Window box petunias

My picture today is of a painting I did of  a window box of petunias with sweet alyssum (though the alyssum really appears as an abstract smudge of white).  Sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritime, is one of the favorite flowers of butterflies.

Everyone enjoys seeing butterflies—they bring beauty and charm to the garden.  In the Middle Ages the butterfly was used in paintings to symbolize the soul, a reference to the metamorphosis from caterpillar to pupa to butterfly, analogous to the journey of the soul from heaven to earth and back to heaven.  Many of our heirloom flowers attract butterflies.

If we can make our garden attractive to butterflies, they will come seeking food and breeding sites, and stay for awhile.  Adult butterflies feed only on liquids, nectars of flowers, tree sap from wounded trees and water.  They appreciate the water in mud puddles, which will give them mineral nutrients.

Some flowers attract butterflies more than others.  Simple flowers from which they can easily extract nectar are preferred.  In the spring butterflies are hungry and seek out early flowers such as buttercups, aubretia, perennial alyssum and creeping phlox.  They also like primroses, candytuft, arabis and English bluebells.  Purple flowers are their very favorites, especially sweet rocket, scabiosa and lilacs.  Herbs are very good nectar plants also, including most notably catmint, thyme, lavender and hyssop.  In mid to late summer butterflies will visit phlox, goldenrod, gaillardias and any single daisy-like flower.

There is a famous plant that butterflies love called Buddleia, known by the common name ‘butterfly bush’.  It is tender in USDA zone 4 to 5 in Montana, but will most likely survive the winter in a warm, south facing wall.  In this climate it will die back to the ground and re-sprout in the spring.  The flowers come in a long inflorescence of tiny fragrant blooms in August and keep coming on until frost.  The fragrance reminds me of soda pop.  Butterflies will return to the flowers again and again.

The fall blooming Sedum spectabile is attractive to butterflies as well as to bees.  Both will compete to get to the nectar-filled flowers in September.  The plant likes well-drained soil and a hot spot.  One more favorite is mignonette, a fragrant annual flower easily grown with very fragrant insignificant flowers.  Mignonette was brought from Egypt by Napoleon’s returning military core in the early 1800s.  It is a valuable heirloom, wonderfully scenting a cottage garden.

Actually, the more wild, weedy and meadow-like your garden is, the better to attract butterflies; they will stay and raise their young.  An organic garden is safer for them.  It is best to never spray any pesticides (including OMRI approved ones) in your butterfly garden.  Bacillus thuringensis (BTK), or pyrethrins, or soap sprays will all harm them and/or their young.

Butterflies lay eggs on several plants.  The Painted Lady butterfly will lay eggs on any kind of thistle.  Swallow Tails lay eggs on carrots or parsley, but if you see a caterpillar or two you can move it to a plant of Queen Anne’s Lace where it will get all the food it needs and pupate.  The beautiful Monarch butterflies lay eggs on milkweed.  Other favored plants for butterfly nurseries include: alfalfa, fennel, nettles, clover, vetch, dock, poplar and elm.  Several species need a particular plant for their larvae to eat, and most of these hosts are native plants.

A flower filled, weedy butterfly garden is perfect for anyone wanting a low maintenance garden.  It is wonderful for children and for older people because there is no mowing or weeding.  All of your garden, or just a section of it can be devoted to a colorful, natural butterfly haven.  Other creatures will come as well, and damage from deer will not be as noticeable as in a garden full of introduced, water-hungry plants with big flowers and moist stems and leaves.  Native shrubs and trees might be included as well.

If your climate is dry and fire is a concern, your butterfly garden might be situated away from your home and outbuildings.  Enjoy the beauty and fragrance from nature’s own heirloom garden of butterfly attracting plants.

April Gardening Calendar


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April is another busy month for gardeners; usually a month characterized by ups and downs in temperature.  Keep watch for frosts; protect cold frames with mats if frosts are imminent, and admit air daily as weather permits.  Finish pruning fruit trees if not done, plant grapes; fertilize and prune blackberries.  Check your fruit trees and roses for pests as soon as they bud and leaf out and set out apple pest traps two weeks before bud break.  Weed and amend all your beds now while it is cool and moist.

Finish planting fruit trees, shrubs, roses, and perennials.  This month is a good time to direct sow (where they are to flower)seeds of several flowers: sweet alyssum, cornflowers, carnations, pinks, poppies, stocks, rose campion, Lychnis, columbines, valerian, honesty, foxglove, snapdragons, mignonette, larkspur, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and four-o’clocks.  Perennials still may be divided if weather has not become too warm.  Violets can be divided after blooming and cuttings taken of pansies.  Make cuttings of chrysanthemums, gauras, Helianthus, lupines, Lychnis, Liatris, knautias, saponarias, scutellarias and veronicas.  Dahlias and tigridias may be started inside in cold climates and planted out later after frosts are over, or planted outside if the soil temperature is above 60 degrees F.

Several vegetables can be direct sown if weather permits and it is not too cold: beets, arugula, carrots, caraway, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, dill, fennel, collards, mache, fava beans, cress, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, mustard greens, rhubarb, turnip greens, onions, pasley, parsnips, peas, potatoes, radishes, salsify, scallions, spinach and Swiss chard.  Sunflowers and tomatillos can be sown two weeks before the last expected frost.

Corn may be sown after April 15th in cool maritime northwest climates, or a week or two later in the inland and mountain areas.  Usually corn is sown about 10 days to two weeks before the last frost.  Native Americans of the Hidatsa tribe living in the Dakotas planted sunflowers first, then corn, and after frosts followed with beans and finally, squash.  Sunflowers were grown by themselves in a field, but corn, beans and squash were grown together; with corn in hills of 6-8 and beans and squash vining through.

Vegetables started last month indoors may be planted out this month: the brassicas, parsley, Asian greens, rhubarb and tomatoes; once frosts are over.

Prune established roses before bud break and seal the cuts with water-based glue or wood glue.  This prevents drilling wasps from injuring the canes.  Fertilize organically with Epsom salts, manure or compost, bone meal or rock phosphate, alfalfa meal and seaweed or wood ashes.

A few things maybe grafted now: grapes, hollies, pears, maples, pines and clematis.  Layers can be made of Cotoneaster, Cotinus, Hydrangea, Lavandula, Lonicera and Parthenocissus. 

Enjoy spring!

March Gardening Calendar


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This photo is of a double blue primrose seedling, blooming now in Corvallis, Oregon.

March is a very busy month for gardeners.  Root crops stored from the previous year and planned to produce seed can be planted out late in the month after the soil thaws (cabbages, celery, lettuce, leeks, onions, parsnips).  Planting time will arrive soon, or has already arrived for those of you in mild climates.  Weed and clean borders and vegetable beds, plant perennials, sow seeds of hardy annuals, plant rhubarb, asparagus, sea kale and artichokes.   Plant and/or prune cane fruits and fruit trees (cherries, apples, peaches, apricots, pears, plums, currants, gooseberries, etc.).  Check cold frames on a regular basis, venting as needed and closing the glazing panels at night.  Watch temperatures in the greenhouse also, as March is a month of ups and downs in temperature.  Manure and other organic soil amendments (epsom salts, seaweed meal, alfalfa meal, greensand, bone meal, compost and wood ashes) can be spread over vegetable, fruit, flower and rose beds.  Grape vines can be manured now, leaving space around the stem; treat roses in the same manner.

Many vegetables can be sown indoors now for transplanting out later: cole crops (brassicas), onions, lettuce, peppers, eggplant and leeks.  Some vegetables can be direct sown outside if weather permits and if your soil is not too wet to work: arugula, carrots, corn salad, fava beans, cress, mustard and turnip greens, onions, peas, radishes and spinach.  Celery and lettuce can be direct sown into frames.  Several vegetables and fruits can be transplanted now: raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, asparagus, horseradish, head lettuce, onion sets and plants and perennial herbs.  Make sure your mushroom beds do not get too wet; replace straw if wet.

Potted auricula primroses should be protected from rain and frosts; they will begin to bud soon.  Sow any remaining auricula and primrose seeds.  Herbaceous perennials can be divided and planted now.  Many hardy annual flowers may be sown during March: larkspur, sweet peas, lychnis, nigella, lavatera, poppies, kiss-me-by-the-garden-gate and sweet alyssum.  Inside the greenhouse sow: petunias, impatiens, pansies, alyssum, chrysanthemums, iceplants, portulacas, salvias, snapdragons, sweet Williams, ten-week stocks, mignonette, hesperis, Shasta daisies, hibiscus, lupine and Salvia x superba.

Roses and other shrubs may be layered now, and cuttings may be made of geraniums, myrtles and hydrangeas.  If you want to plant a hedge from seed, now is the time to sow seeds of hawthorns, stone fruits, roses and other hardy shrubs you might like to use.  The young plants can be transplanted out to their permanent positions later.

Happy Spring!




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The quality of your garden soil is an important consideration in growing heirloom fruits, vegetables and flowers as soils come in a wide variety of textures and materials.  Soil texture describes the size of the mineral particles in your soil.  Soil particles in order of size, from smallest to largest, are: clay, silt, fine sand, medium sand and coarse sand.  The ideal garden soil (for most plants) is a loam soil, which carries particles of clay, silt and sand, plus organic matter.

Soil structure refers to the way soil particles bind together to form clumps.  In soils with good structure the spaces between particles are large enough to ensure good drainage but do not dry too quickly.  The best garden soil, loam soil, drains fast enough for root health but retains enough moisture for continued satisfactory growth.  Adding amendments to soils will improve its structure and provide food for beneficial microbes.

Another consideration to address before you add amendments to the soil is to test the pH— the measure of acidity to alkalinity in your native soil.  A pH of 7 is considered neutral and many plants are adapted to this condition.  A pH above 7 is considered alkaline while a pH below 7 is considered acid.  A pH test can serve as a guide to which plants you might be able to grow with ease and others that might be more difficult.  It is easier to make soils more alkaline, but difficult to acidify them.  Even though you may add sulfur or aluminum to your soil to acidify it, the subsoils beneath will remain alkaline and eventually the alkalinity will return, especially if your water is alkaline.  This makes it difficult to grow plants such as camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas (which prefer acid soil) in regions with alkaline soil and water.  Adding lime or crushed shells to acid soils will increase soil alkalinity.

One consideration in growing heirloom plants is to research soil amendment ingredients and practices used in the 19th century, as most of the plants still in existence from that era and before were selected under those soil conditions.  I am an organic gardener using these time-tested methods and believe that building your soil is crucial to long term success.  By amending your soil with such things as greensand, sulfur, bone meal, kelp meal and manure, you will enrich it and create a productive environment for soil bacteria.  You can choose from composted cow, hog or horse manure, alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal and guano or chicken manure to add significant nitrogen to your garden soil.  These all contain small levels of potassium and potash.  Bone meal, hoof and horn meal are excellent sources of potassium.  Kelp meal, wood ashes and greensand are significant sources of potash.  Greensand also contains many trace minerals.  Keep in mind that bone meal is somewhat alkaline and wood ashes are quite alkaline.  Home made compost is always valuable and usually contains a fair amount of nitrogen with smaller mount of potassium, potash and trace minerals.  Another option to improve soil is to plant cover crops and till them under.  Clover, rye, lentils, field peas, vetch and buckwheat are some examples.

This is the time of year to plan for improving your soil.  As soon as the ground thaws you can test the pH and as soon as soil becomes workable (not too wet to dig) you can add amendments.  It is important to learn as much as you can about what type of soil each plant you plan to grow prefers, for long term success.  For example, brassicas (cole crops like cabbage) have fewer pest problems and greater production in slightly alkaline soils.


Antique Zinnias


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The first zinnia species introduced to the United States was Zinnia elegans from Mexico in 1793.  It was a single form; double forms were introduced in 1858.  Zinnia haageana, another Mexican species was introduced in 1876.  A nursery catalog from 1876 sent out by Henry H. Dreer of Philadelphia describes Zinnia haageana as “A double variety of Zinnia mexicana; flowers deep orange, margined in bright yellow.”  These species were crossed together and a wide color range created, as well as new flower forms.  Few old seed strains exist today; the oldest hybrid seed strains I have located are the ‘Cactus’ mix from 1928 and the ‘California Giants’ mix, also from 1928.

In the photos above, the red semi-double zinnia is one I grew this season, of the variety ‘Will Rogers’ from 1940.  The flowers of this strain are most often semi-double, but sometimes fully double.  The flowers are a beautiful warm shade of red.  The other two pictures above show the much smaller flowers of Zinnia peruviana, a species from Mexico with a range extending into South America.  These come in earthy yellow and red shades.

Zinnias can be started indoors if you need to start them early and in areas with cool or short summers transplants can be set out after danger of frost has passed.  The seedlings will need plenty of light in all stages of growth (inside, too) so they will not become thin and floppy.  Seeds can be direct sown about the date of the last frost or later if your season permits.  Zinnias enjoy heat and sun.  Some of the most prolific plants I have seen were grown in the desert Southwest, but they seem to do well in most of the U.S.  Why not try one or two older seed varieties of zinnia?