching of these boundaries by inches compared to miles with GE. After all, with GE, one can mix genes not only from widely different plant families, one can put genes from any organism on earth, or can create genes which have not existed before and put them, into plants.”  This defense highlights the slipper slope of the debate.  They are essentially saying that stretching the bounds of nature somewhat is okay, but not too much.

And this is where I think that the arguments start to weaken against GMOs.  I don’t say this as a proponent of GMOs, but as a proponent of putting arguments out there that can’t be so easily refuted.  Non-GMOers should stop saying that plant-breeding is okay because it is obeys the laws of nature.  Most wide crosses would simply never, ever naturally exist, no matter how close together you put the plants you were trying to cross and no matter how long you waited for them to cross. The Non-Gmo project defines GMOs as “living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering, or GE. This relatively new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacteria and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”   It is only the second part of this definition that separates GMOs from traditional plant breeding, since we have established that traditional plant breeding created organisms by manipulating their genes in a lab.  It isn’t even the unstable, natural part in the second sentence that separates the two sciences, since traditional plant breeding creates unstable plants all the time that do not occur in nature.  It really just comes down to the combination of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that don’t occur in nature. That last clause leads me to to ask, “Well, what combinations of those genes do occur in nature?” An article published on June 20, 2013 in The Scientist Magazine claimed that a University of Maryland School of Medicine Study found strong evidence that bacteria transfer their genes into human genomes.  Another article in The Scientist Magazine published much more recently states that horizontal gene transer “definitely can happen and has happened during evolution, and has played a role in shaping functional diversity of the gene repertoire in metazoans.” Accordingly, there is already, historically, some combination of bacteria and animal DNA that occurs in nature.

After all this research, I can honestly say that I am not a fan of GMOs, though my reasons are more solidly in the agricultural-ecological-economical camp. I am just not buying the whole science of it.  The strongest argument I have come across is that we need more research because the way the DNA is introduced in GMO plants is unnatural and random and the consequences of re-sequencing of DNA  in this way is unknown.  This is the strongest argument because the results are, well, unknown… but they could be benign, they cold be harmful.    But, one of my first thoughts when hearing this argument is that randomly inserting genetic material just sounds like another mutation, which is just a change in the DNA–often an unpredictable change.  And mutations caused by stress, disease, and even radiation seem to be accepted as okay.   It seems to me that, if an apple tree developed a mutation that led to a desirable fruit, we would likely graft that apple tree and sell it.  But we probably wouldn’t question how the rearranging of DNA in that apple would affect our bodies.  Research into how GMO plants affect our bodies should be done because we need to know how anything we eat affects out bodies.  However, I don’t know that research will show that it is bad for you or changes anything in your body.  Again, it is not necessarily a science argument that sways me from GMOs.  It is the economic and agricultural devastation that they are wreaking and the poisons they require to grow.  I plant to discuss that in the third part of this series.

In the next segment, I will actually get around to discussing whether vegetable seeds are GMO even if they are not labeled GMO.  Your comments are more than welcome.  However, I know that people get very heated about this topic, so please remain civil.


Additional Sources:









When I think of a genetically modified organism in terms of plants, I think of a plant that has had genetic material from non-plants.

Are hybrids genetically modified? In a strict sense, yes.



Seed me, Seymour!

I just put in a big seed order at seedsavers.org. Big enough to wonder how long it will take to actually get ahead in the whole I-grow-my-own-food-and-save-money thing. But I have so many plans! So many. Not only are we seriously expanding our “production” this year but idea is to invest in plants that I grow and eat now, and also cultivate and save seeds for next year. (Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas!)

That’s one of the reasons I ordered pricier seeds from seedsavers.org–you can’t save hybrid seeds. Well, you can save them, they will just break your heart over and over again. So I’ve heard. To be honest, I didn’t completely understand why this was. I just drank the kool-aid and repeated that little nugget as if I knew what I was talking about. So I did some scholarly-type research on the Google.  I came across a couple of articles, coincidentally on the Seed Saver site, and thought they were a good starting point.  If interested, check out this article that was useful and straightforward and this other article that was a bit more complex but a pretty good and short read.

The gist of it is that hybrids are really controlled inbred plants. In the lab or field, two plants with a very narrow gene pool are crossed to produce a seed with the chosen, desired characteristics of the two parents.  The key word is controlled. Very smart scientist-type people who understand a lot of stuff about genes know which traits are dominant and which traits are recessive.  The parents will be selected for desired traits that will come through, either because one parent has the desired dominant characteristic or because both parents have the desired recessive characteristic.  The child of that coupling gets planted and grows, resulting in a plant that has the desired, controlled traits of mama and papa plant.  BUT… now that little hybrid plant has been let loose like a college girl on spring break.  There are untold numbers of influences out there–some good, some bad, some that are very nice, but just not that exciting.  That innocent little hybrid plant is vulnerable to any local yahoo indiscriminately spreading his dirty pollen wherever it will land.  This is called Open Pollination (OP)–which is actually a good thing in the plant world–and on Melrose Place.  So when that hybrid plant makes it seeds, those seeds carry who-knows-what genetic traits.  The site www.victoryseeds.com explains that if you want to  “save [corn] seeds for future planting, considerations must be made to prevent cross-pollination…. [Corn] uses the wind to distribute its pollen from the tassels of one plant to the developing ears of another.” In order to “maintain the genetic purity of a cultivar, that is, keeping the variety true-to-type, great isolation distances are required.  Depending on climate and geographical features in your area, separating varieties by up to one mile is required.”

Okay, so why does this work with OP seeds and not seeds from hybrid plants. The oversimplified answer is that you allow natural selection for your area to win out.  The seeds that you share likely already have some genetic markers that will make it dominant and vigorous over whatever else is out there.  Whereas Hybrid plant seeds have very narrow genetic traits and there is nothing about them designed to thrive in your environment.  Hybrid seeds are bred for certain characteristics–i.e, fruit size and yield– that are not conducive to environmental factors, meaning that they require a lot of help in the form of pesticides and water to survive. They are not tough because they have not had to survive season after season fighting the course of natural selection. They are delicate little lab creations that often require substantial assistance.  The off-spring of those hybrids, tend to be weaker and less adaptive, since their gene pool has been severely reduced.  There is a lot less diversity and, as a consequence, if you plant the seeds from hybrid plants you might get a few good plants over the course of hundreds of seeds.

Planting the seeds of hybrid plants essentially sets you back to the beginning of time.  Okay, slight exaggeration.  But, this is kind of the first step for farmers who have historically cultivated seeds going back hundreds of years. Dr. John Navazio in the above-referenced article tells a story about tomatoes that explains this process.  The tomatoes that were brought over to Europe several hundred years ago from the Americas were all cherry-tomato sized.  Somewhere between 200 and 300 years ago–after Europeans got over the idea that tomatoes were poisonous–farmers began selecting their desired traits.  The tomatoes “disseminated across the landscape in very diverse climates and were selected for new varieties by the humans who decided to give them the extra effort and domesticate them, the climatic influence that is natural selection, and then good old recombination in genetic terms. … How did they go from cherry tomatoes to these big beefsteaks in just 200-300 years? ….Every farmer, every eater, was a seed grower and they were totally tuned in to watching for variation and picking the best. It was plant breeding at its best by people who were in tune.”

This, of course, is what plant breeders try and speed up and control–with much success.  It would not now take 200 years to develop a beefsteak tomato from cherry tomatoes.  However, what you can’t get from hybrid is the genetic diversity to be resilient to your area.  So getting to the point where you have seeds that produce a general specific plant is just the first step.  The next is to plant it in your yard/garden/farm. Locally sourced, open pollinated seeds are genetically resilient. They are “adapted to the challenges of the specific geographic regions where they came from because there was always … strong natural selection on the material. People were not pampering it, people were not watering it with sophisticated irrigation, and so when you put plants under stress … you really start to see the variation. Then you have an opportunity to work in concert with natural selection if you care to improve your crops just like our ancestors did.”

I know…this topic is a bit mind-boggling.  My husband said it was too technical.  I think he lost interest pretty early on.  Though to be fair to me–and plants–he loses interest pretty quickly in most things early on.  However, I really wanted to understand why hybrids were not good source material for seeds.  And I wanted to try and explain it in a way that made sense.  I hope you stuck with me.

A company like Seed Savers sells seeds of plants that you can in turn collect seeds from or otherwise propagate with a high rate of success. They also sell non-gmo, untreated seeds with a huge collection of organic seeds. They promote and encourage heirloom varieties and encourage communities to exchange their own seeds. I’m in! I hope you are, too, and that we can start trading seeds.  Now… we have all learned that your seeds might not be the perfect seeds for my area, but that if they are open pollinated, they should at least produce enough diversity to result in some plants that are vigorous for my geographic region.   And then I can collect the seeds from those vigorous plants the next year–and so on and so on.  As Dr. Navazio explains, “Genetic resources need to be preserved and carefully managed. But they do constantly co-evolve with the humans who select them and who use them. If you have vital varieties that really work for people, that really feed people, then there is a constant interplay of the farmer, the variety, and selection, both natural and farmer selection, as well as adapting to all of these changes.”

What are you growing this year?

Extra, Extra, Eat all about it!

Every year I tend to my gardens–some years better than others. I have beds of annual and perennial herbs and flowers, and two raised vegetable garden beds–with plans to add more! There are just two of us and we and we haven’t quite mastered the art of preserving food. Oh sure, I dry some herbs and freeze some fruits and veggies, but mostly we pick as we need to use it. And I find myself wondering “What the heck am I going to do with all of those beets!” And “does anyone need bunches and bunches of sage. Since my compost bin has not actually yielded any compost, I am still at the stage that I feel wasteful sending my edible garden waste to their unproductive demise. So it was with glee that I saw this flyer.

What a great idea! I am so excited about this and can’t wait to see what I come home with. Why don’t all communities do this? In fact, this isn’t quite my community and I am going to see who I need to talk to about this to get one in my own park district. I’ll make sure to post after I go the first time and let you know if there is any progress with getting one established in my own community.

Please share if your community has creative and economical ways to get not only people to eat better, but like-minded people to get together.

Herbs: Thrice as Nice

I love planting herbs in my flower beds. They are fragrant AND functional AND beautiful (see there, three things herbs do). Many in my zone (zone 5) such as sage, chives, greek oregano, mint and thyme are also perennial, which means they will give you years of joy and use. Herbs such as basil, rosemary, parsley don’t quite make it over the winter here in Illinois, but they thrive in the summer outside. And if I am responsible enough, I remember to bring them inside in the winter.

In the summer, I prefer to use fresh herbs, because, well, I can and all I have to do is walk outside and snip some fragrant sprigs. However, early summer is also the time to start drying for year-round use as this is when many herb leaves are most pungent. Last year, I dried Rosemary, Sage, Greek Oregano, Thyme and Cilantro. I dried a lot of plant material. So much, that I gave a chunk of it away for Christmas. I thought I kept enough for myself. Sadly, I ran out of oregano in March. I was kicking myself when I broke down and bought it at the store (twice) because I could have harvested it for free from my garden.

So this year, I am going to dry a lot more. Starting today. Below is my tutorial for drying garden herbs. To be honest, I haven’t dried basil because I prefer it fresh. Also, I can’t get chives to turn out right (though that’s okay because these suckers grow until the snow covers them). But this method has worked for rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, tarragon, dill, fennel leaf, and mint.
1) Gather bunches of your herbs. It’s okay if you cut the plant back significantly, up to 75%. It’ll grow back. If the herbs are dirty, wash your bunches and shake off excess water. If the herbs are clean, adding water only encourages mold. Don’t worry about the bugs… you already consume them in all the other food you eat, as allowed by the FDA. (Here’s a fun link to make you never want to eat again!) On the bright side, whatever you pull out from your garden is likely cleaner and less buggy than store bought stuff.


2) If you did not wash your herbs, skip to step three. Otherwise, lay your herbs on a clean dish towel in more or less a single layer to dry off excess water. If you have a lot of herbs, you may need more than one towel. The idea here is to just dry them off as much as possible. You can use paper towels for this, but you’ll go through a lot of them to get your herbs dry.

3) When your herbs are free of water, strip the leaves from the stem. Many people hang their herbs by the stem. That method works fine…except that your herbs accumulate dust (and in my house, cat dander) in the several days it takes to dry them. Plus, you’re supposed to keep them out of the sun, in an airy location, in small bunches, etc. If you’re drying a large quantity, this is not practical. Really, they’ll just be a challenge my cat has to meet if I start hanging things all willy nilly. And I have found that herbs left on the stem take longer to actually dry (you know, because the stem is a food supply). For those reasons, I immediately strip the leaves from clean and dry herbs. You don’t have to be that precise about removing every stem at this point because you will continue to clean up the leaves at every stage. Lay your leaves in a single layer on the clean and dry towels and cover with a clean dry dish towel.



4) Up to now, you really have been working on getting your herbs clean and dry. You have stripped the stems to get them ready to dry. Depending on the quantity of herbs I am drying I use 2 different methods. For small quantities, I stick them directly into these tea pouches that I always have on hand for loose leaf tea.


The herbs stay in there, protected from dust until they are nice and crinkly.



I then transfer the herbs to a glass container and keep in my spice drawer away from the stove.


These tea bags are perfect for low-fuss, small quantity drying.   If I wanted to have 30 of these little pouches all over the place, I could dry larger quantities, but for me, that’s not practical. However, for large quantities, you need to lay the herbs in a single layer across a larger surface.

My preferred method is using paper towels.  I know! This is wasteful BUT paper towels work beautifully for herb drying because they are very light, wick moisture and allow air to pass through multiple layers).  You can re-use them when you are done drying the herbs, so it is not all bad.  You can also use coffee filters and cheesecloth. Or, if you are super ambitious, can make a framed screen to use over and over. Dish towels don’t work well for multiple days of drying because they are heavy and tend to enclose the layer of herbs and retain moisture underneath.

Depending on the herbs, they will take anywhere from a couple days to several days to dry.  When they crumble between your fingers, then are done.  Keep them as whole as possible to retain as much flavor as possible.  I don’t really think it matters if you store them in a cool, cabinet or the refrigerator as long as they are in a sealed container.

I also just came across this method from Martha Stewart and think it has excellent potential:

Preserve Herbs in Tulle
1. Make sure herbs are rinsed and dried.
2. Cut tulle in 18-by-24-inch pieces.
3. Arrange herbs on the tulle, and roll into tubes.
4. Tie the ends with raffia or twine.
5. Store in refrigerator for two weeks.
6. Once herbs are dry, crumble into storage tins until you are ready to use them.


I really dislike yew

I moved into my home about seven years ago. Like many planned neighborhoods in middle class communities, professional landscaping didn’t come with my house–or rather, the previous owners didn’t spring for the $10,000 upgrade. Instead, I had a mismatched, poorly placed amalgam of shrubs and weekend project landscaping. That meant most of of the shrubs were planted way too close to the house, were half dead and just plain ugly and all of the hardscaping was wonky and random. Most of the bushes were spirea and yew, two of my least favorite plants. So that very first summer I tore out a lot of bushes. The previous owners also had built up this weird pile of dirt in the backyard that they surrounded with rocks. It had some firebushes in it, but mostly just weeds.  It looked bad, but I wanted to use what they had already started, so I had a professional come in and build a retaining wall.  The same professional also built a low wall around the garden area the previous owner had started in front of the bay window.  By the way, unless you are actually a landscaping professional, I highly recommend that you spend your money in the hardscaping by hiring a professional.  Otherwise, your project will look wonky and random in a couple of years.

This hardscaping left me with a couple of big empty spots to fill and not a lot of money to do it with, since I just had a professional come in and build the walls. So knowing a little bit about plants, I raided my mom’s beautiful garden filled with hostas and lilies and several different kinds of sedum. I didn’t do pretty job of taking her plants, either. I dug some up, tore some apart and then just stuck them in plastic bags with some dirt and carried them home. I probably didn’t even plant them for several days. Then, when my sister moved out of state three years ago, I dug up some of the purple columbines she had growing all over her yard.


Then there was the clump of chives my friend’s mom gave me a few years ago and the clump of mint my mother-in-law gave me last summer. Hint: Alway pot your mint.  It will take over your yard. I’ve got some hollyhock seeds a friend gave me a couple of years ago.  And so on and so on. Slowly, my gardens started to fill in.

Now, I am not saying I don’t go buy an occasional Perennial. I sometimes can’t resist. It’s not always possible to get the right height or color if you do it the mostly free way. But it would be unusual if I spent more than $10 a year on my flower garden. I always buy low maintenance flowers that I can get a lot of use from and that I can usually divide right away when I plant them.  Or I try to buy when flowers are on sale. For example, it’s only the second week of may and stores already have their potted spring bulbs on sale. I could have gotten roughly ten hyacinth or tulip bulbs for $1.50 at Walmart the other day…come to think of it, I don’t know why I didn’t. They wouldn’t have come up again this year, but then next year, when I forgot all about them, they would have been a delightful surprise.

The beautiful thing about perennials is that many are self-propogated or easily propagated. This is the trick to developing a free or low-cost garden. You buy one purple coneflower and within a couple of years you have dozens–if you want them. That means you can fill in your own garden or someone else’s garden with a little patience. Here are some tips to getting free plants:

1) You can take cuttings of many plants such as thyme, lavender, rosemary, sedum, mint, and sages. Or even bushes like willows, forsythia, lilacs and dogwoods. A cutting is literally cutting off several inches of the plant. Most of these plants will root readily without hormones and can be placed directly in water to root. Many can also be thrown directly into dirt and will survive (sedums, for example, grow like mad!) This is one of nature’s methods of survival, so for the most part, you can take cuttings at any time, though you may have more success at certain times of the year over others. And rooting hormone doesn’t hurt. In fact, it might help. It just means you will spend more money.

You’d be surprised how many plants you can grow from cuttings. If you ever really like a plant or a shrub in someone’s garden, ask if you can snip off a small section and then stick it in some water to see what happens. You may have just gotten a cool free plant. The little sedum below was started just last year from about two inches of cut plant materials.  It will have nice yellow flower in the summer.


2) In many plants with bulbs and fleshy roots, you can often take one plant and divide it so that next year you have several. If you ever dig up a clump of bulbs, you will notice small pieces ready to break off from the larger bulbs, or tiny bulbs that have developed since last season. Asian lilies and grape hyacinth are easy to propagate in this way. Below is just one section of grape hyacinth that I have in my gardens.  I think I originally purchased a dozen bulbs about five years ago.  I have hundreds of these now.  They are an early spring flower and last much longer than daffodils.


Below these lilies self-propagated from last year.  If you can see the small clumps that have begun at the bottom, I could take those and start a whole new section of lilies.  I will probably do that this weekend.


I’ll include Bearded Irises in this section because even though it is a rhizome and not a bulb, it kind of looks like and acts like a bulb.  Each leaf spike tends to come from a bulbous roots.  These are currently the bane of my existence.  I have dozens and dozens of these.  They spread very fast and I am out of space for them.  I either have to start a new garden or start giving them away…or maybe both.

20130510-161809.jpg                      20130510-145826.jpg

3) With plants like lily of the valley or hostas, you just have to dig up one or two plants with roots intact and before you know it you will have many plants. This group of lily of the valley below started as maybe one or two little plants.  I now have a few dozen.


With hostas and lily of the valley, it’s easy to separate, because the plant separates itself for you.

20130510-145135.jpg          20130510-145204.jpg             20130510-161744.jpg

You can see how even though the hosta above  looks like one big plant, it is actually many plants with roots that are interconnected. The hosta I just transplanted in the last photo show this most clearly.  I was able to dig up the plant in parts and put it all back together.  I could also have divided the plant into two or three plants.

In plants that tend to look more like a solid structure, taking a shovel to them can be scary.  But, for the most part, you won’t hurt them. You can divide a lot of plants, such daisies, siberian irises, day lilies, sedum… you literally just take the plant and tear it apart.

20130510-145339.jpg      20130510-145748.jpg

The sedum above is in desperate need of some dirt.  However, the picture shows the top of the root structure and demonstrates how if you took this one plant and divided into the three sections it is naturally giving us, you would have three plants. Also the daisy in the next picture is one big plant, but I could take a shovel to the middle of it and divide it into two individual plants.

Technical, horticulture-y websites say use a sharp knife and to do this at specific times of the year, but, honestly, you don’t have to be that gentle or precise. Plants have many defense mechanisms to make sure that they continue to grow. It is far more important that you treat them well after you plant them then how you go about getting them to the point you can plant them. You can’t let the plants dry out and die after you stick them in the ground. In the siberian iris below, I was tearing some clumps apart to replant and this one came away without any roots.  However, I decided to stick it in the dirt in any case and see if roots would form.  I kind of think they might.


Along these lines, many bushes and trees tend to send up suckers from the roots. You can remove these and start separate plants. Clearly these will take a lot more patience before you get them big enough to use, but it may be worthwhile, especially if you garden is still a work in progress.

4) Many perennials self propagate through seeds. You can try and control this by dead heading and removing the seedheads. If they drop in the garden, they will spread quickly. This little coneflower below has started in the crevasse between my walk-way and the retaining wall. Seeds tend to gather there and every year I have baby plants that sprout up.


If you want to collect seeds (which, of course, you do), make sure the flower head has bloomed and is fully dried. In plants such as columbines, day lilies, and siberian irises, the seeds will literally just fall out of little cup like pods. With flower with spikes, you can usually wait until the flower is done and browned and then shake the sees off the spike.  With larger flower with centers, the seeds are usually left in the middle and sometimes all that is left on that flower stalk after the flower has died.  You can collect them to share or you can collect them to prevent crazy propagation or plan where to plant them. Otherwise, you can’t control where seeds land. The next thing youknow you havepurple coneflower and salvia popping up all over the place. I like to dig these up and keep them in a separate pot until I either know what I would like to do with them, or I know where I can give them away.

So find a friend that really enjoys plants or has spent a lot of money on professional landscaping so you can scavenge plants.  If you are friends with me, I love sharing my plants! Come armed with some dirt and trowels and let’s get to work.  If you are not friends with me, you really should be. I am very nice.  But, you can also talk with a neighbor and exchange two or your purple tulips for two of her yellow ones.   Or tell your friends and family that if they ever feel like buying you flowers, to buy you someone potted so you can replants it (so…not a tropical houseplants, please).

There is a TON of information on the web about plant propagation, but I would encourage you to just try it.  If you like a plant, take a few inches of it and come how and stick it in a vase in the sun. Once it develops a few roots, try putting it in some dirt and watering regularly.

I love this time of year in my garden because it changes every year and I get a first peek at what this year is going to look like.  Below is a small columbine and sedum that popped up.


I get to see what has spread and decide if things need to be moved. Okay, well, that part I don’t exactly love. Gardening can be a lot of work. But I put in the work into my garden because in, like, 20 years, I will havethe perfect garden! A garden is a constant work in progress and is constantly changing.  I live in zone 5, so not all the plants above would work for your zone, but all zones have plants you can propagate.  In fact, your perennials are probably our annuals (which you can also propagate in zone 5, I just don’t bother with annuals).  I would welcome your input and comments.  And seeds.

Pressed Paper Pots

This year I am actually growing some seedlings inside to transplant outside. I bought these Burpee compostable packs for the job.

20130425-195433.jpg20130425-195451.jpg20130425-195459.jpgThey are cheap, about 15 cents each, and go directly in the ground when you are ready to plant. But as I was looking at them, it occurred to me that they are really just pressed paper. If you’ve ever made home made paper on a screen, you’ll understand what I am talking about.


If not, let me explain. You can make that thick, fancy textured paper by shredding paper, blending it to pulp, and pouring out onto a screen and pressing out liquid, then letting it dry completely. The paper will end up having the imprint from the screen. I thought surely I could figure out a way to make these. I didn’t know if I would use the screen…that imprint was just the clue that keyed me on to the idea of making these. The trick would be to be able to mold them.

As I normally do with projects I have an inkling for but no clear direction with, I hit the internet. Surprisingly, I really couldn’t find a precise replica of these. At best, I found methods using newspaper “cups” (really, just taking newspaper and making a flat bottomed cup), toilet paper rolls (almost tempted to use this), paper egg cartons (clever but too small, I thought) and eggshells (cute but impractical) . I was fully expecting a paper mache option to mold your own cups or pots, at the very least. Being unsatisfied and having a rudimentary understanding about how to make paper, I stumbled through this on my own.

I took a couple of cardboard boxes out of the recycling and started tearing them up. I then soaked the cardboard.


While soaking the cardboard, I again researched how to add more structure to the cups. I was afraid that the moment I added water, they would fall apart. I saw some suggestions online about added dryer lint to as a way to make paper. I figured that since it was not paper, it might add firmness to my cups. I went to my dryer and grabbed a thick wad of lint and threw it in my soaking paper. Too late I realized what a bad idea that was…especially if I were actually making paper to give away. My dryer lint is full of cat hair since I have two of the furry little beasts. However, since these were ideally just going in the ground, I was still hopeful the lint–hair and all–would add structure. I added more water and then threw in about a quarter cup of flour on a completely untested theory that it would make the paper harden more (a la paper mâché). I then threw it all in the blender.


Careful if you add lint, the stuff tends to wind around the blades kind of like the underside of a vacuum. When done blending, I then had a bowl of really awful looking stuff.


It felt really gross. Kids would probably love this project.

As I mentioned above, the biggest challenge I faced was how to make pot shapes that I considered big enough plant in. The best solution I could come up with was using these silicone cupcake molds. They were a lot smaller than I would have wanted, but I figured that seedlings don’t get too big before you stick them in the ground. (Based on this thinking, I don’s know why i insisted the egg carton was too small… maybe I just wanted to make pressed paper pots.) I figured that the silicone would peel easily from the dried paper and I wasn’t bringing other waste into the mix. If I hadn’t gone with those, I would have tried to use plastic cups… as long as I was recycling them (saving them from the trash to reuse and/or continued to use them afterwards.) If you go out and buy the plastic cups for the sole purpose of making these and then toss them out afterwards, you’re defeating the purpose of making recycled projects and should just use the plastic cups as planters directly.

The first couple cups I tried to make free form by pressing small sections onto the mold. But then I figured out that I could just use an empty mold to squeegee out the water and help shape the mold I was working on. I made sure to apply to pulp thickly to avoid thin spots and proved enough support.

20130425-195530.jpg  20130425-195535.jpg

The entire process was a bit labor intensive, but in the end I was hopeful. My husband, on the other hand, was very skeptical. I started to blog right away about these, even as my little cups sat there all soggy and sad looking. I told him that I felt confident that they would dry…but I honestly had no idea what would happen once I added dirt and water.

Sure enough, the cups dried beautifully in about three days. I would have liked to have left them outside in the warm sun to dry faster, but it’s April in Illinois, and warm sun is scarce. I might have tried baking them to dry them out more quickly, but I remembered the hairy lint and knew that would be a smelly, bad idea.

Alas, I have not really provided a precise recipe or method, either. More like an idea and a plan. I would love feedback if anyone out there plays around with the idea. I don’t know if the flour and lint are necessary, but I feel that they helped make a sturdier end-product.

It is important for me to consider how cost effective these projects are. But the costs are not all measured in money. I would attempt this project again because I saved money, and found a good use of waste materials, and produced something using no emissions.



I am going to plant them and report back how well they hold up! I hope to soon show you pictures of little seedlings!