Surface Composting: The Simplest Way to Compost

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Surface composting is not very esthetic, but it works! Photo: http://www.lesjardinsduclosjoli.fr

In this day of dedicated compost bins and carefully planned layers of brown and green materials, surface composting almost comes across as something radical and innovative. Yet, it’s the oldest form of composting, the ones our farming ancestors used, and it’s so simple to carry out.

The technique couldn’t be easier: just toss your decomposable waste into the garden, around the plants that grow there. No need to bury it (although you can do that too, but then it becomes trench composting): just let it rot (the less polite term for decompose) where it falls. And as it decomposes, it feeds the soil in minerals and the soil will in turn feed your garden plants. Yep, just like regular composting, but with fewer steps.

In the old days, farmers harvested the edible parts and left the rest to rot where it lay. Photo: http://www.waldeneffect.org

In the ancestral form of surface composting, farmers harvested plants, cut off the edible parts to bring back to the family, and just tossed the residues back onto the ground. The residues would then decompose and feed the soil for next year’s crop.

Just put kitchen scraps in the vegetable garden. Photo: donotdisturbgardening.com

In the modern version, surface composting is mostly used for vegetable and kitchen scraps as well as weeds. Not living perennial weed roots (more on how to handle those below) or weeds with seeds that could root or sprout and cause problems, but annual ones nowhere near maturity. Or leaves of perennial weeds. Spread the scraps fairly thinly, no more than an inch or two (2 à 5 cm): too thick and there might be some smell.

When Mulching Equals Surface Composting

If you’re been using leaf mulch, you’ve been surface composting without knowing it. Photo: mgofmc.org

You may already be surface composting without knowing it. When you spread straw, chopped fall leaves or shredded tree residues that have gone through a chipper shredder (this is officially knowing as ramial chipped wood) over the garden as a mulch, it’s actually a more sophisticated and attractive form of surface composting. After all, such mulches do decompose over time and you do have to keep topping them up with fresh material. And, of course, they enrich the soil just as compost does. So, mulching with decomposable products therefore is a form of surface composting. 

Esthetics Be Damned!

Basic surface composting with vegetable scraps and weed bits is not a technique for prissy gardeners who want perfectly manicured gardens. After all, you’ll see kitchen scraps sitting out in full view, bright orange carrot peels, moldy vegetables, etc. It’s likely you’ll mostly be doing surface composting in the vegetable garden, though, and who really cares what the ground between vegetables looks like? Or do it in the farther corners of your flower garden where it won’t be noticeable.

Some gardeners remove their mulch, put down the scraps, and cover them with mulch again. That solves the esthetics problem, but it’s also extra work. I just toss the materials on top of the mulch and let Mother Nature take care of it. Earthworms come out at night and pull bits of material down under the mulch. If you’re patient, you can actually watch them do it. Fascinating!

Killing Roots and Rhizomes First

Hang weeds with invasive roots in shrubs and trees until the sun kills them. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

You don’t want to drop living roots and rhizomes of invasive perennial weeds onto bare ground. If you do, they’ll soon reroot and start a new invasion. So, dry them out first, laying them in the full sun until they’re thoroughly dead. This will take a few days (even longer in rainy weather), but exposition to the air and solar radiation will kill even the most persistent roots. I just hang this kind of weed on the branches of trees and shrubs or the foliage of tall perennials or vegetables. By the time they’re so light the wind knocks them to the ground, they’re dead and ready to decompose. And I just let them decompose where they fall.

What About Varmints?

I’ve been surface composting since I was a child and have never had a problem with rats, skunks, groundhogs or other mammalian pests rummaging through the surface compost. (Nor have any of the above ever visited my actual compost bin.) Sometimes I see birds pecking through the refuse, probably going after fruit flies and other insects, but mostly, I just see earthworms and even then, only when I go out at night. They seem to love surface compost. 

Annoyingly, groundhogs go right past my decomposing scraps to dine on my still-living vegetables. I guess fresh vegetables are just tastier!

Surface Composting Dos and Don’ts

Just drop any vegetable leaves you won’t be eating back into the garden. Photo: potagerdurable.com
  • Do add anything from the vegetable garden you won’t be eating, just dropping it to the ground between the plants: carrot leaves, insect-damaged leaves, rotten or damaged fruits, tomato and bean stems at the end of the season, etc.
  • Don’t add anything tough that won’t decompose readily, like woody branches and corn cobs;
  • Don’t add dairy, eggs, meat or bones might attract rats and other animals;
  • Do chop up kitchen scraps finely for fast decomposition (I run them through the blender);
  • Don’t drop diseased plants and leaves in spots where you’ll be growing the same vegetables the following year (put them elsewhere);
  • Do add lawn clippings (if you don’t grasscycle);
  • Don’t add seed heads or flowers from weedy plants: they might self-sow.

Surface composting: I suspect most gardeners already do it to a certain degree, but now you have a name for it.

Just Ditch Those Floppy Peonies

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There is no need to put up with bad behavior from junk peonies. Photo: behnkes.com

I’ve never liked floppy peonies and never saw the point of growing them. I mean, the least you should be able to expect from a plant is that it stand up all on its own! Yet, generations of gardeners have been growing peonies that have no more tonus than a lettuce leaf. The slightest wind and down they come. And heaven forbid it should rain! 

Of course, the peonies in question are all “old favorites”; ancient varieties carried forward from generation to generation to plague new gardeners. You’d think we’d have abandoned them ages ago, but no. Even as peony hybridizers have put in countless hours developing superb varieties with strong stems, we gardeners keep on ignoring them. There are maybe 150 or so floppy peonies and nearly 5,000 strong upright ones, yet what do we grow? One has to wonder if this growing of weak-stemmed plants is not a horticultural form of self-flagellation. 

Why Peonies Flop

Typical garden peony. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

The floppy peony contingent was largely developed between the mid 1800s and early 1900s. Back then, peonies were grown mostly as cut flowers and long-stemmed varieties were considered highly desirable. Since cut flower operations of the time grew their flowers in greenhouses where there was no wind or rain, stem strength under garden conditions was simply not an issue.

By the 1900s, though, peonies were becoming popular garden plants as well and many cut flower growers began selling their surplus floppy peonies to home gardeners. Since staking was considered “the way to grow peonies,” there were few complaints. Well, at least, not from the average home gardener. People just expected to have to stake their plants. 

But serious peony growers were aghast at the situation. Peony societies began sprouting up here and there (the American Peony Society, for example, was established in 1903), largely to promote the development of peonies “as a garden plant,” i.e. peonies that don’t flop. And this stimulated a great deal of interest in the hybridization of sturdy peonies. 

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Krinkled White’ has been growing in my own garden for over twenty years now. I’ve never felt the need to stake it. Photo: parklandpeonies.com

But the newer, sturdier peonies cost more than the mass-produced floppy ones and made little headway on the market. Even today, the average peony sold in garden centers is a pre-20th century variety mass-produced in China by underpaid workers and sold cheaply. It’s hard to beat those prices! 

But why don’t the Chinese update their varieties? Because they’ve been growing the same ones for over a century and they still sell! Their attitude seems to be: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Peony Myth

You often hear the belief that only double peonies flop and that single varieties need no staking, but that’s incorrect. True enough, double flowers are heavier and need sturdier stems than the average single-flowered peony, but there are hundreds of double peonies that have the sturdy stems required and need no staking. You just have to buy the right ones.

You Want Floppy Peonies?

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Madame Édouard Doriat’ (1924) is a typical example of a turn-of-the-previous-century peony and flops like crazy.

Floppy peonies are easy to find. Chances are your local garden center carries almost nothing else. Here’s a list of floppy peonies. Take it to your garden center and see how many of these it has on offer. 

  • Paeonia lactiflora ‘Alexandre Dumas’ (1862) 
  • P. lactiflora ‘Albert Crousse’ (1893) 
  • P. lactiflora ‘Auguste Dessert’ (1920) 
  • P. lactiflora ‘Alexander Fleming’ (‘Doctor Alexander Fleming’)
  • P. lactiflora ‘Duchesse de Nemours’ (1856) 
  • P. lactiflora ‘Félix Crousse’ (‘Victor Hugo’) (1881)
  • P. lactiflora Festiva Maxima’ (1851)
  • P. lactiflora ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ (1858)
  • P. lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfeld’ (1908)
  • P. lactiflora ‘Madame Édouard Doriat’ (1924)
  • P. lactiflora ‘Monsieur Jules Élie’ (1888)
  • P. lactiflora ‘Marie Lemoine (1869)
  • P. lactiflora ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (1869) 

Spend More Now, Save Later

Paeonia lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’ is a rare example of a sturdy peony that is not that hard to find in garden centers. Photo: purepeonies.com

Why not avoid the effort of staking and plant peonies capable of standing on their own? They often cost more because they’re produced on considerably lower scale than Chinese imports, but end up costing less … if you consider that “time is money.” Less time spent installing stakes then removing them in the fall, then replacing them in the spring, ad infinitum, means you have more time to enjoy your peonies than struggling to keep them looking good.

Among herbaceous peonies, here are some that are sturdy and beautiful, certainly outdoing the old-fashioned floppy ones. And most Itoh (Intersectional) peonies and tree peonies likewise need no staking. 

  1. P. lactiflora ‘Alexander Woolcott’
  2. P. lactiflora ‘Athena’
  3. P. lactiflora ‘Athens’
  4. P. lactiflora ‘Big Ben’
  5. P. lactiflora ‘Blaze’
  6. P. lactiflora ‘Bowl of Beauty’
  7. P. lactiflora ‘Bride’s Dream’
  8. P. lactiflora ‘Bu-Te’
  9. P. lactiflora ‘Buckeye Belle’
  10. P. lactiflora ‘Claire de Lune’
  11. P. lactiflora ‘Cora Louise’
  12. P. lactiflora ‘Coral ‘n Gold’
  13. P. lactiflora ‘Dandy Dan’
  14. P. lactiflora ‘Do Tell’
  15. P. lactiflora ‘Dublin’
  16. P. lactiflora ‘Etched Salmon’
  17. P. lactiflora ‘First Arrival’
  18. P. lactiflora ‘Flame’
  19. P. lactiflora ‘Garden Treasure’
  20. P. lactiflora ‘Gary Paree’
  21. P. lactiflora ‘Gold Standard’
  22. P. lactiflora ‘Jacorma’
  23. P. lactiflora ‘Julia Rose’
  24. P. lactiflora ‘Kiev’
  25. P. lactiflora ‘Krinkled White’
  26. P. lactiflora ‘Laura Dessert’
  27. P. lactiflora ‘Lavender’
  28. P. lactiflora ‘Le Charme’
  29. P. lactiflora ‘Madrid’
  30. P. lactiflora ‘Mahogany’
  31. P. lactiflora ‘Moscow’
  32. P. lactiflora ‘Nice Gal’
  33. P. lactiflora ‘Oslo’
  34. P. lactiflora ‘Paula Fay’
  35. P. lactiflora ‘Pink Hawaiian Coral’
  36. P. lactiflora ‘Red Red Rose’
  37. P. lactiflora ‘Rome’
  38. P. lactiflora ‘Roselette’
  39. P. lactiflora ‘Roy Person’s Best Yellow’
  40. P. lactiflora ‘White Sands’

Where to Find Sturdy Peonies

If your local garden center sells only junk peonies, why not get yours from a peony specialist? Most sell by mail order, so you can get top quality, non-floppy peonies no matter where you live. The better sources include hints about the peony’s stem in their descriptions: “sturdy stems”, “strong stems”, “no staking needed”, “good growth habit”, “Staking: no”, etc. And if you’re not sure, ask before you buy: these companies know their peonies and will be pleased to help.

Here are a few nurseries to try:

United States:

Peony’s Envy
Peony Farm
White Flower Farm

Canada:

Dutch Girl Peonies
Pivoines Capano
Parkland Perennials

United Kingdom: 

Bennison Peonies
Kelways
Primrose Hall Peonies

Australia:

Spring Hill Peony Farm
Van Diemen Quality Bulbs

Sturdy peonies: they’re out there and they’re garden worthy. You won’t regret trying them in your own garden.

Article adapté from one originally published on June 27, 2015.

The Gentle Giant

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The cup plant is big and beautiful. Photo: meadowviewfarmandgarden.com

The gentle giant I’m referring to is a very large and very attractive, easy-to-grow perennial called the cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum). You commonly see it in botanical gardens, but not as often in home gardens and I think it’s time to change that, so I’m sharing here what I know about this stunning goliath.

Distribution of the cup plant in the wild. Ill.: plants.usda.gov

In the wild, the cup plant found throughout much of eastern North America. Once limited mostly to moist prairies, flood plains and open woodlands, it’s one of those plant that has greatly profited from human intervention. As the great eastern forests were cleared and farmland installed, it moved into hedgerows and ditches and settled in along railroad tracks. 

This plant is easily recognizable by its huge opposite dark green and shiny leaves, triangular in outline, because they are perfoliate, that is to say that they are welded together at the base, which gives the impression that they are pierced by the thick stem which is, curiously, winged and square. No other plant looks like that, guaranteeing a rapid identification.

Birds and Bees

The water-filled cup of the cup plant. Photo: http://www.prairiemoon.com

The toothed leaves arch up and out, creating a cup at the base of the conjoined leaves where rainwater collects. This depression that fills with water gives the plant its common name: cup plant. The cup appeals very much to birds, who can drink from it or even bathe in the water without having to land on the ground (always risky for birds, since most of their predators are terrestrial). And it makes a great lesson in ecology to share with young children. Your project could be “today, let’s plant a birdbath.” 

American goldfinch delecting the seeds of a cup plant. Photo: http://www.biodiversitygardening.com

In addition, birds, especially goldfinches, also appreciate its seeds, produced in October. So, it’s a great plant to use if you want to attract birds to your garden.

The cup plant is very popular with bees of all sorts. Photo: http://www.biodiversitygardening.com

But the flowers also attract butterflies and, especially, bees. Bees of all sizes and shapes visit the nectar-rich flowers, including honeybees. In fact, in Germany it is becoming more and more popular as a honey flower, especially useful because the plant blooms for such a long time (2 months and more) and its nectar produces a honey of excellent quality.

Compass Plant

The leaves are set at right angles and point to the 4 cardinal directions. Photo: http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info

Note too that the pairs of leaves are always placed at right angles and legend has it that they always point to the four cardinal directions, hence its other common name: compass plant, one it shares with other plants in the genus Silphium. I’m not sure how you could use this living compass to find your way home if you get lost in your garden, though.

Giants Need Space

The cup plant does take up a considerable amount of space in the garden. Photo: http://www.bartonarboretum.org

I said the cup plant was a giant and I’m sure most people would agree with me. When in bloom, it measures between 6 to 10 feet (180 to 300 cm) tall and 3 to 4 feet (90 to 120 cm) wide. If you space plants about 30 to 40 inches apart (75 to 100 cm), you can create a beautiful perennial hedge! Given its size, it’s otherwise mostly used as a background plant for large perennial borders or as a stunning stand-alone plant. Its thick stems are very robust and therefore no staking is normally required.

The flowers are typical for a plant in the daisy family. Photo: Annette Meyer, Pixabay

The inch-wide (2.5 cm) flowers borne in dense clusters at the top of the plant are typical of those of the Asteraceae family (daisy family): an inflorescence composed of hundreds of florets forming a central disc which is surrounded with elongated yellow ray flowers. As a result, the bloom resembles a small sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and that plant is, indeed, a close relative.

Given the height of the plant, the blossoms are something you have to look up to see. It starts to bloom from late June in the South to the end of July in the North and usually continues into September.

The flowers do differ from those of a sunflower in one odd way. While the sunflower produces male and female flowers in its disc (and thus fills in with seeds) while its ray flowers are sterile, the florets in the center of a cup plant bloom are all male and produce no seeds, but instead the ray flowers are all female. As a result, seeds form all around the flower head rather than in the center.

How to Grow a Gentle Giant

Look up to see the flowers. Photo: mowildflowers.net

The cup plant prefers full sun, although it will readily tolerate partial shade. It likes deep soil that is always a bit moist, which is why, in the wild, it’s often found growing in ditches and along rivers and streams. Despite this, thanks to its long taproot, a well-established plant (3 years old or greater) will be quite drought-tolerant … as long as the drought doesn’t last all summer!

It adapts to pretty much any soil: clay, sand or loam, rich or poor, acid, neutral or alkaline. It’s also a very long-lived plant, essentially permanent: you sometimes find specimens in old gardens that are over 50 years old!

Not much fertilization or indeed any special care seems necessary: it pretty much takes care of itself.

As for cold hardiness, I’ve seen it listed as hardy to USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCan zones 4 to 8), but I see it growing happily a full zone colder. 

If you find it too large, pinch it back hard in June (see the article Time to Pinch Back Floppy Perennials) and that will reduce its height by about a third.

Finally, the cup plant doesn’t seem prone to disease or insect pests and, in general, deer tend to avoid it.

So, all you have to do is plant your cup plant, water it regularly the first and perhaps second season, and you’re left with a tough permanent perennial as big and robust as a shrub.

Making More Cup Plants

Mature specimens sometimes produce suckers at the base and they can be harvested and planted elsewhere. Normally, though, this plant is mainly propagated by seed.

Cup flower seeds. Photo: K.R. Robertson, Illinois Natural History Survey

Ideally, you’d give the seed a 2- to 3-month cold stratification. This replicates the conditions it receives in nature, where the seeds fall to the ground in the fall and overwinter in cold and moisture to germinate the following spring.

Sow the seeds either outdoors or in a cold frame in the fall and they’ll germinate with the return of warmer weather. Or start the seeds indoors in January, sowing them in moist soil, then place the container in the fridge for 2 to 3 months before exposing it to warmth and light. You can read more about cold stratification here: Some Like It Cold: Cold Treatment for Seeds

Seed-grown plants fill in quite nicely by the second year, but really reach full height and bloom in year 3.

Both Useful and Ornamental

The cup plant is not just attractive, but also useful. Photo: 66squarefeet.blogspot.com

Curiously, the other potential uses of the cup plant have received little interest in its native North America, but in Europe, it’s a rising star in farmers’ fields.

In Germany and France, especially, it’s increasingly used for the production of biofuel, producing biomass equal or even superior to that of corn. And as the cup plant is a long-lived perennial that grows back annually for decades, it beats corn—an annual that has to be reseeded yearly—hands down in the productivity department. Plus, unlike corn, it requires no fertilizer or insecticide treatments, crowds out weeds on its own and needs no cultivation, thus reducing erosion. As a result, its potential is seen as enormous.

It’s also being tested as a fodder plant for cattle and sheep and gives two generous harvests per year.

The leaves are edible and quite tasty. Photo: http://www.newstribune.com

Also, permaculture specialists are looking into the use of this plant as a possible vegetable. The young stems and leaves are perfectly edible, especially tasty when cooked. (Older ones become tough and unappealing.) But if you cut back the stems regularly, the plant keeps producing more. The question is therefore how many crops you can harvest without weakening the plant. And of course, continuous harvest will mean the plant won’t bloom and therefore won’t be of interest to birds and bees.

Native Americans once used this plant for medicinal purposes and that could be looked into. Among other possibilities, wounds to the plant produce an aromatic resin that can be used as a breath-freshening chewing gum.

Where to Find It?

This is not a common plant in garden centers and you’ll likely have to order it from a mail-order catalog. Look for native plant nurseries and those specializing in wildflowers, especially prairie plants. Sometimes, though, the easiest thing to do is to go out and harvest seeds from the wild or from abandoned gardens.

Other Gentle Giants

The huge leaves of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)are quite tropical-looking. Photo: http://www.fs.fed.us

Once you’ve tried growing the cup plant, you may want to give other Silphium species a try. I’ve found prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) quite spectacular with its huge tropical-looking leaves while the deeply cut leaves of the prairie compass plant (S. laciniatum) are just as stunning, although plant itself can be floppy if you don’t pinch it back. And there are over 20 other species you could try, most being giant plants with yellow (or, more rarely, white) daisy like blooms. 


So, if you have the space, give the cup plant a try: it makes a fascinating, useful and beautiful garden plant.

Fresh News About Monarch Butterflies

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Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). Photo: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson, Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written about the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), the world’s best known migrating lepidoptera, whose annual 3,000 mile/4,800 km migration from the mountains of Mexico to edge of the boreal forest in Canada is the stuff of legend, more than once in this blog (Monarch Butterflies Are Back!Plant More than Milkweed to Save Monarchs and Monarchs Arrive in Europe!, for example), but there is much research going on about them and scientists learn more about monarchs each year. 

Here are some interesting recent discoveries:

Winter Numbers Down

Some monarchs are tagged so their migration can be followed. Photo: Katja Schulz, flickr.com

Sadly, Mexican authorities report that the number of monarch butterflies overwintering in Mexican forests was down by half during the 2019–2020 winter season. Just 7 acres (2.83 hectares) was covered, a 53% decrease from the 2018–2019 season, when monarchs covered 15 acres (6.05 hectares) of forest.

Jorge Rickards, the managing director of WWF-Mexico, noted that this is not necessarily a cause for alarm, but added that “we must remain vigilant and not allow it to become a trend in the coming years. Conservation is a long-term job.”

New Colony of Monarch Butterflies Discovered in Mexico

Butterflies at the newly discovered Nevado de Toluca colony. Photo: keteka.com

For a long time, it was thought that there was only one colony of monarchs in Mexico, at what is now the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the state of Michoacán, but a second one was recently discovered near the Nevado de Toluca volcano, a good 4-hour drive to the southeast. 

For years, locals had remarked the presence of limited numbers of monarchs in the vast (53,419 ha) Nevado de Toluca National Park during the winter, but no one was able to find whether they were just stragglers or if there was a colony hidden there. Just before Christmas in 2018, however, a routine park patrol finally did find a large colony clinging to oyamel firs (Abies religiosa) at an altitude of more than 3,000 meters. In 2020, researchers returned to study the situation and calculated that there were about 20 million monarchs in the new colony, enough so tree branches bend under their weight.

Curiously, while the colony at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve stays on the same trees all winter, which has made it into a tourist attraction, the new colony at Nevado de Toluca moves every night, so is harder to find and study.

Local governments currently have no plans to open this new colony to mass tourism.

Plant the Right Milkweed

We all know that monarch caterpillars will only feed on milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and a few other closely related species, but it turns out that the milkweed species you plant to feed visiting monarchs is very important. 

The most commonly grown garden milkweed, butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), turns out to be a bit of a dud when it comes to feeding monarch caterpillars. Photo: H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), the most common milkweed offered in garden centers and a popular garden perennial, is actually the least favorite milkweed species and monarch caterpillars rarely feed on it. It doesn’t have the milky sap of other milkweeds and there may be something in that sap that female monarchs seek when looking for a place to lay their eggs. 

Monarchs seem to like common milkweed best (A. syriaca). Photo: Stefan.lefnaer, Wikimedia Commons

The species most frequented by monarchs is the common milkweed (A. syriaca), a weedy species rarely grown in gardens. One study showed that 85% to 92% of monarchs overwintering in Mexico had fed on common milkweed as caterpillars. That said, most other species studied so far are good host plants as well, including another fairly popular garden species, swamp milkweed (A. incarnata). Apparently, it’s only butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) that isn’t really worth planting if your goal is to provide a host plant for monarch caterpillars..

Monarch caterpillars like hybrid plants as well as species. Photo: Maria L. Evans, Wikimedia Commons

Another study challenges the commonly repeated belief that only wild species of milkweed should be used in butterfly gardens. It found that hybrid milkweeds are just as attractive to egg-laying females as straight species. 

Cut Your Milkweeds Back 

Cutting back milkweeds before they bloom makes them more attractive hosts for caterpillar larvae. Photo: http://www.greentecnursery.com

Research by Nate Haan of Michigan State University shows that female monarchs prefer to lay their eggs on fresh young stems that haven’t flowered yet rather than tougher, aging ones. That’s not a problem early in the season, but Haan discovered that cutting back a third of a garden’s milkweeds in June and another third in July resulted in more monarch butterfly eggs being laid on the resprouting plants. This heavy pruning doesn’t harm the milkweed plants and they quickly rebound.

The tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) may actually disrupt monarch mutation if it isn’t cut back. Photo: Renjusplace, Wikimedia Commons

And cutting back would be a good solution to another dilemma. The tropical milkweed (A. curassavica) is the most popular garden milkweed in the southern U.S., but its habit of continuous bloom well into fall and even winter can be harmful to migration. It’s believed monarchs tend to stop on patches of this plant rather than continue their trip south in a timely manner, disrupting migration. Also, a debilitating protozoan parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) tends to build up in tropical milkweed, at least in areas where it isn’t killed back by frost in winter, and can weaken caterpillars and cripple adult butterflies. 

Both these flaws can be easily mitigated by cutting tropical milkweed back hard in the fall. With the plant absent from the landscape, the butterflies will continue their migration normally and won’t be as likely to become infected with the disease.

Let Them Be Free

Mass butterfly releases aren’t helping save monarchs! Photo: http://www.brainerddispatch.com

Apparently, monarchs raised indoors as caterpillars largely fail to migrate. They just don’t seem to pick up on the clues (colder weather, dieback of blooming plants) that tell wild-born monarchs it’s time to head south, according to biologists Ayse Tenger-Trolander and Marcus R. Kronforst of the University of Chicago. 

That means the thousands of monarchs sold by butterfly farms to schools, weddings, funerals and other events for mass butterfly releases may be good publicity for the monarch cause, but don’t directly help monarch survival in any way, as they simply are not flying back to Mexico. 

Planting Flowers to Feed Adults

The common belief that planting milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) is all you need to do to save monarchs is incorrect. True enough, female monarchs will only lay their eggs on milkweeds and their caterpillars will only feed on those same plants, but adult monarchs feed on nectar of a wide range flowers. In fact, don’t even particularly like milkweed flowers (they are instead largely pollinated by bees and wasps). 

Why not create a monarch way station? But drop letter B (Asclepias tuberosa) from the list of good monarch butterfly plants. (Read above to see why.) Photo: http://www.wegarden.ca

If you want to create a garden for monarchs (and why not officially start a monarch waystation?), you need to grow more than milkweeds. Instead, try to provide a wide range of flowers, making sure that there are some in bloom throughout the entire growing season (read Plant More than Milkweed to Save Monarchs), especially at the extreme ends of the gardening season, that is, early spring and late fall.

Also, it’s turning out that mixed plantings actually confuse butterflies. They use sight to find their food, relying on plant shapes. So, a “butterfly meadow,” with flowering plants mingling any which way, might not be the best solution. Instead, you’ll get more positive results by growing single plants isolated from others by mulch. And planting in a north-south pattern is best. 


So, now you know what to do to make your garden more monarch butterfly friendly!

Grow Your Own Three Sisters Garden

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Three sisters garden. Photo: http://www.tasteantigua.com

On this National Indigenous Peoples Day (Canada), why not take a look at the three sisters garden, the Native American method of growing vegetables that was once practiced throughout almost all of North America, from Panama to Canada?

Few modern gardeners think of this growing method for their home garden. But why not? It’s a tried and true gardening method that it has proven itself for millennia!

The method undoubtedly developed in Mesoamerica, where the three crops used were first domesticated, and is believed to be about 5,000 to 6,000 years old. About 2,500 BCE, it began spread northward, eventually reaching Southern Canada.

The Spanish found the Mayans growing according to this method, which they called milpa, in Mexico and elsewhere in Central America, yet the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, over 3,000 miles (5,000 km) to the north, also used it. French explorer Jacques Cartier found fields planted this way when he landed in Stadacona (now Quebec City) in 1534. 

Early Companion Planting

A three sisters garden. Photo: http://www.gardeningaustin.com

The three sisters garden may well be the first example of companion planting. The idea is that three vegetables with complementary traits were grown together: corn or maize (Zea mays), beans (mostly Phaseolus vulgaris) and squash (mostly Cucurbita pepo).

The varieties used varied widely, partly depending on the climate: some varieties performed better under the long days of the northern summer while others did best in the 12-hour days of the tropics. Hundreds of varieties were grown. The Saint Lawrence Iroquoians, for example, were known to have cultivated fifteen varieties of corn, sixty varieties of beans and at least eight varieties of squash, including one we would all recognize today: the pumpkin.

Corn (originally flour corn was grown; sweet corn only having reached northern areas after the arrival of Europeans, in the 18th century) is a tall upright plant with sturdy stems. Those stems are used to support the twining stalks of beans. Thus, no staking is required for the latter.

Runner bean plants will use corn a stake. Photo: harvesttotable.com

The bean is a legume (member of the Fabaceae) and, like most of its relatives, lives in symbiosis with bacteria that are able to capture the nitrogen present in the air and make it available to plants. Thus, beans help to enrich the soil and thus to supply this very important to the corn and squash.

Finally, squash, a large, spreading, ground-hugging plant, covers the soil between the clumps of corn and beans, smothering weeds and acting like a kind of living mulch, creating a microclimate that better retains soil moisture. Also, its thorny stems may have been of some help in protecting the other crops from predators.

The three sisters were often also cooked together and again, the three are complementary, the bean adding to the mix two essential amino acids missing from corn and squash.

The Legend of the Three Sisters

The three sisters legend. Ill.: http://www.wabano.com

According to an Iroquois legend, the three sisters form a divine trinity, having sprung from the tomb of Mother Earth who died giving birth to the twins Good and Evil. These plants made it possible to feed the twins and thus ensure the survival of the human race.

Your Own Three Sisters Garden 

If you feel tempted to try your own Native American vegetable garden, go for it! All three vegetables need good warmth and should only be sown once both the air and the soil have warmed up, probably in May or June in most temperate Northern Hemisphere climates.

Also, why not implicate your children or grandchildren in the project or involve neighborhood kids? The three sisters legend is easy to understand and all the seeds involved are large and easy for small hands to manipulate.

Here’s How to Do It

Corn, squash and bean seeds. Photo: achievingadventure.com

You need a sunny location and well-drained soil. Or if your only garden space is on a terrace or balcony, try one in a container. (True enough, native peoples didn’t grow gardens in pots, but why not innovate?)

Now form a flat-topped mound of earth about 12 in (30 cm) high and 20 in (50 cm) in diameter. The Iroquoians used to bury leftover fish in the mound to nourish the plants, but fish are not as widely available as they once were. (I have mental images of a modern nuclear family dropping frozen fish sticks into the planting hole!) For your 21st century three sisters garden, simply add 3 or 4 handfuls of quality compost or organic fertilizer to the soil, according to the rate recommended on the package in the latter case. Blend well.

Sow the corn first; the others, only after the corn is growing strongly. Photo: http://www.rustica.fr

Sow 4 to 6 seeds of corn in the center of the mound, forming a circle. Sow them at a depth equal to three times the height of the seed. Water well.

When the corn reaches about 6 in (15 cm) in height (you have to give the corn a head start, otherwise its vigorous companions will quickly overwhelm it!), sow another 4 to 6 squash seeds and just as many bean seeds (make sure you use climbing beans, called runner beans) around the outside of the mound, always at a depth of three times the height of the seed. Just alternate the seeds: a squash seed, then a bean seed, then a squash seed, etc. Again, water well.

From there on, just carry out basic maintenance for the rest of the summer, watering and weeding as needed. And harvest the fruits of your labors when they are ripe.


The three sisters garden: a 5,000 thousand-year-old culture that still works just as well in the 21st century!

Public Gardens Reopening After COVID-19 Shutdown

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Butchart Gardens, in Victoria, British Columbia, was one of the first gardens to reopen after the COVID-19 crisis. It’s been open since May 1st. Photo: w4nn3s, Wikimedia Commons

After many months of closure, public gardens are (modestly) reopening after the COVID-19 confinement. 

I’m not going to produce a list here, as the information changes practically on a daily basis, but probably well over half are now open and ready to receive visitors, both in North America and around the world. In fact, if I chose to write this article on June 20, National Garden Day in Canada, it’s because I’ve found that it appears to be “the big day” for a particularly large number of gardens.

Hershery Gardens, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, is scheduled to reopen today. Photo:

So, do check head on the garden’s website or by phoning ahead—you don’t want to be disappointed!—but there are likely to be public gardens open right now near where you live and if you’re looking for a bit of a break from your own confinement, a visit to a beautiful garden, out in the fresh air, might be exactly what the doctor called for! For example, when I checked on Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, my favorite, I found it was open, but had recently opened, but to members only and that reservations were required.

Visiting Gardens… Differently

Of course, visiting gardens in the COVID-19 era will likely be a bit different.

  • You may be checked at the gate and asked questions about your health. Obviously, you shouldn’t even be considering visiting a garden if you present any symptoms that could be linked to COVID-19, like a cough, a fever or difficulty breathing. You will likely also not be allowed in the garden if you’ve been in contact with someone suffering those symptoms in the last 14 days or have been out of the country in the last 14 days.
  • There will probably be hand washing/disinfection stations at the entry point and possibly elsewhere in the garden. Make sure you use them.
  • There may be restrictions as to how many visitors are allowed in the garden at any one time, so be patient and wait your turn. 
  • Some gardens will be offering timed tickets you can purchase online and that will allow you ready access. Just buying tickets at the door may result in a delay.
  • Always maintain the appropriate physical distance (6 ft/2 m in most areas).
  • Wear an appropriate face mask, even if this is not yet required by law in your area.
  • Stay on the paths and follow any directional arrows. 
  • Children (and pets, in gardens where they are allowed) should stay with parents at all times.
  • Do enjoy your garden visit, but if there are many people, don’t linger too long in any one spot; that will slow down everyone’s visit.
  • The use of water fountains may not be authorized: bring your own bottled water.
  • Restaurants and cafés may be closed or functioning on a reduced level, so you may want to bring a picnic lunch (where allowed).
  • Many gardens are only opening outdoor parts of their garden at this point: greenhouses, boutiques, pavilions and other structures may still be closed. 
  • Other services (guided visits, special events, groupings of more than a specific number of people, etc.) may well be temporarily canceled as well. 
Adelaide Botanical Garden, one of my favourite gardens in Australia, is presently open. Travel restrictions being what they are, I won’t be able to visit any time soon, but I have plenty of local gardens to visit. Photo: Bahudhara, Wikimedia Commons

So, do visit a garden today! And visit many others over the summer. They’ve all lost revenue due to this COVID-19 crisis and desperately need your help.

And a final suggestion: yes, most public gardens charge an admission fee, but please consider making a further donation. Let’s show our favorite gardens we really care!

Slug Resistant Plants

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Some plants simply send slugs running! Ill.:moziru.com

The true secret to controlling slugs easily is not to battle them with egg shell barriers, beer traps, or other lures, repellents or snares, but to remove the plants that attract them and to replace them with plants that don’t.

The classic case is of course the hosta.

Hosta undulata ‘Albomarginata’ attracts slugs like a magnet.

Hostas are renowned for attracting slugs. Yet in fact, only some hostas are to blame. In fact, three hostas – by far the most popular in our gardens – are the main victims of slug damage: Hosta ‘Undulata Albomarginata’, a medium-size hosta with fairly narrow wavy-edged leaves edged in white, H. ‘Undulata Mediovariegata’, similar, but with a reverse variegation (there is a flame-shaped white marking in center of the leaf) and H. ‘Undulata Univittata’, again with the same wavy fairly narrow leaves, but this time entirely dark green, with no variegation. These are the hostas used for mass plantings, grown by millions in temperate climates around the world, largely because they grow and multiply quickly, making them inexpensive. But they also attract slugs like a magnet.

Slugs actually hide in the roots and crowns of these hostas at night. They also lay their eggs at the base of H. ‘Undulata Albomarginata’, H. ‘Undulata Mediovariegata’, and H. ‘Undulata Univittata’ and young slugs get their start feeding on their leaves. Ruthlessly removing these hostas from your garden can so reduce the slug population in general that even other slug-susceptible plants are largely left alone.

‘Sum and Substance’ is a popular slug-resistant hosta. Photo: http://www.ballyrobertgardens.com

But not all hostas attract slugs. Many are only somewhat attractive to slugs and only suffer minor damage, especially early in the season. And some hostas are out and out slug-resistant. This is the case of many if not most of the modern varieties, since hybridizers selectively breed for slug resistance, but many old-fashioned hostas are slug-resistant as well. H. sieboldiana ‘Elegans’, for example, a well-known and highly slug-resistant hosta, was introduced in 1905! Slugs are not attracted to thick-leaved hostas, nor hostas with blue leaves, for example. Read Slug-Resistant Hostas: Take Your Pick! for a list of over 100 slug-resistant hosta cultivars.

Other Plants

You can almost tell if a plant will attract or repulse slugs just by studying it. Slugs tend to prefer plants with soft, thin leaves. That’s why they do so much damage to seedlings: young plants’ leaves have not yet developed their more leathery final texture. Conversely, slugs tend to avoid leaves that are hairy, tough, fibrous, thick or waxy, as well as those with a bitter taste or with strong odors (many herbs are slug resistant, for example). Oddly, slugs often find plants that are poisonous to humans quite palatable.

Slug-Resistant Plant List

Daylilies (Hemerocallis),  ‘Stella d’Oro’, are almost never attacked by slugs.

Here is a short list of slug-resistant plants. I’ve included mostly perennials, annuals, herbs and vegetables. Most shrubs, conifers and trees, even if they may be somewhat susceptible to hosta damage in their youth, eventually outgrow the damage.

  1. Ageratum (Ageratum houstonianum) annual
  2. Alyssum, sweet (Lobularia spp.) annual
  3. Anemone, Japanese (Anemone × hybrida, A. japonica, A. hupehensis)
  4. Artemisia (Artemisia spp.) zones 2-9
  5. Astilbe (Astilbe spp.) zones 4-8
  6. Bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus) annual
  7. Bamboo (most species) zones 4-11
  8. Bamboo, heavenly (Nandina domestica) zones 6-10
  9. Basket of gold (Aurinia spp.) zones 3-9
  10. Begonia, bedding (Begonia semperflorens) annual
  11. Bellfower (Campanula spp.) zones 3-7
  12. Bergenia (Bergenia spp.) zones 3-9
  13. Bidens (Bidens spp.) annual
  14. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) zones 3-8
  15. Bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.) zones 3-9
  16. Bluestar (Amsonia spp.) zones 3-9
  17. Bugleweed (Ajuga spp.) zone 3-9
  18. California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) annual
  19. Candytuft (Iberis spp.) zones 3-8
  20. Carnation (Dianthus spp.) zones 3-8
  21. Catmint (Nepeta spp.) zones 3-8
  22. Cleome (Cleome spp.) annual
  23. Columbine (Aquilegia spp.) zones 3-10
  24. Conifers (most species) zones 2-10
  25. Coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.) zones 3-10
  26. Cosmos (Cosmos spp.) annual
  27. Crocosmia (Crocosmia spp.) zones 5-11
  28. Cyclamen (Cyclamen spp.) zones 5-9
  29. Daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) zones 3-9
  30. Epimedium (Epimedium spp.) zones 3-9
  31. Euphorbia (Euphorbia spp.) zones 1-12
  32. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) zones 6-9
  33. Ferns (most species) zones 1-12
  34. Foxglove (Digitalis spp.) zones 4-9
  35. Fuchsia (Fuchsia spp.) annual or zones 7-9
  36. Gazania (Gazania spp.) annual
  37. Geranium, hardy (Geranium spp.) zones 2-10
  38. Ginger, hardy (Hedychium spp.) zones 7-12
  39. Globe thistle (Echinops spp.) zones 3-9
  40. Goat’s beard (Aruncus app.) zones 3-8
  41. Grasses, ornamental (most species) zones 2-12
  42. Hellebore (Helleborus) zones 4-8
  43. Heuchera (Heuchera spp.) zones 3-9
  44. Holly, sea (Eryngium spp.) zones 3-9
  45. Hosta (Hosta spp.) (thick-leaved and blue-leaved varieties) zones 3-9
  46. Houseleek (Sempervivum spp.) zones 3-10
  47. Hydrangea (Hydrangea spp.) zones 3-9
  48. Impatiens (Impatiens spp.) annual
  49. Ivy (Hedera spp.) zones 5-10
  50. Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium spp.) zones 3-8
  51. Knautia (Knautia spp.) zones 3-8
  52. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla spp.) zones 3-9
  53. Lantana (Lantana spp.) zones 9-12
  54. Lavender (Lavandula spp.) zones 5-10
  55. Lettuce, romaine (Lactuca sativa) vegetable
  56. Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus spp.) zones 8-11
  57. Lobelia, edging (Lobelia erinus) annuelle
  58. Lungwort (Pulmonaria) zones 3-9
  59. Marigold, pot (Calendula officinalis) annual
  60. Masterwort (Astrantia spp.) zones 3-9
  61. Meadow rue (Thalictrum spp.) zones 3-8
  62. Mint (Mentha spp.) zones 2-10
  63. Mock Strawberry (Duchesnea indica) zones 4-9
  64. Monk’s hood (Aconitum spp.) zones 3-9
  65. Mullein (Verbascum spp.) zones 3-8
  66. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp.) annual
  67. Nemesia (Nemesia spp.) annual
  68. Nicotiana (Nicotiana spp.) annual
  69. Oregano (Origanum vulgare) zones 4-10
  70. Pelargonium (Pelargonium spp.) zones 9-12
  71. Penstemon (Penstemon spp.) zones 3-9
  72. Peony (Paeonia spp.) zones 3-9
  73. Periwinkle (Vinca spp.) zones 4-10
  74. Phlox (Phlox spp.) zones 2-9
  75. Pincushion flower (Scabiosa spp.) zones 3-8
  76. Pink (Dianthus spp.) zones 3-8
  77. Poppy (Papaver spp.) zones 3-8
  78. Portulaca (Portulaca spp.) annual
  79. Potentilla (Potentilla spp.) zones 3-9
  80. Rhododendron (Rhododendron spp.) zones 3-10
  81. Rockcress (Arabis spp. and Aubretia spp.) zones 3-5
  82. Rodgersia (Rodgersia spp.) zones 4-9
  83. Rose (Rosa spp.) zones 2-10
  84. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) zones 8-10
  85. Rudbeckia (Rudbeckia spp.) zones 3-8
  86. Sage (Salvia spp.) zones 5-9
  87. Salal (Gaultheria shallon) zones 6-8
  88. Saxifrage (Saxifraga) zones 3-9
  89. Sedum (Sedum spp.) zones 2-12
  90. Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) annual
  91. Snow-in-summer (Cerastium spp.) zones 3-8
  92. Speedwell (Veronica spp.) zones 3-9
  93. Thrift (Armeria spp.) zones 3-9
  94. Thyme (Thymus spp.) zones 3-9
  95. Tulip (Tulipa spp.) zones 3-8
  96. Verbena (Verbena spp.) annual
  97. Violet (Viola spp.) zones 2-10
  98. Yew (Taxus spp.) zones 4-7
  99. Yucca (Yucca spp.) zones 3-12
  100. Woodruff, sweet (Galium odoratum) zones 3-9Zinnia (Zinnia spp.) annual

Slug-Susceptible Plants

Most herbs are quite slug resistant… but not basil (Ocimum basilicum). You can use it as a trap plant to draw slugs away from other herbs and vegetables. Photo: ask.extension.org

The following plants are very subject to slug damage, especially in humid climates or when grown in shade or under moist conditions. They may actually attract slugs to your garden and increase the local slug population resulting in damage to normally less susceptible plants.

Note that many vegetables are susceptible to slug damage as seedlings, but then are left alone when they mature. In fact, one way of reducing slug damage in seriously slug-infested vegetable gardens is to consistently start seedlings indoors and only plant them out after their leaves have hardened.

  1. Basil (Ocimum basilicum) zones 10-11
  2. Bean (Phaseolum spp., Vicia spp. and Vigna spp.) vegetable
  3. Begonias, tuberous (Begonia x tuberhybrida) zones 10-12
  4. Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) vegetable
  5. Canna (Zantedeschia spp.) zones 8-12
  6. Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) annual
  7. Corn (Zea mays) vegetable (seedlings only)
  8. Dahlia (Dahlia spp.) zones 8-12
  9. Delphinium (Delphinium spp.) zones 3-9
  10. Hosta (Hosta spp.) (thin-leaved varieties) zones 3-9
  11. Lettuce, leaf, crisphead and Boston (Lactuca sativa) vegetable
  12. Ligularia (Ligularia sp.) zones 3-9
  13. Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majus) zones 2-7
  14. Marigolds (Tagetes spp.) annual
  15. Mustard (Brassica spp.) vegetable, herb
  16. Potato (Solanum tuberosum) vegetable (some varieties are slug resistant)
  17. Primrose (Primula spp.) zones 3-9
  18. Seedlings of most vegetables
  19. Soybean (Glycine max) vegetable
  20. Strawberry (Fragaria spp.) zones 3-9

Article originally published on July 17, 2015.

Earwigs in Your Barbecue? Here’s What to Do!

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Ill.: webstockreview.net & http://www.deviantart.com, montage: laidbackgardener.blog

The weather is sunny and warm and you want to spend a maximum amount of time outdoors. It’s also precisely the right season to be cooking a maximum of meals on your barbecue grill. So, you go out, a plateful of juicy steaks (or mushroom steaks if you are a vegetarian) in your hand, then you open the grill … and a dozen earwigs drop out, scrambling to the right and left, desperately seeking a new hiding place. The whole situation is just revolting, yet it’s very common.

Common earwig (Forficula auricularia). Photo: Pudding4brains, Wikimedia Commons

Let’s face it: earwigs (Forficula auricularia) love to hide in barbecues during the day. At night, they gallivant about, feeding mostly on detritus and garden pests like slugs and aphids, although they will attack some plants when their numbers build up too much (you can learn more about the good and bad sides of earwigs here). Then, as morning dawns, they look for a nice dark place where they can spend the day. Like a barbecue. Also, they’re also attracted to and feed on the fat and oil and bits of food that build up there. So … a shelter combined a well-stocked pantry? A barbecue is practically heaven on earth for earwigs!

Do note that earwigs are not harmful to humans (the idea that they can take up residence in our ears is a long-standing myth) nor are they poisonous and if they fall into your barbecue sauce while you’re grilling, they just add a little extra protein. However, out of sheer politeness, it’s best to remove the earwigs before serving.

So, you may or may not want earwigs in your garden, but you certainly don’t want them in your barbecue. So, what can you do to keep them away?

Here are a few tips.

Place the barbecue where it will sit in full sun all day. Earwigs prefer things dark, but cool and dark. However, a barbecue placed in full sun for most of the day gets very hot, even burning hot (try touching it with your bare hand), making such a location unattractive for earwigs. They may move in in the morning, but they then leave later in the day. Note that this technique will, of course, be less effective in cloudy or cool weather.

Don’t use a BBQ cover on your grill. Yes, a cover makes your barbecue less obtrusive and protects it from the elements, but also keeps it much cooler and gives earwigs even more places to hide. It’s a good way to increase the number of earwigs rather than reducing them.

Clean your grill regularly, removing all traces of grease and food debris. Scrape or rub the grill carefully and also remove ashes in the bottom that could provide shelter.

Empty the grease trap. Most barbecues have a small drip tray to catch grease and oils so they don’t drip onto the patio below. Remove and clean it after the fat has congealed.

Preheat the grill. To chase earwigs out of their hiding places, preheat the grill for a good 15 minutes before putting food on it. If they don’t get away in time, at least they’ll be well grilled before it’s time to start cooking.

Leave the lid open. This is actually the easiest solution. Since earwigs search for dark places to spend the day, a barbecue left open, exposing them to the full view of potential predators, simply doesn’t appeal to them. Some models of barbecue don’t have a lid … and it’s worth noting that the owners of those devices never have problems with earwigs!

Good grilling … without earwigs! 

Grow Your Own Birdseed!

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American goldfinch on a echinacea. Photo: http://www.americanmeadows.com

If you’re used to feeding birds, you can’t have helped but notice the huge jump in the cost of “birdseed,” seeds and seed mixtures for birds. Some seeds have tripled in cost over the last few years and feeding the birds is becoming a more and more expensive pastime. 

Commercial birdseed. Photo: Home Depot

And the market is a huge one: in the United States alone, more than 40 million people put out bird feeders, leading to a $6.3 billion business in birdseed and bird feeders. And production costs keep rising, so the seed costs you ever more each year.

But what if you grew your own birdseed? It’s actually easy to do if you have a sunny space and a bit of time on your hands. To make things easier, birdseed can be grown from seeds—that mean seem obvious, but isn’t really—, bringing costs way down compared to having to buy plants. A few packs of seed—or some leftover birdseed you simply sow—and you’ll have your birdseed garden underway.

What Do You Need to Grow Birdseed?

Birdseed garden in midsummer. Photo: http://www.americanmeadows.com

Essentially, sun, good drainage and soil deep enough to sow in. And some time in spring or early summer to get the job done. Normally, you’d sow seeds for birds in the ground, but you can also grow seeds in containers. You’ll need to clear the site of weeds and debris to give the seeds a head start and work the soil lightly so it will be ready to receive seed.

Broadcasting seed. Photo: flaxforsale.com

There is no particular design for a birdseed garden. You could sow in rows, do the square-foot garden thing or simply broadcast seed (scatter it by tossing it left and right as you walk through the garden). 

The proper seed depth is vital: seed left on the surface will feed the birds—instantly!—but won’t, of course, germinate. Too deep and it might germinate, but won’t be able to break through to the light. Calculate the seed depth as being about 3 times the height of the seed. That means different seeds of different sizes will have different sowing depths.

When broadcasting seed, typically you simply sow heavily, rake the soil lightly after you sow to work the seeds in, then hope for the best.

And always water to start seeds germinating. If the summer is dry, you may need to water regularly through the growing season as well. 

As for fertilizer … honestly, most birdseed plants aren’t too picky about rich soil, but it never hurts to work some compost and slow-release organic fertilizer into any soil if your budget allows it.

Now, stand back and watch your birdseed garden grow! 

Pest Control

Obviously, you can’t spray toxic chemicals on flowers you want to collect birdseed from. Rather, let the birds themselves take care of pests, maybe doing a bit of hand picking (drop undesirable insects into a bowl of soapy water) if you feel they’re missing a few bugs. 

If you do feel the need to spray, do so early in the morning before bees and other pollinators are present, and use a product with little to no residual effect, like insecticidal soap. 

Harvest … or Not

There are two schools of thought here. 

Chickadee feasting on sunflower seeds. Photo: hipwallpaper.com

You can leave your birdseed plants standing in the fall and winter and allow birds to come and harvest the seeds themselves. That’s the easy peasy method. 

But maybe you want to bring birds nearer to your living room window by putting the seed in a feeder of some sort. If so, harvest the seed heads when they start to turn brown and plop them into a paper bag to finish maturing. After a few weeks, shake or crumble the seeds free. Or pick them out individually (some seed heads release their seeds more reluctantly than others). 

All you have to do next is to store harvested seed in glass or plastic containers and shovel it into your bird feeders as needed.

Untreated Seed

You can’t always sow seeds from a commercial birdseed mixture and expect plants to come up. Often it was heat treated to prevent germination, which rather defeats your purpose. You’ll likely have to buy seed packs to get started. However, once you have your birdseed garden going, you can harvest and store your own seed for sowing in spring. Or let the plants self-sow (many will).

Seeds to Sow

There are many, many seeds you can sow as birdseed. Often these are annuals, giving you a full crop the first year. Perennials are slower off the mark, usually not blooming until the second year, but then, come back year after year, making your seed growing easier.

(There are also berries you can grow to attract seed-eating birds, but that’s a different subject, covered here: Berries that Attract Birds.)

Here are some popular varieties:

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum): This is just one of many agastaches that have beautiful summer flowers, deliciously scented (and edible!) foliage and seeds birds like to nibble on. Perennial. 

Aster (Symphyotrichum spp., Eurybia spp. and others): Clusters of small daisylike flowers in a wide range of colors. Perennial.

Basket flower or gaillardia (Gaillardia spp.): Stunning yellow and red daisies. There are annual and perennial varieties. 

European goldfinch on black-eye susans. Photo: Odrienne, GoodFon.com

Black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta): A popular and attractive garden flower with yellow or red daisylike flowers and a dark brown central dome. Just let it stand so birds can do their own harvesting. There are annual, biennial and (short-lived) perennial varieties.

Canary seed (Phalaris canariensis): This grass is originally from the Canary Islands, whence the name, although canaries do eat it, as do other seed-eating birds. Annual.

Corn (Zea mays): Smaller seeded types, like popcorn and Indian corn are best. Annual.

Cornflower or bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus): Buttonlike flowers in blue, red, pink or white. Curious-looking seeds that birds love. Annual.

Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus). Photo: http://www.seedvilleusa.com

Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus and C. sulfureus.): They come in all sorts of colors and are easy to grow. Annual.

Cup plant (Silphium spp.): Giant plant with huge leaves and daisylike yellow flowers. Perennial.

Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis): Bright pink or white flowers, highly scented at night. Biennial.

Foxtail millet (Setaria italica): A grass with nodding seed heads. Widely grown as a cereal crop. Annual.

This charming perennial does double duty as a birdseed source. Photo: crocus.co.uk

Globe thistle (Echinops spp.): Attractive spiky balls of blue to white flowers. Spiny foliage, but nothing too deadly. Perennial.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.): Feathery yellow flowers. Some species, like Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis) are invasive, but others stay where you sow them. Perennial.

Korean feather reed grass (Calamagrostis brachytricha): Attractive ornamental grass. Perennial. 

Liatris or gayfeather (Liatris spp.): Spikes of purple or white flowers over lilylike leaves. Perennial.

Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus): A multipurpose plant, with attractive dripping ropelike flowers, edible seeds and leaves and fodder for birds. Other amaranths are just as useful. Annual. 

Niger: it’s seed is expensive unless you grow your own. Photo: http://www.brc.ac.uk

Niger or nyjer (Guizotia abyssinica): Although often called “thistle” in birdseed mixes, this is no thistle plant and has no prickles, but is rather the seed of a fast-growing African daisy looking much like coreopsis. Make sure the seed hasn’t been heat-treated! Annual.

‘Purple Majesty’ pearl millet: a bird favorite. Photo: puririlane.co.nz

Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum): A fast-growing grass broad, cornlike leaves and abundant seeds. There are several ornamental varieties, too, like ‘Purple Majesty’, with purple leaves. Annual.

Poppy (Papaver somniferumP. rhoeas and others): Brightly colored flowers, salt-shaker shaped seed pods. There are perennial species, but usually annuals are used for birdseed.

Purple coneflower or echinacea (Echinacea purpurea): Sturdy-stemmed daisies with a spiky center dome in a wide range of colors. Popular garden plant. Perennial.

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Ornamental garden plant with gray green, deeply cut leaves and attractive spikes of lavender flowers. Perennial.

Safflower  (Carthamus tinctorius). Photo: amazon.com

Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius): Attractive flower with thistlelike leaves usually grown for oil production. Annual.

Sorghum or broom corn (Sorghum spp.): Huge grasses with ornamental seed heads in many colors. Annual.

‘Peredovik’ is the classic black oil sunflower. Photo: http://www.damseeds.com

Sunflower (Helianthus annuus): Tall plants with huge sunny flowers and ever so easy to grow. Birds will eat any kind of sunflower seed, but many bird specialists recommend “black oil sunflowers”, with smaller, black seeds originally developed for producing sunflower oil. There are specific cultivars, like ‘Peredovik’, or it may just be sold as black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS). Avoid heat-treated seed. Annual.  

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum): Ornamental grass native to North America. Perennial.

Teasel (Dipsacus sativus and others): Very prickly plant with ornamental flowers and seed heads. Biennial.

Tickseed or coreopsis (Coreopsis spp.): Usually small yellow daisies, although there are now red, pink and bicolor varieties as well. There are both annual and perennial varieties.

Zinnia (Zinnia spp.): Popular garden flower that also attracts butterflies. Huge range of colors. Annual.

💡Simple Tip

The seed of some of these plants may be hard to locate, as not all of these plants are offered in the average seed catalog. If so, here’s a simple tip. Just enter the plant’s name in a search engine like Google and add “seed packet.” For example, “switchgrass seed packet”. That should do it!

The above plants are only examples: there are many other plants whose seeds birds relish including—let’s be fully honest!—many weeds! But you may not have to plant those: they tend to show up all on their own!


Enjoy planting your own birdseed garden!

You Can’t Stop a Tree From Producing Seeds

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Maple seeds sprouting in a lawn. Photo: Ken Bosma, http://www.flickr.com

Question: We have a red maple that produces hundreds of seeds every summer and most seem to grow in our lawn. Is there a way to stop this production?

Gisele O’Connor

Answer: No, you can’t stop a tree from producing seeds. There is no hormonal spray or injection or chemical treatment you can apply to stop this natural phenomenon from occurring.

When a tree reaches full maturity (and that can take years, even up to two decades in the case of some species), it will start to flower and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. If, when it blooms, the flowers are pollinated (and how could you possibly prevent the wind—for anemophilous plants—or insects—for entomophilous plants—from pollinating the blooms?), there will be seeds, probably hundreds or even thousands of seeds, depending on the species of tree. And if there is a lawn nearby and the seeds land on it, it’s very likely they’ll germinate and seedlings will start to grow.

The only solution would be to cut the tree down … a bit drastic, don’t you think?

Seedless Trees

The Somerset red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Somerset’) is an example of a sterile tree: it produces no seeds. Photo: lorex.ua.

If you want to plant another tree and don’t want to have to deal with seeds sprouting everywhere, there is an easy solution: plant a variety that doesn’t produce seeds.

In the case of dioecious trees, such as poplars, willows and even some maples, there are male and female trees. So, you just have to plant a male tree: it will never produce seeds. (But be forewarned: male trees are often a major cause of hay fever!)

In the case of monoecious trees (which have male and female flowers on the same tree), there are sometimes sterile or nearly sterile cultivars that either don’t produce seeds or fruits or produce so few it’s not a worry. 

Problem solved!

Just Mow ’Em Down!

Mowing the lawns quickly solves the problem. Photo: http://www.groundsguys.com

I must admit I really don’t quite understand your concern about the tree seedlings sprouting in your lawn, because just mowing the lawn, something you have to do anyway, will chop the top off the seedlings and bring about their demise, solving the problem. I’ve mowed lawns almost my entire life and this solution is foolproof! 

Young tree seedlings are always tall enough to be quickly clipped down by a mower. And when they’re cut back, seedlings that young don’t have the energy reserves they’d need to grow back.

So, if the appearance of tree seedlings sprouting in the lawn bothers you, just mow a little more often!

Trees Seeds in Flower Beds

Maple seedlings sprouting in a mulch. Photo: markcullen.com

Tree seedlings that sprout in a flower bed or vegetable patch, or come up through a ground cover or mulch, are more difficult to manage. For one, you obviously can’t mow them! They must be pulled out or cut manually.

Since young seedlings haven’t had time to grow much of a root system, they’re easy to yank out. And the still very tender stems are easy to clip off. Just make sure you cut below the cotyledons, thus leaving no leaves at all. If you get them the first year, there will be no follow-up.

Second-year seedlings are more tenacious. Their more abundant roots make them harder to pull and many, depending on the species, are able to grow back from the base if you clip them. That’s why it’s important to eliminate them the first year, when they’re still young and fragile.