Twelve Days of Christmas: #8


1513-12DaysofChristmasStamps_02 - Copy (3)Eight Maids A Milking

By Debra Knapke

I have had a love affair with campanulas since I started growing them in the mid-90’s.  Call me fanciful, but their floral cups and stars look like pretty blue skirts in the garden. And, if fairies truly exist, these skirts would be their fancy dress.

Campanula rotundifolia

Campanula rotundifolia

Campanula Chewton Joy

Campanula ‘Chewton Joy’

What does this have to do with Eight Maids a Milking? One of the special characteristics of the bellflower family (Campanulaceae) is that they contain a latex-based, milky sap that either tastes bad to predators or clogs their sucking mouthparts. Think about sipping on a rubber-glove cocktail and you’ll get the idea. A plant has to develop protective mechanisms if it is to survive being eaten by any animal that wants a meal.

Campanula portenschlagiana

Campanula portenschlagiana

Other plants have used this strategy. The milkweed/dogbane (Apocynaceae) and euphorbia (Euphobiaceae) families also contain an unpalatable milky sap.  The poinsettia, one of our favorite Christmas decorations, will ooze sticky droplets from damaged leaves and stems.

I have been told that these droplets are very bitter… I cannot confirm that from personal experience.

‘Wishing you a tasty holiday free from bitter experiences.



Twelve Days of Christmas: #7

Seven Swans A-Swimming

1513-12DaysofChristmasStamps_02 - Copy (2)By Debra Knapke

We have all grown up knowing the story of the ugly duckling in some form. Hans Christian Andersen allegedly stated that this tale came out of his own life because he was the different child, “a tall, ugly boy with a big nose and big feet” (1) who matured into an accomplished singer and swan Kew Lake 9-92 crop

There are other tales that feature one or more swans.  The swan is used as a symbol of transformation, of understanding oneself and finding balance, and of having grace and inner beauty. And like the many other birds, pairs often form life bonds.

In real life, take care when you approach a swan. That gliding beauty may grace you with her presence, but she may just as easily attack, especially if she has young. A 30 pound flying bird with a six to eleven foot wingspan is not an animal to be messed with.

Swanplant (Asclepias physocarpa)

Swanplant (Asclepias physocarpa)

A different swan ornaments our gardens. The swanplant, a tender shrub, is a species of milkweed from South Africa. Its balloon-like seedpod is attached to the stem by a curved pedicel that mimics the graceful neck of a swan. It is difficult to see in the below picture, so you will just have to start it from seed next spring to see it. Sources for swanplant are limited.  One source is

‘May you cultivate inner beauty and find balance this season and in the new year


1 – stated by British journalist Anne Chisholm (2005) in her review of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life by biographer Jens Andersen, published in the US in 2006.


Twelve Days of Christmas: #6

Six Geese A Laying

By Anita Van HalGet Your Goose — But in a Humane Way

By Michael Leach

Six geese a laying — preferably in someone else’s yard. Wildlife-friendly gardens offer many pluses. But as the word wildlife suggests, nature’s creatures can be anything but cuddly cartoon characters. Fraternity toga  parties have nothing on squirrels raiding the bird feeder. And don’t get us started on deer — despite their vital role in at least one Christmas tradition.Wiki Commons


Pull up the welcome mat — A bit of  landscape planning will cook the geese’s garden party. That’s one part of a three-pronged approach to dissuade geese recommended by the Humane Society of the United States.


Landscape changes include: limiting the amount of lawn, which is a favorite food; adding clumps of taller plantings to provide predator hiding places; maintaining stands of trees between water and grass to prevent geese from flying through; and using dense plantings along shorelines as a barrier between food and water.

Addling eggs (there’s a training manual for the proper approach) and humanely scaring the geese are the two other parts of the plan.


Find more help — Visit the Humane Society , where you’ll also find tips for managing Santa’s helpers and those raucous squirrels.

Twelve Days of Christmas: #5

By Anita Van HalFive Golden Rings

Golden Conifers Brighten the Winter Landscape

Gold — the color of extravagance – is a rich addition to the garden, and golden conifers are the perfect choice for this season.  Plant them as shining beacons in a winter-gray landscape, and enjoy their clipped boughs in holiday container arrangements.  During the growing season, use them as accents to dark green corners of the backyard or intermix them with complimentary-colored purple grasses and flowers.

Here are five gold ringers:

  • Golden Korean Fir (Abies koreana ‘Aurea’) – This dwarf conifer is best known for its golden foliage and purple cones.
  • Dwarf Golden Japanese Yew (Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’) – This low-growing Japanese yew features contrasting new, golden foliage against more mature, dark green foliage.
  • Hinoki False Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Aurea’) –This dwarf conifer stands out with its fan-like, golden sprays.
  • Canadian Gold Arborvitae (Thuja plicata ‘Canadian Gold’) – This dense, conical-shaped conifer makes a beautiful hedge with its bright gold foliage.
  • Skylands Oriental Spruce (Picea orientalis ‘Skylands’) – This large, upright spruce features small glossy needles that emerge electric yellow and gradually soften to a rich gold.

Twelve Days of Christmas: #4

Four Calling Birds

By Teresa Woodard

Have you ever wondered what bird is making that caw, screech, cuckoo or who-cooks-for-you sound? Well, celebrate the Fourth Day of Christmas by downloading one of the latest birding apps. A Heartland Gardening favorite is Merlin by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Simply answer five questions and the app will come with a list of possible matches. From here, you can further explore thousands of audio files and images. For beginning birders, the lab offers these tips.

  • Watch and listen. When you see a bird singing, the connection between bird and song tends to stick in your mind.

  • Learn from an expert. It’s much harder to learn bird songs from scratch than to have a fellow bird watcher point them out to you. Check for a local Audubon chapter and join a field trip.  The Columbus chapter hosts a “Birding by Ear” workshop on Feb. 26.

  • Listen to recordings. Start by listening to recording of birds you see often. Play them frequently to make the sounds stick.
  • Say it to yourself. Some songs sound like words like the Barred Owl’s “Who cooks for you?” These mnemonics can make a song easier to remember.

  • Details, details, details. Break the song apart into its different qualities, including rhythm, pitch, tone and repetition. For more info, see the Lab or Ornithology.

Join other volunteers in the National Audubon Society’s 115th Christmas Bird Count, Dec. 14 – Jan. 5.

Twelve Days of Christmas: #3

By Anita Van Hal, purchased on Etsy at Just Be YourselfThree French Hens

By Teresa Woodard

While French hens like our Cuckoo Maran – or even American ones like our Black Javas – might make great gifts, I’m not convinced December is the ideal time for such gift giving.  Yes, these beautiful hens can produce wonderful eggs and rid the garden of weeds and pests. But, here in the Midwest, wintertime is my least favorite season for keeping chickens. IMG_4589

With this November’s early snow fall and cold temperatures, we had to scurry to prepare the coop for winter especially since “our girls” were still growing feathers from their fall molt.  We added insulation for warmth and wind-proofing. Plus, we ordered a water heater and had to keep checking the water bucket for the ice until the heater arrived. In addition, we no longer found eggs in their nesting box and learned they take a break from egg-laying until daylight lengthens again to 14 hours or more a day.  Still, “our girls” do provide plenty of entertainment, especially on sunny days when we turn them loose in the garden to graze on cover crops and peck for grubs.

Consider a gift certificate for an order of spring chicks, and your true love will be delighted when they arrive in the mail in April.  To learn more, see our April 12 post,, the or






Twelve Days of Christmas: #2

Two Turtle Doves

By Anita Van Hal

Winter Bird Notes 

By Debra Knapke

The choice of the turtle dove for the second day of Christmas is significant. Turtle doves form very strong pair-bonds which, I believe, is the basis for their association with love. The turtle dove has two broods a season and two eggs in each brood. Its gentle “turr turr” is a double song. For this bird, good things come in pairs!

The male cardinal immediately catches your eye, but this also makes him more visible to predators.  There is a price for beauty.

The male cardinal immediately catches your eye, but this also makes him more visible to predators. There is a price for beauty.

We see the same pattern in many of our native birds, especially cardinals. I’ve watched pairs face off for the suet and seeds we offer in the winter. Pardon a moment’s rant: I have to take issue with those that say the female is drab compared to the male; I think her coloring is more complex and subtly nuanced.Along with the feeders, my garden is populated with plants that support wildlife. The birds love the fruits of spicebush, chokeberries, rose hips, and the seeds from purple coneflower, native grasses and more. All I need is a water source that stays ice-free in the winter; maybe this year.


‘Wishing you love in this giving season!downey woodpecker on suet crop





Twelve Days of Christmas: #1


A Partridge in a Pear Tree

By Anita Van Hal

Landscape Trend Foretold in Song Lyric

By Michael Leach

Partridges have gone the way of powdered wigs, but producing fruit is uber trendy. From potted herbs on windowsills to towering nut trees in the backyard, edible landscaping is in.

Fruit-bearing plants do double duty. They produce some food, while filling some landscape roles of strictly ornamental plants. Think of strawberries for ground covers, espaliered fruit trees for screens and fences, berries for informal hedges and dwarf fruit trees for accent plants. Almost all can adapt to container growing.espaliered pear great dixter 9-1992 resized

Reduce labor — Because picture-perfect produce takes much work, shorten your to-do list by selecting plants that are resistant or immune to common diseases and pests.

Learn more — Visit:  your state’s extension website, Missouri Botanical Garden ; Chicago Botanical Garden ; Purdue University Consumer Horticulture ; Nebraska Statewide Arboretum ; Morton Arboretum .

Incomplete Garden To-Do List?

20141119_161059Don’t Fret!  Think about what you accomplished.

By Michael Leach

Even as the last leaves cling stubbornly to the trees, snowflakes twirl to the ground. Ah the mixture of seasonal icons that is November, one day autumn, the next winter, sometimes both in the same 24 hours.

Indoors the winter “look” is back, as the houseplants, gathered from their summering grounds on porch and in the garden, recover from their sulk of yellow leaves. As they find a new equilibrium, so shall I. Soon their green leaves and occasional blooms will be pleasant reminders that the gray world beyond the windows will awaken — eventually — from dormancy.

For now, however, the fatigue of a long, challenging growing season makes me more weary than usual at this time of year. A summer of seemingly endless weeding, mowing and trimming back has me thinking nothing new and fresh happened. But a few moments of recollection show this is wrong in several ways. I’m actually ahead on a few projects and you probably are too.

For instance, in the last, desperate acts of cleanup and shut down before the snow, I managed to scrub the pair of recycled-plastic Adirondack chairs to a reasonable whiteness. Instead of dragging out dingy, grayish furniture next spring, they’ll look almost new. Never done that before.

Then there’s the waterlily. Growing in small pool, this plant is perhaps a half century old. Hmm, when was it last repotted?  Reagan may have been president. An undemanding plant to say the least.

Hardy pink waterlily from Lilypons

Hardy pink waterlily from Lilypons

Its ability to remain so long in the same quarters was due to the gradual transformation of the pool area into a deep shade alcove. A mere sprig of bamboo turned into walls and partial ceiling of dense privacy. (Bamboo was a less than perfect solution to screening the unsightly mess of dented cars and attendant debris at the auto body shop that went in next door. Over the years, the business cleaned up its act considerably, while the bamboo continued to grow ever more thuggish.) By the time I hired a crew in the spring of 2013 to cut down a swath bordering the pool, barely enough light penetrated to produce a handful of pitifully small lily “pads” each summer.

Suddenly sunlight poured in much of the day and the grateful lily bloomed repeatedly last summer and again this year. Not surprisingly, the plant outgrew its venerable clay pot. Instead of waiting until frenetic spring 2015, repotting was one of several chores tackled on a busy September afternoon. Viola! I was done with that.

Another revival. Among the bamboo stumps a semi-sunny border is developing. A flat of wee perennials, a few transplanted hostas and three baby variegated red twig dogwoods were IMG_7994wedged in amongst  old bamboo roots, the rebar of the plant world. The newbies are all mulched for winter. I’m done with that.

I’m also done with the fall planting, which included a paltry 200 or so spring bulbs, a flat of pansies that should survive winter for early color and a half dozen or so small shrubs.

There’s more to do this fall, weather permitting, as always. But why fret and stew about an incomplete to-do list  when there’s so much to take pleasure in having accomplished?  I’m done with that. And I hope you are, too.

IMG_3435Share your “done with its”. What accomplishments are you taking pride in? Please tell us.




Book Notes: Three Old Favorites

IMG_0863 resizeBy Debra Knapke

November is a time when I revisit books that are old, and sometimes forgotten, friends. We’ve all heard the dire pronouncements: books are becoming obsolete, the web is killing the publishing industry and more. Yet, in this time of early evenings, colder temperatures and even snow, it is a cup of tea and a good book that are my preferred companions at the end of the day.

Adelma Caprilands[1]

Adelma Grenier Simmons

All three of these writers are also my teachers.  Each has given me pieces of wisdom that have become part of my personal and professional ethics. Each has settled into my garden heart.

How do we choose books? Often it is a catchy title that entices. Herb Gardening in Five Seasons by Adelma Grenier Simmons had me at the title. So what is the fifth season? A season that has a feeling all its own: Christmas. Adelma Simmons wrote this book in 1964 when herbs were beloved by gardeners, but they weren’t the mainstay of gardens as they are now. She brought herbs to the attention to many through her books and her extensive gardens, Caprilands, in Coventry, Connecticut. She influenced my herbal education greatly. Adelma died in 1997 at the age of 93, seven years after I read one of the many reprints of her book.

Rosetta_Shear_Clarkson crop

Rosetta Shear Clarkson

Still on my herbal journey, a year and a half later I found another classic, Herbs: Their Culture and Uses. Rosetta Clarkson penned three books. Magic Gardens (1939) and Green Enchantment (1940) preceded Herbs: Their Culture and Uses (1942). Her style of writing is very personal in all three books. While reading her instructions and advice I felt as if she was talking to me. Rosetta gardened just outside of New York City and along the coast of Connecticut. My favorite of her three books was Green Enchantment, but it has disappeared from my bookshelves; probably lent out and never returned.


Henry Beston

In between these two authors I found and fell in love with another author whose poetic prose took me to the places he described. Another east coast writer, Henry Beston wrote Herbs and the Earth (1935) while on his farm in Nobelboro, Maine. He penned one of my favorite quotes –

“A garden is the mirror of the mind. It is a place of life, a mystery of green moving to the pulse of the year, and pressing on and pausing the while to its own inherent rhythms.”

And, I would like to offer you a quote from Adelma as you contemplate (dread?) the approach of winter:

“The quiet aloneness of winter has a special charm for the herb gardener, and I confess this season is my delight. Through the restless, rushing hours of spring, and the long days of summer that begin at dawn and end with weeding in the twilight, I find myself looking back at the peace of winter and forward to the next one. The winter landscape, bare and stringent, reveals a beauty of form and line that is not visible in the spring and summer.”




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