A Lakeside View

A High Performance Plant: Garlic Chives

A trip to the garden center this time of year can bring a dizzying flood of ideas about what to plant.  Maybe we should add more edibles, or perhaps more perennials; plants that attract pollinators to our garden would be good too.  It might be late season color we’re lacking, or plants that are low maintenance.  Then there is always the search for something that the deer and rabbits won’t eat.    

What if there is a plant that does it all?  Look no further; garlic chives fill the bill.

Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are an edible perennial herb popular in Asian cuisine, traditionally added to stir fries, soups, stews, and Chinese dumplings; an alternate common name is Chinese chives.  I planted them on a whim in my herb garden years ago, and when seeing how beautiful they are in flower, started adding them to my perennial gardens as well.  

Growing about 18 to 24 inches high, garlic chives are a bit taller than common chives, which I also grow in the herb garden and as ornamentals.  Common chives add a nice splash of pinkish-purple color in late spring and early summer.   

      Common Chives
Garlic chives have quite a different bloom; their starry white flowers grow in airy clusters in August and September. The fall flowers play a vital role in ensuring the health of over-wintering bees, like bumble bees, which build up their energy stores for winter from late season nectar sources.  

     Garlic Chives flower
When the pollinators have had their fill, garlic chives are still not done with their showy performance; the flowers, once dried on the plant, also add late fall interest.

Like their common cousins, garlic chives have a long harvest season.  The leaves can be cut for kitchen use as early as April, and up until the first heavy frost in autumn.  Use in place of common chives in recipes or to your favorite stir fry dish for a touch of garlic taste.  Add them during the last few minutes of cooking; chives lose their flavor if over-cooked.  Use them fresh in salads, or as a garnish for potatoes and soups.     

     Garlic Chives leaves
Easy, and fast growing, garlic chives prefer a sunny location, and average, well-drained soil.  As with all alliums, they are deer and rabbit resistant.  I’ve read that re-seeding can be an issue, but I’ve never had a problem with it, most likely because my soil is so poor and dry, (Oh, did I mention that?  Garlic chives are quite drought tolerant once established).  Re-seeding can be avoided by dead-heading before the seeds dry on the plant.  I let the seeds dry though, because the seed heads are so pretty, and any seedlings that sprout the following spring are easy to pull when they’re small. 

So on your next visit to the garden center, searching for that perfect plant, why not consider giving garlic chives at a try.  It truly is a plant that does it all. 

Ticked Off

This past winter, I was in Saugatuck doing some Christmas shopping, and saw a man that I recognized, though I couldn’t place where or how I knew him.  “I think I should know you”, I said.  “From the nursery”, he replied, “You were helping me when you found that tick on your head, and screamed for Jan to get it off.”  Oh, yeah….how could I forget that traumatic experience?   

We had a good laugh over the incident, though I suppose it should have been somewhat embarrassing to be recognized for doing my “GET IT OFF-GET IT OFF-GET IT OFF!!!!!” dance.  At the time though, I wasn’t the least bit amused; it was the first of two ticks I found stuck to my scalp last summer.  The second time, at least, was much less dramatic….only because there was no one around to hear me scream, or see me dance.  But seriously, ticks bites can be dangerous business. 

Ticks are vectors of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tularemia; Lyme disease is the leading vector transmitted disease in the northern hemisphere, with more than 30,000 cases reported each year, and it is becoming more widespread.  Black-legged ticks (a.k.a. deer ticks) are the only tick species that transmit the disease in the eastern and north-central United States; the western black-legged tick is the vector in the Pacific states.  

Ticks are arachnids, and are related to spiders, mites, scorpions, and other eight-legged creepy crawlies.  The black-legged tick, a “hard tick”, ambushes its host by climbing to the edge of a leaf or branch, and waiting with its front legs outstretched to latch onto the next unsuspecting “blood-meal” that passes.  This is called “questing”, and begins as early as the spring thaw, continues throughout summer and into fall.    

         Questing Tick 

Once the tick hitches a ride on the passing host, it looks for a suitable feeding site.  Favored locations are around the waistline, thighs, armpits, and head, but they are not very choosy, and may attach themselves anywhere.   

A tick may remain attached to its host for 3 to 7 days.  Removing them promptly can reduce the risk of disease transmission; ticks infected with the Lyme disease bacteria are less likely to pass it on to their hosts if removed within 48 hours. If you find one of these vampiric buggers attached to you, remove it with fine-tipped tweezers, grasping the tick as close to your skin as possible.  Carefully pull with even pressure, avoiding twisting or jerking as this can result in the tick’s head or mouthparts breaking off and remaining in the skin.  After removal, clean the bite area thoroughly with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.   

Insect repellents containing at least 20% DEET will ward off ticks.  If you’d rather not use chemicals on your body, organic choices for repelling ticks are neem oil, tea tree oil, soybean oil, and garlic pills, although testing done on these and other plant-based repellents found they are mostly ineffective protection against ticks.   

When gardening or doing other outdoor activities, the best defense may be vigilance - thoroughly check yourself, your family, and pets after being outside.  It may not be possible to avoid areas where ticks reside waiting to embrace you with arms outstretched.  It is possible, however, to avoid becoming their host.  Keep exposed skin to a minimum by wearing a hat, long pants and long-sleeved shirts.  Light-colored clothing makes it easier to spot any ticks crawling on you, looking for bare skin.  Tucking in your shirt-tails, and wearing belted pants keeps them from crawling down your waistband, and tucking your pant legs into boots or long socks prevents them from crawling up your bare legs.  No, it may not be as stylish as the latest Laura Ashley line of garden fashions, but it is less embarrassing than being caught doing the “GET IT OFF!!!! dance…..and much less hazardous to your health than contracting Lyme disease.  

Photo courtesy of Michigan State University Extension       

A Walk On the Wild Side, Looking For Hickories

Winter was slow to come to West Michigan, but when it finally arrived in late January, it came with a vengeance.  With a few days break between storms, I hung up the snow shovel, traded in my cross-country skis for snowshoes, and headed to Sarett Nature Center.   

I’ve visited Sarett many times in the past, during all seasons; chaperoning school field trips when my daughters were younger, or attending workshops on my own, cross-country skiing by torch light at night with a friend, or wandering through the woods by myself.  Always I’ve stayed on the trails; they are clearly marked and it is prohibited to wander off of them, ensuring delicate eco-systems will not be disturbed.   

Sarett Trail

Leading our small group of snow-shoers was naturalist, Matt Hayes.  Walking like penguins or ducks (I can't decide which), Matt led us off trail for a “Walk on the Wild Side” to explore the unseen areas of Sarett.  

snowshoe group
There were times that the brush got too thick and the hills too steep, and we had to backtrack, with Matt showing us identifying features of plants and animal tracks, and sharing interesting tidbits of information the entire way.  The easily distinguishable beech with its smooth, silvery bark, has buds like tiny tightly wrapped cigars; the bare, hairy vines of poison ivy can cause a rash even in winter; wild cherry trees have bark that look like burnt potato chips.  Along a stream in a marshy area grows ninebark; the shrub is named for its exfoliating bark that has nine layers.  Unlike the nearby cattails which have seeds carried by the wind on tiny cottony tuffs, ninebark seeds float.  Dispersed in the running water, the seeds are transported downstream, which is why you usually see ninebark growing along riverbanks.  We came across a tangled thicket of autumn olive, and Matt explained the nature center’s ongoing battle to eradicate this non-native invasive species of shrub, especially from the prairie restoration area. Also non-native (but not invasive) is Scotch pine, and Sarett’s has a “forest” of it; part of the nature center was once a Christmas tree farm.  The pines provide cover for many species of birds and animals, and we were treated to seeing a white-tailed deer bounding ahead of us, through the snow.      

Matt pointed out the crooked trunks in a stand of sassafras, and I was reminded of an illustration of twisted sassafras branches accompanying an essay about the tree many people view as a weed.  “…At least honor the life force it represents,” writes author Tom Springer, “It’s a tree that holds and heals the soil of neglected places, the first act in a drama of natural succession that can culminate in a forest of oak and maple.  If we just let it be, the sassafras will do what it’s always done: demonstrate nature’s power to keep the world sweet, green, and beautiful.” 

The essay is one in a collection I read this winter.  "Looking For Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest"  (University of Michigan Press; 2008), is a book about the love of nature, of rural life and its roots, of local history, and of hobby farming.  One reviewer comments it’s “a wonderful collection of short essays on some of my favorite topics: trees, rural life, rivers, suburban sprawl, consumerism, growing up in "wild" places, and becoming middle-aged.” 

Looking For Hickories

Springer’s writing is rich, personable, and is laced with humor, insight, and wisdom. The haunting nature etchings by illustrator Ladislav Hanka are simply magical.  The entire book is a gem. 

Sarett Nature Center is a gem too – what a friend of mine calls “one of this area’s most underutilized treasures”.  If you have such an underutilized treasure in your area, I encourage you to get out and experience what it has to offer.  If winter just isn’t your bag, while you’re waiting until those fairer skies and warmer temperatures arrive, curl up with a good book in the meantime.  May I suggest “Looking For Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest”? 

A Walk in the October Woods, Just in Time for Halloween

Imagine yourself on an early evening walk through the October woods. The air is crisp, the color is brilliant, fallen leaves crunch under your feet, and there’s an earthy, musky fragrance unique to this enchanting season.    

      Autumn woods

Come.  Let’s take a walk.  There’s magic to be found in the autumn woods.

A small grove of young quaking aspen stands at the edge of the forest.


They set the tone for our walk; the slightest breeze seems to bring the trees to life, setting every leaf trembling.  The clamorous rustling is like a symphony of rattling bones.  In the Language of Flowers’ Sentiments and Symbolism, the aspen represents fear. 

Also at the forest’s edge are the junipers.


Let’s cut a branch or two before we go on…we may need them later.  Junipers symbolize protection.  In Italy, an old superstition claims that junipers prevent a witch from crossing a doorway; she cannot pass without correctly counting the number of needles. 

Speaking of witches….up ahead by the riverbank, we see Witch Hazel adorned in her seasonal garb, brewing up some Autumn magic.  The strange, twisted petals of her flowers remind me of long, gnarly fingers.  

    Witch hazel

It seems no one can agree on how Witch Hazel got her name.  Many believe the “witch” in witch hazel came from the Old English word “wice” or “wych”, or the Middle English word “wiker” (wicker); all mean pliant or flexible.  “Hazel” comes from its leaves; they are similar to the unrelated hazelnut tree.  The flexible branches of witch hazel were once used as divining rod, or made into wands used by witches to cast spells over paths like the one we are traveling on now.    

Another bit of folklore is derived from the unusual witch hazel seed capsules that mature in autumn.  When the capsules dry, they open with a distinctive popping sound, propelling the seeds a distance of 15 to 30 feet.  In the Colonial New England during this time of year, the evening woods resonated with the noise of popping.  The settlers determined it could only be the work of witches.  

Was it mistaken identity or just a good story when one of those old herbalists claimed that the wood of witch hazel was used to make gallows when the witch-hunt craze was rampant throughout England?  Witch hazels are not native to Europe, and didn’t grow there during the witch hunts.   

So which “witch” is correct?  Perhaps Henry Thoreau gives the best reason for the “witch” in witch hazel, “There is something witchlike in the appearance of witch hazel which blooms in October and November with its irregular and angular spray, and petals like furies’ hair or small ribbon streamers.  Its blossoming, too, at this irregular period when other shrubs have lost their leaves as well as blossoms, looks like witches’ craft.” 

Let’s move on.  Here we see a tree that is unmistakable and seems to glow in the dim light of the forest.  It’s the birch.   

     Canoe birch

Tree spirits are said to favor birches.  In Russian folklore, they are inhabited by Lieschi, mysterious creatures often described as having bark-like skin and green hair.  Lieschi were often the cause of travelers getting hopelessly lost in the woods, never to be seen again.  The only way to protect yourself was to wear your clothing inside out, your shoes on the wrong feet, and to bring offerings of food.  No, No…leave your shoes on.  We don’t have worry about the Lieschi now…not too much, anyway; they are most mischievous in spring, after waking from winter hibernation. 

Deep in the forest, the canopy above grows thicker, and only thin rays of sun are let through, creating irregular patterns of light and dark that dance across the path in time to the music of rustling leaves.  Here stand the majestic maples, the graceful beeches, and the mighty oaks. 

In our Michigan woods grow bur, swamp, black, red, and white oaks.  Sacred trees, oaks feature in folklore throughout the world.  A curious tale from Vermont explains how the oak got its lobed leaves.

    Oak leaves

Long ago, an old man of great wealth sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a lengthier time to enjoy his riches.  The Devil, always up for some soul bargaining, stipulated that the old man could remain on earth until the oak lost all its leaves.  Smiling, the man agreed.  He was a crafty old man, and knew that the white oak rarely loses all its leaves; dry and brown, they hang on throughout winter until in spring, the new leaves emerge.  When the Devil realized he’d been tricked, he flew into a furious rage, taking it out on the oak.  To this day, his anger is seen in the bites he took out of the leaves.                      

We’d better hurry now.  The light is starting to fade, and shadows lengthen.  We begin to see things out of the corner of our eyes that aren't really there. Sounds are magnified; every snap of a twig echoes loudly in our heads, and we try not to imagine what could be out there, lurking unseen. Darkness falls quickly in the forest, and this is the time trees whisper their secrets…..some that are best left unheard. 

Before we go though, let’s stop for just a moment, to catch a falling leaf.   

    Catch a falling leaf

It’s said that on Halloween night, if a leaf is caught before it lands, the bearer will have good fortune throughout the year.  Once it touches the ground though, its magic will be gone forever.     

Happy Halloween!

Get Smart: Sustainable Living

It was a gorgeous early fall day in late September that I boarded the train to Chicago.  I was meeting a couple of friends coming in from Wisconsin at the world renowned Museum of Science and Industry.  Our first stop was the Smart Home exhibit.  

The exhibit is a demonstration of sustainable living.  It’s not in the museum; it’s an actual full-scale home with its own grounds, outside of the museum.  I was expecting a lot of high-tech gadgetry, out of my realm of understanding, and definitely out of my price range.  In one aspect, I was not wrong; the Smart Home is certainly very high-tech.  But there are also many things that an average low-tech person like me, and one of average income can incorporate into their own homes.  The architect of the Smart Home, Michelle Kaufmann, specializes in sustainable buildings, and believes green living should not be out of reach for the average homeowner.  It’s her goal to make sustainable homes comfortable and affordable.

All the construction materials used to build the house are renewable or recycled.  The electricity is generated by state-of-the-art solar rooftop panels, and a wind turbine.  Surplus energy generated is used to power other parts of the museum.  The Smart Home makes use of both rainwater and “grey water” (water from the home’s sinks, showers, and washing machine) to flush toilets – more than one-quarter of the water used in a traditional house is literally flushed down the drain.  Rainwater and grey water are also used to water the Smart Home’s landscape. 

I was as equally impressed by the grounds outside the Smart Home as I was by the inside.  Water conservation practices are demonstrated through the use of rain barrels, and a cistern, as well as using drought tolerant native plants indigenous to Illinois’s prairie, dune, and oak savannah eco-systems.  Rain gardens, permeable pavements, and indentations in the ground that collect water (called bioswales), reduce run-off, enabling deeper water seepage into the soil.  Green roofs not only minimize runoff, they also help insulate the house, reducing energy costs.

The Smart Home also has extensive vegetable gardens that were planted and are maintained by University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners.  Space is utilized to its maximum potential with trellises, vertical walls, raised beds, self-watering planter boxes, and two Tower Garden ® Growing Systems on a rooftop patio.  I was amazed at the amount of produce grown in these towers.  Each one contained chard, tomatoes, herbs – sage, parsley, rosemary, and thyme - two different varieties of eggplants, and multiple kinds of peppers.  These self-watering towers are take up only about 2 to 3 feet of floor space, yet yield enough fresh vegetables to feed a family.  Very cool.  

A composting station provides soil enriching humus to the gardens, and two bee hives provide pollinators for the vegetables, fruit, and flowers.   

The Smart Home Exhibit is an excellent example of sustainable living.  I’d bet everyone who visits walks away with at least a few ideas they’d like to incorporate into their house and landscape; I know I did.  If you’d like to visit, you’d better hurry.  After four years, and over 300,000 visitors, the Smart Home will close its doors in January, 2013.  I asked a museum representative what will happen to the exhibit; she wasn’t sure if it will be remodeled, dismantled and rebuilt at another museum, or if it’ll reopening, housing a different exhibit.  One thing is for sure though; it’ll be renewed, repurposed, or recycled.     

Eco-Friendly Transportation  

A museum visitor uses an eco-friendly mode of transportation.  It’s never too early to start! 

A Spring Without Pollinators

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgOur strange “winter that wasn't” was quickly followed by a spring marked with abnormally warm weather. March had no lion’s roar; it started off mild, and by the middle of the month, temperatures climbed into the high 70s and 80s. 

There was no gradual greening of spring; everything went into fast forward. One day the trees were bare, and the next they were full of leaves. My early season daffodils lasted a day before the flowers melted in the heat, and the mid-season varieties didn't bloom at all. The late-season bloomers are flowering now, along with the azaleas; they normally flower at the same time, but not until late-May. 

 Karen Azalea and Thalia Daffodils

We harvested our asparagus in late March; planted next to the house, it was warmed even more by the siding, and was ready to pick nearly two months early!

In the orchards, the apricots, peaches, plums and cherries seemed to all bloom at the same time, and the apples and blueberries were way ahead of schedule.

The weather was the topic of conversation wherever you went; the potential disaster brought on by this early, two-week-long bout of heat was on everyone’s mind. In an area known as Michigan’s Fruit Belt, what would happen to the crops if temperatures dropped back down to normal?

The temperatures did drop. Fruit growers struggled with the frost and freezing temperatures in April, but there was another problem that occurred during the accelerated rate at which the trees bloomed in March:  the bees weren't here to pollinate.

Many of the commercial beekeepers in Michigan over-winter their hives in Florida; approximately 450,000 colonies of bees spend their winters in the Sunshine State. Others are trucked to California, where they are contracted to pollinate the almond orchards. Most of these colonies aren't ready to return to Michigan until mid-April.

Not all colonies are sent to warmer climates for the winter. The good news is that the beekeepers who keep their hives in Michigan year-round report that the mild winter helped in keeping their bees strong and healthy.

The honeybees get top billing in the cast of pollinators, but wild bees are essential players too. Bumble bees especially play a vital role in blueberry and cranberry pollination. While Colony Collapse Disorder has severely affected the population of honeybees, our native bees throughout the country are declining in numbers also. They are not affected by the same diseases and parasites as honeybees, but habitat loss and pesticide use are cited as threats, with the possible result being extinction of some bee species.

Another problem in agricultural areas is the large monocultures of bee-pollinated crops. These provide food sources for a few weeks only. A lack of nearby flowering wild plants can result in famine or unhealthy colonies. A variety of plants with different bloom periods is crucial in providing season-long nectar sources.

The decline of bee populations affects everyone. One of the seminars we are offering at the nursery this year is about bees and their vital role in food production. A County Extension Agent who is also a hobby beekeeper is coming in to speak to our customers to explain the benefits of having bees in the garden, how to attract them, and the basics of beekeeping. A great article, Plant Pollination: A Bounty to Buzz About, in the last issue (March/April 2012) of GRIT covers much of the same information that will be discussed in the seminar. Check it out.

For more information on how colony collapse disorder has endangered our food supply, see the book A Spring Without Bees by Michael Schacker.

Garden Wit and Wisdom from Days of Old

Who can be satisfied until every home has a garden, every community a garden club and every city a community garden? ~ Alfred Carl Hottes 

 1001 Gardening Questions Answered

The question appears in the preface of “1001 Garden Questions Answered”, and is still as relevant today as when Hottes first asked it.  In fact, much of the information contained in the book is still relevant – it’s still in print, the latest edition issued in 2007, eighty years after the first edition of the book was published.  I recently found my Dad’s 1947 copy of the “heavily revised” fourth printing of the book; hopefully newer editions have been “heavily revised” also, because the non-pronounceable chemicals listed in the “How to Control Insects and Diseases” chapter are just downright scary.    

Despite that, this is a little gem of a book, with a ton of wisdom, useful information, and interesting tidbits.  Judging from the tattered cover, dog-eared pages, and that Dad wrote his name on the inside cover, I’m guessing this book was passed around a lot among friends, family, and co-workers who shared his interest.   

The legacy Dad left me was his life-long love of nature and of gardening.  Some of my earliest memories are of him teaching me about plants and birds we encountered on our walks through the forests and fields.  At home, I’d work alongside him, helping in his big vegetable garden….although at that young of an age, I don’t know how much help I did versus how much additional work I created.   

Mom didn’t share Dad’s passion for gardening, (or, I’m sure, for my love of playing in the dirt as a kid – a love that I never outgrew, and I’ve got ground-in stains on the knees of all my jeans to prove it).  She was more of a behind-the-scenes gardener – an advisor on what she wanted planted, then cooking, canning, pickling, or putting fresh on the table the fruits of Dad’s labor.  Keith is much the same – he waters, he weeds, he harvests, and generally likes to be out in the garden, but he doesn’t have the same passion for gardening that I do.  He does, however, have the title of Official Garden Construction Engineer.      

“If you haven’t anything else to do Winter nights, busy yourself putting a coldframe together for early gardening operations.  Every garden needs a coldframe….” writes Hottes.  

 Cold frame

I returned home from a weekend trip to my childhood home where I found the book, to find Keith had built me one. Though he doesn’t have a passion for gardening, he does have a passion for using power tools.  The cold-frame is darned spiffy, I think, made from two old windows someone had set out for the trash, which I threw into the back of my truck last fall with a cold-frame in mind.     

Older than “1001 Garden Questions Answered”, passed around more often than Dad’s copy of it…and every bit as flavorful as the peppery leaves of the mustard greens I planted in the cold-frame, is a little tidbit of wit and wisdom on the book’s last page.

The Gardener’s Prayer 

O Lord, grant that in some way it may rain every day, say from about midnight until three o’clock in the morning, but you see, it must be gentle and warm, so that it can soak in; grant that at the same time it would not rain on Campion, Alyssum, Helianthemum, Lavender, and the others which You in Your infinite wisdom know are drought-loving plants- I will write their names on a bit of paper if You like- and grant that the sun may shine the whole day long, but not everywhere (not, for instance, on Spirea, or on Gentian, Plantain-lily, and Rhododendron), and not too much; that there may be plenty of dew and little wind, enough worms, no plant-lice and snails, no mildew, and that once a week thin liquid manure and guano may fall from heaven.  Amen. ~ Karel Capek (1890-1938)

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