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    Providing winter hospitality to wildlife
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    Unlike the other plants in my garden, turf grass has always struggled to get my attention. Compared to my knowledge of food crops and herbaceous perennials, I know next to nothing about turf grasses…and I would prefer to keep it that way. Some would find that hard to believe, but it’s true. Identifying turf is like complex math to me…I can do it, but I don’t want to.

    When I look at turf, my eyes only see two types: good turf and bad turf.

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    Evidently every day this summer I deemed too hot to work in the garden was just another day for the weeds to celebrate and use their heat-miser advantage over me to grow and multiply. As a result, I am now spending most of my gardening time attempting to catch up on weeding in an effort to go into winter somewhat weed-free. I have also been editing plant composition in beds by removing excess numbers of the more aggressive species.

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    I admire the knowledge of plant biologists, especially that group of expert botanists who make me feel like a novice in comparison…those are the people I love to hang around with at any given opportunity to improve my own skills and knowledge. Every time I look up a plant description, a little place in the back of my mind remembers that someone or a group of someones very similar at some point in history discovered my exact plant of interest, describing it in extreme detail and giving it a scientific name for the first time.

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    When you collect plants, it is rather useful to label and record everything added to the garden. I wish I had started sooner. I did not do this the first few years of starting my current garden, so many of my oldest plants are unknown down to cultivar and remain unlabeled. After a few years, I began making an effort to include a metal identification tag with a waterproof label with every plant that went in the garden as well as creating a spreadsheet I could print the labels from using a label maker.

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    Watching how plants grow is just fascinating. Like when a terminal bud begins growing in the spring after being dormant, it leaves behind a bud scale scar that encircles the entire twig or branch and is visible to the naked eye. Since each twig makes only one terminal bud per year, you can use these scars to determine the age of a twig or limb by counting the scars back from the tip.

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    How perfect for Punxsutawney Phil to predict six more weeks of winter on the day when snow was falling heavily in the St Louis Metropolitan. School would have been cancelled when and where I grew up in Indiana on a day like that. But because of COVID-19, snow days for students are coming to be a thing of the past with our increasing ability to switch rapidly to remote learning. Remembering my growing up in the 60s and 70s, one of the local banks maintained a phone service that provided the time and temperature, plus any announcements of a school delay or closing.

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    One of my many pleasures from gardening is watching the garden develop and change over the course of a season. It never ceases to amaze me how stark, yet beautiful the landscape is in its winter rest. With the leaves gone, the beautiful bark and limb structure of the trees and shrubs is completely exposed, becoming the garden’s prominent feature. All else is a study in brown aside from an occasional splash of green from the various evergreens.

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    The impact of nature upon our well-being is truly amazing. The morning before Thanksgiving, I stepped outside to walk the dog and was met by the most glorious sky. Immediately I thought of the old saying “pink sky in morning, sailor’s warning,” but I shrugged that off immediately because I already knew rain was not in the forecast and Mother Nature was just showing off. As I continued to walk, enjoying the dog frisking in the breeze and the unusual light, a rafter of nine turkeys strolled out of the nearby woods to make the morning all the more beautiful.

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    Hard to believe but the median date for the first frost is just around the corner, and I still have lots to do in the garden. Last year the first freeze occurred on October 5, so I know it can happen any time now. 

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    This is the second time of the year when the jungle needs the most weeding…the first being early spring. But unlike spring, it’s now hot and the mosquitoes are in abundance, not to mention the humidity makes the simplest task a chore. The weeding needs to continue though or the undesirables will reign supreme. So on really hot days, in addition to my normal insulated water bottle, sunglasses, hat, sunscreen, gloves, weed prong, hand pruners, basket and iTunes, I have added a 100’ outdoor extension cord and a 20” industrial floor fan.

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    Past mistakes seem to come back and bite you. When I started planting my garden nearly 19 years ago, I didn’t think to keep a master list of my plants mainly because I didn’t know then how much I would come to rely on it for accurately identified photo images. For the first five years, I just labeled my plants with a handheld label maker, with no connection to a database. Then I finally wised-up and started logging my plants in an Excel file and printing labels with a label maker that could print from a merge file.

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    I often have people tell me they don’t grow iris because the bloom just doesn’t last long enough. Since I have had a lifelong affair with iris, my jungle includes quite a collection of iris and they do have a rather short window. Regardless, I decided long ago I preferred to savor their ephemeral beautiful rather than foregoing them all together. With that in mind though, I have to work all the harder to balance a sea of green swords after the blooms have all faded...another good reason to acquire more plants!

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    It’s not until their dainty little blooms appear that I can more easily differentiate a patch of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucularia) from a patch of squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis). The flowers of Dutchman’s breeches are often described as looking like “a pair of white pants hanging by their legs on a clothesline”…but to me, they look like upside down, yellow-waisted M.C Hammer parachute pants. And when the wind makes them dance, even more so. Squirrel corn looks like traditional little white hearts, oftentimes touched by pink.

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    My pink dawn viburnum (Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’) took a hit this past February when low temperatures dropped to minus zero for several days, just as it was budding out. I thought for sure all the blooms were toast, but upon inspection, I see some surviving petals still making a show. That isn’t to say the reproductive components of the surviving flowers weren’t damaged, so time will tell whether berries are in the making for this year…but at the very least there won’t be as many.

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    Winter may still be with us, but preparation for spring is starting to move into high gear for me in terms of garden activities. One thing recently crossed off my February “to-do” list was seeding transplants of very hardy vegetables and herbs like broccoli and parsley. Seeding the first week of February gives me enough time to grow good-sized transplants for planting in their preferred window of 4-6 weeks before the last spring frost. How did I arrive at the first week of February as my transplant seeding date?

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    When it’s below freezing outside, I have the option of just coming inside where it’s warm. Plants on the other hand can’t, so instead have evolved amazing adaptations over millennia to survive prolonged sub-freezing temperatures. Plants definitely differ in how much cold they can take, so ratings based on the USDA cold hardiness zone map are a good resource to avoid planting a species that won’t survive the winter.

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    Recently I noticed some of my winter-blooming hellebores (Helleborus spp.) are already adorned with flower buds, which is about a month early for my garden site.  I don’t think I have ever had a “Christmas Rose” in bloom by Christmas?  If Mother Nature doesn’t freeze them out, a winter bouquet may just be in my future.