Tag Archives: plants

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.

Picky Eaters

I know little bit about plants.  Okay, okay–I know quite a bit about plants, probably more than the average person. Nonetheless, I am still surprised that many people don’t know how to recognize wild raspberry brambles. I always kind of thought that picking wild berries was a rite of passage of any midwestern kid (I am from Illinois). Yet, I get strange, if not horrified, looks from people when I eat berries straight from the bush, or pick mulberries from the tree. It’s almost as if because the fruit is not presented in a plastic clamshell, there must be something wrong with it. I admit, this is sometimes true. Foraged fruit tends to be less pretty than store bought, and sometimes more…I don’t know…insect-y. But this is good! It means the stuff has not been doused with chemicals. And do we really have to talk about what the FDA considers acceptable for insect parts in the processed foods you consume… we can, if you stubbornly insist you never consume insects. But if you are that much in denial, I don’t want to ruin chocolate for you. Back to the subject. Once you get past the fact that food does not all come from the grocery store, you realize that there is a world out there of stuff you can eat!

Since I am not homesteading or living off the grid, I am not going to eat things that I have to boil a couple of times to get the toxins or tannins out, or that I have to douse with butter and and garlic to overcome the bitterness.  I mean, I don’t have to eat this stuff. The point is, I want to eat delicious, healthy things. If they are free and found in nature, then it’s even better.

Some of my favorite things to forage are black raspberries, mulberries, and apples. Remember, I live in the midwest, and these types of fruits abound in the spring and summer.  However, most areas have lots of food that can be foraged. If you have no idea where to start, go to your library and get a book. Or look on-line. You will find a lot of options and the only trick is to decide how adventurous you would like to be. For example, I keep reading cat tails are edible…but I don’t see myself plucking them anytime soon.

Now, I happen to live in an area that has rural areas, conserved areas, and state and county parks and preserves. I have a few go-to places with wide, open fields that I know I have permission to pick and explore.  But beware, you can’t just pick fruit, flowers and seeds from just anywhere.  It may, in fact, be illegal, if not just rude and tresspass-y.  I recently found out, however, that State parks in Illinois allow people in the collect edible “fungi, nuts and berries on Department owned, leased or managed lands where such collection would not be incompatible with resource management activities…and where such collection is for personal use only and not for re-sale.”17 IAC 1/10(a) (3). From what I understand, though, you can’t go off trail to collect it.

Perhaps this is where I should add the disclaimer that there are a lot of poisonous and toxic plants out there. And many plants that are diuretics. And some plants that give you that woo-woo feeling. Please do your research. Do not pick something you do not recognize.  If looking through a book or website does not give you the knowledge you need, attend a program put on by your local university extension office, conservation district, forest preserve, or state park. Or go with a friend that knows a thing or two about plants, and has a few favorite spots for picking!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 2

After the last post on these pressed paper pots I happened to run across this blog called Little Alexander with a post for the seedlings in egg an carton. It’s a fabulous blog with many good ideas. For the post to which I am referring, they used the carton in a not-so-obvious way that made me want to say, “of course!” I thought this post was very clever and was just waiting to read how easy it all was and how much time I had wasted when two perfectly good egg cartons were staring me in the face as I labored over my little paper pots. However, I was gratified to see that some of my latent concerns about the egg carton were a problem in the actual plan. (Click on the title “Little Alexander” above for a link to the post).

AND I was gratified to see that my little project was working.

The above was right after I planted. These being so small, they didn’t hold a lot of water and I always watered slowly so the dirt was able to absorb as much as possible. The picture below was after almost six days. It helped that I planted lettuce seeds because these seeds are planted shallow and come up fast!
In hindsight I would use my second idea of scavenging plastic cups from a meeting or office and using those as my molds. These worked, but were maybe just a bit too small. Check back late next winter to see how the new and improved project turns out, or share your experience with me! This was a great way to turn trash into a functional item.

It’s alive!

Did you know that you could take the top of a pineapple–you know, the part you cut off and throw away–stick it in some dirt and it will grow. And in, like, three years you might get one tiny pineapple.

In my book, this is not worth it. Though it might result in a decorative plant while you await your little tropical beauty, there are many other plants that give you a much quicker return on cuttings.

Many herbs, for example rosemary, mint, thyme and oregano, are easily propagated simply by removing the lower leaves and submerging in water until you see strong roots. No growth hormones required. Mint roots so easily that you could take a handful of cutting and stick them directly in dirt and they will start to take over. Make sure and keep mint contained because it will take over your garden.

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Also, many tropical plants such as pothos, dracaena and the above bromeliad–also known as pineapple–are quick to take root. It’s one of ways they survive in nature. When cut off or pushed over, they simply start taking root. For example below is the pothos. It’s actually a tropical vine and in its natural environment the leaves grow bigger than your head. At home indoors, its often a scraggly, stringy mess. In my opinion, which is possibly supported by science, keeping this plant compact leads to a healthier and more attractive plant. You should take cuttings as the vine gets long. Strip the bottom two to three inches bare of leaves. Note the nodes that you expose. Roots will form from any of those little nodes.

20130328-184854.jpg   I recently received a beautiful tropical bouquet from a friend as a thank-you.  I was delighted when I realized that as part of the bouquet are two plants that will root as they decorate your home in a vase.  In fact, the company intentionally does this…and makes sure you know that you can have a wonderful houseplant after your bouquet has lived its life.  What a fantastic idea.

So when you go to a restaurant and they use a sprig of rosemary or mint as decoration, or you trim your office plant, don’t toss out those parts. You can get a healthy FREE plant with just a little attention.

Even if you already have these plants, they make great gifts. Once they form strong roots in water, you can transfer to dirt. If you tend to keep disposable flower pots, these are great to create a thank you or hostess gift. Be creative on how you cover up the plain plastic pot. But a gift that keeps on giving will be much appreciated.