Saturday, June 30, 2007

07.01.07 POKED

The amazing poke plant, Phytolacca americana, has shot up along the roadsides. Now three to four feet tall. its delicate flowers have just begun to appear.

06.29.07 "BEAN TREES"

The catalpa blossoms have fallen and those successfully pollinated have grown into great long pods. The giant heart-shaped leaves and the sturdy foot-long pods make this tree a favorite of kids playing in the backyard. The children know this tree as the "bean tree."


This beautiful dill flower, Anethum graveolens, is blooming in the herb garden outside the kitchen door. The dill plant has been used as an herb in the kitchen and for medicinal purposes since ancient times.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

06.28.07 BUSTED!

I couldn't figure out why there were no seed shells scattered about after the varmints attacked my newly planted cucurbitae pots. Well yesterday I saw the suspect out reconnoitering for more, and all was made clear. It was a fastidious chipmunk, five-lined or four-lined (depending on who is doing the counting), Tamias rufus, who snarfeled away all my seeds, shells and all, into his capacious cheeks for storage in his seed and grain silo!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

06.27.07 QUENCH

We are only one week into summer, yet the dry time is here in a serious way. Occasional thunderstorms wet the surface of the garden and the cool mornings drop the dew, but otherwise soaking moisture is rare. In this area we depend on thick mulch to keep the surface of the garden cool and moist. The drought tolerant plants send their roots deep and use special strategies to reduce transpiration through their leaves. Living at the base of these huge mountains, our well is blessed with a huge natural reservoir which carries us through most any summer (knock, knock on wood!). So I spend a little of that mountain water on the tender herbs this morning.

Monday, June 25, 2007


It is not easy growing members of the gourd family, cucurbitaceae, around here. Planted this late in the summer an insect known as a borer hollows out the stems of the plant making it difficult to impossible for the vine to produce much. This is unfortunate since we all love the melons, pumpkins, squash, zucchini, and cucumbers in this tribe. I read recently about staying ahead of the borers by planting the seeds in a protected area in pots and then after transplanting to the garden keeping the plants under row cover cloth. Thought I would try it. I started my plants on the front porch. After a week or so had gone by, I saw no growth in my pots, just bits of dirt pushed around. I checked and every seed had been stolen by either a bird or a four-footed varmint! Here I am replanting them all to start in an even more protected location!

06.24.07 HUMMERS

It’s dangerous to sit on the front porch these days. The hummingbirds swoop and buzz about like tiny Harrier jets jostling for position at the fueling stations. They energetically shove each other out of the way like hockey players. They chirrup and threaten and bully. We are very fortunate hummingbirds aren't any larger than they are! We only have one species of hummingbird in this part of the country on a regular basis, the ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris. But it is a dandy with a bright red patch of feathers which it can flash "on" or "off" as it feels the need. One wonders if even this color behavior is bellicose as well.


I have tried many different systems to hold my tomato plants off the ground. (One year I actually just left them to sprawl on the straw mulch. Resulted in a lot of rotten tomatoes!) I have carefully tied each plant to a six-foot tall stake with shreds of old t-shirts and concientiously removed all the suckers. I have made my own tomato cages out of fencing mesh. I have built elaborate trellis systems. But this is my current favorite. I copied it from a friend’s garden down the road. It uses fewer supports than staking each plant and the plants need very little tying up since they mostly flop over the middle support. (I tie the errant tomato branch up to keep things tidy and make picking easier.) This bed is five feet by ten feet and is home to eighteen tomato plants in three rows of six. I should get a lot of tomatoes to freeze from this one bed if the bugs and the weather cooperate! (How about that happy corn behind the tomato bed!)

Friday, June 22, 2007


The cattails, Typha genus, in a friend’s water garden are beginning to bloom. Cattails were utilized by native americans for dozens of things, rushes for weaving mats, flower fluff for starting fires and for an insulating padding, and different parts of the plant for food. In the twentieth century the term "chemurgy" was coined for the science of preparing industrial products from agricultural raw materials. There is no doubt scientists will find many uses for this amazing plant. This blog's title, "cattail chemurgy" is borrowed from a nature bulletin of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County written in April of 1971 and now available, by unknown means, on the web!


The elderberry bush we planted several years ago grows with great vigor. It is now blooming and has helped us recognize the many stands of elderberry blooming in the wild.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


The machine on my desk linking me to the world's information reports that the sun will its highest point in the sky for us today at 2:06 pm EDT. Likewise, the farmer’s almanac calendar on the kitchen wall indicates that both yesterday and today are 14 hours and 19 minutes long and that sunrise is at "4:52 am" and sunset at "7:11 pm." (The farmer’s calendar also reports that these two days will be good days for fishing although Tuesday and Saturday are poor!)

Searching for something sweet for my morning cereal, I am reminded that the currants have ripened, both red and white. These tiny, jewel-like berries are a tasty gift on this climactic day.

(As much as the solstice is a day of achievement, it is also a sad day for my spirit. For the next six months daylight will grow shorter bringing us to the depths of winter. The shortening days in the midst of the hottest time of year feels like such an unnatural conincidence.)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Monumental mulleins, Verbascum thapsus, are climbing tall and breaking into bloom. I first learned of this plant as a child in Germany where it is called "konigskerze." It is not hard to imagine dipping the dried flower stalks into tallow and using them as torches or "candles." This plant immigrated to America with the Europeans and had already become a common weed by the early nineteenth century when this watercolor of Monticello's west lawn was painted.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


"Nose twisters," the literal meaning of the word "nasturtium," (Tropaeolum majus), adorn our front porch’s flower boxes. Their festive colors and attitude attract more than just my eyes as the bees come to visit, their weight causing the delicate flower to bow down in submission as the pollinator dives within. They remind me of the garden of Anne Spencer from Lynchburg, Virginia. An African American poet of the Harlem Renaissance whose back flower garden was her constant muse and quiet refuge, she wrote a beautiful poem to the nasturtium. Here are several lines:

Day-torch, Flame-flower, cool-hot Beauty,
I cannot see, I cannot hear your flutey
Voice lure your loving swain...

Sunday, June 17, 2007


More color appears in the pastures and along the roadsides as the thistles, Cirsium genus, begin to bloom bright purple. A very attractive flower in shape and color, it is a noxious weed to farmers. It survives cutting and must be dug out by the root. We all know it as the national symbol of Scotland, Wikipedia reports that it achieved this status because of the favor it gave the Scottish people. A soldier in an invading army purportedly stepped on one, howled, and alerted the Scots who successfully repelled the interlopers.

06.17.07 MILKWEED

The roadside now also offers up plenty of milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. This big gaudy mass of blooms attracts many different insects which provide pollination. As a child I was very fond of the strange spiney pods which hung from these plants in the fall and winter, especially when they cracked open and hundreds of beautiful ”parachutes” floated in the breeze. The down from these flying seeds has been reported to be an insulator as effective as goose feathers. This time of year, though, the entertainment comes from the monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus, which use this plant as a nursery for their eggs and larva.

06.16.07 A BLACK FLOWER?

The hollyhocks, Alcea rosea, have begun to shoot up their tall spires. Beautiful, big flowers bloom from these stalks. In New Mexico I was amazed at how their dried stalks of laddered buttons had become a desert icon used in interior design. Ours, labelled "black,” have just begun to bloom. The hollyhock grows just as well on the roadside and I am always saddened when their fortnight of joyful exuberance is cut short by the highway department mowing crews.

Friday, June 15, 2007

06.15.07 GOLDEN RAIN

In 1809 Thomas Jefferson received seeds from a good friend in Paris of a tree which had recently been imported to Europe from China. The golden-rain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, is a small tree with beautiful golden flowers in midsummer and interesting seedpod structures in late summer and fall. Jefferson planted it at Monticello, some say introducing it to the United States, and the rest is history. Although the tree is relatively short-lived, its descendants still thrive on Monticello mountain and their offspring have spread down the hill to the Belmont community of Charlottesville.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

06.14.07 WHAT'S MY NAME?

In reading about the "Mimosa" tree which has just begun blooming in our town, I learned that it is actually NOT a Mimosa at all. Although it was once included in the genus Mimosa, it is now classified as Albizia julibrissin, the Persian Silk Tree. In Iran and Japan it is known as the "sleeping tree" for its habit of folding and bowing its leaf clusters in the evening. It is another invasive plant, introduced originally as an ornamental. In our area it is known as a "weed tree" for its tendency to pop up anywhere and have a relatively short life span. In spite of its unfavorable resume, its soft pink flowers are beautiful floating on the tree in June.

Monday, June 11, 2007


I am happy to see that my two youngest hens, a pair of Mille Fleur bantams, have begun to feel maternal. They have been sitting patiently upon the eggs laid in the nest box for a week now. I have marked four large eggs laid by the Rhode Island Reds (who could care less about being mothers), and hope that these Mille Fleur's will hatch us some new hens. Cross your fingers that we don't get any more roosters!


The maples are famous for their helicopter seeds, but another of my favorites is the American Linden tree, Tilia americana. It makes some big one winged-helicopters with round seeds suspended below. Here they are coming in to bloom. This tree is the source of basswood, which I recently discovered is an excellent wood for making woodcut prints. The tree is also called "Lime Tree" eventhough it has no relation to the citrus trees at all.

06.11.2007 EVENING STAR

This "Evening Star" is actually the planet Venus. Much closer to Earth than any star, when you look closely you will notice that it doesn't really twinkle like a star and that it has real dimension. We see it now setting in the western sky just after sunset.

06.10.2007 STINKY BLOOM

Yes, its true, that noxious smell that overwhelms you as you turn the corner in your neighborhood is a tree. The chestnuts are coming into bloom!


The wild daylilies, Hemerocallis fulva, have begun flowering everywhere they have become naturalized. These big hardy blossoms can't be missed. The magnificent blooms each last but one day, but fortunately there are enough buds that we can celebrate summer's arrival for several weeks. Another "invader," daylilies jumped from the home garden to the roadside shortly after their introduction to America from England in the 1600s.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


These peculiar blossoms are the tiny yellow blooms of an asparagus plant. After harvesting about half of the shoots from the asparagus bed for the dinner table, we have left the other half to grow and strengthen the plants for next year. If you look at the photo closely you can see some small slug-like creatures crawling on the foliage. I am willing to bet these are going to soon be asparagus beetles.


The early raspberries, variety "Reveille," have begun to produce. Oh, glorious summer! I am reminded of a garden I learned of in Scotland cared for by the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. He calls it a "Raspberry Republic.”


I return from my trip to find the garden is producing bountiful spring harvests. The spinach is still good enough to pick even as the plants just begin to bolt upward to blossom. Peas, peas, and more peas! The snow peas and sugar snap peas provide enough to start freezing for later. And then of course, the beloved broccoli, begun inside away back in February, is now ready to cut and eat!


My favorite plant in the garden is the blackberry. I found a wonderful thornless variety, “Chester,” in a mail-order catalog seven years ago. It sends up huge canes with delicious giant blackberries. We have enough berries from three plants to freeze for our entire family all winter. It blooms later than the wild blackberries with a larger flower which has pink petals instead of white.


Look closely at this beautiful blooming tree in our neighborhood and you will see the gorgeous orchid-like blossoms. In the summer these blossoms turn into foot-long bean-like pods. Take a second look at this photo and see if you can find my neighbor's Brahma Bull, Bruno.


The onset of summer also brings the blooms of the beautiful Oakleaf Hydrangea. Southern homes often frame the flowing shadows of their lawns with these majestic blossoming bushes.


Spending a couple of days in the big city, I notice that summer in the South has truly begun. The giant Magnolia grandiflora blossoms have opened with a fragrance that will stop you dead on the sidewalk.