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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Dry Shade Garden Makeover

Rue Anenome (Thalictrum thalictroides)
April 2017.  Finally, the weather has improved.  Actually, we have been lucky this year.  April has been mild.  There hasn't been any snow. There have only been a few frosts.  For Michigan, this is excellent early spring weather.  It has also allowed me to re-do my front garden.

I am sharing a list of what I planted in this bed with you all because part of it is in dry shade and the other part is in dry sun.  These are challenging conditions that some of you may find on your own property. Perhaps my plant list could be of use to you.

The front garden is an island bed of diameter about 20-25ft, surrounded by the road, my driveway, and the neighbor's driveway.  The former owner planted a bradford pear tree right in the middle of it along with a couple of scotch pine bushes. Because of this, the bed is about 60% dry shade and 40% dry full sun.

Front garden BEFORE makeover, front view
 Up until last year, the bed only contained the bradford pear, scotch pine bushes, a clump of (gorgeous) purple-black irises, orange daylilies, hosta, juniper,and some random clumps of dianthus.  The iris and daylilies were congested and needed dividing, Most of the bed was empty.  

Luckily, I was able to take a couple days off of work, which I used to re-do the bed. I topped the soil with compost and shredded leaf mulch to help improve the moisture retention of the soil a bit.  I added some stepping stones.  I also had planted some of the deciduous bushes last fall.

I pruned some of the older juniper bushes to re-shape them and make room for other plants.  I also pruned the lower branches of the bradford pear to allow more light in to the area.

I tried to choose plants that would survive the conditions well and would show nicely in the shade.  I chose varieties with contrasting leaf colors in yellows, shades of green and white, and even a few with purple leaves with contrasting textures.  For example, the bleeding heart has delicate golden leaves, the hosta have wide green/white leaves, the joe pye has medium-sized purple leaves, and the jacob's ladder has ferny blue-green leaves with white stripes. Hopefully they will look good even when not in bloom.

Front garden AFTER make-over, side view.
In the full sun portions I planted: 

hyacinths (pink, early spring bloom),
daffodils (yellow, early spring bloom),
red valerian (red, spring bloom),
dianthus (pink, spring bloom),
iris (dark purple, late spring bloom),
lilies (orange,late spring bloom ), 
prickly pear (yellow, late spring bloom),
evening primrose (yellow, late spring bloom),
daylilies (orange & yellow, spring-summer bloom),
potentilla (yellow, late spring-fall bloom),
catmint (purple/blue, late spring-fall bloom), 

yarrow (yellow, summer bloom),
yucca (white, summer bloom),
bee balm (red, summer bloom),
 blanket flower (yellow/orange/red, summer bloom),
geum (orange, summer bloom), 

Joe Pye weed (white, late summer-fall bloom),
roses (pink, summer-fall bloom),
sedum (orange, late summer-fall bloom),
AFTER makeover. Please forgive neighbor's construction/fence.
Russian sage (purple/blue, summer-fall bloom),
dwarf althea (pink, late summer-fall bloom), 

hens & chicks,
bradford pear,
scotch pine bushes,
and juniper.

In the dry shade I planted: 

helebores (white & pink, early spring bloom),
daffodils (yellow, early spring bloom),
Primrose (yellow/pink, early spring bloom),
columbine (pink, blue & yellow, early spring bloom),
Hosta, bleeding heart, columbine & gooseberries.

bleeding heart (pink, spring bloom),
rue anenome (white, spring bloom),
wood poppy (yellow, spring bloom),
Jacob's ladder (purple/blue, spring bloom),
fritillaria (yellow, spring bloom),
Japanese wood poppy (blue, spring bloom),
lady's mantle(yellow, late spring bloom),
climbing hydrangea (white, late spring bloom),

foxgloves (peachy orange, spring-summer bloom),
valerian (white, spring-summer bloom), 
wood betony (purple/blue, late spring-summer bloom),

Columbine, wood poppy, foxgloves, and primrose.
hosta (white, summer bloom), 
hardy geranium (purple/blue, summer-fall bloom),
cut leaf coneflower (yellow, late summer-fall bloom),
Japanese anenome/wind flower (pink, late summer-fall bloom),
ruby spice clethera (red/pink, summer bloom),

dryopterus fern,
and gooseberry bushes,

There is one small area of dimensions 10'x4' or so, off to the side of the garden, bordering my
neighbor's driveway that is separated from the rest of the garden by a 1.5ft wall of stone.  This area faces west and is in part-sun.   I used this almost "containerized" area to my advantage.  I removed the soil that was there and spread it elsewhere in the garden.  I then replaced it with a mix of bagged soil, compost, peat, and amended it with sulfur.  You see, most of my garden has a soil pH of 7.8.  Why is this a problem? -- Because I really like blueberries.  Blueberries require acid soil.  So, by replacing the soil with a more acidic mix, I can now grow blueberries.  I planted 4 low and dwarf blueberry bushes along with a couple of hosta as filler until the bushes grow in more.  I under-planted the bushes with bunchberry as a ground cover.

Between the gooseberries & blueberries, I can get some food from this garden. With the perennials that I chose, I should have something in bloom there year round, as well. Some people would also use the valerian as a medicinal plant, but I plan to use it as a decorative perennial only.  (Although, I did notice that valerian roots smell very sweet as I was planting it.)

I do expect to have to water the bed frequently, especially during the dry summer months. Watering will be particularly important this year as the plants get established.

I will try to remember to take an "update" photo of the garden later in the summer or perhaps next year when more of the flowers are in bloom. If I remember, I will add the photo to the end of this blog entry.  Right now, the bed looks good, but it has only just been planted.  So very few flowers are in bloom. I hope that it will improve with time.

Species Update:

I have continued to track the various species in my yard.  Here is the update (continued from March):

Insects, spiders & "crawly" creatures:
33.Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens),
34. Honey Bee (seen to briefly to identify the exact species type),
35. Mosquitos (family Culcidae),
36. Fungus Gnats (family Mycetophilidae),
37. Midges (chironomidae)
38. Green Bottle Fly (Lucilia sericata),
39. Cellar Spider (Psilochorus pullulus),
40. Trashline Orb Weaver  Spider (cyclosa),
41. Wolf Spider (Lycosoidea),
42. Earwig (forficula auricularia),
43. Cabbage White Butterfly (pieris rapae),
44. Earth Worm (Lumbricus terrestris),
45. Gray Field Slug (Deroceras reticulatum)

46. Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus)

47.  Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia)

Also, the robins made a nest off my neighbor's back porch.  Check it out:

Garden Marker Comparison Update:

Lastly, I have a brief update on the garden marker comparison:  So far, the regular sharpie ink is fading, but only on the plastic and the metal garden markers.  The other garden marker types are indistinguishable from each other as far as readability at this time. All types of ink and the pencil are standing strong on the wooden garden marker.  I will give another brief update on this in 3 months time.  I will do a full review, with photos, at the end of the year.

That's all for now, folks!  I am looking forward to some warmer weather so that I can get the veggies in.  I will update you all about this and my other gardening endeavors in a month!  

As always: happy planting, dear reader!  And a very happy spring!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Minimal March

March this year... I did not get much gardening done, to be honest.

We had a major wind storm that blew the roofs off of some people's homes.  I skated by with a semi-demolished cold frame and a yard full of leaves and twigs.  I think I can put the cold frame back together. I consider myself to be very lucky.

We also had a lot of cold weather and snow.  So I haven't done much outside at all.

Shredded leaves make nice mulch.
Just this week, I was finally able to start some basic yard clean up.  I am using the "windfall" of leaves to make mulch for my flower beds. I rake them up, put them through a shredder then spread them back over the garden beds.  Shredding the leaves helps to make them look more presentable, allows them to break down more quickly, and keeps them from blowing around in the wind.  The leaves should insulate the ground, hold in moisture, add good nutrients, add organic matter, encourage the growth of mycorrhizal fungi and attract earth worms as they break down. I have only finished cleaning up about 1/3 of my garden space. Hopefully I can get the rest done this April as the weather improves.

My seedlings have continued to grow. I re-potted some of the perennials.  The tomatoes are nearly ready to be re-potted as well.  They should all be ready to go into the garden by mid-May.

I have also continued to watch the wildlife in the garden.  Last month, I counted 22 species since January.  This month, I can add the following species to my count list:

Gypsy Moth
23. Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar)
24.Sowbug (Porcellio)

25. Redwinged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
26. Bufflehead Duck (Bucephala albeola)
27. Mallard Duck (Anas platyrhynchos)
28. Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)
29. Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
30. Canadian Goose (Branta canadensis)
31. Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
32. American Robin (Turdis Migratorius)

 33. Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus)
American Robin

I've been tracking my wildlife sightings on and  I recommend these to anyone with an interest in tracking what they see in nature and sharing their discoveries with others.

So that's about it for March.  I hope to get a lot more done this April.  Happy gardening, reader!

European Starling

Redwinged Blackbird
Great Blue Heron - Photo taken last summer.
Bufflehead Ducks

Sandhill Cranes

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Weather, Wildlife & Seed Starting 2017

1st flower of the year: My hellebore bloomed in the unseasonably warm weather!

Weird Weather

What strange weather we have been having! Here in Brighton, MI, it went up into the 60's F (16 C) for almost a week, then dropped back to the 30's F (-1 C).  During the brief burst of premature warmth, it was so tempting to go out to clean all of the garden beds and start planting things... but I resisted!  I am very glad that I did.  The freezing spell that came next would be a lot harder on the plants if it weren't for the protection of autumn leaves and last year's stems.  Any seedlings I might have planted would have been dead instantly.  But that's typical Michigan weather for you.  It can change in a blink!

My temporary leaf bin made of chicken wire & stakes.
I did manage to get some work done, though. I cleaned out the bin where I store my pots and etc.  I cleaned up my potting bench in the garage.  I donated and recycled some items that were wasting space.

I also collected some leaves that blew up around the house.  These are being stored so that I can run them through the shredder in the spring to use as mulch in the garden beds. Leaves make an excellent mulch and soil conditioner.  They protect the ground as with other mulches, but they also feed the worms, add minerals to the soil and enhance the soil biology.  For more on using leaves in the garden, check out Mike McGrath's TED Talk: Click Here.

Seed Starting

I have begun to start seeds this year. (For more on how to start seeds, Click Here.) So far, I have started the following:
  • Peppers: California Wonder, Anaheim, Hungarian Sweet, Scotch, Ancho, Jalapeno, & Cayenne.
  • Eggplant 'Black Beauty
  • Rhubarb 'Victoria'
  • Celeries: leaf celery & celeric
  • Alliums: Leeks 'American Flag', Onion 'Burgundy Red' and Onion 'Golden Globe'
  • Perennials: Pelargoniums (geraniums), Red Valerian, Common Valerian, & Wood Betony.
  • Annuals: Coleus, Stocks, Blue Pimpernel, Chocolate Cosmos & Toothache Plant
These seedlings are making good progress.  I have potted most of them up and placed them on my home made grow shelf.  (For how I built the shelf, Click Here. For how to pot seedlings up, Click Here.)

So far, I am the most excited about the Toothache Plant (Acmella oleracea).  This plant makes small, round, yellow flowers.  When you chew the plant it makes your tongue go slightly numb and tingly.  It is safe to chew, and is used as flavoring for food in many countries including Brazil. Sometimes, it is sold as a spice called "Jambu" or "Szechuan buttons."  When I read about it, I just HAD to try it... and the only way to do that is to grow my own.  For more on this cool plant, and the resource for where I gathered the previously mentioned information about it, see the Wikipedia article about it: Click Here.  If you are interested in growing it yourself, you can purchase the seed from: Johnny's, Baker Creek, or Strictly Medicinal.

This year, I found a very  useful app that has assisted with my garden planning. It is called Garden Plan Pro.   This app is nice because it allows you to plot out the garden.  Based on the garden map, it provides estimates of how many plants you need to fill the area.  It has a guide that tells you when to start seed indoors, outdoors or under glass.  It also tells you when it is safe to plant outdoors.  All of the seed timing estimates are based on your location and/or average first & last frost dates.  A map of my vegetable garden plan for 2017 is shown to the left. 

I plan to continue starting seed right up until May.  I will be especially happy to start tomatoes next month.  But I will talk about that more in my next blog entry. 

Backyard Wildlife Count Update 1/1/17 - 2/26/17

Tufted Titmouse
As mentioned in my previous blog entry, I am tracking the number of species that I can find in my back yard this year.  It is important to consider that a garden is not only a lovely place to grow flowers and vegetables, but also a habitat for the nature around us.  This is one of the reasons that I choose to garden using organic methods, and to avoid killing so-called "pests" unless it is absolutely necessary.  I want to work with and support nature as much as I am able.  So far, I have found 22 separate species living in and/or using my garden... and it's only February!

 I also took part in the Great Backyard Bird Count this month, and plan to continue tracking my bird sightings at  This web site allows you to track bird sightings, and uses the data to help the experts at the Cornell Lab or Ornithology to track wildlife populations and migration patterns.  I believe it to be a very worthy endeavor.  The best part is, ANYONE can do it.  So if you like birds, dear reader, please check it out! 

Blue Jay
Our dog, Snickers.

  1. American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)
  2. Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 
  3. Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)
  4. Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
  5. Dark-Eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)
  6. Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)
  7. Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)
  8. European Starling (Sternus vulgaris)
  9. House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)
  10. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) 
  11. Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)
  12. Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)
  13. Purple Finch (Haemourhous purpureus)
  14. Red Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)
  15. Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)
  16. White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
Birds Also Spotted in the Neighborhood (but not my yard):
  • Canadian Geese (Branta canadensis)
  • Redwinged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
  • Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)
  • Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinator)


    17. Dog (Canus familiaris)
    18. Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) - See pictures & more info. at this link.
    19. Humans (Homo sapien)
    20. Shrew (Biarina brevicauda)
Boxelder Bug



    21. Boxelder bug (Boisea Trivittata)
    22. Pill Bug (Armadillidum vulgare)

For more photos of the creatures that I have found, scroll down to the end of this blog entry.  Unfortunately, I haven't been able to photograph every one. Some are just too quick! But that doesn't stop me from trying!

What are you doing this month, reader?  Are you starting seeds?  Have you seen any interesting birds or other animals?   If so, please comment, and tell me which ones!  I would love to hear from you.

As always, happy gardening!

White Breasted Nuthatch

Left: House Finch,  Right: House Sparrow

Downy Woodpecker

Red Bellied Woodpecker
Black-Capped Chickadee

Eastern Bluebird

Dark-Eyed Junco

European Starling

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Wildlife, Seedlings & Garden Marker Test

February is a slow month for gardening.  The ground is frozen and covered with snow.  The skies have been a hazy grey for weeks.  Cabin fever is setting in.  Despite the oppressive weather, I have managed to keep busy doing a bit of this and that.  I have recorded these bits here...

Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

PART 1: Tracking the Wildlife in My Yard

Mindful of the fact that gardens are important for the support of wildlife, I decided to track how many species of animal I can observe in my small yard this year.  (Our yard is approximately 40ft x 160ft (12.2m x 48.8m).)  I am not trying to track the total number of animals, but only the number of species.  This is because it is hard to tell if I am seeing the same animal over and over, or several of them coming and going (especially with regard to birds). So far, I have noted 10 different species since January 1, 2017.  I think this is a fair number of creatures considering the harsh winter weather and small size of the land being observed.  The species I spotted are as follows:

1. Humans (Homo sapien) - (My husband and I)
2. Dog (Canis domesticus) - (Snickers)
3. Tufted Titmouse (Baeolopholus bicolor)
4. Chickadee (Poecile atracapillus)
5. House Sparrows (Passer domesticus)
6. Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)
Nuthatch (Sitta caroliensis)
7. Nuthatch (Sitta caroliensis)
8. Black squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
9. House Finch (Haemorhous meixcanus)
10. European Starling (Sternus vulgaris)

I spotted most of these at the bird feeder.  It is fun to watch the birds flit around.  I have also been recording my sightings on the "eBird Cornell Ornithology" website at  I hope to take part in The 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count from 2/17/17 to 2/20/17, and to record more sightings throughout the year. However, I look forward to finding more than birds once the weather warms up. I am hoping to see a great variety of insects, arachnids and mammals. 
House Finch (Haemorhous meixcanus)

PART 2: Starting Seedlings
Every year, I start my first set of seedlings in February.   With regard to vegetables, I start peppers, rhubarb and eggplant first.  The reason for this is that each of these plants benefits and produces more with a longer growing season.   By starting them early, I am giving them a jump start on the season, and have a better chance at greater production throughout the season.  The peppers that I started this year are: California wonder (bell pepper), Anaheim pepper, Hungarian sweet pepper, Scotch bonnet, ancho, jalapeno and cayenne.  I am growing the eggplant 'Black Beauty' and rhubarb 'Victoria.'

In addition to vegetables, I am starting some annuals and perennials this year.  I plan to work on the shaded garden in my front yard this summer and wanted to supply some plants for that area.  For that reason, I started: red valerian (Centranthus ruber) , common valerian (Valeriana officinalis), wood betony (Stachys officionalis), coleus (Plectranthus) , and stocks (Matthiola incana & Matthiola longipetola).  I am starting some plants to put in pots around the deck as well. These include: Scented geraniums (Pelargoniums), blue pimpernel (Anagallis monellii), cosmos and toothache plant (Spilanthes oleracea).  

Of these plants, I am most excited to grow the common valerian and the toothache plant.  Both of these are considered herbs and are useful in different ways.  The valerian not only grows well in shade, but the roots have traditionally been used as a sedative or sleep aid.  While I don't plan to use them this way, it is nice to know that I have such a useful plant on hand.  On the other hand, I do plan to use the toothache plant.  This is an edible plant that causes temporary tingling in the mouth when chewed.  This should make for an interesting culinary experience. I look forward to trying them.

Part 3: Garden Marker Test

 I decided to do a not-so-scientific comparison of various permanent markers to see which type works best for marking plant tags in the garden.  I chose to test 3 markers with marketing claims that they stand up to weather and UV light.  For comparison, I am testing their ink along side ink from a regular sharpie and lines drawn by a standard #2 pencil.  The brands I am testing are: 1. Sharpie Pro,  2. Artline Garden Marker, and 3. Inkzall Industrial Marker. 

I thought it would be good to start with a price comparison of the markers.  All prices listed below are based on what is charging for each item in February 2017:
  • Artline Garden Marker costs $4.50 per marker.
  • Inkzall Industrial Marker costs $3.95 per marker.
  • Sharpie Pro Marker costs $2.49 per marker.
  • A standard Sharpie costs $2.79 for a pack of 2, working out to $1.39 each.
  •  A standard #2 pencil costs about $4 for about 30 pencils working out to about $0.13 each.
First impressions: 

Each of the markers seems to write well and clearly when first purchased.  

The Artline Garden Marker is the easiest to hold, and is about the same width as a standard pen. It also has a finder tip than the other two markers, although not as fine as a pencil or pen. 

The Inkzall is nice because it has a chiseled tip.  This allows the choice between making a thick line or a thin one.  However, it would be easy for someone who was not paying close attention to accidentally draw a wide line when they want a thin one or visa versa. 

The sharpie pro is a bit awkward to write with because it has a larger diameter than the other markers.  The tip is also wider than the other markers, making it more difficulty to draw a thin line than with the other two types.  


To see which marker holds up to the weather best, I drew lines from each on wooden shims, plastic plant markers and a metal plant marker.  I drew either 3 lines or 3 x's on each of the types of plant labels.  I then put them in a pot and placed them on sunny south-east facing part of my garden next to the drive way.  I think this location will provide the most exposure to sunlight and other types of weather in my yard, while keeping it out of the way of human/pet traffic.  

I plan to check the markings and photograph them in 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, and 12 months time to see which types of ink hold up the best.  I also plan to use the markers throughout the year in my garden.  I will post again to let you all know the results of my little "experiment" and will also let you know how the markers themselves hold up to regular use in the garden.

By the end, I hope to have chosen a favorite marker for myself, and to be able to make recommendations to you all about which one is the "best buy." 

Pot of labels sitting in the snow on the SE corner of the garden bed.
And Etc.

I also made some chicken wire covers for my 3ft x 4ft raised strawberry beds this weekend.  I created these while staying warm and snug in my basement.  Unfortunately, the building process did not photograph well, and showing the covers out of context doesn't make much sense. So, I plan to post about these later and to show you all photographs of what these look like when placed over the beds. Hopefully, they will help to keep the squirrels, birds and chipmunks from chowing down on my berries before I can.  Did you know, I have been growing the berries for 2 years now and have only been able to eat a grand total of 5 berries!?!  It's not because they aren't growing well... it's because those little rodent thieves are snarfing them while I'm at work!  The finks!  

Anyway... I hope you all stay warm this February.  The days are getting longer, so hang in there... spring is on its way!