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

Twelve Days of Christmas: #2

Two Turtle Doves

By Anita Van Hal

Repost from Dec. 14, 2014: 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.

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

Repost from Dec. 14, 2014: 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 .

All I Want For Christmas

By Debra Knapke

If you are wondering what Santa should be bringing to your favorite gardener, here are a few suggestions based on what I would like. Many gardeners would be happy with a load of compost, but if you want to give something that lasts longer, here are a few suggestions.

1. Pruners:Corona Tools has some of my favorite pruners and saws for money-conscious gift-givers. Try the FlexDIAL® ComfortGEL® Bypass Pruner at 3/4 inch. Notice it has bright orange handles.

Retail varies from $27.00 to $35.53 depending on the dealer.

2. Soil Knife:AM Leonard carries a version of the tool that goes everywhere with me, the soil or perennial knife.  You can choose the Classic or the Deluxe style, and if you add a sheath, then your giftee will be less likely to lay it down in the garden and lose it!

Retail for the classic is $19.99; $29.99 with the sheath. Retail for the Deluxe is $23.99; $31.99 with the sheath.

3. Forged Trowel: DeWitt of Holland makes beautiful hand tools for that special gardener in your life. Who needs diamonds when you can have one of these forged works of art? Warning: the wooden handle will disappear in the garden. Ask me how I know.

Single tools or combination sets are available online and at your local garden centers; cost varies with the tool.

4. A compost bin is also on the wish list, so I can compost my vegetable scraps from the kitchen. My Mother’s Day redwood compost bin, a gift from approximately 16 years ago, has finally fallen apart.

For your favorite gardener, you can build one from old wood pallets, but know that they will breakdown quickly. If you build a bin system, please do not use treated wood. There are plans on the web for building compost bins made of wood, wire and plastic.

If you are not the handy type, there are many types of compost containers to buy made out of metal, plastic and wood. Retail cost can be as low as $29.99 to over $400.00. Check out the Mantis compost tumbler ($299) and the Ecostack composter ($128).


5. Garden Gloves: For your favorite gardener, please be aware that gloves can be difficult to buy for someone else, so do your homework. Look at the gloves your giftee uses. I suggest several pairs in bright colors . . . remember about losing things in the garden? For gardeners who actually use gloves and garden-hardy, each pair may last a month or so. Favorite glove brands include West County Gloves, Fox Gloves and Bamboo Gardener. Also consider nitrile gloves for working in wet places or rose gloves for the rosarian in your life.

7. Time: Offer a coupon of your time to work with your gardener in the garden. Or hire some help at the beginning of the season. Find out which tasks are onerous – spreading mulch? – and find a local landscape professional to do the job.

6. Heartland Gardening book:  I’m definitely giving copies of our book “Heartland Gardening: Celebrating the Seasons” to several friends. Our blog book is a collection of gardening lessons and meditative essays woven among beautiful images and illustrations. The book leads readers through the region’s heralded seasons, offering tips for favorite plants, recipes for beloved edibles, plant design ideas and advice for top garden destinations.        

8. World Peace: I can’t think of a better place to practice peace and love than a garden. 

Wishing you all a beautiful and balanced holiday!!!

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