Twelve Days of Christmas: #12

Twelve Drummers Drumming

By Anita Van HalRepost from Dec. 25, 2014: Pipe Down to Hear What a Garden Has to Say

By Michael Leach

A dozen piping pipers could be fine in some gardens, but for most of us,IMG_3166 wind chimes and fountains are the only tolerable decibels.

Unless bluejays squawk about a lack of peanuts, the wind roars through frantic tree tops, or a riding mower pretends to be a biker-gang Harley, sound rarely breaks into our consciousness in a garden. That’s largely due to gardens being places traditionally sought for their quiet. Yet a garden can be “noisy.”

The garden’s gentle, subtle tongue speaks in the rustle of leaves. It whispers with the warm breath of breezes caressing our skin. It hums startlingly when a hummingbird whirs past in zigzag swoops.

Colibri-thalassinus-001-editThe garden talks, too, in the silence of fireflies dancing in twilight.

I take for granted some of this “chatter” or worse, block it with a mind too concerned about weeding, watering and countless other chores. We may even ignore our gardens’ soothing comments because we are too busy listing their deficiencies.

A garden blesses all our senses. It wants to be our personal spa and use invisible “hands” to restore our beings as surely as a masseuse eases physical aches. For the garden to heal us, we must let go; then listen to and follow nature’s command.

The garden’s message comes from the Creator who made the first garden, the one we keep trying to recreate. Ours will never be the perfection of Eden, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to the story of paradise. Gardens still speak that same language.

Twelve Days of Christmas: #11

Eleven Pipers Piping

By Anita Van HalRepost from Dec. 24, 2014: The Grass Connection with Woodwinds

By Debra Knapke

I have memories of high school friends sucking on their reeds for their clarinets, oboes and bassoons before a rehearsal or concert. The reeds needed to be pliable, or we would hear the ear-splitting shriek of a squeezed-out note. Little did I know that the little piece of reed would reappear in my life in the form of a large grass that I teach in my plant classes.Arundo donax with Rudbeckia Biltmore 98 resize

Arundo donax or giant reed grass is an impressive specimen in the garden at 10 to 15 feet tall and easily spreading five to six feet wide. I describe it as a “corn plant on steroids.” If you like the look of this structural plant, but don’t have the room, consider using the variegated variety: A. donax var. versicolor, pictured below in a beautiful combination with our native black-eyed Susan. 2 Arundo donax plant Niagara Bot 01 resize

There is a dark side to this plant. In warmer states, there is a clone of giant reed that is invasive. Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia and the southern region of Illinois comprise the northern border of its invasive march. In these states, giant reed has a long enough season in which to produce seed.  For now, Ohio does not have any stands of the invasive genotype, but that will change as global climate change progresses.  Another reason to use the variegated plant: for now, it does not produce seed.

‘Wishing you melodious Christmas music.


Twelve Days of Christmas: #10

Ten Lords A Leaping

By Anita Van Hal

Repost from Dec. 23, 2014: Reach for the sky — to create garden excitement

 By Michael Leach

“Leaping” conjures images of Johnny-Jump-Up doing his jack-in-the-box imitation,  perhaps inspired by a prod from mischievous red-hot pokers. All the while Lord Baltimore the hibiscus looks on in glee and ignites the sky with Fireworks goldenrod and blazing stars.

P1030075Punning aside, “leaping” draws the eye upward. Such vertical elements are must-haves in the landscape, whether we’re talking window boxes or estates. Verticals come in many forms and serve as exclamation points. Like exclamation points, they are used only with utmost care or they lose their punch.

A series of verticals becomes the rhythm of trees in an allee or pillars of a long pergola. Shadows of such verticals transform pavement or lawn into a giant page of notebook paper.

Literally leaping — Water jets, a la Versailles, leap.  Same goes for the humbler fountains in city parks and college campuses.P1030113 But few of us have the means or staff to keep gallons by the gazillions pumping into the air. A pity, for the effect is magical, especially so when illuminated at night.

IMG_3887 Visual leaps also come from accessories, such as arbors, sun dials, tuteurs, sculptures and columnar plants.

A favorite “recipe” — One of the most comforting and soothing combinations for me is a porch swing  hanging from the sturdy limb of a capacious shade tree — the meatloaf of landscaping. The vertical trunk and pair of ramrod chains play a harmonious counterpart to the wide, welcoming horizontality of the seat. Few better places exist for spending a summer afternoon.

Twelve Days of Christmas: #9

Nine Ladies Dancing

By Anita Van Hal

Repost from Dec. 22, 2014: Honoring the Mother Mary

By Debra Knapke

It seems appropriate for this season that we celebrate plants that reference the Mother Mary.

If you see Lady as part of the common name, it is probable that this is a plant that was precious to the Mother Mary.  There are many stories that combine Mary’s love of plants and how they figured in different moments of her life.

Other common names that relate to Mary include virgin and, of course, the eponymous: Mary. In 2004 I was one of many Ohio authors at a book signing event in Cleveland.  We were at tables in alphabetical order.  My table partner was Vincenzia Krymow, author of Mary’s Flowers: Gardens, Legends, and Meditations: Living Legends of Our Lady. We had a delightful time discussing plants, philosophy and life as we waited for someone, anyone, to buy our books.

The plants loved by Mary are beautiful and many are herbal. If you decide that you would like to create a garden that honors Mary, consider these nine plants:

  • Lady’s mantle – Alchemilla mollis –
  • (Our) Lady’s thimble – Campanula rotundifolia
  • Virgin’s bower – Clematis vitalba
  • (Our) Lady’s slipper – Cypripedium calceolus
  • Christmas rose; rose de Noel – Helleborus niger
  • Mary’s dying plant – Lavandula officinalis (L. angustifolia is the valid name)
  • Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Marigold – Tagetes sps. and cultivars
  • Costmary – Tanacetum balsamita

‘Wishing you remembrance and love for this season.

Twelve Days of Christmas: #8

1513-12DaysofChristmasStamps_02 - Copy (3)Reposted from Dec. 21, 2014: 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

Reposted from Dec. 20, 2014: 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 Hal

Reposted from Dec. 19, 2014: Get 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

Five Golden RingsBy Anita Van Hal

Repost from Dec. 16, 2014: Golden Conifers Brighten the Winter Landscape

By Teresa Woodard

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

Repost from Dec. 17, 2014: 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.

  • 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 Christmas Bird Count, Dec. 14 – Jan. 5.

Twelve Days of Christmas: #3

By Anita Van Hal, purchased on Etsy at Just Be YourselfThree Repost from Dec. 16, 2014: 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, 2014 post,, the or

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